Sunday, 2 October 2016

Four scientists: Janna Levin

Last night my partner-in-life and I were at a performance of Beethoven's 5th symphony. “Da da da daaah”, et cetera. Les Violons du Roy were conducted from the violin by Anthony Marwood  - it was brilliant, visceral. Seated 6 rows from the front we were immersed in the music, from the French horns on our left through the strings and woodwinds in front of us to the drums and trumpets on our right. At the end our hearts were pounding. The musicians gave everything, Marwood ripping in to his violin to the point of almost toppling over, the orchestra's concertmaster and first violin Pascale Giguère matching his performance whilst also somehow managing to turn the pages of Marwood's score every ten seconds.

Beethoven's 5th is a work of music and it's a story. Fate, that “da da da daaah”, dominates the opening but after a vigorous struggle it is ultimately overpowered in the last movement by reason and beauty. The story is told compellingly, there could be no better way of telling it than through this music.

I'm an engineer with a degree in mathematics - I am rational, a latecomer to the arts. There are several scientists whose work I follow quite closely, and they are masters of reason and of story-telling; it's their ability to combine these two aspects of humanity that makes their work so fascinating.  I'd like to tell you about four of them, two women and two men, two of them pragmatists and two theorists: Janna Levin, Dan Ariely, Jennifer Jacquet and Nick Bostrom.

Janna Levin is an astrophysicist, professor of physics and astronomy at Columbia University. She's an expert on black holes, gravitational waves, and multi-dimensional space. Levin's web site is a treasure trove of fascinating ideas but the best way to approach her work is to listen to her telling a story, beginning with one that has relatively little to do with astrophysics: a story of her own love affair, of reason and music, laughter and ideas, as she told on NPR.

In 2011 she gave a TED talk on “The sounds the universe makes”, explaining the concept of gravitational waves through the metaphor of music. In 2016 gravitational waves became big news as their discovery was confirmed - but this talk by Levin from five years ago is still the best way of understanding them, especially if you like music and love a good story.

 I'll have posts on the other three of my fab four scientists in the next few weeks. 

Saturday, 24 September 2016

A Country Road, A Tree by Jo Baker

The premise of this fascinating novel is that Samuel Beckett's wartime experiences in the French resistance had a huge influence on his later work, and most especially on "Waiting for Godot". Baker has taken this idea and created a work of fiction where the young Beckett and his life-long lover Suzanne Déchevaux-Dumesnil experience the war as a series of scenes from Godot and other works, interspersed with other scenes that are Baker's own creation. The result is powerful.

But there is some clunkiness too, particularly in the early chapters. The meetings with Joyce are told awkwardly, perhaps to emphasize Beckett's own awkwardness in front of someone he revered so much, but the result is that the novel lurches unsteadily at the beginning. And the metaphor of Joyce's old  overcoat, given by him to Beckett and worn incessantly by him until he finally leaves it behind in Ireland, seems a bit obvious and contrived - could it be true?

But the middle part soars. Their long wait outside Rousillon is brilliantly told, and encapsulates so much that is wonderful about Godot. The eponymous country road and tree, Beckett and Suzanne (Didi and Gogo) weary and footsore, in hiding from the Gestapo, waiting for someone, an unknown, to bring them to safety in “free” Vichy France.
“This man, this contact,” she says, tugging off her socks. Her feet are patched with red, and blisters have formed, and popped, and been worn clean away again, leaving the skin raw.
“How will we know that it's him?”
“Who else could it be?”
“But that's the problem! That's what I'm saying, It could be anyone. We'll be sitting here waiting, and we'll watch someone coming down the road and before you know it they're here, and then maybe it turns out they're not the contact, they're the Gestapo.”
“Gestapo travel in packs, like - I don't know, hyenas. They don't ever go anywhere alone. He'll just be alone; just him himself.”
She nods at this, looking across the road towards the wide-open fields, the bare trees, the fading sky.
“I don't like it here,” she says.
 But there's nothing to be done...

Thursday, 8 September 2016

Beethoven pancakes

My wife often says to our boys that she's made their lunches "avec amour". Can they taste that, I wonder? If someone who didn't love them made their lunches would they notice the missing ingredient?

