Wednesday, December 30, 2020

The Sound of Breathing: A Short Story

Jessica was the luckiest girl in the world, because her father was the greatest father in the world. He wrote books. He gave talks. He made videos. Everybody admired him. People sent him cards and gifts telling him how much he’d changed their lives. They came pretty much every day, and they were hung all over the hall and sitting room and dining room of their beautiful home.

He’d written three books; Make It Happen, Make It Real, and Embrace Your Fears. He flew all over the world giving lectures (he always called them “lectures”). He seemed to be working all the time. Jessica only realized that other fathers were not like that when she went to school-- for the little time she’d gone to school. She’d been taken out of school when she was seven, and after that she was educated by private tutors and by Daddy himself. Sometimes he would wander in from his study and sit in on her lessons, which always made the tutors nervous. Twice he’d actually stopped the lesson and told the tutors they could go.  They would never be seen again. Then he either got new tutors or just taught her that himself.

Jessica’s mother had died when she was three. Nobody would ever tell her what she died of, and Jessica had learned to stop asking. There was a photograph of her in the hall-- dark-haired and thin, just like her daughter. Jessica always thought she had a sad look on her face, even though she was smiling. But maybe that was just her imagination. Daddy so often warned her against the dangers of the imagination.

Daddy only ever talked about her when Jessica raised the subject. She knew he didn’t like talking about her. Probably it made him sad, though Daddy never seemed sad.

Jessica wanted to please her father more than anything in the entire world, so she very rarely asked about her mother. They couldn’t even visit her grave because she had been cremated and thrown into the sea-- that’s what she wanted, Daddy said.

Once Jessica had asked him if Mommy had gone to Heaven. It was at breakfast one morning, when it was blowing wind outside.

“Jessica”, her father had said, looking square in her face. “There is no Heaven. It’s just a story people tell to make themselves feel better about death.”

When she had started crying at this, he’d lifted her from her chair and hugged her tight to him. She loved his smell, the smell of cigars and aftershave and-- well, Daddy-ness. But this time it wasn’t enough to stop the tears streaming.

“I could lie to you and say that there’s a Heaven”, he said. “But I’m never, ever, ever going to lie to you. You deserve better than that. Lies never make anything better.”

Daddy worked harder than other Daddies, and Jessica also worked harder than other little girls. Lessons went on all day, up until dinner-time, and then sometimes in the evening, too.

“Your mind is at its most flexible now, Jessica”, he told her. “And that’s the magic ingredient, flexibility. Yes, you’re working harder now, when other kids your age are watching TV and playing computer games and just hanging out. But, believe me, when you’re older, you’ll appreciate it. The headstart you are getting now will make a big, big difference. Believe me.”

Then he would start on his favourite subject-- the world that she was growing up into and how she needed to be flexible, adaptable, creative. His eyes would light as he spoke about it.

“It’s going to be a different world, Jessica”, he said. “A lot of the jobs that people do today are going to be done by computers. There may not even be jobs like there are today. Things are going to change so fast, so very fast, that people who can’t change with it, people who can’t be flexible...well, they’re going to get left behind.”

“What will happen to those people?”, Jessica had asked.

Her father shrugged. “There might be some kind of basic income by then”, he said. “Money that the government gives to everybody, whether they work or not. I hope so. But it’s probably not going to be very much. And, however much it is, it means that you are always depending on the government. If you want to be free, if you want to have independence, you’re going to have to be flexible. To make things happen for yourself. To make things real. And you will be, Jessica. You will be.”

“I feel sorry for all the other people”, Jessica had said. “The people who won’t be like that”

“Me too. I hope they get taken care of. But this is the reality. And what do I always tell you about reality?”

“Imagination sees reality”, Jessica recited. “Fantasy hides from reality.”

“I love you”, her father, had said, giving her a huge bearhug.

Jessica didn’t really mind working so hard, although she often wished she had more time to do her own stuff. She knew she was smart and she liked learning. Every time she had a new tutor she could tell how surprised they were at what she could do.

She studied French, German, and Chinese. She studied science and technology. She studied mathematics and geography, music and art. Daddy would often tell her how important creativity was. Knowledge opens doors, he said, but imagination lets you fly.

All the toys she was given were creative toys. She was given paints, modelling clay, building blocks, jigsaws (usually of maps), keyboards, puzzles-- things like that.

Daddy had let her have dolls when she was younger, since she’d begged him for them. But that had stopped when she was five-- the day she’d started talking about her doll, Miss Perfect, talking to her.

“She doesn’t talk to you, Jessica”, Daddy had said. They were sitting in the garden at the time, on a sunny summer’s day. He was in a deck chair and she playing with Miss Perfect. He was smiling but his voice was stern. “You pretend she talks to you, that’s all. And that’s OK.”

“No, Daddy”, she’d said. “She speaks to me. She really speaks to me.”

Daddy had looked worried, then-- worried, and kind of angry. “No, sweetheart”, he said. “It’s a fun game to pretend she speaks to you. I know that. That’s OK. Every kid does that. But she doesn’t really speak to you.”

Jessica had started crying then, because she already knew it was wrong to lie. Daddy took Miss Perfect away from her and she had never seen her again-- her, or any other doll, or action figure, or anything like that.

She’d heard him speaking on the phone a few nights later, as she was coming back from the bathroom, very late one night. “I don’t want her to go the same way as her mother”, he’d said. She thought about that pretty much every day.

Now that she was nine years old, she knew that Daddy had been right. Miss Perfect hadn’t spoken to her, because dolls couldn’t speak. They were made of plastic. She’d only imagined it.

But sometimes, still, she caught herself thinking that Miss Perfect had really spoken to her after all. And then she cried to herself, feeling very guilty. Because Daddy said that was impossible, and Daddy was always right. He was the best father in the whole world, and he was always right.

* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * 

Sometimes, in the middle of the night, Jessica would walk softly to her father’s bedroom and listen at the door. She would listen anxiously, trying to hear the sound of breathing, and she would only creep back to her own room when she’d heard it.

She was terrified that her father was going to die. When she’d told him about that, he’d laughed and said that all kids worried about their fathers dying.

“But you might die”, she’d said. They were in his study, and Jessica was sitting on his huge wooden desk-- the desk with the globe of the world, and the Panda bear made of green glass, and the box of cigars.

