Monday 29 June 2015
In fact I don’t know if there’s anything wrong with me at all, but I’ve noticed over the years that the way I react to accidental tragedy is not the same as the vast majority of others.
If you find yourself feeling different emotions to everyone else and give half a damn about being a reasonable human being, you have to ask:
“What’s wrong with me? Why don’t I feel as upset and outraged as everyone else about the senseless death of the Irish teenagers in California?”
Where I appear to be emotionally different, if not exactly deficient, is that I’ve never been able to feel more for one stranger’s loss than another.
Forgive me if I’m sounding disingenuous. It’s no mystery to me why you all feel the way you do. I completely understand why the Irish feel this pain of loss of their own so deeply. It’s just that I don’t; not in the same way.
It would be easy to explain this national cauldron of boiling tears as the result of a small population feeling strong empathy and a sense of community, yet I recognise the phenomenon.
It’s exactly the same collective grief the English felt when the Princess of Wales died. A moment in time, a gash into the heart of the zeitgeist out of which the tears flowed. England has a large population, but still they mourned as one, for a stranger.
32 million watched her funeral. The usually stoic English cried in the streets for Diana because, estranged from the Royal Family, they saw her as a tragic victim of circumstance.
Ireland has recently lost many young people to emigration, and the death of these young people has reflected the fears and insecurities of all.
Well, nearly all.
Of course I was shocked and sad, but no more than I was for the 53 who died that day in a bus crash in Peru or the 27 who were drowned in a tropical storm in Indonesia.
Did they? The fact that you don’t know illustrates why I feel the way I do. Such tragic accidents happen all over the world every day, and my heart breaks for every parent who lost a child, every friend who lost a soul mate.
This disparity of feeling with the rest of the population does not apply to tragedies where injustice has been perpetrated. It does not apply to crimes of hate, prejudice or war. If anything, they make me feel more angry than most; even vengeful on occasion.
To those of you thinking that I’d feel different if I had my own children, take that ‘Baby On Board’ sticker off your car’s rear window and spend a moment or two contemplating the nature of compassion. As a man of many faults, I can state with the utmost certainty that emotional constipation is not one of them.
Without having been a parent, I’ve lived an exciting and demanding life, experiencing many extremes of emotion. Love and the loss of it have driven me insane three times and through the deaths of friends and family, I have grieved; lain for months, like a felled oak, on the sofa, trying to come to terms with absence.
Yes, of course I hurt when I lose those that I know and love. I’m not a monster. My heart breaks and swells as well as any of yours.
It’s just the strangers, the tens of thousands of people I don’t know around the world, whose deaths arrive in my life as news items, in papers and on TV.
“Six English people died in the plane crash. There were 285 passengers on board and no survivors.”
Does that somehow infer that the other victims were of less significance? I hurt for them all equally.
Yet for most there appears to be a straight-line graph, wherein ‘X’ represents the number of dead, while ‘Y’ is formed by combining your distance from the tragedy with the greater the difference in appearance and culture the victims have to you.
Hence two European whites found eaten alive in the Amazon jungle will score more column inches, TV time and strangers’ tears shed over cups of tea than 3,125 Africans macheted to ribbons in the Democratic Republic of Congo, or 112 in Bangladesh washed away by a swollen river breaking its banks.
When the people look very different to us and live far away, thousands of them have to die before you even know they’ve gone, yet when they’re from your own country you feel the loss of a handful as painfully as if they were your own children.
You feel a kinship with those poor Irish parents, siblings and friends that I do not. Maybe I’ve lived in too many countries over the years, but to be honest, no, that not it.
The difference in the way I feel comes primarily from being utterly human. Notions of nationality, patriotism and ethnic pride are alive and well within me, but beyond them and everything else, I just feel I’m homo sapiens, the species that crawls all over this planet making a right mess of things.
As such I feel linked to all 7 billion of us and cannot prioritise the death of one stranger over another. Neither proud nor embarrassed by my emotional difference to the pack, I fast-forward through ‘human interest’ stories of a teenage runaways on the TV news.
Yes I care, but no more than I do for the thousands of street kids in broken Syria.
I don't feel less, I just feel different. My heart is not cold. I am sad for all loss of life, be it brought about by illness, age, accident or war. My heart bleeds for those Irish families, just as it does for all the victims of tragedy whose death didn’t make the front page.
Sunday 21 June 2015
What a wonderful problem to have! Books are piling up on the wee table beside my bed, waiting to be read, while others, written by friends and recently published, are due to arrive soon.
I often feel intimidated by people who imagine, quite justifiably, that I might be well read. You’d think that as a writer I’d have all the classics filed away in my memory banks, yet nothing could be further from the truth. I read all the time, but I do it slowly, for a few precious minutes in bed, before I take Lady Dog for her morning walk.
