Suppose I told you I had found a radio station that I had listened to for over a decade, and that in all that time it had never repeated a track? Or that this station had inspired me to many new artists and album purchases, and helped me discover tracks from well known artists so long buried and forgotten that I barely remembered them. Would you believe me?
Of course, there is no radio station that good . . . even the best repeat their tracks over the weeks, while the worst have a handful of tunes on 2 hour rotation.
But there is a place, on the streets, rather than the dial, where I have had this experience . . a backstreet barber – one of those small little havens of masculinity in an increasingly feminised retail zone that is the modern city centre.. There are many of these, often noted for their haircutting or conversational skills, but seldom for their musical depth, but Jack’s is different.
Hidden down a back alley running between Camden and Harcourt Streets, I first discovered Jack’s Barbers way back in 2001, when I was working in Phantom FM, then still a pirate station, based above Wheelans of Wexford Street. Needing a haircut one day, I spotted the barber’s pole down a little sidestreet almost opposite our studio, went in on a whim, and have been a regular ever since.
The haircuts and general barbering is well up to standard, and the staff are fine, but it’s the music which keeps bringing me back. There is musical memorabilia all over the walls, but that can be found anywhere. No, it’s the music they play that makes each visit a new adventure.
Most barbers or hairdressers will play generic pop or the safest commercial stations, but Jack’s plays its own selection of music, and it is never, ever, the same. If you visited once, you might think this was a shop where a eclectic brand of lesser known reggae was the thing, but a second visit would give you fresh indie rock, soulful jazz, R&B, bluegrass, classical or perhaps vintage pop, or mixtures ranging across all of those and more. I literally never know what I am going to hear when I walk in the door, and once heard, I have never, ever heard the same selection or tracks again, no matter how many years worth of visits I clock up.
And it’s not some vast library lumped onto an iPod and left to shuffle – far from it. On any given visit the music has obviously been crafted not as a series of tracks, but as an musical arc of mood, theme, style, genre, or aspect. Time and thought has been put into the selection every time.
I have made many purchases in iTunes which were the result of my enjoying something so much in Jack’s that I have committed a few lyrics to memory, so I could Google them later, discover the artist, and buy either the track or more often a whole album. I rarely come home from Jack’s without some kind of musical reward in my head.
Quite often they are new to me, but sometimes, as with my visit yesterday, they are old, old pieces of music, so long unheard by me that they had passed entirely out of my consciousness. (yesterday’s gem was Madame Butterfly by Malcolm Maclaren).
And they do a damn fine haircut too.
Jack’s Barbers is at Montague Street, Dublin 2.
(note: I have no commercial or personal relationship with them other than as a customer, and they are unaware that I am writing this piece, or even that I write at all)
A series of photos showing the progress of dawn, not over one day, but at the same time each day from winter to midsummer, as I walk through the fields to work
In the summer of 2012, I found a long deserted pathway through the fields at Laughanstown in south county Dublin, near to a place where I was working at the time. My discovery and first lunchtime amble along the pathway is illustrated in my short story The Melting.
The pathway runs through open fields alongside the LUAS tram line, and I soon got into the habit of taking a daily walk along the pathway, getting off the tram a couple of stops before walk, and happily walking in solitude through fields alive with fresh morning air, only the occasional whirr of a passing tram to disturb the birdsong. A lovely way to start the day, drifting happily in thought and body. Were I a lamb, you might even say that gambolled happily across the meadow each morn.
When winter came, I was loath to give up this pleasure, even when darkness made it more difficult, and started bringing a torch so I could pick my way along the path towards the lights of civilisation – and work – in the far distance. It was cold, dark, and sometimes hard going, but the sense of solitude and the fresh air more than made up for it.
Far from any houses, the blackness was absolute, and one morning (Jan 2nd this year) at 0724 I took a photo to illustrate the darkness of the walk, zooming in on the lights of Tullyvale and Cherrywood in the distance.
The next morning, the blackness was not quite complete – a tiniest sliver of a crack of dawn was visible over distant mountains, and I took another photo to show the difference a day (and two minutes later) had made.
