Thursday, December 27, 2012

4 Corners Festival & the Irish Churches Peace Project

Five minutes of prayer around Belfast City Hall was the most public Christian response to the flags issue in Belfast. With the carols about the ‘Prince of Peace’ sung at Christmas, what else should the church be doing to bring peace and stability to the situation?

The church’s role in the Troubles will long be a subject of debate with accusations of a lack of leadership weighed against individual grassroots peacemaking and relationship building.

Planned long before the protests began, a new festival runs in January, organised by a cross-denominational group of individuals in Belfast.

The 4 Corners Festival “seeks to inspire people from across the city to transform it for the peace and prosperity” and its events “re designed to entice people out of their own ‘corners’ of the city and into new places where they will encounter new perspectives, new ideas, and new friends”.

The festival overlaps with – but does not supplant – the annual Week of Prayer for Christian Unity. A series of events – music, prayer, storytelling, architecture and discussion – will culminate on Saturday 26 January at 11.30am with a symbolic act of worship occurring in four corners of Belfast before congregating in The Dock café in Titanic Quarter for lunch and worship.
  • North – Fortwilliam and Macrory Presbyterian Church, Antrim Road
  • East – St Dorothea’s Church of Ireland, Gilnahirk
  • West – St Oliver Plunket Roman Catholic, Lenadoon
  • South – Belfast South Methodist Church, Lisburn Road
It’s a thoughtful festival, and time will tell whether it plays a role in achieving its vision of “bringing Belfast together”. That may largely depend in how the events capture the imagination of people who wouldn’t normally badge themselves as peacemakers. It certainly builds upon the collaborations and friendships (eg, Fitzroy-Clonard) that have built up over the past twenty or thirty years.

In a separate initiative, EU Peace III money – along with contributions from OFMdFM and the Irish Department of Environment, Community and Local Government – is being invested in another church initiative, the Irish Churches Peace Project. Operating between 2013 and June 2015, the £1.3m scheme has three aims:
  • to promote sustained and well facilitated cross-community dialogue particularly focusing on the contentious issues that need to be addressed in order to develop good relations and promote reconciliation;
  • to support local inter-church/cross-community groups in their development of new grass roots initiatives that will contribute to the lasting peace;
  • to facilitate a process by which the main denominations speak more frequently in the public sphere with a united voice on social and political issues, and through that to model positive cross-community cooperation and undermine the vestiges of sectarian politics.
In some ways these are activities that you'd expect local denominations to be doing (and they are) without funding support from Europe and NI/RoI governments. Though perhaps the injection of public cash denotes the importance that those public bodies see in churches boosting their work on the ground to facilitate peace

Cross-posted from my witterings on Slugger O'Toole.

Wednesday, December 26, 2012

A few scripts short of a full bulletin

Philip Hayton presented the One O'Clock News on BBC One for the first time one day in the run up to Christmas 1986. In the gallery, not everything was going to plan. In particular, the director was a few scripts short of a full bulletin.

I remember witnessing minor pandemonium while visiting the back of the gallery at the end of a programme covering the Assembly coming back after one of its short breaks. Autocues weren't quite in the right place, and the final summary VT started to play half way through. I was mesmerised at the authoritative and yet calm voices that echoed around the darkened gallery and into the ear of the presenters a few miles away in the basement of Stormont. And I was amazed at how quickly the adrenaline drained away from the production staff as the programme ended and they shuffled their papers and got up to head for the door. The controlled madness and mayhem evaporated the moment the credits finished and the programme handed over to the presentation suite to introduce the next show.

Sunday, December 23, 2012

Out to Lunch Arts Festival, 2-27 January 2013

As we head towards Christmas, time has run out for online deliveries and soon the high street shops will be shutting too. But it’s not too late to buy someone you love a ticket for the Out To Lunch Arts Festival hosted in the Black Box in the New Year. The baby sister of the Cathedral Quarter Arts Festival warms the hearts of many of us each January with drama, music and talk. Tickets for weekday lunchtime events include a hot lunch.

Treats that I’ve noticed in the programme include:

Thu 3 Jan at 1pm, Niamh McGlinchey – The Gulladuff vocalist plays mandolin, tin whistle and guitar. Her début mini-album Rainbow Days launched recently.

Sat 5 Jan at 2pm, Zoë Conway & John McIntyre – An incredible pair merging fiddle and guitar. Based on previous performances at OTL and CQAF, not to be missed. This is the Belfast launch of their new album Go Mairir I bhFad – Long Life to You, with pieces commissioned from twelve leading Irish composers (Liz Carroll, Máirtín O’Connor, Steve Cooney, Frankie Gavin, Andy Irvine, Charlie Lennon, Donal Lunny, Tommy Peoples, Peadar O Riada, Mícheál Ó Súilleabháin, Niall Vallely and Bill Whelan).

Tue 8 Jan at 1pm and 8pm, The Agony and the Ecstasy of Steve Jobs – Original play by Australian Skewiff Theatre Company.

Fri 11 Jan at 1pm, One Rogue Reporter – Rich Peppiatt dissects his former trade and uses tabloid techniques against the tabloids themselves. Sold out at the Edinburgh Fringe.

Tue 15 Jan at 1pm and 8pm, A Thousand Kisses Deep – Award-winning vocalist Christine Tobin presents poetry and song celebrating the words and music of Leonard Cohen, alongside Phil Robson (guitar) and Dave Whitford (double bass).

