So I have a terrible confession to make, a dark secret that I’ve been hiding for the last 25+ years, one that I’ve been in denial about and tried to ignore. I’ve been fooling myself and trying to fool everyone else about it but I think it’s time I came clean and owned up.
The sad fact is that I am an Irishman. Yes, I know, the shame, the shame. I have tried to hide it since I moved from Ireland to London twenty five years ago but as Shakespeare said, the truth shall out ya and there’s no use pretending any more.
At the start it was difficult, when I first moved here I struggled with the lingo and it took me literally years to learn how to pronounce words the way Londoners do, at home we’d naturally say fur instead of fair, hur instead of hair, tar instead of tower. I practised and practised and after many years have finally learnt to say fair and hair but even now it doesn’t come naturally. And I have tried my best to stop using Irish expressions like ‘do you think I came up the Lagan in a soapy bubble?’ or ‘sure a blind man rushing past on a horse would’na notice’ or’ have you been up all night raking the streets’, perfectly legit expressions everyone uses at home but double-dutch in London.. And I have failed again and again the one big test for all Irish, we find it totally, congenitally and physically impossible to say film without sticking an extra ‘u’ in it so it becomes filum, it is our reverse shibboleth, everyone else can tell we are Irish because we can’t pronounce that word correctly.
I’ve tried to slow down my machine gun delivery, (no, I don’t get regular deliveries of machine guns – at least not these days) but we Irish naturally talk very fast and in a constant stream and at home it’s just normal but here in London no-one’s ears are attuned to it, to us Irish it sounds like everyone in London is talking really s l o w l y, like chatting with a child…very weird.
I’ve had to hide and deal with this affliction, I even signed up for Recovering Irish Anonymous but that didn’t really work out because it wasn’t really that anonymous, if your name wasn’t Shaun then it was bound to be Patrick. I would attend meeting and stand up and say ‘My names Patrick and I’m an Irishman’ and everyone would clap and offer support, we’d watch episodes of Brideshead Revisted and Downton Abbey and practise the pronunciation over and over again… like Julie Walters in Educating Rita until the chairman would say “by Jove, I think he’s got it, I think he’s got it!”
Being an Irishman does have one advantage; whenever I address a stranger I can say practically anything I like in my first sentence and I’ve done this frequently, I’ve said to folk on first meeting them “did you know your shoes are on fire?” and I know they are too busy trying to figure out where my broad accent is from to even think about what I actually said. In London by the second or third sentence they usually figure it out and then tune their ears in and I have to stop talking nonsense but when I go to America I can spend the entire holiday talking bollocks and no-one notices…they don’t think I’m speaking English at all, they think I’m speaking Gaelic constantly..
Sadly all this work on my accent (and my attitude) has been mostly in vain, yes most Londoners can now just about understand me but I only have to go downstairs at work and talk to the Irish girl who works there and instantly twenty five years of elocution lessons are undone and we ‘spake’ to each other like we never left home.
Perhaps I should just keep my gob shut and learn sign language..
When I was growing up in Conlig, Ireland, money was tight and as 12 year kids we were always on the lookout for ways of earning a few extra pennies. One of my friends heard that the local scrap-man would give you money for old lead so we struggled down the country lane with this huge (to us) car battery and he gave us 10p (big money those days) for it. We were well chuffed and headed off to the sweet shop to spend our ill-gotten gains.
However, there was a definite shortage of old car batteries lying spare around the streets of Conlig and although the local church roof had lots of lead lining neither of us wanted to risk eternal damnation for a few pennies, a couple of quid and we might have been tempted though!
Next evening I’m sitting with mum, six brothers and two sisters at dinner table when I thought I’d ask them as they are all older and might know where there’s a stash of lead and so I says “does anyone know where I can get lead?”
Sudden silence descended upon the table and everyone stared at me in disbelief and then burst out laughing.
It took me an awfully awfully long time to understand their reaction.. DOH!
(for those of you that don’t get it, lead and laid sound exactly the same in our mother tongue..read it again 🙂
During my childhood in the sixties, getting up in the middle of the night to have a pee was fraught with danger. I had the run the gauntlet of the monsters in the wardrobe and bogeymen behind the door waiting patiently to pounce on me, like most ten year olds I hadn’t figured out that they never pounced on me during my previous ten years because they didn’t exist.. probably..
However, it wasn’t so much my fear of monsters and the occasional bogeyman jumping out on me (well, not just that) that made me reluctant to go pee but because I had to creep out to the bathroom in total darkness and silence. In my bedroom Colin, Terry and Gerald also slept, apparently comatose but never-the-less wide awake in an instant if the floorboard so much as creaked, for it was considered just cause for a beating if you ever woke one of them up. I got to know that floorboard very well and was well versed in avoiding the creaking ones.
So, after waiting for so long that you felt your bladder was going to burst and your fellow siblings would drown in a sea of pee, you HAD to get up but you snook out of bed very quietly. You didn’t dare switch on a light and awaken any sleeping giant, in your bare feet you had to feel your way around all the obstacles on the floor and grope your way out of the room in pitch darkness.
As an aside, did you know that the most perfect instruments for finding Lego bricks on the floor are bare feet? And that stepping on an upturned plug is possible even more painful than childbirth? I was painfully aware of these things at age ten.
Then when you got to the landing you had to do the same manoeuvre, feeling your way with your bare feet and holding tightly onto the banister hoping all those obstacles on the stairs didn’t trip you up or even worse fall and wake up the house. Occasionally I’d be half way down the stairs when I’d hear “WHO’S UP!?” shouted from my parents bedroom and I’d say it was me going to the bathroom only to hear them cursing at me for waking them up – they thought it was a burglar – not like there was anything at all to steal as we were so poor but burglars didn’t know that.
It was only when you got downstairs and fumbled your way to the bathroom and shut the door quietly did you dare switch on the light – hoping of course there wasn’t someone else from the tribe already sitting there warming up the seat. One year I got the fright of my life as I crept down the stairs only to feel someone’s cold hand touch mine as they groped their way back up the stairs. I don’t think my heart has ever jumped so much, so all those stories my mother told me were true – there are bogeymen.. It was my older brother Colin returning to bed and I think we both filled our pants that night – Colin for the second time.
I was reminded about all this fumbling about in the dark recently; I was in the maze at Hever Castle taking false turns and going down dead ends, trying to get to a place of safety, of security, of where I was meant to be. I think we spend a lot of our lives groping our way blindly, not having a clear path and not knowing exactly where we are going to end up – in the bathroom – or on our butt at the bottom of the stairs.
I’m sure it’s like that for a lot of people. I went to school with some very bright sparks and they seemed from birth to have their lives carved out for them, you knew they would get married to someone great and that they would end up running a large corporation before too long, but for me and the vast majority it was more about trying to find a path to some kind of half decent life. And we’d grope our way around, trying to find a path and come to a dead end and have to go back and start again.
And even these days, forty years later I still have that sense, probably always have had, of gingerly stepping out with my bare feet, feeling my way blindly, stubbing my toes along the way, trying to find my way, to somewhere I’m meant to be, to somewhere I’m loved, to home sweet home..
I got this in an email a few years ago, thought it was amusing (but still had a large element of truth) and added my own slant to it.
The Rest of the World
1) You spy a woman you’d like to sleep with and think of something witty to say.
2) You go up to her. You say something witty and unique (so you think). In her mind, it just sounds really corny but if you’re cute you’ve got a chance.
3) You buy her a drink and she thinks you’re cute (or she’s just desperate) and you exchange witty banter.
4) You exchange phone numbers and say you’ll give her a call sometime.
5) That sometime must be three days. Call too early you’re too desperate. Call too late she thinks you’re not interested.
6) Three days pass and you give her a call and ask her out to coffee. Coffee first because you don’t want to spend loads on her for dinner if she turns out to be a dudd.
7) You pick her up at her place. She checks out your car and the way you dress and sees if you brought her a token present, and if you open her car door. If she only gets 2 out of 4, then she’ll end the date at coffee.
8) Coffee becomes like a job interview. So what do you do? Where you originally from? What kind of movies do you like? What do you usually do on the weekends? What kind of food do you like? If guy likes girl then he’ll use the “What kind of food do you like?” to transition into the dinner date.
9) Dinner date. More of the date interview. At this juncture, she sizes you up by checking out how much you make by the type of restaurant you take her and how you treat wait staff.
10) Dinner is over and the bill comes. Girl does the wallet reach to test out if he’s a cheapskate. If he says don’t even think about footing for the bill, then he’s good to go. If he say, ok let’s go dutch, he’s toast.
11) You drop her home and say you had a nice time and wish her goodnight. What you do at this point will make or break a second date. Do you kiss her on the lips, forehead, cheek? Do you give her a big hug or a hug and a pat on the back? Or what? If the guy really likes her and wants her on the second date then he either kisses her on the cheek or gives her a great big hug. He wants to really get laid so he kisses her on the cheeks AND gives her a great big hug.
12) At this point she becomes smitten and anxiously awaits his call.
13) You call in a week. Guy wants to make like he has a life and has no time for her but despite his busy schedule has made time for her. She becomes even more smitten so he takes her to a movie.
15) After the movie, he tries the hand reach and tries to hold her hand. He does and she blushes.
16) He invites her for a drink at his house. She says it’s getting late and she is expecting him to kiss her on the lips. He kisses her on the lips.
17) Guy has a real good chance at getting laid. He sends her a text message and reminds her that he had a really great time last night. She’s smitten and showing the text message to her co-workers and friends.
18) You can’t wait so you call her the next day and set up another date ASAP.
19) You invite her over to your house for dinner. You cook her an elaborate meal.
20) Pop a bottle of wine and make-out in the living room and then you sleep with her. You bid her goodnight and tell her you will call.
21) She never hears from you again.
1) Get yourself drunk enough to get the balls to walk up to a woman and talk to her.
2) Buy her drinks and get her drunk and make her laugh a lot.
3) You both stumble drunk to her place and end up in bed.
4) Once you finally become sober, you both realise you’re married.
Was chatting to a new woman at work the other day, she’s from Ireland too and I asked her how many brothers and sisters she has, she told me eight including herself, I beat her by one as there were nine of us not counting parents when I was growing up but then I asked the non-Irish around the table and the most was five, and for everyone else it was one or two.
Having so many brothers and sisters wasn’t all that bad, for starters the toilet seat was always warm because invariably someone had just got off it, this was particularly advantageous during the bitterly cold winters and doubly so when we only had an outside loo, doing ‘the back door trot’ during those days was a test of endurance . There was a game we played at birthday parties called musical chairs and I always won because it was just like being at home – as soon as one of your brothers or sisters got up to go somewhere you immediately sat in that nice warm space they had vacated – and this was especially true when it came to the toilet. Between six brothers, two sisters, mum, dad, assorted friends, dogs and cats, assorted friends dogs and cats..well, there really wasn’t enough space to ermmm swing a cat (as the cat can testify).
Just to make matters worse, the house was divided into the ‘sitting’ room and the ‘good’ room, we spent our evenings crammed into the sitting room watching the telly (or attempting to peer over older siblings shoulders) and arguing which of the three channels to watch (Scooby-doo on BBC1 or Wacky Races on ITV) but ‘The Good Room’ as it was referred to was strictly out of bounds, that space was sacrosanct, you only went in there when summoned, it was like being summoned into the Headmasters office at school, you knew that it meant you were in trouble and you never went there intentionally. It was exactly the same size as the sitting room but because it didn’t contain sprawling bodies, dogs, cats, piles of ironing, clothes drying in front of a smoky fire, comics, every newspaper printed since the dawn of time and assorted broken toys it seemed to be the size if the school assembly hall, I’m sure my voice echoed when in there. It was the room my parents kept good for visitors and contained a nice suite of furniture and a coffee table. My parents would have visitors in there – ok well my mother would have visitors and chinwag away in there as my dad would invariably have his visitors in the garden shed where he would smoke a pipe, whittle a bit of wood with a penknife and ‘chew the cud’ with his one or two friends.
