Some Thoughts After Rereading The Shining

I just finished a little reread of Stephen King’s ‘The Shining’ and I wasn’t going to write about it here, but two things changed my mind. Firstly, I like to write about something I’ve been thinking about during the week and this qualified. Secondly, Aaron Cahill, a lovely guy and a constant supporter of my ‘long-past-their-sell-by-date’ blog endeavours, also announced that he was rereading it. 

So that was like Karma or something.

So, yeah, this post will be mostly about The Shining so it might not be everyone’s cup of tea. I get that. But maybe come back next week, if this one is not for you. I’ll be on some other tack. Though God only knows what that will be. 

Whatever occurs at the time, as per usual.

Some history first. My best guess is that I bought the novel ‘The Shining’ in or around 1978, when I was fifteen. I had been casting around for some reading that engaged me a bit more and, without really knowing anything about King, I picked up two of his novels in Broderick’s bookshop at the bottom of O’Connell St. in Sligo. The other one was Salem’s Lot. I have a strong physical memory of these books because they were both really poorly bound and they both fell apart in my hands while I was reading them.

I found both books to be unputdownable. I was fascinated by the way dialogue and paragraph and narrative could be randomly and savagely interrupted by some other thought, like a TV channel being changed without warning. My breathless reading of The Shining started a life-long affair with Stephen King’s writing.

Then came the movie.

I saw the movie with Brian McGill in The Savoy in Sligo on the Saturday night it came out. I was due to catch the train to Dublin first thing the next morning to start college. My first time ever to be away from home. So, it was an odd evening. The film didn’t go down too well. I really like it now but, back then, it seemed slow and uneven and weirdly uneventful (which it certainly is not).

Now we’re up to date. 2020. I’ve seen the movie a gazillion times and even had coffee in the Stanley Hotel in Estes Park, where King had some formative inspiration for the novel, but I had not revisited the book since I was a callow youth. On the prowl for something to read, earlier this week, I found a more modern copy on John’s bookshelf and had a peek inside. That was it. I was off once more to The Overlook Hotel, high above fictional Sidewinder in the not fictional Rockies.

So… how was it Ken?

Interesting. It was interesting.

The first thing to say is that King’s style and power was still evolving and growing and although the concept was world-beating, the writing is occasionally a little – dare I say – clunky. Younger Stephen seems to have had some kind of minor fixation with breasts because they get an impressible amount of shout outs throughout the text. 

Some of the scary imagery just doesn’t work for me. Most notably the topiary animals who periodically and literally spring to life. For me, that was too absurd to be chilling. Similarly, the boiler in the basement seemed strained, with no pun intended.

As somebody who has tried a bit of writing since I first read this book, I can now entertain myself by imagining the thought process that started King on this road. You take Shirley Jackson’s ‘Haunting of Hill House’, with its malevolent structure and its psychic visitors, and you massively up the ante. The house becomes a vast hotel. The psychic presence a little boy. It’s a genius conceit.

But here’s what I really want to try to say.

After this second reading, I would say that The Shining is, for me at least, one of Stephen King’s most important books. People who know me through writing will know that I am always banging on about the ‘little drop of blood’ that needs to go into one’s writing to give it intrinsic value. There must be something of the writer’s soul buried in the work for it to reach us. Pure cold story will not do. And, for me, on this second reading, Stephen King has opened a vein and bled into this book.

It is, through and through, a story of alcoholism and fear.

When I am writing, in my own low-wattage way, I don’t usually know the actual point of what I’m doing until I get to the end. Then I go back and rewrite it, informed as I now am but what I am doing. To my mind, King could have written this book as a supernatural horror story and not known until late-on that he was pouring all his own fears and insecurities in there as fodder for the story machine. I don’t know, I’m only speculating. But the overriding impression for me now is that the writer is a man who has known alcoholism (he makes no secret of it) and who has probably feared where that might take him. This fear drips off the pages in this book.

I’m lucky in that alcohol has not played a starring role in my family history. I thank heavens for that. But anyone who has lived in a small town will know the sight of the main breadwinner of a household stumbling home from the hostelry, singly focused on getting in the door. Anyone from a small town will know that thought that goes something like, “I hope he falls asleep quickly.”

Stephen King famously has little regard for Kubrick’s film adaptation of the book. This surprised me initially because so many King adaptations are well below-par and, love it or hate it, Kubrick’s endeavour is striking and innovative and pretty damn wild.

But I think I can understand a little better now why King might not have much time for that movie. As much as the book is ultimately a thinly veiled metaphor for the horrors that alcoholism can wreak on a family, so equally the movie is not. Oh, there is booze there and it plays its part, but it is not the root of everything, it is not the point. And Jack Nicholson’s Torrance becomes ever more elevated and dominant as his possession advances while the Torrance of the book becomes a shambling incoherent mess of a thing, a drunk through and through.

I greatly enjoyed my rereading of The Shining. It’s not perfect but nothing ever is and the imagery from the film rather pervades the book, such that’s it’s hard not to see Nicholson when it’s Torrance standing there.

Not everyone's cup of tea, this, but still a very good read. There is more going on than meets the eye and that's always a good start for a good book. 

Walking the Second Beach

Took Friday afternoon off I did, in true Yoda fashion, and hopped in the car and headed for Sligo to meet my old pal and to have a walk with him on the Second Beach at Rosses Point.

We were lucky with the weather. The sun shone us out and back and it was only on the final part of the return march that the wind fired in a squall from across the bay and the rain came on in drenching waves. 

We sheltered at the side of a car which was fortuitously parked at a good angle on the side of the road. It shielded our lower halves from the driven rain and our jackets looked after the top halves. There was a middle-aged couple in the car having sandwiches and a flask of tea and they were happy to loan us the side of their car in this way for five minutes, even going so far as to ask us if we wanted to climb in, though we knew they didn’t mean it really.

