Short Fiction - I Hear You Singing in the Wire

When it became clear that we could no longer survive under the same roof, I sought out and found a place of my own. It was down in the centre of the town and was located behind a pub and above the undertaker’s parlour. 

This may sound suitably off-beat and interesting but, in reality, it meant nothing more than my having to wear ear plugs every night and press my way through a queue of respect-payers once or twice a week to get to my door.

The flat was tiny, little more than a stairs and a kitchen with a single bedroom tucked away in the back. There was a flat roof outside of the bedroom window and I suppose, in theory, I could have climbed out there and reclined on it as if it were some sort of external amenity. Of course, that never happened. For a start, the weather was never quite co-operative enough and also the sight of my pale body above them might have proved too unsettling to the lined up mourners below.

The prospect of this return to rental mediocrity, after so many years of suburban family living, could well have become a very real problem for me however, by that time, I had descended into an ethereal world which consisted of little more than work, sleep, and computer time.

Computer time.

So long as I had computer time, I could weather any storm. My marriage had failed, I was removed from my children and from my home, I was reduced to living in a bedsit with water stains on the ceiling and the constant throb of passing trucks. But I had my laptop and it remained my constant window on the world. I could watch things, read things, and interact with a myriad of unseen friends who loved to see me coming but never cared if I didn’t. I could weather any storm so long as there was computer time and a connection.

A connection.

That was why the first three days were so bad. I know it sounds awful. It should have been the whole break-up/missing my guys heartache of the entire sordid affair that wrecked my head but I’m trying to be honest here. It wasn’t. It was the lack of a wifi connection that nearly killed me. If I could have got online, I would have been able to distract myself, dive down into the depths of the internet world and hide there. But there was something wrong with the router in the flat. It wouldn’t speak to my laptop. It wouldn’t even acknowledge its existence. That was hard. That was scary-hard to do. Eventually it came good. A man or a woman in a room somewhere flicked the right switch and my computer reached out and was able to touch the world again. 

After that, things got better. I brewed pots of coffee that I didn’t drink, just to hide the smell of the mould in the shower and I went to bed whenever I pleased, which was never. Through my LED screen, I travelled wherever I chose and I spoke to whoever I wanted and said whatever I wanted to say. All my friends were delighted to see me back online again, although they obviously never said it in so many words.

So that was my life. I worked, I slept, and I computed. There was nothing else in that time of my life. Nothing at all.

Except ‘Hello’. 

It started in those dark days before the wifi started to work. I suppose I should come clean and say that I wasn’t doing quite so well then. I kept thinking of my old home and how it must be without me. I kept thinking of the kids too and their wondering about why I was not there. Basically, I just kept thinking too much and the aged floral wall tiles and the slow draining sink of my new home were not enough to distract me. 

I set the computer to search for wifi networks, to see if there might be an unlocked one in the vicinity that I could piggyback onto, just until I got sorted out in my own right. There was lots of networks, we were in the centre of town after all, but they were all locked. That little padlock symbol was firmly closed with no trace of a key to be seen. 

All of the networks had workmanlike names which were usually made up of their service provider and a series of random numbers. Only one stood out. A solitary network, padlocked shut like the rest but with a name that stood out. 

It was simply called ‘Hello’.

I can tell you that I stared at that network name for a long time. In a place where there was nobody or nothing to touch me, that name seemed to smile and extend a shy hand and welcome me, without judgement, to my new reduced life.

“Hello,” I said back, to nobody at all, “Hello. 

For some unexplainable reason, that saw me through. That one word on the screen of an all-but-dead laptop saw me through. When I was finally set up and reconnected to the world, I couldn’t forget it and how important it had been. I adjusted my own network and gave it a name, to pay a amount small honour and respect to the unknown person who probably lived somewhere within one hundred yards of me and who had quite possibly saved my life.

I called my new network ‘Hello Back’. 

It was a few weeks into my stay above the undertakers, a rainy Wednesday evening, when I came home to find my network had disconnected. It was a momentary glitch which nonetheless brought out a cold sheen of sweat all down my spine. As I reconnected I saw the list of available networks for the first time in many days. The one individual network name had changed. It was now called, ‘Was That Meant for Me?’

I changed mine to ‘Yes It was’.

We started a conversation in that way. Changing our network names practically every day to engage in a tight little dialogue.

“Rainy.”

“Depressing.”

“Don’t.”

“Better Now.”

“Good.”

“Whatsfordinner.”

“Fishfingers.”

“Yuk.”

I had no idea who it was on the other end. Was it a man or was it a woman? All I could say for sure, by knowing the geographical limits of the network search facility, was that the person had to be close by. Possibly within touching distance.

I studied people in the street as they passed. Was that the person? Was it him? Was it her? I never thought it was a couple or a family. It was somebody alone, like me. Somebody close by.

An old building down the street was constantly trying to attract swifts to come and nest in the alcoves in its ancient stone walls. All night, it would broadcast a recording of birds calling out to their comrades. It was loud and shrill and it seemed oddly comforting until I found out it was not real. At that moment all of its comfort was forfeit. 

“Come in and stay here with us,” the recording seemed to say, “we may not be real but we are noisy and we are here for you all through the night.” 

The recorded birdsong kept me awake, not only on account of the raucous noise it made but also because of the tantalising analogy it almost presented for the failure of my life.

One day, the barman of the pub that made up the front part of the undertakers was standing outside. He had the demeanour of a man enjoying a non smoking smoke break. He told me once that he enjoyed everything about going outside for a smoke except the smoking part so that’s what he did. 

I asked him who he knew who lived in the area and fully expected him to say I was pretty much the only one. After all, it was the centre of town, it was ruled almost entirely by shops and offices, and it effectively closed down after dark. However he told me there were lots of people quietly tucked away in the upper floors above the shops and the offices. Many were by themselves and most kept it that way. He pointed across the street with his chin to a pair of net curtained windows above the other pub, the one that had almost burned down. 

“The girl who lives up there is nice,” he said.

He told me about a girl with dark hair and brown eyes who had refused to leave her flat on the morning the pub below went on fire. It turned out she had a secret cat in the bedroom, one she wasn’t supposed to have under the tenancy agreement, and she didn’t want to reveal it and wouldn’t leave without it. Eventually the firemen brought both of them out safely and the cat was still there to this day.

I wondered about the brown eyed girl with the cat. I looked out for her but didn’t see her. 

One day a letter was sticking out of her letterbox. It looked like it was either junk mail or else the most important letter ever, it’s often hard to tell. I took it and brought it home. It sat on my table and stared at me in much the same way that her cat might have, if I had stolen that. 

I went over at about seven in the evening and knocked at her door. I heard her come down the stairs. She opened the door fully and fast. I thought she might peer out first. 

“Yes?”

“I have a letter. I think it’s for you.”

“Really?”

She took the envelope and looked at the address. Her name was Nadia Something. She looked like she was from elsewhere. Dark fringe and olive skin, a trace of past acne across the cheeks. She looked like she worked out and needed to constantly fight to keep in shape. 

“Thank you. How did you get it?”

“It just… came to me,” I said, “I live over there.”

She looked at where I wasn’t pointing. She almost smiled.

I just wanted to ask her. Straight out. Was it you? Was it you who called to me through the ether? Was it you that I answered?

“Thank you,” she smiled at last, “I’m Nadia.”

