Thursday, March 30, 2006

Two Giants

There's something very moving and very fitting about the frontpage of the website at the moment. Beckett and McGahern, between them, I would argue, the most important figures of Irish literature in the latter half of the 20th being remembered, one being freshly mourned, facing each other across a page that will disappear in a few hours.

He died as morning turned to day.


John McGahern, 1934-2006: A tribute and a conversation

Two pieces from the Irish Times about John McGahern, who died today at the age of 71.

It was this time of year, a Sunday like summer, and I was shaking like a leaf in the foyer of the Longford Arms Hotel. How had I had the impudence to write to this man, this giant, this master, as famous for refusing to talk about his work as he was for writing it, and ask to interview him for my college newspaper; how would I speak to him, question him, connect with him, this man who seemed, in every one of the photographs I had seen of him, to be frowning, to be forbidding, to be so very stern and serious? Those photographs were always in black and white. And I felt as though I were in crayon shades; twenty years old, and trembling, and wondering if it was true after all, that thing that they said about meeting your hero. And then the glass doors flashed, and John McGahern was standing there, and he had a smile that was all about easiness and decency and warmth. He got us a quiet space, and he ordered tea, and ham sandwiches, and when we had been talking for a while, he leaned over and whispered, creased with laughter, that the couple sat behind us had been having the most hilarious of arguments, and that he had not been able to stop himself from eavesdropping, and that he was sorry, but it was something he that he had had to hear. It was a story.

John loved stories. They were his life’s work, of course; the crafting of a story was his art form, and one which brought to him suffering by times, trouble from within and from without. But stories were also his fascination, his fondness - they were in a way his very oxygen – and the funnier, the stranger, and the more expressive of human folly or vanity, the better. After that interview, he and I began to write to one another. He would always reply immediately, his words etched hard into the paper, and his letters would ripple with stories, with snatches of news and of memory, with comedy…with life. Come and visit us, they would say, you’d be very welcome. Come for a drink or a bite to eat.
We became friends. My boyfriend, Aengus, was from Leitrim, and when we were down there, we would call to see John and his wife, Madeline. In Foxfield, near Mohill, where the lake waters nudge up to the narrow lane, where the sky leans in low and the quiet settles like a heavy fall of snow, the table was always laid with more food than we could eat. Madeline would be there, beautiful and interested and inquisitive, and always with an eyebrow arched at John’s stories; and John would be in his element, talking shop, talking scandal, talking books and plays and poets and priests. We talked about family, about sisters, about parents. We talked about guilt. We talked politics, we talked grudges, we talked secret affairs. We gossiped like mad. Sometimes John would talk about neighbours who used to call to see him and Madeline, and who had died, and the silence pressing in on the long, low bungalow would seem even deeper for a moment. Until the next laugh would come, and the drinks would be repoured, and it was time to turn the lights on, for the night had come on, and there was much to talk about yet. John was fighting the cancer with which he had been diagnosed in 2002, and there were times when he looked frailer than others, times when he could not have a drink with us, but his humour and his energy never seemed to wane, and his capacity for the most delicious of stories seemed without end.
The last time we saw John, he looked in wonderful health, and he was in full storytelling, mischevious, ironic form. He was relishing the success of Memoir. He was looking forward to the New Year. It was three days after Christmas, and he wanted to crack open the champagne, for no reason in particular, except, I suppose, that life was good and that friendship was worth celebrating, and I wish, now, that we had let him. He and Madeline wanted to hear everything about our lives in New York, where we had recently moved – John had given me the warmest recommendation imaginable to help get me into Columbia, where I had been accepted to take an MFA in Fiction – and where Madeline was originally from. And I remember that night as one that tumbled with stories, with laughter, with plans.With affection. He always signed his letters that way. It’s hard to believe that there will be no more.


The heavy snowfall of Christmas has melted and filled the lakes in John McGahern's part of Co Leitrim; restless, the heightened waters lap the lane that leads to his home. That home is a long, low bungalow, set well back from the road, seeming to lean into the landscape, to take that landscape into itself, rather than seeking to eclipse it with a spectacle of bricks and mortar as so many houses in this beautiful county seek to do.

A sheepdog with questioning eyes is first out to take the measure of the visitor; while the conversation unfolds over mugs of tea and a wealth of food in the sitting-room, he'll sit on the high grass bank outside the window with his back turned, staring in at us over his shoulder as if in disdain for this waste of a dry day.

