Listening between the lines – books and music

Reading at Big Sur, 2011 Pic: Clare Kleinedler

Reading at Big Sur, 2011
Pic: Clare Kleinedler

Music expresses that which cannot be put into words

So said Victor Hugo, whose 1,400-page tomes suggest he might have had an easier career as a songwriter than a novelist.

But are the two forms mutually exclusive? Or, to look at it from the perspective of the sofa, what’s the best music to read to?

None? Something unobtrusive? A solo piano recording or an ambient soundscape? Or something louder or noisier, a barrier to block the outside world?

The thought occurred to me as I read an article this week which – very specifically – paired books with albums (The Pet Shop Boys and Stephen King’s It being one of odder suggestions).

Over the years I’ve seesawed on the issue. While certain reading environments demand music (a packed-to-capacity long-haul flight, for example), others benefit from silence. Blasting Aphex Twin while reading in a pacific yurt in Big Sur a few years back, for instance, would have been a no-no.

Certain books still bring to mind certain albums of course. When I worked newsroom night shifts in the early 2000s I’d return home at 4 or 5am to pick up Don DeLillo’s weighty Underworld; Sigur Ros’ Ágætis byrjun was the soundtrack of the few weeks it took me to dig through it.

Likewise, Aphex Twin’s Selected Ambient Works Volume II provided the soundtrack to Michael Smith’s account of Tom Crean’s famed trans-Antartic journey.

The scientific jury’s out on whether either of these albums helped or hindered my comprehension of nuclear dread or icy heroism. It appears that lower-information load music aids cognitive tasks, while recordings with more going on – particularly those with lyrics – hinder them.

This may explain why I find Brian Eno a better reading companion than, for example, Sonny Rollins. That said, I can read anytime to Bach’s Cello Suites – which are hardly low-information compositions.

In recent years, perhaps due to daily digital overload, I’ve cut music accompaniment altogether. Now I read to the sound of the refrigerator, kids playing outside or low-flying aircraft.

That said, the research above has found that listening to music before you read can increase cognitive processing.

Mind you, this also risks a tumble down a streaming site wormhole, as you waste hours compiling exhaustive lists of John Lewis ad soundtracks or 1964-66 Bob Dylan covers (email me for that playlist).

Perhaps music and reading don’t mix after all. If Victor Hugo had Spotify would he have churned out Les Misérables?

Don DeLillo/Sigur Ros Pics: Thousand Robots/Jose Goulao

Don DeLillo/Sigur Ros
Pics: Thousand Robots/Jose Goulao

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Travelling 4,600 miles for a decent sandwich

Luc Lac pork banh mi, with salad and broth. Pic Clare Kleinedler

Luc Lac pork banh mi, with salad and broth.
Pic Clare Kleinedler

Want to try the world’s best sandwich?

Fly to Portland, Oregon, take a cab from the airport direct to the corner of 2nd Avenue and Taylor Street, walk into Luc Lac Vietnamese Kitchen and order the grilled pork banh mi.

The commute might cost a few hundred euro but the sandwich itself is just $8. If it’s the middle of winter (as it was when I ate there) and you’re feeling flaithulach, go for a bowl of broth on the side.

This is a lunch which could restore your faith in many things – the much-abused art of the sandwich, pork with proper flavour, humanity itself (if your visit follows 17 hours of  flight and a chilly morning dodging showers blown up from the Willamette).

We discovered this when we hit Luc Lac a day or two before Christmas, our heads still somewhere over the mid-Atlantic, in need of sustenance.

Our knackered palettes rejoiced. The moist pork was mouth-melting, the part-rice flour bun the right side of light, the broth a restorative to rival Jameson’s finest. It was the Greatest Sandwich In the World.

Ok, I may be exaggerating. Just a little. I’ve had plenty of good sandwiches in recent times, and even a few good Vietnamese ones (not least at my father-in-law’s LA staple Golden Deli) – but none of the latter in Dublin.

It’s not for want of shoe leather. For the past couple of years my wife and I have sought out a banh mi whenever we’ve spotted a new Vietnamese place in our home city. Finding these eateries is easy because there’s so few of them – Vietnamese food hasn’t made the same inroads on the Irish palate as Chinese or Japanese.

All about the baguette. Pic: chrisandhilleary

All about the baguette.
Pic: chrisandhilleary
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My favourite in Dublin, Pho Ta in Temple Bar, serves banh mi but not on a rice baguette. The situation is similar at Aobaba on Capel Street – the filing’s the familiar pork but the bun’s all too Irish. Walk up to Parnell Street’s Pho Viet and you’ll get a great pho ga (chicken noodle soup) but won’t find a banh mi on the menu.

