My new novel, Fracking Up, was published yesterday. It’s the first entirely new book I’ve written (Summer 17 was rediscovered and revised) since Girotondo in 2006, so merits a small celebration. I’d started a novel set in Northern Ireland in between the two, but my imagination wasn’t really caught, and so I don’t suppose it will get any further.
Like most of my books, the plot for Fracking Up came to me very quickly, on a walk through the woods into town, with only minor additions and developments popping up later. It was obviously going to be a book ‘about fracking’ in the sense that fracking was its background and the engine of its plot development, but I didn’t set out to write a treatise, and hope that’s not how it’s turned out.
Firstly and lastly, it’s a story, and it’s as a story that it will stand or fall. The plot is less complex than some of my previous ones (I’ve just seen an American review of Girotondo that complains about it being ‘a bit convoluted’) but there are, as usual a lot of characters (the American reviewer doesn’t like that, either) and a lot of jokes.
One of the really important things to point out that it isn’t, is a roman à clef. I don’t particularly enjoy reading novels that are depictions of reality overlaid with a fictional gloss, and I certainly wouldn’t want to write one. One of the greatest pleasures of writing, for me, is being able to use, and stretch, my imagination, to create a new world and populate it with the people who, I confess, live and move inside my head. That, I suppose, is one reason why, with notable exceptions, most of my characters are generally sympathetic; I don’t want to give brainspace to the others.
So when I write that the Island and its inhabitants are fictional, I mean just that. There aren’t any disortions or upside-down viewpoints that will bring it into a focus as a real-life original. Sometimes people have difficulty with that. I remember that when I wrote the Ophelia books in the 1990s, I’d be constantly ambushed with questions about Rambleton, the town in which it was set. ‘Is it Helmsley; is it Masham, is it Kirkbymoorside or Thirsk or Ripon?’ It had elements of them all; but it was indubitably Rambleton, and couldn’t be anywhere else.
In the case of Fracking Up, a fictionalised version of real life would be particularly uninviting to me as a writer, as sadly, it would be so dull. As anyone who has been involved in a long-term campaign knows, most of the work that has to be done is a long, often repetitive slog. A novel containing descriptions of proof-reading leaflets, agreeing minutes and operating overhead projectors would be unlikely to provide any serious competition to Fifty Shades. So anyone hoping to read the secrets of the Fermanagh Fracking Awareness Network in FOOI’s rash adventures and steamy encounters will be bitterly disappointed.
Similarly, though real life politics and corporate behaviour are often stranger than fiction, they’re also more complicated and rarely as funny. The creation of the Island’s government, the town council, Anonymous and the Island Bank allowed me to introduce a sort of satiric fairy-tale element, a Magnus Millish irony, which I hope readers will enjoy as much as I did. Another advantage of an entirely imagined world is that it contains areas of complete mystery, to the writer as well as the reader. I know no more than anyone else about what Jenny’s job really was or whether Hilly put gin in her tonic (or vice versa). And as for the cat …
The elements of Fracking Up that are soundly based on reality are the effects of fracking, on the environment, health and the local economy. All the descriptions of these are based on observed incidents and consequences in the real world, transferred from their North American context across the Atlantic. So far we have not seen in practice what fracking will mean for rural communities in Europe, so much more densely populated and topographically complex than the plains of America, and one thing I wanted to do in the book was to explore what those effects might be.
There is, additionally, another plot element which was central to my thinking and writing in this book. I don’t want to specify it here, as it would be a substantial spoiler, but it arose out of a news story a couple of years ago, which shocked me deeply and has haunted me ever since. I hope that Fracking Up will be the sort of book that merits rereading; that people will race through it firstly to find out what happens next and read it more slowly again later, understanding its layers in the light of what is revealed at the end. Once you’ve read it, you’ll know what I mean.
So, what am I hoping that Fracking Up will achieve? As I said above; it’s a story, and, like any other storyteller, my first wish is that people will enjoy the tale, that the plot will fascinate them, the writing entertain and that the characters will populate their own imaginations as vividly as they have mine. If, as a result of reading it, they start to ask questions about the hydraulic fracturing process, about the vaunted benefits of shale gas extraction and about the ways in which local communties are exploited along with their resources, then I will be doubly delighted, and will hold my head up high at our next FFAN committee meeting. If only we had the Rat’s Finger to adjourn to …
This was my second proper, grown-up trip to Greenbelt. I went once, about thirty years ago, when I was around seventeen. I remember being inspired, excited about ideas of the holy fool, about the possibility of melding radical politics and intellectual enquiry with faith. It was, in retrospect, one of the milestones on my path away from the rather simplistic, if kind and compassionate, evangelical church into which I had just, or was about to, be baptised. But my memories, beyond that, are hazy in the extreme. The idea of going there again last year was inspired neither by faith or politics, but by my failure to get tickets for the Cambridge Folk Festival. I’d seen Show of Hands at Glastonbury, and had such a good time bouncing up and down and shouting ‘Arrogance, Ignorance and Greed!’ that I was keen to repeat the experience. Lots of others obviously had the same idea, and by the time I got to a computer, the big days at Cambridge were all sold out. I then noticed that they were playing at Greenbelt, along with Billy Bragg and Grace Petrie, two more of my Glastonbury highlights.
Since being received into the Catholic church at university, I’d grown rather out of touch with developments in the Protestant tradition. In the past couple of years, though, through reading Gladys Ganiel’s Church Without Walls blog, I’d started to discover a little about the Emerging Church movement. The names of the speakers at Greenbelt, although most were unfamilar, included a few that I knew of from Gladys, including Brian McLaren, Phyllis Tickle and Peter Rollins. There were also ‘secular’ speakers whose work I admired; Richard Wilkinson, the co-author of The Spirit Level, the psychologist Oliver James and Mark Thomas, talking about his walk along the Palestinian wall. So, along with my two younger sons, then fourteen and seventeen, one of their contemporaries and Fiona, who at twenty four floated comfortably between me and the boys (at least, I hope she’s comfortable there, so long as her tent stays upright) I made the trek (bus, ferry, several trains, bus etc.) to Greenbelt 2011.
Despite the speakers and music, I’d expected the festival to be a bit anodyne, well-meanng Cliff Richard, so was surprised and galvanised by the challenging visions of the contributors (the theme for the year was Palestine) and the reassuring number of eccentrics among the audiences. The combination of faith, arts and politics (together with the, compared to other festivals, frankly sybaritic loos) seemed pretty near perfect, and even the fact that alcohol was confined to the campsites and the provocatively named Jesus Arms beer tent (how reassuring it would sound to suffer a fatal heart attack there) proved to be rather more a benefit than a hindrance. Devoted as I am to the fermented grape, and on occasion the grain, the sight of teenagers at Glastonbury entirely incapable of rational thought or accurate movement is not an edifying one, while the sea of abandoned lager cans inspired a visceral depression that clouded the most joyful musical experiences.
So, as soon as tickets for Greenbelt 2012 went on sale, we booked ours, all of us but our younger friend, whose path of faith was taking him in different directions. There was no Glastonbury this year, and I’d already had more than my lifetime’s share of treats in the trip to South Africa, so this was my first and only festival of the summer. I came, metaphorically speaking, with quite a lot of baggage. (Literally, not, notably without boots of any kind, of which more anon.) In particular I had two areas of confusion and mild dilemma which were sending spirals of unproductive musing around my head and keeping me from getting on with more useful trains of thought.
As I mentioned above, I was received into the Catholic church at the age of twenty and since then have been fairly regularly, if lazily, observant. Like far more illustrious and devout fellow English converts, including Hopkins and Newman, I found the Irish church something of a shock. During the eight years that I’ve been here, two in the south and six in the north, I’ve met many wonderful Irish Catholics, lots of laypeople and a few priests, and one or two inspiring communities, notably the Franciscan friary in Ennis. Overall, though, my experience of the Catholic church in Ireland has been one of a rather conservative, defensive and self-regarding body, childishly clinging to hierarchical structures, obsessed with sport and academic achievement, generous in charitable giving but unwilling to look at the causes of injustice and poverty, welcoming to incomers but expecting them to conform to narrow cultural and religious norms. The recent furore over Sean Quinn and his family’s financial dealings, during which Fr Brian D’Arcy, whom I like, admire and otherwise generally agree with, spoke at a rally in support of the billionaire, was for me something of a final straw.
If, I asked myself, I feel more isolated than ever from my local Catholic community, increasingly unhappy at the pronouncements of the Vatican, which appears to be attempting some sort of time-travelling excursion back to the 1950s, and downright opposed to Cardinal Keith O’Brien and the like with their crusade against gay marriage, on what basis can I honestly call myself a Catholic at all? The thread that bound me, precious as it was, woven of a sacramental understanding of the relation between earth and heaven, a pretty orthodox theology, the constant, if submerged current of radical social teaching and, most of all, an identification with Christians across the earth and the centuries, was looking perilously thin. Of the specific people I looked to for inspiration within the tradition: Julian of Norwich, Francis of Assisi, Dorothy Day and Oscar Romero, most, though available in spirit, had an unmistakable drawback in dealing with the conundrums of 2012. Except for one.
Among the speakers at Greenbelt this year was Fr John Dear, an American Jesuit and peace activist who for a long time has been one of the only living men on my dwindling list of ‘people who are keeping me Catholic’. My emotions, therefore, on seeing his name were a wobbly mixture of joyful anticipation and craven fear. What if he turned out to be less than I’d hoped: to be arrogant, or bigoted, or even self-righteous and humourless? Or, in the other direction, what if he announced that he himself were giving up on the church? I really didn’t want to leave, despite everything. For one thing, I had nowhere else to go. If I wasn’t at all sure that I could be a good Catholic in Northern Ireland, I was pretty positive that I certainly couldn’t be any sort of Protestant here. (I even vaguely fantasised about the Orthodox churches, until the Pussy Riot business showed what a comprehensive leap out of the frying pan that would be.) I have a great deal of time, affection and respect for the Quakers, but I’m not a good enough person to survive as a Friend alone. I need liturgy, sacraments, the community of saints, on earth and heaven, to keep my footsteps even roughly on the right path.
My other dilemma, coincidentally, was another in which I looked to John Dear. It was one which I’d come to the fringes of in real life, and which I was exploring in the novel, Fracking Up, which I’ve nearly finished writing. Simply put, I suppose, it was about the relation between direct action and non-violence. Fr John, whose whole ministry has been guided by principles of non-violence, has been to prison several times for acts of civil disobedience in relation to nuclear weapons. How could he be sure of what actions would be truly peaceful? Was it cowardly of me, in my own small involvement, to eschew direct action in favour of writing and speaking?
I’m not sure exactly what I mean these days about prayers being answered, but whatever it is, I was given it in glorious abundance. John Dear spoke twice over the weekend, and on both occasions I was able to talk briefly to him afterwards. It was all right. He was honest, and humble, and funny and genuine, and he answered my questions with a piercing, lateral clarity, not so much responding to them directly as illuminating for me what had become smeared by too much examination. The Catholic church, I realised, was where I was; there was no point in uprooting myself to try a transplant to some other, equally imperfect soil. ‘Look at Jesus,’ he urged, ‘Read the Gospels. Don’t worry.’
Yes, I saw, the Catholic church is all those things I identified; childish, trivial, blinkered and proud. So am I. It’s also, as the wonderful London Catholic Worker mass on Sunday afternoon demonstrated, joyful, compassionate and challenging. Fr Martin Newell, like Brian D’Arcy a Passionist priest, spoke with incredible honesty and humility about his own life – like John Dear he has been to prison for ‘beating swords into ploughshares’ – and left me in no doubt that it is the log in my own eye, the selfishness of my own life and my own complicity in the systems of war and injustice, which ought to be my first concern.
And yes, Fr John answered my second question too, by his repeated use of the phrase ‘meticulous non-violence’. For an action to be peaceful, I saw, it is not enough for there just to be no intention of using or provoking violence. It must be prepared and prayed over, often for years, to ensure that the freedom and integrity of everyone involved are respected and cared for. ‘Love your enemies,’ said Jesus, not, ‘Don’t have any enemies’ or ‘Your enemies are wrong; therefore they have forfeited their rights’. The people called to do these things are extraordinary; their faith and commitment and discipline – real, contemplative prayer is the basis of their lives – have made them so. To try to bypass all that in search of a quick headline would be arrogant in the extreme. As Fr John pointed out, neither ‘impact’ nor ‘success’ are Gospel words.
Other things happened, too, quite a lot of them bits of weather; rain, high winds and thunderstorms. I don’t know how many appreciated that one of the sub-themes of this year’s festival (the title was Saving Paradise) was climate change. Inevitably, I suppose, after expecting a jejune happy-clappy crowd in 2011, I went to the other extreme this year, and anticipated that everyone would be a radical peace/eco activist, arriving by bike or train with a knapsack of simple necessities. Instead, of course, as the mud deepened, out of the people carriers came the Hunter wellies, the individual toilet tents, the folding chairs and the slightly relentless cheeriness. They’re good people, though, and it’s probably mathematically, as well as sociologically, unreasonable to expect everyone to diverge too far from the norm. If we didn’t want mainstream jollity, it was silly to camp in the middle of the youth groups’ field.
The greatest irritation of the weekend wasn’t the punters, anyway, (I fortunately didn’t hear the woman who, rebuking her daughter for playing in the mud, chided her ‘You don’t want to look like a gypsy, do you?’) but a couple of the supposedly progressive speakers. I came in late to a debate about campaigning held in the Christian Aid tent between Douglas Alexander the Labour MP, Suzanne Matale from the Zambian Council of Churches, and Giles Fraser, the former St Paul’s canon who resigned during the Occupy protest and thereby catapulted himself into a successful media career. The conversation had been largely concerned with the need to move from a charitable to a justice-based outlook (obviously Irish Catholics aren’t the only ones who find the transition difficult). When it came to questions from the audience, which were dealt with in clusters, mine being the second in our group, I suggested that making more specific connections between local and global issues might be a way forward in this regard. As an example, I referred to the proposals to frack for shale gas in Fermanagh and the way in which this, though on a different scale, was analogous to the exploitation of resources by multinational corporations across the majority world. As I finished, another hand immediately went up, and a man, probably ten or fifteen years older than me, asked the final question. Many people there, he pointed out, worked for multinationals, which did a great deal of good. Did the panel agree that it was a cheap jibe to attack them?
Douglas Alexander replied first, and wholeheartedly agreed with the questioner, referring to a recent corporate jobs fair in his constitiuency. Giles Fraser went next, slightly more circumspect, but the gist was that if the corporations paid tax in the right country then they’d be fine. Neither of them addressed my question, or the one that had come before. Finally Suzanne Matale spoke, pausing before she began.
‘I’ve been trying all this time,’ she said, ‘to think of one good thing that the multinationals have done for my country, and I’m finding it very difficult. There are jobs, I suppose, though …’ She went on to point out that neither the wages nor the conditions imposed were exactly generous, and then to deal with my point, with which she agreed. I was slightly distracted by then, though, by the extraordinary series of schoolboy smirks which, as she began to speak, I saw being exchanged behind her back by the two white men. Could I have been mistaken? I’d really like to think so. I don’t expect much from the Labour Party but I had hoped that Fraser’s much-publicised resignation had been underpinned by a bit more respect and humility. I went off for half an hour’s meditation, during which I kept falling asleep, but at least recovered my humour.
Other than that, and our fruitless struggles to restore Fiona’s collapsed tent on the final stormy night, the weekend was a joy, interspersed, in usual festival fashion, with moments of utter exhaustion. Owing to the complicated nature of my journey (via a family holiday on the Isle of Portland) and space constraints, I hadn’t brought any footwear more substantial than sandals and plimsolls and so had to wade in bare feet through the sea of mud which comprised large portions of the festival. As a result, my carefully concocted schedule was largely abandoned and I missed hearing Suzanne Matale’s own talk as well as Bruce Cockburn’s acoustic set (though he was fantastic on the Mainstage).
It was my first Braggless summer since 2008, which was sad, but Grace Petrie played again, more inspiring than ever,
I relived bits of my adolescence with the Proclaimers (‘Letter from America’ is sweetly nostalgic in a world of tweets and Facebook updates), discovered the marvellous Hope & Social, loved the Imagined Village (no Chris Wood, but a couple of Carthys) and danced as wildly as the mud permitted to Bellowhead. I’d seen them at Glastonbury last year in the afternoon, grumpy at having broken my sandal (I mean I was grumpy, not the band) but this late set, with atmospheric lighting and Jon Boden all nineteenth century Gothic in white shirt and black waistcoat, quite Sweeney Todd, was breathtaking.
What else? Quite a lot of Palestine; Zaytoun olive oil and the first showing of Leila Sansour’s Bethlehem film (with Jeremy Hardy looking indecently rugged for a Radio 4 chap), the gloriously silly Folk On, Peter Tatchell, very statesmanlike (in the best sense) and Robin Ince, Greenbelt’s favourite atheist. And I spent what, in retrospect, might seem an odd amount of time listening to gay men talking about Old Testament bodies, thanks to fantastic performances by Peterson Toscano and Pádraig O Tuama. Which last, really, brings me back home, to Northern Ireland, with all its frustrations, opportunities and hard-working, inspirational friends struggling to make a better future. No, the churches aren’t perfect, none of them. How on earth do I think they’d want me if they were?
p.s. Oh dear. That’ll teach me to be ‘downright opposed’ to people. (I hope.) I’ve just, nine days after posting this, read Fr John Dear’s own blog about his tour of Scotland and England, in which he writes:
“Edinburgh’s Cardinal Keith O’Brien is probably the world’s most antinuclear church official. “Nuclear weapons are capable of destroying all life on earth, and their use or threatened use is morally reprehensible,” he says. “Policies of ‘nuclear deterrence’ are a moral failure, and the only viable policy on nuclear weapons has to be one which leads to their complete elimination.” Amazing to hear his clear voice for peace. So different from church officials in the U.S.”
Oops. I still disagree with the Cardinal about marriage for gay people, but he’s clearly not the reactionary I’d envisaged. Mea culpa, in the church’s own wise language.
One sunny day, in Leo Lapa, Lin mentioned that she hoped this story would have a plot.
Since it’s always wise to listen to your principal characters, I suppose I’ll have to do my best to find one. I’m not having much luck so far, though we do have quite a satisfying back story. Long ago, in the mists of 2011, a certain grandmaster won the Commonwealth Chess Championship, held that year in South Africa, and therefore also encompassing the South African Chess Championship. By an uncharacteristically acute piece of forward thinking twenty-three years earlier, I’d arranged to be the mother of the said grandmaster, our eldest son Gawain (pictured left)
So when one of the prizes for the SACC turned out to be a week’s holiday for ten people at the Leo Lapa lodge on the fringes of the Kruger National Park, and when Gawain and his lovely and accomplished fiancée Sue (pictured right) decided to have their wedding there, I was ideally placed to angle for an invitation. (Actually I didn’t; I thought they were inviting friends only, and when they asked me I was overwhelmed, enchanted, tearful, dithery and generally behaved like a dishcloth that’s suddenly found itself invited to become a napkin for the royal garden party.)
