Saturday, May 16, 2015

The End of the Purple Notebook

First, an explanation of what it is for anyone who happens on this without context.

Keeping a little purple notebook is an odd thing to do. Writing about it is even odder. Reading about someone writing about a little purple notebook is the crowning oddity. So we are all odd together. Excellent. Let's finish this thing!

Oscar would have liked that. A line from The Book of Lists, which is a fun compendium of lists on unusual topics. One of the lists involves Oscar Wilde, and it mentions a plaque that was erected to him somewhere, finishing with the line: "Oscar would have liked that." Isn't it odd that people tend to refer to Oscar Wilde as Oscar rather than Wilde? I love the way his story has become such a legend. When I happened to be reading this particular entry in the book, I was struck by how odd it is that certain things-- like the story of Oscar Wilde-- are common knowledge, not only amongst highbrows or upper middlebrows but amongst everybody. And it struck me as strangely comforting that such patches of common knowledge exist. A part of me is always a little bit scared of complete social, mental and existential chaos-- unlikely though that seems. Hard to explain this one, really.

Coffee, marmalade and james shelves in supermarket. Domestic idyll.

Imaginary safari picture, Hot Press, Ennis mantlepiece. OK, how to explain this one? Do you know the how, in English literature of a certain period (or set in a certain period), Darkest Africa is a kind of exoticism that is always present amongst the green and pleasant shires of England-- the tribal mask on the wall, the stuffed tiger head, and so forth? I was in my sister's house in Ennis, Co. Clare, I remember looking at a cover of the Irish music magazine Hot Press that they had mounted as a poster, and I remember thinking (completely unconnectedly) of Darkest Africa, safari, the jungle etc., as a kind of daydream or legend or flight of the imagination. I also found myself also imagining a rather ornate mantlepiece, the kind that might be in the London abode of a retired big game hunter or African explorer. Can't explain it any further, I'm afraid.

Con Kiely, first communion. I was in the house of my step-grandfather Con Kiely and I saw a photograph-- a beautifully textured photo, as old professional black and white photos tend to be-- of what I took to be Con in a First Holy Communion suit. The fact that there could be photographic evidence of such a long-ago event shocked and delighted me, as did the continuity of identity between the boy and the old man. It was so unexpected.

Grandfather toy, N. One Christmas, my sister N got a mechanical doll of an old man, with a pipe and a cap and little discs that you could slot into him and which would make him say different things. Nobody else in my family seems to remember this, which grieves me as I seem to remember a lot of laughter about it.

C.S. Lewis essays, SnowmanThe Snowman was the third novel I wrote, and the first (and only) horror novel. I still think it was pretty good, at least in parts. I was really getting into it and felt a deep satisfaction at how it was coming along. I paused to read some C.S. Lewis essays and it felt like such an earned recreation-- and my literary exertion seemed to make me more receptive to ideas, too. I felt so alive.

Daffodill meadow in Limerick. A memory of childhood-- whether a memory of something real, dreamed or imagined, I don't know.

O&D, orange, boyhood. Two older boys I knew in my childhood. Their conversation and activities seemed like a Huckleberry Finn idyll of boyhood to me, and have seemed so ever since. Boyhood is such a distinctive spiritual territory-- full of a fascination with things like pen-knives, fighter planes, death, decomposition, spontaneous combustion, heavy metal, pencil torches, very hot foods, very strong mints, and so forth. I always associated this spiritual territory with the colour orange; maybe it's the orange of the General Lee and I'm mixing O and D up with Bo and Luke. I was never that kind of boy, but I wanted to be.

That antacid tablet ad classical music. There was an ad for an antacid tablet, when I was a kid, showing a montage of people in Edwardian dress over classical music. It seemed like the classiest thing ever to me.

Pippin comic. My little brother had a comic for very small children called Pippin, which seems impossibly quaint now, and I think did to me even back then-- though I wasn't much older. He doesn't remember it.

Original Star Trek after London. After a visit to London, I returned to Dublin and, a few days later, bought two series of the original series of Star Trek. I hated them! I ended up giving them away to a charity shop. But that's incidental, just the hook of this memory. The really important thing was my sense of disorientation after returning to Dublin. I'm not sure travel really broadens the mind, but one thing it does-- for me, anyway-- is make me realise that other places and other countries actually exist, that the places you are familiar with are a tiny part of an enormous world, which exists even when you're not thinking about it. Of course I know this in my head, but knowing it and really feeling it are different things. I felt such a sense of weirdness and disorientation for a few days post-London. The sheer vastness of London was part of this, too. Strangely, this was an unpleasant feeling at the time, but it's pleasant to remember-- that pattern often repeats itsef, actually.

