Issue 2: I Know You Are, But What Am I?

I Know You Are, But What Am I? takes on ideas of alienation and not-belonging through highly personal story-telling. With pieces by Patrick Freyne, Megan Nolan, Maggie Armstrong, Ciaran Walsh, Roisin Agnew, Brian Herron, Rob DoyleSimon Ashe-Browne, and Donal Flynn. You can find it over at our online store.

Roisin Agnew | Editor's Foreword

On the American syllabus there is a book called The Giver. It’s set in a utopian society that lives in Sameness (the book’s capitalisation) in order to rid the world of pain. Jonas, the hero, has been made the Guardian of Memory, a task assigned to a member of society to prevent the world from going astray. Things start to get sinister in the land of Sameness, so Jonas must leave and go Elsewhere (no joke) to save humanity.

It’s a crumby book in retrospect. A celebration of individualism that the American syllabus loves to kumba-ya around. But like the hero of any slightly moral fable, Jonas has no personality. Rather, his most defining feature is that he is against Sameness, that he won’t be the same, but that’s all we get.

I Know You Are, But What Am I? is a PeeWee Herman line that we’re using to look at feelings alienation and not belonging. The line can work on the basic and on the ontological level. It describes the idea that we define our identity by comparing it to others, but it also describes that feeling of others existing in a sharper, clearer focus than we ourselves do. We live in a state of difference by defiance or dispossession, and yet we remain our own principle mystery.

We are the sum of the things we are not. And we haven’t a clue. Enough waffling. 

R


Aran Quinn | Issue 2 Illustrator

One balmy Sunday when Tim was 14 he was asked to paint the garden fence blue. He went about the painting on his own, ala Tom Sawyer, a vision of blonde locks and boredom. As the task became more tedious, his work became sloppier, until he accidentally painted his arm blue. The effect was nice, alien-like and fleshy. Taken by his blue skin, he ran back into the house and into the upstairs bathroom, still holding the paint and brush. He took off his clothes and began to cover his body in blue paint. By the sink was a pair of his mother’s fishnet tights, drying. He put these on and looking at himself in the mirror began to masturbate, taking in the beguiling strangeness of the creature jerking off in the mirror’s reflection

Aran’s friend’s moment of solitary naughtiness makes the front cover for this issue.  It’s a peek-hole into someone establishing their identity by contrast and comparison to an other. Or maybe that’s just what Tim’s into. 

Aran is a jaw-droppingly talented Dublin illustrator and animation director at The Mill+, NYC. His animation has been mentioned in It’s Nice That and The Creative Review. There’s a gentle cuteseyness to his work that’s undercut by a sharp style. For I Know You Are But What Am I he dropped the cute in favour of large dicks and boobs.

In need of more? Head on over to www.aranquinn.com

One Christmas day I was witness to a beheading. It was around six years ago and I was in India, specifically Calcutta, or Kolkata as it has been renamed (just as Mumbai, sadly, is no longer Bombay). I had flown to Kolkata from Bangkok, more or less on a whim. I ended up staying in India for half a year, drifting in a slow arc across the north of the country to Mumbai, from where, more or less on a whim, I flew to South America. I used to feel embarrassed when other backpackers asked me how long I’d been in India, and which places I’d seen so far: my list of sights seen and cities visited was so spare, and theirs invariably so long and rich, despite the fact that I’d been in the country far longer than they had (they tended to be on whirlwind visits before getting back to their engineering jobs in Holland or whatever), that I always felt like an irredeemable slacker, my indolence betrayed even in an activity already all-but-indistinguishable from idleness, namely gap-year style backpacking. 

To anyone who’d like to get up close and intimate with their sense of alienation, of not belonging, I recommend going to India. The otherness of the place is so intense that – at least this is the notion I entertained during my time there – it becomes somehow delocalised: the fact of being in India recedes even as it overwhelms, opening up the possibility of experiencing alienation in its purified form. The sense of estrangement is strong enough that it breaks free of its local predicates and approaches an absolute state – in other words, it all gets a bit existential.

On the Christmas day in question, I was hanging out with a Muslim friend. I can’t remember his name, so let’s just call him Ahmed and be done with it. Ahmed was a street vendor: he had a little stall from which he sold knick-knacks – rubber balls, key-rings, fluffy animals and cheap toys for children. He was around thirty (I was younger) and I thought him the kind of person who, had he gotten the right breaks in life, could have made something pretty impressive of himself. Kolkata is predominantly Hindu, but there is a sizable Muslim community. Ahmed was devout (nearly everyone I encountered in India was devout), and wore white Muslim dress and a skull cap every day, or at least that’s how I remember him. Ahmed had told me to come meet him that afternoon so he could show me around the city. I was curious about Kolkata’s Christian community, so we walked to the cathedral and looked in on the mass service that was just finishing up. It was curious to see Indian people, usually garbed in robes and saris, now wearing their suits and finery, standing outside a church, shaking hands and smiling at one another. If it weren’t for their dark skin and the exoticism of their surroundings, the faithful may as well have been the parishioners back in Crumlin Village, Dublin, where I had dutifully attended Christmas mass even into the years of my virulent, Nietzsche-enhanced atheism, a family-placating concession to tradition.

Afterwards, Ahmed led me down a series beggar-strewn streets and alleys (the number of beggars in Kolkata, it must be said, beggars belief) till we arrived at the temple of Kali, Hindu goddess of destruction. She’s a wild bitch, Kali: the one with a necklace of severed heads, a further severed head held aloft in one of her four hands, ISIS style, and a big blood-stained knife in the opposite hand. I had a bit of a thing for Kali. Ahmed and I were not supposed to enter the temple, where an important festival was about to take place, because neither of us were Hindus. But Ahmed had brought along a change of clothes, and he took off his hat as we approached the turnstiles leading into the temple (I remember a lot of turnstiles at the holy places of India, giving the impression that you were queuing for a football match when you were paying tribute to the elephant god Ganesh or whoever). My appearance must have been close enough to that of the typical strung-out hippy wanderer for my spiritual beliefs to be anyone’s guess: I was permitted to enter the temple by the stern-faced, machine-gun toting guard. 

The atmosphere was like fight-night. We pushed through the crowd to get a ringside vantage, the ring being a grey altar on a dusty stone floor marked off from the crowd by a low wall. People bustled around (as VS Naipaul writes somewhere, no-one teems like the Indians), and we waited to see what would happen. When the temple had reached, in the sense of grossly exceeded, capacity crowd, the ceremony began. Two burly, formidable looking men in dark robes appeared from behind the scenes and stepped into the ring. One of them was cradling a white baby goat, bleating in fright as it was held before a crowd that, by now, was literally baying for blood. The other man was holding a curved sword, not unlike the one that Kali brandishes in most depictions. The first man carefully stretched the terrified goat out over the sacrificial altar, which was constructed of dark grey slabs of stone. After some ceremonial toing and froing, the man with the sword raised it high, then brought it cleanly and vigorously down on the goat’s neck. The head flew off and thunked onto the dusty ground, where it rolled about, squirting blood. The decapitated body slumped forward and fell to the ground. It spasmed violently for quite some time, ejaculations of blood spurting rhythmically from the stump.

It was electrifying: the intoxication of witnessing a scene so intense, violent and bizarre was heightened by the knowledge that, firstly, we were not supposed to be there – we were transgressing onto what already felt transgressive – and secondly, that it was happening on the holiest day of the religion in which I had been raised. It was a Hindu ceremony, but the sacrilegious frisson of being there as a nominal Catholic made it feel Satanic.

After the beheading, Ahmed and I ducked out of the crowd and made our way to the temple’s exit. We parted on the street outside. I imagine that was the last time I saw Ahmed. In the evening, the guests at my squalid hostel gathered on the rooftop for a Christmas party, exchanging Kris Kringle gifts. I hadn’t been drinking for a while, but I made an exception that night. I stayed up till dawn talking to a pretty girl who left just when I thought something might happen between us. The next day, my body’s defences down, I fell ill, and so began an appalling week in which I was unable to leave the hostel for weakness, fever and diarrhoea. I passed the time by hallucinating onto the walls and ceiling, and by vomiting and shitting. Eventually, emaciated and sallow, I found the strength to board a train and leave Kolkata for another teeming city to the north. I will probably never again set foot in Kolkata – a city which enchanted me – or witness the decapitation of a goat. The spraying stump of that sacrificial animal, and its frightened bleating moments earlier, and the long curved blade of the slaughterer, and the crowds, and Kolkata, and India itself all feel like a dream as they recede into the past, becoming a story that surprises me even in the telling of it, because it happened and it almost feels as if it didn’t. And that is fitting enough: if I understood the Hindu philosophers correctly, they were of the view that none of our lives ever really happened at all.

He was the bad guy anyway, according to me, and according to that portion of the world I canvassed on the subject, who were friends of mine, cronies you might say, but who else would I canvass?  Word was he'd come back from a two year find-slash-escape himself tour of the Orient, or the Amazon, could have been Spain, had been inquiring after me, was I still around Dublin?  Yes I was, no thanks for asking, and enjoying it all the more in his absence, pass it on.  I'd even managed to drop my habit of scanning the byways for his silhouette, that miserable slouch that haunts my dreams like childhood trauma, like the death of Bambi's mum.

I should have stayed sharp and squinty, shouldn't have let my guard slip, because one wet Tuesday night there he was in my eyeline, there I was in his.  Small city, bound to happen, we agreed to go for a drink.

"You know what your problem is?" he spat at me over pint four, and I could have ventured a few suggestions - too much comfort, too much fun, that teacher who called me out for a phony when I was 14 - but I wanted to know what he thought, I always wanted to know what he thought (I'm still hoping for the moment to arrive when I don't want to know what he thought).  "Your problem is that you've given up on being a genius.  And my problem is I haven't." 

