Thursday, 27 December 2012

Notre-Dame-de-Grâce sous la neige

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

Thursday, 29 November 2012

Any light in the gloom over Ireland?

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

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

Tuesday, 25 September 2012

Michel Rivard à Dix30

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

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

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

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

Sunday, 22 July 2012

Le Festival de Lanaudière

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

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

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

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

Saturday, 14 July 2012

Now a Big _Canadian_ LooLaa

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

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

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

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

Sunday, 1 July 2012

How common is cheating in soccer and rugby?

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

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

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


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

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

Wednesday, 28 March 2012

Really getting into the music...instruments

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

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

Safe Travels (Don't Die)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

                          Lisa Hannigan

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

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.

Larry Lumsden meets the Chinese President Wen Jiabao

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.


‘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.