This gave me an idea. As I walked the route at least three days a week, always at the same time (taking the same outbound tram departure) why not take a series of pictures, to catalog how the dark of winter slowly gave way to the dawn of spring, and the daylight of summer as I took my morning walks.
Those first two pictures were taken randomly, and not at exactly the same point, and possibly not covering exactly the same span, but for this project I would need some way of locking my physical location, so that the field of view would be as close as possible to exactly the same in each picture.
So I used a line of electricity pylons to determine the photograph point – they would not be in shot themselves, but when I reached a point on the path where the crosstree of one pylon aligned exactly with the southern edge of another, I would stand in the righthand rut of the track, thus controlling my physical location. I would then line up the second closest overhead wire carrier on the tramway to the rifghthand edge of the photo, and this would ensure I was covering the same area in each shot. Only the vertical plane had no real means of control.
And so, here are some of the results, as we journey from winter to spring, at the same time each morning, give or take a couple of minutes.
A week after my first photos, the 11th of January 2013 at 0724. The difference in the amount of dawn is quite visible, it is still pre-dawn lightening of the sky, but the clear day makes it much more visible. The field and pathway are still in absolute blackness at this time.
January 15th at 0724, another clear morning, apart from a low lying bank of cloud over the distant hills.
Just a couple of week later, the 6th of February, at 0722. Quite a difference in two weeks – another clear day, but this time the sky is blue, the shapes of things are more visible, and I can see the puddle ahead of me.
Now this is amazing – it is only two week later, the 21st of February, at 0723, and yet the difference in light, even with a totally overcast day, is amazing. Now everything is visible. To the right is the tram line, heading towards Cherrywood in the far distance. The buildings in the centre of the picture are the apartments of Tullyvale. To the left of them a sliver of the Irish Sea is visible, and then Killiney Hill rises on the left edge of the photo.
Four days later, the 25th of February, again at 0723, and a different type of cloud cover darkens the scene, but leaves room for a lovely yellow and pink line above lower lying clouds concealing the rising sun.
A couple of weeks later again, 7th March at 0723, and it is now pretty much daylight. It’s been raining for days, and the distant hills are lost in soft Irish mist.
The 29th of March at 0728, the sun is fully risen, and hidden behind the clouds, sending lovely shafts of light down onto the sea. The foreground looks darker to the camera due to shooting into the sun, but was bright enough to the human eye.
April 17th at 0724 – no fear of sunlight affecting the camera here, as the weather has turned “Irish” again!
And then . .
And then I moved away from that location
but . . .I knew I must come back for midsummer photos.
Midsummers day itself, though hot and sunny later, was wet and misty early on – June 21st 2013 at 0726.
And now I’m working on the other side of the city, and I don’t get to walk through the fields each morning any more. But thanks to a whim and a sudden inspiration back in the dark days of winter, I have a whole selection of photos of my beloved few moments of morning commune with nature, to go with a whole set of cherished memories.
I hope you’ve enjoyed the trip as much as I have!
“Oh your poor thing” the woman who answered the door said to me “come inside and let me look after you”. I was about to find out if all those stories about bored housewives and door to door salesmen were true . . .
What stirs memory can be very subtle – sometimes a combination of atmospheric condition is needed along with place to really stir the dead leaves of the past.
I had totally forgotten about my wildly unsuccessful three-day career as a door-to-door salesman, fresh out of school, more than 30 years ago.
Until I drove through Ballybrack in the rain a couple of days ago. I have driven along Churchview Road a fair few times in recent years, with barely a flicker of memory, but this particular morning the sky was grey and heavy, a soft rain was drizzling down, the trees were dripping . . . and instantly I was transported back 30 years, to the day I trudged this road with a sack of books, and knocked on every door of every road leading off it . .
Even at the time, the smart part of my brain knew that any job that I could just walk straight into without experience and with barely a five minute interview, was probably not worth having. But I was determined to stand on my own feet and be independent, and I resolved to give it my all.
The publishing company was based in Parnell Square, in the heart of Dublin city centre, and the product was children’s books, and – yes, you guessed it – encyclopedias.
