London I had one defence against my sense of inopportuneness. I said
anything at all that came into my head. It could not be any worse than
what I might say or do consciously. The free association distracted me
from my dominant characteristic, and because of that my sallies usually
went well. Occasionally I could see from the raise of an eyebrow or the
tilt of the head (the English are masters) that people were thinking to
themselves ‘the Irish are funny’. But I have a
my feet with words in English, and getting them wrong often inspires me
to compensate with a kind of poetry, I suppose, one that ultimately
does not cause embarrassment. I played that out on a homemade
instrument like Ornette Coleman with his free jazz. I used up the
embarrassment in the air to puzzle until a satisfactory conclusion was
reached. The tilt turned a face and looked me in the eye. A victory for
art of softening a hard word or sweetening a bitter one is easier than
using superglue. It only takes a few seconds, not an eight hour soak.
Lightening the heavy or giving the trivial gravitas is a gift common to
good jazz musicians. Once the parameters have been defined, the
variations come naturally. Such notes - or words - come fast but they
have been coming a long way. A lifetime of study and practice is behind
it. Thelonius Monk played an imaginary keyboard even when he was
eating. And from an early age I have rehearsed conversations. Remarks I
hear in passing are submitted to free association until I come up with
a satisfactory response. It’s only in my head, but it gives
practice. In adult life this practice has served me well.
self-conscious cultivation of verbal music entertained me in my
boyhood. I think it is a characteristic of the leprechaun, whose
cheerful self-assurance is premeditated. The manikin sits at his last,
planning the next step. Meet a leprechaun in a wood clearing and he
will not show surprise. But slows you down with a tut-tut look and a
rather formal stutter to allow him pause to second-think you.
Affability cloaks an implacable sense of himself, self-conscious but
self-assured. After an encounter with a leprechaun you leave contented.
You couldn’t meet with a nicer little fellow. Yet you soon
realise you have been fooled somehow by his fairy logic. You
don’t resent it. Fair enough, you think.
had only one song in my childhood. It was called for at family
gatherings, and broke my famous silence loud and clear. That caused
a shady nook one moonlit night a leprechaun I spied
scarlet cap and coat of green and a cruiskeen by his side.
hammered and sang with tiny voice and drank his mountain dew.
I laughed to think what a fool I’d been
the fairy is laughing too…
quick as thought I seized the elf. Your fairy purse, I cried.
purse, he said, is in the hand of the lady by your side.
turned to look. The elf was gone and what was I to do?
I laughed to think what a fool I’d been
the fairy is laughing too.’
once met a real leprechaun named Patrick Scanlon. He suffered from a
rare congenital disease, peculiar to Celtic peoples. He was in his late
teens and despite his miniature though perfectly proportioned stature,
he spoke up for himself loud and clear. He had no regular schooling but
he was clever and resourceful. Never short of a word or a wink. He
paused before he spoke, but had no stutter.
rarity of his condition meant London could not offer him any
specialists. So Patrick was an experiment. His doctors broke the joints
of his limbs and put him in a metal basket with bone seeds and growth
hormones. His mother carried him around. ‘Patrick is
wonderful’ was a popular refrain because of his affability.
Sadly, the joints never set properly and he ended up a twisted knot of
his former self. But his mind was as alert as a bird with a nestful of
chattered for an hour or so inconsequentially. I had seen a mobile
cradle with wheels in the Victoria and Albert Museum and had in mind
getting one specially designed to mount his basket. His mother had bad
legs, I knew. People would have queued up to carry him because of his
courtly disposition and conversation. But his mother was jealous of
alien hands. Patrick teased her in a gallant sort of way. His mother,
he said, liked carrying him around so she could complain about her
experiment went wrong and he died in his early twenties, still speaking
up for himself, I’m told. I remember his watchful eyes and
hands. Fingers disproportionably long, his only disproportion.
Well-cared-for nails, cuticles as clear as his blue gray irises. He
looked after them himself, always working with his file. They were
hands made for declaiming and he made good use of them, and for making
pumps for dancing dolls. His eyes also danced.