Archive for April, 2008

Afraid I’ll forget you, afraid I might try to

I used to write all my blogs sitting on my own in pubs in cafes. Mostly cause I didn’t know anyone for 15 000 miles and so I had the wonderful anonymity to be the weird guy in the corner of the pub on his own drinking his beer and typing way into his funny phone thing and silently sizing everyone up from a distance. Now being at home I’m rarely in a coffee shop or pub on my own (because I’m mr popular of course) and as a result I don’t get the writing done as it pops in my head. I have to save up the phrases as they form to write down when I get home. But of course I get home tired and sleepy and fall into bed with great plans to write the next day. And the day brings its own troubles and of course the moment is past and the phrases lost never to be recalled.

But tonight I’ll maybe make a special effort.

Had a lovely wee half day from work having worked all weekend. Though I say work it was actually a bit of a quiet one which mostly involved playing with the babies and rediscovering my technique for echocardiography. Except in babies they’re easier to get good images and they tend to have more holes in their hearts.

I spent the afternoon in preparation for the (the lovely) Gemma Hayes gig (more of which later) and listened to both her albums twice to get the melodies embedded in my head for the day.

Had the joy of getting the train down to Belfast (taking joy in such banal activities requires a certain knack), listening to (the lovely) Gemma in the headphone and reading Dickens and watching Armagh merge in to Down and finally to Antrim.

Found myself the sweetest cafe I have yet found in Norn Iron (we’re not exactly renowned for them…) in the Holylands and immersed myself in a Latte and the Irish News and a collection of simply wonderful tunes over the speakers (what cafe would play Arcade Fire, Clap your hands say Yeah, BRMC and Ryan Adams). After an hour or so they’d only played two songs I didn’t have on my computer. It was full of fresh faced students, whiling away the afternoon and a selection of bearded, wonderful indie boys who’ve never quite got over uni ending. I am home.

Skeeno joins me and I extend to him the sweaty hand of friendship (the downside of the Irish summer is that it is now warm enough for my palms to sweat – I fear the moisture is the first and most memorable point of contact with all whom I meet…) and we run through a brief catch up and wax lyrical on the benefits of having poetry in the pissers. The church rarely does what the world does as well as the world does but there are exceptions.

Sustenance in a Mexican in Botanic, and while not exquisite enough to make me cry was at least spicy enough to make my nose run. Me, Skeeno, Woodsy and two wonderful indie girls Skeeno knows from the Lowly Knights crowd. I find new people difficult, even more so cool people, or rather people I perceive as cooler than me  (which is most people). I worry I have neither the hair, the clothes or the opinions. Only rarely to get my head out of my own ass to be a human being.

My first gig in the Spring and Airbrake (any thoughts on the name) and golly gosh it was a good one. (the Lovely) Gemma Hayes has been pretty highly ranked for a while. As some kind of Irish angel of a troubador (I am perhaps carried away earlier). The duly required heckler (though in a nice way) shouted out Marry Me at the end of the first song, echoing possibly every man’s thoughts in the audience. (the lovely) Gemma gave a wry, slightly shy, almost embarrassed smile (I imagine that’s the only kind she does…) and continued to do what she did best – make me want to marry a girl with an Irish accent playing sad songs on an acoustic guitar. I made the mistake (though surely not) of standing in the middle 4 rows (not that it was a big enough gig to have rows) back, right where (the lovely) Gemma would stare as she sang, making me think she was staring at me, making me think that if I sang along with all the songs that maybe she’d marry me instead of the heckler in the front row

If the fajitas were not quiet exquisite then the band certainly were. I hold a deeply sexist view towards female guitarists which was left in tatters. There is something about professional musicians that make me want to give up the day job and wear skinny trousers and jackets over plain T-shirts. There is something in the drum fills, something in the reverb on the back pick up of the guitar, the gyrating guitarist with the resemblance to Michael Stipe, the slightly odd looking bassist who looks a like a roadie called in for the evening, the sheer tone of that voice…

But even with the encore, it’s got to end some time and the lights go on and the stage is empty and despite the set list in my hand, I’m in a rapidly emptying hall with my ears ringing and the M1 is calling me home.

