Monday, March 31, 2014

Holy Cow

I just recently noticed that my 'reversion story' on the wonderful site Why I'm Catholic has clocked over thirty-five thousand views.

Other accounts on the same site are far more popular, but I'm pretty happy with thirty-five thousand! (And it's an excuse to link to it again.)

The article drew ridicule on various atheist internet sites for my criticism of unrhymed poetry, my support for 'traditional gender roles' and my admitted nostalgia for Ireland's agrarian past. But I was really just trying to add some biographical colour, and to describe the rather unfocused traditionalism of my youth. (There was even an element of self-mockery there.) I say towards the end of the article that all of that stuff is beside the point, so I don't know why they highlighted it.

(One female atheist wondered whether, with my admiration for 'traditional gender roles', I was out hunting and picking blackberries every morning. Touché. I can't claim to be the living embodiment of all the traditionally masculine virtues. But all I really meant that there are deep-seated differences between men and women and that this, in my view, is something to celebrate. It had nothing to do with wanting anyone to be barefoot and pregnant in the kitchen.)

It was also translated into Spanish on a few Spanish websites!

Sunday, March 30, 2014

A Question for My Readers

Does anyone know any good essayists or newspaper columnists, that I might not have heard of?

Someone after the manner of Chesterton, C.S. Lewis, Keith Waterhouse, Flann O'Brien, David Sedaris, or Barbara Mikkelson (of

I'm not interested in essayists who write essays full of dense description, or take up esoteric or specialist subjects. I am interested in writers who address the general reader.

(Not Bill Bryson, or any other travel writer. I have no interest in reading a travel writer, even when he or she diversifies to non-travel subjects. Travel writing is something you can't expiate.)

Thursday, March 27, 2014

A Poem for Michelle, Again

I posted this before but I am posting it again now. It's the poem I read out at my wedding reception. The form is rather freer than my usual style, but it just seemed to flow. It's my favourite of my own poems, about my favourite person in the world. And I am posting it now for a special reason, but I don't need any special reason to say it over and over.

When I look at your face I think
About the flickering flames
Of an open fire on a winter’s night;
Bare branches swaying in a winter’s wind
And clean crisp sheets, and the coolness of a pillow
Against my sleepy head;
All welcoming things, all loved and dreamed-of things
All beckoning and all soul-comforting things.

When I look in your eyes
I think of every colour, every element
I ever yearned to lose myself inside.
The near-unbearably gorgeous coloured wavelets
I saw on a visit to Howth, long long ago
When I was a little boy.
The beautiful aquamarine of swimming pool water
The swirling brownness of Coke, held up to the light,
The sepia fog of long-ago photographs.
None of these things look like your eyes, in truth,
And yet your eyes remind me of them all.

When I listen to your voice, I hear
The hum of voices in some busy place
The sound of life itself; I hear the sound
Of children playing in a playground, and
The whistle of a kettle on the boil.
I hear the crash of waves. I hear the crunch
Of leaves beneath my feet.

When I am close
To you and breathe your scent, joy fills my soul.

When I kiss you
And taste your lips, it tastes like home-made bread
And a cup of tea made by someone who loves you.

When I hold you
It is like lying back in a hot bath
Or wearing a warm coat on a cold day.
Your softness is like darkness to tired eyes,
Like silence to tired ears.

When I see you
It is like seeing a window’s yellow light
Cheerful against the dark of a stormy sky
And knowing that my key fits in the lock
Inside the door that opens on the hall
That leads me to that room of yellow light
And someone there will smile to see my face
And come to sit beside me.

When I see
Your face, what I am looking at is home.

Saturday, March 22, 2014

An Old Idea Dusted Off

Some years back, I had an idea for a conservative group blog. (I thought of myself more as a 'conservative' back then than I do now. I think of myself more as a 'traditionalist' now. 'Conservative' just means too many things-- many of which I oppose furiously.)

One gentleman very obligingly set up this blog, but I hadn't done enough legwork and it died a death after a few posts. It was my bad (a modern phrase that I like...very vivid and simple!)

(The Comely Maidens was a tongue-in-cheek title, a phrase taken from a famous or infamous speech by former Irish President Eamon De Valera.)

I still think, however, that an Irish Catholic blog (or perhaps even a 'small-o' orthodox Christian blog) would be a good idea, much like What's Wrong With the World in America.

Today I attended a meeting of the Irish Hilaire Belloc Society, and realized again what a joy it is to have serious conversation with like-minded people, and how easy it is to forget that there are like-minded people out there.

These are the benefits I see in a group blog:

1) It would be a barometer for Irish Catholic/Christian opinion and reaction. That is, it would be the first place internet surfers would go to see how conservative/orthodox Catholics or Christians are reacting to news stories or events in Ireland-- not only Church news, but general current affairs or even TV shows or movies or sporting events. There is nothing like this right now.

Hopefully, it would attract not only believers but also agnostics and atheists, liberals and leftists and socialists, and people of every spiritual and political and philosophical bent, curious to see what the conservative Christians are saying. Hopefully, if the blog was well-written and well-informed and courteous in tone, it would challenge some stereotypes.

2) There are lots of Irish Christian blogs but they tend to be very idiosyncratic-- my own especially. A group blog that was more like an online magazine, that would be edited, that would have articles of a reasonable length (not too long, but not too short either), and that would strive to attract the general reader would be a worthwhile venture.

3) It wouldn't be in competition with individual blogs, but would be a portal towards them.

Here is my vision of the group blog:

1) It would be ecumenical, open to Christians of every denomination-- but Christians who are orthodox adherents of their own denomination. I can even imagine it being open to sympathetic non-Christian and non-believing writers, in exceptional cases. I am thinking of something similar to the American First Things magazine and website.

2) It would be broad in subject matter. It would include politics, Church matters, social comment, humour, poetry, photography, and material of every sort.

3) It would be edited, and by more than one editor.

4) It would be attractive to look at, and not take too long to load. (I've noticed that many Catholic blogs have such a baroque love of pictures and ornament that this can be a problem.) It would need the services of someone who knew about website design.

5) It wouldn't be a rush-job. This is something that would require preparation and coordination.

6) Most importantly, it would not be tribalistic. I get a little depressed when I see how much Irish conservative Christian writing, in print and online, is simply a matter of 'stirring up the troops'. There's a place for that, but there's too much of it. I think there would be enormous value in writing by conservative Irish Chritians that would actually speak to outsiders-- by which I mean liberal Catholics, lapsed Catholics, atheists, agnostics, liberals, socialists, libertarians and others.

My dearest hope would be that those who do not share our views could read this site and come away thinking, "I don't agree, but it's well put and well-written." And-- who knows-- they might even come away agreeing.

And what better title for this blog than St. Patrick's Blog-- which doesn't seem to be taken yet?

I don't know if this is a runner. I'm just putting it out there.

Why I am a Bad Person

Sometimes I fear I present myself as being rather angelic in this blog. So I feel compelled to record dissenting opinions. I just had a run-in with two old ladies in a supermarket and I fear I was rather tart with them.

I was carrying my basket along an aisle and I bumped it against the trolley of one of the old ladies. (It wasn't a supermarket trolley, but rather the kind of upright-standing trolley with the handle at the top, and a leather or fabric covering around the case.) Reader, I didn't even notice I'd hit off her trolley-- or, if I did, it didn't register on my consciousness. It was a glancing blow at best, a tap.

Lady (very crabbily): "Don't hit off my trolley!"

Me (cheerfully): "OK!"

Should I have said sorry? Maybe.

A few moments later, I passed the old lady again and now she was complaining to a confederate, another old lady, about me.

"He didn't even apologize!".

I can't remember what I replied, but it was still not an apology and I used the address "ma'am", rather smarmily. I don't think it was unpleasant, though.

The first lady scooted off and her confederate scowled at me and said: "It's nice to be nice".

I said: "It is nice to be nice, but...this is so trivial!"

Lady: "It's not trivial!". And she scooted off, too.

So, there you go, reader. Never say this blog isn't warts and all. Was my reluctance to apologize because of a stiff-necked pride, or because of an aversion to that kind of peevish pettiness? Let the Almighty decide.

Update: Later on in the day, I was getting on a bus and there was an old lady getting off who was pushing pretty much the same kind of trolley that had featured in 'Trolleygate' earlier. Sometimes I let my shyness hold me back, but-- remembering today's encounter-- I pushed myself forward and helped her down with it. "Thank you very much, sir", she said. "God bless you!"

So my score today is: 2 Old Ladies Annoyed, 1 Old Lady Thankful.

Friday, March 21, 2014

Should the Man Make Worlds?

The Man Who Could Make Worlds, after a fairly successful beginning, has suffered from falling 'ratings' (or blog statistics) as it has gone along. Does anyone want me to continue with it?

I'm not terribly attached to the story, and it's the novel I least enjoyed writing. To be honest, I think it rather goes downhill after a good start. If I was writing it now, I would make it much more fantastic and imaginative. The fictional world that is spun out of Billy's imagination is not especially, well, imaginative, and far too hobbled with realism and plausibility. I never got lost in the story like I did in others.

But, well, if anyone wants it I'll keep posting it.

Thursday, March 20, 2014

On the Lord's Prayer

Here speaks the aspiring spirit to its Maker. This is the love-song of the Christian world. Few precepts of our Master, I suppose, have been more widely observed than that we are to " pray in this manner." For most of us that day would lack something in which the Lord's Prayer had not been repeated. It fits all circumstances. It is the chant of the saint in his most exultant moments, his refuge and solace when most depressed. The poor sinner, who through walking in the ways of vice has almost lost the power of aspiration and can no longer formulate for himself his better desires, finds in these sacred phrases his appropriate utterance.

Everywhere, indeed, the Prayer is used. And I believe we should be in error if we thought to disparage it by saying that for the most part it is repeated without our being distinctly aware of its meaning. In this I find no blame. It is a diseased and morbid condition of mind that seeks to be persistently conscious. Our home affections would not be the sweeteners of life that they are if we were asking ourselves perpetually "How much do I love these members of my household ?" We preserve sanity best by taking our daily affections as matters of happy course. And just so it is in our ordinary repetitions of the Lord's Prayer. In the common use of it we rise into a sacred atmosphere, where some one holier than we seems to be speaking for us. In its general meaning we partake, but we need not be anxious to search that meaning out.

George Herbert Palmer, The Lord's Prayer, Harvard Theological Review, April 1920

The Man Who Could Make Worlds-- Chapters Ten to Thirteen

Chapter Ten

Billy heard Rex muttering the mysterious words again. He wondered if it was only his imagination that, this time (though he still couldn’t make out a single word), they sounded different. Not just different, but stranger. And stronger.

Then, just as suddenly the voices and noises of Mrs. Delaney’s classroom, they ceased, and were replaced by complete silence.

It took Billy a moment to realise that he wasn’t sitting down anymore. He was standing. He felt hard ground under his shoes. Shoes? They felt more like boots.

“Mr. Cunningham?” he asked. “Should I take the blindfold off?”

There was no answer.

Had something gone wrong? Or was he just supposed to wait for Rex’s command?

Then he noticed something else. The smell. Smell wasn’t even the right word; it was a stench. It was the smell of stale sweat, rotten vegetables, and much worse. But it didn’t bother him as much as he thought it should. It was impossible, but he felt like he’d grown used to it.

“Mr Cunningham?” he asked again.

Once again, there was no answer. But this time Billy noticed how his words echoed around him.

Cautiously, expecting Rex’s voice-from-heaven to scold him, he reached up and began to take the scarf off. Even when he’d removed it, he kept his eyes closed for a few moments.

It was cold. It was very cold. But somehow, he felt used to that, too. He’d only been here for a few seconds and he felt used to the temperature.

He opened his eyes.