He pitched it as a sad and bitter witticism, and I thought, How witty, how sad, blew air through my nose, hmmph.  Poor sap, I beamed at him.  Let it go.  And then I thought, Balls, maybe that means he'll turn out to be a genius, hoped I'd turned off my telepathy so he wouldn't hear me.

He taught me about genius, literary genius, when I was thirteen.  During a lonesome lunchbreak in my first year in secondary school he found me reading a book about emotionally tormented wizards.  Infantile pap, he declared.  The greatest novel of all time, I countered.  Oh, how he sighed.  "If you knew anything," he said, bored into pedagogic condecension by my gaucheness, "you'd know that Ulysses is the greatest novel of all time.  It's a work of genius."  According to him this man Joyce had reconstructed the world  by means of sounds that onomatopoeically - I understood the term, thank God, primary school teachers were mad for it back in the ninties - felt like the world.  He  described howa single word written by Joyce - a single word! - looked like a stream of random letters but sounded like waves crashing on a pebbled beach, the pebbles audibly clattering over each other as the waves rolled back out to sea.  You could count the pebbles by the sound, he said, you could tell if they were the size of peanuts or chestnuts or one of those nuts in between.     

He'd caught me at an impressionable time, the precocious huckster, really got his fangs in with that teachable moment.  Despite my protestations on behalf of my novel, despite my simple love of sad wizards and talking dragons, as puberty was juicing me from a child into a man-child the thinness of fantasy was ceding ground to the real.  But it was already clear to me that the reality of the looming grown-up world wouldn't be enough, that my parents' world of jobs and cars and mortgages wouldn't be sustaining.  His description sounded like genius all right, if not outright wizardry; a book of incantations not only to speak the world into being, but to breath life into its concrete lungs.  It was magic, but it was an urbane, grown-up magic.

Across the tin table he twirled his cigarette like a character in a Coward play. "What a charming tale," he drawled.  "Mr Urbane dragging up Mr Suburbane by your humble forelock."

Ah, the old familiar dig at suburbia, that great grey nothing from which I hail. He had deep, spreading roots in the rich loam of art and academe, whereas my own family tree was like something you'd buy in a garden centre.   

"I think you graced me with that charming remenisence the last time we met.  And the time before that," he said, revolted by my lack of novelty.

Well, thought I defiantly, I'm hardly going to lay out recent personal scoop just to watch you shit all over it, you vicious bastard, wondered if I had any recent personal scoop that might interest him, couldn't think of any, fell into a depression.

"You know," he said, suddenly expansive, "I figured my life by now would be this swirling salon of luminaries and impresarios.  Diaghilev to the left of me, Bowie to the right, Scott and Zelda duking it out in the bathroom, Beckett never quite making it to the party.  I thought our salon chatter would be an unofficial record of the great artistic movements of our time."

He seemed to working himself up to a flight of eloquence, an act of verbal and creative generosity to lift all our perishing spirits, but then his eyelids dropped, his shoulders sagged, and he said, "But maybe all I get is talking to you, and other disappointments like you, in shitty un-salon-like pubs like this."

I was stung, but wanted him to go further, insult me more, expedite my offence-taking preliminary to my leave-taking.  He closed his eyes, twisted his mouth into a moue of disgust - a moue, I shit you not - and I wondered how I'd disappointed him in the last few seconds.   

"I made that speech a few days ago," he said, "but it came off better then.  I've forgotten most of it.  Perhaps," and he looked at me significantly, "the company was more inspiring.  So, still doing drugs?"

Heavens no, knocked that on the head thanks, the pills and the coke anyway.  On the other hand, I'd nasally administered a threshold dose of alphamethyltriptamine in the bathroom after pint one, in order to mitigate by its entactogenic properties the paranoia-inducing effects of his company.  The AMT was also a sterling aide-de-camp in my ongoing battle with an acid comedown from the weekend, not that I worried about acid, non-habit forming as it is, though I've never gotten my hands on enough to test that theory.  I suppose I had what some people might call a drug problem, ho ho, but it made all the other problems so much easier to deal with, ha ha.  

"Yeah yeah, non-habit forming drug taking.  Pathetic.  Think you're a genius of degeneracy?"  He pulled up his hoodie and T-shirt, showed me his wear and tear, a bulge on his right side below the ribs.  "That's my liver," he said.  The skin shone, glowed a brassy yellow like God's own index finger, assuming God is, as I've always suspected, a 40 a day  man.

I told him about the girl I'd gone to bed with a couple of weeks back, about her Christian revulsion of the deed, her alcoholic escape from agency, her whispered intimations the next morning that I'd abused her, the rape accusation I expected any day to come knocking on my door.

"I fucked five women yesterday," he said, "And one man.  I licked the shit off his dick."    

I told him my father had died this year.

"Lucky you," he said, "Mine's still alive".

The spirit of death enveloped us then, chthonic vapours seeped into our pints and down our throats, and I worried about the power of incantations, because my father hadn't died.  It seemed that I became aware of the atoms I was made of, and that I could feel all that empty space inside the atoms, that quantum void between the electrons and the nucleus, and that empty space was death.     

"Smile, lads," said a passing mum, not my mum, nor his, but playing the part of our mum for a generous moment.  She was concerned for us probably, flirting in a way that was kind, like the memory of lasciviousness.  "You're both too pretty for frowning," she added with a wink 

"Fuck off you horrible cunt, this man used to be genius," he bellowed, and then hocked up a terrifying wad of brown phlegm, sent her scurrying to the safety of the bar, muttering oaths.   

A part of me could have hugged him.  But instead I started putting on my coat.  I said it had been good to see him, told him he was looking well, said I'd missed this, this savage little repartee thing we had.  I couldn't tell if I was lying or telling the truth.  He raised his eyebrows, nodded or perhaps shook his head, it was hard to tell.           

"You've always kept me down, always," he said towards the bleary end.  "I would have made it if you hadn't given up on me."   

He was my first real love, counting only the reciprocated loves, and though it may be hard to see, hard to put your finger on, hard to take the temperature of it, the love endures.  Sometimes I even wish him well, wish him better.  Sometimes I want my face to be the last thing he sees before he dies, my face turning away from him.  Most days I don't think of him at all. 

Back when everyone was worried about me, my mum sent me a clipping from the Sunday Times Style section. It was from Giles Coren’s weekly piece under the pseudonym “Professor Gideon Garter” called The Intellectual’s Guide to Fashion. The column was an irreverent attempt to apply theory to fashion, where the professor would write about a particular topic or item of clothing generally (though not always) in the press that week. The one my mum sent me was about beards. I’d had one for a couple of months at that stage and I guess it was quite a big part of why everybody was worried. The article appeared on the 1st of February 2004.        

How little was known then about the state faces would be in ten years later, when peak beard would take hold. The illustration that accompanies the afore-mentioned Sunday Times article would not be recognisable to anyone today as being beardlike. It is rather a light dusting of facial hair complete with a wispy haircut curling out from underneath a beret. Essentially, it was an attenuation of the foppish hair-do and not an actual beard in its own right. Further study of the article reveals the inherent contradiction at its core – Professor Gideon Garter goes on to claim that all great intellectuals in history had beards and why shouldn’t they be fashionable? The article was clearly a case of rear-guard action of a beard-wearing enthusiast  who was battling the opprobrium familiar to someone with his tastes in those less facial-hair friendly times.      

For those of you currently thinking, “Oh no, not another bloody article about hipsters!” fear not. This is an article about my relationship with the land of beard and how changed I found it when I went back there (in truth, I’m probably going to mention “new coffee” in here at some point too) with some awesome and apposite film references to help explain things. 

That the landscape has been changed by the so-called ‘hipster beard’ though, is important and so is the timing of its origins. 

My own personal beard-span ran from late 2003 to 2011ish roughly speaking, family weddings (though not always) aside. Round the time Professor Gideon’s article came out, when it became apparent that my beard was staying, I told everyone (by which I mean the well-meaning parents of friends, with their looks of concern) that it (my burgeoning beard) was a requirement of my final year philosophy undergrad. Deepening concern generally gave way to bewilderment, as I’d then follow with the quip that most of the girls (young women) in the class were pretty put out by this requirement.  

But that was the landscape back then – beards were not at all trendy and young people who had them felt the need to explain themselves. Which, in turn, had its own effect. Like it or not, it placed you in a club of sorts. You could see it in the faces of other fellow beards in the street – a sort of embarrassed look of recognition would be exchanged, perhaps even a slight nod, which would convey a sense of solidarity – that they too knew what it was like to experience lingering ketchup stains on their face and a very mild form of discrimination from the hypernormalists, with their clean-shaven faces and real jobs. This exchange would ultimately leave you feeling a profound anxiety in the immediate aftermath, as you panic-wondered to yourself, “Jesus Christ, did that bearded guy just nod at me?” or worse still, “Jesus fucking Christ, did I just nod at that bearded guy?!”

And if you didn’t have a beard, you knew that people who had them ought to be shunned for the type of pinko, weirdo, deluded subversive that they were.  Like the time I was leaving a house on Leeson Street at about 3 in the morning one Saturday night in 2006ish with a friend of mine, and was confronted by quite a breath-taking instance of anger from a pair of guys on their way home from one of the nightclubs up the road. “Look at this fucking guy with his BEARD”, one of them said, “What are you gonna do? Are you gonna kill yourself? There’s a fucking tree buddy,” (he pointed at a tree), “Why don’t you go and HANG yourself!” Even I, who was accustomed to the concerned looks on the faces of friend’s well-meaning parents, wasn’t prepared for this level of hostility, but it wasn’t exactly a total shock either. My friend Luke, who was with me at the time (completely unable to grow a beard, it would come out in rubbish patches – like scrub on the Burren – so never knew about what being in the secret nodding club was like) was far more surprised by the altercation.

 

Those of you who are more observant, the fizzier category amongst collective fridge of fizzy drinks, will have noticed a while back that I made a second mention of the term “real job”. The “real job” goes to the heart of the matter and explains the main difference between having a beard now and having one before peak beard. And it’s why I’ll mention that Will Self article and put forward the idea that it is supremely naïve (I lost the first beer mat at this point).   

