To See the Train

The recommendations we currently live under, here in Ireland, include one that says we can take some exercise every day, while practicing Social Distancing, but that we shouldn’t stray any further than 2 km from our home.

Wishing to get a walk in, but not really very keen to impose ourselves on anybody else, I hit Google Maps to inspect my vicinity and my boundaries. I happened upon a previously unnoticed slender country lane that continued down the back of a little-used road and seemed to terminate in a wooded area. We resolved to check it out.

We’re now been walking there once a day, every day, for the last week or more. We’ve seen one girl on a bike and a man in his tractor and that’s all. Apart from these brief crossing of paths, the laneway has been ours. It’s not a terribly long laneway, so we go up it and back and then do it all over again and that’s our walk.

It’s nice to have a little space and it’s quite an advantage to not have to be calculating how to best keep clear of other people all of the time. The laneway also has horses in the adjoining fields, quite a lot of them actually. They remain pretty aloof, not really looking to say hello or anything like that. They tend to hang near the gates of the fields, because that’s where their feed is, and they eye us up in a detached fashion, but that’s about it with the equine interaction. This suits me okay, I’m not a horsey person.

There are also rabbits. Their white butts flash regularly in the dull green of the fields and sometimes they move across the lane in front of us. (Sorry about that boring use of the word ‘move’ – ‘walk’ looks wrong and I can’t bloody bring myself to use ‘lollop’.) Once, we saw a pheasant. It’s rather a wildlife jamboree by our usual standards and that all adds a little something to the excursion.

It's not any kind of nirvana, though, our little lane. It's quite heavily littered in places, by fly-tippers, and the views are green and underpopulated but not otherwise inspiring. 

I mentioned that the online map shows the laneway leading into some woodland at the end. This is indeed what happens but, when we got down there, we found that we didn’t get to go in. Just as the woodland commences, the railway track runs perpendicularly across the lane. Of course, I knew this from the map but I thought we might be able to get across. No such luck, though. The track is protected by bright red ‘high vis’ gates and these gates are firmly padlocked. No way through.

Because of this, the wooded path on the other side of the tracks quickly gained the status of an enigma to us. It curves off up into the unseen in such an inviting way that it’s hard not to speculate about what wonders might lie up there. There could be a house made entirely of sweets and candy, an old lady and her wolf, or even (less likely) three pigs in some new-build housing. We stood on our side of the tracks and looked up the inviting lane and wondered what or who was up there.

One day, as we stood and speculated, the rail tracks began to fizzle and sing. The train was coming. We don’t have enough trains in these parts to say, ‘a train was coming’. It was the train and it was on its way. We stood back a little, even though we didn’t need to, and waited. Before long, the train appeared. Four carriages and an engine. We waved to the driver and he waved back and blew his horn. Four completely empty carriages rattled by and that was it, the main Dublin train had passed.

Since then, without really agreeing it, we have timed our daily walk to be down at the gates when the Dublin train comes through. Some days, we’ve missed it and been back up the lane when it clattered through. Yesterday, we stood and waited at the end of the lane for the train to come, just so we could get our wave and our whistle toot. In a matter of two weeks, from being professional people, parents, and active members of our community, we have become the Railway Children.

Not really though. That’s mostly just an attempt at a funny line.

Our waiting to see the train roll through is not any indication of a reversion of sophistication or intelligence. It’s not a sign that we’re losing our marbles. It’s just a small connection in a moment where small connections are rare and valuable. The train may be empty of passengers, but it is still on the move. It is traversing the entire country while we are confined to our homes and our two-kilometer laneway. Seeing the train, waving quietly and getting a toot back, is something. In months and years to come, it may seem naive and even laughable that we did this thing at this time.

But, in truth, I don’t think it will. Perhaps a new family ritual is being instituted, right here and right now, down the littered lane. Perhaps, on some particular marked day, in each of the years to come, we will venture again down the lane just to wave at the driver and to remember all that came to pass in the Spring of 2020.

Who knows if we will or not? Not me, that's for sure.

It’s just too early to tell.

Yard Work

I’m lucky that a have a small-to-reasonably-sized back yard. 

I’m also lucky that’s it’s in a pretty neglected condition.

I wouldn’t normally be saying that, of course. On a normal day, I’d be looking out of the window at my back yard, berating my utter lack of gardening motivation and general uselessness. But these are not normal days, are they?

Yesterday morning, being encouraged to stay at home, I ventured out into the back yard and had a look around. There’s no doubt that I value the idea of being outside much more now that I’ve been told that I shouldn’t leave the house. 

On a normal Saturday morning, I’d be running to the shop for breakfast provisions. I’d probably have some writing workshop thing that my mind would be full of. I’d be a man on the move. But these are not normal Saturdays, are they? So, to get some air, and to get out from under everybody’s feet in the house, I ventured out into the back yard. I figured that a little day-to-day yard work will get me out of the house and into the air and might even wreak a small improvement on my valuable amenity.

Look, don’t get me wrong. My yard is not a disaster area or anything. It’s not like a toxic wasteland where three-eyed froggies freely roam. In fact, it’s quite a pleasant little corner of the world. Me and the cats seem to think so anyway, as last week’s post confirmed.

As I surveyed my tatty domain, I started to get a tiny sneaking ‘what’s the point?’ feeling about the proposed work. The place is just too far gone, what good could old ‘Soft-Hands Ken’ possibly do?

