Like a superannuated deb, I've just done the season for another year. At first blush, the social calendar I've been observing couldn't be more different from the too-thrilling balls dashingly MC'd by Mr Peter Townsend. Then again, I don't know so much: in the one case, the name of the game is sidestepping chinless swains; where I've been, it's evading petrol bombs and rubber bullets. For young gels coming out, substitute youths with balaclavas and firearms, accessories as timeless in their own way as the little black dress. The more I think about it, one of the few rituals as anachronistic and over-rehearsed as the society courtship dance is the marching season in Northern Ireland.
If it were not for the troubling matter of his criminal record, Johnny "Mad Dog" Adair, with his unexampled monarchist sympathies, is the sort of boy who could be presented at court. Even from prison, the loyalist figurehead was commissioning portraits of the House of Windsor for Belfast gable-ends, eye-wateringly devotional studies of Princess Diana and the Queen Mother. Two years ago, and just out of jail, this Medici of the murals was at Drumcree, seeing and being seen. This stop on the route of an Orange order procession down the Garvaghy Road has been the scene of son-et-lumiere thrills and spills in past years, a kind of Glyndebourne of violence. But the security forces have introduced spikes and chainmail between the contending factions, as if to repel medieval siege engines. So attention has switched to the climax of the marching term, the anniversary of the Battle of the Boyne. Adair was warming his hands at the bonfires on the eve of this red-letter day, and loyalist paramilitaries loosed a volley into the air.
It's an extraordinary thing to stand in a street of semi-detached houses and wait for a riot. No one knew for sure that this is what would happen in nationalist Ardoyne, not even my experienced Channel 4 News colleagues. Sinn Fein had appealed for calm, but had also claimed that police warnings of trouble were self-fulfilling. With their armoured vehicles, the security forces sealed off a narrow strip of tarmac from the crowds on both pavements. The media stood in the middle of the road. This was where the Orangemen would be processing, and where any missiles would be aimed. At eight o'clock in the evening, the introduction of a further column of fortified Land Rovers presaged the marchers. Their hangers-on barracked the onlookers, and vice versa, and then there was an explosion at our feet. It was only a firework, but it was followed by a shower of pop bottles. Incongruously, half a billiard ball bounced off the road. An old-fashioned brown beer bottle smashed beside us, a forget-me-not from departing Orange supporters. It was a thwarted riot, a riot interrupted. By the standards of the marching season, it qualified as high jinks, a bun fight between debs' delights.