Happy New Microcosm

I have this theory that the week which runs between Christmas and New Year’s Day of a sort of a microcosm of the year we are departing and, perhaps, of our lives.

(Oh Jesus, here we go…)

No, no, bear with me.  I’ll be done with this in a minute and then I’ll tell you about some stuff I liked in 2011.

It’s natural that we would arrive at the end of another year all-introspective and perhaps a little maudlin.  No matter what other circumstances pertained, we would probably still do this.  Although it’s really just another day, we have learned to measure out our lives in bite sized portions and to place markers of its demise repeatedly along our way.

So, yeah, we’re always going to feel we’re at the end of one thing and the start of another on this day of all days, on New Year’s Eve.

But that Christmas Week we’ve just completed, it sets us up for it, I think.

It’s like our year, it’s like our life.

It’s full of promise, at first.  It starts out with music and lights and companionship and excitement and… well, you know how it starts.  Then the promise doesn’t quite deliver – it’s good but it’s not as good as it’s built up to be – then it slides into the doldrums  Then it dies. 

And it all happens in a week.

Therein lies the rub.

You see, at first, Christmas week stretches ahead of us like a promise of peace and leisure which may never end.  And then it all goes so quickly… so very quickly.

As a year goes quickly…

As a life goes quickly.

So, it’s hardly a wonder that we might ponder our future, our past, our very existence on this day of all days.  After all, we have just watched our lives play out in miniature, right before our pudding-stained eyes.

So, yeah, here comes 2012.  It will probably be quick and edgy just like all the others were.  Live it and love it the very best you can.

Now, that's quite enough of that.

                     *                 *                *                  *

I liked some books and films and stuff which I came upon this year.  Mostly, though, they wouldn’t be from this year.  I am usually several steps behind the Zeitgeist and I like it that way.  Besides, new stuff is so damned expensive.

Books: Castlebar Book Club showed me some of my favourite books of this year, they included:

The Sisters Brothers by Patrick DeWitt
Crooked Letter, Crooked Letter by Tom Franklin
Tony & Susan by Austin Wright

Film:  The film which stood apart for me this year is, again, not of this year:  The Secret in Their Eyes.  I also greatly enjoyed ‘Super 8’ with my family and 'True Grit', which has stayed with me in a rather surprising way.  There is lots from 2011 that I haven’t seen yet – I’m a DVD man, mostly.  I am most looking forward to ‘Tinker Tailor…’.

Theatre:  Danny Boyle’s ‘Frankenstein’, beamed to my cinema on St Patrick’s Day, was a high point in many respects.  Bruiser’s Othello, in the Linenhall, was also brilliant.

I don’t expect that my liking something will encourage you to try it but, if you see something here and then see other people liking it too, perhaps the collective liking will bring you to it.  That’s my hope anyway.

Thanks for stopping by, this year. I have no idea what kind of posts next year will bring but then I never do.   To quote Indiana Jones, “I’m making this up as I go.”


Happy New Year.

x

As Close to a Prayer

I lost the knack of praying a long time ago. Nowadays a heartfelt wish is about as good as I can do. 

So here’s one.

But first, a little context.

My son had one of his return visits to his Orthodontist earlier this week. He’s been having some pretty serious realignment done for just over a year now. The dentist-guy, who wears cool protective glasses, pronounced my son’s progress as being remarkable and announced that some of the more obtrusive blocks can be removed early next year.

My reaction to this news surprised me a little. It is no exaggeration to say that I was, quite literally, overjoyed.  It was a definite over-reaction and much more of a one than my son had. He reckoned it was ‘pretty cool’ and he moved on with other stuff just like he always does.

I know why I reacted as I did. It’s mostly because of how lucky we’ve been. So very lucky. I’m not superstitious at all but still I touch wood as I write that last sentence, you have to cover your ass in any way possible.

We have two great boys and neither of them (touch that wood again) have known serious sickness or hurt or pain in their lives.  We’ve been so lucky.  I’d go for ‘blessed’ but I lost the knack of ‘blessed’ a long time ago too.

So I’ll never forget the awful day that I first brought my son to get his orthodontic stuff fitted. I wasn’t really warned, or prepared, so I sat in the waiting room and waited for him to come out. It took a long time.

The moment when he came out was, without question, one of the worst of my life. His mouth seemed to be packed tight with ‘stuff’, metal and plastic 'stuff' and his jaw hung open awkwardly and, truth be told, rather grotesquely. But it was his eyes…  his eyes looked at me and said to me, ‘Is this real?’ ‘Do I really have to do this?’ ‘Can’t you make this better for me?’

I ran into the surgery. The guy looked surprised behind his cool glasses but not too much. 

“This can’t be right,” I said, “Look at him, his mouth is hanging open.”

“He’ll get used to it,” the guy smiled, “don’t worry.”

And he did. Stoic little John. Within a single day he had taken it all on board, dealt with it effortlessly, and his being-okay-with-it made it okay for me too.

Many of you may laugh at this story of mine. Stupid, lucky, blessed, Ken, who thinks an hour at an orthodontic appointment is to watch your child suffer. I don’t blame you, not at all.

But it’s not that.

My tiny experience gave me my only taste of what it must be like to have a son or a daughter who is unwell.  It was like that thing the old priests used to do – run your finger across a candle flame to get a gauge of the thousand-fold agony of their ‘hell’.

Those feelings I had that day.   The dread, the helplessness, the genuine wish that there was some orthodontic brace that I could wear for him that would straighten his teeth.  Some bloody way that I could just take this bullet for him.  Those feelings gave me a minuscule taste of what life might be like with a sick child.

So today, as the first of the orthodontic blocks get ready to come out. My thoughts are with you, you parents whose children are unwell. I won’t throw the cliché at you and say that I don’t know how you do it.  I reckon that you don’t either.  We simply have to drink from the cup we are given, don’t we? But my heart goes out to you, it really does.

And I wish you things.

I wish you well. I wish that the coming year sees your kid get better and better every day and, if that simply cannot be, I wish you the strength and reserves to cope and to support your stoic child.

And that’s about as close to a prayer as I can ever get for you.

I really mean it though.

Perhaps that counts for something, somewhere.




Like Poe

I feel like I am inside a story by Edgar Allan Poe.

There are two reasons for this and I’ll tell you about the second one shortly.  The first reason, obviously, is because I killed the Old Man.

Don’t get me wrong, I didn’t cut him up and hide him under the floorboards. Nothing so melodramatic. I smothered him with his greasy old pillow.  I smothered him until he was dead and I’m glad I did it.

He had me demented.  Literally, I think, because I wouldn’t normally have smothered anybody.  Well, I never did before and I don’t feel inclined to ever do so again. I think ‘Demented’ is fair enough.

It wasn't easy, either, the smothering of him.  I thought it would be easier.  He seemed weak and useless until I pressed the pillow to his gob but he livened up fairly sharpish then, I can tell you.  He bucked and kicked like a young horse in a field and he seemed to do it for the longest time.  One song on the bedside clock radio played right-the-way through and the next one had started before he finally settled himself down and died.  ‘Careless Whisper’ I think the second one was, although I was quite distracted.

He didn’t look quite-right then, after I had taken the pillow away from his face.  He looked shocked and anguished and I thought the Doctor might be suspicious of that.  So I tried to rearrange his face a bit.  That was horrible, the grizzled scratchy bristles on him and the saliva… ach!  It was all for naught anyway.  No matter what I tried, he seemed intent on holding on to the stupid expression he died with. 

I had one good idea before I gave up.  I pulled his false teeth out and plonked them in the water glass by the clock/radio.  He didn’t look any better because of that but I think he did look a lot older and more likely to be dead.

The Doctor didn’t say much.  I told him how his breathing had become laboured and how I tried to rub menthol on his chest but it had been no use.  He looked at me intently for a moment when his examination of the corpse was over.

“Did you help him along the road, Molly?” he asked me.  The cheek of him.

“I’m sure I don’t know what you’re talking about,” I said and the haughtiness in my voice was as real as you could like.

We left it at that then.

Oh, I was sorry I had to kill him.  He was my Father, after all and he had been good enough to Mam and me in his day.  And I didn’t begrudge minding him when he got sick but seven years was enough.  He should have been thinking about dying by himself after seven years.  I had some living to be getting along with and – I know it sounds awful – but seven years into his sickness, he just seemed to have started to get in the way of all that.

It was just me and him in the house.  The Brother had gone to Manchester for work years ago and only rang when it suited him.  So it was Daddo and me, together into the long Winter nights.  I used to read him stories.  He liked the Poes, ‘House of Usher’ and such.  Maybe that’s where I got the idea for what I did.  Maybe not.

The last year was the worse, mostly on account of that phone.  The Brother came home in the Spring and bought the Auld Fella a mobile phone, of all things, so that he could ring him whenever he wanted.  A mobile phone!  I thought he’d never get the hang of something like that, stuck in the bed as he was, but I was wrong.  He took to it like a duck to water.

