[This tour was undertaken in 1999 – the north of Ireland was still a difficult place due to the previous thirty years of the ‘Troubles’. Prices quoted reflect the year and mobile phones were still a novelty – at least to me.]
THE MAGDALA TAVERN, LONDON – Part One
‘I am not English. I am Irish – which is quite another thing’ O. Wilde
It was all Tony Hawks’ fault. And that fridge. And about nine pints of lager.
A thin dagger of lightning stabbed down from the black clouds into a distant hilltop ruin. The ferocity of the rain increased till the roadside verge turned into a rivulet. The cow turds on the tarmac melted into a brown sludge that seeped slowly down the hill to lap against the base of a signpost.
An observer, had there been one, would have seen a tall bespectacled man, clothed in sodden Victorian evening dress, slumped on top of a bulbous shopping basket and clutching the forlorn half-mushroom of a broken black umbrella. On the still functional topside section, the same observer might have made out the shakily inscribed Tippexed letters that read ‘OSCAR WILDE’S…’ On the dangling quadrant, unsupported by a broken strut, was the remainder of the message ‘…TOUR OF IRELAND’. His starched white bow-tie, now drooping like a depressed daffodil, underlined the even more depressed face above it. The figure would have looked pissed off. And so I was. Very pissed off.
Not a vehicle had passed in twenty minutes and any possibility of hitching a lift looked minimal. A water droplet dripped off my nose and with a slight hiss extinguished the roll up cigarette beneath it. I stood and splashed down the hill to the signpost. At least it might provide some idea of where the hell I was? There was only one destination on display. It read:
‘Neolithic Burial Mound. 2 miles’.
Then, through the grey downpour, I saw the shimmer of distant vehicles. There were about fifteen cars bunched together – surely one of them could offer aid? They came closer and closer. I braced up and thrust out a thumb. And every single one of them passed by without slowing. Not only did they not stop but the expressions on the faces of the occupants were hostile to the point of antagonism. They disappeared up the hill leaving a muddy spray. It was only then that it dawned on me that it had been a funeral procession…
The roots of this predicament had sprouted three months earlier when I had been sitting in the saloon bar of my local pub, the Magdala, in north London. It was a Saturday night and a few friends and fellow drinkers were discussing tax differentials in a devolved economy and how crap Arsenal had been that afternoon. During a lull while the sixth round was purchased, Lyndon, one of the friends, asked:
“Neil, what did you think of that Tony Hawks’ book I lent you?”
“Oh, it was terrific.”
And so it had been. Some books might not rank among the great classics or even contend for the Booker Prize but they do stay wedged in the mind. ‘Round Ireland with a Fridge’ was one of them. Firstly it had been very funny, secondly it was wonderfully eccentric and thirdly, as the dust jacket correctly for once pointed out, it was ultimately inspiring. Just how inspiring it was to prove, I had no idea.
Perhaps I should have guessed that reading it might trigger a chain reaction. For one thing, the book covered such topics as hitchhiking, Ireland and pubs. While the latter had remained a sturdily constant feature of my life, I hadn’t been involved with the first two for twenty years. As I read on, I realised that this was an inexplicable lapse. Because I had loved them both once. At one stage, hitchhiking had been an addiction; I had bummed lifts on everything from a Mercedes across Andalusia to the back of a milk float across Loughborough. Then, gradually, the desire for comfort had settled in like a duvet on a cold night and the era of the thumb had passed for good. Or so I thought.
Ireland too had been something of a passion. A perfect example of why this passion existed had occurred on the very day that I had last left Dublin. Three months previously Pope Paul had died. His successor, John Paul I, after a very short period in office, had died as well. As I walked up the ship’s gangway at Dun Laoghaire harbour, I turned for one last look at the city and spotted a large newspaper placard on the quayside:
‘POPE DIES AGAIN!!’
How could you match a country where such announcements were everyday occurrences? But, having once been a frequent visitor, somehow I’d left it for good. Or so I thought.
Back in the Magdala, Mark overheard our conversation and, still ruefully chewing the end of his Arsenal scarf, said:
“Round Ireland with a fridge? What’s that about, then?”
“It’s about this English comedian called Tony Hawks. He decided to hitchhike around the coast of Ireland carrying a fridge. It was all for a bet. A radio show got interested and he phoned them up each day with a report on how far he’d travelled. And loads of people picked up on the story and really joined in to help him.”
Red, Mark’s Irish girlfriend, continued enthusiastically:
“Yeah, he took the fridge surfing in the Atlantic. And it was baptised by a pub landlord and received a blessing from a Mother Superior. You should read it, it’s good stuff.”
Mark looked perplexed:
“He hitch-hiked with a fridge? Why?”
The company looked a bit stumped. Lyndon said tentatively:
“Well, I don’t know really. I suppose it just happened to be sitting there and he thought, what that fridge needs is to get out a bit. See the world. Meet other fridges.”
“Oh, come on” said Mark “I mean, seriously, why did he do it? And why would the Irish be interested? Was it because he was a celebrity or something?”
Red shook her head:
“No, it’s ….well ….. I suppose the Irish enjoy that sort of thing. We like the offbeat.”
“Yes, I can’t think of anywhere else that would accept something like that going on. Or at least so easily. Ireland is a place where the impossible really does happen.”
Mark remained unconvinced.
“No, the only reason he got away with it was because he’s famous. They would have recognised his face from TV.”
“I don’t think he was that well known in Ireland” said Red. “Not before the fridge trip.”
