Monthly Archives: November 2009

What (Irish books) I’ve been reading 21st November 2009

Far Green Fields: Fifteen Hundred Years of Irish Travel Writing
Forget the proverb. You definitely should judge this book by its cover. The illustration is beautifully conceived and appropriate to the wide-ranging delightful tales of Irish travel inside. The cover artist is Philip Blythe (from Ireland, moved to Australia). The publisher is Blackstaff. I salute you both. (Unfortunately, nowhere could I find a good copy of the book’s cover to use in this post, so I’ve used a different Philip Blythe picture of Killyleagh castle in Co. Down.) Meanwhile, editor Bernard Share has put together a bunch of exiles, explorers, soldiers, deportees, imperialists, rebels, playwrights, actors and others, men and women, who wandered the world and wrote about their wanderings. You’ll not be surprised that the collection kicks off with St Brendan the Navigator (wasn’t he the first European to make it to America?) and includes the intrepid cyclist and muleteer Dervla Murphy. But apart from some flighty Earls, the action happens mainly in the 1700s, 1800s and 1900s.

Luggage – by Peter Hollywood. It’s a long short story about a Northern Irish family’s driving holiday round France. On the surface, nothing out of the ordinary happens on this well observed family holiday. But a sense of creeping unease follows the father. It could be merely that hard-to-shift Troubles anxiety, or perhaps someone really is out to get them.

The News from Ireland and Other Stories (King Penguin) – by William Trevor. Short stories of regret, fear, loss, loneliness, alienation, passing youth. Not a bundle of laughs, but then, hey, that’s life sometimes. In Trevor land though, that’s life all the time. However, there’s gentleness too and the small ways in which people interact physically and emotionally are captured perfectly.

New Selected Poems 1968-1994 – by Paul Muldoon. Sure he wrote lyrics for Warren Zevon, and appeared on The Colbert Report. But it’s his poetry that I return to again and again. He writes about his quoof – a family term for a hot water bottle. (In our house we’ve invented the term broast – somewhere between bread and toast, ie very lightly done.)  Somebody else said about Muldoon: For sheer fun,verve,wickedness and grace, he has no rivals. So here’s an example. Just a wee quick short one:

Ireland

The Volkswagen parked in the gap,

But gently ticking over.

You wonder if it’s lovers

And not men hurrying back

Across two fields and a river.

What I am about to read:

Mystery Man by the prolific and funny Colin Bateman. The hero is a bookshop owner who turns private eye. But most excitingly (to me now) is that the shop he owns is No Alibis – a real life mystery bookshop on Belfast’s Botanic Avenue. I’ve been in it! The hero offered me a cup of tea! (He’s one of the charming men of Ireland.) Or did he? That is – is the real owner the same as the fictional owner? I’m looking forward to finding out. I’ll just take a little peek inside the book before I start reading to look for clues… Yes! Page 7. The owner makes a visitor a cup of coffee. It must be him! In no other bookshop have I been offered a cup of tea or coffee for nothing. (By the way, there are other good bookshops in Belfast. I must get round to telling you about them in a future post.)

And, as soon as I get my hands on it, I’ll be starting Soldiers of Folly: The IRA Border Campaign 1956-1962 by Barry Flynn. It’s about the ’50s campaign, which spawned the song The Patriot Game, and less forgiveably the film from the Tom Clancy book Patriot Games.

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Sexy funny art

If it makes you jump, is it art?

If it keeps you laughing, is it art? If it’s a massive cast iron construction with a sign warning: Fragile, do not touch – Is it art? If it’s heaps of concrete squeezed out onto pallets… Well, it’s definitely Anish Kapoor anyway.

The Kapoor exhibition is currently on at London’s Royal Academy of the Arts till December 11th. It’s hilarious. You should go.

It’s mainly sculpture, but not as you know it. I was laughing at it most of the time. But with delight.You have the hall of mirrors reflecting light and sound. (Vertigo & others.)What distinguishes it from a fairground attraction? The posh hall. Nothing else. Choose your mirror to see yourself stretched, squashed or inverted. I saw a couple walk through the room. He was a walking Giacometti. She was round and teeny. That was without the mirrors. I kept a straight face then. The rest of the time I was laughing.

