Friday 28 December 2012

Christmas in Wexford

My father always made it home for Christmas. I don’t know what finagling he went through with the Blue Star Line but he spent the holidays with us.

He was a merchant marine on the South American run - from London down to Buenos Aires and back - but wherever he roamed he spent Christmas in Wexford.

He would arrive back his case bulging with presents – stacks of American comics for the boys, suede jackets for the ladies. One year he brought a beautifully plumed parrot. God knows how he got it through customs but sailors were good at that type of thing.

His crewmates had taught this hyper-intelligent creature to swear like a trooper and offer graphic sexual advice to any female who passed within hailing distance. Alas, this tropical pornographer was unable to handle the harsh Irish winter. One frigid February morning we found him head down in his cage, dead of the flu.

My father was not uncommon in his desire to be with his family for Christmas; most Wexford men returned, though usually from London or Birmingham.

Work was scarce in Wexford and many local men were forced to work in the UK. They would carefully divvy up their annual two weeks holidays, a couple of days over Christmas and the rest in the summer when the children would be out of school.

Around mid-December the narrow streets and laneways of the old town would throb with anticipation for the return of fathers flush with extra money gained from time-and-a-half weekend pay.

Amidst this excitement the wives would ice the Christmas cake and store away sumptuous plum puddings in muslin bags. The house would be cleaned and aired; families would soon be reunited and, for a couple of days, cling to the normality of everyday life that others took for granted.

My father enjoyed this mass return – he had much in common with these emigrants. He’d been leaving home since he was fourteen – spent his fifteenth birthday in Russia apprenticed on a ship out of Cardiff.

The pubs would do a roaring trade as men stood rounds for each other. It was their time to be expansive: they’d slaved the previous fifty weeks in British factories, returning at nights to lonely lodging houses, their weekly pay mailed home on Saturday mornings to anxious wives.

My father would be in the midst of all this frantic merriment for he loved pubs and good company. Back then women didn’t frequent these establishments; in fact most ladies rarely took a drink, apart from a sherry or two at a wedding or wake.

The pubs would be boisterous and ring with innocent swearwords, particularly on Christmas Eve, for the hour wouldn’t be long in coming until these breadwinners would be forced to take the boat-train again.

Most men would head up to midnight mass. My father didn’t go with them. He thought all religion was humbug; truth be told, he employed a more scathing term when he had drink taken.

He didn’t care much for the clergy either although he had much time for his brother-in-law, Father Jim Hughes, who had spent most of his life on the missions in the Far East and, more importantly, was a dab hand at picking winners at race meets and point-to-points.

My father rarely made a big deal about his disinterest in religion for back then Ireland was run tight as a fist by the hierarchy; I suppose, it wasn’t worth the hassle. Occasionally he even dropped to his knees during the recitation of the rosary, though he always took care to position the racing page of the newspaper in front of him.

He usually left soon after New Year’s; the damp depressing days of an Irish January were not to his liking. Buenos Aires and the southern summer were calling.

By then over in England the emigrant Wexford men would already have clocked in a week on factory floors dreaming of the faraway summer holidays.

My father never gave much thought to summer for he enjoyed tropical sunshine most of the year. Still, he always made it home for Christmas.

Monday 24 December 2012

Christmas & The Irish-American Princess

She was my first IAP (Irish-American Princess). Well the first that I lived with at any rate. Tara had somehow made her way down to the Lower East Side from the leafy, lace-curtain environs of Westchester, although she was anything but stuck up.

Back then I had a regular Sunday gig in the less than ritzy Archway up the Bronx and she fit in there like a fist in a glove. Of course, she was quite a looker so that didn’t hurt with the lovesick Paddies. She had beautiful grayish green eyes that would mist over in any kind of conflict or passion; there was much of both in our relationship. The boys said that she could twist me around her little finger. They were right, but oh that twisting could be so sweet.

