Monday, 29 December 2014

Off by heart - halfway there

Well it seems my 50-year-old brain is still capable of learning some new tricks: I have learned 3 of the 6 poems I set myself in my last post off by heart.

I began with Wind by Hughes and then The Given Note by Heaney. Learning them was straightforward, taking a few days for each via a process of mentally repeating a small number of lines at a time.  I found it helpful in both cases to listen to others reading the poems so as to catch the rhythm. I have a recording of Heaney reading his own poem (in The Poet and the Piper) and I copied his intonations. For example, in the line:
The house throbbed like his full violin
my initial prononciation was Vih-Oh-Lin in three even syllables, whereas Heaney says it more quickly, Viah-Lin, which makes the line flow better I believe.

Learning Soir d'hiver by Nelligan was rather more complicated. First I went looking for some good translations so as to ensure I really understood it. I particularly like this translation by Clarissa Ackroyd. (Her blog, The Stone and the Star, is a revelation of fine poetic things, and I love the name Clarissa - reminds me of Mrs Dalloway...) Next I went looking for a reading of the poem to hear its music and I settled on this one by Gilles-Claude Thériault - I find the background music in the recording to be a bit distracting but his voice is wonderful. The final part of the process was subjecting one of my francophone children to my recital and Tristan was patient with me, correcting my errors in return for me setting up the laptop he got for Christmas. For some reason the following line took me a long time to say to his satisfaction:
Je suis la nouvelle Norvège
It contains the first accent grave in the poem after a run of accents aigu, and in combination with an "r" it gave me some trouble. Anyway I can now pronounce it to Tristan's satisfaction, even if he says I still sound like an anglophone...

I'm currently learning Bridge by Jim Harrison, which presents different challenges. More news on that shortly.

Monday, 15 December 2014

Off by heart

He may not be with us for much longer but, though very unwell, Clive James remains irascible and insightful with a seasoning of wistfulness, and it makes me happy just to think of him. His book, Cultural Amnesia, has been a companion on my bedside table for a few years now and last week I delighted in the sound of his twanging Aussie voice in an interview on RTE radio.

Asked by interviewer Sinead Gleeson to name a poem that influenced him, James, flirting no doubt, came up with a poem by Irishman Louis MacNeice, and recited it from memory: The Sunlight on the Garden.

I can also recite poems from memory, works by Yeats and Kavanagh mostly that I learned at school. They're poems with which I am intimate, the process of learning them by heart has somehow made me internalize them and understand them deeply. I've read and loved many poems since my school days, but never tried to learn another one by heart.

Until now. Inspired by the dying Clive James (who I hope will be dying for a few years yet) I'm learning the following poems I love off-by-heart, four in English and (gulp) one each in French and Swedish
  • Wind, by Ted Hughes
  • The Given Note, by Seamus Heaney
  • Bridge, by Jim Harrison
  • The Sunlight on the Garden, by Louis MacNeice (Thanks Clive!)
  • Soir d'hiver, par Émile Nelligan
  • Romanska bågar, av Tomas Tranströmer
Progress reports will follow, assuming my 50-year-old brain makes progress...

Sunday, 7 December 2014

The Dead

How many! All these here once walked around Dublin. Faithful departed.
(thought Leopold Bloom at Glasnevin Cemetery in Joyce's Ulysses)

The Irish republican Valhalla? Glasnevin cemetery is certainly that but it's a lot more than that too, this landscaped garden containing the last remains of 1.5 million Dubliners. My Grandfather (Edward Henrick, Irish Volunteer) is buried here in an unmarked grave and Mam has visited a few times in recent years to find the spot. Today, she and I have come to take the guided tour of the cemetery.

I've never been here before and I’m surprised at how many of the famous and infamous names of Irish history are here, old comrades and sometime foes buried within a few hundred yards of each other: O’Connell, Parnell, DeValera, Collins, Boland, Casement...

I recall the lines by Yeats from a poem I learned off-by-heart at school
Romantic Ireland’s dead and gone,
It’s with O’Leary in the grave
and here I am before that O’Leary’s grave.

The oration given by Padraig Pearse at the graveside of O’Donovan Rossa was (literally) beaten in to us at school, its call-to-arms to be acted upon in the Easter rebellion of 1916 a few months after he delivered it
the fools, the fools, the fools! - they have left us our Fenian dead, and while Ireland holds these graves, Ireland unfree shall never be at peace.
Today I stand where Pearse stood almost 100 years ago, at the graveside of Jeremiah O'Donovan Rossa.

We pass by the graves of Sean MacBride and Countess Markievicz and our tour guide gives them the full hero treatment: Madame, the first woman elected to the parliament in Westminster and a fearless combatant in the rebellion; MacBride, a winner of the Nobel peace prize, co-founder of Amnesty International and towering statesman. I could add some other thoughts about them, but standing in the shadows of their gravestones is no place for cynicism.

(But there’s no better place for cynicism than a blog! The series of lectures “Speaking Ill of the Dead” hosted by RTE a few years ago had two wonderful pieces challenging the official Ireland view of these two. Professor David Norris gave a typically witty talk on MacBride a great public man who was also mean-spirited and probably homophobic. And Ruth Dudley Edwards has a good old go at the snobby and silly Madame, a woman with a callous disregard for the deadly impact of her posing.)

It’s odd to think of a cemetery as a tourist attraction, but frankly this is one of the best experiences I've had in Dublin as a “tourist”. By chance, during my visit to Ireland the documentary about Glasnevin, One Million Dubliners, is broadcast on Irish TV. For any Irish person watching it is a moving experience.

The last person to speak in that trailer, Shane MacThomais, was a well-known Dublin historian, as was his father before him. At the end of the clip he says, with a catch in his voice, "it lifts my spirit to work here" - but as we viewers knew, Shane took his own life just a few weeks after speaking these words, and the last part of the documentary is of his funeral in Glasnevin cemetery. (The blog Come Here to Me paid him a fine tribute.)

The last thing Mam and I see on our way out is a simple plaque by the entrance gate in memory of Shane. We exit, and leave the dead behind us.

Sunday, 12 October 2014

Irish Lives in War and Revolution

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sunday, 5 October 2014

Our response to radicalised Islam is insane

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

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

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

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

Saturday, 4 October 2014


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

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

Sunday, 14 September 2014

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thursday, 21 August 2014

Lady Lazarus

One poem leads to another. 

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

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

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

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

Sunday, 10 August 2014

An interview with Ted Hughes

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

Here are a few of the many insights.

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

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

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

Saturday, 9 August 2014

French Musical Impressionism at le Festival de Lanaudière

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

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

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

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

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

Big Bang Masterchef!

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

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

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

Episode 1

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

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

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

Episode 2

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

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

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

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

Episode 3

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

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

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

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

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

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

Friday, 8 August 2014

Here's something for the weekend

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

Friday, 25 July 2014

Daniel Lanois and Emmylou Harris

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

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

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

Wednesday, 30 April 2014

Edward Hendrick, Irish Volunteer

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

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

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

Margaret Davenport and Edward Hendrick in 1921

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

Edward Hendrick in 1947

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

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

Edward Hendrick's
1916 Medal

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