The worst was that he discovered texting.  Don’t ask me how.  He must have saw something about it on the telly, that’s the only possible explanation.  Anyway, he started texting me whenever he wanted anything.  I mean, it wasn’t like I was in Timbuktu or something, I was usually only in the kitchen or, God Forgive, the toilet.

“I’m hungry.”

“I need the commode.”

“Where are you?”


He needed a text reply too.  It wasn’t enough for him that you went and seen to whatever he needed, oh no, he needed to know you were on your way – even if you were only in the next room.  He liked getting texts, I suppose, and I was the only one left that he knew.

It became unending and very very annoying to a poor girl who was only trying to do her best.

So I murdered him.

I believe that phone and its unending texts was at least half the reason I killed him with that pillow.  So thank your son for that, you old goat, him and his free phone.

He was buried two week's ago, in the little family graveyard up behind the back garden of the house.  They’re all buried up there; Mam, Gertie, Jacob, Billy, Martin and Sean.  No, I didn’t kill any of them, just my Dad.

So, yes, I feel like I’m in a story by Edgar Allan Poe, as I was saying at the start.  The killing of him is one obvious-enough reason.  The second reason is a little odder…

I’ve started doing ‘Automatic Writing’, you see…

Poe might not have wrote about it much but he used to do it, I think, and there was another story that Dad used to like me to read, ‘The Beast with Five Fingers’ by W. F. Harvey.  There was plenty of automatic writing in that one. 

You know what it is.  It’s where you pick up a pen and your hand starts writing stuff without you knowing anything about it.  So, yes, I’ve started doing that…

Only not with a pen.

I've started doing it with my phone.

You think I’m mad now but I’m not.  There’s a lock on my phone that I put on before I put it on my pocket and that stops my hip from hitting buttons and ringing up numbers it has no business ringing.  We’ve all had calls like that, where all you can hear is someone puffing and panting along the road and you know it’s their keys or their wallet that’s called you rather than them.

Well the lock on my phone must have broke.  It doesn’t ring people up though.  That would be too normal for the likes of me.  No…

It writes texts.

I know, I know, but it does.  It doesn’t send them to anyone, it just writes them.  It’s not strange or anything, it’s just the jiggling about that my phone gets in my pocket as I go about my chores. 

The first text was unremarkable enough. It read;

“Tikiddjtttjjiilll”

I cursed when I saw it and resolved to leave the phone into the shop to get the lock on it fixed or replaced or something.  Of course, I forgot.  The next text my phone wrote was much the same and the next and the next until I got used to seeing silly messages on my phone whenever I took it out of my pocket.

The message I saw on Tuesday of this week stopped me in my tracks.

“for you.”

It said. 

That was all.

“for you.”

I deleted it and moved on but it was oddly unsettling.  I couldn’t say why, not then.  I can now, of course.

The next message came soon after, on Wednesday morning.

“oming for you.”

I stared at that for a long time.  I eventually decided that the phone had also managed to switch on that predictive text setting that makes up real words for you.  That was the explanation.  I still stared though.

When the text beeped on Thursday, I looked at it with a little fear in the back of my mind.

“am coming for you.”

That settled it.  I had to admit it.  My subconscious guilt was writing macabre texts to me.  I had to get rid of the phone, that was the only way.

So I did. 

Until this evening.

Until a few moments ago.

I heard it beep, you see, in the spare room where I threw it.  I heard a message come in and it couldn’t be one I subconsciously wrote because the phone was locked away from me.

I creeped into the spare room, lifted the phone and read

“I am coming for you.”

I dropped it like it was molten lead.

It was him.  He was texting me from his phone down in his grave up the back field and he was coming from me.  He was_

Wait.

I rushed into his room.  It smelled of him still.  There it was, on his bedside table, his phone.  I picked it up and examined it.  No messages had been sent.  It was dormant, like himself.

So here I am now, sitting in my kitchen, Midnight Saturday night.  There hasn’t been any more messages since.  The phone is on the table in front of me, with the Whiskey.  He is two weeks buried tonight – a sort of anniversary.

The phone rings and I jump and spill my drink.  It’s not a text, it’s a phone call.  I guess that’s all right.

“Hello?”

“Molly?”

“Yes.  Who’s that?”

“Sergeant Mulcahy, at the Station, sorry to bother you so late.”

“What is it?  Who’s dead?”

“No, nobody’s dead… well…”

“Spit it out.”

“There’s been a… a…”

“A what for Christ’s sake!”

“A desecration.  I’m sorry.”

“What are you saying?”

“It’s your Father’s Grave. We got a call. It’s been disinterred… dug up_”

I cut him off and rush to the window.  The moon is in its first quarter and casts a faint misty pall on the frosty night.  The gate leading into the graveyard is closed tight, as it always is.

The text beeps.  I don’t want to see it but I have to look.

“I am coming for you.”

It beeps again.

“I AM Coming For You.”

And again.

“I AM COMING FOR YOU.”

I look out the window again.  The back gate, leading from the graveyard, is swinging open and askew on its ancient hinges and there is a trail in the frosty path – a damp track down the cobbled way.

The phone sounds a text.

And again.

And again.

I don’t look at them.  I don’t need to.  I know what they say.

There is a knocking at the back door.  More of a scratching really.  Yes, that’s it, a scratching.

I suppose I’d better answer it.


 
(c) Ken Armstrong 2011

If You Ever Walk Alone…

This post seems to be part of a loose theme which has recurred in my posts over the last month or so.  Please forgive me, I think today’s grumpy observations will put the matter to bed once and for all.

The theme might best be described as ‘Meeting People in Public’.  I’ve touched on ‘Supermarket Meetings’ and ‘Walking Alongside People in the Street’, now it’s time for ‘Greeting People in the Street’.  Don’t worry, it won’t take long (one of my best lines).

I’ve touched on this before.  I am a 'Serial-Say-Hello-er.  I tend to say hello to people in the street as I pass them.  Not everybody, that would be silly, but quite a few, which is still silly.

As with most things I do, this maniacal greeting of street-folk is largely driven by fear.  When I walk, I generally exist in a dream-world somewhere between waking and Narnia.  Often, people will say to me, “You’re off in a wee world of your own there.”  Because of this, I’m always afraid that I will breeze past someone I know without saying hello to them and, worse, probably talking to myself as well.  

Add to this that I only snap out of my reveries when someone is coming really close to me and you;ll appreciate that only I have a very limited time to figure out whether I actually know them or not.

Do I?  Don’t I?  The easiest thing is to just say hello and be on the safe side.  So that’s what I do.

“Hello.”

“Hello.”

“Nice day, hello.”

I’ve grown accustomed to getting a lot of ‘no-replies’… actually, strike that, no I haven’t.  I’m only saying that to try to appear reasonable and, in matters of street-greeting, I am far from reasonable.  'No replies' annoy me but I have grown to be philosophical about them.  There are foreign nationals who I greet who haven’t a clue what I am on about, there are ladies who are terrified of my unsolicited leering cheerfulness and there are a brace of sullen Connaught Men who just think I’m a feckin’ eejit.  These are understandable reactions and I tolerate them albeit somewhat reluctantly.

I reserve some annoyance for those folk who stare at you pointedly as they approach you, as if demanding a greeting then, when you give them one, they ignore you completely.  There is a special circle of hell for those miserable bastards and I will doubtless see them there ,where they will doubtless diss me yet again.

But this is all old-stuff.

There’s a new thing.

Well, I say new, it’s been emerging over the last few years but it’s now got to a stage where a learned paper on the subject (such as this) needs to be published.

What we’re talking about here is what we shall now call the ‘Rudeness in Numbers’ phenomenon.   Here’s how it works:

Every morning, I meet two older men, walking in the opposite direction to me.  They are out taking their constitutional while I am heading to work.  Dressed in track suits and trainers, they cut an inspiring figure in the morning gloom, it’s almost as if they are sent there to assure me that there will be life and leisure and health and activity after retirement, after my work is done.

It’s great to see them.  So, obviously, I say hello.  “Good morning.”  “Nice day.” Etc etc etc…

No reply.

Ever.

Not one syllable.

These people live in my neighborhood.  I know them to see on a day-to-day basis.  And we’re right there, face-to-face on the deserted street… and they can’t manage a single bloody hello between them.

Of course, I gave up eventually.  I’m only human.  After weeks and months of un-reciprocated greetings, I reverted into sullen stony-faced ignoring.  And is it my imagination or do the keep-fit-geriatrics seem even more hostile and walled now that I refuse to greet them?

This is only half the story.

Last week I met one of the pair out walking alone.  Just one.  I approached him without too much concern.  My mind had been made up long ago, these feckers don’t get my greeting whether there’s one or forty-thousand of them.  I’m walking past and I’m not uttering a single bloody_

He stopped me.

He stood in front of me, blocking my way, and he stopped me.

And he chatted… the bugger actually had the gall to chat to me.

And as for me?  I chatted back.  It’s how I roll, I’m a forgiving person.  It’s not a trait I admire in myself, this lack of vengeful grudge-bearing but it’s in my genes or something.

