Nothing Stays Beautiful
From the west the tempest brings the familiar
Broken branches and cold breath
Nothing stays beautiful that ever forged a life.
Stone remains magnificent and the swell of the salt sea
The stars burn out in fulgent slashes
And the half-light of the day casts alchemy.
But nothing stays beautiful that ever forged a life
The tide comes and the eye still closes and the rain beats on.
The Elysian Fields: White Island: A northern Irish Utopia
And with the half-light and the quicksilver air, the meadow rolls away to the left and right of the unloved road. Giant Irish oak trees proudly stand their ground, wind-severed boughs fallen at their feet. Stinging green leaves, newly unfurled point towards summer with all the vigorous optimism a spring clutches. The lough is soft and moves on quietly, no fuss, south.
Since the big clean up, the crow-black plastic of the giant haylage bales has gone from the barbed-wire fences, the lower branches, the ditches and the yards. Where bungalows and pebble-dashed farmhouses once stood, pasture is forceful. Waterers and troughs lie in fields like written-off Fords and Citroens of Scottish archipelagos.
And in those pastures, vast and lush where Enniskillen, Lurgan, Portadown, Belfast, Cookstown used to slump, stand horses, mile upon mile of muscle, mane and tail.
Across Antrim, hog-maned Cobs power-house their way across the landscape in well tempered troops. Their heavy conformation setting them like standing stones as they graze their way up the coast. With man gone, collar and hames lie blue with mould as the leather rots and metal rusts.
Armagh is trodden by Hunters high in Thoroughbred, fast and focused. Standing heavy in the abandoned apple orchards and deserted town squares, the Hunters conserve energy only to bolt at a gallop for mile upon mile down Friary Road and up Barrack Hill.
Down is for the fine-footed Thoroughbred with its Spanish, Neopolitan, Irish Hobby and Barb blooded veins, the now extinct Turkmene exotica running fire into turf and Asia into Ireland.
The green-blue Fermanagh shores are where breeds run together, the black and white Gypsy Cob stands solid with long main over eye, no lough cots to pull, no logs to heave. The in-foal Chestnut mare grazes thoroughly between reeds, shadowed by the 13hh Welsh Section B Pony, hardy from generations of mountain survival and fine from his Arabian cells. Two veteran geldings inseparable by circumstance, roam together, necking on warm days and in storms standing close in whitethorn hedges.
Across Derry, the ancient Connemara run across divided roads and peace bridges, shaped by their wild and wet Connaught home, resistant to the West’s elements. Quiet and calm, athletic and agile the Celtic Connemara makes still the soils of turmoil.
In Tyrone, once beloved GAA ground is trampled by heavy bone and resplendently feathered heavy-hoof. The rare and mighty Jutland horse marches on the Ballygawley roundabout, no heed to its circumference, forceful on its Danish blood, on muscles stolen and shipped by Vikings and on top lines that held medieval knights in bloody battle.
Man has gone and field-by-field the horses come… the Frieberger, the Viatka, the Zemaituka…the Ardennes, the Noriker, the Akhal-Teke…the Andalusian, the Brumby, the Criollo…
Published in The Vacuum, 2012
Dry Riding and Sea Urchins
I was bored in the Stiff Kitten club recently. In fairness I am 32 and admittedly since I gave up taking drugs of any significant quantity, staying up too late and drinking fruit flavoured alcohol, clubbing has not really been that much fun. There was a time however when I could never have imagined I would be full-on roll-your-eyes-bored in a club on a Friday night.
Whilst sitting bored and feeling contemptuous of my fellow clubbers, I got to thinking about about when I was thirteen and could only dream of being on the guest list of a club in a city somewhere. All the trashy flashy lights, international super-fashionable dj’s, dancy music and drinky drinks. I thought it would always be the greatest place in the world to be on a Friday night. I remember first thinking these thinkings about clubbing whilst sitting in a cold, slightly damp village hall on the tiny island of Vatersay in the Outer Hebrides. Population sixty and the place I grew up.
