Keeping the Beard

I’ve had this odd habit for the part few years but, like Mick Jagger said, it’s all over now.

What I used to do was to have a shave and then not have a shave again for two weeks or more. I was perpetually in a state of growing a beard. I was only ever really clean shaven for one day out of fourteen. The subsequent days were a journey towards a bristly goal that, once achieved, was instantly ripped off again.

No longer.

It all became too much. People were always saying things like, “Ohh, you’re growing a beard,” or “’Beard suits you,” or “Ohh, the beard is gone, what happened?” It also became, in my head, a sort of large advertising sign for how little attention I give to myself in general.

It was also incredibly hard on razor blades which, as you may know, are not cheap.

So I bought one of those beard trimmer things. Not a very expensive one but it looks the part and seems to do the trick.

Time flies so I think I’ve had it for about three months now, even though it only feels like a fortnight. I found the ideal setting for me is three-and-a-half. This reduces my beard down to a sort of an ‘Alan Sugar’ stubble which I can then let grow for ten days or so before buzzing it back down again. It’s effectively the same routine as before without the actual visual shock of the shaving.

I quite like it. I like the buzzing beard removal bit. I like the little wads of beard hair that gets bunged up in the machine and have to be tipped out into the bin. I think I might miss the shaving a little bit, over time. There was something about uncovering your old face from beneath the undergrowth from time to time and there was also an undeniable feeling, after a shave, that your face was well and truly clean. But it’s the convenience of this other option and, let’s face it, a more consistent visual appearance for me rather than the ‘on again, off again’ shenanigans of the past few years.

One aspect of the beard thing is that it makes me look older. When clean shaven, I seem to be able to pass for being a couple of years younger than I am. It’s all this clean living, madam. But with the beard comes a lot of grey. Like a venerable black Labrador, my whiskers are grey and getting greyer by the day. I don’t mind that at all. I’ve been around for a few years now and it pleases me that my face might reflect that. Bring it on, Father Time, I’m ready for you.

So now I guess I am a bearded guy. I bet that, in my mind, I will continue to think of myself as a non-bearded guy. That’s what happened with the glasses. I got glasses about eighteen years ago and have been wearing them constantly ever since (not the same ones, they change). But, in my mind, I am not a person who wears glasses, I never have been. This goes so far that I sometimes call other drivers ‘four-eyes’ to myself if they are annoying me (and if they wear glasses) quite forgetting that I, too, am a fully paid up member of that club.

I guess I'll just have to get used to it. When someone in a room says, "who's that fella over there? The one with the beard and the glasses?" I'll just have to remind myself that they could be talking about me.

Of course this all could change. I have a wedding coming up where I’ll be doing the whole 'black tie' thing. Will my resolve fail me? Will I pick up the old blade and have at it once again?

Who knows? 

If I do, I can always grow it back.

Chatting to Sally Rooney in The Linenhall

On Friday evening, I got to chat to Sally Rooney about her novel ‘Normal People’ in one of my favourite places in the world, The Linenhall Arts Centre here in Castlebar.

Sally radiates such brilliance that you can’t help but feel a bit brilliant yourself when you’re sitting beside her. She answers questions in a way that makes the questions seem better in retrospect. It’s quite a feat. I had a great time. I love the book and Sally and I go back years and years so it was fun on all kinds of level for me.

Here’s an extract from my intro, on the night. You mightn’t bother with it, particularly as I seem to have taken all the jokes out. That’s fine, I don't mind. I know there's a chance that I’ll find it here in years to come and it will spark a memory and raise a smile for what was a pretty special evening.

*                            *                            *            

When you read a certain kind of book, it’s all there for you. It’s all right there in between the covers. You take it, you read it, you move on. I’m thinking here of the ‘Jack Reacher’s or the ‘Agatha Christie’s (all of which I read). Everything you need is in there.

But there’s another kind of book.

There’s the kind of book where you are required to put a bit of yourself into it as you read it.

Sally’s new novel ‘Normal People’ is one of those other kinds of books. You have to invest something of yourself into it as you go. And that’s great… that’s wonderful… until you have to tell people what you think of it. Because, then, you’re not just telling them about the story you read, you’re telling them about your story too.

There’s a film by Martin Scorsese, ‘The Colour of Money. It’s a sequel to ‘The Hustler’, which is an almost perfect film. In the film, when they talk about things like baring their soul or exposing their inner feelings they don’t say ‘I’m baring my soul’. What they say is, ‘I’m showing you my ass’. And that’s why talking about real literary fiction can be a bit tricky. You have to, kind of, ‘show your ass’ in order to do it.

