2013 Grateful 11

When I arrived in Budapest all those years ago, with two suitcases, two framed pictures, and an assortment of mental and emotional baggage, Keleti Station left me speechless.

Keleti stationIt was as if I’d stepped off the train and into a whole other world, a world that still belonged on a movie set. The glass frontage, the statues set on high, and the wrought iron and steel that encases the places all lent themselves to a John le Carré novel. I was enchanted. Today, the view that greets the new arrivals is less than stellar. They descend the steps to a construction site, their view marred by cranes and scaffolding, but like all things in life, these too will pass. [A note from 2017 – it’s all looking rather lovely, now.]

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Trains arrive from Prague, from Munich, from Vienna, each one disgorging a sea of passengers of all creeds, breeds, and generations. Those waiting for their trains are no less colourful than the myriad people who seem to live in the place. Hawkers, cabbies, currency touts all ply their trade and occasionally, you might even be lucky enough to catch a chess cowboy on the make.

There’s the juxtaposition of old and new –  the old-fashioned frontage at street level and the more modern metro station underneath –  both of which talk to the Budapest I’ve come to know and love. That curious mix of progress and posterity that I find so fascinating.

IMG_7547 (800x600)It’s been a long week. An interesting week. A week full of people. Four days in a row with full-on public interaction is never good for me. I need time to recharge, to regroup, to hole up. Those who don’t really know me might well mistake me for an extrovert – and I certainly have my Leoine moments – but it takes its toll. I’m more the shy retiring type… deep down.

The highlight of my week wasn’t the successful two-day workshop  or the jammed-packed GOTG session in the Cotton Club on Wednesday or the Dorothy Parker evening at the Budapest Secret Salon on Thursday. They were great – but I’d have swapped them all, in spades, just to be at Keleti this afternoon to meet some old friends who have just arrived to spend two months in my city.

I met Monica back in 1990 in Los Angeles. I met her husband Dave in Dublin Airport some twelve years later, after she’d married him. Both have been to Budapest to visit me, but never together. Both felt what I felt when I first arrived at Keleti and now they’ve come back to stay for a while and explore.

This week, I’m grateful for friendships that stand the test of time. For those with whom I’ve connected at what I like to call a maintenance-free level. It might not matter that we haven’t spoken in months or years – the connection is there. It’s just a matter of picking up where we left off. And to those of you living in Budapest, keep an eye out for them and if you meet them, say hello. Breathe some life into the Budapest-style welcome that I’ve been bragging about.

Note: For a reminder of what the Grateful series is about, check out the post Grateful 52IMG_7553 (600x800)



2013 Grateful 12

It’s been a while since I’ve been the youngest on a night out. And it’s been even longer since I’ve looked admiringly at the antics of a sextegenarian wearing a pretend snakeskin suit, fussin’ with his hair like a model on a windswept beach. But it all came together on Saturday night in Vicar Street when, for the first time in 27 years, the collective known as the Boomtown Rats played a live gig under the direction of Sir Bob Geldof.

classicratshitsTruth be told, while I’m a huge fan of Sir Bob (and still remember a crazy phone conversation I had with him in 2002), my familiarity with the Rats’ music is limited. Very limited. I’d gone to hear the three songs that I know I could sing along to, but my reticence on the other numbers was obliterated by the gangs of men who were so obviously on a mission to recapture their youth. I’m all for a little gyration, but lads, when you’re jumping up and down like maniacs, clutching  pints of porter, tuck the shirts in so the bellies don’t flop out. Thank God for stage lights.

Bouncing bellies aside, the gig was brilliant. Everyone was on top form. The fellah behind me had appointed himself as Bob’s personal cheerleader and my night was punctured by roars of ‘c’mon ya boy ya’, all of which I’m sure the man heard as, instead of fading, he went from strength to strength.

rats-new-photo6I’d forgotten how political their songs are and when Bob made reference to how relevant some of them still are today, he got me searching for more.

