Ten Books

There’s this thing going around on Facebook where people are asking people to list 10 books that have stayed with them. It’s my kind of thing and I’ve enjoyed reading the lists.

I thought I would have a go at it myself. 

As an aside, it felt a little revealing that I didn’t get tagged by anybody to do the list. I’m a pretty overtly ‘booky’ person, after all. 

I think it confirmed for me the way I have always chosen to play social media. I’m there and I'm happy to be involved but I’m not part of any particular collective or cohort. I'm just a free agent, floating around. The thought seems to please me and confound me in equal measure.

Yes… Ten Books.

Ten? There could be fifty, couldn’t there? There’s been so many books down through the years. What I did, I sat down and thought about it for a little while (not too hard) and wrote down ten books as they came into my head. The result is not terribly high-brow or intellectual. I could have chucked in a couple of works of literature or well-thought-of tomes to raise my image a bit but why bother? It’s not like I’m trying to impress my cohort or anything (steady, Ken). Most of the books seem to come from my very early teens, where strong impressions were obviously made.

Also, because it’s my blog, I get to editorialise a little on my choices. In a  number of instances, I’ve written stuff about these books already and, where that’s the case, I’ve thrown in a link to that piece.

The Dice Man - Luke Rhinehart:  I was only a lad and far too young to be reading this. It’s stayed with my because of my perception of it as being uncomfortably ‘adult’ and marked the commencement of a reading and movie-going teen-hood which was always old beyond its years. (more)

Watership Down – Richard Adams: It gripped me and wouldn’t let go. Then it made me cry at the end. Forget the film, which is an honourable failure. This may well be my favourite book. (more)

Jaws – Peter Benchley: Ah, ‘Jaws’. I read it long before I ever heard a whisper of a movie and it may have been the first book I was anxious to get my hands on. I was eleven and my older brother had first dibs on it. Like the Dice Man, it was more ‘Adult’ than I should have been dealing with at that age. But no harm done. (more)

If Only They Could Talk by James Herriot: I think I was initially drawn to these books by the nice Norman Thelwell cartoons on the covers. I stayed for the warm simplicity of the stories within and, as one book cover put it, the ability of the author to tell a story against himself. I do that quite a bit myself.

From Russia With Love – Ian Fleming: I found a battered copy of this in the cupboard and loved how it had stills from the film on the back cover. I was reading Bond before I ever saw him on screen and so I remain drawn to the earthier misogynistic character who lives within Fleming’s pages.

Papillon – Henri Charrière: Again, I was eleven when I read this. I loved the heft of it and the way it had been written in copybooks. The time taken in reading it was like prison time and the concept of hiding your valuables up your ass was one that was hardly going to go away quickly.

The Kenneth Williams Diaries: I keep going back to these and I find it hard to pin down why. The book seems to capture a real life within its pages like nothing else I’ve ever read. The person in there is awkward infuriating and completely inconsistent but full of good deeds and hateful recriminations. 

Deliverance – James Dickey: A rare occasion where I saw the film before reading the book. The novel has all the violence and adventure one would expect but there’s something more too. There’s a musing of what it might be to be a man.

The Karla Trilogy – John Le Carre: I just found these to be an enormously satisfying read. The first one ‘Tinker Tailor…’ exists in many forms on TV and film and I find them all engaging and find new things in them every time they come on.

A Prayer for Owen Meany - John Irving: I love John Irving and I think this is my favourite of his. Owen is a great character and I think he haunts quite a few readers as well as me.

There you go. If you weren’t tagged you can consider yourself tagged now but only if you want to be.

A Good Idea - Irlam Fringe Festival

I think some people thought I was bloody mad to fly to Manchester for one evening and then fly straight back again. I think that because I was one of the people who thought it, so it follows that there were probably a few more who thought it as well.

“Are you mad?” A little voice in my head (which was really just me doing a funny accent) kept saying, “are you bloody cracked or what?”

As it turned out, I wasn’t mad at all. Going to Irlam turned out to be a very good idea indeed.

There was this Fringe Theatre Festival, you see, and one of my short plays got selected to be in it. As soon as I heard that, I said, “I’ll go.” I just resolved. To hell with the cost and the hours travelling. I’ll just go.

As I said, I’m glad I did.

Lots of people did lots of things to make it happen but The Festival was Jane McNulty’s baby really. And Jane, as I have learned, is a bit of a force of nature. When she gets her teeth into something, she doesn’t tend to let go. She booked the venue, she assembled the actors and the directors and the tech-wizards and the bar staff and the ladies who sell raffle tickets. She built it and they came.

