“Who needs a shower?”

On a recent walk home along the Esplanade one evening, I was accosted by an elderly woman who had been standing by the seawall which is adjacent to the motorcycle parking bay.  If I was to guess, I would speculate that the lady was in her late seventies, while she was dressed the way I imagine someone who attends a flower show would.  As she stepped into my path the woman thrust her smartphone in my direction – it was an iPhone, though I couldn’t tell which model.  I removed my earbuds in time to hear her ask if I would be willing to take a picture of her by the sea.  Her phone was practically in my hand before I could answer.  In a sense, it felt nice to be trusted, even if I was mildly irritated about being interrupted in the middle of a song I was enjoying.

“It’s so still,” the old lady marvelled as she sat on the end of the stone wall and cast a glance out over the bay behind her.  I tried to frame the shot so that the woman could look back at the end of her holiday and see herself there in her favourite lilac coat, the North Pier and some fishing boats in the background, capturing the way the light was changing on the water.  Channelling my inner Ansel Adams, I suggested to my subject that she “raise your chin a little and maybe look into the camera.”  I thought that I sounded pretty convincing that I knew what I was doing, but the woman clearly wasn’t buying it when she asked me to “take a couple more.  Just in case.”  So much for trust.

With no fewer than three photographs added to her camera roll, I handed the phone back to the elderly tourist as a couple were passing behind. The female from the pair approached and called out to us: “Would you like me to take a picture of the two of you together?” I almost choked. What kind of relationship did this woman think she was witnessing? Whatever it was, it was difficult to say which of us should have been taking the insinuation more harshly. Deep down, there was a part of me that was feeling buoyed by the idea that a complete stranger could look at me and believe that I am capable of being part of a couple, albeit the feeling was short-lived once it was considered that my would-be partner is in her late seventies. On the other hand, this respectable-looking elderly lady was surely thinking that she could do better than a man who needs three attempts to take a simple portrait picture. Just like in most of my other relationships, the atmosphere between us quickly became awkward, and when I left it was with a more purposeful stride than before – not only to get away from my photography subject, but also to overtake the woman who had offered to take our picture, as if to prove to her that I am still young and agile enough to be dating pre-pension age women.

All I could think about for days afterwards was that passing question.  It was haunting me, which I am certain was the cause of an incident at Glasgow Airport at the beginning of the Easter weekend.  I was travelling with my brother and sister for a couple of nights away in Belfast, the first time we had taken such an adventure together.  Our flight was departing at 7.25 on Thursday evening, giving us plenty of time to bruise our bank balances with a round of drinks that were costing us more than £20 a time.  I was feeling confident that I had done everything to be prepared for going through the security process.  All of my liquids and creams were neatly packed in a clear, resealable bag; my electronics were placed in the large grey tray alongside my watch, and I was even unbuckling my belt whilst waiting in line.  I couldn’t have done anything more, yet the scanner still went off as I walked through and my bag was pulled to the side to be searched by hand.  It turned out that my Joop! Aftershave was larger than I had believed and breached the 100ml limit, meaning that it had to be confiscated.  

I would probably have checked the bottle more carefully before leaving home if my thoughts hadn’t been consumed by the elderly lady in the photograph, but there was no way of explaining this to the airport security.  My attempt to carry a forbidden 25ml of cologne to Northern Ireland had tipped the Border Force off to my dubious character, and the man who was swabbing my luggage began interrogating me about an iPad he insisted was in it.  

“Is there an iPad in this bag?”  He asked, having presumably seen something on his screen.  

“No,” I asserted with the same confidence I had when I initially strode up to the security line.  

“Are you sure?”  The border agent probed in a manner similar to when I was looking after my six-year-old niece earlier in the week and had challenged her to find the bunny toy I had hidden in my flat.