His thesis about hipsters and hipsterdom is that they arose from his generation’s willingness to commodify the subversive, to wrangle money from irony in a cynical manner. His naivety is that there was any autonomy involved in this process. Capital always precedes the production of further capital and the recent vogue for beards, retro-everythings and indeed, “new coffee” is no different. It’s just an example of doing more with less. Easy money isn’t coming out of the banks to pay construction workers to build hotels and housing estates no one ought to want to live in anymore, so now we’ve got beards and coffee instead.     

It’s no coincidence that the proliferation of hirsute faces and this new invention of coffee occurred in Ireland during a time when a huge swathe of educated young people found themselves in a country with very little employment prospects. Why not grow a beard and sit around drinking coffee, while some barista calls you “man” 24 times per espresso shot? Basically, there’s a lot of beard tourism going on amongst people who would ordinarily not have beards because they’d have real jobs that don’t involve a fake coffee industry and imaginary jobs.

For a vaguely academic background to this, I’m going to give a summary of the Wikipedia page for Urban Studies theorist, Richard Florida’s 2002 book, Rise of the Creative Classes. His basic argument is that creativity fosters economic growth and that cities have become independent of the traditional super-structures of state and big business – that different urban centres are in competition with each other within the same countries. And that those places which are more open to socially liberal ideas and accepting of so-called fringe elements of society, will fare better than more conservative hubs.

Anyways, this is to have veered slightly off-topic. My point is twofold: 1, somebody bought me a bag of coffee from one of these “new coffee” places recently and it said this on the back: Complex, delicate and lively with hints of bergamot, apricot, jasmine and lemon. Floral, sweet and wonderfully juicy. That is a genuine tasting note. On a packet of coffee. Coffee . I’m not going to analyse it or explain what’s wrong with it. It’s a bit like the end of the film, A Time to Kill, starring Matthew McCaunaghey, where he describes the brutal rape and murder of the daughter of the defendant he’s defending(who subsequently killed the attackers of his daughter and that’s why he’s on trial). During his closing argument he says, “now imagine she’s white” in order to win over the white jury to seeing his black defendant’s point of view prior to his act of vengeance.

 The description of those tasting notes  might make sense if they were describing wine (which can have these tastes and textures) but not fucking coffee. “Now imagine it’s coffee.” No, I fucking can’t Matthew McConaughey – it’s nothing like coffee.

The 2nd part of my point is that I didn’t shave while I was on holidays a while ago and when I came back, I found that having a beard was a very different place to how it was before. People look at you dismissively, differently now to how they did back then. This time, it was clear people were looking at me the way the other soldier guy looks at Kevin Costner late on in the film, Dances with Wolves. Kevin Costner is all dressed up in buffalo hides and eagle feathers and the guy says, “You turned Injun, didn’t you?” And what’s terrible is, you can’t then turn around and say, “I AM A FUCKING INDIAN – I’VE BEEN A FUCKING INDIAN SINCE THE MID-FUCKING NOUGHTIES!” without looking a bit strange. Instead, I had to shave it off.

When I was nineteen I noted a tiny firework of burst blood vessels beneath my left eye. They had not emerged gradually, but exploded overnight. Alarmed, I inspected the other elements of my face, the panicked blank I had been trying to ignore. My previously pointed chin was lost, my cheeks dour and heavy. The whites of my eyes were yellow and strained, their lids broken with sporadic intervals of blood here and there. There were patches of colour where colour had never visited before, a permanent stain of angry red near my cheekbone and temple.

My prettiness was so painfully proximate that it was difficult to absorb the way I had truly come to look. I could just about make out the bones and angles and brightness of the girl who arrived in Dublin to go to college, lurking, ghostly, just out of grasp. On one of my first nights out after I arrived, two girlfriends and I had split a bottle of wine between us and mixed it with 7-up, giggling and heady with it as we tumbled into a taxi. Now wine was as prosaic as juice, necessary as medicine. 

I've tried to go back over Freshers week, over my first month, to figure out where I diverged from the thousands of other idiots drinking themselves stupid. The only substantial difference I can make out is that most other people went to enough classes to keep from immediate failure. The thought hung over me, still does: "What if I just don't?". What if I just don't go to college. What if I just don't get up in the morning? What if I just don't. It's a dizzying realisation: nobody will physically force you to do practically anything except maybe stay alive if it comes to it             

                                    ~

It was easy not to drink too much when I lived with my ex-boyfriend. I watched myself through him, knowing how it appeared when I wanted a bottle of wine on a Sunday evening, or a beer or two after work. Drinking too much is not attractive in a woman, nor is need in general. He was not a drinker and when I did pour out a glass for myself in front of him I felt that need radiating off me, puzzling him. His presence meant I rarely went as crazy as I might have done otherwise, didn't open a second bottle, didn't call in sick because I was busy crying into a toilet bowl. Being observed has its advantages.  

I began to often need an hour between finishing in the office and returning to our house, a break between the role of worker and the role of girlfriend. Sometimes that meant walking or shopping but more often than not it meant a drink and a book somewhere quiet. Alcohol means so many things to me, the truth is so multiple and varied it feels impossible to hold it all together in my mind. It means violence, and ruin, certainly - but also freedom, independence, possibility. What do I want to say? I want to say that I still love drinking, I can’t help it, I do, I do. I want to say that many of the most treasured times of my life have taken place over a crap bottle of wine or a crisp cocktail I couldn’t justifiably afford. Drinking, at least in this place, at least for me, means communion. It means settling down to talk and argue for six hours; it means a conciliatory gesture of good will to my put-upon mother; it’s the crashing dark salt of south county Dublin coastline in winter, passing whiskey back and forth with a man I can barely look straight in the eye in case he sees how hungry I am for what will soon take place.                       

~

I needed to be alone to make mistakes again. I cried in the office toilets all day and got a taxi home to sever my domesticity,  clawing my wrists and whispering "Be brave, be brave, be brave," aloud to myself on the drive. 

~

I moved into a pretty one bedroom flat by myself. When nobody watches me I am no longer a real person. I sit in a chair and am too big for it and too small for the room. I don't know what to do with my body. There is no one to be attractive or amusing or lovable for, and this leads me to be nothing at all. The necessities of living seem suddenly ludicrous; why is it that I am showering or cooking when I am alone and nobody will know if I don't? It occurs to me that for the first time in years I could suffer some catastrophe and not be discovered immediately. The catastrophe can be natural or external or self wrought. I will die of Sudden Adult Death Syndrome, and my neighbour- who blares Euro dance pop at chillingly inappropriate times when I know he is alone in there- will burst in and smother me and I will drink two bottles of gin and choke on my own vomit. All of these things are happening, or may as well be for all the empty room cares, impassively containing me. 

When did I forget what my unobserved self feels like? Did love do this to me? Or Twitter? Or booze? Alone in my new apartment I try to forget how much better it would feel to pass the remaining six evening hours by drinking. It's so good at focusing you totally and destructively on the moment. How comforting it would feel to only concentrate on the next glass, and the film being half-watched. 

 

Drinking would make me forget that I am a person, blur away some of the painful knowledge that it's really me, really my body. How do I know I exist without other people? With other people I feel at my best, relaxed and beloved and open. Without them, I feel both too insignificant to stay anchored and too big to hide away. I could call somebody, go out somewhere, but I know it's cheating. It's unsustainable. I have to practice being a person.

"What do people do?" I ask my friend Shane, "How do they fill all this time?"

"Just watching things and reading," he begins to reply and then stops and sighs and shuts up.

"What?" I ask him. 
"It's just...ugh it's so depressing, what's the point of you being alive if you're just trying to find ways to fill up the time?"
I'm silent for a moment and then we both start to laugh at the fact that he has just asked me what the point in me living is.

~

Of course I know what I should be doing with my time. I should be writing, but at the moment writing feels like the hardest thing to do. Writing is the ultimate sober acknowledgement of my personhood, my irrefutable living, and all that excavation, the scrabbling around in the trash of my life makes me cringe. But that is my work, and that is what I will do, when I learn how to be still.  

Before I moved away for college I wrote in my diary: "I look forward to moving away, to being free to hurt myself as much as I want". What I meant then was I wanted to starve, to cut, to binge, to fuck, in any combination and volume I felt like, to be totally free to destroy myself in whatever manner felt right. Those things no longer interest me as they did then, but there is still a willful part of me which agrees with my 17 year old self, which I have to talk down off the ledge sometimes. This part of me thinks that it doesn't matter how badly I mess my life up- as long as it's my mess.

Once I read an anecdote about Tennessee Williams. He was visiting New York, and went missing for a day and a night, and when his acquaintances became concerned and forced open his hotel room they found him facedown in the carpet in just his underwear, a third degree burn on his back. He had been so drunk that he fell asleep against a heating vent, and lay against it for so long it had seared through the thick flesh of his back. A physician friend of his named Bennett came to visit while he was recuperating, and asked him sadly:


"Why would you do this to yourself on your vacation?"

To which he pulled himself up indignantly in the bed and replied:

"Bennett, it was my vacation."

I think about this often as a summation of the worst aspects of drinking; the berserk defiance of acknowledging how badly you treat yourself, but relishing your freedom to do so. Nobody makes you do anything- not even stay alive, not even when it comes to it. 

~

When I began writing this it was a Sunday, and I was hungover and everything was so quiet that playing records couldn't cover the silence that was with me. I felt truly and unendingly alone, unknowable, just for a moment, which is all it takes. I started to cry, because of what real loneliness feels like, even if it only lasts a few seconds- it feels so big and unanswerable, renders the prospect of life unworkably long and boring. It felt funny to cry, because I haven't since I moved here. Crying feels performed and awkward when I do it alone now, I who have watched myself cry through the disgusted or softening eyes of boyfriends for too long- the undignified barks strangely hollow without my audience. I cried and did not call anyone or go anywhere or drink anything. I sat at the table and I started my work.