It took me a while to get to Irlam Catholic Club (a fine establishment). The journey involved cars and planes and trains and buses. There was even a short run on a badly behaved knee. But I got there at 7.10 for a 7.30 start. 

“There’ll be nobody here yet.” I said to myself, my mind still operating on West of Ireland time. 

The place was packed. Jammers. Twenty minutes before the kick-off. Unheard of where I come from. The large hall was filled with people chatting and socialising and queuing for the bar and… stop, wait, ‘queuing?’ ‘for the bar?’. I know, I’d never seen it before either; an orderly line, waiting for their turn to procure a drink. I told Toto I wasn’t in Kansas anymore and went to score myself a seat.

One of the things I liked best was the seating arrangement. The seats, to my eye, were laid out for Bingo rather than in the orderly lines boringly associated with theatre. And, Bingo, it worked. People sat at their lines of tables and chairs and they were able to interact and look each other in the eye and still have a good view of the stage. The way people were sitting added considerably to the evening, for me. One to remember, that.

I got sitting with a lovely couple. Retired, I’d say. Never caught their name. We chatted away the whole evening. They were nice to me and struggled gamely with my funny accent. 

The raffle lady came round.

“How much for a strip of tickets?”

“A pound.”

“How many will you give me for five pounds?”

A momentary beady-eye



I won two bottles of wine, so that worked out okay too. 

I won’t do a review of all the plays. From the moment the lights dimmed, right through to the end of the evening, there was never a moment’s doubting of the skill and professionalism of the acting and directing talent on display. These people meant business and, whether it was comic or tragic or dramatic business, they had all brought their A-Game to the stage. 

The audience was warm and receptive and savvy and fine. A lovely audience. Jane did a brief intro at the start and then let the plays do their own talking. No individual intros. When one play was finished, the next came on. The audience got it and the evening flowed.

My play, 'Dance Night', was up last. It had a great cast; Samantha Vaughan, Hayley Cartwright and David Milne. Gayle Hare directed. They made me cry a little bit. At my own play. The buggers. Well done, guys, and thanks very much. You did my scribblings proud.

Afterwards there was no rush to vacate. There were drinks and chat and fun and warmth and drinks and a doll (for some reason) and drinks. Then a taxi back to the airport hotel. I left my phone in the taxi and the taxi driver drove back and returned it to me. That’s Manchester for you, they’re all right.

Jane says she’ll do it all again next year. Keep an eye on her and on Irlam too. If you’ve got a nice short play, let her have a look when she asks for it. If you’re lucky enough to get chosen, they’ll take good care of your play and of you as well. 

You can be sure of that. 

Back River, Run Deep

It happens quite often.

A song will take me back to a time or a place in a flash and in amazingly vivid detail.

It happens quite often but I wouldn’t always jump to write the memory down. In fact, I think I’ve only done it once, here. It’s almost too easy to do. The evoked memory rings crystal clear such that it’s the simplest task to write it down and slap it up on the blog here. 

The reason I don't is simple enough. I don’t reckon that things which are easy to write are always easy or enjoyable to read. Witness the person who dashes off a page or two of something that has just occurred to them and then shows it around everyone to read. It might be ambrosia to the writer but it probably ain’t going to set the rest of the world alight. It’s self-indulgent, you see, and that’s what posts like these are; the ultimate self-indulgence. They are probably more suited to some private diary, locked up in a drawer somewhere and only pulled out to act as an aide memoire when normal memory has failed or, indeed, after all memory is gone.

As a further aside, I wish the songs that evoked things for me were a bit ‘cooler’ or something. That would make for a more vibrant piece too. But it doesn’t work that way, does it? You don’t pick ‘em, they pick you.

Where to start this time? The song or the memory? The memory or the song?

In 1976, I was thirteen and still being hauled along for every family excursion that was planned. I was still too young to be left home alone, it seemed. This wasn’t a problem. As I recall, I enjoyed the excursions.

Over that Summer holiday we would all regularly go and visit some friends of Mum and Dad’s who lived in a house out by the seaside. We would set off after our tea (which, in case you don’t know, happened at six o’clock in the evening). These friends had kids of their own who were a year or two off my age, enough that we would spend our time kicking around aimlessly while our parents drank tea and chatted across the television noise.

The first part of this evoked memory is the impatience I felt, in that Summer of ’76. The need for this visit, pleasant and all as it was, to be over and for us to be on our way home again. 

