Journal: Being near the pain

Plastic bottle of pills

(A short entry from the journal - for the last week, I’ve been helping a relative who is going through serious pain with a sciatica flare-up… And like so many people who faced similar situations I have felt useless in the face of it)

It’s the feeling of complete powerlessness - the TOTAL inability to be of any help with the central Fact of The Pain. All you can do is provide help AROUND the pain - by making tea, tidying up, putting on some music, going to the shops. All of this while the agony goes on at the centre of everything. And after a while you can’t help wondering if it appears that you’re just… getting on with your own life, standing there drinking the tea, while your loved ones gasps and struggles to hold on to their sanity. No matter how often you’re told how great it is that you’re there, and how helpful you’re being, it still feels sometimes like you’re a spectator, a tourist - over on a sightseeing trip from the Land of The Painless.

Gordon Banks - my part in his victory

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At primary school I was a pudgy little kid – National Health glasses and a little pot belly (not much has changed…) and when it came time to pick the teams for football during the lunch break I would inevitably be left as the last, unchosen player… Until one of the ‘captains’ would say the words that echo in my mind to this day… ‘youse can have Toner for nets’.

Not even ‘WE’LL take Toner for nets’…

No – ‘YOUSE can have Toner for nets’.

Let’s not forget that being picked for nets was a source of shame – there was no victory to be savoured in nets. Whenever the team chased the ball into the enemy penalty box and nailed it to the back of the net, I would be at the other end, picking paint off a goalpost. Or in this case, folding and refolding the jumpers you were using to delineate the goalmouth. Maybe bringing them a little closer together when no-one was looking...? Watching your teammates being jubilant a hundred and fifty yards away.

Gordon Banks.jpg

Determined to make the best of it, my father would tell me what an important role I was playing, and encouraged me to think of the great goalkeepers I could use as role models – there was Pat Jennings, for instance. Or Peter Bonetti.

Or Gordon Banks.

So Gordon Banks (pictured right, who passed away on Monday at the age of 81, taking a chunk of my boyhood with him) became my hero. And even though I knew nothing about football (and cared less, let’s be honest here), I would profess to be a Stoke City fan, because that was his team.

When they came round the classrooms with a special discount offer for football jerseys, my mother encouraged me by giving me money to buy the Stoke City jersey – all because of my love for Gordon Banks – and here I am, aged about nine I think, outside our house in Hawthorn Place in Coleraine, wearing the Stoke City top (with my cousin Hazel).

Nobody seems to have warned me that VERTICAL red and white STRIPES are not a good luck for my physique.

Not to mention that Stoke City were seldom a cool team to support. Not even – it must be said - at the time this picture was taken. And actually (when I think about it) as a goalkeeper, Banks would never have worn the Stoke City colours anyway. Because goalkeepers always wear green or yellow jerseys.

Anyway, welcome back, 1974. This was my misguided little tip of the hat to a great goalkeeper. RIP Gordon Banks.

Alphabet Blog: M is for Mothers

'When you think you can't face another day,/ they pick you up and carry you all the way.../ M is for Mothers' - An Alphabet

There’s not much I can write about my mother Eileen (1941-2014) that I haven’t already said. Her absence from my life has left a hole that regularly floods with complicated memory and gratitude.

 Sarah Eileen Dickson was born on the high ground between Coleraine and Limavady, on the Windyhill Road – or, as it was more colourfully known in my youth, the Murder Hole Road. Her father Robert was a shepherd up there in the hills, living in a cottage at the end of the Bolea Road, tending a flock of sheep for a landowner, and he and his wife Margaret had a flock of eleven children – with my mother the youngest girl.

 Her memories of that childhood, as related to me, were basically an Irish version of Little House on the Prairie. Tight, loving family connections, long walks to school in all weathers, milking cows, fetching water, fresh eggs, home baked bread… It was a source of fun in our house that my parents’ backgrounds were so far removed from each other – their only shared characteristics were, essentially, poverty and love.

 (my dad grew up a ‘townie’, in Pates Lane in Coleraine, fatherless from the age of eleven. The hardscrabble mid to late 40s. He recalled being sent out at night by his mother with a bag, to cross the bridge to the entrance to Kelly’s coal yard, and gather up any bits of coal that might have fallen from the wagons. He used to tease my mother about being from the country, still having straw behind her ears)

 As they grew to maturity and got married, my parents could never quite believe their luck, coming of age in the Never Had It So Good generation - the late 50s and early 60s, when jobs were plentiful, and the future looked bright. And by the time I was a teenager in the 70s, my parents were living in their own house, with central heating, a washing machine and electric cooker, a colour TV and a car.

 The pace of change must have been bewildering. A lot of kids born in my time, in their middle ages now, have rolled their eyes at their parents’ mystified response to technology – like their parents are… country bumpkins or something, tutting and marvelling at mobile phones and iPads. But when I think of the DISTANCE that my parents’ generation had come in lifestyle terms - of improvements in living conditions, availability of medicine, home appliances, entertainment, transport, food… it’s really no wonder. It was a standing joke that my mother would be amazed by… pesto. By the existence of something like a mango. Online banking, satellite navigation and mp3s.

