Just a Few Thoughts on “The Force Awakens”

As somebody quite correctly said on Facebook recently, “Nobody on Facebook cares what you thought of Star Wars.”

Very true and quite right too.

This little Star Wars scribble is not intended to be a definitive critique or even a sensible opinion on the movie everyone has been talking about. It’s just my weekly word count on a subject where my mind has spent some time in the last week.

Sam and I didn’t get to see the new ‘Star Wars’ until the day before Christmas Eve. We pretty much started off our holiday with it. I had used every filter I could think of to avoid any talk, spoilers, or opinionating about the film (and look at me now, prattling on about it myself, 'hypocritical git) but Sam had been ‘spoilered’ by some lads in his classroom picking over the more intimate revelations of the plot. That was a shame but he was still intent on enjoying the experience.

Let me cut to the chase. I liked it a lot. We both did.

But I had one or two reservations... niggles.

First the ‘like’ part. It was like old times. It was gleaming and new in the places where it should have been and yet it remained retro and old in all the right places. There was emotional impact in the real world ageing of the returned central characters, something which helped me to almost believe that they really had been out there among the stars since the last time I saw them.

There was spectacle and wit and humour and nostalgia. It was good, really good. We came out pleased and satisfied.

A niggle? Here’s one. 

It seemed to me to be more of a Star Wars Tribute Film than a whole new adventure. It was how it might be if there was a pub act of Elvis Presley that was actually better than the real Elvis in every respect… except originality. Of course the new movie had to walk a line of giving the audience what they required, what they would demand. That was a given. But this film went so far with that… It was as if every scene from the original Episode 4 was jiggled ever so slightly and polished up. The threat looked and felt exactly the same, the set pieces were all unavoidably familiar. It was like Old Times. Very, very like Old Times.

Should I complain? I mean it worked brilliantly. I was entertained and a little moved and I even had a shiver or two up my spine, brought on by recognition and memory. But let’s give a little credit to George Lucas. When he went on to make the second trilogy, he may have failed in a number of respects but he went down trying. He was always striving to take us somewhere new in his Universe, always seeking to stretch out. This new offering is remarkable in how very little innovation it dares to bring. “Strap in Folks, we are going on an amazing, high octane, journey but, alas, it’s going no further than memory lane.”

Perhaps this was the opening gambit of a new trilogy that will bring us onward to places and challenges we have never imagined. Perhaps this was just the opening act, introducing us to the players, reassuring us that we are in safe hands. 

Maybe next time…

On a lesser point, I spent the film fervently wishing I was watching it in 2D. Alas the 2D option in my town will put you in a boxy little room with no sense of audience or occasion. The 3D annoyed me though, as it almost always does. No matter how they try, it always ends up looking like those gimmick stereoscopic disk viewers we had when we were kids. A couple of layers of perceived depth, unconvincingly overlaid for effect. Changes in focus over-emphasised and nothing of import being brought to the deal. Come back to the big screens 2D, we need you.

Finally, I thought the use of our Irish location, Skellig Michael, was astonishingly effective. I am aware of the issues with the protection of such a valuable place but, my golly, it looked good. I could see it becoming a movie visitors Mecca in the same way as those islands in Thailand which were used to such great effect in the Bond movie ‘The Man with the Golden Gun’ so many years ago.

You can’t please everyone. If the new movie had not been as careful and reverential as it was, perhaps it would have failed and there would be no more. As it was, we were entertained and made to feel good and we paid out enough money to enable us to have another.

In the end, that’s a win.


His Name Was Joe

I’ve changed the names and the nicknames because it’s about a real person. He is long gone now but he was very real and very large and anyone from my town will know instantly who I am talking about, despite the name changes.

He was a feature in our town when I was a child and a teenager. An apparently strident, angry old man who seemed to be constantly at odds with everybody and every thing. People called him ‘Lockjaw’ because his face was constantly set in a rigid military grimace and his posture and gait was always painfully and exaggeratedly of the parade ground. Arms swinging, jaw set, he was the very model of a military man. If you wanted an image of him, he used to remind me a little of Fulton MacCay in the old TV series, ‘Porridge’

And lots of people mocked him for it. Not so much out of pure badness, I think, but for another specific reason.

Because he always reacted to it.

People would shout his nickname at him. “Hey Lockjaw!” or “How’s it Going, Lockjaw?” and he would stop what he had been doing, usually directing traffic, and he would shout angrily at the people in a hyperactive show of belligerence. He was one of those characters that every town has and he wasn’t always treated well by some of the people of his town.

I never shouted at him or taunted him, and I was never comfortable seeing it being done, but I never did anything about it either. It was just another fact of life in the town and it was something that would never change. I did tend to avoid him though, because I found his jerky rants uncomfortable and a bit bewildering. I just stayed out of his way. I was told that he was apparently caught up irrevocably in his wartime experiences and, in his mind, the war was still going on and discipline and respect were things which needed to be maintained at all costs. 

Before the day that my Father explained things to me, I only ever encountered Lockjaw close up on one occasion. We were teenagers of about fifteen or sixteen and we had spent a late evening at a friend’s house down close to the river. The house itself had always had some historical connotations and the laneway out of the grounds was dark and winding. On the way up the lane, Lockjaw stepped out from behind a wall and accosted us in a rather dictatorial fashion.”

“You lads are on the move late. What barracks are you out of?”

My friend Shane took the lead. He answered respectfully. “We’re out of Finner Camp, Sir, we’re just heading back now.” Shane was young but he always had leanings towards the army life and having being rejected by the Irish Reserve on account of colour-blindness, he is now a very high ranking officer in an International Force. Well done, Shane, I’m proud of you mate.

Lockjaw looked Shane up and down and considered him. Eventually he responded.

“Right. Good lad. Be on your way now before they lock you out for the night.”

We left him there in the lane, in the dark. I think he was standing guard on the big house. The moon hung full and bright in the clear sky and that may or may not have played a part in his being there.

We didn’t laugh or joke at the man’s expense as we made our way home that night. We just spoke a little about how sad it was that he was out there in the night, guarding against a long dead foe.

The turning point in my slender relationship with the man they called ‘Lockjaw’ came one day when I was coming out of the local hospital with my Dad. We had been visiting someone, I can’t remember who, and as we made out way out to the car park, we came upon ‘Lockjaw’ striding in. He always had a sticking plaster on his cheek. Whether there was a wound behind it, I never knew. Perhaps he was coming in to the ward to get it dressed.

We rather got in each other’s way, my Dad and Lockjaw and me, and he seemed to be getting flustered and annoyed. Before that could escalate, my Father spoke to him in a normal everyday tone. My Dad had been the Council Rent Man for many years and he knew a thing or doing about dealing well with people.

“Hello Joe,” he said, “how are you doing?”

Lockjaw looked at him and his angry eyes cleared.

“Hello, Eddie,” he replied, “I’m not too bad, how are you?”

We passed on. That was the full extent of the exchange but it was one that coloured the rest of my life and changed instantly how I try to deal with the people I meet.

“That was Lock-“ I started to say but Dad interrupted me.

“His name is Joe,” he said, “Joe Canavaun. If you talk to him nicely, he’ll talk back to you the same way.”

