The Library Didn't Go Easy Today

Most times, the library goes easy and that’s how it should be because I love the library.

Most times, the library just presents books to me. They practically spring off the shelves, causing considerable excitement and anticipation. Every shelf seems to contain a title I’ve been wondering about, or something new from an author I like, or something out of the blue that just looks too interesting to pass up.

Most times, it’s just like that. But, sometimes, occasionally, the library doesn’t go like that. Today was one of those days.

I think it’s mostly indicative of the frame of mind that I’m in when I enter the library. Most times, I’m well up for it, and the library lays itself out before me like a world of possibilities. Today, I went to the library to escape all the other things I was supposed to be doing and that sometimes works but, then again, sometimes it doesn’t. Today, I scanned all of the fiction shelves, went the way I always go, and nothing in the entire place presented itself to me as something I needed to take out and read.

This is obviously a silly state of affairs. There are thousands and thousands of books on the shelves and there are at least hundreds in there that I should be pleased to sit down with and read. But this is what I’m saying to you today; sometimes the library doesn’t go easy.

I have my routine. I start at ‘A’ and work my way through all the fiction. Wait. Strike that. I don’t start at ‘A’ at all. I start at the returned bookshelf and also at the shelf where the library people put up a seemingly random selection of new titles and other, older, titles that they like.

Nothing there for me: nada, zilch, zero.

(Of course there is, really. There is stuff there for me it’s just that the library is a state of mind and it was never going to go easy today).

So, here I am at ‘A.’ ‘A’ is normally good pickings. Maybe that’s because I’m sharp and ready for the book-hunt or maybe it’s something else. I sometimes wonder if some writers took on names that start with the letter ‘A’ just to catch the readers who search out their books alphabetically. There are good books on display here in ‘A,’ even today, but I’ve read them or I don’t fancy them right now. Onward to ‘B.’ There are letters I give more attention to than others. ‘M’ has brought me pleasures over the years so I always have a keen look there. And ‘K,’ of course. Ever since I started finding Stephen King there in the 70’s, the joy of happening upon a new book by him has never gone away. And even though I know now that no new book is due, and that I would end up buying it anyway, still, I always give ‘K’ a good once-over. For old time’s sake.

On a day when the library is not going easy, the tension starts to rise when you’re up around the ‘U’ ‘V’ and ‘W’s. How can I have got this far without a couple of books tucked under my arm? This upper echelon part of the alphabet seems somehow more rarefied. As if the chances of finding something interesting are somehow less likely up there. I have had great times up in the ‘V’’s and the ‘W’’s. Not today, of course. Today it is a just a barren wasteland of meaningless titles and unrecognisable spines.

Now I have reached the end of the fiction shelves and I have nothing to show for it. I tell myself I will go to the shop and buy myself a book. But, if I can’t find a single thing I want to read, in this entire universe of reading-material, what hope do I have in the little bookshop? Should I amble down the Biography section, maybe, have a look at the Graphic Novels?

I go back through the fiction to my favourite letters. I stand in front of the books and I threaten myself a little bit. If I can’t find something good to read on the shelf I’m currently looking at, then I am a big fool. I search that particular shelf with microscopic attention and then, of course, I start to see possibilities. I find two books, slender tomes, both by writers whose work I have previously enjoyed. My arm feels better with something tucked under it.

That’s the trick, you see. It’s obviously not the library’s fault if I’m having a bad day there. My mind is elsewhere, my brain is fogged. The library is always the library, consistent, welcoming, and replete with the best of things.

It’s me. Sometimes I just don’t go easy.

While, sometimes, I do.

The Drumstick Squashie Affair

Easter Sunday morning, 2022. A time to celebrate whatever it is you choose to celebrate, be it resurrection, the awakening of nature, or sweeties and chocolate.

For today’s missive, if it’s all the same to you, I shall go the ‘Sweeties and Chocolate’ route. Forgive me Mother Nature, forgive me Risen Christ, you are both great too. This post will also be a kind of a confessional, so we’re not entirely without Catholic input here.

The first thing to know is that I love sweeties and chocolate. “Don’t worry, Ken,” I hear you cry, “practically everybody loves sweeties and chocolate, you are not alone.” Yes, that’s exceedingly kind and I appreciate the sentiment, even though I made it up myself, but it’s not that simple. You may correctly assert that you love sweeties and chocolate and I will not doubt you nor cast aspersions on your high regard for said confections. Just be assured of one thing, gentle reader, however much you love ‘em, I love ‘em more.

