Top of the Pops Thursday evening 7.30. Tape recorder in front of the telly in the living room. Fingers crossed me and my older brother Neil would be left in peace. Dad’s weekly ogle at Legs and Co. was always a risk.
I really have no idea who else was on that week in October 1977. I have no idea who presented the show. What I do know is that David Bowie performed live. In jeans, shirt loose at the cuffs and a golden crucifix dangling from his neck, he looked like a God. Actually, strike that, he was God. I was 11 years-old. I knew David Bowie, the Starman who’d mesmerised 6 year-old me on the same show in 1972. Then he’d sung of children. He’d sung to me. But here was a new Bowie. The alien replaced by a lad with a nice haircut, washed and blow-dried too by the looks of it. This time he’d sing of Heroes.
Just as that unmistakable beat and opening chords gave way to that voice. Just as I’d pressed record and the tape began to spin. Just as my brother and I exchanged a glance. Dad appeared.
I, I wish you could swim…like dolphins…like dolphins can swim…
‘Look at the bloody state of him.’
Though nothing…will drive them away…we can beat them…just for one day…
‘Christ. It’s bloody awful. He’s out of tune.’
I, I will be King…and you, you will be Queen…
‘Aw. He’s on drugs. He’s on drugs! Bloody disgrace!’
Oh, we can be heroes…just for one day…
‘Sounds like a cat being strangled. Christ almighty!’
And we kissed…as though nothing could fall…
‘Dear oh dear. Mary! Mary! Come and see this. Oh my God!’
We can beat them…forever and ever…
‘Look at his shirt! LOOK-AT-HIS-SHIRT. National Service. That’d sort out his like.’
We can be heroes…
‘He’ll never get anywhere with that racket.’
We can be heroes…
‘Tell you something. He’s no Matt Monro.’
We can be heroes…
The terrible tale of what really happened - why to this day there are no moles in Ireland. Prepare to be shocked...
Todays word - Shenanigans - is, in my humble opinion, simply wonderful.
Just utter the word Shenanigans and a multitude of scenarios spring to mind. Until now a Board Game wasn't one of them for me. I certainly don't think Santa would have put anything to do with shenanigans in my Christmas sock. Having said that the Festive Season, particularly in Ireland, is most definitely a time of shenanigans taking place willy-nilly (now there's a phrase I must look into).
So, what exactly are shenanigans?
A few years ago I had the pleasure of a drunken chat with legendary actor Alan Devlin outside The Queens Pub here in Dalkey. Poor old Alan, winner of the 1984 Olivier Award no less, had fallen off the wagon in great style. It was Halloween, he was suitably clad as a vampire, and utterly plastered. Credit where it's due Alan was very pleasant with it. Having spent his last fiver in The King's Inn across the road he courteously asked as to whether I'd be kind enough to stand him a drink. How could any decent soul refuse? 'Would you be able to fetch it from the bar too?', he asked, 'as I was barred earlier in the day for all sorts of shenanigans.'
Alan refused to expand as to what these shenanigans might have been. Suffice it to say they were bad enough to incur the wrath of the otherwise genial Bar Manager. As he sipped his Bacardi & Coke (a surprising choice) Alan confided in me that shenanigans had pretty much ruined his life. Shenanigans had cost him two marriages and he reckoned by the end of the day in question quite possibly three. Shenanigans had lost him many an acting role including the lead in a play in Dublin after which he ended up living rough near Baggot Street for a number of months. 'Ah, but it's a great word all the same,' he added with a rueful smile.
Although I'd always assumed shenanigans to be an Irish word the OED lists its origins as 'obscure'. One theory however is that it does indeed have Celtic roots, derived and anglicised from the Gaelic for 'like a fox' - sionnachuighim. The name of the river Shannon is derived from Sionna, the River Goddess so I reckon this is quite plausible. I have my doubts as to how fox-like poor old Alan Devlin's carry-on was but it makes some sort of sense that shenanigans reflect the drunken spirit of getting away with things - i.e. sneaking out for a few pints / having a sly one etc. etc.
As Alan drained his glass my wife appeared. He immediately leapt to his feet and kindly offered to dance with her despite there being no music. She graciously declined to which Alan replied with a wink in my direction, 'Probably just as well, there may have been more shenanigans...'
As Alan wandered away I called after him, 'It was a pleasure. We'll meet again', to which he replied with a mischievous grin, 'It was, but no...we won't.'
He was right.
Alan Devlin died suddenly the following May. I guess the shenanigans finally caught up with him.
Usually I go on about words here but today thought I'd share a true story. What's described happened in the small market town of Coleraine in Northern Ireland on June 12th 1973, four days after my 7th Birthday. In my mind it could be yesterday.
'Shared Troubles' was long-listed for the 2012 Irish Times Short Story Award.
“Sit down, it’s just a bomb.”
We did as we were told. Miss. Archibald turned back to the page and resumed the story. Words came out, I heard them, but they were meaningless. She may have been able to make us sit but our minds were always beyond her control. We all watched as the dust cloud rose over our wee town.
