When You Go Your Own Way

This week I’m mostly trying to get a particular thought straight in my head.  It often helps if I type through these things.  Maybe it might help you too, who knows?

It relates to writing. And negativity. Well, a bit anyway.

I was having one of those ‘Dark Tea Times of the Soul’ (respect to Douglas Adams) about my writing a few weeks ago.  My thoughts went something like this;

“Everybody in the world is writing.  Everybody has computers and word processors and printers.  Everybody is swigging coffee and pushing themselves and creating scenarios and characters and working hard and… just… writing.  So why are you any different?  In truth, you’re just another slob with a PC and a dream.  There’s a million of you out there and quite a significant percentage are most-likely a whole lot better then you are.  So why bother?  How can you ever hope to succeed?”

Like I said, it was perhaps not the very best of days.

But then I had this other thought.  This thought that I’m trying to get straight in my head.  Oddly enough, it was about the Live Aid Concert in Wembley back in 1985.  Bear with me on this, I think it’s pertinent to the point about negativity, I just have to work through it a little.

You see, I was lucky enough to be at the Live Aid Concert back in 1985.  It wasn’t quite ‘The Perfect Day’ that it may have seemed on the telly but, looking back, it wasn’t terribly far off it either.

But this thought-of-mine doesn’t relate to the concert itself, it relates to what happened when it finished up.

What happened was that we all went home.  All of us.  Pretty much at the same time. And there was a bloody enormous crowd of us.  As we all crushed out of Wembley Stadium and onto the pavilion, I remember thinking something like this;

“I am part of an enormous crowd of people.  We are all going the same way, wanting to get to the same place.  How can this ever work itself out?”

But I kept walking in the crowd, shuffling along.  What else was there for me to do?  Eventually I turned down a street, and then another, and then another…

… and suddenly I was alone.

Quite alone.

This was very surprising to me.  One minute I was in a crowd that seemed unbreakable, eternal.  Yet it only took a couple of minor turns for me to lose the crowd, who had all made their own turns, and be out on my own again.

So at the end of all my gloomy ponderings (see above) I took some heart from this memory.  I don’t want to kill the point by driving it home, I think the analogy is pretty clear but, just in case…

Perhaps you write (or whatever it is that you do) and you fear you are one of a huge crowd and will never stand out, in your own right.  I reckon that if you just continue to go your own way, make the turns you need to make and be true to your route then, not too far down that line, you will be out on your own, doing your own individual thing.

Will it be good enough?  Well that’s another question, isn’t it?  That takes learning and perseverance and maybe a little luck and talent, who knows?

But as for The Crowd?  There is no real need to fear The Crowd.

Just turn once down there at the bottom, then again at the end, then once more - you decide which direction to go.

Then, for sure, you will be out on your own.

Can I Help You With That?

One of my most troublesome attributes is my persistent helpfulness.  It can be a real burden for me and even more so for the good people I try to impose it upon.

You wouldn’t think so, really, would you?  You’d tend to reckon, “Helpfulness, that’s a good thing, isn’t it?” and normally you wouldn’t be wrong.  But this is me we’re talking about and nobody can turn a good deed into a crisis like wot I can.

Where does it come from, this chronic helpfulness?  I've thought about this quite a bit.  

I reckon it’s a little rebellion against the religion I was raised in.  Us Catholic-Types, we’ve got this neat get-out-clause when we do something a bit wrong, like when we miss mass or murder someone. We get to confess our sins to God, (via an old bloke in a dark box) and then they’re all gone.

I never bought into this.  Never-ever. 

To me, it’s just too bloody convenient.  My instinct has always been that if you do something wrong (and you’re bothered) you can really only begin to sort it out by making some kind of reparation.  Don’t get me wrong, this isn’t a religious tenet, it just seems a bit logical to me.  I mean, if you break a window with your football and you go into a wee box and tell the man all about it… well, it doesn’t fix the damn window, does it?  You’ve got to get some glass and putty and gloves – don’t forget gloves - and you’ve got to fix it up.

It therefore follows that, because I mess-up on almost a daily basis, I am also in an almost-constant state of doing reparation. Because I wouldn’t know how to repair a broken window, I try to find other ways to restore the balance of my wrongdoing.  I’m always sub-consciously on the lookout for little ways to make up for the shit I may have done.

This has developed into a mis-apprehension that, whenever somebody asks me to do something, they are an instrument offering me an opportunity to do a bit of repairing.  That’s why I find it very hard to say no to people when they ask me to do stuff for them.  Please don’t use this nugget of information to your advantage.

So why is my being a helpful-little-soul such a pain in the arse?

Well, one of the more obvious reasons is that I generally make a balls-up out of every good deed I try to do.  There are few exceptions to this rule.  Pretty-much every good deed I do will eventually turn to dust in my hands.  Still I keep trying… and trying… and…

Last week, for instance, I was walking home from work as I usually do.  I was walking along a deserted street, quite happily, when I realised the street wasn’t quite as deserted as I thought.  Way on up ahead, struggling gamely, was a little-old-lady with some heavy baggage.

As I quickly gained on her, I realised a couple of things; a) I didn’t know her, 2) her baggage looked very heavy and iii) I am no good at numbering points.  I resolved to offer my help as soon as I drew up level with her.  I could offer to carry her bags home. I mean, she was a little old lady with heavy bags - how far away could she live?

(One other thing I should mention about me.  Once I resolve to do something, I find it very hard not to see it through, no matter what happens.)

