Tag Archives: Cormac Looney

Tom, Sean, and me

Sean Hughes

Sean Hughes

I’ve spent plenty of time in the early 1990s recently, pulled back there by the deaths of Tom Petty and, yesterday, Sean Hughes.

Both men were sides of a coin – or squares on a Rubik’s cube (this was the Nineties, after all) – to a teenager like myself, growing up in a smallish town in Ireland which seemed a million miles from Mulholland Drive or the Edinburgh Festival.

Reading tributes to and – more immediately – watching clips of both performers from 25 or more years ago, led to mixed feelings, some nostalgic and some of – ‘was it really like that?’

Sean’s Show ran on Channel Four, one of the nine or 10 channels we had at home back then. Not owning a CD player, I listened to Full Moon Fever on tape – so much so that I wore out the frail spool. It was one of about 20 cassettes I possessed.

After digesting the obituaries and watching the YouTube clips, and spending too much time chasing teenage memories, I was left with an unanswered question: what the hell did I do with the rest of my free time in 1992?

Tom Petty. Pic: Takahiro Kyono

Tom Petty. Pic: Takahiro Kyono

Nowadays it’s often a struggle to carve out 30 minutes to listen to a piece of music or watch a TV show; back then it seemed that I was the lord and possessor of vast amounts of time, some of it spent playing soccer, some with my head in Tolkien or Thomas Harris, and none of it linked to anything digital.

Was it a better time? Or a happier or healthier one? Who knows? I can’t really remember. Then again, I can barely remember the album I listened to yesterday on Spotify, or the last long article I read, because both have already been drowned out by the online noise I surround myself with.

Watching an episode of Sean’s Show last night, I was struck by its feeling of space, the slower pace, the unfilled moments devoted to a confused look, a wry glance, or a cut scene. There was nothing pressing about engaging with the show, it was easy to slip into its pace.

An hour later, I made it barely 15 minutes into an episode of Family Guy, because the jokes weren’t coming fast, or funny enough. Maybe it’s me? Or maybe it’s what I’m watching?

Tom Petty sang that ‘the waiting is the hardest part’. I’m not sure that 2017 me would have the patience to sit through some of Sean Hughes’ quirkier set pieces, or the filler cuts on late Eighties Heartbreakers’ albums.

Perhaps that’s no bad thing. But I still have a feeling that – minor as it is in the face of mortal news  – something’s been lost.

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Power out, Stevenson WA

At 5am the Columbia River Gorge is mostly in darkness.

Returned to an earlier state.

But here and there the black is specked with lights

Driven by generators and engines, that assure us that we own the night

And that we control the darkness. That the gorge is ours.

But the fire-blackened hills and the tang in the morning air tell a different story,

Of how our control is an illusion,

And how we have been, and will be, here only a brief time,

And that our preoccupations don’t matter,

When cast against an enormous darkness.

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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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On returning to visit Ireland

On Dollymount Strand, September 2017.

On Dollymount Strand, September 2017.

Every emigrant believes that their story is new.

It’s a conviction woven through the fabric of the emigration itself; a new start, new beginnings, a renewal of outlook and perspective – all these are critical to the experience, and my experience was no different.

As an Irishman, I’m aware that millions of people departed my home country for the United States over the past 200 years, under many circumstances (and a great many of those unhappy). And yet, because I’m me and this is my life, I can’t help but put myself front and center in my own story.

So, when I returned to Ireland for a visit last week – my first since leaving the country more than a year earlier – I expected (naively, of course) the insights to fall like rain from an Irish summer sky. I would see myself, and the country, cast in a new, deeper light; I would achieve understandings that were impossible in the 38 years I’d lived there.

I may not have forged the uncreated conscience of my race since I’d left, but I would have strongly held beliefs on what makes a good taco, for example, among other things.

Dublin, 2017.

Dublin, 2017.

What I found was what I already knew, but perhaps didn’t appreciate enough before. It’s obvious to some I’m sure, but it wasn’t to me.

For all the tourist ads and Instagram pics, the Ireland I returned to wasn’t a place. The place was there (I was standing in it, after all), but what made it ‘home’ was the people.

And my wife and I tried to meet as many people as possible. Over a short number of days we spent time with family, met old friends and former work colleagues, and even shot the breeze with the owner of our favorite coffee shop.

We didn’t do, or speak about, anything different or groundbreaking or radical to what we had before. The ‘T word‘ may have been raised once or twice, but we got over that quickly enough.

Instead we just hung out, eating and drinking, walking and talking, covering a great number of topics. Not least the greatest Irish conversation starter: the weather. (For the record it rained most days – which added to the sense of homecoming.)

