Joan of Arc
Flannery O’Connor and
To begin with.
Joan of Arc
Flannery O’Connor and
To begin with.
“Has it changed much?”
I was asked this question more than once last week by friends I met on a visit to Dublin. I also asked it myself, given that it’s approaching two years since I moved away from the city, and the country.
After spending a couple of days walking the streets, visiting a couple of museums, some old favorite coffee shops and pubs, and just hanging out, my conclusion is simple: Dublin is fast.
The people on the pavements are fast, the cars and – even more so – the buses driving millimeters from the footpath are fast, the service is fast, the conversation is fast. Even the clouds whipping westward over the Liffey in the evening are fast.
Coming from Portland, a similar-sized city, this was an eye-opener. It led to more questions. How did I spend 20 years in Dublin moving at this pace? How was good for my shoes, or my timekeeping, or my digestion? And why have I been bumped off the pavement by two shoulder bags already this afternoon?
I’m 40, but a pretty active 40. I get as much done in a day in Portland as I did in one in Dublin. But I just seem to do it a little less hectically here.
Dubliners might pass the rush off as a symptom of a returned economic boom. But I remember the first one, and it wasn’t this busy around town.
The pace had its advantages though. Because of – or perhaps borne upon – the throngs of people I managed to knock off two museums, three bookstores, two coffee shops, a couple of restaurants and four pubs within a day or two, with plenty of time left over to gaze on at the city’s energy.
Could I do this every day, day after day, like I did in when I worked and lived in the city center, rarely venturing outside the canals for weeks at a time? Maybe. But that urge has gone – I’ll leave Dublin to the thousands and thousands of people, both younger and older than me, who still have an appetite for it.
For now, I’ll keep moving a pace or two slower, even if it means a five-minute wait for an americano or feeling duty-bound to let two cars zip merge instead of one. It’s not you, it’s me, Dublin. Right now I’m afraid I might slow you down.
Back to the place where I first set foot, 20 years ago,
And feeling as tired today as I was then, and bearing the weight of the years too.
But it’s always good to be back, even briefly, to a city of ghosts and memories.
These days it’s just for a short time, en route to somewhere else.
But wasn’t that the way it was then too?
San Francisco is always there, though. It’s where it began.
As my 40th birthday approached this week, I found myself casting about for an insight or a lesson or a fear to impart, as I slipped into my fifth decade.
Nothing pretentious, or too light-hearted, or egotistical, of course. It wasn’t easy.
And then I came across a Roger McGough poem, which – as my days are, thankfully, “rarely unruly” – summed it up better than I could.
Not for Me a Youngman’s Death
Not for me a youngman’s death
Not a car crash, whiplash
John Doe, DOA at A&E kind of death.
Not a gun in hand, in a far off land
IED at the roadside death
Not a slow-fade, razor blade
bloodbath in the bath, death.
Jump under a train, Kurt Cobain
bullet in the brain, death
Not a horse-riding paragliding
mountain climbing fall, death.
Motorcycle into an old stone wall
you know the kind of death, death
My nights are rarely unruly. My days
of allnight parties are over, well and truly.
No mistresses no red sports cars
no shady deals no gangland bars
no drugs no fags no rock’n’roll
Time alone has taken its toll
Not for me a youngman’s death
Not a domestic brawl, blood in the hall
knife in the chest, death.
Not a drunken binge, dirty syringe
“What a waste of a life” death.
Where I’m from, Spring began today. Where I live, it won’t start until March 20.
In the Celtic calendar, February 1 is known as ‘imbolc’. The midpoint between the winter solstice and the spring equinox, it’s seen as the first day of the earth awakening from winter.
In Ireland it was, and is, Saint Brigid’s Day, a celebration of the pagan (later Christianized) St Brigid of Kildare, a patroness of medicine, arts and crafts, cattle and other livestock, and sacred wells.
The sacred bit is important. As a schoolkid in Ireland, we’d make St Brigid’s Crosses from reeds – a plentiful resource in my then-hometown of Athlone, on the banks of Ireland’s longest river. The crosses would be pinned up at home – a religious talisman of sorts, ahead of the spring season.
Today I’m a long way from the River Shannon, or from spring – that won’t happen until late March in Oregon.
But, after the dreary month of January, I’m trying to get in the spring mood. So I’m seeking out seasonal verse.
St Brigid was known as “the goddess who poets adored”, but I’m not aware of Philip Larkin’s thoughts about her. However I do know – and enjoy – his take on spring, which contains the wise call, despite some cynicism, to “begin afresh, afresh, afresh”.
The trees are coming into leaf
Like something almost being said;
The recent buds relax and spread,
Their greenness is a kind of grief.
Is it that they are born again
And we grow old? No, they die too,
Their yearly trick of looking new
Is written down in rings of grain.
Yet still the unresting castles thresh
In fullgrown thickness every May.
Last year is dead, they seem to say,
Begin afresh, afresh, afresh.
I don’t remember much about the one time I saw The Fall live.
I doubt Mark E Smith does either. It was 1997 and he was in the midst of an alcohol and drug period. I was in the midst of a crowd of sweaty punters in Dublin’s Mean Fiddler.
