Flying to Kerry couldn’t have been easier. That day dawned pale amber on paler grey and I turned up at the airport with my toothbrush and time to spare. Parking was a doddle and in a short space of time, my overnight bag and I were on our way. My plane touched down in Ireland bright and early and our group moved swiftly into the airport bar. My bag arrived in Paris shortly after and sat there with my change of undies, shirt and a clean T-shirt all doing very little. I think it was 10.30 when someone gave me my first Guinness. It was about half an hour later that they gave me my second and told me about the bag. The thing about drinking at that time in the morning is, well, what the hell. It’s only a bag.
Opening an airport terminal felt like it should be a big deal and, on one level, that’s how it struck me. Important, impressive. Band, here. Head of state, there. It was a full-on production. Yet on another level, the opening of Kerry’s new international terminal felt very intimate. We were ushered out to the front of the building to hear the Irish Prime Minister, Charles Haughey, and as I seemed to be the only person with an SLR, I found myself right at the front of the press pack taking pictures. My camera was in Mr Haughey’s face and there was no space behind me to back away. So it was Mr Haughey speaking, snap! Mr Haughey cutting ribbon, snap! Oo, look?an aeroplane! Mountains! Cows! Snap snap snap! My head was buzzing from the early-morning Guinnesses and my enthusiasm exceeded my abilities but I carried on snapping until we were moved along to a white marquee.
Now, as marquees go, this one was a monster. Very large. Very very large indeed. It covered the whole car park and you could have hidden a three ring circus in there with room to spare. Perhaps they had. I could see the Prime Minister?s table somewhere near the vanishing points. Yes, when it came to big white tents, this was the daddy. But who were all these people inside? It looked as if the entire population of County Killarney had turned out. As I pondered the unlikelihood, a glass of champagne magically appeared in my hand and I sat down at an unfeasably long table next to a pearl-swathed elderly lady in the midst of this tented townfull of complete strangers. I raised my glass to my silver-haired dining companion. “This is nice, isn’t it?” I ventured. She smiled back and replied in a lilting Irish accent that it was, it was indeed. Very nice. Around me, the soft voices were creating a musical cadence and I was becoming lost in a sea of words and alcohol.
Alluring melodic voices seemed to be discussing all kinds of important things, yet when I listened, when I focused on their words, the conversations didn?t seem to be about anything much. Around me people continued to remark how very nice it all was and how very nice, too, to see the Prime Minister, constantly refered to by his Gaelic title, An Taoiseach. Phoenetically, Taoiseach sounds like “Tea shock” so the first few times I heard someone say the word with an Eirish accent, I thought they were saying “T-shirt”. The day had started becoming bizarre, I was through the looking glass and I found I couldn’t think of anything to say while my brain made feebleminded word plays around T-shirts and Taoiseachs. It was raining a little. Would they have a wet Taoiseach competition? How could you judge such a thing?
In the midst of so many well-mannered men and women, these ridiculous thoughts somehow seemed exceptionally funny and I had the urge to giggle. I smiled a little at the old lady with the pearls but it just made things worse. I coughed, politely, to one side, then concentrated on immersing myself in the pleasure of fresh poached salmon while imbibing copious amounts of water. I concentrated really hard. Perhaps this salmon came from the famous lakes. Perhaps I could get a souvenir Taoiseach. Somehow I made it to the afternoon without opening my mouth and revealing my humour deficiencies for all to hear.
Lunch was followed by a coach trip around the lakes of Killarney, a guided tour around beautiful scenery given by a beautiful PR girl with a beautiful voice. The sun was shining. Everything was beautiful. I was in a Beetles movie. We were taking the Magical Mystery Tour and scenery swam past the windows. The bus rolled up at one of Eire?s oldest pubs next to a sparkling clear lake and everything became more beautiful still, although I now had no idea what I was doing there and, as the sun shone brighter, I went down to look at the lake. Fish darted hither and thither between rocks in the crystal water and, despite the fact I?d have no dry clothes to put on afterwards, going for a paddle faded lazily into my consciousness as a Good Idea. A beautiful idea. To be sure. Fortunately, after a quick pint, the PR girl had a Better Idea and the good sense to get us all back on the bus.
We meandered along narrow country lanes, passing two horse-drawn carts in a surreal slow motion which seemed completely natural. We meandered peacefully, gracefully?as graceful as a coachload of half-cut journalists can be?on our way to the hotel, which despite its low-rise architecture, seemed anachronistically modern in its verdant hillside setting. It was mid afternoon when we got there and my bag still hadn’t turned up. Not impressive for an airline taking journalists on a publicity jolly, I reflected. We sat out on the patio, supping more Guinness and looking out across the lakes to the mountains of Killarney. Bag? Who needs a bag? I was drifting somewhere outside the real world, lost, oblivious. Nothing mattered.
Sitting out there on the patio, listening to the lilting Eirish accents discussing business, up and down, this and that, everything and nothing, and looking out at the magnificent view, I thought a little of my grandad leaving Cork to come to London for work so long ago. What was life like here when he grew up? Was it always this beautiful? My thoughts meandered like the coach trip earlier and I found myself wondering why the northern part of this emerald isle couldn’t somehow settle its differences and enjoy all this as good-hearted neighbours instead of feuding adversaries. I brought up the subject of the IRA and was allowed to continue my drunken rambling for maybe three or four minutes before the Irish journalist next to me suggested I drop it.
