Julian – thanks for ruining my weekend

I have a fleeting interest in Internet governance. I’ve read Jovan Kurbalija’s book An Introduction to Internet Governance, a free resource that pretty much explains it all in terms I can understand without being in the slightest bit condescending. I have what I’d call a reasonable understanding of what’s going on in the realm, but I try hard to ignore it all. Because, if I stop to think about it, I start to panic. Not a full-blown panic attack that’s visible to whomever is around, but the more insidious kind that wallows in the pit of my stomach and induces a nervousness that can make me think terrible things.

A few years ago, I wrote a blog for DiploFoundation asking Google to stop doing my thinking for me. That was back in 2012. I’d accepted that this was simply the way the world was headed and I’d better get used to it or emigrate to Eritrea, the world’s least-connected country, apparently – but it does have a dictator. The whole Wikileaks thing annoyed me. I thought it a tad irresponsible of Mr Assange to wantonly damage the fibre of diplomacy, particularly that of a country, which at the time had a president who was doing his damnedest to defer to diplomacy whenever possible. Back in 2013, as one of many telephone conversations were leaked, I worried for a while that the threat of exposure on social media might be enough to influence behavior. Diplomacy, by its very nature, requires discretion and while I’m all for blowing the whistle on corruption, I think some modicum of sense needs to be exercised before taking that deep breath.

Then this morning, I get an email saying that the attached article might be of interest to me, as I have some interest in Internet governance. Curiosity got the better of me. And I read it. And I wish I hadn’t.

Caitlin Johnstone writes of how Julian Assange keeps warning us about AI censorship, and we’re not listening. I’m no great fan of Assange, but he seems to know what he’s talking about. And he has a point about Wikileaks being the equivalent of the Alexandra library – but I still wonder if we really need to know everything…  Anyway, the article linked to this video – and that winded me.

A Daily Mail run by AI? Some might argue that this would be an improvement. But the thoughts of being manipulated without being aware of it, is scary. And yet I’m not stupid. I know I’m being manipulated. But what do I do with that knowledge? Some days, it’s just easier to go along with it. According to Assange:

When you have AI programs harvesting all the search queries and YouTube videos someone uploads, it starts to lay out perceptual influence campaigns, twenty to thirty moves ahead. This starts to become totally beneath the level of human perception.

The idea of Google and Facebook and their ilk as superstates is quite worrying. The idea of them using AI to control the masses is even more troubling. Johnstone summarises it thus:

What this means is that using increasingly more advanced forms of artificial intelligence, power structures are becoming more and more capable of controlling the ideas and information that people are able to access and share with one another, hide information which goes against the interests of those power structures and elevate narratives which support those interests, all of course while maintaining the illusion of freedom and lively debate.

The danger is lurking. It’s out there. I know I should be responsible and give it due thought, but some things just don’t bear thinking about – not on a Friday.

2017 Gratefuls 17 and 16

I was awake every other hour last night having a nightmare of the sort I thought I’d left behind 10 years ago when I signed off from my last corporate job. In my dream, I was working for a large tech company. I’d been assigned to two projects. With two bosses. And both needed work done by Thursday at 5pm. It was Wednesday at 4.30pm in my dream. I had plans that evening (freelance work). There was no way I was going to get everything done for both of them or much of anything done for either. I woke in a cold sweat but fell back to sleep almost immediately.

The next dream chapter had me waking early in my flat and heading into work to see if I could get something done. But the company was on lock-down. It had turned into a prison and I didn’t have a pass. I spent an age trying to figure out how to break into the prison to get to my desk. I woke in a cold sweat but again fell back to sleep almost immediately.

The final dream chapter was me trying to sneak past the wardens (my bosses) and out of the prison. I hitched a lift in an army tank and took off cross-country, barrelling through everything in our path, heading for the airport. Then the church bells went and I woke up. Finally.

It’s been a manic two weeks. Friends from Alaska, the lovely S&LM, were in Budapest for just  couple of days. Plans to go see the Balaton were shafted as their trip was cut short because of a technical issue that grounded their plane in Anchorage. We had one evening and another full day /evening to catch up and see the city. The years melded into minutes. We figured it had been 16 years since we’d spoken in person but that didn’t matter a whit. It was great catching up on who was doing what and taking a step back into a life I’d long since left behind. Old friends, good friends, great times.