So, this is the story of my journey to South Africa, of the week we spent there (not including the wedding itself, which was magical, but far too precious for the hurly-burly of the blogosphere) and the journey back again, which turned out to be slightly less straightforward than first envisaged. So, it has a narrative structure; we shall have to see whether or not Lin’s plot emerges.
The first part of the journal contains the contemporaneous bits, written in odd moments on buses, planes, upon waking in Leo Lapa, on the sunny terrace and before going to bed. As I might have anticipated, however, there was far too much to do and see to find even a fraction of the time needed to write it all down, and the rest had to be added from the comparative calm of an Irish July, sitting in the study looking out at the rain. I hope it makes sense; life is, I’m afraid, far too short for the cut-and-pasting that would be necessary to put it into one chronological sequence, but I daresay you’ll get the general idea. (In case you hadn’t guessed, the picture left, taken by Ross or Lin, shows me on the terrace, not having time to write everything down.)
My outward journey, to avoid unnecessary mystification, was as follows:
bus Enniskillen – Dublin airport
plane Dublin – Paris
plane Paris – Johannesburg
minibus Johannesburg – Leo Lapa
and the return trip the same, except with Amsterdam in place of Paris.
Thursday 7th June, 12.15pm, Enniskillen
Torrential rain from a white-grey sky as the Dublin bus wheezes out of the town. Everything is wet, from the brash new Jubilee flags along the loyalist estate to the blocks of empty flats, built – in several cases half-built – during the encroachment north of the great Irish property bubble of a few years past. The man behind me is talking on his phone, asking, without any particular animosity, whether the bus from fucking Derry to fucking Dublin stops in fucking Omagh.
The man in the seat opposite has been praying aloud, which he now follows with a soft and tuneful hymn. Meanwhile an uncertain looking elderly priest is waiting at the the bus stop, carrying a small backpack from which dangles an old-fashioned brown card label. It is still raining.
In Ireland, buses and bus stations, along with post offices, are the best places to encounter blow-ins like myself. Behind me, two young women are talking animatedly in, I think, Polish, while a glamorous Middle Eastern man and his (son, nephew?) enjoy a last insouciant cigarette before the bus goes on. Reading about the history of the Kruger National Park and the immense opposition faced by both Paul Kruger himself and the first warden, Colonel Stevenson-Hamilton, I notice the parallels with climate change campaigning now. Even closer to home, some of their greatest battles seem to have been against the mining companies.
3.30pm, Dublin Airport
I arrived too early to check in, but the Air France staff confirmed that I and my bag will be able to be checked right through to Johannesburg. As I had time to spare on this side of security, I asked a nice woman at one of the Currency Exchange outlets whether I could pick up the rand I’d ordered there. They didn’t have enough, but she directed me to Kathryn, her equally nice colleague at the other end of the hall, who did. So I managed to change one of the 500 euro notes which have been hanging around since I got them from Gawain in March, for nearly fifty buffalo-adorned 100 rand notes. That feels a lot more substantial. I don’t know whether the Currency Exchange people are always so full of bonhomie or whether it’s the Fr. Dougal style Irish football shirts they’re all wearing, and the green and orange balloons with which their booths are festooned.
5.45pm, Dublin Airport My bag and I are checked through to Johannesburg – hope we arrive there at roughly the same time. It was the same woman – lovely red hair – at the check-in desk, and she remembered me, though had to call a supervisor to coax the computer into printing my second boarding card. I’m now in the showing area for the Jameson Done in 60 Seconds films, which is rather pleasant, so will ruminate here for a while. Oh, I got searched at security after setting the bleeper off as I went through the archway-thingy. At first I thought that it was my watch, then the beads on my top, but realised afterwards that I’m wearing an underwired bra. Hope it doesn’t hold me up (no pun intended) too much in Paris.
6.30pm, Dublin Airport
At the gate. There are French people, speaking French with great enthusiasm and much gesticulation, as though specially planted here to reassure us that, yes, this is indeed the flight to Paris, and the Air France one to boot, unlike the Ryanair flight that goes at the same time, probably to some other airport optimistically described as ‘Paris’ but located in an outer suburb of Calais. And no doubt the passengers at that gate are accordingly subdued and unParisian. One of ours just said something suspiciously like ‘Ooh la la!‘ while the bearded chap opposite me, though obviously not with the excitable women, had no qualms about joining in their conversation to make a mot juste. It’s all, needless to say, far too fast and colloquial for me to understand more than an isolated word, mais or mere, neither of which are much help out of context. I had a cheese sandwich while sitting in the film place, not knowing otherwise when I’ll have the chance to eat something and the Wetherspoons’ breakfast starting to wear off. I’ll avoid alcohol, though (unless it’s free, in which case it clearly has no intoxicating powers, just as free food has no calories) until I’m safely installed with Helen at the Paris gate. L28, the boarding card tells me, which sounds reassuring, with the destination of ‘Johannesbourg’ pleasingly Continental. Not sure about the ‘N B Weight’ under the gate number, though – it was only a cheese sandwich. Anyway, the red-haired woman was also encouraging about the ease of the transfer process.
A text has just arrived from Paul (Helen’s husband) – her flight was forty minutes late leaving Heathrow, but she had oodles of time so this should be fine. Hope ours isn’t delayed by so much, though.
9.50pm, somewhere over Northern France
Looking optimistic at the moment – fifteen minutes ago the pilot announced that we were flying over Brighton and due to land in Paris five minutes early. I am sitting between two Frenchmen (so have no hope of either armrest); one distinctly irascible – tapping his fingers on anything firm enough (so not me, obviously) and sighing loudly. I’ve been given a complimentary glass of wine and another cheese sandwich while I read Richard Estes’ Safari Companion detailing the behaviour of all the species I’m likely to see (apart from wedding guests, who are sui generis). Have concluded that I’m a giraffe, despite appearances to the contrary – females spend half the day browsing and at night lie down and ruminate.
Friday 8th June, 12.15pm, somewhere between Johannesburg and Nelspruit, South Africa
Am now in the minibus with Mornay and the other nine members of the wedding party, heading across the golden veldt. But it all could have been so different. My last entry, as it admitted, was optimistic. Blasé might be a more accurate word, or, without being unduly harsh, complacent. Yes,the flight from Dublin did land five minutes early. The problem was that it landed several miles away from its designated gate. More when writing is easier …
Around 7pm (accidentally pulled the winder out on my watch, so I’m guessing), Leo Lapa
and when I’ve had some sleep. More in the short term later, anyway.
7.30pm, Leo Lapa
Yes, we’re here (most of us; just waiting for Ga, Sue, Ross and Lin to get back from their wedding arrangements/shopping in Nelspruit) and it’s utterly wonderful, quite beyond my present powers of description.
So, back to the flight from Dublin. I made sure to get off the plane promptly, only to find myself wedged at the back of the bus behind all the amblers. I’m used to shuttle buses; even ferries have them, so no particular alarm bells were yet ringing. In a minute, a couple of minutes, a few minutes, er, sometime, we would stop. And we did. That was when I started to feel a little concerned, when I saw the large signs directing us to Terminal 2E. Er, wasn’t Terminal 2E where we were supposed to have landed, and, more importantly for present purposes, also where the plane for Johannesburg was supposed to set off from?
Saturday 9th June, 5.30am, Leo Lapa
Helen has just brought me a cup of tea as we gently ease ourselves into the day. Formal activities begin at 6.30 with an early safari. I think that will be just about sunrise. It’s one thing that’s confusing for those of us from the northern hemisphere; the fact that, although the weather is as warm and sunny as the best of our summers, it is in fact winter, with a correspondingly late dawn and early sunset. Outside, the horizon is black tree silhouettes against a strip of red sky, fading to orange. Above it the sky is blue with a few low stars. It feels so strange to be surrounded by these quintessential African images – like accidentally straying into a fairy tale.
Back to Thursday night, and to cut what felt like a very long story short, I followed a man with a cardboard ‘Pekin’ sign, urged on by the airport staff who, in response to my repeated and plaintive enquiries of ‘Johannesburg?’ replied only, ‘Follow that group.’ Our Pied Piper led us to the platform for a transit train, was told by a man (one of those random individuals who appear from nowhere in dreams such as these) that the transit wasn’t going, or wasn’t going to Terminal 4E, or wasn’t going to help us, something decidedly unpromising anyway, so that our guide wheeled around and led us instead outside and onto another bus.
At the end of this, thankfully shorter, trip, we were at some species of security, where my underwired bra once again let me down (metaphorically speaking – physically M&S continued to live up to their reputation) and through to, joy of joys, the L gates of Terminal 2E. It was by now well after last boarding time for the Johannesburg flight, so I felt obliged to essay a run, if only for the look of the thing.
(Time to get dressed for the safari; to be, once again, continued.)
11am, Leo Lapa
Back from the morning safari drive. It was apparently disappointing from the conventional perspective, having missed any of the ‘Big Five’ animals, but after seeing hippos, crocodiles, kudu, impala, waterbuck, monkeys, leopard-headed [sic – see Part Two for their proper name] vultures, fish eagles and a rapidly-trotting warthog, we were far from dismayed.
1pm, Leo Lapa
Have been in the pool!
Sunday 10th June, 10.30am, Leo Lapa
A lazy morning, waiting for Bianka to look at the electrics (of more anon) and a chance to catch up with the story so far. So, where were we?
Ah yes, feeling obliged to run, not so much to get to the gate on time (by now I had no idea what time it actually was, and it was unlikely that the few seconds saved would be significant one way or the other) but simply to demonstrate to the Air France people that I knew I was late, and was sorry about it. This was, as I’m sure you’re about to point out, a less than impeccable line of logic; there was no way, even with my overdeveloped British conscience, that the delay could be considered as my fault (even the initial booking, on Air France’s own website, didn’t give me the sensible option of the half past five flight from Dublin) and I’m quite sure that a nonchalant saunter, or even a disgruntled amble, would have met the case quite satisfactorily. It’s odd, as Helen and I just noted, on the distinction between sitting upright doing nothing, and lying back on a sun lounger doing ditto, how we imbue these neutral physical actions with moral significance. So I ran, having prepared for the eventuality –
2.50pm, Leo Lapa
That sentence was interrupted by Larissa, who burst onto the terrace in her pyjamas to announce the arrival of an elephant, which turned out to be five elephants. I’ll catch up sometime; maybe on the flight home?
– by limiting my hand luggage to a small backpack and tiny bag, worn crosswise over my shoulder and chest, for the really essential stuff. What I hadn’t considered was the size, weight and general cloddishness of the walking boots I’d decided, at the last minute, to wear for the journey (and which, given the weather in County Fermanagh, had up to that point been a jolly good call). So, it was less a sprint than a lumber, but all the same I was thoroughly hot, breathless and generally discombobulated by the time I saw, her arms outstretched like a jovial guardian angel, my cousin Helen.
10.45pm, Leo Lapa
Lovely evening safari drive: more elephants, giraffes, wildebeest and an elusive cat-thing. That’s all I can manage to write for the moment.
Monday 11th June, 7am, Leo Lapa
I’m sitting up in bed with the cold winter sun edging around the long curtains. Helen has gone for breakfast; she, Suee Lee, Swoi Hoon, Larissa and Tom are driving around Kruger this morning while the rest of us: Gawain, Sue, Lin, Ross and I go to the Jane Goodall chimpanzee reserve. I’m aware that so far I’ve introduced no one but Helen, and even she only as a sort of embodied embrace, but I promise to tell you about the others before very long.
To get back to the tale, and the appearance of Helen (pictured right), we hugged (as would have been distinctly bathetic had we not, having approached one another with such extravagantly outstretched arms), exchanged pleasantries with the motherly Air France lady, whom Helen had acquainted with our predicament, and hurried onto the plane.
There’s very little to be said about the flight other than that it was as good as could be expected, with plentiful food, decent wine and a wide variety of electronic entertainment, of none of which we actually wanted to avail ourselves [oops, that’s a nasty construction, only noticed while typing]. What we actually wanted to do, after catching up with the three months since we saw one another last (we’re quite close, as cousins go, being separated by six years but united in vaguely creative pursuits (she’s a very a good graphic designer – website here), ownership of dogs called Robbie, memories of childhood summers in Dorset, a disinclination to expose our bodies in less than entirely encompassing swimsuits, cycling husbands (hers is about to do an unsupported ride from Land’s End to John O’Groats – sponsor him here) and much hospitality given by them and gratefully received by us over years of events in London (most of them at the Magic Circle, but that’s quite a different story)
Where did that sentence begin? Ah, yes.
was sleep. Sadly, sleep was not vouchsafed unto us, though we wriggled about a lot, pretended to be asleep in the hope that we could fool our bodies into shrugging and saying ‘Oh, very well then,’ and dozed very fitfully. Eventually, though, as has been noted elsewhere, the longest night does come to an end, and our end was, after all, in Africa, a continent new to both of us. There was an interesting moment at Passport Control, when the guy allocating passengers to booths, a sort of immigration triage nurse, told me to take off my specs (I was wearing them in preference to contact lenses for the journey) and then to go to kiosk 21. I looked up and down in desperation at the series of furry blobs into which the airport had disintegrated but fortunately Helen was directed to the same booth, and able to prod me in the right direction.
Wednesday 13th June, 11.20pm, Leo Lapa
A bit of a gap there, most of which was accounted for my the wedding, about which I don’t intend to write here, other than to mention that between fifteen and twenty elephants came down to the river in the afternoon, a healthy enough fertility symbol for any prospective grandmother. I’d better get on and finish this quickly, before my spare time is entirely taken up with crocheting bootees. (I should perhaps mention that the only bootees I’ve ever actually crocheted were for Gawain himself, and were ludicrously small even at his 39 week birth. It’s likely, therefore, that however inept I am at keeping a journal, I would be far more so at matriarchal handicrafts. Which brings us back to the elephants.)
The other reason I haven’t written anything is that we spent most of today in Mozambique. Well, we spent most of the day trying to get into Mozambique, and the small leftover scintilla of time (as we lawyers used to say) actually in Mozambique. More on this story in a later bulletin.
Thursday 14th June, 11.15pm, Leo Lapa
Well, that’s nearly it; a lovely day today – brunch, Kruger Park, outdoor dinner and board games Tomorrow morning the estimable Mornay arrives to take us back to Johannesburg. It’s been a truly wonderful week, but now, like all of us, I’m missing M and yearning to be home. ( I mean the home bit, principally, so far as the others are concerned; I’m sure they’d all, especially Ga and Sue, love to see M, but it would be slightly weird for a newly married man to be actively pining for his his papa.) Meanwhile, possibly the flight will give me time to bring this a little closer to being up to date.
Friday 15th June, 1.10pm, somewhere between Nelspruit and Johannesburg
On the road again, in Mornay’s (smaller) minibus, heading back to Johannesburg airport. Matters are slightly complicated by Helen’s having dislocated her knee. ‘Wtf?’ as her husband put it, succinctly, if not quite elegantly, in his text message. I shall leave you, fair reader, to speculate as to how the injury was sustained – saving the rest of the party from a stampeding rhino; performing gymnastics on the back of a matriarchal elephant or simply wrestling with a ravenous lion? The suspense is, we trust, just about bearable.
Saturday 16th June, 9.35am, above Paris
Well, we’ve survived the night, Helen with the help of fairly copious quantities of codeine and ibuprofen, me with my elephant book* and half of her miniature bottle of red wine (it was when she refused more than half a glass that I knew she was really in a bad way). The delightfully efficient Dutch stewardess has promised a wheelchair to meet us and the connection time is pretty generous in this direction, so there shouldn’t be too much to worry about (except poor Helen’s excruciating pain). And yes, I do remember that I said the same sort of thing as I approached Paris from Dublin, and no, I won’t reveal the secret of the dislocation yet. I have to keep my readers somehow.
*The Elephant Whisperer by Lawrence Anthony, which I’ve been reading for the entire trip, and has imbued me with lots of slightly flaky ideas.
12.20pm, Amsterdam airport
At the gate for my final flight to Dublin, Helen having been whisked off in a giant buggy to some sort of wheelchair-users’ holding area, which I didn’t manage to find. The airport is calm and civilised, with a library, museum shop and elegant lounges in one of which a young girl was playing the grand piano. And our Aer Lingus plane has just drawn up and I can see that it is called Saint Macartan – surely a propitious omen.
(though the date is now pretty much immaterial)
Sitting in the study looking at the not-actually-quite-rain-yet, it’s time to fill in the gaps.
The narrative, I see, left us on the first Friday at Johannesburg’s passport control, with me blinking at the blob in front of me and hoping that it was really the immigration officer’s face and not some fellow traveller’s backpack. It was, and having passed the rigorous interview (‘Why have you come to South Africa?’ ‘For a holiday’), our passports were duly stamped, giving us permission to stay until September.
Next came baggage reclaim, at which we witnessed an interesting little cameo. A lugubrious beagle was roaming the hall, sniffing enthusiastically, and stopped by the woman standing next to us. She’d just retrieved her cabin luggage from the carousel, but he wasn’t interested in that; nosing instead at her small rucksack. The woman, vaguely blonde in her early thirties, didn’t look like a drug smuggler to me, but I’m aware that I’m woefully out of date in matters of a narcotic nature. The dog’s handler, a young woman in a dark green polo shirt, arrived and, saying very little, waited for the other to extract the contraband, a small paper bag.
‘It’s cheese,’ she explained. ‘I bought it at the airport in Paris. I thought it would be all right from the airport.’
I noticed then that the handler’s polo shirt bore the logo of the Department of Agriculture. It was far from all right, it turned out, and the offending fromage was duly confiscated. The blonde woman looked rueful but didn’t argue. (It’s the same in the other direction, it turns out, which is why I didn’t buy anything from the Taste of Africa shop on the return journey except sweets, chai tea and peppercorns.)
Helen and I, witnessing all this in silence, too abashed even to venture a pat towards the satisfied beagle, saw, with mighty relief, our own bags trundling towards us. We lugged them onto our trolley and hastily through the exit, before their possibly enticing odours could be investigated by the noses of the canine inspectors. We’d done it. We’d got into Africa.
The next challenge was to find our friends-and-relations. The arrivals hall (pictured right by Ross & Lin at a quieter moment) was, by the time we arrived, packed with people, most of them corralled behind railings in an amorphous blob of humanity and cardboard signs. Fortunately Gawain, being six foot six or thereabouts (the tape measure ran out long ago) is never difficult to find in a crowd, and he’d already spotted us. Hugs, introductions and more hugs ensued. Everyone else was already there, only waiting for us, and for Tom to persuade the bureau de change to allow him a moiety of rand (they were a good deal less helpful than the ones in Dublin, but then they I suppose they didn’t have a football championship to get excited by).
Tom, in fact, was the only member of the waiting party, apart from Gawain and Sue themselves, whom I already knew. We’d first met some eighteen years before, when he and Gawain were in cut-throat competition for the British under eights chess championship. Rivalry had long since mellowed into friendship, and he was the clear favourite for the role of groom’s supporter, right hand man and general best mate. I was also relieved to note that his fashion sense had improved exponentially since he was seven.
