Wednesday, March 30, 2022

From COVID with Love

For more than a week now I have been downed with COVID. Aside from one horrible night of a sore throat and lots of coughing, my symptoms haven't been too bad. However, for several days and nights I suffered from intense restless leg syndrome, to the extent that it was sometimes painful. I was walking on the spot to abate it for up to half-an-hour at a time.

I feel better now.

Like most of us, I hope, I prayed along with the Holy Father when he consecrated Russia, the Ukraine, and the whole world to the Immaculate Heart of the Blessed Mother. Is it a coincidence that the terible war seems to be turning a corner already?

During the time I was sick I read Scoop by Evelyn Waugh, The Chronicles of Narnia by C.S. Lewis (well, I had read the first two books last year), Dead as Doornails by Anthony Cronin (a book I've read at least three times now), about three-quarters of The Communist Manifesto, and A Very Short Introduction to Catholicism by Gerard O'Collins. I also browsed G.K. Chesterton: A Biography by Fr. Ian Ker.

Everybody told me I would love Scoop, so naturally I was disposed to dislike it. In the end, it was neither so good as I was told nor so bad as I feared. Waugh's humour is a little bit too middle-of-the-road for me, neither farcical enough to really gratify my taste for the uproarious, nor subtle enough to please my liking for more-or-less realistic humour. And I find his prose style arid. I prefer Tom Sharpe.

Narnia kindled my imagination when I was a child. Several previous attemps to rediscover the novels floundered. Lewis's fictional world seems like pasteboard compared to the depth and detail of Tolkien's Middle Earth, and-- to be honest-- most modern fantasy worlds. However, Lewis certainly has wonderful little touches that lifts his mythology above others-- like "the wood between the worlds" in The Magician's Nephew, or Puddleglum's speech to the Witch in The Silver Chair.

This time around, it was The Voyage of the Dawn Treader that really impressed me. I don't know why this book had less of an impression on me as a boy. There are some beautifully written vignettes, such as Lucy reading the magic book, or the encounter with the sea-dwellers. The pace of invention never slackens, and the whole thing has the air of a genuine myth.

The Communist Manifesto is a dull book and made me reconsider the use of the term "cultural Marxist". I'd come to see it as a stupid and sloppy term, which didn't really mean much. However, reading Marx, I realize that there is a very definite line of descent between him and 21st-century lefitsts. Essentially, it's the rejection of any concept of objectivity or fair-mindedness or detachment. To Marx, everything was a function of the struggle between the bourgeois and proletariat. His modern-day heirs may have jettisoned those terms, but the dualistic thinking of "oppressor-oppressed" remains. The book chilled me. The mentality it espouses is all too familiar today.

As for Ker's biography, I went looking for Amazon reviews and found one that I'd written! And forgotten about. Browsing it again, my opinion hasn't changed.

Aside from reading, I've been watching (on YouTube) a turn-of-the-millennium show called Beyond Belief: Fact or Fiction, which has nothing at all to recommend it in educational terms, but whose atmosphere I thoroughly enjoy. I've only been watching the episodes hosted by Jonathan Frakes, AKA Commander Will Riker from Star Trek: The Next Generation.

Frakes is such an accomplished ham, and presents this farrago of nonsense with such glee and relish, that he carries the whole thing onto a higher level. The show embraces a "Twlight Zone"-style aesthetic, being presented from a mysterious house with lots of spooky and tasteful bric-a-brac. I've always loved this sort of atmosphere: an atmosphere that suggests the world is a shimmering, uncanny place where anything could happen and weird events might be just around the next corner.

At the end of the show, Frakes reveals whether the stories we've just seen dramatized are "fact or fiction". Nothing can surpass the gravity with which he announces they are "based on a true story" (no details given), or the wolfish grin with which he informs us: "We made it up! Pure fiction!". (Maybe Jonathan Frakes could sometimes stand in for Dirk Benedict on this blog...)

As I've said, Frakes invites us to guess which stories are true or false. This is probably a waste of time, since it seems almost random, but I've derived amusement from trying to guess which story-related pun he's going to use when making this invitation.

It might be pure nonsense. But at least it's harmless nonsense, unlike The Communist Manifesto.

Tuesday, March 22, 2022

On Atmosphere (V): The Early Nineties in Ireland

The last period whose atmosphere I'm going to write about is the early nineties, and particularly the early nineties in Ireland.

After that, it seems to me, we are living in the current historical moment-- whatever that is. I'm not aware of any different "atmosphere" in the year 2000 than there is today. In fact, very little seems to have changed. It's true that social media became ubiquitous, but the penetration of the internet into everyday life was already well-advanced in the year 2000, so it wasn't that much of a novelty.

Is it the case, perhaps, that we are simply more sensitive to the zeitgeist when we are younger? Would somebody born in 1995 perceive enormous differences in "atmosphere" between 2005 and 2015, for instance?

I don't know. But I know it all seems very samey to me. I started in UCD in 2001, a little after 9/11, and a little before the release of the first Lord of the Rings film. Sad as it is to admit, 9/11 did seem to have a certain rejuvenating effect on the world. Perhaps the stark reminder of death makes people more grateful for life. It may seem disrespectful to include the Lord of the Rings films in the same sentence as 9/11, but considering they were released over a period of three years, and each one was a major event that everybody was talking about, they definitely cast their aura over this particular passage of time.

In fact, when I think back to the turn of the millennium, it seems to me that the world had somehow regained its youthfulness. Correspondingly, when I remember the late nineties, the world back then seemed rather tired and dispirited. Of course, this might simply be my own projection. But I'm by no means sure that it is. I can remember sitting up into the early hours to witness the signing of the Good Friday Agreement in 1998. It felt less like a new dawn than a marathon runner limping over the finishing line. Friends was the cultural phenomenon of this time, and, as good as Friends undoubtedly is, it's pretty vapid and undemanding.

But, even though the new millennium did indeed bring with it a certain freshness-- or so it seemed to me-- there wasn't enough difference for me to consider it an "atmosphere" of its own, as I've assigned the seventies and eighties and early nineties.