~

I try to keep remembering that I am real, even when you don’t watch me; be brave, be brave, be brave.

She’d been living in the house for two months when they had the engagement party. Two months was a long time by anyone’s account, but in guest-time two months had seemed like a lifetime and she’d had to re-evaluate everything.

She’d been living with Kim and Ben since moving out of the place she’d been house-sitting. Her mother’s friend had come back from Switzerland, and that was that. The house-sitting had begun since her breakup with Mark. She’d moved out of his house and when she found her carefree time as a house-sitter drawing to a close while she still had no proper job, her options had folded in and converged on Kim.

Kim was her older sister by two years, willowy, elfish and pale. She was beautiful in the awkward way girls in high-concept magazines were, all angles, goggly eyes and curly short black hair. Growing up, Sadie had been considered the pretty one always, her blondeness, her round face, her sallow skin making her a right-of-passage crush while they were in school. This had made her bolder than Kim, sexually precocious, and for some reason, more highly-regarded by their teachers. Sadie and Kim got on, with only minor fights breaking out when Kim would spot her younger sister wearing her clothes across the hallway – a favourite skirt, a worn shirt that had been fished out of the dirty laundry basket. This always led to bitter fights and the inevitable repeat of the same outrage a few weeks later. When school ended Kim was accepted to Rhode Island School of Design on a scholarship and Sadie stayed and went to Trinity to do English. 

Even then, she had not felt the difference so much as she did now, on the day of the party. 

The house Kim and Ben lived in was over a noodle bar off  Washington Avenue that alternated between smelling strongly of garlic and strongly of basil. It was a boring building from the outside, devoid of any Brooklyn charm, except for the fact of its proximity to the Tom’s Restaurant that appeared in Seinfeld. They’d decorated it in an un-thought-out manner that Sadie liked, piling in the few bits of furniture they’d accumulated individually, so that it felt crammed and yet there was never anywhere to put down a glass. There were throws everywhere, as well as candlesticks made out of old banisters that a friend of Kim’s made, so the flat achieved a sense of boho-lived-inness in spite of its modern interior. 

“You’re going to want to put things at right angles all the time while you’re here,” Kim had said, laughing and kissing her on the cheek when Sadie brought over her bags. “If you think I’m bad, you’ve got to see how untidy Ben is! Here it is, Ta-da!” It was a tiny study Sadie had seen before, but Kim had gone to extra efforts to make it nice for her. There was a vase of flowers on the desk. “It’s lovely! I promise I will keep my tiny violin concertos and sob-sturbations to a minimum,” she said, “And the room is super cute”, “Oh good, I was so worried you’d be all “eek!” Yeh that’s fine, but you don’t have to swallow your tears, you’re allowed have a meltdown in our study, we’re cool with it,” Kim said, her face spreading and her eyes disappearing into a grin.

Kim and Ben had been living in the flat for just over a year, which was just a little under the amount of time they’d been a couple. Kim had dismissed any major life-changing potential that moving in together might have. She was good at that. Nothing ever had life-changing potential.

She had graduated from Rhodes Island over two years ago, ‘majored’ in photography and was now working as an assistant to a well-known Irish photographer who was a friend of their parents. The flat was plastered with the strips of paper with the words “Everyone is a fucking photographer now” appearing over and over again. Kim had met Ben outside at an Agnes Obel gig, where mutual friends introduced them and where the coincidence of them both having an Irish parent and an American parent, had offered them the excuse to hit it off and talk till dawn. 

 

1

Thinking of this and of the three of them, Sadie sometimes worried that they were the type of people that others talked about and wrote about and hated –   privileged lay-abouts. Their parents had paid for Kim to do a series of unpaid apprenticeships, covering her rent, giving her an allowance. Sadie had received more or less the same support, but unlike Kim, who fell into endless over-the-phone rows about money with their parents, Sadie experienced sharp pangs of guilt. She hadn’t received a full scholarship like Kim. In order to really be who they wanted to be they should have less, Sadie thought. The fact of their parents well-offness seemed to poison who they were and what they wanted to do, and not even the fact of them both working harder than anybody else seemed to redeem it. Kim didn’t worry about this, or about what people wrote. She was happy in what she was doing, believed in the solidity of being an artist, thought it was positive, and encouraged Sadie to think the same whenever she mentioned her worries.

What was true was that for the past year since they’d both been in the States they’d been on equal footing and in each other’s company for the first time in almost seven years. The amount of money they were spending was directly comparable, and Sadie had realized that Kim spent very little. What’s more, Sadie had been with Mark. He’d had the family flat and she’d made her soft landing in New York with the heart-stopping terror of rent removed from the equation. 

“He’s so so lovely. Very gentlemanly,” Kim had said, when Mark had gone to the bathroom the first time Sadie introduced them in a bar. But when they’d broken up a few months prior, Kim had said, “I’m sort of glad. He didn’t seem to have much adventure in him, not enough for you anyway.” Barely perceptible under the spoken reassurance, was a disdain for him that stung her. Kim never said anything nasty. But what Kim was actually saying beneath the niceness, was how dreary she’d found Sadie’s hyper-normal boyfriend to be. 

Kim had gone through all the awkward phases of believing thoroughly and obsessively in one thing or another when they were growing up – Kurt Cobain, dance lessons, Tom Waits, electronic music, no Facebook, lots of Facebook, money good, money bad, fuck-mum-and-dad, try-your-best-to-get-along. She’d believed in all of them without any irony, in a way that Sadie had never believed in anything. And now 1the remnants of Kim’s previous convictions seemed to hang about her like talismans, striking some kind of centered om that was neither one thing or another. She achieved that unobtainable pinnacle of contemporary existence and would’ve been described on all accounts as being laidback. 

In the seven years that they had not been around each other, Kim had come into her own it seemed. Her photography had ended up in ad campaigns, she wore outlandish clothing, her accent had evened out into a nice drawl, she’d cut her hair short, and she’d made her peace with her parents. How Kim had grown so strong and happy was a mystery to Sadie. She herself had acted in two shows in the past year since she’d left college, but she could already feel her determination to stick with it waning. Since coming to New York she’d done nothing but bits of bar work, and being with Mark hadn’t helped. She’d met him in her final year in college while he was finishing his PhD, and when he’d got the fellowship she’d followed him to New York with the ease that her American citizenship and his free accommodation had afforded her. He was 11 years older. Since he’d broken up with her, she most often used the word “intolerant” to describe him. The bravery of moving over had disappeared since then, and she felt out of sorts, out-of-the-loop and too quiet for the brash fastness of New York. 

Over the past year Kim had become a presence that moved around Sadie’s thoughts like a ball in a pinball machine. Barely noticing it, Sadie had begun to buy colourful clothes, make art collages that she hadn’t made in years, bleach her hair white-blond, and she’d lost her appetite. Only once, when she met Kim for a samosa near Washington Square after she’d gotten a haircut, did Kim remark “Are we going to play matchy-matchy? We’ve got the same hair and the same jacket!” 

Ben had something to do with it. They’d announced they were engaged two weeks after she’d moved in, stroking each other’s hands under the table, laughing even though no one had made a joke, while she congratulated them enthusiastically, kissing them both and blushing for no reason. Sadie’s parents were liberal, had got married late, and the idea of getting married at 27 was far more counter to their family culture than being gay, poor, or not going to college. It made Sadie feel slightly embarrassed, as though it was all terribly earnest and intense, like a Jane Austen novel. It was for love, no one needed a Visa.

When Sadie worried about those other people who wrote about them being lay-abouts, thinking of Ben was often the only thing that reassured her. In spite of claims that he was Irish, Ben was more Italian-American than anything else – sallow-skinned, black hair and a permanently unshaven face. He was as good-looking as Kim. He came across as a weird product of home-schooling and hard work, gentle and smart. 

 

If you were to walk into a room of strangers, you would spot Ben as the person who would be kindest to you instinctively, Sadie thought. He was the manager of a fancy restaurant on the lower east-side, paid for most of their rent, and spent his off-time running a small art-space in Queens with a friend. Their parents had met him once and loved him. He inspired confidence and made it all feel less like bullshit.

When Sadie submitted herself to forensic comparisons with Kim, she always emerged the loser. There was only one thing that she had over Kim, and that was brains. In school they’d known it, in college too, and even now, in this New York context where Sadie was playing the away-match, she clung to the knowledge that she was still more intelligent than Kim. Ben was smarter than Kim. Sadie had noticed this in overheard conversations, a passing reference. But Kim didn’t care or even notice.

The engagement party had started early and everyone had arrived on time, something that never happened in Dublin. She’d been going out a lot since the break-up and was glad to see that she knew a lot of Kim and Ben’s friends at the party. Everyone had known about the engagement before Sadie had, it seemed, and their parents still didn’t know, which lent an air of recklessness to the whole thing.

 

2

Sadie watched Kim as she made her way around the room, her unachievably-thin frame bopping in and out of groups of people, giving big hugs, emitting squeals as she came across a new arrival to the party. Kim had good friends. She had friends that phoned her instead of texted her, and who always Liked her work when she put it on Facebook. Her friends were lovely and kind, always polite to Sadie since she’d moved over, making it clear that she was accepted by inviting her to drinks and movies without Kim, perhaps prompted by her. They all had job descriptions that seemed to contain a half-dozen slashes between them – journalist/cheese-monger, curator/photographer/PA, PhD student/dj/blogger, chef/model/photographer. As she thought about their absurd slashes Sadie wished she could stop, wished she could just accept the room and the people in it for what they were, be kind to them and allow herself to enjoy something without feeling like a fraud. She wanted to enjoy what Kim had.

