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.
How one branch of HMV kept Radio Caroline afloat in the 80s, and Blockbuster rescued my life
The new that both Blockbuster and HMV in the UK have gone into administration this week would have been a huge blow to my much younger self, for whom those stores were an essential component of living.
I remember the first time I saw a Blockbuster Video – it was such a revelation compared to the tiny stores that were all we knew in the mid 80s, and where any enquiry for a popular video would be met with the new that their only copy was out on loan.
The arrival of Blockbuster in Ashford, Kent in 1989 was quite the most exciting thing to happen to the town since . . well, since my arrival earlier in the year.
Ashford in modern times has grown to a massive extent and now has a huge international station, but when I went to live there in 1989 it had little in the way of excitement, and the only cinema was soon to be demolished. Apart from the lure of the nearby countryside, the only thing that possibly kept me there was the girlfriend who had lured me to Kent in the first place.
Blockbuster was great, there was dozens of copies of each video, and many more titles than you could get elsewhere. I was a firm customer in those days.
I can’t remember when I last rented a video or DVD, it would have been sometime in the late 90s, but by 2000 it was more economic to buy rather than rent, especially as I can be something of a collector.
So I guess I’m as responsible as anyone for the demise of the store.
HMV is a different story. This is a store I still use to this very day, for although I no longer buy music from them (preferring to purchase online) I still regularly impulse buy DVDs from their store in Dublin. In fact you could say that they were the beneficiary of my lost Blockbuster custom.
One store will always have a special place in my heart though – HMV in Oxford Street, London.
Here it was during my period as Programme Controller of Radio Caroline in the late 80s that I would come to buy music in bulk, to bring out to the North Sea with me. Usually hotfooting it over from Chelsea, following a meeting with Ronan O’Rahilly, I would have a bundle of money provided for music purchases, and I would spend this carefully, buying as many new albums as possible, rather than singles, so that we would have fresh music for the weeks and months ahead.
I remember one day spending £400 in the store in a single visit – which, in todays money amounts to £884 (or over a thousand euro). My arms were aching by the time I had dragged my two heavy rucksacks of music from oxford Street, all the way to Victoria Station, down to Dover on the train, across to Calais, and on to Dunkirk from when our supply ship departed.
The Oxford Street store also had another connection to Caroline – it had an in-house radio station where many DJs worked while on leave from the ship – I remember Simon West being the mainstay there, but there were others too. Simon always made sure that advance or promo copies of new tracks given to the station were left in a package for me to collect and bring out to the ship also, so it was a “safe” way for record companies and promoters to get their product out to the ship.
In later years, that same store was where I bought my first console games – Super Mario 2 and 3, and Zelda for the Nintendo.
Hopefully the stores can survive, though these are indeed changed time, and I fear they will not.
Another iceberg from my past melted to nothing.
Amongst the response to my post on things seen in 2012, the Fairy Tree and the Forbidden Ground sign have elicited the following query from a UK-based reader, the always inspiring Christopher England (whose own blog can be found here).
“I’ve never seen fairy trees before. I guess it’s an Irish thing. It reminded me of the Tibetan wind-prayer flags that are placed alone and forever, right up in the remote parts of the mountains. Although they do wear and come to pieces in the wind, many remain there long after the person originating the prayer has died. That always makes them something special, imho”
The fairy tree, while not exclusive to this island, does seem to have a long connection with Irish superstition and folklore.
Although I was unaware of them myself before coming across this example in a Dublin park, according to this site they can be found at many locations around the country. There is certainly a lot of fairy folklore in Ireland, and I remember my father pointing out to me the fairy rings and fairy forts in rural Cork and Tipperary when I was very young, and noting how farmers would avoid ploughing or disturbing the ground at these locations.
Perhaps more common in Ireland is the Holy Well or Holy Bush – these can be found in many rural locations, and to this day you will still find strips of ribbon and clothing tied to trees at a “holy” location on a roadside.
The only time I ever saw anything similar in the UK was at Barnes Common, where the tree that killed Marc Bolan is still visited and decorated regularly by his fans, despite the passage of four decades.
Chris goes on to comment on the “Forbidden Ground” sign I photographed in Co. Kerry.
“Also, possibly an Irish thing, is the phrase ‘Forbidden Ground’. An interesting choice of words I’ve not seen before, being more used to ‘Restricted Area’ or the like”.
This one is certainly not Irish, and I am as baffled as Chris by its usage to cordon off a closed pathway in Reenagross Park, Kenmare. I have never seen the phrase “Forbidden Ground” used in a civilian context, and the crime-scene style tape makes it look even more curious. That forbidden zone is just begging to be penetrated if you ask me!
Chris goes on to comment:
“with regard to the many ‘Do Not’ signs in the Dublin Dockland, and mindful of it being an area with an ‘Explosive Atmosphere’, they do seem to have missed out a pretty obvious one of ‘Do Not Smoke’”
Just down the road from the original sign here:
there is another one, on a presumably similarly explosive compound, which does caution against smoking, as well as “spark ignition vehicles” (petrol engines to you and me) – the first time I’ve seen that warning., although apparently if you make a prior arrangement, they are not dangerous . .
As for what is hidden behind the fence, well that also has some interesting signage:
The “Stripping Pumphouse” eh?
Now THAT’S what I call “forbidden ground” in goold old catholic Ireland!
