A Couple of Books at Bedtime

Another slightly odd thing I do is that I like to read more than one book at a time.
Generally there is a ‘Day Book’ and a ‘Night Book’. The ‘Day Book’ gets toted around and read at random opportune moments – so it can take a while to get through - whereas the ‘Night Book’, which is generally the book that gets read faster, is reserved for bedtime. Sometimes the ‘Night Book’ becomes so insistent that it has to get read during the day time too.

You know how it is… or maybe you don’t.

It’s a rare enough event that both books strike a strong chord at the same time. Finding two books that entertain/touch/amaze is rare enough without finding two together. So when this happened to me quite recently, I resolved that I would at least mention those two books to you. I’m not asking that you all run out and read them or anything dramatic like that. Perhaps if you see one of them on a dusty second-hand bookshelf some slow day, you might half-remember that somebody once told you they liked it.

That will be quite enough for me.

At the time of this configuration of the literary planets, my ‘Night Time Book’ was ‘The Secret Scripture’ by Sebastian Barry.

The book itself hasn’t exactly been a secret, nominated as it was for the 2008 Man Booker Prize and arriving on my shelf laden with kudos and praise. That sort of thing tends to put me off a book, contrary bastard that I am. So much so that I might never have read the damn thing if it hadn’t been for the fact that the story is set largely in my home town of Sligo and many of the locations and institutions portrayed within are quite well known to me.

The premise isn’t exactly ‘high octane’ either: An old lady, well on her way to her 100th Birthday, keeps a secret written account of the circumstances which led her to spend much of her life within a mental institution or 'lunatic asylum', as the maps in these parts still charmingly call them. We flash back to her story as her doctor, himself facing great mental turmoil, tries to fathom something of her secret story.

Enough of that book review shizz – I found it to be a most engaging, human and literate read which also succeeded in drawing me into the story to such a point that the book ended up being something which I hastened to return to.

One major gripe – and I had this with 'The Kite Runner' too – after several hundred pages of care and integrity, the author chooses to go all ‘Hollywood’ right at the end by tossing in a twist which would make ‘The Crying Game’ penis hang its head in shame. I’ll say no more – ‘probably said too much already – but I would like you to be warned about that, just in case you set off on this journey on my word alone.

The ‘Day Book’, oh God, the ‘Day Book’ I will have to recommend more wholeheartedly to any of you between eight and eighty. It is ‘Millions’ by Frank Cottrell Boyce. I bought this for my eldest son and he loved it and then everybody else read it – and loved it - and then I finally read it and I loved it too.

It’s a charming story of two boys who live with their Dad after their Mum has died. One day they come upon a large sack of money which has fallen from a passing train. Interestingly the money is in Pounds Sterling and the story is set at a fictional moment in time when that currency is about to change to Euro, leaving the lads only a few days to spend it all.

The central character, Damian, is an absolute expert on Saints. So much so that they infrequently visit him and give him advice on his predicament. It is this kind of off-the-wall characterisation that pushes the book firmly towards genius.

Frank Cottrell Boyce, for me, reads like Nick Hornby at his early best. He constantly inserts basic and telling truisms in his writing, his characters are quirky and real and he explores the subtler implications of the money-situation with an insight of a man who may well have lived the event himself.

If this all sounds familiar, it was made into a little-seen film by director Danny Boyle (he of most-recent Slumdog Millionaire fame) from a screenplay which was written by the author. Interestingly, the book was written after the screenplay and the writer discusses (in the back of the book) how being on set with the film sparked some of the quirkier moments of the book. The only other substantial book which I can think of which developed in this way was Ian Fleming’s ‘Thunderball’. Anyone else know of one?

But, rest assured, this is no cheesy movie-tie-in attempt. It’s a great book and, if you do get to read it, I’d love to hear what you thought of it.

No rush, I’ll be here… somewhere.

PIN In The Ass

Are other countries the same as us on this?
Here in Ireland, we don’t sign our names anymore when we pay for stuff on debit or credit cards. Instead, the card goes in a little gizmo and you type in your PIN or personal identification number to validate yourself, so to speak.

This is a bit of a shame because I used to like signing my name. It was always a bit of a conversation starter because - and you’ll probably not be surprised by this – I have rather an odd-looking signature which gets delivered at speed and with added oddity for having been carried out left-handed and with an awkward pen holding technique.

