Think of an isosceles triangle, upside-down, with Coleraine as the apex and the twin seaside resorts of Portstewart and Portrush as the base angles. During term time most of the students reside in the base angles. Last year the writer-in-residence resided in Portstewart; this year he resides in Portrush, in a pleasant whitewashed house with flaking pilasters at the front door and a magnificent sea view. From the window where I write I look eastwards along the shore to the ruins of Dunluce Castle (once a MacDonnell stronghold) and the Giants Causeway. Slightly to my right is the Royal Portrush golf course, slightly to my left the Atlantic Ocean, with a scattering of rocky islands called the Skerries between me and Scotland. On a clear day I can see Jura and Islay. Earth has not anything to show more fair.
Since the occasion years ago when I nearly smashed up a friends car driving back to Dublin from an all-night party in the Wicklow hills, I have been a non-driver; so I take the train to the university — a mere five minutes — and that brings me into contact with the people who live here all the time. They are very pleased to be living here, these people, or at least they think they are pleased, because this stretch of coast is, if you can conceive of such a thing, a sort of Ulster Riviera, with Portrush as its Nice. Belfast people flock here at Easter, and in July and August, to eat their ‘high teas and stare curiously across the water at Donegal. The locals make a packet. Genteel landladies, the season at an end, go off to foreign parts for a well-earned rest, letting their premises to the students just arriving for the autumn term. Those who work during the holiday season go back on the dole and head for the Harbour Bar where, before an open fire and beneath sepia photographs and advertisements for Craven ‘A, the sagacious Peter Scullion serves the best pint for miles.
At one time Portrush was really quite posh. One has only to contemplate the vestigial Edwardian grandeur of the Northern Counties Hotel to imagine what it must have been like. Cocktail bars, heated swimming pool, palatial lavatories, and even a civil wolfhound called Fingal (must be a Fenian dog) who sleeps beside the revolving door when not on duty at the reception desk or going through the accounts. Alas, Fingal is not long for this world. The lavatories, its true, continue to sustain their elderly, sibilant murmur; but the swimming pool, although still functioning, hasnt been smartened up for years, and the bars now cater, faute de mieux, for the local toughs, some of them uniformed: historical parallels spring to mind. There is an absence of urbanity. A friend and colleague, an Englishman and a brilliant linguist, is convener of the university Gaysoc. He is not obviously homosexual, but some time ago the boot boys got his number and tried to work him over. Fortunately, he had learnt some karate while studying in Japan, and was able to deal with them single-handed. His prestige is considerable.
Hotels play an important part in the social life of the area. Nobody seems to actually stay in them; but there are frequent discos, and they are almost the only places to eat out if one is disinclined to the sombre atmosphere of the Chinese restaurant or the high prices and disappointing curries of the Indian. One of James Simmons songs begins, ‘When I was a young man and hung around hotels, and admirers of his work should acquaint themselves with the peculiar life-style of this coast, with its strange combination of derivative hedonism and sabbatarian grimness. Sitting at the bar of the Strand Hotel in Portstewart, with its sea view to the west, surrounded by middle-class people of circumspect and long-standing affluence, and listening to piped music — ‘Red Sails in the Sunset, ‘Stranger on the Shore you realise that you are not in Ireland at all, not even in Northern Ireland. You might be in South Africa, or New Zealand, or California. Well no, not California: the atmosphere is too constrained, lacking in colour and gusto; although these people probably inhabit some old-fashioned California of the mind, where the Union Jack somehow waves in the breeze over Sunset Boulevard and the natives are deferential. Provincial sahibs, fiercely domesticated, they represent nothing but themselves. The women fascinate me, especially the middle-aged and elderly women. Each one lives, I know, in a large bungalow full of photographs and possessions but few books, and those few by Somerset Maugham and Nicholas Montsarrat; their children have done the expected thing. They are all as tough as old boots, but some are handsome, one or two even graceful. I admire them.
