Monday 22 December 2008
‘British Expeditionary Force, Friday December 25th, 1914.
My Dear Mater,
This will be the most memorable Christmas I’ve ever spent or likely to spend: since about tea time yesterday I don’t think there’s been a shot fired on either side up to now. Last night turned a very clear frost moonlight night, so soon after dusk we had some decent fires going and had a few carols and songs. The Germans commenced by placing lights all along the edge of their trenches and coming over to us - wishing us a happy Christmas etc ... Some of our chaps went over to their lines. I think they’ve all come back, bar one from ‘E’ Company. They no doubt kept him as a souvenir.
There must be something in the spirit of Christmas as today we are all on top of our trenches running about. ... Just before dinner I had the pleasure of shaking hands with several Germans ... I exchanged one of my balaclavas for a hat. I’ve also got a button off one of their tunics. We also exchanged smokes etc. and had a decent chat. They say they won’t fire tomorrow if we don’t so I suppose we shall get a bit of a holiday - perhaps ... We can hardly believe that we’ve been firing at them ... it all seems so strange. With much love from Boy.’
Strange indeed, how wonderful is the human spirit. We humans have hearts the size of harvest moons. Given the choice of killing indiscriminately or having a meal with friends, the vast majority of us lay down our guns and pick up our knives and forks.
I always find the Christmas Day truce of 1914 exceptionally moving, as for once, a religious festival was used to encourage exactly what it stood for.
As an atheist of Jewish stock, I have always loved the Nativity story. Evidently God was showing in the strongest possible way that social status meant absolutely nothing; that true power lay in the heart, mind and spirit.
All that matters is to be a loving human being; to shake hands with your enemy, love your neighbour and turn the other cheek. Christian ethics are an admirable and glorious collection, never better illustrated than by those good men who lifted themselves clean out of their hellish muddy disease-ridden trenches and played a little footie with the lads from the other side.
Christmas in my house as a child was a big affair. My parents felt it was important for us all to feel a part of the country that had taken us in, and so, in our own way, we assimilated the English culture of Christmas and left out the religion.
We had a tree, which was pagan anyway, and we had presents and decorations. Indeed, on Christmas morning my Dad would crack open a bottle of champagne and declare ‘Happy Christmas!’, and none of us felt any less Jewish. Didn’t we still light the Menorah candles and celebrate Hannukah? Didn’t we eat hot salt beef sandwiches with sweet and sour cucumbers on Christmas Eve night, feeling completely Jewish and comfortable within ourselves?
All wisdom and worthy religious creed is based around acceptance (not tolerance, even though some of you still fail to see the vital difference), but even at this time of year, when true Christians are supposed to be celebrating the arrival of peace on Earth in the shape of their Saviour’s birth, there is begrudgery and prejudice aplenty.
Even though I cannot stand the censorial excesses and puritan overtones of Political Correctness, I’m going to risk being accused of just that when I say that, unlike many of ye, including a fellow and esteemed columnist in this Noble Rag, I actually like that whole “Happy Holidays!” thing.
My colleague, along with many of you, believes that maniacal liberals demand the saying of “Happy Holidays!” so as to avoid offending non-Christian members of society, but they are wrong. No Irish Muslim, Sikh or Jew will be offended by one Christian saying “Happy Christmas!” to another, but there are other festivals that occur at this time of year in each religion. No minority immigrant is going to sit around and wait for an Irish Catholic to wish them a Happy Hannukah or Diwali, so why not cover all the religious bases, spread the love a little and keep everybody happy?
It seems absurd to me that people should get protective over their own religious festivals to the detriment of others. It feels a little like grown-ups who never learned to share their toys as children.
So no, “Happy Holidays!” does not preclude you celebrating your festival: it merely includes all of us who might be celebrating others. I have never felt in any way offended by the sight of somebody gaining wisdom or comfort from their personal religious faith, but I do feel offended when I read in these pages “...well tough luck, why should we worry about offending anybody in this our country...?”
Why? I’ll tell you why! Forgive this atheist Jew for preaching Christianity, but you should worry simply and purely because it is un-Christian to think that way. I have lived in ‘your’ country for 16 years. I love Ireland, the Irish and I even pay my taxes. At what point does this country become my country too? Clearly, never, as far as many of you are concerned, and once again I recall the words that my Dad used to say, when I was but a little boy.