“Have you ever been to Northern Ireland?” he asked. “No,” I replied. “Well, you should shut up then because unless you?ve experienced it first hand, you’ve no idea what you’re talking about.” In a sense he was right, of course, but it struck me as odd that people were exploding bombs in London presumably to get the British public’s attention and, by extension, my attention. What did they want my attention for? Did they have a proposition which the peoples of Britain and Ireland at least might be interested in hearing? No one would say. The economy of London was messed up by bomb threats once a month and the killing continued in NI but the British press only wrote it up in terms of terror, the BBC assumed we all knew everything and school history had conveniently glossed over the whole thing. No one ever explained the issues or the context to us, Joe Public.
To be honest, by that point in the day I couldn’t have comprehended the difference between Sheffield Wednesday and Shrove Tuesday, let alone grasped a complex political issue. My brain had opened an escape hatch in my head and bailed a couple of hours earlier. It was happily swimming in the lake, bathing in the cool clear water. I guess in the end, anything truly lovely can engender covetous hostility. People will fight over the right to enjoy beauty in their own ways and the Emerald Isle had oft seen the green monsters of jealousy. Right then and there, these were all moot points. First hand experience of the situation or not, I was in no state to discuss anything in depth and at about four in the afternoon, I did the wisest thing I could. I finished my pint and went to my room. In keeping with the rest of the dream sequence which my day had become, the room had a stunning view. Fields, lakes, mountains… Look! Sheep! I was feeling very fortunate. Blessed. These perceptions flickered briefly on my consciousness before the last vestige of rational thought absconded to join the swimming brain. I slept.
Sometime around 7pm, an insistent knock on the door brought me round. It was the fine PR girl, whose enchanting voice would no doubt bring men to blows at some point, come to tell me that my bag had arrived. It had been to France and then Belgium–or was it Spain? Maybe all three. It had finally arrived in this lush green paradise and the explanation of its adventures made no sense, although I listened as attentively as I could. No, I couldn?t grasp abstract bag tourism at all so instead I grasped the bag itself and dug out my toothbrush. 7pm was a good time to get up and having clean teeth had moved to the top of my agenda. Ahh, clean teeth. Bleem bleem! I chewed a handful of peppermints for good measure. Half an hour before dinner. The bar was open once more so I did the decent thing and had another drink with the journos and Miss RyanAir. Dinner was sumptuous, the wine was great, the world was a blur. Sooner than I would have thought, I was back in bed, crashed out and sated.
Somehow I got back with the bag to Luton the next day safe and sound. I collected the car and thought briefly about dropping by the office to show my face, then decided it could wait. I’d see them on Monday. I went home and went to bed, to sleep the sleep of the just, or at least the just-about. Fortunately, I had a set of keys to the office, which meant I could go in over the weekend and write the feature up. I got it finished on the Sunday morning, when I had the peaceful luxury of an empty newsroom all to myself.
To be fair (and to be sure), it wasn’t a great piece of writing, but it wasn’t bad. To my mind, it just needed a little constructive criticism and some judicious sensitive editing. That?s what I thought. Ralph thought different. I was all about cultivating while he was all about weeding. The journalist writes, the editor cuts, of course, but sometimes I wondered if he was the kind of gardener who was happiest weilding a flamethrower.
Monday. St Albans Observer’s esteemed editor was back from his latest trip to the Aegean. His lack of joy at being in the office as opposed to, say, on a Greek island was palpable. “Ralph, I’ve written a feature on Killarney.” He raised a bushy grey eyebrow, loaded with scepticism. “Oh? Why?” “Well, Ryan Air started flying there last week and I went on the inaugural flight.” “Luton’s not actually in our catchment area, nitwit.” “Yes, I know that. But it’s the airport. They’re the local airport for our readers.” “Ireland isn’t local either.” I was persistent, “People go on holiday there and everyone flies from Luton.” “Okay,” said Ralph, bored. “I’ll look at it later. Now if you could just key-in these letters…”
Ralph sat on the feature for several weeks, until it was well out of date. Then he cut out large chunks to fit a space where an advertiser had dropped out at the last minute. “God, Jefferies, this is turgid stuff,” he said, rather less constructively than I’d hoped. “Stick to what you’re good at.” Pause. “What are you good at?” Standard unfunny Ralph routine. Then he simply sliced it part way through to fit it into a corner of a page. “Any ideas for a headline?” asked the aging Welshman. “Um…” I couldn’t muster any enthusiasm, so he wrote, ‘Fly the shamrock flight to Ireland’, added my name and stuck it in the paper. Sans photos. I said it wasn?t great, but I felt it deserved a little better treatment than that.
“Shame,” said Vince afterwards, dryly. Was he smiling? I couldn’t tell as he always seemed to be smirking about something these days. Not for him the drudgery of nearly two years in a printing department to get into his chosen field. He’d walked right in from university, and good on him but still. It was a bitter day. “No, really,” he added. “It’s a shame.” Well, yes, it was. However, I’d had a full days drinking in a fantastic setting, with great meals and a comfortable hotel room. Plus, not only had I not had to pay for anything, I’d also claimed expenses for driving to Luton and parking. As far as developing my feature-writing abilities went, this was nothing to write home about and another blow to my creative confidence. Yet, that aside, I did like the way Tim put it: I had had “a result”. Yes, definitely.
I was more green than I could possibly have imagined.