Movies with Boats

I’d really like to go and see Dunkirk today. I haven’t been to the movies in a long time and, to be honest, I haven’t really been bothered about that either. These days, I rent my movies via a little Apple TV thingie, close the curtains and do my own cinema thing without the crunching popcorn and the incessant chatting (yes, I’m getting old and grumpy).

But Dunkirk, yes I’d like to go see this one. 

I’ve been trying to persuade Sam to come along with me but he seems to share my feelings about the cinema now. I told him how it was a Christopher Nolan film and reminded him that we’ve seen all of his since way back when. So maybe he’ll relent and tag along with me. Maybe I’ll go on my own, it certainly wouldn’t be the first time.

Why Dunkirk, though? Why the particular interest there?

Well, it sounds good, doesn’t it? The story of Dunkirk (for me) is one of ordinary people being completely heroic, setting off into the unknown, unprepared, in a desperate attempt to rescue their people. It looks good too, if the bits I have seen are anything to go by. There are quite a few reasons why I’d like to go see this one.

But, if I’m honest, it’s mostly the boats.

I seem to have a weakness for movies with boats in them or movies set on boats. I think I always have. Even when I was young, old flicks like ‘Mutiny on the Bounty’ or ‘Captains Courageous’ always seemed to capture my imagination. 'Jaws' probably sealed the deal when I was twelve. It’s my favourite movie (I think) and I’ve written enough about it in other posts so I won’t go into it again here but it was the ‘men on a boat’ part that finally won me over I think. Last year's 'Swallows and Amazons' also won me over completely... there were boats in it. 

Why boats? Why me?

There’s two aspects to it, I think. I’ve partially forgotten that my childhood played itself out in the company of boats. We lived right beside the river and I was often to be found out there in an eighteen foot rowboat, heading for the lake and the islands or else just loitering at the edge of the bullrushes, lazily trying to nab a perch or a pike. 

I think it gets into your spirit a bit. The lapping of the water on the bow, the oars cutting through the still surface, the deep spiralling eddies the blade leaves behind. Stuff like that. Perhaps, when you’re not on the water any more, it sparks something in memory to at least see other people there, even if it's only up on a screen. Perhaps that’s it.

Of course, Dad was a man of boats too and he loved a good boat movie as well. That probably played a sizeable part in influencing me. It was said that he went to see ‘The African Queen’ every night for the seven nights it played in our local cinema. Whenever a boat movie would come on the telly, he would sit forward a little and announce to the room ‘this is a good movie.’ He let me sit up to see ‘A Night to Remember’ when I was probably too young for it. I’d watch it again right now, if it was on.

There was one boat movie he didn’t care to see and he shares this with my wife, Patricia, who cheerfully reckons it is the very worst movie we ever went to see. ‘A Perfect Storm’. I didn’t mind it so much. It had men in boats in it and that ticks enough boxes for me to generally see me through. I remember talking to Dad, saying ‘you should go and see this one’. I remember him looking surprisingly sad and saying to me, ‘no, I don’t really care for films like that’. 

That was a puzzle. I didn’t quiz him more about it but I sometimes think about it. It was a boat movie, after all, and there was fishing and drama and camaraderie before things turned bad. Why did he not care for this type of film and what type of film was that anyway?

I can only assume it was because people drowned in the film. I can only guess that this was the reason why he didn’t care to see it. But that doesn’t quite fit. When has there been a boat movie where people have not drowned? Titanic and such didn’t seem to trouble him. So why this one?

I’ve thought about it and I think I know. I think it was because we got to know the characters who drowned before it happened. Like the film or hate it, we knew the characters well before the water came to claim them. I think that’s what it was. Dad had known people who had gone to the water and never come back. Perhaps that particular movie was too close to the heart.

Anyway, I think I’ll see if somebody might bring this old sod to see Dunkirk. Maybe Patricia might take pity on me, thought she’s largely spoilt for boat movies after Clooney and Co. 

It’s not so much that I’m looking for an afternoon out or that I crave popcorn or dark enclosed spaces on this nice July day.

It’s just that, well, it’s a boat movie and you know how I’m a sucker for them. 

Saving Dead Birds

I see certain people on Social Media and they are always fighting the good fight. Every day, it seems, they are out there doing battle with awful individuals who say terrible things. 

I can totally see why. The world is in a bad state in many ways and every idiot and horrible person has a soapbox and a voice which is respectively as high and as loud as anybody else’s. The poison and horror they broadcast simply cannot be left unchallenged. 

It would be wrong to ever let their terrible sentiments stand. So long as we have a voice with which to shout back and a keyboard upon which to type a challenge. The fight must go on…

I get that…

Except… I suppose, I don’t. Not really.

I’m all for fighting the bad guys but I tend to think that one-on-one battles with evident trolls on social media are both self-destructive and ultimately pointless. This is tricky because anything I say about the futility of arguing with fools on Twitter is so easily refuted by expressing some heartfelt, genuine and true sentiments. Thoughts along the lines of those things I’ve started to say in that first paragraph. If we don’t fight every hater and shout down every dangerous fool, what will become of us? Will we simply be overrun by the mob?

I think I’ve been subconsciously casting around for a metaphor for some time. Some kind of simile that might help me try to illustrate this point. I think that because, when one came crashing into my car this week, I recognised it almost straight away.

This week, I killed a small bird. With my car. It wasn’t intentional. I was driving along, just outside of town, when it happened. It unfolded with a certain inevitability, as these things often do. The little bird seemed to come from a million miles away, always and inevitably heading straight for my front bumper. One moment wheeling breathlessly through the summer air, the next a tiny inert bundle in a ditch. There was just the faintest of thuds and a glance at the startled face of the person driving behind in my rear view mirror to mark the moment. That was it. It was unavoidable and there was nothing to be done about it. 

I was sorry. I don’t like to kill things. I’m one of those people who tends to move snails if they are in a dry place or let flies escape out the window whenever they are willing to go. So, yeah, it was a bummer but there was nothing I could do.

Nothing at all.

And then my mind went about its work, as it often does. 

What if..?

What if I felt I absolutely had to do something about the death of this little bird. What if I felt it was my own microcosm of all the ill that I see in the wide world and for me to not take action would be a terrible, terrible mistake. What if I imagined that the little bird had flown out to find grubs for its collective of tiny nestlings and that, now, those shrill voices calling for food would never be answered and even more deaths would soon result from my inaction. What if I parked my car and searched every tree in the neighbourhood and eventually, against all odds, found those little chicks and brought them home and fed them and tried to sustain them until, one day-

It’s all impossible, of course. A pipe dream. An illusion of effectiveness. 

A little bird is dead. It is sad but there is nothing I can directly do to help or change that. 

The word ‘directly’ is relevant here. This whole train of thought led me to the next piece of silliness. Something I’ve never done before but may do again. Later, when I was in the shop, I stuck a couple of coins in the ‘poor box’. I did it for the bird. I couldn’t do anything directly but I could do something indirectly. To mark the moment, to redress the balance. Call it what you will. To do something useful.

This, for me, is how it is on Social Media. The trolls and the fuckwits are like the dead bird. They are an ill, a wrongness in the world, but I cannot beat all the trees and knock them out. If I try, I am only bloodying my hands and endangering my mind to absolutely no avail. If I want to really achieve any moral victory against them, I must walk away and leave them to their ditch. I must find something else. Something small and positive to do in order to counter them. It may not be direct action but it is, at least, action and something good may come of it. Scouring the sycamores for imaginary orphan birds will serve nobody and will do no good. 

