Stirred and Shaken

At the ripe old age of sixteen, I was promoted from behind the public bar to the relative elegance of the restaurant bar next door. My black tie was borrowed and my white shirt still boasted those sharp vertical creases from the packaging. I felt fairly refined.

Pat, the manager, showed me the ropes to the accompaniment of James Last on the stereo.

"In here, you just have to put on the bit of a show," he explained. He was gone before I could ask him what he meant.

An elderly tartan-clad American gent sat up on one of my stools and ordered himself a 'Bloody Mary'. We served those out in the public bar now and again so I knew what to do.

I got a small whiskey glass and fired a measure of Vodka into it. Then I added two economy-sized ice cubes and presented it to him alongside a little bottle of tomato juice which I had skilfully opened. Remembering about putting on the show, I wiped the bottle with a tea towel as I laid it in front of him.

"What in the hell is this?" the American thundered as Pat the manager reappeared magically at my shoulder.

Without a word he swept my version of a Bloody Mary from view and smoothly produced a gleaming cocktail shaker. He opened it, added vodka, juice, Worcestershire sauce, black pepper and just a hint of Tabasco. He sealed it all up and gave it a vigorous and theatrical shaking. Then the cocktail was ready, beautifully presented in a tall slender glass and finished off with a stick of crisp celery.

The manager's smile became a little more fixed when he turned back to me.  "Remember," he hissed, "put on the show."

It was a fairly quiet evening so I spent much of my time shining up glasses and watching all the beautiful people eat. I had a fine array of sparkling glassware in front of me by the time my next complicated order arrived. It came from a little bald man with a tweed jacket.

"I'd like a 'Fifty-five' please."

These days, most people know that a 'Fifty-five' is just lemonade and orange juice. You can even buy it in its own little bottle. But this was 1980 and I was at a complete loss.

"What's in it?" I whispered. When he told me, I smiled. I knew what I had to do. I took the gleaming cocktail shaker and added an impressive scoop of ice. Then I opened an orange juice and a white lemonade and poured them equally in on top of the ice.

The bald man in the tweed jacket looked a bit tense but I tipped him a reassuring wink as I sealed the top of my shaker down. I picked it up and shook it vigorously.

It is a truism of bar work that lemonade is not well disposed towards being shaken.

The top of my shaker exploded and took off across the restaurant, nearly decapitating the American with the Bloody Mary. A fizzy sticky mess of orange juice erupted all over my array of polished glasses and onward over the man's tweed jacket and bald head.  The entire restaurant stared at me in disbelief, even James Last on the stereo seemed momentarily knocked off his stride.

And all the patrons of the public bar were surprised to see me back so soon.

"We thought you were trying out the posh bar tonight," they said.

"I was," said I, "What can I get you, a pint?"

In Bruges - A Review

‘In Bruges’ was my most anticipated film of 2008 and, having just seen it on DVD last night, it is now my favourite film of 2008.

So that’s good, isn’t it?

I crossed paths with the Writer/Director Martin McDonagh some years ago in London at the genesis of his stellar theatre career. The result is that I have followed his subsequent successes with an odd mix of almost-fraternal joy and raging jealousy which has bound me inextricably to his work every step of the way. I have found this to be motivational in my own writing efforts.

To have any kind of involvement with a writer who starts out struggling just like the rest of us and then to watch him place his feet on the launch pad and hit the stratosphere can be really inspiring, if you’re big enough to let it be.

I digress…

Martin McDonagh built his reputation in theatre with such fine plays as ‘The Beauty Queen of Leenane’, ‘The Lonesome West’, ‘The Lieutenant of Inismore’, ‘The Cripple of Inismaan’ and ‘The Pillowman’. At the age of 27 he was the first playwright since Shakespeare to have four plays running simultaneously in London's West-End.

He went on to win the 2006 Oscar for best short film with ‘Six Shooter’ which he wrote and directed.

Now we have his first feature film ‘In Bruges’.

This an extremely black comic film which concerns itself with two Irish hit-men - Colin Farrell and Brendan Gleeson - who are sent to Bruges to lie low for two weeks after being involved in a botched killing.

One of the pair immediately falls for the charms of the Belgian city while the other hates it from the minute he sets foot in it.

Here’s my customary warning to the gentler of visitors to this blog. Although I loved this film, you may well not. It contains one of the highest quotients of foul language ever heard in any movie, it is highly-politically-incorrect – the characters express violent and racist opinions at regular intervals, the violence is graphic, sudden and disturbing.

So please, please, be warned.

I got into a little hot water here recently for proclaiming that ‘Pulp Fiction’ made me happy. Here I go again because this one made me pretty happy too. It’s not the violence or the language that does it for me though, it’s more the quality of story-telling, dialogue, characterisation and, in this case, the beautiful setting, the lovely soundtrack, the wonderful humour and the heart – the dark moral heart of this film.