“Yes, I might”, Daddy had said. “Anything could happen. A plane could crash through this house right now. But it’s almost certainly not going to happen. I’m only forty-seven. I’m fit. I’m healthy. There’s nothing to worry about.”

The silence in the room had stretched, as Daddy smiled at her, and Jessica worked up the courage to say this next thing. She knew that, if she didn’t speak quickly, he would go back to work, and then he would be lost in work for the rest of the day.

“When you fell down the stairs”, she said. “When you were taken to hospital--”

“I only broke a few ribs, sweetheart”, he said. “That kind of thing happens. Besides, I’m extra careful now. I don’t want to spend any more time in hospital. I have too much to do!”

“I dreamed about it”, she said quickly. “The night it happened. I dreamed about it. Except in the dream-- you died.” Now she could barely speak through the tears.

He pulled her towards him, and hugged her. “No, you didn’t dream about me falling down the stairs that night. You imagine you did. You probably dreamed about it afterwards and now you think you dreamed about it the same night. The mind plays tricks. Memory plays tricks.”

Jessica rubbed her eyes. There was no point arguing with Daddy. He was always right. Besides, she wanted him to be right. Because in the dream-- she couldn’t remember why-- she had pushed him down the stairs. And then she had woken up and heard him falling--

But it wasn’t like that. Now she was crying tears of relief, and hugging Daddy. It wasn’t like that because the mind played tricks.

* * * * * * * * * 

Jessica told Daddy everything, except for one little thing she didn’t tell him.

She didn’t tell him about Kid.

Kid was her dog. He was an imaginary dog. She’d started to imagine a dog because Daddy wouldn’t let her have a real dog.

“You can get a dog when you’re old enough to take care of a dog”, he’d said. “When you’re thirteen, at least. You’re too young to take care of a dog now.”

She hadn’t said anything to that. There was no point arguing with Daddy. But that night, she’d started to imagine Kid. That was almost a year ago now.

He was a German Shepherd dog. He was big, strong and he had deep, soft brown eyes. He followed her everywhere, and went everywhere she went. He protected her.

She would often think about him during the day. In swimming lessons, he would be standing at the age of the pool, waiting to jump in if she sank. (But she never sank.) During her lessons, he would be sitting at her desk, looking at her lovingly as she learned. Somehow it helped her to concentrate.

Even when she slept, he would be lying by her bed, in the dark, so she could hear his breathing…

She pretended she could hear him breathing. Sometimes she caught herself imagining she could really hear him breathing. Then she felt very guilty and remembered Miss Perfect. She listened more carefully and she felt relieved-- it was actually her own breathing.

Kid was her protector. He made her brave.

Once, at a birthday party-- sometimes Daddy let her go to birthday parties, but not very often-- two girls had started to pick on her. The grown-ups were in the kitchen and the kids were all in the large garden, playing. These two girls-- Mandy and Ciara-- had been playing with her in the corner of the garden, a little bit away from the slides and the swings. They’d been really nice until Mandy had said:

“I know about your mommy.”

Jessica had stared at her. “What about my mommy?”

Mandy, who had been so friendly just a moment before, gave her a nasty smile and said: “She was crazy.”

Ciara was also smiling--- a horrible smile. But she said: “Don’t tell her, Mandy. She’s just going to go crying to her Daddy and get us in trouble.”

“No, I won’t”, said Jessica, defiant.

“Bet you will”, said Mandy.

“Who said my Mommy was crazy?”, asked Jessica.

The two girls just stared at her in silence, smiling; then Mandy started to flap her arms in the air, roll her eyes, and groan loudly. Ciara began to laugh. Hot tears came into Jessica’s eyes.

And at that that moment, Jessica had imagined she could hear Kid growl, right beside her. It was a deep, slow, scary growl. 

Ciara and Mandy suddenly looked terrified, and hurried away from her. They didn’t speak to her for the rest of the party. They hadn’t really spoken to her since.

This is what had happened, Jessica had decided. It only took her a few seconds, standing in the garden, to realize what had happened. She had imagined Kid growing. Kid’s imaginary growling had made her brave, and Ciara and Mandy saw the look on her face. It had frightened them so much they’d run away. That was what had happened.

Sometimes she felt guilty when she thought about Kid, and about keeping him a secret from her father. But wasn’t her father always saying that imagination was good, but fantasy was bad? Kid was just imaginary, so he was good. There was no need to tell Daddy. It didn’t matter.

Now and again she would think about her Mommy, lying in bed, in the dark. She would find herself wishing Mommy was in Heaven, and then she would feel guilty about that, since Daddy had told her there was no Heaven.

Sometimes, lying in the dark, thinking about Daddy saying those words-- “There is no Heaven”-- she imagined she could hear Kid growl, lying beside her bed. Then she would remember she had the best Daddy in the entire world, and before long all she would hear, once again, was the sound of breathing.

* * * * * * * 

Jessica never argued with Daddy. There was no point.

Well, almost never.

Sometimes, when she wanted something so badly, she would argue with Daddy, even though her heart was hammering. In those moments, she would imagine Kid standing beside her, feeling his warm body breathing against her side.

One day in early June, Jessica asked Daddy if she could go to see Sparkle Sisters, a new movie that had just come out. Her friends Linda and Gemma were going to see it, and had invited her to come with them. Gemma’s elder sister was coming with them. They were so excited, they made Jessica excited, too.

She lay awake for a long time that night, gathering the courage to ask Daddy in the morning. He might say yes. He was going to say yes.

“He’s going to say yes, Kid”, she told her imaginary dog. “I know he’s going to say yes.”

He said no.

“But why?”, she asked, sobbing. Daddy was finishing his second cup of coffee, after breakfast. When he finished his second cup of coffee, that was when he went upstairs to work. He didn’t come down again until lunch-time. Sometimes not even then.

“Because it’s rubbish, Jessica!”, he said. “We do go to the cinema. We go to see good movies.”

“How do you know it’s rubbish?”, she asked. She was terrified he was going to walk out of the kitchen and upstairs. It was all over if that happened, she knew.

“Because I’ve heard about these Sparkle Sisters”, he said. “Do you know what it is? It’s just advertising for stupid dolls that are probably made in China by children your own age, in sweatshops. You won’t like it. It’s moronic.”