What happens when you try to swear at your Digital Assistant . . it’s either very polite to you, or more likely, trys to pretend that you really said something other than a swearword or insult.
Background: On my way into work today, I got Siri (the voice activated assistant and voice to text transcriber on the iPhone) to play a song out of the library that I fancied hearing.
When it was over, I said “Repeat”.
It repeated the last thing it had said to me (which was “Now Playing Disobey” but didn’t actually play the song. Obviously it associated the “repeat” command with wanting to hear what it said, but not replaying what it had just finished playing.
OK, so I decided to be more specific.
We take it up from there:
In addition to the new books I am working on, I have written and continue to write a number of short stories which are based around my own life experiences or things I find interesting.
This story was written in June 2012, and had its debut at the Last Wednesday Series writers open-mic in Dublin on the 27th of that month. I’m presenting it here for your enjoyment, and hope to include it in a collection of my shorter work later in the year.
I’m not sure if you would classify this story as biography or fantasy, but it’s certainly a real-life account of how my mind was working on two perfectly ordinary days . . .
by Steve Conway
It’s freezing cold, and it’ll be several long minutes before the car begins to heat up, and the window de-ices enough for me to move, but I don’t mind really. I am too busy watching the collapse of an empire.
As an introvert, I live a rich inner life, and as a writer, perhaps even more so. It could be that the introspective nature and the gra for writing are linked in some way, but whatever the reason, I find it amazingly easy to tune out of the everyday world around me and retreat into a rich and colourful inner fantasy life.
Or maybe I’m not retreating from the world at all, but just looking at it with other eyes.
The iced over car windscreen is, you see, not a windscreen, but an overview of a fantasy land somewhere beyond reach, it’s people ground down and subjugated in an icy totalitarian regime, frozen in its leaders cruel idology.
Like all such tyrannies its must be resisted and overthrown, but choice of how to do so carry consequences. Oh, I could send in the shock troops – the windscreen wipers or the plastic ice scraper – to hack away ineffectively at the frozen landscape, but think of the casualties of such brutal action. There is death and destruction in the rasp of wiper-blade over still-frozen window.
No, I prefer the revolution to happen from the grass roots, as the whispered idea of freedom issuing forth from my heater blower, slowly infiltrates and changes minds, causing the tyrant to lose his grip, one ice crystal at a time, as his empire crumbles.
At first there is no change, and then, gradually the dark stain of change creeps upwards from the bottom of the windscreen. The initial defences are down, the lands in the far south unfrozen, and soon whole chunks of ice start detaching from the mass and sliding down the screen accelerating their fall towards the heat, like defecting troops fleeing their routed armies.
And that tight knot of extra hard ice in the middle of the window? That is the seat of government and it is besieged and falling, and the ruler and his minions are fleeing north to that part of the top of the land still in the grip of winter, but there will be no escape, for my warm ideology will waft its way to there too, by and by.
And while all this is flashing through my head, I am far too busy and entranced in my own imaginings to mind the cold of the morning, or the delay to my journey, and by the time the last castle falls the car is warm and I’m ready to be on my way.
Another time, a different place.
It is baking hot, and I am walking down a dry dusty road, and straight into a 1950s movie. The dust road is arid, it runs through the desert alongside a railroad, and my destination is a forgotton, tumbleweed-infested station where no one ever gets on or off.
In my mind I have wandered into the world of the 1955 Western Noir classic A Bad Day At Black Rock, one of Spencer Tracey’s finest, in which, for the first time in twenty years, the train stops in the eponymous town, a stranger alights and trouble ensues. Maybe I’m the stranger, maybe I’m the secret he’s searching for, but I’m certainly in the middle of a dusty wilderness.
Actually, in real life, I am in South Dublin, walking alongside the Green LUAS line extension to Cherrywood, at a place where it runs for a mile or so through a semi-razed wilderness, a bulldozed land now returning to nature, a site of several hundred acres where a vast new town was planned, but which never got under way before the boom ended. The LUAS trams go whizzing by every few minutes, and I’m getting close to the ghost station of Laughanstown, where the trams stop, but no one ever gets on or off. There is nothing at Laughanstown but a tiny country lane and a single house, and the tram stop built in anticipation of the vast new development rarely gets any custom. There isn’t actually any tumbleweed blowing past, but it wouldn’t look out of place if it did.
Normally on my lunchtime walks when I exit the high tech office building where I earn my bread I stick to the nearby roads, and wander through a local park, lush and green. But I spy an opening in the fence that has previously sealed off the dirt road through the abandoned wilderness and I am onto it like a shot, wanting to explore pastures new, and silent.
The sun is baking, the rubble-strewn track is rough beneath my feet,I am sweating copiously, but I’m in the bliss of absolute solitude. No one ever comes this way because there is nothing to come for, who in their right mind would walk through this rubble on a scorching day, heading alongside the LUAS line for a ghost station that no one uses? And as I walk I seal myself into the world of the western, the 1955 film keeping me mentally far away from the work-day reality I’ll have to return to in an hours time.
And then, shimmering in haze ahead of me on the dusty track, there is a flash of brilliant pink.
For a moment it is impossible to define any form or purpose, but eventually it solidifies into a feminine form, far in the distance, coming towards me as I am coming towards her. The heat haze makes her seem to float, and immediately I am in a different space in my head, the film gone, I’m now living in the lyrics of the Talking Heads song “And She Was” watching this mirage-like woman as she seems to glide this way and that over the ground without really touching it at all.