Me, well I usually cook with music. On Saturday mornings I like to prepare a big breakfast to start the weekend. Often it's pancakes, ready in around 40 minutes from tipping the flour to flipping the last pancake. That's also the time needed to listen to Beethoven's violin concerto, a swooping soaring sound-track to my cooking that puts me in great humour - so it's a crucial part of the recipe.

Of course it doesn't have to be that particular piece of music but it's one that I've really been in to recently, ever since I heard Nigel Kennedy playing  it on the CBC. And a benefit of this era of music streaming is that every Saturday I can listen to a different version of the concerto and taste its influence on my cooking!

This is how it works. Start with any basic pancake recipe, such as the stunning oatmeal one below. Then add the Beethoven concerto, at a high volume! Here, for your consideration, are five different versions that I've used in my recipe. These recordings are all brilliant in their own way, but quite distinct.

Anne Sophie Mutter / Berlin Philharmonic with Herbert van Karajan
This makes a very rich pancake, butter and cinnamon are a must, and it has to be served with a lot of maple syrup. That's the van Karajan influence - he doesn't want you to miss a-n-y-t-h-i-n-g. Consequently it's a bit slower to finish than the others and I must admit to find it a little bit heavy, but that provides the perfect excuse for sitting back afterwards with a book and a big pot of coffee.

Nigel Kennedy / Polish Chamber Orchestra
This recipe takes less time than the others because the measurements are a bit imprecise and the tempo is rubato'ing all over the place but it's so exciting with flour going everywhere! And Nigel's cadenza just rocks!

Joshua Bell / Camerata Salzburg
Makes flat pancakes that are flat as pancakes. Sorry Joshua, but with all these choices I won't be making these again unless I run out of baking powder...

Isabelle Faust / Orchestra Mozart with Claudio Abbado
The measures are precise and everything is well controlled,  it rises beautifully in the pan and then melts away in your mouth while breaking your heart.  A pancake and a concerto for perfectionists.

Itzhak Perlman / Berlin Philharmonic with Daniel Barenboim
It starts slowly, but it's so bittersweet, sad yet joyful. I don't yet know how to make pancakes to match the tone of Perlman's playing - it's a goal for an upcoming Saturday. Some dark chocolate perhaps? When I made these last Saturday my 8-year-old son helped me, little no-longer-so-little Phil, and I had tears in my eyes. They were beautiful pancakes and they were made with music, and with love too.

Oatmeal pancakes for 5 (i.e. 15 to 18 pancakes)

In the 1st bowl:
600ml of quick cook oatmeal flakes (or around 4 handfuls if you're doing the Kennedy)
750ml of milk

In the 2nd bowl:
375ml of flour (2 handfuls for Kennedy?)
2 tablespoons of sugar (or 29.5ml for the Faust)
3 heaped teaspoons of baking powder (halve if you're doing the Bell)
1 teaspoon of salt
1 teaspoon of cinnamon (double if you're doing the Mutter)

In the 3rd bowl:
4 eggs, beaten
1 teaspoon of vanilla essence
125ml of olive oil (or half olive oil and half melted butter for the Mutter)

Pour the 3rd bowl in to the 1st bowl and stir (wipe away a tear if it's the Perlman)
Slowly pour the 2nd bowl in to the 1st bowl and stir

Start cooking!
(Hurry the hell up if you're doing the Kennedy, he's already in the third movement by now!)

Sunday, 24 July 2016

The Little Red Chairs by Edna O'Brien

Growing up in Dublin the only thing I knew about Edna O'Brien was that she provoked controversy, invited to TV chat shows to generate coverage in the next day's papers. She was absent from the official literary scene, an “enfant terrible” of the 1960's who by the 1970's was a kind of “femme fatale” in the popular imagination - I didn't even know if she was still writing. In the 1920's James Joyce had created the sensual and sexual Molly Bloom and it was many decades before his writing was deemed publishable in Ireland. Writing in the 1960's, O'Brien broached similar themes in her characters, but it would be as long again before official Ireland was ready for a female author to be so earthy and frank.

But now, Edna O'Brien is the “grande dame” of Irish literature. I've heard her give intimate interviews on radio shows, eloquent in an arch and grandiose style that I find a bit over-bearing. She's still writing too, 85 years old. I thought I'd try her latest novel, half-expecting it to also be over-bearing and perhaps tired and dated. Was I ever wrong!

