Sad Face Emoji Blues

“And some certain significance lurks in all things, else all things are little worth…”

             Herman Melville – Moby Dick

One evening this week, I was having a look at my Twitter while the dinner was evolving. As I was watching, one of my favourite tweeters said something funny and I smiled. Then, as is the way of such things, I thought of something to tweet back, a ‘reply’ as we tend to call it in the trade. So I typed my reply and got on with the dinner, which involved peeling some spuds over the bin and missing the bin with every bit of peel, one of my many life skills.

When I returned to Twitter, there was a reply to my reply. It was from the tweeter who had originally tweeted and it was short and succinct.

This caused me a little concern. I had no intention of making anybody sad with my little reply, least of all this ‘one-of-my-favourite' tweeters. I replied light-heartedly to the effect that I was sorry, that I hadn’t intended to cause any sadness with my reply and I rounded the tweet off with a little in-joke to emphasis the unimportance and silliness of the entire exchange.

Back to dinner, picking up of potato peelings, and dishes.

Later, I checked and saw there was no further reply to my reply. This was not unusual or suggestive of anything. This tweeter has a busy and full life and a twitter feed that reflects this. My reply had finished off our exchange quite acceptably. There was no need for a reply.

All was well.

Except it wasn’t.

Silly me but, for the sake of that one sad face emoji, I was now actually troubled. I’ve been doing this tweeting thing for a long time and one thing I’ve learned is that you hardly ever know exactly what is going on with the people you are swapping your typed words with. People can be hurting or anxious or under pressure or fragile in a myriad of different ways. Sometimes you can’t tell how over-inflated a balloon is until you accidentally burst it.

And it’s kind of ironic (in a non-ironic Alanis Morissette sort of way) that it was an emoji that caused my discomfort because I think emojis were invented partly to defuse such discomfort. I believe they came about as a device to gently add some visual emotional qualification to the cold type face of text communication.

I’m not generally a big wuss but the sad face emoji is something I tend to take seriously. A happy face emoji is just a general non-event, as innocuous as a comma or a full stop. It can mean that you’re happy or amused or it can just mean that you have nothing left to say in this conversation and you are now going to leave on a relative high note. It’s fine. But, for me, a sad face emoji does not have any social or ironic alternative definition to it. For me, it means you are hurt, sad or upset. And if it’s directed at me, it means I may have been the one to have caused that hurt and I can’t entertain that.

You see, I have a thing about hurting people. No, let’s strike that. If you hurt me or my family or if I even see you randomly causing hurt, I could hurt you a bit without too much agonising about it. In fact, I am resolved to intervene in everyday situations where I see people being hurt and I know this will probably eventually result in some more blood-strewn blog post at some future point but so be it. I am no longer comfortable with being one of the bystanders. But I digress. I don’t have a thing about hurting people per se. What I do have is a thing about accidentally hurting people. This is most definitely a thing for me and, I would go so far as to say, it has become one of my defining characteristics. I hate the thought of hurting somebody unintentionally and, if I reckon I may have done so, I may go to extraordinary and even embarrassing ends to try to put that right.

This may explain why, the other evening, sometime around midnight, I was sending a private message to my twitter pal, explaining how I hadn’t intended to cause any modicum of hurt with my flippant reply. The lovely reply I got back completely defused my concern and confirmed for me that, as usual, I was just being a silly git.

But being a silly git won’t stop me from doing it all again next time. If I get wind of the fact that I may have inadvertently caused you some measure of pain, you can expect some embarrassing attempt from me to put it right.

I could explain the genesis of this aspect of my psyche to you but, don’t worry, I won’t. I know exactly where it comes from and I understand it and if you knew it you’d probably understand it too. So don’t judge me too harshly as being just a silly wuss and a sentimental fool. We may be just flesh and blood and water but our characteristics are formed in fire and are not easily re-forged.

I watched a bit of ‘The Circle’ on Channel 4 over the last few weeks. A bunch of people were sent to live in an apartment block and could only interact with each other through social media mechanisms. Text and photos primarily and, of course, emojis. The winner was the one voted most popular by their peers. The winner turned out to be a man pretending to be a woman. A completely false image. But what was telling for me was that, although the person’s image was totally false, the person himself was not. Behind the photographs and the texts and, God help us, the endless emojis, there was a real flesh and blood (and water) person, trying to do the best he could by his online friends. And that shone through.

It’s a point to bear in mind. Behind our online texts and photos and jokes and outrage and declarations, we are all just flesh and blood and water. ‘Such stuff as dreams are made on’, if you will. And through thousands of miles of physical separation and through layers and layers of the very latest technology, we can still often sense those things that are real.

Short Fiction - The Piece of Coal at the Bottom of the Bucket

It may still surprise some people to hear that many things in this world are alive and sentient.

Awareness is not just reserved for things that move and breathe nor for plants that seek the sun and open up gently with the coming of each dawn.

Mountains are alive. Lakes and forests think and feel, though often in much slower and more deliberate ways than we tend to do.

The coal seam, a mile and a quarter below the surface of the earth, was itself a single huge sentient being. Enormous and unimaginably slow, it lived and reacted to the world around it and understood every tiny thing that it did.

The coal seam held something fundamental in common with most of the enormous intelligences that move through this world. It donated a piece of itself to every little part that was ever chipped away from it. Every tiny piece of coal became a slow existence all of its own.

So it was with Rocky.

Rocky was a small piece of coal. Blacker than black and shiny bright beneath his dust. But you know what coal looks like. Imagine coal. Rocky was a piece of that.

He was hacked away from his parent and that hurt like hell and then ached and then faded. Although he missed the whole, he soon came to embrace the displacement and the occasional transportation and the lying-in different places and the proximity to different fellow pieces of coal.

(Of course his name was not Rocky, that would be ridiculous, he had an identifier with which he set himself apart but that actual ‘name’ was derived from the name of the whole and would take so long to say that we would still be here at the turn of the century. So let’s not.)