I wonder idly if there is a song playing in her head as she sees me moving inexorably towards her . Perhaps she hears an indie beat from The Automatic asking her what kind of monster is cresting the hill ahead of her.
More than likely, of course, she doesn’t notice me at all.
She is so vividly pink, the two of us alone in this desolate landscape are such utterly opposite magnetic poles as we come towards each other, that surely there must be some sort of explosion if we touch.
She is female, young, brightly clad and long of hair, blonde, I am male, older, dressed in black and grey, hair short and greying.
But we pass without any chemical reactions or explosions, and after a while she is swallowed up into the landscape behind me.
There is nowhere she can possibly be going. If she was heading to any destination the LUAS would have been quicker, and this track was not usually accessible. She was walking into that wilderness for the sheer joy of it, and as we passed I could see through her smiled greeting the same dreamy look in her eyes as I must have had, and I loved her for it.
I am not the only loner in the desert today. And that, somehow, just the seeing of her, and the realisation that she is there for the same reasons as me, reconnects me with humanity, and makes a difficult work day more bearable, and all this without a single word spoken.
A bad day at Black Rock.
But a good day at Laughanstown.
I think it was John Denver who sang the words “He was born in the summer of his 27th year, coming home to a place he’d never been before” (the song: Rocky Mountain High)
As Steve Conway I was born on the 6.30am news headlines exactly 25 years ago this morning, in the winter of my 23rd year, having just arrived at a place that would become home to me for a number of exciting drama and emotion packed years, and a sort of Tir Na Og or mystical lost land for me to look back at later in life.
This is a way of saying that today is the 25th anniversary of my joining Radio Caroline back in the days when it was offshore. Before that that day I had another name, but the practacalities of working on a radio station that was outside the law (not against the law, but actually outside it) made a name change advisible, and so Steve was born as a fully fledged adult, and Steve I have been ever since.
And, in a way, it was a rebirth of sorts, because joining Caroline so radically altered my life that the date 24th February 1987 is a dividing point in my life, which was very very different in shape either BC (before Caroline) or AD (after the drifting of November 1991 that ended my offshore years).
And what of the 4 years in the middle? They were, in a way, outside normal time and space – life on board a pirate radioship in International Waters being so strange and cut off from normal society, but so physically, socially, and emotionally intense that those involved seem to exist in their own little bubble. For a proper detailed description of those strange years, I would refer you to my 2009 book: Shiprocked – Life On The Waves With Radio Caroline, and my forthcoming prequel, sequel and midquel “Running Away From The Circus – Everything I Know About Radio I Learned By Screwing It Up”
No, what the anniversary has really made me think about this morning is time.
25 years – a quarter of a century. In one sense it has passed quickly, but in another, it is a very long span of time, especially if I view it in terms of the changes in the world in which I live.
I’m not talking about the micro world of radio – though that has changed dramatically, offshore pirates now a thing of the past, onshore radio multiplied in number by a huge factor – nor am I thinking about the political world, which, to be honest, despite governments coming and going, wars and alliences changing, is curiously unchanged from 1987 (I have a couple of my Caroline news bulletins on tape, and apart from the names of the participants, many of the actual stories would seem perfectly normal if broadcast today, indeed an old bulletin might almost be played out instead of a new one with few realising there was something wrong).
I’m thinking of the more general world as it personally affected me an an individual, then and now.
Information has been the defining change of those 25 years. In 1987, information was something which you were given, in limited quantities. It was not something which, in the run of the mill that you accessed, unless you have a job which specifically involved accessing files and databases.
On board the radio ship we had a television (and no, we didn’t have a licence for that either!) and it gave us the diet of entertainment and slices of news that were deemed suitable or needed for the population at large. There was no hint of customisation – you had the choice to watch or not, but could not influence that content in any way. Also on the TV was teletext, a few hundred pages of information judged to be of popular appeal, so you could look up things like sporting results, the current UK Top 40, news headlines, weather etc. No deeper dive into this information was possible, and there was no such thing as search.
Onshore it was not much different. You could go to a library, but getting hold of any kind of information outside the daily norm required a lot of effort. What exactly was said during a debate in the House of Commons last night? What are the times of the bus that goes past my friends house in a city 400 miles away? What is the history of Danzig before 1939? All of these kinds of questions were, indeed, capable of being answered, but not on the spot, not at 8am on a Sunday morning, and often not without considerable time and effort.
When I made the snap decision to join Caroline, my family and friends back home in Ireland did not find out about it for many weeks. There was no Facebook to keep in touch, no text messages, and no way for them to listen to me even if they had known I was on there.
Whenever I wanted to take a trip back to Ireland to see them, booking it was a big undertaking. I had to visit a travel agent or ferry or airline office, where first of all I would have to wait, patiently, while many other people in front of me were served, slowly. Then I would explain my needs to a person seated in front of a booking system which I could not see, and they would outline the various options of flights or ferries to me. I had no way of seeing those options myself, no way of knowing if what I was being told and sold was really the best for me, or the best for them.
When I went home to ireland, I was in a different world from the UK. No Caroline, no London Evening Standard, no access to my London friends other than making an international phone call (house to house in those days) which would seem . . well, strange.
