Friday, May 10, 2019

Sad News

Yesterday my father died, peacefully, surrounded by family and friends, at the age of seventy-nine.

I wrote this post about him several years ago.

Please pray for his soul, and for me.

Thursday, May 9, 2019

My Perfect Day

I enjoyed writing this post on the Irish Conservatives Forum, and thought it possible some of my readers might enjoy reading it.

In another attempt to relieve the gloom and doom we conservatives habitually dwell in, and out of interest, I thought I would ask: what would your perfect day be?

The only rule is that you can't go overboard on fantasy. So a Catholic, socially conservative party sweeping to power in an Irish general election would certainly make a wonderful day, but it's impossible to envisage any time soon. Cardinal Sarah walking out onto the balcony of St. Peter's would also be nice, but seems an outside chance. Similarly, having your favourite entertainer perform in your living room is taking the fantasy too far. It should be something reasonably plausible.

My perfect day would have to involve snow. It would be a day of thick, crunchy snow. I'd get up while it was still dark, have a hot bubble bath and an early breakfast-- a peanut butter sandwich and coffee, maybe. Then I would go to early morning Mass, which would be no more than twenty minutes long, and celebrated with simplicity and dignity, without the sign of peace.

Home, to a full Irish breakfast (yes, a second breakfast)-- lots of coffee and buttered bread, and conversation with my nearest and dearest. Then we would got out and make a snowman. Local kids would join in.

Then we would go to the cinema for a matinee screening. It would be a good film, visually impressive but with a strong story. Very few people in the audience, mostly empty seats. Basking in the cinema atmosphere, then back out in the snow. A medium sized cup of Coke to sip-- Coke tastes better in the cinema than anywhere else.

A visit to a second hand book shop, one with lots of surprising and idiosyncratic stuff on the shelves-- not more than half an hour. I find some obscure volume that pleases me enough to buy.

Then off to a pub to meet friends-- a clean, spacious, bright pub, which again would be mostly deserted. The lobby of a hotel would be even better. We would sit at a window and look out at the snowy scene outside. The company would not exceed three or four. The conversation would not be banter, or small talk, or overly dull and heavy, but heartfelt and wide-ranging and adventurous, the kind of conversation that leaves you exhilarated. It should involve some discussion of uncanny experiences, some sharing of memories, some discussion of films and books. I would drink coffee and Irish cream (separately), or perhaps a brandy and Coke.

We would stay in the pub/hotel until it was time for dinner. Dinner would be pub grub, hearty and unpretentious. I would order a steak and chips, with pepper sauce and mushroom and onions and peas. Dessert would be peanut butter and chocolate cake, with coffee.

Then we would visit a friend's house, for several games of Trivial Pursuit. I acquit myself honourably, but mostly enjoy the mental trek through human life and history, and the blasts from the past. (I think the Trivial Pursuit board is a work of art.) Coffee and chocolate biscuits.

A walk home through the still-falling snow. At home, we would have to engage in some kind of low-intensity activity, such as looking through old photographs or magazines, while there was something interesting on television, or YouTube, or while playing music.

For the day to be a perfect day, I would like to have SOME kind of good news story to cheer me up-- a populist party winning an election somewhere, for instance. I'm egotistical enough to wish my perfect day to involve something that makes me feel good in myself, too-- somebody paying me a nice a compliment, or some achievement like having an article or letter published somewhere.

Then a cup of hot chocolate while reading my book, and then bed, some time considerably past midnight, after more deep conversation. As for sleep, I always sleep soundly.

Monday, May 6, 2019


In post after post on this blog, I find myself seeking to convey some enthusiasm or other, usually some private and idiosyncratic enthusiasm. Readers, I worry, might become quite fatigued by this. "You may find this fascinating", I imagine them thinking, "but why should we?".

Perhaps this desire to articulate strange enthusiasms derives from the attitude I had towards poetry (both writing it and reading it), back in my teens and early twenties. I thought of myself primarily as a poet back then.

It seemed to me obvious that poetry should seek to convey some unusual or novel emotion or impression. Writing on well-worn themes seemed to be cheating. It's strange I thought like this, since so much of the poetry I loved related to the great constants of human life. But so it was. I spent a great deal of time trying to think of subjects no poet had tackled. It never occurred to me that a great poet like Wordsworth was capable of writing both an extremely original poem like his sonnet on Westminster Bridge, and also the millionth poem about flowers, when he wrote "The Daffodils". (For the pedants out there, I realise he never actually gave it that title.)

In any case, where I once strained after idiosyncracy, I now feel rather embarrassed by it.

