Friday, July 27, 2018

Chesterton and Ireland

I have been transferring some of my old files onto USB key, and I came across this piece, which I read to the G.K. Chesterton Society of Ireland in 2010. It's available on the G.K. Chesterton Society of Ireland blog, which hasn't been updated since 2015, but I thought I would post it there, too, for anyone who hasn't seen it.

(The G.K. Chesterton Society blog is the bane of my life, incidentally. Editors are irresistibly attracted to printing the link to it after my articles, even when I telll them it has been inactive for years and beg them to stop. For some strange reason, it kept periodically reappearing at the foot of my Open Door articles!)


Since this is the GK Chesterton Society of Ireland, there could be hardly a subject more appropriate than Chesterton and Ireland. Chesterton wrote a great deal about Ireland, so all I can offer here is a few observations, and is in no way comprehensive.

Ireland played an important role in Chesterton’s life. His most famous literary creation, the detective-priest father Brown, was based upon an Irish Catholic priest, Father John O’Connor—the very priest who received Chesterton into the Catholic Church in 1922. The ceremony took place in a shed with a corrugated tin roof, since Battersea—where Chesterton lived—had no Catholic Church of its own.

Another Irishman who played an important part in Chesterton’s life was George Bernard Shaw, who was an intellectual opponent and a much-esteemed friend. Chesterton and Shaw admired each other immensely, though they disagreed on almost every subject imaginable. Shaw said of Chesterton: “He was a man of colossal genius.” Chesterton said of Shaw: “ It is necessary to disagree with him as much as I do, in order to admire him as much as I do; and I am proud of him as a foe even more than as a friend.”

W.B. Yeats was another Irish writer who Chesterton admired immensely and often quoted, often in passing and without attribution—which is surely the best form of tribute to any writer. He described him as “by far the greatest poet who has written in English for decades”.




And to borrow the title of one Yeats’s works, it may be argued that Chesterton viewed Ireland as the land of heart’s desire. Ireland was, it may be said, an embodiment of everything he admired—it was a piously Catholic country, it was a land of small farmers that had been relatively untouched by industrialisation and big business, and it was small.

To take the first point first. Chesterton had a love of smallness that is a running motif throughout all his work. In probably his greatest book, the little volume of apologetics called Orthodoxy, he complains of those scientifically-minded secularists who rhapsodise about the size of the universe, saying:

These people professed that the universe was one coherent thing; but they were not fond of the universe. But I was frightfully fond of the universe and wanted to address it by a diminutive. I often did so; and it never seemed to mind. Actually and in truth I did feel that these dim dogmas of vitality were better expressed by calling the world small than by calling it large. For about infinity there was a sort of carelessness which was the reverse of the fierce and pious care which I felt touching the pricelessness and the peril of life. They showed only a dreary waste; but I felt a sort of sacred thrift. For economy is far more romantic than extravagance. To them stars were an unending income of halfpence; but I felt about the golden sun and the silver moon as a schoolboy feels if he has one sovereign and one shilling.

In his much-admired novel, The Napoleon of Notting Hill—incidentally, this was said to be a book that Michael Collins admired—he evokes a London divided into tiny principalities, and his pleasure in describing the flags and heraldry and cermonies they employ is obvious. He was a staunch defender of the family, and a lifelong enemy of Imperialism. One of his famous tropes was the story of St. George fighting the dragon. His famous long poem, The Ballad of the White Horse, describes the battle of King Alfred against the Danes. It is perhaps significant that this occurred at a time when Christian England had shrunk to a portion of the country, the rest of it occupied by the Danelaw of the pagans. It is irreverent to suppose that Chesterton secretly wished to trim a dozen or counties so from the edges of England, but he was a lifelong Little Englander—in the best sense of that term—and he was opposed to the Empire not only for the oppression it inflicted on other peoples, but for the unwelcome grandeur and pomp it bestowed on his own country. To Chesterton, the true England was the England of Chaucer, not the England of Kipling and Sir Henry Newbolt. It should be remembered that his opposition to Imperialism, which we presume would be de rigeur to an intellectual, came at a time when British Imperialism was highly respectable amongst the cultured classes—even progressive writers like Sidney Webb and George Bernard Shaw often supported imperialism, seeing it as a step towards the collectivism of their dreams.

