Archive for August, 2007

Don’t change your plans for me

I haven’t gone away you know. I mean I haven’t gone back to NZ. Or maybe you’ve not noticed. Or maybe you already know.

At lunch time on Sunday past, a tannoy voice in Belfast city airport called ‘passenger Neill’ to proceed to the gate. And someone boarding the air New Zealand flight to Auckland that evening would be pleased to find the seat beside them empty. At Napier airport there would be no bleary eyed member of the walking dead greeting the ‘sky blue sky’ of Hawke’s bay and rejoicing in his first decent cup of the black stuff in 6 weeks.

And there would have been none of the desperate regret and tearing, the bitter separation of leaving where I am now (and all that that means) behind.

To be brief – and I intend to be lengthy at some point, if I ever find words (or indeed the guts) to describe the past month – my Dad got sick.

And I would be nowhere else but here at this time. Walking away (when I saw the heat around the corner..) from NZ was as easy as two, admittedly rather emotional phone calls to my boss and my best mate out there.

In the midst of two weeks of hospital visits, on the other side of the fence, I’m lying in the greenhouse, tacked onto to the toilet of our house (it is more elegant than it sounds) listening to Pedro the Lion and reading CS Lewis essays (proof that indeed this literary/cultural nonsense I indulge in is actually solid ground beneath my feet and not mere entertainment to make the slow road to the promised land pass a bit more tolerable, which is why I mean it when I say I’ve come to like only the music that makes me feel like crying) – and somewhere between keep swinging and start with me I’m back in Napier. Running (indeed a distant memory, perhaps even fantasy) round the estuary in the twilight, dreaming of home and the dear souls who dwell there, and in the near dark catching my breath. Passing the fish and chip shop, looking forward to a shower and the endorphins.

NZ was something that happened a million years ago, somewhere else, to someone who looked a bit like me and just perhaps may have been somewhat like me, but it did not happen to me. At least that’s how it feels.

I’d already decided not to stay. The plan was always to have been back in NI by Christmas. But I had goodbyes planned. Or at least planned that I’d plan my goodbyes. There’d be a farewell meals with lots of different people, there’d be more helicopter rides and resus calls, and central lines, and speaking to relatives (for good or ill), and cups of coffee with the staff.

I wanted to leave NZ. Though this was not how I pictured saying goodbye to the place.

No distance left to run

My mother told me a lot of things. Some useful, some pointless. I unfortunately tended to forget the useful things (like how to identify trees by their leaves) and remembered the rather more useless ones. For example ‘if you can’t say anything nice, then don’t say anything at all’. Which I will admit contains some noble principles but if followed too rigidly would make the world a very quiet place indeed. When I think about it maybe there’s more wisdom there than I thought…

This is where the old 15000 miles came in handy. It is easy to listen from a distance, it is easy to confess from a distance, it is easy to criticise from a distance, it is easy to go off on a little rant from a distance. As a result it is easier to blog from a distance. Part of this is not having to face the consequences of what I might write, or can I rephrase that to say that I don’t have to think about facing the potential consequences of what I have written.

I have noticed since my return that the entries in my multi-coloured journal pages are becoming longer and longer and the frequency of blogs less so. I’ve felt the need (compulsion/common sense/wisdom/fear) to keep my rantings and ramblings somewhat to myself. I am an opinionated wee rat. I know this. I hope, and it is mostly hope not wisdom, that I still have the self-awareness to appreciate when and where an opinion is not particularly welcome.

It is not that I have lots of snide comments to print about people behind their backs, but I do realise that I have a tendency (perhaps more, perhaps less than others) to resolve every conversation with ‘you know what your problem is…’

And so I will continue to use the frustrations and the things that make me angry about the people I love so dearly, to cover for the frustrations and things that make me angry about myself.

Of minor prophets and their prostitute wives

I tend to have about 3 or 4 books on the go at any one time. I tend to start with good intentions, to read one book thoroughly cover to cover, to persevere through the boring bits before beginning another one. Kind of like when you feel guilty for skipping past track 5 (I never knew what it was…) on Astral Weeks, just to get to Madame George. (NB if none of you have experienced such ‘artist loyalty’ guilt, then do not panic. You are indeed one of the sane ones and should get a certificate or a stamp to prove it for future reference).