Life at home was a bit cramped at times, as we all got older we gather up more and more friends and at times the houses did seem like it was under attack by a plague of locusts, privacy was non-existent and I have no idea how my two sisters survived with any dignity at all in that swarm of bodies. I had to share a bedroom with Colin, Terry and Gerald and it wasn’t just a bedroom; clothes, underwear, socks and just about everything else was fought over, I think the first time I wore a pair of matching socks was when I was seventeen – which was about the first time I wore ‘brand new underwear’ as I had bought them myself. You won’t understand what a treat it was to wear socks that only had the required amount of holes (one!) and underwear that hadn’t been passed down from your great grandfather and didn’t have the texture of sandpaper.
Growing up in the Northern Irish version of the Waltons did have it’s advantages, it was always easy to blame someone else (younger and more gullible) for any crimes and misdemeanour’s (of which there were many) and one did learn to fend for me’self at an early age and not to be afraid to stand my ground and fight someone much bigger than myself. This has become pattern throughout the rest of my life – as practically every boss, supervisor, manager and bully that’s ever come across me will testify much to their own chagrin. 😉
The late seventies and eighties were full of great dancing movies; Saturday Night Fever, Grease, Footloose, Flashdance, Dirty Dancing and during that time my friends and I spent many an evening standing on the edge of a crowded dance floor awkwardly shuffling our feet. I once won a dance competition; really, I was simply trying to wriggle my way through a packed dance floor (rather unsuccessfully) to get to the bar to order some drinks. The DJ stopped me as I wormed my way past and told me that I had won third prize and gave me a small bottle of scotch – which was handy as I was going to ask for a scotch when I got to the bar – result! (Obviously the competition on the floor must have been particularly dire!)
There aren’t many things I’m not a total expert at; dry walling, electrics, plumbing (both male and female), auto repairs, working jack hammers, mowing lawns, computers, knitting dollies, forking, Rubiks Cube, introspection, walking on water, making marmalade and rustling up a four course meal from a near empty fridge but there’s one area where I fall down – and when I say fall down I mean that literally because it’s dancing. I really can’t get the hang of it but it’s not like I haven’t tried. We Irish are meant to have a natural rhythm but when I try dancing it’s like some mischievous little leprechaun has tied my shoelaces together and I keep falling over. I’m like a grizzly bear that’s been shot with a tranquilliser gun, I lurch all over the place crashing into everything and everyone. I’m the Irish version of Patrick Swayze – Paddy Sways (a lot!). Agnes de Mille said that the truest expression of a people is in its dance and music, if that’s the case then we Irish are in big trouble..
When I was a teenager in the late seventies I would try to strut my funky stuff to Michael Jacksons ‘Blame It On The Boogie’ in BJ’s disco – which is funny for a number of reasons; not just because I looked like Steven Hawkings trying to escape the confines of his wheelchair but ‘boogie’ is something you only find in your handkerchief in Northern Ireland, not on the dance floor and BJ’s (seriously) was the name of the place we practised our lurching. We were so naive them days.
Readers of a certain vintage will remember Boris Yeltsin dancing in a similar style in the 90’s, it seems somewhat appropriate that it’s the bear that represents Russia because his dancing was just as bad as mine..
Actually, on second thoughts he looks like John Travolta in Saturday Night Fever compared to my groovy moves.
You may think I’m exaggerating and wonder about Irish dancing (and Riverdance) but what you don’t know is that Irish dancing is a direct result of the Irish inability to dance with any style or grace at all. Irish dancing has only been around since Riverdance, I can’t find anyone who’s heard of Irish dancing before it burst on the scene. It’s not well known that Irish dancing only started only a few years before Riverdance and it’s even less well known that it was me who started it. You see, I started going to dancing lessons in the early eighties in the hope of emulating John Travolta – this time in his Grease incarnation – but after a few lessons the instructor got so fed up with me that he gave me the following instructions; I was to stop flailing my arms around like a windmill on speed (and he literally strapped my arms to my sides!) and then he told me to imagine I was standing on red hot coals.. three seconds later I had invented Irish dancing. You can thank me later Michael Flatley.
A few years ago I bravely went to do Cerok dancing with a friend in Putney and the evening started off okay, about a dozen of us newbies and the instructor trying to teach us a few basic moves; turn, swivel, twist, pull and repeat ad nauseam, ad nauseam being the correct term here because I was sick of it within minutes. However, I persevered trying to get the swing of it (groan) and foolishly imagined even with my kack-handed attempts I was starting to get the hang of it but at 8pm the hall started to fill up with the regulars and everything speeded up big time. There weren’t that many blokes there and apparently it was bad manners to refuse a dance so I spent the rest of the night being passed around from (expert) dancer to (expert) dancer. It was like being thrown to the wolves, I barely got out alive and never went back.. It was like that time I went ski-ing, three mates and I walked into a hotel disco and there were no blokes there, just a room full of woman and a Mexican wave of ‘BOYS!’ spreading across the dance floor.
So in a last ditch desperate effort to improve my dancing technique I started going to ballet lessons here in London. I really threw my heart and soul into it, even forsaking my drinking buddies to practice my technique, it was a tough job but I suppose someone had to do it. One of my friends took his video camera along to show just how much my technique has improved over the years, I hope you agree that it was worth it.
Next month I’m starting Pole Dancing lessons. How hard can it be?
So, think this is crimes and misdemeanours number 13 and it would seem I have a lot to confess to.. I’ve had a job ever since I was 11yrs old; from delivering milk before school to a paper round after school and since the age of 16 and a half when I started working full time I’ve done just about every job except barman which I kind’a regret because it’s a handy skill to have when you’re trying to establish yourself somewhere new.
Anyway, things I really need to fess up to…
When I was sixteen I spent one Christmas holiday working on the production line of the Cantrell & Cochrane factory, we made bottles and cans of lemonade and it was the second most boring job I ever did. However… the nightshift used to be fun for a couple of reasons, first of all most of the staff came into work to sleep, as a general rule if you didn’t sleep the first night then you slept the second night, it was the unofficially rule and a lot of the staff had part-time day jobs like Firemen and so when they got called out to a fire during the day then they would come in and sleep. And there was a lot of trading to and fro, if you were feeling really rough then you’d swap sleeps with someone and s/he would sleep the next night. Management didn’t know about this because the foremen did the exact same thing and management always knocked off at 5pm.
So, that was a nice little earner, on the nights when I was watching the production line I was busy and kept awake because I was doing the work of two but the next night I slept but got paid for it. Excellent. It was a nice little introduction to shift work and when I worked as a nurse there did seem to be a lot of nurses sleeping in the cupboards during the dead of the night, not for the full shift but some staff would take extended breaks and when the matron in charge came around you told her that the missing nurse ‘had only just’ went for break a few minutes ago.
The other thing that was good working for Cantrell & Cochrane was that we produced cans of own brand Coke and there was an interesting trick we could do (and did) on the line. What would happen was that the cans got filled with coke and then went into a huge machine that rammed on the aluminium tops to the cans, but the operator could slow the line down and this meant someone could make additions to the coke.. So, the party trick for most of the staff there was to top up a couple of dozen cans of coke with vodka and then once the lids went on collect them on the other side and take them home. Then next time they went to a house party they already had pre-mixed drinks. This proved particularly popular at events like concerts because the bouncers would quite happily let you in with cans of coke but would confiscate any alcohol… little did they know..
Cantrell & Cochrane was the second most boring job, the most boring job was working for Canadian Tapes in Bangor. I did that for about three months before I had to leave or slit my wrists, it was that mind numbing boring. I spend almost three months working in a lab doing mind numbingly boring repetitive work a trained monkey could do (better).
However, even here there was the opportunity to mess around. We made sellotape, day and night, the production lines never stopping – except for two weeks in the summer when all factories in Norn Iron shut down and Bangor emptied due to the mass exodus of everyone to Benidorm or Tenerife, the ‘July Fortnight’.
I, on the other hand, was too poor to go to Spain with all the other plebs so I would carry on working and that meant spending two weeks cleaning the factory.
Now, the thing to remember is that sellotape is tape covered in glue and Canadian Tapes had LOTS of glue…effing huge vats the size of houses for mixing up the glue and gradually over the months these vats would get a thick layer of glue slowly building up inside them. Eventually someone had to go into the vats with big scrappers and scrap the glue off the walls and floor of the now empty vats and that job fell to summer students and yours truly.
So, myself and half a dozen other kids would spend a few hours in these vats breathing in glue fumes. I don’t know if anyone else has tried nitrous oxide aka laughing gas but spending even a few minutes in one of these vats basically gets you high for free, in fact we actually got paid for it. This was in the days before Health & Safety became such a major concern, so for two weeks we scrapped and hacked the hardening glue off those walls and we spent practically the entire two weeks splitting our sides laughing. Seriously, it’s what I imagine it’s like to smoke really good weed, we just got the giggles from the moment we walked into the vats until we got home, someone would just burst out laughing for no reason at all and that was it, we were all practically ROFL in hysterics, I honestly haven’t laughed so much in my whole life and I think I would have done that cleaning job for no pay. I couldn’t understand why all the other factory workers didn’t want to do it, it was excellent. What I couldn’t also understand was, why didn’t the management give us gas masks, we could have cleaned those vats out in two days rather than two weeks if we could stop laughing and saved them a lot of cash..
I was told that the effects of the fumes wouldn’t have any long term effects. I’m not so sure, twenty five years later and I still burst out laughing with minimal prompting, I suspect because of my two weeks working in those vats that my brain is now just hard-coded to find humour in just about everything, my long suffering work mates despair with me 🙂
I think I’m going to have to make a new category called ‘Rain’ on this blog because I write about it so much. I was awoken at 5am this morning by the sound of rain pelting against my bedroom window. It’s kind’a ironic because one of the reasons …ok ok the main reason I left Northern Ireland was because of the awful weather and yet it seems to be following me, perhaps I have my own personal rain cloud like Jim Carry in The Truman Show or there’s a thunderstorm up there in the sky with my name on it. I’m starting to think I’m going to have to move a lot further than London to get away from my nebula horribilis.
I have a friend in Perth, Australia (Happy Australia Day BTW!) who occasionally mentions the searing heat there so I’ve been thinking what I can do to rebalance the equation, so I get six months of her sunshine and she can have six months of our rain. And then I was thinking about all those other countries that don’t get enough water but deserve it because they sit and gloat all the time about their nice weather; basically most of California really.
So I’ve decided that the solution (groan) to this imbalance is to export our rain to California and Perth. This isn’t really that difficult to do, you see, I could send a few sachets of dried water in the mail and this would redress the imbalance. When the sachets of dried water arrive then the users simply have to add water, what could be easier? For example, if I send a one litre sachet of dried water then the instructions on the side of the pack would read;
“To make one litre of water, carefully cut off the top of the sachet and mix the contents with one litre of water. It is advisable to wear waterproof clothing when undertaking this hazardous procedure.”
I’m really not sure why no one has thought of this before. But you see, I can also make much larger quantities of water, for example, I could send a sachet for 1,000,000 litres of dried water and by a miracle of modern science the packets of dried water would actually weigh exactly the same, one simply mixes the contents with 1,000,000 litres of water. Of course this miracle of science can be extended to the kitchen when making beverages but it’s important to remember that one must boil the water before making a cup of tea or coffee.
The one and only time I met my biological father was when I was 19. Well.. I say ‘met’ but that would give a false impression, he shoved me out of the way as he ran past me and out of my life, this time forever.
When you’re growing up with adoptive or long term foster parents there’s a missing bit of a jigsaw in your head, it’s there constantly and it’s like an itch and until you scratch it it’s always going to be there, popping into your consciousness at unexpected moments, like when you are having a medical and they ask about your fathers medical history. The missing jigsaw piece is; what does your biological mother and father look like, what are they like as people, what health issues have you inherited from them…what are you going to look like when their age… Not all adoptive/fostered children think like this, some are more than happy to accept the loving parents they have now but for some kids there is this need, this desire to find that last missing piece of the jigsaw and put it in it’s place.