That’s how I knew this story would break my heart

Come, Thou Fount of every blessing,
Tune my heart to sing Thy grace;
Streams of mercy, never ceasing,
Call for songs of loudest praise.
Teach me some melodious sonnet,
Sung by flaming tongues above.
Praise the mount! I’m fixed upon it,
Mount of Thy redeeming love.

Sorrowing I shall be in spirit,
Till released from flesh and sin,
Yet from what I do inherit,
Here Thy praises I’ll begin;
Here I raise my Ebenezer;
Here by Thy great help I’ve come;
And I hope, by Thy good pleasure,
Safely to arrive at home.

Jesus sought me when a stranger,
Wandering from the fold of God;
He, to rescue me from danger,
Interposed His precious blood;
How His kindness yet pursues me
Mortal tongue can never tell,
Clothed in flesh, till death shall loose me
I cannot proclaim it well.

O to grace how great a debtor
Daily I’m constrained to be!
Let Thy goodness, like a fetter,
Bind my wandering heart to Thee.
Prone to wander, Lord, I feel it,
Prone to leave the God I love;
Here’s my heart, O take and seal it,
Seal it for Thy courts above.

O that day when freed from sinning,
I shall see Thy lovely face;
Clothed then in blood washed linen
How I’ll sing Thy sovereign grace;
Come, my Lord, no longer tarry,
Take my ransomed soul away;
Send thine angels now to carry
Me to realms of endless day.

Robert Robinson. 18th Century

[With thank to Sufjan]

Soul Singer in a session band

If I didn’t already do what I already do, then I think I’d be a helicopter pilot. Or maybe I’d just be a helicopter passenger. Not that that’s a career, though I tried my best in NZ to make it so. The pilot bit would be a bit more exciting. I worked out most of the basics from watching Dean and Brent past the ventilator in the back of H-FZ. It seems something akin to patting your head and rubbing your stomach, with each limb moving in a different way, often at the same time. Maybe drumming a 5/8 rhythm would be similar.

And if both the witch doctor, and the helicopter pilot thing don’t work out then I might have a bash at making music, or at least making a joyful noise. I have dabbled in recording songs since I was about 16 and just learning what an open tuning was. These were mostly of the introspective, melancholic, depressing genre about some girl that didn’t love me who usually didn’t exist. Good to see things have changed at least…

Back in the good old days I remember recording first with two tape decks (don’t pretend you don’t remember tapes, you’re not a member of the iPod generation, just a wannabe…), recording one track then playing it back and recording over the top of that onto another tape with the accompanying hiss and warbled magnetic noises that come with dodgy tape decks.

My next big advance came with minidisc (whatever happened to minidiscs eh?) were I could use the same technique but with better results – by which I mean less hiss, my singing remained as bad as ever.

My studio (my bedroom above the garage in the old house) was transformed by the closure of the pirate radio station Country Star FM. This was perhaps the only fun thing that my dad got to do in his job as head of the RA (Radiocommunications Agency, not the paramilitary organisation) in Northern Ireland. Dodgy pirate radio stations would set themselves up with transmitters in hardened paramilitary housing estates in the knowledge that to be closed down you’d have to mobilise half of the British armed forces.

Anyhow Country Star FM kindly provided me with a squashed (yet entirely functional) SM58 and a greasy, malfunctioning sound desk. This brought to you such great Turf Brother hits as “where’s the milk” (recorded with the mic duct taped to a chair in the middle of the room and everyone in a circle round it) and “I’m the tractor driver (twisted tractor driver…)”. This was a new high point as one might imagine.

Shortly after Thomas Edison invented the light bulb and then Alan Sugar made his pre-apprentice career selling crappy amstrads and ruining Spurs and all of a sudden we’d entered the digital age. I first tried Cubase on my first laptop and found it cumbersome and hard to work out, and that was just the box it came in. I hate PCs, in a good old fashioned righteous anger kind of way.

