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…


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.

How Far Down A Bar of Soap Should You Go?


Sounds, sights, and smells of the lockdown. Things apparent now that were not apparent before.

Go.

I hate that. Don’t you? No? Well, it’s a pet one of mine. People on Social Media ask a question, often an interesting and an engaging question, but then they round it off with their beloved one-word sentence. ‘Go’.

Well, I won’t ‘go’, thank you all the same. 

What am I, some stable boy, poised on hands and knees, ready to sprint to the barn for another bag of shite as soon as the master says? Nuh huh, not me. If you want to know the answer to your great question, you can bloody sod off and figure it out for yourself, matey. I’m staying right here. Not ‘go'ing anywhere. No way…

So, yes, ignore the ‘Go’ which comprises the third sentence of this post. I only put it there to hopefully annoy you and demonstrate why people shouldn’t put ‘Go’ at the end of their tweets.

Ignore it. Just answer the question.

What are the most memorable sensory elements of a lockdown? What things assail you that never assailed you before?

If there’s a particular aroma that might evoke this period for me in times to come, I think it might be that of Wright’s Coal Tar soap. Back in the early days of all this, I had hand wash on my shopping list. We had some already because, guess what, we used to wash our hands a bit before this. We just needed a little more. But, as you’ll know, there wasn’t any hand wash to be had, it having gone the way of all toilet roll. So I bought a three pack of Coal Tar soap and, although the hand wash reappeared when we all got the measure of panic buying, I kept on with the bar of soap. Everyone else in the house went with the hand wash but I’ve been a Coal Tar man ever since. I love the smell of it. It’s got a no-nonsense, bricks and mortar bang off it that at least implies that it is killing everything it touches. I’m now down to the sliver of my final bar and I swirl it and swirl it around in my hands as it gets smaller and smaller every day. On that point, how far down a bar of soap should you go before you deem it useless? Go.

For a lockdown sight, I think I will remember the dusky little boy at the end of my street who seems to spend every hour of the sunny days on his little trampoline in the front garden. He has a tiny asthmatic pug who wheeze-barks every time we pass. We wave and smile at each other. The boy, not the dog. “Very sweet," you might say, "but perhaps not the most vibrant single vision to retain.” Very true but I haven’t told you the best part yet. The kid on the trampoline, always friendly and always happy, always wears a crash helmet.

For a sound, I’m sorry to be obvious, but it has to be the birds. There’s always been birds and I’ve always heard them but now they’re just a bigger part of my day. The raucousness of the little ones who come to nibble and bathe in my back yard is a joyous thing, for sure. But my favourite is a little bird of indeterminate species who sits on top of a scraggy tree at the side of the lane where we walk. He sings with such ferocity and pitch. Is he seeking a partner? Is he defending his own part of the lane? I haven’t a clue. But I think I will remember the level of output that such a tiny thing can make. There’s a lesson there somewhere.

I’d be interested to hear about the sights and sounds that you reckon you might take away from your time in social isolation. But I know you probably won’t tell me. We may be restricted but we’ve still got things to do, boxsets to watch, bread to bake. No time for lots of silly answers.

So, if you could just address the ‘bar of soap’ one, that’ll do.

Meanwhile, Down at the Oasis...


I found a pack of wild bird seed in the cupboard, round the back of where the firelighters live, and I took it out in the back yard and I spread a little bit of it about on the paving like I occasionally used to do when I first brought it back from Tesco.


There it is. That’s as long a sentence as you’re ever going to get out of me. Treasure it.



I was initially a bit worried about this ‘bird seed on the paving’ thing because, as regular readers will know (Hi Jim) we have a bunch of cats who regularly patrol the area.

The last thing I needed was a bloodbath out there.

I needn’t have worried so much. The pussies are too well fed by the entire neighbourhood to bother with anything as meagre as the little thrushes that flicker through and the birds keep a constant nervy eye on the periphery, just in case the cats should ever deign to change their mind.

That small scattering of seed out the back has become a key focal point of my lockdown experience. Three times a day, I tote my sorely depleted seed bag outside and spread a little around. The birds that come are not rare or outlandish. In fact, they could be seen as rather ordinary folk. But they are still spectacular in their own way. This is far easier to appreciate when you find you have a little time on your hands. The genius engineering of even the humblest bird shines through. You only have to look.

I found an old saucepan while rooting down the back of the gas storage tank. Two handled, symmetrical, iron, rusting. I hauled it out and let it air and dry out a bit, then I filled it with water and put it beside the place where the scattered bird seed goes. I thought the birds might like to have a drink with their seeds. From my vantage point at the kitchen window, this water pot reflected the blue sky and created the closest thing to an infinity pool I will ever have in my back garden. The effect is only good when the water is topped right up to the brim (I let a little overflow to achieve the perfect level) so I do that three times a day too, when I’m doing the seed.

