Tag Archives: America

Listening to Dave Van Ronk

DaveVanRonkFolksinger (1)Sometimes a prophet doesn’t cry out in a wilderness,
He works in a great city, battling to be heard.

Sometimes he sits in a small studio and sings –
About old wagons, booze, work, justice and its absence,
Pain and fear and retribution,
And joy too.

About the real stuff that keeps us awake in the night.

Dave Van Ronk brought the message.
Others took it but he carried it out before them – a small, constant light.
He held it in basements, coffeehouses, on Village streets, and he passed it to others.

Such small things – one man’s life, one man’s talent – rarely register.
The song ends. The world moves on.

But those who knew, knew. Some then and some now.
Hang Me, Oh Hang Me. Cocaine Blues. You Been A Good Old Wagon.

He Was A Friend Of Mine.
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Exiles – from Oscar Wilde to Oscar Wao

Brief-Wondrous-Life-of-Oscar-WaoThe Irish have a diaspora.

More than that – the Irish have The Diaspora. It’s not just a history or a culture or another word for ’emigrants’. It’s far (and away) more.

We even have a Minister for The Diaspora, who this week represented us (them?) in New York.  (We don’t let our diaspora vote, mind you, but that’s another matter.)

From primary school upwards we’re taught about this phenomenon of Irish exile. From the fifth century St Brendan in a currach on the freezing Atlantic, to the 17th-century Flight of the Earls, to the coffin ships departing Cobh in the 1840s.

And on. From those who left in the lean 1930s to the departees of the stagnant ’50s and ’80s – right up to the most recent wave of emigrants, those who left following the economic crash of the late 2000s.

The story of The Diaspora isn’t confirmed to history, academic reviews or news stories. It informs a large part of the national character. It may also go some way to explaining the Irish people’s reputation for melancholy.

It’s also a narrative that’s wound its way through Irish culture and society, a subject in folk memory, books, poetry and song.

Living in Ireland then you’d be forgiven for thinking, at times, that we’re the only country with a diaspora.

Not so, of course. And if you need reminding of this I recommend a novel by Dominican writer Junot Diaz,  that I came across (and tore through) last week.

Oscar Wilde

Oscar Wilde

The Brief Wondrous Life Of Oscar Wao taught me about a number of things: the often-tortuous post-colonial history of the Dominican Republic; enough street Spanish to eat, drink and drive my way around Santo Domingo; multiple details of the Watchmen comic book series; the lows of high-school life in 1980s Paterson, New Jersey, and more besides.

It also taught me that the Dominican Republic has a diaspora which in many ways out-Irishes even the Irish one, when it comes to the wrench of exile and the push-pull lure of return.

In terms of emigration the two countries have a lot in common. Seismic social events of the past 150 or so years – a Famine in our case, a brutal 20th century dictatorial regime in the DR’s – catapulted huge sections of our peoples to a common destination, the United States.

And in each case emigration’s two-way street has seen the phenomenon of the returning emigrant, or at least their returning dollars. (It’s no surprise then that Diaz’s novel reaches its harrowing conclusion with the return of the prodigal Dominican son.)

The Irish had an Oscar Wilde, a Dublin-born writer who left to achieve fame and, ultimately, infamy in London. Diaz presents us with Oscar Wao, the overweight New Jersey nerdboy whose descent is intricately linked to his outsider status.

As post-colonial nations both the DR and Ireland are dealing with the often-blinding historical hangover that our histories force upon us.

Oscar Wao

Oscar Wao

But Diaz suggests something more at play, hinting that a fuku, a hex, may lie upon the Dominican diaspora, forcing and following them across the Atlantic to the east coast of the United States.

Oscar Wao finally breaks free of this, at great cost, as Diaz offers up a tragic, hopeful ending to his novel.

Have the Irish a fuku of their own – a jinx born from dire domestic circumstances that’s forced emigration and its rendering effect upon the country?

After centuries has this finally been dispelled? The existence of a Diaspora minister would suggest not.

Perhaps there’s something we can learn from the brief, wondrous life of Oscar Wao.
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Here Is New York – in five fragments

Central Park, October 2010. Pic: Cormac Looney

Central Park, October 2010.
Pic: Cormac Looney

It’s long been a habit of mine to read my way to a destination before I actually travel there.

Not using guide books, but novels or poems. And so, over the years I’ve come to associate certain places, cities in particular, with certain writings.

When I think of London it’s the city of Great Expectations, and Pip’s coming of age in the streets and rooms of Newgate, or the eerie East End gothic of Peter Ackroyd’s Hawksmoor.

Likewise Haruki Murakami, whose The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle took me to a surreal, paranoid version of Tokyo in fiction, accompanied me on a visit to Japan earlier this year.

On occasion I haven’t, nor am I every likely to, be in the place I’m reading about. While I’ve visited and revisited the remote Gilf Kebir plateau in the Libyan desert, where Michael Ondaatje set part of The English Patient, I doubt I’ll ever see it in person.

But the literary place that’s mapped clearest in my mind is one I have visited – the city of New York.

Hence my interest the recent Reading American Cities series on the Guardian’s Books blog, specifically the entry on Manhattan.