He was in a small room. It was almost completely dark; it would have been completely dark apart from a strange glow in the air. This occupied his attention for the first few moments. At first, he thought it was blue; then he decided it was green; after that, it looked distinctly purplish. It was then that he realised the glow was changing colour all the time.

The glow wasn’t even enough to light up the room; all Billy could see was that it was about the size of a small bathroom. And it seemed to be completely empty.

He touched the nearest wall. He felt tiles there; small tiles, many of them missing and cracked, and all of them grimy. He kept running his hand along the wall, looking for the door.

He was straining his ears, but he couldn’t hear anything. Nothing at all, except his own breathing.

His fingers ran along the wall, quicker and quicker. He started to feel along the cold surface in zig-zags, to avoid missing anything. He had to find something soon. A button, or a latch, or a chink, or—- surely—- the edge of a door-frame. It couldn’t be just tiles, tiles, tiles, all the way around....

But the more he felt, the more it seemed to be just that. He’d turned four corners when terror began to close in on him; terror that felt like the first signs of insanity.

“Rex!” he began to shout, so that the sound bounced off the walls and sent echoes reverberating through the tiny room. Room? It was obvious now that it was no room, but a cell. “Rex! I’ve changed my mind! I don’t want to do this! Let me out!”

He wasn’t really expecting a response, of course, so he was surprised when one came. It came from above him, but it wasn’t the voice-from-heaven that had spoken to him on the other occasions. In fact, it wasn’t Rex’s voice at all.

“Shut up!” cried the voice. It was an English accent; a sort of a Cockney accent, even. “What are you making such a racket for now, after three years of saying nothing? Are you going to crack a few hours away from getting out?”

“Who’s up there?” cried Billy.

There was a moment of silence; and then a burst of harsh laughter. “The Emperor Dextron himself!” cried the voice. “With all the Imperial Council and the Splendid Sisterhood. Why don’t you join us for a banquet, sir?”

“Where am I?” shouted Billy.

There was a longer silence this time; and this time, the voice was more cautious. “Have you got a fever or something?”

The caution in the jailer’s voice made Billy cautious, too. Maybe it wasn’t such a good idea to admit he didn’t know who he was or what he doing. In any case, all he felt now was a sweet, piercing relief that somebody was up there.

But what was Rex Cunningham doing? Was the old man some kind of maniac after all?

“No fever”, shouted Billy. “I just woke up from the strangest dream. I was...confused.”

“It took you three years to talk about your dreams?” the jailer shouted back. Now his voice was suspicious; suspicious, and uneasy. “What game are you playing, Chester?”

Chester? What kind of a name was Chester, Billy wondered? And yet, the strange thing was...he liked the name. It seemed familiar somehow...

And then he remembered. When he was a little kid, he’d had a teddy bear called Chester. He couldn’t remember why he’d called it that. It went missing after his cousin Annabelle visited for a weekend. He begged his mother to phone Annabelle’s parents, to get back his beloved teddy. But she only said, “People don’t do things like that, Billy.”

“You know I’m going to have to report this” shouted the guard. He seemed angry, for some reason. “Any tricky business and I promise you, you’ll never see the lights of day again.”

The lights of day? Billy wondered over the phrase for a moment, but he had more important things to worry about. “No tricky business.” he called back. “Don’t worry. When exactly do you let me out, anyway?”

This was followed by a very long silence, as though the guard was wondering whether he should tell him or not. Billy had decided that no answer was coming when the guard finally shouted down, “Seven hours. Emerald time. And if I was you, I wouldn’t say another word or do another thing until then. There are lots of people who’d like to see you locked up for good, Chester. That, or even worse.”

“Thank you”, shouted Billy, deciding that it was best to be polite. But after that, he would take the guard’s words and keep his mouth shut.

Seven hours? Despite his recent relief, Billy’s heart began to sink. He had another seven hours to spend in this smelly, dark, uncomfortable cell. And it was obvious now that Rex Cunningham wasn’t going to fish him out. He was on his own.

He sat down, crossing his legs beneath him. Seven hours. What was there to do for seven hours? He could go to sleep, except he was feeling far too frightened. And far too excited.

Now that the first panic was over, he noticed that his body felt very strange. Something kept brushing off his chest, though he’d hardly noticed in until now. He raised his hand, and got a shock when he realised it was a long growth of beard.

He had a beard. Billy Reynolds, fourteen years old, whose voice showed no sign of breaking, had a beard that Rip Van Winkle would be proud of. Nobody in his class even shaved yet. Damien Power said that he did, but his own sister said that it was just bum-fluff. Billy felt ridiculously pleased.

He was a man, then. He wondered how old he was. Was he married? Did he have children? Now there was a thought.

He felt his clothes next. He was wearing what felt like a bathrobe to him; a particularly thick and rough bathrobe, one that was belted at the waist. He reached under it; there was something like a string-vest beneath. Curiously, he poked finger through the vest, and stroked his own chest. Yes, it was hairy. How strange it felt!

Next he reached out to feel one of his arms, and when he’d grasped it, he actually cried out in surprise.

Arm? It felt like the stem of some enormous plant, like the ones he’d seen in tropical hothouses. He flexed it, and it grew even more gigantic. He ran his hand down his forearm, his wrist—- they’d both been swollen to ridiculous proportions. He felt his chest, his shoulders, his neck.

Rex had turned him into some kind of Arnold Schwarzenegger!

He thought of PE classes in school. He’d never been able to climb more than half-way up the rope. He’d never been able to manage more than twelve push-ups. there was an idea...

A moment later he was facing down towards the cold, hard and invisible floor of the cell, propped up on his palms. He lifted his knees, and then began to push.

When he passed twelve, he felt jubilant but not surprised. When he passed fifty, he began to feel giddy. By the time he’d passed two hundred, he was feeling bored. This was a little like throwing a tennis ball from one hand to another.

Suddenly, as though his muscles had a memory of their own, he threw his legs in the air and began to do press-ups head downwards, his toes uppermost. Whoa, he thought. This is pretty freaky.

But it was tiring, too, even for a muscle-monster like him. He’d counted fifty, when he decided he’d had enough and let himself drop to the floor. He rolled gently on his shoulder and down onto his side. Then he realised that Billy Reynolds—- the boy Billy Reynolds, not the man Chester-- probably would have smacked straight down onto his back instead. It took skill to fall so gracefully.

He lay on the floor, hardly noticing the roughness of the tiles against his body. He felt so good. It was a bit like he’d felt after he’d run home from school, as he did now and again; after he’d rushed through the door with no thought except getting water into his body to satisfy his raging thirst. After that. Once you’d had a drink and your heart had slowed down, you felt washed out inside, even glowing. That’s how he felt now. It had something to do with antibodies, he knew. Or was it endorphins?

And then, despite all his anxiety and excitement, and the cold hard floor of the cell, he fell asleep.

He was woken hours later by the sound of trumpets. He opened his eyes.

A square had opened in the ceiling, and coloured light—- the same glow that he saw in his cell, except much stronger and much more vividly coloured—- was flooding into the cell. It dazzled his eyes, so accustomed to darkness, and he closed them again immediately.

It was fully five minutes before he could see what was above him.

It was a group of men—- no, a troop of men. They were obviously guards, from their armour and their weapons. They wore metal helmets and breastplates and armguards, and the armour was so bright and in so many different colours that it reminded him of the Beatles on the cover of Sergeant Pepper’s Lonely Hearts’ Club Band.

They carried spears and swords, and some of them carried what looked like a cross beween a spear and a sword. Others carried bows and arrows. And all of their weapons were pointing straight at Billy.

But the thing that struck Billy the most was the expression on their faces as they looked down at him.

Every single one of them looked terrified. Utterly terrified.

Chapter Eleven

“Move back, Chester” bawled a gruff voice. “We’re going to throw down some manacles.”

“Manacles?” asked Billy, who didn’t recognise the word.

“Don’t worry”, said the voice. Now Billy saw that it was a tall fellow in a ladybird-red and pea-green armour who was speaking. He was wearing a helmet with a strange wheel-like symbol jutting up from its top. He was obviously a commander of some kind. “We’ll take them off you once you leave the borders of Gillian.”

Gillian? Billy wondered why this country should be named after a girl in his class.

Billy moved back towards the wall, and a few moments later something small and heavy was thrown into the centre of the cell. It landed with an echoing thump.

“Put them on, Chester”, came the gruff voice, after Billy had stood motionless for a few moments. “You’re not getting out until you do.”

Billy walked towards the manacles—- whatever manacles were. He bent down and took them in his hand. Handcuffs! That’s what they were. He recognised them from the toy handcuffs he’d played with as a kid, as well as seeing handcuffs on TV. But they looked bigger than any of those handcuffs. He was surprised by how light they were, too. They felt more like a hard plastic than metal.

“Put them on”, repeated the commander. He spoke even more roughly than he had before; but now Billy could hear the anxiety in his voice.

Billy put the manacles on. It wasn’t difficult; just like the toy handcuffs, you put them over your wrists and then slid them shut. The only difference was that, instead of a click, he heard a musical sound; like the sound a musical clock might make when it struck the hour. It was a cross between a whistle and a chime.

The manacles weren’t tight, or uncomfortable. They fit his hands perfectly—- as though they’d been made for them.

“Throw down the ladder”, the commander shouted. “And keep your weapons pointed at him, lads. One sign of trouble-— and give it to him.”

The cell was full of the glowing light now. It was a little like being in a disco, though the colours weren’t as intense. Billy noticed that, though there were a whole range of colours—- violet, gold, peacock blue, amber—- the main colour seemed to be green. He remembered the guard saying he would released in the emerald hour.

A grey rope ladder descended towards Billy. It looked a lot like the rope he’d hated so much in PE class.

As he waited for it to reach him, he thought about the guard’s accent. It was just like the accent of the guard from the day before; a plummy English accent, like old BBC announcers. Except that they would probably never have heard of the BBC. Or England, for that matter.

He grabbed onto the rope ladder and began to climb. As he emerged from the cell, he noticed one or two of the guards stepping a half-pace backwards.

He looked around him as he climbed out of the opening. The hall they were all standing in looked like a much bigger version of the cell he’d just come from. The tiles that ran along the walls and ceiling were bigger, and in the greater light, he could see that they were brightly-coloured, in a complicated pattern of red and green and blue. There were no windows, only a large arched opening in the furthest wall. The hall was about the size of the assembly hall in his old school, and it was full of the multicoloured glow that seemed to be the only form of illumination in this place.

The guards surrounded him in a ring two or three men deep. Billy noticed that the man in the mask had retreated behind some spear-carriers.

Now he was standing on the same level as them, he realized how short all the guards were. Not short like dwarves—- not so short that anyone would even give them a second glance on an Irish street. But still short. Or was it just that Billy—- or rather, Chester—- was abnormally tall?

“Take it easy, Chester”, said the man in the mask. “You’re going to be hit by a wave of dizziness any second now. Don’t reel too much or you’ll get a salamander spear in the guts.”

As soon as the masked man spoke the last word, the dizziness he’d predicted hit Billy. After three years in a cell, it seemed, even the short climb up a rope ladder was a strain to the system. It took a few moments for the dizziness to pass, and after that he moved more carefully.

They passed underneath an arch, through a long corridor, through another cavernous hall, up a staircase of hundreds of steps, through another stretching corridor. The many-coloured glow was everywhere; so were the brightly-coloured tiles, in different patterns and sizes. There were no windows and not a glimpse of sunlight.

Sometimes the walls they passed were decorated. There were sentences marked out in letters formed by coloured tiles—- they seemed like quotations, but they didn’t make much sense to Billy. One siad, “There many provinces in the Kingdom of Fear”. Another said, “Edward ran and ran, but the Thing moved closer.”