 She and my father also shared a well-developed talent for having fun. They met in the late 50s, in the dancehall days, and as a child our house remained full of the old time rock & roll records that they had loved and danced to as kids – Chuck Berry, Elvis and Jerry Lee Lewis. Music was a constant thread – neither of them played an instrument or sang that much, but they loved their music. And they were willing to give everything a go. They loved a lot of the stuff I listened as a youngster, especially Dire Straits and Bruce Springsteen and James Taylor. But also, let the record show, Pink Floyd and AC/DC. When I was working at Flowerfield Arts Centre in Portstewart and running concerts there, my folks would come down and sit through just about anything - string quartets, modern jazz and contemporary folk. Often with puzzled expressions. ‘Something a bit different,’ my mother would say to me in the car on the way home, after an evening of screaming saxophone bebop.

 Their lives were intertwined from the moment they got together, and it would remain that way to the end. And I was their little golden boy, of course, through it all. From the moment I could play a D major chord on the guitar, I was the Jimi Hendrix of our street as far as they were concerned. When I was playing in pubs, they would get a taxi there, and I would drive them home in high spirits afterwards, the car filled with an aroma of rum & coke and cigarette smoke. At ‘proper’ concerts later, I would introduce them as the ‘Secretary and Chairman of The Anthony Toner Fan Club’. After my mother died, I found a plastic folder, packed fat as a rugby ball, with clippings about me from the local papers. Every concert, every article, every photograph.

 She was pretty strict, though – she’d had a Presbyterian upbringing and a lean childhood. So, I didn’t get away with much. Good manners were expected, and under no circumstances was any success ever allowed to go to my head. And I was overly protected – I was never allowed to climb trees, swim in the deep end, ride my bike beyond the streets where I lived. And that conditioning has been slow to leave – to this day, I’m incredibly cautious in new physical situations.

 She remained deeply proud of me and we were in daily contact, sometimes even more often, when her last ailments began to affect her.

 When my mother died at the end of 2014, it brought to a close a sad and painful half a decade. She had been a diabetic from the age of seven, so as she entered her late 60s, she had begun to suffer circulation and vascular problems, kidney problems, heart problems. And like so many people her age, one set of health challenges would be affected by another - this medication for that condition would react with that medication for this condition, and thus her body became a battlefield, on which differing ailments and cures warred with each other.

My mother and I, on the boardwalk at Castlerock, spring 2014

My mother and I, on the boardwalk at Castlerock, spring 2014

 She was greatly affected by my father’s Alzheimer’s diagnosis. They had come so far together, and she stubbornly refused to let him go – for almost a year and a half, she was wheelchair-bound and dealing with all kinds of health problems, and yet also trying to manage with him and his declining memory and his increasingly strange behaviour. And when he finally went into care in the summer of 2014 and she was alone in the little bungalow, she remained defiant - determined to stay, to be independent. In both of them, I think, there was a long-held belief that once you went into a care home or a residential home, you were somehow finished.

 It ended that November, in the Causeway Hospital, after gruelling weeks of hospitalisation, coming home and suffering, and resisting going back in. Exhaustion and anger and pain and despair. Dropping pills on the floor and not being able to see them or pick them up. Not getting to the phone in time. In the days that followed her funeral, I faced an overwhelming sense that she had been unfairly defeated – not that she had ‘slipped away’ or ‘gone to her rest’, or any of those euphemisms we use when loved ones die. But instead I felt that she had punched back hard, all the way - and had been brought down. She had gone fifteen rounds, toe to toe, with the Grim Reaper, only to be beaten on points, disappointed and worn down.

 So what were my mother’s favourite things? Country music and rock & roll, especially Elvis, Glen Campbell, Charley Pride, Kris Kristofferson’s Border Lord album. The Friday lunches that she would lay on for my daughter and I – a kitchen table laid with teacups, scones, wheaten, sandwiches, sliced cheese, jam… Donegal. Old family pictures. Vodka and slimline tonic. Clean sheets and ironed pillow cases. Foster & Allen. The Point Bar and Magilligan. Coronation Street and Emmerdale. Riesling wine. Handel’s Water Music. Hot tea. The Lakes of Killarney. Drives in the car. Portstewart Promenade and the gardens at Bishop’s Gate near Castlerock. Most of all, family – being around the family, her own brothers and sisters, the nephews and nieces (many of whom had given huge amounts of their precious time and bottomless love to help in those last years), and with me and my family.

 It’s been difficult to separate my memory of my mother from the most recent experiences, the pain and the struggle of the last few years. A lot of people told me it would be like this. In a way I’ve been relieved that she’s gone, that she’s free from the struggle now. We really weren’t having a lot of fun together near the end. And that sometimes feels like I don’t miss her. In time, friends have told me, you will start to remember the earlier sweetness instead. I think that’s starting to happen.

An Alphabet Blog - L is for Love

It’s an investment you just won’t believe:

The more you put in, the more you receive -

L is for love.

Writing about love is - almost - a pointless exercise. From Shakespeare to Aretha Franklin, it feels like everybody else already said it better, years ago. But it doesn’t stop us – the urge is always there to find some new way to express it. I recently read Amy Liptrot’s beautiful book The Outrun, in which she described a relationship that had gone wrong because she had held on too tightly: ‘I’d caught around him, like tights in the laundry’.

I’ve been lucky and grateful to be surrounded by love all of my life – wrapped in warm blankets of love as a child and in loving relationships ever since. I’m an only child that always craved attention and approval - so to this day, I go running towards the applause as if it’s love. Like an eight year old being told what a good boy he is.

