17/03/2014 09:16 GMT | Updated 16/05/2014 06:59 BST

Common Grounds

It's St Patrick's weekend in Northern Ireland, and the lawnmowers are limbering up. For a week or two, now, the rainfall has slowed, the birds have been singing for nesting territory, and underpinning their chorus is that lower, guttural sound: the growling of the First Lawnmowers of Spring.

Picture it. It's a Saturday morning. Early. It's peaceful in the kitchen, and Northern Ireland Husband is behind his iPad, reading a few newspapers or browsing Zite. He's happy. His wife is quietly reading, or tweeting, or texting, when suddenly she stops. She's heard it, several streets away, and he's doomed. Her hearing, deaf to his pleas about being tired, is gundog-like when it comes to the call of the middle-distance lawnmower. She begins to hum quietly, like an agitated alpaca, and pointedly starts clearing away the breakfast clutter.

'Did you notice the carpet, dear?' she asks. He looks up, bewildered. Blinking, in a vacuum of wondering. 'You see, the hoover leaves sort of marks, and I thought, if I go in straight lines, it'll look just like a lawn. You know. A just-mowed lawn. With stripes. And I was thinking...'

And so, throughout the suburbs and in the country towns, betrayed, bewildered Husbands stagger, blinking, from their winter caves, dragging cobwebbed mowers from their rest, nodding in tragic recognition at one another as they meet. The common ground grows tidy again between them, the cut grass smell floating through windows to mingle with the scent of the coffee that wives prepare as a reward.


We're all unique: just like everybody else. But sometimes moments happen which place us in solidarity with each other: instants of shared experience when strangers feel as one.

Travelling north through Northern Ireland early on Saturday evening, the commentary of the final Six Nations rugby match on the radio, I felt the excitement peaking in the commentators' voices; the imagined struggles on the pitch contrasting with the steady pace of travel. TV screens were glowing in the darkening living rooms of houses that I passed. The match entered its dying moments: a margin of two points; a title in the balance. Seconds left: an injury time of years of rivalry. England supporters caught in the unusual tension of willing France to win - Ireland supporters barely able to breathe. Almost at my destination, slowing in traffic on the outskirts of a northern town, wondering if everyone else on this ring road was listening too, I caught sight of a flat-screen TV in a nearby house, with three men standing in front of it - sofa abandoned, fourth wall forgotten - waving their arms, jumping, shouting.

And suddenly it was that universal moment when everyone's together and apart. On a darkening spring evening, I was deep in Joyce's snowfall in The Dead - the landscape of the Christmas Guinness ad, when 'snow is general all over Ireland'. Green was general, this time, with the prescribed debaucheries of St Patrick's day beginning early and ending much too late. But that moment: that instant of held breath, that invisible static between cars and nearby houses, that certainty that your neighbours, your colleagues and most of the social media world were watching too - that was every bit as magical as the last gasp win.

I'm not good at games. In my first week at grammar school, the PE teacher laughed at my attempts to hold a hockey stick. In athletics season, she sighed as I tripped over my own feet or fell over a hurdle, yet again. I think it was a relief that I showed no interest in disadvantaging school teams by trying to join. And yet there's been excitement, with my old school's rugby team winning through to the final of the Danske Bank Schools' Cup for the first time in its history. Aged 18, I'd have been too cynical to care, with mutterings of how the First XV thought they were the über-race and I wasn't going to encourage them. A lifetime later, with the soft-focus filter of nostalgia, the thought of an underdog victory makes me smile. I might even try to find my old school scarf, to support in spirit, even though I don't really understand the game...

These things unite us, I suppose. In an age of economic crisis, of anxiety of attack and status insecurity, we grasp at the straws of shared experience. A consciousness of common ground - even if that's ground which has to be tended and kept neat. A celebration of a sporting victory many miles away, buoyed up on the adrenaline of last gasp terror of defeat. Even if you're not good at games, and never knew the rules, you can still grasp that unison of held breath - tension - celebration.

It's as perceptible as the growling of a distant lawnmower, or the earliest dawn choruses of spring.