Every time I met Joe after that I called him by his name and, regardless of how annoyed or distracted he was, he would return the greeting gently, perhaps wondering who this slightly familiar young fellow was.

Is there a point to this reminiscing or is that all it is to it, an old story. Maybe there is a very small point. Something along these lines perhaps. We should deal with others as we would like to be dealt with ourselves. It’s not a new thought but I think it’s a true one.

There is also some gentle magic in knowing a person’s name and, more importantly, in using that knowledge kindly. 

I wish you a Happy Christmas and a fun and exciting 2016. 

I Didn’t Have Time for This

I didn’t have time for anything. This was just last Friday morning and I was rushing across the busy supermarket car park. I was hurrying back to my office because I had about ten different things to do and wanted to get them all done and that was patently impossible.

So I didn’t have any time to spare for anybody else’s troubles or woes or difficulties. I had to keep on plan, keep going.

Yet there, in the corner of my eye, was a trouble, a woe, a difficulty.

It was only a little dog, wet and muddy and bedraggled and evidently panicked. A Bichon Frise, albeit one very far removed from the coiffured blow-dry image one might hold of that breed. This little dog was running to and fro in the traffic, dodging under the advancing wheels of cars, stumbling, changing direction, then nearly getting squashed by the next set of wheels. It was the epitome of a little dog lost and nobody seemed to notice or care.

I noticed, and cared a bit, but I didn’t have time. I had to get these things done. If I got caught up in some pointless ‘little dog lost’ drama then I would lose any possibility of getting my things done. I couldn’t do it. A shame but that’s just the way it was.

I headed onward towards my office, the dog remained a tense white blur in my peripheral vision.

Then I thought about the window in my office.

The window in my office looks out on the car park. I imagined getting up there and looking out and seeing the little dog lying dead in the car park. Finally and inevitably killed by a mixture of panic and careless pre-Christmas driving.

I turned and went back.

The dog wasn’t easily caught. Its getting lost or abandonment or whatever it was had rendered it a little feral and it bared its teeth and snarled whenever I got close and implored it to come over. Each time it stumbled and ran off again, I feared I had driven it into the next car and played a part in killing it. It was this mounting fear that drove me to literally dive, full stretch, onto the dog and, in that way, rather harshly grab it.

Now what? 

I now had a soaking wet, squirming mass of canine existence in my arms, scrabbling mud and God know what else all over my coat. Where do I go now? What do I do with it? I was kind of at a loss for a little while. 

I sought out Noel, the friendly car park man, to see if he could find me a strong piece of string. He pottered off to see what he could do while I wandered round with the ever-squirming dog, trying to pat him reassuringly without really having a spare hand to do so.

I should, as an aside, say, without bragging, that I am really good with dogs. I was brought up in a home where we always had dogs around and I like them and get on well with them. For that reason, this little fella didn’t present much of a problem to me. I held on to him, reassured him, and eventually Noel returned with some sturdy orange twine. I tied the twine around the dog’s collar – there was no name or address tag – and let him back down on the footpath, now safely on a makeshift ‘lead’. 

As soon as he hit the pavement, an amazing change came over the little dog. Suddenly finding himself on the end of a lead, the little guy became sturdy and assured and really quite relaxed. He was obviously a dog that was used to being on a lead and, now that he was back there, the world must have seemed manageable and okay again. I walked him around for a bit, hoping that somebody might run up and claim him but that didn’t happen. It was time to get on the phone.

I called the Council Dog Warden’s office and they were very nice and helpful. They said that the warden would drive down and meet me in the car park in about fifteen minutes. So, for fifteen minutes, I walked the dog. 

Many people stopped me and chatted, “Is it your dog?” or “Oh, you caught him, well done. I tried and failed.” The dog had stopped being something to ignore and had once again turned into something to admire.

The Dog Warden, a lovely lady, turned up in her little white van with the twirling vent on the top. She petted the dog and checked to see if it was electronically tagged. Quite a long shot, I reckoned. The little machine gave a warm beep. There, on the display, was the phone number of the dog’s owner. The Warden decided to take the dog back to base, check it over, and contact the number on the phone. She asked if I would like to know how it all turned out and I gave her my number.

A couple of hours later, my phone beeped like the tag reader had done. The message said, “Hi Ken. Charlie, girl dog. Home safe and sound. The owner wanted me to pass on her thanks to you. Laura dog warden.”

I didn’t get all my work done. I’m going in this afternoon to try to finish it up. I don’t mind. Stopping and helping the little mite was the best thing I did on Friday by a long, long way and it made me feel useful and worthwhile and better about things. 

As is inevitably the case with these little things, I seemed to almost get more out of it than little Charlie did. 

Coming Home

Our eldest guy has just set off back to University in Dublin. A friend’s little car, packed to the brim with students and rucksacks and laptops and headphones. His first year away is going very well. He’s embraced the oddity of being somewhere other that home and being largely responsibly for his own food and upkeep.

(Photo by Napafloma-Photographe)

When he set off, a few months ago, I wrote a post about how his going reminded me of my own going and how difficult that had been, in many ways, probably due to my having just turned seventeen and having never been away anywhere before. Today it is his coming home that sets me thinking back to my own homecomings, all those years ago. The remembering instills a measure of empathy in me as I recall the bliss of arriving home very late on a Friday evening and the dull ache of setting off again far too early on the Sunday afternoon. Our dude isn’t displaying any of that that. He arrives with a smile and leaves with a smile, but I’d bet there’s a little lick of it somewhere.

For my own part, it is safe to say that I was homesick for a considerable part of my first year in college. Everything I reckoned I knew had been pretty much whipped out from underneath me and everything new seemed strange and oddly darker and colder than that which had gone before. 

I loved to head for home on a Friday evening. I got in the habit of skipping the last lecture on the afternoon and seeing whatever new film was opening in or around the city centre. Then I could get a quick Quarter Pounder with Cheese and hop the waiting coach in the middle of O’Connell Street. The journey took about four and a half hours back then, with the first hour being a desperately slow trudge out through the suburbs of Lucan and Palmerstown. The windows of the coach were invariably steamed up on the inside from the mass of homeward bound humanity within. The coach driver (always the same man) had a limited supply of cassette tapes and he would start to run through them when we cleared Dublin and the radio programming became more erratic. I reckon I could still sing all of the greatest hits of, first, Rod Steward and, then, Kenny Rodgers in the exact order in which they played each and every week. By ten o’clock, the sounds from the bus stereo always seemed to become hazy and less coherent, as if the atmosphere above the Roscommon Curlews were not conducive to any kind of modern technology. Dozy, exhausted, glass smearing, naps were attempted and, well before Sligo was achieved, bags were pulled down and held on laps in anticipation of a quick jump from the bus outside of the police station.

From there it was an easy ten minute walk home. Dad would have come and met me but the arrival time of the bus was highly variable and there were no mobile phones to warn of our imminent arrival. It was just easier to walk. It was quite pleasant too. Even on a typically drizzly night, the terraced houses and distant church seemed to gain a heightened, other-worldly, aspect perhaps in the same manner as Tom Waits’ pronouncement that he "never saw his home town 'til he stayed away too long". Five days had been too long. 