After another firm denial of the existence of an iPad in my rucksack, the security bloke once again asked me if I was absolutely sure that there wasn’t another device in my bag.  Despite having never owned an iPad, I began to doubt myself, questioning if there could somehow be a tablet in my carry-on.  Is that something a criminal would plant in an unsuspecting traveller’s luggage to be picked up by an accomplice on the other side?  I’ve heard of U2 putting their album Songs of Innocence on every Apple device on the planet, but never Apple products being foisted upon a person without their consent.

Eventually, we were able to agree on the absence of an iPad and I was allowed to join my brother and sister on the flight to Belfast.  Not for the first time, I was assigned a seat in the emergency exit row.  It has become something of a habit of mine to be approached by an air stewardess before take-off to be asked if I mind that I am seated on an emergency exit, and I am always panic-stricken when it happens, especially when I am three beers deep.  Considering all the vetting that is done of airline passengers, it amazes me that someone like me can be put in a position where they could potentially be the difference between life and death for everybody else on board.  When evidently I can barely pass basic airport security, how can I reasonably be expected to inflate a life vest under the pressure of a flight going down in the Irish Sea?

In Belfast, we had booked the hostel-like accommodation at Titanic Apartments.  Out on Lisburn Road, it was nowhere near the Titanic Quarter of the city, but seemingly having a cartoon poster of the doomed cruise liner on the wall by the television that doesn’t work is enough to enable a place to use the name ‘Titanic’.  The first question we were asked by the porter when we checked in to our two-bedroom apartment was whether we would like any towels.  Naturally, we quite liked the idea of being able to dry ourselves after a shower, so we said that yes, we would like some towels, only to be told that we could go to the reception building across the street at nine o’clock the following morning to request them.  Upon looking around our living space for the next two nights, we discovered that there was also no soap or handwash – or anything, really, aside from the beds.  It didn’t take very long for us to develop a sinking feeling about the Titanic Apartments.

Fortunately, since our time in the city was so limited, we had little intention of spending much time in the hostel anyway. We had barely touched down before we were out again to the Speakeasy bar along the road from us. The pub forms the student union for the nearby Queen’s University, and boy could we tell. Even with it being the Easter break, the place was rammed with young people playing pool, watching football and listening to the woman who was playing guitar. We were the three oldest people in the bar by quite some distance, which only served to remind me why I drink in Aulay’s when I am back home. There isn’t much that can make a person feel so dazed, lost and helpless as being the oldest person in the bar, except maybe being hauled before airport security for an iPad that doesn’t exist.

We were adopting the fly by the seam of your pants method of exploring Belfast since the entire decision to take the trip was reasonably last minute.  It tends to be my favourite way of travelling anyway, and as with most cities, I came armed with a list of bars I had either visited or intended to visit when I was last there in 2017.  As we weren’t able to shower on Friday morning on account of the saga with the towels, we decided that we would leave early for the opening of St. George’s Market – the last surviving Victorian covered market in the country’s capital city.  I was hoping that the residual essence of Joop! that ordinarily clings to the collar of most of my shirts and jackets would see me through the trip since I could no longer top it up, although it was a different scent that was filling the air around the entrance of the market.  The very first stall we encountered was selling trout that was the size of a dachshund, and some of the pieces of fish looked so fresh that I was sure that if I looked at them closely enough they might still be twitching.  

Other than the usual fruit and vegetables, some locals were offering the most remarkable goods.  Things like hand-crafted jewellery, canvas paintings, slate coasters, and scarves.  It was a real feast for the eyes – which we enjoyed – but it was a feast for the belly we had turned up for.  My sister got talking to a pair of very enthusiastic Spanish guys who were running a French crêpe van, while my brother and I went off in search of fried food served on soda bread.  The breakfast was prepared right in front of our very eyes in a display that was almost theatrical with its sizzle.  Combined with a cup of coffee from a nearby vendor, we were all feeling pretty good about our spoils.  It is an especially pleasing thing when a spur of the moment decision works out so well, and our satisfaction was registered with the phrase that was coined in that moment:  “who needs a shower?”  Of course, we returned to the Titanic Apartments later in the day to properly cleanse ourselves before going out for dinner, but for half a day at least, we went about town without giving a fuck about towels, soap, hairbrushes, aftershave or any of that.  You can enjoy yourself in any circumstance, you just need to allow yourself to.