There is something almost Quixotic about the way people do battle on Social Media. Valiant and almost-alone, they ride out on their exhausted nag into the dusty plain to wage war on the evil giants.

“Do you see over yonder, friend Sancho, thirty or forty hulking giants? I intend to do battle with them and slay them… for this is a righteous war and the removal of so foul a brood from off the face of the earth is a service God will bless.”

On Social Media, we can come to see ourselves as our own ‘Man of La Mancha’, our missions equally noble and equally misguided. The main difference is that the trolls there are not imaginary. They are all too real and their windmills are built specifically to draw us into their fight.

I remain open to be convinced of everything I say. Those who righteously disagree with this may quote, “He who saves a single life, saves the world entire,” and I would not argue with that. I would only suggest that most of these online battles will not save a single life or even necessarily do any good at all. I would go so far as to say that some of these vicious virtual battles may end up costing a life, for no gain.

Don’t misunderstand me. I fight. I stand my ground. But the modern world is full of false, time-wasting things that only give the illusion of being righteous battles. I need to find where I can do the most good. I need to do my best work there, and leave the windmills to do their own work. 

This one’s for that little bird, still laying dead in the ditch. I’m really sorry I put you there but this, I think, is as much as I can usefully do. 

Jetson Injuries and Fast Forwarding Plaudits

When I was little, I watched that cartoon ‘The Jetsons’ on our telly. It wasn’t my absolute cartoon of choice. From memory, my great faves of the time included things like ‘Hong Kong Phooey’ and ‘The Hair Bear Bunch’. So, no, ‘The Jetsons’ was by no means on top of my list but, still, it’s ‘The Jetsons’ I’m thinking about today. 

Because I don’t have a ‘Hong Kong Phooey’ wound or even a ‘Hair Bear Bunch’ malady (I shudder to imagine what such a thing might even constitute). 

I have a Jetson injury.

Do you remember ‘The Jetsons’ at all? In the quite likely event that you don’t, George Jetson lived in a technology-ridden future with his futuristic family. His life was populated with flying cars and sundry domestic time saving devices. For his job, he pressed a button. That was it. And therein lies the rub, the button-pressing job. How impossible it seemed, back in the sixties, that some future man could have a job that consisted largely of pressing buttons. How very silly.

And yet here I am, the button-pressing man. Well, not quite but almost. I spend many hours a day on one of my computers, doing either one thing or another, clicking and pressing, pressing and clicking. The Jetsons future est arrivé, albeit sans la voiture volante.

The most ludicrous thing about George’s button pressing job was the injury he would suffer as a result of it. His poor finger would swell and throb. Oh, how we laughed at George and his silly sore finger. 

Yup, you’ve guessed it. 

After a very intense period, which involved many weeks of continuous computer work, especially mouse-clicking, I have developed my very own version of George Jetson’s dreaded ‘Button Finger’. My version is, apparently, sometimes called ‘trigger finger’. My right index finger is constantly sore, especially if I try to bend it. Most fun of all though is that, when the finger is dormant, like when I’m asleep, it closes up into a trigger-pulling posture and locks there. The only way to unlock it is to grab the finger with my left hand and tug it back into shape. Whenever I’m doing this, I remind myself of Inspector Kemp from ‘Young Frankenstein’ with his errant wooden arm which also required constant forceful rearrangement to keep it in check. 

Technology is bad. But, hey, technology can be good too. 

One of my current favourite things is my Sky TV remote control. (Nope, 'not being sponsored by anyone, I swear). I simply adore buzzing through the adverts on any given programme. It’s come to the point where I hardly ever see TV adverts anymore, except as a rapid frame blur as I race to the next part of my show. (Somebody should devise a super-slow visual advert that plays to the fast forwarding generation… there’s an idea!). These days, if I’m keen to watch something on commercial telly that, say, starts at nine, I will set it to record and start watching at 9.15, buzz through the adverts and finish just as the live programme is finishing. I bloody love it!

In this house, we tend to race through the ads at 30x speed and are required to come back to the programme at the exact moment that the adverts or over. It calls for no small measure of skill. On our couch, we compliment each other on our fast forwarding skills. “Oh, nicely done,” we’ll say or, “check out the Maestro,” as the remote control commander of the hour steers us safely and at high speed to the other side of another commercial chasm. My own secret is that I bring the speed back to 12x as I approach the end of the ad break, to give myself a better chance of landing neatly. To overrun is to bring down gentle derision or, ever worse, stony silence upon one’s head. 

We may not have a flying car and we may have the injury but, by golly, we can sure buzz the adverts and that’s a wonderful thing. So shall it always be with technology. The joy coupled with the pain. The laughter married with with the occasional tear...

The remote control giveth and the mouse pad taketh away. 

The More Things Change - A Novel by Jim Murdoch


Jim Valentine is a relatively ordinary man in a relatively ordinary rut. Solitary and unfulfilled, he moves though his life without hardly making a ripple. Then, one day, he meets an interesting old man in the park and everything changes… or maybe it all just stays the same.

I wanted to give over some special time to reading Jim Murdoch’s novel ‘The More Things Change’ so I read it as I walked to and from work every day. People I passed regularly remarked on how I did this without running into lamp posts or falling down manholes. It’s all about peripheral vision, I think. 

It made for a heightened experience, I think, reading the book while moving through streets and parks, passing business people, dogs, and children as I went. The book concerns itself with questions of life and existence and interaction and it was an added dimension to be out in the world and moving through it as these question were addressed. 

Jim Murdoch is a consummate writer. He knows exactly what he is doing and he does it with great insight, wit, and skill. The corollary is also true. He knows exactly what he is not doing. He is not writing a bodice-ripper nor a page-turner nor a thriller nor a mass audience satisfier. He is a writer with a poetic and an intellectual heart and he has themes which he wishes to probe and to agitate. His book has characters and story and development and resolution – all those things one looks for in a book – but they are not the priority. The priority is exploration, thought and the development of ideas.

At first glance, then, the book may present as a weighty tone. Not in actual bulk but rather in a certain delay in story development while thoughts and theme are being explored. First glances can be misleading though because Jim is a writer with a colossal inner database of cultural references, all the way from the sublime to the ridiculous, and this makes for a journey between the covers that is both a funny and constantly enlightening one.

Jim and I have things in common. We are both writers who will never stop no matter how little feedback the world chooses to give us. We have writing in our blood and we must do it, in some form or another, to keep that blood flowing.

We are also quite different animals too, in our way. In trying to think of a comparison, I came up with a pond. If the world was a pond, then Jim might  be a Pike in that world. Strong and imposing, digging deep into the bottom mud and poking hard among the bullrushes to find its fodder. As for me, I think I would be a pond skimmer, fast and precariously-balanced, never stopping to inspect anything too hard for fear of slipping though that surface tension on which I so depend so heavily. 

The pond skimmer is probably not the best creature to interrogate the ways of the pike. Jim digs deeper than I dig and his tendency to borrow deeply into the mud sometimes makes me a bit nervous and tempted to skim quickly on to the next available water lily. And the water lilies in Jim’s novel are sometimes more widely spaced than the poor pond skimmer can comfortably handle. 

To be less obtuse, the novel takes its time from development to development and this can require some acclimatisation in this world of never-ending sound bites and gifs. But, after one realises that getting there is much more than half the fun, only then can one start to more fully appreciate what Jim is doing here. He is actually much more like a cat than a pike, a Cat-Pike. He toys with his reader – his dinner – in a most mischievous and calculating way. He pulls himself out of the narrative then pulls himself back in, then he acknowledges that he has done this, then he does it again. Jim knits a deep pile rug for us then gleefully pulls it out from under our feet.

