Thursday, 29 January 2009

Never mind the mbalax

I dug out half a dozen cassette tapes I bought a few years ago and have been scanning the web trying to find ways of transferring them on to CD. There is software you can download for free and cables can be bought cheaply, but even in these times of credit crunch I keep thinking it would be simpler to take them in somewhere and get them copied.
The problem with this is that the tapes are blank cassettes onto which music has been recorded. A company which specialises in transferring material from tape to CD might object because it would put them in breach of copyright laws. However, the cassettes were bought at a street booth in a market in Africa where the practice of simply taping albums and selling them to customers is widespread.
I've been listening to African music since the late 1980s when I went to see Zimbabwean group the Bhundu Boys in the Mean Fiddler in London. I'd heard them on John Peel's show on BBC radio but not really taken that much notice of them.
Being tall and gangly I'm not a natural dancer - all arms and legs, creating a health hazard for those standing nearby – so I try to avoid it. However, that night at the Mean Fiddler I found myself writhing into all sort of contortions with the tripping, jangling, guitar-driven sound known as 'township jive'.
I bought a couple of albums on vinyl, and later CD, but they never really captured the energy of the live show. Never-the-less, I was more inclined to listen to African music when Peel played it rather than waiting impatiently for the Dead Kennedys or The Fall.
After a couple of years in London I moved to Madrid and my musical tastes broadened even further – not so much in terms of Flamenco, which I don't mind, but more in Galician folk music and, I have to admit, some very dodgy Spanish pop.
I also used to frequent a tiny little salsa bar called Club Ombu, which was still there in Calle Santa Ana, not far from the Prado, last time I looked. This opened up another musical genre for me and led to quite a few minor injuries among the mostly South American clientele who attended after they got to close to the flailing limbs of the geeky Paddy in the middle of the dance floor.
After moving back to Ireland I started buying into the musical genre now known as world music, which basically covers everything from North African 'Rai', Cuban 'Son', Siberian throat singing, Bollywood soundtracks and even African-Irish fusion.
I've a fairly extensive record collection (1,000 or so CDS) and I'd say maybe a quarter of those are by artists who are singing in a language that I don't understand.
West African music is my speciality, particularly from Senegal and Mali, but touching into the Arabic-influenced sounds of North Africa as well. Orchestra Baobab, Youssou N'Dour and Baaba Maal from Senegal and Malian artists Ali Farka Toure and Toumani Diabaté are fairly mainstream in terms of world music aficionados.
Tuareg nomads Tinariwen are romanticised as rebels who roamed the Sahara Desert with guns and guitars strapped to their backs, trying to establish a separatist state while listening to the music of Bob Dylan. Their albums combine harsh guttural vocals and tribal wails with punk-inspired guitar riffs and their live act has been described by Andy Kershaw (another BBC radio DJ who sadly seems to have fallen on hard times) as the closest thing he has ever seen to the Clash.
Three years ago myself and Sinead went to Gambia in west Africa and had vaguely planned to travel to Dakar, the capital of neighbouring Senegal, to take in some live music. However, we were told it would take days to get there by bus and the cost of hiring a driver and car for an 18-hour trip was prohibitive, although we did cross over into Senegal for a couple of days of getting bitten by mosquitoes in a mangrove swamp.
Back in Gambia I'd a list of Mbalax (Senegalese Lation-infused rock, with elements of soul and African rhythms) artists whose music I wanted to get hold off and so got our regular taxi driver, Yanx, to drive us into Banjul. Yanx - a dreadlocked reggae fan - had the most battered taxi in Gambia and a journey with him was always an adventure. On the first day we were stuck in a huge tailback of cars and he tried to cut past it on the hard shoulder until he saw the road was blocked by soldiers.
"Aw shit. It's the president," he moaned as he almost collided with a couple of Daimlers and their outriders who were speeding past on Gambia's only tarmac-ed stretch of road. Fortunately we weren't shot.
Yanx took us to a couple of stalls before he was happy with the price that I was going to be charged - I think the real rip-off guys were going to charge £1 per album while Yanx secured me the much more reasonable 25p, although he was muttering about how terrible it was that I should be ripped off in such a way simply because I was white.
The owner of the music booth went through my list, ticking off the albums he had, shaking his head at others and saying they were really old and that he didn't stock them any more. "Come back in an hour," he said ripping open boxes of blank tapes and slotting them into the machine before recording them off an original.
So me, Sinead and Yanx wandered off to sit in the shade for a while and have something to eat. No doubt the artists who made the albums resent the loss of royalties that such a practice means for them, but Yanx said it was better for them to get their albums heard by as many people as possible to ensure that they get a good crowd when they play live.
When we got back I was handed over my purchases with nothing but the artists’ names written on them - Es Lo, Super Rail Band, Etoile de Dakar and Le Super Cayor. There was no track listing and so I was never even really sure what the names of the tracks I was listening to were.
Since then our previous stereo packed in and we bought a funky new one last year with DAB radio, iPod port and CD player but no tape deck and until today I’d nothing to play my African cassettes on anymore. For now I’m sitting here listening to Es Lo through Sinead’s headphones on a walkman which I had to borrow from my Da but I reckon I’ll have to try to come to terms with the technology to transfer them to CD before the batteries run out.

