One Reason Why I Might Dislike Joss Sticks

There are lots of sticks I like. I like Pooh Sticks, Chop Sticks, Walking Sticks. In fact, generally speaking, when it comes to sticks, you name it, I like it. Except for Joss Sticks. I have a bit of a problem there. I would say, ‘let’s unpack it’ but I have a bit of a problem with that expression too. So let’s just carry on.

Every day, when I walk through the town, I pass this little shop. You know the type, portraits of steely-blue-eyed wolves in the window, tarot cards, posted flyers for clairvoyants and healers and whatever-you’re-having-yourself. I don’t ever go in but it’s a welcome addition to the streetscape. It’s quirky and fun and it’s something different from the norm.

But they burn joss sticks in there. I know they do because the aroma leaks out onto the street as I pass. It doesn’t travel very far; it’s just sort of localised to the pavement immediately in front of the shop so it’s not really bothering anyone or doing any harm.

Except I don’t like the smell, I really don’t.

I didn’t always not like the smell, not as far as I remember anyway. It was something I was largely ambivalent about. 'Take it or leave it Ken', that was me when it came to the smell of a burning Joss Stick. But, somewhere along the line, something changed my mind and now the smell actively repels me.

I started to wonder why that might be. Have my olfactory preferences altered as I’ve crept inexorably toward the Big Six Oh? Have I just become weird? I came up with a theory as I lay in bed one night, waiting for sleep to slink in. For whatever it's worth, here it is.

When Mum was alive, our house at the Riverside was a constant melee of smells, all of them good. There was cooking and cleaning and an open fire in the grate. There was freshly laundered sheets and freshly caught fish and there was apple tart. Man, oh man, there was apple tart. I loved Mum’s apple tart. If I was coming home from college in Dublin on a Friday evening, as I so often was, whenever I arrived in the door after the (then) four-and-a-half-hour journey, there would be apple tart and hot tea waiting for me. I wondered why I loved that tart so much and I got a hint as to one of the reasons when I saw one being made once. There was a serious amount of sugar in there.

So the house smelled of everything good. It smelled of home.

Then, after Mum died and Dad was alone in the house, the smells weren’t so abundant anymore. Don’t get me wrong, Dad kept an immaculate house with everything ship-shape and in good order. He kept as happy a house as possible too, with his good friends dropping in of an evening to share his Sky Sports football and consume copious amounts of biscuits and tea. But bless him, he wasn’t baking apple tarts of making aromatic stews and roasts that filled every corner. Instead, he bought a packet of joss sticks in the Two Euro shop and took to planting one at the base of the Sacred Heart picture, beside the red lightbulb, and lighting it up.

I reckon that’s where my issue with the little burning sticks comes from. My home of lovely smells and lovely tarts became a place of aromatic burning which lingered long after the burning was done. I don’t think I was angry or disappointed about this turn of events. I don’t think so. I still loved coming to the house to see Dad, I still loved being there. I think I just missed my Mum, gone far too young at 72, and the burning smell was a physical reminder of all that.

That's what grief does, in my sadly increasing experience, it creeps around the alleyways of your mind and finds strange and quirky ways to keep itself quietly constant. Just yesterday, I was looking at a writer promote his science fiction book on Twitter and I decided that this would be a nice book to buy and post up to my eldest brother Michael in Sligo. He always enjoys a good science fiction tome, particularly if it’s part of a trilogy, as this one was. I was some way down the tracks with this train of thought when I remembered that, of course, Michael isn’t in his house in Sligo anymore. He left there, and us, last year.

The point, I guess, is that if you ever see me walking past your funky little shop and I seem to turn my nose up at it, don’t be too put out or annoyed. It isn’t you, it’s that harmless little thing you’re clearly burning in there. I’ve got a thing about them, you see, but it isn’t you, it’s me.

So, please, as I said at the start, carry on.

Black Butterfly

I was down around the side of the garage the other evening, most likely pursuing something cat-related, when I came upon a butterfly. I think it was a Red Admiral and there are two reasons why I think that. Firstly, it looked like a Red Admiral. Secondly, it’s the only Butterfly name I know.