There were paintings, too; enormous paintings, in heavy black frames. They all showed rather spooky scenes. One showed a run-down house under a full moon, with one window lit up, and a pale face staring out from it. Another showed a dozen crows feasting on a dead knight, straight out of the Middle Ages. Another showed the Grim Reaper standing in the middle of a banquet hall, unnoticed by the banqueters. All of the paintings seemed to belong to the world Billy had come from, not the world he was in now.

When the man in the mask saw Billy looking at one particular painting—- one that showed a ghost rising from the deathbed of an old man—- he said, “That’s a new one. A genuine Cranshaw. We took it from Cabra. Glory and distinction to Gillian!”

He shouted the last words, rather than speaking them; and immediately after him the other guards also cried, “Glory and Distinction and the World’s Wonder to Gillian!” The guards seemed a little less nervous now. But only a little.

They passed other groups of guards from time to time; but Billy guessed they had reached their destination when they came to a long hall with more than a hundred armed men standing in it. Some of them stood in balconies, balconies from which hung many-coloured banners with the word Gillian written in black across them, over the image of a grey skull.

The guards who had brought Billy here slowed down. The whole hall seemed full of anticipation, and every eye was upon Billy.

Then somebody stepped out from the middle of a group of guards. It was a woman. She wore a flowing, silky, frilly gown of electric blue, streaked with deeper blues. Her hair was long and curly and red—- exactly the kind of red hair Billy liked in women. But he couldn’t see her face, since she too wore a mask—- a mask just as ghoulish as the one the captains of the guards were. Its mouth was open in a silent scream, and scars ran all along its green skin. Along with the flowing curls and the gorgeous gown, it looked utterly bizarre.

The captain of the guards fell to his feet and cried: “Glory to Gillian! Honour to the Crimson! The Moon, the Moon!.

“May you be worthy of Gillian” replied the red-headed woman, a mechanically as somebody saying “good afternoon”. “You may rise, Rayut. I am going to speak to Chester in my study, alone. Remove his manacles.”

Billy heard gasps and murmurs from the guards around him. Every one of them looked completely astonished.

“Majestic Crimson” said the man in the goblin mask. Behind the mask, Billy could see a wild look in his eyes. “Your will is our will, but this man is a vicious savage who—“

“Come, come, my dear Rayut” said the red-headed woman. There was amusement in her voice. “Surely you have enough men to deal with him here? If not, there goes the honour of Gillian!”

“But, majestic Crimson”, the captain went on, darting looks from the red-headed woman to Billy and back again. “Alone? You and him, alone?

The mask woman shrugged. She did it gracefully. Billy guessed she did everything gracefully. “I have heard all of the tales of Chester Vagabond”, she said, staring straight at Billy. “Men he may have killed by the hundred, bulls and bears and kamarasks too, but I never heard tell of him injuring a woman.”

“I don’t want you to be the first” said Rayut. “Oh, majestic Crimson”, he added, after a pause.

The Crimson laughed. “We have nothing to fear, my good sir. Because today I can offer Chester Vagabond more than his freedom. I can offer him what he has been seeking his entire life. Release him from the manacles.”

Chapter Twelve

Standing inside the study of the Crimson was like standing inside a huge snow-globe. Only the floor was flat. The walls and the ceilings were curved into a dome. It wasn’t an especially large room—- about the size of Billy’s sitting room—- but every inch of it was pretty. The dome had been made to look like the night sky, painted a deep blue with sparkling white gems for stars. A painting of a wolf standing over the body of a dead young woman, who was dressed like someone in a Jane Austen novel, stood behind the Crimson’s desk. Banners, streamers, pennants and ribbons covered the rest of the wall space.

A man with long black hair, a long black robe, and an intense stare stood beside the Crimson’s chair. He was not masked. He was holding some kind of ledger in one hand, and a pen in the other. When the Crimson brought Billy into the study, the man with the black beard scanned him with his eyes, then wrote something in his ledger.

“You may recognize my scribe, Precious Dust”, said the Crimson, nodding towards the bearded man.

Billy couldn’t help giggling. Precious Dust? Really?

Both the Crimson and the bearded man seemed surprised at his laughter—- and Precious Dust didn’t seem at all amused.

“I know that in these days, scribes aren’t given very much respect” he said (and his voice went with his name—- rasping and dry, as though he had just swallowed a throat full of dust.) “I don’t expect bowing and kneeling. But I had heard that you respected Scribes, Chester—- even if you respect little else.”

There was anger in Precious Dust’s pale grey eyes. But there was fear, too. Billy remembered how a dozen armed guards had watched him with terror, and he couldn’t help feeling respect for the frail-looking man before him.

“I meant no disrespect, Scribe”, he said. He had opened his mouth to say more when instinct told him to stop there.

Once again, the Crimson and Precious Dust seemed surprised.

“Perhaps it is a mellower Chester Vagabond who has come from his cell?”, asked the Crimson, her fingers playing with a little figurine on her desk—- it looked something like a werewolf.

“Perhaps”, said Billy, reminding himself to stop being polite. It obviously wasn’t expected of him.

He noticed that the glowing colours in the air were now dominated by a deep blue. He wondered what they called it. The Navy Hour? The Aquamarine Hour? It was surprising how easy it was to see by the many-coloured light. You got used to it and it wasn’t difficult working out what colours things actually were. It was a bit like watching a black and white movie. Pretty soon you forgot it was any different from what you were used to.

“Well, enough of pleasantries”, said the Crimson, tapping the werewolf figurine against the wood of her desk. “To business. Chester, the whole world knows what it is you want most in life.”

The whole world? For a moment, Billy felt surprised that the whole world would be interested in him. Then he remembered that this was his world,; it was all a fantasy spun out Billy’s mind by Rex Cunningham.

He looked around the strange room, startled at the thought. This—- all of this—- had come out of his own mind. The dome-shaped office, the man with the long black beard, the spooky paintings—- all of it came from Billy Reynolds.

It was hard to believe. He’d never imagined anything like this. It all seemed so strange. And yet—- his own dreams often seemed strange to him, and they bubbled up out of his own brain, didn’t they?

“Chester?” asked the Crimson, a little anxiously. “Is there something wrong?”

Billy realised he’d been staring into empty space. He focused his eyes back on the Crimson (and what kind of a name was that, anyway?) and said, “What could possibly be wrong? I’m just after finishing three years of captivity in a filthy cell and now you want me to talk about my future life? What are you, my guidance counsellor?”

The reaction Billy’s words provoked was not the reaction he was expecting. But there was no doubt about it; the Crimson and Precious Dust (ridiculous name!) seemed relieved by his words. The Crimson even sat back in her chair a little, like someone who’s just finished an examination paper. Obviously, this was how they expected him to react.

“Well, I’m sorry the accommodation was not to your taste”, she said, sarcastically. “I guess you should have found something better for someone who slaughtered twelve of my men, simply for doing their duty.”

Twelve men? Slaughtered? Despite all the treatment he’d been getting from the soldiers, despite having been told that he’d killed men by the hundred, he couldn’t helped feeling shocked at the idea.

“Did they all die?” he asked.

The Scribe’s eyes widened with surprise, and there was a long pause before the Crimson answered.

“Do men often recover from being beheaded?”, asked Crimson, and now her voice was not sarcastic, but baffled. “We all know you’ve seen strange things in your wanderings, Chester, but surely not that?”

“I don’t remember beheading them all” said Billy. He was astonished and horrified, but he kept his voice calm, and his face straight.

“No, not all of them”, said the Crimson, staring at him. “But, take my word, there was no chance of them going home to their wives after you’d finished with them. Doesn’t that bother you, Chester? All those widowed women, all those orphaned children?”

“A warrior must be ready to die.” As soon as he’d spoken the words, Billy wondered why on earth he’d said them. It was like the moment he’d hesitated before putting on the manacles. For those moments, he felt as though it was Chester Vagabond who had taken over.

(And when it came to ridiculous names, by the way—- Chester Vagabond? Had the parents he’d never seen called him that, in the past of this other world he’d stumbled into?)

“I thought you might say that”, said the Crimson, her voice colder now. “But that’s all beside the point. The point, Chester, is that the world has changed in the last three years. It’s changed drastically.”

“Doesn’t it always?” asked Billy.

”True”, said the Crimson, glancing at Precious Dust. “But this is different. It seems that the Ancient War is finally ending, and that victory is with the Gold.”

There was a long silence. The Crimson and the Scribe were both watching Billy intently, expectantly. He had no idea what they expected him to say.

“Really and truly?” he asked, trying to sound knowing even while he asked.

“Oh, I understand your scepticism” said the Crimson, nodding briskly. “The Ancient War has been declared won many times throughout the centuries. But this is different, Chester. The Green now hold only a tiny smattering of towns and villages. Their false Scribes are mostly imprisoned, or dead. Their leader is a sixteen-year-old girl. I have no desire to be triumphalist. My own parents were Green, you know. But it really seems like the end has come.”

There was another long pause, so Billy said: “And what is this supposed to do with me?”

“The same old Chester”, said the Crimson, shaking her head. But there was a grudging admiration in her voice. “Independent to the last, eh? The eternal neutral?”

“I have more respect for the Greens themselves”, said Precious Dust, passionately, “than for a confirmed fence-sitter.”

“Well, don’t worry, Chester”, said the Crimson, raising her palms in a gesture of resignation. “I’m not going to try to win you over. I know that it’s utterly hopeless. But I do think...I do think that we can help each other. Without you giving up your precious neutrality.”

“And how is that?”, asked Billy, wondering what the Crimson looked like underneath the mask. She might have been anything from eighteen to forty-five, for all he could tell.

“The Sea of Steam”, said the Crimson. “You want to cross the Sea of Steam. Everyone from the merchants of Marmorea to the ragamuffins of Ridermount knows that.”

“It seems pointless to deny it, then.”

The Crimson gave a little bow of her head. “Just so. Well, as it happens, there is one man in the Ten Thousand Realms who can help you cross the Sea of Steam. And he is someone who we would dearly like to have on the other side of the Sea of Steam, too.”

“Or dead, preferably” said Precious Dust, with surprising bitterness. His voice was harsh, almost like the caw of a crow.

“The Scribes hate this man with all the force of their papery souls” said the Crimson, with a gentle laugh. “Me, I am not so bloodthirsty. But it doesn’t matter what we want—- you wouldn’t kill one of our enemies anyway, would you?”

“Not unless he got in my way” said Billy, quite pleased that he was beginning to get the hang of the conversation.

“Ah!”, said the Crimson, raising her finger in the air. “But that’s just the thing. He’s not the kind of fellow to get in anyone’s way. In fact, he shows an extraordinary ability to keep out of the way.”

“Stop talking in riddles” said Billy. “What is this fellow’s name?”

The Crimson shrugged, tossing her read curls from her shoulders. They shimmered a dozen different colours as the strange lights played upon them. “We don’t know that either. But we call him—“

“The Thief of Thoughts” interrupted Precious Dust, slamming his fist upon the desk so that the werewolf figurine shook. “Or just the Thief, for short. In all the centuries that Scribes have existed, nobody has stolen and abused our wisdom like the Thief.”

“Stolen your wisdom?” asked Billy, confused.

“You’re not turning into a Green, are you, Vagabond?”, asked Precious Dust, his eyes flashing. “Stolen, for sure. Any man, woman or child who learns to read or write is stealing from the Scribes. But the Thief—- he did something far, far worse...”

For a moment Precious Dust seemed unable to speak, overcome with emotion. His cheeks had reddened and there was sweat on his forehead. Eventually, he said: “The Thief has somehow taught himself wisdom and learning that is beyond all but the greatest Scribes. Knowledge to which he is not entitled. Knowledge that is a danger to the whole Ten Thousand Realms, inside any mind except the mind of a Scribe."

These Scribes have a pretty high opinion of themselves, thought Billy.

“So that’s why we would like him safely across the Sea of Steam” said the Crimson, “out of the Ten Thousand Realms altogether. Into whatever lies beyond the Great Sea.”

