Despite applying the same broad strategy, viz playing hard-to-get, to the search for work as the one which has so successfully kept me clear of romantic entanglements for well nigh 50 years, I have been found in the clammy embrace of gainful employ since last October. To consummate if not this new relationship then at least this laboured metaphor, I find myself viewing the Irish Sea from a height of several thousand feet on an all too regular basis. Well, I assume I’m viewing it but since my crossings generally take place during the hours of darkness and I have (for now) eschewed boarding my flight wearing night-vision goggles, its presence to date has been largely inferred.
The majority of my sojourns in Hibernia have been to Belfast, but I have also taken in Dundalk, Dublin and Tallaght (or the Croydon of Dublin as it was described to me – which I think may manage to insult both places simultaneously). All of my urban destinations are surrounded by some rather lovely, if only occasional glimpsed, countryside which I must make an effort to visit when (and if) the weather grows a little more clement as 2016 progresses.
Belfast has a number of charms, not least that it seems to have been slightly less consistently cloned from the corporate mould (in at least two sense of that word) which is overtaking other UK cities: though this may just be down to a sprinkling of Irish institutions. It can boast some rather fine architecture – I don’t reckon you’ll find a more stunning Primark – but also a rather higher density of flags than feels entirely comfortable (and they are, in theory, copies of ‘my’ flag). The lampposts of the Republic are also bedecked with somewhat political messages in the run up to the Irish election. These seem rather more numerous than in the mainland UK and all sport large photographs of the candidates: which I would have thought a risky proposition given the general disaffection with politics and our putative representatives.
When I stay in Belfast, I subsist (as expense claim forms would have it) overnight in a Premier Inn. I have to say that this is my first experience of this chain of hotels and that it has been a very positive one. They may lack both bells and whistles, but frankly I rarely have recourse to such relatively primitive music-making when away and am grateful that it is not an easy option for my fellow guests either. The inns provide everything I need from a hotel: facilities catering to my ablutions, some basic storage, some workspace (with just enough free wifi thrown in) and a comfy bed. The beds are unreasonably comfy – I sleep better in Belfast than at home – and the rooms are not excessively heated (a rarity in the hotel trade). I have no idea if this assembly of virtues is unique to Alfred Street in Belfast, on indicative of the chain in general, but I find myself disappointed if I am forced to stay in ostensibly better hotels when I work drags me away from Belfast.
Food-wise, I tend to take my breakfast at Allotment – conveniently sited on the short stroll twixt hotel and office – who provide my morning porridge. Traditionally, I have eaten dinner at Home: not mine, I hasten to add (that would be ridiculous), but a restaurant of that name which offers a decent menu for the (mostly) vegetarian diner.
But when is he going to come to the title, I hear you muttering. Fear not! Your passive-aggressive mumbles are my command!
The title does not refer to my new turboprop-set lifestyle (I’m afraid those of us flying from Southampton do not warrant a jet). No, it refers to my journey last week from Dublin up to Belfast – a journey I undertook by train pulled (or perhaps pushed) by a Class 201 diesel locomotive. This service is called Enterprise for some reason , though neither the locomotive nor the train were numbered 1701. The rolling stock has been very recently refurbished and I suspect could be very comfortable if (a) it were less over-crowded and (b) I had been 4′ 11″: at one stage I feared my right leg would require amputation on arrival in Belfast, but fortunately the train emptied a little at Dundalk and I was able to restore some feeling to it. The service claims to offer wifi, but this did not seem to be working. However, it did run on time which was a plus – though I should warn you it doesn’t make the journey north with any particularly strong sense of urgency (though still a very long way from a five year mission). By far the best part of the service – until the night engulfed us – was the view from the window. The train runs close to the coast and is often surrounded by water, and the scenery was stunning, illumined by the slanting rays of the late afternoon sun which accompanied us for the first half-hour of the journey. So, for any shorter readers, I would thoroughly recommend a voyage on the Enterprise (you must make your own decision on the advisability of wearing a red shirt) – especially in the right light. Still, I’d advise you to the 16:50 on a weekday evening unless you have a particular fondness for sardines (the game rather than this fish).
I think we can all agree, after that last paragraph, that I could be the new Michael Portillo, albeit one with a better dress sense. Given that availability of the vacancy may require the incumbent to meet with the Reaper, there may be somewhat of a wait (he is only 62): but I can be patient (and with those jackets he should be an easy target for an assassin).