At home, the greeting was low key but highly pleasant. There was a prime seat in close to the fire and an excessive helping of freshly baked apple tart, a blob of cream, and a mug of over-sweet tea. I will fill in some details of the week, invariably accentuating the positive at every turn. Then the parents would turn in and I would have the warm living room to myself. I would stay up late to prolong the feeling. 

Going back on Sunday was okay but really not okay at all. The bus was there again in the car park. My friends would sometime wave me off and I would quietly and burningly envy them their leisurely return to their homes and their native beds. In Dublin by half ten or eleven, there was a half hour walk up through north Dublin to get to the house where I stayed. I would go to bed almost immediately and listen to a Dublin radio station on my tiny black plastic clad transistor radio. I would fall asleep to a silly DJ playing smoochy requests for teen city lovers and so the count would begin.

I started counting down to the Friday bus right from the moment I arrived. Tuesday night was the cusp of the counting, where the uphill part was peaked and the downhill run could begin. With Tuesday night over, three sleeps had been completed and only two remained. Although the week was not yet half over, it could be made to seem like it was by clever counting like this and I did it all the time.

Of course it wasn’t all misery and homesickness and longing. There was good times and fun and learning and new friends. But, basically, at the back of it all, there was the distant call of home and the overriding desire to follow the Kenny Rogers songs back to there and then never to leave again. 

Sticking to what I Know

I’ve had such a great time with my motley collection of theatre plays over the last few years and next year is shaping up excellently too. It got me thinking and wondering a bit, which is not unusual.

I started asking myself whether I shouldn’t just stick to what I seem to know at least a little bit about.

Somehow, over the last ten years, I feel I have learned some stuff about writing for theatre. Of course I could be completely wrong and this post might just be the after-buzz of some excellent nights out watching my own words being played. But maybe it’s not. All the theatre I've done, the four plays I’ve acted in, the short plays I’ve written and directed, and the longer teen and adult plays, some of which have now seen a number of different productions. If only by osmosis, I seem to have got a feel for what might work in a theatre and what won’t. How long the audience’s patience can be tried, how to get the points across, how to make ‘em laugh and (much tougher) make ‘em cry.

Yes, the more I think about it, the more I reckon that the theatre space offers a language that I can express myself in.

And it’s such a rewarding thing, particularly for a guy like me who is a storyteller at heart. Storytelling seems harder to me when I am removed from the person who’s hearing the story. Things like prose and even Radio or TV involve beaming the story out into the ether and hoping that some meagre signal might, in some way, bounce back. Because storytelling is a two way deal, the listener subtly giving back something integral to the teller.

For me, the storyteller, the theatre can be an almost perfect place. Only, of course, when things are going well. When things are going badly, it’s another matter altogether and probably one for another day. My delight is to sit or stand at the back of the hall and take in the vista of the performance and the audience all together. In those moments when they become ‘as one’ it is almost like a dance and one that is lovely to watch. 

Even on the nights when I am not in the room when a play is being done, I am always aware of it. Wherever I am, I am always thinking stuff like ‘they’re going on now’ or ‘they’re half-way through’. Always wishing everybody in the room, audience and players alike, good things.

There is so much good in it for me and yet still I don’t fully commit to it. I don't commit to it in several ways. Firstly, I am the world’s worst at sharing my plays and at making them generally accessible. One of the plays is on a national database and that is the play that has been performed the most. Another is published in a book and that is the second most performed play. Generally, productions come about because somebody has seem the play elsewhere or heard of it by word of mouth. It’s surprising to me that I get the amount of action I do from such tiny and tenuous links. I see other writers with neat, collated, online information about their plays and I know I should do the same… I know it. (Stops to make a note to do it) (But won’t).

That’s not the main thing, of course. The real way I don’t commit is by not writing the next play. Granted, I have written a new 15 minute one for next year’s Claremorris Fringe and I wait to see if I might be accepted. The entry is stronger every year and some of these years I won’t get in, that’s only fair. Apart from that though, I haven’t written a new longer theatre play in a while. I like to tweak the existing ones after some productions when improvements and gaps present themselves to me from the stage but that’s it for the theatre writing. 

At the moment, I’m writing a new novel. I’m really enjoying doing it and I think it’s actually quite a good one this time. So that’s okay, right? 

But is it?

I haven’t proved anything to myself in the art of book writing, although I would dearly love to. Perhaps it just isn’t my thing. Perhaps I have more tools available to me for operating in the theatre environment. Perhaps my  desire to achieve the permanency of a book or three, as opposed to the transient, passing, nature of theatre, is keeping me from doing the work where I might actually one day make a serious impact on something.

I don’t have the answer. It’s just a question I ask myself when one type of writing is going well and I’m not doing very much of it.

I think it’s a game my head is playing with me. For me, writing a book is a constant battle against the urge to stop doing it. The anti-book-writing demons sit one my shoulder and tell me that I am not cut out for this game and that I should jack it in and go and write the next play instead.

I don’t think I’ll listen to them. 

Not just yet.

I think I’ll continue to take the time and get this new book to a presentable draft and then I will present it and see how the cookie crumbles from there. I know a book wouldn’t change anything much, except in my head. But it would change a lot there. It would be another major wall I'd have climbed. 

Plus the thought of somebody out there curled up and reading a really intricate story I had created would warm me like the theatre plays do on those long evenings when I can’t be there. 

That Was Some Theatrical Fortnight

What a fortnight it’s been.

Two of my theatre plays had productions in the last  two weeks and I managed to get out on the road and see both of them. It was a very rewarding experience.

One of the many joys of my lucky life is seeing my little theatre plays performed. It’s not an easy thing for anybody to do, the putting on of a play. In fact it’s quite remarkably hard. For me to see so many great people put so much time and effort into something I cooked up here at this tatty little desk... well, it’s quite the compliment. People often say how they feel humbled when lovely things happen to them. I don’t, I feel buzzed and elevated and as high as a kite. 

First up, nearly two weeks ago now, was The Hillside Players in Ardpatrick, Co. Limerick, who took on ‘Midnight in The Theatre of Blood’ for the Hallowe’en Season. Hillside are a well established group with a long tradition of great productions but this was their very first venture into Youth Drama. They didn’t do it in any half measure. The full body of the adult membership was evidently on hand throughout, mentoring, directing, producing, lighting and generally providing a remarkable back up network. They were rewarded with as large a cohort of talented and enthusiastic young people as I have seen. My compliments in particular go to them. They took on two plays for their show and the large casts in both required than many actors had to double up. That’s a lot of stuff to learn. A lot. The cast brought personality and fun and some genuine emotion to the evening and they all should be damn proud of themselves.

The good people at Hillside had a lovely seat for me right up the front and that was lovely… except I never want to sit at the front. My place is right at the back. There I can see what the audience is doing and that’s how I learn things from each production I see. Are there moments when my writing causes them to flag and look around? Where do they nudge their companion in a subtle acknowledgement that some small truth may have been told? Where do they throw their head back and laugh and, yes, where do they shuffle their bums and perhaps shed a little tear? It’s funny how I go along with the plays myself. Laughing and bum-shuffling. Just another audience member, delighting in the vista before me. 

Hillside have some great youth actors and I hope that the two wonderful evenings they all created together will encourage them to reconvene next year to delight their audiences yet again. I was glad to be a part of it this year. 