Thu 17 Jan at 1pm, Lennon v McCartney & John Lennon’s Last Day – Two short plays by Stephen Kennedy. A two hander to definitively sort out the pub argument of which Beatle was greater; and a look at the “strange and tragic events of John Lennon’s last day”.

Sat 19 Jan at 9pm, The Dublin Afrobeat Ensemble – A “twelve piece musical force” rooted in Dublin but drawn from across the world with a “mesmerising flow of extended grooves, Afrobeat originals and covers”.

Sun 20 Jan at 2pm, Four Men and a Dog – Irish trad, Southern rock, rap, jazz, blues, swing and even salsa.

Sun 20 Jan at 8pm, Lucy Porter ‘People Person’ – A regular performer at OTL and CQAF, her new show promises a “feel-good night of comedy” based around a “fascinating true story with a stunning twist in the tale”.

Tue 22 Jan at 1pm, Opera For Lunch (or Sex, Subterfuge and Snuff!) – NI Opera are back with three vocalists and lots of treats from beneath the refined veneer of eighteenth century opera.

Wed 23 Jan at 1pm, The Steve Experiment – Local Northern Irish self-taught guitarist Stephen Catherwood has a reputation for his inventive live performances.

And lots, lots more

Monday, December 10, 2012

Santa is coming to Belfast: giving away a free copy of this children's book ...

I’ve a copy of Santa is coming to Belfast to give away on the blog.

It’s a generic tale written by Steve Smallman which is customised for different cities. Illustrators Robert Dunn and Katherine Kirkland have done an amazing job working the Belfast skyline into the book.

The story opens with Santa asking “Have all the children from Belfast been good this year?” and an old elf replying “Well…erm…mostly”. It’s definitely fiction as the elf clarifies “they’ve all been especially good in the last few days!” and that’s somewhat at odds with the local news!

I’m no fan of the red-suited falsehood, but I gave some advice around the localisation of the story: street names, buildings, monuments and pointing out that St Anne’s Cathedral doesn’t have a bell!

Email me at alaninbelfast+santa AT gmail DOT com [there really is a plus sign in the middle of that email address] and I’ll randomly select a winner on Saturday 15 December at noon and get in touch for an address so I can post the book off to you in time for Christmas.

Alternatively, (discounted) copies are available for £3.75 on Amazon as well as all good bookshops!

Santa is also coming to Ireland, Dublin, Scotland, Cardiff, New York, Washington, San Francisco, Boston, ... and scores of other destinations!

Update - congratulations to Martin - book now on its way.

Belfast 400: People, Place and History (Sean Connolly, editor)

Ten days ago I finished reading Belfast 400: People, Place and History, a book published to mark the four hundredth anniversary of the city’s charter. In the light of last week’s reawakened community tensions and violence, it is interesting to look back at the roots of the city and its journey into the twenty first century.

Belfast 400’s chapters are written by a series of experts and edited by Prof Sean Connolly from QUB School of History and Anthropology. The opening chapter reminds readers that the Belfast that “emerged as the capital of Irish Unionism” was also “the birthplace of a United Irish movement committed to the establishment of an independent Irish republic”.

In sections dealing with the archaeological record, medieval times, and then looking through the last 400 years, the book intrigues and surprises with tales of how the people and places developed.

The city was labelled as “the northern Athens” by a “self appointed elite” who saw “evidence of a quickening of intellectual life in the late eighteenth and nineteenth centuries”. By the early nineteen hundreds, Belfast obviously had a well developed self promotion/marketing capability with its “industrial primacy” being talked up in a 1913 account that eschewed statistics to claim that the city was the “largest in the world” in five industries (largest shipyard, largest linen mill, largest mineral water factory, largest tobacco factory and largest rope-walk).

Yet the linen industry brought with it respiratory disease while overcrowding and a lack of sanitation led to cholera and typhus epidemics giving Belfast another ‘largest’ … the highest death rate in Ireland.

For me, the most interesting chapter in the 390 page book was written by Sean O’Connell and dealt with the period between the start of the First World War and the beginning of the Troubles. The impact of the Blitz was something I missed by not studying GCSE History. Poor health provision and inequality were exposed. At one point post-war, the council was suspended and the City Hall was investigated for corruption.

Differences and discrimination in employment opportunities across the city were described, combined with closed working practices in the docks. Explanations of gender discrimination and practices that required married women to resign from their public sector and clerical jobs. Barmen in Shankill Road pubs would not serve women. Pawnbrokers and money lenders were common place facilities.

In 1957, despite opposition from Christian groups, Stormont legalised bookmakers’ shops, three years ahead of Westminster.
A torrent of complaints followed an Alan Whicker film about Belfast’s legal gambling establishments that featured, in 1959, on the Tonight programme. The Northern Ireland Tourist Board felt it showed the ‘most sordid part of Belfast’. Whicker’s remaining five films on Northern Ireland were shelved amid the furore.
Now there’s something for BBC NI to unearth from their archive! The nineteen sixties also saw children’s playgrounds being locked up by the Belfast Corporation. James Young quipped:
If you had to bail out of a plane over Belfast on a Sunday, sure they wouldn’t let you open your parachute.
And the Northern Ireland Tourist Board warned:
of the dangers to the city’s £12 million annual tourist trade from its reputation as ‘a strict’ sabbatarian place’.
There are glimpses into the city’s complex political history and what one contributor calls “Belfast’s repackaging of its violent past”. Alexander (Buck Alec) Robinson is described as having “a long list of convictions” (including larceny), being a member of the RUC’s C1 Special Constabulary and a boxing champion. He was linked to the murder of a Catholic woman who lived on his street, was interned for a period, became a US bootlegger and kept pet lions. Rev Ian Paisley carried his coffin at his funeral in 1995 and called him “a rare character, a typical Ulsterman”.

