Monthly Archives:

June 2017


SWB gets behind the mic again


Last night I made my second appearance at the wonderful 10×9 event in the Black Box. What a cracker night all round. Some stories were heart-rending, some Hitchcockian in their duplicity, (thank you Eliza for almost giving me a heart attack) but all thought-provoking. After hearing about one girl’s account of being caught up in the latest terror attack in Brussels,  I thought, Oh Lordy, mine is a disgrace. Here’s someone baring her soul and I’m just talking about getting wasted on my year abroad. But I knocked back a G&T and on I went anyway. As the wonderful Anne Lamott says, ‘laughter is carbonated holiness’ And I got a few laughs. Here’s the story if you’d like a read.


Hélène! Quelle bêtise! In French, an act of great stupidity is known as a ‘bêtise’. And this phrase which roughly translates as “Helen, what daft thing have you done now?” was a refrain I came to hear often on my gap year on the French island of Reunion. Reunion lies in the Indian Ocean, tucked in snugly beside Mauritius to the east of Madagascar. As a French student at Queens it was part of the course requirement to spend a year in a Francophone country. Some of my classmates ended up in industrial Lille or stuck out in the sticks in the Massif Central. But I bagged my first choice: Reunion island! Frankly, I lucked out.

Reunion is a tiny little island, with beaches to the west, a mountainous interior and spectacular coastline on the east. It has a diverse weather system, caused by the mountains at its centre, over which the clouds break after midday. The capital St Denis, in the north was subjected to torrential downpours every afternoon. The east coast also got a daily dousing, and with no reef, it was foolish to swim in the sea for fear of being swept away by rough tides, or being eaten by a shark. But I was posted to St Pierre in the south. The sun shone 93% of the year. I’ll repeat that statistic, as that’s hard for a Northern Irish audience to digest. 93%. A strong breeze often blew in off the ocean but this was quite welcome to make the 30 degree heat more tolerable. We lived a stone’s throw from the beach, so there many a happy afternoon was spent.

Our flat became known as the ‘maison de fête’ because we truly did live on the best spot on the island. Errr, sorry, I hear you say, but weren’t you supposed to be working? Chi-ching, luck struck again. As a language assistant in a school one is contracted to work 12 hours a week, usually spread out over four days. I never worked on Mondays. I never worked 12 hours, as the assistant’s timetable appeared to be quite fluid. In France you can rock up for your lessons and leave when they’re finished, there’s no hanging about all day. No wonder I found teaching in Belfast hard to stomach. A mile from our school was a jolly little café which served up the traditional meal of curry, locally known as carré for lunch. We had a 2 hour lunch break, which meant there was ample time for a starter, carré, a beer or wine; followed by fresh, chilled mango and pineapple. We then knocked back expresso to shake us from our inertia and see us fit to teach that afternoon.

Happy, happy times.

Now you’d think that with all this free time we’d have produced some fairly stellar lessons. Alas no. Language assistants in my day weren’t big into lesson plans, and most of my students had such limited English that conversation classes were fairly one-sided. This is where my portable cd player became my closest ally. The nearest thing the Reunionais people have to a national religion, is their deification of Bob Marley. This was a lifesaver. I would print out the lyrics to ‘No woman no cry’ and “3 little birds” and leave a few gaps so the kids could fill in the blanks. You’d have thought that I may have tired listened to Bob, but I was just way, way too grateful for how easy he’d made my teaching prep.

Another benefit of the heat and Bob playing in the background meant that a laid back ambiance prevailed in my classes. Discipline was rarely an issue. Reunionais people in general tended to be quite chilled, and this could have been partially down to a local product, which grew willy nilly. It was everywhere, and it was called zamal. “We love zamal,” my students told me. “It’s very relaxing, you can brew it in your tea, or put it in a gateau au chocolat..” Being a naive 20 year old, I was rather green about these matters, but I still expressed a concern that it did sound just a little bit like cannabis. “Oh no” they assured me. “Not the same at all, sure we’ll bring some round and you can try it.” And this is how it came to pass that three teenagers arrived at my house with an sizable bag of weed, which no, wasn’t cannabis because it’s the dried resin, this was marijuana in it’s true unrefined glory. “Helene!” said the flatmates. Quelle bêtise! You can’t go buying drugs off your students! Don’t go giving it back though til we sample it.” In fairness no money exchanged hands, but here I was, former Pentecostal Christian and now supplier of Grade A grass, as apparently it wasn’t bad stuff.

