Tuesday, 7 July 2015

Following the Muse - part 4

When in doubt, follow your dog.

Adapting to life in Lisbon can be hectic in ways that I hadn’t considered. Sometimes I feel like my dog whose nose hasn’t stopped twitching since we arrived. We are both in the same boat; trying to make sense of it all and to find our bearings.
Dogs are more suited to this and simply sniff everything, taste whatever smells particularly interesting, piddle on everything else, and become intimately informed of others of their species.

We, on the other hand, have to conform to social norms that change from place to place, but I suppose it’s true for dogs, too. Back in Canada, the dogs sniffed each other’s faces first. Poor Baxter; she’s had to sit tight and snarl to dissuade some of these Lisbon hounds.

And then, just when she was beginning to assert herself into the dog pack at the local park, we moved. However, right after unpacking we took our first walk around the new hood and met the most dignified and elegant collie. She wanted no part of us and I can only assume that Baxter must have picked up some inappropriate habits while strutting through the streets of Mouraria. I would worry about that but she usually displays better sense than I and will adapt. 
There is something happening here.


Lisbon, I am finding, has its own logic that seems to make little sense at first but becomes more rational with understanding. I suppose that is true about most places but it does escape the tourists who seem to expect life to rearrange itself to their expectations —the “Holiday Inn” mentality that a familiar sameness is required with enough local flavour to identify which holiday photo is which. And while I have only been here for three months, I am beginning to develop a sense for the depth and beauty of life here.
Reading about Lisbon, I came across two things that have given me much to ponder on. (I do that—I ponder a lot.) Lisbon, probably in honor of its Phoenician past, and the golden age of the Navigators, is often referred to as the “City of the Sea.” It was from Lisbon that ships set out to “discover” the new world.
It was also a city that suffered devastation from the sea when, in 1775, a tsunami followed an earthquake that destroyed the city and turned Portugal from an externally focused, expanding empire into the more insular nation it has become.

It also allowed for the redevelopment of much of the downtown region so that the current city combines many of the evolving lessons of urban planning. Broad avenidas link parks and squares and are lined with elegant houses that are part Romanesque, part Arabesque, a little pompous but, for the most part, practical with a few wedding cakes thrown in.
In the rebuilding, older lessons were also remembered and while there is always a hill in Lisbon—no matter where you are trying to get to—there is always a breeze and some of them are fresh from the sea. Good thing too because there have been a few days when my body, finally thawed from the Canadian winter, became a little seared around the edges.
Then comes the night, cool and bright with memories on the air . . . but then there are these mosquitos that are very impartial to mostly thawed, slightly seared, Irish blood. We had them back in Canada but for the most part, they left me alone.  These Lisbon mosquitos are mean little buggers. I blame the Portuguese people—they are far too nice and accommodating, except for some of the bureaucrats we have had to deal with.

You are nothing without a NIF
Without the Número de Indentificação Fiscal, all that is magnificent about this place would shudder and collapse again. It is a government issued number that allows the good people in whatever taxation department to keep in touch with every single resident in their day-to-day lives, but you can win a car.

“Fair enough” we said to each other. “Let’s be getting one of them.”
It is never that easy. The first time, we took a number and waited. Others took their numbers and wandered off down the street for coffee; even the man in wicket 5, the one that was dealing with NIFs that day. Finally our number came up, but the kind gentleman, who had just returned from lunch, regretfully informed us that the system was down. He was kind enough to hear our problem and replied in a combination of Portuguese and English. My wife, who was from the Azores which as I was to find out later “Is not a part of Portugal”, did her best but her Portuguese clearly wasn’t adequate.

He talked and he listened along with the woman at the next wicket and offered condolences with a shrug. The system was down and he was so powerless that he seemed to deflate in front of us.
My wife went alone on the second day and the system was back up but the deflated gentleman was not dealing with NIFs. The hard faced woman in wicket 3 was; the one that wore D&G glasses. My wife explained her situation with nodding approval from the woman in wicket 4 who had heard it all before. Ms. D&G insisted that my wife was in the wrong place and suggested she go to Immigration. (Later, we concluded that it must have been the language issue.)