What I’m trying to say is that Jim’s writing is not always entirely easy but it is always entirely worth it. 

Do not think that he pursues a thought as far as he does because he is self-indulgent or in need of editing. One need only look to Jim’s amazing body of poetry work to see that he could literally write the book on being concise and succinct. There are no mistakes here. Jim writes as he chooses to write and he knows exactly what he is about. 

The book left me sad. I think that is a personal reaction from someone who seems to spend an inordinate amount of time concerning himself with other people. I am someone who sometimes seems to find my own self vanishing in my outward-gazing habits. I know this is not a good thing but, through conditioning and life-experience, it is just how I roll and it is difficult to change. This book seems to be more about the ‘self’. The ‘other people’ in the book seems to me to be quite peripheral and even disposable in the most literal sense of the world. Jim’s closest companion seems lovely and quite perfect but that person comes and goes and hardly ever seems to exist in that person’s own right. The most powerful character in the book seems kind and understanding and benevolent and yet also seems capable of acts of wanton destruction on a whim. To say more would be to spoil the twists and turns of the story.

Again, I know that all of this is no accident. Jim is a student of Beckett and, here, he almost seems to ‘out-Beckett Beckett’ in terms of casting a cold eye on life and death. (Yes, I know who that is). The overall result, for me, was not uplifting, nor was it meant to be.

Jesus,’ the reader of this review might say, ‘you’re not going to sell too many books for him, are you?’ and no, I’m not. But Jim and I know better than that. We know, all too well, that I could write here that Jim’s novel is a hot bed of sexual intrigue, murder, car chases and political chicanery and I still wouldn’t sell a single book for him. This blog of mine will never persuade anyone to buy anything and Jim and I both know that. All that I can do here is to react to the work I have read and to pay it the compliment of exercising my brain around what I have seen and heard and felt there. 

I learned from the book that I don’t have to be made happy to be satisfied and I realise that a writing work must contain some considerable power to make me feel as down about things as it did. The book wrought in me a passing but quite real feeling of general hopelessness and despair and, although a review like that on the back cover won’t make you pick it up at the airport and take it on the plane with you, it might make you feel that here is a writer who looks deeply at the world and who can skilfully evoke some of the pain he sometimes sees there. 

You can get hold of this book and much more of Jim's writing at: 
http://www.jimmurdoch.co.uk/books.html#change and, for a full flavour of Jim and the work he does, please do visit his blog at http://jim-murdoch.blogspot.ie  It is a monumental work of commitment to writing which I believe may come to be recognised as such in times to come.

That was the end of what I wrote (apart from this). Jim's reply was so in-depth and good that I asked his permission to include it in the body of the post. So, if you want to know more (ie. something) about Jim's novel, read on...

This book took a long time to write, Ken, almost twenty years. It began as another ‘Truth’ novel, or at least one set in the same universe and I’d every intention of having him appear. In the end only Destiny gets the tiniest of cameos. Although published fourth The More Things Change was actually written before Milligan and Murphy which, as I recall, you called my “love letter to Beckett.” It wasn’t. It was me dealing with the residua following this book which really is a love letter to Beckett. Why do you think the protagonist’s named Valentine? It was a long time before the Randolph-and-Mortimer-type characters appeared—remember the $1 bet? from Trading Places—and I suppose that’s where I got the idea of casting Jim as Job. When Joe calls Lucien a “wild rover” what I’m referencing is Job 1:7 where Satan, when asked, says he’s been “roving about on the earth” but here’s the thing with Job, he starts the book as “the greatest of all the Orientals” and ends up right back on top: nothing changes. Jim starts off alone and with illusions and ends up alone with delusions. We never actually learn who wins the bet between Joe (Jehovah) Hoover and Lucien but it doesn’t really matter. So I can see perhaps why it might make you sad. It’s the whole “giving birth astride the grave” scenario “the light gleams an instant, then it's night once more.”

After I got to the end of the opening section I hit a brick wall. Although I’d started out with one thing in mind I found I didn’t like the idea of repeating myself. And the book lay in a drawer, well, on a hard drive, for a good two years before I got the idea to jump twenty years into the future and ignore his rise to success and the subsequent collapse of his marriage; none of that interested me. Changing to a first person narration was what made all the difference and that’s where writing all those short stories—which is what I’d ended up doing in the interim—helped.

The structure’s meant to echo Beckett’s life. His early novels were written in the third person. In the trilogy he moved to a first person narrator and then it was on to the plays which is why the last section’s written the way it is. I didn’t set out to “out-Beckett Beckett” as you put it or even to imitate him especially (except in the funeral urn section which was based on the sucking stones text in Molloy) but I wanted a sense of Beckett to be there. Jim’s universe is built on what was important to him. In an early bio I once referred to myself as “the character Beckett never got round to writing” and that is what Jim is. Most people assume that Act II of Waiting for Godot takes place the next day and it probably does but they also get that if the acts went on forty years later the two of them would still be standing there waiting for Godot.

You’re quite right when you called the other people in the book “peripheral and even disposable” because they are. Jim’s dad only exists as and when needed. Only Abby is granted any depth. He can’t even remember his kids’ names in the end and two or three times in the book Jim struggles with names and that’s something Beckett did; the May/Amy thing is straight out of Footfalls, for example. Most of the characters in the novel take their names from Beckett but not Abby. She’s named after a character in Swamp Thing and there’re many nods in the chapter in which she first appears mostly notable the book The Anatomy Lesson which references the first storyline Alan Moore wrote, the one where he reinvented the character. When Len Wein (one of the names on Abby’s keyring) created the character he was a man who’d been turned into a monster. Moore turned all that on its head. He proposed that Swamp Thing only thought he was a man; in reality Alec Holland had died and Swampy only housed his consciousness. No one will make the connection but it’s an important clue for those who do. Londahl, by the way, is an anagram of Holland.

I could go on. I want to go on. I will go on! I wanted to write a treasure trove of a novel, a novel you could read over and over again and still discover new things. Christ knows how many times I’ve seen Airplane! and every time I’d catch something I missed on previous viewings. My copy has almost 1500 footnotes because there’s no way I was going to remember all the clever stuff. But the clever stuff came later. I wrote the novel from start to finish and nothing changed from the first draft to the last, nothing essential. It was only once the story was done that I started tweaking it, grafting in interesting things and the more I did that the more I realised there was a whole other level to the book that I’d not seen before, other levels in fact. They were there; they just needed highlighting.

I had a religious upbringing as you know but one thing I wasn’t taught was everything’s predestined. In that respect there is no Grand Plan. From a fictional point of view, however, it’s far more interesting if there is a grand plan. And now science is suggesting free will is an illusion and we’re all living in a computer simulation controlled by an evil genius. I love all that stuff and even though I gave up Science at school as quickly as I could it does keep worming its way into my writing. I’m not sure I reference The Matrix anywhere in the novel—it came out in 1999 when I was busy writing short stories—but its spirit is there although Jim is no Neo; Christlike he’s not be but he is godlike and as soon as I realised his initials J.H.Va. were similar to Joe then there was another strand to develop. All writers are gods even fictional ones.

It’s odd the book made you miserable when it has a happy ending. Jim’s dream’s fulfilled and I don’t mean the wife or the success—those were red herrings—I mean his real dream. Writers are by their very nature outsiders, watchers (unless you’re Jessica Fletcher) and how many of us yearn to be in the story. Well, that’s what Jim gets. Whether that was something the original Jim wanted we’ll never know for sure.