I recently found my first ever school report from St. Malachy’s Primary School in Coleraine – from Miss Devenney, Christmas 1969: ‘Anthony is a grand little boy…’ she begins. And across the canyons of the years I feel the glow of love and approval. I can see the pattern being set, even then.

An Alphabet Blog - K is for Kindness

K could also have been for Kurt - Kurt Vonnegut… every time I finish one of his books, it’s like a kindly old uncle has been to stay for a week or two and now they have to go, and it’s always a heartbreaker. His lifelong philosophy that kindness was always the best choice is one that seems to resonate with me.

  He once received a letter from a student who asked him only to say that ‘everything will be all right’. His response: ‘Hello babies. Welcome to Earth. It's hot in the summer and cold in the winter. It's round and wet and crowded. On the outside, babies, you've got a hundred years here. There's only one rule that I know of, babies - God damn it, you've got to be kind.’

An Alphabet Blog: J is for Jazz

'If I picture myself at the start of a movie, walking down a sunny street on a Saturday morning with the whole day laid open and money in my pocket - this is the soundtrack I'm hearing as I walk...'

I was a latecomer to jazz. As a youngster, I used to think jazz was the stuff you saw Dixieland guys performing, in striped blazers and straw boaters, on Saturday night television specials. Kenny Ball and Louis Armstrong and all that. Then I bought this Blue Note compilation album called ‘A Sample of Blue Notes’ in a bargain bin at a record shop, with Cannonball Adderley, Lou Donaldson, Horace Silver, Thelonious Monk and Herbie Hancock on it… and the world changed colour slightly.

Here’s a selection of five jazz albums I wouldn’t be without (as always with these things, ask me in a few weeks and it will be a different list:

Miles Davis Quintet – Workin’

Miles has so many incarnations, not all of them easy to listen to. But my favourite period is this Quintet, with Coltrane on sax and Red Garland on piano, Philly Joe Jones on bass and Paul Chambers on bass. And I love this one for the inclusion of the ravishing ‘It Never Entered My Mind’.

Cannonball Adderley – Them Dirty Blues

Pick any Adderley album and you’ll hear the soul and the liquid joy in his playing. I also love Mercy Mercy Mercy and Love for Sale, but this one swings beautifully.

Bill Evans – You Must Believe in Spring

One of the last album the genius recorded, and it has that melancholia and sweetness of Evans at his best, all of it delivered with such gorgeous technique… it’s a must-have.

Hank Mobley – Soul Station

My single favourite jazz track of all time is on this collection – This I Dig of You. If I picture myself at the start of a movie, walking down a sunny street on a Saturday morning with the whole day laid open and money in my pocket - this is the soundtrack I'm hearing as I walk. The rest of it is glorious. Mobley was regarded as one of the middleweights of jazz saxophone, but he had such a supple and soulful approach, he was irresistible at this best. And this, I believe, is his best. Wynton Kelly on piano and Art Blakey on drums... what's not to like?

Ella & Louis on Verve

A wonderful pairing that lasted two or three albums and is a perfect mellow Sunday morning thing – those voices and the lovely band that backs them – The Oscar Peterson Quartet. What’s not to like?

An Alphabet Blog: I is for Ink

You type it or you write it, but you get it down -

it’s all there’ll be left when you hit the ground.

I is for ink.

I’m always slightly worried on behalf of artists who talk about their work – this new thing they’re working on, this idea they have for a project, the new thing they’ve come up with. Most of it, ultimately, turns out to be in service of nothing… And I’ve come to realise that the minute you talk about it (in detail, at least), some of the air just... goes out of the balloon. It always feels like bad luck to discuss a creative idea before you get it down. Having suddenly lost faith in the middle of such work, I've been known to stop people in mid sentence as they describe their ideas.

Ernest Hemingway had a great phrase to describe it, claiming that it took off ‘whatever butterflies have on their wings and the arrangement of hawk’s feathers if you show it or talk about it’. I don’t know why that happens. I remember meeting a friend who told me he was working on a play. ‘It’s about this guy…’ he began, and proceeded to tell me the entire plot. In that second, I was convinced he would never finish it. And... I haven’t heard it mentioned since. In most cases, the best thing you can do is get the work done – you can talk about it til the cows come home - once the ink is on the paper.

Copies of the new album Ink are available from the STORE page at this website.

The album will be officially launched at the Lyric Theatre on Sunday evening, April 23rd, in a concert that will feature special guests Ciaran Lavery, Eilidh Patterson and John McCullough. Click HERE to be directed to the ticket sales page at the Lyric Theatre website.

An Alphabet Blog: H is for Hard Work

Here’s a picture of my grandfather Patrick Toner, working as a labourer, probably sometime in the 40s. He passed away suddenly when my father was only 11, so I never got to meet him, and my father barely knew him. With eleven children in a tiny house on Pates Lane in Coleraine, I can’t begin to imagine how hard he must have worked to keep food on the table. Or how hard Mary Toner must have worked after he died… There was a family story that early on, shortly after the first two children were born, he and Mary and the children moved to Greenock in Scotland, where he worked in the sugar mills there, but they all came home after one of the children developed a respiratory condition – he and his wife were warned that the sooty air would have killed her for sure. So he came home to Coleraine, to work in the fields and on the farms and on the roads, in all kinds of weather. My father remembered that he would come home every evening, wash himself in a tin bath in the back yard, rub Snowfire ointment on his hands and sit by the fire with a newspaper. And then he was suddenly gone. My travels took me to Greenock last year, and went to the local library to look him up in the postal records, but there were gaps along the shelf, years of the records were missing, and his name was nowhere to be found. The registrar suggested I try the public records office in Glasgow. Next time I’m there, I might just do that – I seem to have a yearning to see his name, written down somewhere.

