Thinking, as I do, about why I like Christmas, I tend to come up with the same answers that most people do. You know the ones, I won’t harp on about them.

Perhaps one reason that I like Christmas is a little out of the ordinary, I’m not sure. It’s best described in the title of the post. ‘Insular’.

Christmas insulates me from the real world for a short time and I love it for that reason. The type of work I do just… stops until the New Year and my world closes in upon itself to become almost entirely about family and rest and bad TV and good books.

Through the year, the world and I are in pretty close contact pretty much all of the time. The insulating quality of this mid-winter holiday is a welcome break from all of that. Apart from some family and friend gatherings in the early moments of the holiday, it’s a quiet reclusive time and it’s enormous good fun.

One of my favourite memories of this type of Christmas insulation is quite a recent one – I would guess seven or eight years ago. The boys had got a Nintendo Gamecube for Christmas and it was a big hit. I was unimpressed with the games Santa had brought so I did some research and went out and bought 'Legend of Zelda, The Wind Waker' – for the boys, of course. Then I sat up all night playing it.

And this is my memory – 3.30am, fire dying in the grate, lights low, couch pulled up close to the television, large box of Roses to hand, playing the game. My wife and boys tucked up safe and warm in bed and my only two concerns in the world a) How to swing that little adventurer boy across the hold of the pirate ship and b) whether to have an orange or a strawberry crème next.

It probably reveals more about me than I normally do in writing but the insular moment I experienced that night remains very special to me.

It may seem odd or even a bit psychopathic to cite a memory such as this as a favourite. Where are the family moments, the revelry, the companionship? I have those too. But this one has a special place.

Happy Christmas to you all.

I wish you an insular moment to treasure.

Meh Against the Machine... or Not

I was reading my friend Fiendish Thingie’s post about the current battle to be the Christmas Number 1 and it got me thinking. You should go and read her post, it’s good.

The story – as concisely as I can do it – is this. Every year, for quite a few years now, the Christmas Number One in Britain ends up being the single released by the new winner of The X-Factor (which is a TV talent show). It’s something of a forgone conclusion. This year, a campaign has sprung up to elevate an alternative song to Number One and, so far, the battle for Rage Against The Machine’s ‘Killing In The Name’ has shown astonishing momentum.

My reaction to all of this is summarised in the title of this post:


I don’t care at all really.

But then, as I was walking home today, I thought about it all a bit longer and a bit harder. And maybe I do care, a bit more than I initially thought anyway.

I have no love for either song, no particular animosity either, just that aforementioned meh. But the battle is doing something which is perhaps beyond the Christmas No. 1 and maybe something that’s good.

I’ve watched The X Factor quite a bit and the overwhelming impression I get from it, - from the way it is presented and produced - is this: Four people are elevated to the status of Kings and Queens, Princes and Princesses, Lords and Ladies – and the common people of the country are brought before them to entertain them and we - the rest of the minions - are allowed to watch.

If these common entertainers please these judges/royalty, they may be beamed upon with super-white teeth and whisked away to foreign climes temporarily, to see the more public rooms of the palaces where these God-like people reside. The ultimate prize is that elusive possibility of being elevated up to those heady heights forever.

You get the idea.

What I like about the current goings-on is that it at least manages to brush the certainty and security of these people on-high. These people who were certain that their 'chosen one' would be lauded by the people simply because they said it should be so.

In a year when the comfort and security of practically every ordinary person has been rocked in one way or another, it is perhaps fitting that these ivory-tower people should get at least the tiniest taste of the unexpected too. Life doesn’t always turn out as you might want it to and this holds true for all of us, be it prince, pauper or X-Factor judge.

And maybe there’s a message for our politicians and leaders too. If the people have finally become disaffected with being told what their favourite song must be and if they have actually acted and changed that for themselves then they can go and do it for other things too. The people still have some power. Think carefully about that. Carefully.

I think maybe I thought about it all too much on my walk home today.

I tend to do that.

Eavesdropping on the Movies

When I started off writing stuff for radio, I seemed to fall into the groove of it fairly easily. I think the reason for that is on account of the love I had for radio from a ridiculously early age.

The place where I lived, in north west Ireland, was well placed to pick up the BBC Radio stations and it was these that I listened to the most. Every week, in our house, we got the 'Radio Times' and the 'TV Times' and, while the rest of the family were thumbing to see what Ken Godwin was up to, I was sneaking off to the back pages of the Radio Times to read about what the coming week’s radio had to offer me.

Nobody else was interested in foreign BBC radio channels, the domestic services were all they needed so this remained all my territory, my secret place.

I listened on a cool transistor radio which had three bands, MW, LW and FM (VHF). It had an aerial which extended very long and this picked up those somewhat distant voices with impressive ease.

I used to listen to the dramas on Radio 4. One Sunday afternoon, as a child, I listened to the entire production of ‘Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf’ mostly because the wonderful lilustration in the Radio Times showed two old wolves dressed up in old people’s clothes. I expected the wolves to appear in the play somewhere and, although they never did, I was still very taken with what I heard.

It’s funny that I remember practically nothing about the most memorable play I heard. It was one Saturday night, underneath the bedclothes. It was set in Wales, I know that, and it was about two young boys – I think one was called Dai (I realise this is not a stretch) - but, critically, he died and his friends would go and visit him in the cemetery. The images all this evoked in my room were alive and tangible to me. Although I don’t remember the play very well, the effect it had will never ever leave. It was, and sorry for the cliché, the power of radio in action.

As I turned teen, I moved up the channel a bit to Radio Luxembourg and such. The music and the naughty condom ads were too much to resist. Then my usage tapered off, as other matters arose.

In early secondary school, all the peer pressure seemed to revolve around how much adult TV viewing you could get away with over your weekends. You earned your spurs in this regard by being able to speak knowledgeably about whatever film or series was on. If you had been allowed to see it, you were a winner. Needless to say, my thoughtful and kind parents were very careful about what I was allowed to watch so I fared very poorly in these televisual tests of manhood.

This all came to a head one Friday night when RTE Television was showing the TV premiere of ‘Coogan’s Bluff’ starring Clint Eastwood. Mark Askey, who got to see absolutely everything on telly, warned us that this was the true proof of a man – whether he could get to see ‘Coogan’s Bluff’ or not. I was surely lost… until I had the most wonderful idea.

On that radio I used to listen to so much, my domain had been largely the MW and LW bands but there was a wonderful idiosyncrasy about the FM/VHF band. Before Irish television caught up with the world and moved to UHF (ultra high frequency) it used to broadcast on VHF (very high frequency) and this was the very self-same VHF that was on my old radio.

In the simplest terms, I remembered that I could hear the TV on my radio.

I tried to stay up for Coogan’s Bluff. I made myself as small as possible in the corner and I uttered not a peep but the programme announcer alerted my parent to the sex and violence aspects of the feature and I was summarily dispatched.

I tuned the movie in as I climbed into bed, pulled up the blanket over my head, and listened to the whole thing. It was very entertaining and, on Monday morning, even Mark Askey was astonished that I could describe the film in such graphic detail. My standing went up, I moved slowly towards manhood within the group.

Thus began quite a long run of listening to unsuitable movies on the radio. The disembodied voice still holds a strong sway over my thoughts and deeds.

I feel a huge bond with radio. I only wish I could describe it to you better.

Pocket Monster

This is becoming a real problem for me.

It’s been an issue for quite some time but the events of yesterday afternoon – after work – have shown me that a critical point is approaching and may well have now been passed…

… I have too much stuff in my pockets.

“Gosh, ‘being trivial yet again Ken?” You may well cry but wait. Have you considered how awful a thing it can be to have too much stuff in your pockets? It’s not the additional weight that makes it so bad, nor is it the bulky ruined lines of your clothes. None of the above. No, it’s the fact that you can never find the single bloody thing that you are looking for – that’s the killer.

