A picture speaks a thousand words is a saying that usually holds true.
Following a new year attic deep dive, I am now not so sure. Rifling through frayed paper-folders and cardboard photo albums - the type 24-hour photo shops used to dish out (maybe they still do) - I failed to find what I was looking for: any photographic evidence that I was ever 19-years-old.
1990 turned out to be a banner year for the Republic. As a country, our World Cup success arguably sowed the seeds of confidence for the transformative decade ahead.
As an adult, I was barely 18 months out of school at that time. But that's just the dates talking. I needed more than a couple of photographs that may be circa '90 to prise that man-boy out of the past. Here’s another saying: be careful what you wish for.
Today, it’s digital storage and thousands-long email chains that are tasked with archiving our goings-on for posterity.
For generations gone before It was always biscuit tins that ended up the default guardians of the past. And sure enough, it was in a Tea Time tin I found my 1990 diary. It didn’t really start out as a traditional one. More a nerdy record of my first love. Her name was cinema.
We first met at the State in Phibsboro, and by the end of my teens, in downtown Dublin alone we’re doing the do at the Ambassador, the Savoy, the Carlton, the Adelphi, Metropole, Cameo and the Green at Stephen’s Green.
"When I became a man, I put away childish things," says Corinthians, advising that what seems important then will have no value now.
Well, obviously the King James Bible predates everybody’s Star Wars collection and the Forbidden Planet comic book shop, then in Dawson street, predates even the internet - I’m glad I grew up analog. I’ll save that subject for another time.
Forbidden Planet ended up my home base all through 1990 when after working there for only six months as a sales assistant, I was appointed manager. A reward for having survived the blistering Batman summer of ‘89, a season which led to an explosion in comic book appreciation, awareness and sales, much of it thanks to the build-up to and release of the Tim Burton film with Michael Keaton and Jack Nicholson.
So, I had yet to even snog a girl or get drunk, but I was managing a main street business with a staff of four, ordering stock, doing the books and getting pulled out of bed in the middle of the night when the burglar alarm went off.
As I flip through the pages today, I realise that for a teenager freshly freed from school with money in my pocket, I didn’t seem to be having a lot of big fun. Being always busy was my predominant memory of those times.
For the first six months of the year, from what I deemed to write down, busy meant managing the shop or watching films: in the cinema, on VHS, on TV (A ton of World War 2 movies, along with a healthy dose of Doctor Who).
But Wednesday, 16 May, was so particularly depressing, when I got home it became my first real diary entry: "I can’t believe it. Jim Henson is dead. Read it in Miss Mary’s in Phibsboro. Sammy Davis is dead too. I’ve just rented Wired from Xtravision about John Belushi’s death. I don’t think I can watch it now."
And then on Monday, 11 June there was this: "Quiet day in the shop. World Cup. First Ireland match - Ireland 1, England 1. Watched The Untouchables." Untouchable indeed. As much as I’ve never been and still am not a sports fan, there’s no denying that’s when I started to diary-up. It was a banner week, as it turned out. Thursday June 14th: "Denholm Elliot came into the shop!" Classic British character actor from dozens of war movies and Marcus Brody in the Indiana Jones films.
Though I didn’t write this down I remember I was coincidentally wearing a Last Crusade t-shirt at the time. Saturday 16 June: "Alan Parker holding auditions for his new film in the Mansion House across the road (today and tomorrow). Big queues." You can probably guess what film. It would fly its banner the following year across the world for the Irish brand, building our new-found confidence.
The following month (just a week after I had scribbled in big red biro "WE WON!" and how a certain penalty shoot-out was the most thrilling experience in my life ever) I felt confident enough to travel alone for the first time in my life, and flew to London to shop for comics and hang out in museums. I stayed at a huge but inexpensive hotel on Piccadilly Circus, across from Tower Records (both now long gone). I’ve recorded quite a detailed account of this four-day trip.
