Sunday 15 December 2019

After 37 years in newspapers Liam Collins finds his new path in life has turned him into a hirsute stargazer

Searching for a soft landing: Liam Collins. Photo: Dave Conachy
Searching for a soft landing: Liam Collins. Photo: Dave Conachy

I was sitting out in the backyard on one of those frosty, starry-laden nights, looking into the glowing embers of a log fire in the pot-bellied stove, when my wife appeared out of the darkness: "There is something wrong with you since you stopped going to work," she said. "You've gone to seed completely."

She walked back into the light of the kitchen, her words trailing on the cold air, demanding some sort of explanation.

Yes, I must admit I had a beer in my hand, my grey beard was lengthening, and I was still wearing shorts long after most people had consigned them to the back of the wardrobe, not to be retrieved until next summer, if it ever comes. I was enjoying what one American author described as "going to hell in a handcart".

In some ways, I was reverting to my teenage years, when a group of us used to go out into the woods, light a fire and spend the night talking, telling stories and soaking up the smoke before we fell asleep under the stars. There was no barbecue or beer in those days. It was the simple life, and maybe that's what I'm seeking once more.

I have recently taken voluntary redundancy from a job I'd had in various guises for the last 37 years.

Was I searching for a soft landing, for a way of gliding into a new lifestyle, rather than hitting the ground with a bang? Sitting out under the stars in front of the log fire was, maybe, a way of fitting in with a new pace of life.

You think it's going to be easy, but when the straitjacket of the 40-hour week goes, you discover that you have, in many ways, become institutionalised. And, as Groucho Marx asked, who wants to live in an institution?

I still have to work; I just don't have to get up in the morning to go to work anymore, and that means life takes on a new meaning.

After all those years in journalism, where I woke up with Morning Ireland and went to bed after watching Prime Time, or Today Tonight (even, God help us, Vincent Browne on the odd occasion) and shushed the wife and children when the news came on at 6pm or 9pm, or any other time, I suddenly found the coordinates of my immediate interests had shifted.

At 8am, I lean over and press the 'off' button on the radio, unable to cope with any more whinging on Morning Ireland; or switch to Ivan Yates for a bit of entertainment. The news no longer means as much when you become a civilian. Of course, I still buy the paper every day, to be entertained rather than informed. I'm no longer terrified of missing something that everybody else seems to think is important, like a couple of dodgy county councillors.

Apart from my insistence on looking at the Antiques Roadshow, David Attenborough or the occasional sporting fixture, television is no longer a part of my life. Even turning the damn thing on has become so complicated it's hardly worthwhile anymore.

Anyway, the family live on a super-sized diet of X Factor; Strictly Come Dancing; that awful thing in the jungle with Ant and Dec; the Kardashians; and much, much worse.

So, at night, I end up pottering around the kitchen and, in the background, hear a healthy debate raging on the radio that nobody has bothered to switch off. For a moment or two I tune in, recognising some of the voices from the now-distant past. But very quickly it all turns to blather in my ears.

I pop Leonard Cohen on the CD and get back to the crossword, or pore over the commercial property page, looking for a small bar where I could be happy, but which I know I'll never find, and, probably, deep down, don't want to.

Or I escape on those clear nights to the backyard, stoke up the stove and stare into the glowing embers of the outdoor fire, hoping to think great thoughts that mostly never come. Instead, I tap another bottle of beer and contemplate what life is all about.

"What is the stars?" asked Joxer in Juno and the Paycock, and I look up and ask myself that same question.

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