People would often have something to say. Things like, “Jesus, nobody’ll ever forge that!” or “How can that be ‘Armstrong’?” I used to have a job for a while which involved lots of signing of stuff so I think that the idiosyncrasies developed from there.

But now we just enter a four digit number. And it’s so damnably hard to be quirky and conversation-inducing with just a four digit number. In fact it’s nigh on impossible.

It’s also a bit of a security nightmare. It’s hard to hide your four digit number from the dude behind you in the queue without managing to look like a complete and utter tool. When the number-thing first came in, we were all at great pains to wrap our arms around the gizmo, looking like the swot in the spelling test. But now, apathy has set in and most of us just punch in our numbers with gay abandon. Who’s gonna rob us anyway, eh?

I sometimes memorise the PIN number of the person in the queue in front of me just in case times get too much harder, I could always steal their card and - joking, I’m joking.

But here’s my main gripe with the new(ish) PIN system of card verification. There is one shot – one brief window of opportunity to be erudite, wind-swept and interesting as you enter your number and that has a lot to do it with amazing promptness and expediency – that’s like ‘quickly’ missus.

So, when the card is in the gizmo, there comes a moment when the gizmo-display prompts ‘PLEASE ENTER YOUR PIN NOW.’ The only possible way to impress would be to enter your pin before the check-out person has to tell you to do it.

Hear me now on this; This Cannot Be Done.

No matter how hard I try to enter my number in the moment the machine tells me to, the check-out person always manages to tell me to do it even before I can get started on it. Every check out person in the world is adept at beating me to the punch on this. I don’t mind admitting that it is becoming a ‘thing’ for me and I may kill someone before I am done trying to succeed at it.

It’s very much like Kenny Williams in ‘Carry On Cleo’ saying “Friends, Romans…” and then someone always saying, “… Countrymen” before he can finish. I want to just flare my nostrils, Kenny-Fashion and drawl, “ I knowwwwww” at them.

I could be wrong but I think the cashiers have an unfair advantage in the race to the PIN number. I don’t think I ever really stand a chance. I think they are told about the PIN number before the stupid little gizmo-bastard-thing bothers to tell me.

I know. Next time, I’ll start to enter my PIN even before the machine asks me for it. Maybe that’ll work. Maybe I can still be impressive at the checkout one more time…

… maybe the cashier would be so impressed they will ask me for my autograph.

Then we’d really have something to talk about.

The Way We Are Now

I thought I would take the opportunity of my 200th post to do a little housekeeping and thus deal with something that has been nagging me for a while.

Today, at work, I nipped in the bathroom with the camera and took a few quick snaps of myself in the mirror.

So that's me there on the right, as of eleven o'clock this morning.

"Who cares?" You may well say and I suppose the answer is that I do.

I generally hate having my picture taken and go to considerable pains to avoid it. So, since I started blogging, I've been using a few pictures everywhere which were taken some time ago.

I started doing this without thinking too hard about it - the pictures were smiley and accessible and that is how I tend to see myself and thus that was the image I wanted to project.

All good.

But over time a very curious 'Dorian Grey' effect began to take place. In real life, I have been aging, gaining a little weight, going grey, getting wrinkly, but my online presence has remained firmly rooted back in his thirties.

This actually started playing on my mind a bit. I was looking at these online pictures every day whilst also being faced with the true facts of my own, not unusual, deterioration.

When the issue first arose, I saw it as something of a challenge. "I must work," I decided, "and regain the youthful features my lying online portraits are presenting to the world." And, in truth, this didn't work out too badly - I managed to shed quite a few pounds and the scale is still to this day creeping in the right directions. But we can only do so much against the ravages of time, can't we?

So, today, when somebody asked me for a photo, I took the opportunity to take this snap and I resolved to make this the subject of my bi-centennial post in an attempt to burn my virtual portrait-in-the-attic once and for all. I will go now and work through the places where I use my image online and update it and perhaps I will update you on how this little tweak plays out in my own mind in the weeks to come.

Can I just say again that I wasn't using the older pictures for any vain reasons - at least I honestly don't think I was anyway. It seemed to me that those pictures reflected in some way the wry outlook on life I secretly think I have. When somebody somewhere first commented that the face in the picture had a 'cute smile' nobody was more astonished than me - I really am *not* an oil painting in real life.

