Saturday 27 April 2013

A friendly finish for Cúirt Festival of Literature!

In the course of my travels I’ve lost count of the number of bars in which I’ve sat, alone and happy, staring at a bunch of blokes having an uproariously good time.  Alongside singular freedoms, being on the road brings an inherent loneliness to life. Even as I thrilled at being in that bar in that village in that foreign country, I envied those lads, hanging with their everyday mates, having a right laugh.

Like life itself, travelling is a wasted journey if you don’t learn how to be happy on the way. So I was very aware the other night that I was among those lads, those everyday mates who I’d coveted on the road.

Sitting between The Body and Whispering Blue, I was the Chelsea in a United-City Club Sandwich, and even though I was in a pub, I was completely at home, surrounded by my brethren.

I was, as the Irish are wont to say, ‘happy out.’ So I appreciated it. I enjoyed the moment and noticed the happiness coursing through me.

The bad times you never miss. They come up behind you and hit you over the head with a baseball bat, repeatedly and rudely until you beg for mercy. Yet our happy times are very likely more numerous and long-lived than any of us realise. We smile and share a chuckle, hug a brother or a friend and feel a rush of love back, yet walk away as if nothing happened.

So I try to make sure that I notice and appreciate the good. If my family are a gratefully-accepted given, then without doubt the greatest good in my life has been my friends.

At Public School I met and bonded with a fairly extrovert bunch of individuals who were kicking back in a mildly non-conformist way against the entrenched regime of the institution. Over the last 4 decades we’ve all remained in touch, becoming embedded in each other’s lives somewhere between family and other friends. We’re an incredible bunch, our friendships forged in the searing hot fires of teenage rebellion, and I am eternally grateful to have them in my life, as both individuals and a collective.

It’s over 20 years since I moved to Ireland and met Blitz, The Body and Whispering Blue, but such is my luxury and fortune that I’m able to think of them and all my Irish pals as new friends.

My awareness of how unusual it is to call friendships of 20 years’ standing ‘new’ came to a head a couple of years ago, when I was at a gig at the Roisin Dubh, hosted by Tuam’s revered poet and songsmith Seamus Ruttledge and Conor Montague, a.k.a. Monty, the creator of the hilarious series ‘Who Needs Enemies?’

The two lads were reminiscing on stage about how long they’d known each other, talking about 1994 and that little paper they worked on. All of a sudden something twisted deep inside me. I felt happy, swollen-hearted and deeply sentimental. Oh please god no don’t make me cry right here, please, no, not in front of all these fairly drunk people.

Thankfully with the help of another Jameson, I managed to keep my tears to myself, but I felt moved. Here were these old friends, locals talking of a shared past, and I, a lowly blow-in, had been there at that time.

Seamus had asked me to contribute to that paper, and ever the opportunist when there’s a chance to make money from my scribbling, I wrote four columns for it, under four different aliases. I wrote the drug-crazed biker Freebase Kevin; the Muse with the Views, Swami ben Carpenter; the ingenue blow-in, Poor Little Greenie, and my personal favourite, the petulant politico, Pink O’Bum.

Back then I didn’t really know who Seamus was, or even what he did exactly, but I dribbled a merry dance around the streets of Galway trying to find him and the money he owed me!

Even though I saw them as new friends, going by their time frames I have now earned the right to be referred to by that esteemed and comfortable title: ‘Old Galway Head’.

After that gig I said to Seamus that I’d love to participate in one of these events, and sure enough, last Summer I got the call. Would I read a piece at the charity fundraiser ‘A Night For Celia’?

That fun-filled, relaxed yet uproarious evening was last July, and following the success of several such collaborations between Monty and Seamus, I’m delighted to announce that their event ‘Far From Literature We Were Reared’ will close this year’s Cúirt International Festival of Literature this Sunday, April 28th.

Like all of Galway’s other festivals, Cúirt relies on and is inspired by talented local personalities from both Galway City and County, so it’s perfectly fitting that this year’s festival will finish with an irreverent and eclectic programme, from an array of Galway-based writers and performers - including this very ‘umble colyoomist.

