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.