Monthly Archives: September 2014

Lifehack #1 – the human chain

"...part of the great human chain." Beneath the Parrotspitz, Alps, 2010.

“…part of the great human chain.”
Beneath the Parrotspitze, Italian Alps, 2010. 
Pic: Cormac Looney

“Only connect” wrote EM Forster. But with what? What is it that links us, that bridges the gap between each of us as we exist, in Patrick Kavanagh’s words, “alone in our loneliness“?

Does such a comfort even exist? If so, does this common thread transcend place, language, gender, even time?

How easy is to access this ‘oneness’? Is it as simple as a look or a conversation, or is it realised only after a long period of communication, by way of friend- or relationship?

Identifying, describing and celebrating this human connection has always preoccupied writers and poets, of course.

But seeking and finding the connection often comes easier, in my experience, to musicians. Perhaps this is because music can be, for many, a more direct and immediate form of emotional transfer that the written or spoken word.

It’s apt then that one of the best descriptions of human connection, its origins, reality and reach, came from a man who has spent a life singing his poems.

Leonard Cohen, 1988. Pic: Roland Godefroy

Leonard Cohen, 1988.
Pic: Roland Godefroy

On being asked if melancholia produced better art  Leonard Cohen, who turned 80 this week, took the question and answered with hardened, learned insight.

His response is a description of what links us, often despite ourselves, as we push on through – the feeling of a ‘human chain’.

“We all love a sad song. Everybody has experienced the defeat of their lives. Nobody has a life that worked out the way they wanted it to. We all begin as the hero of our own dramas in centre stage and inevitably life moves us out of centre stage, defeats the hero, overturns the plot and the strategy and we’re left on the sidelines wondering why we no longer have a part – or want a part – in the whole damn thing.

Everybody’s experienced this, and when it’s presented to us sweetly, the feeling moves from heart to heart and we feel less isolated and we feel part of the great human chain which is really involved with the recognition of defeat.”
_____

Note: I like the idea of ‘life hacks’ – pieces of advice, knowledge, insight, admonitions; discrete mind shots that improve life and produce an awareness of living.
The Lifehacks section of the blog is where I’m collecting and collating them.

_____

Advertisements
Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

France – ne me quitte pas

Feeling like filet. Pic: Clare Kleinedler

Feeling like filet.
Pic: Clare Kleinedler

Well, we lasted almost two weeks.

It’s remarkable that we held out for that long. But we did.

Remarkable why? Well, given the amount and quality of beef I’d eaten a fortnight ago in Bordeaux I’d reckoned it would be months before I’d want to encounter another steak.

Likewise, after the seafood smorgasbord we tackled in Le Petit Commerce I doubted I’d want shellfish again until a visit to Howth in midwinter.

But it’s hard to shake off French cooking. After two weeks of whole-wheat pasta, roasted veg, rice and – to be fair – a monstrously delicious rib-sticking mac and cheese dish at The Woollen Mills, we wanted back.

But how can you replicate dining al fresco at the balmy Place des Quinconces on an autumnal weekend in Dublin?

There’s two ways: do it yourself or go to La Maison at Castle Market in central Dublin. We did both.

The DIY meal was steak – a filet mignon to be precise. The cut lacked the fat-fuelled taste sensation of a La Tupina sirloin but, seared for two minutes on each side in a scorching pan and seasoned with just sel gris and pepper, it was a perfect Friday night dish.

Admittedly it lacked the accompaniment of open-fire-cooked duck fat frites, and I still had to wash up afterwards, but it was enough to place us back by the Garonne, however briefly.

La poelee de la mer sauce bonne femme, at La Maison, Dublin

La poelee de la mer sauce bonne femme, at La Maison, Dublin.

The following night was more of full-on French dip.

La Maison markets itself as fine dining. Maybe it is, in terms of service at least, but the menu also has a strong rustic feel, with pungent pates and meaty cassoulets.

Despite a number of good meals in Bordeaux we’d missed a decent pate. In La Maison we got at least two – one a chicken liver and the other a pork rillette. Both were meaty, earthy, fragrant.

They were the curtain raiser for the real star though, my entrée of fresh and shell-fish in white wine sauce. Salmon, trout and a white fish (that, frankly, I’d swallowed before I recognised) were mixed with mussels and baby potatoes to make a dish grandly dubbed ‘la poelee de la mer sauce bonne femme’.

This was a more modest offering than that the Le Petit Commerce showstopper but, alongside a crisp sauvignon blanc, it was satisfied my lingering pangs – of hunger and for France.

Perhaps it was the last of the ‘sauce bonne femme’, the blaze of my companion’s crepe suzette, or the cognac afterwards, but for an hour last weekend I could have been sitting in a bistro off the Triangle d’Or.

What’s “I could get used to this” in French?

_____

A la carte à La Maison, Dublin.

A la carte à La Maison, Dublin.

“An exquisite pleasure had invaded my senses, something isolated, detached, with no suggestion of its origin. And at once the vicissitudes of life had become indifferent to me, its disasters innocuous, its brevity illusory – this new sensation having had on me the effect which love has of filling me with a precious essence; or rather this essence was not in me it was me.”

It’s perhaps unsurprising that it was a Frenchman who immortalised the concept of taste as memory. Unlike Marcel Proust I’ve never experienced it with madeleines.

Filet mignon and la poelee de la mer though? – that’s a different matter.

_____

Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

Reading, the long and short of it

What would Cervantes, Tolstoy or Wallace think? Pic: Steve Rhodes (David Foster Wallace)

Unimpressed? Cervantes, Tolstoy, Wallace.
Pic: Steve Rhodes (David Foster Wallace)

HOW long is too long?