American truckers, dusty roads, baseball caps. Whether it's something I saw on TV, or just something that came into my head, I've always had an idyll of American truckers travelling endless dusty roads, wearing baseball caps. I've always loved the insularity of America. There seems something eternal, infinite, self-sufficient about it. The dusty roads of America seem to stretch beyond the world.

Cornfield poster in Scoil Caitriona. Real or imagined.

Flu, GKC Autobiography. Have you heard of post-flu depression? I think I had it some years ago. I was recovering from flu, and to be honest, nobody seemed to care very much that I was sick. And that depressed me. But my depression widened out from that-- it seemed to me that nobody cared very much about anything. That life didn't really matter, the world didn't really matter, nothing mattered. I read Chesterton's Autobiography-- not for the first time-- and his hearty gusto and love of life brought me immense comfort. Here was someone who cared about life very much indeed!

Someone to watch over me. The title of a song and, more importantly, a Star Trek Voyager episode that I watched just today. It's what everybody craves. And its presence in my notebook is more a reminder to myself to BE that for others, rather than anything else.

Hidden panel, kid's book. When I was a kid, I had a picture book about two well-off kids who dressed in slacks and pullovers and shirts, and had neatly combed fringes, and who discovered (as part of a bigger adventure) some kind of hidden door in a house where they were saying. This utterly enthralled me, as all hidden panels and hidden doors and caverns and tunnels in stories have always enthralled me. It's probably something to do with sex.

Airplanes, Comortas Gaeilge. I went to an Irish language primary school. We were meant to speak Irish all the time, but of course nobody did. So the headmaster organised an ongoing competition to see who could speak the most Irish, in school and out of school. At the end of every week, we all filled into the assembly hall, and broke into our regular teams (which were made up of kids of different ages). The winners every week were the team who spoke the most Irish, based on a chart that each child kept all week. (For a system based on self-reporting, I'm surprised how honest it all was. I remember once being made to apologise to my team-mates for letting them down and not speaking enough Irish. I wonder if I've ever recalled that incident before now, since it happened over twenty years ago?) There was also bingo at the same assembly.

At one of these sessions-- which were the last school business of the week, and always had an air of release and celebration to them-- my older brother, who wasn't on my team, came to me to tell me he had bought some paper airplanes for us and my younger brother. This airplanes (more foam than paper) came in a packet, were assembled by slotting the various pieces together, and had plastic propellors and noses, and could glide-- kind of. There were many different models, and they were based on actual fighter planes. My brother was fascinated with fighter planes and I felt it was the kind of thing that boys should be interested in (though I wasn't really). I think this was a weekend towards the summer holidays.

The whole memory has an atmosphere of brotherhood, boyhood, the weekend, the summer,  release, excitement, and so on.

"Ah! This is the life!". Billy's Boots. The only entry in my little purple notebook that I've written a poem about.

From Bismarck to De Gaulle, field outside school. The first part of that entry is the title of a very fine textbook on European history I had when I was seventeen and eighteen. One history class, we were reading about the Franco-Prussian war from it, and I was sitting by the window looking out into the playing field. I thought of how small that field was compared to the enormous tracts of land at play in text-book history-- and yet, all those vast tracts were made up of little patches of ground, and there were innumerable quiet afternoons in between all those momentous events. I found this an exciting thought. I felt I could hear the music of history-- very low, almost inaudible, but not quite.

Coffin sweets, hospital. My cousin was in hospital getting his tonsils out, or his appendix out, or something. He had-- or somebody had-- some horror-themed sweets (candy) that came in quite an impressive coffin-shaped plastic box. They contained badges of various horror characters. I asked my brother about this only days ago and he remembers them. We were all crazy for horror. We still are.

Doctor and Seven of Nine in Voyager. Two characters on Star Trek: Voyager. Voyager has been described as 'the red-headed stepchild of the franchise'-- which, given my propensity for underdogs and contrarianism, might partly explain why I like it. The Doctor (he has no name) is a character who starts out as a medical hologram and gradually becomes more of a person in his own right. Seven of Nine is a member of the Borg, a race who are governed by a 'hive-mind' and who seek to 'assimilate' other races-- she was captured by the Borg as a little girl. She is freed from the Borg and, for the rest of the series, we watch her very painful and tender journey towards reclaiming her humanity and becoming an individual-- discovering how to navigate all the parts of being human that most people mastered in their childhood, such as social interaction.