I was to be that living cliche, the door to door encyclopedia seller!
Judging by the number of people (15) that went through the three-day (unpaid) training course with me, the operation had a huge turnover of sales staff. We trained Monday to Wednesday, and then, on Thursday, were were unleashed on the public for the first time. The whole group of us were taken by bus to Sallynoggin in southeast Dublin, and there met by a supervisor in a van who gave us our stock, and split us up among the myriad of new and old housing estates over the surrounding few square miles.
It was a typically wet Dublin day – not a downpour, not blustery, just a steady seeping, weeping soft wetness from a heavy grey sky.
I was given Ballybrack – the vast complex of then fairly new housing along all the roads that lead off Churchview Road – Watson Drive, Watson Avenue, Watson Park, Blackenbush, Pinewood, and what felt like a million other places. I started with zest, and swear I must have have knocked on 500 doors that day . .
Disheartening of course, both for me, and the poor people whose day I disturbed. Perhaps one sale in every 100 houses. But I was glad to have a job and to be (perhaps) earning money, and I kept at it. I would, of course, be paid commission only, so what I earned would depend wholly on my success rate.
As a well brought up (and well read) boy, my sales spiel, if not successful, was at least polite. I was smiling, courteous, and no matter how brusque my dismissal at the door was, I always thanked the householder for listening to me, and apologised for taking up their time uninvited. That last touch actually netted me one of my very few sales – a doctor, who had initially sent me away, called me back as I was walking down the driveway and bought an encyclopedia, explaining that he had never encountered a salesman so well mannered before!
That was one of only two sales the first day, and the next day I was back in the same location, to knock on the doors of a further 400 or so houses.
Late in the morning, I hit the jackpot. Knocking on yet another door, which was opened by a rather harassed looking young woman, I listened in disbelief as she told me that herself and a friend, to whom she quickly introduced me, were in the process of setting up a creche, and had just been discussing the fact that they needed childrens books! I can’t remember how much I sold them, but it probably accounted for more than half of all my sales for the whole week. When I say “creche” this was of course, the pre-modern-regulation early 80s version – i.e. 7 or 8 toddlers being looked after by the pair in a normal 3-bedroom terraced house, hence their rather fatigued demenour.
Later in the afternoon, footsore and weary, and still with far too many unsold books in my heavy bag, I knocked on yet another door, and encountered that fable of lurid fiction, the housewife who didn’t want to buy anything, but who liked the look of me, and invited me in.
Luckily for me, as I was far too innocent in those days to know how to handle such a situation, this was Ireland in the 1980s, and not America or (as I would discover a few years later) the much more liberated England. The Irish Mammy who said I was a lovely looking young thing and invited me into her house did so in order that . . she could give me a cup of tea, and suggest that we say a few prayers together to the Virgin Mary that I might get a better and more rewarding job !
And even if I was disappointed that nothing else was on offer (like the purchase of a book – what else would I be thinking?) the tea was very welcome, and I was touched by her concern for my welfare, and her determination to offer up prayers for my future.
The following day, although a Saturday, was to be a work day, as the publishing house insisted on a sic day week. This time I was taken to Finglas, for an utterly soul destroying day in which I knocked on seemingly a million doors, was chased away from many of them, and did not sell a single book in 9 hours of pounding the streets. Somehow, my southside accent and polite sales spiel did not seem to be quite so appreciated here.
At the end of the week, I had managed to earn myself the princley sum of £13, but out of this I had paid for my bus fares and meals, which reduced my earnings to around £5, or, I calculated, around 3p for each door I knocked on. I knew then that it was not for me, but was pleased with myself that I had lasted longer than most of the class – of the 15 trainees, only 12 had gone out selling on the first day, only 5 remained on day 2, and there were just 2 of us to cover Finglas on the Saturday. And, presumably, a new class of 15 fresh-faced school-leavers to start training on the Monday morning . .