(The popularity of the "New Atheists" from the mid-2000s, which lasted about a decade, was another characteristic of the time between the early nineties and now. But I don't think it was ever mainstream enough to be called zeitgeisty. The God Delusion sold three million copies. Stephanie Meyer's Twilight, released two years later, sold 100 million.)

So much for the more recent past. Let me return to the early nineties in Ireland.

I've often written about the 1990 World Cup Finals in Italy, and the near-hysteria which gripped Ireland at the time. This was the first time the Republic of Ireland had made it to the World Cup Finals (rather surprisingly, since we've always had good soccer players). The fact that Ireland played England in the first game only added to the anticipation. Someone once said that a game of tiddlywinks between Ireland and England would attract a crowd of ten thousand. As it happened, the game between Ireland and England was a one-one draw, which of course counted as a moral victory.

World Cup fever was everywhere. I've never witnessed such an intensely collective experience. When the games were being televised, and Ireland scored, you could hear the cheers coming from all around. Everybody was watching the matches on television. Tricolours hung everywhere. The entire nation felt like one big extended family.

The manager of the Irish team at this time was Jack Charlton, an Englishman who had been a part of the 1966 World Cup-winning England team. He quickly became the darling of the Irish. He was down-to-earth, unpretentious, fatherly, sometimes gruff, sometimes genial, and he enjoyed fishing and having a pint. This was back when the Irish people contrasted themselves against overseas sophistication and swank.

As well as this, many of the Irish international team had English (or Scottish) accents, and qualified to play for Ireland through their parentage-- "the granny rule", as it was dismissively called. Although this was often a cause for mockery, it occurred to me even at the time that it could be seen in a very different way. These players had chosen to play for Ireland, and very often (as could be learned from the intensive press coverage and interviews of the Ireland squad) they had a genuine emotional identification with the country. Jack Charlton had them singing Irish rebel ballads on the team bus. They were discovering their Irishness, and the country was rediscovering its Irishness through them.

The song "Put 'Em Under Pressure" was played non-stop around this time. It was the official Irish World Cup song, produced by a member of U2. It's based on a guitar riff from "Dearg Doom", the signature song of the Celtic Rock group Horslips, which was itself based on a traditional Irish tune called O'Neill's March.

And this was the essence of this brief moment in Irish social history-- it seemed as though there was going to be a continuity between the past and the future, that Ireland was going to become a successful modern country while still keeping a firm hold of its traditions.

Another indication of this was the Papal audience which the Irish soccer team was granted during the World Cup Finals. Wherever they were born, most of the players were Catholic, and the audience got a huge amount of publicity. Everybody seemed to view it very positively. Of course, this was before the Bishop Casey affair in 1992, when it was revealed a prominent bishop had fathered a child...and before the much worse revelations of child sex abuse that were soon to follow it. But, for the moment, Ireland seemed safely Catholic.

The year after the World Cup, a relatively new band from Galway, The Saw Doctors, had a number one hit in the Irish charts with the song "I Useta Lover". Not only did it reach number one, but it stayed there for nine weeks. Music famously has the power to evoke the past like nothing else. Whenever I listen to this song (as I very frequently do), I'm instantly immersed in the atmosphere of the early nineties in Ireland. There's a bounciness and a happy-go-lucky air to the song that is very typical of this particular hour in history.

And again, there are several Catholic references in the lyrics. One is particularly crude, describing the narrator staring at a girl's bottom as she goes up to receive Holy Communion. But somehow, in the context of the song, it doesn't seem so bad, even kind of innocent. I've mentioned before how much I love the euphony of one particular line:

"You remember her collecting for Concern on Christmas Eve?"

The narrator goes on to tell us that "she was on a forty-eight hour fast, just water and black tea." Later on, he says that "all the thoughts and dreams I've had of her would take six months in confession."

So the song had a distinctly Catholic flavour, but it also had a distinctly Irish flavour. The singer sung with a strong Irish accent. We were very used to hearing Irish singers sing in American or simply neutral accents. (One of my favourite Irish musicians, Rory Gallagher, doesn't seem to have made a single reference to Ireland in any of his songs, which are steeped in Americana). The Saw Doctors were unmistakeably Irish, unmistakeably culchies (the Irish term for rednecks).

I'm pretty sure I remember us singing this song in choir practice, in my Dominican school. I don't remember any reference to posteriors so perhaps that bit was left out. But could we really have sung it in choir practice? Perhaps my mind is playing tricks, but whenever I listen to the song I find the school auditorium coming before my mind's eye, and I can hear teenage voices singing: "I have fallen for another she can make her own way home..."

I rarely go to concerts (I've even been laughed at for using the word "concerts" rather than "gigs"), but I did go to see the Saw Doctors in Galway on Halloween night in 2008. It was immense fun, and nobody seemed to be enjoying it more than the band. They are by no means one-hit wonders, but have quite a repertoire of solid songs ("Last Summer in New York", from 2005, is one of my favourites.)

It hadn't even occurred to me, when I began writing this post, that the early nineties saw the beginning of Ireland's run of success at the Eurovision Song Content, which we won four times this decade. In the 1994 contest, hosted in Dublin, the interval act was Riverdance, which became a phenomenon in its own right. Ireland seemed to be world-conquering.

The Eurovision often gets laughed at, but I have happy memories of it-- the voting, more than the music. One of Ireland's winning songs, "Rock and Roll Kids", is a particular favourite of mine-- a nostalgic, even schmaltzy lament for old times, with well-written lyrics.

While Jack Charlton was winning famous victories on the soccer pitch, and the Saw Doctors were storming up the charts, Irish kids' TV was dominated by Zig and Zag from the planet Zog, two hand puppets-- one purple, one beige. They were presenters on The Den, a block of afternoon programming which featured various cartoons and other kids' shows. Zig and Zag did the continuity, along with a human presenter, and-- even better than the two aliens-- Dustin the Turkey, a puppet who spoke with a strong Dublin accent and an endless repertoire of Dublin slang and idioms. Zig and Zag were mildly subversive. Their humour had much more of an edge to it than anything seen on Irish children's TV before this. Every kid watched Zig and Zag.

