Monday 20 October 2014
I’m so tired. So very tired.
In the middle of last week I started waking up around 4-ish in the morning. Middle age brings with it a man’s need to wander to loo in the middle of the night, but some time ago I perfected the art of drifting somnolently there and back and going straight back to sleep.
Yet for the last ten days I have been lying awake for hours, finally giving up on any hope of restorative sleep, kicking the duvet off me and going to put the kettle on for the Snapper, who takes Lady Dog out for her morning peeper.
Were it March, with the hours of daylight growing longer and earlier I might understand, as I’ve noticed how Alpha males start waking up really early around that time of year.
Stress is the other factor to consider. Nothing guarantees a bad night’s sleep like a brain spinning mental plates on imaginary rods. Thing is, back when this premature waking started, I was not stressed. Life was good and I was happy.
Now, however, I force myself through my days as if the air were treacle. Everything is such an effort and by 9:30pm I’m dozing in my armchair.
Captain Funtastic I am not. Stubborn, dogged, strong enough to keep going just a little beyond where I should have stopped, I usually enjoy great stamina. Yet take my kip from me and I’m as useless as Samson with a bald bonce.
To mix my Biblical and Homeric metaphors, sleep is my Achilles Heel.
Where there was no stress to justify my insomnia there now thrives plenty. A fuzzy head and turgid brain would not help anyone do their job, but as a writer/teacher/editor, mental alacrity is vital. The autumnal mist lying low on the fields outside has gone by midday, but fog now swirls all day around my brain, refusing to allow me clarity or focus.
All I want to do is crawl into bed, pretend I have no deadlines to fill, no classes to teach, no dog to take out, and sleep, but I won’t do that (see: ‘stubborn, dogged’) because I cannot allow myself to.
At first I blamed last week’s full moon, so glorious as it crept over the horizon, rising vast in glowing harvest gold. Then I remembered the wise words of my friend, the Artist Formerly Known As Snarly.
“The moon is innocent!” he declared, flashing a rare toothy smile in my direction.
Despite plenty of evidence to the contrary, I nodded in agreement, mainly because upon hearing his words, my mind filled with the chorus of the greatest song Tom Waits never wrote. As an aural hallucination, the great American singer-songwriter’s voice of gravel and treacle blasted through my mind:
“The MOOOOON is IIIn-oooo-ceeent! The MOOOOON is IIIn-oooo-ceeent!”
In truth, I believe the moon affects us a great deal. It moves great oceans and dictates the habits of the animal kingdom, of which (lest we forget, in our hubristic delusions of grandeur) we are a part, so why shouldn’t it wake me up when it’s full? But that was last week. Now on the wane, the moon’s journey has not eased my wakefulness.
Before the days of electric light, people in these isles used to have two sleeps. They went to bed a couple of hours after dark, slept for a few hours and then, in the middle of the night, arose, had a warm drink, played a little with the dirt between their toes and stared at where the TV would have been, were it invented. Then, doubtless pissed off that they’d have to wait 400 years for the next episode of Homeland, they went back to bed and slept until dawn.
These days the vast majority of folk are woken up by the unnatural disaster that is the alarm clock. What a travesty! Sleep is such a blessed and precious commodity, allowing our bodies to repair and restore themselves, while images, memories and all kind of filthy salacious nonsense is shuttled back and forth between our conscious and subconscious minds.
I stopped using alarm clocks back in 1984, when I left the corporate world of marketing to try life as a writer. For years, when living on my own up in north Mayo and out in West Connemara, my sleep patterns simply followed my body’s needs and the demands of the seasons.
I went to bed when I was tired and did not rise until I felt refreshed. Such is my nature that quite often I’d be in bed for no more than 7 hours, wandering alone and blissed out along empty secluded beaches at dawn.
Oh, but in the cold months of winter, what joy I felt to lie there, head on the pillows, reading my book, as outside I saw the school bus head along the road to teenage hell. All those poor souls out there, commuting in the crammed subway systems of great cities or those sad lads, sitting on that school bus, heads down, wishing life was different.
