Metal Gear Bond Kicks the World Back Onto its Axis


I can’t ever tell you if a film is good or bad. I just can’t. All I can do is tell you if I liked it or not, it’s for you to draw your own conclusions from there.

So, this won’t be a review of the new Bond movie. It will just be one of my typical Sunday morning short pieces. Except, this time, it’s about how I went to see a particular movie at the first opportunity so that it could be all mine rather than just an amalgam of what every else might say about it.

I only do this ‘Early Bird’ thing with the Bond movies and it’s a long-standing tradition. The first night of ‘The Man with the Golden Gun’ was my first non-parent accompanied evening show. Even back in the London/Timothy Dalton days, I would be into Leicester Square on the opening Friday evening. Making up my own mind before everybody else told me what to think. It’s always been a rare opportunity to catch something before everybody else does. The movies have always come out on this side of the world a week before America gets them so, just for once, we could be ahead of the game.

Enough, already. Tell us about your day at the movies, Ken. How did it go?

I sloped off work. Four O'clock on Thursday. I work for myself so it’s not quite a salacious as is might sound but it’s still a thing I never do. I hatched the plan on the Sunday before. I rarely do anything purely for myself. That makes me sound like a saint, which I’m patently fucking not, but I do tend to overlook myself sometimes in the rush of everyday life. Would I, could I, continue the tradition of seeing these silly old flicks the moment they came out? I could. I would.

The cinema was only letting fifty people in. That suited me just fine. I hadn’t been in over two years, and I didn’t need it to be a buzzing occasion. In fairness, it felt a bit like coming home although I haven’t been the most faithful of attendees, even pre-pandemic. The audience was made up of a few couples with quite a few dad and son combos, which was nice. There was also a few solo males like me. To be expected. I bought a bag of Maltesers and, true to form, had most of them eaten before the iconic gun barrel sequence even rolled. Then we were off.

I can’t tell you if a film is good or bad. I just can’t. 

But I can tell you that I really, really liked this one.

Do with that what you will. I have to be a little careful. Bond films, for me, are a lot like the Ghost of Christmas Present in A Christmas Carol. They both come on the scene all massive and boisterous but, as time ticks on, they deflate and come to seem more ordinary. This continues until they appear on ITV4 for the twentieth time, and you can’t bear to look at them again. This happened most notably with the most recent Spectre. Only 'From Russia with Love' has retained, and even improved on, its initial sheen. The others have faded like a festive season. But in their ‘Early Morning, Christmas Day’ mode, when everything is bright and shiny and new, man they can be really something. And, sitting there in Mayo Movie World in the dark, with the dregs of my sweetie bag in my lap, this new film was really something.

For me, Daniel Craig’s - and Purvis and Wade’s - crowning achievement has been to redefine the character as a man. Where other JBs might delight in late night gambling, clandestine affairs, and myriad assassination, Craig’s man has evolved in someone who tends to find his joy in people. From being a misogynistic clothes horse, JB has become a fella who talks just like we do (90% of the time) and who doesn’t suffer bloody fools gladly. If not a depth, there is at least a firm reality to him.

You might have got a sense by now that I’m not going to tell you much about the actual film, beyond that I liked it. You can get all that plot stuff elsewhere. Like I said, this is not a review. I will say roughly three things about it, none of which will spoil your film or your day.

Firstly, director Cary Joji Fukunaga and cinematographer Linus Sandgren have delivered a beautiful product. I had often thought how I’d like to see JB in action here in Ireland and the Skyfall finale, with its Scottish setting, came close to that. But the foggy Norwegian Woods section of the new film come closest of all. It is a beautiful thing. There is also what I would call a ‘Metal Gear Solid’ sequence in the film where JB has some bigwigs in his earpiece telling him how things stand while he ruthlessly picks his way through a ‘level’, dispatching villains hither and yon. For me, it is pure video game cinema and, as an antidote to all the caring and feeling that necessarily goes on elsewhere in the flick, it is very welcome.

Reservations? Well of course there are some. Elements sometimes fee shoehorned into the plot to satisfy respectful nods to earlier times. Like the poison garden from Fleming’s novel ‘You Only Live Twice’ or Dalton’s V8 Volante, which has a dust sheet whipped off it like it’s going to do something brilliant and then it doesn’t. Some characters have nothing to do and are just there because they were there before. One particular minor casting choice seems very strange indeed. Bad guy Malik is just okay, and Waltz is largely neutered.

But these are quibbles. For two hours and forty-five minutes, I became immersed in the show. And though it’s a fine movie (in my opinion only) nostalgia and relief certainly played their part in achieving that. After a long pandemic run, I was back in a cinema and Metal Gear Bond was kickstarting my normal life. In the end, what with one thing and another, was there even a hint of a little_

No! Big guys don’t do that. Nuh huh. Never.

I sat through the end titles, as I always try to, even though the lights might be up, and the clean-up folk mobilising. Hans Zimmer delivered his ‘BRAAMS’ moment after we heard a golden oldie favourite all shined up. And then those old familiar final words on the screen ‘James Bond will Return’.

Of course, he will. When I was a kid, this end message would always give me a buzz. This time, not so much. It is a compliment to the film that I actually considered that there could perhaps be no more. That everything that could be done, had been done. We’ll see what happens, I guess.

Finally, as Daniel Craig finishes his tenure, I’ll give him the best kudos I can. As a lifetime fan of the series, everything allowed, he has, in my opinion only, been the best of all James Bonds.

You just can’t say more than that.

Further Afield


Back in 2017, I did a post about my younger son heading off on his school trip to Barcelona. The quiet joy and the dull ache of it all. You can have a look at it here if you’re bothered. This week, four and a half years later, and he’s off on a plane again. This time, though, he’s not coming back on Saturday night.