Anyway, undeterred, my wife produced her national identity card—the one she had painstakingly secured before leaving Toronto—splendid proof of identity despite the awful mugshot. Except for one tiny detail; there was nothing in the little box labelled Número de Indentificação Fiscal. They could not issue that in Canada but everything else looked good.
Looking a little piqued, I have been assured, Ms. D&G held the card in her long bony fingers like it was a specimen of something catching.

“You have to give it to her now,” the woman in wicket 4 joined in.
“Very well,” Ms. D&G reluctantly agreed and began to tap her way into the system. “What parish were you born in?”

That was when my poor wife learnt that all she had been raised to believe in, all the proud Portuguese stuff about exploring and discovering, and being the first and best at everything, and that the cream of all things Portuguese are from the islands, was a lie. According to whatever corner of the system Ms. D&G had tapped into, Angra do Heroismo, on the island of Terceira, the third largest island in the Região Autónoma dos Açores, was not a part of Portugal.
Even the woman in wicket 4 took up the Azorean cause but to no avail. My wife was to be considered some type of alien until she could produce sufficient documentation – which my wife was not carrying. (Something I put down to the Azorean sense of autonomy.) Home she came, without a NIF and made to feel like an immigrant instead of a home comer.

Naturally, I went the next day as the muscle if such was required and because I never miss an opportunity to study absurdity in all its glory. We took our number and waited. Ms D&G was attending to other matters and so was wicket 5. Wicket 4 was our only hope and when she returned from coffee break, she smiled, clicked a few times at the system and gave us a NIF.
That weekend the local square was filled with folk dancers and celebrations of the good things in life. They might have been there for other reasons but it made my wife smile again.

Eu não falo Portugues

It is the only phrase I have mastered so far and I have said it so often that I am trying variations in tone and timbre, timing and delivery. Someone laughed at me the other day and said: “You just said that in Portuguese.”
I will learn the language but, as I have reminded my critics, most of the Portuguese took 18 to 24 months to say their first words and I am way ahead as I, after only 3 months, can pop up with a few of the basics of civility. Please, thank you, good day, good afternoon, and goodnight. I can almost order coffee but I am still buying cigars in sign language. Food is easy because it all tastes great and most of our neighbours are gracious enough to speak to me in impeccable English laced with just a touch of accent. Lisboetas can be a very cultured and dignified lot.

Still, I will learn the language because it is the least I can do for the generosity this city offers, once you have a NIF.
Now getting the dog one; that’s going to be fun. Though she already has her European doggie passport, good for entry to the whole continent—even Greece, for now.

Tuesday, 30 June 2015

All Roads

All Roads, the final book in the Life & Times trilogy, goes out into the word today.  I wish it all the best as I am rather fond of that book. In fact I liked writing the whole trilogy, but I might be a bit biased. It’s not unlike having children, you know, and I have some of those too. You want to be protective and all that, but you just got to sit back and let it find its own way.

I remember when it was nothing more than a few notes and scraps of character. In fact the trilogy came about because I started three different versions of what I thought was the same story. 100 pages into each, it dawned on me and Born & Bred, Wandering in Exile, and All Roads were the result.

It is not—and I repeat not—autobiographical even though much that happens in the books did happen, but not to me. I just happened to be nearby when it did.

The responses so far have been mixed, to say the least, and that is not a bad thing. The story of Danny and the rest of them; Deirdre, the kids, Jacinta & Jerry, Miriam, Patrick and the rest are the stories of people I have watched cope with the ever changing times I have lived through. 

The past plays a role as it does in real life and today, just like every other day, the past is the backdrop and we struggle to be free of it.

Since writing the story, I have moved and am slowly settling into a very different reality but I look back at the 4 years I spent in my writing chair with a mix of pride and nostalgia. There are new and different books waiting to be written but today I’ll take a moment to sit back and acknowledge Danny Boyle for all that he taught me.

