Ulster Nights’ Entertainments
Extracts from The Memories of the Head Gardener at Cromore College]
i.m. The Senior Common Room, 1972-2013
Chapter One: “A Pint with the Chief”
The CEO was sitting on a bar-stool in front of a pint of Guinness which I had just bought him without realising he’s a tee-totaller, and he wearing a scapular with an image of Oliver Cromwell under his shirt and a set of rosary-beads wrapped tight around his upper arm like a tourniquet in a war-zone. This is sometimes said to account for the pained expression he so often wears, though rumour has it that the rosary beads are actually attached to his person a good deal lower down.
The beads themselves were sent to him by the Dalai Lama after that famous shaman from the Himalayas visited our campus in a saffron table-cloth in 2013 – during which time he wasn’t even accorded an official reception, apparently at the behest of the Chinese Embassy whose investment in the campus rendered it impolitic to so much as hint at the existence of a sovereign nation called Tibet.
In a tight squeeze like that, the Chief Executive has to make the right call. There are livelihoods at stake here, and no one can tell me that it’s worth turning on the hospitality for a wishy-washy character of the likes of that mountain goat who probably beats his wife anyhow, when you’ve got a chance of earning foreign cash to fund corporate expansion drives in Derry and Belfast. Fair wages for fair work. Isn’t that why the Ulster CEO is on £240K a year? Do you think he’s running a charity or something?
Anyway, it’s well known the Chief is a mystic himself in private life and it’s a sure thing that he tussled with his conscience before vetoing the reception. The beads are understood to be a form of penance – not that the Dalai Lama has any interest in penance as an idea, but then all religions are a lot of tosh, so who gives a toss? [They aren’t rosary beads at all as far as I can tell, more like worry beads presented by a Saudi Crown Prince who used them as a cock-strap before handing them over to yer man. Ed.]
Expansion, or what? This is what the Chief told me about the smart moves he’s been making down there in Belfast as we sat at the bar in the Senior Common Room, back when it was still open for business all the live-long day and late into the night. It was a man-to-man conversation, no fancy stuff, you know, and that’s the way I’m telling it you now.
“Yes,” sez he, “we’re really on the move down there. Y’see, the plan is to buy of vast hectares of land around the Cathedral Quarter of the city now that land prices are rock-bottom, and to build a completely new campus there on the scale of Queen’s University down the road.
“Begob, Stan,” sez he, “they won’t know what hit ’em. One morning they’re gonna wake up and find our tallest building is literally towering over their bloody Pugin campus. Shure, I’ll be able to open a windy on the top floor and put a spit right onto the Vice Chancellor’s desk.”
“Well, good on you, Barnie”, sez I – not wanting to admit I didn’t know who Pugin was or what he had to do with that heap of redbrick Disney-land just off the Malone Road in Belfast. “That must of cost a pretty penny!”
“Well it did, Stan, I can tell you! But we had the whole thing sorted out in advance, with the help of a certain bankster friend of mine.” Then he sez, “Hmmm. Fancy a Danish?” – casting an eye of the Common Room’s famous snack bar in the corner. What’s all that about, I ask you?
“Y’see, we’re doin’ it on the HP,” he goes on, “y’know, a sort of buy-now-an’-pay-later scheme – the way you’d buy a fridge-freezer from Argos or a bed from them Benson people up at the Jet Centre in Coleraine.”
“That’s a great stroke, Barnie,” sez I. “I’d say you have some lads on your team with a bit of financial know-how to pull a stroke like that.”
“I do indeed,” sez Barnie. “When we kicked that Kenmacca fecker out we got the bankster on the pay-roll, and in no time at all he had the whole wheeze sorted for us. Massive funding from an International Pastry Syndicate called Charlesmont. Jammy bastards, every one of them! We could take a loan on the security of – well, it’s complicated, you’d sort of have to understand how these things work to get the hang of it.”
“You mean boom and bust?”, sez I, “Give me my pound of flesh” – in my best Shakespearean tones. “Look after the millions and the pennies will look after themselves? If I go broke it’s my problem, if if a company goes broke, it’s the bank’s, if the bank goes broke, it’s everybody’s – all that stuff?” I’m trying to sound like I know a thing or two about Public Administration and Finance – like they didn’t repossess my 50-inch telly the other day for falling down on the payments.
