The Ghost and Mr Ken

It’s Halloween!!   I don’t  believe in ghosts, sorry, not in any way, shape, or form, I just don’t, but I do seriously love ghost stories. Go figure that, I know I can’t.

As long as I can remember, I have loved ghost stories, reading them, hearing them, telling them, making them up.  Much of what I write seems to involve ghosts in some way or another.  I invest in the stories I read/hear/write wholeheartedly but, as soon as anyone tries to ‘get scientific’ and convince me that ghosts are real I simply switch off.

When I was little, there was a ghost story book in my grandparents house, I remember it vividly even though I must have been only nine or so.  It was called ‘Lord Halifax’s Ghost Book’ and it was a collection of alleged-true reports of ghostly happenings.  The text was probably unsuited to a young lad like myself, there was lots of that old-fashioned practice of substituting real names for ‘M_’ or ‘N_’ – That ‘Edgar Allen Poe’ thing which I always find off putting.

The cover of the book was great, though.  (I found a picture of it and stuck it on top).  As you can see, it was a skeleton, in a top hat and cape, grinning, and he was holding that big old key.  Creepy, isn’t it?  I loved that cover and, even though I was only wee, I struggled through all the stories inside, perhaps solely on account of the spooky loveliness of that cover.  Anyway, I reckon that book may have been the genesis of my love for ghost stories.

But how can I possibly enjoy stories about ghosts if I don’t believe in them at all?  It is a bit of a mystery all right.  I think the ‘ghost story’ is a fascinating device with which to tell life-affirming stories.  I think it allows the narrative to traverse the boundaries of death itself and it allows an exploration of ‘fear’ and ‘need’ as no other subject can.

Like most people, I have a sort of ghost story of my own too.  I don’t believe it, of course, but I’ll tell you anyway.

It is, after all, the hallowed eve…

My local theatre is The Linenhall, I write about it here quite often.  Everyone who works there is my friend and I have had great experiences there, both with my own plays and with everyone else’s too.

One great memory I have of The Linenhall is when I was allowed to sit and watch the Welsh Ballet Company rehearsing for – I think it was Romeo and Juliet – I was the only one in the theatre apart from the dancers and they were all in full classical ballet dress.  But they weren’t dancing to Romeo and Juliet, no, they were dancing to ‘I’m Like a Bird’ by Nelly Furtado.  It was a truly remarkable sight and it felt like it was mine, all mine.

Since then, I am always on the lookout for remarkable little moments in The Linenhall.

One morning, I was in the deserted theatre, as I often am, and I was walking up the side corridor that leads into the theatre when I heard a piano playing from inside the auditorium.  I put my ear to the door and could hear the piano crystal-clearly through it.  It was some classical melody which I couldn’t identify.  I thought this might be another golden opportunity to sneak in and see a performance being rehearsed but I also knew that if I walked through the door I was at, I would arrive right in the middle of the performance area.  So, instead, I high-tailed it back down the corridor, up the main stairs and in through the rear auditorium entrance.

I crept in so as not to disturb the piano player.

But the theatre was pitch dark…. there was no piano player… there was no piano.

There was no body.

I quickly checked the control room.  Somebody must have been in there playing piano music over the theatre speakers.  But it was locked and dark and nobody was inside.

It had taken me much less than a minute to get from one door to the other, and the music had been loud and real.  But there was nobody in that whole theatre that day except me.

That’s my story.  Was it a ghost I heard? 

Of course not, there is no such thing.

Do I enjoy telling it?

Of course I do…

Dicing With Story

This weekend, I held two kids writing workshops as part of the Linenhall Arts Centre Roolaboola Festival.

The idea was to use Rory's Story Cubes to come up with random ideas for stories and then show how stories can be made up out of anything.

Towards the end of each of the sessions we allowed ourselves one throw of each dice to decide on such matters as Hero, Nemesis, Desire, Reflection. Obstacle, Romance and the rest. Then we made up a story using these elements. I then took the final idea away and wrote down the two stories and am reading them publicly today.