Social Distancing was easy; the nearest people were mere dots on the horizon for most of the time. You can tell the knowledgeable walkers on the Second Beach because they veer sharply to the right and away from the oceanside when they draw near to the cliffs at the end. They know what the novice visitor does not – that there is a busy stream than flows constantly through the golf course, down across the beach and into the tide. There is an easy crossing up close to the dunes. Nothing fancy, some rocks and a plank of wood, but if you try and cross it further down it’s deceptively deep and fast-running and you will get your socks wet. Follow the locals, veer to the right. You won’t go far wrong.

The second beach ends at the base of a small cliff and a rocky outcrop down to the shoreline. You can walk further but we didn’t. It gets a bit slippery over beyond. We’d come far enough.

We had so much catching up to do that the beach nearly passed me by. I got so engrossed in the conversation that I almost forgot to take it all in. The wild windswept blue sea, the sky, the lands across the bay. I only noticed the extreme erosion on the way back and, as I sit here and think about it, I can’t even be sure that the always-constant metal buoy was still there embedded in the sand as it always has been. It must have been, right? I’m mean it’s never not been there, for as long as I can remember. I guess the chat was so involving that I walked right past it. I guess that was it. I hope it’s still there, I used to like trying to climb up it when I was little and succeeding when I was bigger. At the end of the beach part of the walk, I had to stop and look around for a moment. Just to imprint it a little harder on the retina.

In case you haven’t figured it out yet, this post isn’t actually about much. There won’t be much detail, narrative, sense, or insight into anything useful. I drove to the beach in my old hometown, had a nice walk and a great chat and came home again. It did me a power of good but to try to explain why would be boring and a bit pointless. Anyway, you know why. It was the beach. It was a friend. It was a walk. You have all the tools to figure it out.

Rosses Point has always seemed a tiny bit ‘other-worldly’ to me. I think it’s because there’s so little down at the beaches to define it as particularly Irish. There’s no shops or administration buildings or anything like that. Just an abandoned beach store, long disused, and a hut for the lifeguards. Apart from that, you could perhaps be anywhere. It’s kind of a blank palatte of sea and sky on which you walk and dream a bit if you like.

A beach walk is a good thing. There’s the theme of this post. I knew it would show itself eventually.

And the Second Beach in Rosses Point has always been a part of my life, back from when I was very little. It is a wonderful place, expansive and bright. If you’re round that way, go and take a walk up and down it. 

Or any beach, for that matter. You’ll see what I mean.

 

Keywords – For Us

There were two apparently unrelated occurrences this week which got me thinking about the uncanny connection between them. Then I drew a conclusion and then I discounted the conclusion as being overly sentimental. Then I went and revised that opinion too.

So, yeah, it’s been a busy old week, here in Ken’s head.

First thing: That box of photo albums in the corner.

They’ve been there a few years now. They were Dad’s so I thought I’d better look after them. In his later years, he collected all the old snaps in these albums. They come in all shapes and sizes and there’s no theme or chronological sense to the contents. Random photo beside random photo. The Sixties right up close to the Two Thousands. I glanced through one or two the other day. Everybody was much, much younger than I thought they were at the time. Some of them evoked memories but the ones that did not were perhaps the most interesting. 

That’s me there, what was I doing? Why can’t I remember that? A beach, a picnic, Sunday afternoon. Wait, how do I know it was Sunday afternoon? I must remember something of it after all.

Second thing: Being side swiped by an old song on the CD player in the car.

My pal John makes me a compilation CD of old songs now and again, just for fun. I keep them in the car, and, after initial plays, I give one a random rerun now and again. John has an uncanny knack for landing on old songs that I like.

The other day, driving somewhere and fed up with golf controversy and general whataboutery, I stuck one of the CDs on. What did I get? ‘Run for Home’ by Lindisfarne. And, suddenly and quite remarkably, there I was, on the beach from the photograph. Sunday afternoon, Lissadell House, Sligo. Drive one road into the house estate, drive out the other. Never going near the house itself, straight to the small quiet beach. I had my beloved transistor radio and as I walked in between the dunes, that song was playing. No question, a strong memory evoked. It was in the charts in 1978 so I was close to fifteen years old. That surprises me. I must have been a reluctant participant in the beach excursion by then, the little radio my saviour. I was probably sulkily listening to some chart show and wishing I was anywhere else. The details are sketchy, as you can tell, but the song and the location are clearly bound together. In truth, the strongest memory I have of it all is how far out the tide was and how grey and light blue everything was coloured. Mum and Dad were there, of course, and it was nice to see them again, quite clearly, if only in my mind’s eye.

Conclusion:

Reliving the memory as the song played, trying to interrogate it for more information, I concluded what I often do and what many have done before: that we keep our departed loved ones alive through our memories of them and, when we remember them, they live again for a little while in that memory.

Not a new or original thought but not a bad one either.

Discounting the conclusion:

But wait. You’ve lapsed into sentimentality, Ken, and perhaps it’s not wise to let it stand. Imagine when you are dead and gone, Ken, and someone remembers you fondly and smiles, as we can hope that someone occasionally will. Do you then magically spring back to life and move around and think and feel and love again? Alas, no. And what is life? Most of the definitions I’ve looked up are too scientific or too philosophical to entertain here. Let’s just settle for something like this: Life involves an element of doing stuff. When someone thinks of me after I’m gone, will I hop up and start doing some stuff? 

Don’t think so.

So, therefore, this notion of bringing people back to life by remembering them is sentimental at best. I saw a photo and heard a song and that was nice, but nobody was resurrected, were they? So, get a grip, Ken, keep at least one foot on the floor.

Revised opinion:

Having coldly ‘logic’ed it all away, I felt a bit like I had lost something in the wash. Some little bit of sentimental comfort, perhaps. But, no, more than that. I can be cool and sensible about all this, but I shouldn’t throw the baby out with the bath water. There is something to this, whatever it is. When we think of our loved ones who have ventured on ahead, they do come back. They may not rush out and fill the coal bucket, but they are still back, in some way in some respect.

Thinking about it some more, I think the words ‘For Us’ might be the keywords here.