The early nineties also saw the publication of The Barrytown Trilogy by Roddy Doyle, which appeared as individual novels from 1991 onwards and which I received, in trilogy form, as a Christmas present in 1993 (or was it 1992?).  The trilogy follows the lives of a single family who live in a north Dublin housing estate. Doyle is the archetypal sneering Irish liberal, but he is also a genuinely funny writer, and he was gifted at reproducing north Dublin working class dialect. Most writers, when they try to write dialect, instinctively resort to the dialect that existed decades before. Doyle had been a teacher in a working class area, and picked up on more current idioms and tendencies-- such as the tendency for Dubliners to place "but" at the end of a sentence.

It was refreshing, indeed revolutionary, to encounter fictional characters that actually spoke like the people around you. Doyle's books had such an influence that I'm pretty sure they popularised some of the slang terms that I actually hadn't encountered before the books, but which were soon to be commonly heard in the classrooms and dressing rooms of my (socially very mixed) school.

My father had a running battle with Roddy Doyle. He was vexed that Doyle allowed Ballymun to be used as a stand-in for Barrytown in a TV drama he scripted. He believed this would only worsen Ballymun's reputation. My father confronted Doyle about this when he made a public appearance in Ballymun Library. He even entered an RTÉ radio short-story competition, and made the shortlist, solely for the opportunity of confronting Doyle (who was on the panel of judges) on air. He never got the opportunity, which he put down to Doyle recognizing his name and blocking him from winning the contest. Who knows?

All that aside, Roddy Doyle's novels (and the films made from them) really did capture, and contribute to, the national zeitgeist I'm describing here. Indeed, the Italia '90 hysteria is described very well in The Van, the third novel in the trilogy.

To put it all the early nineties, Ireland suddenly seemed to be confident in its own identity, its own Irishness, and bursting with creativity. It seemed, for a moment, that we might become a modern country after our own manner, without letting go of our distinctiveness or our Catholic identity. Sadly, it was not to be.

Sunday, March 20, 2022

A New Video from Roger Buck

Always worth watching! This three-hour video is about Ireland and globalization, as well as other things. I highly recommend it.

Saturday, March 19, 2022

Legacy: A Memory, and a Note to Self

When I was a kid, I had a particular fascination with titles: book titles, magazine titles, newspaper titles.

I also had a fascination with logos, especially book publisher's logos. (I guess I could say I was interested in logos long before I was interested in Logos.)

I was also an avid reader of comics: Transformers, Battle, Eagle, Roy of the Rovers, and so on. (Not American comics, which I never really encountered. British comics.)

One feature of British comics was that they would regularly amalgamate. Falling circulation for one title meant that it would be merged with another, more successful title. They would usually sell under a combination of titles for a while, but eventually would revert to one title. And frequently, little remained of the "junior partner" after some time except perhaps one particularly popular story. They were somewhat similar to political parties in this regard. (I might write a whole post about the comics of my youth, one day.)

I began reading Eagle because Battle was merged into it. Some time later, another comic with the title Wildcat was merged into Eagle.

Wildcat was an attempt to make a science-fiction comic, based around a spaceship which took human beings from Earth to seek new worlds. I think there had been some sort of catastrophe on earth. There were lots of different characters and comic-strips based around this premise. Obviously, it didn't sell too well, and most of the stories it brought to Eagle didn't run for long, with the exception of "Loner" (which was actually one of my least favourite stories in Eagle-- too action-oriented, and I didn't like the inky, fussy draughtsmanship).

Anyway, this is a lot of build-up, just to draw your attention to the logo of Wildcat.

One morning I woke up in a state of intense excitement. I had dreamed of a comic with a logo in the style of Wildcat, but with the title Legacy instead.

It's hard to describe just how much this galvanised me. I felt it was my destiny to create this comic.

All these years later, I have no more interest in comics, but (as my regular readers will know) I'm increasingly preoccupied with poetry, and especially with the need to revive traditional poetry.

I keep thinking that a magazine, or perhaps initially a blog, will be an important standard-bearer for this.

I'd been trying to come up with a good title, for ages, when I remembered my childhood dream. What better title for a traditionalist poetry blog/magazine than Legacy?

So instead of making a note in my diary, which is not to hand at the moment, I decide to blog about it instead. If Legacy ever comes about, this will be the first mention of it ever.

Wednesday, March 16, 2022

Happy St. Patrick's Day!

It's a day early, but St. Patrick's Day seems to have become a season in recent years, so I hope I'll be forgiven.

It was my tradition some years back to turn the background of this blog green for St. Patrick's Day, but I can no longer work out how to do it. The blogging platform is always changing. There probably is a way to do it, but I gave up after fifteen minutes.

I put together a St. Patrick's Day book display in the library. The theme I was given was "St. Patrick: An Icon of Irishness". But I made sure the top row were all about St. Patrick as an evangelist of Christ.

I could easily have included the St. Patrick's Day parade in Dublin city centre as one of my crummy eighties memories. I think I only ever actually went to it once. It rained. The spirit of crass commercialism I described in that post was well and truly on display on the parade. Obviously, businesses are going to use parades to advertise. Nothing wrong with that. But back then, it was nothing BUT advertising, pretty much!

Everybody remembers the ubiquitous ATA Security floats, although I actually remembered them as ACA Security. The highlight of the parade, for me, was being squirted with a water pistol by a pirate.

Sure, it was better than nothing. But I have to admit that the St. Patrick's Day parade has become much better in recent times, with much more artistic, tasteful and elaborate floats. I've only ever watched it on TV since that year.

My St. Patrick's Day memories are not particularly special. My mother used to give us green and orange jelly with cream, to represent the tricolour. Or maybe that only happened once, I can't remember. Dinner was usually corned beef, potatoes, and cabbage, which I utterly hated. I don't remember ever going to Mass on St. Patrick's Day as a child.

The last poem my father wrote was about spending St. Patrick's Day in a hospital ward.