Copies of the new album Ink are available from the STORE page at this website.

The album will be officially launched at the Lyric Theatre on Sunday evening, April 23rd, in a concert that will feature special guests Ciaran Lavery, Eilidh Patterson and John McCullough. Click HERE to be directed to the ticket sales page at the Lyric Theatre website.

An Alphabet Blog: G is for Guitars

I don’t know if there’s much else to be said on this subject, really… it’s on ongoing source of amusement to my mother in law – ‘how many guitars do you have NOW?’

I should mention that all of the acoustic guitar parts on this album were played on Tanglewood guitars. I’ve been a Lowden player for twenty years and I was approached last year by Tanglewood, who offered me a couple of guitars to try - and I’ve been hooked on them ever since. In fact, about half of the album came from fooling around on new instruments – it’s always a great way to kick start a song: Play an instrument you haven’t played before, or try a new tuning, or put the capo halfway up the neck, or take one of the strings off…

I’ve attached some pictures of the models involved - I'm using this little TW40 (above) a lot at the minute, enjoying its closeness to the body and its sweetness. The electric guitars on this album were a Fender Telecaster, an early 2000s Danelectro reissue and an Epiphone 339. All of them have served me well – every time they come out of the cases, it’s like having old friends round for a visit.

An Alphabet Blog: F is for Family...

It’s an army based on blood connection,

armed to the teeth with love and affection:

F is for family.

The older I get, the more I have come to realise that – unless they’re psychopaths, of course – you separate from your family at your peril. All the bad things that happened to me over the years seemed to happen when I was out on my own, orbiting the family like a rogue planet. And in the last few years, as all of our parents have been faltering, this huge cavalry of cousins has come riding over the hill and saved each other's skins on many occasions. And I feel connected again. It’s a blessing and a source of great strength.

I realise, too, that in losing that generation, you also lose the stories and the connections and the reasons behind them... It all goes into the void, too. So - speak to your elders, ask them to tell you their stories. I'm always reminded of the wonderful poem 'People' by the Russian poet Yevtushenko, which contains the lines: 'In any man who dies there dies with him / his first snow and kiss and fight. / It goes with him.... /... The secret worlds are not regenerated.'

Pictured above are my grandmother and grandfather, Robert and Margaret Dickson with some of their family on the Windyhill Road, between Limavady and Coleraine, sometime in the late 40s, early 50s.

Copies of the new album Ink are available from the STORE page at this website.

The album will be officially launched at the Lyric Theatre on Sunday evening, April 23rd, in a concert that will feature special guests Ciaran Lavery, Eilidh Patterson and John McCullough. Click HERE to be directed to the ticket sales page at the Lyric Theatre website.

An Alphabet Blog: E is for Elvis...

I grew up listening to the King – my mother was a huge fan. She had a lifesize poster of Elvis on the wall of the bedroom she shared with my father, in Hawthorn Place in Harpur’s Hill, Coleraine.

  I never asked my father how he felt, waking up every morning to find Vegas-era Presley, in an open-chested cobalt blue jumpsuit and aviator shades, looking down at him. My mum was a Fan with a capital F – to her dying day she could recite Elvis’ date of birth and his GI number. So… Elvis was constantly on the record player when I was a child.

PS - A quick websearch found an image of the ACTUAL poster (used in the graphic above right), which appears to be something of a collector's item now...

  Here are five Elvis stand-outs for me…

Something Blue – I loved the early, late night stuff that Elvis did for RCA (They Remind Me Too Much of You). It still sounds so fresh today. The piano on this is delicious – I think it’s Floyd Kramer.

Suspicious Minds – The classic combination: great players and a great voice on a great song.

Jailhouse Rock – Those opening chords are still thrilling. There’s a family story about how I used the lift the needle on the record and go back over and over again to hear the piano lick that comes just after the line: ‘I wanna stick around, I wanna get my kicks, let’s rock…’ I see it as a kind of epiphany – I think I was about nine, and it would have been the first time I noticed that music was Doing Something to Me. It wasn’t just a noise in the background anymore – this little piano phrase was making me feel unbearably good.

Memories – I’ve become convinced this was the B-side of ‘If I Can Dream’, but I think I’m wrong in this. I remember kind of swooning at this as a child, the sound of the Spanish guitar and the strings and the way the chords moved around. It’s still a beauty.

In the Ghetto – this was constantly on the turntable when I was growing up, and I remember always being kind of horrified by the short, brutal life depicted in the song, but I also admired that they could fit that entire tragedy into one little plastic record.

Copies of the new album Ink are available from the STORE page at this website.

The album will be officially launched at the Lyric Theatre on Sunday evening, April 23rd, in a concert that will feature special guests Ciaran Lavery, Eilidh Patterson and John McCullough. Click HERE to be directed to the ticket sales page at the Lyric Theatre website.

An Alphabet Blog: D is for Democracy

You ponder your choice and you place your votes -

you get the same old knives at the same old throats.

