Thursday, April 27, 2023

A Poem for Poetry Day Ireland 2023

Today has been proclaimed Poetry Day Ireland 2023, and various events are happening throughout the country. The theme is "message in a bottle".

Since I'm always trying to get in the spirit of occasions, here's a poem for that purpose. I wrote it exactly ten years ago, and published it on this blog. I think it fits the theme.

While shelving books in the philosophy section
I came across the Physics of Aristotle
Laid on its spine
Hidden behind the books on Eastern thought.

I wondered who had hidden it there
And how long ago
And why they had never come back to take it out.

I wondered if it was a he or a she who had hidden it
And decided it was a she
And that she was cute.

I wondered how she had done on the exam
And what she was doing now
And whether she ever thought about Aristotle.

And, pushing my trolley ahead,

I thought of the hoards that archaeologists find--
The hoards of coins, or of jewellery, bronze and gold,
Or of other treasures committed unto the earth
Hidden but never reclaimed, centuries later.

I thought of Egyptian mummies lying in state
Waiting for Anubis to bring them to judgement.
I thought of all of the scarf-wearing maverick scholars
Who sat for years in the British Museum Reading Room
Writing some tract to change the world forever
Whose names now linger only in reference books.

I thought of the promises parents make to children
To put them to sleep. I thought of the promises children
Make to themselves, and break when they grow up;

Never to fall asleep straight after dinner
Never to see snow fall without excitement
Never to say to a child, "You'll understand when you're older".

Tuesday, April 25, 2023

Travels Through the Bookshelves (1)

I love keeping lists and records, and indeed hearing about lists and records. I've pondered this predilection in my blog post Chronomania.

For many years, I've had a spreadsheet of all the films I've seen, including marks awarded out of five, and sundry other details. This began when I sat down with a movie compendium and listed out all the films I could remember seeing. I've been keeping it current ever since.

A list of books read is a much more challenging project. What counts as a book, and what counts as reading it? Does, for instance, the film compendium mentioned above count as a book? And can I said I've "read it", since I certainly didn't read every single entry? Should I include comic-books, newspaper supplements in book form, pamphlets, etc?

It's also harder to reconstruct one's reading than one's movie-viewing, since most books don't have the sort of impact on popular consciousness that movies enjoy. It generally costs millions to make a film, they only really started to be made at the beginning of last century, and there are far fewer of them than there are books. You'll rarely find a movie that isn't mentioned somewhere on the internet or in some reference work. It's quite the opposite with books, which can remain at a level of obscurity which is more or less impossible for films.

Many years ago, however, I made an attempt to compile a list, in a school exercise book. I discovered it again, recently, and started to post it on Facebook in instalments.

It's still a long way from a list of the books I've read, but maybe it could form the basis for such a list. I record the books I'm reading in the diary that I've been keeping for about eight years, so that would go further towards such a list.

More and more, reading seems to me to be one of the greatest and most abiding pleasures in life. It doesn't have to be great literature; the act of reading is hugely enjoyable, almost without reference to the reading material itself. Looking back along the vista of years, I've also come to realize how a chronicle of one's reading is close to being a chronicle of one's life, since every book is associated with memories of what I was doing at the time that I read it.

But why should my blog readers be interested in such a list? Well, all I can say is that I'm always intensely interested in what people are reading, and what they've read. When I'm visiting somebody's home, I always gravitate to the bookshelves. Probably why I don't get invited back.

Here's the list. I've included comments here and there. It's not in any kind of order; indeed, it's in even less order than the original list, since I've copied and pasted it from various Facebook posts, so that some lists of books that naturally belong together are in different places.