There was no pretense or argument or oneupmanship – just connection.

When I walked into departures at Dublin Airport a few days later, I hadn’t come into possession of any great emigrant insights. I wasn’t taking off with a razor-sharp concept of the 21st-century Irish psyche in my pocket.

My insight was simple enough – that Ireland contains some of the greatest people, who I love and I miss and who I look forward to returning to. Sin é .

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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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Portland morning

I live with the small fear of the phone at 6am,
When something’s happened eight hours hence,
And has laid in wait through the night
To strike me at my bedside locker.

The clear, clinical bell often unnerves me,
I brace myself for news which doesn’t come –
Not today at least, but when?
Quickly, I resume my day.

But then it follows: the tired mix of relief and guilt,
The connected disconnect, and the small fear at the back of my mind,
That tells me ‘tomorrow, tomorrow’ –
The call of home.
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‘Like an enormous yes’

Sidney Bechet. Pic: William P. Gottlieb

Sidney Bechet. Pic: William P. Gottlieb

The words ‘jazz poetry’ are enough to make any sane person reach for their Revolver.

The mental image is the old stereotype of a turtlenecked beatnik, rambling at a dozen pals in a basement coffeehouse, as his roommate attempts to accompany him with some beginners’ clarinet.

But poetry about jazz is a different proposition, and something that’s likely more palatable. This occurred to me recently when Sidney Bechet’s recording of ‘All Of Me’ shuffled onto my speakers, showcasing the New Orleans native’s soprano sax lines, loud and clear.

The same sound prompted the British poet Philip Larkin, a jazz record reviewer in his spare time, to pen an ode to Bechet, and the New Orleans sound and scene that he emerged from.

‘For Sidney Bechet’ is not unlike one of jazzman’s own solos – compact, emotive, perfectly poised. It pays homage to the front (and back) rooms of The Big Easy, and recognizes the voice that Bechet and his contemporaries gave to its community a century ago.

What’s more, Larkin also provides the single best description of jazz in words – a sound which falls “like an enormous yes”. Play that thing!

‘For Sidney Bechet’

That note you hold, narrowing and rising, shakes
Like New Orleans reflected on the water,
And in all ears appropriate falsehood wakes,

Building for some a legendary Quarter
Of balconies, flower-baskets and quadrilles,
Everyone making love and going shares—

Oh, play that thing! Mute glorious Storyvilles
Others may license, grouping around their chairs
Sporting-house girls like circus tigers (priced

Far above rubies) to pretend their fads,
While scholars manqués nod around unnoticed
Wrapped up in personnels like old plaids.

On me your voice falls as they say love should,
Like an enormous yes.  My Crescent City
Is where your speech alone is understood,

And greeted as the natural noise of good,
Scattering long-haired grief and scored pity.

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Greatness in the grind

Mo Farah, seconds after winning the men's 10,000m

Mo Farah, seconds after winning the men’s 10,000m

Winning is easy. If you’re Mo Farah, at least. The British runner made his final sprint to the finish in the men’s 10,000m at the World Athletics Championships look like a breeze.

He rounded the final corner and then – boom – after 26 minutes of running he easily dipped into his reserves and pulled out a final 200 meters that left the field scrambling in his wake.

That’s how it looked. In reality I’m sure it was likely anything but easy, despite’s the Briton’s ability to cheerily push through fatigue and pain.

While the final 20 seconds of Farah’s greatest race – or the one that cemented his standing at Britain’s greatest long distance runner – were the ones celebrated, repeated, and reported on worldwide, they weren’t the ones that won him gold.

As the most amateur of amateur runners (yours truly) knows, the end is often the easy – or easier – bit. Getting there is the hard part – the fifth and sixth kilometers are often where the race is run or lost, whether you’re competing in front of millions of viewers, or just hauling yourself around north Portland on a Saturday morning.

Farah’s greatness lies in these fifth and six kilometers, as he displayed in London yesterday. Under siege from younger competitors, who appeared to be running as a team against him, he was forced to step up the pace.

Farah's sprint to the finish

Farah’s sprint to the finish

Watching on, at times it seemed that the British runner was dropping back, only for him to rally again and again, responding to the faster pace, battling back.

Such running goes far beyond physical form or fitness – it demands deep mental reserves, an ability to remain focused and work to a plan, when every external (and most internal) factor wants to pull you off course.

If there’s a lesson to be read from the ability and greatness of Mo Farah, it lies here. Yes, preparation is vital; yes, performance is critical; of course, your finish is often key, but most races are won in the grinding, unexciting, off-camera, mid-sections.