Life away from the coal face was a roller coaster to Rocky. By his measure, things happened with such dizzying haste. He loved the cacophony, the kaleidoscope, the vivacity of his existence.

Until the coal bucket.

Rocky was rushed away from the whole to a processing plant, through a distribution centre, a bag, a truck, a bunker and finally a bucket, all with mind numbing haste. The entire process took about three years which, to Rocky, was a virtual blink of an eye.

The was a buzz in the bucket. Not a buzz by our standards but a buzz nonetheless. There was a sense that the very purpose of existence was near at hand. This was heightened by the inconceivable rate of turnover of personnel within the bucket. Pieces of coal came and went with alarming velocity. It was hard to keep track. More entrancing still was the demeanour of the coals as they left the bucket. There was a palpable sense of being ‘taken up’, of ‘going home’. It almost radiated from those who left. A sense of fulfilment, long awaited.

But Rocky was at the very bottom of the bucket. He was the first piece of coal ever to be shovelled into the bucket and it seemed that it was his destiny never to come back out again. The shovel would come in and raise his comrades to their glory and it would often come to a place where there was only Rocky and one or two others left, there in the bottom. At those times, his anticipation, such as it was, was huge. His time had come, he was next. But then the bucket would get refilled with more and more comrades and he would once again be right at the back of the line. The line that never ended.

You would think that Rocky would have the patience for this wait but it wasn’t like that at all. Perhaps it was the proximity to his fate, his nearness to his defining moment. Perhaps it was just so long in coming. Whatever it was, the bottom of the coal bucket quickly became hell for Rocky. Every time he thought his time had come, more of his comrades were dropped in and back he went to waiting.

Eventually, Rocky could take it no more and he started to move upward through the bucket. This might sound like the most ludicrous thing you ever heard but it can and does happen. Take a field and clear it of rocks. More rocks will come up. Things can move. It takes time and it is not at all easy but, over time, much time, things can indeed move.

Rocky willed himself upward. His progress was dependent on the movement of his comrades within the container as they first came and then went. It was hard. To his comrades, he became a legend. The lost one at the end of the line, who could stand it no more. To some, he was a threat. Somebody would have to take his place at the bottom if he was not there and nobody wanted that. There were disputes and blockings and friction and slow fights. But Rocky progressed. He moved from the bottom to second from the bottom.

And that was enough.

One day, the shovel came deep in for its last load before refilling and Rocky was on it. He nearly wasn’t. He nearly slipped off but he held on and held on.

The shovel lifted him and swung him and he knew this was it. This was his destiny. The centuries of pressure and waiting and dark had been for this.

The shovel jerked and he flew. With his comrades he flew.

His tiny heart soared.

And you know the rest.

Keeping the Beard

I’ve had this odd habit for the part few years but, like Mick Jagger said, it’s all over now.

What I used to do was to have a shave and then not have a shave again for two weeks or more. I was perpetually in a state of growing a beard. I was only ever really clean shaven for one day out of fourteen. The subsequent days were a journey towards a bristly goal that, once achieved, was instantly ripped off again.

No longer.

It all became too much. People were always saying things like, “Ohh, you’re growing a beard,” or “’Beard suits you,” or “Ohh, the beard is gone, what happened?” It also became, in my head, a sort of large advertising sign for how little attention I give to myself in general.

It was also incredibly hard on razor blades which, as you may know, are not cheap.

So I bought one of those beard trimmer things. Not a very expensive one but it looks the part and seems to do the trick.

Time flies so I think I’ve had it for about three months now, even though it only feels like a fortnight. I found the ideal setting for me is three-and-a-half. This reduces my beard down to a sort of an ‘Alan Sugar’ stubble which I can then let grow for ten days or so before buzzing it back down again. It’s effectively the same routine as before without the actual visual shock of the shaving.

I quite like it. I like the buzzing beard removal bit. I like the little wads of beard hair that gets bunged up in the machine and have to be tipped out into the bin. I think I might miss the shaving a little bit, over time. There was something about uncovering your old face from beneath the undergrowth from time to time and there was also an undeniable feeling, after a shave, that your face was well and truly clean. But it’s the convenience of this other option and, let’s face it, a more consistent visual appearance for me rather than the ‘on again, off again’ shenanigans of the past few years.

One aspect of the beard thing is that it makes me look older. When clean shaven, I seem to be able to pass for being a couple of years younger than I am. It’s all this clean living, madam. But with the beard comes a lot of grey. Like a venerable black Labrador, my whiskers are grey and getting greyer by the day. I don’t mind that at all. I’ve been around for a few years now and it pleases me that my face might reflect that. Bring it on, Father Time, I’m ready for you.

So now I guess I am a bearded guy. I bet that, in my mind, I will continue to think of myself as a non-bearded guy. That’s what happened with the glasses. I got glasses about eighteen years ago and have been wearing them constantly ever since (not the same ones, they change). But, in my mind, I am not a person who wears glasses, I never have been. This goes so far that I sometimes call other drivers ‘four-eyes’ to myself if they are annoying me (and if they wear glasses) quite forgetting that I, too, am a fully paid up member of that club.

I guess I'll just have to get used to it. When someone in a room says, "who's that fella over there? The one with the beard and the glasses?" I'll just have to remind myself that they could be talking about me.

Of course this all could change. I have a wedding coming up where I’ll be doing the whole 'black tie' thing. Will my resolve fail me? Will I pick up the old blade and have at it once again?

Who knows? 

If I do, I can always grow it back.

Chatting to Sally Rooney in The Linenhall

On Friday evening, I got to chat to Sally Rooney about her novel ‘Normal People’ in one of my favourite places in the world, The Linenhall Arts Centre here in Castlebar.

Sally radiates such brilliance that you can’t help but feel a bit brilliant yourself when you’re sitting beside her. She answers questions in a way that makes the questions seem better in retrospect. It’s quite a feat. I had a great time. I love the book and Sally and I go back years and years so it was fun on all kinds of level for me.

