Category Archives: Literature

Listening back to Dublin in the 2000s

Will Oldham, 2001. Pic: Sébastien Crespin

Will Oldham, 2001. Pic: Sébastien Crespin

I wish I could remember more.

About my twenties, but more specifically about the music shows I attended back then. This occurred to me in recent days, when I listened to an album I hadn’t heard in a decade, by an artist who was once a major part of my musical life. The recording was “Ease Down The Road”, the artist Bonnie “Prince” Billy (Will Oldham to his mother).

In the early 2000s I was a devotee of Oldham’s music – not as hardcore as some, but I knew his albums “Master and Everyone”, “I See A Darkness” and “Ease Down The Road” very well. Then, for some reason, I stopped listening.

This is one of those curious things that I’ve encountered in my relationships with certain artists – in music or literature or art. One day I’m deep into their rare studio outtakes – then I blink and it’s 10 years later and I can’t even recall the name of the record I played constantly for two months.

It happened with David Gray, with Jan Gabarek, with Francis Bacon and with Jonathan Franzen. One moment I’m hanging on their every note, brush stroke or sentence, the next it’s “oh, that guy”.

It seems, though, that if the roots have been laid deep enough, I can return. So it was with “Ease Down The Road”, which I came across while mindlessly browsing my music streaming service.

A single listen was all it took to bring me back to Dublin 18 years ago, to a friend who pushed a copy of “I Can See A Darkness” on me, to an ex-girlfriend who was even more into “Master and Everyone” than I was, to a half-remembered night at Whelan’s on Camden Street, where an irate old guy (who was probably younger than I am now) kept hissing “quiet!” at tipsy gig goers, cupping his hands around his ears to get his deep dose of Oldham’s gothic folk music.

At times it was hard to fight off a feeling of nostalgia. But this was outweighed by one of regret – that night in Whelan’s was one of many in those years, the highs and lows of which I’ve forgotten. Where are the crew I used to go to those shows with now? Why did they rebuild Whelan’s (to my ears and eyes it was an imperfect gem)? Could me-then have predicted than me-now would one day look back on that scene from a distance of almost two decades and 5,000 miles?

And why should any of this bear thinking about? Isn’t every day a new one? What’s the value to tracing past experiences?

Finally though, a most important question – how could I live through those intervening years without listening to this song?

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Memorial Day, Eagle Rock Boulevard

When I think of L.A. I think of things that are no longer there.

John Fante’s Bunker Hill boarding house,

The crumpled slips between the wooden seats at Santa Anita racetrack,

Where Bukowski cursed his way through another weekday afternoon.

The marble fireplace where Scott Fitzgerald stood,

In the rented Hollywood home where he tried to recharge his life – and where he lost it.

That strange bright emptiness – a great unease – that Joan Didion lived in and wrote about.

The last is still there, high above Eagle Rock Boulevard, where I walk, remembering.

All of these people wrote, and lived and drank and fought, against it. And for what?

The dust, the heat, the dry air, the lure and the promise and the tiredness, are too great to overcome.

Not that we should stop trying.

—–

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What will survive of us

From Dad to Anne. Powell's, Portland, Dec 2017.

From Dad to Anne. Powell’s, Portland, Dec 2017.

Fifty-five years ago a man sat in a diner somewhere in the United States, pulled a book from his pocket, and inscribed a short, touching note to his daughter on the first page.

As he did so, did it occur to him that a person not yet born, in another place in another century, would one day read his words? Or that the book he inscribed would travel from that counter top on a journey that would see it end up, in 2017, on the shelves of a used bookstore in Portland, Oregon?

“Anne,” the man writes, “waiting for lunch in the Olympic Grill I have been looking through this book I just bought, and it is so much your book that I have decided to give it to you, even though it isn’t Christmas or birthday or even Easter.”

He signs off with a simple, “Dad”.

Whatever became of Anne? Or her father? Were they close, a dad and daughter who knew each other well enough to know that one would enjoy the Dylan Thomas book that the other had just bought?

Or were they distant, or becoming so? Is the absence of a sign-off simply the sign of a less emotionally-open age, or a clue to their relationship?

Re-reading the note, as I stood between the shelves in Powell’s this week, I wondered how far the book had traveled. I can’t locate an Olympic Grill in Portland in 1955. Perhaps the man sat in the still extant Kelly’s Olympian, nearby in downtown Portland, or in another establishment in another part of the country.

The place is likely gone, like the man himself and, quite possibly, his daughter. But his small gesture remains, on the opening page of a crumbling $5 book that – perhaps because of the note inside – I couldn’t bring myself to buy.

“What will survive of us is love,” wrote Philip Larkin. I hope that I held a small piece of it that afternoon.

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Finding Kavanagh in the canal bank rush

Patrick Kavanagh, 1963. Pic: NLI

Patrick Kavanagh, 1963. Pic: NLI

On a recent visit to Dublin I navigated through a Tuesday morning rush hour along Herbert Place, a few feet above the slow-moving waters of the Grand Canal.