The equivalent role on the distaff side (is that right?) was brilliantly played by Larissa. She and Sue hadn’t known each other all that long, but had plenty in common, both being expat Kiwi nannies in London, and she was clearly a shining jewel of a friend. (The picture on the left, in case you hadn’t guessed, shows Larissa and Tom observing elephants.)
Two small ladies (pictured left) were introduced as Sue’s mother, Suee Lee, and aunt, Swoi Hoon, and welcomed us with gentle courtesy. The other two guests, of whom I’d heard much, and all of it enthusiastic, were Ross and Lin, the New Zealand couple whose extraordinary friendship, generosity and humour had transformed the months that Sue and Gawain had spent in Wellington a couple of years before. The picture below, characteristically colourful, shows them at Chimp Eden – of which much more later.
Last, but decided not the other thing, was Mornay (below left), who was to drive us across country to Leo Lapa. Helen had come across him first, several weeks before, while we were cogitating over transport options. What had first impressed her, as a designer, had been the quality of his website, closely followed by the assiduity with which he utilised social media. We were soon to find, however, that Mornay’s virtues lay far deeper than mere Twitter-fluency and a good eye for a Facebook photo.
The first test of his wisdom and patience came within minutes, as we tried to drive out of the airport car park. I didn’t grasp the actual problem, but it was something to do with an immovable barrier and the fact of our being in a virtually irreversible 14 seater minibus plus trailer. The real difficulty, though, probably wasn’t physical at all. The Rainbow Nation of South Africa has eleven official languages, which is wonderful for diversity and creativity and self-respect. The other things that come along with them, the misunderstandings and confusion and delays, are, according to the good guys like Mornay, just part of the price the country has to pay to build a future of peace and justice. English is used as the lingua franca, but as anyone who has travelled is aware, there’s a lot more to communication than just converting phrases from one language to another. Translation is an art, three-way translation a sophisticated art, and its nuances, though fascinating, are perhaps best considered elsewhere than in a concrete bunker with a queue building up behind.
As suggested, though, Mornay’s virtues are legion, and include tact, persuasion and gentle firmness, so we were soon out into the winter sunshine. The eastern road out from Johannesburg through the province of Mpumalanga into Mozambique is a wide and smooth one, and we made good time, passing turnings for exotically named towns like Waterval Boven, Kwaggaskop and, er, Belfast. Helen and Larissa had both declared themselves in need of sleep, and so had dispatched themselves to the back of the bus to snooze. The results were rather like a little girls’ slumber party with chatter and giggles permeating through to the front, where Lin was preparing a shopping list of the groceries we’d need for the week. I spent most of the first few miles with my fingers shoved in my mouth to keep from squeaking aloud at the narrowness with which South African drivers overtook and sliced in front of one another, but soon, disturbingly soon, in retrospect, became accustomed to it.
We stopped at a small service station for lunch; a familiar enough sort of place to all of us, with a cafeteria, fast food counter, loos and shop, a miniature version of Newport Pagnell or Watford Gap. But, oddly, Mornay had suggested that we look out of the window on our trip in or out (depending upon the degree of urgency) of the Ladies and Gents. There, in place of the Travelodge wheelie bins or employees on a fag break we’d expected, grazed buffalo, zebra, several species of antelope and, slightly surreal in its matter-of-fact phlegmatism, a real live rhino. Our spirits, slightly battered by long-distance travel and lack of sleep, pulled themselves together and grinned at one another. This was Africa.
Our next stop was at Nelspruit, the capital of Mpumalanga, where we lost half of the minibus’s occupants: Gawain and Sue to meet up with their wedding planner and minister, Ross and Lin to collect a hire car and do the shopping and Larissa and Tom to collect another hire car and follow us the rest of the way. The cars were collected without much more than the standard global car hire confusion, and the small convoy continued on its way. An hour or so later Mornay drove past the last of many orange tree and sugar-cane plantations and turned down a side road marked “Mjejane Game Reserve”. We were almost there.
A little geography would probably come in handy here. South Africa is roughly the shape of a kidney bean, which, as kidney beans generally have no distinguishing features, is no help whatsoever. Let’s try again. South Africa is roughly the shape of a supine guinea pig with Johannesburg and Pretoria in the position of its eyes and mouth, Springbok at its back feet , the coast from Cape Town to Port Elizabeth/Nelson Mandela Bay along the edge of its bottom and the Kalahari desert the space where its paws scrabble. And along the back of its head runs a wide strip designated as the Kruger National Park.
That’s enough guinea pigs. The Kruger National Park is, as the guide books constantly repeat, the size of Wales (Wales, like football fields, golf balls and Belgium, being a universal standard of measurement) and was established (on a much smaller scale) in 1898 by the then president, Paul – yes, you guessed it. The wildlife of the area was being slaughtered by hunting parties based in the goldrush towns, shot by farmers and losing its habitat to mining. It was a struggle to defend the park against vested interests and its occupants against poachers, but gradually, over the century, the borders of Kruger expanded and the principles of conservation became accepted by most thinking people. Not that the animals and their environment are by any means beyond danger now; the killing of rhino for their horn is increasing (see Mornay’s unique contribution to the protection campaign) and there are still boneheaded boys like Donald Trump’s spoilt sons who think there’s something impressively macho about using expensive weapons to kill elephants and, once they’re safely dead, oh-so-bravely cutting off their tails. (See Trophycruelty on YouTube, but only if your stomach’s feeling strong and you’re somewhere you don’t mind people seeing you cry.)
Not only have the borders of Kruger itself expanded over the years, but many adjoining areas have also become wildlife reserves. Mjejane is one of these, situated just south of the Kruger park, on the opposite bank of the Crocodile River. Recently the fences between Kruger and Mjejane have been taken down, so that animals can pass between one and the other freely. It’s a commercial enterprise as well as an ecological one, with building sites for sale and a smallish number of half-built and completed houses including Leo Lapa itself.
Back to our journey. The main road had, for some time, run more or less parallel with the railway line (like the road, leading from Johannesburg to Mozambique and the Indian Ocean) and, a few yards after turning off, we stopped at the Mjejane checkpoint under a railway bridge. The underside of railway bridges, it turns out (and we had plenty of time to view it) is pretty much the same in eastern South Africa as in rural Staffordshire, dark, damp and rather grubby. The subsequent conversation between Mornay and the security guards was a deja-vu-inducing reprise of the one in the airport car park. Mornay had earlier spoken on the phone to Bianka, Leo Lapa’s wonderful housekeeper/safari guide (whom we were shortly to meet, although not quite as shortly as we’d hoped) and she had told the security people that we were coming and that we should be let through the gates. A long time later it transpired that all this had indeed happened, that Bianka had given full details to the principal guard on duty and that he written it all down. Unfortunately, the place he had written it down was on the back of his hand, and he had, since then, gone off duty and home without thinking to mention it to anyone else.
Finally, though, after more demonstrations of the South African traits of good-humoured misunderstanding, long-winded explanation and a multiplicity of coloured forms to be filled in, the gate was opened and we entered Mjejane.
Whether it was sympathy at our enforced pause beneath the railway bridge, joy at the forthcoming nuptials or plain random coincidence, we never knew, but that first drive from the gate to Leo Lapa was more abundant with wildlife than any other during the next week. (The only one that came near was the final journey from Leo Lapa, when an ostrich decided to race us along the track.) There were zebras, real zebras, looking so much like giant versions of the Britain’s toys we’d had as children that we scarcely believed they weren’t anamatronic models or, at the least, mirages produced by lack of sleep and over-stimulation. But if we thought we were excited then, round the next corner, grazing at the side of the road as matter-of-factly as though they lived there (which, I suppose, they did) were a pair of….
‘Giraffes!’ cried Larissa in the car behind, raising both hands from the wheel (according to Tom, anyway) to flap them in a sort of hopeless ecstasy. Somehow the car continued to point roughly forwards.
With that kind of build-up, Leo Lapa itself was either going to be a bit of a let-down, or – or not. On the western edges of the Kruger National Park, according to the guidebooks, are a collection of exclusive private game reserves whose lodges provide sumptuous chef-prepared dinners, luxury spas, quad bikes and obsequious butlers. (I’m guessing at the ‘obsequious’ bit, preferring to imagine that they’re actually rather supercilious and enjoy pointing out errors in the guests’ pronunciation and table manners.)
Anyway, if any of us had been to any of those lodges, we might at least have pretended to be blasé at Leo Lapa. But although we were a cosmopolitan group in terms of our geographical origins, and had travelled fairly widely (especially the chess players, and Larissa who spent a year at school in Canada – French Canada, to make it trickier) our idea of luxury accommodation is pretty much met by a two-pack of digestive biscuits, an extra pillow and a trouser press.
I don’t know whether Leo Lapa had a trouser press. It had an iron (though no discernable ironing board, though both we and Bianka searched in vain for one). It did, moreover, have enormous bedrooms, named after major species of African wildlife (Helen and I were in Rhino, but neither of us took it personally) each with an almost equally enormous en-suite bathroom and its own outdoor shower (as well as the indoor one, and the standalone bath tub – we had no excuse for a skimpy personal hygiene routine). It had a big, well-stocked kitchen area, with a gigantic American-style fridge, and another one in the bar – did I mention the bar? – a full-size (I think) pool table, an antelope skull fastened, slightly disconcertingly, to the terrace railings, a gigantic sprawling-on-sofas area, fire pit and braai (the South African variant of a barbecue). It also, smooth and shimmering in the dying sun, had what’s called an ‘infinity pool’, not because of its size (as we discovered the next day, a length barely lasted two strokes) but because it was built right into the hillside, with water cascading over the edge, seemingly down into nothingness.
(picture by Lin and Ross that evening)
But all of this splendour could have been a tent and a puddle compared to the real glory of Leo Lapa; the view. From the terrace we looked straight down a few yards of tussocky grass to the Crocodile River itself, broad and fertile, and across to the wooded hillside of the southernmost and oldest stretch of the Kruger National Park. It was a breathtaking backdrop, and would become far more so before the week was out.
I couldn’t quite enjoy it yet, not until the others arrived, but finally they did, laden with shopping, and we sat down at the long refectory-type table for our first proper meal together. A braai had been the original plan, but it was growing late, and we weren’t sure of the procedure, so instead we shared fresh bread, cold meats, cheese and salad. No one stayed up very late that night (no one really stayed up late any night, what with the early mornings) and after a little desultory chat we retreated to our respective species, a little weary and very content.
(One added piece of excitement; as I looked out of the French windows in our rhino-room onto the little patio I caught a glimpse of what looked at first like the tail of a cat disappearing across the paving stones. I leaned further to check, and was heart-thumpingly delighted to see that it was actually a mongoose. Yes, a real one, just like Rikki-Tikki-Tavi.)
If you can remember back to the halycon days of optimistic expectation that were Part One, you’ll recall that I woke at 5.30 the next morning to the soul-warming sight of a cup of tea, courtesy of Helen. She’s always been an early riser; in the summers of the 1970s she and her brother would be at Granny’s kitchen door in the morning sunshine, perplexed as to how anyone could sleep through such optimal fishing-in-the-stream time. Invigorated by the tea and the sunrise, I wrote a little in my notebook, dressed in a fleece (it was distinctly chilly) and anti-mosquito trousers*, grabbed a banana from the kitchen and joined the others in the Leo LaCar outside.
(*Extensive research on the subject (three guidebooks and the Foreign Office and NHS websites) had failed to establish a consensus about whether or not I should worry about malaria. Kruger is a high-risk zone, but we were there in the winter when most self-respecting mosquitoes have hung up their proboscises and added their buzzes to the choir invisible. My GP, however, thought better safe than sorry and I was duly equipped with anti-malarial antibiotics, industrial strength insect repellent, thiamin (the nurse’s idea) and the aforementioned trousers. As it turned out, we only saw a single mosquito on the entire trip, and that in the minibus driving through Mozambique. But I would have felt a bit silly (and quite possibly worse than silly) getting malaria when blessed with the extraordinary good fortune (in global terms) of being able to avoid it.)
The roads in Mjejane, except for the main ones between the lodges and the main gate, aren’t passable by anything but rugged 4x4s, so we needed Bianka and the big beast to drive us around. We needed Bianka anyway, as safari virgins (except for Gawain, who’d been on a Kruger drive the year before) who couldn’t tell elephant from rhino dung (a deficiency soon remedied) and had continued difficulties in distinguishing between smooth rocks and sleeping hippos. The LeoLaCar, conveniently enough, seated ten people apart from the driver, one in the front and the rest of us in three rows of three, like a game of noughts and crosses.
The zebras and giraffes who had greeted us the afternoon before were presumably having a lie in, for we saw none of them that morning, together with no elephants, no rhino (though the digestive products of both were much in evidence) and no big cats (though we all got out for Bianka to show us a lion’s pawprint in the sand. But there were lots of other celebrities, if not quite A-list: hippos basking on the edge of the dam, surprisingly, almost painfully, pink in real life, alongside the huge still crocodiles, mysteriously atavistic, that made me shiver even in the growing sunshine. We learned to tell impala, the most numerous of the antelope, delicate with their angled horns and striped rumps, from the big shaggy waterbuck and the gentle kudu with their Adam Antesque eye stripes. We saw little vervet monkeys playing in a tree and a rapidly-trotting warthog, looking oddly familiar, as we realised that most of our knowledge of tropical wildlife was drawn from the Lion King and the Disney version of the Jungle Book.
Speaking of which, we also saw, to Helen’s particular delight, plenty of vultures, including two of what I described at the time as leopard-headed vultures, later amended to lapid-headed, and are actually called lappet-faced, the largest species, and rarely seen, especially in pairs. We did well on birds, also seeing several fish eagles and lots of the gorgeously coloured smaller species, glossy starlings, rollers and hornbills. By the end of the safari, having even seen a sausage tree (and thought wistfully of our dogs back home) we felt thoroughly immersed in bush lore, though what I was really yearning to see by then was a slice of well-buttered toast.
Back at Leo Lapa the toast was duly popped, after which one or two of us turned a thoughtful eye towards the infinity pool. Helen, who spends a bracing amount of time on the Isle of Arran, was the first to brave it, followed by a couple more of the courageous sex, and finally Tom, defending the reputation of the men. It was, we proclaimed through chattering teeth, splendid, though Helen was the only one, I think, to repeat the experience.
After lunch we were off on another expedition, to a nearby small game reserve where Gawain and Sue were due to ride on elephants and the rest of us to take part in a ‘bush walk’, like a safari but on foot. The activities began with our being introduced to the two tamed (-ish) elephants, one of whom had the party trick of identifying items (hats, bags etc.) by their scent and returning them to their owners. We were a little sceptical, when Lin pointed out quietly that the elephant’s handler had decided the distribution of both the items and the participants, but it was a good show. After this, Sue and Ga were established, rather painfully, on the back of a single animal and led away.
The subsequent events, were, unfortunately, another saga of imperfect communication. The rest of us, after waiting for a long time next to a table on which was placed a large receptacle marked ‘Tip Box’ (no confusion there) were taken to another part of the forest (as it were) and introduced to the bush walk guide, a rather irritatingly good-looking young man named Stef with piercing blue eyes and a disturbing tendency to wave his rifle around.
After issuing us with the ground rules; single file, no talking, if something scary happens Don’t Run Away, he led us across the dry grass, introduced us to some interesting trees (so interesting that I’ve by now forgotten their names) and finally brought us to another dam, much smaller than the one where we’d seen the hippos and crocodiles in the morning. From there we saw, eventually, in my case (one recurring theme of the week was my difficulty in making out any wildlife until everyone else had been watching it for several minutes) a female rhino with her young calf.
We walked around the dam, as quietly as possible, to get nearer to them, but we were a large group as these things go, and didn’t manage to make ourselves anything like as inconspicuous as we would have needed to be to get really close. It was fascinating though, even for those of us not already fascinated by Stef.
Back at the gates, however, we found Gawain and Sue, who had spent almost the entire duration of our walk waiting for us. The guides had thought that they were supposed to be joining the bush walk and so had ended the elephant ride just as we had disappeared out of sight. They’d found an engaging baby to talk to, but it was scarcely the same thing.
On the what-should-have-been short trip back to Leo Lapa, I travelled with Ross and Lin in their hired Merc, together with Suee Lee and Swoi Hoon. We needed milk and a few odds and ends including pasta for the vegetarian bake I was supposed to be making for part of the supper. The only place open, it turned out, was a petrol station, but we managed to find most of what we needed urgently there, including some rather 1950s-style macaroni. Sadly, whether it was the darkness into which the landmarks had been plunged, or my relentless chatter about Ga’s childhood chess (I suspect the latter) we missed the turning for Mjejane and spent what seemed an slow and scary journey, though was probably only a few miles, driving up and down looking to get our bearings. Finally, however, we did, and arrived back not too terribly late to find the others preparing the braai. It seemed unlikely, burning wood in the pit on the terrace until hot through, then moving the pieces onto the long metal grill, but it worked excellently. Not quite so excellent was the large oven, which had a control knob marked up to 270 degrees centigrade, but barely seemed to reach 160 in real temperature*. (Bianka is sorting it out, though, so future guests shouldn’t have the same problems). The vegetables in my pasta bake were consequently rather crunchier than intended, though everyone was very polite, and I daresay it was healthier that way.
After supper we played a game of 30 Seconds, one of a collection provided by Leo Lapa, a sort of Taboo in which the idea was to describe famous people, films etc within the designated half minute. It was a South African game, however, and the fame of several of the answers was probably domestic only. We had fun, though, and managed (not always easy with our family) not to take it too seriously.
(*I think there must have been a problem with the wine bottles, as well, because far more seemed, by the morning, to have been emptied than any of us remembered.)
Some of the party got up early again, for more elephant rides and microflights. I decidedly didn’t. When I did finally stir, it was to find that electric power had vanished from the kitchen. Only the kitchen, fortunately, so the large fridge in the bar was rapidly called into more serious use than chilling the white wine. (It can, I’m aware, be quite rationally argued that there is no more serious business, in warm weather, than ensuring that white wine is properly chilled. I have considerable sympathy with that argument, but there was an awful lot of meat left even after the previous night’s braai.) The kettle and toaster were similarly transported and breakfast taken, though we were concerned about the fate of the frozen stuff. A series of little search parties hunted through Leo Lapa for a fuse box but none was found, except for the two I came across in the control room beneath the pool. One was already open, and I lifted the lid away from the other to disturb a fat gecko, only just small enough to squeeze inside, for whom it had obviously been a comfortable cabin. He scuttled away and I waited a few moments for my heartbeat to slow down again before continuing the search. When Gawain got back from the morning’s activities he phoned Bianka, and the mystery was solved in the best country-house detective-story tradition, with a locked room, the existence of which none of us had suspected. What was more, the room contained not only the fuse boxes, heating controls and Christmas decorations for the whole house, but also the fugitive ironing board. All was well.
