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, but 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 a long time 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 I jumped to my feet - no shenanigans here - and I sang along, 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.

Sunday, 12 October 2014

Irish Lives in War and Revolution

How were people’s private lives, and their economic and social lives, impacted by war and rebellion in Ireland during the period 1912 to 1923? That question is the basis of an online course by historians from Trinity College that I've completed over the past six weeks.

The question piqued my curiosity as a challenge to the historical narrative I was taught at school in Dublin in the 1970’s. I learned history as a linear plot, nationalism fighting colonialism over many centuries and culminating in the glorious rebellion of 1916. I've since come to appreciate that the reality was a lot more messy and ambiguous than those childish stories, and this course facilitates a well-thought-out investigation of these ambiguities.

The platform for the delivery of the course is FutureLearn, developed by the Open University in the UK. It’s simple and easy-to-use so, as a software-developer, I appreciate that a great deal of thought has gone in to its design. The platform facilitates interaction between the people taking the course and this is one of its most successful aspects.  By liking contributions from others and following them you participate in engaging discussions and after six weeks the depth and breadth of these discussions has become quite impressive.

The time is right for this online course too: with the centenary of this tumultuous decade upon us there have been huge efforts across Europe to make original source material available online. Some of the new treasures I discovered were:

 And there is more material being made available online all the time.

One of the topics I found most interesting was the connection between the events in Ireland and the Great War. I had always seen these as two completely separate things: now I appreciate that the war was a huge influence on Irish society. Many young men volunteered to fight in the trenches, for and alongside their colonial ‘masters’, and one sixth of them died there – this is a history that has long been ignored (or willfully forgotten) in post-independence Ireland. It illustrated the ambiguities of the era when you consider that in 1914 volunteering to fight in the British Army was a valid choice for an Irish Nationalist, whereas by 1919 the ‘right thing to do’ was to fight a guerrilla war against the same British Army, perhaps against your old comrades-in-arms.

Another interesting topic is to consider other life-changing influences at play in the same time: the fight for workers’ and women’s rights, or the expectations brought by cinema and gramophone records. Did these have a greater influence on more people's lives than the wars? It's a possibility. After all, the immediate impact of war and rebellion in Ireland was more limited than that experienced in France or Belgium, for example.

All in all it’s been a fascinating course and a fine piece of work by the three historians behind it, Professor Ciaran Brady, Dr. Anne Dolan and Dr. Ciaran Wallace.

Sunday, 5 October 2014

Our response to radicalised Islam is insane

Innocent westerners have been brutally murdered by a terrorist organization in the Middle East. We have to do something. And so begins another instalment of the "war on terror", looking and sounding an awful lot like a re-run of the past three instalments.

It’s not difficult to foresee that this latest mission will be as counter-productive as the previous ones. Of course some of the bad guys will be killed. But innocent men, women and children will die too, victims of terrorist atrocities, used as human shields, collateral damage in the wrong place at the wrong time. It’ll be over when western public opinion cries enough – that moment could come soon or it could be years away, but we already know that whenever it comes the problem will not have been solved. Instead the next generation of radicalised Islamic youth will be ready for action.

If insanity means doing the same thing over and over again but expecting different results, well it’s pretty obvious that the Western response to radicalised Islam is certifiably insane.

Why is the West not ready to try something different? If the US and Europe used their collective military, moral and financial influences to force Israel and Hamas into a compromise for peace, one of the main root causes of Islamic radicalisation would be removed. That would be worth doing but very difficult and would be a hard sale to make to an outraged electorate looking for a quick fix. Easier to throw around some high explosives in northern Iraq and pretend it might achieve something other than more deaths and destruction.

Saturday, 4 October 2014


I've just discovered the Library of Congress National Jukebox, a treasure chest of early 20th-century recordings just lying there waiting to be opened.

Recordings like this one: the great Irish tenor John McCormack singing Macushla in March 1911. Yes it's a maudlin oul song, but McCormack's voice is heart-stoppingly beautiful. Just listen to the notes he hits in the last few bars - a never-to-be forgotten performance that, thanks to the Library of Congress, will never be forgotten.

