Friday, 22 February 2013

Being mixed up about love is a healthy sign

There’s nothing wrong with the girl…it’s just she is a Catholic.’ A sentence familiar in many households here, the gender and the religion are of course interchangeable but the sentiment is one that has been voiced throughout the decades. One of the ‘other sort’, ‘kicks with the other foot’ or from ‘the other side of the road’, oh the variety of ways we have developed for expressing the fact we are the same, but different and that that difference will forever cause a problem. Practically, it’s survival. Emotionally, it’s trying to not rock the boat. Technically, it’s sectarianism…but don’t say that too loudly. I’m not that far off the mark am I? Perhaps that’s why the Sunday matinee of the Lyric’s production of St John Ervine’s Mixed Marriage drew a near sell-out crowd, in fact the whole run is proving remarkably popular. The play deals with this sore and sordid side of relationships here and, set on the eve of the Ulster Covenant, is a powerful insight into the destructive hate that love can create in families. Of course these days things are not as volatile when it comes to mixed religion relationships, but there is still enough of an historical hangover to make it an issue. It’s actually a running joke amid my group of closest friends that we are the ‘next generation’, a mixed religion circle all of whom are in serious relationships with partners from the ‘other side’. It’s still noticed you see, by us and our elders. We make light of our ‘cross community’ status but I know some of us have not had it easy, with various concerns about how our choice of partner will go down with family members. But these concerns were few and far between and apart from them I know we are all quite proud of ourselves. It was not a deliberate decision by any of us but, in our choice of partners we have, in the most serious way, liberated ourselves from the invisible shackles of Northern Ireland’s past and its enduring, but loosening, grip on society here — from where you socialise and educate yourself, to whom you choose to share your life with. My friends and I are choosing to not make religion an issue. That’s why we can talk openly about our politics, our beliefs in integrated education and then move on to something else. But we have that luxury, many, like the protagonists in Ervine’s play, did not. Religious difference was not allowed to be ignored. And as I looked at the age range of the audience I wondered how many could personally testify to having been through such a struggle as that being played out on stage. The thought made me quite emotional. It was those who went before, who weathered all the strife, that made it possible for my generation to live and love in peace and free from it all. I wanted to shout out thank you, but I just held his hand.

Friday, 30 November 2012

Regrets? Ah go, I'll have a few

I had the pleasure of experiencing a garden centre with my parents this weekend. Yes you read that right. A garden centre. On a Saturday. Nearing Christmas. With my parents. Any one of these sentences on its own has been known to induce panic in many a normally sane and sentient human and, as these things go, it was a venture that had come about in a perfect storm of necessity and timing. Whether that was good or bad timing was really up to my patience on the day. But nevertheless, I hadn't seen them properly in a while and I needed a poinsettia. And so I found myself amidst the poinsettias and Christmas fruit cakes listening to my parental units froth at the mouth over the rising price of buds and seeds wondering if I had indeed entered an outdoor version of hell. It didn't help that I seemed to be continually surrounded by groups of clucking women all googly eyed at the gifts and gadgets that now litter normally useful garden centres. Kitchens are now covered with these little kitsch pictures and ornaments found in garden centres. They are all fake distressed wood, straw ropes and etched with 'contemplative' quotes; 'A messy kitchen means a happy cook’; 'Life is a journey'; 'Dance like no-one's watching', to name a few of the banal platitudes. I have no idea why these cloying snippets of 'wisdom' are sold in garden centres, other than the suspicion that they must sell well in there as garden centres create a specific type of nesting feeling in women (see clucking women above) and a king and castle characteristic in men. Or maybe it's the compost fumes. But in between chairing peace talks with my mother and a wide eyed member of staff who really didn't know the correct way to water an orchid and fielding questions from my father about my savings plans, I actually found a quote that struck a chord (again it might have been the compost fumes). ‘Maybe all one can do is hope to end up with the right regrets.’ According to a recent survey we spend more than two hours a week dwelling on our regrets – around 19 minutes a day. From thinking we’ve picked the wrong career/partner/choice of lunch, over a quarter of 2,000 people surveyed believed it was impossible to live a life without regrets. As I witnessed a scrum for cut price Yankee Candles on Saturday I didn’t half know what they meant. In the top ten list of regrets was not spending enough time with our parents and as I stood there in a garden centre, on a Saturday, nearing Christmas, cursing these scrums, queues and feeling a little bit like Bridget Jones but without Hugh or Colin and yet seeing more of my parents than I had in weeks, I decided to buy this cheesy little sign with that quote on regrets. I knew exactly what it was talking about.

