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Friday 30 October 2009


Dear Martin Amis,

I know that ours is a one sided relationship but I do think we could become very good friends, given half a chance. We are, after all, close enough in age, both driven by words and literature, and family. I feel that I have got to know you, what makes you tick, met quite a few of your relatives and writerly friends – all through the pages of your memoir, Experience.

I’m not saying it was an easy read. I do understand your reason for footnotes but I hated them even as I read every single one. They lounged at the end of the page, ready to qualify throwaway remarks, expand on subjects only hinted at, make the reader fully aware of what exactly had happened; I suppose you could say they served a useful purpose, but they distracted and took from the flow.

Your father, Kingsley, was quite a character. His unflattering rants about some of your work didn’t ever take away from his love for you, didn’t put you off your craft. He never asked you to change or be more like him. There was no competition; only an honesty among equals. Instead, he depended on your unfailing support as his son.

Kingsley couldn’t be alone, truly alone; he scared easily. But you knew this, right from when you were very young, that he needed you and your brother to quell his fears, remind him that he had to hold his end up for both of you. It reminded me of how we, as children, would protect my mother when a storm whipped up and thunder blasted out with flashes of lightening, while she shivered, wordlessly. Parents so rarely show their vulnerable side and yet I wonder if that is why Kingsley was so loved by his children, because they knew that he needed their protection. He was indeed a lucky man.

I just cried when you talked about your cousin, Lucy Partington, who died at the hands of evil bastard, Frederick West. It was horrific and can never be understood. May she rest in peace and may he rot in an everlasting hell.

The rebuilding of your jaw and teeth caused me to remember a time when I used to dream I’d end up with a mouth full of black molars. You wrote of your visits to your dentist, Mike Szabatura, "being fitted and finetuned". I sat with you in Szabatura’s surgery remembering my seven-year-old self when I asked my torturer to stop, as agreed, when I raised my hand. He didn’t so I kicked him hard in the shins, bolted out of the chair and left the building. My father assured me that I would still qualify for a Teddy’s Ice Cream, as promised, before we entered the house of hell. Like you, I tackled my dental inadequacies in later life and now have a sparkling smile that cost a fortune.

There were many times I had to stop and re-read a particular sentence or paragraph, but not because of a lack of understanding, or a momentary lapse in concentration. I stopped to enjoy the way you wrote, the words that fell like jewels from your pen and landed on the page as a piece of art upon a canvas and I’d feel a stab of envy which fell away in the pleasure of it all.

It only remains for me to wish you well, to hope that the good memories outweigh the bad, to say that I remain, most sincerely yours,
Mary Burnham

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Monday 26 October 2009

Fear & Loathing '72

As a future son in law of Mary, I do sometimes get invited to stay for dinner and being the cheap sort of guy I am, I accepted the offer of a tasty roast chicken meal on a fine October bank holiday which, in a round about way, is why I’m writing this blog. Lounging on the coach in the recently refurbished kitchen/dining room and told I can’t gracefully retreat to the TV, I’ve been asked, via subtle blackmail and guilt-tripping, not to mention Mary’s bad back, put out while saving a trampoline from the gale-force winds, into contributing some nuggets of literary knowledge.

But what to write about? Kim Stanley Robinson’s mind expanding brilliant Mars trilogy? Or how about Max Brooks paranoia inducing Zombie Survival Guide, or the follow-up World War Z – An Oral History of the Zombie War? Or going back to my formative years, Katherine Kerr’s Deverry series (a series which is still ongoing, although unfortunately, as with Robert Jordan’s Wheel of Time series, the story has grown so large that the characters have lost much of their emotional resonance). All excellent works, and in the case of Robinson’s Mars books, the first books I truly loved, but none of them could be counted as the writer who has influenced me the most. That dubious accolade can only go to one author and, as it happens, that writer is not even a writer of fiction, although no one could honestly claim that his writing was entirely factual. However to misquote his favourite writer, F. Scott Fitzgerald, fiction can express more truth than any fact. A maxim that the good doctor lived his life by, because like too few writers his work was his life, or maybe it was his life that was his work?

