Diary

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I have just a few friends who share my enjoyment of really bad films. James, for instance, is happy to be invited to look at a 1960s surfing movie. Paul has an encyclopaedic knowledge of the "My daughter turned into a pterodactyl" film school. Una is an excellent companion with whom to appreciate a bodice-ripper. So I seized the occasion of her visit to London last week to hire a video of Scarlett, the mini-series sequel to "Gone With the Wind". The whole thing takes six hours, so we confined our attentions to the second half, set in Ireland.

I faithfully record some nineteenth-century dialogue for you: "I believe I've exhausted my reserves of solicitude"; "That bright light in the sky behind you is my bridges burning"; "Where's that blarney-stone anyway? It's a long time since I kissed it"; "Absent yourself from the geography of your grief"; "The child she carries is mine, you piteous fool"; and - my favourite - "Her cup's running over with trouble. Are you going to drown her into the bargain?"

It was not surprising that perfectly decent actors like Joanne Whalley- Kilmer (the heroine) moved through the film as though sleep-walking.

I accompanied Una back to Dublin and thence to County Clare to attend Merriman, the most Bacchanalian of the many Irish Summer Schools. I join the Merripersons for a few days every second year or so in order to meet old friends. A major pleasure this year was a long lunch with the novelist Maeve Binchy, whom I've known for decades but see too rarely.

Maeve is one of the great raconteurs, and she made us laugh for two hours, but it was her husband, the writer Gordon Snell, who told the story that most delighted me. It concerned a barrister acquaintance of his who was prosecutor in the matter of an indelicate and illegal relationship between a chap and his Alsatian. "It was, I believe," explained the barrister, "the only known case of Rex vs Rex.

Merriman was not all socialising, for I had some work to do. A crisis arose the day we arrived, when on checking into the hotel I attempted to plug in my laptop computer to allow it to charge its battery. This simple deed could not be done, for - as we say in the vernacular - the plug on the battery charger was banjaxed; at some time during its journey from London a heavy object had knocked one of the pins so hard that it had a 45 degree list. And since it was a sealed plug, I couldn't change it myself.

"I need an electrician," I said to Una. "There isn't an electrician in Ballyvaughan," she said.

"Then I'd better take your car and drive to the nearest big town."

She looked reproving. "Don't be so hasty. We'll take it to the pub."

So we went to the pub, met some friends, ordered a round and Una displayed the offending object to the publican. "Leave it with me," he said. When there was a lull, he retired to his back room for a couple of minutes and by some mysterious means restored the pin to the vertical condition. There was no charge for this service.

Since I had left London that morning and was still thinking logically, it had not occurred to me that a publican would perform an electrical repair. Una lives in Ireland and always thinks laterally, so it hadn't occurred to her that he mightn't.

I am notorious among my friends for total intolerance of particular kinds of detail - makes of car, motoring routes, 'flu symptoms and technological innovations - which I impatiently dismiss as "M25" conversations. Una hibernicised this some time ago to "Athlone Bypass", for the midlands town of Athlone has a bypass a certain type of person likes to talk about a lot.

The phrase has been taken up enthusiastically and has proved invaluable as a conversation-speeder-upper. Though initially perplexed, newcomers to a conversation readily see the virtues of being able to interrupt with the cry "Athlone Bypass" and have the offending speaker instantly apologise and desist from being boring. It is also used to deter criticism, as in "I know this sounds rather Athlone Bypass, but I thought you should know ..."

After a few days of Merriman I always retire to convalesce with friends who live nearby. They are a tranquil couple who do things like gardening and pottering along the river in their boat. Alva, however, put me into a state of intense intellectual curiosity with the following anecdote. On a recent river expedition, having gone up the Shannon to Enniskillen and found the wind nippy, she and her husband went into town in search of woolly hats. Sorting through the many colours on offer in the nearest hat-purveyors, Alva extracted from the pile a hat in mossy green. Except it wasn't a hat. It was a pukka balaclava, with properly stitched eyeholes, cavity for nose and so on. And, she realised, it was in a colour much favoured by the IRA.

Now what has been puzzling her and Colm ever since and is puzzling me is what kind of person goes into a shop in Enniskillen - the site of one of the worst IRA atrocities - and asks for a green balaclava? Yes, we know balaclavas are handy for fishermen, motorbike riders and bank robbers, but ceasefire or no ceasefire, in Northern Ireland a balaclava is a piece of clothing with very scary connotations.

This leads on, however, to the question of where one would expect a terrorist to find a balaclava? Were there specialist terrorist outfitters? Or did terrorists perhaps knit their own? Perhaps their womenfolk organised First World War-type knitting circles? Any ideas?

Since I have been staying in the vicinity of Listowel, here is a verse about it by Tennant Brownlee:

A hack who lived in Listowel

Wrote limericks straight from the soul

But his troubles began

When the lines didn't scan

And nobody thought they were droll.

A couple of printable conclusions to: "A Sheffield museum curator/Found a bar on a hot radiator": "'Not Norman...' mused he,/'Nor Roman, I see./Victorian? ... check with her later'" (Peter Everall); "'It's by Damien Hirst'/Thought our hero at first,-/But Hirst's was the soused alligator" (Leo Phillips).

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