Category Archives: Current affairs

A nightmare from which I’m trying to awake

James Joyce, Zurich, 1915.

James Joyce, Zurich, 1915.

Mr. Deasy halted, breathing hard and swallowing his breath.

“- I just wanted to say,” he said. “Ireland, they say, has the honour of being the only country which never persecuted the jews. Do you know that? No. And do you know why?”

He frowned sternly on the bright air.

“- Why sir?” Stephen asked, beginning to smile.

“- Because she never let them in,” Mr. Deasy said solemnly.

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By a curious twist I read these words this morning, on a day of protests and court applications and outrage in the United States.

They are from the ‘Nestor’ episode of James Joyce’s novel “Ulysses”, spoken to Stephen Dedalus by the small-minded headmaster Deasy. And spoken with great animation – Deasy has just chased a departing Dedalus to the school-gate to stress his anti-Semitic argument.

The words sum up a petty bigotry that, Joyce suggests, was to be found among sections of Dublin’s middle class a century ago. The sentiments can of course be found against another religion, in another country, 100 years later.

And so Joyce’s novel, published in 1922, is – among many other things – a fitting read for the times we’re in.

The book is a work of immigration. The author wrote it in self-imposed exile; having departed Dublin in 1904, his peripatetic lifestyle led him to Trieste, Zurich and Paris. One of the main reasons for this exile was the burgeoning Irish nationalist movement, nationalism being, as Dedalus famously points out to Deasy, one of “those big words…that make us so unhappy”.

Drawing of Leopold Bloom by James Joyce

Drawing of Leopold Bloom by James Joyce

Immigration, religion (another of Dedalus’ big words), and their effects down the generations are central to the novel, principally by way of Leopold Bloom. The book’s central character,  Bloom is the son of a Hungarian Jew who emigrated to Ireland and converted to Protestantism.

Despite Bloom’s own conversion to Catholicism, he encounters an ingrained, nod-and-wink anti-Semitism as he navigates his way around Dublin on June 16, 1904. At one point The Citizen – a nationalist and xenophobe – talks, in Bloom’s company, of Jews “swindling peasants… and the poor of Ireland. We want no more strangers in our house”.

Bloom retains his composure in the face of such bigotry. His thinking, his behaviour, and his dignity represent Joyce’s riposte to the forces of religion, colonialism (by way of England) and nationalism.

Bloom is a true citizen, a pacifist, a Dubliner with a Jewish background, an individual who is a man first, an Irishman second. He may feel conflicted at times, but this is the price of his virtue of moderation.

Bloom doesn’t make an appearance in the ‘Nestor’ episode, and so does not hear his young friend Dedalus utter one of the most resonant lines in “Ulysses”:

History, Stephen said, is a nightmare from which I am trying to awake.

As many might suggest, this can apply to the present too.
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Failing better in 2017, or worse

Samuel Beckett. Pic: Roger Pic

Samuel Beckett. Pic: Roger Pic

No choice but stand. Somehow up and stand. Somehow stand. That or groan. The groan so long on itsway. No. No groan. Simply pain. Simply up. A time when try how. Try see. Try say. How first it lay. Then somehow knelt. Bit by bit. Then on from there. Bit by bit. Till up at last. Not now. Fail better worse now.

You’ve probably come across the Samuel Beckett line, beloved of tech entrepreneurs and sports stars, “Ever tried. Ever failed. No matter. Try again. Fail again. Fail better.”

You may not have come across the longer quotation above – unless you’re a fan of Beckett’s difficult late works. It’s from the same piece of writing, “Worstward Ho”, and comes a few lines after Richard Branson-esque earlier line.

Having despaired of a mantra with which to start 2016, last week I landed on the “fail better” line. Glib as it is, it struck me as having the right blend of hope and trepidation for a new year, given the year we’re departing and what we face in the coming weeks.

Then I delved a little deeper and came across the longer, “somehow up and stand” quote. It reflects the positivity of the shorter quote, with the addition of some cold reality.

Hopefully “fail better worse now” won’t be the final word on 2017 in 12 months time but, if it is, I can’t say that one of the 2oth century’s great absurdists didn’t warn me.

Until then, simply up. Happy New Year!
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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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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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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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Do you remember alternative rock radio?

Rock on air

Do you remember?

Who listens to alternative rock radio anymore?

That’s what occurred to me as I read of the impending closure of TXFM, the radio station set to disappear off Dublin’s airwaves in the coming months.

The reason is, unsurprisingly, down to cash – the lack of it. And lack of cash is down to lack of listeners – TXFM’s 19,000 gave it a 0.7pc share of the Dublin radio market, nowhere near enough to survive.

News of TXFM’s imminent end brought me back almost 20 years, to a younger incarnation of both myself and the station.

Phantom FM, a pirate venture run from a shed, was staple listening in my shared student house in the 1990s. I’ve a distinct memory of burning myself attempting a pasta dish, my expletives drowning out the soothing strains of Neil Young’s Are You Ready For The Country? on the radio.

Phantom grew up to be a fully legal station, eventually morphing into TXFM. I grew up too, but still injure myself in the kitchen (albeit less often and not as loudly).