Most, if not all of the works of Hunter S. Thompson, were autobiographical, giving a level of insight into his personal life like no other writer before (well maybe Kerouac) and along the way giving the world classics like The Great Shark Hunt, Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas and Hell’s Angels as well as countless columns, articles and rants, all delivered in his unique, literary and furious style. My personal favourite is Fear and Loathing on the Campaign Trail ’72.

Armed with nothing (especially any knowledge about politics) but a quart of bourbon, an instinct for the jugular and a quest to find the dark heart of the American Dream, Hunter dives into the world of the American presidential campaign. From private interviews with Richard Nixon in which the only topic of conversation was American football to the legendary back-biting anarchy of the McGovern campaign and the ‘Zoo Bus’, Hunter makes no pretence of being an impartial journalist and as he had no inclination to continue as a political reporter after the campaign was over, absolutely no hesitation to burn his bridges. He delivers brilliantly funny and cutting insights not only into the way campaigns were run at the time but into the cosy relationship between the press and the political players who are rightly their game. And even quickly develops and uncanny instinct for which way the political wind is blowing, which he demonstrates by betting and winning on the outcome of various primaries, to the extant that he laughingly describes how other journalists and even politicos are spotted reading Rolling Stone just to see what he’s going to say next.

Mary adds:
Not only will Eoin Keating make an excellent son-in-law, but his skills as a blogger will definitely come in handy. Mind you, next time I decide to undertake some mammoth task that requires muscle and brawn, I will cook a tasty dinner and invite my future son-in-law around before hand!

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Friday 23 October 2009

Humpty Dumpty Revisited

I’ve been away – two days and one night – in Mullingar on an Essential Management Skills course designed to help one become an effective manager. I’m not a manager so what, you might reasonably ask, was I doing there? Well, I’m a volunteer in an organisation that values education and I always leap at any chance to learn something new. So the manager and I packed our bags and headed off to a very pleasant hotel in the County of Westmeath which somewhat cushioned the blow of having to spend two whole days in a classroom environment. So, what did I learn?

Well I have always prided myself as being a creative thinker but I discovered quite quickly that I "sometimes lack the capacity to generate new ideas, or fail to capitalise on those that are generated by your team." Ok, ok, so I don’t have a team to be creative with in my work environment but there are plenty of other instances where I had presume I was being creative and innovative. Back to the drawing board...

We had a team building exercise where our two groups of three had to "develop a fail-safe system to devise packaging for an egg which was to then be dropped from a height of six feet onto a hard surface". The time frame was 20 minutes with a budget of €7,000. The materials provided were: drinking straws €280 each, toothpicks €165 each, string €155 per inch and masking tape €120 per inch. Our tools were a scissors and ruler. Suffice it to say that my team went wildly over budget and we didn’t even win. Think about it and if anyone wants to know, I’ll fill you in on the lengths we went to fail, and the innovative and imaginative ideas the other team devised to win, with but a tiny dent in their raw egg after its dramatic fall to earth. Our egg hadn’t a cat’s chance in hell of survival. We had, mistakenly, pinned our hopes on the bouncy quality of chopped up pieces of plastic straws bound together with expensive inches of masking tape. The manager with whom I shared this devastating experience is still sulking.

The good news is that I am a "Shaper: full of nervous energy, emotional, compulsive, impatient and easily frustrated but useful when a team needs a leader to galvanise and push people into action. Shapers are often seen as arrogant and abrasive and have a tendency to steamroller other members of the team, but they do make things happen." I can live with that.