“I know,” I said, nodding to the envelope.”

She was gone. Turned and gone. The door firmly closed. There was only me and my streaky reflection in the paint work.

I went back. My computer was on. I checked the network connections. The one I talked to had changed again. Now it just said one word, “Good.”

I thought of names to call my network. Something that would tell her I was here, that I was okay, that all I needed was a true connection. I couldn’t think of anything. I didn’t know what I could say.

Then I noticed the other thing that had changed. It wasn’t only the network name that was different. There was now something else. The locked padlock, the symbol which was common to all the available connections, was now open on one network, the network called ‘Good’. 

I went to my own network. I opened it up. It was easy. I just clicked the symbol and the lock fell away, broken.

I hurried back to her connection. 

It was still open. 

Gratefully, I stepped inside. 

Find the Wild Thing

I’m sitting on a train heading for Dublin. It’s as good a time as any to write this week’s post, in long hand for a change. It feels nice to scribble. People around me are wondering what I’m doing and probably thinking ‘Damn but he writes funny.”

There’s a game I play sometimes on the train, when the pages of the book have become heavy and when the iPod is out of good ideas. I call it ‘Find the Wild Thing’. 

This Westport to Dublin train passes through some virgin territory and the wild things that live out their lives along the track don’t ever seem to be too disturbed by it. So I keep my eye out, to see what I might see. It’s not as if every field or scrap of frosted bog is teeming with untamed creatures. Far from it. It’s just, now and again, and with an almost-reliable regularity, there will be some wild thing to see. Some rabbits, perhaps, or a fox, or some unidentifiable bird of prey hovering over a copse of trees. 

It bemuses me sometimes how we tend to group the entire world of wild things into an entity. I suppose it’s sort of tidy. ‘Mother Nature’ is beautiful but harsh and cruel too. I’ve never really gotten that concept of ‘Mother Nature’. For me, every life is a thing in itself which will live out its own story. That story may be good or it may be bad. More often, it will be a cocktail of both. If the rabbit gets taloned by the hawk, it’s not the fault of anybody’s mother. It just is. 

‘Mother Nature’ is one thing but this is the first time I ever remember us doing it with a year. 

2016, the narrative suggests, has been an absolute monster in many respects. It has claimed our beloved heroes in apparent droves and elevated apparent fools to higher places. It has been a malevolent entity in our lives, smiting us and scarring us and, in a few short weeks time, it will be gone and good riddance. 

It’s just a way of expressing a feeling. I get it, I do. And I know that people, deep down, don’t really see 2016 as a hooded spectre. A ‘Thing’ like ‘The Angel of Death’ or, yes, ‘Mother Nature’. 

(A hare, just now. It turned and ran off.)

But this habit of even expressing the year as an entity, it can colour a view. The notion of 2016 as an evil that is about to pass may be a comfortable one but it can mislead you. The bad stuff won’t stop just because another page on the calendar turns. People will be no less likely to come to harm when that six becomes a seven. All the bad things in the world will be no less bad after Christmas fades. 

But, on the positive side, 2016 has not really been an angry beast wreaking considered havoc upon our lives. It has simply been another year. No more and no less. 

I think that many of us, myself included, are too plugged in to the world.

I said it here a few weeks ago. We must be alive to the horrors and we must do what we can to lend our hand toward making things better. But…

I remember an image that appeared in the Radio Times (of all places) about thirty years ago. It accompanied an article that posited on future technologies. The article predated the Internet and all such things. The image showed a ‘Thing’. Something that was perhaps once a man. It was naked and hairless, twisted and deformed, and it lay on a floor with a myriad of wires and cables connecting into it. This ‘Thing’ was receiving input from everywhere directly into its body and into its brain. Laid writhing on its gleaming floor, this ‘Thing’ had been made terrible to behold, solely as a result of its level of access to information. 

We are too plugged in to the world.

I fear that many of us may define our 2016 by the things that came down our wires and into us. When we think of the year, we will think only of the wonderful artist who, alas, left us, or the 'gaslighting' businessman who made us think, erroneously, that our world was finally over. 

The wires that now connect into us are not good conductors of positive energy. Some good comes through but it travels sluggishly and decays quickly. Negative energy seems to only gain power as it travels from one port to the next. 

To find much of the good in our lives, we have to look out the window and see the real world again. We have to see the wild things – the good things – that live out there, outside of the wires. 

When I remember 2016, I too will remember Bowie dying. I will remember Trump being vindicated in his horror-speak.

And I will remember Aleppo

But I will remember good things too. Great things. Wild things. 

Some of the things I will remember are too personal to relate here. But here are two memories I will carry from 2016 for myself. 

One evening in March, I stood in the theatre lobby. Through the closed doors in front of me, a full house buzzed and waited. Behind me, a full cast of teens itched to go on. As I stood, nervously taking it all in, the Director of The Linenhall, my friend Marie, came up to stand beside me, ready to go on and deliver her ‘pre-show’. In the theatre, the music changed to Aretha singing 'I say a little prayer for you' and, with everybody waiting to do their thing, Marie and I had a little boogie…

One evening in October, after a time of repeated disappointment and ache, the hand of one of the members of my son’s Favourite-Band-in-the-Entire-World extended from the gloom of their tour van and beckoned him to come inside…  

If I had one word of advice it might be, ‘Don’t blame the year’. As 2016 winds inexorably down, perhaps turn your mind, even briefly, to some of the good things that happened within it, regardless of how small they may seem. Put them in a place where they won’t get lost in all the static buzz of the wires. 

And keep them safe. 

Finding the Truth in the Bad News

If this blog ever had a subtitle I think it might be something like, “Writing Really Obvious Things in a Roundabout Sort of a Way”

That’s what I do here mostly: I write things that people rarely bother to disagree with, mostly because those things I write are so very bloody obvious.

I’ll be doing it again this week.

Writing really obvious things in a roundabout sort of a way.

So… fair warning. 

On Friday, a very good friend of mine announced on Social Media that he had been given only a couple of years to live. The reaction to this was predictable. ‘The Best’ is a mere handful of people and this guy is definitely one of ‘The Best’. I won’t write his name. Ninety per cent of the people who read this will know who I mean and, for the other ten percent, well…

I’m not here to break the bad news. 

I’m just here to say obvious things about it, in a roundabout sort of a way. 

In talking about this news, I’m going to persist in relating it to me rather than to anybody else. I think that’s best. But please keep in mind that I could just as easily be talking about you. I want this to be a subliminal paragraph. I want you to note it in the back of your mind but then immediately forget it. Snap. Done. 

When I heard the news (oh, boy) I reacted with much sadness and some disbelief. It wasn’t fair and it wasn’t good and the person in question deserved so-much-better. 

Here’s the point though.

I subconsciously assigned myself a role in this story as ‘The Person who Stays Behind’. The person who has to live on for a long time without the comfort of knowing that my friend will be out there in the world. In my version of events, I would have to live out all my many years without my friend. I would miss him and I would be very sad to see him go. 

I was so taken up with my naturally-assumed role as Spectator in the story that I missed the truth of the matter almost entirely. It took me a little while to come to it. In writing about his illness as he so wonderfully did, my friend wasn’t just giving me his bad news,. He was giving me a little truth as well, if I only cared to see it. 