Tuesday, 12 May 2015

Following the Muse: Part 3


On April 25th 1974, a military coup ended the rule of the “Estada Nova,” the Portuguese dictatorship that had lasted for the better part of 50 years. The revolution was remarkable in that there were very few casualties. Four people were killed by the security police. The soldiers who led the revolt were embraced by the people who rushed out to join them in the streets and placed flowers in their rifles giving us “The Carnation Revolution.” And on April 25th of this year I watched the anniversary celebrations in the middle of Lisbon.

Supporters of the ousted regime—and there are a few, including our local butcher who was but a child when the revolution happened—probably took grim solace in that, as we stood listening to aging idealists making speeches and singing songs of celebration, the skies were grey and foreboding and soon let loose their rains.
Those who came to celebrate the past and the future were uncertain. Austerity bites deep here and the Portuguese that I have come to know are much more invested in politics than most. Salazar, the dictator, is still a divisive figure here but pales when compared to “The Troika,” – the European Central Bank (ECB), the European Commission (EC), and the International Monetary Fund (IMF). Still, if we are in dark times, let us remember that it is always darkest before the dawn.

Despite my optimism, I left as the rain grew heavier and spent the evening reading about the first kings of Portugal—an interesting bunch of characters that I will return to in a later post.
Toward the very edge of the world

Despite their tendency towards lugubriousness, I am finding the Portuguese to be a warm friendly people. Friends that I only knew through social media, Vanda & Miguel and their delightful son, Afonso, took us on a wonderful tour of the Sintra area where the nobility liked to spend their summers since Moorish times—and probably before.
It’s the type of place that appeals to the senses, warm and fertile, and the gentle rains and mists would make any Celt feel at home. It is not unlike the west coast of Ireland only with fewer seasons per day.

The hillsides are dotted with spectacular mansions that date back centuries, growing more spectacular as they rise up the sides of the mountain to where an old castle dominates.

Beyond that, we also visited Cabo da Roca which is the most westerly point on the European mainland. The 16th-century Portuguese poet Luís de Camões described Cabo da Roca as “Onde a terra se acaba e o mar começa” --"where the land ends and the sea begins."

It is a remarkable place that reminds you of your tiny place in it all, but does take it's toll on the foolhardy who step to close to the edge while taking selfies. I kid you not!


Ancient forests

But it was the next stop on our tour that really piqued my interest. Miguel, who holds degrees in Biology, brought us into the primeval forest. Spared the last ice age, it contains trees that are different to the senses. It is hard to describe except that you know that you are somewhere new yet very, very familiar.

Among the trees are rock formations that seem surreal. Great big blobs of things, stacked precariously on top of each other and somehow refusing to roll off down into the sea. They were probably left there by glaciers but it doesn’t take a lot of fancy to imagine giants might have had a hand in it. Really. Some, in particular, seemed very inviting to the old Celt that lurks inside of me—not to mention the recluse.

Audience participation

Coming around the corner of a busy downtown street, I stood bemused as a long line of people queued to step into a hole in the ground. Really! Traffic was blocked but no one seemed to mind, passing it off with a shrug.

Like most things that happen here, there was a very simple explanation but rather than tell you, I will invite suggestions. The first correct suggestion (email to with “hole in the street” as the subject matter) will win a signed copy of one of my titles.

I might even consider offering one for the most humorous, too.
Until the next time,


Wednesday, 29 April 2015

Following the Muse: Part 2

Saying goodbye to all that and learning to walk in clown shoes.