You’re right though any summary of this book will just put readers off. And yet here’s the thing: books like this do sell; there is a market for them. The most recent example I can think of is Satantango by László Krasznahorkai. It’s a miserable book full of miserable characters and yet it’s absolutely compelling. Who’s buying these books? It can’t just be me. One has to wonder how Beckett would fare if he tried to find an agent with The Unnamable today. Would they see it as the work of genius it truly is or would they give up reading the manuscript by the second page? That is assuming they didn’t give up after reading the summary.

So I’m not sure what I’m going to do with this. I know it’s good. I’m pretty damn sure it’s the best thing I’ll ever write but no one’s going to read it in its current format. When I first published Living with the Truth back in 2008 I had intended to use the reviews I got as evidence to present to an agent: see, SEE, I can write. But that never happened. Almost ten years on the publishing world’s changed and it’s even harder now but clearly not impossible. As evidenced by A Girl is a Half-formed Thing. I did toy with the idea of sending the book to Galley Beggar Press but I imagine every literary novelist out there’s been banging on their door so maybe wait until the fuss’s died down.

In the meantime I just wanted to say thanks for reading the book and for writing this. It does make a difference. I don’t care how sure any one of us is of our own worth/talent/genius it doesn’t hurt to get the odd pat on the back.


You're welcome, mate. 

Conversations With Friends by Sally Rooney

Thursday night was great. I got to chat to my friend Sally Rooney in a Linenhall Arts Centre that was packed full of warm, welcoming people. I’ve known Sally and her family for many years and it all felt more like a nice catch-up than an interview. I really enjoyed myself. Sally’s first novel ‘Conversations With Friends’ was launched last week. You may know this already because there have been articles and interviews in most of the main newspapers about it and Sally’s been all over the national airwaves, discussing it, and will continue to be for some time to come. 

So, having mentioned the wonderful evening and the massive attention the book is getting, I’d like to spend the rest of this post on the book itself.

I suppose I can’t know exactly for sure how I would have reacted to the book if I had not known Sally. I can be pretty sure, though. As a book lover, I believe I would have loved this book even if I’d never heard her name. It’s beautifully written, you see. Sally has been writing all her life and so this first novel comes with a sophisticated yet natural style which is already fully formed and highly engaging. 

The writing is sharp and spare but never to the extent that it alienates the reader. The central character, Frances, comes very real off the page. Perhaps this is partly on account of the unforgiving mirror she often holds up to herself. 

Sally brings her natural intelligence and erudition to her writing but those qualities alone would not be enough to make this book. Sally brings a third ‘X Factor’ which younger people than me might tend to call ‘The Feels’. The four central characters in the book are all smart and bright and metropolitan in their way but they all have their doubts, their petty moments, too. They all make their mistakes. 

I won’t give you a run down of the story. It’s there between the covers of the book. I always think it’s best to wade in knowing as little as possible. See how you go.

In certain ways, the book evoked 'Catcher in the Rye' for me. Sally has read her Salinger and, knowing her as I do, I know her fondest regard is for the writing which lies beyond ‘Catcher'. ‘Franny and Zooey’ is a work that I am now resolved to get stuck into, having heard of how highly she regards it.  I was also reminded of Brett Easton Ellis in the cleanness of the prose and dialogue and, rather conversely, of Jane Austen in the way human truths are probed with wit and insight within a relatively close knit social situation. 

I try never to judge a book by its cover but, in the last few days, I’ve been thinking about the reason why I loved my copy of the book more than I loved everyone else’s on the launch night. I was lucky enough to be given a copy of the British hard cover edition with the painting ‘Sharon and Vivien’ by Alan Katz depicted on the front. The Irish edition has a photograph representing the two central characters on a blanket in the park on a summer’s day. Both editions are beautifully produced to the highest standards but I found myself consistently drawn to my own copy rather than the Irish version.

This point is not about book covers but rather it is about heightened reality and I only figured this out in the last day or two. Perhaps Sally’s greatest achievement is to create a subtly heightened reality in her novel. A place where everything seems real but which is actually half a degree higher than real. 

For all the elements of harsh reality and pain in the book, there seems to me to be an overriding romantic ‘air’ which permeate the pages. At the end of the novel, the famous bookshop and the park and Dublin at Christmas time all seem to meld together to evoke an almost Woody Allen-like warmth for the metropolitan existence. There is almost an echo of ‘An Affair to Remember’ as Nick and Frances move across the winter city towards a predestined rendezvous. I think that's why I tended to migrate towards the 'heightened' cover rather than the 'real' one. For me, it reflects more readily the discreet fiction of the story. 

I’m not trying to ‘solve’ the book or even try to wax clever about it. If anything, I’m just trying to show how I became involved in it. I smirked at it and I winced at it and shook my head in wonderment at it and I closed its covers in shock and then opened them again soon after. 

‘Conversations With Friends’ is, to my mind, a very good book indeed and I recommend it to you. 

The Blind Man and the Little Girl

It’s something I think I mentioned before. The stories of the world slip past us for the want of a tidy ending or a catchy moral. Things happen almost every day that are a little bit remarkable and worth setting down but they slip through our minds because there is no hook or piece of bubble gum on the end to make them stick there. 

I increasingly think that stories without conclusions have an important part to play in the memorabilia of our lives. We treasure old photographs but, quite often, they offer no narrative, no punchline, no neat summary. They capture a moment and they stop there. For us this is often more than enough.  The snap shot becomes a thing of nostalgia and truth and often great value. 

Why can it not be that way for our stories too?

Yesterday, I ventured out of the office and down to the post box on the corner. Post is quite a rare thing these days, for me at least. Most things go as email and attachments and such. Yesterday’s post could have gone the same way. For some reason, I felt like a bit of printing and signing and enveloping and stamping. No idea why.

On the way to the post box, I spotted a blind man some distance up ahead waiting to cross over the street to my side. I  did a quick assessment of whether I could be of any value to him and just as quickly decided that I couldn’t. I knew him from around the place and he was pretty nifty with his long white cane. He didn’t need me and any intervention on my part would have been more around me feeling good than him being assisted.

Let him alone then.

As I came on up the street, he got the green on his pedestrian crossing light and rapidly came across. He then started working his way up the edge of the shopfronts, tapping and brushing his way along. As he approached me, he also approached a point where a building kicked outward into the pavement. He came towards it at a pace and I again debated intervening. But, no, the tip of the white cane found the jutting-out-part of the stone, a neat correction was made, and on he went. A tall rangy middle aged man, making his way. 

At the post box, I checked that everything was right with my envelopes and posted them into the green pillar box. On my way back, I almost caught up with the blind man again. He was turning into the alleyway where my office is. As he turned, a father gently held up his daughter’s progress with the palm of his hand. The girl was about seven or eight and she watched with active interest as the blind man made his way past them and on up the alley.

As the girl looked questioningly at her Dad, I heard him quietly say, “The man is blind, darling, so we don’t want to get in his way, right?”

The blind man had progressed a little further up the alleyway but he obviously heard the words because he stopped suddenly. He didn’t say anything, he just stood there until the man and his daughter caught up with him. I had almost caught up too. The guy knew when father and daughter were beside him. 

“Would you like to try my cane?” he said. 

The little girl was understandably hesitant. It might not even have been entirely clear to her that she was being spoken to. If the father had not been so relaxed and open to the interaction, it probably would not have happened. But it did. 