I don’t have to tell you how vastly different all these things are now. I listened to Caroline on my way to work on the bus this morning in Dublin in clear FM quality via my smartphone, which will also give me the Evening Standard if I want it, let me search and book my flights, even act as my boarding pass. Any of the pieces of information I mentioned above are at my fingertips instantly. Travelling is hugely different, through apps and alerts I know what is going on at airports, can be certain when the next bus or tram is arriving, and can text Geoff in Surrey to tell him that I’m just about to get onto a fishing boat in Harlingen, Netherlands. Or research the history of Danzig should I be hit with a curiosity to do so at 8am on a Sunday morning.
When we look forward in time, we generally don’t see and can’t see the real changes which are going to happen. We think of faster planes and spaceships and wars for water, but we can’t forsee the changes that are gestating which will affect the more intimate, everyday world we live in.
There are other ways of predicting the future however. A couple of the Dutch crew on the Caroline ship had this thing going with a piece of string and a weight which they used to divine the future for the small but important events – such as when the next supply boat would arrive (FOOD! NEW FACES! NEW RECORDS!), who might be on it, and other such things.
The future was predicted based on which direction the string would move when held with the weight on the end, and whether it would stay absolutely still or move around.
The fact that we were doing this on board a ship which even in the calmest weather would move gently may tell you that we were not neccessarily applying the strictest of scientific methods here!
After a string (!) of successful predictions they started asking it some bigger questions.
Who would find love? Who would marry? When would the Ross Revenge make its final broadcast at sea? (the string correctly predicted 1990, but then wrongly told us that the ship would be bought by the Voice of Peace and move to the Israeli coast).
The human curiosity for the future is strong, despite our almost always predicting it wrongly. Looking back today at this junction in my life a quarter of a century ago, I can’t help but wonder what changes there will be in the next 25 years of Steve Conway. Hopefully, when “Steve” is 50 he will still be alive (his body will be 73, so that’s a reasonable hope). Beyond that I can’t really say what will happen.
Whereas before, everyone talked of flying cars, now in the information age we predict brain chips. People will be able to access everything without any external devices, our memories will be preserved forever . . .
But perhaps we are failing to see the real future, and the changes to come will be just as unexpected and profoundly altering as the ones of the last quarter century.
I just hope they are as liberating.
Anyone got a piece of string I can borrow?
I’d love to be angry with Chris England.
Logging on to his compulsive-reading England’s England site, and seeing a post titled “Steve Conway Fights Fat Bastard Syndrome” is probably not the ideal way to start a Monday morning, and not the kind of flattering portrayal one likes to see of oneself.
But I can’t possibly object, because I’m a realist, and I have to admit that Chris is only (kindly, as you’ll see when you read the text) telling it like it is.
I have got myself into an overweight, unfit state, and that’s my doing, not his.
Over the last 20 or so years, I have allowed myself to go from this:
So I can’t really complain about Chris pointing out what is inescapable reality, especially as in doing so he admits to similar problems himself, and wishes me well in my quest to fight back to fitness.
And, as I mentioned in a previous blog post, I am taking steps to change. Interventions from friends such as Chris are useful in reminding me of how others see me, but only I can make the change.
Over the past month, I have been walking almost every day, and I’m aiming to continue this. I’m doing a minimum of 2km on working days, and at least double that at weekends.
Now, I’ve done this in the past, intermittantly, but always petered out.
This time has to be different. And I mean has to be.Whereas previously I could start and stop my weight-loss kicks with no real consequences, this time it is a neccessity.
What spurred me into action at the start of December was finding myself at a tipping point, health and fitness wise. I found myself at the point where I was actually beginning to waddle rather than walk. The smallest bit of activity would leave me breathless. And my feet, which had always been fine, were beginning to hurt, presumably under the ever increasing burden of carrying me. As someone who used to walk a lot, who in his youth had climbed all of the Dublin, Wicklow and Kerry mountains without a thought, this appalled me.
I’ve had a full health check-up. My heart is fine, I don’t have any health complications like Type 2 diabetes yet, but it would be only a matter of time if I abandoned myself to further inaction. So I’ve started walking, and I won’t stop.
I wish I could do more than 2km a day, but such is my level of unfitness that my feet give up after this and become numb, so I will have to do a little every day, and get them used to this before I can do more. On the longer weekend walks I have to rest halfway. Just ten years ago, I used to walk from Ballinteer to Eastpoint (about 12km) on bank holidays without a second thought. I’d love to be that person again.
I have some help in the form of technology, a great smartphone app called Walkmeter which tracks and records my walks, maps them for me afterwards, and whispers in my ear each time I have completed another half a km (user defined setting – it can announce at any interval you like).
So there you have it – my biggest challenge for 2012.
Tougher than keeping this blog up to date, more important than getting my second book published, but if I can pull it off, more rewarding than anything else I could achieve.
I’ll keep plugging away at it, and we’ll see how far I’ve got at the end of the year.
But time to put down the keyboard now, and get outside.
And, though it hurst to say it, thanks Chris.
2011 has mostly been a year of transition for me. It involved opening doors to a few new outlooks, and closing doors on other parts of my life where things weren’t working or it was time to move on. A few spots of difficulty, mostly self-inflicted and quickly recovered from, were outweighed by many cherished moments with friends and family, including a stint on the Ross Revenge at Easter and one at sea with Seagull in June, a novel and wonderful trip around London of which I will write more later, and my best Christmas in years.