So there’s drugs covered. On to theft. School began at 7-45, and to my misfortune, twice a week I taught a class first thing. Even with the bright sunshine, this was an ordeal, for I was seldom at my prime at this hour. I arrived panting at the bus terminal one morning to buy a new carnet of tickets before the bus took off. Bus drivers were seldom at their prime either in Reunion, and no ticket, no journey, and they won’t sell you a ticket on the bus itself. But the booth was empty. I waited and waited before losing patience and making a grab through the window for the pile of carnets on the counter. But ‘quel catastrophe’! The carnets were firmly fastened by a band and I couldn’t get a single carnet out. Then the woman came back. I panicked and unseen by her, threw the whole load into my bag. “Dix billets s’il vous plait’ I stammered. “Mais ce n’est pas vrai,” said the lady. “Où sont ils?” She looked around in vain while I stood in stunned silence at my act of theft. I was new to the island and unsure of their legal system. What would the penalty be for the pilferage of at least two hundred bus tickets, even by accident? I didn’t know and didn’t wait to find out. I bought a single carnet and scurried off. Quelle bêtise indeed. For the rest of the year, all the language students travelled for free on the buses. Some school kids did too. I was like the Robin Hood of public transport. I tried to seek advice from some locals about my predicament but they seemed to find it quite amusing. “Ne t’inquiètes pas oté’ they shrugged, which to paraphrase Bob means, don’t worry, about a thing….

But I never grew accustomed to how early Creole people got up of the morning. They often rose at dawn, as did their livestock. Our landlord lived in the apartment next to us, and below was a little garden with a veritable menagerie of chickens and goats. They were noisy little bastards and we grew to hate them. The problem with working (or not really working) a 12 hour week is that there’s plenty of time to enjoy other pursuits. The best live music bar on the island, Tam Tam Café, sold light citrusy bière blanche and it was just up the street. Their Rum Punch was another favourite and was of such high quality it seemed rude not to partake. So we all partook, with gusto. 5am, when the goats began their bleating and the cocks began their crowing, came round very quickly after a night out.

One morning in March, after months of being awoken by sprightly foul and beasts, a different pitch of bleat was heard. “Oh Lord, make it stop,” I groaned, and miraculously, it did. A knock at the door came later and our landlady invited us for lunch. It was a Hindu festival and we invited to join them for a feast of…… goat curry. And veggie and vegan friends I am so, so sorry but I ate the goat, at a makeshift table, with my bare hands, off a large banana leaf. They say revenge is a dish best eaten cold, but it was actually quite spicy, and it sat uneasy on a gut still queasy from a night on the rum. What followed was horrific. Ultimately, I think the goat had the last laugh.

To some up, I didn’t learn all that much French on Reunion Island. But I did become an authority on how to travel on a budget, a little about the sourcing and disseminating of local produce, and how many cups of rum punch one could consume before being violently ill. But most of all, I tried to absorb some of the island mentality: ‘Ne t’inquiètes pas oté’: every little thing was going be ok. For an uptight Ulster Protestant such as myself, this was some sage advice.


SWB on religious nut jobs

dont-be-a-dick-550x550-2It’s that time of year again, long balmy evenings, exams are over, papers (almost) marked, and we can slowly begin to exhale. It’s perfect weather to do a bit of light gardening, or open a bottle of Viognier and start on that pile of Guardian reviews lying piled, dust heavy in the cover. Or, you could don a suit, meet your cronies, and head out and start bellowing fire and brimstone Bible verses from a loud speaker. Are you familiar with this lot? If you live in Northern Ireland then I’m guessing so. Feckers are everywhere, scaring the shit clean out of you when you’re just relaxing after your dinner.


I used to live off the Cregagh Road and I loved it there, and had tremendous affection for my wee house. One night, I was getting ready to go and meet my friends when there was a powerful crack of static and then a roar: “Have you repented? I will ask again, have you repented for the hour of the Lord is near!!!!!” Oh it was awful. They were at the corner of my street, so not even on the main road, at the cross roads on an avenue. On and on the thunderous ranting went. I was practically a-quiver, not with rage, but with fear. You see, I’d had a very bad accident and was feeling very fragile and jittery. I didn’t like living on my own much and was new to the area. So to see these men dressed in funereal garb and yelling was not soothing to my soul at all. Not one bit.


Now, that I’m feeling a bit stronger in myself and less easily cowed I’d have made my feelings clear, with the aid of a power hose. But back then, not so much.