When we think our friends and family who have died, when a song evokes them, or when a photo imprints their image once more on our retina, they come back. They come back ‘For Us’. This is undeniably true. Since the photo and the song, my Dad has been riding shotgun with me in the car, pointing out landmarks, suggesting possible alternate routes.

And so, pushing the idea a bit further, there is perhaps some comfort, too, for those who have gone. They may well be beyond such earthly considerations as the ones we speak of but there could still be a sort of comfort to be had. It is the comfort they take before they go. The knowledge that they will continue to be evoked in conversations and stories and memories and, yes, in photos and in songs as well.

Whether there is comfort to be had beyond that, we cannot know. But if it comforts us to think there might be (and there might be) then why not have a little of that too?

It’s almost too hard to get a grip on all this stuff in regular words and sentences. It’s complicated and a bit messy too.

Perhaps this is the kind of thing that poetry is for.

Sunlight Through Dust

There’s a smell that I smelled once when I was very small. In my head I call it 'Sunlight Through Dust'. Now and again, I may catch an olfactory glimpse of it in some odd corner. Not very often though. Mostly it was just that one time, back when I was small.

Memories like these are wispy at best. It’s possible that very little of them are true and that the rest is built up from other ideas and memories that were gathered around them as the years went by.

Here’s what I remember from this one anyway.

Back then, we didn’t have a car and sometimes, on fine days, we would get the bus to Rosses Point. The place to get on the bus was at the low stone wall across from where the statue to WB Yeats is now. I just had a look on Google Streetview and the wall is still there, just like it was, and, damn, there’s still a bus stop there too. Fifty years on, it hasn’t changed much.

Anyway, we’d get the bus there, Mum and me and some of the others, I guess. Though my memory just has Mum and me in it. Dad would have been at work. We had a bag with a blanket to lay out on the sand and I imagine we had biccies and diluted orange too. Once, I remember, we were out at the Point and it started to rain really heavily, and one of Dad's work colleagues gave us a lift home in his car. I remember this because, on the drive in, there was a place on the road where it just wasn’t raining anymore. You looked back and it was still raining but, in front, it was sunny and clear. Mum called it a ‘cloud break’ and I think she said it was only a sun shower after all. 

It's funny, the things we remember.

This smell that I remember came to me when I was getting on to the bus. You climbed up the steps towards the driver and I know that I must have been really small because the steps seemed very big and the interior of the bus did not reveal itself until I was right at the top step. Mum paid the driver and then you worked your way down the aisle to a seat (like you don’t know this already).

What about this smell though? What was it? 

How do you describe a smell? It was like the bright warm sunshine, magnified through the bus windscreen, had heated up some of the dust on the steps up to the driver. It was warm and musty and not overtly special and not particularly pleasant. Why do I like it then? Why do I remember it so well? I think it contained a promise of the day to come, the beach, the sea, the sandy biscuits, the pale orange drink. I think that’s it. It was the smell of a promise of a good day.

I can’t reproduce it. There’s no place I can go to breathe deeply of this ancient essence. Perhaps it's lurking there still in the stairwell of some sunny bus but I don’t do buses as much as I used to. I have done plenty in my time though and never found that smell there again.

As I said right at the start: once in a blue moon, I’ll think I catch a hint of it on a breeze. “That’s it,” I might say to myself, “that’s the bus smell.” But, by the time I’ve thought that it’s gone again, whisked away to wherever it goes.

The smell is tied up with memory, as so many scents are. It evokes a feeling more than a picture or a soundscape. A feeling of warm sunny days, adventuring out, family and safety.

I wish it were in a bottle.

Massive Fry Up

I like a Saturday sausage at the best of times. There’s no denying it.

But lockdown and all the related stuff has brought that once humble banger to a whole new level. The massive Saturday lunchtime fry up is now a thing and long may it last. All hail the conquering hero. 

Truth? It’s not all that massive. Not in actual scale, at least. It’s more massive in its social context, the importance of its role as a marker for where we are in any given week.

If it were just me and Patricia here, it would still be the humble sausage on its own. All instigated by me. Patricia is good and would not look to overdo it on the sausage front, but I would eat the little beggars all the livelong day. But it’s not just me and Trish, not since March when it all kicked off. The two boys-to-men are returned from university and we are a full family unit again. Some more truth? It’s been totally great. We love having our guys here at the best of times and being able to revisit the idea of our happy foursome settled under one roof continues to be a joy. Of course, in an ideal version of this world, it wouldn’t be happening. Not for so long at least. But it is and it’s no hardship.

I went through a phase of grilling my sausages. It’s okay. But look, you can’t beat a fried one. You just can’t. I like to fry them quite gentle over a low flame. I do them on their own. Let’s not crowd the pan. Get all those suckers brown all over, not too crispy, before you do anything else. I heat a big plate under the grill and the sausages go in there under some tinfoil. I learned that from seeing Mum do it for Saturday evening fry ups years ago. Everybody probably does it, but I like to pretend it’s only me. The hot plate will keep those sausage nice and warm while the bacon gets a solo run in the pan. Maple bacon cut nice and thick. Actually, I tell a lie about the solitary pan. The black pudding is sometimes allowed in with the bacon, sometimes with the sausages. It doesn’t take up too much space and it fries up pretty quickly and it imbibes everything else with a nice black-pudding vibe.

Bacon is done. Not too crispy but well cooked all the same. On to the hot plate with the sausages. There’s a sheet or two of kitchen roll in under all the sausage and bacon to take a little of the excess oil away.

Time to get some eggs on. Nice fresh ones. Crack them on the side of the pan, turn the cracked side up to the ceiling, open the shell up and let them glide on to the pan. They’ll be coloured a bit with the essence of the things that have been on there before. So they may not be as aesthetically pleasing as an egg fried in pristine oil but, again, the borrowed flavours are worth the trade off of the slightly unsightly end result. Nice to leave a little bit of runny yolk in there too.