So, when around 18 or so my twin sis and I met our biological mother Doris, we had found Doris and that was frankly shocking, not what either of us had expected but our biological father was another kettle of fish. Doris told us very very little, just that her and Sam had met in church, dated, she fell pregnant and she was sent to Belfast to stay with his cousins during all her term, she had us, we were put up for fostering and she returned back to Kilkeel and nothing more was said of her time away.
I asked her about this on her last trip over here and she said that she saw us for a few minutes but Sam stayed down in his farm in Kilkeel and didn’t want anything to do with us so never saw us. I’ve actually no idea how anyone can give away a child, let alone twins and I wouldn’t like to ever have to be in that position, I know what it’s like from the childs perspective and I’m sure it’s even harder for the mother.
So, 19yrs old and still living in Ireland. We asked the Social Services where our birth father lived and they didn’t know, on our birth certificate the fathers name is blank so one Monday sis, with John (her then boyfriend doing the driving) and I drove the 50 miles down to Kilkeel.
We knew he was called Sam Keown and gradually we had weedled out of Doris that he lived in Leitrim Hill Farm, so on the OS map it was easy to see that Leitrim Hill was just outside Kilkeel so we drove there trying to find Leitrim Farm. The hill turned out to be a bit of a mountain and there were quite a few farms on it and the start of a housing estate..
So anyway, we asked around and we found this old guy tending cattle on the hillside, we asked if he knew where Leitrim Hill Farm was and he asked why; we said we were doing some family tree research and wanted to find the Keowns. He looked at us, in that suspicious way farmers do to out-of-towners and said it was three miles up the road and first farm on the left but you don’t want to be going there, they were all ‘a bit mad’ and they might chase you off their farm…
So we thanked him and drove on and found the farm, it was very ramshackle and run down but obviously a working farm, cattle in the shed and someone out cutting silage in the fields.
John parked the car in the farmyard and said “OK.. so now what?”
Sis and I looked at each other and I said “well, I’d better go and knock the door” ..as you do.. many thoughts spun through my head, what do you say to your father whom you’ve never met.. .“surprise surprise!” “guess who?” ..”hello, you may not remember me but do you remember this broken condom?” .. Neither of us had given much thought (or even any thought) as to what to do if we met Sam and now the moment had arrived my mind was blank and my heart pounding.. so many ‘what if’s…’
So off I wandered and went to the door, there were glass panels on the door and I could vaguely see inside, looking closely I could see obvious movement inside, lights were on and a few old rusty cars in the driveway, so, completely unprepared, I took a deep breath and knocked on the door….
There was no answer……
I knocked again….
There was still no answer but I could hear people moving around……
So I opened the door, and peered in…despite it being 11am it was dark and gloomy and as my eyes adjusted to the gloom I could see two women and two men down the hall in a kitchen. they were sitting at a table looking like they were having soup, they all looked really rough and unkempt, the two men were unshaven and had really tattered clothes on and the two woman looked like they were dressed in rags, they looked very pale and thin and had a maniac look in their eyes, it looked like a scene from Oliver Twist, not at all inviting.
And they all just carried on eating, ignoring me completely.
I wasn’t really prepared for this – in fact I wasn’t really prepared for anything and hadn’t really a clue what to do, the last thing I thought would happen would be that I was ignored, so I shouted down the hall “excuse me, I’m looking for Sam Keown, ..is he here” at which point they stared at one of the men, stared.. more like glowered at him….
So I said “excuse me, are you Sam Keown?” at which point he suddenly stood up, threw his bread down, pushed the other bloke out of the way and came running at me!
I thought FUCK! He’s going to attack me or stab me! and I stood back, he came running at me and sort of shoulder charged me, pushed me against the doorframe and went running past. I was a bit surprised (to say the least!) but he just carried on running out the door, he ran across the yard and jumped into a red beat up Datsun, started it up and drove off at speed, just narrowly missing Johns car….
I tried to regain some composure and asked the others if that was Sam Keown but they ignored my questions and shouted at me to go away, to get off their property. The remaining bloke reached up and grabbed a shotgun that was on a high shelf. I watched him snap it open to insert cartridges in it – at which point I thought it would be prudent to leave…quickly…so I went out to the car again and sis was standing there… I told her quickly what had happened and we need to leave NOW just as the other three appeared at their doorway, one with a shotgun. We left in a hurry.
So that was the only time I ever saw my biological father Sam, when he was running past, trying to knock me over…but I have that image fixed in my mind like it happened only yesterday.
So we thought “’what now?” and we left the property and drove around a bit, then I decided that I wanted to find out more so we drove to the neighbouring farm. It was a modern house and it seemed pretty normal – by Kilkeel standards anyway..
I went to the door and introduced myself and said I was looking for some information about the people next door. The old couple there were very sweet and invited us in and told us the story..
Apparently the farm had been in the Keown family for generations, they were cattle farmers but they were a bit eccentric to say the least, they didn’t have electric or running water, they never had bank accounts and paid for everything in cash, they were marched off to church every Sunday in the same suit they had all their lives, they rarely spoke to anyone and hadn’t moved on from the Victorian age, the person who knew the most about them was the local minister. Their parents – our grandparents I suppose, started off that way of life and when they died the four kids just carried on with it
There were two sisters and two brothers but the sisters ruled the roost with an iron fist, if one of the “boys” didn’t do exactly what they asked they basically got whipped with this cane, they totally dominated the boys and wouldn’t let them go out with other girls, the only time they were allowed out to socialise was to go to church (where Sam meet Doris). They lived on bread, jam and tea for every meal and they never ever bought anything new. Sam was a bit of a rebel (doh!) and when he managed (somehow!) to get Doris pregnant it was them that arranged for Doris to go live in Belfast. Apparently Sam wanted to marry Doris at the time but they were having none of it, they just beat the shit out of him.
The family were well known throughout Kilkeel as a bit (very!) eccentric, none of them ever passed a driving test but Sam used to take the cattle to the market in this beat up old lorry and it was so slow and wobbly there was no danger of him killing anyone. This was the back sticks of Ireland during the 60’s, the police never interfered in the farming community them days.
About 6 months after that little adventure, Doris sent me a letter and said – in passing mind you, that Sam had died about a month ago, I asked her when did she know, she said “Oh, the day it happened but didn’t think you would be interested..”
Then within 18 months the rest of the family died, the two sisters first and the brother – I think he was called Tom couldn’t look after himself and he was found dead after the police broke into his house. The neighbours helped the local council to clean out the house which was declared uninhabitable by the local council. In some drawers he found curtains and clothes from the 1940’s still wrapped up in paper and string, he found old gramophones and china and furniture from the previous century.
A long time later after we had discovered that they had all died it seemed they left the house and land to some distant relative and that was that, apparently the land was sold off and the book was closed but I will always remember the that day when Sam ran past me, I have it ingrained in my head and at least I know generally what I’ll look like when I am old(er) – the wild man of Borneo.. Actually, I think I look like that now. As Sam ran past me I made a mental note of certain things, his height, his weight and was he bald, I don’t have his height or weight, I’m taller and slimmer but I definitely have his hair, absolutely.
I tackled Doris about Sam years later and she would never talk about him, she just wanted that episode in her life to disappear but her neighbours, the McGregor’s were a bit more forthcoming. When she fell pregnant with us and went to Belfast it was common knowledge what was going on and when she came back it just wasn’t talked about – to her face but as it is in country towns everybody knew. It seems that about when we were 10 years old, Doris’s dad died and she thought she might get back together with Sam, get married and “bring us together in one big happy family”. Of course by this time Sam was long off the scene and basically told her to get lost but I do have a memory of her coming to visit us at that time so maybe that was a very close call for sis and me, life with the Johnston’s was awful but infinity infinitely better than living with Doris, out in the sticks with no electricity, running water, rat infested cottage, no radio even and constant reading of the bible every day. It’s interesting just how everything is a matter of perspective, we were desperately unhappy with the Johnstons but it was heaven compared to the alternative.
I’ve talked to Doris more these last few years about Sam and slowly she has told me more, it’s important to know these things because Doris won’t be around forever and the opportunities to find out about my past is limited. However, some things you don’t really want to hear, one thing in particular was that Sam was a bit of a shit, he wasn’t really that nice a person and the real reason why Doris didn’t marry him was because she didn’t want to spend the rest of her life with a shit, so it was her decision not to marry Sam but to have us put up for long term fostering.
In life we have examples of how to be but we also have examples of how not to be, the astute can take on-board the negative examples and know that they have no excuses now; they can’t misbehave because they have excellent examples of how not to be. There’s a Greek expression, “Na einai kalitero anthropo apo ton patera tou” which roughly translates as “Be a better man than your father”. I fully intend to be.
Many years ago I watched a documentary on the telly about meerkats in the Kalahari Desert in Botswana. They would go off in little groups foraging for food and at the end of the day they would come back to the main nest and the groups would be all over each other, sniffing, greeting and getting reacquainted again and the social structure would be re-established.
I was reminded of the meerkats yesterday; I was at a funeral and once we left the graveside and came back to the convent where the reception was being held I witnessed much the same behaviour that the meerkats did. There was a great coming together of the extended family and close friends and everyone seemed to know absolutely everyone else, there was much sniffing, touching and even the pecking of cheeks and I could see the bonds between each member being renewed and strengthened.. And then I noticed something else, the matriarch of the clan was gone and I could see the younger females all subtly moving up the ladder one step, taking over roles and jostling/manoeuvring into different positions of authority within the extended social circle. There were an equal number of men there but they all seemed oblivious to this, perhaps it’s because I’m an outsider and I can step back and observe, I have no vested interest who becomes the next matriarch.
There’s many similarities between weddings and funerals, for example, it’s really only on hatch’em, match’em, depatch’em occasions that I get to wear a suit these days. Funerals are aberrations as far as I can tell, funerals are not for the dead, they are for the living, the dead are past caring. We have this idea of the funeral being focused solely on the one who’s passed away, with moving tribute’s but that’s not what I witnessed yesterday, yes, the church service was solemn (actually it was dreadfully boring and full of religious clichés that I doubt even the priest believed) but as soon as everyone got into the reception then it was like “ok, that’s that out’a the way, now to chinwag with Arthur, I haven’t seen him for years..”. Just like a wedding really. It reminds me of the old joke about Irish weddings and funerals; what’s the difference between an Irish wedding and an Irish funeral? There’s one less drunk at the Irish funeral…and there’s many a truth told in jest, I’ve been to funerals before where fights have started, of course this was in Ireland and that’s pretty bog stand behaviour. And it’s no wonder, even the word ‘funeral’ starts with those other three favourite letters of mine ‘fun’ and we Irish take this attitude of fun to our hearts and raise our glasses to the dearly departed, it’s a celebration of life, not a mournful death but I’m always relieved when someone is delivering a eulogy at a funeral and I realise I’m actually listening to it.
And there’s something else that both funerals and wedding have in common, we all get dressed up and put on our best clothes and some of us even get invites but it’s important to read the dress code instructions carefully, ‘somber’ while only 2 letters apart from ‘sombrero’ is a world apart in tone. Apparently.
And one more similarity, when I was much much younger I used to go the wedding and the old dolls would poke me in the chest like witches and cackle “You’re next!” but now I’m 50 I go to funerals and poke them in the chest and cackle “You’re next!” Is that evil of me? Am I going to Hell? Too effing right I’m going to Hell, care to join me?
After three years of learning how to survive in the sprawling jungle called Bangor Boys High School I was expected to buckle down for the last two years and actually start studying for our ‘O’ Levels in Mathematics, Physics, Chemistry, English, Technical Drawing and Wood/Metal Work. You will note there’s no foreign languages there and there’s a reason for that, you see, in Fourth Form Miss Wylie started at the school to teach French and her classes were immediately over-subscribed. It’s not an understatement to say she was the French version of Marilyn Monroe, she had big hair, the most perfect nichons imaginable and butt cheeks that adhered to her skirt like two water melons covered in cling-film. When she reached down to pick something up 32 pubescent boys swooned in unison. She would come over to us and breathing heavily in zee French axe-scent would talk us through our pronunciation.. at this point the recipient of her attention would just melt into a puddle onto the floor. We had pupils, obviously sick and on their death beds happily drag themselves in for just French and then plead illness and crawl home.
