Right Nor Fair

We’ve got a new cash till in our town.  It’s outside one of the banks and it’s shiny and high tech and fast and cool.

Not for me though.  It’s not shiny or cool for me.  For me it’s a taunt, a jibe, a reminder of my second class status in this world.

(Sigh)

The place you push the card in, see, has a projecting ‘thing’ on the left hand side of the slot (sorry for being so technical).  This protects your card a bit, from prying eyes and such.
 

This is me, drawn left-handed by Eolaí Gan Fhéile 

It’s a good thing, I’m sure, so long as you’re not ‘me’ or one of the ten percent like me.  For us, it’s just an obstruction that makes the damn thing almost impossible to use…

Have you guessed yet?

That’s right, I’m left-handed, folks, I suffer from Cack-handedness, Sinister-handedness, Sinistrality, Sinistromanuality, or Mancinism, whichever you prefer.  In the Irish language, I am ‘Ciothog’.  In French (and some other things) I am ‘Gauche’.

There’s a neat old theory, now largely debunked, that all left-handed people were part of a set of twins originally, the right handed one having being ‘re-absorbed’ or whatever it is they do.  It’s not true, I know, but it’s kind of cute, ‘future story-material perhaps.

But I digress.  My point, as something of a designer and a one time student of Ergonomics – and as a Leftie – is that it is a tough old world for we ten-percenters.  The world has been developed for the convenience of right handed people to such an extent that the poor lefties hardly even notice anymore.

If you are in any doubt of this, you right handed people, try to seek out a left handed tin opener.  I have one.  It looks just like a regular tin opener until you try to use it.  The impossibility of the tool, for you the right handed person, is quite amazing.  Yet when a Leftie gets hold of one of these gizmos it’s like the world clicks into symmetry for a brief tin-opening moment.  Nonetheless, us Lefties can also use the regular right handed version quite well and without complaint.  Funny, isn’t it?

For us, you see, it’s been a case of ‘Adapt or Die’.  The whole bloody world is right hand biased.   Think about it as you go about your daily business.  Ask every situation you meet, “how would this be if I were Left-Handed’.  You may be surprised.

Lift Buttons, Cheque-books, inside pockets, scissors, wallets, watches, Boomerangs, playing cards… the list goes on, from left to right, never ending.  It’s only when we actually get our (left) hands on a custom design product that we start to see how disadvantaged we really are.  Back in London, I used to get left handed chequebooks from NatWest.  They flipped open the other way.  It made me feel so damn special to be able to fill in the little stubs with how much money I’d spent.  I never realised why I had never done that – it was simply because I couldn’t.

We don’t mind so much.  I mean, there’s 90% of you other guys, you deserve the bulk of the spoils.  Perhaps now and again though, a little recognition of the challenges we face every day just opening the can of beans or flushing the toilet. 

Which brings me, finally, to the greatest design challenge for the left handed male.  The one that never gets talked about but which is the secret bane of our left-biased lives.  That ‘flushing toilet’ in the past paragraph should give you a clue… it’s in the tailoring… the tailoring of trousers and how they open… I’ve said enough now, I don’t wish to be indiscreet.  If you’re still in doubt as to what I’m talking about, perhaps the word ‘Rummage’ might shed a little light.

It’s not easy being green, or left handed, but I would not change it for anything.  I am possibly the most left-handed person you’ll ever meet but everytime I smudge my handwriting or step to the right to use the cash till machine, I give thanks for that fact.  In a small way, it sets me apart from you, the regular users of the world.

As Tom Waits once wrote;  It makes it kind of special down in the core.


Shortly After That, She Started with the Signs

Jules started to clear-out the rear bedroom on the thirteenth of May.

Shane had been gone for exactly three months and it seemed probable that he wasn’t ever coming back.  Three months was long enough to hold on to his rubbish.  It was two months too long, in truth.

The first thing to do was to take down the dusty net curtains.  Rented house bedroom windows always seemed to have them while bought-houses never-ever did.  The plastic coated curtain wire broke when she tugged hard on it.

No more net curtains for a while then.

She gazed out of the rear upper floor bedroom window, reluctant to start the process of finally removing that miserable git from her life.  The back garden belonged to the flat below so she never got to go out there.  It looked nice though, a bit overgrown and_

What?

From across the rear garden fence, and across the identical tatty garden on the other side, in the identical rear bedroom window, something moved.

