A tragedy, and a return to Hook Head

'A single cormorant kept a solitary vigil.'

‘A single cormorant kept a solitary vigil.’

FOR 1,500 years this was the sight that greeted the lighthouse keeper at Hook Head in Co Wexford.

Looking east from the headland he would see serrated cliffs slip into the Celtic Sea, with the Saltee Islands in the distance.

The view greeted 5th century Irish monks, the Elizabethan lighthouse keepers of the 1600s and the men of the Commissioners of Irish Lights, who took up duties at Hook Lighthouse in the mid-19th century.

It’s also a view that I’ve known since I was old enough to walk the precarious cliffs that stretch from lighthouse itself around to the nearby village of Slade.

Walking it this week, for the first time in a number of years, it was easy to see why those early monks lit warning fires on the peninsula to protect passing ships.

The knife-edged quartzite bluffs appear menacing, even on a benign July morning. The danger they pose, particularly in the all-too-prevalent fogs off the south coast, has ensured that a light has been kept at Hook Head ever since those first cliff-top fires.

Hook Lighthouse.

Hook Lighthouse.

This constant presence has also secured Hook the position of the world’s oldest working lighthouse – and it now attracts thousands of visitors each year. (This is not its only claim to fame. In 2011 Lonely Planet labelled the structure the world’s ‘flashiest lighthouse’.)

But unlike these visitors the lure of the area for me lies beyond the lighthouse. My family has history at Hook Head and it’s sited in this eastward view over the waters of the Celtic Sea.

This area of water is where my great-grandfather, Charles Cullen, was lost in July 1924, a crewman on the stricken steamer SS Lismore.

It went down 16 miles out, capsizing when its cargo shifted. Of the 16 men aboard, just one survived.

My great-grandfather went down with the ship, leaving a wife and family behind (my grandmother was 16 at the time). No trace of him, or any of the other 14 men who were lost on July 10, 1924, was ever found. (The wreck of the Lismore, or what remains of it, was later located – lying on the seabed 35 metres down.)

Hook Lighthouse.

‘My family has history at Hook Head.’

Charles Cullen’s name wasn’t mentioned much when I was young; time had moved on and the tragedy has passed into the family history.

But he came to mind this week when, on a visit to Wexford, my father and I decided to take the old family trip again, joining the rental cars and day tripping families at ‘the Hook’.

Walking away from the lighthouse and along the cliffs – almost 90 years to the day that my great-grandfather was lost – I wondered if this tragedy had somehow subconsciously drawn my family and I back to the area over the years.

After all, fishermen’s lore would suggest that his spirit could still linger out over the waters at Hook Head in the presence of the sea-birds – and on the morning of our hike a single cormorant (just visible in the main picture) kept a solitary vigil on a rock.

But truth be told I doubt many of my family believe or believed such superstitions. And yet, like the monks, the lighthouse keepers and now the tourists, we still return to Hook Head.

The SS Lismore. (Pic courtesy of Eimear Hogan)

The SS Lismore. (Pic courtesy of Eimear Hogan)

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A shocking need for distraction

'Everyday robots on our phones'?

‘Everyday robots on our phones’?

I’d like to think that I wouldn’t do it, or that I’d at least be able to last longer than 15 minutes.

But the truth is that I’d be like the majority of men.

I’d trip the switch, give myself the electric shock and spend days afterwards wondering why I did it.

Luckily I didn’t take part in the experiment run by psychologists at Virginia and Harvard Universities, so I’ll never find out (nor do I plan to).

The test, details of which were published last week, was designed to find out why most of us find it difficult to simply sit and do nothing.

As part of their study the researchers picked 100 people and asked each of them to sit in a room and think. Just the subjects, the four walls and contents of their heads.

Left alone with just their thoughts two-thirds of the male subjects, and one-quarter of the female, felt so uncomfortable that they opted for the only distraction available: giving themselves with a mild electric shock.

Or as one of the scientists put it, somewhat depressingly: “Simply being alone with their thoughts was apparently so aversive that it drove many participants to self-administer an electric shock that they had earlier said they would pay to avoid”.

'In the process of getting home.'

‘In the process of getting home.’

Like most people I’d like to think that I am one of those self-contained, focused, individuals who could sit in such a room and happily devised shopping lists or silently hum a tune, without zapping myself.