Here’s an extract from my intro, on the night. You mightn’t bother with it, particularly as I seem to have taken all the jokes out. That’s fine, I don't mind. I know there's a chance that I’ll find it here in years to come and it will spark a memory and raise a smile for what was a pretty special evening.

*                            *                            *            

When you read a certain kind of book, it’s all there for you. It’s all right there in between the covers. You take it, you read it, you move on. I’m thinking here of the ‘Jack Reacher’s or the ‘Agatha Christie’s (all of which I read). Everything you need is in there.

But there’s another kind of book.

There’s the kind of book where you are required to put a bit of yourself into it as you read it.

Sally’s new novel ‘Normal People’ is one of those other kinds of books. You have to invest something of yourself into it as you go. And that’s great… that’s wonderful… until you have to tell people what you think of it. Because, then, you’re not just telling them about the story you read, you’re telling them about your story too.

There’s a film by Martin Scorsese, ‘The Colour of Money. It’s a sequel to ‘The Hustler’, which is an almost perfect film. In the film, when they talk about things like baring their soul or exposing their inner feelings they don’t say ‘I’m baring my soul’. What they say is, ‘I’m showing you my ass’. And that’s why talking about real literary fiction can be a bit tricky. You have to, kind of, ‘show your ass’ in order to do it.

Some might talk about this book and say it’s a political book, some might say it’s a feminist book, some might say it’s a comedy, some might say it’s a tragedy. It will be those things to those people. We all put our own stuff in and we then all take our own stuff back out.

It’s not always easy to talk about that.

But let’s try…

Not everybody is going to love this book. So, when I tell you that I love this book – and I do, I really do –then I’m already well on my way to showing you my ass. I read it very quickly the first time. I had to. I wanted to know what was going to happen to these two people. Marianne and Connell. To be honest, I wanted to know that it worked out all right for them. I became invested in their outcomes.

Then I read it again, a few months later and, now that I could take my time, I could ‘enjoy the view’ better. I could appreciate the craft and the wit and the burning intelligence that is at the heart of the book. Much has already been written in the reviews about these things. One thing that I think has been a bit neglected in the reviews is the amazing quality of the Storytelling. I’m a bit of a story teller myself. If you know me, I’ve probably told you a story. And, for me, this story is brilliantly told.

When I had finished the book for the first time, I asked myself. “What was that about”. But I did it in a good way. My Dad used to do it in a bad way. He used to watch something on telly and when it was over he would say ‘Well… what was *that* about’. I didn’t do it like that. I challenged myself to identify what I made of it. To sum it up in a couple of words. Not for you, and not for Sally. Not for anyone else but for me. I had read it, I had left some of my own DNA on the pages as I turned them.

What had I come away with?

The first thing I came up with was kind of interesting. I said to myself, “Yes… this book is about how difficult it is to talk about how we really feel. It’s about how we can change each other’s lives in small ways but deeply and enduringly.”

I thought that was pretty good. Until I thought about it bit more and I went, “Ah, no, Ken. No no no. That won’t do at all.”

Guess what I had done. I had absorbed the paragraph on the back cover of my copy of the book and I had allowed it to tell me what I had read. I think we have to watch out for that. We will be told what a book is about. Reviewers will tell us what it means. Posters will tell us. Other people will tell us. But they won’t tell me what it means to me. I have to figure that out for myself.

And I think Sally would like us to do that. The best fiction sparks us and incites us and challenges us to react to it. But the book industry itself, in informing us of a book, often tries to inform us what to think about the book too. I don’t know but I bet that Sally would prefer someone to grapple with this book and come out hating it than to read it passively and come out loving it simply because that’s what we were told to do.

So anyway. I thought about what the book says to me, just me. What I found was that Sally’s first book was saying pretty much the same thing to me. I boiled it down and I boiled it down and I boiled it down to three words.

Do you want to hear them?

(I’m showing you my ass here…)

Okay. Here’s the three words.

“Despite everything, Romance.”

And I was talking to somebody sensible about this and they were saying, “Ah, yeah but Romance is not a big thing, it’s light and frothy and impermanent.” But not to me it isn’t. To me, Romance is like the life blood of the universe. It is fun and hopeful and warm and… loving. I suppose, most of all, it’s loving.

And it’s there in both of Sally’s books, for me to find. Life is hard and cruel and tough and unfair and brutal and… not kind. But, still, there is always this possibility of Romance. And that’s my view. It’s not on the back cover of the book. It’s not in the Times review. It’s just here in my head.

And there’s my ass right there. ‘Cos I am a Romantic, a hopeless Romantic, and no matter how awful things get or how hopeless things seem, there is always the slender chance of a little light - a little love - creeping back in.

I think that’s why I love both of Sally’s books so much. They are unendingly smart, unflinchingly real, unfailingly true. But, like a series of sketches by an old master on a wall in a gallery, they leave me room to slide my own life and my own experiences in between the pages and make them mine.

Sally’s new book is about many things, Love, Class, Politics, Communication, Lack of Communication, whatever you’re having yourself. Perhaps it’s mostly about Normal People. Who we are definitely not.

Except, maybe, we are.

At Synge’s Chair

It was not what I expected to find. Fields of stone. We had a day trip to one of the Aran Islands on Friday. Patricia had some work to do out there and I tagged along. It was an opportunity to see the place and I didn’t want to miss out.

I had built myself up for some level of disappointment. In my vision, the island would turn out to be a series of fields, much like any corner of the West of Ireland, except running down to the ocean on all sides. It was so much more than that. It was remarkable in very many respects. I’m glad we went.

Inishmaan is the least visited of the Aran Islands, apparently. Most of the people on the ferry stayed in their seat when we docked there. They were holding out for the bigger island. This was us, though. An aluminium gangway dropped onto the dock and off we went.

