Category Archives: My Writing

Smile (for the Loose Bloggers Consortium)

Smiling has got me into a lot of trouble. It made me look guilty at school. Which is mad, because if I’d been guilty I’d have taken care to look innocently serious and preoccupied with work.

But maybe that’s why I wrote this take on smiling and how if you do smile, the whole world will not necessarily smile with you.

It’s an excerpt from my book Blackwatertown.

Here’s the context. Jolly Macken (Jolly being his ironic nickname) is a Royal Ulster Constabulary sergeant in Northern Ireland in the 1950s. He’s been walking a tightrope. He’s viewed with suspicion by his colleagues because he’s a Catholic – nominally anyway – in a mainly Protestant pro-British force. He’s not trusted by his co-religionists because he is in the employ of the Protestant-ruled state. Macken has just, with bad grace, led a baton charge of police and Protestant marchers to clear a Nationalist barricade and so let an Orange parade proceed through a Catholic village. Though the police action was successful, Macken himself was embarrassingly entangled in a bicycle thrown at him by a protestor.

The main players in this wee bit include Jolly Macken, the District Inspector (Macken’s superior officer, in attendance as a civilian and member of the Orange Order), the Worshipful Master (boss of the local branch of the Orange Order) and Big Jim (Lambeg drummer in the Orange band). Oh, and the word “Fenian” is used as a derogatory term for Catholic.

Macken came to with a start, his face full of pedals and handlebars. During the seconds he had been stunned, the rest of the attackers had surged over the barricade and were now coming to blows with the defenders. It didn’t last long. The fewer Catholics were soon put to flight by the combined forces of law and Orange Order.

Soon beefy-faced farmers had planted themselves on top of the barricade, and were leaning forward with their hands on their thighs, catching their breath. The general back slapping began. They gathered in excited chatter round Big Jim, who now sat panting on a boulder, his vast girth quivering. The sight of that alone would be enough to send me running for the hills, thought Macken, still knotted up with the bicycle.

After a few moments watching the world from ground level, Macken began to try to shift the bike from on top of him. That brought the other pedal, the one not pointing skywards over his face, sharply into his side. He hissed at the pain and let the bike settle back on top of him for a moment.

By now his efforts had caught the eye of the victorious mob. The Worshipful Master was taking control of the celebrations now, quietening down the war whoops. He led three cheers and a prayer of thanks. He also managed to find time to thank the loyal officers of Her Majesty for helping to preserve the integrity of Her highways. And to draw attention to one person in particular: “Sergeant Macken there. Sadly, he does not have the stamina of people who are proud to walk the Queen’s highway. He’s found himself a bike to get himself home.”

The taunts began. “Come on you monkey!”

“Sure yon’s more of an old goat. He got his head stuck in the fence going for the pasture beyond. Can’t you hear him bleating?”

Realising that no-one was rushing to help untangle him, Macken summoned all his annoyance to turn on his side and pull his legs underneath himself. Then he was able to stagger, crab-like, to his feet, a walking deckchair. This delighted his audience all the more.

“Look at Jolly. He’s belongs in the circus.”

Macken gingerly extricated himself and slowly straightened up, leaning on the dented bike with one hand, rubbing his back with the other. But the scorn in the District Inspector’s look was far more withering.

“Come on Sergeant, stop horsing around! You’ll not be catching them on that pile of junk. They’re away off over the bog. Let’s take control of the situation here.”

Macken clenched his teeth and angrily dashed the bent and buckled bicycle to the ground.

The routed defenders were by now disappearing over the bog and hills in the distance. The Worshipful Master was attempting to calm his warriors back into walkers, and corral them into some sort of order in preparation for the resumption of the triumphal procession.

The District Inspector meanwhile was close shouldered in muttered conference with the man mountain that was Big Jim. Macken noticed the red piping on his band uniform trousers, but realised he had never seen him wearing the military style jacket. Maybe he couldn’t find one to fit. The shirt sleeves rolled up over his broad arms revealed dull flecks of blood drying on the skin. Looks like Big Jim has bloodied a few noses, thought Macken.

As he took in the scene, other band members joined in, making a circle, remonstrating in raised voices. Macken thought he had better give the District Inspector his support. What now, he sighed to himself. Isn’t winning enough for them?

He pushed his way through to beside his senior officer. They were all gathered round the Lambeg Drum, sat squat like a broad round table on the roadway. Laid parallel across it like an extra long knife and fork, were two Malacca canes – tapered and thinly splintered at one end, the fatter ends pointing to Big Jim’s brawny reddened arms.

You have to admire the sheer brute will it takes to lug that huge drum along the road for miles, thought Macken, whacking it with such furious abandon that the hillsides themselves flinch.

There was a scattering of red dots on the goat skin of the drum, near where the drummer was pointing a finger aggressively towards the District Inspector. Macken smiled ruefully to himself at his mistake – the blood had come from the drummer’s own wrists, from repeated contact with the wooden rim of the big drum. No matter how bad the situation was, he reminded himself, jumping to conclusions could always make it seem more blood thirsty than it really was.

Macken realised too late, he had just made another, worse mistake. In some cultures, a smile may be disarming. In Ulster, a nod will do just as well. In fact, far better. You nod in acknowledgement, respect or agreement. A smile may be devious, deceitful, ridiculing or weak.