Now, many decades later, and with a solid career in IT management over the years, not to mention a quarter century of radio work, and an emotionally rewarding writing sideline, that first week of commerce after leaving school is long forgotten in my past. But memory is a funny thing, and the weeping sky and rain sodden trees along Churchview Road brought it back to me, clear as a bell, as I happened to drive through the area last Thursday morning.
So long ago that it seems to me it might have happened to another person. Many of the people whose doors I knocked on will be gone now. I wonder how the two ladies setting up the creche fared – was their career as short-lived as mine, or do they now run one of those big modern purpose built childcare centres around the city?
And I have to smile when I think of the woman who gave me tea and prayed for me to have a better career. So nice of her to care for a stranger.
Somehow, I’d love her to know that her prayers were answered.
Whenever I tell people what I have done, some politely look away, others react with shock . . .
It’s just over 18 months since I made the decision described in the post: Farewell Unreal World. The decision which just seemed to evolve naturally as my tastes gradually changed, but which has shocked some people far more than anything else I have done in my long and colourful ife. The decision that I no longer needed a television.
If you read the piece I wrote at the time, you will see that this was not so much a sudden decision to do something radical, as the logical de-cluttering of my lifespace by getting rid of a device which I no longer regularly used. I thought it might be interesting to write about it, and I certainly never expected it to provoke the sort of reaction it did (and still does) from people I meet. But more of that later.
First: a quick catch up. Yes, I am still living without a television, and I so seldom remember or notice this changed state that I have forgotten to write this followup piece on multiple occasions. I was going to write a follow-up when a month had passed, but I didn’t remember, so then I told myself 6 months. But the next time my TV-less status came into my mind it was 9 months, so I resolved to wait for the year anniversary, and forgot again. The only reason I’ve managed to hit the 18 month date is because I put a reminder in my phone the last time the thought crossed my mind, back in February!
So, my life without the actual object in the room seems to be pain-free (I’m not saying “my life without TV” since I had gradually diminished and ceased watching before getting rid of the actual device). I noted in that article 18 months ago having a stack of unwatched DVDs ready in the corner in case I needed entertaining . . . well, quite a few of those are still unwatched, some have been gathering dust for a long time. I will watch the occasional old film, or the odd TV episode on DVD, but aqt a rate where it would take me about 3 years to get through one season boxset. When I got rid of the TV I reminded myself that I could, if I so desired, catch the odd really good TV programme online. 18 months later, my online viewing in that time consists of two episodes of a series on canals from RTE, and assorted video clips from news stories on the RTE and BBC News websites.
As I said, disposing of the TV set and doing without live TV just seemed pretty natural to me at the time, given that I had stopped using it. I imagined that others might find this a little off – people are pretty wedded to their TV after all – but even I was shocked by some of the reactions from people in my life who heard of my decision or read the piece.
There was a visceral, almost fearful reaction, from those around me.
People who had happily chatted to me about “crazy” stuff I had done in the past (such as doing a naked photo shoot for an album cover and Hotpress magazine article, or running away to sea to do offshore radio) declared that this was just too odd.
“You’ve gone too far this time, It’s not funny, just plain weird” one co-worker told me.
Some pitied me. “If you have an addiction to TV, you should just try cutting down a little – there is no need to over-react by getting rid of it altogether” another colleague tired to counsel me, totally missing the point that I had dispensed with the set because I was hardly ever watching it, not because I felt I was abusing it.
Many people seemed offended by my decision to get rid of the TV, seeing it somehow as an attack on themselves for still continuing to enjoy television. Some felt that I would have problems visiting other people’s houses who had TV, because either my hosts would have to turn off their set, or I would be “offended”
Nothing could be further from the truth. I have no problem visiting houses where there are TVs, just as I have no problem visiting people who have Black & Decker Workmates, Wii games consoles, or motorbikes, which also happen to be things which I, personally, do not use. Likewise, my personal preference in women tends to run towards dark hair, and I haven’t dated a blonde in 20 years, but no one would expect me to be offended by, or avoid visiting,someone just because they have a blonde partner.
To me, the way people feel so very personally challenged by my choice to do without a particular domestic accessory tells me more about their anxieties about the relationship with television than my own.
