- What languages do you speak?
Well, English, obviously; also French, Dutch and German to a reasonable but not-quite-professional level of fluency. Rather to my surprise I was able to carry on a brief conversation in Italian earlier today with a little old Montenegrin man who was telling me about his local church. I can manage tourist-level Serbo-Croat, and a rather lower level – not utter incomprehension, but a very long way away from being fluent – in Macedonian, Bulgarian and Russian. I shall find out how good my Ukrainian is tomorrow.
- What book are you reading at the moment?
Olympos, by Dan Simmons, his sequel to Ilium. Finding it slightly tough going to be honest.
- If you could go on holiday anywhere in the world RIGHT NOW, where would you go?
As I type, I am sitting in a hotel in Vienna, after three days in Montenegro and with the looming prospect of a weekend in Kiev. So exotic travel is not awfully high on my personal list of priorities right now, and “holiday” means “time off work. So my answer is that I would happily spend a week or so vegetating in the ancestral home in Loughbrickland, County Down.
- What is your favourite smell?
I do like herbs and food flavours of all kinds – garlic, curry, cardamom, coriander, tarragon, sage, dill, oregano, rosemary, thyme. My unexciting favourite is probably good old mint. I used to fantasise about having a pocket universe with only one planet in it, covered with mint plants, where I could sneak away to, alone or accompanied as necessary, when I needed a break.
- What was your favourite subject in school?
It will come as little surprise that I was one of those annoying gits who enjoyed everything provided that the teacher was up to it. (I never quite got the hang of what we were supposed to do in art classes.) There were only two of us doing Latin O-level in my year (the school has stopped teaching it now altogether) so that was a bit quirky and more fun. Of my four A-level subjects, maths was probably the most intellectually satisfying, and German the most stimulating. But I find it a surprisingly difficult choice.
- What was the best thing about growing up in Northern Ireland?
Crumbs, not so easy to answer; I only grew up once, so it’s difficult to tell what particularly made a difference. I’m very grateful for my family, my education, and the political experience I gained a little later on. But the most Northern Ireland bit of that was the politics which I really only got into when I was in my mid-20s. So I guess I just Don’t Know.
- If you could travel in time, would you go forwards or back? Why?
Back, I think. I am much more interested in finding out more about what already happened than running the risk of being disappointed by the future.
- Is there a piece of poetry that has had a lasting influence on you?
Probably Robert Frost’s “The Road Not Taken“, about the choices we make in life.
- What’s your favourite guilty pleasure song?
I have a number, including pretty much anything by Madonna, Kylie or Britney. But the ones that always get me are the classic Meat Loaf numbers, such as Paradise by the Dashboard Light.
- Have you ever considered a permanent move to a former-USSR state?
I’ve only been to three former Soviet republics, Estonia, Moldova and Russia itself, though this time tomorrow I shall be in Ukraine all being well. I did live for two years in the former Yugoslavia and at one point was seriously considering making that a permanent move. But with our family situation I think moving to the ex-USSR is a bit unlikely in the near future. If someone offers me an ambassador-type position in fifteen years or so, that would be a different matter.