Tuesday, 27 January 2009

Everyman by Philip Roth

Philip Roth takes on a subject in Everyman that most people spend their lives trying to avoid thinking about. Death haunts the nameless narrator. Like everyone else he dreads it and tries not to think about it but a series of medical setbacks throughout his life means he is often forced to confront it.
Everyman opens in a Jewish graveyard in New Jersey where the narrator's family have gathered to lay him to rest.
Despite a successful career in advertising the narrator managed to alienate many people during his life. His two sons from his first marriage never forgave him for abandoning their mother.
His brother can not understand why the dead man had become so distant from him in the latter years of his life. His second wife had left him because of infidelity.It is only the narrators’ daughter from that second marriage who really mourns him.
Much of Everyman reads like a medical directory describing the conditions which strike down the narrator, how they affect him and the medical procedures that he undergoes to treat them.
We are also given a rundown of the various ailments, often terminal, that afflicted his parents, one of his ex-wives, former work colleagues and neighbours in the retirement village where he spent his final years.
"Old age isn't a battle; old age is a massacre."
He resents the fragility of his body and the way that it can interfere with the act of living and becomes increasingly resentful about his older brother who remains robustly healthy and has never spent a day in hospital.
Despite his preoccupation with his poor health and ultimate demise the narrator manages to life a full if flawed and bitter life.
He resents his sons for resenting him and not trying to understand that he left their mother because the marriage was unbearable to him.
He regrets the hurt he caused to his second wife and his daughter by having an affair which ultimately led to the break-up of that marriage, only to be followed by a disasterous marriage to a woman who is half his age and unable to cope with the narrator's deteriorating condition.
He spends his final years alone after moving from New York in the wake of 9/11 fearing that his life and those of everyone else in the city are at risk from further attacks.
A recurring setting is the Jewish graveyard, in which he will be eventually buried, where he attends his father's funeral and visits again just a few weeks before his own death.
There is no speculation about what happens after death. Roth's narrator abandoned Judaism just after his bar mitzvah when he was 13 and despite deteriorating health and time spend on life support machines death to him is simply the end of life after which nothing but the decay of the human body happens.
Standing in the cemetery by his parent's grave, and listening to the narrator's stream of consciousness we are told: "The flesh melts away but the bones endure. The bones were the only solace there was to one who put no stock in the afterlife and knew without a doubt that God was a fiction and that this was the only life he'd have."
Although the novel is not an easy read it is in someways a necessary one and even quite liberating.
As John Lennon sang: “Life is what happens to you when you’re busy making other plans.” And however much we try to deny it death is the inevitable consequence of life.