It’s all good. He turned twenty-one just after he left and he’s a seasoned university-goer who is well-used to living away from home and looking out for himself. He’s been looking forward to going and will be back in this country come Christmas. So, it’s all good.

Still, the tug.

Neither of us had been to an airport for a couple of years. Where have all these cars come from? We have to go up and up and up through the multi storey car park to even get a smell of a parking space.

The automatic bag check in machine nearly defeats us at the first hurdle. No matter what touch pads we touch or how we present the damn case, the device will not co-operate. All around us, people are weighing their bags, attaching their sticky labels, and moving on while we remain confounded. It is almost enough to make you say, ‘sod it, let’s just bugger back home and try again next year when it’ll all be easier.’ But no. It turns out we have chosen a machine where someone has abandoned their check-in in mid process. A quick shift to another machine and everything is fine. We are as good at it as everyone else at this.

A brief discussion about going through security, which has always confounded both of us a little. ‘Best take the Docs off, stick ‘em in a tray. The eyelets might set some bloody thing off.’

Then it’s the departure gate, up the long escalator that seems to get you halfway up into the sky already. That’s as far as I can go, Buster. A brief tight hug. Weave your way through the simple maze of queueing-barriers. Round the corner past passport control. A fleeting wave and gone.

I find a quiet spot. He’s never flown on his own before. There’s security, find the gate, fly, land, find the baggage, get the transfer, find the place, find the room, get settled… ‘Know what, though? It’ll be fine. The Dude is calm and resourceful. Everything is doable, nothing is all that hard.

The occasional text throughout the day confirms all this. Everything gets done. Any glitch is waltzed through. I’m an old fool to ever consider worrying. But you do, don’t you? It’s hard not to.

It reminds me of something I’ve forgotten or at least of something I know but which isn’t as much to the forefront of my mind as it used to be. It’s just this. You have to do hard things to do great things. The easiest route to everything is not always the best. You have to occasionally pull up a stake, shake your leaves a bit, stretch out to the sun.

I’m only writing this for all the parents and young adults who are feeling that university separation tug in this current week. I don’t think you are alone, and I don’t think you should feel that you are. Everybody feels the tug, I reckon, it’s only natural. Plus, as with most everything, our Pandemic has made it all that little bit harder. We’ve all been comfied-up together for a long time and, even if it hasn’t always been totally idealistic for everybody, it’s still something we’ve got used to having. It makes the tug that little bit jerkier.

So be easy on yourselves, parents and children of the newly separated generation. If I know anything, it will get easier quite quickly, even if it never quite gets A-Okay.

Our practically grown-up kids are off on something like a slightly qualified Star Trek mission. Boldly going where it sometimes feels like nobody has ever gone before.

And they'll be fine. 

 

Driving the Wrong Way Down the Road to the Final


I had to make an unexpected drive to Dublin on Friday evening. My son needed to get there for early on Saturday and this was the best way to make it happen. I didn’t mind at all. Sam is always fun company in the car and the playlists on his phone are unerringly great. I stayed over for the night and got back on the road home the next morning.

This was Saturday morning. The morning of the All-Ireland Football Final.

I was heading firmly west while meanwhile, over on the other side of the road, everybody from my entire county was heading east. That’s how it seemed anyway.

Looking back on it now, exactly one day after, the drive seemed like something of a privilege. It was a view of something that I might never have otherwise got to see. Not to overstate things, it was a small joy to behold.

A line or two of context. Bear with.

The Gaelic Football team of my adoptive home county of Mayo are, without question, one of the most powerful forces in the game. Few could argue against that. But the team have not won an All-Ireland Final, and thus the coveted Sam Maguire Cup, since 1951. That makes it a round seventy years this year. For many years, the team to beat has been Dublin. A team could do very well against all comers and then face Dublin and find an immovable block wall in their face. Dublin won five in a row and were looking for a sixth this year. Except this year, Mayo beat Dublin in the semi-final. Suddenly, the block wall was gone. The final lay ahead, as it had done so many times before, but this year was different. Dublin would not be there, waiting.

So, as I made the three-hour drive home to Castlebar yesterday, the football faithful were making their way to Croke Park in the hope and expectation of seeing history made.

I had expected something on the road. I silently gave thanks that I wasn’t going the other way, trying to get into the city in all that traffic. I expected there to be cars whizzing past me on their way. What I got, though, I didn’t expect that.

It was a parade. A quite wonderful parade. More than that, it was a legion on the move. The Mayo fans, heading to Croker.

When you’re in Castlebar in the weeks before the big match, you may see little flags attached to a car. You may see a licence plate, illicitly changed out for a red and green ‘Mayo4Sam’ sentiment. Individually, these things look fun and nice.

But when practically every car going the other way is decked out in the red and green, when every car is packed with families and friends, it’s an entirely different effect. Every petrol station along the way was replete with fans and flag-ridden cars. Whoosh, whoosh, whoosh they went past me. I couldn’t help but wave and occasionally toot my horn at people I didn’t know. I glanced in my rear-view mirror and figured that the person behind me thought I was a damned lunatic. Who cares? Wave, toot, wave toot.

Even more than the legion of vehicles, there was the people and the gestures that lined the roadway in every county. Tractors sat in the highest point of fields, bedecked in the colours. Cherry pickers raised as high as they go with kitted-out mannequins up on the platforms, watching out. But the people. Ah, the people. They were the best of all. Outside of houses and farm gates, all along the way, entire families in Mayo garb, bounced up and down and waved and cheered as the parade tooted past. Rare bridges above, all Mayo clad and cheering. It was like how I imagined the Tour De France might be. It only happened yesterday but I don’t think I’m ever going to forget one man alone on the grass verge outside of his house, easily eighty years old. Beside him, his trusty ride-on lawnmower and, on it, a massive teddy bear in a Mayo Jersey. The old guy bouncing and waving his flag like a good thing, the cars responding in kind.