Following on from the success of last year’s fun and frolicksome event, this cocktail collection of performances by well-known literary figures, musicians, comedians and emerging writers has moved from the cosy confines of upstairs to the main stage at the Roisin Dubh. Mixing Hennessy Award nominees with known miscreants on day release, the stage will be shared by poetry, song, comedy and fiction, in what will be one of this year’s Cúirt Festival highlights.  

Together with music from Seamus, Willow Sea, Pearse Doherty and Michel Durham, there will be readings from Olaf Tyaransen; Kevin O’Dwyer; Laura Ann Caffrey; Fiona Farrelly; Helena Kilty; Paul McCarrick; Ruth Quinlan; Emma Comerford; Kernan Andrews; Aideen Henry; Paul McMahon; Alan McMonagle and myself.

Comedic satire will appear in the forms of the unique John Donnellan, grumpy taxi driver Hugo Seale and Street Theatre Artist, Midie Corcoran.

A mighty night is guaranteed. I’m really looking forward to being there, grateful and happy to be surrounded by friends.

Roisin Dubh: Sunday 28 April: 8pm 'til late: Admission €8/5

Wednesday 24 April 2013

Thanks so much!

Huge thanks to Liz, Violet, Tony and Una of the Old Deanery Holiday Cottages and Joe Keane Creative Centre in Killala, Co. Mayo, for making my Craft of Writing Weekend such a success.

Thanks also to the participants, who drove from all over the country, wrote their wrists off and showed bucketloads of enthusiasm and talent!

Monday 22 April 2013

30 years on, I’m still loathe to mention her name!

I tried not to write about her. You’ve all read, heard and seen so much about the woman, you doubtless need a break.

But I can’t help it. Thirty years later it still feels raw.

Being a hopelessly non-violent man who is generally crap at confrontation, there have been few people who’ve earned my hatred. It seems absurd to hate a distant dead woman, yet when I think of her, a raging anger inside me burns like acid through to the core of my soul and sense of justice.

I occupied the same space as her on two occasions, but the time I felt her presence most darkly and profoundly, she was physically far away.

As an 11 year-old in 1971, my Tory parents took me to a meeting where the then Education Secretary for Edward Heath’s government was to make a speech. She’d recently scrapped a programme of free milk for the under-7s, and earned a moniker that would haunt her entire career. Edward Short, then the Labour education spokesman, described her action as “... the meanest and most unworthy thing I have ever seen.”

Far too young and ambivalent to care about such things, I do remember my dad getting flustered and red in the face when a bunch of protesters started shouting “Milk Snatcher! Milk Snatcher!” from the back of the hall.

The next time I shared a space with the woman she was at the height of her power, at the Conservative Party Conference in Bournemouth in October 1986. Somehow I’d got a gig running a stall for the Glass Manufacturers Federation at all three party conferences that year. After a feeble gathering of Liberals in Harrogate and a hopeless and depressing Labour Party effort in Blackpool, the Conservative Party conference was doubtless the main event.

It was only 2 years after the IRA had bombed her hotel at the Brighton conference, so Bournemouth had been transformed into a military enclave. Snipers strolled rooftops, checkpoints popped up everywhere and it was all a bit intimidating. Yet nothing compared to the afternoon she made her conference speech.

The convention centre was vast but crammed with an atmosphere of electric anticipation. A half hour before her speech, I was sitting in the bar, watching the usually calm journalistic colossus Robin Day twitch and flit around like a schoolboy with itching powder in his pants. Geoffrey Howe and Malcolm Rifkind were skulking about the corridors, speaking in hushed tones, as if God might hear their conspiracies.

Predictably, the moment she appeared on stage the place went berserk. Even though I was standing as far away as is possible while being present, I still felt the tsunami of charisma that emanated from the woman.

“Mr President, this week at Bournemouth, we've had a most responsible Conference: The Conference of a Party which was the last Government, is the present Government, and will be the next Government.”

One could not fail to be impressed. Indeed, such was the force with which she filled the entire auditorium with her insistent middle class rhetoric, one started to use pronouns like ‘one’.

Having seen her in action, I better understood why, when hitchhiking around England in those days, I found hardcore Labour men who’d voted for her.