Let’s just look at what I have in my pockets: Wallet, phone, keys (house), keys (car) USB thingie, loose coins, iPod with long headphone wire, data storage tape, nifty key-ring which my lovely wife gave me with no keys on it (but with a neat coin shaped piece which you can remove and use to free up your Tesco trolley) lottery tickets (unchecked), old sticking plaster (just threw that out) (yuk) and a street map of Dublin where I patently do not live anymore.

You get the idea.

All this stuff is distributed between my trousers and coat pockets and there is little-or-no pattern to where any given item might be found at any given time. Things are made worse because I have a hole in my coat pocket and keys and things can sometimes slip into the depths of the lining too.

On three separate occasions yesterday, the matinee performance which is my life was delayed while I tried to find something in my pockets. All three were bad but the last time took the biscuit. Here’s what happened:

I was leaving work. I had just returned from a meeting and was making a flying visit to the office. The car park adjoining the office allows you to go in and back out of the barriers if you are prompt – the little tickets have about ten minutes grace on them. So I ran in and ran out again… sort of. You see, I glanced at Twitter while I was in and you know how that can be. By the time I got back to the barrier I was dicing with that ten minute deadline and I knew it.

I found my ticket in my pocket (took a while) drove up to the barrier and stuck my ticket in. “Time Limit Exceeded, Please Return to Paystation.” Drat, I muttered, or words to that effect. I turned to reverse back from the barrier.

But, lo, a woman had appeared behind me in an oversized cow-killer of a vehicle and she was hemming me in. I waved at her to back up a bit so I could reverse away. She eventually went back about five and a half inches and gave me one of those sour ‘There, happy now?” looks. I wasn’t happy. I couldn’t reverse out in five and a half inches and if somebody else arrived behind her we were rightly stuck. So I waved some more at her and she backed up some more whilst sporting a face like thunder.

As I reversed back past her I buzzed down my farside window and said, “Sorry about that, my ticket wouldn’t work.” She responded by remaining silent and scowling at me as if I were a piece of dog crud on her shoe, which rather annoyed me.

“Well,” I said, “I hope you are received more kindly when it happens to you some day.” She scowled some more and I reversed back to a parking spot so that I could go and get my ticket authorised.

I realise this is going on a bit, sorry, it’s therapeutic.

I got out of my car, closed the door, and then noticed that the scowling lady was still at the barrier with another car now behind her. She didn’t seem to be able to get out. I smiled to myself and reached for my barrier ticket.

No barrier ticket.

I started the pocket search which had lately become so familiar. No ticket. I piled all the contents of my pockets on the roof of the car one by one – there was so much stuff – no ticket.

The lady was still at the barrier…

Had I left it in the car? I opened the car door to see, panicking now. I am driving a borrowed car for reasons I’d best not go in to here. The door of this car is higher than my own. As I hauled open the door, the sharpish top corner of it caught my chin and cut me there, I could feel blood welling and trickling down my neck. This snapped my temper.

The lady was still at the barrier…

I took a minute out to stomp around clutching chin and swearing the most potent and fervent swear words in my vocabulary and, when I finally calmed down a bit, I saw there was no ticket in the car either. There could now be no doubt – I had left the ticket in the barrier ticket slot when I reversed away and the reason the lady hadn’t gone through the barrier yet was because she was messing with my ticket.

I walked towards her purposefully to see if she had my ticket. She saw me in her wing mirror striding up and the look of unbridled terror on her face stopped me in my tracks. I couldn’t just go up to her having admonished her a few moments ago, I would scare her and I really didn’t want to do that. As I hesitated, the barrier lifted and she sped away, tyres squealing, into the night. Did she have my ticket with her? I will never know.

Back at the car, most of my rooftop pocket stuff had fallen into a puddle on the ground. I now had no ticket to validate and no way of getting one. In despair, I drove up to the barrier again and pressed the alarm button hoping to convince the person on the other end to please just let me go. I never actually had to say a word, perhaps they could see me on CCTV, wet, distraught and bleeding copiously from my chin. The barrier just went up and let me out.

So, today, I’m clearing out my pockets. I need to be able to find things more quickly or at least to know for sure if I’ve lost them.

I need to lighten up.

Chess X Ray

I have played chess pretty much all of my life.

I learned the moves when I was very young because my older brothers both played. I picked it up off them largely by osmosis. When I was still quite young I joined the junior chess club and when I was again too young for it, I joined the adult chess club. When I moved to London, I used to play in the West London chess club and did quite well at the type of lightning game where you have to make a move every few seconds.

I’m not by any means a brilliant player or anything like that. Perhaps you can gauge a player these days by how they do against a computer. I play the Wii Chess programme at level 3. I win some and I lose some. I draw quite a lot. That’s how I play – not special but I know a bit.

I only ever play against computers and consoles these days and less and less of even that, as time goes on. My failings at chess taunt me now.

I have come to rather fear defeat and so tend to avoid human challenges.

The point of this small post is this: I believe that you can learn a little about yourself by looking at the way you play chess (providing, of course, that you actually play chess – it doesn’t work so good if you don’t know how the pieces move).

Let’s take me as a guinea pig to illustrate the point.

Here’s how I play chess:

I tend to see quite a long way down the line. I can calculate moves and counter-moves in quite a tortuous progression so that sometimes I can put together an attack or a trap which, if it works, can be quite blindingly brilliant to behold.

But wait, this is not an exercise in self-praise, oh no. You see I have a fatal flaw. Fatal. I am always so busy plotting my little machiavellian coups and calculating my materiel exchanges ten moves ahead that, yes, I miss the glaringly obvious. I do this all the time. While I’m trying to figure out how to achieve mate in seven moves, you’ve just taken my bloody Queen off.

And that is how I am in life too. I can sometimes see a thing a little askew or progress a thought a few steps beyond the ordinary and that can look impressive. But, while I’m doing it, I will also be forgetting your name or walking into a lamp post or wondering where the hell I was meant to be going in the first place.

The way I play chess is the way I am in life.

So… how do you play chess?

Call of the Bloody Wild

It’s true that I am mostly known as a patient and good-natured person but we all have our triggers, don’t we? Those things that switch us, in a split second, from being in a perfectly fine mood to being Godzilla with hemorrhoids.

I have a few of these. Triggers, that is, not hemorrhoids. Quite a few actually.

I’m happy enough to tell you about one of them - provided you promise that you won’t all start phoning me up and doing this to me.

Seriously, it would end badly for all of us.

Okay, here it is. I hate people who call me up and the phone and… well, let me give you an example phone call.

Me: Hell-oo?
Caller: How are you?
Me: Good.
Caller: That’s good… … … …
Me (smiling) Who’s this?
Caller: What?
Me: Who’s this?
Caller: You mean, you don’t know who I am?
Me: That’s right, sorry about that. Who is it?
Caller: Ah, Jaysus, Ken, you must know who it is.
Me: I know, this happens to me sometimes, it’s a real pain… can you just tell me?
Caller: Well, I’m very surprised about that. Will I give you a clue?

That’s around about where my trigger mechanism kicks in. Around about where I lose my head.

I don’t know if this is an intrinsically Irish thing, where false-familiarity is often the order-of-the-day or whether it’s a ‘me’ thing. In fairness, I am always forgetting people’s names and when I hear someone on the phone, without any context to help me I am occasionally at a loss.

That’s why I do that smiley ‘Who’s this?’ thing. I am old and tired and fed up with pretending that I know who you are. There has been enough misunderstandings that way, enough pain. So I just ask, nicely, and ninety-nine percent of the time that works really well.

It’s the other one percent that can drive me completely insane.

This happened to me most recently last Monday morning. I was on the school run and I was late. It was pissing rain and the windscreen-mist refused to clear on account of all the humid boys inside.

Then the phone rang.

My rule is that I don’t answer it but, honestly, it sort of answered itself due to an involuntary twitch of mine and so I was left, in traffic, with this disembodied voice. A voice who was warm and comfy somewhere and who just wanted to play.