D is for democracy

I was a half-hearted watcher of the news as a youngster, and the more I watch it as a grown man, the more disheartened I am made by the whole sorry business. It’s not just the Brexit vote and the ascendancy of Trump to the White House. I don’t ever recall a time when heroes where in such a short supply, on all sides, at all levels of politics.

  Last year (I don’t know why) I picked up a copy of Fear and Loathing on the Campaign Trail 72 by Hunter S. Thompson (pictured right - wearing the shades - with Democratic nominee George McGovern), and discovered this incredibly prescient quote from 44 years ago: ‘The main problem in any democracy is that crowd-pleasers are generally brainless swine who can go out on a stage & whup their supporters into an orgiastic frenzy—then go back to the office & sell every one of the poor bastards down the tube for a nickel apiece’.

Copies of the new album Ink are available from the STORE page at this website.

The album will be officially launched at the Lyric Theatre on Sunday evening, April 23rd, in a concert that will feature special guests Ciaran Lavery, Eilidh Patterson and John McCullough. Click HERE to be directed to the ticket sales page at the Lyric Theatre website.

An Alphabet Blog: C is for Coffee...

Up early in the morning and a sharp little espresso hit – watch those words go down on the page. You can find good coffee in unexpected places, and when you make the discovery, you keep going back to the same spots… My favourite for a LOOOOONNG time has been Ground - when they first opened in Coleraine, it was a spot I frequented with indecent regularity. I loved sitting at the long window bench, reading a paper, working or watching the world go by. They very kindly play my music on their playlist, occasionally, too... In a world full of scalding milk or bitter black water, Ground seems to do cappuccino the way it should be (in my opinion), with enough foam to blanket the hot milk and espresso in luxury. Their caramel squares are the benchmark by which I judge all caramel squares now. Also developing nicely (and close to where I live in east Belfast) is JACK, the coffee shop at the EastSide Visitor's Centre, where staff know what they're talking about when they recommend a 'long black' - pictured above. AND they play Little Feat and Marvin Gaye on their playlist. But really... anywhere I can read, write, mingle with friends, see the world going by -and enjoy wonderful flavours and smells can't be bad. If it's warm inside and cold outside, that's even better.

Copies of the new album Ink are available from the STORE page at this website.

The album will be officially launched at the Lyric Theatre on Sunday evening, April 23rd, in a concert that will feature special guests Ciaran Lavery, Eilidh Patterson and John McCullough. Click HERE to be directed to the ticket sales page at the Lyric Theatre website.

An Alphabet Blog: B is for Books...

As an only child, I retreated into reading at an early age and loved the process of creating an entire universe inside my head. I’m still the same. I recall at the age of 11, setting up a little bookshelf of my own with a dozen second hand paperbacks and thinking of myself as some kind of intellectual. I’m still hooked on the smell of paper, and I find the process of wandering through second hand bookshops to be a kind of meditation. I do seem to enter a trancelike state – very, very calm, but willing to be excited by what I find on every shelf.

Here's a selection of my Can't Be Without volumes...

Where I’m Calling From by Raymond Carver – At the time I first read this collection, I had thought I knew what short stories were capable of. Carver opened a door into a whole other kind of writing, and he became a big influence on my own work. Perhaps unfairly, I’ve measured all the other short story writers against him ever since.

Jesus’ Son by Denis Johnston – and here’s one who bears comparison with Carver. Dreamlike, disturbing short stories with a recurring cast of characters. Kind of like Winesburg Ohio but gone all wrong and strung out on crack. I owe a huge debt to Ciaran Lavery for introducing me to this writer.

Slaughterhouse 5 by Kurt Vonnegut – there’s a copy of this at the cottage in Canada and I read it every summer. It only takes a couple of days, and it’s always a joy. A story that leaps around, from the degradation and horror of the Second World War to alien abduction, time travel and mid-20th century American boredom - within a page.

Birds of America by Lorrie Moore (right) – Smart, funny, warm and compulsively readable. Just about anything she has written is worth a look. I also love her novel A Gate at the Stairs. But these short stories were the first things of hers that I read.

Rock Springs by Richard Ford – Ford is my favourite living writer, and has penned some of the finest novels of his generation. But I keep going back to this early short story collection. Beautifully drawn characters and some impossible situations.

Slouching Towards Bethlehem by Joan Didion – As I get older, I see more clearly how conservative Didion is in her reading of the late 60s. But there is something so incredibly cool about how she expresses all of her misgivings in these essays. A detached, measured response to often outrageous events. And it contains some of her best work, including the title piece and Some Dreamers of the Golden Dream, which starts with the dazzling sentence: ‘This is a story about love and death in the golden land and it begins with the country’.

One Hundred Years of Solitude by Gabriel Garcia Marquez – This was the first magic realism thing I ever read, and I was instantly hooked, and went on to read a whole raft of Marquez novels and stories. It was all so unexpected, after years of reading crime and thrillers, to suddenly have these wondrous events cascading out from the pages.

In Cold Blood by Truman Capote – I discovered Truman Capote through my father, who had read this for the ‘true crime’ element in it, and passed it on to me. I went on to discover a much more tender writer in the early stories and of course Breakfast at Tiffany’s. But this remains his masterpiece, a chilling and beautifully written ‘non-fiction novel’, a true account of a murder and the manhunt that followed.