“I don’t agree with much of what she says,” a trucker explained to me, “but she’s strong and we need a strong leader.”

As I was being given a free ride to Bradford, I demurred from mentioning that Stalin and Hitler were also ‘strong leaders’.

So why do I hate her? Well, despite the fact that I choose to live in the West of Ireland, I do love the country of my birth, and just as if you watched a loved one have their legs and arms amputated, I hated the way she laid waste to two thirds of Britain to protect a minority who lived in the South-East.

People say she ‘Broke the Unions’, as if she’d mastered a mustang, when in fact all she did was strip the workers of rights that had taken centuries to implement. I believe that her driving force was revenge. She had to defeat the miners, because she felt ashamed of the way Edward Heath’s government had been defeated by them.

The day I most felt her presence, I picked up three men hitching at an M1 motorway service station. Of course I knew they were striking miners, on their way to picket the UDM stronghold in Nottingham, but more than that, we were all free men, living in a democracy.

As I turned off the motorway to drop them in Nottingham, we were stunned to see an ocean of riot police, stretching way beyond exit ramp, far into the distance.

My car was stopped and surrounded by police. We were brutally manhandled, loaded into a van and taken to a local ‘incident room’, where we were interrogated separately.

I couldn’t believe this was really happening in my beloved England. I was just a bloke giving a lift to a few other blokes, yet we were being treated contemptuously, like criminals.

She had the police and the press on her side. We had each other, but as the years went by, our rights shrank alongside our bank balances. In her efforts to support market forces, she poured contempt upon the people. Her legacy thrives here in Ireland, as we find ourselves once again financially enslaved to those very same market forces.

Thankfully, art loves adversity. The woman was the catalyst of much great music. My personal favourite is Elvis Costello’s bitter yet elegant masterpiece ‘Tramp The Dirt Down’, although I also love Robert Wyatt’s sublime anti-war song ‘Shipbuilding’.

Didn’t I mention her name? Well, I’ll let The Beat’s inspired song say it all for me:

“Our lives seem petty in your cold grey hands,
Would you give a second thought,
Would you ever give a damn?
I doubt it! Stand down Margaret!”

Monday 15 April 2013

Fireplaces of Ireland - how I have loved you!

I’m sitting here waiting for the chimney sweep. With all my work inside this house, I’m suitably paranoid about fire, and although everything that can be is backed up online, I’ve a huge paper archive of newspaper clippings and novels and notebooks and gordknowswot that’s irreplaceable.

Greater than my fear of fire is my love of it, and the fireplaces of the West of Ireland have been a source of comfort and joy to me ever since I moved here.

Back in England we relied on mains natural gas, with old gas fires clicking up one, two or three bars of glowing porcelain heat. They were reliable and efficient, yet nothing more than functional.

A real fire glowing in the hearth offers so much more. Yes, I know that burning fossil fuels is wrecking the environment and that it’s terribly wasteful to have all that heat disappearing up the chimney, but I love a fire. These days everyone is getting stoves and ranges that run for a month on a single organic crushed leaf mould briquette, but staring at a lump of black metal just doesn’t do it for me.

My first house in Ireland was a tiny terraced cottage just off the Prom in Salthill. With low ceilings and a cupboard for a kitchen, myself and the other two fully-grown Englishmen who lived there made the house seem even more minuscule than it was, but of an evening we’d crowd around the fireplace, seeking warmth.

Sadly, we rarely found it, because we were new to the country and were buying sodden turf in bags from a local who should’ve known better. I can see the temptation in taking money from ignorant foreigners, but we were trying to live as you do, and you wouldn’t let us.

Instead we three alpha males argued and postured like bolshy bull elephants, each insisting that they alone knew how to build a ruddy fire, dammit.

For a while after that I lived in a flat with no fireplace, and boy did I miss it. Although it was a lovely modern place with spanky bells and fancy whistles, microwave and washing machine, it felt anodyne and cold. Where was I living? Anywhere. That flat could have been in any First World country, and no matter how warm it was, it left me cold.