I smiled all the way home. I felt I knew a little more about the passion and the glory of Mayo football. How it raises its people up.

Mayo fans never give up, will never. It is a key part of what defines them/us. Every year that they can, they will ride in that parade, filled with pride and hope and expectation. All the arid years that have gone before only adding further to the love and respect that the place has for its mighty team.

The parade thought that yesterday was going to be their day and, in truth, so did I. I said it out loud where most townsfolk concealed their hopes and anxieties in endless discussions about tickets. As it turned out, it wasn’t our day. We couldn’t get more scores than Tyrone. Pages will be written. The exact ‘whys’ will be addressed by people much more qualified than me. We will be gutted for a time and then we will regroup and reassess and go for it again, the passion undiluted, the drive undimmed.

I’ve written it before, I think. Ours is a team of superheroes who walk among us every day. They give their everything for so little reward. History and glory and the victory itself being the primary goals. In consistently pushing as hard as they possibly can, they elevate our little place to something so much more than it would otherwise be.

So, thanks for the ride Mayo. Even if, for me, it was in the wrong direction.

Next year will be great.

Company in the Wall


As I wrote in a recent post, after my brother Michael died recently he left a wish that he be put in the Wall in Sligo Cemetery. He wasn’t keen on the idea of leaving somebody with a grave-maintenance job, so he favoured the Wall. The Wall is something fairly new to us although it is a thing that is seen the world over. We certainly see them a lot in the movies. It’s just a wall of little compartments where your ashes go after you are cremated. A little plate is put on front of your space and that’s you sorted. It’s a regular thing but a relatively novel one in my hometown of Sligo where you generally go in the soil and push up some daisies.

So, we put Michael’s ashes in the Wall a few Saturdays ago. It was a nice low key gathering of friends and family. The sun shone, which was nice. Margaret, my sister, gave a lovely eulogy for her elder brother, who may not have been the world’s greatest chatterbox when he was younger. “He left me with two great pearls of wisdom,” Margaret told us, “’Where’s Mam?’ and ‘Shut the door’.” Having said that, she did go on to confirm that in his latter decades, he was as cheery and communicative a man as you could ever hope to meet. After that Eamon, Michael’s little nephew, read his little extract from Saint-Exupery, “And so it will be as if all the stars were laughing, when you look at the sky at night…” and Michael would have liked that quite well, I reckon.

Then the little wooden casket, with his ashes in, went in the Wall and we stepped away for a moment while the cemetery men fixed the plate in place.

It was only when we stepped back again that I noticed who was there in the wall beside Michael. Martin, Alan’s dad, right there on his left. Alan is one of a small handful of my very best friends. We go way back to when we were young teens and, as the saying goes, we’ve all passed a lot of water together. Alan is a great man, one of the strongest, most deeply moral, people I know, brilliant musician, motorbiker, dad, husband and (he’d slap me gently for this) outrageously handsome. His dad was always there when we were teens. A cool guy, a man’s man, someone you’d be happy to meet and maybe also be a little in awe of.

And I guess it’s indicative that business is a little slow at the Sligo Cemetery Wall because it’s been a few years now since Martin passed away. I remember travelling up to Sligo and meeting some people who I hadn’t seen in a long time. It’s been a while, yet there they are, Michael and Martin, side by side.

This made me happy. Well, as happy as one can be when the ashes of your beloved brother are being laid to rest. Maybe not happy but more content, definitely content. There was Martin, my good friend’s dad, and Michael. I was glad they were beside each other.

This ‘Ashes in the Wall’ day was the hardest day of all for me. All of it was hard, make no mistake, but that part seemed even tougher than the rest. That may seem strange, weren’t other parts obviously harder? I think it was because this was a little social gathering in the sun, the usual suspects, all together and, critically, Michael wasn’t there. He wasn’t over there chatting to Jim, or hanging back a bit with Liz, or having the crack with Harry up the way a bit. I get all the positive thoughts about how he was there in our hearts and memories but, dress it up however you like, he wasn’t there. And that was hard. And Michael’s place in the wall being there right next door to Martin’s somehow made it a little easier.

I should just leave that alone. It’s enough that it’s true. But it in my nature to ask myself why. Why is it that the presence of my best friend’s dad’s ashes next to my brother’s ashes gave me some kind of solace?

I thought about it and it isn’t some childish notion that they will be company for each other there in that lovely location. Chatting away or some such thought. It’s not anything like that.

What it is, I think, is something that relates much more to the living than to those who have gone.

When I go to visit the Wall, in the future, I will see Martin’s name there too and I will remember him and the fun times we had in his home as teenagers, as well as what a wonderful cool guy he was. A golfer, a dad, a husband, the best man in the world to decorate a cake. All these things will be there at the wall for me, along with of the things that are Michael’s and mine too. And, maybe, when Martin’s family come by, they will see Michael’s name there too and they will recall, perhaps subconsciously, some of the great things about him and his life and what a good man he was.

I think that’s why it makes me content.

Yes. I think that’s it.

Thirty Wonderful Years


I was the very first there. In my dress suit and my natty grey tie. Standing outside the Claddagh Church in Galway with a loaf of sliced white bread under my arm. The bread was there for a reason. But I must confess I also enjoyed the incongruity of it. Some things don’t change, even thirty years later.

Yes, that’s right. This week, my lovely wife Patricia and I will celebrate our 30-year wedding anniversary. And it’s been thirty wonderful years, which has taken us right around the world and back, living in London for the early years, and then eventually returning back home to Ireland.

And I remember our wedding day just like it was yesterday. That means I remember bits of it and am not fully sure about the detail of any single part of it... just like yesterday.

But here are some bits I think I remember about that day. They’re probably all wrong. Trish will straighten me out later on.

