Boxes, tape and a dread responsibility

Towering classics

Towering classics

This isn’t an easy post to write. Every aspect of it goes against my better nature – and my worst nature too.

It concerns an action that I’m not proud of, one that I will never repeat, a deed which has left me sick to the stomach, questioning my core values and reassessing my life’s direction.

I’ve purged my library.

It was my own decision, taken in a sober frame of mind and without coercion. And it was cold-blooded.

Over the years family and the odd (very odd – who suggest someone throw out books?) friend had advised me to do this. I ignored them of course. And the books continued to pile up.

Shelves had long since overflowed. Piles of paperbacks filled the bottoms of wardrobes and sprouted from the corners of bedrooms. When tripping over them became too much a simple solution presented itself: stuff the lot into empty suitcases. Which was fine, until it came time for a trip.

No part of me wishes I lived in a large mansion. In fact I’ve never lived in a house big enough to accommodate a library or even a small study. But sometimes it’s occurred to me that the only upshot of Jay Gatsby’s quiet desperation was the spare room at the West Egg mansion where he could ditch his unread books.

Empty shelves. 'Man Read at Lamplight', George Friedrich Kersting (1814)

Empty shelves. ‘Man Reading at Lamplight’, George Friedrich Kersting (1814)

After years of procrastinating, dodging requests from my better half, and generally burying my head in the sand (or in a newly acquired Penguin Classic) circumstances conspired to force me to face the inevitable.

And so, armed with a pile of cardboard boxes, tape and a sense of dread responsibility I started into the task – onerous but now unavoidable – of separating the ‘must keeps’ from the ‘must keep but this is cold reality’.

The keeper books needed no attention, they were going nowhere. But the others, each one assessed and re-assessed, maybe’d and if only’d, now stand in a series of small paper towers on the living room floor.

I can barely bring myself to look at them, including – as they do – books bought 30 years and a lifetime ago. Some were read and forgotten, some half read. others just held once every couple of years.

Adieu then to Don DeLillo’s magnum opus Underworld, the second copy I’ve owned and lost, with the plaintive image of the Twin Towers on the cover.

Farewell to Nietzsche‘s Thus Spoke Zarathustra, half-read, the product of a brief dalliance with existentialism.

Goodbye to William Gibson’s The Difference Engine, read as I dipped a toe into the world of steampunk.

These, and dozens more, are about to go. A friend’s offered to re-home some but most will be donated. At least someone else will, hopefully, read them – after our poignant parting I’m not sure I ever will.

And if this wasn’t heartbreaking enough worse lies around the corner – the opposite corner of the same room to be exact, where hundreds of CDs sit taking up space, unused, awaiting the purge.

Adieu DeLillo.

Adieu DeLillo

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Ain’t no 8000 metre Himalayan peak high enough

Cho Oyu. Pic: Uwe Gille

Cho Oyu. Pic: Uwe Gille

Know any songs about mountaineering? Me neither.

There’s plenty about mountains, of course. Led Zeppelin don’t have much in common with Percy French but both wrote about the hills (although Misty Mountain Hop is a very different song to The Mountains of Mourne).

There are more (possibly the most famous, Marvin Gaye and Tammi Terrell’s Ain’t No Mountain High Enough, originated from a music label in Detroit – a city hardly known for its peaks) but they’re not that common. There’s a list of others here. Suffice to say that more music is inspired by cars and girls.

Until you come to the work of Geir Jenssen. Under the name Biosphere he’s released some of the most acclaimed ambient music of the past 30 years – not least the benchmark album Substrata.

Geir Jenssen. Pic: Mitja Podreka

Geir Jenssen. Pic: Mitja Podreka

But Jenssen is also a mountaineer. In 2001 he climbed Cho Oyu, at 8,201 metres the sixth highest mountain in the world, doing so without supplementary oxygen.

If this wasn’t achievement enough, Jenssen managed to document the ascent by recording sound samples including one, incredibly, on the summit itself.

Five years later he compiled the recordings, releasing them in an intriguing package which included a diary of the climb. He titled it, simply, Cho Oyu 8201m – Field Recordings from Tibet.

