Wallpaper Man

Something reminded me of wallpaper this week. This would be a slightly more complete piece of writing if I could remember what the hell it was that reminded me but I can’t. Someone mentioned wallpaper and it slipped into my head, did nothing for a time, and then came back to exercise my brain.

It reminded me of something I had completely forgotten and I don’t really want to forget it again so I thought it might be best if I set it down here and kept it safe. 

It’s nothing much. It’s just this; 


Dad was really good at wallpapering. Really really good.

There. I shouldn’t forget it again now.

I suppose the reason it slipped out of my mind was that I only really saw Dad wallpapering when I was a small boy. I think wallpaper may have fallen out of fashion after that or perhaps it was simply that the wallpapering Dad did was of such a high quality that he never ever needed to do it again. Yes, that was probably it.

It’s the living room I remember best. I think we had just built a new partition to create a separate hallway between the front door and the back kitchen. Posh or what? And the resulting new wall meant that the entire living room had to be wallpapered. Dad had been an interior decorator before he had been the council rent collector so he approached this task with a large measure of professional confidence. The room was cleared and a huge folding trestle table appeared from someplace to dominate the space. There was a tub of sticky drippy paste and the widest brush I had ever seen. The wallpaper had a pattern on it but this didn’t seem to phase Dad one little bit.

The technique, as I recall it, involved laying out the rolled paper over the trestle table, sloshing it with paste and then – and this was the first of the outlandishly skilful parts – the pasted paper was somehow folded over onto itself without the paste ever touching the patterned side. This folded sheet, the same length as the height of the room was then offered-up to the wall and confidently applied. That’s when the second magic thing happened. The pattern, it aligned precisely across one sheet and onto the next. Every single time.

I had seen Dad fly-fish and had been justifiably amazed at the skill he brought to that but I had never seen him be professionally brilliant until that point. As it turns out, it was a lasting memory albeit a dormant one for many long years.

As I write that, I suddenly remember where I heard mention of wallpapering this week. I think it’s in the book ‘Netherland’ by Joseph O’Neill which, incidentally, is a wonderful read.

Sometimes I search in my head to remember little things about my parents. Those tiny inconsequential things that made them who they were to me. The big things are much easier, the love, the guidance, the late-night bollickings but the little things become ever more elusive. When they show up, from time to time, it’s good to hold on to them. This re-found memory of the wallpapering, the trestle table, the folding technique, the paste-and-brush, it momentarily evoked Dad for me in a vibrant living/breathing way that bigger memories can’t ever seem to achieve.

So roll on the small memories.

Roll on the wallpaper.

Roll on, Pops.





Reflections on a Barber’s Chair

I’m not the kind of guy who tends to linger in front of a mirror. Why the heck would I? It’s not as if it’s Richard Gere looking back out at me.

No no, a quick check that nothing is outlandishly offensive, a terrifyingly fast shave (if such is called-for), a brushing of teeth while gazing everywhere but the mouth and then off out into the day.

That’s why the Barber’s Shop can be a bit of a trial.

Don’t get me wrong, Kieran The Barber is a great guy and I’ve enjoyed going to see him every five weeks for God knows how many years now. I’ve learned a lot from him over those years, I really have.

(Photo by Fumihiro Toda)

It’s not that.

It’s the mirror, obviously, isn’t it?

I have to sit in front of this enormous mirror while Kieran goes about his good work on my mane. I can glance around the room for a while, I can study (with genuine interest) the grey sheen that now suddenly adorns the clippings on the black sheet that has been draped over me. Incidentally, is there a name for that sheet? I can’t for the life of me think what it is… and why do they need a mirror anyway? The barber doesn’t seem to use it and I certainly don’t want it and-

You see?

You see what I’m doing there?

I’m vacillating, I’m putting off the inevitable and using every diversionary technique I can summon in order to do it. I’m trying to avoid the inevitable moment when I have to raise my eyes and look at myself in that mirror.

I don’t think it’s vanity, this avoidance of my own reflection.

“How could it be vanity?” you might well say, “a vain person would be all over himself in that mirror. He’d be loving every minute of it.”