How lucky I felt. Almost smug, but ever wary of how fragile the eggshells of our constructed lifestyles can be life, I felt gratitude more than anything. I gave thanks to the universe, for allowing me to have my sleep freed from the needs of others.
As I watch my bleary-eyed exhausted wife don her wellies to take out the dog, I wonder at this uncivilised world we have made for ourselves. Did it never occur to anyone else that if you have to be woken up by an alarm, ripped aforetime from your dreams, you haven’t had enough sleep? How many bad moods and, indeed, how many mad wars might we have avoided if alarm clocks had never been invented?
Wouldn't it be wonderful if we just let the world sleep until it woke up? All those rested people might give peace a chance.
Monday 13 October 2014
My hands twist and move with the skill of familiarity, as I tear the newspaper story out neatly.
Well, there’s a smudged Marmitey thumbprint on the top left corner but this is not a museum piece. It’s just another cutting heading for my clippings folder.
One of the security blankets of a columnist, having a mixture of tiny stories tucked away helps you sleep at night. Plundered from random newspapers, in the regions of pages 14-21, they offer either underreported horrors or perplexing and astonishing truths.
Off to the office, armed with Bernie Ni Fhlatharta’s piece from this noble rag last week about Galway’s inestimable writer Walter Macken, along with the article by Charlie Brooker in The Guardian’s G2 that I’ve just ripped out.
Brooker was splattering his particular own brand of disdain toward Apple software updates and U2.
“Then Apple comes along and slings them under your nose like a bowl of bum soup you didn’t order.”
Like so much in this ancient and wielding clippings folder, it’ll never be used.
Mind you, I just wrote about it, so hang on in there, you other little stories of old. There may be hope for you yet. These cuttings don’t tend to be used because with the wondrous human race, there’s no shortage of material. Yet it’s good to know all those embryos are in that file, desperate to be reborn in column inches.
Some of them are outdated, others unattributed, but each has for some reason caught my eye, raised an eyebrow -
- oh, okay, that was a mistake. Big mistake. I dared to look; to go into the folder and dig out some of those stories. That was hours ago. The day is nearly gone and my mind is spinning with madness, tragedy and hilarity.
Don’t know which paper or when, but a story by Miriam Elder reveals that Russia is going back to paper. Elder explains that the Federal Guard Service (FSO), a “...powerful body tasked with protecting Russia’s highest-ranking officials...” have decided that they can no longer trust either digital or electronic communications.
Ever since Dmitry Medvedev was ‘listened to’ while attending the G20 Summit in London, the Russians have been on their most paranoiac post-Soviet tippy-toes. Even though Edward Snowden and the Wikileaks affair did plenty to harm their enemies, the Russians’ eyes have been opened to the vulnerability of microchip culture.
Never backward in coming forward in matters of security and confidentiality (read ‘KGB intimidation’) the Russians are now distrustful of progress. The FSO, like Putin himself, now yearns for yesteryear, doubtless to a time when the Soviet Empire was a mighty beast.
Ah, those were the days.
“Sergei, order in 20 Triumph Adler typewriters. Enough of these blasted Capitalist computers! With these Triumph typewriters each key has a signature, every letter can be traced. We know these ways well.”
Yes, it’s easy to lose oneself in fancy Back to the Future fantasies, but the
typewriters have been ordered, and according to a source inside the FSO:
“...the practice of creating paper documents will expand.”
Equally weird and just as far from morally wonderful comes a story from the Daily Mirror’s David Anderson.
Have to admit a vested interest here. When I were t’lad I’d pay my £2.50 at the Stamford Bridge turnstiles and watch Chelsea play live and almost direct. The men in that team ate the same, drank the same and pretty much lived the same lives as me, save for the fact that they beat up 11 other men for 90 minutes in front of a crowd each week, and had the honour of wearing Chelsea Blue.
So it’s pretty hard for me to feel sorry for Mame Biram Diouf, who Anderson reports had to fly with his Senegal national team in “cattle class.”
Apparently he suffered a “gruelling journey” to Africa and his Stoke City manager, tough guy Mark ‘Sparky’ Hughes, was furious.
“He was in with the medical guys on Friday and we will make a decision on Mame in the morning.”
