Arriving back from Liverpool, I found a stale seeded bagel in the cupboard . I tore it up into crumbs and now the starlings are feasting on it in an excited flurry across the garden . I know , I shouldn’t be surprised at their antics…I must admit to enjoying a bagel myself.There’s something about the chewy texture that feels just right.
What a weekend that was . Weekend …more like a week, really .It appears to have ended with the death of Cilla Black as I visited her hometown, but also Edward Heath , the now dead ex -Prime Minister appears to be involved in a scandal involving under-age boys. As far as I was concerned, I was off-planet for most of the time ,with no internet interaction and no time to indulge in it, in any case.My weekend really started on Wednesday night when we went to the John O’Connor Celebration at the local theatre at about seven o’ clock.
John’s niece, Cathy, had kindly provided complimentary tickets for the two nights involved. John O’ Connor was a local author who wrote a particulary fine novel concerning life in our hometown of Armagh in the times just before the 1960’s dawned with all their manic changes.John died an early death , far away at the other side of the world at the relatively young age of thirty nine years. He left behind a series of short stories and articles written with detail , skill and pace that entranced the reader. As children growing up in his wake , we were all aware and proud to have had such a fine writer grow up in our humble midst and still have the power to leave his stamp on the community. Who knows how famous he might have become , had he lived longer. As it is , his stories are still as emotive now as when written all those years ago. I still have a first edition hard-back of his novel “Come Day, Go Day”, from the late 1940s. He died in 1959 , when I was a seven year old boy.
At that age I was experiencing my first aching pangs of unrequited love with Patricia , his niece who was a neighbour and good friend of my older sister. We lived in a place called the Folly.This was a relatively new- build estate of houses with real indoor bathrooms and all the new modern conveniences. It was a far cry from the world of the Mill Row which John described in his book , with the river flooding into the low -lying houses, the outside lavatories and the arduous life described there.Of course ,Patricia was, impossibly, at least a year and some months older than my seven year- old self and the embarrassment was total when my sister threatened to spill the beans about my internal romance.The ensuing discomfiture kept me in purdah for at least a whole week. That would have been my first connection with the O’Connor family; at a time of innocence, before the advent of television; a time , as Patricia reminded me, when my mother chased me in my nakedness as I fled outside in all my glory, from the proposed prospect of a hot bath. In later years , as a teenager ,Cathy ,Patricia’s cousin, and also niece of John’s, became a very good friend and accomplice in many adventures….By that time the old Mill Row was still standing but uninhabited as newer housing estates drained the old community away.
Earlier this year Cathy suggested that I should get involved in this celebration of John’s work , so it was then that myself and the nieces, Cathy, Patricia, Roisin and Fionnuala gathered at the local museum to begin putting together the glass cabinets for the proposed exhibition. They had a plethora of pieces, including early manuscripts of John’s work, first drafts of stories and newspaper cuttings and photographs relating to his travels and tales.They all worked really hard to make the proposed celebration a success.An old typewriter was loaned and various artefacts from life before television were gathered to better inform the layouts. Besides making suggestions with the layout in the cabinets, which the girls had well-in-hand, my main input was providing the promotional artwork for the event . It was an interesting problem in that the only photographs I had seen of John were black and white , possibly taken on the ubiquitous little “Brownie” cameras that were popular back in those far-away times. The images were mostly small. I needed to do something with pizazz and extreme contrasting colour, I thought; like one of those striking San Francisco posters of the psychedelic era, that I loved .Something to grab some attention. Cathy suggested we could have it made up as one of those large exhibition standees.She called it a “Penguin”.That gave me plenty of scope.