But I reminded myself of a Twitter pal, Josie George, who shared with us how she did a very small bit in her garden regularly and how, day on day, these small endeavours brought about improvements that were both satisfying and rewarding.

So, I gathered my tools.

I don’t have very many tools, as you would expect from a home-boy wuss like me, but I found a secateurs and a spade and a brush and a long-handled snipping-thing that I can already tell will be my ongoing weapon of choice. I WD-40'ed the shit out of the few moving parts and then I picked a corner and started snipping and clipping and dragging and piling.

The ginger cat from last week’s post sat on a flat sun-drenched stone round the back of the trampoline and studiously ignored me, choosing instead to clean itself from head to paw and not even flinching when the oil-drenched clipping tool came out.

I cleared some space around the twirly clothesline area, such that all three sides of it is now accessible where only one-and-a-half sides was before. In the end, I may have done little more than transfer an unclipped area of bramble to a clipped pile of bramble across the yard. But, hey, the sun was shining, and I stopped at unreasonably short intervals to just lean and breathe and watch the cat’s studied cleaning regime.

I realise I’m very lucky man to have a little space that I can go out in without being a hazard to anybody else and I’m not trying to rub anything in either. I suppose I’m just thinking that, as our world closes down for a time and as a great challenge sits ahead of us, we have to do what we can to remain strong and clear in our thinking. We gotta use what we have, be it a book or an open window or a pet who is glad to have you around so much more.

What do I know? I’m off to clip a thorny bush. It’s funny how the bush will always get a little nick out of me before I’m done. That seems fair, somehow.

And hey, Monsieur Cat, isn’t that bit clean enough yet?

Speaking French to the Cats

The first thing to say is this; the cats won't care.

You must always keep that in mind.

We have a reasonable little back garden/yard here at the house but over recent years, if you’ll forgive a highly technical gardening term, it’s been let go to fuck. Every year, there’s a little less grass to mow, as the wild things intrude further and further into the clear space. 

The big trampoline, once the site of offspring lie-outs and junior social scheming circles, now lies fallow, unbounced-upon and quietly rusting, refusing stoically to be whisked away by a convenient high wind.

For a long while, I consoled myself that all this landscaping neglect was good for the environment and great for the bees and I’m sure it probably is. It doesn’t get away from the fact that the garden is closing in on the house and, if there’s any triffids lurking out there in that undergrowth, we could all be in for a time of it.

Into this untamed world, the cats come.

I think I’ve mentioned it here before but there seems to be an inordinate number of cats on our street. In fact, it is hard to throw your eye in any particular direction without it landing on a random moggy of some description. I think most of them have homes that they retire to in times of reflection but, generally, they hang around the street stalking each other and eyeing-up the passers-by. I have a theory that they are fed by some kindly neighbour who mistakenly thinks they are all feral (with their little collars and their tinkly bells) and who feeds them copiously in an unnecessary attempt to keep them alive.

And, yes, my garden may be a bit overgrown but, my, how it catches the sun. Beneath the gently swaying leaves of some immature triffid lie little pockets of sundrenched bliss and it is to here that the cats come.

They don’t come all together, that would be too freaky even for me, but it’s not uncommon to see two of them basking together down the backyard wilderness.

And, yes, I speak French to them.

My French isn’t any good. In fact, it is ‘tres terrible’. I have only the smattering of catchphrases that many a lapsed schoolboy clings onto. As a result, my conversation with the loitering pussies is generally limited and invariable one-sided.

Bonjour, pussie-cats,” I say, “Comment ca va, aujourd'hui?

These chats generally happen when I am taking the washing to the swirly clothesline to hang it out. Have I mentioned that I’m something of a domestic god? Ah, well, I’ll do a special post on it soon and them you’ll shake your head gently in amazement. Sometimes, though, I will even make a special excursion into the garden at lunchtime, to enquire after the cats’ wellbeing.

The cats watch me through heavy-lidded sun-soaked eyes, and one feels that they know what I am saying. At the very least, they know from experience that I am not there to spoil their day. So, although I can’t say that they engage with my exotic parlance on any meaningful level of interest and reciprocity, I can be sure of one thing: they tolerate me.

Why do I speak French to the cats? I really can’t say. It’s just something I do. Perhaps it’s because I tend to see cats as slightly exotic creatures and I feel that they deserve a little extra from my lame conversational ploys. Perhaps (being harsh on myself) it represents some subconscious wish on my part to be overheard by a curious neighbour and judged to be a) offbeat and interesting or b) mentally challenged. I don’t really think that’s the reason though. There are few opportunities for neighbours to overhear my back-garden emissions and that is a good thing. The things I say when the coal bunker won’t co-operate are definitely not for general consumption.

In the coming period, when there might not be many other things to do, I may go to work on the garden. I may try to ease the ancient forest back so that I have some room to sit down out there. If I do, it won’t be an industrial effort. I picture it more like Mr. Miagi snipping minutely at his favourite bonsai tree, expecting that a minimal effort, expended over many days, will reap some wonderful reward.

Whatever I do, I will remain mindful of the cats. I will reserve a warm corner where they can continue to come and visit and bask in the warmth of my yard.

Whatever I do and whatever way I do it one thing will remain true, now and forever more.

The cats won’t care.

Write a Sentence…

Write a sentence, Ken, see where it leads you…

This Sunday morning, sitting here at my desk, the temptation to write nothing at all is considerable. 

