Thursday, March 25, 2021

On Pranks

Well, it's coming close to April's Fools Day. Now is the time to start planning your pranks, or to start bracing yourself for those played by others.

Is there anyone out there who has never fallen for an April Fool's Day prank? I know I have. I responded indignantly to this Guardian leader which announced that paper's conversion to monarchism, on purely progressive grounds. A liberal friend of mine posted it on Facebook, and I left a withering comment. (I was complaining about the reasons, of course, not the supposed change of direction) Yes, I felt pretty foolish when she pointed out the date.

April Fool's Day is rather different from other traditions in that modern life is no impediment to its continuation. Rather the opposite, in fact. In all honesty, the pranks of media organisations are usually more memorable than those played by ordinary people in daily life.

In America, the case of the Liberty Taco Bell is probably the most famous prank, while in Britain nothing seems to have outdone the spaghetti tree documentary.

There aren't really any famous Irish April Fool's Day pranks. I remember one of my colleagues being taken in by a news story that the Millennium Spire was being taken down for cleaning, a few years ago. (I wish they would take it down permanently!)

I've tried perpetrating a few April Fool's Day pranks myself. One year, I texted one friend to invite him to a funeral for the family dog, and another to invite her to my bar mitzvah as I had decided to convert to Judaism. I got a respectful agreement from the first chap-- when I owned up to the joke, he told me he suspected it was a prank, but thought he'd better not assume anything, just in case. My other friend wasn't falling for it for a moment. She just wrote back, "Mazel tov!".

When I was a trainee in the Allen Library, I played an elaborate prank (not an April Fool) in which I fabricated a ghost story. The Allen Library was housed in a building which used to be a Christian Brothers school. I pretended to be a daughter of a former pupil. I think I was asking if there had been any further sightings, and I linked it to a book which I knew was on the shelves of the Allen Library. I went to the lengths of setting up an email account for one Alannah C. Holmes. (Juggle the letters about a bit.)

Well, it fell pretty flat. I got no reply. I did hear subsequently that one of the Brothers had got quite excited about it-- but obviously not excited enough to reply.

When I was in college, I put up signs in the corridors that said DRY PAINT. When I claimed responsibility for this, one of my classmates refused to believe it was my idea.

I've had lots of ideas for pranks which I haven't had the resources to pull off. For instance, every time I pass a particular telephone box (for there are still some telephone boxes in Dublin) I think about how funny it would be to have one person apparently making a call inside it, while several people queued outside.

Watching some girls roller-skating a few weeks ago, I had the fantasy of a group of elderly, tweedy men roller-skating through the city centre.

There was a time (in my early twenties) when I wore a lot of plain sweaters. (I was so timid at the time, I thought anything colourful or patterned was drawing too much attention to myself.) Whenever I found myself in an electronics store, customers would ask me questions, since employees in such stores so often wear plain sweaters.

It gave me the dark thought of wandering the floor of some department store, wearing a short-sleeved shirt and a name-badge, and waiting to be approached by customers. Then I could launch into a tirade, or (less aggressively) make a series of bizarre claims, or some such thing.

As I've been writing this blog post, I've been struck by a peculiar thought regarding the appeal of April Fool's Day. It's a day that most of us don't see coming-- it only occurs to us that it's April Fool's Day when we encounter a prank story. Indeed, that's the only reason that it works.

In this way, it's a perfect example of the duality of time, which is both linear and cyclical. There is nothing new under the sun, but you can't step into the same river twice. There is a certain frisson in the moment (or in contemplating the moment) when you raise your head from the scrum of everyday life to see the larger pattern of which you had lost sight. At least, there is for me.

Why is this? Well, for my part, it's because both of these "streams of time" have their sublimity. There is a beauty in the everyday, the purely ephemeral, and there is another sort of beauty in the timeless, the recurring.