Here are the two stories which resulted from all this work. Well done to the co-authors, it was a good time.

First up the six and seven year olds, who got from their dice, A Turtle, A Clock, Books, An Alien, A Pyramid Shape... and some other stuff.

The Turtle Who Needed More Time

By Ava Flynn, Jack Follard, Ellie Follard, Tess Nealon, Luke O’Brien, Seoshamh O’Riarda, Aisling Tierney, Freddie Tursley, and Ken Armstrong

Once upon a Time there was a turtle who needed more time.

That’s a bit of a tongue-twister, really.  Not the best way to start a story, with your tongue all twisted up like that, but that’s just the truth of the matter.  Sally was a turtle and she simply needed more time.

Sally was no ordinary turtle either.  She was a South African Speckled Padloper Turtle who was bought by the Lovett Family when she was only a teensy little Turtle-ette.  As she grew, however, she was found to be unusually clever for a Turtle and so was sent to the Convent school for some human tuition.

Sally got on well with her human classmates.  She was like a normal student in many ways – she hated Monday mornings, she was iffy about U2, and she loved Spongebob Squarepants.

And that was where the problems arose: with Spongebob… and with her homework.

You see Sally was only allowed to watch her beloved Spongebob after her homework was completely finished.  And, although she was smart, for a human as well as for a turtle, we have to face this basic turtle fact:  she… was… sloooow.

Turtles are naturally slow and Sally, poor Sally, was no exception.  Her homework took her absolutely ages to do.  Sometimes, on really bad days, all the other Lovetts – Mr and Mrs Lovett and Baby Joshua Lovett - were tucked up in bed before she was finished.  Which was a sad and lonesome state of affairs and, worse still, by that time of the evening, Spongebob was finished.

One evening, on a rare homework-free day, in a fit of desperation, Sally logged on to her computer and, instead of going onto ShellBook to look at photos of her friends, she went onto eBay instead and bought a Speedy Homework Robot direct from Tai Wan.  It cost €2.87 so it had to be good.  Right?

The Lovetts presented Sally with her package one day and they didn’t even ask her what it was because they were a progressive family who respected their turtle’s autonomy.  Sally went to her room, slowly… and opened the package with great anticipation.  Rather disappointingly though, the Homework Robot looked a lot like a cheap pocket calculator.

“This is junk,” thought Sally and she threw it across the room in disgust, as best as she could manage with her green flippers.  But, when the Robot hit the Justin Beiber poster on the wall, the on-switch must have got activated and a electronic voice sprang from the little device.

“I am your homework robot,” it said (sounding a little bit like Stephen Hawking), “what is your wish?”

 For the next two weeks, The Lovett’s were astonished to see Sally finish her homework easily in time for Spongebob every single day. The homework was of the highest quality too, no misspellings or blots or anything.  They were astonished and pleased because they didn’t like to see Sally working so late, they were nice people, The Lovetts.


In the triangular-shaped attic at the top of the Lovett’s house, there now lived an horrific Ghost Alien called Yuk from the Planet ‘Boo!!’.  The planet was not called ‘Boo’ or ‘boo’. it was called ‘Boo!!’ and it was an extremely jumpy and nerve-wracking place to live.  Yuk and his kind could only grow and develop from their spore-stage in triangular shaped places so they sold Robot Computers on eBay and hid themselves inside them and then, when the customers threw their Robot Computers at the wall in disgust, they creeped out and climbed into the triangular attic where they grew rapidly into a Godzilla-like creature who conquered entire housing estates and did terrible farts.

After two weeks, Yuk was already the size of a small rat.  He bathed daily in the water storage tank and he ate the Rockwool insulation which Mr Lovett had installed using a grant from the Government Energy Saving Scheme.  His plans for housing estate domination were already well under way.

Exactly two weeks to the day after it arrived in the post, Sally’s Homework Robot suddenly sprouted tiny blasters and blasted-off up the chimney and back home to the Planet ‘Boo!!’.  This happened right in the middle of Irish Spelling homework which was very bad timing indeed.