Jessica’s whole body was heaving with sobs now. For once, Daddy didn’t come to comfort her. He looked like he was in a hurry. He looked disappointed, even angry, like she’d let him down.

“Do you know why you want to go?”, he said, pushing his mug away and standing up from the table. “Because your friends want to go. It’s called peer pressure, Jessica. And I will never, ever let you give in to peer pressure.”

He turned and walked out of the kitchen, and soon she heard his footsteps going up the stairs.

The kitchen swam before her eyes, which were flooded with tears. They stung. She pressed her fists against them, and leaning her head forward, crying as she hadn’t cried in a long time. All she could think of was Linda and Gemma going to see Sparkle Sisters without her, and talking about it afterwards. She would never get to see it in the cinema, even if she lived to be a hundred. It felt like the worst thing that had ever happened in the entire world.

At that moment, she felt something wet and hot against the side of her hand.

She looked up.

Kid was standing there. Just as he had always imagined him. Staring at her with his big, brown, loyal, loving eyes.

“Kid”, she whispered, reaching out. She reached out, and stroked his face. “It’s really you. It’s really you.”

Suddenly, she felt more joy than she had ever felt in her life-- so much joy, it seemed like the entire world floating.

Kid licked her hand again. She sat there, staring into his brown eyes, smiling. “I knew you were real all along”, she said. “I knew.”

Then she heard her father’s voice from upstairs. He was on the phone, his voice raised. “Don’t give me that garbage, Clive. It’s garbage. It’s all lies--”

Suddenly, hearing her father’s voice, guilt hit Jessica like an electric shock. She wasn’t pretending now. She really thought Kid was real. It was fantasy. It was like Miss Perfect, or Mommy in Heaven. It was the worst thing in the entire world, worse than wetting yourself…

Suddenly, Kid growled.

She looked into his eyes. The loyal, kind, gentle eyes had gone. Now he was looking at her with a dangerous, scary look.

“Kid, no”, she said. “I didn’t mean to-- I didn’t mean to--”

The dog lunged towards her, and pain exploded through her mind as she felt his fangs sink deep into her neck. She could feel the hot blood trickling down her chest, and she fell over. Everything was going dark and spinning and confused.

I’m sorry, Daddy, she thought.

She heard the door open, and she heard her father shout his name. But then he was screaming, too, and Kid’s growls and barks seemed to be all around her.

Her father screamed and screamed, and then he stopped screaming. She heard him fall. She heard Kid’s growls move further and further away, out of the kitchen, through the hall..

She lay there, all in darkness and pain and guilt, listening to the sound of her own breathing, as she hacked and gasped and choked.

Tuesday, December 22, 2020

A Smoking Hot Babe for Christmas, Again

Well, it's time for another of my little blog traditions, posting "The Burning Babe" by Robert Southwell, the Elizabethan Jesuit and martyr. 


I've loved this poem for many, many years. What I appreciate most in poetry is depth and power combined with polish and elegance. This poem, I feel, achieves that combination masterfully.

Prolonged metaphors (or conceits) are usually tiresome and laborious, but here the conceit seems natural, lively and in no way incongruous. I love fire imagery in poetry (the Burning of the Leaves by Laurence Binyon is one of my favourite poems), and it works especially well in this seasonal poem. I'm not sure whether the "cosy" aesthetic of Christmas was established in Southwell's time, but in our time, the poem is a pleasant departure from this. (Don't get me wrong. I love Christmas cosiness as much as anybody, and probably more than most. But surely the meaning of Christmas, or of any season that touches upon sacred mysteries, cannot be confined to one aesthetic, and can even be stifled by the monopoly of one aesthetic.)

As I've said in previous years, I think the sixth line ("as though his floods...") is very clumsy. In days before the cult of the author had become exaggerated beyond all measure, anthologists had no hesitation in "improving" the works of authors, even revered and deceased authors. I feel sorely tempted to hack at that awful sixth line. But I'll forebear.

The second last line contains a deft piece of stuffing-- Christmas stuffing, I suppose. "With this he vanished from sight and swiftly sunk away". Were they two separate actions? Surely the one is the same as the other. But the ear is not offended, and so the mind is happy.

The line "so will I melt into a bath to bathe them in my blood" is very satisfying to me. The sudden change from fire imagery to blood imagery is startling, and yet similarly dramatic, even lurid. This is a very elemental poem.

For the last two years or so, as I've mentioned before, I've been memorizing lots of poetry. I have about ninety poems memorized now. "The Burning Babe" was a fairly early addition to that list, so I've been reciting it mentally for a long time now. (I don't remember poems I've put to memory unless I regularly "refresh" them.) Reciting a poem over and over is a real "stress test" of its power as a poem, and this one stands up admirably.

Nollaig shona daoibh go léir!

The Burning Babe by Robert Southwell

As I in hoary winter’s night stood shivering in the snow, 
Surpris’d I was with sudden heat which made my heart to glow;
And lifting up a fearful eye to view what fire was near, 
A pretty Babe all burning bright did in the air appear;
Who, scorched with excessive heat, such floods of tears did shed
As though his floods should quench his flames which with his tears were fed.
“Alas!” quoth he, “but newly born, in fiery heats I fry, 
Yet none approach to warm their hearts or feel my fire but I!
My faultless breast the furnace is, the fuel wounding thorns, 
Love is the fire, and sighs the smoke, the ashes shame and scorns;
The fuel Justice layeth on, and Mercy blows the coals, 
The metal in this furnace wrought are men’s defiled souls,
For which, as now on fire I am to work them to their good, 
So will I melt into a bath to wash them in my blood.”
With this he vanish’d out of sight and swiftly shrunk away,
And straight I called unto mind that it was Christmas day.

Wednesday, December 9, 2020

A Response to my Article "In Defence of Conservatism".

A little while ago, I had an article in defence of conservatism (from its critics on the right, rather than the left) published in the Burkean-- a conservative journal published by Trinity College students.

It prompted this article in response from a Donnacadh O'Neill, which makes some fair points, though I still disagree.

As someone who relishes the exchange (and even the clash) of ideas, I was very pleased that someone took the trouble to reply to one of my articles.

Miscellaneous Musings

My blog has been so neglected recently, I decided I should write a kind of "catch-up" blog post.

