Saturday, 26 May 2012

1987 - A Very Good Year?

In her latest post, my fellow blogger, Lisa Golden, asks the question, “Imagine 1987 as the future and not the shrinking image in the rearview mirror. What do you see?”

At first I thought I’d do the usual thing and post a comment. But as I started thinking about it, I realised that the question was just too good for that. And then I discovered that I didn’t really want to imagine that year, a quarter of a century ago, as the future, but rather remember it as it was then. And, instead of replying on Lisa’s blog, writing something about it here.

Although, when I think about it, I suppose I can remember it as the future if I just place myself in the me that was then, seeing in the New Year for the first time in Western Germany, watching the fireworks rising into the sky above the Rhine and Cologne Cathedral illuminating a snowy city, wondering what the year would bring, still marvelling at the amazing new life I had begun, only a few months earlier, to lead.

For in the previous year, fuelled by the irresistible, all-devouring power of falling head over heels, completely, totally in love, I had trashed all the certainties and goals of my life up till then, abandoning my life and existence as a Catholic priest to start a new life in a new country. We had dared to take the words of Bowie’s Absolute Beginners (one of the big hits of 1986 and one of the songs we used as the soundtrack for the perfect microcosm of our dramatic love story) literally, “As long as we’re together / the rest can go to hell,” and set up our love-nest in Heidelberg. We were visiting the Rhineland where Eva’s family lived for the holidays, which was why we were greeting the New Year 1987 in Cologne.

At the beginning of any year, nothing is fixed. Anything can happen – and most certainly will. Billions of stories, great and small, public and private, will begin, end, continue. Out of all this we each construct our own realities, our own stories, future flowing into present before becoming immutable past before the background of everything else which is happening.

What was the background of 1987? Musically, Madonna is travelling the world with the Who’s That Girl tour, Michael Jackson releases the album Bad, Whitney Houston is warbling that she wants to dance with somebody (who loves her)[i] and the film Dirty Dancing will be released, turning Patrick Swayze into an idol for untold millions of adolescent girls even beyond his death twenty two years later. Joss Stone and Kate Nash are born. Liberace dies (of AIDS). And, for me as well as millions of others, the music which still fills the role as soundtrack for that year is that of U2’s The Joshua Tree; “With or Without You,” “I Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For,” “Where the Streets Have no Name.” Like me, they too came from Ireland, I had seen them live years before when they were still learning to play. They had achieved heights on the Olympus of rock previously unimaginable for an Irish band. A symbol for me that year of the attainability of all kinds of unimaginable dreams.

But a year which also taught me about how reality can bite. An immediate, fundamental change happens. The few months of just enjoying freedom from all the constraints of my previous priestly church-bound existence, a time of idle meditation on what I might best do with the rest of my life comes to a sudden end. On New Years Day Eva tells me of her suspicion that she is pregnant. I am faced with the immediate reality of having to take on responsibility – for a child, and a wife, for we also decide to marry. Life becomes challenging, in some ways even threatening. Less than a year earlier, Chernobyl has exploded, spewing radioactive waste all over Europe, and there are lingering worries about the consequences for women who are becoming pregnant. Unfounded, as it happens, for most (apart from thousands in the vicinity of the reactor in the Ukraine) but the worry is there. And I’ve got to find a job, any job. There will be mouths to feed, and bills to pay. I’m in a foreign country, my command of the language is rudimentary, and employers aren’t exactly lining up to offer interesting, fulfilling, well-paid jobs to young ex-priests. The little bit of money I had has almost run out. Eva’s family will help us, but the luxury of taking time to find and orient myself has abruptly run out for me.

Luckily, Heidelberg is a major centre for the US Forces in Europe and they’re always looking for civilian employees who can speak and write English fluently. As a native of a European Community country, I have the same employment rights as a German in Germany, so there is no trouble there. And so, in March I start work as a Voucher Examiner at the 266th Theater Finance Company of the US Army.