So we chatted.  The weather, where’s your friend (sick), economy, road works and weather again to close.  Then we went on our way.  I felt better, I like to think he felt better too.  The day went well.

You can guess the rest.

The other morning they were reunited again, the walking half-dead.  I gave them my best cheery ‘Good morning’ as they approached me.  I focused on the chatty one.  That made no difference.  They both ignored me, completely.  They didn’t even acknowledge I existed.

If this were an isolated incident, I wouldn’t mind – actually, strike that too, of course I would mind.  But this has happened to me a few times now with different characters involved.  People on their own are friendly and nice, people in pairs are absolute bastards.

I haven’t figured out why this is yet but you can be sure a follow-up post will appear just as soon as I do.

I bet you cannot wait.


Hooked on the Twist

I was trying to think of where I first came across a twist in a movie.  This got me thinking about twists in general so I thought I’d write a few hundred words about them, ‘see where it took me.

Don’t worry.  Any talking about twists I do will be carefully monitored to avoid spoilers.  I don’t believe there is a ‘Statute of Limitations’ on twists as some people seem to do.  
 
Some people seem to think, “That film is over 5/10/20 years old now, I can shout the twist all over the place, who cares?”  Well, the people who haven’t seen the movie yet, they care.  So, if I go on about some film (as I will) and you haven’t seen it, I think you’ll be safe.  Try to see it soon though, you’re on dangerous ground leaving it this long, there’s a lot of feckin' eejits about.

The first time I encountered a twist in a movie, it just blew me away.

It was ‘Sleuth’. The first adaptation of Anthony Shaffer’s stage play starring Laurence Olivier, Michael Caine and Alec Cawthorne.  (I reviewed the second version here). I remember seeing a trailer for it at some kid’s matinee show back in 1972, I remember thinking it looked rubbish and I would never watch that.  Its saving grace was that turned up on TV, a few years later, as the Christmas Night Movie.  In Ireland, back then, the Christmas Night Movie had a seriously captive audience.  There were no other channels to flick to, no other place to be.  The only thing to do was to watch the movie.  I should write a separate blog post about the movies I’ve seen on Christmas Night that I would never otherwise have seen.  There was ‘Gone With the Wind’, ‘Braveheart’ and… what else… oh, yeah, there was ‘Sleuth’.

Famously, ‘Sleuth’ has a twist.

No, I won’t tell you what it is (you probably know already).  All I need to tell you is what it did to me.

Before 'Sleuth' I already knew movies could make you happy or sad, you could laugh or even cry when nobody was looking but I didn’t know they could flip you upside down like on a roller coaster, that your stomach could be felt to plummet three inches lower down into your pants, that your head could reel and your mind, momentarily, fail to grasp the beauty of what had just unfolded before your very eyes.

I saw ‘Sleuth’ and I was hooked.  Hooked on the twist.

And there have been so few, so few really good twists.  I’m pretty good at seeing things coming, at spotting the machinations of a twist-in-the-making, so I’m rarely caught out.  Perhaps that’s why, when I am, I like it so much.

Jump forward to The Sixth Sense.  I saw that one in the cinema when it came out.  Everybody and their Granny was talking about ‘The Twist’.  “It’s an Amazing Twist.”  “You’ll never see this Twist coming.” Etc etc.  I went to see it with the express intent of figuring out the Twist before it got me.  I studied the film intently as it played out.  I even got some kids thrown out of the show for talking too much (that’s another story).  Guess what?  I didn’t figure it out.  I never saw it coming.  My belly did the flip just like in the good old days.  I loved it.

I’ll grant you that The Sixth Sense is a two dimensional construct.  You have to look at it face-on, for the effect to work.  If you go around the side of it, you can see the buttresses and wedges holding it all together.  What on earth do I mean?  Well, for example, the story only works in the scenes we are allowed to see.  What is happening to the character in the moments between those scenes?  Any myriad of events would cause the house of cards to tumble but all of them are avoided until the one arrives which deliberately kicks it all down.  It’s a rather elegant thing, I think.

But the twist of all twists - oh, man, when I think of it – was The Crying Game.  This is the most difficult one to talk about without doing Spoilers so you might want to skip this paragraph (you don’t have to).  I went to see this with Trish in Kensington on the Sunday it came out.  As usual I knew a little bit about it.  I knew it was Neil Jordan, I knew the casting of the film had presented singular difficulties…  Face it, Ken, you knew nothing. 

When it happened… when ‘Thing’ happened, it was like going off the deep end.  I had been misled in the most basic of ways and I loved it.  I turned to Trish and she whispered, “I saw that coming.”  I hadn’t the energy for the obvious reply.

So that’s it.  There were others but I just wanted to mention three.

I really want to go and find ‘Sleuth’ now and show it to my kids.  I want to see if I can make their tummy flip in the way mine did, all those years ago.  Probably not, these are less innocent times.

What great movie twists am I forgetting, I wonder?  Perhaps you might remind me of a few that you have enjoyed?

No spoilers though… 

… okay?

Aisle Be Seeing You

One of the worst things that can happen to me in a supermarket is that I would meet an old friend or acquaintance down along the aisles.

The very worst thing that can happen to me in a supermarket is that I would meet an old friend or acquaintance in the very first aisle.

Don’t think me anti-social (although I am, a bit), I’m as happy to meet old friends and/or acquaintances  as the Next Man.  Hell, I’m as happy to meet the Next Man as the Next Man.  
 
Just not in the supermarket.  Please.

Picture the scene:  You’re wheeling your trolley along Aisle Number One – Fruit and Veg – when you spot somebody who you half-know frowning over the aubergines.  Could it be?  Yes it is.  It’s Martin,  Good old Martin.  You decide you will draw alongside his trolley with your own and surprise him with some carefully selected epigram along the lines of ‘Howiya, Bollix’.   You mentally rub yours hands together in juvenile glee.

Then you remember the last time, and the time before that and, thinking better of the entire proposal, you attempt to slip past Good Old Martin, Ninja-Fashion, without being seen.

“Ken, ya auld bollix!”

Too late, I’ve been spotted.

“Martin, good auld Martin, how the devil are you?”

“Grand, grand… grand…”

“…”

“…”

“So… you’re on the Aubergines then?”

Supermarket conversation may be occasionally passable but it is rarely earth-shatteringly good.

After a subconsciously-specified period of inane chit-chat, it’s time to plug the ipod buds back in and roll on toward the cleaning products aisle.  Persil and Tide wait for no man and all that hahahaha… yes, bye.  Onward hastily through the supermarket, for there are still fourteen more aisles to navigate. 

“And therein lies the rub,” as Hamlet, (our local masseur) used to say.

You know what I’m going to say. 

You know it because you’ve lived it yourself.  Yes, Martin – Good old Martin – will be in every one of those fourteen aisles, waiting for me.  He won’t want to be.  He’s not a stalker or anything.  In fact he will be trying his damnedest to not see me in the shop ever again.  But it can’t be done, we are now destined to meet in every aisle for the rest of the shopping expedition.

The first aisle after we meet will not produce an actual meeting.  We will both see each other and we will both double-back to avoid passing each other again.  That is the fatal flaw – we have both now broken our routine route around the supermarket in order to avoid each other.  Order has been abandoned and the laws of Chaos have now come into play.  The result will be that we will miss key elements from our shopping list and, of course, we will be destined to meet and meet and meet again.

It probably isn’t so bad for you guys, this repeated interpenetration of shopping routes, but I have a condition which exacerbates the problem greatly.  It's simply this; I always have to say ‘Hello’.  Yes, I know, it’s tragic, what can I tell you?  I struggle on, it’s all I can do.  The point being that, every aisle we meet in, I have to say ‘Hello’ again to Good Auld Martin (the Bollix).  You would probably carry it off with a smile or an enigmatic twitch of the right eyebrow.  Not me.  I have to speak, to come up with something different in each aisle.

“How are you now?”
“How’s the Aubergine bearing up?”
“Your hair is nice.”
“Shocking weather.”
“Small world.”
“How are you now? (Damn)”

And on and on.

Martin is one of those people, like you, who doesn’t need to speak at every encounter.  Every time I meet him and greet him with another ineptitude, his face darkens and his general demeanour becomes ever more murderous.  Whatever tenuous friendship Martin and I previously enjoyed, it has seriously withered on the vine by ‘Tea and Coffee’ and has been buried deep in the cold cold ground and stamped-upon by the time we cross paths once more in ‘Household’.

By the time the checkout is achieved, and we line up at our adjacent conveyor belts, we are sworn mortal enemies and we will never actively seek each other out socially ever again.

Plus I forgot to get the Weetabix.

Feigning Shoelace Crises

I have a couple of beliefs that I think may be peculiar to me.  They’re peculiar, obviously, but I also think I might be the only one in the world who has them.

Here’s one such belief:

If you’re walking along the street and you happen to meet up with  somebody you don’t know who is walking in the same direction and at the same pace as you then, if you do nothing about it, there is something really wrong with you.