Our facilitator mentioned, more than once, the business book, Understanding Organizations by Charles Handy that has become a classic on the key concepts of concern to all managers. Handy discusses the culture, motivation, leadership, power, role-playing and working in groups and how managers can translate these concepts into effective management tools. All organisations need to select, develop and reward their people; to structure and design their work; to resolve political conflicts; to lay down guidelines for their managers; and to plan for the future. Understanding Organizations is presented in an accessible manner, filled with examples and metaphors that make each concept easy to understand and should be a must on the reading list of anyone who is put in charge of a group of people.

Anyway, I’m back, back to my waiterless home with no swimming pool, no Jacuzzi, and no hope of a three-course meal at the end of a tiring day’s work. Invigorated, however, re-energised and ready to put some of my new found skills to good use on an unsuspecting group of fellow volunteers who won’t know what hit them cause this time round I’m going to be subtle and innovative. Watch this space!

Which reminds me, have you heard how a children’s programme on the BBC last week changed the ending of the Humpty Dumpty nursery rhyme? It seems that it’s more politically correct to "Make Humpty Happy" again rather than have the poor fellow broken to smithereens after his accidental fall from that dangerous wall. Had young Humpty the good fortune to have been wrapped in protective clothing by the A Team in Mullingar he might have survived, with but a dent to his pride, to live another day.

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Monday 19 October 2009

Alice & Allen

Alice and I have just been to a show for the over 50s in the RDS where we were like locusts in a field of wheat searching out free samples, goodies, key rings (like we need ten each), make overs, juices and a lovely tub of ice cream that will only serve to add to an already expanded waist line. We stood in line and watched the inevitable demonstrations: a floor mop that will do everything except mop the floor while you’re out; headphones to listen to the radio while you’re in the garden admiring your petunias; electronic salt and pepper grinders with grades going from fine to coarse; a spikey mat - the modern day equivalent of the bed of nails – on which to torture yourself while reinvigorating your pressure points; face creams and various beauty products made from seaweed and other life giving products (I treated myself to some much to Alice’s disgust) and a powder that, with a few judicious strokes, will make you look as if you’ve spent hours in front of the mirror (and I bought some of this as well; Alice said the suppliers would be laughing all the way to the bank. On the way home she moaned that she hadn’t bought some 'cause she thought it looked damn good on me).

Then it was on to the health testing. Cholesterol: we were both grand, slightly up, slightly down, no big deal. Blood Pressure: Alice was told to get herself checked out by her GP while I grinned at her, knowing that the sphygmomanometer gave me a favourable reading. I didn’t bother taking the eye test as my myopic peepers are something I have learned to live with; Alice, on the other hand, has 20/20 vision, a fact confirmed by the dishy young gentleman on duty at this counter. Then it was off to have our lungs tested for possibility of COPD. If you think I am smug, now is the time to turn away. I gave up smoking eleven years ago, not without a struggle, precisely because I couldn’t bear the thought of becoming ill in my old age; Alice didn’t. My reading was perfectly normal while my dearest friend was told she had the lung capacity of an 83 year old. Dear oh dear!

I can see that I’m going to have to buy her Allen Carr’s Easy Way to Stop Smoking. This is a book that allows one to smoke as you read after which thousands and thousands of people have been able to stub out their last fag and look forward to a brighter future without this particular addiction. Carr was a heavy smoker himself; he smoked for over 33 years, and managed to puff an amazing 100 cigarettes every single day. When he finally kicked his addiction, at the age of 48, Carr realised that it is the fear of "giving up" that causes smokers to continue smoking. Smokers then perpetuate the illusion of genuine enjoyment as a reasoned justification of the absurdity of smoking in the face of overwhelming medical and scientific evidence of its dangers. Remember that, just in case it didn’t sink in first time round: There is overwhelming medical and scientific evidence of the dangers of smoking on your health.

When Carr died of lung cancer at the age of 76 many people implied that he was a charlatan. I mean, how could this man go around helping addicts to give up when it killed him in the end? I noticed smokers light up with greater satisfaction as if this man had fooled everyone by not living to 107 and dying of something more mundane, like influenza or utter boredom.

