Diary

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The Independent Online
I have a liking for political kitsch. My front-door key-ring, for instance, purchased last year in Belfast on 12 July, says on one side "Keep Ulster Tidy" and on the other "Throw Your Litter in the Irish Republic". To demonstrate my impartiality, the spare key-ring I keep for visitors carries a picture of Patrick Pearse, who led the 1916 Easter Rebellion.

Last Friday, in Belfast, I took a detour to check out a report from Padraig O'Conchuir that the Sinn Fein shop was selling statues of Gerry Adams. It was, but I drew the line at contributing pounds 50 to Sinn Fein coffers and opted instead for a mug, which features a colour picture of Adams shaking hands with Nelson Mandela. Magically, in the early hours of the following morning, two new-found friends insisted on presenting me with a proper Orangeman's bowler. I'm at a slight loss about how this duo can be tastefully displayed.

I bring you, from a political conference I attended a week ago in Cambridge, the following sociologically significant experience. "Water will be arriving shortly," said the chairman of my group. "After last night, some of us will be needing it badly."

A few minutes later, an elder statesman of the conference arrived to see how we were getting on, and stood unobtrusively at the back. A waitress entered and placed a tray of bottles and glasses on the table beside the ES, and out of sight of the chairman. A few minutes later, the ES headed for the door, stopping only to pour himself a glass of water, which he took with him.

Eventually, although I was farther away from the wretched tray than most of the 25 people present, I got up, tiptoed across the room, and as I reached the tray seized the opportunity of a momentary silence to say, "There are only five glasses, so we'll have to share."

One man rose, came to my side as I began to transfer bottles and glasses to a spot beside the chairman, picked up a bottle and glass and took them back to a seat two away from mine. I returned to my seat empty-handed and shared his booty. The chairman and those beside him absentmindedly appropriated the remaining glasses and three-quarters of the gathering stayed dry.

Half-an-hour later, a man who had left the room reappeared, simultaneously with a waitress carrying another tray, which she put on the table at the back. The man paused, picked up a bottle and a glass and took them back to his seat. No one else moved until the break came, when they fell on the contents of the tray.

What fascinates me about this episode is that the tray was clearly visible to 16 men and four women. Even allowing for the fact that many of them are so used to minions as to have become useless in practical matters, my conclusion is that men so lack the nurturing instinct that the simple act of passing someone a glass of water is beyond them, while women are so determined these days to shed their tea-making image that they refuse to do anything for anyone as a point of principle.

Over the years I have stayed in many Oxbridge colleges for weekend conferences. This year was irritating, for the requirements of the nanny state meant that the building I was in was full of dozens of identical fire-doors, making it almost impossible to find my bedroom or the loo; the bathroom eluded me for the first 24 hours.

Finding food posed more difficulties. On the first morning, I was to be found in the kitchen with my friend, the Cork historian John A Murphy, both of us hopelessly seeking well-concealed cutlery, cups, salt and so on. The next morning we coincided again, but this time knew where everything was. "The trouble with conferences," I observed, "is that just as you've learned how to find your bedroom and a knife and fork, it's time to leave."

"Sure isn't that the trouble with life?" he responded. "Just as you've got the hang of it, you die."

My Clare-based friend Colm thought you might like further information on the saga of the Clare team, which a fortnight ago won its first All- Ireland Hurling Championship since 1914. Following the first great victory, the winning of the Munster Cup, wags began to pass around pubs, and fax from office to office, a communication to the team congratulating it "on winning the Munster Cup after a mere 63-year wait. While you are basking in this hour of glory, it might be timely to remind you that since you last won the trophy in 1932:

we have had seven Presidents

Adolf Hitler came to power in Germany (it's all right; he's been dead for 50 years)

there are no more silent movies; you can now hear the actors and see them in colour

India and most of Africa are independent nations

the Ennis Maternity Ward was closed down, which means all Clare babies are in fact born in Limerick

the last time ye won the All-Ireland, a world war broke out, so try to keep the celebrations a bit quieter."

This is a very short version of what had the whole county giggling. The correct response on reading it is to laugh, shake your head and observe, "Ah - always the bitter word."

As a result of all your greatly appreciated contributions, this column - like my house - resembles an Aegean stable. Being no Hercules, I find more is coming in than I can publish or respond to, so don't stop but please be understanding.

Next week I will address the "petomane" issue and commission some new and difficult verse. Meanwhile, here are some endings to "I once knew a bastard like you, He was caused by a hold-up at Crewe":

"But the cause of your birth/And of all our mirth/Can only be told to a few" (Jocelyn Braddell);

"When events set in train/By a lover from Spain/Caused an unwanted birth to ensue" (John Fillmore);

"Not love, lust or whoredom,/But simply pure boredom/And you're an old bore through and through" (Bob Frederick);

"Just one brief encounter,/Without precautions was bound t',/ Result in a girl overdue" (Tom Gaunt).

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