Of course, this collision of the linear and the cyclical can be poignant as well as pleasing. I remember being very struck, in school, by an article about a girl who had become addicted to something or other-- drugs, or aerosols, or some other substance. It described how she was stopped short, in the depth of her addiction, when she looked at the date on a newspaper and saw it as her birthday. She had been so consumed by her addiction she hadn't even realised it.

Another story I heard from a friend (indeed, the same friend who posted the Guardian link) has somewhat the same character. I think I've mentioned it on this blog before. One year, she was so heartbroken by a break-up that she simply ignored Christmas, and lay on her bed watching DVD box sets through the entire season. That story exerts a strange hold on me. The thought of ignoring Christmas is fascinating for many reasons-- one, because it is so sad; two, because there is a strange relief to it (let's face it, Christmas can be pressured); and three, because it underlines the length and variety of human life. We have probably all "missed" a Christmas some year or other. We can afford it.

Well, enough about April Fool's Day. On a completely different note, I will be appearing on RTE 1's Ryan Tubridy Show next Thursday, to talk about a new book I have co-authored with Dirk Benedict, Eternity and the A-Team: Glimpses of the Divine in Eighties TV Drama.

Thursday, March 11, 2021

Where But In Custom and In Ceremony?

For many years now, I've been preoccupied with the lack of ceremony and ritual in modern life. My hunger for these things feels primal, and I find it hard to analyse it any further. It seems odd to me that other people don't feel the same yearning. Perhaps they do, but the fact that there is so little ceremony in daily life would seem to suggest that they don't.

Ceremonial in daily life would seem to have ebbed over decades, as far as I can see. One example that has been on my mind recently is the use of national anthems.

When I was growing up, the Irish national anthem was played at the end of a day's broadcasting on RTE, the state television channel. This happened at least into the nineteen-eighties and perhaps as late as the nineteen-nineties. It was played over footage of the sun setting on a scenic landscape. Back then, I rather disliked the segment, because sunsets always make me sad. But I miss it now.

And this despite the fact that I don't much like the national anthem from an aesthetic point of view. The lyrics are militaristic bombast, which is rather typical for anthems. But they're not even rousing bombast, like the American National Anthem. They are rather dreary bombast. I don't like the tune, either.

But that's not the point. It's been our national anthem since the nineteen-twenties, and it's part of our history now.

In truth, although I'm a nationalist, my sadness at the neglect of the national anthem hasn't really got anything to do with nationalism. I miss it for the element of ceremony that it added to daily life. Not only was it played at the end of programming on TV and radio, but it was frequently played at the end of musical "sessions" in pubs. Now this custom seems to have dried up completely, and its use seems more or less limited to big sporting occasions.

I've thought about leading a campaign for the restoration of the anthem on RTE. I live twenty minutes away from the studios, so I could easily do that while respecting the current Covid travel restrictions. I could become the familiar headbanger with the placard, a status I have often aspired towards for its own sake.

I remember in secondary school, we would stand up and say a prayer before each class. Not with every teacher, though-- we had one history teacher who didn't engage in this practice. Once, when a girl automatically stood up and started saying the prayer by herself, the teacher said:"That's why I don't say a prayer for class"; presumably meaning that she thought it was simply mechanical repetition and therefore valueless. I was impressed by this reasoning at the time, but I'm less repressed now. Better mechanical repetition than nothing.

We seem increasingly to be left with nothing, and that gives me a great sense of loss. A little bit of standing on ceremony would surely be good for us all.

Saturday, March 6, 2021

The Joys of Working in a Library

This is an article I wrote for my staff newsletter. Unlike quite a lot of the articles I've submitted to staff publications down the years, it was actually included, and got quite a good response. (I am sure I have the record for rejected articles to UCD library staff publications.) When I started, there was a printed newsletter called LibSpin. It has been replaced by a succession of online newsletters, the latest simply being called The Staff Newsletter. It's mostly just staff news. I'm pretty much the only person who writes articles per se for it. And even poems sometimes!)