Sunday, 14 September 2014

It's cool and sexy to pay tax...

There's been much heated debate in Sweden leading up to today's election and I particularly liked the piece in Aftonbladet by Fredrik Virtanen entitled 'Yes, It's sexy to pay tax' ('Jo, det är sexigt att betala skatt).

Virtanen calls out politicians for refusing to state the truth: if there isn't enough money to pay for the public services we demand then the only option is to increase taxes. And the reason politicians don't dare to speak the truth is that we voters wouldn't elect them if we did.

So we get the untruthful two-faced politicians that we deserve. We, the voters, 'hope for some kind of magical shortcut to prosperity' and 'refuse to understand that tax is money we loan [to the government] to get back'.

He concludes: 'Taxes are the price of civilisation. Not only is it cool to pay taxes, it's sexy'.

I think there are a few other democracies around the world where the same home truths are being avoided.

Note: The original article is in Swedish - the translations above are my own so apologies if I got anything wrong.

Thursday, 21 August 2014

Lady Lazarus

One poem leads to another. 

I meander through the volumes of poetry on my bedside table following a path that's sometimes obvious, often less so. From Ted Hughes' Wind I alighted on Dylan Thomas' Fern Hill, another poem that evokes a time long ago "when I sang in my chains like the sea". In my fifty-first year I understand that more than ever before. 

But Thomas was a a detour while I hesitated to take the step I knew I must. From Hughes to Plath.

Every few years I come back to Sylvia Plath. More often would be dangerous. Her poems are sharp as a scalpel, cutting directly to the truth, with the potential to cause deep and permanent damage.

Lady Lazarus is one of her finest, wielded precisely in her own voice in this 1962 recording by the BBC. But be warned:
Herr God, Herr Lucifer
Out of the ash
I rise with my red hair
And I eat men like air. 
 Click on that link and be careful.

Sunday, 10 August 2014

An interview with Ted Hughes

The Paris Review sends occasional tweets with links to old articles in its archive. A recent tweet brought this interview with Ted Hughes from (I'm guessing) the mid-nineties. It's a  fascinating thirty-minute read for anyone interested in poetry. Hughes talks about his life, how and why he writes, his influences, and about Sylvia Plath.

Here are a few of the many insights.

On why he writes with a pen rather than a typewriter or computer:
In handwriting the brain is mediated by the drawing hand, in typewriting by the fingers hitting the keyboard, in dictation by the idea of a vocal style, in word processing by touching the keyboard and by the screen’s feedback. The fact seems to be that each of these methods produces a different syntactic result from the same brain. Maybe the crucial element in handwriting is that the hand is simultaneously drawing. I know I’m very conscious of hidden imagery in handwriting—a subtext of a rudimentary picture language. Perhaps that tends to enforce more cooperation from the other side of the brain. And perhaps that extra load of right brain suggestions prompts a different succession of words and ideas.
 On the impact of poetry:
[...] the idea occurred to me that art was perhaps this—the psychological component of the autoimmune system. It works on the artist as a healing. But it works on others too, as a medicine. Hence our great, insatiable thirst for it. However it comes out—whether a design in a carpet, a painting on a wall, the shaping of a doorway—we recognize that medicinal element because of the instant healing effect, and we call it art. It consoles and heals something in us. That’s why that aspect of things is so important, and why what we want to preserve in civilizations and societies is their art—because it’s a living medicine that we can still use. It still works. We feel it working. Prose, narratives, etcetera, can carry this healing. Poetry does it more intensely. Music, maybe, most intensely of all. 
On why poetry might be more popular in wartime (he was speaking in the context of the Balkan wars in the 90's)
[...] we all live on two levels—a top level where we scramble to respond moment by moment to the bombardment of impressions, demands, opportunities. And a bottom level where our last-ditch human values live—the long-term feelings like instinct, the bedrock facts of our character. Usually, we can live happily on the top level and forget the bottom level. But, all it takes to dump the population on the top level to the lowest pits of the bottom level, with all their values and all their ideas totally changed, is a war. I would suggest that poetry is one of the voices of the bottom level. 