I had hoped that the birds might have a drink and they do. They took to the old pot almost immediately, sitting on the rusty rim, claws dipped in the water. They plunge their heads through the surface tension then raise their beaks to the sky to let the water slip down their throats.

My next hope was that the birds might take a bath in the saucepan. This didn’t materialise. Perhaps the water was too deep for comfort, particularly with those cats potentially lurking about somewhere. This was a bit of a disappointment but I found a way around it. Some of the larger flowerpots around the place have terracotta plate-like bases to hold a little water. I imagine they have a name all of their own but I’m damned if I know what it is. I borrowed one of these shallow dishes and set it on the other side of the seed-scattering-site. Then I filled it with water to just beyond overflowing – a second infinity pool.

The first bird who took a bath in it was like the best movie premiere ever.

I had been chatting with Patricia at the kitchen sink when the flurry assailed my own peripheral vision. A tiny bird was in the water in the flowerpot plate, fluttering and dunking away. Then, quite-amazingly, perhaps unsatisfied with the quality of the wash, he flitted over to the deeper saucepan, dunked in there and had a ruddy good rinse.

I have my regulars now. They peck at the seeds maniacally, always with the weather eye to the bushes and to the skies. Scattering into the air when they feel they need to, coming back soon after.

I got a new bag of wild bird seed as part of my big shop this week.

I didn’t go specially to get it because it’s not essential.

Except, in some silly little way, it now is.

Everything Happens – Leonard and Hungry Paul by Rónán Hession


This week, I want to say a little about this book, which I just read. But I don’t want this piece to be just about the book because I realise that most of you won’t have read it yet and you like to come here for a little read on a Sunday and a piece just about a book that you haven’t read might not mean all that much to you.

So I’ll try to make this about something a little more than the book. Perhaps I’ll make it about how, if we are lucky enough to have them, there are few things more important in life than family and friends and love. Maybe something like that will be enough to keep you reading until the end. Let’s see.

‘Leonard and Hungry Paul’ was last month’s Castlebar Library Book Club selection. After some of our customary and always-entertaining floundering around in search of a book to read, Darina quietly mentioned that she had read this one and had enjoyed it. We pounced on it, as we do sometimes when decisions are elusive, and off we popped.

I really, really like this book. It’s about the two good friends of the title, both of whom lead quiet, clearly defined lives. Hungry Paul lives within the bosom of his family. Leonard, on account of a recent bereavement, lives alone. Both men are intelligent and socially challenged to a high degree. They are very good friends.

But, really, for me at least, the book is mostly about connections. Hungry Paul is embedded in his family, who go about their business with an unstated but tangible loving. Leonard, without meaningful connections outside of Hungry Paul's family, makes a leap of faith to try to find what he needs.

Rónán Hession has written the book with a wry understatement that is worthy of his two protagonists. Like his characters, every action, every sentence, comes across as considered and well-observed. Time and again, while reading, I would remark to myself on the simple truth in every exchange, in every development. Time and again, I would smile at the aptness of the writer’s observations, at how convincing every character was.

Reading a little online and recalling the comments of my fellow book club attendees, as we discussed the book in various little windows on our computers and phones, one recurring theme was how little actually happened in the book, how low key it all was.

I beg to differ.

For me, ‘everything’ happens in the book. Although the landscape of the narrative may be small and the cast may not be of millions, everything happens. Both Hungry Paul and Leonard face their challenges with low key valour, sometimes failing but mostly succeeding. Their supporting cast of family and workmates are all lovingly drawn. Each of them rotate slowly on the pages to ultimately provide a full 3D account of themselves and of their own need for connection.

It’s a rather obvious point but I reckon that it needs making. In these times of lockdown and isolation, the importance of connection is more clearly in focus than ever. Our times seem to further heighten the relevance and truth of this book. As a people, we need our little connections and our larger connections too. The absence of them may not finish us off in a rapid and dramatic fashion but it may drain us down, over time, making us pale and fearful of the light.

I would recommend Leonard and Hungry Paul to you and I will look forward to reading more from Ronan in the, hopefully, near future.

The take away from it, for me, is something like this: value the connections you have, nurture them and appreciate them and, if you don’t have as many connections as you feel that you need, as soon as you are able, venture out into the world and make yourself a few more.

There you have it. It really was just a book review this week. Sorry about that. I'll try to do better next time. 

Until then, stay well. 

Eastwood Hair Days are Coming Soon


There are things on Netflix that you would hardly even know were there.