If a book is really gripping me, I will stay awake at night to read it, but more often my sleepy brain is too addled to absorb literature of any kind. Instead I grab a Guardian Weekend magazine and read of restaurants, pop-psychology, fashion and modern culture, reconnecting in some way with the London life I left behind in 1989.
There is nothing that compares to the feeling of being engaged in a good book: the excitement of returning to a unique fictional world. While I’m passionate about film, the book is invariably better than the movie (with the notable exception of Ken Kesey’s One Flew Over The Cuckoo's Nest, a good book turned into a masterpiece on screen.)
When I first encountered my teacher and friend Iris Leal in 1986, she asked what I was reading and screamed with horror when I spoke the words: “Stephen King.”
She demanded I read the great Russian writers and Thomas Mann and a host of others. She bought me a copy of Gabriel García Márquez One Hundred Years of Solitude, which opened my eyes to magic realism, and then she ordered me to read Anna Karenina.
What Iris didn’t realise was that her well-intentioned exhortations were serving only to reinforce dark feelings of inadequacy that were pummelled into me at Public School. It was there, in my teens, that I decided the great works of literature were beyond me.
When you’ve been told you’re thick often enough, you start to believe it, but nothing was going to rob me of the joy of reading.
Devouring Enid Blyton’s stories in the 1960s, read by torchlight under the bedcovers after lights out, I was hooked. Having consumed every word of every book in her Secret Seven series, l moved on to the Famous Five, then the thrilling leap to Alan Garner’s magical adventures in The Weirdstone of Brisingamen, The Moon of Gomrath and Elidor.
Always within my arm’s reach, read scores of times inbetween all the other books of childhood, was Stephen Fennimore’s Bush Holiday, an utterly thrilling story about a young lad taken to the Australian outback to live on a ranch.
Looking back now I believe that book led me to the life I live today. The sense of adventure and glorious freedom I experienced vicariously through its pages burned bridges in my mind, leaving in tatters synapses that led to security.
I wanted to live on the edge; exist by my wits.
Next I was moved by Bound for Glory, Woody Guthrie’s great biography about his life on the road during America’s Great Depression. My middle class sensibilities were so happy for him when, at one point in his story, after half-starving himself and being beaten up, he had the chance to stay in a warm cosy house, have a bath and eat a good meal.
I remember gasping out loud in shock when instead he chose to walk away from that house, because the air inside smelled stagnant.
Couldn't he have had the bath and meal and then left?
Was this what being true to your ideals meant? Turning your back on comfort to live by your own rules?
I still find that book astonishing, as I do my other two American heroes. Not the great Faulkner nor F. Scott Fitzgerald for me, but rather the dirty realism of Charles Bukowski, whose abhorrent language and attitudes attract me for their honesty. Unashamedly shocking, brutal and hilarious, you don’t have to like Bukowski but his writing cuts through the crap like nobody else.
Far from Bukowski’s verbal beatings comes my beloved Richard Brautigan, who writes the prose of a stoned poet, using words gently and subtly, while offering great wisdom shrouded in humour.
So contrasting in styles, both of these American writers offer a stark honesty that I find irresistible.
Inbetween these extreme pillars of my bookshelf, I add Galway’s own great Walter Macken, who’s centenary was recently celebrated in the streets of the west of the city.
No other writer has enlightened me more about Irish history or shown me such images of the culture and darkness that pervaded back in the days of oppression.
Macken’s voice booms and whispers with the comfortable authority of a man in his own world. It is both a tragedy and a travesty that much of his work is now out of print.
So what should I read next? Inspired by Laurie Lee’s As I Walked Out One Midsummer Morning I was starting to read Cider with Rosie, but then Dalooney lent me The Narrow Road To The Deep South, Richard Flanagan’s heart-wrenching Booker Prize winner.
As yet I have not started my friend Claire-Louise Bennett’s Pond (Stinging Fly), published this summer to great acclaim from high places. Claire-Louise has that most extraordinary of gifts: her own literary voice, so I look forward to immersing myself in her unique world of words.
Then I’ll read my good friend Helen Falconer’s cracking new book,The Changeling, (Random House), followed by Julie Otsuka’s The Buddha In The Attic, which the Snapper loved.
After all that I’ll escape once again to Tudor London with C.J. Sansom’s latest Shardlake novel.
I feared that E-books and Kindles were going to kill the printed book, but going by recent upturns in both retail bookshop sales and the pile beside my bed, the book is not only surviving, it’s thriving!