There’s a lot in there, I know.  Allow me to break it down for you.

You’re walking to work.  It’s early and there’s not too many people around.  Suddenly, from out of a garden gate, a guy appears.  He’s got a laptop case and is wearing one of those Jamiroquai hats (this information is just for added-colour).  He falls into step with you and walks alongside.  His pace is the exact same as yours and you’re both going the same way.  
You're now walking-buddies along the misty early-morning road…

Sod that!  No, I mean it, sod that!  If this guy hasn’t the wit to know he is invading my space then there’s something wrong with him.  He’s not right.

(Let me remind you that this is a belief which is probably unique to me, I don’t expect you to share it.)

Most of you will probably be saying, “where’s the problem?  He’s walking at the same pace as you and he’s going the same way.  What do you want the poor ill-hatted bugger to do?  Do you want him to wait at his garden gate until you are gone a reasonable distance up the road?”

Well, yes, that’s exactly what I expect him to do.  It’s what I would do.  I don’t want to walk along with some person I don’t know, like we’re a dating couple who just shared a bowl of Honey Nut Cornflakes or something. 

As a matter of fact, if it were me at the gate, in the hat (unlikely), not only would I wait for the other person to go ahead, I would invent a reason for my hold up so that he wouldn’t feel too bad.

Most likely, I would feign a shoe lace crisis, get down on one knee and pretend to sort it out.  And, yes, I guess I expect others to do the same or, at least, find their own subtle way to keep out of my space.

It’s just me, I know it is.  You see I don’t really like having social interaction pressed upon me.  This manifests itself in my uneasiness with internet chat – MSN and such-like.  If somebody pops up and starts a chat, I generally wish they hadn’t.  Twitter is different because you can take time and gauge your response.  My ‘gauging’ usually only lasts about three seconds but they’re three seconds I value all the same.

I lived in a big city for many years and I realise that city centre commuters will have very little empathy with this particular belief of mine.  But it’s different there.  The morning and evening commute in the big city is an unavoidable crush of humankind.  All considerations of personal space must, necessarily, defenestrate at that point.  But, even in the big city, this belief applies in the sparsely populated suburban streets of the final leg of the way home.

I’ve studied the people (few, mercifully) who end up walking alongside me on the street and who won’t go away and, yes, I can confirm that there is indeed something wrong with them.  There is a blankness behind the eyes, a dragging of the arms, the beginnings of a string of drool, perhaps, at the corner of the mouth.  They’re never right, these unsolicited co-walkers.

“It’s easy,” you scream in undoubted frustration, “if they impose themselves on you, then do what you would do if it was you doing the imposing.”

“…eh?”

Read it again, it does make sense.  If the other person won't do it then you can do it!  You do the stopping, the shoelace fixing, the urgent texting, the ear scratching, the searching of pockets before finding the missing thing thirty seconds later.  You do it and let the drooly guy walk on.

Well, yes, I do do that, obviously, but it’s not the point is it?  I shouldn’t have to make these concessions to the world.  There should be a little give in the world for me.  Is that so very much to ask?
- Morning.

- Yes, ‘morning to you.

- Lovely day isn’t it?

 -Yes it certainly_ look, oh my, my shoelace appears to be… no, you go on, leave me, ‘save yourself' and all that, yes, hahahahaha… bye, yes, bye…  

(Phew.)

Trying to Figure Out Why I Was So Disappointed by Tintin

I think it’s fair to say that I’m a lover of movies.

I’ve never in my life started watching a film hoping not to like it. 

Often I like films even when everyone else doesn’t.  When films divide audiences right down the middle – half love it, half hate it – films like ‘Sweeney Todd’ or ‘500 Days of Summer’ - you can almost bet that I’ll be over there on the love side, waving my scarf.

So I went to see ‘Tintin’ last week, with my eleven year old son, and we were both expecting to enjoy it lots.  I think he actually did (unless he was just trying to be nice to me) but I didn’t… I didn’t enjoy it at all.  And, in truth, this surprised me a bit.

I knew very little about ‘Tintin’ going in.  I know the character, of course, and I was aware of the support characters from the comic books, but I was never a fan.  I’d leafed through a few of the books from time to time but no more than that.   I think that’s important.  It shows how I wasn’t approaching the new movie adaptation as a devout fan might, who might want to be picking holes, might want to be unhappy.  I just wanted to see a good movie, that’s all.

And, from my point of view at least, I didn’t.  ‘Tintin’ really never got going for me.  I had heard it would deliver thrills, spills and spectacle which could never have been presented without the use of motion-capture technology – I missed that part.  I came out a little more flattened than when I went in whereas, with other big blockbuster entertainment, like the older Indiana Jones ones, for all their technology constraints, I invariably came out buzzed.

The fact is that somewhere, quite early on in the narrative, Tintin lost me and it never got me back.  After that happened the action lost its buzz, the sparkle lost its sparkle and I didn’t care if the ‘mission’ succeeded or failed.  For what it’s worth, I found the nuances of the audience reaction (something I think I am quite sensitive to, as a theatre-writer) were rather dull and flat too.

Although, thinking back on the film now, I remember much to enjoy and to admire.  It was beautifully realised, there was humour and fun in the script and the voice characterisations were top notch.  But here’s an odd thing – I’ve never watched a whole movie, disliked it, and then gone back and changed my mind afterwards.  My first impressions seem to count for quite a lot… with me anyway.

The point of this post is not for me to deride or insult Spielberg’s new film.  I’m honestly a bit troubled.  I'm worried that the movie was actually fine and great and every bit as good as the ones I used to enjoy and that I’ve just got too old and jaded to enjoy this kind of thing anymore.  That’s a sad thought and I don’t want it to be right.

In truth, I don’t think I’m too old to enjoy and old fashioned rip-roaring movie.  I enjoyed ‘Super 8’ immensely and that was only a couple of months ago.

I think the problem is with ‘Heart’.  I think ‘Tintin’ lacks ‘Heart’ and, considering it’s a Spielberg movie, that is rather astonishing.  I know one owes a debt to the source material (and, on that note, did all the noses have to be like that?) but one doesn’t have to be in thrall to it to the detriment of the project.  Perhaps the ‘Tintin’ comicbooks weren't all that big on things like love and friendship, I don't know, but the movie is so devoid of ‘Heart’ that I think, subconsciously, I divorced myself emotionally from it as it progressed.  Tintin, as a character, cares for nothing but the current mission.  There’s ‘Snowy’ but he looks after himself and Tintin seems impervious to any danger the poor pooch might get himself into.  There’s nobody else.  The only woman in the film is the Opera singer… is that right?

Now I don’t need tears and true love and tragedy and little-birds and such.  I just need that drop of blood I was prattling on about here last week.  In all the technological wizardry and faithfulness and spectacle, somebody somewhere forgot to prick their finger and squeeze it into the script.

That’s what I reckon.

But I’m old…

So, which is it?  Was the movie as poor as I found it to be or should I just climb into my box, lie down and pull over the lid?

It’s probably a bit of both.

That’s usually the answer to most of these ‘either/or’ questions.

Or so I’ve found… in my time.

A Little Drop of Blood

I’m not a great one for dishing out writing advice.

There’s no real reason why I should be anyway.  It’s not as if I’ve scaled the dizzying heights of Broadway or Hollywood or been buried in Poet’s Corner or anything.

Still, I’ve been writing and thinking about writing for most of my life so you could be forgiven for thinking I might have something to offer.

Some little thing…

But I don’t, not really.

As far as I’m concerned, this is no bad thing.  I sometimes feel there is quite a bit too much writing advice abroad in the world as it is.  Everybody-and-his-Cousin-who-Once-Wrote-a-Birthday-Card seems happy to dispense their version of the ‘Writing-Meaning-of-Life’ with enough earnestness to fill a small bath.

I treat writing advice in much the same way as I see if pasta is cooked.  I tend to throw writing advice at myself and see if it sticks. If it does, it’s good.  I will pretty-much listen to anyone who has anything to say about writing but, if I find I can’t use what they’re telling me, it will just slide off me and onto the floor.  The few bits of advice that actually stick will be left in place until they are crusty on my T-shirt and utterly irremovable.

But back to little old me, writing and writing.  Surely I must have something to offer, something of my own.

Okay then, I do.

In order to extract this piece of writing advice from my reluctant self, I have had to invent a scenario:

I’m eighty-five years old and I’m dying. Not next week or tomorrow, I’m dying right now.  There I am, fastened into my deathbed by my far-too-tight sheets, which I am too weak to put even a ripple in.  I have just finished doing my own rather croaky version of ‘My Way’ (complete with extra verse about being allergic to cats) and now I am at peace with the world and ready to shuffle off my mortal um_ thingie.  (I’m dying, what do you expect, accurate quotes?)

There is a tiny tap on the door and a girl peers in.  She might be twenty or twenty two.  I’ve never seen her before in my life.  She approaches my death bed quite tentatively.  I might, after all, be contagious.

