Tuesday, 30 December 2008

Les Années Lumière

Les Années Lumière (Light Years Away) stuck in my mind for 25 years after I accidentally saw it on late night television when I was a teenager.
It was possibly the west of Ireland landscape and the mystic elements of the plot (although at the time I had no real interest in mysticism) that made it stick in my mind.
It took me a long time to track it down, eventually securing it via an online Spanish retailer, under the title A Años Luz – which is in English with Spanish subtitles.
Apart from the landscape there is very little in this film to define it as Irish. It is based on a novel by Swiss writer Daniel Odier, who also writes under the name Delacorta on whose novel the film Diva was based. Les Années lumière was directed by Swiss director Alain Tanner and its main characters are played by English actors Trevor Howard, whose character is called Yoshka Poliakeff, and Mick Ford who plays Jonas.
I don't think the original novel is available in English so I can't say if that is why it was set in Ireland. The opening scenes were filmed in Dublin and although the city is never named it makes no attempt to disguise the cityscape along the banks of the Liffey before the days of the Point and the International Financial Services Centre. We even see Jonas sleeping in a bus shelter with ‘SLF’ graffiti scrawled upon it.
The rest of film looks as if it was filmed in Connemara and most of the supporting actors speak with Irish accents.
We are told that Yoshka's father was Russian but that is the only reference to nationality in the film. He is obsessed with his ‘life’s work’ but is secretive about it, kicking out his former lover, Betty, 10-years earlier because she tried to find out what he was doing. She and Jonas subsequently become lovers.
Jonas travels to Yoshka's derelict filling station set on an isolated road beside a scrap yard where the old Russian sets him a series of pointless tasks.
He stands by the petrol pump for days waiting for a customer - a new road has diverted traffic away from the filling station. When a customer eventually comes Jonas discovers that the petrol pump doesn't actually work.
Yoshka then asks Jonas to clean up the scrap yard but when he does so tells him that he hasn’t done it right and tells him to put it all back the way he found it.
When Yoshka is injured he gets Jonas to dig a hole in the ground and bury him up to his neck and leave him there for three days. When he is dug up again all his wounds have healed.
The scene with Yoshka buried up to his neck and the desolate landscape in which the two central characters torment one another, perform pointless tasks and wait around a lot has clear Beckettian parallels.
Yoshka is like a Zen master whose tasks seem to be aimed at setting Jonas on a higher path and eventually they begin to discuss meditation and dreams.
“Every human being is a universe,” Yoshka tells Jonas.
The younger man’s apprenticeship is eventually complete and Yoshka reveals that he has spent his life studying birds in an effort to learn the art of flight but that he needs an eagle to complete his studies.
Jonas heads off into the mountains ¬- stopping at a 1980s disco where he gets into a fight over a girl - to trap an eagle and bring it back to Yoshka.
He completes his task and the old man tells him that he plans to fly off ‘beyond the galaxies’ on the wings he has been working on. However, before he can do so the eagle escapes and kills all the other birds in the shed where Yoshka has spent his life working.
On a stormy night he takes off but the next day he is discovered dead in a field, his eyes plucked out. Perched nearby, Jonas sees the escaped eagle.
Les Années Lumière is an intriguing film with some great scenes and intriguing characters and but somehow it doesn’t really come together in the end. Like a Beckett play you get the impression that there is something else going on at a deeper level but it never really becomes clear what this is.

Saturday, 20 December 2008

Nollaig Shona

Given that it is the eve of the winter solstice here is a picture of Ballynoe, not too far away from where I live. In the background you can see Slieve Donard, the highest mountain in the Mournes. The original name for the mountains was Beanna Boirche (the peaks of Boirche - named after a cow herd who ruled the Kingdom of Mourne).
Below is a description of Ballynoe given by Anthony Weir on his website Irish Megaliths.
A very large circle of over 50 stones up to 1.8 metres high (though many smaller) encloses a space about 35 metres across. It was built as a counterpart to the circle at Swinside in Cumbria. In the E half of the circle is a long low mound which contained large kists at the E and W ends. This mound obliterated two shortlived cairns built after the circle was constructed, in what Aubrey Burl describes as "prehistoric bigotry and vandalism [which] ruined this magnificent monument. "
Three pairs of stones stand outside the circle at varying distances, the nearest pair at the W side forming a kind of entrance 2.1 metres wide. Many of the stones in this circle were originally shoulder to shoulder, as at Lough Gur, at Swinside in Cumbria and La Menec in Brittany. A portalled entrance is aligned on the setting sun half-way between midwinter and midsummer (around March 21st), and the setting sun at winter solstice seems to slide down between the Mountains of Mourne which form a fine backdrop to the circle.

Thursday, 18 December 2008

The Revolution Will Not Be Televised

IRISH filmmakers Kim Bartley and Donnacha O Briain were in Venezuela to make a documentary on President Hugo Chavez in 2002 when they found themselves caught in the middle of an attempted coup.
I remember seeing the second half of this film when it came out on TV and have been trying to track it down ever since and so was pleasantly surprised when a recent search turned up the entire film, free to view on google video.
Chavez is the dominant force in South American politics at present. His country’s huge oil resources have given him financial clout – Venezuela is the fourth largest foreign supplier of oil to the US.
However, his his alliances with Fidel and Raul Castro in Cuba and other leftist leaders in the region have demonised him in the eyes of the US. He has all-but nationalised Venezuela’s oil production and pumped the revenues in to health and education in the country.
His enemies at home and abroad have branded him as a communist dictator while his supporters have praised his anti-neo-liberal credentials and efforts to redistribute the country’s wealth to help its poor.
The Revolution Will Not Be Televised gives both sides of the story but the filmmakers seem to sit much more comfortably on the Chavez side of the fence than with his opponents.
They were given close access to the president and set the scene by following him on a visit to a rural area where Chavez is greeted with devotion and handed dozens of slips of paper with appeals for help. One of his aides tells us that all of these are read and responded to.
We also see Chavez on his weekly television programme Alo Presidente where he takes phone calls from people from throughout the country.
He is huge bear of a man, manfully punching men on the shoulder and grabbing them by the wrist when they shake hands. It is significant how he interacts with the soldiers who form his guards of honour and who patrol the presidential palace, taking time for some shoulder punching and a whispered word.
Chavez is a former army man who was arrested after an attempted coup in 1992 and served time in prison. However, he reinvented himself to become a constitutional politician and was elected with a landslide majority in 1998.
However, his ‘Bolivarian revolution’ has antagonised the country’s elite who control Venezuela’s media, including its private television stations and we are shown irate men and women in suits accusing Chavez of having a “sexual fixation with Castro” and being “mentally ill”.
One scene shows a group of his opponents at a meeting where they are told to keep an eye on their servants as they might pass on information. They are also given instructions on how to use a gun.
Things reached a head in 2002 when Chavez took control of Venezuela’s oil companies and the private TV stations started to call for demonstrations. The opposition was led by Pedro Carmona and Carlos Ortega who with the backing of senior military commanders ordered Chavez to stand down.
On April 11 they organised a major demonstration, however, Chavez supporters held a counter rally outside the presidential palace in support of the president. Things turned serious when the opposition marchers began to converge on the presidential palace. The army were trying to keep the two sides apart when shooting broke out.
We see graphic images of people lying on the ground with blood dripping from their heads – shot by a sniper’s bullet.
The private TV stations claim that Chavez supporters were shooting at the opposition marchers and show footage of a group of men firing pistols over a bridge. However, what they did not show was that there were no opposition marchers on the other side of the bridge and that those who were shooting seemed to be retaliating against sniper fire.
The opposition blame Chavez for the violence and claim that he ordered the shooting. Senior army chiefs appear on private television to say they have withdrawn their support for Chavez and there are calls for him to be overthrown.
The only station broadcasting the Chavez line is the state broadcaster Channel 8 which is suddenly taken off air.
It is at this point that The Revolution Will Not Be Televised comes into its own. The crew are cut off in the presidential palace where the Chavez government are in an emergency meeting. The palace has been surrounded by tanks and Venezuela’s military leaders have vowed to attack unless Chavez stands down.
A military delegation is brought in to the room where Chavez is waiting. We see Chavez supporters twitching nervously as they pass their guns from one hand to another. “The CIA is behind this,” one tells the camera.
Eventually it is announced that Chavez has refused to resign as president but has agreed to hand himself over to the opposition to prevent the palace from being bombarded and we see shaky camera shots following him as he is led out to vows of loyalty from his supporters.
The next morning the private TV stations are jubilant with opposition organisers giving details of how the coup was planned. In the presidential palace, which has now been taken over by opposition supporters, a speaker says that the elected national assembly has been dissolved, the supreme court dismissed and the national elections board dismissed. He talks about their mandate and democracy.
Out in the street a woman cries. “What about my vote? I voted for Chavez?”
We see pictures of soldiers breaking up pro-Chavez demonstrations and people lying dead on the street.
A Whitehouse spokesman tells a press conference that “Chavez provoked this crisis”.
Opposition leader Pedro Carmona is sworn as president among scenes of jubilation, however, we see members of the red-beret soldiers that once guarded Chavez still in the presidential palace looking uneasy at the events unfolding around them.
Despite the privately-owned TV stations efforts word begins to spread that Chavez did not resign and his supporters begin to take to the streets again and march towards the palace. We see the palace guards huddling into groups and a look of alarm spreading among the faces of the suits that had been celebrating their victory a few hours earlier and they start to make a hasty exit as they see the crowds gathering outside the presidential palace.
The speaker who declared that the national assembly had been dissolved is among a group being held in the cellar and we see a minister in Chavez’s government coming down to tell them that although they are prisoners their rights as citizens are guaranteed.
The private TV stations have still not reported the newest turn of events and Chavez supporters frantically try to get the state-owned Channel 8 back on air, telling us that it is key to restoring Chavez to power. We are told that he is being held on an island and that a US-registered plane has landed and may be about to take him out of Venezuelan jurisdiction.
Channel 8 comes back on air and helicopters are dispatched to rescue the disposed president. Reports come in from around the country that despite support from the army’s high command for the coup the grass roots soldiers are firmly behind Chavez and had been kept in the dark about what had happened.
Eventually a helicopter in the night flies over the thousands of Chavez supporters still gathered outside the presidential palace and the deposed president is back in control. Telling those who opposed him that while he would rather have their support they were entitled to oppose him but that it had to be under the terms of the constitution.
He urges his own supporters to go home and to restore calm.
On the way out of the press conference he turns to the Irish film crew and tells them that he is sorry that he didn’t get a chance to speak to them when he was being led away but that he knew he would be back.
Click on The Revolution Will Not Be Televised to see the film. It lasts for about an hour and 15 minutes.