That was followed by a weekend of visitors down at the house. The front door revolved; as one party left the next arrived. Taking the time to sit and enjoy the garden, to relax in good company, that’s something I’ve not been doing enough of late. The lovelies V&K brought their dog, Sophie, and while I’m nowhere near ready to take on such responsibility, I’d happily dog sit her any day. That pure, unconditional love and joyous abandon are quite something. And we discovered that the farm track at the end of our garden can be followed clear over to the island. Nice.

After a quick trip to Ireland (work) it was back to Budapest for the Minnesotans, MB&JG, who began their three-week European holiday in Budapest. Deluged by deadlines, I’ve been working during the day and catching up with them in the evenings and it’s been wonderful. Burning the candle at both ends, though, is something I was well able to do twenty years ago, but alas, no longer. Two consecutive nights on the town were enough to dampen my wick. I’ve fizzled out. But we got a lot in – some great dinners, good wines, the Budafok wine festival, Ian Siegal playing in the pouring rain at Kobuci… They’ve left for the Balaton. I head to Ireland again tomorrow – in and out – and then will join them Wednesday to head to Croatia from where I’ll fly to the UK on Sunday for a quick lunch before heading on to Ireland again. In the meantime, every available minute will be spent working. I’m in the middle of a feast, workwise, and just at the point where a famine looks very appealing. But I’m reminded of something SR said to me a few weeks ago – make time for people – they’re not always around. I heard of three deaths in one day this week – and it was a sober reminder that life is fleeting.

It’s a matter of priorities, they say. But prioritising is easier said than done when the projects I’m working on are like babies to their owners who want to be kept abreast of every development and are waiting anxiously to view the finished product. Responsibility to deliver weighs heavily. And the load is exhausting. Am pretty much booked up till late November and then I plan to hole up somewhere and recuperate. Till then, I’ll continue to be grateful for the friends who visit, the work that’s waiting to be done, and the dreams that keep me grounded.

 

Bled – simply bled

The Slovenian town of Bled is the stuff chocolate boxes were made for. I’d been hearing about it for years as it popped up on other people’s top places to see and having been, I think I’ve been the victim of over hype. Yes, it is gorgeous. And, yes, it does have a history. But it’s a victim of its own popularity.

At one stage in its chequered past, it was taken over by a bank:

From 1809 to 1813, it was included in Napoleon’s Empire as part of the Illyrian provinces, then it came once again into the hands of the Austrian Emperor who returned Bled to the bishops of Brixen for the last time in 1838. With the abolishment of the feudal system ten years later, the estate lost its character of a feudal economic and social unit. In the second half of the 19th century, Bled changed considerably. The characteristic villages of Gorenjska, which had been autonomous units ever since the Middle Ages, were united. Income decreased, and in 1858 Brixen sold the Bled estate to Viktor Ruard, the owner of the Jesenice Ironworks. He kept the castle, the lake and the usable land around it, and sold the rest to the Kranj Industrial Company. In 1882 Ruard sold the estate to a Viennese wholesale merchant named Adolf Muhr, and in 1919 Bled hotelier Ivan Kenda bought the castle with the lake – for the first time the property passed into Slovenian hands. In 1937 it was taken over by the Associated Commercial Bank and finally bought by the Drava Province. During World War II, Bled was used to house the German military and civil headquarters, and in 1960 it acquired the status of a town.

But it is tourism that it has to thank for its recent prominence. And kudos for that goes to a Swiss guy by the name of  Arnold Rikli. Towards the end of the nineteenth century, he recognised the benefit of the climate and the long swimming season. Rikli was one of the avante-garde for natural healing  and it’s to his industriousness that the town owes its stronghold as a tourist attraction.

 

The island on the lake, with its chocolate-box church is stunning. The castle, perched atop a near cliff is breathtaking. And at night, when the lights come on around lake, it’s fairy-tale material. We ate out both evenings. Once in Ostarija Peglez’n  – a gem of place with a seafood platter so big we both winced at the thoughts of doing it justice. But we did. It’s busy so reserve at table if you plan to eat between 8 and 9pm. The following night, we went for meat – at Grajska Plaza. It’s a little more relaxed and the waiter was in fine form. We had to wait for about half an hour for food as it was all cooked to order and the reasonably priced cocktail menu made it worth the wait. A lovely spot right by the boat dock. They don’t take reservations but there’s a fairly quick turnaround. To get a lake-view table, best leave it till 9-ish.