A Long Long Way by Sebastian Barry – My favourite living Irish writer. I bought The Whereabouts of Aeneas McNulty in a sale because I loved the title and fell in love with his dreamlike, poetic prose instantly. But this World War One story is the one that haunted me – I was blown sideways by the ending, and found myself mourning and missing the characters when the book was over.

You can buy copies of the new album INK from the STORE page at this website.

Anthony's 'official' album launch date is at The Lyric Theatre, Belfast on Sunday April 23, with special guests Ciaran Lavery, Eilidh Patterson and John McCullough. Click HERE to be directed to the ticket sales page at the Lyric.

An Alphabet blog - A is for Alzheimer's

When I hug my father we hold on tight.

If he forgets who I am, well that’s all right -

A is for Alzheimer’s.

I had known for some time that something was not right with my father. I had noticed him repeating himself, wondering where he had left things, getting lost in the middle of conversations… But I did nothing about it. My mother was very ill at that time, going through round after round of surgery, and I suppose I didn’t want to face the idea that there might be something ELSE to deal with.

  But it was a lousy strategy. My cousin called me one day to ask if I was concerned at all about my dad’s memory, as she was finding a noticeable change in him. And the walls caved in and I realised, of course, that my head had been in the sand the whole time. Maybe if I kept ignoring it, I must have been saying to myself, his condition would not be real.

  For my family, we began the series of tests that would lead to an Alzheimer’s diagnosis. This part was truly awful – my father was in denial, and he was angry about the whole thing, had some choice names for the doctors, was talking about refusing the go for the tests… And all the time he was getting worse. And he was still driving at this stage. At home, he was beginning to avoid the shower – he was forgetting how to turn it on and off and was too embarrassed and angry to ask for help - and was having real problems with remote controls, the cooker, the radio and CD players.

  One of my worst early moments was sitting beside my father in the doctor’s room when the test questions started – who is the Prime Minister? What month is it? Are you on the ground floor of this hospital or the first floor? And my dad would do his best, but he didn’t answer any of those three questions correctly. The doctor showed him a diagram on a page and asked him to copy it with a pen. He made a reasonable attempt, before the hardest moment of them all:

    The doctor picked the pen up from the desk and held it up between his thumb and his finger.

  - What is the name for that object? he asked my father.

  My father looked at the pen, looked at the doctor, looked at the floor and smiled, looked at the pen… and then turned his big sad brown eyes on me. And in that moment, I seemed to sense everything changing colour.

  Over the course of the three years that followed, his condition worsened and he went through a series of phases. There was a drinking phase… there was a dismantling-the-bedroom phase. A Hiding Things phase. A long, harrowing, Distrusting Everybody phase, and then the one he became famous for, a Walking Phase, when he would leave the house, sometimes three times a day, and walk all the way across Coleraine to his old childhood neighbourhood, and back again, in all weathers. Somehow finding his way home on every occasion.

  Now, he is in care – at The Brook in Coleraine, a warm and welcoming complex, where he is beloved by the staff and seems happy. He has virtually no language left, just a stew of sounds and noises with occasional words or old phrases surfacing occasionally. But he remains very sociable and smiles and laughs often. And in answer to the question EVERYBODY asks me – I don’t know if he recognises me or not. I don’t worry about it anymore. When I walk into the room with a smile and a hug, he smiles back. Sometimes I think there’s a glimmer, but it’s fine with me either way.

  I have a few sad memories of the early times when words began to fail him, or when he realised for a second how confused he was and couldn’t find his way back to certainty. I remember him buying a book one day in Waterstone’s in Coleraine, and I then found it months later, stuffed in a drawer. He had obviously been unable to follow the text, and he had hidden it away and it had never been mentioned again.

  So what do we learn from these experiences? I urge all of you to make plans as early as you can, and have those difficult conversations now, before you get to a day when a doctor holds up an everyday object in front of someone you love, and the word ‘pen’ has fled from their tongue, never to return.

  During the writing of this album, it became clear that I was still processing the loss of my mother and the ongoing decline of my father – and it became clear to me that this situation has become - and remains - the central trauma of the middle period of my life. I am an only child, and we were such a close, happy little trio when I was a youngster.

  In 2015 I had a prolonged ‘dry spell’ – these come and go for anyone who writes for a living, but this one was worryingly long and desperately arid. I would sit for hours with the guitar and the same old licks and chords and moves would come out. The lyrics didn’t have anything interesting to say. I was totally and utterly bored with myself. And I couldn’t see any way out of it…

  Until late that year… I was on the road doing a series of shows as special guest of Barbara Dickson, and I was backstage at the Dunamaise Theatre in Portlaois, waiting for my time to go back on stage. I was strumming a very simple pattern on the guitar, and out of my mouth – like something learned in childhood and wholly remembered years later, like something strange and complete that you would say in your sleep – came the entire first verse: ‘When I hug my father we hold on tight – if he forgets who I am, well, that’s all right. A is for Alzheimer’s’.

  I stopped almost in fright and wondered where it had come from. But I have learned that at times like that you don’t stop and wonder, you just keep receiving. I immediately began to wonder what B would be for, and C and so on. And within the next few days, the other letters of this alphabet began to appear… And that was the first new song in over a year, and the first one to be completed in this body of work. And once that song was on paper, the rest of them followed - sometimes they appear like that, like elephants coming out of the bush, each of them holding the tail of the elephant in front.