She was sitting slouched under a girl she knew called Zoe, who had just dropped 2CP and was sitting on her lap talking about Hitchcock. She hoisted Zoe off her, kissing her on the neck, and stumbled her way over to the overflowing bin bag by the open kitchen window. She stretched her leg over the windowsill and onto the roof, ducking and pushing herself up into the crowd of smokers.  “Never quit or you’ll die of boredom,” her friend Colm always said, and he was right. Ben was sitting on one of the plastic chairs further out on the roof, talking to a young, nervous guy, who was saying something to which Ben was paying close attention. She sat down in the chair opposite them and looked out onto the greeny-yellow glare of the city sky and lit a cigarette from the packet that had cost her 13 dollars earlier that day. The nervous guy seemed to lean closer to Ben, until Ben let out a loud laugh and the guy sprang back, laughing imperceptibly under his hand, still looking at Ben, until he abruptly got up to get a beer.

In spite of how nice Ben was, he made Sadie nervous. If she woke up and it was just him in the house, she would avoid leaving her room until she thought he was gone. Whilst finding him hilarious, she checked her laughter at his jokes. But it was now three in the morning and she had taken something earlier.

Ben sighed, regaining his breath from the laughter, “That was the grossest thing I’ve ever heard, and he’s got all the gross stories!” he said, turning to her, stealing a cigarette from her packet after she nodded consent.

“Oh yeah? What was it about?”

“Nah, I can’t tell you, way too disgusting! Anyway you need to hear it the way he tells it. You know he drives the fat van right?”

“The fat van?”

“Yeh, it’s an ambulance that’s been designed for severely obese people, people who weigh up to 770 pounds. And John gets put on the fat van for some of his shifts. He’s a paramedic. It’s completely redesigned and all the things are, like, extra large to accommodate massively overweight people. Anyway, you’ve seen John, he’s a fucking super-skinny guy, and 2he ends up driving the fat van that services most of Brooklyn, carrying people down five flights of stairs because they’re too fat to walk, with the other paramedic Raoul, who is just as skinny, and it’s just the fucking funniest.”

“’Mmerrica!” Sadie punched the air and they laughed.

Ben’s pupils were dilated, even darker than normal, and she knew he was high, which was comforting.

“Hey! Do you want to hear a gross joke I was told today?” she said.

“Always!”

“Ok,” she started, “A family is having dinner. The son asks the father, “Dad, how many kinds of boobs are there?” The father answers, “Well, son, a woman goes through three phases. In her 20s, a woman’s breasts are like melons, round and firm. In her 30s and 40s, they are like pears, still nice, hanging a bit. After 50, they are like onions.” “Onions?” the son asks. “Yes. You see them and they make you cry.” The mother and daughter get pissed off at this. So, the daughter asks, “Mum, how many different kinds of willies are there?” Mum smiles, “Well, a man goes through three phases. In his 20s, his willy is like an oak tree, mighty and hard. In his 30s and 40s, it’s like a birch, flexible but reliable. After his 50s, it’s like a Christmas tree.” “A Christmas tree?” the daughter asks. “Dead from the root up and the balls are just for decoration.”

Ben smacked his knee and laughed. “Oh, that’s good. That’s a good joke, I’ll have to remember it.”

She went quiet.

“You know, I don’t think I should say this, but I feel like I have to. Like it’s my duty to say this.” Sadie stammered, “This isn’t good timing and in the cold light of day I’ll probably regret it, and no doubt I’m very, very wrong, but…”

“Jesus Christ,” Ben laughed, “What could you possibly be going to say to me!”

The room behind them suddenly emitted a roar of laughter followed by wolf-whistles, and turning around, they could see that some guy was dancing in the middle of the room naked except for his t-shirt. Sadie went on.

“I don’t know if you’ve considered everything entirely. Like, have you considered who you are and what you’re worth?” She was waffling. “Because I feel like you haven’t, and I was wondering if it had occurred to you that maybe you could do better than Kim?”

She didn’t even try to chase the words and corral them back into her mouth.

Ben looked at her blankly.

“You’re better than her, and no matter what happens after tonight, whether you guys get married or not, I want you to know that. I think you could do better. I think you’re sweeter and smarter than her,” she finished.

A screech of furniture and shouts from the room behind them made them turn around. Naked guy had seemingly pissed himself, the lack of pants resulting in someone being hit mid-stream, much to everyone’s delight. A few guys now seemed to be struggling to drag naked guy into another room, without coming across any of his bits or getting caught in the crossfire.

Ben stood up, head bowed, trying to see what was happening.

“Thanks Sadie,” he said.

For my leaving cert art project my mother had to lock me in the dining room with a bunch of clay to make a model fish the night before the thing was due. Like, she literally locked me in there and said, “Don’t come out until it’s done.”

I got a B.

Which I think says more about the expectations of Leaving Cert Art standards in the 90s, than anything else.

My original idea was to create a model aquarium with zingy, colourful papier-mâché fish, floating in some clear resin stuff, or something. The finer points were never worked out. It was supposed to

be whimsical and impossible and fun. This was long before The Life Aquatic, but it was along those lines. Instead I made a salmon out of clay. Then painted it like a goldfish.

The lesson this should’ve taught me should’ve been “If I don’t pursue my vision with tenacity and vigour, then I’ll never be satisfied with what I create.” The lesson I actually learned was, “If you don’t make an effort and you’re up against a deadline, you can still get a B.”

That’s why I was so well suited to journalism.

But that wasn’t the plan. By 25 I was supposed to be at New York art parties with people whispering behind my back- “That’s that guy! He writes these crazy off-beat novels about being, you know human, but not in, like, a really up his own ass way, more like a oh-wow-life is-really-like-that way. He’s a lot like Nick Hornby. But way richer.”

My path to glory would’ve been a hard one. I would find success as a failed novelist living in some impoverished central European trash heap selling hash and co-habiting with a bi-polar model, soused in absinth and home-distilled vodka. It would take months of work before the underground literary scene would catch onto my genius, and probably at least a year before The Guardian got hip to me. Hollywood thereafter. Wait, no, HBO. I’d hold firm and wait for the right offer. Write the screen-play myself. And possibly star in it also. Or direct. Not both. That would be boorish.

The absinth, the model and vodka I managed, but I only got as far as a mouldy hovel just off Mountjoy Square. And I never quite managed to write anything.

Hemingway said that writing is easy. You just sit down and bleed. And he’s right. You’ve done all the hard work by the time you’re ten – you’ve got nouns and verbs and commas and the fucking alphabet. What more do you need?

I could of course have picked a sexier art form. But everything else required practice and expertise. Being a writer doesn’t. Writing I suppose you could argue is a skill, but being a writer is a totally different thing. You have a very vague and infirm super-power. People sort of accept that you are artistic, and different, and maybe in some way special. But no one really knows how, or why, or more importantly, cares.

If you’re terrible at the thing you say you do, you’ll be found out eventually. If you’re an artist they’ll see a sketchbook. A musician, someone will hand you a guitar. But being a writer is fucking brilliant. You could be walking around with photocopied pages of Catcher In The Rye passing it off as your own and no one would be any the wiser. Because no one would be bothered to read it.

Calling yourself a writer will be enough to impress a sub-set of potential partners. Which is obviously the whole point of being a creative in the first place: to catch the last of the girls that the sports guys have turned down.

Everyone starts off more or less on an even keel in their twenties – you’re all working shit jobs with weekends that last all week. Then suddenly you’re thirty.  You look around, and all the dance kids you knew from getting maggoty-eyed in clubs for a decade have suddenly become designers and illustrators and scientists and film-makers. And sure, some of them are still working bars and restaurants, but soon they’ll be yoga teachers and bee-keepers and brew craft beer.

Everyone else’s identity had come into focus and mine was still fuzzy. Everyone had been serious about making it as a creative? We were all really ready to turn adjectives into careers?

Then I got a job as a journalist by accident.

It was not glamorous. Nor, indeed, had I heard of the publication before I began working there. It was a medical newspaper. One of three medical newspapers that produced weekly news for the 4,000 odd medical doctors in Ireland.

Doctors, it turns out, are one of the most news-serviced demographics in the country. While titles like Digger Hire and Sewage and Waste Quarterly (‘the’ magazine for civil engineers) struggled, this little medical newspaper thrived.

It thrived because doctors are extremely vain. The business model was to feature as many doctors as possible every week, so that the esteemed members of the medical community would pay the extortionate subscription fee in the hope that they’d be in print. Or perhaps in the hope that their colleagues wouldn’t be.

 

In the pages that weren’t photographs of poorly dressed nerds at functions or open letters to the Minister for Health, there were ads. Ads for every type of medication, for every type of disease and discomfort, admittedly with a high steer towards stuff for old people with chronic conditions. There was page after page of smiling, airbrushed elderly people strolling through out-of-focus daisied meadows, their joint pain completely gone.

I was now a medical journalist. I didn’t know much about medical issues. I did not read the health supplement. I had slept with a couple of nurses and I had been under a general anaesthetic as a kid when I was circumcised, but these two factors, I openly acknowledged, hardly made me an expert. I resolved, however, to give it socks.

My job was to write the What’s On section of the paper. This covered listings of must-see happenings with titles like “Cardiology and Your General Practice: An Evening with Dr Bram Royce”, “Acute Renal Failure: A Bedside Approach” or the unintelligible “Angiotensinogen in Hypertension and Kidney Diseases.”

For someone with only a loose grasp of basic spelling, even this small role proved challenging. I would be provided with some poorly-worded press release that would be well under the 100 words needed to fill the space for each listing. So I would re-write the press release only longer and equally poorly worded.

It was not quite bleeding for my craft. But I worked three days a week and I got paid real money to write. I was finally making my way in the world.

I was a success in grey slacks. My trousers were an inch too short, I wore frayed black shirts left over from my bartending days and too-tight shoes that I’d borrowed from my uncle’s closet.

I was thrilled. So I didn’t really notice how odd the office was.

It was computer-hum quiet. And the work only kept me occupied for about two hours on day one, and I would spend the rest of the week hiding behind my iMac wondering if I should ask someone for more work. I didn’t know that it wasn’t supposed to be like that.