We rented a boat to get out to the island – €20 for an hour but if you go about 6.30, they’re not too pushed about time, as long as you’re back by 8pm when they close. I felt a little cheated though, as once out there, it was a €6 admission fee into the church. And as a practicing Catholic, I hate paying into churches. Am happy to leave a donation towards the upkeep but don’t make me pay to light a candle. Anyway, we’d left it too late so I had to settle for an ice-cream, which was worth the trip itself, even if I did have to take on a dozen loud hyperactive seniors from China to keep my place in the queue.

As you row out to the island, you get to see some rather fabulous houses that have an unrestricted views of the boatloads of tourists being ferried back and forth in a new take on the Venetian gondola – the pletna boat.  

Bled is lovely. Beautiful. Quaint But it’s way too populated for my liking. We turfed up about 4.30pm on a Wednesday and didn’t have any traffic delays but when we left about 10.30 am on Friday, there was a 3 km tailback coming in to the town, and when we’d arrived back the previous evening about 5.30, there was an even longer tailback leaving. A popular spot. Time your comings and goings to avoid the frustration. And be warned, hotels charge per person not per room – so do the math.

Next time, I’ll do my homework. I can’t believe I missed these cemeteries, assuming, of course, I’m taking gravesite to mean graveyard… perhaps it’s a lot more subtle – the kind you have to trip over to see.

A number of gravesites are well known: Žale – the site of the modern day cemetery (archeologically excavated in 1894), the park at the current Vila Bled (1929), the necropolis in Želeče (1937), the large necropolis at Pristava pod Gradom (1948 to 1951), the gravesites next to the current parking area below the entrance to the castle (1960, 1968) and the necropolis on Bled island (1962 to 1966).

It’s a lovely spot, Bled, but be prepared to share.

 

2017 Grateful 41

My, my, my. What a week that was. I’d say there are a lot of sore heads in Budapest this morning and a lot of bods draggin’ ass at work. The St Patrick’s festivities kicked off on Thursday evening with the annual National Day celebrations with the Irish Embassy. I was on best behaviour because I was doing a TV interview on Hungarian telly later than night and I had to be enunciating clearly. Nerves being what they were, I decided to do the make-up thing. The lovely BS came by and put my face on before I went out. It was hilarious. People were fascinated by my glasses: at least five men asked me if they were new. (They’re three years old this week.) They knew something was different but couldn’t quite put their finger on it.

The embassy gig is a good place for catching up with people you’ve not seen for a while and meeting someone you’ve never met before. Like the lovely Fr Mike, a priest from Louth who has been here for 12 years. His is the second Mass in English I’ve heard of this week. There’s also a new 5pm one on Sundays in the side chapel of the Basilica. From there it was down to the studios for the big interview.  I could get used to having my hair and make-up done! All went well. I enunciated and this time, actually answered the questions I was asked.  It was a live interview from Akvárium, from what was being billed as the First St Patrick’s Festival in Budapest. Something obviously got lost in translation over the years as this was the 7th St Patrick’s Day Parade and the 11th Gala dinner. The festival has been going on for years. Someone’s invitation obviously got lost in the post. Hungarian Irish Celtic Rock band Firkin were on stage and raising the roof but the outer bars and rooms were remarkably tame. Not a patch on the real event on Sunday.

We strolled over to Jack Doyle’s afterwards for a nightcap, as you do, and proceeded to put the world to rights. With all things Irish looming for the weekend, we took a breather and headed to Barba Negra for the first time to see PASO in action. The Pannonia Allstars Ska Orchestra are brilliant. Mad. And exhausting to watch. These ska guys bring fitness to a whole new level.

Saturday evening came early. Dolled up in long dresses and tuxedos, we headed to the Mariott for 6pm to watch Ireland break England’s winning streak in the final of the Six Nations. The 11th IHBC St Patrick’s Gala dinner really brought out the glam. More than 200 sat to a dinner of smoked salmon and rack of lamb and were entertained by the inimitable John Murphy (no relation) and another Hungarian traditional Irish music band – Green Spirit. I was on the mic – MC’ing. And I got to make a plea for my charity of choice these days: Mamasotthon. I was blown away. In make-up again, I managed to hold back the tears because I didn’t have the wherewithal to go about fixing runny mascara. Half the tombolo (raffle) proceeds were going towards buying an industrial washing machine for mums and kids taking refuge from domestic violence in the shelter. After my speech, a couple I know well, the Ps, came over and told me to pick out a machine and they’d pay for it. Another chap wrote an IOU for 5ook. A local artist donated the proceeds from the sale of some of his work. and the tombolo itself raised 477 000 huf. It was a fantastic result that will change the lives of many for the better. And this is how we make lasting change. One step at a time. Kudos to Duncan, Andrea, & Co., for making it all happen.

