A hump like a snow-hill

Moby

Caught in a downpour, I rounded a corner on my way through town and was greeted by this beauty. It brought me right back to my home off the coast of County Mayo. Every few years a whale will wash up on the shore somewhere and it’s always a spectacle for the locals. Some families will make a day out of visiting the thing and it gives the old ones something to talk about in the pub on a Sunday afternoon.

On a quiet night, if you turn your ear the right way on the pillow, you can hear the lapping of ocean waves in the bay. It makes for a fine lullaby and, depending on who you talk with, they say that the salt air will either gift you with all the vitality of a young bullock or it will rust your bones from the inside out. Sometimes I miss that ocean air and the good people of Mayo, but London spares no time for sentimentality and there is always somewhere a person has to be. I took a quick snap of the painting and hope it brings some pleasant thoughts of the sea to your own day. 

A Rural Idyll in Steady Decline

town

The people of that plainly built farming town led simple lives and were proud of the hardship and forfeiture that rural existence assumed of them. They knew their place in that world and – as is customary in such isolated surroundings – they conducted themselves with the same sheltered constancy as so many of their forebears had abided for generations before. In the summer months, they worked on the bog, cutting and footing the turf as the midges ate at their faces and the sun reddened their necks. In autumn, they collected the dried turf in sacks and shifted the load onto rented wagons for bringing home. They burned the dried sod for fuel during the winter and prayed to the mother, the father, and the Holy Spirit in heaven that it would be a short cold this year and that spring would not be long in coming.

As soon as they were able, the women mothered children. Continuing to do so until their exhausted bodies could no longer endure the ruining drudgery of incubation. These women took every care as was afforded to them for their young, and when it was needed, they went out and helped the men on the land. Most of the men earned their living as laborers on the farms. Some were employed as tradesmen and others did spot work around the town when it was on offer and if they were able for it. A few of them brewed poitín in makeshift pot stills built behind locked shed doors and sold the cheap spirit to their trusted neighbours who understood that such a transaction was to be of no concern to the law. They were solid men and not given to preoccupying themselves with things they had no need to understand.Their children wore clothes that were ten years too old and five sizes too big. They all dressed like this. Childish jealousy was never to be found in this parish. In school they studied their sums and some read the writers of the ancient world. When their parents thought them old enough, and they were not looking to go on further, they finished with school and learned all about bailing and the livestock. Sometimes little more. On Sundays, they packed the churches and twice passed around the collection plate for the unfortunate. They understood austerity as an instinct and for what they lacked they did without. With no knowledge of an alternative, they trudged quietly through obscure lives uninterrupted and without question. Nobody, least of all the people of that town, could possibly have foreseen the changes that have taken place in this country over the last half century. With expectation replacing contentment, the young no longer anchor their interests to the sturdy honesty of rural life. Low on the patient regard for life that their parents had embraced so unbegrudgingly, they move away as soon as they’re able, leaving the old and the unambitious to take care of themselves.

woi_castlebarI cannot properly recall what possessed me to settle,of all places, there. But it was cheap to rent and I needed to save money before I was to run away to London. I was working as a cook and living alone in a modest flat above a musical instrument repair store on a narrow terrace a short jump from the town centre. It was a conservative neighbourhood, housed mostly by the retired and the widowed, but not without its own sedentary charm. Nothing was a matter of urgency in that town while I was there and brevity was an article in short reserve; the rain fell at a pace of its own accord and the sun shone when it felt up to the task. I remember my washing machine breaking down and having to wait over a month before my landlord found someone to come around and look at the thing. For weeks I had to scrub the guts and gravy stains from my whites in my flat’s cheap aluminium kitchen sink. I could have used the launderette on main street, but the lady who ran the place had the bad habit of only opening in the late afternoon and closing early evening.

I was living two doors down from a cantankerous, semi-retired coal merchant who doubled his living room as his business headquarters. As straight backed as his stoutly posture afforded, he faced the world with the reticence and certainty of an old praetorian sentry. Cigarette in hand and stood on his porch step, he would spend hours watching as the business of everyday life unfolded on the street in front of him; this superintendent of the quotidian. He knew everyone and was himself known to have an opinion on just about everything happening in town at any ony time and with a keenness of interest only enjoyed by old county sorts. If there was nobody on the road to humor him, he would talk to the dogs, the birds, sky, the moon, anything. I still cannot be sure if it was that he was crazy, a coy but rambling drunkard, or the most straightforward person I have had the experience of meeting. In the hotter months, I would catch him under the cool shade of his front doorway. Being from the old stock, he was not one short of words and we never struggled to find conversation.

