The God of small things

There’s a moment in the brief exchange between John Cusack and the front-row woman when he backtracks on something she says preventing the interviewer from moving on. Responding to her question on who he would like to see play him in a film, the interviewer deflects from a fairly non-commital answer to ask if she herself is an actor. An eruption of her own laughter ensues. “Ah no, sure I’m just a mummy”. Nervous audience titter. Moving on…

“But you’re not though, are you?”, Cusack cuts in. “You’re not just a Mom”.

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(Not actual size)

She obligingly offers a quick run-through of the cliched litany of more superficial roles being a mother embodies.  Truth bending wizardry, poker-face maintenance, ‘parenting’ guru seeking missile manufacturing, baby-led led gagging reflex suffering, and so on. Nothing new in the rain-checking nor the predictable head-pat towards our ordinary heroes routine.

“Right. I think people spend too much time talking about what they’re not rather than what they are”, Cusack matter-of-factly tails off with a statement so banal on one hand, yet assembled in a way that’s not usually put. A sneaky shoulder-shrug prising open our pat take on things to see how they fall down. One that feels consistent with his knack for convincing off-kilter but on-the-nose pop philosophy of any of the outliers he has played.

And there it is. The moment I manage to steady the giddiness accelerating over days leading up to this evening from sliding into woozy dissonance from seeing him feet in front. Batting chat back and forth with an ordinariness shot through with an easy going passion for what matters. And what matters for many are the low-watt lights along our life’s arc that re-affirm the status of seemingly small things without blinding us with the certainty of big dreams.

In a world of heady obsession with status in the work place, our place along the firmament of social media, embarking on the Next Big Goal, the ephemeral nature of ‘success’, ordinariness is losing its necessary allure. In fact, I’m so ordinary,  all that’s missing in this navel led paragraph is a momentary pause to break through the fourth wall.

Oh there you are.

This John Cusack fella *points towards stage*, he thinks he is just an actor-activist guy. Nothing special. Sure, his is a life less ordinary; he knows it, we know it. He knows that we know that he knows it. But it hasn’t eroded his capacity to inhabit the regular guy with all the attendant dissections of his interior world and occasional flirtations with stretches to the perimeters of it. Relying as they do on the instruments of self-indulgence, wonky optimism, flawed curiosity, and mentoring from music.

*Turns back to the stage*

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Sinn Fein photobombs the professional photo (courtesty of twitter)

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My amatuer photo bombs spectacularly

He is not just the man I might’ve climbed over Dylan Moran to get to. Nor just an actor with enduring appeal. I recognise his characters now as those flickering gangway lights running along my own fanciful flights to cop-on and back over the years. Where lack of certainty is still direction, and being a fugitive from maturity is all part of the cycle. And it matters more what Bruce thinks than your line-manager.  Uplifted, I’m happy to break off from the queue lining up to meet him. To contentedly smile out the door and sing my way back to my frequently out-of-tune but thoroughly satisfying unsatisfactory life.

*credits roll*

(Press play)

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Postcards from the edge

One of the greatest marketing scams of the last few years is the ingenious Wild Atlantic Way. Take a coastline that’s always been there, chuck in the lyrical pipes of John Creedon, a clamped out campervan, umpteen dozen tourist signs, and wahey! the West’s your tourist cashcow.  It’s up there with non-alcoholic beer in the top bricking-it-in-the-boardroom moments. One that (presumably) culminated in the most extravagant piss-up of German men riding bare-backed on each other round the office. Forced to do three-point turns along congested photocopiers, they triumphantly, if ungallantly, rode with ties atop their foreheads.

Which brings me to my latest get-out-of-real-life fantasy pitches: The Wilder Northern Way. You with me? Thought not *removes tie from forehead* Still, credit to those remote marketeers busy imploring their dot comrades to avail of the “stunning scenery” amid chitchat on the North since McGuinness’s death. Presumably, it remains hidden from the view of logic among the rest of the islanders.  I can hear them in the focus groups.  “Hmmm, I’m not sure. Would it be as good as the Atlantic on the Western side? Would you need a plane to get there?” Best keep your shirts on, fellas. But do help yourself to the non-alcoholic beers behind the ring-binders in the stationery cabinet. Just ignore the sell-by date.

For all the attempts at enticing reluctant tourists upwards, you’ll never hear anyone urging people to live here. The locals are too busy cursing chance, and the passers-through only get to admire the doilies in the good sitting-room. In fact, some of the locals seem to visit reality only rarely these days, too. I’d been waiting on an unsuspecting middle-classer to send us a postcard from around the corner, and Newton Emerson kindly wrote his while wearing uranium-tinted glasses this morning in – where else – The Irish Times.