The Little Red Chairs is a relatively short novel, that is sometimes tender and occasionally quite vicious. It's not just that it packs a punch; it knocks you down under a hail of kicks and punches leaving you bewildered and hurt, then picks you up and soothes the pain. It's the work of an author who has honed her craft over decades, but who still possesses the anger and energy to make that craft count.

No summary can do it justice. I could say that it is based around a woman in a childless marriage who feels her life slipping away; her love affair with the suave newly-arrived immigrant from Eastern Europe who is the talk of the small Irish town; his violent past (is he based on Radovan Karadzic?); how all their lives are changed; her journey through love, loss, physical and mental suffering, and, acceptance of a sort, from Ireland to London to The Hague. But as important as the plot is, what's most remarkable is the power of O'Brien's characters and images, her understanding of small-town Ireland and how immigration has changed it, her appreciation of how it is to be an emigrant from a small town and an immigrant to an unfriendly city, and more.

Edna O'Brien is 85. I hope she has a few more novels in her - I'll be reading them!

Friday, 6 May 2016

Gaze at the horizon...

Killiney Bay, April 25th 2016

I've heard it said that it's good for our minds to gaze at the horizon from time to time, that it re-calibrates our sense of space and perspective. Well I was in a really good frame of mind after our walk on Killiney Hill, gazing towards a horizon that also re-calibrated my sense of colour: green becoming turquoise becoming blue.

Saturday, 30 April 2016


I don't really understand Anne Carson's poetry. Well to be honest, there's a lot of poetry that I love that I don't really understand. If it were easy to understand it would be good prose I suppose but, for me, poetry is a way to recognise and appreciate the beauty and mystery in things that are hard to understand. Or something like that...

So Anne Carson. Her book "Nox", a strange journey through and beyond poem 101 by Catullus, has been a nightly companion of mine for several years, on my bedside table nestled amongst the Heaneys and Plaths. (I wrote about it here a few years ago.) That I don't fully understand it is a part of its strange attraction to me, reading in the half-light until I'm suddenly struck by an instant of clarity, a stark truth perceived as through a glass darkly, or, as she tells us of her lost brother, a feeling of abject loss and loneliness that can move me close to tears.

Two weeks ago my eldest son and I went to a reading of Carson's work Antigonick, part of the Blue Metropolis festival, with the poet herself giving an introductory lecture. Listening to her talk was a similar experience to reading her poetry; clarity followed by confusion, like a distant radio station whose signal fades in and out. Beckett and Brecht were mentioned. Then she abruptly sat down and the play began.

Luckily both my son and I are familiar with the story of Antigone so we could focus on the characters, their thoughts and words, without having to struggle to follow the plot or the confusing relationships (fathers yet brothers, mothers yet lovers). We enjoyed our evening and though some of the actors seemed to struggle with the text, those playing Antigone, Kreon and the one-man chorus, were quite excellent.

And I was doubly happy to share such an evening with my 15-year-old son. Afterwards we discussed whether Antigone could be considered a feminist icon (possibly) or a symbol for civil disobedience (definitely) - a distinct change from our conversation earlier in the evening (should Arsenal continue with the 4-2-3-1 formation or put two players up front instead?)

So I bought the book Antigonick by Carson, and it's on my bedside table now. Just like Nox, the text is accompanied by strange illustrations and notes which I don't really understand...

Saturday, 6 February 2016

Les sœurs Boulay

Elles chantent comme des anges aux cœurs brisé la Gaspésie !

Friday, 15 January 2016

In praise of Murray Bail

It's a rare book that I re-read as soon as I've finished it. I remember I did that with Sebald's "Austerlitz", a book whose mysteries have drawn me in one or two more times since then. Well it just happened again with "The Voyage" by Murray Bail which is, I humbly submit, a masterpiece.

I read the book on the basis of a strong review by Eileen Battersby in The Irish Times, never having heard of Bail before. The plot is a bit odd: an awkward Australian engineer who has designed a revolutionary new piano travels to Vienna to try to sell some there. He becomes entangled with the elegant aristocratic wife of a wealthy businessman, and then more entangled with her distracted daughter.

The novel turns on these relationships, exploring the nature of art, the tension between tradition and innovation, freedom and loyalty, while our hero, Frank Delage, just wants to sell a piano. Eventually he does, only for it to be assaulted in a performance art piece. This all unfolds wittily in delightful prose, as we dance back and forth through the main events. It's brilliant.