“What do you think about that then?” He started, offering no indication as to what we were to discuss.

“Not much, now, not much.” Was what country people understand as the fittest response.

He told me about his years in Italy and the restaurants that he had once owned. The biggest place was in this very town. The biggest place these people had ever seen. So he tells me. He had seen all there was to see and knew all that was needed to be known. He was, as I am sure you can imagine, not an easy man to impress. He paid little service to what I had to say on any matter relating to life and, like so many with such a belief, it was incredibly difficult to excite any interest within him. To a man who believes he has seen everything the world has to offer, no one can persuade him differently. He has his own silent idea of what matters, but not the time to share his findings with anyone else. Nevertheless, I liked him and always felt as if I had achieved something just by talking with him.

“You’re young and fit,” he would laugh as he sauntered from his post in search of a cup of tea and a sit down. “You don’t want to be stuck here. Here is for the old and the unambitious.”

When I wasn’t working, I was drinking. Everyone in that town was a drinker for the clear and simple reason that there was little else to do of a weekend. It would be a real task to walk to market square at any time in the evening and find even a single man who didn’t empty most of what he earned into the bar. The guy in the flat directly beside my place drank himself stupid every night, and a more shambolic and sour a drunk you would never find yourself in want to encounter. I only ever talked with him once, but I could hear him arguing and crashing around in there until all hours. He was a plasterer by trade but hadn’t enjoyed the pleasure of a decent contract in years. He never worked. One time,I heard him hit his woman in there. They weren’t alone. Enormous was the chaos that followed. The police took him away in handcuffs. He was back the next evening. Soon after, so was she.

838ab60914bd4a0b3d7908b79b45a29dI remember a couple of elderly brothers who lived together in the house across the street. They had both spent a fair number of years working across in England but were called home to attend their convalescent mother’s bedside in the time it was determined she should die. Neither man ever married. By now, they had between them cultivated a great host of physical and advanced psychological impairments all of their own. The older lad, I know, was on the building sites of London for years. Tall and thin, he was a strong young bull, but an accident on a site had smacked his corned beef beyond all repair. Some concrete fell on him or he fell on some concrete, I cannot be sure. But it had left the poor lad deaf, half blind and a quarter witted. I don’t know the whole story with the younger one, just that he was even more damaged upstairs than his brother. I may have been told dementia. I can’t be sure. He never left the house, but often it was that I would see the older lad shuffling down the street of an evening. He never wandered too far from home and I remember he had this curious habit of bunching up the lap of his trousers with his fists and kinda pulling them upward as he walked. Even with his rattled nerves, it was up to the older lad to take care of the two of them. They were not completely alone in this world, of course. The health service sent a care-worker to check in on them every few days. She brought food and made sure they were living as comfortably as possible. They were trusting men and well known around the town. You could ask anybody and they would tell you that those brothers were no harm to anybody. The older and more compassionate people I talked with believed that they had been touched by the hand of God. They rarely locked their front door.

Except for the brothers and the drunk next door, all the residents on my street were there alone. They had lived beside one another for a lifetime and, as they saw it, there was no longer any occassion requiring the adoption of artifice or any description of graces. Every miscarriage and infidelity, every divorce and baptism, every death, ailment and indiscretion was out in the open and too well known. No matter the nature of the request, they did what they could to help. It was a place of trust and faith. The old women would bring me the leftovers from Sunday dinner and the widowers would spot me for a pint whenever they saw me in the pub. In return I helped them with what I could; cooking, lifting, cleaning – whatever they needed and whenever I was able. Over tea they told me about their children who had taken the first opportunity to get out of that town and gone to work in Canada and The United States. Sons and daughters who had fallen in love with the locals and would never be coming back. Who started families and settled in foreign suburbias with immigrant workers permits, happy hour, cable television, and backyard swimming pools. Who endeared themselves to their adoptive communities and joked that they were from the very far end of the middle of nowhere when asked about the strange and ever so lyrical way their voices sounded to their neighbours. They worked comfortable jobs and could afford to dress their children well. Every few years, they visited home and were welcomed with open arms and thankful weeping. The cradle of small town existence had been outgrowned and they had no interest in ever going back.

I spent a year of my life in that town. When I made enough money, I was soon on the way to London. The old women lit candles in church and told me to travel safe. I shook hands with the merchant and he told that I was right to be going. He says this town is only for the old and the unambitious now anyway.