He has, all going well, a couple of years to live and I know for sure that he’s going to live it to the full. I know he is because that’s just how he rolls. And what did I think I was going to do? Watch and be sad?

Wake Up, Ken.

When I was very young, a nice man on our street brought his wife a cup of tea in bed one morning, just before he set out for work. The way I heard it, he left the cup on the bedside table, drew the curtains, and, looking out, gently affirmed to his wife what a lovely morning it was. Then he died. He dropped down right there and died. 

We all know a story like this. A person who just dies. No warning, no nothing.  That’s it. Gone.

I could very easily be that person.

Who am I to know for sure that I will be here to witness whatever happens to anyone in coming years? 

Who am I to know that?

I could go out the front door this morning and get hit by a bus. I could be attacked and murdered. Much more likely, I could draw the curtains, look out on the misty dawn, and fall down dead where I stand. It’s not even far-fetched. It could easily, easily happen. 

Whenever I picture death coming like that big bus, I tend to see it gliding past me and I get ready to feel sad for whatever person it pulls up for. 

That’s not right and it’s not true.

I need to start to learn the lesson in the bad news I’ve just received. That ‘obvious roundabout’ truth is that the next bus along could very well stop for me.

My friend is going to die but so am I. Nobody knows that I won’t die sooner than him. Nobody knows that. In my ‘Roundabout’ way, I have finally come to the most obvious of truths. The lesson for me that lies in this sad news.

My friend will face up to his future with fortitude, great good-humour and love. He will treasure each day, knowing that there are a finite number of days to come and that each one is a precious thing.

And I need to do the same. 

Sipping at the Bad Things

I need to rethink my Social Media a little. Change it a bit.

My Social Media is like having a friend who farts a lot. He’s quite a good friend but, man, he farts a lot. 

I moan about it quite a bit but I kind of need it too. Actual, real-life social interaction is thin on the ground and, at least around these online parts, there’s always some level of dialogue and diversion. I find I need a bit of that. If I have more than two friends in the world, then it’s there that I’ll see them. I can’t let that go.

Still I don’t use Social Media quite like I used to (which was a lot). These days, I tend to drop in at weekends and late in the evenings. It doesn’t touch my weekdays. Actually, it’s getting easier and easier to consider letting it go altogether. The ‘farts’ are getting louder and more pungent and lingering longer in the carpet. It’s tricky. You like the guy but he stinks. What are you supposed to do?

I’ve written about Social Media before and there’s one point I always come back to. When I refer to ‘Social Media’, I’m not talking about your Social Media or anybody else’s Social Media, I’m talking about mine. We all have different views on the world through the frosty window panes we create on our phone or computer. It all depends on the people and things we choose to look at. If I loved model trains and I filled my Facebook and Twitter with people who also loved model trains, then mine would be a ‘Model Train-Biased’ sort of a Social Media and would be utterly unlike yours. I’m being ridiculous to illustrate the point but this is applicable down to the smallest degree. We all carefully make our Social Media beds and then, for better or worse, we lie in them. 

I’ve been doing this Social Media thing for quite a while and, in the same way that stones on the beach grow when little specks of sand are blasted on to them by the waves, so the Social Media structure grows and grows. But it also changes over time. Some people go away and others change their interests and their points of view and outlook on the world. Things just change.

My Social Media is full to the brim with great people. Creative, funny, kind people. But my Social Media has also become obsessed over politics and world events and moral outrage and anger and disillusionment. Not without reason, God knows. There is hardship and repression and pain all over the place. Our politicians fail us by rote. There is indeed much to be angry about.

And when a person is angry and disillusioned and expresses it, that’s great. It’s to be applauded and encouraged. It’s just that, when three hundred people (or three thousand people) all echo the same anger and disillusionment in one tidal wave of negative emotion, then it can become overwhelming and even despair-making to repeatedly witness. Every single person can have a valid point and every single person certainly has a right to their anger and that is without question. 

But. 

But. 

But to have to sit and watch so many people doing exactly the same negative thing, over and over again. It becomes hard. 

That’s where the change I’m making lies. It’s not a physical change. I’m not blocking anybody or unfollowing anybody or even silencing anybody. The change is simply in how I think about it all.

Previously, I thought I had a responsibility to look. To open my eyes and to see all the people in their fear and their anger all of the time. Now I am going to think otherwise. I don’t have to look, not all the time at least. Certainly, I need to get the messages. I need to continuously understand that there is grave ill abroad in the world and that this ill needs to be defied and challenged and stood-up-to. I need to see all that. 

But I don’t need to see it over and over and over and over again, every single day.

I just don’t. 

I know many of you will see how the world is in a state of chaos and will feel the importance of opening ourselves to all that uncertainly and pain and sorrow. To hide is to encourage the evil to rise again. There is something to that, I know there is. But what if watching all of it ruins me? What if I debilitate myself in a deluge of such repeated sentiment. What use will I be to anyone then? 

I need to sip at the bad things, taste how awful they are, understand and rail against them. But I don’t need to open my mouth and try to drink the entire river of pain that flows down my Twitter feed ever day. I won’t be much use to anyone if I continue to do that. 

So, whilst keeping a beady eye on all of the anger and the outrage, I will also point my beak a little more towards the things I love. The human stories, the creative successes, the shared music and film and theatre thoughts, the memories. 

The Fun.

I will watch the other stuff. Just like I always do.

But I won’t watch it quite so hard. 

That will be my change. 

In Praise of Solar Bones by Mike McCormack

I think ‘Solar Bones’ by Mike McCormack is a really fine book and I just wanted to tell you that.

I don’t think I’m going to embark on some attempt at a high brow review or anything like that so rest easy. For me, ‘Solar Bones’ is a book about what it is like to be a man and to exist within the various guises that come with that title. Guises that include those of Father, Husband and Son.

What sets it apart, in my opinion, is the level of honesty and authenticity that Mike has tapped into. The central character is like a real man in a real world. Ironically, he is neither of those things but I don’t want to dwell on that. Mike embeds his novel in a real landscape with real politics, real history and real concerns. As a result of this, when he deals his blows, the blows fall hard and true and they leave a mark. At least they did on this particular man.

I first became aware of Mike McCormack when I came home from London for a visit in the mid-nineties. I was driving along somewhere when the afternoon arts show came on the car radio. The then-proprietor of the show, veteran broadcaster Mike Murphy, was singing the praises of a new short story collection by an exciting new young writer. I sought out ‘Getting It in the Head’, bought it and brought it back to England with me. It make an impression. Here was someone to watch out for. 

If you’ve heard only one thing about Mike’s latest book then it’s probably the fact that there are no full stops in it. People have made a big deal about this. In fact, it’s not a big deal. It’s certainly not any kind of barrier to reading and immersing oneself in the book. Some people have called it a single run-on sentence and maybe, in some technical world, that’s what it is. I think that is misleading though. I think it suggests a massive block of text running through hundreds of pages, deep and impenetrable. Not so. The writer employs paragraphs and spacing to present a manageable flowing text which does not impair the reader’s passage through the pages. In fact, this device successfully evokes a flow of consciousness that is slightly other-worldly and random and that serves the story well. 

When I talk to people about the book, we tend to recall events and moments from it much as we would if we were recounting an actual life. The characters who accompany the man through his life are vividly sketched. Strong wife, distant son, artistic daughter are all people in their own right. Despite these characters being ‘told’ to us by the man, they quickly step out of his description into their own space. His father, for me, was particularly well drawn. The strong inclination now is for me to start to describe him for you but no, better you go and meet him yourself. 