The 48-minute recording documents the elements, the voices of fellow climbers and locals, radio broadcasts and movement. The last five pieces are named for the camps on the mountain and, finally, the summit itself.

The ‘tracks’, such as they are, are a step beyond simple field recordings. There’s occasionally a percussive element, a natural sound repeating, that offers a rhythm. There’s a sense of pacing and atmosphere building. Despite this there’s little doubt that, as listening goes, the work will appeal first and foremost to mountaineers.

Committing the sound of a mountain environment to an album-length recording is difficult, if not impossible. Instead Jenssen’s Cho Oyu release goes some way to communicating the atmosphere of climbing a high mountain – the wind, the flapping of fabric, the slow trudge of crampons on snow, the wind again (although the climatic track, The Summit, is surprisingly calm).

Very few of us will climb an 8000-er but, in the right frame of mind, Geir Jenssen can put us on one. Could Marvin Gaye do that?

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The high wilderness of Lugnaquilla

Descending above Kelly's Lough, July 2016

Descending above Kelly’s Lough, July 2016

Lugnaquilla’s not a marquee mountain.

It lacks the height of Carrauntoohill, Ireland’s highest peak, or the spectacular ocean views of Brandon or Mweelrea. It’s not a pilgrim site, like Croagh Patrick, or close to a famed smuggler’s path, like Slieve Donard.

But what it lacks in pizzazz it makes up for by its wildness. It may be only an hour’s drive from Dublin but Lugnaquilla presides over a high, windswept wilderness, a landscape of moors and tarns and very few people.

For that reason it offers city dwellers short on time – or tourist hikers – a day hike do-able from the capital.

Over the years it’s offered me – depending on the season – lunar-like landscapes of snow and ice, driving rain or hours of cold, high sun. And always the wind, blowing from the Atlantic across the flat Midlands and up the ramp of Camara Hill, or from the north over the whale’s back of Mullaghcleevaun.

Looking back to Glenmalure from the saddle

Looking back to Glenmalure from the saddle

I can always get up there more often. Living in London in the 1790s, William Wordsworth would think of the mountains of the Lake District, writing “’mid the din,  Of towns and cities, I have owed to them, In hours of weariness, sensations sweet”.

I’m often struck by the same. And so, coming off a busy home schedule last week, I pulled out my boots, emailed friends and arranged a hike to the ‘Hollow of the Wood’.

Having tried many routes over the years the most favourable ascent, to my mind, is that from Glenamalure, a glacial valley to the mountain’s north, reportedly the longest of its kind in Ireland and Britain.

This was the remote place where Irish rebel Michael Dwyer hid out from the British at stages in the years after the 1798 rebellion. It’s easy to see why – the nearest sign of civilisation, the townland of Aghavannagh, is known to locals as “the last place God made”. Even at the 9am in the height of summer our group were the only ones setting out from Baravore ford at the head of the valley.

The route up is navigationally easy. A path leads past a youth hostel and up into the heart of the Fraughan Rock Glen, where the first of three steep pulls, alongside an unnamed river (surging in winter), brings you up  into a cwm below the summit itself.

This is where the isolation of Lugnaquilla becomes apparent. On the many occasions I’ve ascended this way I’ve rarely encountered other hikers in the huge, grassy, stream-streaked bowl.

Summit - 925m

Summit – 925m

On crossing the cwm the ground gets steeper, before levelling out at the foot of the final ascent, which brings you onto the saddle of the mountain.

This flat, barren landscape can present navigation problems. But a combination of timing and sheer luck last Saturday saw us reach it just as the clouds cleared, revealing the Glen of Imaal to the west and the Irish Sea to the south east.

However, with thundershowers forecast this was no place to linger. After a brief breather at the summit cairn (925m) we descended to the east, across to Clohernagh (800m), which hangs above Kelly’s Lough, one of the highest lakes in the Wicklow Mountains.

From there we descended to the cliffs at Bendoo, where we picked up the head of the ‘Zig Zags’, a trail which provides a knee-testing descent back down to Glenmalure.

We didn’t waste time, completing the 15.5km walk in four and a half hours – clocking up a 800m ascent in the process.

