08 October 2012

Trivial Pursuit...

I’ve always liked my brother’s self-indulgent 101 facts about himself, and while looking for something earlier I thought it might be fun to bump up an old Facebook note -- one of those meme things -- into a blogpost. That said, it’s probably a post for me and masochists only.

And so, in emulation, here goes...

1. When I was a child I wanted to join the Household Cavalry, which can’t have been normal in 1980s Dublin. The Life Guards, to be precise. Part of me still wishes I could. Let’s face it: they look like knights, don’t they?

2. Mikhael Gorbachev once rubbed off me. Not in an inappropriate way, just while he was trying to get to his seat at Hampton Court Palace. He was clearly keen on hearing what Salman Rushdie and Quincy Jones had to say.

3. My first night on mainland Europe was spent in a twelfth-century castle overlooking the Rhine. I went back there on my third trip to Germany. The hundreds of steps up the hill seemed far less arduous as an adult.

4. Despite a weakness for toffee, caramel, millionaire shortbread, cheesecake, and Black Forest gateau (especially if made with morello cherries), I maintain that I do not have a sweet tooth. I do, however, have a freakishly long tongue. People stare when I unleash it. I’m never sure if they’re horrified, impressed, or intrigued.

5. Once, on Ash Wednesday, I was given ashes in the shape of the Batman symbol. I suspect this was not intentional.

6. Years ago I discovered a letter written by Thomas Hardy while rummaging in an old copy of his collected poems. I’m still not a fan of his books, though. Realism is one thing, but pessimism on that scale? The glass might be half empty, but at least there’s a glass, Tom.

7. After a day spent wandering about Krakow, going as far out as the camp in Schindler’s List, I was taught to dance the Macarena by Mexicans in a supposedly Irish bar where we drank 12 per cent strength beer until four in the morning; a few hours later I received the results of my final exams, learning that I’d topped my year for a third time running, and visited Auschwitz. It was an eventful 24 hours.

8. One hot summer day in Athens, I gave inaccurate directions to a flustered Dylan Moran and his family. Realising I’d sent them the wrong way I tracked them down and gave them proper directions to the street he wanted to go to. At no point did I indicate I had any idea who he was. I hope he appreciated that.

I later discovered that the museum he wanted to visit was on a different street, and was closed till September.

9. I once ended a statistics lecture by banging my desk, tearing off my jumper to reveal a lumberjack shirt, and singing Monty Python’s ‘Lumberjack Song’ to 300 bemused Commerce students.

10. The longest I have gone without a haircut was eight months. I shall try to refrain from repeating that error.

11. I once cut my own hair, just a couple of weeks before I sprained my wrist jumping off a roof; that was clearly a troubling summer for my parents. The hair cut was not a great success.

12. On the way to a wedding in the Lake District some years back, I was delayed for an hour on a train because workmen the previous night had conducted work on the line and forgotten to replace the tracks. I doubt I shall ever hear a better excuse.

13. I’m not much of a man for water, favouring tea in a big way, but I drank six litres of the stuff in under an hour when I climbed Masada at noon. There’s a reason why the Israeli army only go up it in the early hours, but I had a bus schedule to work around.

14. A comic strip drawn by me for my school magazine when I was fourteen was censored; one drawn for it when I was fifteen led to the school magazine being banned and never revived. The following year we had a yearbook, and the strip I drew for that, two pages of which you can see here, was – perhaps wisely – never published.
I appear to have drawn Brian Cowan in the final panel. And Roger Mellie.
15. I spent several years wanting to be a comic artist, and when Bryan Talbot and Steve Pugh looked at my work they told me I’d definitely make it if I kept at it. I’ve hardly drawn since.

16. I caught a burglar in the early hours of Easter Sunday, 2006. A Ryanair flight I was on arrived in Liverpool a few minutes early, and my luggage was first out; this enabled me to catch the Manchester bus an hour earlier than I had planned so that got home an hour ahead of schedule; being in the right place at the right time led to the burglar’s capture. The City of Manchester thanked me for this. The institution where the burglar had been operating did not. Quite the opposite, in fact.