“And what makes you think I can do that?”, asked Billy. He was confused now. If it was his dearest desire to get across this Sea of Steam, why wouldn’t he have done it already?

“But that is the whole point”, said the Crimson, “if only you would stop interrupting. It would seem that this Thief of Thoughts knows the way across the Sea. He made it part of the way himself, apparently—- according to a manuscript written in his hand. This fellow is forever writing manuscripts, and of couse the Greens are just as quick to copy and spread them”.

“Curse them” muttered Precious Dust.

“Curse them indeed” said the Crimson, almost tonelessly. “But he couldn’t make it across without the help of a man of great strength and agility and endurance—- and that’s where you come in. He even suggested you himself.”

“He did?”

“He certainly did. In his manuscript, An Account of a Failed Expedition Across the Sea of Steam. It’s my guess that, once he hears you’re free, he’ll come for looking for you.”

“I suppose that’s why you let me out?”, asked Billy, feeling a little dazed from all this new and startling information.

“Don’t be so cynical, Chester”, said the Crimson, wagging her finger at him, rather playfully.

“Don’t the Greens know who the Thief is?”, asked Billy. “They must know, if they have his manuscripts.”

“Apparently not” said the Crimson, in a resigned voice. “Plenty of Green prisoners have been—- let us say—- questioned about it. Not here, of course. We don’t do things like that in Gillian. In other places. But nobody seems to know who he is, anyway. He leaves manuscripts lying in jars and barrels and bottles, cuts messages into tree trunks—- that kind of thing.”

“How does he know the way across the Sea of Steam, anyway?” asked Billy.

Precious Dust coughed, frowned and said: “There are said to be some old books which describe the route, though all of them were thought to be lost. Journeys to the Centre of the World and Beyond by Atlantio Hummingbird, for example. Incredible as it seems, the Thief must have found one of these old books. And they are all written in antique language, what is more.”

“So you see, this scoundrel is an out-and-out genius”, said the Crimson. There was a mischievous amusement in her voice.

“He is the greatest villain to walk the Ten Thousand Realms since—- well, since the beginning!” said Precious Dust, who was almost writhing with suppressed fury now.

Billy closed his eyes. The Scribes. The Sea of Steam. Rex Cunningham. Beheaded men. It was all too much to take in. And he was hungry. Very hungry.

“Can you give me something to eat that isn’t prison food?” he asked, still with his eyes closed. “You don’t have spaghetti bolognese, by any chance?”

“I know nothing of these exotic foods you came across in your wanderings” said the Crimson, with a hint of disdain. “But we have good plain Gillian food. Ready and waiting for you, as a matter of fact. So eat up, because I have one last ordeal for you, before we let you go.”

“Ordeal?”, asked Billy.

“Let’s just call it a test of bravery” said the Crimson. Through her mask, he saw her eyes sparkle with amusement—- but it was a cold amusement, and it troubled Billy. “I want to learn if the great Chester Vagabond can take a dose of his own medicine.”

Dale Ahlquist is Coming to Dublin

(I am putting this announcement on this blog because the G.K. Chesterton Society of Ireland blog seems to be infected with some kind of phishing malware. I am having someone look at it today but, in the meantime, I will redirect people here.)

The G.K. Chesterton Society of Ireland is proud to announce that we will be hosting Dale Ahlquist, the President of the American Chesterton Society, at eight o'clock of 2nd April (a Wednesday) in the Mont Clare Hotel, Dublin 2. Dale will be giving a lecture on G.K. Chesterton: Defender of the Family. Admission is free.

Dale Ahlquist is undoubtedly the world's greatest popularizer of Chesterton's work. He is the host of the Chesterton-themed television show The Apostle of Common Sense and the author of several books on GKC's thought and work, including Common Sense 101, The Complete Thinker and The Gift of Wonder.

If you'd like to attend this event (and why wouldn't you?), and to help us with planning, please email to confirm your attendance by March 25th.

Looking forward to seeing you there!

Wednesday, March 19, 2014

A Whole Website About Groundhog Day!

Long-time readers will know what a nut I am about the movie Groundhog Day. Well, yesterday I was delighted to discover a website writen by a gentleman called Robert Black which analyses the film in tremendous depth-- in fact, the website is called The Groundhog Day Project. It happens to be written from an atheist and progressivist perspective, pretty much the polar opposite of my own outlook, which shows how universal the movie it is-- it can appeal so much to people of all metaphysical and political outlooks. He even discusses my review! I recommend it!

Tuesday, March 18, 2014

Will the Australian Bishops Bring Back Compulsory Meatless Fridays?

They're thinking about it, according to the Catholic Herald. The English and Welsh bishops did it a few years ago.

I think they should. Avoiding meat on Fridays is pretty much the smallest sacrifice one could make for one's faith, and at the same time, it's a wonderful witness to the world. As the Archbishop of Hobart puts it: "In the past it was one of those practices that everyone knew: Catholics don’t eat meat on Fridays."

A Search That Found My Blog Today

"Irish sex poems".

Three questions:

1) What were they thinking of, exactly? Poems about sex in Ireland? Is there such a genre?

2) How on earth did that direct them to this blog?

3) Were they disappointed?

Monday, March 17, 2014

Read St. Patrick!

For the past three or four years, I've made a St. Patrick's Day tradition of reading the great man's Confessio-- a text I have seen described as the beginning of Irish history, as it is the first Irish text written by an identifiable person. (I'm too lazy to verify that.)

The document is a short one and well worth reading if you want to do something genuinely appropriate to the day. St. Patrick's voice comes to us through the ages-- a humble, pious, determined, very endearing human being.

Today, I found this wonderful site, where you can read various translations of the Confessio, hear an audio version, and more! Have a look!

Isn't it Funny How the Progressive Left is Willing to Cheer the Power of Corporate Interests...

...when those corporate interests are doing what they want them to?

As you've undoubtedly heard, a famous black Irish alcoholic drink (one I've never liked) has withdrawn its support for the New York St. Patrick's Day parade, because gay activists have been banned from politicising it. The same step has been taken by other sinister commercial forces noble captains of industry standing up for human rights.

I haven't heard any complaints from the usual quarters about big business trying to dictate what people say and do. In fact, despite interventions like this, Marxists and semi-Marxists and quasi-Marxists of every type will continue to propagate the myth that big business promotes a 'conservative' agenda.

I don't care much about any of the parades. I don't care where Enda Kenny marches. St. Patrick's Day is not a celebration of Irishness, traditional or contemporary (except incidentally). It's not a celebration of diversity. It's a celebration of the saint who converted the Irish people to Christianity, and of the glorious fifteen-hundred-year history of Christianity in Ireland.

The real celebration of St. Patrick's Day is happening in Christian churches and homes, in Ireland and all over the world. Whatever secular celebrations take place are the business of the people conducting them. The only reason they have a day to celebrate today is because St. Patrick converted the Irish to Christianity.

It's not that I'm a killjoy. I'm all in favour of pretty much every parade. A parade is a good thing. People having fun and celebrating life is a good thing. Tourists wearing inflatable leprechaun hats are good thing. But why pretend they are celebrating St. Patrick if they are not?

Happy St. Patrick's Day to all my readers.

Thursday, March 13, 2014

And All The Wheels of Being Slow

Be near me when my light is low,
When the blood creeps, and the nerves prick
And tingle; and the heart is sick,
And all the wheels of Being slow.

Be near me when the sensuous frame
Is rack'd with pangs that conquer trust;
And Time, a maniac scattering dust,
And Life, a Fury slinging flame.

Be near me when my faith is dry,
And men the flies of latter spring,
That lay their eggs, and sting and sing
And weave their petty cells and die.

Tennyson is one of my favourite poets. (Both 'Ulysses' and 'Locksley Hall' would be candidates for my favourite poem of all time.) 'In Memoriam' is not my favourite, but these lines seem to me a wonderful evocation of spiritual dryness, and (although I think Tennyson was addressing his dead friend rather than the Almighty) a very beautiful prayer.

I've often been struck by a strange paradox; faith seems strongest when it is slenderest. In some ways, we seem closest to God when we are spiritually arid, when we feel the least 'spiritual'. I feel frustrated writing this, because it seems like a truism from a devotional book, and that's not what I mean. I mean something very specific and very definite-- and perhaps something more psychological than spiritual (though one could argue those two adjectives are synonyms, 'psyche' simply meaning 'soul'. But you know what I mean.).

I know that when I find myself going through the motions at Mass, going through the motions in prayer, those are amongst the times I feel most comfort in my faith.

I suppose I should be embarrassed to admit it, but I actually like that prose poem 'Footsteps' that graces so many calendars and posters. (It is of a class with several poems that should be awful by any ordinary reckoning, but are actually very good-- 'Desiderata', 'The Gate of the Year', "A Visit from Saint Nicholas'. I'm sure there are others.)

I don't suppose this sensation I describe is unique to Catholics. I would guess it is shared by all organized religions, and that even patriotism (the more quiet sort of patriotism) might supply it to some extent. I think it is simply the case that ritual, community, ceremony and continuity mean the most to us when we are feeling the least spontaneous, exuberant and spirited.

But, on second thoughts, I think there is something, not uniquely, but especially Catholic about it.

Wednesday, March 12, 2014

Prayer Request

Things are rather tough for me right now. Not something I want to go into publicly or privately, but I would simply appreciate any prayers. (Occasionally I ask for prayers from anyone reading, since I truly do believe in the power of prayer. It seems to me as practical as asking for directions, or for help carrying a heavy box.)

My Little Blue Notebook

As I've said before, having a blog means never having to say you're sorry. I'd like to think that many of the articles (I'm not mad about the word 'posts') on this blog are fairly solid and informative and accessible. Others, I admit, are more personal and subjective. Still others...well, still others (there is no getting away from it) are downright self-indulgent.

Writing is a great pleasure to me. It's more than a pleasure. I really feel more alive when I write than at almost any other time. But there's more to it than that. I feel an anxiety (that seems to be the only word) to get my experiences and thoughts into words, as though they have only really happened when I do. And I find it difficult to write in anything but a personal way. No matter what the subject I am writing about, I lose all interest if I can't include anecdotes, digressions, personal reflections, and so forth. This is also the kind of writing I like to read as well, which rather tempers my bashfulness. Writing without personality seems utterly dead to me.

None of which is to justify this particular exercise, which is so personal and idiosyncratic that I can't really expect anyone else to be interested. What can I say? Anyone can read it if they want to, or not. I'm going through a bit of a tough time right now, so I am writing this for therapeutic reasons as much as anything else.

Some time ago, I posted an article entitled My Little Purple Notebook about a little purple notebook I carry around in my pocket (some of the time). This is how I described it:

My little purple notebook simply exists to remind me of precious moments in my life, moments charged with inspiration and wonder and even a kind of ecstasy. The very memories of these moments fill me with a new zest. They swell the sails of my spirit.

It is very difficult to explain this properly. They are not (for the most part) the happiest moments in conventional terms. Some of them could hardly be described as moments at all, since they don't refer to anything that actualy happened. If I use the term "revelations", the reader should understand I don't mean it in a mystical or religious sense.

But I think everybody has probably had these moments.

I then went on to describe some of the first few entries in my little purple notebook, and made some speculations as to the psychology of the thing.

Well, I lost my purple notebook. Then I bought a similar, sky-blue notebook instead. And then I found my purple notebook, and copied everything that had been written in it to my sky-blue notebook. So now my little blue notebook is everything my little purple notebook was, and more.

In this post I am going to write about the entries in my little blue notebook (apart from the few I've already written about in my previous post), and try to probe and explain what they mean to me. It is a voyage of self-discovery. It is an act of self-interrogation. It is also probably incredibly boring to anyone else-- and I publish them here only on the off-chance that they might be of interest to somebody.

