— aleatory

Selected Belfast Festival

10 years in the city I decided it was time to have a look around me. The Belfast Festival at Queen’s is quite high profile in the media but outside of the fanfair I knew little of the content. Turns out they put on a pretty electic show. I went for the Bateman play National Anthem, a Floodlit Belfast photo opportunity, a discussion about Carson, retro gaming exhibition and book talks from both Keith Jeffery on MI6 & Lord Ashdown.

Gaming started in the Catalyst Arts centre down in BT1 and I went there on the 2nd day they were still kind of setting up for a big night of it on the Thursday. I took a few shots and scooted back up the road. A word about Catalyst first – an arts organisation completely volunteer run. Not the ‘voluntary’ sector. Just people putting in their spare time. That’s big society right there. So well done on that.

Lord Ashdown

Paddy Ashdown had his chat in a packed out Elmwood Hall – first time I’d been in the place – and as you can imagine he’s a very comfortable, yet concise speaker. Kicked off with an excerpt from his new book about his time in Bosnia – on the one hand containing his best achievement in life and the worst the very next day. His time in Bosnia obviously deeply affected and influences him.

I’m happy to report the Donaghadee man’s greatest smile of the night came as he recounted his days as a young officer in the Royal Marines and then again when he moved on to his time as an operator in the SBS. But what was insightful in all this, as the audience watched a man who it is assumed is now away from the frontline of world affairs, was his responses to questioning. They were not the answers you associate with someone looking back at the end of their career, which while sometimes humorous – “In your time at Westminster who do you think would make the best MP?” “ME!” – also struck me as being sincerely looking to the future, the next challenge.

And I reckon that for Lord Ashdown the next challenge is in Kabul. He turned down a UN role there before, but tellingly only after Karzai himself appeared unwilling to have a ‘corruption buster’ on board – and after his ‘wife told Paddy he couldn’t stand idly by while young men put their lives on the line for their country’. That sounded like a speech to go to war on. And if it didn’t, the retelling of a tale about the 1879 retreat from Kabul debacle in which the army endured it’s worst military defeat showed the audience just where Ashdown’s mind is.

Will be watching his next move with interest.

Keith Jeffery – MI6

Next up was Keith Jeffery who is a Queen’s academic and recently wrote a book on the history of MI6 up to the end of WWII. It’s interesting that in the early years funding wasn’t what it is today and the top spy had to fund activities out of his own pocket! Undoubtedly there was a lot of characters discussed, for such an apparently discreet profession spying appears to attract it’s fair share of extroverts.

Also amusing was the bureaucracy surrounding getting some of the info ‘released’ – details on the cracking of US coded telegrams was apparently not allowed out into the public domain – until the professor pointed out they’ve been sitting on public view in the National Archives for years! I’d have liked to hear some gossip on more current activities, or thinking now in hindsight some tails from the Great Game period would have sufficed. But an interesting tale nonetheless of how ad hoc military spies grew into a specialised independent government department.

Enjoyable too for the fact Malachi O’Doherty was the compere for the evening. First time I seen him away from the opinion pages of the local rags, and he seemed engaged in what Jeffery had to say.

When Jeffery was first commissioned to write the book – under Crown copyright – he commented “This is a contract that could have been given to any number of universities, and it came to Belfast and not to Oxbridge (Oxford and Cambridge) or London. It is nice to bring something to the university – something a little bit out of the ordinary”

Fair play to him.


And after a quick call into the flat for some pasta I headed down to Catalyst’s gaming night. It was pretty impressive to see FIFA up on a 9ft wall – along with Tekken 2 and Bomberman. Lots of littel TVs dotted around had Time Crisis with gun (should have been on the wall), 4-player Goldeneye 007, Sega Smash Pack on the Dreamcast and a great find – 3D Space Invaders on the PSOne.

Flicked on Sega Smash Pack to find out was Altered Beast really as bad as it looked. Affirmative. The intro screen on Smash Pack looked weird, more like a classic demo intro than a game. Turns out it was a well known ROM loader released by warez group Echelon, pretty cool because they must have used it to burn the original Smash Pack. Kind of a recursive piracy there. Then the guy running the show came over and switched me over to a MAME CD that was divided into 8-bit, arcade and 16-bit sections. Tons of top notch game time here – Toki, Midnight Resistance, Cabal, Snow Bros, Twinbee, Ghouls ‘n Ghosts, Rodland ffs! Could have played all night but in fairness it was due to end at 11 and I stumbled down the stairs – with the aid of a healthy supply of Corona to hand over the course of the night – well after midnight.

Chief gamesmaster said he’s trying to do something like it, with more consoles, down in Uni of Ulster @ York St so here’s hoping for more retro action in future. Keep tabs at the Catalyst FB group.


Professors Graham Walker, Paul Bew and Dr Eamonn Phoenix sat in on a packed Elmwood Hall discussion in the 75th anniversary year of Carson’s death. Interesting factoids were shared throughout the evening – Carson’s family background, his maternal family from the West, the Presbyterianism of his Father, his own romance at the height of the Home Rule crisis, etc – but I found the two apparent ‘heavyweights’ of the evening hard going. I have always thought that godfather of academic politics Bew to be overrated as a narrator and media personality: while his analysis is undoubtedly incredibly exacting and trustworthy, it is often difficult to follow and at times rather unfocused in term’s of a narrative.

Phoenix on the other hand comes across as just another nationalist historian incapable of espousing anything other than his own political dogma on matters of history. Struggling to maintain interest while Phoenix speculated Carson was a ‘complete failure’ to himself and that he would also have to accept responsibility encouraging later Irish republican violence with the formation of the 1912 UVF. I can only conclude that poor Eamon has not yet read up on the history of Irish republicanism pre-1900 and is therefore unfortunately ignorant of a couple of centuries of Irish ‘political’ violence and the fact that the 1912 paramilitaries – both nationalist and unionist – remained untried in terms of violent effect. If Phoenix felt Carson was a failure for delivering partition I wonder what he thought of the republicans of the time.

No matter – Prof Walker came across as a hidden diamond in the discussion. I had not heard of him before, but frequently he tied up disjointed and rambling efforts from the other two contributors with succinct and interesting analysis – I’d like to hear more from him in future or at least give the other has-beens a lesson or two in how to raconteur successfully.

Undoubtedly Carson was on the inside a brilliant manifestation of contradictory thought and influences – no better a question then that from within – that delivered to an external audience perhaps the most professional articulation of Irish Unionist thought and argument in the perennial battle for understanding at the mother of all parliaments. Certainly among his contemporaries he was unrivalled and as Walker noted the leader of Ulster Unionism Craig with his worldly acumen recognised this at an early stage. The result was to elevate this personality to pop history’s saviour of a people while in comparison his courthouse contemporary on the other side of the divide John Redmond barely gets a look-in ahead of the more violent personalities of the age.

It’s true about who writes the history books.

And that concluded the talk bit of the Festival for myself. Would have loved to have got a ticket for Palin before he sold out but for those I did see I was on the whole impressed with the variety and general interestingness of the characters involved. If anything could be improved I’d like the question time with the audience to be extended or at least open ended – Lord Ashdown for example was quite happy to remain on for as long as anyone wished to interrogate.

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