I’ve a piece in the Dublin Inquirer this week and it’s all about ‘A History of Working Class Writing’. Click here if ye fancy a bit of a read…
Bit of a library theme infiltrating the old blog these days…the next one also mentions the humble bookmark. Click here to listen to it on RTÉ’s Arena show or read on…
There’s something of the old and the new when it comes to libraries. The blending of modern tools for hunting information with an age-old medium, advice on how to manage citations fused with doomsday-type warnings against online encyclopaedias. The staff are skilled at the silent walk and the unassuming observation, that ability to differentiate fine-dodger from genuine mistake, studious from chancer, the few students who think that wandering the carpeted floors constitutes as actual study time.
They have also gained a healthy knowledge of the substitute bookmark. Receipts are a fairly common one, pencils or takeaway leaflets, shopping lists with the usual student staples of pizza and beer, sometimes spaghetti, spelt with too many ‘g’s and not enough ‘t’s. Recently, I came across a photograph used as a marker, a graduation, academic gowns and shiny new shoes. Judging by the hairstyles it might have been a souvenir from the mid-to-late nineties or perhaps it was just taken on a very blustery day. The find made me consider how the reading of a book can coincide with so many different occasions in life and how these moments can often influence the way a person reacts to the subject matter. It’s as if a writer produces one single book, but after it’s unleashed, it has the opportunity to become so much more.
Imagine what it would be like to have something similar to a bookmark in a life, a particular moment in time a person can return to when things start to go a bit off-kilter. Think of those ‘choose-your-own-ending books’ read as a kid, where multiple-choice options dictate the path the story is going to take. Then again, maybe this would only work to highlight how similar one day is to the next, how most of them begin in the kitchen, puffy eyes and soggy cereal, making a decision that will have little to no impact on the direction your life is going to take. Relating to lunch, perhaps. The homemade or shop-bought sandwich conundrum.
I suppose there’s a case in stating that most of us are bookmarked already, restricted by financial constraints, held in place by limitations imposed by traditions or law, or inequality. Or perhaps, for some this could be the era in which too many prominent figures seem to have a complete disregard for the humble things in life, such as the bookmark. Leaders who own volumes with nice covers but weakened spines. Characters who go over the same pages with little intention of ever finding the right path or moving onto the new. Or even worse, the bend-the-corner sort, that type of person who would fold the world in half, rather than spend a moment seeking out a much simpler solution.
The latest essay on the RTÉ is about allergies and…(cue thunder and sinister music) THE DANGERS OF LIBRARIES!
Click here or read on…
It’s the time of year that we hay-fever sufferers tend to prefer. And for a brief time I did believe the sniffles were behind me, the red eyes and the congestion, that old familiar leaky-pipe kind of expression. But a recent project in work involved relocating thousands of books, most of them untouched in years. While everybody was swanning around the library with dirty hands and rolled up sleeves, I was wheezing from one bay to the next with a dust mask stuck to my mush. It slowly began to dawn on me that I might be one of those rare writers who are actually allergic to books.
I know there are some who laugh at the idea of a library being a hazardous place to work. But, are they really as safe as people might think? Of course there are the usual battles for seats around exam times to contend with. The murderous glances when the subject of a late fine pops up. Or even the time some old guy nearly throttled me for hitting the spacebar on my laptop too hard. But everyone should also be aware to the fact that paper is a combustible material and despite advances in modern technology, most library buildings are still crammed full of that stuff.
Another thing that doesn’t go unnoticed is how the library is always one of the first places to be hit when a regime decides to inflict some kind of culture shift on a nation. The Nazis were no stranger to this, destroying libraries in Germany, Serbia and Poland. While the Pol Pot regime in Cambodia destroyed 80% of the National library holdings. Nowadays, that very same library has recovered to hold over 100,000 works, including a special collection of palm manuscripts. These are strips of leaf etched in ornate calligraphy on folk tales or religious themes. And their survival is one which always makes me think of healthy green shoots, sprouting from vast fields of rubble.
Over the years there have been cases of libraries destroyed by flood or bomb, tales of collapsing shelves and falling books. But the biggest hazard is by far the smallest. Living in the mould that lurks between the pages of neglected volumes are multiple strains of bacteria, many of which can cause serious respiratory diseases. In the early nineties, a public library in New Mexico was forced to close down because of an unusual fungus outbreak in the reference section. In true ‘Day of the Triffids’ fashion, the fungus promptly spread to old history books before moving onto literary fiction. For all we know, it could be feeding on an George Eliot novel as we speak… So, for those who laugh in the face of library peril and the common allergy, this might be something worth thinking about when licking a finger to turn to the next page.
