Fancy New Dryer, Mrs. Roberts, and Paul Auster Thoughts

Our old tumble dryer broke and, after being several months without one, and with rainy Winter comin’ in fast, we decided to go to the big shop and get ourselves a new one. All we wanted was a run-of-the-mill machine. Throw the clothes in, when the washing line is not an option and when clothes are needed, turn the dial, and let it do its thing.

Imagine our consternation (stop… just imagine it) when we found there weren’t any run-of-the-mill drying machines in the big shop. Nary a one. But wait, there in the back, skulking beneath a microwave over, one solitary regular tumble dryer.

A salesman approached. He was wearing a high-vis jacket. I guess it was to avoid being run over by a shopping trolley, I’m not sure. Anyway, I accosted him (which sounds far worse than it is). I buttonholed him. I cornered him. Okay, okay, I asked him a question. “Why are you wearing a high vis jacket?” I asked. No, of course I didn’t. “Where are all the tumble dryers?” I asked him.

He waved loosely (no sleeves in a high vis jacket) at a wall, along which there was an array of large grey super-computers. “There they are,” he said, with the authority of a man who knew.

These machines were a different breed. Hulking and clearly intelligent, they sat awaiting your command, not yet ready to take over the Earth.

“It’s the Global Warming,” the high vis man was busy explaining, “your old-fashioned dryer is out the window now. Too much energy used in ‘em, you see. These new ones will dry your clothes for a fraction of the price in five seconds and will earn their money back within three days of buying one.”

All right, I may be exaggerating the claims made for effect but I’m not all that far off the mark. The clear subtext was that this new installation would instantly change our lives for the better in several different ways.

We ended up buying one of these fancy-ass new dryers. There were several reasons. We needed a dryer and the last old one on the shelf suddenly looked sinister and dangerous, a threat to our very existence as a race. Also we had some vouchers to help allay the frankly outrageous cost of the device.

The delivery men came a few days later, and they were most helpful. They wouldn’t unpack the machine, they wouldn’t lift the old machine down off the washing machine (“I could injure my back with that, sir.”) (I lifted it down myself) and they wouldn’t take away the packaging either. Really helpful guys. I hope they deliver my next thing too; they were that good.

For what it’s worth, the machine is brilliant. We won’t be using it much. We favour the clothesline and running in and out to the yard to get clothes dry between the showers. But, sometimes, you’re just stuck, and you need to dry a sock or three. This machine does it, but it converts the dampness in the sock into water in a little tank that you empty out afterward. No steam, no condensation. I’m not trying to sell you one but (pulls on a high vis) it will change your life, Missus, it really will.

All of which made me think of Mrs. Roberts.

Before we got married, and for quite a while after we got married, we lived together in Mrs. Roberts’ house in Acton. It was your average two-storey terraced house, and we lived in the one-bedroom flat on the first floor and Mrs. Roberts lived in the ground floor flat. She owned the house. She was a getting-on elderly widowed lady who had come from Poland to wed her beloved Mr. Roberts who had passed away, leaving her alone in her house. So, she made the conversion, got a small kitchen in upstairs and advertised the space. Along came us and we moved in. There was no separation between the ground and first floor flats. Mrs. Roberts could have walked up the stairs to us at any time and we could have walked in on her just the same. But we never did. We imagined a separating wall and a door, and we lived accordingly. She was a lovely lady. Stern and quiet mostly but she enjoyed the company in the house, I think, and we had a lovely little corner to commence our married life in.

The reason the dryer reminded me of Mrs. Roberts is that, once, our washing machine broke irreparably in the flat and Mrs. Roberts got us a new one. This was remarkable as being practically the only time that Mrs. Roberts broke the imaginary partition wall and door that lay between our residences. On the day that the washing machine was installed, and as soon as the (wonderful) delivery men were gone, she brought up a small three-legged stool and a washing basket with some of her clothes in and she did the first wash in the machine. She set it running, then sat on the stool in front of the little round window and watched every rotation the drum took until the wash was finally finished. Trish and I still refer to this as ‘doing a Mrs. Roberts’, although we’ve never done it ourselves.

Eventually we bought our own place and we moved on and we lost touch with Mrs. Roberts. I’m sure she had lots of subsequent tenants in, and I hope they all got on as swimmingly together as we did.

One final thing for today and it’s a slightly odd thing. When we moved back here to Ireland in 1997, I almost immediately spotted a youngish lady who worked in McDonalds. She was Polish and rather stern faced and I immediately came to the whimsical conclusion that this was Mrs. Roberts, re-invented and rejuvenated and come to live in our new town with us. No logical reason for this, I just thought it, that’s all.

But it stuck.

I still see this lady around town. It’s now (counts several times on fingers) 26 years later and she’s not so young anymore. She’s still stern faced and quite self-contained and I’ve never said a single word to her in my entire life, except conceivably ‘a Big Mac please’ sometime back in the late nineties. As each year passes, she looks more and more like Mrs. Roberts used to look. I’ve never quite shaken the notion that it’s her, relocated to keep an eye on us.

It's a sort of a Paul Auster thought, I think. The kind of weird thing he might tell us about in one of his novels.

Perhaps, some day soon, I will answer a ring on the front doorbell and, opening it, I will find the new Mrs. Roberts standing there, three-legged stool in hand, come to inspect the cycle of our fancy new dryer machine.

Saturday Evening

It’s Saturday evening and I usually have this thing written and edited by now. Then I usually get up early on Sunday morning and give it a last minute tweak. Then I post it so that the handful-or-two of kind and supportive regulars can ease by and look it over through the morning.

But it’s now (checks the clock) nine sixteen in the evening and I haven’t written a goddamned thing beyond the words ‘goddamn thing.’ Even worse, I don’t really know what to write about. I have several things in mind but that’s always my worst case scenario. Have one thing or have nothing, both of these options seem to work okay for me. But don’t put alternatives in my head. I never know where to start with that stuff.

I sense this week’s post will just be one of those occasional stream of consciousness ones (I always find it hard to spell consciousness, do you?). I reckon you should bail out now and cut your losses. You’re not going to learn anything new or exciting with this week’s post. You’re not going to laugh or cry. You may fart but that’s nobody’s business but your own and will certainly be no fault of mine. You’re on your own with that.

