Mit / Ohne

It was around 1AM and I thought: fuck it, I’m going to Ireland. I desperately needed a change of scenery, a break from the monotony of everyday life – but I didn’t want to go anywhere too hot or touristy. Ireland seemed like the perfect fit, therefore: Its climate is pretty similar to the UK’s and, popular though Dublin and Belfast are, they’re not exactly Paris or Rome.

So I booked my tickets in the early hours of a day in mid-June. Then, in the first week of July, I boarded a plane to Dublin. The flight was ridiculously quick, and before I knew it I was getting off the airport bus at O’Connell Street, named after the 19th century nationalist leader Daniel O’Connell.

I checked into my hostel, Abbey Court, which was right by the River Liffey, then set about exploring the city. It felt to me like a cross between Amsterdam and London, and I used my smartphone to take pictures – a lot of pictures! I won’t bore you with all of them, but here is the very first one I took, which I think nicely sums up the Amsterdam vibes:

Dublin 1.jpg

With my phone, I was able as well to look up where things were in the city – so, I was able to find the statues of Molly Malone, Oscar Wilde and James Joyce, as well as lovely vegan restaurants such as ‘Cornucopia’ and ‘Veginity’. Of course, I could probably have found the statues using a traditional (i.e. physical) map, and I could have just asked people about nearby vegetarian places.

But, at the end of the day, my phone proved very useful in making my way around this foreign city, which strangely also felt familiar. Familiar, because I’d read so much about Dublin in literature, most notably James Joyce’s Ulysses, which I had to study during my undergraduate degree. I got a thrill, therefore, visiting the James Joyce Tower and Museum, where Ulysses actually begins! One of the many things I love about Dublin is how proudly literary it is – as it should be!

With my phone camera, and thanks to my mobile data, I was able to take pictures and videos as I went around Dublin and share them with friends back home. So, when I saw a man in a penguin mask playing the guitar in St Stephen’s Green (a lush park in the south of Dublin city centre), I simply had to record this moment for posterity.

penguin

Yet, just as my smartphone added to my holiday, it also detracted from it. Instead of going out on my first night, I stayed in and looked at my phone. The second night I did actually drink with some fellow tourists in the hostel bar, but even so, I was distracted by the bright glare of my phone screen.

Then, on my final morning in Dublin, something happened. As I took my bundle of clothes into the shower room, my phone slipped out of my trouser pocket and landed on the tiled floor with a thud.

There were no new cracks or anything as dramatic as that. The screen looked fine – except, it wouldn’t switch on.

Now then, I’ve been known to get in a bit of a temper tantrum about technology not working properly, so you might have expected me to react in the same way to my phone breaking. In fact, however, I was quite calm.

“Oh,” I thought. “My phone appears to have stopped working.” I realised what an inconvenience this would be, especially whilst on holiday – after all, my travel tickets were on there! But in a way, I felt relieved, as if a weight had been taken off my back. I even wondered if, subconsciously, I had intended to break it.

There was nothing to be done about it: the screen refused to return to life. Nevertheless, I continued on with my plans for the day: I showered, breakfasted and checked out, making sure beforehand to print out my travel tickets. Bags packed and phone still dead, I walked to the bus station, which was only about ten minutes away.

I boarded my Belfast-bound bus and, with no phone to distract me, intended to read, but I was too tired, so I slept for most of the journey. Blissfully, in these pre-Brexit times, crossing the border between the Republic of Ireland and Northern Ireland was completely uneventful.

I arrived in Belfast at around midday, and the contrast to elegant Dublin couldn’t be any starker: I was in a big, busy, ugly city (sorry Belfast). What’s more, I had no idea how to get to my hostel!

Well, not no idea. I had thankfully looked up my Belfast hostel’s location on Google Maps that morning, so I knew that it was in the south of the city, near the university. But without my phone maps at hand, I couldn’t simply type in the location and set off. Instead, I had to turn to traditional maps and – god forbid – even ask real people for directions!

Somehow, by a minor miracle, I made it to my hostel. It was worth the trek: Vagabonds Belfast is a great, chill hostel in a graceful old building. Without my phone, I was forced to actually be sociable – and in the process, I made some really cool (albeit transient) friends!