Sunday, 14 December 2008

The art of the short story

The last week has left me feeling like I have been given the equivalent of a literary doing over that I think has undermined by body’s resistance and left me shivering and coughing and spluttering with a cold for the last few days.
It started about two months ago when my cyberspace friend Gerard Brennan emailed me and invited me to contribute a short story to a book that he is co-editing.
Gerard runs the crimesceneni website and has been more than kind about my novel The Lost Chord, reviewing it on his blog and on Amazon, plugging it in an article for Verbal magazine and even talking about it during a contribution he made to a book show on BBC Radio Ulster.
He said the common theme of the story collection would be crime stories with an Irish mythological theme and he had already lined up a number of leading crime writers from throughout Ireland.
I was a bit wary to start with, firstly because while I have total respect from crime writing as a literary genre it is not my thing. My publisher described The Lost Chord as a novel of ‘music and mystery’ on the blurb and it does have elements of a detective story to it but it is by no means a crime novel.
The other names who had agreed to contribute are among the best-known crime writers in Ireland and so I felt that I would be a bit of an imposter.
The second reason why I was wary about getting involved was because I had never really attempted to write a short story before. Sure I’d done a few but never bothered revising them and never even thought about trying to get them published.
I like novels, I read them for pleasure and at this point I have written three and a quarter of my own – one published, one hopefully due to be published soon, a new novel which is still taking shape and my first flawed, much-rejected outing which is tucked away in a drawer somewhere.
I think I know what makes a novel work and it is a genre I am comfortable with but short stories are a totally different thing. Apart from Liam O’Flaherty and Jorge Louis Borges I never really bothered reading them until quite recently when I got John McGahern’s New and Selected Short Stories as well as O’Flaherty’s three book box set of Complete Short Stories.
The briefing notes and guidelines that Gerard sent me were intriguing but I decided that it was not really for me until while out walking one morning I hit on an idea. Writing is writing, right. It doesn’t matter if it is crime, science fiction, romance or so-called serious literature. So what if I wasn’t a natural crime writer it was all down to the art of story telling.
Two days later I had written nearly 8,000 words and was still only halfway through the story. The guidelines were between 2,000 and 6,000. But this was a first draft I told myself, keep writing, get all my ideas down and then I would cut it back in the next draft.
By the time I’d finished the story was nearly 13,000 words and I briefly considered expanding it and seeing if I could turn it into a full-length novel. There were four very strong characters and a couple of interesting minor ones, I thought, and they could all be developed and other plot lines brought into play.
In the end I decided against it, firstly because I wanted to continue with the novel I am writing, secondly because I wanted see if I could actually distil it into a good tight short story and thirdly because I’d already told Gerard that I would contribute.
I emailed him and said I’d had over run on the word count and could he accept something more than the top limit of 6,000 words.
No problem, he replied, and so I set about trying to edit my story down eventually getting a version that I was happy with which sat at just over 8,000 words. I’d had to cut a number of scenes that I was very keen on and drop sub-plots that I’d thought gave the story a bit more depth.
I was keen to get an opinion because from his website it is clear that Gerard Brennan lives and breaths crime fiction and I wanted to know if my story would make the grade. The reply back was cautiously optimistic but with the proviso that all decisions had to be taken jointly between Gerard and his co-editor Mike Stone (no not that one – an English writer of mainly of sci-fi, horror and fantasy).
A few weeks later Gerard came back and said the plot was too complicated and that Mike had thought it was really a novella being squeezed into a shorter format, although he said they both liked the overall story.
They were right. I had approached the story as I would writing a novel. When I had edited it down I had still tried to keep in all the ideas that I’d had when it was a 13,000 word piece introducing too many character points of view, too many twists and sub plots.
Gerard advised on keeping the basic plot and writing from a single point of view, cutting the number of characters and ditching some of the superfluous scenes. Superfluous! These were some of my favourite parts of the story and included some of, what I thought, was the best writing.
Again I decided that I would just forget about it until about two weeks later I suddenly thought of how I could maybe make it all work and so within a day I had rewritten a new draft, using mostly material from the original, but from a different perspective and telling a much simpler story.
I sent it back. Gerard was upbeat but suggested a few more revisions which I agreed would make it a better story and so rewrote again. By mid-week Mike Stone was also involved in the process pointing out gaps in the plot which I had thought were perfectly clear but then again just because I knew what I was talking about didn’t mean that everyone else did.
We were down to mere sentences but both editors had still not finally committed to including the story in the collection until Friday morning when I got two separate email from Gerard and Mike saying that my story was in.
As I said at the start I felt as if I’d been given a literary hiding but it was an invigorating and humbling experience. To have something you have written scrutinized in such fine detail is unnerving but to me it is the sign of the perfect editor.
It is hard to distance yourself from something that you have written. You can’t see the flaws, especially when you are trying to turn the whole thing round in too short a period of time.
It was like having a master class in short story writing. In fact mid-week to try and take my mind of my ‘crime’ short story I started writing another one and finished it that night. I read over it yesterday and I can see that it needs redrafted but is much more focused and tightly written. It is a short story and not a mini-novel squeezed into the short story format.
Thanks to both Mike and Gerard. You can find out more about Mike’s writing at his website mylefteye and about Gerard’s writing and his excellent insights in Irish crime writing a crimesceneni.
The short story collection they are editing is due to be published by Morrigan Books in early 2010 and Gerard is running a competition to try and find a name for it. You can read more at his website and find out who some of the other authors who are contributing are.

Saturday, 13 December 2008

Dr Jung

Perhaps I am reading too much into what is supposed to be a bit of populist entertainment here but after just watching a couple of episodes of Doctor Who it struck me that it was almost a Jungian parable.
The episodes Human Nature and The Family of Blood are from Series III with David Tenant as the Doctor. They are set in 1913 when the Doctor, who is being pursued across the universe by a family of blood-thirsty aliens, changes his metabolism to become human and wipes his memory.
This, he tells his assistant Martha, will enable him to hide from the Family long enough for their lifeforce to die. His true personality has been uploaded into a device that is disguised as a fob watch and when three months have passed Martha can open this again and the Doctor will be fully restored.
The persona he adopts is that of John Smith, a master in an English public school. The name John Smith is a nod to the ‘classic’ series, particularly the Jon Pertwee years, when the Doctor often used that alias.
The setting reminded me a bit of If… which I saw at the QFT in Belfast last month. This film, directed by Lindsay Anderson and starring Malcolm McDowell, was also set in a public school although it was set in 1968, the year in which it is made.
However, I wonder if the Doctor Who script writer Paul Cornell and series producer Russell T Davies were paying more than a passing homage to it.
The rambling school building, the military discipline and firearms practice – including all out gun battles – and the younger boys ‘fagging’ for the older ones in the Dr Who episodes seem to pay homage to If…
However, being an amateur Jungian it is the ‘individuation’ aspect that most interested me about the John Smith/Doctor scenario.
Jung writes of dreaming that he was hiking through a hilly landscape when he came to a chapel. He went in and saw a yogi sitting in the lotus position and meditating. When he looked closer he saw that the ‘yogi had his face and came to the conclusion that “he is the one who is meditating me. He has a dream and I am it.” Jung concluded that when the yogi woke from his dream “I would no longer be”. (Jung: Memories, Dreams and Reflections pp355).
This more or less matches the reality for John Smith whose existence as a human is merely a diluted projection of his ‘higher self’ – the Doctor.
Smith often dreams that he is an adventurer across time and space and writes down these stories and illustrates them with drawings that we as the viewer of course know relate to his true identity.
The concept of a higher self is more often found in Eastern mysticism but is also found in Western gnosticism and in terms of Jungian psychology represents the “unconscious prenatal wholeness”.
Jung goes on to say that the greatest limitation for man is to be confined by the ‘self’ – the persona that we construct to deal with every day life and that most people end up becoming.
He writes: “Only consciousness of our narrow confinement in the self forms the link to the limitlessness of the unconscious. In such awareness we experience ourselves concurrently as limited and eternal, as both the one and the other. In knowing ourselves to be unique in our personal combination – that is, ultimately limited – we possess also the capacity for becoming conscious of the infinite.”
This can be a daunting prospect – John Smith is terrified of opening the fob watch because it will effectively kill the narrow human persona that he totally identifies with even though it will restore his true identity as the Doctor.
That is what Jung is challenging us to do – to open the fob watch of our unconsciousness and allow its contents to mingle with those aspects of ourselves that we are already aware of and to become complete beings.

