Irish Monks Invented the Space Between Words: atributetothegreatestirishinventionofalltimewrittenonstpatricksdaytwothousandandtwentythree

Forget about the submarine, round towers and Sudocream.

Forget about the black stuff, Lilt, and Bailey’s Irish Cream.

Forget about the high cross, the round tower, the black-tarred currach, 

The beehive cells in Star Wars, the Books of Kells, Lismore, and Durrow.

Forget the Brehon laws, the Irish Wolfhound, the Kerry Blue, the Wheaten, 

Hydro-electricity, duty free, the alumina in Askeaton.

Forget The Hill of Tara, the light box of Newgrange

Swirly neolithic rock art, the Sacred Heart and the range.

We have the dizzy heights of Carrauntoohil, the Hills of Donegal,

The majesty of Glendalough, the beauteous village of Youghal.

We have the indomitable Dún Aonghasa, the Wild Atlantic Way,

The eternal cliffs of Moher, the Burren and Galway Bay.

But all pales and fades when placed beside the greatest of our feats,

Unequalled in the history of god or man or beast,

For the Irish monk devised a scheme for millennia unheard,

By boldly placing nothing – a space, a vacuum – between each and every word.

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Over ten years ago we gave our youngest daughter the nickname “Blanket”, and even though she doesn’t now display the behaviour that earned her that moniker, it has stuck. As a toddler she used to get very antsy and irritable on long car journeys – even after we purposefully bought a new car with a panoramic roof, thinking that being able to see the sky as we whizzed (or crawled, as the case may be) along would reduce her frustration. Panoramic rood or no panoramic roof, she would wriggle and whinge and whine and kick out – until she herself found the solution. She would cover herself with one of the blankets we kept in the back seat for when the kids felt chilly or needed to go to sleep. This was white, of thick, woven cotton, and big enough to cover a child from head to toe, just like the one Michael Jackson used to cover the original Blanket as they hurried from limousine to hotel lobby. After her discovery, we would be ten or twenty kilometres into the journey when the heckling, grumbling and shuffling would die down. I’d look into the rear-view mirror and there I’d see the apparition – my youngest in her booster seat swathed from head to toe in a white blanket.

Very often, as we drove out of Madrid on a Friday evening to spend the weekend at my wife’s parent’s place in the country, we found ourselves trapped in epic traffic jams. The car would crawl along ring roads and slip roads for up to an hour until we reached the free-flowing freedom of the A6. It was common to have the same cars accompanying us for tens of minutes of that journey, snarl-up neighbours, crawling in synch in a parallel lane. I would wonder what they thought if they happened to look in the back window of our Peugeot to be greeted by the sight of my daughter in full blanket mode. Did they think we were Michael Jackson’s family, incognito, getting down with the common people and joining them in the weekend exodus from the city? Or that we were aping the Jackson’s? Or bad, abusive parents who made their child hide herself under a blanket? Or that the creature under the blanket was some sort of disfigured monster requiring concealment from the world and its prying eyes? Or, simply, that we and/or the child were weird?

Whatever about how it may have looked from the outside, spending the guts of a three-hour car journey covered in a blanket must have been something else! It wouldn’t have been dark in my daughter’s self-made cocoon, during the daytime at least. The searing Spanish sun, streaming into the car through the panoramic roof and regular windows would have filtered through the blanket’s fabric. She would have seen its glow as long as her eyes were open. At night of course, the only light percolating through the blanket’s mesh of fibres would have been the lights from other cars – red, amber and yellow/white – and the moonlight. She would have known from the cadence of the various lights reaching her whether the road she was on was busy or quiet. A night-time traffic jam must have seemed amazing from inside the blanket, especially one caused by an accident and where ambulances, fire engines and police cars painted the night a flashing blue. The sensory effect of the lights on my daughter must have seemed like something only the most sophisticated of chill-out rooms or thoughtful art installations could match!

In an effort to replicate the effect, I took that very same blanket, sat in that very same seat (sans booster!) in the very same car and draped the blanket over me to cover my head and as much of my torso as possible. The only difference between my experience and my daughter’s was that I was sitting in an immobile car, in the gloom of my apartment block’s underground garage. I sat for a good five minutes. I tried being an open-eyed and a closed-eyed Blanket. Both modes were very calming. But I have to say, without the motion of the car and minimal external stimulation in terms of light and noise, time did drag on. 