I bought a bottle of Fever Tree Soda and Mexican Lime in Tesco early, and some lemons, and I figured I would tip that stuff and some of the Absolute Vodka that a kind soul (Steve) gave me for my birthday, into a wine glass and, you know, chuck in some ice and swirl it around and see how I might get on with that. So, yeah… this is how I’m getting on with that.

Although I couldn’t ever tell you where half the letter keys are located on my keyboard, my fingers sail over them and almost unerringly pick out the words. I don’t know how I do that, it’s one of life’s little mysteries, like bad fortune and obsolescence.

Patricia is watching the US Open Women’s Tennis Final on the telly in the front room. We added on Sky Sports to our package solely to see it and you have to give them a month’s notice to cancel it again. So I phoned today to do that, knowing that nothing in the world would possibly divert me from cancelling. But they are shut on Saturdays so that pretty much diverted me. Monday morning though… their ass will be mine.

Trish loves tennis and I like it too. I’ve been watching it most of my life and I can get pretty well involved in a match on the telly. I can’t warm to Sabalenka though, who is playing Gauff in the final. When she smiles off court, that kind of wins me over a little. She seems real then. But, on court, and I know this is awful, she reminds me of the (edited on Sunday morning). Can I say that? Can I really say that? This fever tree is nice, though.

The cat was sitting in the rectangular flower pot at the front door this morning. She fairly filled it up and overflowed out the sides. It turned out there was a tiny field mouse hiding under the pot and Puddy was carrying out a none-too-subtle stakeout on it. Trish distracted the cat with a bag of Tuna Dreamies while I lifted the pot up and encouraged one rather shellshocked rodent to take a swift hike.

After that I walked to the library and found that book by Tarantino where he talks about old movies and stuff. I’ll have me a bit of that later on.

In more general terms, I find myself generally distracted and troubled by how life has the potential to turn to complete shit from any given moment to the next. My life is lovely and has been for a long time and hopefully will be for a long time more but, fuck me, life in general really can turn on a dime when it takes a mind to. I saw that happen recently to some particularly good people who I’m very fond of and I don’t mind telling you it knocked me back a ways. Life can jump up and headbutt you when you least expect it. But I’m not telling you anything you don’t already know. There’s no answer to it and it’s no good worrying too much over it. You’ve just got to reap the most you can from the good times and hope that your little harvest provides some kind of a cushion for when the rotten times land.

I wonder if there’s any of that fever tree left.

I hear cheers from the telly so Coco and (edited on Sunday morning) must be going fairly hard at it. I think I’ll retire up there and see how they’re getting on.

It’s Saturday evening, and the windows are open and the dishes are done and the cat is down the back garden staring at a bush and wondering where the hell that fucking mouse went. I’ll bid you a good Saturday evening, rather like the one I’m having myself. Although I guess it’s Sunday morning when you’re reading this so you’ll just have to save my good wishes up and apply them next week when they will doubtless become appropriate again.

Chocolate. I wonder if there’s any chocolate in this house. I bet there is.

I wonder where.

Stories for Hatstands

The little story that follows is real. It’s not really mine to tell but it’s true and it illustrates a fairly obvious point. So I’m borrowing it and altering it a tiny bit and adorning it a little, just to (hopefully) get away with it.

Here follows the story in question.

A person I know was recently moving into their new office, which was on the first floor of the building. They were bringing their stuff into the office bit-by-bit. No lift in this premises so everything was being person-handled up the two flights of stairs. The person would leave some of the stuff outside the front door while some more of the stuff was being carried up. A one-person job which begged a couple more persons to do it easier.

One of the items left on the walkway outside the front door, during one of these trips up the stairs, was a hatstand. Quite a nice hatstand, modern and sleek. A little metal, a little wood. You know the type. If you don’t, picture it. It’ll come to you.

The hatstand stood outside the front door, minding its own business. All good. Except, in the really short time it took the person to carry a big box up, drop it in their new office and then come back down again, the hatstand was gone.

A story, yes, but not a great story. If it turns out that the hatstand was stolen, that’s a little bit better but still not great. If the town-cleaner brigade came by and swept it away, in the brief period of time it stood there, well, that’s fine but still not great. But the hatstand was not stolen nor was it taken away as rubbish.

It was sold.

Next door to the building containing the person’s new office, the lies a Charity Shop. A very good Charity Shop. Sometimes they place particular bargains outside of their shop. A little something to catch the eye of the passing public. No harm, no foul.

Except, in the brief moments that the person was up and down the stairs, somebody spotted the hatstand, mistook it very a potential nice bargain, carried it into the Charity Shop, asked ‘How much for this?’ paid up and left. By the time the new office person got back to street level, the hatstand was already long gone.

Now, maybe you don’t agree, but I think that’s a great little story. Hence my reaction.

When the person was telling it to me, within moments of it having happened, I simply could not conceal my delight at how the story concluded. Whatever little internal antennae I have for tales and narratives, must have been twitching excitedly. When the person, who was a bit put-out, finished telling me their story, I all but punched the air.

“That’s great,” I said, “isn’t that just great?”

The person, who doesn’t know me very well, looked at me in a somewhat bemused fashion.

“Well,” they replied, in a measured tone, “I’m not sure I’d call it exactly ‘great’…”

I tried to explain, as I will try to explain here now, but I don’t think they fully understood and I’m not sure you will either.

It’s simply this. I would sacrifice my hatstand for a good story any day of the week.

I do it all the time, if only metaphorically. This here blog is littered with stories where I have lost out. It might not always be something material, like a hatstand. It might just be a loss of my pride or my composure or my… anything really. If I lose (and I regularly do) and I get a little story to tell out of my defeat, then I can’t help but feel that’s I’ve really won.

It's a little comfort to me to realise that. I may not always be comfortable defining myself as a writer, having never quite gotten as far along that road as I thought I might. I may not be able to say I’m a theatre writer or a screen writer or a short story writer though I’ve done a fair measure of all of them. I may not always be able to sell that ‘Writer’ definition to myself in my own head.

