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.