In the last seven or eight years, my personal tradition has been to read St. Patrick's Confession on the day, though I'll admit that in the last few years, it's only been a section of it.

Another St. Patrick's tradition on this blog is quoting De Valera's unfairly infamous St. Patrick's Day radio address from 1943-- although, in all honesty, it has become thoroughly rehabilitated in recent years. Sure, people still make snide references to "comely maidens dancing at the crossroads" (which he may or may not have actually said-- the original broadcast was not recorded), but nearly everyone who writes about the speech per se now admits that it has been unfairly lampooned.

When I was a teenager, however, it was still open season on it. I first encountered it on a bus shelter ad which quoted a fair chunk of it over a photograph of the Ballymun flats. (It wasn't clear who'd sponsored the ad, but it was obviously ironic in tone.) And it was even mocked in my school history book!

In any case, here it is:

The ideal Ireland that we would have, the Ireland that we dreamed of, would be the home of a people who valued material wealth only as a basis for right living, of a people who, satisfied with frugal comfort, devoted their leisure to the things of the spirit – a land whose countryside would be bright with cosy homesteads, whose fields and villages would be joyous with the sounds of industry, with the romping of sturdy children, the contest of athletic youths and the laughter of happy maidens, whose firesides would be forums for the wisdom of serene old age. The home, in short, of a people living the life that God desires that men should live. With the tidings that make such an Ireland possible, St. Patrick came to our ancestors fifteen hundred years ago promising happiness here no less than happiness hereafter. It was the pursuit of such an Ireland that later made our country worthy to be called the island of saints and scholars. It was the idea of such an Ireland - happy, vigorous, spiritual - that fired the imagination of our poets; that made successive generations of patriotic men give their lives to win religious and political liberty; and that will urge men in our own and future generations to die, if need be, so that these liberties may be preserved. One hundred years ago, the Young Irelanders, by holding up the vision of such an Ireland before the people, inspired and moved them spiritually as our people had hardly been moved since the Golden Age of Irish civilisation. Fifty years later, the founders of the Gaelic League similarly inspired and moved the people of their day. So, later, did the leaders of the Irish Volunteers. We of this time, if we have the will and active enthusiasm, have the opportunity to inspire and move our generation in like manner. We can do so by keeping this thought of a noble future for our country constantly before our eyes, ever seeking in action to bring that future into being, and ever remembering that it is for our nation as a whole that future must be sought.

This has always seemed like a noble vision to me, even when I first encountered it, as an angry socialist teenager. I was confused by the hostility towards it.

One thing that does bother me a bit (and this belongs to the second half of the paragraph above, which is rarely quoted) is the conflation of Christianity with militant nationalism. This was an all-too-common practice at this time, its nadir perhaps coming when Patrick Pearse proclaimed the grave of Wolfe Tone to be holier than that of St. Patrick.

Although I admire the courage and devotion of the people who fought in 1916 and the War of Independence, and indeed in previous uprisings, and although stories about them will always have a grip on my imagination, I'm not at all convinced that they were justified. But then, I pretty much agree with Benjamin Franklin that "there never was a good war, or a bad peace". I tend to think World War II was not justified, and I'm almost certain World War One wasn't.

In any case, I wish you all a happy St. Patrick's Day.

Tuesday, March 15, 2022

The Proper Attitude Towards Political Correctness...

...courtesy of Ryan Roger Athay, a young Welsh YouTuber whose channel I discovered recently. I've found him to be sound on all the important issues (even if he hasn't quite come to faith in God, but he seems on the right track). You should subscribe to his channel, he deserves support.

(There's some strong language in this video, but I think it's warranted.)

Incidentally, this is my 1,997th post on this blog. What should I do for my two thousandth?

Sunday, March 13, 2022

On Atmosphere (IV): The Eighties

So, after waxing lyrical on the seventies-- the decade I just missed out on-- I'm going to turn to the eighties, the decade I grew up in. What was the atmosphere of the eighties?

It was a rather grim atmosphere. For most kids, this would be offset by the natural exuberance of childhood. Not for me. I wasn't an exuberant kid. I was a melancholy, gloomy kid, frequently inclined towards boredom and dejection. I was bored far more frequently as a child than I am as an adult. In fact, I am rarely bored as an adult.

In Ireland, the eighties were characterized by the Northern Irish Troubles, emigration, unemployment, and drugs. Later on, AIDS (as it was then spelled) would come along to join the fun. And, of course, imminent nuclear apocalypse was always looming in the background.

Margaret Thatcher and Ronald Reagan were the leaders of Britain and America when I first became aware of the wider world. They were routinely pilloried by the press and entertainment industry, and in Ireland Margaret Thatcher was particularly hated for letting the 1981 hunger strikers die. (Never mind that there was almost universal support for this in Britain at the time, including among Labour voters, and that the Irish Free State had let hunger strikers die in its own history.)

(Actually, I had a massive crush on Margaret Thatcher, which I never would have told anyone. I've always had an attraction towards strong and forceful women, and there was an element of the thrill of the forbidden, too.)

Thatcherism and Reaganism were not particularly admirable ideologies, in my view. They encouraged the commercialization of society, and they did little if anything to hold social liberalism in check. (Thatcher, in fact, voted to legalize abortion in 1967.) In fact, it seems evident now that few parliamentary so-called conservatives, in Britain or Ireland or the USA, had much interest in social or cultural conservatism. They were focused almost entirely on free market economics. And yet, in the public imagination, the right were still committed to an alliance of social conservatism and economic liberalism. Like everybody else, I took this for granted.

In Ireland we had Charlie Haughey and Garrett Fitzgerald, the leaders of the two main parties. Fitzgerald was a crusading liberal and Haughey, though he posed as a social conservative, was a thoroughly corrupt adulterer. So there wasn't really anybody to root for there. Referenda on abortion and divorce were won by the conservative side, but I was hardly aware of these at the time.