17. My command of my ancestral tongue leaves a lot to be desired, but I prefer my name in its Irish form.

18. I read vast quantities of Enid Blyton books as a child, including all the 'Famous Five' books. Despite this, I never knew what smugglers were. Too lazy to use a dictionary, I always trusted that the meaning would become clear. It didn’t. They were obviously bad guys, though. Like thugs. And ruffians.

19. I only ever had one organised fight in school, fought to establish definitively who had won an impromptu fight the previous year. The outcome of the arranged fight was itself disputed. This episode clearly haunts me even now.

20. The Irish Independent once quoted me as a cultural authority, accusing Brian McFadden of jumping onto a ‘cool bandwagon of pain’. He was, too. It was to be a long time before the Irish Times quoted me, and then it was under my pseudonym. That said, I’d had a letter in the paper a few weeks earlier, under my real name.

21. I have fallen asleep standing up on at least three occasions, and have fallen asleep mid-sentence at least once.

22. The furthest north I have been is Dalmally, in Scotland, where I celebrated the Easter Vigil with one of my closest friends in 2011. On arrival there I quipped to her that this would be the first time in ages that I’d be at Mass and not be asked to do something; walking in the door we were promptly asked to bring up the bread and wine at the Offertory.

23. The country I’ve been closest to without setting foot in it was the Lebanon. I was a passenger in a Syrian taxi on a road that ran within two miles of the border; my driver was unable to use his rear-view mirror as he’d clipped a small television screen over it.

24. As a teenager I didn’t believe in God, but rather than saying so would dutifully disappear for an hour every Sunday, often spending the time daydreaming in the back of the church, walking around the neighbourhood, skiving in a snooker hall, or chatting with mates in a ruined pre-Norman church. I didn’t see any virtue in distressing my parents by kicking up a fuss. Converted as an adult by reading a lot, thinking very carefully, and engaging with a succession of Atheists, Agnostics, and Anglicans, I have prayed at the tombs of St Francis of Assisi, St Peter, St Paul, and Our Lord.

25. I have an unhealthy weakness for secondhand bookshops, where my greatest finds have been an 1895 leatherbound and gilt-edged collected Chaucer, a collection of GK Chesterton’s poems once owned by and still bearing the name of a teenage Eavan Boland, and a volume of Chesterton essays signed by the man himself.

26. I am still disappointed I never managed to meet Patrick Leigh Fermor before he died.

27. I have twice attended receptions in ambassador’s houses, and have been disappointed by a distinct absence of Ferrero Rocher on both occasions. At the first reception I was greeted at the door by Benazir Bhutto and spoke briefly to Olivia de Havilland; at the second reception, my host informed the ambassador that she was spoiling us.

28. When using my parents’ exercise bike I used to read while listening to the radio. I still feel this was impressive multitasking on my part; I must see if I can still do this.

29. I’ve twice attempted to visit an improbable battlefield, located on a Greek mountaintop. The first time, after I’d explained the nature of the route to my archaeological friend who was driving us, he stared and said “So we’re going to follow an impassable road to the possible site of a badly-described battle which may not have happened.”

We didn’t make it there, though we did manage to damage our already unreliable rental car in the process.

Three years later we made it to the top only to be chased down the hill by dogs.

30. I once played a clockwork mouse in a primary school play; the following year, in a clear attempt at preventing similar malarkey, I wrote the scene performed by my class, insisting on special effects and incidental music. Grieg, since you asked. The dragon’s head built at my request became a standard feature of school plays there for years afterwards, it being the only purpose-built prop they had. It was customised more than once.

31. I have narrowly avoided colliding with Seamus Heaney and Dara O’Briain when turning corners in Dublin; I wasn’t quick enough to avoid colliding with PJ Mara one night on Waterloo Road. He dropped his phone. It should be noted that he wasn’t quick enough to avoid colliding with me either.

32.  My most treasured possessions are an Edwardian swordstick, a policeman’s cape, a medieval human skull, a Carthaginian coin, a bullet and a shrapnel ball from the Great War, a fossilised trilobite, a painting of Dublin Bay, a linoprint of Brighton’s West Pier, two signed pages of original Sandman artwork, and the aforementioned collection of essays signed by G.K. Chesterton.

Some treasured trinkets
33. I would like to see every Vermeer in the world, and think this is a manageable ambition, there being only three dozen or so all told. I’ve seen five since deciding I wanted to do this. I think I’d seen eight others over the years in Amsterdam, Frankfurt, Paris, and Edinburgh but feel they need seeing afresh.