Over our one full day together in Belfast, the three of us walked more than 22,500 steps according to my brother’s smartwatch, which is the equivalent of approximately 11 miles. Looking back, I can’t help but feel that we were testing the limits of what deodorant can achieve. We took one of the hop on hop off sightseeing red bus tours that every city seems to have, and it gave us a pretty good overview of the place. Belfast is a relatively small city, but it has an enormous history – much of it recent. It would be difficult to visit the area and not think about the Troubles – a term which in itself has always struck me as being quite quaint. Spending an extra few minutes going through airport security is troubling, whereas civil war seems much more significant. The most interesting section of the tour was the journey down the Nationalist Falls Road and the Unionist Shankhill Road. These areas of Belfast are covered with flags and the buildings decorated in murals; they are fantastically brightly coloured and in a way beautiful, yet they are shrouded with darkness and a horrific past. Even to this day, there are still gates that close every night at seven o’clock to separate the two communities. It was surreal seeing the whole thing turned into a tourist attraction of sorts – particularly when tensions have been raised off the back of England’s decision to take the rest of the UK out of the European Union and the problems this has created for the island of Ireland. When you think of it, it’s pretty mad that you can pay £17 to sit on top of a double-decker bus and drive through these sites of sectarian violence. Things are still so palpable that it practically feels as though you are watching one of those horrid reality television shows everybody talks about. I had never imagined that a red sightseeing tour could stir up so many different feelings, but I found hearing some of the stories from both sides of the divide quite sorrowful.

From the bus, we stopped off at Crumlin Road Gaol, which closed in 1996 and at times housed some of Northern Ireland’s most notorious political prisoners.  Seventeen criminals were executed in the prison, with the last being hanged in 1961, and towards the end of its use, the jail was so overcrowded that there were as many as three people to a cell.  The self-led tour told stories of hunger strikes, escapes, bombings, and cramped conditions.  Looking at the tiny cells had me thinking of the Titanic Apartments, only the occupants here at least seemed to be given towels.

Part of the reason for our 22,500 steps was the fact that the hop on hop off bus was rolling past the entrance to the visitor centre as we were leaving, at which point we decided to walk back to the city centre rather than wait for the next one.  We rewarded ourselves with a hot beverage from Established Coffee before embarking on a free walking tour from outside City Hall.  Our guide, Barry, was informed and passionate about his city, making the two hours a pleasure.   Through his stories, it was easy to see the charm of Belfast that exists beneath its rough exterior.  We learned about some of the city’s quirky features, such as how it is apparently the case that none of the public clocks in Belfast shows the right time.  I wondered how such a thing could possibly be true, but then I look at my own flat and see that there are three different objects displaying a time and none of them are the same.  Imagine being in charge of hundreds of the things.

As well as being the 110th anniversary of the Titanic disaster, our stay in Belfast also coincided with the first time in history that pubs in Northern Ireland were permitted to operate their regular trading hours over Easter weekend.  Previously they had only been allowed to open for a greatly restricted period, and it was plain to see that people were keen to make up for lost time.  Every bar we went into on Friday night was busy, and each one had musicians performing.  There were around 4,000 people in town for the World Championships of Irish Dancing, though it was hard to say if the scenes we witnessed on some of the barroom floors bore any relation to that.  I think that our favourite pub was The Thirsty Goat, where the music was best and the atmosphere was crackling.  The walls of the pub were decorated with dozens of photographs of goats participating in all sorts of antics, such as chewing on a newspaper or drinking bottles of beer.  It was funny, but in the sort of way that would have you questioning just how drunk you are after a certain point.

