The word ‘famous’ comes from the Latin word ‘famosus’ meaning ‘much talked of/renowned’.
The other day I went for a cycle with an old friend.
‘How is the writing going?’ They inquired ‘and more importantly are you famous yet?’
‘The writing is going very pleasantly.’ I replied.
(This friend knows my love for it, but they also know I never intended it to bring me fame or fortune, and even though they have encouraged me to enter various competitions, they understand my mental block about competitiveness)
They are teasing me.
I did enter a few writing competitions some years ago but won only one of them.
The prize was a writing course during which I learnt that everyone there was hell bent on becoming famous…
I also received an email from Dermot Healy (Who sadly passed away last July) about another piece I had entered. ‘Competitions are for race horses’ he wrote to me ‘ keep writing!’.
My father hated competitions!
When we were young and at school, we were known to be good at art (Now that I think of it we were famous then, for everyone knew that mad arty bunch ‘The Peppards’ )
Our art teacher was a nun and she would enter us into various competitions which we duly won.
My father would be furious!
‘You cannot judge art’ He would storm about shouting and waving his arms in a theatrical fashion. ‘Especially children’s! Art should be encouraged not discouraged’ He would be on a roll at that stage ‘Every child that produces art is a winner. No child’s painting can be seen as anything but wonderful! You cannot compare one child’s work against another’
We earned no congratulations from him for winning!
In fact we didn’t really dare tell him and, as he was busy designing and water coloring and fishing, my mother would take us on the sly to wherever the prize giving reception was being held.
We would walk up to receive our prize, the only children whose father was not present, and my mother would sit smiling serenely among the other parents as though a single mom.
Being practical, we chose prizes like tennis rackets and transistor radios.
Things we wished for but, being from a large family, never had priority on the shopping list.
We didn’t like to remind my father that, by entering a competition as a final year architectural student back in the early 50’s, his own career as a ‘famous’ architect took off.
So my answer to my friend’s second question is ‘No, I am not famous!’
But I know someone who was and if that wasn’t enough for me I recently met someone who is.
Martin was famous by default!
Of course his real name wasn’t Martin. I have just given him that name in order to preserve his identity.
Well he lived in a small cottage down by the sea and the thought of fans lining along the boreen trying to catch a glimpse of him would not only have embarrassed him but would have been impractical.
Already two cars (a rare occurrence) could not pass each other on his road. If they did happen to meet, then one would have to reverse back till they reached a gateway to pull in to.
So you could imagine the bedlam it would cause if his fame had become so widespread that touring buses were involved in the equation.
On that note if you ever find yourself in this situation and realize that you have always been the one to reverse , I suggest tossing a coin! I have seen this used successfully and dissipating many a fight.
I had got to know Martin as he passed by my house cycling his rickety black bike with no brakes
‘Arah! what would I be doing with brakes?’ He asked incredulously when I expressed my concern ‘Haven’t I me wellingtons?’
He held up a foot as proof.
Sure enough his wellingtons had all the signs of being functional brake pads.
The threads on the soles were worn away completely.
There was also a slit in the back of the right one which I noticed as, adjusting his cap further back on his snowy white thick crop of hair, he would bid me farewell and turn to mount his bike.
This manoeuvre he did with panache.
Holding the long stick and gripping the handlebars he would place his left wellington (the one with the slit) on the left pedal, then with the right he would scoot a few paces and when he had picked up momentum he would lean forward over the handlebars and lift his right leg slowly.
Then, as gracefully as the great Nureyev executing a complicated arabesque, his right leg would clear the saddle with barely an inch to spare and when his behind landed on the saddle, he would slowly start to crank the pedals and away he would go, the rattle of the mudguard growing softer as he headed down the road.
At the bottom of the small hill he would turn and raise his hand and whistle for beauty(his dog) who, after giving one final sniff of my gate post, would trot after his master.
I would watch the pair heading up over that small hill, where they would be silhouetted for an instant against the skyline before disappearing from view.
Martin was my meditative cycling teacher.
It was from him I learnt that when on a bike there was no need for speed.
That cycling slowly regarding one’s surroundings was the epitome of contentment.
He always had Beauty in tow, a cheerful hound with a tongue constantly lagging from its mouth and a coat matted with burr’s like that of a Rastafarian hairdo.
Beauty would lope along beside Martin, stopping to raise its leg against various trees or stone walls along the way.
I wondered if the dog had diabetes(seriously) (his diet would have been the slops of sugared tea soaked bread crusts, left over from martins breakfast or the rinds of rashers from his dinner), because that dog peed a lot.
Martin lived with his brother.
For the same reason I called Martin ‘Martin’, I will call his brother ‘Tom’
Tom was so stooped he seemed almost bent in two and appeared to spend his days wandering along the stony seaweed scattered shoreline collecting washed up pieces of timber.
He wore a sack over his bent back and muttered to himself as he wandered along.
Despite his difficult stature, he was extremely agile and moved with confidence and speed.