“We are just visitors in this country.” he told me, “One day we may have to move on, like your grandparents did before you were born.”
The sooner the Irish completely accept that Ireland is very slowly growing into more than the mono-ethnic, mono-cultural, mono-theistic state it once was, the more truly Christian the place is going to feel.
How dare any of us become angry over such trifling matters, when we think of the bravery, love, compassion and ultimate sacrifice made by the lad who wrote that letter back in the trenches? A victim of a pointless and disgusting war, he and his equals on both sides found the true spirit of Christmas and made peace.
So please, as you celebrate this most important of feasts, give thanks to your God for all that you have, and try to love the fact that we are all so beautifully different.
For the first time in the 16 years I’ve been spouting drivel and dribbling pomp onto the pages of this Noble Rag, today I am fearful. I have been worried for days about sitting here and writing this colyoom, because I am in pain.
Before you go off on one of those patronising anti-man rants about how poor little diddums says he’s in painy wainy, presupposing that because I have a penis I therefore inflate the effect of any illness or bodily malfunction (apart from impotence, naturally!) I say save your breath.
Okay, so I might at some point in my past have fulfilled my bloke-ish destiny and claimed a cold was worse than it felt, but pain I do well.
Worth a mention at this juncture is the complete disappearance from Irish life of the common cold. All those decades and legions of scientists researching into how to defeat that pesky tiny mutating virus, and nobody thought to consult that august and imaginative body of folk, the Irish people. Nobody in Ireland has a cold. It’s a miracle! Call the Vatican. I cannot think when I last heard somebody here say
“Sure, it’s only an auld cold. It’ll go away in no time.”
Nope. Uhuh. Milking life for all its manky melodrama, the Irish only have da ‘flu.
“Sure I had the ‘flu yesterday, but I’m fine right now.”
Of course you are mate, ‘cos you had a bleedin’ cold. If you had the ‘flu yesterday, you would not be fine today. The ‘flu can kill. A cold makes you feel shitty and snotty. End of.
So, where were we? Oh yes, sitting here in my office chair, where I have sat for thousands of hours, comfy and productively scribbling away.
Yet today just finding a single painless sitting position is proving impossible. I know that the longer I stay sat here, the more my reward will be agonising when I finally stand, so I’m writing like the clappers.
As I say, I’m good at pain. When I was 17, I was taking my mate to visit his sister Bev, who was recovering from an operation in hospital, when a car hit my Yamaha 250. I broke my tibia and that biggest boniest Daddy-of-’em-all, my femur, into two clean halves. Like all the best tragedies, there ran through this episode a rich vein of irony, because Bev told us later how she had heard the sirens of the ambulance that came to rescue us from her hospital bed.
Hang on a mo, that doesn’t sound right. This pain is affecting my brain. The ambulance didn’t rescue us from her hospital bed.
Uh, you got it first time? Fine.
Anyway, there I was in the emergency room, being quizzed by this excellent bouncy bearded young doctor called Bill. Straight-talking and decent, he spared me no false protection.
“So we are going to have to operate. Couple of questions. You haven’t eaten in the last few hours, right?”
“Well, I had steak and kidney pie, chips and beans an hour ago.”
“Bugger. Okay, please tell me you haven’t got a cold, cough or anything like that.”
“Sorry doc, but I’ve got a bloody terrible cough, chesty and rough as the backside of a pineapple.”
“Bugger bugger bugger. Okay, well, we’re still going to have to operate, but none of that helps. You are a mess of broken bone, sinew, gristle and tendon, and it’s all floating around your blood. You lost three pints of that too. So when you wake up, you’ll be on oxygen, and if any of those fatty or gristly lumps finds its way into your lungs, you’ll be going out of here feet first. Okay?”
“Oh and your leg will be up in traction, so each time you cough it’s going to hurt like the blazers. And your cough will be made infinitely worse by the general anaesthetic. Okay?”
“Okay, let’s get him on the slab and try and save that leg.”
Save it they did, and between himself and my consultant surgeon, a Mr. Rolls, who spoke like David Attenborough and pumped charisma, they cured me.
