Monthly Archives: October 2009

No tea thanks

Firefighters' tea time

Firefighters' tea time

I’m facing my biggest test.

Two and a half months ago I gave up drinking tea. Proper tea that is. Irish tea. (Yes, yes, I know. Tea doesn’t come from Ireland. But we drink more per head than anyone else so we have a claim to it.) Or any kind of normal tea to which you add milk.

There I was, pint (of cider) in hand, at a party, and it came to me. I’ve been drinking tea for decades. Right. That’s it. I’m bored of it, and I’m having a break.

It’s a big thing. I love drinking it. I would sit with pots and pots of it. It’s the social lubricant – far more than alcohol. The universal panacea. The refuge to which you can turn when you don’t know where else to go. Always from a pot. None of this tea bag in a cup business. That puts a limit on it. Offering someone a cup made from a tea bag dipped in is like offering someone crisps from a bag, but keeping the opening closed narrow and tight in your fist to restrict access. It’s like offering hospitality with a time limit of, oh, say, five minutes.

But that’s all over. I’ve stopped drinking it. Not forever. That would be too daunting to contemplate. But for a long while.

And my fast – if you can call not drinking tea a fast – has brought benefits. I’ve lost weight. Eight or nine pounds. It wasn’t the aim, but appears to be the consequence. Perhaps it’s the milk I’m not drinking along with the tea, or the buckets of cake I’m not eating as accompaniment. Who knows? I may have to write a self help book extolling the virtues of cutting out tea from your diet as the route to weight loss and personal nirvana. (Any coffee companies fancy sponsoring it?)

But – and it’s a big but. (Single “t” there of course, thanks to all that tea I haven’t drunk.) I’m off to Ireland for the week. Belfast, Louth, Dublin, Drogheda. There’ll be tea and talk of tea everywhere. It’ll be pushed on me, offered, forcibly poured down my gullet through funnels. Refusal will prompt horrified gasps and concern about serious illness – physical and mental. Above all that, it’ll seem rude to refuse. (Especially in teetotal houses without alternatives – where a strong drink is when you leave the tea to brew on the hot ring.)

I don’t know what will happen. Here goes.



Filed under life

When Auntie met Nazi

People queueing for Jonathan Ross

People queuing for Jonathan Ross

Just another day at the office, pictured by a colleague. Are they e United Against Facism protestors, cross about the BNP’s Nick Griffin appearing on Question Time. Or the queue for Jonathan Ross? Or Harry Hill?A TV Centre tour? Or the bus queue. Hard to tell.

 But all the fuss of the day reminded me of The Man They Couldn’t Hang and their song “The Ghosts of Cable Street”.

Or this version if you want to see the band.

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Filed under life, politics

My sins have been forgiven, by a builder.

BuilderWhy is it that we feel so uncomfortable around mechanics and builders? The mechanic hitches up the car bonnets and tuts, or just looks inscrutable, and already you feel the need to make excuses. By the time he (it’s always be a he for me) deigns to hazard a guess at the source of the problem, you’re ready to believe anything and pay anything, to escape the humiliating reminder of your ignorance and inadequacy.

It’s the same with the builder. There’s a crack in the wall. Is it merely a crack? Or could it be due to subsidence which is endangering your home to the point of imminent collapse? Or something in between? Who knows? Not me. Again, it’s embarrassing.

But why? Cars are important. Homes, more so. But the health of our own bodies trumps both. So why don’t we feel even more embarrassment about our medical ignorance? There’s no shame in not knowing your own exact diagnosis. That’s what the doctor, the expert, is there for.

And it’s no good saying: Stop whingeing and get off your arse and learn about car engines or house maintenance.

That’s not the answer. Sadly.

I’ve poked about inside the innards of cars, changed bits, fixed others, cleaned doofers, restored whatsits, and come up with temporary repairs when disaster strikes out on the road.