Life has been very different recently. I've moved house and I've been living in Ballsbridge (closer to my work) for the last few months. This is the longest time I've spent living outside Ballymun, other than short spells in lodgings and rented rooms (when I was half-living in Ballymun, anyway, coming home regularly). Ballsbridge is in Dublin 4 (as is University College Dublin), a postcode that has long been shorthand for the liberal intelligentsia in Ireland. (It also houses RTE, the state broadcaster, which is not noted for its love of the Catholic Church or any kind of conservatism.)

The apartment is in an apartment complex, with a lobby and two outer doors. This pleases me vastly, as I enjoy the feeling of living in community. I like hearing voices and footsteps outside my front door. It's cosy. I can see the sea from my window, and I can hear trains passing by all day, and much of the night. Traffic, too-- I'm right beside a main road. Some people might enjoy the constant rumbling of cars and trucks, but I do. I find it soothing and reassuring. I grew up in a noisy house and noise doesn't bother me. Its absence sometimes does.

The apartment is tiny, but that doesn't bother me, either. All I really need is somewhere to sit and somewhere to sleep.

I can also walk to work. This is a big difference after twenty years of taking two buses into work. A new bus route, the 155, came into operation in the last few years, and went straight from Ballymun to UCD. But sometimes I would miss it and still find myself taking the two buses.

I like the idea of a "home town" and growing up in Ballymun was certainly memorable. Everybody knew Ballymun and its grey towers and flat complexes, offset by green fields, were instantly recognisable on television-- or even from the air. It also had a reputation as a "tough" area, though it certainly didn't make me streetwise. (Maybe it did a little. My wife, who grew up on a farm, often comments on my "antennae" for people and situations to be avoided, when we're out and about.)

I want to be sentimental about Ballymun, but I haven't been so far. I guess nostalgia takes a while to kick in. Besides, nostalgia for Ballymun (and it is more widespread than you might think) is generally directed to the "old Ballymun", before the towers and blocks of flats came down, and Ballymun came to look like every other suburb. In fact, there is a Facebook group called Tribute to the Old Ballymun which has new posts every day.

As for myself, I find myself suffering more and more from "cultural guilt" right now. I recently read a biography of Alexander Solzhenitsyn, and I was greatly struck by the fact that a survivor of the gulags looked upon Western pop culture with almost as much horror as he looked upon communism. It's humiliating, really-- the untold hours (years?) that we've all spent watching rubbishy television shows, listening to rubbishy music, and watching rubbishy movies.

I could have been reading all that time. I could have been improving my mind, my grasp of my cultural heritage-- both Irish and human. I could have been writing. Yes, I did a fair amount of writing and reading and drawing and painting in my childhood. But it seems a drop in the ocean compared to all the mindless pap I sat through on television.

I'm even coming to regret my twenties spent in the cinema, although my feelings here are more mixed. The ritual of cinema-going certainly seems more worthy than the casual, half-aware, passive consumption of most pop culture. But I could have been reading all that time.

I guess, at forty-three, I realize I don't have all the time in the world anymore. I've probably lived more years than I have left to live. Granted I was unlikely to be doing much serious reading for my first decade, what have I covered in the subsequent three?

Whenever I do my stint of shelving in the library (a task I hugely enjoy), horizon after horizon of terra incognita looms into view. I accept now that I'm never going to read Being and Time by Martin Heidegger, The Anatomy of Melancholy by Robert Burton, or the Icelandic sagas. Well, probably not.

My ignorance of the Bible irks me especially. Even when I was an agnostic, I aspired to a knowledge of the Bible, purely on the grounds of its literary and cultural importance. After more than a decade as a believing Catholic, I feel I've hardly made any inroads.

Then there is poetry.

Then there is the Irish language.

Then there is Church history.

As well as this, I am embarking on a project that I don't want to say anything about (out of a superstitious fear of jinxing myself), but that will require an awful lot of research.

So I feel the weight of my ignorance pushing down on me.

But also, I feel a sense of excitement about life, the world, and the drama of being alive. The clash of ideas, and of ideals, is intensely exciting. It surrounds us every moment, even when we are sitting alone in a chair, reading a book. We get to play a part on that battlefield, in our brief moment walking the earth. In what direction can we swing our swords to best effect? That is the question that preoccupies me more and more. Especially as I strive to live up to the example of my father, whose sword never slept in his hand.

Thursday, December 3, 2020

My Latest Article in The Burkean, and in Ireland's Own

My latest article for The Burkean is a defence of conservatism against its critics on the right. The comments on the article, and on social media, were mostly in disagreement.

I'm somewhat disquieted by the radicalization of many on the right, especially among young "red-pilled" right-wingers. Some of this is trolling, but I don't think it all is. As with all online discourse, it's hard to tell whether it's simply a vocal minority, or whether it represents a wider shift of opinion.

I also have (to my great pleasure) an article in the Christmas edition of Ireland's Own, on the ghost stories of the English author M.R. James. Montagu Rhodes James (1862-1936) was an English academic who wrote ghost stories as a kind of sideline to his scholarly work. They were originally told in his college rooms at Christmas-time, and they have traditionally been broadcast on BBC TV and radio during the Christmas season.

I have many happy memories of reading the Ireland's Own Christmas edition, down the years, so I'm proud to have a part in it this year.

Monday, November 16, 2020

School Days III: Scoil Caitríona, Glasnevin

After writing two posts about my primary school days, I'm impatient to move onto my secondary school experiences. Reminiscing is quite addictive.

My secondary school was called Scoil Caitríona (St. Catherine's School), and it was in Glasnevin rather than Ballymun. I took the bus in every day, but walked home. It was a school run by Dominican nuns, although they were already few in number by the time I came along, and most of our teachers were lay people. It had been a girl's school up until only a few years before, so that the senior years were still all-female in my first years there.

I went to Scoil Caitríona because most of my primary school class went there. I'm surprised I was so conformist, especially since I wasn't happy in primary school. My two eldest brothers had gone to a Christian Brothers school which was fairly savage, going by their stories. My two elder sisters went to Scoil Caitríona. So perhaps it was not so strange I went there.

I have a very vivid memory of my two sisters in their Scoil Caitríona uniforms, eating French toast for breakfast before heading to school. They seemed the picture of elegance and refinement, and French toast has ever since carried this association for me.