But, by golly, I’m a storyteller. Put that on my gravestone or little marble plaque or whatever I end up behind or beneath.

Ken Armstrong – Storyteller

“Willing to Swap Hatstand for Story Any Day.”

Patricia’s Good Year

On Sunday evening last, my wife Patricia was due to receive a prize. I’ll tell you about it in a minute. Alas, through a couple of circumstances that were really nobody’s fault, the prize-giving was over when we got there. Patricia got her prize and got her photo taken for the paper, and that was all good. However, there was an escapable feeling that a small moment has been lost. Just a small one but still a moment.

You see, Patricia had secretly been planning to say a few words after she was presented with her prize. Not a speech or anything. Just a line or two to her friends.

Because that didn’t happen, through no fault of anyone, I thought I would try and create a moment here on the blog where those few lines could be set down. Not to fix anything or, heaven forbid, to punish anyone but just simply because the lines are worth setting down and worth hearing. I don’t even know exactly what Patricia might have said but, knowing her as I do, I imagine a line or two like this would have been in there.

“Some years ago, I had major surgery. At the time, the surgeon couldn't guarantee that  I would ever be able to play tennis again. And you all know how much I love my tennis. I would say to you, no matter what you get told, keep trying. Always keep trying.”

When Patricia’s eldest sister Una got breast cancer and then her next eldest sister,
Penelope also got breast cancer, just as their Mother, Maevie, had got it before them, it became clear that the cause was a genetic one. Una, Penelope, and Maevie all gave Patricia a gift. A gift of foreknowledge, where she could take some action against an oncoming train. It also left her with a decision to make. Not an easy one.

On the morning that Patricia was going in for her surgery, she was due to be taken down to the theatre at eight in the morning. I was driving to Galway at seven when I got a call from her to say she was being brought down early so we would have to catch up afterwards. Patrica had a bi-lateral mastectomy and, at the same time, she had the muscles called the latissimus dorsi taken from her back on both sides for a breast reconstruction. This was judged to be the best way to do things, implants tending to be a bit troublesome after a certain age. The operation took over fourteen hours.

My abiding memory will be of Patricia asking if she could walk into theatre under her own steam rather than being wheeled in. The staff obliged. It is hard to walk into a room full of people who are waiting to go to work on you when there is absolutely nothing wrong with you. It takes a bravery beyond my understanding. A profound will to live.

On the day before the surgery we walked on the beach, had some cake, and carried a feeling that this day was the end of something and the beginning of something else. In the hospital that evening, ensconced in a bed that she could have got up and walked away from, a nurse with a chart tutted at Patricia’s smiling face and, a little judgementally, said, “this is a major procedure… a very big procedure.”

And it was.

The recovery was slow. We walked the corridors of the hospital, drain tubes and murky maroon collecting bags slung in every direction like handbags. One of the back wounds was desperately slow to heal.

But it did heal. It healed well.

The prize that Patricia won in the tennis club was in the ladder competition. You play the person above you and, if you win, you ascend. Patricia ascended more than anybody else in the whole thing. She climbed eight rungs of the ladder. She played and beat men half her age along the way. Ironically, the latissimus dorsi muscles that they took from her back are the very ones you would normally use to climb a ladder, to pull yourself up. You have to use something else when they are no longer there. I’m not sure what that is but it is something strong.

Patricia is having a good year. The things she set out to do are being done in great style. She swam a mile, she won the tennis prize, she excels in other aspects of her life that I can't really talk about here. She is rocking 2023.

And it feels like Una, Penelope, and Maevie too, all dearly departed from us, are encouraging her on to be the best she can be. Having given her the gift of a longer life, through the hardest of lessons, Patricia acknowledges their strength and love by continuing to live the best life that she can.

And we both count our blessings to be here still. We don’t feel as if we have dodged a bullet; rather we have slowed it down. It’s the same for all of us, really; the bullets are coming for us all at some point. That's life. We can only avoid so many. But we keep ducking and diving and doing the best we can and we remember the people who have gone on ahead who, in doing so, have given us a better chance to carry on a while longer.

Onwards with your great year, my Patricia. It’s only August. 

Anything could happen yet.

The Cookbook Thing

In late 1990, we returned from our year ‘around the world’, settled in together in an upstairs flat in Acton, and started to get ready to get married. Doing things, completely arse-ways, by traditional Irish standards, but not unusual for the young London Irish set of which I guess we were then a part.

This was a first run at domestic life together. Granted, we had been in each other’s ear on the ‘around the world’ year and had even inhabited a little apartment with Andy and Natasha in St. Kilda in Melbourne for several months. (Hi Andy and Natasha, where on Earth are you now?) But this was a first taste of real domesticity. We went to shops and bought placemats, a teapot, some cutlery, and a clock radio to wake us up in the morning.

We were all set.

Except we weren’t. Not really. We could cook at thing or two, a Spag Bol or a grilled pork chop. And Andy and Natasha (remember them?) had given us a good grounding the basics of the preparation of a Sunday roast; something which continues to serve me well to this very day. That was all well and good but this was Total Domesticity looming on the horizon now and we needed to be ready, we needed to be armed.

So we took ourselves down to a bookshop in Ealing Broadway and looked over the cookery books that were arrayed there. There was only one choice for me. The one pictured above. Delia Smith’s Complete Cookery Course. Although I knew little or nothing about Delia at that time, the book beckoned to me. You may wonder why. You may think you know why. You may surmise that it was that picture of Delia on the cover, looking so capable and wholesome, holding her egg in an undeniably sensual way…

Behave yourself! It wasn’t that at all. In fact I have no idea what you are talking about. Delia. Sensual. Really, behave. (Ahem).

No, it wasn’t anything like that. It was the shape and thickness of the book, the ‘heft’ of it in one’s hand… and it was Mum. Mum was a key part of the reason I wanted to bring Delia's book home with us.

It’s simple really. Mum had a cook book; it was the exact same size and shape and ‘heft’ as the Delia one we bought. In 1990, that book wasn’t a memory or an icon, as such. It was there, across the water, in a home by the riverside in Sligo. It has become an icon since, a lost icon but, back then it was just a book and I wanted one just like it in my home. I know it might take me many years to get it but buying Delia was a start. 

