The Multi-Sensory Experience of the Early Peanut M&M

When I was five years old, my Granny and Granddad went to America to attend the wedding of their youngest daughter. 

I think they went for a full three weeks and the photographs that came back were extraordinary. Granddad, a flat capped stevedore all of his life, was seen all-decked-out in a gleaming white tuxedo with pale blue collar trim.

They arrived back with gifts for my two older brothers and me. I believe that I remember these gifts very clearly, although I may be wrong. As I recall, my eldest brother got a cassette tape recorder, one of those ones that came in a black leatherette case and had one little control that you pressed back to rewind, forward to fast-forward and upwards (click) to play. My next–oldest brother got a Polaroid Camera.

Apparently, I was the cause of some consternation. These were top end presents and everybody was quite at a loss as to what could be got for me. The story goes that my new uncle, a wonderful man in every way, came in from work on the evening before the journey home to Ireland and placed a box on the table saying, “This is for Kenneth”.

It was a watch. A gold Timex watch. For me.

The was a special aura about that watch. It was presented with a sense of awe, almost as if it was far too valuable a present for such a small boy. That was probably part of the show, a ploy to stop me from being too jealous of my elder brothers’ bounty. I would never have been jealous. I had my watch, my gold watch.

Photographs of me from the subsequent years almost always featured the watch prominently, in much the same way that a film about a relationship will often tend to show the wedding rings clearly. I loved that watch, wore it for a full decade after I got it, and never quite got over the thrill of such a serious grown-up gift for such a small fellow.

But there’s a thing.

Suppose I was kidnapped by Martians tomorrow and they put me in one of their advanced machines to extrapolate my memories in order to recreate, in physical form, the things I remember. Suppose they tried to recreate my gold watch which I wore and consulted for so many years. The truth is, they wouldn’t get very much. My memories are very much related to how I felt about that watch rather than what it actually was. The Martian Dream Machine would probably create a warm cloud of fuzziness with a golden hue and little more.

Now, suppose they further tapped my memories and found that other thing that my Granny and Granddad brought back from America when I was five years old. Supposing they were to recreate that. It would drop, fully realised into the dream item dispenser and it would be quite, quite perfect. 

I had never seen anything like them before. Before they arrived, we had chocolate and penny chews and lollipops and sticks of rock but there had never been a smooth, crunchy, Technicolor treat such as this. The Peanut M&M, circa 1968. 

Granny and Granddad brought huge hoards of them back from the States and they kept them in the sideboard cupboard tucked away behind the delph plates and bowls. Every Sunday Visit was an unbearable wait for the little bags to be brought out and distributed. They were, in one word, Treasure.

The more senses a thing assails, the better I remember it. There was a particular smell to the seaside bus on a Summer’s day, just as you climbed aboard. Now and again, I catch a hint of that smell, a hint of trapped sunlight and dull air, and I am  rushed back to those huge sandy-ridden steps up to the bus driver.

M&Ms came when I was five and assailed all of my senses at once. Visually, the three base colours - yellow red and green. Aurally, the crunch. Taste, obvious. Touch, the smoothness of the product, the sophistication and other-worldliness of the packaging. Smell, a chocolatey hint, released as soon as the bag was opened. 

It’s for this reason that M&Ms remain special to me. I had a crafty packet only yesterday and that’s why I’m writing this now. The effect of biting into the first was a little like Peter O’Toole’s food critic in the Pixar Film when he places a forkful of Ratatouille into his mouth and is immediately transported to a simpler time, far far away. 

People say to me, “Why do you like those M&Ms? There are much nicer things you could enjoy.”

The truth is, there isn’t. There just isn’t. 

A Second Innisfree

The Linenhall Arts Centre celebrates its 25th Birthday this year. It's one of my favourite places in the world and I've made the best of friends there.

I scribbled this 'note and doggerel' piece as a sort of a birthday card.

As far as I can recall, my Dad only ever knew one poem and he recited it often and at the oddest moments. It was, of course, 'The Lake Isle of Innisfree' by WB Yeats.

I say ‘of course’ because we grew up along the Garavogue River which runs from Lough Gill down to the sea. It is there, ‘of course’, that Yeats’ famed island resides. 

A word for tourists. If you get in a bus or a car in Sligo, and ask them to take you to see the Lake Isle of Innisfree, it’s highly likely that they won’t. With the best intentions in the world, they will take you to a tiny tree-ridden blob off the rocky shore close to Dromahair and, yes, although it is called ‘Innisfree’, it is not Yeats’ Innisfree. That honour, in my view, goes to the Island known locally as ‘Church Island’. No bus can take you there but, if you can ever find yourself a handy boatman, you should go. Just go.

We spent much of our childhood coming and going from Yeats’ Innisfree. Not thinking of it as a place from a poem but rather as a place of undiluted magic and, yes, a place of peace. We fished along the Rookeries just off its shore and we sheltered under the trees and warmed ourselves with smoke formed tea, as the rain drew huge ever-expanding circles on the flat calm water. 