The uniform was a wine-coloured sweater, wine-coloured skirts for the girls, grey trousers for the boys (when they came along), and a light-blue shirt. I was very fond of these colours, but halfway through my time in Scoil Caitríona they were changed to navy and light-blue-- depressingly similar to my primary school uniform, and depressingly common as well. It was the students themselves who chose this. This uniform remains to this day, as I know from seeing kids commute to Scoil Caitríona now.

Scoil Caitríona had (and has) a long, long driveway into the school grounds. Walking this every day, twice a day, left quite an impression, and I still dream about it.

The school itself pleased my aesthetic senses hugely, and was a great improvement on my primary school. There were holy pictures and holy statues all around, and the classrooms were named after saints. The Dominican crest was worked into the linoleum in certain places, which seemed deliciously medieval to me. There was actually an upstairs, which there hadn't been in my primary school. To me this was very exotic, as I'd lived all my life in a three-bedroom flat, and stairs had not been a feature of my life at school or at home. (Setting aside the fact that I had to climb fourteen flights of stairs to reach my front door if the lift was broken, but that was different somehow.)

My primary school had been little more than an assembly hall, a set of class-rooms, a recreation yard, and a small kitchen. Scoil Caitríona seemed like a world unto itself in comparison. It had its own library, cafeteria, music room, art studio, carpentry room, and so forth-- much like the boarding schools I'd read about in books. It satisfied my life-long hankering for environments that are both self-contained and internally diverse-- environments such as the Starship Enterprise, or Hogwarts in Harry Potter, or Tar Valon in the Wheel of Time series.

A feature that gave me special pleasure were the wrought-iron, ornamental railings which ran along a long balcony-corridor above the assembly hall. I often found myself gazing up at these during study periods, since study periods were spent sitting at desks in the assembly hall. They took on an elusive symbolism for me. They seemed to symbolize, or to evoke, the rhythms of history, the underlying structure of culture and knowledge-- deep patterns which could only be beheld through study and through contemplation. When I looked up from my book, these railings seemed like an illustration of what I had been reading about, in this sense. Of course, this was only a vague impression, albeit a potent one-- indeed, it's an impression I've only managed to put into words right now.

I didn't do much study in my first year or so. Secondary school was a big culture shock, and I found myself flailing. In my first year, I was failing most of my examinations. I feared that I was stupid, that I'd managed to get by in the shallow end of the pool but that now I was going to drown in the deep end.

One of the things that pulled me out of this was a truly inspirational English teacher, the best teacher I ever had. Her name was Bríd, a variant of Brigid. She encouraged me to make an effort-- quite sternly, at times, but also through encouragement. I blossomed at English under her tutelage, and before too long she was reading out my assignments to the whole class as models.

Indeed, at one point she typed out an assignment I wrote on J.M. Synge's Riders to the Sea as an example for the entire year. I remember, the day she handed this out, walking out to the assembly hall at morning break, literally shivering with emotion. I had never had such a success in school and never believed it possible.

Bríd was not only an inspirational teacher in terms of encouraging my own writing, but also in terms of the window she opened onto literature. I had been a committed reader all my life, and I was reading well past my age-group before I came to secondary school. But it was in this teacher's class that I realized literature could be analysed-- that there was more going on under the surface than I'd ever guessed. I found this wildly exciting. Far from killing my spontaneous pleasure in reading (as analysis is sometimes accused of doing), it opened up new horizons, new vistas. I can remember English classes from this time in extraordinary detail, all these years later. I can remember the sense of excitement and discovery, like stepping onto a new continent.

But here I should mention something that has come into my mind often, as I write these posts-- something, indeed that has often occurred to me as I've looked back on my life. This sense of earliness, happily enough, is one that seems capable of constant renewal in a single lifetime. My first days in Scoil Caitríona seem strangely earlier than my last days in primary school; my first days working in the library seem earlier, or even "younger", than my last days in Scoil Caitríona. A good analogy is the last days of the Roman Empire compared to the early Middle Ages. Over the first there is an aura of decadence and weariness; the second is filled with a kind of child-like energy and naivety. I'm very grateful to have experienced such psychological and spiritual rebirths in my lifetime, and hope they never end.

I was always so grateful to Bríd that I'd long planned to send her a copy of my first book, if I ever got one published. When this indeed happened, I got her address from the school and sent it off to her, with a letter telling her how much she had helped me. I got a very nice reply, and I was very glad I'd did it.

It wasn't only English I improved at, though. In second and third year, I made more of an effort, and lifted myself out of my abysmal performance in first year. I was now a middling student at everything except English-- generally a C student, sometimes a B student, and just about hanging on by my fingernails when it come to my old adversary, Maths.

My upbringing was very fortunate in many ways, but it did not promote much self-discipline. It took a great effort to apply myself at school. Self-discipline is still something I struggle with today.

Our compulsory subjects were Irish, English, Maths, French, History, Religion, Physical Education, and Civics-- the last one taught by a particularly sour and cranky nun. The optional subjects I chose were German, Art, and Technology. 

I could no longer pretend to be the star pupil in Art class, as I had considered myself in primary school, due to the presence of at least two genuine prodigies. So I became less motivated to put my heart into it. In the last couple of years, however, I became more and more interested in art history, and even scored a perfect hundred per cent on one exam paper-- and not in a simple question and answer format, but in a discursive essay format.

When it came to Technology, I was a disaster. I could get by well enough as far as the academic part went, but actually making anything with my hands seemed impossible to me. The practical aspect was mostly carpentry, with a bit of soldering and circuit-making. Everything I made disintegrated, no matter how hard I tried. I eventually handed in my project for my Junior Certificate-- a state examination taken half-way through secondary school-- in a plastic bag, following the advice of the school principal. I don't even remember what it was supposed to be. Somehow I scraped a pass.

When it came to the Leaving Cert cycle-- the second three years-- Technology was no longer an option. I chose History instead, which had become an optional subject. I worked hard at History and always did fairly well. Our teacher was an eccentric lady who wore cowboy jackets and walked around and around the classroom. I always liked her as she took a laissez-faire approach, which suited me in that class.

I have one particularly vivid memory from History class. We were learning about Bismarck and the Franco-Prussian War. I looked out the window, at the school playing-field, and somehow it struck me powerfully that history was made of such material-- that the territories for which states and alliances went to war were, after all, made up of playing-fields and classrooms and such ordinary places. Suddenly, history no longer seemed remote, but immediate. I had a sense of the currents and streams of history being present in that very room, that very moment. This excited me greatly.