A good start.

You see the Sligo book was not just a book. Over the decades of Mum using it, it had become a venerable folio. Loose sheets with hand-written recipes were tucked lovingly between every second page. Cuttings from magazines and newspapers fell out if you opened it without due care. Mum’s book wasn’t just a book, it was a record of a lifetime of meal preparation. Nothing fancy or overblown, just excellent home-made fare, all kept between the pages of an ordinary book. Where is it now? Heaven only knows, almost literally.

It's thirty-three years since we brought Delia home with us and, without any deliberate attempt to do so, the book has grown and expanded to be the image of Mum’s book. The book is showing all the signs of a busy three decades in several kitchens, but mostly in this one. The 'sensual egg' cover is long gone and the spine is cracked and broken. Pick it up in the wrong way and front and back covers go in separate directions. It's best to lay it on the table and let it lie flat then flick your way through. There are less hand-written notes in there than there were in Mum's version. Except for one or two actual ones from Mum herself. Rather, there are colour photocopies from Sunday supplements, print outs from websites, that sort of thing. There is no order to it. It is just a random collective of recipes and guides.

As well as the many loose additions, I still often check in on my Delia and her good advice. Even when I’m making old favourites like Carbonara or Fish Pie. She is also a key part of my Christmas Morning routine, as I studiously check once again how she likes me to roast the turkey, right before I do it a completely different way. The ham is still all hers though, the cider a key part of it. The turkey giblet stock follows her faithfully too. Christmas dinner would be incomplete without her ongoing input.

But it’s those loose addendums that see the most action. Constantly being added to, by Patricia more than by me. Nothing is ever removed or thrown away.

Like Mum’s version, this has become more than just a book. It almost feels like an archive of our life together. Not something to be treasured or hoarded long after we are gone. It is more something to remind ourselves that, like Mum and Dad before us, we have travelled a long way together and, unlike them (alas) we still, hopefully, have a good way to go.

Now, that Shallot recipe… where on Earth did I tuck it in?

(The actual book)

Lessons from the Lineman

Sometimes it’s rewarding to just go with the random.

I was driving my car to a thing the other morning. Three hours one way then three hours back. I was listening to 'Marty in the Morning' on Lyric FM as I was driving along. I like Marty Whelan. He is always trying to stay as positive as humanly possible. His interviews tend to wind me up a bit though. I’m never sure what he might say next. Anyway, I digress.

I was listening to Marty and, funnily enough, it was in his interview of the day, with Laoise Fitzgeraldthat he mentioned about how a simplified voice and piano arrangement by the composer can bring new insights into a song of theirs. He cited as an example Jimmy Webb and how he had taken some of his ‘busier’ and most famous productions and recorded those songs with just him and his ivories. The person that Marty was interviewing agreed that this was, indeed, a good thing. This was, after all, most likely the way in which the songs had been written in the first place.

This must have sunk in because, on the drive home, after I’d finished with Kermode and Mayo, I put on the album ‘Ten Easy Pieces’ which features Webb singing his own songs with little more than his piano for company. If you click on the photo at the top, you can listen to a well known song from it..

Several things occurred while listening and driving. Firstly, it’s an interesting listen. Webb is very good at selling his own songs but he isn’t always as good as the people who did the most famous versions are. This shouldn’t be a massive surprise to me or anyone else. When I write one of my little plays, it won’t be at its best if I just stand up on a chair and do it myself. I need to get the best people I can to do it, to get it across in the best way possible. It’s a bit of a no-brainer.

But conversely, if I should happen to do it myself, albeit rather poorly, I may have a more intimate understanding of the subtext of what I have written. More than practically anybody else will.

So it is with Jimmy Webb.

Another of the several things I took away from my listen is that ‘McArthur Park’ is a far more personal and meaningful song than the whole ‘Cake out in the Rain’ business might lead you to believe. I reckon I could write a whole other blog post about that one but, for today, let’s just stick to the business in hand.

And the business in hand is ‘Wichita Lineman.’

What a song it is. Definitely in my top ten of all time. Whenever the late Glen Campbell comes on the radio to sing it, I stop what I’m doing and I listen. What a song.

It’s a combination of many things that fall together to make it great but, for one, it's the alternating naure of the verses. The first verse is mundane and businesslike. He is a lineman for the county. The second is aching and highly personal. He hears her singing in the wires. The third is, again, all everyday business. A vacation would be nice but if is snows there’ll be too much work to do. The final verse in the clincher. A spine tingling declaration of love. ‘And I need you more than want you and I want you for all time…” It’s a lyrical masterpiece. And that’s just one thing about it.

Here's two takeaways from my on-the-road listen to Jimmy Webb singing his own song ,Wichita Lineman. Both relate to writing and, specifically, to my own attempts at writing.

Firstly, it can be a valuable thing when someone offers you a direction to write in. Something to write for. Something they need. Apparently, Glen Campbell contacted Jimmy Webb and indicated that he would like another ‘place song’ to follow on from ‘By the Time I Get to Phoenix.’ Would this masterful song even exist today if Campbell hadn’t communicated that requirement? Who can say for sure. Possibly not. That possibility is enough to make me sit up and listen when someone says they need a particular little something. I have previously found inspiration and, indeed, motivation in that way and I believe I will again.

Secondly, the inspiration for such a great song is so ordinary and everyday. Apparently, Jimmy Webb had been driving along a stretch of road, noting telephone pole after telephone pole along the way. Then, suddenly, there, in front of him, was a man on a tall ladder, doing his day’s work. Fixing the lines. It was enough to start a train of thought, a chain of connections. Something lasting and wonderful eventually emerged. A combination of a mundane request and a mundane encounter. I will continue to try to embrace the mundane in the things I write. I increasingly think that the larger truths and the more engaging challenges lie firmly in the realm of the mundane.

So I reckon I’ll just keep looking and listening out for the little things along the way. I’ll also try to keep paying attention to what you might tell me that you need from some written thing.