But no sooner had my ship come in, it sprung a leak and sank in the harbour. Three things happened in quick succession.The editor ‘parted ways’ with the company. I was disappointed because I had liked him. The man had given me a break, had paid me, and hadn’t asked me to do any work of real difficulty. He seemed affable, easy-going and pretty relaxed. Why would anyone fire an editor like that? Without him, it was suddenly quite clear to the deputy editor just how little I was achieving in my three days in the office.

Then the chief subeditor got fired. He was a young swarthy American who had told me on my first day that I should quit and run a mile from this place. He was true writer. Tortured and driven by truth and honesty. When his moderately successful memoir was published, with its revealing passages about his disillusionment at working in an unnamed medical newspaper, and more revealing passages about masturbating in the toilet of said newspaper, it was a victory for art and truth. But it was also goodbye.

With him gone I finally had my shot. I interviewed for a permanent position in the company to be a proper reporter who would report on actual things.

I prepped well. I answered questions with frankness, openness, and enthusiasm. And then two days later I got my pension information in the post. Nothing says you’ve got the job like a pension. Then I too got let go. One of the other weekly medical newspapers had folded and suddenly the town was flooded with hot-shot medical reporters. Or it’s possible that I was just no good.

For someone who has been calling himself a writer for almost two decades, I’ve put very few words down. I tried being a novelist, but it turns out that it’s quite difficult to get published. And it’s even harder to get published when you haven’t written a novel. It’s easier to get published as a journalist, but much harder to get paid. 

Then suddenly companies were falling all over themselves to hire people to write Tweets. So I did that. And now I write ideas in single words on post-its and move them around whiteboards doing strategy. It doesn’t matter if I can’t spell.

It’s been the dream all along-  A writer who doesn’t have to write – there’s a truism to my ‘career.’ The fewer words I write the more I get paid. There is a cosmic force that is using all of its will to gently say – stop.

That Summer Con and I spent a lot of our time cycling our racers past Ciara Connelly’s house while drinking cans of coke. “Cycling a bike while drinking a can of coke really impresses girls,” said Con. He was very convincing on the subject of girls, being the only person I knew who had a life-sized poster of Wendy James from Transvision Vamp on his door.

Con had customised his bike by gluing on accessories – a digital watch, various pouches and packets, a plastic cup and a pea-shooter he could shoot peas out of while cycling. Customising bikes was also impressive to girls, he said.

We were lounging on the lawn outside Con’s place, tired out from constantly cycling with our cans of coke (now battered and filled with water), when little Willie Brennan came running up the road. “They’re back! They’re back!” he cried.

“Who are back?” asked Con.

“The army men!” he said gleefully. We looked at each other, shrugged and followed him.

Down near the green where our estate ended, there was a little wood. There, in a clearing, a group of kids had gathered, boys and girls aged from around eight to 12 (our age). In the centre were the army men. They were about fourteen years old. They were wearing army surplus gear that was a little big for them. The big one had aviator sunglasses and a light moustache and was chewing on some grass like a paramilitary bumpkin. The other was smaller. He had permanent frown, like he was doing difficult sums in his head, which on reflection he definitely wasn’t doing.

“When you’re living in the wild,” the big one was telling the group, “you need to survive on nature’s bounty.”

His friend rooted in his army swag bag and pulled out a tin of beans.

“Like this tin of beans,” the big one continued, gesturing towards the tin, while his frowning chum held it out like a pretty assistant on a gameshow.

“How is that nature’s bounty?” said Sarah Dunphy, who was no fun. “A tin of beans? Did you find it in a hedge?”

But nobody was listening to her because the little one had begun stabbing the tin with a hunting knife. The hand movements were fast and violent but his facial expression never changed. He punctured the tin and beans went flying everywhere. Then he passed the battered tin to his commanding officer, who started to eat the beans from the tin with his own knife. It was very dramatic.

“Those beans are raw!” said Willie Brennan, his eyes wide with astonishment. We were all very impressed by the sight of someone eating cold beans with a knife.

“Now it’s drill time,” said the army man with aviator sunglasses. There was tomato sauce on his chin. They’d set up a kind of obstacle course around the wood with materials pulled from an unfinished housing estate.

They drilled us for an hour, getting us to crawl through barrels, over planks and through a nettle patch. Willie Brennan sobbed when he cut his leg on a rusty nail, but he cheered up when the big soldier spat on the wound.

“Spit heals wounds,” he explained.

“I don’t think it does,” said Sarah Dunphy, but everyone groaned and told her to shut up.

“Now,” said the big one “Combat.”

His eyes passed along our group, as his friend sat on a log whittling a stick. “You,” said the Captain, pausing at Con’s brother Sean. “Run in that direction.”

Sean obediently ran off out to the edge of the woods. The small soldier got up off his log and launched the stick after Sean. It whirled through the air and hit him on the head knocking him off his feet.

“Wow!” said Willie Brennan. “Just wow! That was amazing. Wasn’t that amazing?”

We all thought it was amazing.

“Um, shouldn’t we check if he’s okay?” said Sarah Dunphy as Sean struggled to his feet.

“Jesus, Sarah, give it a rest,” said Con.

Training lasted for two days. We were paired up and encouraged to hit each other with branches while the army men nodded approvingly and made suggestions about “technique”. Sometimes things got a little heated. Sean was particularly aggressive.

“Oh, he’s got the red mist again,” Con would say, shaking his head, as Sean battered a smaller boy.

 

“Maybe you shouldn’t always fight smaller children?” I’d suggest.

“But they’re easier to win against,” said Sean, which was true. They were much easier to win against.

Eventually the bigger army man said: “Now you’re ready for what happens next.”

We all stopped what we were doing and looked at one another. “What happens next?” said Willie Brennan with a gasp. “What happens next?!”

“You must run,” said the larger teenager. He was wielding his stick like a baton. We could see ourselves reflected in his sunglasses. He would tap out each beat of the ensuing phrases “Across the fields.” The stick tapped. “And we will chase you.” The stick tapped. “We will bring you back.” The stick tapped. “And tie you to this tree.” He gestured at the biggest tree in the woods, which was an old, gnarled and dead looking thing that we called an “oak” (although I don’t think it was). “With this rope.” He gestured at his friend who had taken a very long blue rope from his bag.

“Will you beat us when you catch us?” asked Willie Brennan.

The fourteen year old army man chuckled warmly. “Maybe a little bit,” he said.

It sounded like great fun.

“This is crazy,” said Sarah Dunphy. “I mean, who are you? What are you doing here?”

“Shut up, Sarah,” said Con.

“So,” said the big army man, ignoring Sarah, “we’ll count to a hundred and then come after you. One…. Two…” We all looked anxiously at one another, then fled in different directions.

The first day being hunted I did quite well. I hid in a ruined house for hours and watched the two army men chase down other children one by one. It was fun to listen to their wails as they were caught, thumped and dragged back to be tied to the tree. I was only caught that day because I got bored and lonely.

Being caught by the army men was an exciting experience. You’d be walking along a stream/sewage pipe, cautiously glorying in your freedom, when suddenly you’d see two uniformed teenagers bearing down on you with determined looks on their faces. They’d rugby tackle you to the ground, maybe knock you into the water/mud and then deliver a few swift, cool punches. “That was amazing,” I’d think. “I hope I’m like them when I’m bigger.”  

The days when you were caught early on were a bit boring. You might be alone tied to the tree at around ten in the morning, and depending how good at hiding the others were you could be without company for some time. I’d sit there whistling to myself and sighing.

As the day progressed you’d be joined by other boys and girls. It was all very time consuming. There was only one rope, so everyone would have to be untied so a new child could be introduced to the situation and then the small soldier would start wrapping the rope around us all over again.

By evening time there would be eleven or twelve children tied to the tree, all chattering away, usually about what “manoeuvres” we’d be doing tomorrow and where we were hurting. Meanwhile out there in the fields, the teen militia men were tracking down the stragglers.

I was very excited about it all.  Sadly, just when the bigger army man was moving on to “rooting out spies” the whole operation came to an abrupt end. Some child in injured delirium told their parents all about the “drills” and the war games and the gentle beatings. The army men disappeared. Things returned to normal.    

“That was fun while it lasted,” said Con, lying out on the green sucking an ice pop.

We’d moved on by then. Con’s granny was staying at his house, in his room and his mother had made him take down the life-sized poster of Wendy James.

“Granny’s scared of it,” Con explained.

I was only half listening because I was trying to affix a pea shooter to my bike with superglue. I had glue all over my hands and was worried about sticking to things. In the woods we could hear Willie Brennan drilling a platoon of smaller children. It was a long, lazy summer.

Ciaran Walsh | Dear Analog

Cursed as I am with an unreliable memory, this modern life with its apps and trappings can sometimes be a comfort. Facebook backs up the basics of my life, Twitter records my broadcasted thoughts, my phone keeps a carbon copy of every textual relationship I’ve ever had, and Google saves each search and the location where I sought it. 

This is the ‘big data’ of my life. And if some nefarious government organisation, product peddler, or anonymous group wants to access this binary bullshit, then that is the opportunity cost I happily pay in order for this information to be available for recall. For as much as we are a surveilled people in this online world, big data does not make the big picture of who we really are. 

I would’ve liked to have been a diarist or a man of letters but I am neither. I can, however, look to seventeen years’ worth of emails to fill in the lacunae from my adult life and to answer the question of who I really am. 

Looking back over those communiqués, it’s clear the past is another country. Documented electronically are various college experiences, early forays into professional life, friendships, relationships, lives, and deaths. But reading your own diary is like looking at your own vomit and this amassment only forms a half picture. In the main, it’s filled with quickfire snapshots of daily life and it lacks any deep detail. 

There is one crucial piece of written evidence that is missing. A handwritten letter, spanning multiple pages, that documents - in glorious technicolour and in language as coarse as an IKEA towel - every single damn thing that should never be placed on record. A letter whose contents were so explosive that they led to me being kicked out of home for the second,and final time. And even though it was penned by my own hand, I mainly blame David. 