Alongside the fact that the last half of that sentence sounds like the opening line of a Broadway song, there is little scent of reality here. Sparky was a blood and guts player, yet now he’s whimpering because his man had to fly with other people.
I’m making the massive assumption that the Premiership footballer didn’t actually fly in a cattle truck with cows and pooh and straw. Yet somehow all those other people on that ‘gruelling’ journey walked off the plane, straight into the rest of their lives.
My god but today’s Premiership footballer is pampered. Just here on the same pile of torn sheets of newspaper is the Daily Mirror’s Simon Bird, reporting on Newcastle United’s £12 million signing, Remy Cabella.
He’s 24, an athlete and I’m fairly sure he’s earning a wad of green folding. Yet how does he describe his efforts?
“It has been a bit tiring to go out there and play so many minutes.”
Or rather, help me. I am drowning, sucked into the vortex of my cuttings: a piece on suicide prevention; the word omnishambles; Dubliner Tony Mangan, who ran 25,143 km across the world; why our TV heroes have become our TV anti-heroes, and does that make us decadent?
There’s too much. I have to put it away now.
But what’s that about ‘Global Swarming’? That sounds good!
Walk away from the folder, Charlie.
But here’s a piece on Mick Rock, the photographer who defined a musical generation.
And here’s the truth of the cost of the post-war Afghanistan rebuild, which will be on a par with the aftermath of World War Two.
Another snippet explains why being left-handed makes me a genius, and another delves into how supermarkets spy on us through our loyalty cards.
From mundane to mendacious, through military to Walter Macken, it’s all fascinating to me.
Walk away now Charlie.
Monday 6 October 2014
Like a loyal ever-present friend, radio has always been there for me. Wherever I’ve lived or worked, radio was there. It makes no difference whether my life is fun and fluffy or going through a mental chicane of dark madness, I can rely on radio.
Sometimes radio is truly all you can rely on. Back in 1994, I’d been in Ireland two years and was living alone in a little house, half way between Slyne Head and Ballyconneely.
Like a prisoner escaped from Devil’s Island, I’d embraced the craic in Galway City with enthusiasm that was matched only by two things: my need to flee from the craic in Galway City, and my profound love of Connemara.
So I was in that house during the great winter storm of 1994, with the electricity gone for hours. The turf burning in the fireplace reflected golden light onto the windows that stretched into curves as it revealed how the hurricane-force winds were bending the glass inwards.
But I was far from anything else, so no low-flying shed door was going to be crashing into my little house.
I was fine.
In fact I was more than fine. A London boy out in the wilds of west Connemara, sitting in my armchair, sipping a whiskey, warm safe and dry.
Listening to the radio: a play on RTE Radio 1. No electricity, but batteries worked fine. Plenty of candles, loads of turf and several inches of Jameson left in the bottle.
It was great. Not the play itself, but having the radio there, the company of human voices offering not only a story to be involved in, but also something to turn a deaf ear to.
Radio offers comfort just by being on, even if you’re not listening. I need and love silence, but know from having lived alone for many years that too much silence is not healthy for slightly loony humans such as myself.
Radio presenters might be upset to know that a lot of us tune into your shows every day to completely ignore you. Sometimes you’re just left on to keep the dog company.
I can’t think of any period of my life in which radio wasn’t a part. As a scabby teenager, after long dusty days working in a warehouse, I raced home so that I could be lying in a steaming hot bath by 6.27 pm, drifting off happily, listening to ‘Just a Minute’ on BBC Radio 4’s comedy half hour.
Working in a garage in Melbourne, my days seem shorter as I made old cars look newer, because the radio was tuned into a dance music station. Back home after work I’d put on the radio and listen to Prime Ministers Question Time in the Australian Parliament.
Nothing reminds you you’re a hell of a long way from Westminster better than a brash Aussie MP bellowing:
“I respectfully request the Honourable Member to put a bloody cork in it!”
Radio has always played an essential role in my routines. Throughout the 1980s my strict Saturday morning ritual involved the cooking and eating of an enormous English breakfast, while listening to BBC Radio 4’s ‘From Our Own Correspondent.’
Absorbing, utterly fascinating radio. Simple short reports from the hundreds of BBC journalists scattered around the furthest outposts of the planet.