This week, then, it was on to Carnmore in Co. Galway for the second theatre production of ‘Conception, Pregnancy and Bert. This was originally written and produced as a radio play for St Patrick’s Drama Group in Westport. It went on the National One Act Theatre circuit last year and that’s were Compántas Lir saw it. Oisin Heraty drove down with me. It was he who directed it for Clann Machua Drama Group in Kiltimagh last year and we were both keen to see the new production. Little did we know the memorable nature of the evening we were driving into.

Even if nothing unexpected had happened, Compántas Lir put on a great show. The large community hall was replete with long tables and then we arrived, just barely in time thanks to a dense fog, the place was packed to the rafters with patrons seated along these tables in the expectation of good theatre, and cheese, wine, tea, coffee, biscuits and sweets at the interval. This was Supper Theatre. It was new to me and, boy, I liked it. 

I could tell from the first play that Compántas Lir were seriously good. There was an attention to detail and a care with the material that stood out. Their audience came along with them all the way and the performances were brilliant such that, by the time the interval and the cheese came, the place was fairly buzzing.

As my own play started, I felt my usual tingle of anticipation. How would it all go for them? Okay, I hoped. I needn’t have worried. The players and the director has evidently worked and worked this production, tapping the sides of my script for every beat they could find. The audience quickly adapted to my slightly unusual approach to narrative and we were away and flying. It was going brilliantly and I could not have been happier.

Then all the lights went out. 

The tables were candle lit so we weren’t in pitch darkness and the scene that the actors were in the middle of rather lent itself to the blackout. The cast continued through the scene, masterfully keeping the pace up throughout. Then somebody came on and announced that the entire area had suffered a power outage and there was no word, as yet, on when it might come back.  Nevertheless, the announcer continued, the show will go on.

I said, a few paragraphs back, that I could not have been happier. That wasn’t actually true. When the play came back on, lit by torch and mobile phone light, with sound effects and music by the cast and a back beat from the feet of the audience, everything just seemed to go up a further notch. A production that was obviously excellent to start with became a sort of a communal effort which had immediacy and a frisson of something unique being in train. 

None of that would have meant a thing if the production had not been so very strong. The performances and the direction were so adept that the technical challenges of the evening could never have caused the show to founder. In the end, I felt that many people in the audience went away thinking they had seen something special. I know I did.

So, thank you, to Hillside Players from Limerick and to Compántas Lir from Galway. Thank you for lots of things. For taking on my scribblings. For raising the tiny indentations on a page out and up to something magical. 

For letting me continue to be a part of the making of theatre. 

William Gallagher's New Blogging Book

My good pal William Gallagher has written a new book about blogging. How to do it, why do it, all of that good stuff. There is no better man to write a book like this and, if you want to blog or blog better (and who doesn’t?) you should get hold of it. 

It’s out today. That’s a photo of the cover right there. I kid you not. He writes a little about this book on his blog today, which is appropriate and ironic all at the same time. Here’s a link to that post:

But get this: just because I (allegedly) made some minuscule contribution to this book, William says I can actually offer you a 40% discount on it. This is fun for me because I’ve never had an offer to offer before. I feel quite giddy and may have to sit down for a spell. 

Wait, there’s a catch. I can only offer this offer if I also include this quote from him. 

“Ken’s weekly blog is the reason I got into blogging regularly and it’s the reason I wrote this book. I want to write like he does and I love that I got him to talk to us about what exactly he does.”

Bah. There’s always something. He’s being too kind, of course. He can’t help it. It’s in his nature

You can buy the paperback and kindle editions at Amazon http://bit.ly/amazon-uk-blogging-book but he’s  also done a special PDF edition and, because I’m in it, you can have it for 40% off. Use the discount code “ken” at http://bit.ly/blogging-book

An offer… can you believe it?

William is well worth reading. He knows his stuff. He has spent a lot of time in the world of professional writing and he’s picked up a lot along the way. It’s a good reason to read his latest book. 

But, as well as a good reason, there is also a great reason. William is just a great guy. He is driven to write, something we have in common, and he approaches everything he does with a totally original combination of warmth, humour, attention to detail, and solid unwavering backbone. William is the writer we should be, taking joy and encouragement from his successes while shrugging off whatever setbacks may arise and soldiering on regardless.

He is also generous to a fault, as can be witnessed from the ludicrously kind thing he made me type above.

I wish William every success with his new book. I’ve been blogging for quite a while now and I get all of the fulfillment, hatred, frustration, creativity, companionship, loneliness, inspiration, pain and joy that I could wish for from doing it.

Go on, William, show us how it’s done. 

A Few SPECTRE Thoughts

If I had to define my relationship with the character of James Bond, I would probably have to say “It’s Complicated’. As I’ve covered elsewhere, I grew up with him, through all his incarnations, and I have regularly (but not always) been excited by the prospect of seeing the latest one, be it in book or movie form.

I saw SPECTRE on Monday evening, at the same time as the London premiere. That gave me the unusual luxury of seeing it before a general consensus about it seeped into my awareness. 

Seeing it caused me to ask myself, what is a James Bond movie now? What is it seeking to be?

Primarily, it’s seeking to make money. Let’s not be naive. But one feels the current team are trying to make money with a large quota of integrity and care thrown in. For that reason, it’s not overly silly to probe a little deeper into the motivation.

I think James Bond is now a fairy tale. Perhaps it always has been. It is a prince slaying a dragon, winning a comely maiden and claiming the spoils. I think the people who make James Bond are trying to continue to sell me this fairy tale, as an adult, without making me feel unduly childish or dim.

The Bond people have a number of tools which they employ to try to engage me in their fairy tale. These include, spectacle, a level of edginess, a dash of humour, an involvement in the actual making of the fairytale a sprinkling of human truth and, perhaps most powerful of all, nostalgia. If these things are administered correctly, the result can be a Bond film that, literally, plays fast and loose with everything but which also takes me along with it, diverted, entertained, and not made to feel like a fool.

Here, then, we have SPECTRE. 

For me, the film succeeded very well. By employing all those devices I mentioned, as well as a few more, it succeeded in carrying me along with the fairy tale one more time. Casino Royale is still the best of these modern fairy tales, and I don’t think it can be bettered, but I would go so far as to say that SPECTRE did it better than Skyfall did. I enjoyed Skyfall at the time I saw it but the effect dissipated somewhat the further away from the cinema I got. Grown men eaten by casino lizards, Loads of posturing on buildings and boats, and the worst Scottish plan ever devised all rather served to blow the fairy tale away. 

Perhaps that will happen with SPECTRE too. Strike that, of course it will. I’m a grown man and, as a little times progresses, the silliness will rise to lessen the effect of the fairy tale through inevitable DVD, Netflix and TV viewings. What will be the first thing to dispel the fairy tale? Will it be that unlikely costume change on the train. Or perhaps it will be the 48 hours of mission leeway that must have been mostly wasted by driving a posh car to Italy? Who knows?

But, hey, on the night, in the crowded cinema, far too close to the screen, there where times when I was a little bit like a boy again except this time I was enjoying the technicalities and the huge dollops of nostalgia, as much as the action.