Last week, the 2017 East Wall History Festival began with a tribute to my uncle Tommy who sadly passed away in June of this year. As well as being a key figure in local drama and the East Wall community, Tommy had been involved in the History Group since it first formed. The evening involved performances from members of the P.E.G. Drama & Variety Group, Tommy’s grand-daughters Sophie and Ella , his son Anto and Peter Sheridan.
Tommy has been an inspiration and support to so many people over the years, including myself. This event gave me the chance to share my experience of delivering coal with Tommy when I was a younger man, and also to think about those days of ‘handballing’ cement and plaster to building sites with my own father, who also passed away earlier this year…
‘Got to keep those arms straight,’ he says.
‘Carry the weight along the shoulders,’ he means.
Because this route is all about the coal.
Summerhill and Donnycarney. Phoenix Park to Ballybough.
And isn’t most of the trail made up of flats. Those flights of uneven steps.
The pinging of footballs and the dogs baring teeth.
Jesus. That pressure in your elbows. The feel of it slipping away.
You‘ll be begging them to tell you where they want it dropped.
Don’t forget the narrow dark lanes and stubborn gates, bunkers and boxes and sheds. There’s a man in Fairview with a room full of porcelain owls. A girl in Arbour Hill who keeps handkerchief to mouth until you’ve left a bag of the smokeless. One woman on Constitution Hill has a floor covered in newspaper, shares her place with twenty cats. The reek of animal and piss and loneliness.
‘You met Bridget, did ye?’ He says.
‘The heart goes out to her,’ is what he means.
Back in the truck with the smoke and the dust and the Dempsey on the radio. And it’s difficult to shake the idea of her being in that flat at night, the felines crying like infants, scratching and tapping about the room.
Does it affect you? These people. This place? This route and this job.
Because it’s the same with your brother, isn’t it?
He does the cement, the lime and board. To building site and renovated home. Barren rooms and crusty floors and black webs that connect wall to wall and tie lampshades in knots.
‘I’m good at what I do,’ he says.
‘I do it for the family,’ he means.
This route is battered Dublin. Things free themselves from the lorry bed. Scrap of rope or loose Juncker, mostly it’s an empty sack. You might spot them in the grip of a tree or travelling through the air. To be caught on the rusting fang of an empty shed. To whip and thrash against the windscreen of a second-hand car on the airport road. To the coast where waves storm the rocks and the wind carries the taste of salt. Where you once drove a mini, too heavy with people to climb a steep hill.
To the factory and the outlet. Always rolling or moving. Conveyor belt. Wheel nut. Spinning tyre. The bar and the banter, the queue three person deep.
‘You can tell a lot about a man from standing next to him,’ he says.
‘Personality has substance,’ he means.
It’s not always about how they speak or what they plan to do. It’s as much about what they have done before.
You’ll find that in the Sunday scoresheets or in the names on a local plaque.
It is in the people, the traders of stories.
The jokes and the sayings.
Don’t give a monkeys, he says.
Go on ye head-a-ball, he means.
It’s in the script in the drawer or the recipe for baking scones.
It’s in the shoebox on top of the wardrobe , the one with ill-fitting lid. In the photographs it contains. In the bundle of ticket stubs or football programmes. In the birthday card at the bottom. The words inside are large and unsteady. A child’s writing.
‘To Granda’ it reads.
‘Love always’, is what it says.
This one be about piracy me land-lubbing friends…
There’s a nervous man driving from one housing estate to the next. He’s inviting adults and young people into his dilapidated van to show off movies. No, it’s not the opening sequence to an uncomfortable CSI episode. It’s the 1980s. And this is the video man, peddler of knock-off feature films, the majority of which will contain either blurred subtitles or Chuck Norris. Ever wonder how Teenwolf or the Goonies would look with a Crazy Prices bag covering your telly; get a film from the video man and you’ll have a fair idea what it’s like.
‘Isn’t that piracy?’ You might ask.
Aaarrr, it is. And there be plenty of talk about copyright infringement these days, but it’s nothing new. Piracy has been around since…well… pirates. Hardy adventurers traversing the seven seas in their vessels, cutlasses and eyepatches, burning CDs and selling them on to their mates.