As for wildness, we had it in spades. We encountered no-one on the ascent, a couple of hikers on the summit and perhaps a dozen descending the Zig Zags.

For much of the hike we could have been walking hundreds of years earlier, alongside Michael Dwyer or Wordsworth, feeling – as the latter put it:

A sense sublime
Of something far more deeply interfused,
Whose dwelling is the light of setting suns,
And the round ocean and the living air,
And the blue sky…
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FullSizeRender (1)

Always bring a map – in this case OS 56

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Half mist, half rain, and warm to the touch

Sigur Ros, Kilmainham, Dublin

Sigur Ros, Kilmainham, June 2016

A confession – I don’t do music outdoors.

Hiking, running, walking – no problem. But not music and certainly not in Ireland. My home country’s weather is a perfect disruption to a decent outdoor gig.

First off, it’s likely to rain. If not for all of the show then certainly for part of it. Secondly, while the sun may shine and it may be July, the temperature will still be south of 10c and you’ll shiver your way through the evening.

The third factor is a hidden one, the element few think of as they hunt for their old wellington boots or under apply sunscreen. And it’s the worst.

It’s the wind. While it’s well known that you enjoy four seasons in a day in Ireland, it’s less publicised that every one of them will be windy. And if you’re standing in the middle of a field, side-on to an Atlantic westerly as your favourite act steps onto stage, you’ll notice it.

You’re likely to experience, as I have on many occasions, songs unwittingly deconstructed – the bass one minute, then a snippet of vocal, then what sounds like a cymbal but may be feedback. The song ends when the audience starts clapping, but I’ve even witnessed 50,000 cheering fans hoodwinked by a stiff June breeze, to the shock of a band launching into another verse.

This amounts to sort of improvised performance – just one improvised by an Atlantic depression and not the E Street Band.

Jónsi Birgisson. Pic: Jose Goulao

Jónsi Birgisson. Pic: Jose Goulao

And so, when I woke last Sunday and reached to check the weather (a routine as common for today’s Irish as the Angelus at noon was for our grandparents), my heart sank. Rain tapering away to dull, depressing mistiness, with a breeze (of course). And we had tickets to Sigur Ros, outdoors, that evening.

While shaking our fist at the weather gods is a national pastime for the Irish so is optimism – a blind faith that flies in the face of all common sense (and underpins most of our international soccer wins).

It was with equal parts dread and optimism then that we headed to Dublin city centre to meet friends for the show. Under grey skies our group drove on to the Royal Hospital in Kilmainham, where the Icelandic act had set out their stall.

And then, as I walked onto the sodden grass at the venue/field, the weather didn’t matter. Instead it struck me that, in my late 30s now, I attend so few outdoor shows that just hearing music without a roof is a novelty. Who cares if it rains, if the Irish summer dumps its contents down on the city for the evening, if…hold on, is that the sun?

Optimism rewarded, the audience looked over their shoulders to see the light breaking through the clouds beyond the Phoenix Park. At last – a show in the setting sun! Primavera and Coachella be damned!

And then – you guessed it – it started to rain.

Just before Jónsi Birgisson struck the first note we received a gentle drenching  – half mist, half rain and warm to the touch – followed by an arching, shimmering rainbow, which framed the stage, the audience and the Royal Hospital itself. Beauty amidst the gloom – just as Sigur Ros began to play.

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The kick that changed Ireland’s outlook

Wes Hoolahan's cross

The cross

The greatest moment of one of Ireland’s greatest soccer performances wasn’t Robbie Brady’s goal, or the thousands of fans singing and crying in the Stade Pierre-Mauroy, or the sight of Irish president Michael D Higgins dancing for joy.

No. What mattered in Lille last Wednesday night took place seconds before Brady’s header hit the Italian net – a goal which settled a 26-year debt and put the Republic of Ireland through to the last 16 of the European Championship.

It was, instead, the millimetre-perfect cross delivered by Wes Hoolahan, a player who – seconds earlier – appeared to have scuffed a clear goal chance and, with it, a country’s hopes.