Yes but that’s vanity by someone who has something to be vain about. There’s another kind of vanity too, isn’t there? There’s the vanity of someone who is vain about who he perceives himself to be and who, in his vanity, avoids the truth of himself at all costs…

…hmmm, yes, now that I’ve written that down, I’m starting to think there may be a bit of that reverse vanity in my barbershop behaviour.

Not that I’ve ever been particularly vain or, in truth, ever had anything to be vain about, I haven’t and I’m not.

But there is something…

Here’s the thing. As I walk around, on a day to day basis, chatting to people or just passing along the way. There exists in my head a sort of mental 3D projection of the space that I am occupying in the Universe. It’s quite clear, this image I have of myself.

That’s the trouble with the Barber’s chair. Suddenly, I find myself pinned down beneath the black sheet (what’s it called?), pointed at a mirror, and shown the unavoidably painful truth. And the truth is this. I bear little actual resemblance to that mental avatar who walks the streets daily and greets everyone amicably. This ‘real’ version of me is a bit greyer, a bit saggier, a bit wider and, crucially, a fair bit older than the 3D mental Ken Avatar is.

In my head, I reckon I’m twenty four.

For a time, after some losses, I became older in my head but I’ve sprung back again and there’s no doubt in my mind that my default setting is somewhere about the twenty-four years old mark.

That guy in the mirror? He hasn’t been twenty four in a long long time. He’s fifty, mate, and he’s a darn site more real that you are.

I should get to know him a bit better, this fifty year old Ken. Gaze hard in the mirror a while longer. Spend a little more time in his company.

Twenty four has been and gone.

It’s time to face up to it.



Postcard from the Fringe


Those of you who are aware of my social media exploits may already know that my newest little play ‘The Doubles Partner’ won the inaugural Claremorris Fringe Theatre Festival on Monday last. 

This was a buzz-and-a-half, I can tell you.

Claremorris is a town that knows its Theatre. Every year, for God-knows-how-long, the Claremorris Drama Festival has attracted plays from all over the place and, every year, the town stops and soaks it all up. It’s a great place to come and do a show and now it’s been made even better, mostly by a man called John Corless.

(Photo by Michael Donnelly)

John Corless is a Tiger Tank of a man. A nice Tiger Tank. He is, first and foremost, a Writer and he doesn't like to see writing linger in a desk drawer or shoved down the seat of anybody’s pants (eh?). John was the force behind this Fringe and he birthed it, kicking and screaming, onto the floor of the Dalton Hotel over a long vibrant weekend and the people came and saw that it was good.

And it was good.

John got the whole ‘Fringe’ vibe going. He got the crowd to come down to The Dalton when the main play was over and he fed them drink and loud music to get them into good form for a bit of edgy theatre. He did it well.

One of the requirements of the Fringe was that the plays be brand new. It was also required that they be no longer than fifteen minutes long. That suited me. I like to write 'curt' and you don’t get much more 'curt' than fifteen minutes. From the off, I knew what I wanted to do. I wanted to write a full three act play and then get through it, on stage, in twelve minutes flat. I wanted the end of each of the three acts to present a major reversal in the narrative and I wanted to keep the late-evening audience awake if at all possible. In my view, an almost perfect model of this ‘three act with reversals’ story can be found in Ira Levin’s ‘A Kiss Before Dying’. Each act brings a new perspective, a solid jolt to the established scenario.

I’m pretty sure we carried that off.

I saw ‘we’ and I bloody mean it too. This competition was largely about the writing but, to present the writing of a theatre play, you need to perform it right and to do that you really need the right cast. I was lucky, I knew the right cast. Well, I knew two thirds of them anyway. Donna Ruane and Eamon Smith have been friends of mine for a long time now. Together with Oisin Herraghty, we formed our own little theatre group called KODE (our initials) and we toured some one-act plays around the country to the drama festivals. Donna and Eamon are highly accomplished performers and I wrote my fifteen minutes with them firmly in mind. Donna introduced the third member of the cast, Tara Kelly. Tara has been no less than bloody brilliant. A lovely person in real life, she adopted the ‘cold bitch’ character she needed with worrying ease. I have resolved not to ever piss her off in real life.