Jules smiled to herself.  She was being watched from the matching terraced house down the back.  A secret admirer perhaps.  For a moment, the thought actually fled through her mind that she might undress a bit… but only for a moment.  That wasn’t her style, not on first dates anyway.

She sneaked another look.  It was too gloomy over there to see who it was who was hanging back and looking out but it was clear enough that someone was there.  She shook off an involuntary shiver and turned her attention to the black-plastic-bagging of her former love life.  After a short while, it actually started to feel good.

The window person was back there the next day.  Jules was more than half way through bagging up the stuff and wasn’t interested in playing games.  Still, out of the corner of her eye, she was never less than half-aware of the spectral figure two gardens away in a matching room to her own… watching.

Then suddenly the room was clear.  The carpet as it turned out, was green.  Who would have guessed?  It was getting towards dusk as she gathered up her cleaning stuff and got ready to head back into the kitchen.  She didn’t expect to see anything at the distant window unless some kind of light was on over there.  There wasn’t any light on but she did see something.  Something quite strange.

The someone was still there in the gloom.  Jules didn’t know that because she could actually see the someone – she couldn’t.  She knew the person was there on account of the white board they were holding up to the window pane.

Jules moved closer to the window, screwing up her eyes to see.  The board seemed to have symbols on it – letters she imagined – but she could not make them out.  It was all too far away.

Then she remembered the binoculars.  She had been going to throw them out along with his bikini-mags and his free video game preview DVD collection.  She retrieved the field-glasses from the bag on the landing, snapped off the circular covers and tried to focus on the off-white board which was still hovering inside the gloom of the opposing window.

“The Door.”

That’s what the sign said.

“The Door.”

“What the hell does that mean?” she hissed to herself.  Was somebody being held hostage over there?  It happens.  Not only in books either.

At the moment, the board did a flip and suddenly there were different words to be read.

“On May 12th”

She waited then, sensing there may be more and, yes, there was.  There was one more board to be flipped and read.

“Don’t Open.”

After that, the other boards came flipping around again, as if on a never ending loop of non-sense.

When finally she got tired looking at them over-and-over she stumbled to the kitchen and found, deep in the unopened mail, a letter from her landlord giving her one month’s notice to leave her flat.

London is a much bigger place and Sydney is very very far away.  New York is cold in the winter and Bangkok smells of humidity and close proximity.  It takes a long time to go around the world on your own and a lot longer to come back.

It took seven years to come back.

Jules found herself a new flat and slowly settled in.  It was odd being back in the old town but the exotic sights and smells she still held inside her seemed to colour the place afresh.  There were new possibilities all over, or so it seemed.

On the 11th of May, after she had been one whole month in her new flat, she ventured into the rear bedroom to inspect the boxes she had thrown there upon her arrival.

She glanced out of the window of this little box room and was suddenly overwhelmed with the most brutal wave of Deja-Vu she had ever felt.  It was so strong that she had to sit on the edge of the bare mattress until it eased.  Tentatively, she looked out the window again.  She knew that house over there across the gardens or else one terribly like it.

Then the geography of where she was clicked-in as if by magic.  How could she have been so stupid?  She used to live over there, seven long years before.

Then she remembered a day, a figure in a window and she paused and looked around uneasily…

There was nobody there of course.  Nobody at all.  Only the cupboard door, slightly ajar.

The inside of the cupboard was musty and dry.  A rattle of cheap coat hangers and a carpet of ancient newspapers seemed to be the full inventory of its contents.  She was about to withdraw her head when the protruding edge on the upper shelf seized her peripheral vision.

It was the boards.  Three cardboard boards, each with faintly familiar words engraved into them.  Up close, the letters seemed forced and jagged where the implement which had writ them had carved itself deep into the flesh of the boards.

She threw them on the floor in shock and confusion and they fell in sensible order.  “Don’t Open,” they warned, “The Door,” “On May 12th.”

All through the next day, the date referred to on the boards, Jules tried to forget the pen-carved warning from the back room and the odd coincidence that had drawn her to live in this place without ever quite knowing where she really was.

By evening time, thanks to four glasses of Pinot, she had quite forgotten all about them.  She didn’t even remember when the front doorbell rang-out at five minutes to eleven.  She stumbled to the door and automatically moved to open the latch. 