Running through with only the Italian ‘keeper to beat and all of Ireland on its feet, roaring him on, the 34-year-old misconnected with the ball, his timid effort coming off Salvatore Sirigu’s legs.

The horror of Hoolahan’s miss extended beyond the match, or even the tournament. This fluffed shot would haunt him down his years, an albatross around his neck of Ireland’s best player, his surname to be forever followed by the word ‘miss’. Even in the moment, it was hard not to feel sorry for him.

As Ireland collapsed to its knees the script appeared written. When it came to the big day the Irish had once more bottled it and, as soon as the final whistle sounded, we’d begin years of self-recrimination and rumination. Because the only thing that raises Irish blood more than a great victory is a sound defeat, a resounding fall.

Wes Hoolahan

Wes Hoolahan

Not this time. What happened next was a break from tradition, courtesy of the man who missed a minute before.

As the country, still open-mouthed, looked on Wes Hoolahan threw himself back into the game.

Extrapolating shifts in national consciousness from split-second events on a football pitch is an unsound practice. But given the once-in-an-era feel of the game, the way the Irish underdog triumphed, the feeling that history had – for once – turned in our favour, this time it’s forgivable.

In picking himself up after his miss, running forward, lifting his head for a pass, taking the ball and delivering to Brady, Hoolahan stepped out of the predictable narrative.

A commentator later remarked that the Irish team had “balls”, which accounted for their win. Courage was part of it, as was commitment and skill – and it was all summed up in the two minutes between Hoolahan’s miss and his cross.

Gone were the ‘what ifs’, the ‘not quite good enoughs’ and the ‘moral victories’. Getting knocked meant one thing – you had to get back up, nothing else.

This was the Irish spirit in Lille last Wednesday. Maybe it’s a new one.
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Orwell’s poor call on the England-Russia game

George Orwell - not a football man

George Orwell – not a football man

What would George Orwell have said, had he been walking through Marseille’s Old Port district last weekend?

It’s likely to have been some combination of ‘duck’ and ‘run’, followed by ‘I told you so’.

The violent clashes between Russian and English football supporters echoed The Sporting Spirit, an essay Orwell wrote following the 1945 visit of Dynamo Moscow to Britain, during which the Soviet side played four ‘friendly’ games.

Citing on-field clashes between Dynamo and Arsenal players, and the booing of the Moscow players by the home crowd, Orwell pithily concludes, “serious sport has nothing to do with fair play…in other words it is war minus the shooting”.

The English writer, though forgiving in parts (a game of football with friends “on the village green” is acceptable, just about), sees little merit in competitive sport – and much malice.

“At the international level sport is frankly mimic warfare,” he writes. “The significant thing is not the behaviour of the players but the attitude of the spectators; and, behind these spectators, of the nations who work themselves into furies over these absurd contests.”

Writing in an age before FIFA was the $2bn-a-year behemoth it is today, Orwell notes that – even in the first half of the 20th century – “games were built into a heavily-financed activity, capable of attracting vast crowds and rousing savage passions”.

The essay, written six months after the end of the Second World War in Europe, concludes, “If you wanted to add to the vast fund of ill-will existing in the world at this moment, you could hardly do it better than by a series of [international] football matches…watched by a mixed audience of 100,000 spectators.”

Fans clash in Marseilles. Pic: Twitter

Fans clash in Marseilles. Pic: Twitter

What’s the solution then? How can we avoid rousing the savage passions that see a city like Marseilles locked down, people kicked and beaten police firing tear gas, and dozens injured?

Orwell’s is simple. Don’t play such games. And, if you must, send out a team of no-hopers to highlight the pointlessness, if not danger – of the entire thing.

Which goes to show that even the greatest writers of modern times, can be blindly naive, and wrong.

Denying peaceful national passions an outlet in a Europe riven by internal discord and home to a rise in support for the far right could result in a continent that Orwell was all too familiar with – the simmering Europe of the 1930s.

Aside from the soccer and the small hooligan minority, the Euro 2016 football championship provides a space for national rivalries to play out in a loud, assertive but non-violent manner – perhaps even a boring one, as anyone who watched rivals Germany and Poland play out a 0-0 draw last night will attest.