A word for Craig, who has worked his way into becoming James Bond in a way nobody else ever has. Connery had all the advantages of being the first and thus the ‘real’ Bond. But Craig has struggled to make it fit him and by gosh he’s done it in spades.

I’ll finish with a prediction, like they do at the end of all the James Bond titles.

Daniel Craig will return, just one more time.

And the next movie title will, like the previous two, have seven letters… 

… and it will start with a ‘B’.

Is It Growing On Me or Am I Shrinking Into It?

I was asking myself this question yesterday. I don’t think I’ve come up with an answer yet but sometimes when I type it all out there is some sense at the end. Not always. Let’s see.

It’s not an earth-shatteringly important question or anything so, if you’re after one of those, you'd best rush back to Twitter because there’s probably another one due along at any minute.

It’s just about songs... and maybe some other stuff. Sometimes I hear a new song and I don’t like it very much. Then I hear it again and again and, yes, again and, suddenly, I seem to like it a little more and then a little more than that. It grows on me. Or does it? Is the song growing on me or is it more the case that I am shrinking myself into it?

Let’s take a case in point. The new Bond song. ‘The Writing’s On The Wall’. I heard it. I did not like it. I thought the higher range parts sounded strained and uncomfortable and that is was without the subtle edge that one expects from this type of thing. I heard it again, I did not like it. I heard it again, still no.

Then, on Friday night, after not hearing it for quite a while, I saw Sam Smith singing it on Graham Norton’s show. Wait. Stop the presses. I liked it a bit. Since then, it’s been in my head, I’ve been humming it a bit. The bit I like best is when it goes from the upper register to the words ‘’For you’. I still don’t love it, nor do I even like it a lot but there’s no doubt I now have more time for it that I did when I first heard it and hated it.

What’s that all about? Am I becoming more open with each listen to the tones and nuances of the production or am I just a big slut, falling for something that is being repeatedly thrown into my face?

There were a few elements at play on Friday night. Firstly, I didn’t really know anything about Sam Smith. I knew he sang songs and has been noted as a vocalist but I hadn’t really come across him much except in passing radio tunes. I thought he presented as a very likable person, nervous, vulnerable, a bit overwhelmed and chuffed and then he went and performed his song very well. I found myself on his side. Plus, he had a mid sized orchestra, all giving it heaps, some good lighting and a widescreen cinema format. I like all of these things. Add to this the fact that I knew the song a little now and I could almost feel my brain walking along the peaks and troughs of the melody as it was being sung. There is not doubt, I was being brought along gently and it was working. Also, I’m an unapologetic James Bond devotee and I’m looking forward to seeing the new one on Monday night at the same time as the World Premiere is happening. All of this contributed to an almost hypnotic state wherein I found I could at least find peace with the song.

Looking at all the evidence, I can’t help but feel that it is me who is getting more compliant in my acceptance of the tune as opposed to the wonder of the song being gradually revealed to me. It’s like an advert on the telly, which I might see over and over again, and then end up singing happily along with. It’s like that.

There you go. We got an answer.

But, wait, it’s not the only answer. There are definitely times where I gradually come to respect and, yes, love, a song where first I felt nothing for it. I’m trying to think of an example and, as I do, it’s Tom Waits who I inevitably think of. I’ve been a huge fan of Tom Waits since I was a teen and I love much of his work but, sometimes, when he brings a new album out, I don’t get what he’s doing. The work can seem gratuitously arrhythmic and random. Then, after a time, I start to see the value. Take for instance on ‘Frank’s Wild Years’, Tom has a song called ‘Please Wake Me Up’. At first it seemed impenetrable and slight but slowly the melody and the value emerged for me until now it is a personal favourite. You could look at ‘Green Grass’ from the album ‘Real Gone’ in the same way.

So, you see, sometimes it’s a real thing, this 'growing'.

I think the truth of the matter may be quite simply stated. Two people said it to me at the same time when I asked this question on Twitter yesterday. They said: It depends on the song.

That’s probably it. It depends on the song. Sometimes you fall in love legitimately, sometimes you get duped, and sometimes it’s a little bit of both.

As I told you at the start, this may not be just about a song. 

Nothing to Say

Occasionally, there comes a time when I have nothing to say. This morning is one of those. Usually there’s something in the course of a week that causes a tiny spark and you say, “Yup, I can write a little something about that,” and then you’re sorted for that week. A blog post will evolve.

But some weeks – like this week – nothing gels or, sometimes, too many things gel such that you can’t nail one down. I’d be bluffing if I said this was one of those weeks. Nope, it’s a nothing week, really.

The temptation, this morning, was clearly to write nothing at all for the blog. I’m writing quite hard on another thing so it’s not like writing would not be done. Plus nobody is going to give a flying feck if something turns up on the blog or not. It’s fine if it does and it’s equally fine if it doesn’t. The only person who cares is me. It’s a long standing part of my writing regime and if I don’t get it done, I’ve failed. 

I was going to write nothing but a creeping sense of laziness and failure has been rather spoiling my morning here and interfering with the myriad other things I have to get done. So, rather ironically, it seems that the only way I can get my important stuff done is to do this singularly unimportant stuff first.

It’s an odd feeling. Typing a line and not really having a clue what the next line or paragraph will contain. I’m usually reasonably well ‘road-mapped’ out and I nearly always know where I’m going to end up. Not today, bud.

The whole blogging thing has rather died a death anyway, hasn’t it? I enjoy the habit and I have some measure of pride in the body of writing that has slowly amassed over the years of doing it. I think it presents as good a snapshot of me as there is in the world. That’s all pretty good. But the idea of blogging to be read by others has largely fallen away. People get their fix of stuff directly from Social Media now rather than following the trail of links down to some cul-de-sac overblown diary entry. This removes some of the motivation for writing the thing too. You write it and polish it up a bit and, really, it’s ninety percent for yourself. There’s no bitterness or disappointment in that, it’s just hard not to arrive at a particular Sunday and say, ‘fuck it, let’s do something else instead,’

But I’d like to keep on. I think it helps my other writing, this weekly collating of a thought or two into eight hundred semi-coherent words. It’s like lifting a small weight to keep a bicep in trim, except the muscle in question is the elusive writing muscle.

* * * *

I’ve been on one of my John Barry kicks this week. I think it’s a heady mixture that keeps me coming back. In one part, it’s obviously the wonder that is his film music but, on an equal footing, it’s the way his film music ties inextricably into my life and how it continues to evoke moments and memories from times when the music first played. One of the stand out tracks, this week, was the end theme from ‘High Road to China’. I remember seeing it on the Friday Night Late Show in Sligo back when it first came out. I have little memory of the film but (am I projecting here?) I seem to remember a quiet satisfaction with the romance which the film contained. Listening to the music now, I can see how to feel that would have been almost unavoidable. Like his work for ‘Somewhere in Time’, John Barry often seemed to elevate the basic filmic material far beyond any place it could have ever got to without him.

* * * *

I’m currently plotting a thing. A writing thing. Everybody has different ways. For me, I can’t successfully plot until I start writing. I can do cards and matrixes and spreadsheets and wall charts and it’s all just for shite until I actually start writing. I must write something, anything at all, to get the process started. Then the jigsaw pieces start flying all over the place, multiplying, subtracting and, occasionally, satisfyingly, falling into place. It’s fine. I just wish I could remember this for the next time and stop trying to work everything out before I get going. I’ve wasted so much time trying to do that. I know it’s works for you but this is me here and I’m odd.