Chesterton came to prominence during the Boer War, when he went against the current of national opinion—both the Liberal and Conservative parties, along with most intellectuals, supported the war. Chesterton, an unknown young journalist at the time, hated the jingoism and triumphalism that the war unleashed amongst the English people. He believed that moneyed interests had driven England to go to war against the South African republics. The parallels with Anglo-Irish history are obvious—and it should also be noted that Chesterton was raised in a liberal family who would have been firm supporters of Gladstone and Irish Home Rule. 






This love of smallness might seem in contradiction to the second aspect of Ireland that Chesterton admired—its Catholicism. Catholicism is anything but a minority faith, and Protestant England could successfully pose for many centuries as St. George against the Dragon of Catholic Europe.

Even though Chesterton, as I have mentioned, did not convert to the Catholic Church until 1922—when he was forty-eighy years old, and after about two decades of championing Christianity against all comers—all of his works are so Catholic in tone that Catholic readers might be surprised to realize that his road to Rome stretched so long. He had a lifelong devotion to the Blessed Virgin, which his biographer and Maisie Ward described as “chronic”, writing odes to her even in his Unitarian boyhod. He was an outspoken admirer of England’s medieval and pre-Reformation past.

When he first became a Christian, Chesterton assumed a position much like C.S. Lewis’s “mere Christianity”. In Orthodoxy, written in 1908, he wrote: These essays are concerned only to discuss the actual fact that the central Christian theology (sufficiently summarized in the Apostles' Creed) is the best root of energy and sound ethics. They are not intended to discuss the very fascinating but quite different question of what is the present seat of authority for the proclamation of that creed.”

But that question is inescapable, and it seems surprising that so bold a thinker as Chesterton remained an Anglican, since all his instincts seemed to propel him towards the Catholic Church. There has been almost as much speculation on the reasons for this hesitation as there has been on Hamlet’s tardiness in bumping off his uncle. Many say that the principal reason was his beloved wife Frances’s Anglo-Catholicism; Chesterton feared his conversion would grieve her. In fact, she followed him into the Church some years later (entirely on her own initative, she insisted). Another reason given is that Chesterton—who for all his willingness to castigate his home country, even writing a book titled The Crimes of England, was passionately patriotic—considered Catholicism to be an unEnglish religion. (If we find this a rather feeble reason, we may note that the English writer Peter Hitchens, whose recent book The Rage Against the God has been well-reviewed in Catholic circles, has given much the same reason for remaining an Anglican, despite his dissatisfaction with the modernising spirit in Anglicanism.)

In any case, the point is that even before his eventual conversion, Chesterton was an essentially Catholic writer, and here is another fascination that Ireland held for him. But it wasn’t just the majority denomination of Ireland that appealed to him. It was the piety of the people. All his life Chesterton praised and appealed to the common man above all cliques and elites—one of his anthologies of essays even bears the title The Common Man. But he was well aware that the common man in England was, already by the time he was writing, not a practicing Christian. The common man of Ireland, on the contrary, was.



In his critical study of Chaucer, Chesterton lamented this difference between medieval England and modern England—a degeneration from an objective, public religion held by all to a subjective, private religion held by some. He wrote:

This is perhaps the deepest difference between medieval and modern life, and the difference is so great that many never imagine it, because it is impossible to describe it. We may even say that the modern world is more religious, because the religious are more religious….But we may be practically certain that if there is a modern man like the Miller of the Reeve, he has not got any religion at all. He certainly would not go on a religious pilgrimage, or perform any religious duty at all…the modern problem is more and more the problem of keeping the company together at all; and the company was kept together because it was going to Canterbury.

