Wednesday, 29 April 2009
On Monday nights since September we've been running a reading club at our house. There are eight of us but sometimes the number in attendance slips a few. There are just two men in the group - myself and John McAleer. He's a former colleague of mine at UUJ and a very bright man. Anyway, a couple of months ago I suggested that we might round off our book discussion each evening with a favourite poem that each of us would bring along. So John's wife Bridget mentioned that John wrote poetry, and he agreed to bring a poem in and read it last Monday. It's called 'Jude's Circle' but that's just the poem's jumping-off point. I like it a lot: it's very thoughtful, just like its creator.
Green glass batteries splashing acid from their noses
Carried in wire frames slung from handlebars
Fetched home from charger’s shop
To coax the radio to life.
What alchemy is this plucking voices from the silence?
It was done before in stone circles set to measure sun and moon
To name the silence and master the emptiness of time.
The words embrace the dumb dead things and make them shine.
The world is named, recast and named again.
We circle its resistant crust and prise a gap
To take possession of everything that is, with words.
When shelter food and sleep are done we turn to play,
Spraying paint from berry-reddened lips to splayed hand, or
Measuring the gate of antelope and bison across cave wall.
Now the ping of radiated sound flung far to starlit space,
The Hubble searching for our match beyond the rim.
All restless play to fill the void and leave no space unfilled.
We circle here as done before to dwell upon the words.
I remember an occasion over thirty years ago, in Newcastle upon Tyne, saying to the man I was drinking with that I figured all the things we do, including great art, are to help us forget that inside fifty, a hundred years we'll be no more than a handful of dust. He seemed to find this funny (admittedly we'd both been drinking for quite some time) but he didn't explain what aspect of it he found funny.
I found myself thinking of this over the past week. My wife's sister Phil had been rushed to hospital and had been diagnosed as having a tumour on her brain and underwent surgery in Dublin. As we waited for news and prayed, all the normal things that interest me - books, music, sport, ideas - all slipped away and became the feeble props I'd identified them as being in that boozing session so long ago. And then, with the surgery completed and the word that my sister-in-law was looking pretty wretched, when we were bracing ourselves for the worst, word came. The tumour was benign and she was going home the next day. Again, everything else became meaningless, peripheral, but instead of a core of fear we were focused on a core of joy. As Woody Allen said once: "The two most beautiful words in the English language: it's benign".
Thursday, 23 April 2009
I'm getting ready to run a half-marathon (no, please, please - you'll frighten the horses with your applause) in Bantry at the beginning of next month. There are a lot of interesting aspects to doing this, including the recurring thought "Am I mad/stupid/consumed by a death-wish?", but the one that struck me today was the way institutions - more specifically places - like to rip you off. My last encounter with this was a few years back, when we were leaving Vancouver airport. We'd bitten deep into the bank balance, as usually is the case with holidays, and were about to leave this good-looking airport, when so help me, a pleasant airport official put a gun to my head and told me to give him around fifty quid. In Canadian dollars. OK, he didn't actually use a gun but he made it clear that if we didn't fork out this extra sum, we just weren't going to get leaving his nice airport. Something to do with an airport tax and the need to keep this lovely airport looking lovely or even lovelier. We had to pay, of course. No choice. Sprung on us at the last minute when there wasn't any possible way of going back. So today, after much online meandering, I finally located a reasonably-priced car for rental. I couldn't get a car to rent in Cork city, which struck me as a bit odd. All the car rentals are located at Cork airport, about five or six miles outside the city. So what the hell, I thought - I'll get out there, I'll book it. So I did, online. And when I had given my credit card details and all the rest, swounds, I look and see a little note that says 'A standard airport surchange of €28 will be added to the cost when you pick up your car from Cork Airport'. That's the equivalent of an extra day's rental cost. So should I cancel my booking? No point, except I want to opt for a bicycle during my time down there, where I'm confidently told the scenery is simply yummy. So now I know why they've located all the car rentals out at the airport. Not to convenience the flight passengers (which I'm not) but to take money out of their pockets and the pockets of others who're left with no choice. A small Irish gun or a slightly bigger Canadian gun - take your pick.