But could I? My morning commute, for example, sees me sit in an enclosed space for about 15  minutes. And I rarely do it without some distraction, either by way of my iPod or my phone.

I convince myself this time spent checking emails, reading news sites and scanning Twitter is productive. But I still do it on days when I’m not working, or even on vacation.

So perhaps it’s less duty and more distraction. (Something I’m also conscious of in my daily battle for silent time).

In timely coincidence the same day I read of the experiment my wife played me a song called Everyday Robots, written by Damon Albarn.

We are everyday robots on our phones
In the process of getting home
Looking like standing stones
Out there on our own

Which just about sums up the 18.53 from Connolly.

Mind you, I’d never have been aware of this mass distraction crisis unless I’d read of the room test. And where did I do that?

On my iPhone of course, standing on a train, during a 15 minute commute.

Sign me up for a shock therapy.

 

 

 

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On a polenta pilgrimage

Pic: Clare Kleinedler

Pic: Clare Kleinedler

Over the years I’ve made a few pilgrimages to London.

A decade ago I spent a long afternoon chasing the spirit of Bob Dylan and Paul Simon at the famous Troubadour folk club in Earls Court.

A couple of years later I visited St Bride’s, the tiny journalists’ church on Fleet Street, where the ghosts of my trade lingered on, both in the pews of the church and in those of the nearby bars.

Another trip saw me sample the bitters in Ye Old Cheshire Cheese, following in the gloomy footsteps of Dr Johnson and Arthur Conan Doyle.

In the past my visits have been marked by music, history, London ales and, well, more history.

While I’ve eaten well in the city at times over the years I’d never, until last weekend, undertaken what I’d regard as a food pilgrimage.

And yet that’s what my wife and I found ourselves embarking as we walked through Soho last Saturday evening, to arrive at 21 Warwick Street.

This is the location of a restaurant called Nopi.

Plenty (sorry) has been written about Yotam Ottolenghi, Nopi’s co-owner, in recent years. A journalist turned pastry chef turned food icon, his London delis have attracted consistently good reviews since the first one opened in Notting Hill more than a decade ago.

He didn’t appear on my radar until I came across his 2011 TV series Jerusalem On A Plate and subsequently picked up the accompanying book, as well his earlier volume, Plenty.

There it was - the dish I'd craved a year ago. Pic: Clare Kleinedler

There it was – the dish I’d craved.
Pic: Clare Kleinedler

After salivating over the books for a while my wife and I road tested some of the dishes, devised by Ottolenghi with his culinary partner Sami Tamimi.

Two in particular stood out: their puréed beet root with yoghurt and za’atar, and a mushroom and herb polenta.

Both were unlike anything I’d tasted before, in flavour (the za’atar) and texture (the polenta, served with Parmesan).

We immediately swore we’d visit one of their London establishments (a pledge I inscribed on our copy of Jerusalem); not least because, in the back of my mind (flipped past in their book or maybe from the series) I’d an image of a polenta chip dish there which looked incredible.

But then time passed and Ottolenghi slipped off our radar. We visited LA and Japan and the Ottolenghi’s salads were lost, smothered beneath a smorgasbord of Mexican, Californian and Japanese cuisine.

This was until a weekend trip to London came up and, with it, a reservation for dinner at the bar at Nopi.

And so we arrived last weekend to dine at the hub of the Ottolenghi phenomenon.

We took our seats and picked up the menu. There it was –  the dish I’d craved a year ago but hadn’t thought of since. Not just polenta chips but truffled polenta chips, by way of truffled aioli.

Cut a size up from the ubiquitous gastropub jenga chips, Nopi’s polenta variety combined a chip lighter than potato with a semolina-like exterior. The truffle sauce was served on the side.

It was all the glory of the Piedmont in one mouthful. Or four – as I proceeded to bogart the bowl.

The rest of the meal passed flavourfully – as we expected – but nothing hit the heights of the chips.

If Nopi was my first London food pilgrimage this was the grail. Get there, and get them.

All the glory of the Piedmont - polenta chips with truffle aoili at Nopi. Pic: Clare Kleinedler

All the glory of the Piedmont – polenta chips with truffle aoili at Nopi.
Pic: Clare Kleinedler

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The sound of silence? It’s quiet good for you

Quiet man. Thelonius Monk.