When Margaret, my sister, arrived I passed the loaf of bread to her.

“Here,” I said, “you know what to do.”

And she did, and, when the time came, she did it. Fair play to her.

I remember random things about the wedding ceremony itself. I remember Patricia being walked up the aisle by her brother Kieran and how beautiful she looked. I remember the priest saying, ‘and now the ceremony of the candles and me saying, “what the fuck is the ceremony of the candles?” I remember the reading from the Book of Tobit that I picked out because I’d read it in ‘A Prayer for Owen Meany’ and that it said, “Grant that she and I may find mercy and that we may grow old together." We’re working on that, so far so good.

After we had got married and had walked out of the church to smiles and kind applause, Patricia got talking to some folk, so I went around the side of the church to reflect on how married life was treating me so far. I hadn’t realised that the whole ‘Patricia talking to someone’ was actually the formality of waiting in the church porch to be congratulated by all the guests as they streamed out. Trish has to put up with quite a few ‘so he’s left you already’ comments before someone came and got me. Nice one, Ken.

The O’Reilly Family Photograph outside of the church stays with me. Patricia’s family are the O’Reilly’s, and they are lovely and hard to coral into one place, in equal measure. This photograph, outside the church, took an absolute age. Any time 90% of the cohort was gathered, someone would wander off or just simply vanish. Eventually they all coincided in one spot for a millisecond and the photographer clicked. Job done.

While that was going on, Margaret had gone with her loaf of bread and done her thing. As I said, fair play to her. If you ever get to visit The Claddagh in Galway City, then do. It’s a beautiful place by the water with fishing boats and picturesque little houses across the way and a grassy quay… and swans. There are a lot of swans. And that’s why the loaf of bread was there. I thought it would make a nice photo if loads of the swans were enticed close to shore with some bread and we got our picture taken with them. The bread worked and the swans came. The photo itself proved to be a small disappointment. It’s over-exposed so that the swans are puffy white blurs rather than anything meaningful. A shame, really. But there was a compensation. One of my best memories of the day was hurrying back up along the quay to our waiting families and friends, bride and groom, happy as happy can be. That, on its own, was worth the loaf of bread.

There was a wee woman outside the gates of the church, on the street. We didn’t know her. She came up to Patricia and pressed something into her hand. It turned out to be a small set of rosary beads. “You are a beautiful bride,” she said, “a beautiful bride.” Then she slipped away. It was a very Galway thing to happen.

We went back to the church for a look a few times after, over the years. Again, if you’re in Galway, check it out. It’s a marvellous location. I went back once by myself in recent years. I had time to kill because Patricia was having a very major surgery in the hospital up the road. She had been brought in before eight in the morning, before I could get there, and she wouldn’t come out again until close to midnight. It was that kind of a big deal. I had the day to get through and I didn’t want any company with it. I ducked into the Claddagh Church around lunchtime. There was a ragtag choir of young people practicing something. I wandered around the aisles and lit a candle as we sometimes do. This was where we had tied the knot and the knot was still strong. That day worked out okay, in the end, and on we went. Maybe the Claddagh candle helped, maybe it didn’t. It helped me.

I feel a sense of considerable pride at hitting the thirty-year anniversary. For a fuckwit like me to hold onto a lovely girl for this long is no mean feat. I feel lucky too. We have been allowed to have something that not everybody gets. Time.

So Happy Anniversary, when it comes, Patricia. She’ll read this later and probably say, “Why didn’t you put up a photo of the two of us?” I’ll say, “Because I look like a feckin’ greyhound, haven’t you seen those photos recently?”

Besides, it’s a lovely picture. Isn’t it?

Perseid Gazing


If you have two identical zip-up sweaters, and they are both in rotating use, then you are 87% more likely to go out without your house keys. I may have just made that statistic up. Let’s not dwell in it.

I went out to the back garden on Friday night at around midnight, after the telly had closed down. No, of course the telly didn’t close down but do you remember how it used to? The announcer would wish you a good night and the test card might come up. Here in Ireland, they put up a film of a billowing flag and played the National Anthem. We didn’t tend to stand up unless we were heading for bed, as we frequently were, or locked out of your house in the back garden, as I was, even though the telly was not shut down, just switched off.

I’m losing you. Let’s get on with this.

There was a black cat on the front door mat who didn’t bother to move when I opened the door. It just looked up and enquired about the possible of a) food and b) access, neither of which were forthcoming. Our own adopted wild cat is not sociable by any definition of the word, so it was nice to have this black bundle purring and making itself available for my patented single finger head stroke on account of my allergy to cats. I closed the front door behind me so the cat couldn’t duck in and then realised I had the lesser of two zip-up sweaters on… the one without the house keys. It wasn’t a problem, I texted my sons and one of them opened the door for me. All good.

(This thousand-word thing is going to be a breeze. We’re a quarter of the way through and nothing’s happened yet… welcome to my blog.)

As the title, so very far above, suggests, I was venturing into the garden on a quest to view a little of the Perseid Meteor Shower which assails our world around this time every year. I always try to get a look at one or two meteors at least and I have done so ever since the night, as teenagers, my friend Fergie ran a lit match across the front of Dermot’s binoculars as he scanned the skies on Cairn’s Hill and his back stiffened in a way that I still laugh to myself about.

So, I went out to catch me some Perseid.

I was an evening too late for the peak activity, but it was cloudy on Thursday with no chance of a sighting. Friday was good. A nice clear sky, no moon. We get a bit of light pollution from down the town but there’s still plenty of stars to see.

I have two moulded plastic chairs in the back yard, and I kept some of the large red cushions from the old couch when we replaced it last year. So, I brought two of those puppies out and laid myself out on one of the chairs. They’re moulded at quite a reclined angle so it’s a good way to view the sky. I zipped up my lesser-of-two sweaters and waited for some action.

