Friday, 28 December 2018

Another Autumn

It's the most photogenic time of the year in Quebec; the twist in this year's photo is that little (no longer so little) Philou dressed himself (by chance!) in colours that matched the landscape.

Saturday, 10 November 2018

That moment of recognition

In the novel Outline by Rachel Cusk, mentioned in my last blog post, the narrator is unnamed and undescribed for a long time. We get glimpses of her through her recollection of conversations with others and slowly her outline becomes apparent. And then, casually, one of the other characters says her name. Faye.

It's a striking moment. We suddenly get a glimpse of a real person. It reminded me of the move Paris, Texas - the viewer sees the world through the eyes of the drifter (played by Harry Dean Stanton), then we come to a moment where a woman in a bar turns around and we recognize her face from the old home movies he's shown his son. It's her, the woman who left him.

I love that film, and I love the Ry Cooder soundtrack even more. Here's one of the best songs from it, Canción Mixteca, sung by Harry Dean Stanton himself with Ry Cooder's intrumentation, and some evocative stills from the movie.

Recent Readings

If you only like novels with a strong plot then move along, there's nothing like that to be seen here.  But I really enjoyed all of these books in the past month - a week in Cuba meant I'd a lot of extra reading time.

A trilogy by Rachel Cusk: Outline, Transit, Kudos
The three novels are an exploration of the theme given in each title, in the context of relationships forming, changing and ending. Our viewpoint is that of a mother of 2 children, a writer living in England who has gone through a bitter divorce, a description which applies to the author Rachel Cusk. We hear very little about her directly; instead she relates her conversations with her students, other authors, ex-lovers, strangers on a plane, all told in her own voice and vocabulary, which to my ear echoes Virginia Woolf (of whom more below). Her character emerges at the boundaries of these interactions.

Now that might sound a bit stiff and dull, but what makes the novels work so well is the quality of that authors voice and the depth of the conversations - Cusk brings our attention to the minute details of our interactions with others and dives deep for nuggets of insight. Or as one of the character says:
Sometimes it has seemed to me that life is a series of punishments for such moments of unawareness, that one forges one’s own destiny by what one doesn’t notice or feel compassion for; that what you don’t know and don’t make the effort to understand will become the very thing you are forced into knowledge of.
I was hooked from the very first page and read the three books one after another, though they won't be everyone's cup of earl grey. 

Albert Camus: L'Étranger
Kamel Daoud: Meursault, contre-enquête
There's nothing I can say about L'Étranger, one of the most renowned books of the 20th century, that hasn't already been said. I enjoyed it and improved my French too. The novel by Daoud is a riposte to it, centred on "l'arabe" who is murdered by the eponymous "l'étranger" Meursault . In Camus' work we learn nothing about this victim, not even his name; he is irrelevant to Meursault and to Camus, and his murder is meaningless. In Daoud's novel we learn that he was named Moussa, and that the lives of his mother and brother were changed forever by his murder. The killing is then put in to context of pre-independence Algeria and how the "pieds noirs" were viewed at that time. Then we enter a mirror image of the Camus story where one of the pied noir, a Frenchman, is murdered by Moussa's brother in an act of revenge that is also meaningless. It's an innovative and enjoyable read, though my level of French is insufficient for me to have an opinion on how well-written it is.

Virginia Woolf: Mrs Dalloway
I've read and re-read this book many times, sometimes just dipping in for a few pages at a time. It's so rich and wise and the prose is so beautiful I'll never be finished with it.

Monday, 2 July 2018

Mr O'Reilly

Mr. O'Reilly was old. I was 10, and for as long as I could remember he'd always been the same, old, standing behind the garden gate outside his terraced house, watching the traffic on our busy road. Black bushy hair and eyebrows and moustache; a well worn black suit and waistcoat; and his pipe with which he constantly fiddled. He smelled of tobacco. From four houses away I could smell it, not unpleasant in itself, but for me a warning: Mr O'Reilly is out.