It was a late night. A very late night. The next day, Sunday, began with a full-Irish breakfast for 8 and then the parade. The 7th in Budapest. Seems like only yesterday that this whole thing kicked off.

It’s a tremendous feat of organisation. Kudos to Mark, Anna & Co., for pulling it off. The venue was brilliant – the new Instant location on Akácfa utca. Some of the musicians I saw were fab. [Did anyone catch the name of the bank with the female lead singer/guitarist (Melinda???) that played around 7.45 in the inside courtyard?]. Unfortunately, by this stage, the bug I’d picked up in Cuba had morphed into a full-blown head-cold and I was dying. There’s only so much green lemonade I can put away when I can’t hear myself suck through the straw so I called it a night and was home by 9pm.

So much to be grateful for this week. A visit from an old friend (and a new ambassador for Budapest – how can you not love this city?). The generosity of good people that will make such a difference to the lives of others. Surviving a packed social calendar that would push a younger me to the pin of her collar. All good. Knackering. But good.

It is with fond memories, too, that we remember Ronnie Thompson, for so many years a regular at the parade and now joining us from heaven. Here’s too you!

 

 

Caution – scissors and artists at work

Pick an airport. Spot a passenger with a home-fashioned cardboard tube. Chances are, they’ve been to Cuba. Artists and their artwork are alive and well and covering the canvases. And the tourists are eating them up. Us included.

To the left of the Prado as you walk up towards Parque Central from the Malecón, you can see the back of the beautiful Iglesia del Santo Angel Custodio. It was here that the Cuban writer José Martí was christened in 1853. Plazuela de Santo Ángel, and its surrounds, is a lovely little neighbourhood, quite European in feel with lots of cafés and restaurants spilling out on to the cobblestone streets. Wander up and down Compostela and take a peek into the myriad galleries and you might just see an artist or three at work.

This warren of streets are easy to get lost in. Ditch the map and enjoy. It’s quite spectacular. I particularly liked Barber’s Alley, with its wall art and what appeared to be a homage to hairdressers! It involved a large sculpture of a scissors. Further investigation revealed just that. Thank goodness for Google.

Papito (known in Havana as the Daddy of hairdressing) turned his house into a hairdressing school. The idea? To teach young people in the neighbourhood a skill they could use. And he did it for free. He wanted to change the street in which he lived, rejuvenate it – and he did. Another amazing man making a difference. 2016/2017 is the year of a global appeal to collect old, used hairdressing scissors which will be attached to a massive sculpture of a scissors to make unity among stylists around the world. That was the scissors I saw… Check the video. Am kicking myself that I hadn’t known this when I was there – I’d have visited Papito’s.

And when wandering the streets, don’t forget to look up. There’s another world going on up there, too. I got so caught up in the whole artist thing that I began to convince myself that I’d read about a Cuban artist called Taller. I saw loads of signs showing studios where I fancied he’d lived. I even made a note to check him out when I got back online. But a search revealed nothing but a Guatemalan architect. And then the paintbrush dropped and splattered my ignorance all over the show. Duh. Taller is Spanish for workshop. Honestly, sometimes I wonder how I got this far without making a complete hames of life.

This part of Havana is definitely worth a visit. And if you’re fed up of rice and beans and chicken and pork and fish and want to ditch the Spanish and have some Italian, 5 Esquinas is worth a visit. (Habana #104, esq Cuarteles, +53 7 8606295, facebook.com/trattoria5esquinas). But as I said, ditch the guidebook and simply wander. So much to see in this part of town.

 

 

Weird monkey

Get the time travel machine ready. I’ve just heard that Bob Dylan has won the Nobel Prize in Literature for ‘having created new poetic expressions within the great American song tradition’. Am impressed.

debsI was first introduced to Bob Dylan back in 1982 – the year of my debs (prom). I remember my date being less than impressed that I hadn’t a clue who Dylan was. Back then, my level of musical illiteracy had yet to be defined. As we drove to the dance (he’d borrowed his dad’s car and it had a tape deck) he introduced me to the man and during the evening, instead of whispering sweet nothings in my ear, he whispered Dylan lyrics.

