Tuesday, 28 December 2010

An Irishman abroad, Christmas 2010

Winter in Quebec is bitterly cold and I’ve often regaled my family in Ireland with tales of life during snow-time. But this Christmas, Dublin is colder and snowier than Montreal. There’s a bitterness in the Irish air too. The prideful country we imagined in the past decade has vanished, and we emigrants again find ourselves unable to answer the naive questions of friends in our adopted countries “What’s happening in Ireland?”

I try to remain detached. I love my life in Quebec, and I will never be one of the emigrants who pine for the old country, gathering in lame Irish pubs to join in maudlin ballads that would be laughed at in Dublin. I first left Ireland in 1986, a grey and pessimistic country going nowhere, and I revelled in the optimism of North America and the pragmatism of Sweden. I dodged the reasonable yet unanswerable questions from my new colleagues (“why are the Catholic and Protestants fighting?”) and smiled inwardly at how my homeland marketed itself abroad. The large advertisement in the check-in area of Stockholm airport for example. It showed smiling Irish students proclaiming “We’re the young Europeans” and while literally accurate it was completely misleading; the fact that it remained there for 10 years as it aged and faded said so much more.  I returned to Ireland in 1999 and bought a house; or rather I climbed on the property ladder and made my personal contribution to the bubble that has burst so disastrously. I left again for Quebec in 2007, this time probably for good. Late each evening when the kids are in bed and I’m scrubbing the pots and pans I listen to RTE radio, broadcast over the internet. That’s the early hours of the morning in Dublin, so my fellow listeners are probably few in number – insomniacs, taxi-drivers, the night-shift. My Mam and Dad are sleeping fitfully as always I fear, and I listen to yet another discussion on the prospects for the economy; will there be cutbacks in support for elderly people like them who want to keep their independence and live in their own homes for as long as they are able?

We’re spending this Christmas in Quebec and greeting the family across the Atlantic through phone and internet. We have plum pudding, my Mam’s recipe, and our own habitual Christmas dinner: roast beef with Yorkshire pud and Baked Alaska for desert. The addition of maple syrup to the latter allows me to call it Toasted Quebec, which amuses our guests. I will also make my now traditional joke about Toasted Quebec being a both delicious desert and a timely reminder of the danger of global warming. There’s no tradition of holiday telly here, so I’ll try to encourage everyone to leave their video games for a few minutes and go for a skate in the nearby park; it's our equivalent of the Christmas afternoon stroll to the devotions at the Carmelite Church that my parents used to always take. Of course Dad can’t walk that far now.

Later that evening when the house is quiet I look out the kitchen window and see the snow falling softly. Nothing we can’t cope with, we citizens of “New France” are at home in winter. This year snow is falling too on the corporation house in Dublin that was my childhood home, where Mam and Dad live still. But it’s a different sort of snow, bringing apprehension, uncertainty and incomprehension.

I suppose it’s a good time to be out of Ireland, but it doesn’t feel like it.

Sunday, 28 November 2010

Mam's plum pudding

When I was a child, the sign that Christmas was really coming was the Sunday afternoon at the end of November when the house filled with the smell of exotic spices and strong booze. My Mam, mixing the plum pudding. We all took turns to stir it and make a secret wish, then after cooking the covered bowl would be prominent in the front room for the 4 weeks of Advent, part of the countdown and a symbol of our hopes for the holiday. Unlike the Christmas cake, which was a necessary if often overlooked part of the festivities, the pudding was savoured and enjoyed. We had lots of different ways of eating it; my favourite was a slice warmed in a pan with some butter until the edges became crispy, served with creamy custard. I’m starving just to think of it. Mam and Dad always ate it with a thick layer of brandy butter on top, Dad making the same joke every year about how this broke his Pioneer’s pledge of abstinence.
Now I have the late November ritual with my kids, following Mam’s recipe.



6 oz. butter

4 eggs
4 oz. self-raising flour
4 oz. brown sugar
4 oz. breadcrumbs
Zest and juice of a lemon
Zest and juice of an orange
8 oz. raisins
8 oz. sultanas
8 oz. currants
4 oz. glace cherries
4 oz. candied fruit peel
2 oz. chopped dried apricots
6 oz. chopped dried dates
A bottle of Guinness
A swig of rum
A swig of brandy
1 tsp. cinnamon
1 tsp. nutmeg
1 heaped tsp. mixed spices (I find that Garam Masala is good)

Mix all the dry ingredients together. Melt the butter and stir in with the eggs, juice and booze. Have everyone stir and make a wish – this is very important. Cover the mixture and let it stand overnight – this isn’t very important as I never have time to do it. This is enough mixture to make one big pudding and one little one. Place the mixture in a greased heatproof bowl, cover tightly with grease-proof paper or foil, and stand in a covered pot of simmering water for around 6 hours. Add 4 weeks of Advent and the mounting excitement of children.

Saturday, 23 October 2010

This Musical Life

It's Philou's musical choices that dominate in the household between 7pm and 8pm, and once he's decided he likes something we have to listen to it for many evenings in a row. So it's really important to steer his 2-year-old mind in the right direction. This month he's had us listening to a lot of Ash, and we've heard them perform at least a half-dozen different versions of "Shining Light", thanks to YouTube. Philou likes them all, but Tristan and Louis prefer watching the one performance in which Charlotte Hatherley smiles. However I think this unsmiling acoustic performance sounds best, even if the video is incomplete:


A golden Sunday in Autumn and it's 2-0 to the Impact...

We had warm Autumn sunshine on our faces, Louis and his best friend Félix, Tristan and his best friend Maxim, and me. The trees around Stade Saputo were yellow, red and gold, and the Olympic Stadium to our left stood slender, brilliantly white and unearthly. Add in lots of popcorn and candy-floss and two beautiful goals by the Montreal Impact.