Frank Zappa, my first job and a lasting souvenir...

My daughter Sian and I are going to the Beanbag Cinema in Belfast this Saturday night to see the Frank Zappa documentary, Eat That Question. And tonight I’m remembering an old cassette of Zappa tracks that I was given (unbelievably) 30 years ago, and which I still have…

Everybody’s talking about vinyl these days, but few of us seem to miss the cassette – the compact little box which contained a multitude of riches, the mixtape and the occasionally strange bedfellows that cassette recording would make - I have a number of those in mind, Big Star next to Marc Cohn or Elton John on the other side of Steely Dan, for example.

There’s a cardboard box somewhere full of these little boxes that I just couldn’t throw away – many of them had been put together for me by the late Phil Sinclair from his shop in Portrush, who crosses my mind from time to time. So I see his handwriting on old Curtis Mayfield collections, and I just can’t throw them away, even though I have all these tracks on CD now...

There’s one that Phil had nothing to do with though, and it holds a special place in my heart. It’s a TDK chrome tape, 90 minutes, and on the front it says simply one word in Orange felt tip – ZAPPA. No track listing, just that one word.

Here’s why it’s special. The first job I ever had in my life was in Kentucky Fried Chicken in Shaftesbury Square in Belfast. I lasted four days – not because of any fault on my part, but because I ended up getting another job and leaving. The first guy I met, after the manager, was Keith. I remember him as a stocky, reddish-haired guy about my age.

He showed me the ropes – he’d been there for ages and he knew all the angles. And he was good fun. He was my first workmate, when I think of it. He was a hi-fi fanatic, and he once asked me to accompany him on a lunchtime run to Lyric Hi-Fi to look at some separates – amplifiers, speakers, receivers, etc. I remember it was a rain-soaked afternoon, and we got into his mini. The car was a flying machine – he had shoehorned a bigger engine into the chassis, and stripped out everything that could potentially weigh it down and slow it up – so there were roll bars, but no back seats and no carpets. There was a hole in the floor between my feet. I could see the road racing by underneath, and occasionally we sloshed through deep puddles and my ankles would be awash with rain water.

We had a conversation on the way, about music, and he raved about Frank Zappa, as Zappa fans will do to this day. I had only ever heard ‘City of Tiny Lites’, with an extraordinary early claymation video, on The Old Grey Whistle Test (which had transfixed me) and he assured me there were riches galore to be savoured.

On the day that I was leaving he presented me with the cassette, simply with the word ZAPPA on the front. I took it home and was hooked, and have been hooked ever since. There was no way of knowing what was on there – lots of bizarre instrumentals, and no indication of which versions they were. There’s a beautiful version of Peaches En Regalia, for example, but it’s not the original. There’s Trouble Every Day with some INCENDIARY guitar (the hair goes up on my arms as I think of it) and lots more beside – Love of My Life, City of Tiny Lites, Cheepnis, Ship Ahoy, all kinds of wonderful stuff.

It’s made all the more remarkable by the quality of the sound – a good strong signal on a chrome tape is a lasting thing. It sounds as fresh today as it ever did, and it reminds me pungently of that time. And the weird thing is – I don’t really WANT the original albums on CD. I just want to put that tape on again, and NOT KNOW what comes up next.

Tanglewood... a new treat for the fingers

Guitar players will always tell you – you can never have too many guitars.

I was approached earlier this year by the lovely people at Tanglewood, and asked if I would be interested in playing one of their instruments.

(I told them I actually already OWNED a Tanglewood, a beautiful little vintage-styled parlour guitar (see right) that I occasionally play at gigs as a back-up, and for those portions of the show when I play in different tunings – and it’s the guitar on the original recording of ‘The Road to Fivemiletown’)

They were suggesting that I try out a couple of their guitars, and I was delighted to oblige – why not have a couple of extra instruments in the house, after all…? They very kindly furnished me with a couple of beauties: a gorgeous vintage sunburst TW40 SD. It’s Tanglewood’s take on the old bell-shouldered Gibson J45, and a lovely thing it is, too. A big rich, rounded tone that sounds great in front of a microphone.

But they also sent me the Masterdesign TS1 (right), which is one of the more high-end ranges from Tanglewood, designed by the legendary Swedish luthier Michael Sanden. It’s also a gorgeous thing – a solid spruce top with mahogany back and sides. Very elegant and simple in its look and feel, with little touches of flame maple and ebony here and there. It has a couple of interesting design features – the ‘paintbrush’ shape of the bridge is designed to spread the resonance on the bass side a little deeper.

And the guitar also comes with a zero fret, right down at the bottom of the fingerboard, where most guitars simply allow the strings to go through the nut. It makes for a more comfortable playing position for the fingers at the lower end of the neck, and evens out the string height.

I have just had an LR Baggs Anthem pickup fitted to the instrument, and took it out for the first gig, at the Bronte Centre in Rathfriland on Saturday night, and was just blown away by the sound. The guitar has sounded wonderful on its own, when I’ve played it unplugged. The challenge is always how to replicate that sound at high volume in a concert setting, and I’m delighted to say, it sounds as fresh and natural and resonant at high volume as it does in my kitchen. And it’s a beauty to play – comfortable and well balanced and responsive.

The trusty Lowden O-10... since 1993.

The trusty Lowden O-10... since 1993.

My intention is to take the guitar on the road for the long series of gigs I have lined up for November, including the Irish tour with Barbara Dickson.