Meanwhile, toast is being toasted. Tea is being brewed in the Bewley’s pot with real Barry’s tea leaves. Coffee is being brought along in the large cafetiere. There are cosies for both to keep them piping hot until they’re needed. The tea cosy fits perfectly. It’s like a little hat with ts own bobble on top and all. Someone knitted it for Patricia and it’s as old fashioned looking as it is treasured. The cosy for the coffee is another teapot cosy and it doesn’t fit well at all. But still it serves.

French baguettes from the shop, sliced end to end and buttered. J likes to construct an elaborate roll with everything laid mathematically inside. S hasn’t been up terribly long and settles for a roll with sausage in and a piece of bacon and black pudding on the side. Patricia likes eggs on toast, easy on the sausage, well cooked bacon, and tea. J and me have coffee. S and Patricia have tea.

Big white plates. Bigger than needed. You need room to move stuff around.

I’m sure Patricia would not be annoyed to see more of a veggie presence in the offering. Sometimes there’s a tomato or two but that’s it. Mushrooms don’t fit into this plan and beans always seem gauche and out of place. It’s a little meat feast.

I don’t eat an awful lot myself. A couple of sausages, a single slice of bacon, a single slice of black pud, occasionally an egg. I enjoy it but I get the most fun out of putting it together. Landing it all at once. It helps me remember it’s Saturday. I particularly enjoy the coffee.

It happens every Saturday at about half past one though usually running a little late. It’s lunchtime in the Armstrong household.

 We’re okay being here together. We’re doing fine.

Another sausage?

Love and Complication


Succession has got me started with thinking about Dads again.

Don’t worry, I won’t be doing any spoilers of that super TV series. I’ll keep it tidy.

I had wanted to see Succession for a long time. You know the one. HBO. Brian Cox as the leader of a multi-billion dollar media and entertainment conglomerate. A bit of a bastard. 

My friends, Marie and Katie, not only confirmed for me that it was indeed great fun but that it was also available for download from my basic Sky package. So, I got on it and we started watching regularly. I recommend it. It’s naughty and edgy and very well done. I’ll be sorry when we finish the two series’ that currently exist. We’re into the second as I type, one per night, lock down style.

Cox’s character, Logan Roy, is a pretty interesting one… for me at least. Apart from being a bastard and being colossally powerful while simultaneously being personally vulnerable, he also presents a heightened portrayal of the many different things that Dads are and can be.

Like a lot of other men, I get two shots at thinking about what it means to be a Dad. That’s because I am one and because I also had one. It’s a cloud I’ve looked at from both sides now.

So, what have I seen? 

Jees… I don’t know.

I know there’s a wide divergence between how I remember my own Dad and how I view myself as a Dad and I suppose that’s the reason why I’m sitting here, trying to type around this matter this morning. That’s also the reason why Succession comes into the thought process.

It’s about power. Well, it’s about a lot of things but it’s at least partly about power. I saw my Dad as a powerful person. To me he was a big man, able to take care of himself, nobody’s fool, kind and funny but not to be messed with. Though he never lifted a hand in anger against anyone, there was a not unpleasant feeling that there were lines that could not be casually crossed with him. I tried to think of a movie character who might evoke how I saw my Dad and the best I could come up with was the Burt Reynolds character in ‘Deliverance’ who was also the Lewis Medlock character in the James Dickey novel. Much more the person in the earlier part though, before that character’s failings and vulnerabilities began to show. Dad was an outdoors man, like Lewis. If he were stuck up a gorge without a paddle, he would fend for himself and the bad guys wouldn’t stand a goddamn chance.

There’s that gap in perception, right there. I could never imagine anyone perceiving me as someone of power, someone to be respectful of but also a touch wary of. For better of worse, these have grown to be traits that sort of define fatherhood for me. Don’t get me wrong, I reckon I’m a darned-good Dad, I certainly try my best at it and that hopefully counts for something.

But, even typing this as I am, without much of a plan or a road map, it strikes me that there are clearly two types of Dads in the world and they are poles apart. The Dads we had and the Dads we are.

Perhaps that’s part of the fascination with Logan Roy. As a character, he seems to stand astride both types of Dads (though mostly on the side of the one we had). Perhaps that’s what got me thinking.

And then the Dad/Child relationship changes so markedly as the years go on. Power and capability are unavoidably transferred. Something I saw in my own Dad's eyes years ago is now firmly settled in my head. A growing bafflement with the world. A dull surprise that an existence that for so long seemed incapable of change has finally begun to change irrevocably after all. The young generations have all the knowledge and stamina to exist effortlessly in the strange new world which has sprung up, while we, the Dads, seem increasingly out of place and out of depth with each passing year.

I look at Logan Roy on that telly programme and I dislike him. He is self-serving and cruel and merciless. But I love seeing him win too. He is a Dad’s Dad, he would survive up that canyon without a paddle. Man, he would bring that canyon down on everybody’s head and walk away smiling.

But he is fading too. A fading man. He doesn’t know when to stop pouring the coffee and then he piddles it out in the corner of his room. For all his high-power, the world is sailing past him as well.

Typing on, as I am, I am aware of people who will read this who never even got to meet their Dad. Also people who lost their Dad so recently that it is still so very raw (it is always a little raw). The Dad so recently passed, lives on in warm memory and stories and loving smiles. The Dad never known, gone so very long, still creates ripples of memory within the family. Those who knew him, evoke him meaningfully and we listen in quiet awe and wish we could have known him too.

For my part, I miss my own Dad, Eddie, gone now over eight years. Though the world whizzed on past him, as it does to us all, he never lost touch with it. He was never not funny or smart, never not someone to be respected and approached with care, never not the Father Figure.

It’s a messy post this week. It’s a messy subject. I think I’ll just go back to the next episode of Succession and see if that clears things up.

And, of course, it all makes a rough sort of sense when I think about it. I don’t feel about myself in the same way that I felt about my Dad and that is only right and proper. After all, I am not my Dad. I’m a Dad to two other people of the world and, in all likelihood, they will see me with all the love and complication that I did for my own Dad.

I can never see myself that way. How could I ever expect to?

It seems to make sense.

Blank Page Day


It only happens about once every year. And, here we are, it’s happening today.