It was dark, it was loud, with the hip priest pacing a small stage. His band was promoting their latest record but – not being hugely familiar with any of their material then – most of the set was new to me. Looking back on it now all I can remember, apart from overpriced lager and the clouds of dry ice (somewhat inexplicably, for The Fall), was one song, ‘Totally Wired’.
I’d like to say the show blew my mind, or altered my way of thinking, or pushed me to start a band, but it didn’t. In the following 20 years I rarely listened to The Fall (until I put on ‘This Nation’s Saving Grace’ in the lead up to Christmas, as an antidote to enforced seasonal goodwill).
Now Smith is dead, and some music critics are touting the old ‘we shall not see his like again’ line. Which, in this case, is possibly true.
Irascible, frustrated, staring, scowling, and delivering machine gun lines on whatever took his fancy – that’s the way Smith was that night in Dublin, and that’s the way he usually was, it seems.
As he sang in the Mean Fiddler:
My heart and I agree. My heart and I agree.
I’m irate, peeved, irate, peeved,
Irate, bad state. bad state.
’cause I’m totally wired.
“Will MacGowan make 40?”
That was the question buzzing around among my music-listening peers in December 1997. Former Pogues singer Shane MacGowan had cancelled a pre-Christmas show with his then-band The Popes at the Olympia.
Days shy of his 40th birthday, it was rumored that the songwriter had collapsed, or was gravely ill, or on bender of some sort. Whatever the reason for the no-show, the consensus was that the Tipperary man had been lucky to make it this far, given his voluminous consumption of drugs and alcohol.
Twenty years later MacGowan is still around. What’s more, he’s still performing – albeit in a short bursts. He took to the stage at the National Concert Hall in Dublin last Sunday night, closing out a show staged in his honor.
MacGowan sang ‘Summer In Siam’ with Nick Cave and then performed a version of ‘Wild Mountain Thyme’, rounding out a night which saw performances from the great, the good, and the ‘well, maybes’ of Irish and international music.
It sounded like a good evening, albeit one far removed from the merry, beer-stained chaos of any Pogues show I’ve attended – then again, it’s a long way from the Pindar of Wakefield to Earlsfort Terrace.
Plenty of classic Pogues’ songs got an airing, of course, including that Christmas one. But one composition that didn’t – as far as I know – was a song MacGowan wrote but never himself recorded.
‘The Dunes’ is a song of horror, a Famine survivor’s account of the burial of bodies in the sand dunes of a Co Mayo beach. Children play among the grave mounds, the bones of the dead are revealed, and grieving relatives pray.
Forms of the dead rise and dance on the sand. The singer, enraged by the deaths, shoots a bailiff and a landlord. He blames them for stealing food from the dying.
As verse, it has a simple, arresting cadence. To hear it performed – or declaimed – by Ronnie Drew is a whole different experience.
Shane MacGowan wrote a number of songs that will go down in the canon, but none of them are tragic, as angry and as chilling, as ‘The Dunes’. I can think of few others who could have written it – which is probably what makes MacGowan unique. Now, is it too late for him to record it?
Not least because ‘Creep’ was written – not by Radiohead – but by two Seventies’ songwriters, Albert Hammond and Mike Hazlewood.
Or parts of it, at least – specifically the parts that led Hammond and Hazlewood to themselves successfully sue Thom Yorke and Co. in the Nineties, alleging similarity to their soft-rock classic ‘The Air That I Breathe’. (The pair later secured themselves a spot on the song’s credits.)
Just as there’s little new under the sun in music, so there appears to be little new in music litigation – with Radiohead now adopting the Hammond/Hazlewood playbook to pursue Del Rey, claiming her ‘Get Free’ uses “musical elements” found in ‘Creep’.
For their part, the Oxford outfit – or their publishers at least – have refuted reports of a lawsuit per se, but have confirmed that they have been in “discussions” with Del Rey’s representatives since last August. Read: we’re seeking a few bucks.
If Del Rey feels like coughing up in this regard, perhaps she should skip the alt-rock middlemen altogether and throw a few dollars the way of the two original songwriters? Just a thought.
That’s unlikely though, as the singer says her people will deal with the matter in court. And how much does it cost to ‘Get Free’? Given that similar settlements have run into the hundreds of thousands of dollars it could be an expensive outing.
Accentuate the positive, though. If nothing else, this minor side-alley music spat has brought me back to The Hollies’ version of ‘The Air That I Breathe’ – a perfect AOR start to 2018. And, thanks to YouTube, effectively free – but that’s another conversation.
Walking on New Year’s morning
and what’s changed? The sun still rises,
The pavement is the same damp concrete,
And the 8 bus creeps across Ainsworth, as it always does.
A new year? Well, the dogs go on with their doggy ways,
A car engine starts, the leaves lie in same piles, and Portland wakes
Like Portland always wakes.
Renewal, rebirth, starting anew – I don’t feel much of all that
In this morning half hour.
The clocks have not been reset. Things tick on, good, bad, indifferent.
And what’s wrong with this?