One of my favourite poems by Hughes is Wind. It evokes our awe and our fears when confronted by nature in the raw, we modern humans huddled around our fireplaces. It brings the shadow of a memory to my mind of a dark night in Inch, Co. Kerry, when a wild Atlantic storm brought down our tent in the early pre-dawn hours and my Dad carried my sister and I, two and four years old, through the driven rain to the shelter of a caravan rocking in the wind. And a sleepless night in another tent in Morriscastle, Co. Wexford when we listened to the wind screaming through the guy ropes and the radio presenter solemnly telling of the unfolding disaster in the Fastnet yacht race.

I'd like to hear Hughes read Wind but I haven't yet found a recording. So here instead is a pretty good reading that I found on YouTube.

Saturday, 9 August 2014

French Musical Impressionism at le Festival de Lanaudière

I hate it when people arrive late at classical music concerts so I was really annoyed at myself when I missed the first piece at the concert by the OSM on Friday. A programme of Ravel and Debussy held great promise but in the event it was a mixed bag for me, saved by my discovery of a wonderful composition by Ravel.

We arrived in time for Debussy's La Mer - a piece I love and the OSM (with Nagano at the helm) didn't disappoint: it was evocative and thrilling in equal measure. It was followed by a piece that was new to me, Ravel's Gaspard de la nuit, which I found intriguing. Impressionistic music like this needs to be heard several times to be appreciated and I resolved to seek out this piece again.

Then came Debussy's Clair de Lune, which is wonderful on a piano as he wrote it (and a piece my partner-in-life plays rather well) but in this transcription for orchestra the lyricism suffocated under layers of strings. It sounded alarmingly like a Henry Mancini production. There was a full moon over the amphitheatre and it might have blushed.

The evening's final piece divided the audience. Well it divided my partner-in-life and me anyway. She loved Ravel's La Valse, his impressions of a Viennese waltz. To me it started off whimsically, then became a smug little joke that went on about ten minutes too long. I won't be seeking out this one.

But I'm listening again now to Gaspard de la nuit on YouTube, in the original arrangement for piano. Yep, second time around it's even better. A discovery that was worth our mad rush through Friday evening's traffic.

Big Bang Masterchef!

Our two older boys have just returned from their annual fortnight in the wilderness of Camp Nominingue. They're more tanned, more self-reliant and more helpful around the house than when they left - though we know from experience that none of this will last! Nominingue is brilliant, a hugely positive experience for them. They love it.

Each year I have a theme for my emails to them at camp, to add variety to the updates on how their soccer teams are doing without them and the latest Arsenal transfer news. Last year there was my infamous series of lame Knock Knock jokes. This year I combined their favourite TV programmes into a script for a new show: Big Bang Masterchef on beIN Sports!

(None of the following will make sense, even if you're familiar with The Big Bang Theory, Master Chef, and the football talk shows on beIN sports. My goal making a connection with the boys, not making sense!)

Episode 1

In the first episode, Penny is trying to heat milk for hot chocolate but she burns it. Gordon says not to worry, because she’s cute, and anyway he really wanted crème brulée so "well done Penny!".

Sheldon comes up with new tactics for the team, based on a dodecahedron formation in midfield instead of a diamond, with the number 10 role filled by a physicist playing in the black hole behind the striker. The shouty guy from Newcastle says that’s ABSOLUTELY MAGNIFICENT.

Howard says no no that’s just RIDICULOUS, you have to apply quantum theory not relativistic mechanics because the potatoes aren’t perfect spheres like a brazuca. He gets so annoyed he throws a big mucky spud at this week’s special guest, potatoe's Wayne Rooney, who hits it first time on the volley into the top left corner of the oven. GOAL!

Episode 2

Today it’s the dreaded pressure test! What can our chefs make in 20 minutes with some eggs, biscuits and ice-cream?

Well, Penny has made a Baked Alaska! But the ice-cream has melted, the eggs are scrambled, the biscuits have crumbled, and it's all dripping on the floor in a messy puddle. Gordon says not to worry, she’s still cute, and anyway he really wanted a milkshake so "well done Penny!".