The experts say that you have to be prepared to wait a while and, really, you do. Although you might be able to see plenty of stars up there, it does take some time for the eyes to adjust. You can see a shooting star any old clear night and there’s usually a satellite or two easing across the firmament. But the Perseid can give you a bit of a show, if you hang in there and if you’re lucky.  Your average shooting star is just like a little dot of a star that races along the sky or drops easily down. But the Perseids can come bigger and faster than that. One of the ones I saw last night even seemed to leave a vapour trail behind it.

It was a good show, but it got pretty cold. Those experts recommend a hot water bottle, but you’d want to be a special breed of a lad to go to all that trouble. After a while, I was ready to go in.

“One more,” I said to myself, “I’ll hang in for one more.”

But the one more was not forthcoming. Plus, there in the darkness, I was becoming increasing aware of the danger of one of our transient garden cats coming and jumping on me and dispatching me from sheer fright.

It was time to go in. I even had my door key. Let’s go.

It was then that my mind turned to God, of all things. I’m not a terribly Godly person but, in that moment, in the dark, I got to thinking about how, if God wanted to send a sign, he probably wouldn’t levitate the old Volkswagen Beetle up the road or cause the neighbours to turn purple.

He would probably send something like a shooting star.

“So come on, God,” I defiantly thought (quite loudly), “Send me one more Perseid Meteor so I can bugger off to bed.

But no meteor arrived. It was almost as if God was now holding back on the shooting stars on account of my cheeky request.

Then I thought about my brother, Michael, who passed away suddenly such a few short weeks ago. Perhaps he was now up there with some access to the controls that ran the shooting star machine. Perhaps he could send one down for me.

But I couldn’t even begin to play that game. I could play a silly game with God, who I am never terribly sure about, but I couldn’t do it with my brother, who never-ever let me down.

So, instead, I thought about my little Nephew. Today, we will place Michael’s ashes in their final resting place in the new wall in Sligo Cemetery. “I don’t want anyone having to look after a grave for me, stick me in the wall,” Michael had said. His firmly stated wish perhaps echoed W.B. Yeats in a funny way. “In a year's time when the newspapers have forgotten me, dig me up and plant me in Sligo”

His young Nephew, Eamon, will read a few words for him at the simple ceremony. Michael loved books and he effortlessly passed on this love to little Eamon, who just lived a few doors up, plying him with wonderfully illustrated editions of great works and Eamon, in turn, making his way down to Michael’s house to get him to sign all the books for him.

Today, by the new wall in the cemetery in Sligo, Eamon will read an extract from The Little Prince by Antoine de Saint Exupéry:

“You alone will have the stars as no one else has them. In one of the stars, I shall be living. In one of them I shall be laughing. And so, it will be as if all the stars were laughing, when you look at the sky at night. You - only you - will have stars that can laugh. And when your sorrow is comforted (time soothes all sorrows) you will be content that you have known me. You will always be my friend. You will want to laugh with me.”

I never saw that one last Perseid Meteor. In the end, I just went off to bed. But I was happy enough to have seen as much as I had seen.

Nothing more required.

Meanwhile, Down the Garden


My wife knows what kind of birthday presents I like.

I wouldn’t thank you for silver or gold (okay, I actually would but let’s run with the idea for the purposes of this paragraph). Neither would I thank you for wads of cash money (ditto, but stick with it). But I get a big kick out of watching the wild birds come down in the back garden and feed on the small amount of seeds I scatter on the paving, or having a bath in the terracotta flowerpot base and the old iron pot that I keep full of water. What can I tell you? I just enjoy that kind of stuff.

So, Patricia bought me a simple little belated birthday present, and I love it a lot and I am getting a big kick out of it.

It’s a plastic bird feeder and a big bag of wild bird seeds.

I filled the feeder up with seeds and hung it on a swaying branch of the Leylandii evergreen down below the redundant trampoline. Would any of the birds spot it? Would they come and have a tentative nibble on the treats within? I waited to see…

Friends, I have started a war.

The House Sparrows have been a regular feature for some time in my garden. Near the start of the whole lockdown saga, I started putting out a little seed on the ground and it was mostly them who showed up. They were sweet and entertaining, feeding the littler ones, scattering at every twitch in a bush but never going too far, always coming back again for more.

So, the House Sparrows found the feeder fairly quickly. But they’re a difference bunch, off the ground. There’s only two little perches on the feeder so it’s a strict ‘wait-your-turn’ system. Except, of course, it’s not. What it is, is like a pub near closing time where all the drink is being given out for free. You just have to get to the counter. It’s a pitched battle between the house sparrows for the perches and it’s no holds barred. The two that are on the perches chuck seed all over the place, in their urgency to feed. The grass beneath the new feeder will probably become some patch of exotic growth on account of the pile of seeds that have already dropped there. Meanwhile the waiting hoard lurk on adjoining branches and periodically dive bomb the ones on the perch. Fluttering and pecking like wild things (yes, I know). You have to be a tough House Sparrow to keep your spot on the perch for very long. If you don’t watch out, you’ll get fluttered off.

Then there’s the matter of seed consumption. As I said, Patricia bought me this fairly big bag of seed. I figured this would last me for a couple of years, at least. A little refill ever alternate fortnight and the feeder will be right.

That’s not how it is. You knew this but I didn’t. The full feeder gets decimated in a matter of an hour or two. It’s mayhem down there at the bottom of the garden.

What on Earth have we done?

Will we soon have a hoard of fat sparrows lying around exhausted on our patio? Will dietary regimes have to be introduced? Where will it all end?

To be honest, I’m hamming it up a bit, as I usually do. It has its mad moments, sure, but a lot of the time it’s fairly laid back. A well-timed house sparrow, if she’s lucky, can have the place to herself for a while. And, when it’s really quiet, and the mob of sparrows have gone off to blitz some other birdbox, an unusual little visitor or two can drop by.