I was sitting midway through the fortnightly Bingo and Whist-drive flanked by Flora the seventy-four year old island cards champion (who stank of what can only be described as foost) and Donald-Iain the local nutbag who used Famous Grouse as cologne. My mind would wander between trump cards, Tunnock’s caramels and other people’s John Player Special smoke and I would dream of one day exorcising my boredom with the fizz of the city.
You see, when you grow up on an island four miles by six miles you just kind of convince yourself you must be bored and there must be more. You blame it entirely for your teenage boredom. I used island-induced-boredom as an excuse for a myriad of bad behaviour. Truth be told the entire community blamed it for their bad behaviour. It wasn’t just me and the boy next door dry riding up against the walls of the church or me and the boy next door but one stealing my dad’s rum and brandy from our drinks globe (an object of which I could never, never be bored..it’s the world with drinks at its mahogany core..) or me and the boy next door but one’s brother breaking into our school and tearing out the last pages of every copy of George MacKay Brown’s Greenvoe.
I shouldn’t go into it here, but why on God’s sweet sweet earth would you choose a study book for children stuck growing up on an island in the middle of the Atlantic that is about a bunch of people stuck growing up on an island in the middle of the Atlantic? Cunts. I think I might have mentioned this in a Vacuum article before and am learning that this really is an issue for me…anyway, that’s boring for you.
So, to reel it back in and as I was saying, the notion of boredom was used as an excuse not exclusively by me and my fellow teenagers out there in the Hebrides, but was used as the excuse of the entire community. It was the excuse for their affairs, their multiple affairs, their drinking, drink-driving, drug taking (prescriptive and otherwise), their catalogue addiction and for their casual in-breeding...On a slightly more positive but ultimately negative note it was also an excuse for their puffin water colours, their adventures into contemporary home decoration (my mum actually painted a mural on our house of a Hebridean landscape complete with sheep), their obsessive shell craft – think sea urchin gonks - and their incessant jumble sales. I remember realising the ‘jumble’ must just drift from house to house in a continuous and infinite cycle of shite, house to jumble sale to house to jumble sale. I think at one point all fifteen pupils in my school had worn the same hand knitted seagull jumper like a sort of Hebridean jumble rite of passage. The seagull of puberty.
Sitting there in the Stiff Kitten I continued to reminisce and it soon became clear to me that there was nothing boring about growing up in the Hebrides. In that same afore mentioned village hall I had given flowers to Lady Di when her and Charles helicopered in whilst on their honeymoon. I had sung Gaelic hymns with Harry Secombe for Songs of Praise, I had learned to dance all the Scottish dances including the Highland Fling (which is still a favourite party trick of mine). I had learned the difference between Mad Dog 20/20 and Um Bongo and I had danced my first disco dance with a boy with facial hair. I had learned to do life saving and first aid, starred in a play as a Gaelic and French speaking Madonna (of Like a Virgin rather than am a virgin fame), I had recovered after swimming my two thousand metre swimming badge in the Atlantic during jellyfish season and David cunting Bellamy had sat me on his knee to explain the wonderousness of the lesser spotted wild orchid.
I’m afraid there’s kind of no traditional beginning middle and end to this piece of writing, it’s sort of Tales From The Island but in writing it, I am reminded that in the right hands, boredom can be great fuel for creativity. And having said that nice thing, I have a public apology to make to a certain Mary Catherine Cambell, who was an innocent victim of my teenage boredom.
Back in the village hall on Friday night and after the rousing tournamnet of Whist the assembled community were fidgeting in their seats with anticipation for the Bingo. Big bottled prizes you understand. And assorted bags of mutton and mince if I remember rightly. Mary Catherine Campbell was a nice girl, not the sharpest tool in the box, in fact more like the box, but nice. She was the same age as me and was very proud of her job as community bingo caller – a position handed down to her from her older sister who had gone off to work on the Oban ferry. Mary Catherine was always in search of new bingoey abbreviations, two little ducks, clickety click and all that. On this particular evening just before she went on, I took her aside and gave her a little bingo term of my own. She thanked me for my input and as I took my seat, this time with the rest of the teenagers, she got up to call Bingo to her community. I sat with my Bingo card in front of me, felt pen poised and waited; one and seven seventeen, on it’s own number six, two fat ladies eighty eight, two and three twenty three, Jap’s eye number one….
