(james benedict brown) on the road


Posted in Posts by James Benedict Brown on 5 April, 2009

Most British city dwellers will probably recognise the engine note of a black cab. The older ones have a fruity burble, and the more recent blobby looking models have an equally gruff but distinct engine that can also be heard under the bonnet of some commercial trucks and vans.

The sound – the noise of a black cab approaching – is one filed under ‘comfort’ in my aural memory bank. No matter what time of day or night (usually the latter) the sound of a black cab indicates security and warmth. It’s even better when you’re on the inside, burbling away from a cold and wet night on the town. In Sheffield the comforting effect is particularly noticeable, since the engines have to work just that bit harder to get you up the hills that would have certainly taken forty-five minutes had you chosen to walk home instead.

In Belfast, however, it’s different. The black cab drivers there still operate with multiple occupancy on some routes, and unwritten rules about where to hail a cab or who to share with have always eluded me. When I lived there – almost four years ago now – I was much more clued into the surfeit of mini cabs that serve the city.

The two largest cab firms were – I was once reliably informed – the only ones who chose to make payments to those groups who might disrupt their business on both sides of the community lines in the city. Whether or not that is still true, I do not know. I lived in a lively and young neighbourhood that was a balanced mixed of transient protestants, catholics and non-Northern Irish folk who couldn’t understand the difference. Being surrounded by student houses, we were well connected by bus to the city and it was never hard to find a cab into or from town.

One cab firm lodged itself in my memory and my mobile phone. I’ve changed cellphone several times since leaving Belfast but I seem to have successfully transferred my phonebook each time. In Belfast this week for the first of many regular visits, I needed a cab home on just the kind of dark, cold and rainy night for which cabs were invented. I didn’t need to remember the number but it surprised me to scroll down and find it there: saved in a phone that was bought long after I moved from Northern Ireland.

The advantage of this (and many other small firms) over the two dominant companies is that although they have fewer drivers, fewer people call them first. Approaching midnight I had to wait less the five minutes for a cab to arrive outside the busy Cathedral Quarter bar I had been invited along to by a man who recognised me after four years away.

This time, the engine note of the car was not the aural comfort that subconsciously told me I was going home. If the engine of a black cab is the sign of a safe journey home in Sheffield, the illuminated geographical name on the roof of a cab is my Friday night comforter in Belfast. Waiting that short while for my cab to arrive on a bustling street corner, I filtered out the cabs belonging to other companies. I imagine I could have hopped in any one of them, but for some strange reason I stuck to my obscure loyalties. Perhaps because I wanted to know whether they still comforted me. And they do. Along the length of a narrow cobbled street I spotted a nondescript Japanese sedan approaching, its illuminated boards bearing the name of my old neighbourhood that is legible to me even before the letters come into focus.

I chatted to the driver as he pulled me away from the cold night; his car warm in temperature and temperament. I recounted my discovery of the number in my phone, and he established my credentials as an outsider, yet one who might be considered a regular. As visitors often do when in Belfast cabs, we talked about the city, about the nightlife and about the changing scene of the province. My driver referred to recent events, bemoaning the fact that much of the province’s trouble is now being caused by those too young ‘to remember when we didn’t have Tesco, when we didn’t have all this investment’.

Assuredly avoiding the Friday night traffic hot spots, we chatted in very brief syllables about the past, present and future. At some point – far before my destination – he turned off the meter and rounded it down to a very generous fare. As I stepped out of the cab, wishing him a safe night, I considered that not only were cabs much cheaper here than back home; they were also driven by much friendlier people. Not once in five years of living in Sheffield did I talk with a taxi driver.


Northern Ireland’s favourite airline

Posted in Posts by James Benedict Brown on 22 November, 2008

Belfast City Airport has a handful of different names. Some still refer to it by its original name – the Harbour Airport. Nerds and trainspotters like me sometimes refer to it in writing by its three letter code, BHD. The airport itself places get pride in its newest offical name, which is in honour of one of Northern Ireland’s greatest footballers. It’s just a shame that every time I land here I remember that he was also a serial wife beater and alcoholic. Such foibles are apparently easy to forget if you’re a good footballer.

The airport has a modern and friendly passenger terminal right next to the A2 Belfast – Bangor road, about five minutes from the city centre. It’s also adjacent to the Belfast – Bangor railway line, making it probably the only airport in Ireland to be easily accessible by train: a footbridge connects Sydenham station with the old airport entrance (above). This, however, has been closed to vehicle traffic since the old passenger terminal was decommissioned and the new one constructed about half a mile away to the north east. Passengers arriving and departing by train have to request a shuttle bus: easy enough in the terminal but dependant on a mobile phone if you arrive by train and find the almost permanently broken courtesy phone in the shelter on the left of the picture above.

While waiting for the bus to come and collect you there is the occasional plane taking off or landing near by, just beyond rows of neatly parked rental cars. There are also discarded remnants of the old passenger terminal, and the majority of a large structure (on the right in the photograph) that was used for checking arriving vehicles during the Troubles.