Things came easy to Tara. She had succeeded at everything she’d turned her hand to. But she wished to become a successful singer, the rock that many have foundered upon. I must have seemed like a good step up the ladder; besides gigs in the Archway and John’s Flynn’s Village Pub, I regularly strutted my stuff at CBGB’s and Max’s Kansas City. It was to be a match made in purgatory for both of us. Whatever, as they say, I was in need of some stability and moved into her apartment on First Avenue.

I always “just missed” her parents on their visits to the city. That should have set the bells ringing but I guess when you’re in love… Actually, our first major disagreement was over my parents - when I announced I’d be spending Christmas with them in Wexford.

“Our first Christmas together?” She shuddered.

“Well, you can come too.” Although I broke into a cold sweat at the thought of telling the Mammy that we’d be bunking together in the ancestral homestead.

“I couldn’t desert my parents,” she countered as though I was sentencing her whole white-picketed clan to twenty out on Rykers.

“But what about my parents?” And on it went as lovers’ quarrels do until her eyes were so misty and beautiful I feared that her heart might indeed break.

Well, I wrote my Mother a particularly tear-stained letter full of half-truths (God rest her soul, I suppose she knows the full story now). I didn’t dare telephone; I wasn’t man enough to bear two loads of womanly angst. In truth though, the part that really hurt was that I would miss the traditional Wexford boys’ night out on Christmas Eve. And so I extracted a promise from Tara that we’d at least tie on a decent substitute.

“No problem,” she said and was good to her word. She was fairly abstemious for those times but when called upon could drink like a fish with little ill effect. We bought a tree, decorated it, and strung flashing lights all around the apartment. I almost felt like Jimmy Stewart in It’s a Wonderful Life. Almost! For around 7pm I slipped on my black leather jacket, she dressed up to the nines and off we strutted up First Avenue to get well and truly shellacked.

God knows how many bars we hit, I certainly don’t; but I was feeling no pain by the time we reached Max’s Kansas City. Why Max’s on Christmas Eve? Well Tara liked to make the scene, besides I knew the doorman and got in free. I was also familiar with the bartender who slid many the shot of watered-down whiskey towards us. And then, through the shroud of smoky darkness, I heard the London accent.

“Roight!” The spiky-haired ghost in black leather wearily exclaimed.

The platinum blonde next to him droned on as junkies do.

“Roight.” Sid Vicious reiterated whenever a response was expected.

I casually whispered his name to Tara.

“Oh my God!” She shrieked as though Jesus had just hopped down off the cross and offered to buy a round.

Sid looked up blearily, whereupon Tara flashed him a smile that would have done justice to Marilyn Monroe on steroids.

“The blonde looks like a piece of all right,” I countered and winked at Nancy Spungen.

“From a bottle!” Tara sniffed just as Sid laboriously hauled himself off his stool and stumbled towards the restrooms; whereupon Ms. Spungen laid her head down on the counter for a wee snooze. We were still awaiting Sid’s return when Tara looked at her watch and gasped. “It’s two minutes to twelve.”

“Expecting to turn into a pumpkin?”

“No,” she moaned, “we won’t get into St. Patrick’s!”

“What for?”

“Midnight mass, of course. What do you think?”

Was she kidding - from Max’s to matins?

When we arrived at the church off Avenue A, I could tell it wasn’t exactly what Ms. Westchester had in mind. For one thing, the priests all wore dark shades and spoke Polish. Still, the place was packed and we reverently stood in the transept beside an ornate candelabra, wax dripping from its many branches.

Perhaps, it was the heat, though it could have been Max’s watery whiskey; for one moment I was swaying, the next I was writhing on the marble floor painfully disengaging myself from a myriad of hot waxy candles. There was immediate uproar with many Eastern European ladies screaming at me, and Tara, no doubt, wishing she was safely home in leafy suburbia.

When I awoke on Christmas morning much of her extensive wardrobe was laying atop me. She was modeling a matronly gray jacket and skirt, the hem inches below her knees, damn near a foot down from its usual height. I leaped from the bed and grabbed my Doc Martens, pink shirt, and black leather tie and jacket. Unlike my dearest, I had long before settled on an outfit appropriate for my first appearance in Westchester.