Have a nice day. 

Bursting Balloons

As I was telling you in last week’s post, my son John overcame a considerable fear of loud unexpected noises by seeking a little professional help. It is something I would wholeheartedly recommend you do if you have a fear or phobia that is hindering you in life.

One aspect of John’s success was a gradually increasing exposure to the stuff that bothered him. I probably shouldn’t even say that because, before you begin, the very idea of being in any proximity to the object of your fear is probably enough to keep you away. But, please rest assured, the exposure was done at a pace designed to be comfortable for the subject and, indeed, was lead by the subject at all times.

To give you an idea of the process. The first week of exposure was with balloons which were not even blown up. This may have seemed patently silly to all concerned, as indeed it did to us, but it also served a useful purpose. It made a statement that nothing hasty of threatening or pressurised was about to take place. As John and I sat with our flaccid balloons, we both felt rather idiotic but we both self safe too and that was a great place to start. 

In subsequent weeks, the exposure slowly expanded, as did the balloons. Balloons were a ready source of potential unexpected bangs and, indeed, were a particular bugbear of John’s so they were good to work with. Over the weeks, we spent a lot of time with balloons, individual balloons, pairs of balloons and, ultimately, rooms full of balloons. Eventually familiarity began to set in. A level of comfort was gained. 

We moved on to bursting balloons. First I did them all then eventually John would burst his own balloons. Then there were unexpected balloon bursts all over the house. Week by week, the exposure comfortably increased as, by inverse proportion, the problem lessened.

There was never a tangible ‘eureka’ moment. It was just an easy series of progressions towards the eradication of a problem that had, at first, seemed totally insurmountable. Perhaps the moment when the immensity of the improvement really sank in was a few years later when John emerged from a huge rock concert, having spent the entire time right at the front, loving the full assault of the earth shaking noise. If you have to start with the relative foolishness of a limp balloon to get to that then I’ll take it every time.

My abiding memory of the entire process is from the evening that John and I resolved to burst our very first balloon together. We had spent weeks, by this time, just spending hours in the company of balloons and they had become second nature to have around. Nonetheless, the bursting of one, even at an agreed moment, was still quite a considerable step forward. 

We sat on the bed and I held on to the balloon. It was agreed that, when John felt ready, he would count down from three and I would then burst the balloon with the long thin sewing needle I had at the ready. It all felt very safe and controlled. No problem at all, just the small matter of a balloon to be burst.

It took a while but John eventually got himself in the place where he could start his countdown to the bursting.

“Three, Two, One.”

I prodded the balloon with the sewing needle. 

It didn’t burst.

Oh damn. This was a critical moment. We had got to this milestone at last and I couldn’t even pop the bloody balloon. I gathered myself quickly, held the needle tight and plunged it as hard as I possibly could into the taut skin of the balloon. It burst with a satisfyingly loud bang. 

It was fine. The bang had been entirely expected and the flinch was nothing more that any of us would do in the same circumstances. It was a huge success and an undoubted key stage in the whole process. 

“Great,” I enthused, throwing in a hug for good measure, “you head off now and congratulate yourself on how well you’ve done.” 

John headed off, every bit as pleased as he deserved to be. We burst many many balloons together after that first.

As for me, after my failed first attempt at the balloon, I had perhaps been too desperate to succeed. I had hit the balloon so hard with the needle that my attack had followed through, striking the top of the bed and I had driven the back part, the eye of the needle, right through the fleshy part of my index finger. The eye had been forced in one side of my finger and out the other. I had needed to keep this on the ‘down low’ in case it became a new unwanted association with balloons. As soon as John was gone though, I was able to hop around and swear as much as was needed to punctuate the shock of seeing my finer impaled on a sewing needle. 

I pulled the needle out and it bled like a stuck pig for a while but it was fine. Subsequent balloon/needle-work was carried out using a heavily sellotaped needle. 

Oh, and my finger swelled up like a balloon, which was ironic. 

Facing Things That Scare You

One of the best parts of this year came via our eldest son John, who finished school this year and has now moved on to University. Near the end of the school year, he and three other students were asked to write and deliver a speech to their peers about where life might take them from here. John chose to speak on the subject of ‘Being Brave’. This was a memorial speech for a much loved teacher who had sadly passed away the previous year. 

At the final formal gathering of the year, the school principal quoted heavily from this speech and finished by saying that John was ‘wise beyond his years’. We, in this house, tend to concur on that point.

John’s speech talked about the importance of being brave in pursuing the things hat you are passionate about rather than those matters that society might push you towards. But the speech also went somewhere a bit more personal. 

At the podium, poised gracefully on the end of a length of string, stood a large red helium-filled balloon. Near the end of the speech, John took a long needle and burst this balloon, full in his own face. 

As a demonstration of personal bravery and of conquering one’s own personal fears, this could not have been more apt. When John was only a little mite, he had a balloon accidentally burst in his face at a family gathering and this was the start of a childhood/teenage existence defined by a very real fear of loud, sudden, and unexpected noises. 

You might say, “we all have that”, and, indeed we probably do but not to the degree where one could not remain in a room where there was a balloon or where thunderstorms brought enormous anxiety and discomfort. It was a childhood of turning up at parties and going home again on account of the decorations, of enveloping oneself in headphones when the weather was stormy, of sitting in the movies with fingers in ears until the initial burst of the advertising slogan had ended.

It might not sound like much but it was a thing which subtly coloured many other things. So subtle that it was difficult to say exactly what they were. They only came clearer when John sorted the problem out, moved on, and everything got a little bit better. 

Because that’s what he did. He sorted it and moved on and that’s the point of this week’s post. If you’ve got some kind of phobia or dread fear, it is easy to think that any potential cure is a quack remedy that will invariably fail. This is not the case. Although there are undoubtedly gimmicky quack practitioners who delight in dramatic outcomes, the professional, qualified approach is level-headed and thoughtful and it brings results. It’s the reason that John could stand in front of his classmates and burst a huge balloon inches from his face. It’s the reason that that which was once unthinkable was achieved. 

“How was it done?” you might ask. There was no magic potion or trance or Voodoo of any kind. There was a series of sessions with a psychologist (which I also attended, so I know how they went), there were discussions and exercises and a series of gently escalating exposures to the object of the fear. There were coping mechanisms for times of stress and there were clear explanation that there was nothing wrong here that could not be fixed. 

It took a few months, once a week. It was never terrifying or uncomfortable. It worked.

Very few people would actually relish having a balloon burst in their face or to be stuck in a violent thunderstorm and it’s fair to say that John probably wouldn’t relish it even today. But he could deal with it much easier now. Much easier.

It is also important to note that, even in the height of his phobia, John would always brave things whenever he absolutely had to. If he had to be in a room with a bunch of balloons, if he had to be close to a firework show, he always made it work. But the sweat-popping stress of it, and the toll it would take, made it something we could never ask him to do.  

It needed a little outside help and that outside help worked a treat.

My advice? If you have a kid who is fearful of something, find a little gentle qualified help for them. You won’t regret it. 

