Wednesday, May 22, 2019

Dirk Benedict

Occasional visitors to this blog may be baffled when they encounter some random picture of Dirk Benedict. Regular readers will be used to it.

Dirk Benedict is an American actor who is best known for playing loveable rogues, especially in the science-fiction series Battlestar Galactica (1978-79) and the adventure series The A-Team (1983-87).

Why does this chap's picture appear without explanation in many of my blog posts? Here is a numbered list of reasons:

1) Because I have a rather silly sense of humour, and I enjoy the irrelevance, as well as the idea of people being baffled by it.

2) Because I love traditions, and posting irrelevant pictures of Dirk Benedict on this blog is now a tradition.

3) Because "Dirk Benedict" is the coolest name ever.

4) Because there is something very likeable about the chap.

5) Because I think it's a good idea to include pictures in longer blog posts, to give the eye some relief from a monotonous block of text, and sometimes I can't think of any other picture to use.

I'm hardly a dedicated Dirk Benedict fan, or anything like that. I watched a lot of episodes of The A-Team when I was a boy, but only because my brothers were watching them. I found it hard to follow and a bit tedious. (I watched some episodes again quite recently, and enjoyed them more as an adult.)

I preferred Battlestar Galactica. I have happy memories of watching this on Saturday mornings. The otherwordly visuals stirred my sense of wonder. Sadly, my experience in this regard has been the exact opposite of my experience with The A-Team. I tried to watch it again in recent years and found it almost unwatchable. I'm not a big fan of the remake, which ran from 2004 to 2009. But it had its moments, and it was undeniably better than the original.

Dirk Benedict himself wrote an essay which mauled the remake, and which I found very entertaining. You can read it on his personal website here. A brief passage will show that he has his heart in the right place, whatever he might be wrong or right about when it comes to specifics: 

Witness the "re-imagined" Battlestar Galactica. It's bleak, miserable, despairing, angry and confused. Which is to say, it reflects, in microcosm, the complete change in the politics and mores of today's world as opposed to the world of yesterday. The world of Lorne Greene (Adama) and Fred Astaire (Starbuck's Poppa), and Dirk Benedict (Starbuck). I would guess Lorne is glad he's in that Big Bonanza in the sky and well out of it. Starbuck, alas, has not been so lucky. He's not been left to pass quietly into that trivial world of cancelled TV characters. [Benedict was particularly annoyed that the character he played, the roguish fighter pilot Starbuck, had been "re-imagined" as a woman.]

"Re-imagining", they call it. "un-imagining" is more accurate. To take what once was and twist it into what never was intended. So that a television show based on hope, spiritual faith, and family is unimagined and regurgitated as a show of despair, sexual violence and family dysfunction. To better reflect the times of ambiguous morality in which we live, one would assume. A show in which the aliens (Cylons) are justified in their desire to destroy our civilisation. One would assume. Indeed, let us not say who are the good guys and who are the bad. That is being "judgemental". And that kind of (simplistic) thinking went out with Margaret Thatcher and Ronald Reagan and Katharine Hepburn and John Wayne and, well the original Battlestar Galactica.

Despite his views on the remake, he did have a picture taken with the actress who plays the new Starbuck. In Starbucks. A somewhat famous picture which, perversely, I've never actually used on this blog.

A lesser-known Dirk Benedict appearance, but one which made a big impression on me in my childhood, was "Mark of the Devil", an episode of the Hammer House of Mystery and Suspense TV series. In this episode, a man murders a tatooist and finds an uncanny tattoo spreading on his body. Although this programme stuck in my head, I forgot that it was Dirk Benedict who played the murderer, until I watched it again in my twenties.

Dirk Benedict made a personal appearance in University College Dublin, where I work, some years ago. I think he was receiving honorary membership of one or other of the university societies. One of my library colleagues attended (he was a student at the time). He said that the excitement was at fever pitch before Mr. Benedict appeared, with audience members (who had mostly grown up in the eighties) drumming on the tables and humming the A-Team music. He also said that DB was very charming and funny. When one student asked him if he would sign his metal plate, he simply replied: "I'll kick your ass." The lecture theatre was packed out, and DB also spent some time talking to those students who didn't get into the main event.

Anyway, that's the story of Dirk Benedict and me. 

I have no plans to discontinue the tradition of him popping up without warning in unrelated blog posts. (I can't actually remember when I started doing this, which gives it the misty provenance of a sure-nuff tradition.)

Tuesday, May 21, 2019

The Perils of Dialogue

I am going to try to make a bigger effort to put out regular YouTube videos. Here is my latest.

Poem to my Father

For Poetry Tuesday (a tradition I am determined to keep going), here is the poem I read on the day of my father's funeral. (The picture shows him at my wedding.)

For My Father

You taught me to appreciate
The old and true and lasting things.
You taught me hunger for debate

And that words could be given wings.

You tutored me in chivalry,
To rally to the nobler cause
Not heeding popularity

Or comfort, or the world’s applause.

You taught me triumph counted less
(Far less) than honour in the fight,

That manliness and gentleness
Are two in one, like fire and light.

You taught me to love poetry
And books, and took me by the hand
To show me wonder’s treasury,

Imagination’s fairyland.

You taught me (though I learned it late)
The love of Ireland; to uphold
And guard and praise and celebrate
This birthright dearer far than gold.

You taught me to love everything
Original, and quaint, and odd;
To prize grace like a diamond ring,
And reverence the name of God.

If I have any cause for pride

It would be this: to have been true
To all you taught me, and have tried
To be as good a man as you.

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.