1) The Silent People by Walter Macken (Walter Macken was one of my favourite authors during my teens. This book is part of his Irish history trilogy, which aren't nearly as good as his novels set in modern times.)
2) The Scorching Wind by Walter Macken
3) Foundation and Empire by Isaac Asimov (I loved Asimov's Foundation series. Along with other stories about space travel, they pushed me in a nationalist direction, since the various different planets all have their own culture and character. This would probably appall Asimov, who was a humanist.)
4) Foundation's Edge by Isaac Asimov
5) Foundation and Earth by Isaac Asimov (has one of the best concluding lines I've ever read: "And he did not look down to meet the brooding eyes of Fallom - hermaphroditic, transductive, different - as they rested unfathomably, on him.")
6) Nemesis by Isaac Asimov
7) Nightfall by Isaac Asimov and Robert Silverberg (appropriately enough, I read this in one night, lying in bed. I sometimes did this in my teens-- read all through the night)
8) Forward the Foundation by Isaac Asimov
9) The Secret Garden by Frances Hodgson (I've read this book several times through my life, and saw a stage production-- it has a sort of archetypal importance to me. I know that sounds pretentious but don't know how to phrase it otherwise.)
10) Heidi by Johana Spyri (I watched the 2005 film just the other night. I had quite a taste for girl's stories when I was a boy.)

11) Carry on Abroad by Norman Giller (a bizarre, loose novelisation of a Carry On film, just like the following entry)
12) Carry On Henry by Norman Giller
13) The Ginger Man by J.P. Donleavy (a marvellous book, and Donleavy's first and most famous, but not my own favourite among his works)
14) Devil Worship in Britain by A.V. Sellwood and Peter Haining
15) The God Delusion by Richard Dawkins (a rather hysterical tome)
16) Beggars in Spain by Nancy Kress (an excellent science fiction novel, a political parable)
17) Beggars and Choosers by Nancy Kress (a poor sequel to the above)
18) Hawksmoor by Peter Ackroyd (awful)
19) The House of Dr Dee by Peter Ackroyd (awful)
20) Brown Lord of the Mountain by Walter Macken (an excellent novel which features, among other things, the electrification of rural Ireland and a romance between a mentally challenged woman and an "ordinary" man. One of the first books I borrowed from a public library.)

21) I Am Alone by Walter Macken (wonderful novel about an Irish emigrant in London, which I read over and over in my teens)
22) Quench the Moon by Walter Macken (another fine novel)
23) The Bog Man by Walter Macken (another great Macken novel, my second favourite after I Am Alone)
24) City of the Tribes by Walter Macken (poor, his short stories were not as good as his novels)
25) Sullivan by Walter Macken (poor)
26) Seek the Fair Land by Walter Macken (poor)
27) Lord of Chaos by Robert Jordan
28) A Crown of Swords by Robert Jordan
29) The Path of Daggers by Robert Jordan
30) Winter's Heart by Robert Jordan (I really doubt whether all these Robert Jordan books were worth reading, given their length)

31) Crossroads of Twilight by Robert Jordan
32) Knife of Dreams by Robert Jordan
33) 2010: Odyssey 2 by Arthur C. Clarke. (I read this as at the age of ten or eleven. I remember walking around the schoolyard reading it. I read it before I saw A Space Odyssey. I was very struck by the lines: "ALL THESE WORLDS ARE YOURS, EXCEPT EUROPA. ATTEMPT NO LANDINGS THERE.")
34) The Poor Mouth by Flann O'Brien. (A masterpiece, although a bit of a one-joke book at the same time.)
35) At Swim Two Birds by Flann O'Brien. (Another masterpiece, although the mock Irish mythology sections are tiresome.)
36) The Outsider by Albert Camus. The only book I've read in both English and French. Actually, probably the only book I've read in two languages.
37) The Myth of Sisyphus by Albert Camus. ("Happiness, too, is inevitable.")
38) Sacrament by Clive Barker. (I really liked the beginning of this book. Barker is good at beginnings. I like the device of a character in a coma remembering things in the past.)
39) The Great and Secret Show by Clive Barker. (Another great beginning, set in a dead letter room.)
40) Everville by Clive Barker. (Poor.)