Most entertainingly, there are a number of old advertising hoardings that haven’t been removed since the old passenger terminal was shut down. I might possibly have seen this very same advert for the now twice rebranded Jersey European when I made my first visit to Northern Ireland in the mid-nineties, flying in on an Air UK flight from London Stansted. Jersey European became British European and then just FlyBe. Air UK became KLM UK. I hope there’s another airport somewhere with a fading advert for Air UK somewhere, although I’ve yet to find it.

Sheffield City Airport R.I.P.

Posted in Posts by James Benedict Brown on 21 April, 2008

At 20h00 this evening, Sheffield reclaimed a title it’s not held since 1997 – the city (population 525,800) is now the largest in Europe without its own airport.

Sheffield City Airport has closed tonight, barely eleven years after it opened. The airport lost commercial service in 2002, supposedly because of post-9/11 travel fears, but more reasonably because low cost airlines never established service. The runway was built frustratingly short – too short for a Boeing 737 or Airbus A320, the two aircraft that now dominate low cost airline service in Europe.

When I arrived in Sheffield in 2001/2, the City Airport had (if my facts are straight) multiple daily flights to Amsterdam, Belfast, Brussels, Dublin, London City and Jersey. British Airways, AirUK, Sabena and numerous smaller charter operators all used the airport, which still features the beautifully simple little terminal building designed for it by Sheffield City Council’s architecture department. It was, by all accounts, a delightful little airport to fly in and out of, barely 10km from the city centre.

I’ve heard many grumbles from other Sheffielders about the airport’s demise (see this thread on the lively Sheffield Forum), namely that Peel Airports who own the site entered into an agreement with the City Council that basically allowed them to buy the airport land for a single figure sum if they could prove that the airport had no commercial future. Their attempts to draw new airlines and services to the airport were notably languid. Understandable really, since they were far too busy investing in and developing the all new Robin Hood Airport about thirty kilometers away in Finningley. Many blamed the short runway for limiting commercial service, although many airlines (Eastern Airways, FlyBe etc) are doing very well operating regional links in planes that could use Sheffield City.

After commercial service ended in 2002, the airport continued as a private aviation airfield, with pleasure flights and private aircraft using the landing strip. The South Yorkshire Ambulance and Police have helicopters stationed there, and they’ll continue to use a limited heliport facility. The runway and the rest of the site will be torn up to form a business park.

Never say never

Posted in Posts by James Benedict Brown on 9 March, 2008


Since he left sunny Northern Ireland for Nashville, Tennessee last year, the podcaster, blogger, photographer and general international-man-of-mystery Jett Loe has been re-adjusting to life in the U. S. of A. Amongst other things, he’s been getting used to American TV once more, and the delights of unreliable digital TV signals.


He’s not alone. Facecrash affects us all, even the eighty-two year old stalwart of Northern Ireland’s Democratic Unionist Party, the Reverend Ian Paisley, as seen here during an interview on BBC Television’s Andrew Marr Show.


The “big man” has announced his retirement, saying in this, his first televised interview, that he intends to take some time to write his life story. Probably just as well, because the pictures really don’t do him justice.


Posted in Posts by James Benedict Brown on 19 January, 2008

Although I didn’t blog about it at the time, I was briefly in Belfast and Glasgow two weeks ago. I might have been more lucid or verbose about it, but it was pissing down with the rain the whole time and it was hard to find the lyrical (or alcoholic) inspiration to write.

The cold and damp early weeks of January make a good time to travel. Last year it was Québec and Illinois. This year, reduced means and different priorities sent drew me to Northern Ireland and Scotland. I would have liked to have wandered further afield, perhaps deeper into Ulster or north from Glasgow into the Highlands. But as things go it was a fruitful eight day break from Sheffield, just in time for deadlines and work related pressures to begin to build in my absence.

Belfast was wet, but when the sun shone it did at least reveal the same beautifully ugly city I know and love from a few (pre-blogging) years ago. Glasgow, however, was just consistently wet, with very little opportunity to redeem its reputation in my rain soaked eyes. That’s not to say that I don’t love the place – it has the same undeniable gritty draw that Sheffield has in places – but I was not enamoured with the dampness that was soaking up both trouser legs every time I stepped outside.

If you find yourself in Glasgow and you need someone to go to escape the rain, may I recommend the excellent retrospective of the work of Glasgow architects Gillespie, Kidd & Coia at the Lighthouse. The exhibits are beautifully curated and designed, and the exhibition features an impressive collection of ‘artefacts’ and original drawings from the architects. A particularly clever inclusive was a case featuring books and magazines that would have been in the office at the time of many of the firm’s major projects, acknowledging that architects are profoundly influenced by the work of other architects, but almost always via printed images. One of the more amusing cases featured a selection of original letters addressed to the firm by just some of the correspondants who could not spell the company’s name. The exhibition ends on 8 February 2008.