Castlebar Kenman… is still on the line.

Knowing for Sure Who You Are But Being Wrong

I can meet you and not know who you are. 

It’s not an age thing, it’s a talent I’ve always possessed. It sometimes takes me a moment or two to connect your face and voice with who you actually are. Even if I know who you are, your name will almost certainly elude me for some period of time. 

The more I try to remember it, the less success I will have with it. If I could switch my mind to some other unrelated thought, your name would be there, in the corner of my mind’s eye and I would know it. But that’s not easy to do when we’re on the street or the bread aisle in Tesco and your middle child is clawing at my shin.

This is bad. Of course it’s bad. But it’s not the worst thing. Not by a long chalk.

The worst thing, in this particular wing of human experience, is when I know exactly who you are, I know exactly what your name is and I know all about you. Your hopes and concerns. Your highs and your lows. All of it. And I engage with you on this level, happy and comfortable in the knowledge that, for once, I’ve got you sussed.

The worst thing is when I do all this… and I’ve got it completely wrong.

You are not who I think you are. You are not even remotely related to that other person. You are Somebody Else Entirely. And, by the time I have finally realised this, I have dug a hole so deep that even Elon Musk and his little submarine couldn’t get me out of it.

This doesn’t happen too often and that in itself is a great blessing because, when it does, it requires a mental dexterity and a level of backtracking that is almost superhuman. Why couldn’t I just put a little of this massive energy into remembering who the person was in the first place? But life isn’t like that, is it? We are all flawed beasts and we muddle through as best we can.

Down town a few weeks ago, I met a woman who I believed had suffered a bereavement a few weeks before. “You suffered a bereavement,” I said, not without some confidence about this elderly parent factoid, “I was sorry to hear it.” She stared at me blankly for a moment and then a light dawned. “No,” she replied, “no bereavement for me. Perhaps you’re thinking of the woman up the road?” It turns out I was, indeed, thinking of the woman up the road. We went on to analyse the weather and the state of the economy but the damage had been done.

At a social function a few weeks ago, I was navigating a room full of in-law relatives, many of them quite distant and rarely seen. Late in the evening I found myself in a corner with two nice ladies and, after an initial enjoyable time, the conversation had started to lag. I studied the younger of the two ladies. Of course! This was the ‘book’ lady who goes to all the literary festivals and know loads about Irish writers. I seized the moment.

“So, are you reading anything good at the moment.?”

The look of panic in her eyes told me all I needed to know. I had, once again, gone off in the wrong direction. This lady was not the literary lady, she was over at the far wall, nursing an Espresso Martini and chatting easily to some pensioner. Okay. So who was I with?

I looked back at my lady. A thin sheen of perspiration had formed on her brow. She was clearly searching her memory for a book, any book, she might ever have read which would satisfy this leering loon and his stupid, stupid question.

Her friend looked on amazed. She’d been around the block a time or two and had doubtless heard all kinds of rubbish out of the mouths of middle-aged men at late night parties. But this book-crack was something new, something different. She watched with lively, glistening eyes and waited to see how her poor friend might get herself out of this one.

As for me, there was nothing I could do. I had cast my conversational line and there was no way I could reel it back in without having some little something on the hook. I waited and waited, mentally kicking myself for getting everything completely wrong yet again.

After a small eternity, she finally came up with something.

“I… I read this book about a local man who… composed Irish tunes and… and… visited all the households and played them.”

My gratitude to this woman knew know bounds. Against all odds she had returned the conversational ball and got us over the enormous hill I had made for us. I picked up on her musical literary friend and went off on a verbal ramble about music and houses and men and then we were okay again.

Her friend leaned back on her heels and relaxed her brow, clearly disappointed that the crisis had passed without some more entertaining form of breakdown. I got out as quick as I could and went outside and found a stray cat to talk to. No peril there. 

So do me a favour. If I’m prattling on to you and I clearly think you are somebody else, drop in a hint or something. If you can do it before I dig my hole too deep that would also be appreciated.

Thanks. You’re a mate… I’m just not sure which one.

A Very Good Year

I turned sixty this week. Go me.

It was a good time. Both the boys were down and the four of us had dinner in a favourite place down the town where they know me and they know not to take me too seriously. I also had the opportunity to see both sides of the family, Patricia’s and mine, in the days before the birthday and, although both meetings were for sad reasons, there was a moment for people I care about to wish me well on my upcoming milestone birthday.

So, it was all good.

I got a nice array of pressies. New glasses, (check the photo) and new prescription Ray ban sunnies, which are proving life changing. I’ve needed glasses for the last twenty years but have never had prescription sunglasses so it’s always been a toss up between reducing the glare and not seeing terrible well or seeing really well and squinting into the sun. Now I’m ready for action. I feel dreadfully cool too. I got my first pair of Ray bans when I was twenty-five (I think) and I’ve always loved the look. Now here I am again, on a street near you. I also got some of those cool air bud things for your ears, which I’m enjoying a lot, and Sam always brings me into his world of music with a CD for my lovely player and it’s something I treasure a lot. This time, the CD is ‘Dragon New Warm Mountain I Believe in You’ by Big Thief, just in case you feel like listening along.

I got other things from other places too but you don’t need to hear it all and I don’t need to write it down. You get the picture. So far, it’s been a very good year.

The feeling I woke up with, on my birthday morning, was of having achieved something. I guess it may sound trite or insincere but this is honestly how I felt. I felt like I’d made it to sixty and, no matter what happened to me from this day forward, I’d had a great sixty years and nobody could ever take that away from me. I thought a little about two groups of people, those who don’t get as far as Sixty and those who don’t get there in the fullness of their health. Not in a gloating, ‘check me out, I win’ type of a way but more in a ‘if I’ve been randomly selected to stick around for another while then I’d better do the very best I can with it.

Since my birthday landed, I’ve had my first (and possibly only) Aperol Spritz and I’ve toddled off to see Indiana Jones in a matinee, just because I wanted to. I got my new glasses (see above) and I am working hard to finish a writing thing that I’ve been dawdling over for a long time.