41) The Books of Blood by Clive Barker. (I didn't read them all, and I think they are rather overrated.)
42) Galilee by Clive Barker. (I remember almost nothing of this.)
43) Brave New World by Aldous Huxley (a great book, which I read quite young; for some reason the line quoted from King Lear, "The wheel has come full circle, I am here" thrilled me)
44) The Quiet End of Evening by Honor Tracy (poor)
45) Ancient Images by Ramsey Campbell (a really good horror story about a "lost" horror film, which includes an unforgettably creepy scene when the protagonist finally watches it in an empty cinema)
46) Bagthorpes Unlimited by Helen Creswell (a great kids' book, very smart and witty)
47) Bagthorpes Abroad by Helen Creswell
48) The Divine Comedy by Dante, translated by Dorothy Sayers. (I believe poetry is untranslatable, but I felt I should read Dante anyway. The translation itself had less effect on me than the compendious notes. I was really surprised by the philosophical depth of the poem. I read it as an agnostic and it was one of the many things that inched me towards Christianity.)
49) The Odyssey by Homer, translated by George Chapman
50) The Iliad by Homer, translated by E.V. Rieu. (I read this aged seventeen, and though I can remember little of the details, it has left a very strong impression of the august and the tragic in my memory. Is this simply the 'hype' of the book? Or Rieu's excellent introduction? "I am therefore very confident when I assure those who already know the Odyssey that they will be brought closer to tears by the death of a single horse in the Iliad than by the killing of the whole gang of Suitors; closer too to laughter, and closer, if they follow Homer to the Olympian eminence from which he looks out on the world, to the heights where tears and laughter cease to count." I remembered those words, although not verbatim, almost thirty years after reading them.)

Paradise Lost by John Milton (wonderful)
52) The Prelude by William Wordsworth
53) The Canterbury Tales by Geoffrey Chaucer (I found this quite a slog, to be honest)
54) Over the Edge by Jonathan Kellerman
55) The Prince of Tides by Pat Conroy (pretty good)
56) The Lords of Discipline by Pat Conroy (very good)
57) Man for Himself by Erich Fromm (a work of humanistic psychology, read for a college assignment. Fromm seems to have been a secular Christian of some sort.)
58) The Killeen by Mary Leland (awful)
59) Art and Morality by R.W. Beardsmore (I remember nothing about this)
60) Bergson by Leszek Kolakowski

61) The Monocled Mutineer by William Alison and John Fairley (a book about the conman Percy Toplis, and his supposed part in the Étaples mutiny in World War One. I say "supposed" because I see from Wikipedia that it's now disputed he was even there.)
62) Smoky Hollow by Bob Quinn. Dublin nostalgia, not bad.
63) The Hostage by Brendan Behan.
64) The Sniff Stories by Ian Whybrow and Toni Goffe
65) Metaphor by Terence Hawkes
66) The Chrysalids by John Wyndham
67) The Gunslinger by Stephen King
68) The Drawing of the Three by Stephen King
69) The Waste Lands by Stephen King
70) The Conservative Mind by Russell KIrk

71) Gospel Pictures by A. Walshe (a volume of poetry by an Irish priest found in a second-hand shop. I wonder if I'm the only person to read this for many decades. It wasn't great, but it wasn't terrible. There was a good poem about falling asleep, a great subject for a poem.)
72) A Book of Nonsense and Nonsense Songs, Edward Lear
73) Alice in Wonderland, Lewis Carroll
74) Alice Through the Looking Glass, Lewis Carroll
75) The Selected John Hewitt (quite a good poet)
76) The Ragged Trousered Philanthropists by Robert Trellis. (I was a socialist in my teens and this book had a big influence on me. I remember staying up late night after night in my teens, reading it, eating dry bread.)
77) Tuf Voyaging by George R. Martin. (Before Game of Thrones. It was a fairly good book but it featured an overcrowded planet and a pro-natalist church that was making the situation worse.)
78) Dip in Road, Johnny Hart. (A cartoon set in prehistoric times. Apparently the writer is a Christian though this wasn't evident from the book.)
79) Out of his Skin; The John Barnes Phenomenon by Dave Hill
80) Really the Blues by Mezz Mezzrow. (A memoir by a jazz saxophonist, a white guy who immersed himself in black and Beat culture)