“Mr Armstrong?”
“Ye_es?”
“I’m sorry to bother you, on your death-bed and all…”
“S’all right.  ‘Judge Judy’ is finished.”
“I just wondered if I could_”
“Speeeeeak, my time is short!”
“Jesus, you scared me.”
“Sorry. What is it that you want?”
“I’ve admired your writing,”
“Have you?”
“Yes.”
“Gosh, where have you been all my life?”
“Oh yes, ‘The J-Seat’ was a fine radio play and ‘The Moon Cut Like a Sickle’ was instrumental in stopping me from my street-racing ways.”
“Nice to hear, ta very much.”
“I just wondered…”
“Anything.  (coughs)  Anything.”
“I wondered if you had just one piece of writing advice to offer an up-and-coming nubile young writer, what would it be?”
“Nah, I got nothing.  Writing advice is like pasta_”
“I know that one, I’ve read your ‘Collected Blog Posts’.
“Have you?”
“Yes.  There must be something else.”
“There isn’t.”
“There must be.”
“Leave me alone, I’m dying here.”
“Please.”
“…”
“Please… (please).”
“All right then.  Give me a sip of that Lucozade.  Thanks.  Listen, if there was one piece of advice I feel I could add to the lexicon of writing advice… it would be this;”

The Little Drop of Blood
Everything you write.  No matter how big or small.  Prick your finger and squeeze a little drop of your own blood into it.

“That’s it?”
“That is, indeed, it.”
“It’s a Metaphor, right?”
“Do with it what you will.”
“…I like how you underlined the title and all.”
“Thanks.”
“Could you, you know, expand on it a little, perhaps?”
“I’m dying here.”
“So, what, there’s someplace else you need to be?”
“… point taken.”

To Expand a Little
For years I wrote like it was a technical exercise.  I plotted stories and created characters and chucked a bit of fancy-pants dialogue in and thought it was fine.  But there was nothing of myself in there and this showed in the hollowness of the end-product.  Somewhere along the line, I seem to have learned that a piece of writing will struggle to be any good unless you insert at least the tiniest piece of your very ‘being’ inside it.  The great trick with doing this is that this ‘drop of blood’ is at its most potent when it can’t be seen by the reader.  It needs to be like some herb or spice going into a stew, totally assimilated, never to be seen again, but still flavouring everything.

“Wow, long speech.”
“Thanks.”
“Could you possibly repeat it one more time so that I can scribble it down for posterity?”
“…”
“Mr Armstrong? Mr Armstrong?
"..."
"Nurse?”




Pedestrian (Not) Crossing

Two minutes is a long time.  Well, in certain situations it is anyway.  Like standing at my local pedestrian crossing light.  Two minutes there is a very long time indeed.

Our main road is a very busy road.  Cars whiz by in either direction in great quantities for eighteen hours of every day such that, if the lights weren’t there, you’d be hard-pressed to ever get across the bloody road at all.

And this light used to be fast.  Okay, I’ll admit it, it used to be  too fast.  The instant you pushed the little stainless steel button, the light would change.  Not a second’s warning.  Cars would grind to a shuddering halt or, as often as not, whiz through helplessly unable to react in time.  It was actually quite satisfying.

But somebody must have complained.




They came and adjusted the timing on the light.  I saw them do it one morning as I nipped briskly across the road.  They bumped it up from zero seconds to 120 seconds…

…and, boy, do I feel the difference.

Two minutes is a long time.  You probably don’t think so, I wouldn’t blame you either.  But try standing and doing absolutely nothing at all for two minutes.  Try it in a cold place - no, try it in the rain.

I try to walk whenever I can.  Walking suits me and I like it a lot.  This does mean, however, that I can be faced with this pedestrian crossing for, on average, eight minutes every day.  I stand there and I watch all the cars sailing past and I stand and I stand and I stand…

And, well, you know me.  It is inevitable that I would think a bit while I am standing there.  I tend to think about what all this means.

As I often do, when I have too much time on my hands, I have started to compare my experiences at the newly-reset-pedestrian light with my overall life experiences and, valid or not, I have concluded that the pedestrian light is a microcosm of my current life.

So, you know… brace yourself.

The pedestrian light has effectively hobbled me.  I can no longer move as fast or as freely as I want to.  I am held-up and at the mercy of elements outside of my control.  Meanwhile, I have to stand and watch others shooting past, fast, totally on-track, heading straight and unerringly for their destination.

Sometimes the people look out at me as they rush along their way.  I can see in their eyes that they would quite like to stop and let me across, to get me out of all this ‘standing in the rain’.  But they can’t.  If they even slow for me, the cars behind will simply careen into the back of them.  They mustn’t stop, ‘cos, if they do, they might end up like me.

Some don’t even stop when the light finally turns in my favour.  That’s when anger falls on me and I shout my frustration at the injustice and inequality of it all.  The people in the cars don’t understand my passion.  All they did was nip through a red pedestrian light.  Who are they hurting?  Who, of any importance at all, would ever care?

Yes, the light is showing me my life, how it has changed over the past three years, since the recession hit and the banks failed and we gave up our economic sovereignty to Europe.  I won’t colour-in the comparisons, you’re not fools.  I know you’ll get it.

It's just here I stand, waiting for my light to turn green again, hoping it will someday.  Watching the world careening by, from my vantage point in the cold and the rain…

(All right, so I coloured it in a little bit after all.)

…and, as I stand, my only wish is that they’d speed my pedestrian light back up.  Not back to being as fast as it was before.  I don’t need that, just a tad quicker than it is now.

I wish it would happen soon.

Because I need to find myself a more up-beat analogy.




The Moon Cut Like a Sickle

Given that this is the week when my little play 'The Moon Cut Like a Sickle' gets its third production, I thought I might just write down a little bit about it.

The full dress rehearsal is today.  It’s being filmed by Dermot Tynan of Claddagh Films, which makes me very happy then, tomorrow, we embark on a fast run of six shows at the Linenhall Arts Centre in Castlebar, all of which are now practically sold-out.

My gratitude to Do You Playhouse for reviving the play, well, it knows no bounds.  I wrote the play with them specifically in mind (more on that later) and they have delivered a remarkable new production which I really have the highest expectations for.  

Donna Ruane and Oisin Herraghty are the team behind Do You Playhouse.  They are both theatre professionals who deal expertly with teen casts.  I have seen theatre everywhere and I firmly believe the work they do with teens is of the very highest standard.  Try and see them sometime.

The production also owes a huge debt of gratitude to the Road Safety Authority of Ireland who have got behind this new production of the plays with amazing enthusiasm and encouragement. 

A lot of stuff fell into the writing of this play.  I wanted to write about young men and cars and driving (and girls) because I slowly moved from one side of the fence on this subject to the other as I got older and I think I can see the landscape clearly, still, from both sides.  

When we were teens, we borrowed our parents cars and we finally got to understand the thrill of being able to move quickly.  Up until then we had been effectively grounded, relying on buses, bicycles or plain old walking to get us around.  The sheer novelty of propelling oneself at speed was heady and addictive.  There was also a less-tangible but possibly even-more potent aspect to finally having a car.  There was a huge amount of romance in having the ability to get away from a place whenever you wanted to.  It sounds odd, I know, but it’s true.  Being able to ‘quit this scene’ with the turn of a key brought freedom and weaved mystique around those who could do it.  Like I said, ‘less-tangible’.

Now, as an adult, I watch young guys drive cars with reckless abandon and I despair of the likelihood that they will come to harm or (much more likely) cause harm to some innocent third party.  I have seen, at close range, great damage enacted out on the road.  More than I can ever coherently speak about.  So, instead, I chose to put it into a drama.  Maybe that’s why I’m so proud of this little play, because it hurt so much. 

Knowing I wanted to write about all this stuff – and do it in fairly simple terms (as I generally do), some other elements quickly fell into place.  I knew I wanted the cars to be ‘Real’ rather than mere props or imaginary references.  I have always been greatly taken with the play ‘Equus’ by Peter Shaffer and particularly the staging wherein the horses were played by actors.  So, the three cars in my play ‘Soup’ ‘Bess’ and ‘Dark Car’ are all played by girls.  This works well visually, I think, and it also plays up on the conflict and, perhaps, jealousy of the real girls regarding the boy’s infatuation with their motors.  The cars are almost like the ‘dæmons’ in the Northern Lights trilogy by Philip Pullman – moving in co-operation with their owners, inextricably joined to them.

The centre of the play is provided by lovely ‘Lysistrata’ by Aristophanes.  In that Ancient Greek play, which I saw in London back in the Eighties, the women vow to withdraw their sexual favours until their men stop going to war.  In my play, the girl's ‘kissing, hugging and general ego-boosting’ is withdrawn until the guys agree to slow down.

These things were quite deliberately added into the mix as the play was being written.  Other things seemed to appear quietly and almost without my knowing.  There are quite a number of references to ‘Grease’ in the play and the teen-testosterone and car racing elements now seem to clearly evoke ‘Rebel Without a Cause’ but this was really not deliberate.  I find that some of the many films I have watched in my life seem to poke their heads into my plays here-and-there all of their own accord.  I kind of like that.