Thursday, 22 January 2009

The Ecstacy of Angus by Liam O'Flaherty

Robert Graves is probably more famous for the personal mythology that he developed in The White Goddess than the poems that his muse actually inspired. It is to this personal mythology category that Liam O’Flaherty’s novella The Ecstacy of Angus seems to fall.
While much of O’Flaherty’s writing is poetic I am not aware that he ever wrote any verse but many of the sentences in this piece possess a rhythm and diction more often found in a poem.
It is O’Flaherty’s attempt at a creation myth, telling the story of “ever-youthful Angus, god of love” wandering through the land of Banba (an ancient name for Ireland) and “saving his mortal children from Crom, the dark lord of death”.
There children are not his offspring but ‘inspired’ into being by Angus, who in the same ways inspires the rest of nature to reproduce - animals, insects, fish. However, their numbers have soon grown to such an extent that there is no longer any room on Banba and people start turning against one another and fighting for territory.
Angus approaches Mananaan, the god of the sea, and asks him to give up part of the ocean to create land for people to live on.
But with words that could be found in a Gnostic text Mananaan tells Angus that overcrowding and strife in Banba is: “the outcome of your rash conceit, which drove you to the senseless task of making mortal beings in your own image, but without the fullness of your power. Restless, passionate youth, with little knowledge you undertook a monstrous labour, which required wisdom beyond the comprehension of your feverish mind.”
In anger Mananaan whips up a storm and Angus is forced to flee from the sea to shelter in a glen where he is discovered by “the fairy princess” Fand.
Fand is an archetypal femme fatale, intent on seducing Angus– although admittedly it is unusual for such women to be surrounded by an entourage of sprites who pleasure both her and her conquest during foreplay.
Like her predecessors – or maybe in terms of mythological timescales successors – Eve, Delilah, Salome, Cleopatra and Morgan le Fey, Fand’s seduction of Angus ultimately leads to his downfall.
Her sole aim was to become pregnant by him so that she should become “the mother of a host of kings”. However, Angus has been left emasculated, his eternal youth drained from him and left as a fragile old man.
He encounters another Gnostic like entity, “the Genius of Unrest” who is “neither god nor human, since I am part of the universal space, of which neither gods nor humans have yet gained comprehension”.
The Genius of Unrest, along side the Tree of Knowledge, says he will enter the minds of Angus’s offspring and “shall give him no peace”.
As he dies Angus “curse[s] with my last breath, man, whose blood shall be salt and who shall forever languish in desolate pain”.
The novel ends with the words “Hail! Genius is born.”
John Zneimer in the The Literary Vision of Liam O’Flaherty writes that O’Flaherty felt that this was what was taking part in himself.
“Genius is the quality of being possessed, being driven, being used by a more than human force,” writes Zneimer.
He continues: “For O’Flaherty, genius is above all mere complexities. It is concerned with a different realm, ‘the cold majesty of Beauty’, and to attain that all mere human pleasures and aspirations must be forsaken.”
That O’Flaherty associates himself with genius is perhaps arrogant but then he was an arrogant man and in spite of his avowed communism he was often contemptuous of “peasants” and ordinary working people.
The Ecstacy of Angus was first published in 1931, but the Wolfhound edition I picked up very cheaply online was reprinted in 1978 and includes line drawings that would not be out of place in an illustrated edition of the Mahabharat.
The language is over-flowery and probably embarrassing to those who might have been looking for something in the style of The Assassin or The Informer. However, O’Flaherty’s literary terms of reference were wide and as readers of his short stories will know he can write just an intensely about events in a rock pool on the shores of the Atlantic Ocean as he can about an interrogation in a seedy Dublin tenement.
(I couldn't find an image of the book cover so settled for this image of Mananaan for now)

Wednesday, 21 January 2009

Trauma by Patrick McGrath

A psychologist who has spent a career identifying the debris thrown up by other people’s unconsciousness to trip them up in life is unable to deal with his own internal demons in Patrick McGrath’s novel Trauma.
Set in New York in the 1970s many of Charlie Weir’s patients are Vietnam vets suffering from the still unnamed post traumatic stress disorder. One of the most damaged in Charlie’s brother-in-law Danny whose best friend died at his side and who eventually takes his own life.
Charlie believes that his wife, Agnes, blames him for being unable to treat her brother and he leaves her, carrying this guilt with him.
He also feels guilty that he was never able to treat his own mother’s depression. The relationship complicated by the fact that she rejected him in favour of his brother Walt who never tried to interfere when his mother was depressed while Charlie was always at her bedroom door trying to comfort her.
“It is the mothers who propel most of us into psychiatry, usually because we have failed them,” he writes.
With all this Oedipal baggage Charlie also has to deal with a peripatetic father, who abandoned his family when Charlie and Walt were still boys, and a poisonous relationship with his brother.
Walt introduces Charlie to Nora and they begin a relationship, even though Charlie is having an affair with ex-wife Agnes, who has remarried, and he suspects Walt is having an affair with Nora.
There is a large dollop of Freudian psychology in here and McGrath explores how suppressed memories, childhood hurts and guilty adult secrets can sneak out of the dark caverns of our mind where we have tried to stash them away and forget about them.
It is an angry book in terms of how the US became involved in Vietnam in the first place but also how those who were sent there to kill and who saw their closest friends die were abandoned and left to deal by themselves with survival guilt and nightmares about the lives they had taken.
McGrath is comfortable with the language of psychology, dream analysis and mental trauma manifesting itself as physical debilitation, but his novel doesn’t get too bogged down in terminology.
I did however find myself reaching for my Lonely Planet Guide to New York to keep up with the peregrinations of the narrator. (On a sideline the last four novels set in New York that I’ve read have all used the city’s topography and landmarks to varying degrees as a central part of their narration – Trauma, Michael Cunningham’s The Hours, Philip Roth’s The Dying Animal and Benjamin Black’s The Lemur).
The psyche is a landscape for McGrath as much as Manhattan, where most of Trauma is set. Charlie feels that he is drawn to Nora because he can sense that she is psychologically damaged as well. It is this relationship, the ongoing affair with his ex-wife Agnes and the coming to terms with the death of his mother that start to prise open the fractures in Charlie’s own psyche.
While he enjoys some success in treating his patients he ignores the symptoms of his own gradual mental decline. He points them out and notes them but tries to ignore them. Inevitably he is overcome by “the nightmares, the flashbacks, the panic attack, the rage”.
Trauma is an edgy, uncomfortable novel to read. Charlie is not a character who necessarily draws the reader’s sympathy but you can’t help being carried along with him on his slowly unfolding downfall and the sense of dread that reality is slipping away and being undermined by a dark suppressed memory floating just below his consciousness.