I love snow. I grew up in the nineteen-eighties when snow was a rarity in Ireland, and the idea of a white Christmas seemed as exotic as palm trees and sandy white beaches. Sometimes, when I meet people who live in a snowy climate and I express envy of them, they reply: “You wouldn’t like it so much if you had to deal with it all the time.” This irks me because I know they’re wrong. I know that I would like it. Familiarity doesn’t necessarily breed contempt.

Here’s one example of familiarity not breeding contempt. I started working in UCD library in October 2001, close to twenty years ago. I can remember my wonder and delight the first time I surveyed its shelves, its apparently endless succession of books on every conceivable subject. So far from diminishing over the years, that sense of delight has only intensified. Being surrounded by books still gives me more pleasure, more of a sense of well-being, than anything else in life. It’s my “happy place”.

The world is full of wonders, but I honestly can’t think of anything more wondrous than a library.

Perhaps it comes down to the wonder of the written word itself. History begins with the discovery of writing, and when you think about it, no subsequent invention is more transformative. I can’t get over the fact that marks on a page can convey thoughts from one mind into another, even across centuries and continents. That seems to be the primordial leap, after which every other communication technology is mere refinement or enhancement.

When I was a boy I used to take a random book from our bookshelves at home, open it at a random page, and read the first lines that came to my eyes. It always gave me a thrill to find myself thrown into some story or discussion, to realize that this book had (in a sense) a life of its own even when nobody was reading it. I savoured the sense of mystery and possibility in the lines detached from their context.

I didn’t join my local library until I was fifteen years old-- partly because we had so many books at home, partly through an odd timidity. I can still remember the books I borrowed on my first visit; Brown Lord of the Mountain by Walter Macken, Water on the Brain by Compton Mackenzie, and The Complete War Memoirs by Spike Milligan. I quickly became a familiar (perhaps too familiar!) face to the library staff, and I was even inspired to write an ode to the library. “Stand here among the silent echoes of mankind”, was the first line-- I forget the rest, although the words “all history hangs in the air” featured at some point.

There is nothing like a library to induce, as Louis MacNeice so perfectly put it, “the drunkenness of things being various”. Philosophers talk about the problem of “the one and the many”, and I believe some dim awareness of it lies permanently at the back of all our minds. Why should the world be so multifarious? How did we get so lucky? It might easily have been otherwise. I feel some tingle of this every time I come across a book on the shelves that delights me with its particularity. It might be an anthology of skipping rhymes, or a sociology of utopian communities, or a cultural history of the banana. When the reader opens such a book, for a moment everything else-- World War Two, the dinosaurs, politics, religion, everything-- recedes into the background and this unique subject holds centre stage. Of all the numberless subjects and books in the world, you find yourself immersed in this one, at this time. There’s a great dignity to that, a specialness.

Time itself seems suspended in a library-- or rather, not suspended, but somehow flowing at a different pace, or at a multitude of different paces. For instance, if you browse the literature shelves, you enter into the time of literary history-- not quite timelessness, but on the edge of it, so to speak. I remember once, shelving books in the Jonathan Swift section, and becoming acutely aware of the slow “conversation” that was occurring on that shelf, by critics writing decades apart. The number of books on Swift gave me a sense of “hype”, but “hype” of a contemplative and refined type. “Swift must be a big deal”, I thought. “But a big deal stretched over a long, long time…”

Then there are the titles! The poetry of book titles is captivating. The title that immediately comes to mind is the history of children’s literature with the title Boys and Girls Forever, a title that I find both jubilant and poignant. There is also a book about cinema with the title Light Moving in Time. Or (to stay on the cinema shelves) the Graham Greene film review collection with the delicious title Mornings in the Dark. Of course, there are hundreds more, thousands more.

Perhaps it’s strange, even presumptuous, that a library assistant should write a love letter to the libraries for an audience of library staff. Who do I think I’m telling, after all? But I don’t want to be the guy in the snowy climate who becomes blasé about the snow-- or even the guy who just acts that way, out of a fear of seeming eccentric. I would rather be the guy who cries, "Look at the snow! Look at the snow!"