All became even more well, as recorded in Part One, when several of us sitting on the terrace and minding one another’s business were dramatically joined by Larissa in her pyjamas (she’d gone back to bed with the idea of a nap after her early start) arms flapping in true-giraffe-spotting mode and an expression of utter joy on her face.
‘Elephant!’ she cried. (Larissa has a gift for getting to the heart of the matter.)
Even so, I couldn’t see it at first, not because it was too small, but because it was too big, a great dark outline lumbering down the opposite slope, ridiculously elephant-shaped, as though a child had pasted a cartoon cutout on a photograph of the hillside. And as we watched, it was followed by two slightly smaller ones, then a smaller yet, and finally by a tiny baby elephant, so small that it seemed in danger of being trampled by its mother or aunt.
I ran frantically back to Rhino to get the video camera, but the first few minutes of footage are crazy with the shaking of my hands. After that I managed to attach the camera, with the brilliant GorillaPod, to the edge of the railings and so to record most of the next fifteen minutes or so, although I entirely failed to realise that it would focus on the sprigs of vegetation immediately in front of it rather than on the distant elephants. David Attenborough probably doesn’t need to worry about being usurped quite yet.
(The music for this, by the way, is by the excellent Imperfect Scribble, not all of whom I’m related to – see their own videos here.)
The family stayed for around half an hour, paddling, drinking and washing in the river directly opposite to us and finally moving back up the hill some way from where they had come, with the great matriarch staying for longer by herself in the cool long grasses. We were all overwhelmed, and terribly sorry that Sue, Lin and Ross, who had gone to do some wedding shopping, weren’t there to watch as well.
In the afternoon we went out with Bianka and the Leo LaCar again, this time for a late drive, in the falling dusk. We took along a coolbox of drinks, beer and white wine, and enjoyed sundowners as they should be, out on the hillside with the sun setting behind the outlined trees.
This time the big animals came out for us; giraffes feeding from high leaves, elephants winding their trunks affectionately together and even wildebeest, again bearing a startling resemblance to the Disney version. As night fell, Bianka took out a large spotlight and we (at least those of us skilled at wildlife spotting, so obviously not quite all of us) took it in turns to shine it out into the bush and look out for gleaming eyes. Ga did particularly well, finding what I think was a civet amidst thick undergrowth.
Back at Leo Lapa we shared a stir fry (I can’t remember whether this one was Larissa’s or Suee Lee and Swoi Hoon’s – they were both wonderful) and a gorgeously indulgent cheesecake made by Helen. We were due for another early morning next day, so I don’t think we played any games, though neither I nor my notebook are anything like infallible.
The party divided down the middle on Monday morning – Lin, Ross, Sue, Ga and I heading past Nelspruit to Chimp Eden while the others went into Kruger for a self-drive safari, courtesy of Larissa. Ross only had to drive our little lot as far as the Mjejane River Lodge, where we met up with Solly who was to take us to the sanctuary by minibus. He was an informative and friendly chap, entertaining us with stories of teaching, or attempting to teach, white people to make the distinctive clicks which form part of the Xhosa language.
The Jane Goodall Institute Chimpanzee Eden (Chimp Eden for short) is set on another game reserve, slightly up in the hills, a little cooler than Leo Lapa. The land was originally farmed by the Cussons family, and Eugene Cussons, the Rescue Director, has raised Chimp Eden’s profile through his Animal Planet series and the book Saving Chimpanzees (which I bought at the sanctuary and can recommend as a hair-raising read, though probably more enlightening as to humans and their bureaucracies than chimp behaviour). It was quiet when we arrived (I had to keep reminding myself that this was winter, and not the summer school holidays) and Solly led us through the cool reception out into the terrace behind. Lin and I dashed into the Ladies, and I came out again to hear an oddly familiar accent.
‘Yes,’ the voice was saying, ‘County Fermanagh is right next to County Tyrone.’
Its owner introduced himself as Murph, Chimp Eden’s IT guy and tour guide, from the village of Dromore, just sixteen miles from Enniskillen. Murph, like Stef but without the gun or the silly looks, began by telling us the ground rules (the importance of which we didn’t really appreciate until some weeks later) and we set out on our tour.
There are three enclosures within the sanctuary, each occupied by a ‘family’ of rescued chimps. A few of them knew one another before coming to Chimp Eden, but all had to be carefully observed in quarantine before being assigned to the most appropriate group, to create communities that will, so far as possible, replicate the experience of chimpanzees in the wild. ‘So far as possible’, of course, isn’t that far, since the chimps have been so damaged by human cruelty, ignorance and, occasionally, well-meant intervention. We saw chimps who had been chained up for years outside nightclubs or petrol stations, kept in tiny cages, taught to smoke and drink alcohol, dressed in restrictive clothing for years on end and left to the terrors of human war zones. Their relationships and behaviour have all been distorted, sometimes grotesquely so, and it takes immense work and patience by the staff (and often by the other chimps) to help them to recover their natural ways of acting and interacting.
Outside the first enclosure Murph introduced us to a young American who was studying the chimps as part of his research about gender differences in using tools; whether the greater use of tools by females (presumably in compensation for their lesser strength) was similar in this as in their natural environment. I’m not sure, but think he was the researcher who was attacked by two of the chimps just a couple of weeks after we were there. It seems, from the news reports, that he stepped over the outer of the two fences to pick up a stone which he was afraid the chimps might throw at the visitors he was escorting. By doing this, he went into the chimps’ own territory, and was dragged into the enclosure and severely mauled. He seems to be recovering, which has been described as a ‘miracle’, although he has lost an ear, testicle, fingers and toes. It’s a sobering reminder of the strength of the chimpanzees, and of the disastrous long-term effects of their exploitation.
Other effects, less dramatic but equally sad, are upon the daily lives of the chimpanzees. Even their most basic needs and instincts have been complicated by their disconnection from the society of their parents and peers. Although they live outside, in the large tree-filled enclosures, during the day, they don’t know how to make nests and can’t cope with night-time temperatures, and so have to sleep indoors. Although they have natural sexual instincts, and mate as they would in the wild, the young males have had no opportunity of seeing good parenthood in action and the females no experience of caring for little brothers and sisters or of learning baby-rearing skills from their own mothers. Consequently, they have to receive regular contraceptive injections to prevent the inevitable tragedy which would result from their giving birth. The eventual hope and intention is to release as many of the younger rescued chimps as possible back into the wild, as a self-contained group in a depopulated area able to contain a new tribe without territorial conflict. At the moment, though, this is a distant aspiration and meanwhile there are many suffering animals in horrendous conditions across Africa and the world, awaiting the resources that would allow them to be rescued.
All this doom and gloom suggests that we had an entirely miserable time on our tour with Murph, but the actual experience was the very opposite. The chimpanzees have been through horrendous ordeals, but they have overcome them with such courage and good spirits and live together with such thoughtfulness and zest, that we were all encouraged and optimistic. One particularly inspiring character is Joao, an elderly chimpanzee who was kept chained at a nightclub in Angola for decades, taught human vices and behaviours and suffered repeated bouts of malaria and other diseases. Despite this, he not only survived to be rescued, but recalled enough of his childhood to return to chimp behaviour, become alpha male of his group and to teach his successor all he needed to know to take over from him. Not only all this, but Joao has spent many weeks and months teaching Cozy, a severely distrurbed male who has never known chimpanzee community life, how to communicate and to behave towards others. Judged by the highest human standards of wisdom, generosity and forgiveness, Joao leaves us all a long way behind.
After the tour we had a lovely lunch out on the terrace from where we could see the younger chimps swinging in the trees, followed by a mooch around the gift shop (us, not the young chimps) and a chat about home with Murph. (Yes, I might have mentioned fracking, to which he replied, visibly shocked, ‘In Fermanagh? That’s ugly.’)
We were already quite a bit later than the tour company had anticipated, and Solly a little worried about the time, but despite that he very helpfully stopped in Nelspruit on the way back for us to sort things out at various banks. Back at Leo Lapa the others were full of enthusiasm about their trip into Kruger proper and the masses of wildlife they’d seen there. By now, though, most of our thoughts were on the next day, and the pinnacle of our week, the wedding itself.
As I said before, I’m not going to write about the wedding, except to say that the bride was beautiful, the groom handsome, the weather resplendent, the service moving, the food scrumptious, the guests delighted and the visit by the elephants, by which we were all outnumbered, the ultimate accolade.
The day after a wedding is, for most people, one of faint deflation. The bride and groom have left on their glamorous honeymoon, everything remains to be tidied away and the morning is a dejected reminder of how unhealthily we celebrated the night before. For us, though, it was all completely different. We were going to Mozambique.
The trip started in the same way as the one to Chimp Eden, in a minibus from the Mjejane River Lodge car park. Sadly, although it was the same tour company, the driver wasn’t Solly this time. We took a rather circuitous and mysterious route to the border, via another reserve and game lodge, although the minibus neither picked up nor dropped off any passengers there. As we drove, the driver, a white South African woman, gave us a brief history of Mozambique and in particular the long wars of the late twentieth century which have left the country brutally battered and broken. The only Mozambican history I knew was a few paragraphs from the Lonely Planet guide, but even I could tell how partial and partisan her account was. As the Lonely Planet writer puts it:
“Renamo [the ‘Mozambique National Resistance’ who fought against the Mozambique government] had been created solely by external forces, rather than by internal political motives. They had been established in the mid-1970s by Rhodesia as part of the destabilisation policy, and after Zimbabwe’s independence their training was taken over by South Africa. There were no aims beyond the wholesale destruction of the social and communications infrastructure within Mozambique and thus the destabilisation of the government and the country. Commentators have also pointed out this was not really a ‘civil’ war either, but one between Mozambique’s Frelimo government and the external forces which created Renamo.”
(Lonely Planet, Africa – The South, 1997, p. 302)
According to our driver, however, the ‘civil war’ was one between ‘Communism and democracy’, with Renamo flying the flag of freedom. I didn’t argue, for lots of reasons; cowardice, unwillingness to make a scene, the fact that I was at the back of the bus with a few more white South Africans between us and the front, added to the point, as I’ve said, that my knowledge of the region’s history was hardly comprehensive. I contented myself instead with a bit of low muttering and with rolling my eyes, so energetically that I could feel the muscles at the back of them aching for the rest of the day.
Just over the border, at a little place called Ressano Garcia, we trooped out of the minibus to get our visas. I think we all expected this to be a fairly simple matter, a question of handing over a fee, much-needed by the beleaguered Mozambique economy, possibly having our passports stamped, and clambering back onto the minibus again. We were wrong.
It started with the forms, long, comprehensive forms that required us to state who we were, where we lived, for whom we worked and in what capacity, our marital status and maiden names. I don’t think it asked which football team we supported, the colour of our bedroom walls or whether we’d had chicken-pox, but I can’t be quite sure. Those were the easy parts, anyway. (It didn’t help that hardly any of us had brought a pen, apart from Lin who brandished a wonderfully camp little pink ostrich feather number.) We also had to state where we were crossing, why we were going to Mozambique (by now we were asking ourselves the same question) and what, precisely where and for how long we were aspiring to do if and when they let us in. For these we had to ask assistance of our driver, which proved to be something of a mistake. For some reason, presumably South African pride, instead of telling us to write ‘Ressano Garcia’ as the place where we were entering Mozambique, she advised us to say ‘Komatipoort’, the last major town in South Africa before the border. I finished my form first, and handed it to the small, mild-looking immigration officer. He started reading it, his face puffed up a little, and he stopped looking mild.
‘Komatipoort?’ he cried. ‘Komatipoort is in South Africa! We are not in South Africa! We are in Mozambique!’
‘I’m sorry,’ I said. ‘What should I put there?’
He pointed, with trembling fingers, towards the wall, festooned with a series of signs and posters. ‘That!’
Fortunately, by some blessed quirk, we managed to identify one among the notices which bore the name of Ressano Garcia, and guessed that this was where we were. If we’d instead filled in the space with the Portuguese (Portuguese is the colonial and hence official language of Mozambique) for No Smoking, which we might as easily have done, we would probably still have been there today.
Next came the photographs. The Mozambican immigration system is fully computerised, which meant that the Ressano Garcia office had an ancient Dell laptop with an early webcam precariously balanced on the top. When we had completed our forms to the apoplectic gentleman’s satisfaction, each of us in turn had to stand in front of a blue screen to have our photo taken. Sue went first, and was firmly instructed, in a mixture of English and Portuguese, as to the precise angle at which she should stand and the exact expression of her face (strictly no smiling, as for UK passports). It all seemed a little overblown for an afternoon’s visit, and not to leave much in the way of profit for the Mozambique exchequer, but we were beginning to appreciate that this was all a part of the African experience.
Ga was next in line, and here opened another chapter of international diplomacy. As I mentioned a few thousand words ago, Gawain is not a short man. In fact, the top of his head exceeded, by a good foot, the maximum height at which the webcam could be persuaded to focus. After much discussion among the colleagues, therefore, and an impromptu game of charades to indicate what was needed, Gawain posed for his photograph in a semi-squatting position, his knees bent comically and a huge, and entirely illegal, grin across his face. Since the entire staff of the Ressano Garcia immigration department were now also grinning, this didn’t seem to matter.
The whole photography business went a bit downhill from there, not helped by the frequency with which the Dell was crashing. Oddly enough, after being sternly required to remove my shoulder bag, the half inch strap of which, across my shoulder, obviously transformed my appearance entirely, my photo turned out to be distinctly flattering, so much so that I’m planning on adopting it on my Facebook profile. Tom wasn’t so fortunate. He was the last to be processed, and by then the immigration officer was losing the will to live, never mind to keep this ragtag rabble of assorted nationalities out of his country. The sooner I let them in, he seemed to be saying to himself, the sooner they’ll go away again. The picture of Tom, therefore, missed the top half of his head almost entirely, comprising a blurred blob of indeterminate features plus an awful lot of screen. Meanwhile Ross had almost had his own camera confiscated for the heinous offence of taking a picture inside the border post. Fortunately Ross is a gentle soul, whose courtesy melts the densest linguistic and bureaucratic barriers, and so he was let off with deleting the offending images.
So, finally, we were in Mozambique. The difference from South Africa was visible immediately and everywhere, most clearly in the comparatively ramshackle and chaotic nature of the structures around, except for the large and glossy billboards advertising mobile phone companies and banks, particularly Barclays. As we approached Maputo, the capital and by far the largest city, we were growing more and more uncomfortable, not assisted by the driver’s continued commentary, describing the urban poor, sympathetically but, to our ears with little sensitivity, as ‘like sewer rats’ and ‘living in squalor’. In fact, the people we saw, though obviously extremely poor, were scrupulously clean, proud and dignified. At Maputo railway station, where we left the minibus, I had a mortifying experience of just such self-respect. I had the video camera with me, and having recorded the wedding ceremony, wanted to get as much extra footage of the party as I could. I was therefore filming the group, particularly Gawain, and Suee Lee, exotic with a scarf swathing her head, as they walked ahead of me through the station. What I hadn’t realised was that among the people sitting along the edge of the wide passage was a woman nursing her baby. Someone thought that I was filming her, and shouted angrily. It was a salutory lesson.
We visited a market, but, walking in single file as instructed (shades of the bush walk) it was almost impossible to take a proper look at anything or to engage in any way with the people around. The party stopped at a stall selling nuts – cashews and macadamias – being sold in huge quantities very cheaply and we realised that this was one of the principal points of the trip so far as South Africans were concerned. Remembering the cheese-sniffing dog, however, none of us dared to try bringing them back into our own airports.
After that, we travelled around Maputo in a rather bizarrely jolly little road-train (picture by Ross and Lin), the sort that takes toddlers around in small English theme parks. It was operated by the same tour company and the political message was pretty consistent. We drove past the luxury hotels and the ambassadors’ residences and spent a longish time outside a school where the neatly-dressed, well-nourished children greeted us with slightly over-choreographed delight. ‘This is a private school,’ the tour guide remembered to mention. They weren’t by any means unkind or ungenerous people, or even racist on a personal level; one of the guides, we learned, spent a large part of her free time giving food, at her own expense, to the orphans of Maputo, but their attitudes were those of the apartheid era, and they seemed unable to make the connections between the poverty which distressed them and the institutions which maintained those conditions.
At one point one was talking about the international sanctions against South Africa, bemoaning the difficulties which they had caused to the apartheid regime and celebrating the fact that, in avoidance of the boycott, so many goods had been channelled through the war-torn and vulnerable Mozambique. I remembered the words of Dom Helder Camara, the Brazilian archbishop, ‘When I feed the hungry, they call me a saint. When I ask why people are hungry, they call me a Communist’ and appreciated more than ever those white South Africans, such as Mornay, who have entered whole-heartedly into the vision of a transforming rainbow nation. (Picture above right again by Ross and Lin.)
We stopped for lunch (it seemed impossible that all this had just been one morning, but I suppose we’d had an early start) at a seafood restaurant looking out onto the Indian Ocean. Afterwards we walked onto the beach where traders had goods for sale set out on blankets on the sand. I caught sight of a couple of model bicycles intricately made of twisted wire, attempted a little mild haggling but ended up, embarrassingly quickly, buying them for the initial price, with a cowrie shell thrown in. No doubt I could have done much better, but I really wanted one for M, and another for Helen, who had stayed behind at Leo Lapa. (That is, as a present for her to give in turn to her own cycling husband.) At this example of naïve consumerism, the rest of the traders suddenly gathered around me, thrusting their wares in front of my nose until I had to be escorted back to the minibus by the driver. Conservative people can be very helpful in these situations. (And she’d flattered me earlier, too, by looking between Gawain and me and saying, apparently genuinely, ‘I can tell that you’re brother and sister.’ The gratifying effects of this, were, however, to last less than two days, as subsequent events will show.)
The journey back to Leo Lapa was comparatively uneventful, except for Tom’s difficulty in explaining to South African immigration why he had twice as much face as appeared on his Mozambican visa.
There was one thing that we noticed though, with mild trepidation at the time, and great sadness in retrospect; the trucks driving home from the fruit farms. Each was packed with workers crammed together, overflowing from the sides and open tailgate. It looked dangerous, and so it proved. Less than a month later, headlines throughout the world told of how one of these trucks drove onto a level crossing near Hectorspruit (the nearest village to Leo Lapa, where we’d bought the macaroni) and was hit by a freight train. The horror of the crash, in which the truck seems to have been dragged at least a kilometre along the track and dismembered bodies scattered widely, is suggested by the fact that as I write, three days later, the estimate of the number killed is still varying between nineteen and thirty. It’s as disturbing, in a different way, to read that the truck driver is being charged with murder. Any of us, and anyone driving along that major road, could have predicted that something like this would happen sooner or later. All of us who expect cheap food, and hold the lives of those who provide it just as cheaply, belong in the dock as well.
Back at home (Leo Lapa seemed unequivocally home by now) Helen had prepared dinner for us, giving us plenty of time to play games afterwards. Sue annihilated all opposition at Labyrinth (I’ve yet to discover a board game at which Sue doesn’t excel) and Categories was enlivened by Tom’s answer to ‘part of the body beginning with V’ to which Larissa enquired, ‘Isn’t that a make of car?’ And no, it wasn’t vox humana and Vauxhall.