I mean, what should I write? Should I recall some happy event from times gone by? Should I tell a funny little story about something that happened during the week, preferably against myself? These are all options but it’s hard to find the focus or the motivation to do any of that.

Similarly, I suppose, I could attempt to write some grand diatribe about what we  should all do and what we should all not do. How we should ‘be’ in this challenging moment. But, hey, what do I know? I read the advice and the news like everybody else and I’m trying to do my very best with it. Trying to do no harm to anyone else with my actions. But that’s the story of my life anyway. It’s what I always do, just heightened in every possible way. So, no, there’s no point in me telling you what to do and what not to do. You can read just like I can. Well, you’re here so I’m assuming that you can.

All I can type about is me.

To type about anyone else I know, or even to include them peripherally in this typing seems intrusive and poorly advised. We’ve all got our own stuff, it’s not for me to be hanging any of it out here to dry.

So, as ever, as always, all I have got to work with here is ‘me’.

So, what’s with me?

I’m okay. A bit worried about where we are and where we’re going. Making a lot of attempts at planning and thinking-forward and such, which is kind of counter-productive as the data available about what comes next is ever-evolving and hard to work with.

The four of us are all here, which is lovely. It feels reassuring too, to have us all under the one roof. We are lucky to live in a place where it is not difficult to respect the space between another person and where most things can be accessed without needing public transport. I don’t work in a big crowded office so, for now at least, I think I can slip from home to office desk without touching or troubling anyone else. The advice might change, of course, and I will change with it.

Everything’s a little bit ‘heightened’. The sunshine outside my window right now seems brighter and more spring-like. The birdsong seems louder. The anxieties are heightened too, as I am sure they are for most every other person. Am I doing the right things? Have I made some kind of a mistake somewhere? What will happen next?

I get the news every day, but I try to take time away from it too. A constant stream of repeating updates, particularly at this moment, tends to mess with my equilibrium a little. If I give myself too much of it, it gets to be like a ping pong ball bouncing around inside my brain pan. Even typing that, just now, has set the ricochet off again. Have I done this? Should I do that?

I need to stay out of people’s way whilst also trying to help as much as I can. I’m being nicer than nice, such that some people are looking at me funny. Who is this guy?

This could be a lovely time together here in the house, if we all avoid the virus or only get a lick of it, but it’s not that simple. What happens from here will inevitably be hard to watch and, obviously, even harder to be wrapped up in. The chart-curve, that I am told to aspire to, will doubtless play out. The big questions being how steep the curve will continue on before it declines and whether there will be another curve to follow that one.

I don’t know, I just don’t know.

But that’s life, isn’t it? I never know. On any given day there could be a bus coming up the road with my name on it, a tree destined to fall on my head. It’s just that, these days, the bus seems clearer, I feel that much closer to the tree.

I just have to keep on, doing the best I can, taking the advice, doing what I am told to do or what I tell myself I have to do.

It’s life, Jim, just bigger than we usually know it.

Review - Chekhov in Widescreen – Druid’s ‘Cherry Orchard’ in the Heart of Galway

Patricia and I made a pilgrimage to Galway on Thursday evening to see Druid’s brand-new production of ‘The Cherry Orchard’ in a translation by the late great Tom Murphy. It was a double opportunity for me. Firstly, to finally get to see a production of this play, because I had never seen one, and secondly to once more visit Druid in their home place, which is always an experience.

Another experience is this one; whenever I see Druid in action, I like to try to write down some of my thoughts on what I have seen. After my years in London, and although I see lots of great theatre, Druid provides a rare opportunity for me to get a very early view of a production that will have the best of everything possibly instilled into it and which will often go on to great things.

So, here we are. The Druid ‘Cherry Orchard’…

Probably the first thing to say is that it is a slow burn, in at least two different ways. Firstly, well, it’s a slow burn. There’s a lot of characters to meet and to come to grips with. When the interval came around, I stared into my fizzy water bottle and worried that the material wasn’t engaging me as I had hoped it would. The second half hit home harder. We knew who everyone was by then (well… almost) and the stakes had been defined. It was a slow burn in that respect.

And it was a slow burn in that other respect too. Leaving the theatre, I was thinking it just hadn’t moved me as much as I needed. Yet here I am, three days later, still mulling it all over, still engaged, still questioning. That may well be the nature of this beast – that it delivers ts punches gradually.

With so many characters to deal with, it is a challenge to define them all clearly. The production did this well, though one or two seemed to veer a little too much towards caricature in order to set themselves apart. Some characters are forgivably broad. That is there in the writing, but Varya, in particular, seemed too easily defined by her worry and her gloom. Everything about her nailed this aspect of her character, from her dour, key-ridden, costume to the inevitable cloud beneath which she resided. Despite this, her climactic scene with Lopahin was a definite high point of the play. The silences between them tortuously played and very telling.

I was not familiar with the text before seeing this production. Afterward, I read an old copy of the play that I had in a collection on my shelf, that translation credited to Constance Garnett. What jumps out, for me, between that text and the Druid production is that there are no out-and-out ‘bad guys’ in the Druid version. One could see how Lopahin, the poor-boy made-good, could have been easily painted as the culprit in the piece. But Druid works hard to make it not so. When we come into the theatre he is there already, asleep in his chair. He is played with sympathy and thoughtfulness and, even when he does what he inevitably does, the words of pleasure and satisfaction that he is given to say seem to ring hollow and unconvincing.