One of the best ways of catching a glimpse of some of this ‘less found' stuff is to look at the recommendations at the bottom of the screen when you select something or (and this is a good one) try searching for something that you know for sure isn’t on there and see what alternatives Netflix throws up for you.

That’s how I found the film ‘Thunderbolt and Lightfoot’ the other night. God knows what I was looking for, at the time, it could have been anything. I would have never known it was there if my search had not been in vain.

Now, wait, wait a minute, come back, sit down… I’m not actually recommending ‘Thunderbolt and Lightfoot’ to you as a viewing experience. I’m saying it’s there and I’m saying I found it and I watched it… again. And, once again, no, I’m not recommending it. I don’t think I can comfortably send you over to Netlfix to watch it. I’d be afraid you might come back and start giving out to me and I can’t be doing with that just now.

So… not a recommendation. Got that? Good.

Now that we’re clear on that, I can say to you that I kind-of love ‘Thunderbolt and Lightfoot’ and I have done for the longest time. It’s one of those films from my childhood/teenage years that made a mark on me that never quite went away. And, just in case that last sentence stops you in your tracks, just in case you’re wondering how a film with a huge ‘X’ certificate on the poster can evoke childhood memories, let me explain once more about that slightly odd ‘grown up movie’ aspect of my formative years.

I blame Bruce Lee, of course. All of Bruce Lee’s films were ‘Over 18’s’ but we had to get in to see our hero so we developed resources and guile and skills and, most importantly, a ‘brass neck’ about getting in flicks that were patently too old for us to see. As a result, it became the norm to see grown up movies when we were twelve or thirteen. It didn’t do me any harm (twitch) and it definitely gave me a head start on my love of movies which, otherwise, might have faded away if my diet had been restricted to stuff like Disney and ‘Carry On’s.

‘Thunderbolt and Lightfoot’ was one such grown up movie. I remember a Friday night in the Savoy. I don’t think it was the first time it played there. It was a popular show and it came back for a couple of nights as a double feature from time to time. I loved it because it was a ‘Road Movie’ and it was funny and naughty and adult and violent and so many of the things I knew I shouldn’t really be seeing. Watching it again, the other night, I was struck by the glorious Panavision-lensed countryside and the gentle warmth of the developing relationship between the two main characters. It has a certain pedigree too, with Michael Cimino as Director and Screenwriter. (I’m still not recommending it). What starts out as quirky and funny and hugely male-centric becomes something much more gently ironic and ultimately tragic. (Maybe you should watch it.)

And, hey, this isn’t even meant to be a movie review blog post. Look back at the title. Yup, it’s meant to be about hair. I haven’t even mentioned hair yet… well, I just did but I’m nearly at the end now, for pity’s sake.

Here we go now though, hair.

I’m in lockdown, just like everybody else, and so I can’t get my hair cut. When I suggested I might take my beard trimmer to my head, some fine day, my friend, who does that with his hair, looked at me for the twat that I often am and said, “you won’t ever do that.” He’s probably right, it’s just going to grow and grow, isn’t it?

And here’s the thing. Looking at Clint Eastwood in ‘Thunderbolt and Lightfoot’ the other night, the thought popped clearly into my head. That’s what my hair is going to do, now that I can't cut it. It’s going to turn into Clint Eastwood’s hair.

I’ve always got the brushed-back ‘widow’s peak’ action that my Dad left me but usually it’s cut short enough not to matter. Not anymore, baby. I reckon I’m going to hit ‘peak’ Eastwood within a month or so and then all the wrongdoers and ne’er-do-wells of my little town had better just watch the hell out. (“Go ahead, Pat, make my day.”) I even got my old Ray-ban sunglasses out and washed them with Fairy Liquid. They're not much practical use to me, 'cos they're not prescription but, man, they look the part. 

Have you spotted it yet? The basic misconception that pervades the latter half of this post.

Yup, somewhere deep in my head, I don’t just think I’m going to have Clint Eastwood hair, I actually think I’m going to become Clint Eastwood.

But, deep down, I know. I know…

I’m not going to become Clint Eastwood. I’m a middle aged paunchy not-too-statuesque dude and Clint is lean and mean and seven-and-a-half foot bloody tall. Hell, I’m not even going to have Clint Eastwood hair. It’s just going to become an unruly clusterfuck up there on the top of my head and fall down in bangs on my nose. To hell with it. Maybe I actually will beard-trim it all off after all.

(You won’t, Ken.)

You’re right, I won’t.

Maybe I’ll just go and see what else I can find down the back of Netflix. Maybe I’ll unearth a more achievable hair-aspiration something in there.

Kojak reruns, maybe…

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.