I enjoyed physical education as well, despite being poor at all games. We played badminton, volleyball, basketball, and a kind of hockey called Unihoc. We rarely played outdoors. Very occasionally we would play indoor soccer with a foam ball. I enjoyed PE so much I still dream about it. Strangely enough, the closest thing I've had to a mystical experience occurred during a volleyball game in school. It actually occurred twice, both during volleyball games. I seemed to pass into a kind of trance and suddenly came to myself moments later, but with a strange sense of bliss, bliss in the mere existence of the actual. And this despite the fact that volleyball was my least favourite game.

I did quite well in my Junior Cert, which was a state examination taken in third year (when I was fifteen), with external invigilators and other trappings of formality. In fourth year, we did something called the Transition Year. It was a new concept, and we were one of the first schools in the country to try it. The idea was that, for one year between the Junior Certificate and Leaving Certificate cycles, students would have an opportunity to pursue a more rounded education, less focused on exams and the syllabus.

Instead of studying the same subjects all year, we had "modules" of several weeks duration in a number of different subjects-- Spanish, home economics, music, and so on. We even started our own limited company, which sold homemade jewellery and some kind of fancy rope. I designed the logo for it.

We put on a drama that year, with the help of a professional actress. It was a Sean O'Casey play called the Halls of Healing. I took a minimal part in it, and humiliated myself by getting lost when trying to return from a class trip to the Abbey theatre. I got a lecture from both the principal and the actress for that. The funny thing is that, although at the time I hated the drama module, my memories from it are quite magical. Indeed, school dramas have always stirred my imagination more than visits to professional theatres. One production of A Midsummer Night's Dream, in Scoil Caitríona, which was put on by another class, stands out especially in my memory.

Religious education in Scoil Caitríona was very poor. The only exception to this was first year, when an ancient and endearingly dotty nun taught us lots of solid Catholic stuff-- how to pray the rosary, the story of Maximilian Kolbe, Fatima, and stuff like that. After first year, there was very little Christian content in religion class. If was mostly pop psychology, touchy-feely stuff. We also watched a lot of movies which were supposed to be improving in some way or other. We saw Shadowlands, Love Story, Ironweed, Not Without My Daughter, The Killing Fields, On Golden Pond, Regarding Henry, and many others. Some of them did stick in my mind in the desired manner, but I wish we had learned more Catholic doctrine. The Catholic doctrine we did learn was muddled and confusing. I remember getting the message that homosexuality was OK so long as it stopped short of sex. On the other hand, the principal (a rather stern nun) did urge those who had a vote, in fifth class, to vote No in the referendum on divorce, making an argument on purely secular grounds. I was just too young to vote, though.

I was just as shy in secondary school as I was in primary school-- shyer, perhaps, as I had developed a complex about it. I had no friends, but from some point in my fourth year I did join in the informal soccer games which were played (for some reason) on the tarmac section of the playing fields.

Fourth and fifth year were the Leaving Cert cycle. I worked quite hard, although I found it harder to settle down to work the closer I came to the exams themselves. (In Ireland, Leaving Cert points determine college entry.) This almost became disastrous, and by the time the exams were upon me, I felt fatalistic about them. But I managed to pull it together at the end, and did creditably enough. I got a B in honours level Irish, German, French, History, and English. I was disappointed not go get an A in English, especially as I felt I'd done well in the exam. I got a C in honours Art. But the result in which I took most pride was the D that I scraped, with great effort, in pass level Maths.

The Leaving Cert is an incredibly stressful experience. I still very regularly have dreams that I'm about to sit it very soon, that I haven't prepared for it at all, and that I have months of work to catch up on.

I was sad to leave school. I hate endings of any kind. There was, to me, an unbearable melancholy hovering over the last weeks. The summery weather made it seem even more poignant, since it was by nature an Indian summer.

In one of my last English classes, the teacher-- a gorgeous young substitute who all the boys fell in love with-- wrote the keyword "transience" on the blackboard. I remember looking at it, seeing how the summer sun glowed on the chalk words, and having the strange sense that I was looking at the beautifully shimmering scales of some deadly snake. Transience has always seemed mysterious and haunting to me, and never more so than at that moment. It was hard to believe that this world, which had been mine for six years-- indeed, the whole world of school, which had been mine for more than twice as long-- would soon be gone forever, gone beyond all recall, as much a part of the past as ancient Egypt or ancient Greece.

Transience has disturbed me all my life, and much of my conservatism-- much of everything I do, including writing-- is a quest to overcome it, a quest for permanence.

Well, it is all gone now-- long gone, decades gone.

I went to college in the Dublin Institute of Technology, Aungier Street, studying journalism. By the time I was halfway through I realized I was not extroverted enough to be a journalist. Failing at this has weighed on me greatly ever since, so I don't feel like writing about my years there. Maybe in the future, if I have come to terms with it, I will.

Sunday, November 15, 2020

School Days (II)

I was rather critical, in my previous post, of the teacher who sent me home in my socks. Aside from him, however, I have nothing to complain about in any of my primary school teachers, as little as I liked school.

Pondering my first two years in school, "low babies" and "high babies", the most vivid memory that remains from them is the bright primary colours of the crayons and the educational toys we would play with between lessons. There were plastic shapes we had to slot into their places in a tray, plastic straws from which we built structures using round joints which looked like a ship's steering wheel, and so forth. When I remember these I am struck with a piercing nostalgia for early childhood, for all that was bright and simple about it.

A similar memory strikes me now; one of my classmates, in those first years, had a tartan thermos flask which impressed me very much. Tartan has ever since evoked, in my mind, all that is elegant, classy, refined, and traditional. (This despite the fact that I am more prejudiced against Scottish culture than drawn to it.) However, when I say "elegant", I mean a very particular sort of elegance; poor man's elegance, everyday elegance. I have always been drawn to things which are (in my opinion) somewhat refined and tasteful, but not in any way exclusive or expensive. For instance, the use of Victorian-style silhouettes on a shop sign; or a very ornamental pub mirror; or a cut-glass decanter which might be found in anybody's home. Or (to pass from the realm of the physical to the cultural) a phrase from Shakespeare or Yeats that is quoted by a housewife or a bus driver. 