The major problem these days is the speed at which contraband can be produced and shared. It has led to changes in how movies and music are released, and spawned countless websites, most of which make hefty profits from the sale of advertising space. In the academic world, it is one of the factors for increased electronic book prices, a cost transferred to the individuals and institutions playing by the rules.
Excuses are made, some claiming they would never have watched a particular movie if it wasn’t for free, others stating they are making a stand against big corporations. A predominate one seems to be that piracy is a good thing for an artist, that it amounts to publicity and increased ‘genuine’ sales of their material. Even if this is the case, surely it’s up to the artist whether they want to give their work away for free. Otherwise it’s a case of taking, without asking, which is commonly called ‘stealing’ and is pretty frowned upon in most societies.
It’s difficult to estimate exactly how much revenue is lost through piracy but the Motion Picture Association believe that over one million people in Ireland may be involved in illegally watching films online. But it’s not just about the loss in revenue. It’s about ownership and respecting the work of others, no matter what that work is.
With so much information coming at us these days, often in bold headline tabloid-esque format, creative ventures can offer time to pause and reflect. If anything, they are a tool to remind of the things that are good about us as a people. If a society doesn’t value creativity, it puts forward the question; will people still want to create?
Ah the old rejection. Whatever way you come at it, it’s a bit of a git, isn’t it? But here’s a piece on the RTÉ that might make budding writers feel a teeny bit better …
click here to listen or read on to…emm…read on…
Some take on the role of clairvoyant when it comes to the young. A career in science might await the curious, arboriculture for the tree-climbers. The lad munching on dandelions and crane-flies might even turn out to be a gourmet chef. When I was a kid, I had this sky blue schoolbag with an image of a bird on the front. It might have passed under the radar in junior infants but I was nine at the time and putting some serious thought into whether I should take on a persona of cool loner type or popular wild man. Neither of which required a bag with a cartoon canary on the front.
A simple plan was put into action, a sharp implement found and the strap severed. I assumed this mischief would be put down to normal wear and tear but on getting home from school that day, my father quickly informed me that he ‘wasn’t ‘made of schoolbags’ and the strap was repaired with electrical insulation tape. The plan was tried the following day and a number of times after, to the point that the strap was covered in so much tape it was completely inflexible and could pretty much stand up all by itself. Right there and then I should have realised I was a born to be a writer. Because it takes a certain type of person to willingly commit themselves to a failed ritual in the hope of somehow receiving a different result. And rejection is one thing that goes hand in hand with the arts.
But, unlike my bag vandalism, rejection doesn’t necessarily mean the work is bad. Post Harry Potter, JK Rowling received a number of refusals when submitting under a pseudonym, one of which even recommended she take a writing course. She went as far as sharing her rejection letters on Twitter to inspire budding writers. While George Orwell claimed that public opinion can often dictate a publisher’s agenda, as well as fear of political repercussions.
For some, the job a writer might conjure up images of quiet readings and sedate book launches. For others, it could be a darker one of grammar police and font snobs, those anonymous online reviewers who rate books according to their opinion of an author’s haircut in their bio photo. For me, when I think about what it means to be a writer, I sometimes see this image of a fly, tired and disorientated, butting against a windowpane time and time again. Rejection, in any area of your life, forces you to re-examine your stance. It can either reaffirm belief in direction or unearth mistakes. Or at the very least, to misquote Mr Beckett, it might even lead to a ‘better fail’ on the next try.
Potato, b’dayra, Tomarrah, tomato,
Let’s call the whole thing off… or maybe just click here for my Arena essay on dialect.
Or give those eyeballs a workout and read on…
I have a phone voice. Sometimes it’s a work voice. The tone might level out a notch. The words more pronounced. I could even be using it right now. For the most part, it’s not a conscious thing, more auto pilot, possibly born from imitation or the need to be understood beyond my circle. Or maybe it evolved from teacher’s frowns at mispronunciations, Chimbley instead of chimney. Hosbidle instead of hospital. You say potato. I say b’dayra. As I get older, for the most part, my provincial tone has faded, in much the same way as an engaging sign might pale in a shop window.
Some might consider variations of a common language as verbal anomalies or a weakness on the part of the speaker. For others they are a language in themselves. Capturing these variations when writing dialogue is such a vital part of capturing a place or character. For the likes of Irvine Welsh you might even say it has become a style.