I was just about to try Blanket mode with the radio on when the lights of the garage came on. As these strip lights’ cold fluorescent light lit up my little cocoon, I heard footsteps. One of my neighbours was walking to their car! The footsteps drew closer. I wondered what to do. Remain in Blanket mode in the hope that the neighbour wouldn’t cast a glance towards our car and see the ghostly figure in the back seat? Or whip the blanket off me and pretend to be dusting the upholstery? But what if the neighbour had seen me already? Would it be more puzzling/frightening/weird for them if I were to remain as Blanket or transform into an adult human being? After a moment’s deliberation, I opted for the former. So, I sat rigidly while the footsteps grew nearer and nearer, the locking mechanism of the car to my immediate left clicked, and the car’s guidelights and indicators lifted the garage’s gloom. I could have sworn that the footsteps slowed to a suspicion-filled crawl as the neighbour came closer to their car. I seemed to feel the piercing study of their glare through the blanket. The car beside me’s door opened, the engine started and the car moved off. I stayed in blanket mode until the garage lights went off. 

Whenever I subsequently crossed paths with that neighbour I always wondered what they were thinking!

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Continuous Improvement

“He only sleeps for four hours a night.”

“He gets up at five o’clock every morning.”

“He doesn’t sleep during the week at all, maybe an hour here and there.”

We’ve all heard these phrases being reverentially used about some high-performing chief executive, politician or celebrity. These men (for they are almost always of the male persuasion) who are held up as examples to us all also possess a variety of other almost superhuman qualities. They are “one-page men”. They do not suffer fools lightly. They always call it like it is. They are ruthless. Dynamic. Energetic. They don’t take No for an answer. They are laser focused. Often, paradoxically, they are described as “regular guys”.

To me these people sound horrendous, and yet we are constantly told by the media, self-help gurus, business coaches and their ilk to be more like these Übermensch. Us ordinary folk are just not up to scratch. We sleep too much, laze about too much, have far too much work-life balance, spend far too much time with our families. In short, we have lives – messy, irregular, angular, slobby, sticky-outy, poky lives. These executives, these high performers, these over-achieving yuppies – what do they have?

I’ll tell you: great careers, the adulation of their followers and shed-loads of money in the bank.

We are told these days that there is an anxiety epidemic. Innumerable people tossing and turning in their beds, losing sleep (quite literally) over not being up to life. Not only are we getting the message from social and conventional media that we should be more like the four-hours-a-night men, but in work we are constantly urged to have a “growth mentality”, to engage in “continuous improvement”, to “be better”. What are all these buzz-words and initiatives but a way of telling us that we are not quite up to the job, that we can always do more, be more, give more? That we fall short. No wonder those of us who work in continuous improvement environments are on edge quite a bit of the time.

Most of us do not have the make-up, be that physical or mental, to be Übermensch. We are, genuinely, regular guys and gals. Furthermore, I don’t think most of us have the ambition or desire to be one of these exemplars. I, for one, certainly don’t. We’re not slobs, with our horizons set on leading average lives. Our ideal is not limited to having a nice couch to loll on while we chow down on Uber Eats and consume reality show after reality show. Some of us are reaching for the stars in our personal and work lives, but in a quiet, steady, unobtrusive way. Some of us want to be the best version of ourselves that we possibly can – but we don’t want to get there by aping the four-hours-a-night men or rowing in behind the army of self-help and -improvement gurus.

So, how do we push back against the ever-present pressure to be over achievers? I think the solution is to focus on the self and what you really want for yourself. Don’t take what the gurus in the self-improvement industry proclaim as gospel. Don’t attempt to ape the four-hours-a-night men and don’t listen to their cheerleaders in the media. Be kind to yourself. You’re not a robot or a machine. You’re not a buggy operating system in need of an upgrade or a patch. You are you, you are human. You’ll never be perfect. Take the good bits and build on these. Try to chip away at the failings, or learn to accept them. As the song by Jerry Fish and the Mud Bug Club goes: “Be yourself, mistakes and all”.

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Barbarism Begins at Home

It was a stick. An ordinary six-foot bamboo cane, just like any other six-foot bamboo cane. But it was mine. And it had been bought with a purpose in mind: to give support to a sapling laburnum that I had planted at the entrance to our housing estate. I’m involved in a community group that looks after the trees, bushes and herbaceous borders in our estate. We’ve done quite a bit of planting over the past few years in order to green the place up. One of my last acts before winter came was to plant a laburnum sapling, which I had raised from seed myself. This was to replace a little osmanthus bush that had been vandalized a couple of weeks previously. That and another half dozen bushes had been ripped out of the ground the day after our landscaping group had planted them. We have learned that it’s not drought, disease or pestilence that we have to worry about when it comes to our plants – but the four horsemen of vandalism.

Our estate is quiet, middle class. There is a higher number of owner-occupiers than renters. The typical household is a family with primary school-going kids. Most people maintain their properties to a good standard. There are some impressive gardens, with gladdening displays of flowers and shrubs. At this time of the year one’s spirits are raised by lawns of snowdrops, hyacinths, muscari and irises. If there is “one of those families” on the estate, I am not aware of it. But, quite evidently, we do have vandals. They either live on the estate, or pass through here regularly.

