The night I got lost on the way home from China- Part two
“Sleep on the left side, keep the sword hand free.”- Cornershop
I have been thinking about the old saying: ‘Live by the sword; die by the sword.’ We usually use this saying to express the idea that dictators and tyrants will come to the unpleasant ends that they richly deserve and often receive but it can be seen in another, more positive way. When Japanese judoka have a competition they clean their homes completely and precisely before they leave for the event to embed within themselves the idea that they are ready to die, that they may be embarking on the defining course of their lives. The idea that one might live by the sword and die by the sword can express a commitment to a disciplined and positive way of live, the following of a moral code. I know people from the martial arts world who live this way, married to a way of living with purpose.
It’s not only in the fighting world that you can find this kind of strength of character. One of the people I’ve known who best exemplified this quality was Alan Ball. Not that a steely sense of purpose was the quality which most immediately presented itself to your mind when you met him for the first time.
You’ll have heard people being described as looking like they slept in their clothes; that would not be adequate to describe Alan’s advanced level of dishevelment. When I saw him first at the end of a dark filing bay in the Change of Ownership section of the Motor Taxation Office he looked like a pile of tramps clothes that had come to life through the power of continuous use alone. His jeans, jumper and runners looked like they were older than him and had never been taken off- as if he had stepped into them after the previous wearer had given up the ghost. He had a red beard, red, wiry hair that he often ran his hand through in a gesture somewhere between anxiety and determination and small glasses that had rims that looked like they were made of real wood. He moved with a short, fast stride and a slight stoop and altogether gave off an air of extreme concentration combined with some puzzlement. Later I realised that he was just constantly bemused as to why people didn’t treat each other better. He was not an unusual sight in the Motor Tax Office, which was living proof that you can run an operation reasonably well with a collection of misfits.
The building itself was a concrete tiffin box of dysfunctional people who somehow managed to get things done, usually. I first came to the Motor Taxation Office in the late 1980’s when I was looking for a summer job while I was in college and my friend Tony drew my attention to an advertisement in the newspaper for work with Dublin Corporation. It was the best kind of work I could imagine as a summer job, no night shifts, no weekend shifts, no split shifts, just Monday to Friday and 9 to 5 for decent money. Money, by the way, that you got paid by cheque which you cashed on a Thursday on your half hour bank break.
I did the interview and got the job. On the first day we were assembled in the Head Office on Wood Quay and sent off to our various postings. It quickly became clear that being sent across the river to the concrete headstone that was the Motor Tax Office was considered drawing the short straw. I figured that would be my destination, and it was.
The building itself, as we approached it across the bridge was genuinely, overwhelmingly ugly. It was designed in the 1960’s by a Polish architect who built University College Dublin, The Maze prison and this before killings himself. I may have made that up at some point but I have believed it for a long time and it makes perfect sense. The building was built in that weirdly optimistic style of the 60’s and 70’s when people were excited by concrete and the idea that through the wonder of air conditioning no window ever needed to be built so that it could be opened ever again. Of course the air con and heating started failing almost as soon as the building opened and from then on it was too hot in the summer and too cold in the winter. There was something wonderful about that optimism.
The building was divided by floors and sections:
1st floor- Tax
2nd floor- Change of Ownership
3rd floor- Driving Licenses and Duplicates
4th floor- (the mysterious) Control
5th floor- Post Room.
As with anything there was a perceived hierarchy even here in the gulag of the Corpo System. Tax was at the top, they handled lots of money and their name was over the door, Driving Licenses seemed to be in the number two position, Post Room was definitely at the bottom and then came Change of Ownership, which became my domain. The four or five people who worked in the section called Control were out of this classification, as no one really knew what they did and they had the status of Druids; their presence was required to keep the energies aligned. Tony worked in Tax, I became friends with Lee through Tony. Lee worked in Control and played in an alt country band called the Jubilee Allstars (and later the Big Band Sound of Joan of Arse, Big Band Sound). Alan and I worked in Change of Ownership.