Dialect can contort and sweep. It brims with inventiveness and energy. It can consume. In the eighties, when the influence of American Culture was well into its stride, Americanisms began to creep into the vernacular of young Irish kids. Words like ‘Cool’ and ‘Chill’ were used. School became ‘lame’. People used to barf.
Some time ago I had the opportunity to meet a screenwriter from New York. All seemed to be going well, plenty of smiling and nodding, that conversation tightrope between the formal and the informal, until it began to dawn on me that this person couldn’t understand about 90% of what I was saying. My phone voice and scattered Americanisms were not enough. Perhaps, if it wasn’t for new methods in communication, I might have realised this long ago. Email had lured me into a false sense of security.
With my novel due to be republished in the States later this year, I’m beginning to worry about being misunderstood. They use ‘z’s instead of ‘s’s across the water. They have gasoline and precincts, druggists and eggplants. I might need an interpreter. Or training. Www-pronounce-your-‘t’s –dot-com. But at what point does a change in how you speak become loss of identity?
Within new software to detect plagiarism is something called ‘stylometry’, a function used to make out a change in the writer’s style. Because it turns out there is a quality unique to each writer that never changes. And one incidental outcome for ‘stylometry’ is how it can be used to unveil pseudo-writers. Bad news for those who wish to remain anonymous. But it’s good to know that it matters little if an author is experimenting or trying out a different genre, because at the very least, this is one area where voice will always remain the same.
Kind of apt that my latest essay has the idea of support at its heart. Gives me a chance to say thanks for all the support and kindness that came our family’s way recently, not only in the past few weeks but in the year leading up. A light in the dark that is very much appreciated.
Go raibh míle míle maith agat.
…Now, down to this business of essays. Click on the link if you want to listen to my RTÉ Arena essay about the brave and brilliant Hanna Greally.
Otherwise, get your scroll on and have a bit of a read underneath…
The reality of mental illness can be swallowed up by the myth, twisted tales born from half-heard conversations or bouts of curtain twitching. Some are called different. Or difficult. Touched. Hanna Greally was one with such label. A writer from Athlone, she was admitted to a psychiatric hospital in the midlands in the 1940s and would spend most of the next twenty years institutionalised for what is frequently described as a nervous breakdown. Her book Bird Nest Soup, first published in the 70s, is an account of her experiences in the hospital and her numerous attempts to escape. It gives a harrowing insight into the approach to mental illness at the time, how it was more about containment than healing, and how the treatment could often be the stuff of nightmares.
One of the standout things for me on reading was the concept of circumstance and how easy it is to become a victim of it. It was Hanna’s mother who encouraged her stay in the hospital, a woman who bore large struggles of her own. This was a time in Ireland that release was only granted when an immediate family member opted to sign the patient out. Hanna’s mother died when she was institutionalised. And with it, Hanna’s chances of freedom.
In the book, she speaks of how, without love or hope, many patients deteriorated from their original personalities and became so introverted that they lost touch with reality. She remembers her friends in the hospital.
‘The outcasts,’ she writes. ‘The unloved, the incurably embittered and the spirited, still fighting for their liberty.’
These are terms that could easily be attributed to so many sections of our communities at present, a large number who are also victims of circumstance. And in the same way that no amount of little blue pills will ever eradicate mental health problems, these issues cannot be contained with quick or temporary solutions. People are most vulnerable when they retreat from society or do not have the skills or means to be part of it. And the outcome for these victims of circumstance is not so much a reflection on the individual, but on the priorities of society as a whole.
Mental illness doesn’t disappear with the departing ambulance or the closed hospital door. The underlying factors are too complicated for it to just vanish, no matter how the wealth of a country transitions. It is part of a cycle of concerns that will forever ebb and flow, issues that might put in mind those coastal parts of Indonesia which are consistently prone to flooding. The poor can’t afford two story homes further inland, so strong wooden posts are constructed beneath their homes to keep them free of the water.
When shifting the land or changing the tides is impossible, it is important to gather around those at greatest risk of submerging and work together to lift them out.