After weeping bitter salty turtle tears of frustration, Sally went to the chimney and peered up in the hope that the Homework Robot was sitting up there just having a strop.  It wasn’t, of course but, as Sally extended her lovely stretchy head up the chimney a soft voice echoed down to her in weirdly seductive tones.

“Your Robot is in the attic, Sally, come and find us… I mean - it… come come come…”

It’s not easy for any of us to get into our attic.  There are Stiras (as seen on the Late Late Show) to be pulled down, light switches to be found and heads to be (ow) banged.  Imagine then for a moment how hard it was for Sally –the turtle - to get into the attic and how very long it took. 

Go on, imagine…  exactly.

Most turtles are quite afraid of attics and Sally was no exception but she needed her Homework Robot back and so she struggled and banged her head and eventually she got there.

The attic was a strange and hostile environment for a young turtle.  Sally was surprised at the triangular shape and the general dustiness and the strange lack of Rockwool insulation.

She flapped across the floor of the attic and wondered where her robot was.

A noise caught her attention.  It was coming from the big water tank at the highest point of the attic.  It was a splishing splashing noise.  It wasn’t very nice.

The plywood lid on the top of the tank lifted up a little and Yuk peered out.

“There you are,” it hissed, “you’ve come at last.”

It twisted out of the tank and plopped onto the floor of the attic.  It looked like a rat but it had no hair at all, it was pink all over, had eight legs and it wore a Barbie Doll hat which it had found in an old toy box.

Sally recoiled in turtle-horror but Yuk came right up to her.

“I am here to take over your housing estate and make your entire family into slaves.  If you ever want to see your homework robot again, if you ever want to see Spongebob again, these are my demands.  I need a single Billy Lizzy plant from your mother’s kitchen window, I need a bowl of Greengage Jelly, I need two full…”

But Yuk spoke no more.

Sally did not even have to think too hard.  She loved Spongebob but she loved her family more and she would rather never see Spongebob again than see her family enslaved.  It was a turtle no-brainer.

She extended her large front left flipper and, quick a flash (her flippers were her quickest part) she slapped Yuk and flattened him into a pink and green puddle on the attic floor.

“Spongebob is good,” she thought, as she struggled back down to her Irish spelling homework, “but Family is so much better.”

                                 *                         *                       *                     *
Then came the 7 to 8 year olds.  The Story Cubes gave them A Bridge, A Sad Face, Drama Masks, An Empty Speech Bubble, A Cockroach and a Big Footprint.

Get this:

The Voice of the Bridge

by Alex Avern, Sadbh Caulfield, Ilia Marcev, Aisling O’Connor, James Swift, Hana Rae Quinn, Clodagh Ryan, Abi Skillington and Ken Armstrong

 Photo by ColourfulFoxes

Once upon a time there was a bridge who had lost its voice.

The ancient stone bridge was set high in the mountains to the extreme north of nowhere and it spanned between two mountain peaks where no man ever travelled anymore.

There was a time when men had journeyed every day back and forth across the little bridge but times changed, as they always seem to do, and the men had given up tending their sheep in the frozen hills and had instead gone down into the warm valleys to live.  They had long-since forgotten the ways of the high mountains and so the bridge was left, high and cold and alone.

The bridge did have one loyal friend - a tiny black cockroach who made his home in a small crack in the bridge’s granite keystone.  The cockroach was a constant companion to the bridge and spoke to it all the time about the tiny affairs which occurred everyday in the lands on either side.  Although the cockroach could get no reply from the silent bridge, he knew that it was listening intently and that it treasured both the news and the companionship.

The cockroach also knew that the bridge had once had a voice, quite a beautiful voice, and that its heartfelt wish was to one day get this voice back.  The cockroach did not know these things because it was a mind reader or because it had mystical powers.

No indeed.

It knew them because the Yeti told it so.