Well, they made my leg better, and over the next six weeks of hospital life, in no small way, I cured myself of childish whingeing.
At first they were giving me pethidine injections every four hours, turning me into that bloke you never want to share a ward with. I was high as a satellite, screaming blathering moaning and keeping everyone awake all night. Eventually I realised that they were turning me into a junkie, so I asked a nurse if I was going to be in pain for long.
”As long as you keep coughing and shaking that leg in traction, it’s going to hurt, yes. A lot.”
Accepting my fate, I took myself off all painkillers and accustomed myself to an altered state. It wasn’t as if the drugs had made the pain go away: they just made it easier for me not to care about it. Instead I achieved a level of bodily awareness that allowed me to feel the pain, and understand.
So last weekend, when I dropped off my rental car at Luton Airport and started my lone return journey to Galway, only to find my back and legs gripped by the fiercest pain I had endured since the seminal hospital sojourn of ‘77, I was able to suffer it simply.
All pain since my bike crash had paled into insignificance, compared to that cocktail of broken femur and chest infection, but this new pain was quite breathtaking. After two paces I could barely breathe. Each movement ripped through me like a machete, yet I still had to lift my suitcase onto the check-in desk; place my hand luggage on the X-ray conveyor belt; bend down to undo my boots at the security counter; bend down to do them up again afterwards; lift and put down my bag a hundred times in the Departure Lounge, toilet, shop and toilet again; hoist my hand luggage into the overhead compartment; lift it down again; lift my suitcase from the carousel, and hoist it, finally, into my home.
I survived the trip by seeing pain as something fascinating and different.
“Interesting!” I said to the Snapper, as dizziness swamped my consciousness.
“My poor bear!” said she.
“I’m alright!” I offered as a brazen lie.
Wednesday 17 December 2008
I’m stumbling over Wolfe Tone bridge into town. The afternoon is grey, the river is gushing brown, there’s an unusually large number of gulls flying and screeching overhead, and people are going about their normal daily lives.
I’m not normal. Right now I am an emotional, physical and mental wreck of a human being. Half an hour ago I finished the writing of a novel, and by the time you are reading this, I will have printed it out, left it be for a week and then read it as a book for the first time. Having done that, I will then ‘call it’, as the Americans say: Over. Finito benito. Dunded.
So right now I need a friend, but all my house calls and phone calls have come to nothing. Doesn’t matter. There’s still one friend I know will be around. As I cross the river I feel safe. I trust Galway City. Galway will be my friend today.
What do you look for in a friend? Loyalty maybe? Trust would have to come pretty high up on any list of friendship criteria, otherwise there’d be little difference between a true friend and a mere acquaintance. A friend is somebody you enjoy spending time with. Somebody who understands you and your needs, and of course, a friend is somebody that you can have fun with. When you go out to get your kicks, be that drinking in pubs, knitting in circles, licking the pavement with your bare tongue or collecting 17th century Argentine pickle jars, it’s a friend you’ll want by your side.
Finishing a novel is like climbing a mountain that disappears as soon as you reach the summit. There is no climb down. Just a void; a blank empty afternoon in which to exist somehow.
As far as loyalty goes, friendships are a two way street, and after returning from my life in America, I was welcomed back warmly, not only by all my friends and Howyas, but also by this noble rag. Galway was loyal, forgiving and accepting, just as a good friend might be.
First stop, a coffee and a Jamie outside Neachtain’s. I sit outside and and stare up High Street. Well, I think I am sitting and staring up High Street, but in fact, lost in my tiny world of exhaustion and insanity, I am sitting hunched, screwed up into an ugly twisted form, with one leg almost over my shoulder, my lips pursed, stretched outwards tightly and ridiculously.
“You’re in public , Adley!” I remind myself. “Wakey wakey! Come down here and join the planet!”
Trust is the foundation of any friendship, so do I trust Galway City? Well, depends doesn’t it. Do I trust Galway to nurture me, make me fit and well and return me safely home? If I do I am already dead. But do I trust Galway to be always ready and willing to offer me succour? Do I have faith in Galway City’s ability to transform any gentle straightforward day into a raving messy investment in tomorrow’s headache?
Just as I trust the ground beneath my feet.