This seems indicative of the overall approach to the play that Murphy, but particularly Gary Hynes, has taken here. The Druid version does not seem to wish to be about a bad person or two. It does not seek to lay blame. It is not (as it may initially seem) primarily about corporate greed or property or money. Rather, it seems to be deeply concerned with the needs that people have and the inability, that other people have, to satisfy those needs.

All the characters in the play express their various needs quite overtly but, invariably, the person or persons who could help them either chooses not to acknowledge their need or chooses not to act.

This will be the first time that a Druid production will be live cast to Cinemas around the country. That is happening on Thursday 5th March. Looking at the play, I couldn’t help but feel that the production design has been largely influenced by this momentous development. The set is astonishingly wide and is inset with a similar widescreen ‘frame within a frame’. The whole thing seems deliberately cinematic. Oddly, it evoked for me one of those almost inevitable early morning RTE Christmastime viewings of David Lean’s ‘Doctor Zhivago’, particularly the later scenes (which always seem to be on, when I finally get up). In one sequence, Yuri and Lara return to the abandoned estate, the house now a striking ice-mansion. The set here, though not icy, reminded me of that ice mansion and the wide-wide aspect ratio of the staging made it feel as if a cinematic event was unfolding. 

One side effect of this impressive staging may be a loss of intimacy in certain moments. The cast spread out to fill the stage but, in doing do, they seem to lose touch with each other. As I write this, I wonder if this is also deliberate, further driving home the impression of those spaces between what we need and who on earth might give it to us. Deliberate or not, and visually striking as it is, it left me longing sometimes for the ‘in your face’ intimacy of Druid’s Godot from a few years ago, where I felt as if I was lying in the dirt with Vlad and Gogo instead of watching a movie, as I rather did here.

I came out of the theatre on Thursday evening with more concerns than I seem to have now. On the evening I was very pleased to have added The Cherry Orchard to the collection of artistic things that I have seen. In seeing it, I was entertained and treated to a generous spectacle. In truth, it just didn’t set me alight. Since then, though, I have found quite a lot of food for thought and consideration in what I saw. This leads me to think that instant gratification might not always necessarily be the goal. It’s that slow burn again. It’s still glowing a little as I write.

Love it or not, Druid inevitably affords us a golden opportunity to see world class theatre being created and performed here in our home in the West of Ireland. It is far too good an opportunity to pass up. And, even if you come away a little mixed-up or unfulfilled by the experience, the echoes of what you have been shown might well resonate in your mind in the hours and day to come.

And that, in itself, can only be a very good thing.

The Towering Influence?

Sometimes, with a blog like this, you can chase a thought too far until it isn’t a real thing anymore. This could well be one of those times. You can decide… or not. You can just read it… or not. It’s all down to you.

From time to time, the film ‘The Towering Inferno’ comes on TCM in a really nice full widescreen print and, when it does, I find it hard to leave it alone. This month is one of those times, it’s been on twice over the last week or so and I’ve watched different parts of it each time. Last night, it was into its final half between eleven and half past midnight and I reclined on the couch and went along with it for the ride, as I have so often done.

It’s a movie of its time and it looks pretty-darned silly in places now. There’s OJ, breaking down an apartment door that swings open just before he hits it. There’s Steve McQueen, being lowered onto a dangling scenic lift by an unseen helicopter whose blades would have been shattering off the side of the building if it had really been up there (‘always bugged me, that).

But it also has its moments. One sequence, in particular, succeeds in showing how cruel and unforgiving fire can be. When glamorous couple Robert Wagner and Susan Flannery get trapped by the fire in an isolated apartment, the point is well-made that, no matter how brave and resourceful you are, if the fire is between you and safety, the fire will get you.

It was a big movie in my life in ’74. Even at the age of 11, I was something of a buff. I used to buy a movie magazine and read up avidly on what was coming soon to my local cinema. ‘Towering Inferno’ came in with a lot of anticipation. Massive stars, massive budget, an unheard-of co-production from two major studios. I even read one of the books the film was based on, before it arrived. Yes, I was 11 and something of a strange child.

And that leads me to the point of all this movie trivia. I wanted to sandwich the key part of this piece between two sections of boring stuff. If I’m lucky, perhaps nobody will see it in here. Why would that be, Ken? Simply this; it involves me mentioning what I do for a living. Read the blog, all seven hundred thousand words of it, I don’t think I mention my career anywhere in all of those posts. It’s one of several places I choose not to go with these scraps of writing. A part of my life I enjoy enormously but also one which I don’t particularly want to write about.

So here it is.

It’s not something I ever realised back in the day. It’s only these days that I think I see it, when I watch that old movie late at night on a vintage TV channel. Paul Newman’s character, the architect, was probably a key part of making me want to spend my life working in the architectural profession.

Even now, when I watch the film, I am drawn to how well he knows his way around the workings of his building. He opens services ducts and electrical cabinets, he rolls out drawings and points directly to the key places and, when it comes to blowing up the tanks in the roof, he tells Steve McQueen that he may not know how to place the explosives but he sure-as-hell knows where they have to go.

I may have been only eleven but the vision of a person with this kind of knowledge and control over his subject (as well as being cool and handsome and married to Faye Dunaway) was probably a key element in my deciding what I would do with my life.

These days, I actually see the Paul Newman character in a different light. He is something of an impotent fool who allowed his masterpiece to fall through his fingers and be turned into a death trap by unscrupulous money makers. He may run bravely through the burning building, saving lives and being technically proficient, but he fucked up on a much grander level than that and he knows it.