Newton would tell you it was far from well-stocked stationery cabinets of broadsheets his journalism was raised. This is true. It was from the clandestine confines of his imagination his refreshing satire took its first breaths. An experimental test-tube embryo using wry eggs and the sperm from moderate Unionism willing to laugh at itself. Over the years it grew to sharp-wit its elbows  on to the pages of respectable commentary.

Emerson is also right to lament the elusive ability of commentators to adequately convey the “incongruous banality” of war zones. The monotony of daily life that trundles on against the backdrop of rioting and ruination of lives,  of livelihoods, families, and  futures. ‘Normal’ life did indeed persist amid explosive satellite images beamed abroad. Affluent neighbourhoods, in particular, came through the Troubles relatively unscathed. They were, coincidentally, a mere stone’s throw from combustible working class streets on fire every which way.

It is fair game to revisit, as he does, the incubation of resistance among working class men to the discrimination and state violence unleashed upon their neighbourhoods. To disaggregate those who emerged towards the path of violence from those who did not. Malachi O’Doherty and others have been similarly stroking their chins with wagging fingers of late.  But it is as if an entire group of people can be divided into two distinct tribes (!), homogeneous in motivation, provocation, expectation, drive, privilege, opportunity, personality, susceptibility, suggestibility, loss of agency, and all the other variables that collide on the venn diagram of civil disturbance. All that transcends binary convenience.

It is not for me to speculate on why Malachi O’Doherty or Newton Emerson succeeded in raising a pen overhead in a lecture hall while McGuinness raised a gun over his own. There are too many variables I know nothing about. Varnishing another’s violence with the gloss of respectability of their own peaceful experience provides no richer understanding. It could also be asked why many of their other peers who didn’t sign up sidestep similar mystification, even if all share condemnation.  None of these feelings are mutually exclusive. That violence was a career option for a 19 year-old was indicative of a society far from ‘normal’.

The corresponding sanctifying of McGuinness wearing thin for many serves our understanding just as little. Greater thinkers than most of us have convincingly rationalised the legitimate use of grassroots violence. But as well as being a non-apologist for same, many of us will always wonder how the efforts of the Civil Rights movement would’ve panned out had grassroots violence failed to detonate. While the surviving mothers of now middle-aged sons sent away to wherever a greater life expectancy awaited still heave a sigh of relief as intense as their first.

Meanwhile, the dreary monotony of life ticks along largely unaltered; at variance with the prevailing images of harmony in the mindset of satellite viewers near and far. Normal life continues. But normal being a normative concept, Newton has gone fully native, if not disingenuous, in his interpretation of it.

Public spaces, particularly those dedicated to the performing arts, picket-fenced estates, and higher end retails units, remain the domain of the middle-classes. Their social niceties overtaking tribal insecurities to make for the most robust of cross-community relations. In the absence of overt hostilities, communities, in the main, co-exist along state-drawn lines of poverty, education, housing and leisure. The war is still finding people, still orchestrated by aging generals kitted out in three-piece suits with ties around their heads on Friday evenings down the pub. In another time and place, some of them would have responded with physical violence.

Integrated education remains a fledging enterprise politely coercing young people into an undefined shared entity.  Learning zones where subtle games of tug-o’-wars are played with the history curricula and Remembrance Assemblies.  Retail service provision continues parallel to the traditional ‘two communities’ with each served by their own chippers, post offices, supermarkets, pubs, even estate agents.  It is not ‘normal’ life. The stultifying inescapable fug of coexistence pervades the everyday, eluding the most articulate of voices and pens. All the mainstream weapons wielded around struggling to get the banality of a transitional war-zone in their line of fire.  And failing, mostly. Great coastline though.

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A hotel-eyed view of the North 

‘Shared motherhood’

“While shared motherhood can be a richly bonding female experience, it’s important not to run too far with this idea – and remember that there are big differences, too. Whether we like to acknowledge it or not, money or, more precisely, the lack of it, gives individual women completely different experiences of motherhood. Among other pressures, too little money can lead to such mental health issues as extreme stress and anxiety from not being able to afford help, pay bills or even take your allotted maternity leave.” 

Barbara Ellen

Every now and again, someone comes along with a few succinct lines to cut through the bullshit. Mothers: they don’t even always share similar genitalia, so much of it is individual. It would be a relief if everyone stopped homogenising them. Sadly, that seems unlikely.  But it would be progress if women remembered that when talking to other women like them, the chats doth not a valid generalisation make.

Month’s mind

Losing your faith on a pilgrimage to The Holy Land. That still cracks me up. There you are in the photograph, all 46 mother-of-four years of you, flanked by camel humps in those ridiculous square shades that devour your face, high up presiding over your travelling companions like The Queen of Pop-socks herself.

