Dennis, the driver and guide commentator, welcomed us in his authentic Belfast accent to 'our magnificent and beautiful city.' He has a genuine and infectious enthusiasm for Belfast: 'Look at the magnificent stonework up there,' he urged. 'Look at the wee gargoyles looking down at you. And that's where the gallows used to be. There's a memorial to the Titanic, we built that in Belfast.'
It quickly became apparent that Dennis is what in Belfast is known as a hoot, a character, a quare geg. For much of the next four hours he kept the bus in chat, making the old ladies giggle with his corny jokes. Two sculpted figures on the wall of a bank, one hovering over the other, were, said Denis, known locally as Draft and Overdraft.
He punned about the two big shipyard cranes, claiming somebody had thought he'd said two large Koreans. Another transport concern was known as the Banana Bus Company, he said, because their drivers came in bunches.
He lingered overlong in the grimy docks area, losing the interest of some of the sightseers. An American chap from Detroit nodded off, his head jerking back periodically when the visor of his baseball cap touched the seat ahead. His mother too succumbed to sleep, peacefully dozing through Belfast's industrial heartland.
Dennis mentioned the city hall, the shipyard, the shops, the restaurants, the schools. The only thing he didn't mention, in fact, was the troubles. We saw a great deal of Belfast in four hours, but we didn't see, or even hear about, a single troublespot. We never even saw an army patrol. At one point Dennis mentioned a bomb, but it turned out he was talking about one dropped during World War Two. No other bombs were mentioned.
He pointed out a dockside bar but didn't say one of the owners was shot dead by loyalists this summer. Passing the Europa hotel, he pointed out with what sounded like civic pride that it was 'under major renovation at the minute.' He didn't mention that the renovation was necessitated by a couple of huge IRA bombs which blasted the hotel and surrounding area. He commended 'the glory of the Opera House' but didn't say months of effort had been spent in patching up after the IRA blew a large hole in the side of the venerable building.
Ten minutes were set aside for strolling in the grounds of Stormont, where the friendly security man at the gate waved the coach through, calling out to the passengers: 'Eighteen more weeks to Christmas, hope you've all started your shopping.' His humour was, on reflection, no more surreal than the rest of the tour.
You could look at the building but you couldn't actually go near it, Dennis explained slightly apologetically. Then he pointed out Stormont Castle, where the Northern Ireland Secretary is based, and sounded a note of caution: 'In among those bushes you have the police and army and their tracker dogs, and they're watching you as you're looking at the Castle. No photographs of the Castle, please.'
Then we passed the Drumkeen hotel which, according to the brochure, Dennis was due to describe as one an ideal spot for a mid-afternoon break. But the Drumkeen is no more, for a bomb has reduced it to a twisted mass of shattered masonry and mangled girders. So instead of slowing down Dennis accelerated past the wreckage and, quite unaffectedly, broke into a Belfast song: 'I'll tell me ma when I get home, The boys won't leave the girls alone, Pull my hair and steal my comb, But that's all right till I get home.'
Hardly anybody seemed to notice the Drumkeen, and there was warm applause for Dennis. For hours more he concentrated on the nice bits, threading his way through the war zones, snubbing the New Lodge, skipping the Falls, spurning Ardoyne, shunning the Shankill and shying away from Short Strand.
Towards the end we had to pass close by part of north Belfast, one of western Europe's most dangerous districts. But Dennis whisked us through it safely, giving a spirited rendition of 'The Irish Rover' as he put the foot down. Disembarking back at Castle Place, a lot of the passengers thanked Dennis and shook his hand. Some took his picture.
The front of the bus was labelled 'A better view of Belfast,' and that's what was on offer. There was no mention of speculation about ceasefires and cessations; how could there be when there was no mention of the troubles themselves.
Some might object that Dennis, and Citybus, are heavily into denial in their avoidance of the fact that parts of their city have been places of violent conflict for a quarter of a century. But it has to be said that the folk on the bus, well-insulated against both the cold and the troubles, seemed greatly to enjoy Belfast's own version of virtual reality. end nnn