I admire them, but I know they read the Belfast Newsletter and sigh for the days of Lord Brookeborough. If you were to ask them about the eighteenth-century rotunda on the cliff top at Downhill, clearly visible from their windows, they would probably tell you that it was built by the eccentric Earl Bishop of Derry in memory of his mistress. It was, in fact, built by the Earl Bishop, Frederick Augustus Hervey (1730-1803), and the architect was Michael Shanahan. It was not, however, built in memory of the lady, but in her honour, and Miss Mussenden was not his mistress, although many people (including the Earl Bishop) would have liked her to be; she was his niece. If you then asked them was it true that the Earl Bishop, in Penal times, made the Mussenden Temple available to Catholics for a weekly Mass, and stipulated in his will that the practice should be continued after his death, you would be committing a social solecism, threatening their sense of security. They would know in their hearts that you were quite possibly right, but would dismiss your information as uninteresting, unrelated to their own lives, and yourself as an oddity. Or perhaps not; perhaps you would be giving them food for thought.
Portstewart, Co Derry, is a more Catholic town than Portrush, Co Antrim. I feel this to be numerically so, but a single glance is enough to create the impression. Portstewart is dominated by an immense convent school on a cliff, and the stone cross on the roof is visible everywhere, giving the place a curiously Castilian air. Halfway along the promenade, however, theres a cenotaph commemorating those who died in the world wars; and the pugnacious stone Tommy on top, vigorously bayoneting the sea wind, seems to repudiate the cross which predates him. The memorial plaque lists both Catholic and Protestant names, and some which might be either, yet I cant help feeling that the stone soldier is a bloke from the East End of London.
The military are seldom seen around here, although sometimes a bunch of obvious squaddies in civilian clothes will appear in a Portrush pub and mingle tentatively with the natives. They are very polite and subdued, even apologetic, and there was some confusion when, encountering such a group, I mischievously introduced my English friend (the one who knew karate) as an officer in the Irish Guards. This is one of the places where ‘the troubles seem far away. Security is slack; the Taigs keep a low profile; UVF rules OK. (It doesnt, actually; RUC rules.) Even so, that yellow glow to the west at night is not, as some would have it, the glow of Derry, but the glow of Magilligan with its arc-lights and watch-towers. And there are slogans on every wall. My own favourite, because of its weird poetry, is: We shall never forsake the blue skies of our Ulster for the grey skies of an Irish Republic. This has now been painted over, but Im glad to have the opportunity of recording it here, because I think it throws an interesting light on the Ulster Protestant pathology.
A traditional French platitude describes Germany as un beau pays mal habité, and the same is true of the North. One recent Sunday, a fine October day, I walked the length of Portstewart Strand. The surfing young skated in on the breakers. A low-slung car snarled past, pirate radio blaring, crunching mussel shells and obliterating tide marks with its tyres. On the boot was painted, by transfer, a Confederate flag, no doubt in imitation of something seen in a rock movie. I found this significant, with a significance probably not understood by the artist. His instinct was right, however; he wanted to make a defiant gesture, and he had found an appropriate idiom. When the car got stuck in the sand, its wheels churning, one offered no assistance. A light aircraft, privately owned, patrolled the beach at a height of a hundred feet, backwards and forwards, backwards and forwards, its shadow briefly patronising each upturned face. The North supports a prosperous middle class out of all proportion to its real assets. Where does the money come from in a society where security has long since replaced textiles and shipbuilding as the largest industry? Presumably from security.
Peaked caps are everywhere, incongruously dignifying the most unlikely people. So many policemen (and policewomen), so many part-time soldiers, prison warders, security guards, car-park attendants, porters, janitors and rat-catchers, each with a peaked cap. Last year there was a ‘mongoloid young man who stood outside a certain shop, its self-appointed security man, to look you up and down and let you pass. He, too, wore a peaked cap. Where he is now I dont know; but sometimes he appears to me as the spirit of the place, the genius loci in a peaked cap. I imagine a hypothetical future in which everyone has departed. The Catholics have all moved South or gone to the States; the Protestants have gone to England, or Canada, or Australia. A stiff breeze through the broken windows scatters antique Newsletters across the carpets of the Northern Counties Hotel; rats infest the kitchens; Fingal sleeps his last sleep, half submerged in the no longer heated swimming pool, trailed by driftwood and empty matchboxes. A light aircraft, privately owned, rusts on the strand. There is no sign of life. Nothing happens here, and maybe nothing ever happened. And then, in the morning silence, I hear footsteps, and my friend the genius loci, in his peaked cap, takes up his new post outside the revolving door. He looks me up and down and lets me pass.