Me: Hello.
Caller: Kenny!
Me: Hiya, who’s this?
Caller: Ah, now Kenny, you know who this is.
Me: Sorry, at the moment, I don’t.
Caller: Well isn’t that just awful, ye little fecker ye.
(tick tock)
Me: Sorry. Look, I’m stuck in a jam and I’m late… could you just tell me who it is?
Caller: You’re what?
Me: I’m in a tight spot, really. I can call you back…
Caller: (He said this, I swear) I don’t want to be knowing about your sex life Kenny…

It is a testament to my ever-increasing maturity that I actually got out of this conversation all right. I breathed hard and the guy eventually revealed himself to me. I’m glad of this because he turned out to be a good friend and I would have hated to do what I used to do. So all was well that ended well… in this case.

But in earlier years, this type of call did not ever go as neatly as this one did. Most memorably, at five-fifteen on a terribly-pressured Friday afternoon, I told the new secretary’s boyfriend - who had only called to flirt with his gal and who had decided to play a little ‘guess-who’ with me along the way – that he could take his 'mystery phone-call' and shove it a country mile up in his fucking arse. Before slamming the phone down. He still looks at me oddly to this day.

Would this annoy you, I wonder, or is it just me?

I also know that the temptation will be now huge but, please, don’t try to call and do this to me.

Every day, I’m getting better and better…

… but I’m still not terribly good.

Glasto Song (for @Cherrymorello)

Some of my eagle-eyed friends spotted this new song when I threw it onto the blog last Saturday, even though I dated it a few months back so that it would be buried.

I didn't want to put it too prominently online before I knew that @Cherrymorello wouldn't mind - I think she quite liked it actually so now I'm putting today's date on and pushing it to the front.

In truth, I'm quite pleased with it myself and I think the story behind it illustrates something about the nature of Twitter and inspiration - though God knows what that might be.

@cherrymorello is one of the many super people I chat to on Twitter. She's lovely and great fun. Last Saturday I noticed she had a new picture up (that's the one at the top there) so I said, 'Nice picture'. (It was deep, I know, but that's how I tend to roll).

She replied, 'Which one?' There's different pictures depending on where you look at my account."

I said, "You're driving a vehicle, there's a car, you're smiling. Christ, I think there might be a poem in this..."

She said, "That Poem's called 'On my way to Glasto with the offspring in the back'"

And that got me thinking - it's a good line for a song, isn't it?

So that's the song down below. Silly, yeah, but it came out of a Twitter chat with a nice person. I like it when things like that happen.

Twitter can be like that, if you let it. It can 'spark' things off.

'Course, you have to follow the right people...

Glasto Song

This year has been pure hellish
Thought it was never gonna end
I was left without a sunbeam, I was lost without a friend
But I don’t want to paint it badly
‘Cos now I’m back on track
I’m on my way to Glasto with my offspring in the back

We’ll see Blur, Nick Cave and Tom Jones
The best in all the land
We’ll see steam rise off Bruce Stringsteen
And his mates the E Street Band
We’ll eat couscous, rice and lentils
And there won’t be no Big Mac
I’m on my way to Glasto with my offspring in the back

So behave yourself dear kiddies
Don’t shed another tear
The answer to your whining
Is, Yes, we’re nearly there
It’s been a lengthy journey
But I can take your flack
Cos I’m on my way to Glasto with my offspring in the back

Ken Armstrong 2009

Indicators and Roundabouts

I see that our National Broadcaster is gently re-introducing those public advice adverts on the telly. Particularly the ones where they show you how to behave while out driving on the public highway.

I think this is a good idea, people are such spectacularly shitty drivers nowadays.

We had loads of these adverts when I was younger. We always had great fun with how bloody slowly everybody drove in them – even on the motorways. I guess you couldn’t show people just pissing along as normal – that wouldn’t be much good.

The ones I remember included ‘Don’t be an Amber Gambler’ (catchy), ‘ A splash of water on your tired face will not wake you up, you stupid fucker’ (apt) and ‘Keep your distance – you’re a fool if you don’t’ (not catchy at all but, hey, it’s still in there, right?).

(Image by Delphwynd)

The one that sticks most in my head wasn’t actually about driving at all. It was about being careful when lifting heavy loads. I wish I could find it on YouTube but no success yet. It had a memorable Country and Western track – “Big John was a muscular man, he had a lot of power in his two big hand (girlie chorus) but he never gave a thought to his backbone (and then Big John himself chips in) “Oh, me achin’ back.” Now that was message-giving at its very finest.

The newest of these adverts on the theme of ‘Here’s how to actually drive, you big wally’ concerns roundabouts and that is a very good thing. Would You All Please Watch this Bloody Advert? 'Cos 85% don’t seem to have the first clue about how a roundabout works. Many see it as a form of Russian Roulette, others take the view that if they break every rule but do it extremely slowly, then they will be okay.

If I were to suggest a subject for one of this new slower-than-slow-how-to-drive-passably commercials, I would propose that it be about the use (and non-use) of indicator lights. I written a little about this before.

I have my own little rule of thumb which goes like this – the more expensive the car, the less the indicators will get used. How often do Mercs and Four Wheel Jokes sail round the corner past me without a flashing light in sight. Often, that’s how often.

I sometimes tell the drivers off, “Doesn’t that fucking thing come with an indicator?” I may ask but all the emperor sees inside his insulated cabin is an ill-shaven lout with a shoulder pack mouthing some inaudible platitude. He may for a moment wonder about me and my pedestrian agenda but Bryn is just finishing up his Welsh Hymn and the Prelude to Something or Other is about to come on so, who gives a toss really?

But my preferred indicator advert wouldn’t touch on that. Those people are lost causes, let’s just pray they keep their casualties down to a reasonable total. It’s not the indicator left unused that will most likely kill you, it’s the indicator left on and forgotten.

I saw this in action the other morning when driving the kids to school. I was second-in-line to get out of the junction at the end of our road, turning right. It’s a busy road so it's always a dreadfully long wait. A car was coming at us with the indicator light flashing to say it was turning in to our road and the car in front of me trusted in this. But, of course, this car was not turning in – the indicator light had stuck on and the driver did not know about it. How these two child-filled cars didn’t crash and die is still quite beyond me.

So that would be the message of my road safety commercial – Don’t Trust Indicators.

What would yours be, I wonder?

All this reminds me – I met a lady once (it could just as easily have been a man) who was on a lesson with her driving instructor. The instructor told her to enter the roundabout and turn right off it. She drove in and went completely around it once and then went completely around it twice. What are we doing?” asked the instructor, at which point the lady burst out crying. “You said, I had to exit to the right but every single exit is to the left.”

That’s a whole other advert, I guess.

Ted (A Short Story)

They’d all been to some party or prize-giving or something and they brought Ted back with them. Roger said he had won him in a fight, I believed the first bit, not the second.

Ted was a teddy bear, of sorts, only a lot cheaper and tackier than the normal model. He was knee high, inflatable, and permanently moulded into a seated position.

His arms outstretched uncomfortably in front of him and his leg sections were crimped at the top from having been roughly heat-sealed to his torso.

He had fixed and dilated pupils and a manic grin welded permanently beneath his painted snout. He was yellow.

There was a lot of work to be done. I wasn’t in the mood.

They fooled around at my desk with him for a while and then drifted back to their architecture and their phone calls. Ted was left abandoned on my monitor, staring vacantly off at something over my head. I looked at him closely. He meant nothing to me. I had typing to do, he was in my way.

Andrew phoned at three and made mournful noises. I told him I was sorry but I couldn’t see how I would ever manage to forgive him. Ted didn’t bat an eyelid. I remember hanging up and wishing that someone would just get him out of my sight, how he was making my desk look shoddy. I poked his chest with my finger. He felt like a beach ball.

Denny stormed out of his office around four, looking annoyed. He picked Ted up and eyed him suspiciously.

“What’s this?”

“A Bear.”


“Roger won it in a fight.”

“It makes your desk look shoddy.”

“I know.”

He stuffed Ted in under his elbow, facing out.

“Do you know,” he said, “how much I wish this was Harish?”

He punched the inflated yellow snout savagely four times then tossed him back on to my desk.

“Anybody wants me, I’ll be in the conservatory.”

Then he was gone.

I pressed my nose tenderly. It was bleeding a little.