Then I moved out to west Connemara, where I lived alone with my thoughts and a reek of turf outside. Through a long cold winter I felt safe each time I cast a glance upon that turf, knowing that when hurricane force winds blew off the Atlantic and the power was cut off, I’d be safe as houses by my fire.

As if to repair the ill-will visited upon me by that seller of damp turf, my landlord the farmer’s son did me a great favour. After the tractor had come and dropped off a fully-loaded high-sided trailer of turf in front of my house, (£70 is cost, back in 1994!) I’d tried to stack it in the way I’d seen all over Connemara. 

How difficult could it be?

A half hour into the job, with my back aching and an unstable pile of turves wobbling in the breeze, I decided that enough was enough. Off to the pub I went, to ease that fearful dryness at the back of my throat. Evidently, peat has some kind of thirst-inducing dust, that only Guinness and whiskey can quench.

Wandering home a few hours later I was greeted by a wondrous sight. The whole messy pile had been perfectly formed into a traditional reek. With the alcohol running around my excited veins, I sang and drunkenly improvised a joyous little Atheist-Jewish-Pantheist-English jig, in honour of the Little People of the West of Ireland, who had clearly taken pity on me and performed their magic.

Then my landlord tapped me on the shoulder and said the bother and himself had stacked my turf. He hoped I didn’t mind? Mind? Having thanked him profusely for his generosity of spirit I also gave thanks that my welfare wasn’t quite as wholly dependent on the Fairies as I imagined.

Years later, when I lived in the Claddagh, my fireplaces became a source of stress. I was the manager of a charity shop in Galway at the time, so I didn’t get home ‘til nearly 7, by which time my two rooms were colder than a penguin’s privates. Exhausted, I’d go from room to room, making up fires and cooking dinner, hoping that by the time I made it to bed my home might have defrosted.

There’s a certain level of cold at which it’s impossible to tell if your bedclothes are damp or just freezing. No thanks.

But what a gentle and rare pleasure it was to fall asleep to the waving orange glow and shadows that the fire cast upon my bedroom walls.

The fireplace in my next house was a revelation. A beautiful old farmhouse in north Mayo, my landlord’s father had built a back boiler into the system, and I was in bliss. A London lad like me had never encountered such a piece of genius, and to this day I do not know how or why it is not illegal to build a fireplace into a new house without a back boiler affixed.

With a good dollop of coal ablaze, the pipes above the flames rumbled and mumbled and eventually boiled, leaving me with a cosy fire, a boiling hot tank of water and radiators pumping off the scale.

Sometimes of an evening, I love to turn off the TV, pour myself a small glass of Jameson and sit with a challenging crossword, the fire rising and falling in response to the wind outside. There is a profound peace and a primal comfort to be found in those flames. Safe and warm, watching the incandescence dance around the hearth, just as my thoughts tumble around my brain.

Monday 8 April 2013

Maybe the Poll Tax was a good idea after all!

When I was a kid I used to leave the tap running while I brushed my teeth. Living in London in the 1960s, ecology was mere frogspawn struggling to hatch in the raging river of Cold War paranoia.
Nowadays I’d find impossible to concentrate on brushing my Hampsteads if the tap was gushing good clean water down the drain. Even if it’s flushing fluoridated dodgy water, it’s still a waste.

At that same young age, I complained about having to eat my greens. In return, I received lectures from Dad about the starving people of Africa that made no sense to me at all. Yes, Dad, but they’re not going to get this cabbage if I don’t eat it, are they?

Then I travelled and saw women carrying huge containers of water for miles across baked scrubland. It made me feel incredibly lucky to have water on tap at home, but even that didn’t really change my behaviours.

When you fly low over Ireland you look down on an almighty puddle, out of which occasionally rise green bits, so it’s absurd that while living here I’ve started to feel conscious of wasting water. Maybe 
 I’m just such a contrary sod that I had to find a flooded country to begin to value and care about water.

Soon enough we’ll all be thinking about water, because we’ll be paying for our usage. The outrage the Irish are feeling about all these new taxes reminds me of Thatcher’s Community Charge, or Poll Tax as it was known by everyone but herself.

The British are used to paying taxes for the common good. When Aneurin Bevan introduced the world’s first health service, the Brits were happy and proud to pay their collective contributions. However, they found something inherently offensive about the Poll Tax. It appeared to be a tax on life itself.