Tuesday, 9 December 2008

Going veggie

I am seriously considering becoming a vegetarian again following reports that pork and cattle feed in Ireland has been contaminated. This has caused shops and supermarkets to withdraw all pork products from their shelves and consumers being advised not eat any pork produced in Ireland since September until further notice.
It has also emerged that some cattle may have been fed contaminated feed as well.
It reminds me of when the full extent of the BSE issue first emerged. I was outraged that anyone could even have contemplated feeding bits of cow brain back to cattle simply because it was cheap. It seemed to me to be a subversion of nature in the name of profit and while I did not immediately give up eating beef I certainly curtailed my intake.
I stopped eating meat completely – including beef, pork, lamb and chicken but kept on eating fish – in 2000 and maintained my mostly vegetarian lifestyle until 2006. There were a couple of lapses, mostly when I was abroad. I remember ordering vegetable soup in Chile and finding a piece of bone in it. I didn’t send it back and kept eating it.
A few years ago when we were in Africa we were invited to dinner in the home of some people we had become friendly with. I knew before I went that meat was likely to be served, and it was. Being the male guest spoonful after spoonful of a beef stew in peanut sauce was served up and our hostess, Janibar, told how she had got up early that morning to ensure she got the best cut of meat. Our friends were not poor by west African standards but they almost certainly earned a fraction of what we did. There was no way I was going to turn round and say ‘sorry but do you not have any quorn’.
The following year we were in Spain and I cracked – the concept of vegetarianism does not really exist there. Sure there are lots of great fish dishes but all that chorizo and jamon de Serrano was too much temptation for me and I have been a carnivore ever since, although with more than a twinge of guilt.
In some ways it was quite liberating to be able to go in to a restaurant and not find myself limited to scampi, salmon or pasta with a few chopped vegetables tossed in to it. I enjoy trying out different foods and am particularly fond of wild meat, especially game.
But this week’s news that once again our food chain has been contaminated has made me resentful. It is an industry on which the consumer has to place total trust and which has consistently let us down. The contamination will probably turn out to be an accident rather than the misjudgement that led to BSE but that does not excuse it.
Although we are being told that the contamination will probably not have any impact on humans who have consumed infected products I still feel violated. We had sausages on Saturday and beef on Sunday.
Of course giving up meat will not necessarily spare me from the incompetence of the food industry. Vegetables can be sprayed with toxins and the ground in which they grow can be polluted. Fish can be poisoned by the waste that we pump into the sea and affected by the processing industry.
But it is my way of protesting. The meat industry will not suffer economically because I no longer eat sausages or buy mince to make chilli con carne but in my own way I will have shunned and made clear my contempt for it.
Being vegetarian demands a certain amount of commitment, although it does not necessarily mean having to sacrifice good food.
I’m not a bad cook and can rustle up some decent Thai and Indian dishes. I’m also quite good at soups and make a good veggie Harira, a north African staple, chowder and a chunky vegetable broth. However, Sinead mightn’t be too pleased as it will mean going back to cooking two meals when we eat together or else her having to share my veggie or piscitarian delights – something she was never to keen on in the past.
Most meat substitutes are revolting and I never quite got why people who are non-meat eaters should want to munch on something with the texture of cardboard that very slightly resembles the flavour of bacon.
I’m sure I will still eat the occasional meat dish – especially while travelling and maybe I will allow myself a bit of game now and again. Somehow I feel better knowing that the meat I am eating was running about in a field or flapping around a tree a few days ago rather than beneath artificial lights in a barn and being feed with toxin-infected grain.

Sunday, 7 December 2008

Hable Con Ella

Following my musings on Spain in my last post in which I used an image from the Almododvar film Hable Con Ella (Talk to Her) it was almost inevitable that I would want to watch it again. It is my favourite film and strikes me as a complete work that operates at a variety of levels. It has a fairly straightforward narrative, but it is filled with symbolism, cinematic vignettes, mini stories and minor characters that enrich the overall narrative.
That it should be viewed as symbolic is clear from the very start as the film opens with a dance sequence, Café Muller, choreographed by Pina Bausch which is being watched by the two central characters Benigno and Marco, who are sitting beside one another in the audience but who have not yet met.
The film ends with another piece of dance theatre and sandwiched between them within the main body of the film are numerous choreographed sequences.
The second scene where Benigno, a male nurse, and his colleague Rosa, wash and dress the comatose patient Alicia is a highly stylised piece of cinematic ballet as are the bullfighting sequences in which the female matador Lydia appears. Similarly the scene where Lydia is dressed by her, male, assistant is also a beautiful piece of cinema in which careful lighting and closely choreographed movements are used to create a highly intimate moment.
The female bullfighter has been much commented on as an attempt by Almodovar to challenge the macho world of the Spanish male but he also does so in other more subtle ways. Marco weeps at the performance of Café Muller and we see him welling-up on a number of other occasions as he remembers the pain of his breakup with his previous partner Anglea. Yet it is this highly emotional man who ends up with Lydia the bullfighter – who out of her matador garb is intoxicatingly feminine in short body-hugging dresses and dripping barely covered by a towel as she steps from a shower.
Despite his vulnerabilities Marco is portrayed as a sophisticated man of the world – an Argentine-born journalist who works for El Pais and who has written a series of travel books.
In contrast Benigno is portrayed as sheltered and naïve – described as a “retard” by his boss. He spent his youth nursing his mother who was confined to bed, not because she was ill but because she was “a bit lazy”. He is slightly creepy and stalks Alicia to the point where he arranges an appointment with her psychiatrist father so that he can get into their home and while there sneak into her bedroom – yet it is he who ends up nursing her after she is left in a coma following a road accident.
We see the former stalker Benigno washing down Alicia’s naked body and looking after her every need, to the point where he is even allowed to clean up her period. He confesses to Marco that the four years he has spent nursing her have been the most satisfactory of his life.
Benigno’s journey from a sad and lonely obsessive through to the imprisoned, unshaved “psychopath” who raped his comatose patient is dramatic and yet despite his crime it is hard not to feel sympathy for his action which was driven by devotion and desire for the woman in his care.
And here Almodovar sets us up with a moral dilemma for his audience – by raping Alica and impregnating her Benigno proves to be her redemption as she miraculously regains consciousness and we are left with the philosophical conundrum that if by performing an act of evil something good is the result can we still judge the original act as evil.
Marco’s development is more subtle than that of Benigno and he emerges from his morose, introspective self pity to engage with Benigno. He even shares some his traits, his obsessiveness and loneliness, and he admits to Benigno that he too is very fond of still-comatose Alicia. Marco is redeemed by his unquestioning support for the incarcerated Benigno when all others have abandoned him even though he is horrified by his friend’s crime.
Almodovar uses Hable Con Ella as vehicle to show of his considerable skills as a filmmaker. It jumps back and forward in time – and even contains a flashback within a flashback – but never seems to lose its narrative thread.
It even contains a film within a film, which he uses to symbolically depict the rape of Alicia. The silent movie tells the story of a man who drinks a potion concocted by his mistress which causes him to shrink until he ends up just a few inches high and cavorting over her naked body from where he “disappears inside her for ever”.
Almodovar also manages to strategically place objects and sequences of dialogue that hint at deeper levels of meaning.
On Marco’s bedside table we see a copy of the novel Las Horas (The Hours) by Michael Cunningham, while beside Alicia’s hospital bed is the novel version of La Noche del Cazador (The Night of the Hunter).
Alicia’s dance teacher, played by Geraldine Chaplin, describes a ballet she is working on set in the trenches of World War One where the ethereal emerges from corporal depicted by female ballerinas emerging as the souls of dead male soldiers who have been killed by warfare.
It is the dancer Alicia who eventually emerges from her near-death state while Benigno, whose rape of her instigated her recovery, is incarcerated in prison and eventually in a grave after he takes his own life during an attempt to induce himself into a coma through a drugs overdose so that he can “be with Alicia” whose recovery he is unaware of.
Throughout, Almodovar paces his main narrative with slight distractions and humorous interludes. The female nurse explaining how she can tell how well a man is endowed by the shape of his face and the pretty receptionist who works for Alicia’s father answering the phone and telling her friend that she has just had “an elephant-sized dump” (surely one of the great lines in cinema) add nothing to the plot but help create a multi-layered feel in which numerous elements mingle.
The visual impact is enhanced by the soundtrack by Alberto Iglesias which for me is now so synonymous with film that even when playing it while driving in my car I can visualise the scenes that each track accompanies.