We don’t get many varieties of bird. Not yet anyway. There’s been some finches in the garden, but they haven’t tried the new taverna yet. We have a single Coal Tit who drops in regularly, picks up a little seed and retires to another branch to consume it before returning for another. Of course, I had no idea it was a Coal Tit. I looked it up on the Internet. It’s all good fun, isn’t it?

The cat seems to be having fun with it too, on her occasional returns to the garden to lick the gravy off the cat food I give her. She stalks around the vicinity of the feeder, throwing all kinds of Kung Fu/Matrix shapes and being utterly ineffectual. The birds mock her from the bush and wait until she fucks off again. One day, she’ll have a little sweet revenge, one feels.

I’m off out now to fill up the feeder. I try to do it while it’s still on the branch because I reckon if I take it off and on too many times, the branch will get weak, and the feeder will slide off. It’s a bit of a stretch and I may not present the most elegant vista as I do it but, to hell with that, it’s my garden and you don’t have to look.

The feeder sways on the branch as all the little birds come and go from it. It’s like a little ship at sea with its mutinous crew bickering and chucking their rations about.

It’s the very best present ever.

Thanks.

The Cat – Full Circle


Friday Evening, quite late. The sun has gone down but there’s still some brightness in the deep blue sky. The earlier thunderstorm has taken some of the heat out of the outside air though the house is still a little too hot.

So, I take a walk up the street to the corner garden. The cat is there, sitting on a garden wall. There are two other cats over on the far side of the street, and they are all eying each other up in Mexican standoff fashion.

As I come close to the cat, she makes to jump down from the wall and away into the depths of the garden within.

“Hey!”

The cat stops, mid-pounce, and stares back at me.

“It’s only me. You don’t have to race off.”

The cat settles back on top of the wall and watches me. Her eyes seem to say, “Okay, just don’t come too close, that’s all.”

I lean on the wall, a little way down. I know better than to try to move nearer to her, even after all we’ve been through. The other two cats watch us warily from across the way.

Our eyes meet, the cat and me.

“So, young lady,” I say, “any idea what time we might see you home tonight?”

                              *                            *                            *                            *

After three months or more, Magda the cat is back home again. The wild cat from the neighbourhood who had kittens in my shed, went missing, had her kittens removed, came back, was reunited with the kittens in a safe place, raised them in that safe place, was neutered, healed, and recovered (It sounds a bit like a Creed, doesn’t it?) and is now back in the neighbourhood, where I have promised to keep on eye on her and feed her whenever she needs it.

Last weekend, I went to pick her up from Magda (the Person), who has been looking after her and her kittens, who are now weaned and off doing their own thing. I’ve named the cat after Magda, just to confuse everybody, though I don’t think the name will stick. Wild things are wild things.

She may remain ‘The Cat’.

When I arrived at her house to collect her, Magda (the cat) was not in her transport container and Magda (the person) was bleeding profusely from her finger and thumb. After many months of enjoying her hospitality, the cat had no compunction about inflicting a little damage when she was encouraged to go in the carrier. We decided to leave the move home for another day. Put some food in the carrier and let her go in and get it of her own accord. That worked.

Back home, a day later, I put Magda (the cat) (I’ll stop doing that now) into a large purpose-made cage in the same shed where she had her kittens. The idea was to give her a little time to reacclimatise and refamiliarise herself with the sights and smells of her home place before releasing her. The recommendation was to do a few days of this, but it was very warm and, even with the shed door open and the cat looking out onto her domain, it didn’t seem fair. So, a week ago today, I put a nice bowl of food outside the cage door, opened it up, stepped back and hoped for the best. Magda sidled out after a few minutes and nonchalantly devoured the food. Then she poked around the back garden for a bit and meowed copiously. I call it ‘giving out’.

After a time, the cat headed out toward the front of the house, looked left and right up the street, then vanished up through the line of front gardens. Was that it? Would we ever see her again? We didn’t quite know.

Thirty long minutes later, the cat was back. She found a shady place under a bush and settled down. Later in the afternoon, she sat under Patricia’s chair rather proprietorially while she sunned herself in the garden. It was all rather lovely to see.

A week later and it remains lovely… but different. The nice lady up the road, who looked out for the cat long before we did, is delighted to see her back in the neighbourhood. The cat wasted no time in calling around to say ‘hello’ to her. That first thirty-minute excursion turned out to be straight to her house.

It’s not exactly as I imagined it might be but then what ever is? I had set up a corner of the shed in a rather nice way, with a chair with a cushion on it and a nice crate will pillows in it, but the cat doesn’t want to know about it. I guess the shed holds too many awkward memories for her to want to be in it anymore.

Similarly, now that she has found her feet, she is no longer a constant feature in our garden. She seems to prefer the houses at the other end of the street. I guess she gets well-fed there and maybe she scores a little attention too. I must get used to the fact that I might not see her for 48 hours on end and then she will turn up, sitting on the window cill or on the garden chair. I offer her a meal and she gives it only cursory attention, leaving two thirds of it uneaten. She is being catered-for elsewhere and that is fine with me. If the supply ever runs out, I’ll be here.

                              *                            *                            *                            *

It’s getting darker now so I’d probably best head back home. Patricia will wonder where I’ve wandered off to and my neighbour will be wondering why I’m loitering under the lamplight outside his garden wall, evidently parlaying with one of the stray cats.

“Call around some time,” I say, “I’ve got some nice Felix in.”

But, as I suggested in the very post I wrote about Magda and me, the cat doesn’t care and will never care. We've come full circle, the cat and me. Polite strangers again, passing in the night.

