Belfast Telegraph

How my haste to return to Belfast set me back £86.81

By Paul Hopkins

You always know you're slumming it when in the two-bit boutique hotel the TV remote has a life of its own, the shower has intermittent attacks of the heebie-jeebies, you have to supply your own bathroom beautifying lotions, and the bed-bugs decline your invitation to stay another night, if only for the company.

It's a far cry from the hallowed hall of The Merchant or the cosy confines of The Malone Lodge and, yes, I'm back in town two weeks now and My Own Personal Recession has well and truly kicked in, hence the two-bit hotel and the need to be back in Belfast to make money.

I have spent the last five years of my life in this city, not a long time in the scheme of things but for me long enough to allow more than fleeting acquaintance with its kind folk and gentle people and its finer watering holes, chic restaurants and club life. Though the latter, at this stage in my life, is perhaps more wishful thinking in that all I ever only did was stand outside said clubs, listen to the pulsating rhythms emanating from within and move on before the burly bouncer said something like, Move on now, that's a good man. It's long past your bedtime.

Of course, with My Own Personal Recession, the watering holes and chic restaurants have given way to a snatched slice of pizza (note to self: that's 840 calories) from 'Belfast's Best Pizza Since 1900-and-odd' (note to you: it's not) and a cheap but cheerful Cab Sav from the off-licence to my room at the two-bit boutique where, I swear, if you turned the doorknob you'd rearrange the furniture - what there is of it.

And so it goes. And it almost goes without saying that little has changed in this City of The Last Great Drinking Bars in Europe in the six months I have been away. One wouldn't expect much to change in six months. So the great big holes in the road and the diverted traffic (tons of traffic) are still with us, but now with the added bonus of great big 'feck-off-out-of-my-space' BUS LANES which to my thinking seem to have been plonked smack in the middle of us without any real rhyme or reason.

The economic doom and gloom is still with us of course , which in some warped way is comforting - to know that I am not the only guy affected.

If I'm going down, at least I'm not going down alone.

And of course those kind, but hapless, Folk On The Hill are still with us, trying to sort out which parade should go where and where they really stand on one of the great, last taboos - gay marriage. That is when they are not still, at grassroots level, harping back to the past and the injustices heaped upon each other. Meantime, in the world of jobs, education and health it's every man, woman and child for themselves in the desperate scramble to keep heads above water. But only just.

If it weren't for the glory of the Olympic Games and the top names playing Belsonic and Vital, the summer that never was would have been a much drearier affair. Small compensation perhaps for getting soaked to the skin more often than soaking up an Irish tan but we persevere as Belfast people are nothing if not resilient - that is, able to withstand or recover quickly from difficult conditions.

In all my five years of commuting twice a week from Dublin to Belfast and back again, as a driver I have only run foul of the law in one instance and that was when I was pulled over and got a good ticking off because my car tax was a week out of date. And because it was just a ticking off I thanked the PSNI officer profusely, wished him well in his endeavours and shook heartily his huge hand.

That is until now. For what was awaiting me on my return to Belfast but to be caught speeding (barely in excess of the 60, Your Honour) for the first time ever, anywhere (and I have been places and driven places) in more than 30 years behind a wheel.

Still it was a fair cop. Hands up and all that, I thought as I ran my eyes over the summons in my shaky hand. And, lo and behold, there in black and white was my 'get out' clause. I had a choice. Had I contested the matter and proceeded to court I could have faced up to £1,000 fine if found culpable. At the least it was going to be a 60 quid fine and three points on my unblemished licence, or I could opt for the 'get out' clause, which was to sign up for a four-hour course run by the AA/PSNI on the nastiness and social outcastness of 'speeding' - NO DRIVING INVOLVED - and all at a one-time only, never, hopefully, (honest, from here on, I'm the slow guy in the hard shoulder making the 39mph trek home) to-be-repeated sum of 86 quid and 81 pence (VAT included).

And I thought of all the times I had put the boot down driving in to and out of Belfast the past five years and had got away with it and what would I learn from just a quick fine and penalty points. Nothing. And perhaps this four-hour course, at £86.81 (VAT included), on the seriousness of speeding might teach me something - not to be so flippant about speeding which can, and does, kill.

Life should always be something of a learning curve and so I have opted to sign up for the course.

I will let you know how I get on.

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