Football is, as Orwell put it, ‘mimic warfare’. Better that than the real thing.

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Every picture tells a story, or does it?

New York, 2003.

New York, 2003.

The past picks curious times to come back and haunt you.

As I picked through boxes of old paperwork last weekend a picture fell out. There I was, back in the early Noughties, looking bedraggled as I perched on the edge of a bunk bed in a divey hotel room.

The image is black and white, which suits the grimy surroundings of the place – a fleapit hotel north of 100th Street on New York City’s Upper West Side.

At least I think it was.

I’d like to write that the picture brought me back, unlocking a store of memories from the time. But this room’s closed to me. I’ve no idea what circumstances led me to the hotel, though a shortage of money on a trip to the city was surely the cause.

Likewise this was – I think – taken on a visit during which my friend S and I played a series of open mics, but in the absence of any instruments I can’t say for sure (is that a leaning guitar case on the right hand side?)

As for my shoeless tee-shirt look, I’d most likely put that down to a late night – of which there were a few at the time. Or, more charitably, it could be the sweat of humping a backpack and a guitar case uptown on the subway. Or the absence of AC in a $50-a-night room.

It’s the sort of image that calls for a good backstory, that cries out for a New York anecdote to put Patti Smith’s Just Kids to shame. But if there was one, it’s gone.

That’s sobering. How many more days, weeks or months have I lived and lost to memory? Conversations, experiences, thoughts and emotions that will never be recalled? All pushed out by a new password or a shopping list or an email I’m writing to a colleague.

At least it looks like I had a blast, somewhere in New York, sometime in 2003.

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Purification

Detail from 'Three Sunflowers', Vincent Van Gogh

Detail from ‘Three Sunflowers’, Vincent Van Gogh

He stood alone in the park, at the centre of an exposed, open space. Midsummer, beneath a noon sun. Willing it to happen.

Navy personnel in the Pacific told how the blast light from tests would show up the bones in their hands. The wind speed registers at 1,000kph, almost the speed of sound. A one megaton airburst kills every thing within three kilometres and everyone within a mile of the hypocentre is completely, cleanly destroyed.

Every clear morning he took part in the act. He travelled to the place by train, at speeds of 100kph, reaching the park between 11.30 and 11.33am, the discrepancy a failing of scheduling or growing weakness in his body movement.

Rain or cloud meant it was aborted – the undertaking required pure, vacant air.

Today a man shouted in the distance and, on the edge of his senses, he heard the alarm call of an ambulance.

He recalled that the doctor seemed disinterested at their final meeting. “It’s caused by an infectious agent. Some call it Koch’s bacillus.”

At that stage he had become used to the operator leaving the room, the click and blast of the X-ray machine, the no-feeling of ionising radiation striking.

Within a mile of the centre you would feel nothing, purification would come before the flash. Each thing clear and cleaned, circumstance and chance subjected to perfect science – the neutron strikes and the nucleus splits. 

Everything within three kilometres. He stood, waiting.

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The five stages of runner’s grief

The foot

The foot

“The waiting is the hardest part,” sang Tom Petty in his 1981 hit, a song written as he recovered from a hand injury which limited his guitar playing. Or so I once heard.

At least Petty got back to the fretboard. My own experience with injury of late has been more along the lines of The Long and Winding Road, most of which has been pedalled.

For the past three years I’ve suffered with a running injury that worsened from an annoying niggle to a painful case of plantar fasciitis to a diagnosis of osteoarthritis in my big toe.

The result has witnessed a collapse in my mileage, from around 50k a week in 2013 to a pitiful five (10 if I push it) at present.

A programme of physiotherapy, along with exercises, x-rays and shoe inserts, was followed by a medical consultation and, finally, an appointment to an orthopaedic surgeon next month. While I wait on the latter my exercise regime has been confined to static, dull hours on a stationary bike, broken up by long walks (tantilisingly along my old running route).

The ongoing big toe saga also led me to google ‘how to cope with running injuries’, which brought me in turn to a Runner’s World article documenting five stages of ‘runner’s grief’.