And many lifetimes later, I still remember:

Well, I set my monkey on the log
And ordered him to do the Dog
He wagged his tail and shook his head
And he went and did the Cat instead
He’s a weird monkey….
Lay, Lady, Lay still ranks up there as one of my all time favourite songs. Every time I hear it, the clock goes back to 1982 and I wonder…
But back to Dylan and his prize. I hadn’t realised that each award came with a justification of sorts.
In 2011, it went to the late Tomas Gösta Tranströmer because ‘through his condensed, translucent images, he [gave] us fresh access to reality’. In 2007, Doris Lessing, ‘that epicist of the female experience’ won for how ‘with scepticism, fire and visionary power [she] subjected a divided civilisation to scrutiny.’ In 2003, it went to John M. Coetzee, ‘who in innumerable guises portrays the surprising involvement of the outsider.’
In 1995, Irishman Seamus Heaney won ‘for works of lyrical beauty and ethical depth, which exalt everyday miracles and the living past’.
In 1969, it went to Samuel Beckett ‘for his writing, which – in new forms for the novel and drama – in the destitution of modern man acquires its elevation.’  WB Yeats won it in 1923 ‘for his always inspired poetry, which in a highly artistic form gives expression to the spirit of a whole nation’. And two years later, it came back to Ireland, to George Bernard Shaw ‘for his work which is marked by both idealism and humanity, its stimulating satire often being infused with a singular poetic beauty’.
Imre Kertész was the first Hungarian to take it home, in 2002, ‘for writing that upholds the fragile experience of the individual against the barbaric arbitrariness of history.’The list is long and it makes for fascinating reading.
Back in 1901, French poet Sully Prudhomme won the first prize ‘in special recognition of his poetic composition, which gives evidence of lofty idealism, artistic perfection and a rare combination of the qualities of both heart and intellect’. And 116 years later, in 2016, it goes to Bob Dylan.
That’s a party I’d like to be at 🙂 But in the absence of an invitation, I think I’ll simply take myself back to 1982 and spend the day there.

Putting the kettle on

Back in the early 1900s, a Swiss baker and confectioner by the name of Frederick Belmont emigrated to England. He opened his first tea rooms in Harrogate, Yorkshire, in 1919. He called it Betty’s. No one knows who Betty was but today, the name Betty’s Tea Rooms is synonymous with craft baking and the quintessential English Afternoon Tea. It’s famous all over the world, with a mail order business that has customers as far away as Tokyo.

Afternoon tea was the furthest thing on my mind on a sunny August Balaton Sunday, and when my friends suggested we go visit their local tea rooms, I was a tad sceptical. The last thing I’d expect to find in the bucolic Hungarian village of Zalaszántó, or indeed anywhere in the Hungarian countryside, is an English tea room. While the topography might have a few Yorkshire nuances, I simply couldn’t imagine sipping Earl Grey from a china cup while eating homemade scones topped with strawberry jam and fresh cream. But an hour later, that’s exactly what I was doing.

12469444_788232327971164_7704246895881058254_oBack in 2007, Mancunian Ken Jones and Brighton-born Neil Stevens crossed the Austrian border to teach English in the Hungarian town of Mosonmagyaróvár. Stevens had worked as a speech therapist and Jones as a printer. But they reinvented themselves and went in search of an alternative life.

In 2011, they ventured deeper into the country and ended up in Zalaszántó, determined to live a sustainable, self-sufficient lifestyle, growing their own vegetables, raising their various animals, and living off the land. This mastered, they looked for a new challenge.

Neil’s grandmother, Dora, was a housekeeper. When she passed away, he inherited her collection of recipes. Ken’s grandmother, Florrie, used to work at Betty’s Tearooms in Harrogate. He, too, inherited her recipes. Both like to bake, make their own jams, and mix their own teas. Both like to chat, to meet new people, to live a stress free life. So, they thought, why not open an English Tea Room and call it Florridora’s Pantry.

They poured their first cuppa in December 2015. A write-up in the popular Hungarian magazine Meglepetés got the word out and now they open 11am-5pm five days a week (closed Mondays and Tuesdays) in summer and every weekend, year-round, with a largely Hungarian clientele.