The 1980's were also the "last hurrah" against degeneracy in entertainment and the arts. It was the era of an outcry against "video nasties", and "clean up TV" campaigner Mary Whitehouse was a frequent target of abuse in the media. I can vividly remember the "video nasties" controversy. I remember particularly one TV news report which showed a clip from one "video nasty": a scary-looking hand, which seemed to be half-decomposed, slowly opening a door into a dark room. It terrified me.

However, when it came to censorship, I swallowed the liberal case hook, line and sinker (whatever that means). Partly this was because my older brother and cousin (who were about the same age) were both big heavy metal fans. Naturally, I became a heavy metal fan, too. The British Iron Maiden were our biggest heroes. Actually, I still like Iron Maiden, and I still listen to them.

My father strongly disapproved of heavy metal in general, and Iron Maiden in particular. "What kind of a name is that for a bunch of fellahs?", he once asked, and he was not much consoled to hear that an iron maiden was an instrument of torture. The irony was that Iron Maiden were surprisingly wholesome, even educational-- instead of sex and drugs, their songs were more likely to be about Greek mythology, ancient history, or even classic poetry.

However, like all heavy metal bands, they were fully committed to the anti-censorship cause, and they particularly had their guns aimed at the religious right in America. So, inevitably, I went along with this.

At some point in these years, the Evening Herald (a Dublin newspaper) printed the story of a boy who was sent home from a Christian Brothers school for wearing his hair too long, by one Brother O'Connell. Naturally, we were all outraged, and Brother O'Connell became a hate figure.

I remember my father coming across an "article" I wrote, aged about eleven or twelve, lambasting censorship and particularly critics of heavy metal. (I was always writing "magazines" and "newspapers", not to mention comics and poems and the first chapter of innumerable novels. I was a veritable publishing house.) He took me to task for this, gently enough, and I remember feeling genuinely ashamed that I had taken such a clichéd line.

Later on, as I grew more assertive of my own identity, I reacted against the idolization of my brother and cousin, and of heavy metal. I went in quite the opposite direction, and began to mock heavy metal and its attendant culture. In fact, I can remember provocatively drawing a cartoon of Brother O'Connell (as I imagined him) on one of my brother's copy-books, with his hands clasped above his head as if in triumph. The caption read: "Brother O'Connell: Hero!". But that was probably in the nineties.

I'm always bemused when I hear my contemporaries wax nostalgic about the eighties, particularly the absence of mobile phones and social media. There's nothing surer than that they would have used such contraptions if they had them. There was no more resistance to technology in the eighties than there is today, and computers were very much an object of fascination. (There was even a "computer-generated" TV host called Max Headroom, who wasn't actually computer-generated as the technology was not yet sufficiently advanced.) My own family didn't acquire a computer until 1994, but my cousin (the heavy metal fan, who was an only child and had all the best stuff) had a Spectrum. I can remember watching him and my brother playing War of the Worlds and Back to Skool (the latter game really captured my imagination, for some reason). The games seemed to take longer to load than to play. I even have a faint memory of watching somebody play computer table-tennis, or Pong.

Kids in my class had computer games, and talked about them all the time. I didn't, but one of my favourite stories in the Eagle comic, which I read every week, was "Bobby Patterson: Computer Warrior". This was a story about a kid who would regularly get sucked into the world of his computer, and had to play the games for real.

The story was used to promote various real-life computer games, and this was a sad feature of kid's culture in the eighties. This was the decade when cartoons, comics and films were heavily geared towards promoting merchandise. (Ronald Reagan's deregulation of advertising was a precursor of this.)

I was myself a Transformers nut. I watched the Transformers cartoon, I avidly read the Transformers comic, and I asked Transformers at every Christmas and birthday. Because Transformers were primarily a collectible toy (and an excellent one). The same was true of most of the cartoons and comics of the time; He-Man, M.A.S.K., and any number of others.

It was a period of commercialization and franchising. In Ireland, this was particularly notable when it came to crisps and sweets. Irish eighties kids like to reminisce about snacks which cashed in on various crazes of the day, such as A-Team crisps or-- bizarrely-- Barry mcGuigan crisps, which celebrated an Irish boxer who was very successful at the time.

It was a very tacky time. When I look back on the eighties, tackiness is what I remember. There even seemed to be a cult of ugliness, which can be seen in things such as the Garbage Pail Kids toys, or the odious puppets on the Spitting Image satirical TV show. The British sit-com The Young Ones, which followed a group of odious students who belonged to different sub-cultures, was all-too-typical. "Alternative comedy" was one of the worst aspects of the decade.

Back in the eighties, I always seemed to know what was number on in the music charts. Chart shows were a staple of television. And yet, I don't think I ever much liked the music of the eighties, and I certainly don't rate it very highly now. Of course there are great exceptions, like "Eye of the Tiger" by Survivor. But just looking down the Wikipedia list of number one hits reminds me of how depressing and, yes, tacky, so many of those hits were-- "Caravan of Love", "Respectable", "The Only Way Is Up", "Spirit in the Sky", tinny catchy jingles with no soul or depth. (There were some eighties number ones I really liked, however, and still do: for instance, "Eternal Flame" by the Bangles.)

Television was trashy, too. I was ashamed of watching so much television, and yet I sat through so many shows that I didn't even like at the time. Shows like Miami Vice, T.J. Hooker, The A-Team (which I actually enjoyed more when I saw it recently), Knight Rider, Chips, all utterly disposable garbage. Actually, a lot of the time, I think I was only half-watching these shows, or that they happened to be on while I was in the living room. They were all high-concept, formulaic, and full of tawdry glamour. (I'm ashamed to say I loved one of the worst examples, a cartoon called Beverley Hills Teens.)

There were always exceptions, of course: the dubbed French-Japanese cartoon Ulysses 31 was a science-fiction updating of ancient Greek mythology, and was actually my first exposure to some of the Greek myths.

I can't leave the subject of eighties TV without mentioning my other great eighties crush-- on Diana, the leader of the Visitors in V. V was so scary that I used to watch it from behind the couch, so I could duck behind at the strategic moments. The Visitors were aliens with wicked designs on earth. Their human faces were only disguises, and they could be torn off to reveal the reptilian face beneath. This didn't turn me off Diana at all. I like a woman with hidden depths.