The public were never happy when they came to the Motor Tax Office. No one likes to pay tax but imagine making the effort to travel into a Soviet style building on the edge of town to pay a tax and then to be told you couldn’t because it appeared from the official records that you didn’t own your own car. That’s where Change of Ownership came in.
Back in those days a car had a Logbook, a piece of cardboard with the details of the vehicle on it and a number of spaces for the details of its owners on the back. When you sold a car you filled out a separate form called an RF2 and sent it to us. We changed the owner on the system, wrote in the new details on the Logbook, stamped it with our official stamp and filed the form away. When I started there was no computerised or centralised system so it you needed to check the ownership details of a vehicle you had to find the file and pull out the paperwork. If you wanted to check the details of a ‘foreign’ car, say one with a last registered owner in far away Co. Meath, you had to phone the Tax Office in Meath and ask them to go look for their file and of course they weren’t as wonderfully efficient as us. If you weren’t the registered owner you couldn’t tax the car, no matter how much you might want to, no matter how much you might shout, threaten and wave the cash about hoping to influence whoever was the relevant saint to intervene on your behalf and end this madness- St. Jude perhaps.
I came back to the Change of Ownership section summer after summer and then, after college, full time for a couple of years so I became an expert on the working of the place. The other such expert was Mr. Alan Ball. We both worked hard there and tried to help people out of their bureaucratic tangles the best we could and we did pretty well. Although we were always temporary staff we were acknowledged as two of the best, go- to people in that section as we stayed while the permanent staff got promoted to Tax.
After we first met in the filing bay we steadily became fast friends. We learned to trust each other through the work and got to know each other by going out drinking Thursdays to Mondays. We played a game in which we tried to get as many quotes from Joe Dolan songs as we could into our answers to queries from the public on the phones without affecting the service, negatively I mean, a little Joe Dolan is always positive in any situation.
Because there’s still no show like a Joe show!
We lived next door to each other in two flats in a house in Cabra Park and we were good neighbours. Alan taught me to cook. He had been to so many countries and showed me how to make Indian and Middle Eastern food. When I met him his favourite place on earth was Syria, which he had travelled through on his own. When I hear of all that is happening in Syria today I always think of how Alan described that country as the most welcoming and hospitable place he had ever been.
Cabra Park was a very positive place for me. The shared bathrooms had mushrooms growing on the ceilings, and none of us bothered to clean it, and the electricity was run on meters that worked with old ten pence pieces the we bought from the landlord. If he didn’t turn up for the, very reasonable, rent for a couple of months we started to think about breaking into the meters to gather some coins to keep the juice flowing.
Travel was Alan’s passion, or at least that was how it appeared until you got to know him better. His real passion was something much harder to describe. He travelled so that he could meet people on the simplest terms and cut down on his own unnecessary attachments. I think he travelled in search of wonder and a clear head.
Alan could often appear to be laid back to the point of apathy, or possibly coma; but this was misleading. He was committed to the idea that his life should mean something and that he should contribute to the world in some serious way. When he felt that he was not able to do that, when he felt he was merely treading water until his next opportunity to get back to the coalface, he could become like Sherlock Holmes without a case. Like Holmes he would sometimes medicate that ennui, we all did.
When he was in Ireland he drank a lot, we drank a lot, we wrote country songs in what we called Donkey time, slow and rolling like a donkey’s gait (I remember ‘Circling the airport again’ our hymn to the joys of the hangover particularly well) we laughed and we killed time.
During the World Cup in Japan and Korea I went and stayed with him in his parents’ house Castlepollard, Co. Westmeath. We drank cider in the early mornings watching the games, cheering Iran against American in a childish way and kept strange hours. Alan cooked for everyone. When he was between trips abroad he often lived at home and did the cooking, building up energy for the next stint in China or Tibet.