Wednesday, 14 November 2012

The reason I wore a poppy this year

They say that everything is political, well Thomas Mann did anyway. He must have visited Northern Ireland. Here, even your choice of bus could be twisted into apparently declaring a viewpoint on the constitutional position. Wearing the poppy certainly is. This year was the first year I have ever worn a poppy. I hadn’t refrained from wearing one before deliberately, but as a young middle class Catholic who had no immediate connection to anyone who had fought in the world wars, it wasn’t on my radar. I respected Remembrance Day, but this year something was different. In recent days and months, a young PSNI officer Ronan Kerr was killed by a booby trap bomb, a young army medic Channing Day was killed after being shot on patrol in Afghanistan. And then David Black, a prison officer from Cookstown, was murdered on his way to work. There have been many more killed in the line of duty but these three were different for me. Channing and Ronan were very close in age to me and David Black was from a town I practically grew up in. Every day these three put on a uniform and vowed to try and make the world a safer place. They died as a result. Two of them at the hands of those seeking to drag our country back into a time no one ever wants to see again. This year also marked 25 years since the IRA bombed the Remembrance Day ceremony in Enniskillen. This was one of the darkest days of the Troubles. It was a moment of shame for all involved in the violence and yet from that dark and desperate act came the light and hope of Gordon Wilson. His daughter Marie was killed that day and his simple words of forgiveness were, and still are, an inspiration to me and to our province. Standing in Donaghadee at the cenotaph on Sunday I was moved by the dignity and quiet strength of those gathered to pay respects. I thought of how 25 years ago that day Gordon Wilson would have been doing the same and how hours later he somehow found the strength to forgive those who had murdered his daughter. It was people like Gordon who helped create the more peaceful province we now live in. It didn’t matter to me on Sunday that Catholics and Protestants had died together in the Somme, but it was an appropriate context in these times when dissidents have heightened their campaign to dismantle the peace Gordon Wilson helped create and have not discriminated in their victims in trying to do so, targeting innocent people from both sides of the community. And so I chose to wear a poppy this year. Because it has never been more important to show solidarity as a community in our commitment to peace and to show respect for those who have made the ultimate sacrifice to keep us all from harm. We will remember them. Together.

Tuesday, 30 October 2012

Advantage Megan? Let's wait and see

Readers of this column will know if there is one thing I will always support its youth involvement in politics. There is nothing more important for a healthy future than an engaged younger generation educating itself on how society is run and prepared to take a role in civic duty and responsibility for what surrounds them. Northern Ireland is probably the UK region with the lowest level of youth disillusionment with politics. In a not entirely positive way, more young people are exposed to politics here earlier and so it’s no real surprise our Assembly now boasts an MLA who is 21. Sinn Fein’s Megan Fearon, a recent graduate of Queens’ was co-opted to take the place of Conor Murphy for Newry and Armagh. As recently as May she was tweeting about her economics finals and clearly found herself in the position of many coming to the end of education when she said: “This time tomorrow il have my economics outta the way and will officially be unemployed! Haha” Now she is in the Assembly and taking her place on committees scrutinising the finance minister and OFMDFM - I’m sure youth unemployment is no longer a laughing matter. Although clearly intelligent, ambitious and an active member with Sinn Fein for years I find the choice of Megan’s co-option bizarre. Here is a young woman, full of potential and clearly with talent being cherry picked to go straight into the Assembly. No previous hands-on experience of local government, at any level, and no election campaign where her constituents can come to their own view on this rather unconventional representative. It is not the sort of political route many will be familiar with and it no doubt puts a lot of pressure on Megan to make an impact right out of the blocks – a tough task for any new MLA, even one buoyed by an election win and security of rising through the ranks of their party’s machinery. Any clips of Megan I have seen it is like a rabbit in headlights and I’m not surprised, a committee debate is a long way from an economics tutorial. I know it doesn’t sound like it but I am actually trying to champion Megan and her ilk, which is why I’ve resisted the temptation to wheel out the ‘she has little life experience’ argument. But I’m frustrated that someone with her ability has not been allowed a normal gestation period in her party. She should be allowed to make her political mistakes of youth in the party’s backroom, to hone her election skills in campaigns for other party members and be allowed to explore her political and moral compass without electoral inhibition as it evolves through her twenties, not be plumped right in the thick of it where one blip could end a promising political career before it’s even started. Good luck, Megan, you’re going to need it.