Around 250 pages – if you’re award-winning novelist Ian McEwan.

More than one reader probably slammed down their Hilary Mantel in disgust last week on encountering the writer’s comments on the length of the modern novel.

Using his new release, The Children Act, as a convenient guide, McEwan reckoned 65,000 words is about the right length for a book nowadays.

Such a work can be read in one sitting, he suggests, “like enjoying a three-hour movie or opera”.

Moreover, “very few really long novels earn their length…the Americans especially love a really huge novel…a real brick of an object.”

This shorter-is-better mindset shouldn’t surprise anyone. McEwan is about as far from an American as I can imagine, and most of his novels clock in well under 250 pages.  (The much-lauded On Chesil Beach runs to 166, placing it firmly in novella territory.)

"A real brick of an object."

“A real brick of an object.”

One can only imagine what David Foster Wallace (1079 – Infinite Jest), Cervantes (1072 – Don Quixote) or Leo Tolstoy (1225 – War And Peace) would make of it all.

As a reader (or masochist) who has made it through Moby Dick (625) twice in his 36 years I’m not on McEwan’s page on this.

His comments did get me thinking, though. What was the last 800-page novel I read? And, for that matter, when was the last time I watched a three-hour movie?

It’s been a while, on both counts. But I haven’t avoided longer books because, as McEwan suggests, characters should be established “very quickly” and one or two subplots is enough.

If only it was that simple. Like most people the reason I avoid longer books is time.

Time that’s eaten into by digital grazing, by work, by working out, by (sometimes) just wanting to sit in a room and stare at the ceiling.

Any number of reasons, really. But they combine and conspire to cut into reading time and the concentration required to read.

A slim Steinbeck.

Flat boy – slim.

When my time comes under pressure like this shorter books quickly look more attractive. And so I buy The Children Act and not The Goldfinch, lamely convincing myself that I will, one day, get to Donna Tartt’s 784 pager. (Spoiler: I won’t.)

But once or twice a year, usually on vacation when the time pressure eases, I’ll attempt something longer – The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle on a two-week trip last May, for example.

The increased time investment usually yields a greater reward – more time spent with characters, deeper immersion in plot – and I tell myself I should really do this more often.

And then my eye is caught by a slim Steinbeck and I’m back in the sub-65,000 aisle again.

With a clear two-week period coming up soon I’m already promising myself great things: maybe even Murakami’s gargantuan 1Q84 (brace yourself …928).

We’ll see. Maybe it’s time for a very short story (4), just while I decide.

Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

The raw and the (partly) cooked

A rare sight. La Tupina's sirloin. Pic: Clare Kleinedler

A rare sight. La Tupina’s sirloin.
Pic: Clare Kleinedler

If you want blood you’ve got it.

If you don’t, why the hell are you sitting in La Tupina?

That’s what I’d ask any of the lunchtime diners around me in this Bordeaux bistro, if I wasn’t salivating amid the waft of duck-fat frites and seared sirloin.

And sipping a local vin du pays, of course.

The establishment, housed among 18th century streets on the left bank of the Garonne, is a local institution.

Founded in 1968, it’s showcased the country cuisine of the French southwest – a style wrought “between the kitchen garden and the fireplace” – for almost half a century.

If we were going to have steak frites anywhere in France this was the place.

That’s why, on a visit to the city last week, we booked lunch there.

A declaration: I’m not a ‘steak man’, or anywhere near it.

That’s because ’rare’ – in Dublin and in my experience – is often anything but.

Que les restes de sang - as they say on Rue Porte de la Monnaie.

Que les restes de sang – as they say on Rue Porte de la Monnaie.

With one exception (a well-established place where the steak and, alas, a thread of gristle were cooked properly) my recent experiences ordering such this dish in the city usually led to me it being served medium rare or worse.

Perhaps I’m unlucky. Nonetheless at home I avoid the cow.

Not in Bordeaux, though.

At La Tupina and the following evening at Brasserie l’Orleans I had two palate-changing encounters with beef.

The former’s sirloin arrived on a disarmingly bare plate, garnished with sel gris and accompanied, though it was hardly necessary, with those frites whose aroma I’d been inhaling since we stepped in.

It cut like butter, releasing juices and blood that reduced me, after two or three bites, to a state of stupored carnivorous ecstasy.

It took a lot not to pick up the plate, take it to the nearest dark corner and spend the afternoon licking it.

A week on I can, just about, still taste that cut.
_____

The parting dish - Brasserie l'Orleans' steak tartare.

The parting dish – Brasserie l’Orleans’ steak tartare.

All good things, and meals, must end.

However, when you’re in Bordeaux and the clock’s ticking more good things can and must be found.

And so, the night before we left, my wife and I found ourselves at Brasserie l’Orleans, opposite the famed sycamore trees of the Place des Quinconces, within sight of the statues of Montaigne and Montesquieu.

I confess: my gaze extended only to the rim of my plate. On it lay French cuisine’s other great meat masterwork – a steak tartare.

Plenty of it too, the unctuous raw beef chopped and mixed with capers and onions, seasoned and presented, once more, with frites. (And also sans egg, risking the purist’s outrage).

In one bite soft, delicate and seriously substantial (this is raw beef, after all) –  it’s as close to the cow as you can get, on a plate.

I doubt anyone is happy to leave Bordeaux but this was a meal to soften the blow.
_____

Two dishes – one ingredient. Two restaurants – one city.

There’s far more to Bordeaux, of course, but visiting there without eating these two meals would be far less of an experience.

As would eating steak anywhere else.

Along the Garonne.

Sur la Garonne.

Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,