On the other hand, perhaps striving to convey enthusiasm is a good thing. It seems to have been a lot of what my hero, G.K. Chesterton, was all about. It also describes some of my own favourite pieces of writing-- such as Keith Waterhouse's article on the Button Fairs of his childhood, or his rhapsody on a box of cheese he bought (and ate) while on holiday.

So here goes. In this post, I am going to tackle my "chronomania", a passion for chronicles and chronicling which I have always harboured, but which has been particularly strong lately.

I have written a great deal about my diary on this blog, so I am not going to return to that subject here... much to your relief, no doubt.

Here are some things which arouse my chronomania. 

The very words "chronicles" and "annals". (How often these are used to evoke grandiosity!)

Whenever a sports commentator or political reporter says: "History is made tonight", or "So-and-so writes himself into the history books", or "I think you'd have to scour the history books to find etc. etc."

Any reference to the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, a chronicle of events in British history which was kept independently by various monasteries. (We have our own version in Ireland with the Annals of the Four Masters, as well as other works.)

Any reference (for instance in biographies) to the chronicles kept by individual monasteries.

Any reference to visitor's books in hotels and other establishments.

Any event which is annual, or otherwise regular, such as the Oscars, the Olympics, the World Cup, the Eurovision, the music charts, elections, etc.

Diaries and journals, (as long as they are not something boring and utilitarian such as a food diary).

The archives of newspapers.

Photograph albums.

"This day in history" columns.

The phrase "the annals are silent" or "the sources are unclear" as used when writing about history of some kind. This emphasises the preciousness of the record, and creates mystery.

In general, I don't get excited by chronicles that are too dry or utilitarian. Parish and school registers can be fairly interesting, but only as a source.  One imagines that ten minutes browsing one would satisfy most people, unless you were looking for something in particular. Similarly, I am baffled by the fascination that our distant ancestors seemed to have for genealogies and king lists, which seem so important in most pre-literate cultures.

The appeal of any archive, to me, is that it is not too narrow nor yet too overwhelming. It has to be, even in principle, capable of comprehension (if only in outline) by one person. The monarchs of England are a good example. An average person could hope to remember all (or most) of the monarchs of England, even if we go back to Anglo-Saxon times. Nor would this simply be a list of names, but it would inevitably include some biographical knowledge. Of course, this knowledge could be extended indefinitely, since whole libraries have been written on this subject. That is part of the joy of the thing. It's a paddle pool that can extend to the size of an ocean.

(As should be obvious from this example, I'm using "chronicle" to mean either a literal source, or a chronicle in a more abstract sense-- the chronicles of English monarchs, for instance, which are not to be found in any one volume.)

Against this there are archives so massive that only a computer could hope to comprehend them-- for instance, census returns. These are very interesting, but not in the way I'm writing about here. Mass Observation is another example.

Archives don't have to be deliberately created to give me this pleasure. For instance, the archives of newspapers are not deliberately created as archives. The archival aspect is incidental. Another example are the archives of websites. I rarely mention the Irish Conservatives Forum which I set up a few years ago, but I'm happy to report it's still going strong. I was delighted when I realised its archives formed a kind of tour of recent Irish and international history, seen from a conservative perspective.

This blog wouldn't work as an archive so well, since I tend not to write on many topical issues.

Why the fascination with chronicles? I've thought about this a lot and I'm pretty sure of the answer. Life is very messy, chaotic and enigmatic. The structure that a chronicle puts upon the flux of life is intensely pleasing.

To put it like that suggests that such a structure is simply a comfort blanket, an insulation from reality. However, I think the psychology of the thing is more subtle than that, and less pathetic.

I think its the fusion of flux and structure which is so appealing to me. The same appeal, I would suggest, lies at the heart of most art-forms. Take stories, for instance. Stories are pleasing because they are a fusion of life's messiness with the pattern of the narrative. If the story is too rigidly patterned, it takes away from the pleasure. A good story gives the impression of real life going on around the characters, of a solid world with its own preoccupations and business quite aside from the events of the narrative.

The same thing applies to poetry. Poetry (especially poetry that is rhymed and metrical) combines the spontaneity of speech with the structure of verse. A great part of the skill involved is making the verse rhyme and scan without losing the impression of natural speech, of how a person actually talks. Poetry that is too obviously contrived to fit into the verse is generally poor poetry. As Yeats put it, in lines I have quoted before:

We sat together at one summer’s end,
That beautiful mild woman, your close friend,   
And you and I, and talked of poetry.
I said, ‘A line will take us hours maybe;
Yet if it does not seem a moment’s thought,   
Our stitching and unstitching has been naught.
The harmonious reconciliation of contraries seems to be something that gives human beings intense pleasure, in this and many other instances.