I’m sitting here, all set to write my blog post for the week. Window open, sunshine streaming in, neighbour’s strimmer buzzing down the way. I’m raring to go. It’s just, well, you know… ‘bit embarrassing…

I don’t know what to write about.

Generally, the subject of the weekly post just presents itself at my feet. Sometimes I have to squeeze a bit.

What happened this week? What annoyed me? What made me smile? What do I reckon I’ve learned?

The main advantage I have is that I’m never really trying to impress anyone. That’s why it’s usually so easy to do. I don’t really care if you, the reader, are overly amused, outraged or educated. Any given post is just a tile in a mosaic that pretty-much fills a wall at this stage. I have nothing to gain and not much to lose from my weekly scribblings. That all serves to make it easier to do.

Except on weeks like this.

It’s not that nothing has happened this week. Lots of stuff happened. Just not the kind of stuff that congeals readily into a blog post.

Oh, oh, I got my haircut. My long-time haircutters and friends in Staunton’s have organised a very tight ship where nothing is too much trouble for them and where all the fun and banter still slips through the masks and the shields. My curly hair had caused a bit of a stir 'cos I stuck a photo up on Facebook and some people thought my ungainly locks had something to contribute. It was all quite flattering, but they had to go. I’m back to the shorter hair me now and I feel the better for it.

On days like these, where I can’t think of very much to say, there is always a nagging little fear. The fear that I might say too much. It’s fine when there is firm ground to stand on when you’re scribbling a post. But, on days like these, when you venture off in search of something to write, you can quickly find yourself down in the swamp dredging up something dubious and ever so slightly manky.

Sometimes all of this rambling stuff gets cut out. The very writing of rubbish like this sometimes prompts an idea. You run with that and then this first part becomes completely redundant, a mere prelude to the actual coherent post that evolved from it. Snip it off and leave it on the cutting room floor where it belongs and… and…

Nah. ‘Ain’t happening.

I could just post nothing this week. That might be the wise thing to do. I’m away tomorrow anyway so it’ll have to go up late tonight if it’s going to go up at all. Just give it a miss. Take one of your ‘weeks off'. I think I average about 45 posts a year so there are always quite a few ‘weeks off'. Let this be one of them. Nobody minds. I know, I know.

But, somehow, in the collective scheme of things, in the weeks where I’m busy saying absolutely nothing I’m still saying something in a strange sort of way.  A blank space contributes to the overall mosaic where no space at all gives nothing.

So here we are…

The weather’s been shit. I don’t mind so much. I still remember how extraordinary April and May were and I know we can’t have sunshine all the time or we’ll just be the Kalahari Desert and who the hell wants that anyway? Today is a little better than it has been.

There are a thousand things I would be better off doing than sitting here typing this pointless shit. But I like it. I know it’s part of the process of trying to create. You have to stay in the chair, you have to work the medium. It won’t happen if you don’t.

I’ll do better next week. At least, I hope I will. Something will happen. Something will occur. A post will issue. It won’t be much good, but, sure as fuck, it’ll be better than this.

Sorry for wasting your time today.

Thanks for reading.

Why are you still here?


Still Raining in the Woods


I got home from work the other evening and sat down to watch a bit of telly before dinner. On BBC2 there was this programme about a woman taking a series of walks through her home county of Yorkshire. I looked her up just now. Her name is Shanaz Gulzar and she’s a well-known artist.

The idea of the four-part series of programmes seemed to be that she would go on these walks, just her and her clever camera (more on that anon), but that she would approach the walks in a frame of mind that was completely open to all of the sensory possibilities around her. The one I saw was a fabulous stroll over beaches and cliffs into Whitby. Shanaz noted things like the patterns of the tides in the sand, the interspersing of wheat and barley in the fields, the butterflies along the path.


I must confess, I got quite hooked into it all.

But I have one other small confession to make.

The thing that initially hooked me into the programme was not the walk itself, nor was it the lovely sensory revelations along the way.

Alas, no.

It was her clever camera.

As I started to watch the show, the deal with her clever camera seemed straightforward. She had it mounted on the end of a stick, a bit like a selfie-stick, and she held the stick in her hand as she walked along, talking up to the camera on the end of it. No intrigue there.

But (and I can’t emphasise how much this this exercised me) when we saw the camera’s view, we could see Shanaz and we could see her glorious surroundings, but we couldn’t see the stick. We could see her hand, and it was clearly holding some kind of handle, but the stick itself was invisible.

I was baffled by this. I started to watch really carefully to see what it all meant. There were a number of drone shots, which accentuated the walk and the stick holding the camera could be seen in those shots. Also, when Shanaz’s shadow was visible, you could see the shadow of the stick quite plainly. But the camera simply vanished it. It rocked my Wednesday evening world a little.

I was so engaged that I called my sons into the room. Look, what witchcraft is this? They were mildly engaged but not nearly as excited as I was. They seemed to accept that this ‘stick vanishing’ is the kind of thing technology should be expected to do these days. But for me, it was other-worldly, it was Pierce Brosnan’s car.

I was like this for 3D printers at first too, until I got used to them.

So, anyway, after the show was over, I looked it up. It’s all there on YouTube, easily explained. You arrange the 3D camera so that it points directly away from the selfie stick. There’s a little ‘blind spot’ right at the back which the camera doesn’t pick it up. It fills in the scenery instead. It’s a great effect when you see it for the first time though, as I did this week. A little like that first sight of the Vertigo ‘Beach Dolly-Zoom’ in Jaws. (That’s on YouTube too, if you’re bothered).

So that was it. The camera issue was resolved.

But the programme kind of stayed.

Shanaz had a got a lot from her walk. She studied stuff, she chatted to the fellow-walkers she encountered along her way, she sat by a cliff edge and recited a poem.

I resolved that I would apply some of the things she did, the next time I walked in a beautiful place, though maybe not the poetry.
  