And there’s the cannon, which every 40 minutes fires a cylinder of red wax.  (Shooting into the Corner) Before each firing time a crowd squeezes close to watch. The cannon is loaded. Gas pressure builds up with a low hiss. On edge, we await the trigger. There’s a bang – the crowd jumps – the projectile leaves the barrel of the gun with a squiff, flies across the room and lands in the morass of previously fired red wax with a dull thud. Apparently it travel at 80km/h. Sometimes it hits the opposite wall. Usually it falls short. Oi! Kapoor! You’re making a mess of the place.

There’s a lot of sprinkled powder round and coating objects, black, yellow, pink and three colours red – cadmium red, alizarin crimson and blood red. Hindu Holi style. (1000 Names)

Slug - Anish Kapoor

If you’re a builder, don’t miss the room of wooden pallets piled high with concrete squeezings. They look like giant sand worm castes. (Greyman cries, Shaman Dies, Billowing Smoke, Beauty Evoked)

So leave the rough old twisting piles of grey concrete behind. Suddenly you’re confronted with huge orifices, glistening, shiny, red, intriguing, inviting. Don’t try to climb in, you’ll get told off. They’re combined with hidden chambers (Hive) or serpentine tubes resembling some intestinal tuba (Slug).

Svayambh - Anish Kapoor

What does it all mean? The biggest exhibit is a forty-ton red block of wax, paint and vaseline.  (Svayambh – Sanskrit for “born by itself” or “self-generated”.) It’s kind of train shaped. It travels almost too slow to perceive movement along tracks, through rooms, squeezing through archways, shedding and scraping off gloopy waxy lumps as it goes.

When shown in Berlin, it was associated with the Holocaust – cattle trucks to Auschwitz etc. In London it’s apparently associated with the network of railway tunnels under the city. And no doubt something plausible will be made up for the next place it’s shown.

So, all a load of nonsense. And the artist seems to agree. He says: “It’s not my role to be expressive. I’ve got nothing to say, I don’t have any message to give anyone.”

But I do. And the message is this. Don’t miss this life-affirming enjoyment.

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Deadly verses

poppy Is this the most dangerous, even despicable, poem ever? You’ll have heard it most likely at   some Remembrance Day service or Armistice Day commemoration. It’s called In Flanders Fields. John McCrae wrote it in May 1915, on the occasion of the death in battle of a friend. The poet himself died in 1918. Here’s the poem.

In Flanders fields the poppies blow
Between the crosses, row on row,
That mark our place; and in the sky
The larks, still bravely singing, fly
Scarce heard amid the guns below.

We are the Dead. Short days ago
We lived, felt dawn, saw sunset glow,
Loved and were loved, and now we lie
In Flanders fields.

Take up our quarrel with the foe:
To you from failing hands we throw
The torch; be yours to hold it high.
If ye break faith with us who die
We shall not sleep, though poppies grow
In Flanders fields.

I last heard it said aloud at our village service marking the eleventh hour of the eleventh day of the eleventh month. Some children performed it in the village hall. Overall the service was too religious for me, but I accept that as part of the cultural mores of England. I know it deters other people though, who just want to remember and respect the sacrifices made by their forbears without having to bow their heads in front of priests or ministers.

And I fully embrace the rightness of remembering. The importance of marking past sacrifice, the better to not in future waltz gleefully into new carnage. So the talk given during the service by a youth leader was perfectly pitched – vivid, poignant, educative and heartfelt. He reminded those gathered, especially the children, that those who died in Flanders Field were young people not much older than they are now, just like them, not some sepia-toned figures of myth or history book.  So far so good.

John McCrae c.1914

John McCrae c.1914. Canadian poet, physician & soldier. He wrote In Flanders Fields in memory of a fallen friend.

But then some of our children performed THAT POEM to their school friends and to the rest of us. So what’s the problem? The first two verses are fine. It’s the final exhortation to “take up our quarrel with the foe.” And then we’re warned: “If ye break faith with us who die/We shall not sleep, though poppies grow/In Flanders fields.”

So there you have it. Keep fighting or you’ll be letting down your dead comrades. Peace and resolution of conflict are relegated in importance below the need to avoid dishonouring the dead. And what better way, suggests the poem, to honour those glorious dead than to add to their number.

It’s the siren call of the dead-enders, the true believers, the last-ditchers. In their world the dead always trump the living. And the only way to free yourself of survivor’s guilt is to go over the top. So there’s no-one to lean on the brakes.