The pleasure of chronicles, I would suggest, also lies in another meeting of opposites; the interaction of memory and oblivion.

Memory cannot be understood aside from oblivion, from forgetting. Imagine if you could perfectly recall everything that happened in your life, down to the minutest details. Or if we somehow all had immediate knowledge of everything that had happened in human history from the beginning of the species. I don't know about you, dear reader, but that to me is a horrible thought. Would you really forego moments such as the discovery of the prehistoric cave paintings in Lascaux? Or the finding of the tomb of Tutankhamen? Or the moment in your own life when you come across an old photograph, or hear a song that you had forgotten about and that brings a host of memories flooding back to you?

Annals and sources and chronicles, to me, are partly appealing because what is saved is only a fraction of what is lost. Scenes and figures stand out against a black background. This is especially noticeable in historical moments for which there are a limited number of eyewitnesses, and where we rely more than usual upon eyewitnesses. Examples of this are the final hours within the General Post Office during the 1916 Rising, the sinking of the Titanic, and the life and death of Jonestown, the cult which ended in mass suicide in 1978.

But chronicles in general have this characteristic of fragments rescued from oblivion, of shafts of light penetrating darkness. Obviously, this is more or less true depending on the nature of the chronicle, but it's true to some extent of them all. For instance, we know almost nothing about many of the early Popes other than their names.

Dear reader, has your imagination caught fire from mine, at this point? I hope so. If it hasn't, I don't think further words will do it.

Saturday, May 4, 2019

Thoughts on "The Go-Between" by L.P. Hartley

Recently, after coming across an admiring reference to it on Peter Hitchens's blog, I read The Go-Between by L.P. Hartley. I had often pondered its famous opening line: "The past is a foreign country; they do things differently there." As well as this, I was drawn by the particular passage in which Peter Hitchens mentioned it: "When I was ten years old I was deeply engaged by the fortunes of Hampshire in the County Cricket Championship...Now, this cricket enthusiasm is a mystery to me, a mystery whose code I can no longer break, like Leo Colston's inability to understand large parts of his schoolboy diary, found years later in a chilly attic, in that fine and haunting novel by L.P.Hartley, 'The Go-Between'. "

Being fascinated by diaries, memory, the past, and curtainless attics, I immediately borrowed the novel, which was published in 1953.

I'm not a big novel reader, and I probably start reading more than novels than I ever finish reading. But The Go-Between held my interest from beginning to end.

The idea of the past as a foreign country is appealing and enticing, for a start. Anyone inclined to nostalgia is going to be drawn by that (although the novel itself is not very nostalgic).

There's something rather curious about the book; everybody seems to have a very different idea of what it's about. For instance, compare Peter Hitchens's blog post to this Guardian article by Ali Hirst. The Introduction to the Penguin edition that I read was very different again.

What is it about, on the most basic level? It's about a boy who visits the country home of a school friend, and finds himself carrying messages between the daughter of his host, and a farmer who lives close by. The situation is complicated by the fact that the daughter is being wooed by an aristocrat who was injured in the Boer War.

The protagonist, thirteen-year old Leo, is a typical schoolboy who is excited by the arrival of the year 1900, the year in which the story is set. Although he had previously disliked hot days, he finds himself hoping that the temperature will continue to soar in the hot summer of 1900-- in fact, he keeps checking the thermometer, hoping for record temperatures. The heat is a symbol of the euphoria and excitement of the new century, and of the various new realms Leo is discovering-- the adult world, the higher social echelons, and sexuality (which both fascinates and repels him).

Leo forms a powerful crush upon Marian, the young woman for whom he is acting as a go-between. The high-mindedness of his attraction is very realistic, as far as my own experience of being a boy with a crush on a woman goes. He craves Marian's approval, while feeling nothing but disgust for "spooning" (his term for displays of romantic affection). Of sex itself he is completely ignorant, which is a significant plot point.

L.P. Hartley. (Not the writer of "Fly Fishing". That was J.R.)
I wasn't terribly interested in the book's themes of sexuality, class and innocence. But various other things in the book pleased me.

The plot device of the diary might be the main one. The story uses a frame narrative, in which the now-elderly Leo comes across his boyhood diary, recounting the events of the book. I love frame narratives. I'm also fascinated by diaries and other records.

