What vision looks like

I arrived in Edinburgh close to dark, so it was not until the next morning as I was driving up the west coast that I got a good look at Scotland. Even through the dark mist and rain, it was a beautiful sight. After about five minutes, I had to pull over and stare, because I could not believe what I was seeing. What made we want to shout “YES!!!! FINALLY!!!!” at the damp woods? Was it castles, craggy peaks, men in kilts? No. It was a piece of visionary human engineering: a bike path.

Scotland gets it. Boy do they. And the Scots have built a world class fully separated bike path. Actually it’s not a path, it’s a “National Cycle Network”. The official name better conveys the ambition of this mighty creation. Imagine if MANY major roads in your country had running right next to them fully separated bike paths and you’ll be dreaming of what the Scots already have. Smooth enough to roller ski on (next trip) and wide enough to ride several abreast, it’s not just a bike path. It’s a thing of beauty.

A network like this is a win all around. It is the single biggest new tourist draw you could have. When cyclists don’t have to dodge lorries around blind corners, they will come in droves. And you can tell by the proliferation of small businesses servicing the cycle economy along the network that biking is now a key part of Highlands tourism.

But it’s also good for the people who live there. This time of year cyclists may be thin on the ground, but dog walkers are out in force, meandering and talking as traffic whizzes by a safe distance away. How nice to be able to take back the roads. GO HUMANS!!!! And dogs.

AND – most importantly – the network stands as a living example of a better way. Of what could be – if you have the vision. It’s inspiring to see a community really nail it. And you think, “If we can do this – what else can we do?”

Scotland shows how easy it is to do something great when you have the vision.

Gary Mitchell is back

Great news yesterday via a profile in Irish Theatre Magazine. Gary Mitchell, one of the most exciting and important playwrights in Northern Ireland, is back in the mix after being chased out of his house in 2005 by Loyalist thugs. Mitchell’s plays were all new to me when I cam to Dublin this year, and they remain some of the best I have read. In fact, as I was packing yesterday in preparation for six weeks on the road in Europe, among the very few books to make the cut to come along were Mitchell’s plays.

Gary Mitchell is a completely new voice for most Irish Americans as he writes from the Loyalist perspective. Many of his plays deal with infighting and conflicting loyalties within the Unionist camp. I urge anyone interested in Irish theatre to seek out his stuff. You won’t be disappointed!

Meanwhile, the profile is very enjoyable reading.

Gary Mitchell is busy writing.

Bringing the bike on the train

Taking short train trips with the bike may be the ultimate way to travel. You leave your home and bike to the station, wheel the bike on board, then arrive in your destination city and hit the streets. A bike allows you to roam much farther and faster than you ever could on foot. It’s the best way to see a city. And it’s fun.

So far, mine has been the only bike on board I have seen.

Titanic

It’s hard to stand in Belfast’s fabled Harland and Wolff yard where RMS Titanic was built and not feel shivers. The historical energy is a forcefield that draws you in, like a low humming in the air. As you linger and try to imagine the Belfast of 1910 back into being, the pitch modulates higher. The desire to know, to see is all powerful. “Please, let me walk the yard for just one hour in 1910! Let me go back and look. I won’t interfere, I won’t tell anyone what is going to happen. But I want to see it. I MUST see it!”

Because this story could not possibly be true. Could it?

There – right there – is where the largest moving object in the world (at the time) was made. Thousands of people crawled like ants over the 900 foot long ship for two years, until that day in May 1911 when it was ready. A masterpiece. But also one of countless grand ships made by H & W over the years. Follow the wikipedia link for H & W and marvel at the list of ships they made.

The saga of Titanic (note how just “Titanic” is a more commanding handle than “the Titanic”) needs no introduction, no historical context, no lengthy explanations, no detailed backstory to deliver its force. In a few words you can tell a child the essence of a tale that will most likely keep them hooked for life. The story retains the power to shock and inspire disbelief – no matter how many times you hear it. In fact the more times you hear it, the better it gets.

