James Joyce and his decent silk hat

I’m currently deep into Richard Ellmann’s biography of James Joyce, an 800-page opus which is, in parts, almost as detailed as “Ulysses” itself.

As such, I’m well into the world of Joyce-words: ‘europicola’, ‘allalluvial’, ‘douncestears’, to pick three among thousands. At times it’s not easy going, and it got me thinking. Did the man himself ever read his work into a microphone? What did the colossus of Modernism actually sound like?

The answers are: yes, and like a slightly stiff Irish lawyer.

In November 1924 Joyce made a recording of a section of “Ulysses”. The audio, set down at the HMV studio in Paris, would be one of only two such artifacts he made (five years later he would make an eight-minute recording of an extract from Finnegans Wake).

The excerpt Joyce picked is from the ‘Aoelus’ episode of ‘Ulysses’, a section known as ‘The John F Taylor speech’. The passage is a metaphorical take on the relationship of Ireland and England. Joyce picked it, his friend and publisher Sylvia Beach later said, because he reckoned that it was the only part of his book fit to lifted out and ‘declaimed’.

'Portrait of James Joyce' Patrick Tuohy (1924-1927)

‘Portrait of James Joyce’
Patrick Tuohy (1924-1927)

Listened to the audio down the passage of 90 years it sounds strange – ethereal and formal in equal parts. It didn’t inject much color into my impression of Joyce – but it did lead me onward, to the footage above.

It is one of only two pieces of film I can find of the Irish writer, both shot in Paris in the 1920s (the other features the writer and his wife strolling down the street – here at 3:00 minutes). In the clip Joyce stands on the street, holding a conversation with someone off camera and looking like a skinny Irish version of Vito Corleone as he stares dismissively into the camera.

It’s spliced with a brief clip of the writer stepping out of a house, a child running before him. Again the vibe is one of a literary made man.

The footage casts little, if any light on the writer himself. That’s no unfortunate thing, given that Joyce’s life is woven so extensively into his work already. If anything the film represents a brief respite from the latter, writing that’s at times entertaining, eye-opening, and hugely frustrating (usually in the same paragraph).

At the risk of sounding simplistic this brief clip also shows that, despite the poverty, drinking and illness, the writer could certainly pull off some nice threads.

Or, as he wrote in the short story ‘Grace’: “He had never been seen in the city without a silk hat of some decency and a pair of gaiters. By grace of these two articles of clothing, he said, a man could always pass muster…”

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Sounding out the best music to work to

John Coltrane. Pic: Hugo van Gelderen

John Coltrane. Pic: Hugo van Gelderen

Blame the iPod. The ubiquity of that little device in the mid-2000s changed the working lives of many of my generation.

That, and the noisy open-plan offices we worked in. Steve Jobs’ little white box provided a perfect way to drown out background noise, focus on the task at hand, increase focus and productivity.

Didn’t it?

Perhaps it did, for some. As a working journalist in those years, listening to music wasn’t an option. The time you spent after phoning and meeting contacts was used to write, usually against a deadline. Fidgeting for the new Coldplay song five minutes before your copy was due was not advisable.

Outside the office it was different matter. At home I’d write and read to a constant soundtrack, and still do. Over the years I found some recordings worked better than others when it came to cognitive function.

For months I read at night to Aphex Twin’s “Selected Ambient Works Volume II”. But when I tried to do the same with John Coltrane’s “A Love Supreme” it was a no-go. I’d barely last five minutes. Beethoven’s sonatas? No problem. Bob Dylan? Not a chance.

After years of hit-and-miss listening I recently investigated what works and what doesn’t.

With the help of a couple of articles, from Inc and Time, I’ve narrowed it down – for myself at least.

