How a slice of cake led to an important cultural realisation.
It wasn’t until I was wondering about my menu-choice at the Red Door Tea Room in Ballintoy that it occurred to me I was witnessing an important cultural moment: that point in a nascent nation’s life when it expresses its being, its self-awareness, its genius, in the form of… cake. “That,” I said to the young man behind the counter, who turned out to be called Jack, “looks like the Game of Thrones cake I had a slice of at the tea room in Cushendun.”
“Aye, well it is,” he replied.
“But how can that be,” I persisted, observing the turbulent swirls of peanut butter icing, set with chunks of chocolate and smeared lavishly on to on a thick chocolate cake-base. “The girl there told me their Game of Thrones cake was homemade.”
“Aye, that’s true,” Jack confirmed – and for a moment I wondered if this was a further bewildering twist in the sectarian knot at the core of Northern Irish being: could it be that one of these Game of Thrones cakes was Protestant/Unionist one, and the other Catholic/Nationalist? “You see,” Jack continued, “there’s the two sisters, Joann and Colette – Joann makes the cake here at the Red Door; while Colette makes hers at the Corner House in Cushendun. But fundamentally it’s the same cake, made from the same recipe.”
Of course, I was tempted to bandy substances and essences with this young Hibernian, as if we were Medieval schoolmen, but those queuing behind me were becoming restive – they, like me, had quite probably undertaken a tour of Northern Ireland/Ulster’s Game of Thrones locations, and were hungry for a sugar hit.
Yes, yes, I know: Game of Thrones is over – and with it the entire computer-generated fantasy of flying dragons and incestuous power struggles between dandiacal warlords living in the shadow of a monstrous barrier dividing the living from the dead. Or is it? The series was filmed in Northern Ireland, in part on giant sound sets that have been built in converted shipbuilding hangers at the Belfast docks, and in part at locations scattered throughout Counties Down, Antrim and Derry.
I visited the so-called Dark Hedges, an avenue of beech trees near Armoy, planted in the 18th century that forms the background to the Kingsroad, along which Arya Stark escapes from King’s Landing – then went on to Cushendun caves, which in the series, stand in for a cove in the Stormlands; before ending up at Ballintoy harbour, where the curiously pyramidal, mossy-green hillocks and glinting blue-grey rocks form the landscape of the so-called Iron Islands.
True, just as with Joann and Colette’s cake, you need to do a fair bit of imaginative heavy-lifting to heft these places into the mythic. For one thing, they’re paradoxically all much smaller than they seem on screen – since they’re surrounded by green fields, rather than some computer-generated meshegas.
Then there’s the extras (sorry, I mean ‘people’), who, instead of being dressed in a sort of Thierry-Mugler-does-medieval style, were heavily into livid-pink Puffa jackets and bilious-yellow nylon cagoules. Walking along the road between the Dark Hedges, I encountered scores of Chinese, and Germans – together with quite a few Romanians. The Chinese were having a high old time posing with cows and trees. “Where are you from?”‘ I asked one brightly-caparisoned fellow, and he chuckled “Beijing!” Where, I wondered, had they been in Northern Ireland? “Just here,” he chortled on, “and to the Giant’s Causeway.”
Fair enough – Northern Ireland is a little country, but if only I’d had some Mandarin, I would’ve told the Chinese tourist he was visiting this place at a very important time in its history. Sod the plantation of Ulster and the Siege of Derry – let alone all those miserable Troubles, and the current imbroglio with the so-called ‘backstop’ agreement in the Brexit Withdrawal Bill: the important thing to realise about Northern Ireland in AD 2019, is that having had its landscape heavily doctored by machine code, and thereby transformed into some strange fictional realm; that realm has then been further transformed into… cake. And when a country is instantiated by cake, I think we can all accept that it can now and forever hold its floury head up amongst the community of nations.
Yes, that’s how I was thinking, as I sat in the Red Door Tea Room, forking my Game of Thrones cake, while listening to the rain tom-tomming on the roof. The Iron Throne/Stormont has been empty these past two years now, while Daenerys Foster and Sansa McDonald battle it out, using their ‘secret weapon’: Bigot Power, and meanwhile, the dragon eggs are incubating all along the borderlands of Armagh and Fermanagh. But then what did the Brexiteers expect, when, like a vast horde of Marie Antoinettes, they glossed over the immemorial grievances and divisions of this fissiparous land, seemingly saying avant la lettre: ‘Let them eat Game of Thrones cake!’