As a good friend, Galway offers company, in the shape of our allocation of 10,000 Howyas, all those we recognise just enough to acknowledge, any one of which might be available for a wee chat, raising the stakes to friendship on the way. Galway is also good company without others, sitting alone, relaxed and at peace in a bar in Bohermore, enjoying a solitary stare at the optics and mirror. Thankfully, also, there are great friends, and others in-between, always available for that other ingredient of friendship: a laugh, a bit of fun, da craic.
Friends should be inspiring, and even though I hear several hundred great ideas a night pouring forth from the mouths of my fellow drinkers, none of these pint dreams elevates me more than the sight of the starlings at twilight by the Fishmarket/Buckfast Plaza, or the hills of Co. Clare bathed in orange twilight. Soul food and inspiration Galway has in spades, so chalk another one up to my good friend.
And before we get all schmaltzy and dewy-eyed, you can always have too much of a good thing, and just like any friendship, myself and Galway City have fallen out many times over the years. There was hardly a more joyful day in my life than that back in 1994 when I loaded all my worldly belongings into my Ford Transit van and fled to live in Connemara. Three times I have left, two of which were emergency escape hatch ejector seat type retreats, where my sleep patterns, liver and all points from sanity to dribbled dried-up porridge required and demanded I get the hell out of town.
Yes, there’s a lot to this relationship. I’m outside the Quays now, drinking another whiskey and trying to look as if I’m not completely nutsoid in the noodle, because today I am, but cannot help it.
There’s one other side to this friendship with Galway City, and it’s not the most attractive part of this city's personality. There exists what I have long called the ‘cruel craic’, which is what you feel and suffer if you know no better, and try to stay home expecting visitors. Out there you can feel the distant craic in Galway City raging unabated, but if you are not there, in the pub, you do not exist.
Thankfully, it has been ages since I suffered from the cruel craic, because I realised that by merely staying home I was not missing out on anything at all. But for years when I first arrived, and I am sure for many others to this day, if you cannot afford to go out, or are too tired and emotional to be seen in public, then Galway will betray you. It will shun you, turn its back towards you and nobody will even know you weren't there.
Galway City is not a friend who’s going to reach out, grab you and hug you. You have to make the effort and immerse yourself within it to appreciate its scary and wondrous talents.
And then there are days such as this, when I don’t give a hoot what people think, or how I look. I just needed to be with a friend, and for these two hours gone, I have enjoyed just that.
Wednesday 10 December 2008
Knowing that the Snapper and I like nothing better than to flee to the country, a group of mates clubbed together and bought for us as a wedding present a two night stay in a castle hotel in Co. Sligo.
Driving up the long approach road we fall silent, awed by the beauty of the trees in the grounds. Up ahead the castle looms huge and rambling. It has proper turrets, slit hole windows for archers, and a flying buttress. The night is closing in now, the rain lashing sideways on strong wind. We are excited, and equally open-minded.
The hotel’s website said:
“Great care has been taken to retain the character of the old building and the family atmosphere rather than the formal, impersonal atmosphere of more luxurious hotels.”
What a bizarre way of describing your hotel! ‘Not as luxurious as it might be’.
Clearly, looking after such a building is an unbelievably demanding task. Just keeping it watertight must be a nightmare, let alone running a not-quite as luxurious as it might be hotel.
The entrance hall was freezing, but hey, it’s a castle. A simple pair, we prefer the human delights of warmth and welcome to those of wi-fi and 24 hour room service.
Climbing the staircase with our bags we arrive finally in the reception hall, the smell of woodsmoke accompanying the unquestionable fact that we are now inside a most impressive castle. A huge stained glass window depicting Henry VIII and Elizabeth I seems madly incongruous in these depths of the Connacht countryside.
Our room is bitterly cold. Thankfully, the heater on the wall works well, but would it have hurt to heat the room beforehand? There’s a storm blowing out there.
The great thing about attention to detail is that you’re only aware of its absence, just as we are of no more than the one solitary coat hanger in the room’s cupboard.
What is this? A metal chain attached to the TV remote? Do people really steal TV remotes?
Finding the bar, I drink three Jameson’s in quick succession, sitting alone in a strong crosswind (just to keep me warm, you understand!) until the Snapper arrives, looking all regal and scrumpy.