One day she caught two of the guys cheating in a test and for punishment she kept them in for detention after class for an hour to practice French with her. Jammy buggers. They came to school next day with huge grins on their faces, a one-to-one with Miss Wylie wasn’t punishment, it was the stuff of dreams. Next day everyone cheated.
We had Miss Wylie for a whole month of heaven until suddenly and unexplained she left and we got Mr Murrey instead. You can’t imagine our disappointment. He was as different from Miss Wylie as chalk is from cheese, not only that but he had a moustache, a cane, a leather strap and a nasty habit of throwing zee wooden blackboard cleaner at you if your attention wandered for more than a millisecond.
He spent the first lesson talking to us in complete gibberish, a language one would think the London Leprechaun would be fluent in but sadly not when he was fourteen. He was actually talking to us in French at the level he expected us to be at but it turned out that during the past month we had absorbed not one iota of French from Miss Wylie apart from useful phrases like ‘tas de merde’, ‘c’est un vrai con’ and ‘bite, couilles’ and obviously ‘nichons’. Mr Murrey wasn’t impressed at all at how little French we had actually absorbed, ‘you pile of shit’ and ‘he’s a real arsehole’ wasn’t ever going to feature in an ‘O’ Level exam paper, though to be honest if it did then the entire class would have achieved 100% pass rate. Perhaps the examination board should review the syllabus and include a few more dubious phrases, that way we’d enjoy it and the pass rate would soar.
I went to Paris in the autumn and missed the last train back home so I found a hotel for the evening and wanted to use their computers to book another train home in the morning. Their computers were absolutely merde so I complained to the sneary concierge who simply shrugged his shoulders and said ‘Je n’aime pas, monsieur’, it’s a shame that neither Miss Wylie nor Mr Murrey taught us proper French sign language because I know just from his shrug that this translated into “I don’t care, life is indeed a pile of shit but tonight it’s not my pile of shit, it’s your pile of shit..” and with that he went back to inspecting his fingernails, you see, it’s all in the shrug.. I, of course, replied with ‘Tá tú chomh tiubh is leath aoileach ach amháin mar atá úsáideach’ which roughly translates from Irish as ‘you are as thick as manure but only half as useful’ and shrugged my shoulders too.. who says entente cordiale is dead?
In the twenty five years I’ve lived in London, or should I say London’s reluctantly put up with me, I’ve never had a white Christmas but in Northern Ireland it’s a much more frequent occurrence. From the ages of eleven to sixteen I helped my older brother deliver milk and usually that involved trudging through the rainy streets of Bangor, cold and wet and looking forward to 1 Old Belfast Road, our last delivery and then it was off to school for me. As a general rule, apart from the postmen and the odd person doing The Walk Of Shame, we’d be the only ones awake and up, the vast majority of house lights would be off with the good folk of Bangor safely tucked up in bed, lovely and cosy, dreaming away whilst Raymond and I trudged around the streets and up their drives delivering milk. It could be a bit lonesome, him, me and the odd ferocious dog chasing us down the streets but around 6:30am we would start to see bedroom lights coming on as folk dragged their fat asses out’a bed and got ready for work.
However, on Christmas morning it was a completely different kettle of fish. We would see lots of houses with the lights on much earlier, sometimes even at 4:30 in the morning, and not just one bedroom light but all the lights and we knew there was a house with kids in it, we could even hear them talking excitedly and occasionally at 6am we’d see some child out on a new bicycle that Santa had brought, too excited and impatient to wait to try it out and riding it up and down the street. Invariably the parents would be standing at the bottom of the garden path watching them, nearly always dressed in their dressing gowns half smiling but knowing they had a snowballs chance in hell of getting back to bed.
One Christmas morning it had snowed quite heavily, a downer for kids with new bicycles – not like that didn’t stop them trying – but wonderful for me. There’s something special about snow, especially at Christmas, I have very clear memories of doing my milk round through virgin snow, the air is always incredibly still when it’s snowed, the world quieten and the only sound is of your boots crushing the snow with each step.. magical. As a milkman – or should I say milkboy – one tried to be invisible, you want to deliver the milk quietly and not wake up the street and this is why we used electric milkfloats and by and large we were invisible – except to large dogs – and Jehovah Witnesses. The whole world is transformed when it snows, snow makes everything clean and white but more than that it makes everything look like we are living in a fairy tale. Occasionally we would see tracks in the snow, tracks of foxes as they went about their nightly business but mostly Raymond and I would have the virgin snow all to ourselves and it was like a blank canvas, waiting for us to start filling it in with the tyres of the milk float and our clodhopper boots. We were always a bit quieter on these snowy morning, like we knew this was a special morning, something to be savoured – though of course Raymond would occasionally lob a snowball at the back of my head when I least expected it to wake me up!
In Australia it’s the height of summer and one of my friends will be on a beach watching Santa arrive on a surf board whilst she cooks Christmas lunch on a barbeque, it’s strange to think of her catching a few rays whilst unwrapping Christmas presents but to steal a line from a 1954 movie White Christmas, which I’m sure will be shown many times around the world, ‘May your days be merry and bright; and may all your Christmases be white’ – even in Australia! Merry Christmas everyone.
So, I’ve mentioned before that I’m glad I’m not a woman, after spending an evening feeling really bloated after a dodgy risotto I now know I can never get pregnant…yes, pathetic man I know, however, it’s come to my attention that there are other reasons to be grateful that I’m a man and one of them is that I’ve never actually had to have my bits waxed. I watched The 40 year Old Virgin and he had his chest waxed and stripped and I saw the look on his face and believe me, it wasn’t one of pleasure. Actually, I tell a lie, when I was 14 I had to go into Newtownards hospital to have my appendix removed and as I was still considered a child I was put in the children’s surgical ward. Before the op the Sister came along, inspected my abdomen and told me I would need to be shaved from ‘nipple to knee’, a common procedure in 1970’s Irish hospitals. She asked if I wanted a male or female nurse to shave me bits and as puberty was in full flood through my veins I thought it prudent to choose a male nurse as I didn’t want to disgrace myself in the sweet tender hands of some lovely female nurse.
I remember it being really itchy when it grew back.
My sister bought me my first electric razor when I was 15 and at that age I think I could rub my bum-fluff off my chin with a damp towel, however I went on a ski-ing holiday when 16 and Kurt Savage, one of my class mates mentioned to me half way through the holiday that he had borrowed the shaver the night before to shave the hair off his butt. I was grossed out because he choose to tell me as I was having a shave at the time, and yes, he was very hairy but you think he’d have his own shaver by then. This is what 16 yr old boys get up to, we try to grow up as soon as possible.
Now as a reasonably hairy 50 year old male I find the idea of getting all my short and curlies ripped out as somewhat unappetising, what modern woman go through is enough to bring tears to my eyes. I’ve had to go to the GP and have my prostate stroked, not as pleasurable as they say in the some less salubrious websites that umm a friend of mine visits but exposing my most intimate parts is kind’a ok in the doctors surgery because I know it’s to avoid prostate cancer. However, going to some salon and exposing your most intimate parts to a complete stranger, not for health reasons but for social/aesthetic reasons is something I’m keen going to avoid.
I was discussing this recently with a friend and she used an expression that not only made me snigger but also went some way to explaining the reasons for enduring this torture, she mentioned she didn’t want to look like a clown when wearing a bathing suit and it took me a few seconds to figure that one out. Pubic shaving actually originated in ancient Egypt and Greece when prostitutes had to shave for both hygienic reasons and as a clear sign of their profession. Although female body shaving was established as the norm between 1915 and 1945, pubic hair removal did not gain a strong foothold until the 1980s, part of the reason was because of the porn industry (umm.. so a friend informs me) but also because swimsuits tended to get more and more revealing and if you were very hairy then the danger of looking like Krusty the Clown down there increased greatly.
But it’s very very strange, female friends of mine go to salons, strip off, assume some very unlady like positions, have a total stranger discuss and inspect their private parts in detail, then paste molten wax on said parts and apply paper and rip it off… AND they get paid to do this torture?? I wonder about this, I’m going to assume it is always a woman who carries out this torture – ummm I mean treatment but are there any men doing this to woman, and is the salon called Helga’s House Of Pain..and is there an age limit, will woman continue to have their bits waxed when they are in their 60’s, 70’s, 80’s? I try to go to the same hairdresser each time because whenever I go to another one I’m never happy with the haircut and I wonder if it’s the same with woman, do you try to go to the same ‘stripper’ each time..
And I recently learnt of another new term recently, ‘landing strip’, and I had to think about this too, I assume it’s called a landing strip because in some instances that’s where your man’s chin lands before feasting on the delights below. However, there seems to be a little cottage industry in landing strips and one can get them eventually in shapes that please, little hearts for the romantic, lighting bolts or you can even get it shaped into logos, the Gucci coochie as it’s referred to. Personally I think shaping your landing strip into the shape of an Irish three leaf clover would be fun, not for me of course but can you imagine telling your females friend’s you’ve done that in honour of your Irish boyfriend, I suspect they would roar with laughter…
And then if you dyed it green…
One of my friends tells me that it’s becoming more and more common for men to shave their bodies too and in fact go through much the same procedure, especially in the States, personally this is one trend I’m kind’a keen not to follow, I think I’m ok because wearing Speedos has gone out of fashion in the swimming pool these days and it’s too friggin cold in this country and one needs all the insulation nature kindly provides. One of my brother-in-laws is like a silver backed gorilla, he’s of Greek extraction and his wife says it’s like sleeping with a hairy dog, she refers to him occasionally as Scooby Doo, every time she curls up with him he tickles her just by being so hairy and she complains about the amount of hair left in the bed when it’s molting season, yes, apparently he molts in the Spring but like I said to her; surely you knew all this before you married him, surely like a new car you took him out for a trail run and sweetheart, you make your hairy bed and you lie in it. She says he’s got hairier as he’s got older and by the time he’s 60 in 15 years time he really will resemble a silver back gorilla. She’s asked him about waxing his back at least but being another pathetic man he says he’ll need a general anaesthetic each and every time.
I think I’m kind’a lucky being born when I did, my generation tend not to get shaved anywhere other than the chin but I think peer pressure (or female pressure) will make sure that the coming generation will find themselves visiting Helga’s House Of Pain just as frequently as their girlfriends.
Oh, found this little gem on a bone fide medical site “It is interesting to note that the lack of hair around the anus will make it impossible to pass gas silently.” Well, that does it for me, I’m definitely not getting me butt waxed.
I had to go pick beasties up last night from Tooting Bec and on the way there I passed Tooting Broadway tube station and saw a sight I haven’t seen for a while, it was blokes standing outside the tube awaiting their dates, each obviously made some effort and each looking up at the station entrance as someone emerged. It’s a scene I am somewhat familiar with as when I lived in Northern Ireland and didn’t drive it was always at the local bus station where you met your date, it was the same scene, one I’m sure is repeated the world all over, guys just hanging around, best shoes, coolest clothes (despite the cold rain) and freshly groomed..
..and the sense of anticipation..
A long time ago I was working as a manager of a large grocery store in Bangor, Northern Ireland and Caroline, a new girl started working in the canteen. She was nice and friendly and over the ensuing weeks myself and my bunch of reprobates got more and more friendly with her. One Saturday lunchtime I happened to mention that we were all going to catch the latest blockbuster movie at the local flea pit and perhaps she’d like to join us, it would be chaotic but fun. She said sure, why not and I arrived to meet her at the Bangor bus station along with a few others from the gang. So come seven pm and there’s about a dozen of us waiting at the bus station, a few of the gang get off various buses and we wait for everyone else – this is before mobiles – and then the Newtownards bus arrives and Caroline gets off. She spots us, waves, smiles and comes over and, astonishingly, gives me a little peck on the cheek and takes my hand as we start making our way to the picture house.