I don’t like Mondays was written about Brenda Spencer, a 16-year-old San Diego high school student. On Monday, 29 January 1979, she killed two adults and injured nine kids when she opened fire with a rifle on the primary school across the road from her house.  After a seven-hour standoff, she gave herself up.  When asked why she did it, she said: ‘I just started shooting, that’s it. I just did it for the fun of it. I just don’t like Mondays. I just did it because it’s a way to cheer the day up. Nobody likes Mondays.’ That was 1979 – and kids are still shooting each randomly for reasons as inane as Brenda’s. The message according to Sir Bob? Sometimes searching for a reason is futile … there simply isn’t one.

Mary of the Fourth Form is another favourite – but then I have a thing for songs about Marys. It deals with a teacher’s sexual attraction to a pubescent girl – a timeless story that never seems to wane.

Rat trap – the first No. 1 of the New Wave genre in the UK charts which nudged John Travolta and Olivia Newton John and Summer Nights from the top spot – was written by Bob in 1973 when he was working in an abattoir.  The futility he sings of is just as evident today.

Perhaps the most relevant of all though is the hit Someone’s looking at you. A stark reminder that the recent NSA/PRISM affair isn’t a new phenomenon: There’s a spy in the sky / There’s a noise on the wire

Another timeless classic Lookin’ after No. 1  was billed as a ‘paean to rugged individualism’ and interestingly, particularly given Geldof’s later work with Live Aid, the line ‘Don’t give me charity’ is probably more a reflection of his view of the Church and its teaching than on any miserliness on his part. On a number of occasions throughout the night, Bob aired his political views and it was refreshing to see that he’s still as ornery as ever.

Lookin’ good, Sir Bob, you’re lookin’ good.

In a week that was loaded with memories of times past, reconnecting with old friends has played an important part in rediscovering the old ‘me’. I’m grateful that circumstances have contrived to reopen closed doors and even more grateful for those who’ve chosen to walk through them.

Note: For a reminder of what the Grateful series is about, check out the post Grateful 52



2013 Grateful 13

I ran into an old friend last week. We haven’t been in touch in years. And although we were definitely in the same place at the same time doing pretty much the same things all those years ago, it’s amazing how our recollections of the same events differ. Our memories are weighted by relativity and perhaps coloured by the lives we’ve lived in the intervening years. What each of us chooses to file in our memory bank is subjective. Just as witness statements given by those present at the same event seldom match perfectly, recollections of times past also differ. History is constantly being rewritten and reinterpreted through a prism of individual hopes, dreams, and aspirations.

parallel livesIt’s not an age thing: I’ve always had trouble remembering events involving people. When de wimmen came to visit me in Alaska, they met my Alaskan friends who eagerly recounted some of the stories I’d told them, asking whether or not they were true. De wimmen contradicted me on details – and with regard to one particular event (that I can’t remember) told me point blank that I hadn’t even been there!

Now if you were to refer to GATT as the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade on page 2 and again on page 2222 as the General Agreement on Trade and Tariffs, I’d spot that. Or if you told me once that you were 16 when you left school and later upped it to 17, I could call you on it. Or if the chronology of some story contradicted known facts, I’d be asking questions. But when it comes to life events, I have a difficult time distinguishing truth from fiction. Perhaps it’s a self-preservation mechanism . Perhaps it’s laziness. Perhaps it doesn’t matter at all. I’ve learned not to blush in embarrassment and just to fess up to the fact that I simply don’t remember. It’s safer than pretending I do. And while I might not be able to share in a collective memory, there’s enough remnants floating in my netherworld to allow me appreciate reliving it. I get to enjoy the experience all over again.

I didn’t don my inquisitor’s hat and ask the usual list of 20 questions, fired in rapid succession and guaranteed to ensure that it would be another eon before we met again. It was as if it had been months, not years;  the conversation didn’t require explicit questions as answers came without them being asked. What has taken me aback though, is not the ease with which old friendships can be resumed, but rather that in the intervening years this old friend has been living my life, or rather the life that I’ve been imagining for me.

IMG_4447 (800x600)I’ve mentioned many times that I want to live by the sea. I want to smell sea air and go to sleep each night with the sound of waves pounding against the shore. I want to wake up to the sound of seagulls and be able to walk deserted beaches in wintry weather. I want to experience that sense of fragility afforded by calm waters and the fierceness offered by angry seas.