Not an easy task on the slippy shoreline for even the most upright of men.
Every now and then he would straighten slightly as the weight of the bag caused it to swing around under his belly, and with a shove he would re adjust it again to its proper place.
As the bag grew heavier he had to carry out this adjustment more frequently. A job that might irritate another man, but not Tom. He never showed any impatience.
How do I know all this?
Well at times as I would sit gazing out to sea from my favorite spot, he would come into my line of vision and that in itself was a wonder.
With his ancient tweedy clothing of moss greens, browns and greys, he blended thoroughly into the background. An unintentional camouflage.
It would take a well sighted person to spot him.
He appeared to live in a world of his own and each time he picked a piece of driftwood, he would hold it up twisting it this way and that, giving it his undivided attention.
I would see his mouth move and hear his soft murmurings as though talking to it.
I liked to imagine he was really a famous artist gathering material for amazing sculptures and communing with each piece, mentally allocating it to its place in his latest creation.
When I mentioned this to Martin, he just laughed and said ‘Jaysus no! he’s just collecting wood for the fire’
If Tom noticed me (and indeed his faded blue eyes rarely missed a thing) he would amble over for a chat.
A vocal barrage as lilting as the small waves on the shore in front of us.
Almost like a song or a chant.
It was really just a very bad stammer and as he struggled, repeating ‘eheheh’ the chosen word would finally shoot out of his mouth with a great commotion. He would then repeat that word three or four times so fast it was almost unrecognizable.
As I was never in any rush to leave my sea viewing seat, I could eventually make sense as the words came out in uneven jolts and could string them together in a sentence.
During these chats he told me he did the outside work. Growing the vegetables. Collecting for the fire. Gathering seaweed for manure. Picking winkles to sell. Taking care of the animals, Whilst Martin kept house and did the cooking.(And disappeared off for hours on end on his bicycle)
As we chatted he would pluck at his trouser knees with huge hands, red with cracks across the knuckles.
‘Are they sore?’. I asked him once. ‘Aye aye aye’ he said but at the same time shaking his head.
I brought him down a large jar of aqueous cream anyway.
Weeks later when I was in having a cup of tea I noticed the jar on the shelf over the fire, unopened and covered in turf dust.
The neighbors said he was very intelligent with great knowledge but just couldn’t get the words out.
I felt sad for him.
He was born at the wrong time.
If it had been ‘now’ his speech impediment would have been picked up early and he would have attended a speech and language therapist and being able to converse normally.
All he got in his day I would guess was a clip in the lug.
I grew very fond of the two brothers and took to cycling down to them one day a week.
A Tuesday if I remember rightly.
I would bring a loaf of my home baked bread though I needn’t have bothered.
Martin was a dab hand at baking curranty soda bread (I suspected he soaked the fruit in poteen).
They always had the slices laid out thickly buttered on a white plate when I arrived.
If the day was sunny we would bring out our chairs and sit looking across the bay at the mountains.
If it was raining we would sit at the fire where the smoke would sting my eyes.
But I didn’t mind.
I loved hearing Martins stories especially ones about being ‘led astray’ by the fairies.
One day however cycling down to the house, I was met by Tom running up the road.
He was in a distressed state and I didn’t wait to try and understand him. I flew on down the road and when I turned the corner, I was not surprised to see Martin, lying on the ground, his bicycle on top of him and beauty whining and trying to lick his face.
He was in a poor state but conscious and with no apparent broken bones, though the gash on his forehead looked serious enough.
Tom had caught up with me at this stage and together we lifted the heavy bike off Martin and helped him to his feet and over to a chair.
‘Feckin hen ran out in front of me’ He muttered.
‘Of course your brakes worked’ I said sarcastically.
He had the sense to look shamefaced!
Between the jigs and the reels I rang for an ambulance.
‘You’ll need a few stitches and a tetanus shot’ I warned him.
Martin was taken into the local hospital for suturing and observation and skull xray.
He ended up staying three nights and I went to visit him on his second day.
He was sitting up in bed grinning from ear to ear.
‘Did ye know that talk has got out that I was killed’ He said with a twinkle in his eye.
‘Aye’ He continued gleefully ‘They think I’m dead! They are asking me brother what the funeral arrangements are’
‘That’s awful’ I replied shocked ‘Who spread that rumor?’
‘Arah its not awful at all’ He laughed ‘Sure I’ve never been so famous nor so well spoken about as I have for the last three days and I’m enjoying every minute of it!’
With that he sat back against the pillows folding his arms across his chest in satisfaction.
And that is how, for a few days, Martin was famous.
I will tell you about the second famous man I met another time.
Suffice to say that, though more famous, there isn’t half the story to him!
The second Man’s name is Gerard Depardieu
And if you come back and read my next blog I will tell you the story of that meeting.
Meanwhile Martin wherever you are (I imagine It’s ‘Tír na nÓg’ with plenty of bicycles) you will always be famous in my eyes.