Three of us went on a free walking tour together, and in the evening a big group of us gathered for drinks at the hostel. It was a lot of fun, and I even let myself be persuaded into going out – to Filthy McNasty’s, of all places! (Yes, that’s really the name of a pub/club in Belfast.) It was actually a great night, and I spent all of it in the moment, instead of on my phone.

Of course, there were disadvantages to not having a phone, too. For one, I couldn’t set alarms or even tell the time! (If you take anything from this blogpost, it should be this: Always bring with you a watch, because you never know when your phone might die!)

On my first and indeed only full day in Northern Ireland, I went on a Game of Thrones-themed coach trip around the north coast. This was expensive but fun, and the only thing I regretted was my lack of a phone, because there were so many amazing sights that I would have loved to snap.

But, on the other hand, not having a phone or a camera meant that I had no other option than to really look, in order to imprint what I was looking at into my mind. Something as awe-inspiring as the Giant’s Causeway deserves not only to be looked at and photographed, but to be experienced. When you stop viewing the world through the lens of your phone camera, you actually see the world.

***

On the morning of my final day in Ireland, I checked out of the hostel and had coffee with a new friend of mine. I then made my way to Donegall Square West (right by the grand City Hall), where I met the famous Cyril of the Botanics. In the little time that I’d been in Belfast, I’d grown fond of this city too. Like Glasgow, it’s not immediately beautiful, but once you get to know it you can’t help but like it – especially if you’re a Game of Thrones fan! The city is littered with references to the show, and why shouldn’t it be – the show’s certainly been a boon for the Northern Irish tourism industry.

As excited as I was for the ferry ride back to Scotland, I was sad that my Irish travels had reached their conclusion. I knew I’d be back before long, however.

On the ferry, with no phone or internet at my disposal, and with my only book finished, I took up pen and paper and just started writing about my trip. I may or may not publish what I wrote during that seven-hour journey home, I’ve not yet made up my mind. Even if I never share them with anyone, writing those 24 pages of touristic reflections was extremely enjoyable and cathartic, and I probably wouldn’t have written them if I hadn’t broken my phone.

So, am I glad that my phone broke? Jein, is the answer: ja und nein. I don’t know which experience was better: Travelling with a phone, like in the Republic, or travelling without one, like in Northern Ireland. Obviously the best option would be a healthy compromise, where I use my smart phone to look up interesting things but also know when to switch it off.

Sensible thinking is different to sensible action, however. I know that if/when I get a smartphone again, I’ll soon go back to being addicted to all the apps and notifications… So, for the meantime, I’m using a very basic Nokia phone, which allows me to make calls, send texts, set alarms, and not much else. There are many advantages to this, as well as many disadvantages. I probably will succumb eventually to the lure of the smartphone, but at the moment I’m enjoying having a break from it all. (Even though, ironically, I’m now using my laptop more, thereby substituting one screen for an even bigger one. But at least I can’t carry my laptop around in my pocket!)

***

If you also feel a bit smartphone-obsessed and this is making you unhappy, stressed or whatever, don’t feel like you also need to book a trip to Dublin in order to ‘accidentally’ break your phone. My tip is to switch off your phone for certain periods of time, perhaps even whole days – you could keep it locked away somewhere out of sight, for instance. I’ve done this before on family holidays and it really helped me to unwind.

Or, if you don’t have enough self-discipline for this, just go and see a film at the cinema. Since only Jeremy Hunts check their phones during a movie *in the cinema*, you’ll have no other choice than to sit there, watch a film in the dark, and forget about the bright lights of Facebook, Twitter and all the other self-imposed digital prisons of our age.

I’m not an iconoclast, I’m not calling for the smashing of all smartphones. All I’m advocating is that, every now and then, we put down our phones, go outside and talk with real people, face-to-face. That obviously won’t fix all the world’s problems; but maybe, just maybe, in these polarised times, it’ll be a start.

(Thanks for reading.)

RECOMMENDED FILM OF THE WEEK: Never Look Away (Werk ohne Autor): Ein sehr bewegender, überraschend lustiger und ganz schöner Film über die Macht der Kunst und der Liebe. 5/5.