No spa breaks back then, just a girly week in Jerusalem with a pick ‘n’ mix of the habited and the devotional. And you. No furious ten-page follow-up message-board dissection. No outburst of empathy from strangers at the touch of a keypad, just an indelible question mark left next to your thoughts on the point of it all. And there it stays, mostly, until one of their kind gets a rise out of you obliging you to roar obscenities at the wireless and demand they “get a life”.

And still you occasionally slip into their place of worship on a Saturday night to bow your head and try to square all the question marks with the inevitabilities that befall your family, passed away and present, members of which you email occasionally when you can be bothered despite your virtuoso typist past. Google is an order you give your grandchildren.

I tell you I started this blog thing last month, as a hobby mainly, a way to relax since there’s not a hope of me losing the will to live entirely by going running, or cooking, or cleaning. I half expect you to ask if I’m coming out of writing retirement after twenty years but you’re already lost in your Sudoku. We thought you had it bad with the crossword. Remember when you flew to visit me and leaned over in the taxi with the paper wondering what I thought 5 across could be? Some addictions don’t require Wi-Fi.

Tomorrow, after we clear up, and your son-in-law cajoles your granddaughter up to bed, I’ll slouch on to the sofa reaching for the laptop. You’ll come in looking for your umbrella (“just in case”), and each of us will slide into our respective back pews to join the herd for a while, collect our thoughts, and zone out in the only way we know how.

“Some of your domains are expiring soon”

Even WordPress managed to get in on my birthday celebrations this week. Kudos to their payment department for reminding me my reign over critical spheres of influence is under threat.

Only this week, mealy-mouthed management shuffled into our office to trigger the act of bad articles in league with Brexit. The bogeyman made real. The pair of us will be lucky to be issued a three-month contract come the end of March. A monthly one thereafter if the mud sufficiently clears on the windscreen of uncertainty. If we get the wipers fixed. If anyone knows where to do that. If anyone knows if they still make them.

Difficult to know how to respond when you’re broke and casually demanded one of them to fire you the other week following a failed attempt at whistle-blowing. It was more of a protest yawn. Self-defeat by osmosis. It’s a thing. Probably. Difficult for them to know what to follow up the news with when their emotional peak consists of a burp after lunch. So they did that compassionate thing management do in a time in crisis and casually uncrossed their legs. And that was that.

Later that evening, I was forced to do the responsible thing and interrupt our wee one screaming protestations at her Da over a minor miscarriage of justice. Actually, sorry love, but that is in fact my role. After renewing our consistent parenting pact, he was forced to agree. Being usurped by a five-year old. The indiginity of it. What next – a robot with unpredictable mood swings and an irrational hatred of Stephen Fry?

Praise be for the kind buys of Merch. Birthday presents for the coping woman round town previously reliant on air-drumming at traffic lights.

handcream

*sniffs* Yep. That could work on creamcrackers 

johncusack

 Stalking Open at 06:30

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Stalking glasses (see above)

Dress: Model’s own

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Essential sturdy coffee coaster

 

 

All Or

Originally posted in 2014

Tucked away in the main recruitment webpage for the community and voluntary sector today is an invitation to suitably qualified parties to tender for a feasibility study on the development of a storytelling project. The initiative aims to reflect “the cooperation and interaction between former members of the Royal Ulster Constabulary and former members of An Garda Siochána in the border region from the establishment of both Police Forces in 1922 to 2001.” Among the anticipated outcomes is that different experiences, memories, and legacies of the past will have been acknowledged. It all sounds very ambitious and must surely be the fruits of some high-minded collective think-in from a much feted Anglo-Irish entity charged with rescuing those irrational wee Northerners from themselves, and each other. Except it’s not. It’s just business as usual from a sector quietly getting on with creative efforts to address the diversity of experiences among victims and survivors.

In the flurry of public commentary on foot of Gerry Adams’s arrest last week, it fast became a chin-stroking exercise over the new Burning Question: All or Nothing?  Particular credit was given to Fintan O’Toole for exhibiting a balance in his response generally uncharacteristic of commentators south of the border. I know it is antagonistic to speak in terms of ‘Southern’ understanding, but that is how it has seemed to me for many years now. The gulf between reality and understanding has always felt wider there than in many other places. Relying on a mainstream discourse played out through a predictably narrow media, including the Sunday Independent revisionists, hasn’t helped. Yet, everyone has responsibility to dig deeper. To step back from the temptation of case-shut analysis and reach for a few question marks instead. Adams’s arrest upended one sector’s fondness for all or nothing, and enabled the camera to pan away and broaden perspective. O’Toole’s article succeeded in showing that the arrogance of certainty is receding. That can only be a good thing.