The guys had forgotten the bear in the afternoon rush but they were all delighted to see him when they came out at six. I’d sat him back up on the monitor and cleared both our faces up. There really hadn’t been much blood, just a drop or two.

Roger seized Ted. He threw him up in air and almost caught him.

‘Hey guys,” he said, “ shall we bring Cecil B De Mille down the boozer with us?”

“His name is Ted.”

They all looked at me.

“Ted? Ted? Is that what he told you? The swine.”

Jerry swept Ted up over his head and held him there.

“The bear is guilty of consorting with our womenfolk. What sayest you all?”




Jerry pulled off his tie. I guess they were still a bit drunk from that lunchtime binge. I sat and glared at them.

“You know the punishment for ravaging our womenfolk without a permit?”

Jerry looped one end of his tie over my angle poise lamp, the other end he tied around Ted’s neck.

“Any last words bear?”

I felt sick inside.

They hung him from my angle poise lamp and then went off down the pub.

I sat and stared at the swaying novelty, suspended before me at eye level. A voice inside was clearly telling me that this was a lump of cheap plastic., mass produced in Hong Kong. Nothing more than a piece of short-life, third world garbage not to mention a potential fire risk.

Another part of me was ready to weep.

Ted’s grin didn’t waver. His eyes were still fixed and dilated but now they stared straight at me. I packed up and went home, avoiding his gaze.

I woke up at two-forty in the morning having dreamed about him. The ludicrous image of him suspended above my desk diary, arms outstretched, would not fade. The office was four miles away, there was no traffic. It only took me ten minutes to get there.

Ted hadn’t moved. I untied the knot and let him back up onto my monitor. He seemed to have deflated a little since lunchtime.

I felt completely and utterly foolish, standing at my desk, bedraggled in the middle of the night, rescuing a thankless teddy bear. I tried to identify the cord which had dragged me back.

Ted was, after all, just a useless and unattractive piece of plastic. But, if the right person had him, a child probably, it is possible that he could mean very much to her. She could hold him and love him and take him to her bed to be warm and safe at night. He would be an instrument for the reception of her love. And since love, like Vitamin C, cannot be stored up, since it can only exist in the giving or receiving of itself, Ted would therefore become a creator of love. He would make the world a better and a more lovely place. If, that is, he was put in the right place to do it.

Therefore I should bring him home with me and look after him. Until the right place came along.

Then I sort of woke up.

“I am a mature, qualified, responsible career woman,” I thought, “if I give in to whatever juvenile pseudo-emotional hormonal flux has taken me to this desk tonight, I will be admitting my weakness, my pliability, my inability to survive in this cold city. I may as well pack up, go back to my village, and marry the first yokel that I meet.”

I strode back to my car through the angry buzz of ill-woken fluorescent lights. I left Ted on my desk.

I deliberately slept-in the next day. I was owed some time and didn’t see the point of turning up too early in case I hadn’t fully succeeded in rationalising my humanity away.

I got in at ten. There was a large orange packing crate on the floor in front of my desk. The kind you see on the docks in fishing ports. Ted was in it, feet and arms in the air, looking out.

When they heard I was in, they all congregated from their various corners of the office. They were all grinning mischief at me. Roger and Jerry were in front, as usual. They each concealed something behind their backs.

“Somebody cut the bear down.”

I took my coat off, pushed past them and hung it up.

“In the night. Somebody cut him down.”

“Sod off Jerry, I’m not in the mood.”

“It’s unfortunate that the bear was cut down.”



“The law in these instances is clear. If Cecil B De Mille had survived his night on the gibbet, he would have been deemed ‘The Bear They Couldn’t Hang’ and hence would have gained his amnesty and a respected place in our little community.”

“Unless, of course, embittered by his experiences, he expressed a wish to ride out of town.”

“Of course. But the bear was cut down, fellow townspeople, and our course is therefore clear.”

From behind their backs, they both simultaneously produced small cans of lighter fuel. Nobody in the office smokes so they must have gone to considerable trouble to get it.

“Now hold on a minute!”

“Shut up Kate, it’s just a laugh.”

They squirted the fuel onto Ted in the large crate. The liquid, where it landed on him, washed surprising streaks of dirt off his plastic. Jerry produced a box of matches from his pocket.


Before I could get to him, Jerry had lit one of the matches and dropped it into the crate. It missed Ted and lay burning by his side. Roger immediately started squirting fuel to make a connection between the match and Ted. A spray landed on his plastic face and ran down. He was crying kerosene.

He ignited then and they all cheered like idiots. A curl of black smoke rose from between his ears as he started to slowly crumple and bend. His head collapsed flaccidly into his chest without once looking up at me again. It happened very quickly then that he ceased to be a recognisable entity. Within seconds, he had shrunk and sealed himself into a tight ball of shining carbon. He did not make a sound.

Denny stormed out of his office.

“What the hell is going on out here? Harris, haven’t you any work to do?”

They sulked off back to their corners. Denny came over and peered into the crate. He wrinkled his nose.

“Clean that up, will you Kate? Harish is here at eleven.”

There were strands of Ted stuck to the floor of the crate which I just couldn’t get off.

I took him home and buried him in the garden under a rose bush. It was the least I could do.

And later that night, when Andrew phoned to apologise yet again, I told him that it might possibly be all right after all.

Attic Attack

Something is living in my attic now.

It’s become a bit of a ‘thing’ with me, mostly because I’ve never had anything living in the attic before. This thing – or things – in the attic is fairly small (most of the time) and a bit scratchy and pitter-pattery. It’s active mostly in the night and it moves fairly rapidly across the other side of the ceiling…

… now you’re all looking at me like I’m stupid.

“Ken,” you’re saying, hands on hips – and it’s not a good look for you, let me tell you , “It’s a mouse, Ken, you have a little mouse in your attic.”

Yes... but is it? Do I?

I have been tracking this beast for a few weeks now. I can find no droppings, no chewings, no earthly trace.

I have also been trapping for quite a while. At first my ‘Last Tango In Paris Buttered-Up’ mousetraps were sprung without snaring anything. For the last week, they haven’t been touched at all.

One of the few upsides to all this is how I have come to enjoy being in my attic. The careful priming of the traps, the feeling of dangerous solitude, the frisson that, at any given moment, a very small creature might venture outside of its nature and go for my throat.

I’ve got lots of tips on the best bait for my traps, which now comprise a bewildering array of alternating humane and brutal contraptions. I’ve got peanut butter, butter, bacon, cheese, more cheese, smelly cheese and After Eight mints. The mice must think it’s party time at the Ambassador’s Residence.

Yet here I am - still no closer to meeting my invader.

The trouble is, this kind of thing messes with my slightly over-active imagination. I have one of those pull down stair thingies to get me into my attic. As I pull it down, I envisage thousands of hostile dying mice cascading down into my hair…

…then sometimes I think it’s a rat up there. I once came face-to-face with a wild rat as a child – we were perhaps six inches apart, this rat and I – and I’ve had no genuine love for the breed ever since. If I meet a rat up there, I’m going to just step between the joists and go back down to the kitchen the fast way.

I actually do believe that it’s a mouse, or mice, up there but I really want to know for sure so that I can finally ease my squirming imagination.

This morning, at six thirty, I lay in my bed, arms behind my head, watching a spot on the ceiling above my head where, behind the plasterboard-and-skim an incessant scratching… scratching… scratching was going on. Was something about to dig through and finally show itself? I didn’t really need the alarm this morning.

So, dear folks. Any advice for me on this one? Different bait? Poison (I hate the thought). Ignore the little mites? Get the professionals in?

Or maybe there’s really nothing up there at all… maybe this is my own personal Tell Tale Heart, reminding me of some long dead transgression. Beating… beating… beating…

There he goes again, above my head...

…shut up, you little git.

Haiku Would Your Help Be With This?

Okay, I won’t gild the lily. I could use a little creative help here.

I’ve been asked to do something ... one of my more spectacular failings is that I find I hard to refuse anyone who asks me to do anything. (Please use this information humanely) .

