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 Neilligan
  • 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.)

Leaving the cemetery behind us, the last thing Mam an I see is a simple plaque by the entrance gate commemorating Shane.

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

Macushla

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
Beware
Beware. 
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 writing...in 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.


OR


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.

Wednesday, 22 February 2012

My Mam's soda bread

Most Irish mammy's make soda bread and all Irish sons think their mam's is the best. Well my mam's is really good and for the expatriate it has the advantage of not needing buttermilk, which is a hard-to-find ingredient in Montreal. It's also got an interesting texture with a bit of "bite" as it contains oat flakes.

This week I passed the venerable recipe on to my 10-year-old son and he baked a beautiful bread for the "semaine des saveurs" at school. Here it is.

Preheat the over to 400 degrees Fahrenheit. The oven should be well warmed up before putting the bread in so do this first.

Mix the following dry ingredients together in a large bowl:
  • 8 ounces of plain flour
  • 8 ounces of self-raising flour
  • 6 ounces of oat flakes
  • a flat teaspoon of baking soda
  • a heaped teaspoon of baking powder
  • a pinch of salt

In another bowl, mix the following liquid ingredients:
  • 1 beaten egg
  • 4 tablespoons of natural yoghurt
  • 3/4 of a pint of milk
  • a heaped tablespoon of honey

Make a well in the centre of the dry ingredients and pour the liquid mixture into it. Mix quickly with a large fork - it'll be sticky and look a bit raggy. Tip out onto a lightly floured surface and work by hand for no more than half a minute - don't knead like a yeast bread. Shape it into a circle around 8 inches in diameter, make a cross on the top with a sharp knife and place it in a greased 9 inch diameter (or larger) cake tin. Put it in the oven for 45 minutes.

When it's done it has a lovely mocha colour, like this:



That's it. Great for breakfast with butter and jam, or for lunch with smoked salmon.

There's a very good video here that shows this process; the woman looks like she really knows what she's doing but my mam's recipe is better!

Sunday, 19 February 2012

In praise of (the) public service?

I've done my fair share of bashing of the civil service in Ireland - God knows, it's an easy target - but reading Tony Judt reminds me that the goal  must be to improve public service, not replace it.
"If public goods - public services, public spaces, public facilities - are devalued, diminished in the eyes of citizens and replaced by private services available against cash, then we lose the sense that common interests and common needs ought to trump private preferences and individual advantage. And once we cease to value the public over the private, surely we shall come in time to have difficulty seeing just why we should value law (the public good par excellence) over force." 
from "Ill Fares The Land"  by Tony Judt

Saturday, 18 February 2012

Cosying up to China

Every country in the world wants to do more business with China - Chinese officials must be deluged in invitations and requests for meetings. The Irish and Canadian governments have been cosying up to the Chinese in recent days: Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper has been on an official visit to China, whereas the Chinese Vice-President Xi Jinping is currently in Ireland.

In Canada there's been a public debate about whether the government should soften its previously quite firm stance on human rights for the sake of generating trade and investment. I'm not much of a fan of the Harper government, but I think its principled approach to China has been correct. But now there's the scent of Realpolitik in the air, with the worry that China will go elsewhere for its resources. So as outlined recently in the Globe and Mail, Harper and his government will continue to raise the issue of human rights, but without upsetting the Chinese in public. 

Will that "softly, softly" approach achieve anything? Not in the short term, obviously, but it seems to me a valid long-term strategy to nudge, annoy and cajole China to a different position. Of course, Canada is in a reasonably strong position given its resilient economy and abundant natural resources that are much coveted by China. Ireland has only a begging bowl and is simply trying to find any source of investment to revive its economy. From such a position of weakness its hard to believe that Irish politicians will allow human rights to get in the way of a few yuan, sadly.

Ireland's position wasn't always so feeble. Back in the early 2000's, China was extremely interested in Ireland's economic success (as it seemed then) and in particular in its software industry. I established an R&D centre in Beijing for my employer, the leading Irish software company of the day, and in China I was presented to the Mayor of that huge city. When Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao visited Ireland in 2004 he visited our office and I met him for a short chat. Did I raise the question of human rights, you ask? Well did I heck.