I was somewhat surprised, I should add pleasantly surprised for many reasons, I didn’t actually ask her there on a date, it was just as a part of our big group, I was as ugly as sin and there is no way she’d be interested in me but I managed to cover my surprise and act like I had asked her there for a date after all.
We went to the flicks and our gang messed around as usual rolling mint imperials all the way from the back row to the front of the cinema and chatting up members of the opposite sex sitting in front of us. At one point Caroline went to the loo and everyone in the gang took the opportunity to tell me what a dark horse I was, keeping a cracker like Caroline on the quiet! I of course played along and made out yes yes, I had been planning this all along but the reality was I was just as surprised as they were. My best friend Trevor later told me he was gutted as he had been planning to ask Caroline out the next week and I hadn’t mentioned my interest, I confessed to him that I was just as surprised as he was and he was even more gutted!
When I first came to London I had to learn table manners, or at least better table manners, at home it wasn’t thought of as bad manners to lick your knife during meals or lets be honest, use your fingers, but I remember getting the ‘looks could kill’ glare from then girlfriend as I sat there licking my knife during dinner with her parents, her eyes screamed bad words at me and I knew not why, what I didn’t know was that everyone else at the dinner table was glaring at me too over this faux pas but in my ignorance I was too busy chasing petit pois around my plate to notice.
Licking bits of cold metal isn’t something I make a habit of these days, well, not unless I want to starve but in Canada it’s said that if you lick a metal lamp post in the depth of winter then your tongue will stick to it. I’ve never tried that or felt the urge to lick anything metal outside the dining room but it appears to be a national pastime in Canada, at least according to Mr Google. I do wonder who discovered this and why would anyone be licking a lamp post in the middle of winter anyway and of course I’m curious now…hmmm I feel a trip coming on.. I have this image in my head of large swathes of Canadians attached to lamp posts and fighting for space with passing dogs, waiting for the spring when they can free themselves with cries of “free at last” just like MLK ..assuming their tongue isn’t still numbbbb.
So, lamp post licking isn’t my forte but I kind’a know how it feels because in my first primary school the toilet block was separate from the main building and one had to really need to go to the toilet during the winter. The toilet block was across the playground and the wind howled through it, it kept the air fresh (to say the least) but during the winter it was freezing cold in there, chilly on the willy and one didn’t hang around. The toilets themselves were actually metal – this was Northern Ireland in 1965 – and after trudging your way through the snow you’d be faced with the world’s coldest bog as we referred to them. You’d have to check all the cubicles and hope there was one with toilet paper as you jumped up and down impatiently, your bowels already gearing themselves up for a massive expulsion after a school dinner of prunes and custard, the most effective purgative known to man and beast. There was none of those new-fangled automatic toilets that wipe your arse with nice warm water and air like they have in Japan these days, in Trinity primary school you risked hypothermia exposing your lower cheeks to the elements and took your life in your hands every time you visited the bog in winter. As kids we learnt not to place our butt cheeks on the frozen metal surface out of fear of getting frozen to it and spending all of January and February attached to it. We knew that if we did then we would indeed get stuck, it was guaranteed because the older inmates – I mean pupils – had told us the story of how one of their lot had been stuck there all winter and had to eat his dinner on the toilet and have private lessons there too until Spring arrived – and the older pupils wouldn’t have lied…would they..? Consequently, Trinity Primary School produced a class of kids each year that knew very little about Canada but we all had excellent bladder and bowel control for you only used the school toilets in a dire emergency.
I spent my first three years at Trinity primary school and then we moved to Conlig, a little village in the arse end of nowhere that made the bright light (yeah, light, not lights!) of Bangor seem like Las Vegas in comparison and it was here that I endured years four and five. Conlig primary school was a four room building; year’s 1,2 & 3 were taught in one room, year four and five in another room, year six and seven in the last classroom and the only other room was Assembly Hall/Dinner Hall/Sports Hall/Stage for Naivety Plays at Christmas. It was a small village and even smaller school and I spent many a long hour staring out the window in a daze watching the assorted wildlife of Conlig use the school playground as a toilet. This was usually the local dogs who in those days roamed wild but one would see cats and squirrels and sometimes even foxes sniffing around the playground, especially after lunch hour when the opportunity for dropped food was highest.
There’s a scene in Monty Pythons ‘Meaning Of Life’ where John Cleese is teaching his class all about sex, it’s a sex education class and he hits the blackboard on the wall and a bed falls out in front of the pupils, then in walks his wife and lies down on the bed and he says to the class “OK, we’ll take foreplay as read’ and proceeds to make love to his wife in front of the class discussing his technique loudly. And of course the pupils are bored senseless and one of them is staring out the window daydreaming. And it’s the juxtaposition of all this, him making love to his wife in front of the pupils and they are so bored like in an English Literature class studying Henry The Fourth Part One or studying quadratic equations in mathematics.. and one day I had a similar experience at Conlig. Slightly. I was staring out the window one summer, bored to tears whilst the teacher was droning on about some dirge when I noticed a couple of dogs sniffing around the playground. Then two of the dogs started humping each other right in the middle of the playground – have these dogs no shame? And so of course I woke up and said ‘HEY! look at those two dogs!’ and the whole class looked out the window, probably the entire school was looking out the window. These days the idea of having sex ‘al fresco’ is somewhat (ie VERY) appealing but I think I would choose my place carefully and definitely not in the middle of a primary school playground. Perhaps the dogs should have sold tickets. However, at this point one of the other kids said in all innocence (I think) “Miss, what are they doing?” and like the true pro she was, without missing a beat she answered back “Oh, that dogs got a puncture and the other dog’s trying to pump her back up…” and with that we went back to our lessons.. For years after that I was sure that if two dogs got into a fight and bit one another then they would deflate and might even go flying into the air like an untied balloon. God, I was naïve… still am..
At my next Primary school, Bangor Central, I spent my final two years, years six and seven with Mr Iverson. He struck fear into all of us, he was ‘well hard’ as we would say, he had a cane and knew how to use it. We knew he was ‘well hard’ before even coming to Central because it was said that Iverson polished Hitler’s boots. We were told this by the outgoing pupils and we were suitably impressed – we had no idea who the hell Hitler was of course but the other pupils were very impressed and so were we.. and they wouldn’t lie to us ..would they?
Central Primary School had some good points and some bad points, by far the best point was indoor toilets, I considered this a real luxury – especially as I was living in a house with an outside privy so conversely I saved everything up for school in my last years rather than undertake the ‘back door trot’ at home. However the downside of Central was that there were a few bullies in the class I joined. One guy in particular used to beat me up all the time, it was a pretty rough school, I was beat up all the time by the group of bullies in the class, they would take my lunch money and once I actually was hospitalised and this was in year six. This set in a pattern that would later be repeated during my 20’s, the class bully would still take my lunch money when I was 25 – the only difference being that I would say “No, I don’t want fries with that..” as I handed over my lunch money.. ahhh, I tried not to gloat too much.. ha!
I tend to avoid conventional religion like the plague, part of it’s because I hate to follow the crowd and partly because I like to question everything and I’ve never got satisfactory answers to some big questions from mainstream religions. We had religion rammed down our throats as kids, we had to go to church and Sunday school and if you excuse the pun, it was as boring as hell. And of course, in Northern Ireland people were being killed because of their religion.
You see, I like my religion to be fun, not dry and boring, after all it was God who invented the sense of humour and it would be umm a sin to waste it. Which is where Raymond Blair comes in.
When I started secondary school we had a chemistry teacher called Mr Blair – or as we called him Yogi Bear, he was an old hippie and practised meditation, so we thought Yogi was particularly apt. He was involved in some flaky guru organisation called Divine Light Mission but I remember him telling me this one joke very early on;
Buddha walks up to a hotdog seller in Central Park and says “Make me one with everything” and Raymond thought this was very witty and apt.
A few years later someone told this joke again but added another bit in;
The hotdog makes Buddha one with everything and Buddha says “how much is that?”
The hotdog seller says “five bucks” and Buddha hands over a tenner.
The hotdog seller starts to serve another customer and Buddha says “Hey! Where’s my change?”
And the hotdog seller says “Don’t you know? Change comes from within…”
I thought that was very clever and I asked him if I could email it to some of my friends, he said it was OK as long as I don’t have any attachments…. (groan!). I was of course sold on the Divine Light Mission after that exchange; if they could make jokes about their deity then I wanted to know more but after a brief fling with them I realised it was all about money money money – not unlike the poster above – and I stopped attending satsang – plus me butt was getting sore sitting on the hard floor all the time. Yes yes, I know, not very dedicated but being uncomfortable distracts terribly from whatever the speaker is spouting on about.
However, that was Zen; this is Tao, Yogi Bear has long since moved on and I’ve had to find my own little philosophy and after many false starts and dead ends I found Richard Bach. He wrote Jonathan Livingston Seagull, a story about a seagull that flew for the love of flying rather than to catch food, an obvious metaphor about us not just struggling to survive but actually living and being who we are meant to be. The very short book sold more than one million copies in 1972 alone and broke all records since Gone With The Wind was released.
Then in 1977 he wrote Illusions: The Adventures of a Reluctant Messiah, about ummm a reluctant Messiah. I loved it, it just seemed to capture what I was feeling about the whole meaning of life stuff. In life there are some things that just need to be sorted out once and for all, I have a friend who met a man and fell in love, got married and she said to me “well, that’s that sorted out, I don’t have to search any more, my love life is sorted now and I’m happy, I’m content, I can tick off that particular item on the check list and get on with other things”. I know how she feels, at least when it comes to a life philosophy, I read Illusions and knew deep down somewhere that that was my life philosophy sorted and I can stop searching and enquiring and following false trails. The bit that spoke to me most clearly was the following excerpt right at the start of the book, it appealed to my northern Irish rebel nature immediately and can be blamed for a lot of things in my life and for me making a lot of the big changes in my life.
Once there lived a village of creatures along the bottom of a great crystal river. Each creature in its own manner clung tightly to the twigs and rocks of the river bottom, for clinging was their way of life, and resisting the current was what each had learned from birth. But one creature said at last “I trust that the current knows where it is going. I shall let go, and let it take me where it will. Clinging, I shall die of boredom.”
The other creatures laughed and said, “Fool! Let go, and that current you worship will throw you tumbled and smashed across the rocks, and you will die quicker than boredom!”
But the one heeded them not, and taking a breath did let go, and at once was tumbled and smashed by the current across the rocks. Yet, in time, as the creature refused to cling again, the current lifted him free from the bottom, and he was bruised and hurt no more.
And the creatures downstream, to whom he was a stranger, cried, “see a miracle! A creature like ourselves, yet he flies! See the Messiah, come to save us all!” And the one carried in the current said, “I am no more Messiah than you. The river delights to lift us free, if only we dare to let go. Our true work is this voyage, this adventure.”
Those that know me will nod wisely and say that explains a lot, you see, it’s quite important we live, and we live without regrets..
Hmmmm ..you know that point in your existence, the point just before you’re born and God says to you “OK my little spirit being, it’s time to choose, what do you want to be in this life, a man or a woman, ..you decide, it’s totally up to you” and I obviously choose to be a man and I can remember God saying “are you sure, after all, woman get to bring life into this world, they love so much more and so deeply, they have that special bond with their children and then there’s the added bonus of multiple orgasms….” and despite the attraction of ALL that I’m still glad I choose to be a man because I couldn’t cope with being preggers for nine months. I know this with certainty because I had a really nasty risotto the other day at lunchtime and spent the rest of the day feeling bloated, really bloated! It was awful, I was so full of gas I thought I was going to burst and if that’s what it’s like to be pregnant then you woman are more than welcome to it. If a man had to give birth then trust me, the human race would have died out long long ago, either that or artificial wombs would have been invented way before the steam engine.