Later that evening, I had an errand to do. I’d left the car on the forecourt of the garage and I needed to walk down there and drive it home. At around ten o’clock, the rain finally stopped and so I set off. I’d just crossed over the main road when a thought occurred. I didn’t have to wait for some exceptional, beautiful walk to practice what Shanaz had been practicing. Any walk would do. So, as I walked along, I kind of opened myself up to everything that was going on around me. As soon as I started doing it, I knew that it was something that I really don’t do very often. I tend to wander around with my mind full of stuff and I don’t often pay too much heed to what’s going on outside of my own head.

So, this little exercise was an eye-opening experience.

Everything seemed to very alive and vibrant after the heavy rain of the day. All the weeds and wildflowers along the roadside were giving off deep, earthy scents, their leaves weighed down with raindrops. And, most remarkably, although the rain had stopped half an hour before, the leaves of the trees in the woodland around the hospital boundary were releasing their droplets slowly.

It was still raining in the woods.

As I traversed the shortcut path along the side of the hospital and made my way down through the town, my mind wandered, and I once more forgot about sensing what was around me. I was firmly back in my head again. The whole exercise probably lasted no more than four or five minutes.

But I must try it again sometime. Perhaps this post will serve as a statement of intent. Pay more attention, Ken, look around you a bit more.

I might do that.

I might get one of those cameras too…



PS If you have access to iPlayer (I don't) you can enjoy Shanaz's walks here and also marvel at the camera. :)  https://www.bbc.co.uk/iplayer/episode/m000brvk/yorkshire-walks-series-1-4-bolton-abbey-to-simons-seat


To Leave the World A Little Better Than How You Found It


I turned fifty-seven yesterday. There was pizza and cake, and everybody was very kind, social media being no exception. 

Thank you all.

I could say this birthday stuff is a time for reflection but this whole year has been pretty much a time for reflection, as well as for everything else. Worry, fear trepidation, uncertainty. You know the score as well as I do. I won’t harp on.

On my birthday morning, I went out and returned some overdue books via the library letterbox. I also delivered a single bag of nice quality clothes to the charity shop. (“It’s good stuff, I promise.” “I believe you.”) On the way home, past the police station, there was a superficially-roguish-looking man whose car wouldn’t start. I offered to give him a push. In my blue zip up thing, I might have looked like a policeman, albeit the scruffiest one is history, so I mimed a car-push upon my approach so as to assure him that I wasn't coming to re-arrest him or anything. Another guy, who also offered to help, started complaining about his back as soon as the socially distanced pushing began so it was mostly down to me. The car lurched, puttered, and shuddered into life before driving off with a roguish wave out of the passenger window. Job well done.

My ambitions have tempered quite a lot as the years have passed. At nine I may have wanted to play James Bond and at many other ages I might have envisaged the Oscar-winning screenplay. Now, upon birthday and lock-down reflection, I find that I only really want one thing: to leave the world a little better than the way I found it.

Not in any lofty way. If there’s a solitary piece of litter on the town green, I may pick it up and bin it. If you need a hand with your bag because you bought too much stuff in the shop, I may give you a carry. I’m not pressuring myself to find the Covid Antidote or bring home Shergar. Some littler things will do. Just enough so that an account which might be totted up at the end of the day might end up in the black rather than in the red.

Don’t get me wrong, I’m nobody’s saint, nobody’s hero. I make just as many messes as anyone else and quite a few more than most. I’m curmudgeonly and miserable at times. I don’t project any angelic beams by which mortals might find their way.

I’m a bit of a git, to be honest.

But I don’t really understand people who don’t think like this. The person who dropped the scrap of litter that I picked up. By that action, the world is now just a little bit worse. Why bother? Stick it in a bin, move on. It ain’t hard. These tiny things might not redeem us. They might not save our world. It will take altogether bigger things to help to achieve that and my fifty-seven-year-old ambitions no longer stretch toward those things.

But, if I can’t make the world very much better, at least I can make it a little less worse for my having been here. 

It’s not the worst ambition to have, is it?

This small post is dedicated to Penelope O’Reilly, who left the world a far better place on account of her having been in it, here, with us.

x

Social Distance


When it comes time for such a thing to happen, I think I’m going to find it quite hard to get back within two metres of random people. I’ve observed the rules stringently all along. It’s going to take some doing to re-programme myself.

Over these past months, I’ve always tried to do my social distance thing with a smile, a merry jape. “Don’t mind me, I’m just trying to protect you whatever dreadful lurgy I might be harbouring. Here, have a grin. Now move on.”

The other evening was the one exception to this rule. A glitch. A one-off. What can I say? I lost it a bit. Sorry about that. It won’t happen again. Etc.

What happened? Okay. I was queuing outside Tesco, two metres from the person in front, two metres from the person behind, you know the drill. We were moving along at a nice pace. All good. A car pulled up at the kerb edge beside me and a middle-aged lady climbed out of the passenger seat. She was totally engrossed in her mobile phone call. She slammed the car door and it drove off. She turned and joined the queue. Not at the back, though. In the middle of the queue. Beside me. Right beside me.

She kept talking into her phone, “yes, yes, I know, I know, yes.” She didn’t seem to be aware that she had blithely jumped a socially distant queue and was now positioned something less than 6 inches away from my face.

“Excuse me,” I said, social distance grin fully employed.

“What?”

“Could you...? You know...”

“What? (Hold on, Mary, there’s some fella here.) What? What do you want?

“Would you mind stepping back a bit. You know, for_”

“The cheek of you! The bloody cheek of you. (The cheek of him, Mary) I have no disease. I have no Covid. What harm am I doing to you? (I don’t know, Mary, some fella. The cheek of him.)

“If you could just step back a lit_.”

“You cheeky sod. You little bastard. I have no Covid.”

It happens sometimes. Less and less, as I get older, but it still happens. It happened then. I lost my patience. I had a little rant.

“I guess this is exactly what you needed, you daft bint. What was it: were you a bit bored just sitting at home? “Drop me into town in the van, Martin, and I’ll queue up at Tesco and pick a fight with some poor bastard who’s been working hard all bloody day and just wants to get some dinner and go home. Oh, and I can ring up Mary while I’m at it. Kill two birds with the one stone."?”