However, in 1932, Chesterton attended the Eucharistic Congress in Dublin, and witnessed a living display of popular piety. In a slim volume on the subject, titled Christendom in Dublin, he wrote:

Nobody who was been in Dublin for a week as I have been during the Eucharistic Congress can doubt that Ireland is passionately religious; and especially that the Irish populace is passionately religious….Nobody who has lived in England all his life, as I have lived in England, can doubt that modern England, with its many manly and generous virtues, has become largely indifferent to religion.


 
In his book on George Bernard Shaw, he could write, in the same vein::

The average autochthonous Irishman is close to patriotism because he is close to the earth; he is close to domesticity because he is close to the earth; he is close to doctrinal theology and elaborate ritual because he is close to the earth. In short, he is close to the heavens because he is close to the earth.

How melancholy it is to read those words today, considering the transformation that has come over our country!

The third characteristic of Ireland that endeared it to Chesterton was its preponderance of small farms. We are so used to seeing this aspect of Ireland’s history satirised, as a source of greed, loneliness and narrow-mindedness—for instance, in The Field by John B. Keane—that it might be surprising to learn that Chesterton, along with many of his contemporaries, hailed it as the ideal economic system. For many years he edited The Distributist Review. The philosophy of distributism was sometimes compressed into the slogan “three acres and a cow” for every citizen. It was as hostile to big business as it was to socialism, and advocated the widest distributism of property feasible. In his book Irish Impressions, Chesterton describes travelling down a road in the North-West of the country, and noticing that the harvest on the right side of the road, which consisted of small farms, was neatly gathered, while the harvest on the left side of the road, a large modern estate, was “rotting in the rain”. He wrote:

Now I do, as a point of personal opinion, believe that the right side of the road was really the right side of the road. That is, I believe it represented the right side of the question; that these little pottering peasants had got hold of the true secret, which is missed both by Capitalism and Collectivism.

But Chesterton’s solicitude for Ireland when further than mere admiration. As a patriotic Englishman, he admitted to a sense of vicarious guilt when it came to England’s past in Ireland. In his essay “Paying for Patriotism”, which argues that a patriot should feel shame for his country’s misdeeds as well as pride in its achievements, he ironically wrote:

It is quite true that it was not I, G. K. Chesterton, who pulled the beard of an Irish chieftain by way of social introduction; it was John Plantagenet, afterwards King John; and I was not present. It was not I, but a much more distinguished literary gent, named Edmund Spenser, who concluded on the whole that the Irish had better be exterminated like vipers; nor did he even ask my advice on so vital a point. I never stuck a pike through an Irish lady for fun, after the siege of Drogheda, as did the God-fearing Puritan soldiers of Oliver Cromwell. Nobody can find anything in my handwriting that contributes to the original drafting of the Penal Laws; and it is a complete mistake to suppose that I was called to the Privy Council when it decided upon the treacherous breaking of the Treaty of Limerick. I never put a pitchcap on an Irish rebel in my life; and there was not a single one of the thousand floggings of '98 which I inflicted or even ordered.

But for all Chesterton’s generosity towards the Irish, he was not an uncritical admirer of this country’s political and intellectual life. One notion that drew his satire was the cult of the Celt, which was very fashionable at the time he was writing. In Celts and Celtophiles, he wrote:

It is impossible to hear without impatience of the attempt so constantly made among her modern sympathizers to talk about Celts and Celticism. Who were the Celts? I defy anybody to say. Who are the Irish? I defy any one to be indifferent, or to pretend not to know. Mr. W. B. Yeats, the great Irish genius who has appeared in our time, shows his own admirable penetration in discarding altogether the argument from a Celtic race. But he does not wholly escape, and his followers hardly ever escape, the general objection to the Celtic argument. 



To Chesteton, a nation was a spiritual entity, while a race was merely a pesudo-scientific construct.

Considering Chesterton’s sympathy with Irish national opinion, it might be a surprise to learn that his longest Irish-themed book, Irish Impressions, published in 1919, drew on Chesterton’s attemps to recruit Irish men into the British Army during the Great War. Chesterton was an enthusiastic supporter of World War One, and remained one until his death. Given Ireland’s massive hostility towards conscription, it is perhaps indicative of Chesterton’s popularity in Ireland that he was treated, as his book shows, with courtesy.