Something stopped her.  Normally she would open her door without a second thought.  It was, after all, a relatively safe town.  But, suddenly, it seemed that certain black deep-writ words were imprinted on her brain.  Her hand stopped in mid air over the latch.

And she waited.

There was no further knock.  All was quiet.  Still Jules knew instinctively that somebody was out there, waiting.

Still she said nothing.

A light scratching commenced on the door.  It started low and worked its way upwards and outwards on the outside face of the leaf.  When it reached face-level, the scratching intensified until it seemed as if the outer veneer of the door leaf was being damaged and opened-up by the assault.

“Stop,” she said weakly and the scratching immediately stopped.  This was infinitely worse than the scratching had been.  For some long moments, there was an acute sense of a poised listening from outside the door.

Then, without warning, the scratching started again but now it was a wild unbridled tearing of a kind that no mortal nails could long withstand.  It was like some demon on the inside of its coffin, tearing itself out.

The terror that had built inside of her now unleashed itself in a scream of “STOP,” but this time the tearing did not cease.  The door was being torn-through and eventually a hole would form on the inside and something would finger its way inside.

“I command you to stop,” she suddenly said, and she did not know from where the words came.

And the scratching obeyed.

From outside, there came the stamp of heavy feet towards the top of the stairs and down and away and then there was nothing more.

When dawn finally came, there was only that pale light which brings little comfort.

The next night there was nothing, and the night after and every night after that.  Nothing.  Whatever had been seeking to get in had passed.

It was Saturday before she went back into the rear bedroom.  She looked across at the window two whole gardens away, noted that the net curtains had been removed, and thought she saw a thin spectral figure move deep within.  She fancied she saw a furtive glance in her direction but it was really too far away to be certain.

And, shortly after that, she started with the signs.

Once Upon a Time in W8

Films can impact upon your life.  There is no question in my mind about that.

But whether it requires a ‘Perfect Storm’ - of real-life events combined with the viewing of a film, to make these impacts – that is something I have never quite worked out.  So many of the films which have haunted my memory do not sit alone in there.  They are inextricably joined with remarkable moments which occurred around the time of their viewing.

So is it the film that impacts or the fact that it appears at exactly the right time?

‘Not sure…

In 1984, I had just moved to London and was sleeping on the floor of a rather posh apartment just off Kensington High Street.  The apartment was jointly-rented by a bunch of fellow-students and they were happy enough to give some more of us a foothold in London.  It was a happy chaotic time, the first hint of a professional life, money in pocket and freedom beyond imagining.

The movies were my main expenditure.  I had to see everything on the weekend of its release and I had to see them in the West End.  This remained the case for many years.

Anyway, in 1984, on a particular Saturday afternoon, I was highly-buzzed about the potentially immense film I was to see that evening.  Sergio Leone’s ‘Once Upon a Time in America’ had taken a little time to get to its British release but now it was here in its full four hour glory.  I had my tickets, some reluctant flatmates to accompany me, and I couldn’t wait.

That afternoon, I was contemplating buying a grey leather jacket for £200, which was a hell of a lot for a jacket back then.  I was ‘new to money’, having just begun to earn in earnest.  In the end, I bought it and wore it for the next ten years, pretty much without pause.  So I guess I got some value for money.

When I got back to the apartment, late afternoon, there was a ‘post-it’ note on the bedroom door.  It read, ‘Your friend called from Ireland. His Dad died. Sorry.’



Until that moment, I had been remarkably good at dodging death.  Nobody, really, had died in the twenty one years of my life.  This man who had died was someone I knew very well.  I stared at the note.

In the next hour or two, I learned that I was really quite far from home.  Had I been home, there would have been visitations, support, discussions, tears, reminiscences and community.  Here there was only a creamy white telephone and a guilt that the bill-payer would not be me.

After the call, there was a hole.  What did one do, in a strange country, when someone you knew had died?

The cinema was packed and expectant.  The advantage of these first weekends was that it was a struggle to get tickets and so the people you saw the movie with were the people who really wanted to see the movie.

And, along with them, I did the only thing I could do… I watched.

And, to quote Bob Dylan, “…every one of them words rang true and glowed like burnin' coal.” 

For me, the film spoke highly eloquently of friendship and loss.  In a real sense it burned itself into my soul and it has stayed there ever since.

But was it the film or was it the moment I saw it in?  I still don’t know.

