Friday, February 13, 2009

Sell-out at the Savile
The old war-horse was out for yet another conventional, almost ceremonial canter. It was as benign and unchallenging as one might expect. All passion is now spent. The lion is bewintered.

And yet, there are still flashes. He recollects how Prime Ministers and Presidents have telephoned him repeatedly, and how he has always set them to rights. He even manages, without the old hell-fire and brimstone, and perhaps just the once, to voice the alien word "Taoiseach" but is more comfortable to anglicise the office to "prime minister". This leads into an anecdote of how he presented the "young man" (he means Bertie "Dig Out" Ahern) first with a glove of James II, and then with an original King James Bible. The rest of the time. he manages, even in this less godly place, and to an audience of hardened professional types, to convey his statements of faith without embarrassment to anyone. He defends himself nimbly from the "chuckle brothers" accusation: it is better to chuckle and be hopeful than to be grim.

All in all, a pleasant time was had by all. This was one of the few occasions when the TCD dining club (normally a dinner-jackets and pearls event) had relaxed into lounge-suit mode, in deference to the guest speaker. The room was full: for once there had been a waiting list for places, and every place was taken. Malcolm had been sworn by the lady in his life (who, as the treasurer pointed out later in the evening, is the one who signs the cheques) that he was, under no circumstances, to ask a question.

In a moment of conversation with the Reverend Doctor, however, Malcolm recalled that the last time he had seen him in the flesh was at an Apprentice Boys parade in Derry, back in the bad time of the early 1980s.

Malcolm had been there to see what seemed a bizarre ritual, though one with a strong charge of menace and danger. He had equipped himself with both his Olympus OM1s, to record the banners -- which are as colourful and nostalgic as those borne at Durham miners' gala (and now seem almost as anachronistic). Thanks to the magic of Kodachrome, Malcolm still has those slides: digital images should last so well.

That in turn leads to a couple of other memories of that period:

Visiting the Chalet on Portadown's Armagh Road

The Chalet was a frolic, originally in the Swiss style, a decent road-house pub. It was bombed out at least twice. By the time of this memory, it was little more than a brick and concrete dug-out, buttressed with sandbags. Entry was controlled by a entryphone and CCTV. Only by passing through three levels of security did one reach the bar and refreshment.

Malcolm, with English accent haircut and newspaper, was subjected to the usual scrutiny and discreet questioning: was he on holiday? was he over on business? This, Malcolm appreciated, was a game. No-one would ask the unspoken but essential question directly: are you with the army? That would be too blunt (and it would imply that Malcolm was one of the "spooks" of intelligence). Equally, Malcolm, enjoying the sport, was not render himself up too easily. It took some ten minutes before a relieved questioner was able to announce, full voiced, to the entire bar, "It's all right! He belongs to the young [name of Malcolm's wife's family] girl!"

Opening night at the Orange Hall

Was it the same visit that Malcolm was invited to join the revelry to celebrate the opening of an Orange Hall?

The afternoon had been the formalities. There had been parades, more banners, and speechifying. There had been the sight and oratory of gingery, younger, yet-unlorded David Trimble, recently escaped from William Craig's Vanguard Progressive Unionist Party and sporting a broad Orange sash. Even then, despite the boy David's slingshots of bile, there were noises and susurrations in this ultra-loyalist, west-of-the-Bann crowd that he was not considered sufficiently hard-line.

In the evening, the mood was different. Orange Halls are, of course, "dry". This one, that evening was definitely not so. To escape the heaving crowd, Malcolm made a quiet retreat to the back-stage. Only later did he hear from his brother-in-law the story: "Hey! Stevie! There's an Englishman in the kitchen, speaking English. What d'you want done with him?" Since the utterance came from a UDA/UVF man who later in the revelry took to discharging a revolver in the orchard next door, this was no idle remark.

Back to the present

So the quieter, reflective, elderly, benign Paisley is a mark of the times. The times have changed, and we in them. Paisley's initial remarks were telling. He did not expect any return to the bad old days. Everyone, both sides of the great Northern Ireland divide, was agreed on that. The settlement as of now was decided and determined.

He balanced that with a personal remark: he had recently fallen. He had only one strong leg. Fortunately, it was his right foot.
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