The Multi-Sensory Experience of the Early Peanut M&M

When I was five years old, my Granny and Granddad went to America to attend the wedding of their youngest daughter. 

I think they went for a full three weeks and the photographs that came back were extraordinary. Granddad, a flat capped stevedore all of his life, was seen all-decked-out in a gleaming white tuxedo with pale blue collar trim.

They arrived back with gifts for my two older brothers and me. I believe that I remember these gifts very clearly, although I may be wrong. As I recall, my eldest brother got a cassette tape recorder, one of those ones that came in a black leatherette case and had one little control that you pressed back to rewind, forward to fast-forward and upwards (click) to play. My next–oldest brother got a Polaroid Camera.

Apparently, I was the cause of some consternation. These were top end presents and everybody was quite at a loss as to what could be got for me. The story goes that my new uncle, a wonderful man in every way, came in from work on the evening before the journey home to Ireland and placed a box on the table saying, “This is for Kenneth”.

It was a watch. A gold Timex watch. For me.

The was a special aura about that watch. It was presented with a sense of awe, almost as if it was far too valuable a present for such a small boy. That was probably part of the show, a ploy to stop me from being too jealous of my elder brothers’ bounty. I would never have been jealous. I had my watch, my gold watch.

Photographs of me from the subsequent years almost always featured the watch prominently, in much the same way that a film about a relationship will often tend to show the wedding rings clearly. I loved that watch, wore it for a full decade after I got it, and never quite got over the thrill of such a serious grown-up gift for such a small fellow.

But there’s a thing.

Suppose I was kidnapped by Martians tomorrow and they put me in one of their advanced machines to extrapolate my memories in order to recreate, in physical form, the things I remember. Suppose they tried to recreate my gold watch which I wore and consulted for so many years. The truth is, they wouldn’t get very much. My memories are very much related to how I felt about that watch rather than what it actually was. The Martian Dream Machine would probably create a warm cloud of fuzziness with a golden hue and little more.

Now, suppose they further tapped my memories and found that other thing that my Granny and Granddad brought back from America when I was five years old. Supposing they were to recreate that. It would drop, fully realised into the dream item dispenser and it would be quite, quite perfect. 

I had never seen anything like them before. Before they arrived, we had chocolate and penny chews and lollipops and sticks of rock but there had never been a smooth, crunchy, Technicolor treat such as this. The Peanut M&M, circa 1968. 

Granny and Granddad brought huge hoards of them back from the States and they kept them in the sideboard cupboard tucked away behind the delph plates and bowls. Every Sunday Visit was an unbearable wait for the little bags to be brought out and distributed. They were, in one word, Treasure.

The more senses a thing assails, the better I remember it. There was a particular smell to the seaside bus on a Summer’s day, just as you climbed aboard. Now and again, I catch a hint of that smell, a hint of trapped sunlight and dull air, and I am  rushed back to those huge sandy-ridden steps up to the bus driver.

M&Ms came when I was five and assailed all of my senses at once. Visually, the three base colours - yellow red and green. Aurally, the crunch. Taste, obvious. Touch, the smoothness of the product, the sophistication and other-worldliness of the packaging. Smell, a chocolatey hint, released as soon as the bag was opened. 

It’s for this reason that M&Ms remain special to me. I had a crafty packet only yesterday and that’s why I’m writing this now. The effect of biting into the first was a little like Peter O’Toole’s food critic in the Pixar Film when he places a forkful of Ratatouille into his mouth and is immediately transported to a simpler time, far far away. 

People say to me, “Why do you like those M&Ms? There are much nicer things you could enjoy.”

The truth is, there isn’t. There just isn’t. 

A Second Innisfree

The Linenhall Arts Centre celebrates its 25th Birthday this year. It's one of my favourite places in the world and I've made the best of friends there.

I scribbled this 'note and doggerel' piece as a sort of a birthday card.

As far as I can recall, my Dad only ever knew one poem and he recited it often and at the oddest moments. It was, of course, 'The Lake Isle of Innisfree' by WB Yeats.

I say ‘of course’ because we grew up along the Garavogue River which runs from Lough Gill down to the sea. It is there, ‘of course’, that Yeats’ famed island resides. 

A word for tourists. If you get in a bus or a car in Sligo, and ask them to take you to see the Lake Isle of Innisfree, it’s highly likely that they won’t. With the best intentions in the world, they will take you to a tiny tree-ridden blob off the rocky shore close to Dromahair and, yes, although it is called ‘Innisfree’, it is not Yeats’ Innisfree. That honour, in my view, goes to the Island known locally as ‘Church Island’. No bus can take you there but, if you can ever find yourself a handy boatman, you should go. Just go.

We spent much of our childhood coming and going from Yeats’ Innisfree. Not thinking of it as a place from a poem but rather as a place of undiluted magic and, yes, a place of peace. We fished along the Rookeries just off its shore and we sheltered under the trees and warmed ourselves with smoke formed tea, as the rain drew huge ever-expanding circles on the flat calm water. 

We knew what it was to really have Innisfree. 

What, you may ask, does all this have to do with the business in hand? The Linenhall's twenty fifth Birthday Celebrations?

It’s simple, really. After a childhood happily spent in the environs of the original, I was blessed enough to find a second Innisfree. And it is here at the Linenhall. 

I could extol the virtues, sing the praises. I could do all that.  But the best that I can do is to simply tell you this once more. That The Linenhall is my Innisfree. 

So, with apologies to WB, wherever his bones may lie, I have tampered with his poem to turn it into a sort of twenty-fifth birthday card to my friends who keep the magic alive.

The Lake Isle of Linenhall

I will arise and go now, and go and see Marie
And Maura, Orla, Oisin, Ian and all the friends I’ve made.
Music will be played there, and many plays I’ll see,
And live in the Art that is their stock in trade.

And I shall have some peace there, for peace comes dropping slow.
Dropping from the old stone of the building to where conversation springs
There morning’s a little brighter and noon is coffee flow
And evenings full with the chance of better things.

I will arise and go now, for always night and day
I smell the warmth of welcome, scones, and more
while I sit at my desktop, or on computers grey.
I hear it in that warm art’s core.

Happy Birthday, Linenhall, and thanks. 

Ken x 

Not Sure about all this Certainty

I’m rarely sure about anything. 

Even a question that I’m pretty sure I’m sure about will send me scuttling to a book or other reliable source, just to make sure that I was as sure as I almost thought I was.

So, as you might imagine, all the certainty currently in evidence in the world has me somewhat baffled and even a bit worried.

Mostly, of course, I’m seeing it on Social Media but it’s bleeding across onto Real Life too. The notion of expressing an opinion or floating an idea seems to be weak and lukewarm and insipid. One has to be ‘Sure’. One must be ‘Certain’. Anything less is simply sub-par.

The rise of certainty in the online world may have some foundation in the practical limitations of Twitter. Twitter is a great place to find a certainty or two. I think, perhaps, this may have something to do with the 140 character limit. If you’ve got something to express, you have to do it succinctly in order to simply fit it into the space available. Things such as doubts and qualifications tend to get chucked out simply to leave enough room to have your say. The effect of all this tightly edited thought, on Twitter at least, is one of a wave of people who know exactly what it right and what is wrong, who have a complete grasp on who the good guys are and where the villains lie in wait.