My latest RTÉ Arena essay is about the power of the photograph…
Or read on…
The kids have turned the house into an art gallery. Stick drawings with spindly limbs and dotted features. Knotted creatures and smiling clouds, stuck to doors and along the hall. There are even posters of plays performed in their bedrooms, along with a list of characters and proposed future dates. Like with most galleries, consultation is needed when one of the exhibits is to be moved. One such negotiation led to us taking a photo of a potato-headed sketch on the wall before we could proceed with repainting the kitchen. Of course, the resulting photograph encouraged a new art-form into the household and I’d regularly find strange photos on my camera phone. Lego man posing on table. Close up of Moshi Monster Magazine. Bunny toy with red blanket draped behind like a cloak. Images that say so much about the things that excite and inspire them.
Like with Josef Sudek’s beautiful, almost otherworldly view of Prague, a photograph can contain so much personality and atmosphere. Stories too. They have the power to awake empathy and to change perception, Dorothea Lange’s images of people during the great depression a good example of this. I suppose the impact of the photograph shouldn’t surprise, considering how the trigger for so many memories can be held as a single snapshot in the mind. A visit to Florence- the corner of a Botticelli painting. The Great Gatsby- two eyes on a billboard. Lord of the Flies- a conch lying on a beach.
Recently, while researching for a book, I stumbled across an article from 1957 about two houses that had endured a series of trials. They were damaged by German bombers in 1941, floods in 54’ and then a fire in ’57 which a ‘Mr Daly’ claimed to have licked the back of his head as he escaped. The photograph above the article was of a smiling woman outside one of the unlucky terraced houses on Strandville Place. I was surprised to find it was my grandmother. There was a time when getting a photograph in the newspaper was a big deal. I imagine a number of copies were purchased and shared. People would have stopped her on the street to discuss ‘the man from the Herald’.
I uploaded the article and it appeared on social media amid the selfies and the holiday snaps and photos of kittens dressed in little waistcoats and hats. The responses showed a further aspect to the photograph, how it has the power to ignite dialogue and memories. My cousin mentioned how our Grandfather would speak of the bomb damage to the house, that he would claim to have caught one of the bombs as it fell from the sky. She said she believed him for years. And isn’t that such a lovely snapshot for a child to have in their head. Granda running down the North Strand Road. Sleeves rolled up to his elbows.
A great big bomb in his arms.
And a huge grin on his face.
Here goes my essay from Arena this week…
A small part of most people still loiters in their teenage years, vapoury connections to cult films or gloomy records, character defining fashion, those sky blue bellbottoms, the domineering shoulder-pads, that flannel shirt. For me there are scenes of awkward bass-guitar playing on creaky stages or in cramped rooms. And it’s always these memories that carry the urge to try my hand at writing a song.
It’s easy to assume there’s a step-by-step guide to songwriting. Certainly, trends appear when it comes to mainstream radio, lost or forbidden love, the odd dodgy cliché, familiar backbeat and guest featured artist. In reality, music is no different to most other art forms where paint-by-number frameworks can be used to make it more appealing to larger audiences. But good writing is more than just structure, as are good songs.
Tracy Chapman feels that songwriting is like creating something from nothing, saying that when it comes to composing, it as if she isn’t really in control. Paul Simon too, who says he doesn’t understand exactly what all his songs mean but part of what makes a good song is that people get different meanings from them. So many of their songs have storytelling at their heart and like a good short story, a song should say a lot with few words.
Other writers tend to bury their words deep in the music, Kurt Cobain, Bjork, very different styles but the blend of lyric and sound almost create emotive shapes in the mind. David Bowie used a technique at the writing stage that bore some similarities to this, where he would cut up lines of text and allow the new word structure to provoke a set of images, encouraging him to look at the familiar from a new angle, a technique that’s used by some poets.
There is often criticism that the constant sampling and adaption of songs weakens the modern scene. But the folk tradition of songwriting revolves around recycling, the likes of Bob Dylan continuously using classic folk songs to influence the melody of new material. Sometimes the artist only realises the similarities after completion, which happened when REM credited Leonard Cohen on their track ‘Hope’ because they felt it bore a resemblance to his song ‘Suzanne’.
Like all art its worth investigating your reason for carrying it out. In the late eighties two members of KLF published a manual on how to have a number one hit and there are times when it seems as if songs are released specifically in the hope of being picked up by an advert or sporting event. There was a time when the Christmas song was the jackpot. If money is the motive it might be worth keeping major celebrations in mind. It would be easy enough to squeeze the line ‘walking up the aisle’ or ‘happiest day of our lives’ into a song. Even better if you can think of something to rhyme with ‘it’s time to cut the cake.’