“Yeah, we calculated how much profit we could make if we took half the population off the Falls Road and gave ‘em a third-level education, you know, readin’ and paintin’ and makin’ cities out of Lego an’ all that sort of thing. They call it third level because it’s three levels down from the top. Well call it “access” so they think their gettin’ the same product as the other ones but, y’know, it’s all horses for courses. Anyway, we have that mob up in Cromore College, payin’ through the nose already … So the bank said, right-o, here’s £150 million to get you goin’ and we won’t say a word about repayments until the profits start flowin’.”
“Jaze, Barnie,”, sez I, “wouldn’t I like to have a bank manager like that? Who is he, would you mind me askin’?”
“Ah, well, now, Stan,” sez he, “that’d be tellin’ – but I can tell you this, if you want to go ‘danske-ing’ any time, I can put you in touch with the man who’ll show you the ropes alright.”
He actually winked at me as he spoke these words. I nearly dropped off my bar-stool. It wasn’t so much finding myself at the receiving end of executive confidences as the discovery that he could actually move his facial muscles. I always thought he was one of those fellas who had been half-burnt to death in a Spitfire defending Britain from the Krauts during World War II. You know, “Reach for the Sky” – Douglas Bader, Kenneth More, and all that lot.
“Anyway”, sez he, “you need more than a local bank to pull off a stunt like this. You have to remember that these small-time boyos come and go. RBS, Ulster Bank, Anglo-Irish, the Northern Bank …”
“You’re right there”, sez I, thinkin’ about the way Northern Bank became Danske and then Danske just evaporated into thin air down Mexico way like snow off a ditch. “An’ if you ask me they go more often then they come.”
“Well, I’m not sure I get the drift of that remark, Stan, but I’ll take it on faith. Anyway, I have this man in London who’s in well with the European Central Bank, and hasn’t he only got them to lay on £100 million to help us regenerate the centre of Belfast?”
“Janey, that’s a wild big sum, Dickie,” sez I. Then a thought struck me, the way it does when you’re having a pint with pals and you’re mind isn’t as focused on the nuance of the conversation as it ought to be, “An’ what was wrong with the centre of Belfast, anyway? The shoppin’ is class, if you ask me. You’d wonder why they don’t regenerate those shoe-boxes in Brussels first. No sense of style, them Europeans.”
“Ah, it’s not the city, it’s the people,” sez he, “they have this thriving retail space but they’re completely mad about flags and stuff like that, so every summer they burn the bejasus out of their own capital. Well, the way the world economy is goin’ these days, if you play games the likes of that you can’t expect the property market to be exactly booming, can you?”
“No,” sez I, “I suppose you can’t – but it gives them something to do, doesn’t it? You know, to keep their minds off the price of a head of cabbage and the TV licence on the long winter nights – or the long summer evenings, come to that. And you have to bear in mind, for most of those fellas, it’s the only time they get to see themselves on television. You can’t really beat the thrill of that?”
“True for you, Stan,” sez Barnie, “but what you need here is more vision – vision and progress and a few more powerful words like that.” He draws himself to up to his full height in the bar stool and fires off a few of them mighty words – world-makers, world-shakers every one of them. “Dynamism and Innovation and Regeneration and “step-change” and all them ‘mantras’”. Now I know I’m talking to a real wise man, up there with the Dalai Lama.
“I’m tellin’ you, Stan, hand out a few bagfuls of that stuff in Stormont and you have them eatin’ out of yer hand,” sez he.
“I can see the advantages of that”, sez I, and then just for the divilment I put in, “and did it work for you that time?”
What followed might be called a pregnant pause. I don’t know what it was pregnant with but it was definitely the kind of pause that made me wonder if I had exposed my ignorance a bit too much for comfort. I mean, you have to realise that in a situation like this, when you’re talking to a Senior Officer on the best part of £250K a year, you don’t want to look like a fool who hasn’t got the price of a Domino’s pizza in his back pocket. The same way that Al Pacino didn’t want to come out of the jax with his dick in his hand in that film with Marlon Brando and the horse’s head.