Sheldon is going for a real pressure test: he puts the ingredients in a pressure cooker heated in a fusion oven to 2 million degrees so as to simulate the extreme pressure conditions at the beginning of the universe, crushing the organic ingredients to a tiny point. The shouty guy from Newcastle says he’s no idea what the hell Sheldon is doing but it’s ABSOLUTELY BRILLIANT.

Suddenly, this week’s special guest Arjen Robben slips on Penny’s mess. He does a triple somersault with a twist landing on his backside and screams that Leonard tripped him. PENALTY! says Gordon. He shows Leonard a red card and tells him to take off his apron. Holy Dutch crap on a Bayern cracker says Raj, that's definitely not cricket. But Howard has no problem with the pressure.  He steps confidently up to the penalty spot and blasts his biscuits to the top right corner of the fridge. GOOAALL!!

Episode 3

Today it's the season finale of Big Bang Masterchef on beIN Sports!

We're down to our last 2 chefs, who'll each create a stunning meal that displays all of their talents and everything they've learned this past fortnight. Of course Raj is one of the finalists, but poor Leonard is suspended after his red card in the previous episode. His place is taken by...Penny!

Raj creates a fabulous meal of wonderfully aromatic dishes: onion bhaji with a coriander and lime dip, chicken tikka masala with basmati rice, and sweet mango lassi with almonds. Penny really goes for it too: KD macaroni and cheese followed by a perfectly-unwrapped Snickers bar.

Gordon says Raj's meal is too spicy and complicated while Penny, who's still cute by the way, has cooked the macaroni to al dente perfection so "well done Penny!".

The shouty guy from Newcastle says this is BLOOMING RIDICULOUS and Gordon just doesn't recognise GENIUS when he sees it. Well thank you, says Sheldon. No No No I'm talking about MESSI shouts Shouty.

This week's special guest, Iker Cassillas, stands up to present the trophy to Penny. But he's not sure if he should go over to meet her or wait for her to come over to him. He takes 2 steps forwards, hesitates, takes a step backwards, takes another forwards, trips over his feet and drops the trophy. He watches helplessly as it rolls across the floor and is picked up by Howard. YES! says Howard believing he has won and raising it high above his head in celebration. GOOOAAALLL!!!

Friday, 8 August 2014

Here's something for the weekend

She said, "There's something in the woodshed".
"And I can hear it breathing." 
"It's such an eerie feeling, darling".

Friday, 25 July 2014

Daniel Lanois and Emmylou Harris

Daniel Lanois played the Montreal Jazz Festival this year, jangling his guitars in that "U2 circa 1988" soundscape of his. He and Eno produced those famous U2 records of the 80's and I've always wondered whether it was Lanois that created the Edge's sound or vice versa. Anyway, it's a beautiful noise and the concert was fine and all, but initially missing a spark - Lanois is quite understated and there was an absence of personality as he played. Which probably helps in his role as a collaborator, bringing out the best in other performers without getting in the way, but doesn't make for a great gig.

And then he was joined by Emmylou Harris. Her Lanois-produced album "Wrecking Ball" is one of my all time favourites and the reason I was at this show. When she strolled on stage after an hour it was like the sun came out - her voice soaring and swooping over the guitars and rhythm section. The highlight was the long version of Lanois' song "The Maker", the same arrangement as on Harris's Spyboy recording and tour. I've been playing it incessantly in my car every since the concert.

Here is the arrangement of the song with Emmylou and her band Spyboy: Brady Blade on drums (just as he was in Montreal with Lanois), Daryl Johnson on bass, and Buddy Miller playing the Lanois role. Pretty damn great.

Wednesday, 30 April 2014

Edward Hendrick, Irish Volunteer

Was the Easter Rising in Dublin in 1916 the key event in the achievement of independence for Ireland? It was not widely supported by the population at the time, but the rough wartime justice meted out by the British Government, especially the execution of the rebellion's leaders, created a surge of sympathy for those who fought and for their cause.

Edward Hendrick, a boot-maker like his father, was an unmarried 36-year-old when he participated in the rising, serving in C company, 1st Battalion, Dublin Brigade of the Irish Volunteers. Under the command of Edward (Ned) Daly the battalion took over the Four Courts on Easter Monday April 24th where Hendrick was assigned to defend the barricades on Church Street. They held out against the British forces until Saturday April 29th when they surrendered.

