‘The strange courage of the second rate’

Charles Bukowksi

Charles Bukowksi

No one remembers the person who comes second. Or third. Or twelfth.

History, in as much as it remembers anyone, reserves its slots for the winners.

And yet almost all of mankind’s graft, humanity’s progress and civilisation’s march has been done by the also-rans, the forgettable others who simply got on with it.

As Charles Bukowski had it, for every Wagner there’s a Bruckner.

While the mercurial Wagner revolutionised opera and was seen as the inventor of modern classical music, his contemporary was a humbler man, who acknowledged Wagner’s greatness while producing some lesser known symphonies of his own.

Anton Bruckner

Anton Bruckner

Bukowski was himself no stranger to the world of uninspiring graft. Until the age of 49 he worked various mundane jobs, most notably as a post office clerk, while writing at night.

Perhaps that explains his affinity with those who did “the best they could/and kept on doing it/even when they knew they/were second best”.

Milton’s thousands, “who only stand and wait”, become Bukowski’s second raters, those of us “who refuse to quit”.

His short poem ‘Bruckner (2)’ is a tribute to their presence, their perseverance, their “strange courage”.

Bruckner wasn’t bad
even though he got down
on his knees
and proclaimed Wagner
the master.

It saddens me, I guess,
in a small way
because while Wagner was
hitting all those homers
Bruckner was sacrificing
the runners to second
and he knew it.

and I know that
mixing baseball metaphors with classical
music
will not please the purists
either.

I prefer Ruth to most of his teammates
but I appreciate those who did
the best they could
and kept on doing it
even when they knew they
were second best.

this is your club fighter
your back-up quarterback
the unknown jock who sometimes
brings one in
at 40-to-one.

this was Bruckner.

there are times when we should
remember
the strange courage
of the second-rate
who refuse to quit
when the nights
are black and long and sleepless
and the days are without
end.

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Why walk when you can saunter?

Henry David Thoreau, 1856

Henry David Thoreau, 1856

When was the last time you had a good saunter?

Not a bracing walk on the beach after Sunday lunch, or a sweaty stroll around the shops, but a mind-emptying couple of hours spent outdoors, putting one foot in front of another?

Can’t remember? In that case you may be risking your happiness, your mental health, your limited days of existence as a sentient being in a world that offers soul-blinding experiential delights.

Henry David Thoreau thought you were. In 1861 he wrote his treatise ‘Walking’ (neatly summarised on this Brain Pickings post), in which he described the benefits of sauntering for those who otherwise endured a sedentary life.

By Thoreau’s standards that would be most of us nowadays. (Elsewhere in ‘Walking’ he writes: “I am astonished at the power of endurance, to say nothing of the moral insensibility, of my neighbors who confine themselves to shops and offices the whole day.”)

The Walden philosopher, at leisure to stroll thanks to – it seems – the donut-baking generosity of his mother and sister, extols us to get up and move.

But it’s not that simple.  Sauntering is not a physical act, it’s a mental one.

You can stroll off along a beach, for an hour or more (as I often do), believing that you’re immersing yourself in nature and renewing your sensibilities. But you’re wasting your time – the act of motion is not enough.

Dollymount Strand, March 2015

Dollymount Strand, March 2015

How often we find ourselves strolling while distracted? Thoughts of the day-to-day easily pervade – work, appointments, plans. How much of my walk is wasted as I  fiddle with my iPod’s song selections or its ear buds?

Thoreau again: “The thought of some work will run in my head and I am not where my body is — I am out of my senses. In my walks I would fain return to my senses. What business have I in the woods, if I am thinking of something out of the woods?”

So even the great Transcendentalist himself pondered his shopping list while perambulating around Walden Pond.

Aware of this, Thoreau set to practice what he dubbed ” the art of walking”, the highest form of which was the act of sauntering: walking with a presence of mind, a focus on the body, the land, the air, the everything, and with the affairs of “the village” left behind.

It doesn’t come easy. Thoreau stated that “it requires a direct dispensation from Heaven to become a walker”.

Or just finding the right path.