One thing I wonder. The book is set here, in my place, in my locality. Located, as it is, firmly within my own stomping grounds of Mayo and Galway City, the narrative seems doubly true and convincing on account of my knowing the turns he makes on the road, the bench he sits on in his lunch break. It makes things perhaps more visceral than it might be for someone who has never set foot in the West of Ireland. So I wonder, does that matter much in the end. I have concluded that it doesn’t. At the moment I am reading a book by Ron Rash called ‘Above the Waterfall’ and I am enjoying it very much. I don’t know anything of the setting. The Appalachian Mountains, Virginia and Shenandoah are nothing more than romantic far off places to me. Still the story and the people in it leap up from the pages and grip me. So, I think, it will be for Solar Bones. I may get a 1% kick from knowing a particular derelict hotel but the story will engage where ever you are.

If I could have had one thing differently, I would have had a cover on this book with no text on it other than the title and the author’s name. I feel that the text, such as it is, subverts the expositionary nature of the book and undermines, at least in a small way, the potential impact of the story telling. If you can, read the book without reading the cover. Then, afterward, you can read the cover all you want and tell me if you see what I mean.

That’s only a small thing. 

Solar Bones made me feel mortal like no other book before it has managed to do. This is how the book left me feeling, as I closed the back cover. Mortal, finite, destined to end up nothing more than a memory. Because that’s what I didn’t say up until now. Mike McCormack is a wonderful writer but he has never been an easy writer. Even back in Mike Murphy’s day, he was dealing with harsh truths and not flinching from the candle. This book is excellent but it may scorch you a little, as it did me. 

Go. 

Get scorched.

It’s worth the burn. 

Reluctantly Writing About the Big Stuff

I’m not so good at writing about the big stuff. It’s not what I do. I like to operate down at ground level, among the blades of grass. To be honest, I like to think that many of the truths about the ‘big stuff’ can be found down there among all the dandelions and the dock leaves. 

But when I got to thinking about what I might write this week, I can no longer see down to the grass and the soil and the rocks. There is, quite literally, an elephant in the room. An orange elephant with wild improbable hair and a horrible bullish manner. He’s blocking my view of the small things and I just can’t see around him.

So, ho hum, I have to look at the big stuff. The stuff everybody else in the world is looking at too. And you can be fairly sure I won’t have anything outlandishly different to say than the approximately 49% of the rest of the people who are typing right now. I ain’t got nothing wild or surprising in my bag. Normally I wouldn’t bother saying it at all. I just can’t think of anything else.

I wasn’t all that surprised when Trump got elected. I was utterly Horrified, yes. Totally Disappointed, yes. But not all that surprised. All during the days before, whenever people had spoken about the election, I had sighed and expressed my hope that Trump wouldn’t get in. And people had scolded me for it. I was being silly, apparently, sighing and worrying that he might suceed, when the figures and the statistics and the portents all stated so clearly that he would not. To clarify, I didn’t actually think he would get in but, really, I wasn’t all that surprised when he did.

Why not?

There’s a couple of reasons. 

One reason is the lesson I learned from the vote on Brexit and, before that, the vote in the most recent UK General Election. Back then, everything I saw told me how these votes would turn out. Everything I saw turned out to be completely wrong. I realised that I was living totally in an information bubble, lead by my social media and compounded by the popular press and TV. I had being told what I wanted to be told, hearing what I wanted to hear. So this time around, there was an element of ‘I Won’t Get Fooled Again’. The bubble I live in may be able to pat my head and tell me how everything is going to work out just fine but I’ve learned that that’s not real life. Not everybody’s real life at least. 

There’s another reason why the Trump win didn’t totally surprise me. I seem to have a rather dubious ability to step to either side of almost any argument and have a good look at it. This may sound wonderful and maybe it is but it definitely has its downsides. It tends to sometimes make me doubtful and wishy-washy on stuff when I should better know my own mind. Although I would never in a million years have voted for Trump, I can still sidle over that point of view and see some of the reasoning there. I can see the millions of disenfranchised people who watch the tiny political dynasties of recurring Bush and Clinton presidencies go around and around in their own rarefied worlds while, for them, nothing ever changes. For them, another Clinton, another Bush, another Obama even, would simply be more of the same. Their struggles to make ends meet left ignored, their ambitions for their own children still nullified. Why not, just this once, spin the silly-wheel? How much worse can that rather orange bullish man be than the big fat nothingness of the recurring dynasties? How much better would anything be than more of nothing at all? 

Don’t get me wrong, I don’t buy it for a minute… but I can see it. 

For what it’s worth, I think many more of us need to see it a bit clearer. The omnipresent view that everyone who didn’t vote your way is some kind of a ‘Below Par Human Being’ is a luxury we can no longer afford ourselves. They way I see it, a volatile concoction of utter disillusionment and popular momentum is driving the world rapidly towards a most undesirable place. Not because the people driving it there are necessarily evil or stupid or insane but rather because they can see no viable option. 

I think the information bubbles that we all now find ourselves living inside are bad for a number of reasons. Fairly obviously, they doesn’t tell us the entire truth, only such truth as we want to cocoon ourselves in. Maybe a bit less obviously, that dim and distorted view we get of everybody who exists outside of our bubbles leaves them looking pretty horrible and threatening and, yes, even monstrous. We should also try to remember that those ‘monsters’ are in their own bubbles too and that we look every bit as bad to them. Through the concave distortion of that bubble surface, we must appear completely lily-livered and pandering and privileged and naive and childish and downright bloody dangerous. 

What do I know? I don’t know anything. I should stick to the ground level where I definitely belong. But here I am, up here on the big subjects because, this week, of all weeks, there’s just nowhere else to turn.

So. I’m here now. What do I think?

I think we always need to be working to make things work, from wherever we find ourselves. Right now, we find ourselves in a pretty dark and uncertain place. It’s by no means great but, guess what, we’re here now. What I really think is that we have to learn to listen to the other view a bit more. To allow some measure of empathy with the opposite stance, however distasteful that it, to better understand how to deal with it. 

And If you think I just sound all fucking ‘happy-clappy’ and ‘love conquers all bull-shitty’ then maybe you should think it out a bit more. If you don’t like the result and you think that the entirety of the forty nine per cent of people who brought that result about are all mini-hitlers and fuckwits then, guess what, you are firmly stuck in your own little bubble and you’re not really doing anybody much good. 

There are very bad things in the world and they have to fought and railed against and they have to be shouted down with all of our collective might. Like it or not, the promise of this new president, if his election campaign was anything to go by, is not a positive one for anybody. His election will continue to feel alien to us and, again to us, the people who continue to defend him will feel totally wrong.

But here’s a thing. We do not have a monopoly on goodness just by virtue of the good views we believe we hold. None of us do. We need to try harder to understand where the other views are coming from without first assuming that they are all invariably coming straight from hell. We need to burst these bubbles we’re living in. That’s what we need to do.  No, I don’t know how to do it either. Perhaps we can’t ever burst them but, maybe, by not living inside them so thoroughly, we might just slip out through their sticky albumen without ever bursting them at all. 