The old Leo has suppressed the memory of most of the events chronicled in the diary, and they come back to him as he reads. This sort of thing often seems to happen in stories, but I find it almost impossible to believe. The story is a very dramatic one, and it beggars belief that Leo could have blocked so much of it from his memory. The idea of a man coming across his own fifty-year-old diary is also incredible. People don't keep things that long without revisiting them.

Another motif in the book which greatly appeals to me is the zodiac. The young Leo draws the signs of the zodiac on his diary, seeing them as a symbol of the new century and also as representing various people he encounters. Marian, of course, is the Virgin.

The use of astrological symbols conveys how awe-struck Leo is by the adult and upper-class world in which he finds himself. But it appealed to me for a more personal reason. I was enthralled by two books of astrology when I was a child. Both belonged to my older sisters. One was called Love Stars, and was all about romance between various star-signs. The other was about signs of the zodiac in general, explaining the personality traits that supposedly go along with each.I forget the title. It was rather like a coffee table book in format.

I don't think I ever looked inside Love Stars, but I was impressed by the cover-- a red love-heart against a blue background, both printed in very rich shades. I was also excited by the idea of romantic love (I was a very moony boy), and the idea of astrology.

The other book had a much more powerful effect on me, though I don't remember the title. I think there was a section devoted to each astrological sign and the first was rather like an illuminated frontispiece; it showed the symbol of the star-sign (a ram for Aries, for instance) at the centre, and images depicting other properties of the particular star-sign around the margins. One of these properties was whether it was an air, water, earth or fire sign-- and the imagery by which each was conjured excited me. The illustrations were rendered in pale colours, which made them seem all the more ethereal.

The memory of this book has found a place in my purple notebook, and in the inner recesses of my imagination. I never took astrology seriously, but I was profoundly excited by its mystical atmosphere, and by the splendour of its symbolism. The human spirit seems to hanker for a realm which is above, beyond and outside the realm of ordinary time and space, but which (crucially) stands in a vital relationship to it. It might be Egyptian or Greek mythology, or it might be astrology, or it might be superhero comics, or it might be Jungian archetypes, or it might even be the Wild West. The important thing is that the imagery and atmosphere is not drawn directly from ordinary life, that it is more vivid and heightened and splendid. We seem to have some ineradicable urge to see our reflections in a transfiguring mirror.

So the use of astrological symbols in The Go-Between pleased me, and I was able to relate it to my own childhood.

I was less able to relate to Leo's philosophy of life, as a little boy. He is a product of boarding school and develops an ethic familiar from other accounts of English school life, around this time (including G.K. Chesterton's biography). Stoicism and daring are important features of it. Leo is bullied at the start of the book, but feels no resentment against those bullying him-- it's simply par for the course. Indeed, little Leo has a dread of morality, preferring a rigid and rather amoral set of principles instead. For instance, he is a strong believer in hierarchy, and completely accepts the superiority of the aristocracy over commoners. His relationship with his school-friend is marked by the kind mutual mockery and insult which is familiar to me from literature, and which I regularly hear in everyday life, but which leaves me baffled. I never had that kind of friendship with anyone, and I'm very glad of it.

Leo also engages in feats of physical bravery for the sake of it, something foreign to me both as a boy and today. I grew up on the seventh floor of the Ballymun flats, and I remember little boys hanging from the balcony walls, nothing but a sheer drop between them and the ground. The pointlessness of this baffled me then, and it baffles me now.

Peter Hitchens speaks for me when he touches on another aspect of the novel, Leo's attraction to the houses's rubbish dump. Hitches writes of "the fascination felt by melancholics such as I am for the slightly scruffy back parts of noble buildings, where their true nature is revealed and where you can usually be left in peace by grown-ups or people anxious to make conversation when you prefer none - the servants’ stairs , the kitchen gardens and the half-abandoned outhouses." Though, for me, this doesn't apply to noble buildings but to all buildings. I've always been drawn to the parts of buildings which are not for public view, which seem to be outside the general scheme of things, as I try to describe in this blog post.

Another part of the book that appeals to me greatly is the "House vs. Village" annual cricket match which plays an important role in the story. I imagine one is supposed to appreciate this passage as a dramatization of class and sex tensions in Edwardian England. But I enjoy it simply as an account of a local cricket match, not professional or excessively competitive, but taken quite seriously and conducted with a great sense of event. Is there any equivalent today? Do the staff of local cinemas line up against the staff of local supermarkets once a year? I doubt it, and that makes me rather sad.