And then there was Garageband, my first love. The king is dead long live the king. For the first time I could record lots of stuff simply easily and just like the Spice Girls (though maybe that’s unfair to the Spice Girls) there was enough digital gadgetry to make poorly written and woefully sang songs sound half-way professional

It also introduced me to MIDI, and software instruments, where the computer could make all the noises for you, but you had to draw all the notes onto a kind of scale thingy, which was wonderfully nerdy and time consuming and gave me great opportunities to disappear up my own ass and make no contact with the human races for weekends at a time. I eventually supplemented this with a 2 octave keyboard that I used to play the drums with and even dabble in pinyano on occasion.

But then I found myself unemployed for 6 months and had an offer of helping record/produce an EP for a good friend, and all of a sudden I was spending 8-10 hours a day in front of the computer (and ultimately upgrading to a MacBook Pro and Logic…) “mixing and scratching” as Simon calls it. This involves practically limitless numbers of effects, EQ, compressors, limiters and automation of tens of different tracks. It involved slicing up drum tracks to find just the right kick drum and making loops from drum rolls. It involved my finest Bloc Party impersonations, the occasional nod to Springsteen, Hayes, Bellamy, Wilson, Buckland, Evans, Greenwood, Woods and the ultimate of music maxims – less is more.

Not that I actually knew what I was doing, but just enough to make it look like I did. It’s easier when it’s someone else’s songs. Most importantly the fact that they’re much better than anything I could ever write but also cause you end up with not quite so much invested in them. I’ve recorded about 10 songs of my own and there’s only really two or so that I like (someone told me the only one Paul Simon still likes is Graceland, talk about overachieving…). You put too much into them and then get all fragile about them. It’s much easier when they’re someone else’s.

I listen to the songs now and keep thinking there’s something I could change. Raise the level of that guitar there, a bit less hi-end on that cymbal, but there comes a point you need to stop changing things or you’ll be there forever, endlessly lost in a mess of frequencies, track automation and snare drums that keep peaking no matter what you do…

I’m pretty sure I couldn’t so it for a living (despite the Godrich fantasy…), if only for a fact it took me over three months to do 5 songs relatively simply. I also run short of ideas pretty quick. There’s only so much you can do with double tracking the acoustics and harmonising the guitar riffs.

Anyhow, shameless (and overly long and technical) plug over with, you can have a (not so) sneaky listen


Sleep now in the fire

I think I’m more ready to write blogs at 3am, when my eyes are dry and sore, and the silence in the house is deafening. I’m working tomorrow night shift (or is it tonight) so I’m doing my usual of staying up really late the night before in preparation for it. This normally means a lot of caffeine, a varied selection of salted snacks and a DVD or five. I just watched The Matrix. Still a good film, though downhill after the first one. Must go and listen to more Rage against the machine too.

This week has been an odd one. With lots of memories of Dad being sick (though he’s now well) all being dragged up (for one reason or another) and remembering how tough that all was and how gracious GOD has been. Things happen in your life and you’re forever changed, often without you realising what happened at the time.

Parents have also went to Coleraine for a few days so I’ve had the house to myself, and have taken to lighting the fire late at night and lying barely inches from it till the wee small hours of the morning till I fall asleep and wake up like CS Lewis at the end of the Great Divorce.

Also back out in the canoes in preparation for a repeat of the Portadown to Coleraine trip of last year This time I’ve invited almost everyone I’ve spoke to, indeed consider this blog a general invite. As most people respond with “I don’t have a canoe” then I respond with a Paisley-esque “canoes will be provided…”

Our next potential candidate was the youthful yet eminent Dr Carson, who accepted a quick paddle to Knock Bridge though I did have to talk him out of the full protective swimming gear. Our top moment was coming across a gigantic (cue image of man with hands widespread saying “this big…”) pike lying sunning itself on the surface, which swam away just before Gilly could flick into the boat with the paddle.

But to finish…

“Now I’m hunched over a typewriter
I guess you call that painting in a cave
And there’s a word I can’t remember
And a feeling I cannot escape
And now my ashtray’s overflowing
I’m still staring at a clean white page
Oh and morning’s at my window
She is sending me to bed again”

My hometown

One of the things i enjoyed about living in NZ (hope everyone noticed i avoided mentioning NZ for a whole one blog, i’ve been trying real hard…) was living in my own place. Admittedly it was a nice wee “young professional” apartment with swimming pool and gym – all i needed was to develop an Ikea obsession and i would have been sorted. It was a nice place which i filled with 10 dollar toasters and a dodgy duvet which i never got round to buying a cover for in the year i was there. Interior design is “of the devil” in my books.