Slowly, so slowly, the little girl reached and took the end of the cane. Both men smiled. 

“I can’t see. That's why I have to feel for things with my cane,” he said. Then he said, “You have to close you eyes.”

Quickly, trusting now, the little girl did just that.

“Then try to find your daddy with the end of the cane.”

Quickly, almost instinctively, the dad took a step back to increase the challenge a little. The girl swept the can around and almost immediately connected it to her dad’s knee.

“There he is!” she shouted and everyone, myself included, smiled.

Then I went back to work. 

Roger Moore – My Bond

When I saw on a Facebook update that Sir Roger Moore had died, I surprised myself at how sad and nostalgic I immediately felt. Thinking about it a bit more since, I can see that it was entirely appropriate and justified that I would feel a little of that. 

Roger Moore was my James Bond in many ways. He arrived as James Bond in 1973 when I was ten years old but I had known that he was coming for almost a full year by then. As I’ve  written about before, I was already a full blown James Bond fan. I had collected and treasured all of the ‘On Her Majesty’s Secret Service’ bubble gum cards, although I didn’t see the film for many years later, and I had been to see ‘Diamonds Are Forever’ in a matinee at the Gaiety in Sligo when it first came out. 

But I was ten now and there was a sense that this new James Bond was going to be mine. I awaited the films that followed with a sense of great childhood anticipation and the moments when I first got to see them still live large in my memory.

Live and Let Die.  Since the bubble gum cards, I had always tried to get whatever information I could about a Bond film before it came out. My memory is that, before I ever saw Roger Moore as Bond, I had got hold of the book of his diaries of the filming of the movie. I gobbled it up and it started something new inside of me. To my ten year old surprise, the book was not about James Bond and spies and stunts and adventure. It was about the rather tedious business of making a movie. It was about a middle aged man playing poker with his producer and worrying about the press and battling some awful-sounding affliction called kidney stones. What it gave me was a affection for the James Bond production process that was equal to the films themselves. I don’t think I’m alone in that. The extravagance, the excess and the sheer awful hard work and toil that goes into making the shiny, rather silly, end product still engages me to this day. 

There were eight pages of still images from the upcoming film in the centre of that diary/book and I pored over each one. I can still picture them now. That speedboat flying over the road, James Bond tied up with Solitaire, the exotic unheard-of gadget called a ‘hang-glider’. 

When I finally saw the film on its release, in another matinee, I lapped it all up and went back again to see it the week after. I misunderstood so much of what was going on in it but I loved it nonetheless. When one character mentioned the ‘klu klux clan’, I could repeat the words perfectly but I had no idea what it meant. I thought that James Bond had a flame thrower/antiperspirant can on his person that he used to dispatch a snake until Niall Hopper explained to me that he lit the spray with his cigar (I was terribly impressed by that) and, most remarkably, I thought the overall conceit of the film was a bad man who wanted to spread the illicit use of herons on the mean streets of New York (this is true). I thought the herons lived close to where the alligators were. 

Roger Moore in Live and Let Die probably fueled my childhood fantasy that I would one day be James Bond. I don’t think Connery could have done that for me, he was too tough, too strong, too brutal. Roger, like me, was a rather slender winsome chappie. He made the idea work in my head.

Although much maligned, The Man With the Golden Gun remains one of my personal favourite Bond Films. I always maintain that Bond movies are like bread. You have to get to them when they're fresh and new. The ingredients and baking method means that they tend to lose their attractiveness rather quickly. I loved ‘Man With the Golden Gun’. Again, I was primed by the Ian Fleming book, an edition updated with another eight coloured stills in the centre. I stared and stared at the upside-down car over the river and wondered how it could be. This was the very first film I was allowed to go and see at night unaccompanied by an adult. I went with George H who I know looks in here from time to time. Hi George. This time it was in The Savoy. Although I didn’t have such a word in 1974, I found it to be a terribly romantic film. In retrospect, the music added hugely to that impression. John Barry’s lush strings are very much in evidence and, again, though I had no clue such things were going on at the ripe old age of eleven, seeds were being planted which still poke discernible tendrils through my mind today. I still listen to John Barry's music with disturbing regularity. 

I went to see The Spy Who Loved Me with my friend Shane R who is now an important army man in New Zealand. He looks in sometimes too. Hi Shane. I knew there was the mother of all skiing stunts in the pre-title sequence and I thought I knew what it was. I had seen a clip on Clapperboard where James Bond had done a sort of ski-somersault and shot a bad guy at the same time. I thought, ‘yes, it’s a great stunt’ and enjoyed seeing it on the big screen. The shock of the skier shooting of the edge of the cliff into the void and then opening his parachute was a shiver inducing moment that I will never ever forget. This was the almost perfect Bond movie and, although the one before pips it for me, I loved everything about it and I lapped it up.

I can’t go any further. Roger's Bond lost me with the subsequent movies. The gags became too self deprecating. All sense of edge was gone, for me at least. 'For Your Eyes Only' was almost good enough to bring me back but too much damage had been done. 

Roger Moore was a part of my teenage life. For years I looked forward to seeing him with real excitement and anticipation. In real life, he never seemed to disappoint. He was always wry, always self-deprecating, always Roger.

Thanks for the memories. Sir R. 

You did it good. 

Just a Walk on a Beach

On Friday afternoon, I bailed from the office a little bit early to drive my son down to Westport. There was a concert that evening and he had to be at the Town Hall Theatre for five for a sound check. Cool, eh? And what a super concert it was. Teenagers performing for their peers with all the talent and positivity one could possibly wish for.

So I dropped him off, bang on the five mark. I am nothing if not punctual. From there, I had no plan. The concert was  due to kick off at seven and I wanted to be there for that but what to do for the two hours in between? I had a rather romantic image of me sitting in a coffee shop reading my book. Lovely but that never really works for me. After the coffee is dispatched, I quickly start to feel like an economic blight on the coffee shop establishment, taking up a whole table, outstaying my imagined welcome. I know, I know, it’s just how I tend to go on. It’s a bit late for rehabilitation now. 

I also toyed with driving home, kicking back for a while, and then coming back for the concert. All well and good but with a 24 minute drive home and a 24 minute drive back, the kicking-back-time seemed fairly meagre.

This is where I might make you a wee bit jealous. Maybe not. 

“I know,” I said to myself, “I’ll go for a walk on the beach.”

Because I could, you see. It’s one of the many fringe benefits of living where I do, in the County of Mayo’. I don’t live on the sea, the crashing waves don’t wake me in the morning, the sea breezes don’t gently stir my net curtains. Hell, I don’t even have net curtains. The sea may not be right outside my front door but it’s not all that far away either. Far enough for a trip there to be a tiny excursion, close enough to make that entirely possible. 

So I went for a walk on the beach. Just that. Nothing’s going to happen in the rest of this post. I’m just going to write about my walk on the beach. I thought you should know, in case you might be expecting pirates or dog fights or gratuitous nudity or something. 

Just the walk, that’s all. 

The beach is about a  ten minutes drive from Westport. It’s a nice drive. Green, tree lined roads, nice houses, glimpses of the bay, a run past the base of Croagh Patrick and Murrisk Village and then the twisty lane down to the beach.

Even though the bay and the water had been seen, along the drive down, the first view of the beach is still a big surprise. Suddenly, around a bend, there’s a shock of brilliant sandy-pea-green water, a colour so unknown in my normal everyday routine. The sky is patches of blue with substantial grey/white clouds galloping across. The breeze through the open car window is tart and briny. 