Sunday, 18 January 2009

The Bridge by Iain Banks

Iain Banks takes on the unconscious and man's need to create images to interprete what is going on there in this novel.
The narrator, Orr, is in a coma following after a high-speed crash on a suspension bridge in Scotland although what happened to him doesn't really become clear until later in the novel.
He is living on a huge bridge that spans a expanse of water dividing The City and The Kingdom. Orr has lost his memory and is being treated by a psychiatrist who has asked him to write down his dreams.
He has a comfortable flat and money, a good social life and is allowed to travel fairly extensively, although as a patient there are limits.
However, the bridge is a Kafkaesque place with a hierarchy of inhabitants and whose customs and rules Orr is never really sure about.
He finds himself being evicted and moved to a cell-like room and his income slashed and no-one is able to tell him why.
There are other hints that all is not well. When he switches on his television he can only receive images of a man wired up to a life-support machine and when he lifts his phone all he can hear are a series of beeps.
Orr searches for a library that no-one has heard of and which when he does come across it is on fire with emergency crews rushing around desperately trying to control it.
This was the only real image of a subconscious trying to deal with what had happened to it that worked for me, the rest seemed to be merely whims of Banks.
He inserts dreams, fantasy sequences and a fairly straightforward biography of the man in the hospital bed and in whose mind we are travelling.
The chapter headings are geological eras, becoming more recent as the book progresses, presumably to reflect Orr's progress from the deepest parts of his coma to just below the surface of reality.
Banks's plot gives him plenty of scope to create a world in which tall tales are told and stretching credulity is not really an issue because what we are witnessing is in someone's mind.
Its an entertaining enough read but doesn't really do justice the vastness and weirdness of the unconscious.

Monday, 12 January 2009

Joe Strummer was actually born John Mellor, but changed his name to Woody in the late 1960s when he became a hippy and only adopted his best-known moniker just before he became a punk.
In the same way that he dropped identities he also dropped, friends, girlfriends and fellow band members.
Julian Temple's biopic Joe Strummer: The Future is Unwritten is his latest contribution to a growing cannon of films relating to punk and its major players.
The Great Rock and Roll Swindle from 1980 and The Filth and the Fury (2000) focused on the Sex Pistols. He has also just released The Sex Pistols: There'll Always be an England, featuring concert footage from their reunion gigs last year.
Temple uses similar techniques to his earlier films to illustrate the early years of Strummer's life - animation and movie clips (If..., Animal Farm and 1984) - before dipping in to the huge catalogue of film featuring Strummer and The Clash.
An array of first-hand witnesses who appear to be seated around a campfire narrate much of The Future is Unwritten. However, there are no captions to tell you who these people are. Bono and Clash guitarist Mick Jones are easy enough but even an old punk like me struggled for a few seconds before recognising the much-filled-out Sex Pistols guitarist Steve Jones,
Strummer, was born in Turkey, the second son of a British diplomat and spent his early years living abroad until he and his brother were sent to boarding school in England.
In interviews he tell us that he was always a gang leader and constantly talking, as opposed to his older brother, David, who was more insular and rarely spoke. David, who became involved in a far-right group and covered his room in Nazi symbols, died by suicide when he was 19 and Strummer had to identify his body.
Strummer, who had changed his name to Woody, after Woody Guthrie, spent the next few years at art college and working in factories, as a gardener and grave digger before moving to a squat in London.
He made money by busking and in London formed a rockabilly band the 101-ers and started writing songs including one for his girlfriend at the time who went on to become Slits drummer Palmolive.
It was John Lydon who coined the phrase 'never trust a hippy' but I always saw punks as the bastard children of the hippies, often sharing a distrust of society, a belief in the individual and a do-it-yourself approach to life.
Woody Mellor became Joe Strummer in 1975 and the following year when he saw the Sex Pistols playing he left the 101-ers to form The Clash. He also left much of his dope-smoking hippy lifestyle, his girlfriend and other friends behind.
While the Sex Pistols imploded after barely 18 months together The Clash took up the punk mantle and ran with it, broadening its appeal by introducing elements of reggae.
Despite abandoning his hippy persona, Strummer had a social concious. His politics were left-wing and his lyrics were often about social injustice and world affairs.
However, there were constant tensions between him and fellow band members, particularly drummer Topper Headon – who was sacked from the band – and, later, guitarist Mick Jones.
Strummer seemed to almost resent the popularity of The Clash, particularly in the US where they became stadium headliners.
When the Clash ended up with Strummer as the only original member he eventually called it quits.
He broadcast on the BBC World Service, made a few movies and toured with the Pogues for a while, replacing Shane MacGowan as vocalist - The Future is Unwritten has footage of a young, fully-toothed MacGowan pogoing at an early Clash gig.
Legal battles with The Clash's record label meant Strummer was unable to record but when these were eventually ironed out he formed a new group The Mescaleros that despite a punk sensibility had a mellow, almost world-music type vibe. It was almost as if Strummer had returned to his hippy roots.
I never, saw The Clash, but did see The Mescaleros in the Limelight, a small venue in Belfast, in 1999.
It was memorable for two reasons - firstly the music - Clash songs White Man in Hammersmith, Straight to Hell, Bankrobber, London's Burning and White Riot - mixed in with Mescalero material.
However, I also remember Strummer complaining about the heat and asking for the fire doors to be open and lying down on stage while he sang Straight to Hell.
After the gig I went to the toilets and saw a door had been flung open to a room where the band were gathered and Strummer was lying flat out on a table, stripped to his waist and covered in sweat and while watching The Future is Unwritten that image of him kept coming back to me.
He died the following year from a heart condition aged 50. A few months before he had been joined on stage by Mick Jones during a Mescaleros gig.
The Future is Unwritten suggests that he was much more at ease with himself and had made amends with many of those he had abandoned.
However, in the year that he died he told an interviewer: "This is my Indian summer. I learnt that fame is an illusion and everything about it is just a joke. I'm far more dangerous now, because I don't care at all."