So then I read Bail's "The Pages", about the attempt to recover the works of a recently-deceased philosopher from the pages he left behind on the family farm in New South Wales.  So another unusual plot, it's moving and wise and it too is quite brilliant.


Thursday, 3 September 2015

Grosse Ile: lessons in migration

The view east from Grosse Ile out towards the gulf of St. Lawrence

Last weekend we went to Grosse Ile, an island in the beautiful Isle-aux-Grues archipeligo that lies east of Quebec City in the St. Lawrence river. The island was formerly used as a quarantine station for immigrants to Eastern Canada, and Grosse Ile is a name that still resonates for many Irish people.

Towards the western end of the island there is a small field marked with a few white crosses.

The Irish cemetery, Grosse Ile

Here lie the remains of more than 5000 Irish men, women and children who arrived at this island during the summer and autumn of 1847. They came in search of a new life in North America, fleeing the famine in Ireland, crossing the Atlantic in terrible conditions in a voyage that took seven weeks or more crowded in to the rough hold of a cargo ship. Many died during the sea crossing, others arrived suffering from diseases (typhus mainly) and died on Grosse Ile.

At the western tip of the island there is a memorial to these unfortunate people in the form of a celtic cross.

The inscription on the cross is in Irish and says that they died fleeing “foreign tyranny” and an “artificial famine”.

In the visitor centre we learn that there were many Irish children on the island who were orphaned and that they were adopted by French-Canadian families. Consequently many Quebecers have some Irish ancestry, and you will often meet Francophones with Irish surnames.

As we visit the island the news is filled with stories of other unfortunate migrants. So far this year almost 2000 people have drowned in the Mediterranean, on the treacherous voyage to Europe in search of a better life. Last week, more than 70 people were found dead in the back of truck in Austria, as they tried to reach Germany.

For me, this refugee crisis of 2015 resonates with the Irish tragedy of 1847. History has not been kind to the people and politicians of the 1840's who did little while the Irish starved, drowned and died of diseases. I suspect that history will not be kind to us in this generation either unless we respond to this crisis. People are dying in their thousands while we mess around with Eurozone immigration policies and Greek banking problems. This is the European disaster of our generation - it is the single most important thing for us to deal with now. Where is the leadership from Ireland and from Canada to resolve this crisis which we can understand only too well?

Sorrowful remembrance of the dead is worth little unless it makes us resolve to save those still living.

Friday, 14 August 2015

Not a trombone in sight...

They don't give a damn about any trumpet [or trombone!] playin' band
It ain't what they call rock and roll
So said the Sultans of Swing and who am I to argue? So here's some some brilliant stripped-down rock and roll from The White Stripes.

Thursday, 30 July 2015

Do you know what we need? More trombones, that's what!

There's no more uplifting sound than a trombone in a ska or rock band. I've researched this on my stereo over the past few hours and I've had a great evening; there's no doubt in my mind the world would be a better place with more trombones and trombone players.

I think I'll buy some trombone lessons for the boys, surprise them when they come back from camp. I'll play these two songs for them and they'll be so enthusiastic.

This is going to be great!

POSTSCRIPT, September 11th 2015:

The trombonist in that great recording from The Specials, Rico Rodriguez, passed away last week. And although my boys love that song I failed to convince any of them to take up the trombone!

Net result: the world is down a trombonist. Not good...  

Monday, 6 July 2015

Sunday afternoon at Croker watching the Dubs hammer some culchies

Last Sunday was the first time for the boys to see a live GAA match - we were at Croke Park for the Leinster semi-final between Dublin and Kildare. I hadn't been at a Gaelic match myself for at least 35 years (gulp), but some things hadn't changed: it was my Uncle Jimmy who sorted the tickets and brought the sweets. Everyone should be lucky enough to have an Uncle Jimmy!

The Dubs were in brilliant form and ripped Kildare apart, scoring some great goals.

And we had a great view from our seats in the Cusack stand.

At the end of our holiday in Dublin my youngest son picked up a book at the airport shop - he loves “Where's Wally?” so he couldn't resist:

And inside there's a picture of Croke Park. Do ye see the boys and me with Uncle Jimmy??

Tuesday, 12 May 2015

Adventures in Advertising

April 30th.