Tuesday, 2 December 2008

Mi vida española

IT'S not easy being Spanish when you haven't got a drop of Spanish blood in your body and live in Ireland - but I try.
My day usually starts with a cafe con leche and a bit of bread while I sit and watch the news on 24H, an online news channel broadcast by Televisión Española. A couple of times a month I will pick up a copy of El Pais (which is usually a day out of date).
Lunch is often paella, tortilla español (potato omelet), sopa Castellano (garlic, egg and chorizo soup), or gambas a la plancha con ensalada (grilled prawns with salad). Sometimes I might have a copa de tinto (small glass of wine) with my lunch.
Other Spanish delicacies are harder to come by. There is a shop in Belfast which sells boquerones (anchovies in vinegar) - but they are absurdly expensive. As for navajas (razor clams) I have never even seen them on a restaurant menu in Ireland.
There is a continental market being held in the centre of Belfast at the minute which sells churros (deep fried strips of donut) but it is not quite the same standing outside in a frosty December and eating them as sitting in warm bar in Madrid with cup of hot chocolate to dip them in.
In terms of music I have a decent selection of Flamenco, Galician traditional music and more contemporary Spanish artists – including Mano Chao, Los Rodrigues, Celtas Cortos – and quite a lot of very dodgy Spanish pop. Thanks to broadband I can also listen to a lot of Spanish radio stations.
I also enjoy Spanish (and South American) cinema and would probably rate the Pedro Almodovar film Hable Con Ella (Talk to Her) as my favourite movie.
I've spent quite a bit of time in Spain, teaching in Madrid and working in the tourism industry in Mallorca and in Andalucia - but that was in the early 1990s. However, I still go back when I can, I was there in June this year, 10 days last year and a fortnight the year before that.
My Spanish is flawed and very ungrammatical but it is a language I am fairly competent in. Technically I should be able to speak Irish at least as well but I lack the confidence to launch into a conversation and worry that I'm using the wrong tense or transposing English idioms.
No such problem with Spanish... if I don't know how to say something I'll find my way around it and have often launched into topics of conversation with absolutely no idea of how I'm going to construct a sentence.
For the most part I find that I am understood and I can usually understand what is being said back - watching Spanish television and listening to the radio has also helped, as has reading the papers, in print and online.
Of course there are nuances of Spanish life that I will never master and like anywhere else there are vast regional differences that tend to be glossed over in the overall outsider’s image of Spain.
I am fairly au-fait with the broader politics concerning the Basque issue and Catalan autonomy but I have found it best to avoid getting involved in debate - it is a bit like an outsider coming to Ireland and launching into a conversation about constitutional issues here.
I occasionally muse on the possibility of going back to live in Spain. Maybe not in Madrid which is a much bigger and much more complicated city than the one I remember, although I'm sure I could adapt.
I quite fancy Malaga. It is on the coast of Andalucia, within easy reach of Seville, Granada and Cordoba as well as the northern coast of Africa. Given the huge ex-pat population living down the coast on the Costa Del Sol and the number of holiday makers who come to the region there would be plenty of work for an English speaker.
But while I enjoy a hot climate I also like a bit of rain now and again and so I think I would be more suited to a northern city - Zaragoza, Valladolid, or even Santiago de Compostella in Galicia.
However, maybe I'm simply deluding myself that is what I want. Could I really live without being close to the Mourne Mountains or my favourite coastal walks.
I have quite a romantic image of Spain and eulogise it because of the memories I have of the times I spent there. But I was in my twenties when I lived there, was much more sociable and enjoyed going out and meeting people. Now I prefer taking it easy with a quiet glass of wine and a bit of music.
No reason why I couldn't do that still but there are other factors - not least Sinead who quite likes Spain but who might not necessarily want to live there.
There is also the danger that I am simply deluding myself that I would prefer life there. I remember a couple of years ago dropping off a hire car at Barajas Airport in Madrid and when the guy who worked in the office saw my passport he started lamenting how he'd spent the best year of his life in Ireland and would love to come back and live here. We almost agreed to swap lives.
I wonder if he wakes up in the morning and makes a cup of tea and toast and has fish fingers with beans or a big greasy fry for lunch and yearns for sausages and champ accompanied by a pint of Guinness for his evening meal?

Monday, 1 December 2008

The White Hotel by DM Thomas

I listed Ararat, reviewed below, by DM Thomas as one of my favourite books when setting up this blog a few weeks ago. It still is but after just finishing The White Hotel, by the same author, I have to admit it is a far better book.
As I mentioned before, Thomas is not afraid to plunder the big themes and major historical events in middle and Eastern Europe in his novels. That also goes for people and a central figure in The White Hotel is Sigmund Freud.
The novel is centred on the figure of Lisa Erdman, a part Jewish opera singer of Russian descent who was born in Ukraine but settled in Vienna.
The White Hotel opens with a fantasy sequence, often sexually explicit, firstly written in verse and then expanded on in poetic and image-driven prose.
It is followed by a case study in which Freud analyses Lisa and tries to cure her of debilitating physical ailments using psychotherapy.
He constantly refers back to the fantasy sequences to try to identify how Lisa’s suppressed memories and childhood trauma are behind the hysteria that is undermining her physical health.
Of course, being Freud the motivating psychic energy is sexual and during his psychoanalysis he uncovers childhood memories where Lisa witnessed her mother and her mother’s twin sister and her uncle in a threesome.
He also catches Lisa out in lies and denials during her therapy – she fiddles with a crucifix, which formerly belonged to her mother, when she is being dishonest.
Other memories, inhibitions and suppressed sexual desires emerge and Lisa’s health seems to improve following her sessions with Freud allowing her to resume her career as an opera singer.
The following years see her enjoying modest success on the stage but unable to form a relationship until when she is in her early forties and she travels to Kiev where she marries a Ukrainian Jew who she once performed with in La Scala opera house in Milan and helps to bring up his son, Kolya.
Lisa had shunned her Jewish heritage and practised her mother’s Catholic fate. In fact she resented her Jewish ancestry – her first husband, who she married when she was in her early twenties, was anti-Semitic and she had hidden that aspect of her background from him.
By 1941 Lisa is scraping a living with her adopted son in a Jewish district. Her husband has been shipped off to a gulag for supposedly complaining about the Soviet government.
However, in September that year Kiev is invaded by Nazi Germany and Lisa and Kolya are rounded up and marched to a train station where they believe they are going to be shipped to Palestine.
Lisa at first tries to ignore the sound of gunfire as they approach the train station but she soon realises that they are going to be shot in a nearby quarry known as Babi Yar.
Despite being able to prove that she is not Jewish and given an opportunity to escape, Lisa refuses to leave her adopted son, whose papers state that he is Jewish, and they both die with more than 30,000 others who tipped into the quarry after being shot by Nazi machine guns.
Thomas’s narrative is often matter of fact and dispassionate in this section of The White Hotel which makes the more poignant observations unnerving when he suddenly drops them in.
After describing the massacre and the subsequent plundering of the piled up dead bodies he writes:
“The soul of a man is a far country, which cannot be approached or explored. Most of the dead were poor and illiterate. But every single one of them had dreamed dreams, seen visions and had amazing experiences, even the babes in arms (perhaps especially the babes in arms)… If Sigmund Freud had been listening and taking notes from the time of Adam, he would still not fully have explored even a single group, even a single person.”
What Freud also missed was the aspects of premonition is Lisa’s fantasy writing where he had interpreted certain images as evidence of sexual hysteria when they were in fact a foreboding of Lisa’s death.
That is one of the reasons why this novel will drag you back to the start as soon as you’ve finished to try and pick up those elements again that you thought you had sussed out only to find that Thomas was planting information that would develop into something entirely different.

Sunday, 30 November 2008

Ararat by DM Thomas

DM Thomas is not afraid of big themes, events, major historical characters and incidents. In Ararat he takes on himself the task of ‘finishing’ a poem by Pushkin, writing a graphic description of a forgotten holocaust ¬ or at least a rarely mentioned one when an estimated one million people were slaughtered during the Armenian Genocide of 1915 - and sets up one of his narrators as a leading writers of the Soviet Union in the 1970s.
Its theme is the creative process of writing, particularly improvisation, and I suppose as a writer that is what attracts me to it. Not so much the improvisation element but the reflections of real-life scenarios, incidents and characters and how they become distorted and transformed to create fiction and poetry.
The first time I read Ararat I thought it was a bit of a cop out and that Thomas had simply taken fragments from various stories, half-written novels and poems and constructed a loose narrative to tie them all together. Three people agree to improvise stories and poems for one another. One of them, a Soviet writer, improvises a story about a Soviet writer who on a one-night stand agrees, after an unsatisfactory sexual encounter with his blind companion, to improvise a story for her about another Soviet writer who is trying to complete a Pushkin story and poem about an ‘improviastore’. It is a bit like a series of Russian dolls and you wonder which one is the main doll in which all the rest are contained.
Major themes aside, one of things I love about these books is the sense of time and place that has now passed but which I can imaginatively identify with. The Soviet Union and the European Eastern Bloc haunted my imagination during the late 1970s, mostly because they were portrayed in the media as the enemy who might wipe us out at any minute. Thomas – who has translated the poems of Pushkin and Anna Akhmatova into English and written a biography of Alexander Solzhenitsyn – doesn’t glamorize them but neither does he demonise them. His fictional Soviet writer Rosanov deals with the reality in which he lives. He is wary of ‘the authorities', unduly drawing attention to himself.
“The Sakharovs were somewhere in Gorky, but they would not thank him for turning up at their door at midnight. Besides, they were being watched, it could only bring trouble.” (Ararat pp15).
Yet he is distrustful of the west: “If the [USSR] didn’t exist [the USA] would have to invent her, yah?” (Ararat pp 143).
Perhaps Thomas did tie up a number of previously unrelated fragments under this improvisation theme – and I still got that impression during a recent rereading of Ararat. But while they clash and occasionally jar they do coalesce in to an edgy narrative that Thomas managed to carry on and develop through a further four novels – including Swallow and Sphinx which I’ve read – in which he continues with his improvisation theme and in which comfortingly familiar characters from Ararat appear, although in a sometimes slightly metamorphisised form.