My friend has just bought a house in Lisburn, and she and her husband aren’t from that part of town. You can imagine how thrilled they were the other evening when a similar mission to save souls was staged practically outside their kitchen window. It was after seven and they were putting the infants to bed, or trying to, when this racket began. To exacerbate the situation the temperature had been in the twenties all day so the windows were open. “Who are those men and why are they shouting at us?” asked their frightened four year old. So fair play to my friend, out she went and had a quiet word and they shuffled off, with their portable sound system.


I’m telling you, if I had been one of their wives I’d have had something to say. Here’d be me: “Neville! Where do you think you’re headed with that loud speaker? Skiving off again? There’s laundry to put out and a child to bath so you may put that speaker down and get back in here. NOW.”


Or here’s an idea. How about, instead of scaring the bejesus clean out of children, these fellas make a few brownies and take them to their local mums and tots for the poor knackered parents who’ve been up all night with sweltered youngsters? Or they could visit a local nursing home and read some uplifting passages of Scripture to elderly folk who can’t make it out to church. They could bring a sponge cake with cream and jam, organise a flask of coffee and put in a grand afternoon there. This might make a lasting impression on the overworked care-home staff. You see, so many good ideas, which don’t involve being a public nuisance.


They’ll probably argue that they have to go to their work. Well if you’re so holy take a day’s unpaid leave and help the needy, instead of harassing the general public at an hour that suits you.


Now listen, you may not believe this, given my love of the wine and tendency to swear like a sailor, but I’m actually a believer. Yes, my faith could do with a bit more nurturing and I’m definitely a work in progress, but I have my beliefs, and they’re between me and the big man (or woman) upstairs. No group of men cawing like malevolent crows would make me wish to darken the door of any church. But I’ve met a few people who do, and they don’t need a loud speaker to show me how loving and compassionate they are.


Happy Father’s Day, LSB


There he is, taking the Dyson to a car seat. On Father’s Day.

“The period has arrived,” I tell LSB, in a sorrowful tone. I was feeling weak and pathetic, a pale and wan shadow of my usual cheerful, ebullient self (as if). “I knew it was en-route,” he sighed in a similar, sorrowful tone. “I saw the washing had started in earnest.” Started? STARTED? Oh, that got me riled. Ask any parent of small children or wife of a sports enthusiast, and you will be aware that the washing never stops. But according to LSB as the old period draws near so too does my fervour for cleaning things. I’ve even been known to hoover, and that’s no regular occurrence in our house. But if I didn’t load the washer, we would live in a terrible, stained state of chaos.


One summer I went on a school trip. LSB kindly picked me up. “Don’t worry,” said he, “I’ve done the washing.” I went on to have a wee complain about the heat of the bus, the rubbish food, the child who was sick on the bus, the child who lost 100 euro on a beach even though they were told to bring 20 quid AT MOST. On and on I went. “But,” he interrupted, “at least you don’t have to do the washing. I did that.” He pointed to himself to illustrate the point. I came home. There were still pants lying on the bedroom floor. Strewn round the living room was a various assortment of pyjamas, shorts and t-shirts. But indeed there was one large basket of washing which was clean and dry. And all boasted a delicate pinkish hue. He’d just f**ked the whole lot in together and sent it chuntering away merrily at 40 degrees. I just put it away. I didn’t even comment. Sometimes what’s the point?


But back to this weekend. Yes, I was in an ecstasy of washing but wasn’t it tremendous drying weather? And with my love for bunging stuff on the line and saving electricity I was in my element. So Sunday night (Father’s Day) we roasted a chicken and after telling the kids to “Get into bed AND FLIPPING stay there” we got a few chores done. LSB built an Ikea bench for shoes and assembled a trolley. (All the rage now, trollies). I folded some laundry that had blown dry in the balmy air. We washed and cleaned a car seat we’re passing on to a friend. We listened to Arcade Fire and opened a bottle of Bordeaux. The small child came down of course and demanded some food and attention but we bundled her back to bed after a piece of chicken. “Wasn’t that a lovely evening,” I said. “Better than a night out!” LSB just gave me a funny look. Some people get a fancy dinner, maybe even a wee cake. LSB gets his tool kit out. And God love him, that’s not even a euphemism.


Here’s the trolley, a trifle askew to the right, but that’s to provide wall support to my droopy aloe vera plant. (That’s not  a euphemism either.)