Mostly though 2011 involved making changes and laying plans which will come to fruition in 2012, and I’m greatly looking forward to many of these things.
My second book, Running Away From The Circus, will be published in March (more details on that here in the weeks to come) but before that I will have another short story – Schrodinger’s Bus – in print in the third Seven Towers Census Anthology in February. After Running Away From The Circus, a further book is already half-finished, and I hope to complete it in 2012, so that in 2013 I can begin serious work on the 4th, which is structurally planned and a small part written.
I am happy with my shows on Radios Seagull and Caroline, but have something else planned which will increase my reach in the radio world, in fact more than one something. Details, as always, closer to the time . .
I’m planning a trip to Canada, and hopefully a return visit to the wonderful folk of the Ramsgate RNLI too.
I want to develop my mind in 2012, and reverse some of the neglect of my body – for the last month I’ve been walking every day, and I hope to have the drive to keep this up and push further back to youthful fitness in the year ahead.
Whatever 2012 brings, it will stand or fail on my own efforts – If I want it happy, I must make it so.
For you, can I wish you a peaceful New Year, and the opportunity to reach your goals in the next 12 months too.
All the best,
The past is indeed another country, but the future is a map that we can draw for ourselves if we dare.
It was 20 years ago this morning, (20th November 1991) that I came to the end of the roughest night I had ever known in all my years at sea with Radio Caroline, and faced what I came to believe would be my last ever dawn.
Aground on the infamous Goodwin Sands, which have claimed hundreds of ships and thousands of lives, we were gradually rolling over, each wave pushing us a little closer to the tipping point where the ship would capsize. Ironically, although there was not enough water to float her, there was more than enough to flood into her and fill her up if we went sideways . . more than enough to drown in.
The waves were towering in the North Easterly Force 11 winds, the seas icy – we wouldn’t have lasted more than a few minutes if we went over.
The brave men of Ramsgate Lifeboat had already tried to rescue us and failed, running aground themselves, losing a man overboard in the process (happily quickly recovered by safety line). Now we were waiting for the helicopter, but it seemed we would be in the water before it arrived . .
Certain that we would be drowning in minutes, the floor beneath us already at a 45 degree angle, we hugged each other, shook hands, and said goodbye. We knew we were going to our doom . .
The story of that morning, and our eventual rescue by the RAF helicopter R166 is described in detail in my book Shiprocked – Life On The Waves With Radio Caroline, but even the printed word cannot do justice to the memories which are still vividly seared onto my brain, even all these years later.
I absolutely believed that I was about to die, and that morning, and in particular that moment, has changed my life since then.
The 20 years I have lived since that morning on the Goodwins is a bonus, and the older I have got, the more I have appreciated this, and the more I have lived my life with zeast and purpose. The sudden seeming end of Caroline in 1991 (though not the final end, as it has bounced back and is adpating to a new age) instilled in me a knowledge of the impermanance of states of being, and ensured that when I got involved with Phantom FM in later years I treasured each moment, and drove myself to both give and take the maximum from every day that I worked there.
In life too, I reach out with lust for living to take the most from each day, and push myself to do and experience more and newer things.
Life is a bonus, and I am determined to spend that bonus to the full.
Many people around me comment on my seemingly unflappable calm when faced with difficult situations. This too comes from that morning on the Goodwins, for as I see it, I have been minutes from an icy drowning death, so why should anything that happens in a more normal work or life based situation cause me to panic?
Time has been kind to Radio Caroline too, and that morning, seemingly a point of closure for the station was to be in fact the first step in forcing it to adapt to a new path, which though seemingly bleak for much of the 1990s, has blossomed in latter years into an unprecedented period of stable broadcasts, with new technology enabling the station to be heard in undreamed of quality in previously unreachable countries.
20 years on I have spent the night of the 19th/20th November sipping wine with close friends, and thanking my lucky stars for all the richness of life and the benefits of new technology that both I and Radio Caroline have enjoyed in the last 20 years.
It’s right to raise a glass and look back, but the biggest gift of all is to be able to raise my gaze and look forwards.
Those few of my friends who know about the personal choice I made at the start of this month don’t really understand it.
Even my friend and neighbour Oran, who is open-minded and welcoming of every possible lifestyle choice to the point of being impossible to shock, has his doubts about what I have done.
I could walk into his house carrying a purple minature elephant and proclaiming a newfound sexual attraction to holly trees and Oran would be thoughtfully accepting, rejoicing in my newfound desires and, possibly, willing to try it too.
But of this choice, while supportive, he is quick to assure me, gravely, that it can be undone at a moments notice, and that I only have to say the word and he will help me to return to normality.
You see, I’ve not only joined the estimated 1-2% of people who have chosen to live without television, but of that tiny minority I am not in either the “ultra religious wanting to protect children from TV sex” or the “I don’t want modern technology in my home” subsets who make up two thirds of the abstainers. Nor am I one of the people who moved into a house without a TV and never got around to buying one.
No, I had a perfectly good TV, and made a conscious decision that I no longer needed it in my life, and I took it down the stairs and out of the house, and waved bye-bye to it as it walked down the road*
(*dramatic licence – it’s actually in the shed waiting to be boot-faired)
So, what am I, some kind of weirdo? Some kind of anti-technology nut?
