The week Sir Terry Pratchett died (and Belfast: Celtic Tiger number 3)

Mon 9 – Sat 14 March

Bugger, another brilliant person has died
I felt moved to tears by Sir Terry Pratchett’s death. My blog was going to primarily be about my time in Belfast but I have to mark the passing of such a literary genius. If you have never read Terry Pratchett then I envy you the joy you still have to come. Frankly he is one of the best authors I have ever read (and regular blog readers will know I read a lot). His novels are packed full of ideas and humour, they are simply a joy to read; don’t be misled that they are ‘just’ fantasy or funny. And his output was prestigious, at one stage he was writing a book every six months. Ho hum, another ‘little death’ to take on board alongside Steve Strange, Deirdre Barlow, Robin Williams, etc.

Back from Dublin and starting work on an exciting new digital innovation initiative
My last blog finished on Monday in Dublin airport. A perfectly decent flight back and on BA so I got my free wine – it’s lovely to fly with class. I had agreed to meet my wonderful colleague Nissa at 4pm at Victoria to go through the work we need to do together to deliver our exciting pilot programme funding digital projects with the particular intention to identify what the ‘not for profit’ sector has to offer around digital innovation. My journey from Heathrow to her became one of those where everything was against me especially on the tube – how come London Underground ‘1 minute’ seem to equal anything from 30 to 240 seconds? The meeting went well – a great brainstorming / planning session, very exciting and intellectually stimulating. Then back home to catch up with mum, it was really good to see her and she was well-ish with her leg still giving her pain. I had an evening of watching Coronation Street, sorting out stuff (post, etc) as I had been away from home for a while, and packing for tomorrow’s journey to Belfast.

Tuesday in Belfast
A good night’s kip then up early and off to catch up with Dave over breakfast before I headed to Gatwick. Smooth check in and a simple flight on Easy, didn’t even really notice it was happening. Though I should have chosen to go to George Best City Airport – much closer than Belfast International where I had gone to. For the Airlink bus to the city centre, I was the only person on it until very near the city when it became like an ordinary bus picking people up at stops. I had never been to Belfast before but I found my hotel then pottered around the city though it was annoying that everything seemed to shut early and totally by 6.30/7. In the evening I met up with my mate Laurence who comes from Belfast but used to live in London and Brighton before moving back. He drove me around the city which has some bits from its prosperous Victorian period but a lot is also very modern replacing stuff bombed during the troubles. We went to eat and drink in the bohemian area around Queen’s University – very nice, I will be staying there next time. Don’t know about any economic downturn but the restaurants were very busy and we had to settle for traditional burger and fries followed by coffee at the late opening coffee shops on Botanic Avenue.

Wednesday – understanding more about Northern Ireland
I slept OK though I did have a bit of a nightmare linked to thinking there was an evil spirit in the room. I wondered why my alarm had not gone off then realised I had not switched on where the charger was plugged into so the phone was dead – doh! Weather fitted a stereotype: heavy rain and strong wind. I walked back to Botanic Avenue to meet up with my colleague Eamon and we went off together to our meeting about a potential new initiative targeting stigma and discrimination around mental health in Northern Ireland. The meeting went well. My afternoon was spent writing up notes plus checking out Belfast’s charity shops on the way to another meeting about the mental health issues of veterans. Very interesting to realise that because of the small population (1.8 million in the whole of Northern Ireland), there is a very high proportion of people, especially men, who been involved in police / military / para-military related activities and that has left a clear aftermath to be dealt with; sometimes in such a situation just encouraging people to have a cup of tea and a chat or see their GP is not the right answer.

The evening, I found a fabulous Indian restaurant then went back to my hotel to see Coronation St on ITV+1 and finish things off with a drink in the hotel bar. I often stay in Ibis / Accor hotels and I can honestly this was the most ‘earthiest’ Ibis I have ever stayed in. Another good night’s sleep and the next day I dealt with important work emails before taking the long bus journey back to Belfast International Airport through Belfast’s suburbs (I found out that they had grown during the troubles as nobody wanted to live in the city centre) and the rolling green countryside. A fine flight back and I was at Dave’s by 5pm.

Reflections on Belfast and Northern Ireland as well as travelling in general
It was very good to go to Belfast and this helped me realise the specifics of the wider area so I don’t just see it through a London lens. It is a post-conflict, conservative (with a small ‘c’) society still with a lot of tensions and contradictions to be worked out plus the need to ensure even-handedness in everything. There is a very long history of division to overcome and people have often been observers to some pretty awful situations. So it is not as simple just to take things from mainland UK and assume they will work here though that can’t be a let-off for not doing things correctly. And it genuinely felt that people did have a pride and identification in the fact that they are Northern Irish rather than just Irish or British.

To my own eye, there were some quirky things like very little anonymity (as in London); without being patronising it is quite fair to say everybody knows everybody – like in Brighton which was one of main reasons I left there. I also noticed, as someone pointed out, the term ‘wee’ everywhere to the point of annoyance – ‘Would you like a wee receipt with that?’, ‘Is there a wee price tag?, ‘Will you have a wee drop of milk with that?’, etc. Overall, my trip to the three Celtic Tigers in a fortnight has made me more aware of their particular uniqueness (as well as their individual differences) and the frequent contrasts to London, my home town and a place I know so very well. I also realised that though I find travelling stimulating, I do appreciate when I am at home and having a break from moving about; it is good to have stability now and then plus to be able to catch up with mum and Dave.