The growing tendency, in the last decade, has been to keep my head down as far as humanly possible. To avoid trouble and danger and strife at all costs. To cruise and doze on into antiquity. It’s not who I used to be. It’s not who I reckon I should be.

Writing is my thing and always will be. But I’ve become passive about it. I still write but not with any expectation of it being seen or shared. Every time it happens it’s like some kind of a pleasant, unwarranted surprise. But, like it or not, I’m actually better than that. I can tell a story, I can bring you along with me, make you laugh, even make you cry. I’ve put in the hours and the hard yards. I should just be trying a little harder to get out there with what I do.

When it comes to resolutions, New Years Eve doesn’t work for me. I watch Jools Holland and greet the neighbours out on the street and go to bed. Perhaps sixtieth birthdays are where I should do my best resolving. I certainly feel more inclined to that. I think I should resolve to make it so that, when I look back at the ripe old age of Sixty One, I can say with some authority, “Hey, that was a very good year.”

As that man quoted at the end of that thing, “I shall not waste my days in trying to prolong them. I shall use my time.” Me? I’d probably best throw a couple of ‘try to’ qualifications in there.

That’s all we can ever do… is try.

Shuffle Punched

With Patricia away in America for this last week, I entertained myself by picking one or two corners of the house and ‘Marie-Kondo’ing the shit out of them. One such haven of joyless things was a basket that ostensibly held shoes but which had become a repository of newspapers and expensive supermarket bags.

Near the bottom of clearing it out, I came upon a blue coloured rewritable CD in one of those clear plastic jewel cases. Loath to throw it away, I left it on my desk, resolving to stick it in the laptop when I was next sitting there, just to see what was on it. I imagined it would turn out to be the soundtrack to one of the teen plays I did over the years. It would be fun to play through the needle drops I had set up so many years before. A little blast from the past.

Fast forward a week later and it’s today and I’m doing some stuff around the house again. These enthusiasms are rare so I have to try to capitalise on them when they land. Passing the desk, I saw the blue coloured CD sitting there and decided to slip it into the drive and see how it might entertain me.

It went in. The computer asked me what software I would like to use to play it. It had been a while since the machine had seen a disk like this and needed to be reminded of what to do with it. I chose Windows Media Player – better the devil you know – and let it do its thing as I went back into the kitchen to continue whatever the hell it was that I had been doing before.

A song wafted through from the other room. It wasn’t from one of my plays after all but it was from an event all right, an event that had happened eleven years and three months ago. The song is probably one you won’t know. It’s called ‘The Old Rustic Bridge by the Mill’ as sung by the late Irish Tenor Frank Patterson. It was one of Dad’s favourite tunes from years gone by and, after some discussion, it was the one we decided to play as we carried him out of the church back in March 2012.

I walked back into the study and stared at the computer. It gave nothing away, remained stoically po-faced, and just kept playing the tune. Two things occurred. The first, a fleeting thought, was just how long had that shoe basket needed sorting-out. The other thing was more complex and more all-consuming. An almost total transportation to that day. To the journey from the top of the church aisle to the bottom. The litany of sad familiar faces on either side. The feel of the cool varnished wood against my left cheek. The weight. The weight. The weight.

I delivered the eulogy that day and I think I did okay. I felt I had been given a strong mandate when, after Mum had died, years before, I told Dad that I didn’t feel like I should do the talking and he looked at me and said, “Well who the hell else will do it?” So I did it. And I felt it was okay that I did it for him too. That he would be okay with it.

The last thing I said, in the eulogy, was that the song that would play, as we carried him out, was one of his favourites. I gently exhorted those assembled, if ever they should hear this song, to think of my Dad.

I guess I must have included myself in that request.

Today, I kept my promise. I heard it, and I remembered.

I’ve put it away again now, with other CDs that don’t really get played all that much anymore. Maybe I’ll pull it out again, in another ten years’ time, and stare at it again and wonder again which play it might have been from. A sad little play, perhaps, a very sad one.

Maybe I’ll put it in a drive and play it again and remember all over again…


Heart Goes Out to Wiggy

Regular readers will already be fully aware of Puddy, the semi-feral neighbourhood cat who has inveigled her way into our lives, our home and, yes all right dammit, our hearts. You may know about Puddy but there are other cats in the neighbourhood too, and I feel you should hear a little bit about one of them.

Wiggy is a semi-feral neighbourhood tom. His white-with-black-patches colouring and markings are very similar to Puddy’s, so I imagine he is a brother of hers or possibly she is a ‘sistah from another littah.’ Something like that. Wiggy is just the name I have given him. I don’t think it’s likely that he has a name from anyone else.

Wiggy is a true stray, flitting from back yard to back yard, scoring whatever he can, wherever he can and whenever he can. Wiggy is a great name for him, even if I say so myself. You’d have to see him to fully appreciate it. He’s got a big black patch on top of his otherwise white head and it looks exactly like a low hanging fringe on the front. It is, for all intents and purposes, a poorly placed hair piece. Did you ever see Mo from the Three Stooges? Well, that’s the exact effect.

Wiggy is an un-neutered tom and, as such, he is quite the feckin’ nuisance around the place. He bullies the other cats, including Puddy, and likes to mark his territory very pungently and very often. Unfortunately, he views our front door as a key corner of his domain and his butt is often to be seen spraying itself liberally around that area.

I chase him off verbally whenever I spot him rolling up to have a butt-squirt. I have to, really. He gets fed regularly up at a neighbour’s house, who buys all kinds of treats (like entire Lidl chickens) to keep a few cats around because they ‘keep the mice down.’ Wiggy does okay, I think. He and I maintain a semi-feudal relationship as he continues to squirt my place and bully my cat and I continue to call him by an unfashionable name and berate him and his errant butt away from my front door.

But my heart has started to go out a bit to poor old Wiggy. He is, without question, the ugliest cat I have ever seen. His front legs are bowed slightly which gives him the effect of being a manspreaded body builder. He is always scowling. His wig is a thundering disgrace and his manner is always considerably less than the minimum of what might be hoped for.