David and I were friends in college. We had palled around for a couple of years in the same wider circle but for a couple of post-exam weeks in the summer of 1999 our mutual love of cheap hash and daytime drinking meant we spent each day in the other’s pocket, living for the moment, yellow pack style. We’d listen to Spirtualized, talk about girls; who we lusted over, who we’d already trysted with, share stories, brag, laugh, and feel secure in the fact there was two of us wasting our days. There’s comfort in numbers. Even if the number is just one other. 

Dave dreamed of an armchair made of hash, I dreamed of college lasting forever. I was already caught under the wheel of a wastrel’s life, wishing away the inevitable harsh reality of the world outside. We made for a raffish pair. At least looking back it felt that way, laying out in the sun or wobble-walking about the place like a pair of gentrified drunks. We didn’t care where we lost our faculties - Law, Science, Arts, Medicine class parties were all fair game. 

My plans were not set in stone but David was all set for a J1 visa to Canada and as he departed, he said he’d write me a letter. Later that summer I would turn 21, and despite awkward relations at home, barely two days after Dave had left I was presented with an early birthday gift, a ‘coming of age’ cheque. It was unexpected, but well received and it numbered in the low thousands. 

Not long after, a letter arrived from David. He was enjoying Canada, working in a cafe and sharing a flat with, among others, one of the girls from college he talked about a lot. It seemed like something could happen between them. The letter was earnestly funny and deserved a response. 

I sat down and started to write. I wrote like an explorer might if he had found a new world, detailing every single thing about life back in Dublin; the tastes, the sounds, every sexual encounter, every drug bought, sold or ingested, every swear word, every bawdy remark, I shone a light on every dark moment and laid bare the minutia of a mad summer. 

It wasn’t only my life that I documented, but the lives of everyone else we knew, who was doing what, and who, and how many times. It was my finest work, my magnus. And then, I didn’t send it. 

I had booked a trip to Atlanta for the remainder of the summer and decided that the letter would look even better with a stamp from Georgia, USA, on it. It was to be the crowning badge of honour of this corrupted correspondence. Needless to say, the letter lay at the bottom of my bag throughout that hot summer in the American south and I forgot all about it. 

Now, as much as I blame David for getting me into a letter-write-off, I take issue with Delta Airlines for what happened next, because when they lost my luggage on the return flight to Dublin, they crucified me. 

Had that bag never been found, I could have lived with losing the letter and whatever late 90s fashion items I had accumulated. But when the airport authorities located my dirty laundry (both literally and figuratively), they promptly sent it to the address the flight tickets were registered to - my parents’ house.

I can’t recall the exact wording of the letter but it would be impossible for me to forget the evening my folks sat me down and my mother took out the crumpled heap of foolscap paper before starting to read back my own words to me: “Dearest Dave….”

There is no level of embarrassment above the one where your mother reads out line after descriptive line of your most Bacchanalian experiences. And as each paragraph of ever-descriptive decrepitude coaxed more tears down her cheeks, there was no swallowing hole big enough to take me away. The row that ensued on completion of this wretched recital resulted in my ejection from the family home. And rightly so. 

I never found out what happened to that letter (my mother passed away a few years ago and it’s not the kind of thing you ask your father about). The letter obviously never arrived to the intended person. It landed in the hands of the two people on earth I didn’t want reading it. I’m not even sure if I wanted David to read it, perhaps that’s way I was sluggish to post it. Maybe it was some form of censorship-free treat for myself. Either way, the outcome was a jolting of my life onto another, certain path, one where I was at times free-wheeling and at others more cautious, but ultimately I see it as the turning point of a life I now have and looking back, it’s something that I cannot regret, however mortifying it was

Of all the information that exists about me, whether it’s voluntarily given or not, this lost letter is probably the most acute snapshot of any particular point in my life yet there’s a comfort in knowing it’s lost forever. 

It’s harder to lose oneself online, but to think that our digital fingerprint sums up who we are or that our personalities could be somehow gleaned or cloned from the marks we leave there is false. 

Computers may hold a vast amount of our lives’ big data but computers are just peering at Plato’s wall. Without being able to contextualise the information, the internet can only exile us from the unexpected, pigeon-holing who we are based on what we’ve previously done, corralling us into like-minded groups. Life is more than an algorithm, we are the sum of our experiences and much more that cannot be quantified. The notion of who we are is in constant flux. My memory may be unreliable but I remember enough to know this...and to burn once read.

Maggie Armstrong | Their Exits and Their Entrances

We’ve been asked to write in response to the title of this issue, “I know you are but what am I?” and ideas of alienation and exclusion. This is a piece of dialogue taken from the 1985 film The Adventures of Pee-Wee Herman. In the particular scene two men are having a stand off. One calls the other a name – “You’re crazy!” – and the other replies, “I know you are, but what am I?”. I’ve watched the clip and have nothing more to say about it. Instead of asking what I am, I’m going to ask you what I am doing.

I’ve just been given a theatre column in the Irish Independent, an appointment which frightens me because tomorrow someone will probably tell me it was a mistake, and that I have to go away again. It also frightens me because I have for so many years hated the theatre. Consequently I don’t know anything about it and will likely make a balls of it.

I hear you. Everyone says they hate the theatre. It’s a favourite party piece (of the armchair attention-seeker, the actor manqué) to say you hate the theatre. To be so risqué, such a provocateur. Like saying you hate camembert, or that you are not Charlie. There really aren’t many people who like the theatre. People who make theatre don’t like theatre. Bush Moukarzel of theatre group Dead Centre recently told me, “It’s embarrassing for everybody, theatre. You always want the play to be over. I don’t go to the theatre. I avoid it.” And he sliced into a coronation chicken sandwich.

Theatre is the laughing stock of the world at present in the box office hit Birdman, a film about a disastrous play. Of course it’s a flop – it’s a play! Plays are so backward. Birdman’s demise is too witty. The actors are only too narcissistic. The theatre critic is an old sauerkraut given to pretentious monologues about Art.

But my unhappiness at the theatre is really historic, I feel. It begins like yours might do, with panto. It starts in 1980s provincial circuses, when we children were convened in rings of sawdust by brightly painted faces that swam about the stage like live plastic toys. Fruity women picked us out for audience participation and my worst fears were realised when the finger landed on me – “YOU!” I’d been found out, picked, and I’d have to walk up on stage. The indignity of having to put my name to their joke machine. Like at gigs, when the singers tell you to put your hands in the air.

Clowns. Clowns were a disease that swept across childhood and pock-marked my poor sensibilities. The sad clown in the children’s book, who slumps down and dies in the end. Stephen King’s IT. All my anxieties were born upon watching IT, a foul murderer of children who lives in sewers, and I had to leave bathroom doors wide open during the most sensitive of my developing years.

Clowns digress from the point but so, too, did theatre from the theatres all children deserve: cinemas. I don’t want to get nostalgic but my first trip to the cinema to see The Witches, was magical and bone-chilling. I was bought a Crunchy. At the end of the film my clothes were soiled with chocolate, because I’d been clutching the Crunchy so tightly it had all melted. That was terror. That was as chilled a bone as you get in a butcher shop. That was Art.

But theatre was superior artistic enrichment. My good parents instilled us with this, convinced of the importance of piano lessons, French exchanges, cathedrals, Flemish art wings and Christmas theatre to a person’s even formation. At Sense and Sensibility, we smiled sweetly at their acquaintances before being shown to the soft scarlet seats that you were not allowed to leave to go to the bathroom. The characters had English accents and wore crinoline and pantaloons. I recall with dismay the tittering when [girl] meets [suitor] and has to lean in and shout in his ear – oh the bird-like laughter in the theatre. Tee-hee. The joke being that [suitor] is so ancient she suspects he is deaf.

But it wasn’t funny. It was just so obvious. Her voice was a soaring whinge, the windbag of a drama-school brat with only one ambition, to be clapped. I should have shouted out: I’m going outside to eat a Mars Bar ice cream. I am nine. But I didn’t. I just sat and waited. Like I sat at Pride and Prejudice in The Gate 20 years later, this time to write about it in the papers. I had to pay for it myself (The Gate are tight with comps, which I admire). A pile of feathery girls in gossamer dresses blew around the stage, everyone was bronchial and the silhouette of unbrushed curls in the next row scraped upon my nerves. The nerves! All I could think about was kimchi and sushi, one of the only chinks of real light in Dublin theatres being the nearness of Korean restaurants, but I couldn’t leave. No one is permitted to.

You are a disgrace if you eat at the theatre. They reinforce the point by starting the shows at 7.30, dinner time. That is where the deathly institution of the Pre-Theatre Menu comes from. At The Gate’s genuinely excellent production of A Streetcar Named Desire I didn’t register that it was genuinely excellent because I could only think of the bag of prawn King crisps in my handbag, crushed into tantalising fragments.

Through college I continued booking tickets to things, going along to what was ‘hot’ like a lamb to the slaughter. Trinity, The Beckett Theatre, and its blotting of bleak and badly-produced Beckett monologues, a pathetic fallacy to our unhappy years. In that fusty space I unwrapped jam sandwiches and waited patiently for the masturbations to end. Cillian Murphy in A Playboy of the Western World, a play which, during the 19th century literary revival, Trinity students hissed and booed at for its shocking content, had me now fast asleep throughout it.

It’s extremely important to say you have been to the theatre. You go to be seen there. You dress up, and once through the lipstick smear of hellos and in your seat your charming outfit gets folded away for a winter of watching. The man at The Gate shouts at you to take your seat, to turn off your phone, and not just leave it on Silent. You are such a nuisance to these people. The least you can do is buy a theatre programme, one of the most depressing documents someone can hand you at dinner time on a cold night. The idea that credits would be interesting enough to be bound into a book, that you should sit and learn biographical facts about the people on stage pounding about and pretending. It was such a big ask to suspend disbelief for these people shouting at the top of their voices about things that someone pretended happened centuries ago. Things that happened to nobody. 