Saturday, 10 January 2009

In the mountains

I took my first walk of the new year into the Mournes on Thursday and slipped and fell three times on ice – and slid once beside a very high precipice.
Although there was a bit of hoarfrost on the ground on the way up I really didn't expect it to be quite as treacherous.
I went up a route known as the Trassey Track which starts off as a dirt road that takes you up to Pollaphouca (which translates from Irish as ‘the Devil’s cauldron’) that lies between Slieve Meelmore and Slieve Bernagh.
But two thirds of the way up I cut off to the left and started clambering up a fairly steep rocky slope to the Hares Gap.
During the warmer weather you can often see carnivorous butterwort growing between the crevices in the rock - a sticky-leafed plant in which flies and small insects become caught and are slowly devoured.
I was busy looking for signs of butterwort when my foot slid from me and I ended up arse about tit and lying winded on my back.
A raven - the harbinger of death in Celtic mythology - cawed from above me before banking off towards Pollaphouca
I hadn't gone up too far at that point and of course the really proper, sensible thing would have been to sheepishly clamber down again, drive to Newcastle and go for a walk along the beach.
But, stupid, stubborn ould git that I am I went on and hadn't gone too far when once again my foot slipped on a rock and sent me tumbling.
I thought seriously then that enough was enough but then looked up and saw I wasn't that far from the Hare's Gap and so went on, determined to take my time and pay more attention to where I was putting my feet.
Once through the gate set into the Mourne Wall I was in the heart of the mountains and I thought it was worth the minor mishaps that had left me with a few bruises but nothing too serious.
Sitting there looking down into the valley below, surrounded on all sides by the mountains I was glad I'd continued. On a day like today there would be few people up here. Just me... and the ravens.
I set off along a track known as the Brandy Pad – named because it used to be used by smugglers to bring illegal goods landed on the rocky coast that runs along the Ballagh over the mountains and inland.
It runs along the slopes that lead up to Slievenagloch and Commedagh and under a buttress-like rock formation known as The Castles.
It was here that I fell for the third time. The beginnings of a river that cuts across the path had frozen solid. I could see the danger before I got to it and slowly edged my way across it using my stick to steady myself. It was no good, my feet went from under me and once again I was lying sprawled on the ground.
I got up and tenderly pressed the newest bruises to my growing collection but I was also apprehensive now because the route I planned to take down again was very steep.
It runs from the gap between Slieve Commedagh and Slieve Donard, known as the Saddle, down along the Glen River and into Donard Wood that sits above Newcastle.
When I first started walking in the Mournes with my Dad when I was kid this steep slope was covered with scree which you had to clamber up, showering anyone coming behind you with flakes of granite.
In recent years stone steps have been cut into it which makes life much easier going up and down, except that is when running water has frozen into sheets of ice.
I tried to stay on the hoary heather but this often meant walking precariously close to a sheer drop to my left.
I was like a blind man, tapping the ground ahead of me with my stick and trying to shuffle –not an easy thing to do when you are going down a 45 degree slope.
Long before I got to it I spotted an area where the steps had frozen solid but I was so busy being apprehensive about this that I did not notice that I was walking just inches from the edge of the step. This was probably a good thing, for when my foot slipped and hovered briefly in mid-air I didn’t over react, managed to balance myself with my stick and move back a bit.
It was only then that I realised how close I’d come to tipping over a 30 foot drop. When I got to the ice sheet there was nothing else for it. There was no way I was even going to put a foot near it and so lowered myself down onto my backside and eased myself across.
Back on my feet it took another half hour to get onto slightly less precarious ground and I cursed at myself for putting myself in such a situation and then smirked, proud that I had survived.