Published in The Vacuum, 2011
YOU ARE WHERE YOU EAT
Sitting around the compass-scratched and biro-gouged old school table last night, heady from the apple and pear schnapps, I re-considered my thoughts on folk food. When the editor first approached me to write about the subject, my mind instantly and by default conjured images of wild garlic and wenches, tweed clothing and wicker baskets. Images of families gone-by blustering around hedge-grows searching out berries, fungi and leaves in order to mix as soup and boil over a fire on some sort of pendulous pot, all the while to the sound of Green Grow The Rushes Oh … As it turns out, such idealised, Lark-Risey thinking is, as with most nostalgia, restrictive in its description of the topic, however the etymological roots of the word nostalgia can help here, its meaning being an ache to return home, home-sickness. In considering such a yearning for home, more often than not, we are brought back to memories of family, occasion and location and very often food. As Nigel Slater will ever try to convince you, there are few more home-evoking lullabies than the wafting scent of a plump, crispy-skinned and butter-basted slow-roast chicken or in my case, the wafting scent of a stressed out and over heated mother in 80’s nylon having once again burnt the roast parsnips.
Folk food is defined in Wikipedia (the peoples’ encyclopedia!) as: any type of food that is eaten by a small, homogeneous group living in isolated areas. Folk food habits derive from the environment. People also adapt their food preferences depending on conditions of the environment.
So yes, if you buy a Dolmio sauce and a packet of pasta from the Mace around the corner to cook for dinner, it can be argued that by definition, this is folk food. One can live in isolation and be affected by our environment no matter where we live blah blah blah. For the purposes of this article however, I ache to return home to Fermanagh and in-between typing will be taking heaving spoonfuls of lentil, potato and wild garlic stew, dunking Zwillingsbrot (rye-bread) brought back as a gift from Berlin yesterday, because this is my small, homogenous-grouped isolated area and this is my folk food.
Walking around at this time of year, there are stirrings; buds swell on naked branches, tips push through the weight of winter, it’s all very sexy. We are a week away from the Spring Equinox (20th of March). Equinox means ‘even’ and is a solar festival celebrating the time when the length of day and night are the same. It is a celebration of the earth’s renewal and is a time of fertility and of light overthrowing dark. Crop sowing begins in northern countries and to celebrate Pagans carry out particular rituals: a woman and a man are chosen to act out the roles of Spring God and Goddess, playing out courtship and symbolically planting seeds. The egg is a sign of rebirth and the hare of fertility (the Spring Equinox coincides with the breeding time of the Hare) so egg races, egg hunts, egg eating and egg painting are also traditional activities at this time of year. The symbol of the egg is derived from the tale of goddess Eostre, the goddess of the dawn. Eostre is said to have entertained children by changing a bird into a rabbit and that confused little rabbit laying coloured eggs – thus we have the Easter bunny (the Christians pilfered Eostre, changing it to Easter). As well as egg eating, hot cross buns are baked. Contrary to what you may think, the cross on the bun is representative of the sun and seasons, the quarters of the moon calendar or the horns of the ox traditionally sacrificed at the Equinox. Pagans believed that the buns would last a whole twelve months before turning mouldy and would often hang them up in the home to ward off fire and evil forces. Sailors would take hot cross buns to sea in the belief they would act as a deterrent against shipwreck whilst farmers deemed them sufficient to protect their grain from rats. Moreover, the buns were said to possess mystical properties that could cure illnesses and fever.
I discovered these meanings last year when I was handed a hot cross bun at the Auchakillymaude Mummers Spring Equinox event. At this time every year the Fermanagh Mummers make and burn a huge wicker effigy of John Barleycorn (a wicker personification of the barley cultivation cycle) in celebration of the crop and of its produce: cereal, beer and whisky. I’ll be there again this year to eat my bun and drink my beer whilst watching John Barleycorn perish to the sound of singing and dancing…Take the flame inside you, burn and burn below, fire seed and fire feed, to make the baby grow …
I’ve always had a fascination with folk food, it’s most likely because I have lived in a number of isolated, rural places; Eilean Siar, Cumbria, Devon and Fermanagh, all of which have their unique dishes; salted cormorant and carrageen, tattie-pot, splits and scrumpy or boxty. I’ve also lived in the sprawling urbane and there too lies food derived from place: stottie, skirlie, peas-puddin’, scouse. It seems to me that any food is in some way folk: we are where we eat and who we eat with.