First impressions were of a sort of an other-worldly Beckettian place. This had a lot to do with the strangely-shaped concrete sea defences which bound the little harbour. Like huge Jacks (remember that game… with the ball and the ‘things’?) interlocking in seemingly random arrangements. They seemed more appropriate to Vladimir and Estragon perching on them rather that the elusive Playboy and his head-damaged Dad.

Because this little island is J M Synge country. He spent five or six summer’s there and his fine play ‘Riders to the Sea’ is soaked in island and ocean lore.

While Patricia did her work, I walked up along the coast to Synge’s Chair. It’s a rocky perch on the edge of a steep incline down to the sea. From there you can enjoy the view of the adjoining island and, beyond, the wide Atlantic Ocean. Next stop; America. I gave the only other two visitors some space to enjoy the place by themselves and then it was all mine. I sat and enjoyed the view and ate some of a large bag of spring onion and cheddar cheese kettle crisps that I’d brought along. Then I re-read a bit of Sally Rooney’s new novel, ‘Normal People’ which I like very much. It was a sunny/cloudy day and it was lovely to watch the clouds skid across the sky and the little boats make their way from island to island on the white capped waves. The only downside was that the stones to the back of Synge’s alleged perch are rather high and I expected to be accosted at any moment by more visitors. I never was but that didn’t stop me from being hyper-aware of the possibility.

When she was finished, Patricia and I walked the island. Rain was promised but it kept away, apart from a drop or two, and the sun was a regular visitor in the sky. We spotted a little sign offering lunch and climbed the little hill it pointed to. It turned out to be the home of a very nice European couple who offered us their bench seat in the garden and plied us with vegetable soup and brown bread with raisins in. The garden overlooked the ocean and it was all quite perfect. After we’d finished I brought the bowls and glasses into the kitchen and the woman said that I was kind and that my mother would be very proud of me. An unusually intimate compliment for a simple lunch transaction but welcome and a little moving nonetheless.

The event of the day was probably the cow and the narrow walkway.

There was a fort to be seen on a hill and, when we reached the top of it, there was a farmer man there on his quad bike with his sheepdog. Patricia knew him from her previous visits to the island and we chatted a while. He asked us were we going up to the fort and we said we thought we might. “Only, I’ve put a cow into the path the eat the grass. You can go past her. She’s an old girl and she won’t pay any heed to you.” We confirmed that a visit to the fort was not a priority for us but the guy seemed conflicted that his cow was stopping us so we decided to go on up. As we walked up the tiny lane, stone walls on either side, the farmer man stayed at the end with his dog so there was no opportunity to sneak back. We had to see it through. The cow was half way up the path, standing with her rear towards us. Brown, massive, and copiously horned. I would guess that her girth took up seven-eighths of the width of the walkway I encouraged her to walk on and we tailed behind but she must have found a rich vein of grass because she stopped and would not move again. I squeezed past and Patricia squeezed after.

We found a flat rock and stopped there to have a flask of tea and admire the view over the island. It was lovely but there was always the knowledge that we had to deal with the cow again on the way back. We are simple town-folk and not overly accustomed to livestock.

On the way back down the path, the cow had barely moved and was now facing us with its horns. It seemed much more interested in us now that we were approaching face on. The farmer was long gone. It was just her and us. There was no point in hesitating, we had to get past so I lead the way. With a quiet word about how very well she was looking I stepped forward and inched along between the stone wall and the cow’s huge solid flank. There was a feeling that a nudge from her would pin me against the wall and I wasn’t sure how things would go from there. Anyway, I got through. I looked back and could see that Patricia was having some doubts and, man, I didn’t blame her. Still, there was no other way out of there, it was the cow or nothing, so I needed to move things along before the situation deteriorated further on account of being thought-about too much. I gave Daisy a gentle slap on the rump and she ambled forward towards Patricia. There suddenly didn’t seem to be enough room for them both.

“Turn sideways,” I said and Patricia did. The cow rumbled alongside her. “Now sidestep.” She did. Then we were past and the cow was just a big brown arse up the pathway. We left her to it.

We walked all the way back down to the ferry and were too early as we almost always are. That was okay though. It wasn’t raining and the sea and the breeze made acceptable company for a while.

If you do ever go to Inishmaan, make sure you view the Harry Clarke windows in the little church there. Their effect is simply stunning against the island light.

The thing with the island is the possibilities it evokes. The place itself is scenic, untamed, wild and beautiful but, ultimately, it’s just a place. It’s how it plays on your mind, that’s what will stay with you. It’s a place onto itself, a law onto itself, a microcosm of the entire world. It could become everything you love or everything you hate. A tiny universe with many possibilities.

The island is a feast for the eyes but it is also a shared dessert and an expresso for the mind.

I look forward to going back again, some fine day.

Death in a French WC
Friday was our twenty-seventh wedding anniversary, Patricia and me. I posted an old photo on Twitter and we got lots of lovely well-wishes over the social medias. It was all very nice.

In the evening, we went out for dinner to celebrate how damn lucky we were to find each other and to eat some food as well, obviously.

A local restaurant was having a French evening and we went there. If you know I live in a small town on the west coast of Ireland, you may be tempted to think that a French evening might be a bit of a joke but that was not the case. This local restaurant, Rua, (Irish for ‘red’) would take the Pepsi challenge with any restaurant I’ve ever eaten in anywhere. Not only is it good, it’s damn good. On this particular evening, it was actually très bien.

We had some moules and some canard and some crepe for dessert as well as a big old Cotes du Rhone. It was a very good meal. About half way through, a French couple came in and there was perhaps a subtle worry that they may tear the place up, declaring that this wasn’t ‘French’ at all but, no, they seemed to enjoy it too.

It all reminded me of the first time I went to France and ate in a restaurant there. I was in Grenoble for a week, working, and was brought out one evening by a work colleague. It was just the two of us and it was a small intimate kind of a place. The food was also very good, as I recall.