Wednesday, 7 January 2009

The Silver Swan by Benjamin Black

"In his mind sometimes he got it all confused, got it all out of sequence..."
These words form part of an internal monologue by a character towards the end of The Silver Swan by Benjamin Black and in many ways it sums up this novel.
Despite having 350 pages in which to plant clues and lay trails for the reader to follow which all converge in a moment of realisation Black ends up having to explain exactly what had been happening all along.
It is a bit like the end of an episode of Scooby Doo when Velma tells us who the bad guy was, why he'd done it an how he got away with it.
Again, as in Christine Falls (CF), reviewed a few entries ago, the central character Quirke fails to come to life.
He is fleshed out a little and there is a bit more psychological depth to him but Black still needs other characters or his authorial voice to tell us that Quirke is complicated loner rather than through characterisation.
The novel is peppered with inconsistencies, cliches, reliance on coincidences and just stupid mistakes.
Quirke's daughter Phoebe, who at the end of CF had had become an heiress following the death of her millionaire grandfather, is working as an assistant in a hat shop.
Despite trying to expose his foster father and foster brother for the wrong doings he uncovered in CF, Quirke still pays them reqular visits.
One of the main protagonists is The Silver Swan is an English spiv called Leslie who is straight out a 1950's Ealing comedy who all-but twirls his moustache and exhales 'well heeeellllloooo' every time a pretty girl walks in to the room.
Quirke's daughter just happens to get caught up with one of the characters linked to a woman whose death Quirke is investiaging.
A policeman comically twirls his tie "like Stan Laurel" - surely it was Ollie who did that?
Benjamin Black's alter ego John Banville can get away without a plot because his novels are carefully paced exercises in styalised prose.
In his Booker winning novel The Sea, the plot could be scribbled on the back of a beer mat. But the external incidents are less important than the slow disection of the narrator's psyche and flashbacks to a childhood summer which we eventually realise defined him as person.
Part of the pleasure in reading The Sea is the act of reading itself, the plot is something on which Banville hangs his prose.
However, as Benjamin Black, Banville, has opted for the crime fiction genre in which plot is much more important but as his character says "sometimes he got it all confused".
Its not all bad and The Silver Swan is an entertaining enough read but somehow you get the feeling that Black/Banville has taken an 'ah sure that'll do' approach.

