Christmas Letter ’11

This time last year we were under nearly a foot of snow and now we are in the middle of a deep depression but, as I have said many times before, in Norn Iron we are constantly in a state of depression; sometimes it’s a good one and sometimes it’s not so good. Nothing worth getting one down anyway.


So how’s our year been since I last put fingers to keyboard for the annual missive.


It started off well with a cruise round the Med with the MSC line.  First time we’ve been on a “proper liner” and very nice it was too. The ship was superb having been in for a refit only a year before and the service and food were perfection. Our dinner table was shared with an Afrikaner business couple and a white Zimbabwean doctor and his wife who now live in the US. It made for interesting conversations especially in relation to their attitudes to modern Africa. Did I agree? I couldn’t possibly comment! Especially with the RRB looking over ones shoulder.


We sailed out of Venice to Bari, on to Rhodes, Alexandria; New Year at sea on the way to Olympia and from there to Dubrovnik and back to Venice.  Highlight of the trip, apart from the New Year’s Eve Party, definitely Dubrovnik. The old city, within the walls, is really picturesque.

On the political scene January saw a Sin Fein special Ard Fheis finally support the devolvement of policing to the Assembly.  Of course there were the usual ifs and buts on both sides. Well there would be; wouldn’t there


Later in the month we spent a weekend in London to take in “The Lion King”; technically brilliant and generally much better than I had expected, and to catch up with Les and Dot Jones over a real curry at Veeraswamys, the oldest Indian Restaurant in UK. I was last there in the ‘60s and it is still as opulent.

Of course we had to be caught by a fire alarm at the Cavendish Hotel at 5a.m. on Sunday morning.  Positive – nobody hurt: Negative – didn’t get hold of the prat who set off the smoke alarm in their room.



I had to go to County Limerick in February to survey a community hall in the middle of nowhere.  Luckily not too far away, still in the middle of nowhere, there is a country house hotel with a gourmet restaurant attached; The Mustard Seed at Echo Lodge.  I took Josephine down for the ride and we had a very pleasant couple of days. It says something that, on a Tuesday night, the restaurant was nearly full.


Peter and Martin, our erstwhile joint leaders, took off to New York (on the taxpayer of course) for Paddy’s day and: Martin was quoted, in a speech to US businessmen, “Ireland is renowned for its culture, its creativity and art. Every corner of the island is alive with enterprise, art and creative thinking” (and perpetuating sectarian incompatibility).


Belfast celebrated Holi, the Indian Festival of Colours, in style with a extravaganza in St Georges Market, organised by ArtsEkta. It included bands, dancers, stalls etc. and culminated in everybody throwing coloured powder at each other, which is intended to break down social barriers.  Orhan and Leah loved it and it really does work!


We went down to Wexford for the Association of Community and Comprehensive Colleges annual conference in March. Always a good gathering and a round of golf at Rosslare to boot! Whites Hotel is definitely the place to stay.  The town is certainly more vibrant than last time I was there with lots of boutique shops and a couple of great restaurants. From a business point of view it was quite productive as well.


The fact that there are still a lunatic fringe alive and well was brought home in April with the murder of a young police constable in Omagh, where else. At least now all sides condemn these acts of petty terrorism.  Personally I object to labelling the perpetrators as dissidents, which gives them a degree of notoriety, whereas they are just mindless criminal thugs.


We joined up with friends for a week in Jersey at the end of May. Hour and a half flight from Belfast so no hassles.  It was a Pleasure to be back at the Greenhills Hotel with its old world courtesy. We spent the week pottering around the sights and were lucky enough to pick up a couple of bargains at an antique fair. No comments please! The Eric Young Orchid foundation, where they breed hybrids as well as preserve known species, is a must if you are contemplating a stay on the island.

It was a restful week in the sunshine (for the main part).


June is the month that the Irish Steam Railway Society run the Jazz trains.  The idea is that you get a party together and bring your picnic hamper filled with good wine and some solid sustenance and board the train at one station or another. Dressing up for the occasion is optional. Eat drink and be merry and, at various stations along the route the train stops,  the Apex Jazz Band alights and everybody dances on the platform for half an hour or so. The dancing improves in direct proportion to the wine drunk!

This was also the month that Rory McIlroy proved that he could really stand the pressure and won the US Open thus shutting up the detractors who saw his demise at the Masters, after having it in the bag, as proof that he had no resilience.



Once again violence hit the streets with two nights of rioting involving up to 400 hooligans along the Short Strand interface. This time it was pretty much unanimously blamed on the Loyalist paramilitaries (another posh name for another bunch of mindless thugs).