It can’t be true, can it? How could it be true? How could it have happened? First of all, how could they have built this thing? And then, how could they have lost it? And on its maiden voyage?

Standing there, you can see it all. The work to build it, the hundreds of gray, rainy days with thousands of men streaming to work each morning to swing the hammer. The deafening sound of launch. The loading in of pianos and crystal and culinary hardware. The feel of a handrail. The grandness of indoor dining rooms packed with hundreds. Folding back a crisp sheet in a berth. Polishing a window. A passenger catching a solitary smoke on deck, watching the lights of the English coast recede astern.

And then the night of April 14-15, 1912. The darkness, the cold. The disagreements, the warnings. The sound. The feeling. “What was that?!” The panic. The creeping knowledge of what was happening. What was going to happen. Even though it was impossible.

You can’t make this stuff up.

In 2012, as the centenary of Titanic’s sinking approaches, Belfast is Titanic mad. There are plays, musicals, art exhibitions, walking tours. And a brand new Titanic museum (the largest on earth, naturally) is just about to slide down the slipway. I’ll be swinging back days before I return to the US in April to enjoy some of the celebratory din.

Of course, this being Belfast, the story of the Titanic is viewed differently by the two communities. In the big days of shipbuilding 100 years ago, most of the workers were protestants. Catholics were excluded from those jobs. For unionists today, there is huge pride in Belfast’s Imperial engineering history. But for Republicans, the subject elicits an almost aggressive indifference. They have no interest. When I asked our guide on the Falls Road mural walking tour whether the Catholic community could not also take some pride in Belfast’s shipbuilding heritage, he said no way.

Oh well. At least there’s a good joke about it:

“They (the Protestants/Unionists) may have built the Titanic, but we (the Catholics/Republicans) like to think we built the iceberg!”

Belfast Theatre Blitz

In a little more than a week, I am leaving Ireland for a six week trip through eastern Europe and Scandinavia. While traveling, I’ll be looking for theatre. From Budapest to Belgrade to Sarajevo to Zagreb, Ljubljana, Vienna, Berlin, Stockholm, Copenhagen, and Oslo, it will be interesting to see what’s on stage.

But before setting off, I’m packing in a few more shows in that easily understood (aside from the accents) language of English. Make that Irish and British English.

First stop is Belfast, where I’ll see three shows in about 24 hours (and take the fascinating Coiste Falls Road murals tour – again). Belfast is a two hour train ride away – and taking your bike onboard is free. So a theatre blitz up North couldn’t be easier.

Marie Jones, the prolific Belfast writer best known for STONES IN HIS POCKETS, has a new play on at the Grand Opera House called FLY ME TO THE MOON. The initial dates sold out, so they added a few more, mostly at off times like the 5 PM show I am seeing today. For theatre fans such as myself, an off standard time like that is great because it means you can see two shows in an evening. Reviews: Irish Theatre Magazine, Irish Times

Once that show finishes, I have about 30 minutes to hop on the bike, find some dinner, and dash 1 1/2 miles over to the beautifully restored new Lyric Theatre on the river Lagan. Here’s a Guardian article on the Lyric’s building.

From the Grand Opera House to the Lyric Theatre in Belfast. Mere minutes on a bike.

At the Lyric tonight is Brian Friel’s adaptation of Chekhov’s UNCLE VANYA. Reviews: Irish Theatre Magazine, Irish Times

Finally, on Saturday afternoon, is a new play by Sam Millar at the Belfast Waterfront, BROTHERS IN ARMS. The show looks at the post peace process era in Northern Ireland. Review: Irish Theatre Magazine

Former IRA prisoner Sam Millar takes up the pen.

Then it’s time to bike down to the station and catch the train back to Dublin.

Next week the theatre blitz moves to Edinburgh, Aberdeen, and London.