In particular, when someone I love asks me to do something for them, I find it impossible to refuse. No, that statement doesn’t quite tell it like it is – When they ask me, I don’t even want to refuse.

So my beloved Linenhall Arts Centre have asked me to do this and I don’t even dream of saying ‘No’ because I 'heart' the Linenhall Arts Centre in a great big way. The Linenhall is my town’s Art Centre, and they have supported, entertained, and befriended me ever since I came to live here in Castlebar. They have premiered - what is it now? – five of my theatre plays. I have appeared in three plays there (none of them my own) and I… just love the place. That’s all.

So, The Linenhall have a programme of events for Culture Night next Friday night – 25th September 2009 - which is part of a nation-wide endeavour to get more of the general public involved in ‘culture-stuff’. The Linenhall will be crammed with diverse events and opportunities for fun. You should come along.

And, yes, I will be there. Here’s what the brochure says about my bit:

Haiku 4 U
Want to write Haiku?
Ken will show you how it’s done
or else die trying

Fifteen minutes in
You’ll know all you need to know.
A good deal or what?

My brief is to show the good people of Castlebar how they might go about writing a Haiku poem in fifteen minutes or less… it wasn’t my idea but it’s not a bad one and that’s mainly why I will do it. I reckon I will have a little ‘stall’ or corner of a room where people can come and talk Haiku and hopefully give it a go.

I have several valued readers who are themselves established and talented poets and I hope they won’t look too dimly on my little excursion into this territory. Jim Murdoch has written well on the subject, as he has done on so many subjects. Sorry Jim.

Allow me to be the first to clearly state that you could fit all that I know about Haiku in a Haiku. I know this and Marie Farrell, the Director of The Linenhall, knows it too. But she’s a smart cookie, is our Marie. She knows I have an enthusiasm for writing which I’m passably good at sharing, that I will approach the subject from the basement up and that I am brilliant at taking the piss out of myself. These are the qualities that I hope will carry my Haiku evening off.

But, like I said, I would sure welcome some input from you guys. We did it a few times before, with Limericks 1 and Limericks 2, and they were a blast.

Could you write me a Haiku in the comments section or else, tweet me one. If you let me, I will use them on the night to help illustrate how a toe can be dipped in the Haiku pool by simply expressing yourself within the confines of the most basic of Haiku rules. This may seems frivolous and perhaps downright disrespectful to some but I actually have a serious writing point at the back of my head.

I firmly believe that creative writing can be strengthened by the at-least occasional imposition of confines upon it. There!

Take a blank page and write anything – it might well be great, it will probably be crap. But nail yourself to a subject and a point of view and a timescale and a tone and a setting and… the end result will be more focused, considered, and points will arise along the writing of it that you never thought would occur.

Anyway, I’ve lost you, I know. If you’re still here, please write me the simplest of Haiku – three lines, 5 syllables in the first, seven in the second and another five in the third. Tweet it or comment it and let me use it for Friday – all copyright remains with you of course – it’s not really Haiku at all but it’s a toe in the door of the form and that, for now, might be enough.

If you want a subject for your poem, here’s a couple of possibilities, Autumn, Myself, Swine Flu, Impotence, cinema-talkers and grass. (I thought of those as I wrote them, can you tell?)

Look, I’ll have a go at a few, ‘top of the head.

Please movie talker
In between your popcorn crunch
I’m longing to hear

Shout at it or sing
It just won’t stand up today
Better call Pele

Something in the air
Not summertime anymore
Better season nigh

... help?

Lyric - Fresh Out of Clever

The moment demanded
A joke of some kind.
When you said you were going away.
But nothing real funny
Jumped into my mind
I’m fresh out of Clever today

You said my inaction
Had ruined your head
Then you waited for something from me
But my witty responses
Were all left unsaid
I'm fresh out of Clever, you see

On a better day
I’d have thrown in a line
I’d have given as good as I got
But today I’ve got nothing
The fault is all mine
My comedic timing’s all shot

So, yeah, I got nothing
Just leave me alone
And close out the door as you go
If you want, you can cut me
Once more to the bone
Cos I’m fresh out of Clever you know.

(Ken Armstrong 2010)

Driving Imagination

God but aren’t there are a lot of bloody awful drivers in the world?

You go out in your car, it’s like being in the middle of an ‘80’s video game. That guy is gonna pull out in front of you, this old dear is gonna park her car in the middle of the road, this girl is gonna drive three inches behind you while doing her lippy in the rear view mirror.

It often annoys me to see how downright badly people drive and I regularly find it hard to hold my peace about it.

Sometimes I berate them after they have driven away (amusing but largely pointless), sometimes I fume silently and promise to blog about it - and sometimes I go at them while they are still there (which is often quite dangerous).

Me? I think I’m quite a good driver. Not in a rapid gear change, heavy revving, wear pointless black gloves sort of a way. I think I’m focused and steady and fairly safe.

As a matter of fact, I’ve developed a bit of a theory on the reason why this might be…

(What? Oh, you’re off? Well see you next time maybe, eh? I know it’s boring but I just want to get it down on paper… you know how these things are.)

My theory is simple. I think there is one key element which sets all good drivers apart from the hoards of useless ones out there. No, it’s not gender, I have no time for that discussion at all. Well, maybe I have a little time… but not right now.

This thing that sets us good drivers apart… it’s Imagination.

I do a bit of writing, I don’t know if you know this. I like to imagine stories and scenarios and discussions and arguments and gun battles and such-like. It occupies a surprising amount of my time. For this reason, I am gifted with a very graphic imagination. I’m not bragging here – it can be something of a curse.

If I get involved in visualising a scenario, that scenario can take over my mind to quite a startling extent. The regular world can simply ‘go away’ for a time and whatever thing is ‘playing out’ in my head will be there, wide and vividly coloured, in front of my eyes. This visualising can halt me in the middle of a conversation or even stop me in my tracks when I am walking. It’s like how they sometimes show flashbacks in movies, without the wobbly-screen bit at the start.

Okay, so we've established that I have some level of imagination. My point is that this helps me enormously towards being a safer driver. The reason is simple. I can ‘see’ what might happen or, more to the point, I can see what might have very nearly just happened and the visceral – often gory – truth of what I see scares me and troubles me into being a little bit more careful as I drive down the road.

These driving scenarios are always playing quietly in the back of the mind. Is there a child behind that car? Will I be able to stop if she runs out. Will I hit her and watch with horror as her little ragdoll heap tumbles up and bloodily shatters my windscreen. How hot will her blood be as it spatters my face? What will the smells be like in my car then, burnt rubber from the all- too-late-brakes, some fruity shampoo from her hair in my face and perhaps… other things too - things I can visualise but do not wish to mention.

The possibility of what I could do with my car is kept in the front of my brain by my imagination and this keeps me slower and safer than some others you may see.

‘Not a saint – never a saint – just a slightly scared motorist who understands what my car might do on my behalf.

The proof of my theory lies mostly in its corollary.

The next time you see someone driving badly, look at them closely. You will see. Whoever they are, they are not creatures of imagination. They do not dream of what they and their car might one day inadvertently do to somebody else.

I really hope they never have to find out.

Liking it So You Don’t Have To #5 – Another Song

I started this little series of posts as a sort of self-flagellation... you’re sitting up and paying attention now, right?

I just thought it might be fun to try to highlight things that I really like which I feel you might not like at all. To defend the indefensible, to bare the very kernel of my middle-of-the-road soul. And, yeah, so far, it has been a laugh.

First we had a movie, then a song (that one was rough) then a singer and number #4 was a book. Yup, although I didn’t actually call that post ‘#4’, that’s what it was… (Here’s an impromptu competition; tell me what that book was and I’ll send you a book, we’ll work out what. Use the comments, that’s what they’re bloody there for, right?)

To business…

Below is a Youtube video of a song. It’s a song from a show which has been held up a template of middle-of-the-road/yuppie pseudo artistic endeavour. A show which has been adored and pilloried in equal measure (I pillory it a lot). And this song is in it.