No, I grew up like everyone else of my era, with TV a big part of my life. Through my twenties as I moved from bedsit to flat to house, the TV was always one of those “must-haves” that had to be there on day 1, like the kettle, the duvet and the fan heater (those bedsits used to be cold drafty places!).
When my marriage came to an end in 2000 and I moved back home to Dublin after decades in the UK, I started afresh with almost zero possessions, but the first thing I brought into the first room I rented, when suddenly back in bedsitland, was a little black and white TV, which I propped up on a chair in the corner of the room.
And within a year it was replaced by a much better, colour, combi-DVD unit on a proper stand (indeed, I think, the very one pictured above).
But I’m a great man for radio, and I’ve a love of news and current affairs, and they do wonderful programmes on BBC Radio 4, so the TV was not always on. And as the noughties rolled on, and the X-Factors and their clones swept through TVland, it was on less and less. At first days would go by when it wasn’t switched on, and then, sometimes, weeks.
And I have a stack of unwatched DVDs in the corner that can be viewed on the laptop as easily as the TV, and as broadband improved, there is so much content on the web too.
But the TV was still a “must-have”. Or so I thought.
Until I began to think.
My first conscious moment (the waking from TV-enthralled slumber?) came, of all places, at Holyhead ferry terminal, at around 8pm on a cold blustery night back in February.
I had driven several hundred miles to catch the 10pm ferry, having spent a long weekend staying with a good friend and her flatmate who were, frankly, the most TV-obsessed people I have ever met in my life. In their home, the TV was on constantly, X-Factor, Dancing On Ice and I know not what else was constantly watched and analysed, every carefully choreographed tiff between presenters believed as true-life drama, no TV cliche or stunt too transparant to be swallowed whole.
While watching live TV their Sky+ box was constantly recording other material to be viewed later, the hard disk was always full, and the arguments over what should be deleted to make way for more of the same heated and bitter. But I could tolerate that, in small doses, for the sake of seeing my hosts.
But now, having driven like the devil and endured peak-hour tailbacks through the Midlands, I was being subjected to ferry company customer service at its finest. Having got through the initial checkpoint, and passed outbound customs, I was among many motorists now corralled in a holding area, where terminal facilities were available “for your comfort and convenience”
Entering the building, it became apparent to myself and many other motorists that the coffee and snack shop was closed.
The door onto the corridor leading to the toilets was locked.
There was not a single member of staff anywhere to help.
Children were crying, people wanted the loo, I wanted a warm drink in me, and everyone was vexed. All we had access to was a large waiting room with hard plastic seats, and a big, booming television.
And then Eastenders came on, and suddenly no one was vexed, everybody settled down and looked at the screen, and the locked toilets and the lack of “comfort and convenience” didn’t matter to anyone any more, as they were comforted by the ultimate complaint handler – a bit of telly.
At that moment, as the dum dum dum of the Eastenders theme crashed around the room, I felt my world spin, and it was as if I could suddenly see what TV does – drains the passion, the thought, the fight, out of a population, and makes them . . content.
I went back outside, and sat in my car. I knew it was not a plot, it was not deliberate, but yet, the effect was a visible fact – treat customers any way you want, as long as you give them a bit of telly, it will all be OK.
That played on my mind for a while, over the summer, and my spells with the TV off became longer, not so much as a conscious decision, but more because I was finding the endless promos and trailers and constant stripping of programmes such as The Simpsons and Friends and all the “real-life” dramas across many channels to be more and more of an irritation.
And I could see my own childhood favourite, Dr. Who, being sucked into this, with more and more flashy guest-stars, and less standalone, thoughtful and quirky episodes.
I thought about life without TV. Not a life without watching programmes or films, but without the actual set itself, sitting there consuming space and asking to be switched on. And the more I thought about it, the more I realised that even the space the TV itself claimed was more use to me than the slim pickings I now got from it. And so the decision was made, the TV would go when my current Sky contract came to an end at the start of October.
A shocked Oran helped my carry it downstairs and out of my life.
It’s not as if I can’t watch things if I want to. I’m not a luddite, and I’m not anti-media. Anything I want is available on the Internet if I really want to get it, but that is more of an active and discerning choice, which I like.
And the very last thing of all that I had told myself I was hanging on to TV for, live news, is now accessible just as easily online as through TV.
RTE have their main news bulletins easily accessible, and the individual stories also, as featured videos (see above). And the BBCs online news video service is even more impressive.
I can still watch episodes of TV if I really want to, I can buy or download, and my stack of DVDs is still in the corner, but, still just as little viewed. But I find I’m not doing that so much.
For the first week that the TV was gone, I felt serious pangs. Which was ridiculous, as I had been going weeks at a time without turning it on anyway, but it more the absence of the ability to turn it on, the loss of an object which had been a focal point of every residence I had lived in through my adult life. Another week has gone by, and the pangs are gone.
I listen to radio (mostly speech), I often listen to downloaded podcasts of shows from Radio 4 and the World Service in the evening, I have extra space where the TV used to be, and I feel . . . liberated, awake.
You were good to me once TV, you coloured my childhood with Daleks and Liver Birds and Life On Earth . . but we fell out of love when it became too stale, and I gave you your marching orders.
And now I don’t miss you one little bit.
And when I see you with someone else, I won’t be jealous.