Perhaps when future historians show up, sufficient perspective will have been gained to enable the ordinary communities of the North to finally sharp-elbow their way onto those pages reserved for the peace-brokers. And the conveniently myopic interpretation of the Conflict as a petty religious fall-out between neighbours, by neighbours, might get a laugh similar to that directed at the flat-earth theorists of yesteryear. It would be churlish to dismiss the efforts of some politicians in the process, but peace was essentially a demand from the people. The ordinary people, no longer able to stomach the increasingly brutal and futile tactics of paramilitaries, or the intransigence of successive governments North, South, and Westminster. It took the threat of political expediency and the oceanic roar of ‘no more’ for the ballot seekers to catch up. Peace was essentially a grassroots driven outcome.

Communities remain unstinting in their efforts to acknowledge “different experiences, memories, and legacies of the past”.  Relatives For Justice, and The Pat Finucane Centre, among others, labour beneath the political ransom they’re being held under to beat a path towards truth and justice for victims and survivors. Elsewhere, a plethora of grassroots projects provide therapeutic supports and safe meeting places for others to access help to heal and deal with the past.  In accounting for the rights and needs of victims and survivors, the one-size of all or nothing does not fit neatly. Victims and survivors occupy a broad spectrum; they are as diverse as their memories. Many desire forgiveness, acceptance, and hold tight to a determination not to re-live the origins of their pain in a courtroom. Yet they don’t wish to undermine the legitimacy or entitlement of others to do otherwise. For some, acknowledgement will suffice. For others, surrendering their game of tug o’ war with the right way forward is out of the question.

Any proposed framework will have to account for that reality. The traditional binary shorthand of all or nothing, green or orange, taig or prod, won’t withstand a traditional Norn Iron kicking. Achieving it is not an impossibility, but it necessitates the centrality of victims and survivors in its design, and their inclusion in corresponding commentary and mainstream narrative(s). Communities are ready. Families of victims are ready. Survivors are ready. All are, for the All or. They’re just waiting for the peace-brokers to catch up. For the leaders to take the lead. Story of their lives, and their dead.

The dog’s derrière

Less than a fortnight ago, a bunch of us stood on the same spot a Sunday-coated Bryan Dobson has been broadcasting from all day. A Tommie Gorman of sorts to the right of me, an Adams prototype to the left. One as earnest as the other is capable of talking in ever increasing circles. Both praying to fuck I’d quit my best Bryan routine and immediately desist from asking awkward questions (“How’s the head?” etc.).

Having dodged the residential debriefing in the bar, my relative freshness was beginning to produce a sound similar to the early morning vacuum cleaner outside their hotel door. The one they were rudely dragged away from to join the guided walk of the Walls. A bonding exercise some genius had thought to line up for the morning after. It seemed like a good idea at the time. One we all fell for since it didn’t involve any more turning to our neighbour in the group to discuss What It All Means, or the dreaded C word (‘comfort break’).

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Hangover Cam

When the morning showed up however, constitutions and concentration were as wobbly and out-of-focus as the photo above. This view being the actual pixel quality of Gerry and Tommie’s respective vision till they reached the bar at lunch for a much-needed comfort break (comfort being a broad term). Their delicacy tested by the fatal combination of joviality and pride found in our recommended 5 star tour-guide. A Derry man, in short.

For a Donegal woman to be taken in hand for a walk around her neighbour’s garden, there had to be an incentive otherwise what was the point? Once the stabilisers came off my family shopping trips, and the annual Christmas Eve excursions, I had mastered these streets with no hands. But I hold my hands up to having adopted the swagger of the local. For of course, I am not, and never was, a local. Our territories share a hinterland but we have always been the culchie cousins to our edgier brethren over the border. What with their unmistakable pretentious-stripping vowels and punk histories as steep and deep as the streets they live on. And like all things lying on the doorstep, I stepped over it without looking down after a while.

To the top right of the photo (behind Bryan, if you’re watching RTE), you’ll see the green area where an Undertones album cover was taken.  Higher up adjacent on the left, a multi-coloured strip of second floor windows includes the house Martin McGuinness is being waked in tonight; while directly across the main road to the left, John Hume’s home is just out of view, just like John Hume. Somewhere close by, someone is vehemently denying they are related to Phil Coulter.

The girl, immaculate in her school uniform, dominating the photo on the gable wall, was the first child killed in the Conflict. Her name was Annette McGavigan, and her father sat by that wall talking to his daughter every day until grief came for him, too. Elsewhere, the door of Sandinos swings open with a crumpled up Eamonn McCann sauntering towards whatever pew hosts his pint. Women push prams up the vertiginous path of life. And together they all converge in a place we Donegal folk subtly understand as indomitable Derry. The ragged, proud, aging, but always cooler cousin.