Paisley pops up again in the final chapter which looks at conflict: civil rights marches and the misplaced hope in John De Lorean car factory amidst bombings and murders. Relevant to December 2012 the book lists examples where “street decorations” and flags caused tensions and disruption.
The Flags and Emblems (Display) Act (NI) 1954 forbade the display of ‘provocative emblems’. In 1964 the Revd Ian Paisley famously threatened to march up the Falls Road to remove a Tricolour from the office window of the Republican Party. This forced the RUC to remove the flag, provoking serious rioting in the Falls Road area.
There is much to praise about Belfast 400’s comprehensive study of the city. However, the book is a little let down by its inconsistent index which seems to randomly ignore some references to topics. (The index also lists the Belfast News Letter and Belfast Telegraph, but omits the Irish News despite mentioning its articles through the chapters.) Other than one brief mention, the book overlooks the Jewish community’s contribution the city.

Published by Liverpool University Press and supported with a grant of £60,000 from the Leverhulme Trust, Belfast 400 will be officially launched in Belfast City Hall in January.

However, copies are already available for immediate shipping on Amazon and (I assume) in local bookstores at £14.95. The book will make good a good present for anyone interested in the socio-politico-economic history of Belfast and wanting to get ahead of next year’s commemorations.

Disclosure: I was supplied with a copy of the book by Belfast City Council.

Sunday, December 09, 2012

Sir Patrick Moore

As a teenager I remember hearing Sir Patrick Moore delivering a talk one evening at Queen’s University. My memory is that he was speaking about mapping the moon, illustrated with slides of his own photographs of craters and the moon’s landscape.

My strongerer memory is that there was a loud bang in the middle of the lecture, which turned out to be the sound of an explosion at the side of the City Hall. Sad how so many events in Northern Ireland can be associated with a terrorist attack that took place about the same time.

Proudly eccentric, yet clearly expert in his field, Sir Patrick Moore communicated his love for space and science with passion and enthusiasm. He could convey complicated facts to amateur viewers and listeners in a way that was both engaging and accurate without watering the truth down to bland watered-down science. A character big enough that The Sky At Night has survived years of cuts at the BBC and remaining on air. And let's not forget his role in the show Gamesmaster!

What I hadn’t realised until today was that he had been director of the new Armagh Planetarium between 1965 to 1968 before Terrance Murtagh’s reign in the 1970s.

A fine example of an astronomer, a scientist, a broadcaster, a communicator … and a xylophone player.

Wednesday, December 05, 2012

Looking for something unique for that special person this Christmas?

Fed up with giving socks and M&S vouchers as presents?

If so, the Christmas exhibition and sale at the University of Ulster's Belfast campus opens on Tuesday evening, 11 December at 6pm and runs until Friday 14. A wide range of 'arts and crafts' [if I'm allowed to call them that] will be on display. Over to the university press release:
Christmas shoppers are invited to browse among the fabulous display of over 150 handmade pieces, each one a unique example of the expertise and skill of Northern Ireland’s emerging creative talent.

The event promises to deliver something for everyone, with all tastes catered for – from the traditional to the contemporary – and with prices starting from as little as £5 it will suit all budgets.

Showcasing their individual creations are the 2012 Artists/Designers in Residence and students from the Contemporary Applied Art course, Fine Art course and the Textile, Art Design and Fashion Course.

The sale and exhibition gives these artists a chance to introduce their work into the commercial market and is the perfect opportunity for the discerning Christmas shopper to pick up an original piece of artwork.

The Christmas sale and exhibition opens on Tuesday December 11 from 6pm-9pm and continues on Wednesday/Thursday 10am-5pm and on Friday from 10am-4pm.

Saturday, December 01, 2012

TEDxBelfastWomen - talks, music, comedy and ideas worth sharing

Thirteen speakers, two musicians and a comedian were lined up in a really diverse programme at TEDxBelfastWomen in the newly opened Skainos centre on East Belfast's Newtownards Road.

Academics, entrepreneurs, digital creatives, foodies, journalists and environmentalists all taking 8-9 minutes to express their idea worth sharing.

While the platform was dominated by X chromosomes - with the exception of Glenn Jordan (XY) from Skainos - the audience was around 10% male. Organised to tie in with the TEDxWomen event in Washington DC, the day's theme is:
The Space Between ... exploring how women are less likely to approach subjects from a black-or-white perspective as they see the grey area in between. There is a curiosity in wanting to explore what is in between extremes, to gain the big picture and find the areas where we need more understanding and perhaps compromise. Women know that this is where life happens—the places in between.

The local organisers - who picked up from the good work done by TEDxBelfast (2011 and 2012) - hoped that the Belfast speakers would share "their own fascinating stories ... about how they are influencing the growth of the communities in which they live, love and work and how they are actively part of ‘the space between’".

Videos will appear on the TEDxBelfastWomen website over the coming weeks as well as under TEDx on YouTube.