When I lived in California, I listened to the commercial-free world of National Public Radio, NPR, where Americans blend with Canadians and sanity prevails.
But my travelling days are over. I’m here to stay, for better or for worse. I wear a wedding ring on my finger, but there’s another on my soul, for the west of Ireland.
Naturally, upon first arriving here, I listened to the radio to get to know my adopted home. I found Gay Byrne painfully patronising on his morning show, so I used to listen to that nice young Pat Kenny fella, who back then seemed more sincere than this Gaybo, so beloved of the locals.
Each morning I’d learn a little more about Ireland, but my real education came in the afternoon, in the shape of Marian Finucane’s ‘Afternoon Call’.
Long before Jooooe Dufffeee, Marian answered the phone to what seemed, to this greenhorn back in the early 90s, like a succession of small-minded callers who knew precious little of life beyond the townland.
I couldn’t believe what I was hearing. Where was the modern world?
An outraged mother was in tears on air, because her seven year-old son had been told to take a shower with the other boys after football. I’ll never forget how scared I was when she screamed down the phone line:
“I do not send my child to school so that he can have other children looking at his penis. His penis, Marian. His penis.”
‘Is this what they’re really like?’ I wondered, but it was my enormous ignorance of the Irish that was the problem. Yes, there are people in this country who still think like that, but fortunately there are so many more who are wonderful, wise and wickedly dark in the humour.
22 years later I still use the radio to entertain and inform. By tuning into Galway Bay FM and listening to Keith Finnegan’s ‘Galway Talks’ and Vinny Brown’s Arts Show I’m kept up to date with the breadth of life and wealth of talent we have here in the West.
Strangest of all changes, I now listen to Irish radio commentary of matches involving my beloved Chelsea FC. Football on the radio is a unique and evocative experience.
The commentator describes what the weather is like, the atmosphere in the stadium and which side is playing left to right. I lie back on the sofa, close my eyes, visualising the green pitch and the colours of the teams.
Then, if worthy practitioners of their art, the commentators will remove me from this physical plane to that splendid place where radio and our imaginations combine as sponge and fluid.
Monday 29 September 2014
Martin and 'Kitten Kong' a.k.a. 'The Plastic Pig'
On May 1st 1707, ignoring strong opposition voiced by the Scottish people, Scottish politicians entered a union with England for pragmatic financial reasons. After 300 years of complaining about that union, the Scottish people have now voted for the same union, for pragmatic financial reasons.
The referendum was a thrilling race, which the SNP’s visionary leader Alex Salmond might have won, were it not for that ubiquitous political trope: “It’s the economy, stupid!”
The dreadfully named ‘Better Together’ team had to wheel out Gordon Brown to fill the charisma black hole left by Alisdair Darling and Ed Miliband, but who knew the old grouch would morph into such a passionate and exciting orator?
His years away from Tony Blair’s radiation fallout have served him well.
But it wasn’t Gordon who won the day. It is brutally ironic that after such a display of pure democracy, the true winners of this referendum are the Conservative Party, despite there being no collective more overtly detested by the Scottish people.
So deep is the Scottish loathing of the Conservatives that for many traditional Labour voters, independence became less important than the chance to rid themselves of the Tories forever. Feeling completely detached from Miliband’s Labour leadership they joined up with the SNP to recover some old-fashioned Socialist ideals.
Much as I admire the Scottish people’s compassion and sense of social justice, what I really love about them is this abhorrence of the political party once described by Aneurin Bevan as “Lower than vermin.”
So what a tragedy it is that now David Cameron can deliberately thrust Britain into a constitutional minefield, for which only he has the map. Suddenly he espouses English laws for English people, snatching words out of UKIP’s mouth, wrenching his recently-lost voters from the arms of Farage, while the Labour Party, which signed up to the vow for greater devolution, is now staring at its own corpse. Of the 58 MPs representing Scotland in Westminster today, 41 are Labour.
In a devolved union, Labour will lose all those seats from Westminster. It might never form a government again. So those Scots who feel they’ve lost independence can console themselves that they’ve very probably condemned the English to perpetual Conservative rule!