H.E. Mr. Wen Jiabao, Premier of the State Council of the
People's Republic of China, meets Larry Lumsden, the
BigLooLaa, in May 2004. His delightful interpreter seems
quite amused. 
I did think about it beforehand - and I chickened out. I cracked a small joke with the premier and his interpreter, chatted about the contrasts in organizing software development in our respective countries, and said precisely nothing about Tibet or the Tienanmen Square protests. My employer would have been shocked had I done otherwise of course, but other than the intimidation factor of meeting His Excellency and a desire to be courteous I've no good excuse for why I didn't take the opportunity to make a quiet point to the little man in front of me. So much for my principles, sadly, but what will Taoiseach Enda Kenny do this week? What would you do?

Tuesday, 31 January 2012

Centenary of Scott at the South Pole: the ridiculous, the sublime

There's been lots of coverage recently of the centenary of Scott reaching the South Pole on January 17th 1912 in that ill-fated expedition. The Guardian posted a series of photos, and the British Film Institute has restored the record of the expedition "The Great White Silence" - I haven't seen the latter but just the trailer is compelling.


It might seem odd that we remember Scott's failure more vividly than Amundsen's success, but really it's not that surprising. Scott's mistakes and pathetic end speak more eloquently to us about the human condition- it's "dying as an art" to quote Sylvia Plath. Or as Derek Mahon says, in his poem echoing the last words of Captain Oates, at the heart of the ridiculous there really was something sublime.


Antarctica

‘I am just going outside and may be some time.’ 
The others nod, pretending not to know. 
At the heart of the ridiculous, the sublime.

He leaves them reading and begins to climb,
Goading his ghost into the howling snow;
He is just going outside and may be some time.

The tent recedes beneath its crust of rime
And frostbite is replaced by vertigo:
At the heart of the ridiculous, the sublime.

Need we consider it some sort of crime,
This numb self-sacrifice of the weakest? No,
He is just going outside and may be some time 

In fact, for ever. Solitary enzyme,
Though the night yield no glimmer there will glow, 
At the heart of the ridiculous, the sublime.

He takes leave of the earthly pantomime
Quietly, knowing it is time to go:-
‘I am just going outside and may be some time.’ 
At the heart of the ridiculous, the sublime.

                                                                                              - Derek Mahon

Monday, 30 January 2012

Read & Written

My reading in the past few months include:

"For Whom the Bell Tolls" and "The Old Man and The Sea" by Ernest Hemingway
We spent a week in Cuba recently so what else was I going to do but read Hemingway and drink Mojitos. Unfortunately the Mojitos at the hotel bars were too sweet - Sprite instead of Soda, an outrage - but the Hemingway's were just perfect. My two eldest boys were also deep into novels and at the end of the week they rehearsed their oral book reports for school with me; in turn I presented to them my report on "The Old Man and The Sea" and they were very moved by the tale. So was I.

In this era of e-books I rediscovered a most effective way of selecting by books for the vacation - I went to the local library. The two Hemingway's had been well read, the pages softened by many turnings, and were all the better for it.

"The Information: A History, A Theory, A Flood" by James Gleick
We live in interesting times. Digital technologies are changing the world and quite possibly changing us humans too, and not necessarily for the better. There aren't that many people questioning these changes, mostly they're seen as the unavoidable result of progress, but we may yet regret where they bring us. Some of the writers who do have something interesting to say include Nicholas Carr at Rough Type and Michael Sacasas at The Frailest Thing both of whom I follow closely. This book by Gleick is an excellent analysis of how and why the digital era came about, explained not via the well worn path of micro-processors and Moore's Law but through a synthesis of the ideas that led to information theory. The central character of the very readable tale is Claude Shannon, and the central idea that of entropy - which is explained and explored quite beautifully.

"Nox" by Anne Carson
This strangely compelling book revolves around the difficulty of translating Poem 101 by Catullus, an attempt to overcome shifting meanings and uncertainties, as Carson tries to reach and understand her eccentric departed brother. It sounds pretentious but it's not - it's moving, challenging, and unlike anything I've read before.  The result of Carson's travail is a new translation of Catullus' ancient elegy for a lost brother and an evocative description of a modern family. It's presented in an unusual format, like a family scrapbook with photos and notes - it wouldn't work as an e-book. It's short but I spent hours with it and loved every minute.



