Category Archives: Good Reads

A Good Read

It was a wonderful sunny day in St.Louis, and there’s always that little voice inside me on days like this that says “You need to go out and make the most of it”. Fortunately I’ve got really good at ignoring that voice, as it can result in a perfectly good relaxing day being spoiled by some pointless trip and vain attempt to wring joy from it. Much better to sit on the deck in the sun and fritter away the afternoon aimlessly. To be fair, I didn’t ignore the little voice which said “You need to go to the gym and do your leg workout”, which was why I only had the afternoon to fritter.

What I really like to do on a day like this, or indeed any day with nothing better to do, is to sit with a good book. Unfortunately I am shit at buying good books; I can wander into Borders with the best of intentions, but no matter how hard I try, I can’t find anything remotely worth reading. It’s all trashy fiction, deep meaningful treatises on feminist thinking and nineteenth century drama by people who you get to study in literature classes. (And don’t we remember how shit they were?)

For good reading I have to rely on gifts from my in-laws, who periodically send me excellent books, and without whom I’d be reduced to reading the back of cereal boxes. Sure, I don’t get many books from my in-laws, but that’s not a problem because I can re-read the good ones. In fact, in a couple of decades I probably won’t even know I’ve read them at all, so I’ll never be short of a good book.

Today I sat in the sun with McCarthy’s Bar, an outstanding gentle travel/comedy book by Pete McCarthy which I’ve had for years but which never gets old. It’s about his travels in Ireland, the country of his ancestry, and his attempt to see if he belonged there by virtue of his Irish roots, even though he grew up in England. I strongly recommend you get a copy.

I always enjoyed going to Ireland because of all the great people I met there (and not because of the weather, which was invariably shit). I can’t stand St.Patrick’s Day, and all that pseudo-Irish green shamrock bullshit, paraded by fat Americans who had a great, great grandfather who once drank a pint of Guinness, and who consequently believe they’re all refugees of the potato famine. Fortunately Ireland isn’t like that, apart from the touristy bits which cater to all the visiting fat Americans, of course.

I used to travel regularly to Mullingar, which I’ve never seen mentioned in any travel guide. It’s about two hours West of Dublin, assuming you know where you’re going and you avoid the highway. I always went on the back roads, using directions I’d copied on a cardboard rental car sign while being driven at night by the bloke whose job I was taking over, while suffering from the after-effects of food poisoning. (I’d spent the better part of the previous night riding the porcelain bus in a hotel in Manchester.) When we arrived in Mullingar we went to the Bloomfield House hotel, which had been a convent in the past (there was only one other place to stay at the time, the Greville Arms I think, and it was always risky because loud parties could be taking place right under your room.) As we left the check-in desk and walked upstairs all noises faded away and suddenly you felt a weird silence, kind of creepy and ominous. Every time I walked up there alone I half-expected to see a ghostly nun sweeping down the corridor.

On this occasion my colleague was walking with me and as he opened the door to his room he beckoned me in. “See? Can you smell that? It is the menstruation of the nuns!” Frankly I think that says more about him than the hotel, which was always excellent, and never smelled of nun menstruation as far as I could tell (although I’m hardly an expert).

Anyway, in spite of my careful directions I got lost the first time I tried to drive to Mullingar by myself, on account of following a sign to the town of Trim (which was on the way) that actually directed me off the road to Trim. I drove down the narrow lane and came to a junction where five lanes came together. There were no signs to give me a hint, but there was a man standing there with a herd of cows. I wound down my window and asked him where Trim was; he directed me back the way I’d come, but then he asked me if I wouldn’t mind putting my car across one lane and standing in front of another so he could drive the cows without them wandering off in the wrong direction. That’s when I realized that I was really in Ireland.

It’ll soon be St.Paddy’s Day, and wankers everywhere will be drinking pissy green beer, wearing ridiculous shamrock crap and pretending they’re “Oirish”. I won’t be among them – the whole thing is bollocks, and dangerous bollocks at that, used in the past by Irish Republican terrorists to cadge cash for weapons from fat gullible Americans so they could kill kids in the streets of England. But I always enjoyed the real Ireland, regardless of the personal hygiene habits of its nuns…

Copyright © 2009 Edward Bison

A Little Light Reading

I just finished reading a book called The Grey Gentlemen. It’s a strange little book by Michael Ende which dates back to 1974 when it was translated from the original German. Now I’m not the kind of person who seeks out obscure foreign literature, and the only reason I ended up reading this was because a good friend gave me a copy. It’s obviously been out of print for a long time, and this was second-hand book he bought specially for me over the internet. Since the only copy I could find on Amazon was listed at more than $90 this is clearly not the kind of book you give unless you really want to.