Quiet man. Thelonius Monk.
Pic: William P. Gottlieb

You know what’s the loudest noise in the world man? The loudest noise in the world is silence.”

So said Thelonius Monk.

How much time do you spend in silence each day?

Three minutes? Thirty? An hour? Not enough?

On average each of us encounters 52 noiseless minutes every day, according to a study published last week.

But that’s on average. The same survey also found that a third of us have less than a half hour’s silence a day – and one in six of us less than ten minutes.

‘That’s more like it,’ I thought to myself (silently) on reading about the study.

I don’t know exactly how much silence I encounter each day but I’d guess it’s around 30 minutes, usually late in the evening.

Even the time I spend alone – running in the morning or eating breakfast – is not silent. Traffic, the wind, background music, a boiling pan – there’s plenty of ambient sound around.

As the day passes this usually doesn’t bother me. With the exception of a construction drill or a ringing phone I don’t notice any ill effects.

A silent Loch Lomond. May 2010.

A silent Loch Lomond, May 2012.

But every couple of days my mind jerks me alert, demanding ten minutes of silent nothing. The next chance I get (which usually arrives hours later, at home that evening) I turn off my phone, laptop, sound system and just sit, embracing the quiet.

This silence principally fosters a sense of peace, a reason why it’s vital for practices like meditation.

But it’s not just the mind that benefits. Silence is good for your physical health. Absence of it (that is, the presence of noise) can lead to higher blood pressure, heart disease and heart attacks.

It’s also important for your cognitive function, specifically ‘right brain’ activities. It fosters creativity by filtering away daily sound, leaving focus and perspective.

When one focuses on silence it can – in the right circumstances – shift from being a passive absence of sound to being a presence, an active un-noise. The value of silence lies in this presence; the deeper one drifts into it the stronger the pull is.

Perhaps this is why Monk, a metropolis musician who spent many nights on stage alongside blaring brass, described silence as the loudest noise in the world.

Until your neighbour’s car alarm sounds.

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Soba, so good, so…why not hot?

Please sir, can I have some mori soba? Pic: Clare Kleinedler

Please sir, can I have some mori soba? Pic: Clare Kleinedler

As revelations go, it was an unlikely spot in which to have one: a small suburban railway station in Toyonaka, near Osaka, Japan, at around noon on an uneventful Monday.

Retired people, mothers with children, and a couple of students moved around. Waiting on a train back to the city, and hungry for lunch, we dropped into a small café in the station’s basement.

This was how, and where, I experienced a food epiphany. It came by way of one of the most basic comestibles I’d eaten, served in a very simple fashion.

It was mori soba, a buckwheat flour noodle. It was also cold.

I’d had cold noodles before (more than once, I’m guessing, as a bleary ‘morning after the night before’ leftover in my college days) but I’d never had them like this.

The soba (above) was served not as it cooled, or at room temperature, but instead chilled. It was accompanied with tsuyu dipping sauce on the side, a cold liquid mixture of the fish broth dashi, soy sauce and mirin (a type of rice wine – at home my wife substitutes this with ginger).

Eating soba. Pic: Adolfo Farsari

Eating soba.
Pic: Adolfo Farsari

(I later found out that soba purists believe in eating the noodles without recourse to any tsuyu, a style known as hadaka – or ‘naked’ – soba. In fact it’s hard to think of food more naked than a cold, ungarnished buckwheat noodle.)

The protocol, I learned, was to dip a small amount of the soba into the tsuyu and then slurp down the dripping mixture – as noisily as you like. Then repeat until full.

And so I dipped and slurped my way to a clean plate, and half of my wife’s afterwards. It was so good I almost ignored the vegetable tempura on the side.

And so I underwent my mini-epiphany. There was something about soba.

The fact that I’d fallen for this wet gray-brown noodle – amid all the foods I encountered in Japan – made it even more interesting.

Coming from chilly northwest Europe the idea of eating cold noodles had never appealed to me beforehand. The noodles I was familiar with for always served steaming hot, as close to mouth burn territory as possible.

They were also a vehicle for whatever meat, fish or vegetables that they were served with.

All this directly contrasts with mori soba, whose only garnish was a little seasonal spring onion.

Soba salad.

Soba salad.

So why was mori soba so good? Why have I eaten it (or a chilled variant thereof, like soba salad) a couple of times a week since?