Come to think about it, yer man has a look of Al Pacino about him – one false move and you’re trying on a pair of cement boots for size or facing a firing squad at the back end of a busy airport after midnight. I’m telling you, those banksters can be pretty ruthless.
Then he began to talk again in measured tones: “To be frank with you, Stan, those buggers up at Stormont have just thrown it out. The whole shebang. Well, not exactly everything but we told them we wanted to take on 5,000 students and they seemed to buy that, but then they turned round at the last minute and said we couldn’t have the students after all and that put the kybosh on the repayment plan.” Not to mention the car-park issue …
By now his face had fallen so far I was beginning to worry that he might knock the head off the fresh pint on front of him with his chin.
“You see, Stan, this is the way it is. We’re a bit like Adolf Hitler in 1944. We’ve got a war goin’ on on two fronts. There’s the “Great Belfast Expansion Dream” down in the Cathedral Quarter and all that, but we also have a “North West Degeneracy Scheme” that involves building a University Quarter bang in the middle of Derry City – it’s going to be a cross between the New Tate and the rive gauche, if you know what I mean.”
I didn’t, of course. He was obviously talking about somewhere over there in Salford where he was brung up and, to tell you the truth, I’ve never been abroad myself.
“Anyway,” he went on, “we bought a bit of an ould college there, when it was moving out to new quarters” – now I was getting rightly confused – “and we told the people in Derry that we were going to make them creative and rich by fillin’ it with students and Starbucks coffee shops.
“But just when we were ready to instruct our favourite contractor to start knockin’ up the buildings, didn’t those bastards up in Stormont say, ‘Hould on, Barnie, yiz can’t have any more students for yer university in Derry, so yiz can put that spade down again right now or face the quincaquinces.’”
By now the pint on front of the Chief was beginning to look a bit diluted from the stream of tears running off his phiz. I passed him my Coleraine College scarf, purchased from in the outlet he let the Student Union have after he knocked down their shop in the South Building. (You have to buy something from the poor bastards, considering they don’t have a penny to rub together since they lost their own bar around the same time.)
“Ah, now, Barnie, take it easy,” sez I. “Don’t be broken-hearted. Isn’t it a well-known fact that you have the Midas touch and anything you meddle with turns into 24 caret gold?”
“Oh, God, Stan,” sez he, pulling himself together, “I only wish that was true. But the way it is, the people from Argos are knocking on the door askin’ for their fridge-freezer back, and they won’t stop there, if you know what I mean.”
“But listen, Barnie,” sez I, “haven’t you got Wonder-girl here to help you?”
There is hardly any need to tell the reader that I am alluding to the new Public Relations Officer whose introduction to the boys in the Common Room the whole evening was about. Legs right up to her neck, and she a married mother with two weans and a husband, the newspapers said. Just to think, she could have wasted her life as a lawyer if she hadn’t followed her gut-instinct and gone for this Public Relations lark instead.
“Ah, yes, Stan,” sez he, breathing a deep sigh, “I have indeed. And I don’t mind telling you she’s the best thing since sliced pan. The way she has with words. Regeneration. Creative. Dynamic. Progress. Work ethic. Optimism. There’s no end to them. For a while she had them convinced in Stroke City that their lives were goin’ to change out of all recognition. Just look at the web-site she put up! Flappin’ sea-gulls and everything! “North West Degeneration” – ‘Martha College rebuilds Derry from the ground up and creates permanent jobs in the building trade in the process’. And, for a moment, the poor eejits believed it all.”
“Well, why wouldn’t they? Didn’t the City of Culture thing give them a huge cash injection? and isn’t the organisin’ committee splashin’ money around as if it was goin’ out of fashion? Aren’t they rollin’ in the stuff as we speak?”, sez I.
“No, they are not, Stan. They’re queuin’ up at the dole like they never done before. There are men and boys out of work who were never out of work since the whole shebang started. Some of them haven’t had a pint for so long their shite has turned brown. It’s like someone pulled a plug on the Maiden City. Like someone got her up the spout, tore up her P45, and turned down her application for single-parent housing.”
“Hould on, Barnie, isn’t tourism the answer?”, sez I. I may not know much, but if I don’t know how to make a few bob out of Yankees, I’m a Dutchman from the Lowlands. Truth to tell, I’ve been cadging off them all my life and there’s still more where that came from in spite of hunting down Bin Laden and all the sprees that they’ve been on.
