Wednesday, April 30, 2014

Edward Hendrick, Irish Volunteer

The Easter Rising in Dublin in 1916 was the seminal event in the achievement of independence for Ireland. It was not widely supported by the population at the time but the rough 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, which ultimately led to the foundation of the Irish state.

Edward Hendrick, a bootmaker like his father, was an unmarried 28-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 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 were forced to surrender.

The Four Courts under bombardment - this could be
by British forces in 1916 or Irish free state forces in 1922.

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.

His health was poor though and the family struggled to make ends meet as he worked as a porter, carrying coal and supplies around a Dublin hospital. The service pension provided by the state 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 was my grandfather, my mother's father. I heard the outline of this story from her. Like every youngster growing up 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 and we don't know where he's buried, but nearly 100 years after the rising he is not forgotten.

Tuesday, October 22, 2013

Les Trois Soeurs et les trois frères

Les Trois Soeurs par Claude St-Jacques

The centre of the painting yearns towards a still darkness on a distant blue horizon; on the left, symmetrical trees dot a rich grain field; but it's to the right that my eye is always drawn by the the three women, formal as widows, faceless, yet seeming 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 figures remind me that there's an aspect of my boys, a sensitive mysterious feminine side, that's often hidden from parental eyes 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 stay mysterious: just when I think I  understand them they escape me again, facelessly. Sometimes I think I know my young sons too; sometimes I think that they know me better than I know them.

Friday, August 30, 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, August 29, 2013

More wise words of a 5-year-old

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

- Philou, August 2013

Friday, July 26, 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, July 4, 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, June 26, 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, June 5, 2013

Wise words of a 5-year-old

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

Monday, February 11, 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, December 27, 2012

Notre-Dame-de-Grâce sous la neige

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

Thursday, November 29, 2012

Any light in the gloom over Ireland?

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

Tuesday, September 25, 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.

Here's a different version of the phoque that I'm going to try to sing along to now. The phoque has travelled to France and is being welcomed by Maxime Le Forestier and Vanessa Paradis. Yes, Vanessa!

Sunday, July 22, 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, July 14, 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, July 1, 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, March 28, 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, February 22, 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, February 19, 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, February 18, 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, January 31, 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.


‘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, January 30, 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, January 26, 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, December 29, 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, November 27, 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, September 24, 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, September 17, 2011


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.

Friday, September 9, 2011

Back to the Eighties

With unemployment approaching 15% in a dismal summer  it feels like the early 80's again in Dublin. One of the few positives of that era was the music - or maybe it's just seemed that way to this impressionable 17-year-old. The soundtrack to my studies was music from local bands on Dave Fanning's great radio show. With the exception of U2 they're all long gone and mostly forgotten, but thanks to this post on the excellent culture site Come Here To Me! I've been listening again to The Blades.

I think their best song was "Downmarket":  it captured the sombre mood of that time and place in three rocking minutes of guitars and horns. Sadly the lyrics probably ring true for many in the "black and white and grey" downmarket Dublin of 2011.

In an unfamilar bed
In a unfamiliar room
There’s a throbbing in my head
I’ve succeeded I presume

Everything’s black and white and grey
Living from day to day to day
I suppose I can’t be choosy, when there’s not too many choices
With the problems of the nation
I’m not waiting at an airport
I’m not waiting at a station
I’m standing at a bus stop. Downmarket. Downmarket.

On a rainy afternoon
On a gambling machine
Same old jukebox, same old tune
It’s hard to break this old routine

Everything’s black and white and grey
Living from day to day to day
It’s a fatal resignation, when there’s nothing left to hope for
In a hopeless situation
I’m not waiting at an airport
I’m not waiting at a station
I’m standing at a bus stop. Downmarket. Downmarket.

- Paul Cleary, 1981

Friday, September 2, 2011

What a conductor does (reprise)

I've been a teeny bit critical of celebrity conductors in some previous posts (well here and here to be precise) but here's one I'm going to praise. Forget about dramatic shape throwing in front of an orchestra, this is what a great conductor does:

Benjamin Zander at TED on Music and Passion

Wednesday, August 17, 2011

Read & Written

Some recent readings:

Troubles by J.G. Farrell
This is a book and an author that have only recently come to my attention thanks to the Lost Booker Prize - and for that I'm very grateful because Troubles is a sensationally good novel. It's a big and winding creation that succeeds on many levels: as a study of colonialism, as a tale of love and loss, as an exploration of human motives and the impulse of youth. There are strange images, such as the feral cats in the abandoned floors of the hotel, and echoes of other histories and stories from Ireland's past.