"The Great Gatsby" by F. Scott Fitzgerald
I continued my reading of Fitzgerald. No I hadn't read Gatsby before, somehow. Yes it's brilliant, completely.

"Let the Great World Spin" by Colum McCann
I read in a review that this was the first great novel about 9/11. Well I don't think it has much to do with that at all. Of course the fact that the story revolves around the 1973 tightrope walk between the twin towers means that the images of 9/11 are not far from the front of the reader's mind, but I think this is more about New York and how a city can connect strangers in strange ways. Although I admired and enjoyed each of the sub-plots, I felt there was a lack of an overall plot or a raison d'etre for the unity of a novel. It could just as easily have been a book of short stories - and as I write that I think there may be parallels with "Dubliners" in its structure. But it's a fine piece of writing.

"The Sense of an Ending" by Julian Barnes
If you like Barnes, and I do, then you'll like this book. If you find him cold, pretentious, and preoccupied with style then you'll find ample evidence here to support your opinion. It's not his best book by any means - see Flaubert's Parrot or A History of the World in 10 1/2 Chapters for better - but he deserved to win the Booker so it might as well be for this one.

Thursday, 26 January 2012

In memoriam: Laurence William Lumsden


Dad passed away on January 18th. He'd been fading away for a long time, since his stroke 14 years ago and accelerated recently by Alzheimer's, until only his smile was left to us. I'd like to remember him now as he used to be.

He worked for almost 20 years in the office of Bourke's Funeral Directors, quietly organizing in the background just as Alan Harmon and his staff at Bourke's did for us last Tuesday. He didn't like show or ostentation at any time so his own funeral was the low-key event he would have liked, with family and friends and some old hymns we all remembered from our childhoods.

When I was a teenager, his job at the funeral directors was a bit embarrassing to me  - I had to find another explanation for my friends as to why my Dad sometimes come home for his lunch in a mourning car. I mumbled something about "my Dad is in to vintage cars" and somehow they all accepted it. Dad could go on at length about the smooth power of the 3 litre straight-six engines but might never get around to clarifying that he was talking about a hearse.

Dad's principal mode of transport was always his bicycle - or rather his three bicycles including his beloved custom-made Claud Butler. He always had the three ready in case of a puncture or a mechanical problem; for Dad the daily dash through Dublin was just a couple of degrees removed from a stage of the Tour de France, and he was sharp and fit on his bikes well into his late seventies. No doubt he had the Roche genes from his mother Mary Roche - Dad's first cousin and life-long friend, Larry Roche, is the father of Stephen Roche.

Before my sister Ita and I were born, Dad and Mam went everywhere on his motorbike, a Sunbeam S8. He was a real biking enthusiast and Mam loved it too - but the Sunbeam was parked in the shed for a decade in favour of dull elderly cars that provided transport for his young family. I told myself as a youngster I'd never give up biking like that, but my Honda VFR is now gathering dust in a shed for the same reason. Like father, like son. When he took up biking again in the late 1970's his enthusiasm was undimmed - I recall hanging on for dear life when he took delivery of his Suzuki GT250A and gave it a lash up the Naas dual-carriageway.

Dad was always rather good at saying a few words, invariably well prepared, and in several languages: his Connemara accented Irish and his Grand Canal accented French. My sister's wedding is the last time I remember him performing, to a rousing cheer from the Gaelgoir's present.

He had some other vocabulary too from his 20 years as a book-keeper in the Dublin fish market. He kept that for special occasions, like the incident of the broken outboard motor, my Dad pulling our little boat from the canal bank like a dray horse, and the ripe cow pat he stepped in. Dad used his full fish market vocabulary as Ita and I laughed 'til we cried. That boat was his great hobby: painting, repairing and fiddling with it as much as using it.

Dad was a founder member, treasurer and manager of Sundrive Credit Union. It was set up in the late 1960's to counter the problem of exploitative money-lenders preying on the people of Crumlin and he was justly proud of its success. He introduced Ita and I to responsible borrowing: I remember at 11 years old filling the loan application form and solemnly meeting the new manager in order to borrow £9 for a watch, committing 50p each week to my loan repayment.

