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.


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.




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.


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.


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.