Now that I've mentioned vanity, and if I'm really trying to be honest here, then perhaps vanity does have some part to play in all this.

Look at today's picture. I could have taken a much worse picture than that. My story is that I wanted to emulate the older photo to see if any vestige of the old wry smile can still be detected. But the fact is that the poor light in that bathroom helps to conceal the deep pock marks left from my war with teen acne, my nose is redder than it appears here and I think I've got my chin lifted up a bit to try and reduce the effect of the few extra pounds.

I'm a little vain after all, I guess, and for no good reason.

But at least I don't look thirty-five anymore and, seeing as how I'll be forty-six next week, that's probably just as well.

Ask Me What is My Favourite Book…

… and I’m most likely to tell you that it is ‘Watership Down.’

Richard Adam’s master work is certainly right up there on top of my list.

But it not the mere reading of the book that has pushed it so high up in my reckoning. There are so many other factors at play: my age, my level of expectation, even the place of reading and the weather.

(Photo CC Dean Ayres)

It’s a complicated thing.

I would probably have been aware of ‘Watership’ Down when it was published in 1974 even though I was only 11 – I was just that kind of child – but it was when I saw a copy on my science teacher’s desk circa 1976 that I became interested in reading it. My science teacher, Tom Rogers, didn’t strike me as the reading type but the book was beside his satchel for a period of weeks and I used to steal glances through it when he wasn’t looking. (I later came upon ‘The World According to Garp’ in the same way but it was a stand-in teacher who was reading that one).

Those rabbits put me off at first. I wanted mystery and murder and laughs and rabbits didn’t hold much promise of any of that. But the book was intriguing, there was crowded typeset and earnest reviews and the cover showing a rabbit head in profile was striking enough that I felt it would look good at my bedside.

So I saved up my money and at the start of my summer holidays I was able to buy it.

The opening lines had me worried. From memory, it was all about fields and flowers and sunsets - such that I began to wonder if I could get a refund for some comics instead. Before long, however, the story kicked in, the characters sprang to life and I became completely and utterly entranced.

I remember us making one of our family excursions to Glencar Lake. Dad fishing out in a boat, Mum making floppy ham sandwiches and me… me buried in my book, impervious to my surroundings.

Except that last bit is not true at all, I may have thought at the time that I was impervious to the breeze in the long grass and the threat of a shower rolling in across the lake, of the bee landing momentarily on the page or the long indifferently-weathered summer weeks stretching out ahead of me.

But I wasn’t. These things slipped in between the pages and the lines and the words and became as much a part of why I love this book as the words themselves.

And who can not love this book, to some extent at least? How can any of the myriad fans of Lord of the Rings not also see the same questing, adventure, mythology, crisis and heroics in this wonderful novel?

It is my belief that many people’s perceptions of this book are adversely coloured by the animated film which was adapted from it. If it were an outright ‘bad’ film, the damage would be limited but it is, in fact, an earnest but ultimately rather boring and ‘average’ sort of a film and that is infinitely worse for the book. People remember the ‘cartoon’ and can’t be bothered to try the book – having seen the film, I can’t blame them for that.

As an adult, I was afraid to return to Watership Down after my childhood reading, for fear that I would be disappointed, but I did brave it again about five years ago when I read it aloud to my then-seven-year-old. I surprised myself (and please don’t tell anyone this) by reading the last line, closing the book, bidding my son good night and then crying just a tiny bit.

I don’t think that piece of silliness was on account of the resolution of the book or the fate of any of the characters therein.

I think perhaps, for a moment, that bee landed on the back cover again and the lake breeze of my teens eased one final time through my hair.

Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind

(Busy week! Here's a little thing I wrote in praise of one of my favorite movies... new post tomorrow.)

Although this movie is included on my mental list of much-liked movies, I had never actually seen it - until today.

I had seen a goodly-section of it, on FilmFour one night, and had liked it a lot. So I taped it on a subsequent evening and put it with the sizable pile of things I have to watch.

So, today, left to my own devices, I knew this was the one I wanted to watch.

As people who know me will know, I can't do a 'Top Ten Movie' thing 'cos there are too many movies and not enough digits. But, man, whatever that Top Ten might be, this film has gone straight into it.

I'm not going to do the 'review' thing on it. I just completely loved it from start to finish.

If you haven't seen it, I strongly recommend you do and if you have well... did you like it like I did or am I just in some silly groove today?