Back to the River.

Because, yes, I had the River in my blood that Summer.

Did you ever see where I grew up? It was a council terrace house, nothing big or fancy, but it was in a great place. Right across the road from the river. You only had to go down the garden path, across the road and you were, literally, in the river. Perhaps, then, it was only natural that the river would, for a short time at least, capture my imagination and my energy. It had captivated my Dad for every day of his life so why not me, if only in a fleeting way?

Across the road, the river was split by a weir which cut along its length for a hundred yards or so. The old photo shows it (it also shows my two older brothers, out on the rocks). This stone weir split the river into what was known as the ‘Back River’ and the ‘Front River’. The Front River was there for all to see, wide and slow-slowing, little boats dotted all along its way. But the ‘Back River’ was different. Not everyone could see it, not clearly anyway. You had to get your waders and tuck your jeans into the bottom of your socks and you had to wade across the front river, climb over the weir and down into those faster-rushing currents which lay beyond.

I wanted to get home that evening before the dusk grew too deep. I wanted to be in the Back River for ‘The Rise’. 

Late in the evening, on the Back River, the small trout who lived there would ‘Rise’ to take the flies that were landing on the water. It was a united effort for the trout and you could pretty-much set your watch by it. The trout were pretty tiny and they would throw themselves bodily out of the water in their quest for the fly. In quieter pools, they would sit beneath the surface and suck the flies down, causing only the slightest circle to appear on top.

For a time, that Summer, all I wanted to do was to wade over there and be in among the rise, all by myself. Well, almost by myself. 

I had my radio along too. 

I had a tiny transistor radio with a circular dial on the front and a black leatherette case to hold it in. In my memory, I brought my radio with me down the Back River. (I say, ‘in my memory’ ‘cos I can’t be sure of such things anymore). I kept it in my pocket, the volume down low, and tuned to Radio Luxembourg.

That’s where I heard the song that inevitably whips me back to those moments, in the dusk, in the river, down among the rise.

The song is ‘Let Your Love Flow’ by The Bellamy Brothers.

Maybe it came on the radio while I was down there, alone, in the river. That surely must be it. Whatever the reason, this transient, largely-unremarkable song whips me back to my thirteenth year with astonishing potency. I can feel the flies catching in my hair, the suck of the rubber waders on my calves as the cool river tugs on them, the clean brown water replete with the hint of tiny fish moving within. 

It just takes me back there, that’s all. 

And, I guess, it might say something about me too. Who I was, back then. After all, it was the long, dry Summer of 1976. The Olympics were about to start, The Sex Pistols were fuelling media rage, and there was I, on my own, in the back river, watching the rise, not caring if I never caught anything. 

Perhaps these memories come to give us a little context for our lives. To remind us who we were and where we came from. 

Perhaps not. 

Perhaps it was just a song. In a river. Long, long ago. 

That ‘James Bond’ Fella, What a Prick

I knew I was on one of my James Bond kicks this week when I strolled into a favourite caff in North Dublin and immediately started referring mentally to myself in the third person. 

“Armstrong ordered over the counter; scrambled eggs, bacon and white-bread-toast along with the obligatory double espresso. He took a corner table and pretended to read as he watched the other people in the room.”

This type of internal ‘Bondian’ narrative only ever pops up after I’ve recently finished a James Bond novel. Thankfully it doesn’t last long and nothing gets hurt except my self-esteem. And, yes, that’s the reason I was sitting in a Dublin café getting all misty-eyes with my internal monologues. I had just finished the latest James Bond novel. ‘Solo’ by William Boyd.

Regular visitors (Hi, Jim) will know that James Bond is another one of those recurring themes, here on the blog. I first grew up in anticipation of him and then with him. I know him from books and movies alike and although I now can see faults and silliness practically everywhere I look, I’m still engaged by the material. Just as engaged, in fact, as I was back when I collected bubble gum cards for ‘On Her Majesty’s Secret Service’ when I was just six years of age.

That’s one solid reason why I was always going to read William Boyd’s Bond novel - my Bond interest. But there are several other reasons too. I like William Boyd’s work very much indeed. He is, in my opinion, a true novelist. One final reason, and I won’t go into too much detail on this one, I knew William Boyd a little bit, back when I lived in London. He probably wouldn’t remember me now but we ran into each other quite a few times. I was interested to see how this writer, who I knew a little about, would tackle James Bond.

He’s done it well actually. 