Then, just like Frank and Nancy Sinatra, Thatcher went and spoilt it all by trying it out on Scotland first. It was a stupid decision on many levels. The Tories’ electoral presence north of Hadrian’s Wall has never been more significant than a grouse’s poop on a highland moor. Aside from that, it’s no secret that the Scots have never felt affectionate to their southern neighbours, and have built a justice system of their own that dwarfs the English in its compassion and understanding. You cannot go to jail in Scotland for non-payment of a fine.

So naturally the Scots refused to pay this Poll Tax, imposed upon them from distant Westminster (ringing any Irish bells?), and inspired the English to respond similarly. Campaigns of non-cooperation sprouted up all over the England. One of the most effective was a nationwide effort that created tens of thousands of false identities, for whom Community Charge registration forms were submitted. We were all at it, filing on behalf of Mr. Bun the baker, Mr. Banky Fatcat, Maria Julie-Andrews and good old Elsie Boadicea.

It screwed up the government database and made the tax unworkable.

In many ways the fight brought out the best in us. Before the bailiffs came to a house on my street in Bradford, all the neighbours carried our TVs and Hi-Fis outside, leaving them in a great big pile in the middle of the road, so that there was no way ‘the boys’ could identify who owned what, leaving them unable to take away anyone’s gear.

Then came a game-changer, in the form of what’s now known as the Poll Tax Riot. In many ways the English middle-classes are as conservative with a small C as the Irish middle classes, but we differ from you in one significant manner. Possibly it’s the legacy of Empire that gives the English the courage and will to fight back, while the Irish are still loathe to lift their heads above the parapets (unless Tony Blair is coming to Dublin for a book signing, when you all go completely mental).

My oh my, it was an incredible and wonderful sight to see. Daily Mail readers marched alongside the SWP and the Anarchists, trashing Trafalgar Square. The world looked on as witness to Thatcher’s greatest error of judgment: don’t go taxing life itself.
Successive Irish governments have broken our lives down into taxable chunks, and come up with the Household Charge, the Water Tax, the Property Tax, the Universal Social Charge and the Bank Levy. 

Then, in the dead of night, like a hot poker stabbed in eye of every penniless pensioner, they somehow managed to get away with raising each item on a prescription from 50c to €1.50. Considering the size of the increase, there was barely an audible whisper of protest.

They’ve chopped life up into more taxes than you could throw a Molotov cocktail at, so what are we going to do?

Are we going to use less water? Live in smaller houses? Should we even have to consider such things, given the crushing inequities that exist in these new taxes? Unfairness breeds in universal payments like cholera in a sewer.

Clearly, if we want to enjoy the benefits of modern life, we have to pay for it. So what is the cost of our civilisation, and are we right to resist the idea of paying for it?

We have some serious questions to ask ourselves. Taking money from the weakest cannot be right. Such injustice has to stop. But if we want water to come out of the tap, roads to drive on, hospitals to care for us, we have to pay for it.

What if the government was completely honest, and introduced a single Life Tax, that incorporated every single charge. With a sliding scale based on ability to pay, from those completely exempt to the super-rich, we’d know where we stood, and even if that was up to the top of our wellies in dung, we’d know what we were paying for.

Uh-ho, looks like a Poll Tax isn’t such a bad idea, but don’t tell anyone I said so.

Monday 1 April 2013

One mug punter and the Numbers of Fate!