Every evening, as the sun went low, the Yeti came down from its lair in the highest peaks and it taunted the bridge.  It laughed cruelly and said how it had stolen the bridge’s voice and was keeping it locked up in his heart and would never let it go free.  It mocked the bridge and ran its huge claws along its stone walls, scarring it and hurting it.  But, for all its cruelty, the Yeti could not kill the bridge for it was made of the stuff of thousands of years and would prevail over all, even the Yeti.  The Yeti knew this and it made him angry.

‘Yeti’ was the name men had given to it – there were others such as Abominable Snowman, Big Foot, Urak Hai and others but, really, after all words had passed, it was simply a man.  It was a man who had set itself apart from the world many years before and had embraced darkness and pain and evil.  It had grown shabby and bent deep in the mountains and it had learned that evil things can live a long time but can only ever reap what they sow.

One evening, after the Yeti had finished its cruel business and left, there was a strange sound under the bridge.  The cockroach scuttled down to investigate.  There, in the long-dry channel under the bridge, he found a tiny trickle of water.  “Could this be it at last?”  He thought, “could the high mountain thaw be finally on its way.  But he saw then that the water was falling from beneath the bridge rather than coming from the peaks above and he realised that this little stream of water was actually the tears of the bridge. 

He saw that the bridge was crying for its lost voice.

He tasted the salty tears and he came to a resolution.  He resolved, there by the briny stream, that he would win the bridge’s voice back from the evil Yeti even if it cost him his small scuttley life. 

He retired to his keystone crack and he there he crafted for himself a desperate plan.

The next evening the Yeti came down to the bridge as ever.
“What ho, you ivy-infested eyesore,” he sneered, “still here I see, still clotting up my land with your smelly disgusting presence.”

And he proceeded to claw at the bridge as he always did, tearing away shards of stone with each swipe of its huge paws.

The cockroach invariably stayed in its lair until the Yeti was spent but this evening he ventured out to the top of the bridge and he boldly accosted the beast.

“Stop,” he squealed in his tiny voice, “Desist and leave my good friend alone.”

The Yeti stopped and looked all around in surprise for it had not in many years heard a voice except its own.

“Who said that?” it boomed, “come forth and show yourself if you dare.”

“I am here,” tweeted the cockroach, “and I fear you not, you overgrown poo-stained furball.”

The Yeti peered down and saw the cockroach and laughed heartily.

“Is it you, tiny snot,” he said, “that dares to assail me?  Be gone or I shall eat you like the errant bogie thou art.”

But the cockroach, shaking though it was, stood its ground.

“Eat me if you dare, you farty-smelling shamble of a beast, I fear you not.”

And the Yeti snapped his huge head down and ate the poor cockroach up, without another word.

Then the tiny stream of tears beneath the bridge grew a little bigger as it grieved for its poor lost friend.

Once inside the Yeti, the cockroach wasted not a moment.  It swam the furry veins and arteries of the Yeti’s innards until, in time, it landed in the chambers of the Yeti’s dark heart.  There, in a pool of black blood, it saw written on the walls the truth long hidden, it saw at last where the bridge’s voice was spirited away and it understood how to undo the evil although the way was fraught with danger.

It left the heart and saw that there was two ways back out of the Yeti and that the second way was dark and extremely unpleasant so it wriggled and tickled its way back to the Yeti’s throat and it rolled around there until the Yeti finally coughed and spat it out onto the bridge.  Then the cockroach scuttled away for it knew it had work to do and it felt there was not much time as it seemed the end was drawing near.

The Yeti was furious.

“Now,” he roared, “I shall avenge myself upon you, bridge, and I shall finally pound you back into the rubble from whence you came”  and he jumped over the bridge and into the bed below and his feet were bathed in the tears of the bridge as he pounded and he beat on the stone walls until it looked as if the bridge could do nothing but finally fall.

Meanwhile the cockroach ran and ran.  It was bloody and spit-ridden from the Yeti’s innards but it knew if it stopped, the Yeti would kill his friend for he had seen the new potential for this deep in the Yeti’s heart.

He ran and ran up the dry bed until he came to the Yeti’s secret – a mountain of broken trees and boulders and earth.  A dam.  A dam to block the river.