We adjourn to the restaurant, where the French maitre d’ is a real character, at last making us feel special and welcome. The young Slovakian waitress is charming, has a permanent smile on her face, and runs around eagerly to help us enjoy everything.
With everything apart from drink already paid for, I see no need for moderation and order each night a different yet excellent wine that my father introduced me to, when I was a younger and infinitely wealthier man. Himself the maitre d’ is delighted to see us enjoying the best of his native France, and the entire dining and drinking experience is top rate: unfortunately, a different class to that at reception.
Having absorbed the hotel’s own bumph about ‘family atmosphere’, we are increasingly surprised that, with the exception of the English woman who checked us in, nobody at reception ever raises a head, let alone a smile; nobody says hello or good morning, or ever makes any effort to acknowledge our existence. Yet, having confessed to not being luxurious, this was all that was left for the owners to offer.
It made me worried for this country. The Frenchman alongside the Slovakian and English women had all smiled and chatted and made us feel welcome. Did Ireland learn nothing from its immigrants, who came over here to work their experienced and caring arses off, making your Tiger boom the success it was?
Of course many Irish companies offer sensational service, but sadly some of the local so-called ‘service professionals’ prefer to languish in the squalor of that terrible old Irish culture of ‘Here’s your soup. No problem!’, while the world’s service industry has moved on to ‘My pleasure!’ and ‘You’re welcome!’
Nonetheless, we have a fantastic time, pootling around the back roads of lovely Leitrim, stopping to marvel at the Glencar waterfall, and slipping into Sligo to sup hot whiskey in Hargadon’s wonderful wooden pub.
On our last morning I stand in front of the reception desk, as the Irish lass keeps staring at her computer.
“Hello.” I offer
She looks almost annoyed at having to say hello back. Whatever happens, I am going to be polite. Oh yes. My bestest calmest behaviour.
“There’s no way you could know, I mean, looking after a place like this, and we could have asked to change our room yesterday, had we wanted, so there’s no problem, but I do feel you ought to know that there’s a bird’s nest inside the wood panel, inside the bedroom’s window. On the inside. You hear them scrabbling about all night. We thought it was rats at first, and they kept us awake.”
She looks at me, stoic to the last.
“Yes, they come every year!”
Colyoomistas, I was taken aback. It doesn’t happen very often, but your scribbler was at a loss for words. As the Snapper pointed out later, I should have said
“Really? Well that’s good. At least you’ll have something that comes back each year!”
but I was not able to speak. She was as far from a ‘Sorry’ as I was from kissing her.
“Well, it’s not very nice to hear animals behind panels inside your room.”
She continues brazenly not giving a damn.
I carry on undaunted.
“Oh, and maybe, the next time you’re doing decorating work, you could put signs up on the doors while the work is going on, and not just after. Yesterday I came out of the corridor by my room, and there was a bloke on his knees with a gloss brush the other side of the door. See, I now have gloss paint on my wax cotton jacket, here, here, and see, this big blob here.”
Sod her. I’m going to force a bloody sorry out of this ice cold character.
“Look! Here! It’s gloss paint! It won’t come off!”
I stand my ground.
This scribbler's not for turning.
I walk away, a mere pyrrhic victory behind me.
Thanks to the wonderful generosity of our friends, we thoroughly enjoyed a most splendid trip. Just maybe, when the hotel’s website said ‘Family Atmosphere’, they meant a family that doesn’t get on very well with each other!
Friday 5 December 2008
Ever wonder who answers those ads in the paper that offer ‘Great Earnings Now - No Experience Needed!’? Well, with everyone either trying desperately to hang on to their own jobs, or find one to apply for, I think it’s time to share with you a cautionary tale. Unlike most people, who diligently work their way along a career path, earning steadily more as they age and gather experience, I had at the tender age of 24 the highest-paying job I might ever want.
Back in 1984, the Japanese photocopier giant that I was working for thought for some reason that I was the future of UK marketing, and were streamlining me along a fast track outside of the regular company structure. They were paying me a whopping salary, and commission linked to the entire sales force. They gave me a flash car, a petrol card and an unlimited expense account. Today’s equivalent on-target-earnings would probably be in the region of €200,000, and look what happens as soon as my brain starts to think corporate: all of a sudden I’m spouting about ‘on target earnings’ and coming out with phrases like ‘in the region of’.