My more traditional meets avant-garde definition of folk food is evidenced if I return to the old school table I mentioned at the beginning of the article; wonders stowed home from Berlin, luscious dripping Saturn peaches from the Turkish market, caramelly toasted rye bread with Housewife’s Choice butter melting through it’s surface. Exotic delights brought to table by one member of the community next to my salty roasted local potatoes, tired with the end of season but perked back to life with last summer’s sage dried by the fire and Corsican maquis herbs flown home as a souvenir of a tricky time. A Lidl Cabaret Sauvignon warms on the radiator as we eat new season cramph leaves (wild garlic) in a salad and shots of schnapps are sunk, the fruity-warmth and sharpness encouraging memories of Hungarian Pálinka with its swollen berries. Following soon after that, the recollection of damson poitín at a tenner a bottle from a man I know in Frank’s bar. Moonshine warms and nurtures joy wherever you may drink it, it connects communities in the smile is raises and the taxes it avoids. If we draw parallels between food and music in terms of folk, this sort of spread is Freak Folk and in my dreams, that makes me the Vashti Bunyan of food…
Word count won’t allow me to present here all of the feasts and fayre a year holds, so instead I will turn to practicalities and leave you with some traditional northern Irish folk food recipes to try for yourself. In 2009 Dr. Aisling O’Beirn and I published a book called, Or So We’ve Heard and in it are many recipes gifted by people or that we researched whilst working on a community project across five counties. Is fearr bothán biamhar ná caisleán gortach!
Lughnasadh August 1st
1½ cup brown sugar
4 tablespoons butter
4 tablespoons golden syrup
1 tablespoon water
1 teaspoon vinegar
2 teaspoons baking soda
Melt the butter in a heavy pan; add sugar, syrup, vinegar, and start to boil your Yellowman. To test it, take a spoonful, drop into cold water. If it's ready the mixture turns into a crisp and brittle ball. Now put the baking soda in-- You'll find that it will foam and froth; so take a spoon and keep stirring the bubbling broth rapidly. Now pour it in a well greased tin; cool, and then break in bits to eat.
½ carrier bag full of nettles, tops or young leaves
1 large or 2 medium onions, finely sliced
1 large carrot, chopped (optional)
2 celery sticks, chopped (optional)
1 large garlic clove, crushed (optional)
1 litre good chicken, fish or vegetable stock
Pinch of freshly grated nutmeg (optional)
3 boiled potatoes
2 tablespoons thick cream or crème fraiche
Salt and freshly ground black pepper
Small bunch of chives, chopped
A few sprigs of wild chervil or parsley, chopped
Wash nettles discarding tougher stalks. Melt butter and sweat the onion, carrot, celery and garlic until soft but not brown. Add stock and nettles. Bring to boil and simmer for 5-10 minutes, until nettles are tender. Season with salt, pepper & nutmeg and liquidise soup with potatoes. Return to clean pan, stir in cream and reheat. Serve, garnishing with cream and chopped herbs.
Bairin Breac - the amateur's Halloween oracle of choice, finding the ring promises luck.
1 lb. flour
8 oz.sultanas (yellow raisins)
8 oz currant
4 oz. mixed peel
2 oz. butter
2 oz. brown sugar
1/2 pint milk
1/4 tsp.nutmeg, salt
Sift flour, nutmeg and salt; rub in butter (softened). Cream the yeast with a teaspoon of sugar in a little of the tepid milk. Mix remaining sugar with the flour. Add milk to the yeast and beaten eggs. Keep a little of the egg aside to glaze the bread. Beat liquid into the dry ingredients until the batter is stiff but pliable. Fold in dried fruit and peel. Place in a greased 8" cake tin, cover with cloth and leave to rise in a warm place for 1 hour. Bake at 400 for one hour. Use a little of the egg to glaze top. Return to oven for four to five minutes. Turn out to cool on wire rack.