That’s cool. That’s how it should be. I’ll hit for bed, though it’ll probably be too warm to sleep.

The cat is fine.

I think I did okay.



FOOTNOTE - This probably ends this short series of posts about the cat and me but who knows? If you'd like to read the four posts in order, you can click to the first one here and follow on from there. 

Bloody Cartoons

In 1981, when it was time to go back to college for the second year, I once again had nowhere to live. Maggie, my lovely landlady of that first year, had died over the Summer and her house now stood empty and awaiting probate. I went back to the B&B I had briefly stayed in at the start of my first year and scoured the evening paper every day for a lead on a room… any room, really.

In the spirit of ‘Any old port in a storm’, I ended up in one of those old Georgian houses on Lower Sherrard Street. They are prettier now than they were then. It was a rather peculiar set-up. The run-down house was populated entirely with men who worked the building sites of Dublin as labourers. There might have been 12 or 15 of them at any time and the turnover of people was often fast. Every Monday to Thursday, two ladies came into the basement kitchen and prepared an evening dinner for the residents. The weekends were a free-for-all, taken up primarily with drinking and sleeping.

At just turned eighteen, I was far-and-away the youngest resident of the Lower Sherrard Street establishment, and, in retrospect, I really shouldn’t have been there at all. I was a skinny little dude in among all these giant bull-workers of men. Still, I had my little room at the very top of the house which had a bed and… well… it had a bed. So what if I had to pass through another man’s bedroom to get to mine and so what if that man was a huge Viking red moustached guy who never got out of his bed because he didn’t have the money to pay his rent and who feared, if they caught him with his feet on the floor, he would get chucked out.

So what? I had a place to stay, a roof over my head. That was something.

In the weekday evenings, when drinking was never done, the men would mostly gather in the basement room and watch the little telly here. Nobody really spoke to me much at first. One evening I tried to break the ice with Frank, who was a cool-looking Northern Irish man who looked like a rough cross between George Peppard and Lee Van Cleef. Frank was evidently struggling with the crossword in the paper, and this was the first tiny sign of something I might be able to help with. I was sitting on a chair beside him when he groaned for the fourteenth time and scribbled a word out.

“What’s the problem?” I asked, smiling all the time.

He looked at me.

“There’s no problem,” he said as he turned away and went back to his puzzle.

They were fine men, just tough and circumspect in their relationships. The vast majority were from Northern Ireland, and they retained the natural caution that growing up there in the sixties and seventies would unavoidably instil.

There was no magic bullet. Over time, as I stayed and settled in, I became a trusted (if odd) member of the cohort. I did my own thing and minded my own business, and the men came to accept me, probably for holding my own with them. I was so different to everyone else there. I was the only one under twenty, the only student, almost the only Southern Irish person. I was naïve and possibly a bit timid, but I was funny too and, after I learned how far I could go with a joke or a quip, I think I gained a little respect for that.

People just get to know people too, don’t they? One Friday evening, in the quiet time before the pubs let out, I was watching the film of ‘Woodstock’ on the telly. I got a bit lost in an extended song by someone or other, eyes closed, going with the flow of it. When it ended, I opened my eyes and Crossword Puzzle Frank was grinning over at me.

“You were really enjoying that,” he said, with some hint of amazement in his voice.

“I was, yeah,” I replied, and, in these tiny ways, friendships can be started.

I generally went home for the weekends because the level of debauchery and drunkenness in the basement room often reached epic levels then. In weekends where I had to stay because I had work to do, I would camp out in my top room, sitting on the edge my bed with my drawing board and tee square balanced on my knees and a gang pack of fig rolls by my side. I would go to a movie on Saturday night and have a McDonalds but, otherwise, the fig rolls were my primary fare until Monday evening’s dinner.

Weeknights, there were often epic games of 25 around the basement table and I became quite good at it. Mostly because you didn’t want to play the wrong trump at the wrong time to this crowd.

But mostly it was the telly.

One evening, a sizable bunch of us were watching ‘Death Wish’ on the telly when, suddenly, the basement window exploded inward in a shocking hail of shattered glass. I sat in my chair and looked around.

“What the hell was that?” I asked the room.

But the room was empty, apart from two guys behind the couch. Everybody else had vacated the space with blinding speed. The Northern Ireland reflexes were much more finely tuned than my own.

The ‘explosion’ had been caused by a drunk passer-by on the street finishing his bottle of beer and discarding the empty through our basement window. His failings were eloquently pointed out to him by some of my housemates. The less said on that, the better, I think.

There was one other resident of the house who was not a building construction labourer. A sullen middle-aged man, he wore a dark grey suit at all times and came and went from his dinner without much to say. He never had anything to say to me.

Until, one day, he did.

It was late on a quite a Monday in the basement TV room. There was only a handful of us in the room and I was the only one bothered with the telly. I was watching ‘Film ’81’ with Barry Norman and Barry was busy reviewing the latest Disney animation ‘The Fox and the Hound’.

This man came into the room and stood there.

“Is anybody watching this?” he asked, pointing towards the television with his chin.

Nobody spoke, until I did. I had been there a little while at this point and felt I was a member of the household.

“I’m kind of watching it,” I said.

He glared at me, seethed a while, then erupted.

“Fuckin’ cartoons. Fuckin’ cartoons. I don’t work all day to come in here and have to watch children’s fuckin’ cartoons on a Monday night.”

“It’s Film ’81, this bit will be over in a minute.”

“Fucking cartoons_”

I figured it was time to go to bed. Sometimes the temperature rose in the TV room, and it was best to get out of it. I got up and left the room.

But the guy came after me. He caught up with me on the stairs. He spun me around and grabbed me by where my lapels would have been if my jumper had lapels.

“Fuckin' Car-Toons.”