81) The Road to Power by Margaret Thatcher
82) The Downing Street Years by Margaret Thatcher
83) Magic by William Goldman (I read this in a night, it was a real page-turner)
84) Office Life by Keith Waterhouse (an excellent novel in which a man finds himself working in an office but unable to work out what his job is-- it turns out to be an elaborate government scheme to keep the unemployment figures down)
85) Billy Liar by Keith Waterhouse (one of my favourite novels ever, if not my very favourite-- I will link below to my review, as praised by PETER HITCHENS, really and truly)
86) Odyssey: From Pepsi to Apple by John Sculley (this was fascinating, especially its account of Cola Wars of the eighties)
87) Adrian Mole: The Wilderness Years (this book lifted me out of a depression in my early twenties)
88) Adrian Mole: The Cappuccino Years
89) The Eye of the World by Robert Jordan
90) The Great Hunt by Robert Jordan
91) The Dragon Reborn by Robert Jordan
92) The Shadow Rising by Robert Jordan
93) The Fires of Heaven Robert Jordan

(I read through most of Robert Jordan's colossal Wheel of Time saga, although I perversely lost interest at the very end and never finished it. I got into it through a friend who was the first person to use the nickname Mal for me, which she took from the show Firefly. In later years she became very angry and woke so I lost touch with her.)

Albion: The Origins of the English Imagination by Peter Ackroyd
95) The Amber Spyglass by Philip Pullman
96) Northern Lights by Philip Pullman
97) The Subtle Knife by Philip Pullman (I was disappointed by this whole trilogy, which was really just a reaction against God and Tolkien)
98) Martin Heidegger by Rudiger Safranski
99) Nietzsche by Rudiger Safrankski
100) Jane Eyre by Charlotte Bronte
101) Heart of Midlothian by Walter Scott (indescribably tedious)
102) Proust by May Derwent
103) Robinson Crusoe by Daniel Defoe (it took me twenty-six years to read this book; I got it for Christmas 1985 and finally finished it in 2001, almost as long as Robinson Crusoe spent on the island)
104) Danse Macabre by Stephen King (excellent, one of my very favourite books, a book-length essay on the horror genre)

105) Salem's Lot by Stephen King
106) A Dance to the Music of Time: Spring by Anthony Powell
107) A Dance to the Music of Time: Summer by Anthony Powell (I was very disappointed by these books, I loved the idea of a long novel cycle and the title, but I wanted them to be more serious)
108) Mondays, Thursdays by Keith Waterhouse (one of my favourite books ever, a collection of newspaper of columns by a now-neglected writer, and I love the cover).
109) Billy Liar on the Moon by Keith Waterhouse. (A sequel to Billy Liar, when Billy is grown up and married. A bit of a downer, but not bad.)

Wednesday, April 19, 2023


Reader, take a look at this picture:

What's happening in this picture?

Of course, a multitude of things are happening in this picture, and it could serve as an illustration for any number of things.

The focus of the picture could be the church in the centre. Or it could be the pedestrianized street. Or it could simply be a picture of Dublin. Or a picture of Ireland. Or it could be a picture of a generic city street.

Or the focus of the picture could be the many hanging signs and banners.

Or it could be the fashions the women in the centre ground are wearing.

Or it could be the phonebooth to the right.

Or, if someone was looking at this photo fifty years from now, it might be a picture of life in Dublin in the 2010's-- or whenever it was taken.

Ironically (and the irony just struck me now), I'm using it as a photograph to illustrate the idea of indeterminacy.

I think about indeterminacy a lot, and I feel like writing about it.

Everything in the world, and most of all the world itself, can be viewed from an indefinite amount of perspectives. It's quite dizzying when you think about it.

I can remember when this indeterminacy caused me a lot of anguish. It made me feel, not just dizzy, but rather nauseous.

I spent a lot of time in my early twenties wandering the streets of Dublin, feeling that everything was constantly receding from me, that nothing in life connected with anything else, that nobody was ever quite on the same wavelength.

Here's an example from literature. I spent a lot of time thinking about the canon of poetry. I wanted there to be a canon of English poetry and I wanted it to be a fairly orderly thing.