As I did so, I wondered what the bard of Baggotonia, Patrick Kavanagh, would make of his old strolling ground.

The 50th anniversary of the poet’s death falls in November, and the Dublin that he left behind in 1967 is as dearly departed as the man himself.

The city of pubs and priests, holy hours and holy grail civil service jobs – the city Kavanagh knew, if not loved – no longer exists, thankfully. The 8am surge along Wilton Terrace moves with the same speed and attitude as that on lower Manhattan, or Canary Wharf.

Few wallow in the habitual or the banal in 2017, it seems. Why should they?

And what could a 20th century farmer poet from rural Co Monaghan have in common with today’s Baggotonians?

Canal bank walk, 2017

Canal bank walk, 2017

Little enough, I thought, until – days later – verses from one of Kavanagh’s later poems came to my mind.

‘Thank You, Thank You’ was written as an epilogue to a series of university lectures the poet delivered in the early 1960s. Part of the poem warns against nostalgia:

Don’t grieve like Marcus Aurelius
Who said that though he grew old and grey
The people of the Appian Way
Were always the same pleasant age
Twenty-four on average.

But, more to the point, Kavanagh’s poem celebrates the universal soul – whether it be in 1967 or 2017:

…what it teaches is just this
We are not alone in our loneliness,
Others have been here and known
Griefs we thought our special own
Problems that we could not solve
Lovers that we could not have
Pleasures that we missed by inches.

The words resonate across the span of a half century, from a poet seated by still canal waters to commuters whizzing by in 2017, yards from where he once rested. And whether we were there or are here, whether we were then or are now, we are not alone.

_____

 

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‘Brilliant and bleak beyond words’

Remnants of a fire lookout on Bald Mountain, Oregon

Remnants of a fire lookout on Bald Mountain, Oregon

All that remains are two large, oblong stones, which lie perpendicular to one another in a small glade.

Yet it’s here that, for decades in the middle part of the last century, fire watchers spent their summers, perched on the summit of Bald Mountain, beneath the huge glaciated wall of Mount Hood to the west.

Only the two stones remain on the mountain top these days, surrounded by the tall trees that have grown up in the 60 or more years since the lookout was abandoned.

Standing at the summit last weekend, on a blazing hot Oregon August day, I wondered if any of those who watched on Bald Mountain were still around? What could they tell of the long months spent up here alone, binoculars in hand, scouring the ridges, tree lines and valleys for storms and smoke?

Since I was a teenager the job of fire lookout has seemed hugely romantic. Long before I encountered Thoreau, and at a time when the highest peaks I’d climbed were the lowly Slieve Bloom mountains in the Irish Midlands, I was fixated on the job.

The weather, the remoteness, the desolation – all undercut with a grave responsibility to protect people: was it any wonder it appealed to a young scout?

Fast forward a few years and – now in my late teens – I discovered the writings of Jack Kerouac. Better known for his cross-country beat jaunts, the writer also spent two months as a lookout on Desolation Peak in the High Cascades range, in Washington.

Writing about the experience afterwards, Kerouac noted: “Sixty three sunsets I saw revolve on that perpendicular hill – mad raging sunsets pouring in sea foams of cloud through unimaginable crags like the crags you grayly drew in pencil as a child, with every rose-tint of hope beyond, making you feel just like them, brilliant and bleak beyond words.”

While brilliant, the crags of Mount Hood National Forest are not bleak – not in summer at least. Every hour dozens of hikers walk the Timberline Trail beneath Bald Mountain’s summit, while dozens more saunter down the nearby level stretch of the Pacific Crest Trail.

But the peak itself is quiet, if not desolate, and a few moments spent alone there are enough to remove you from yourself, and connect you to the generations of people who hiked there before, and millennia of flora and fauna that existed in that spot.

And cause you to think of, as Jack the Lookout put it, “a blade of grass jiggling in the winds of infinity, anchored to a rock, and for your own poor gentle flesh no answer”.

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Coffins, rats, corpses, and life – Bloom in hell

James Joyce, Zurich, 1915.

James Joyce

Hades is where it’s at.

The sixth chapter of James Joyce’s ‘Ulysses’ is not only one of the most accessible in the book, it’s also a forensic depiction of an Irishman’s mind, as he considers life, the universe, and everything else.

The action plays out (or in, given that so much of it is internal monologue) against the backdrop of that greatest of Irish social occasions – a funeral.

The book’s hero, its Odysseus, Leopold Bloom, attends a service and burial for an acquaintance, Paddy Dignam. Bloom doesn’t know Dignam all that well but nonetheless, in the Irish tradition, feels duty bound to be present at the obsequies.

He travels there in a carriage with three other acquaintances, crossing Dublin from Sandymount to Glasnevin Cemetery, encountering on the way a child’s funeral, a herd of cattle, and the Royal Canal, while also spotting various places and people.