Oh, but his stomach is pulled so tight up into his body. Yes, he’s getting fed but is it enough? If I feed him, he will become an even more prominent bullying, spraying feature of my yard and neither Puddy nor I can really tolerate that. I just wish he had a better life, that’s all. Our neighbourhood is kindly and not really dangerous at all but it rains and gets cold, just like everywhere else, and things can be hard sometimes if you’re an ugly tomcat without a home.

Sometimes, when the sun shines, Wiggy regularly occupies a warm place in the grass in my front garden, under a spreading something bush. He sleeps there so peacefully. At those times, I can’t bring myself to call him names or pretend to chase after him. I’ll just let him rest for a while there in the sun. I’ll just… let him be. I just wish he wouldn’t wake up and stink up the entire house with his buttski but you can’t have everything.

I’ll continue to keep an eye on him, as best I can. I think he’s okay, really, but I’ll try to make sure nothing untoward happens to him. I know I can’t be the saviour of all cats.

It’s just, the older I get, the more I feel I should be.

Gorilla Love

Okay, first off, this post will contain a certain level of coarse language. Although the overall tone of the piece will be fairly tender and positive. Therefore, if you happen to have a child on your shoulder while you are reading this, and you suspect that the child may have a more advanced reading age than anyone has given them credit for… well… tread carefully is all I’m saying.

One thing that I have had no personal life experience of is In-Law Parents. Although I’ve been married to the lovely Patricia for nigh on 32 years, her parents, alas, had long-long departed before we ever met. Therefore those nervous moments of meeting your gal’s Mum and Dad and trying to impress upon them that you are an okay sort of a bloke to be dating their kid, well they never happened.

Except, of course, they did.

Patricia had a tidy selection of siblings and the family was as tight as ever I had seen. If I wanted to pursue this fair damsel, then I would have to make the right impressions on the cohort of brothers and sisters. No question.

I like to think I won dear Una and Penelope over fairly easy. This is not me bragging. In fact, it was a fairly obvious thing. Both her sisters would have had nothing but Patricia’s best interest at heart but, you see, I only had her best interest at heart too so it was not a huge surprise that we all got on mightily right from the start. Both sisters are sadly departed now, and we miss them daily and with unfading love.

Then there were the boys. Enda is smart and easy-going. I think I did all right there. Me and Enda got on well and still do. Hell, I get on well with them all. This is just a funny memory. There’s nothing earth-shattering to come.

Kieran is Patricia’s eldest brother and, although he would never enforce it, he always seemed to in possession of an understated patriarchal quality. A lovely man, he was still one to get over if I wanted to win the hand of the fair Patricia. We came home from London and stayed with Kieran and Ann and their lovely young family and all went swimmingly except for my natural penchant to make a joke wherever I see the opportunity arise. This is a trait that seems to have waned in me a little over the last couple of decades but, back in my twenties, I could never resist an opportunity to crack a joke. What can I say? Kieran tossed one up and I smacked it. It was only natural.

Kieran had just got himself a new camcorder and, bear in mind, this was circa 1987 so it was a big and a boxy baby. It took a little bit of setting-up and a little bit of hoisting onto the shoulder.

At one point over our weekend stay Kieran remarked that ‘Armstrong’ wasn’t a typical West of Ireland name and I explained, very casually, that my Grandad had changed his religion to gain the hand of his bride. Different times.

Kieran spotted an opportunity for documentary filmmaking. He hopped up and started the Mission Control procedures required to get his camera ready to record footage.

“That’s a great little story,” he said, not without some glee, “Very romantic. We’ll have to film it for posterity.”

I was arranged in front of a kitchen wall, pointed at with the huge device and requested to repeat my little tale.


“My Grandad changed his religion on his deathbed because he reckoned it was better one of them bastards died than one of us.”

It was an old joke. Slightly edgy but no malice intended. Kieran didn’t take any malice. He was just profoundly disappointed, that’s all.

“Ah, that’s no good at all. We’ll have to work out how to delete that.”

Kieran has been a great friend and ally and brother-in-law over all the years. But the video thing disappointed him a bit, I reckon.

Then there was John. John, the scientist, the movie buff, the music fan. John was probably the easiest win of all three brothers. We had lots in common and always got on like a house on fire. We still do, all these years later.

Our first evening with John and Marian on our sub-conscious 'Win the Family Over to Ken’ tour went just fine. Except for one part. And, again, it was my unmanageable sense of humour that let me down.

After a nice dinner, at John and Marian’s house, we sat down to watch a video. John was, and still is, always ahead on the technology. Whatever you’re watching, you can be sure that the sound will be good, the vision will be first rate. Some things don’t change, they just update.

That evening, we watched a video of ‘The Man with Two Brains’ with Steve Martin and Kathleen Turner. I hadn’t seen it. I was enjoying the zaniness and general off-beat foolishness of the whole thing and was, I felt, behaving myself admirably. Until, about half way through, a joke came along and I laughed really hard at it and everyone looked at me.

I’m not a hard-laughing person, as a rule. I snort a bit and smile and am generally amused but I am not one for belly-rippling guffaws or side-splitting roars. Perhaps it was the stakes of the entire tour, where I really wanted to make a good first impression on Patricia’s wonderful warm close family members.

I don’t know. I just know I laughed a lot.

In the scene, the ever-excellent David Warner is giving Steve Martin some options for the brain he has fallen in love with. He could have his own brain removed and placed in the tank with hers (hardly ideal) or, wait, David Warner could transplant the brain into the body of a gorilla. Steve Martin gives this some serious thought and then dismisses it with the immortal line, “I couldn’t fuck a gorilla,” and I started laughing. I didn’t laugh for a long time; I didn’t fall about the place. I just laughed loud and hard and, critically, nobody else laughed at all. Truth to tell, I was still laughing at it just now when I checked the clip on YouTube. I think it was the unexpectedness of it that got me.

All went well, apart from that, and I wasn’t judged harshly on my errant laughter or ill-timed gags. Patricia’s family is as much a part of my family now as my own family is, and their children and grandchildren add love and value to the world.

But still, across the ever-widening years, through all the joys and, yes, the sorrows, the memories live on. Often small and silly, like the ones described here, but defining none the less.