When I did my nurse training I spent a few months on the Labour ward and had a fantastic time, I loved it but that’s because I was a man and had absolutely no insight into just how effing uncomfortable being pregnant really is. I used to say to my expectant mother’s when they came into the Labour room writhing in agony, “Hello, I’m dilated to meet you, I’m at your cervix”. It’s a wonder I wasn’t kicked out but at least it broke the ice (and maybe broke the waters too as they giggled). One reads about how wonderful being pregnant is and how some woman ‘glow’, in two months of working on the Labour ward I never saw anyone ‘glow’ except maybe in rage, usually at the poor unfortunate husband, if I had a nickel for every time I heard “you’re never coming near me EVER again!” then I’d be a rich man.
Of course I’m not equating one day of feeling really bloated with being pregnant for nine months (but being a pathetic man I will try my best), however it was interesting that I daren’t cough or sneeze for fear of peeing myself. If someone had a knitting needle I would have quite happily allowed them to stick it in my tum and let all that gas out. Poor poor me. It reminded me of this.
When I was a kid and living in Conlig, Northern Ireland, the farmer up the road cut one of the fields of grass and left the cuttings in the field. There were a few mangy horses in the next field and somehow one of them managed to get into the freshly cut field and feasted on the large clumps of cut grass. The next day when we were coming home from school we noticed that the horse was laying on its side and looking very bloated, fit to burst in fact. I told the owner, he sighed and called the vet. The vet came, regarded the horse for a minute and told the owner that the horse had obviously been gorging on the grass next door and that a horse’s digestion system is not able to cope with large quantities of grass all at once so it was fermenting and producing copious amounts of gas. He went back to his van, retrieved a large metal knitting needle from a black bag and punctured the horse’s abdomen with it. A crowd of us kids had gathered around as between thou and I this was the most exciting thing to ever happen in Conlig (and probably still is) and as the gas escaped from the horse’s abdomen every kid downwind immediately turned green and ran away, the stench was awful. The owner and vet just laughed but the horse got up almost immediately and obviously felt a large sense of relief as he went skipping off around the field.
That little tale reminds me of something else. When I was working in A&E (ER) as a student I had a bloke come in with a distended abdomen. He hadn’t had a pee for a number of days and an x-ray showed that his bladder was filled and distended massively. It was very obvious that his prostate was stuffed and blocking off his ureter completely and he would need a TURP (transurethral resection of prostate) but in the acute phase he needed to pee and the quickest way to achieve that was to insert a foley catheter. This man was in agony, complete agony which wasn’t helped by him spending the previous evening drinking pints at a stag party, his bladder was almost backed up into his kidneys and I lay him on the trolley to insert the catheter. BUT here’s the thing and if you are a woman you are going to have to take my word for this, if you are a nurse about to insert a foley catheter into any guy who has a blocked ureter, trust me, you can ask for his wallet, his car keys, even his house and he will without hesitation hand them over to you because he is in so much agony. Really, seriously, he would sign a blank cheque if you asked him and once that catheter is in and the pressure is off his bladder he is always as grateful as hell.
Reading that now, I’m not so sure I choose wisely at birth to be a man…oooeerrr
About twenty years ago I shared a house with a couple of friends (and a few mice). One of the girls there was called Leslie-Anne and she isn’t aware of this but she planted a seed in my dim skull that have taken root and is now firmly established in my noggin. It happened one evening when I was washing up the dishes from dinner, I had finished the washing up and ran my hands around the kitchen sink to check if I had missed anything and not finding anything I pulled out the plug. As the water emptied I tutted at finding a small teaspoon which was lying in the bottom of the sink. Leslie-Anne was drying the dishes beside me and said “isn’t it strange, that no matter how many times you check the sink before letting the dishwater out, there’s always a small spoon at the bottom that you’ve missed, it’s the ghost teaspoon..” and I smiled and thought nothing of it.
BUT here’s the thing. Twenty years later and last night I was washing the dishes from supper and I let the water out and lo and behold there was a friggin ghost spoon sitting in the sink and immediately my mind goes back to Leslie-Anne telling me about that spoon twenty years ago. And EVERY SINGLE TIME I find a spoon in the bottom of the sink I immediately think of Leslie-Anne and I know in another twenty years I will still think of her when I find the ghost spoon. I will have forgotten about a lot of folk that will have crossed my path by then but I will always remember Leslie-Anne. I think it’s interesting in who we remember and for what reasons, I bet Leslie-Anne has completely forgotten about me but little does she know how many times I’ve thought about her in the last twenty years and grinned standing at the kitchen sink. I probably ought to get a dishwasher – and wash wash wash that woman right out’a ma head.
Memory is a strange sense; some things can instantly transport me back to my childhood. The other day I was walking past a house in Tooting and there was an elderly man mowing his lawn with an electric lawnmower. The smell of cut grass instantly transported me back to my childhood in Ireland. There was a large field outside our row of houses and the council would come along every blue moon with a tractor and cut the grass. This left huge clumps of cut grass sitting in the field so all the kids in the street would gather the grass up and make little forts with piles of grass cuttings. Then we’d be the cowboys or the Indians and attacked the other children’s forts and try to kick over their grass walls and throw clumps of grass at each other.
Generally by the time the light faded you could be sure that everyones clothes would be covered in grass marks and so too our knees and elbows and we’d have to quietly creep back indoors and sneak our grass stained clothes into the laundry basket… Aye, those were the days…fantastic..
PS tonight, when you find a ghost teaspoon in the bottom of the sink, who will you think of? 😉
When I was a kid our mum used to make us sit quietly on rainy Saturday afternoons and watch some tedious black and white movie on BBC2 whilst it bucketed down out’a the heavens, sometimes the movies were so bad that the rain seemed the better option. The story of my youth was to spend Saturday afternoons in Conlig with extended family and assorted pets, rodents (and various wildlife pretending to be my brothers), attempting to find a space to sit on the floor in the living room between all the bodies and tails. It was a tight fit with nine of us and mum and pets, trying to get close to something approximating comfortable; not too far from the fire to get cold, not to close to get burnt, not too near to the constant draft of the living room door and most importantly not within arm reach of mum or we’d get a clip around the ear if we dared make a noise and distract her from the movie.
We’d be bored senseless with various Al Jolson musicals but at least warm, and occasionally there would be a movie I actually liked. One particularly wet afternoon there was a movie on called Brigadoon and I was mesmerised. It was about a Scottish town lost in the midst of time;
“Americans Tommy Albright and Jeff Douglas, on a hunting vacation in Scotland, discover a quaint and beautiful village, Brigadoon. Strangely, the village is not on any map, and soon Tommy and Jeff find out why: Brigadoon is an enchanted place. It appears once every hundred years for one day, then disappears back into the mists of time, to wake up to its next day a century hence. “
Ignoring the awful American attempts at a Scottish dialect (filmed all in Hollywood and not one single Scottish actor in the whole movie), I thought it was a sweet movie, a love story but in Brigadoon (circa 1956) there were no telephones, no radios, no cars, no mod-cons, no Facebook, no modern day attitudes, and dating life meant being chaperoned by some uncle.
It puts me in mind of the town my mother Doris and her hubby Bob live in. She lives on the outskirts of a town called Ballymoney and I like to think of it as the Northern Irish version of Brigadoon, a town of people interested only in Daniel O’donnell and the benefits of cod liver oil.
They have this strange tradition that I completely forgot about now that I live in London, it’s called ‘half-day closing’ and on Wednesday afternoons most of the stores shut up shop so you canny even buy a loaf of bread, never mind internet access time. I’d forgotten about half-day closing, as kids the only shop in Conlig used to close on Thursday afternoons and it was always a disappointment to run around to the shop on pocket-money day and find the door to the sweetie shop firmly shut.
There’s very restricted mobile phone coverage, I always struggled to get a signal when there, I had to balance on a stool in the upstairs back bedroom and hang out the window and could only get a signal when I implored the great God T-Mobile and the wind blew from the south, a rare occurrence in Northern Ireland. So in a town of 10,000 there’s no official internet café which is a surprise as most of the residents seemed to be under sixteen and bound to be Facebookers. Perhaps they haven’t discovered ‘the internet thing’ in Ballymoney yet. Or deodorant. Some of the school kids sitting beside me in the bakers-come-coffee-shop-come-part-time-internet-café stank and yes, I had to email via a bakers shop and I had to sweet talk the girl behind the counter into letting me use her steam powered computer.
There’s a city 120 miles to the north east of London called Norwich. I visited it a few years ago and right from the moment I got off the train I realised there was something different about this city, everyone seemed to be just slightly out of phase with London, people wore slightly different clothes and attitudes seemed a step back. However, travel 500 miles northwest of London to Brigadoon – I mean Ballymoney, and it’s like travelling through a time warp, Ballymoney seems to be the town that style passed by, just like the 70’s (the decade that fashion passed by) everyone wears clothes that are impossible to find in the London High Street, polyester slacks were for sale in the local market, I thought there was some UN treaty banning the use of polyester worldwide but apparently Ballymoney didn’t get the memo.
And the pace of life is much slower there, glacial if truth be told, there doesn’t appear to be any rush hour as far as anyone can tell – except on Wednesday mornings when the OAP’s (Old Aged Pensioners) race and I used that word in the loosest possible meaning, to the Post Office with their zimmer-frames, thick stockings falling down their legs, to collect their pension and do a discrete head count to see if anyone has kicked the bucket since last Wednesday.
However, it’s not all bad, there are some good things going on there that, living in a big city like London, I forgot about. They drive under the speed limit. And will let you out of junctions unlike here in London where it’s every man, woman and car for themselves. And people talk to you. People are friendly and people will make time for you and will engage with you. I always get caught out by that and considering I spent the first 25 years of my life growing up in Norn Iron then I don’t know why I should be surprised. In fact, the more I think about it, the more Ballymoney is like Brigadoon and that’s not a bad thing to say, it’s actually a compliment. No wonder Doris and Bob live there.
For a long long time in Northern Ireland the two communities, Protestant and Catholic argued, fought and caused a lot of heartache. It became almost a reflex that one side would take the opposing view of the other side, especially amongst the community elders and local politicians. However, there was one subject that all community elders were united on and that was sex, and sex education. Despite the need to reproduce, community elders were determined that no young person in Northern Ireland was going to have sex out of wedlock (and probably not in wedlock either). I suspect not much has changed these days in Norn Iron.
They say that ignorance is bliss, but I’m not convinced, they also say that sex is hereditary, if your parents never had it then neither will you. My parents never had sex. No-one in Northern Ireland ever had sex, at least that’s the impression I got from my parents as a testosterone sodden teenager. It was a taboo subject, never ever to be discussed, (exactly the same as when I asked our minister what happens to you when you die, uncomfortable silence), discussion to be avoided at all costs. I find it kind’a ironic that sex was never discussed but my parents were obviously engaging in it as I had eight siblings so they had engaged in it at least eight – oops I mean nine times. The big family next door obviously engaged in it a lot more. You’d think the penny would have dropped and that the community elders/politicians/local government would have actually pushed for sex education as the birth rate went in the opposite direction of the rest of the western world. They even fought against contraception, the pill took a lot longer to reach Northern Ireland than the rest of the UK and down south in the Republic of Ireland contraception was actually illegal until 1980 and then severely restricted.
It’s interesting how attitudes have changed, if my mum found a packet of condoms in my pocket when I was a teenager or young adult I think I would have got roasted alive, however these days mothers are practically forcing them onto their teenagers. I have visions of some mum shouting out to some teenager as he’s leaving with his pals “Johnny, don’t forget your packet of rubber Johnny’s” much to his embarrassment.
We never had the Birds and the Bee’s talk and school certainly didn’t do sex education, at least not in the 70’s. Consequently my generation grew up in blissful ignorance about sex which lead to a couple of unfortunate and embarrassing incidents with my parents. I never had to suffer the embarrassment of a parent finding condoms in my jeans but there is indeed an endless list of things I did do as a teenager in all innocence (mostly) and looking back now I wish I could press that magical rewind button and erase a few (more) selected moments of my life.