Having been generous with estimates at the beginning and the caterers having excelled all expectations in the quantity and quality of food they provided, we were now, with a maximum of one more day to go, in danger of being engulfed in a tide of food. In a Canutesque attempt to stem it, we shared a substantial brunch on Thursday morning and heroically ate as much as humanly possible. Regretfully, the Great Wedding Party was to begin its crumble that morning, for Larissa and Tom had to get back to Johannesburg for a flight in the evening. First, however, came the Dance. Larissa’s vague game-spotting arm flaps had by now developed into a full-scale routine , and it was unthinkable for her to leave without our having performed it. The discovery of a pile of fake leopard-skin ponchos, intended for night drives, was merely a serendipitous extra. So we gathered on the terrace for the last time, Suee Lee seated in central state (I think I forgot to mention that she sprained her ankle the previous day) and made silly gestures for the benefit of posterity. We’re thoughtful like that.
Hindsight suggests that Helen’s follow-up idea, to borrow a fish slice from the kitchen and perform ritual incantations over the antelope skull, might not have been the wisest. The spirits who preside over lower limbs were, we knew from Suee Lee’s ankle, already restless; angering them was bound to be dodgy.
Anyway, we gratefully extricated ourselves from the incredibly hot ponchos, said our farewells, and waved as Larissa and Tom drove away. Then five of us; Ross, Lin, Sue, Helen and I, squeezed into the Merc and headed for Kruger for a final safari.
It was an abundant, glorious, treasure-filled one, beginning with a family of warthogs, and ending with a herd of wildebeest. In between came giraffes, zebras (including several examples of the zebra crossing) a couple of hippos rising from the water and walking, interminably slowly, along the sand (one with the precise physiognomy of the late Clement Freud) more elephants, a rhino, a black-backed jackal, buffalo, crocodiles and a large troupe of baboons including an enchanting baby learning to climb, swing and jump from small trees. And, at last, a lion. A lion and two lionesses. Our cup truly overflowed.
But there was still one more delight to come; supper at the Mjejane River Lodge. We gathered in the comfortable lobby before a blazing wood fire and wished Suee Lee, whose birthday it was, a happy one. One of the European football games was on the television in the corner, at least until the next power cut, after which I think they switched to the generator, and it never came back on. I don’t think even the boys really noticed. The dinner itself was outside, in long tables around a fine great fire with delicious meats, fish and salads and the southern hemisphere stars, which were beginning to seem less strange, breathtakingly splattered across the sky. It was a beautiful night in every way and we were only sorry that Larissa and Tom hadn’t been with us.
Time to go. One last wander around Leo Lapa, farewells to the wonderful staff, a quick dash to squeeze everything back in our bags and Mornay waiting outside in the smaller minibus to take us back to Johannesburg. ‘But hold on a moment,’ you say, ‘Haven’t you forgotten something? Helen’s dislocated knee, surely it happened on the safari, saving the rest of you from the lion’s bad temper? Or at the River Lodge, when a burning log was thrown from the huge fire? Surely, at the least, it happened while she was rushing around preparing your dinner for your return from Mozambique?’
Alas, not. Well, not alas that it didn’t happen at any of those times, but alas that it happened at all, and just when all potential dangers and devastations seemed to be over. Actually it was as she stepped, a modest step, nothing like the haul into the Leo LaCar, up into Mornay’s minibus. The stricken expression on her face wasn’t so much pain, not at first anyway, as sheer shock.
There was pain, though, a lot of it, and she was wonderfully brave. At Nelspruit, where Ga and Sue were collecting their wedding photos, and Mornay his son; Mornay’s wife, Mary-Ann, came onto the bus and strapped Helen’s leg up for her, another kindness from the Marais family. At the airport Sue took control, found the check-in and arranged for us to have priority boarding, a change of seat to give Helen more leg room, and wheelchair assistance. All this was available, but we had to take it up immediately, so we said hurried goodbyes (Ga braving the passport control no entry zone for a final hug) and I followed the tiny African girl who was pushing Helen’s chair. (She didn’t actually want a wheelchair, but there appears no such thing as emergency airport crutches).
It was now that the vanity induced by the tour guide (the one who thought I was Ga’s sister) was dispelled. While I was off doing something or other the passenger mobility assistant leaned down to Helen with a question. ‘Is that your mum?’
What with one thing and another, we had a long time at Johannesburg airport, but somehow we passed the time. I spent quite a lot of it on an expedition around the shops, looking for presents for the boys, only to find, when I got back, that Helen was in agony and with no water left to wash down her painkillers. I can be a rubbish cousin sometimes.
There was quite some confusion at the departure gate, with us assistance passengers moved in and out of various holding areas. We pooled our final rand and shared a sandwich to keep our strength up, and every morsel of mozzarella was welcome. Finally, though, we were on the plane and in the care of the kind and conscientious Dutch cabin staff. At first we thought that our seat changes had achieved nothing but allowed us to sit together but when we finally reached them, at the very back of the plane, we realised that it was a row with two seats instead of three and so a bit of precious space on the floor in front. We (well, mainly one of us, the other one being rather occupied with managing a limb) speculated for a while about the man a couple of rows in front, who was very white, with a large very black baby he didn’t really seem to know how to manage and an accompanying nurse who seemed to be there only for the nappy changes. I thought at first that he was American and was adopting the baby, but in fact, by a bit of eavesdropping, found out that he was South African and heading for Rome. There’s a very tear-jerking girlie movie plot in there somewhere – perhaps that would do for Lin?
Anyway, I can’t say much more about the flight, because, by some miracle, we both managed to sleep at least for part of it. At Amsterdam we went our separate ways and the last I saw of Helen was as she was driven away, in some state, on a large electric chariot. After that, things were fairly dull, really, the airport as pleasant as a large airport could possibly be, the Aer Lingus plane encouragingly named after Saint Macartan, one of our local sanctified, and the airline, obviously infected by Ryanair’s meanness, charging for everything, so I had to stave off my hunger with crackers and water. At Dublin I had an hour to wait for the bus home, most of that taken up with sorting presents, and wrapping them in a primitive manner, after which it was back to an Irish summer: rain, wind and general dreariness. It was lovely to be home, though; you know exactly how that feels, the slight strangeness and the rush of familiarity and the odd sensation that perhaps the past ten days was all a dream and that, when you mention it to one of the others, they’ll say, ‘What wedding? What’s Leo Lapa? Have you been on the South African fair trade wine again?’ But I had the video, and slightly brown arms, and a bruise where I’d bumped into the table at Mjejane River Lodge and far more happiness than you ever get, even in the very best of dreams.
So, Lin, was there a plot? I’m afraid not, just a narrative arc from rain to rain, with sunshine and elephants and chocolate wedding cake in between. And yet – since we got home, the global news has told two tragic stories, both intimately linked with the people and the places that we knew in South Africa: the Chimp Eden misadventure and the Hectorspruit train crash. Both resulted, indirectly, from human arrogance and greed, the treatment of other people and other species as though they are expendable tools of our own desire. Maybe still not a plot, but a theme emerges, the old one, the need to look around us and think; to, as the prophet says, act justly, love mercy and walk humbly with our God. (Or whatever other-named goodness stands as the ground of our being.) No man is an island, even surrounded by sleeping hippos or the smoothest of rocks.
Music, with its power to inspire emotion, conjure memories and create bonds, has played a significant role in the history of our community. Sometimes this has been a part of the problem, when musical traditions have emphasised exclusion and conflict. Often, however, the experience of sharing music, of singing, playing, listening and dancing, has brought people from different traditions together and inspired them to work for peace and a shared future. One outstanding example of this reconciliation in action was the Miami Showband whose members, themselves from different traditions, brought together Catholic and Protestant young people throughout the worst times of the Troubles. As we know, the young musicians paid a terrible and tragic price for their courage and vision.
Here in County Fermanagh, we have a rich and vibrant cross-community musical life, with dedicated musicians sharing their talent in many genres. In celebration of this success, and of the commitment of our young people to a shared and non-violent future, the Fermanagh Churches Forum is hosting PeaceJam, a unique evening of inspiration and hope. The event will take place on Saturday February 25th, at 8pm at the Westville Hotel, Enniskillen.
We are delighted to welcome as our guest speaker Stephen Travers of the Miami Showband, who will talk about his own experiences of the ways in which music can break down barriers, dismantle prejudice and bring people together. Following Stephen’s talk, a buffet supper will be served, after which young Fermanagh musicians and rock bands will play until the early hours. (The not-quite-so-young needn’t stay quite so long!)
Tickets for the event are £5, including supper, and are available now – email me at firstname.lastname@example.org – or on the door. We look forward to seeing you for what promises to be a great night!
“The temporal nature of these moments runs against the culture of permanence that runs right through the Church. We speak of eternity, of an undying body of Christ, of the constancy of our witness in stone cathedrals that appear to have been there since the dawn of time. Our unending prayers end with ‘forever and ever, Amen’; our song and liturgy hang heavy, invested with hundreds of years of history. Tradition is good. It can be a healthy momentum that carries us straight when the winds of change blow hard. But central to our tradition is the story of a man whose ministry lasted but three years. He had the choice – he could have sustained a far longer time with his followers, could have delayed his necessary death for many years. Instead, he allowed himself to be cut off. What is it then about the temporary that is to be celebrated?” (p. 143)
The moments he is speaking of are cessations in violence, are feasts, festivals, miracles and what Hakim Bey called ‘Temporary Autonomous Zones’ such as the eighteenth century pirate utopias which flourished in the gaps between the maps and the earthly reality. To these, I think, could be added the temporary communities of radical politics, from the women’s peace camps of the 1980s through climate camps to this year’s Occupy movement. But it is only now, in front of St Paul’s Cathedral, that the two impulses of Christianity, the temporary and the permanent, have been brought into such fierce relief.
St Paul’s Cathedral, perhaps, contains some of what is best about permanence: architectural splendour, music, liturgy and art, but also what is worst. When people stopped being primarily hunter-gatherers and became farmers, a new imperative arose: to enclose, control, build and preserve. As the Church became established, in both its lower and upper-case meanings, the same kind of change took place. Buildings and structures, constructed to celebrate and facilitate the work of the Gospels, began to obstruct that very work, their own requirements for maintenance overshadowing the tasks which they were meant to serve. And so we reach the state of St Paul’s today, with a board of trustees embedded at the heart of the financial industry, and an admission charge of nearly £35 for a family of four. You can imagine how it happens: each step leading logically from the one before, all for sound reasons, until we find ourselves in a barricaded glittering temple with the Gospel going on outside.
It was brave and honest for members of the clergy at St Paul’s to resign rather than allow themselves to be complicit in the state violence that will, it seems inevitably, be used by the Etonian chaps against the occupiers. But how much more would it have said if, rather than working out their notice within the cathedral, they had furnished themselves with a cheap tent and sleeping bag and joined those in the square.
I’m not Anglican-bashing: as a Catholic convert I have chosen to belong to a church with far more cathedrals, bigger bank accounts, a more rigid structure and a far more shameful history of complicity with money and power. One of the very facets of Catholicism that drew me towards it, twenty-six years ago, was its tradition. And yet within that tradition, the two thousand year-long, ragged gaudy procession of believers, those whose light shines the fiercest are those; St Francis of Assisi, Dorothy Day, Thomas Merton, who are most truly pilgrims and strangers, hunter-gatherers of the faith, with no place to call their own.
It’s a difficult tension to hold, and so not surprising that Rowan Williams, with his finely-tuned sense of nuance and ambiguity, has so far remained mainly silent. Not surprising, but a little disappointing. For this is an opportunity for the Church to recalibrate itself, to reset the compass of its heart. As Kester Brewin concludes his chapter:
“The beauty of TAZ is that it injects hope into these overpowering situations. The forces at work against us are huge. The powerful own the maps and have legislated for every last inch. But in the interstitial spaces, under the radar of those who would want to configure the world for their own benefit, brief festivals of hope are taking place. They are temporary flashes of light in dark places, but long after they have gone the air hangs heavy with a generous odour, and those who thought they saw something different are, in miniscule ways, penetrated by the marvellous for a second and can never quite get rid of that feeling. ‘Hush’ says the Church, leaving its petrified walls and tiptoeing mischievously toward the public square, ‘I am doing a new thing. Do you not perceive it?’ (p.150)
“The Green Party in Northern Ireland is opposed to all oil drilling in Northern Ireland particularly in areas of special scientific interest and opposes the licensing of exploratory or exploitation activities that atttempt to harness shale gas reservoirs using the process of hydraulic fracturing or fracking.”
As it turned out, however, we were by this time running so late that we risked missing our parsnip soup, and since no one appeared to oppose the motion, it was passed without the need for my thoughts. So, for what they’re worth…
Six months ago, like most people, I knew nothing about fracking. Now I feel a bit like Homer Simpson – I don’t know how much old stuff has been pushed out of my brain …. Because it’s a complicated issue. Not because it’s technically complex – the process itself is frighteningly crude: they drill down a mile or so, across another mile or so, send down explosives and follow them with huge quantities of water, sand and those chemicals which may or may not be added (and in practice always are) at enormous pressures, to shatter the rock in all directions. It’s about as subtle as a toddler having a tantrum.
And it isn’t complicated, either, because there are finely balanced arguments on both sides – this isn’t a GM foods or a nuclear power issue. No, it’s complicated because there are just so many ramifications that affect so many areas. With some campaigns you can say “Stop this and save the ozone layer” or “Stop this and save the dolphins”. But with fracking it’s “Stop this and save – just about everything.”
So, since you don’t want to hear me talk about just about everything, I’ll stick to just one point. The pro-fracking people say this is an economic issue. And they’re right, it is. Not in terms of jobs that the industry will bring – the headline figures of 7 or 800 are a maximum, over several counties, north and south, and over half a century. What that boils down to is probably a very few, temporary, low-skilled and low-paid construction jobs, a tiny fraction of the real careers that the renewable sector could bring. No, the important thing about fracking is the jobs and the livelihoods that it will almost certainly take away.
For years Fermanagh has been building up its reputation and success as a tourist destination. But not just any tourist destination – we don’t have an Irvinestown Disneyworld or a Lisnaskea branch of Centre Parks. We don’t even have an Enniskillen Eye. All we’ve got are loughs and forests and moutains. And that’s what people come for – to walk and climb and fish and cycle and sail and paint. They come because it’s quiet and peaceful and clean and beautiful. And that’s what it won’t be if and when shale gas extraction goes ahead.
The industry calls their sites “wellpads” which sounds quite cosy, the sort of thing that Jeremy Fisher would perch on with his fishing rod. But what they really mean are huge concreted industrial facilities. They’re full of heavy machinery, pumps, processors, generators and so on,. In America these usually operate 24hours a day, they create incredible noise and light pollution, serious air contamination, great clouds of smog and the foulest of smells. Just what you want for your next eco-holiday. Then there are giant pits to collect rainwater, which of course belongs in the local water table, and more pits for the wastewater flowback which is by now strongly saline and contaminated with heavy metals and often radioactive materials. And there are wells themselves, of course. Initially there’ll be eight on each ‘pad’ rising to sixteen or more as time goes on. And we’re not talking about just one or two sites – they’re planning on around a hundred in the Lough Allen basin alone.
These sites will of course be connected by new access roads and along these and our small country lanes will come the HGVs bringing and taking away water and materials. It’s been calculated that each wellpad (and remember, we may be talking about a hundred or more) will need over five thousand one-way, so ten thousand return trips by twenty-ton trucks and tankers. Would you go on a cycling holiday in the middle of that?
And so where will these pads be built? Some may be on farmland, which will then remain contaminated and unusable for decades or more. But it seems likely that many of them will be built right in the forests, or what used to be forests. A lot of people think that couldn’t happen, that the reason we have publicly-owned woodland is to keep it safe from this kind of exploitation. That’s what I thought, so I emailed the Forest Service just to check with them. This is the entirety of their reply.
Thank you for your email. The Department of Enterprise, Trade and Investment (DETI) is the Government department charged with the statutory responsibility and power to prospect or grant prospecting licences in relation to mineral and petroleum exploration.
Any licence issued by DETI entitles the licensee to carry out exploration on any land stipulated on the licence, including land managed by Forest Service, DARD.
Licensing this activity is a matter for Minerals and Petroleum Branch, Department of Enterprise, Trade and Investment, Colby House, Stranmillis Court, Belfast BT9 5BF.
Regards, Alex Brown (Forest Service)
That’s it. What that tells me is that we can’t rely on existing leglislation, we can’t rely on public bodies and we can’t rely on those who are charged with acting for the common good. That’s why Northern Ireland needs a moratorium, and we need to pass this resolution. I haven’t talked about Fermanagh’s other main industry, agriculture and the production of food for the rest of the country. I haven’t talked about what happens if the smallest amount of benzene, say, gets into any dairy farmer’s milk, and the effect of that on the whole sector. I haven’t talked about the myths that shale gas could somehow lower our carbon emissions (it’s likely that its net emissions are actually higher than coal) or that it can act as a ‘transition fuel’ – transition to what? – we already have the technology, the skills and the resources to produce abundant renewable energy.
I haven’t talked about what happens at the end of a well’s active life when it’s capped off and abandoned, with its protective casing designed to last for a hundred years and nearby acquifers which are needed for thousands. I haven’t talked about the effects on human and animal health, on drinking water and fish stocks. I haven’t talked about the likelihood of earthquakes and the effect of those on the Marble Arch Caves or of the risks of explosion and fire and what that would do to the forests. But I won’t. I won’t talk about anything else. I’ll just urge you to support this motion and to get involved in the worldwide campaign. This isn’t a Nimby matter. We’re not saying, like people do about wind farms, yes this a good idea but it’s not appropriate here. Fracking isn’t appropriate anywhere. In America, where they’ve lived with the consequences, they’re coming to realise that. The president of the Colorado Oil and Gas Association said last month, talking about opponents of fracking:
“These nuts make up about 90% of our population, so we can’t really call them nuts any more. They’re the mainstream.”
We in Northern Ireland need to learn from the experience of that mainstream. We need time, we need research and we need a proper framework that will protect our people, our landscape and our resources. We need this resolution.
Hydraulic fracturing, commonly known as ‘fracking’, is big news all around the world, and especially on both sides of the Irish Sea. It is a technique first used in conventional wells, where a mixture of water and sand was pumped at high pressure to extract the last vestiges of oil or gas. Over the past decades the method has been developed, with the addition of powerful chemical agents, in order to obtain gas from deep layers of impermeable shale.
In contemporary shale oil operations, wells are dug deeply, typically several kilometres, into the earth and thence horizontally into the shale layer. A pipe gun is sent down with explosives which are detonated to cause mini-earthquakes. ‘Fracking fluid’, made up of water, sand and chemicals, follows at high pressure, further fracturing the shale and allowing the gas, which is mainly methane, to escape. Because shale is so impermeable, even using this method, a large number of wells have to be dug within the mined area. Typically, a concreted site will contain up to sixteen wells, with a couple of kilometres between each site and around a hundred wells in total (though obviously operations can be significantly larger or smaller than this). In addition to the wells themselves, the sites, which the industry call ‘pads’, also contain heavy machinery, ponds full of toxic waste liquid, storage and treatment facilities. Networks of access roads link the sites for the heavy goods vehicles bringing and removing water (each individual well requires millions of gallons of water), materials and waste products. A conservative estimate is that one thousand return lorry journeys are required for the construction and maintenance of each well.