An interesting thing though. All those people, including the ones most vocally hostile when I wrote the piece, all seem to have blanked it out of their minds. They never bring it up, and in conversation will frequently ask if I saw such and such on television last night etc. It’s like I’ve made a choice which is too different for the mind to fully accept and record in memory.
Now, I’d love to tell you that my life is different and more full of time and interesting things since I got rid of the TV set, but that wouldn’t be strictly true, as my life had already become these things gradually, as my viewing declined, long before I got rid of the physical object.
But I can tell you that the space it occupied has been suitably filled with clutter.
Steam-punk style radio ships, terrible choices, but above all: dead air.
I often tell people that many of the ideas for my stories and posts come to me in the small hours of the morning, but this one is very literally so – I’m writing this fresh out of bed, having just woken from one of those dreams . . you know, the ones radio presenters seem to have.
This one was a modern variation on the age-old basic theme, so before I recount my latest fevered imaginings, let’s have a look at the theme.
We all have a vast array of dreams, from the wild and wonderful to the mundane, and of those we can remember amongst the many unique and sometimes inexplicable ones there are also those that come from time to time that fit into certain basic themes that many people share: dreams of childhood, encounters with partners long estranged and parents and other relatives who have passed away. There are the erotic or romantic dreams, repetitive and unfinished dreams, and of course the classic dreams of anxiety.
Many people seem to dream of finding themselves naked in strange places, but I don’t seem to suffer from those.
For me it is usually a different terror – I find myself back on the day of my first Leaving Cert exam, conscious that the results will affect my life and job prospects, but somehow aware at the same time that it has been 30 years since my last class, I’ve forgotten almost everything of the course, and the exam is about to start NOW. (there is also another one I have occasionally, where I have to choose between going back out to sea with Caroline and losing my home and financial stability, or going on shore and being stable, but missing out on wonderful times)
These are all dreams or types of dreams that most, if not all people share
But there is another dream, which comes maybe once or twice a year, which I call the DJs dream.
The details vary slightly from time to time, but the basic formula is always the same (hey, that sounds like a description of commercial radio formats!)
I’m in a radio studio, on air. It’s a really important show. This is make or break for me. I’ve (unaccountably) been asked to fill in for someone on a huge station, BBC Radio 1 or RTE 2FM or some such. It’s a one-off, but if I perform well I will be invited back.
The track is coming to an end and I can’t find my next one. (In years gone by the dream would having me desperately trying to cue a vinyl record but unable to find the right groove on the album for the track, these days it is more often flicking through a set of CDs or playout system and unable to find anything that will play). or perhaps, as the song run out, and the dreaded silence starts, I really want to press play on the next track, but my arms just won’t move . .
Minute follows minute of agonising dead air, and I desperately struggle to hit something that will put audio back onto the airwaves again. I know everyone is listening, judging. My opportunity is slipping away and I am helpless . . .
I thought that was my dream alone, but over the years I’ve heard it back from many other people in the industry, all of whom, like myself, are (or seem to be) normal, well-adjusted presenters, with no particular anxieties, content with their careers etc. I guess it comes from the horror of dead air that fills the radio presenter, and fact that we are so keyed up during our shows to be ready to put something – anything – on that will fill the gap left by a misfiring computer or a suddenly defunct CD.
Speaking of misfiring computers, I had a dream around 8 months ago that I was totally alone on a radio ship miles out at sea (I think it was Radio Seagull) and about to go live on air. I had my laptop with playout system and tens of thousands of tracks with me, and an outstanding playlist prepared. The studio was ready to go, except that no where on board could I find a cable to connect the laptop to the mixing desk, and there was no one else on board to help me, and no other music, only what was on my laptop . .
As I’ve been a newsreader as well as a presenter, I sometimes have a different style of the dream. This comes about once a year also, and in it I am back out at sea with Radio Caroline, which is for some reason broadcasting again on high power AM, and expecting at any moment to see a government tug coming over the horizon to take us away. We’ll only be here for a few days before the powers that be silence us, so it’s really important for us to make those few days count. And day after day after day in this dream I wake up at around 9am to find that I have overslept and missed my morning news shift. That’s bad, but at least I have an evening show. But I fall asleep again and miss that too. Today, and tomorrow, and the day after . . .