I remember being about thirteen or fourteen and watching telly one Saturday afternoon. As usual it was crap weather outside so we were all glad just to be indoors and reasonably warm doing our favourite past time – watching the box. It was some BBC Bristol nature programme about Shire horses and of course didn’t they start talking about reproduction and siring the next generation and next thing you knew the farmer was getting one of the Shire horses to mount the mare.
Two things happened simultaneously at that moment in time, (a) I discovered what the term ‘hung like a horse’ really meant and (b) my mum jumped up out of her chair (a rare occurrence, let me tell you) and immediately pressed the buttons to switch channels (before remote controls) to ITV and complained about that nature programme being ‘very boring’, not sure if she meant the pun but we settled down into The Dukes of Hazard and once again two things happened simultaneously; (a) the ubiquitous saxophone music started playing as Daisy Duke started taking off what remained of her skimpy clothes and (b) I discovered what the term ‘voyeurism’ meant.
My mum was horrified and once again jumped up and tried switching the channels quickly only to return to the horses going at it with great gusto, and then did what she always did on these occasions, she had a sudden urge to engage me in intense conversation about my school work in a transparently obvious attempt to stop me watching Daisy Duke getting her kit off, one of the few times she asked me anything at all about school, I half answered as I tried to see past her and get a much better view of Daisy’s dukes.
It was pretty obvious that my parents weren’t going to educate any of us in the ways of making whoopie despite the fact that sprogs continued to keep popping out with startling regularity but I can’t really blame them, they weren’t really equipped to deal with that kind of discussion, like everyone else my age I got my sex education from my peers and it wasn’t comprehensive or indeed all that accurate. To be honest I’m pretty certain that the last thing I wanted to learn from my parents was sex education, I’ve no idea just how that conversation would go but considering the very formal relationship I had with them then I suspect it would be pretty awkward.
One afternoon not long after the Shire horse episode I was asked by my school to bring in my birth certificate for some exam. My mum kept all that sort of stuff in a large trunk in her bedroom so rather than disturb her – she was chatting to my sister-in-law Cathy- I went on ahead and rummaged through the trunk trying to find my birth certificate. I couldn’t find it but found this strange object instead. It was about six inches long, was made of cream coloured plastic and for all intensive purposes it looked like a torch, it had an on/off switch but instead of a bulb and lens it was sealed at the end. I thought this was strange, I tried twisting the end off like a cap to see if the bulb was under a protective cap but it was stuck firm so I switched it on and had the biggest fright of my life when it started vibrating. I almost dropped it but was immediately enthralled, being very mechanically minded I loved to take things apart and figure out how they worked but this contraption was a mystery to me. So I switched it off and took it downstairs to the kitchen where mum was talking to Cathy and stupidly I switched it on and asked mum what was it for..
To say I was taken aback at the reaction would be an understatement, mum was immediately furious but strangely embarrassed, she swiftly grabbed the ‘torch’ out of my hand, put it in a drawer and whacked me on the side of the head really hard. I had no idea why but she told me to go to bed immediately and I went upstairs with my tail firmly between my legs wondering WTF just happened. Doh, press that Rewind Button please.
The other incident that highlighted my glaring lack of knowledge about sex happened around the same age. I had been at school with my friends and someone had used a word I’d never heard before, so that evening at home and surrounded by the extended family I thought it would be a good time to ask the following;
“Mum, what’s cunnilingus?”
Shocked pregnant pause..
Much older brother “It’s a terrible, terrible disease”
I couldn’t work out why he started laughing. Really hard.
I finally worked it out a while later. Doh, I’m still looking for that rewind button and it’s not just when I was a teenager but in more recent times too. I’m not sure if this only works in the UK but if you send a text to a UK landline number then British Telecom has this system which enables the phone to ring and when picked up then a computer program reads the text in a voice that used to sound like Stephen Hawkings but nowadays sounds like Tom Baker.
A few years ago I sent quite a somewhat risqué text message to my then girlfriend but rather than select her mobile I mistakenly selected her landline and pressed Send before I realised my mistake. She told me the next day that her dad who was visiting stumbled down the stairs at two o’clock in the morning and answered the phone only to shocked to hear Doctor Who talk dirty to him. Ouch! Press the Rewind button please.
I suspect it’s not going to be the last time I reach for that rewind button..
A friend of mine introduced me to Vernazza the other day, pictured above. Fantastic looking place and definitely going to be on one of my random trips to Europe one day for some nice photographs, hiking and sticky buns.
I wonder about the folk living there and if they get fed up with all the tourists, in times past it was (and probably still is) the only port for miles around and that’s how everyone made their living but now the major industry is tourism and no wonder because it’s so pretty.
One of my friends lives in the New Forest in Hampshire (nice video) and he hates the tourist season because the roads are full of cars all driving well under the speed limit and admiring the views and New Forest ponies. This irritates him as he’s nearly always late for work. The people who live there in the New Forest have a name for tourists, they call them Grockles (or in Tony’s case Bloody Grockles!) and I wonder if the residents of Vernazza have their own words for all the Grockles that descend on them in droves.
My mother Doris spent the first eighty years of her life living in somewhere equally beautiful, Cranfield, Killkeel. She was ‘out in the sticks’ as we say, the nearest neighbour was quite some distance away. She lived in a cottage that generations had been born/raised in, had walls hand built, whitewashed and about four foot thick. The first thing I noticed when I first found her (at age 18) was not that she had no gas, electricity, water, sewerage, television (but an outside loo and a well by the back door) but that she had stunning views of fields, meadows and in the distance views of the Mourne Mountains, all from her kitchen window. She too lived in somewhere simply stunning but one year I went down to Kilkeel to visit her and was aghast to see a garage had been built in front of her kitchen window. I said to her why on earth would she want a garage built just there in front of the window and she said it was the most convenient place. I said but what about the fantastic view of the fields, the cows, the meadows and the mountains, and she looked at me puzzled and said what view? I pointed in the direction of the Mourne Mountains and sighed..
And I think this is probably what it’s like for the residents of Vernazza, stunningly pretty place but if you live there day-in, day-out then you probably stop noticing it and get annoyed with the tourist – unless of course you run the one and only decent café in the whole town.
I went driving around the Mourne Mountains in the late 80’s with a friend, Jen. It was eerily quiet and spooky but quite special. Deep into the mountains I had to stop the car as the road lead up a steep hill and then just disappeared into a cloud. This wasn’t hundreds of yards away but just a few dozen yards away. We got out of the car and looked up, it was eerily silent, not a sound, no birds, no wind, silence, the air was incredibly still and a cloud hovered just inches from our out-stretched arms, I could almost touch it, it was incredibly well defined, like someone had drawn a line in the air and said ‘below here there be air’ and ‘above here there be cloud’. It was spooky, made me think of Twin Peaks or John Carpenters ‘The Fog’. Jen suggested we didn’t go any further into the Mourne Mountains version of the Bermuda Triangle and for once I didn’t argue..
I’ve mentioned before in this blog that it’s not a good idea to call Native Americans ‘Red Indians’ when visiting the states, not unless you want everyone to drop to the floor! Being a child of the 60’s and 70’s, the term was used every weekend at the local flea-pit (Queen’s cinema) as the cowboys fought the redskins. It’s easy to cause unintentional offence with obsolete terminology, and especially confusing when there’s an American football team named the Washington Redskins, and the Redskins serve as the mascot of Red Mesa High School on the Navajo Reservation in Teec Nos Pos, Arizona, go figure.
During my nurse training it was perfectly normal to refer to the Elderly Care wards as the Gerry’s ward – as in Geriatrics – and this was to our tutors. Now I am pretty sure Gerry’s is out and I suspect even Elderly Care is frowned upon, I think it’s referred to Care of the Aged now and during training terms like physically handicapped and mentally handicapped was perfectly acceptable but now handicap is only used during golfing conversations and the term disabled or disadvantaged is preferred.
I was talking to an American member of staff today and mentioned the ‘red’ faux pas to her and she agreed that if she hadn’t been sitting down then she would have fallen over if I used that term in normal conversation, however I went from one faux pas straight into another because I mentioned that her fringe needs trimmed and she looked at me quite shocked, apparently whilst fringe is a common term here in Europe, it’s called ‘bangs’ in America, where she comes from to have your fringe trimmed means something much more personal. Oops!
We all know over here that fag is a cigarette but means something completely different across the pond and beaver is a small water dwelling damn building forest animal – at least in this country but can mean your butt across the pond, fanny here is considered vulgar and not suitable for polite company but not considered that racey across the water. However, during my twenties in Northern Ireland and then in London we had terms, that as young lads we used all the time without a second thought.
Vincent Van Gogh – Rhyming slang for ‘cough’. As in ‘That’s a nasty Vincent you’ve got there’. As a digression, we had a tutor at school called Mrs Chesnokov and whenever she was mentioned in conversation it was de rigueur to skip her name but to quickly touch your chest then knee and then cough; chest-knee-cough.. geddit?
Salad dodger – an extremely overweight person. Sometimes we would also say busted sofa – an overweight woman wearing a tight dress/trousers. As another digression, I once sat on a bus with my very young son only to be mortified as he said in a very loud voice whilst pointing to the lady sitting in front of us, ‘Daddy, that ladies very fat, isn’t she?’. The young couple sitting behind us had to get off because for the next five minutes they tried and tried valiantly to supress their laugher before finally giving in to it. So did the rest of the bus.
OK OK digression #2, when I was at Secondary school we had a tubby chap in our class called George Burns and being the horrible cruel kids that we were, his nickname was ‘Fat Burns’ and loved our cleverness as not only was he obviously fat but because, of course that fat does actually burn.
Aeroplane blond – this is a nursing term and no, it’s not about dumb blonde’s, it’s a phenomena one got used to seeing, especially in A&E (ER) Units, it’s a reference to an attractive woman who has dyed her hair but still has a black box. As yet another digression, we once had an unconscious patient in A&E who had dyed her pubes green and had a tattoo ‘Come Lie On The Grass’ above it. She needed to be prepped for emergency surgery so one of the nurses shaved her and wrote in ink above the tattoo ‘sorry, we had to mow the lawn’.
Pearl Harbour – cold weather. Rhyming slang. “It’s a bit Pearl Harbour out there!”. Meaning it’s a bit nippy out there or there’s a nip in the air. This comes from the well-known surprise attack by Japanese planes on the American port in Hawaii in 1941. We would also say ‘it’s brass monkey weather out there’ meaning it would freeze the balls off a brass monkey, I had absolutely no idea where that came from but if you wish to be educated then click here.
Mork and Mindy – Rhyming slang for ‘windy’, i.e. “It’s a little bit Mork and Mindy today, innit?”. This isn’t actually a reference to the weather outside but this expression is always accompanied with a grin as you flap your hands around your rear end. Speaking of which, I was reading a blog (yes, mine actually) about life’s most embarrassing moments and this girl wrote that when in sixth form her teacher asked if anyone could do something unusual…like wiggle their ears or somersault…so this 16yr old said she could do a cartwheel. The teacher thought that’s a good trick so the entire class pushed all their desks back and she stood up to do her cartwheel, unfortunately as she was in the middle of it two things happened simultaneously
1) Her skirt fell down and everyone could see her awful Bridget Jones knickers..
2) She farted…REALLY LOUDLY
The entire class fell to the floor laughing and she was humiliated.. even the teacher laughed…
She left shortly after that and became an axe murderer..
Blouse Bunnies – you can probably figure this one out from the following totally true story. Into a Belfast pub comes Paddy Murphy, looking like he’d just been run over by a train. His arm is in a sling, his nose is broken, his face is cut, and bruised, and he’s walking with a limp.
‘What happened to you?’ asks Sean, the bartender.
‘Micheal O’Connor and me had a fight,’ says Paddy.
‘That little O’Connor,’ says Sean, ‘He couldn’t do that to you, he must have had something in his hand.’
‘That he did,’ says Paddy,’a shovel is what he had, and a terrible lickin’ he gave me with it.’