Before the event started I talked to one of the organisers Veronica Morris as well as speakers Jude Hill, Sue Christie and Deirdre Heenan about their expectations for the event.
  • Prof Deirdre Heenan (University of Ulster)
  • Dr Therese Charles (Silverfish Studios)
  • Siobhan Bogues (The Lighthouse Centre)
  • Music - Suzanne Savage
  • Kathleen Holmlund (digital strategist)
  • Kitsten Kearney (Educational Shakespeare Company)
  • Musician - Edelle McMahon
  • Fiona Murray (Chocolate Memories)
  • Jenny Radcliffe (Negotiation Intelligence)
  • Prof Sue Christie (NI Environment Link)
  • Eve Earley (Neo Ireland Ltd)
  • Comedy - Lauren Kerr
  • Judith Hill (UTV journalist and Tell It In Colour)
  • Shan McAnena (Belfast Festival at Queens)
  • Maureen Hanvey (Aeroponics)
  • Stephanie Akkaoui-Hughes (AKKA Architects)

Thursday, November 22, 2012

Brazil (Michael Palin)

Michael Palin’s latest book brought back memories of my previous encounters with Brazil.

When I was doing GCSE Geography, there was barely a corner of the curriculum that didn’t have an example from Brazil that could be quoted while answering an exam question. And there was a suspicion that writing down ‘Brazil’ in response to any question that stumped you might gain half a point.

“Está chovendo” are the only two words of Portuguese I know, courtesy of a university friend Shirley who was brought up in Brazil (and baptised in the River Amazon).

And a couple of summer’s ago I read two thirds of Fordlandia by Greg Grandin, a fascinating – if over-detailed – history of Ford Motor Company’s failed experiment in the middle of the Amazonian rainforest to develop a rubber-plantation to feed into their tyres, complete with US-style buildings and customs. One day I’ll finish the book and post a review.

Michael Palin visited Brazil to film a recently-broadcast TV series. His eponymous titled book documents his travels across the vast country, twice the area of India. Palin contrasts the forests, the mines, the beaches and the favelas. He notes the role of religion and witchcraft, carnivals, the influence of Portugal, as well as spotting many examples of minimal clothing – both on the beach and in forest tribes. And he even finds a tribe getting lessons in videography.

Basil Pao’s photographs really bring Michael Palin’s commentary to life, capturing the colour and vibrancy of the country. Sadly Pao’s name doesn’t make it to the book’s front (or back) cover. Also missing from the book is an index.

Palin describes a country where poverty and prosperity mix on the beach, and twenty years of military dictatorship are less visible than the 1950s government building distinctive architecture of Oscar Niemeyer. (In two week’s time, he’ll turn 105. Update - he died on 6 December, days before his 105th birthday.)

Included in his travelogue, Palin surveyed the remains of Fordlândia by boat. The pictures really bring Grandin’s more wordy tome to life.

What I wasn’t taught in GCSE Geography was that within 20 years, Brazil would become a superpower, leapfrogging the UK in 2012 to become the world’s 5th largest economy.

Throughout the book, the reader is gently introduced to often flamboyant individuals who guided Palin and his crew through different regions and cities: Gabby the “Beyoncé of the Amazon”; 70 year old cowboy Julio; Marjorie , a transsexual who describes herself as “a woman with a penis”; a blogger called Raul; Marlisa, a special forces publicity officer; and many others.

Before finishing in São Paulo, Palin stops over in Rio de Janeiro and discovers rising rents as foreign buyers snap up property ahead of the 2014 World Cup and 2016 Olympics. It’s all in sharp contrast with the new city of Brasília which took over as the country’s capital in 1960 and was constructed in the unpartisan interior, away from the more dominant south east.

I missed the TV series that preceded the book. But I found the book a fascinating excursion through a country which was undersold and underexplored in those school geography lessons.

Disclosure: My copy of Brazil was supplied by Easons in conjunction with Michael Palin’s booksigning (Belfast store at 12.30pm on Friday 23 November), but didn’t have any demand or influence over the content of this review.

Sunday, November 18, 2012

The Infinite Tides (Christian Kiefer)

First sentence: “The airlock opened.”

The Infinite Tides is a book about emptiness. The emptiness of space. The emptiness of astronaut Keith Corocan’s family relationships which he sacrificed in order to pursue his training at NASA. The emptiness of his house which had nearly all its furniture removed by his wife while he was circling the Earth in the International Space Station.

Up on the space station, Keith was a respected engineer, responsible for fitting a complex robotic arm that he had redesigned. With the arm fitted, he looked down at his home planet and admired the beauty and completeness:

“It was a moment as glorious and transcendent as any he could have imagined and he would realize only later that it represented the single coordinate point in which he understood that he had done it, that at last he had entered the long incredible upward-turning arc that had been the trajectory of his life, and that he was, finally and undeniably, an astronaut.”

Towards the end of the space walk he was astonished by the “green and brown continents and blue oceans and white clouds”. Ready to go back into the airlock he had “a strong feeling that he had lost something”.

Soon after returning inside the space station, a colleague took him aside and broke the tragic news that Keith’s teenage daughter Quinn had died in a car accident. Technical difficulties meant that his return home could not be expedited and he eventually departed from the space station three months later, suffering from migraine headaches and separated from his wife.

Back on Earth, Keith was no longer deemed fit for work. Other than flashbacks to his training and time in space, the plot follows Keith as he prepares to sell the empty family home he had spent so little time in. The estate is an anonymous suburbia: four or five plans of houses laid out in endless cul-de-sacs.

Keith is no longer in control. He is in denial about incoming bills and the boxes of personal effects that his wife moved to the garage. He is enchanted by his next door neighbour, Jennifer. Initially irritated by a Ukrainian man’s antics in the local Starbucks, Keith warms to Peter Kovalenko’s love of astronomy and spends countless hours with him sitting in a field looking up at the stars.