Farrell's other works are now on my "must read" list.

Tender is the Night by F. Scott Fitzgerald
This has been on my "must read" list for 20 years - it's a long list - but I finally got around to it and it's everything I expected: sensual, evocative of a time and place, and full of insight - I felt I understood Dick Diver's situation almost too well as he slipped from brilliant potential in to dull middle age. But best of all is the writing: oh what prose, what poise, it dances and thrills continuously.

The Infinities by John Banville
I've been a fan of Banville for a long time - "Eclipse" and "Shroud" are amongst my favourite books. Now of course he's justly famous after his Booker win and his latest works are anticipated worldwide. "The Infinities" is a clever work, as Banville plays God with the characters he's created for his and our amusement. Clever, but unsatisfying as it feels that he really is just playing and not really taking the work seriously. So while I enjoyed the novel it did peter out in the end and won't remain long in the memory. Hopefully this is just a warm-up to something much more challenging for Banville and his readers.

My Correct Views on Everything by Leszek Kolakowski
I discovered the Polish philosopher through his obituary which described a fascinating life journey through the turbulence of the cold war, armed with a dry wit and sharp eye.

"A modern philosopher who has never once suspected himself of being a charlatan must be such a shallow mind that his work is probably not worth reading. "

He may have been thinking of Sartre when he said this; it made me think of that phony Bernard-Henri Lévy.

This is a collection of essays where he points out the failings of communism to its cheerleaders in the west.  Naturally they don't want their dearest ideas punctured by this man who has actually lived through the tyranny  - but that just gives him the opportunity to skewer them with their own pretensions. He also has many interesting things to say on religion and morality in the modern world in a series of shorter essays.

The essays have mostly been translated into English by his daughter and she has no little skill as they read very well. It's a good book to dip in and out of.

The Year of the Flood by Margaret Atwood
This is a companion to her earlier novel "Oryx and Crake" and is very similar in all respects. I enjoyed it - Atwood is a fine writer - but enough with the dystopias already! I think "The Blind Assassin" is her masterpiece and would love her to get back to that sort of work.

The Dublin Review Reader edited by Brendan Barrington
I'm a subscriber to The Dublin Review and this selection of essays is well worth reading - well except for Colm Toibin's graphic description of his sexual awakening in Barcelona which I think is a memory he should have kept precious for himself.

Friday, July 29, 2011

Just listen!

A lot of the time we hear music without listening. It's in the background while we're driving or preparing dinner and for many people that's enough, apparently. But I can't listen to classical music that way; I'm compelled to actively listen and engage with it, and if I did that while chopping vegetables I'd risk removing a finger. I can just about concentrate on my favourite music broadcasts (The Signal and The JK Ensemble) while washing the pots and pans - but I'm better off just humming along to U2 when hacking an onion with a sharp knife

I recently discovered the CD "A Place Between" published by the Louth Contemporary Music Society and had to give it a serious listen, sitting in front of my stereo after the kids went to bed with only a cold Corona and a slice of lime for company. Yes that's County Louth, well Drogheda to be exact. I don't know anything about the Society beyond what's on its web site - perhaps unbeknownst to me Drogheda is a cradle of the musical avant-garde or maybe there's a more straightforward rationale for the society but whatever, the recording is quite excellent.

It feature lesser-known pieces by some of the best-known contemporary composers such as Glass, Tavener, Gorecki and Pärt, beautifully recorded in St. Peters church,  Drogheda. The Gorecki piece "Good Night" is a real highlight, three variations on a lyrical theme from Hamlet, with the voice of soprano Patricia Rozario soaring through the third movement.

Good-night, sweet prince; 
And flights of angels sing thee to thy rest
Recommended for serious listening.