Would you ever think that this bench from Ikea was destined to be a television stand? For the princely sum of £10, it doubles here as handy shoe rack, the top of which will be the ‘forever home’ of our keys, in a little bowl. I’ll not be shouting “Where are my f**king keys?” anytime soon. No sirree.



SWB gets analytical

Careful what you believe in, and to to paraphrase U2, “She moves in mysterious ways“. This morning this might have seemed like the ideal scenario for the DUP, the parochial party from Northern Ireland now thrust into the big time as the Queen maker. But as the dust is settling, the rest of the UK media sees who Theresa May has allied herself with, a party that (in no particular order) opposes same sex marriage; refuses women the right to have their say over their own bodies; believes that creationism should be taught in schools (despite having press calls at the Giant’s Causeway); thinks that Muslims should only go to the shops for them, and literally have an economic policy where ash means cash. ( so much for the ‘stewardship of the earth’, we’re supposed to demonstrate; they happily skip over that Biblical passage as they line their cronies’ pockets.)

The rest of the UK, will look at this sudden power broker and literally will think “what the flying f**k?” this isn’t anything we voted for. These are not values we believe in, nor the government we wanted.

Northern Ireland has its own set of problems, the United Kingdom as a whole has an entirely new set of problems that didn’t exist yesterday, this is an attempt by an extremely weak Prime Minister, clinging on to that last hope of power for herself, not for the good of the country.

Yesterday the people voted for hope, this pact/deal flies in the face of that.

However, all is not lost. Already the backlash to this has begun, with a Prime Minister who has made the u-turn an art form, this decision is unlikely to last (as is she). To echo back to U2 – Don’t let the bastards grind you down. The whole situation is so absurd that it has to be short-lived, and I for one hope that we have the right leader to pick up the pieces when things fall apart.


Insomnia strikes SWB


I couldn’t get to sleep last night. Maybe it was my persistent cough; (damn those fags*) or the ill-advised two cups of coffee that day, or maybe it was just the horror sinking in of the most recent terrorist attacks. I have two close friends who live within spitting distance of London Bridge. Before we all had kids I was never off their doorsteps, flying over for half-term and Easter for my London fix. We’d spend our mornings in Spitalfields where I’d snap up a whole rake of cheery tunic dresses for work, then hit Brick Lane for a curry. We’d feast on sushi in South Kensington’s Kulu Kulu before basking in the gardens of the V&A. And we’d spend a lot of time just lounging in my friend’s house on Butler’s Wharf, watching the swell of the Thames and the hustle and bustle below as we drank Rioja on her rooftop.

I mourn those days. I used to book a flight without a thought; dip my toe into that sunny cosmopolitan world, before nipping back home to teach on the Falls. I miss that carefree time without kids, but I always longed to take the girls there when they were big enough to enjoy it with me. I hate that I now feel scared of some madman with a knife on the rampage, or behind the wheel of a van destined to kill.

These ruminations weren’t conducive to sleep, so I tossed and turned beside a snoring LSB before taking myself to the spare room where I could be as fitful as I liked. So amid all these bleak thoughts, I came over all Theresa May and said: “Enough is enough”. (That’s as close as May and I will ever come to agreeing on anything). I did took some deep yogic breaths: in for eight out for eight, in for eight out for eight, and I felt my heart rate start to slow. Then I thought of some nice things. What buns would I make for my friends’ next pop up café, Harper’s Yard? Rocky Roads, I concluded. Could I lay hands on some of the sustainable cups I’d bought ages ago and tidied away somewhere? While down this road I thought about some savoury canapés that are served on edible pastry spoons. (These are very big in France and are served as ‘Amuse bouches’ for hors d’oeuvres. Feck, something needs to be amused these days, and it may as well be your mouth.)

Now, I can see some of you rolling your eyes and thinking: “God Almighty, the threat of another terror attack is imminent and she’s actually on about canapés and baked goods?” But let me justify my musings. The edible spoons mean you need neither napkin nor plate, so your bellies feel full but the landfill doesn’t. And who doesn’t like a Rocky Road of a Saturday morning?

As these frothy and frivolous thoughts began to swirl, the anxiety began to leech away. It didn’t go, but it retreated for a while. And finally, I slept.

*I don’t actually smoke, haven’t in years. But if I thought the world was ending tomorrow I’d be back on those bad boys in a jiffy. I loved a menthol with an expresso. Or with a G&T. Or just sitting on my own, in the park with a book. Loved them full stop. Addictive little feckers.