The Longest (Barefoot) Day

image

The anniversary of D-Day was last week and the  summer solstice was three weeks ago. And today, the twelfth day of July, will be a special day for me. Why? Am I going out on the march to commemorate the Battle of the Boyne? Nope.

Today I’m planning to spend no less than eight hours in the sunshine by the beach barefoot. I arrived at Murlough Nature Reserve at 8.20am where I slipped my shoes off and stuck them in a plastic bag and padded down to the beach.

It was low tide so I turned left and walked along the sea front until I was almost in reach of Dundrum. In fact if I’d been wearing swimming trunks instead of jeans I would have been able to ford the little river and walk to the town.

At present I’m in the little cafe in the Murlough Nature Reserve near the caravan site. I’ll give you a further update when I get to Newcastle.

image

I’ve said this many times before and I’m saying it again: Sunshine, I love you!

Advertisements

Summer has started at last

After many months of wondering if we’ll ever get a spring this year, let alone a summer, I am pleased to report that we have had several days of warm, sunny weather. And I’ve been taking maximum advantage of it.

On Saturday I took my usual barefoot trip to Murlough Beach and Newcastle. On Sunday I went to Tyrella Beach where I played on the sand dunes and in the surf. And today I went back to Murlough Beach and explored the sand dunes and the caravan park.

I also discovered that although I’m on the wrong side of forty I can still sprint.

Yes, I’ve discovered something here that I could never have discovered in Belfast or London: barefoot running. I never had much interest in running when I was growing up in Belfast and the only sport I actually attended in London was the Marathon. Not only that, I never liked wearing gutties (that’s the Belfast word for sneakers or trainers). They made my feet sweat and they’re not my style anyway. And London and Belfast are no places for a barefooter. London is swarming with cars, and in many of Belfast’s streets there’s broken glass and dog dirt everywhere.

And that’s why I’m so glad I live within walking distance of not one but two beaches where all I have to worry about is the weather and the tides and I’m not encumbered by such a petty and distasteful thing as footwear.

So now I’ve discovered the advantages of barefoot running, I’ve decided to put in a short burst of running whenever I visit a beach. Nothing too strenuous, you know, not more than a minute or so.

This is my favourite time of year and this year in particular I’m really coming alive!

Heaven on Earth

I’ve written many times about the weather before and I’m writing about the weather now. This is the first wonderfully warm day we’ve had all year, a beautiful sunny day and not a cloud in sight.

At this moment I’m basking in the late spring sunshine, with my shoes off, on a grassy area between Down Cathedral and the churchyard and I’m enjoying every minute of it. When you consider what a dismal spring we’ve had so far and the vile winter that came before it then you’ll understand why I love to lie in the grass under the sun. And you’ll also understand why the words most prominently on my lips are, “sunshine, I love you!”

Margaret Thatcher: Shed no tears, send no flowers

Margaret Thatcher 13-10-1925 – 8-4-2013

Margaret Thatcher, the woman who in her position as Prime Minister from 1979 to 1990 changed Britain’s society and economy irrevocably, has died.

There will be many tributes from many people who have been affected in one way or another by her eleven-year rule, tributes both heartfelt and shallow, from both in the UK and abroad. But there will be no tribute from me.

From her earliest political years as MP for Finchley to her latest years as Baroness Thatcher, her life was fraught with controversy and her bull-headedness and arrogance made her enemies in numerous quarters. I could begin with her spell as Secretary of State for Education and Science in Edward Heath’s government in the early 1970s. In her move to cut costs she did away with free milk in schools, which led to her being harangued as “Maggie Thatcher, milk snatcher”. Few realised it at the time but this was an unpleasant warning of things to come.

The dark days of Thatcherism began when she was elected Prime Minister in 1979. Over the next few years she and her all-male cabinet presided over a period when unemployment doubled and reached heights not seen since the 1930s. She dismissed all the industries that had closed down as “lame ducks” but had not a thought for what would replace them.

She tore into the workers’ unions one after the other. The National Union of Mineworkers went on strike in 1984 and coal production slowed down to a trickle, but Thatcher was already in the process of making Britain less dependent on coal and she got round the temporary coal shortages by importing coal from Poland. With her now legendary intransigence she broke the will of the miners and in the process left numerous towns and villages in Scotland, Wales and the North of England with nothing.

By 1985, with the miners defeated and all the unions that she thought held down the country in the past under her heel, she could freely proceed to turn Britain into the country she wanted, one where free enterprise and a free, deregulated market could rule. This gave rise to a most odious group of people, Young Urban Professionals, or Yuppies.