I have writtIMG_3372 (800x592)en, too, about my lifelong dream of owning a racehorse or three. I want to feel that sense of accomplishment that only comes when you see someone (in this case, the horse) grow into their own and achieve great things, even if for them, that great thing is finishing fourth. I want to have a vested interest in their progress and feel that sense of pride when they cross the winning line. And I want to enjoy the excitement of being part of it all.

Remember that opening scene from the movie the Commitments? Where Jimmy Rabbitte is in the bath pretending he’s being interviewed by Terry Wogan? Well, I’ve had similar (albeit non-bathtub) experiences when I imagine myself being interviewed about my latest bestseller. But for that to happen, I’d have to start writing it. Such is life.

Lest you think otherwise, I’m not sitting here overwhelmed by envy or riddled with jealousy that they’ve gotten to do/are doing the top three things on my bucket list. On the contrary. At the end of what has been an interesting week on many fronts, I’m grateful for the regular reminders I receive that life is there for living. It is short, fragile, and all too often wasted on what ifs. I’m especially grateful for the wake-up call reflected in this chance encounter and silently wonder about Nos 4, 5, and 6 on my list.

Note: For a reminder of what the Grateful series is about, check out the post Grateful 52




2013 Grateful 14

I do some of my best thinking in bed. I’ve always been particularly fond of my eiderdown and when I graduated to a duvet, I thought all my birthdays had come together.I’ve been known to take to my bed mid-afternoon, if the world becomes a little too unwieldy. I’ve been known not to surface until late afternoon, if nothing else beckons. I’ve even been known to spend a whole weekend alternating between bed and sofa, surrounded by books and DVDs, quite happy in my own company. And I never see it as a waste of time. To the contrary.

Bed, as a refuge, is much underrated. A tendency to spend too much time in bed is often seen as a sign of depressi0n. I’ve suffered from depression and know the signs that herald a major downer – thankfully it’s been years since my last bout – but my fondness for my bed is something different.

snoozeAt a workshop recently, one of the participants gave a presentation on sleep and sleep habits. They maintained that science has proven beyond doubt that the snooze button is dangerous. Apparently we’re much better off leaping out of bed when we first awake  rather than hitting the snooze button and getting that extra ten minutes of partial slumber. I consciously set my alarm for an hour before I have to get up just so that I can create the illusion of having a lie in. And according to science, I’m depriving myself of true wakefulness, and reducing the affect of proper sleep. Odds are, according to the research, that I will always feel tired.

But the flip side is that during that hour, I get to have what I rarely experience during the day – a period of undisturbed thinking. Be it planning what to pack for  trip, or deciding what to cook for a dinner party, or mentally scripting the opening lines of a book that will one day be written, this bed-time is invaluable. In that period of semi-wakefulness, I have had some of my best ideas, resolved many difficult problems, and come to life-changing conclusions about my life and those with whom choose to share it. My bed is more than a refuge – it’s a thought sanctuary, an ideas incubator, a therapist.

duvetWhen I was an active member of the corporate world, I was an avid proponent of duvet days and think that any company worth its salt should offer a limited number of duvet days to each employee, days off that can be taken when going to work becomes a chore, something that cannot be faced or only faced with supreme effort. This is not a new idea. The first recorded instance of the term duvet day that I could find dates back to September 1996 when the Financial Times ran this paragraph:  To staff at Text 100Italic, a PR company, there is a third option. They can take a ‘duvet day’. Each employee is allowed two days a year when they can play hookey with their employer’s blessing.

What’s the point in showing up for work if your heart isn’t in it, if your mind is on another planet,  if you know you’ll spend the whole day doing nothing but watching the clock. Why not simply stay at home? As an employer, I wouldn’t want you around and I certainly wouldn’t want to have to clean up the mess that would inevitably result from your distractedness.

As my own boss, I have granted myself an unlimited number of duvet days and, as a result of my taking myself up on my own generosity, I am reaping the rewards of clearing thinking, increased productivity, and a more positive frame of mind.