Sunday 14 June 2015
Last Sunday was not a day for killing. Not a day for violence. A peaceful Summer Sunday that was not crying out for murder. Last Sunday did not want its air ripped asunder by the crashing roar of destruction.
The sun was shining bright through the edges of my bedroom blinds and as I rolled them up I saw that the gravel on the drive was dry.
A perfect morning to mow the lawn. The sooner I get it done the sooner my voluptuous backside can be melding with my living room chair.
There was Ireland v England on the telebox at 1:00 and I wasn’t going to miss it. Equally, I suspected I was unlikely to enjoy it. For once the football was secondary. As long as the day passed without riots, injury or ignorant behaviour all would be good ... and that was just the players.
But seriously folks, it’s great to be able to offer that quip. Both nations and their people have moved on since the debacle of 20 years ago.
Admittedly, this time both FAs and police forces worked closely together, so as not to get caught out like last time. Sadly, it’s impossible to believe that the ignorant fascists of England's extreme Right have all disappeared, just as it is now thankfully wholly plausible to expect them to be known to and forbidden by the relevant security forces.
Of course there was a bit of whistling during God Save the Queen, but it was as likely from any lovers of rousing anthems as a Republican faction. Beyond that the whole affair was benign and wonderfully boring.
Were it an important competitive game I’d have to support the English, but on that sunny Sunday I didn’t give a damn. I was curious to see how the England team played, and watch every game both teams play as a matter of course. In any other fixture I’d support the Boys in Green, such is my love and affection for this country, but last Sunday?
Last Sunday I was on the side of peace.
As they say in football, at the end of the day the best team won. A goalless draw in which the Irish showed more desire and urgency, the English more poise, lovely jubbly, keep it calm.
No need for madness, not today.
A 5 year-old french oak grown from a twig in a 4-inch pot
and the the lovely calla lily, 3 years old this year...
20 years ago there were bigots and bastards. There was a game cancelled and a host of people injured. I was at that time sitting at the bar of a pub in Dundalk. Given that I was with a friend who was attending a Sinn Fein meeting in the pub’s back room, I reckoned it was pretty safe to assume that I was the only England fan in that pub that night.
So just for the craic, to make my life harder but allow me the chance of openly supporting my own team, I raised my arms to the lads before kick-off:
“Old Oppressor over here! England fan at the bar! Come on lads, give me your worst!”
Something like a firebreak, my little attack on myself seemed to temper the verbal assaults I received that evening, and when the riot broke out in the stadium I felt so very sad; deeply embarrassed; pained.
As an Englishman who has lived more of his adult life out of his native country than in it, I’ve become used to bearing the cross of the British Empire, finding myself on innumerable occasions repeating:
“It wasn’t me. I wasn’t there.”
After years of such defensive behaviour I’ve ended up creating something of an infantile reaction, whereby I’m actually more proud of being English than I would be if I was living in England.
But not that night, in that pub in Dundalk.
That night I watched Englishmen behaving like ignorant fools and I saw Republican Irishmen casting concerned glances in my direction, as they watched and understood the agony I was enduring.
As ever, it was with wit that we all recovered from our anger. A longhair around the other side of the bar suddenly yelled out:
“Ah, that’ll be it. That’ll be the front page headline of the Sun tomorrow then lads: ‘IRA THUGS DRESS UP AS ENGLAND FANS!’ ”
We all roared with laughter, because like all good jokes it had a seam of truth running through it. Rescued from my masochistic reverie I protested to myself just as I had in the past to others: it wasn’t me. I wasn't there.
Last Sunday felt a million years and several continents from that night, save for the fact that I still watch football.
It was not a day for destruction. Yet there was murder. There was pure carnage and I was the deliverer of the killings, the perpetrator of the crimes.
After the recent winds that howled and rains that fell, the daisies and buttercups had grown unmown for weeks, forming a heart-stoppingly wondrous carpet of colour and life all over our lawn.
... here come the foxgloves...
As I shattered the divine silence of last Sunday morning, donning my noise-reducing headphones so as not to suffer the sound of metal and combustion that others now had to, I realised how incredibly easy it was going to be to see where I had mowed.
The machine laid bare a blank canvas of killing. All the daisies and buttercups disappeared, agents of their own death, by virtue of their prolific beauty.
If only they had grown in irregular places, some might have survived, but instead it was like stripping paint.
So easy to see, not one inch of them would live beyond my rush to mow, to sit and bite my fingernails as two nations I love go to battle once again.
I wanted a day of peace and sunshine, a football match that passed without incident and I did not want to spoil it, so I made an offering to universe, my own plea for peace. There is now a small smiled-shaped clump of long grass and daisies left on my lawn.