Here’s the secret:

  • Listen to music without lyrics (no Dylan, more Beethoven)
  • Don’t listen to new music
  • Don’t listen if you’re trying to learn something new (the line between this and reading for pleasure is blurred, I find)
  • If you’re learning something new, listen before you start
  • If the task at hand is repetitive, listen to music (even if you’re a surgeon)
  • If there’s a lot of background noise, music you’re familiar with will calm your brain, improving focus

A case in point: as I write this I am listening to Caribou’s album Swim. It’s a recording I know pretty well, with songs whose lyrics are simple, few and repetitive. Hearing the music raises my levels of feel-good neurotransmitters (dopamine and serotonin), which relaxes me and helps me focus. My thought process is smooth and my output is consistent.

As a test I’ve now switched it out for one of my favorite non-cognitive tracks, music I use during workouts but not elsewhere – Slayer’s Raining Blood. My foot’s tapping but my concentration’s shot.

My perfect music while working is somewhere between these two poles – Brian Eno’s Discreet Music or Dustin O’Halloran’s Lumiere are two albums that spring to mind.

Of course there’s a simpler way to improve your working focus, your reading and your writing: work in complete silence and listen to nothing. Modern life renders the first impossible and, frankly, where’s the fun in the second?

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A winter walk on the Wildwood

Looking north over Willamette River to Mount St Helens (hidden)

Looking north over Willamette River to Mount St Helens (hidden)

I’d like every one of my hikes to be in the Cascades, the Alps or the Adirondacks.

But as a man of finite time and even-more-finite means, that always doesn’t happen. In fact, it rarely does.

I still want to hike though, even if it’s not an eight-hour day trek or a week’s climbing on glaciers.

Luckily I relocated to Portland, Oregon this year, which is where Forest Park comes in. Running for eight miles on hillsides overlooking the Willamette River, and encompassing 5,100 acres of woodland, it’s one of the largest municipal parks in the US.

Moving countries, households and jobs takes time. Up to a fortnight ago, with the exception of one early morning hike around Trillium Lake, I hadn’t had a decent, muck and sweat-strewn outing since last July.

It was boots on and up to Forest Park then. My wife and I opted for a route running from the Newton Road to the Wildwood trail (#12 here), a loop that ran for 4.4 miles and involved a descent (and subsequent ascent) of 300 meters.

On the Newton Road.

On the Newton Road.

Despite the lateness of the season, early November in the park meant some autumnal color, much slippery windfall underfoot and temperate hiking. Luckily for us the frequent Portland winter rain also held off (allowing us the view above), as did any large groups of fellow hikers.

And so we were granted a quiet, people-free three hours in the hills, a few short miles from downtown Portland but as remote as the wilder parts of the Wicklow Mountains National Park (where I hiked regularly when living in Dublin). Our outing was not quite fauna-free, thankfully: we spotted a woodpecker (the first this Irishman had ever seen) and a fox, two of the 112 bird and 62 mammal species to be encountered in the park.

Much as I’d like to set off on winter outings that involved down jackets, crampons and 4am starts, such expeditions are not always practical – as any city-based hiker will tell you. Hence the importance of outdoor spaces like Forest Park.

I’m lucky that it’s all of 20 minutes from my front door – and that there’s another 5,000 or so acres of it to explore.

Two roads diverged.

Two roads diverge.

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A 70-year-old note to a new President

Woody Guthrie, New York, 1943 Pic: Life

Woody Guthrie, New York, 1943
Pic: Life

Amid the rancor, shock, violence and triumphalism of recent days I’ve been thinking about one American, whose vision of the country stands in bold relief to much of what I’ve read and heard in recent months.

Woody Guthrie wasn’t bound for glory as a progressive hero – not at first, paper at any rate. He was the son of a Texas landowner. His father was involved in the lynching of two people and was, Guthrie later alleged, a member of the Ku Klux Klan.

The young Woody would stand with his father while the latter, who was involved in 1920s Oklahoma politics as a conservative Democrat, gave stump speeches.

That’s where ‘official’ politics ended for Guthrie, however. In 1931, aged 19 and an aspiring songwriter, he set out from Texas for California. Over the next three decades he would travel and work all over the United States, appearing on radio in LA, recording for Moses Asch in New York City, and penning songs for the Bonneville Power Administration in Portland, Oregon.

