Wednesday, 26 January 2022

The Birthday Present

My birthday is coming up soon. And Chip has given me a present. To a semi-feral cat, a rat is a great delicacy. I’m honoured to receive the front half. Chip probably decided to see how it tasted and ended up eating a bit more than he intended. He is only six months old. This gift shows that he holds me in high regard. Chip does follow me around the garden and has invented some chasing games that he plays with me. And I am the one who fills his bowls with food and lactose-free milk each morning.

I don’t think I’ll be having his present for dinner on my birthday. I must admit I’d prefer to visit one of my favourite restaurants: Hara in Hillsborough or The Mourne Seafood Bar in Dundrum. Although, because of Covid, I haven’t actually been to a restaurant for the past two years. But I have had some fine meals from Hara as they do an excellent ‘home’ menu, where they prepare the three-course meal and you finish it off in the oven at home.

All of this reminds me of an unforgettable meal I had in Croatia, hosted by a famous professor. He took me to a renowned seafood restaurant in Istria. It’s the peninsula below Trieste with fortified towns that were once part of the Venetian empire, and has been written about by Dante and Thomas Mann. Anyway, the famous professor ordered a local delicacy, a whole fish cooked in wine and herbs. I must admit it was a marvelous meal washed down with a bottle of fine white wine.

I cleared my plate apart from the head, backbone and tail of the fish. I was just about to thank my host, when he said, ‘I see you’ve left the best bits till last.’ I had to admit that I didn’t exactly know what he meant. ‘Let me show you,’ he said. He inserted the point of his knife just behind the gaping mouth of the fish and levered out some flesh. It was the cheek of the fish. He told me that these muscles are very well developed in fish and are especially tasty. I followed his example, ate the cheek of my fish and put down my knife and fork.

‘And now for the greatest delicacy,’ he said. I smiled, thinking he was going to order something else. But he picked up the head of his fish in his hands, lifted it to his lips and sucked the eye out with a great slurping noise. ‘Aah,’ he said, ‘lovely.’ I smiled nervously. My fish looked up at me from the plate. I was very anxious not to disappoint my host. ‘Aren’t you going to eat it?’ he asked. I told him that I was, regretfully, completely full. He grinned, picked up the head of my fish and sucked its eye out.


Sunday, 9 January 2022

Drive Safely

Have you seen this man? He was found guilty whilst trying to renew his driving license. The crime? Smiling. The computer took one look at the photo I uploaded and said, ‘No’. I took another with a glum expression. The computer accepted that one and prompted me to check the categories of vehicles I was allowed to drive. I was shocked to discover that I can drive seven ton lorries and minibuses with trailers. But the computer told me that these entitlements would be removed if my license was renewed online. So if you see a lorry or a minibus roaring up behind you, it won’t be me in the driving seat.

I didn’t buy my first car, a Ford Fiesta, until I was 30. I couldn’t afford one before that. I was a mature student who did a Masters and PhD part-time at Manchester University. I needed to work in all sorts of part-time jobs to pay my way. So I was pretty poor for most of my twenties. Hence, I had a succession of motorbikes, from a Honda 50 to a MZ 250 to a BSA 500cc with a sidecar. I loved these bikes and had some adventures with them.

Immediately before going to Manchester to study, I was working in Cambridge. I’d just become interested in hillwalking and was reading a book about the mountains of Scotland. The book was full of praise for Knoydart as the remotest and most beautiful part of the Highlands. So I decided to go there for a week’s holiday. I strapped my rucksack and tent on the back of my MZ and set off. I hadn’t realized quite how far away it was (about 500 miles). It took me two days to get there. The final stretch was 20 miles along a narrow track beside a loch that finished in a dead end. And all the way along it I was being followed by another motorbike.

I got to the end of the track and parked. I was at the mouth of a great glen with high mountains all around. The other bike stopped beside me. I was apprehensive as the other rider approached me. But he turned out to be the stalker who was responsible for Glen Dessary. He lived alone in a cottage a little way down the glen. He showed me where to camp, beside a grove of trees not far from his cottage. That evening, he invited me in for a drink, whisky of course. I had a great holiday, going for hillwalks and chatting with the stalker in the evenings. It was also my first introduction to the Scottish Midge.

I actually began to drive at sixteen. I bought a scooter from money I’d saved working for a local farmer. With my green parka, Ben Sherman shirt and jeans, I felt very cool on my Vespa Sportique. It was also very handy, as the village I lived in was six miles from my school. I had some adventures on that scooter too. I remember being chased by four lads in a Ford Zodiac, who were throwing empty cider bottles at me. They were drunk, so their aim was bad and I escaped. Today I drive and old Ford Focus. My teenage self would be horrified.