In the Dirty Onion, we queued for an eternity to get a drink in the bustling courtyard. It wasn’t until we got talking to Connor that we were introduced to an invaluable hack for getting around the long wait, which was to dive into the nearby Second Fiddle and get served there. The Second Fiddle was cosy and not nearly as busy as the other pubs we had been in. By the bar was an inscription on the wall which read “the older the fiddle, the sweeter the tune” and I just had to get a photograph taken beneath it for a future addition to my Tinder profile.

There had been some discussion between us through the night about having a wager on which of the three of us could pull first.  Although I am usually happy with placing losing bets when I put on my football coupon on a Saturday, there is a faint hope that one of those might actually win.  This sounded like the sort of reckless gamble that the professionals warn you against making.  We didn’t go through with it in the end, which was for the best since we were all destined to lose our stake when Connor suggested to us that when the pub closed we could carry on drinking until 3 am in the gay club at the end of the street.  My sister and I were considering it, but the one positive about the Titanic Apartments was that there is a Domino’s nearby and a pizza was the more appealing meat feast on offer.

Little did anyone know it, but for a brief time in Belfast, I was probably closest of all to winning our hypothetical lottery.  Earlier in the day, whilst on the free walking tour, I discovered that I had made a match on Tinder.  Emma was 36 and living in the city, and given that it was Easter weekend there was only one question I could ask her to open our prospective conversation.  

“Hey Emma, are you having a Good Friday?”  

She never got back to me.  When I was eventually unmatched, the prospects of a resurrection were doomed.  It was probably for the best, all things considered.  There would have been no future in the relationship, after all.  I can’t do long distance, not with my difficulty with airport security.  Sure, it would be nice to have someone who is closer to my age to have photographs taken with by the seaside or beneath novelty signs, but the reality is that I would only ever have been using Emma for her towels.  

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Twenty-two hours in Belfast (Ryan Adams @ Ulster Hall, Belfast)

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Overlooking Belfast, Cavehill was imagined by Johnathan Swift to resemble the face of a sleeping giant.


In my experiences I have found that there are many ways to see a city.  You can visit its museums and galleries and become immersed in its culture.  You can study its architecture and walk amongst its people for a flavour of the life.  Or you can spend twenty-two hours in a panic-striken haze of beer, excitement over seeing your favourite singer-songwriter and the anxiety of making an early flight home on Saturday morning in order to attend a wedding reception you had absent-mindedly double booked yourself for.  I chose the latter because I’m an idiot and that’s the sort of thing an idiot does.

Matters of timing aren’t the only way I know how to make a trip unnecessarily difficult for myself, and flying to Belfast proved more of an arduous affair than waking up for the return flight would be.  I was already running a little later than I had anticipated due to a hangover weighing me down in my bed and clouding my judgment, and all I could think about was how I could possibly make an 8.20 flight from Belfast the next morning when I am struggling to reach Glasgow Airport in time for a 9.15 departure.  I went through the process at security of transferring my liquids (but not all of my liquids, as I could still feel quite a bit of Budweiser in my system) and gels into the clear plastic bags they like these things to be kept in and I unbuckled my belt and placed all of this into the dim grey tray.  As I walked away towards the scanner I had the realisation that I had forgotten to take my phone out of my pocket and the watch from my wrist.  I stopped in my tracks, sighed and cursed my ineptitude and decided that as my tray was already gone I would carry on and walk through the scanner with these forbidden items upon my person.  What’s the worst that could happen?

The scanner immediately went off to alert everybody that I am some kind of idiot and without hesitation I handed over the contraband like a naive criminal who has been caught red-handed in his heinous deed.  I was certain that owning up to my mistake straight away would let the security officer see that I had recognised the items which had set off the scanner and we could both move on with our lives without further incident, but he frowned as I placed my phone and watch in his hand then asked that I take off my shoes.  I am unfamiliar with other people asking me to take items of clothing off my body and it was in this moment that I remembered that I wasn’t expecting anybody to be requesting the removal of clothes on this trip either, and more specifically I wasn’t expecting that anybody would be looking at my socks.  I contemplated suggesting that he should at least buy me a pint first, but he didn’t seem like the kind of man who would appreciate sarcasm in this situation and I was probably going to have to come to terms with the knowledge that my socks are not suitable for public viewing.