One effect of my great love of all things sugary is that it is awfully hard to keep anything sweet in the house. As the evening draws in and some late-night telly beckons, I will seek out and find whatever sweets may be hidden and I will eat them. Nothing is safe. If this sounds like concerning behaviour, yes, good, be concerned, be very concerned. A little for my health, a lot for my waistline, but primarily because, if you have sweeties in the house, I am coming for them. I am the Liam Neeson of snuffling out sweets, I have a unique set of talents. I will find them and I will kill them.

In recent years, it’s my younger son, Sam, who has suffered most from my sweetie-purloining ways. When it became clear that Sam had a rather serious nut allergy, he could no longer get the customary Cadbury selection box as part of his Christmas morning haul. So Patricia started to create his own custom-made selection box in a shoe box wrapped in festive paper. There were all kinds of goodies in there and it turned out to be a vastly superior pressie to a silly old shop-bought selection box. It’s nice to have a little win sometimes.

But Sam was, and is, a slow consumer of sweets and chocolate, unlike his dear old dad. A square of chocolate here, a single jelly there… the darned selection box lasted for ever. And on those arid evenings when there wasn’t a sugary thing in the house, the selection shoe box called from Sam’s room like a tawny siren on the jagged rocks. “Come to meeee, Kenneth, come to meeeee.” But I couldn’t, I just couldn’t. This was the lad’s Christmas pressie and, yes, it was now March and he was hundreds of miles away in college and he didn’t want what was left in there anyway… but I couldn’t and I didn’t.

There came a time, and it took a bloody long time to come, when there was very little left in the box and the box was de-commissioned and the remaining product put out to sit on Sam’s desk. In truth, there was only one thing left in the box. A pack of Drumstick Squashies.

Drumstick Squashies are among the least desirable of all the sweets. Doubtless included in the shoe box as a reference to Sam’s percussive talent, rather than as a genuine treat. They are the last thing from the Christmas box, they lie on Sam’s desk unwanted and unloved. Late at night, I go into the room and stare at the pink packet. No, I can’t open them. I can’t.

Every story needs a crisis and the crunch came here when Sam arrived home for a nice weekend and then went back again. All good, you might think. No, far from it. Sam had opened the packet of Drumstick Squashies and had one or two and left them there. Now the packet was open, Drumstick Squashies spilling out alluringly onto the desk.

I’ll have one. Nobody will know. I had one. It was horrible. So I had another. And another. That was enough. Stop now. Stop.

I pushed the empty packet down the bottom of the bin. Guilty but sugared-up.

At the next supermarket shop, I bought a replacement packet of Drumstick Squashies and left them on the desk. One evening, quite late, as I was standing at the desk, I realised that this was no good, no good at all. This new packet of Drumstick Squashies were sealed shut. The previous pack had been opened. I opened the pack. Since Sam had eaten a few of the previous pack, for complete authenticity, I would do the same. Just one or two, to complete the effect.

I pushed the empty packet down the bottom of the bin.

I hate Drumstick Squashies. They aren’t detestable or anything like that. They’re just a bit… joyless. Of all the sweets in the world, they are not even in the top hundred. Not even close. But I am in a cycle now. I buy a pack to replace the pack I ate. Suddenly there is nothing else in the house with sugar in it. I eat a few. I eat them all. I buy a new pack.

There is a new pack on Sam’s desk as I write this. There is an empty pack on mine. I inadvertently bought Rhubarb and Custard flavour instead of the originals so that just wouldn’t do. They were truly horrible, particularly the last few.

The writing of this post will be the end of this horrific cycle. I will confess to my son, throw myself on his mercy, beg his forgiveness. No more Drumstick Squashies. No more.

Happy Easter. I hope you get some chocolate.

One small thing. If you do, please don’t leave it lying around.

Jerry, Kris, and Me

Jerry King passed away this week. We bid him adieu yesterday. Jerry was a friend of mine and I wanted to try to write a few simple words about him today.

So, here goes…

When Patricia and I landed in Castlebar, back in 1997, we knew hardly anybody but ourselves. As time passed, we tended to each seek out some things we knew and find some welcome there. For Patricia, one of these was Castlebar Tennis Club. She peered in the gate at Pavilion Road and was warmly welcomed in by Anne Garavan, marking the start of many years of playing and many great friendships, which continue right up to today.