Cinema was another matter. I think the eighties were, in fact, a wonderful time for cinema. The Breakfast Club, Crocodile Dundee, Back to the Future, Ghostbusters, Die Hard,The Karate Kid, Trading Places, Brewster's Millions, Rocky-- well, the list could go on and on. I've often asked myself why eighties films are so good, and I come back to the same answer again and again-- streamlining. The most notable thing about classic eighties films is that they all have a solid, tight, well-constructed plot. Back to the Future might be the most perfect example of this: famously, every single shot of the movie advances the story. But other eighties films are notable for this, too. The more I watch Crocodile Dundee, the more impressed I am to see how every scene is a vignette in its own right, but one that builds and develops the characters and the story. There is very little fat in eighties films. Characters, too, tend to be simple but vivid.

Another reason that eighties cinema is infinitely superior to eighties TV is the strange morally improving effect of the big screen. For some reason, movies tend to be much less cynical than television. Perhaps it is because a movie is so much more compressed and intense an experience than a TV show-- if you don't end on some kind of a high, you risk alienating your audience. At any rate, whereas eighties TV had a tendency towards cynicism, eighties cinema preferred to celebrate underdogs, true love, and old-fashioned values in general. 

I've written a whole blog post about the things that frightened me in the eighties. I've also written a (qualified) lament for the "hippie Catholicism" that was hegemonic in Ireland in the eighties.

In Dublin, we had a celebration of the city's (supposed) millennium in 1988, which (it seems to be generally agreed) was put on to distract people from how bad things were. If so, it was a welcome distraction. There's a fairly good summary of it here. (I thought I'd written an account of it on this blog, but I must have deleted it when I submitted an article on the same subject to Ireland's Own, which was published.)

And there is so much more that could be written. Because, of course, despite everything I've written here, I am nostalgic for the eighties. I was a child, after all. Nostalgia is inevitable. But it's nostalgia despite the "atmosphere" of the times, rather than because of it.

Last word: it was a trashy, tacky, commercialized, dispiriting decade. It had some redeeming features, such as lots of good films, and the Dublin Millennium celebrations. But not many. Political correctness and liberalism were already triumphant, even if they hadn't progressed as far as they have today. People were every bit as keen on technology as they are today; in fact, there is probably more of a reaction against it today. Christianity was more visible than it is today, but was already treated as a laughing stock by elites.

Well, reader, are you depressed by all that? If you are, the good news is that I'm going to be considerably more positive about the nineties. But I probably won't get to writing that post for a while, since I have other things to write in the meantime.

On Atmosphere (III): The Seventies

I wasn't sure whether anyone would find my musings on atmosphere to be of the slightest interest. But a couple of readers have mentioned, in private correspondence, that they enjoyed the first two instalments, so I shall press on.

In this instalment, I'm going to write about the atmosphere of times-- the times I've lived through.

Actually, I'll begin by talking about a decade I didn't live through. Or rather, I did live through the tail-end of them, but I was probably not very clued-in to the cultural zeitgeist at the time. I'm talking about the seventies. I was born in October 1977. So I'm an eighties kid, but a seventies baby.

The seventies have always been, hands down, my favourite decade. And, now I think about it, maybe that says something about me. Because I just missed out on the seventies, and all my life I've been preoccupied by things I just missed out on.

Here's an example. I started work in UCD's Veterinary Library in January 2006 (I think). I started a FÁS training course in the Allen Library in January 2002. In both cases, I just missed out on the Christmas party, and the Christmas season in general. And in both cases, I felt an extraordinary sense of wistfulness whenever anyone mentioned the Christmas celebrations I had just missed. It was something just out of reach, like the scene beneath the glass dome of a snowglobe.

This sense of wistful disconnection from something that's just out of reach has always haunted me. It can be a pleasant, poetic sensation. I often feel it when looking through a window at somebody who's only feet away from me. The window in the staff room in the library is an excellent example of this. It looks out onto a part of the campus where people are often walking their dogs or just passing by. The window is somewhat elevated so the people passing by are generally not conscious of being looked at. Also, it's a long way from any exit or entrance to the library, so anyone you see there would probably be long gone by the time you could arrive on the scene. In this way, they're an instance of a saying which, when I first encountered it as a kid, seemed overwhelmingly profound to me: "so near, and yet so far".

(Another example of this is looking out the window on a long train or bus journey. For most of the journey, you're not interacting with the environment around you, and you're not going to get out. Your feet haven't touched soil since you climbed aboard. So the scenes around you are, in a sense, somewhat unreal and dream-like.)

Anyway, this tendency to romanticize something I just missed may explain, to my extent, why the seventies are my favourite decade. But I don't think it's most of the reason.

When I try to probe my own feelings about the seventies, the first thing that occurs to me is that the sixties were over. This might seem a very negative reason to love a decade, but I don't think it necessarily is.

The utopian, revolutionary, Year Zero fervour of the sixties was over-- or rather, its first wave had broken. As far as I can remember, I've always hated that sixties revolutionary spirit. It nauseates me, and it always has. I found it disturbing as a child. And not just the sixties, really, but the whole wave of pop culture, consumerism and mass production that really hit in the fifties: television, supermarkets, package holidays, and all that. The pop culture of this time seems completely infatuated with everything new and shiny.

Well, that was gone, and there was something of a conservative reaction, especially in the USA. Modernism was replaced by post-modernism, which (in its more benign forms) was a re-embrace of tradition and the past, and an abandonment of futurist fantasies. Of course, social liberalism continued its long march forward, but rather less confidently and with less moronic utopianism.

And the newness and shininess was definitely gone. The thing that seems noticeable to me about the seventies is the darkness. There seemed to be a universal swing towards darker colours, despite evocations of psychedelia in pastiches like That Seventies Show. Just think of something like Star Wars, which came out in the year of my birth. (Indeed, the deliberately grungy and gritty aesthetic of Star Wars, and the fact that the first film was labelled "Episode IV", seems very representative of the "turn towards the past" of the seventies.) Battlestar Galactica, which came out the next year, had a similar aesthetic.

