It was my birthday last Saturday. Don’t worry, you weren’t to know, but now that you do know… well, you’re not too late to send a pressie. Electronic funds transfer technology has never been so quick. If you like you can pretend you’re the International Monetary Fund. I’ll be Greece so you won’t be disappointed at not getting it back.
Birthdays often bring one’s mortality to mind. This year, the timely reminder of human frailty came in the form of a mouth ulcer. For those who don’t know what a mouth ulcer is, it’s a small pale ulcerous affliction on the inside of the mouth. It’s sole purpose is to be so painful as to remind you what life was like in the Middle Ages.
As well as thoughts of mortality, each birthday brings with it an increase in levels of nostalgia and wistfulness. And no activity is more full of wist than revisiting childhood memories.
I kept a diary from 1986 to 1997. I inherited the habit from my parents. They had written diaries for many years. They were the original Tweeters. Their diaries had only a small amount of space, so there was no room for conjecture or opinion. World events were given exactly the same billing as momentous family occasions. On the day I was born, my mother’s diary entry did not wax lyrical about the light my birth had shone on their lives or about how all the pain was worth it.
No, on May 2nd 1978, my mother wrote: Colm born, 9lbs 8oz. More Loyalist riots in the North. It’s not clear if there was any link between the events. Maybe the arrival of one more Catholic on the island further inflamed tensions in East Belfast.
Other entries in my mother’s diary show a similar unintended hint of a connection between events far away and our own lives. September 20th 1975: Indian Cholera epidemic reaches Bombay: Went to Skibbereen for parts for tractor. This does give the impression that my parents had decided that if the cholera epidemic went as far west as Bombay, then it was time to get the tractor fixed.
My father’s diaries were similarly focused on the important things in life – namely the weather. Often in the last three summers, in order to reminisce on what a normal July looked like, he has taken out his 1983 diary. During those halcyon days nearly three decades ago, in order to describe how warm it was, he exhausted every possible synonym for the high temperatures: Fierce heat, mighty day, a roaster, muggy, mild, balmy, 92 degrees in the yard, sticky, close.
Other entries described on his continuing battle with the fragility of the family car – a Fiat Mirafiori – which had a habit of breaking down on trips to the seaside. The broken part was diagnosed curtly in red. Usually it was something whose name ended in ‘–tor’ that failed – alternator, carburettor, distributor, patience-tor.
With this diary writing pedigree behind me I set out on my own ten-year first-person novel. It was easy to see the influences on my writing style. The first entry reads: January 1st, 1986 – Cold wet day. Pope visiting India. Couldn’t find my pyjamas.
One side effect of factual clipped prose was that often what I wrote was completely cryptic. To this day I still rack my brains to try and figure out what I meant by: June 3rd 1986: Mrs Lane called about the idea.
What was the idea that exercised Mrs Lane so much that she drove over especially to talk about it? Was the idea that all men are born equal, or did she have an idea about a world wide system of interconnected computers called the InterNetwork – and was struggling to think of a catchier title? Or was it just that stripes didn’t go with spots? We will never know.
From a historical point of view, primary sources like diaries can be fascinating. And what makes them even more valuable is to read about the same event from two different points of view. Take the time in July 1987 when our cattle had broken out and were spotted escaping up the valley of the River Dripsey. Like Martin Sheen in Apocalypse Now we pursued them through swamp and forest. In the classic film, Captain Willard follows Colonel Kurtz all the way into Cambodia. We were just heading for Aghabullogue. Bad things can happen in the woods at night. I stepped into a boghole which must have been 18 inches deep. Water filled my Wellingtons. I was losing my mind. My father ploughed on ahead, like Martin Sheen did when water filled Lawrence Fishbourne’s wellingtons. I roared at him to come back and help. He wouldn’t. I started hurling abuse and of course, crying.
The two of us recorded the day differently in our diaries:
Colm: Cattle broke out of Inch. Fierce job getting them back
Colm’s father: Boy doubts my ability as a parent.
As the years pass I can start to see the first stirrings of independence. My 12th birthday was quite a full day so I had to cram a lot of events into the page. It’s a little difficult to decipher all the words but I can just about make out the phrase: “Born To Kill”
Allow me to explain. I really wanted a black bomber jacket but the proper ones were too dear. I had a fiver. This is where Guineys comes in. Everything in Guineys is a fiver. Even the till. They had the jacket I wanted and for the right price. Unfortunately, emblazoned on the back of it was an Eagle, sitting on some skulls – as you do. It was wrapped in the American flag and glared out the back of the jacket as if to say ‘Fightcha after school’. Underneath the skulls was the phrase: Born to Kill. Having discussed it with my family, we all decided, it wasn’t really me.
I’d like to start a diary again. We live in such amazing times that I don’t really get the opportunity to tell the world what I think of things, to say the first thing that comes into my head.
But I don’t know if my future self would believe what I’d written. Take my entry for Tuesday:
Irish Government (who has no money) lends 1.3billion to Greece (who never pays money back) to help Greece pay its debts to European banks like AIB (who we own anyway). Windy day, more ash.
You couldn’t make it up.