Fresh in from far out - Shetland

<em>New Statesman Scotland</em> - History never really goes away

A council house in central Lanarkshire, steelworks-shadowed, bustling with people, prayers, pianos and Sunday afternoon, pre-Gospel meeting, high-tea smells. A gawky teenager, I am expected to remain silent through the long, TV-free Sabbath afternoons, as my parents and relatives talk of everything from the true identity of the Great Beast to Northern Ireland. Which are not necessarily the same thing.

"If they disband the B Specials," says someone in a broad Ballymena brogue, "the IRA will just run rampant. Those boys know where the terrorists live. They're the only ones the IRA's afraid of. Now, will I say grace? Do you know how many Catholics Ian Paisley has brought to the Lord?"

A decade later, I am on my first journalistic assignment in Ireland, working for an oil industry newspaper and trying to find out if there really is oil in the Atlantic's Porcupine Trough. I am heading south from Belfast, my nerves already jangled by the general atmosphere of impending doom, when a rise in the road gives way to a checkpoint; prone squaddies are manning Bren guns trained on my car. I can hear film music in my ears, the kind they use just before the bullets and grenades start flying.

I am in Ballymena, accompanying my mother to the funeral of her aunt, and it is an alien land. It is the first funeral I have ever been to where the coffin has been left open for mourners to kiss the corpse. And it is the first time I have ever witnessed one of those parades through the streets, with the casket passed through different sets of male shoulders in a gesture of belonging and giving up, before the hearse finally takes the remains away.

We drive to the cemetery, passing two farm workers by the side of the road, both carrying rifles. I express surprise. "There are lots of guns in Northern Ireland," says an uncle. Only men go to the graveside. For women to go "would be a Catholic thing".

A small town in rural Lanarkshire, home to a recording studio which has become famous as the musical home of Scottish faux country star Sidney Devine. A long session spent working on an album - not by Devine - has just finished. I am driving the producer, who is from Belfast, back to Glasgow. It is a beautiful summer evening.

"Ah," says the producer, "it's nights like this when you really praise the Lord for being alive." An attractive girl is walking towards us on the narrow road, and we slow to avoid her. "See her?" I nod. "Beautiful girl. But a Catholic." My jaw drops. How can you possibly tell? "Oh, her eyes. You can always tell by the eyes. Always."

Belfast airport, Aldergrove: another journalist and I have just gained access to the British Airways Executive Lounge by impersonating the editor of another publication. Then, as the lounge begins to fill up with what are clearly very senior army officers in mufti, nervousness creeps in. Surely we are about to be chucked out or, worse, marched off by the RUC as terrorist suspects? But nobody takes any notice of us, except for the BA ground stewardess, who plies us with vast quantities of free alcohol, then whispers: "I don't know who you are, but you're not who you said. Anyway, you've got nice faces."

Another recording studio, this one in Glasgow. "Can you spare me half an hour?" asks the proprietor. "I've got to run off some tapes." The tapes are collections of the most inflammatory sectarian songs the Protestant mind can imagine. "He sells these outside Ibrox," says the studio owner. "But he records republican ones and sells them outside Paradise. The same guy!"

Nashville, Tennessee, St Patrick's Day, two years ago and we are crawling our way from Lower Broadway uptown. Every bar is decked in green, shamrocks abound and every second person has a green plastic cup in the shape of the Irish national weed tied around their neck, the better to down the free Jameson's and Black Bush.

Somewhere near Music Row, a man with an Ulster brogue has his arm around my shoulders, breathing nostalgia and sentiment into my face. "Dear God," he says, "peace, they're saying, and they think it'll last. Not a bloody hope, son. It's history. Just history. The day they disbanded the B Specials, it was all lost." I wonder aloud why someone who regrets the end of the B Specials is drinking Paddy's and wearing a green bowler hat in the country music capital of America. On St Patrick's Day. "Ah well, son," he says. "Sometimes you just have to forget about history. But you always remember in the end. When this stuff wears off." And he raises his green plastic tumbler and drinks, deeply.