My own upbringing can best be described as "cultured working class", and I feel very protective of this environment, this worldview. It's not a second-best to me; the combination of the humble and the elegant is actually my ideal, the atmosphere that pleases me the most. 

Sometimes I take a Christmas tree as the symbol of this. Every Christmas tree is elegant, even the gaudy ones; and the thing that pleases me most about every Christmas tree is knowing that it is as common as the air, knowing that every home in every street in every town has its own Christmas tree. I'm not much of a Walt Whitman fan, but one line from Leaves of Grass has always spoken to me: "By God, I will accept nothing which all cannot have their counterpart of on the same terms".

All that from a tartan thermos flask...

I was always a mediocre student, in both primary and secondary school, despite making a reasonable effort. In both cases, however, I had a particular subject in which I shone. In secondary school it was English. In primary school it was art. I was precocious when it came to drawing, especially the human face and figure. In my own mind, I was top of my class at art. I would anxiously monitor the drawings and paintings of my classmates, for evidence that anyone was catching up on me. Once, when a new girl (upon I had an enormous crush, which lasted several years) was put sitting next to me, she said: "I get to sit beside the artist and see how he draws"-- I'm rather surprised I didn't pass out at this point, such was my euphoria.

(Although I was good at drawing faces, I always struggled to draw the faces of girls and women, since my lines tended towards angularity. This vexed me greatly and I spent a long time looking at the female faces in my comics, wondering why the comic-book artists could draw women, but I couldn't. It seemed mysterious to me.)

Roald Dahl was virtually the writer-in-residence at my school. I remember teachers reading us James and the Giant Peach, the Twits, the Witches, and several of his poems. I can't remember if they read us any others. I enjoyed them as much as the rest of my class seemed to, judging by their reactions-- very often delighted squeals at the passages of black humour.

I was a complete loss at sports. I would habitually come last in races. I remember the headmaster (yes, the same chap who sent me home in my socks) urging me, in an exasperated tone, to "run faster" at one practice session for our school sports day. This seemed very unreasonable to me, since I was obviously running as fast as I could. I did, however, come in second in a wheelbarrow race in my last sports day.

I dutifully went along to hurling training, and to matches, but never got more than a few minutes' action as a substitute towards the end of games. I seem to remember hitting the sliotar (ball) once, and only once, during competitive play. On one occasion the teacher praised me to the rest of the team because I never stopped moving. I felt ambivalent about the praise, since I knew it was an A for effort, not any sort of achievement.

All the same, my experience of school sports has made me disagree with conservatives who mock the "participation ribbon" culture. I don't actually demand that "all must have prizes", which seems a step too far. But surely the meaningful participation of the weaker children-- in whatever activity-- is more important than the school's prestige, or any victory on the day? Surely even a poor athlete such as myself could have been given more than five minutes on the playing field every now and again, without fatally injuring the quest for excellence? Children take these things to heart.

(When I saw the 2005 remake of the Bad News Bears, and it came to a scene where the school baseball coach-- who has been relentlessly competitive up to this moment, but who has a sudden change of heart-- orders one of his weakest players onto the field towards the climax of the final game, deciding that this is more important than winning, I couldn't hold back tears.)

Despite being so bad at sports, I never turned against them, or took refuge in anti-sports snobbery, as many bookish children are wont to do. I'm grateful for that. In fact, physical education was one of my favourite subjects in secondary school, although I had become no more athletic by then. (I did develop into a rather formidable defender in kickabout soccer, in the recreation yard, but we rarely played soccer in PE. And that still lay ahead of me in primary school, at any rate.)

The only exception to my pitiful performance at sports was one indoors game we played on only a few occasions. I think the teacher called it "Chinese football", but I'm guessing it was a game she invented. In any case, it didn't involve feet. We played it in the assembly hall, with a very light soccer-sized ball, and a goal at either end. Everyone was on their knees, and could only move in short bursts. The ball was thrown. For some reason, I excelled at this, and scored a ridiculous amount of goals.

Although we were supposed to speak Irish all the time, we inevitably spoke English as soon as we were out of the teacher's hearing. Indeed, anyone who tried to speak Irish except when there was a teacher listening would, I'm sure, have been regarded as an intolerable goody-two-shoes. Not that I ever tried myself. I didn't talk much at all, in any language. I would usually spend break-times wandering around the yard, thinking or reading or making up my own stories. I never had friends all through my school years. I was horrendously shy. There was a continuous handball game amongst the boys, in the later years, but I only joined in once or twice.

The end of every week was marked by a school assembly where we had bingo and the Comórtas Gaeilge-- the Irish competition. For this, we were divided into different teams, which had a range of different ages, and we had to self-report how much Irish we spoke at different times during the week, including walking home from school, and at home. If we didn't speak to anyone while walking home, we were told to report which language we were thinking in. The prizes for bingo were a small Mars bar and a big Mars bar; the prize for the Comórtas Gaeilge was a Toffifee sweet each for the winning team. (Wikipedia describes these as a German brand of caramel candy, in case you don't know.) I think kids took the Comórtas Gaeilge seriously at first but, over time, the older ones grew increasingly ironic about it. In any case, I liked these school assemblies as they gave some ceremony to the end of the school week. I also wanted a Toffifee.

I can remember our first history lesson, when I was in third class-- I would have been eight or nine-- was about the process (and sequence) of human decomposition, which seemed macabre to me even then. When we made a class trip to the National Museum, I was frightened by the exhibits-- frightened at how old they were. The solemnity of the place had a long lasting effect on my imagination, though. (This was before museums became glowing, dancing, interactive places.)

We had religious education from an early stage. In second class, I remember drawing a picture of the Last Supper in which Jesus and the apostles were all old and wrinkled. We had been hearing the Gospel story for so long, by then, that I assumed they must all be elderly by that stage. Generally speaking, my primary school religious education was better than my secondary school religious education-- even though the latter was a Dominican school.

On the whole, the things I remember most fondly about school-- both primary and secondary-- were the "grace notes", the extracurricular aspects. 