Early afternoon, and already the light is fading. Somewhere out here, perhaps looking forward to their evening feed, are the six plump cattle that make up McGahern's small farm.

"The neighbours complain that they're far too well-fed and too well looked after," laughs McGahern, seating himself in a chair by the warmth of the old- fashioned range. Having turned 70 last year, he himself looks markedly thinner these days, having recently confronted serious illness, but the house he has shared with his wife, Madeline, since 1974 is still a happy one. Even the chiming of a clock pendulum meets the quietness not as an intrusion, but as a fitting companion.

Only fleetingly was the Leitrim of McGahern's childhood a place of such contentment; what peace and security he experienced was bound up with the presence of his adored schoolteacher mother, Susan. When she died of breast cancer, leaving him and his six younger siblings in the care of the father who lived some 30 miles away in the sullen hush of a Garda barracks, those treasures were shattered forever. He was not yet 10 years old. The family homes he had known at Ballinamore, and later at Aughawillian, were closed up. There were no more blissful walks to school along the green laneways of the countryside; with his mother's hand slipped from his grasp, it was the boy's duty now to lead his sisters to the new concrete school just outside the village of Cootehall. At home, it was someone else's duty to care for his baby brother, Frank, namesake of his father and the product of that last, warned-against pregnancy which had brought Susan McGahern's cancer back to claim her.

This new life was a bitterly hard turn.

Readers of McGahern's fiction may feel they know this world as intimately as their own. It seems there in his first novel, The Barracks, published to acclaim in 1963, as the tender mother, Elizabeth Regan, anticipates her death from cancer. Such a death, and a young boy's grief, are unforgettably portrayed in The Leavetaking (1975), and the brutal, detached father widowed in both novels seems to reach self-pitying old age in the magnificent Amongst Women (1990).

In the other early novels, The Dark (1965) and The Pornographer (1979), and in the three short-story collections, Nightlines (1970), Getting Through (1978) and High Ground (1985), painful echoes of the same life seem frequently to resound, and in their light the tranquil world of That They May Face The Rising Sun (2001), in which a couple in the autumn of their life settle among friendly neighbours by a Leitrim lake, came as something of a relief, as an apparent sign of redemption, of resolution to the darkness of earlier experience. It all, that is, read almost irresistibly as autobiography. It all seemed to trace the difficult lineaments of John McGahern's own life. And, lazy as such a reading may have been, it took fuel from the author's wariness of publicity, the long silence with which he followed the 1965 controversy over the banning of The Dark and his dismissal from his job as a National School teacher. Badly burnt by the affair, McGahern absented himself from public life for some 30 years. Those with questions about the life were not so much rebuffed as redirected, sent back to the work as the repository of whatever meaning they could find there for themselves. To ask anything more came to seem, somehow, improper. And for this reason, the news that McGahern has written his memoir, to be published later this year by Faber, and that a new documentary made for RTÉ by Hummingbird Productions will next week show the novelist in his home, talking candidly about his parents, sifting freely through family letters and photographs, comes to his readers as a great surprise.

It came as no surprise, however, to McGahern.

"It came the same same way as I wrote everything," he says. "It was in my mind and it wouldn't go away, and I had to write it."

He grins, as if to suggest that such a demand seems reasonable in retrospect, but that at the time it came as nothing to smile about. An edited extract from the manuscript published in this month's Granta magazine, in which McGahern describes his childhood adoration of his mother and the abject terror of her protracted absence from his life during her first illness, reads at moments like an anatomy of grief. And to finally encounter Sgt Frank McGahern, the man who inspired so many of those violent, brooding heads of the fictional houses, is for the reader an almost chilling experience.

Such an intense read must surely have been painful in the writing? Parts of it were, admits McGahern - particularly the section dealing with the hard truth about the birth of his younger brother, whom McGahern drew on to create the "cancer child" of The Leavetaking, and who eventually died himself at a relatively young age.

"It was hard, but I needed to do it," he says. "And I mean, I actually am a practised writer by now. And it was something that I had to do."

The writing of the memoir has occupied McGahern for the three years since the publication of That They May Face the Rising Sun; which, for an author who has typically taken between 10 and 12 years to write a novel, is something of a rapid turnaround. It was a discovery made in the attic of his father's last home, at the former head gardener's residence in Boyle's Rockingham House, that inspired and fed the process.

"My sisters found enormous amounts of letters in that attic, which they gave me," he says. "I had already a good deal of letters from my father myself, but most of these letters were from my mother to my father."