I remember two things in particular from that evening. The first was that I had a very-late-night espresso after my dinner and, although I’m well-accustomed to coffee, this one has me pacing the floor for half the night before I could even think about sleeping.

Or maybe it wasn’t the coffee. Maybe it was that second thing I remember from that evening.

Towards the end of dinner, after the espresso, I decided I should visit the toilets. I had identified that they were through a small door in the wall as I had seen people come and go from there throughout the evening. I excused myself from the table and made my way to that door, working my way through the tightly packed and busy tables.

Just as I got there, a woman stepped up in front of me and beat me to the door. Being the eternal old fashioned gentleman, I held the door for her, allowed her to go in, and then followed her through the door, closing it carefully after me.

I mean, how was I supposed to know? I thought, not unreasonably, that the door led to a lobby which would in turn lead to a male and female toilet. Nuh huh. I turned from the door to find the lady standing beside the sole toilet in the room, looking at me expectantly, no doubt wondering what it was, exactly, that I had in mind.

I don’t blush much. I blushed then though, I reckon. I muttered a nervous ‘désolé’, hastily threw open the door, and rushed back out into the restaurant. As I closed the door from the outside and leaned my head against it, the refined, reserved, restaurant patrons all erupted in loud cheers and applause for me. It was clear that everyone in the place knew the toilet arrangements. Everyone except me.

Last night, I saved up going to the loo until I got back home.

At least I know the rules there.

A Borrower from A Lender Be

Man, I love my Library.

Castlebar Library, County Mayo, Ireland. I love you.

But then I have been around a bit and, in fairness, I have loved all my libraries in their time. I’m like Julio Iglesias and Willie Nelson, singing about all the girls I’ve loved before, except I’m singing about libraries. That’s not actually the only difference but it will do for now.

Thursday was a bit of a pain this week. I’ll spare you the details. It was just a bit of a pain. Then, on Friday, I got two messages on my phone simultaneously. The first said that a book I requested online from the library was now ready for collection. The second message also said that a book I requested was now ready for collection. Just the week before, I had logged on and asked to borrow two books. The library had tracked them down in another library elsewhere in the country, had them shipped to my library and now they were sitting there waiting for me. I dropped in at lunchtime and there they were, two beautiful trade hardback versions of the books I wanted to read, my name neatly written on the labels attached to them. 

No charge.

Man, I love my library.

And it’s not just books, you know. Now that people are moving on from DVD and Blu-Ray and getting their entertainment via streaming services, the Library is replete with DVDs and box sets of all shape and sizes. Want to catch up on a recent movie or binge on a series? It’s probably in there, in your library, waiting for you. They’re great for music too. CDs and Audio Books and books online to download onto your computer, even in the middle of the night. Our Library even loans musical instruments. The first decent drum kit my son had, came on loan from the library. That way, we learned how much he loved to play before we bought the kick ass kit he has now. How brilliant was that?

Don’t get me wrong. I buy my books when I can. I enjoy doing it. I think you should buy books too. It’s tough being an author and they need our help and support, just like the libraries do. But I read quite a lot and I couldn’t afford to entirely support my excessive reading habit from book buying alone. That’s why the Library has always and forever been a lifesaver for me. More than that, it’s been a heaven. Sometimes, I can hardly get over what an amazing facility it is to have. A place that will lend you books and let you read them for free. It almost feels like it shouldn’t be allowed and I pray that it always will be and I fear that it someday won’t.

My library is what keeps me on a par with everybody else in the entire world. No matter how rich you are, no matter how powerful, I can afford to read anything and everything that you can read. Because of my library, nothing is held back from me just because I am not as wealthy as you are. All knowledge, all entertainment, is there. Access to it is my right. It is mine.

People say we should make use of our libraries as a sort of a political statement, to reinforce how important and how necessary they are. I have no quarrel with that. It’s true that we do need to defend our libraries in any way that we can and making good use of them is the most obvious and effective way to do that. I just don’t think it ever has to be a chore. Anyone who loves to read can grow to love their library. There are more books there than in practically any bookstore and they are yours to take down and look at and borrow and read.

On Friday, the high point of my day was going in to the library and getting two books I wanted to read handed to me with a smile. I read the first few pages on the walk home and didn’t walk in to a lamp post, as I sometimes do. Life was good.

A wonderful resource, the Library. Use the resource to save the resource but learn to fall in love with it too.

It’s that loving of it that will ultimately save it, I reckon.

Naming My Phobia

I’ve never had a phobia. All of my life, I’ve been totally phobia-free. But I think I might have one now. I’m not sure, let me explain.

But, before I do, I should just say that I don’t want to have a phobia. It’s not on my bucket-list of things to have and things to do. My writing about it now is not some attempt to cement it in my brain, to legitimise it and to authorise it. If anything, it’s my attempt to purge myself of it, to shout at it in the hope it might just go away.

I mean… who wants a phobia?

My phobia has always been a ‘thing’. I’ve written about it quite a few times, often to try to raise a smile with some silly embarrassing story told against myself.

That’s enough preamble, let’s cut to the chase. This phobia I think I might have. Actually I don’t really think I might have it, in case you’re worried or anything, I’m mostly just shooting the breeze on a Sunday morning.

That’s too much preamble now. My phobia (or not) is this; I think I’ve developed a fear of names.

I’ve never been any good with names, particularly people’s names. I’ve always struggled to recall them, sometimes to comic effect. It’s always been a ‘thing’ but has it become something more? I’m starting to wonder.

I probably won’t remember your name, if we meet. I almost certainly won’t use it, even if I do remember it, because I’d be fairly convinced I would get it wrong. Instead, I will greet you over-effusively, to emphasise the fact that I definitely know who you are even though I’m patently not using your name. I say stuff like ‘Hiya’ and ‘How’s it Going?’ and I infuse them with such intent and meaning that you might worry that I was genuinely concerned for your well being when, in truth, I’m mostly just over-compensating for my own failings.