I see it now and it speaks differently to me.  For a start, I see its flaws more clearly – there were no flaws in ’84.  But, more than that, it now speaks more of ageing and the passing of time rather then of friendship.  Two key scenes emphasis this theme; DeNiro, in the train station, caught in a mirror, aged.  Elizabeth McGovern, porcelain in her theatrical makeup, unblemished by the passing of years and then, upon removal of the greasepaint, the truth revealed – that none of us ever really escape.

So, once again, is it the ‘movie’ or the ‘moment’?

It’s been useful to type this out.  I now think that the truth lies somewhere between the two.  The film was - and is - remarkable and would have stayed with me, no matter what…

… but that post-it note drove it a little deeper.

The ‘Seven Bridges’ – The Decline of the Outdoor Childhood

As with many places, we have a lot of new Immigrants in our town.  One thing in particular strikes me when I look at them.  Their children are having the childhood that I had, whereas my own children are not.

These Immigrant children are there, morning until dusk, playing football, exploring the woods at the bottom of the field, sitting around on the pavement kicking dust.  They are living the Outdoor Childhood just like we used to do back in the Sixties and the Seventies.

My kids are getting bigger now and I find it is a source of some regret to me that they have not know the joys of the Outdoor Childhood.  They’ve been 'out' of course – regularly and often – but they haven’t known the experience of waving goodbye to Mum early of a Summer’s morning, heading out and knowing you would not be returning until hunger, pitch darkness, or physical damage drives you back in.

This is no fault of my kids, of course.  I think it’s even too simple to say it’s my fault.  As parents, we all seemed to stop dispatching our kids to the outdoors at around the same time.  How could I have sent my guys off out into the world when there was  nobody else out there to play with?  (The Immigrants came a few years too late for my fellas.).

I realise what I am saying is not true-of-everywhere.  When I go to other places in town I see everybody’s kids out in their neighbourhood, adventuring, socialising and generally having a ball.

The way I see it, there are a couple of elements at work here.  I reckon that my compatriots and I were ran outdoors because there wasn’t enough in the house to amuse us back then. No daytime TV, video games, social networks.  We were bored and under our parents feet and out we went.  These days our kids can amuse themselves quite well within the confines of the home and something is suffering as a result.

The other element is Community.  So many families have both parents working (or trying to work) now.  In my day, the Mum’s all seemed to be at home.  They watched us surreptitiously from behind their net curtains and made sure we were largely all right.  The places in town where there are groups of parents at home are invariably the less-advantaged places – they haven’t got the cash for Playstations and Sky TV and, yes, the kids are there, on the streets, living the Outdoor Childhood.

I’m not complaining.  I’m just sad that my guys, who have had a brilliant childhood, have still not had the extraordinary childhood that I was gifted with.

I was lucky though. As a kid, I lived in an extraordinary place, where the council houses looked out upon a beautiful wide river and where deep mysterious woods were only footsteps away.

We used to issue challenges to each other.  “I bet you couldn’t jump off that,” or “I bet your couldn’t hang out of that for longer than me.”  We called these regular events ‘Connies’ which I reckon must have been short for ‘Contests’.  I go back there now and I look disbelievingly at some the things we used to do.  The older boys would challenge themselves to feats of power and endurance that still, to this day, seem impossible to me.

We built rafts from timber pallets made buoyant and wonderfully unstable by barrels tied beneath.  We used to ride them down the falls at the weir.  We couldn’t swim.

We played football on the street, the entrance to our houses being the goal posts but, because the river was on one side of the street, the goals were both on the same side.  As a result, a winning goal-scoring technique would be to nurse the ball along the garden walls, fending off all attackers until you reached the opposition’s goal.  The best times were when the ball went in the river and had to be coaxed back to land with stones and other projectiles.

And what of the Seven Bridges back there in the title?  That was, perhaps, our most memorable adventure.  In the woods above our houses there was a path with two bridges spanning inlets from the wide river.  We heard a rumour that there were more bridges, lost and abandoned, deeper in the woods where the path had long been lost.  With sticks and thick jumpers, we cut our way through those deeper woods and found five more lost bridges further up the river than we had ever ventured before.  It felt like an epic adventure and the scratches, scrapes, fights, soakings we met along the way will not easily be forgotten.