And it’s very hard to do. Even as I tidy this thing up for posting, the world is rapidly being flooded with an image of Trump and Farage, standing together in a golden elevator and grinning inanely. It’s simply awful and it’s quite unnerving. I don’t believe any right minded person can be warmed by that prospect. I don’t believe many people are. I believe that, of the millions upon millions who voted to make this a reality, most will like this just as little as I do. They didn’t vote for this to happen, they voted against something else happening. We really need to see why. 

It starts to sound like I’m suggesting we all try to see the fascist side of things, the racist side of things, the awful side. I’m not. I’m so not. What I’m saying is that we should try to see the side of the people who we think are fascist and racist and awful on account of how they appear to us from inside our bubble and on account of how they vote.

The truth is, I fear that there is not very much we can do up here on this macro level. We can use our vote and we can raise our dissenting voices but, even doing that, I think there is little of real import that we can achieve.

But on the micro level, down where I normally live (and where I’m rushing back to in a minute) there’s a shit load of stuff we can get done. We can: help, be kind, engage, debate, learn, listen, disagree, agree, argue, make up, help, help, help. 

I believe that every tiny malaise on your street is its own microcosm of all the greater ills in the world. Do something to heal that small rip and you will, at least, have done something. It might not save the world but, then again, it might and it might just save you too. 

We need to try to understand each other better. Where we come from, where we live now.

We always have.

And, lets just face it, we probably always will. 

Death Grips – The Roundhouse, London – 29th October 2016 – A Necessary Coda

Some stories are so good you have to find a great ending for them. Right? Even if that great ending is going to require a couple of sleepless nights, planes, trains, automobiles and a complete lack of any trace of good sense. 

Sometimes the story demands it. 

Strike that. It’s the person. It’s the person who demands it. 

Some of you will perhaps recall my story from a few weeks back about how my younger son and I went to see his favourite band Death Grips in Dublin, about how we couldn’t get in but how, through a series of good-natured occurrences and a bit of perseverance, we managed to turn it around. You can read the story here, if you missed it. It’s not bad, even though I say so myself. 

It was a story with a happy ending. No doubt about that. But it was also kind of a sad ending. The point of the day had not been to meet people and to have an adventure, although that was wonderful. The point of the day had been the Music. And we hadn’t got to hear the Music. 

So when a London Roundhouse gig was announced, I sat and stared at my computer screen for a long while. It was too far to go, too expensive by a long shot, too crazy really. Things only really became clear when social media announced that the gig was sold out. The sharp stab of regret I felt then. That said everything. That stab told me that this was important enough to throw out a few more of the rules. To give it one more go.

It turned out that the gig wasn’t sold out. The main floor was sold out but there were seats around Level Two available. I nabbed two directly from The Roundhouse. Level Two was fine for us. One member of our two-person party was still a notch too young for the excesses of the main floor and the other member was far, far too old.

At first, Sam wasn’t entirely up for it. I made the proposition too late at night and it certainly not something that he would ever have conceived of suggesting himself. He’s a cool guy and wouldn’t like to hear of people going to silly ends for him. 

It’s just, like I said, sometimes a good story requires a great end. 

It’s a Bank Holiday Weekend here (yay) and that’s great (hence the ‘yay) but it also meant that getting to London became a seriously expensive business for this one weekend. The ‘Straight Route’ was not economically viable so we kind-of had to go the long way around. The 'scenic route'. 

On Saturday morning, Sam and me got up at 3.00 am and, without too much preamble, got on the road to Belfast in the car. That took a little under four hours, the roads being surprisingly quiet. From there, we flew to Luton Airport and from there we 'public-transported' ourselves into London. Last night, we did what we had to do then we public transported back to Luton to be at the airport for 5.30 am to grab the earliest flight back to Belfast and then drive home. You’ll forgive any typos, I hope, I’m a bit tired.

A thirty four hour round trip.

Just to see Death Grips.

And we did. 

Sam couldn’t get in to the Dublin show because he wasn’t over eighteen. This, then, was his gig. You could get in to this one if you were sixteen and he is. We milked it for every experience we could. We arrived early and sat outside with those keenest fans who wanted to get right up close to the stage. We chatted and drank water and watched the touts do their thing. Several of the people we spoke to knew about Sam and his Dublin Escapade from his account on the Death Grips fan forums. That was fun.

We had great seats in the Roundhouse. Outside the columns, obviously, but finding one of those angles through where everything could be clearly seen. We took our seats just as the first people were making their way in below. Far too early to be cool but this is why we were here and we both wanted to get it all. 

There was no opening act. The huge speakers played an eternally-rising tone interspersed with random voices and noises. A ‘Shepherd Tone’. If you don’t know what that is, look it up. It’s interesting and uneasy all at the same time. 

Then the band came on and we saw them play and then we went home. 

Thank you and good night.

...

What?

Oh, the band.

I never expected, in all this melee, to become a fan but that is what’s happened. I am perhaps the oldest ‘Death Grips’ fan in the world. I would never want to be on the floor in front of them when they play. I think that would probably kill me. But I’d dearly love to see them do again what they did last night. I’d love to see crowd and band unite once more in that awe-inspiring jaw dropping thump-thumping synthesis of excess.

It was easily one of the most extraordinary shows I have ever seen. In an unheard-of beginning, the normally half-naked trio trooped on to the stage in matching blue suits, white shirts and ties. They launched into a show which lasted for 90 minutes and which never stopped, not for a single moment. The crowd did not applaud, they were given neither time nor opportunity. Song after song rolled into each other. Head grabbing, trippy exclamations laced with frenetic back beats. 

In my ignorance, I had expected Ride, the lead man, to be somehow sullen and aggressive. He was neither. Brash and vehement, he stomped and tromped around the centre stage, pushing his vocal chords to the edge of pain and perhaps beyond. Zach, the drummer, was a complete virtuoso and my eyes couldn’t stay away from him. His work rate was beyond credibility and his blue suit must have been utterly destroyed by the end. Behind his band of computer and keyboard equipment, Andy jerked and bopped and stared, his subtle machinations the backbone of the ensemble.

The crowd, before so placid and patient, turned immediately, upon hearing the band’s first chord, into a seething mass of energy and motion. A vast swelling sea of people melding and colliding, being lifted up and torn down. It was a collaboration between band and audience and when it was finally over, everybody knew it. Instruments were thrown and kicked down, a quick departure was enacted, with no meaningful plea for any encore. Neither side had any more they could possibly give.

I had expected to find a band with a punk mentality. A sort of aggression thrown at the crowd and it being reciprocated in spades. Instead I reckon I saw a band revel in their skill and musicality, in their ability to rock the house and an audience who demanded nothing more from them than to be allowed to rock right along.

It was something totally different, something completely alive. It was one of the best things I’ve ever seen.

Right at the end of the evening, as the crowd was pouring out, three people, two men and a woman, came down from some seats further back. They sounded Canadian, I could be wrong. One of them, a bearded guy, offered me his hand.

“I just wanted to come down and say that I think you’re a really cool Dad,” he said.

He sounded as if he already knew our story. Sam and me and the events that had taken us to this place. As it turned out, he didn’t. So I’m still not sure what he saw that made him come all the way down and tell me that. Maybe he just saw me occasionally finding a slightly better view for Sam. Maybe he just saw me giving him a little space to enjoy the show in his own way and not crowding him out too much. Maybe he just saw me enjoying it all in my own 53 year old way. Maybe he just saw me at the end telling the introverted solitary guy next to us how hard he had rocked for the band and the surprised smile I had gotten in return.