Indeed, the daily life of the household portrayed in the book makes me hanker for life before television. For instance, we see that the owner of the house (who is hardly portrayed as a pious person) leads the family, the guests and the staff in prayers every morning. And everybody goes to church on Sunday. Perhaps we are meant to see this as hypocritical, or an empty outward show, and certainly the characters in the book seem to go through with these observances purely as a matter of course, of good form. But I still read about them with envy and nostalgia. Is ordinary life today any richer for having discarded such ceremonial?

Similarly, the sing-song that follows the cricket match (in which Irish songs are fairly prominent), and the parlour entertainments described elsewhere in the book, make me feel rather bad about our box set bingeing and other passive recreations today.

There are little touches in the book which I find particularly pleasing. For instance, the aristocrat who forms one point of the story's love triangle, and who was injured in the Boer War, is portrayed as a jingoistic supporter of British imperialism. But when he sees a cartoon in Punch which mocks the British war effort, and which Leo expects will infuriate him, he actually finds it extremely amusing. Not only does this avoid caricature, but it seems quite realistic-- I can imagine such a reaction in such a person. It feels right.

The book is very reminiscent of Brideshead Revisited, especially since both contain a frame narrative in which the protagonist returns to a country house, one which was played a crucial role in his life, after an absence of many years. Both also feature a commoner who finds himself afloat in the strange world of the aristocracy. This is an experience few of us are likely to have in a literal sense, but almost all of us find ourselves feeling out of place in a strange social environment, at one time or another. Both books also have themes of nostalgia, and of the ways in which we grapple with out past-- the last especially is a topic which preoccupies me more and more. I would definitely recommend The Go-Between. (I haven't seen any movie or TV version of the book-- one is mentioned in the first words of the Introduction to the edition I read, so I take it to be quite celebrated.)

Some Reasons I am a Catholic

Tuesday, April 30, 2019

Reviving Poetry Tuesday

It's Tuesday! And, on this blog, that means it's time to talk about poetry!

Well, not so much, to be honest. Yes, I let my fledgling Poetry Tuesday tradition slide recently. 

But maybe that's not such a bad thing, since a tradition has overcome an important hurdle when it languishes and revives for the first time.

Anyway, today's Poetry Tuesday post is just a quick post about the poetry jukebox which was recently installed outside my own workplace, the James Joyce Library in University College Dublin. Here is a picture of it.

This particular poetry jukebox only features women poets, which is fine by me. It would also be fine by me if it only featured red-headed poets, or left-handed poets, or poets who went mad. Inclusivity is not my thing.

It was a bit gingerish about using it, since I'm always expecting some smart-alecky comment from someone passing colleague. (I don't even like taking mobile phone pictures in public, selfies or otherwise, as I'm so self-conscious about onlookers.) But one day, after work, I pressed the button and listened to a poem written and recorded by a contemporary poetess. It wasn't a good poem, but I'm not too worried about that. I saw that it also had poems by dead female poets.

One of the women pictured, Maria McManus, wrote this about the idea of a poetry jukebox, in an Irish Times article: 

Words have power. In print and broadcast news in the North, in this past week alone, came reports of graffiti on walls that read “N ----rs out”; families fleeing sectarian threats; swastikas daubed on walls; a pig’s head left outside a community centre used by Muslims; anti-Muslim slogans sprayed across the doors.

Another day, another time, another place, it would be homophobic slogans. Misogynistic graffiti, though prolific, rarely makes the news, but a Belfast cafe caused a stir this week when it claimed “You can beat the wife, but you can’t beat a £5 lunch”. This was on a sandwich board sitting in the street. The owners hit back on social media, saying people were over-reacting, it was just a joke, people were too sensitive. Blah, blah. Eventually, under duress, they apologised. Eventually.

Ho hum. No mention of hatred against straight white men, priests, nuns, conservatives, the unborn child, Christians, or other popular and socially acceptable targets.

Ms McManus goes on: "This is our context and it becomes then all the more important for us to animate and occupy public space and public discourse with something quite contrary." It makes me wonder what she thinks of Philip Larkin, Rudyard Kipling, John Betjeman, Kingsley Amis, and other great poets who leaned to the right in one way or another. 

Poetry, including the best poetry, can be a vehicle for views and opinions of every sort-- though it is true that good poetry usually avoids the shrilness and shallowness of outright propaganda.

Nevertheless, I could not agree more with her final lines: "Through the Jukebox, we hope that we can connect with a wider audience for poetry – not just the ones who will go to a reading, or buy a poetry book, but other people – people passing in the street. The curious. This is about normalising poetry. Why shouldn’t it be part of everyone’s everyday life? Why shouldn’t it nourish their soul and their imagination?"


(Rather sadly, nobody was sufficiently moved by the article to leave a comment.)