Reading Yeats and Von Hugel in Richmond Airport. This was a memory of reading a book of essays on literature and religion called Yeats's Blessing on Von Hugel, while I was waiting at the boarding gate in Richmond international airport for a flight back to Dublin. I remember feeling very excited because it occurred to me that every single moment of life-- every sight and sound and smell and pause-- was a part of that great enigma that we are always analysing through philosophy and social criticism and literary criticism (since books are about life, no matter how many removes away).

Trinket Shops in St. Stephen's Green. There is a shop called Banana Tree and another called Ten Twenty, both in St. Stephen's Green shopping centre in Dublin city, that sell little trinkets like yo-yos and picture frames and "funny" mugs and...well, you know the sort. Browsing their shelves always makes me feel unfeasibly happy-- perhaps at the thought that life has room for such trivialities.

Projector in Art Class. In secondary school, our teacher used to show us reproductions of famous paintings on an overhead projector. I always loved the dark of the classroom and the glow of the screen. An overhead projector showing still pictures is a unique experience, as is the strange hushed unity of the people looking at it. And looking at anything in a sustained way tends to bring you into a whole different mental realm, one that is both more intense and more subdued than the rest of life.

DCU Sports Club. In my fourth year in secondary school, as part of a 'transition year' in which we tried all different things, we were brought to a local sports club as part of P.E. (P.T. in England, gym class in America). I remember thinking that nothing could be closer to Paradise than a sports club-- not only in the activities, but in the sounds and colours and design. I was always terrible at sports, and I always loved them. But it went deeper than that. I was depressed a lot at this time but came to a belief in possible happiness that I never renounced, in the face of all Schopenhauers, Freuds and Becketts. Somehow the very air of the sports club seemed like a symbol of that possible happiness.

There's a Sucker Born Every Minute. The title of a short film about sweets (or candy, as Americans say) that was shown before one of the first movies I ever went to see in the cinema. I've never encountered such a thing again. There was something so worthy and educational about this that it always stuck in my head, and just thinking about it somehow makes me happy. It also carries all the excitement of my early cinema forays. And sweets en masse are so visually beautiful, as many bookmarks and mugs and pens attest.

Preparations for Christmas in Third Year Religion Class. I've complained publicly about my religious education in secondary school, and I increasingly feel bad about this. We did some good stuff. I remember we got to know local kids from a special needs school, we visited an old folks home, and did other public-spirited stuff like that. For a shy kid like me it was difficult. But I remember, in the last schooldays before on Christmas, one of our teachers (it was two classes combined) saying: "You've really done lots of good stuff for Christmas, now you can go enjoy your Christmas with your families." Perhaps it's not so good to look at good deeds as something you get out of the way so you can have guilt-free fun. But at the time (and even since) it seemed like a noble way to approach things-- that life could be fun and altruistic at once. And the whole idea of preparing for Christmas by actions and activities was somehow pleasing.

Sitting in our Sports Clothes in English Class. One year, in secondary school, we had an English class between two P.E. (P.T., gym) classes. The teacher told us we didn't have to change just for one class and could wear our sports clothes for it. It always seemed a wonderful novelty to me-- maybe an illustation of mens sana in corpore sano, which was my teenage ideal.

Coloured Lights in bar beside Michelle's. There is a wonderful ratskeller right beside Michelle's Richmond apartment, called Chiocca's. The food is ample and delicious, the atmosphere is dark and pleasantly ramshackle and laid-back, and if I was an ash-scattering kind of guy I think I'd like my ashes scattered there. One day I was talking to Michelle there over a sub and noticed the coloured lights glowing just behind here, and at that moment felt utterly content. The coloured lights are gone but it's no less wonderful of a place.

Star Trek and snow. Both snow and Star Trek (always The Next Generation) feature heavily in my memories. Something that had been causing me acute anxiety was lifted from my mind on a night that it started snowing heavily and my brother was watching Star Trek on television. I felt wildly happy and full of hope for the future.

Health and Well-Being Collection. This is the title of a self-contained collection of books on Level One of the James Joyce Library, UCD, where I work. It is full of books about how to study, how to eat well, how to combat anxiety, how to survive college, etc. Just looking at it fills me with positivity and optimism.

Can You Fool the Beast? The title of a Horslips song. Horslips were a band I discovered when I was seventeen, when my father bought me a Horslips compilation album, along with a sound system. They broke up in the early eighties and they fused Irish traditional music with rock. The unlikelihood of my father introducing me to a new band is staggering. He abhors all popular music after Frank Sinatra. I've asked him why he chose to buy this, but he can't even remember buying it. I have very happy memories of hearing that particular song that particular Christmas-- Christmas always seemed to me to be a time of renewal and optimism, and the very sound of the song is crisp and fresh.

Portugese Africa and the West, The Jungle is Neutral, etc. I had the great luck to grow up in a house full of books, and books of every sort. I have no idea who acquired Portugese Africa and the West, nor did I ever read it. But such titles inculculcated in me a particular ideal of knowledge and scholarliness that I've harboured ever since-- one that is public-spirited, humanistic, cultured, spiritual, grown-up and sober.

Moving Ship Model with Glistening Fluid. One Christmas, myself and my two brothers decided to pool funds for Christmas presents. (We had precious little between us, being only kids.) One foray into the city centre to buy presents stands out in my memory. I remember the smell of perfume in a particular shop, and I remember hearing The Life of Riley by the Lightning Seeds in another shop, and-- best of all-- I remember a kinetic model of a ship in the window of Brown Thomas, the swankiest shop on Dublin's swankiest shopping street. It was in a long glass box that was continually, and slowly, tilting from side to side, sending the ship and the liquid in the box from side to side. But the liquid in the box! It was a beautiful, rich, glistening, gem-like blue. It seemed like a symbol of all that is ornate, rich, classy, elevated.

Mystery of School Texts in Shops. I remember buying my school texts in the city centre with my mother, looking at the texts for the more advanced years and wondering, with much awe, how difficult and deep and mysterious they must be. Knowledge has always filled me with awe. I like to remind myself I am now an adult, in the deep end of the pool!

Take-Off, Reaching Out, a Whole New World. A series of English text-books from my primary school days. The covers featured picures of space-ships and astronauts. I loved the exploration theme. I loved many of the selections. The whole idea of reading attentively was a wonderful novelty to me, and made me see not only English but life as a great adventure. And, as with the above entry, I like to remind myself that I am now on the 'whole new world' to which the last title referred, and to keep my imagination humming with that.

Trillion Year Spree. The title of a history of the science-fiction genre, written by Brian Aldiss. My older brother was a science fiction hound so I read a fair deal of it. It also excited my imagination. Science fiction taught me that imagining a world utterly, utterly different from the real world is often the best way to see the real world itself with fresh eyes. But the title Trillion Year Spree excited me greatly, since-- to quote Groundhog Day-- "Sometimes I wish I had a thousand lifetimes". Mankind is on a trillion year spree and we are part of that. I loved the cover, too. It showed some kind of bionic eagle-man against a brilliant blue sky. It's so giddy and heady and intoxicating, which is what science fiction should be.

I am not a big fan of cyber-punk, or dystopias about overcrowded worlds, or any of that revisionist science fiction. To me, the joy of science fiction is its faith in reason, progress, knowledge and mankind's better angels. The actual book Trillion Year Spree was not keen on such naivety, but that doesn't mean I can't use its cover as a symbol for same.

Billy peanut. I have a cousin called Billy. When I was a kid, I thought he was very cool. I was at a family party and so was he. He cracked a monkey nut, threw the edible part in the air, and caught it in his mouth. I thought it was the coolest thing ever, and the atmosphere of that moment has stayed with me, and fills me with pleasure when I think about it.

Cowboy calendar. I remember coming home from secondary school one day and reading a magazine that was lying around the house and that had a page-long advertisement for various art calendars featuring cowboys. Somehow it seemed wonderful to me that people would produce and buy such things. I can't really explain it. I felt an incredible sense of peace and serenity as I read about them. The world couldn't be such a bad place if somebody had time and money to spend on cowboy calendars. And something about the calendars themselves, as depicted, was very soothing.

Oh well. I'm only seven pages into my little blue notebook, out of about forty pages. And I feel the therapeutic purpose of my post has been fulfilled. I may take this post down later. But I feel like posting it now. Thank you.

Tuesday, March 11, 2014

Interesting Post from Francis Philips of The Catholic Herald...

...about death-bed conversions, and how (she says) they are not a cop-out but rather a sign of humility and courage. (I agree.)

I am absolutely fascinated by religious conversion, especially conversion to Catholicism. One of my abiding fantasies is to write a book on the subject of Catholic conversion stories-- to try to make it as comprehensive as possible. I would call it The Road to Damascus, even though that is the most predictable and unoriginal title possible. It's also, in my opinion, one of the most evocative phrases of all time, so I don't care so much about the lack of originality.

Contrarianism, its Pleasures and Perils (3)

In this post, I will conclude my reflections upon the pleasures and perils of contrarianism.

In the second post, I concentrated mostly upon the objections to contrarianism. Now I want to sing its praises.

Having been a contrarian all my life, its benefits are so obvious to me that I pause, almost baffled, when I try to sum them up. Isn't it enough to quote the words of G.K. Chesterton: "A dead thing can go with the stream, but only a living thing can go against it?". Isn't all life a kind of contrarianism, a temporary defiance of the inertia of dead matter? Isn't all human activity a kind of contrarianism, of one kind or another? An attempt to hold back the tide of chaos, or forgetfulness, or apathy, or pain? Isn't all human life a struggle of some kind? Isn't it the case that most active human pleasures, from crosswords to rock-climbing, involve some element of resistance?

I suppose a critic might say: "Most human activities do indeed involve an element of resistance, but contrarianism involves resistance against other people, not against entropy or ignorance or abstract forces." And that is a fair point.

In this way, I suppose, the contrarian might seem anti-social, or proud, or troublesome. But I don't think that is necessarily true. Nor do I think it is necessarily true that the contrarian is acting out of selfish motives, such as a desire for attention or a desire to think himself special.

I think the contarian is just as likely to think of himself as a public benefactor; an opponent of groupthink, or of fashion, or of homogenization, or of sheer dullness. A contrarian might plume himself on making the world a more interesting place, and who is to say he is wrong? Isn't it a fact that everybody can verify from their own experience, that conversation in a group containing one or more contrarians will be much more lively than conversation in a group of head-nodders?

A contrarian, too, might think of himself as a kind of anti-body. If a particular belief is so ill-founded that nobody else holds it, the contrarian sees nothing wrong in trying to make that case just to see if it's really so poor after all. (This doesn't mean the contrarian has to be insincere. He might genuinely oppose something that is commonly held to be good-- say, democracy, or regular exercise, or egalitarianism-- or he might argue against it explicitly in the spirit of open-mindedness, without committing himself to opposing it.)

When we call someone a contrarian, the implication is that contrarianism governs their utterances-- that is, that they speak out against the common view because they are contrarians. But I think it goes deeper than that. Being a contrarian, I know it goes deeper. Contrarianism is more visceral than conscious. The contrarian (often) feels the way he does, and thinks the way he does, because he is a contrarian.

In my own case, I can say that I've always had the inclination to side with anything that I think is imperilled, outnumbered, fragile, overlooked, or otherwise crying out for defence. But it also happens that I do genuinely think that many of the best things in life are in this category. Which is cause, and which is effect? I don't know.

Here is a list of things that I have defended in the spirit of contrarianism. Some of these are things I would no longer defend. Also, the inclusion of anything on the list doesn't mean that I don't think there are solid arguments in its favour, or that contrarianism is my only or my main reason for defending it.