We knew what it was to really have Innisfree. 

What, you may ask, does all this have to do with the business in hand? The Linenhall's twenty fifth Birthday Celebrations?

It’s simple, really. After a childhood happily spent in the environs of the original, I was blessed enough to find a second Innisfree. And it is here at the Linenhall. 

I could extol the virtues, sing the praises. I could do all that.  But the best that I can do is to simply tell you this once more. That The Linenhall is my Innisfree. 

So, with apologies to WB, wherever his bones may lie, I have tampered with his poem to turn it into a sort of twenty-fifth birthday card to my friends who keep the magic alive.

The Lake Isle of Linenhall

I will arise and go now, and go and see Marie
And Maura, Orla, Oisin, Ian and all the friends I’ve made.
Music will be played there, and many plays I’ll see,
And live in the Art that is their stock in trade.

And I shall have some peace there, for peace comes dropping slow.
Dropping from the old stone of the building to where conversation springs
There morning’s a little brighter and noon is coffee flow
And evenings full with the chance of better things.

I will arise and go now, for always night and day
I smell the warmth of welcome, scones, and more
while I sit at my desktop, or on computers grey.
I hear it in that warm art’s core.

Happy Birthday, Linenhall, and thanks. 

Ken x 

Not Sure about all this Certainty

I’m rarely sure about anything. 

Even a question that I’m pretty sure I’m sure about will send me scuttling to a book or other reliable source, just to make sure that I was as sure as I almost thought I was.

So, as you might imagine, all the certainty currently in evidence in the world has me somewhat baffled and even a bit worried.

Mostly, of course, I’m seeing it on Social Media but it’s bleeding across onto Real Life too. The notion of expressing an opinion or floating an idea seems to be weak and lukewarm and insipid. One has to be ‘Sure’. One must be ‘Certain’. Anything less is simply sub-par.

The rise of certainty in the online world may have some foundation in the practical limitations of Twitter. Twitter is a great place to find a certainty or two. I think, perhaps, this may have something to do with the 140 character limit. If you’ve got something to express, you have to do it succinctly in order to simply fit it into the space available. Things such as doubts and qualifications tend to get chucked out simply to leave enough room to have your say. The effect of all this tightly edited thought, on Twitter at least, is one of a wave of people who know exactly what it right and what is wrong, who have a complete grasp on who the good guys are and where the villains lie in wait.

If that’s how it started, it seems to have grown exponentially from there. People are attracted to a bit of certainly, a strong confident voice. Other people see this and they strive to emulate it in their social media personalities.

“It’s no good my coming on to Twitter and saying something like this.

@KenArmstrong1 I think milky tea is the nicest way to drink tea… #hmmm

Nobody will have any regard for that kind of introspection. No, I have to weigh in strong on this subject. I mean, am I a man or am I a mouse? Wait, I know… I’m a Man!”

@KenArmstrong1 I love milky tea and fuck you if you don’t.

Job done.

The overall effect becomes one of a world of people declaiming things. On Twitter  and, yes, on Facebook too, the impression is that people have the complete truth of any matter at their fingertips and they share it with force and confidence.

It’s doesn’t matter what the subject is. Something awful happens in the world, a new movie comes out, the first five pages of a book are read, the truth is plain to see and I am about to be told it. 

The effect of individual certainly is compounded greatly by the social need of people to find common ground on which to stand. People these days seem to  find a sense of community in the perceived truths they can share in with their friends and acquaintances. Perhaps it was always so. In back rooms and ill-lit parlours, people were possibly revelling in their shared convictions and finding some succour there. 

So it is in the online world. When someone pronounces their strong emotions with regard to the vexed question of Milky Tea, the people who weigh in behind them will, almost invariably, be those people who feel exactly the same way. These will be the people who take the opportunity to bond with the strong Milky Tea stance and perhaps even raise the stakes a little to show just how emphatic they too are on the subject.

@MilkyTeaGal4557 People who don’t drink Milky Tea are Cretins and should be SHOT. #joinus

Those people who like their tea black will tend to shy away from this discussion. Instead of challenging the voracity of the argument, they will slink away and hope to come back when a certitude is expressed that they can actually support. In the meantime, they may find a black tea brigade somewhere else and find companionship there.

Yesterday, there was a party leadership election result in England. There was much certainty on all sides, expertly and forcibly expressed. Granted, there was some debate, healthy, real, necessary debate but mostly it was people in their little Twitter boxrooms, shouting at the ceiling “This is the truth”, “These are the facts” and other people, in their little rooms, agreeing with them. 

I think we need to get back to a little more uncertainly in our lives. 

I think it might be a rather dangerous game, this being certain-sure of everything all of the time.

I mean, and I hesitate to even suggest this…

… what if you turn out to be wrong?