This week, I’m grateful for my 1850’s bed and the comfort it offers. I’m grateful, too, that when I go to bed and draw the duvet around me, it’s as if I’m closing the envelope on yet another day. Whatever problems I might have are shelved until the morning, when they may or may not be solved. Despite my best efforts to do this all day every day, this is one of the few times when I am actually present – living the moment. Forget the diamonds, the designer handbags, the fancy car – all it really takes to keep me happy is a comfy bed and a decent duvet.

Note: For a reminder of what the Grateful series is about, check out the post Grateful 52

2013 Grateful 15

I’m not a great fan of social media. Part of me thinks that instead of bringing us closer together, it’s driving us further apart. I loathe the addictive behaviour that comes part and parcel with owning a smartphone. I abhor the idea of 24/7 availability and the expectations this creates. I detest the fact that all too often people in my company would now prefer to text others not present rather than fully engage with me. Perhaps I’m losing my touch.

I worry that Facebook has birthed a generation where envy is rampant, where peer comparison is the norm, and where we look at other people’s lives wondering what we’ve done (or not done) with our own.

While the writer in me admires the brevity of 140-character tweets, the raconteur in me mourns the loss of the colourful prose that used to lead to a final, often irrelevant, point. So keyed up and keyed in are we today, that we no longer have time for long-winded stories and in our  conciseness seem to be relegating swathes of anecdotes to the untold.

And yet, social media has its moments.

Me as a maid in My Fair Lady

Me (back right) as a maid in My Fair Lady

Some months ago, when I was home in Ireland, my mother mentioned that she’d given my email address to a classmate of mine who was one of a few organising our 30-year school reunion. I didn’t pay much attention at the time as I’d no intention of going. Thirty years is thirty years, no matter how you look at it. People move on. They go their separate ways. I’d forgotten the names of many and doubted very much if any would remember anything about me other than that my father had the misfortune to head the investigation into the disappearance of the racehorse Shergar – and I’d heard enough horse jokes to last me a lifetime.

When I saw the date and realised that I would be in Israel, I was relieved. Online one night, looking for some diversion, I searched for the group page on Facebook, curious to see the changes time had wrought. Old photos, old faces, old names popped up. And daily, the numbers interacting with the page grew, the stories started, and the past resurrected itself piece by piece. But alongside that came the updates – marriages, kids, homes, careers – and for the first time I saw the power that Facebook and its ilk has when it comes to reconnecting people.

The Debs... 1982

The Debs… 1982

Before social media, we’d have been communicating by written letters and phone calls – both of which are way too easy to ignore. I’d most likely have read the invitation, checked to see if the few I’ve remained in touch with were going, and if the answer was nay, then I’d have binned it. But with Facebook, the interaction is continuous, the conversations are in real time, and the thoughts of attending a 30-year reunion are now hugely appealing – but I’ll be in Israel. And I’m strangely disappointed.

This week, although I never thought I’d see the day when I’d admit to this in public, I’m grateful to Mark Zuckerberg and Facebook for facilitating the bringing together of so many people, for giving us a forum to reconnect, and for aiding and abetting in the publication of photos that have kept me amused all week. I’m particularly grateful though to the organising team; to those who decided to run with this and are doing such fantastic job of reconnecting so many. Nice job, lads.

Note: For a reminder of what the Grateful series is about, check out the post Grateful 52



2013 Grateful 16

‘The genuine realist, if he is an unbeliever, will always find strength and ability to disbelieve in the miraculous, and if he is confronted with a miracle as an irrefutable fact he would rather disbelieve his own senses than admit the miraculous also.’ Perhaps Dostoyevsky was on to something… why does the world find it so hard to believe in miracles?

Miracles and the miraculous come hand in hand with being Catholic. I grew up draped in miraculous medals, believing in miraculous cures. Einstein reckoned there are two ways to live a life: One is as though nothing is a miracle. The other is as though everything is a miracle. I lean towards the latter. And my miracles have all been pretty minor, in the grand scheme of things, but happen they have and happen they do, even if I sometimes take them for granted.

