Critical Thinking

I’ve never been what you might want to call a great critic. But, whatever limited facility I might have once had for that kind of thing, now seems to be getting less, less and, yes, less. These days, I tend to either ‘like’ things or ‘not like’ them and, interesting enough, I tend to ‘like’ quite a lot of things. These days, as a critic, and I hope you’ll pardon this expression, I tend to be something of an easy lay.

Maybe this is not such a new development. Even when I was in college, and we were required to be incisive and judgemental about architectural stuff, me, and a pal of mine just tended to default to the view that either something was ‘Nice’ or it ‘Wasn’t Nice.’ I think our blatant use of this rather simplistic critical technique was only forgivable because we tended to do it a slightly ironic way, as if we intended to imply that all criticism was tosh and we were too big to even play that game. This wasn’t the case - we were actually just useless -  but I think we mostly got away with it. We’re still here, anyway.

So why is this in my mind in this week of all weeks? Well, there’s a couple of reasons. One reason is that I met two very good friends of mine at different times in the last week. These are people whose critical antennae and very finely tuned and to hear them expound on whatever is currently under discussion is invariably to see that thing anew from some other angles and, also invariably, to learn a thing-or-two that one did not know before. So, while I would throw in my tuppence-worth about how the thing was ‘nice’ and ‘good’ and that I rather 'liked' it, my wonderful friends would engage me and enlighten me with their ever-incisive views.

Another reason that this kind of stuff is in my head is on account of a review of ‘The Banshees of Inisherin’ that appeared this week. The review appeared in Slate Magazine and it was written by Marc O’Connell, himself no slouch in the writing department. It gained some considerable traction on Twitter and that’s where I saw it and read it. Reading it got me thinking about criticism and how I’m not any good at it. 

This review, in my considered opinion, is very good (There’s that critical thinking). If you care to click on the title of the film in the first sentence of the last paragraph, you can read the review for yourself. I recommend you do. It's very good. (Um). I said hello to Mark O’Connell quite recently, after he introduced Sally Rooney at her T.S. Elliot Abbey Theatre lecture on Ulysses. I think he might have thought I was about to try to bum one of his rollies because we didn’t get much further than that on the evening. Nonetheless and regardless, he is an admirable writer and his critique of ‘Banshees’ is insightful and finely-formed. I may not 100% agree with everything in it and I’m sure he’d be cool with that, in the unlikely event that he was even slightly bothered about what I might think. 

For me, for all the well-made points, it doesn’t quite credit McDonagh with being the very good writer he certainly is. Perhaps that’s not the point, perhaps the point is what is written rather than how good the writer is. I don’t know. There is much I don’t know and the art of criticism seems to show up these chasms more than most other things.

As for me, I went to see ‘Banshees’ and I liked it pretty darned well… It’s not much of a review is it? Not a terrible insightful analysis. You fucking liked it? Is that it?

This kind of internal dialogue makes me try to think a little harder about the film. What did I really think? Come on, Ken. Suppose the fact you liked it simply wasn't good enough? Suppose it didn't cut the mustard? Tell us something more. Delight us.

I liked it...

I liked it initially because I liked the trailer, which set me up for a rematch of In Bruges', which I really liked. It set me up for more of the sharp, quirky dialogue, devil-may-care incorrectness, and edge of the seat unease that I experienced in both ‘In Bruges’ and in ‘Three Billboards’ too. Perhaps 'Banshees' didn’t deliver on the trailer as thoroughly as I might have liked but it still did plenty. The cast were great, the story had a coherence, the script, as one would expect, was deft and skilfully wrought. The scenery was lovely and… let’s stop and take a personal moment with the scenery.

One Summer’s Day, my friend Simon Ricketts came all the way from London to visit me in Mayo, where I live. The little excursion we made, that wonderful day, took us through much of the scenery in which ‘Banshees’ is set. We stood against the sky and the sea, as Colin and Brendan did, and he and I drew air and cigarette smoke into our respective lungs. We talked and gossiped and 'politicked’ and looked… and we didn’t fall out. Simon isn’t with us anymore and that day plays large in my memory. To see those places up on the screen, there to be admired and envied worldwide… that rather did me a good turn.

I realise that's a little beside the point of criticism but perhaps that’s what criticism can sometimes be: the deeply personal injected into the deeply impersonal.