It’s always been a ‘thing’ but why would I start to think that it’s more than a ‘thing’ now?

I know a little bit about phobias. Just a little bit, I’m not pretending to be an expert here. My eldest son had a long-standing fear of loud unexpected noises, as a child and as a teen. His worry about the potential for balloons bursting and fireworks going off kept him from parties and events for quite a few years. Then he had an excellent series of sessions of Cognitive Behaviour Therapy which we both went to together. We learned how your thoughts and actions can affect the way you feel and we learned some ways of combating those negative thoughts and actions that make things worse. Thanks to some brilliant help, we sorted the noise thing out and things have been great ever since.

Along the way, as I said, I learned a little bit about these things. I learned enough to recognise what I’ve been doing with this ‘names’ thing. I have been conditioning myself to fail. By repeatedly explaining to people how I am ‘bad with names’ I have embedded the knowledge in myself that I am indeed ‘bad with names’ and I have given myself licence to fail whenever the question of a name arises. My failure is now a foregone conclusion.

Two moments from my last week.

I was at an event and I met someone I knew quite well. I knew their name and, in a rare burst of confidence, I used their name in greeting them. I used the wrong name. I knew I had done it the moment I had done it but we were just passing each other and there was no time to repair the mistake.

Even more recently, I was sitting with a friend having a coffee and I recalled another friend who had recently died. I could not summon the friend’s name. The one who had just passed away. My mind went around and round, trying to find the name as I hopelessly tried to explain who I was talking about. It seemed beyond belief that this name was not there for me on the tip of my tongue. The person I was thinking of was there in front of me, as clear as day, smiling benevolently but still the name would not come. It only took my hearing the start of the name for me to instantly have it all but, still, to not have the name of someone so in the foreground of my life is a rather disturbing thing.

I think this latter moment, in particular, is a very good example of how I have conditioned myself to fail. If someone asks me about a name, all kinds of walls and barriers shoot up in my head. These walls are plastered with graffiti that shouts things like ‘you will not remember this name’ or ‘you are bad with names’ and I get so busy reading these walls that I have no time or energy to simply say the name.

The first moment is more an example of the kind of event that adds to my conditioning. I am actually quite bad with names but every mistake I make, every failed attempt, reinforces the writing on the walls in my brain. I beat myself up quite a bit over getting that person’s name wrong. I even Facebook-Messaged them to apologise (I think they thought I was a bit deranged).

So, yes, I am now starting to think that my ‘thing’ has grown to something a little more than just that. I have conditioned myself into an active fear of having to recall a person’s name. It's a 'First World Problem', if ever there was one, but there you go.

And, as I said at the start, I’m not sitting here typing about this 'phobia' to try to make it stronger. I’m trying to weaken it, to undermine it. I witnessed how my son’s ‘loud noise’ thing was addressed. It was called-out and faced-up-to and weakened by a combination of work and consideration. I think I have the capacity to do the same for myself. I can force myself to use any name that I know. I can push myself to attempt to use names I think I know and risk some fallout whenever I get them wrong. I think I might try.

I delight in using a person’s name. It’s a compliment I pay to people that they will never even know exists. I just think I need to do it more and I should probably get on with it and stop whinging about it here in my head.

I looked it up. There is a name for my phobia, my fear of your name.

It’s called ‘Nomatophobia’.

I doubt I’ll be able to remember that.

But maybe I will.

The Moment You First Miss Someone

I did a few hours work in the office yesterday. No hardship. I wasn’t kicking down walls or drilling holes through concrete floors, like I used to do on my Saturdays many years ago. 

I had parked the car way up on the hill because my usual parking corner was occupied by the Saturday shopping folk. As I trudged up the incline, after I’d done my hours, I checked my watch and started to look forward to something in that low-wattage, back-of-the-brain sort of a way that you don’t even know is happening until after the feeling has been subverted.

It was about that time when the guy would be out sitting on his window cill.

Every day, around this time, this guy sits out on his window cill and has a leisurely smoke and studies the crossword. If he was deep in the consideration of some cryptic clue, I wouldn't say anything to him. I wouldn’t want to break his concentration or disturb his little well-deserved break from work. But if his head was up and he was looking around him, I would always say ‘hello’ and he would always say ‘hello’ back. Not much else. Maybe an occasional observation on the weather, as is customary around these parts. Nothing more than that though. A quick hello and then pass on. 

When I worked my way up the hill yesterday, at the correct time, I hadn’t done it in a month or two. Revised parking arrangements had meant that my car was now, more often than not, in that other place and the route to it didn’t take me past the guy’s shop. Perhaps that’s why I was actually looking forward to something as simple as a ‘quick’ hello and then pass on. I don’t know. It was always nice to see him there with his rollie and his folded newspaper. It was kind of reassuring or something.

But he wasn’t there. There was no sign of him. I was disappointed, in a little way.

Then, just as I walked past the place, I remembered that, of course, he wouldn’t be there. He had died, some months before. He was gone. I had known this, of course. I knew it at the time. I was sad about it and I remembered him with my friends. But I never really missed him.

Not until yesterday.

Yesterday, I missed him. I never really knew him beyond that occasional ‘hello’ but yesterday I finally identified the little gap that was left in my life as a result of his no longer being around.

I often find this. I often find that it takes quite a long time before I actually get around to missing somebody who has died.

This isn’t meant to sound all reserved and cold-hearted. I’m just like everyone else, when someone dies I am sad and I mourn them and remember them but, for me at least, missing them is something quite different to all that. You can’t choose a moment in which to decide to miss someone At least I don’t think you can. It’s like a burglar in your head that turns up when you least expect it and kicks your coffee table over.

