COMING through the ferry terminal at Larne the other day, surveying the unappetising and bland food on display at the buffet, and sipping the almost tasteless coffee dispensed from the machine, I reflected on how public catering so often still lags behind public taste. The improvement in coffee, in home and cafe, has been part of the revolution that has given us foreign travel, eating out, and wine with meals. In my boyhood coffee essence was common. For years after the war the British palate was satisfied by instant. Now tastes are developing, although they still have some way to go.
THE head waiter's beard bristles as he takes our order in a slightly sinister manner. ''Would it be possible,'' I ask politely, ''to turn the heating up a little?'' One of our party has just arrived from Los Angeles and is feeling the cold.
''No,'' he barks. ''It's at maximum power.'' Not for the first time I wonder how on earth people get into jobs for which they are manifestly not suited. An experienced head waiter would deal with the problem more gracefully. He would beam his co-operation, say ''certainly, sir'', twiddle with the control and allow our imaginations to do the rest.
Such subtlety is beyond our friend. Nor can he let matters rest. By now he has the look of a villainous walrus. His small powerful body is hunched in an attitude of pure hatred. ''Too many people,'' he says with a bluntness that could be described as offensive, ''sit on top of their coal fires.''
FOR EVERY pub discussion I've heard about why Guinness tastes better in Ireland I wish I had the proverbial quid. That it does so is a starting point accepted without argument: it is a creamier pint.
The theories are numerous, nowhere more so than in Ireland itself. They say that at St James's in Dublin the brewers have a mystic secret that has eluded their counterparts in Park Royal, London. It's the Liffey water. The Irish version is not pasteurised. The Irish drink so much of it that constant movement out of the keg keeps the stout in tip-top condition. Publicans must look after their stout better because an informed public would accept nothing else.
THIS week Mr Malcolm Rifkind attacked the Constitutional Convention proposals for a Scottish parliament. He chose to do so on political and economic grounds. Yet there is much more to the question than that.
Except among those naive enough to think that England would gladly part with North Sea oil revenues, home-rule sentiment does not arise from the perception that it will make us rich. It arises from deeper cultural feelings of loss and confusion.
Consensus is the key to a successful scheme of devolution
THE Queen is dead, long live the King. As far as the Scots are concerned John Major will promise nothing but a change of style and perhaps the end of the poll tax. Scotland has barely been mentioned in the contest and none of the contenders has been ready to contemplate any change of policy. Mr Major has specifically rejected a parliament with tax-raising powers and all three evidently assumed that Mrs Thatcher's departure and a review of the community charge would have a sufficiently tonic effect on the party's fortunes north of the Border.
THOSE of us who can remember the devolution decade of the seventies, when Scotland came so close to acquiring an Assembly (without tax-raising powers), will have allowed themselves a small smile on hearing the news, this week, that there is to be a measure of academic devolution in Scotland. Our universities are to be withdrawn from the funding mechanisms controlled by the Department of Education and Science in London and are to come under the control of a new body answerable to the Scottish Office.