It can be a bit dull and damp on the ground down the side of the garage, even at this time of the year. No place for a Red Admiral, or whatever the hell it was, no place at all. On closer examination, the butterfly was clearly in a bad way. There was black on its wing tips and, on one of the wings, the black was extending downward towards the body. The Butterfly perched on the ground and did not seem inclined to move at all. I reckoned the cat would have it if I left it there, so I resolved to move it. But where could I put it?

I picked it up gently by the black wing tips. It twitched a little but that was all. There are some plants at the front door, and it’s fairly sheltered from the breeze there, so I choose a nice white flower and placed the butterfly gently on it. For a few minutes, I rather naively thought it might find some sustenance in the depths of the flower, but I quickly realised that was probably an ignorant rubbish notion on my part. I hit the kitchen and mixed up some water with a lot of sugar and put some drops of that concoction on the flower beside the butterfly, who didn’t look at all well.

That was it. There was little else that I thought I could do. I had a brief and silly image of me sitting in the vet’s waiting room, in among all the dogs and cats and birds, all of them hungrily eyeing-up the little blackened insect perched morosely on my knee. A quick headshake. No, that wasn’t ever going to happen.

I had done my bit. I moved on.

The next morning, the butterfly hadn’t moved. The blackness had spread over a much larger area of both its wings. It sat on the flower, in the same position as I had left it, the sugar water seemingly untouched. It was clearly dead. I lifted it off and took it away in case the cat found it, even there, and toyed with its blackened remains.

That’s it. That’s the story.

I’m not an exceptionally good person or an easy touch of a softie or a fool, at least I don’t think I am. But if I happen upon a situation where I can think I can conceivably do something to make things a tiny bit better, I will generally try to do it. I don’t seek those situations out. In fact, I increasingly seek to avoid them. And the things I do may sound nice in a little anecdote like this one and it may make people think that I’m some kind of bloody saint or something. But I’m not. Trust me, I’m definitely not. I’m just a regular Joe and, in a lot of cases, my paltry efforts prove to be completely ineffectual. Most exercises in kindness or attempts at repair seems ultimately pointless. Just a waste of time.

Except they’re not. They’re never really a waste of time. I’ve written something like this before in these pages, perhaps more than once. It’s a theme I tend to return to in my head, now and again.

That butterfly was close to dying when I found it down at the side of the garage, and it was just as close to dying on the flower when I put it there. The sugar-water thing was far too little too late, and it was probably completely the wrong approach anyway. I did no good for that butterfly.

But I did do some good. I did some good for myself.

By taking a little action with the butterfly, I reminded myself that I’m a person who cares about little things, someone who will take a little time to help, if I can. I reminded myself that, despite some occasional evidence to the contrary, I’m not such a bad person really. I’m okay. I came away from the whole ‘butterfly thing’ feeling a tiny bit better about myself.

Because that’s the thing, isn’t it? Anyone who does the occasional ‘good deed’ knows the dark secret just as well as I do. It isn’t simply about the tiny bit of good you do or fail to do. It’s about the benefits you reap for yourself by stepping in and doing it.

You can actually feel pretty good about your kindness, even when the object of your kindness doesn't make it.

The Strange, Strange Gift of Talking Pictures TV

Some of you will know about Talking Pictures TV and some of you will not. I do. So I will tell those of you who don’t know a little something about it. How does that sound for starters?

If you have Sky and you go to TCM on Channel 315 or TCM+1 on Channel 316 and then start flicking upwards, you will pass through a strange little selection of movie channels. There’s the 'Horror Channel' and there's 'Great Movies' and one that seems to show Steven Seagal flicks every other night and one that alternates between showing Christmas movies in August and showing silly romantic films that seem to have been made last week and that all look and sound exactly the same. Then, right at the end of the movie channel lineup, you come to Talking Pictures TV. It’s Channel 328 on Sky, apparently, I just looked it up. So, you can forget all that flicking I mentioned earlier… unless you fancy some Steven Seagal some evening.

I’ve just decided that I'm not going to give you a history of 'Talking Pictures TV' after all. What am I? Wikipedia? Go and look it up yourself, if you’re bothered. It’s been there for some years, and it shows very old movies and very old TV shows and what else can I tell you? That’s about all I know. Except for the strange, strange gift it gives to me. Except for that.