He had quite a bit of age, height, and weight on me. I couldn’t do much more than let him run down his rant and hope it didn’t get too bad. Eventually he stopped and stormed back towards the TV room, most likely to change the channel.

Word got about the house that I had been accosted. When the ladies who made the dinners let me know that the guy had been warned about his behaviour, I didn’t have much faith in that. But when Frank asked me my opinion on five-down and quietly told me that the guy would not trouble me anymore, I figured I was okay… and I was. The guy moved out shortly afterward and I, for one, was not all that sorry to see him go.

Frank was philosophical about the little interaction.

“Men in his line of work sometimes get like that at his age. You have to watch out for them.”

It turned out that he was a schoolteacher.

This second-year accommodation of mine was no place for a young student. I should have started looking for a different place at first opportunity, but I stayed all year. Then, for third year, I went back again.

It wasn’t ideal, far from it.

But I learned some stuff there that has served me well over the years, I think.

Michael and Me by Eddie Armstrong

My eldest brother, Michael, sadly passed away this week.

I was honoured to give a eulogy for him at his funeral mass. 

But I thought my elder brother, Eddie, grasped hold of an elusive thing in his own eulogy at our final (for now) farewell. 

I asked him if I could record it here and he kindly agreed.

K















   

 

Michael (obscured) with Eddie (centre) on Lough Gill with Dad, in his Boat


Michael and Me

This short story, which I call ‘Michael and Me’, is me explaining to you what I mean when I say to Michael, ‘I’ll see you on White Shore’. If I fall apart in the telling, bear with me and we’ll make it through it together.

The last verse of the poem by Máirtín Ó Direáin ‘An tEarrach Thiar’ /’The Western Spring’:


Toll-bhuillí fanna

Ag maidí rámha

Currach lán éisc

Ag teacht chun cladaigh

Ar ór-mhuir mhall

I ndeireadh lae;

San Earrach thiar.


Gentle lapping of oars

As a currach full of fish

Comes towards the shore

On a calm golden sea

At eventide

In the Western Spring.


Michael and me spent many of our years fishing. On the river, in short trousers, we’d be up at ‘the Slip’, that was where the boats went into the river, up opposite the Jail road. Fishing for eels, we’d dig up the worms and put them in a jam jar full of clay, but Michael wouldn’t put the worms on the hook, that was my job.

On Lough Gill. We’d be up early in the morning getting ready to ‘head up the lake’, Mam would be making the sandwiches while we’d be grabbing the breakfast and ‘getting the boats ready.

“I’ll bring up the oars and the engine while you bail out the boat”.

‘Up’ was up to the ‘Steps’ - the gaps in the wall where the boats sat in the river.

As the years went on, we got our own boats and engines, Michael had a white 8 HP Honda 4-stroke engine that didn’t burn oil, unlike my 1½ HP 2-stroke Seagull that did. I loved the smell it left in its wake, Michael was already more environmentally conscious, even way back when I didn’t know what that meant.

‘Where’ll I meet ye for tea?’ was a common conversation.

‘I’ll see ya on White Shore,’ was all that was needed. White Shore is at the top of the lake, a long way up. That was enough.

We’d head when we were ready, up the river, through the Narrows and out onto the lake. I might head up the back of Beezie’s island, around by Goat island into Benowna bay, then cut across the Sandy ridge at Church island, out past the Cormorant rocks and up Corwillick. Michael might head up the Shellhouse, hit out to Perr Rock from the Castle Point and up through the Rookeries.

If I was in first, I’d be gathering the sticks. He’d come in and start lighting the fire. Smokey tea from the black kettle, boiled on the fire, and Mam’s sandwiches. Hanging out with your big brother, doing what we loved. That was the life.

When we’d be pushing out the boats after the tea, we’d part with, ‘I’ll see you when we get down’. ‘Down’ was back home off the lake.

Back at the steps in the evening it’d be, ‘I’ll bring down the engines and oars while you tie up the boats.’

                        *                       *                       *                       *

A friend – someone who may or may not be there when you don’t need them but is always there when you do. That was Michael and me.

I have two oak trees in my back garden that commemorate Mam and Dad’s passing. Mam’s one is over 15ft tall and Dad’s is about 10ft. Michael grew them from acorns.

I have a chestnut tree in my front garden. The conversation went, ‘Ah sure take it, or it’ll die. It’s a native species, not like those two red oaks you have at your gates’. He could talk ya into anything. So there’s a chestnut tree in my front garden. It’s been struggling since it went in but I suspect it’ll thrive from now on. Now, suddenly, it’s my commemoration for him.

                        *                       *                       *                       *

Michael and me loved our music, Leonard Cohen and Bob Dylan were high on the list. We loved fantasy and science fiction, the Lord of the Rings was high on that list. Ken and me picked three songs, one from Cohen, one from Dylan and one from the Lord of the Rings.

Cohen’s ‘Alexandra Leaving’ depicts the Lord of Love hoisting his friend up on his shoulders, to carry her home. I liken his depiction to what’s happening here today:


Michael hoisted on his shoulders

They slip between the sentries of the heart


Michael and me did the ‘Plans of the House’ for Carrie and me. Who else? We knew what we wanted, he helped us build our dream home and helped make our dreams come true.

Dylan describes Michael and me eloquently:


I could make you happy, make your dreams come true

Nothing that I wouldn't do

Go to the ends of the Earth for you

To make you feel my love


The last song ‘Into the West’, from the closing scene of the Lord of the Rings, covers the last thing I’ll say today for Michael and me. Annie Lennox will do it justice, I’ll leave you with a few of the more poignant lines:


Lay down

Your sweet and weary head

night is falling

You have come to journey's end

Sleep now

And dream of the ones who came before

They are calling

From across the distant shore

 

A pale moon rises

The ships have come to carry you home

 

Don't say

We have come now to the end

White shores are calling

You and I will meet again