‘Well,’ says Sean, ‘you should have defended yourself. Didn’t you have something in your hand?’
That I did,’ said Paddy, ‘Mrs. O’Connor’s breast, and a thing of beauty it was; but useless in a fight.’
Five Finger Discount – to steal something. Another completely true story. It’s Saint Patrick’s day and an armed hooded robber bursts into the Bank of Ireland and forces the tellers to load a sack full of cash. On his way out the door with the loot one brave Irish customer grabs the hood and pulls it off revealing the robber’s face. The Robber Shoots the Guy Without Hesitation!
He then looks around the bank to see if anyone else has seen him. One of the tellers is looking straight at him and the robber walks over and calmly shoots him also. Everyone by now is very scared and looking down at the floor. Did anyone else see my face?’ screams the robber.
There is a few moments of silence then one elderly Irish lady, looking down, tentatively raises her hand and says, ‘I think me husband may have caught a glimpse.’
During most folks childhood there tends to be something, or someone, constant; the constant love of your mother, the constant need to get your homework done before school starts, the best friend who never leaves your side – especially if he has four paws and a wet nose. These are all quite normal but growing up in Northern Ireland there was one overriding constant and that was the rain.
When I left Northern Ireland and came to London it was like moving to the tropics. You get on the plane at Aldergrove airport swathed in ten layers and a sou’wester and you get off at Heathrow and everyone is in tee-shirts and shorts. And the reverse is true, when you make the return trip you leave London in tee-shirt and freeze your bits off the moment the aircraft doors open in Belfast. We say at home there are only two types of weather; “it’s raining” or “it’s about to rain” and it’s said in humour but “many’s a truth said in jest”.
I have lived in London now for twenty-five years and despite the very wet summer we have had here I still have a bit of colour – at least I don’t look like I’ve been sitting down a mine all my life and never seen sunshine but when I go home people stop me and ask where have I been on holiday because I’m so tanned, and I look at them confusingly and then realise that of course, compared to them I’m actually quite tanned, you see, at home in Northern Ireland the natural skin colour is a light blue.
And the weather affects you in ways you don’t (or didn’t) realise, at home it rained a lot so of course you bought big heavy waterproof duffle coats and Parka’s and you tended to eat big heavy warming meals in preference to salads because, well, because the sun didn’t shine long enough for a salad to seem worth it. But coming to London were it rains very little (apart from this summer) it is perfectly normal to wear nice light clothes and that was the biggest change I noticed arriving here – especially in the tourist spots were there were lots of visitors from the continent who always wore brightly coloured clothes.
There are some expression they have here in London that I’ve never heard of before, terms like ‘water shortage’ and ‘hose-pipe ban’, I’d never heard those words before in my life and couldn’t figure out why you would need them. The other phrases I had never heard before but was pleased to learn was ‘what a scorcher’ (not a reference to last night’s curry or it’s revenge this morning) and ‘heatwave’ and ‘too hot’, something I had to get used to saying.
It is said that the Inuit have dozens of words to describe snow conditions, from the state of the stuff lying on the ground to the speed and direction from which it is falling. Perhaps this is not surprising considering community survival used to depend entirely on the correct interpretation of weather conditions and in Northern Ireland we too have many words to describe rain; drizzle, pelting, lashing, bucketing, pissing, perishing, monsoon conditions, peeing etc
The weather would creep into our everyday speech unnoticed, we would say phrases like “It lashed out of the heavens the whole time” or it was ‘a soft auld day’ meaning it was raining gently and ‘passion’, you would hear your dad say ‘it’s passion doon’ which once you got past the heavy accent actually means ‘it’s pissing down’ and if you ask your mum how she was she would respond with ‘I’m right as rain’ which ironically means she’s very well. And one of my favourite chat-up lines is ‘your eyes look like the Irish countryside after a soft rain’, never used that line but it’s kind’a sweet. Perhaps one day.
When I was a kid and helping my older brother with his milk round I used to dread looking out the window at 4 in the morning and see the rain chucking it down. However when I moaned to my brother about the bad weather he would say there’s no such thing as bad weather – only the wrong clothes – and he’d make sure I had something waterproof on. During the winter it was particularly miserable, it rained constantly but was cold as well and then the rain would turn to sleet and I’d be frozen. We were constantly carrying cold wet milk bottles and he’d encourage me to run faster to warm myself up and although I was sweating buckets inside, my hands and especially fingers always remained cold.
I always wondered how everyone else, all the grown-ups, used to stay so warm and they let me into a little secret. They used to wear thick woman’s tights under their trousers and one of them pulled up his jeans to show me and yes, he really did have thick tan tights on as well as thick socks and jeans. I did wonder about a few things then, for starters he was very hairy, in fact I think he was part werewolf and just how he managed to get those tights up against the grain of his leg fur was a mystery. Perhaps he shaved his legs. The other thing I used to wonder about was did it stop at woman’s tights, did he wear other items of woman’s apparel and where did he get them from because I knew he wasn’t married, did he walk into Boots The Chemist and size them up against himself and get some very strange looks from the other customers.. But the biggest concern I had was what would happen if he was in an accident and had to go to hospital. He would have got some very strange looks if the nurses cut open his jeans and saw that he was wearing tights. Perhaps they’d think he was a cross dresser..perhaps he was..perhaps all milkmen are..
Yes, I know, I don’t think like everyone else…do I?
I have never been a big drinker but between the ages of 20 and 25 all my friends would go down to the Castle Arms and get completely smashed after work. I’m aware this perpetuates the stereotype of the Irish being big drinkers but if you lived in a country where it was cold and rained almost constantly then that’s how you’d spend your evenings too, anyway there’s only a limited amount of times one can trudge through the delights of Tullymore Forest and The Giants Causeway before the attraction wears off.
I’ve never taken to beer, I’ve tried but I actual detest it, especially Guinness and I know I’m in danger of having my passport revoked penning that but I’ve always done my own thing so I was always designated driver. Most weekends I would happily watch the transformation of my friends from quiet introverted geeks into loud rowdy morons and then into ‘I love you, you are my best-est friend ever’ stage followed by falling asleep in mid sentence and resting their head on the table amongst all the empty pint glasses and full ashtrays.
OK, I know this dwells on toilet habits somewhat but there is a point. What I couldn’t understand for a few years was how the guys could drink pint after pint and not go to the toilet, the general pattern was that they would drink until about 10pm and then go to the loo but then go frequently after that. They would have consumed anything between four and eight pints from 6pm to 10pm and not go once. I thought they all had cast iron bladders, hollow legs or somehow auto-magically plugged into the Castle Arms plumbing as I had no idea where that volume of fluid was going. However, I was talking to Carl one evening about this and he explained what happens when you’re a heavy drinker. You can drink and drink and drink and not feel the urge to go but there comes a point when you just have to and then after that you go regularly and that’s termed ‘breaking the seal’, it’s like the dam has finally burst and all the water pours out.
I know this seems somewhat convoluted – but I was reminded of that conversation the other day. In my group of friends and colleagues for the last 25 years no-one has got sick and suffered any major health problems but since turning 50 in February I know of three folk who are seriously unwell, it’s like someone ‘broke the seal’ and now I have a flood (ouch) of friends not well and the term ‘grave illness’ seems ironically appropriate.
During the first 25 years of my life death and tragedy was a common occurrence and I lost friends and colleagues due to The Troubles in Northern Ireland, we called it Northern Beirut with good reason and that was part and parcel of growing up – at least in Northern Ireland, I imagine it was probably the same growing up with the gangland violence in parts of New York City during the same era, so the first 25 years of my life was marked with tragedy, some involving very close friends.
However, during the last 25 years it’s been all quiet on the western front and the only tragedy I’ve had to deal with was when I worked on Intensive Care and although death and tragedy was a common occurrence there it was not friends and colleagues of mine, it wasn’t personal, the nature of the job kind’a insulated you from the worse feelings because you have to come in next morning and start all over again with someone else. However, that was the last 25 years, now it feels like someone has broken the seal and in my extended group of friends and people I’ve had dealings with in the past suddenly there is more and more tragedy occurring and it’s a bit of a shock.
I wrote in a previous blog posting about Facebook and how I was sad that it doesn’t extend into Heaven, I think it would be quite nice to be able to check up on a few friends when they pass over and make sure they are okay..
Can’t buy me love, love Can’t buy me love I’ll buy you a diamond ring my friend if it makes you feel alright I’ll get you anything my friend if it makes you feel alright ‘Cause I don’t care too much for money, money can’t buy me love
Credited to Lennon/McCartney
Paul McCartney stated that “The idea behind this song was that all these material possessions are all very well, but they won’t buy me what I really want.” but I wonder if that’s really true these days – or ever has been.
This is not an easy subject to blog about without causing some folk to get hot under the collar but I blogged a while back about my Speed Dating evening and how practically everyone there was only interested in my earning potential but not my loving potential. One of my friends says she doesn’t believe in true love and shooting stars, only in shoes and cars – which saves me having to figure out if she’s dating material..
When I worked in Northern Ireland I had a well paid job, house/car etc and it was interesting that the higher up I went in the food chain (literally as it was a massive supermarket) then the more attention I got from certain woman and I ponder on this quite a lot these days. I overheard a gaggle of my staff once describe me as ‘a good catch’ and I wasn’t standing anywhere near the Fish Dept at the time.
When I left the rat race and went into low paid Nursing then suddenly I became less desirable, my dance card emptied and I wonder how it goes, when I was senior management I had no problems getting a dance but once I went into nursing then that all stopped because of course all nurses suffer from white coat syndrome and will only date doctors. And when I started dating again a few years ago I was disappointed to met up with woman who made it obvious they were only going to date someone with lots of funds. And of course it works the other way around too, friends moan at me about men that will only date young fit woman and they don’t seem to be interested in the loving potential of someone 50+.
This is of course, all generalisations but I can only quote from personal experience, there ‘are’ woman out there in dating land that don’t give a shit about how much I earn but they tend to keep themselves well hidden, and I wonder does it all change as you get older and established, when I was in my 20 and 30’s it seemed to me that most partners were viewing me in a ‘will he provide for a family and make a good father’ attitude but now I’m 50 I wonder does any of that matter as most folk this age are sorted.. it was like love with conditions but when your cat/dog/kids love you they do it without conditions and I wonder how that change comes about…
Paul McCartney was to later comment: “It should have been ‘Can Buy Me Love’ ” when reflecting on the perks that money and fame had brought him, when “Can’t Buy Me Love” went to number one (4 April 1964), the entire top five of the Hot 100 was by the Beatles, the next positions being filled by “Twist and Shout”, “She Loves You”, “I Want to Hold Your Hand” and “Please Please Me,” respectively. No other act has held the top five spots simultaneously. The expression we have at home is he’s well worth rubbing up against (think of a pussycat), and I know there are more than a few gold diggers out there happy to help Paul spend his money but I can see where he is coming from, money can buy you love it seems but just not the sort you might want, I can go buy a puppy and I’m pretty sure after a few weeks I’ll get all the puppy love anyone could ask for but what about non-canine love? (I know a few of you are thinking why on earth would I need any other sort of love).
A while back I blogged about Crystal Harris (aged 25) and her engagement to Hugh Hefner (aged 85) and their pending nuptials, I really wanted to ask Crystal the following question “what was it that first attracted you to the multi-millionaire Hugh Hefner?” but it seems that there is hope for me after all as Crystal broke off the engagement five days before the wedding. Not like I want to marry Crystal Harris but it’s good to see that even being a multi-millionaire can’t buy you love – or the illusion of it.
I wonder a lot about this these days for various reasons, I can see the change in attitudes from dates now I am 50, there is much less ‘sizing up’ these days and much more willingness to check out a man’s loving potential as opposed to his financial potential and I wonder will that get better and better as the years pass, my mother Doris waited until she was 81 before she settled on the man who was going to give her true love – unlike a previous suitor who was obviously only interested in her land but I’m kind’a keen to not wait until I’m 81 before finding true love.
Perhaps I ought to start doing the National Lottery 😉