As an engineer with a deep understanding of mathematics, Keith’s thinking is crammed full of infinite parallels, angles, planes, vectors, apogees and perigees. The mathematical prose adds to the beauty of the book and does not distract. Keith’s daughter shared his mathematical gift, but to his disappointment latterly chose cheerleading over academia.

Confronted by an expert in another discipline who is also out of luck, the novel explores whether Keith will have the capacity to reach out and help Peter to overcome his difficulties? Or will Keith’s lack of grasp of his own personal situation leave him unable to help another human being?

Christian Kiefer’s first novel is a dark tale. Happiness is always tinged with sadness and regret. Depression is not just a state of the mind, but a state of suburbia. Helplessness is combined with a difficulty to accept help. Academic intelligence does not equate to emotional intelligence or even an instinct to dig out of a hole quickly.

Despite its 400 or more pages, The Infinite Tides is a fast read that draws the reader into the life and plight of revered astronaut, ex-husband and absentee father Keith Corcoran. While the lead character’s back story adds a sprinkling of magic space dust, the emotions and dilemmas are very Earth-bound and common. A good, if bleak, read from musician, poet and first-time novelist Christian Kiefer.

Available from Amazon in paperback and Kindle formats.

Saturday, November 17, 2012

Fit out firm behind Belfast Easons wins award

It was no surprise to learn last night that Dublin-based Jennings Design Studio, the company behind the fit out of the new Easons Donnegal Place branch – the old WH Smith store – had picked up the top award at the Irish 2012 Fit Out Awards.

Bookshops and newsagents rarely have a sense of style that goes anywhere beyond library chic. But with curved book cases, colourful slabs of perspex hanging from the ceiling, a wooden tree, low seats in the children’s zone and a bright atmosphere in a windowless cave, Jennings did well to make the shop attractive and fresh.

Dead trees can still be award-winning!

Of course, it is not to everyone’s taste. East Belfast blogger Lord Belmont found it to be ‘spartan’.

The ceiling on the ground floor appears unfinished: Bare concrete; ugly pipes, ducts, ventilators and wiring can be seen. Is this their idea of a state-of-the-art shop? A sales floor without a ceiling?

I haven’t yet been into the newly refitted Lisburn Easons to see if it has received the full Pompidou treatment!

Tuesday, November 06, 2012

Norn Iron sculpture picks up international award - RISE

It took a long time to get a piece of public art erected on Broadway Roundabout only for Titanic Belfast to arrive and take the limelight away from the 37.5m, 65,000-piece Balls on the Falls.

RISE sculpture nears completion on the Broadway roundabout in Belfast

So while in Gloucester - home to another of Wolfgang Buttress' sculptures - I was glad to see that RISE has won a prize: the 'small projects' category at the Institute of Structural Engineers' annual international awards. There'll have been cheers in Rasharkin where the manufacturer M Hasson and Sons is based.

Apparently buildings rather than sculptures tend to pick up the gongs. The judges explained:
"Pure sculptural structures are amongst the most difficult to achieve successfully, as everything is on view, and will be scrutinised down to the finest detail. It is therefore a real pleasure to find a creation such as this, which admirably projects the artist's original vision and at the same time celebrates the aesthetic beauty of pure, efficient structure for its own sake."

Also good to see that Derry's Peace Bridge was commended. The Iron Market in Port-au-Prince (Haiti) won its sustainability category.

Sunday, November 04, 2012


Tonight's Ikon was appropriately - for an experimental theological/art collective - hosted in the Belfast MAC. Great to see old friends, new friends, and never-met-before-but-known-for-a-long-time friends.

The theme of 'Other' was appropriate at many levels too. To turn up at Ikon in the first place is to put yourself in a box labelled Other. Yet by turning up attendees are also seeking collective and communion with other (perhaps) like-minded souls.

Everyone is both Other and not-Other. At times, Northern Ireland feels like it celebrates and tortures Others on a grander scale than some of its surrounding nations. Perhaps I'm wrong.

As well as Colin Williams' talk about Fear at TEDxBelfast, this evening's events reminded be that I'd written something on the blog a few years ago about fear of the other ... back in the day when I posted several times a week and sometimes even pushed the boat out to express my personal opinion, rather than summarising other people's.

Turns out it was a loose series of three posts on Scared of the other.

Though it's a topic that has turned up in other posts and will turn up again.

The challenge is how to live well as an Other, and how to purposefully relate to those I instinctively want to badge as Other.

Update - I'm being followed by 'Other' this week. In a prayer at Monday afternoon's wedding, the following phrase crept in:
Enrich their friendship that they might be fully other.

Further update - Gladys Ganiel and Michael McRay have blogged their thoughtful impressions of the evening.

Tuesday, October 30, 2012

Inconsistent hand baggage sizes on Flybe website

Flybe's Baggage FAQ states that hand baggage on its non-Loganair flights must not exceed the dimensions 55cm x 40cm x 23cm and a weight restriction of 10kg.

The online check-in form states contradictory dimensions, suggesting a significantly smaller 50cm x 35cm x 23cm.

Which is it?!

Flybe's baggage policy is already much less generous than many other airlines: for example easyJet allow 56cm x 45cm x 25cm with no weight restriction as long as you can lift it.

Tuesday, October 16, 2012

1912: A Hundred Years On (on tour from 16 Oct - 3 Nov)

If the recent spate of documentaries and marches to mark the centenary of the signing of the Ulster Covenant has intrigued you and sparked an interest in the history of this place, then you may want to catch the play 1912: A Hundred Years On as it tours around Northern Ireland over the coming weeks.