Witness_3dI was reminded of this lately when working on a translation from the Polish – a beautiful book with photographs by Janusz Rosikon and text by Grzegorz Górny. I’ve known Janusz since 2007 and have had the pleasure of working on a number of titles with him. I’m a great fan of his photography, an admirer of his faith, and while we might agree to disagree on politics, I have a lot of time for him and what he does. I met Grzegorz for the first time a couple of weeks ago and was suitably impressed. It’s easy to see why they work so well together – both similar yet different, complementary yet individual – a good team. And it’s always nice to meet the voice behind the words, particularly when those words actually say something.

In Witnesses to Mystery, the pair delve deep into the relics of Jesus Christ, asking the time-old question that every believer and non-believer alike must have asked themselves at one stage – Are they real? Could they be real? They travelled the world over, discovering along the way that these relics were attracting attention not just from Christian pilgrims but also from academics: historians, archaeologists, philologists, anthropologists, paleographers, chemists, physicists, anatomists…all curious to prove one way or another whether the relics on display in various churches from Krakow to Rome are genuine.

Relics were two a penny in the Middle Ages when myriad fakes were sold to those who needed something to believe in. And as the author wonders – Does not the presence of numerous forgeries, however, suggest the existence of an original? Are mass reproductions evidence of attempts at imitating a genuine relic? The term simulacrum in postmodernist use indicates a copy without an original. Could Christ’s relics be regarded as simulacra, as reproductions of things that don’t exist? Or are they in fact real objects, with which Jesus of Nazareth once had contact? – hundreds of thousands of believers regularly turn out to see relics on display around the world  and the faith of millions is vested in touching something that Jesus Himself is thought to have touched. The Shroud of Turin is on my bucket list and I still remember the feeling I had when I got to touch Padre Pio’s glove. I’m a believer.

I have long debates with two friends in particular about religion: one is a scientist, the other a realist; neither lay claim to having faith in a god. And the argument always falls back on me saying ‘I don’t need to know; it’s enough to believe.’ For many this is a cop-out and to each their own. I believe in God – a God independent of any man-made religion – and He and I have a good thing going. It works for me.

So perhaps, in my case, the boys were preaching to the choir – I didn’t need much convincing. And although I knew about the Shroud of Turin, and the Longinus Spear, and the Veil of Manoppello, I found myself turning each page with a growing interest in what the scientists discovered when they ran their tests, a mounting curiosity about what the various expert investigative teams found when they crunched their numbers. And as one chapter led seamlessly into another, I became more and more convinced that faith is about believing. That some things are beyond explanation. And that just because we can’t explain them, that doesn’t mean they are any less real.

It’s a beautiful book that transcends belief and asks questions that sometimes cannot be answered. The photographs are stunning, the text insightful, and the overall effect leaves a lasting impression.

This week, after relocating my ‘office’ temporarily to Croatia, I’m grateful that not alone can I work from anywhere with an Internet connection, what I do is interesting and varied. I get to work my own hours, to travel, to meet people like Janusz and Grzegorz and to work on projects like Witnesses. And it pays the bills! Now, if that’s not a minor miracle…

Note: For a reminder of what the Grateful series is about, check out the post Grateful 52

2013 Grateful 17

My interest in soccer died when Jack Charlton retired as manager of the Republic of Ireland team. When players started earning obscene sums of money for prancing around a pitch and giving Oscar-worthy performances of being injured in a tackle only to bounce up bright as new seconds later, I gave up on soccer and pledged my allegiance to the more manly sport – rugby.

IMG_7331 (800x600)I had forgotten how engrossing it can be, though, to watch a soccer game …live. Especially when the teams that are playing are young, not yet corrupted by fame and fortune, and still in possession of the dream – the dream to play their hearts out and win.

Létavértes is a small town of about 3000 people close to the Hungarian/Romanian border. Its team plays in the third division under the auspices of Debrecen. Under the watchful eye of ZS, they have been doing well this season. Yesterday, they played an away game in Budapest against Ferencváros’s second team (Fradi 2). I was one of the six-country cohort that went along to cheer them on and I am so glad I did.

IMG_7342 (800x600)I’d been a little reluctant to go to a Fradi game as I’d witnessed the first team’s reception in Nyíregyháza when they had an away game there a few years ago. Armed police escorts, brawling fans, and mob-like chants – all very intimidating. While Fradi might rank up there amongst the best teams in the country, its fans are famous for their racist, anti-Semitic cat calls and a hooliganism that could stand alongside the worst of what British football has every produced.