One day, in fifth class, our teacher told us all to be absolutely quiet for a little while and to listen out for all the sounds we normally missed-- traffic in the distance, the ticking of a clock, the tapping of pipes, and so on. This really stirred my imagination. I think the frame of mind she induced in that one lesson is, essentially, the frame of mind in which we experience poetry-- a spirit of attentiveness, of perceiving what is always there,  but what we generally miss.

I also enjoyed Irish set dancing lessons. We had them very regularly in the assembly hall, and I had not yet reached the age when boys become self-conscious about dancing. I found them quite exhilarating. One famous set dance is called The Walls of Limerick, and it pleased me that something as kinetic as a dance should be named after something stationary (although I obviously would not have been able to articulate this pleasure at the time).

We put on a performance of A Christmas Carol in fourth class, when I would have been ten. I had a single line-- "You're a rich man, aren't you, Scrooge?"-- and I somehow managed to forget it. Nevertheless, the whole process is a happy memory for me. Although we had no scenery or costumes-- it was very informal-- I was beguiled by the magic of drama, of story.

Class discussions always appealed to me, too. If I was ever inclined to speak up during class, it would be during these, and I was always disappointed when they ended

The Dublin Millennium year was celebrated in 1988-- fifth class, when I was ten or eleven. We painted a mural of Viking Dublin on a large canvas board in the assembly hall, with help from a professional artist, and made a cardboard model of medieval Dublin that took on a life of its own and grew to monstrous proportions. It had to be discarded eventually. 

Aside from the headmaster in first class, my only other male teacher was in my final year. He was universally regarded as the cool teacher. He had a beard, wore jeans, and played the guitar. He got us to sing along on songs like "Whiskey in the Jar" and "The Circle Game" by Joni Mitchell. (The latter, a melancholy song about ageing and the passage of time, depressed me greatly. I don't think children should be taught such songs and regret that I encountered this one so young.)

It was in this teacher's class that I first learned about Russian communism-- just before the Soviet Union collapsed. When he used the term "roubles", I imagined little red glass spheres (by association with rubies, of course). Somehow, this idea stayed in my head for years, and I was disappointed when I learned that roubles were ordinary banknotes.

When this teacher came to teach us about the Ten Commandments, I remember my classmates pestering him to explain what adultery was-- a commandment he wanted to skip over. They were, of course, simply trying to embarrass him, but he did eventually give a discreet explanation. He was the one, a little later, who taught us sex education. The boys and girls were separated for this. I can't remember many specifics about it, or how explicit it was. I do remember him reassuring us that most of what we heard about sex from our peers was "just talk"-- comments such as "I wouldn't mind a bit of that", for instance. As soon as he walked out of the room, there was much hilarity over this example, which (I learned) was what one of the boys had said about some female visitor to the school-- obviously within earshot of a teacher.

My brothers also had this teacher, during their time in the school, and we all remember his propensity for cautionary tales. As one of my brothers once put it, it was a dangerous business to be his friend-- so many of them featured in his horror stories. At Halloween he told us about a friend of his who had blown off several fingers while trying to make fireworks. There were many such tales. I can remember his very last words before the Christmas holidays were: "Be careful. Christmas can be a very dangerous time". Even as a child I found this amusing.

He had a flair for teaching history, especially Irish history. I remember one lesson ending with a kind of trailer or cliff-hanger: "Next time we'll be talking about one of the greatest scandals in Irish history" (the fall of Parnell). I relished the drama of that.

Towards the end of our final year, he took us on a trip into the city centre-- "into town", as the Irish say. (My American wife says "downtown".) While we were there, he stopped to have a conversation with somebody who looked like he was on the verge of homelessness. "That man is one of the most brilliant minds in the country", he told us when he had moved on.

Every year, sixth class would enter a drama and music competition called the Slogadh (Slo-ga), and this teacher would write the play. In my year, it was a musical play about the destruction of the ozone layer. I was one of the extras-- or, perhaps it's better to say, a member of the Greek chorus. We played zombie-like people of the future, wearing rags and sporting burnt skin. (Did we wear rags? We wore strips of some kind of red gauzey fabric. Perhaps it was all we could wear in the unbearable post-ozone layer heat.)

We rehearsed that play so often I can still remember a few of the lyrics. One song took the melody from "Don't Cry for Me, Argentina". We won the competition, which was held in Ennis, Co. Clare. We stayed overnight in the dormitory of a girl's school, which was beside a graveyard. The headmaster jokingly threatened to make anyone who was "bold" (the usual Irish term for naughty-- "dána", in Irish) sleep in an empty dormitory immediately overlooking the cemetery. My night and morning in this dormitory had a powerful effect on me, but I know I have written about it on this blog before.

I've said I was a mediocre student. When it came to maths, however, I was a very poor student. Maths was the bane of my schooling, all fourteen years of it. The multiplication tables were a particular ordeal. I simply couldn't understand the abstract realm of numbers. I dreaded maths every day and felt enormous relief when it was over.

Only once did I do well at maths. This was in our final year, when the teacher let us dip our toes into Venn diagrams, and set us a problem on the blackboard, offering twenty pence to the winner. The problem seemed trivially simple to me, but I kept my mouth shut, since answer after answer from my classmates turned out to be wrong. How could I be right when all the kids who were good at maths were wrong? And yet, when I eventually mustered the courage to speak up, I won the twenty pence. I still don't understand this episode.

I realize that I've barely mentioned my female teachers, despite the fact that I only had male teachers for two of my eight years in primary school. I remember my female teachers as patient and gentle, but I suppose they were more self-effacing than the men, since I have fewer memories attached to them. I did fall in love with one of them, a younger woman called Eileen. She had dark hair and played the uileann pipes-- a bit like bagpipes but played with one's elbows. I remember feeling horribly embarrassed, on the last day of school, when my mother gave me a rose to bring her. I expected her to laugh at me. Of course, she was delighted, so it wasn't so bad after all.

One day, when we had a cake sale, I had no money to buy a cake. Eileen took me outside of the class, gave me two pounds, and told me to repay her when I was thirty. Although I realized she was joking, I always intended to do so-- but, of course, I forgot all about it when I was thirty, and only remembered long afterwards.

School memories could be prolonged indefinitely. I feel like I am leaving too much out, but I fear tiring the reader. I will move onto secondary school in my next post-- knowing, of course, that we never really "move on" from any phase of our lives, and that a shadow of me still haunts Scoil an tSeachtar Laoch.