Chesterton himself described the idea of Irish conscription as “rank raving madness”; and yet he still appealed to the Irish to volunteer in what he say as a defence of European civilization. He wrote: “If the Irish were what Cromwell thought they were, they might well confine their attention to Hell and Connaught, and have no sympathy to spare for France. But if the Irish are what Wolfe Tone thought they were, they must be interested in France, as he was interested in France. In short, if the Irish are barbarians, they need not trouble about other barbarians sacking the cities of the world; but if they are citizens, they must trouble about the cities that are sacked”. Even today, despite the best efforts of historical revisionism, I think this is an argument that would find few sympathizers in Ireland.

He described the Easter Rising in the same book as “a black and insane blunder”, since the Irish had attacked the British Empire at the one moment when its cause happened to be just. “Does anybody”, he wrote, “want to be fixed for ever on the wrong side of the Battle of Marathon, through a quarrel with some Archon whose very name is forgotten?”. Considering the verdict of history on World War One, we may now find a rather bitter irony in the rhetorical question.

But, like all great authors, Chesterton is doomed to be reduced to a handful of familiar quotations; and of all the books and articles he wrote upon Ireland, all that seems certain to endure is the puckish quatrain from the Ballad of the White Horse;

For the great Gaels of Ireland

Are the men that God made mad
For all their wars are merry
And all their songs are sad.

Tuesday, July 24, 2018

Slogans in Irish Life

This is an article I had published in Ireland's Own magazine some time ago. I've had four articles published in Ireland's Own: an article about letters pages, this one, an article about C.S. Lewis which I posted on the blog already, and a recent article about the Dublin Millennium of 1988.

I read Ireland's Own when I was growing up, especially on my aunt's farm in Limerick. It's a rather nostalgic, family-orientated magazine, so it's obviously right up my alley. I also like its "grab bag" flavour; I also grew up reading books of trivia such as The Giant Book of Fantastic Facts (my father said he never would have bought it for me if he knew I was going to take it so seriously), and How to Hold a Crocodile. Anyway, I assume it's OK to post it here now, long after it appeared in print. 

I had an amusing experience some years ago, while walking through the campus of University College Dublin. There was a demonstration of some kind taking place—an incident which is a much rarer event on a university campus than one might suppose. I was most interested to hear what the students were demonstrating about. I was, however, unsuccessful; I could hear the rhetorical demand “What do we want?”, but the response was muffled, as I was some distance away. So what I heard was: “What do we want?” (Something something something.) “When do we want it?” “Now!”

The experience seemed like a commentary on how standardised most demonstrations are. Perhaps that’s no bad thing. There is a comfort in the familiar. However, it’s a shame when an opportunity for a good slogan is missed. The very first demonstration I ever joined was a protest march against the building of a motorway close to the Hill of Tara. I was very impressed by the chant the protestors had come up with:

“We will not say sayonara
Goodbye, Auf Widersehen, to Tara!”


Slogans are fascinating things. A few words can capture the essence of a cause, or the essence of a whole philosophy of life. Slogans don’t only convey a message to one’s opponents, or the outside world. They echo down the years, down the generations, down the centuries. Even those of us with very little knowledge of the Roman republic will recognize the phrase, “Carthago delenda est”, “Carthage must be destroyed”, the phrase associated with Cato the Elder and other supporters of a war to the death with Rome’s great rival. Apparently, Cato was in the habit of finishing his speeches with this line, even when the speech had nothing to with Carthage. He obviously wanted to impress it on his listeners’ minds, but could he have guessed it would still be widely recognised more than two thousand years later?

There is poetry in slogans, too. After all, they are phrases which are not only intended to concisely express an idea, but to convey an emotion—which may be anything from enthusiasm to horror, depending on the slogan. Ronald Reagan’s famous re-election slogan, “It’s morning again in America”, is a good example of a poetic slogan. Before I depart from the topic of American Presidential slogans, I might mention that one has left a lasting mark on the cityscape of Dublin; a bed and breakfast on the Drumcondra Road still bears a placard with the words, “Is Féidir Linn”, an approximate translation of Barack Obama’s “Yes, we can”.

