The Gallagh Man

Gallagh Man, National Museum of Ireland

Gallagh Man, National Museum of Ireland

Nothing speaks of mortality more,
Than a 2000-year-old body laid on the floor.
Or the brevity of our earthly years,
Than a hammered cavity where once was an ear.

Strangled and stabbed, though a princely rake,
Gallagh Man didn’t get much of a break.
Killed to appease his enemies’ hatred,
He’s now wound up in tourists’ gazes.

Yet his somber lesson speaks plainly still,
Of life and death, of good and ill.
But for all sober thoughts of mortality,
I’m mainly glad it’s him, not me.
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The next time you hear “Ride On”…

Jimmy MacCarthy

Jimmy MacCarthy

There is something peculiarly folk music about the fact that the name of the man who wrote some of Ireland’s greatest modern ballads is not widely known, internationally at least, despite his songs travelling the world.

This occurred to me recently when I stopped into Kells Irish pub in downtown Portland one evening, and heard the performer on stage break into “Ride On”. The song was made famous, of course, by Christy Moore, on his 1984 album of that name and in thousands of live performances since.

The singer in Kells duly cited Moore’s performance of the song. I’m sure he has, at one point or another, performed “Missing You”, or “No Frontiers”, two other staples of modern Irish folk music.

And which were written by Jimmy MacCarthy – a name, though not as well-known as Moore’s or The Corrs’ (who’ve also recorded his work), ought to be.

“Ride On” alone secures MacCarthy a place in the choir of great Irish songwriters; the addition of “Missing You” would settle any debate on the matter.

But his greatest composition, to my mind, remains his poignant ballad about the tragic boxer Jack Doyle. Outside of song, Doyle’s rags-to-riches-to-rags story is relatively well-recounted. “The Contender” charts the Corkman’s rise and fall across five verses, from “the contender to the brawl”, as MacCarthy frames it.

It’s a masterclass in songwriting, a work that’s tragic without being sentimental, that’s affectionate but open-eyed. Perhaps fittingly, my favorite version of the song is the one below, recorded live by Moore in 2006. (MacCarthy’s own studio version, from his 2002 album “The Moment”, sounds overproduced, though his live performance of the song, which I saw in Wexford that same year, was wonderful).

Accompanied by guitarist Declan Sinnott, Moore mixes up the pride and the pathos of Doyle’s story. He also pays tribute, at the outset, to the man who wrote the song.

The next time you hear “Ride On” then, or the great London-Irish emigrant song “Missing You“, or even The Corrs’ breathy take on “No Frontiers”, tip your hat to Jimmy MacCarthy.

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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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An Adult’s Christmas in Oregon

dylanMy Christmas rituals are few. I tend to spend December 25 in different places – in recent times Wexford or Los Angeles; this year, Portland.

One of my seasonal constants is “A Child’s Christmas in Wales”, the Dylan Thomas short story. Every Christmas morning I take 20 minutes to “plunge my hands in the snow and bring out whatever I can find,” as the narrator puts it.

This year, for a change, I’ll listen to Thomas reading the story. The poet, ailing and alcoholic, made a recording of the piece in 1952. It’s a remarkable piece of audio, as Thomas, leaning on all the intonation and nuance of his Welsh accent, tells his tale of a young boy’s Christmas in a snowy, seaside village.

But while searching for the recording this week, I across the poet’s other great evocation of childhood, whose lines are probably more pertinent for a man in his late 30s, far from his childhood home (“the farm forever fled”), remembering Christmases past.

“Fern Hill” is not a seasonal poem. It’s set in a time of plenty, a period of huntsmen and herdsmen, when the grass is green and “the hay fields as high as the house”.

These years have passed, and Thomas remembers them with a mix of nostalgia and affection and fatalism. “I was young and easy under the apple boughs,” the poem famously begins, while, a few verses later, we read that “time allows / In all his tuneful turning so few and such morning songs / Before the children green and golden / Follow him out of grace”.

All of which seems oddly suitable for an adult’s Christmas in Oregon. Having long since strolled out of the fields of grace, I rarely run my heedless ways these days. Which is why the bittersweet reality of “Fern Hill”, and not the comforting nostalgia of “A Child’s Christmas In Wales”, is a more fitting read this year.

“Once below a time I lordly had the trees and leaves
Trail with daisies and barley
Down the rivers of the windfall light.”

Once is enough to be thankful for. Happy Christmas.

Portland, OR, December 2016

Portland, OR, December 2016

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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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James Joyce and his decent silk hat

I’m currently deep into Richard Ellmann’s biography of James Joyce, an 800-page opus which is, in parts, almost as detailed as “Ulysses” itself.

As such, I’m well into the world of Joyce-words: ‘europicola’, ‘allalluvial’, ‘douncestears’, to pick three among thousands. At times it’s not easy going, and it got me thinking. Did the man himself ever read his work into a microphone? What did the colossus of Modernism actually sound like?

The answers are: yes, and like a slightly stiff Irish lawyer.

In November 1924 Joyce made a recording of a section of “Ulysses”. The audio, set down at the HMV studio in Paris, would be one of only two such artifacts he made (five years later he would make an eight-minute recording of an extract from Finnegans Wake).

The excerpt Joyce picked is from the ‘Aoelus’ episode of ‘Ulysses’, a section known as ‘The John F Taylor speech’. The passage is a metaphorical take on the relationship of Ireland and England. Joyce picked it, his friend and publisher Sylvia Beach later said, because he reckoned that it was the only part of his book fit to lifted out and ‘declaimed’.

'Portrait of James Joyce' Patrick Tuohy (1924-1927)

‘Portrait of James Joyce’
Patrick Tuohy (1924-1927)

Listened to the audio down the passage of 90 years it sounds strange – ethereal and formal in equal parts. It didn’t inject much color into my impression of Joyce – but it did lead me onward, to the footage above.