It is strange how practical circumstances can change your attitude to things. Three years earlier, back in Ireland, I’d been marching in a huge demonstration, proudly carrying a Sandinista flag, against US foreign policy and militarism generally on the occasion of Ronald Reagan’s visit to Dublin. Now I was working for the man, and glad to have the job.

The Cold War was still – officially – going on, and my job was processing a tiny amount of the tonnes of paperwork involved in paying the bills caused by the thousands of US servicemen and women who were in Europe to protect us from the Evil Soviet Empire. But the thaw was on. Gorbachev had come to power in the USSR and he was a man, as Margaret Thatcher famously said, with whom one could do business. Reagan came to Berlin in 1987 and urged Mr. Gorbachev to “tear down this wall,” but later that year the two of them amicably made history by signing the INF Treaty. In the near but as yet unimagined future the Wall would come down, the Soviet Union disappear, and in the wake of the huge realignment in world politics, most US and NATO troops would leave Germany. But in 1987 it was still business as usual in divided Germany.

The work itself was soul-destroying – taking a pile of paper which had already been worked on by someone else, doing some more work on it, and then passing it on to the next person to process it further. At some stage, a little farther down the line, the bills actually got paid. The work environment was fascinating. We were three distinct groups; soldiers, US civilian employees (mostly relatives of soldiers) and German/European employees. You got used to having two currencies in your pocket, for the Coke machine only functioned with quarters, nickels and dimes. The Americans were paid in dollars, we got our wages in deutschmarks. Our conditions and duties at work were governed by German labour law, the Americans followed army rules. They worked on German public holidays, we had to turn up on the Fourth of July. They paid less taxes, we could send our kids to college without it beggaring us.

I got to know an amazing world; that of the US forces in Germany – a little bit of America, completely sealed off (for those who wanted it so) from the host country. In places like Patrick Henry Village you could live for years, shopping at the Commissary or the PX Store, buying your (American) car from an American import dealer, going to an American movie theatre or McDonalds, sending your kids to an American school, worshipping in an American church, without any contact with the wider world around you. I worked with people who had been in Germany for ten years and had never learned a word of German.

The radio was on in our office all the time, and it was US stations we listened to. That year, the major theme was Oliver North and the Iran-Contra Affair (given increasing rumours of Reagan’s Alzheimer, one joke going around at the time took Howard Baker’s famous Watergate question and amended it to, “What did the president forget and when did he forget it?”).

But outside Thompson Barracks where I worked, my life was becoming increasingly German. My command of the language was slowly improving and I was making new friends. In the course of all this I was also making a discovery which astounded me. As an Irishman, I had grown up speaking English and I would always have claimed that, behind my particular Irish conscious identity, my default cultural conditioning was that of the English-speaking, American-dominated cultural world; literature, music, film, TV. Yet the more I worked for and with Americans, the more I found myself identifying myself as a European. On some sort of profound level I felt that I had more in common with the Germans, to whose country I had come less than a year earlier and whose language I still spoke very badly, than with the Americans, with whom I shared a language and whose popular culture I felt completely familiar with, and at home in.

In retrospect, it probably had much to do with the fact that, in that year of 1987, I was finding and developing a new identity for myself, an identity built on my exciting new role as lover and husband and – most fundamentally – father. A real one this time, as opposed to the pointless honorific conventionally offered to Catholic priests, something I had never felt comfortable with.

Many famous people died that year; Andy Warhol, Rita Hayworth, Fred Astaire, John Huston and James Baldwin, to mention just a few. And, on a wonderfully sunny August morning, the last of the top Nazi elite, the sole inhabitant of Spandau prison in East Berlin, the sad, evil old bastard, Rudolf Hess, ended his sorry life by his own hand. On that day my daughter was born and I remember thinking, in the midst of my swirling, astounded joy and wonder, that this was a sign of some kind, the end of one ghastly chapter and the beginning of a new one, full of hope and endless possibility.