Sometimes, granted, you have to fight. But shouldn’t the main point of remembrance be to avoid making the same mistakes? To remember the awfulness of it all. To remember that the living are more important than the dead. We should respect the latter, but protect the former.

So I’m tired of hearing that poem. The story behind it is poignant. The impact has been huge. It inspired the tradition of selling and wearing poppies. But instead of “In Flanders Fields”, next year I’d prefer something by Wilfred Owen. Dulce et Decorum Est will do fine. It’s about a gas attack and its aftermath. Here’s an excerpt:

If in some smothering dreams you too could pace
Behind the wagon that we flung him in,
And watch the white eyes writhing in his face,
His hanging face, like a devil’s sick of sin;
If you could hear, at every jolt, the blood
Come gargling from the froth-corrupted lungs,
Obscene as cancer, bitter as the cud
Of vile, incurable sores on innocent tongues,
My friend, you would not tell with such high zest
To children ardent for some desperate glory,
The old Lie; Dulce et Decorum est
Pro patria mori.

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Murphy and the Princess

Murphy & the Princess

DI Murphy accompanies Princess Elizabeth, Belfast, June 1949

There was no difficulty finding gunmen in those days. Swordsmen were rarer. But blades are the style when you’re escorting a princess. There she is, the future Queen Elizabeth, looking very nicely turned out.

It’s understandable that you didn’t notice her at first glance, given the distinguished handsome bloke beside her. He’s District Inspector Murphy – aka Great Uncle Mike – of B District.

He tended to be called in to lead RUC parades on royal visits, partly because he was one of the few officers versed in sword drill. That came from his Irish Guard days.

On this occasion Princess Elizabeth is inspecting an RUC Guard of Honour at Belfast City Hall in June 1949. The following month Michael Murphy was promoted from DI 2nd class to DI 1st class.

Another family policing link is here – Dan Waters of the RIC.

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The Charming Men of Ireland

Strike! Abby McGibbon & Vincent Higgins

Strike! Abby McGibbon & Vincent Higgins (see below)

I had a problem. It had been on my mind for a while. Something had to be done. I needed help from the Charming Men of Ireland. I’ll introduce you to them in a moment. But first the problem…

The thing is, my wife’s English. (OK, half English. The other half’s Manx. But let’s not quibble.) So she’s English. I’m not saying that’s bad. I like English people. I like England. I even live there. Some of my best friends are English – to quote the classic defence against accusations of racism.

Actually, her Englishness isn’t the problem. That’s fine. It’s what it has led to. And that is, our children are half English. That’s the thing.

Actually, that’s not really it either. If they were only half English that would be fine. Half and half. Who could argue with that? Irish blood English heart is good enough for Morrissey.Ah yes, if only they were merely half English. But when you consider that:

  1. They were born in England.
  2. They live in England.
  3. They have (not surprisingly) English accents.
  4. My son supports an English football team. (OK, that could go for being Irish too.)
  5. They were baptised into the Church of England. (Long story. Another time.)
  6. My son is cricket mad.
  7. He supports the England national football team.

It’s clear I’ve been letting things slip. Thank goodness Ireland has been holding its own in rugby, and that my daughter remains stalwart in declaring her half-Irishness. (I fear though that she could be humouring me because she’s lovely.)

So there’s the problem. No, let’s call it a challenge. To somehow reassert the Irish half, as the English side seems to be doing well enough as it is thank you very much. But I needed help. And I had to go to Ireland to get it. I sought out The Charming Men of Ireland. And here they are:

  • The Latvian/Polish guy at Newgrange – He’s fun. He’s enlightening. (But seemingly not Irish.) He took us through the tunnel into the central chamber of  the prehistoric Newgrange passage grave. The subterranean refuge is  illuminated by the sun for five days in late December. It’s in the Boyne Valley of County Meath. Turn off the main road near Drogheda and head for Donore. Or if you’re an Orangeman, head for you-know-where and  keep going upriver a couple of miles.

    newgrange

    Newgrange

If you overcome your claustrophobia and make it into the centre of the mound, look out for the Mickey Mouse logos. (Archaeologists call them tri-spirals or something dull.) And the hundred year old graffiti, including the word Disney. You see? You see? Mickey Mouse suggestion not so silly after all.