I don’t quite know what he saw. For a moment, I thought I almost saw it myself.

Anyway I’m glad we did this silly thing.

It was all worth it.

Every single mile. 

But I think I'll go to sleep now.

It’s not where you start…

Sometimes I change my mind about things. Here’s an example of one such time… sort of. 

I've never really found any benefit from the use of Index Cards in writing a play... until now. I always seemed to be hearing about people using them, with great success, to outline their stories. The great and the good would appear on their social media and announce how they are ‘just starting out on the index cards’ and express the subtextual view that a whopping great script would pretty soon emerge. I've tried to do this myself now and again. Not because my own odd way doesn’t work for me but because I felt I must be missing out on something useful in my life. I must confess I never really found the benefits. I always seem to end up staring blankly at a baker’s dozen of half-chewed cards, which I would eventually hurl at the wall and then shuffle back to scribbling maniacally.

I written a blog post about this somewhere. Let’s face it, I’ve written a bloody blog post about most things at this stage. In fact here it is. That one states fairly clearly how I respect the ‘Index Card’ pre-planning process just how it’s really not for me. Reading it back again, I find I still agree with practically everything in it.

But...

But, this week, I have finally got the old Index Cards working very well for me. All because of something someone said at a Writing Thing that I went to a couple of weeks ago. Sometimes you might only take away the tiniest gem from one of these Writing Things but, as we know, tiny gems are pretty cool. In this case the tiny gem was this: The person giving the Thing said something, almost in passing, about how they don't use Index Cards to start a story, they use them to finish.

Finish?

So here I am with a new play, practically finished, but it's a complicated-enough thing. In among all the pages and pages there is a sense that it is all moving too linearly and also that something, somewhere, is missing. So, mindful of what the guy said, and in a last ditch attempt to find some kind of a working relationship with Index Cards, I've written each scene out on a postcard and laid them all out on the floor in order.

Then stared at them for a while.

And then changed that order.

And then stared.

And then changed the order yet again.

And, by golly, the story has gotten better. More sensible. Slightly more sophisticated in the telling.

And the gap, the missing part, was suddenly obvious to me, laid out there on the floor. So, if I move this and tweak that a bit and… and…

The Index Cards, they’re finally working! 

I just needed to use them at the end of the process. Not at the beginning. 

Purists may scoff and think gleefully about all the wasted words I’ve written to get to this place of relative order. If I had only 'Index Carded' it all out at first, the way would have been clearer and so much effort would not have been expended. 

A nice thought but not one I can use. Index Cards, nor any kind of preliminary planning, just don’t get me started. I need to plough in, get writing (often with a lot of dialogue) and a form tends to emerge from there. That’s what the earlier blog post was mostly about. We have to find our own way to do things lest we do nothing while trying to do things the ‘right way’.

One final benefit of Index Cards (I’m now a convert, can you tell? I may even become passionate.) 

As I wrote them and laid them out on the floor it was almost as if the play stepped a little further out of the script pages and closer to some kind of reality. That sounds strange, I know, but it’s true. The script itself is a rather bulky tome and the only corporeal form it has is a stack of pages or, worse again, a series of digital imprints on a computer screen. On the floor, the little cards, so loose and so tenuously askew, look like they might dance and sing a little. They look like someday they might actually turn into something real.

So there’s another rare writing tip from me. If index cards work for you at the outline stage, well done. If you hate them, like I did, try them once more right at the end. 

You might be surprised.

Death Grips – The Academy, Dublin – October 2016 – An Evening We Won’t Ever Forget

I’ve been looking forward to writing this post much more than I usually do. You see, I’ve got a story to tell. Triumph over adversity. Never giving up. That kind of thing. Stick with me a moment, I think you might like this. 

Deep in the summer, I got a phone call from Patricia, my wife. Sam’s favourite band in the whole world had just announced a gig in Dublin in the Autumn and he was really, really keen to go to it. Sam is the younger of my two sons, just turned 16. He is an avid music fan and a talented drummer. 

The band was ‘Death Grips’ and it was an easy decision to make. Sam loved their work, knew every song, every twitch they ever made. It was a simple no-brainer. Sam had to go to the show.

Except, of course, it wasn’t simple. It really wasn’t simple at all. 

Death Grips were playing the Academy in Dublin and the Academy in Dublin is a licensed premises which means that persons under the age of 18 are not permitted inside after nine o’clock in the evening. Death Grips were playing a Strictly Over 18’s gig and Sam was only 16. 

I explained it to Sam, how it was quite likely that he wouldn’t get in, that he would be turned away at the door. He took it all on board, he understood, but still he wanted to go. His rationale was simple, they were his favourite band, he had to go.

So we got the tickets. Three in all, one for his older brother, John, one for John’s friend Mike and one for Sam. The idea was that the two older boys would provide cover for Sam on the way in and hopefully ease his access. We also borrowed an ID card from a just-over-eighteen pal who looked a bit like Sam in his photo. Sam memorised the date of birth on the card and we got him a haircut to make him look a bit older.

We were ready.

On Thursday last, at two o’clock, it was time to make the four hour drive to Dublin to see the show. 

Nothing to it.

A word about ‘Death Grips’. ‘Death Grips’ is an experimental/industrial hip hop group from Sacramento, California, formed in 2010. They have a highly dedicated following and they play hard, sharp gigs which have received considerable attention for their wild physical performances which, almost literally, blow their audiences away. The band members remain extraordinary elusive. They do not encourage photographs, they do not sign autographs, and they generally do not engage with fans or public in any way. They simply come in, blow the room away, then leave. No encores.

As soon as I saw the queue for the concert, I knew we could not succeed. Sam and I had driven all the way for nothing and we would drive home the same way. As the three boys joined the back of the queue, I stood some distance away and watched and waited for the inevitable.

The main man on the front door was scrupulous. Every single person who came past him was examined and questioned whenever there was even the slightest doubt. IDs were meticulously checked and anyone who was even suspected of being below age was unceremoniously turned away. 

John and Mike and Sam got to the man on the door. John was fine. Mike was fine. Sam was not fine. 

“You’re not going in.” he said.

The cordon rope was lifted and Sam was eased outside of it. No entry for him. 

This was doubly hard, triply hard, on account of what happened the year before. You may recall we were all set to head off on a (for us) wildly extravagant trip to London to see Foo Fighters at Wembley Stadium. Our bags were packed and we were ready to go when the concert was cancelled on account of Dave Grohl’s broken leg. That was Sam’s Christmas present that year.

That was his first ever gig. 

‘Death Grips’ was his second ever gig. 

Once again, it wasn’t going to happen.

We tried everything known to man. In case you’re angry with me for trying, can I just say that Sam had no interest in alcohol or breaking any laws or conning anyone out of anything. He just wanted – needed - to see his band. 

Regarding the man on the door, who I spoke to at length over the next hour. He was one of the kindest, most amenable men I have met. Every question I asked him, every point I made to him, was met with a reasonable and friendly response. He never lost patience with me and was never anything other than approachable and kind. He was also a completely immovable force. Sam was not going in.