On that day in August 1987 I knew that my life had changed irrevocably. The future was, as always, unknown, but now it would contain this marvellous new life, completely dependent on my wife and me. That she would be joined by a sister was something I might perhaps have suspected then. That the love which had made me toss my life on its head and give rise to her very existence would prove unequal to the everyday challenges of life and time was something I could not have imagined. Yet that happened too.

All in the future then, the past now. Time is a river and it only goes in one direction. What an adventure! Or, in one of the best phrases The Grateful Dead ever coined, “What a long, strange trip it’s been.”

1987 … it was a very good year.

[i] Coincidence is sometimes frightening. The radio is playing in the background as I write this. Thirty seconds after typing this phrase, I hear the introduction to I wanna dance with somebody (who loves me) begin. Honestly! Life is strange indeed.

Pictures retrieved from:

Friday, 18 May 2012

Holiday Fragments

Regular readers of this blog will have noticed an almost three week long hiatus. The reason for this was simple; I had holidays and had decided, as far as possible, to take a break from everything, including writing.

While it is possible to take a break and even recharge one’s personal batteries while staying at home, in common with most people I find this easier to do if I travel, go somewhere else. The tyranny of regular routine, post and telephone and things that – apparently – have to be done is strong, and the only way to really switch it off (at least in my case) is to just go somewhere else and leave it all behind. And so, for the last week of my time off work, together with my daughter and grandson, I spent a week on the Turkish Aegean coast – back to the same village we enjoyed so much last year.

It was a week I spent – by and large successfully – not thinking about things, living in and relishing the succession of pleasant moments. Switching off is not something that comes easily to me, though I know that it does me good and I would be better off if I could do it more often. Now that I am back in the normal routine of life, I find that my impressions and memories of the week solidify around fragments, particular thoughts, incidents and observations around which the rest of that week, so different from the norm, accretes.

I. Airplane behaviour; Cause and Effect
It takes nearly three hours to fly from Cologne to Izmir and we did it in the middle of the night, arriving into the balmy warmth of the Eastern Mediterranean early in the morning. As the plane came to a halt, I observed with my customary bemusement the behaviour of most of my fellow travellers. The moment the plane stopped moving, the majority of them immediately jumped out of their seats, rummaged in the overhead bins for their hand luggage and then spent five minutes standing in the aisles, impatiently waiting for the umbilical corridor to connect with the cabin door, for okays to be given from both sides so that that that door can finally be opened and the process of debarkation can begin. As always, I refused to let myself become infected by what I have always considered to be an unthinking, senseless herd instinct. With a feeling of bored, tired superiority I regarded their pointless, uncomfortable anticipation. Getting out of the plane as quickly as possible does nothing whatsoever to speed up the process of getting out of the airport; after all, we’re all going to spend at least ten minutes (if we’re lucky!), having gone through the immigration process, waiting for our bags and suitcases to be finally spit out of the entrails of the airport onto the baggage carousel.

And then, prompted perhaps those strange twists of consciousness caused by an acute lack of sleep, I had a strange idea, maybe even a mad insight. What if the course of events composing the debarkation process is in fact different to what I have always thought? Could it be that those five minutes of impatient jostling in the aisle of the aeroplane do in fact have a purpose? Maybe the standing and waiting is a necessary part of the procedure of debarkation. Without the signal given by the passengers that they are willing and eager to leave the plane perhaps the corridor would never dock with the plane, the doors remain forever closed.

The door of our plane finally opened and we were able to continue on our way to our holiday. Thanks to the passengers, whose standing up had given those responsible the signal that they could let us out of the plane?  Maybe I should be grateful to them.

II. You Can’t do That with a Kindle!
I might have consciously decided to voluntarily cut myself off from the internet for my week in Club Atlantis, but that didn’t mean I had joined the digital Luddites – far from it. Instead of packing my suitcase with kilos of books to make sure that I didn’t run out of stuff to read (the idea of being on holiday without something to read is something I don’t even want to imagine), this time I brought my Kindle. With Suzanne Collins’ Hunger Games trilogy and the last three books of Stephen King’s Dark Tower series   I was confident that I had more than enough material to see me through the week.