The minutiae is kind of fascinating now: "Got searched at Heathrow. Fairly pleasant about it." (Me or the customs officers? I’m not sure). "Went to Virgin and HMV (both also shut down), bought Midnight Run on VHS (now a dead format). In Tower Records, picked up Godfather and Robocop LPs" (I still have those. God bless vinyl). Got tea at hotel. Went to The Hunt For Red October at the Empire in Leicester Square. 70mm! My fourth time seeing it. Sat in the front row."
Then on Sunday 8 July,I experienced something the effects of which I still feel today: "Didn’t wake up till 8:10am. Big queue for breakfast downstairs. Didn’t bother. Went to Dunkin Donuts. Got the tube out to Colindale to the Royal Air Force Museum. Brilliant! Spent three hours. Had lunch there. £2.50 for a roll!"
During my visit, I wandered into a gallery and found myself amongst row after row of portraits. 1990 was the 50th anniversary of the Battle of Britain.
These blown up photos were of pilots who died in the skies above or over the English channel repelling the Nazis when England was left standing alone.
And the pilots, they looked like me. They might have been men, but most of them still looked like boys. That false but necessary sense of immortality that we carry from childhood, I lost it that summer Sunday.
Watching a World War II film was never the same afterwards. I continued to enjoy them, but never with the same wide eyes I grew up with.
Though I was still going to mass back then - something I discovered in the diary I noted with surprising regularity - in the end when I confronted mortality, it was in a museum not a church.
Running a fancy book and comic shop wasn’t all a bag of laughs. But I think I was pretty capable for a bespectacled nerdy nineteen-year-old. And I’ll always be grateful the owner, a Scotsman named Kenny Penman, for giving me the opportunity.
I wished I had been a bit more of a tough guy though as shoplifters were a plague. Not to mention break-ins. My pipe-cleaner physique glasses just didn’t register on the threat level.
Aug 18th: "4pm went to Liffey Travel - closed. Back to shop by 5:25. Trouble with thieves, assaulted again. Wed, Fri and Sat cash to sort out. Did the books, sorted the banking."
The following month at home a casually noted a pop-cultural event on Sep 2nd.
"Usual Sunday. Got up 11:45. Went to mass without breakfast. The Simpsons started on Sky. Taped it but it didn’t turn out clear."
And on Tuesday 11 September, the sometimes stick-up-my-arse poked through: "Saw my brother John smoking while on the way home on the 22a bus. No more pocket money from me!" (Jeez, what a tool I was).
Actual world history on Tuesday 2 October, "Germany united in 15 mins! 45 years from end of WW2 and Germany will be one again!"
Then Irish film history came full circle on Thursday 1 November: "Alan Parker, directing scenes from his new film, The Commitments, across the road, came in at lunchtime, bought t-shirts and magazines. Asked me what Pogues album I was playing. The one with sodomy, I said."
The biggest impression I’m left with after going through this diary is perhaps what isn’t there.
For a long time, I’d been slowly going downhill. And I don’t think I was sure why. I record more and more bleak days and there’s a distinct lack of joy in what I’m writing. Probably most telling is my handwriting, which is getting progressively worse.
Then suddenly it would bounce back. And a few weeks later it would shrink to an obsessive tininess. I closed out 1990 quietly at home spending new years eve watching videos and falling asleep in my clothes.
A natural-born introvert, the next couple of years were a struggle, as following my casting off of religion I sort of imploded in a long-delayed search of self. As difficult as it got, it was my journey. I’ve lived to tell the tale, read the diary, grimace at the dark days and get teary-eyed over forgotten moments. But I’m also aware of the privilege of my nostalgia.
1990 was a formative year.
One that I can still reflect on with fondness in between the many, many cringes, because I didn’t grow up in a war zone, under a tyrannical government or struggled to live hand to mouth. I turned 20 that late November. A birthday I share with Bruce Lee and Jimi Hendrix.
As I write this, I’ve just heard the last surviving ace pilot of the Battle of Britain, Paul Farnes, has died. He was 101. I haven’t a gram of their talent or an inch of their brass neck. But I’m doing pretty good.
And us? Well, the stakes are higher than ever now, for sure, but we’ve still got game.