I had an hour to spare on Saturday, unexpectedly, and I used it to wander out the North Bull Wall past Dollymount Strand and into the bay. The view from there is urban, across the port to the longer South Wall, and then beyond it to the south city and the Dublin Mountains, but it’s lovely all the same. I’ve biked and walked and climbed over every inch of that city and those hills in my childhood, and they are as much a part of me as my DNA.
It was a typical “Dublin Day” on Saturday – overcast but not wet, a fresh breeze from the southwest scudding the multitude of low-hanging clouds across the landscape, just scraping the hilltops. It was cool without being cold, and the day held enough promise of rain to deter the noisy crowds who normally throng the beach without actually releasing any rain.
The sea, that sky, those hills . . I can remember a thousand Dublin days just like it while growing up.
I found a little rock to sit on and just drank all this in for a long time, relishing a moment of passive enjoyment of place which I indulge in far to rarely these days. It was good for recharging the soul.
I drive myself too fast to do too many things these days, and forget sometimes to stop and enjoy the smell or the roses, the kiss of the rain on my cheek. A fulltime and senior job in the IT world with much pressure, a book to be written, another half done, short stories and poems bubbling up as well, two radio shows to be planned and recorded each week, and several other projects on the boil. I’m never bored, and I love it, but all the same . . I musn’t forget to feed my soul as well as my career(s).
All those years ago, as a schoolboy, I remember enjoying the poetry of Robert Frost. Two poems in particular stuck in my mind through adulthood.
“The Road Not Taken” was my favourite, and was both a guide to my choices and a description of my life for many years, and I hope, still now.
“But I, I took the road less travelled by
And that has made all the difference”
But it is another poem of Frosts that comes into my mind much more frequently these days: “Stopping By Woods On A Snowy Evening“
As a boy I loved it for its description of dark snowy woods, ripe for exploration, and wondered why the adult, who so obviously found them allureing, yet chose not to tarry.
But now, in a busy life, I find myself thinking of that last verse much more often, in the full understanding of the adult’s responsibilities that force him to cut short his simple pleasure and drive on.
As I sit there looking across the bay at those could-capped hills and the domains of my childhood, I resolve to try to take more “time out” for myself and try to make just a bit of space in a busy world for watching snowy woods.
But not now. There is a man I have to meet at 1pm in East Wall, and then its off to Loughlinstown where I have several hours work awaiting me.
I get up to walk back to the car, happy that I have just gifted myself a lovely September moment of pleasure.
I’d like to stay longer, but I have promises to keep.
And miles to go before I sleep
And miles to go before I sleep.
A collection of some of the milestones in my life, some important, some quirky!
First memory . . in a cot in my parents room, playing cars by driving my fingers around the blanket . . into transport and machinery even before I could walk!
First (earliest) memory that I can specifically date: the night before my third birthday, travelling down to Mitchelstown in our old Ford 100E sitting on my mother’s lap. The alternator/dynamo was failing and the car lights were dimming . . I remember being carried up the boreen to my great grandfathers farmhouse at midnight after we had broken down just short of our destination. Then I remember my third birthday itself, and my Great Uncle Billy telling me I was a “big boy” and giving me a toy tractor to play with.
First book read. . Can’t remember what was first, but I was an avid reader. I was really into Greek mythology as a child, and had read the Illiad and Odyssey by the age of 8.
First girlfriend . . When I was only about 6 I had a thing for Laura from down the road. Start as you mean to go on!
First time on TV . . There exists in the RTE Archives some footage of a nine-year-old me wandering through a field in Kerry picking blackberries, as part of a “Landmark” special on farmhouse holidays.
First record bought . . Jeff Wayne “Forever Autumn” from War of the Worlds, in 1978.
First Kiss . . Maggie from New Cross, where are you?
First dance . . some very kind Co. Clare woman took pity on me when I was all alone at the disco on our school trip to The Burren, and whisked me around the floor to the envy of my classmates. I can still remember the smell of her hair . .
First proper job . . (excluding working in the family business), my first actual job was a week as a door to door salesman in 1982. I must have have knocked on half the doors in Dublin, and made only £13 in commission before giving it up.
First car . . A lovely Fiat 500 passed down from my mother. If cars could talk, it would have a tale or two to tell!
First heartbreak . . Yes, it’s Maggie from New Cross again. If you want to know what went wrong, see pages 11/12 of Shiprocked, Life On The Waves With Radio Caroline. It’s true, I really was that innocent!
First record I played on the radio . . Joan Jett – “Bad Reputation” (on South East Sound, July 1985)
First record I played on Radio Caroline . . Percy Sledge – “When A Man Loves A Woman”
First time abroad . . England for the 1966 World Cup. (actually it was my Dad who went for the football, I was just a toddler).
First words written to start writing the book (that became Shiprocked) . . “The call came at the worst possible time . .” (Later I realised that I needed more background about what had happened leading up to my joining Caroline, so that first line written is now many pages into the finished version).
First Draft (of Shiprocked) . . 225,000 words. Redrafted on my own account to 176,000 words to tighten up. But then cut down to 90,000 words for publication . . that was tough!
First (of many!) rejection letters . . 1993 from an agent in London. It would be another 15 years and many more rejections before I came across Seven Towers Agency, who have been utterly brilliant in supporting me, and in refusing to take no for an answer.