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Remainers … Assemble!

The 23rd of May 2019 was an important day for me for two reasons. Firstly, it was the day of the EU election in the UK, which bizarrely was supposed to have left the EU two months prior to the elction. Thursday was also significant for another reason, however: I spoke at my first conference! This was DIVISIONS, the University of Glasgow’s College of Arts Postgraduate Conference.

Divisions conference

On the day, I got up, voted at my local polling station, then made my way to the conference at Kelvin Hall. As my talk was not until 2PM, I got to listen to many fascinating talks beforehand. Then, straight after lunch, it was my turn…

PowerPoint slide

In my talk, which was entitled ‘Using Julius Caesar to understand Brexit’, I first considered the ubiquity of division in (and outside) literature. I looked specifically at Shakespeare’s play Julius Caesar, which is about an attempt by the well-meaning and honourable Brutus (who is a bit of an Eddard Stark character) to defeat the forces of populism that threaten the Roman Republic. Famously, or rather infamously, Brutus and his co-conspirators fail in their noble mission: By assassinating the demagogue and would-be emperor Julius Caesar, they cause a civil war, which they lose, thus beginning centuries of imperial rule.

The thrust of my argument was: Those of us who want to defeat the populism of modern demagogues like Nigel Farage and (soon-to-be PM?) Boris Johnson need to learn from Brutus’ mistakes. Could a second referendum, I wondered, prove to be as disastrous as the assassination of Julius Caesar, and only make things worse? Of course, we don’t know how things would have turned out had Brutus and co not killed Caesar, just as we don’t know what will happen if there is a second referendum. And, to be clear, I still support a so-called People’s Vote on whether we should go ahead with leaving the EU, now that we have a better idea of what that entails. Indeed, on the 23rd of March I was at the massive People’s Vote March in London.

Me march
Thanks Cat for the photo!

All I was advocating in my talk is that we don’t rush into anything without thinking through all the consequences. As Owen Jones and many other astute commentators have observed: There are no easy solutions to the Brexit deadlock in which UK has been trapped for the last three years. Farage and co are wrong to suggest that a No Deal, ‘clean break’ Brexit would solve everything, but so are the die-hard Remainers who think Parliament should just revoke Article 50 without even holding a second referendum.

So, why do I support putting this issue back to the people? Didn’t the people already speak in 2016, and shouldn’t we respect that result? Wouldn’t a second referendum just increase divison and further polarise the country?

I agree that, in a democracy, it is extremely important that we respect all democratic outcomes, even those we disagree with. That’s why the Labour Party (of which I am a member) has been so hesitant to back a second referendum, because it does not want to betray all those working-class voters who voted for Brexit, in the (in my opinion) wrong-headed belief that it would have a positive impact on their lives and/or the country.

Vote Leave
https://www.newstatesman.com/politics/staggers/2017/08/its-official-theres-200m-hole-brexit-bus-nhs-promise

Nevertheless, it’s important to remember that the Vote Leave campaign broke electoral law during the referendum, according to the Electoral Commission. They also told outright lies, for instance about the prospect of Turkey joining the EU, or that we send £350 million a week to the EU. (Whilst technically true, that latter figure doesn’t take into account the rebate, nor all the economic benefits of being a member of the world’s biggest economy.)

Although turnout was relatively high in the referendum (72.2%), many people didn’t or couldn’t vote and now would like to, whilst many others didn’t take the referendum seriously or voted Leave more as a protest vote, rather than an informed decision. Furthermore, polling indicates that, although another referendum would undoubtedly be close, public opinion has moved more towards remaining in the EU, now that we understand the difficulty of resolving issues such as Northern Ireland’s border with the Republic of Ireland.

As I said in my protest sign: How can more democracy be bad for democracy? Technically the 2016 referendum was the second referendum, since the UK first voted in 1975 to join the European Communities. Let’s make it best of three? If Leave wins again, all sides must accept that result and we must go ahead with Brexit; if Remain wins, Parliament must cancel this self-destructive project, which has already claimed two prime ministers in the space of less than three years.