The letters, forthright and sometimes furious, filled the gaps that were inevitable in the understanding of a child. "Certain things that I would not have known about in their relationship are dealt with in the memoir. For instance, he wanted her to give up school and come to live in the barracks, and this she refused to do."

He is silent for a moment.

When he speaks again, it is slowly, carefully. "Though she was amenable to him in most things." Silence again. "And they . . . they differed over their relationship with the children, too. I mean, even when corporal punishment was widespread in schools, she used never beat the children. And he thought we needed much more discipline. But things like that I wouldn't have known."

As a child, McGahern cherished one parent and cowered from the other. Such high emotions give rise to the risk, from the vantage-point of reflection, of idealising the memory of the mother, of thickening the vitriol of the father. But these, he feels confident, are traps he managed to avoid. Not that it was easy for a writer so fluent in the art of fiction.

"Of course it's very strange when you're used to writing fiction, because of the enormous freedom that you have in writing," he says. The temptation to do what the novelist does - to invent, to embellish - is always present.

"You know, you'd find yourself thinking that this could be improved - and you can't improve what's life," he says. "I did find in one of the earlier drafts that I had used fictional techniques in order to avoid writing about my father. And I had to scrap all that."

Does he have any bitterness or regret about his father?

"None whatsoever," he says immediately. Then he pauses for a long moment. "I suppose . . . in writing you can't have regrets. I mean, you just get it down the way it was . . . it's only wishful thinking that things could be other than they were."

But their relationship was a tense one? "Aw, yeah, everybody had a tense relationship with my father. I was no exception."

Their relationship in McGahern's adulthood was "polite and formal"; in the three years after his son moved back from New York to live in Leitrim with his new wife, Frank McGahern visited only once.

"Before, he was always trying to get me to come back and settle with him, so that we'd work the land together and that," says McGahern. "But, I mean, it was a fantasy on his part, because, you know, nobody could get on with my father. Especially I couldn't. And I had no intention of giving up my independence."

Does he think his father realised that his problems with other people stemmed not from them, but from himself? "I don't know. My father was a very strange man who never got on with anybody. That was the law."

Of what happened to make him this way, McGahern knows nothing. "He never talked about his past or anything connected with the past. And I do say in the memoir that a life in which the past is so completely shut out has to be a life of darkness."

Yet he can smile, albeit wryly, as he talks about his father - about his physical vanity, the stock he set by appearances, about those instances of astounding egotism which seemed to McGahern too incredible ever to work in the stories in which he has used them but which "make perfect sense" in the memoir; about the gall with which, upon applying to the Garda Siochana, Frank cited "three years in the IRA" as his previous work experience.

Susan McGahern, on the other hand, is remembered quietly, pensively, even with a tinge of wonder. She sounds, indeed, like an extraordinary woman, having been the first person from the mountain community of her birth to go not only to secondary school but to university, both on scholarships. Amazingly, his mother's achievement in earning a degree at Trinity College Dublin is something McGahern only found out about relatively recently, and quite by chance. A woman who had known her contacted McGahern some 10 years ago in connection with a thesis she was writing, and a whole new section of Susan's life was opened before him.

"She never talked about Trinity," he says. "Even going to school in Carrick-on-Shannon would have been a huge change for her. Compared to her even the people in Carrick-on-Shannon were very well-off."

In the memoir, she comes across as a woman almost incredibly patient and forgiving. Was there any risk that the objectivity of his writing could have been blinded by a love that was, after all, childish and hence utterly unquestioning?

"I don't think so," he says. "I think she was like that. I mean, people still meet me that went to school with her, that talk about her. And she was greatly loved."

Did she come from a loving family? "Yes. They were all very sociable, very intelligent, and they had a hatred of any kind of show. And saw any kind of extravagance, like drinking, as threatening a very fragile existence.

"They were very interesting people. My mother kind of lost an earthiness that they had in abundance, but what replaced it was a deep religious faith."

That religious faith was what sustained Susan through the difficulties of her marriage. "When my father pushed too hard, it was . . . I think it's there in one of her letters, she says: 'IHim and by Him and for Him alone, I trust and pray. And He will bring me safely along.' "

The "Him" was the God she believed in absolutely, "and she was unaccessible to my father or anyone else then". Going along, during her illness, with his mother's hope that he would become a priest was, for the young McGahern, "a sort of a dream, almost to hold her in life".