Glasnevin Cemetery

Glasnevin Cemetery

But the real activity is in Bloom’s mind, as his thoughts race from the undiscriminating nature of death (spurred on by the sight of the child’s coffin) to the mundane (as he reminds himself to switch a bar of soap between his pockets without being seen) to the fantastical (could a gramophone be put at a grave so the dead could ‘speak’ to the living?)

But for all the preoccupation with death, from the size of the child’s cortege (“paltry funeral: coach and three carriages”), to a fat rat running alongside a crypt (“one of those chaps would make short work of a fellow. Pick the bones clean”), to the “saddened angels, crosses, broken pillars, family vaults…old Ireland’s hearts and hands”, ‘Hades’ ends with a note of affirmation, a commitment to life.

As he walks away from Dignam’s grave, passing the cemetery’s hundreds of headstones, Bloom’s mood lifts. It moves from Dignam’s grave to his wife’s bed, from death to life, as Bloom exits Hades, stepping back into the living world of Dublin on June 16, 1904.

“The gates glimmered in front: still open. Back to the world again. Enough of this place. Brings you a bit nearer every time…”

“There is another world after death named hell. I do not like that other world she wrote. No more do I. Plenty to see and hear and feel yet. Feel live warm beings near you.

“Let them sleep in their maggoty beds. They are not going to get me this innings. Warm beds: warm fullblooded life.”

And so Bloom’s day continues.

_____

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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.

_____

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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‘All together in a sudden strangeness’

NE Alberta Street. December 2016

NE Alberta Street. December 2016

Portland is many things but it’s not quiet. At least it’s not in the area of north Portland where we live.

Traffic is fairly steady in the streets around our end of N Mississippi Avenue, where the nearby I-5 provides a fairly constant background hum in the daytime hours. It’s not intrusive, just an ever-present feature.

It’s also one you don’t notice until it’s gone. Which is what happened over the past 48 hours, as a winter snowstorm hit the Rose City.

And so, confronted last night by sub-zero temperatures, slick streets and frozen pavements, I did the first, if slightly reckless, thing that came to mind: I stepped out for a five-mile walk.

What struck me was the silence.

Earlier that day I had read a Guardian article on the theme of walking through an urban area at night. One of the most common observations of those who undertook such outings was the lack of noise, the absence of traffic, other pedestrians, construction activity.

Walking down N Alberta Street now, there was no evening rush. MLK was quiet – the motorists who had ventured out were sticking to a crawl as they navigated frozen, untreated roads. There were few pedestrians on the slippy pavements, and the cafes and bars of the Alberta Arts District were forlornly empty.

And so I walked. For miles (more than five, to be exact), across snowy pavements and intersections, meeting only the occasional dog-walker or stubborn pedestrian. When I did, as Pablo Neruda wrote, we were all together “in a sudden strangeness”.

This was a different Portland, one I hadn’t seen and one which appears only very occasionally. It showed me a different city, the physical structures and thoroughfares standing apart, freed from the constant, sometimes choking, activity that passes through and around them.

One of the contributors to the Guardian feature wrote that, at night when the streets are deserted, “the empty city feels like it’s yours…you feel outside the world”. So it was for me, for one night at least, in snow-struck Portland.

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Snowmaggedon falling faintly and faintly falling

Donal McCann as Gabriel Conroy in "The Dead" (1987)

Donal McCann as Gabriel Conroy in “The Dead” (1987)

Snow was general all over Portland this week. It was falling softly upon the Japanese Gardens and, further westwards, softly falling on the dark Willamette waves.

Snowstorms don’t happen very often in this part of the world. Mercifully so, as the city slides to a halt when they sweep in. Pavements are ice rinks, roads lie untreated, movement is all but impossible. It’s almost as bad as the notorious Irish ‘Big Freeze‘.

That country came to mind this morning as I lay in bed, shivering and reading “The Dead”, the short story which ends James Joyce’s’ “Dubliners”.

Its famous closing lines depict snow falling on Dublin and, as Gabriel Conroy experiences his epiphany, across the midlands to the western seaboard. The precipitation was, Richard Ellmann believed, a metaphor for human mutuality, the experience of life and of death that we all share.

Joyce’s words, like the quiet, empty streets of Portland’s ‘snowmageddon‘, are a calming break from the general run of things. And worth reading, before the Christmas rush descends.

Yes, the newspapers were right: snow was general all over Ireland. It was falling softly upon the Bog of Allen and, further westwards, softly falling into the dark mutinous Shannon waves. It was falling too upon every part of the lonely churchyard where Michael Furey lay buried. It lay thickly drifted on the crooked crosses and headstones, on the spears of the little gate, on the barren thorns. His soul swooned slowly as he heard the snow falling faintly through the universe and faintly falling, like the descent of their last end, upon all the living and the dead.

Snow in North Portland. Pic: Clare Kleinedler

Snow in North Portland. Pic: Clare Kleinedler

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