The first thing he’s done (as far as I can see) is that he’s followed that hoariest of writer’s advice clichés – ‘Write What You Know’. William Boyd knows about War, and Africa and he knows about Chelsea too because he lives there. All of these things feature in his James Bond novel. I think he’s also included at least one of his own personal ‘foibles’ in there too, as a Bond ‘foible’. I won’t say when it is because I would almost feel like I was breaking a little confidence. Besides it’s nothing ‘odd’ or ‘pervy’ or anything like that. It’s just a little domestic preference that William expressed to me, back in the day, one that James Bond also expresses in the text of this book.

I like that. 

I think part of the key to a man’s relationship with the Literary James Bond character lies in that fact. I think we like to find some traces of ourselves in there or, at the very least, imagine some. The ‘Lone Wolf’, the ‘Connoisseur’, the ‘Gentleman’, the ‘Thug’. Maybe you get out whatever you put in.

Another reason I like this William Boyd's take on Bond is that his is very much the Written Word Bond as opposed to the Movie Bond. 

What do I mean by that?

Let me give you my example.

Whenever anyone asks me to distinguish between the movie James Bond and the literary James Bond (and, of course, nobody ever has) I refer to a scene in ‘Goldfinger’ which is common to both. You definitely know the movie version because it is iconic and pretty great in its own right. Goldfinger has got Bond strapped to a stainless steel table and a cold hard laser beam is unerringly cutting its way towards his crotch. “You expect me to talk?” purrs Connery. “No, Mr Bond, I expect you to die.” Bond uses guile and a scrap of insider knowledge to talk himself out of the predicament and onward to inevitable victory, a victory that was never really ever in doubt.

Compare the same scene in Ian Fleming’s novel.

Here there are no laser beams or clever banter. There is a circular saw roaring its way up to hack through Bond’s flesh. The man himself has no Plan B and is fully resolved to dying as quickly as possible, practically pressing himself onto the oncoming blade so as to hasten his departure.

The books are muckier, grittier, less tidy in every respect. That goes for the character too. He is harder, colder, less likeable. 

Which takes me back to William Boyd’s book and the title of this piece of mine. Boyd has managed something here that nobody else had managed before. He has made me look at James Bond in a different light. He has made me sit back from the page and say to myself, “Jees, what a prick!”

And that’s no accident, I reckon. William Boyd took eighteen months over this work and he knew exactly what he was doing. You only have to look at the title of the book, the way it subliminally evokes the 007 imagery. Everything is thought-out. William wants me to see Bond as something of a prick, not all the time but certainly now and again. A necessary facet to a man who kills and risks being killed for a living.

There are several examples of ‘prickishness’ in Boyd’s Bond. He ogles the girls on The King’s Road like some ageing lecher. He breaks into a woman’s house and lurks watching her get undressed before sneaking away. He gets over the loss of a colleague and friend with shocking speed.

But, for me, there’s one moment which stands out. The moment when it finally got to me and I saw Bond for the prick, the gobshite, that he undoubtedly could be. I’ll tell you about it because it doesn’t really ‘spoiler’ anything at all. 

At the start of Chapter Nine, Bond is in Washington DC and he fancies a treat so he asks where the best steak restaurant in town is and he goes there, getting a table for one. He orders that a tray of materials be brought to his table; olive oil, red wine vinegar, mustard, garlic, sugar and a whisk. Then, in the very best steak restaurant on town, at his own little table, he makes up his own vinaigrette for his steak.

Here’s what I did with this information. I imagined I was the head chef in this best steak restaurant in Washington DC and I imagined the waiter coming in and ordering all of this stuff.

“He wants what?

("I know, sir, sorry.”)

 “He wants to do what? In my Restaurant?”

(“He’s paying well, sir.”)

“Fuck him then, let him away at it.”

I pictured the chef peeping through a crack in the kitchen service door, watching this guy with the comma of hair falling down on his forehead, mixing up his little sauce like the saddest fuck in all creation and I said to myself what I figured that chef would have said.

“What a prick.”

Ten minutes later the waiter is back in the kitchen, looking nervous.”

“What does he want now?”


“Tell me.”

“I don’t want to.”

“Tell me!”

“He wants half an avocado pear.”

William Boyd’s novel ‘Solo’ is an accomplished entry into the James Bond canon. 

I enjoyed it and hope he considers writing another. 

Butch Cassidy and the Underage Kid

I watched a film on Friday evening and caught a glimpse of another. Both of them got me thinking a bit about my earliest movie-going memories. Memories of Granny then invariably followed.