It upset me when people wanted to open the canon of poetry to include pop music lyrics, purple prose, poetry by novelists and dramatists whose poetry really didn't merit reading in its own right, and so on.

I can remember this attitude lingered even into my early years in UCD, when I was indeed still in my early twenties. The poems of Ernest Hemingway were borrowed quite frequently, and this irritated me. Hemingway was no poet. It galled me to think of all the volumes by proper poets being neglected in favour of this non-poet.

Another thing that bothered me-- and I remember writing about it in a now-lost diary-- was the disconnect between the public sector and the private sector. It upset me that the public sector existed for the public good and the private sector existed for private profit; that one was obliged only to think of the public good and the other, as long as it followed the laws, was not expected to think of the public good at all. I felt a sense of disorientation in going from one to the other, in the lack of continuity between the two.

I still sometimes feel this sense of unpleasant disorientation, regularly enough. But these days I mostly feel delight in the "indeterminacy" of life, the "drunkenness of things being various".

Friday, April 14, 2023

The Unmysterious Stranger

I'm very busy with other writing right now, but to keep this blog ticking over, here's something I submitted to RTÉ's Sunday Miscellany a few years ago, an attempt to replicate my previous success with that programme. However, it didn't get accepted.

It was a winter morning in University College Dublin. I was passing through the corridor that separates the café from the Student’s Union shop, on my way to work in the library. A man came towards me, pushing a trolley-full of boxes. I glanced at him, without much curiosity. He was dark-haired, medium height, and dressed in a puffy jacket. Nothing particularly notable about any of that.

But as we passed each other, I was struck by a thought, one which had struck me several times before, as I walked the streets of Dublin. Here was somebody whose name I didn’t know, whose story I didn’t know, and whose voice I had never heard. Terra incognita, in human terms. There were ten thousand things I didn’t know about him, and yet I pass him with hardly a second glance.

And not just him, of course. Every day I passed hundreds and hundreds of people, even thousands of people, whose names and stories and souls are a complete mystery to me. And yet I pass them without a second glance, without any sense of wonder or mystery.

I think there is something unnatural about cities, even though they have been with us for thousands of years. There is something unnatural about walking past another human being without feeling a twinge of curiosity about them. After all, a human being is far more interesting than any cave painting, or exotic animal, or piece of architecture. A human being is a universe on two legs. The last verse of the gospel of John reads: “Jesus did many other things as well. If every one of them were written down, I suppose that even the whole world would not have room for the books that would be written.” The same might not literally apply to the ordinary man or woman; but how many books would be required to record the deeds of a single human life, leaving out nothing? And how many more books would be required to chronicle all the thoughts and emotions of a human life?

Whenever I attend a funeral, I find myself thinking of all the moments that now lie speechless in that coffin or that urn. All the fads and phases; all the sick days, with their unique flavor and atmosphere; all the quiet afternoons, leafing through old magazines or watching old movies; all the times a favourite song was listened to; the sessions in the barber’s chair, in the post office queue, in the train carriage; all the millions moods and atmospheres journeyed through from birth to death, even in a short or an uneventful life.

All of this was contained in the cranium of the man carrying the trolley-full of books. Not only did he carry a universe around within him, but he probably lived in a different universe to me, in the sense that the world would appear to him in a completely different way. A half an hour’s conversation would doubtless have brought me into contact with priorities, fascinations, preoccupations, and fears completely different from my own. It would have given me that sense of shock, familiar but ever new, when we realize that the things that loom so large on our own mental horizon may not even appear on the horizon of others. It is like stepping under an alien sky.

All of this was represented by the man I passed in the corridor, without a second look. Most of is today are destined to live among thousands of strangers. Is it possible that they can remain strangers to us, in the sense that the strange is also the mysterious?

Thursday, April 6, 2023

Wishing You A Holy Triduum

I'll be away from a computer for the rest of the Holy Week, so I'm wishing all my readers a blessed Triduum and Easter.

It's inspiring to think of all the Christian churches and denominations all over the world, over the next few days, entering once again into the deepest and most solemn mysteries of the Faith.

Praise be to God!

Work in Progress