It’s five thirty on a Friday. I should just be finishing up work. I park up. There are just three other cars. I walk down to the beach and none of the owners of the three cars are anywhere to be seen. This huge wild amazingly coloured beach is entirely mine. I set off walking. Twenty minutes out, twenty minutes back, and the drive back to Westport will see me right for the concert. Having made the quick calculation and checked the time, I can let it all go. I can just walk for a while. 

It’s a complete multi-sensory experience, when you’re on your own and you can open yourself up to it. How unusual to have your shoes sink gently into the ground beneath you. How furtive the little creatures who scuttle out of your way as you go. I walk along the line of the water, adjusting my route along the constantly invading advance of the waves. There is bladder wrack strewn around and perfectly rounded stones and shells glittering with some encrusted sandy mother-of-pearl. There is a boat mast out toward the horizon and some solitary crying bird on the wing. There is the mountain behind, dominant in the clear air. There is the solitude, the amazing exclusivity of it all. 

Half way along the beach and the rounded stones gather and run tight down to the water line. These are more difficult to walk quickly over. They press on the soles of the shoes and make you wave your arms about unsteadily as you go. 

Magically, as I approach this part, the receding tide seems to draw back a couple of foot more and a slender sandy causeway opens up between the stones and waves . I negotiate it, feeling unusually lucky. The final sweep of the waves keep trying to gain the pathway back and I have to step into the stones on every seventh or eight attempt but, apart from that, the new sandy path sees me right. I compare myself amusedly to Moses and how the Red Sea parted to let him and his posse through. I took a photo of the sandy path. That's it up top.

This little event solidifies an amorphous feeling of my being at exactly the right place at exactly the right time. A confirmation that I had done well today to eschew the temptations of the coffee shop and of home for this mini-adventure, this sensory dream. 

Getting back to the car park was a little bit like waking up. 

And, like I said, the concert was great. 

Younger Son Goes Away, Comes Back Again

Ten to midnight, Monday night. Driving in the car. Younger son is staring out of the side window, taking in the orange town as it slides by.

“I feel like I’m seeing everything for the last time,” he said.

It’s only the School Tour. It’s not the end of the world. In fact, it’s going to be great. Barcelona, vibrant city, Gaudi, Picasso, Swimming Pools, Beaches, Theme Parks. Five days of comradely fun and adventure. It will be great. 

Except, at ten to midnight, Monday night, it’s not entirely great. There’s a potentially sleepless overnight trip on a bus, an early morning flight into the unknown and a full day of sightseeing and orientation in prospect, while home, with its cosy bed, recedes rapidly in the rear view mirror. 

The bus hasn’t arrived at the school yet. Students stand around sleepily in rucksacked conspiracies. There isn’t any opportunity for a demonstrative goodbye, that might play badly with the huddled masses. Not even an assist with the baggage. There must be no sign of weakness here. Younger son joins the cohort and is immediately assimilated within. Soaked up and enveloped in comradely anticipation and, suddenly, the worst is all over, the adventure has finally begun and it’s going to be fine. 

Time to go back home but who can go back home until the bus is seen to have arrived and the passengers are seen to be safely on board? But to wait and watch would be to possibly expose younger son to some gentle ribbing. Old dad refuses to go. That will not stand. Two quick tours of the town and there it is, the darkened bus, lapping against the edge of the pavement like a ship at a dock.

There is no need to wait anymore. The cohort have assembled, the transport arranged. 

Time to go home. 

An adjusted line from a well-known song occurs on the drive home. It gets posted on Social Media. People seem to understand.

“Samuel is flying tonight on a plane…”

The phone announces receipt of the text at 3.50am on Saturday morning. The bus is ten minutes out from the school. Time to go get him. The time he spent in the air, earlier, was a little odd. Flying is safe and everyday and unworrysome but, still, your kid is thousands of feet above the ground in a steel tube and things are always a little better when the website finally refreshes to say that the plane has arrived.

The parents all park their cars in the place where the bus needs to stop so that causes a momentary hiatus but it's easily enough solved. Teachers and students disembark and, despite the oddness of the hour, everyone is smiling and relaxed. Younger son is eight inches taller than when he left, resplendent in salmon coloured shorts and t-shirt. Baggage is rounded up and goodbyes are swapped. Is everyone okay for a lift? Yes, mum is on her way, she just slept through the text.

Home. Travel case abandoned in the hall. A quick face wash to remove the journey grime and straight to bed for a deep twelve hour sleep. 

The school tour is over. Respect to the teachers who herd our kids through this notable rite of passage. Respect to the kids who hesitantly go away and smilingly come back again. Respect to us parents, who are glad to see it all work out so nice and who won’t park in the bus spot next time.

Well, maybe not.


Saying Goodnight to Twitter

One evening last week, I actually ended up in a pub in Westport having a drink with some friends. This is highly unusual for me. Mostly, I’m at home, on the couch or here on the computer, tapping away. 

I don’t really do pubs or even (heaven help us) friends very much anymore. So, yeah, this was unusual and very very nice.

The conversation turned to Social Media and there was some interest from the four people there about how long I have been using Twitter and how, once upon a time, it had been quite an integral part of my life. 

One of the people was one of those type of people who we all know, a great guy but somebody with no interest or understanding whatsoever about the meaning or value of any Social Media of any description. I can understand this completely, if I'd never got into them, I don't think I would understand them either. Hell, I probably still don't. Anyway, faced with this online disdain, I nimbly sashayed into my default 'Peter the Apostle' position and started to actively deny the depth of my own acquaintance with Facebook and Twitter. 

“I hardly ever…”

“Doesn’t really matter to me…”

“Never heard of ‘im guv’nor.”

That type of thing. 

It’s hard to defend Social Media usage to non-believers. It's so much easier to play it down and get back to the news of the day as smoothly as possible.

As Jack Nicholson said in ‘Terms of Endearment’, “I was that close to a clean getaway,” when one final question was dropped in.

“What do you do on Twitter.”

“Sorry?”

“I mean, what do you actually do?”

I thought about it a bit before I answered.

“I don’t do a quarter of what I used to do, that’s for sure. Mostly I just read people’s tweets, I say one or two things myself, and I reply to things here and there. Oh, and I say ‘Goodnight’. That’s the thing I do most these days.”

The rather terse silence that followed told me that I had probably revealed a little too much for comfort.

“You..?”

“Say goodnight, yeah.” 

Now that I’d said it a second time, I realised with even greater clarity how stupid it sounded. 

“How…  how does that work?”

How it works is like this;

I rarely tweet or do Facebook stuff from my phone. Generally I do these things late in the evenings when I’m on my computer at home. I enjoy leaving both windows open and peeping in from time to time to see what people are saying and doing. Sometime after midnight, when I’m turning my computer off for the night, I tend to send a tweet that says ‘G’night’ then I go to bed. I’ve been doing it for a while. There’s no great intent or logic to it. 

What keeps me doing it, night after night, is that some people, somewhere, usually says goodnight back. Not very many, it’s not a deluge of goodnight wishes. Often it’s two or three people. Sometimes it’s only one. Occasionally, but not too often, it’s nobody at all. That’s okay. People are busy. People are asleep.

What also keeps me doing it, is the reaction of some people when I have neglected to do it for a while and then suddenly come back to it. People who I really don’t know much about have expressed pleasure that I have started to do it again after the hiatus. 