Daly, the commandant of the battalion, was executed by firing squad on May 4th. Hendrick was interned and sent to prison in England on May 8th, first at Stafford Gaol and then at Frongoch prison camp. He was released at the end of July and returned to Dublin, where he rejoined the Irish Volunteers. He didn't see any further action and thankfully was not involved in the horrors of the Irish civil war of 1922 / 23. Instead in July 1922 he married Margaret Davenport and they had four children over the next decade.

Margaret Davenport and Edward Hendrick in 1921

His health was poor though and the family struggled to make ends meet. He worked as a porter, carrying coal and supplies around a Dublin hospital. The military service pension was meagre, and when in 1944 he was too ill to continue working his young children had to find menial jobs to sustain the family. When he died in 1948, aged 60, the family couldn't afford a proper funeral and he was buried in an unmarked grave.

Edward Hendrick in 1947

Edward Hendrick is my grandfather, my mother's father. I heard the outline of this story from her. Like most schoolboys in 1970's Dublin I believed that Grandad "did his bit for Ireland", but given the small numbers who actually took part in the rising there was a lot of wishful thinking going on. However last year the military pensions board in Ireland put its records on-line and there I found my Granddad - letters in his own hand describing the rising, confirmation of his participation from officers who served with him, his medical records and more.

Granddad died 16 years before I was born but nearly 100 years after the rising he is not forgotten. Here are some of the places where I found information about him:

Edward Hendrick's
1916 Medal

Edward Hendrick's
Service Medal
Edward Hendrick, born 1880 (approx.), died May 20th 1948, Go ndéana Dia trócaire ar a anam uasal.

Tuesday, 22 October 2013

Les Trois Soeurs et les trois frères

Les Trois Soeurs par Claude St-Jacques

The centre of the paining is open and empty, a distant blue horizon. On the left, symmetrical trees dot a rich grain field. To the right the three faceless women, formal as widows, seem to gaze solemnly out of the picture. I love the mystery of these three figures, impassive, daring the viewer to project some meaning on to them.

This picture, Les Trois Soeurs by Claude St-Jacques, hangs in the living room of my Montreal home. On this Autumn evening my three young sons, strong-limbed and tousled, are sleeping softly. These women remind me that there's an aspect of my boys, a sensitive mysterious feminine side (shh - don't tell them!), that's often hidden from me but is always there behind their wide eyes. And that far blue horizon is their future, stretched out under a big sky, hopeful, leading who knows where.

But the figures are forever mysterious: just when I think I  understand them their expression changes again, facelessly. Sometimes I think I know my young sons too; sometimes less so. And sometimes on their faces I believe I see an expression that says they know me better than I know them.

Friday, 30 August 2013

On boredom

"Boredom in its pure form is a resource to be cherished, the last great wilderness. It is basically what we've got left now, our shield, our bunker, our lead-lined helmet against the digital tinnitus, the unceasing transactional white noise of modern life. Against all this boredom stands as something cold and still and grey. Nobody has ever tried to sell you boredom. Nobody has ever successfully rebranded, celebrified or generally ruined boredom with money. In spite of which boredom remains an essential component of anything of any value: it is the thing that tells us what isn't boredom, a state out of which all elements of genuine fascination must emerge."
Well that's intelligent and wonderful a review of a football match!

Listening to my kids this morning I realise from their screams and complaints that they aren't good at dealing with boredom. That's not surprising I suppose - they've spent their summer being kept active and busy in summer camps with little time left to their own devices. I think I'll lock each of them in their room with some books for an hour or two...

In his book "Diary of a Bad Year", J.M. Coetzee recalls Nietsche "Only the higher animals are capable of being bored" and builds on the idea.
"While it may be so that only the higher animals are capable of boredom, man proves himself highest of all by domesticating boredom, giving it a home."
Just so.

On the passing of Seamus Heaney

Sad news today that Seamus Heaney has died at the young age of 74.