Written by Philip Orr and Alan McGuckian, the hour long play takes a wide look at what was happening in 1912, placing the overlapping events into a context, politically and culturally. Two actors – Ciaran Nolan and Gerard Jordan – assume the roles of County Antrim neighbours as they adapt to the changing situation, as well as playing the parts of the leading politicians and statesmen.

The play’s first run in March was well received, and sets the scene for the next decade of centenaries, including the formation of the Ulster Volunteer Force and the Irish National Volunteers, gun running at Larne, the Suffragist movement in Ireland, the Battles of Gallipoli and the Somme, and the Easter Rising all form a continuum of history.

Co-playwright Philip Orr says that the arts have a role in examining our history:

“We can ask questions about our past and not be scared of it; ask questions about our own past and not be seen as traitors; ask questions about other people’s past and not be seen as bigots.”

  • Tuesday 16 – Saturday 20 (various times) // Ulster Museum
  • Monday 22 – Wednesday 24 (various times) // Ulster Hall
  • Wednesday 24 at 7.15pm // Belfast City Hall
  • Friday 26 at 7.30pm // Hopelink Centre, Carlisle Circus, Belfast
  • Monday 29 at 7.30pm // Braid Arts Centre, Ballymena
  • Wednesday 31 at 7.30pm // Drumalis Retreat Centre, Larne

  • Thursday 1 November at 7.30pm // Alley Theatre, Strabane
  • Friday 2 November at 7.30pm // Glenavna Hotel, Cookstown
  • Saturday 3 November at 7.30pm // Enniskillen Library
  • Monday 5 November at 7:30pm // Kilmorey Arms Hotel, Kilkeel
  • Tuesday 6 November at 6:30pm // National Museum of Ireland, Dublin

Full details of how to book tickets – which all seem to be free – can be found on the Contemporary Christianity website, whose Centenaries Cluster Group arranged for the play to be produced.

The project has received the support of NI Community Relations Council, the Department of Foreign Affairs/Anti Sectarian Fund, and the Lyric Theatre.

Monday, October 15, 2012

Hanging a former Lord Mayor & an insight into loyalism and policing

While posts that deal with politics normally end up over on Slugger O'Toole, a couple of recent subjects might appeal to Alan in Belfast readers.

Niall Ó Donnghaile handed over the Lord Mayor's chain to Gavin Robinson. However, tradition - in most councils - is that each Mayor or Lord Mayor's year is captured in a portrait that hangs in the corridors around the council chamber, perhaps to dissuade other councillors from aspiring to office!

Niall's portrait was unveiled a week ago. He'd commissioned Danny Devenny, who is better known for his work painting murals on the gable walls of houses and the Bobby Sands mural on the side of Sinn Fein's Falls Road office. Mounted in a house-shaped frame, and with a brick-textured canvass, the work included items of importance to Niall: an MTV European Music Awards mug, pictures of his grandmothers, James Connolly and a Short Strand street sign. The post includes a quick interview with the muralist as well as a longer chat with Niall who reflected on his year in office, including *that* Duke of Edinburgh awards' ceremony. (Long time readers will remember that I've spoken to Niall a number of times for this blog over the years, including on the Eleventh Night in 2011 minutes before his election poster would go up in flames on top of a bonfire.)

I first attended/observed a Progressive Unionist Party conference back in 2009. At that time, Dawn Purvis was the leader. Last year Billy Hutchinson took over as leader.

On Saturday the PUP met again. With only two elected councillors, numbers of delegates were up on last year. PSNI Chief Constable Matt Baggott had accepted the party's invitation and spoke at length. Linda Ervine talked about the hidden history of Protestants and the Irish language, illustrating how Irish phrasing is used in everyday vernacular as well as pointing out that the Red Hand Commando's motto is in Irish!

Councillor (and GP) John Kyle spoke about the Welfare Reform bill currently being examined by the NI Assembly. He had many issues with the mechanics of the proposed reforms, though agreed with the principle that getting people into work was good.

"For some people who are ill, what they need is a job which brings some satisfaction. I have patients, the best thing I could give them is a good job. It would do them more good than any of the medicines that I could prescribe for them."

Motions were passed - unanimously - seeking an alternative to the Parades Commission, as well as objecting to the continued use of supergrass trials.

Taking to the podium, Matt Baggott started his speech by establishing his family's links with the working class and said that policing is more than law enforcement: it’s a social enterprise. On new recruits to the PSNI: "They can use Blackberrys, I use a pencil. They can text faster than I can talk."

Throughout his speech he sought to distance the PSNI's role in investigation to collect facts from the Public Prosecution Service's role to "look at the facts and make a judgement on the evidential test or the public interest" and finally the courts' judgement. This was particularly relevant given the arrest and questioning of the Young Conway Volunteers band on Friday. On parading:

"I think we’ve shown remarkable restraint. I don’t know anywhere in Europe, the German police, French police, let alone in South America where we would have stood and taken 62 injuries on three nights for the greater good of standing between people. I don’t know anywhere in the world that does that. If you’ve seen some of the footage from South Africa recently around some of that you know what I mean. And I think that’s remarkable. It’s the right thing to do. It’s absolutely compliant. But don’t take it for granted please."

He called for "a total paramilitary withdrawal, not just in terms of decommissioning, but in terms of people’s perceptions that even when that’s happened they are still frightened".

Criminality was a subject taken up by PUP leader Billy Hutchinson in his speech.