As is normal in “Norn Iron” BBQ’s are held in the wet and ours was no exception. The advantage is that “the ladies” retire indoors and leave us to get on with it!


We fitted a bit of culture by taking the grandchildren to Navan Fort, the site of the ancient capital of Ulster.  One of the attractions is an Iron Age settlement, complete with peasants,  who explained to the kids the way of life that was the norm in those days. Seemed like an improvement on our civilisation if you ask me! I wasn’t around at the time.


July saw the marching season swing into action with a few more riots and the water cannon out on the streets, but nothing really serious; hyped up by the media as per usual. Didn’t do our international reputation any good – Did I really say that?


Josephine took off with Orhan, Leah and our daughter on the annual pilgrimage to Portrush in August. This is guaranteed to bring rain, hail and pestilence to the North Coast. Luckily St Patrick banished all the snakes or they would have had a field day as well.Whilst she was away I attended the Golf club Garden Party, complete with the Downshire Brass Band and prizes for the best hat (ladies).  For once I did not attempt a drag act.


My golf society Annual Outing took us to Enniskillen  to play Lough Erne, the Faldo designed course, of which Rory McIlroy is the tour professional. It’s big and long and quite a challenge. It would not be one of my favourites but it was certainly worth it as a one off.


September’s local highlight was Rihanna’s failure to impress a Presbyterian farmer who had let her use his field to film. He was trundling past on his tractor when we saw that she had her gear off and asked her to leave, intimating that nobody was going to do that sort of thing in his fields. Obviously not a beef farmer then! She later put everybody’s back up by appearing on stage two hours late.


Trevi Fountain

We went to Rome for a long weekend at the beginning of October. The weather was perfect and we had a great hotel near the central station.  We walked the length and breadth of the classical part of the city: there was bus strike on one of the days and, having tried the tour bus, decided that walking was by far the best mode of transport anyway.  Downside – cameras stolen from our room on the first night. The saga of getting it reported to the Carabinieri would make a novel!

The highlight was the tour of the Vatican Museum. We were hijacked by a Sligo girl who got us to sign up for a guided tour and it was the best thing we did. Our guide was a diminutive Roman lass called Ava who led the group; a Danish couple, a Dutchman with his Columbian girlfriend and a couple of young Israelis, with infectious enthusiasm. The tour takes about two and a half hours and even then there is quite a lot missed out. The Sistine chapel is much smaller than I expected and so crowded that it loses a bit of its impact.  Still impressive though.


I had two devastating pieces of news in October. My old Army friend, Sandy McKinnon, died at his home in Bangkok and, within a week of hearing this; another friend emailed me to say that her husband had died suddenly at their apartment in Turkey.

I went to Penicuik to Sandy’s funeral and found it hard to believe that we had been playing golf together in Thailand only 18 months previously. The officiating pastor was in the army with Sandy and left to join the church, not that the two events were connected.


November turned out to be a really busy month with two reunions over a weekend in the Cotswolds. The first in Stow-on-the-Wold on the Friday evening was the second held by the ex REME Junior Leaders who were in Arborfield between 1958 and 1967.  A quite excellent affair impeccably organised by Barry Johnson yet again. It is also a credit to his persistence that two couples travelled from Australia specifically to attend.

I survived the evening to be collected by Eric Ross and whisked away to Cheltenham for a bash with the Intelligence Corps AN(SI) retired discriminators. It centred round those who were posted to Birgelen around ’62 – ’64 and was a sounding board for the group to return to Effeld next year to celebrate 50 years since we first descended on Elie’s Bar  – Gasthof Buchen.  Eric and Christine kindly provided the accommodation for, not only me, but John Bax and Mike Cadwgan as well.  There was much old shop jargon talked in the Royal Union that night.


The Golf club annual formal took up another Saturday evening which did not leave much of the month to do anything else.


Did I mention that Belfast hosted the MTV Music awards this month as well and there was not a hint of trouble! Never did get to see Lady Ga Ga though: sigh! I remember the days when I could have dressed like that!


So now we are into December and Rory has won the Hong Kong Open, the Irish economy is nonexistent and we are just about holding our own at the factory. The Sin Fein Lord Mayor of Belfast has got himself into trouble by refusing to present the Duke of Edinburg’s Award certificate to a girl who is a member of the Army Cadet Force and Sammy Wilson, our Finance Minister, is in trouble for making “Dirty Protest” jokes at a function about the legacy of the Maze.


Some things never change! All good fun and all things considered the year could have been a lot worse.

Happy Christmas and may 2012 bring you all you could wish for.