A perfect day...

Saturday, 18 September 2010

What's a conductor worth?

I love all sorts of music and there are some classical works that are always with me, enriching my inner life. That makes me an elitist, in the sense that only a small percentage of the population cares about classical music at all. In a recent article in the Irish Times, Enda O'Doherty deplored the dumbing down of classical music which he sees as a misguided attempt to appeal to a larger population; when the focus is on the celebrity performer rather than on the music then the fundamental value of the work is lost. I think he's absolutely right, although I must guiltily admit that a morbid interest in the tragedy of Jacqueline du Pré is what first led me to discover Elgar's Cello Concerto, a work which now has worked its way into me so completely that it is almost a part of me.

It's an odd paradox though when an elitist art form such as classical musical is funded through government spending - we all pay for it, like it or not. The Montreal Symphony Orchestra is funded by Lotto-Québec, and I can't imagine there are many regular lotto players who attend its concerts. This doesn't seem just or democratic, yet I'm in favour of it on the basis that I don't see a workable alternative. But spending public funds in this way needs to be done transparently and with constant focus on the goal: ensuring the survival of an art form that might otherwise dissappear or become inaccessible.

So when La Presse reports that the conductor of the MSO, Kent Nagano, is paid more than $1million per year, well at that point I think that the focus on the goal has been lost. Nagano, a Japanese-American, is a celebrity who garners a lot of publicity for the MSO - but clearly not enough for it to break its reliance on public funds. It's not easy, even for this elitist, to understand his value from a musical perspective. Couldn't a local conductor do as good a job, thus promoting musical talent from Québec and saving maybe $900,000 that could be better spent elsewhere?

This strikes me as just more celebrity-fixation, more dumbing down. It should be about the music.

Tuesday, 7 September 2010

I love my iPad, except...

I’ve been an iPad user for a month now thanks to my partner-in-life paying attention to those not-so-subtle birthday present hints. It’s my first ever Apple product as I really dislike “lifestyle” products – I want to use technology, not make some kind of statement with it. But as I struggled to find a place for my laptop on the Saturday-morning breakfast table, the iPad seemed a perfect solution. Well almost. Ideally I’d like to have The Irish Times weekend edition in my hands in dead-tree format but I’m in Canada, not Ireland, so the online version it has to be.

And thus far the iPad has worked out really well. The screen is quite beautiful and the browsing experience is slick and responsive. The mechanicals seem tough, the battery lasts for ages and the software has been 100% reliable. But it’s not quite perfect.
  • It’s heavy, noticeably so after 20 minutes in your hands when it starts to feel quite awkward. There's no obvious "right way" to hold it - unlike a laptop, which sits, obviously, on your lap. It needs a stand.
  • It doesn’t cope well with buttery fingers. I never realised how wonderfully matched are newspapers and hot buttered toast, but things get a bit more slippery with a touch screen.
  • The lack of multi-tasking in the OS means you have to open the email application to check for new emails, which is not very slick at all.
  • It has a magnetic attraction for kids: my 2-year-old loves to grab hold of it, demanding to see Hi-5 on YouTube. There's something about the iPad that just says "pick me up"; the laptop doesn't have the same effect even if little Philou loves banging on on the keyboard. So I can’t leave the iPad just lying around...
But all in all I'm well pleased with it. So what does that say about me?

Sunday, 5 September 2010

Who wrote that anyway?

I've long believed that any work of art should be considered by itself, independent of any assessment of the personality of the artist. It's not a popular idea in this era of celebrity: five minutes after publishing a book an author is tearfully recounting an awful childhood experience to Larry King or giving his opinion on all and sundry in a Vanity Fair spread. Or if he does try to remain discretely hidden behind his work some hack will expose him regardless, warts, open sores and all.

I try to avoid all of these exposés, but sometimes you just can't help knowing what you know - you just have to consciously forget it so that it doesn't stop you appreciating the work. So yes, Philip Larkin was a spiteful misogynist, but The Whitsun Weddings is still a wonderful evocation of our hopes setting out on life's journey. And though Ted Hughes seems to have had some serious flaws in his character, Wind still blows me away. "This house has been far out at sea all night..."

But now I've come across an unavoidable challenge to my belief. One of my most beloved books is Austerlitz by W.G. Sebald. It's the only book where upon finishing it I immediately started to read it again from the beginning, to savour it and follow all the myriad sidetracks and insights. I know little about Sebald: he was German, lived in England, and died in a car crash a short time after Austerlitz was published. However I've now read one of his earlier works, Rings of Saturn; it is also (seemingly) a delicate blend of fact and fiction, of autobiographical detail and mental exploration, but contains more obvious personal opinion and reflection than his later work. It's the section on Roger Casement that troubles me. In it, Sebald expounds on the romantic view of Ireland's Easter rebellion of 1916, referring to the republican protagonists only as school-teachers and poets in order to explain how the refined humanist Casement became involved. Unlike his ruminations on Croat massacres of Serbs in the Balkans, I have some knowledge of the 20th century history of Ireland and this romantic view is hugely problematic for me. School-teachers and poets were also murderers, and most Irish nationalists in 1916 were waiting for a political solution to be negotiated with Great Britain at the end of the Great War. And the romanticising of 1916 in Ireland led many a mis-guided youth into we now call terrorism, the barbaric acts of violence committed in our 30-year "troubles" beginning in 1969.

Frankly, Sebald is demonstrating considerable ignorance in his simplistic description, but this would not be apparent to many outside Ireland. So have I been similarly misled in his ruminations about other events he described in his works? My third reading of Austerlitz is likely to be quite different from the first two, as I comb through the book for over-simplification and misleading opinion.

Dammit, the book is ruined for me...