5g dulse, finely chopped
1 large carrot, grated
50g caster sugar
110g melted butter
250g bread flour
Preheat the oven to 140C/gas mark 1.
Place the chopped dulse into a sieve and soak in a bowl of water for 5-10 minutes, before patting it dry. Brush the inside of a loaf tin with a little butter. Put the eggs, dulse, carrot, sugar, butter and a pinch of salt into a bowl and mix. Fold in the flour and baking powder. Fill the tin with the mixture and bake for 40-50 minutes. The check with a skewer – it should come out clean. Allow to cool before turning out and slicing.
Published in The Vacuum, 2010
This seemed the perfect day to start an article on Healthy Girls. I have just spent a pretty much sleepless night worrying about the state of my health; physical, mental and otherwise…
The first tack I was going to take with this text was to ask a healthy girl about her routine, about how it is to be healthy in Belfast, what it takes to be healthy…you know, just find out what makes a healthy girl tick (some would argue its lack of carbohydrates). It quickly became evident to me however that I didn’t actually know any healthy girls, not really. I know girls who may swim on occasion, eat tofu, cycle everyday, take a gazillion vitamin supplements, have great skin, lovely bodies, temper their alcohol intake and just say no. I just don’t know a girl who does all of the above, all of the time.
I can however tell you about the time I tried it: All of it.
The metamorphosis from psycho-abusive, gin-drenched, prawn cocktail crisp sandwich snuffling, fag-sucking, hell-woman was spurred on by a particularly expressive evening at my friend’s thirtieth birthday in Dromore. I would be lying if I said I could remember exactly what went on but what or who ever said the wrong thing to me and flicked the switch in my very unhealthy body fuelled some sort of attack on all assembled, gin over one, pushing another, screeching at my best friend and worse for his latest conquest, a quiet but very offensive threat whispered in said conquest’s ear. Amid scuffles to try to get me out of the house (which I of course refused to do) I remember uttering some obscenities at the birthday girl - finally collapsing on a sofa only to summon up one last ounce of bile to tell another of my dear friends.. ‘And you can go and fuck yourself as well’….
That was not the end of the ordeal, the morning after brought upon me untold pains and blackness I imagine only experienced in the belly of hell. I will save the in depth hangover description, we are all grown-ups here and I am confident you have all had one Vermouth too many at one time or another. What I in fact experienced that morning in Dromore was, full-throttle–my-body-can-take-no-more, bona fide alcohol poisoning. When I got up to get a glass of water in the kitchen that morning, I promptly collapsed on the floor with some sort of hypo-alco-rosacia-scab-rash (not an actual medical term) on my face and was promptly helped up to bed with a bag of frozen peas on my head by the one friend good enough to still give a shit about my welfare.
Now then, I grant you this is hardly the wildest story of debauchery ever told but it is a true story of one girl drinking, smoking and not eating five-a-day for months on end cumulating in a total toxic collapse.
What followed was a long night of the soul and a decision to become a healthy girl. It was a decision that was to change my life dramatically in the short term and subtly in the long time.
When you are getting healthy you need to do a few things first, you need to prepare. I firstly cleansed my kitchen cupboards of anything with more than 5g of fat per 100g in it. I joined a gym and bought a selection of gym gear and a decent pair of trainers. I bought loads of herbal tea, some milk thistle (it apparently cleanses your liver or kidneys or something…), a pair of ladies weight-lifting gloves, a water bottle and a smoothie maker, a steamer, a vat of miso soup paste, blueberry upon blueberry and more nuts, seeds and other crunchy things full of Omega-3 than you could shake a mackerel at. (Note to reader - it’s not cheap to get healthy). All of these items I seemed to know were good for me but I am not entirely sure how I knew they were good for me. It’s probably not difficult to work out; I have read Marie Clare on occasion, Dr. Gillian (hump-backed gnarl) McKeith has discussed What Not To Eat on my TV, I live next door to a health food shop and I am a 21st century absorbent female with penchant for good cheese, varied alcohol and the associated apparent need to harangue myself on a daily basis because my jeans don’t always fit.