The answer: it’s rare to come across a carbohydrate that’s actually refreshing (even a lemon-laden linguine, a favourite home Italian dish, can’t quite pull it off). But mori soba is.

It’s a combination of the chilly serving temperature, the texture of the soba, the tang of the mirin and the umami of the dashi.

It was also interesting to expose my sometimes-too-conservative palate to a dish that I’d never tasted before.

Having had my new favourite noodles a half dozen times since I don’t think I’ll go back to the searing, steaming variety anytime soon.

Until, maybe, I try hot soba.

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A history of jazz (in 500 words)

Louis Armstrong, Kid Koala and Miles Davis. Pics: Library of Congress; Kristof Acke; Tom Palumbo

Louis Armstrong, Kid Koala and Miles Davis.
Pics: Library of Congress; Kristof Acke; Tom Palumbo

What is jazz?

To my ears it’s melody, movement, beat, snap, switch, sweat, dynamic and inverted and syncopated, free and indulgent and arrogant, full and fleeting.

And on the basis of all that it’s likely indefinable.

Pushed to one word though, it’s invention.

A composition can move and shift in the hands of different musicians. Of all music jazz is the genre where the furthest movement from the theme, while still, however distantly, orbiting it, is often most admired.

Basin Street Blues is one of my favourite songs, and a perfect example of this shifting evolution.

It was written by Spencer Williams in 1928, and named for Basin Street, a departed main drag in the (by 1928, cleaned up) New Orleans red light district of Storyville, where he had been raised.

The song was made famous first by Louis Armstrong and later Jack Teagarden, the latter with lyrics. Many other versions followed.

Charting the song across the generations provides as good an answer as any to the impossible question: ‘what is jazz?’

Take three versions.

Louis Armstrong – 1928

To start at the beginning, in every way. Armstrong cut his version in a period where he was, almost single-handedly, inventing ‘jazz’ as a soloist’s art form.

His performances on a number of recordings from this era are Rosetta Stone moments, solos (even at their shortest) in which you can hear the invention of something new.

Louis’ version starts eerily, with Earl Hines’ celesta, before Armstrong solos and scats. But it’s the trumpeter’s second solo (at 2.02) that’s remarkable – an ascending sequence of notes which picks up the melody and takes it up and up, transcending Basin Street and all else besides, to hold a searing high Bb, before returning to Earth for the last 16, somewhat mournful, bars.

Miles Davis – 1963


Thirty-five years later Davis turns the exuberance of Armstrong’s version on its head, moving from the stately stride of the 1928 recording to something pensive and brooding.

Gone is the overarching horn, replaced instead by the interplay of the leader’s muted trumpet, Victor Feldman’s piano and Ron Carter’s bass.

This is a lament – always elegant – for a way of life and a way of music that had long departed.

At times, as the trumpeter slips deeper in his solo (Davis’ first, lasting six minutes, is over twice the length of Armstrong’s song), we stray far from Basin Street, only to slowly resurface, pulled by Carter’s insistent bass.

Kid Koala – 2003


A natural progression. Koala takes Basin Street Blues away from single group performance, building a version with bass, banjo and beats around the melody line, in this case a scratched and slurred horn, his trademark ‘drunk trumpet’.

In contrast to Armstrong’s soloing 75 years earlier what stands out here is the low end, the beats which build in the second half of the song (from 2.13).

Koala, it seems, visualises the song as a funeral march, a fragmented second line, with banjo that closes the circle, echoing the Dixieland sound that Armstrong emerged from generations earlier.

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What is jazz then? It’s something that’s found throughout these three works, a form of music that encompasses creation, re- invention and subvention.

But, as Louis himself reputedly said, if you have to ask you’ll never know.

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Japan is…(in pictures)

Describing Japan in 500 words is difficult.

A few weeks since I returned from my first visit I am still trying to process the sights and sounds, the hundreds of small impressions that make up the memory of my trip.

Having previously set down a take in words I figure that now it’s the turn of pictures. Here’s ten that sum up what I saw of the country over the course of a busy 12 days.

I’ll get back to Japan, sooner rather than later. These impressions are part of the reason why.

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10373736_10152908947622178_4745746173785539010_nThe Fushimi Inari Taisha Shrine is a major Shinto landmark in Kyoto. Like many such shrines it’s watched over by a fox – seen in the Shinto religion as a messenger.