I agreed with one of the titles recommended as a “literary companion” to the city – The Great Gatsby. But the others, DeLillo’s Underworld and Auster’s The New York Trilogy, while certainly books of the city, weren’t books of my New York.

And so I chose my own – here’s New York in five fragments, from five works.


410uN4RypVLCrossing Brooklyn Ferry, Walt Whitman (1855)

Others will enter the gates of the ferry and cross from shore to shore,
Others will watch the run of the flood-tide,
Others will see the shipping of Manhattan north and west, and the heights of Brooklyn to the south and east,
Others will see the islands large and small;
Fifty years hence, others will see them as they cross, the sun half an hour high,
A hundred years hence, or ever so many hundred years hence, others will see them,
Will enjoy the sunset, the pouring-in of the flood-tide, the falling-back to the sea of the ebb-tide.

 

Gatsby_1925_jacketThe Great Gatsby, F. Scott Fitzgerald (1925)

Over the great bridge, with the sunlight through the girders making a constant flicker upon the moving cars, with the city rising up across the river in white heaps and sugar lumps all built with a wish out of non-olfactory money. The city seen from the Queensboro Bridge is always the city seen for the first time, in its first wild promise of all the mystery and the beauty in the world.

 


a4afce26-ab10-42c8-9180-0a268a4b78f5-280x420Catcher In The Rye, J.D. Salinger (1951)

I live in New York, and I was thinking about the lagoon in Central Park, down near Central Park South. I was wondering if it would be frozen over when I got home, and if it was, where did the ducks go? I was wondering where the ducks went when the lagoon got all icy and frozen over. I wondered if some guy came in a truck and took them away to a zoo or something. Or if they just flew away.

 


2f656cc7-40b4-4e5a-8917-d2ecdf6e9a01-273x420Netherland, Joseph O’Neill (2008)

 We were sailing on the Staten Island Ferry on a September day’s end…Everybody looked at the Statue of Liberty and at Ellis Island and at the Brooklyn Bridge, but finally, inevitably, everybody looked to Manhattan. The structures clustered at its tip made a warm, familiar crowd, and as their surfaces brightened ever more fiercely with sunlight it was possible to imagine that vertical accumulations of humanity were gathering to greet our arrival.

 

Finally, and despite my misgivings above about guide books, it’s impossible to avoid E.B. White’s classic love letter to his home city.

hereisnewyorkHere Is New York, E.B. White (1949)

The city is like poetry: it compresses all life, all races and breeds, into a small island and adds music and the accompaniment of internal engines. The island of Manhattan is without any doubt the greatest human concentrate on earth, the poem whose magic is comprehensible to millions of permanent residents but whose full meaning will always remain elusive.
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You say tomato, I say heuristic cultural device

Shopping a la cart.

Shopping a la cart.
Pic: Clare Kleinedler

TURNING on a red light.

Slicing ‘toMAYtos’.

Answering ‘cell’ phones.

Rarely seeing, let alone using, public transport.

All things you do in the US, which you don’t in Ireland. And all of which I encountered on a visit this month to my wife’s hometown of Los Angeles.

These differences are usually small curiosities (unless I forget to look before turning on that red).

Like the way I stare blankly at voluminous LA coffee menus, or in wide-eyed wonder at the Whole Foods’ shopping cart escalator.

They’re just tasters to a deeper difference between American and Irish people, which is far more engrained than the rules of the road or in-store trolley conveyance.

In my experience this difference comes by way of a simple question: is the coffee cup half full or half empty?

Americans are often accused of being glibly optimistic, if not naive, in their world view. Many are, I’m sure, and many are not.

But they are considerably less cynical than the Irish, something that is impossible not to notice when you some spend time each year in both countries.

Cultural differences.

Cultural differences.

My other half is the perfect example. A music journalist, she cut her teeth in the first dot-com boom, before launching a catering business, returning to journalism for a number of major US publications and then, in her mid-30s, deciding to leave it all behind and move to Ireland.

At every turn her question was not (as I would have asked) ‘why?’ but ‘why not?’

Where I would seek out flaws in a plan she would see speed-bumps; where I might see regrets for past decisions she sees experience.

This faith in reinvention is not an exclusively American trait, of course. But I’ve seen more of it in citizens of that country than most others.

It’s been fodder for commentators, artists and academics for years. One New Yorker recently tried to explain it to me using, as he put it, ‘heuristic cultural devices’.

Tonias Wolff. Pic: Mark Coggins

Tobias Wolff.
Pic: Mark Coggins

But I’ve come across a simpler description. It is contained in a collection of Tobias Wolff’s short stories, gifted to me by my LA-based father-in-law on my visit earlier this month.

In one of the stories, A Mature Student, a Czech-born immigrant says of her adopted home: “Americans…such faith in the future, where all shall be reconciled. Such compassion toward the past, where all may be forgiven.”*

How much faith do you need, how much compassion can you have? That’s the $64,000 (or €45,000) question.

That, and ‘tomato’ or ‘tomayto’.

_____

*Tobias Wolff, “A Mature Student”, Our Story Begins (Vintage, 2008), p 315

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