But I needn’t have worried. There might have been 100 people in the grounds of Gozdu Palya in Népliget and the vast majority were supporting the home team. Yet there was nothing intimidating about any of them. When the teams went through their opening rituals, I was amazed at how young they looked. Their eagerness to get started was infectious. Their neon-coloured football boots created a rainbow affect against the green of the grass, and it was all go from the start.

IMG_7332 (800x591)LétaV played their hearts out. They attacked. They took opportunities. They made the breaks. And they missed. Yet with just two minutes to go, they were one up. And then Fradi scored two goals in quick succession. It was heartbreaking. Heartbreaking to see a young team have their neon-clad feet swept from under them (a magnificent No. 27 subbed on and he just 18 years old,  and I’d give it to No. 7 and No 13 for the dogged determination they displayed) . Their star player, a young Brazilian, in a No. 19 jersey, was the most marked man on the pitch and while not quite on his game, he was amazing to watch. I’d forgotten the skill that soccer requires. I’d forgotten the dexterity that top players have. I’d forgotten that, all things considered, it’s still a game worth watching.

The goalie, who reminded me a little of Packy Bonner, did his damnedest. Mind you, he didn’t have a lot to do as Fradi were never really in the game (until those fateful final two minutes) with any amount of offensive. The LétaV lads seemed to be doing all the work.

IMG_7348 (800x600)It was soul-destroying to see their three points disappear in a puff of latent adrenalin. And to see them slink off the pitch, despondent, when they should have been walking tall…it was gut wrenching. They played by far the better game and were by far the better players. But on the day, it just didn’t go their way.

As we sat in a nearby bar waiting for ZS to appear, they walked by on their way to the bus that would ferry them back to Debrecen. We cheered. They looked. And we realised that they thought we were taking the mickey. One of ours was in a green shirt – the Fradi colours. Who was to know.

Next time, as a fan group, we need to get our act together. We need to rehearse our cheers that will out-do the moronic Fradi chants that bordered on the neanderthal. We need to colour coordinate in red and white. And we need to get to know the names of the players. Shouting top volume to egg on No. 27 ain’t quite as powerful as telling Lászlo or Tamás to get the boot in.

The fan club – Wales, England, Ireland, Catalonia, the United States, and Hungary – as a body were so very proud of our lads and how they played. And as they left the pitch, we felt their pain. But we’ll be back. And we’ll travel to Debrecen if needs be.

IMG_7364 (800x637)This week, I’m grateful to the players at Létavértes for reminding me of the golden days of Italia ’90, when we’d barrel in to the Lord Mayor’s in Swords, two hours before kick-off, just to be sure we had a seat. When all anyone talked about was where they were going to watch the match. When the entire country came to a standstill for 90 minutes as we watched our boys, en masee, fight for glory. Those who’d taken holidays to go to the opening games called home looking for extended leave. And if they didn’t get it, they quit. They called home asking for loans to finance their extended stay and if they didn’t them, they remortgaged their houses. Companies brought in TVs and beer so that their staff would at least work up until 30 minutes before kick-off. The country, probably for the last time in recent memory, was united behind Jack’s Army. Those days indeed were the glory days. And it was soccer that knit us all together.

And while you can’t compare the European championships or World Cup antics with a second division game in Gozdu Palya, it did it for me. The lads at LétaV have rekindled my interest in soccer and reminded me of how good it is to be young, and energetic, and in charge of life. I sit tonight, somewhat chastened; embarrassed at how easily I give up at times, especially on things I want so badly. Their will, their tenacity, and their determination were an inspiration. You might have lost that game, LétaV, but you’ve won so much more. Go n’éiri an bothair libh.

Note: For a reminder of what the Grateful series is about, check out the post Grateful 52

2013 Grateful 18

I’ve spent a lot of time this week with the ever-so-lovely Finlay McLeod (Fionnlaigh, to his Gaelic-speaking friends, and Fin to his English-speaking friends). He’s a gorgeous man, prone to fits of melancholy. An islander who struggled for years to settle on the mainland, he eventually succumbed to the tug of home and returned to the Isle of Lewis, the northernmost island of the Outer Hebrides which lie off the coast of Scotland.