“Funny, is it? Now we have this friend of the Fenians rubbing it in too!”

Spit from the irate drummer shot across the face of the drum hitting both Macken and his senior officer.

“Thank you Macken,” said the District Inspector under his breath. “I was half way to persuading them not to worry about it – until your helpful intervention.”

“But what…”

The District Inspector looked up the hillside. Macken followed his gaze, to where a couple of small figures were jigging about on top of a large flat rock. What they were shouting, Macken couldn’t tell from this distance, but he presumed it had something to do with the piece of cloth they had hung from the front edge of the projecting rock.

Macken closed his eyes for a moment and cursed silently. It was the green, white and orange flag of the Irish Republic. An affront the Orangemen were not willing to let go, even if it was but a pinprick in the hide of an elephant.

“Sort it out, will you, Macken.”

“Sir?”

“Just get up there and get the bloody flag and let’s be on our way.”

What happens next? Well Continue reading

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Filed under D - Loose Bloggers Consortium, My Writing

What you need to guest blog: Sex, drugs and Steve McQueen

Forget Eldorado, the Grail, the Philosopher’s Stone or the fabled elixir of eternal youth – I’ve discovered something far more sought after.

The recipe for guest blogging.

You can see for yourself here on the People Per Hour blog. Hurrah. They asked me to write for them. So I did. The post is called Why you need to be more like Steve McQueen. (There are a couple of photos too. I’m in one. The good one features Steve McQueen.)

It turns out the secret is simple Continue reading

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Filed under Guest Posts, My Writing

What do you listen to when you write?

The Siren by John William Waterhouse. She's saying: "Ah come on, have a break, have a wee cup of tea. And would you like a biscuit to dip in it too?"

In an effort to keep myself in my seat, at my keyboard and editing the latest draft of Blackwatertown, I put on some music.

It’s been one of those days. The outside world was calling – fresh air, sunshine, forest. In other words – that four letter word distraction was singing its siren song. So I needed to drown it out.

I’m all for getting outside. But with the paying job on hold today, it was an opportunity to do some necessary book editing. Hence the music to keep me tapping along.

But is music a good idea? If I cast my mind back through the mists of time to the prehistoric age when I was revising for school exams, I doubt the late great John Peel‘s contribution helped at all. (Helped me be more human perhaps, but not to remember chemical formulae.)

And does a desire for musical accompaniment suggest that my book is insufficient in itself to hold my attention? Anyone’s attention? Aargh, I’m doomed. Though, to be fair, I have read it a few times. And I tend to multitask anyway – lots going on at once.

But if music be the food of editing – what tunes? Continue reading

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Blame… a) Canada? b)it on the boogie? c)a moment of madness?

The most unlikely thing happened this week. I know you’ll find this really hard to credit.

There’s a word in Ireland for it – and that word is GUBU. Continue reading

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The pram in the hallway

This is something you should never do. But hey, we’re all adults here. And we can shoulder responsibilities and still be experimental and creative at the same time, can’t we. More after the washing machine destruction. It gets particularly destructive at 55″ in. (Thanks ColtMonday.)

Getting back to the pram. Cyril Connolly said this:

“There is no more sombre enemy of good art than the pram in the hallway.”

A bloke would say it I suppose. A woman would just Continue reading

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Filed under art, life, My Writing

The Truth About Pandas

Finally - the truth about pandas. All these years the Chinese have been fooling us. According to Fuxing Man they're really just dogs in disguise. Click on the pic for more.

Got a letter yesterday. Personal, important looking. But not a bill. Could it be… a book response? Too small to contain a returned manuscript. Good news? Bad news? Palpitations… Continue reading

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Filed under art, Film, life, Music, My Writing

Shot Through the Sacred Heart

If anyone can find an image that better matches the title of this blog post, preferably something with Jesus in it, please put a link to it in the comments.

I have an identity crisis looming.

It’s all my mate Andrie’s fault.

She says I should consider changing the name of the book.

Panic!

But am I over-reacting?

.

The case for the prosecution: Continue reading

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Count Zero or Stephen Hero?

I’m torn. I don’t know which way to turn.

This...

...or this?

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Filed under art, Influences, My Writing

Gossip and grenades

I based a character in my book Blackwatertown on a friend I used to work with. Actually, that’s not quite accurate. I just used his name and nickname. But Tom (who becomes Tomas) Greenard is now far away in Australia, so he is at my mercy.

His nickname was Tom Grenade. I never did find out why.

Tom, you’ll be pleased to hear that your alter ego lives up to your nickname in the book. Though I cannot promise that he survives to feature in the sequel.

Tom – in Australia sends this uplifting story:

Sócrates

Keep this in mind the next time you are about to repeat a rumour or spread gossip.In ancient Greece (469 – 399 BC), Socrates was widely lauded for his wisdom.

One day an acquaintance ran up to him excitedly and said, “Socrates, do you know what I just heard about Diogenes?” Continue reading

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Filed under friends, history, Music, My Writing

Missing Words

Sometimes losing letters works well.

I’ve had some big downs and big ups over the past few days, and one intriguing piece of literary gossip.

1. Some fool Continue reading

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Filed under art, In the village, My Writing