Who would have thought, of all the things that have happened since, that the gorilla would lodge in my head?


My mother didn’t ever tell us an awful lot about how her young life was, before we all came along. 

Scraps of information or stories were tossed out here and there. How Grandad would chase Dad away when he came calling for Mum. How she would row the boat when Dad was fishing. She was a Mum-Mum, petite and ladylike, but I once saw her wrestle with our German Shepherd in the back garden when he was sick and had a fit and tangled himself up in some rope. She dived right in and untangled the poor boy, right in the middle of his attack. The dog was fine after but it afforded a glimpse of someone who could be far tougher than we generally required her to be.

Something reminded me today of a tiny story of Mum’s and I thought I should set it down. It probably won’t make for the most riveting blog post ever but that hasn’t been the point of this place for the longest time now. Entertaining the masses is not the priority. I love it when you come and read but I don’t ever mind if you don’t. That’s the current policy in this neck of the woods.

So, anyway, here it is.

One thing that Mum told me many times, not without some hint of pride, was that she was apparently born with a caul. A caul is a piece of membrane that can cover a newborn's head and face. The caul is harmless and is immediately removed by the attending midwife upon birth of the child. This didn’t mean much to me, as a young man. I would nod a bit and made some appreciative noises but that was about it. 

Once or twice, she would enlarge on the story by telling how a knock had come to her door once upon a time, when she was young, and a foreign sailor man was stood there on her front step. He had come in on a ship that was docked in the harbour below her parent’s house and he had heard in a pub that a lady lived here who had been born with a caul and who still had it. He wanted to buy it from her.

He was subscribing to a belief that was shared by my mother to at least a certain degree. That the possession of a caul was a protection against death by drowning. The presence of a caul on this man’s ship would prevent it from sinking.

Mum didn’t have her caul but she probably wouldn’t have sold it if she had. She, too, spent time on water and she too had no desire to drown. This is an indication of the curious line Mum trod between being a Devout Christian as well as being a person who was brought up among strong local superstitions.

Reading up about Cauls a bit, I find myself a little more impressed than I was back when Mum first told me about hers, all those years ago. If the Internet can be trusted, (hint – it can’t) only one in 80,000 births involve a caul. In literature and such, David Copperfield was born with one and it sold for fifteen guineas. Danny Torrance had one too, in The Shining, and look how that turned out. Sigmund Freud, George Formby and Johnny Giles were also members of the club. So there.

That’s all I’ve got. Short and sweet, this week. Just worth jotting down, I think. The story that Mum can no longer tell, I can tell for her here. I hope her young life was full, fun, and satisfying; I think it probably was.

I also hope the exotic sailor on Mum’s doorstep sailed out of Sligo Harbour on his timber boat and lived a long and fruitful life out there on the high seas.

Say Something Funny

I met my pal Donna for a coffee and a sandwich on The Mall this week. Donna is a regular reader. Hi, Donna. It was a nice day, though we sat in the shade of a big tree so it got chilly after a while and we had to move to a newly vacated bench out in the sun. Some schoolkids had left the change from their shop-bought lunch on the side of the bench. We left it there too. Maybe they came back to get it. It wasn’t much, so maybe not.

One of things Donna said to me was that I should write something funny on the blog this week. “Write something funny,” she said.

Donna has directed quite a number of my plays, so she has this place in my head where stuff she suggests has sometimes turned into plays and such. So, when she suggested I write something funny, it stuck a bit. It’s still stuck.

Sitting here at my desk, listening to Paul Simon’s new album, I’m a bit like Hooper near the end of Jaws. He’s getting ready to go down in his steel cage to try to kill the shark, and he’s got his diving mask in his hands.

“Ain’t got no spit,” he says.

I’m here in my blog cage, my blog mask around my neck, and I ain’t got no spit either… I ain’t got no spit.

I used to be funnier, that’s for sure. In company, back in the London Days, and even in my teens, I had a bit of a reputation as a funny guy. Kind of sharp and kind of fast. I think it’s still in there a bit, maybe not quite as sharp and quick-on-the-draw. I think the thing is that I don’t end up in company too much these days. Plus, the people who I do see know me really well. So they kind-of know my moves.

So, yeah, I can be funny… sometimes, but I don’t seem to be able to summon it up as readily as I used to. I don’t think it’s any reflection on my life or how I feel about it. Everything is dandy and a good laugh is always welcome. I really think it’s just that I’m not required to be funny so much these days. Perhaps that’s a good thing. Perhaps it means I am more contented and less insecure in myself. Less inclined to define myself by a joke or a gag.

Which is all very well but it doesn’t help me at all with ‘being funny’ this morning, when the birds are singing in the garden and the cat’s asleep in the hall and everything is pretty all right with the world… except… except… I ain’t got no funny.

In my experience, when you find yourself in a situation like this, it’s best to just tell a joke and go. Here’s a ‘theatrical’ joke that I’ve told many times before, possibly even in the pages of this blog somewhere. I harvested it from William Goldman’s novel ‘Marathon Man’ and it always makes me smile.


This guy is offered a part in a Broadway play. One night only. He’s never acted but has often said how he’d like to give it a try. His friend puts him on to the gig.

“The guy who normally does the play is sick. You only have to say one line; ‘Hark, I hear a cannon’s roar,’ and then you’re done, straight on then straight off again.

One line? He could do that, sure. All day he runs the line, over and over, ‘‘Hark, I hear a cannon’s roar.’ ‘Hark, I hear a cannon’s roar.’ He heads for the theatre nice and early. But his taxi gets stuck in traffic and he arrives late, terribly late. They quickly dress him in a soldier’s uniform and they push him out onto the stage.

“Remember the line, they say, ‘Hark, I hear a cannon’s roar.’”

The guy finds himself at the centre of a stage, in front of an audience of hundreds of people. Expectant faces all stare up at him.

“Remember the line, remember the li- “

An enormous bang goes off on the stage, right behind him. The guy jumps up in the air, turns, and shouts, “What the Fuck was That?”

Thank you and good night. Try the veal. Maybe I’ll be funny next time, even though you mightn't want me to be.

Your guess is as good as mine.