If you’ve seen the trailer for this one (and I’ll come back to the trailer in a minute) then you may feel you know what to expect from it. But the actual movie is much more thoughtful and character-driven than the smarty-smarty trailer ever suggested. It is also quite a beautiful film in many ways – the director of photography has captured some lovely angles on a city which, with the exception of two or three scenes, is shown as being virtually deserted. The soundtrack is very sweet too, with one notable exception.

The story is very close to that of a famous Pinter play – if I were to tell you which one, that would constitute quite a large spoiler and I don’t like doing that – but it is interesting that Martin McDonagh, who looked so often to the cinema for his theatrical inspiration now seems to have sought out the theatre for his movie references. I think there is also some touches of ‘The Third Man’ in there but that could be just me.

Criticisms? I always try to find a little gripe or two, I think it’s constructive. Well, there are two sizeable coincidences which occur in the narrative – these always lessen the impact of a film for me. There is also quite a serious mis-use of the song ‘Raglan Row’ by Luke Kelly.

My main gripe however is reserved for the trailer. Remember I said I’d be back to it?

The trailer for this film gave far too much away. On account of the trailer, I knew certain things were going to happen even though the film tried its best to convince me they might not.

I wish I’d seen the movie before I’d seen the trailer.

So, I commend this one highly to you and I look forward to your thoughts on it. You know how I adore the dissenting voice so do please let me have it.

Oh yeah, even the little lady from the Hulk Queue in my previous post said this was her favourite movie of the year.

I think she mostly liked it on account of Colin Farrell though.

Perhaps that’s why she seemed to have been slightly hitting on me in the queue?

No, ‘didn’t think so.

Riding the Hulk

Yes I know.

I’ll probably get all kinds of disappointed visitors to the blog, now that I've chosen a title like that, but I really had to start somewhere.

You see, I’ve got all ‘verbally bunged up’ at the prospect of writing this little ‘Wot I Did on My Holidays’ post.

I think it reminds me too much of coming back to school in September and being forced to write an essay about the summers holidays, “… I went to the beach. I swam. I got some sand in the crack of my ass...” You know the sort of thing.

Anyway, we went to Orlando, Florida for two weeks on a holiday which veered heavily towards Theme Parks, Popular Culture and Eating Out. This was an extravagant splash-out for us, as a family, and it was a great success. I was nervous that my guys would find the whole theme park experience a little overwhelming but they lapped it all up and still wanted more.

As for me, I’ve always wanted to see them and now I have and I feel very satisfied and more than a little bit wiser as a result. In my younger days, I drove past the place in Anaheim, turned up my nose at it and carried on down the road to Hearst’s Castle. I've since occasionally wished that I hadn’t.

Operating on a ‘day-on-day-off’ schedule, we saw six different theme parks – one of them three times – and there were loads more I would like to have seen. But the nature of this type of holiday is that people queue up to tell you how you picked all the wrong parks and all the wrong rides and the way they did it was so much better than yours.

So not too much detail for now, I’m too jet-lagged and emotionally fragile to deal with the angst.

I’ll probably return to this holiday, in future posts, to perhaps try to say a little about how I found America to be on this, my second visit (the previous one lasted four months).

I’d also like to try to write a little about Disney in particular. Incidentally, thanks and kudos here to Henson Ray who did a great post garnered from his own vast theme park experience which I caught just as I was setting off for the park. Thanks mate!

But, for today… The Hulk. I’m sure you know that it’s a roller coaster in Universal’s ‘Islands of Adventure’ park.

I had never been on a Coaster of this magnitude and I wanted to do it. I expected to be fearful and sick, disoriented and dizzy. Still I wanted to do it, it was something I hadn’t done and I wanted to see what it felt like. (I seem to think like that, more and more these days.)

Some stats: 'The Hulk' is a 2.4 minute ride which reaches a top speed of 67 miles per hour, completes seven inversions and 2 underground trenches and has a max drop of 105 feet.

It’s green.

None of my family would venture on to it, so I set off myself to do it. A pilgrimage of sorts…

Actually that reminds me – in a water park called ‘Wet n Wild’, on a water slide called ‘The Black Hole’ an attendant handed me an inflatable dinghy and told me to carry it to the top of the stairs behind me. I found this to be a genuine quasi-religious experience. I won’t go into any more detail lest I offend some quasi-religious visitors but I think you know where I’m coming from.

So I went on 'The Hulk'.

I had to wait for one hour and ten minutes in heat that made me desire the ride on account of the possibility of it being breezy. I queued alongside a charming lady from New York via Brazil. She told me I had a cute accent and nice blue eyes (which was appreciated) but her entire family were in front of us so I don’t think she was actually hitting on me too hard.