Movies are a funny business, aren’t they?

And, of course, it’s never as simple as all that. By the time I saw The Towering Inferno, fire had already licked its way through my own family. A few years before, my Granny, with whom I was very close, had entered her neighbour’s house while fire burned savagely within. Valued lives, young and old, were lost on that terrible day and Granny spent the subsequent year of her life in various hospitals, undergoing operation after operation. Her injuries were horrific, but she survived and went on to live the remainder of her life with her customary vigour.

Perhaps I was too young but, watching the film back then, I didn’t seem to equate what was happening on the screen with what had happened in my life. Were my parents anxious about me going to see this film, given what I had seen? If they were, I never knew it. When I think of it now, the images on the screen seemed completely divorced from what had happened to Granny in the little house on the hill. I was watching an entertainment, nothing more, nothing less.

But things run deep and we don’t always know that they are running at all. In my work, I have a keen interest in seeing that matters of fire protection are observed and adhered to. I try to keep an eye out for things like that. It’s not totally surprising, when you think about it.

And therein lies my question. When I went into the Savoy Cinema that Friday evening in 1974, was I just seeing the next in a long line of flicks? Or did something more substantial happen that night? Is that the reason why I will still sit and watch ‘The Towering Inferno’ whenever to comes on TCM in that lovely widescreen print?

I don’t really know.

One final word on this. Just in case you might not think that a silly old flick could ever inspire anything of note, my small of amount of research reading threw up this IMDB note.

“After seeing this film, novelist Roderick Thorp had a dream that same night about a man being chased through a skyscraper by gun-wielding assailants. This was the inspiration for his 1979 book "Nothing Lasts Forever" which eventually was made into the film "Die Hard."


Short Fiction - The Cayvee Sleeps

The Cayvee makes its home in the gap between the back of the fridge and the wall. The fridge has not been moved in years and there is a collection of cobwebs there that looks like a quilt or a silky sheer blanket. All of the spiders who created these webs have long since moved away.

The Cayvee dwells among these deserted cobwebs and appears to be a part of these deserted cobwebs. If someone pulled out the fridge and swept the cobwebs away, they would most likely sweep the Cayvee away too without ever noticing that it had been there.

Imagine a translucent grey bat with a single long needle tooth and you may gain some idea of what the Cayvee looks like. You could watch it and watch it, if you could find it, but you would never see it move. It maintains its position, holds its stillness, week after week, month after month, sometimes even year after year. Like the Kangaroo Rat or the Desert Turtle, who can both wait quietly for years for their next drink of water, the Cayvee can exist, dormant, behind the fridge, among the webs, waiting for that rare moment when conditions finally come right and it can at last feed once more.

It had been four years since Linda had last left the fridge door open overnight. It had happened in the dead of winter, so nothing had spoiled. The only tangible consequence was that Kendrick had got up in the morning, padded into the kitchen, and tutted loudly when he found the fridge door ajar and the inside light casting its slender glow out onto the ceramic floor. His 'tut' wasn’t loud enough for Linda to hear. She has fallen asleep again, despite the fuzzy pop song which persisted on the clock radio. The fridge door was closed up and nothing more was ever said about it.

Four years later, it was Kendrick who forgot to close the door fully. He was getting a beer from the container at the bottom, the fourth of the evening, so he never noticed that the door had not swung shut. Linda found it that way in the morning and complained loudly to Kendrick, who had forgotten about Linda’s own earlier failing in the same regard. If he had remembered, he would surely have defended himself more thoroughly. It was summer and thundery, and the milk had turned slightly. It wasn’t the end of the world though. Hardly that.

On both occasions, the Cayvee had awakened at the unceasing throb of the fridge light. It had emerged from its cobweb cocoon and squeezed through the tiny gap at the side of the fridge. It had slipped inside, blind and deaf but alive to the sustenance inside. It had climbed and clawed, pierced with its single fang. 

And then it has feasted.

By morning, it was back among the cobwebs and the milk had turned again. The Cayvee didn’t know. It cared nothing for dairy products.

That Friday evening, Kendrick returned with the food, all fresh and chip-shop-pungent, with as much speed as he could manage. Although the vinegar was already seeping through the double-bagged fare, the chips were still vibrant and ‘roof-of-the-mouth’ hot-hot.

Linda had laid two plates out on the table, but Kendrick eschewed such niceties. The bag was the thing, that intrinsic part of the affair. From hot oil to mouth with minimal interference, that was the key. Only one further intervention was required. The final touch to make everything perfect.

Kendrick cracked open the fridge and foraged in the back, behind the half jar of spaghetti sauce and the ancient bottle of apple cider vinegar. He pulled out the plastic bottle, raised it high and stared.

“Bloody hell.”

“What?” His wife paused in her chip bite.

“I swear, one minute it’s full and the next minute it’s all completely gone.”

“Ketchup isn’t everything.”

“It’s an integral part.”

“Maybe you can squeeze a bit out.”

Kendrick held the bottle up to the light.

“Not a chance. It’s drained.”

“The kids are sleeping over; the food is here. Let’s just enjoy.”

“But the ketchup…”


“It’s like somebody actually drinks it or something. It’s like there’s a 'Ketchup Vampire' lurking around here somewhere, lapping it all up.”

“The movie’s starting.”