Tuesday, 6 January 2009

Liam O'Flaherty

A box-set of Liam O'Flaherty's Complete Short Stories as a Christmas present has made me think again about the possibility of writing a biography about him some time.
It is surprising that such a prolific writer who led a peripatetic and adventurous life has never been subject to a full biography before.
He was born on Inishmore, one of the Aran Islands, in 1896 and was brought up speaking English and Irish and developed a reputation as a story teller when he was child.
He was sent to a Catholic boarding school when he was 12 on the understanding that he would eventually be ordained into the priesthood but later admitted that he had no vocation. Despite this he was admitted to UCD but dropped out to fight for the British army in the First World War.
He was wounded and suffered from shell shock for many years. O'Flaherty fictionalised his wartime experiences in the novel Return of the Brute.
In 1918 he began a period of world wondering after signing up as a crew member on a cargo ship.
He sailed to the Mediterranean and to the port of Izmir in modern day Turkey where he went on a massive bender. From there O'Flaherty sailed back to Britain and then on to South America where he jumped ship in Brazil.
He managed to hitch a lift back across the Atlantic until he joined another ship and sailed to Canada from where he made his way to New York and became involved in the trades union movement and joined the Communist Party.
By 1921 he was back in Ireland and became involved in a fringe anti-Treaty group during the Irish Civil War and seized the Rotunda in Dublin where he raised the red flag.
He managed to escape before the Free State army overran the Rotunda and while standing outside the GPO in O'Connell Street overheard a woman saying: "Did you hear that bloody murderer Liam O’Flaherty is killed, thanks be to God.”
He fled to London, with a pistol strapped to his back and it was there that he started writing short stories and novels.
O'Flaherty continued to travel widely and went to the USSR and spent a lot of time in France. He also spent many years in Los Angeles working as script writer.
As well as his novels and short stories he wrote a number of biographical books. Two Years tells about his time travelling on the cargo ships, while Shame the Devil (which he inscribed 'I offer this dagger to my enemies') recounts another nervous breakdown during the 1930s brought on by writers block. Shame the Devil also revisits some of the key moments of his life.
I think he also wrote a satire about one of the periods he spent working in LA as a script writer called Hollywood Cemetery. He was there in the 1935 and during most of the Second World War.
O'Flaherty returned to Europe in the late 1940s and eventually settled in Dublin where he lived until his death in 1984, although for the last 30 years of his life he did not produce any new material.
His novels are uneven and critics have accused O'Flaherty of never really mastering the format although The Informer, which made into a film by John Ford (a cousin), The Assassin and Famine are still in print.
My own favourite is his early novel The Black Soul, which was partially biographical, and tells of a shell-shocked individualist suffering from a nervous breakdown among a close-knit, superstisious community on an island of the west coast of Ireland.
O'Flaherty's writing can be a bit gauche sometimes and even The Black Soul is a bit ropey in parts. However, it is always passionate.
However, his real achievement was his short stories. There are around 120 in my new box set, including those from Dúil, which was written in Irish, and their English translations.
The best of them are brief, uncluttered pieces steeped in nature or something that seems to capture a pivotal moment in someone’s life and that seems to define everything else that will ever happen to them.
Like so much else about him O'Flaherty's personal life was complicated. He married a divorcee and they had one daughter and he had another daughter with an American woman and various other liaisons.
First-hand witnesses would be hard to come-by now, although there are sure to be some people still alive who knew him well.
The various volumes of autobiography and his collected letters would provide some decent source material, however, using these sources could entail falling into a trap which O’Flaherty himself set for future biographers.
On the very first page of Shame the Devil he writes: “No-one knows what is truth. And therefore, if I lie in attempting to tell the truth in this book, let the blame lie at the door of original sin rather than at the door of my conscience.”
The only thing that resembles a biography to date is a coffee table-style book called Liam O’Flaherty’s Ireland by Peter Costello which includes some biographical material, stories and extracts from his novels and pictures of O’Flaherty, Inishmore and scenes that intended to illustrate his writing.
In his introduction Costello writes: "[O’Flaherty] was a man with a divided nature; even the Gaelic language of his childhood village was not the language his father wanted in the home. Solitary, he tried for many years to gain a foothold in crowded Hollywood. An individualist to the core, spontaneous and restless, by inclination a wanderer, he espoused the fervent Communism so typical of those early twentieth-century writers who were filled with generosity and purity of heart; he was still reading Sartre and Le Drapeau Rouge in the last years of his life. Yet it was a cause that failed him, as it did so many other admirers of Lenin and Trotsky. In touch to his nerve ends with the tides and eddies of creation, he loathed with great bitterness all organised religion, yet spent years studying for the priesthood. In the end he died with the blessing of a priest, reconciled with God, if not with the institution he had so long rejected. O’Flaherty was a strange, often contradictory man, unique among his contemporaries in Irish literature. In his writings we can see the beginnings of much that is now being done in both Gaelic and Irish literature. Though often neglected in the sweep of modern Anglo-American criticism, he was widely appreciated on the continent; and his own love of France and admiration for Russian literature suggest that he was more truly a European writer. "

Friday, 2 January 2009


TWO young men sitting in a kitchen with a small group of others and talking revolution as they eat a meal and drink wine. The scene has probably been played out all over the world and little ever come of it, however, these two men are Che Guevara and Fidel Castro.
Castro and Che first met in Mexico City in 1956 and the following year they sailed to Cuba with just over 80 combatants. Within 18 months they managed to overthrow the corrupt US-backed regime of dictator Fulgenico Batista.
The just-released (in Ireland) Che Part I – The Argentine spends a few minutes dumping information to set the scene and it intercuts the main story with flash-forward scenes to Che addressing the UN in New York in 1964 and explaining to journalists his revolutionary theory.
The main body of the picture is a bit like a war movie with lots of action scenes, gun battles and men marching through jungles but then that is unavoidable in a story about an armed insurrection.
However, there is a gritty reality about these war scenes. We see Che choking as he suffers constant asthma attacks in the humid mountains of the Sierra Maestra, when someone is shot they don’t writhe on the ground in a halo of pyrotechnics. They bleed and die.
The film displays its politics proudly and the action scenes are interspersed with dialogue-driven set pieces where the protagonists talk about the injustices of life under the Batista regime and the theory of building a revolutionary movement.
The filmmakers are firmly pro-Che, he is not a revolutionary for the sake of a scrap. He believes in educating the poor and as a doctor treating those who come to him.
From the mountains and jungles the action gradually moves to small villages, towns and then the city of Santa Clara.
Fidel Castro and his brother Raul move in and out of the action, with Fidel’s appearances usually to set Che some new task that he might not always like but which he obediently carries out and which ultimately helps his development as revolutionary.
Che is portrayed as man who is coming in to his own, developing his revolutionary theory as his popularity among his guerrillas and the peasants who shelter them grows.
From the 80 men who landed with the Castro brother and Che in 1957 the revolution gathers pace with men, women and children queuing to join the rebels.
The rebels are always fair, giving the government soldiers an opportunity to surrender before going in to battle. ‘You will be responsible for the bloodshed,’ Che tells a captain, unless he surrenders.
The government soldiers’ leaders are portrayed as vicious and cowardly - ordering air raids on barrios which the rebels control with no regard for the civilians who live there, sneaking out of an army barracks in civilian clothes but ordering the captain they have left in charge to shoot any deserters.
After seeing the movie I flicked through my copy of Che Guevara A Revolutionary Life by Jon Lee Anderson and the pictures suggest that the make-up people have done a good job in ensuring that the actors in this film resemble the historic characters that they resemble.
Che Part I finishes on January 2 1959, the day after Batista fled Cuba and the revolutionaries declared victory. Part II - Guerrilla, which will not be released here until next month, will undoubtedly take up with the establishment of communism in Cuba and Che’s attempts to spread the revolution throughout Central and South America and Africa.