"Loyalism is opposed to organised crime. You cannot be a loyalist and a criminal at the same time. I’ve made this statement more than once. If you want to be a criminal do not use the flag of loyalism. Go and do it as a citizen. Do not bring shame on people because we don’t want it. The PSNI should be supported in their efforts to tackle organised crime … We need to be alert and ensure that we don’t let organised crime takeover our communities …"

He also touched on education, Corporation Tax, culture, tourism and the need for "honourable compromises" rather than "concessions" when negotiating with republicans.

Sunday, October 14, 2012

TeachMeet, Stranmillis College, Friday 19 October 6-9pm #TMBelfast

TeachMeet Belfast is back this Friday from 6-9pm with an informal gathering of teachers and educationally interested in Stranmillis College.

At the first TeachMeet in March, it was impressive to see so many teachers – from right across the spectrum of schools and systems – willing to travel into Belfast on a Friday night to talk about their work and share their experiences and ideas. I can’t think of any other professions that could motivate voluntary continuing professional development on that scale and with that level of passion.

As well as tea/coffee and a light buffet, there are rapid presentations (2 or 7 minutes), raffles and prizes. It’s very informal, and while there was a strong technology theme running through some of the sessions in March, any kind of best practice can be shared – all the way through from early years and foundation to secondary level and beyond.

You can sign up at EventBrite and find out more on the TeachMeet Belfast wiki. And if you can't get to Belfast, there should be a live streaming available from the wiki.

A free preview of excerpts from new play Paisley & Me? Never! Well actually, there is ...

Paisley & Me is a new play by Ron Hutchinson that examines Ulster Protestants through the eyes of Ian Paisley and his family. Dan Gordon will be donning his heavy overcoat and dog collar to play the preacher and politician, joined on stage by actors Stella McCusker, Lalor Roddy and Des McAleer.

The play opens in the Marketplace Theatre in Armagh on Friday 26 and Saturday 27 October, before transferring to The Grand Opera House for a week’s run during the Belfast Festival at Queen’s (Tuesday 30 October – Saturday 3 November).

You can also catch the production on a short tour at the following venues:
(There’s a certain irony in the some of the play’s performances receiving financial support from council community relations programmes using funds from OFMdFM!)

But if you want a sneak preview of Paisley & Me then come along to The Shipyard Church (Westbourne Presbyterian Community Church at the bottom of the Newtownards Road) at 7pm on Thursday 18 October.

As well as excerpts from the play, there will be a performances and readings by local community groups, and a panel discussion featuring Michael Copeland MLA, Sammy Douglas MLA, Councillor John Kyle, Jackie McDonald (UPRG), asking:
Where is the Protestant community today?
The evening will be chaired by Noel Thompson, who is no longer busy with Hearts & Minds on a Thursday evening! Contact marketing AT gblproductions DOT com for to register in advance for the preview, or just turn up on Thursday night!

Monday, October 01, 2012

A beginner's guide to American Politics (Jon Roper)

Knowing that I was heading out to the US and wanting to spruce up my working knowledge of US politics, I picked up a copy of the pocket-sized, 180 page American Politics: A Beginner’s Guide a few weeks beforehand.

It turned out to be a great introduction to the history of the country’s foundations, its constitution, the never-ending election cycle, the relationship between church and state as well as foreign policy. The second chapter’s articulation of the US model of federal government with its “separated institutions sharing powers” was particularly helpful, layered on top of chapter four’s discussion around how state governments fit into federalism.

There’s plenty of history, along with topical examples from the Clinton, Bush and Obama administrations to illustrate the points being made by author Jon Roper.

Recommended as an informative but easy read. Available in paperback and Kindle editions for less than £7.

Friday, September 14, 2012

Titanic Tea - prices vary, but you may want to avoid buying any in the Belfast Welcome Centre - updated with news of a price reduction

Although Belfast boat factories constructed hundreds of ships, one seems to have dominated the headlines! So needing to bring a small gift across to the US I decided that some Titanic merchandise would be appropriate: a book about the shipyard and the people who built the ill-fated liner, and a bag of Titanic tea.

Belfast Welcome Centre
seemed like a good place to pick up Titanic tat until I choked at the £5.99 price for 80 locally blended tea bags.

Tesco proved a lot cheaper at £2.29 - though this was still 20-40p more expensive than other similar packets of non-Titanic branded tea.

I challenged a member of staff at the Welcome Centre about their exorbitant pricing - nearly three times the price of Tesco. "It's even dearer down in Titanic Belfast" he said.

So I checked out his claim - not true.

A quick shifty in the Titanic Belfast gift shop turned up the same tea bags for a modest £2.99 - half the price of the Welcome Centre.

While it's conceivable that the Welcome Centre don't sell too many boxes of tea - particularly at that price - the uncompetitive pricing seems a complete rip off, and one that takes advantages of tourists rather than offering value.

Update - around lunchtime, the Welcome Centre dropped their price to match Titanic Belfast!

Tuesday, September 11, 2012

Web booking discrepancies - eg, Belfast City Airport's car park cancellation process

Every online booking journey seems to be unique.

While the processes for checkout and even order cancellation at big name retailers like Amazon are well oiled and well understood, smaller organisations offering online payment are often more haphazard in nature.

Tonight, booking a car park place in Belfast City Airport's long stay car park for the end of October, I wondered what would happen if my flight changed or I needed to cancel?

The FAQ on the website had good news. If I gave them more than 48 hours notice, I'd get a full refund.

For those products that can be cancelled, you may cancel your booking up to 48 hours prior to your scheduled departure time at no charge.

The text in the confirmation email was less clear cut.