He was a wonderful reader of his own works, but although this video isn't one of his better readings I've chosen it here because it was one of his last, recorded in Paris at the Centre Culturel Irlandais this past June, and it begins with a poem about a musician that could also be about Heaney himself:

For he had gone alone into the island
And brought back the whole thing.
The house throbbed like his full violin. 

So whether he calls it spirit music 
Or not, I don't care. He took it
Out of wind off mid-Atlantic. 

- from The Given Note

The newspapers in Ireland are full of tributes and obituaries today but most seem hastily written and unworthy of their subject - the Irish Times is particularly disappointing. By contrast, The Guardian has a beautiful piece by Colm Tóibín who seemed well prepared with his thoughts and reflections on Heaney.

Go ndéana Dia trócaire ar a anam uasal.

Thursday, 29 August 2013

More wise words of a 5-year-old

"Dad, you always take the longcut on the lowway!"

- Philou, August 2013

Friday, 26 July 2013

Mad as the mist and snow

Setting the poetry of Yeats to music could be awkward and pretentious, but in Mike Scott's hands the result is spectacular. This is his powerful, earthy performance of "Mad as the mist and snow".

Bolt and bar the shutter,
For the foul winds blow:
Our minds are at their best this night,
And I seem to know
That everything outside us is
Mad as the mist and snow.
Horace there by Homer stands,
Plato stands below,
And here is Tully's open page.
How many years ago
Were you and I unlettered lads
Mad as the mist and snow?
You ask what makes me sigh, old friend,
What makes me shudder so?
I shudder and I sigh to think
That even Cicero
And many-minded Homer were
Mad as the mist and snow. 
 --- William Butler Yeats

Thursday, 4 July 2013

Dr. John at the Montreal Jazz Festival

Dr. John played at the jazz festival last night and my partner-in-life and I were at the Theatre Maisonneuve to see him.

dr john - montreal jazz fest 6

The good doctor played an entertaining show, ably supported by a tight band featuring an eccentric singing trombone-player who wowed the crowd with her musical and physical shape-throwing. It took a while for the concert to get going and for the band to find its groove; the first few songs felt a bit stilted and tight but after 20 minutes the music was loose, the crowd was swinging and it was hot and steamy. Just like New Orleans I guess.

Dr. John & the Nite Trippers - Montreal Jazz Festival 2013

Leon Russell played support but he shouldn't have bothered. The sound was terrible for his part of the show and he insisted on using a cheesy synthesizer to beat all the subtlety out of his music - it was pathetic. Thankfully Dr. John's show made us forget all about it.

The show finished just after midnight. Outside it was 25 degrees, there was a large crowd enjoying a free jazz show in the quartier des spectacles, the cafes and bars were buzzing. Montreal in the summer - it's hot and it's cool.

Wednesday, 26 June 2013

It's camping, but not as we knew it

What if you could go camping in the wilds of Canada without the troubles of packing and unpacking, mosquito bites or highway traffic?

Well Parcs Québec has the solution to one of these and we tried it on the long weekend of the Fête de la Saint-Jean-Baptiste. (Warning: don't tell people in the RoC - Rest of Canada - that this holiday is known here as La Fête Nationale du Québec. They won't understand, on many many levels, and could get a tad upset...).

The solution is called Huttopia: you arrive at your camp site and the big family tent is already pitched, with electricity, stove, fridge, dishes and cutlery, a camp fire, indoor and outdoor tables and chairs, mattresses and everything else you could have forgotten. Even a corkscrew. All you have to bring is food and sleeping bags. 

We went to the Parc National de la Jacques-Cartier just outside Quebec City and we had a blast. We hiked for miles, silently crept up to observe a wild moose, bicycled, ate, drank, snored in the fresh forest air, kept on the lookout for black bears, stuffed ourselves with burnt marshmallows and more. 

We discovered too that "OFF" with 25% DEET is a good way of keeping the mosquitoes at bay. And the best way to avoid traffic is to travel on Saturday morning, not Friday night. 