For he had a gruff manner, as though continually affronted by what he saw from his observation post at the end of his little overgrown garden. And he'd a loud and gravelly voice to complement his imposing dark figure and mannerisms. On my daily errand to buy the final edition of the Evening Herald, I had to pass him. Each time my heart would be pounding in my ears. Could I sneak by quickly without him talking to me?

"The state of that car it should be put off the feckin road!"

Oh no. Should I pretend I hadn't heard him, or just smile back, or what? Oh God!

"What?", he'd bark.

"You're right Mr O'Reilly", I'd stammer.

"Huh", he'd retort, severely unimpressed with my limp response.

I'd continue on up the road, turning right to cross at the traffic lights, taking Sally's bridge over the Grand Canal and on down to Kelly's newsagent, all the while fretting over my return journey and how to avoid Mr. O'Reilly.

But there was no avoiding Mr. O'Reilly.

"The Guards should do something about it but they're feckin' useless."

Oh no. He'd mentioned the Guards. What should I say? Didn't Mam say one of his sons was arrested by the Guards? Is that the fella that was always coming home roaring drunk from the pub, or one of the other rough looking ones?

"What did ye say?" he'd shout.

"Eh, you're right Mr. O'Reilly", I'd offer.


I tried various tactics. I'd cross the road outside my house instead of walking past him up to the traffic lights; I'd often be standing there at the edge of the road for a while, waiting for a gap in the traffic, feeling his eyes boring into my back. I'd take our little dog with me, so that I could take her off the leash at the traffic lights on the way back and race with her past Mr O'Reilly before he could say anything; he'd watch me the whole way, as I kept my eyes facing forward to avoid his gaze. He knew.

I don't know when he stopped being there. I remember one evening much later, back for a visit after a couple of years abroad, I passed him at his gate without either of us speaking. He looked frail, probably didn't recognise me.

He's not there anymore. 

Mr O'Reilly was here


Jim Harrison's "Bridge" is one of the poems I learned off by heart a few years ago. His description of the sea reminds of the times I spent camping in Co. Wexford as a little boy with my family, stormy dark nights when the wind tore at the tent, the rain rattled ts canvas, and the sea thundered a baseline to the cacophony. 
Sometimes the sea roars and howls like 
the animal it is, a continent wide and alive.
What beauty in this the darkest music 
over which you can hear the lightest music of human 
behavior, the tender connection between men and galaxies.

Under a wide and starry night sky I too have felt a connection with the galaxies that sprawl to a horizon a billion light-years away. But the word "tender" intervenes like a note from a different key, intimate and melancholy in the midst of a grand symphony. I don't really understand precisely why the connection might be tender, but I do love the music created by that surprising little phrase.

Reading late one night last week, I had a surprise when that same little phrase showed up in a very different piece.
Comme si cette grande colère m'avait purgé du mal, vidé d'espoir, devant cette nuit chargée de signes et d'étoiles, je m'ouvrais pour la première fois à la tendre indifférence du monde.
from L'étranger by Albert Camus 


Merseault, the eponymous "l'étranger" (best translated as "outsider") of Camus' masterpiece, is expressing the opposite emotion, the stars opening his eyes to the "tender" indifference of the world, rather than its connection with him. But the effect is similar, a note of intimacy and melancholy is struck in this tumultuous last movement of the novel.

Am I the only who's heard that echo - or is it deliberately made by Harrison?  

Friday, 29 June 2018

Ireland is boilin'

This week in Ireland we have the hottest weather in 42 years. The roads are melting (literally) and we're running out of water (literally). In short, as the woman at the checkout in Supervalu said to me, it's boilin' outside (metaphorically). The TV news shows pictures of beaches filled with Irish sunbathers turning the colour of, yes, boiled lobsters.

But when Mam and I went for a walk in Newcastle Co. Wicklow we found the beach deserted, with a deliciously cool breeze coming off the Irish sea.