 I mentioned earlier how I wrote the play specifically for Do You Playhouse.  I had seen a number of their productions before I wrote for them, or knew them, and, in a very real sense, they lit the way for me.  I had written for teens before but I was convinced that my writing, which I always now try to make honest, was simply too adult for a teen cast to actually perform.  I couldn't, in all honestly, shy away from the bad language and sexual innuendo which were a part of my teen years (and in which I believe I was not alone).  I had a play called 'Paul's Talent' which had won an award but which had never been produced.  I was sure I needed adults pretending to be kids to be allowed to do it.  Then I saw Do You Playhouse doing 'Doghouse' by Gina Moxley and they didn't pull any punches.  It was a revelation for me.  I could write for teens as I needed to and the teens could do it.  I am grateful for this epiphany, it has coloured my writing from that day to this.

So, here we go again, into the darkened theatre.  I get nervous and I reckon I know pretty clearly when it’s 'breaking a leg' and when it’s not.  God knows, I’ve seen enough theatre both ways.  I’ve seen this play quite a few times too and, thanks to everyone involved, it has broken a leg.

My fervent wish is that we break a leg this time too. 


 Having seen the months of preparation gone into it, I do believe we will.


But Trust Me on the Twitter

Hello there.

I’ve been using Twitter for so damn long now that I’ve started to feel a bit like ‘The Old Man and the Sea.’

I started to wonder if all my time spent tweeting has resulted in me having any useful insights which I could share with you.  Have I got any titbits of advice which I could offer?  Not the basic stuff, (“try to keep your tweets below 140 characters or they will not work”) more the subtle guidance that the Old Man would have after years bobbing about on The Sea, piddling over the side of his boat when necessary.

In case you’re wondering, I’ve already written my obligatory little love-letter to Twitter.  You can peruse that by clicking here if you wish.



My twitter avatar was created by @twistedlilkitty, who knows I don't look as good as this, bless her.

So, do I?  Do I have some brilliant thoughts and insights into the Beast that is Twitter?

Do I?

It turns out that I don’t.  Not really.

This is really all I have:

1) Treat Your Twitter Timeline like a Hedge:  You have a hedge in your garden called Twitter.  It’s nice and pretty and it provides shade and nurture for all the creatures of the… (relax, Ken) … sorry.  Hedges are great but they grow up to be shaggy and unruly and obtrusive if you don’t attend to them from time to time.  You have to trim them back.  Need I say more?  You’re smart people, you know where I’m coming from.

2) Please Don’t Follow Everyone Back:  This is a bit divisive, I know.  Many people see following as a reciprocal thing, an “if you’re kind enough to follow me, then the least I can do is follow you back” type-of-thing.  I did it myself at first.  Here’s a couple of quick reasons why I think we shouldn’t do it.  Twitter is a network.  A network extends little branches and links throughout the world and can become really powerful and useful and fun.  When everybody follows everybody else… well that’s no longer a network, that's what’s known as a ‘crowd’.  In a ‘crowd’ everybody is hearing what everybody else is saying but, actually, they’re hearing little-or-nothing except a hubbub, a babble.

Also, if I followed everyone back who ever followed me, my timeline would be full of Double Glazing, Social Networking Gurus and Breast Feeding Advice… not all bad but not my key interests… well… (clears throat, moves on).  I wouldn’t see the things I really want to see in among all the glut of things I really don’t want to see.

You may rightly say that this doesn’t fully address the point.  Don’t follow the bots and the salesmen but follow all the real people, yeah?  This is an excellent point and if that works for you, I’m pleased.  Unfortunately, I’ve learned over my years and years at sea chasing the beeg feesh… sorry_ on Twitter that I have a limitation.  If I follow more than a certain amount of people, it gets messy and Twitter stops being fun for me.  I have chosen to follow the people I interact with over time.  My ‘hedge trimming’ means there’s always space for someone new and exciting but not for everyone.  See the next point if you abhor my way of doing things.

3) Other People will Do Twitter Differently, They are Not Wrong and Neither Are You:  The truth?  It took me a little time to learn this one.  Twitter isn’t any one thing.  It’s just a different kind of blank page to write on.  But we get defensive of it, as if it needs us to stick up for it.  It doesn’t.  Live and Let Live on there, if you don’t like how someone uses it, get over it.  If you don’t like what they are saying… well, that’s different.  It’s your choice how you deal with that.  It is, after all, your Twitter.

4) Sometimes, It’s Good to say ‘Goodnight’:  A silly little tip.  If you are up late Tweeting and it’s time for beddie-byes, there are two benefits to saying goodnight.  The first is obvious, If you say goodnight, one or two people may say goodnight back.  It can pack you off to bed with a warm community glow about you.  The second is perhaps less obvious – a simple goodnight, leaves your twitter account tidy.  It means that that last tweet, before you went, is not a rant against some poor minority or a filthy joke or a swearing session.  If anyone glances at your account, they will see a nice goodnight rather than some possibly-inflammatory thing which may jump up and head butt you when you return to Twitter the next day.  I told you it was silly.

5) #FollowFriday is not about getting followers: 
It’s really not.  Follow Friday is a neat-enough way of paying somebody a compliment, it's you saying, “I think you should follow this person, they’re great.”  You get to say someone is cool and they get to feel good that you said it.  They might get a couple of followers as a result, two or three maybe but, unless you’re Graham Linehan doing the recommending, that will be about it. This tip creates a useful converse:  Don’t bust your hole doing zillions of followfridays and thanking everyone individually for the few you might get.  Use it sparingly and move on.  Oh, and if someone who you think is cool is kind enough to do a followfriday for you, then watch carefully the few who come to follow you right after that – they are often Good People.

(I realise I’m breaking my own Tip 3 with my Tip 5… ah, well.)

6) Don’t be Hurt when People Don’t Reply all the Time:  I like to reply to people.  I rarely miss someone out but, sometimes, the sheer weight of replies means that it's not practicable to reply to everyone.  I’ve been on the receiving end of unresponded-to-tweets and I remember (from early days) how they can sting, “what did I do wrong?” “how puny and insignificant am I in their eyes?”.  It’s rarely like that.  Twitter rattles along quickly and, sometimes, tweets get left behind.  Take it on the chin and keep moving along with it.  And, hey, if someone is serially-ignoring-you, maybe they are telling you something.  If you’re a new follower of somebody, consider not replying to every single tweet the somebody makes.  It can look really terrifying and ‘stalky’ if you just turn up and start to do that shit.  I know it’s easy to do when you’re new and only follow a few people but think on.  Someone who just appears and has something to say about every tweet… it's a bit freaky, dude, okay?

7) Don’t Steal Other People’s Tweets and Pretend They’re Your Own:  Come on, guys, fuck it, give credit where it’s due.  It’s not hard.  And remember, even if you saw it on Facebook and brought it over, you still didn’t make it up, did you?  And people will think you did and think you’re great… for all the wrong reasons.  You don’t want that, do you?  Oh.

8) You, Too, Can Switch off Horrible Retweets: It’s surprising how many people don’t know this and it is a little gem.  You follow someone and you like what they tweet but they also retweet tonnes of complete drivel and it's killing your hedge/feed.  You don’t have to unfollow them.  In their twitter web page, beside their name, there’s a little green circle.  Click that and you won’t see their retweets no more.  It is sheer bliss and they’ll never bloody know you did it.  People who circumvent this button by using things like ‘via’ as their retweet format.  Well they're so clever they have left me no option but to unfollow them. 

As if I would do that!

That’s it for now.  Perhaps, if you have an advanced Twitter tip from your own experience, you might mention it in the comments section on this one.  Then we can all have a definitive online document which we can refer back to, again and again, in times of need…


…or not.

I See Floor People

When my mind finally cracks, and after they come and take me away in a rather challenging strapped jacket, I like to think that someone might look through my various blog posts to try to spot the moment when the Great Collapse actually began.

I think perhaps they may pause over this post and decide that this, indeed, is it.

I’ve started to see people, you see…

… people in my floor.

We have a cork floor in our bathroom.  Old fashioned, I know, and not very Glam but it’s warm underfoot and I like the retro nostalgia of it.  

I’m also far too lazy to do anything as proactive as replace them with newer, brighter, tiles.  I’m all about the Status Quo, me.

I’ve been looking at these cork tiles for over ten years now.  Well, I say ‘looking’… they have existed as part of my life without being in any way remarkable or engaging.

Then, one morning, while shaving, on the periphery of my sleepy vision, there, on the floor, reflected in my steamy mirror, a face emerged from the cork floor tiles.  And ‘emerged’ is exactly the right word.  We are not talking here about a two dimensional cloud-like illusion of human characteristic.  Laws no, this was a rounded, recognisable face, somewhat smaller than full-size, lifting itself wearily from the intricate weavings of the cork. 