I remember, after Dad died, I felt all the stuff you would expect to feel. In his later years, when he was on his own, I used to phone him up every night for a chat. Nothing much, just a ‘hello’ and pass on. One evening, months after he died, I had a good story to tell and I looked forward to telling him it. I knew he’d get a laugh, maybe tell the story on, with his own embellishments. I had the phone in my hand before I remembered. I missed him then. That’s how it tends to happen, to me at least.

I didn’t mean to go on about this today. It’s just the absence of the man and his ciggie and his crossword has stayed in my head so I thought that made it worth writing it down.

There are people who are gone from my life, important people, and I don’t think I’ve even really started to miss them yet. Someday, there will be some corner of a room or some conversation where that person should be and I will turn to them to see how they are and hear what they have to say and they won’t be there.

I’ll feel it then. I’ll miss them then for sure. It’s a good thing, all in all. It reminds me I care.

Fearsome Codfish and Slow Slow Planets

It’s a fabulous summer over here and, although it’s not exactly passing me by, I’m not out in it very much either. 

Work requires that I keep my head down and not take random days off to hit the beach or even seize very many spare hours to bask in the sun.

This absence from the Summer seems to make me more intent on noticing it and marking it in some small way before it shuffles off again, as it soon must. 

That makes the few minutes I get to spend out in it each day seem more intense, or ‘sensual’ if you will. Not in a ‘sexy-time’ way. Just in an increased use of the senses to gather in as much of the season as I can.

Here’s two things I noticed this week, in my attempt to make the summer my own, despite being largely absent from it.

One of the local fish and chips shops have put a sign outside their establishment, to entice the summer folk inside. It’s one of those free-standing board signs. You know the ones. They sort of block the pavement. Yes, one of those.

This one declared that freshly cooked cod is available inside and invites the passer-by to come in and partake of some forthwith. All very well. But here’s what chilled me, in my short-duration and thus heightened sensory quest for summer moments. As well as telling about the lovely cod that can be had inside, the board also boasts a brightly coloured cartoon rendition of the cook who will prepare this lovely meal for you. He is smiling and upstanding and golden-hued and he sports one of those tall chef’s hat. He has a spatula in hand and is obviously ready and able to prepare some fish to your most exact specification.

So what, Ken? So what?

Well, here’s what.

He is a fish. This cheery and willing chef with the hat and the spatula is, himself, a codfish.

In a less bright and jolly season, this might have passed me by. I may well have written it off as just another symptom of the general malaise of a winter-ridden world. But, in the bright happy sunshine, that doesn’t work. As my eye seeks out some intimate detail on which I can base my summer 2018 memories, this fish-cooking fish is a highly disturbing anomaly.

I find myself thinking about him. What does he dream of as he cheerfully hauls the bodies of his brothers from the cold cabinet and submerges their corpses in the boiling hot oil? How does he get to sleep at night? The next body he cheerfully deep-fries could be his cousin. It could be his sister.

And he is so cheery in his work. Does he not know that there could be a shortage of fresh brethren to cook, some busy day, and that he could himself end up in the oil, bubbling and mutely screaming his final awareness of his crimes and his far-too-late repentance.

This is one side effect of trying to find summer in too short a space of time. Stuff assails you. It’s better if you can find a little time to do it. Better things come to you.

The other evening, I was sitting in a chair in the living room. There was some recorded Wimbledon action on the telly but I wasn’t watching it. I was looking out the window. It was fairly late in the evening but there was still some light in the sky. It stays bright late here, in the wild west of Ireland.

It was a lovely vista, out of my window. The sky was a deepening blue colour that I wish I had a fancy name for. I could see the top of the fir trees off in the distance and the… blue sky above them, all bright and summery and nice. For some reason, it reminded me of ET, when he was out in the woodland, building his phone-home thingie. I can’t say why, it just did.

As I admired the sky, a planet appeared in it. Over on the left of my field of vision, low in the sky, just above the trees. It was bright and very well defined. It was quite red so I think it was Mars but I can’t be sure. The appearance of this planet added enormous value to my view of the trees and the sky so I just sat and watched and watched as the tennis played on, ignored, in my peripheral vision.

And, as I watched, the planet moved.

There was only a limited opportunity to see it, as it sailed left to right across my… blue sky before it became blocked by some taller firs on the right. I watched it all the way. It took about fifteen minutes, all in all, and then it was gone.

I never actually saw it move, of course, it just did. Unseeable but unstoppable too.

A little like time. A little like our lives.

So that’s my Summer so far. A lot of work, one evil codfish, and a slow slow planet in my sky. Not too bad. I’ve known worse.

I'll keep you posted.

Let Me Smell Your Bum

This morning’s walk to work had a sort of a ‘Baby’ theme to it.

But only in my own head.

First off, I saw a friend in the distance who will have her first baby soon. I gave her a wave but she didn’t see me. Then I thought a bit about how people use the word ‘baby’ like it is a cutie-pie thing, particularly people in advertising, and how that seems to annoy me a bit. Then, as I was mulling over that little conundrum and crossing the car park simultaneously, I saw a woman taking her child out of her car, presumably to go to the supermarket to do some shopping. There was another older woman too and my assumption was this this was the Mum’s own Mum. The Granny, if you will.

The Mum, not the Mum’s Mum, then proceeded to do that thing that Mums effortlessly do.

I heard her say, “I just need to check her before we go in,” and, with that, she flipped the baby almost upside down and sniffed her nappy region. 

“No,” she said to the Mum’s Mum, “she’s okay,” and off they went towards the shop.

It reminded me of the first moment I saw that routine in action and how shocked and appalled I was at that time. My brother and his wife had recently had their first kid and it was a first kid for all of us. First nephew, first grandson, all of those things. I don’t know what age the baby was when I came home from London to visit but that’s when I first caught the nappy routine. My sister in law, in the middle of a regular conversation, had a noticeable nose-twitch. She grabbed the baby, flipped it a bit, and inhaled deeply of the nappy, nose buried right in there. Whatever she detected there indicated fairly clearly that a nappy change was in order. This was all horrible enough in itself, and totally alien to me, but it was made infinitely worse by her declaiming the immortal words, “Let me smell your bum,” just before she did it.