We walked a few 100 metres beside the railway lane and passed this forlorn abandoned cottage, slumped in the heat, under dazzling blue skies stretching westwards to the Wicklow mountains

I rather like this heated up Ireland, especially because I know it'll be cold and wet again soon enough.

Saturday, 16 June 2018

Solar Bones by Mike McCormack

I'm delighted to see this novel get the recognition it merits: Solar Bones by Mike McCormack has just won the International Dublin literary award. I read it last year on the back of a strong review in the Irish Times, and it's one of the very few books which I've turned around and read again as soon as I finished it (Austerlitz by W.G.Sebald being the only other in recent memory).

The recent reviews and indeed the blurb on the back of the paperback all give the reader a piece of information about the novel's main character and narrator which in my honest opinion you would be better off not knowing. I read it on my Kindle and didn't have this information , so I found the first half of the book a bit disorienting and eerie - it was wonderful!
I’ve lived in for nearly twenty-five years and raised a family, this house outside the village of Louisburgh in the county of Mayo on the west coast of Ireland, the village in which I can trace my seed and breed back to a time when it was nothing more than a ramshackle river crossing of a few smoky homesteads clustered around a forge and a log bridge, a sod-and-stone hamlet not yet gathered to a proper plan nor licensed to hold a fair, my line traceable to the gloomy prehistory in which a tenacious clan of farmers and fishermen kept their grip on a small patch of land
   through hail and gale
   hell and high water
men with bellies and short tempers, half of whom went to their graves with pains in their chests before they were sixty, good singers many of them
The other thing you'll hear in any review is that the book is written as one long sentence, which is factually true but misleading. There is a lot of punctuation, just no full stops, and there are obvious pauses and changes of perspective. The quality of the writing is of an uncommonly high standard in its tone and lyricism. It's not a difficult read, quite the contrary it's extremely engaging but demanding of your full attention.

The opening of the novel is pure poetry. In fact as I re-read it now it causes another poem to echo in my mind.
the bell
  the bell as
  hearing the bell as
    hearing the bell as standing here
    the bell being heard standing here
    hearing it ring out through the grey light of this
    morning, noon or night
    god knows
    this grey day standing here and
    listening to this bell in the middle of the day,
 the middle of the day bell, the Angelus bell in the middle of the day
The sounds and repetitions in those opening lines reminds me of the last poem written by Samuel Beckett "What is the word" 
folly –
folly for to –
for to –
what is the word –
folly from this –
all this –
folly from all this –
given –
folly given all this –
seeing –
folly seeing all this –
this –
what is the word –
this this –
this this here –
Hmm, is there a connection with Beckett? I think I'll have to read it again... 

Friday, 15 June 2018

"Dad, you're like a kid in a toy shop!"

And he was right, my middle son, I was a kid again. We were at the Canadian Grand Prix, walking around the track towards the exit after the second Formula 1 practice as my son had had enough for the day, but I'd stopped to watch the Formula Ford 1600's, my face pressed up against the fencing to get a better view of those spindly little cars. Forty-five (and more) years ago in Dublin the simple FF 1600 class was the showpiece of the Phoenix Park motor races - we could only dream of seeing F1 cars. Then it was my own Dad who was the kid in the toy shop and who couldn't leave until the last race was won - by which time I'd be bursting to take a pee and would have to run for a slash behind a tree. Bit of a Dublin tradition that, luckily there are a lot of trees in the Phoenix Park and hopefully by now some toilets too!

Things are a bit more sophisticated in Montreal in 2018: decent though expensive food, clean toilets (sinks! soap!), and the F1 cars are spectacular. I also played with the shutter speed of my camera in a reasonably successful attempt to get blur-free picture of the cars as they ripped past us.

Memories are made of days like these.