34. I was a very aggressive defensive end when I played American football as a twelve-year old, perhaps a bit too aggressive, even; I wasn’t picked for the Nerf flag football ad a few of my mates were in!

35. I have spent long journeys working out detailed advertising campaigns for Sure anti-perspirant, Werthers Originals, and Erdinger. Only the Sure one would ever stand a chance of seeing the light of day, the others lacking a certain historico-political sensitivity.

36. Over the years I have given four Claddagh rings, two of silver with little stones in, and two plain ones of white gold, all were as twenty-first birthday presents for very dear friends.

37. The furthest I’ve ever cycled in a day was 97 miles, going to Glendalough via Blessington and through the Wicklow Gap, and coming back by way of Bray and the centre of Dublin. That was my second cycle trip to Glendalough that summer, the first time having been via the Liffey Valley and the Sally Gap.

38. While driving back to Rome from Cannae, when making a BBC documentary in Italy, I used the line ‘After Cannae, Hannibal thought his plan was really coming together.’ It didn’t make the final cut.

39. Two childhood friends of mine and I once failed to dam a stream with rocks, but on finding a slab of lard in the stream dammed it successfully using the lard as mortar. Don’t ask what the lard was doing in the stream. Really, you don’t want to know.

40. The strangest thing I have eaten was a lamb’s brain. It was delicious.

41. The most unpleasant thing I have ever eaten was tripe boiled in milk with potatoes and onion. I’ve had tripe since, though, in Rome, and would have it cooked that way again. I might not pick it from a menu, but I’d eat it.

42. A resolute defender when playing football at school, I once volleyed a tennis ball the entire length of what counted as a football field for us. And scored. It was my only ever goal.

43. My first paid job was working at the Irish Open. I spent four days in a little hut, reading books, listening to a crackly walkie-talkie, peering through binoculars to see what other leaderboard operators had heard through the crackles, changing scores, and being shouted at by golfers because I was using a walkie-talkie. The entire experience thoroughly inoculated me against golf.

44. The two girls with whom I’ve been taken for the longest periods in my life shared a birthday, albeit a few years apart. Those who know me very well may be surprised to learn that only the latter of these was a redhead.

45. I may have been the only person in Palmerstown not to boast of having seen Julia Roberts when she hid out from the world press there. I did, however, see her when she returned a few years later.

46. Ever since I was a little boy, there have been four places I’ve wanted to visit more than anywhere else in the world: I visited Petra in 2000 and Krak des Chevaliers in 2010. I fear I’ll never visit Machu Picchu or Angkor.
Before going to find the Holy Grail
Oblivious to the tarantula sitting across the table from me
That said, maybe in 2020 and 2030...

47. The furthest south I have ever been is Aqaba, crossing into Jordan and leaving it. I’ve still not seen the town properly, and half wonder if the guns are still there, facing out to sea.

48. In September 1998 I dreamed that Akira Kurosawa died, and the following day he did. It has been pointed out to me that he was both rather old and very famous, and so there’s a good chance that on any given day somebody in the world was dreaming of his death. I've seen ten of his films in the cinema – more than by any other director – and my favourite film is still Seven Samurai: it’s elegiac, beautiful, exciting, funny, tragic, instructive, and thoughtful, without a wasted shot.

49. I have seen at least 281 films in the cinema, and have fallen asleep during at least eight of them: The Madness of King George, Three Colours Blue, Pulp Fiction, Seven, Shine, The Phantom Menace, The Empire Strikes Back, and The Two Towers. There was a fire in the Lighthouse when I went to see Farewell My Concubine. I still don’t know how it ends.

50. I once went to a very small theatre with a girl with whom I’d gone out the previous year, and was startled when one of the male leads stripped off in the second half and strutted about in front of us for several minutes. We did not speak of this until several weeks later. When I returned from the play and told the mutual friend with whom I was staying what had happened, she asked whether my ex had blushed during this. I didn’t know, I said; I had been too embarrassed to look.

51. The most disgusting experience I’ve ever had was when I stepped in the carcass of a dead dog. In my defence, it was a dark night. I only wish I hadn’t been wearing sandals.