People talk of the past as if it were always better, but sometimes the present is pretty ring-a-ding-ding. On Monday, I was absentmindedly rifling through my wallet, half-heartedly hoping to find an old winning scratch-card or, even though the chances of finding green folding were negligible, a lost crumpled fiver. 
Neither were there, yet even better, there were my betting slips from the Cheltenham Festival. Much like yer average bloke, I back horses in big races at famous meetings, so that when we’re all sitting around the tele watching the race, I’ve a real reason to cheer and scream and go a bit mental. Having a flutter also allows me to suddenly sound altogether knowledgeable, offer titbits of advice and talk as if I was reared on horse milk and grass instead of Cow and Gate.
Nobody falls for my temporary glut of equine wisdom, because they know that when I made my bets I used what many might consider a less than wholly scientific method.
Given enough time and the empty walls of a bookies, I might make an effort to check out if the horse has run the distance before, and if so did he struggle or thrive, pull up or unseat his rider?
More often though I attempt to find what I call the Number of Fate. Standing in front of the newspaper sheet showing the runners and riders on the bookies wall, my eyes drift towards the numbers on the far left, showing where each horse has been placed in their recent races. A favourite might look a bit 1143-221, while your outsider maybe more 6435FP-4.
Summoning the spirits of Bacchus, Arthur Daley and Del Boy, I drift into a trance, my vision blurring as I scan my eyes up and down and along those little lists of each horse’s numbers, imagining which sequence will continue with a 1.
Eat your heart out Einstein. Put that where the Wonders of the Universe don’t shine, Dr. Brian Cox.
I’m what in betting circles is generally referred to as a ‘Mug Punter’ or ‘Bookies Friend’. By investing only 5 quid each way, I feel free to flutter on the 20/1 shots. I’m paying to play; buying a thrill; so I want the chance of a big return, and the fact that my horse is considered unlikely to win makes those rare victories taste so sweet.
Mug Punter. The Bookies Friend. That’s me all over.
There were three betting slips hiding in the lonely folds of my wallet, with returns on two, so I threw away the losing one and headed down to Paddy Power.
Five minutes after my arrival at the bookies I cannot believe my stupidity. I’ve searched my wallet ten times, my coat pocket, my jeans pockets and the vacant car park that was once my brain, but all I can find is the lesser of the two winning slips and the losing slip. I must have thrown away the most lucrative one and kept the worthless little scrap of paper idiot idiot can’t believe you’ve done that Adley you idiot idiot bloody idiot.
When I’ve told this story to younger or more frequent gamblers than myself, they fail to understand why I thought it was a problem, but I’m still partly informed by the world in which I grew up. In 70s and 80s London, if I walked into a bookies and said
“You’ll never guess what! I’ve been really silly! I’ve only gone and bloomin’ thrown away my winning betting slip!”
they’d turf me out of the shop on my legs yelling
“Yeh, and so ‘ave all those other blokes standing over there by that bus stop, so go and join the bloody queue!”
Or something a lot less polite and printable.
But this is the 21st Century and I live in the West of Ireland, so I approached the counter feeling like a complete chancer, expecting no positive outcome as I related my wee tale of woe to Alan behind the counter.
“You have the other slip?”
“I do, and all the bets were made in this place at the same time, if that helps.”
“Sure, so we can do a search!” said my newly-christened ‘Employee of the Millennium’.
After a few seconds of fiddling with his computer, Alan magically produced a printed copy of my missing winning slip. He asked me to sign it and fill out a duplicate slip, which I did as I thanked him profusely, not merely for finding my money, which was exceedingly welcome, but also for giving a damn, for being human and sensing I wasn’t trying it on.
I suppose if I had been scamming, I’d have aimed a little higher with the payoff. 
“I reckon it’s only about 15 quid.” I said.
“More than that!” said Alan, counting out over 25 euros and handing them to me.
I swear, sometimes it helps to be a little on the slow side. I’d made my estimate on the winning odds alone, forgetting completely the winning portion of the each way bet, so I was even happier, and if not substantially richer, slightly less poor than I’d been expecting.
Back in the 80s when I’d frequent a well-dodgy bookies just off London’s Portobello Road, the chances of getting any money back on a lost slip on the Cheltenham Gold Cup would’ve been 10,000/1. It would have entailed someone physically going through hundreds if not thousands of betting slips, in the hope of finding mine. More, it would also have taken a shift in the mindset of the urban Englishman akin to the coast of California turning up in Japan.
Thankfully, today we have the technology that enables such trifling matters to be resolved happily, and people in Galway who still share that humanity so special to the West of Ireland.
As I thanked Alan one more time, a customer behind me muttered
“Better in your pocket than Paddy’s!”  
“Now that's the truth!” said I, at which we all grunted, smiled and went our separate ways.