The vandals are, unfortunately, and disturbingly, quite active. I have ruled out them being students from the nearby university: the vandalism occurs as equally during the summer (when the students are off) as at any other time of the year. They damage our estate’s greenery, signage, fencing and utility boxes. They graffiti. They litter. One of the nastiest things they do is break glass bottles on the cycle lanes around the estate and the greenway that joins us to other estates. A natural play area (constructed of logs and rocks) and containing a sandpit for children to muck about in has been a particular target for these vandals since it was inaugurated last summer. As well as doing their best to destroy the very stout wooden assault course that forms it main feature, its sandpit was found to be spiked with glass, rendering it unusable.

Never having engaged in vandalism, I find it hard to understand the mentality – to get into the vandal’s head. My first, and obvious, guess would be that vandals are not happy, well-adjusted people. They’re angry, hurting. Nihilistic. There is more than likely alcohol or other drugs involved, but notwithstanding this, these people must derive some sort of satisfaction from destroying the hard work of others and from turning beauty (trees, sculptures, art) into ugliness. There must be an element of envy, resentment and bad-mindedness to their behaviour. “don’t get any pleasure from this sandpit, therefore I will render it useless for anyone else.” These people must not feel rooted in the community. They are disconnected. They work in opposition to the greater good. If that isn’t a definition of antisocial, nothing is.

Can I think of any solutions to vandalism? We cannot make everything “vandal proof”. Even so-call vandal-proof bus shelters are vulnerable to the most determined hooligan. It is clear that “phone wreckers are idiot”-style ads are not particularly effective. Even signage close to lifebuoys proclaiming to vandals that “A stolen ringbuoy – a stolen life” does not work. A change needs to come about in the hearts of young men (for it is always young men), whereby they no longer feel so alienated from society that it matters not to them to destroy its beauty and infrastructure. I am unsure where to begin with making that change.

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Vanity, Shame and Pride

I’m undergoing a treatment for sun-induced skin damage, which involves the application of a DNA analogue that kills actively dividing cells. With a bit of luck this chemotherapy will eliminate all those pre-cancerous boyos, who, with a few more UV-driven mutations might become full-blown cancers. For the last couple of weeks my face puts one in mind of a cross between that of a David Cronenberg monster and salami that’s been left out of the fridge too long. Not a good look.

However, every cloud has a silver lining, and resembling Sir Scabious of Oozing-Blisterville has given me an insight into those very human emotions of shame, vanity and pride.

I’ve never considered myself to be vain. Possibly the opposite, if there is such a thing (modesty doesn’t really capture the opposite of somebody who worries and cares about their appearance). Since the ebbing of my teenage years, I have studiously avoided mirrors. I’m not into my hair; I’ve been self-cutting since long before lockdown. I’ve never had a facial or done stuff to my eyebrows. I don’t go in for male beauty products beyond daily application of a supermarket-bought moisturizer (I swear by Bulldog) and factor 50. Apart from keeping body and hair clean with the odd shower, combating the old BO through matutinal application of deodorant and beating down on excess nose and ear hair, I spend very little time, effort, money or thought on the way I look.

But, now that I look like a twenty-first century Elephant Man, I’ve discovered that I am vain. I am not enjoying looking like a freak. I’ve stopped going physically into work, lest my colleagues catch a glimpse of the new, temporarily disimproved me. I’ve stopped going on camera for remote meetings. I’ve reduced forays outside the house to a minimum – a pre-sunrise dog walk and another sheepish one at lunch time for which I’ve chosen a route I know to be sparsely peopled. My Christmas shopping has been carried out online. Not wanting to give a poor impression of my daughter to her teachers, I left going to a parent-teacher meeting last week to my better half. It’s like lockdown all over again!

On the handful of occasions over the past few weeks when human interaction was unavoidable, I felt something I hadn’t felt since I was a teenager – shame at my physical appearance. Just like many teenagers, I was prone to acne. Looking back with more objectivity than I could muster at the time, I would say my acne was light – on a scale of one to ten, perhaps a two. But whenever I had a particularly prominent or gruesome spot I remember feeling shame, that I looked dirty, infected, poor, unhygienic. And, of course, that everyone was looking at me. Which, once more, objectively, they weren’t, but nobody could tell me that at the time.

What makes my current condition bearable is that I know it is temporary. I’ve only a couple more days left of applying the dreaded cream, and, perhaps a week or two later I will have a face as smooth as the proverbial baby’s bottom, all pink and smooth with a new generation of epidermal cells glowing healthily in the morning sunshine. But imagine if this were a permanent condition; I would have to develop more a mature coping mechanism than withdrawing from the world. I would have to learn to do something with that vanity, that shame, that pride. It seems a facile lesson to have (re)-learnt, but my current predicament has reinforced the idea that we are so much more than our physical appearance and should not be judged by that thin layer of epidermis that separates us from the outside world. I will have more sympathy for those cursed with permanent bad skin; those with eczema, psoriasis, acne etc. I have walked a mile in your shoes.

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