Monday, 20 April 2009
The aptly-named Dick Roche was on television yesterday. Dick is a well-padded man, an Irish cabinet minister and he was talking about a young Irishman who’d been shot dead in Bolivia. The authorities there say the young man was part of a group intent on assassinating the country’s president, Evo Morales. Dick in contrast said that there was no evidence the young man was engaged in illegal activities, and that he Dick was full of sympathy for the young man and his family.
Well good man Dick. For a young man to lose his life is saddening, and the sadness is somehow deepened by the fact that the sad events occurred so far away from home. Which makes it doubly cheering that a politician so elevated can empathise with ordinary people, especially when misfortune strikes in a foreign land.
And it is of course a blow for justice and human rights everywhere that Dick has insisted we must presume the young man innocent until or if he is proved guilty. That’s the cornerstone of any respectable justice system. Dick had another opportunity to speak out under similar circumstances in Latin America a few years ago. Three Irishmen were arrested and charged with helping FARC guerrillas in their campaign against the government. There was no evidence of any kind that the men had done what they were charged– in fact the testimony of some witnesses for the prosecution were shown to be poorly-constructed lies, contradicted by the facts. Unfortunately Dick must have been on his holidays or maybe nodded off during the months of the men’s incarceration and trial. There are some suspicious-minded people who think that because the men had links with Sinn Fein, that may have affected Dick’s notable silence as well as the cries of ‘They’re guilty as hell and deserve what’s coming to them!’ that came from his colleagues in Fianna Fail and much of the Irish media.
Inconsistency: that’s what makes so many Irish politicians a delight to observe. Sure if well-padded men like Dick reacted in the same way to every Irishman abroad who was killed or imprisoned, life would be very dull.
Friday, 17 April 2009
I spent yesterday talking to four people, three of whom I had last seen when they and I were seventeen years old. I'm doing a series of interviews with people (I almost said 'boys') who left St Columb's College, Derry (yes, that's right - the only school in the world to have produced two Nobel Prize winners - John Hume and Seamus Heaney) in 1960. The idea is to have the interviews completed by next year, the fiftieth anniversary and maybe squeeze a publication out of it.
It's sobering, seeing people age fifty years overnight, as it were. I was struck by the frailty of the flesh with the first two men - one had a serious heart condition, the other had a stomach problem that he was having tests run on. The second two, whom I interviewed together - one had a serious heart condition, the other was healthy enough but had lost all his hair, once thick and ginger. So I'm sitting there interviewing the second two, looking from one to the other, when I happen to raise my eyes and look into a mirror behind them. Switch the temperature from chilling to blood-freezing: I'm looking at a scrawny old bugger with no hair worth talking about, a neck that looks like it's made of slack strings of flesh and a smile that shows terrifying teeth-gaps.
And yet I can't rid myself of the thought that we're all only pretending to be grown-up, senior, grandfathers and sages. Inside, we haven't a clue about hardly anything and if we had a chance, we'd opt for having a laugh and maybe getting pissed, preferably in the company of a handful (OK, a group) of gorgeous and admiring girls, rather than exploring the meaning of life or facing the awful prospect that inside twenty years, if we're lucky, we'll all be looking at the world from a six-foot-under perspective. In the meantime, though, a resolution: the next shop assistant who asks me to put my 'WEE credit card' into the paying thingy and calls me 'love/pet' is going to get a fist in the face.
Tuesday, 14 April 2009
Monday, 13 April 2009
This is my first blog and I don’t even know if I should dip my toe in the bloggy waters, but a cartoon in The Irish Times the other day gave me such a pain in the bum, I need to vent my spleen somewhere. It showed a great oafish balaclava-ed figure peeling an Elastoplast strip from his arm, with underneath ‘Real’ and under that ‘Continuity’ and under that ‘Provisional’, all having the common ‘IRA’ as their noun. The little funny figure beside the oaf is saying: “That’s awful. These pointless mindless murders aren’t the same as the Provos’ mindless murders’.
It’s so typical of The Irish Times, which sets its face against all republican violence but has a soft spot for the violence of the First World War, particularly that involving British regiments and especially particularly British regiments in which Irishmen fought.