McDonagh gets some stick for writing in his heightened Irish dialect. This criticism harks back to his theatre plays, which is understandable as the film is very much a part of that earlier 'oeuvre'. But he has also shown that he can set his stories elsewhere and that he can tell them in other voices just as well. Except of course the people from those other places tend to take issue with his subverting of their language and culture too. I would be disappointed if he ever apologies for this and I would eat my hat if he ever did. His work is, by its very nature, ‘heightened.’ Heightened in practically every respect; action, interaction, morality, dialogue, simplicity, complication. Everything is bigger than in real life and so it’s never going to seem real or authentic. He has to go somewhere to do this, why not here in the West of Ireland? Somewhere inside me, I've always viewed Mcdonagh's work as owning much to cartoons. Smart and adult but, yes, cartoons. I welcome the entertaining ‘cartooning’ of us. Please just don’t mistake it for real life. John Wayne wasn’t really a Wild West cowboy and neither are we.

I think Martin McDonagh is, technically, a writer of great skill. He creates gripping, engaging, shocking, funny stories and he realises them well. I rather think he gets more ‘Art’ imposed on him than he ever intended to garner and I imagine that amuses him and drives him onward to his next escapade. Write a fine script, throw in a little artistic existentialism, pepper the stew with a few Civil War bangs and crashes. The chattering classes will almost certainly come lowing… and they do.

I think he loves a great story, a great film, a great experience. I don’t think he’s bothered all that much about being the next Leonardo da Vinci. I think he's just looking to make a great flick.

Isn't this what all artists do? They don’t set out to make a masterpiece or to save the world. They just do the work that they are driven to do, for whatever reason. And the world and the people and time and history will decide if that thing they ended up making is of incalculable value or whether it is just another piece of landfill.

That's probably the best I can personally do. Not very good. But I do respect the people who can delve deeper and mine levels of success or failure that I, on my own, would simply never have found.

I did rather like it though… didn’t you?

School, College, Holiday, Life

There’s this thing I’ve done since I was little and I’m still doing it. That’s kind of the point of today’s post… I’m still doing it. I heard once it is possibly a symptom of something-or-other. I don’t know and I don’t care. I’m fine, I just do this thing.

As long as I can remember, I’ve always been calculating the time-span of things. I work out when things are halfway through, when the second half has begun, and when it will all be over.

I used to do it in relation to my weekends, when I was in school and perhaps occasionally didn’t like the school as much as I should have. The calculation used to go something like this. School finishes at three o’clock on Friday, at three o’clock on Saturday, it’s still not ever nearly halfway until I have to go back again on Monday morning at nine. All is well. Nine o’clock on Saturday evening, though, and now the halfway point has been passed. When the same time passes again, I will be back in school. It’s not a crisis or a calamity or anything. It’s just a gently discomforting 'knowing' that the first half of something good is now over and the slightly-less-auspicious second half has well and truly begun.

This subtle practice rather came to the fore when I started in college in Dublin, having just turned seventeen. I had never left home before. Remarkably enough, I had never even slept in any bed but my own, apart from a couple of hospital stays. So, although Dublin and college was great, the first year did see its share of homesickness. I would travel home on the bus practically every weekend, getting on the bus at 6.00pm on Friday in O’Connell Street and arriving back at about 10.00pm on Sunday evening, outside the Pro Cathedral. Here the weekend counting would obviously continue but it was the weekday counting that featured more. In my head, of course, only in my head. Nobody knew about my calculations or about how earnestly I pursued them.

Sunday night in Dublin, Monday night in Dublin… but, once Tuesday night was done, I then had only two more nights to do, before I would be into the day that would eventually see me on the bus back home again. Again, this was not a life altering calculation – nothing like that – it served as a small consolation for the bad things and a small anxiety for the good things.

As an grown-up person, parent, etc, it doesn't  happened so much anymore. I’m settled now and there’s been less things to dread or to look forward to. Life ticks on. The only time in the year where my little habit would surface in any meaningful way would be at Christmas time. For many years, my only holiday from work in the year would be Christmas and I came to look forward to it a lot. More for the break than for any measure of festivity. When Christmas comes, and work finishes, it offers a clear vista of a lengthy, extensive holiday. The opening moments of the holiday are always great, partly because the proportion of holiday to come is huge in relation to the proportion of holiday expended. As you might expect, the joy of the holiday diminishes as the midway point of the Christmas break is reached, passed, and vanishes in the rear view mirror. December 23rd is the start, January 2nd is often the end. December 28th is therefore the midpoint, the zenith. After that passes, the perception tends to be one of a good time that is rapidly running out.

It's not a very positive game to play. Holidays seem shorter than they are, as the final days seem slightly devalued by the proximity of the looming end. It’s something I would rather not do. But I am hard-wired to do it. It’s just a small aspect of who I am. Deal with it.

So why am I writing about it now? It’s not a new subject, I’ve alluded to it before in a number of posts over the years. Why is it this week’s topic of typing?

