Sunday, 1 April 2018

I am another you

I am He, He is me,

if You only knew

He is another you
         - Dylan Olsen

"I am another you" is a documentary about 22 year old Dylan Olsen, living on streets in Florida, a situation he has apparently chosen and is content with. Dylan is articulate and charismatic. Passers-by often engage and help him, in contrast with the treatment of other indigents. The Chinese documentary-maker Nanfu Wang is fascinated by Dylan and by his absolute freedom, a contrast with her experiences growing up in a repressive China. However all is not as it seems.

I loved this documentary when I first saw it on PBS, sitting in solitude in a business hotel on a recent trip to Ottawa. I watched it again last Friday with my family - it's available on Amazon Prime - and it sparked several dinner conversations between us. It's a story of freedom, of the implications that can come from simple decisions, and of mental illness. My eldest son pointed out that it's also a story of how fathers and sons relate to each other and, worryingly, that's true too.

I hope for the best for Dylan wherever he is now but, typically, I fear for the worst.

Saturday, 31 March 2018

Five went to Baie-Saint-Paul

Baie-Saint-Paul, November 2017

Sunday, 21 January 2018

Biography of a song: Miss Otis Regrets

Cole Porter wrote Miss Otis Regrets in 1934 as a humorous parody of those mournful old folk songs about young girls who've been tricked by an immoral man into "losing their virtue". In the song the eponymous Miss Otis is seduced and defiled, then shoots her seducer dead, is arrested, dragged off by an angry mob, and hanged, all within a single day! The twist in Porter's tale is that Miss Otis is not a poor young girl but a society lady, and it's a butler who communicates her regrets that, due to the unforeseen circumstances of having been hanged, she will be unable to lunch with Madam today.

This clip from the 1946 movie "Night & Day" is the song as Porter wrote it, with Madam clearly not enjoying the bawdy humour.

The song took on a life that Porter could not have imagined. It's been sung as a genuine cowboy ballad (by Lonnie Donegan), as a jazz standard (Ella Fitzgerald), as a tragic torch song (Linda Rondstadt), as an Irish folk song (The Pogues) and as a German cabaret tear-jerker (Marlene Dietrich ... seriously!). Even Édith Piaf has had a go. I listened to more than 20 versions of it on Tidal yesterday, drawing a line only when it came to the Brazilian orchestra doing a Bossa Nova rendition.

It seems to be a song that is infinitely malleable, a precious metal that can be endlessly re-worked into a delicate new bijou. The melody is catchy, the lyrics are striking, but it's the repetition of "Madam" that lends a strange quality to it and allow singers to make it their own, through sideways glances that can be witty, coy, plaintive, heart-rending and more.

Here are the four recordings that I most enjoyed, with my absolute favourite being the one Kirsty MacColl did on the BBC's New Year's Eve show in 1995, accompanied by an army band with bagpipes and drums.

Saturday, 23 December 2017

Well I'm not lost...

I mostly know where I am, I certainly remember where I came from, but quite how and why I got here will always be a bit of a mystery.

East of Baie-Saint-Paul, Quebec, Autumn 2017

Wednesday, 15 February 2017

Old(er) dog, new tricks

Habits are a blocker to learning; the mindlessness of habit reduces conscious engagement with your surroundings, so you miss opportunities to be surprised and challenged, and to be truly “alive”.

This I learned from Alain de Botton's How Proust Can Change Your Life which is a great read for a winter's weekend. (By contrast, Proust's great work kept me occupied for 3 years, one volume for each winter and summer holiday...)

How to apply this wisdom? Well I've decided to leave the company where I've been working contentedly for seven years because it's become a comfortable habit for me. In my new job I'll be challenged and will feel a bit insecure - I expect to learn a lot!

And in a move of greater significance for the world and for public safety, I'm also trying to break a habit that I've formed in a half-century of car travel, by adopting a better way of opening car doors.

It's called the 'Dutch reach' and I learned about it in a letter to The Guardian
The Netherlands has found a solution to the problem of car doors and cyclists (Transport secretary knocks man off his bike, 16 December). Dutch motorists are trained to open the car door with their opposite hand. This forces the body to swivel, and your eyes to look backward, thus spotting a passing cyclist. Drivers must demonstrate this to pass the driving test. It is referred to sometimes as the “Dutch reach”. In the Netherlands it is simply called how you open your car door. 
Henry Stewart
It's a technique to avoid this:


I've been doing it for a week and I have to stop and remind myself every time I get out of the car. I've asked my kids to police me, which of course they're only too happy to do! Opening the car door is now a learning experience for me - and the world is a tiny bit safer for cyclists.