“Do you have jobs lined up?” they asked as they tried to understand what could drive reasonable, normal people to abandon the New World for the Old. “Do you have a house there? Do you have family there? Do you speak the language? What will you do?”
It was well meant and considerate, but at times I felt as I imagine the Portuguese navigators felt when setting out on their famous voyages from Belem which is just down the coast from where I write. After all, we now know the world is reasonably round and the chances of falling off the edge are slim.
I was saying goodbye to Toronto, Canada—a place I had lived in for almost forty years—the place where I met my wife and raised my children. It was where I worked and played for two thirds of my life. It was the place where I finally shed some of my demons and a place that I will remember fondly, though not as fondly as Dublin because that place is, and always will be, in my blood.
But Canadians (not unlike others) tend to believe that they live in the best country in the world—something that is reinforced by every politician seeking public office—so the idea that we would voluntarily quit Utopia was a bit beyond the pale.
I can accept that as I grew up just outside the pale and have spent most of my existence there, one way or another. You see, I had grown tired of the climate in Canada. And I had grown tired of watching more and more of the things I liked being replaced by things I have little time for. I suppose, in part, that I am getting older and want to spend more time enjoying the things that I value in life.
And that led me back to Portugal, that odd little place on the edge of Europe. Renowned for its faded glory, its hours of sunshine, its beautiful food, Fado and the lumpy lugubriousness of its people, it is a place not unlike Ireland in some ways but with far better weather.
I had been here a few years ago and had decided then that this was the place for me. Since then, the grinding years of austerity had taken a heavy toll but that too will end. Downtown, where tourists sit sipping coffees in the sun there is a steady procession of the victims of economic turmoil seeking help. Some are local but many are the more professional Roma from the Balkans who have also branched out into selling knock-off sunglasses and drugs—which are decriminalized here. Sometimes they combine all three activities and can be very persistent.  I did give in and bought a pair of clip-on shades but I was advised that the blocks of hash are most likely bouillon cubes coated with thin veneer of hash. Maybe some night when I am cooking something special . . .
The language is currently beyond me. My wife, who was born in the Azores, assures me it is phonetic but I can’t see that. I have tried adding ‘o’ and ‘a’ to the end of English words but that hasn’t worked.  Here the ‘ush’ sound dominates and ‘c’ sound like ‘s’ and ‘x’ like ‘c’. I am not concerned. I have learned to say that I do not speak Portuguese and smile like a total idiot. It works for now while I try to learn new things to say.
I am being a touch facetious as I have already mastered ordering coffee, gassy water and, of course, small cigars. I can say “good day,” “good afternoon,” “good night,” and “thank you” and with the right smile, that’s enough to get me through most situations.
Oh, and I have learned to explain that my dog is a bitch, which is the question on every dog-walkers lips. Sometimes I explain it with such ease that I invite further conversation and that’s when my limitations get exposed. Oh well, maybe by next week I can learn to say that the dog has some highly contagious Canadian disease and everyone would be better staying away from us.
But that’s not what I signed up for. I will learn to speak and I will learn to write. After all I am walking the same streets as Pessoa, and glimpsing much of what had disquieted him.


 Mostly the hills; Lisbon is also built on seven hills and walking in any direction requires a level of fitness and stamina not dissimilar to that found in Olympians – particularly the cross country skiers. After the first few days my feet were so sore that I could only wear my over- sized shoes—the ones I had bought to walk the dog through the snow and ice back in Toronto. They are not so much fashionable as practical but they do tend to flop around a bit—not unlike clown shoes.
Most of the time, I can keep them under control except on the walk back to our apartment.
In the length of a football field we climb the equivalent of five to six stories while twisting and turning like a dog’s hind leg. And that just gets us to the bottom of our street. Then we have to climb another two stories of steps to reach our front door. From there it is a simple matter of climbing the stairs to our apartment on the fifth floor! And all the time in clown shoes!
Naturally we are looking for a more permanent abode at a more suitable elevation and that is turning into an exciting venture of its own.  I will tell you about that the next time.





Tuesday, 13 January 2015

Publication Day

As Wandering In Exile, the second book in the Life & Times trilogy, goes out to meet the world, I wanted to mark the event with a few comments.

This is my third published work and while it never gets old, nothing can match the feel of the very first time—in this and many other things. Lagan Love will always be my wayward child of a book.

It was very different in that it was my humble homage to the side of Dublin I was most fond of—the literariness of the place. Back then, the pubs that I hung around in—callow youth that I was—were places where the giants of Irish writing had been and were still remembered and revered as the cultural pop stars that they were. Greats who were so very, very mortal too, even while shrouded in mythology.

In Born & Bred, I wanted to look at something very different but in many ways no less shrouded in mythology. Family with it ties and restraints.