Unlike most roller coasters, where you get dragged painfully slowly to a pinnacle and then get chucked off, 'The Hulk' points you upwards for the expected plod to the top… and then it shoots you as if out of a gun-barrel at a speed that goes from 0 to 40 in two seconds flat.

You are then thrown straight into an amazing series of twists, pools, dips and radical changes of direction. It is tremendously exciting and wildly exhilarating.

I loved it - every second of it.

But allow me to let you in on a little secret of Roller-coasters. I’m probably breaking some unspoken club rule here but what the hell.

It’s simply this – they are not as scary as they look. If you’re bold enough to get your ass in the seat, you will be rewarded by a pretty unique experience but you won’t be as terrified as you expect to be, not even close.

So now, I’m hooked!

Bring ‘em on!! I went on to ‘do’; ‘The Kracken’ in Sea World and ‘The Mummy Returns’ in Universal, as well as some more. I couldn’t do as many as I wanted to because my family kept demanding my return but, like the fella said in the Terminator 3D show at Universal…


…well, you know what the fella said.

Letting Off Steam

Okay. I'm gonna share this with y'all 'cos you've stuck by me through the bad times and you deserve a little insight to help guide you along life's occasionally rocky highway.


To make the perfect boiled egg every time, do NOT time the process.  Instead, lift the egg periodically from the boiling water with a spoon (yes, the spoon *is* a good idea).

When it's out, watch how fast the water evaporates off the egg shell.  If it takes longer than 2 seconds, put the egg back in the water.  When it takes a little less than 2 seconds, it is perfectly done - not too hard, not too soft.

After you do this for a few years, you will become a master of the Art, like me.

There you go - I suppose you can think of me as a sort of Nigella Lawson without the Decolletage....

No, perhaps not.

Put Your Damned Indicator On!

As part of my occasional series dealing with 'Useful Tips for the Terminally Shite Driver', I present, 'Use Your Indicator, You Know it Makes Sense."

(Cue silly public-information-film-1950's-music)

(Thank you)

So I'm standing by the side of the road, waiting to cross said highway, going home, tired.

There's a right hand turn just behind me and there's a little car puttering up the road.

So I wait... the little car will putter past and I will cross.

Simple... AS IF, nothing in my life is simple.

The Car turns right, leaving me standing like a proverbial spare p**ick on the side of the road - another fifteen seconds of my rapidly unfurling life gone irretrivably up the Swannee.

Ice the cake; the daft bint driving the car WAVES AT ME.

She WAVES AT ME, as she cruises around the corner.

She WAVES AT ME as my life ticks away.

A word of advice... A little less waving and a little more indication, please, missus.

If she had only indicated to turn right, I could have crossed the road instead of waiting for a stupid drive-straight-on manouvre that was never going to bloody happen.

If she had indicated, I could have crossed.

Of course I wouldn't have...

She might have been inadvertently indicating right while intending to drive straight on. She might have RUN MY ASS DOWN.

You can't trust these people and their bloody indicators.

God, I hate the walk home, don't you?

Songs for Guys

I hadn't intended that my two young men would have songs attributed to them but it sort of worked out that way.  It started with John who was born nigh on twelve years ago at midnight (both of my guys are midnight's children).
It had been a hard day - all right, maybe a bit harder for P than for me but we guys go through the mill too you know.  Anyway there was tiredness, tea and toast and lots of other t-words and then it was time for me to go home and let mum and newborn baby sleep.
I got to the car and the three weeks of hospital time finally caught up with me. I sat in, feeling exhausted and hyperactive all at the same time...
And I put on the radio.
And the song was just starting.
It was Paul Simon singing 'Saint Judy's Comet'. A sweet lullaby for father for child. At that very moment it became, for me, John's song and it will always be so.
After Sam put in his own midnight appearance, some years later, I sat into the car and wondered what the radio would give me this time when i turned it on.  I got 'Four Seasons in One Day' by Crowded House. The effect wasn't as monumental as the Paul Simon song but this nonetheless embedded itself as Samuel's Song and cannot now be listened to in any other context.
I wonder if other people associate songs with their kids becuase it was the first song they heard after they were born?

PlotDog Press Caps Off A Really Fun Week

It's been a big old week for the Blog and I.

First there was the Entrecard Comment Rush which landed on my last-but-one post like a wonderful ton of bricks. (I'm going to post something about what happened last Sunday when the 'rush' started right in the middle of my roast chicken dinner preparations but enough of all that for now).

Then I submitted my recent 'Accordion Teacher' post to the PlotDog Press WOOF Contest and it got selected THEN they gave my an Arte y Pico Award. I mean, how much love can a young man like me take in one week?