“You don’t look well, baby,” she laid a cool hand on my brow and cooed, “You’re just burning up.”

I did feel as though one of those monsters from Alien was ready to hop out of my stomach but I had much experience of that condition. “No, it’s okay. I want to do this for you.”

She hemmed and hawed before blurting out the truth, “It’s my mother…she wouldn’t like you.”

“What’s there not to like?”

“Well, your clothes, for one thing. I mean, are you serious?”

And with that, the fight fled from me. I could just picture the whole clan dressed in Kelly green singing Danny Boy around a turf fire - her auld one, no doubt, peering out through her lace curtains.

Tara took me in her arms whispered that I should go back to sleep, and hinted that on her return Santa might provide some x-rated delights. But I wasn’t that easily mollified and delivered one last parting shot as the door closed behind her, “So what am I supposed to do, have Christmas dinner in an Indian restaurant?”

Well, I didn’t fall back asleep and the hangover was of the galloping nature, gaining ground all evening. But the hunger was no joke either and when I eventually sauntered up First Avenue the only places open were of the Indian persuasion. A dusting of snow was coming down as I stormed into The Taj Mahal. The lone customer didn’t even bother to look up from his book; I sat there glaring at him, cursing all cruel-hearted IAPs and wishing I was home with my Mammy in Wexford.

The snow was swirling around First Avenue and I could hear White Christmas playing as I headed back to the apartment. I turned on the blinking Christmas lights and took a couple of fierce slugs of Jameson’s whiskey, turned the Clash up to eleven and rehearsed ever more vicious and vengeful ways of breaking up with Ms. Westchester.

She must have forgotten her keys for, at first, I didn’t hear her knock above Strummer’s bawling. I strode over to the door, more fired up than any Old Testament prophet. She stood there, face flushed from the cold, snow in her hair; she was expecting my fury and accepted it with grace. She smiled gently, her grayish green eyes misting over, and I barely heard her murmur, “I missed you so much.”

She reached up and held a sprig of mistletoe over my head and kissed me as if for the first time. Then she whispered, “Merry Christmas, baby.”

Friday 21 December 2012

Playwriting, Procrastinating & Cyndi Lauper

There’s an old saying, “everyone has at least one good play in them.” Probably true, but how to write one?

I get asked that question frequently and often wonder why? It must be the pure lure of the stage, for one may make a killing in the theatre, but rarely a living.

I’ve been writing plays for almost thirty years – I’m sure of the time frame for I turned down a small part in Cyndi Lauper’s video, Girls Just Want To Have Fun, in my blind desire to finish my first opus, Liverpool Fantasy. Of course I’d no notion the song would prove so successful – another great career move!

Since then I’ve written thirteen more plays and musicals; a couple have even achieved minor success, but my total earnings wouldn’t keep me in a decent year’s beer money. Despite that woeful admission I have any number of new blockbusters rattling around in my head, so I well understand the compulsion to write.

First things first though, playwriting is a craft, not unlike carpentry; hence the appellation – playwright, and one must serve ones time. However, the few masters are rarely willing to take on an apprentice.

Many beginners feel that playwriting is about words: their beauty and flow, instead it’s more concerned with chiseling and carving sentences until they reflect an essential idea; indeed, if an actor can deliver that essence with just a wink or a knowing smile then the words themselves become superfluous.

Unfortunately the apprentice playwright – the master too, apparently - must wade through reams of slush and verbiage to discover what the hell he or she is trying to say in the first place.

There’s one truism that you neglect at your peril: every play must have a spine: in other words, you should be able to sum up the work’s essence in one short active sentence.

The hunt for these pithy words can drive you to distraction - or more likely, drink. Every character you create must also have a purpose and you had better be able to explain this very succinctly to your director who, hopefully, will convey it to the actors in some coherent form.

Ah, the actors! The bane of every playwright – and yet where would we be without them? After years of wrestling with words, spines and looming poverty, you must hand over your birth-panged characters to those who will portray them on stage.