The queuing people seemed to enjoy it.

The belligerent lady took two steps back from the now-belligerent gentleman. “There. I’m away from you now? Are you happy now? You arsehole, you skitter.”

“What about that poor woman right beside you? Are you away from her too?”

In fairness, the ‘poor woman’ behind me in the queue, who was now less than six inches away from the belligerent lady, seemed appalled to be dragged into the affair. She held her peace though.

The belligerent lady seemed to be casting around for a suitable response. She finally came up with one.

“Ah… fuck off.”

I turned away then and focused myself on some polite queuing. Behind me, the abuse kept coming although, strangely enough, ‘Mary-on-the-Phone’ might have been backing me up a bit because the lady interspersed her offensive remarks to me with consolatory words into the phone, “I know, Mary, I know a lot of people have died...”

We’ve all done pretty well with what’s been thrown at us, but it’s been a pressure cooker situation and I fear we are not done with it yet. Some of us may think it hasn’t touched us, but it has, in all kinds of ways. 

I’m not trying to be funny here nor tell a merry tale. I just wanted to set it down. Reading it back actually makes me feel a little sick in my stomach. I feel that I failed miserably in that situation and pretty-much let myself down.

Inside the store, I saw the woman who had been standing behind me in the queue. I apologised for my loss of patience and for involving her in my verbal melee. She assured me it was quite all right and that she took all that kind of thing with a pinch of salt. Two things struck me about that, when I thought about it afterward.

Firstly, I need to take more things with a pinch of salt. Like that lady does. 

And secondly, in that good lady’s eyes, I was as much the fool and the idiot as that belligerent woman was. I momentarily became part of the problem rather than part of the solution. The belligerent lady needed to be told, to be set straight, but I didn't need to go off on one to do it. 

Social distance, I guess, isn't just about keeping away from people, it's also about forgetting how to behave.

I must try to do better.

A Long Song


I had a little solitary telly time the other day, so I put on the Coen Brother’s remake of True Grit on Netflix. I watched an hour or so of it and enjoyed it greatly. A day later, I came back and caught some more. 

I’m just at the ‘Fill your hands, you son-of-a-bitch’ scene so I’ll probably slide back and finish it sometime today. Sometime when it’s quiet in the living room.

Okay…

Hardly earth-shattering, Ken. Hardly the subject for a Sunday post, even on a blog like this, where navel-gazing has been the order of the day for years now.

Well, okay, there is one little twist to the tale I suppose. It’s not a massive one so don’t get your pants in a knot or anything.  Here it is…

This is third time I’ve watched the movie since lockdown began. I would also have watched it five or six other times when it appeared on telly or when I first saw it on DVD when it came out.

It’s true that I have a great affection for the movie. I’ve been a fan of the Coens since I first saw Blood Simple in one of the smaller screens in the (then) Warner West End in Leicester Square in 1984. I remember the buzz of seeing a first trailer for True Grit online about ten years ago. It seemed like a fine fit; the excellent source material, the creative team, and the inimitable Jeff Bridges. I didn’t see it in the movies for some reason. Okay, I know the reason. I had stopped going to movies for myself by that time and only really went when the boys wanted to see something.

I love most everything about it. If I wanted to try to give you a foothold into it, I would say the opening two minutes and thirty seconds are some of the most beautiful and eye-catching ones I can remember seeing. The juxtaposition of the opening lines from the novel with the dead father in the snow. Mattie’s arrival in the town, where the railway tracks run out. And, through it all, the elegiac score by Carter Burwell. Roger Deakin’s vision makes it the most extraordinary film to look at. Images and scenes burn into your brain.

There’s a moment in the courthouse scene where Rooster makes a smart reply to a question, “I always go backwards when I'm backin' up” and then, magically, he quietly applauds himself by tapping the arm of his chair with the palm of his hand. My Dad used to do that, a tiny gesture of appreciation whenever his own humour struck home with himself. It’s a personal connection to the film.

But if I were to single out one thing (and it would not be an easy task) I would point to the heightened language used in the film. The quirky, slightly formal language of the novel (and, presumably of the time), honed and perfected by the Coens, is lapped up by the actors who bring such grace and poise to their pronouncements, no matter how violent, no matter how cruel.

And when LeBeouf departs, saying to Mattie, “I misjudged you as well. I extend my hand”, it is as moving a movie-moment as I know.

And if you haven’t seen it and you go and see it now, possibly on the strength of this love-letter, you probably won’t have the same regard for it as I do. Over multiple re-watching, it has become more to me than a cinematic entertainment. It is, I suppose, a sort of ‘comfort blanket’, one that shows that, despite everything, there is still vision and wit and skill abroad in the world.

When I was re-watching the middle section this week, for the umpteenth time, I took to gently berating myself. “Here you sit, Ken Armstrong,” I said to myself, “with a hundred films at your disposal that you should see and that you have never seen and yet you watch this one again. Is your brain dead from lockdown? Is all initiative gone?”

But then, after I let up on myself a little, I came to a simple realisation that I soon decided could be the theme of this week’s post. I haven’t even said it yet although it is hinted-at in the title of this piece.

It is simply this. We can watch our movies over and over again and not need to feel remorseful or squandering of our precious time. A film can be like a long song. One that we listen to again and again and one that will brighten our day should we happen upon it out in the world. We may think we know every note and every key change, every breath the singer takes.  But each visit brings us something new, some small further small detail is revealed.

It’s great to see new things, to branch out. But it’s good to play the hits now and again too.

And good to sing along.

A Non-Writer in Lockdown





If I ever daydreamed, over the last busy few decades, it would often be about writing-time.

Something would happen, an unexpected holiday, a prize of a retreat to a remote cottage. Just something whereby I would be gifted some interrupted writing-time. A chance to see what might emerge.