The cockroach knew the truth now – that the river was the voice of the bridge and that the Yeti had dammed the river and stolen the voice for himself.

The cockroach knew he had to break the dam to save his friend but he was only one tiny speck against the might of the Yeti’s work.  What could be do?  He picked a single tiny twig from the dam and he threw it aside.

He knew he could only try.

Back at the bridge, the Yeti was close to success.  He pounded and pounded relentlessly and huge chunks of stone had now been painfully torn from the body of the poor bridge.

Then the Yeti saw it.

The Keystone.

“If I bring yonder keystone down, you will fall my silent friend.  This I now know.”

And he beat at the keystone with all of his might.

The tears of the bridge made a bigger stream in the dry river bed now, as its life reached an end.  But could one bridge’s tears really make all the water that was now tumbling beneath the bridge?

No it could not. 

The few twigs which the cockroach had hopelessly shifted had caused a drop, then a trickle then a torrent.  The water around the Yeti now covered its feet, now its legs and now its chest until it could barely stand.  Sensing its doom it spat a final quote at the bridge.

“To the last, I grapple with thee; From Hell's heart, I beat at thee; For hate's sake, I spit my last breath at thee.”

Then it was swept away in the rage of the river down to the village of men where it was caught and beaten and killed and its body burned in the Halloween blaze.  And it was no more.

The cockroach returned to the bridge.  Two of its legs were badly broken and one of its eyes was lost but it returned.  And the bridge, its wondrous voice restored by the river which bubbled beneath it , sang to the cockroach and, in time, made it well again.

And they live together in the mountains in peace to this very day and they speak of us often.

Reminded of Censorship

This week, I’ve been thinking back to how it used to be when we went to the movies back in the Seventies.  In particular, I’ve been remembering how films used to get ‘cut’ by the censor and how odd it was to watch a film then and watch all those cuts play out brutally on the screen.

Of course movies are still cut for cinema and edited-for-TV and censored these days but it’s not like it used to be.  

Nowadays, we are allowed to see so much more, so there’s so much less cutting required, and also the technology for cutting is much more sophisticated.  These days, it is very hard to notice what cuts there are.

Not so, back in my day.  I don’t know exactly how movie cuts were made but it seemed like it was done with a huge blunt scissors on the actual film roll.  Often, while watching the film, some terrible event would be signalled and built-up-to and then, suddenly, the whole movie would have a big lump taken out of it and we, the audience, would be shoved on to the next scene, wondering what the hell had just happened.

This was by no means an Irish-Only phenomenon.  Although we have quite a little reputation for being heavy handed with banning movies, (both ‘Life of Brian’ and ‘From Dusk Til Dawn’ spring to mind) Great Britain was a real star for cutting stuff as well, back in the day.  I remember reading a British review of ‘Flesh for Frankenstein’ where the reviewer said he spent a considerable amount of time staring at a blank screen where dubious scenes from the film had been ripped away.  Interestingly, he also remarked that his imagination was probably much worse than those images which had been removed.

This is certainly true of me.  I could dream up all kinds of awful stuff in place of the stuff which the Film Censor had decided I shouldn’t see.  He would have been doing me a favour just showing me the actual scene, it might have spared me a few nightmares.

For me, the most memorable ‘cut films’ of that era were the Bruce Lee ones.  As young teens, we loved Bruce Lee with a passion that knew no bounds.  The movies were way too old for us to get in to see so we sneaked in to see them.  In ‘Enter The Dragon’ Bruce fights the Evil O’Hara who was responsible for the death of his sister.  Disappointingly-enough, Bruce is seen to dispatch O’Hara with a simple enough side-kick which sends him crashing into the spectators.  He is pronounced dead straight afterward.  That is the film we saw in the Cinema.

But it was ‘cut-to-bits’, as we used to say.  In the uncut version, O’Hara recovers from the sidekick and attacks again, brandishing two broken bottles.  Bruce sorts him out and lands, feet first, on his head with a skull-crunching coup-de-grace.  We get to enjoy Bruce’s slow-mo expression as he Riverdances the life out of this, his more-hated of opponents.