Monday, 2 January 2017

PhotoStream: Autumn in Québec

Autumn in Québec
Mont Tremblant, October 2016

Do not say we have nothing by Madeleine Thien

This painting is in my dining room in Montreal:

I bought it from an art student in the Forbidden City, the ancient Chinese imperial palace in Beijing. It brings back happy memories of my six visits to Beijing in 2003 and 2004 establishing a software development centre for my Irish employer. The Chinese engineers I hired were great - smart, enthusiastic and very sociable. We quickly discovered that we shared a fondness for sitting in the local bar, laughing and chatting about anything and everything over a few drinks, and we spent many an evening, and even a few lunchtimes, doing just that. A bit like the scene in the picture.

I remarked to one of my colleagues, an American woman who had lived in China for more than a decade, that we Irish and Chinese seemed to be very similar in our outlook on life, such as our willingness to find the humour in every situation and build a story around it. She agreed, but added "Don't forget that these are the children and grand-children of people who lived through the cultural revolution. The scars from that time will last for generations".

Madeleine Thien's novel, "Do not say we have nothing" explores those terrible times through the histories of the members of an eccentric family, their experiences, their scars.

This quote from one of the characters could almost be a raison d'etre for the book itself:
“The things you experience,” she continued, “are written on your cells as memories and patterns, which are reprinted again on the next generation. And even if you never lift a shovel or plant a cabbage, every day of your life something is written upon you. And when you die, the entirety of that written record returns to the earth. All we have on this earth, all we are, is a record. Maybe the only things that persist are not the evildoers and demons (though, admittedly, they do have a certain longevity) but copies of things. The original has long since passed away from this universe, but on and on we copy. I have devoted my minuscule life to the act of copying.”
It's a hugely ambitious novel, digging down to the deepest thoughts and emotions of her characters while at the same time striving to reach a perspective on the turmoil overtaking that vast country. It's not an easy read; at times I was suffocated with dread, at other times broken-hearted, but there were moments of elation too. The story of the family has two axes: classical music and especially Bach's Goldberg variations in this family of gifted musicians, and literature in the form of a mythical and mystical novel, the Book of Records, whose chapters are written and revealed over the course of many years. Music and literature represent truth and beauty, and they will be broken on the wheel of Mao's cultural revolution, as will anyone who continues to believe in them. This is what befalls the family, and the damage echoes down the generation.
“For twenty years, Sparrow had convinced himself that he had safeguarded the most crucial part of his inner life from the Party, the self that composed and understood the world through music. But how could it be? Time remade a person. Time had rewritten him. How could a person counter time itself?” 
The novel succeeds beautifully in my opinion. It's wise too. I filled seven pages with highlighted passages and as I re-read them now I'm brought back in to the novel. Here are a few of them, in no particular order, that give a good sense of what the book is about.
“The first aria of the Goldberg Variations was also its end. Could it be that everything in this life had been written from the beginning?”
“She wondered how many things a person knew that were better forgotten. Her father had looked at the piano as if it were the only solid thing in the room, as if everything and everyone else, including himself, were no more than an illusion, a dream.”
“It was very modern and deeply Western to listen to music that no one else could hear. Private music led to private thoughts. Private thoughts led to private desires, to private fulfillments or private hungers, to a whole private universe away from parents, family and society.”
It's not all bleak - there is hope too!
“In the end, I believe these pages and the Book of Records return to the persistence of this desire: to know the times in which we are alive. To keep the record that must be kept and also, finally, to let it go. ”
“Beauty leaves its imprints on the mind. Throughout history, there have been many moments that can never be recovered, but you and I know that they existed.” 
“She squeezed her eyes shut and recited the only words that came to her, the poem at the opening of Chapter 41 of the Book of Records:  ‘Of course, no one knows tomorrow. Tomorrow begins from another dawn, when we will be fast asleep. Remember what I say: not everything will pass.’ ” 
Oh and there's at least one good joke.
“What did the Buddhist say to the pizza maker?” “What?” “Make me one with everything.” 
Badum tish!

What a great book.

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.