I’ve been writing for a long time, as you may know, but my writing has always been largely defined by the moments snatched to get it done. The work is generally short and spasmodic and a bit quirky and off-kilter. A product of late night scribbling, when the mind naturally turns towards sleeping but is not permitted to go there. I’ve done fairly okay, I think, in the time I have borrowed from all the other more important things. Fairly okay. But, still, I couldn’t help but wonder how it might be if I had just one clean run at it, with nothing else to do, nothing else to take care of.

And then it came.

A little like that story ‘The Monkey’s Paw’ where you get three wishes but the wishes are granted in sinister and disturbing ways. Imagine if there is actually a god and he heard my little daydream about having some time to write. Imagine if he smiled to himself and said, “Right, watch this.”

And, lo, a global pandemic did descend upon the planet and all work and travelling did cease and the whole world gave itself over to isolation and fear, solely to give Ken his little pipe dream of having some time to write.

So, you bet your sweet ass I wrote.

Right?

Right?

Well…

I’ve read all the stuff about how it’s okay not be productive in the eye of the pandemic. That simply getting through each day is an achievement in itself and that it is wrong to berate oneself for failing to produce some new artistic wonder in this ‘time of times’. All very well. But, on a purely personal level, there’s no escaping the fact that the world conspired, albeit in a cruel and unusual manner, to offer me some downtime and the mighty body of work, which my daydreams effortlessly envisaged, has patently not come to pass.

In my defence, I was never idle for any prolonged time. I found things that needed doing and I did them. I rarely resorted to my crutches of books and movies and TV. I did other things and I did them well if sometimes quite slowly. But write? This I did not do.

And then I did… a little bit anyway.

I had been in the middle of writing a slightly-longer-than-usual thing, when the world shut down, and I was stuck on it and there had been quite a bit of sitting and staring at it blankly. And all the while I was doing that, I was becoming aware of Zoom and the new normal of people socializing and interacting via video messaging. I like to think that the stuff I write is usually quite wedded to whatever medium I’m writing for. A radio play of mine will only really work right on the radio and a theatre play will only really work in the live space. I became interested in Zoom and the possibilities of enacting a little drama over it. But I didn’t allow myself to try. I had this longer thing to complete and I wasn’t going to do any other damn thing until I’d done that. So, I sat and sat until, one day, I just gave myself license to write something else. To go where my mind wanted me to go.

And it loosened me up. I wrote the little fifteen-minute Zoom play that is linked at the top of this post and I asked two friends if they would help me out with it. Freya Blendell and Saul Sherrard were both exemplary when they took part in some of my plays back when they were in school. And now they’re in University studying drama and it was such a result to get them on board with this and such fun to work it out with them (via Zoom) and then to let them away at it see what they would do. I’m incredibly happy with what they did. They rode the Zoom wave, which is a slow-curling one, and they let the words fall out naturally. It’s tricky stuff and they made it look easy. Thanks guys. Thanks very much.

So now I’m back on the longer thing. It’s going well. I think it might be fun. It’s a lesson that was learned ages ago, but which needed to be learned again. If you’re stuck on something, do something different for a while and then come back to the first thing after.

So, all’s well that ends well. Some small writing has been done, just like all my other small writing has always been done, and that’s a good thing.

But the elusive bigger writing… the fact remains that the world bent over backwards to give me a shot at it and I didn’t take it. 

I hope I don’t come to regret that too much.

Timber


Yesterday, I had something to do and I was a bit late for doing it and all this was so unusual, given the nature of the last two months, that I panicked a bit.

I decided that a beard trim was in order before I did the thing and that, in itself, was a bit stupid because I was behind schedule and a bit hassled and these are not the best circumstances in which to introduce the trimming of practically anything, let alone a beard.
  
Positioned in front of the bathroom mirror, I switched the trimmer-thing on and checked that the gauge was set to the requisite five. It was actually at five-and-a-half so I carefully (and literally) dialed it back a little. Then I set the machine to my face and ran it up.

A neat pale strip of unhedged skin immediately presented itself in the mirror. “What the hell?” I jumped back as if I had been bitten. The machine had just swished off an entire section of beard. I checked the setting, which was correct and then I_

Oh shit. The guard/cover thing. I forgot to fit the guard/cover thing on to the trimmer blade. You know, the thing that moves up and down when you set the dial from five-and-a-half to five. I had run an unguarded trimmer blade right up my face and I was now part-shorn like a greying, middle-aged sheep.

I showed it to Patricia. “You could probably get away with it,” she said. She had a point. Who in the hell was going to see it and, more pertinently, who in the hell was going to care? But no. The luminescent white strip would be a reminder of my stupidity for a couple of weeks to come. This could not stand.

I repaired to the bathroom and whipped the whole lot off. It was surprisingly quick and easy. Much more so than when I would just trim it.

So here I am, sitting and typing to you, Dear Reader, a clean-shaven man once more. It’s been a few years, I think and, if I think it’s been a few years then it’s probably been a few more.

And here’s a thing, I don’t like the look of this face of mine. No, no, I don’t.

I remember my much-missed friend, Simon Ricketts, upon seeing Liam Brady on a TV show, saying in that kind and understated way of his, “Liam’s put on a bit of timber, hasn’t he?” This, possibly on account of Simon’s lovely accent, led me straight on to an aural memory of Phil Daniels chanting, “You should cut down on your ‘pork life’ mate, get some exercise.”

Because, alas, the truth is now out there, revealed as the greying whiskers drifted into the newspaper sheet in the basin. I’ve put on a bit of timber.

It’s not altogether surprising. The reasonably frenetic pace of my normal life has inevitably slowed over the past couple of months and, although I’ve been walking every day, it hasn’t been as much calorie burning as I would normally do.

There’s been other things too. You know that news story where loads and loads of gang-sized chocolate bars have been sold during the lockdown? Yes, that was me.

I’ve been avoiding the weighing scales. Stepping around the device gingerly as if it were a land mine that might go off in my face if I got too close. Not too far from the truth, that.

So, I’m typing to you this morning from the Wild West of Ireland in full possession of a face that I’m not all that fond of.

The chocolate will have to go. The exercise will have to ramp up considerably. What else?

Oh yes…

The beard will have to come back.