First interview as a published author . . The day Shiprocked was published, I was interviewed by Sinead Ni Mhordha on Phantom’s Access All Areas show. I was used to hearing Sinead interview great rock bands, and was just blown away that she was interviewing me. Forget TV3 forget The irish Times, it was sitting across the desk from Sinead that I really felt like I’d arrived!
First show on Phantom . . November 2000, the breakfast show. I started with a news bulletin, so my very first words on air were to inform the world that George W Bush had just been confirmed president following the final court hearing into vote counts. My first record was Greenday – “Minority” – as good a musicical start as any!
That’s it for now – let’s hope I have many more “firsts” still to come.
I never knew him as anything other than “Fran from Balbriggan”, and I only ever met him once, but he was a constant presence over the last 8 years that I’ve been on Phantom.
Fran was a regular texter to the breakfast show in 2000-2002, and was one of the first to welcome me back when we launched as a licenced station in 2006. It was always good to see his familiar name popping up on the text list every few shows – one of those texters who has been around for so long that they seem more like a friend.
Fran passed away over the weekend at the very young age of 24.
I know from mutual friends how much he is missed in Balbriggan, and he’s missed at Phantom towers too.
Rest in Peace Fran.
(Note: this piece was originally written back in 2008 when I was still working on the final edits ofthe book which was originally published as Shiprocked – Life On The Waves With Radio Caroline. It is referred to here by my earlier intended title, and the excerpt quoted in fact never made it into the published version for reasons for space).
I’m back from my week long retreat down the southwest, where I spent my time lazing, writing, and thinking (in pretty much that order). Back presenting Random Access on Phantom 105.2. And counting myself lucky to be alive.
Not because of anything that happened to me during the week, but because, like a good writer, I was trying to please my editor, and ended up stirring up some sleeping dogs from the recesses of memory.
When I say editor, Sarah (from the wonderful Seven Towers Agency) is actually my agent, but she is going through an editing process with me on the book, Somewhere Down The Crazy River, as part of the preparation for marketing it to potentially interested publishers. It’s an interesting process for me, having someone with no detailed background knowledge of offshore pirate radio reading the text, and giving me the thoughts and comments that hopefully future readers would raise with the current version. Some minor typos corrected, comments on the flow and occasional suggestions for rearrangement of paragraphs, and gentle prods to include background information when certain sections rely too much on my own instinctive knowledge of how it was back then.
Amongst the material I had to examine or rewrite while on holiday was a section which takes place in high summer, on board the Radio Caroline ship Ross Revenge in 1987. Sarah had inserted a note asking what we were doing in our off-air free time, stuck out on a ship in International Waters, on the hottest days of the year.
I’d written a lot about surviving the storms of winter, and about the many mays of keeping amused on stormy nights, and the various crisis, adventures, friendships and rows that made life at sea spark. But the hot days of June . . . racking my brains I thought about the sunbathing – not all that interesting – and then it came to me, something I had totally forgotten over the years: the swimming!
This far out at sea there would be no room for mistakes, and swimming sessions were strictly a group rather than a solitary activity, with two people watching over the side, and safety buoys deployed and attached to the ship by ropes. Tidal streams in the Knock Deep were strong, and we had no rescue craft to go after anyone who was swept away, so swimming was restricted to about half an hour either side of the turn of the tide, when the current was slack. Swimmers stayed close to the ship at all times, never further away than we could throw a life buoy. Mostly we would swim up and down along the side of the ship, the more adventurous going as far forward as the anchor, or occasionally doing a complete circuit of the ship if they were strong swimmers. The watchers on deck would move around to stay with the swimmers at all times.
The first time I ever ventured into the water was both an exhilarating, and profoundly scary experience. The water was cold, and there was nothing underfoot – no bottom to touch, as we were in about 30-40 foot of water in the middle of the Knock Deep. The ship beside me was my only safety, and had precious few things to grip onto at the waterline anyway. There was nothing else in sight as far as the eye could see. Even in calm conditions, gentle swells would lift me up and down unexpectedly. At first I just clung to the side of the ship and enjoyed the feeling of being in the water with the safety of still being attached, but after a while I became more adventurous and was able to let go, and start swimming forwards, careful not to stray more than a few yards distant as I swam alongside. Going forwards, I had a pleasant surprise when I came level to the part of the ship where the generator room was located, as the cooling water outlet was discharging lovely warm water into the sea at that point (the generators used sea water cooling, drawing in cold sea water on the port side of the ship, running it through the cooling system to discharge hot on the starboard side).
The swimming sessions were enormous fun, and always seemed too short, though it was always with a sense of relief that I would climb the rope ladder and find myself safely back on board again.
Radio Caroline was a wonderful time in my life, the broadcasting was fun, the life exciting, and in general we were very responsible citizens, observing shipping regulations and responsible technical standards of operation for the radio station, but there were times too when we tempted fate, jumping from ship to ship as supply boats came alongside, climbing masts for repairs – and getting off our ship, miles out at sea, and swimming happily despite the fact that there was no rescue if we got into difficulties.
Maybe I’m older and less adventurous now, perhaps I’ve lost the spark, but I like to think that I’m simply a little wiser. Some of the things I have written about in the book, done without a second thought twenty years ago make my hair stand on end now.
Amazing also that I had so completely forgotten this activity – that’s the purpose of a good editor when you are writing – they don’t ever write a word for you, but they push and they prod and they question to bring more colour and depth (in this case literally) to the writing.