I find these characters fascinating because they are both learning to be human, painfully and in unusual circumstance. Apart from finding this dramatically compelling in its own right, I identify with them. Other than reading or writing, I was a slow starter in nearly everything-- sometimes to a spectacular degree. Tying my laces, flying on a plane, leaving the country, having a job, making friends, drinking alcohol, going to a party, dating, experiencing a first kiss-- I did them all later and often way later than most people. So much so that it's often hard to find my experience mirrored in fiction, other than Seven of Nine and the Doctor. And the fact that their story is interesting, that they are sympathetic and admirable characters, makes me feel better about my own story.

Reading Ronald Knox in the Odeon. I was waiting to meet my friends Paul and Liz in the Odeon pub in Dublin. In the meantime, I was reading A Spiritual Aeneid, Msgr. Ronald Knox's spiritual memoir. The Odeon is a very ornate and big pub, with lavish upholstery. How often in my life I've been reading in such a place, and the place and the book have taken on a colouring from each other, and have given me a vivid sense of life's drama!

Pannenberg, Bamboo Café. Wolfhart Pannenberg is a Protestant theologian who died recently-- RIP. The Bamboo Café is a café in Richmond, Virginia. I was reading a book of essays about Pannenberg while eating a corned-beef sandwich in this pleasantly shabby café. Reading and eating is the best combination in the world. Or close to it.

Millennium stained glass. This is the memory of a trip into the city centre with my art class in school. We were going in to look at stained glass. Someone jokingly pointed out a piece of stained glass-- very rudimentary-- that had been put up on a shop front for the Dublin Millennium in 1988, about six years before. I was in one of those phases of my teens when I decided I was going to burn with a hard gemlike flame, a la Walter Pater, and open myself fully to the aesthetic ecstasy of every experience. And it worked for minutes at a time, including this one.

Home made Christmas card, Philadelphia. This is a home-made Christmas card that I made for Michelle in Philadelphia Airport. Not only could I not find a Christmas card in any of the shops in the airport-- on Christmas Eve!-- I couldn't even buy any paper to make one. So I tore a flyleaf from my Bible and used that. I felt very happy making it.

Solemnity of the National Museum.

Flapjacks. A memory from childhood. My schoolteacher was absent, so I was sent to join my brother in his class. They were making flapjacks. This seemed so grown-up to me.

Newman's sermons, Nealon's. Nealon's is a pub in Dublin. I read Newman's sermons there. It was a memorable experience.

Angels of light, National Museum. A dream, from childhood (I think). I saw an angelic figure (or figures) and it was either set against the backdrop of the National Museum, or the atmosphere somehow reminded me of that institution. The funny thing is that, though this was a dream, it doesn't feel like a dream-- it feels strangely real. I sometimes think we all have an intuitive knowledge of the supernatural world.

Warm glow of exertion. Hard work feels so good, so why don't I do it more often?

Creepshow. The movie based on Stephen King stories, featuring Steve Martin. I was intensively writing at the time I watched it, and felt very fertile and fruitful-- like a colleague of Stephen King.

Wings. I like the music of Wings and I also like what I can only describe as the 'atmosphere' of their albums and story. I keep thinking how nice it must have been for Paul McCartney, after all the madness and pressure of The Beatles-- and knowing he would always have The Beatles to his account-- to have his own project that was still very successful, but not as pressured or traumatic as the Beatles.

Sheriff of Huddersfield. A b-side by Iron Maiden, written about their manager Rod Smallwood. Very good lyrics, but mostly I prize it for all the in-jokes and its behind-the-scenes atmosphere. I've always wanted to be involved in something where I'm behind the scenes and can enjoy in-jokes.

"For anyone, anywhere, with whom I have ever enjoyed a laugh."

"Build it up again. Brick by brick." Something that Bruce Wayne says to Alfred the Butler at the end of Batman Begins, a movie I first saw in Brighton, on my first trip to England-- indeed, my first trip anywhere outside Ireland. The scene comes in that delicious part of the movie-- of any movie-- when all the madness and chaos and crisis is over, and the characters have time and space to mull over it all. He's talking about Wayne Manor, a place that gets destroyed in the course of the movie, and that he'd earlier claimed he'd be happy to see torn down. Years later, Brighton was to be an important scene in my courtship of Michelle-- rather unexpectedly. We even went to the same cinema. But that's another tale...