You might almost guess. Something bigger than a weekend, a working week, or a holiday is looming and the calculations in relation to it, muted quite successfully until now, seem to be getting a little louder and more insistent.


This year I will turn sixty. It’s not going to be any crisis or calamity. It’s just a year, a number, I’ve done thirty, and forty, and fifty. I’ll manage this one too, if I’m spared.

But there is a sense that the calculations are beginning, just like they always began for the weekends and the holidays. Except this time, it’s a bigger sum… and the sum is not going to add up very neatly.

I’ve never tended to do the calculation thing for my life before but my intuition tells me that I am in danger of doing it more as this next milestone gets passed. It’s a slightly different sum. Because the end point is unknown, it’s not possible to get a firm feel of where the mid-point was or when it was gained. Instead, the sum takes the form of a look back at how very quickly the last twenty years have rushed by and a low level wonder at where I will be, or what I will be, after the next twenty have passed. Twenty years ago, for my fortieth, we had a party in the old tennis club. Lots of old friends came, some new friends were made, a band played, there was food, I made a little speech. The tennis club is long gone and is now a municipal car park. A lot can happen in twenty years. A lot of it can happen very quickly.

And time seems to be moving blindingly fast now. Already the Christmas holiday, the subject of all the usual calculations, is weeks back in the distance, very nearly a month. I got my hair cut last Tuesday… except it wasn’t last Tuesday, it was the Tuesday before that. If time is speeding so hard, and I’m so far beyond the halfway point, so far beyond the best years, how will the rest of my life go?

Don’t worry. I’m not going to explode. I’m just trying to describe a calculation, a niggle, a feeling, not an all-out collapse.

I find comfort in odd places. For instance, in the film ‘Arrival’, which I think is quite profound in a particular way. In it, the main character gets to know quite a lot about the measure of her life. Her response to this is encouraging, for me at least.

“Despite knowing the journey... and where it leads... I embrace it. And I welcome every moment of it.

That’s the spirit. That’s how I’ll go forward, head held high, for there is much left to do and even more left to enjoy.

It may already be quite a few days beyond December 28th, quite a few hours beyond nine o’clock on a Saturday evening, but there’s still New Year’s and there’s still Sunday to come. I might as well just enjoy it all.

Monday morning, when it comes, can take care of itself.

Ghost Rug

If this post goes to plan, I will start out by telling you that I don’t believe in ghosts and I will finish up by telling you that ghosts actually exist… in their own way. So here begins another average year on the blog.

Me? I don’t believe in ghosts.

But we have a ghost rug in our living room.

As with many things, the ghost rug has existed in the living room for quite a few years now and nobody has paid it any mind. It is only in those Christmas times where you can find yourself sitting around with not-too-much to do, it is only then that considerations such as ghost rugs tend to spring to the fore.

“Hey, what is it with this rug?” I asked one evening and, just like that, there it was, at the forefront of my mind.

The rug itself is inauspicious enough and it’s actually two rugs but I’ll get to that shortly. It sits in front of the fireplace to prevent coals and such spilling accidentally from the fire and doing a whopping-great burn mark in the good carpet. Since we got a stove put in, it’s largely redundant because nothing is falling out of that glass-fronted puppy. Still, there it remains. A reddish fluffy, quite small rug. Then we changed it, just before the Christmas, to a much nicer patterned rug of colours that I could not begin to describe. Looking back, it was probably the arrival of the new rug that brought the haunting to such a prominent place in my Yuletide consciousness. It was a case of ‘New Rug, Same Haunting.’ I though the change of rug would stop what was happening from happening but it didn’t. If anything, it only made it worse.

It's nothing much. No need to be alarmed. The rug moves, you see, apparently all by itself. That’s the long and the short of it. No headless horsemen appear, no flowing poached-egg apparitions weave around the couch. It moves… and only a little bit.

You’re hooked though, admit it, you’re just a wee bit intrigued_ oh, okay, see you next week then, maybe.

Here’s the deal. You put on the fire then you straighten the rug so that is sits tightly up against the front edge of the granite hearth. All neat and tidy and soon-to-be-warm and cosy. You sit and watch some telly, maybe a Christmas University Challenge or a recorded episode of Taskmaster. Then, sated in a light entertainment sense, you look up to admire the small but beautifully formed fire… and the rug has moved. It is no longer carefully aligned with the hearth, as it clearly had been when you sat down. It is now unmistakably at an acute angle to the heath, to the tune of an inch or possibly more. This happens all the time, every evening. You look at the mat, you look away, and when you look back it has moved. One can only deduce that there is indeed a ghost at work here and perhaps consider getting an exorcist in.

Except, well… no, not quite.