I'm having a joyless lunch at Subway. The sullen teenager behind the counter has built the sandwich according to my precise specifications, but I know from experience that no matter the combination of bread, filling and condiments, the end result always tastes like a bland Subway sandwich. So I've not come for the sandwich but for the Superhero toy that goes with it. Yesterday my 7-year-old son cried hot, ang‎ry tears for the lack of this toy; his best friend has lots of them because the lucky boy eats at Subway everyday, or so I understand through sobs. 

Later after work I arrive at his school with a smile and present my son with the Avengers puzzle. Of course ‎it's the wrong toy. There are more hot, angry tears while I contemplate another Subway lunch.  Consuming processed meats is a factor in high cholesterol and colon cancer but perhaps that's a small price to pay for a 7-year-old's smile and a big hug. Thanks Subway!

May 2nd

My 14-year-old son's soccer team has been invited to play a pre-season game against a strong girls' team: 14-year-old boys against 16-year-old girls.  The game is sponsored by Coca Cola, "a celebration of the upcoming women's world cup in Canada". It quickly becomes apparent that a Coca Cola celebration means making a commercial. The boys stand around while the girls repeat their entrance on to the pitch at least three times (I lose count) until it is done to the satisfaction of the director. When the game finally kicks off, play is somewhat disrupted by the film crew camped out in the centre circle. At 2-0 to the boys, the action is suspended to stage a goal by the girls - boys and girls are visibly embarrassed.

At the end of the "game" the players are given soccer kits, iTunes vouchers and a meal at a local restaurant. 

"Ils ont profité de nous" says my son when we get home. Yes they did, but I think he learned something too. Thanks Coca Cola!

June 22nd

OMG it's even worse than I feared, “even better than the real thing” as Bono warned - the Coke advertisement shows an event the occurred in the mind of the director only and certainly not on the soccer pitch. It's actually pretty impressive, in a dishonest manipulative way. 

Wednesday, 8 April 2015

Tomas Tranströmer is no more

A few months ago I mangled one of his poems, trying to get my mouth around eccentric Swedish vowels, and now he's gone. What have I done?

Robin Fulton wrote his obituary in The Guardian, but it doesn't say much to anyone who isn't already a fan. Better to read or listen to his poems - like this one, with a translation by the same Robert Fulton and a recording of Tomas himself reading it: Svenska hus ensligt belägna / Solitary Swedish Houses.

Farväl Tomas.

Wednesday, 11 March 2015

A History of Ireland

Come on in to The Hairy Bowsie for a few pints and hear Ding Dong Denny's history of Ireland. "I know we can laugh at the famine now but it was dreadful at the time..."

OK it's not LOL funny but I love how he makes fun of the piousness of the official history of Ireland. 

Ding Dong also sings some woeful songs, but their titles are brilliant, such as his lament over the famine "The Potatoes Aren't Looking The Best" and his rousing rebel ballad "The Craic We Had The Day We Died For Ireland". Deadly!

Monday, 19 January 2015

Off by heart - the payoff

I mentioned in my last off-by-heart update (Off by heart - halfway there) that Jim Harrison's poem Bridge presented quite a challenge to learn. My trouble with it was the lack of any rhyme or rhythm that I could discern - maybe it's not a poem at all but poetic prose? Anyway I did manage to get it in to my head, eventually, and I'm pleased about that because I really do like some of the lines:
I like it out here high above the sea bundled
up for the arctic storms of late fall,
the resounding crash and moan of the sea,
the hundred foot depth of the green troughs.
I discovered it a few years ago in an episode of the Writer's Almanac on NPR - that program is one of my secret pleasures when stuck in traffic on the way to work.

With that committed to memory I had two poems of my original six still to learn, and they were a real pleasure as I had saved two favourites for the end. Ever since I first became fluent in Swedish more than 20 years ago I've wanted to learn some Swedish poetry; it has always seemed to me a very poetic language not just in how it sounds but in how it feels in my mouth when I speak it: rich, resonant, a bit complicated and occasionally tongue-twisting. It was Seamus Heaney who led me to the poet, Tomas Tranströmer, in the tribute he made in this video:

I settled on Tranströmer's poem Romanska bågar, not least because there is a recording of the poet himself reciting it on YouTube, so I had something to aim at. Learning it was not too difficult, and my Swedish daughter Emily corrected my worst mispronunciations (the last syllable of "människa" gave some troubles as did "solsjudande" where I had my usual difficulty with the "u" sound. I have struggles with "u" in both French and in Swedish - that flat Dublin accent will out).