Obviously, this type of industrial operation has a significant effect upon the surrounding, usually rural, locality. Its visual impact, often replacing forests and meadows, combines with the noise of twenty-four hour heavy machinery, noxious smells and clouds of smog, to transform the landscape. But it is the unseen effects that are causing even more concern, especially in the United States where the industry has been operating for the longest. Both human and animal (wildlife and livestock) health can be seriously damaged by the poisons contained in diesel exhaust gases, the chemicals contained in fracking fluids and the ‘mud’ used to lubricate the drill bits, by heavy metals and radioactive materials brought out of the shaft and by the escape of methane into air and domestic drinking water. Meanwhile the huge quantities of water required leave local water tables depleted; the fracturing process has been implicated in earthquakes and the highly flammable nature of the gas has led to serious fires and explosions.
As a result of these widespread problems, many American people, who once embraced shale gas as the answer to their energy dilemmas, are now speaking out against it, so much so that at an oil and gas conference in Denver this month, delegates were told that only 7% of the public view the industry favourably. “The public do not believe us.” said the president of the Colorado Oil and Gas Association. “We need someone else delivering our message for us.” Speaking of those who oppose hydraulic fracturing, she said, “These nuts make up about 90% of our population, so we can’t really call them nuts any more. They’re the mainstream.”
Now we on this side of the Atlantic are being faced with the same questions. The company exploring the Blackpool area claims to have discovered a huge exploitable quantity of gas while licences have been granted for both the Republic and Northern Ireland, including the unspoilt lakeland region of County Fermanagh, incorporating lakes, mountains and the Marble Arch Caves Geopark.
How should Christians view this process? Has God given us the gas hidden deep in the shale to use, if we can smash our way into it, however the industry and government see fit? Does our desire to continue our oil-based way of life justify using this resource, no matter what the consequences? Do we have any responsibility towards the earth, our brothers and sisters in its poorer regions, the other species with which we share it, and our children who will inherit it, or is looking after ourselves our divine mandate?
I have been looking into this subject recently and have identified three areas of Christian life and teaching which seem to me to be relevant to our thinking, and our consequent words and actions. This is by no means an exhaustive analysis, but I hope that it may provide a starting-point for others to think, pray and act upon this vital contemporary issue.
Our stewardship of creation
Throughout the Old Testament we learn of God’s intimate care for his creation and of the special role and responsibility borne by the human race in sharing in this relationship. It is we who are given the privilege of naming the species we discover, of looking out for the vulnerable, taming the strong and enabling them all to thrive and multiply. The story of Noah is of an individual taking on this responsibility, ensuring that every type of creature, the entirety of what we now call biodiversity, is kept safe and sustainable. And at the end of the story the rainbow confirms God’s covenant not only with humankind but with “every living creature of all flesh that is upon the earth” (Genesis 9:16). The New Testament gives us an even more compelling reason to cherish the universe and everything within it. We learn that all things were made through Jesus, the Word, “and without him not one thing came into being” (John 1:3). So there is nothing anywhere, no molecule of water or methane, no drop of oil or atom of oxygen that is not imbued with divine life. As Jesus himself said of the sparrow, “not one of them will fall to the ground unperceived by your Father” (Matthew 10:30).
In the first millennia of human life on earth, our stewardship work was physically hard. It was a struggle to find food, to grow crops, to raise livestock and to collect wood for fire. Wild animals were as likely to kill us than we them, and forests were places of danger and disorientation. But, gradually first, and in a sudden rush over the past century, the balance has shifted. Now we are lords of creation, able to wipe out species, raze huge jungles, split atoms and delve deep into the earth for coal, oil and gas. In our voracious appetite to set fire to these fossil fuels, which took millions of years to form, and which we burn in an instant, we have even changed the composition of our atmosphere, changing our climate critically and, for billions, tragically. For we have learned little that is new about how to create and nurture, and much about how to destroy. But our theology has not always kept up with our changed position. We are still talking about taming and subduing nature, when it is more often our own greedy and violent impulses which really need to be tamed and subdued.
As the collective people of God, humankind has a shared duty to care for the whole earth and its inhabitants. But individuals and local communities also have, I believe, a particular responsibility towards their own patch of the planet and its land and water, creatures and plants. It is not enough to assume that this responsibility will be discharged by some government agency on our behalf.
Where, as here in Fermanagh, the landscape is exceptionally beautiful, with lakes, mountains and wide stretches of unspoilt woodland, we know from our own experience how it gives glory to God and brings peace and healing to tired souls. There is something about looking out across a lough, with wildfowl quietly scuttering along its surface, that calms our turbulent thoughts and helps us to get our lives and priorities back into proportion. Our noisy, stressful world needs such places, now more than ever, and we should be keeping them safe and available to those who need them most.
Not, of course, that our landscape is simply a backdrop to the drama of our souls. It is home and habitat, shelter and nourishment to many species of wildlife, fish, birds and livestock. As built development encroaches, and climate change alters breeding patterns and food availability, these few enclaves become more and more important in keeping the most vulnerable of God’s creatures alive. Trees, plants and other vegetation naturally thrive within our wetlands and forests, forming part of complex, interdependent webs of life while the unfolding mysteries of our geological heritage humble us before the aeons of their creation.
It is also the source and treasure chest of our most valuable resources; more important than oil, gas, gold or diamonds: fresh water, healthy trees and fertile soil. As glaciers melt and sea levels rise, unsalted water will become the world’s most precious commodity. Woodland, absorbing carbon dioxide, and providing sustainable fuel, will be more and more sought-after. And across the world spreading deserts and the effects of intensive chemical-based agriculture are already leaving the ground a barren dustbowl. Soil that can nourish food will be worth more to our children than all the precious stones in a jeweller’s catalogue.
Hydraulic fracturing operations threaten all these aspects of creation. Our landscape, broken and scarred by concrete sites and their brutal machinery will bring no balm to the broken-hearted. The sounds and smells of constant HGVs, pumps and processors will preclude peace and contemplation and instead of breathing the clear woodland air our visitors will cough on clouds of smog and dust.
There is a very real danger that the air and water will be poisoned, either by the chemicals used in the industry or the deep-buried materials suddenly brought to the surface. Communities where this type of mining has begun have found dead and deformed animals, birds and fish, and their livestock stricken by hitherto unfamiliar diseases. Evaporation tanks, as their name suggests, allow toxins to evaporate into the air, while the atmosphere is further contaminated by the high levels of diesel exhaust.
Water may be affected by the breaching of underground aquifers, by leaks and accidents, almost inevitable given the amounts involved, and by the removal of such huge quantities from the local water table. Because the water brought back up from the shaft contains high levels of salt and heavy metals, it cannot be treated and recycled like ordinary waste water but would require expensive desalination before it could safely be returned to the local water system.
Most of us would probably assume that, given this range and severity of risk, the shale gas industry would be very rigorously regulated. Unfortunately this proves not to be the case. In the United States, the industry is exempt from the rules which safeguard drinking water, and environmental protection agencies have proved largely unable or unwilling to investigate serious safety breaches. In the UK the situation is similar, with a range of agencies on the fringes of involvement but none having much by way of actual responsiblity. If we are concerned, therefore, it is going to be up to us as individuals, churches, community groups and networks to speak out on behalf of the creation we love.
Love of our neighbour
We are all acutely aware of the economic disasters which have overcome most of the world, including the United Kingdom and Ireland, and of the fact that those who are suffering most are those who are least to blame. These are hard times when jobs are, for many, almost impossible to come by. In these circumstances it is natural to greet with hope and optimism any suggestion of fresh employment possibilities, especially in rural areas. Many will have seen headlines such as those in our local paper proclaiming ‘800 jobs’ and have felt their hearts lift. But sadly the truth behind the headlines is unlikely to be so bright.
In our area the licensee’s stated estimate is of a maximum of 700 jobs (so the real figure could be very much lower) spread across all the locations, north and south of the border, where it proposes to mine, and over a period of fifty years. Moreover, although the company has said thatit will give priority to local people in filling these positions, it would of course be illegal under EU law for it to do so. These few jobs, if they materialise at all, are likely to be unskilled, low-paid and hazardous. (We have, of course, been reminded very recently of the tragically dangerous nature of all mining work.) They are likely to bring no significant training or career opportunities and to be offered to those prepared to work with the least dignity for the lowest pay.
But if hydraulic fracturing is unlikely to provide a job for most of our neighbours, it is far more likely to take away the livelihoods of many others. The main industries of rural counties like Fermanagh are tourism and agriculture, with hundreds of small businesses: farms, hotels, B&Bs, restaurants, pubs, activity centres, shops etc. providing the bedrock of our community. Most of these businesses depend, directly or indirectly, upon visitors; people from all over the world who come here to fish, climb, kayak, ramble or simply relax and enjoy the scenery and atmosphere of tranquility and calm. How many will still come to see landscapes ravaged by concrete, to hear the roar of pumps and generators, to dodge huge tankers in our country lanes and to wonder what is lurking beneath the surfaces of our precious loughs and rivers? If the tourists stop coming, the whole structure of our economic life, built up with so much hard work and commitment, will crumble and crash, each failure triggering the next, until every person in the county feels the blow.
It is the same for the farmers. It only takes one instance of contamination of milk or of meat to bring about the collapse not just of the farm where it happens but of the entire sector across a wide geographical area.
And it isn’t only in their economic lives that our neighbours could suffer as a result of shale gas extraction. There is growing evidence of health problems among people living near, or even some distance downwind, of this type of gas well. And, as is usually the case, it is the most vulnerable; children, the elderly and those whose health is already delicate or compromised who experience the most painful and serious consequences.
If we are truly to love our neighbours, even in the narrowest of geographical senses, we must do more than simply salivate, Pavlovian-fashion, at the mention of potential jobs. When the Good Samaritan came across the robbed man he treated him with dignity and compassion and ensured that all his needs were met, for health, shelter and companionship as well as for food and drink. In the same way, viewing our own neighbours with respect means seeing them as complete human beings and not just as economic units, and acknowledging all they have to lose as well as what they might conceivably gain. And as for our neighbours a little further away …
Over the past few years, Christians of all traditions have become increasingly aware of the huge challenges posed by climate change and peak oil and of the conflicts which these are stoking throughout the world. Again, it is those societies principally responsible for the problems who suffer least from their effects, and those who have played the smallest part who reap the fiercest whirlwind. We know now that to continue emitting greenhouse gases as we do will make huge swathes of our planet uninhabitable and create unbearable tensions between peoples and nations.
We know, too, that the oil upon which our whole way of life depends is rapidly running out. Everyone is looking for a quick fix, some way that we can limp on, keeping tight hold of the consumer lifestyle to which we feel entitled. Shale gas seems, at first glance, to offer this opportunity. But gas is a fossil fuel as much as coal or oil and, because methane is a more powerful greenhouse gas than carbon dioxide and because the extraction process is prone to a high frequency of leaks, its total emissions are probably higher than either. The mining and use of shale gas will accelerate the process of climate change as well as threatening our supplies of the other resource for which the world is desperate; fresh, clean water.
The chairman of the company who hold the licence to operate here has described those who oppose his plans as ‘anti-development’. But as moral beings, we can never be pro- or anti- development per se; it all depends on what is being developed and what it is going to become. There are many types of development that would use our natural resources, not the dangerous and finite ones a kilometre below our feet, but the abundant and renewable energy of wind, waves and sun. The island of Ireland, north and south, is rich in appropriate locations of wind, wave and tidal electricity generation which could power our world cleanly and justly. It would use our traditions of engineering expertise and innovation and provide real, skilled and permanent jobs and export revenues. All that is needed to make this sustainable development a reality is will, leadership and a little courage.
For we are not called either to despair or to false, head-in-the-sand optimism. There is hope for our world, an earth ‘charged’, as Hopkins wrote, ‘with the grandeur of God’, and a family of mankind each of whom bears his image. But in order to realise this hope, we must look clearly at the pass to which we have come, and take our future path with great care. The values of the Gospel call us to speak out against the turning of our Father’s house into a marketplace. I believe that it is time to speak.
In County Fermanagh, the beautiful Irish lakeland region where I live, we’re in danger of being fracked. For those of you lucky enough not to know, fracking, or hydraulic fracturing, is the industrial process used to extract shale gas for commercial exploitation. Tamboran, the company who have an exploratory licence here  are holding an “Information Night” in a couple of days time to pat us peasants on the head and tell us that there’s nothing to worry about. To prepare myself I made a few notes based on the sorts of things they might want to say to us:-
Natural gas is a clean, green fuel.
So-called ‘natural’ gas is a fossil fuel just like conventional gas, oil or coal. It is made up mainly of methane together with other gases and requires extensive processing before it can be used as a fuel. Much of this processing takes place on site where its toxic elements are burned off into the air. It is therefore not an ‘alternative’, sustainable or renewable energy source remotely comparable to wind or solar power.  Methane is a greenhouse gas fifty-six times more powerful than carbon dioxide and, to make matters worse, the production of gas by fracking produces 30-50% more methane emissions than conventional gas. We are invited to see ‘natural’ gas from shale as a solution to the disastrous levels of greenhouse gas emissions produced by the burning of coal. In fact, however, this type of gas creates at least 120% and possibly 200% of the emissions attributable to coal.  Far from being an answer to the urgent problem of climate change it is potentially one of the worst elements of the problem.
Hydraulic fracturing (‘fracking’) has been used for over sixty years
The process was first used in the middle of the twentieth century but, crucially, not in its modern form for the extraction of shale gas. It was used in conventional oil and gas wells as they began to run dry, to push out the last vestiges of fuel. Fracking as it is now practised involves much higher pressures, longer durations, volumes of liquid and complex cocktails of chemicals. 
The process is safe and controlled
If all goes well, this type of extraction involves drilling down around six thousand feet to the shale layer then turning in a right angle and drilling between one and three thousand feet horizontally. This shaft is then cased in steel and concrete under high pressure. The drill is sent down again and drills into the shale beyond the cased section of the shaft. A pipe gun goes down next, firing explosives into the shale through perforations in its length. These explosives create mini-earthquakes, fracturing the rock. Fracturing (fracking) fluid is then pumped into the cracks at extremely high pressures, expanding them and causing new fractures to branch out deep into the shale layer. The gun is withdrawn and a temporary plug put into the shaft after which the process is repeated along its length. At each stage there is a huge quantity of mud and fluid to be pumped out of the well up to the surface together with whatever minerals and compounds they have collected on their way. When sufficient fractures have been created, the gas is pumped to the surface where VOCs (volatile organic compounds) and other chemicals are burned off into the air before the gas is transported away.  The whole business is characterised by machinery and explosives operating at very high pressures, using high quantities of fluid at great depths and great distances in geological formations whose precise nature and fluctuations cannot be foreseen. The CEO of Cuadrilla Resources, the company operating near Blackpool where recent earthquakes have been attributed to their fracking operations, has admitted that “You never have control. Fractures will always go into the path of least resistance.” Another expert has explained that the attempt to crack the shale predictably is like “trying to hammer a dinner plate into equal pieces”.
We’re not going to use chemicals in our fracking fluid
This is a recent claim by Richard Moorman, CEO of Tamboran, made as a response to concerns raised by local people in the Republic and Northern Ireland, people he describes as “anti-developers”.  It contrasts dramatically with his earlier comment that a “whole truckload of stuff” would be “going down”. Dr. Anthony Ingraffea, Professor of Engineering at Cornwell University, who has over thirty years experience as an expert in rock fracturing, has stated that it is “highly unlikely” that Tamboran will in fact be able to carry out these operations with, as Moorman claims, nothing but sand and water. As far as I can tell, no other company in the world involved in hydraulic fracturing of shale does so without using a complex and usually secret combination of highly dangerous chemicals.
In Colorado, for example, 245 chemicals have been identified as being used, 91% of which have at least one detrimental effect on human health.  Many are carcinogenic and/or cause reproductive damage. (The other 9% aren’t necessarily safe but there isn’t sufficient information to know one way or the other.) 35% of the products used contain endocrine disruptors which affect the development of the brain, thyroid, pancreas etc, especially in unborn and young children, even in the ratio of one part per trillion.
The “only water and sand” claim has been made elsewhere, including in Pennsylvania where the Department for Environmental Protection repeated the claim, saying to enquirers, “What do you have to be afraid of? It’s only sand and water.”  Later it was shown that the gas company involved had in fact used fearsomely toxic chemicals in their fracking fluid which a DEP official admitted was “nasty, nasty stuff”.
The potential for confusion and obfuscation in this area is assisted by several factors. First of all, the proportion of additives to the fracking fluid is very small in percentage terms – Cuadrilla, for example, say that their fluid is 99.75% water and sand.  This may well be true, assisted by the fact that water and sand are denser than many of the chemicals added to them, but it’s the remaining 0.25% that causes the problems. As the example of endocrine disruptors shows, it only takes minute proportions of poisons to injure and kill us and the huge amounts of fluid involved mean that the quantities involved are far from negligible. Incidentally, in an area characterised by an almost complete absence of regulation (see below) Dick Cheney’s Halliburton managed to break one of the very few fracking laws by including diesel in their fracking fluid. 
Secondly, fracking fluid is only one source of hazardous chemicals in the whole extraction process. During the initial stages of the well’s construction, “drilling muds” are used to lubricate the drill bit. These harmless-sounding muds can contain toxic substances including arsenic, barium and strontium.  There are also dangerous naturally-occurring compounds deep in the geological layers which are exposed during the drilling and fracking processes and brought into our environment via the opened fractures or in the discarded waste liquid brought out of the shaft. These include pyrite, an iron sulphide which upon exposure to air or water forms sulphuric acid and iron hydroxide, heavy metals and radioactive materials.  Mr. Moorman has stated that there are no radioactive elements in the rocks where Tamboran will be operating,  but it is difficult to know how he can possibly be sure of this, especially as no independent verification has been offered. As we will also see, there are other health implications of the most serious nature involved in the drilling and processing stages of the operation.
There’s no danger of water contamination
This claim has repeatedly been made by gas companies operating throughout the world and sadly has been refuted by repeated experience. Sometimes they assert that, because there is no groundwater in the particular shale formation, such contamination cannot take place.  But a moment’s thought will show that this is entirely irrelevant. The drill which tunnels out the initial shaft may easily pass through rock formations which contain groundwater and the chaotic fractures created by explosive and high-pressure fracking fluids aren’t well-behaved enough to respect geological boundaries. Indeed, in the Blackpool operations, the bore passed through an aquifer about which the company could have had no foreknowledge.  These types of contamination have potentially deadly effects upon domestic and community water supplies, and upon the wildlife and vegetation of water and wetland habitats. Water pollution has also been caused by documented spills of wastewater onto roads and into rivers. 