Not a lot of people will get this reference and certainly even less will care but, when I say it like that, ‘G’night’, I am channelling somebody from my tellybox. For more years than I can count, the American TV Show ‘Survivor’ has been a constant family viewing pleasure. At the end of each ‘Tribal Council’, near the end of the show, Jeff, the presenter, says ‘G’night’ to the participants as they grab their symbolic torches and head off into the dark and back to their camp. So that’s why I say it that way; ‘G’night’. 

It’s nothing, really, this 'G'night' thing, it’s just another tiny connection to the wide world. 

But, oddly enough, it’s become a bigger thing as it’s gone on and on. There’s only one reason for this. All the other aspects of Twitter have  got that much smaller. There were times when I would tweet an awful lot more than I do now. There seemed to be a loose cohort of people who would casually interact and subtly give support and a sort of virtual companionship. Doubtless these cohorts still exist all over Twitter but I think when you’ve been a part of one and it eventually fades (as they always inevitably will) it is hard to find another to match it. 

So my Twitter has become a lesser thing in my life than it used to be. That’s no harm. I miss certain people and I miss chatting casually to them but there are other people and they are precious too. I guess I’ve just moved on a bit and I think that’s a good thing. So, where once, a simple ‘G’night’ was a tiny element of an often alarming flow of tweets, it may now comprise 50% or even sometimes the entirety of my day’s contributions to the medium. 

So I’ll keep doing it, for now at least, and I’ll keep smiling whenever a night-time wish drifts back to me from across the ether. And (a small confession) some nights, when no reply materialises, I may sit for a little longer than is seemly to see if one might come in.

We are all odd, in our way. 

We may as well embrace it. 

After The Debs is Over

If you know me via Social Media, you might have seen a few of the terse updates I was posting this week. ‘Almost time…’, ‘Tech Rehearsal…’ ‘Full Dress…’ ‘Showtime…’ ‘Exhausted…’ that kind of thing. 

An extraordinary week has drawn to a close. My newest play, ‘Deb’s Night’ has had its two nights in The Linenhall Arts Centre here in Castlebar. It played to capacity audiences and the extraordinary cast received spontaneous standing ovations on both nights. I think I can say this because I only wrote it, they fully deserved each one.

So today, after reflecting on things for a day or two, I want to first thank the main players in my wonderful week and then I want to scribble a little bit about the writing of Deb’s Night, partly as an aide-memoire to myself as I get ready to move on to the next one, which is mostly already-written in my head.

So. Thank you.

Thank you to Donna Ruane, who is my friend and who also happens to be a highly talented director and actor. For many years, Donna has run her Acting for Fun classes on Saturdays here in Castlebar. It is one of her many commitments but one that is particularly close to her heart. That title ‘Acting for Fun’ is both slightly misleading and entirely correct. It’s correct because the teens who go there pretty much have the best fun you could imagine. They tend to become tight friends and (from what I know) they look forward to each session with eagerness and anticipation. It’s slightly misleading because the name almost has a casual feel to it, a sort of ‘let’s not take this stuff too seriously’ vibe and that could not be further from the truth. Donna shows her people how to act, really act, and, to her, it is an earnest and important endeavour. This seriousness rubs off on the teen actors. This mix of serious and great  fun produces a special kind of acting student. One who loves to act and have fun but who never-ever take it casually.

Thank you Donna, for seeing something worthwhile in the Deb’s Night script and for taking it on and for shaking quite a brilliant production out of it. 

Then there’s those guys I was just talking about in the last paragraph-but-one. The Cast. Eighteen, yes count them, eighteen amazing guys and gals, every one of whom brought their ‘A-Game’ to this endeavour. The feedback I got suggested that the audiences could not quite believe the quality of what they were seeing. I could believe it though, I’d seen how hard they worked and how much fun they had doing it. (there’s that mix again).

Then there’s The Linenhall Arts Centre. I’ve written about them quite recently so I better not go on too much but, damn, they really know how to look after a creative endeavour and that’s for sure. A vibrant young cast finds itself enveloped in a professional theatre with a professional director and professional lighting and sound design and professional show management and everybody raises their game to come along with what The Linenhall gives. If you’re here in Castlebar and you’re artistically inclined I would suggest you make friends with the place. See the exhibitions, catch the shows, drink some coffee there. Your creativity will blossom just from spending quality time within those hallowed walls. 

A particular word for my friend Oisin Heraty who brought the theatre design up to the highest level. Because I mostly write stuff that doesn't use formal sets, in this case, just a couple of stools (well, eighteen) I tend to want to lean heavily on lighting and sound and music to set scenes and tone. Oisin has never let me down in this regard. Also the pleasure of being allowed to work the sound cues myself while Oisin ran everything else (and most of the sound cues too), the ability to watch the play and the audience as-one while also feeling as if I was a part of the theatrical machine that was running it. It all made me feel a bit important and I’m still cruising on that vibe. So thanks mate. 

For me, it’s kind of the dream come true. To write something as carefully and well as I possibly can, to have twenty plus people working flat out to make it come alive, and for the audiences to come out and enjoy the result. Yes, it’s ‘dream-come-true’ territory all right and I count my blessings that I get to experience all of this. 

And so now the Debs is over. There may be another outing but The Linenhall premiere is now writ in history.

A moment, then, if I may, for me to selfishly set down some thoughts and reminiscences on the actual writing of the play. What drove it and what might have added a pinch of inspiration to it because, as with all my little plays, there were many pinches borrowed from hither and yon.

I had written two other full length plays-for-teens and both had been pretty well received. When the second one ‘Midnight in the Theatre of Blood’ was revived last year at The Linenhall, along with the shorter (and beloved) ‘Fine’ I saw the power and potential of the current young cast that Donna had trained up and I resolved to try to give them a brand new play for this year. Teen casts move along quickly to College and Adult Life and they have to be grabbed while they are still around. This was very much a year to do that.

I knew I wanted to write about Family and, particularly, about Parents and their Children. I was intrigued to give the teens a platform where they could play out some of their parents concerns and, in doing so, to show them what they sometimes look like from the adult point of view.

I also knew I wanted to capture something that I had seen in Donna’s classes. There, in the safety of the group, scenes and sketches would be devised and performed while the other actors sit around and become the audience. I loved how, from this relaxed and fun atmosphere, something dramatic and moving would often suddenly emerge. 

For that reason, I wanted everybody on stage the whole time, watching their fellow actors as they came centre stage and did their pieces. It’s not a new idea. I read ‘Equus’ as a much younger person and had loved how Shaffer had done it there. I had also seen ‘The Caucasian Chalk Circle (Bruiser’s excellent production) in The Linenhall and had loved that Brechtian notion of the ‘Play within a Play’. The wonderful Mickel Murfi had also directed ‘The Far Off Hills’ in The Linenhall a few years ago and I loved the way his actors stayed around and visibly enjoyed it while their peers were doing their thing. 

I wanted a number of little families in the play, each with their own story to tell. I ended up with four. A family without a father, a family without a mother, a family with neither father nor mother and a family with both father and mother around. Several people commented that there were a lot of ‘dead parents’ in this play and they were not wrong.

The stories worked themselves out and evolved from one thing to another. The notion of the characters Debs Night being a part of the play actually came quite late on. At first, this was a play called ‘My Project, My Family’ in which a  school project to look into family histories threw up a series of dramatised stories, the teacher ultimately becoming the central character in the main story. But that didn’t quite play ‘entertaining’ enough. The threat and promise of an impending Debs Night seemed a better reason to have some fun and I think it turned out that way. 