For me it was the library. Wherever I lived in my life, I had always found solace and shelter in the local library. From my first of many excursions, as a boy, into Sligo Library, to the grand reading room of Melbourne City Library, from Chelsea, Twickenham, and Kensington right here to Castlebar, where I stuck my nose in the door, found a welcome, and never looked back.

Jerry King was a key part of Castlebar Library, and he made me feel welcome there from the first time I set foot inside. I probably first met him when I was checking out a couple of books and, while doing it, he expressed an interest in what I was going to read. This initial contact soon grew into long discussions about books and reading and developed to a place where Jerry would sometimes even lead me through the bookshelves to find a volume that he guessed I might like. He was never wrong.

Jerry didn’t just check out books in the library though, he lived and breathed the place and his innovations there became things which continue to shape my experience of living here in Castlebar. He organised a wildly impressive series of writers to come for evenings where they would read and talk to an audience. These were tremendously successful and I have great memories of many of the writers who came. The excitement of having Frank McCourt, hot off his success with Angela’s Ashes. The impressive spectacle of Joseph O’Connor,  decked out in one of his best suits, expanding on his ‘Star of the Sea.’ But, for me, the night to end all nights was to be allowed to sit in the quiet company of the Master himself, John McGahren, as he quietly read from his work and modestly deflected questions about the TV adaptation of Amongst Women, advising the audience that he had never seen it.

Jerry was a master of table quizzes. I loved his quizzes, particularly the music rounds. Our tastes seemed so in tune that I always seemed to do well with those questions. Our LP stacks must have looked quite similar to each other’s.

Jerry started a monthly evening gathering in the library of people who liked poetry and I went along, even though poetry often remains a bit of a mystery to me. The evenings turned out to be magical and memorable. It was amazing to see the elderly ladies who turned up, reciting entire works from memory, for that was how they were taught. The evenings encouraged us to look deeper into poetry to find something new to read out each month. One month, I remember, I brought a lyric from a Bob Dylan song, ‘The Lonesome Death of Hattie Carroll.’ I read it out and boldly claimed it was as much poetry as anything else we might read or hear. Jerry didn’t say too much but, the next month, he turned up with the lyrics to ‘Me and Bobby McGee’ by Kris Kristofferson. He cited my bringing of Dylan and said he felt encouraged by me to do this. Then, remarkably and unforgettably, he sang the entire song to the assembled group. There we were, Jerry, Kris, and me, bound in a small moment. The singing of that song, at that moment, seemed to tie a lot of things together: Library, Music, Quizzes, Poetry, Friendship and Life. It was a moment I will not forget.

The poetry evenings came and went after a few years, though I do believe the lasting and excellent Book Club, which came after, owed quite a lot to it. I saw Jerry regularly in various places. At friends’ houses, the Tennis Club, behind the desk in the library, although his duties often kept him in higher office as the years progressed. It was always a delight to see his smiling face and to be unfailingly heartened and challenged in equal measure by whatever was the order of his day.

June 24th, 2018, was a Sunday night and, around ten in the evening, I decided to take a walk around the town as I often did. That evening I detoured up towards the TF Royal Theatre because I wanted to see the crowd come out and get a feel for how the evening had gone. Kris Kristofferson was in our little town, playing a concert. Although I didn’t go, I felt an urge to be close to the place where he was playing. So I went up there for a look.

The concert had just let out. On the street outside I met Jerry and Majella, who had been to see Kris. The same Kris who Jerry had sung so brilliantly for poetry night, so many years before. There is no great point to this story, except that I had rarely met two people who were so alive and so happy to be out and about and in each other’s company. We chatted about how great the concert had been and I regretted not taking the opportunity to go. I hadn’t seen Jerry in a while, for some reason, and I found it completely uplifting to meet both he and Majella on that warm evening. It’s hard to explain but it’s true. Jerry, Kris, and me had enjoyed one more small moment together.

I’m going to miss Jerry. I’ll miss seeing his smiling face down on The Mall. I will miss being slipped a book I would never have found by myself. I will miss knowing that the elusive tune in Question Five of the Table Quiz is that final piano part from ‘Layla.’ The bit Scorsese used in ‘Goodfellas.’

Thanks for everything, Jerry. For all the books music, smiles, songs, questions, and answers.

Travel well, mate.