Next Big Thing

In a short while, my eldest son will strike out for University and so the Next Big Thing in our little family begins. John is off to Trinity College Dublin to study English and French and I couldn’t be prouder if you came and beat me across the back with a proud stick. It’s exactly what he wanted and he worked incredibly hard to get it. You just can’t do any better than that.

My son is ready to go, champing at the bit. Because of things like transition year and two years of pre-school, he is well on the way to adulthood and thus is mature and prepped enough for the different life which now awaits him. In his life, he has stayed in many different places, travelled quite a bit to places such as France, England, Spain, Italy and even the USA. He has accommodation all sorted in the university residences and, perhaps best of all, his good friend is setting off with him to share his room and his university life and adventure. 

As with most things, this Next Big Thing got me making a few mental comparisons. I’ve been remembering a bit about that September in 1980 when I too struck out for third level education and what a different experience I think (and hope) it will be for John.

Perhaps it’s was on this exact day, thirty five years ago, that I got on the train for Dublin. It was certainly a Sunday and it was early morning. The evening before, I had been to see The Shining in The Savoy and the knowledge that my bag as packed and waiting back at home was much more unsettling than anything up on the screen.

I had a couple of things going against me. First, I was quite young. I had just stopped being sixteen a mere two months before. Secondly, I was quite inexperienced. Discounting hospital beds (of which there had not been too many but there had been a few) I had, rather remarkably, never slept in any bed but my own for a single night of my life. No holidays away, no visits to relatives, no sleepovers at granny’s or friend’s houses. So when I headed out for the train station on that damp 1980 Sunday morning I really was looking off into the unknown.

I said my goodbyes at the house and walked to the train station. I wanted it that way. Dad, in particular, seemed likely to find the going a bit difficult and, even way back then, there were fledgling concerns about his health. It was best that I slip away while he was off up the road and that’s what I did, starting a tradition of doing that which lasted for many years after.

I remember, on the train, that there was a basketball team made up of young men. They chatted and laughed and swapped seats all the way and I was hyper-aware of the fact that would all be on the train back home again in the evening and I would not.

I didn’t really know anybody in Dublin but my parents knew a man whose son has been living and working there for a few years. He was trying to sort out some ‘digs’ for me but nothing had materialised as yet. He met me off the train and took me to a B and B where I was to reside until ‘something came up’. The B and B was nice and spotlessly clean. I had a single bed in a little room in which I curled up and read 'Thin Air' by William Marshall and listened to Ultravox's 'Vienna' on my radio. They gave me spotless fried eggs and toast and a slice of bacon for breakfast. All I wanted to do was to stay there. It was warm and dry and there was a telly in a special room. I could have managed that. But it was beyond anyone’s budget for anything longer than the shortest possibly stay. Something else had to be found.

I stayed for about a week then a room became available in a house in Phibsborogh in North Dublin. I moved in with ‘Mary’ (not her real name), an elderly lady who lived alone, kept her house quite dark, and loved Gaelic Football with a great passion. For a while, it was just me and Mary then a couple of other guys came to stay and things started to feel a little easier. We got our dinner off Mary every evening and then watched the little black and white television until about nine when Mary announced she was off to bed and clearly indicated that we should do the same. I lay in bed and read and listened to Radio Dublin on my tiny transistor radio as, slowly but surely, I learned how to be somewhere other than at home. 

On the night before Valentine’s Night, I ventured out for one of my first social events which did not constitute a trip to the cinema. It was Friday the Thirteenth and Mary gave me a Valentine’s card to post to one of the other residents of the house because ‘the poor bugger won’t get one otherwise’. There was a big moon.

That was the night of The Stardust Fire. I knew nothing of it until I woke late the next morning and Mary told me I’d better march down to the phone box and ring my mother in case she was worrying about me. We didn’t have a phone in the house so I rang the neighbours and the collective sigh when they heard my voice both surprised and scared me. They had all feared I was in the fire and I had kept them waiting a long time before I allayed that fear.

My memory gets hazy but, near the end of that first year, Mary got sick and had to go to hospital. The other tenants, no longer getting their dinners made for them, slipped away to other lodgings but I stayed. I looked after myself and minded the house for Mary and got ready for my exams. 

Mary came home after a month or two and told me she was dying of Cancer. There was a neighbour who came in during the day but nobody else. In the evenings I turned her in her bed and made bad soup for her. Her death coincided with the end of my first year in Dublin. I was still seventeen. 

This is a simple account of my living arrangements for that first year. It gives no mention of the wonderful time I had in college or of the great lifelong friends I made in that year. I just wanted to try to evoke the utter change my life went through, from one week in September to the next. The jolt and the strangeness of it all.

Times are different now. My son’s adventure will, I believe, be a grander and a happier one and one he is infinitely better prepared for than I ever was.

Let the Next Big Thing begin.