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Clearances that suddenly stand open

Madame Cezanne in the Conservatory Paul Cezanne (1891)

‘Madame Cezanne in the Conservatory’
Paul Cezanne (1891)

Mother’s Day is an occasion often observed more in the absence.

No voice, no presence, instead a void. A loss.

The feeling is unique to each person in a hundred ways but it’s also shared, among family members and outwards, to friends and acquaintances.

The Irish poet Seamus Heaney saw the absence of a mother as a clearance – an emptiness where a tree had been, rooted in a homeplace.

Shortly after his mother died Heaney wrote ‘Clearances’, a short cycle of sonnets documenting her life and his bereavement.

The details are personal, like breath in a room – his mother’s voice, how she folded sheets, how he felt closest to her when Heaney, as child, would help her chop potatoes.

In the final two sonnets, below, these details gather, as we stand with Heaney and his father at his mother’s final bedside, witnessing a ‘pure change’ happen.

For many Mother’s Day is not a celebration, nor is it a commiseration, instead it’s a simple, clear, unified absence.

‘Clearances’ extends no explanations or simple comforts. It does offer up a final hope that somewhere there’s “a soul ramifying”,  forever in a place “beyond silence listened for”.

 

In the last minutes he said more to her
Almost than in all their life together.
‘You’ll be in New Row on Monday night
And I’ll come up for you and you’ll be glad
When I walk in the door . . . Isn’t that right?’
His head was bent down to her propped-up head.
She could not hear but we were overjoyed.
He called her good and girl. Then she was dead,
The searching for a pulsebeat was abandoned
And we all knew one thing by being there.
The space we stood around had been emptied
Into us to keep, it penetrated
Clearances that suddenly stood open.
High cries were felled and a pure change happened.

 

I thought of walking round and round a space
Utterly empty, utterly a source
Where the decked chestnut tree had lost its place
In our front hedge above the wallflowers.
The white chips jumped and jumped and skited high.
I heard the hatchet’s differentiated
Accurate cut, the crack, the sigh
And collapse of what luxuriated
Through the shocked tips and wreckage of it all.
Deep-planted and long gone, my coeval
Chestnut from a jam jar in a hole,
Its heft and hush become a bright nowhere,
A soul ramifying and forever
Silent, beyond silence listened for.
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Drink more coffee? I’ve bean there…

A cappuccino from Kaph on Dublin's Drury Street

The  cappuccino at Kaph on Dublin’s Drury Street

So coffee’s good for you, again.

In moderation, of course.

Or with butter.

Or between the hours of 9am and 11.30am only, from a custom-made insulated mug, using only beans that have passed through an elephant, while wearing a Clooney-on-The-Riviera face. Maybe.

Because it’s another week, another ‘coffee and your health’ report. This time the advice is that five cups a day will, it’s reckoned, free up your clogged arteries.

Combine this with daily glass of red wine we’re told is good for us, the steak that we didn’t eat for 30 years but now can, and the eggs that were once going to kill us but now provide excellent daily protein, and we’re on the pig’s back again (as they say) – even pork is good for us, maybe.

I’m sceptical. As a journalist barely a week goes my encountering another food advice being debunked or reinforced, or the reinforcement debunked. If I was a cynic I’d suggest all this is geared to keep university science departments and news organisations busy.

Instant in the communal kitchen.

Instant in the communal kitchen.

Of course put-upon doctors regard the whole ‘eat/don’t eat/eat less/eat without butter/eat with your fingers crossed’ advice cycle to be pointless, sensibly arguing that the best policy is moderation.

Which is also the dullest possible approach for the sort of person who drinks five cups of coffee at day. Almost as dull as that more extreme concept – abstention.

When it comes to coffee I’ve grappled with both, which has led up some blind alleys – usually involving the dubious dark arts of decaffeination.

But well into my fourth decade I’ve hit on the cure, and it’s got nothing to do with willpower, or advice from Heart, or my proximity to a decent cappuccino.