It was Granny who effectively kick-started my movie-going career and, I now believe, my interest in all things film related.

I don’t think she had any such high ideals at the time. There was no agenda to set me off on a lifelong course of cinematic appreciation.

If I had to guess, I would say I was under Mum’s feet a bit and Mum had my baby sister to look after so Granny was enlisted to get me out of the way for a few hours and where better to go than to the Gaiety Cinema for a Saturday afternoon matinee.

This is a topic I veer back to sometimes, my early cinema going experiences. I think I’ve figured out why. My childhood is a bit of a blur. Some people think I have a great memory, what with the stories I recount here and such, but the truth is that I’m downright hazy on those early years. I think I remember the movies more than most aspects of my childhood because they became important to me as I got older and I spent some time thinking about what I had seen and the circumstances in which I had seen it. Thus these small moments in my childhood became cemented and firm where everything else became amorphous and faded away.

The great thing about cinema memories is that you can place them in time really well. So long as you know that the movie you saw was on its first release (and I’m pretty sure mine were) then you can date them and easily figure what age you were when you saw them. These calculations, for me at least, are like little markers in the ocean of my childhood. A solid place to swim to when there is nothing else but water in sight.

I digress.

The two films I saw recently, and which set me off on this reverie, could not have been more different. The only thing they have in common is that they come from roughly the same era. The end of the sixties, the start of the seventies. The films were ‘Klute’ and ‘Carry On Again Doctor’.

Fear not. My granny never brought me to see ‘Klute’. The trigger is via the poster rather than the film itself. I remember the poster displayed in the foyer as we went in to see the slightly more suitable offerings of the Gaiety matinees. I thought it looked grown-up and interesting and it was a great, hard-sounding, title ‘Klute’.

‘Carry On Again Doctor’ is one of the three movies I can clearly remember going to see with Granny. In my mind, we went to see a lot but maybe we didn’t. Maybe we only saw these three. The other two were ‘Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid’ and ‘A Fistful of Dynamite’. There is a good solid year between the release of these last two films, which fuels my belief that we saw many more. But I was six-going-on-seven so I hope I can be forgiven for the lapse in memory.

Despite what I wrote above, the three films do have an odd common denominator and that is they all boast some level of content which might not be best suited for a six year old lad. I remember these aspects more than I remember other things. Is that strange? I can’t say, there’s only me here.

The first (I think) was the Carry On film. I remember Barbara Windsor in some ridiculous and highly revealing heart shaped bikini thing. I remember little else.

When it came to Butch and Sundance, which Granny and I really enjoyed. I remember two things in particular. That musical bicycle ride and Robert Redford exhorting Katherine Ross to take her clothes off. I think I feared that she, too, would end up wearing Babs red cupid underhosen.

A Fistful of Dynamite, which came over a year after the others, according to the release dates, contained several ‘nudie’ scenes, just like the other two. What must poor Granny have been thinking? A harmless afternoon out at the flicks and suddenly there’s bums and boobs everywhere. There is one other thing I remember vividly from this latter film. The music. The refrain of ‘Sean-Sean, Sean-Sean’ stuck with me forever and, if ever I hear it now (as I sometimes do) it can transport me back to a much younger, much hazier time.

My movie release dates can accurately tell me when Granny and me stopped going to the movies together too. I was able to go and see the first release of Diamonds Are Forever along with my pals and without any adults. That was 1971, the same year as ‘Fistful of Dynamite’. So it was there, at the ripe old age of eight, my solo matinee-going career began in earnest. After that, I went every week.

‘The Man with the Golden Gun’ was my first solo evening cinema expedition and that was in 1974. It should have been my second because, a few weeks before, my Mum had heartbreakingly told me I could have gone and seen ‘Enter The Dragon’ with my brothers if I had only asked. This still makes me sad to this day.

By 1975, at the ripe old age of 12, and fuelled by a burning desire to see all the Bruce Lee movies, my pals and me had crafted ways and means of getting in to see anything we wanted, regardless of certification. This involved hiding in cloakrooms and sneaking in under cover of darkness. In this way, in ’75, I saw things like Death Race 2000, Dog Day Afternoon and, legitimately, the most influential movie moment of my life, 'Jaws'.

My point is that the 'Granny' period ended very quickly and while I was still very young. There is no doubt, though, that it was she who planted the seed, my enduring love for the flickering light and the hours spent sitting happily in the darkness.

So thanks Granny.

That was quite the thing you left me with.