Of course, the Leave side will go on about how a second referendum is an affront to democracy and they will accuse the ‘Remoaners’ of being sore losers. They kind of have a point, but on the other hand: When an election is held, the results of that elections aren’t carved in stone for eternity; rather, another election is held four or five years later, giving voters the chance to totally upturn the previous election’s results. If US voters can vote in 2020 on whether they want to continue to have an orange toddler for president, why can’t we – in the alleged ‘Mother of Parliaments’ – vote again on such an important issue as our membership of the EU, which will impact this country for generations to come?

***

I recently, like about a trillion other people, saw the film ‘Avengers: Endgame’. I had high expectations and oh boy did it surpass them! It proved that you can achieve a satisfying ending that neatly resolves the storylines of various characters, a feat that sadly eluded the makers of ‘Game of Thrones’… (That’s a rant for a separate blogpost, however.)

‘Endgame’ made me think, though. Couldn’t Thanos (the purple-headed supervillain who wipes out half of all life in the universe) accuse the Avengers of being sore losers? After all, Thanos won the ‘Infinity War’ fair and square, so shouldn’t they accept the result? Indeed, that’s sort of Tony Stark aka Iron Man’s position at the start of the film, until the other Avengers convince him to help them defeat Thanos and resurrect the Fallen. Sure, the odds are against them – in fact, Doctor Strange calculates that they have a one in 14 million chance of winning.

I hope the chances of the UK staying in the EU aren’t as small as that, but if the recent UK-EU election teaches us anything, it’s the power of Nigel Farage: He founded the Brexit Party only six months ago and it has now come first in the polls, with over 30% of the vote. Bravo, Farage – that’s certainly better than Change UK’s measly 3.4%.

Nevertheless, if you add up the vote shares for all the major Remain parties, for instance the Lib Dems (who won 20.3%) and the Greens (12.1%), it is clear that many people still want to remain in the European Union, just as many still want to leave it. As I already said: a second referendum would be close, but so were the Infinity Wars. If the Avengers kept on fighting even against seemingly impossible odds, so too should we Remainers fight on, when the chances are about 50/50, in my estimation.

We can win a second referendum, but we shouldn’t be arrogant and assume we will win – that was our mistake the first time round. Honesty, humility and passion are what will carry us over the line in a future referendum. We can even learn something from Nigel Farage: For a long time an outsider in British politics, never an MP, he kept making the case for Brexit before the term ‘Brexit’ had even been coined, and eventually he achieved his dream – a referendum in which a majority of the electorate voted to leave the EU.

Now, as his Brexit Party sweeps up MEPs like Infinity Stones in Thanos’ gauntlet, we need to prepare for the Brexit Endgame. Because it is coming. And, just like ‘Endgame’ raised the stakes by having Thanos resolve to wiping out all life in the universe, not just half, so too have the Brexit stakes risen significantly since Theresa May – the Remainer pretending to be a passionate Brexiteer – announced her resignation. Terrible though May was and is, she knew that a No Deal Brexit would be a disaster for the country, so she delayed Brexit, despite knowing how unpopular this would prove. The new Tory leader will likely have less qualms about driving this country off the cliffedge, all in the interests of Brexit purity, whatever that means.

Enough with the infighting. Remainers: assemble! (And don’t cock it up this time.)

Farage as Thanos
Nigel Farage with his Brexit Gauntlet (Professional photoshopping by yours truly.)

A Rainy Journey to the Far North

Hello and welcome to my new blog, ‘An Englishman in Scotland’. This September will mark five years since I first moved to Scotland – half a decade! I suppose in the grand scheme of things that isn’t very long, but for me it seems like a lifetime ago. So much in the world has changed since then, too: There was the Scottish independence referendum during my Freshers’ Week at the University of Edinburgh, then the 2015 general election, a referendum on leaving the EU (the ramifications of which we are still feeling), the election of Donald Trump… The list goes on.

I’ve also changed a lot since 2014: last summer I graduated with a First in German and English Literature (having spoken no German before my degree); I had my first serious relationship; and I travelled to exciting new places, most notably China for my 21st birthday! There are still so many countries I want to visit, but also in Scotland there are countless places I haven’t yet been to. Aberdeen, until recently, was on that list, so this April I decided to finally travel up to the far north (east).