For my own part, I was also never anything other than friendly, that is my default setting and it would have been difficult to have been any other way with the gentle giant of a man. I told him about Sam and his passion for music in general and this group in particular. I told him about Wembley and Foo Fighters. I even showed him a video on my phone of Sam drumming. He watched with interest, all the time turning away belligerent drunk people with a flick of his wrist. An amazing man.

One exchange we had perhaps sums up all of the others.

Me – I’m not trying to con you or cheat you or anything, I hope you know that.

Him – I know that. I know what you are. You’re just a Dad trying to get his son into a gig. But it’s a licensed premises and, by law, I cannot let him in. There is just no way. 

Eventually, after many and varied attempts which I won’t bore you with, I had to give up.

“Okay,” I said to the man, “I’m not going to try anymore but is it okay if we just stand here and hear what we can through the doors?”

That was no problem. We stayed on the street at the front door and listened as the band came on stage. Faintly, we could hear the songs being played. Sam knew every one.

After the show started, things quietened down a bit out front. Not too much, but a bit. The man on the door was standing by me again. I said to him, “I’d like to thank you, if you don’t mind, for treating us so well. You couldn’t let us in but you were never anything other than nice.”

He stared at me quite hard then.

“I’ll tell you what,” he started, “no, no, wait, wait.” 

He moved away and got on his radio, talked briefly, then came back.

“You two be at the stage door at 10.20,” he said, “I’ll try my best to get you in to get a photo with the band.”

We agreed, thanked him profusely, and headed off to find the stage door. This was great. Except that Sam knew this band a lot better than the kind man at the door did.

This band did not ‘do’ photos and they did not ‘meet’ people. 

Ever. 

Still, something had been given to us and we had to make the best of it. We discussed it and we agreed that, on the off chance that we could see the band, we should be ready for it. We practised taking rapid-fire selfies in the alleyway by the stage door. Then I had another idea.

“Maybe they would sign something for you.”

“They don’t sign.”

“But what if they did? What if they just did? We have to be ready. What could they sign?”

“The ticket?” We still had the ticket.

“Good, that’s good but, wait… the T-Shirt!” Sam has his ‘Death Grips’ tee on. “What if we could get them to sign the T Shirt?”

We really needed a permanent marker, just in case. But where do you find a permanent marker at 9.30 pm in Dublin City Centre? We went to the only two shops we could find, a chemists and a sweet shop. Neither could help. Then Sam has his Inspired Idea, he threw it out there tentatively.

“You know when you get a coffee in Starbucks? They write you name on the cup with a…”

Starbucks!

There was one in O’Connell Street. It was empty, the lady was just closing up. We explained that we had the chance to meet our favourite band but we needed a marker for an autograph and could we please buy a marker off you? She gave us one for free. A real permanent marker. We were all set. All we needed was a chance.

The set ended at 10.20 precisely. There was no encore. We know this because we were all alone in the cobbled alleyway at the stage door listening at the crack. Even after the gig ended, nobody else came to the stage door. The band’s reputation preceded them. They don’t do photos, they don’t sign. 

After a while, John and Mike and their friend Matthew joined us from out of the gig. They were sweaty and deaf and tired and it must have been hard for Sam to see them but we were focused on our own prize now. The chance to at least see the band as they ran out. Sam rehearsed in his head what he might say to them, if he only had a moment to do so. 

Mike had to go but John and Matthew stayed. Matthew was another huge Death Grips fan. I had never met him before but he said to me, “I’m only staying to see if I can help Sam meet the band.” I had no idea how much he meant that but I was going to find out.

At one point a man came out and we chatted to him. I think he was the band’s manager. He was sorry to hear what had happened to Sam. He told us 6 year olds regularly come and see the shows in America, where there no alcohol. It was a shame that Sam couldn’t have got in. I said we were hoping for perhaps a quick photo or something… He smiled at Sam. 

“You know the band, right?”

“Yes.”

“Then I’m afraid you know how that’s going to go.”

The look on his face was kind but far from hopeful.

Time passed. We waited. From time to time, the man from the front appeared and disappeared, apparently not succeeding in getting any access for Sam.

“Are they still inside?” I asked him.

“Yes, they are.”

We waited. 

Empty bottles came out and were dumped.

People came out.

Instruments came out.

The back of the place went dark. 

Roller shutters slammed down. 

It became very quiet. 

It started to rain. 

After a time, it all seemed over. Sam and I discussed our small consolation. We had come, we had done everything we possibly could. We had tried, damn it, we had tried.

Something happened.

A taxi/van with a side door pulled right up to the one remaining unshuttered stage door. There was only about three foot between this car and the door. We were across the cobbled lane so the entrance was now completely blocked by the van. 

“We have to move now,” I said, “if we want to even see them. This is it.”

We ran across and stood at the front bumper of the car. The stage manager was there and the man from the front was there too. All the players in the evening’s story were there.

The band came out and jumped straight in through the side door of the car. Beside me, Sam tensed in amazement. There they were!

That was it. At least we has seen them. Sam was smiling and quite in awe. At least there was that. 

I’ve thought about what Matthew did next. I’ve thought about it quite a bit. The best way I can describe it is that if Sam was Robin Hood at that moment, then Matthew became Alan-a-Dale, a troubadour at his shoulder, boldly telling his story.

“Guys,” he said, out loud, “Guys, this is Sam. He is one of your very biggest fans and he’s travelled all the way across the country today to see you. And, guys, he didn’t get in, he couldn’t get in, because he was too young.”

The side door of the van was still open. The three band members were sitting inside looking out, they seemed completely engaged in Matthew’s extraordinary telling of Sam’s story. 

“We sorry to hear that,” one of the band members said. Sam knows which one. 

“Guys, guys, can’t you please do something for him?  A photo or something?”

A minder spoke up, “The band don’t like photos. No photos.”

“Something, guys, please, can you do something?”

There was a moment’s silence. Nobody quite knew what to do.

I was quite close to the door of the van, to the band, I don’t really know how I got there. Everybody knew me by now and I guess I wasn’t very threatening. I spoke quietly to the lead singer.

“He has a T Shirt on, one of yours. Would you maybe sign it for him? I have a marker."

There was another silence. The impression I got of the band was very strong, it was one of three extremely shy guys who didn’t like any of the Melee that goes with their job, their art. This is ironic, perhaps, given the absolute mayhem they unleash while on stage but it is also remarkable and rather good. They are strong enough to be themselves. To never-ever compromise on what they believe. 

Then Andy, one of the band members, spoke up gently.

“I’ll sign it,” he said. 

Sam was quickly encouraged to tear off his coat and his sweater and then, astonishingly, he was brought into the van with the band. Face to face, Andy grabbed him by of his both shoulders and spun him around with some force. Sam laughed and the guy smiled to himself behind his back. It was a moment that, for me, told a story. I’m still trying to figure out exactly what that story is. 

The guy took a long time drawing carefully on the back of Sam’s T-shirt with the Starbucks marker. When he was done he nudged the band member beside him, “Sign this” he said and he did. Again he drew a distinctive and careful signature. The final band member, the front man and the most famously reticent of them all, then also took the marker and added what Sam afterwards described as ‘two hard swipes’ on his back. This later transpired to be a rather intricately-formed pentagram. 

As they were all carefully and painstakingly signing the shirt, Sam spoke to them, saying all the things he had thought about before, telling them what their music really meant to him. He got it all out and they heard him. 

