An essay I wrote back in 2013 after the much too early death of a friend.
Manners maketh man
For Max Rickard.
“Intensity of life is only possible at the expense of the self. But there is nothing members of the bourgeoisie value more highly than self, albeit only at a rudimentary stage of development. Thus, at the expense of intensity, they manage to preserve their selves and make them secure.”
We all thought the guitar was haunted. As he played the guitar the chill of the cold February winds ignored walls, windows and doors, huddling us closer to him. It felt warmer in his shadow. All it had known were the three chord progressions of folk but those strums were foreign to it now.
-FREAK OUT IN A MOONAGE DAYDREAM, OH YEAA.
It certainly wasn’t glamorous. It was bought cheap and unused to a life of strain. Max struck it on the body, hit the strings with his solid fingernails, looked at no one’s eyes but his shoes until he started singing and caught everybody’s eyes in one. I didn’t know which struck me more. The jaundiced guitar now rejuvenated with the vigorous fingers of youth or Max’s voice as innocent and vivid as children with crayons. This wasn’t a performance. In the audience of one who exudes joy, there can no longer be an audience.
But that was in a small living room on Abbey Street with a view of Liberty Hall. Liberty is an interesting word. The definition I like best of it describes it as the “condition of being able to act in any desired way without restraint; power to do as one likes.” The word stands with the tallest building in Dublin and the most famous landmark in the United States. Few words come closer in use in the ideological jargon of politics than it. Liberty. It is a statute delivered onto modern man lecturing to them that they are free, compelling them to be free. It is a beautiful sound bite.
Liberty Hall stands next to the Custom House. It houses the Department of Environment, Community and Local Government. It used to collect custom duties in its previous life on goods entering through the port. I wonder why they need a state department to govern the community. I often felt that communities tend to be self-governing. When I hear the word community, I tend to think of things like the local GAA pitch, bars with carpeted floors and churches with their doors constantly open. Without such networks, I struggle to envision the ebb and flow of community.
Bars with names such as O’Reilly’s and Farrell’s and Lyons are plotted amongst this word Community and on the walls of these bars are photos of the county team that bet Westmeath in some Leinster final or other, of himself at the bar’s son holding a cup on high with another photo to its right, of a new born baby crying in the very same pub that the photo now rests. And in O’Reilly’s they speak of Mel or Pat or Colm or Paul whose son is starting in St. Brendan’s, St. Joseph’s or the Dominican and will he make a name for himself there in the colours of both his school and parish. While at the gates, boys on their first day of secondary school recognise each other from schoolboy football and their community for the first time gets larger. They see their uncles in photos along the wall and history teachers ask them are you so and so’s son and a nod and a wink greets a shy yes with the words of recognition ‘You must be handy so.’
Some are and some aren’t. Some make the team while many miss out. The photos on the wall show tall boys for their age and well built, the favourites of the teachers quiet and studious. There was a special prize for such boys in my school. It was also the most prestigious. From community to the school, the maketh of young men.
And when that guitar stopped playing, we were frozen in awe. Max then looked at his black and torn Converse and the guitar resumed its sickly yellow complexion. And I was reminded of the divide at my school between those who wore Converse and those who didn’t. Isn’t it funny the symbolism that arises out of wearing a pair of runners that break your feet after walking a mile? Maybe it wasn’t so much a divide but there certainly was a suspicion, a suspicion on everything from the wearer’s masculinity, to his sexuality and even to his faith. Only now I can recognise that suspicion, of that small subversive act of relinquishing the desire to wear the green and gold, the blue and white, a questioning of community’s hierarchy of manhood. Of course this wasn’t a conscientious objective on both sides. Yet suspicion lingered and I still can’t recall anybody wearing Converse winning that prestigious medal at school.
Every time I entered that apartment, that guitar was in perfect view. Not once did I pick it up and play it. I thought it would wail, a reflection of its supposed condition. Max walked in and picked it up straight away. It sat silenced for years when all it wanted to do was holler. And I remember that those lingering on the outside of the team often shouted the loudest, a wail to their peers for recognition, or a linkage to the inheritors of the community’s pride.
-Are ya gay are ya.
-I fucked your aul lass last night.
-Your birds a dyke.
Sound bites again, but not so beautiful.