If that’s how it started, it seems to have grown exponentially from there. People are attracted to a bit of certainly, a strong confident voice. Other people see this and they strive to emulate it in their social media personalities.

“It’s no good my coming on to Twitter and saying something like this.

@KenArmstrong1 I think milky tea is the nicest way to drink tea… #hmmm

Nobody will have any regard for that kind of introspection. No, I have to weigh in strong on this subject. I mean, am I a man or am I a mouse? Wait, I know… I’m a Man!”

@KenArmstrong1 I love milky tea and fuck you if you don’t.

Job done.

The overall effect becomes one of a world of people declaiming things. On Twitter  and, yes, on Facebook too, the impression is that people have the complete truth of any matter at their fingertips and they share it with force and confidence.

It’s doesn’t matter what the subject is. Something awful happens in the world, a new movie comes out, the first five pages of a book are read, the truth is plain to see and I am about to be told it. 

The effect of individual certainly is compounded greatly by the social need of people to find common ground on which to stand. People these days seem to  find a sense of community in the perceived truths they can share in with their friends and acquaintances. Perhaps it was always so. In back rooms and ill-lit parlours, people were possibly revelling in their shared convictions and finding some succour there. 

So it is in the online world. When someone pronounces their strong emotions with regard to the vexed question of Milky Tea, the people who weigh in behind them will, almost invariably, be those people who feel exactly the same way. These will be the people who take the opportunity to bond with the strong Milky Tea stance and perhaps even raise the stakes a little to show just how emphatic they too are on the subject.

@MilkyTeaGal4557 People who don’t drink Milky Tea are Cretins and should be SHOT. #joinus

Those people who like their tea black will tend to shy away from this discussion. Instead of challenging the voracity of the argument, they will slink away and hope to come back when a certitude is expressed that they can actually support. In the meantime, they may find a black tea brigade somewhere else and find companionship there.

Yesterday, there was a party leadership election result in England. There was much certainty on all sides, expertly and forcibly expressed. Granted, there was some debate, healthy, real, necessary debate but mostly it was people in their little Twitter boxrooms, shouting at the ceiling “This is the truth”, “These are the facts” and other people, in their little rooms, agreeing with them. 

I think we need to get back to a little more uncertainly in our lives. 

I think it might be a rather dangerous game, this being certain-sure of everything all of the time.

I mean, and I hesitate to even suggest this…

… what if you turn out to be wrong?

Next Big Thing

In a short while, my eldest son will strike out for University and so the Next Big Thing in our little family begins. John is off to Trinity College Dublin to study English and French and I couldn’t be prouder if you came and beat me across the back with a proud stick. It’s exactly what he wanted and he worked incredibly hard to get it. You just can’t do any better than that.

My son is ready to go, champing at the bit. Because of things like transition year and two years of pre-school, he is well on the way to adulthood and thus is mature and prepped enough for the different life which now awaits him. In his life, he has stayed in many different places, travelled quite a bit to places such as France, England, Spain, Italy and even the USA. He has accommodation all sorted in the university residences and, perhaps best of all, his good friend is setting off with him to share his room and his university life and adventure. 

As with most things, this Next Big Thing got me making a few mental comparisons. I’ve been remembering a bit about that September in 1980 when I too struck out for third level education and what a different experience I think (and hope) it will be for John.

Perhaps it’s was on this exact day, thirty five years ago, that I got on the train for Dublin. It was certainly a Sunday and it was early morning. The evening before, I had been to see The Shining in The Savoy and the knowledge that my bag as packed and waiting back at home was much more unsettling than anything up on the screen.

I had a couple of things going against me. First, I was quite young. I had just stopped being sixteen a mere two months before. Secondly, I was quite inexperienced. Discounting hospital beds (of which there had not been too many but there had been a few) I had, rather remarkably, never slept in any bed but my own for a single night of my life. No holidays away, no visits to relatives, no sleepovers at granny’s or friend’s houses. So when I headed out for the train station on that damp 1980 Sunday morning I really was looking off into the unknown.

I said my goodbyes at the house and walked to the train station. I wanted it that way. Dad, in particular, seemed likely to find the going a bit difficult and, even way back then, there were fledgling concerns about his health. It was best that I slip away while he was off up the road and that’s what I did, starting a tradition of doing that which lasted for many years after.

I remember, on the train, that there was a basketball team made up of young men. They chatted and laughed and swapped seats all the way and I was hyper-aware of the fact that would all be on the train back home again in the evening and I would not.

I didn’t really know anybody in Dublin but my parents knew a man whose son has been living and working there for a few years. He was trying to sort out some ‘digs’ for me but nothing had materialised as yet. He met me off the train and took me to a B and B where I was to reside until ‘something came up’. The B and B was nice and spotlessly clean. I had a single bed in a little room in which I curled up and read 'Thin Air' by William Marshall and listened to Ultravox's 'Vienna' on my radio. They gave me spotless fried eggs and toast and a slice of bacon for breakfast. All I wanted to do was to stay there. It was warm and dry and there was a telly in a special room. I could have managed that. But it was beyond anyone’s budget for anything longer than the shortest possibly stay. Something else had to be found.

I stayed for about a week then a room became available in a house in Phibsborogh in North Dublin. I moved in with ‘Mary’ (not her real name), an elderly lady who lived alone, kept her house quite dark, and loved Gaelic Football with a great passion. For a while, it was just me and Mary then a couple of other guys came to stay and things started to feel a little easier. We got our dinner off Mary every evening and then watched the little black and white television until about nine when Mary announced she was off to bed and clearly indicated that we should do the same. I lay in bed and read and listened to Radio Dublin on my tiny transistor radio as, slowly but surely, I learned how to be somewhere other than at home. 

On the night before Valentine’s Night, I ventured out for one of my first social events which did not constitute a trip to the cinema. It was Friday the Thirteenth and Mary gave me a Valentine’s card to post to one of the other residents of the house because ‘the poor bugger won’t get one otherwise’. There was a big moon.

That was the night of The Stardust Fire. I knew nothing of it until I woke late the next morning and Mary told me I’d better march down to the phone box and ring my mother in case she was worrying about me. We didn’t have a phone in the house so I rang the neighbours and the collective sigh when they heard my voice both surprised and scared me. They had all feared I was in the fire and I had kept them waiting a long time before I allayed that fear.

My memory gets hazy but, near the end of that first year, Mary got sick and had to go to hospital. The other tenants, no longer getting their dinners made for them, slipped away to other lodgings but I stayed. I looked after myself and minded the house for Mary and got ready for my exams. 

Mary came home after a month or two and told me she was dying of Cancer. There was a neighbour who came in during the day but nobody else. In the evenings I turned her in her bed and made bad soup for her. Her death coincided with the end of my first year in Dublin. I was still seventeen. 

This is a simple account of my living arrangements for that first year. It gives no mention of the wonderful time I had in college or of the great lifelong friends I made in that year. I just wanted to try to evoke the utter change my life went through, from one week in September to the next. The jolt and the strangeness of it all.

Times are different now. My son’s adventure will, I believe, be a grander and a happier one and one he is infinitely better prepared for than I ever was.

Let the Next Big Thing begin.