It explains that embarrassing moment in a standing ovation, when two or three people gingerly stand up and soon half, soon three-quarters, yet crucially, not all the theatre are standing – like a broken typewriter, the majority of keys perfectly compliant, the few outsiders hinged down. But it’s still the best part, the most cathartic part of the evening, when the actors appear as their true, vulnerable selves, flop their bodies down and bow, thanking you, and it’s all over.

The trouble was, my theatre selections had been distilled from well-to-do ideas about entertainment, crinoline, pantaloons and assigned seating. I’d only been to the supposed peak of theatre, Christmas theatre. To use the tourist idiom, I’d visited Dublin and partied in Temple Bar. 

Perhaps I only ever wanted to be backstage, among the super-race actors. The thick, tawny limbs, the limber swerves, the phosphorescence of their skin. Their splendid technique. One night in a pub I met Simon Morgan, a singer and actor. He was rehearsing for the musical Sweeney Todd. He told me to make sure to come along and to stick around for a drink afterwards, and we exchanged that little smile. 

I went to Sweeney Todd with family members, the only people who can afford theatre tickets. Simon Morgan lorded over me with a Gothic, vampiric look in his eye and was quite compelling, co-starring with the cabaret singer Camille O’Sullivan and the foxy Lisa Lambe. “I’m going to stick around and say hi to a friend”, I ditched my family. I was taking up his invitation, following the great tradition of staying back after the show to tell the actors how incredibly brilliant they are and, in this case, hopefully scoring Simon Morgan. In the bar I sipped a chilly pint of beer and waited. I shall never forget the voluptuous happiness on the faces of Camille O’Sullivan and Lisa Lambe as they pranced in, arm-in-arm, mentor and protégée, greeting their milieu. They were brimming-best, they bounced. I shall never forget the drip-drop, drip-drop of my heart. Simon Morgan never emerged. I left the theatre. He married Lisa Lambe. 

Tant pis – I hated the theatre. Poor Lambe, I say. I would hate that life. I hated the shows in London we were marched to en famille. Buddy Holly, which would never end until my parents had the decency to take us out mid-way through – it was big of them, because you should feel very ashamed leaving the theatre like that. I knew that even then. Oh, over-cultivated youth. I was so like a drenched plant, leaves shrinking and blackening under the deluge.  

You’re noticing a pattern of unpleasantness, I can tell. That’s right. I’m jealous of actors. I never got cast. In primary school it was cronyish, rigged from the top. There was no audition process, and in the pageants, lead parts were given to particularly blue-eyed children like Ruth Lyons – an artist you will know, but not for her serene qualities, which are considerable – who played Mary more than once. In Senior Infants I was a chorus angel. Miss Cotter told my mother that I should wear a white dress. But, and I’m sure she said this to harm me, an old white shirt would do too. My mother put me in one of her old white shirts. It reached my tiny thighs and was plainly an old white shirt, not a dainty angel’s frock. That is how the show began and ended: cowering in a 1970s castoff, being pointed and laughed at. Woe was me.

Third Class. Baboushka. I played an old lady with a finessed rural Irish accent which was never recognised. Fourth Class, Deirdre of Sorrows. A nobody. Sixth class, an omnibus including Robin Hood. I played Maid Marion and a bandit within moments of each other, piling on stage trying to get a scratchy blonde wig to grip my forehead, wondering why it wouldn’t. My bandit scarf was still on. Hilarity and shame. First year. A Midsummer Night’s Dream. An elf. Our teachers were too ham-fisted to let boys into the school, so Oberon was a sixth year with an eye-shadow beard and a Vaselined bun, and the Fairy Queen never got laid. Fourth year, My Fair Lady, prompter. Fifth year, auditions for Greece in a boy school, didn’t get the gig.

Two years ago my friend Colin Murphy asked if I’d do his theatre column for a little while because he was writing a play. Journalists take what they can get and forgetting I hated the theatre I said, hot stuff, I’ll do it. Colin sent me press releases and deadlines and I covered theatre in the Indo for a month here, a month there. I retired nightly to my writing desk in the garret bedroom I lived in next to a landfill over which rats roamed. The gentrification of Dublin 8 by theatre-going types had an allegory.

Now, I wasn’t in a great headspace, so to speak. I didn’t do any meaningful research. When you hate the theatre, when it’s given you nothing to grab hold of, you don’t want to read about it. Feigning interest amounts to an ill-rehearsed and dotty performance on the page and that is what happened those regrettable weeks.

My first piece was on a production of Tom Murphy’s Whistle in the Dark. It was made by Druid, who have been producing Tom Murphy’s plays for decades. But I’d decided that all thesps were prats and didn’t do any research, then went to meet Garry Hynes, Druid Murphy’s eminent director. I said “Hello. Have you produced Tom Murphy’s plays before?” You don’t say such things to Garry Hynes. Each column was more horrible than the last to turn out. I would be awake in my garret until 4am, or sitting in a room with other journalists. They would be tap-tapping away on their computers and I would feel in total obfuscation, buried in a scrap heap of words and morphing, clashing sentences, never actually writing the things until the last scarified Monday morning minutes of theatrical anti-climax. I was blocked, clammed, and writer’s block is a kind of stage fright turned in upon itself, like the mussel that chooses to die in its shell rather than swim into the moules marinière.

Colin Murphy became a playwright. He asked me to cover more plays in the Indo, and then last summer I went on holidays by mistake, alone. Sounds cool but it wasn’t. Sitting in an Umbrian kitchen surrounded my cherries, peaches and figs I approached the blinding stage of my lap-top. I picked what was most recognisable from the barrage of press releases that appear, like faces in a druggy club, shadows of humans you half-know, approximations to friends – Samuel Beckett.

It was a release for The Beckett Happy Days festival in Enniskillen, where the playwright went to school. Someone was doing Waiting for Godot in Yiddish. That’s edgy, I thought limply. Names swayed about the email and I picked the one that said “known for his role in the Coen Brothers film A Serious Man” – Moshe Yassur. I like films. I’ll have him, I wrote.

I was given his Skype name and a time to call him at home in Manhattan. He had to just give me the quotes about The Happy Days Festival and then I’d ask him about the Coen Brothers, which was actually interesting. As he answered I was Wikipediaing him. No Wikipedia account. He was insignificant to the world. I found him on a small Yiddish theatre website, with no mention of the Coen Brothers. He was old with a grey beard. This was the wrong man. I had to improvise. “How did you come to read Beckett?” I asked with greatly masked disinterest. “I knew Beckett,” he returned in a crackled and beautiful accent. As he settled himself I scanned his biography. Born 1934 in Iasi, Romania. A pogrom against Jews was decreed. Played dead in the massacre which claimed his father. Refugeed in Israel. Theatre scholarship to Paris.

This wasn’t theatre, this was a human story. Moshe Yassur was letting me tell his story. Next I had John Scott, a choreographer, shouting down the phone from Off-Broadway. He was making a dance piece out of King Lear I had no interest in. “How did you come to work on The Lear Project?” I managed. His father, a lighting director, had died after a stroke that year, and he had cared for him. "It was a terrible thing to see this elegant and graceful and athletic man being confined to a bed, a wheelchair. I would look at him when he was suffering and think, he is King Lear,” John said. People were talking about things that must have been painful for them, had overcome the pain, and created work from it, work ambitious enough to allow others to hate it.

In the last days on holidays alone I had to read a play called Punk Rock, for a production in the Lyric theatre in Belfast. Its uncool name allowed me to retreat back into the safety of ill-will towards theatre. Theatre was a plague and it had ruined my holiday. I opened the script, saw the groan-inducing setting – a school classroom – the unreal, pretentious names Lily, William, Chiswick. I prepared a plate of tomato spaghetti and sat reading the script. It was okay. The school friends conversed in a way that was funny and ferociously intelligent – real conversations, but fresher and fuller. Three hours passed, my spaghetti cooled. The view outside of green hills and sunflowers dimmed to a dark pit as the school friends went from discussing foreplay and albums to terrorism, nuclear war, CERN, and then William massacres his school-friends.

I sat in the dark over my laptop that grim night. My lungs turned to a corkscrew, allowing tiny pipes of breath through their spiral. I was terrified. I was going to massacre my friends. Someone was going to massacre me. The world was unsafe. The quiet Umbrian village was no retreat from the deadly benighted creatures that now were rising, frothing, from the black sea of my unthinking underworld.

I wrote these three columns in a state of awe and unhappiness. Unhappiness at not getting it right, not saying what needed to be said, not writing what these plays deserved. Back home, I went to Punk Rock.

We took the train up to Belfast, myself and Lucy Moylan, a Labour Party spin doctor and ex-drama school brat. We had a horrible lunch in Deane’s Deli. At dusk we descended the long, self-perpetuating Stranmillis Road to the Lyric Theatre.

Inside was chic and woody and supported by arts councils. We felt relaxed, taking our seats. The curtains rose. The actors sat in a blue-lit classroom, straddling chairs and lounging across tables, their school uniforms taut and inappropriately sexy. The scenes shot out and the punk screamed and the characters grew personality, heart, they awoke laughter, they embodied. I got some kip in and awoke not wishing I wasn’t there.

At the interval, we drank the brackish black coffee you get at the theatre and mentioned how the play seemed to be good. Back inside things got ever more uncomfortable. I knew what was going to happen, and enjoyed watching Lucy recoil at the sinister turns in the monologues, at each arc of deranged passions. Then William stood with his back to the audience with a pistol slung in his jeans pocket. Only we could see the pistol. His friends teased him until the minute he shot them dead. Afterwards he sat in a clinical examination room with spot-light on his face. His crisp white school shirt was replaced with a grubby t-shirt and his eyes were fully mad. He told the audience how he just wanted to grow up and be normal, buy a small house and have children, not spend too much money. I daresay we were convulsed.

At last I loved the theatre. I felt utterly terrified and miserable and at one with psychopaths – and I was allowed to get the bloody hell out of there. What is not to love.