I swung round to look directly at the thing but whatever angles in the mirror had created the apparition no longer applied when inspected full on.  There was no face, only flat cork tiles - a bit dated but, like I said, warm underfoot.

Back I went to the mirror, replicating the previous angle as best I could and, no, still no face.  A silly sleepy illusion, not possible to retrieve.

But it started me off on something, I think.  Subconsciously, I must have engaged myself in looking for faces in the cork tiles on my bathroom floor.  Over subsequent weeks and months, my eyes must have slipped into scanning the surface, trying to find another friend hiding there.

And they are there.

There are many, many faces in my cork floor.  Some are flat and distant, some are bold and lift right up out of the ground as you study them.  It amuses me to seek them out and bring them to life for a few minutes before letting them slip back down into the world below.  Sometimes it unnerves me a bit too.

Who are they, these people in my floor.  Are they the souls of people who died on this spot in ages past, finding a crack into this world via the chaotic perception of a natural pattern?  Are they a reflection of a stain on the surface of my brain?  Are they… anything at all?

I have always felt that bathrooms are an optimum place to go mad.

Have you ever been a little bit pissed, in a bar or night-club, and have you ever retired to a toilet cubicle to at least collect yourself.  Have you found, once the toilet cubicle door is closed, how much drunker and incapable you suddenly feel and, when you emerge again, how recomposed you become.  There is something about being behind a secure door that encourages a person’s madness to blossom.

Locked in with yourself, on your own (apart from the faces in the floor) there can be a moment to drop the defences, to let the insanity leak in.  Someday, perhaps, it will not leak back out.

And…

Enough with this Flight of Fancy.

Of course I know what they are really, these faces in my floor.  You need not worry about me and my friends in the bathroom for, deep down I totally know the truth.  The faces are nothing to be afraid of, neither are they a cause for any concern about my mental health.

Not at all.  Quite the opposite, I think.

They are, simply, my Imagination.  One of my very best assets, I think.  Have a look at the photo which goes with this post.  I can see people in there – not just one or two but lots of them.  That’s good.  I can still make up something out of nothing, just like I have always seemed able to do.

We will continue to celebrate that as best we can...

...my bathroom buddies and me.

Fook, Not That Count Again

(Because this post is about swearing, and because I want to retain my 'family-friendly' rating, I have liberally interspersed any examples of curse-words with a few extra ‘o’s, just to take the edge off them a little.)

I can be a bit ‘sweary’ in real life.

No, not ‘Sweaty’, Mr Spellchecker, ‘Sweary.

I’m not the type of swearer who intersperses every third word with an oath of some kind.  Neither do I tend to swear in the company of those people who are most likely to find it offensive.  Put me in a Convent and bang my thumb with a hammer and I’m liable to say ‘oh dear’ or, perhaps more likely, nothing at all.  The swearing I do, is mostly for my own benefit rather than for anyone else’s annoyance.

For me, swearing is quite a helpful thing.  In times of annoyance or frustration, it gives me a quick ventilation option.  If tension is building up inside me for whatever reason, a quick (verbal) ‘Fook’ or two and I can actually feel my blood pressure rapidly fall back down a notch.

I was asked recently what my favourite swear word is.  I answered the question here.  To save you clicking if you don’t want to, it’s ‘Count’.  It’s not the word I use the most, as a matter-of-fact it’s a word I use very rarely indeed.  But it’s my favourite because in my opinion, it is a word which retains great power – the power to convey colossal annoyance, the power to really really offend.

So, no, I don’t use ‘Count’ very often.  I tend, like everybody else, to lean heavily on ‘Fook’ and the legion derivatives of the word.

Lots of people swear, of course.

Many would contend that swearing has become redundant because of its prevalence. That the crucial element of shock and awe has been removed or has at least been so diluted as to be utterly fooking impotent.

I tend to disagree.

‘Tell you why.

For me, swearing has provided  a rather useful analogy for writing.  The impact of both is utterly dependant on the level of intent behind it.  Writing or Cursing, it doesn’t matter which – if you don’t mean it, it won’t carry much weight.

People swear for lots of reasons.  Like it or not, there’s a certain cachet to it.  It’s a bit like smoking.  Everybody knows it’s bad and antisocial and all that but, for some reason, there’s a tiny extra edge to be attributed to whoever does it.  So some people swear to be cool.

Some people swear because they can’t think of any other word to say.  You often hear people pepper their sentences with curses. It’s something for their mouth to do while their mind casts around for the next ‘real’ word to say.

Some people swear to bully and harangue. 

But they’re just fooking eejits.

Me?  I generally swear for a different reason. 

I swear because I mean it.

Swearing hasn’t lost its power to offend.  Trust me on this.  What it’s lost, in a large part, is any intent.  Years ago, when swearing would have been more taboo, less intent might have carried the day and caused the requisite offence.  Not any more.  These days swearing needs a lot of intent behind it to make it count.  Otherwise it’s just insipid social wall-papering.

So if I swear at you, and I really mean it, I reckon I can offend you.  I ‘feel’ words quite strongly, you see, and I appreciate them a bit, and respect them and, as a result, I reckon I sometimes use them quite hard.

I only called someone a ‘count’ once and really meant it.  And that was in writing.  I’d loaned this guy a valuable piece of information on a CD (this is years ago when CDs were high tech) and he posted it back to me in a plain envelope with no plastic case.  The CD arrived back, broken into three pieces, and I had no way to replace it.

I posted it back to him and called him a you-know-what and I really meant it.

That’s the end of that story.  I don’t know what happened after that.  But I reckon it hurt him.  There was so much intent behind that single word that it could not but hurt.  That’s why swear words are powerful and a bit dangerous.  A swear word is a gun but intent is the bullet.  Either of them on their own are relatively safe but put them together and… well, aim carefully.

And if I continue to try to write like I swear – if I really mean it – then maybe I’ll be okay.

The Killing V The Killing

The world doesn’t usually come in choices of Black or White.  I’m thankful for that because it’s the Grey parts that are by far the more interesting.

I want to say a few things about the Danish TV Series ‘Forbrydelsen’ or, as it’s better known, ‘The Killing’.  In particular, I want to compare and contrast it to the US TV Series which was a direct remake of the original.  In doing this, I’m not setting out to deliberately present any spoilers – I always try very hard not to do that.  
 
However, it’s hard to have this little chat without dancing pretty close to giving away some titbit that might annoy a viewer-to-be.  So if you think you might enjoy these series some fine day, you might best leave the rest of this post alone.

My initial ‘Shades of Grey’ comment is very relevant here because rarely has the general opinion on a TV Series been galvanised into such clear Blacks and Whites.  For those of us who have engaged with both the Original and the US series in some respect, the view seems crystal clear.

And the general view goes like this;

“The original Danish series is one of the best things we have ever seen on TV and the US remake is nothing more than a risible, lazy, boring, insult to the original.”

That’s the view.  Black and White… But perhaps I am in an unusual position in that I have watched both series with equal interest and attention and I have to say that this is not my view.  My view is firmly in the Grey.

I have to say that my basic view doesn’t really deviate all that far from that rather forceful ‘Wisdom of the Crowd’.  You see, the Original Series was quite wonderful and I was completely enveloped in it and very satisfied with it.  As a result, the US Version, with new actors in familiar roles and with the slightly askew world of modern-day Copenhagen shed in favour of the more televisually-familiar Seattle setting, was always going to be a challenge and difficult not to view as an insult.

Via the Internet, I know of so many people who adored the original.  Without putting people in little boxes, their reaction to the arrival of the US Version on Channel 4 was quite uniform. 

“A pointless remake for people who cannot read subtitles.”

“’Watched Episode One, it was unbelievably boring.”

“Her woolly jumper isn’t right.”

I would have been the same, I reckon.  I loved the original too much to go back around all over again with the remake.  Except I am a writer and the prospect of seeing the same material done with a different eye was too tempting for me to pass up on.  For that reason, I approached the remake positively and with some anticipation.  I watched the entire Series One remake keenly, as I watched the entire Original Series.

Shades of Grey…

So here’s what I think (deep breath)

The US version of ‘The Killing’ is a very good TV series indeed.

and (deep breath No. 2)

‘Forbrydelsen’ is, by no means, a perfect one.

The key thing with the US Version is that it has been made with great integrity and care and this shows throughout.  This is no lazy ‘cash-in’ remake, this is a thoughtful attempt to transcribe a very good story to a more familiar setting.  Yes, the story and characters are the same as before but not exclusively.  Where something hasn’t worked for the writers, they have not been afraid to cut and add as they needed to.

One of the toughest asks was always going to be the female lead.  Sofie Gråbøl, who played Sarah Lund, in the Original, was simply extraordinary.  Mireille Enos, who reprises the role, (renamed as Sarah Linden), therefore had a virtual mountain to climb with us returning viewers.  She wasn’t helped either by a tendency to portray her, at times, as a sort of Clarence Starling type – jogging through the woods in that rather iconic way.  She also does a recurring ‘slapped child’ sort of look which seems a bit monotone upon occasion.  Nobody can beat Lund. 