Jane Branagh started to cry.
Nigel McElfatrick joined her.
I felt I should too but didn’t, or maybe couldn’t.
Miss. Archibald turned another page.
Friday stories. Most of the kids hated them. Not me, but I never told anyone.
All our Dads worked downtown. Ballantyne's Knitwear and the Shirt Factory. All our Mums shopped downtown. Marks and Spencer, C&A, Gordons Chemists. Perm, blow-dry and gossip on a Friday afternoon then Mum would dash home under a headscarf with a few weekend treats in her shopping bag. Downtown was close. You didn’t need to drive. I once pogo-sticked all the way from our house to The Diamond. That achievement made me part of the gang. Led by Jeremy Watson, the gang was where you wanted to be. Except for now, I just wanted to go home.
I remember thinking that I never knew glass was bendy. How come I never knew that? But after the blast I had seen it warp in the window frame, buckling inwards for a split second before resuming its usual state. I wondered if anyone else had noticed.
Miss. Archibald read on.
There were no sirens and no screams. Downtown was close but not that close. There was silence, except of course for Miss. Archibald. I wished she’d shut-up now.
The cloud, dense at first, started to dissipate and lose form. It was interesting.
I looked at Miss. Archibald. I glanced at the book in her hands. It was shaking. So was her voice.
My Dad worked downtown. My Mum shopped downtown. My sister went to school downtown. Maybe hers did too.
I’d noticed things recently. It wasn’t like it used to be. Stuff I’d only seen on telly had come to visit us. Somebody set fire to the Catholic school up the road. My Dad had to close the factory because some men in balaclavas told him to. Then he was on TV – Scene around Six.
The second blast bent the glass too.
Miss. Archibald stopped reading.
More dust plumed into the air. We all ran to the window, even Miss. Archibald. The school alarm wailed.
“You all know the drill.”
Like soldiers on parade we lined up beside the smelly sinks at the back of the class. We marched out of the room and down the staircase.
We held hands.
Mojo - it's become a particularly annoying word. Frankly I blame the one-trick pony Austin Powers. Hadn't heard it used for quite a while until recently when somebody said without a trace of irony, 'I think I've just lost my mojo.' Didn't think such a thing could be instantaneous. Surely MOJO would slip away almost imperceptibly, a gradual trickle rather than a deluge?
Well, while stifling a giggle I made a mental note to do a bit of research (yes, I am that sad). Oddly enough I was led straight to John Lennon:
He roller-coaster he got early warning
He got muddy water he one MOJO filter
He say "One and one and one is three"
Got to be good-looking 'cause he's so hard to see
Come together right now over me
My fellow Beatles aficionados will know that's the final verse of Come Together from Abbey Road. It's my favourite album, ever, of all time. I even have a copy signed by George Martin (bragging here - sorry). For years I believed a MOJO was a musical instrument of some sort, something akin to an early Moog synthesizer. I had visions of John turning to Paul in the studio and with a knowing look saying, 'Hey Paul, think it's time for the MOJO filter, what d'you reckon?'
Suffice it to say if ever human beings were possessed of MOJO it was these four, filtered or not. So what the hell was Lennon on about? There's a theory each verse of the song relates to a fellow Beatle. The one in question here Paul. They weren't getting on at the time so perhaps McCartney was deemed to be filtering out Lennon's feelgood factor. Frankly that sounds like a load of twaddle to me. However, just for fun let's return to Abbey Road in 1969 once more:
John: 'Hey, Macca. Stop filtering my MOJO.'
Paul: 'Get rid of the Mrs. and I'll think about it.'
So, there you go. Banish the image of Austin Powers and maybe MOJO has a place in the world once more. If it was good enough for John Lennon it's good enough for me. Just wish it really was a piece of recording kit.
Gobshite - a great Irish word if ever there was one. It's perhaps the most damning of insults in the Emerald Isle, spoken with a particular vehemence and finality that leaves no doubt as to the nature of the individual being described. Only people can be gobshites. Never do you hear "well, my dog/cat/goldfish is a total gobshite" although I reckon it could be applied to certain canine varieties. "That Pug/Chihuahua/Basset Hound/Yorkshire Terrier is a bit of a gobshite" works quite well. Could catch on I guess. I’ll leave it with you.
As the Celtic Tiger miaowed its last the Irish Daily Star newspaper ran the infamous headline USELESS GOBSHITES alongside a picture of senior government ministers and Taoiseach Brian Cowen. Said it all really. Recently Liam Gallagher publicly called his brother Noel a "fucking gobshite". No surprise there. Oddly enough, the word is more generally used to describe a person’s demeanour rather than being based on what spills from their mouth. A gobshite is just as likely to be a fool of few words as an idiot gushing inanities.
Stupid Gobshite. Ignorant Gobshite. Thick Gobshite. Total Gobshite. Uneducated Gobshite. Illiterate Gobshite. Awful Gobshite. and of course most damning of all Useless Gobshite. To my mind the word holds most punch when muttered under the breath and accompanied by a despairing shake of the head. This usually happens when an unwelcome drinking companion finally drains their glass and exits the pub.