Friday, 28 November 2008

Francis Stuart

I read Blacklist Section H by Francis Stuart again during a recent holiday. I first bought it more than 25 years ago and must have read it a dozen times since. It is a book I keep going back to and coming away with something new each time. I have spent quite a bit of time and money tracking down Stuart’s novels over the years, many of which are now out of print, and there are now about 20 on my book shelf.
I even tracked the author himself down in 1997 to do an interview following the publication of his last novella King David Dances. He was 95 at the time when I visited him at his home in Dublin and he was very hard of hearing and had trouble walking. Never-the-less he sat patiently with me for more than an hour and half and I'm sure he sussed out that there was more than mere journalistic interest to my questions.
It was quite surreal to hear him talking about his final meeting with Samuel Beckett in Paris when they were both in their eighties, or about conversations he’d had with WB Yeats and Liam O'Flaherty in the 1930s, and according to his biographer, Kevin Kevin Kiely, he was even introduced, briefly, to James Joyce in a Paris cafe.
However, there is always something slightly awkward about admitting that your favourite writer is Francis Stuart for he is still derided by many as a Nazi propagandist. And let’s face it there is no getting around it, Stuart went to Germany in 1940 to teach in Berlin and went on to broadcast propaganda to Ireland on behalf of Nazi Germany.
Blacklist is autobiographical but written in the third person as if Stuart was trying to stand back and dissect his own life - in particular as to how he ended up living and working in Berlin during the Second World War. Detractors who accused Stuart of being a Nazi collaborator labelled Blacklist as an attempt at self-justification, however, there is too much going on here for it to be a simple as that. Stuart goes out of his way to portray himself as flawed and selfish but with painful insights into his own psyche.
From a scene in Berlin, Stuart’s narrator, H, comes across a street in a former Jewish district and contemplates the fate of the Jews under the Nazis (this would have been in 1939 before the ’final solution’ had been fully implemented).
He writes that H “had to experience , in his own probably small degrees, some of what they suffered and, on the one level, even more because he could not claim their innocence. He had long suspected that his destiny bound him to them in a manner more obscure than their present defenders… He also realised that he would go to certain lengths in association with their persecutors, in violent reaction against the mores of home, thus ensuring that his condemnation would not, unlike theirs, arouse any sympathy.”
Stuart is a complicated character and seems to have had the attitude of ‘whatever everyone else is for I’m against it’. He was born to Irish parents in Australia in 1902 but his father took his own life when Francis was an infant. He was brought back to Ireland by his mother where he was brought up by his unionist relatives in the north until he went to public school in England. Despite his Protestant/Unionist background he married Iseult Gonne - daughter of WB Yeats’s muse Maud Gonne - and became a Catholic and a Republican who smuggled guns to Ireland for the IRA and was interned by the newly formed Free State government in the 1920s.
His novels from the 1930s seemed to almost anticipate what would actually happen to him in later life. His narrators go out of their way to align themselves with fringe elements or commit acts that ensure their isolation from society. It is from this position of isolation that Stuart seemed to believe that writers and poets would be able experience the imaginative counter currents in which great art is produced.
In Blacklist Stuart defines H’s situation shortly after his arrival in Berlin: - “Time: Deepest winter, 1940. Situation: uncertain, compromised, companionless, cold to freezing… Alternatively: alone and free and passionately involved in my own living fiction, imaginative participation unimpaired, unpredictable possibilities.”
Stuart equates great art with suffering and isolation and his novels are constantly name checking novelists, poets and painters who were pushed to the fringes of society or endured mental or physical suffering to produce great art – Van Gogh, Dostoyevsky, Kafka, Keats, DH Lawrence, Osip Mandelshtam and Emily Bronte.
Infact, Emily Bronte actually appears in one of Stuart’s most original novels – A Hole in the Head – written in the 1970s and set in a fictional version of Belfast, where a severely mentally disturbed writer, recently abandoned by his wife, arrives in Troubles-torn ‘Belbury’ with Emily, who is as real to him as the people who exist outside his mind.
I think you almost have to buy-in to that ‘outsider’ philosophy to understand Stuart, otherwise you would simply label him as the equivalent of the schoolboy who got caught smoking behind the bike shed when he knew it was wrong but tried to justify it by saying he did it all in the name of art. The criticism would be valid if Stuart had simply produced vacuous, self-serving novels after his years in German but even his fiercest critics had to grudgingly concede that there was a certain depth to them.
The 1940s novels The Pillar of Cloud and Redemption jar against the conventional narrative of post-World War II history – which for the most part has been set down by the victors. Stuart’s his ‘late-harvest’ books (written when he was in his seventies and eighties) – A Hole in the Head, Memorial and The High Consistory ¬- challenge conventional morality and often jolt you into questioning values that most people would not consider questioning. And if you can get hold of them Pigeon Irish and The Coloured Dome, written in the early 1930s, are worth reading, not least because they seem to articulate the very philosophy that Stuart was subsequently accused of manufacturing to justify his decision to go to Germany a decade later.
However, the jumping off point has got to be Blacklist Section H, but be warned it could turn in to an obsession.

Monday, 24 November 2008

Travel Writing

I've set up a website. www.tonybailie.com, to promote my books and some of my travel writing, an example of which is below. The web site also includes a few excerpts from my new novel ecopunks.
The article below about a journey to Cambodia and Vietnam is actually quite dark and I'm suprised it was actually published in the normally upbeat travel section of the newspapaer I work for.
Any comments on website and suggestions for improvement will be much appreciated.

A MURKY river cluttered with litter marks the official border between Thailand and Cambodia and the boundary between modern Asia and the third world.
The contrast between the gigantic, choking sprawl of the Thai capital Bangkok and the scattered wooden huts on stilts that dot the Cambodian countryside less than 100 miles away could not be more stark.
Cambodia is a lush green country that often seems to be empty of people – you can drive for miles without seeing anyone or any sign of human habitation, except for the occasional stooped body of someone working in a flooded rice field.
The main roads are often dirt tracks which become rivers of mud after a torrential downpour, making car and bus journeys an excruciatingly uncomfortable experience.
A journey of a hundred miles can take an entire bone-juddering day, but travel by road does have its charms with intermittent stops to cross a river or lake on a makeshift ferry made from oil barrels and planks of wood lashed together.
The Cambodian government opened the country’s borders in 1998 in a bid to tap into the massive tourist trade in neighbouring Thailand, with the spectacular ruins of Angkor as the bait.
For centuries the temples at Angkor, which date from between 900 and 1300 AD, had been reclaimed by the jungle and were only rediscovered in the 19th century and the foliage cut back.
Angkor Wat is justifiably the most famous structure, but the much older Bayon with thousands of stone carved faces is also worth clambering over, while Ta Phrom which is still surrounded by jungle has a ‘just-discovered’ feel to it.
The Cambodian capital Phnom Penh is not the most endearing place in the world, and although the royal palace and Bhuddhist temple in the city centre are spectacular, memories of the country’s recent violent past haunt the streets.
An estimated two million people were murdered during the rule of Pol Pott and the Khmer Rouge during the late 1970s and the violence continued during the following decades.
In Phnom Pehn itself you can visit S21, a former school converted by the Khmer Rouge into a prison and interrogation camp. It is distressing to wander through room after room where manacles and clubs have been left lying and sinister stains blot the walls.
Standing inside one of the closet-like cell and pulling the door over and listening to the nonstop chirp of geckos beyond the barred windows can only hint at the dark terror of the thousands who were brought here, interrogated, hung on the gallows outside or ultimately taken to the Killing Fields of Choeung Ek to be slaughtered.
Choeung Ek is about 10 miles outside of Phnom Pehn, and an estimated 17,000 people were brought there from S21 to be butchered by gun and knife or simply bludgeoned to death and buried in mass graves.
Many of the graves have been exhumed and the evidence of brutality put on display in a glass tower which contains thousands of human skulls recovered from the site, arranged by sex and age.
In a way the rows upon row of numbered shelves numbs the shock of what you are seeing… it is much more difficult to stare at the vacant eye sockets of a single cracked skull in a tray labelled “females 16 to 20″ and try to picture the terror of the girl who was brought here to be murdered.
Walking round the site it is even harder to come to terms with the scattered bits of bone and fragments of clothing that still lie in occasional clusters beside the excavated pits where the bodies were buried.
Boat travel is a much more comfortable option in Cambodia than road travel and there are daily sailings from Phnom Penh along the Mekong River to land across the border at a market village called Chau Doc in Vietnam.
The bright coloured clothing of the Vietnamese and their pointed straw hats are the first things that strike you after the dark military style dress of many Cambodians.
Chau Doc is a vibrant market town surrounded by rice fields, while the nearby Mekong Delta also provides a livelihood and many people still live
and work on floating villages.
The roads in Vietnam may be surfaced but my journey on a minibus to Saigon was one of the most terrifying things I have ever experienced.
The favoured means of transport in Vietnam is motorbike or moped and these weave in and out between one another, while the buses, cars and lorries honk incessantly and drive straight towards each other.
The streets of Saigon (officially known as Ho Chi Mihn City) are a seething mass of bikes, and crossing the road is an act of faith where you have to edge out on the road and shuffle across while traffic zig-zags around you.
About 30 miles outside of the city you can crawl through the Chu Chi tunnels were the Viet Cong operated – literally under the feet of US forces and carried out covert operations. Saigon was the capital of South Vietnam until April 1976 when the communist Viet Cong finally entered the city and US troops left.
The War Museum charts the bitter Vietnamese war in pictures and some very disturbing artifacts.
The use of gases and sprays to defoliate areas of jungle occupied by the Viet Cong caused widespread death and horrific mutilation to humans, and many exhibits in the museum provide graphic testimony to this.