Alice and I are great friends. We go way back, so far back that she blames me for her having taken up smoking in the first place; perhaps she is right. I hope, that one day, she will blame me for having made her give up her killing habit. After all, I will need her good company when I’m stuck with a zimmer frame to toddle round looking for bargains, and free key rings, and tubs of delicious ice cream.

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Tuesday 13 October 2009

A Stress Free Life in the Garden

It may not seem much to you but cutting my overgrown hedge this afternoon was the application of a strong determined mind against the overriding urge to sit on the couch and read a book. I love gardens, I adore plants and flowers and home grown vegetables. Only problem is that I hate gardening. In the good old days my dad would proudly dig up his new potatoes and we’d happily devour them with lashings of butter. My sister presents her garden produce on the dinner table with great satisfaction and decorates the room with wonderful flowers, freshly cut. My other sister is training to become a Master Gardener in Albuquerque where gardening in desert conditions is not for the faint-hearted (while I was visiting her in May, another Master Gardener did faint in the heat of the blistering afternoon sunshine and was carted off in an ambulance. She had been weeding!). My daughter spends hours and hours sorting the compost; we have zillions of wiggling worms attesting to her green abilities. My brother isn’t happy if he’s not taking cuttings, chopping down trees, mowing lawns, weeding and digging, and not just in his own garden. I just wish he’d visit more often with his spade, fork, hedge trimmer, seedlings, cuttings, and the energy to dig large holes wherever I point.

Monty Don has my utmost admiration. He’s the man from the BBC's Gardeners' World who used to make me weep with envy. But he graces our screens no longer after a minor stroke forced him to retire to his own two-acre garden. His smiling face belies his fight with depression, a fact that endears him to me even more. But he recognises that the stress he was putting himself under making such a popular show was probably to blame for his recent health problems. He said: "I do feel optimistic. But I also feel that I'm 53, both my parents died in their sixties, and you've got to leave this world in a better place that you find it. You've got take the fuckers on and not just give in."

Life is tough. We all look at successful smiling faces and reckon that they have it so good. Sure how could it be otherwise: they have fame, status, money, and good looks. But you know, I wouldn’t swap anything for my quiet life, where I can put my feet up to read without fear of letting my public down, where I am master/mistress of my own destiny and my stress levels rise but twice a year when I have to cut my overgrown hedge before the summer arrives, and after it has left abundant growth in its wake.

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Friday 9 October 2009

The Ashington Group

It’s rare that I’m moved to tears by the performance of actors on a stage but that’s exactly what happened yesterday afternoon, that is, when I wasn’t laughing and almost cheering for joy. My hands were quite worn out at the end as I applauded eight fine actors from the National Theatre (UK) and Live Theatre Newcastle, UK, who were directed by Max Roberts in the play, The Pitmen Painters.

The play was based on the book of that name written in 1988 by William Feaver. As trustee of the art that is on permanent show in the Woodhorn Colliery Museum in Ashington, Feaver describes how a group of miners, who had spent five years doing an Ashington WEA class on Evolution, wanted a change. They decided on Art Appreciation with lecturer Robert Lyon, a decision that changed the course of their lives utterly. The group operated as a unit and became known as the Ashington Group. They were respected and accepted by the established art world that hitherto would not have considered untutored workingmen their equal in their rarefied cultured world of privilege.

Quickly realising that he had to take a different approach, Robert Lyon persuaded the miners to paint themselves without bothering about convention using the method, ‘learning by doing; learning by seeing’. The men painted at home and brought pictures in for Lyon to critique at their weekly meeting. They used household Walpamur paint bought in bulk, used plywood and primed cardboard and made their own canvas by stretching butter muslin on boards and priming them. Their purpose was to produce work to get behind the artist and try to appreciate his purpose and methods. Their considerable achievement is a body of work that is a significant record of a community, an industry and a way of life that has disappeared.