Deep in the tiny space behind the back of the fridge, the Cayvee stirs minutely as if something has momentarily evoked it. Perhaps a dark eye opens and peers out but, if so, it is only for the shortest moment. Its belly is full, and the world is secure for the foreseeable future. It is time to rest and rest and wait.

A time to feast will come again, some day.

The Cayvee sleeps.

Umbrella Genesis

When I was thinking about what to write this week, my mind kept coming back to my umbrella. Not sure why, it just did.

Perhaps it was because it was raining, Ken? Perhaps. Your guess is as good as mine.

In case you don’t know, I carry an umbrella with me almost everywhere I go. If it’s a marvelous bright sunny day with zero chance of precipitation then, no, I won’t have it with me but we don’t get many days like that here in the Wild West of Ireland. So, generally, yes, I have my umbrella when I’m out walking.

Although it rains a lot more over here than in other places, you don’t see as many umbrellas as you might expect. It’s even less common to see a man wielding an umbrella. The guys here are too rugged for that kind of thing. So I’m a bit of a rarity. Some people I meet on the street call me ‘The Umbrella Man’ and it’s often the subject of discussion or wry comment. Sometimes they call me The Writer Man too. I'll take either. 

So, yeah, when I was thinking about what to write this week, I thought I’d better write about my umbrella. The trouble is, I’ve been writing this blog for a long time now and I tend to forget what I’ve written about before. I looked back and found I had written about my umbrella and me twice before.

Where does that leave me for a blog post this week, when I’ve already covered my brolly so thoroughly? Genesis, perhaps. Where did it all start?


I didn’t always tote an umbrella. In fact, I wasn’t an umbrella guy at all when I lived in London. I was a hat guy. I wore a black trilby back then. I don’t think I could carry off a trilby now and, full disclosure, I don’t think I ever really carried off wearing one back then either.

If was only when I came back to Ireland in 1997 that the umbrella thing started.

In returning home, I left a practice in Upper Camden where I had worked very happily for five years. It was something of a wrench for me and, although I was going home, I was very sad to leave.

We exchanged small presents, the partners and me. I got a copy of The Oxford Companion to English Literature. It’s still there on my shelf behind me as I write this. Wait… I’ll take it down.

On page 43, there is a tiny insert, the type is the same size as all the other entries. It reads:

ARMSTRONG, Kenneth (B. 4 July 1963)
Irish Writer – following world voyage wrote first radio play, one success after another following in the footsteps of M.M. while working as an architect in London. Returned to Ireland in 1997 to expand horizon, keep dogs, drink, fish, improve golf handicap. During this period his writing suffered while his family grew. Finally produced masterpiece, sold 1,000,000 copies and film rights to Hollywood.

It was a cute little gag. Although it wasn't entirely a gag. I had written several radio plays by then and I was a little fixated on M.M, who is still going strong. It didn’t all come true, of course. I don’t have dogs, I don’t fish, golf or drink hardly at all. My horizons have gone the other way, if anything.

But I’m still trying with the writing. I wouldn’t say anything suffered while the family grew. Everything was perfect.

I’ll put the book back on the shelf now. It doesn’t come down very much, to be honest, and it’s still as spruce as it was on the day that I got it, though you can tell that a book is old, can’t you?

My present to the partners was an Oxford English Dictionary. It’s funny how we both chose rather similar books for each other. Inside I wrote, “I could not find the words,” and I thought that was pretty cute.

I got another present too, along with the book. You’ve guessed it. An umbrella. A simple note attached read, “You’ll need this.” I have.

That umbrella is long gone. Left in a coffee shop or blown inside-out by a gale, I can’t recall. But the encouragement to have an umbrella and to carry it with me is something that was given to me and something I have never let go of, whatever the weather.

That other encouragement has been much the same.

Perhaps I would have been the Umbrella Man all by myself but I really don’t think so. I don’t often hold on to good ideas on my own.

I have to be encouraged a little.

(Remembering Ian and Philippa and Son Coll)

Ausdruck Der Liebe Durch Technik

It’s Grand Slam Tennis time again and, as always, it’s a bit tough. Patricia is a huge tennis fan and a pretty darned good player too and she loves to watch tennis of all shapes and sizes but, particularly the four ‘Slams’ of the year; Australian, French, Wimbledon and the US Open. 

They’re great to watch but, when you have to work all day, it’s obviously very hard to catch them live. You really need to record the matches, try to avoid the myriad of sports updates all through the day, and then settle in to enjoy in the evening. 

It sounds easy, doesn’t it? But, actually, it’s a bit of a nightmare. It’s a nightmare for me because, being the closest thing to a tech-head in the house, I take it upon myself to record the matches that Trish most wants to see and have them available for next day viewing when she gets home from work.

The Australian Open is currently coming to the end of its first week and, frankly, it’s been exhausting.

Because of the time difference, the matches kick off around midnight, local-time, and then run up until maybe noon the next day. Nothing is seen live and everything has to be recorded. You never know exactly at what time a match will start, because it’s dependent on how soon the preceding match finishes. The only way to really cover it is to record both of the Eurosport channels all through the night and into the next morning. That’s a hella of recording, as the young folk might say.

Take last Thursday night/Friday morning, for instance. Roger was playing and, let’s be honest here, Roger is the Main Event in this house and has been for many years. To say that Patricia is a Roger Federer fan is a bit like saying I enjoy an occasional taste of chocolate. Roger is big in there here parts.

So I do my best to get the Roger matches. I work hard at it.