Dad is the last of the four Lumsden boys to pass away, after Jack, Vincent and Billy. You could imagine the 4 of them together now, Jack telling a story turning the air blue, Dad and Billy listening seriously, Vincent cracking jokes. We, their kids, can be happy that each of the Lumsden's married a strong, not to say feisty, woman, adding some longevity to the Lumsden DNA. Fran and my Mam are still with us today, still strong and, eh, feisty.

Really the last few years of my Dad's life have been all around the care he got from my Mam. Frankly I don't know how she did it, he needed round the clock help and he was blessed she has so much energy and patience. So as my Dad goes to his rest now, Mam is getting some well deserved rest too.



Laurence William Lumsden, my Dad Larry, was born  on January 11th 1928 and died on January 18th 2012. Go ndéana Dia trócaire ar a anam uasal.

Thursday, 29 December 2011

Internet > Brain => Frustration

One of the best things about the internet is that an inconceivably vast amount of music is available to listen to at any moment. Well that's what I've heard anyway. What I've actually experienced is that "inconceivably vast" is quite literally true and very frustrating: if you can't get your head around all of this music how do you value it, treasure it, really experience it?

Before the internet, a lover of music had  his own collection of recordings, gathered over years. I've bought CD's on the basis of what I heard on radio shows, concerts, recommendations from friends and articles by music critics. The result is my collection. There's considerably more than a thousand CD's in there but I know them all, have listened to each many times, have fallen in and out of love with some of them. I can get my head around my collection.

So despite the fact that I could find almost anything on-line, I'll usually browse my collection for something to listen to. I add new CD's only slowly now, perhaps a couple every month, each new addition carefully considered as to whether it merits its place there. At most I only have an hour or so each day to listen to music so only good stuff get's in.

[Warning: technical interlude!]

Recently I decided to rip all of my CD's on to a hard drive (a NAS in the basement to be exact) to make my collection accessible from anywhere in the house or in the car. After much consideration I've installed a SONOS music system in the house which sounds beautiful and is wonderfully easy to use. Ripping CD's is tiresome, but dBpoweramp takes much of the pain away through error checking and almost fail-proof addition of meta-data. And I rip in FLAC format as there is no loss of sound quality and it can easily be converted to other formats.

[End of technical interlude]

But I'll say no more on the technology. I've suffered through conversations with people telling me all about the technology in their music systems and nothing about the music. So let me tell you about four CD's from my collection I've listened to today:
  • Graceland by Paul Simon. I used to have this on cassette back in the 80's and it accompanied me on solitary car trips and long transatlantic flights. I picked up the CD while standing in the checkout queue at Chapters last week and I've been playing it ever since.
    "These are the days of miracle and wonder and don't cry baby, don't cry."
  • Moffou by Salif Keita. Graceland led me from South Africa to Mali (my "path was marked by the stars of the southern hemisphere") and I re-listened to this wonderful recording. I think I discovered this CD a few years ago listening to Gerry Godley's show on LyricFM, it just bursts with freshness and energy. I must check out what Keita has done recently.
  • Song and Poems for Solo Cello by Philip Glass. Late night, still house, glass of scotch - turn the volume up and let the deep vibrations of the cello make the windows sing in their frames.
  • Des Roses et des Orties by Frances Cabrel. Not his best album but still rather good, and one my francophone partner-in-life and I could both enjoy on the drive home from Outaouais to Montreal today.



Beyond economics: closing the EURO's democratic deficit

Like most Irish people I've always been broadly in favour of the EU project despite having only a vague idea of where its leading.The EU has brought economic benefits to Ireland and been a force for the liberalisation of our society. But it's always bothered me that the EU's democratic roots run so shallow; very few EU citizens have any understanding of how its institutions work, how laws are made and decisions are reached, or what any of the treaties actually mean. In Ireland, members of the EU parliament are usually elected for reasons of local politics that have nothing to do with Europe. And recent referenda have shown that the citizens of the EU have no real sense of being part of a European entity; each referendum is debated on the single basis of whether its a good economic deal for the country.

Now we see the culmination of this democratic deficit: governments will do anything to avoid a popular referendum on Europe as they know it will almost certainly be defeated. This is certainly the case in Ireland and Greece at the moment, and probably in most of Western Europe too. The EU project, worthy as it may be, does not have popular support. In fact, if not legally, it no longer has democratic legitimacy.