It is one of only two pieces of film I can find of the Irish writer, both shot in Paris in the 1920s (the other features the writer and his wife strolling down the street – here at 3:00 minutes). In the clip Joyce stands on the street, holding a conversation with someone off camera and looking like a skinny Irish version of Vito Corleone as he stares dismissively into the camera.

It’s spliced with a brief clip of the writer stepping out of a house, a child running before him. Again the vibe is one of a literary made man.

The footage casts little, if any light on the writer himself. That’s no unfortunate thing, given that Joyce’s life is woven so extensively into his work already. If anything the film represents a brief respite from the latter, writing that’s at times entertaining, eye-opening, and hugely frustrating (usually in the same paragraph).

At the risk of sounding simplistic this brief clip also shows that, despite the poverty, drinking and illness, the writer could certainly pull off some nice threads.

Or, as he wrote in the short story ‘Grace’: “He had never been seen in the city without a silk hat of some decency and a pair of gaiters. By grace of these two articles of clothing, he said, a man could always pass muster…”

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Sounding out the best music to work to

John Coltrane. Pic: Hugo van Gelderen

John Coltrane. Pic: Hugo van Gelderen

Blame the iPod. The ubiquity of that little device in the mid-2000s changed the working lives of many of my generation.

That, and the noisy open-plan offices we worked in. Steve Jobs’ little white box provided a perfect way to drown out background noise, focus on the task at hand, increase focus and productivity.

Didn’t it?

Perhaps it did, for some. As a working journalist in those years, listening to music wasn’t an option. The time you spent after phoning and meeting contacts was used to write, usually against a deadline. Fidgeting for the new Coldplay song five minutes before your copy was due was not advisable.

Outside the office it was different matter. At home I’d write and read to a constant soundtrack, and still do. Over the years I found some recordings worked better than others when it came to cognitive function.

For months I read at night to Aphex Twin’s “Selected Ambient Works Volume II”. But when I tried to do the same with John Coltrane’s “A Love Supreme” it was a no-go. I’d barely last five minutes. Beethoven’s sonatas? No problem. Bob Dylan? Not a chance.

After years of hit-and-miss listening I recently investigated what works and what doesn’t.

With the help of a couple of articles, from Inc and Time, I’ve narrowed it down – for myself at least.

Here’s the secret:

  • Listen to music without lyrics (no Dylan, more Beethoven)
  • Don’t listen to new music
  • Don’t listen if you’re trying to learn something new (the line between this and reading for pleasure is blurred, I find)
  • If you’re learning something new, listen before you start
  • If the task at hand is repetitive, listen to music (even if you’re a surgeon)
  • If there’s a lot of background noise, music you’re familiar with will calm your brain, improving focus

A case in point: as I write this I am listening to Caribou’s album Swim. It’s a recording I know pretty well, with songs whose lyrics are simple, few and repetitive. Hearing the music raises my levels of feel-good neurotransmitters (dopamine and serotonin), which relaxes me and helps me focus. My thought process is smooth and my output is consistent.

As a test I’ve now switched it out for one of my favorite non-cognitive tracks, music I use during workouts but not elsewhere – Slayer’s Raining Blood. My foot’s tapping but my concentration’s shot.

My perfect music while working is somewhere between these two poles – Brian Eno’s Discreet Music or Dustin O’Halloran’s Lumiere are two albums that spring to mind.

Of course there’s a simpler way to improve your working focus, your reading and your writing: work in complete silence and listen to nothing. Modern life renders the first impossible and, frankly, where’s the fun in the second?

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A winter walk on the Wildwood

Looking north over Willamette River to Mount St Helens (hidden)

Looking north over Willamette River to Mount St Helens (hidden)

I’d like every one of my hikes to be in the Cascades, the Alps or the Adirondacks.

But as a man of finite time and even-more-finite means, that always doesn’t happen. In fact, it rarely does.

I still want to hike though, even if it’s not an eight-hour day trek or a week’s climbing on glaciers.

Luckily I relocated to Portland, Oregon this year, which is where Forest Park comes in. Running for eight miles on hillsides overlooking the Willamette River, and encompassing 5,100 acres of woodland, it’s one of the largest municipal parks in the US.

Moving countries, households and jobs takes time. Up to a fortnight ago, with the exception of one early morning hike around Trillium Lake, I hadn’t had a decent, muck and sweat-strewn outing since last July.

It was boots on and up to Forest Park then. My wife and I opted for a route running from the Newton Road to the Wildwood trail (#12 here), a loop that ran for 4.4 miles and involved a descent (and subsequent ascent) of 300 meters.

On the Newton Road.

On the Newton Road.

Despite the lateness of the season, early November in the park meant some autumnal color, much slippery windfall underfoot and temperate hiking. Luckily for us the frequent Portland winter rain also held off (allowing us the view above), as did any large groups of fellow hikers.

And so we were granted a quiet, people-free three hours in the hills, a few short miles from downtown Portland but as remote as the wilder parts of the Wicklow Mountains National Park (where I hiked regularly when living in Dublin). Our outing was not quite fauna-free, thankfully: we spotted a woodpecker (the first this Irishman had ever seen) and a fox, two of the 112 bird and 62 mammal species to be encountered in the park.

Much as I’d like to set off on winter outings that involved down jackets, crampons and 4am starts, such expeditions are not always practical – as any city-based hiker will tell you. Hence the importance of outdoor spaces like Forest Park.

I’m lucky that it’s all of 20 minutes from my front door – and that there’s another 5,000 or so acres of it to explore.

Two roads diverged.

Two roads diverge.

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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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