It’s still relatively early in the year and we were blessed with a location directly on the Aegean coast (the beach around 200 metres from our chalet) with a wonderfully refreshing sea breeze, but the weather was warm and the odd mosquito was already buzzing around. They weren’t generally a problem, as our chalet was equipped with both mosquito netting on the windows and air conditioning. But despite all this, one evening, a couple of days after our arrival, a lone mosquito found its way into our rooms. Luckily, Lara and I heard the whine of his flight and spotted him before he managed to draw any blood.

Now I’m a fairly tolerant kind of guy, but that tolerance comes to a quick end when I’m threatened by these little bloodsuckers. If they would leave me alone, I’d leave them alone too, but my particular variety of blood seems to make me an irresistible target for the winged bastards. So I’m prepared to strike first, strike hard, and f*** the damage to my karma. I had only one problem. What was I going to kill it with?

Lara and I looked at the Kindle in my hand and the old-fashioned paperback in hers. She marked her page, handed me the book and, with one well-aimed swing, I mashed the little bugger onto the wall.

Lara grinned at me, “You can’t do that with a Kindle!”

III The Obsessions of Little Boys
One of the pleasures of this holiday – though occasionally accompanied by an inevitable soupcon of chaos and stress J – was the chance to spend a week with my five-year-old grandson. It was an opportunity to observe at close quarters a world I left so long ago, that of a little boy. As I don’t have sons, the distance is one of nearly fifty years.

For over a year now, one of the most important figures in Ryan’s life is a certain Lightning McQueen. The anthropomorphic automotive hero of the Disney Cars is a frequent topic of conversation and, apart from the films on DVD, he also has a large number of model cars, T-shirts, sandals, a jacket, pyjamas, a bath towel, and heaven knows what else, all sporting motives and images from the films.

Three little boys meet at the hotel swimming pool:

“Wow! He’s got models of Lightning and Mater.”


I’ve got Finn McMissile in my room. You push the boot and two machine guns pop up out of the bonnet. You want to see it?”


“Okay, I’ll bring it with me this evening when we come to dinner. Maybe we can play Cars there …”


Boys! When I think about it, in fifteen years time the only thing that will have changed is that the cars are real.

I’m holding forth on the subject of perfidious Disney, the corporation’s eagerness to exploit the images which fascinate children by marketing everything imaginable and thus pull millions and millions out of the pockets of all those who have anything to do with kids, pestered and nagged into buying all these products with which those kids are confronted at every turn.

As I’m really getting into my stride, a recollection surfaces from my magpie-like memory, a recollection nearly half a century old. I’m six years old, writing a letter to Santa Claus. My biggest wish for Christmas is a model of the amazing car driven by my favourite TV character – the Batmobile.

The marketing may have become more pervasive, the range of products expanded, but otherwise, how much has really changed?

At any rate, I have seen some signs that Lightning McQueen may be facing a new rival. His new swimming-togs, proudly worn every day at the pool, featured Smiling Stan Lee’s most famous creation … Spider-man.

* * *

All too soon the holidays are over and I’m back in my normal routine. Spidey has taken off his costume and returned to his real identity of Peter Parker. And although I won’t deny that there was a slight touch of resentment in my feelings as I returned to work yesterday, at the same time I know that continuous holidays would quickly pall. It is the fact that they are an exception, a time away from the normal, the routine which them so special, so precious. Peter Parker is the norm, Spider-man the exception. Though personally, I prefer taking a few weeks in the sun to spending my “exceptional” time as a superhero rescuing the world. That would be far too strenuous and, as Spider-man frequently finds out, you don’t even get much thanks for it as a rule.

Pictures retrieved from:


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