Last Saturday my partner-in-life and I went to an open air concert in Joliette, Quebec, part of the annual Festival de Lanaudière, featuring the thunderingly brilliant Philadelphia Orchestra. This powerful ensemble was perfectly suited to the drama and attack of Finlandia (Sibelius) and Symphonie Fantastique (Berlioz) - the former is a favourite to which I often return, the latter a new discovery for me in this performance that  sustained edge-of-the-seat excitement from first note to last. In between these two was Rachmaninov's Concerto for Piano no. 2 and while I'm sure pianist Kirill Gerstein played wonderfully he was quite sonically overwhelmed by the orchestra behind him.

So there I was, listening intently and half-watching the orchestra in front of me. But many in the audience came for a different reason - the return to Quebec with the Philadelphia Orchestra of celebrity conductor Charles Dutoit, a former conductor of the Montreal Symphony Orchestra who left under a cloud a few years ago. And Dutoit didn't dissappoint his audience, throwing dramatic shapes and intense facial expressions in all directions. The orchestra didn't pay much heed - the musicians looked at their scores mostly or grinned at each other in the case of two bass players.

I'm sure Dutoit did great work with the orchestra in rehearsal, and no doubt the brilliance of the performance was partly due to him. But I can't help feeling that all the people who came to see him were badly missing the point. It's music - forget about the conductor and just listen!

Tuesday, July 12, 2011

A week in the wild (Irish) west

The coastline of Mayo is beautiful and desolate, broken by the brute power of Atlantic waves and stripped of trees by the unceasing westerly wind. This is the famine country and the spirits of that time are all around; that worn out history told to Irish school children seems present and hunger still lingers in this empty place. In winter it must be bleak and depressing in driving grey rain; in summer, when the wind is merely strong and the sun pierces the clouds, it is quite enchanting and uplifting for the soul.

We've come to spend a week here, my family and I, in the company of my Mam. I believe that if my children learn to love a place like this they'll understand something more of what it is to be Irish.

We've rented a house by the sea, a short drive from Westport. The arrival of each high tide outside our door is greeted by us by cries of wonder as it makes islands of much of the surrounding land and lifts the boats and our hearts. We're such townies, romanticising the commonplace! Apart from the wind the sound-scape consists of the bleating of sheep, now joined by the shouts of our three boys chasing each other in the freedom of this place.

For the restless kids there's plenty to see in the area and we spend a few hours each day exploring.

  • We see Achill Island in the rain but the kids enjoy themselves immensely on the beach at Keel; On our way there we stop at the Beehive restuarant in Keem and have an excellent lunch of locally caught crab and salmon.

  • Westport House is a restored 18th century aristocratic home; the kids are patient on the tour of the house because they're being entertained too in the pirate theme park on the grounds of the house.

  • Killary Fjord is majestic on our boat trip with Killary Cruises. It's also easy to imagine how desolate it must have been in the famine era when there was a large population here.

  • The Ceide Fields close to Ballina, a pre-historic site,  is well worth the visit, but only because our guide is excellent. Without a guided tour it'd be hard to appreciate the significance of a pile of stones on a barren hillside.

I'd like to think we'll return when the boys are all old enough to climb Croagh Patrick.

Saturday, July 9, 2011

U2 360 in Montreal

"What time is it in the world? SHOWTIME!"

It's been a long time since I really got in to a U2 record, probably not since Achtung Baby, and my last U2 concert was in 1993. But now I'm an Irish expat, once again, and so when the 360 tour made its Montreal stop last night my partner-in-life and I were there.

You could hardly call it a concert as the music was only part of the show and anyway Bono's voice was often drowned out by 80,000 fans all round me singing and shouting along.

With U2's musical catalogue stretching over thirty years you could describe it as musical nostalgia with special effects, and for me it worked well as such, starting as it did with four straight songs from Achtung Baby. I most enjoyed the songs where the crowd didn't or couldn't sing along, allowing Bono's voice and Edge's guitar to ring out: "Stay (Faraway, So Close!)", "Hold me, Thrill me, Kiss me, Kill me" and "Miss Sarajevo".