That path is all opened up again today.  Some of the bridges are gone as inlets were filled in.  It’s a nice clear walk now but still a long one. Long enough that when I look at it today and imagine it totally overgrown and inaccessible, I can still see that our then-epic adventure would still be a bit epic, even today.

It’s too late for my guys. They are happy and know-no-better.  But if you have young kids, and your home place is conducive, take my advice and run them out of the house from time-to-time.  There’s still a world of adventure out there, a world of sweet memories to be made.

A Little Book Learning

This week I have reminded myself that I can learn things from books.

Yes, I know, “The Most Obvious Statement Ever Made,” etc.  I do know.  But I was actually reminding myself of something a little bit more specific than the obvious.  It was the face that, as a writer, you can learn much about writing from actually reading.

Still pretty obvious but it amazes me how many people pursue writing hobbies and careers in the belief that they don’t need to read anything in order to do it.  Just reading that sentence makes it seem so silly to me yet I see it quite a bit.

Anyway, I’m not here to pontificate – not today anyway.  I just want to refer to two novels which I recently finished reading, both of which taught me something useful about my own writing endeavours and, particularly, what I should expect to find within my writing.

The two books are ‘The Elegance of The Hedgehog’ by Muriel Barbery and ‘Inheritance’ by Nicholas Shakespeare and, before I say more about them, I need to thank my friends at Castlebar Book Club who put me on to both of these books.  I would not have found them by myself and that, for me, is the indispensable value of the book club.

Onwards…

Each of these books taught me a lesson which I can take away to my own writing.  I’d like to tell you what those two lessons are without getting too deep into either of the two books.

Let’s start with ‘The Elegance of the Hedgehog’ which has the simpler of the two lessons.  The book is the story of a Concierge in a Parisian apartment building who hides her intellect and her Aesthete nature from the people she deals with.  It is also the story of a young girl who lives in the apartment block – a girl who fully intends to blow herself up.

It’s a nice set-up.  It is quite heavy on the intellectualising… wait, let me tell you what I learned and that’ll probably say enough about the book.

The story sets itself up very quickly, it does this very well.  We are only a few pages in when we know the Renee and what is driving her.  We know Paloma too, it’s all good.

“Ah,” I hear you say, “I know where he’s going with this.  After the start of the book, nothing happens. That’s it, right?”

Well no.  I thought that was it, I really did.  You see, halfway through I was hating this book, I was pleading on Twitter for somebody to give me an excuse to stop reading the damn thing.  And I thought it was because nothing was happening.  But, looking back, I could see that loads of things had happened, loads of good stuff…

… that’s when I saw why the book had lost me as it did.

Nothing changed.

There was loads of events and opinions-expressed and comings-and-goings but, despite all this, by page 125, the Concierge was still hiding her true nature and the girl was still going to blow herself up.  No change.  Then, on page 129, a tiny little event happened but this event was different to all the others.  It caused change.  And then, dear friends, the book took off.

So that’s my lesson from this book – happenings and action are not enough to engage the audience/reader, you have to evoke change in your characters.

Onwards again…

The next book, was ‘Inheritance’  It’s got a great notion behind it, this book.  What movie makers would call ‘high concept’ which means you hear the premise described in a few short sentences and you are engaged.

The premise here is this;  a guy goes to his teacher’s funeral but goes into the wrong crematorium chapel by mistake.  As a result of attending the wrong funeral, he inherits seventeen million pounds from the deceased man.

See?  It’s good innit?  Here’s what it taught me. 

I’m a story-man, me.  Story first.  This idea of developing characters and then inventing something for them to do… that doesn’t work for my writing.  For me, the characters usually grow to suit the story.

Well, until now anyway. 

You see, the first half of this book is all-story.  The character, the guy who gets the money, seems to stumble through the story without really showing himself in any interesting way.  As with the previous book, the first half of it lost me but, again, the second half won me back.

In the second half, the deceased character comes to the fore as his story is told and, boy, he is a real character for sure.  With the arrival of this real character, the book comes alive.  Taking things a step too far, I now think the author deliberately drew the main character a little bland to then elevate him in the presence of his better-written second character.

What I learned then is that 'Story' on its own will not be enough.  No matter how good the story is.  I have to pay attention to my characters more.

Yes, Ken, but the books… are they any good?

For me, neither were world-beaters but both have rewarded me for reading them.

Give them a go, I’d say.