I was in London a month when I read about the brothers. The memory of it stops me even now. Some drunk maniac had let himself into their house in the middle of the night and battered the two of them to death with a slab of timber. The bodies were found by the care-worker the next morning, one in a downstairs bedroom and the other in the backyard. It was a brutal scene. Nothing was stolen, but the house was empty. The victims never knew the man who killed them and no motive for the attack was ever found. When the responsible man was caught, they said he had a history of psychiatric difficulty and placed him on an immediate suicide watch. The two of us are the same age. In the courtroom, the accused said he was sorry for what he had done and it only took the judge to read out the charges for his mother to collapse in weeping hysterics. Half the town attended the funeral. The priest said that the town had been overshadowed by a darkness and the head of the state called it an act of savagery. They were buried next to their mother.

It’s getting worse there every day. Last year, someone was shot and killed while filling his car at a petrol station on the outskirts of town. A few months later, there was a man chased down the high street by a gang of a dozen thugs. When they caught him, they beat him to the ground and kicked him senseless. He crawled into a local shop for safety, but in they followed and stabbed him in the stomach. All this while staff and customers looked on in horror. It was a Saturday afternoon. The security guard was too terrified to do anything other than just watch the whole thing happen. They had to close the shop for the day because there was such an amount of blood on the floor.

Landscape-0669

When I’m home, I sometimes pass through that town to see what’s changed. The people are much the same, but now they mind to lock their front doors at night. There are fewer jobs and a lot of the bars have closed. That is not to say that there are less places to find a drink if you are after one. I always drink too much when I go back and we always find ourselves talking about those brothers and these violent crimes. And it’s hard to get people to admit that something has gone wrong here. Or even that anything is any different to how it was before. It’s like looking at an oil painting of a beautiful landscape; green rolling hills; a transparent stream of crashing water; a flock of coastal birds outlined against the limits of a clear blue sky. But when you take a closer look, you find that something has been scratching away at the outer edges of the picture. And every time you return to the painting, another small section has been scraped or damaged – but barely enough to notice there has been much change. Soon you get used to these new scratches. But over time it gets even more damaged and eventually it’s impossible to remember what the picture looked like in the first place. However, the decline has been so gradual that you can never be really sure of what has changed. I’m not able to name the feeling I have for it now. It’s like a sadness at something come undone. And when it’s late and I’m tired and drunk and too sentimental, I imagine that everything was better years ago, but I know I must be wrong.

 

A state of perpetual change

A few weeks ago I posted about a piece of street art that had popped up in Stucley Place (AKA “Shit Alley”) in Camden. Well, that piece has already been replaced with this very interesting work.

Camden

The artist responsible is a young man from Hong Kong who goes by the name of Roes. I actually caught him for a short chat while he was still working on the mural. This was the first piece created on his most current visit to the UK and I have been told thhat there are plenty more of his works to be found dotted across the city. He looked rather busy at the time, so I didn’t keep him long. We talked about the terrible British weather and some of the other artworks that have recently appeared around the neighbourhood. He seemed like a very cool and humble guy and his passion for his craft was clear. You can find more of Roes’s work here.

Happy Sunday

Herself celebrated her 26th birthday this week, and with all the partying and celebration, I haven’t had time to write a single word. I saw this sign today while we were walking along London’s Southbank and thought some of you might get a kick out of it. Have a great Sunday!

  

Scoping out the West

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The search for our first place continues, and on a fine August Saturday afternoon it took Herself and I to Chiswick in West London. We had arranged to view a neat little one bedroom flat above a restaurant on the High Road and we’re excited about a change of scenery. We set on the idea of getting there early so as to introduce Herself to the area in as relaxed and approachable a fashion as possible. The agent with whom we had organised our viewing must have committed a sort of miscalculation when it came to setting up the meeting. When we called his office to confirm the address, the phone was instead answered by a harshly tempered Polish lady who told us that our man was away for the weekend and had left no mention of any sort of viewing. Nevertheless, she asked us to come to the office at the scheduled time and she could take us round to the place. Following an hour-long, tourist-crammed, District Line (certainly London’s most Dickensian train service) journey across the city, we met Nina, our agent’s ill-tempered colleague, a middle-aged and slightly exhausted looking woman. As you would be correct to have expected, any venture toward a conversation with this woman was met with either awkward misunderstanding or a stilted and doomed attempt at repartee. For whatever reason,she had taken an instant disliking to us. Or at best a disinterest. Either way, as she saw it, we hadn’t warranted more than the most basic of decencies from her. Which, to be honest, doesn’t really bother me all that much. To the flat we trudged.

This place was a couple million pounds out of our price range. Unfortunate.

This place was a couple million pounds out of our price range. Unfortunate.