So with that poem off by heart I finished off the sextet with the poem I heard Clive James recite and which inspired me: The Sunlight on the Garden by Louis MacNeice.  The internal rhymes in this poem ring out as I speak it:
The sky was good for flying
Defying the church bells
And every evil iron
Siren and what it tells:
The earth compels,
We are dying, Egypt, dying
That's doom-laden and fantastic!

Thanks to Clive James for many years of inspiration and, happily, it seems his health has stabilised a bit. He gave another interview just before Christmas and he was as interesting as ever.

And I've a new list of poems learn. This is so enjoyable, I should have started years ago.

Monday, 5 January 2015

Christmas at the Maison symphonique de Montréal

Christmas wouldn't be Christmas without Handel's Messiah and The Fairytale of New York so lucky me, I experienced both of them in the acoustically perfect Maison symphonique.

The Messiah was performed by Les Violons du Roy with the choir of La Chapelle de Québec and as always they were sonically brilliant. Of the four soloists it was the two male voices that were outstanding; the tenor Allan Clayton delivered a fierce yet melodic “Thou shalt break them with a rod of iron” while bass-baritone Andrew Foster-Williams rattled the walls in “The people that walked in darkness”.

My evening was only very slightly “marred” by the usual shenanigans around the Hallelujah chorus: the should we stand or should we sit conundrum. It started well enough, the choir struck up and everyone remained calmly and attentively seated. But after a few seconds a short little lady in the front row tottered to her feet, sparking random arisings around the hall; soon it was a 50/50 split in the audience and not long afterwards I reached the “ah shag it I'll stand up too” moment myself. Honestly why all the palaver? I think some people just want to show that they are more dedicated to the Messiah than others - they remind me of the Sundays of my youth and the early kneelers during the eucharistic prayer at mass who would cough and wheeze at the back of the still-seated person in front of them. Ahem.

Anyway, a week later I was back for the Christmas party hosted by Martha and Rufus Wainwright and for the most part it was flipping brilliant, especially when either of those two were at the front. Rufus delivered a great version of Emmylou Harris' “Coat of many colours” and then an Ave Maria that had me wiping my eyes - his voice is so pure and true. Martha had many great moments and when she finished off the evening with The Fairytale of New York I jumped to my feet - no shenanigans here - and sang along at the top of my voice, probably the only Montrealer in the audience who knew every word. A great evening was had by all.

Monday, 29 December 2014

Off by heart - halfway there

Well it seems my 50-year-old brain is still capable of learning some new tricks: I have learned 3 of the 6 poems I set myself in my last post off by heart.

I began with Wind by Hughes and then The Given Note by Heaney. Learning them was straightforward, taking a few days for each via a process of mentally repeating a small number of lines at a time.  I found it helpful in both cases to listen to others reading the poems so as to catch the rhythm. I have a recording of Heaney reading his own poem (in The Poet and the Piper) and I copied his intonations. For example, in the line:
The house throbbed like his full violin
my initial prononciation was Vih-Oh-Lin in three even syllables, whereas Heaney says it more quickly, Viah-Lin, which makes the line flow better I believe.

Learning Soir d'hiver by Nelligan was rather more complicated. First I went looking for some good translations so as to ensure I really understood it. I particularly like this translation by Clarissa Ackroyd. (Her blog, The Stone and the Star, is a revelation of fine poetic things, and I love the name Clarissa - reminds me of Mrs Dalloway...) Next I went looking for a reading of the poem to hear its music and I settled on this one by Gilles-Claude Thériault - I find the background music in the recording to be a bit distracting but his voice is wonderful. The final part of the process was subjecting one of my francophone children to my recital and Tristan was patient with me, correcting my errors in return for me setting up the laptop he got for Christmas. For some reason the following line took me a long time to say to his satisfaction:
Je suis la nouvelle Norvège
It contains the first accent grave in the poem after a run of accents aigu, and in combination with an "r" it gave me some trouble. Anyway I can now pronounce it to Tristan's satisfaction, even if he says I still sound like an anglophone...

I'm currently learning Bridge by Jim Harrison, which presents different challenges. More news on that shortly.