You see, I don’t believe in ghosts (we’re only halfway through, I will by the end, I promise) and so there is a perfectly rational explanation for this rug which moves all by itself. And you, there, sitting at home, far away from the mystery rug, well you see the answer already because you are not here, beside the rug, being seduced by the romance of the notion of a rug that moves all by itself.

You can see that the rug does not have a firm grip on the carpet beneath it and, every time somebody walks over it or stands on it to tend the fire, their feet cause the rug to move ever so slightly and ever so discreetly with the cumulative effect that the rug appears to drift around all by itself.

And that’s the answer. That’s the solution. Nothing to it.

So what are we doing here, Ken? Why are you writing and, more to the point, why am I reading about you and your stupid slippy rug? Are you that hard-up for something to write about on this wet Sunday morning?

No, I’m not that hard up. I’m writing it on account of the ghosts. I don’t believe in ghosts. They aren’t real.

Except they are… sort of.

Although I don’t believe in them, I love the idea of them. I include them in my writing all the time. Ghosts and ghost stories are a wonderful vehicle for conveying regret and absence and justice and, yes, they’re handy in inducing a shiver or two as well.

And, in this one particular way, they do really exist.

For a time, the ghost rug existed. It existed in my head and it existed because I allowed it to exist because it was a fun thing to toy with for a while. The rug was moving by itself, it was a ghost that was doing it. I never believed that for a single second, obviously, but I allowed my mind to play with it as an idea and, in doing that, I made it real.

Ghosts can exist, even when we don’t believe in them. They exist in our heads and in our hearts and our memories. And the things that live in there can sometimes be as real as the nose on our face or even the moving rug on our living room floor.

Ghosts don’t roam the churchyard or hide upstairs in the spare room closet. They reside in our minds, if we let them, and sometimes they can be real as anything else that our five senses let in there. If that’s how we want them to be.

There is no such thing as ghosts, not in this world.

But, in our heads…

Level 2023

It’s a New Year, as of today. 2023. Happy New Year!

Because it all happens in the twilight zone after Christmas, I find I have too much time on my hands and I think about these things far too much. That’s why my New Year posts are often a bit morose and navel-gazing. No change this year.

I’ve been walking around the town as the sunlight fades from 2022 for the very last time. I didn’t have any particular mission. I dropped into the office to make sure that everything was still in one piece. I waved at the butcher. I contemplated buying some more chocolate in the 2 Euro Shop but, in the end, I didn’t. I have enough.

What did I conclude, after all my walking and butcher-waving and such? Where did I end up?

I’ll tell you.

I think each year is a bit like a video game. Not any specific video game but rather a generic one where you’re playing a character who is running, running, running through a world and, as he’s running, running, running along, all kinds of things are being thrown at him and all kinds of obstacles are in his way. He has to keep running but also constantly duck and jump and roll and swerve and exclaim loudly… it’s Crash Bandicoot, isn’t it? It sure sounds like Crash Bandicoot to me. I’ve never played it myself but I watched the boys play it when they were younger. It was fairly manic.

And every year that comes along is just the same. Manic. I’ll run and jump and duck and dive and swerve and exclaim loudly, just like ol’ Crash used to do.

Christmas is like the end of a level. I get a break. I rest up. But I also lose the knack of playing the level. The prospect of starting the next level – Level 2023 – becomes a bit scary and daunting. Can I do it all over again? I’m not sure. My fingers twitch and I duck a little from side to side, even though there’s nothing to dodge yet, nor for another few days.

But it will all be okay. Why? Because it always is. I haven’t forgotten how to duck and swerve. The muscle memory is all there, intact, and ready to roll. As soon as the first spear (or whatever) gets chucked at me, I’ll be off again, making my moves.

From this vista, it all looks and sounds terrible. A nightmare of never-ending challenges and stresses and breathless exertion. It isn’t though. It’s all rather great. It’s a buzz. Things get done. People and their needs get served. The world turns once again, having paused for a week or so.

It’ll all be fine.

We’ll wish each other a Happy New Year and kick back one more time and then off we’ll go again, full tilt into Level 2023.

So I hope you have a Happy New Year. I really mean it too. When I was young, it was just something you’d shout on a dance floor in a vain hope that a brief snog might follow. But with each passing year, it means more.

I hope you keep your health, whatever health you have, and if it is not good health, I hope it improves. I hope you are as happy as you can feasibly be and that you can keep the people you love similarly feasibly happy. I hope those loved ones can stay around for this next turn of the sun, and many turns after that. I hope at least one of your wishes comes through, so long as nobody gets wounded in the process. I wish you good ducking and good diving, good weaving and swerving and jumping and sliding.

This new level? 2023? Knock it out of the park.

I hope you high score it.