Thursday night before bedtime was a bit like setting a bear-trap to catch Roger. Both channels had every single programme set to record, even if one or two of them were not even tennis programmes. Matches overrun and programmes get shifted and the Sky box doesn’t always keep up. You have to give it a helping hand. So I even recorded programmes long after the match was due to end, just to be sure.

I called to the house at lunchtime, to check the recordings and make sure that all was in place for a stress-free evening viewing of the main event. There was Roger’s match starting near the end of one of the last recordings and then continuing on to the next recording, which was over four hours long. “That’ll do, Ken,” I said to myself, “that’ll do,” and made ready to return to work. But a niggling voice in my head kept pressing me. “Check it out, Ken. Best check it out.”

So I jumped the recording right to the end. Roger was still playing. It was a highly tense moment in a monster of a game. Who will win? Who will lose? Roger served…

The recording ended.

Shit, shit, shit.

The match had clearly overrun like crazy, even passing out the next programme I recorded. Thank heavens I checked it. Five hours of match-viewing ending like this would not be very nice. I checked the channel schedule for the rest day, there was no sign of the match being repeated. I tried to download the match from the online interface. Nope. I tried to subscribe to some streaming service where I might pick up that last few minutes. Nada. Finally, I saw that there was a highlights programme due to start at six o clock that evening. Roger was bound to be in that and they were bound to show the end of the match. Right?


Patricia came home at four and started watching the match. In any other sport, one would probably tell one’s spouse that the end of the recording simply wasn’t there but tennis doesn’t work like that. If I told Trish that the end wasn’t there, she would immediately know that it was a very long match and therefore a five setter. That’s a major spoiler for a tennis match. Tennis recording and watching back is full of unseen pitfalls like that. The length of the recording can tall you loads about how the match might go. Plus the coverage frequently cuts to the end of other matches to show you the last few points, which is a colossal pain in the ass.

It’s a jungle out there.

So I was at work, Patricia was watching the game, unaware of the sudden end that was coming just a few hours down the track.

I got home at six and started monitoring the highlights programme on my laptop in the other room while it was recording in the living room. Roger started playing on that programme. But would they show enough of the bit at the end and would I know before the recording currently being watched in the other room ran out? 

Tense times.

As it turned out, the highlights programme covered the shortfall pretty well. I noted the time on the programme when the final set reached 7-4 in the Championship tie break and then I went and informed Trish.

“This recording will end before the match ends but, fear not, I have it covered.”

The recording ran out, as promised. I quickly switched to the highlights recording and entered the time where I knew the score was be 7-4. The match ran on to the end without any problems. Roger won.

I won.

This is what I tend to do and I would guess I’m not alone in doing it. As a 2020 kind of a guy, I don’t tend to bring chocolates, I don’t really send flowers. I do my expressions of love for my lovely wife through matters of technology.

Roger’s playing again soon.

I’d better go and get organised.

Meet It Is I Set It Down

I’m not trying to be Arty or anything. It’s just that the phrase has been bouncing around in my head for a few days and that’s usually a signal that there might be a blog post in it. 

‘Not sure yet, let’s type a while and see what happens.

The words are spoken by The Prince of Denmark in that play and, no, really, I’m not trying to be Arty. It’s just that some of this stuff was caressed into us way back in school and then it never fully goes away. I think everybody got a little Shakespeare in their time and mine just happened to be Hamlet. In one scene, Hamlet has a deep thought and decides it’s something that he should scribble in his little notebook so that he doesn’t ever forget it. He says, “My tables—meet it is I set it down.”

That deep thought that Hamlet wanted to get safety noted down was pretty different to my own one. Because that’s what happened this week. I had a thought and said to myself, “better write that one down, motherfucker”. And then I thought how that thought hadn’t been terrible eloquently expressed in my head and that’s when Hamlet jumped in there for the old long-ago with all his ‘meet’ and ‘tables’ stuff.

In fact, Hamlet’s thought is an oft-repeated one (there I go again, oft-repeated, ‘must be something in the corn flakes). He concluded, “That one may smile, and smile, and be a villain,” and I can’t disagree with him on that one. Most of the ‘villains’ that I may have happened upon have tended towards smiles. So well done Hamlet (and Shakespeare) for setting it down. Chalk one up to you.

My own deep thought is a lot more obvious and, I’d bet, has been thought by most people at some point or another or, as is even more likely, at regular intervals throughout their lives.

I was walking to the supermarket ‘cos it was too nice a day to drive and I had some time. It has been freezing the night before and it was set to do it again that night and this day-in-between was crystal clear and sharply focused. The trees were completely bare and jagged against the almost impossibly blue sky and the air was sharp and clean. Everything seemed a little heightened and super-defined. Even the take-out bag that the kid walking past was carrying. The tangy smell of the vinegar was such that I could practically taste the chips inside.

The day was beautiful and the evening stretched pleasantly ahead and, with some ever-present exceptions, things were okay with the world.

“These are the good times.”

That’s what I thought.

“These are the good times.”

And then I thought, “’Better write that one down, motherfucker,” or words to that effect, which were quickly amended to something a little more presentable.

So here I am now, writing it down.

There’s a point to my writing it down too. At least I think there is. It’s not that I’ll need reminding of this next week or possibly even next year. I’m a ‘Glass Half Full’ kind of a guy so I am often aware that things are way, way better than they could be or maybe even should be. I don’t really need telling.