The road to healthydom for me began with a cup of hot water and lemon of a morning to cleanse the system (caffeine is out for reasons I can’t really remember, toxic or something). The initial foray into the gym was one of bewilderment more than anything else. As a naturally inquisitive person I found the whole set up quite fascinating. My gym of choice was Fitness First in Connswater, east Belfast; it was closest to my house. The getting to the gym bit is often the most difficult psychological test – once you are there you get on with it, but peeling yourself off the sofa after a gruesome day at work is the real challenge - especially if your day has been as mine was at the time - frying Ulster frys at a rate of knots all day long in a caf on the Cregagh road.
Inside the gym is wall to wall machinery, most of it looks like the stuff of torture, lit with interrogation calibre fluorescents that would definitely have ways of making you talk, or should I say run. The rest of the interior is a direct assault on your mental fitness. There are mirrors everywhere which remind you from every angle why you are there. And that you should have bought a more expensive pair of tracky bottoms as the primark ones you paid five pounds for turn out to be made of cellulite enhancing material of some sort that actually encourages sweating as only nylon fibres can. Dotted randomly around the architecture like some sort of cross between Banksy and Mr. Motivator are slogans which read, BE YOURSELF ONLY BETTER or THE EXTRA MILE IS BETWEEN YOUR EARS. Eventually under the stress of extreme physical activity and amateur gym-goer induced dehydration, these slogans would mutate into RUN YOU FAT BASTARD, RUN.
As well as conquering the machines in the gym, there were also a load of classes one could take: BodyCombat, PowerPump, Spinning, Urban Dance Training, Guerrilla- Warfare-Line-Dance-Disco-Fusion-Fitness, and Whirling-Dervish-Pacemaker-Pumpfuck, stuff like that. My one and only exploration into the world of the fitness class resulted in me standing in a room thick with high energy music, purple faced and sore breasted (forgot the sports bra) summoning up all my energy to leap up in the air, vertically spread eagle myself into a star jump only to land enthusiastically facing thirty completely co-ordinated fitness class veterans having in fact leapt in the opposite direction to everyone else. The mass eminence of pity and scorn will stay with me forever.
I am aware that I am beginning to sound like Victoria Wood now or Joe Brand and that is not what I meant to do, slag off gyms, because you see the thing is I really loved it. I worked harder and harder and got fitter and fitter. I watched my body change, my muscles grow, my body mass index lower, I lost two and a half stone, my lungs felt stronger (I had given up both smoking and drinking) and the honest to goodness truth is that I had more mental clarity than ever before. I had got over my carb cravings and was eating nothing but steamed veg and fish, I was horse riding, cycling and going to yoga and I was full of energy and forever on the end of people telling me how good I looked. I was a healthy girl with a healthy girl glow.
One may, understandably at this point reader, think that this was a life change full of weight loss and positivity, ego enhancement and jolly good self fulfilment. You would be wrong. No one rang me anymore. The once loving eyes of my friends were glazed, nay blinded by my incessant rantings about my experiences on the treadmill. I was a bore and not only that but an obsessive bore. I became mentally unfit.
( It all rang the same clanging head bells as my venture into working night shift at the milk factory in Devon; when I got so sucked into the virtues of twelve hour night shifts in a milk factory that I ranted like a fascist trying to coerce the rest of humanity into doing it - into believing night shift was in fact the most anarchic move one could make in the current state of play, an upside down and ultimately liberating, human race emancipating act of volition…the way forward, my five year plan …Again, mentally unfit.)
Anyway, almost five months in and fitness achieved, obsessive mental unfitness spiralled and eventually peaked when I decided it would make sense to join the Territorial Army for running and meeting other fit people…I thought it was all shiny boots, kayaking and sexual tension in camouflage wear…
Oh so thankfully, my best friend pointed out exactly what I was saying. He verbally grabbed me by the shoulders and shook me, until I saw the light. The light of my health induced insanity, my lost faculties, my miso soup induced marble misplacement.
We sat in the John Hewitt and drank, ate scampi fries and we laughed me back into the arms of unhealthiness.
And as my over priced taxi took me the easily walkable distance home that night, I ordered a curry chip and sank into my pyjamas knowing that yes, maybe tofu is for me but in the grand scheme of things, that was enough.
I will be auctioning my health accoutrements on eBay sometime soon.
Published in The Vacuum, 2010