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10334277_10152908952182178_4149215068209749102_nTen minutes from the busy Umeda commercial district of Osaka lies the river Yudo. Despite being on the cusp of a city of 2.6m people only a few runners hit the riverside running trails in the morning.

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10300116_10152908952012178_2493308882644777009_nFrom the Toyko subway to the famed Shinkansen to a tiny local in Kamakura we rode the rails all over. With every train on time.

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10308451_10152908962772178_1072611473128084820_nYamakazi single malt and dried shrimp from the 24 hour konbini store – is there a better way to end the night?

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10261961_10152871147301562_4664971002810964931_nWe ate big, we ate small, we ate sushi, we ate yakatori, but we always ate together. This was at an izakaya in Osaka, one of a number we visited.

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10380303_10152896397587178_8632450224177713798_nThe Japanese love their dogs, and their dogs must love them. The famous Hachiko landmark at Shibuya Station in Tokyo commemorates Hachiko, a Akita dog who famously turned up daily to greet his deceased master for nine years after his owner‘s death.

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10388120_10152871153751562_4689159811570022304_nAttention to detail is taken for granted. Whether it’s street sweeping, ticket collecting or making simple store-bought sandwiches.

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10369194_10152871156011562_3277657691173660722_nThere are 6,000 people per square kilometre in Tokyo. And it feels like most of them are waiting by the lights at the famed Shibuya Crossing. People, people, people: up, down, left, right, forward, back.

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IMG_4095Amazingly we had little sushi during our visit. An hour before we flew home we rectified this, at breakfast, at Narita Airport.

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10370440_10152898596932178_7926672014977243993_nThe language: I wish I could read it. But part of me wonders how I’d ever manage to comprehend the bewildering array of symbols used. Maybe one day I’ll tackle this translation.

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Some like it hot…onsen hot

Yukata clad, onsen bound. Pic: Anne Alderete

Yukata clad, onsen bound.
Pic: Anne Alderete

Growing up in Ireland an outdoor dip meant a once-yearly trek to the west coast, where you’d nervously brave the 12c waters of the Atlantic Ocean for a few minutes, before retreating, shivering and chastened, back to the car.

If you were lucky you might get a ‘99’ for your troubles.

But growing up in Kinosaki Onsen, in the west of Japan, an outdoor dip entails a slow (no diving in here, trust me) immersion in waters whose temperature averages 44c.

Until recently I’d had plenty of the former. Childhood holidays in the west of Ireland, at places like Rossknowlagh or The Maharees, were great fun, but I don’t recall spending much time in the water.

And the water on the east coast, like that at Wexford‘s beaches, was even colder.

Mind you this was only by a degree or so – which goes unnoticed when you’re trying not to chip a chattering tooth, or running headlong for the car from yet another rain shower.

But no such issues in Kinosaki Onsen.

The clue’s in the name. Onsen means ’hot springs’ and Japan – volcanically active as it is – has got thousands of these.

The water is heated geothermally and, in its freshest state, emerges from the earth at temperatures as high as 80c.

Thankfully the baths I visited with my father- and brother-in-law were considerably cooler, though 40-odd degrees feels anything but cool as you stand water-side.

Set the timer to 35 minutes - cooking eggs in hot springs' water.

Set the timer…to 35 minutes – cooking eggs in hot springs’ water.
Pic: Anne Alderete

Like the icy Atlantic though, once you’re in, you’re in. And, hopefully, availing of the health benefits of the mineral rich water.

The Japanese have been doing this for hundreds of years. I was introduced to the idea by my wife’s family and we travelled there to experience it earlier this month.

The simmering water itself is just one part of visiting an onsen though. You’re not fully dressed to attend the baths unless you’re wearing a traditional yukata robe (see above) and sporting geta on your feet.

I spent two days like this. Having a whiskey, yukata-clad, with the guys before a quick dip and then meeting up with our wives for a traditional Japanese dinner.

And keeping the onsen theme our ryokan (a local inn) served us onsen tamago, eggs slowly cooked in the hot spring water itself (35 mins in 70c water, Heston fans).

We spent a couple of eye (and pore) opening days in Kinosaki Onsen – a unique place, particularly to a gaijin like me who usually has his showers lukewarm and his boiled eggs from a saucepan.