Family has been described as the warm nest of love and nurturing by some, and a stinking cesspool of shared neurosis by others. My own experience—and my observations of others—suggest that while the experience of family can be one or the other, more often family is a mixture of both to greater or lesser degrees.

Now I’m not so cynical but I do strive for honest understanding as much as I can.

Family can be very caring and forgiving but can also be the breeding ground for delusion and denial. This was Danny Boyle’s experience when, as a young lad, he was raised to believe in something that he could never reconcile with the world he grew up in.

Perhaps that was because at the end of the day it is what we do that counts more than what we say and nowhere is this more obvious than in the core business of family—the raising of children.

Case in point being that Danny was raised in a pious household by a grandmother whose celebrated and admired husband had taken part in the armed conflict that liberated the land. Small wonder then that Danny should end up holding a gun.

The Ireland that he and I grew up in, like many other places, celebrated the righteousness that is the witch’s brew we concoct when we mix matters of Church and State while also endorsing those who would go out and kill for the cause. And for that sin, some of Danny’s friends, and many others who were far more real, paid with lives.  

While much of Born & Bred deals with the ramifications of family and legacy, Wandering In Exile is about the actualities of getting on with life. Danny survives his brush with fate and begins a new life in Canada and when Deirdre joins him they do what so many of us have done—start a family of their own. (Oh, if only we knew then what we know now.)

Now I won’t spoil the read on you but suffice to say that raising a family far from kith and kin presents its own myriad of problems. And like many of us, Danny and Deirdre set out to raise the children better than their parents had which I hope might draw a smile from those readers that are grandparents.

Life, as we live it today, can be very confusing and tiresome. Struggling to balance the demands of our working lives against the incessantness of young children leaves most of us so drained that bedtime cannot come soon enough. But we get through it all somehow.

In the case of Danny and Deirdre, it is at a cost but you, the reader, can decide if it was worth it.

I have my own opinions which are expounded upon in the last book, All Roads, which deals with consequences, personal and universal.

And if you do have a read for yourself, drop me a line and let me know what you think.

For a review please see:


Monday, 15 December 2014

Following the muse to wherever

Over the last few years, as I labored on the Life & Times trilogy, I listened to the music of Madredeus. I like to write to music, particularly passionate music, because it sets the mood for inking in the nuance of character, etc. And, while much of the story deals with Danny Boyle, an Irishman, his growing up in Ireland, his move to Canada, and his trials and tribulations, I found Madredeus’s arrangements of Portuguese folk music set the perfect mood for what I intended to be a universal story.

And, as is often the case in life, this led to that and I found myself fascinated by a single word: Saudade. Over at Wikipedia they suggest that:

Saudade is a Portuguese or Galician word that has no direct translation in English. It describes a deep emotional state of nostalgic or profound melancholic longing for an absent something or someone that one loves. Moreover, it often carries a repressed knowledge that the object of longing may never return. A stronger form of saudade may be felt towards people and things whose whereabouts are unknown, such as a lost lover, or a family member who has gone missing, moved away, separated, or died.

But something else caught my ear in the aforementioned music, and in the hours of Fado that I have enjoyed. There was something ethereal that awoke a thread of the common memory I believe we all share, even if only subconsciously.

“Saudade is the recollection of feelings, experiences, places or events that once brought excitement, pleasure, well-being, which now triggers the senses and makes one live again. It can be described as an emptiness, like someone (e.g., one's children, parents, sibling, grandparents, friends, pets) or something (e.g., places, things one used to do in childhood, or other activities performed in the past) that should be there in a particular moment is missing, and the individual feels this absence. It brings sad and happy feelings all together, sadness for missing and happiness for having experienced the feeling.” 

So? You may ask. What has all of this got to do with an Irish writer living in exile?

Well I’ll tell you. I still have a bit of the wild Celt in me. I am, despite my best efforts to conform to the world around me, a nomad at heart and am about to head off into the great and wonderful world to go and look at the places that hold significant interest for me. I probably won’t get to see them all but I don’t worry about such things anymore.