What are the most memorable Irish slogans? The main narrative of Irish history is the long struggle for independence, and this certainly produced its crop of slogans. Perhaps the most famous is Tiocfaidh ar lá, “Our day will come”, much used by the Irish republican movement in recent decades—to the extent that Irish republicans are sometimes called “the chuckies”. This phrase seems to have originated with the hunger striker Bobby Sands, in the late seventies, so it is surprisingly recent. “Up the Republic!” is a simpler and older nationalist slogan. Brendan Behan’s memoir Borstal Boy describes how, when Behan was in an English prison for IRA activity during the Second World War, another Irish republican prisoner shouted “Up the Republic” from his cell and urged Behan to shout it back. The teenage Behan did so most reluctantly, since he was immersed in a book and didn’t want to be interrupted by warders.

Daniel O'Connell
 “England’s difficulty is Ireland’s opportunity” is a slogan which might be said to have had a massive influence on Irish politics. It has been attributed to Daniel O’Connell, and was popular in Irish nationalist circles in America during the Crimean War. It became most relevant, of course, during the First World War, when it expressed the determination of the Irish Republican Brotherhood to strike a blow for Irish freedom before the War ended. (They feared the end would come a lot sooner than it did.) The 1916 Easter Rising was the outcome, and the rest really is history.

A less well-known nationalist slogan is the Irish language “Ní síochán go saoirse”, “No peace till freedom”. Although it’s a powerful slogan, most of us will be grateful that a different philosophy has prevailed since the Good Friday Agreement. A different angle on the same subject was taken by the popular temperance slogan, “Ireland sober is Ireland free”.

To turn from political nationalism to economic nationalism, the Trade War between the UK and the Irish Free State, in the nineteen-thirties, gave us the immortal slogan: “Burn everything English except their coal”. But the phrase itself is a lot older, originated with Jonathan Swift in 1720. As early as that, Swift was advocating economic independence from England.

I’ve mentioned a few slogans in the Irish language already. The movement to revive Irish has generated a few of its own. “Gaeilge agus Fáilte” (Irish is Welcome) is a simple and catchy one, often seen on stickers in Irish-speaking homes and institutions. My own favourite is “Tír gan teanga, tír gan anam”— a quotation from Patrick Pearse, the 1916 leader and Irish language revivalist. It means “a country without a language is a country without a soul”, and it’s difficult to argue otherwise—nothing distinguishes a country more than its language. On a brief visit to Holyhead many years ago, I was deeply ashamed to hear ordinary Welsh people speak their native language in the streets, and to compare this with the near-complete absence of the Irish language in most Irish streets.


Party politics has its memorable slogans. Perhaps the most famous is the Irish Labour Party’s ill-fated proclamation that “the seventies will be socialist”. Well, that didn’t happen. More recently, Fianna Fáil’s 2002 slogan “A lot done, more to do” is still often cited—but usually in the context of ridicule. Note to political slogan-writers: your creations might come back to haunt you.

In the sphere of commerce, it must be said that there aren’t very many outstanding Irish slogans. I can still remember the EBS Building Society’s “Say yes, yes, yes with the EBS”, from the nineteen-eighties, but that may be a personal quirk. Well, try it yourself. Think of an outstanding Irish advertising slogan. (“Guinness is good for you” doesn’t qualify. It was thought up by Dorothy K. Sayers, the English novelist, for an English advertising agency.) It seems like the Irish have put their hearts more into politics than business!

Sunday, July 22, 2018

The Foyer: A Poem

The recent past-- the very concept of the recent past-- is a subject that fascinates me. I tried to write about it on this blog before, in this flight of fantasy which may have left some readers bemused. But I think I've made a better go of it in this poem.

Readers might notice some similarities between this poem and one that I recently posted. I could write poems about bookish men sitting alone in dark rooms forever. It might be a new genre!