It is a curious thing to scrutinize and comment upon the condition of a property while it is still inhabited by other people. That there are things you will not tolerate of a living quarters that are of no concern to the current occupants. It puts you in the situation of having to think along the lines of: “Well, this place is certainly not up to my standards, but I’m sure for slobs like these people, they must be very happy here.” And there was a whole heap not much right with what the current tenants, a hyper-religious Eastern European couple, had tolerated and possibly caused in this property. The shell of the place, however, had a whole heap that we could work with. Despite some issues requiring immediate and professional attention, we could really see ourselves happy there.

Nina told us that any offer on the property would need to be submitted back at the office. Naturally, she couldn’t take us as she was off to another viewing straight after our own. The one employee we found at the office worked primarily in sales with no clue as to rentings, and the only person who could help would be out for the next few hours. The whole debacle was terribly British in its feckened awkwardness. Eventually, and following an extended and anxious tour of the town, we got our offer made and set off back East. To celebrate, we headed to the financial district for a free jazz musical festival the city council had organised. It turns out that the Canary Wharf cultural events department have a very broad understanding of the term Jazz Music because, when we showed up, the band were playing dance renditions of Chaka Khan songs. After a bottle of wine, however, you’ll dance to anything, and by the time the sun had set, we were throwing shapes with the best of them.

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Life, when the engine’s running good and lean, will always move in the forward direction and with exceptional speed. It should be brilliant and terrifying and never must you fear embracing or tackling whatever may come your way, because the bar may stop serving at any minute and every party ends too soon. You should never fool yourself into thinking that you have some sort of eternal and unspoken understanding with the universe. It can end at any minute and what you were doing down there that whole time, well, that was just your life. So order a drink and try to enjoy this shindig while it lasts. You’ll be paying the tab with everything you have.

One for the poets

Capture

In the closing chapter of Augustus by John Williams, a novel I have just finished reading for the second time, I noticed yet another passage that I criminally overlooked on the first read. This quote appears in a letter written by the elderly and reflective emperor Octavius Caesar, to his friend, the historian and philosopher, Nicolaus of Damascus (A. D. 14) and bears repeating:

The poet contemplates the chaos of experience, the confusion of accident, and the incomprehensible realms of possibility – which is to say the world in which we all so intimately live that few of us take the trouble to examine it. The fruits of that contemplation are the discovery, or the invention, of some small principle of harmony and order that may be isolated from that disorder which obscures it, and the subjection of that discovery to those poetic laws which at last make it possible. No general ever more carefully exercises his troops in their intricate formations than does the poet dispose his words to the rigorous necessity of meter; no consul more shrewdly aligns this faction against that in order to achieve his end than the poet who balances one line with another in order to display his truth; and no emperor ever so carefully organizes the disparate parts of the world that he rules so that they will constitute a whole than does the poet dispose the details of his poem so that another world, perhaps more real than the one that we so precariously inhabit, will spin in the universe of men’s minds.

It was my destiny to change the world, I said earlier.  Perhaps I should have said that the world was my poem, that I undertook the task of ordering its parts into a whole, subordinating this faction to that, and adorning it with those graces appropriate to its worth. And yet if it is a poem that I have fashioned, it is one that will not for very long outlive its time.

For Augustus, the Roman Empire was his poem. For others it could be their career and there are those for whom family is everything. For a lot of people, to be a character in another person’s poem is all they ever want and sometimes it is the best they can hope for. For myself, I try not to concern myself with such highfalutin thinking, but, on occasion, the mind gets to wandering, and I end up following it with some wondering. Perhaps, the real art of living is to make the best with what you were  given and try to share what you have. Whatever the case, that’s enough waxing lyrical for a Sunday afternoon.

Enjoy the rest of the weekend.

A splitting headache 

I enjoyed the captions that everybody submitted yesterday so much that I have decided to do it again today. Okay, are you ready? Here’s the picture:

Please leave suggested captions in the comment section.

Interestingly, this piece was created by the same artist as my last post, the very talented Sr. X. Last time I checked, the mural could still be found on the Mornington Crescent side of Camden High Street, however, as is the unfortunate nature of this art-form, the council or another artists could be painting over it even as I type. Nevertheless, you can find more photographs of Sr. X’s work here.

Custodian of the ephemeral

IMG_1193

I’d like to keep things simple today. Herself and I go to Brick Lane at least twice a month, and it’s remarkable how quickly the street-art changes in that neighbourhood. Here are some of the pieces that we found while out on a Sunday stroll last week. That’s all I’ll say for now as I’d much rather allow the artwork to speak for itself. I will add only that I hope the pieces inspire something positive within you today.