A discreet ‘what’s up with the bread?’ enquiry to a staff member at one of these places yielded the answer that no bakery in Ireland makes baguettes using rice flour. Yet.

Given Dublin’s bread revolution this situation will surely change soon. After all, 4,600 miles is a little far to travel for a sandwich.

Unless you’ve tried Luc Lac’s grilled pork baguette.

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‘The 18th Royal Irish shot at everything’

British Troops

If one photograph sums up the complexity of modern Irish history, it’s this one.

It was likely taken on Saturday April 29, 1916, the sixth and final day of the abortive Easter Rising in Dublin.

In frame are British Army soldiers, who’ve erected a barricade at the junction of Moore Street and Great Britain Street (the present-day Parnell Street) in the north inner city.

The soldiers are firing on a number of houses 200 metres down the street, where the leaders of the insurgency are making a last stand. Within hours of the photograph being taken a nurse and rebel, Elizabeth O’Farrell, would approach the barricade bearing a white flag, carrying terms of surrender.

Not before casualties were inflicted however – among civilians and combatants. One rebel, James Kavanagh, later recalled: “The 18th Royal Irish…shot at everything that moved in the street, and at such short-range their shooting was deadly. I saw three men attempting to cross the street killed by three shots, 1, 2, 3, like that. It’s a wonder they did not shoot [a] little girl but they would surely have shot [her] mother”.

Elizabeth O'Farrell  Pic: NLI

Elizabeth O’Farrell
Pic: NLI

The picture is one of a number of similar shots taken during Easter week, images of young men with rifles crouching behind cars, or debris, or beer barrels.

What’s interesting about the Moore Street image is the nationality of the sniping solders.

The troops facing and firing down Moore Street are members of the 18th Royal Irish Regiment. Most of the regiment were Dubliners, many of whom came from the tenements of the north inner city, close to where this picture was taken.

So we see young Irishmen firing on young Irishmen, directed (to the right of the picture) by a British army officer.

In this instance (and many others in Easter week) the combat was carried out by Irishmen on both sides – the rebels who believed they were taking a stand for freedom and the soldiers whose army paychecks fed large families struggling to survive in the Dublin tenements of the time.

Irish history, like Oscar Wilde’s truth, is rarely pure and never simple.

In the years following the Rising such divisions would persist. After Ireland achieved independence in 1921 the status of the Irishmen who fought with the British Army, and who died in their thousands in the First World War, fell far in the public estimation.

In recent years this has changed but remembering these men – some of whom fought their neighbours on the burning streets of Dublin a century ago – remains controversial in places, even now.

As Ireland moves in the coming weeks to commemorate those who planned and effected the Easter Rising, should the half-dozen soldiers firing down Moore Street – and the thousands of their countrymen in similar uniforms – be remembered too, for good or for ill?

The corner of Moore Street and Parnell Street today. Pic: Google Street View

The corner of Moore Street and Parnell Street today. Pic: Google Street View

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Voices of angels, feet of clay

Elvis Costello. Pic: Victor Diaz Lamich

Elvis Costello. Pic: Victor Diaz Lamich

Need advice to live a better life? Don’t approach a rock star.

At least don’t approach a young Elvis Costello. The songwriter devotes a significant part of his recently-published autobiography to explaining why for many years he could barely trust himself – let alone offer an honest face to others – such was his partying lifestyle on the road.

“I knew that I could become estranged from all that I held dear: vows I made, homes that had and would soon be broken, trust that I could betray, in hotel rooms in which I merely lodged,” he recalls.

Another rock star familiar with ‘the road’, albeit one which led to a gilded palace of sin and cash, was Glenn Frey. The Eagles member died this week, leaving behind a legacy of laid-back country-rock songs and some estranged friends.

Glenn Frey. Pic: Steve Alexander

Glenn Frey. Pic: Steve Alexander

His animosity towards founding Eagle Don Felder ran deep.”When this show is done, I’m going to kick your ass” he told him, on mic, in one of the band’s last performances. Three decades later, interviewed for the movie History of the Eagles, Frey barely managed to speak his old pal’s name. When he did it was a curt “Mr Felder”.

Was this the man who sang the placid 70s anthem Peaceful Easy Feeling? Was Costello the pleading songwriter who just wanted to fall into his partner’s Human Hands?

Yes and yes. All of which is no surprise, of course. But – in this Age of Hagiography – it’s a gentle reminder that those we admire can be just as base, greedy and mortal as everyone else.

That said, everyone else didn’t come up with Hotel California.

Don Felder did.

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A lad insane…for a good sandwich

David Bowie. Pic ArthurNYC

David Bowie. Pic ArthurNYC

Many words have been associated with David Bowie in recent days – among them ‘visionary’, ‘icon’ and – naturally enough – ‘starman’.

