Wednesday, 28 December 2016

PhotoStream: After the rain

After the rain
Jardins de Métis, Québec, July 2016

Trinity Tales

I grew up just a 20 minute walk from Trinity College but until my first day as a student there I had never been inside its walls. I must have passed by the front gate on College Green a thousand times, but my curiosity was never strong enough to overcome my feeling that it was a portal to an alien world.

And then in September 1981 I found myself in the very grand Physics building, a first year student in Engineering. I surveyed my classmates with trepidation: the red-faced country lads who all seemed to instinctively seek out each other and sat together; the Chinese group, from Malaysia I later found out, earnest and bespectacled; and the biggest group of guys and a few girls who all seemed to know each other and teased each other loudly in accents that sounded English to my ear.

After I'd cycled home that evening my Mam asked, as she always did when I came in from anywhere, "Did you meet anyone you know?". I replied that I didn't and that in fact there was no one from Dublin in my class - as far as I could tell most of them were from England. It took me a few days to realise that those "English" students were in fact from the southern suburbs of Dublin, products of the private schools of Blackrock College and other mythological places. No one else from my working-class school in Crumlin, Colaiste Caoimhin CBS, made it to University, despite our walking-distance proximity to one of the world's great universities.

Academically I did well at Trinity College, achieving a 1st class honours degree in Engineering in 1985. I made friends with a lot of the country lads, especially the characters in the Mullingar mafia. But I never really clicked with the South County Dublin set. In first year I tried to adopt their accent, but by my second year I had decided to double-down on my flat Dublin tones, my grey duffel coat and my beard. If they were foreign to me, well jaysus I was determined to be twice as foreign to them. My loss, probably.

Most of the tales in this book are written by members of that South County Dublin set. I don't really recognise their experiences - it's like we were at a different place.

Monday, 26 December 2016

PhotoStream: Spire and smokestack in a Swedish sunset

The sacred and the profane.
Spire and smokestack in a Swedish sunset
Linköping, December 2016

Sunday, 13 November 2016

Traditional, yet new

Like most Irish people of my generation, the wonders of Irish folk and traditional music were introduced to me by Planxty. Their approach to the music was somewhat non-traditional - they were raucous, rhythmic and bawdy, and they blew away the stuffy approach of the oul fellas in aran sweaters and tweed caps. They've inspired many musicians over the years, though recently I seen a trend to strip the old music down to its essentials, leaving aside some of the musical complexities that Planxty introduced.

A recent discovery for me, the Dublin quartet Lynched, are an illustration of that. Their music seems quite stark and spare at times, but they really pack a punch too. Take this performance for example. It begins as a slow and simple ballad, then after four minutes the pipes join in and by the end it's rolling powerfully. And the obvious delight the four musicians take in the performance really adds to the atmosphere they create.

By contrast, is it possible that in Québec the pendulum is swinging in the opposite direction, with a new generation of musicians adding complexity and rhythm to the old songs? Take Mélisande as an example, another recent discovery for me, who add synths, a backbeat, and their own feminist lyrical twist to the Quèbec “call and response” songs.

These two bands are so different from each other, but they're both so authentic and so strong. This is a good time for traditional music.

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 months years. 

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 von 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 von 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!)


P.S (January 2018)
Oh look, I just found the Mutter / von Karajan performance on YouTube. Recorded in 1984 when she was just 21, the performance and sound quality are excellent.

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.