In the process he would write hundreds of songs, including one about the father of our current President-Elect. More famously, his “This Land Is Your Land” has become something of an alternative national anthem. Other songs – “Do Re Mi”, “Pastures of Plenty”, “So Long It’s Been Good To Know Ya”, have seeped into the cultural consciousness.

This week, though, I’ve been listening to a song Guthrie wrote but never recorded. In January 1948 he read in the New York Times of a plane crash in the San Joaquin Valley in central California. Twenty-eight migrant farm workers, who were accompanied by four Americans, died when the plane transporting them back to Mexican crashed.

Outraged that the Times and radio reports named the deceased Americans but simply labelled the 28 workers “deportees”, Guthrie wrote his last great song, “Deportee“.

Among the song’s seven verses are the lines:
“Some of us are illegal, and some are not wanted,
Our work contract’s out and we have to move on;
Six hundred miles to that Mexican border,
They chase us like outlaws, like rustlers, like thieves.”

Plus ca change. Guthrie’s pal Pete Seeger would later popularize “Deportee”, singing it at concerts. Dozens of others have since recorded it.

In a week when a 70-year-old song has become relevant again, when phrases like “great, great walls” and “11 million illegals” are bandied around with menace, it’s worth a listen.

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As I walked out one Portland afternoon

Willamette River from the Broadway Bridge

Willamette River from the Broadway Bridge

Three months ago I arrived in Portland, Oregon, stepping out of a taxi at Glisan Street and 11th Avenue with my wife, both of us laden down with bags.

Since then I’ve walked. I’ve walked downtown, I’ve walked circuits of the bridges, I’ve walked up to the Pittock Mansion and down from the Japanese Gardens. I’ve walked in shorts, in temperatures of 100 or more, in the rain on gloomy Sundays, through the aisles of Powell’s bookstore and up the narrow path that leads to Multnomah Falls.

The reason for this constant perambulation is partly exercise-driven. Walking two or three miles is a lot easier on my body that pounding out the same distance running on the pavement.

But it’s also down to curiosity, to uncover the city from the ground level, from the veterans’ statues in the South Park Blocks to the skid row at their northern equivalent, from the moneyed glass towers of the Pearl to the dives along West Burnside.

First Avenue, Portland

First Avenue, Portland

The same impressions recur: the city is undergoing a rapid gentrification, Portland is a mecca for tourists, drivers here are more polite than in most other cities. Other things are also clear: the homelessness crisis is beyond anything I’ve witnessed in Europe, graffiti and stickers demanding rent freezes abound (“Keep Portland Weird” sounds more like “Keep Portland As It Was”).

And then, all about, there’s the fall. Putting complaints about the influx of rebuilding, prices and the decline of old Portland to one side, the city has looked and felt beautiful in recent days.

Last Friday I walked from Mississippi Avenue to downtown, across the Broadway bridge and down 2nd Avenue to the sunlit park at Lownsdale Square. In shirtsleeves too, despite it being early November.

The low light reminded me of walking in St Anne’s Park in Dublin at the same time of the year, the warmth October days spent visiting family in Los Angeles.

The onset of winter and its attendant rains will curb my outings, I imagine. Try as I might, I can’t warm to the Portland habit of venturing out into the rain without an umbrella. Last December I crossed the bridges on an icy mornings, braving northerly breezes down the Willamette River – not something I’ll repeat too often.

Until then though, you’ll find me out and about, crossing streets, dodging cyclists and checking signs, just walking.

Downtown Portland

New paths – downtown Portland. Pic: Clare Kleinedler

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Friedrich Nietzsche’s guide to running

Friedrich Nietzsche

Friedrich Nietzsche

New laces. Baseball cap. Rain jacket. Copy of “Ecco Homo”.

What do these four items have in common?

They’re what I need for a late Fall run in the rain. While the first three items might be familiar to most runners, I’d bet that few whip out the work of a 19th-century German philosopher before they pound the pavement.

Why should they? Because Friedrich Nietzsche’s “Ecco Homo” deals with the concept of difficulty, the area where wishful human expectations hit the wall of cold disappointing reality. That’s a familiar concept to anyone trying to knock out a sub-44 minute 10k in Portland’s October wind and rain.