Which brings me to the final point of this ramble – the sincere joy of finally seeing a missing scene, years after it was first cut.  Such was the case with the above scene, where, one night on TV, the missing action magically reappeared, forgiven, and all was revealed.  It was a genuinely exciting moment for me, which is a bit sad, I know.

All of this pondering on censorship cuts was brought on by watching ‘From Russia With Love’ on ITV yesterday afternoon.  After all the hype and fashion has died down, this film has now settled itself into being my favourite of all the Bond movies.  There is no ‘save the world’ mission here, rather just a rather lewd and tawdry attempt to steal a decoding machine.  At times, it’s all so very lowlife that the bad guys almost start to come across as being the good guys.

The point is, ‘From Russia With Love’ was quite brutally cut upon its release and some of the keys cuts have never been restored.  So, these days, not only is it a grand entertaining period spy movie, it’s also a perfect example of heavy-handed censoring which has never been put right. 

There are cuts throughout.  Watch the final showdown between Klebb and Bond – what happens to Tanya?  We don’t get to see.  I imagine Klebb went at her with a four-blade-chainsaw, but that’s just me getting carried away again.

Watch the final scene, with Bond and Tanya on the boat.  Witness one of the most crude and jarring cuts in motion picture history, when Bond examines the film reel, and wonder what he could possible have said to warrant such a cruel edit.  

In fact, he simply said the words, ‘What a Performance’.

Although it seems we’ll never now get to hear him do it.

A View from the Grassroots

I’m a resilient-enough kind of a guy.  When things get a bit rough, I generally take it on the chin and move on as best I can, not un-scarred but not broken either.

But the last few weeks, a recurring thought in my head has been along the lines of, “if it’s effecting me this way, how on earth are the more vulnerable ones managing?”

I’m thinking about the constant bombardment of bad news stories which our country is experiencing these days.  Stories of economic doom.  Stories which have now left the homestead to play out in  glorious Technicolor on the international stage.

(Photo © ard hesselink)

As a country, Ireland has been mismanaged to such an extent that our debt is beyond the grasp of the populace.  The world looks on as this movie-wild-west-town we built for ourselves falls over to reveal the tumbleweed blowing behind.

It’s a tough time here in Ireland.

And, like I was saying, the unfaltering doom and gloom is even getting to me, someone who normally rides the waves of such things.  It’s not that I’m feeling especially weak or vulnerable, it’s just that the unremitting barrage of black news is hard to shrug off.

Can there be such thing as too much news? I sometimes wonder.  If our country was a business, would the bosses be running out of their offices every few minutes to tell the people manning the machines how much trouble they were in?  I don’t know the answer to this.  I know we’ve had our heads up our asses for the last decade and there will be a high price to pay for the misdeeds that were done while we were up there.  I guess we finally need to know the worst now, blow-by-blow.

I don’t know.

I know what I have to do, though.  I just need to keep reminding myself of it.

I need to play my own game, look out for my own house.  I need to keep fighting and working and seeing the good things and smelling the roses and staying strong and optimistic and productive.

I need to keep on truckin’.

I think we all do.  Whatever our circumstances.  If we have work to do, we have to get it done.  If we are unemployed (God knows, I know how that is) we need to keep ourselves mentally and physically fit for the day when we find work.  It’s not easy but it has to be done.

We have to be optimistic too.
We’re in a cycle, we’re always in a cycle and even the smartest people don’t seem to be able to appreciate the fact that there is a bottom when they are at the top.  The converse is also true; we’re at the bottom now but better times are coming.  The projections are dreadful because everything is largely worthless now but, as things improves, things gain value again and the projections improve.  It’s a sort of self-fulfilling prophecy.  We have to ride it out for a while – not as long as they like to tell us but a while nonetheless.

The worst thing would be for all this doom to make us unwell.  It can happen, we have to defend against it.  Value life and health above all else, hold onto both, treasure them and go out into the world every day and enjoy them.
Today won’t ever come again, we have to find something that makes it special and good.

This pep talk was brought to you by me… for me.