“In any case, I think it would be possible to do something like that whoever you were.” I added “Any one of us could do it. It’s only a matter of setting off, really.”
Lyndon raised an eyebrow.
“I can’t see you being bothered to hitch-hike round Camden Town, let alone Ireland. Whose round is it, anyway?”
The evening continued, as did the drinks. A fantasy started to form in my head. Suddenly the gunpowder trails laid by Tony Hawks burst into flame. I banged my pint glass down, accidentally crushing a packet of cheese and onion crisps, and muzzily announced:
“Well, I’m going to do it!”
Mark looked across: “What? Buy a round?”
“No, I’m going to travel round Ireland as a vagabond actor!”
“With a fridge?” said Lyndon doubtfully.
“Er….no…. I’ll leave the fridge out of it. That’s been done. What I’ll do is to go as Oscar Wilde and perform the show in bars along the way. And I’ll do it alone. Twenty shows in twenty towns in….er…forty days. And camping.”
“Dressed as Oscar Wilde?”
“With no agents or bookings or anything like that?”
“With no stage crew or back up?”
“And sleep in a tent?”
“But you can do anything if you’ve got enough money to pay your way. You could hire someone to fix it all.”
“No, I won’t. Tell you what. I guarantee to take no more than five hundred pounds to cover forty days. And the only other money I can have is that which can be raised by taking a hat round after a show.”
There was a silence broken only by the thoughtful crunch of peanuts.
“Anyone want to take the bet?” I ventured.
“Tony Hawks did it for one hundred pounds. I’ll do it for the same amount.”
Lyndon took a deep breath.
“OK, you’re on. I’ll meet you on the Ha’penny Bridge in Dublin with the hundred pounds within forty days of you setting off.”
Grinning broadly, he reached over his hand and we shook on the deal.
Next morning I raised a red-rimmed eyelid and surveyed the litter of empty bottles strewn below the sofa. A hazy memory of the previous night returned. “Oh dear”…
A couple of hours later most of the details had fallen into place. What had the hell had I done? I had voluntarily committed myself to a course of action that – sober – was ludicrous. And unnecessary. And potentially downright dangerous. For I was no longer in the first flush of youth or even in the last rancid pallor of it. There was no avoiding the obvious; I was middle-aged. Living rough for six weeks was begging for trouble in health terms. The last time I had been camping was with a younger New Age girlfriend. It had been nine years previously, had only lasted three nights and I had wound up with a rheumatic knee, mild bronchitis and guy-rope burns.
Also I had to admit to a strong affection for alcohol but, as that morning was proving, the resulting hangovers could no longer be carelessly disregarded. They had become distinctly debilitating. I had reached the age where liquor should be treated sparingly and with caution. A non-stop tour of Irish pubs was not exactly the obvious way to avoid booze.
Another point arose. Travelling alone with luggage marks you out immediately as a classic crime target. It is like walking around with a sign reading ‘I am a stranger and I am carrying valuables. Please help yourselves.’ Also, my very English actor’s accent in the political climate particularly of Ulster was not calculated to win any popularity contests. Added to that, I would be very visible as Oscar Wilde. Although my personal sexual proclivities are heterosexual to the point of satyriasis, there was no denying that Oscar was gay. What might be run of the mill in the north London sun-dried tomato belt might not be so welcome in rural Ireland? To a gang of anti-English, queer-bashing street muggers I would be manna gift-wrapped by heaven.
Then there were the money restrictions. Five hundred pounds for forty days worked out at twelve fifty a day. Was it possible to survive on that? Anyone scraping by on the dole or a state pension would treat that question with derision, but from past experience I knew that living on the road was damn expensive. Home dwellers tend to wildly underestimate the cost of being roofless. Faced with an empty evening, the householder can boil a kettle, turn on the TV and veg out on the sofa – total cost of about fifty pence. In a tent (campsite space alone costing four pounds on average), mind-strangling boredom forces you to seek other activities. A cinema ticket will cost a fiver, while an evening in a pub, even spinning out the drink like a lost wanderer in the Kalahari, will require at least ten pounds.
During the daytime, with the ever present threat of rain, taking cover involves cafes, museums, burger bars, art galleries, burger galleries, etc, etc: £3 here, £4 there. Then there are the luxuries like food. Alfresco cooking, at least in my inept hands, is difficult, messy, irritating, hazardous and largely inedible. It is claimed that each of us eats a pound of dirt during our lifetimes – on the aforementioned trip I think I ate it all in three days. Human nature, that all-purpose euphemism for laziness, draws you inexorably to the chip shop and the kebab stall. Not to mention all the other costs. No, life is cheaper under a roof than under the stars, or more accurately, under the clouds. On fifty pounds a day it would be tolerable, on twelve pounds it looked dismal.
The more I looked at the disadvantages, the more it became obvious that the whole concept was out of the question.
Brooding over the fourth mug of black coffee, I couldn’t quite abandon the idea. The next four months in London looked dull. There were no bookings for the show till September. My New Age girlfriend had long since departed to India to study tantric sex and advanced joint-rolling. The faint aroma of her patchouli still hung sadly in the air. The pub regulars themselves were slipping away on vague holidays to Boulogne or Bangkok. Suntans were to be seen even in the deepest recesses of the public bar. I was bored and, if I ducked the Irish bet, I’d be even more bored.
Why not? It couldn’t be that difficult. It was only a matter of taking the first step.
I took it.
Next Tuesday January 15 – Preparing for Ireland.