Detail from 'Nighthawks' Edward Hopper (1942)

Detail from ‘Nighthawks’
Edward Hopper (1942)

It’s age. Twenty years ago student me fuelled up on half a dozen cups of treacly Buttery coffee daily. Now I’m on two hits, an espresso before breakfast and a latte at lunchtime. On weekends I may stretch to a cappuccino.

That’s all the coffee I need. No more desperate sipping of my ‘fix’ from crumbly polystyrene mugs at service stations, or dipping into gallon jars of freeze-dried, taste-bypassed, caffeine granules in communal kitchens.

I got old. I didn’t adopt moderation, it adopted me.

I’m liberated, free of the worry, the shakes, the stains, the burned lips and the acid reflux, the queuing and the spilling.

But most of all I’m liberated from the next breathless, heart-racing report on how and why coffee is going to kill me. Or not.

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Want some Satchmo? Take five

800px-Louis_Armstrong_restored1Appearing on the BBC’s Desert Island Discs in 1968, Louis Armstrong was asked to pick the eight tracks he’d take as a castaway.

Satchmo, a man who could never be accused of not having a great welcome for himself, chose five of his own recordings.

And, lest he tire of hearing himself on record, Armstrong picked as his island luxury his trumpet. When it came to reading material he opted to bring the book closest to his heart…his autobiography.

Well, as the himself said: “There are some people that if they don’t know, you can’t tell them”.

As for me, I’m told. In the unlikely event that I ever shuffle onto Desert Island Discs Pops will make my list  – one of the few dead-cert tracks, in fact.

But what if I emulated him and picked my five favourite Louis recordings?

Well, Kirsty, I couldn’t resist.

1. Basin Street Blues

One of the great performances from jazz’s own Rosetta Stone, Armstrong’s Hot Five recording from 1928 takes a Dixieland standard and adds scat singing and then, two minutes in, that solo.

2. Stompin’ At The Savoy

No, not the London hotel. Instead it’s a celebration of the New York ballroom that Langston Hughes called “Harlem’s heartbeat”, and where Ella herself once fronted the house band.

3. West End Blues

From the top, the most famous solo in jazz. As for the rest of the performance, Billie Holiday put it best: “Sometimes the record would make me so sad, I’d cry up a storm…other times the same damn record would make me so happy.”

4.  St Louis Blues

WC Handy‘s groundbreaking mix of ragtime and blues, with a little tango thrown in, topped off with a Satchmo solo.

5. Do You Know What It Means To Miss New Orleans?

What else could a son of Storyville, who spent most of his life far from the French Quarter, sing?

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On turning 37

John Updike Pic: George Bush Presidential Library

John Updike
Pic: George Bush Presidential Library

After a decade’s work Gertrude Stein completed The Making of Americans, comparing the finished novel to Ulysses. It went unpublished, in any form, for 13 years.

While working as the head chef at the Grand Hotel in Monte Carlo Georges Auguste Escoffier met Cesar Ritz. The pair later formed a business partnership which commercialised gastronomy for the ordinary man – and led to the birth of the modern restaurant.

John Updike published his first collection of Henry Bech stories, writing that he modelled the character on Norman Mailer, J.D. Salinger and himself.

After spells in Berkeley, Belfast and Wicklow Seamus Heaney moved to Sandymount, Dublin, shortly after the publication of his ‘Troubles collection’, North. He would live there for the rest of his life, but rarely write about the area.

Lou Gehrig died of ALS at his home in New York. Two years earlier he had delivered his “The Luckiest Man on the Face of the Earth” address at Yankee Stadium.

Joni Mitchell Pic: Paul C Babin

Joni Mitchell
Pic: Paul C Babin

Joni Mitchell released Shadows and Light, a live recording featuring jazz musicians Jaco Pastorius and Pat Metheny. It was her final album on the Asylum label, run by her Free Man in Paris.

Ten years after quitting his job as a crime reporter David Simon published The Corner, later praised as an “unblinking and agonizingly intimate” account of the urban drug trade on a single street corner in Baltimore.

Isambard Kingdom Brunel, having narrowly avoided death during the construction of the Thames Tunnel, almost choked when he inhaled a coin while performing a trick for his children. The disc was finally jerked free weeks later.

