Here, Not Here

It’s Christmas but it’s not Christmas. Christmas is still nearly a month away. Yet it’s here, it’s everywhere. On the telly. In the shops. Over there in the neighbour’s front window.

It’s in my head, as I figure out what I need to buy and do. It’s also in my heart, as I think about how I want it to be. It’s all a bit tiring, mostly because, hello, it isn’t here yet. And if you find yourself berating yourself 'cos you don’t feel Christmassy yet, that might just be because, hello, it isn’t Christmas yet.

Or is it?

I wonder what Christmas will be like in a hundred years’ time. I have a funny feeling that this extended commercial and emotional preamble will actually become Christmas itself. By the time the day itself arrives, we will be so exhausted by ordering and planning and anticipating everything that there will be nothing left to do but crash out on the couch with a sherry. We seem to be 50% there. 

Who am I kidding? We’re there already.

I love Christmas. Mostly I love how I stop work in or around the 22nd December and don’t go back until 2nd January. For many years, it’s been the only annual break I take that lasts for more than a day or two. The Yule time, for me, is generally a time of being closeted-up and insulated from the rest of the world. A time for family. A time to find a boxset to binge on or a miserable, unseasonal book to get buried deep into. This year is most definitely not going to be any different. This year, though, there will also be lost days of visiting and meeting with extended family and I will miss those days greatly. But we’ll be okay, locked up here together. It won’t be all that different from the norm.

It’s around now that I generally get ‘present anxiety’. No, that’s not me being anxious about the present situation, it’s me worrying about what stuff I need to get for people. Four weeks out starts to feel desperately late and the over-riding sentiment is that something really must be done. Except it won’t be. Not for another week or two. Still, the mind will get working on the problem and that’s the main thing.

I do realise how lucky I am. As a little family, we will get to be together for Christmas (touch wood and God willing and anything else that might keep things all right). I know this will not be the case for so many families, this year, and my heart goes out to those who really need to be a particular someplace, with a particular someone, and yet cannot be.

If it’s any consolation, when we lived in London, we used to come home every Christmas and used to look forward to it so much and, in truth, I used to need it a bit. But, one Christmas, for ‘reasons’, we stayed in London and didn’t come home. Truth to tell, it was one of the best Christmases ever and I will never forget it. So if you can’t make the home thing happen this year, know that next year will be even better for missing out and try to make the best you can out of where you need to be. I think you might surprise yourself at how nice it could all turn out. I hope so anyway, I really do.

You’ll have guessed by now that this is one of those weeks where I don’t have a lot of tangible stuff to write about. I generally try to scribble something on something that has exercised my brain in the week-gone-by and I guess I’m pretty-much doing that. Christmas is in my head now and it’s creeping into my heart. The break, the insulation, the joy of everything normal and everyday stopping for a while. ‘Fiddler on the Roof’ on the telly at eight in the morning. A bumper Radio Times. A muddy woodland walk. Chocolate. A good movie. I look forward to these things and the other things of the season too.

There’s always a price to pay for Christmas. January is often dark and a little bleak. This year has all the portents of being even more dull than usual. But we’ll weather it. By then, Spring won’t be far behind and, with it, we can cheerfully expect a brighter dawn. We can fix our eyes on it, even if we have to squint a bit to see it.

I won't wish you a happy Christmas yet because, hello, Christmas isn’t here yet. But that doesn’t mean you can’t wish yourself one. I’m definitely wishing one for me.

And I’ll definitely wish you one... when the time is right.

Ruthie Nails It

In our house, ‘I’m a Celebrity…’ is on the telly most of these evenings. I watch it quite a bit, but I do get up and leave the room quite a bit too. I kind of resent how the programme invites itself in practically every evening of its three-week run and leaves little opportunity to see anything else.

Patricia and I both quite enjoy watching Ant and Dec. They are so darned smooth at what they do. Their besuited, carefully rehearsed, interactions hark partially back to days of Morecambe and Wise. Plus, they love a little mishap or slip-up along the way because they are fearless in adapting themselves to the unexpected and always seems to capitalize on those moments. It’s also interesting to have a glimpse behind the façade of even minor celebrity and confirm that, yes, they all have pretty much the same basic concerns and needs that we do.

This year’s show went up a notch for me, though, when two additional celebrities arrived in the middle of this week. That’s because one of them just happens to be Ruthie Henshall. You see, Ruthie holds a tiny corner of my heart and has done for some time now.

Don’t get me wrong, I don't know hardly anything about her. I’ve hardly ever seen her perform or sing. I didn’t even know she had a connection to Prince Edward until she started talking about it on the show the other night. I am not any kind of super-fan, I’m afraid, though she does seem very nice.

But, still, as I just said, Ruthie has this tiny corner of my heart booked and probably always will.

Let me tell you why and maybe show you too. If you’d like that?

Would you like that?

(Too creepy… sorry)

I’ve grown to like musicals. Not all of them, God help us, but enough. I’ve always had a soft spot for a good show tune and my regular date with Aedín Gormley on Lyric FM on Saturdays has deepened my knowledge a little. I like all kinds of music, I really do, but musical theatre has a small corner of my heart. And it’s in a small corner of that small corner where Ruthie lives.