The film Gasland highlighted numerous cases of families whose drinking water had been contaminated by nearby gas extraction operations including dramatic cases of tap water which could be ignited as it ran into the sink. The gas industry cannot deny the flammability of this water, demonstrated as it is on countless videos and television programmes. Instead they have put forward irrelevant technicalities and non-sequiturs: One is that no case of water contamination has officially been proven as being caused by fracking (only because the official bodies refuse to investigate and it’s impossible to separate fracking from the rest of the production process).  When chemicals associated with fracking fluids and drilling muds are found in nearby domestic water supplies, the logical conclusion is that these are the probable sources. It is only the power of the gas companies which reverses the burden of proof.
Another favourite claim is that the methane found in the water is biogenic (produced by decomposing vegetation near the surface) not thermogenic (caused by pressure within deep rock formations). In fact it isn’t always biogenic, and even if it was, the important point is its migration path not its geological source. Whichever type of methane it is, it’s getting into the water via the ruptures opened up by the drilling operations.  The truth in the worst cases has often been bought – when gas companies agree to supply affected families with transported clean water they usually insist on a gagging clause so that nothing more can ever be said. As it has starkly been put, they “trade silence for water”  .
It won’t affect your landscape or daily lives
Read any account of the experiences of communities near fracking facilities to find out the truth. Like our region, these are usually rural areas with little or no previous industry, often with stunning natural scenery and resources and depending upon agriculture and tourism. Once the drilling operations begin, the former peace and beauty of the landscape are torn apart with criss-crossed roads, huge concrete pads, ugly buildings and machinery and open pits like wounds in the earth. But the visual effect, horrific though it is, is only the beginning. Local residents tell of enormous clouds of dust and smog, twenty-four hour operation of immensely noisy diesel compressors, pumps, wellheads and dehydrators, sites lit up all night like sports stadia and noxious smells so that “the whole valley stinks”.  It isn’t just those closest to the wells who are affected; the pollution, smells and noise travel long distances to make life unbearable for people miles away who have received no royalties or sweetening payments.
A typical well density is one per forty acres, which sounds light until you realise that it means around sixteen wells per square mile. Each well requires between two and nine million gallons of water, all of which has to be transported by lorry – a conservative estimate is that one thousand return trips will be made by truck or tanker per well. That’s thirty-two thousand journeys for each square mile.  The country roads of Virginia aren’t almost heaven any more. Then there’s the question of where the water’s going to come from…
And all that’s when things go according to plan. As we’ve seen, gas is flammable stuff, and flammable stuff burns from time to time. In Colorado there have been fires in wells; one with two hundred foot high flames.  They’re worried about how their small town fire department could cope, and so should we be. In Virginia in 2008 a pipeline carrying the gas exploded, producing a fireball half a mile long.  We all watched in horror earlier this year as fires broke out across our forests and Mr. Moorman foresees that Tamboran’s operations will take place primarily in wooded areas. Well, I suppose at least there won’t be that many trees left to burn once they’ve finished: in Pennsylvania the trees and vegetation started dying even after the exploratory well was dug, before any actual fracking began, owing to an escape of chlorides from the shale. 
There’s no danger to your health
As we’ve seen above, contamination of air and water supplies are tragically common as a result of gas extraction, either from chemicals used in the extraction processes or from the sudden release of deeply buried naturally-occurring substances. There are also serious health hazards resulting from the constant operation of heavy diesel machinery which pump nitrogen oxides and VOCs into the air at dangerous levels.  In combination with sunshine (and yes, we do get the occasional shaft of sunshine, even in Fermanagh) these oxides produce ozone which can plume over 200 miles and burns the tissue of our lungs, causing or exacerbating potentially fatal respiratory conditions. ‘Fugitive’ gases such as benzene (for which the safe level is none at all) also escape into the air in the vicinity of the wells.  As Dr. Ingraffea says, “There will be a few people who will derive very high wealth from this and everyone else bears the risk of human health concerns.” 
There’s no danger of earthquakes
The earthquakes near Blackpool were almost certainly caused by the nearby fracking operations  and it is highly likely that the recent quake on the east coast of the United States also resulted from the high level of fracking activity. The US Geological Survey have confirmed that fracking and similar processes can cause earthquakes. 
We’ll abide by all regulations
Cold comfort, I’m afraid, since there are so few. Unlike the coal and other established industries, fracking has grown up in the past couple of decades when governments throughout the world have been in the pocket of big business. It’s no coincidence that one of the big players in the field has been Halliburton whose connections at the heart of the US government have been notorious. The “Halliburton loophole” whereby the gas industry in the US is exempt from almost all environmental protection law  has its mirror in many other countries, including the UK where Caudrilla’s operations haven’t been subject to an environmental impact assessment, health impact assessment or life cycle analysis (of greenhouse gas emissions).  Sadly, we can’t rely on either national or local government to look after our interests or those of our vulnerable children.
We’ll protect your interests
In a recent letter to the Anglo-Celt newspaper, Mr. Moorman promised that “To the citizens of Ireland, we will always do our best for you in our operations.”  It would be an impressive sentiment if quite so many people hadn’t heard the same from gas companies seeking lucrative mining rights. Somehow it tends to fade away as soon as the agreements are signed. In Colorado all sorts of promises were made by the mining company that it was concerned about the well-being of local people. But now they are sadder and wiser. One resident said that the most important words you’ll ever hear from a gas man are “for now”.  It means nothing, and it means that they can change their minds whenever it suits them. In New York State, at one of the most productive and “successful” sites, the chastened landowners noted that the company carrying out the work there broke its promises about the extent of the area involved, the location of roads, the lining of wastewater holding ponds, the frequency with which the ponds were emptied, the length of time taken, the attitude of the employees, who were abusive and threatening, and most of all the restoration of the land at the end of the operation. “It began to feel as though something terrible had been unleashed.”  Mr. Moorman has promised that his boards of directors will sign declarations regarding the operating practices which Tamboran will use.  Very laudable, no doubt, but he knows that such declarations have no legal power whatsoever. As a commercial company, Tamboran’s paramount duty is to maximise profits for its shareholders. If the interests of Fermanagh’s people and wildlife stand in the way of these profits, which will he really choose?
It’ll bring prosperity to the region
In what ways could that happen? There are unlikely to be significant numbers of jobs available for local people and those that might appear would be unskilled and short term. Neither are contractors likely to spend substantial sums of money in the local economy. Landowners on whose property the initial wells are sunk may receive one-off and/or royalty payments (though they may, as in Montana, have to sue the gas company for them ) but these are unlikely to compensate them for the losses they will suffer. In the United States the licence agreements offered are recognised as being unfair on the landowner, who ought really to have the protection of a proper commercial lease, but the unequal balance of power between the parties precludes this.  Once the wells are in operation, the gas company has the right to continue as long as it wants to, and to drill as many additional wells as it chooses, regardless of the expiration of the initial lease or wishes of the landowner. The owner of the land is personally liable for any damage or injury caused by the drilling operations but is unable to obtain insurance against these enormous risks. Both landowners themselves and their neighbours see the value of their properties plummeting and find themselves unable to either sell or mortgage their land. Not exactly everyone’s idea of prosperity.
Here in Fermanagh the traditional industry has been agriculture and the developing source of income is tourism. We have little or no other sources of wealth. Both of these areas are likely to be very seriously impacted by fracking. Pollutants such as ozone dramatically reduce crop yields while others cause disease and death to livestock. As for tourism, Fermanagh’s immense and unique strength is the beauty, purity and unspoiled expanse of its lakes, forests and mountains, attracting fishermen, hikers, climbers, naturalists and artists. Would any of these come to view concrete pads, wellheads, polluted holding ponds, constant heavy goods traffic and dead animals and fish? Would those who walk the hills breathing in the clean air and silence rejoice in constant engine noise and diesel stink? Nowhere in the world can fracking operations co-exist with a thriving tourist industry, least of all here where the importance of our geological and natural heritage, enshrined in the Marble Arch Caves Global Geopark, has been recognised by the United Nations. We are in real danger of throwing away what is most precious, economically as well as spiritually, in return for nothing at all.
Other communities have benefited from fracking
No they haven’t. The only people who have benefited are the directors, and sometimes shareholders, of gas and oil companies. As people in Colorado, Montana, Virginia, New York and many other places will sadly testify, fracking destroys communities, lifestyles and landscapes. Some are learning: in Dryden, New York, a prosperous and independent community, the town council has banned gas drilling  and in South Africa, despite tempting inducements by Shell and other companies in the poor Karoo region, the government has placed a moratorium on future permits.  As they point out, the promise of much-needed jobs is temporary; the destruction of their unique environment would be chillingly permanent. Meanwhile our neighbours in the Irish Republic whose communities would also be affected by this proposal are actively opposing it: at a recent public meeting organised by the Lough Allen Conservation Society (unlikely to be an anarchist front) more than five hundred people attended, more than the building would hold, so many had to listen from outside.
The film Gasland has been discredited.
No it hasn’t. An anonymous document called “Debunking Gasland” was produced by Energy-in-Depth, a lobbying and PR firm funded by the American Petroleum Institute, but all the criticisms made have been fully replied to by the director and his panel of experts.  Some of those issues have been mentioned above (biogenic/thermogenic methane etc.)
If fracking were really safe, could allow our unique landscape to remain unspoiled and our people to benefit from a sustainable source of energy and income, there would be no reason to oppose it. Sadly, the experiences of communities across the world, particularly in the United States which has had the longest exposure to fracking operations is very different. We need to ask hard questions before it is too late.
 quoted Chenango Delaware Otsego Gas Drilling Opposition Group, op cit↩
 McCarney, Damien.
Tamboran’s claims of chemical free frack fluid challenged by expert, 2011. Friends of the Irish Environment. [online] Available at: <http://www.friendsoftheirishenvironment.net/index.php?do=paperstoday&action=view&id=14394> ↩
 YogaBill, 2007. Rural Impact: What to Expect from the Gas Industry Part Two. Available at: ↩
 Bateman, Christopher. A colossal fracking mess, 2010. . Vanity Fair. [online] Available at: http://www.vanityfair.com/business/features/2010/06/fracking-in-pennsylvania-201006 ↩
I’ve got a lot of time for Marcus Brigstocke. On a CDD (comedian-donation-duration) scale, where Mark Steel merits a long weekend and Jim Davidson the minimum number of milliseconds required to activate an off switch, Marcus gets at least a leisurely Sunday lunch, probably followed by an afternoon’s croquet and winding-up with the leftovers enjoyed as a midnight feast. Not only was Giles Wemmbley-Hogg tea-down-the-nostrils funny, but on his TV show a couple of years ago he sacrificed the opportunity of flirting with some airheady celebrity in favour of interviewing Harriet Lamb of the Fairtrade Foundation. So, on the twin criteria of making me laugh and being a Thoroughly Good Egg, Marcus maintains a consistently high score.
(It’s this good-eggery which emboldens me to refer to him by his first name, despite our never having met. ‘Brigstocke’ would probably be more appropriate for a serious review, but comes across as somewhat peremptory – a cross between ‘brigadier’ and ‘lock, stock and barrel’ – while ‘MB’ sounds coy, ‘Mr. Brigstocke’ archaic and ‘the author’ as though I’ve forgotten his name and can’t be bothered to look it up. So Marcus it is, and I trust that he’ll forgive the informality.)
So, if I write that God Collar wasn’t quite so funny or quite so thoughtful as I’d hoped, you’ll understand that my initial expectations were very high indeed.
As the close relatives to whom I moan about these things will know, I’ve been slightly niggled over the past couple of years at the laziness with which several atheist comedians formulate their anti-religion routines. To do him credit, Marcus refers to this ‘low-hanging fruit’ himself and avoids its most indolent tropes. It isn’t (just to forestall any images of a Melanie Phillips-Daily Mail-What sort of society do we live in where I can’t go to work as a nursery teacher dressed as a freshly crucified corpse?) that I don’t think Christians ought to be ridiculed. Personally, I’d like to be ridiculed as satirically as possible, preferably with a bit of reviling and persecution thrown in. It seems, according to the Sermon on the Mount, to be one of the easier and less painful ways of achieving beatitude. (The others: being poor in spirit, mourning, being a peacemaker etc. involve considerably more hardship, or at least long hours sitting round a conference table punctuating treaties and eating Rich Tea biscuits. I’ve never liked Rich Tea biscuits.) Of course, the snag is that you have to be reviled etc. for actually doing what Jesus told you to, rather than for wearing polo shirts buttoned to the top or listening to Cliff Richard.
Be that as it may, we Christians (I won’t speak for believers in other faiths but I’m pretty sure that many would agree) have done, and are continuing to do, or at least condone, some pretty atrocious things; things which, on the whole, our founder and guide instructed us specifically not to do – live by the sword, lay up treasure on earth, harm little ones etc. Our failures in these areas, though rarely rib-ticklingly hilarious, are undoubtedly valid objects for no-holds-barred satire.
What annoys me isn’t the target itself but the imprecision of it and the inaccuracy of the weapons used. Blunderbusses are being employed to nudge pachyderms on their broad but insensitive bottoms where a catapulted pebble could catch that spot where it really hurts. Partly this results from an understandable ignorance. Because the most egregious horror committed by professional Christians in recent years is the Catholic sex abuse scandal, and the most howling faith-related scientific blunder anti-Darwinism, there is a tendency to characterise the typical believer as a paedophile-shielding creationist. In fact most Catholics have no problem with evolutionary or other fields of science. To borrow a device from Marcus himself, if you constructed a Venn diagram in which circle A contained Catholics and circle B creationists, the section AB would contain a fairly small number of people. A small number of people who, had they happened to be at the Glastonbury Festival (probably an unlikely scenario), would be wondering exactly what they’d done to become the specific butt of quite so many late-night jibes in the Cabaret Tent.
Marcus manages to avoid this particular combinational canard in favour of some more original reflections. Unfortunately, several of these are even more inaccurate. In his live show he speculated about the probable fate of believing audience members who were reluctant to identify themselves.
“I did take great delight in reminding them that they only had to deny it twice more before they were in a whole heap of trouble. They couldn’t be sure if I’d ask them twice more, but it’s a tough call, isn’t it? Slight awkwardness at a comedy show versus eternal damnation for thrice denying the Lord.” (p. 149)
All cartoons from The Pick of Punch, 1957
A nice line, but diametrically wrong. In fact, according to John’s gospel, the follow-up to Peter’s threefold denial of Jesus in the Temple courtyard wasn’t condemnation but his threefold avowal of love after the resurrection and his being given the task ‘Feed my sheep’. So those who are tempted to leave their faith behind at the entrance to comedy clubs are far less likely to be flung onto everlasting barbecues and more likely to be forgiven and told to go on a sponsored run for Oxfam. Sweat yes, charcoal no.
Similarly, he gets the story of Sodom and Gomorrah the wrong way round, misremembering (could it really have been a prep school lesson?) that it was the visiting angels who wanted to rape Lot’s neighbours rather than vice-versa. It doesn’t take away the distasteful spectacle of Lot pimping out his virgin daughters, but does shed a slightly different light on the moral to be drawn. In fact it has been convincingly argued that the sin of Sodom wasn’t buggery at all but a failure of hospitality, it being less than gracious to gang-rape visitors to your neighbourhood (as members of town-twinning committees worldwide will no doubt be relieved to hear). Under this interpretation, contemporary sodomites would include tabloid editors with ‘bogus asylum seeker’ headlines, men who complain about official leaflets in Punjabi and women who tut in the post office queue at people sending parcels home to Ghana or Lithuania.
I do realise, by the way, that most of the material in the book first appeared within Marcus’s live show, and that a comedian’s poetic licence is endorsed with generous allowances for hyperbole, embellishment and sheer fantasy. Far be it from me to censure anyone’s extended riff on what happened when the Angel Gabriel, Holy Roly and the Dalai Lama walked into a pub. But (and this may reveal a many-layered depth of uncoolness and decrepitude) I do have the feeling that when something is written down and put into an Actual Book, it ought, so far as possible, to be checked with its sources. And when the source is the Bible, which, as Marcus points out, “has been the number one bestseller since before even Bruce Forsyth was born”, it’s not that difficult to check. Some of the other rather lurid stories, such as the holey chair through which papal testicles are verified, do, I admit, require a little more research to disprove, such as, er, looking it up in Wikipedia.
Lecture over. One of the more endearing results of the confusion over what sort of book this is – polemic, humour, autobiography? – is an awful lot of digression. Most of these meanderings I like – there’s a long one on climate change which has little to do with the subject at hand but is currently so important that every newly published book should probably include a gratuitious global warming update. There’s another on iPhones with an unsettling gerbil image that is wholly impossible to forget (I’m trying very hard), then one about pilfering postmen which I didn’t enjoy; it had the air of a right-wing meme that had somehow crept in uninvited. After that came one about Marcus’s dyxlexia, which is a really sneaky thing to put into a book. When an author explains, in tear-jerking detail, how difficult it is for him even to read a book, never mind undergo the slogging agony of writing one, it’s hard to criticise it without feeling that one is slowly and deliberately crushing a kitten’s paw. Yowl.
On the subject of digressions, this may be the time to admit my full motivations for buying the book in the first place. One was the W H Smith voucher which required me to buy more than Watchmen, another our general family affection for young Marcus but the third, most compelling, was the picture on the back cover showing him as a slightly ginger cherub.
That’s the one. And this (specs and hair model’s own) is my son Rory.
Back to the book. If the stumbling blocks to faith in God include his Old Testament persona, the Vatican, jihad and Christian Voice’s bizarre persecution of Stewart Lee, I imagine that one of the principal barriers to wholehearted atheism is, for many, Professor Richard Dawkins. Like Marcus, I was rather excited after reading the introduction to The God Delusion, looking forward to the brave new world of Brightness to which the good doctor was going to lead me. Alas, we were both disappointed.
“Richard Dawkins says at the beginning of his book, ‘I would like everyone who reads this, by the time they put this book down, to be an atheist.’ Well, I was an atheist when I started reading The God Delusion; by the time I’d finished it I was an agnostic. I was going to read it again but I worried I might turn into a fundamentalist Christian.” (p. 156)
Not, it seems, that Marcus actually disagrees with any of Dawkins’ arguments, only with the interminably superior manner in which he makes them. There isn’t much about evolution in God Collar, but it does appear as one of the arguments against belief in God. I do think this is a red herring, rather like suggesting that, because Jesus talked about God clothing the lilies of the field, Christian faith and photosynthesis are intrinsically incompatible.
The creationists’ God is something like a man in a shed, tinkering with his latest project; more self-assembly than conception. If God is God, rather than a finite member of the Olympian or Norse dynasties, he is not only the man but also the shed, the ground on which they stand, the space and time within which they exist and all conceivable and inconceivable scientific processes, ideas and imaginings. ‘Intelligent design’ isn’t much better; it still contains the same anthropomorphic fallacy, that God’s act of creation must necessarily be analogous to our own, with discrete plans and processes and outcomes. If God is God, then nothing is too complex or too simple to be his work. All we are specifically told in the Christian gospels about creation is that:
“In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. The same was in the beginning with God. All things were made by him; and without him was not any thing made that was made.” (John, 1:1-3)
That Word is, Christians believe, the Son who lived in Palestine as Jesus of Nazareth. So there is no particle that has ever existed in the universe, in any universe, that is outside his specific action and love.