Wednesday, 19 November 2008

Italy and Switzerland

I just got back on Tuesday night from northern Italy where we spent a week on the shores of Lake Como. It is one of those places that is unrealistically picturesque with medieval villages hugging the shoreline beneath plunging pine and larch-covered mountain slopes.
The city of Como was about an hour’s bus journey from Cadenabbia where we stayed. The historic centre was a maze of narrow cobbled streets surrounding a smallish cathedral.
It is one of those places you go to just to wander about and occasionally stop at pavement cafe for a cappuccino or a glass of wine to watch the world go by.
It is a cliche to say that Italians are stylish - at least in the northern part of the country - but they are and while I’m usually comfortable in my scruffy-Paddy-abroad garb I didn’t like to stand in the one spot for too long incase someone threw a couple of coins at my feet.
Even the dogs were stylish – I saw a poodle with carefully quaffed fur tufted into a mohican on its head and tied off with a dainty red ribbon.
This stylishness was even more apparent in Milan, which is about an hour and half from Cadennabia.
It is a city I will have to go back to sometime as a morning and afternoon were not enough time to take it all in.
Despite my aversion to fashion and brand names I couldn’t help glancing into the shop windows and wondering briefly how that jacket would look on me or how much of my mortgage I could pay off for the price of a pair of sunglasses.
During our week away we also managed to make a couple of forays across the border into Switzerland - a county I’d never been to before.
Lugano is one of the country’s financial centres and again the prices in many of the shop windows would suggest that there is a lot of loose cash floating around... 30,000 euros for a watch!
Despite such ostentatiousness Lugano is a chilled-out little city that sits on the shore of a lake, surrounded by mountains and with some fine architecture.
The journey to St Moritz was much more impressive than the ‘exclusive’ resort itself. Before our bus had even left Italy and was climbing towards the Alps the style of houses changes from Italian-villa style – stone brickwork with a slate roof – to more Alpine structures - taller with much steeper roofs and more woodwork.
The twisting road up to the Maloja Pass often left me looking into a sheer drop just a minor skid away.
Icicles hung along the roadside and patches of snow began to appear, lying ankle deep at the summit of the pass which sits at 6,000 feet.
The skiing season doesn’t actually kick off for another few weeks so St Moritz was pretty dead with just a few disconsolate strays wandering about the place.
However, a walk down the hill and along St Moritz Lake shore was a great way of getting some clean Alpine air.
Back on Lake Como we spent a day jumping on and off ferries to lake side villages, each of them offering their own unique version of quaintness.
However, if you ever end up in a place called Verano don’t go to the Pizza restaurant beside the ferry terminal.
It took 20 minutes before we got a menu, another 15 before our drinks arrived and a full hour and 20 minutes from when we first sat down before our dry, half-covered pizzas actually arrived.

Monday, 10 November 2008

Dead Rock Stars

In the 21st century, when many people in the western world are living longer, the death of rock star John Entwhistle at 57 in 2002 was appallingly premature.
Entwistle, who played with The Who, was regarded as one of the finest bass players in the world and his death came just as the band was preparing to tour the US and record its first album in 20 years.
Many commentators remarked on the lyrics of My Generation, The Who’s most famous song, which contain the words: “I hope I die before I get old”.
While the lyrics of My Generation were probably intended more as a statement of rebellion against the establishment than a death wish, in Entwistle's case they proved tragically prophetic.
But then the rock industry has seen an alarming fatality rate among some of its best known figures at the height of their careers.
The Who’s original drummer, Keith Moon, known as Moon the Loon, was the very epitome of a rock star, trashing hotel rooms, smashing up his drum kit and indulging in a putrid cocktail of toxins.
In September 1978 after attending a party thrown by Paul McCartney, Moon returned to his Mayfair flat where he took a bellyfull of sleeping tablets and other pills. When he went to bed he didn’t wake up.
Moon was aged 31 when he died, but for many rock stars 27 seemed to be the opportune age to make a rock and roll exit.
Janis Joplin’s screaming soulful voice is one of the most powerful ever to be recorded, but like many involved in the music industry a spiralling drug habit led to her downfall and eventual death from a heroin overdose at 27.
Jimi Hendrix, who redefined what could be done with the electric guitar and is still regarded
as the best rock guitarist ever, choked to death aged 27 after taking a combination of sleeping tablets and alcohol.
Jim Morrison also died at 27, although there are those who would argue that he faked his own death and is living as a recluse in Mexico.
Morrison, who was the lead singer with The Doors, had a voracious appetite for mind-altering substances and was reported to be hooked on heroin when he died in Paris in 1971.
The lack of a proper autopsy and inability to track down the doctor who signed his death certificate all fuelled the rumours that Morrison was not really dead. Despite this his grave at Pere Lachaise cemetery in Paris, alongside Oscar Wilde and Chopin, attracts thousands of visitors every year.
Other rock stars who have met an early death include Rolling Stones guitarist Brian Jones who drowned in a swimming pool aged 27 and Led Zeppelin drummer John Bonham, who choked to death aged 32 after an alcohol and heroin binge.
The Sex Pistols bass guitarist Sid Vicious was out on bail in New York after being charged with murdering his rock groupie girlfriend Nancy Spungen when he died from a heroin overdose aged just 21.
Violence is another disturbing feature of many rock star deaths and the best known incident was when former Beatle John Lennon (40) was shot dead outside his Manhattan apartment by a psychopathic fan.
Soul singer Marvin Gaye was 44 when he was shot dead by his own father during a family dispute, while Sam Cooke was shot dead and then battered with a baseball bat, aged 33, in a Los Angeles brothel.
In 1938 one the most influential Mississippi blues men Robert Johnson (27) was reported to have been stabbed to death by a jealous husband.
More sinister reports suggest that Johnson had sold his soul to the devil (he wrote songs called Hellhound on my Trial and Me and the Devil Blues) and that his early death was a result of this pact.
A number of rock stars have died at their own hands, including Nirvana singer Kurt Cobain (27) who used a shotgun to kill himself and quoted the lyrics of Neil Young’s Hey Hey My My on his suicide note – “It's better to burn out than it is to rust/The king is gone but he's not forgotten.”
Ian Curtis, who fronted post-punk band Joy Division, which later evolved into New Order, hung himself in 1980 aged 23, while melancholic English folk singer Nick Drake was just 26 when he overdosed on anti-depressants in 1974.
Despite its high fatality rate many rock stars have survived the excesses of the business and actually gone on to become model citizens.
Sonny Bono, formerly of Sonny and Cher, died in a skiing accident in 1998, but at the time he was a US Republican Congressman.
Irishmen Bob Geldof and Bono are leading figures in the global rock establishment and now spend most of their days bending the ears of political and religious leaders throughout the world instead of trashing hotel rooms and getting wasted.
In Britain many of rock’s best known names have become leading members of the British establishment and several, including Paul McCartney, Elton John and Cliff Richard, have been knighted.
Even Mick Jagger, of the Rolling Stones, who was once the epitome of an anti-establishment rock-and-roller, has received a knighthood.
This is the same Mick Jagger who in the song Street Fighting Man wrote the lyrics:
“Hey! Said my name is called disturbance I’ll shout and scream, I’ll kill the king, I’ll rail at all his servants.”