The Carry On movies

Cold, "horrible" weather

The seventies

Slade, the British glam-rock band



The class system (in a certain sense)

The British Empire (not anymore, though I still have an affection for many aspects of it)



Eamon De Valera's 'comely maidens' speech (in which that term is never used)



Ethnic and racial humour

Bores (as in, people who talk continually on one subject-- as opposed to people who talk vaguely about nothing in particular, which is considered to be polite conversation)

The Monarch of the Glen (painting)



Adam Sandler movies

The caw of crows

Humourlessness (as explained in this post)


Self-esteem, the building-up of in minors (something that is often dismissed as being namby-pampy)

Mull of Kintyre (song)

Paperbacks, as opposed to hardbacks

Censorship, especially the campaigns of Mary Whitehouse

Women's magazines

Single-sex clubs

Wearing pyjamas in the supermarket

Petty regulations

The poetry of Rod McKuen


Modernist churches

"Incorrect" spelling and grammar, especially on shop signs

Nepotism (to a certain degree)

American exceptionalism

And many, many more (as the ads say).

I'd like to think I'm doing a service to the world by holding these contrarian views. At least one recent reader of this blog thought so. This was a comment left on my review of the movie The Rocky Road to Dublin from several years ago:

Thank you for your very eloquent and precise review. Of course, these are YOUR personal views, and I disagree with almost all of them. However, since I have spent much of the last two days reading whatever I can find about this film, I must admit I found YOUR piece singularly contrary to the common train of thought and as such perversely refreshing.

Perversely refreshing! There you go. Can there be any higher accolade?

I'm sure I could write a lot more about contrarianism. But, for the moment, three posts is long enough.

Monday, March 10, 2014

The Man Who Could Make Worlds-- Chapter Seven to Nine

(This extract contains a bath scene. All my novels contain lovingly-written bath scenes. I considered it one of my trademarks. I love baths. I think every film and movie should contain a scene in a bath, unless it would be absurd to have one.)

Chapter Seven

Rex made dinner. For all his hatred of modern life, he was obviously quite happy to eat tinned food. Dinner was tinned ham, rice, carrots and peas. There was no sauce or gravy, and Rex drank water—- though he poured a glass of milk for Billy.

It wasn’t tasty, and there wasn’t much of it, but Billy ate it gratefully. He was hungry-- he hadn’t eaten since before he got on the train—- but it wasn’t just that. The simple act of eating food was very comforting. It was so familiar, and normal, and reassuring, after all the weirdness of the night.

It kept Billy’s mind from racing. He was full of wild fear and wild excitement, and sometimes they felt like exactly the same emotion.

He felt like he’d felt the time he’d visited Funderland and gone down the enormous water-slide...the moment just before he’d slid down. The sheer giddy exhilaration. Except this water-slide was one that went on and on and on...out of this world entirely, into outer space and goodness knows where after that…

They didn’t speak during dinner. Rex had fallen silent, and Billy couldn’t think of anything to say. Rex seemed to chew every mouthful a hundred times over, and he didn’t look at Billy as he ate. He just gazed into thin air, obviously lost in his own thought. Sometimes he seemed to mutter to himself, but Billy could never hear the words.

It was well past midnight. The trick-or-treaters had stopped calling. The fireworks didn’t stop, but they grew less frequent. Marius curled up underneath the table, and began to snore.

“I’m afraid I don’t have a shower”, Rex said as he was piling the dishes beside the sink. (Billy had offered to wash them, but Rex simply waved him away impatiently.) “But I do have a bath. You’ll want a bath, won’t you? People today wash non-stop, I know. So the soap and shampoo companies can sell them more and more stuff.”

“My parents say just the same thing”, said Billy. “They say it’s a waste of water. They’re always telling me I run the water in the shower too long.”

“Oh, environmentalists, are they?”, Rex asked. Billy thought Rex might have been pleased to hear that Billy’s parents agreed him, but it didn’t seem to please him in the least. In fact, he looked a little provoked. “Well, you can run the bathwater here for a whole hour, if you like.” When Billy didn’t move, he said, “Well, do you want to take a bath or not?”

“Yes”, said Billy. He longed for hot water.

“Then kindly do so”, said Rex. “I’m sure you’ll find the bathroom without much trouble, and your bedroom is the room immediately adjacent. You don’t have nightmares, do you?”

“No”, said Billy, even though he often had nightmares.

“You won’t be kept awake by my typing?”

“No”, said Billy. This wasn’t a lie. His parents said that he could sleep through a tornado.

“Then I’ll speak to you in the morning”, said Rex Cunningham, with a curt nod. “Goodnight”.

Billy made his way upstairs. He was surprised that Marius didn’t wake up and follow him. He switched the lights on as he went, finding the switches with only a little difficulty.

Upstairs was even more bare than downstairs. It was such a spacious house. There were ornamentallly curved bannisters on the stairs, and there was plasterwork (in the shape of fruits and flowers) in the corners and centre of the ceilings. But the whole place looked as though someone had just moved out, or hadn’t quite moved in. There were carpets and wallpaper but no pictures hanging on the walls, no little tables with flowerpots and bric-a-brac, not so much as a lampshade for the lightbulbs—- none of the little things that make a house look lived-in.

He looked into several rooms before he found the bathroom. The first room that he looked into was utterly empty, without so much as a carpet. The second had nothing in it except for five or six wooden crates in the middle of the floor, and a stack of huge books lying beside them—- they looked like they might be atlases or encyclopedias, and Billy guessed they didn’t fit on the bookshelves.

The next room was his bedroom, which was almost as bare as the others, but at least had a bed, just underneath the large window. A double bed, too, neatly made up with chocolate-coloured pillows and thick blankets, and a hot water bottle lying at its foot.

Next door he found the bathroom, and this was the only room of the house that could be called cosy. The bath was almost twice the size of any bath he’d been in before, and round rather than rectangular-shaped. It was made of green porcelain, streaked in several colours. The taps were at least four times as big as the taps on the bath at home. They were made of brass, and carved in the shape of sea-horses.

The orange light of the street lamps outside splintered through a round, frosted glass window in the middle of the gable wall. Plasterwork surrounded this, too; the points of the compass, flowing waves, starfish, mermaids and bubbles. It looked like a retired admiral’s bathroom.

He guessed the decorations had been there a long time; before Rex Cunningham moved in, anyway.

He locked the door, undressed, ran the bath (the water shot out of the mouths of the seahorses) and a few minutes later he lay up to his neck in steaming hot water. (“You’re going to scald yourself”, his mother used to say, when she saw how hot he liked his baths.) He probably liked being in a bath more than anything in the world, apart from reading Rex Cunningham books. In fact, he usually did both of them at the same time. He reached for his trousers, which were lying close to the tub, and pulled The Neverending Nightmare from his pocket.

For once, though, he found his mind wandering from the story. He put it down on the tiled floor, and lay back again. His gaze rested on the brass sea-horse taps. He liked how big they were, but he imagined them even bigger. Bigger than the lions in Trafalgar Square. Bigger than...well, so big that a dozen people could sit on their backs.

He imagined them looming over a huge porcelain pool—- no, not just a pool, but a lake. A lake whose water was as hot as this bath, so that clouds of steam rose from it, like in that photo of Icelandic geysers in his geography book.

And there would be boats. Of course there would be boats. They would look like Viking longships, except instead of those monster-heads on their prows, they would have the heads of sharks. Sharks whose jaws were wide open. And, instead of being made of wood, they would be made of gleaming green porcelain.

Above the lake— far, far above, higher than a cathedral’s steeple— would be a roof of gleaming tiles, glimmering and glowing a hundred different colours. Soft green light would radiate down from enormous globes of frosted glass, bigger than houses...

Automatically, as soon as he realised he was drifting into one of his reveries (as his mother called them), he sat up and reached for the taps. That was always the moment, when he was running a shower, when one of his parents banged on the bathroom door and told him to stop wasting the world’s water supply. Then he remembered he wasn’t at home, but in Rex Cunningham’s house in Dublin.

He was always snapping out of reveries like that. His mother called them reveries. Mrs. Costello in art class called them “dazes”. Tommy Lynch, the bully, called them “space-outs”.

His hand reached down towards the ribcage on his left side, caressing the skin there gently. The bruise had turned yellow in the last few days; it only hurt now when he pressed against it. At first, he’d wondered if his ribs were broken.

He remembered the playing field behind the library, Kevin Dempsey and Trevor Higgins holding him down while Tommy Lynch punched him in the side. When they left him (after throwing his books and gym clothes around the grass), the pain in his side was nothing compared to the relief it hadn’t been worse. He’d heard that Tommy carried a knife, and he’d been terrified he was going to use it. Who knew what kids like that would do when they got carried away? He’d read about stuff like that in magazines.

The day after the beating, Tommy had come up to him in the school yard and started telling him jokes from some film he’d seen. It didn’t make any sense. But then, what did make sense? Grown-ups and other kids never behaved like you expected them to.

Billy heard Rex Cunningham moving about downstairs. He heard him coughing—- lightly, at first, but them more and more heavily. The machine is breaking down inside. Was that what he’d said?

But he wasn’t going to think about that. Because if Rex Cunningham died, then—- well, then Billy would be alone in the world, except for his parents.

He wondered what his parents were doing at that exact moment. When they weren’t having dinner parties or going out, they usually just sat in front of the television. Sometimes they watched a DVD. Billy sometimes watched it with them, but the films his parents watched bored him. They always seemed to be about drug addicts or politicians or mentally ill people. Where was the fun in any of that?

The films Billy liked were science-fiction, horror, fantasy; films about other worlds, marvellous and terrifying places. His father called them “good old-fashioned harmless escapism” and told Billy that he used to enjoy reading Dan Dare comics when he was a boy. Billy had never heard of Dan Dare.

His mother had a different attitude, though. “I can’t stand all that stuff”, she used to say, almost viciously. She was usually such a mild-mannered woman, but even the thought of horror films made her eyes narrow and her jaw clench. “It’s such a waste of time. Life is too short.”

Billy could never understand what life being short had to do with it. He’d heard his mother complain about being bored hundreds of times. Sometimes, he listened at his parents’ bedroom door while she was crying and his father was trying to comfort her. He hated those times.

“I feel so empty”, he’d heard her saying, in her tear-choked voice. “So completely empty.”

He could never hear what his father said. But a little while later, his mother would appear again, even more cheerful and bright than usual.

Billy stepped out of the bath, wiped himself on the towel, and got dressed. A firework exploded a few yards from the window. They were getting rarer and rare now.

He went to his bedroom, holding The Neverending Nightmare in his hand. He noticed for the first time that there were pyjamas folded up at the bottom of the bed, just underneath the hot water bottle. They were blue-and-white striped pyjamas, and they looked very old, faded and worn. He changed into the pyjamas and climbed under the blankets. It was probably the most comfortable bed he’d ever lain in. It was very soft and there were no bumps.

The light was still on. He usually left his bedside lamp on until he was asleep. His mother complained about that, too, when she caught him doing it.

He turned onto his side, the side he always lay on. He felt the hot water bottle slide off the side of the bed and thump on the wooden floor.

He reached down, and ran his fingertips along the beams of the floor, but they didn’t connect with anything. He leaned over the bed, and looked down. The hot water bottle wasn’t there. It must have bounced under the bed somehow.

He got out of bed, knelt down, and peered underneath.

The hot water bottle was there. There was also a pile of books. He could see the spines of some of them. Tales of the Macabre by Edgar Allen Poe, The Man Who Was Thursday by GK Chesterton, The Lost World by Arthur Conan Doyle...he slid the hot water bottle from under the bed, and then reached under for The Lost World. The titled excited him.

He put the hot water bottle back onto the bed, climbed up onto it himself, and sat cross-legged in the middle. He looked at The Lost World. It was a blue hardback book. A layer of dust had built up on the cover. With relish, he wiped the dust away with his pyjama sleeve, and then blew what remained into the air. Billy loved dust. Nothing in his house ever got dusty.