John Coltrane formed his classic quartet, with McCoy Tyner, Jimmy Garrison and Elvin Jones. After two years the group produce one of the most famous recordings in jazz, A Love Supreme.

Despite years of frustration at a lack of commercial or public interest in his work Edward Hopper continued to paint, working on seascapes during time spent on an island off the coast of Maine.

'Monhegan Houses, Maine' Edward Hopper (1916-1919)

‘Monhegan Houses, Maine’
Edward Hopper (1916-1919)

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Finding God in a clean, well-lighted place

'Our nada who art in nada'. A Clean, Well-Lighted Place - Ernest Hemingway

‘Our nada who art in nada’.
A Clean, Well-Lighted Place – Ernest Hemingway

Thinking of buying a new car? Don’t.

Trust me. Why? There is a theory that 21st century consumers value experiences, not products.

Unlike the boomer generation, the conspicuous consumers of the 1980s or the tech-fetishists of the 2000s, more of us now spend money to experience moments – as opposed to goods or services.

There’s a theory that this is a natural progression; after the agrarian, industrial and service economies we are now part of the ‘experience economy‘.

So far, so Forbes. But could the same theory be shifted from Instagram snaps of a Michelin-starred meal or a Grand Canyon sunset and applied instead to The Big Question?

Last week I wrote about Stephen Fry’s attack on, as he sees it, a maniac God. An atheist, Fry doesn’t believe in an omniscient, cloud-dwelling Creator, loving, judging and punishing.

But still God exists – because we need Him, or Her; the bearded man in the sky is a reflection of our concept of defeating death, of love without any end, of natural justice and  order.

But if God wasn’t a being, a single entity, could He still exist? Hardly, you’d think (if you were a monotheist). He either is or He’s not. Either you believe in Him or you do not.

‘Night on the Dnieper River’ Archip Kuindshi (1882) Pic: Tretyakov Gallery, Moscow

Detail from ‘Night on the Dnieper River’
Archip Kuindshi (1882)
Pic: Tretyakov Gallery, Moscow

But what if – instead – God was an experience? What if, instead of spending our lives trying to attain a relationship with Him, we can connect with God through our experiences and our environment?

One man famously accumulated experiences but was not as a believer in God was Ernest Hemingway.

Having witnessed the horrors of mechanised warfare in the First World War (and being blown up by a mortar shell on the Italian front) the concept of a ‘good’ God may have too much for Hemingway to stomach (his subsequent novel about the war contains the notable line “all thinking men are atheists”).

Instead he found ‘nada’, nothing, the void. He wrote of this in his short story A Clean, Well-Lighted Place. At it’s end the main character, a waiter in a cafe, broods on the difficulty of sleep, of facing what waited at the day’s end.

It was a nothing that he knew too well…Our nada who art in nada, nada be thy name thy kingdom nada they will be nada in nada as it is in nada.

But nada is not all.

The same waiter has just closed up, sending home his last customer – an old man who sits on the terrace nightly, refusing to leave until closing time, one of “all those who need a light for the night”.

Facing his long night, in nada as it is in nada, the old man’s light is a simple human experience –  the cafe, the brandy, the routine, the human contact. The waiter thinks:

It was all a nothing and man was a nothing and a man was a nothing too. It was only that and light was all it needed and a certain cleanness and order.

Here is God, not a cosmic figure reached by prayer or met after death but a connection here and now, an enlightened personal experience in this life in this world.

The human divine – only that.

'Sunlight in a Cafeteria' Edward Hopper (1958) Pic: Yale University Art Gallery

‘Sunlight in a Cafeteria’
Edward Hopper (1958)
Pic: Yale University Art Gallery

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God’s a maniac…but we really, really need him

Detail from ' Creation of the Sun and Moon' Michelangelo (1511) Sistine Chapel

Detail from ‘ Creation of the Sun and Moon’
Michelangelo (1511)

Well that’s Him told.