He has long since left his own faith behind, and though he has great respect and gratitude for the Church and its rituals and ceremonies, he no longer believes. There was no rebellion, he says, just a falling away of conviction. "I wasn't sure ever whether I'd left religion or religion left me."

Does he ever miss the comfort religion can offer?

"No. I mean, I think that you really can't subscribe to anything that is not real," he says. "And I think, at the end of my book, I leave my father with God or whatever meaning or comfort or illusion that word may represent. That'd be my feeling towards God."

The evening has drawn in, and Madeline joins us. She and McGahern talk about the recent trip they took to Japan to mark the publication there of his Collected Stories. They had a busy year, she says, travelling a lot, "maybe too much". But Japan, says McGahern, was something to remember. After official business in Tokyo, the couple took themselves off to Kyoto, where the period gardens made an impact on them.

"They were very modest, very low-scale," McGahern remembers. "The whole idea was that you could have a little water, and woodland, and sky, and that you could bring the whole world into a small place."

Then he smiles. "Naturally, that would be very attractive to me."

* * * *


Dear John

Every morning since we came here I have dreaded seeing this news on the Irish websites.John is gone, and our world is much the poorer. He was a dear friend and the one inspiration and drive and reason I have always laid claim to. Dear John. We will miss you so much.

Then the gold was gone from the world
- no, there was gold everywhere,
my gold wasn't


Monday, March 27, 2006

Please turn off all egos before the show

Probably out of some tendency towards masochism, I sometimes listen online to Ryan Tubridy's radio show (RTE) on weekday mornings. It's a pretty pointless exercise, because it in no way helps me to keep up with what's in the news at home - now that he's got his primetime radio show, Tubridy has abandoned any of the pretensions towards being a thorough or clued-in commentator that he might have exhibited a couple of years ago, when he was being energetically touted as the biggest talent in Irish broadcasting. Now that he's secured the fat salary, he doesn't seem to feel the need to bother making any of those noises anymore. He's free to wallow, instead, in his own considerable collection of prejudices and pomposities, preaching from the confines of his narrow range of interests and expertise, and dealing with everything else through a combination of small talk, generalisation and downright bluster. He's been compared over and over to Gay Byrne, but he has none of Byrne's intelligence and empathy. He's much closer in style to Val Joyce, whose absent-minded ramblings on Late Date are punctuated only by cranky outbursts against the perceived errors of his producers (which usually seem to consist, rather, of Joyce's inability to put a CD into the machine). They also share a taste for truly terrible music, the sort of tunes you might hear at an afternoon disco in a nursing home.

And then there's the arrogance. Tubridy substitutes arrogance for authority and for argument at every turn. And usually it points to something even less pleasant; witness the slow emergence into daylight of what can only be described as homophobia last month, as he tried for weeks to get out of going to see the film on which he passed snide comment nearly every day, and about which his listeners had plenty of thoughtful comment to make: Brokeback Mountain . Instigating a backlash against the hype is one thing, but it's difficult to take seriously the criticisms of someone who seemed either too lazy or too apprehensive to actually go and see the film. When he eventually did, his comments were just as snide and even more telling, despite the fact that he grudgingly admitted he thought it good; good, that is, apart from the love scenes between the two men. Gay love scenes just weren't for him, he said in a tone of undisguised distaste. He implied that he really didn't see the need for that sort of thing to actually be shown. And you can be damn well sure that he made no apologies for this position. Tubridy seems to see his conservativism as something quirky, daring, different; it's not. It's random, shallow and unconsidered, just like his broadcasting.