He opened the book. There was a coloured illustration beside the title page, showing a dinosaur bird. He tried to remember the word for that. Pterodactyl, that was it!

Arthur Conan Doyle. The name was familiar. But why? It took him a few moments to remember. He was the guy who wrote the Sherlock Holmes stories. Billy’s father had given him The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes as a birthday present, two years ago. He’d called them “terrific yarns”. Billy had read all of them, but he found them pretty boring. Every time something weird happened in those kinds of stories, there was always a logical explanation. It was so disappointing.

But this one looked more interesting...he flicked through the pages....ah, it was a time travel book, or something like that...guys in Victorian dress, and dinosaurs...this was a lot better than Sherlock Holmes...

Something slipped out from between the pages and landed on the bed. Billy put the book aside and picked it up.

It was a receipt. The purply-blue ink was very faded, but he could still read it. It said:

Dolmen Discs
Abbey Street
Tel: 833001


Assistant: Tracy
Date: 01.09.95

Price: £8:99
Paid: £10.00
Change: £1.01

Thank you for shopping with
Dolmen Discs

Guns ‘n’ Roses! Billy wasn’t much of a music fan, but he’d heard of them. They were heavy metallers, he knew. Some of the kids in school liked them. And he’d seen some of their videos on TV.

But why would Rex Cunningham use a receipt for a heavy metal album as a bookmark? Surely he’d hate that kind of thing with a passion? How did he have the receipt in the first place? Billy couldn’t even imagine him listening to a radio, never mind a CD player.

There was only one other possibility. Somebody else had slept in this bed.

Why did that thought make him so uneasy? What made him think Rex couldn’t have had other guests and visitors? Nieces and nephews, even?

Then another possibility struck him. Maybe the receipt was there before Rex owned the book? Surely he’d bought it in a second-hand bookshop? He could imagine Rex browsing the shelves in a second-hand bookshop. You always saw old men like that in charity shops.

Yes. Of course that was it. Quite simple, really. And nothing to worry about.

Billy slid the receipt back into the pages of book, got back under the blankets, rolled onto his side, and— one elbow propping him up on the mattress—- began to read The Lost World.

But he was more tired than he realised, and he’d hardly got through a few pages before the book dropped from his hands and he fell into a heavy sleep.

A few hours later, he woke up, needing to use the bathroom. It took him a few moments to remember where he was, and how he’d got there. The house was very cold now, and the floor was cold under his bare feet.

The house was silent, but not completely. From Rex’s room came the same noise that Billy had heard when he first entered the house, the sound of Rex Cunningham typing: Tap-tap-tap-tap...

Billy (strangely for him) woke up several more times during the night, and once towards dawn. Every time, the sound was still there. Tap-tap-tap-tap.Tap-tap-tap. It even followed Billy into his dreams.

Chapter Eight

“Have you had other fans visiting you?”, asked Billy.

It was eight o’ clock in the morning, and Rex was taking his “morning constitutional”, (as he called his walk) in a park beside his house. There was nobody else around except for a few people walking dogs, the occasional jogger, and some kids on skateboards. It was still quite dark.

Rex couldn’t have slept at all during the night (unless he could type in his sleep, that was) but he seemed perfectly alert and awake. In fact, he seemed cheerful.

“Must you use that term, fan?”, he asked now, and he actually smiled instead of frowning. It was a sardonic smile, but not a bad-tempered one. “It makes me think of those screaming girls who mobbed the Beatles. Why can’t you just say reader?”

“Have you had other readers visiting you?”.

Rex gave a quick nod. “Once or twice. I wasn’t very impressed by them. They weren’t really my sort of people.”

Does that mean I am his sort of person?, wondered Billy.

“Do they still write to you?”, he asked.

“Oh, no”, said Rex. He was swiping the dew from the grass with his walking cane. “They just disappeared. I don’t think I was what they were expecting.”

In the cold light of an October morning, it was difficult to believe what had happened the night before. I became a bird, he thought. I flew. And now I’m just walking through a park with Rex Cuningham. People must think he’s my father, or my grandfather. They have no idea of who he is; of what he can do.

You got used to anything pretty quickly. He’d heard people say that over and over. Mr. Donleavy, the French teacher who’d been blinded in an accident, said it about losing his sight. Well, it seemed to be true.

Now they were passing a small, stone cottage that stood in the middle of the park. It looked like it had been a groundskeeper’s residence, long ago. Now the door and windows were boarded up. Rex lifted his cane and pointed to a large brass praque nailed to the wall. It was engraved with a list of names.

“Look at this, Master Reynolds”, he said, and he actually twirled the end of his cane in his enthusiasm. “This is a list of the Irishmen who died in the charge at Colenso, in the Boer War. You’ve probably not heard of that one, either?”

“Yes, I have”, said Billy. It was true. He’d heard the name.

“They charged into the Boer pom-poms and Mausers”, said the old man, gazing softly at the rusted old plaque, “in a desperate attempt to relieve the garrison at Ladysmith. The Irish brigades took the worst of it; the Dublin Fusiliers and the Connacht Rangers. The Boers were hidden in the high ground and cut them down with ease. It was a suicidal charge. But what gallantry, Master Reynolds! What high valour!”.

Billy peered at the inscription. They made the ultimate sacrifice on the fifteenth day of December, it said, the year of our Lord Eighteen Hundred and Ninety-Nine.

“It is the keenest regret of my life”, said Rex Harrison, his eyes running down the ranks of names on the plaque, “that I never experienced the field of combat. I was born at the wrong time, the wrong place. If I’d been born fifteen years earlier…!” His eyes lit up at the thought.

“But couldn’t you make your own war?”, asked Billy. He lowered his voice a little, even though it didn’t seem necessary. Anyone who heard him would know what he was talking about. And if they did work it out, they wouldn’t believe it. “You can make anything real if you want, can’t you?”

Rex shook his head, still reading the list of names on the plaque.

“Alas, no, my young friend”, he said. “I can make your dreams come true. But I cannot make my own dreams come true. I cannot enter into the worlds that I create. I can only see them through the eyes of another. It is the curse of the creator.”

“How do you do it, anyway?” Billy couldn’t keep from asking the question any longer.

A faint smile came upon Rex’s lips. “Oh”, he said, his lips making a perfect O as he said it. “You already think you deserve to be my heir? You already feel entitled to the inheritance, is that it?”

Billy flushed furiously and stared at the dew-bright grass. The stump of an exploded firework was lying a few inches away from his shoe, he saw. “No”, he said. “No, that’s not what I meant...”

Rex put his hand on the boy’s shoulder, and squeezed.

“And yet,” he said. “Perhaps you are. Perhaps you are the one. I feel more hopeful of it every minute. Aside from everything else, you have some concept of respect. Not like the others.”

“Others?”, asked Billy, still not able to raise his eyes. “What others?”

“The others of your generation”, said Rex Cunningham, after a long pause. “The little hooligans we see skateboarding right now. The graffiti artists. The youths who jump in my path with clipboards in their hands and harass me for donations to some charity.”

Billy’s embarrassment was at boiling point now. He hated any sort of attention, but praise was the worst. To change the subject, he looked up into Rex Cunningham’s eyes and said, “Why would anyone actually want to fight in a war? I don’t understand that.”

This time, the old man actually laughed. It wasn’t a sarcastic laugh, or a mocking laugh, or a bitter laugh. It was a joyous laugh, like you might hear from a young man at a party.

“Because that is reality”, said Rex, lifting his cane and cutting the air with it, as though it was a sword. “A man knows the truth about himself when he is facing into the enemy guns, or braving the enemy swords. There’s no play-acting or faking then. There’s no hiding.”

Billy didn’t say anything. The whole idea seemed ridiculous to him.

“You’re never so alive”, said the old man, “as when you are staring death in the face. And defying it!”. He clenched the fist that wasn’t holding the cane and raised it in the air. There was a tight smile on his lips now. “And believe me, I know. I may never have inhaled the smoke of war but I have looked into the face of death.” From the look on Rex’s face, Billy had no doubt he was telling the truth. “And believe me, it changes a man. Wonderfully.”

Two women, jogging, passed them. They were talking, and the only words Billy heard was, “...I’m sure she’s had plastic surgery, nobody can look that good at fifty-three...”

Billy shivered. The first morning of November was chilly (even though Rex had given him a thick black coat and a woolly hat) and the thought of facing gunfire made him chillier. “I guess I’m very different from you,” he said to Rex.

“You think you are”, said Rex, softly. “You think you are. Now let’s get breakfast. We have a long day ahead of us. The longest day of your whole life, I guarantee.”

* * * * * * * *

To Billy’s surprise, they went to a pub for breakfast. It was only a street away from the park. It was called The Old Regimental, and Billy (who hadn’t been in all that many pubs) thought it must be the darkest, dingiest pub in the world. There was nobody there that early, except for the barman, who gave Rex a quick nod, which Rex returned.

He took Billy to a table in the corner. It was so scratched it looked like it might be a hundred years old. The windows, which were small and high, were so grimy they looked as though they were never cleaned. Hardly any light filtered through them.

There was barely any decoration in the pub. A few pennants and banners hung on the walls. They looked very old. There was a musket (at least Billy thought it was a musket) hanging over the bar in a display case. A painting on another wall showed red-coated British soldiers surrounded by brown-skinned warriors who were almost naked and were all brandishing spears.

Rex went to the bar, spoke to the barman (who looked almost the same age as him) for a few minutes, and came back carrying two drinks; a fizzy orange for Billy, and a mug of tea for himself.

A few minutes later, the barman came with two plates of toasted cheese sandwiches. “Your good health”, said Rex, taking a sandwich from his plate and biting into it. He was not a dainty eater.

The toast and the cheese had both been burnt. But Billy barely tasted it anyway. He was wondering what Rex meant when he said this would be the longest day of Billy’s life. In fact, he was thinking of everything Rex had said.

* * * * * * * *

“This room is the best, I think”, said Rex Cunningham, putting a cushion behind Billy’s head. “Are you comfortable?”


“Not too warm?”


“Not too cold?”


There were in the front room of the house. Its thick curtains were closed. An enormous fireplace stood in the middle of one wall. It was made of marble, and there was a coat of arms with a dragon and two towers on it. There was a motto, too, but it was too worn for Billy to read. The fireplace looked as though it had not been used in a long time, although what looked like a few dozen letters (opened, but still in their envelopes) were lying on the mantlepiece above it.

The whole room looked as though it hadn’t been used in a long time. Predictably, it was full of books. There were bookcases against every wall, although these ones didn’t reach up to the ceiling. There were ornaments and bric-a-brac on top of some of them; an African mask, a ship in a bottle, an inkstand, a snowglobe, a framed collection of medals or coins. There was a layer of dust over all of these, and over the books as well.

There were two burgundy armchairs in the middle of the floor, and Billy was sitting one one. Rex was pacing up and down, holding a silk scarf in his hands. It was still early morning.

“Physical discomfort is distracting”, said Rex. “At least, at first. Afterwards...” He trailed off.

“Afterwards, what?”, asked Billy, who was feeling more frightened every moment.

“It doesn’t matter so much afterwards”, said Rex. “You’re so caught up in the other world, you don’t notice. You go deeper and deeper.”

Billy bit his lip. His fears were screaming at him to get up, to thank Rex for inviting him, and to go back home. Screaming? They were roaring at him through a megaphone.

But he saw a picture, in his mind, of what happened after that. Long after that. He saw himself as an old man, sitting in a chair by a window, looking out at the sky and wondering what marvels he had missed. Because he was sure that, if he hesitated again, Rex wasn’t going to give him any more chances.

“I can see you’re nervous”, said Rex, his voice lowered a little. “That’s good.”

“It is?”.

“It certainly is. It shows that the pores of your imagination are open. You’re awake to more possibilities when you’re nervous. Nerves are just another sort of excitement.”