So we rehearsed and rehearsed and had a lot of fun doing it, as we always do. I directed but, when you’re working with a cast like this who knows their stuff, there’s not a lot to bring to the table. Thanks to The Linenhall Arts Centre for letting us into their lovely theatre to rehearse and also to Donna for letting us into her kitchen for much the same reasons.

Last Monday evening added up to, what was for me at least, a beautiful moment. There is nothing to match it, nothing at all. When you write some little thing and it gets performed as well as you could possibly hope-for and when the audience is engaged and stimulated by it, that’s good, that’s really really good. That’s what happened, for me, on Monday last. Afterwards, I honestly didn't care if I came first or last. We had come and we had given our play as good as we could and it had gone over well with the room. That was it. That was the prize.

But then, to ice the cake, we won the first prize too. 

There’s been lots of good fallout from this already. Lots of congrats. I got to talk to Gary Browne on his radio arts show on CRC FM and then I got to go back and talk to him all over again. I even got to read him a blog post or two. Most of all, I got a new play written and performed, I got to do a little theatre with my good friends and I got to entertain people. All things that I love to do. All of this is because one John Corless stuck his head above the parapet and made the Claremorris Fringe Festival a reality. Thanks, John. 

I was called upon to make a short speech on the evening, for which I was singularly unprepared. I think I covered most of what I wanted to say but I forgot one big thing and so I’d like to use this post to fix that. It was a privilege to be playing with some of the best writers from the locality and also with some fine writers from much farther afield. I saw a number of the plays over the weekend and reckoned I saw some better writing than mine. I won’t name names though. 

Finally, because it was to the front of my mind, I couldn’t let the evening go without publicly dedicating ‘The Doubles Partner’ to my Dad who had passed away exactly one year before on his 80th Birthday. Like me, Dad was a mischievous story teller. I think he would have enjoyed our fun evening in Claremorris as we played our little piece of Theatre for all the good people there.

I think he would have smiled that smile…

Caring So You Don’t Have To…

Empathy can get you in trouble. Well, mine can anyway.

I reckon I have quite a bit of empathy. It’s one of my better traits. If you’re feeling sorry, for instance, I don’t just feel sorry that you are sorry, I really feel sorry.

There was an old episode of Star Trek that had an Empath Lady on it. No, she wasn’t green and, no, Kirk didn’t roger her. I kind of identified with her, though. She had an added 'bonus empath' thing going on where she could take the bad feeling from another person into herself and make that person okay. That’s quite a cool superpower in my book.

What it means for me, in practical terms, is that I tend to stick my nose in to places where it really doesn’t belong. Whatever little scenario I may happen upon in life, I tend to pick up on the emotion of it and then I simply have to get involved.

Supposing you were at your car and you had lost your keys. You’re hunting through your pockets and your bag but you can’t find them. People may walk past you and perhaps note your slightly panic-stricken face, the manic way you fumble in your wallet. People may walk on by. Not me. I will feel your pain and, because your pain is now my pain, I will have to stop and help you look.

That’s nice, isn’t it?

Nice Ken.

Except, it isn’t. Not always. No.

Suppose you’ve lost your keys but you know you have them somewhere, it’s just a matter of a little quiet, embarrassed, slightly-manic-hunting-about-your-person. You’ll be fine, it’ll all be fine. Suddenly, though, there’s this leering buffoon in your face who wants to help you look. He’s got down and peered under your car but there’s a puddle and suddenly he’s all wet and muddy and you’ve found your keys now and everything is fine except it’s not because now the prattling buffoon is going on about how it’s not a problem that he got himself all soiled on your behalf when You Patently Didn’t Need Him To… and oh why doesn’t he please just Go Away?

Here’s the most recent time my empathy got me in bother.