First, though, I stopped off in Stonehaven, which is about twenty miles south of Aberdeen. The journey up from Glasgow was pleasant, following Scotland’s eastern coast past Perth and Dundee. I didn’t stay for long in Stonehaven, however, as I quickly boarded a bus to nearby Dunnottar Castle, which was a very worthwhile detour.

Dunnotar Wallace
Wallace with Dunnottar Castle in the background

As I surveyed this medieval ruin, spread out scenically on a cliff by the sea, I felt like I had stepped into Westeros. (Game of Thrones was understandably on my mind, what with the recent return of the series to TV and laptop screens.) I was reminded of my trip last summer to Gaztelugatxe in the Basque Country, except this was in many ways even cooler, because whilst Gaztelugatxe is home only to a wee church, Dunnottar is a frickin’ CASTLE, with a long and grisly history.

I wound my way up and down the steps to the castle entrance and was unsure about whether or not to pay the £7 to look round the castle itself, as a part of me thought ‘It’s just ruins and I’ve already seen the best bits’. Thankfully I ignored my inner stinginess and bought my entry to Dunnottar. I didn’t regret this: Despite being ruined, a surprisingly large amount of the castle is intact, so there is a lot to look around, and the information signs were very informative. Also, because I was visiting in April, it was only moderately busy and I often had rooms of the castle to myself.

Castle 2
Inside Dunnottar Castle (built c. 1400 – 1600)

The best thing about Dunnottar Castle, however, is the views it offers of the nearby landscape and sea. Here is a small selection of the pictures I took as I wandered around:

Landscape 4
A lonely beach near Dunnottar
Landscape 10 best
The North Sea
Window 1
A scenic view

I couldn’t spend all day at Dunnottar, however, even if I’d have liked to, so I boarded a bus which took me all the way (eventually) to Aberdeen. I was excited to finally see Aberdeen because it is Scotland’s third largest city and, having been a resident of the two largest cities, I was itching to see how it compared to Edinburgh and Glasgow.

The one thing I’d heard about ‘the Granite City’ is that it’s grey, and yes, I can confirm that Aberdeen is very, very grey. Very. It also rained pretty much the entire time that I was there, so at first I was feeling pretty grumpy, scornfully reflecting that it looked like Edinburgh if you took out all the nice bits.

But then, as I explored, Aberdeen worked its charm on me. It’s host to a number of striking buildings, and I particularly liked the pointing hands on the street signs! Thanks to the yearly ‘Nuart Festival‘ there is also some cool street art, and I went to a very nice vegan cafe called ‘Bonobo‘. Then I made my way to the Old Aberdeen Bookshop and the university, which is really stunning – hardly surprising when you remember that it dates back to 1495, making it the third oldest university in Scotland and the fifth oldest in the UK!

I’ll post below some pictures that I took around Aberdeen. By the end of the day I was pretty knackered and very happy to get on a train back to Glasgow, but I hope to return to the far north at some point – hopefully when the weather’s better! (This being Scotland, however, I won’t hold my breath…)

Aberdeen 1
Cool (grey) building in Aberdeen city centre
Aberdeen 2 hand
Several of the street signs had this antiquarian (by which I mean, antiquated but not in a pejorative sense) pointing hand, which I loved!
Aberdeen 3 street art
Some of Aberdeen’s ‘nu’ street art
Aberdeen 4 cafe
A nice European-looking café (Not the one I went to)
Aberdeen 5 factory
An old abandoned factory, which reminded me of my hometown Preston.
Aberdeen 6 houses
These were literally the most colourful buildings I saw in Aberdeen.
Aberdeen 7 garden
Peeking into a garden in Old Aberdeen.
Aberdeen 8 university
Aberdeen University (founded in 1495) is stunning!
Aberdeen 9 unicorn
A slightly crazy-looking unicorn – but then you would go crazy if you were chained up by the English, wouldn’t you?
Aberdeen 10 university ivy
Also the university – I love the ivy and the reclining dude.
Aberdeen 12 fishing
Remembering Aberdeen’s fishing history (End)