13329477_872897272838002_6886031588714323125_oTheir little tea museum is educational. The old-fashioned English games set up in the garden, like hoops and hopscotch, give the kids something to do. And the 16-seat tea room with its backdrop of  Gatsby-era music is delightful. They’re reluctant to expand, although the demand is there; the small numbers make for a convivial atmosphere and gives them time to enjoy chatting with their guests. They really have this alternative lifestyle thing nailed.

The tea menu is extensive and includes such gems as hőlgyek teája (ladies tea), a cup of which will sooth those hot flushes; emésztést segítő keveréke (digestive blend) which will sort your indigestion; and csípõs fájdalomcsillapító (spicy pain relief) which will cure those aches and pains.  The cake selection changes regularly (I can highly recommend the Rocky Road). Everything is made fresh on the day from their own produce and it’s all very reasonably priced.

This year, the lads are moving into the Christmas market with aplomb. If you’re quick, you can order their homemade Christmas cakes (from one-portion cakes to 22 cm family numbers) and Christmas puddings. They’re slow-cooked over a wood stove and so need weeks of preparation. I’m sure if you ask nicely, they might even mail it to you. But then you’d miss out on the experience. Better to go pick it up yourself and sample the delights of this unlikely, but lovely, feature of the Hungarian countryside.

First published in the Budapest Times 26 August 2016

Gratefuls 31 and 30

I missed last week’s grateful post. I didn’t forget. I simply didn’t have time. Such is the world of freelance living and living in Budapest. When the work comes in, you have to do it because you never know when the next batch will appear. And when you live in a city that people want to visit, then you can add whole days out of town away from a computer that means burning the candle at both ends to meet those deadlines.

One of those days was a glamping trip. Every so often, the Nomád Hotel outside Eger opens its gates and invites restauranteurs and wine makers to set up stalls. It serves myriad purposes.

IMG_4876 (800x600)
The hotel gets a new audience. The hundreds than come visit get to see the big yurts, the cabins, and the hotel itself. It then lodges in the back of everyone’s mind and when someone, somewhere, sometime in the future is looking for a venue, it’ll come to mind. It’s all done very efficiently, with registration required online although admission is free. You can take your pick of slots kicking off at 12 and then every two hours throughout the afternoon. We turned up an hour early for our 2pm entry but didn’t have any problems. On entry, everyone is given a cardboard box that serves as a tray. You then go from stall to stall, choosing your food. Great idea.

IMG_4860 (800x600)

IMG_4865 (800x600)IMG_4871 (800x600)IMG_4873 (800x600)The restaurants get to showcase their food. From what I gathered, all are members of the Slow Food movement and one I know came from Sopron. It’s not your regular festival food of fried meats. The vats of oil were missing. This was much more upmarket with everything served with a certain amount of panache. Impressive.

The wine makers get to reach new palates. Glasses can be borrowed against a payment of 500 ft, which you get back when you give back the glass. Given our last festival experience and a whopping 1000 ft for a beer glass that wasn’t refundable – this was nice. Being treated like a captive audience with no choice but to take what’s on offer gives me indigestion.

The artisan cheese makers and jam makers also get to sell their produce. Goats cheese never tasted as good.  The grounds are lovely – and quite conducive to the event. There was a sense of carefully cultivated hippiness about it all, with outdoor space blanketed and cushioned just crying out for company.  A lovely day out. And I’m grateful for Hungarian friends in the know who bring these sorts of events to my attention. Ta much. IMG_4884 (600x800)

 

 

Fishin’ wars and being 50

I suffer from occasional bouts of homesickness – that longing for people, places, and things that are uniquely Irish. It doesn’t happen very often though as I tend to live in head space rather than in physical space. But wherever I’ve lived, it’s always looked like home: I hang up my pictures before I unpack my clothes.

That said, there are some things that no one can do as well as the Irish – the main one being fish and chips. The UK comes a close second but even its offering isn’t quite up to par.

Howth on a bank holiday Monday – sun shining, seagulls squawking, sea-air salting. The fishing village in North Dublin is buzzing. Car space is at a premium but the gods are on our side. A pint or two on the rooftop terrace of a pub looking out over the harbour. Then a walk along the pier. And then the decision – where to go for fish and chips?