Of course, things are not perfect. Things are never-ever perfect. When Dickens wrote about it being the Best of Times and the Worst of Times, all at the same time, I think he could have been writing about a lot of our times. We all, nearly always, have some shit mixed in with the sugar. I sometimes think it might be a little test as to whether you are an optimist or a pessimist. If you were to say the words, "it was the best of times, it was the worst of times,” to yourself, in your head, how do you then think about those times? For me, I overridingly think about how they were the best of times, because I’m the ‘glass-half-full’ guy. I wonder, do other people tend to focus on the fact that it was the worst of times and does that make them ‘glass-half-empty’ people? I don’t know and, anyway, I digress.

This thought that I had, while just walking along, I felt it was meet that I set it down. I don’t need to be reminded of it anytime soon and, let’s face it, when the good times are over and my legs or my brain are gone slow and fuzzy, I probably won’t need reminding of it then either. That would be kind of rubbing it in a bit, “Hey, they were the good times!” “Yeah, cheers mate.”

What I will need though, in years to come, when legs and brain are failed, is for someone to wave this piece of writing in my face and say, “look, look at this.”

And if I can, I will look at it, particularly this paragraph, and I will know that, not only were those the good times, but that I knew they were the good times.

“There’s the rub”, as Hamlet says elsewhere (that stuff never goes away), I may be well aware in the future these were the good times. Good times are far easier to see in retrospect than when you are in them. But I may not remember that I knew it at the time too.

I think it would be good to know that: even though the world was frenetically busy and work and responsibility seemed to stand in the way of the good times, in fact, they were a key part of the good times.

And I knew that.

On some random Saturday in deepest winter, I looked around and I said to myself, “these are the good times.” I knew that, even when I was right in the middle of them.

You might print this off and wave it at me at some time when I can no longer remember this. I think the reminding of it might bring me some comfort. It might do me some small bit of good.

That’s why I feel it is meet that I set it down.

The Exact Opposite of the Wisdom of the Crowd

It used to be a big thing about ten or fifteen years ago; The Wisdom of the Crowd. I don’t pretend to know an awful lot about it. In fact, my main memory of it was when Derren Brown used it as the primary patter in one of his shows.

From memory, and two minutes of Googling, the theory was resurrected by a man called James Surowiecki and was possibly originally put forward by a relative of Charles Darwin in the early 20th Century. 

He observed a ‘Guess the Weight of an Ox’ competition at a local fair where, although the guesses were diverse and highly variable, when all the guesses were added-up and averaged-out, the result was surprisingly accurate. Hence crowds can be wise and average judgment can converge on the correct solution.

I’m a bit like Sting in that old song of his; I don’t subscribe to this point of view. More than that, I’m not sure how anyone can, in this world we live in.

For me, crowds are not wise. In fact, crowds are bloody stupid.

Most of the crowds I see are on the news. The crowds who voted Trump in. The crowds who voted for Brexit. The crowds I see on Social Media present themselves if I am misguided enough to leave the merry cohort of people I read and talk-to and click on one of Twitter’s ‘Trending Topics’. ‘World War 3 is here’, they bleat, winding each other up to exploding point. ‘The World is Ending. ‘The Foreign Invader Will Overrun Us’. The 'crowd' that is plain to see anywhere online is a fearful, twitchy mass that presents as neither wise nor kind.

In fairness to the theory, its success did seem to rely on situations where the members of the crowd were capable of independent thought and were not prone to being influenced by each other’s decisions. Quoting for some online thing that I happened upon, “Groups were tending towards a consensus, to the detriment of accuracy.”

So, the theory was never going to work online at that rate. But who cares anyway? Screw the theory. That’s the point, right there. Groups tend towards a consensus. And we join the groups that give us the consensus that we feel we want and need. How can there possibly be any wisdom in that?

And let’s now forget it works for the so-called ‘good opinions’ as well as for the bad. All us jolly folk, who reckon we have nice positive views, we all gather in the same places and tell each other all of our good things. And we fool ourselves into thinking we are changing anything or impacting on anything when, patently, we are doing nothing of the kind. We are in our safe room, muttering to each other, while others are in the room next door, muttering their less-palatable truths.

The trouble is all this stuff, which is the exact opposite of ‘The Wisdom of Crowd’ is viral and pervasive. When a bunch of people start shouting about World War Three because they fear it, then more join in and shout it too. Not because they know something useful to add to the story. Just because many others are saying it and now, they should say it to so they can remain part of the cohort, whatever the cohort may be.

The further trouble, unlikely but somehow true, is that when something incorrect is said over and over and over again, it somehow starts to gain credence simply by the force of its repetition. There is a danger than the not-so-wise crowd might tweet themselves a little closer to something terrible simply by misguidedly going on and on and on about it without any modicum of genuine knowledge or insight.

There are terrible things afoot in the world. We must not be mistaken about this. But the answer is not to hop maniacally from the current hot stone to the next, never stopping to think. Better, I think, to calm the fuck down and try to make things a bit better at the level on which we can effectively operate. There’s not much point in constantly panicking at some global level when the bins need taking out.

Crowds may be wise or they may be stupid, depending on where you sit. All I know is I’m trying to keep clear of them. Regardless of whether they seem to spout pointless drivel or actual gospel truth, I’m out.

If you’re looking for me, you won’t find me in the latest trending topic on Social Media or, heaven help us, on the News. I’ll be down here trying to figure it out for myself as best I can.

Using the limited wisdom of the Solitary Man.