Saturday, 8 November 2008

I’ve spent the last couple of weeks having a John Banville-fest. I’d never really taken much notice of the Booker Prize-winning author until I heard him being interviewed on RTE radio last month. He was actually talking about his crime-writer alter ego Benjamin Black and his new novel The Lemur. He gave an interesting insight into how he operates as a writer, saying that in the time it takes ‘John Banville’ to write a sentence ‘Benjamin Black’ would have finished a page.
The Lemur was my first port of call and it was a quick, unchallenging read. During his interview Banville said it had been commissioned as a 15-intallment series by The New York Times. His Irish journalist narrator John Glass – a washed-out, chain-smoking hack – is just the most blatant cliché in this novel. Glass’s artist lover lives in Bleeker Street in Greenwich Village and his father-in-law is a domineering, former CIA man and self-made billionaire. Glass eats in swish Manhattan restaurants, works in mirror-windowed skyscrapers and lives in a plush apartment.
The plot centres on the murder of an internet sleuth hired by Glass - and who he nicknames the Lemur - to help him research a biography he has been commissioned to write about his father-in-law. Again the clichés come thick and fast - Captain Ambrose of the NYPD who is investigating the killing is an archetype who has appeared in a thousand New York cop novels, TV shows and movies, while the portrayal of a black journalist is dangerously close to racial stereotyping.
What I am wondering here is – did Banville set out to write a New York crime novel ‘in the style of a New York crime novel’? Is he purposely loading all these clichés on top of one another as a sort of literary tribute act? A knowing nod to a school of writing that will bring an appreciative smile to other aficionados?
On the other hand is he just ripping the arse out of the genre and thinking ‘sure this will do?’
I picked up two Banville novels – Eclipse and The Book of Evidence – in a second-hand bookshop a few days after finishing The Lemur. The gear shift in writing was immediately evident in Eclipse. It is dense, stream-of-consciousness prose that had me constantly reaching from my dictionary. It is self-consciously literary and not afraid of being so.
Eclipse tells of an actor who has suddenly been stricken by stage fright, who leaves his wife to live in his abandoned parental home where he thinks he sees ghosts. The ghosts are not the bit that stretch the credulity, it is the father and daughter who are squatting there and who the narrator does not notice until about half way through the novel that caused me to go ‘oh come on’. There are constant references to the narrator’s own mentally-fragile daughter and dark intimations of the fate that awaits her.
However, the flimsy plot is a subservient vehicle whose sole purpose is to provide a washing line on which Banville can hang out his meticulously laundered prose. That is not a bad thing. Banville’s writing is something that, if you’re in the mood for it, is worthwhile submitting to and letting yourself be carried along by. I read a review somewhere comparing him to Samuel Beckett and that rang true. Murphy, Molloy and Malone Dies all sketch out fragile scenarios that are launching pads for philosophical musings and ponderings on the meaning of existence. Beckett kicked the ball 60 years ago and Banville is happy to keep dribbling it. That is not a criticism for he does it very well.
I bought a new copy of The Sea, which won Banville the Booker in 2005 (The Book of Evidence remains unread at this point). Different scenario, different wife and daughter but essentially the same narrative voice carried over from Eclipse. Max, an art historian whose wife has just died, returns to a seaside town where he spent a childhood holiday and became infatuated with a girl of his own age and her mother.
The emotions are definitely rawer here than in Eclipse. The inability of Max’s wife to come to terms with her terminal illness, the feeling that her body has somehow betrayed her has a horrible authenticity while Max can only bumble ineffectually and fears to say anything in case it is the wrong thing. Memories of his childhood 50 years earlier, his more recent past, during his wife’s illness, and the present intermingle and are often only separated by a full stop or hyphen. Banville clearly relishes words and can bring you up short with a sentence because it articulates something you might have once have thought about but were never really able to find the words to say.
Describing Max’s youthful relationship with Chloe, Banville writes: ‘In her I had my first experience of the absoluteness of other people… And if she was real, so, suddenly was I. She was I believe the true origin in me of self-consciousness.’ (pp168).
‘Memory dislikes motion, preferring to hold things still, and as with so many of these remembered scenes I see this one as a tableau.’ (pp221).
Plot-wise The Sea is much more accomplished than Eclipse and there is a nice twist in the last couple of pages that I didn’t see coming, probably because I was too busy waiting for other ones which of course didn’t materialise. Still I think I think I’m out-Banvilled for now and I’ll leave The Book of Evidence on the shelf for a while yet. I think I need to brace myself for more Banville, take a deep breath before submitting to his unsettling and occasionally annoying style of writing.

Thursday, 6 November 2008

As thick as thieves

Although my novel The Lost Chord was not written as a crime novel it does have elements of a detective story in it. Manus Brennan, the narrator follows a series of clues to try and track down his former band mate, the enigmatic Irish rock star Gino Morgan who disappeared seven years earlier. The publisher even blurbed it as ‘a novel of music and mystery’.
One of the upshots of that is that has got a bit of attention from the crime fiction community, most notably from Gerard Brennan at crimesceneni. His blog and that of novelist Declan Burke - whose novel The Big O has just been published in the US - at crimealwayspays were what inspired me to set up this one.
What strikes me most is the camaraderie and support from one another among Irish crime writers at home and abroad and although I keep feeling like a bit of an imposter I’m grateful that both Gerard and Dec have given me and The Lost Chord a bit of space on their websites.
Below is an article published in The Irish News last month about crime fiction in Ireland which includes contributions from them both.

Crime fiction is one of the fastest growing literary genres in Ireland. The Irish News decided to find out why and sent Tony Bailie to slap a couple of writers about a bit to get some answers

RAIN splashed on my hat from a broken drainpipe as the yellow sign above the gin joint flicked on and off. In the distance I could hear a cop siren wailing and the screech of tyres spinning as a car sped off. I was in one of the most run down parts of the city where the streets looked as if they needed a shave.
If anyone could put me on the right trail it was Gerard Brennan. He’d been investigating the crime fiction scene for years, knew all the players and was posting information on his website crimesceneni. Some said he was even involved. As he slouched round the corner I checked the street to make sure that he wasn’t being followed before falling in to step beside him.
“I need names?” I told him.
“Names cost money,” he said.
I peeled off a couple of greenbacks and he went to grab them but I pulled them away.
“Let’s hear you sing first,” I said.
“You can’t talk about crime fiction without mentioning the godfather of the sub-genre. Colin Bateman has been doing crime fiction with a Northern Irish sense of humour since the late nineties,” he muttered.
“His first novel, Divorcing Jack, is practically a modern day classic but he’s remained cutting edge by evolving his stories in line with the continually changing political climate of his settings.
“Then there’s this new buck from Derry. Brian McGilloway took the crime fiction scene by storm with his debut, Borderlands, set in his current hometown, Lifford.
“Adrian McKinty is a Carrickfergus man who lives in Australia. His most recent release, The Bloomsday Dead, ended the trilogy featuring Michael Forsythe, a Northern Irish hard-hardhard man with a poetic inner dialogue.
“McKinty writes prose that would make many literary types wail in envious frustration. And he mixes this deft skill with heart-wrenching, gut-punching tales of extreme violence.
“Belfast native, Sam Millar, is handling the noir end of things. In Millar’s
latest, Bloodstorm, Karl Kane is a hard-drinking, heavy-gambling, emotionally-wretched PI who has his ear to the ground on the mean streets of Belfast. When he’s not hiding from his traumatic past, he’s greasing the palms of the scummiest gangsters of the underworld to get the answers his customers are paying for.
“And then there’s Garbhan Downey. Drawing on years of experience as a journalist covering Northern Ireland politics, Downey’s novels have proved him a master satirist. His political thrillers are an education into Northern Ireland’s fantastic journey through the peace process, employing great humour and understanding to a difficult subject.”
“Does the legacy of the Troubles often filter through into novels by writers from the north?” I asked.
“Absolutely,” said Brennan. “It has to. Today’s Northern Irish writers have lived through the Troubles, affected to varying degrees. Many of them, I would imagine, have dealt with their demons by writing them. Kind of like taking a deep breath and checking under the bed, just to prove to yourself that you’re not going to let fear rule.
“South of the border, the roar of the Celtic Tiger heralded a new wave of crime fiction. Writers such as Declan Hughes and Tana French are very much at the forefront of this phenomenon, revelling in the new cool of Dublin and sharing their vision of the fair city’s criminal underbelly. With wealth came a new class of criminal to the Republic, and that has been the starting block for the excellent crime fiction coming out of there.”
I decided to pay a visit to Declan Burke. The Sligo man was the author of The Big O (2007) – a story about a tiger kidnapping – and Eightball Boogie (2003). He was also the brains behind the crimealwayspays blogspot, a site devoted to Irish and international crime fiction. With The Big O published last week in the US and its sequel due in 2009 Burke was moving in to the big time.
I finally managed to track him down to the sort of seedy bar where only journalists and slimeballs hang out. Same thing really. Burke saw me coming and tried to make a break for it but I’d been expecting that and already had my Dictaphone pressed to his nose. It was a tense moment but then he just shrugged and smirked.
“Whaddya wanna know?” he demanded.
“Why do you do it?” I asked. “Why write crime fiction?”
“Crime fiction has something to say about modern Ireland, and particularly the rising levels of crime, which have been fuelled by the excess cash sloshing around as a result of the Celtic Tiger economic boom and the demilitarization of various paramilitary armies,” Burke said.
“I think crime fiction is the most relevant form of fiction being written today, as it deals with the realities of everyday life. But it’s not just concerned with gangland crime and the kind of people described as ‘criminals’ and ‘thugs’ in the tabloid press. For example various politicians have had their finances well and truly explored by various tribunals in Dublin Castle, tribunals which were set up to investigate the possibility of political corruption. So there’s all kinds of crime to be written about, whether it’s blue collar or white collar.”
“So what’s with the Yanks. Why are they interested in us?”
“American writers and fans I’ve spoken with have suggested that Irish writers have a particularly potent mix of poetry and darkness, although that might well be simply a case of perpetuating a stereotype. I think the bald truth is that Irish crime writers, once the ‘mean streets’ arrived in Ireland, proved themselves just as capable of writing good crime stories as any other nationality, and that the Irish-American connection has helped them get a sympathetic hearing.
“But that sentimental attachment will only get you so far – once you get a fair hearing, you need to be good enough to capitalise on it. John Connolly, for example, sets all of his stories in the US, in Maine especially, so he wasn’t playing on the ‘Oirish’ stereotype in order to get established. He just proved that he was the equal, if not better, of many American writers. And once you’re as good as John Connolly, the rest is easy.”