Let me explain. Sit back down. Come on. I’m only getting warmed up here.

I started going to the cinema when I was quite young. In our town we had the Gaiety and the Savoy. The Gaiety was the posher option, but more fun was often had in the Savoy, which had a sort of a Wild West vibe about it. As I used to queue to go into the Saturday matinees every week, I used to study the posters that littered every wall. Those wonderful UK Quads that promised all the great cinematic things to come in the subsequent weeks and months.

These posters, for me, were all-too-often a taunting display of the completely unattainable. The vast majority of the films they promised were too ‘grown up’ for ten-year-old me to be allowed to see and they would never turn up in a matinee anyway. They were therefore an unfulfilled promise that made me hunger and thirst for fulfilment. Not so much to see things I shouldn’t see. More to be able to see all of the movies in the world, for I loved them even then.

Many of those memorable posters went on to become favourite films of mine when I became an adult and finally got to see them on video or TV or in retrospective cinema places in London. Films like, ‘The Taking of Pelham 123’, 'Klute' (I couldn’t ever begin to guess what a ‘Klute’ was), or 'Chinatown'. It is a source of much pride to me that I now own the beautiful original Chinatown poster that hung in the Gaiety Cinema when I was eleven years old. And I don’t mean I own one that looks like it. I have the actual poster that was displayed there. It’s a story for another day.

These were the posters for films that went on to be famous, lasting, and great.

But there was a whole other section of posters. The films that came and got shown and then vanished without a trace. The films I never got to see but the posters of which still continued to haunt my dreams for years afterward.

This, then, is the strange, strange gift of Talking Pictures TV up on Sky Channel 328. Regularly, often, and inordinately late at night, the channel resurrects the films that were foyer posters from my 1973-1976 matinee-going days and shows them in all their glory. On this wonderful channel, I have now filled in many of these gaps in my movie life with wonders such as ‘Frogs,’ ‘House of Whipcord,’ and ‘To the Devil, a Daughter’. I have also reminded myself of gems such as ‘Burnt Offerings’ (‘loved that book), ‘Juggernaut, ‘Hennessy’ and ‘Squirm’ which I did manage to see, back in the day, but never thought I would see again.

All very well, Ken. In fact, it’s quite lovely in its own peculiar way. But ‘strange,’ really? How strange is it, the simple re-running of old movies and, even if it is a bit strange, does it really justify the use of the word twice? Strange, strange? I think it does. It is strange and, more than that, it is strange in two different ways. Hence the doubling up.

The first reason it is strange is this; of all the movies that I now see on Talking Pictures TV, the ones that I burned to see as a child… well… some of them are actually pretty bad. I suppose this is not surprising. The best of the films that I couldn’t see naturally have lived on and are now seen regularly here and there. The vanished ones have often vanished for a reason. There is an undeniable ‘archival’ quality to the reappearance of these old movies, but they sometimes aren’t all that great. Having said that, There are great movies to be had on this channel and you should certainly go there for a look-around.

And the second, contradictory, reason is this; it doesn’t really matter one little bit if some of movies I burned to see have turned out to be a little bit poor, slightly low budget, somewhat badly acted or occasionally woefully dated. They are still all quite wonderful to behold. This is going to sound cheesy, I know, but it’s the best way I can describe the feeling and perhaps it is apt if I use a somewhat contentious film to do it.

You see, it’s like the end of Titanic. When one of those old, crap movie films from the posters of my youth comes to life on Talking Pictures TV, it’s really just like that.

It’s as if the long dark halls of those boyhood movie parlours of my youth spring to life once again, all bright and renewed. The original Gaiety may now be lost as part of a shopping centre, and The Savoy may still sit at the top of High Street as a rotting old husk, but it really doesn’t matter. When one of those old poster-movies plays, no matter how poor it is, it’s like the ticket-man draws the curtained door open for me and nods me inside. And I get to stand once again in that carpeted foyer and smell the chocolate and the popcorn. And, finally, at long last, I get to enter into the darkness beyond to sit with the forbidden movies themselves and the infinite mysteries they are about to unfold.

Strange. Strange.

But true.