It’s a rarity that the actor will speak the lines as you hear them in your head – and unless you’re Jim Sheridan you shouldn’t dare try mouthing them. Jim has that rare talent of instantly morphing into your characters – men and women – and brining them to life just as you imagined them.

Despite all the torment you’ll go through with overwrought thespians, one of them will eventually turn you into a decent playwright. I had the great fortune to both write for and direct that titan of the theatre, Patrick Bedford.

By that point I had learned enough about directing to just keep the hell out of his way. He was playing Capt. Willie O’Shea in my play, Mister Parnell. Utilizing pure skill and not a little genius he brought that blackguard to life as I’d imagined him, thus gifting me the confidence to trust my instincts ever after.

That’s the most important lesson in theatre – perhaps, life too: once you’ve set your compass, stick to it, you’ll then learn from every failure as well as from the occasional success.

What are the pluses in this game? Well, you don’t have to pass any tests to get started. Get yourself a couple of good actors and, if you can’t find a decent director, do it yourself - remember Jim Sheridan had to start somewhere too.

There’s nothing quite like the high of seeing a random idea leap out of your brain onto a page, and later manifest itself onstage.

So, go for it! What do you have to lose – well the occasional sight of Cyndi Lauper cavorting in her video and knowing that you too could be up there having fun with her.

Thursday 13 December 2012

Sandy, Overheating, and Frank Herbert's Whiskey

I suppose in the light of the death, disaster and loss of property that accompanied the recent super storm, we must face the reality that global warming may not be just a figment of your average tree-hugger’s imagination.

Not that the appropriately named Sandy was necessarily triggered by man-made causes, nonetheless it’s impossible to ignore that three of the ten highest floods in the Battery Park area over the last century have occurred in the last three years.

We are continually warned by politicians about the danger of handing over an unsupportable national debt to future generations, but what if we’re also passing on an unsupportable planet?

The mind boggles at the prospect, given that we may have already set events in motion that will be difficult to reverse. But stop them we must – either now at a very expensive price, or later when that cost and effort may be beyond both our pockets and capabilities.

“Balderdash!” You might say and you could be right; but what if you’re wrong? There was a time when I enjoyed reading Science Fiction and attended that genre’s various conventions. At one such affair I even “appropriated” a bottle of whiskey belonging to Frank Herbert, the writer of Dune, but that’s a story for another day.

While Dune is still a terrific read, there’s little to be gained in tackling most of this geeky literature since much of the fiction I enjoyed is fast becoming fact.

A painting from one of these long-ago conventions haunted me in the last weeks. It showed the island of Manhattan surrounded by large Gothic battlements built to withstand a swollen ocean caused by an overheated earth – a fantastical notion back then.

It reminded me that we seem to have lost the will – or the foresight - to confront only the most immediate of problems. But those of you who grew up in rural areas know that the land must be treated with respect; farmers inherently understand the wisdom of rotating crops and allowing arable fields to lie fallow every so often.

Our continuing reliance on oil and natural gas is madness. These resources are finite and will run out. Besides, we’re still essentially utilizing the same technology as Henry Ford with his Model T, still spewing the same gasoline fumes into the atmosphere and at the same ridiculously low mileage to the gallon.

President Obama boasts about upping these rates to 54.5 mpg by 2025. Did he ever hear of Europe? They’ve been getting this mpg on some cars ever since the Carter administration. In fact the US was on the fast track to similar rates back when bell-bottoms and disco were all the rage. What happened?

Well, we decided that the poor oil companies and auto-manufacturers needed time to update; then soon thereafter gas prices went through the floor, so who gave a damn anymore.

Thirty-five years later gas is expensive again and now we’re supposed to wait until 2025 for what Europe already has?

But it’s more than that - China and India want their shot at gluttonous excess, and self-righteous sermons from our politicians will likely fall on deaf ears.

Not to worry! We now have fracking - so drill baby drill, burn baby burn! What a break, just when oil reserves were beginning to show the inevitable signs of decline, we came up with a new technology to fracture shale and release the natural gas inside.