Sunday, 1 April 2018

I am another you

I am He, He is me,

if You only knew

He is another you
         - Dylan Olsen

"I am another you" is a documentary about 22 year old Dylan Olsen, living on streets in Florida, a situation he has apparently chosen and is content with. Dylan is articulate and charismatic. Passers-by often engage and help him, in contrast with the treatment of other indigents. The Chinese documentary-maker Nanfu Wang is fascinated by Dylan and by his absolute freedom, a contrast with her experiences growing up in a repressive China. However all is not as it seems.

I loved this documentary when I first saw it on PBS, sitting in solitude in a business hotel on a recent trip to Ottawa. I watched it again last Friday with my family - it's available on Amazon Prime - and it sparked several dinner conversations between us. It's a story of freedom, of the implications that can come from simple decisions, and of mental illness. My eldest son pointed out that it's also a story of how fathers and sons relate to each other and, worryingly, that's true too.

I hope for the best for Dylan wherever he is now but, typically, I fear for the worst.

Saturday, 31 March 2018

Five went to Baie-Saint-Paul

Baie-Saint-Paul, November 2017

Sunday, 21 January 2018

Biography of a song: Miss Otis Regrets

Cole Porter wrote Miss Otis Regrets in 1934 as a humorous parody of those mournful old folk songs about young girls who've been tricked by an immoral man into "losing their virtue". In the song the eponymous Miss Otis is seduced and defiled, then shoots her seducer dead, is arrested, dragged off by an angry mob, and hanged, all within a single day! The twist in Porter's tale is that Miss Otis is not a poor young girl but a society lady, and it's a butler who communicates her regrets that, due to the unforeseen circumstances of having been hanged, she will be unable to lunch with Madam today.

This clip from the 1946 movie "Night & Day" is the song as Porter wrote it, with Madam clearly not enjoying the bawdy humour.

The song took on a life that Porter could not have imagined. It's been sung as a genuine cowboy ballad (by Lonnie Donegan), as a jazz standard (Ella Fitzgerald), as a tragic torch song (Linda Rondstadt), as an Irish folk song (The Pogues) and as a German cabaret tear-jerker (Marlene Dietrich ... seriously!). Even Édith Piaf has had a go. I listened to more than 20 versions of it on Tidal yesterday, drawing a line only when it came to the Brazilian orchestra doing a Bossa Nova rendition.

It seems to be a song that is infinitely malleable, a precious metal that can be endlessly re-worked into a delicate new bijou. The melody is catchy, the lyrics are striking, but it's the repetition of "Madam" that lends a strange quality to it and allow singers to make it their own, through sideways glances that can be witty, coy, plaintive, heart-rending and more.

Here are the four recordings that I most enjoyed, with my absolute favourite being the one Kirsty MacColl did on the BBC's New Year's Eve show in 1995, accompanied by an army band with bagpipes and drums.

Saturday, 23 December 2017

Well I'm not lost...

I mostly know where I am, I certainly remember where I came from, but quite how and why I got here will always be a bit of a mystery.

East of Baie-Saint-Paul, Quebec, Autumn 2017

Wednesday, 15 February 2017

Old(er) dog, new tricks

Habits are a blocker to learning; the mindlessness of habit reduces conscious engagement with your surroundings, so you miss opportunities to be surprised and challenged, and to be truly “alive”.

This I learned from Alain de Botton's How Proust Can Change Your Life which is a great read for a winter's weekend. (By contrast, Proust's great work kept me occupied for 3 years, one volume for each winter and summer holiday...)

How to apply this wisdom? Well I've decided to leave the company where I've been working contentedly for seven years because it's become a comfortable habit for me. In my new job I'll be challenged and will feel a bit insecure - I expect to learn a lot!

And in a move of greater significance for the world and for public safety, I'm also trying to break a habit that I've formed in a half-century of car travel, by adopting a better way of opening car doors.