This takes focus and self belief, two hard-won traits that are too easily and too often bandied about in life and sports. And even the world’s best athletes struggle to maintain them; as Farah himself said afterwards: “At one point in the middle of the race I wasn’t thinking I was going to lose, but I thought ‘this is tough, this is tough’.”

“Il faut d’abord durer” (“first, one must endure”) was a motto adapted – in very different circumstances – by a well-known American writer. It came to my mind in the final moments of yesterday’s race. If, like Farah, you can bounce back often enough the challenges – eventually – will dry up.

And they did, in those final 200 meters, when Mo Farah kicked into his sprint, the crowd roared, the flashbulbs popped, and history was made. But that was the easy part.

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Lost memories of Death Valley ’99

Death Valley, August 1999.

Death Valley, August 1999.

The older I get, the more I forget.

What was the 21-year-old guy standing near a small copse of joshua trees in Death Valley thinking about, as the shutter clicked on an August afternoon in 1999?

For a kid from drizzly Athlone, Ireland, visiting the area, aware of some other Irishmen who claimed the joshua tree for themselves, must have been a big deal.

It was, but all that remains now is an ageing print, the negative lost, which is itself decaying. Is that a moon over my right shoulder, or just a mark on the print?

My shadow indicates that it was shot in the late afternoon. I can’t remember who took the picture – it was one of a group of friends I was travelling across the States with at the time. More to the point, I can’t recall where it was taken – though, given the heat, I’m sure it was just a few meters from the blacktop of highway 190.

Hindsight might tell me that is a photograph of a young man staking a claim of some sort – to an interest in the outdoors, or to a love of travel, or to the country where I would relocate to 17 years after this shot was taken.

It’s nice to think of such explanations, but, in truth, I’ve no idea. It’s more likely I wanted to get out of the 110 F heat and back into our air-conditioned van. (The only clear memory I have of this day is from hours later, when we approached Las Vegas as a lightning storm broke over the city.)

Looking back today, on finding the picture in an old folder, I see a kid starting out – on a journey across both a country and something vaster. I still feel like I’ve just started.

Which puts me in mind of a song we listened to in the van that summer:

There is a road, no simple highway
Between the dawn and the dark of night
And if you go no one may follow
That path is for your steps alone

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More soul than Salford – Ewan MacColl’s ‘First Take’

Ewan MacColl, from a 1960 album cover.

Ewan MacColl, from a 1960 album cover.

Ewan MacColl was – by most accounts – a difficult man.

A titan of British folk music, who contributed a number of songs to its canon, he was also a man of some strongly-held prejudices – mostly against anything that didn’t fit with his conception of ‘folk music’.

So when it came to cover versions of one of his most famous songs, ‘The First Time Ever I Saw Your Face’, he didn’t just dislike one or two, he detested the lot.

As his daughter-in-law recalled: “He hated all of them. He had a special section in his record collection for them, entitled ‘The Chamber of Horrors’.”

While certain attempts at the song should be buried in a chamber of concrete, sealed, and never opened again – not least The Kingston Trio’s insipid early version – not all justified MacColl’s curmudgeonly wrath.

Roberta Flack’s 1969 take, for one, achieved a depth of soulful longing that few others reached, and which MacColl’s own version only hints at.

Olivia Chaney

Olivia Chaney

But even Flack’s cover – from her debut album ‘First Take’ – wasn’t enough for MacColl, just as other admirable attempts at the song (by Johnny Cash, Christy Moore, or Erykah Badu), also fell foul of his standards. Or surely would have, had he lived to hear them.

What would MacColl have made of the most recent cover of his love song, then? Singer Olivia Chaney and The Decemberists last week released another take on the song, under the moniker Offa Rex.

Though the world hardly needs another cover version of the song, the striking thing about this one – to me – is MacColl might actually like it. After all, Chaney’s vocal channels just enough of Sandy Denny for the song to pass as a late ’60s Fairport demo.

Not that MacColl was a fan of those electric guitar-friendly folk rockers (I’ve no idea, but I’m guessing not), but Offa Rex’s drone-heavy version is closer to a finger-on-the-ear folk cover of the song that just about anything else over the past half century.

It’s certainly more Salford than soul, and perhaps that’s why it can’t compare with what is – despite the songwriter’s objections – the definitive reading of one of the 20th century’s great love songs: the one produced by a 30-year-old North Carolina singer on her first album. MacColl may have known songwriting, but singing? Take two, sir.

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