Thursday, 1 January 2009

Christine Falls by Benjamin Black

Despite having the personality of a granite mortuary slab, the physique of Shrek and a drink intake that would probably floor Shane MacGowan, Benjamin Black's anti-hero Quirke seems to have women falling into his bed without him even having to chat them up.
A nurse caring for him – after he is beaten up and is suffering from a broken leg – can't resist a quicky with him in his hospital bed. A recently widowed woman (his late father-in-laws younger wife) also impulsively tackles him without him having to woo her with chat-up lines and a date at a restaurant.
Maybe it is the number of cigarettes he smokes that makes him so attractive, although I don't remembering women throwing themselves at me just because I happened to be in the same room when I was a smoker.
But then Quirke doesn't just smoke, he breathes tobacco and there is hardly a page in this 380-page novel in which he isn't lighting up, stubbing out or inhaling heavily. There were times I felt like coughing loudly and waving my arms in the air and telling him 'do you mind, I'm trying to breath'.
The central premise of Christine Falls is that The Knights of St Patrick, a secretive Catholic society working in 1950s Ireland, is shipping the babies of young unmarried mothers to the US where they are put up for adoption.
Quirke, a Dublin-based pathologist, only becomes aware of the Knights when he accidently discovers his brother-in-law falsifying the details of a young woman (Christine Falls) who has just died during childbirth.
When he tries to investigate Quirke is threatened (and later badly assaulted) and a woman he speaks to is murdered. Sinister elements are at work trying to cover up the deeds of men who like to portray themselves as good upstanding Christians.
Quirke suspects that his brother-in-law, Mal, is up to his neck in these seedy goings on and despite being told by Mal to back off keeps trying to find out more.
There is ongoing rivalry between the two men. Quirke was rescued from an orphanage by Mal's father, a papal count and senior judge, and the two were brought up like brothers. They both went to Boston in the 1930s and married sisters Delia and Sarah. Quirke married Delia but he really loved Sarah but she married Mal.
Deliah died in child birth and Quirke succumbed to the demon drink but managed to recover, although given the amount of whiskey that he still puts away you wonder how he ever got up in the morning when he was really drinking.
From these elements Black manages to create a novel that carries you along but which never really seems to flow easily.
Black wants his readers to regard Quirke as an interesting anti-hero, the sort of person who women do simply strip off and throw themselves at. But while there is enough there to make Quirke – a tragic loner, betrayed by his adopted brother, shunned by his true love– relatively intriguing, somehow the characterisation doesn't really gel.
Similarly for a crime novel in which Quirke is the man who is unravelling the mystery he doesn't really do that much detective work. People tend to just tell him things and the plot moves on a bit and then he somehow guesses something else.
Never-the-less there is some great writing that is a pleasure to read even though it seems to be there simply because Black likes the sound of the words or the images they create rather than because they move the story forward. Not surprising given that Benjamin Black is an alter ego of Booker prizewinner John Banville
There were also some nice little literary vignettes thrown in, including a couple of the minor characters who seemed to be introduced purely to get the reader guessing who Black might be talking about.
The drunken playwright and novelist who was put in prison for republican activities when he was a teenager has more than a passing resemblance to Brendan Behan, while the drunken, bitter poet sitting in the corner of the pub screamed out to be recognised as Patrick Kavanagh.
Despite the criticisms there was enough going on in Christine Falls to make me want to head down the street in the morning and pick up its sequel, The Silver Swan.