I had just-about drawn level with this nice old lady when she, rather unexpectedly, stopped, dropped both her carrier bags to the pavement, hiked up her coat and skirt and started adjusting her bloomers. I guess they must have been slipping down what with the friction of the carrying of the_ well, I don’t bloody know, do I??

I should have walked on by, 'looked the other way.

But I was on auto-pilot, you see.  I had already committed to my Kamikaze-Dive of Helpfulness and it was just too late to pull out.

I drew alongside the lady.

“You look like you need some help with that.” I said.

I was referring to the bags, of course, but the little old lady still had bunches of her knickers gathered up in both hands.

It was all most unfortunate.

“No,” she said, peering owl-like from behind her glasses, “I’m fine.”

I walked on.

Hopefully this illustrates that, should you ask me for help, I will probably oblige.

But all I’m saying is, it may not go well.

The Boy in the Gap by Paul Soye – A Review

The Boy in the Gap’ is Paul Soye’s debut novel .  I recently finished reading it. It’s a literate, thoughtful and highly-engaging story which is set largely in-and-around my locality here in County Mayo.

Having committed a shocking crime, Jack Sammon waits in his cell for the conclusion of his trial. While waiting, he sets down, in a copy-book, the events of his life which has lead him to this moment.

As you may know, I dislike revealing much about any story – which makes my reviews fairly odd affairs at the best of times. In this case, I find my best way into discussing the book is via some of the comparisons which have already been made about it and then perhaps adding a rather strange comparison of my own.

Paul’s book is newly published but has quickly garnered interest in literary circles as well as among a wider reading audience. Almost immediately, comparisons have been drawn between his writing and that of some of our greatest story-tellers. Pat McCabe for one, although I must say I don’t quite see this. He has given us memorable criminal characters in his time, it is true, but for me Paul is sailing on a somewhat different tack to Patrick.

John McGahern is also evoked as a comparison. To me, this one seems to be somewhat more pertinent. The comparison is certainly valid on that rather superficial level that both John and Paul can write with great heart about the ways of the Irish Countryside. For a man who started out a city-boy, Paul Soye has embraced rural living to such an extent can one can practically smell the warm evening air or hear the muddy plop of the cattle's hooves in the lane. His writing of ‘country’ is sensual and knowledgeable and utterly unsentimental. It is a most striking aspect of the book.

But I feel that the comparison to the great John McGahern can go a little deeper. I think it comes down to honesty. Like John before him, Paul seems to have succeeded in hard-wiring his writing into a place of painful unflinching honesty. Perhaps this is not the case, perhaps it is the guile of a great writer to make us believe that the untrue stories they sometimes tell are bourne from their heart. Whatever the case, the overriding impression that I got from this book was that the writer had drilled deep into what he feels and what he knows to get his story made. The result is a compelling, insightful and ultimately tragic work.

So, now, let me add my own literary comparison to the weight already around poor Paul’s neck. My reason for doing so is to allow me to write a little about Jack Sammon – the character around whom this entire novel revolves.

For me, Paul is most reminiscent of J.D. Salinger and, in particular his book, ‘The Catcher in the Rye’. This is a personal opinion and many may disagree with me. My reasons are simple. Both Paul and Jerome have written a character who is both fascinating and frustrating in equal parts. My reaction to both characters is very similar; I feel that both are only one tiny notch away from being well and happy and, given the opportunity, I could ‘fix’ them.

This is a measure of how involving the character of Jack Sammon became for me in Paul’s’ book. I really thought I could fix him. He had a difficult life, his father’s death in murky circumstances, his mother seconded to another man by her need for companionship and validation, his isolation and his wayward spirit.

I think Paul dangles the possibility of an alternate happy life just within Jack’s grasp. He shows us how natural and at home he is within the everyday graft of farming work, how the necessary skills and fine-touch are bred into him and there to be used. But, frustratingly, Jack is not permitted to settle into this route through life. Instead, he is thrown out into the world.  A world where he operates successfully and well except for that one degree of oddness within him. That one degree, which the livestock and the farmland would have soaked up effortlessly, becomes, in London’s fallow streets, a thing to fester and metastasise.

Jack commits a terrible crime and becomes alienated from most everything he knows but, most tellingly, he is not all that different from you or I. He is only one notch away from being ‘normal’ and that one notch was enough…

The final striking thing I would say about Jack is how he is very much from our time, not some brown faded  past. This is striking in the book at times, particularly early-on where the language and setting evokes an Ireland of long long ago yet there are remote controls for the TV and CD’s and Sky Television. This is not a story from some other era, as it sometimes may seem, it is a story of here (literally here) and now.

‘The Boy in the Gap’ is a fine book and I recommend it unto you.

I should also proudly say that Paul Soye is a friend of mine. When I arrived in Mayo in 1997 and word got out that I did a little writing, someone said to me, “You should meet Paul Soye, he is a real writer.” They were right, too. He is that.

Because Paul is a friend, I would never really want to sit down and write bad things about his first novel but, mark me on this, if it were not good, I would not say what I am saying now; this is an excellent book by any standards which has stayed with me since I read it. It is a very fine piece of writing.

When Paul launched the book in The Linenhall a few weeks ago, I helped him read a scene from it and that was one of the high points of my year. 

I wish I had read the whole book beforehand because I read Jack Sammon that evening as a rather forceful and angry man whereas, if I were to read him now, I think I would be more bemused, resigned and beaten-down person.

I would really only be one small notch off the norm…