And for any Egyptians reading this. Newgrange is about 5,000 years old. That’s older than the pyramids at Giza. By 500 years matey. (Fair enough, I’m not saying Newgrange is better, but you had an extra 500 years to tart up the pyramids. You could have at least invented electricity to light them. I mean, c’mon! Make an effort.)

  • Donal at Kilmainham Gaol – Yes, I took my children to a prison for their short visit to Dublin. I know. I spoil them. Me: “Look, another plaque.” Them: “Does that mean…” Me: Yes, yet another person was shot there.” The prison feels like a real prison – which it was – rather than a film set – which it is – The Italian Job, The Escapist, Michael Collins.

     

    Kilmainham Gaol

    Kilmainham Gaol, new wing

    There’s obvious enjoyment to be had shutting each other in small prison cells and holding the door shut. But what made the big grey forbidding jail and its litany of rebellions and executions FUN, was… Yes, it was another Charming Man of Ireland. Donal. The handsome, friendly, accessible communicator who led us around. To be precise, he let my daughter lead us around. So everyone was happy. (A word to Unionists. Don’t expect your existence to be acknowledged till the very last moment of the tour, when the significance of the orange in the green, white and orange of the Irish flag is explained.)

  • The twinklies in the Palace – The three of us dropped in to the Palace bar on Fleet Street in Dublin. I used to drink there when I lived in Dublin. As often happens, the kids were finding it difficult to understand what a group of men were talking about amongst themselves. “Dad, are they talking Irish?” And, for once, the answer was yes. We weren’t in Belfast. It wasn’t just the accents. It was a genuine foreign language that was being spoken. But more importantly, the group of Irish speakers were friendly and twinkly-eyed, and also willing to discuss techniques for using chopsticks in English. So more good vibes.
  • Vincent Higgins – Vincent (see picture at the top) and fellow actor Abby McGibbon were acting in Strike!, the play Vincent wrote to mark the dedication of a stained glass window in Belfast City Hall celebrating the 1907 Dock Strike in the city. The play was commissioned by the Irish Congress of Trade Unions (ICTU). It was funny and clever, and short enough to fit into a weekday lunch hour – about 30 minutes long. The plan was to take it on tour round factories, but as Vincent told me, they couldn’t find enough factories, so they’ve branched out. Apart from his playwriting prowess, acting skill and general geniality, the most charming things about Vincent are his irresistible smile and very fine singing voice.
  • That bloke at the bar in Maddens – My sister was finding it difficult to get a pint at the bar of my favourite pub in Belfast. No barman was there to be seen. Not upstairs. Not in the basement. Not outside having a fag. But no problem. Another customer nipped round to pour her a Guinness. Isn’t that charming? I thought so. Especially as the Guinness was for me. (Oh, it turned out he was in the toilet. Seems reasonable.)
  • David at No Alibis bookshop in Belfast – Botanic Avenue is a great place for books. War on Want has an excellent Irish section. The cancer shop and an Oxfam also sell books. But there’s an excellent specialist crime bookstore called No Alibis – as often mentioned on CrimeScene NI. Good atmosphere. Good range of imports not usually available in the UK. And wandering the aisles is David, whose charming welcome almost had me accepting a cup of tea before I caught a grip on myself. A narrow escape. (See previous post.) Another Charming Man of Ireland.

So to all you Charming Men of Ireland, thanks for the timely boost.

My children will now be returning to England wearing green sports tops that are nothing to do with England or anything English. That’s thanks to my sister. (Admittedly the sports tops have nothing to do with Ireland either. They’re Canadian. But one step at a time, right?)

PS: To any charming men in Ireland who feel passed over, ignored, snubbed or forgotten, I have two responses. One: Maybe you’re not quite as charming as you think you are. Better work a bit harder at it, mate. Two: A charming man like yourself is too good to share. I have to keep back some information for my personal benefit. Choose whichever response is most appropriate to your own case.

PPS: To any charming women in Ireland feeling aggrieved, passed over, ignored, etc, etc. Yes, of course there are charming women in Ireland. The whole place is coming down with them. But keep in mind that I’m over in Ireland with the children on my own. Wife back in England. So naturally I haven’t been meeting, encountering, palavering or otherwise hobnobbing with any women. Apart from my Mum and other relations.

PPPS: The Latvian/Polish guy. He had an Irish accent, but was obviously foreign. Latvia, Poland, somewhere like that. As it turned out, when I asked him, the somewhere like that was Kerry. He just had a cold.

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