Comedian Stephen Fry reckons God is “utterly evil, capricious and monstrous”. He’s also “quite clearly a maniac” – one who inflicts unjust pain on people.

Something similar has occured to most rational people at some point, and even to the most devout, surely, on occasion. And yet we believe.

The believers were among the many who read and shared Fry’s remarks after they were reported this week.

But the comedian missed the point somewhat. It’s not God himself, a grumpy reactionary with odd, millennia-old, moral habits and preachy ground staff that we need, it’s the comfort believing in him offers us.

How would we get up in the morning (or face what’s lies before us at any other time of the day) without a repository for our fears, a cosmic counterweight to life’s unpredictable shifts?

God is an answer to the headline terrors: fear of death, fear of illness, fear of losing loved ones. “But he allows horrible cancers to kill children,” it’s pointed out. Well, we let that go.

We know most sin is bad and that some of the Ten Commandants have merit, but we seem less interested in holy box-ticking than in having an otherwordly comfort blanket to keep the bad stuff away.

Stephen Fry Pic: vpjayant

Stephen Fry
Pic: vpjayant

If we were guaranteed this comfort blanket we could do without the judgmental heavenly curmudgeon Himself, constantly watching and assessing us. But one comes with the other and – despite Stephen Fry’s outrage – most people find it hard to drop the lot.

There is a way out of this existential echo-chamber, of course, which doesn’t involve hoping, praying and queuing, fingers crossed, outside the Pearly Gates. This is to reject a God, accept the meaninglessness of life…and just get on with it.

If only it were that easy. Even those of us who profess disbelief, who can’t see through the celestial curtain to whatever lies beyond, have an occasional ‘what if’ moment.

What if there is a God? What if he’s reading my mind, putting me on His List or taking me off it? And if I believed would have to go through this tortuous second guessing every time I have insomnia, or am stuck at the traffic light, or walking on a beach?

There may well be a God. if it’s not each of us, or Stephen Fry, it may – to pick one contender among millions – be Randy Newman.

After all, didn’t He sing:

I burn down your cities-how blind you must be
I take from you your children and you say how blessed are we
You all must be crazy to put your faith in me
That’s why I love mankind
You really need me

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Walking out of the body and into the mountain

Lugnaquilla, January 2015. Pic: Cormac Looney

Lugnaquilla, January 2015.
Pic: Cormac Looney

By influence habitual to the mind
The mountain’s outline and its steady form
Gives a pure grandeur; and its presence shapes
The measure and the prospect of the soul
To majesty; such virtue have the forms
Perennial of the ancient hills; nor less
The changeful language of their countenances
Gives movement to the thoughts, and multitude,
With order and relation.

So wrote William Wordsworth, a man familiar with the ‘ancient hills’ and the trudge of a long hike (he would reputedly think nothing of walking 30 miles across the Lake District to visit his pal Samuel Taylor Coleridge).

Walking nine miles across Glenmalure to the top of Lugnaquilla last Saturday my mind was void of such majestic thoughts. I had arrived at the mountain, as often happens, with a garbaged mind – too tired or preoccupied or unmotivated to look beyond the top of my boots.

Lacking order and relation what mountain thoughts I had concerned only with the sub-zero wind and the best route up over the loose snow and rime ice on the slopes above the Fraughan Rock Glen.

An hour will surely fix me, I thought.

But that hour passed and most of the next. And still Lugnaquilla, a boon companion over the years through all weathers and moods, did not work its magic. Racing, my mind remained back in the city.

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Descending Djouce Mountain, February 2008. Pic: Cormac Looney

Descending Djouce mountain, February 2008.
Pic: Cormac Looney

Before I began climbing mountains I had little conception of the mental silence that could be achieved amidst freezing wind, driving rain, searing bright suns and movement ever, ever upwards.

This was something that rose slowly, within; a silent, solitary realisation, it came in marked moments: descending Djouce as a February sun set behind Scarr mountain; turning to look back at the summit of Mont Blanc as the sun rose over the Col de la Brenva; standing alone on the summit of Carrauntoohil.