As Antony de Mello writes,
“We forget all too easily that one of the big lessons of the incarnation is that God is found in the ordinary. You wish to see God? Look at the face of the man next to you. You want to hear him? Listen to the cry of a baby, the loud laughter at a party, the wind rustling in the trees. You want to feel him? Stretch your hand out and hold someone. Or touch the chair you are sitting on or this book you are reading. Or just quieten yourself, become aware of the sensations in your body, sense his almighty power at work in you and feel how near he is to you. Emmanuel. God with us.”
This is the immensity of the Christian faith, not so much that Jesus died, certainly not in the reductionist doctrine that would turn his death into the crudest of passwords, but that he, the infinite God, lived on earth as we do as a finite collection of molecules and forces and all those jolly sounding quarks and bosons. All particles are God particles, and if matter matters so much, isn’t it a bit petty to be squabbling about dinosaurs?
Suffering is hard, much harder than evolution and any believer who isn’t regularly stumped and stymied by it hasn’t been doing much thinking. It looks as though Jesus was when he asked on the cross, “My God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me?” There are a few things we can say. A huge part of the suffering in the world is caused by people, directly or indirectly, by war and greed and injustice and carcinogenic pollution and climate chaos. If we all lived as we should we might even survive earthquakes and tsunamis. But that only raises the question of why we don’t. Free will, yes, but why is it so easy to choose the bad paths? Couldn’t we have been created with a better default setting? We can believe that, in the life of an infinite soul, our time on earth is necessarily short and incomplete, but we still grieve, and rightly, when someone dies almost before they’ve started. We can know that the incarnate God, the God of the Sermon on the Mount, suffers with those who hunger and thirst and mourn, but we don’t know why his messengers don’t do more to feed them in the first place.
Which brings us on to what seems to lie at the heart of Marcus’s atheism (which is so hedged about with uncertainties to be, if he won’t mind my saying so and won’t have to give back his Dawkins T-shirt, scarcely more than tentatively agnostic) – the behaviour of religious institutions. As I’ve already indicated, I have a lot of sympathy for him here, but I’m not sure that the situation is quite so simple as he suggests. His basic argument is that, regardless of whether there actually is a God or not, it is wrong for us to lend our support to organisations which have carried out acts of inhumanity.
“You wouldn’t save your money at the Bank of Rape, so why pray at a church whose record on child abuse means I’d rather employ Gary Glitter as a nanny than send my kids to a Catholic school?” (p.72)
This is pretty much unanswerable (with the minor caveat that most child abuse of every sort happens in the secular context of the family) if you accept the basic consumerist assumption lying behind it, that just as a bank is a purveyor of financial services, so a church, mosque or temple is no more than a purveyor of religious ones. If this were the case then obviously we’d simply consult our Ethical Shopper and select the Buddhists or Quakers along with the Co-op Bank, Ecover and Yeo Valley organic yoghurts.
But it isn’t, not quite. Being a member of a faith tradition isn’t just a question of paying your dues and receiving certain spiritual and social benefits. The decision as to whether to join or leave involves many factors: history, theology, revelation, community and vocation. The ethical behaviour of your fellow-members may be one of these, but whom are you judging and how? How many Maximilian Kolbes count in the balance against a Brendan Smyth? After all, the point of a church is that it’s made up of sinners; if we weren’t then we wouldn’t need it.
What it’s rather more like is being a citizen of a country. Like Marcus, I’m English, though I haven’t lived there for a while, and I rejoice to be so when I think of Julian of Norwich, William Cobbett, Jane Austen and Show of Hands. Then I remember Cromwell in Ireland, the Opium Wars, Dresden and the invasion of Iraq. Hmm. Occasionally people renounce their citizenship of a country on a point of principle, but it doesn’t happen very often. Most of us stick with it, vote, join political parties or pressure groups, work for the common good and campaign for an end to the injustices perpetrated in our name. It’s not so different within a faith. The view of the religious social structure presented in God’s Collar is rigidly hierarchical:
“It appears to me like a human pyramid. In Christianity, the impressive triangle of political power looks like this. On the bottom, with their feet on the ground, are the rank-and-file believers, churchgoers who occasionally arrange flowers and dabble in light charity work. … One row above them are the ones who are mildly disapproving of the somewhat occasional attendance of the bottom row. The second tier are religiously observant. They pray, sing, attend church, run weekend Bible studies and read the Daily Mail without laughing. … Above them are the ‘active’ members of the church; they ruthlessly promote their passion for the Christian way of life … are judgemental and cherry-pick from the scriptures to suit the politics they grew up with. Above them, very near the top, are the ones who say, as Stephen Green from Christian Voice did, that the floods in New Orleans were God’s just punishment for homosexuality.” (p.239)
Of course, faith organisations have hierarchies, few more so that my own, but, again, it’s not so straightforward as Marcus suggests. For one thing, the guys (and yes, I’m afraid they’re mostly still guys) at the top aren’t necessarily the baddies. Within the Anglican and Catholic churches, for example, recent archbishops have included Desmond Tutu, Oscar Romero and Basil Hume as well as H.R. himself. Stephen Green, by the way, is not very near the top of anything except his own estimation. And does Marcus really think that there is a direct correlation between the involvement of the believer and his or her worsening behaviour, so that occasional churchgoers are decent enough chaps but by the time you’re on the cleaning rota you’re sunk into a ditch of depravity? And as for those reprobates who insist on ringing the bells ….
Of course, church hierarchies, like any other, afford opportunities for the abuse of power. People who want to do nasty, selfish, cruel things are always going to use the most powerful excuse they can to justify their actions. Just as, in a world where oil is running out, the unscrupulous backers of tar sands and fracking use the excuse of cheap energy and in a secular society dictators like Stalin and Mao used the good of the State, so, in a culture where people believe in God, divine sanction is invoked by those who want to consolidate their position. None of this proves the rightness or wrongness of fossil fuels, communism or theism, only that the powerful know their PR. No one ever got very far committing genocide, environmental destruction or wholesale theft on the grounds that Double Gloucester ought to be more widely available.
Over the past couple of millennia, religious structures have been the most stable and powerful and so have been the most successful at shielding crime and persecution. But in the hundred years or so that secular hierarchies have been thriving they haven’t done too badly at it either. Wherever you have hierarchical structures, you have power, power that tends to attract people who aren’t as nice as Marcus. You can say, as I do, that people who believe in a good and loving God ought to behave better, but there isn’t any evidence to suggest that not believing in God would encourage them to do so.
Incidentally, both Marcus and I clearly think that churches are hopelessly right-wing, but we probably ought to note that others think the absolute opposite. And, to do them justice, we have had Dorothy Day and the Catholic Worker movement, Martin Luther King, David Sheppard and many other anti-apartheid campaigners, liberation theology, Jim Wallis and the Sojourners, John Dear, the increasingly radical Christian Aid… The conservatives certainly haven’t had it all their own way.
My own view, for what it’s worth, is that some people are meant to be inside the church, nudging it in the right (all right, usually the left) direction and others outside heckling. (I realise that this mixed metaphor has turned the church into some sort of pedal-powered comedy bus, but I’m reasonably happy with the image now.) One of the most important things is for the nudgers and the hecklers to communicate with one another, and one of the silliest for them to waste energy turning that conversation into a slanging match. Some of the prime candidates for driving the bus, like Simone Weil, have been outside with Marcus and some of the best heckles have come from inside (try Googling ‘Partenia’ to see what I mean).
Marcus doesn’t like the Bible much, or the God that it portrays. Fair enough, neither do I to a large part; except that the Bible isn’t really, as he implies, a single entity telling a consistent narrative. Instead, it’s a collection of very disparate texts, some of which, like the Gospel of St John, are the bedrock of our faith while others, like large chunks of Leviticus, are frankly of no more than historical interest, and rather unpleasant interest at that. Sane Christians don’t give them equal weight any more than, if you were to come across a box of your great-granny’s bits and pieces you’d treasure her mildewed butter wrappers as much as her love letters. Not all of the Bible is ‘true’, not even as the metaphor with which Marcus accuses us of dodging the question; much of it is just stories. What matters is that, on the whole (with the odd blip) these stories show a progression from an early idea of a capricious and bloodthirsty master through the prophets’ realisation of his concern with justice and mercy to Christ’s parables of a wholly loving and forgiving Father. (The whole rounded off, I’ll admit, by a slightly random anti-imperialist hallucination in the form of the Book of Revelation.)
It’s therefore slightly disingenuous to treat the figure of God as though he’s a historical figure or a fully-drawn character like Peggotty or Horace Rumpole. The story of our understanding of God is less like the reading of a biography than a process of scientific discovery – we put a hypothesis forward, test it, refine it, put it through a pretty rigorous bout of peer-reviewing … And it’s still going on. Jesus put us right about the more egregious horrors of the Old Testament but we manage to ignore him, going on eye-for-eyeing, walking on the side of the road without the bloodstains and obsessing about the Sabbath. John Dear has estimated a hundred years of the church’s life as being equivalent to one in a human’s, which makes us somewhere near the beginning of our third year at university, old enough to know better but still not quite ready to leave the bar and start some serious revision.
To reject the idea of a God because tens of thousands of years ago the Mesopotamians told a good flood story and the Hebrews subsequently put Yahweh into it is a bit like avoiding bison because medieval bestiaries claimed that their farts could ignite a tree three acres away. Yes, it’s sad and pathetic that over-literal bits of the story lurk beneath the matted fur of internet trolls, giving them ever more bizarre excuses for disbelieving in climate change. But they interpret the flood story in such a way to reinforce their political and social prejudices, not the other way around. The tale can equally (I would say with more justification) be told as the story of a family who, having learned about an impending extreme weather event (direct revelation not being that much different from the New Scientist), took mitigating steps, despite tabloid scorn, and prevented wholesale biodiverse extinction.
Marcus does, however, like Jesus.
“Jesus was a friend to the meek and downtrodden, he promoted the redistribution of wealth, he came to heal the sick and forgive the sinner. He’d make the front cover of the Daily Mail at least once a week as the evil face of ‘Political Correctness gone mad!’ … I like the peaceful, loving, long-haired, bearded socialist dude I see in Christ. I’m not totally sure but I think he may have pitched a tent next to mine at Glastonbury a few years ago.” (pp. 237, 246)
The problem, so far as he is concerned, is that, having established the Old Testament God as a bad-tempered mafioso, he can’t reconcile the Father and Son figures and has to postulate a sort of Trinitarian Oedipus complex to explain the family relationship. This leads into plenty of comic riffing about McDonalds and the Osmonds but doesn’t actually help. One of the reasons, if we can be so reductive as to talk of reasons, for the Incarnation seems to be so that we can understand a little of what God is actually like. Jesus said, “He who has seen me has seen the Father”, which doesn’t make any sense if, like Marcus, you see the Father as a brutal monomaniac and the Son as a pacific hippy. In fact, in the bits of the Bible that atheists tend not to know about, prophets had been banging on for centuries about the fact that God preferred poor people, didn’t like sacrifices, wanted widows, orphans and refugees to be treated decently, was utterly fed up with the rich and powerful among his people but would forgive anyone who showed a bit of compassion. Sadly, no one wanted to hear it then any more that they do now. So God, the same God, not a dysfunctional relative, followed the old writer’s adage of ‘show, don’t tell’, clambered down to earth like a long-suffering drama teacher and bloody well acted out what he meant. And we know how that turned out.
Having been, probably, more critical than I meant to be of God Collar’s arguments for atheism, I should point out that there are lots of good things in it, lots of jolly enthusiasms for women, and sex and gay people as well as a lot more honest detail about his own history than he had to give us. In this respect the book is a bit back-to-front in literary terms; rather than beginning with the particular and extrapolating to the general, he starts with the big statements and only much later explains why it is that he makes them. It’s rather more like engaging in a conversation than reading a book; like meeting someone on a train and exchanging brisk platitudes only to discover that, owing to a points failure at Aberystwyth, you’re actually thrown into one another’s company for long enough to tell your life stories. I felt slightly embarrassed by the end that Marcus hadn’t had the opportunity to hear about my own disasters and doubts. That’s all he needs, poor man.
Before summing up, there are two small bees still niggling in my headwear which I’d like to liberate. The first is that most Christians don’t, these days, think that non-Christians go to hell. A few do, yes, but a few people think that electricity leaks out of wall sockets. It doesn’t stop the rest of us from switching on the toaster.
The second is the notion that religion is an escape from reality, comparable to alcohol, and/or a way of coping with the fear of death. Neither of these really work for me. It’s at the times that I engage most with my faith that I am most aware of the world and people around me. If I want to escape, to retreat into a comforting, self-centred, consequence-free zone, I don’t turn to God; I walk round a department store. The Gospels are crammed full of reality: thousands of individuals who are poor or sick or disabled or questioning or lost or over-excited, all seeking and receiving the attention of Jesus. He didn’t live in a pastel-coloured fantasy world and neither can we if we take the slightest notice of what he told us.
And as for death, nothing seems more comforting than the idea that it’s the end of consciousness, that our bodies simply decay into the earth and, with them, the collections of synapses that we once mistook for eternal souls. If we accept with equanimity that there was a time before we were conceived when we didn’t exist, isn’t it just as easy to contemplate our future non-existence? I’d quite often choose that oblivion in preference to the terrible clarity of seeing my mistakes from the vantage point of eternity. (And that will be the real judgement, I suspect.)
When it comes down to it, I don’t really believe that the significant gulf is between those who believe in something they call God and those who don’t. The one thing we can be absolutely certain of is that if there is a God, our ideas of him/her/it are ludicrously limited. It may well be, therefore, that to stop believing in our circumscribed conceptions is to step closer to a distant inkling of what a real God could be.
Be that as it may, it seems to me that a more important and telling question would be; if there was such a thing as an infinite, sustaining and worshippable being, what would you expect that being to be like? Marcus’s book, I think, shows that the kind of God he would like to believe in would be compassionate, tolerant, patient and generous. My faith is that God is indeed so, that Jesus lived to show us that, and that all the scary stories are just shadows on the wall, remnants of cruel fairy tales that shimmer into nothingness as the morning arrives. Or, at least, that’s what I choose to believe. As C. S. Lewis wrote, in the end we can do nothing else. Good luck on your journey, Marcus. As you say, we’ll all finish up in Birmingham at the end.
 All right, the Archbishop of Canterbury. I’ve known him as Holy Roly since 1985, when he was my best friend’s dissertation supervisor and he’s done nothing to disprove it since ↩
 Though they do, on the whole, manage to monopolise the word ‘Christian’ which is presumably why Marcus spends some time exploring some of the more bizarre policies of the soi-disant Christian Party, including a return to corporal punishment in schools, a raising of the motorway speed limit with an amnesty for speeding offences and a limit on parking fines. It begins to sound more like the Irritated Motorists’ Party until you reach the Environment section and a surprisingly comprehensive commitment to greenhouse gas reduction. ↩
 But then I don’t drink alcohol for comfort, either. Exhilaration, gluttony, friendship, obstinacy, merriment, boredom and absent-mindedness, yes, but when I’m miserable it has to be Lemsip. Maybe I’m just weird. ↩
Last week I had the honour of a guest post on Gladys Ganiel’s faith and politics blog. My short piece, a response to her post about the Twelfth of July parades, tried to look at the subject from a rural perspective and specifically mentioned the desire among musicians, and brass band players in particular, to forge cross-community links and take part in more joint and integrated events.
Within a few days I had the chance to see in practice what I had so blithely been talking about. As anyone who rashly flings their opinions online will know, circumstances are rarely so helpful, and so I didn’t want to miss the opportunity. The little town of Tempo, some ten miles from Enniskillen, has two silver bands, the mainly Protestant Tempo Silver Band and the mainly Catholic St. Mary’s Silver Band. St. Mary’s celebrates its centenary this year and marked it with a ‘Monster Band Parade’ last night in which Tempo Silver and other local bands were invited to participate.
The only potential drawback, from my point of view, was that I had to cycle there and back. Twenty-odd miles is a lot more than I usually manage in my potterings around town, but my husband, who does the trip at least once a week, assured me that I could manage. To sweeten the pill he promised a Guinness and a Chinese takeaway from any establishments of my choice within the metropolis of Tempo (pop. 533). As usual, gluttony took a slight lead over sloth and I agreed to give it a try. The main road from Enniskillen to Tempo is a long, long upward slope past a straggle of small industrial units so we took the gentler back roads for the first few miles, giving way to passing cows, before joining the main road here, at Garvary church.
After that it was even easier, without even bovine congestion, and as we coasted into Tempo I scarcely felt that I’d earned the promised black stuff. I wasn’t going to admit it though, and made straight for the Milltown Manor before the rush.
They don’t serve food in the evenings, and so we repaired to the Yummy Inn (no doubt a traditional Chinese name) across the road for something hotter and more conventionally nutritious.
A side road led to a pleasant little park with a picnic bench and here we whiled away the final minutes before the commencement of the Monster (shades of Daniel O’Connell?) Parade.
The parade was a great success, starting not too very long after its advertised commencement (we are, after five years, well accustomed to the concept of Fermanagh Time), and including:
St. Mary’s themselves, obviously, leading the way;
St. Patrick’s Pipe Band;
Tempo Silver Band, with small bandsmen on cymbals and triangle:
Coa Pipe Band (we’d passed the turning for Coa on our way, which indicates something of the richness of the musical tradition within a tiny area);
Ballyreagh Silver Band (we’d also cycled right past the hall where they practice);
St. Eugene’s Band from Omagh, whose website shows their own practical commitment to bridge-building:
“Our busiest time of year is at Christmas when we play carols at various locations culminating on Christmas morning when we play at Omagh Sacred Heart Church followed by attendance at one of the Omagh Presbyterian churches.”
some very young traditional Irish musicians;
a couple of lovingly maintained vintage cars, some motor and quad bikes and frolicking around them all, a troupe of muppets, superheroes, Elvis and giant animals collecting donations and handing out sweets (we met a very elderly lady on our way back joyfully sucking her lemon lollipop).
The parade ended at the parish centre with generously heaving tables of food, overflowing teapots and a bar (which sadly we had to foresake in the interests of wobbling home safely). Later there was to be more music and a barbecue. The whole evening was hugely enjoyable and characterized by enormous goodwill on the part of both musicians and spectators, a tangible expression of what is shared by the people of Fermanagh, so much deeper and more important than what sometimes divides us.
It doesn’t negate the problems that Northern Ireland has experienced, and which continue to threaten us (the policeman at the edge of several of the photos above can be seen cradling his gun – not a feature of most English village pageants) but provides a genuine and practical example of cooperation and generosity. Like the successful Shared Education project which has brought thousands of schoolchildren together across traditional divides, this kind of initiative shows that it is often the smallest and most rural communities which can lead the way into a better future.