The Radio Caroline of my dreams (I’m talking actual dreams here rather than aspirations) is a very strange place.
The ship. seeming perfectly normal above the waterline is yet enormously bigger underneath, with vast Lord-Of-The-Rings style underworld caverns full of clanking machinery, unguarded pits, and hissing steam pipes.
Hissing steam pipes? Yes, for in these dreams the radio ship is steam powered, and down in the very darkest depths our engineer can be found stoking an enormous furnace . .
Above the waterline it is different too, with extra corridors of lavishly furnished cabins, which we discover during the dream, and wonder how we could have been unaware of them all the years that we were previously out at sea.
The dream I’ve just woken from this morning though, was biased in the other direction – modern, clean, but equally frustrating.
Along with Simon Maher, Richie McCormack and other former Phantom 105.2 heads, I am in a makeshift radio studio in London. We’ve decided to bring the goodness of old-style pirate Phantom to London, and are launching a temporary licenced station to bring Irish indie and unsigned music to the UK, convinced that we will take the market by storm.
Richie is presenting the breakfast show, and I’m the news guy.
It’s just touching 8am, and time for the first news bulletin. I have, for some reason, typed it into my iPhone, and will be reading it from that.
As the news jingle tails away I have lost my place on the phone, and am swiping through the various home screens desperately trying to find the notepad app. The dead air is beginning, and Richie starts ad-libbing to fill it, looking at me anxiously. I find the app, but am then confronted with a seemingly endless set of pages of other text i have to swipe aside to get to the news bulletin I have prepared.
This is so unfair – I’ve slaved over this bulletin, I’ve bought stories from AP and reuters, I’ve chased down stories myself, this was going to be the perfect, pithy yet punchy two minutes of news, But i can’t find it and I’m swiping and swiping and swiping . . . time stretches on, it’s five past 8, then ten past, and poor Richie is still ad-libbing, while managing to stay remarkably patient. He should be killing me by now.
I have an idea. We’re an Irish rooted station. Why don’t I go to the RTE news site and give our public some Irish news? I quickly find RTE news on the phone, prepared at this point just to read out their stories verbatim, but all that comes up is a series of ads for an Irish Garden Festival due to be held in five years time . .
As with all these dreams, there is never any resolution, and poor Richie is probably waiting still. It does dawn on me that that it might come as a surprise to the poor guy to find himself starring in my nightmare, but hey, my subconscious was obviously going to go with the top-flight A-list presenters for this important venture, so who else could I possibly have chosen? The guy was a legend on breakfast.
Well, from vinyl to CDs to playout systems to apps, my dreams of radio are adapting to modern technology, but the underlying theme is staying the same.
Well, at least that’s it done for the moment. There won’t be another radio-based nightmare for six to nine months or so, and goodness knows what technology I’ll be using in that one . .
Looming into the mist above the River Thames, this massive tower and crane captured my interest on a recent walk, but would later be the scene of a tragic helicopter accident.
Walking along the Thames Path from Westminster one cold and misty day in October 2012, I couldn’t help but be drawn to the sight of the massive tower under construction on the south bank of the river. Standing far taller than the surrounding skyline, the crane alongside and tethered to it served to make it look somewhat like a rocket on the launchpad, waiting to blast off with spacebound cargo, the image all the more appropriate given it’s location just streets away from the London HQ of the British Interplanetary Society.
I was compelled to photograph it, and it made a great landmark on my walk as I came towards and finally past it.
How sad today to see it at the centre of a very tragic accident involving a diverted helicopter which crashed having clipped the crane in cloudy conditions.
However much we reach skywards, however proudly our buildings and our machines rise upwards in defiance of the laws of gravity, it takes so very little in the way or circumstance, or weather, to bring us crashing down again.
But we will keep building high, keep flying, keep reaching for the stars. It’s what we do.