I simply do not fit well into the corporate wold. Sure, I’ll always do my job as well as it can be done, but a giant coporation’s profit means zilch to me. The more they told me I was a success, the more empty I felt. Did I really give a crap about the 6040 copier with its 120 cpm? Indeed, would I ever care about any of it, save for the fellow human beings at my side?
By paying for everything in my life apart from rent, the company made it impossible for me to spend money, allowing me to save vast heaps of dosh, thus hastening the blissful day that I walked out of there, and onto a plane to New York.
Eleven years later, I was moving out of my little Connemara house, where I had lived alone and happily in peace for a year and half. In the intervening years, I’d lived and worked in Barcelona, London, Melbourne, Kinsale, Galway and Bradford, West Yorkshire, and was now heading off to live in San Francisco.
Trouble was, I had no idea how far I’d evolved from that sharp little zippetty-dippetty whizz kid. If I’d taken a wee look at my life before I moved to America, I might have realised that while simplifying my life, shedding unnecessary needs and saving greed for my cakehole rather than my wallet, I’d also simplified my head. That’s not to say I was a grass-chewing local yokel, but I think I’d wanted to be one for a while.
So by the time I hit the wonderful city of San Francisco, my job skills were less honed and more non-existent.
So I stared at the jobs in the San Francisco Chronicle, wondering how to make my yankee dollar, when lo, my eye settled upon one of the aforementioned ads, offering so much return for a simple phone call.
The phone call gave me an address, so I journeyed far out of the city centre, to a corporate estate where yellow brick and glass buildings stretched for miles.
After finding Building B57, I arrived into a small auditorium, where a group of fellow applicants were sitting in rows, looking just slightly more excited than I thought they should be.
By the time things got going, there were about 200 of us: people of all ages and ethnic backgrounds, but evidently, not economic groups. We might have had different colour skins, but our clothes all came from the same discount stores, and we knew it.
Lights dimmed, leaving just enough for us to be able to see each others’ expressions, and a man and woman walked on stage. There appeared a white felt board and a flip chart, and before I could say
“Yikes I think I’ve made a terrible mistake!” they started their spiel.
“Do you all have any idea what kind of chemicals you put into your bodies every day?”
I shrugged, but was taken aback by an enthusiastic cry of “No!” from all the other applicants.
Blimey! Maybe I should look a bit more keen. But how can I, when the two presenters, salespeople, recruiters, whatever they were, proceeded to read out the list of ingredients on the side of a toothpaste tube, each long-sounding chemical name succeeding in whipping my fellow job applicants into a loud fervour.
“Mono flourophosophate!” they cry.
“Noooooo!” the crowd yell back.
Mumma, please can I go home now, please?
But there is no escape. I am wedged into the crowd, and anyway, having spent the day getting here, I’m still curious.
How are they going to make me rich? Might as well stay and find out that much at least.
We go through the ingredients of mouthwash and soap, and head into shampoo and conditioner. The longer it goes on, the louder everyone becomes, until by the end, as if Jerry Springer and his audience were on Crystal Meth, the presenters are yelling at us, and everyone else is yelling back, until - ooohh aaahhh yeeeh, I’m coming - they reel out their product range, which for a small downpayment, we can buy and then sell, and make our fortune. Free training and support services will be provided, but we all understand, don’t we, that you have to speculate to accumulate; that you have to invest a little to make a lot.
“Yes yes!” cry most of the crowd, although now, thankfully, one or two others are looking as forlorn as I feel.
They cannot be serious!? They want us to buy their own products and sell them for them? Sure, I might be a Connemara feckin’ pixie at this stage, but I still have a brain.
“No no!” I cry, “Don’t do it! Don’t you see, they are taking no risk whatsoever! It’s all of you who have to take all the risk! Don’t you see? Come on, wise up!”
At which point I am promptly ejected from the so-called Seminar, gasping with relief as fresh air hits my lungs.
Whatever pressures you may be under in the present financial maelstrom, remember that we never need lose either our perspectives or self-respect.
If the job ad fails to inform you of what the job entails, proceed with caution. Oh, and stay sharp!