The WOOF Contest is really a very good idea.

PlotDog Press post links to the weekly-submitted writing posts and other blogs vote on their favorites. Here's the scoop on it, I recommend you have a look.

PlotDog Press WOOF Contest: Presenting the finest of the writer’s blogs by the bloggers who write them. Highlighting the top 5 posts as chosen by the June 20, 2008 WOOF Contest participants.

Want in to join the next WOOF? The next contest ends July 4. Submit a link to your best writing post of the week using the form at the bottom of this page. Participants, repost the link list below within a week and you’re all set.

Top 5 Picks

About Writing

Darcy Pattison - Novel Revision for Lovers
Miss Write - Don’t Be a Joke: Use the Right Prepositions


Ken Armstrong - The Accordion Teacher


Jennifer M Scott - Things Unsaid


Miss Write - Single Yellow Female


Dead Play: Chapter 14 - "What happens when it isn’t play…"

* * * *

PlotDog Press is a blog that is very well worth a good look.

My initial reaction to it was twofold.

First I thought it was a difficult blog to find my way around - I still feel that but I've now got used to it. Was I alone in thinking that, I wonder?

Second I thought it was going to be cute and cuddly like the 'little dog at the keyboard' in their graphics.

As I soon found out, it is anything but.

The writing on there is often tough and often challenging. Try some of the novel and script extracts and you'll soon see what I mean. There is also some candid and interesting writing-about-writing on this blog.

I'm pleased to have got my name on there for my accordion post.

Thanks guys!

* * * *
Finally, for now, a little housekeeping.

I'm going on two weeks holiday at the end of this weekend. If there's any computers where I'm going (I think there might be) I will try and post something 'live from the scene'. But, just in case, I've scheduled a string of posts to come online while I'm away.

That's the 'experiment' thing I was doing with the 'Happy' post last week - just making sure I knew how the scheduler worked (... I didn't, as it turned out).

I only mention all this 'cos I will be slower than usual to return comments and return card drop.

But I'll be back soon and I think I've got a few goodly posts lined up for then.

So I hope you'll come around and enjoy the scheduled posts and I'll see you on the 'flip side'.

Night of the Frogs

I was driving from Limerick to Sligo with a police sergeant one foul winter’s night and I was as guilty as sin.

I wasn’t a bank robber or even a drinker in those days. I was twenty-one and amazingly well-behaved for my age.

This guilt I felt was all of my own imagining. Still it hung over me like a pall.

It was my brother’s fault that I came to be driving with this policeman. He was engaged to the policeman’s daughter and we had been down to admire the home they were busy making.

I wanted to get back for the weekend and Joe had to get back to police-work so it was obvious that we should go together.

Obvious but awkward.

Although Joe was, and still is, one of the most congenial, accessible men on earth, I knew it was going to be hellish. You see, I had never been in a car with a real live policeman before.

We bade farewell to Limerick and started out all brightness and lively chat but soon enough dusk and silence fell. The radio went on the blink.

And then it started to rain. It started to pour. I had never seen precipitation like it in my life. We both leaned really close into the windscreen wipers and willed ourselves down the road. The rain even opened a brief conversational ploy.

“It’s very heavy”, I said.

“It surely is,” said Joe.

And that was it.

The downpour became hypnotic and I was just starting to doze when I suddenly thought I saw a large green frog jump up in the headlights of the car. I jumped too.

“Are you all right?,” asked Joe.


I wasn’t going to tell him I saw a big frog, no way.

Suddenly there was another one and another and another. They leapt up into the full-beams, did a little flip and were gone. I rubbed my eyes but still there seemed to be amphibians in the headlights. Were they real? I wasn't at all sure. The heavy rain was throwing up huge splashes which looked a bit like frogs too. It could all be just an optical illusion.

The silence in the car got very heavy indeed.

If I were to tell Joe I was seeing frogs, and it turned out that he wasn’t, I could find myself in some trouble. Conclusions involving substance abuse could well be drawn. I decided to hold my peace.

For an age we drove through the downpour as a constant roll-call of little green Kermits did their party piece in front of my eyes. Finally a particularly large one jumped up and winked at me. Then it was my turn to flip.

“Joe...," I said quickly, "are you seeing frogs?”

The police sergeant looked over at me, indicated left, and eased the car to a stop. He glared at me.

“Thank God,” he said, “I thought I was going mad.”

Over time I'm sure I would have learned the truth - that policemen are often regular guys just like the rest of us. The frogs just taught me it that little bit quicker.

And I’ve since found that it is a well-documented occurrence. Heavy rain fills the ditches with water and hoards of frogs get evicted up onto the road to hop around in car headlights.

It may be hard to believe but I saw it.

And, in case you don't believe me, the policeman saw it too.

(c) Ken Armstrong