Great times for the Tories indeed, so let’s move away from them and celebrate Scotland instead.
It says something for Scotland that each of the three occasions I’ve visited the country were outright adventures. The fact that all three trips involved the copious consumption of alcohol says as much about me as it does about Scotland.
In August 1978, on the day my good friend the satirist Martin Rowson passed his driving test, he arrived at my home.
“We’re driving to John O’Groats for Sunday lunch. Just backroads. I’ve asked Neil and he’s in. You coming?”
“Now. This instant. Pack a bag pronto and we’re out of here!”
“Where we gonna sleep?”
“Who cares? In the car? In a tent? Who cares?”
Most of you are familiar with the Reliant Robin, the 3-wheeled homicidal monstrosity that Del Boy drives around on ‘Only Fools and Horses.’
Unbeknownst to many however is the Reliant Kitten, a 4-wheeled version of this abominable car. Just like it’s funky stablemate, ‘The Plastic Pig’ as we called it was a fibreglass impostor posing as a car.
So off we went, three fully-grown young men inside a space barely large enough for both a grannie and her thermos.
Two days later we crossed the border into Scotland, only to discover the petrol tank had a hole in it. Brilliant - you design a rust-proof car and then its only metal part rusts, leaking fuel onto Caledonian tarmac.
Petrol stations were few and far between in the Highlands, so in a bid to save fuel we only used the accelerator to climb hills, freewheeling downwards.
“Right! That’s it!” grumped Martin, impatient about yielding to others at passing places on the narrow roads. “I’m not giving way to any more rich bastards! The next one’ll pull over for us!”
Inevitably this game of Road Russian Roulette proved unlucky. Ten minutes later a van driver’s chin dropped as he watched myself and Martin effortlessly lifting ‘Plastic Pig’ out of a ditch.
Did these Sassenachs possess mighty strength?
No, just a fibreglass car!
That night, in a very friendly pub in Drumnadrochit I hit the whisky hard, it hit me hard and then a policeman was waking me up by shining a torch on the car window, into my bleary beetroot eyes.
“You alright in there?”
I explained that we were sleeping in the pub car park, so as not to drink and drive.
“We? Who’s we?”
The lads, both comatose in the back of the car earlier, had disappeared. The copper swung his torch around, illuminating a completely collapsed tent. Under the Turin shroud-like flysheet, two human forms were visible.
“Would that be the ‘we’, sir?”
“That would be them, er us, er we, yes, officer.”
“I’ll let you get back to sleep now, but don’t go driving until your breath smells a lot sweeter than that!”
Eventually we made Sunday lunch at the John O’Groats Hotel, where we celebrated with roast beef and fat cigars.
Three years later, during a miserable night on the ferry from Hook of Holland to Harwich, I met a beautiful lass from Dundee. She had eyes that sparkled like beacons of hope through that hot diesel-infested air and she drank me under the table, pint for pint.
A month later we enjoyed a bawdy night of beer and bacchanalia in Dundee, brief but blissful.
My last adventure in Scotland occurred just before leaving England. By way of farewell, my friends Malcolm and Liz took me off to stay at an Outer Hebridean lighthouse, off an island, off an island, off an island.
I fear this noble rag would not carry the debauched details of our lighthouse sojourn, several miles from the nearest humans.
It was extraordinary, as is Scotland.
Monday 22 September 2014
Thanks to Nerilicon, CagleCartoons.com, Mexico City
As if someone had clapped their hands an inch above my face, I wake up fast, my back arched, muscles gripped.
I’m alone in a small single bed, tucked in tight by a dark brown hessian blanket. The room is sparse and tiny, dusty bare floorboards leading to a door not two foot from the end of the bed.
My first waking breath brings the stench of death. Gripped by terror, with no idea where I am, I feel a primal need to locate the Snapper; make sure she’s safe.
Trouble is, I can’t get out of bed. This heavy hairy blanket is holding me down as if it has a life of its own.
Taking a deep breath I rip the bedclothes off me and in one movement rise from the bed and open the door.
A vile cocktail of putrid smells engulfs me. There’s a short landing leading to a staircase, all dusty bare floorboards, ingrained with faded white paint stains.
