This morning was delicious, lingering in bed with my favourite companion, the magazine History Today – which isn’t to say that there isn’t another companion I would prefer to dandle but I have to say I find lazing and exploring this trove of pictures and articles far more satisfying than… well, I would say the proverbial but as an amateur historian and writer I find it hard to
1. Employ tired cliché
2. Believe in simplistic statements.
Cliché may be a trope of hacks of every ilk, an easy and lazy shorthand, but like tired and repetitive intimacy it communicates little and must always be subverted and extended otherwise any engagement will be unsatisfying and brief.
So how shall I put it? History Today: better than bad sex, almost as satisfying as good sex.
Why do I believe this? Because I always learn something new and the experience invariably leaves me inspired to share and create.
This morning, after a late night at work I have escaped my warm bed (and reliable lover) to jump on the computer because of an article about events that took place on Good Friday in Dublin earlier this year which commemorated (celebrated?) the Battle of Clontarf in 1014, one of the bloodiest and most decisive battles in Irish history. Medieval monks characterised it as Christian Irish seeing off pagan Vikings, but like all history (and story, and life) it was more nuanced than that and modern historians characterise it as Celt-on-Celt with high-king of Munster, Brian Boru, fighting the rebel king of Munster, with paid Vikings employed on both sides.
I had never heard of Clontarf, but I have certainly heard of Brian Boru, having seen pubs named after him around the world. What struck me about the story from 1,000 years ago is that Brian Boru, that great hero of Irish nationalism, took no part in the battle as he was in his mid-60s by then, too old to swing an axe. Instead, he waited in his tent for events to unfold.
At this point I will say that I consider myself totally un-Irish. My grandparents were English and Scots. I’m not hostile, my position is more of a friendly rivalry, like that which exists between my home, New Zealand and our (to others) nearly indistinguishable neighbour, Australia.
I fervently resist the lazy sentimentality that seeks to claim Irish descent in everyone’s blood. I despise the compulsion to get pissed on St Patrick’s Day and kiss a spotty Irishman. It’s all far too McDonaldsy for me.
That said, the historian in me knows this isn’t a defensible position. There was a huge amount of back and forward migration between Ireland and Britain, both individual and tribal, with the Scots coming across from Ireland to lowland Scotland to displace the Picts to the north. And Irish, Scots (and English) all have Viking blood in them.
I only learned this when I went to Scotland to visit my roots. I asked a Scottish relative how come there were Irish pubs all round the world but no Scottish ones. She said it was because the Scots like to get on with things rather than sitting around whinging (or words to that effect).
Once, a friend of my long-term partner claimed to have a psychic premonition that I would one day marry an Irish girl. She was quite insistent. It amused my (Dutch) partner greatly. I don’t really believe in such things but when we subsequently broke up (we were together, then not, over many years) and I travelled alone through Europe, I couldn’t help thinking that I should avoid visiting Ireland, just in case (my heart, for better or worse, was set on that Dutch girl).
Lately, it has occurred to me that I have never kissed an Irish girl. Wow, what a sad thought, I thought. But what a great opening line for a story, it would make.
I promised myself I would write fiction today, but as I sat in my cosy bed on a cold, cold morning reading about the pathetic death of Brian Boru I wondered if I would ever visit Ireland.
I want to. Just as much as I want to hear an Irish girl whisper warm words in my ear.
About a month ago I had an interesting encounter at a cafe in Petone. Things had been very busy (aren’t they always?) so I took the opportunity to sit and think over a coffee, scrawling my thoughts, lyrics and ideas in the journal I always carry.
As I left an old man sitting alone with a glass of wine, touched my arm and stopped me. He apologised but said he wanted to say that he had noticed me sitting there and that there was something… something… something about my eyes, and that if I wasn’t in a rush and if I didn’t mind, would I sit with him and tell him about myself… if he bought me a drink?
Well-dressed in a suit and tie, maybe in his 80s with a white, white beard, Harry was well-spoken, Irish: eloquently drunk.
His flattery worked. I sat with him for maybe an hour, as he told me of his fascinating life punctuating it with constant apologies for going on instead of me. From Belfast, his father had helped build the Titanic, and the other one, ah? Britannic? Yes, yes… he was a politician for many, many years, instrumental in organizing volunteers to go and fight for the Republic in the Spanish Civil War. They had meetings in our house. Really, Harry? Really? Wow. Wow.
His father was also on the board of the local football team, Linfield; had a field named after him. I was transfixed. Was it true or the ramblings of a natural storyteller? Every question I asked was plausibly answered. I told him that I too played soccer, that although I was right-footed, I had a great left foot (better than a leftie) and always played left back. This amused him greatly as a ‘left-footer’ was a term for a catholic (Linfield being, of course, a protestant team).
When I said I had to leave to pick up my girl from school, he held my hand and gave me his card saying I must come to his place to meet his wife, she is much younger than me, he smiled, she would love to meet you, just love to… she doesn’t drink, he laughed. I left him, sitting alone with another glass of white.
Later that night, with my daughter tucked up in bed, I googled Harry’s name. I had resisted, not wanting to deflate any of his tales or charm, to believe that there was indeed something special in my eyes. Why reduce him to a drunk left alone by a wife tired of his stories, who used a line to get some company?
Lately, I’ve been thinking I am a loner at heart, happiest worshipping at the temple of solitude. My reasons are many, but like all identity, it is fluid and open to challenge.
When my last long-term relationship ended 4 years ago I bought a box of condoms. Back on the market after so many years. I threw out the last of them the other week as they are now past their use-by date.
Says a lot, I guess. Yes, there have been encounters but, clearly, not that many.
Brian Boru was killed by a fleeing Viking mercenary as he sat waiting in his tent: a seemingly sad end for a great warrior.
But like all things, there is more than one reading. 1,000 years later his name is known around the word, his harp the symbol of Ireland.
I would never kiss an Irish girl, just because she is Irish. And I hope my bed will see more excitement than increasingly vague historical conquests.
I have been back to Petone (it’s a bit out of my way) but Harry wasn’t there. I’m uncertain if he would remember me, but I would like to see him again. I carry his card in my wallet but I would never call, I’m just not built that way.
As the Chinese saying goes, no co-incidence, no story.
If the fleeing Viking had not bumped into (and bumped off) Brian Boru on Good Friday Ireland would be a different place.
If I had not stopped to talk to Harry, there would be no words on this page.
The future is unwritten, the past always open to new discovery.