It's called the 'Dutch reach' and I learned about it in a letter to The Guardian
The Netherlands has found a solution to the problem of car doors and cyclists (Transport secretary knocks man off his bike, 16 December). Dutch motorists are trained to open the car door with their opposite hand. This forces the body to swivel, and your eyes to look backward, thus spotting a passing cyclist. Drivers must demonstrate this to pass the driving test. It is referred to sometimes as the “Dutch reach”. In the Netherlands it is simply called how you open your car door. 
Henry Stewart
It's a technique to avoid this:


I've been doing it for a week and I have to stop and remind myself every time I get out of the car. I've asked my kids to police me, which of course they're only too happy to do! Opening the car door is now a learning experience for me - and the world is a tiny bit safer for cyclists.

Monday, 2 January 2017

PhotoStream: Autumn in Québec

Autumn in Québec
Mont Tremblant, October 2016

Do not say we have nothing by Madeleine Thien

This painting is in my dining room in Montreal:

I bought it from an art student in the Forbidden City, the ancient Chinese imperial palace in Beijing. It brings back happy memories of my six visits to Beijing in 2003 and 2004 establishing a software development centre for my Irish employer. The Chinese engineers I hired were great - smart, enthusiastic and very sociable. We quickly discovered that we shared a fondness for sitting in the local bar, laughing and chatting about anything and everything over a few drinks, and we spent many an evening, and even a few lunchtimes, doing just that. A bit like the scene in the picture.

I remarked to one of my colleagues, an American woman who had lived in China for more than a decade, that we Irish and Chinese seemed to be very similar in our outlook on life, such as our willingness to find the humour in every situation and build a story around it. She agreed, but added "Don't forget that these are the children and grand-children of people who lived through the cultural revolution. The scars from that time will last for generations".

Madeleine Thien's novel, "Do not say we have nothing" explores those terrible times through the histories of the members of an eccentric family, their experiences, their scars.

This quote from one of the characters could almost be a raison d'etre for the book itself:
“The things you experience,” she continued, “are written on your cells as memories and patterns, which are reprinted again on the next generation. And even if you never lift a shovel or plant a cabbage, every day of your life something is written upon you. And when you die, the entirety of that written record returns to the earth. All we have on this earth, all we are, is a record. Maybe the only things that persist are not the evildoers and demons (though, admittedly, they do have a certain longevity) but copies of things. The original has long since passed away from this universe, but on and on we copy. I have devoted my minuscule life to the act of copying.”
It's a hugely ambitious novel, digging down to the deepest thoughts and emotions of her characters while at the same time striving to reach a perspective on the turmoil overtaking that vast country. It's not an easy read; at times I was suffocated with dread, at other times broken-hearted, but there were moments of elation too. The story of the family has two axes: classical music and especially Bach's Goldberg variations in this family of gifted musicians, and literature in the form of a mythical and mystical novel, the Book of Records, whose chapters are written and revealed over the course of many years. Music and literature represent truth and beauty, and they will be broken on the wheel of Mao's cultural revolution, as will anyone who continues to believe in them. This is what befalls the family, and the damage echoes down the generation.
“For twenty years, Sparrow had convinced himself that he had safeguarded the most crucial part of his inner life from the Party, the self that composed and understood the world through music. But how could it be? Time remade a person. Time had rewritten him. How could a person counter time itself?” 
The novel succeeds beautifully in my opinion. It's wise too. I filled seven pages with highlighted passages and as I re-read them now I'm brought back in to the novel. Here are a few of them, in no particular order, that give a good sense of what the book is about.
“The first aria of the Goldberg Variations was also its end. Could it be that everything in this life had been written from the beginning?”
“She wondered how many things a person knew that were better forgotten. Her father had looked at the piano as if it were the only solid thing in the room, as if everything and everyone else, including himself, were no more than an illusion, a dream.”
“It was very modern and deeply Western to listen to music that no one else could hear. Private music led to private thoughts. Private thoughts led to private desires, to private fulfillments or private hungers, to a whole private universe away from parents, family and society.”
It's not all bleak - there is hope too!
“In the end, I believe these pages and the Book of Records return to the persistence of this desire: to know the times in which we are alive. To keep the record that must be kept and also, finally, to let it go. ”
“Beauty leaves its imprints on the mind. Throughout history, there have been many moments that can never be recovered, but you and I know that they existed.” 
“She squeezed her eyes shut and recited the only words that came to her, the poem at the opening of Chapter 41 of the Book of Records:  ‘Of course, no one knows tomorrow. Tomorrow begins from another dawn, when we will be fast asleep. Remember what I say: not everything will pass.’ ” 
Oh and there's at least one good joke.
“What did the Buddhist say to the pizza maker?” “What?” “Make me one with everything.” 
Badum tish!