The song is ‘Bring Him Home’ from the behemoth musical version of ‘Les Miserables’. I like this song, so you don’t have to. But it’s not just the song, it’s the singer. Colm Wilkinson is Irish and we’re all dead-proud of him ‘cos he went and made good on the international stage (no, not the one in Kilburn).

This singer - singing this song - does something to me. What can I tell you? The little hairs rise on the nape of my neck and stay rizzed-up until the final astounding note is done.

Have a listen and see what you think.

Here’s a curious thing. I went to see the show on Shaftesbury Avenue quite a few years ago… and I bloody hated it… and I still bloody hate it. One qualification: I liked the opening scene – the bare-naked revolving stage bit. That was brave and theatrical for a big show like that. But then it went all to hell in a hand basket with urchins and barricades and God knows what else. Hated it, grrrrrrrr.

Doubtless someone sang this song the night we went to see it but it whooshed right over my head. I think I was so annoyed at all the money I’d spent getting in to see this dross that I was rendered totally impervious to anything good about it by the time the drunken innkeeper finally buggered off.

It was years later that the song finally struck me. I remember it well. We were babysitting our nephews in Ballinrobe and the Late Late Show was on but I wasn’t paying much heed to it. Then Colm came on and sang this song live… and I stood transfixed in the centre of the floor and watched him. I literally could not believe what I heard.

So what it is about the song? He sings it quite brilliantly, I think, but it can’t be just that, can it?

Is it the sentiment that subconsciously tugs at the father in me? The elder’s plea for the life of the youth – 'take me instead'? There may be something in that – I have felt twinges of this before when reading ‘The Road’ or even watching ‘The Mist’, so I am obviously susceptible.

Or is it just a stonking good tune? I don’t think it is actually, it’s okay but it's not brilliant. No, there’s more to it that that.

Is it perhaps the vulnerability of a man adopting this emotional and moving falsetto? Does it touch the soul in some indefinable way?

For me, at least, the song is definitely operating on some base level. I equate it to the moment when the head pops out of the boat in ‘Jaws’. Something made us jump then - and it was more than just the head and the fright. Something basic was touched upon. It's the same here.

I like this song. So, go ahead, mock me as a fool. At least I stuck my neck out and I said it., right? I’m like Randall P McMurphy in the shower room… at least I tried, dammit, at least I tried.

What are you brave enough to like?

Inglourious Basterds Reviou

Another of my great treats – remember the 'book-thing' last time? – is to get to the movies to see a film that I know very little about.
I get to the cinema rarely lately so by the time I see the new releases they are on DVD and quite a bit of knowledge will have percolated into my subconscious. This definitely effects the quality of my viewing.

So I managed to see the new Tarantino movie, ‘Inglourious Basterds’ the other evening without knowing very much at all about it and that, in itself ,was quite a trick. Oh, I know some stuff – I knew that this was his long-promised ‘men on a mission’ flick, I knew it was set in the Second World War with a largely European cast… and Brad Pitt too but, beyond that, I was pretty much a babe in the woods.

Out of respect for my ‘clean viewing’, I will try to tell you a little about the movie without telling you anything at all, if you know what I mean.

First things first, I really enjoyed it.

Second things second – I don’t think everyone will enjoy it.

Here are some of the things which may work against it for you. A) It is oddly-paced. Some scenes are remarkably long and dialogue-heavy. B) It is heavily sub-titled (I never mind that but I know people who do… nice people… good people…) C) It breaks many of the fundamental rules of the ‘Men on a Mission’ genre.

Let me enlarge on that one for a moment. What do we expect from our ‘Men on a Mission’ flick? Well, we expect a team of men who are individual and quirky and who we come to know quite well. We expect them to be very poorly equipped for their mission and we expect them to gain some expertise as they go. We expect the mission to be set out early, to be audaciously impossible and to be of critical importance. Suffice it to say that not all of these criteria are met here.

In many respects, this is a Spaghetti Western War Film. Huge sweaty close-ups, tortuous stand-offs and counter-bluffs, a couple of femme fatales, there’s even some Sergio Leone music in there to drive the point home.

Tarantino indulges himself, he throws the kitchen sink in there. If he feels he needs a voice over narrator for a few minutes, he chucks one in, if he needs a music video slap bang in the middle of things, well, lets have that too.

It’s long and a bit silly and simplistic and it doesn’t really stand up to scrutiny. But yeah, I really enjoyed it a lot.


A couple of reasons, I suppose. Quentin has a story to tell and he is brave enough to take his time in telling it. He veers away from standard movie pacing so that the audience is thrown off-guard, not quite knowing what to expect next. He doesn’t pander to the audience either, not too much anyway. The many languages used in the film and the jumps from one to the other of them will doubtless alienate some potential action hero audience members. He doesn’t care. He likes to keep us on our toes, even when one scene has stretched on for over twenty minutes.

I think the main reason it works is that Tarantino is a movie fan and he writes and directs like a movie fan. Kevin Smith comes from the same demographic. They learned what they know by watching and watching and watching some more. As a result, what they do is loose and carefree – unleashed in a sense – it’s disrespectful yet awed of cinema. It will do whatever the hell it likes to get the story told. This ‘fandom’ may be most clearly evident in the music used. The soundtrack is nothing more than a ‘mix-tape’ of tunes which the director picked up along the way… but they’re good tunes and they (largely) work quite well.

This is more similar to ‘Jackie Brown’ than any other Quentin movie, mostly in its pacing and commitment to the story. Acting kudos must go to Christoph Waltz – brilliant as a Nazi Officer. - and I thought Mélanie Laurent was very good too. Brad Pitt is funny – he seems to be trying to prove that he could have played Howard Hughes better than that Leo fella did. It’s a gurning, caricatured turn but he’s the Basterd you will probably best remember.

You will hear that this movie is not violent – bullshit, it is violent.

You will hear that Tarantino has finally grown up – rubbish, he hasn’t.

You will hear that… well, you will hear lots of things, which, thankfully I didn’t. I liked it. You should go and see it and come back and tell me what you think

That’s always fun.

The Boy with 'The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo'

One of my great treats is the holding a new unread book in my hand and knowing that it has been recommended to me as a bloody good read.

It helps even more if the book is a bit weighty and has a brace of exultant reviews on the front pages. I’m a slut like that.

I had recently drifted away from the Castlebar Book Club and their books for some months. This was mostly because I couldn’t get to the monthly meeting on Tuesday evenings. Also, for some reason, some of the more recent book choices didn’t appeal.

I was in that lazy frame of mind where I wanted to read the books that I wanted to read and I was not open to new and challenging things.

Last month though, somebody from the club met me and said, “You have to read this month’s selection, it’s right up your street.” So I did. I got a copy from the library, shiny and new (what a great book club and library we have!) and I laid into it with anticipation.

‘The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo’ has been enjoying huge popularity over the past year. The author, Stieg Larsson, died in 2004 at the age of 50. He left behind an unpublished crime novel trilogy of which ‘Girl With the Dragon Tattoo’ was the first. It is said that he wrote the books for his own pleasure in the evenings after his day’s journalistic work was done.

The book introduces us to two memorable characters, as well as a positive slew of others. Mikael ‘Kalle’ Blomkvist is a disgraced journalist who is facing a prison sentence for an apparently misguided article he published. While in professional limbo, he is approached by powerful industrialist Henrik Vanger to investigate the mysterious disappearance of his great-niece some forty years before. He accepts and moves to live on the island where Vanger and his eccecntic extended family live in isolated mutual mistrust.

Phew. I hate exposition, don’t you?

All this takes a while to set up. The novel starts out with one hundred or so pages of journalistic shenanigans which is rather hard to digest. It then quickly morphs into a rather classic closed room murder-mystery-style affair before finishing up as something else again altogether.

The saving grace of all this rather po-faced nonsense is the enigmatic central character Lisbeth Salander – the eponymous gal with the tattoo. Both Blomkvist and Salander are extremely well-formed characters but it is Salander who holds the reader's interest best. She is a skinny slight girl with punk sensibilities and an aptitude for computer hacking and relentless investigation. Branded as anti-social and psychologically damaged, she is a law unto herself, a closed book to the world and an extremely poor enemy to make.