For a performer so closely linked with a particular instrument, this somehow feels a little like taking up with a younger mistress.

I won’t be neglecting my old faithful, though - my main stage guitar for 23 years has been a Lowden O-10 (left, above), a cedar beauty that I’ve owned and cherished since October 1993.

It has been across the Atlantic and back maybe a dozen times, for trips to Canada and the United States, and has been by my side on ferries to Scotland, and all over Ireland. It has been the guitar recorded on every single album I’ve released, and has been in and out of radio stations all over the place. Over the years it has fallen over on outdoor stages, been scraped by clumsy players who borrowed it (I stopped THAT carry on ages ago…), been thrown around by baggage handlers and has been knocked and banged against all kinds of microphone stands, amplifiers, drum kits, other guitars and all kinds of stage equipment. It was once played by The Jayhawks for a BBC Ralph McLean session. And it has – apart from one night the original EMG pick-up gave up the ghost – never let me down.

For November, I’ll hand her over to my friend Denis Currie, who has done amazing work on my guitars over the years, and ask him to give her the whole ‘spa treatment experience – perhaps a refret and a re-setting up of the guitar, to take account of wear and tear.

And I’ll take to the road with the new Tanglewood – if you’re at any of the gigs, come over and let me know what you think of the sound…



The Road to Fivemiletown - from 2013

I recently came across this film of a performance of 'The Road to Fivemiletown', shot by Adam Frew during a Christmas concert December 13, 2013 at Flowerfield Arts Centre. With the wonderful John McCullough on the Flowerfield grand piano.

From the Journal: Stirling Services, May 1

Roaring an upward diagonal across the map of Scotland, I drift across the white line and find myself here, in this services compound on the approach to Stirling. A chance to call home, to pause for coffee and walk, dazed and bow-legged, among these short tempered pilgrims. I read a newspaper and watch a wall of pines swaying beyond the car park, and think about distances, and about my father.

It occurs to me that his Alzheimer’s is a poor reward from karma for a largely blameless life. I sip my coffee and watch these trees move, deep and green, and I send my love across the distance to him, imagining it arriving with a warm, soft landing (like clouds drifting open). Radio waves, telepathy and prayer.

The road signs tell me I am close to Bannockburn here, the blood soaked fields where history was written. But I’m passing through, rolling eastwardly without a quarrel, leaving behind a litter of crumpled napkins and a dusting of icing sugar.

Shelf Life: Night terrors between the covers

As a child, I suffered terribly from nightmares for a year or so. I can’t be certain about my age then, but in memory it seems to have been shortly after we moved to the house at Hawthorn Place, so I must have been five or six. I had the little box room at the front of the house, and would wake up with the terrors two or three times a week. My mother would come in and find me gasping, and she would sit on the edge of my bed until I calmed down and went back to sleep. We began a long habit of leaving the landing light on.

For a while, we weren’t sure what was causing the anxiety. And then my mother thought she had pinned it down – there was a bookcase in the room, and some of the novels had pretty lurid covers.

My father was working on the night shift at the Sperrin Textiles factory, and he and his workmates would swap all kinds of paperbacks through the week – so there was a revolving library of pulp coming through the house. Mostly thrillers, Desmond Bagley, Alastair Maclean and the like, but occasionally true crime (Helter Skelter, The Boston Strangler), war novels and horror.

There was no room for a bookshelf in mum and dad’s room, so the paperbacks would pile up on the shelves in my room, and I was fascinated by books, constantly examining them and reading the copy on the back. I don’t recall being tempted to read any of them at that age, but I was hooked on novels as objects nonetheless – things to be turned over and examined and wondered about. And since I was only looking at them and handling them rather than reading them, they entered my consciousness visually. For example, I always associate The Exorcist with the shadowy image of the young girl on the original Corgi paperback (see above), an image that predates the film.

Perhaps the worst of them all, however, were a series of covers for Agatha Christie novels. My mother loved Agatha Christie, and for some reason couldn’t seem to be persuaded to reach much else. In fact, in the years that followed, once she had gone through the Christie canon, her appetite for reading seemed to dwindle, and she became more interested in television.

Although Agatha Christie was pretty mild stuff compared to Helter Skelter and the rest, for some reason the cover designs for the Fontana editions – a whole series of beautiful, sinister paintings by Tom Adams - were particularly grim. And my mother reasoned that I had stared at the illustrations long enough to be horrified into nightmares by them.

She could have been right – I have no idea where the nightmares came from. Or where they went – my mother demanded that the books be taken out of my room, and claimed afterwards that the nightmares promptly ceased.

I was reminded of all of this recently when visiting the Foyle Book Shop at the Craft Village in Derry. There on the shelf were a couple of the Fontana Agatha Christies – including Lord Edgeware Dies, (left) which I remember particularly vividly. The letter-opener in the back of the head was especially clear in my memory. And another I hadn’t seen before, A Caribbean Mystery (above). If I’d had THAT one in my room I don’t think I’d have got a wink of sleep.

There was another one – A Pocketful of Rye, which I seem to remember featured a blackbird skeleton, and By the Pricking of My Thumbs had a cracked doll with an eye missing. Murder in Mesopatamia had an ugly, leering clay face and a strangler’s rope. Even today, I can’t imagine a publisher going so far with book designs. They’re a particularly creepy bunch of covers.