As the south and east of England grew more prosperous more people were buying houses and other property. This boom in property was helped in no small way by allowing local councils to sell off their own property. By 1990 property prices were growing exponentially and most people on low incomes were being priced out. This ultimately led to numerous people, young and old, being made homeless with no job, no home, no future. And what few properties the councils had left became traps for the poorest and most badly educated. It was in this setting that the poorest of the working class became an underclass, with no jobs, no money and no hope.

In fact only London and the Home Counties were really any better off during Thatcher’s years. The rest of the UK, Wales, Scotland, the North of England and Northern Ireland saw little if anything of the boom of the late 1980s. Like the US President Ronald Reagan, Thatcher believed in the “trickle down” theory which states that wealth accumulated by the richest will trickle down to the poorest. We now recognise this theory for the fallacy it always was.

British Rail, which was not being too efficiently run when Thatcher came to power was now being bled white through repeated rounds of cuts. Road transport was now being seen as the way forward with car ownership increasing. Public transport could have dealt with the increase in traffic in the 1980s with increased subsidies but instead the whole structure was deregulated in 1985. Services were cut away to the barest minimum if not abolished outright in rural areas and towns fared little better.

In fact most public utilities, such as gas, electricity and water, were privatised. This left most of Britain’s infrastructure publicly funded but privately run and accountable to nobody but their directors and their shareholders.

Northern Ireland escaped the worst excesses of Thatcherism — its public utilities are mostly still in the public sector. But Thatcher will be remembered here for the heartless and ham-fisted way she dealt with the troubles. Northern Ireland was already a political and financial disaster area with Unionists against Republicans, Catholics against Protestants, the IRA and the INLA against the UDA, the UVF, the LVF, the UFF and the RUC and the British Army against Catholics and Republicans, neighbour against neighbour and sectarian politicians and other assorted morons on both sides and on every level keeping that fire burning. Margaret Thatcher with her various Secretaries of State for Northern Ireland did nothing to calm down the trouble, let alone end it. The hunger strikes by Republican prisoners in the Maze Prison in 1980 did not move her. The second wave of hunger strikes the following year did eventually achieve something but only after ten men died – among them Bobby Sands. And even then the demands of the hunger strikers were only met sub rosa and over a long period of time so that the government would not lose face to people they repeatedly dismissed as “terrorists”.

And there were all the problems of the “Anglo-Irish Agreement”, the RUC’s shoot-to-kill policy and, most seriously, the broadcasting ban where the media were forbidden by Thatcher and her counterpart in Dublin to broadcast any speech made by Republican politicians and Republican paramilitary groups. By gagging people like this Thatcher was emulating the political oppression of the Soviet Union as much as she could.

Her foreign policy was equally reprehensible. She would not support sanctions against South Africa at a time when the country with its Apartheid rule was going through a particularly vicious period. The White minority government was denying the rights of Blacks and Asians to have any say in the way the country was run and they were doing everything they could to make sure South Africa remained exclusively controlled by Whites up to and including murder.

She always saw the Soviet Union as the arch-enemy of the free world and this view barely changed after she had met Mikhail Gorbachev and his wife Raisa. Gorbachev and his foreign minister Edvard Shevardnadze were doing well with the US president Ronald Regan in ending the Cold War and dismantling nuclear missiles on both sides that would never be used anyway. Thatcher, in contrast, made it clear in the most perfectly diplomatic way that, as far as she was concerned, as long as the UK and the USSR both existed there would always be a cold war.

And finally, and fatally, there was the monstrous matter of the Poll Tax. This was also called the Community Charge where every household, big or small, would pay a fixed amount to their respective councils, no matter whether they could afford it or not. She did away with the old system of Rates which had served Britain perfectly well and forced the Poll Tax through Parliament with all her might. She chose to ignore the fact that King Richard II had tried a similar stunt in 1381 and had failed abysmally with a major rebellion by England’s peasants. Thatcher’s Poll Tax also failed with protests and riots breaking out all over Britain during 1990. With this on top of everything else that was going wrong with the UK and leadership challenges from John Redwood, Douglas Hurd and Michael Heseltine, Thatcher was forced to resign.

So this concludes my assessment of the political career of Margaret Thatcher. Considering that I grew up in Northern Ireland during her years as Prime Minister, perhaps readers of this blog will understand why I shall not shed a tear for this woman, her vitriolic politics or her odious eleven-year rule. Every citizen of the UK has been affected in one way or another by Thatcher, even ones who were not born before 1991. Her policies on Northern Ireland were the reason I migrated to London in 1991. The after-effects of her policies on employment were the reason I was unemployed from when I left full-time education in 1990 until 1999. Her policies on housing were the reason I could not afford to live in anything better than a one-room flat in London.

And… Well, well, well, I actually have something good to say about Margaret Thatcher.

