Saturday, 5 August 2017

25 years ago today I first stepped onto Irish soil!

 "Behind the ashtray a No Smoking sign. Ashtray Sign. Sign Ashtray. Going to like this country!"

1992 was the end of England life. 
The end of a long-dead obsessive love affair that had sent me crazy twice. 

The end of a major piece of work that started out as a novel, yet such is the nature of writing, might still someday appear as a TV series. 

The end of my patience with the voting British public, who had elected the fourth Conservative government in a row.

Liberated from the ties of failed love, freed from the bonds of labour, I wrapped my love of England into a mental parcel, excited only by thought of the new.

Time for a new country, a new life, but where? I’d been around the planet twice, obviously not every country, not even each continent, but South America and Africa would have to wait.

Every cent was sacred. Every penny I could muster would allow me more time to decide where best felt like home.

Leaving my terraced house in Bradford, West Yorkshire, I walked down the hill to the city centre and into a Travel Agents.

“Can I help you?”
“You can, thanks. I’d like the cheapest one-way flight out of this country.”
“Any preferred destination?”
“No. Just somewhere else.”

Late 20s, tired eyes and dyed scarlet hair, she smiled, silently sympathetic. Several phone calls and many checked lists later, she raised her chin towards me.

“I’ve got £38 one-way to Malaga.”
“Fantastic. I’ll take it.”

Truly I would have gone anywhere, but this was a sign. For many years I'd regularly visited one of my best friends who lived in Barcelona. 

Before Ryanair and EasyJet overwhelmed it with millions of tourists, Barcelona was a wonderful bustling Catalan capital, proud of its rebel history, cultural influence and brazen wealth.

As host to that year’s Olympics, the city was undergoing a renaissance, so I figured there’d be jobs aplenty for the likes of me.

Hitching around Andalusia, I spent enough time in Granada to work out that you had to see the Alhambra at dawn, before the crowds arrived. It was astonishing.

Then a long mad bus journey to Catalunya, across the scorched plains of Spaghetti Westerns, through the driving rain and midday blackness of violent thunderstorms, and ah!

Is it?

Three months later, after one of the best Summers of my life, I asked my friend to drive me to the outskirts of the city.

The road to Vic.
That’s what I wanted.

As ever, Barcelona had been brilliant, but I’d abused my freedom of being single, and invested far too much in my freedom from work.

Barcelona would always be a special place, but I didn’t want to live there. If big city life was what I wanted, I’d never have left London years before.

Under 40°C dry heat of concrete flyovers, I stood at the side of the road to Vic. I knew cooler air was coming: clean mountain air, after months of steamy city dust.

Watching my mate drive away, Blue Bag by my side, I stuck out my thumb and thought of the night ahead in the Pyrenees. From there I’d slowly drift around France, finally putting down roots in the same countryside I’d fallen in love with as a 16 year-old hitcher.

The road, however, had other ideas. Emerging from the mountain foothills that morning, I hitched only minor D roads, avoiding the fast-moving arterial routes.

It was Sunday, a notoriously bad hitching day, when cars packed with family are driven by cautious parental types. I didn’t expect to get very far, didn’t really want to either, yet each lift took me hundreds of miles, until that evening I was delivered into Rennes, the capital city of Brittany in Northwest France.

Time to switch to Plan B, where I’ve lived happily most of my life. 

Three years earlier I’d been hitching around New Zealand and kept bumping into two Irish nurses. As I gasped at the sight of each wondrous vista, they’d tut nostalgically:

“Sure, isn’t it just like home.”

It occurred to me then that I was something of a fool to have been Down Under twice, without having visited the country next door to England.

I took the ferry from Roscoff to Cork and stepped into a country where I knew nobody.

No addresses, no connections: a clean slate.

Into a big shop called Dunnes to buy waterproofs, walking in the city rain and then into a pub, onto a barstool. Time for my first Irish pint.

Yer man introduced himself as Con. To enjoy his company I needed to press my palm into a hand the size of Cyprus and then suffer tectonic finger crush. After our first pint he told the barmaid to call a B&B and book me a room.

“Now, you can relax and have a few shcoops.”

Over the course of the next few hours I sampled much liquid and humour in the form of Irish hospitality. I was south of the river and the room wasn’t. 

After drunkenly stumbling up steep Corkonian hills, I gladly fell into my little bedroom. Plain, clean with a view of the city’s rooftops, and over there an ashtray.

Behind the ashtray a sign, white letters on a red background: 
No Smoking.

Ashtray sign.
Sign ashtray. 

‘Going to like this country!’ I thought to myself, as I lit up. ‘Now what are the Irish up to at 5 in the afternoon?’

Flicking on the dusty old tele in the corner, I watch RTE’s coverage of the Galway Races.

Galway? Wasn’t that near Connemara?

My instincts had tingled on the ferry the night before, when I’d looked at my map and seen those hills, that coastline.

Maybe I’ll check Galway out sometime. No rush. Only just arrived.

That was 25 years ago today.
©Charlie Adley


Unknown said...

Glad you made it, Charlie! Hang in, it gets better...

Charlie Adley said...

Thanks Liam - it's been better and worse, around the bend and up the wall. Wouldn't have missed any of it.