This morning he was on again about one of his cripplingly dull hobbyhorses; mobile phones and their use in public places. This sort of bitching was funny in 1999, when mobile phones were new; now, it's just embarrassing. Yet Tubridy makes the same jokes, does the same dreary imitations of phone users, almost every morning. And this morning, he started the show by hailing Ralph Fiennes not only as one of the greatest actors of his generation (questionable, very questionable) but as a hero. Why? Because, apparently, when the mobile phone of an audience member rang during the opening minutes of his performance at the Gate in Brian Friel's Faith Healer , Fiennes broke out of character and barked into the audience, "turn that fucking thing off". Hero, says Tubridy. How, exactly? If Fiennes really did this, it's deeply unprofessional, an insult to the theatre that's hosting him (not that Michael Colgan will give, well, a fuck), to the audience that paid to see him in a role, not in a self-indulgent rage, and to the playwright, the director and the other actors who've worked on the play. Breaking out of character like this is the most unthinkable thing for an actor to do - I've only seen it once, also at the Gate, and in this case it was justified, because the actor in question (Declan Conlon, in The Book of Evidence three years ago ) saw an elderly woman taking ill in the audience and very reasonably believed she was having a heart attack - he then called for someone to help her, and after she'd been taken out (she had had an attack of some sort, but recovered) sat down, took a moment to regroup, and then went seamlessly back into full-flow as his character. Actually I thought that was somewhat heroic. But Fiennes, carping and sniping about something that, while undesirable, just happens sometimes and is hardly a disaster in the scheme of things, something that, while understandably distracting to an actor, does not merit that sort of behaviour, swinging the attention of the audience back to him as The Star (as though it weren't sufficiently there already) instead of to Friel's character...that's not heroic, that's histrionic. And Tubridy, who happily admitted a couple of weeks ago that his trip to Faith Healer was the first time he'd been to the theatre in years , laps it up and read it as some badge of Fiennes' legend, like he's Brando up there, or even Donal McCann, who would never have pulled that sort of shit, who would never, whatever his flaws, have substituted conceit for character, arrogance for art. He would just have done the job. If Fiennes can't do that, I don't care about his fame. And if he pulls that kind of stunt on Broadway when the play comes here later this month, I'd bet good money that the response will be a lot less sympathetic.


Friday, March 24, 2006

And if we go to Mexico....

Until last week, the nearest I'd ever come to a holiday in a place that could be called a resort was a day trip to Mosney. And it's not that I didn't love the painted chalets and the sunken garden and the coffee lounge (ooh! coffee! posh!) where you could sit and watch the swimmers in the adjacent pool through a wall of glass (rate of bare arses pressed against the pane: approximately 2 per minute)...I've just been, well, a bit of a snob about holiday destinations since then. Once I began to travel at all, which was pretty late in the day, I tended only to go to cities or to very isolated rural or coastal spots. The idea of sharing a week off with thousands of people all heading for the same beach, shopping for the same souvenirs, and sporting the same bikini-stap sunburn marks made me turn my little Trinners nose up in the air. Lying around on a beach? Pah! How could one waste time in that way, when there are galleries to be visited and museums to be seen and sculpture to be gazed up at in rainy streets? How could anyone spend even a single day, never mind several, just lying on a beach, doing nothing??? I mean, you couldn't even read a book properly on a beach. Sand would get between the pages and suncream on the colour plates and saltwater between the binding and....oh god....I'll just traipse around Prague or Bologna for a few hours and walk off the very idea.

Now, I still love visiting cities, obviously - I mean, I moved to New York last year, and not to work on my tan - and my holidays in Prague, Bologna, Verona, Dubrovnik, Barcelona, Paris, have been hugely satisfying. But last week, we flew into Playa del Carmen, a town about an hour's drive from Cancun in Mexico. Playa has gone, in the last 20 years or so, from being a quiet and idyllic (and dirt-poor) fishing village to being a smaller, sleeker, more friendly version of Cancun, yet still a full-blown resort town, with dozens upon dozens of hotels, miles of beach onto which so much development has poured than only a strip of sand remains as the actual beach, and a long street lined with identical shops selling identical sombreros, ponchos, rope necklaces, porcelain bowls, t-shirts saying "I'm Home Take Me Drunk" and "Who Are These Kids And Why Are They Calling Me Dad". Those two T-shirt slogans actually sum up two-thirds of the typical demographic of holiday-makers in Playa, especially around this time of year (the American spring break period): you have the early twenties kids, all beach bodies and tequila overdoses and dancing on the bar in clubs that kick off at 2 a.m. and hold 2000 people, and then you have the young families, spending most of their time around the hotel pool or on day trips to the many, many amusement and water parks that are ranked along the highway linking Cancun to Playa and stretching on to Tulum and beyond. On that drive, it's incredible to see the actual resorts, places like the actual Copacabana... all of these enormous walls, like palace walls, at five minute intervals, some of them announced by 20-foot high stone carved lettering, Taj Mahal-inspired entrance gates or elaborate landscape gardens, some of them clearly improvised, with hand-painted signs and quickly cobbled-together access roads, the brainchild of some landowner deciding to capitalise on the presence on his land of cenotes (limestone-walled sinkholes, very dramatic and beautiful for swimming and snorkelling, day and night) or caverns.