The stories all may have evolved but there was one little kernel of a story there for the longest time. The story of a dad, a recent widower, and his daughter, alone together in the world and one stupid, silly thing he might do to try to keep her safe. This was always the nut at the centre of the play, everything else grew up around that. 

With eighteen actors and eighteen characters in the play, there was another challenge I was keen to address as best I could. I needed each character to have their own little story arc. Without going overboard on the technicalities I simply resolved that each one would have their own object of desire and something standing in their way of getting it. Some were small, Tam wanted to be a tree but the Stage Manager wouldn’t let her. A tiny thing but the audience went with it and many commented on Tam afterward. The most rewarding comment, repeated quite a bit, was how every actor had their part. Audiences don’t generally concern themselves consciously with such things as story arcs and desires and impediments to achieving those desires but they do respond to the tiny stories that emerge when these things are thought about. 

In case you think I’m vanishing up my own arse here, talking about Brecht and Shaffer and such, the play also purloined little nuggets of stuff from many much more street-level sources. ‘Napoleon Dynamite’ definitely played a part. If you watch the climactic scene and if you’ve seen my play, I think you’ll know what I mean. ‘Mary Poppins’ featured more heavily in earlier drafts but a tiny little taste still remained in the final product. ‘Dangerous Liaisons’ is clearly in there somewhere, as is ‘Hamilton’, Reeves and Mortimer’s ‘Shooting Stars’ and, of course, Bruce Lee and ‘Enter The Dragon’. An online pal, Darragh Doyle’ once said something on Twitter, years ago, and that has clearly turned up in the play. None of this stuff is stolen, not to my mind anyway. I think it’s a powerful writing tool to try to be open to those myriad little things that give you pause on any given day. These, to my mind, can sometimes become tiny keys to our souls. 

This was the play where I finally learned the value of scene index cards in the writing process. I wrote about that here. I could never make them work for me until David Keating, in a great one day seminar, explained how he used them right at the end of the process instead of at the beginning. This really focused the mind on what was missing in the play, narratively, and also tightened the flow and pacing of the thing. Remember that for next time, Ken. 

Enough.

Wait. Just one final thought. 

The play has a slightly peculiar structure. It starts out in an element of deliberate chaos as the group try to work out how to do their little devised play. There are mess ups and miscommunications and pratfalls and arguments. In the end too, there is a sort of joyous chaos, a relief that the silly thing is nearly all over.

But in the middle… in the middle some stories emerge, the tomfoolery slips away and some moments of drama and pathos peeps out. 

This is where Tom Waits has yet again inspired me, as he so often has in the past. 

He has a song called ‘Please Wake Me Up’ on his album ‘Frank’s Wild Years’. This little play of mine owes quite a bit to that song. Not on account of the words and not on account of the music but on account of the intangible chaos that exists at the start of the song and the chaotic refrain at the end. Mostly, it's on account of the lovely melody that emerges briefly right there in the middle, in among all that chaos. Have a listen on YouTube, I think you’ll see what I mean. Here's a link.

I’m generally my own toughest critic and I’m rarely entirely pleased with the writing I do but I must confess that I am quite proud of ‘Deb’s Night’. I know I owe much of that to the Actors and the Director and the Designer and the Theatre who made this production go as it did but, hey, I did my bit too.

And that feels pretty good. 

Memory is a Dish Best Served Hot

Yesterday, I thought of a girl from my past and, as soon as I thought of her, I realised that I’ve been thinking of her pretty-much once a week for years and years now. 

As blog post openings go, this may promise to be rather yearning and revealing and such but it’s not. It’s just my old pal Memory throwing one of its curve balls at me again. 

I met this girl for the first time in, oh, it must be thirty years on Monday last. It was at the sad occasion of her Father’s funeral. She was (and still is) a sister of one of my very best friends from my teenage and young adult years. Let’s call her M for that indeed is the initial of her name. 

When I met her again on Monday, I remarked to myself how little the years had changed her and how she still looked like the same M that she had looked like back in the Seventies and the Eighties. I never for one moment remarked that she entered my head roughly about once every week and had done for so many years. I didn’t know it then.

I only knew it yesterday, when I was making dinner. 

Most Saturdays, I make Chilli. I make a big pot that satisfies the appetites of the most voracious of returning students and spice-seeking adults alike. If I say so myself, I make a great Chilli with all the freshest ingredients and the best, most potent spices. There are touches of vinegar and sugar and dark, dark chocolate. There are real fresh juicy chillies that I cut while wearing an old golf glove but still the burn works its way through to my fingers. There is also cumin and peppers and onions and… oh you know the score, it’s a Chilli after all and it’s not rocket science. It’s just that I’m quite proud of my one and I enjoy cutting everything up and preparing it and dishing it up and eating it. 

And, yesterday, as I reached a particular stage of making the Chilli, I thought of M and I suddenly realised that I thought of M every week as I come to this very stage of Chilli-making. 

The thought is a simple one and it’s not a romantic or an aching one, except perhaps in the sense that all memories are, to some extent or another. It’s just… a memory.

Here it is. 

M made me my first Chilli. 

We were at a party in my friends house. Their parents had gone away and we had all gathered there to play records and maybe dance a bit and eat a late night Chilli which I had never had before, my Mum not being adventurous in the culinary respect. To try to date the year in which this party happened, I remember that one of the favoured albums by the girls at the party was by Culture Club – Colour by Numbers so that puts us firmly in 1983. 

There is actually very little detail to the memory. It is primarily to do with kidney beans and it is at the kidney bean draining part of the my own Chilli making that I invariably think of M and that party. 

On that night, the Chilli was served up on large white plates on the compulsory bed of rice. I got my plate and sat down beside S. I inspected my plate. I had never seen a Chilli before and had certainly never set eyes on a kidney bean. 

“What are they?”

“Kidney beans, they’re great,” this last part said in Tony-The Tiger fashion. 

I remember how I carefully ate my way around all of the kidney beans and left them all to the side of my plate. Logic told me that they were called kidney beans on account of their kidney shape and not because they were some kind of little animal kidney, cruelly harvested to ‘meat up’ the stew. Nevertheless, I wasn’t going to eat them. No way. 

“’You having those?” S was eyeing up my stash of beans hungrily. S was always hungry.

“No.”

He ate them. All by themselves. Relishing them. I felt sick.

Today, I would do the same thing. I love how the little beans soak up the Chilli essence. My son would look at me in the exact same way as I looked at S that night. That might be the key to the recurring memory.

So, every Saturday, when I’m making my own Chilli in my own kitchen, and when I’m working on the kidney beans, I think in passing of A’s sister M, of the party and of Culture Club and of Chilli and kidney beans and youth and changing taste and of my sons and of time. 

And I realised all of this, not when I saw her again on Monday but a week later when it was time to cook. 

Cool, eh?

Except…

Well, this one niggling thought persists.

Did I?

Did I really think of M and her Chilli every Saturday for years? Or is it perhaps possible that I only thought of her yesterday for the first time in years. The memory having been spurred by the funeral and the visit to my home town and seeing my friend A again and the sad passing of Martin, his Dad, who was a lovely man. 

Maybe my mind has played a trick on me. Throwing me a memory but then going further. Implanting another memory of me recalling this memory all of the time when, in fact, I only ever remembered it once. It happens in dreams all of the time, perhaps it happened to me while waking too. 

I don’t know the answer. I don’t think I’m capable of discerning the answer. We are, to an extent, slaves to our memories and the vivid tricks they can sometimes play on us. They serve us up a rich banquet and we eat our fill and we never really know what is fresh and what has come out of a tin.

Still the food is good and we eat it with some relish.