Catching up on my social life in London and meeting David Stuart leading campaigner around chemsex
Thursday night I stayed with Dave as we seem like ships passing in the night sometimes and, indeed, a lot of the evening was spent sorting out work and personal emails by me as we sat in front of the television. A nice night’s sleep then up early to the gym. The same day Dave went off to his mother’s in the north because of Mother’s Day weekend. I met up with my mate Jamie at lunchtime in the Actor’s Centre in Covent Garden; an interesting place but the cafe was very quiet cafe with people learning their lines – it felt like a library that should not be disturbed by idle chit chat.

Then I met up with David Stuart who is one of the main campaigners and awareness raisers around chemsex. You may be asking what is chemsex? It’s fundamentally a gay men’s thing where gay men go clubbing and to parties taking the latest trendy but really dangerous drugs like crystal meth (tina) and G – this can include injecting the drugs, ‘slamming’. These drugs make for amazing sex apparently to the point where people go crazy and often do very unwise things like being unsafe, over-dosing, and even dying; sort of ultimate hedonism. Not like the old days of ecstasy, dancing your tits off then going to a chill. Chemsex is far more dark and sinister which can always be very attractive to people exploring for the first time or for those trying to get back to an excitement they have experienced before and want to repeat (as is so true of many middle-aged men).

Back home to spend Friday evening with mum but also to deal with work stuff, it is neverending and I frequently find myself working well over my paid part-time hours. Red Nose Day took place and was a success (I particularly liked sketch about Mr Bean at a funeral) – thanks to everyone for their generosity in donating.

A lovely, relaxing Saturday
A great night’s sleep – very restful though with weird dreams, the type you know were weird when you wake up but can’t make sense of nor really remember. Off to the gym. Dave texted me to say he was bored at his mum’s place – tough shit. I then had a nice ‘me on my own’ day for the rest of Saturday. I bought a couple of DVDs at the Exchange in Berwick St with vouchers I had sitting in my pocket for ages. A couple of coffees and continued reading of ‘Lamentation’, the wonderful latest book by C J Sansom. I did keep a check on the early kick-off QPR match; we lost again 3-1. Pretty sure it is back down to the championship and another new team to be built;  the key issues will be finding the right new manager, keeping Charlie Austin, and offloading the dross.

Afternoon was spent at Dave’s place watching one of the DVDs bought that day (a gay French film, ‘Our Paradise’) whilst simultaneously clearing out work and home emails plus updating Twitter and Facebook – digital bliss. In the evening, I went out for a curry on my own, I do enjoy ‘table for one’, and finished off with a coffee and very rich custard like dessert at a local Portuguese cafe. Back to Dave’s to read and listen/watch Sara Cox’s Sound of the Eighties on Radio 2 and the Red Button.

Health and exercise
There was a definite knock back on Tuesday morning when I found out my weight had gone back up to 13-6 from the previous 13-4. The result I think of a lack of exercise and poor holiday diet during my travels. The only good thing is that I have got under 13-7 as my ‘new norm’ but the target of reaching 13 stone by end of March looks highly unlikely. Back to the gym on Friday for the first time in about a fortnight and boy did it feel good doing an all body parts workout. The same thing the next day on Saturday morning though doing different actual exercises. One should not exercise on consecutive days because the body needs to rest (and I had got my jog-run to come on Sunday) but I did not go over the top and just appreciated the joy that came from exercising again after being away.

I have been doing some good reading whilst pottering around, details on each book below.

Ironically one was Terry Pratchett’s ‘Thief of Time’. Part of the Discworld series and a far deeper book than initially seemed so – as with all Terry’s books to a varying extent. It especially dwelt on how we perceive time and what it means to be human. The range of characters had not really been seen in other Discworld books which signals to me that Terry was trying to tell a new story with meaning rather than just writing another book in the series.

Damon Galgut ‘Arctic Summer’ was a very good book, much recommended and fairly so. Quite a literary book about the life of E M Forster – basically it is biographical fiction centering on his travels to Italy, India, and Egypt. The book did make me go away and look at his life on Wiki which is fascinating perhaps the most interesting thing that he stopped writing quite early in his life after producing several classics – I wonder why?

I love innovation and ‘Frugal Innovation’ by Navi Radjou and Jaideep Prabhu was a book I bought when I saw them do a presentation at NESTA. It really is about how to do more with less economically – not sure if it is the basis of a new way of thinking and doing or just a flash in the pan. Basically the book outlined six principles:

  • ‘Agile’ Research and Development based on engagement with consumers especially observation and iteration (constant change – short-term failures to achieve long-term success)
  • Keeping things low cost and not wasting resources
  • Ensuring sustainability at all stages in development and a product’s life
  • Encouraging changed consumer behaviour for the better
  • Getting consumers to also be producers
  • Build links with similar people and organisations

Eric Swanson ‘The Boy in the Lake’ – a classic gay literature book written in 1999. It was good though not the most complex story and, like Damon Galgut, quite literary. However, it fits perfectly into that traditional bleak gay literature landscape where everybody leads grim lives; of course it was written at the time of the AIDS crisis. It also treads that well worn path of young people with problematic developmental years which in turn screws up their later lives.

C J Sansom ‘Lamentation’ is my current reading book and the one I am still wading through – over 600 pages. He is a great author and this continues the adventures of Tudor private investigator Matthew Shardlake. It’s total balls in terms of the reality of Tudor life (seeing King Henry VIII and working intimately with the Queen) but a good complex yet entertaining thriller. Read his books in the proper series, my strong recommendation to you.

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