Friday, 11 August 2017

Conversations with locals

Not the specific pub, which I'm keeping anonymous, but one very like it.
I’m taking advantage of the summer months, and riding my bicycle to the village and back to take the bus to work. My job is an hour and a half away by bus, but I can use that time to read and get writing or studying done, and this time of year I hardly ever need a car. The problem in the winter is not the cold, but the darkness; for months it will be dark when I leave for work and dark when I come home, and there are no streetlights out here -- just total darkness and a very bumpy road.

I was riding home the other night when I stopped and talked with my neighbour Seamus, who is 86 and still grows most of his own food in the nearby field. He asked about our potatoes, and I told him they had fallen victim to bindweed.

“Bindweed …” he said, his face serious. “That’s tough to get rid of; the roots go deep through the soil, and they climb and choke everything, sure they do.”

Any idea how to get rid of it? I asked.

“You have to cover the ground for at least a year,” he said, “but three years would be best.”

That’s not great news for our potato aspirations, I told him.

“There is one way,” he said, pulling his chin as though summoning old knowledge. “A way we used to do it around here. You get mare’s tails -- the weed, that grows all along the banks of the canal here. You know mare’s tails?”

Sure, back home we called them horsetails, I said. They’re an old plant -- they used to grow tall as trees, a few hundred million years ago.

“They’re also quite poisonous,” he said. That made sense to me, as many plants that had survived so long had developed a cocktail of toxins to dissuade browsing animals; the fern is almost as old as the horsetail, and ferns like bracken are powerfully toxic.

“You boil some water, and put in the horsetails to make a tea -- don’t drink it, now -- and you spray that on your bindweed, sure you do. And that kills most things -- but don’t spray it on anything you plan to eat later.”

Good tip -- I’ll try that, I said. I later found that remedy was used by permaculturists as an all-natural pesticide. Almost every time I see some of my older neighbours, I have conversations like this. They can be about gardening or local history, animals or machines, but I always learn something.


I spent last night in a village in the west of Ireland, and went to the local pub, where conversation flowed easily between the regulars; sometimes it was difficult to decipher the language, not just because of the accents, but because they spoke in the shorthand of long-time neighbours. All the same, I heard several different accents; most people had grown up in the village, but others had moved in long ago from England or North America, or other parts of Ireland with different accents. Talk drifted between hurling -- Ireland’s most beloved sport, unique to this country -- and fireworks, varieties of potatoes and duck eggs, the post and the weather.  

Eventually, some of the regulars asked for “45,” and the publican brought out a deck of cards. As a group of locals gathered around the bar counter, he shuffled and dealt them each a hand. As they played -- “forty-five” is the name of the game -- I got a sense of the rules; it was a quick, lively game, with patrons slapping down their cards quickly in succession, one after the other.

You don’t see many people playing cards anymore, I said.

“You will in this pub,” one told me. “You go to other places, and everyone’s just looking down at their phone. Cards is time with your mates.”


I keep in touch with family back in Missouri, including my dad -- who not only takes care of my mom (a stroke victim) and my nephew (severely handicapped), but just about everyone else in the neighbourhood.

After the temperature hit 45 C in St. Louis recently, the power went out for 50,000 people -- something that’s happening more and more these days. Ordinarily my dad would rely on his generator, but it chose that moment to blow.

As soon as word went out among the neighbourhood that my dad was having trouble, as he put it, “it began to rain neighbors.” He had helped them time and time again, and now they came by with generators, a battery-powered fan, extension cords, coffee, vegetables and gasoline. He compared it to the end of It’s a Wonderful Life.

When people talk about society breaking down -- shortages, outages, government and civil crises, fossil fuels running low and weather going to extremes -- most people assume it will bring out the worst in people. Where I come from, people have seen some of that already, and it often brings out the best in us.  

Saturday, 5 August 2017

The Girl and movies

Sorry for the light posting; first I had computer problems and other urgent matters, and this week I start a permaculture course in the west of Ireland.

I used to write about The Girl almost every week, but in the last few years it’s been less and less. Part of that is because I am more protective of her privacy now that she is a teenager; I felt secure posting something adorable my two- or four- or even eight-year-old said, especially since I didn’t say her real name, show her face or say exactly where we lived.

As she approached adolescence, though, I’ve had many talks with her about online privacy, and she knows that I don’t post anything about her without her permission. Young people these days have never known a world that was not lived online, and they face threats previous generations never knew -- from cyberbullying to porn to the addictive nature of internet itself. Part of me wanted to keep her from modern media altogether, but that’s increasingly difficult, even here in rural Ireland. Instead, she’s getting a life on a homestead but is able to relate to her peers, and I can be satisfied with that.

No matter how different our lives might seem to some, we still go through the normal Dad-teenager conversations -- eat healthier food, turn off the telly and read more, do your chores, and so on. I’m not fond of most of the music she loves or the teenaged-girl culture that she swims in, but she stays away from anything genuinely objectionable. She also reads for pleasure, goes to the opera and sees Shakespeare plays with me, or watches old black-and-white movies - something foreign to many of her peers. She loves riding horses, and has acquired a passion for archery and other medieval martial arts, taking part in competitions against adults and occasionally bringing home trophies.

“You know, Dad, I think I’d be quite prepared for the Zombie Apocalypse,” she said. Yes, I’m pretty pleased about that, I said.


I’ve talked about my love of black-and-white films from the 30s and 40s -- not just because I grew up with them, but because their plots and dialogue seem much funnier, more suspenseful, and more realistic than most films today. They portray a world that lived on far less energy than we use today, generated far less waste and pollution. Finally, filmmakers like Frank Capra and King Vidor offered a compelling, relatable stories about regular working people facing moral dilemmas, organising with their neighbours and standing up to the greedy and powerful.

We used to watch lighter fare -- Danny Kaye in Hans Christian Andersen, or Burt Lancaster in The Crimson Pirate, or Errol Flynn in The Adventures of Robin Hood, or Cary Grant in Bringing Up Baby, or the Marx Brothers in anything. As she got older, though, we moved on to more substantial films -- Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, or Meet John Doe, or Our Daily Bread. We watched Preston Sturgess satires like Sullivan’s Travels or The Lady Eve, Howard Hawks comedy-dramas like His Girl Friday.

When she got older, we went through Hitchcock, from The 39 Steps through Rear Window (now her favourite film), The Trouble With Harry, North By Northwest, and so many others. She’s developed a taste for film noir, so I’ve been introducing her to Double Indemnity, Out of the Past, The Killers, The Maltese Falcon, The Glass Key, Gaslight and The Big Sleep.

Now, older still, she is often too busy with her own life to have a movie night with me, but sometimes she makes an exception. Last night she asked to see the one remaining film we hadn’t seen in my collection -- The Big Steal, with Robert Mitchum, Jane Greer and William Bendix. It turned out to be a delightful romp, perhaps too light in tone to properly be called a film noir, but just as suspenseful. 

The film wastes no time getting to its plot, starting the action in the first minute without explaining who the characters are -- it’s more fun to figure them out as we watch them chase, steal from, and bamboozle each other. Most films simply explains how smart their characters are; this one shows them doing clever things, with little explanation, and assumes you’re sharp enough to pay attention.