Billy nodded, trying to show that he understood, though he wasn’t sure that he did.

“Anyway”, said Rex, as he wrapped the scarf around Billy’s eyes and began to tie it. “We’re going to do a little exercise first. Close your eyes and keep them closed till I tell you.”

“What kind of exercise?”, asked Rex, resisting the urge to grit his teeth.

“I need you to realise something”, came the voice of the old man, as he tied the scarf tight around Billy’s eyes. “And I can only do it this way...Master Reynolds, I need you to imagine somewhere you hate. A situation you hate. A situation you loathe.”

Billy didn’t have to try very hard.

“You’ve got it?”, asked Rex’s voice. Once again, it already seemed further away, and at the same time louder.

Billy nodded.

“Very good”, said the old man. “Let us begin”. And then, once again, he began to mutter something, something that Billy couldn’t hear. But somehow, he got the impression the words weren’t in English.

Then he felt Rex untying the scarf from around his head. “You can open your eyes”, said the voice of Rex Cunningham from a thousand miles away.

Billy opened them, knowing exactly what to expect this time.

He was sitting in Mrs. Delaney’s geography class. A map of Europe was unrolled in front of the blackboard. The air was heavy and hot with summer, flies were buzzing in and out of the open windows, and his classmates were mostly in their shirt sleeves.

And everybody was looking at Billy. And out of the swarm of faces—- nearly all of them grinning like jack-o’-lanterns—- there were two that jumped out at Billy, as always.

One was Gillian Rice, with her flowing hay-coloured hair, her freckled face and her kind, intelligent, green eyes. She was smiling, like all the others, but her smile wasn’t cruel.

Then there was Tommy Lynch, with his near-skinhead and his square face, the lips permanently frozen into a sneer. He was sitting at the front because he was always made to sit at the front, where the teacher could watch him.

“Billy?”, asked Mrs. Delaney. “Billy! You went into one of your dazes again, didn’t you, Billy? Billy, come up here and tell us all about the populations of East Europe.”

“Up you go, Billy”, he heard Rex Harrison saying. Of course, nobody else could hear the voice. “This time it’s going to be very different from the other times…”

Chapter Nine

The tittering increased as Billy got up and walked to the front of the class. Kevin Dempsey shouted, “Your fly is open!”. For once, Billy managed not to look.

“Settle down”, said Mrs. Delaney, though she was smiling too. She always seemed to think that the class should be laughing at Billy, as though it served him right for not being any good at geography. “Mr. Reynolds is going to amaze us all.”

She got a laugh for this, and her smile broadened. She was a pretty woman, but her eyes was stern and her smirk was without pity.

“Now, Billy”, she said, putting her hands together in a praying gesture. “With apologies for dragging you from whatever world you were just in.” Another laugh from the class. “Can you tell us how many people live in Romania?”

Billy was about to say I don’t know—- he knew how this game was played—- when he heard Rex’s voice, coming from way above the ceiling of the class. Tell her, Billy. You know. You know.

Billy was sure he didn’t know. But, since Rex had told him to, he said, “Fifty million?”

Mrs. Delaney’s eyes widened, and her lip dropped a little, as though in disappointment.

“Well, that’s right”, he said. “Obviously some of what I’ve been saying penetrated that daze. At last! What about Bulgaria?”

“Thirteen million”, said Billy.

Mrs. Delaney’s eyes widened again. There was another titter in the classroom, but this time it wasn’t aimed at Billy.

“OK”, said Mrs. Delaney, looking a bit irritated now. “Poland?”

“Fifty-five million”, said Billy, knowing it would be right.

Mrs. Delaney went through all the countries of Eastern Europe, then moved onto the rest of Europe, and they were halfway through the countries of Africa before she gave up. Cheers were beginning to come from the class now.

“No need to give him a big head”, said Mrs. Delaney. “So you’ve had one good day, Mister Reynolds. Let’s see you keep it up now. A little less time spent in Billy-land and a little more time spent with the rest of can go back to your desk.”

Billy turned, and began to walk back to his desk. Everyone was looking at him very differently this time.

“Hey, you dropped a triangle”, said Tommy Lynch. “Look at him, throwing shapes now.”

As always, Tommy got a laugh. Billy kept walking, staring straight ahead, but the voice from nowhere that was Rex said: Don’t just walk away, Billy. Turn back. Don’t put up with that.

Billy stopped. Even knowing that it wasn’t the real Tommy Lynch, he found it hard to make eye contact with the boy. He remembered the pain of Tommy’s knuckles in his side.

Don’t be afraid. Turn around.

Billy turned back around, and managed to look straight into Tommy’s face. There was a flicker of surprise in those cruel, steel-blue eyes.

“What’s the story, bud?” asked Tommy, in a sarcastically chummy voice. The whole class was quiet now.

“I think...” began Billy, but his voice trailed off. His stomach was heavy with fear now, even if this wasn’t the real Tommy Lynch. Billy expected (he hoped) that Mrs. Delaney would tell him to hurry to his desk, but she seemed just as curious as her pupils. She stayed silent.

“Have you gone all the way to Freaksville, Arizona this time?” asked Tommy, shaking his head as though in astonishment. “Aren’t you going to even finish school before you start wandering the streets and talking to the sky?”

Hit him, Billy. Hit him right now.

To his own utter amazement, Billy obeyed. His fist flew towards Tommy’s face and collided with the boy’s mouth. Billy felt Tommy’s teeth scrape against his knuckles.

Without shouting, without making any noise at all, Tommy slumped backwards, straight into Philip Corcoran who sat beside him. Billy had never seen anyone look as utterly flabbergasted as Tommy did at that moment.

For a moment there was utter silence in the classroom. Then the other kids began to cheer. It was only a few voices at first, but soon almost everybody seemed to be joining in.

Billy was watching Tommy carefully, waiting for the bully to come at him furiously. But it didn’t happen. Even when he’d got up from being sprawled against Philip Corcoran, and taken his seat again, Tommy just stared at Billy in complete bewilderment. He didn’t even seem to hear the cheering around him.

Billy looked up, into the rows of cheering pupils. Some of them were punching the air.

His eyes fell on one face: Gillian Rice, who sat almost at the back. She wasn’t cheering, but she was grinning. Billy had spent a lot of time watching her smile, but he’d never seen her smiling at him before. At least, not like this.

When she noticed he was looking at her, she put her head on one side and winked. It was a slow, theatrical wink. There was no mistaking it.

Very well, that’s enough, came Rex’s voice, out of heaven. Time to come back. Close your eyes.

Billy closed his eyes. The cheering still rang in his ears. He heard Mrs. Delaney shouting, “OK, OK, everyone calm down, this isn’t...”

Then suddenly, as though a radio had been unplugged, her words and all the other noises of the classroom disappeared. Billy felt Rex undoing the tight knots on the silk scarf, and a moment later he heard the old man say: “And now, sir, you may open your eyes once more.”

Billy opened them. Rex was standing in front of him, wearing a rather quizzical smile.

“So how was that, Master Reynolds?” he asked, raising one eyebrow. “How did it feel to make a fool of your least favourite teacher, and give your tormentor a dose of his own medicine—- not to mentioning winning the smile of your favourite girl?”

Billy blushed at the last part. He felt a little ridiculous. “It was good.”

“Just good?” asked Rex, with a blink of surprise. “Not exceedingly good? Not...what do you say these days? Not awesome? Not brilliant? Not, ah, not the coolest thing ever?”

Billy remembered the look in Gillian’s eyes. Seeing it there had made him feel so warm inside. And yet....

“It just didn’t seem real”, he said, in a low voice. “I mean, that would never happen. It’s just what I wanted to happen, that’s all.”

Rex Cunningham smiled. He raised a finger to his mouth and tapped it against his lips. He looked pleased, but didn’t say anything.

“I mean”, Billy went, encouraged by this reaction, “I bet those aren’t really the populations of those countries.”

“They’re not”, said Rex.

“And Tommy Lynch wouldn’t just stare at me like that if I punched him,” said Billy. “He’d hit me back. Or wait until later and beat me up. And Mrs. Delaney would have done something. And...” He stopped suddenly.

But Rex saw where he had been going. “And that girl you’re sweet on would never have winked at you in such a saucy manner”, he said, with a dry chuckle.

“Well, no” said Billy, looking down and blushing again. “Not that, either. Things like that only happen in stories.”

“Correction,” said Rex Cunningham, raising his finger in the air. “Things like that only happen in bad stories. They don’t happen in mine. The reason my make-your-own-story books work so well is because the reader knows there might not be a happy ending.”

Billy nodded. This was certainly true. Whenever he read a Rex Cunningham book—- though he’d read them all before, and knew all the possible endings—- everything seemed so solid, so three-dimensional, so vivid. You could almost breathe the air. Maybe it was because Rex was such a great writer (and Billy didn’t care if nobody else agreed with him about that). But some of it was because Billy knew that things didn’t always work out in Rex’s stories. If you made the wrong choices, there were poisoned cups and assassins behind curtains and guns that ran out of bullets when you needed them the most. He always felt a little thrill when he read the words, “Your story ends here.”

“Just bear that in mind”, Rex went on, waving his hand again in his teacherly manner, “if the world you are about to enter seems, in any way, less than ideal. If it was exactly what you wanted it wouldn’t be worth tuppence-ha’penny.”

Once again, the anxiety that was a permanent background noise in Billy’s mind rose to panic. He should get up right now, he thought, and leave. It was insanity to stay. He really had no idea what he was getting into.

But he already knew he wasn’t going to do that. No matter how panicky he became, he wasn’t going to do that. All he had to do was remember what it felt like to be a bird in the sky. And imagine being an old man who had missed this opportunity...

“What world am I about to enter?” he asked, trying not to sound nervous, and succeeding better than he expected.

“My dear sir”, said Rex Cunningham, arching his eyebrows, “you are about to enter your world. Your own world. Or maybe I should say your own worlds? I offer you nothing but your own deepest, wildest imaginings.”

“What do you mean?”

“You are about to enter realms of your own creation, Master Reynolds.”

“Can you read my mind?” asked Billy, horrifed at this sudden thought.

Rex Cunningham chuckled again. “It’s not as simple as that”, he said. “I have no idea what the skies and streets and seas of your world will look like. Not until they actually exist. It happens like that.” He snapped his bony fingers.

“So who is actually making these....worlds?” asked Billy, feeling more confused all the time. “Me or you?”

“I make them” said Rex. “But you design them. They’re in your mind already, even if you don’t know it. Of course I have to do a fair amount of—- how should I put it?—- adapting. Do you understand?”

“No”, said Billy, feeling a little cross.

“Of course you don’t”, said Rex. “You won’t understand until you’re there. And you won’t fully understand until...well, until it’s all over.”

For the first time, Billy noticed a small clock that stood on the mantlepiece. It had stopped at ten past seven. He wondered how long the hands had been stuck there.

“When will it be over?” asked Billy.

“Don’t worry about time”, said Rex. “Time is completely different in a world of your own making. It’s like time in a story. Think of how a hundred years in a story can take four pages in a book.”

“A hundred years?” asked Billy, alarmed.

“It was just an example” said Rex, with a touch of irritation. “Rest assured your journey won’t take a hundred years, however you measure it.”

Billy noticed that Marius had stolen into the room, and was sitting right by the edge of the door he had pushed open. He was watching the two humans solemnly, almost ceremoniously, his tail curled around his paws and his head held straight. As though he knew what was happening.

A car honked on the road outside. From even further away, there came the sounds of girls singing a skipping song. Billy, looking into Rex’s eyes, saw his own reflection, tiny and far away, looking utterly helpless and lost.

“Are you ready?”, asked Rex.

“I’m ready”, Billy lied.

“Close your eyes”, said Rex. “Everything that your heart ever longed for is about to come true.”

Billy closed his eyes, and Rex tied the scarf around his head.