But I always fail and end up giving up on such fine and virtuous books such as Paradise Lost in favour of the new Harry Potter or another sustained attempt at the first chapter of Mere Christianity. And so I end up with 4 books on the go, and always one as the runt of the group, at the bottom of the pile and neglected. Only read in moments of true virtue and commitment, ‘one chapter I suppose…’

I’ve started a new phase of buying second hand books. For lots of reasons, but mostly by necessity of books being hard to get and expensive in NZ. For the bargain price of 12 bucks I got an original Mark Twain book (the innocents abroad) published in 1869 and looking for all the world like a church of Ireland prayer book. From an age when all books looked like the church of Ireland prayer book. This has been the runt of the pile for 6 weeks or so now.


Anyhow, it’s basically a travel book. Like a Bill Bryson or something. I thought sarcasm and irony were purely 20th century inventions, but it appears they were alive and well in the 19th. However it was a slightly different age of travel, when a European excursion was a 6 month affair, involving your own ship and available only to the well-to-do of the population.

What is remarkable is how little anything seems to have changed. Now I know reading 19th century travel books is hardly keeping up with the times, but it seems even then people were visiting the tower of Pisa and being accosted by gypsies on the way back to town (as happened to me in 2000). That people still visited Paris and the Louvre (without the funny glass pyramid or the Da Vinci Code associations). That guides still hoisted themselves on poor unsuspecting tourists and told lies about common attractions in poor quality English (and of course Americans still pay heftily for the privilege…) That people still visited Rome and marvelled at how man is so keen to preserve legacy and prestige while the beggars lined the gates to the churches.

All this as a build up to two quotations, just cause they made me laugh out loud by myself – a thoroughly pleasant experience and recommended to all.

On visiting the ruins of ancient Pompeii and seeing the frozen figure of a Roman soldier still at his post, unflinching at the onslaught of the lava:

“Let us remember that he was a soldier – not a policeman – and so praise him. Being a soldier, he stayed – because the warrior instinct forbade him to fly. Had he been a policeman he would have stayed also – because he would have been asleep.”

And the following reflection on Rome and history:

“After browsing among the stately ruins of Rome, of Pompeii, and after glancing down the long rows of battered and nameless imperial heads that stretch down the corridors of the Vatican, one thing strikes me with force as it never had before: the unlasting, unsubstantial character of fame.

Well twenty centuries later and what is left of these things? A crazy inscription on a block of stone, which stuffy antiquaries bother over and tangle up and get a bare name (that they spell wrong). What may be left of the great General Grant’s (American Civil War leader and 18th president of the US) name in 5868 AD, possibly:

Uriah S Graunt – popular poet of ancient times in the Aztec provinces of the United States of British America. Some authors say he flourished about AD 743, but some say he was a contemporary of Scharkspyre, the English poet and flourished about AD 1328 – some three centuries after the Trojan War, instead of before it. He was famous for writing, “Rock me to sleep Mother”.

These thoughts sadden me. I will to bed.”

Woodsy tells me one day everything will be recorded, (with advances in technology), every conversation and action, not for any nefarious purpose but simply because we can. And that the record of all our lives will be held on something the size of a grain of sand. Something like that anyway, I wasn’t really listening…

Though, despite the internet and the digital camera and the proliferation in media and storage and the simple availability of recorded history and culture, despite all this I’m not sure we’ve learnt too many lessons, we’ve still got beggars on the streets, humanity obsessed with power, money and prestige and we’ll probably still have “another century spent pointing guns at anything that moves” and post-modernity has grown up and given birth to a generation with this question on their lips:

“and each morning she wakes with a dream to describe
something lovely that bloomed in her beautiful mind
i say, “I’ll trade you one for two nightmares of mine,
I have somewhere I die, I have somewhere we all die

but then night rolls around and it all starts making sense
there is no right way or wrong way, you just have to live
and so I do what I do, and at least I exist
what could mean more than this?
what would mean more, mean more?”

Conor Oberst – Bright Eyes

These thoughts sadden me. I will to bed. Make your own mind up whether they’ve got it right.

I’ll leave you with some Pedro just to point you in the right direction (Hint it’s all in the title of the song, know your Bibles people…)

“all the time you were burning my letters
you were only acting the part
you think without me you’ll get on much better
but you don’t even know your own heart
come home, darling
come home quickly
come home, darling
all is forgiven, so come home quickly

i treated you as if you were a princess
you treated me like a cop
i gave you boundaries to save you from certain death
dangling from the end of the rope

come home, darling
come home quickly
come home, darling
all is forgiven, so come home quickly

but you’re still playing for a love you’ll never find
outside of these arms of mine

the whole town is one step behind you
with the hang man on call
they’ve got the judge and you’re convicted without a plea
darling, they will listen to me
darling, they will listen to me
darling, they will listen to me”

Pedro The Lion – Of Minor Prophets and their prostitute wives


August 2007