But what about disco? Is disco dark? Sure. All the flashing coloured lights are set against a backdrop of darkness. (Glitter balls are actually one of my favourite things in the world.)

This dark aesthetic appeals to me very much. I associate darkness with permanence, with timelessness, even with eternity.

Most of my music I love is seventies music: Slade, Horslips, Led Zeppelin, Wings, the Bee Gees, The Sweet, Hot Chocolate. What's notable about this era is that the bands seemed more focused on showmanship and less hung up on the idea of "authenticity". I've read that punk and "indie" music was, in part, a reaction against the "pomp" of bands like Led Zeppelin. But surely they were taking the whole thing too seriously. All the flamboyance of bands like Slade and Led Zeppelin were just theatre. They were putting on a show, not trying to start a revolution.

Slade are a perfect example. I wrote this about them in a blog post about music:

What I especially like about Slade is the contrast between their glam aesthetic (the outlandish costumes they wore on stage, for instance) and their rugged, down-to-earth, Black Country attitude. The get-up they wore was theatrical, but their actual music and lyrics were unfailingly man-in-the-street. The contrast becomes even more pointed when we consider the time and place in which they flourished; seventies Britain, the era of the three-day week and endless strikes and industrial disputes. I've always found something deliciously bleary and run-down about seventies Britain, as it appears to me through film and television and other media.

There was definitely a delicious bleariness when it came to the seventies, especially Britain. (But not just in Britain; watch, for instance, the opening scenes of the American films Saturday Night Fever or Shaft.) Everything seemed run-down, worn, weathered, lived-in, and reassuringly solid. The fuzzy footage and grainy photography that come to us from this period only heighten this impression. It's no surprise that Tom Sharpe started publishing his novels at this time. A novel like Porterhouse Blue, with its gleeful portrayal of an utterly moribund and stuck-in-the-mud college in Cambridge, is pure seventies. And, indeed, this sense of decrepitude is even evoked in the very title of the sit-com Rising Damp, set in a rundown boarding house.

Mention of a novel like Porterhouse Blue brings up the continued existence of an English establishment and upper class at this time. Commuters on the London Underground in bowler hats and dark suits, carrying briefcases and walking sticks, were a common comedy trope-- and presumably, they still existed in real life. Tweedy ex-army officers, disciplinarian headmasters, and collar-wearing Church of England vicars were also plentiful in fiction, which presumably reflected real life to some extent. Today, of course, we still have an establishment, but they have much less style.

In my own family and community, the seventies appeared to me as a sort of golden era. My parents were still young parents, and so were many of my aunts and uncles. Extended family get-togethers were frequent, and I saw lots of photographs and heard lots of stories of this time. (I was particularly jealous of camping trips, which never happened in my time.) Similarly, in Ballymun, the high-rise suburb where I grew up, there was still a vibrant community spirit and intact families were still the norm. By the eighties, drugs and crime and vandalism had become endemic in Ballymun, as had single-parent families, and community spirit had declined greatly. Open drug-dealing and discarded syringes were a common sight in my childhood. So in my own "little world", as the wider world, the seventies seemed like something wonderful that I had just missed out on.

This blog post was originally meant to be about several decades, but it's got away for me. The next post, which I'm going to start on straight away, will be about the eighties and nineties.

Friday, March 11, 2022

Poetry Again

I've been thinking a lot about poetry recently. Well, I'm always thinking about poetry, but it's been especially on my mind recently. The contrarian part of me reacts against the assumption (unspoken but widespread) that poetry should belong to adolescence-- that adolescence is the time for reading poetry, studying poetry in school, and writing angsty poetry in your bedroom. Then you grow up and you get over it. And indeed our entire society seems to have decided that it's "outgrown" poetry.

I've been going through my old poems, and decided I'm going to type them all up. So there will be a lot of poetry posts to come.

Here are some poems from the first few years after the millennium. The themes and atmosphere are fairly obvious; melancholy, the futility of mortality, memory and oblivion, the difficulty of meaningful communication, and lack of connection of one kind or another.

First up is a poem I wrote in 2001. It's based on actual experience. In the flat where I grew up, we would regularly receive postcards for a woman named Jacinta O'Sullivan. This despite the fact that we had been living there for decades.The postcards were every bit as impersonal as those described here.

Jacinta Simons

A card for Jacinta Simons came today.
They come about three time a year, or less.
You'd think they'd know they have the wrong address
It's been so many years she's been away.
I never saw her face. I'd have to say
She's getting on by now. I try to guess
The type of girl she was, her face, her dress;
But everything to do with her seems gray.

The postcards are no help. Some beachy scene
In front, some scribbled words from Ross or Paul
Or Carol on the back. Maybe they'd mean
A lot to her, but what they say is small;
So short and sweet, they might as well have been
Addressed to me, or anyone at all.

This is a poem I wrote in 2002, very quickly, when I was staying in my aunt's house in Limerick. I was experimenting with formats at the time.

The Inverted Commas

Just for this once I will say it without the inverted commas
And perhaps the smile I get back won't be a sneer.
I am tired and lonely through being a doubting Thomas;
Just for this once I will say it without the inverted commas.
My heart beats so fast that I feel like forgetting my promise
But I can't wear this cynical smile for another long year.
Just for this once I will say it without the inverted commas
And perhaps the smile I get back won't be a sneer.
Here is a poem defending computer games. I've never really played computer games, but I've always been drawn to celebrating things that are generally dismissed, and to celebrating modern suburban life in general. "Power is the only healthy thing" is a line I would never have written in any other context.


Those gruelling hours have done less to dishevel
That pasty face, than healthy morning air;
The sanctioned sadists of the schoolyard's square,
The sermons of some paunchy, chalk-choked devil.
Somewhere, his classmates insecurely revel
But here, the screen keeps fixed his stony stare.
Nothing can touch him when he's in this chair
Or hinder him from making the next level.

Power is the only healthy thing; his thumb
Destroys a planet, keeps alive his soul.
What keeps him human? This robotic hum,
This pixellated world he can control;
All that the suffered sneer, the hopeless sum,
Had almost taken as their rightful toll.