Some might talk about this book and say it’s a political book, some might say it’s a feminist book, some might say it’s a comedy, some might say it’s a tragedy. It will be those things to those people. We all put our own stuff in and we then all take our own stuff back out.

It’s not always easy to talk about that.

But let’s try…

Not everybody is going to love this book. So, when I tell you that I love this book – and I do, I really do –then I’m already well on my way to showing you my ass. I read it very quickly the first time. I had to. I wanted to know what was going to happen to these two people. Marianne and Connell. To be honest, I wanted to know that it worked out all right for them. I became invested in their outcomes.

Then I read it again, a few months later and, now that I could take my time, I could ‘enjoy the view’ better. I could appreciate the craft and the wit and the burning intelligence that is at the heart of the book. Much has already been written in the reviews about these things. One thing that I think has been a bit neglected in the reviews is the amazing quality of the Storytelling. I’m a bit of a story teller myself. If you know me, I’ve probably told you a story. And, for me, this story is brilliantly told.

When I had finished the book for the first time, I asked myself. “What was that about”. But I did it in a good way. My Dad used to do it in a bad way. He used to watch something on telly and when it was over he would say ‘Well… what was *that* about’. I didn’t do it like that. I challenged myself to identify what I made of it. To sum it up in a couple of words. Not for you, and not for Sally. Not for anyone else but for me. I had read it, I had left some of my own DNA on the pages as I turned them.

What had I come away with?

The first thing I came up with was kind of interesting. I said to myself, “Yes… this book is about how difficult it is to talk about how we really feel. It’s about how we can change each other’s lives in small ways but deeply and enduringly.”

I thought that was pretty good. Until I thought about it bit more and I went, “Ah, no, Ken. No no no. That won’t do at all.”

Guess what I had done. I had absorbed the paragraph on the back cover of my copy of the book and I had allowed it to tell me what I had read. I think we have to watch out for that. We will be told what a book is about. Reviewers will tell us what it means. Posters will tell us. Other people will tell us. But they won’t tell me what it means to me. I have to figure that out for myself.

And I think Sally would like us to do that. The best fiction sparks us and incites us and challenges us to react to it. But the book industry itself, in informing us of a book, often tries to inform us what to think about the book too. I don’t know but I bet that Sally would prefer someone to grapple with this book and come out hating it than to read it passively and come out loving it simply because that’s what we were told to do.

So anyway. I thought about what the book says to me, just me. What I found was that Sally’s first book was saying pretty much the same thing to me. I boiled it down and I boiled it down and I boiled it down to three words.

Do you want to hear them?

(I’m showing you my ass here…)

Okay. Here’s the three words.

“Despite everything, Romance.”

And I was talking to somebody sensible about this and they were saying, “Ah, yeah but Romance is not a big thing, it’s light and frothy and impermanent.” But not to me it isn’t. To me, Romance is like the life blood of the universe. It is fun and hopeful and warm and… loving. I suppose, most of all, it’s loving.

And it’s there in both of Sally’s books, for me to find. Life is hard and cruel and tough and unfair and brutal and… not kind. But, still, there is always this possibility of Romance. And that’s my view. It’s not on the back cover of the book. It’s not in the Times review. It’s just here in my head.

And there’s my ass right there. ‘Cos I am a Romantic, a hopeless Romantic, and no matter how awful things get or how hopeless things seem, there is always the slender chance of a little light - a little love - creeping back in.

I think that’s why I love both of Sally’s books so much. They are unendingly smart, unflinchingly real, unfailingly true. But, like a series of sketches by an old master on a wall in a gallery, they leave me room to slide my own life and my own experiences in between the pages and make them mine.

Sally’s new book is about many things, Love, Class, Politics, Communication, Lack of Communication, whatever you’re having yourself. Perhaps it’s mostly about Normal People. Who we are definitely not.

Except, maybe, we are.

At Synge’s Chair

It was not what I expected to find. Fields of stone. We had a day trip to one of the Aran Islands on Friday. Patricia had some work to do out there and I tagged along. It was an opportunity to see the place and I didn’t want to miss out.

I had built myself up for some level of disappointment. In my vision, the island would turn out to be a series of fields, much like any corner of the West of Ireland, except running down to the ocean on all sides. It was so much more than that. It was remarkable in very many respects. I’m glad we went.

Inishmaan is the least visited of the Aran Islands, apparently. Most of the people on the ferry stayed in their seat when we docked there. They were holding out for the bigger island. This was us, though. An aluminium gangway dropped onto the dock and off we went.