So while I remain broadly in favour of the EU project, we need to find a way to engage the population of Europe with its aims now - or completely remodel the EU to reflect what its citizens actually want. Whatever the hell that might be...


Sunday, 27 November 2011

The Umbrella Man

I've just finished reading Julian Barnes' latest novel, the Booker winner "The Sense of an Ending". One of the main themes of the book is revealed when a character gives the following definition of history:
"History is that certainty produced at the point where the imperfections of memory meet the inadequacies of documentation"
That leaves a lot of room in history for subjectivity, analysis and interpretation. And conspiracy theories. Here's a wonderful illustration of the point: a beautiful seven minute film about the The Umbrella Man, a mysterious figure who is seen in some of the videos and photos of the assassination of John F. Kennedy.


Saturday, 24 September 2011

The blood-dimmed tide is loosed

There's a real prospect of Sinn Fein's Martin McGuinness becoming the President of Ireland next month. It sickens me that an unrepentant terrorist, a senior figure in an organization that murdered many innocents, could be so close to such a position. But with the success of the peace process in which he has been so influential he undoubtedly has a right to participate  in the election. Moreover I can understand his appeal to many voters, given the weak candidates put forward by the traditional parties and the abject failures of those parties in government. Indeed Sinn Fein may well be the only party who would dare to take Ireland out of the dead-end we've parked ourselves in; one could imagine a Shinner government standing up to European bureaucrats and walking away from the Euro if necessary.

Imagine too a Shinner administration and president celebrating the centenary of the 1916 rising, President Martin McGuinness and Taoiseach Mary Lou McDonald on the reviewing stand outside the GPO - my God I feel quite ill thinking about it.

Where oh where is the next generation of democrats and leaders to put forward an alternative vision for Ireland? Yeats was never more right.


Turning and turning in the widening gyre
The falcon cannot hear the falconer;
Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;
Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,
The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere
The ceremony of innocence is drowned;
The best lack all conviction, while the worst
Are full of passionate intensity.
 


 - from "The Second Coming" by William Butler Yeats, 1919


Saturday, 17 September 2011

Turangalîla

The Montreal Symphony Orchestra has a new home. No longer lost in the vastness of the Salle Wilfred-Pelletier at Place-des-Arts, the MSO now plays in a more intimate hall in the same complex. Last Tuesday evening my partner-in-life and I visited the 1-week-old venue for the first time.

The layout of the new hall reminds me very much of Dublin's National Concert Hall - the dimensions are similar,  long and fairly narrow like a church, and just like at the NCH there's a huge pipe organ behind the orchestra. But one deficiency compared to the NCH is the lack of space to mingle with a drink during the intermission. The bar is right outside the hall at the top of an escalator; there's little standing room and last Tuesday some of even that limited space was cordoned off for a function. We ended up leaning against a wall at the edge of the heaving crowd, tightly clutching our glasses of claret.

For our first visit the MSO was joined by two soloists we'd last seen at the NCH in Dublin: the violinist Joshua Bell and the pianist Angela Hewitt. Bell played short pieces by Tchaikovski and Glazounov -the latter allowed him to display his virtuosity in some dazzlingly difficult sections. However the main event of the evening was Turangalîla by Oliver Messiaen - a huge (80 minute) symphonic piece featuring Hewitt on piano and Jean Laurendeau playing an odd piece of antique electronica called an Ondes Martenot. It produced quivering high-pitched notes that reminded me of the soundtrack to a 1950's horror movie. An apologetically small keyboard device in a simple wooden case, it looked pathetic moored alongside Hewitt's Fazioli grand piano - a plywood dinghy bobbing  against a schooner.

The Messiaen was an odd but interesting piece but I'd need to listen to it a few more times to get my head around it's vastness. I recall some striking interplay between the piano and other percussion instruments and some moments of quite overwhelming orchestral power; there were also times when I completely lost its plot. Hewitt played enthusiastically but the potential expressiveness of her on the Fazioli wasn't realised in this piece which seemed a waste of rich resources; when I saw her in Dublin she played Bach's Goldberg Variations on a Steinway and was quite brilliant.

Still it was a fine evening for a wet Tuesday and I'm looking forward to many more visits to the new hall.