From the pen of Peter May, Fin is the main character in a trilogy set in Ness, on the Isle of Lewis. Through his eyes we get a picture of life as it was and is on the Scottish islands. We witness the powerful stronghold of the protestant church. A church that chained the swings in the playground so that kids could not use them on Sundays. A church that forbade women going to the grave site to bury their men.  A church, like many other churches, rife with hypocrisy and made even more polemic by rebellious  teenagers and young men and women who, desperate to throw off the yoke of their inherited beliefs, went wild only to get the curam later in life and return to the church more devout that their parents ever were. Like reformed smokers, their zeal was unmatched.

The fcallanish standing stoneslewis chessmanirst nblackhouseovel – The Black House is a wonderful depiction of the islands, the scenic beauty, and the chasm that existed between those bright enough to leave the island for mainland universities in Glasgow or Edinburgh and those left behind in dead-end jobs, fighting to make a living. May is an artist who uses words as paint. His vivid descriptions were powerful enough to transport me  in my mind’s eye to the barren Scottish land and leave me with a yearning to go see for myself. The so-called black houses were not, as I had thought, a literal description of smoke-filled stone cottages, blackened by years of open fires and poor ventilation, but rather a contrast with the white houses built in later years for occupancy by people only.

The second – The Lewis Mansheds light on that terrible phenomenon: homers. Designed to rid the big cities (Glasgow, Paisley and Edinburgh) of children from poor and homeless families, the ‘boarding-out’ of children has its roots in Victorian times. Many were sent to live in the Highlands and Islands, more still went further afield, to Canada.  Put to work in the fields, tending sheep, harvesting seaweed, or working the boats, this indentured servitude continued to the 1960s. The fates of the homers varied considerably. There was no such thing as vetting potential surrogate parents – suitability was not an issue. May weaves a story of intrigue that shows a remarkable sensitivity for the traditions of the islands and its people and brings to life the sense of despair and hopelessness in which poverty is rooted.

The final in the series – The Chessmen – is perhaps the most powerful of the three, exploring as it does the roots of friendship and loyalty, of family relationships, and of obligations that pass beyond the grave. It is here that Fin comes into his own. By now, in my head, we were friends – good friends. We’d travelled a long road together and I so wanted to be able to sit and talk to him, to unravel his thoughts. I wanted to be on that beach, bracing myself against the sea air, or walking the cliffs, fighting to stay upright in the gale-force winds, or  watching the moon at night as it settled over the lochs. I wanted to witness a bog burst – where heavy rainfall can lead to the disappearance of a lake as the water breaks through the peat bed and drains to a lake below. I wanted to fish for wild salmon, to hear mass in Gaelic, to walk the fells.

May’s deft inclusion of the Iolaire disaster in 1919 in which some villages lost ALL of their menfolk, lends the novel a credibility that makes Fin and his life even more real.  To think that the first book in this trilogy was turned down by all major UK publishers beggars belief. The Blackhouse was first published in France as L’lle des Chasseurs d’Oiseaux where it was rightly hailed as a masterpiece.

This week, I am truly grateful for my love of reading and for those authors whose ability to paint pictures with words transports me to other worlds from the comfort of my couch. I can’t begin to imagine how soulless and empty my life would be without books. If you read nothing else this year, read the Lewis Trilogy.

Note: For a reminder of what the Grateful series is about, check out Grateful 52.

Photos ‘borrowed’, with thanks, from www.isle-of-lewis.com


2013 Grateful 19

I mixed up my Paddys. I thought I was going to Kobuci to see Paddy, he who sometimes plays in Jack Doyle’s. I had visions of a rousing ballad session with more than a hint of Irish. Having dinner beforehand it was obvious from the general conversation that I’d mixed up my Paddys.

What I was actuallpaddy ky going to see was a gig by Paddy and the Rats. And the confusion didn’t stop there. With names like Paddy O’Reilly, Sam McKenzie, Joey MacOnkay, Bernie Bellamy, Vince Murphy, and Seamus Connelly, I was expecting a six-pack of Irish lads on stage, but when I spoke with Bernie afterwards, he was obviously Hungarian. So I’m still clueless.