Meanwhile, the idea of listening to alternative music on the radio while doing any task – other than driving perhaps – doesn’t occur to me anymore.

Please, not again. Pic: Stig Nygaard

Please, not again. Pic: Stig Nygaard

That job’s been filled by Spotify. Research from the streaming service, published this week, shows how its main use is to “programme one’s own radio station of current hits”. If current hits aren’t your thing its radio feature – which allows you to create virtual radio stations on the basis of the music you already listen to – can be fearsomely well-curated.

And consider the sheer amount of music available on the service. Why would you sit through yet another Foo Fighters song on TXFM?

That said, there is one thing I will miss about the station. A fortnight ago my wife and I were headed to Wexford and stuck in morning traffic outside Dublin on the M50.

To amuse ourselves we texted a request to TXFM’s morning show. Minutes later the presenter read our message and played our song. We were stoked, we were excited, we were teenagers again. But teenagers have to grow up.
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What a two-decade old photo taught me

deathvalley

#1

Nevada was in the news this week.

And not the good Nevada – the 24 hour, ‘where’s my credit card, actually where’s my trousers?’ Vegas Strip Nevada. Or the eerie lunar landscape Nevada, beloved by hippies. Or even the escape-from-everything-and-start-anew Nevada.

Nope. Instead we had the Nevada of furious politicking, of promises and press conferences, of caucuses and crackpots. Of, worse still, Donald Trump.

But the headlines from the Silver State put me in a nostalgic mood, as did a picture I came across, taken by a friend en route from California to Nevada almost 20 years ago.

It shows a 21-year-old, tired and likely hungover, Irishman posing on a sandy hillside in bleaching sunshine, the desert floor in the distance. My recollection is that this was taken in August 1999, somewhere west of Death Valley on Route 190, shortly before a group of pals and I drove into the basin and on to Las Vegas.

The previous evening had been spent sleeping in the backseat of our rental van parked somewhere on the edge of Yosemite National Park. The following night was a sleepless one, which started with a spectacular thunderstorm on the Vegas city limits and ended at 6am the next morning, sipping refreshments in the dollar slots and wondering where the last 12 hours went.

Then, after a couple of hours’ sleep, we drove out of Vegas and across the United States.

As can probably be gathered from the picture above, my worries at the time barely extended beyond the ensuring 24 hours.

I recall that I had to get to New York City by a certain date to catch a flight back to San Francisco. I had nowhere to stay on the West Coast but I figured that would work itself out. In the end it did, via a payphone call from a Greenwich Village bar to pals in the Sunset who had a spare mattress on their floor.

 #2

#2

After that I had a flight booked out of SF to Dublin. Friends were returning to college or work but I didn’t have a job lined up, or a place to live. It didn’t bother me much. It worked itself out too. The rest, as always, is history. Here I am.

That brief, blazing roadside stop on 190 came to mind this week as I spent too much time testing my blood pressure limit, reading about megalomaniacal politicians, the cracks in the Chinese economy, the weakening of the euro  – all the good psychic dread stuff.

As I did it occurred to me that I need to balance this stuff up. I need to let go more often, to let the future happen.

Above all, I need that guy in the photo to swing by for an hour a week, to set me straight. And I need his hair.

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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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Of all the world’s places this was Paris

paris1

Le Sacre-Coeur

As a young man I didn’t place much importance on the City of Light.

I knew it as the home of the French Revolution, the cradle of the Enlightenment, a place of love and rivers and religion (or a famous cathedral at any rate).

And so I didn’t travel there until I was 35. When I did the city I encountered bore some resemblance to the cast-in-absinthe Paris of the popular imagination.

The guide-booked Eiffel Tower, Ile de la Cite, Sacre-Couer and Montmartre were present and correct, busy with July tourists.

But in the 10th and 11th arrondissements, where we stayed, ate and drank, the city was faster, pushier, live, loud. This Paris was traffic and dirt and people – office workers, beggars, mothers with strollers, groups of teenagers. An aroma of cheap pizza and cigarettes blew above the pavements; more than once I dodged dogs’ deposits underfoot.

Le Quai Saint-Michel

Le Quai Saint-Michel

This was the moving city. It was – and is – a city of difference. The walk from Gare du Nord station across Boulevard de la Chapelle and onto our apartment at Rue de Clignancourt took us past north African, west African and Asian homes and businesses.

In a side street in the shadow of the Sacre-Couer my wife and I ate bun bowls at a tiny Vietnamese cafe. Sitting in the shadow of Notre-Dame, on the Quai Saint-Michel, I had a lunch of falafel above the Seine. Searching out breakfast on a Sunday morning we came across a small cafe on Rue Lamarck, which served a mix of French, Greek and Indian food.

We visited, ate and drank, the other Paris too, of course.

But as the news worsened by the minute last Friday night my thoughts went back to the 11th, and to the last morning I spent in the city, walking in the light through the Sunday morning Bastille market, surrounded by a mix of faces, languages, cultures and foods. The morning’s hundreds shared a common tongue, a place, a sense of tradition.

And a feeling that, of all the world’s places this was Paris, and there was nowhere else to be.

paris2

Le Marche Bastille

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