Years after I first ventured into the uplands I read Nan Shepherd’s ode to the Cairngorms, The Living Mountain –  which provides a true account of this effect.

Here then may be lived a life of senses so pure…that the body may be said to think.
Each sense heightened to its most exquisite awareness is in itself total experience.
This is the innocence we have lost, living in one sense at a time to live all the way through.

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Had I lost this? Last weekend, amid doubt and disillusionment, I suspected so.

Until, cresting out onto the summit plateau onto a field of ice, it rose through. Perfect focus descended, my body and mind and breath were one.

I was thereHere I was.

Shepherd called this “walking out of the body and into the mountain”.

Wordsworth wrote of peaks whose “presence shapes, The measure and the prospect of the soul, To majesty”.

To majesty, eventually. For now: to clarity, to peace, to silence.

Summit plateau, Lugnaquilla, January 2015. Pic: Cormac Looney

Summit plateau, Lugnaquilla, January 2015.
Pic: Cormac Looney

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‘A few will think of this day’

WB Yeats, 1923

WB Yeats, 1923

“He disappeared in the dead of winter:
The brooks were frozen, the airports almost deserted,
And snow disfigured the public statues;
The mercury sank in the mouth of the dying day.
What instruments we have agree
The day of his death was a dark cold day.”

So begins WH Auden’s elegy for the poet WB Yeats, who died on a late January day in 1939 in his room at the Hôtel Idéal Séjour, in the town of Menton on the French Riviera.

A great deal will be heard about Yeats this year, due to the Irish Government-funded commemoration Yeats2015 – a 12-month celebration of the poet’s life and work.

Not that the Yeats has faded from view in the 76 years since his death. Few poets command attention like he does.

This stretches beyond the poetry to the man himself and his life – the fairy-courting mysticism, the obsession with Maud Gonne, the Celtic Revival manifested in the Abbey Theatre.

And on: the nationalist politics, the automatic writing and spirit guides, the Nobel Prize and finally, the old man of later years. And – throughout all – the poetry.

WH Auden, 1939. Pic: Library of Congress

WH Auden, 1939.
Pic: Library of Congress

Amidst the celebration of his life Yeats’ death, and its effects, may not attract much mention.

But the pure change that happened in that Riviera hotel room elicited one of the 20th century’s great elegies.

The loss was harvested by WH Auden, one at the few poets of the time who could – at his best – go stanza to stanza with the Irishman.

Like readers and writers, generations and governments since, Auden’s poem celebrates the man.

But as he casts Yeats as an fount, a culture and “a mouth”, he leaves a residue of something else – an observation of the mundanity of death.

“Far from his illness
The wolves ran on through the evergreen forests,
The peasant river was untempted by the fashionable quays…
But for him it was his last afternoon as himself”.

Two years earlier Auden had confronted the same subject, writing on Brueghel’s painting The Fall of Icarus.

'Landscape with the Fall of Icarus' Pieter Brueghel (1558) Pic: Royal Museums of Fine Arts of Belgium

‘Landscape with the Fall of Icarus’
Pieter Brueghel (1558)
Pic: Royal Museums of Fine Arts of Belgium

“About suffering they were never wrong,
The old Masters: how well they understood
Its human position: how it takes place
While someone else is eating or opening a window or just walking dully along…”

And so no death is greater than any other, and most pass unnoticed.

Auden’s Icarus attempts something unknown, unbelievable, in trying to fly. As he fails:

“…everything turns away
Quite leisurely from the disaster; the ploughman may
Have heard the splash, the forsaken cry,
But for him it was not an important failure.”

But, if death is often unremarked, memory is not. So it was for WB Yeats.

Amidst the wide world’s daily drudge, in places where hearing of a poet’s passing is as momentous as walking dully along, a handful would remember.

“In the importance and noise of to-morrow
When the brokers are roaring like beasts on the floor of the
Bourse,
And the poor have the sufferings to which they are fairly
accustomed,
And each in the cell of himself is almost convinced of his
freedom,
A few thousand will think of this day
As one thinks of a day when one did something slightly unusual.”

A dark, cold day.

 

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