We are in Belfast. Like the proverbial “Holiday in Cambodia,” it’s not where you imagine you should be on your holiday. But I was assured Northern Ireland is safe now, and people stick to killing each other for the usual reasons—jealousy, anger, drug deals gone bad.
Driving through East Belfast—hardcore unionist territory, or so I’m told—we passed huge murals dedicated to the anti-IRA, called the Ulster Defence Association, depicting men in balaclavas with submachine guns, insisting on their right to self-defence. Now they’re mostly for decoration, or for the titillation of so-called “dark tourists.”
We’re here in part to write a story for an American beer magazine, to try all of Belfast’s brews in almost all its pubs. Tough work. We’re also here to visit Phil, an old buddy from South Korea. Passing one East Belfast bar on the way from the bus station, he pointed and said, “We’re not going to that one. It’s filled with nothing but the most revolting of the nation’s scum. And that’s being mild.” Since Phil is half-Catholic, half-Protestant, we assume he’s basing his opinion on the patrons’ manners, rather than sectarian hatred.
We left London the day before, returning our Mini Cooper to its rental-car home in Enfield. The Mini Cooper drove like a dream, but I felt like Austin Powers in that weird little thing, and between the cost of gasoline, the clutch I blew out early on and the dents I left on the front-right alloy wheel, renting a car in England proved to be obscenely expensive.
It seemed so cheap when I booked the rental two months ago in China, before I calculated in gasoline and the damage I would cause. Anyone who would like to help out with our costs, contact me through Twitter.
The motorway system in Britain is fine overall, but they have an annoying habit of giving each street three or four different names. This means the Google Navigator tells me to exit the roundabout onto the B1038, but it could also be called the M20, or the A1001, or London Road, or an infinite number of other names. So it’s three times around the roundabout before I can find the correct exit, as the other drivers shake their heads and curse, “Americans…”
Another advantage of driving is you control your own music, and I was psyched to listen to BBC Radio for the first time on a real radio. For over a decade I’ve done all my writing listening to Radio 3 online, BBC News is my go to source for world events, and Radio 4 podcasts were always a highlight of my week. For driving, we chose Radio 2.
They call Radio 2 “the home of great music” but they should really call it “the home of music that can only be enjoyed by white people.” It was an endless list of middlebrow artists I had long thought dead or forgotten—Glenn Frey, (RIP), MC Hammer, Bread. But it makes for fine sing-along as you’re blasting down the M6 from Glasgow to Evesham.
London was as wonderful as we were promised – it had better be, for the price. Our favourite day was a long walk through the Tate Modern, the best gallery in a city rammed with galleries. Both Jo and I are besotted with Mark Rothko, and they had an entire room devoted to a series of canvases he was commissioned to paint for the Four Seasons Restaurant in New York, but ended up in a gallery.
Otherwise, it’s an enormous who’s who of great modern art—Picasso, Van Gogh, Cezanne, the rest of it. It was at the Tate I realized what a total philistine I am, openly searching for the dozen or so artists I know, skipping those who are better but less famous. The age, I suppose. I wish I had done an art history course before we’d left.
And then there’s Scotland. Everyone raves about Edinburgh, and rightly so. With its gothic architecture, its theatres, its food, and its castle bursting from its centre like the creature in Alien, what’s not to love?
But I really fell in love with Glasgow. Long relegated to be Edinburgh’s ugly older brother, Glasgow went from being a filthy but booming industrial wasteland to a filthy and failing industrial wasteland. Today it’s got that flame of culture that has saved many dying British towns.
The Kelvingrove Gallery and Museum is one of the finest in Europe – but it’s walking down Sauchiehall Street at 8:00 on a Saturday night that you really get a feel for the place. Filled with bars, cafes, pubs, takeaways, it isn’t yet gentrified to the point of agony, but not so ugly you don’t feel safe.
In a gloriously rancid punk bar called Nice ‘n Sleazy, I ordered the cheapest scotch they had. Instead, the bartender served me a fat pour of some Islay single malt that you can smell the smoke from in the next bar over. When I paid, she took out her tip, and then handed all the money back to me in change. It’s my hope that every weirdo in this place gets his first drink free.