She has inspired me to write my longest blog entry to date.

Two Years

It was two years ago today that, after two decades of life in the vast urban sprawl of London, I packed up only what I really needed and got on a flight to Belfast. I quickly settled in Downpatrick and it’s here that I’ve been ever since.

The circumstances under which I came back to Ireland are well documented in this blog so I see no need to waste space repeating the story. I only need to say that, far from ever regretting the hasty and unceremonious way in which I left London, I bless the day I returned to Ireland. Thursday the 31st of March 2011 is the day when I was welcomed back to the land where I grew up. I may have many memories of my life in the capital but I have no intention whatsoever of leaving Ireland again, not even to get any of the stuff I left behind in London. I’ve severed all my official links with England (with the exception of an ISA with the RBS and a dormant account at NatWest which I must get round to closing). The only BBC radio stations I listen to are Radio 3 and Radio Ulster and I haven’t bought a British newspaper since long before I even thought about coming back to Ireland.

My past is in London and that’s where I’ve left it. My heart is in Ireland and that’s where I’m staying.

Winter days in March

My grandmother used to say that March comes in like a lion and goes out like a lamb. March 2013 is doing the very opposite. It started off promisingly with the sort of mild weather one would expect in April. Now in the last week of the month we’ve got gale force winds, rain, sleet and snow, not to mention sub-zero temperatures at night.

I’ve spoken previously on this blog about how much I hate winter with all the horrible weather that comes with it and I won’t waste space repeating myself here. I’ve taken up enough space with diatribes against the winter weather already. But the fact that this blast comes after the spring equinox, a time when the spring is supposed to be bringing everything back to life, could be proof that the weather is completely going to pot.

Evidence of this can be seen in my front garden. There’s a row of daffodils that were supposed to have bloomed at least two weeks ago. At present they’re only budding and if this cold snap continues much longer they’ll simply perish.

Another effect of the horrible weather is the T-Mobile/Orange/EE network is down.

It doesn’t bode well for the rest of the year. Irish weather never was very predictable at the best of times but this coming summer could be an even worse wash-out than last year, or there could be a two-month-long drought with blistering heat, water shortages and gorse fires.

But I’m not one to dwell on pessimistic thoughts. If this summer is anything like the wash-out the last one was I can always go puddle-jumping. I did it a few times two months ago, the last time the playing fields were waterlogged, and I enjoyed it! It really brought out the child in me. I was wearing old shoes and I didn’t care if they got soaked, flooded and ruined. I revelled in the freedom of walking through puddles up to ten centimetres deep and not worrying about keeping my shoes and socks dry.

Now I wouldn’t do it now in this cold snap, and I’ve thrown out my old shoes. So if I want to go puddle-jumping in future I’ll have to do it barefoot and I’ll have to wait till it’s warmer.

(I think it’s nice that my inner child is in such good spirits!)

Still barefootin’

image

Dundrum Bay, County Down


At home I almost never wear shoes. I’m either in socks or barefoot. But recently I’ve been going further. Some people reading this post will think I’m a nut and they might have good reason to do so. After all, who in his or her right mind would wander up and down the beach barefoot in the winter? Ireland isn’t really a good place to go about unshod. It’s often too cold and wet.
image

The Mourne Mountains

But this afternoon I did just that at Tyrella Beach. And on the Sunday before last I took my usual route from the Murlouhgh Nature Reserve down the beach to Newcastle’s Slieve Donard Hotel, and, yes, I was barefoot there too.

Now I should point out that these are two extraordinary cases. I took these barefoot trips on days that were about as mild as a winter’s day could be, when there was no rain, no snow and the temperature was about 9° or 10° centigrade. Also it was at low tide, which means I could walk over flat sand instead of crawling over shingles and rocks, which is what I often have to do at high tide.

The question still remains, though: why do I do it? There are two answers.

1) Because I can. Yes, I’m not getting any younger and I don’t know how much longer I’ll have the physical and mental strength to go on walking trips that can be as much as twenty-five kilometres. In the near future I could be in a job that takes up six days of the week and leaves me limp as a rag on the seventh day. I want to do all my walking while I still have youth on my side and plenty of spare time.

2) I enjoy it. I really do. I love the feeling of walking about without worrying about sand in my shoes or having to walk round large pools left behind by the tide. Besides, wet feet are easy to dry off; wet shoes and socks aren’t. I could come wearing wellies but they’re not much good for the long distance walks I take. And my feet need to breathe as the rest of my body does. After a ten-kilometre walk my feet would stink like billy-o.

And I’m not the only one with a predilection for going around barefoot. Here you can read about people in fiction and in real life who are more or less like me concerning footwear.