I’ve also not been afraid to get stuck in when it comes to buildings – rendering, climbing, treating, painting, replacing, digging, hammering, etc. Sometimes with a sense of dread on icy bone cold days. But I’ve done it.

(To do otherwise would be even more shameful having been brought up by a fairly handy father deeply suspicious of all outside assistance.)

So why the enduring shame. It’s not embarrassment I feel when something malfunctions. More of a sense of moral culpability. That repeatedly troublesome awkward-to-get-at gutter is a sinful stain on my soul. Crazy? Maybe. Excessively Catholic? Despite my best efforts to transcend that possibility, I fear it may be so.

Which is why the feeling of relief and release were intense after a visit from a local builder this week. (Naturally he was not answering any summons of mine. Oh, the shame! My wife called him.)

It turns out there’s a flaw in the way the gutter was installed, leading it to repeatedly falter. And: My decaying rendering is not inherently flawed, but being destabilized by something else I hadn’t thought of. And: The suspected damp in one room is merely superficial – the wall is fine.

In terms of cost and disruption the reprieve on dampness is the important bit. But the verdict of innocence – my personal innocence – on the first degree faulty guttering gave me such an unexpected spiritual lift.

I feel bizarrely cleansed, free and lighter of step. My life is now better. I feel better.

It’s like Jesus miraculously curing the lame – except in reverse. Jesus says: “Your sins are forgiven. Pick up your bed and walk.” And the cripple reportedly rises, legs working fine.

The village builder says: “Ah, that guttering has been installed in such a way that the wind always catches it and pulls it apart.” And my soul sings as if my sins have been forgiven. Even better, it turns out I hadn’t sinned in the first place.

How often do you get that from the builder?

There must be a mind/body/spirit self-help book in there somewhere…

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Filed under In the village, life

The Banned / A New Name

Everyone’s getting banned. Aung San Suu Kyi is banned from leaving her house arrest in Burma. Ousted Honduran president Manuel Zelaya is banned from leaving the Brazilian embassy in Tegucigalpa. And now I’ve been banned from using the computer on Sundays. I proudly stand with my fellow bannees. But Sunday is past. So I can now mention a couple of things.

  1. Worrying/odd treatment of the British National Party (BNP) by BBC Radio 1’s Newsbeat show. See Guardian newspaper news story and Roy Greenslade comment.
  2. Something delightful I saw on the Cultural Snow blog.
  3. I’ve changed the name of the main character in my novel, Blackwatertown, to (ta dah) Macken. Or more fully. John Oliver Macken, aka Jack Macken, aka Jolly Macken. There now. Isn’t that a heroic moniker?

Macken’s previous name was too close to living people, who might themselves be displeased, or might themselves incur the displeasure of others incapable of differentiating fact from fiction. Bad for the health and all that.

Macken is a conflicted Catholic policeman serving in the RUC in the 1950s. After farcical encounters in the foothills of the Mourne Mountains of County Down, he is demoted from sergeant and banished to sleepy Blackwatertown near the Irish border. His arrival has far-reaching consequences: It wakes the place up; stirs up the murkiness round the mysterious death of the police officer he is replacing; sparks a new border war; and begins a sometimes dark, sometimes funny, wild ride through the politics of sexuality, sectarianism, loyalty and what it means to belong.


Filed under media, Music, My Writing, politics

Oxford Circus Bill


Oxford Circus Bill

Oxford Circus Bill

 Today a London legend disappears for good. Oxford Circus Bill closes his newspaper stand for the last time.

Bill’s pitch is one of those fascinating sites/sights of alternative London. He’s not exactly off the beaten path. He’s a larger than life character who dominates a corner of one of London’s busiest intersections, where Oxford Street crosses Regent Street.

 For years and years and years, he’s been selling the Evening Standard newspaper from his stand. And he’s also been providing general entertainment, chat and banter – and occasional shows – like this week’s bizarre Punch & Judy. He’s always been a source of stories, a haven for waifs, a fiercely partisan Tottenham fan and a downright den of mischief. If you want to know more about the chequered past, the football firms and the current mischief, check out his forthcoming book. It’s called Oxford Circus Bill.