First impressions were of a sort of an other-worldly Beckettian place. This had a lot to do with the strangely-shaped concrete sea defences which bound the little harbour. Like huge Jacks (remember that game… with the ball and the ‘things’?) interlocking in seemingly random arrangements. They seemed more appropriate to Vladimir and Estragon perching on them rather that the elusive Playboy and his head-damaged Dad.

Because this little island is J M Synge country. He spent five or six summer’s there and his fine play ‘Riders to the Sea’ is soaked in island and ocean lore.

While Patricia did her work, I walked up along the coast to Synge’s Chair. It’s a rocky perch on the edge of a steep incline down to the sea. From there you can enjoy the view of the adjoining island and, beyond, the wide Atlantic Ocean. Next stop; America. I gave the only other two visitors some space to enjoy the place by themselves and then it was all mine. I sat and enjoyed the view and ate some of a large bag of spring onion and cheddar cheese kettle crisps that I’d brought along. Then I re-read a bit of Sally Rooney’s new novel, ‘Normal People’ which I like very much. It was a sunny/cloudy day and it was lovely to watch the clouds skid across the sky and the little boats make their way from island to island on the white capped waves. The only downside was that the stones to the back of Synge’s alleged perch are rather high and I expected to be accosted at any moment by more visitors. I never was but that didn’t stop me from being hyper-aware of the possibility.

When she was finished, Patricia and I walked the island. Rain was promised but it kept away, apart from a drop or two, and the sun was a regular visitor in the sky. We spotted a little sign offering lunch and climbed the little hill it pointed to. It turned out to be the home of a very nice European couple who offered us their bench seat in the garden and plied us with vegetable soup and brown bread with raisins in. The garden overlooked the ocean and it was all quite perfect. After we’d finished I brought the bowls and glasses into the kitchen and the woman said that I was kind and that my mother would be very proud of me. An unusually intimate compliment for a simple lunch transaction but welcome and a little moving nonetheless.

The event of the day was probably the cow and the narrow walkway.

There was a fort to be seen on a hill and, when we reached the top of it, there was a farmer man there on his quad bike with his sheepdog. Patricia knew him from her previous visits to the island and we chatted a while. He asked us were we going up to the fort and we said we thought we might. “Only, I’ve put a cow into the path the eat the grass. You can go past her. She’s an old girl and she won’t pay any heed to you.” We confirmed that a visit to the fort was not a priority for us but the guy seemed conflicted that his cow was stopping us so we decided to go on up. As we walked up the tiny lane, stone walls on either side, the farmer man stayed at the end with his dog so there was no opportunity to sneak back. We had to see it through. The cow was half way up the path, standing with her rear towards us. Brown, massive, and copiously horned. I would guess that her girth took up seven-eighths of the width of the walkway I encouraged her to walk on and we tailed behind but she must have found a rich vein of grass because she stopped and would not move again. I squeezed past and Patricia squeezed after.

We found a flat rock and stopped there to have a flask of tea and admire the view over the island. It was lovely but there was always the knowledge that we had to deal with the cow again on the way back. We are simple town-folk and not overly accustomed to livestock.

On the way back down the path, the cow had barely moved and was now facing us with its horns. It seemed much more interested in us now that we were approaching face on. The farmer was long gone. It was just her and us. There was no point in hesitating, we had to get past so I lead the way. With a quiet word about how very well she was looking I stepped forward and inched along between the stone wall and the cow’s huge solid flank. There was a feeling that a nudge from her would pin me against the wall and I wasn’t sure how things would go from there. Anyway, I got through. I looked back and could see that Patricia was having some doubts and, man, I didn’t blame her. Still, there was no other way out of there, it was the cow or nothing, so I needed to move things along before the situation deteriorated further on account of being thought-about too much. I gave Daisy a gentle slap on the rump and she ambled forward towards Patricia. There suddenly didn’t seem to be enough room for them both.

“Turn sideways,” I said and Patricia did. The cow rumbled alongside her. “Now sidestep.” She did. Then we were past and the cow was just a big brown arse up the pathway. We left her to it.

We walked all the way back down to the ferry and were too early as we almost always are. That was okay though. It wasn’t raining and the sea and the breeze made acceptable company for a while.

If you do ever go to Inishmaan, make sure you view the Harry Clarke windows in the little church there. Their effect is simply stunning against the island light.

The thing with the island is the possibilities it evokes. The place itself is scenic, untamed, wild and beautiful but, ultimately, it’s just a place. It’s how it plays on your mind, that’s what will stay with you. It’s a place onto itself, a law onto itself, a microcosm of the entire world. It could become everything you love or everything you hate. A tiny universe with many possibilities.

The island is a feast for the eyes but it is also a shared dessert and an expresso for the mind.

I look forward to going back again, some fine day.