Anyhow since getting back i’ve been living with the old beloved parentals. For various reasons, the main one being having nowhere else to live but also felt it was kind of important for me to be here, when Da was sick.

I’ve been trying to escape for a good 4 months now, with no success. See it’s not that i hate my parents, or even hate living with them, if anything i think i kind of enjoy it too much and it leaves me a bit soft and lazy. I do not ask for dinner to be made for me, but it is, i do not ask for washing to be done, but it often is, (i will often hijack clean shirts from the line to stop Liz ironing them – nothing needs ironed, there shall be no ironing in heaven… not so sure about that one but work with me here).

Basically my parents are just too damn good to me. Only a self-centered narcissist like myself could anyway make this into a problem.

Bottom line, i don’t mind living with my parents but the time has come for a change.

And my difficulty now lies in finding somewhere else to live. The problem being that i’m a picky bugger (in so many ways…) and my area of residence is pretty specific, wanting to end up somewhere at the town end of the G-road.

This is something that’s been on my heart for a number of years (say about 4) but that I’ve been putting off by doing things like going to NZ. See all the Christians (like me) live in nice middle-class housing developments on the edge of town in places like Ballyhannon (where i live), and no one (perhaps understandably) wants to live in the run-down estates and working class areas of town. Yet that’s where all the non-Christians live. Surely it seems kind of obvious that if we’re going go into all the world and make disciples then maybe we need to go into all the world.

This came as something of a shock to me several years ago and has been running about in my head like a long-distance runner for the past few years. I’ll stop here before i get into a big rant and piss everyone off.

So anyway i’m slowly getting round to putting my bed where my heart is, it’s just taking a while.

Finding a house to rent on the G-road is not nearly as easy as one might think. Getting a private tenancy between the alcos and the guys on DLA and DHSS (and of course all the everyday working families…) and the guys from Latvia and Lithuania and Portugal and East Timor (who could have imagined that in Portadown 10 years ago…) living in all the rental houses then there’s not much left for the rest of us.

So the search continues, scanning the Portadown Times every week for houses, driving round estates after the kids club i help run on a Friday night looking for “To Let” signs.

Patience is not exactly one of my strong points (i fall into the impatient doctor category, emergencies and intensive care where if the drug you’ve just given hasn’t had an effect in the next 30 seconds then it’s not worth giving. We are the ADHD doctors…) but you get better at it when you don’t have a choice in the matter.

[The photo is a gable well on the G-Road – you just can’t beat graffiti artists with a bit of class…]

Reports from the brown river

Summer has been, as mentioned earlier, officially declared. I’m down to one t-shirt and a fleece as opposed to the extra “thermals” I’ve been wearing for what seems like the last 6 gibillion years or so. I’ve taken to walking round the house with no socks, cycling to work is now up to more than half of the days I go to work. Blue skies have appeared over Portadown. The Rapture may be imminent.

And so finally we’ve dusted off old Pudge and made a trip down the Bann. The last time we did this was three weeks before Da turned yellow and everything changed. To have him in the back of the canoe steering as badly as ever is kind of a big deal. To be honest we thought it may well have been proper summer (the one week of dry weather we’ll get between June and August) before getting him back in the canoe but GOD is good.

So instead of the usual Saturday morning lie in while listening to Fi Glover on Saturday Live on Radio 4, Dad was in like a kid on Christmas day, kicking me out of bed to look at the blue sky and the snow on the tops of the mournes out the window.

One poached egg and a few slices of bacon and a cup of coffee later we were down at Simon’s house trying to contain Lily’s excitement that we were going on a trip. Not that Lily was gong on the trip, she jut gets excited about everything “wow, look at you, you’ve got a stick, wow, what a totally amazingly awesome stick, I’m so excited, wow, I’ve just wet myself…” Ah it’s a dog’s life eh…

So with the usual stares from “the old and the bored” and the fishermen in camo gear (one day I’ll ask “you know what’s the deal with the camo gear? who exactly are you disguising yourself for? the fish?”), we paddled through town beaming from ear to ear on the best day of the year so far.