Croc & Judy at Bill's pitch

Croc & Judy at Bill's pitch

So why is it coming to an end? Like other Evening Standard vendors, Bill has been under increasing pressure in recent years. The terms for selling the paper have deteriorated, there’s been mushrooming competition from the distributors of free newspapers, the threat of crime, assault and the wearing down of body and soul that comes with working outside in the cold, heat, rain, hail and snow for decades.To be fair, bawdy Bill’s body and soul seem to be as robust as ever. But the final straw was the decision of the Evening Standard, London’s main newspaper, to transform itself into a free newspaper. Falling circulation has led to this last desparate throw of the dice by the paper’s new owners – hoping to recoup on advertising off the back of increased distribution, what they lose on cash sales. But no sales means no Bill doing the selling. So that’s the end for Oxford Circus Bill, the London legend, the mouth, the yell, the wink, the laugh. Until he finds another pitch from which to advertise his greatest asset. Himself. Watch this space.


Filed under friends, theatre

Knock knock. Who’s there? Doctor Parnassus…

What do you do when your leading man departs this earth part way through filming your movie? If it’s Gladiator, and Oliver Reed has sipped slipped away, you resort to some fancy digital effects. But then he wasn’t the lead.

Or – as Terry Gilliam has done with The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus – you recruit successors. So Heath Ledger morphs into Johnny Depp, Colin Farrell and Jude Law. But thankfully it’s not at all like one of those cringeworthy American sundrenched soaps where a character returns after a long time away, being played by a different actor – and no-one bats an eyelid. On the contrary, the three substitutions work very cleverly with the plot, and probably enhance the whole viewing experience.

I’ve just been to the London premiere …. (Ooh get you! I know, I know.) So here is the instant review:

Never mind the imaginarium of Dr Parnassus, what about the imagination of Terry Gilliam. It’s rich and immense, and shows no sign of flagging. There’s great vivid imagery and a lot of style.

The story revolves round successive deals that Dr Parnassus makes with the devil, and attempts to wriggle out of paying the price. It’s also about making decisions, doing the right thing. The right thing is not always obvious, and a wrong choice leads to hell. Choose well though, and you and your imagination are freed, and you finally experience life in all its wonder. The route to self-discovery lies through a magic mirror into the psychedelic world of your imagination.

The most enduring and intimate relationship is between Dr Parnassus and the devil. Tom Waits is a great Mississippi beelzebub. And rather than wanting to grab as many souls as he can, or to win at all costs, it becomes apparent how much he values having a sparring partner. And how much the battle of wits staves off an eternity of boredom.

Lily Cole (yes, the tall red-headed model) pulls off acting Christopher Lee’s daughter. The woman I was with enjoyed the four incarnations of Heath Ledger. (I found myself wondering if Colin Farrell’s dodgy child-rescuing philanthropist was a sly dig at Bono or Bob Geldof. But that may just be because Colin Farrell is from Dublin too.)  I thought the set was just great – particularly the tall narrow horse-drawn ark in which the Imaginarium and cast travel.

But – for me – the film began to meander a bit too aimlessly in the parallel Salvador Dali-esque dream world. By the time Colin Farrell was being chased, I was wishing his comeuppance would hurry up and come. The suspense sagged. And then, the story having disappeared into an almost final dismal depressing wilderness, it suddenly finds its way out again to the real world, and a last minute happy ending. This lacked the chutzpah of the first two thirds of the film. It was as if Cinderella had settled down and married Buttons.

So should you go to the cinema to see it or hang on for the DVD rental?  Well… Best of all would be to see it projected onto the glass of a giant lava lamp, while under the  influence of whatever you fancy. Failing that, yes, go to the cinema. A big screen is the best place to appreciate the hugely imaginative dreamscapes. And Heath Ledger is most charming.