I tried to plead with him with my eyes, as though to say:  Please don’t make me take off my shoes.  I’ve already owned up to my crimes and you can quite clearly see that I’m just a hung over idiot.  My socks are the clothing representation of what it would look like if there was a gathering of every Pope from history and Mother Theresa and Bono – very holy.  But there was no way I could actually say those words without drawing further attention to my socks, so I silently untied my laces and removed my shoes one at a time.  First the right shoe, and I felt a pleasant relief when I saw that my black sock was fully intact.  Then I slipped off the left boot and handed it over to the officer.  This sock initially seemed fine too and I was feeling quite good about myself, until I was directed to stand on the spot where two painted footprints suggest I should be standing and I noticed that the fourth toe on my left foot was attempting to make a break for freedom from its cotton prison, just this little pink blob wanting to take advantage of the slight glimmer of light seen through a gap in the material big enough for a sneaky toe to bundle through if it really tried.  Then the security officer consulted the picture which has just been taken of my insides and he confirmed that I’m just some idiot who forgot to take off his watch and hand over his phone and I’m left standing in my socks, one of them with a small hole in it, waiting for at least two minutes for my belongings to appear on the conveyor.  Now there’ll be an attack.  This is when those bastards will hit Glasgow Airport — when I’m standing here wearing socks with holes in them!  And this is how my body will be discovered and I’ll forever be remembered as the man they found with a hole in his socks.  He couldn’t run away because he was wearing his socks, they’ll say, and what’s worse is that one of them had a hole in it and a little pink toe was poking through it!

The Harland and Wolff crane dominates the Belfast skyline


I arrived in Belfast on Friday morning with no firm idea of what I was going to do before the Ryan Adams concert that evening – a feeling I am familiar with most days of my life.  I have prepared a Google Document outlining at least three pretentious hipster craft beer bars I would like to experience in each of the places I will be visiting during this Ryan Adams tour (eight towns and cities, seven gigs) but I knew that ten o’clock in the morning was much too early to start drinking IPA when I was hoping to be vaguely sensible on account of the early flight on Saturday, so I stopped off in an average-sized local coffee shop and ordered a large cup of caffeine in the hope of stimulating my mind and kicking the hangover.  It was because of this coffee that I was able to recognise that I could get myself onto the free walking tour of the city which began across the square outside City Hall at 11am.

A free walking tour (or, more accurately, a “pay what you want” walking tour) is a fine way of seeing the points of interest in a city if you are short on time and can’t decide which of the sights you would like to visit.  The guide on this particular tour, Gavin, was an engaging retired school teacher who spoke with a Northern Irish accent that was much easier to understand than others I have encountered.  He weaved a story of how Belfast became the city it is today as we walked around various streets, all while I was considering how best to strike up a conversation with one of the American girls in the group.  If there is one thing I struggle with it is walking and trying to think (or perform any kind of multi-tasking on the move, really.)  If there are two things I struggle with it is that and trying to talk to girls; so I was confronted with two of my greatest difficulties on this walking tour of Belfast.

I found myself walking alongside this American girl (who was presumably raised on promises and couldn’t help thinking that there’s a little more to life somewhere else) between several points on the two-hour tour but I never knew what to say to her.  Every time I tried to speak the words would become caught in my mouth like a little pink toe in a small hole and I would remember how I had already once been shown to be an idiot today and thought better of it.

I heard you’re from Tennessee.  How about that Elvis guy?”

“Shame about all those sectarian bombings Gavin has been telling us about…but you have such pretty hair.”

“Those knee cappings sound brutal, but on another note, I really like the way you walk.”