We canoed as far as we could upstream (about 3 miles) where the river hits a shallow area of “rapids” where the only way on up is to get out and walk and tow the canoe behind us. Maybe some day, not today. Me and Simon have great plans for a wee descent from Katesbridge to Portadown though we’ll have to get over a few weirs, which I’m sure is fine really… We’ll wear helmets Mum honestly…

So instead we abandoned the Bann and headed up the horses leap, which apparently is an old diversion of the river Bann built by the army back in the first half of the last century. I have no idea why they were diverting the Bann, probably something to fill the time between world wars. My (now dead) Grandad talked about how they camped down where Tescos is now. Different age, different world.

Here we stopped and sat on the bank and watched the herons and the microlites overhead (kernan aviation were having a busy morning), Dad popping pills and crisps to keep the blood sugars up till we got back. I get all cynical about the limitations of medicine and how little we can do yet here stands my Dad, doing what he was doing 9 months ago yet if he stopped his medication he’d be dead in a week or so. Gratitude springs eternal.

Incidentally the girl on the right is just Simon with long hair. The girl on the left is Lily.

Swallowed in the sea

Getting from one place to the other in the quickest possible time is not nearly as much fun as going the really roundabout way. I’m shocked that I’ve been living here for 26 years and still there remains parts of this country I’ve never seen. My parents were good and I’ve been dragged over most of it in a touring caravan as a child at one point or another. But still the discoveries are all the more fun when you make them for yourself.

Having Saturday night free (I like Saturday nights free to sit in by myself and read books – another blog in itself) and no obligations till the following night I packed the Volvo with all the essentials (tunes, coffee, book, guitar, mac, camera, series 1 of Spaced) and headed for the north coast on a mini road trip.

Happiness is a car, some tunes, some decent weather and a full tank. Though a full tank in the Volvo will cost you the same as a return flight to NZ, and will only get you as far as Tescos and back once a week but hey who’s counting?. The joy of the Volvo being that when the oil runs out I’ll just park it in a field, put an awning on it and live in it for the rest of my days.

The weather is key. Simple glorious blue skies are nice but beaten hands down by sunny skies with intermittent rain or hail showers and with a gale force wind to drive the clouds like wild horses across the sky. This gives the sky the best cloud formations short of James and the Giant Peach. Time of day makes a difference too, coastal road trips are much more fun (and make for better photos) if you get to squint into the sun at some point, and the shadows it makes are immense.

So I got to Ballymena and turned right for Cushendall (one of these places yo see on Angie‘s map on Newsline 6.30 and makes you wonder who lives there), and end up on a windy wee rising road through such places as Martinstown. (a Kiwi name if ever i heard one. Incidentally for the Kiwi’s reading – both of you – there’s a place in NI called Carnalridge.)

All this of course reminds me of NZ (which reminded me of Ireland in the first place). The Antrim plateau has always been sold to me as somewhere bleak and barren and miserable and somehow I took that in a negative way. The road down to Cushendall and beyond is now one of my new favorite places.

I parked in the car park to get out and take photos of the beach and the cliffs and received sympathetic stares from the locals in the pub overlooking the harbour. The standard ‘blooming tourists’ type look. it of course being inappropriate for Irish people to be amazed by their own scenery.

The Antrim coast road is in no way a closely guarded secret, indeed it’s well renowned as one of our better tourist spots. It’s just that somehow I’ve never made it here.

The Torr head road is sensibly singed that it is unsuitable for coaches and buses. Though having driven it I’m pretty sure it’s unsuitable for cars as well, the lanes apparently having been marked out as a cycle path and certinly not wide enough to take a car. But I’m glad it’s still there all the same. I ended up doing  my usual and stopping the car every 5 minutes to get out and take photos and then realise 2 minutes up the road that there’s a much nicer photo to be had. I have now tested every remote car park along the way and driven down every dead end track.

I was confused for a while in how Rathlin Island looked so big and indeed appeared to have mountains further down the coast, till I realised that it was actually the Mull of Kintyre and Scotland beyond.

Beaches and oceans get me every time. As they say in Chile – winner.


April 2008