A note on the premiere experience: Downside – you have to wait for ages for the bally thing to begin. Upside – you’re rubbing shoulders with people off the tele, film stars and severely under-dressed young women. Oddside – seeing Andrew Garfield in the flesh only hours after having seen him in Lions for Lambs. He looks exactly the same. He also appears to be paying homage to Richard Bacon with his choice of jackets.


Filed under Film

Conkers v. Spiders

ConkerScared of spiders? Tired of cobwebs in your corners? Never fear! There’s a pishogue for everything. An old wives tale, that is.

First, gather some conkers. (Luckily it’s still the tail end of the conker season.) Second, place a conker in every corner of the room where spiders lurk. Third, sit back, relax and wait for the spiders to flee. Fourth, inspect your spider-free corners.Platycryptus Undatus Female

Easy. But this blog would never just blithely dish out advice without subjecting it to rigorous testing. Which might be why my seven-year-old was dropping conkers in corners all round the house. Hey, it’s all part of scientific enquiry and experimentation.

The result? Oh dear. There, snug in the corner, was a conker, with a squat spider on top. “I think spiders like conkers,” said my daughter’s friend from down the street.

So, er… that’s spiders 1, conkers 0. Don’t believe old wives. Get a duster for those cobwebs you lazy pig. And mind you don’t skid on those conkers scattered round your floor.


Filed under life

Saffron Walden youth on tour to Belfast

Interesting piece from Bobballs:  “A really strange story in the Saffron Walden Reporter, it ought to be uplifting but I’m concerned about it…

It’s the story of how Stansted Youth Centre sent a group of young people over to Corpus Christi Youth Centre in Ballymurphy as part of an exchange programme…”

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Orange Republicans

You should never jump to conclusions, I thought to myself, as I stood in a field full of Orangemen in County Donegal. I’d spent the morning in a village with a family – three or maybe four generations – of Orangemen, walkers and musicians, before they set off for the field. This particular field was at the sleepy beach resort of Rossnowlagh on the Donegal coast.

Orangemen on Rossnowlagh strand

Orangemen on Rossnowlagh strand















(For those who haven’t been there, it’s a small resort on the north west coast of Ireland, within Ulster, but and also within the Republic of Ireland. There’s a great long lovely beach, and the water is the Atlantic. So you can actually swim in it without freezing to death. Unlike the Irish Sea on the east coast, where I was made to swim as a child with shivering regularity. No wonder half of Belfast decamps to Donegal each summer.)

The day was an eye-opener for me. Up till then I’d found Orangemen to be suspicious, resentful, aggressive, noisy and, above all, very cross. These guys were gentle and quiet and calm. They were also determined and comfortable within their own skin. Nobody’s fools. Self-contained. I could imagine some of them playing the Clint Eastwood character in a spaghetti western. The man with no name. Willing to welcome allies, but if not, so be it, prepared to carry on alone.

When I found myself surrounded by Orangemen later in the day, I was pleased to have these Donegal men beside me. Because it was a decidedly odd experience.

OK. Some context. The Orange Order is a Protestant organisation which marches a lot. It marches mainly in Northern Ireland to commemorate historic victories by an English monarch perceived as anti-Catholic over an English monarch perceived as pro-Catholic. (The history does not bear this out, but that’s not relevant really. For instance, few marchers today care, or in fact know, that the Pope of the day supported the supposedly Protestant side. )

So since I’ve been alive, and long before, you’ve had Orangemen marching, marching, marching. They march where they’re welcome. And they march where they’re not welcome. And there’s no denying it’s a spectacle – flutes, accordions, drums, Lambeg drums, batons, swords, pikes, uniforms, flags, music – whether you like it or not. And lots of people do not. (Especially the accordions. C’mon. Anybody?)