And, as a Celt, I have always been drawn towards the edges of the world. Before the Romans, and Gothic kings, the edges of Iberia were populated by Celts. When the Romans encroached, as they were wont to do, many of them (the Milesians in particular) packed up their belongings and headed to Ireland.

Whether or not I am descended from them, I am drawn back and the pragmatic side of me agrees. After thirty-six Canadian winters, life in a warmer climate beckons. So, in the spring of next year, I am selling up all that I have and moving to Lisbon with my wife and my dog and very little else.

Now I am not a wealthy man despite the presumption that all published authors sleep on mattresses stuffed with hundred dollar bills. I am simply divesting myself and going back to what I was when I was young and foolish: a wander who followed his heart.

One of the things writing books has taught me is to learn to determine what is essential and what is padding. I am still learning this but when I looked up from my pages, I couldn’t help but look at my life that way—something that is compounded as I filter through all the stuff in the basement.

Now I do not discard my life in North America so lightly. I came here as a very troubled and disquieted young man, tormented by demons and looking for a fresh start. Unlike poor Danny Boyle, I found one and managed to put much that troubled me in the bottle and firmly cork it. I became a husband and a father here and, depending on who you talk to, not the worst of them!

I will always cherish the times I spent with my two boys when they were young and full of wonder. (They still are but they must follow their own guidance now—which is the way things are supposed to be.) They are both in the early twenties now and more than capable of finding what they want from life on their own. They are always welcome to come and visit but the parental phase of my life is over and I am moving on to the next adventure.

Writing Life & Times reminded me that life, no matter how it is lived, is always about phases and stages and that I was never the type to settle for meandering into dotage. There is still so much to see and do.

For my loving wife, too. She will have to manage the transition from mother back to woman, and that should be exciting.

Now the reason for sharing all of this with you is I am planning to write about all of this as it unfolds. Once I am settled in Lisbon, secure in a nice little place in Alfama, I intend to wander through what was once Al-Andalusia in search of all the was lost in the Reconquista.

Now before you start imagining me riding a stallion at the head of a horde of Berbers, I want you to know that I am going to see the places where science and medicine once blossomed at time when the rest of Europe was using leeches and slashing each other with swords.

You see, for me, as I look around the world today and see the new versions of the old hates, I long for a deeper understanding and a sense of peace. It is the view of Fr. Patrick Reilly, of Life & Times, that in many ways the world is no better, nor worse—that it still spins on its same old axis, sometimes wildly and sometimes gently. And, having written it, I have decided to go and see what was true and what was nothing more than a rationale for war and conquest.

Not that I am going to bore you all with a revision of the retellings of all the distortions of history. I am going to write about the lingering echoes of the really important things in life—the story of ordinary, everyday people still living in places that can still fill us with wonder. Places like Cordoba, Seville, Granada, the great wonder that is Alhambra, and of course the narrow, hilly little streets of Alfama.

The good folks at The Story Plant have kindly agreed to publish the accounts of this adventure as it unfolds so, if you are interested, check back for more.
(Originally posted at

Saturday, 6 December 2014

Signin' on at Werburgh Street.

Gerry hated going to Werburgh Street and shuffling along for doleful pittances. He never got used to it. He was a working man at heart even if he'd no work for years. One of these days, he'd lead the muttering grumbling masses to Leinster House, to demand the striped-shirted Seamuses, give up at least, a tithe from their thievery – they'd all that European money flowing in, and in Dublin, all monies passed through the same greasy hands. But the masses knew no other way. Their remittance begrudged through barred wickets; all revolution bred out of them; they lingered at the mercy of remote corporations and Public representatives for aggrandisement. No one cared about them: never had and never would. He signed his cards and queued again for his few Pounds at the other end of the hall.

            “Have you been looking for work, Mr. Morrison?” the woman asked with disdain.

            “I have indeed, but no one wants to hire old fellas like me. It's a young man's . . .”

            “Have you considered getting retrained?”

            “I have, but I'm a bit old for that.”

            “You'll never get anywhere with an attitude like that.”

            They were giving everybody a hard time. It was how they got them to fuck-off to England; there was always work in England. “And where is it that I should be getting to?”