The Foyer

Spring-cleaning, he found stacks of magazines
Untouched for years. Film Monthly, Empire, Vids,
The Haunted Screen. He'd bought these, every one.
He sat down on the bed. The summer sun
Made the drawn curtains glow. The cries of kids
Half-way between their push-chairs and their teens

In the avenue outside seemed far away.
Ten years? Was it ten years since Vacancy
Had been released? It seemed...he didn't know...
Neither a long nor little time ago.
It was too near, or far away, to see
In right perspective. There was yesterday

And then there was the past, but in between--
There lay that no-man's-land, that was not dead
Nor yet alive. My goodness, Rush Hour Three!
He'd seen that with Lorraine. Now where was she?
Not long before, she'd sat here on this bed--
But now how many years unmet, unseen?

The jokes about George Bush and Gordon Brown
Seemed weaker now. The jury was still out
On them, he guessed. Good grief, Facebook was new...
Well, it was still new-- sort of. Was that you,
He asked himself, who went to see Whiteout?
Or else the you of seasons past? The sound

Of cheering came from children not yet born
When he'd seen Avatar. Nostalgia's glow
Would not light up these days for quite a while--
Not yet the gleeful laugh, the knowing smile,
Nor the warm fuzzies. Still a while to go,
Before the heroes of the day faced scorn

Or rediscovery. He turned the page
Again, and still again. He liked it here--
This isle of silence in a sea of sound,
This eye in the hurricane that he had found,
Between the storms of now and yesteryear;
This sleepy foyer between age and age.



Saturday, July 21, 2018

The Poetics of Space

A guy wakes up in the morning. For a few minutes he lies in bed, musing over his dreams and the day before him. Inside his bed, he feels utterly safe and protected. It takes an effort of will to leave it.

He stumbles to the bathroom and has a shower. Although he lives alone, he locks the door. He likes the comfort of the locked door between him and the hallway, when he is naked and wet. He sings a little to himself. He never sings in any other place.

He goes downstairs and makes breakfast, reading his book as he eats. He hears a letter coming through the letter-flap and feels a momentary irritation. He doesn't like any intrusion on his morning ritual, even the sound of a letter coming through the door.

He gets dressed and steps outside, onto the landing of his apartment. Suddenly, he is outside the private world, the domain of the self. The door of the apartment opposite his own opens and somebody steps out. A woman he doesn't recognize. They smile at each other and say hello. He wonders who she is. He doesn't know the name of the man in the apartment but he knows him to say hello to.

He takes the lift downstairs and steps out onto the street. It's a chilly day. He passes several people without looking at them, without noticing them. He misses his bed.

He stands at the bus-stop. The pretty lady who always looks very serious is waiting there. There are a dozen others, but he doesn't recognize any of them. It's a cold morning so they all stand underneath the bus-stop, closer than they would normally, looking at their mobile phones to escape the slight embarrassment. At one point, he looks up and finds himself looking into the eyes of an elderly man with a white moustache. They nod at each other. For a moment, the guy is afraid the elderly man is going to speak to him, but he doesn't.

The bus arrives and they get on. Hallelujah! There is a seat available. The guy sits in it and takes out his book.

Behind him, two college students are talking loudly about a party they were at the night before. They talk as though they are oblivious of everybody around them, but it's quite obvious that they know people are listening and are performing for them. They want the whole bus to know they had a wild time last night.

The guy looks out the window. Another bus has pulled up just opposite them. He finds himself looking at a guy his own age, someone he likes the moment he lays eyes on him. Their eyes meet for a moment, and then they both look away. But he's convinced there was a moment of rapport in that fraction of a second, and it warms him.

He gets off the bus and walks towards his office. He sees Frank from sales a few yards away, walking in the same direction. He realizes Frank has seen him, but is pretending not have seen him. That's fine by him. He does the same.

He hopes Jenny at reception will smile at him as he walks in, but she's on a phone call and absorbed.

He gets the lift to the third floor. When the steel door closes, he starts to pull absurd faces. It's a game he plays with himself-- somehow, he takes a certain glee in pulling ridiculous faces in this enclosed space and resuming a completely straight face when the door opens.