But – to cut a seductively long story short – they march to remind themselves and everybody else that they still rule the roost in Northern Ireland. (A moot point in a society in transition.) Or, as they might put it themselves, they march to commemorate the triumph of liberalism over religious despotism (that’s Catholicism and the Pope by the way).

Oh dear. I’m getting confused myself. My head is hurting. The point is – they march to remind themselves how lucky they are to have avoided the horrible fate of being sucked into a priest-ridden Pope-dominated Republic of Ireland.

So imagine my surprise in Donegal (that’ s part of the Republic of Ireland remember) to be chatting to soft-spoken Orangemen who declared themselves proud to be citizens of the Irish Republic, completely at ease in their religious freedom, and as Irish as anyone else with a green passport. (Yes, I know, they’re not green any more. But you get my meaning.)

My head was spinning. These were Republicans the like of which I had not previously encountered. I almost felt protective towards them as Blood & Thunder bands in dark glasses from north of the border, die-hard loyalist blow-ins from Scotland and the usual stern-faced doom-sayers stomped past.

Now, as some kind of a Republican myself, I think of those guys in Donegal.

They’re also on my mind as I write my book, Blackwatertown. It includes Orangemen, marching and a big Lambeg drum. (Sneak preview – the Lambeg drum comes to a bad end.) And my Orangemen, the ones in my story, are often not portrayed sympathetically. They do themselves no favours when it comes to public perception.

But I cannot forget the plain decency of the guys with whom I spent that day in Donegal. Those Orangemen. So that experience feeds in too.

Anthony McIntyre - The Pensive Quill

Anthony McIntyre - The Pensive Quill

And here’s the link. Prepare for a handbrake turn. Something completely different. I meant to point to this satirical piece on the IRA ceasefire,  but I got distracted by Donegal Orangemen. This is from the Pensive Quill.

Here he is looking pensive…

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Filed under history, Influences

Rage v. despair

Somewhere on the spectrum between rage and despair, there’s a point where you can direct your energy to actually getting things done. At least I hope there is.

A good friend of mine has been trying to better himself. He was recently in the depths. But now he’s recovered. One of the benefits of his repeated dark times over the years, has been the building of an extensive experience of tough living. In the past he has used this experience and empathy to help others. But now he wants to get some proper paper qualifications.

For someone conditioned to expect disappointment, knock backs and general instability – applying for and commiting to a long term academic course is daunting. Not just financially (that’s a whole other issue), but also psychologically. Not a step to be taken lightly.

So the route goes via the Job Centre – then the Shaw Trust (which is contracted to help people like my mate) – who then direct him towards an appropriate course and help with the application. Great. It’s a course in counselling other people. Perfect.

So he applies. He completes an assessment test. He writes an excellent assignment. He waits. This morning he receives a response from the person in charge of adult learning for the area.

Rejected.  Not because his application failed. Not because he failed the assessment test. Not because of his written assignment.

It turns out the course was already full. And had been for months. Even better, it had already begun before he was directed to apply.

Maddening. It’s almost as if cunningly planned by the “advisor” to dredge up any remaining hopes from an individual just so they can be crushed.

Sure, you may think it’s up to people to sort themselves out. Don’t go looking for help in the first place. Rely on yourself so you can be sure of what you’re getting into.

Many of us can and do. Some of us, however, can achieve wonderful things and overcome great challenges with just a little help at the right time. But that little bit of help at the right time can be vital – especially if your life, from the earliest days, has been troubled. (No need for details on that just now.)

I’m angry. Angry at the blythe insouciance of those who toy with people’s lives in such a casual way. They hook on a smile, bounce you off, tick the box marked “job well done”, and are heedless as to the outcome.

Overreaction? Not the end of the world? Maybe and yes. It’s certainly not the first time. Far from it.

So now we’re looking for that place on the spectrum between rage and despair, to hook up  again our own smiles, to try again, to keep the head up, to perservere, all those sorts of things – and not sink back down to the depths.

Luckily my friend has something excellent going for him. His character. So I’m optimistic. As usual.

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