Wednesday, 5 June 2013

Wise words of a 5-year-old

Two is not a lot, but it's plenty...
                         - Philou, June 2013 

Monday, 11 February 2013

Les Messes Luthériennes de Bach

The chamber choir "La Chapelle de Québec" begged Our Lord for mercy while Les Violons du Roy played the imploring melodies and counter-melodies of Bach.
Kyrie eleison,
Christe eleison,
Kyrie elieson
We in the audience bathed in the glorious sound, though there was a notable lack of begging and imploring amongst us, we comfortably-off classical music aficionados. On a Sunday afternoon in Montreal in the second decade of the 21st century we appreciate the religious culture of 18th century Europe; for most of us  it is our culture, even if we no longer have the faith it was meant to support. I wonder if we will be one of the last generations to have this appreciation - will the words of the Kyrie be literally meaningless to our children?

Interpreting the art of Western Europe depends on recognising the references to that religious culture, though the greatest art also transcends it.

When I look at Caravaggio's The Taking of Christ I am influenced by my Catholic childhood and all cultural baggage (and guilt of course!) that goes with it. What does it change to see this picture as the arrest of a mere revolutionary, a Nazarene Che Guevara?

Anyway the concert was pretty damn good and Les Violons du Roy played to their usual high standard. The four masses are quite different from each other and for me the Mass in G Major (BWV 236) was the highpoint: a beautiful Kyrie to begin with that allowed the choir to show great subtlety and precision, and then the Agnus Dei was a quite breathtaking duet of a combination I'd never heard before: a soprano (Shannon Mercer) and a counter-tenor (Robin Blaze). I'm normally not that keen on counter-tenors but Blaze has a ridiculously pure voice; it inter-wove with Mercer's to heart-aching effect.

Thursday, 27 December 2012

Notre-Dame-de-Grâce sous la neige

We're going outside and may be some time...

Thursday, 29 November 2012

Any light in the gloom over Ireland?

Late afternoon light on Kippure in the Wicklow mountains, November 26th 2012.

I took this photo with the crappy camera on my BlackBerry Bold and for some reason it turned out quite well.

Tuesday, 25 September 2012

Michel Rivard à Dix30

We, my partner-in-life and I, made a trek to the southern suburbs last weekend to see Michel Rivard at Dix30. He's a major figure in Quebec contemporary music, nowadays as a singer-songwriter, but back in the day as a founding member of Beau Dommage. He gave an excellent show, covering a lot of his back catalogue with humorous introductions, and a really tight band that has obviously worked with him for years.

I thought the audience looked quite middle-aged to be at such a show, but my parter-in-life pointed out that I fitted in very well. Quite true I suppose, except that I was the only person in the audience who didn't know the words to his most famous song, "La complainte du phoque en Alaska". I think every Francophone Quebecker knows it off by heart so I'm going to have to get the chorus down at least.

Ça vaut pas la peine
De laisser ceux qu'on aime
Pour aller faire tourner
Des ballons sur son nez
Ça fait rire les enfants
Ça dure jamais longtemps
Ça fait plus rire personne
Quand les enfants sont grands

The good (middle-aged!) people of Brossard appeared to enjoy the concert very much, though they seemed disturbingly sober: the bars in Dix30 were doing little or no business. In fact we were able to get our drinks without having to elbow our way through a crowd or reach in over the bar and roar at a barman for a nanosecond of his attention. You'd be very thirsty at a concert in Dublin if you were that polite!

Sunday, 22 July 2012

Le Festival de Lanaudière

And so back again to Lanaudière - how can it be a year already since, eh, last year? Matching the concert schedule to the availability of a childminder led us to the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra in a program of Glinka, Dvořák and Tchaikovsky.

The Dvořák was the highlight for me: the well-known Cello Concerto, brilliantly played by Johannes Moser who has a very engaging stage presence. His face expresses the music like Roger Federer's does his tennis in the final of a Grand Slam: each phrase is attacked with a hard serve, followed by a rapid volley of notes, rising to a crescendo of a running backhand down the line for a clean winner. Oh YEAH!!!

(This morning I listened again to Jacqueline du Pré's recording of the same concerto and marvelled again at how she combines the same level of energy with such delicacy of tone and touch. Sublime.)

Tchaikovsky's 5th symphony was somewhat interrupted by a low flying aircraft circling the venue - a hazard of an open-air concert. Maybe next year they can follow the precedent being set by the London Olympics: a few surface-to-air missiles scattered around the amphitheatre to keep pesky planes away...