I’m not going to spoil the book for you by explaining the plot, although the chances that you will ever read it are as close to zero as makes no difference, but I will say that it seems to be a children’s book for adults. I don’t mean “adult” in the sense of things like my Little Red Riding Hood story, but in the sense that the message of the story would be lost on kids, who probably haven’t experienced the things that work, money, responsibility and ambition bring.

The central figure in the book is a little girl called Momo. The message of the story is essentially all about time – the paradox that we spend so much of our lives saving time and yet we never seem to have enough of it. Why is that? And, more importantly, what do we give up in our relentless attempts to save time?

Think about it. We spend a huge part of our waking lives working; especially in the US, we are working more hours than ever before. Our kids spend most of their days at school, and when they’re not at school they’re being driven around various timetabled activities, or doing homework, all to make them more “rounded” and marketable later, in the world of work. When people aren’t working for money they will spend an inordinate amount of time working on their house, or their garden, making them look nicer. Just watch the traffic at DIY stores on a weekend.

Why do we spend so much time working? Because we need the money. And why do we need the money? Well, there’s that house, for a start, and the college education, and all the smart clothes that you need to buy so you look nice at work. And we have to eat out at restaurants, or buy convenience foods, because we don’t have time to cook a proper dinner every night. And we need better cars too, and phones and iPods and a Wii. (Everyone, apparently, is dying for a Wii…)

The thing is that I spend most of my life working, or thinking about work. And yet I’m not short of money. Don’t get me wrong – it’s not that I’m rich, but I don’t live any differently than I did fifteen years ago, when I had bugger-all money. I’m not intentionally frugal, but most of the things that I enjoy (curry, scotch, lifting weights, fried breakfasts, friends, cream soda, etc.) aren’t that expensive. So I’m not short of money, but I am definitely short of time. I love weekends because I can relax and do fuck-all if I feel like it, and yet there’s always a feeling that I have to make the most of the weekend because it’ll be over in a few hours, and I’d better not have wasted it vegged out in an armchair.

The irony is that in spite of the fact that I’m not short of money but would definitely like more time, I’m engaged every day in trading more of my limited remaining time for more money. And in thirty years, unless I pop my clogs early, I’ll be an old man and willing to trade almost anything to have my time over again.

Now if this was just me then everyone would just shake their head, mutter “sad bastard” and get back to their own idyllic lives; but it’s not just me. Most of us are engaged to a greater or lesser extent in trading precious time for money, so that we can buy crap that doesn’t make us any happier, and which in some cases we only have to buy at all because we don’t have any time. A few weeks ago I started making my own bread. It pisses all over the stuff we buy at the store, and not because I’m doing anything special – this is just basic bread machine dough. Even Bison Daughter loves it. And yet we still end up buying bread at the store because I don’t have enough time to make the good stuff.

OK, so I’m not about to give up civilization and live in a yurt, eating creepy crawlies and wiping my arse on leaves. And I might buy a Porsche Cayenne this year, even though “Porsche” is practically a byword for “small penis”. (It’s a risk I’m prepared to take.) I’m just saying that we all spend way too much time rushing around earning and spending. We’re not saving time by eating take-out pizza and pre-packaged convenience food full of high-fructose corn syrup. You can’t save time – you can only choose how to spend it. And as someone once pointed out. no-one on their deathbed wishes they’d spent more of it at work.

One of the central themes of a book called “Why Work Isn’t Working Anymore” is that happiness doesn’t come from “stuff” but from time we spend with friends and family. But in the quest for more “stuff” people spend less and less time with friends and family. They have more stuff than ever before but they still can’t understand why they’re not happy. Even having spare time doesn’t do you any good if you don’t have people with whom to spend it. This is what Momo knows in the book, but it was also noted by a comedian I heard recently who bemoaned the fact that he didn’t use any of the time he had these days to learn new languages or musical instruments, but instead devoted it to “cupcakes and masturbation”. You may win the lottery and give up the quest for stuff, but your friends will all still be working so you’ll have no-one to hang out with. Faced with the hideous alternative of daytime TV you’ll be hitting the cupcakes and yanking that thing before you know it.

This might seem a little depressing, but The Grey Gentlemen isn’t a depressing book – it just makes you think about time a little differently. Having said that, I don’t know about you but I think it’s time for a Scotch…

Copyright © 2009 Edward Bison