52. Over the course of four trips to Greece I have sprained both ankles, smashed my head off a tree, been abandoned by a taxi driver after midnight, walked into a cloud of tear gas, watched a cockroach land on a friend during dinner, narrowly avoided two lethal motorbike accidents, and, as mentioned, stood in a dead dog. There is a reason why friends of mine use the term 'Greece Wins Again' when bad things happen there.

53. I have long joked about giving a pseudo-academic paper on the interlinked phenomena of GWAs, en taxei, and Hellenisation, drawing almost all examples from Greek myth and ancient history. Worried that I might upset Greek friends, I have resisted this temptation.

54. In a Paris park I bumped into a girl I knew from college, and a year and a half later in Killarney I met a customer I knew from work. Both these events seemed unusual at the time, but since then I’ve made a habit of such encounters, with me meeting so great a succession of friends and friends of friends in such diverse spots as London, Athens, Damascus, and Gallipoli that I’m now almost surprised when I don’t meet somebody I know, to a greater or lesser degree. The world can be a very small place.

55. The longest letter I have ever written ran to 236 pages. I got carried away.

56. My favourite song is ‘A Rainy Night in Soho’, and I was oddly pleased when, the only time I’ve seen the Pogues live, Shane messed it up. Drunk as he was, he sang the last verse too early in the song, and so wound up returning to it, treating it as a chorus. Has there ever been so fine a compliment as ‘You’re the measure of my dreams’?

57. I sat my university finals when I was twenty. Had I stayed the course as a teenage Commerce student, I’d have done so at nineteen. This strikes me as worryingly young. Life would have been rather different had I done that, of course.

58. I have spent two summers working on archaeological digs, both in the field and in the lab. On my first day on site I discovered an early Christian grave in a Hellenistic artillery tower, when I picked up a tiny shard and recognised it as a fragment of human cranium.

This was my first day on the dig. The weather improved. A lot.
59. People tend to think of me as well-travelled, but I’ve yet to spend even one night in fifteen of Ireland’s thirty-two traditional counties, and I’ve never so much as set foot in Antrim or Fermanagh.

60. I can’t help feeling a bit jealous of people who’ve been to Skellig Michael, Dun Aengus, and the Giant’s Causeway. That said, I realise that rather than being jealous, I should just figure out a way of going there.

61. The first time I was on television was during a documentary about the Phoenix Park: I was a little boy, sitting on the steps on the Wellington Monument, and the camera swept over me as I got up.

62. The first time I said a word on television, I was a talking head in a documentary about Hannibal. On the way to the studio in Ealing, both of my shoelaces broke. It was a troublesome walk.

63. I have twice seen pigeons getting the Tube in London. On both occasions I’ve had a camera handy.

64. Columns by Con Houlihan, clipped for me from the Evening Press by my father, taught me the importance of the Oxford comma. I get annoyed when people don’t use it.

65. Until I was twenty-one, I had never flown anywhere.

66. I was briefly nicknamed ‘Zanussi’ in school, having got 98pc in my Inter Cert science mock exam; Zanussi, lest you’ve forgotten, billed itself as ‘the Appliance of Science’. 

67. Some years ago, when picking up a friend’s husband from work at CERN, I asked what exactly he did, and whether he just sat round drinking tea and bouncing particles all day long. He laughed, and said he’d show me, taking me into the bowels of the earth to see the Large Electron-Positron Collider. Its control room looked like a hybrid of Homer Simpson’s office and the bridge of the original Enterprise.

68. I used to know all the words to ‘... Baby One More Time’. In German. Now I remember little more than the title: ‘Schlag Mich, Liebling, Noch Einmal’.

69. I used to go out with a girl who lived a couple of miles from the site of the Battle of Hastings; her grandparents lived on the site of the Battle of Edge Hill. Over the years I’ve visited the probable sites of the battles of the Ticinus, the Trebbia, Lake Trasimene, Cannae, Pylos, Mantinea, Plataea, Leuctra, Coronea, Chaeronea, Thermopylae, Marathon, Thyrea, Ypres, and Gallipoli. As you do.

70. I have, I think, 2824 books. Despite storage problems, this isn’t really that many – two thousand, after all, is the minimum anyone should have if they want to be taken seriously, though hardly something to be proud of. No, I’ve not read them all. I’ve read the vast majority of them, but not all. Give me time. 