From what I can gather, the boys hail from Miskolc and banded together in 2008, listing their genres as Pub ‘n’ Roll, Celtic Punk, Sailor Punk. What I know for sure is that the gig was bloody amazing. It’s been a while (my first Firkin gig in BP actually) since I’ve seen grown men body-slamming, or girls being shouldered by their lads, or every foot in the place rocking. I had a permanent grin on my face and with the mantra ‘bloody amazing’ rollicking around in my brain as the rest of me seemed to be going in fifty million directions – yet all perfectly coordinated. The music gets into your bones.

paddy5Paddy O’Reilly, whoever he is when he’s at home, had the crowd in the palm of his hand – literally. He choreographed them like they were puppets on a string. I say ‘them’ because although I was there, I stood back, by the bar, to avoid the frenzy and watched with a peculiar mix of pride that I think only someone as romantically Irish as I can be could feel – a pride that our music has run the gauntlet, somersaulted across cultures and borders and landed so firmly in Hungary where it so obviously enjoyed.

paddy4The accordion work on Pilgrim on the Road was amazing. And while I struggled to catch the words (a combination methinks of accent, enunciation, and acoustics) Never walk alone is still rattling around in my head. As for the bagpipes, the fiddle work, and the drums… am already itching for more.

This week, I’m grateful for the invitations I get to go places I’ve not been before, for the exposure to music I’d never discover on my own, and to those who hang tight till the wee hours and make these forays so much more enjoyable. And even if I was the common denominator in the series of accidents that befell the city this week … ta very much, lads. I had a blast.

Note: For a reminder of what the Grateful series is about, check out Grateful 52

2013 Grateful 20

There’s a house across the road from us at home that I’ve coveted for years. As kids, me and my mate would sneak in the back, through the fields, and try to get as close to it as possible before the caretaker caught us and frog-marched us home to whatever punishment awaited us as repeat offenders. We never learned. It was a place of intrigue, somewhere forbidden.

IMG_7286 (800x600)In 1917 it was used as a military hospital to treat the wounded from WWI. In 1928 it became a TB sanatorium where those with the dreaded affliction also known as the white plague and consumption came to enjoy the restorative fresh air of the countryside and ultimately meet their death. It is said that the mortality rate in Firmount House in the 1920s and 1930s was 100%. One former nurse, still living, said recently that in the 1950s, with the cure for TB discovered, things got better and they only lost, say, one patient a week.

As kids, we knew that the place had been a sanatorium for those with tuberculosis. But instead of making it less appealing for our adventurous forays, it drew use closer. Death was just one of those things that happen, eventually, to us all. And whether we go of TB or cancer or in a car accident or in our sleep, it is inevitable. I knew enough, even then, to know that there are worse things than death and for many it can come as a blessed relief.

IMG_7280 (800x600)The house was taken over by the Department of Defense in 1964. Watching members of the FCA (An Fórsa Cosanta Áitiúil, as the Army Reserves were known back then) walking up the road on their way to the village became a hobby. Like the house itself, they, too, were exotic.

I’ve always wanted to see inside and this weekend, I had my chance. The local history group was giving a talk and I went along to see what I’d missed in not buying the place when it was on the market (it went for 250k and while I might have scraped together a deposit, the renovation costs would have needed a lotto win).

For years and years and years I’ve wanted to live there, to look out those windows onto the fields and hills and to enjoy the relative seclusion offered by the long avenue leading up to the house. And I never once thought of the hundreds who had died there over the years from TB. I was gutted when I heard it had finally sold and my plans to turn it into an artists’ retreat or a shelter for victims of domestic violence went with it (a big difference I know – but them’s the swings and roundabouts my dreams enjoy).

This week, I’m grateful, in a weird way, that the house has sold and that that particular dream has vaporised. One fewer focal points might narrow my choices a little and render decisions about the future a little easier. And, with due consideration for the TB patients of old, I’m extremely grateful to be healthy.

Note: For a reminder of what the Grateful series is about, check out Grateful 52