I was in the local shop, as I often am on Saturday morning, getting the paper and those other bits and pieces which are central to the success of a leisurely weekend morning. There was an old-old lady there, perusing the bread section. My mind gave her a moment, some passing thought, ‘poor old-old lady, making a difficult decision over bread’, something along those lines, then I passed on.

At the check out counter, I engaged in pointless banter with the cashier lady. I always do this because she tends to thank people a lot so I like to see how many 'thank you's' I can get out of her in one go. My record is nineteen.

As I was getting checked-out, the old-old lady appeared at my side, next in line for the till. I saw straight away that she had rejected the bread option in favour of one colossal carton of milk which she was struggling to keep in her arms.

My empathy kicked in. It wasn’t just that I was sorry she was struggling with her large dairy purchase, my knees actually started buckling on her behalf. My suddenly-ancient breath started to come shallow and hard.

My groceries were taking up most of the counter top but there was a little space to one side. I turned to the lady and smiled comfortingly.

“You can rest your milk up there on the counter,” I said.

She eyed me silently… distrustfully.

“Come on,” I said, “it’s not like I’m going to steal it.”

Reluctantly, hesitatingly, the old-old lady heaved her vat of milk onto the counter and my knees buckled a little less.

There then followed a little interlude involving a bag.

I usually bring my own bag to the shop. They charge 23 cent for one and that’s just silliness. Sometimes, though, I forget and, on those days, I usually struggle back to the car with all the bits-and pieces clasped precariously in my arms. It’s not that I’m a tightwad, it’s just that 23 cent for a bag is a bit silly.

This morning, I had forgotten my bag and, this morning, I also had quite a lot of stuff. So (check out Rockefeller here) I actually splashed out on a bag. I know… a whole bag. The cashier was shocked, I was shocked. As I loaded my things in my lovely new bag, I talked to her about the wisdom of bringing your own bags while she thanked my profusely for the insight.

I left.

Yes.

Yes.

I took the old-old lady’s milk.

I got as far as the exit doors when the shout went up. “Excuse me? Excuse me?” The cashier lady was beckoning to me. “Can you come back? Thanks, thanks very much.”

The cashier was a study in grateful consternation and the old-old lady was shooting daggers at me. This is a metaphor but only just.

“What’s up?” I asked.

“It’s the milk.”

I smiled my best empath smile. “Ah, no, that milk isn’t mine, I just told this… lady she could rest it on the counter for a-”

“You took it.”

“No, I didn't.”

"Yes, thanks, you did."

I looked in my bag. There were two identical cartons of milk. Mine and Not-Mine.

I apologised to the old-old lady, a lot, and the cashier seemed grateful for this, but the old-old lady was neither forgiving not believing and her final remnant of faith in human nature was utterly blown away by this savage injustice that had been done to her.

I could tell all of this.

On account of my empathy. 





Not As Good in Real Life

Social media is great, isn’t it?

I think so anyway.

It’s something that has to be learned. From the outside, looking in, it can all seem a bit sad and low-life. All those poor people tapping away on their keyboards and smart phones, telling us what they had for breakfast, probably even taking a picture of their breakfast and showing it to us, for pity’s sake.

Those people on the outside are not wrong, of course. All of that breakfast stuff happens. All of that breakfast stuff happens all of the time.

But there’s more, isn’t there?

There’s lots of stuff in the world, lots of people who, due to Geographical Considerations mostly, are not available to you in your own town. You won’t meet them in Tesco, you won’t see them on Castle Street next to the violin shop. But it’s all there for you, it’s all there to be seen and heard and played with… on Social Media. 

More than that, it’s there to be talked to but it’s there to talk back too. What do you like? Who do you like? It’s there for you. And it may seem sad and valueless from the outside looking in and in many cases it may well be but, really, it’s as great as you wish to make it. That can be pretty darned great.

Of course there are downsides to having a social media existence. Some of them are probably of my own making and don’t relate to anybody else in the world at all anywhere.

Here’s one of them.

I am not longer as good in real life as I am on the internet.

Don’t get me wrong. This is not me saying I am good on the internet. That kind of thing doesn’t come easily to me. What I am saying is that I am even less good elsewhere. That kind of thing does come fairly easy to me.