First off, I’m aware that there are bigger problems in the world that a painful toe. But anyone who’s been injured will have encountered one or more of the five stages – denial, anger, bargaining, depression and – the fabled holy grail – acceptance.

Run or walk? Jogging in Porto, 2015

Run or walk? Jogging in Porto, 2015

In my case the first two, denial and anger, were one and the same, signifiers of a period when I’d run 40 and 50 kilometres and then lose my temper when I could barely walk for three days afterwards. Being as stubborn as most runners, this pattern of jog-wobble-hobble repeated itself for a year.

Then, with the onset of physiotherapy, I shifted to the third stage. I’d trade a dull, 45 minutes on the exercise bike for a 5k run. Then it became an hour for 2.5k and a handful of Vitamin I.

Was I depressed at this point? If I was I buried it in sweat and episodes of Deadliest Catch – still my stationary bike show of choice, mainly because the Bering Sea looks like the only place less enjoyable thank the tedious pedalzone I set up in our living room.

Then, one afternoon last December I walked into a radiology department at a Dublin hospital and, at long last and by way of my doctor, received a diagnosis. And now I’m awaiting the surgeon’s appointment.

Cue acceptance.

But not so fast (a bit like my 5k times). While I convince myself that I’m at ease with my injury and assure myself that I’ve learned lessons of limitation, ageing and common sense, the first question I’ll pleadingly ask the surgeon will be “can you help me run 50k a week again?”

To which he’ll likely laugh – and then recommend a stationary bike. Petty was wrong. The waiting’s been easy – the accepting’s the hard part.
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Sole survivor – adventures in male pedicures

Salon savvy.

Nailing it

It wasn’t until she pulled out the razor and smiled that I asked myself “what the hell am I doing here?”

I froze, the woman stared and my wife, seated next to me in the salon, laughed.

As a 30-something Irishman with no previous experience of pedicures, to say that I was out of my comfort zone – despite the luxurious massage chair and complimentary coffee – was an understatement.

So began my first – and to this day, only – such treatment, at Vietnamese nail salon favoured by my wife in her hometown of Los Angeles.

We were visiting for Christmas and I, on a heady whim fuelled by days of hot December sun and evenings of whiskey cocktails, had decided to embrace the male pedi-revolution. This was a significant move – for most Irish males ‘pedicure’ means a hasty toe-clipping and a quick visual once-over.

I was ahead of the curve. In the 18 months since, according to a Guardian report this week, sportsmen like David Beckham and LeBron James have inspired “average blokes” to pamper their toes.

As someone who knows his share of “average blokes” I’m not so sure. But perhaps, a bit like a sockless yours truly that morning in LA, they’ll try anything once.

At the time of my salon venture I was running 50k a week, with the feet and toes to prove it. My default home treatment was a handheld scraping device, which was crude but effective. When things got really out of hand I’d head to my podiatrist.

Of course he’d used a blade too. That said, maybe it was the clinical surroundings, the latex gloves, or (more likely) his stiff fee, but I never felt nervous when I turned to me bearing a scalpel.

Male pedicures before Beckham. Pic: Wellcome Trust

Male pedicures before Beckham.
Pic: Wellcome Trust

It was a different matter amid the magazines, cushions and foot baths of a disconcertingly female-focused salon – or so I thought.

Idiot me, however. Twenty minutes of clipping, scraping and buffing – the latter with a furiously-applied pumice stone – had restored my feet to a presentable standard. There was even some not-unpleasant tickling.

What’s more, my Dublin podiatrist had never given me a post-treatment foot-rub – my toes hadn’t felt this good since I first stepped out of my cot three decades earlier.

Little wonder men had been enjoying pedicures from back before Beckham donned a sarong – 4,000 years back, to be accurate.

So this story ends with me becoming a regular salon visitor, right? Well, not quite.

Oddly enough I haven’t been for a single pedicure since that first experience, in Dublin, Los Angeles or anywhere else. I’ve come close to walking into one of Asian salons on Capel Street, on my wife’s recommendation, but I’ve always pulled out at the last minute, too busy, or self-conscious or downright Irish to follow through.

Call it cold feet.

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