Of course all war is hell. Of course the taking of a single life is a kind of blasphemy, dousing a unique flame that God went to the bother of creating. But the selective condemnation of violence - Provo violence bad, British regiment violence noble - suggests that those who produce this kind of line are either unable to see the lack of logic in their position, or able to see the lack of logic but assume the rest of us are so stupid, we won’t. If The Irish Times made the same effort to understand the position of nationalists and republicans in the North as they do to understand the position of unionists, progress towards reconciliation and grown-up politics would be a lot more brisk.
“Early to bed/Early to rise/Makes a man healthy, wealthy, witty and wise”. My father liked to quote that old saw, and at the time - when I was in my teens and early twenties - it struck me as both boring and false. These days, about fifty years later, I’m much less sure. By the time it gets to ten o’clock of an evening, I’m usually to be seen shuffling towards the stairs and my bed. Not so much because I’m terribly tired, but because I know that if I don’t get to bed soon, given that I wake pretty early in the morning, like around six, I’m going to feel like a sack of pig-dung in the morning. Most people who know me know not to contact me any later than 9.00 p m.
So the other night I’d composed myself and was in the land of Nod shortly after 10.00 p m. I’m just getting my dream system organised and I’m working on giving Yvette Mimieux a walk-on part, when the phone beside my bed goes off like a hand-grenade. The clock says it’s something to eleven.
“Hello” this man I know says. “Were you in the bed”?
“Yes” I say, trying not to shout.
“I said I was in bed. I am in bed”.
“Good man, good man”.
One of two things. This man didn’t take in what I said - that I was in bed - and so is asking questions, the answer to which he can’t be bothered listening, or he did hear what I said and doesn’t give a monkey’s toss whether he has roused me or not. Of course I didn’t put any of this to him. I was polite, took his message about some arrangements that could have been dealt with the next day, and tried to go back to sleep. Could I? Can my cat play the saxaphone?
There’s a fortune waiting for two people. The first person will make himself 24/7 available to take the phone number of someone who’s disturbed a sleeper like myself, he’ll wait until the offender is himself asleep - sa around 2.30 a m - at which point he’ll phone him every hour, on the hour, maybe greeting him with the shrieked words “How d’you like them apples, punk?” The second person will devise a setting for your phone which detects when someone as rung at an unnecessarily late-sleep-time hour; when activated, this device will send a middle-ear-puncturing blast back into the skull of the after-hours caller.
Some sins are too heinous to go unpunished.
It’s an odd sensation, to know you’ve brushed up against greatness. My experience of that was to have been in the same History class at University College Dublin (UCD) as Ruth Dudley Edwards in the early-1960s. Ruth then was a frumpy little thing with not much to say for herself other than that her boyfriend was Patrick Cosgrove, fated to go on to admire Maggie Thatcher and write a glowing biography of her, and her father was Owen Dudley Edwards, the Professor of History. I managed to scrape a Second Class Honours Grade 2 in History, which coincidentally was what the better-associated Ruth also got.
Anyway, when I heard her today on RTE radio explaining why the south of Ireland should get itself back into the British Commonwealth at the earliest opportunity, because it would, um, allow them to, er, associate with a whole lot of other countries, some of them in Asia. She didn’t explain what good this would do the people of the twenty-six counties, other than to concede that it wasn’t an economic argument she was advancing.
Maybe this get-thee-to-a-Commonwealth is part of a unionist conspiracy. Former Ulster Unionist grandee John Taylor, aka Lord Kilclooney was piping a similar tune on a discussion panel called ‘Forum’ on PressTV (see www.presstv.com) recently. He also argued that a great number of Catholics in the North of Ireland are in fact unionists. When I asked him to explain why, if that were so, over ninety-five per cent of Catholics have voted for anti-union parties since the inception of the state nearly a century ago, he was uncharacteristically silent.
You have to admire the gall of the Ruth-‘n’-John show, though. Keep the buggers worried about staying out of the Commonwealth and they’ll have less time and energy to devote to working for an end to the Union.