Cancellations are subject to the terms and conditions of your booking. Please note should you wish to cancel your booking, a cancellation fee will apply. No refund is available for unused or part stays

So which is it? Full refund with 48 hours notice? Or cancellation fees? While Belfast City Airport is a timely example, there have been other examples I've stumbled across in the past week. Clarity and consistency at the different stages of the booking process would be helpful from all retailers.

PS: Booking a space in the long stay car park at the City Airport is currently cheaper for 7-15 days (flat rate offer of £30) than booking for 5 days (£38.50). I wonder whether there's any penalty for leaving the car park early?

Thursday, September 06, 2012

European Heritage Open Days - free entrance to buildings across NI this weekend

It’s a weekend of opportunities with European Heritage Open Days, East Belfast Festival, Portrush International Airshow and Proms in the Park at the Titanic slipway all running.

On Saturday 8 and Sunday 9 September, over 300 buildings will open to the public for free as part of the fifteenth annual European Heritage Open Days. The full programme is available to download, or split into smaller county-wide sections.

In Belfast, there are a number of architectural walking and bus tours, above ground and below.

Guides will also take you around Central Library, the MAC, PRONI (the Public Records Office), Victoria Square, Linenhall Library, Freemason’s Hall, the Ulster Hall.

Up nearer Botanic Gardens, check out the First Church of Christ, Scientist with its architectural similarities to Portmeirion and the set of The Prisoner. Parliament Buildings is open (as usual) with very frequent tours around the NI Assembly, library and galleries. And Stormont Castle, the home of the NI Executive and OFMdFM, is also open over the weekend. The headquarters of the Belfast County Orange Lodge as well as Ballynafeigh Orange Hall are open and offering refreshments.

Further afield the 36.5m tall St John’s Point lighthouse is open on the Sunday (sadly fully booked already). Up on the north coast, the architect will offer a guided tour around the new Giant’s Causeway visitor centre.

Two homes from the BBC’s House of the Year show are open this year: the ‘Origami House’ in Kells and 2012 winner Robinsview in Ballycloghan. Both tours are fully booked.

Armagh Observatory is opening up on Saturday, and the neighbouring Armagh Planetarium is offering free star shows, though booking is essential. Many churches are open, some even open on Sunday!

Note that not all buildings are open on both Saturday and Sunday. Check the EOHD website for opening hours.

Sunday, September 02, 2012

Giant's Causeway and the new National Trust visitor centre

Hexagons abound at the Giant’s Causeway. Staying for a few nights up on the north coast, we called in to see the new National Trust visitor centre and take a walk down to the basalt columns.

There is still free pedestrian access down to the Causeway and onto the network of paths. You avoid charges if you step away from the shiny new visitor centre and walk on past.

First impressions were good, with lots of parking. Note that there’s no charge on the way into the centre’s car parks. Instead, you’ve got to show your ticket on the way out. Ulsterbus 172, 252 and the Causeway Coaster services call stop near the centre. And there are bike stands near the next-door Causeway Hotel.

Second impressions were poor. The café – just in the door past the ticket desk – charges fancy prices but doesn’t serve fancy food and in our case (first thing in the morning) had someone else’s food caked onto the side of the table.

Probably the most expensive cup of tea or coffee you would buy on the north coast. And the scones are closer to rock cakes … it took a lot of butter to lessen the stodginess of my cherry scone. £3 for a slice of cake.

Tip – Bring a picnic.

The audio guides provide a great commentary on the walk down from the hill towards the famous hexagonal basalt columns.

Tip – Ask for the children’s commentary: you get the same information with a much more entertaining delivery.

Unfortunately once the NT staff hand you your audio guide there’s no way for you to change the language or version of the commentary without taking it back.

Having been a fairly frequent visitor to the Giant’s Causeway in the past, there were still lots of factoids and stories that I hadn’t heard before holding the guide up to my ear.

Tip – If it’s a windy day, bring gloves otherwise one hand will slowly freeze as you hold the speaking plastic gizmo up to your ear.

The visitor centre has an easy mix of legend and geology. Finn McCool sits neatly alongside visual displays showing how the bedrock of Ireland and Scotland have moved around over the last 470 million years.

A giant video wall tells the story of Finn McCool, his wife Oonagh and the Scottish giant Benandonner. Displays guide visitors – young and old – through the life of Causeway guides, conversation staff, geologists and naturalists.

The National Trust shop is full of high quality touristy tat. Would be worth checking out the longer-established McConaghy Souvenir shop a hundred yards away at the side of the Causeway Hotel to compare prices.

Given the sensitivities around the World Heritage Site, I found Peter Kuhn’s installation of Flags – just beyond the main stones – quite out of place.

Flags, coloured yellow on one side and red on the other, dotted across the cliff faces. Compared to the size and majesty of the rugged landscape, the flags were small and relatively static. (They rotate in the wind, switching colour, but on the windy Saturday morning we visited, the cliff was mostly dotted with red.)

It felt a little like an enormous golf course had been set up on the Causeway: something the National Trust are keen to avoid around the coast at Runkerry. Together with the bottles of golf tees in the shop, perhaps golfers are more welcome in the region that they imagined!

Admission prices are currently set at: adults £8.50 (£7.50 online); 5-17 years old £4.25 (£3.50 online); under 5 free; families (2 adults and up to 3 children under 17) £21 (£18.50 online). National Trust members go free, and can avoid the £1 easy way charge in the bus if their legs can’t manage the walk.

Overall, I’d say that the visitor centre is well worth a visit every now and again, particularly to get to hear the audio commentary again, but it’s not essential every trip. And bring a picnic.