Through a convoluted chain of events, these two characters pair up to solve the mystery and, for all its political and social aspirations, that’s exactly what we are looking at here – a rattling old whodunnit.

The book is a good read. The story is fun and engaging if a tad improbable and the myriad of characters are quirky and sometimes challenging.

But there is no doubt at all that Salander is the pearl in this flashy oyster.

The author, Larsson, writes her with intimacy and genuine affection. I can’t help but be reminded of Ian Fleming’s James Bond who, for all his adventuring and tight-spots, was a character who we came to know by the facts of his everyday living - how he liked his eggs, how he shaved, how he showered and, yes, even what drink he liked.

Larsson does the same thing with his two central characters. We get to know them intimately by the food they prepare for themselves, the novels they read, the walks they take, how they like their coffee - and the result is a pair of engaging characters, one perhaps forgettable-with-time, the other possibly unforgettable.

The second book of the trilogy, ‘The Girl Who Played with Fire’ is more Salander orientated. She becomes even more ‘Bond-like’. Money is no longer an object, resources are plentiful, she is independent, unleashed and yes there is even an exotic location thrown in. For me, this second book seems more diffuse than the first but it was still an entertaining read.

Verdict? If you like crime and fancy something a little off the beaten track – and you can handle a large cast of characters and don’t mind a little sexual quirkiness along then way – well then you could do a lot worse that reading ‘The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo’.

… I nearly wrote, “You could do worse than making a date with…”

Please shoot me if I ever do that.

Charity Shop Stalwarts

I love browsing the books in Charity Shops.

It satisfies my occasional requirement for retail therapy. I can march happily home with some books under my arm having only spent a couple of quid.

It’s interesting to me, though, how some of the same books keep cropping up again and again no matter what charity shop I happen to venture into.

It’s funny, isn’t it?

Mind you, it probably doesn’t take a rocket scientist to figure it out. Everybody gets the more popular books but not everybody keeps them, thus these books end up on the Oxfam shelves more often.


It’s just I can’t help but think that there might be a more useful analysis of this phenomenon which could reveal deeply hidden patterns and teach us much about the undercurrents of the society we live in.

‘Bullshit’, I hear you cough into your fist and who am I to argue? So rather than trying to solve society's ills, let’s just look at some of these books which are charity shop stalwarts. Perhaps you can add one or two of you own to my list and then we at least will have a useful document for when the great social research finally begins…

… or not, as the case may be.

The Da Vinci Code: It’s always there, usually in multiple versions. I read this book in its entirety on a train journey to and from Dublin one day. Crass, yes, simplistic, yes but I kept flicking the pages and the chapters kept rolling one into the next. I know people who reckon this is the best read ever. Good luck to them. I don’t want to sound pretentious though, I enjoyed it on the day.

Angela’s Ashes: Frank McCourt sadly died recently. His Pulitzer Prize winning book must have sold to every household in Ireland so it’s probably no wonder that copies abound. It’s actually an excellent book in my opinion, written with a clarity that I often envy. I got the opportunity to ask Frank a question once and, thankfully, I was brave enough to ask the silliest question because as it turned out, all the theories I had read were quite wrong. “Why,” sez I, “is it called ‘Angela’s Ashes’?” The posh theorists had it that the title referred to the metaphorical ashes of the mother’s life or perhaps the ashes she received on her forehead in the church during the Ash Wednesday ceremonies.

Nah! Much more practical than that.

Frank explained that the book had originally been twice as long and ended with Angela’s Ashes being returned to Ireland for burial. When the book got spilt into two volumes (the second called ‘Tis) they kept the title for the first part even though the event it referred to didn’t turn up until the end of the second one. It’s on the charity bookshelf if you want to read it, you can count on that.

James Bond: There’s always a Bond book. Not only that there’s always one of those old Pan versions of the bond books. I always check in case there’s a first edition but that hasn’t happened yet. I did buy a first edition of Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone (yes, the American version) in hardback in Oxfam last year but it turned out to be the fifth reprinting of the first edition so it wasn’t the goldmine I thought it was. Ah well…

Agatha Christie: They all did it you know! Never mind….

Catherine Cookson: She’s always in there. I can’t tell you anything about them, I think there are bodices and I think they get ripped. You’re on your own from there, I’m afraid.

Captain Correlli’s Mandolin: I hear it gets really quite good, if you can get into it a bit. Like beyond the first hundred pages. But I never could. I think it was actually me who gave this one to the Charity Shop, so that explains that.

Inspector Morse: There are always a few of Colin Dexter’s archetypal detective. I really like these. They are written with a lovely sense of mischief. Try one if you haven’t. They’re good.

So, can you add to my list?

All donations will be gratefully received.

The Ballad of the Thai Boxing Shorts

(In case this is being read in fifty years time and any misunderstanding arise, this piece of impromptu doggerel was inspired by Dear Cath who just used a funny expression on Twitter which is now incorporated in the last line of each verse.)

The Ballad of the Thai Boxing Shorts

(For @Serialfrenchies in jest)

When I think back to our time together
I remember you so sweet
From golden hair on top your head
To the toenails on your feet.
The memory of that careless time
Will always bring a twinge
When I remember tattoos on your back
And the writing across your minge.

Quite often now my thoughts will stray
To that time so long ago
When you got togged-out for martial arts
And dealt that mortal blow.
Still sometimes in my working day
That vision will impinge
Of those wee red Thai boxing shorts
With the writing across the minge.

Your goodbye note, it broke my heart
I knew it was the end
I’d lost my sparring partner
I’d lost a lifelong friend.
I should have sensed the end was nigh
That we had come unhinged
I should have had the sense to read
The writing on the minge.

Ken Armstrong (Aug 2011)

Voucher Guilt

I have this thing going on in my head which I can only call ‘Voucher Guilt’.

I’m sure that Freud or Jung would have identified it as a serious issue, if they had received gift vouchers back in their day but they didn’t so they didn’t.

‘Voucher Guilt’: it’s not a ‘complex’ complex, if you follow my drift. It works like this:

I get presented with Gift Vouchers occasionally – not an outlandish amount of them, Christmas, Birthdays, Circumcisions, you know the routine. I’m always glad to get them and I look forward to using them to get something nice.

But then the time comes around when I’m required to use them and I get the sweats. I get guilty and uncomfortable and utterly ill-at-ease. I get Voucher Guilt.

My worst problem is with restaurant vouchers. I know, it’s paid for and I know that the restaurateur knows this and that everybody in the world will be cool with me and my voucher. However this does nothing to prevent me from being the only un-cool person in the entire world.

On those very few occasions where I misguidedly kept my voucher a total secret until the bill had to be paid, I have been reduced to a quivering mess as the manager prised the tear-soaked card from my pale shivering hands.

The only way I can survive using a restaurant voucher is for me to slink furtively up to the manager very early in the evening and call him off to one side. Our conversation may go something like this.

“’Voucher okay?”

“I’m sorry sir?”

“You’re okay with it?”

“What’s that sir? Okay with what?”

“Look, I have a voucher in my pocket and I intend to use it!”

At which point a slightly deaf manager may raise the alarm and have me arrested.

If I can get the management on my side quite early in the evening then I can usually get away with it. Still there will be dreadful pangs as I pay the bill with my voucher. I will think of the poor pot-washers and veggie preppers who are in the back and who were hoping for a little hard cash at the end of their labours. Instead they are about to find out that they were slaving on a job which they got paid for weeks before. Their families go hungry and it’s all my fault.

I should have just paid…

Here are three things I have observed about my Voucher Guilt:

The size of the guilt experienced is inversely proportional to the size of the restaurant or shop I am in.

The size of the guilt is directly proportional to the age of the voucher.

Book tokens don’t count.

Oddly enough, my love of books seems to outweigh this ‘Voucher Guilt’ effect. The most common type of voucher I get is a book-token and I can turn up in the shop with these without hanging my head or having to consult the management. I feel comforted by the knowledge that book tokens are such an institution.