Saturday, 14 July 2012

Now a Big _Canadian_ LooLaa

Yes, I'm now a Canadian citizen. Oh of course I'm still an Irish citizen and always will be, but I have sworn allegiance to the Queen of Canada. (I've also noticed that she quite resembles the Queen of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland. Odd.)  And having studied for (and apparently passed) the citizenship test I'm more Canadian than many Canadians themselves - well at least when it comes to answering questions such as "Who is the Lieutenant-Governor of Quebec?" Go on, who is it then? No, you can't Google it; for the test you get pencil and paper, that's it.

The citizenship ceremony was really interesting. We were told that there were 400 of us, from 68 different countries. Almost everyone I met spoke French; the popular perception is that most immigrants in Montreal choose to learn English rather than French but that isn't what I observed. The ceremony itself was in both languages, and we sang the bilingual "Oh Canada" that everyone in Montreal knows from watching the Habs games.

The presiding judge for the ceremony was Renée Giroux. She gave a speech, mostly in French, with two main themes: volunteering in your community as a way of being a good citizen, and that women in Canada have the same status and opportunities as men. She illustrated the latter by pointing to herself, a female judge, and asked the new female citizens to aim high.

I'm proud to be Canadian. Of course the Canada I know is actually Quebec, but for the foreseeable future the Canadian flag will continue to fly here so that's my flag now.

Sunday, 1 July 2012

How common is cheating in soccer and rugby?

The 2012 Tour de France is underway and the Olympics are imminent so it's almost time for the public humiliation of the next performance-enhancing drug cheat. Is it suprising though that such cheating seems limited to sports like cycling and sprinting? Perhaps we'll discover in the future that the footballers of Spain, victorious today, owe their success to more than tiki-taka.

Consider that in the past 12 months there has been a rugby world cup, a European soccer championship and the usual annual club tournaments in both of these sports, without a single cheater being discovered. It seems to me that one of the following statements must be true, either:

A) despite the amount of money and prestige at stake, and unlike other sports such as cycling, 100% of the top rugby and soccer professionals are 100% free of performance-enhancing drugs.


B) despite the amount of money and prestige at stake, and unlike other sports such as cycling, the testing for performance-enhancing drugs in rugby and soccer has a success rate of 0%, failing to uncover even one cheat amongst the top professionals.

I love soccer but I think (A) is impossible to believe, so (B) must be true - and if the testing is that poor then drug-taking is probably widespread in soccer and rugby. Sadly.

Wednesday, 28 March 2012

Really getting into the music...instruments

These quite beautiful posters are a promotion for the Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra - see more of the campaign here.

So that's what getting in to the music looks like. Now how did they get a photographer in there!?

Safe Travels (Don't Die)

I usually listen to music when the kids are in bed and I'm dealing with the dishes. But the night this song came on the radio I was stilled, soapy hands dripping on the floor. What a voice, what strange melancholic lyrics. Who knew about Lisa Hannigan?

Please eat your greens 
and don’t sit close to screens, 
your eyes are a means to an end. 
And I would be sorry if, due to your hurry, 
you were hit by a lorry my friend.

Like you always say, 
Safe travels, don’t die, don’t die, 
safe travels, don’t die. 

Don’t walk on ice, no matter how nice, 
how sturdy, enticing it seems. 
Please cross at the lights 
and don’t start fires or fights and 
don’t dabble in heights on caffeine. 

Like you always say 
Safe travels, don’t die, don’t die, 
safe travels, don’t die. 

Don’t swallow bleach 
out on Sandymount beach, 
I’m not sure I’d reach you in time my boy. 
Please don’t bungee jump 
or ignore a strange lump 
and a gasoline pump’s not a toy. 

Like you always say 
Safe travels, don’t die, don’t die, 
safe travels, don’t die.

                          Lisa Hannigan

If you imagine the worst thing that could happen then you're safeguarding against it actually happening - that's a reflex I sometimes can't avoid when waving goodbye to my kids. It doesn't lead to any peace of mind, but thanks to this song I can smile about it, a little.