Insular

Thinking, as I do, about why I like Christmas, I tend to come up with the same answers that most people do. You know the ones, I won’t harp on about them.

Perhaps one reason that I like Christmas is a little out of the ordinary, I’m not sure. It’s best described in the title of the post. ‘Insular’.

Christmas insulates me from the real world for a short time and I love it for that reason. The type of work I do just… stops until the New Year and my world closes in upon itself to become almost entirely about family and rest and bad TV and good books.

Through the year, the world and I are in pretty close contact pretty much all of the time. The insulating quality of this mid-winter holiday is a welcome break from all of that. Apart from some family and friend gatherings in the early moments of the holiday, it’s a quiet reclusive time and it’s enormous good fun.

One of my favourite memories of this type of Christmas insulation is quite a recent one – I would guess seven or eight years ago. The boys had got a Nintendo Gamecube for Christmas and it was a big hit. I was unimpressed with the games Santa had brought so I did some research and went out and bought 'Legend of Zelda, The Wind Waker' – for the boys, of course. Then I sat up all night playing it.

And this is my memory Р3.30am, fire dying in the grate, lights low, couch pulled up close to the television, large box of Roses to hand, playing the game. My wife and boys tucked up safe and warm in bed and my only two concerns in the world a) How to swing that little adventurer boy across the hold of the pirate ship and b) whether to have an orange or a strawberry cr̬me next.

It probably reveals more about me than I normally do in writing but the insular moment I experienced that night remains very special to me.

It may seem odd or even a bit psychopathic to cite a memory such as this as a favourite. Where are the family moments, the revelry, the companionship? I have those too. But this one has a special place.

Happy Christmas to you all.

I wish you an insular moment to treasure.


Meh Against the Machine... or Not

I was reading my friend Fiendish Thingie’s post about the current battle to be the Christmas Number 1 and it got me thinking. You should go and read her post, it’s good.

The story – as concisely as I can do it – is this. Every year, for quite a few years now, the Christmas Number One in Britain ends up being the single released by the new winner of The X-Factor (which is a TV talent show). It’s something of a forgone conclusion. This year, a campaign has sprung up to elevate an alternative song to Number One and, so far, the battle for Rage Against The Machine’s ‘Killing In The Name’ has shown astonishing momentum.

My reaction to all of this is summarised in the title of this post:

Meh.

I don’t care at all really.

But then, as I was walking home today, I thought about it all a bit longer and a bit harder. And maybe I do care, a bit more than I initially thought anyway.

I have no love for either song, no particular animosity either, just that aforementioned meh. But the battle is doing something which is perhaps beyond the Christmas No. 1 and maybe something that’s good.

I’ve watched The X Factor quite a bit and the overwhelming impression I get from it, - from the way it is presented and produced - is this: Four people are elevated to the status of Kings and Queens, Princes and Princesses, Lords and Ladies – and the common people of the country are brought before them to entertain them and we - the rest of the minions - are allowed to watch.

If these common entertainers please these judges/royalty, they may be beamed upon with super-white teeth and whisked away to foreign climes temporarily, to see the more public rooms of the palaces where these God-like people reside. The ultimate prize is that elusive possibility of being elevated up to those heady heights forever.

You get the idea.

What I like about the current goings-on is that it at least manages to brush the certainty and security of these people on-high. These people who were certain that their 'chosen one' would be lauded by the people simply because they said it should be so.

In a year when the comfort and security of practically every ordinary person has been rocked in one way or another, it is perhaps fitting that these ivory-tower people should get at least the tiniest taste of the unexpected too. Life doesn’t always turn out as you might want it to and this holds true for all of us, be it prince, pauper or X-Factor judge.

And maybe there’s a message for our politicians and leaders too. If the people have finally become disaffected with being told what their favourite song must be and if they have actually acted and changed that for themselves then they can go and do it for other things too. The people still have some power. Think carefully about that. Carefully.

I think maybe I thought about it all too much on my walk home today.

I tend to do that.

Eavesdropping on the Movies

When I started off writing stuff for radio, I seemed to fall into the groove of it fairly easily. I think the reason for that is on account of the love I had for radio from a ridiculously early age.

The place where I lived, in north west Ireland, was well placed to pick up the BBC Radio stations and it was these that I listened to the most. Every week, in our house, we got the 'Radio Times' and the 'TV Times' and, while the rest of the family were thumbing to see what Ken Godwin was up to, I was sneaking off to the back pages of the Radio Times to read about what the coming week’s radio had to offer me.

Nobody else was interested in foreign BBC radio channels, the domestic services were all they needed so this remained all my territory, my secret place.

I listened on a cool transistor radio which had three bands, MW, LW and FM (VHF). It had an aerial which extended very long and this picked up those somewhat distant voices with impressive ease.

I used to listen to the dramas on Radio 4. One Sunday afternoon, as a child, I listened to the entire production of ‘Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf’ mostly because the wonderful lilustration in the Radio Times showed two old wolves dressed up in old people’s clothes. I expected the wolves to appear in the play somewhere and, although they never did, I was still very taken with what I heard.

It’s funny that I remember practically nothing about the most memorable play I heard. It was one Saturday night, underneath the bedclothes. It was set in Wales, I know that, and it was about two young boys – I think one was called Dai (I realise this is not a stretch) - but, critically, he died and his friends would go and visit him in the cemetery. The images all this evoked in my room were alive and tangible to me. Although I don’t remember the play very well, the effect it had will never ever leave. It was, and sorry for the cliché, the power of radio in action.

As I turned teen, I moved up the channel a bit to Radio Luxembourg and such. The music and the naughty condom ads were too much to resist. Then my usage tapered off, as other matters arose.

In early secondary school, all the peer pressure seemed to revolve around how much adult TV viewing you could get away with over your weekends. You earned your spurs in this regard by being able to speak knowledgeably about whatever film or series was on. If you had been allowed to see it, you were a winner. Needless to say, my thoughtful and kind parents were very careful about what I was allowed to watch so I fared very poorly in these televisual tests of manhood.

This all came to a head one Friday night when RTE Television was showing the TV premiere of ‘Coogan’s Bluff’ starring Clint Eastwood. Mark Askey, who got to see absolutely everything on telly, warned us that this was the true proof of a man – whether he could get to see ‘Coogan’s Bluff’ or not. I was surely lost… until I had the most wonderful idea.

On that radio I used to listen to so much, my domain had been largely the MW and LW bands but there was a wonderful idiosyncrasy about the FM/VHF band. Before Irish television caught up with the world and moved to UHF (ultra high frequency) it used to broadcast on VHF (very high frequency) and this was the very self-same VHF that was on my old radio.

In the simplest terms, I remembered that I could hear the TV on my radio.

I tried to stay up for Coogan’s Bluff. I made myself as small as possible in the corner and I uttered not a peep but the programme announcer alerted my parent to the sex and violence aspects of the feature and I was summarily dispatched.

I tuned the movie in as I climbed into bed, pulled up the blanket over my head, and listened to the whole thing. It was very entertaining and, on Monday morning, even Mark Askey was astonished that I could describe the film in such graphic detail. My standing went up, I moved slowly towards manhood within the group.

Thus began quite a long run of listening to unsuitable movies on the radio. The disembodied voice still holds a strong sway over my thoughts and deeds.

I feel a huge bond with radio. I only wish I could describe it to you better.