Thursday, 4 October 2012

At last a full frontal assault on Page 3

Actually got around to putting this on the blog this week. Published in all editions of this weeks' Community Telegraph: I've just returned from a holiday in Las Vegas. When I was telling people that’s where I was going for a holiday I almost felt embarrassed, like going there was some sort of indication of big drinking, loose morals and a high rolling lifestyle. I just went for a nosy really. We were staying in a hotel on the main Vegas strip; little did I know it was a particularly appropriate name for the location. One evening as I walked through the casino in search of a Ghostbusters slot machine that had proved lucky the day before, I turned a corner to be confronted by a stripper's bare arse. I couldn’t believe the cheek. Men hollering, girls dancing and money and alcohol doing the rounds, it was like a scene from a bad American Pie remake and caught me so by surprise I nearly choked on my yard glass of Singapore Sling (well I wanted to get into the spirit of the place). I never thought myself opposed to these sorts of shows for whoever wants to pay to partake. But after the sight had sunk into my shocked optic nerves and the gin into my new maxi dress, I realised what I was witnessing was genuinely grotesque. It was cheap and grubby and not least intimidating, casting as it did the roles of ogling men and ogled women throughout the surrounding area regardless of whether you'd signed up to take part or not. But it was 'the party pit' in Vegas so what did I expect, right? But what about when you’re sitting on a bus and the young guy next to you spends most of the journey on page 3 of The Sun? He’s obviously not taking that long to read whatever excuse for a story they put on that page (do they even bother pretending that words have a place there anymore?) and is happy to sit staring at a naked woman for sexual pleasure in a public place. It's a more subtle intimidation, granted, but it's the exact same sort of vulnerability that I experienced when I stumbled on that sex show in Vegas and it’s the same uneasy feeling a lot of women experience - a mixture of being objectified and sickened. Page three is different though, it’s argued, it's a 'British institution'. So was Sir Jimmy Savile. Thank goodness some have wised up to this anachronistic public titillation by setting up an online petition. Take the Bare Boobs Out of The Sun is a plea to the paper's editor Dominic Mohan. Currently signed by over 37,000 people it is calling for page three to be abolished and has garnered support from both sexes united in wishing to end this degrading objectification of women in a national newspaper. It has even got the support from famous faces including Jennifer Saunders, Lauren Laverne and journalist Caitlin Moran who tweeted: "Teenage tits aren't news OR a feature." That’s really the issue stripped bare don’t you think?

Tuesday, 27 March 2012

The new Aga generation

Spring has sprung – an overused but timely phrase considering the lovely weather we’ve been enjoying of late.
It’s one of life’s great little gifts to start seeing a stretch in the evening, having a bright morning to wake up to and some colour in the burgeoning buds. It’s at times like this, as we bask in the glow of global warming, that I wish I lived in the countryside full-time. Whether by the sea or surrounded by green fields, as long as I’m removed from cars, footpaths and bus stops I’m a happy camper.
It’s also at times like this I wish I was Jenny Bristow. Visions of her cooking lemon meringues and mouth watering chicken dishes in her perfect country kitchen take me right back to my childhood and the formation of my dream that I too could one day own an aga cooker and have an island in my kitchen (I’m still dreaming in case you’re wondering.)
She always got it right did our Jenny. There was a freshness to her recipes, a rise in her souffl├ęs and a spring in her chickens as she cooked local and seasonal food, all served up in those dishes your granny used to hit you for using - they are exclusively for visitors don’t you know (even though I technically was a visitor, but anyway).
Modern cookery shows just don’t have that sort of quality. It’s all kitsch kitchens with little dolly birds dressed in faux vintage polka dots and heavily made faces with dark red lips droning on about organic pigeon or some such random creature. They look like they’ve barely ever eaten a dinner, let alone cooked one.
Their hair’s always perfect and their flour never spills as they dance around their penthouse apartments decked out in the most modern of ‘vintage’ furnishings. So original, and all so the same.
And I don’t know about you but I don’t have a little French market of a Saturday to jaunt down to and pick up some specially sourced bree – more like some extra mature from Tescos.
No, Jenny’s perfect kitchen was more attainable, as were her ingredients. How bizarre that shows like Jenny’s are now out of foodie fashion and it’s seen as some sort of conscious lifestyle choice nowadays to eat locally and seasonally – surely that’s the natural order of things, in every sense of the word.
Thanks goodness our schools have taken this on board, with their new Agri-Food challenge for Key Stage 3 pupils. The idea is simple; come up with a two-course meal using fresh, local and seasonal food and win an opportunity to cook it with a professional chef. I am glad an appreciation of the resources around us is on the curriculum and education chiefs have found a way to make their use fun.
It may create another generation of aspirational aga owners, but more importantly it will counteract the deluge of the flavour of the month kitsch cookery that is just junk food by another name.
For further information visit

Thursday, 26 August 2010

I want to settle a score on exams

This week's opinion column in the Community Telegraph (I'm gonna try and upload these every so often after they go to press)

Last week my father retired after a nigh-on 40-year career in the civil service. It was a happy day all round as we toasted his new-found freedom and looked back with fondness on his career.