Every runner knows that he or she is often just one outing away from a  difficult session – the tough day when you’re contending with nasty weather, or you don’t feel well, or your long-planned prep appears to have had little effect.

Each runner has a way of handling this. Some run through the difficulty, grinning and bearing it, while others avoid it altogether, turn over and grab an extra hour’s sleep on a Sunday morning. I’ve been both runners at different stages, usually feeling aggrieved by circumstance in the process.

Nietzsche suggests a third way – acceptance.

“To regard states of distress in general as an objection, as something that must be abolished, is the [supreme idiocy], in a general sense a real disaster in its consequences…almost as stupid as the will to abolish bad weather,” he wrote.

The plantar fascia

The plantar fascia

(The marathon-running novelist Haruki Murakami put this another way: “Pain is inevitable. Suffering is optional”.)

The challenge is to incorporate Nietzsche’s ‘distress’ into your workout, to get up close to it and make it part of the session. Physically we can build muscle by lifting weights – why not apply the same principle to mental weight?

Like the rain, difficulty is not going away. Like the niggling pain in my ankle or the ache of a shin splint, it can’t be abolished.

Later today I’ll head out for a 30-minute run knowing that I risk aggravating my on-off plantar fasciitis. But I’ll take my training advice from the “Ecce Homo”: “Pain does not count as an objection to life”.

In other words, get out there and just do it.
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What’s in my running bag

Don't leave home without it

It’s not a lot – but it works

When it comes to running I’m consistent. I don’t do bells or whistles. I don’t own a GPS watch – in fact I rarely run with any electronic device. Nor do I sport hi-tech socks or fancy layering.

Frugality is the name of the game. I like to keep my kit to five or six items.

This works well, for a couple of reasons. Firstly, it’s a lighter load. Secondly, packing is easier for runs in other places. Thirdly, there’s less stuff to lose – and it all fits in a 15 liter pack (a Berghaus Twentyfourseven bag).

Over the last decade of running I’ve boiled it down to a simple collection, pictured above. I have one duplicate of each clothing item and that’s it. (Did I mention I’m frugal on the track?)

This is the kit that gets me around the bridges in Portland, along the beach in Dublin, on the pavement in Toyko or through the park in New York City.

So, as they famously ask at Amoeba Music, what’s in my bag?

The kicks: Nike Vomero 8s. The most reliable running shoe I’ve owned. This pair are a couple of year old but a little TLC and a lot of avoiding cross country surfaces has kept them intact. Even after a solid drenching (Portland or Dublin-style rain) they’re dry in 24 hours.

Kit in action

Kit in action

The top: I’ve had plenty of running tees over the years. This New Balance sticks out for two reasons: it dries quickly and it was given to me by my fashion-forward sister. No doubt she noticed that it would match my Nikes.

The shorts: Every runner knows the feeling. You arrive in a city, unpack for a morning run, and spend ten minutes in the darkness trying not to wake your spouse and locate the running shorts you left in the laundry basket at home. This pair was picked up in the wake of one such morning, on a visit to Galway, Ireland.

The socks: Socks are socks are socks. Nothing fancy here. Black’s handy for hiding the mud stains though.

The outer layer: …And breathe. This North Face Flight Series has got plenty of ventilation and the green/yellow color means I’m less likely to become a road statistic. The downside is an unstorable hood which flaps demonically in the slightest wind (works well in the rain though – see above).

The glasses: A basic pair of Pepper’s, their Speedline brand. They’re polarized, which limits glare on early morning outings. Not too expensive because – inevitably – I will mislay them.

The watch: My only nod to the digital age. I bought this Polar AW200 nine years ago, ahead of an ascent of Mont Blanc. While barometers and altimeters are rarely required where I run the stopwatch is handy. No GPS or other workout tracking though – but then again I run for other reasons.

Needless to say I’ve spared you some less glamorous elements of my kit – the underwear, the sunblock, the Vaseline, the blood, the sweat and the tears.