The next poem is one I wrote quickly and then put away and rarely looked at again. Somehow I found it embarrassing. As someone who didn't have much life experience, I came to dislike the "wise old soul" tone I used in poems like this one. However, it's not that bad. It's a bit too sad for my taste today. I think I wrote it around 2004. It's autobiographical only to the extent that I myself have a vivid image of a labyrinth from my childhood, and I don't know if it's a memory or a dream or simply something imagined.


In a mist between dream and memory
A young girl walks through a leafy maze.
High shrubbery far as the eye can see
And lanes that wander a hundred ways.
Perhaps she was never in such a place
(Her sister said that it wasn't there)
But she'd dream of it, ogling her mirror face,
And combing out tangles of straw-blonde hair.

Forgotten tunnels and secret caves,
Old attic hideaways filled her books
And she wondered if every shy heart craves
A place apart from their puzzled looks.
She giggled with girls, and she kissed the boys,
But no-one could follow her to her lair.
As if the only paradise
Was a paradise that she couldn't share.
And sometimes a ship passed by at sea
And came in sight of her little isle;
But the words would never come properly
And the eyes would darken behind the smile.
Till one night a man seemed to understand,
And his drink-roused eyes held a tiny glint;
So she thought she could take him by the hand
And lead him into her labyrinth.
It must have been lust. He could never enter
Her private garden, although he tried.
The endless maze with the secret centre,
The kingdom of all her shame and pride.
And sweet Samantha, their only daughter,
Belonged to a different world than her's;
Her mother's lullabies never taught her
The labyrinth's lovely, deadly lures.
She visits her, Sunday. But Matthew's dead now;
Her grandson Dominic tells his friends
His Nana's a little gone in the head now.
All day she looks around ghostly bends.
The words of the others grow fainter daily
Her eyes are filled with a distant gleam;
The little girl wanders her maze so gaily
In a mist between memory and dream.
The next poem is from 2003 or 2004. I was writing a lot of sonnets at this time. It seems lazy to me in retrospect that I consistently chose a sonnet format for so many different poems. It doesn't work too badly here, though.

A Liberal Reads His Calvinist Grandfather's Bible
Amazed that even man could be so cruel
To dream up such a God, he turns the pages
And shudders at the bigotry of ages.
Shouldering all men's guilt like some tired mule,
He wonders at the God whose angry rule
Was stamped in blood. Like tigers in their cages,
Within him surely lurk those tyrant rages;
He will not be his inner fascist's fool.
His thumb rests on the spot his father's sire's
Own thumb once rested, when a flood of fear
Passed through him for his own depraved desires,
The certainty his sin would persevere;
That all the terrors of Gehenna's fires
Could never hush the serpent in his ear.
Here is another poem from 2004. I think this is probably the best of this group. I sent this to a literary magazine and the inevitable rejection told me it wasn't bad...apart from the last line. I think anyone with any taste at all would agree that, if there's anything good about the poem, it's the last line. But it was obviously too pithy and epigrammatic for the fastidious editor. I'm baffled as to how these modern editors and critics, who seem to detest anything that resembles a flourish or an epigram, can evince an admiration for Philip Larkin and W.B. Yeats and Lord Byron and all the multitudes of famous poets whose verses are studded with such lines. Perhaps Keats would have been told that "seasons of mists and mellow fruitfulness" or "a thing of beauty is a joy forever" was a bit too snappy, a bit too much like a marketing slogan. Rrrr.
Life after Death
Stout and sandwiches and endless stories told
Of the man who lay in the middle, arms across his breast;
Of how he had tried to fly to China at ten years old
Or the fifteen years that it took him to pass his driving test.
His Barbara sat in the corner and flinched from the touch of hands,
And wondered if anyone actually listens or hears us in his life,
Or if when they do, there are moments when anyone understands;
She wished them to hell and she smiled like a dutiful wife.
But when they were gone and her husband was safe underground
She sat in the kitchen they'd sat in for so many years
When maybe they had heard each other; his voice had that sound;
Then washed out her cup and tidied the kitchen and switched off the lights.
And she would remember him always, and people would talk of him often
(For a time has to come when a dead man's name doesn't sound rude).
His memory turned to a memory. Time works to soften
A copy made out of a copy, a penny rubbed smooth.
His sister's first granddaughter sat in the kitchen, alone,
And filled up five boxes that no-one would open. Next day
New owners were coming. She paused at a face she'd not known;
She peered at the picture. Great-grand-uncle Willy, she'd say;
Or had it been Danny? She thought Danny suited him most.
A century lay between her and that sepia stare.
But she packed him away with the rest, never feeling his ghost
Disappear like an echo in silence, or smoke in the air.

Thursday, March 10, 2022

What's Wrong with Narrowness, Anyway?

"Over the past few years, he had spent only a few consecutive months in Ireland and it was not long before he again became irritated by what he saw as parochialism and narrow-mindedness". From Damned to Fame: The Life of Samuel Beckett by James Knowlson.

I really don't get this. Beckett famously ended up writing plays that employed the fewest elements possible, usually in a suffocatingly claustrophobic setting, and with almost no action. So what did he have against narrowness? Why is it OK in his literary works, but bad in his home country? How could he see the artistic possibilities of narrowness in literature and not accept that it might have social and cultural benefits, too? How was it not congenial to him?

I have nothing but contempt for the rejection of "narrow-minded" Ireland by Irish modernist writers like Joyce, Beckett, and Kavanagh. Aye, and even by my own hero Yeats! "For men were born to pray and save", as he whinges in "September 1913". Well, nobody in Ireland prays now and nobody can afford to save, so would he be happy with that? I would have been on the side of the rioters when it came to Playboy of the Western World. On principle!

Wednesday, March 2, 2022

Ash Wednesday

The priest rubs ashes on my head
And tells me to repent.
My sins are very far from dead,
My lusts are far from spent.

That ancient bonfire burns apace,
That blaze of sin and lust.
God send me hotter flames of grace 
Before I fall to dust.