Christmas tree lights. Clean room. Rules of Attraction. A memory from a recent Christmas. Everything was going wrong-- not just with Christmas, but with my whole life-- and I was beginning to crack under the pressure. And then a few things got better, and suddenly I felt much more hopeful. I cleaned the sitting room. I put colourful, blinking fairy lights on the Christmas tree. I watched a bit of the sit-com Rules of Attraction-- a terrible show, and one I don't like at all. But what I like about all sit-coms is that the houses are always miraculously, immaculately tidy, and nothing that bad ever happens-- there is a stability to it all. Suddenly I felt on top of things.

Poe bedroom. I was staying in my sister's house, and sharing a bed with my older brother (we were both kids). He had a copy of Tales of Mystery and Imagination by Edgar Allen Poe, and was telling me about it with some relish. I had never heard of Poe. Even his name was somehow spooky. But I could tell the stories were not only spooky but literary. The idea of literature was something that always entranced me as a kid. It's ridiculous, but I somehow got Poe before I had read a word of him. I really did!

And that's it!! That's the end of the little purple notebook!! (For the moment. It's always expanding. But very slowly.) And now, reader, I draw a sigh, and I feel a profound sense of satisfaction. Why, I couldn't exactly say. I just needed to get it all out.

Thank you, folks!


  1. I don't have the leisure, at the moment, to comment on this series as I would like (perhaps that is a mercy!), but I did want to be sure to thank you for posting it, before too much more time had passed. It seems a shame to add a utilitarian angle to a collection that is, at its heart, so poetic and just plain enjoyable, but for me, at any rate, it did serve to reawaken an awareness of the depth of each human being, built, as they are, of moments like these. Whether that was a good thing, or a bad thing, it did make me a good deal more patient yesterday with customers who seemed a bit tedious. Who knew if they, too, had once thrilled at a great flight of crows? Even if that particular splendour had been denied them, I was well reminded that there was a good deal more to the individual soul than what I was seeing.

    But more importantly--it was a wonderful series of posts. I feel the better, and most certainly the happier, for having read it.

  2. Thanks Molly. Every single time I go to confession impatience with customers is one of my regular items to confess. So I'm glad I helped you be more patient. Seriously, having come from a memorial service today, I DO believe that we should all seek to impart a message (or messages) to the world and "the depth of each human being" is very much one of the messages that I seek to impart. I can't see how that would be a bad thing! The best sort of utilitarianism.

    Most of all, I'm glad you enjoyed it. I was literally baring my soul in these posts and if nobody found it interesting it would be a bit hard to take. It means a lot to me that some people did.

  3. Everyone ought to keep a purple note-book! Especially since, as Molly has also said, surely these moments come to everyone. Mostly they are lost, for all sorts of reasons - forgetfulness, lack of time, lack of wonder, reticence...

    I think you would be surprised how little explanation your entries need! It is almost as if the entries you call strangest (for example, the angels in the National Museum) make the most sense to me.

    I was trying to think of other writers who have done this (as opposed to keeping a diary), and remembered this poem by William Allingham - do you think this record of an entirely eventless moment, and the feelings that go with it, is 'purple-notebook'-esque?

    Four ducks on a pond,
    A grass-bank beyond,
    A blue sky of spring,
    White clouds on the wing;
    What a little thing
    To remember for years--
    To remember with tears!

  4. Absolutely! That poem is definitely 'purple-notebook' esque. In fact, I don't think you could get a better poem to illustrate the idea, unless it was Wordsworth. As I said in the first poem, he refers to 'spots of time' regularly in The Prelude, but I don't remember examples. I must read it again. Come to think of it, "The Daffodills" is probably the ultimate purple notebook poem!

    Yes, I do believe these 'purple notebook moments' come to everybody. Although...if they are lost, I don't think they are 'purple notebook moments' to begin with. Because the salient aspect of them is that they keep coming back to you, even years and decades later, and-- even more importantly-- that whatever magic there is about them seems inexhaustible.

  5. "This utterly enthralled me, as all hidden panels and hidden doors and caverns and tunnels in stories have always enthralled me. It's probably something to do with sex."