"When I paint as we do in our group I have a feeling of freedom," Wilson wrote in 1945. "There is a feeling of being my own boss for a change. When I have done a piece of painting I feel that something has happened, not only to the panel or canvas but to myself. For a time I have enjoyed a sense of mastery - of having made something real."

The playwright, Lee Hall, came across a copy of Feaver’s book in a second-hand bookshop on Charing Cross Road and realised that this would be perfect for his next project. Hall had been commissioned to write a play and was looking for a study of aspiration and the bondage of imposed and self-imposed limitations and The Pitmen Painters was ideal.

And he was right. The play was everything you could wish for: crackingly funny, superbly acted, perfectly cast, brilliantly directed, instructional, entertaining, relevant, and yes, touching. I went home on the 46a bus inspired and full of hope.

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Wednesday 7 October 2009

Down & Out In Dublin

I love my bed. Every night, I fall into my cosy double bed, pull the duvet up over my nose, settle into my pillow and nod off knowing that when I wake up it will be so hard to leap out of my feathered nest and face a cruel world that expects me to earn a living.

I wonder how I’d feel if my bed were a doorway, my covering a cardboard box, and my pillow a roll of my few possessions. Would waking up in the clanking dawn be such a miserable experience were I not to have a job? Or would it be far harder to trudge the streets looking for handouts and somewhere to wash.

Some people actually think that this way of life constitutes a "lifestyle choice" but they are ostriches whose heads are buried in the comfort of their own preconceptions.

Down and Out in Paris and London by George Orwell paints a vivid picture of the time this author spent among the destitute in those capital cities. Orwell describes the unrelenting squalor and hardship that was the daily lot of the forgotten people in the community; he documented a world where the homeless lived on scraps, and slept in bug-infested hostels and doss houses. It is a book that is as relevant now as it was when it was first written in 1933.

And still today our streets are home to those with a diagnosed mental health conditions, with physical handicaps, alcohol and drug dependencies, people who were born with foetal alcohol syndrome and are incapable of leading an ordinary life. Others who have endured abuse at a home they cannot return to, and those whose homes have been lost or taken from them.

Tonight, when I curl up with a good book, ready to nod off after two or three pages, I’ll probably have forgotten all about this blog. I will be tired, having worked quite hard, and feel I deserve this final comfort after a long day at the helm of my life. I’m not sure that the seven or eight people who will be shivering in doorways in my local town will give much thought to me either.

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Saturday 3 October 2009


Yesterday, the Irish nation voted on the Lisbon Treaty – again! Lots of us felt like saying to our erstwhile government: What part of No don’t you understand? Well, I may as well tell you now that I voted the same way this morning as I did in June 2008: YES!!! Some of you will nod and agree with me, others will be aghast. You what...?

Yes, I voted yes. Not because I understood the treaty (who does?), not because I think that the EU gets everything right but because since joining the European Union, we - the twenty-seven members – have not once taken up arms against each other and don’t plan to do so. We may fight about the shape of bananas, or when you can call feta cheese the real deal; we may have edicts from on high land on our doorstep telling us how to farm our fields, treat our cattle, weigh our vegetables. But never once, not even for a nano second have we decided to kill our brothers, murder our mothers, shoot, maim or slaughter in the name of some twisted logic that says, you’re different, you should be exterminated.

The Art of War by Sun Tzu is the oldest military treatise in the world and was translated from the Chinese by Lionel Giles, M.A. in 1910. Far from extolling the supposed necessary evil of war, Sun Tzu discusses struggle and confrontation with advice on techniques that could just as easily be applied to politics or the world of business. Sun Tzu deals with leadership, intelligence, trustworthiness and courage and the importance of discipline, rewards and punishment consistently applied.

“So it is said that if you know others and know yourself, you will not be imperiled in a hundred battles; if you do not know others but know yourself, you win one and lose one; if you do not know others and do not know yourself, you will be imperiled in every single battle.”

It is hoped that there are a few copies scattered around the halls in Brussels and that our leaders will take note.

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