71. Well over six hundred of my books are novels, and of those my favourite is The Man Who Was Thursday. If you’ve not read it, you should rectify that. My favourite edition, annoyingly, is out of print, but you can read most of the introduction here; if you’re tempted, then ABE and Amazon Marketplace may yet be your friends.

72. When I was a little boy I read most of Robinson Crusoe, but stopped a few pages from the end. As far as I’m concerned he’s still on that island.

73. The first time I went to a football match, it was to see Everton draw with Liverpool on Good Friday 2000. We scored a perfectly good – if impossibly flukey – goal with twenty seconds left on the clock, and the ref disallowed it, saying he’d blown the whistle, whereas he was clearly scared of a riot if the goal was allowed. Years later he admitted he’d been wrong. This, I’ve learned in the intervening years, is typical.

74. The furthest east I have ever been is Palmyra, where I hurried up a hill to watch the sun set and got up absurdly early to return to the same hill to see it rise, and watch the dawn light over the ruins.

Sunset over Palmyra
And Palmyra in the light of the rising sun - worth getting up for!
75. I was unreasonably excited to see my name in the acknowledgements of Jess Nevin’s Impossible Territories. I had written eight blogposts on Moore and O’Neill’s Black Dossier and thrown the encyclopaedic Jess a few lines, so I shouldn’t have been surprised, but still. That said, I’ve yet to buy Jess’s book.

76. The first time I walked across a guarded border, there was a bomb scare; the second time I crossed over nervously, as I could overhear a furious man shouting in Arabic behind me, trying to persuade the soldiers there to stop me. I’ll tell you about it another time.

77. Somehow I’ve accumulated an absurd number of anecdotes as the years have gone by. I tend to forget which I’ve told, so have a habit of resorting to a rather small repertoire. The longest tale I tell I refer to as ‘The Paris Incident’, but I don’t think I’ve ever told it from egg to apple more than twenty times all told. It’s very good, but it’s a bit long for casual deployment.

78. I have played ‘... Baby One More Time’ on the ukulele. Sadly, it was a brief intensive lesson, and it’s not stuck, not least because I no longer have the tabs. Now I can barely manage ‘Twinkle Twinkle Little Star’.

79. David Kelly and William Sessions have both sat beside me on buses. Not at once, I should point out. I talked more with the former FBI head; he recommended an interesting book to me.

80. I have attended Mass in at least 75 places, and heard it in nine languages, including Arabic and Czech.

81. I was a year into my research master’s before I realised that there was a general consensus that I was attempting something that couldn’t be done. Since my book’s publication, I think at least half a dozen other academics have done the same thing I did. Sometimes it pays off for fools to rush in where angels fear to tread. I'm not convinced I write ‘from an upper middle-class status’, though.

82. Whenever I see streams of bunting I think of underwear. I found the Jubilee very difficult.

83. Despite what the Oracle of Bacon thinks, I have a Bacon Rating of 3. The man who did the voiceover in my first Hannibal documentary, perhaps best known for playing Felix Leiter in the new Casino Royale, has a Bacon Rating of 2, having been in D-Tox with Rance Howard, who was in Frost/Nixon with Kevin Bacon. I reckon that gives me a 3.

84. A few years back, police asked if I could identify a murder victim from a photograph of his corpse. I couldn’t.

85. When playing Cluedo as a child I once had to accuse myself of committing murder. I found this so funny that I doubled over laughing and accidentally stabbed myself with my pencil. 

86. I have never travelled more frantically than in Malta, where in the space of thirteen hours I went on five bus journeys, hired three taxis, got the ferry twice, and hitch-hiked. It was exhausting, but it was worth it.

87. I’ve dabbled in karate and aikido over the years, but didn’t last with either; aikido, though wonderful, seemed less necessary than catching up on sleep, which could be done by retiring to the library and using a big old law book as a pillow. 

88. I have crossed a picket line, but only because the people on strike advised me to do so. It wasn’t a pleasant experience.