Monday 8 June 2015
The Snapper is clutching the sheet of very precise directions sent to us by local man Juan, who’s renting us a villa. The car blocking our way is now reversing away from us, expertly finding a tiny recess in this rural Mallorcan side road.
Driving a rental car is always slightly nerve-wracking because of the exorbitant charges they slap on you for damaging the vehicle in any way. This Renault drives beautifully, but looks a heck of a lot like an over-inflated balloon.
Now I’m squeezing between the other car on one side and the concrete ditch that offers a four foot vertical drop on the other.
These ditches run along all these tiny roads, some sporting little brick lips, which might at least give a warning that your car is about to disappear into a void.
“I know what you mean!” agrees the Snapper, “In the dark you’d have no idea where the ditches were!”
“We can go out for lunches instead.”
“Splendid! Turn sharp left 125 metres after a tall telegraph pole painted with red and white stripes.”
Very precise directions indeed, which is just as well, as our holiday home is beyond the black stump.
I’d spoken to Juan on the phone and he said the villa was close to other villas, only 6km from the old town of Pollença. I’d imagined a semi-suburban estate with purpose-built self-catering “villas” scattered around freshly-landscaped hills. To my delight, when we finally find the place, I discover I couldn’t have been more wrong.
There’s no need for those “quotation marks” around the word “villa”. This is a proper villa, the kind in which local families live. Surrounded by a bowl of mountains we’re in a vale of almond groves, with cypress trees and terracotta tiled roofs poking through the greenery here and there.
For once the picture on the internet proves to be unworthy in a good way. You expect the brochure shot to be slightly misleading, and as we’ve stayed in self-catering places before, we expected a tiny place.
How wonderful it is to find that you’ve far more than you could have hoped for.
“Wow!” cries my beloved, as we wander past the pool and barbeque area, our eyes catching glimpses of dozens of different mountain views, appearing between palm fronds.
“Is this ours? Wow!”
In the past we’ve only ever holidayed in places within walking distance of restaurants and shops, but that past is now so distant, I figured all we needed this time was to collapse. It’s been three years since we had a proper holiday and last Autumn both of us started to become unwell, falling apart from the relentless duty of it all.
Many consider trips away to be something of a trial to a relationship, but the Snapper and I holiday well together. Armed with a book for each day of the stay, a glass of white wine and a sun lounger, she is very happy to avoid people, because she works with the public.
I love people, but that business of being with them is pure exhausting. While she reads I do what I do best: stare into space for hours on end, occasionally concentrating my mind on one of the crosswords carefully stockpiled for my hols, and then off again, staring into space.
Save for the two days in which we failed to leave the compound, each morning we pile into the car and pootle about. Pollença is a lovely old stone town, busy and buzzy with tourists and locals, where we find the perfect restaurant (La Font Del Gall, Calle Monti Sion) and buy our traditional tacky souvenir.
Another day we head east and I snarf bowls of fantastically fresh calamari in a tiny affluent yachting resort. Driving back through the mass tourism ribbon development of Alucudia, we watch lost souls, condemned by cloudy skies to abandon beaches, wandering listless between bar and shop.
On our wedding anniversary we enjoy lunch in the grandeur and gardens of Barçelo Formentor, the oldest hotel on the island. Sipping bubbles under the wisteria shade of the poolside terrace, we are entertained by this rare glimpse into the lives of Europe's rich: young and old, bland and classy.
Mostly, though, we just sit on our terrace. The view across the almond grove to distant mountains is sublime.
Paradise comes at price, and the neighbour’s dog barks every day, but nothing can spoil our peace. In the evening after sunset the natural wonders continue.
Our resident lizard, perfectly camouflaged the same yellow as the wall, stalks a moth twice the size of his head. We watch open-mouthed as the moth realises he’s there and responds, rather unwisely, by freezing dead still. In one pounce the lizard gobbles him up and disappears from sight.
Golden flashes from glow-worms on the lawn pierce the darkness: brief; intense.
Distant sparrows fade into the dusk as the bat appears, swooping around the garden.
We speak to nobody, until encountering the Irish once more. The tall handsome lad from Lahinch makes conversation on the plane home. In the Gents at Shannon Airport’s baggage hall, a lad turns to me and asks:
“Just back from somewhere, arya?”
By the time I find the Snapper at the baggage carousel, she’s chatting to a woman, and then another takes up the conversation when the first woman goes.
After visiting the airport shop to stock up on bread and milk, I find the Snapper outside, chatting to yet another lass, who works at the airport.
Our ten days of silence may be gone, but if I have to talk, give me the Irish every time. There might be a smidgeon of nosiness in it, but your friendliness always puts a smile on my face.