But not ‘prosciutto di Parma’ – unless you were the owner of Bowie’s local sandwich store, a man likely to feel his passing more than most, given that the star was a regular customer. (Insert gag about ‘the return of the thin white loaf’ here.)

Because Bowie – along with being Ziggy, Aladdin or just David Jones – was a sandwich man. Amidst the reams of coverage of his death this week I read a quote from an Irish caterer, who recounted how the star’s after-show snack-of-choice  in the 1980s was a cheese sandwich.

In latter days, according to Danilo Durante, owner of Bottega Falai in New York’s Soho, it was Parma ham, accompanied by a strawberry sfogliatella pastry (well, he was a rock star after all).

Ziggy had taste. When it comes to sandwiches the Italians – in the face of stiff competition from the Vietnamese (the glorious banh mi) and the Americans (the dripping Reuben) – do it best.

If I needed further evidence of this, apart from that provided by the late Mr Bowie’s dining habits, I encountered it on a visit to Santa Monica a fortnight ago. Braving the hordes of big, small or any-screen wannabes my brother-in-law and I hit Bay Cities Italian Deli – a staple in the area since 1925.

Bay Cities Italian Deli

Bay Cities Italian Deli

The place, and it’s ‘Godmother‘ sandwich, therefore have something of a reputation. A reputation which accounted for a three deep throng at the deli counter and a 20-plus minute wait for service.

The Starman himself would have been happy – there was prosciutto (and just about every other type of cured meat) aplenty. I, however, used my Italian sandwich acid test – order one with burrata.

My all-time favourite sandwich, Fiore Market Cafe’s roast chicken, features this soft cheese. The Bay Cities option was a burrata caprese – essentially a caprese salad in a roll, with the mozzarella subbed out for the softer cheese.

The purists may be sceptical, but it was perfect. The burrata was creamy cold and cut through with just enough sliced onion. The tomatoes and basil were as good as you’d expect in a 90-year old Italian deli. And the whole deal was served up on still-warm house bread. I didn’t want it to end.

All this is a long way from a 60-something David Bowie nipping out for a quick ham roll on his lunch break, of course.

That said, Bowie did play a famous show in the Santa Monica Civic Auditorium in 1972 – a venue just a few minutes stroll from Bay Cities Deli.

Did he pop in for a cheese sandwich? He should have.

The burrata caprese

The burrata caprese

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Winter hiking above the Angels

brownmt1

Ascending the fire road

I was probably half way, and two pints of sweat, in before I thought: “this is a good idea”.

After all, who hikes on their Christmas break while battling eight time zones of jet lag and seasonal quantities of food and drink?

That’s the question I asked as my brother-in-law and I pulled into a parking lot above the Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena last week, just after the Christmas weekend.

We’d promised each other an easy ramble in the foothills of the San Gabriel Mountains. Of course it never works out that way.

Thirty minutes in and the gentle grade up through Millard Canyon already reminded me that no amount of flat running or biking can prepare your thighs for the upward pull of a brisk hike.

But the clear, crisp canyon breezes and southern California sun made for an easier trek than my last mountain outing in winter, a wind and rainswept day on Lugnaquilla.

Keeping on track

Staying on track

As we ascended, below us, in eerie green-brown silence, lay a city of 10m people. Ahead – with the exception of a stray biker or two – the path was clear. The city of Los Angeles, that great mechanised metropolis a mile or two away, was just another part of the scenery – alongside the lightening-battered weather stations or the broken-up fire road we were hiking on.

“The clearest way into the Universe is through a forest wilderness,” wrote John Muir, the high priest of the Sierra (who I doubt ever troubled himself with as minor as hike as Brown Mountain). I’d add that it’s also the clearest way into one’s mind, particularly a mind sedately muddled by the temptations of the holidays.

By the time we came out at the Brown Mountain Road junction (710m – an ascent of 400m from our start 80 minutes earlier) our minds were clear of anything but the desire to drink water and photograph the views – south to the Pacific Ocean and north and west into canyons of wilderness.

We could have gone on of course – with the summit ‘just’ another 650m up. But common sense – or the part of it which resides in tiring leg muscles – prevailed. Not before a speedy, if dusty, descent down into the City of Angels though.

On the way we even briefly encountered that rarest of phenomena – Los Angeles rain. Winter hiking indeed.

View from Brown Mountain Road Junction.

View south from Brown Mountain Road Junction

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Keeping the desert down

John Fante. Pic: Afag Azizova

Studiously avoiding making resolutions for a new year, or asking about anyone else’s, I’ve instead spent the past 24 hours with Arturo Bandini – alter ego of writer John Fante – in the streets and boarding houses of 1930s Los Angeles.