However the sound wasn't as good as I expected and Edge's guitar was often a bit lost behind the bass and vocals - perhaps that's a limitation of the circular stage set-up as there's no solid structure behind the speakers. Nobody minded though; the crowd was tremendously enthusiastic and a lot more reverential than an Irish crowd would be - it's only bloody Bono after all!

The threatening thunderstorm held off until the last moments of the encore but then a deluge began that cleared the stadium.

Bono's voice seems to be improving with the years - I don't remember him singing so well on any of the five occasions I've seen U2 before:
  • December 1982 in front of a few hundred people at the St. Francis Xavier hall in Dublin when the songs that would be included on the "War" album had one of their first public performances. I was blown away by a new song, with the band joined by Steve Wickham on electric violin: "Sunday, Bloody Sunday"

  • August 1985 when U2 made a surprise appearance (after Freddie White!) at a free concert in Cork, the "Lark by the Lee", and I was right at the front up against the stage

  • June 1987 in Gothenburg when I was swept along in a human wave at the front of the stage and once again at the end of the day when I ended up on the train to Malmo instead of Stockholm and had to take a plane home. U2 gave a really storming performance that day, playing much of The Joshua Tree.

  • June 1992 at Globen in Stockholm in what I thought was the best concert musically; Edge's guitar on the final song "Love is Blindness" was haunting and piercing - I can hear it still.

  • July 1993 at Stockholm's Stadion which I don't remember much at all except for the rain; I do remember one of the support acts very well though, a  young, waif-like and brilliant PJ Harvey in her "Rid of Me" era
Ah memories, memories...

Friday, June 10, 2011

Plan of the City

Alex Ross's blog The Rest is Noise is one of my favourite windows to the world of "avant-garde" classical music. I don't like everything he advocates there but it's always worth the time to read his articles or listen to a recommendation. This is a case in point, a very enjoyable 13 minutes.

PLAN OF THE CITY from Joshua Frankel on Vimeo.

A film by Joshua Frankel, the music is Judd Greenstein's "Change" performed by the NOW ensemble who are also the actors in the piece. I haven't tried listening to the music without the visuals so I can't say if it stands on its merits alone, but all together it's oddly compelling. Expand the image to full screen to see it in HD.

La Bohème at l'Opera de Montréal

My partner-in-life and I had a wonderful child-free Saturday evening, dinner at a bistro followed by the opera, just like we used to have back in the 90's. In didn't matter that the opera wasn't outstanding; La Bohème is always a likeable piece with some very attractive arias and this was a simple production. The one standout was the performance of Marianne Fiset as Mimi, a wonderfully clear and melodic soprano who sang with delicacy and nuance and more than compensated for the bombastic approach of some of the other performers.

And the boys were sleeping like angels when we arrived home...


I finally found time to watch the Quebec film everyone was talking about a few months ago - have I mentioned I'm very busy? Set mostly in a fictional country that's a lot like Lebanon, "Incendies" is a violent tale of how violence begets more violence. (Well that's a twitter-length summary, it's a lot more than that too.)

The plot is not subtle and has at least one too many incredible coincidences, but there are delicate moments of cinematography, fine French-Canadian actors and a soundtrack by Radiohead that's used to hauntingly good effect. It's moving and thought-provoking.

I was haunted by this scene for a week: an orphanage under a pitiless sun, the kids lined up to have their heads shaved, Radiohead's "You and Whose Army?" playing softly.

David Foster Wallace on Life and Work

It's been a very busy week and my level of patience hasn't always been up to the challenge, at work or at home. This Friday lunchtime I re-read an essay by David Foster Wallace and I'm feeling a bit re-charged: 

"The really important kind of freedom involves attention, and awareness, and discipline, and effort, and being able truly to care about other people and to sacrifice for them, over and over, in myriad petty little unsexy ways, every day. That is real freedom. The alternative is unconsciousness, the default-setting, the "rat race" -- the constant gnawing sense of having had and lost some infinite thing."

Wednesday, April 20, 2011

La Sagouine at the Segal Centre

The famous one-woman play of Acadian folklore is a tour-de-force for Viola Léger who plays the eponymous old crone. Eighty-years old and with more than 1000 performances behind her, Léger actually is la sagouine - it doesn't feel like a performance. The humour is gentle and the atmosphere wistful; this is not a challenging work but casts light on a culture and people who aren't often seen.