He walks down the corridor. A cleaner is hoovering the carpets. He smiles at her awkwardly. He always feels uncomfortable around cleaners-- they're his colleagues, but not really. He wants to be democratic and to treat everybody the same, but he can't help feeling awkward when he greets them, frightened of seeming condescending. The cleaner, a young man, nods back at him affably.

He unlocks the door of his office, steps in, and breaths a metaphorical sigh of relief. Home! The truth is, his office is more imprinted with his personality than his own apartment...there is his Gauguin print over the desk, there is his collection of chattery teeth, even the untidy desk has a friendly look.

The phone rings. He lets it ring. If it's important, they'll phone back, or they'll leave a message. He is going to get settled into his desk first.

Sitting at his desk, his eye falls on a cartoon he has taped to his wall, showing  a man on a desert island, sitting under a palm tree. The joke isn't particularly funny; he just likes the picture. Every time he looks at it, he wants to be there.

Then his eyes turns to another picture taped to his wall; a photograph of a football match from forty years ago. The full-time whistle has blown and the crowd has surged onto the pitch. They are raising their arms and shouting, and a wild joy is in their eyes. Every time he looks at it, he wants to be there, too.

Saturday, July 14, 2018

The Rumpus Room

Be warned...this is one of my "private fascination" posts!

I've been watching a lot of Frasier recently. I've watched every episode several times over. In one episode, Frasier's snobbish brother Niles has to downgrade from his elegant apartment to a grotty one. Trying to put a good face on it, he cheerfully announces that there will be "a ping-pong tournament in the rumpus room".



I'd never heard that term, "rumpus room", before. It pleases me vastly, and it's been on my mind for weeks now.

It's not just the phrase that appeals to me, however. It's the idea of a rumpus room, especially in a rather grotty and cut-price apartment block. It's the idea of facilities in general-- especially facilities that you wouldn't necessarily expect to be there.

This concept has been on my mind a lot recently, but it's always fascinated me.

I'm blessed in the place where I work, in this regard. University College Dublin is a world unto its own...it has everything. It has a swimming pool, a gymnasium, a small cinema (though I've never been in it), a bike shop, a bank, a post office, a pharmacist...and many, many more, as the K-Tel ads so deliciously used to put it. I delight in these facilities even when I don't use them.

Indeed, even the more euphemistic use of the term "facilities" touches on this fascination of mine. I love bathrooms! I love that UCD is full of bathrooms (or rest rooms, as the Americans say). I have a choice of five different bathrooms in the library alone. In the summer, or at other out-of-term times, they are often unoccupied. There is something delicious about walking into a deserted bathroom, away from everybody else. Most of all, there's something delicious about having a choice of bathrooms.

The old Ballymun
Another example. I often have dreams in which the "old Ballymun" (seven-storey apartment blocks, and fourteen storey towers, all now demolished) is still standing. Except, in my dreams, it's a science-fiction version of Ballymun. The apartment blocks (or "flats", as we called them) are like cities unto themselves, with all kinds of businesses and facilities available inside them. (And everything is gleaming white.)

Another example. When I visited Bavaria on my honeymoon, we stayed (briefly!) at a five-star hotel...the only time I've ever been to a five-star hotel. My favourite part was visiting the swimming pool, saunas, and jacuzzis on the bottom floor. But the cherry on the cake was a sign beside a telephone on the wall, which announced: "If you would like a drink from the bar, please call us on this telephone and we will bring it down to you". That drove me wild (although I forebore from ordering one...I was too busy enjoying my first jacuzzi!)

Another example: visiting a hotel or bar and seeing that it has a book collection worthy of the term "library", especially if it has an interesting selection. (I'm thinking of a particular hotel I visited once, whose lounge has a collection of old and idiosyncratic hardbacks. Sadly, I had no time to browse them.)

The original Cluedo board, with its library, billiards room, lounge, conservatory, and ball room....at least Dr. Black went out in style!
So far, I've been talking about physical facilities. But my fascination isn't restricted to physical facilities in physical spaces. It includes any kind of "facility" that is unnecessary or unexpected.