89. I once stayed awake for four full days. I’m never doing that again.

90. Much as I loved Batman, Robin Hood, and the Knights of the Round Table, my childhood hero was indisputably Johnny Alpha. I copied the cover to 2000AD prog 339 innumerable times, like Simon Pegg’s character in Spaced I shed a tear when Johnny died, and the words ‘because I hate you’ still send a shiver down my spine.

I’ve a page of 'Strontium Dog' original art put away at home. I’ve never been able to afford the cost of framing it.

91. I once tried to play Gaelic football. Soloing was beyond me. It’s best not to talk about it.

92. I don’t think I have ever been further west than Kerry. I’m not sure, as I can’t remember where exactly in Kerry I’ve been, and there’s a chance that I may have been further west on one of my trips to the Mullet in Mayo. I’ll have to find out.

I don't know where this is. Other than Kerry, obviously.
93. Aside from a handful of books, the only things I’ve kept since my childhood are a box of dominoes from the Soviet Union which I bought for £1.75 when I was eleven or so, and a wooden cigar box I once found and filled with foreign coins. I’ve still got the coins, though I'll leave the story of how I got them for another day. It’s an unsystematic collection.

94. There are lots of ways of dividing people up, but for me the one that rings most true and tallies most deeply with experience and observation is that there are two types of people: those who are dogmatic and know it, and those who are dogmatic and don’t.

95. During the darkest month of my adult life, the happiest moments were spent on my birthday, standing under a tree while the rain poured down.

96. When at twelve years old I first read Douglas Adams I thought the Hitchhiker’s Guide was the cleverest and funniest book I’d ever read; rereading it a couple of years back I found it painfully forced and as dry as dust.

97. I once went to a concert with a student of mine – just a couple of years younger than me – and her dad. He kept leaving us alone, to give us space. Given that space wasn’t needed, it was a bit embarrassing. The concert was great, mind. 

98. At Christmas 2004, I think, I received a Christmas card so wonderful that I’ve kept it up ever since. It depicts a Nativity scene, made from sprouts. And I like this, because it’s funny, and because when you’re a Catholic, stuff matters. And sprouts count just as much as wood and wine and water and wardrobes do.

99. I prefer dogs to cats. I’m sorry, but there it is.

100. Despite having loads of family and friends with children, until this year I had never been asked to be a godfather. I’ve now been asked three times. I may joke that it’s like buses, but each time it’s been an honour and a delight. 

101. Few things annoy me quite as much as the ‘Too Long – Didn’t Read’ attitude that seems to define internet argument. It’s a lazy, stupid, and utterly counterproductive way of dealing with people with whom we differ when we’re talking about something that matters. We’re all in this together, one way or another; we should make a serious effort to listen to each other.

That said, it’s an entirely legitimate response to a list of personal trivia.


GeekLady said...

I've always found the Hitchhiker radio plays better than the books. There's just something off about the books, like he couldn't figure out when he'd move from funny to tiresome without it being spoken.

Eolaí said...

You need to add the words 'in the dining roon' to number 85. It's funnier that way. Apply brackets and a different room if necessary.

Mark Lambert said...



Devout Catholic said...

Funnily enough, I have never been further East than Kerry. I had contemplated Dublin, but my grandmother warned me against its aesthetic depravity; full of dissolute grammarians, like poor Mrs. Hoolihan's son, Cornelius, who insisted on counting the number of pints he ordered, but not those he actually drank, for, he used to say, you have to pay for the ones you order or they won't take you seriously, and besides, he would add, quoting Paul Valery, one only reads well that which one reads with some quite personal purpose, it may be to acquire some power, it can be out of hatred for the author.  

Kilnabrack Piper said...

Where in Kerry? In the townland of Kilnabrack Lower about a mile from the village of Glenbeigh & less than 300 yards from where I'm sitting now. Hope you enjoyed your visit.

RLS said...

I was going to write something about "Hitchhiker's Guide", but I am now freaked out that the "capture" number it asks me to copy to ensure I'm not a robot is 42, so I'm not going to. It's just too weird.

GOR said...

Re: #s 96 and 101.

In my younger days I enjoyed reading Trollope, Hardy and Zola. Recently, I tried some re-reading – Zola, in particular – and found it a chore. Tastes change with age, I suspect.

Also, given the proliferation of IMs, Bulleted texts, Tweets and sound bites we have lost the ability for sustained concentration on actual prose…