Then we were done. We wished them a good night in Dublin and Matthew wished them luck on the rest of their tour. Matthew, a huge fan for many years, had completely given up any possible shot at interacting with the band to enable Sam to have his time with them. It was, without doubt, one of the more selfless things I have ever seen.

On the long drive home, Sam spent more than an hour writing on his phone. On his brother’s advice, he was setting it all down so that he wouldn’t forget any of it. I hope these words might help with a little with that too. 

The T-Shirt is now a Beautiful Thing. It will be framed and cared-for and treasured forever.

My sincere thanks go out to Death Grips, for setting aside their rules for one young man who needed them just a little. 

My thanks, too, to the Man on the Door who only smiled at the last when I shook his hand and asked him for his name. The kindest immovable force I have ever met.


(The Follow-Up)

The Death of My First Social Media

When I think about it, as I have been doing, I seem to have been on Social Media for most of my life. Before Facebook and Twitter, before Usenet and Myspace and even, God Help us, before Bebo and every other online computerised set-up that there ever was...

Before all of that… there was this;  CB Radio.

People these days think they know what that was. They have their tropes and their prejudices. It’s safe to say, though, that if you weren’t there, you don’t really know what it was. What if wasn’t (just to say), for me anyway, was Truckers and ‘10-4, good buddies’ and Country Music and Convoys and Smokies on the Run. Nope, it wasn’t any of those things. It was something quite different. Something quite similar, in its way, to what we have today. 

I remember how it started, though I can’t quite remember the year. I would guess it was 1978 or so. I was sitting in my living room at home, on a Friday night. School was over for the week and I was trying to get a good BBC picture on the telly for the late night movie, which I think was Polanski’s ‘Dance of the Vampires’. In those days, we got a shaky BBC signal which sneaked in between the mountains from across the border with Northern Ireland. It faded in and faded out and this was sometimes frustrating but sometimes it seemed t make an average film more involving and quirky.

So there I was, alone (everybody else had long gone to bed) drinking tea and enjoying the cheesy movie. Suddenly, out of the blue, a voice came over the TV, infinitely clearer and crisper than the crackled film reception. The voice, that of an elderly man, spoke what was obviously one side of an amateur radio conversation. I had never heard anything like this before on my telly. It quickly became more interesting than the film (which I had seen before). Who was this man? Who was he talking to? I listened until he was finished talking and I can still remember how he signed off. 

“Wishing you all you wish yourself. Good night”. 

I found out from my Dad that he was an elderly man who lived a few streets away from my house. A veteran of Ham Radio, he had descended to the lower wavelengths to take part in the local discussions which has sprung up in our town via the blossoming medium of Citizen Band Radio. 

I spend quite a few evenings, after the house was still, listening to him chatting rather aimlessly to the unhearable people on the other end of his line.

Not being able to afford a CB of my own, my friend and I took to chasing stray signals around town using an ancient plastic walkie-talkie that I resurrected from an old toy box in my brother’s room. This thing has only one channel so it was a rare occasion when a CB-er landed on that channel and started transmitting. But it did happen from time to time and the excitement of making a contact in this way is something I still remember quite vividly.

Eventually, I got my own CB Radio. It was an uninspiring black box, much less fancy that those which other people had. But my CB had been carefully chosen. It had 80 channels, as opposed to the normal 40 channels and this allowed me to follow the more serious users who would sometimes ‘Go High’ to the bigger numbers on the dial to escape the slightly more inane chatter one might encounter on the busy lower channels.

That summer was my CB Summer. Every evening, as dusk drew in, I would take my gear to the car which was parked in the back yard. I would wire it up to the car battery and then I would sit there until two or three in the morning, chatting to whoever came on.

There was no ‘lingo’ or ‘ stupid stuff’. These were mainly people who got on well but who did not have the economic or transport resources to meet up in person. We'd talk films and town-matters, we joked and smiled and encouraged each other a bit. We rarely, if ever, met up.

Winter became hard in the car. Running the heating could quickly kill the battery so there was lots of coats and a wool hat. For Christmas that year, I got the best present ever (widely hinted-at) – a transformer which enabled the CB to run from the electrical supply in the house. Once more sitting by the fire in my sitting room, late at night, with my magnetic aerial attached to a tea tray, I felt like the king of the world.

This nightly chatter was, by necessity, a local enough affair. The VHF bands we utilised operated largely on ‘line of site’ parameters. We spoke to people relatively close to us, and that was all. Then something quite different happened. It all sounds a bit far fetched now but it had everything to do with solar activity and sun spots. Basically, we hit a period of high solar activity and this increased the ionispheric refraction of the atmosphere. In our terms, the ‘Skip’ went ‘High’. This created an anomaly wherein people on tiny CB radios on the other side of the world could be communicated with directly via our own puny boxes. Suddenly we could all be Ham Radio people. We built bigger aerials and stuck them on our back sheds and we called ‘CQ DX’ into our power mikes to make faint and fleeting contact with far away folk. 

The ‘Skip’ was like the tide. It came in and went out at differing times of the day. CB people would meet on the street sometimes and tell each other that ‘The Skip was High’ in the same way that we imagined surfer people would tell each other than the ‘Surf was Up’. Generally the VHF bands were quiet and clear until somebody opened their mike and spoke. When the skip was high the airways were filled with the hissing, bleeps, and mumbles of a myriad of different transmissions. From time to time, a clearish voice emerged from the jibber-jabber and that was the moment where you tried to make contact. You called ‘CQ DX’ and identified your 'station' , usually your initials and a random number for show (I was Kilo Alpha 147) and you waited to see if the distant voice picked you out of the ether to chat to. Sometimes a voice would come in as clear as a bell, as if they were right there in the room with you, although they were actually many thousands of miles distance. It was both fascinating and a bit strange.

The ‘Italians’ were the bane of the long distance CBer. You might be in the middle of a delicate exchange with some dude in deepest Canada when the ‘Italians’ would come on the air and destroy everything. With their more powerful equipment (illegal in our country) they would power up their systems using long piercing whistles which would banish the far-away Canadian back into the deepest recesses of the Skip Noise, long before you could get an address from him. An exchange of addresses was the prize. This would often mean an exotic postcard received from the person on the other end, confirming the exchange. We sent these off too, sellotaping pennies to the back of our cards as memorabilia of the country we came from and hoping from something of the same in return. 

And all the while, when the skip was low, the local conversation went on, long into the nights.

In truth, the technology was not a very big part of it for me. I rode the Skip when it was high but, mostly, I just liked to chat. And, just like it was when I was fourteen, there aren’t often too many people around to chat to.  I still like to chat, though not on CB. So I reach out, as I always seem to have done, for a warm voice to share a thought with. CB, Usenet, Facebook, Twitter, it’s all been the same.

How did it die? CB Radio. When did it end? I don’t clearly recall. I’d like to think that the skip rose up and rose up until the background murmur became a roar and regular communication was no longer possible. That would suit a subtle analogy I’m trying to perhaps shoehorn in here. But it wasn’t really like that. 

In truth, I think the more meaningful voices simply just fell away, one by one, over time, until the only voices left were too loud and without any real substance. Until the seesaw finally tilted and it seemed more trouble to stay than to go. 

I think maybe all of my Social Media manifestations have ended this way.

I think they may continue to do so.

But hey, while they lasted, they were fun.