Then I think of that word community again and in my head I see that picture of a six-month-old boy wrapped in parish colours, nestled in some trophy or other. His uncle is lifting the trophy in the photo to the left or maybe it was to the right, I can’t remember. The borders of the pictures are thick and black and I think of the six-month-old stuck between its borders. And then the six-month-old turns ten and he’s on the local paper with ten others, beaming from ear to ear. His body changes early and hair is appearing where it wasn’t before. He doesn’t know why. Teachers become red when they try to tell him. Parents have left it to red teachers. Other thirteen year olds do it instead. And he is now fifteen, unsure and shamed and silenced. But he still kicks a football, swims lengths of a pool, and throws a basketball because that’s where meaning is attached. Expression reliant on the body he knows little about but embarrassment.
And what of the enthusiasm of children knocked into bewilderment by a dozen inhibitions of expression? The expectations of behaviour, of how young men are expected to behave and to act, what their interests are expected to be, how they communicate to one another is so caged, so forbidden, so taboo. A confide here or a confide there and BAM! ammunition for another to negotiate their own playground battle. But a brave face is encouraged. And now that fifteen year old has turned eighteen and bottoms of Dutch Gold, Devil’s Bit and Kindsey Vodka are no longer an unfamiliar sight. The hangovers are nothing. They’re anticipated with joy, a bewildered stupor where the DMCs, the messy kisses, the sing-a-longs with the lads are remembered and mulled over again and again and again. And they say we have an alcohol problem. Oh no, it is that the depths that our desires have been driven to cannot be accessed without a well-lubricated pickaxe.
Max walked out of that living room after the silence had been broken only to resurface again after the bottles of beer had gone and eyes got heavy. He walked out of the living room and into the streets, a frayed hoodie no match for February winds. Liberty Hall was still shining but he wouldn’t have been able to see it the direction he was going. I bet his feet hurt walking in those chewed up Converse, his black hair tussled by the wind. I don’t think it rained that night but if it did, his eyeliner would have streamed in a delta on his sallow face and his hand would let it stream. I can see it criss-crossing, roaming from his eyes across his cheeks maybe even as far as his ears and he would look like… I don’t know what he would look like but I know he would have been looked at. But he would have liked it there because when he got home and looked in a mirror he would have had to take a second glance.
Through the frosty eyes of another hangover, another young man meets his reflection and he can only think of words like ashen, withered and feeble. The pickaxe he had lubricated as well as he had all them years before has reached its depth. The crowds haven’t changed too much, there’s just some noticeable holes with Colm in Sydney, Jack in Dublin and Michael doing something in Europe as he always does. Time has though and now he is a man. Though they sing like they used to after training on Sunday mornings, talk like they used to about Ronaldo being too much of a girl to be better than Lionel Messi and gather themselves up for Monday mornings, some for work, others for facebook, porn and another few cans in the evening. Cans down alleyways and school laneways were a ritual, cans on the couch on Wednesday nights an existence
And I think of the Custom House again and the yearly price rise of alcohol. An inhibitor, they say, a disincentive and I realise that they know nothing. They read the same paper as me, the one that described that single car collision as a tragedy. “A man in his thirties,” it stated, “has died in a single vehicle road incident in the early hours of yesterday morning. The man was left fatally injured when the car left the road and collided with a tree.” And they use one word again and again and again which I’ve come to hate more than any other. Tragedy, they say. Nothing more is said and that silence becomes the custom, a tax on all our selves. That tree stands within the environment in which they govern.
Tragedy. Another sound bite. Perhaps the most beautiful of them all. Whereas liberty tells us we have the power to do as we like, tragedy tells us the same but in the past tense; We had the power to do as we liked but now you have that power no more. There is nothing more beautiful than nostalgia. There are few things emptier than a sound bite. They have taken that word and bled it. Say the word tragedy and we feel that we care. Read the word tragedy on this paper or that; hear the word tragedy and all we hear are empty appeals by them that they do care. I wish that I could think of that crash I read as a tragedy but I can’t. It feels too frivolous. I wish it would haunt me, but it doesn’t. I wish that whoever it was that veered of the road left a note for a loved one at home. But he didn’t. As even in death, the ambiguity of a car hitting a tree leaves behind only one definite answer and a few easily hushed questions.
And it is not the guitar that I think anymore haunts me, it is its silence.