“Let me smell your bum.”

What planet was this that I had temporarily landed on? What reduction in personal liberty and self-esteem could bring a previously composed and totally together person to the point of smelling bums effortlessly in public and, more than that, loudly declaring to the world a clear intent to do so?

Of course I eventually had to learn this the hard way and learn it I did. While I don’t think I ever got to a cheerful declaration of impending arse-inhaling activity, I too became a parent (twice over) and I too discovered, soon enough, that you couldn’t go around changing expensive nappies on instinct, routine, or timing alone. There had to be the olfactory element. 

Bums had to be sniffed.

It’s a microcosm of the whole baby business, this bum sniffing thing. At least I think it is.

When we become parents, we have to learn stuff. Just when we thought we had learned all the stuff there was to know.

As parents we have to cheerfully do things we thought we could never-ever do.

As parents, we embrace… we just embrace stuff.

This doesn’t go directly to explaining why the eternal commercial sing-song pandering of the word ‘baby’ annoys my own arse. Or maybe it does a little bit. It’s late now and I’m not entirely sure of anything anymore.

What I do know – what I think I know – is that the woman I know who is about to have her first baby is not just about to have a baby. It is so much more than that. You don’t just have a baby and then go on to do something else afterward. She is starting a family and, once started, a family doesn’t ever stop.

Doesn’t ever stop.

It changes your life forever. Long after the 'baby-gro's and the soft toys and the bum sniffing have all gone.

My children are grown now. There are no more babies bums to smell. But the thing that started with those babies, well, it continues. That amazing adventure. The pride, the worry, the anxiety, the fear, the pride – did I say pride – well I’ll say it again. The pride.

That’s it, I think. You don’t just have a baby, a cute wriggly baby to have and to hold until it’s not a baby anymore. You don’t just smell its bum and then somehow move on to something else.

It’s not the beginning of something small and cute and finite, as the commercial world might have us believe.

It’s the start of something very very big.

Something that doesn’t ever stop.

Pasta: Point of No Return

I seem to have become rather awkward of late. Ungainly, even. I knock things over, drop things, break things. Don’t leave your best crystal out when I come to call. It may end poorly.

The other evening, I left work and bought some things in the supermarket on my way to the car. Some pasta, some pasta sauce, some bread, you know the kind of thing. On the way to the car, I let the pasta sauce slip. Well, I don’t exactly know if I let it slip or not. It slipped and let that be an end to it.

I park up a little street. It’s on a hill. There are a few houses. Again, you know the kind of thing. I was nearly at my car when I felt the pasta sauce jar slip. I would normally have caught it again. I’m rather good at dropping things and catching them before they land. Mostly, though, I just remember the things I fail to catch. I didn’t fail to catch the jar, per se, I never tried to catch it. My hands were too full with all the other stuff I was carrying to even try to catch the slipping-away jar. If I had, I’d have probably dropped several other things in the attempt. Where’s the joy in that?

So the jar slipped away toward the ground, in super-slow motion, as they do, and then it smashed on the concrete and spread itself in a forensic spatter all over the pavement. I looked around. My car was only a few paces away. I could be in it in a matter of seconds. Slam the door, rev up and away unbeknownst to anyone ever.

But that’s not me. No really. I make messes and then I clear them up. That’s who I am. But this wouldn't be a story if I had cleared it up. This is a story because I couldn’t clear it up. I simply did not have the tools to do so.

Instead I did what Bruce Willis did in ‘Die Hard 2’, whatever I could.

I got a plastic bag from the boot of my car and started to pick out the shards of glass from the red mess on the footpath. I don’t know about you, but I have never managed to pick up shards of glass without cutting myself. This time was no exception. It was hard to tell where the pasta sauce ended, and the blood-letting began. After a while, I had all I could get from the mess without losing a finger so I stepped back to view my handiwork. Not so good. The ground was still a turgid display and there wasn’t much else I could do about it. The windows of the houses across the street gazed blankly down on me. I couldn’t get up the nerve to go door-to-door requesting buckets of water and/or a mop. I put my glass shard ridden bag back in the boot of my car and slunk off home.

It was due to rain that night. The rain would wash the rest of the mess away. Rain is quite good for that.

The next day, it hadn’t rained and my mess was still there when I parked up. It was more congealed now, a little dehydrated even but still there. A testament to my ungainliness and my lack of civic responsibility.

The next day, it still hadn’t rained and now I noticed that there was a security camera on the wall right above where I dropped my sauce. (If you’re just starting to read here, you’ll be confused). Great. Now I know there is somebody with a PC somewhere nearby who has footage of me picking up bits of sauce-ridden glass and hopping about and swearing when the inevitable cuts ensued. I know that, in actuality, they’ll probably never look at it. That somehow makes it all seem a bit worse.

What next?


Having typed this with no idea of a resolution or a moral in mind, I’m going to wrap it up and go and fill a couple of two litre bottles with water and drive down and wash that stain away once and for all.

These things just tend to prey on my mind. I guess that's why I started writing this in the first place. Hoping for some release. But there isn't one. Not from reflection. It requires some small action. No matter how stupid an effort it takes, it is always best for me to do rather than think.

Post Script – Mission accomplished. I didn’t get there until a few minutes ago. Sunday morning. There was nobody about. I brought the stiff yard brush and two bottles of tap water but only needed to use one. Nobody saw me. I don't think the security camera is working. The stain was dried and almost gone but I got rid of the last of it and then went to the shop and bought a Sunday paper and a baguette. The girl in the shop knew me and slipped me a copy of the magazine from yesterday’s paper too. This was entirely better than sitting at home eating Cornflakes. I feel set for the day now where I didn’t before.

Post Post Script – A hundred years from now, if somebody is thumbing through these posts and casually wondering who the hell I was, I feel there may be a significant clue in this one.