A local artist ,Jackie Connolly, who had grown up with John had done a portrait of him some thirty years ago , many years after his death , which he probably based on both his memory of the man and possibly , some of those same photographs. His portrait was a standard take , realistically and possibly the only colour -guide in existence, for any of us , but I had only ever seen a small blurred reproduction of it ,so it wasn’t going to be much help to me .In that respect it was one artist’s colour interpretation of a past event. I had no memory of John to go on.My memories of John’s brother Pat, on the other hand, were that he had sandy-coloured hair, brushed back , but John’s seemed to be darker in those photographs. His hair seemed more bouffant and luxurious , but may have been similar and the darkness could have been a product of photographic ,chiaroscuro lighting. As for skin colour and tone , I had no idea whether he had great skin and a faultless complexion…;whether he was fair, ruddy or tanned…; but I thought ,given the tones and colours of his nieces faces ,and given that he was much younger then ,than any of us now, he probably had good ,clear, youthful skin.In the end , I decided that if I was dealing with some sort of chimera from collective memory of nearly sixty years ago , I should just use my own impressionistic style and make up the colour tones any way I wanted. What i wanted was a little bit of impact…lots of impact, maybe…
Paint the legend , in other words. I took the blurred reddish colour of John’s tie in the original portrait as a reference to bind that line of history together , but left it at that. I painted him from a different perspective viewpoint too. This had to be something to bring the writer into the twenty first century but still retain the vagaries of the past. One of my old art tutors commented once that I handled colour a bit like Henri Bonnard. I looked him up immediately to see what he was all about. If I accidentally emulated Bonnard’s use of colour in a particular painting , that was something I could live with. Some forty three years ago I was still experimenting with a variety of painting styles Well… I was a greater fan of Frank Frazetta’s impossible work, if truth be told, but I wasn’t going to argue with a back-handed compliment like that , was I?
After adding an old -fashioned type-font to the display work which I thought would perfectly suit a typewriter from the 1940’s , I took the artwork to the printers . They phoned me later to have a look at my two suggested file- proofs and I chose the one which i thought would maintain the integrity of the image when blown up to some seven feet by four in size.After that posters, leaflets and flyers were made from the artwork, but my work was essentially done.
All of this led to the complimentary tickets for the two nights of celebration at the John Hewitt International Summer School which was featuring John O’Connor . The intent was to raise enough money for the reprinting of John’s book and possibly also a collection of his short stories.In the event Cathy had gathered together the poet Paul Muldoon, who’d been at school with some old friends of ours , musician Paul Brady, writer and musician Barry Devlin whom we’d known from his band Horslips , part of which band , also appeared. On the first night there was a selection of stories introduced and read by local screen- writer Daragh Carville , actors Karl O’Neill and John Paul Connolly and Paul Muldoon , assisted by Cathy and Fionnuala in their presentations. The painting had been enlarged to such stage-spanning proportions that it seemed like a huge sepia photograph with John looking down on the performers like some sepia-tinted eminence grise from a “The Godfather ” outtake.The only pity was he wasn’t there to see his work so revered and read so beautifully to a packed house.
The following night was all music to close the week’s events.Paul Muldoon strapped on an electric guitar and joined in with Paul Brady , the guys from Horslips and the Holy Ghosts to play some primal blues and rock and roll as some kind of literary supergroup. The show began with some great blues music from the likes o Peter Green and continued in similar vein dipping into Johnny Kidd and the Pirates,Stevie Ray Vaughn , J.J. Cale, Ike and Tina Turner,, Robert Johnston, …there was even a very strange version of the Stones’ “Gimme Shelter”, some new specially written songs from Paul Muldoon and Paul Brady with a distinctly local flavour of ancient rivers, Red Branch Knights and Navan Forts, some beautifully played Horslips music which brought me right back some forty years ago, before the the band finally essayed a riotous , scything version of one of my favourite rock and roll tracks, the incandescent Larry Williams’ 1950’s bluesy “Slow Down”, which the Beatles had brought to our attention back in the early 1960’s. With all that onstage guitar fire-power it easily matched those earlier versions and proved a perfect way to roll this stomping, rocking machine to a climax. The audience loved it .
Everyone had given their services for free and the word was that the book would indeed be reprinted next year.So it was a satisfyingly successful ending to the affair.. The audience had been well-sated.
We left sometime after midnight to catch a few hours sleep before racing down the motorway at six in the morning to catch the Liverpool plane. We had barely arrived at our destination when we were in the thick of a house-moving project. Daughter Number One , her partner and my little grand-daughter ,had bought their first home.It was all hands on deck and we were on on a fast-moving clock.
After that it was a blur for three days before we eventually returned, wearily, muscles aching, to that nearly stale bagel in the cupboard . As I pause and raise my eyes from the keypad , I can clearly see that not much remains of those seeded crumbs…….the starlings , replete, have left the garden once more….