Nothing I could think of seemed right, so naturally I waited until the end of the tour when a handful of stragglers who weren’t sure how better to spend their afternoon – maybe six or seven of us in total – were invited to a nearby pub to buy Gavin lunch.  At least I knew that with the walking tour finished if my haphazardly blurted question about the American girl’s travels failed miserably and resulted in the peace wall being closed I wouldn’t have to endure the awkwardness of walking around the city with a group of strangers whilst feigning interest in this or that.

‘The Big Fish’ – the salmon of knowledge


In the end, after a couple of hours in this pub sheltering from the rain and talking to the American girl, and long since the remaining members of the group had left, I found myself wondering why I have spent much of my adult life as a man scared to talk to new people when there is so much to be learned.  Before yesterday I had no idea that the Belgian city of Gent produces exceptional mustard or that many mountains in Germany will have huts halfway up them that sell beer.  Nor did I know that the female outfit traditionally worn at Oktoberfest is called a Dirndl or that some people in the southern states of America will hunt frogs for fun.

With much newly acquired knowledge to ponder I reached for my phone and consulted my Google Document and Google Maps in an effort to locate some of the craft beer bars I had noted.  It struck me that even ten years ago this trip would have been all the more difficult to co-ordinate without so much information at my fingertips, but that after a couple of pints of Maggie’s Leap the night becomes a little less easy to co-ordinate and beer acts as a kind of counter balance to technology.  I didn’t get lost on that point for long (or at all, thanks to Google Maps) and worked my way back up Great Victoria Street towards Ulster Hall.  I had resolved to stop drinking beer before the gig in order to give me half a chance to wake up in time for my flight in the morning, but I had miscalculated the time it would take me to walk from The Garrick to the venue and ended up with too much time to wait before Ryan Adams was due on stage at 8.45pm, so I made a stop in The Apartment for a Jack Daniels Honey and lemonade.  At £5.60 I was convinced that this would be my last drink of the night.

Ulster Hall


It had been two years and two months since I last saw Ryan Adams play live and Ulster Hall seemed like an ideal venue for my twenty-first time seeing him, with its long history including the distinction of being the first place in the world where Led Zeppelin performed Stairway to Heaven.  It felt small for a ‘hall’, in a good intimate kind of way, and there was some kind of incense burning in the room which smelled exactly like I remember from attending mass as a child.  For the first few songs all I could think about was the memory of going to church on a Sunday with my mother and brother and sister, and I got to thinking about how different my life would be if I had been encouraged to listen more to the teachings of the Catholic church by Father MacKinnon rocking out on the altar like the KISS demon.

Without a plastic tumbler of Jack Daniels in each hand the gig going experience was a little different, and remains more fresh in my memory today.  I think I enjoyed the music more, although perhaps not as exuberantly as I might with a bellyful of whiskey, and I could become immersed in the emotional aspect of the event – especially when Ryan took the opportunity in the middle of the set to play a rare song with a happy, positive vibe:  “This is Stay With Me.  It’s about wanting someone to stay with me…and make my life miserable.”

After setting twenty-seven alarms on my phone in an effort to make certain that I would wake up for my flight to Glasgow at 8.20 on Saturday morning I found that one would have sufficed, as the anxiety of missing the wedding reception coupled with the unusual sensation of being not entirely drunk on a Friday night meant that I didn’t really sleep much at all.  I arrived at Belfast City Airport with more than two hours to spare and I wondered why I couldn’t suffer a security scare now.  With time to kill and socks which were fully intact this would have been the perfect opportunity for some security officer to find that I am an idiot.
Bars visited:
Unknown bar – unknown location
Bootleggers Bar – 46 Church Lane
The Dirty Onion – 3 Hill Street
The Garrick – 29 Chichester Street
Apartment – Donegall Square West

Next stop:
Olympia Theatre, Dublin – Monday 11th & Tuesday 12th September

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Courtesy of @TheRyanAdams, set list from Ulster Hall