“You could wish that was true, Stan, but it isn’t. Or at least, no one knows if it’s true or not because the count-up is too difficult. Y’see, we can tell how many visitors over-nighted in Derry but we don’t know how many day-visitors came, and we don’t even know how many came from Britain or from parts of Ireland. You know, it’s the old border thing. Anyway, the total is actually lower than the number of tourists who came to Derry in the same period of time five years before the recession started. So we’re really back at square one. No, square one minus one, whatever that is.”
“Jaze,” sez I.
“Jaze is right,” sez he, sipping his pint of tears.
“So what happened to the Public Relations lady if the University wasn’t exactly winning hearts and minds in the Maiden City?”
“Oh, that was the simple bit,” sez he, “we just brought her back to Coleraine where she’s busy supervising the digging for the new Arts Block that were throwing up to replace the mankey one we’re knocking down over there besides the Sports Hall. I can tell you, she’s really putting her back into to it too. And she didn’t do a bad job running them students out of the Common Room during the so-called sit-in that happened before Christmas either. Told them a pack of lies I couldn’t have made up myself.”
I admit my memory might be playing tricks with me here, because the conversation that I’m trying to recall actually took place before the Senior Common Room was occupied in response to its enforced closure by the Administration. Ah well, when you’re writing the story of a life spent in a third-level institution, you have to make allowances for the effects of alcohol. Now maybe there’s a suggestion for the ones in Derry with their “creative engine”. I never knew an engine yet that ran any the worst for a bit of the hard stuff.
While I was thinking these thoughts to myself, the Chief’s face had begun to darken, and by now it had reached a shade which I can only compare with the shine on a pair of ox-blood brogues.
What’s wrong, Boss?”, sez I?
“I’m just thinkin’ …”. I noticed he didn’t say “Stan” the friendly way be was doin’ before. “I’m just thinkin’, maybe drink doesn’t agree with me. I really shouldn’t be spoutin’ off like this about our little troubles. Especially the bit about those bloody bastards up at Stormont.”
He gave me a hard stare.
“You wouldn’t tell anyone about that,” he sez. “I mean, that I said it an’ all? Would you, Stan?”
“More ’n my job is worth”, sez I, trying to head him off at the pass. By now he was wearing his Richard Nixon look, and everyone knows when that happens it’s time to move to another drinking hole.
“Cos that’s what finished off the last man,” he goes on. “After all the shit we threw at him about this deal and that deal and the way he pissed off the university drivers, the thing that really sunk him was, he used the four-letter words on the phone to the Minister of Education. Just like that. ‘F*** off, Minister,’ he said. One thing you have to bear in mind, Stan, these are DUP men and they have their moral standards to stand up for. If you don’t believe in Creation Theory and disbelieve in procreation around here, you’re simply no one. That’s why I put on the big “no-sex-here-we’re British”, tea-total act, y’know. And live off Happy Meals up there in MacDonalds. No bloody bogman from the Ulster boondocks is going to beat me at that game, I can tell you!”
I suppose you could say I’m feeling a bit uncomfortable at this stage. I don’t mind the occasional hand of poker but playing blind man’s buff with Ulster’s hill-billies is a bit too fast and furious for me – especially when I have drink taken. It’s hard enough tryin’ to figure out what I am myself without having to figure out the moral principles of all the other lunatics in town. So I’ll leave you to it, Chief, and take a runner here before I get mistaken for Catholic Unionist or an Anglican Home-ruler and end up tarred and feathered by both sides in the quarrel.
“Well, I’d better go and congratulate the new Publicity Girl before she leaves”, sez I. And, with that, I slip off my bar stool without even stopping to finish off my pint. Something I rarely do. (Not finishing my pint, I mean.)
The Chief says nothing but just continues to gaze into the lovely pattern made by his tears in the lunar surface of his Arthur Guinness. You’d think he’d graduated from the Arts and Design Department. Innovation and creativity isn’t the half of it. I’ll admit this, I didn’t quite know what to make of his state of mind as I walked away. Either he was thinking of investing University capital in Diageo or he was making up his mind to close the Common Room forever. We’ll just have to see what happens.