Sunday, 2 November 2008

Manchán Magan

This is a version of an article which I wrote and ran in The Irish News on Saturday (1/11/08).

Global nomad Manchán Magan has diced with death in Africa and South America, fallen in love with a Hollywood actress, lived as a hermit in the Himalayas and tried to persuade people on the Shankill Road in Belfast to speak to him in Irish. He talks about his newest travel book, Truck Fever

TO call Truck Fever a travel book is a disservice to what is also a sociological study of a small, intense and mostly screwed-up bunch of people, a psychological dissection of an extremely troubled young man who feels cast adrift from society and a political commentary on the legacy of colonialism and western exploitation in Africa.
It is also a good old-fashioned adventure story where the reader is often left wondering – ‘how the hell is he going to get out of this one?’
Although it is the third in his series of travel books, Truck Fever recounts Magan’s first big adventure in 1990 while emotionally reeling from his father’s recent death.
He travels on the back of a lorry with a group of 20 others into the deserts and mountains of north Africa, through lush forests and jungles in the centre of the continent, along the Congo River and into the safari parks in the east.
“I’d already published an Irish version of the African trip [Manchán ar Seachrán]. I tried to do it first in English but I couldn’t get it right.
I wanted the writing to be fresh,” he says.
“Then I started writing Angels and Rabies [published in 2006] because I wanted to get that part of my life out of the way.”
Angels and Rabies tells of Magan’s journey through South and North America during which he was bitten by a rabid dog in Ecuador and contemplated his imminent demise until he was given a last-minute vaccination.
He then falls for and loses the Hollywood starlet, whose identity he hints at but never actually names.
His second travel book in English is A Journey Through India (2007) – the Irish version was Baba-ji – which chronologically comes after his time in the Americas. In the first page we find him living in the high Himalayas, drinking his own urine as part of an ayurvedic skin treatment and helping out once a week in a sanctuary for lepers.
He had spent so much time on his own contemplating the depths of his mind that he felt close to insanity until his brother Ruan arrived in 1996 with a television camera and persuaded Manchán to front a documentary for the newly-established Telefis na Gaelige, now TG4.
The brothers went on to make 50 travel documentaries, shooting sequences in Irish and then reshooting them again in English to ensure that the series could be syndicated to a wider international audience.
Magan says he wrote copious diaries during his African adventure 18 years ago and that he referred constantly to these when writing Truck Fever to try to be as true to the 20-year-old that he was then.
“I definitely tried to get in to my mindset at the time. My mind would have been swimming with thoughts at the time and I tried to fit these in to the narrative line,” he says.
“I tried to write about Africa when I got back but I couldn’t. The things I write about in Truck Fever I wouldn’t have thought were all that important at the time. There were other great stories to tell when I came home but with benefit of hindsight you get a new perspective.
“I was incredibly naive at the time. I mean the sort of things that happened to me then will never happen to me again. I wouldn’t allow it. Now I would fish out my visa card to get out of some of those situations but it is different when you are younger.”
The group dynamic of his travel companions is a central theme of Truck Fever.
They include a man who believes he was once abducted by aliens, a bullying group leader who punches Magan at one point and a former British soldier who claims to have “tortured” Bobby Sands by parking a chip van beneath his prison cell air vent when he was on hunger strike.
Magan says living in close proximity to the 20 people he shared his journey with gave him an insight into how humans will divide into sub groups, prey on the weakest among them and ultimately betray one another for the sake of self-survival.
“It made a great impression on me and impacted everything about how I would live my life after that,” he says.
He now lives mostly as a recluse in a self-planted forest in Co Westmeath, writing and still making the occasional television series for TG4 – most notably last year’s No Béarla (No English) in which he travelled throughout Ireland and attempted to live day to day by speaking only Irish.
During the series he encountered open hostility and was repeatedly asked to speak English even in traditional Gaeltacht areas.
However, he was impressed with what he saw in Belfast, although he was advised while standing on the Shankill Road that speaking Irish might not be such a great idea.
Magan doesn’t plan to make any more series of No Béarla and has no more plans for any travel books, however, he has a novel coming out, I nGrá (In Love) and plans an English version.
“I still need to retreat deeper and deeper into my mind. That is what I want to write about,” he said.
“I haven’t got the words for describing that yet but that is what I want to do and I’m willing to take as long as it takes.”
Truck Fever by Manchán Magan is published by Brandon Books. £9.99.
Visit Manchán.com where you can order his books and watch a few clips from his documenaties.

Thursday, 30 October 2008

The Lost Chord

This the opening section of my novel The Lost Chord. It is available from the publisher Lagan Press or from Amazon.
It was reviewed by bloggers at Crimesceneni and Fionnchu.
I also liked the review carried by The Irish Emigrant website.

WHILE flicking through TV channels I am suddenly confronted with a vision of my past, my face fresh and smiling between the parted drapes of shoulder length hair. I am astounded at my composure as Ipick out a medium-paced lick, my fingers sliding along the neck of my guitar to hit the higher notes. The camera pulls away from me as the band’s singer Gino steps forward to a microphone and takes up the vocal. His hair has been tied back into a ponytail leaving his bog oak-coloured face more exposed and angular than usual, its narrowness accentuated by his drooping, tight-pinched nose. From his left ear hangs a tangled crucifix and from the long purple suede coat that he wears dangles a variety of medals, badges, feathers and shrubbery. As he sings, his fingers are constantly moving, chunking out a mixture of rhythm and riff until midway through the song they fly off into a guitar solo that seems to cover a dozen octaves at the same time. The camera breaks from Gino and pans to his right where the bass player Finn perches casually on the drum riser with one booted leg curled around the other as he expertly manipulates notes from his instrument. He is wearing dark green-tinted granny glasses and a decrepit top hat with spiked tufts of ginger hair poking through holes in it. The focus shifts just behind him to where the drummer Aaron is a spasm of constant movement, his head and entire body jerking in time to the rhythms that he hammers out, his eyes clenched shut and forehead bathed in sweat. The shot then cuts to keyboard player Justin, his eyes darting towards the camera as he delights in the attention, a cigarette burning between his lips as his hands flit between the triple-decked bank of synthesisers and organ. Then it is back to Gino in time for the final moments of his guitar solo and the last verse of the song.

The footage was shot about a year after I had joined Duil. We had been asked by a Belgian TV station to play three songs live in their Antwerp studio for a documentary they were making about the band when we were at the height of our success.

The next clip, however, shows a totally different band playing a concert in Argentina and the contrast is dramatic. The footage is from our last debauched world tour and in retrospect it is easy to see that disaster was on the cards. The film clip starts with a lingering silhouetted shot of Gino taking a long slug from a bottle before turning back to face the camera and audience. Coming immediately after the Belgian footage it is shocking to see how his earthy-looking complexion has been drained to a listless grey, the sinews of his neck and forehead are prominent and his eyes are covered by shades. He strums a couple of times at his guitar, shrugs and almost accidentally picks up on the opening riff of a song called ‘Sahara Night’ followed half-heartedly by the rest of the band. A shot of Aaron shows him making all the right moves but with little passion, for while he taps out a faultless rhythm, his body is rigid and tense. Finn’s hair is still spiked and fiery and he wears his tinted granny glasses, but he too seems lethargic, standing slumped against an amp, his face set into a scowl. Justin nods in time at his keyboards, but avoids eye contact with the camera which pans across to where I am standing in the half shadows at the side of the stage. My head is dipped towards my guitar and I seem oblivious to the intrusion of the camera as I play a counter melody to Gino’s riff; when I look up I glance across the stage to where Gino is, my eyes haunted and wary, afraid

that at any minute he will launch an attack on some member of the audience.

Although I have seen this footage before I am still shocked at my own appearance and the contrast between the confident, slightly stoned guitarist who was on the screen a few minutes earlier and the emaciated and scraggly bearded figure I had become.