Great stuff! But in some areas fracking is affecting the water supply. We’re already damaging the very air we breathe with gas emissions; whatever we do, let us bequeath clean water to our descendants.

No one is even suggesting that we not utilize the vast new reserves of natural gas that have already brought prosperity to previously low income states like North Dakota, but easy does it when messing with the water supply.

If we gain only one thing from the aftermath of the Sandy tragedy, let it be that we become aware of the fragility of the world around us; let us be sure to hand over this beautiful planet to the next generation in at least the health it was handed to us.

Sunday 9 December 2012

dem damned behans

The two brothers left school at the age of thirteen to become house painters. Both ended up Irish republicans, socialists, playwrights, songwriters, memoirists, troublemakers, drinkers and many other things besides.

Brendan became a world-renowned playwright, though few today have seen his work; he is better known as an Irish boozer who lived life to the scandalous fullest.

Dominic, when recognized at all, is known best for his battle with Bob Dylan over the comparative merits of their songs, The Patriot Game and With God On Our Side.

Brendan’s star has always shone brighter but there is a case to be made that Dominic may now be the more influential.

I first became aware of this when I noticed how many versions of his songs I was playing on my SiriusXM radio show.

I was long aware that he had written Patriot Game, arguably the greatest protest song. Take a listen to Liam Clancy’s mesmerizing version from Carnegie Hall in 1962.

Yet, in a testament to his tetchiness, Dominic found fault with the fact that Liam had pragmatically omitted the verse that spoke about killing policemen – small wonder when performing before an Irish-American audience.

Dominic had a reputation for being a mean drunk and could be his own worst enemy; yet one can sympathize with him over Bob Dylan lifting the tone and character of Patriot Game and recasting it as God On Our Side. We, of course, are the winners, for now we have two magnificent songs, where once there was one.

Try telling Dominic that! For years he publicly insulted Dylan with the hope of luring him into court.

But to get back to the brothers Behan, I had always assumed that The Auld Triangle from Brendan’s powerful play, The Quare Fellah, was his own song. But, lo and behold, Dominic wrote it.

The Auld Triangle continues to improve with age – take a listen to recent versions by Swell Season and Dropkick Murphys. Dominic, indeed, etched his songs in granite. His best stand up effortlessly to time and fashion, and are the equal of anything written by the great Ewan McColl, his friend and rival.

Now you may not be overly impressed with some of his other creations, The Merry Ploughboy, Come Out Ye Black & Tans, or Take it Down From the Mast, but I had always assumed these doughty standards predated him.

Still, there are few lyrics that sum up the hardship and casual heroism of the Irish emigrant experience better than McAlpine’s Fusiliers. I would go so far to say that without that song The Pogues, and Paddy Rock in general, would have been far less authentic.

And what of Brendan? Well, if you’ve never read Borstal Boy, you have a treat in store. As a very erudite gentleman once said to me, “after reading that memoir, I felt that I had missed out on an important part of my education.”

I haven’t seen his other great play, The Hostage, since Jim Sheridan directed it at the Irish Arts Center in the 80’s. Likewise, I haven’t heard of a recent production of The Quare Fellah, one of the most damning indictments of capital punishment. I wonder how both plays are standing up to the test of time.

Writers, however, wax and wane in public estimation and it often takes a director from a different generation to discover the play’s original impetus, shake it loose from the accrued calcification, and then reinterpret it in the cool light of modernity. Hopefully, that will happen to Brendan’s work soon.

Meanwhile Dominic’s star continues to ascend. Nightly, around the world, singers raise their voices in testament to his humanity, politics, biting humor, and sheer productivity. The guy wrote more than 450 songs including, it is rumored, the beautiful middle verse of Carrickfergus that begins with “They say of life and it has been written…”

Whatever their current ranking, those Behan boys didn’t do too bad for a couple of Dubs who quit school at thirteen. True, they shamed and offended many Irish people by their outlandish behavior, but in the end they affected the very way we perceive ourselves.