But, wait.  As the series progresses, you can grow into Sarah Linden.  The last-but-two episode takes time out of the investigation for a tense and revealing episode unlike anything that happened in the Original.  I thought it was exceptionally good.  If you’ve seen the Original and want a good taste of the US Version, have a look at episode 11, then come and tell me it’s not good.

Okay then. I’ve dug myself a hole, let’s dig that little bit deeper.

The Original, for me, was not nearly as perfect as people seem to want to make it out to be.  There is this ‘Pack-Idolisation’ of it which is certainly ‘Nice’ and ‘Fun to be a Part Of’ but let’s keep our critical faculties intact too, eh?

The Politics of ‘Forbrydelsen’ often seemed, to me at least, to be obvious and grindingly slow.  There were times when I cringed inwardly that we were back in Troels’ bloody office talking campaign tactics yet again.  For me, the human stories were what made ‘Forbrydelsen’ superb.  The fall-out in that little family over The Killing was beautifully done… but that Politics… please… spare me.

The actual detective-work was sometimes lacking too.  Each suspect, in turn, was pounded upon like a tonne of Danish Bricks and the case quickly pronounced closed.  For all its perception as being an in-depth study of the consequences of crime, the series often came across to me as a gung-ho locked room whodunnit with credibility occasionally chucked aside in favour of yet another glorious twist in the tale.

The mother in ‘Forbrydelsen’ - Nanna Birk Larsen’s Mum, that is.  She was a very good actor, I reckon, but she wasn’t written all that very well.  Some of the things she was asked to do did not ring true for me at all and, as a result, she did not always convince me.  On the other hand, I felt her husband Theis Birk Larsen, as played by Bjarne Henriksen, was excellent.  Maybe I just naturally identify with the male side of the grief, I’m not sure, you tell me.

The much-celebrated revelation of the killer near the end of the original series was great fun but, again, it seemed a bit stagy and contrived to me.  Whispered hints etc…

You’ll all think I hated the original series now but, as I said, I really loved it.  I just find it constructive not to love anything – or indeed hate anything – in a purely Black and White fashion.  I do my best emoting in among the Greys.

The Emmys are on tonight and The Killing has quite a few nominations.  My favourite actor is Joel Kinnaman who plays Detective Stephen Holder, Sarah Linden’s sidekick.  He was wonderful.  I just read that the guy is actually Swedish, perhaps that’s why he fits the part so very well.

Finally I am going to really do a spoiler here so be warned.

Much of the word-or-mouth about the US Killing Finale has been poor.  It’s been branded as frustrating, unsatisfying and inconclusive.  
 
Well that’s because it really is. 

I didn’t know they were going to do this until the moment it happened but I feel it will help you to know it.  The end of Season One does not conclude the story, instead it finishes on a cliff-hanger with (I reckon) a good four episodes of the story still left to play out.

For what it’s worth, I think this was a bad mistake and a dreadful thing to do.  One of the great things about ‘Forbrydelsen’ was its completeness.  You were always secure in the knowledge that, however twisted the pathway became, the story would ultimately run its course and end.  To add this ‘Lost - Season Finale’ conclusion on the US Version did not sit will, with me or with many others.

‘Forbrydelsen’ is a great TV series and I recommend it to you, flaws and all.  But ‘The Killing’ (US) is no slouch either.  Perhaps it might be best to ensure that Series 2 of the US Version is permitted to be made thus completing the whole story before you start into it.

And Series 2 of ‘Forbrydelsen’ hits BBC4 shortly.

So that’s it.  Come, tell me what you think. 

Fight with me, if you must.

I won’t mind.

Well… I might.

Flash Fiction: The Sudden Garden

Suddenly there was a garden.

Where there had been no garden before.

It wasn’t much, a tiny grassed area, stone walled on two sides, just off the crooked shortcut path down to the main road.  Not much, but it hadn’t existed the last time I’d walked down there.  Granted, that might have been a month or so ago but not too much more.

I was in a rush, that Saturday morning when I first stopped and looked down into it, still I couldn’t resist easing my way down the slope to stand in that secluded, green, enclosure.  I say ‘enclosure’ but, really, it was only enclosed on three sides being open on the fourth to my shortcut pathway above.  The two stone-walled sides were high and neat and the third side was made up of dense hedging which separated the area from the busy main road just beyond.  The garden was empty except for a small dolmen structure which seemed to serve as a bench.

I stood for a moment, wondering what this garden was and how it had appeared so very suddenly.

My appointment was at the library so I dragged myself back up the steep bank, down to the main road and hurried across.  Meeting, as I was, the Chief Librarian, I couldn’t help but prod him for a little information about this newest corner of my housing estate.

“The Council got a little money and did it up,” he was happy to confirm, “apparently it used to be a mass grave for the people who died in the Influenza Epidemic of 1918.

So it was a memorial.  A long-overdue marker for poor people who passed away in terrible circumstances so many years ago.  That was a good thing and, in the short term, it made me feel good.

But I am a writer.

Things that make me feel good often turn sour in the clammy heat of a deadline.  Good ideas can be perverted when the mind-call for a story remains unanswered.

That’s how it was on that November Thursday night.  The newspaper deadline was the next morning at eleven.  And I had nothing… nothing at all.  Eight hundred words were required, as they were every week, on ‘Local Colour’, whatever that was.  The gig only paid pocket-money but it was all I had at that moment and the self-esteem alone - of having people in the street talk to me about my column - was worth quite a lot.

My mind turned to the 'Sudden Garden'.  I had known all along that there was a column in it, an easy one too, but I needed Colour.  My job was to divert and entertain the readers, in between all the endless budget cuts and lost football ties, and some old mass grave wouldn’t do that… not unless there was an angle.

I turned to the Internet, as I do for so many of my needs.

The angle was not very hard to find.

It was raining and blowing hard at five minutes to Midnight.  I had slipped on the grass bank which led down into the little garden and now my back was wet and doubtless caked with mud.  I stood as close to the middle of the space as I could and I listened.  There was only the wind whistling in the stone wall and the patter of huge drops on my hood.  If there were cars whizzing past beyond the hedge, as there always was, I could neither hear them nor see any hint of their lights.  I was utterly alone in the darkness, which was exactly what I needed for my plan, but which was still not terribly nice.

A quick read on the net had reminded me that the world-wide folklore attached to mass graves is legion.  The huge curve in the District Line in London was formed so the route could avoid a Plague Pit (untrue).  The Black Death virus still lives on in the ground of those areas (untrue).  And then there was the one I had decided to build my story around.  I had first heard it on a Ghost Walk around the perimeter of St Paul’s Cathedral in London many years ago.  It simply affirmed that, if you stood on a plague pit site at midnight and put your ear to the ground, you could hear the crying of the poor souls beneath… and the hearer would lose his mind.

Utter rubbish, of course, as were all the rest of the tales, but I knew my readers would lap it up.  Some would even write-in and berate me for my lack of respect in doing such a terrible thing but that would be a bonus.  Controversy is good, after all.

I shivered and checked my watch which thankfully had a luminous display.  Two minutes to Midnight.  There was no actual requirement that I do this thing on the exact strike of twelve but it seemed to add to the authenticity of the piece if I did and I was all-about the authenticity then.

I decided on a quick trial run.  I got down on my hands and knees. The new wet grass immediately soaked right through to my legs.  Slowly and, it must be said, quite tentatively, I pressed my ear hard to the grass.

A finger, cold and limp and far-too skinny, turned wetly beneath my earlobe and caressed me.

I screamed, leaped up, and shone my little torch down.  A worm, purple and bloated, sailed with surprising elegance back down into the soft earth.  I laughed nervously to myself.

“Daft Bugger”. 

And then it really was midnight.

At first I felt only foolish, lying on the ground with my ear pressed down.  I prayed nobody would see me and hated the feel of the wet invading me from so many different angles.  But then I settled and, despite the wind and the rain and the ludicrousness of the situation, I listened. 

I listened hard.

And what I heard was the plight of those who lay there.

All those stories I had scanned about the Pandemic, the tragedies I had clicked past to get to the  frothy gore, they all came back to me now.  The young men, the pregnant women, the vulnerable who had died in their millions.

From nowhere, an enormous empathy rose up in me for those people who had been taken by that terrible virus so long ago.  The speed and horror of their dispatch, the entire families laid waste in the space of a few short weeks.  What before had only been an opportunity for a tawdry column became, for me at that moment, a real mortal tragedy.  Whereas before, I could not conceive of the pain those distant people had endured, I now found that I could

There was nothing to actually hear, of course.  Only that world of pain for me to feel.

The old legends had proved themselves almost true.  By putting myself in that position, at that time, I had opened myself to all those people who had died and they had spoken to me.  I had not lost my mind.  In a way, I had found it.

As I trudged home, I resolved to abandon the column idea.  There was a lady on Upper Street who owned a white cat who had produced five black kittens.

For this week, that would do.