I’m not really sure what the following piece is. It’s certainly not a book review, and I hope it’s not a complete self-indulgence. The only thing I can say for sure about it is that it felt right when I was writing it, and it still feels right now that I’ve read over it. It contains a few references that might not be immediately clear if you don’t know my family well. I can’t really help that. But it might help, as a starting point, to know that Homer is what we all called my grandfather. No completely satisfactory explanation of this nick-name was ever given. Homer died late last year, and his last days were marked by a stoicism and good humour that still takes my breath away.
I bought a book you’d have loved yesterday, Homer.
Dances With Wolves by Michael Blake. I bought it to sneer at, I must admit: I was sure it was going to be dreadful, low-brow and simplistic. You wouldn’t have approved of that. It is dreadful, low-brow and simplistic. But I couldn’t sneer at it. I started reading it on the train home, but I had to stop after fifteen pages because I couldn’t stop thinking of you.
When I got off the train I went to a pub. They didn’t have Toohey’s Red there, thank Aife. I always hated that beer, but I loved drinking it with you. They didn’t have any decent brandy either: but anyway it was too early for a snifter. Well, conventionally speaking it was too early for a snifter. I remembered that when I visited you and Nana once you took me to your fly-tying room on the pretext of showing me your sketches. It was eleven o’clock in the morning but we had a couple of quick snorts on the quiet (Nana knew exactly what we were up to, by the way). You said your only complaint with getting old was that your neck was too stiff to let you get at the last drops of brandy in the glass.
As I kept reading I imagined what our conversation about the book would have been like. I don’t know if you read it: but I know you loved the film. I was thinking about the kind of conversation I don’t think we ever had. The stories we talked about were all yours. My favourites were always the ones about the railways.
I loved the one about the engine driver who saw a cow’s head beside the tracks and decided it would go well on his wall. So he stopped the train to pick it up. Being a thinker, he put the head in the boiler of the engine the next day to get the flesh off the skull. Then at the end of the day he sent the most religious member of the team in to clean the boiler. When the poor bastard saw a pair of horns floating towards him in the gloom he rocketed out screaming ‘The Divil’s in there!’
You always loved anything to do with American Indians. I think it was because so much of what you loved as recreation was essential to their lives: hunting, fishing and storytelling. The often brutal simplicity appealed to you enormously, I’m sure.
Dances With Wolves has a pathos you would have appreciated too. It’s a book about eras ending, about greed and ignorance distorting fundamental things. You were never enough of a romantic to think that the best of what had passed would come again tomorrow. That’s what you had stories for.
You’d have liked Dunbar’s chivalry and courage, his rapport with animals, and you’d have liked his curiosity. You had a lot in common with him.
With a couple of pints sloshing around in me it was much easier to read Dances. Partly because they dulled my critical faculties, I’m afraid. But it made me feel closer to you, too. It was a beautiful day. I was at a table outside, reading with a pencil tucked behind my ear, sipping at my beer from time to time, smoking roll-ups and glancing at people. That’s something else you would have liked. You were a devil with the ladies, and there were some stunners on show. Who was it who said that all pretty girls must be solar powered? You’d have liked that thought.
It’s St Patrick’s day today. In a bit I’ll go out to buy some good Irish whisky – Tullamore Dew if I can get my hands on some, and I’ll listen to The Fureys. There’s not much I wouldn’t give to have you and Nana here to share a few generous nips with. I can imagine how it would go: Nana would take me aside and tell me to water yours down, winking with an entire side of her face. I’d nod seriously, wink back, ignore her recommendation completely and put the glass beside you; we’d say sláinte, and I’d ask you to tell a story.
I’ll put a tumbler of uisce beatha out for you tonight. I’m not a religious man, and neither were you: I’ve got no illusions about the efficacy of this pagan offering. But it will make me feel better.
I miss you, old man. And it hurts.