Write Back, guys, let me know.

Lights, Camera…

Down through the years I’ve been lucky enough to have quite a number of my plays produced for Radio and Theatre and that, I can tell, you is an enormously satisfying thing.

But the overriding dream, ever since I was a nipper, has been the Movies.

Oh yes, the Movies.

Failing getting to play James Bond (I know... I know...), my dream has always been to be able to write movies and then get to see them flicker up on the big screen. In pursuit of this dream, I’ve studied the subject quite attentively and written quite a few screenplays to date. But, also to date, that screen has not flickered for me.

Until now, that is.

Because now, I am proud-as-punch to type, my short film script ‘Channel 31’ goes into production in Galway in very early July. I suppose I have been happier about some other things in the past… but not too many.

'Channel 31' will be directed by Dermot Tynan for his own company Claddagh Films. It will star Conor Irwin, Cora Fenton, Pat Collins and Owen Mulhall. I will fill in more details of cast and crew later. Hopefully I’ll be able to do a post from the set and show you some of the stuff that will be going on there.

The film started its life as a radio script in London back in the Eighties. It was then produced by IRDP and directed by Tim Crook and I have always been extremely happy with the resultant radio play. The story is a weird cross between Edgar Allan Poe and Smokey and the Bandit and I cannot wait to see how it all pans out on screen.

So thanks to Dermot and Lara for taking this homeless puppy in (the screenplay, that is, not me) and here’s wishing you a fun and rewarding shoot. I’ll get to do all the things the writer is required to do on set (Milk? Sugar?) and I predict I will be a wide-eyed youth again in the face of all this cinematic excitement.

Dermot and I have worked together on some full length screenplays too – ‘An Autumn Affair’ and ‘Packy’s Cousin’ are two I particularly like – and the treatment we are currently beating each other up over is, literally, a blast.

So maybe there’s more movie-making down the road?

Let’s do this one first… and then see.

The Foible is in Your Court

So, on Twitter today, eBeth asked people about their foibles. There were interesting answers because, you know, Twitter can be an interesting place.

I threw in a few of my own foibles and, as I did so, it struck me that there might be few things more revealing than those quirky dislikes which we save in our night stand drawer. Here’s some of my odd dislikes:

The Dog-From-Behind Thing:
You know when a dog walks past you and you can sense him turning and coming around the back of you? Well I don’t like that. It’s not fear, I’ve never met a dog I’ve been afraid of. It just seems sneaky and disrespectful. I will often reprimand the dog verbally. Yup, it’s a foible all right.

The Car-In-The-Box Thing:
Yellow boxes have been painted on the road for a good reason. We don’t go in them unless we are turning. It’s quite simple and it helps keep traffic rolling along. In my town, every bugger goes in the yellow boxes. In the car park outside my office, there’s only one yellow box and the locals treat it as the best parking spot. If every other parking spot is empty, they will still stop in the yellow box. Someday I will get a gun and start picking off these yellow-box-parkers from my office window – like in that movie ‘Two Minute Warning’. And Charlton Heston has passed on now, so he won’t stop me.

The Car Door Thing:
I am often in a hurry. Sometimes I move so fast that I close the car door before I am fully inside. This hurts.

The Remote Thing:
I can’t sit down and watch the telly without having the remote beside me. How can you expect me to? What if the programme starts to annoy me? What do you mean I can tell you to switch over? That’s not gonna bloody work. Give me the remote! Please, give it to me…

The Tight Sheet Thing:
I can’t be trapped in a bed with the sheets tucked in tightly all round. It’s like being in some awful kind of solitary confinement or something. What if I get one of those involuntary thingies in the night? Arterial damage could be done.

The Un-Reciprocated Greeting Thing:
I’m walking along and some bugger looks at me (that’s allowed… wait, the cat has leave to look at the Queen, as my Mum used to say) they look at me and keep looking so, out of awkwardness, I say hello… and they don’t answer back. I tell you, I bloody hate that. Where’s my gun? What do you mean the car park people took it?

The ‘Garp’ Thing:
I live on a Cul De Sac – a dead end street. Still cars speed up it like nobodies business. Garp used to chase them and warn them to slow down. I do that too. No apologies for this one, it’s my kids we’re talking about here people.

There you have it, a brief selection of (true) foibles. What do they reveal about me, I wonder? Would you care to share some of your own?

That would be nice.