My favourite musical is Cabaret. I’m sure I’ve written about it here previously. Late one night, years ago, on ITV, I happened upon a video recording of the Donmar Warehouse revival production from circa 1993. I loved it. Alan Cumming was such a persuasive (and pervasive) MC and he also brought such pathos to the role. Then there was the brilliant Jane Horrocks, almost bursting blood vessels in her vein-popping rendition of the title song. The programme was on so late at night and then vanished so thoroughly that I almost thought I had dreamed seeing it but then I managed to get a cast CD off eBay and played it ‘til it cracked so it was real all right.

(We’re boiling this down to where we need to be. Nearly there. Bear with me)

My favourite song in Cabaret is ‘Maybe This Time’. In the Donmar show, the late Natasha Richardson brought a new measure of vulnerability and pain to the song, she did a great job.

And now we are down to Ruthie and her place in my heart. She sang ‘Maybe This Time’ and, for me, it is ‘the’ version. The definitive’. I’m going to try to stick the YouTube video in at the bottom of the post. Let’s see how that works out. You may be underwhelmed, you may not. I don’t mind. For me, it is a marvelous rendition. Not flashy or ostentatious, never veering over the top. Just delivered. Bang. Perfect.

For me, there’s also something of a subversive element to her performance. Look at the video. This is obviously lifted from one of those bog-standard Saturday night ITV fill-in-the-gap variety shows of the nineties. Jesus, it’s even got a ‘singalong’ red button link in the top corner. The arrangement of the song is also pretty bog standard. It’s got an eighties sitcom feel to it… or something like that… I don’t know, I’m making this shit up as I go along. It is all just set up to be slightly tacky and completely forgettable. Something to watch while you’re having your dinner and then move on from.

But nobody told Ruthie that or, as I prefer to believe, she didn’t hear them. Whoever she is, and I obviously don’t really know who she is, she is obviously a proud denizen of the higher echelons of musical theatre and she did not turn up to this forgettable TV show to turn in a throw-away performance. She arrives at the mic, sings, and simple nails the song. Simply. Nails. It.

There. I’ve sold it pretty hard and I’m going to try to embed the YouTube video now. Have a look, see what you think. I would ask that you stay to the end to get the overall effect. It’s not about any one moment in the song, it’s not about the big finish. It’s just the overall subtle honesty of how she does it.

I hope you like it as I do.

And welcome to the jungle, Ruthie, even if it is only a tatty old castle in Wales.

I hope it works out good for you.

     *                *                *                *

Footnote – I’ve just been reading back on this, prior to posting, and I think sound like someone. “You sound like someone here,” I said to myself. Then I figured out who it is.

Have you ever read the book American Psycho?

I sound like Patrick Bateman.

Have a nice day.

Running the Roadblocks

Here in lovely Ireland, with its saints and its scholars and its forty shades of green, we’ve been in Level 5 Lockdown, our highest level, for three weeks or so now. The first incarnation of our highest-level lockdown lasted for nine weeks and this second one still has another three weeks left to run.

It’s a slightly funny one. It was announced widely as the highest lockdown option but, succinctly, lots of things have kept going. Don’t get me wrong, lots of things have been locked up tight too, and people are hurting, but things are still moving a lot more in this second lockdown than they were in the first.

And that’s a good thing. At least I think it’s a good thing. The numbers are coming down steadily, having been worrying there for quite a while. Things are getting better. And, in getting here, we have kept the kids in school and the necessary services ticking away. It’s not been easy and it’s going to take a hell of a lot of getting over but, as balanced responses go, it could have been far worse.

My own experience of the first lockdown was one of being… well… locked down. Everything but the absolutely necessary was closed up and there was no movement beyond 5km from home. I did nine weeks of that, as did most everybody else, and I have my own reservations about how well I did it, but I think that probably goes for most of us too.

Lockdown Two has been different for me though. Quite different.

You see, they didn’t shut down Construction and Development this time. These were deemed essential works and so they have continued. Of course, it still applies that we should work from home unless we absolutely cannot and many of us do that as much as we can. But it’s hard to work in Construction and Development and stay at home all the time. The two are not always mutually inclusive.

So, this lockdown, just now and again, and by necessity, I’ve been on the road.

If I must go somewhere for work, I just go and do what I must do and then I come back again. In doing this, I have driven past the doors of two close family members in other towns. Family who I haven’t seen since February. But I don’t stop and call in. The rules don’t allow it and it’s only all of us following the rules that keeps us halfway right. So, I do what I can. Even though, when others are ensconced within their 5km bubbles, I am bailing up the empty motorway.

It feels funny.

I know I have to do it because it’s my job and the government have deemed that my work should continue… but it still feels funny. Sometimes I feel like a fugitive in an early Spielberg movie. As if, at any moment, a posse of slightly speeded-up cop cars will emerge in my rear view mirror, out of the horizon haze, and come to retrieve me, hauling my ass back to my 5k Caucasian Chalk Circle.