So profound is my fear my legs fail to move. I call out for help.
Louder, again. Help!
Again. Somebody! Help me, please!
I wake up.Phew. That was a nasty one. Hope I don’t go back to that little number.
Generally I dream three about times a night, often revisiting the last dream after waking, which can be lovely, but after a nightmare like that, well, I hope it’s nearly dawn.
Going off to the loo I find the house still awake. The Snapper’s watching TV, Lady is getting belly tickles beside her. All is well with the world.
“Blimey love, nasty nightmare!”
“Oh you poor thing!”
In much the same way that suppressed memories of childhood horrors filter up through more confident adult psyches, I’ve noticed over the years that nightmares visit me when my brain feels safe, and we’d just returned from a three day holiday that was several days too short.
“It’s probably my brain dumping pooh on me because it thinks I’m still on holiday.”
Back to bed, straight to sleep.
I’m standing in the rambling overgrown garden of a huge white house. Although it’s in the countryside, it resembles a dilapidated and shabby version of Washington DC’s own, marbled by swathes of dark green ivy.
On the gravel driveway is parked an old Bedford van, the like which of I haven’t seen since Ford introduced the Transit.
The huge black front door of the house opens and a couple of 1960s Disney/Enid Blyton criminals run out carrying sacks, jump into the van, and drive off at high speed, rear wheels spinning a cloud of grit and gravel.
Walking into the house I realise it’s my home. Everywhere I look there are people lounging on sofas and chairs but I don’t know any of them, so I go to my office, only to find the shelves broken: books, files and scraps of paper strewn as vomit.
Rage builds within me, fuelled by the discovery that my office chair has been dismantled. The Snapper walks in and we have a blazing row, which even though I know I’m dreaming, I watch with interest, as it’s something we’re not very good at in normal waking hours.
She turns to me.
“Where’s the van?”
“Gone? But don’t you see, those blokes put Lady in a sack and now they’ve scarpered!”
Before I have the time to ask her why she’s talking like somebody from 1957, I’m dashing out the door, only to find myself back in my Townland.
Running up the road stark bollock naked, I’m chasing the van, my exposed flesh feeling the heat of a strong sun under a ridiculously blue Irish sky, not particularly giving a damn about the neighbours who stand outside their houses, jaws dropping in unison, tutting and nodding and muttering didn’t they always say how that English fella was a quare one and just look at him now.
Having failed to outrun an internal combustion engine, I return home to find Kevin Healy has popped in for a cuppa. For the second time that night I think lucidly while dreaming, wondering how strange this is, given that I rarely see my friend. He plays no further part in my dreamly proceedings
The Snapper holds a perfect white geranium in a pot up to my chin.
“It’s dying!” she wails. “They’ve taken the dog and now perfect white geranium is DYING!”
She screams the last word so loudly it wakes me up.
06:58. Thank god. Slipping into trackies and a T-shirt I take Lady out for her morning peeper. Had enough of nightmares now. As the dog eats grass I chuckle, realising why my mind is so addled.
After my last Craft of Writing Course at The Galway Arts Centre, some of my students asked if I’d run a follow-up course, so I’ll be teaching them the art of editing, through the writing of a short story each. I always write alongside my students, so to reacquaint myself with this most demanding of forms, I’ve been revisiting the short stories of Bukowski, O’Connor and Macken, a cocktail of talent and darkness well able to mess up any mind.
(By the way, if you’d like to have fun while improving your writing skills, I’m running another Craft of Writing Course at The Galway Arts Centre, from Wednesday 1st October for 8 weeks, 7:30 - 9:00pm. €110/100 concessions. Numbers are limited, so please contact The Galway Arts Centre now to book your place: Phone: 091-565886; email: firstname.lastname@example.org)
Doggie’s done her doings and I’m back in bed by 07:20. It’s Sunday, so I’ll read a while, doze and -
My brother’s arm is reaching out of the helicopter. He’s yelling at me to grab his hand, but I can’t leave. The world is filled with noise, dust and turbulence and ... and here we go once more.
Freud shmoyed: eat your heart out, Sigmund.
It has been a long night.