And the other third of the demographic: the retired couples, who come to the same hotel year in year out, who have built a holiday home along the beach themselves, or who live in the truly scary-looking pseudo-town that is the place called Playacar, the gated community filled with swank houses and hotels that are absolutely gargantuan (and blissfully vulgar...Saddam's palace regularly comes to mind looking at these places, no joke). A subset of this group is the millionaire old guy with the 19 year old girlfriend, a couple of whom we spotted during our five days. Oh, and the 4-carat diamond rings are everywhere in evidence, too. Lots of rich Texas wives coming down here for their spring holiday. In one bar, I thought I had suffered a detached retina until I realised that I had just been momentarily disoriented by the glint coming from the ring finger of the woman next to me (a diamond as wide as my thumb nail, and longer, and real). Women were coming up to her and practically grabbing her hand. I was going to do so myself, for the craic, before my margarita-soaked attention span was caught up, instead, by a group of green-clad spring breakers, St Patrick's Day revellers, to whom I drunkenly started directing questions of the "are any of you actually Irish?" variety. Very proud of that now, obviously...

Anyway, we pretty clearly don't fit into any of those three categories. I'm open to being a 19 year old married to a millionaire, but the logistics of that might prove tricky. Technically, of course, we are spring breakers (horrible term, sorry miglior, I know you'll object), but beyond the technical resemblance (young, on mid-term from an American university, devoid of young families, zimmerframes or the botox-n-bling look), we don't really qualify for that category, either. We're not young enough. We're not tanned enough. We don't sit in groups on the beach screaming DUDE and TOTALLY and NO WAY, MAN and bribing Mexican waiters and having tequila-from-watering-can drinking contests and hiding our erections during beach volleyball matches (at least, I don't...) and we don't, I have to admit, get excited when the guides hawking day trips all along the main strip tell us that they can take us to a big party with 50,000 people and a DJ from Ibiza or whereverthefuck.

And yet we still had one of the best holidays ever. The beaches at Playa are spectacularly beautiful, despite the crowding (and actually the crowding is not that bad - it's more the sense that buildings are encroaching on the sand so much which is bothersome, but most of the buildings are pretty tastefully done, so the eyesore factor is absent to some degree). The water, which you glimpse like a high wall from the main shopping and hotel strip, 5th Avenue, is that glorious deep blue shade that you can never really visualise unless you're looking straight at's shocking, the colour of the sea there, especially if you've grown accustomed to seeing seawater that, while beautiful, is closer to the shade of a dirty dishcloth than a turquoise stone. Our hotel was lovely, quiet and small, with a tiny pool that was such a relief at the end of the day, and the atmosphere in the town was really warm, friendly, pleasant...maybe we've spent too long living in Dublin, but we were both pretty floored by the complete lack of cynicism, manipulation or rudeness that we encountered in the restaurants and bars and on the beaches. The attiude is by no means servile; it's just not false. Nobody is charging you 150 euros for a lacklustre meal and expecting you to get the hell out and clear that table so that someone else can be ripped off. Nobody treats you like idiot dirt because you're a tourist (I didn't go to any of the souvenir shops, mind; that notion might well be tested there). Mind you, of course it's also true that the prices are cheaper because it's Mexico - beyond the slick hotels and the candlelit restaurants, there are shanty towns, just a few blocks back from the sea. And Playa, being a resort, gives only the tiniest glimpse of the country. But we had an amazing, relaxing time. Snorkelled for the first time - once disastrously, out in the sea, where I had more panic attacks than I had in the entire month coming up to my Leaving Cert, and majorly pissed the guide off by gasping "help!" at regular intervals, refusing to believe that my lifejacket would keep me afloat, and then again in the waterpark called Xelha, which has breathtaking lakes, cenotes and caverns full of the weirdest and most wonderful (and in one case, fuck-off-terrifying) fish I've ever seen. A and I got pretty cocky after a while, and headed off by ourselves into the middle of the lake, and it was there we passed over a fish that, we learned afterwards, was indeed a barracuda...hovering over the sea bed like an enemy submarine. That was fun...apparently, they don't disturb you unless they see something sparkly, and then they'll come with teeth bared, thinking you're a tasty fish. I had my ring on, but he didn't seem impressed. Now, if that broad with the thumbnail diamond were to go snorkelling, that'd be a different story...

Ah, Playa. We'll be back. And I won't be such a resort snob ever again.