Silly, I know, but the effect is only heightened by the proliferation of police checkpoints out on the highways of the country. Often located on county boundaries, the blue lights and ever decreasing bollards draw you in and stop you. And then you have to explain yourself. Who are you? Where are you going? Why?

It’s never a problem. As I said, construction and Development continues, even in this ultimate Level 5 lockdown of ours. The exchanges with the cold and wet police people at the roadblocks are invariably courteous and friendly and even, dare I say, a little kind. We are, after all, in this thing together and, if I had my dibs, I would certainly be at home.

Coming out of Dublin the other evening, there was a huge slow tailback which culminated in a virtual city of a police checkpoint area. Vast blue flashing signs, teeming rain, and slow, slow progress gave the whole thing a sort of a ‘Blade Runner’ vibe. Again, the passing through was easy and fine. It’s the tension of waiting and approaching and creeping forward than heightens the dystopian feel of it all.

But this is 2020. Pandemic time. Even without knowing it, we are learning to adapt to our new truths. We are evolving into a populace who duck around each other smilingly and who have toughened leathery hands that can take multiple scrubs and alcohol wipes every day.

As I walked through the quiet town early the other morning, I tried to take it all in. The streets washed clean from the overnight rain. The clusters of leaves on the grass, the last few clinging obstinately to the trees. The church bell ringing the quarter hour. The sweetness and coolness of the air.

I wondered if things went wrong for me, as they have for others, and I ended up on a bed hooked up to a machine, could I retain this town centre early morning moment as a place to flit away to in my mind when it all got too much. I found I was actively trying to do it. To file this thing away for possible future reuse.

Would it work? Would my stored impressions of that moment be a respite for me? I hope I don’t have to find out. I hope you don’t too. That’s why I’ll keep doing the best I can with all this stuff. I’ll keep running the roadblocks with my mask and my smile. Trying to do the best I can.

Perhaps writing it down, as I’m doing now, might help solidify the imagery of my early morning town in my head.

Just in case I need it.

We’ll see.



On Learning of the Death of Sean Connery

Saturday 31st October.

Twitter tells me.

I am sitting here typing when Social Media starts to cough and splutter its news and its reactions to that news. People instantly start to over-react and under-react in roughly equal measure. Jokesters quickly post their gags before everyone else can think of them too.

I go into the living room, where Patricia and John are chatting.

“A famous person has died,” I say.

I don’t expect them to start to guess who it is. I am just trying to break the news gently. A list of famous people is reeled off. All the people on that list are all still around, as far as I know.

I tell them. They are appropriately impressed and reflective at the news.

I come back here to my desk, glance once more at the Twitter stream-of-consciousness at the news, then start typing…

Sean Connery is dead.

He was not someone I knew personally. He was not someone who I thought about every day. He was not_

But he was important to me all the same. We had history. Granted, it was that curious kind of ‘one-way history’ that we tend to have with famous people who don’t even know we exist. But, still, it was still some kind of a thing.

Sean Connery was in the first film I ever saw at the movies, though I didn’t know it then. The film was 'Darby O’Gill and the Little People' and it scared the shit out of me so badly that I’m still mildly traumatised by the thought of it to this very day.

Then came Bond. I was a Bond kid from an early age.‘I’m still not entirely sure how that happened. There certainly weren’t any of the films available on telly back then. I think it was because Mum and Dad were big movie fans, going every week. Perhaps their excitement at a new Bond rubbed off on me. I had toy Aston Martins and Walther PPKs. My first ‘conscious’ new Bond was ‘On Her Majesty’s Secret Service’ in 1970. I was seven, so I couldn’t go and see it, but I collected all the bubble gum cards and shared in the excitement of its arrival. After that came Diamonds Are Forever and I was allowed to see that one in the matinee with my friends. It all looked so gleaming and modern and, very oddly, it still kind of looks that way to me.

I think that moment kind of cemented me and Sean Connery. It represented a sort of release into the world for me. The moment when I was allowed go out and see a movie with my mates. Film have continued to be so important to me all my life. Perhaps that goes a little way toward explaining why I feel quite sad now, typing this, to know that Sean Connery is dead. Maybe I’m overthinking it. I don’t know.

I’m not sure we would have got on very well in person, Connery and me. I would imagine he would have had little time for someone like me and that, in return, he would have annoyed my hole on several different levels. Some of his stated opinions, particularly in regard to his attitudes towards women, are most definitely not shared by me. Accounts of filming would have him as an impatient, over-assertive and surly man. A man’s man from an era when that was not exclusively a good thing.

He was iconic though, wasn’t he? He was a presence, and he stayed that way all of his life.

Like granite.

The story of Sean Connery is written now. He seemed to realise early on that James Bond had handed him a licence to do things on his own terms, and that this was infinitely more valuable than any licence to kill.

Someone on Twitter wrote, “For me, it's not about who was the best James Bond. It's about who *was* James Bond. That was Connery.” I tend to agree with that. Well, I would, wouldn’t I? I wrote it.

Anyway, thank you, Sean. For what? I’m not entirely sure. For being an icon. For never really compromising, at least not in full view. For being someone to look up to, if only when you were up there on the big screen.

Rest in peace. 

I bet you will.