Kinosaki Onsen is thousands of miles, physically, mentally and thermally from where I grew up. For all the differences there was one similarity though.

Whether the water’s 10c or 44c I still get in the same way – one tentative toe at the time.

Order (almost) up. Cooking my beef while my sis-in-law Anne toasts.

Order (almost) up. Searing my wagyu beef while my sis-in-law Anne toasts.
Pic: Clare Kleinedler

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Japan is…

IMG_3938

Iced coffee above Osaka.

- my wife’s birthplace
- rice
- sake (cold)
- sun (rising early)
- Kinosaki onsen
- turning to my patient sister-, mother- or father-in-law every time my gaijin gesturing failed (ie all the time)
- the Shinkansen
- bento
- Shibuyu crossing at night
- izakaya
- family
- compact
- Kamakura
- dancing to Brubeck’s Osaka Blues, in an Osaka hotel room

Family.

Family.

- clean
- efficient
- zen rock gardens in Kyoto
- food, all good, everywhere
- progressive
- regimented
- yukate
- geta 
- dry Asahi beer
- Yamakazi 12-year-old single malt
- running in the morning on the banks of the Yudo river
- polite
- Murakami and his writings on Manchuria
- Paul McCartney and his drummer Abe Laboriel Jr.

Bento.

Bento.

- cans of Emerald Mountain coffee
- protein
- Aphex Twin’s Ambient Works 1 on my iPod
- Cigarettes in restaurants
- French white wines
okonomiyaki
- New friends (and old ones)
- the intake of breath when stepping into the 44 C hotspring water
- drinking
- sashimi for breakfast
- ‘what’s the wi-fi code?’
- a city from a dozen stories up
- cavernous department stores
- tiny Family Mart konbini stores
- coffee: iced in the morning, hot in the evening
- eye-opening
- gift giving
- different trains, different lines, different tickets
- the last two spectacular weeks

Rock garden at the Tōfuku-ji zen Buddhist Temple, Kyoto.  Pic: Clare Kleinedler

Rock garden at the Tōfuku-ji zen Buddhist Temple, Kyoto.
Pic: Clare Kleinedler

 

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The dog ate my blog (and other excuses)

An apple a day... Detail from 'Adam and Eve'. Lucas Cranach the Elder.

An apple a day…
Detail from ‘Adam and Eve’. Lucas Cranach the Elder.

I had thought to go without a blog-post this week – as I’m on a mental and physical hiatus.

I’d planned I’d offer some explanation for skipping a beat, a rationale, a good, old-fashioned excuse.

But anything I could throw up would pale in comparison to some of the AWOL-related excuses I’ve read of over the years.

So, in the absence of an excuse from me take one from the list below – five of the best justifications I’ve come across.

Well, four. There was a fifth, but I lost it.

The original excuse

After chatting with a snake in the Garden of Eden Eve elects to nibble some fruit (tamarind according to some, others apple) from the Tree of Knowledge, promoting all manner of Divine fury, leading to original sin and presaging the Fall of Man.

Why? “The serpent deceived me, and I ate,” Eve explained. Ok then.

The Ukrainian soccer team

Fans of the team, less than pleased after a 4-0 thrashing by Spain in the 2006 World Cup, demanded an explanation.

They got one they could never have foreseen. Apparently noisy frogs croaking outside the team hotel kept them awake all night before the game.

“We all agreed that we would take some sticks and go and hunt them,” defender Vladislav Vashchuk sheepishly said.

Brian Lenihan Snr

The Irish politician initially admitted that he had called the country’s President Patrick Hillery in 1982, in an attempt to stop Hillery dissolving the national parliament (thereby removing Lenihan’s party from power).

Train in vain? Marathon man Joe Strummer, 1984.

Train in vain?
Marathon man Joe Strummer, 1984.

Then, while running for President himself eight years later, Lenihan reversed his story, claiming “on mature recollection” he had not made the controversial calls.

Was he believed? Well, he lost the election (but he was remembered for his excuse).

Joe Strummer

Soon after The Clash embarked on a major 1982 tour of the UK, at the height of the band’s fame, their front man vanished.

Where was he? Off to join a revolutionary group in Nicaragua?  Living in a squat back in Maida Vale?

Nope. He’d decamped to France, grown a beard and run the Paris marathon.

Beat that.

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