Fante’s 1939 novel Ask The Dust is a tribute to human connection, its difficulty and its fleeting nature. The dry poverty of a life lived in a city built on a desert is ever present, the background to Bandini’s writings, wanderings, and attempts at wooing Camilla, his “Mayan princess” (and, at times, his waitress).

Bandini’s desperate LA love affair plays out on the novel’s surface, beneath which lies the sand, ancient and patient and unconquerable, indifferent to the almighty-yet-petty struggles of man.

“The desert was always there, a patient white animal, waiting for men to die, for civilisations to flicker and pass into the darkness…all the evil of the world seemed not evil at all, but inevitable and good and part of that endless struggle to keep the desert down.”

And so Bandini, obsessed by his own struggles with writing and women, makes a resolution. Having scripted a savage criticism of the short stories of a love rival who approached him for writing advice he reconsiders.

“Under the big stars in a shack lay a man like myself, who would probably be swallowed by the desert sooner than I, and in my hand I held an effort of his, an expression of his struggle against the implacable silence…

His fate was the common fate of all, his finish my finish; and here tonight in this city of darkened windows were other millions like him and like me…

I walked back to my room and spent three hours writing the best criticism of his work that I could possibly write.”

This outstretched hand offers a moment of hope in a story that will prove to sorely need it, and a message that self improvement is of little worth compared to an attempt at human connection – which is as good a resolution as any today.

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All the Christmases roll down

Every person, every family, will have their rituals today.

From food to gifts to visiting, Christmas routines have a durable, longstanding feeling. Even those who dislike the day have their trusted way of doing so.

My habit is waking early on Christmas morning and taking 15 minutes to read a story written by the poet Dylan Thomas.

A Child’s Christmas In Wales, written in 1950 but composed in stages over the preceding years, was famously recorded for broadcast by a cash-strapped Thomas in New York in 1952. The poet died a year later and the story was published in 1954.

A dream-memory of an early 20th century Christmas in seaside Welsh village, on the face of it the story, its characters and movement, are from a different world.

It’s a place one of snow, cats, sleeping old men, postmen on icy laneways, “always uncles”, an frost-bound hibernating town above a “forlorn sea” at the foot of a white world.

It’s opening lines are, to me, a pure seam of Christmas memory and emotion – a childhood distilled, words worth reading once a year.

“One Christmas was so much like another, in those years around the sea-town corner now and out of all sound except the distant speaking of the voices I sometimes hear a moment before sleep, that I can never remember whether it snowed for six days and six nights when I was twelve or whether it snowed for twelve days and twelve nights when I was six.

All the Christmases roll down toward the two-tongued sea, like a cold and headlong moon bundling down the sky that was our street; and they stop at the rim of the ice-edged fish-freezing waves, and I plunge my hands in the snow and bring out whatever I can find…”

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Haiku at Christmas

Main Street, Wexford, December 2014. Pic: Cormac Looney

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Lights, crowds, families,

”Tis the season’ they sing.

Winter watches on.
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Who’ll Stop The Rain? (and other songs)

rain

Pic: Clare Kleinedler

I’ve got rain on my mind. On my shoulders too, and my shoes, bag and trousers. But mainly on my mind.

It’s been pouring down for weeks in Dublin, or so it seems. If it’s not actually raining it simply feels like a moment of respite, a break in the clouds to emphasise the onset of a new downpour.

Everything is sodden. Thankfully, unlike the unfortunate citizens of Athlone and other areas along the River Shannon, Dublin has not been struck by floods. But it’s been wet – the rain’s been general all over Ireland, and generally all over our psyche.

The skyfall has kept me indoors more than I’d like, an upshot of which is more time spent listening to music. I use it to drown out the noise of the liquid falling outside.

Perhaps it’s cabin fever but this morning, as I woke to the 5am drip and pitter-patter, I thought it was time to combine the two – to play some rain songs.

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Rainslicker – Josh Ritter
“The last 40 days have been rain, the sun is a prodigal one that seems bent upon giving itself a bad name,” sings Ritter, in his song to a girl and her red raincoat.

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A Hard Rain’s A-Gonna Fall – Bob Dylan
Minnesotan Bob knew all about hard winters. He may have written his classic protest song about nuclear fallout but I still think of cumulonimbi, not mushroom clouds.

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Feels Like Rain – John Hiatt
“When the clouds roll in across the moon, the wind howls out your name, and it feels like rain..” A romance in need of an umbrella.

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A Rainy Night In Soho – The Pogues
Or Dublin, or Glasgow, or Portland, or Killarney. Anywhere precipitation meets a hangover.

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Who’ll Stop The Rain? – Creedence Clearwater Revival
Because someone will, right?

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