Monday, 15 December 2014

Off by heart

He may not be with us for much longer but, though very unwell, Clive James remains irascible and insightful with a seasoning of wistfulness, and it makes me happy just to think of him. His book, Cultural Amnesia, has been a companion on my bedside table for a few years now and last week I delighted in the sound of his twanging Aussie voice in an interview on RTE radio.

Asked by interviewer Sinead Gleeson to name a poem that influenced him, James, flirting no doubt, came up with a poem by Irishman Louis MacNeice, and recited it from memory: The Sunlight on the Garden.

I can also recite poems from memory, works by Yeats and Kavanagh mostly that I learned at school. They're poems with which I am intimate, the process of learning them by heart has somehow made me internalize them and understand them deeply. I've read and loved many poems since my school days, but never tried to learn another one by heart.

Until now. Inspired by the dying Clive James (who I hope will be dying for a few years yet) I'm learning the following poems I love off-by-heart, four in English and (gulp) one each in French and Swedish
  • Wind, by Ted Hughes
  • The Given Note, by Seamus Heaney
  • Bridge, by Jim Harrison
  • The Sunlight on the Garden, by Louis MacNeice (Thanks Clive!)
  • Soir d'hiver, par Émile Nelligan
  • Romanska bågar, av Tomas Tranströmer
Progress reports will follow, assuming my 50-year-old brain makes progress...

Sunday, 7 December 2014

The Dead

How many! All these here once walked around Dublin. Faithful departed.
(thought Leopold Bloom at Glasnevin Cemetery in Joyce's Ulysses)

The Irish republican Valhalla? Glasnevin cemetery is certainly that but it's a lot more than that too, this landscaped garden containing the last remains of 1.5 million Dubliners. My Grandfather (Edward Henrick, Irish Volunteer) is buried here in an unmarked grave and Mam has visited a few times in recent years to find the spot. Today, she and I have come to take the guided tour of the cemetery.

I've never been here before and I’m surprised at how many of the famous and infamous names of Irish history are here, old comrades and sometime foes buried within a few hundred yards of each other: O’Connell, Parnell, DeValera, Collins, Boland, Casement...

I recall the lines by Yeats from a poem I learned off-by-heart at school
Romantic Ireland’s dead and gone,
It’s with O’Leary in the grave
and here I am before that O’Leary’s grave.

The oration given by Padraig Pearse at the graveside of O’Donovan Rossa was (literally) beaten in to us at school, its call-to-arms to be acted upon in the Easter rebellion of 1916 a few months after he delivered it
the fools, the fools, the fools! - they have left us our Fenian dead, and while Ireland holds these graves, Ireland unfree shall never be at peace.
Today I stand where Pearse stood almost 100 years ago, at the graveside of Jeremiah O'Donovan Rossa.

We pass by the graves of Sean MacBride and Countess Markievicz and our tour guide gives them the full hero treatment: Madame, the first woman elected to the parliament in Westminster and a fearless combatant in the rebellion; MacBride, a winner of the Nobel peace prize, co-founder of Amnesty International and towering statesman. I could add some other thoughts about them, but standing in the shadows of their gravestones is no place for cynicism.

(But there’s no better place for cynicism than a blog! The series of lectures “Speaking Ill of the Dead” hosted by RTE a few years ago had two wonderful pieces challenging the official Ireland view of these two. Professor David Norris gave a typically witty talk on MacBride a great public man who was also mean-spirited and probably homophobic. And Ruth Dudley Edwards has a good old go at the snobby and silly Madame, a woman with a callous disregard for the deadly impact of her posing.)

It’s odd to think of a cemetery as a tourist attraction, but frankly this is one of the best experiences I've had in Dublin as a “tourist”. By chance, during my visit to Ireland the documentary about Glasnevin, One Million Dubliners, is broadcast on Irish TV. For any Irish person watching it is a moving experience.

The last person to speak in that trailer, Shane MacThomais, was a well-known Dublin historian, as was his father before him. At the end of the clip he says, with a catch in his voice, "it lifts my spirit to work here" - but as we viewers knew, Shane took his own life just a few weeks after speaking these words, and the last part of the documentary is of his funeral in Glasnevin cemetery. (The blog Come Here to Me paid him a fine tribute.)

The last thing Mam and I see on our way out is a simple plaque by the entrance gate in memory of Shane. We exit, and leave the dead behind us.