The first example that comes to mind: growing up, I was always envious of the home-made "family magazines" that seemed to be common in the childhood homes of nineteenth-century writers. I was equally envious of the amateur dramatics that seemed a common feature of such homes.

I love to hear about any kind of activity, or institution, in a setting where one might not be expect to find it. For instance, clubs and magazines attached to workplaces, or to small communities, or schools, or other settings.

I love to hear about Bible study groups, writer's groups, fantasy football leagues, camera clubs, reading groups etc. which are specific to some place, institution or circle.


To move even further from the physical realm, this concept includes features in magazines and newspapers, or on broadcast media. I'm always pleased to see a poetry page (especially proper poetry) in any magazine, or a religious column, or a "Ripley's Believe it or Not" type column.

Or it can include a magazine or other publication whose very existence is surprising; for instance, the magazine of Westminster Cathedral, or Inside Time, the newspaper for prisoners and detainees in the UK.

The principle can extend to online spaces, too. As administrator of the Irish Conservatives Forum, I took great pleasure in introducing a thread called "The Salon", where members can post original creative works. (It's had one photograph and a couple of poems so far-- although one of the poems was mine!)

I have often used the phrase "curtains make a house a home" as an expression of my social and cultural philosophy. It applies here. In fact, this love of "facilities" is deeply conservative on many grounds. I've always hated centralization. (I hate centralization in time, as well as in space...I've often complained on this blog that Christmas tends to gobble up all the traditionalism in the year).

This fascination goes to the very foundations of my being, the bedrock of my soul. Will anybody share it? I don't know. This sort of blog post is always somewhat akin to a message in a bottle. I hope it speaks to someone, out there, in the great no-man's-land of the internet.

Monday, July 9, 2018

Vistas

It's a long time since I wrote a proper poem. This poem was inspired by an idea expressed in the following Facebook post, which I posted last week:

Whenever I have to do shelving in the library, I always choose the film studies section, and I greatly enjoy shelving the film books. I found myself pondering why this morning. Why film studies? Why not poetry or philosophy or religion or any of my other interests?

And I realized I love shelving in the film studies section because I like the reflective, distanced mood it puts me in. A book of film criticism is looking at the glowing screen through the printed page, and the glowing screen is looking at life itself. It's life twice removed. And the appeal of this isn't to escape from life, but that there are two filters of human consciousness between me and life in the raw. Not so much screening me from it as heightening it, accentuating it.


It's also inspired by a friend of mine who is silver-haired, has a huge library, and is a connoisseur of whisky.



Vistas

The man with silver hair hair rose with slow grace
And scanned the bookshelves lining every wall.
Outside, the summer night began to fall,
A rich, full-bodied dusk. He drew a book
About the later Kubrick from its place
And sauntered, browsing, back into his nook.

He flicked through twenty pages. Ah yes, here,
The Shining-- the Prince Charles in Leicester Square--
Munich and Watergate were in the air.
He raised his glass of Redbreast, took a sip,
And held it on his tongue. Kubrick's career
Unspooled within his memory, a trip

Through darkened auditoria, bright screens--
From fuzzy black-and-white to Blu-Ray. So
He swallowed, bathing in the subtle glow.
The movie's aura only grows with age,
He read. He saw again the well-known scenes,
Viewed through the prism of the printed page;

The screen seen through the word, and life itself
Seen through the screen; the flickering mystery
Best seen obliquely, darkly, partially;
The shadows on the wall, the images
Pondered in every book upon the shelf;
Dreamworlds less dream-like than the thing that is;

He drained the glass, and poured another. Light
Streamed through the blinds, an amber-sepia.
A hush fell on the world. That cinema
Whose screen is bigger than the sky was filled
With images too vivid for the sight;
Life filtered, heightened, gloriously distilled.

Saturday, July 7, 2018

Ireland's Great Shame

Here is an excellent video from my friend and fellow Angelico Press author, Roger Buck, on the catastrophe of Ireland's vote for abortion on May the 25th. He kindly draws on something I wrote, at one point in the video. Watch and share!