Let me explain a bit.

I have Facebook which is by far the lesser of my Social Media playgrounds. Twitter is my thing really. To make these things work for you, you can’t just stand on the edge and watch everyone splashing about, you really have to dive in among them and swim. And, because it’s not really you, it’s a computer representation of who you are, because of that, you have to define yourself a little bit within that Social Media Swimming Pool. You can choose to do that only a very little bit, you can say whether you’re a man or a woman, what age you are, what part of the world you are in. You can do as little as you want but one thing is for sure, the longer you do it, the more information about you will seep out.

It’s like the man and his bicycle in ‘The Third Policeman’, the more he rides his bicycle, the more of his molecules are transferred over to the bike and the more the bike becomes like him. So it is with Social Media, the more we do, the more of ourselves we reveal.

Except it’s not that simple. Like it or not, subconsciously even, we will tend to give a good account of ourselves online. The photograph or drawing which we will choose to represent us will not show us with a huge nose-spot or grey underpants ridden halfway up our back. The person we depict will never be the real person and will, almost inevitably, be a smoother, sharper, less-hairy person than the real one really is.

I can only ever speak about myself. Look at me on Twitter. I have a lovely avatar drawn for me by my good friend Maria. It’s based on a photo and it looks quite like me, it really does. But it’s a smoothed-out me, a younger-than-real-life me, a several-pounds-lighter me.

This is true of the things I say too. I get to consider them, my tweets, I overwrite them then edit them down and buff them up with a virtual cloth before I send them. In real life I only get a chance to blab something out and it’s often shite, I’d often like to take it back and do it again but I can’t. In real life, if someone says something to me, I generally have to respond even if there’s no good cool answer available. Not so on Twitter, I can breeze on by and ignore. I shouldn’t but I can and I sometimes do.

I’ve been doing all this stuff for a while now, a good few years, so the Social Media Me has a bit of depth to it. Like it or not, details have been filled in. People know me on there. They know how I might react to something, they know when I might run for the hills, they know I like a laugh. It’s me, it’s really me.

But it’s that smoothed-over me.

Let’s take two aspects of me to try to elaborate, in microcosm, what I mean. Eyebrows first. My eyebrows, as depicted in my Twitter avatar are pretty good. They are well-behaved, dark and largely uniform. In real life, hitting close to fifty as I am, my eyebrows are unruly, grey-impregnated bastards which throw out lengthy tendrils of eyebrowness overnight (it seems) to catch me unawares at social occasions involving mirrors. My eyebrows are not as good in real life.

Then there’s my ‘running’. I tweet about my ‘running’ most weekend mornings after coming in from the lake. It’s not so much to brag, it’s more that I feel energised and want to share that feeling. My ‘running’, if viewed only on Social Media could be seen as a wonderful thing – a rippling Adonis easing along the glittering morning lakeside. In reality, my ‘running’ is a crimson-headed breathless stumble through unrelenting dogshite and drizzle. I know this, yet I do little to dissipate the illusion. It all serves to make me better online and more disappointing in real life.

Perhaps it was inevitable. Looking back, how could it not happen at some time along the road? The Social Media Me is now better than Me.

I am not as good in real life.

Okay.

Stop.

Hands up. I’m being deliberately stupid to try to make a point. I really am as good in real life. In fact I’m way better. All I’m trying to do is illustrate a niggling feeling that this Social Media lark can instil in you if you play with it too much for too long. This niggle that one is really a disappointment, it’s a teeny-tiny thing rather than an earth-shattering dilemma. It’s hardly anything at all.

But it does exist. On some nano-emotional level, it’s there.

Shall I tell you how I know it’s there?

There’s a moment when it shows itself, for me anyway. One moment when I really feel I’m not as good in real life as I am in my binary form. It’s when I meet someone for the first time. Someone who only knows me from Social Media. It’s only lasts for a moment then it’s gone. For that nanosecond, before the greeting, the conversation, the real life interaction kicks in, there’s that niggle.

I’m just not as good, am I?