H4 (800x600)Unbeknownst to me, two of Dublin’s oldest fish families are about to wage war – or so the Independent had it yesterday. For years, Beshoff’s has been the lead chipper in the village. They’ve had competition from the more traditional Caffe Caira (the queue was out the door but a local volunteered that if it was fish we were after, we should go to Beshoff’s) and the newer Crabby Joes, owned by the legendary fish family, Wrights. But life has been good for Beshoffs. They run a tight ship.

H2 (800x600)H1As you queue outside, someone marks your order on an order sheet that you then hand in, pay for, and collect your drinks. You get a number that shows on the screen as ‘Now Frying’. When it’s ready, the number turns green and you collect. All very civilised. I was impressed. The fish – Cod, Haddock, Hake – are all from sustainable catches and fried to within an inch of perfection. But the portions were huge. So much food goes to waste. I know I was hungry and yet I couldn’t finish my chips. And that rarely happens.

The undisputed chipper king in Howth now has competition from the Burdock family who have been in the business since 1913. Leo Burdock is famous for his chipper over near Christchurch. His guest list of old includes the likes of Tom Cruise and Bruce Springsteen, Sandra Bullock and Russell Crowe. Even Mick Jagger has partaken in the mushy peas.  And now he’s taken a pitch opposite the Dart station. John Beshoff reckons, though, that they still have the advantage – they cook in rapeseed oil so their food has 45% less saturated fat… mmmm… it did taste good. Why can’t we get a chip van into Budapest? It would make a killing.

H6 (800x600)H7 (800x600)I don’t think that I’ll ever tire of Howth. There’s something really lovely about the place, with its lighthouse, its yacht club, and its marina. The boat that goes between Howth and Dun Laoghaire wasn’t running that day because of high winds so that’s something I can still look forward to doing. That, and maybe trying my luck with the mackerel off the pier. Watching yer man fishing brought back all sorts of memories of my Alaska days, of friends who had visited and wanted to go fishing, and of friends long gone who had taken me fishing. Yep – there’s a lot to be said for head space, memories, and the places they can take you.

H5 (600x800)Ye olde birthday week is progressing nicely, thank you very much. My dad tells me that it hardly seems like 50 years since I screaming my way into the world with a massive big questions on my lungs: whhhhhhhhhhhhhhyyyyyyyyyyyyyyyy?  I tell him that it can’t seem like 50 years, because it hasn’t been 50 years. That’s next year. Honestly! Men and how they might age you.

Lovely!

B&HPerhaps it’s just as well that I am without issue because had I ever had children, I’d have had two: a boy called Tadhg and a girl called Maud. And I wonder how happy they’d be with their solid, old-fashioned names in a world where calling your twins Benson and Hedges is perfectly acceptable and calling your kid ‘Talula Does The Hula From Hawaii’ gets her made a ward of the court so that she can, at nine, legally change her own name.

Sweden has blocked attempts by parents to name their children Superman, Metallica, and Brfxxccxxmnpcccclllmmnprxvclmnckssqlbb11116 – mad. But a not-so-fortunate kid in New Zealand is walking around with the name ‘Number 16 Bus Shelter’. I can’t help wondering at the logic of needing a licence to have a TV or get married but being able to have kids and name them at will.

I know of just two parents in the last 20 years who have called their daughters Mary. But it’s starting to come back in vogue, seen as it is as a solid, traditional name. I was christened Mary Martha. And for years and years and years I hated that name. Whenever it was trotted out, I knew I was in trouble. For my cousins, it was the weapon of choice when it came to needling me. But then I realised that Martha is quite a cool name and now I quite like it. But it’s too late to go back to the double barrel…

I was copied on an email not long ago, one with quite an extensive To list. I’d have used BCC myself, but hey, I wasn’t sending it. I always look at who else has been addressed and this time I laughed out loud. The descriptives used to describe the journalists included were amusing: bald guy with glasses, quiet chap from ME, woman with donkey laugh. This is what happens when your email address doesn’t state your name. You get qualified. I got off lightly with Merry M.

I do some work for a UK publisher who uses typesetters in India and the Philippines. I have trouble with some of the names and rarely, if ever, can identify the gender behind the name with complete certainty. Today I got an email from a new contact whose name is … Lovely. The email address itself doesn’t help in clarifying who is behind this moniker so I don’t know if Lovely is a lovely man or a lovely woman. But it’s a lovely name, Lovely. Made my day.