What a great book.

Wednesday, 28 December 2016

PhotoStream: After the rain

After the rain
Jardins de Métis, Québec, July 2016

Trinity Tales

I grew up just a 20 minute walk from Trinity College but until my first day as a student there I had never been inside its walls. I must have passed by the front gate on College Green a thousand times, but my curiosity was never strong enough to overcome my feeling that it was a portal to an alien world.

And then in September 1981 I found myself in the very grand Physics building, a first year student in Engineering. I surveyed my classmates with trepidation: the red-faced country lads who all seemed to instinctively seek out each other and sat together; the Chinese group, from Malaysia I later found out, earnest and bespectacled; and the biggest group of guys and a few girls who all seemed to know each other and teased each other loudly in accents that sounded English to my ear.

After I'd cycled home that evening my Mam asked, as she always did when I came in from anywhere, "Did you meet anyone you know?". I replied that I didn't and that in fact there was no one from Dublin in my class - as far as I could tell most of them were from England. It took me a few days to realise that those "English" students were in fact from the southern suburbs of Dublin, products of the private schools of Blackrock College and other mythological places. No one else from my working-class school in Crumlin, Colaiste Caoimhin CBS, made it to University, despite our walking-distance proximity to one of the world's great universities.

Academically I did well at Trinity College, achieving a 1st class honours degree in Engineering in 1985. I made friends with a lot of the country lads, especially the characters in the Mullingar mafia. But I never really clicked with the South County Dublin set. In first year I tried to adopt their accent, but by my second year I had decided to double-down on my flat Dublin tones, my grey duffel coat and my beard. If they were foreign to me, well jaysus I was determined to be twice as foreign to them. My loss, probably.

Most of the tales in this book are written by members of that South County Dublin set. I don't really recognise their experiences - it's like we were at a different place.

Monday, 26 December 2016

PhotoStream: Spire and smokestack in a Swedish sunset

The sacred and the profane.
Spire and smokestack in a Swedish sunset
Linköping, December 2016

Sunday, 13 November 2016

Traditional, yet new

Like most Irish people of my generation, the wonders of Irish folk and traditional music were introduced to me by Planxty. Their approach to the music was somewhat non-traditional - they were raucous, rhythmic and bawdy, and they blew away the stuffy approach of the oul fellas in aran sweaters and tweed caps. They've inspired many musicians over the years, though recently I seen a trend to strip the old music down to its essentials, leaving aside some of the musical complexities that Planxty introduced.

A recent discovery for me, the Dublin quartet Lynched, are an illustration of that. Their music seems quite stark and spare at times, but they really pack a punch too. Take this performance for example. It begins as a slow and simple ballad, then after four minutes the pipes join in and by the end it's rolling powerfully. And the obvious delight the four musicians take in the performance really adds to the atmosphere they create.

By contrast, is it possible that in Québec the pendulum is swinging in the opposite direction, with a new generation of musicians adding complexity and rhythm to the old songs? Take Mélisande as an example, another recent discovery for me, who add synths, a backbeat, and their own feminist lyrical twist to the Quèbec “call and response” songs.

These two bands are so different from each other, but they're both so authentic and so strong. This is a good time for traditional music.