As all these family things go, it was a time of old memories and new perspectives.

My father was one of the many benefactors of the introduction of educational reforms in 1960s Northern Ireland. The son of a shopkeeper from Cookstown, he passed the 11-plus and went to St Patrick’s Grammar in Armagh. Like most boys in the school he sat his A-levels with the intention of third-level education

These exams he duly passed, and with student grant in tow, completed a degree in Queens in 1972. After one or two jobs he was hired by the civil service and rose up the ranks based on hard work and aptitude.

Before you think I am getting lost in indulgent family history I must remind you that the backdrop to all this reminiscing was other news in the family – exam results.

Although none of my extended family were receiving A-level results some are waiting on GCSEs, and many of my friends had younger siblings receiving those all important results last week.

It is well-documented how tough the younger generation will now have it in terms of career choices. The irony was not lost on us that a career like my father’s would probably never be emulated again in our extended family.

For good or bad, the 11-plus is being done away with and secondary education as we know it is changing forever. Subject choices in schools are more diverse than ever, again for good or bad. There has also been the introduction of the A* grade at A-level, which, in my opinion, is simply for bad and has put more pressure than ever on students.

Yet despite this pressure, exam results are improving year on year - only for the number of university places to be falling. Northern Ireland’s two universities received applications from more than 21,680 people for just 8,378 first-year places available.

Even if you do get into university the trouble doesn’t end there. Student grants, as my father’s generation received, are now student loans and a choke-hold on any young person trying to make a start in life. I say this from personal experience.

And, at the end of your degree, you’re odds-on not to find a job in your chosen field, if at all. This is the situation everyone is familiar with by now and is one which doesn’t make for comfortable reading.

When I sat my A-levels in 2003/4 the notion that everyone could be a doctor, podiatrist, teacher, solicitor etc was still being peddled by our elders. ‘Get your exams, get to university, get a job, get a pension….’ With the benefit of hindsight this was nonsense, of course, as many of my smart, talented, unfulfilled and/or unemployed graduate friends will tell you.

We were the tail-end of the Labour government kids who got all the easy access to education and none of the benefits it was supposed to bring.

My generation were sold a lie and in a way I’m glad that those opening up exam results this week are at the beginning of everyone waking up to this fact.

Yes, the picture’s bleak but at least this is being acknowledged, now it’s time to adapt and to do so from the top down.

Those with the power to make changes to education are finally recognising the value of apprenticeships, as well as degrees. This, I hope, is the beginning of an introduction of more practical-skilled subjects in secondary education.

Hopefully these changes will also incorporate more creativity into the mainstream and not push art, design and elements of technology to the side as specialised subjects.

Computer skills must be compulsory too and not just word-processing, but elements of computer science. Finance also must be brought to the fore in schools showing students not just how to balance cash flow but how to discern between banking rates, interest rates, mortgage rates etc.

The top will need to adapt in this way to prepare young people for a new type of job market and new type of society where pieces of paper with letters after your name are no longer valued but where know-how, initiative and a willingness to work are. Those same young people, disappointed with their exam results, need to realise this and understand that patience, diligence, adaptability and kindness to your fellow man are the most important characteristics you can bring to life and to the workplace, not an ‘A’ grade in General Studies.

From my point of view, as a journalist, I have ended up in a profession far removed from where I saw myself when sitting A-levels. I am doing a job more creative than
I thought I was capable of and more demanding than the subjects I chose at A-level ever prepared me for. And I love it.

I wish my peers and I, at 18, had been given the time and space to consider all our skills and were not pushed into studying specific subjects, regardless of our aptitude..

This time, space and opportunity is now there for those receiving A-level results, and there is something liberating about the end of the poisonous and pervasive ‘you can have it all’ mantra. No, you can’t have it all, but you can now take some time to go and find out what it is you want the most.

So as my father toasts the end of his successful career I’ll raise a toast to all the younger ones starting out on theirs, whatever it may be.