I remember Alan bringing his Mum on a trip to the local off license when she visited him in Dublin. She was very impressed by the time he took to choose the wine, turning the bottle over in his hands thoughtfully. Later he admitted that he was dividing the price by the alcohol content in his head and choosing based on the result.
As I write this I am aware that I’m not doing my friend justice. Those were the pipe and slippers times in his life. When he went to teach in China, and he spent all together more than three years there, he dedicated himself to the students with an energy that was unceasing. He was a man who preserved his energy for where he knew it was needed most and would do the most good. He was a perfect balm for my own anxious nature as he never gave importance to things which were not important. He played guitar very well, introduced me to Gram Parsons and Cornershop and Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan.
That one being very much for you Mr. Ball.
The time in the Motor Tax Office was good for me. I was given more responsibility than I ever had before, I felt like I did some good work and I meet a lot of great people. When I came home from Greece it was someone I had met in the Tax Office, Donal, who helped me find work and get myself back together before I made my way to China. There were a lot of smart, kind, interesting people in that god-awful building.
I went to visit Alan in his third posting in China. The first two places he had lived in that country were poor, tough but beautiful. He spent a winter up a mountain in Tibet where he only put on layers of clothes for months on end, never removed any. He began slightly involved in the movement for Uyghur independence when he lived in Xinjiang province. I remember hearing of a minor member of the Uyghur government in exile turning up at Alan’s parents looking for a to stop on his way to the States.
His third posting was in a place far less appealing. It was called Lishu, about a day’s journey by train to the south of Beijing in the middle of a singularly ugly chunk of the country. I was heading to Beijing to meet Alan, spend a couple of days in the capital and then go to Lishu to help a little with the work and hang out. I could tell that this posting was more difficult than the previous two and I was glad to able to lend a little support to Alan as well as to enjoy an adventure myself.
I touched down in Beijing in the mid-morning having drunk a little too much on the plane and not slept at all. I changed some dollars into Yuan at the airport, still fascinated by the fact that you couldn’t buy Chinese currency outside of China. Inside China you could buy it from a machine. It reminded me of how fascinated I was with Albania as a child when I discovered that none of the adults I knew could tell me the name of its currency.
I had booked a good, read expensive, hotel in the centre of Beijing for my first night, just to make things easier, then I would meet up with Alan the next morning and the adventure proper would begin.
I was, of course, ripped off by the taxi driver on the way from the airport but you have to shake that stuff off. Arriving in a city like Beijing is a wonderful thing. You feel the world open up. You feel like you are becoming a part of the big picture of history, culture, and politics, heck you feel like James Bond! When you’re on your own you feel resourceful, fulfilling that dream of being able to ‘go anywhere and live’ as the Wu-Tang Clan might say.
That evening I took a walk to Tien Mien Square and was dumbstruck by its size. You experience a kind of out of body experience in a place like that when you realise how everything you will ever experience would be shallowed by this place, this country, like a single plankton by a whale. That evening I sat in the window of the bar on the nth floor of my fancy hotel and drank beers watching the grey evening turn to grey night over the square. I slept badly, nervous about the next day when I would have to check out and if Alan didn’t turn up I’d be on my own and lost in the big city.
Next morning I woke early and had a very long shower- no Alan. I sat on the bed and got increasingly nervous- no Alan. Time came to check out and I did- no Alan. I sat outside the hotel now very aware of how scruffy I was looking clutching my rucksack nervously and wondering how long it would take for me to turn from guest to being asked to move away from the front of someone’s nice hotel- no Alan.
Nearly two hours later he turned up. It was hard to be angry though as he had come straight from an overnight bus from Lishu and, as I would learn, they had a 5-6 hour give or take caveat attached to their ‘timetables’.
He came down the pavement with his characteristic determined gait, eyes to the floor, feet eating up the ground and we headed off to check into a migrant workers’ hotel to make our base from the weekend….
You can find Cornershop’s website at www.cornershop.com