Maybe in fifty years time, I will have got used to the other types of voucher too.

Maybe I’ll be dead.

Now, where did I leave that coffin voucher?

Credits Where they're Due

I miss that people don't hang around in the movies anymore until the credits finish. I always used to do it and found it to be a rewarding experience on any number of levels.

Granted, I don't remember a time when the majority of people stayed for the titles. There has always been a general rush for the door as if the outside world held some great attraction. But there used to be a tight little contingent of credit-fans who would sit them out until the 'all rights reserved' bit rolled up.

I particularly remember the James Bond movies where you could only find out the name of the next installment by waiting until the end of the end credits when it always said "James Bond will return in 'Man with the Golden Gun' or whatever.

Nowadays it seems you simply cannot stay.

The lights come up practically before the bad guy is dead. The cleaning folk wade in through the popcorn and start mopping up and the general vibe is one of "why are you still sitting there, you sad little man?"

Which is a shame.

There is much to be learned from end credits and often a few laughs too. And there is occasionally a bloody good song to hear as well.

I also think it's a nice time to reflect on the movie before you have to go out and express an opinion about it.

I think 'Spiderman 3' (which i did not think was that bad) would have been better if I had been allowed to stay and hear the Snow Patrol song play over the end credits.

But I'll never know.

"Get the DVD," you might say, "watch your bloody credits at home."

No, it's simply not the same...

Maybe if I hired a bunch of people to try to squeeze grumpily past me on the couch while I was watching the credits... maybe that would help replicate the experience?


My Dad – In His Own Words

I love where my mother came from, Castleconnor in Enniscrone.

I go up there very often, to the house that they were all born in. Their house was in Castletown in Castleconnor but the house was deserted for years and then a man bought the farm – it was a very small farm. The man who bought it has re-roofed it and he holds hay in it.

I go into the house – the keys are hanging around it and I would get the keys and go in – illegally, you know – because he didn’t know for a long time – but when I used to go in and remember how it used to be and the old fireplace – part of it is still there and the wall over it is white and I put my name on it in Irish.

And I was down the town of Sligo one day and I had to go to the Barracks to get some form signed and the girl in the Barracks got the form and she signed it for me and everything and she said, “You’re Eddie Armstrong,” and I said, “That’s right,” and she says there’s somebody looking for you here and she said hold on and this guard came out. He was in plain clothes and he said, “Oh, I was looking for you. You be up in Castleconnor,” and I said I do and he said, “Well, I’ll tell you what we’ll do now – wait for me outside the door and we’ll talk about it.”

I thought I was in trouble – didn’t know what was wrong. So I went out and I couldn’t think of his name but he says, “I’m the man who owns the house where you go in and write your name on the wall!”

He says I understand Irish and I made enquiries about your name from the traffic warden who comes from up there and he told me your life story and he says you were the rent collector for the Corporation. So he says, “You’re quite welcome to go into the house any time you’re up there.”

I often go up there and go into it then into Enniscrone. I have relations there.

(My father’s story and photograph formed part of a great exhibition called ‘From The Feet Up’ in the Hawk’s Well Theatre in Sligo. The stories were collected by Maura Gilligan and each story-teller was photographed by James Fraher.

Thanks to them for allowing me to reproduce my father’s contribution here.)

The Mist (ified)

On the rare occasion when I get the house to myself and have nothing really useful to do, I tend to spoil myself rotten.

Yesterday, this involved hiding the mobile phone, renting a movie and hitting the couch very hard indeed.

I like to watch movies that I know Trish wouldn’t be bothered with but which I will probably enjoy. So that, almost invariably, leads me straight to the horror section.

Yesterday I treated myself to ‘The Mist’ – which is one I had wanted to see for some time. I knew the Stephen King novella since it was first published and liked it a lot so that was a good start. Add to this that Frank Darabont wrote and directed this one and he had already done quite well with adapting King material such as ‘The Green Mile’ and, of course, that ‘Shawshank’ thingie. I had also heard a few dubious comments about this film which served to lower my expectations nicely.

So, as I lowered the blinds, I expected nothing more than a fun ‘creature feature’ with a few gory moments and, hopefully a couple of hours peaceful diversion.

I actually got quite a but more than I bargained for and that is the primary reason that, if you can stand a little horror, I am going to recommend this movie to you.

The story concerns a diverse group of people who become trapped in a local convenience store when a sinister mist descends upon their town after a frightening storm. It soon becomes clear that there is much more to this mist that meets – or obscures – the eye.

‘The Mist’ ticks all the boxes for an adult horror flick. There are monsters, tension, gore aplenty and there are also many of the stock characters one would expect to encounter in one of those ‘Group of people verses the creatures’ movies such as ‘Tremors’.

But, after ticking these boxes successfully, Frank Darabont then takes the material quite a bit further than one might expect. I won’t say how or what ‘cos we don’t do spoilers too much round here but suffice it to say that it is unusual and quite striking in its execution.

Very few films are perfect and this certainly is not one of them. Let me try for a few criticisms. The acting seems quite wooden at first, until the action kicks in. There is a religious side-plot which seems overwrought and unconvincing to me. One of the more interesting characters seems ultimately to be underused. Oh and there is that perennial problem that the unknown ‘horror’ out in the mist is infinitely more worrying than what finally materialises but I think, not matter how CGI evolves in the future, this will always be the case – nothing can scare us like our own imaginings can. Finally, on the criticism front, I always feel that Darabont allows several scenes too many into his movies, particularly in the final act. I think this is true of both Green Mile and Shawshank and I think it is true here too.

But, all in all, I was very impressed with the time I spent in ‘The Mist’. I found it entertaining, edgy and ultimately more than a little disturbing – which hardly ever happens to me.

I will be interested to see if the upcoming Daniel Day Lewis performance in Cormac McCarthy’s ‘The Road’ sparks a revisit to this film – in several key ways, the themes are strikingly similar.

In the meantime, I commend this film unto you. Have you seen it? Do you agree or disagree with me? Let me know, eh?

I’m over here – can’t you see me?

More Retail Griping

As in most places, there’s a Recession going on around here.

You can see it very clearly in the shops. They are simply not as busy as they used to be. People are not buying so much these days. So you’d think you might get in and out of the bloody places a bit quicker, wouldn’t you?

Yeah right.

On two separate occasions, the other day, I went into a shop and queued and waited and waited and queued. In each case, the solitary person behind the only manned checkout gazed wistfully at the other dark checkouts and doubtless wished for some help.

The shops weren’t dreadfully busy – there’s a Recession on, after all – but there was more custom than one measly till could handle. So I waited.

“Deal with it!” I hear you roar. “The shops are short staffed on account of The Recession, we all have to knuckle down and suffer together.”

It’s a good argument – except it’s totally wrong – and herein lies the rub. There was loads of staff in each of these shops. Gangs of the little feckers. But they were all out doing some nameless bloody stuff on the shop floor. They were all engaged in something-or-other instead of coming in and firing up till number two and letting me be on my merry bloody way.

And what were they doing?

One of the shops was the video rental shop. The poor bugger behind the counter was sweating diamonds and the queue was like a Miley Cyrus concert ticket line. Meanwhile yonder dozy pillock is out among the DVD’s apparently doing nothing more taxing than trying to figure out what he might bring home and watch that evening after they ejected the last of the un-served customers and shuffled off home.

In the other shop, where I was desperately trying to buy an umbrella, one of the floor-people – a guy – seemed to be seriously contemplating trying on a sports bra. I kid you not. Meanwhile, I was seriously contemplating stuffing said undergarment up his arse.

I eventually let the ‘umbrella mission’ go and walked home in the rain but, in the video shop, after five minutes of needless queuing, I cracked and asked whether the mega-star down in the romance section might sidle over here and let some of us poor bastards go home sometime tonight.

And he did and we all saw that it was a better way.


Customers – Ask for another person to man a checkout… because you're worth it.

Retailer – I left your shop without purchasing anything for one reason only. Because 50% of your male sales staff were out checking out the bras. What does this tell you…?

… yeah, me too.