We went on a Thursday night, when the audience was a mixture of the young and old with little in-between; Martine and I were about the only 40-somethings there. Maybe it's different on a Saturday night when kids don't need help with homework and the dishes can wait 'til next morning.

In praise of Julia Donaldson. Oh and Spike Milligan too.

Bed-time stories are over for another night and in a few short years they'll be over for good when Philou starts reading for himself. Like his brothers before him, Philou follows the adventures of "The Gruffalo", "The Smartest Giant in Town" and other fantastic creatures. I must have read some of these stories a hundred times, yet many of them are still a pleasure every night. But in my experience most books for young children are very poorly written; imaginative storylines and beautiful illustrations are rightly emphasized but often at the expense of the musicality and tonality of the writing, yet these are vital if the parent is to make the story come alive. There's so much flat and dull writing around that I really appreciate all of the books by Julia Donaldson which are quite wonderful to read aloud.

"His eyes are orange, his tongue is black;
He has purple prickles all over his back"

Oh and Spike Milligan too. "On the Ning Nang Nong" is quite the perfect poem to read to three-year-olds, who have it off-by-heart after two nights.

Saturday, March 12, 2011

Twitter: antidote needed

Curiosity finally overcame scepticism and I created a Twitter account. I've spent far too much time there in the past few days, looking for needles in that enormous haystack with limited success only. But though the quantity of tweets is overwhelming, their lifespan is short. Information on yesterday's earthquake in Japan came in a tsunami of tweets, each one contributing a drop to the wave then disappearing forever into irrelevance.

So as an antidote to the cult of now on Twitter, I spent some time tonight using the Internet as a window to the past. I recently heard the story of Vivian Maier, a nanny in Chicago who died in 2009. During her lifetime she took thousands of photographs of street scenes but showed them to no-one. They were discovered at an antique auction and they're just stunning. See the John Maloof collection, the Jeffrey Goldstein collection and the introductory article in The Guardian.

Sunday, March 6, 2011

Not just child's play

Three-year-old Philou and I went to a puppet show today at Place des Arts. He loved it, and I did too. For him it was pure enjoyment but for me it also had a wistful and eerie ambience - something profoundly human and delicate was portrayed in the startlingly natural behaviour of the puppets.

OK, perhaps that just means I saw a monkey puppet and sadly recognised myself - or maybe this was both child's play and art. I'll go with the latter!

The production was by a Swedish company, Dockteaterverkstan, performing "Monkey Business". My favourite was Helga, the shy, frumpy, knife-throwing old lady, eh monkey, I mean puppet. She was the least like me.

After the show I had a chat with the puppeteer, practicing my rusty Swedish, unfortunately cut short when Philou took off into the crowd and I had to catch him before he disappeared into an elevator.

Crisp clean mountain air, saturated fat

Skiing in France can be a delight for all the senses, including taste. After a breathtaking morning in the high Alps one can regroup over a lunch of savoury cassoulet accompanied by a glass of Côtes du Rhône, and other such delights. But for some reason lunch at North American ski resorts is usually a fast food affair and often quite ghastly: crumbly dry burgers, soggy sandwiches and that infamous Quebec speciality of congealed poutine, all at ridiculous prices.

Last week was the winter school-break and we spent four days skiing in the Quebec City area. At Le Massif in Charlevoix we were pleasantly surprised to find a resort serving appetising and healthy fare: interesting salads, pastas, crisp vegetables and main courses all presented in a bright and welcoming chalet. More please!

The skiing was pretty good too.

Friday, February 18, 2011

Not a cover but a new layer

As I wrote in my last post, Martha Wainwright's recordings of the Piaf songs add new layers to originals that are very much still present. The spirit of Piaf is there, as she says in the video.

There's a rich tradition of this sort of layering in the visual arts of course as I was reminded when I saw this: the photographer Tom Hunter in his work "Woman reading a possession order" twists and builds on Vermeer's famous "A girl reading at an open window". The interior of a 17th century middle-class Dutch home has become a London squat in the 1990's, the fruit a baby, the love letter an eviction order. Beautiful, poignant and thought-provoking, like all great art.