So - there you have it - Gobshite. A marvelous bit of Irish slang. Give it a bash – goes well with beer.
Here’s a wee clip of Father Jack showing just how it’s done: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=9R89oERKCaU
This week something completely different. My great friend Helen who lives in Tanzania sent this through to me a few days ago. I hope I can do the story and emotion behind the letter some justice.
Over the past 10 years or so Helen has established a business from scratch in Dar-es-Salaam making furniture and handwoven fabrics. She employs about a dozen local people.
We live in a frantic world of tweets, facebook posts and texts. I'm more than a little guilty of hiding behind them. Sadly it's all too easy to click out a couple of words rather than actually communicate one-to-one. As a consequence it seems we've all but lost the wonderful art of letter-writing.
My Mum on the other hand wrote every day. The bureau where she used to sit and compose letters to faraway relatives and friends stands in my hallway though I don't use it as intended. (Sorry Mum.) I can still picture her writing paper - Basildon Bond - translucent, delicate, lavender hued, and with the handy lined under-sheet to keep your words neat. In return for my Mum's efforts letters would arrive almost daily from across the globe, many to be read out in the evenings. Births, deaths, illnesses, marriage, divorce, joy, misery, hope, despair, holiday plans, shared memories, life's banalities and disappointments all spilled forth from those pages. Family discussions would take place, we'd ask questions, get answers and half-truths, be told tall tales, laugh and if there was sad news even shed a few tears together. Those letters were windows onto other worlds and lives that could only be imagined in my young mind. Perhaps it was just the mundane made marvelous but I don't think so.
And so, on to the wonderful letter Helen received. This is what she told me.
Dan (in the hard hat) & Moody
"Moody and Dan, two carpenters who work for me, gave me this letter. Moody's baby Hafsa was taken into the Muhimbili Hospital in June. Moody said Hafsa was constantly crying. People get forgotten about in the hospitals here so it's good if someone can check on them and make sure they're being looked after. Luckily I have a friend who kept me posted. The next day I got a call saying Hafsa had been diagnosed with terminal cancer and nothing could be done. She was expected to live a maximum of two to three weeks. Moody took the news very badly. When he came to see me he could hardly stand up. The decision was made to take the baby to stay with his wife's family.
There wasn't much I could do apart from give him some money to cover his expenses and plenty of time off work. After about two weeks he came back. I asked about Hafsa and he said he had taken her to the traditional Doctor and that she was now well. Three months passed and he seemed to believe she was ok. Sadly she passed away a couple of weeks ago.
What I'm trying to say, what I find incredible is, that despite the incredibly difficult circumstances people live under here and how little they have, they are so grateful.
Moody doesn't speak any English so Dan did the writing for him."
It's not just the words but what lies between the lines that matters...
If you'd like to know more about Helen & the work she does click here:
Here's my very first WORD-NERD blog and coincidentally here's the very first
'WORD OF THE WEEK'
It's Lurgy and I love it. It could be on my mind having just been down with The Lurgy, or 'a bit of a dose' myself. The dose in question being a non-specific illness, could be anything from mild flu-like symptoms to full-blown gastric meltdown (refer to latter for rough idea of how my life has been for past week or so).
I first remember hearing the expression Dreaded Lurgy in Northern Ireland when I was but wee. The particular lilt and tone of the dialect made it sound more than a tad threatening (get an image in your head of Gerry Adams muttering 'Dreaded Lurgy' over & over again and you'll get my drift). Anyway, a rotund, florid and taciturn mon, whose job it was to stoke the boiler in the knitwear factory my Dad ran, loomed over me one Saturday morning (other kids played football - my brother & I went on spontaneous factory visits). He tousled my hair and asked how I was to which I replied that I'd been off school sick for a few days. Peering at me morosely he sighed and said, 'Aye wee fella, I can see right well ye've been down with the Dreaded Lurgy so I can.' The fact that I was a mere 7-year old at the time combined with the conviction of the big mon's delivery left me in no doubt I'd had a near death experience. That night the hideous vision of malign Lurgies surging through my bloodstream made sleep impossible. I can still see them now - vomit green, buck-toothed and poking at my red blood cells with their teeny-weeny little swords.
Imagine my total amazement when I found out that my heroes 'The Goons' (well, one of the writers anyway - most likely Spike Milligan) came up with the term back in the 1950's. In the original radio scripts it was spelled Lurgi. Indeed an entire episode was titled Lurgi Strikes Britain. Apparently a symptom was the uncontrollable urge to cry Yack-a-Boo!
So there you go - it would appear that the late lamented comic genius Spike Milligan invented the word Lurgy. No better man for the job. Now for an utterly useless Lurgy-related fact:
County Donegal claims the only River Lurgy. Close by you can stay at Lurgy Vale Cottages.
Same time, same place, same day, next week - a different WORD...