But what you see is what gets me around. It’s enough to push out a 44 minute 10k in the park or around northeast Portland – which is all I need for now (just don’t ask me to do it every day though, or I’ll have to add a jumbo bottle of ibuprofen to my bag).
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Dylan and the Dead (literary greats)

Bob Dylan, 1984

Bob Dylan, 1984

What do Sully Prudhomme, Count Maurice (Mooris) Polidore Marie Bernhard Maeterlinck, Henrik Pontoppidan and Halldór Kiljan Laxness have in common?

Well, firstly they were all writers, though I confess to not having read any of them.

But they are also members of a select club, one which an ageing American musician joined this week (not that he had a choice in the matter).

Like Bob Dylan, they are all Nobel Prize winners for Literature. Unlike Bob Dylan, their work can hardly be considered popular consumption in 2016.

And yet at one time all were considered authors who produced “in the field of literature the most outstanding work in an ideal direction”, as Alfred Nobel put it.

Of course, one man’s ideal direction can lead to another’s blind alley. Dylan’s elevation to the canon of literary greats speaks more about the Nobel Prize, and artistic awards in general, than it does about a 75-year-old’s musician’s creative output.

The hat-tip may have seemed revolutionary to subscribers of literary magazines but don’t the classic works of Greek tragedy – the plays of Aeschylus, Sophocles or Euripides – have their roots in choral songs? Two thousand years later, weren’t the chanson de geste – the 13th century epic poems that laid the basis of French literature – sung, not read?

And now we argue about whether the author of ‘Wiggle Wiggle‘ deserves a spot at the table of greats?

As Dylan himself stated many lifetimes ago, when asked if he was “a singer or a poet”: “I think of myself more as a song and dance man”.

Which may explain why, as the critics got their quills in a twist this week, the songwriter was at the Chelsea Theatre in Las Vegas doing what he does, singing, dancing and making no reference to the world’s premier literary award.

He not busy being born and all that…

Lute players from the the 13th century Cantigas de Santa Maria manuscript of songs

Lute players from the the 13th century Cantigas de Santa Maria manuscript of songs

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Ringing the changes – the music of moving

Steel Bridge, Portland, September 2016

Steel Bridge, Portland, September 2016

“If you fear change, give it to me.”

There’s a guy who panhandles on the corner of North Broadway and North Vancouver Avenue in northeast Portland. His message, written on a piece of cardboard, seems to work. Well, it did for me last week.

Change is something I’ve become acquainted with over the past few months. Despite the common advice to remake and remodel, to constantly develop and progress, it’s not something that comes naturally to most people. I include myself.

A friend recently pointed out, however, that leaving a place or a job (and, in the process, a state of mind) is the only way to grow. A couple of months ago my wife and I did both, relocated to relocating to Portland, Oregon from Dublin, Ireland.

The journey’s been like nothing before. We are learning a new city, a new (to me) culture, job and apartment hunting. Some days it’s a natural fit, others demand a doubling down on resolve. But the change has come.

What downtime I have, between the hunting and unpacking and lifting and meetings, has been spent listening to music – on the MAX to the market, in line at the DMV, driving to a house viewing.

And so I’ve put together a short playlist with two intersecting themes – change and American popular music.

All the songs contain some trace or theme of change, from the social (Buffalo Springfield) to spiritual (Nina Simone) to the local (Cisco Houston’s version of a song Woody Guthrie wrote when he lived here in 1941).

Elsewhere there’s personal development (a track from Miles Davis’ Birth Of The Cool sessions), a scorched-earth new start (courtesy of a Louis Armstrong solo) and a simple call for contentment from Elliott Smith.

And what better way to end it all than the famous largo from Dvořák’s ninth symphony, ‘From the New World’, the composer’s musical testament to America – a composition of progress, hope and, above all, change.

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Across the short years

(In memory of Elva Looney)

We will light a candle for you tonight,
Though we’re apart.
A light that will shine across the short years,
That will light the days and nights
When we couldn’t turn to you, see you, or hear your voice.
And we’ll know that, from somewhere peaceful, looking on,
Your light shines back.
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