Tuesday, 31 March 2009

The Newton Letter by John Banville

A man is so caught up in imagining dramas and dark secrets among his landlord's family that he fails to notice the real-life tragedy that is going on. John Banville's narrator in The Newton Letter will be a familiar figure to anyone who has read his other books - even those under his crime-writing alias Benjamin Black. He is damaged character, cut adrift from the world who drinks too much, is aloof and misses what has been going on right under his nose.
A sub-plot is the life of Sir Isaac Newton, who the narrator is writing a biography about. However, like Newton's work as a scientist the narrator's biography has stalled. The narrator reflects upon a letter that Newton wrote in which he mentions an "ailment" which has afflicted him.
"He mentions... the absolutes of space and time and motion on which the picture of the mechanistic universe in the Principia is founded, and trots out again, but without quite the old conviction, the defence of such absolutes exist in God, which is all that is asked of them. But then suddenly he is talking about the excursions he makes nowadays along the banks of the Cam, and of his encounters, not with the great men of the college, but with tradesmen, the sellers and the makers of things". (P59)
Similarly, Banville's unnamed narrator moves from Dublin to spend time in Co Wexford where he plans to finish his book on Newton but finds himself unable to continue and caught up in trivialities. He rents a house from what he believes to be an old Anglo-Protestant family. They come to obsess him and he finds himself constructing biography of their lives based on his observations.
Edward and Charlotte, live with their niece Ottilie and a child David, who the narrator at first assumes is the son of Edward and Charoltte but later realises is actually Ottilie's son. He begins an affair with Ottilie but eventually comes to the conclusion that he is in love with Charlotte. As he gets to know the family better he has to deconstruct his initial speculation about them - they are not Protestant but Catholics - and develope new ones, only to find that these are wildly inaccurate as well.
Banville sums up the entire plot of the novella towards the end when he writes: "I spent a summer in the country, I slept with one woman and thought I was in love with another; I dreamed up a horrid drama, and failed to see the commonplace tragedy that was playing out in real life. You'll ask, where is the connection between all that, and the abandoning of a book? I don't know, or at least I can't say, in so many words. I was like a man living underground who, coming up for air, is dazzled by the light and cannot find his way back into his bolt-hole. I trudge back and forth over the familiar ground, muttering. I am lost." P95
This is bite-sized Banville and pretty much sums up what he is about, although I only had to look up one word – 'succubus' – compared to his later novels in which he keeps droping in willfuly obscure words that had me constantly reaching for a dictionary.

Friday, 20 March 2009

Boyne Berries

Poetry and poets are a divisive issue. I know people who think it is all a load of pretentious nonsense and others who affect an appreciation because they believe it says something about them. But in my experience people who genuinely appreciate poetry tend to be quite sheepish about it and not really want to talk about it. Unlike other literary genres reading poetry tends to be a deeply personal experience and the same few lines can be exhilaratingly inspiring for one person and yet leave someone else totally cold.
When I met the late Kerry philosopher and poet John Moriarty in 2001 we got to talking about poetry and he happened to mention that he had known Ted Hughes in the 1960s. He pointed out his window towards Mangerton and gesturing dramatically said: “He was like that mountain.”
We also discussed Seamus Heaney, who Moriarty was less than gushing about saying that he had ‘named’ many issues that were important in Ireland, particularly about the Troubles in the North, and that he was a superb technician but that “he wouldn’t help me make it through the night”.
Reading through Moritarty’s books it is clear that he had deep appreciation and understanding of poetry and that he believes that some poems could help him through the most traumatic psychological crises but that Heaney, despite his superb craftsmanship, was not a poet that did that for him.
Ofcourse, like a piece of music, different poems speak to different people in different ways and there will be many others who would turn to Heaney in a time of crisis.
I often lack confidence in my own poems not because I believe that they are necessarily badly written (which of course they might well be) but because I feel they are too contrived and that I was trying to hard when I wrote them. There are about 20 poems in my chapbook collection, Coill, and I think about seven or eight of them are genuinely good poems and that the others are all right. I mean good in the sense that Moriarty meant that they might “help me make it through the night” by naming some emotion or concept that can never really be said out loud because the act of expressing it would diminish it but can be hinted at or suggested in a poem.
Derek Mahon is my favourite poet at the minute but Michael Hartnett, Kevin Kiely Trevor Joyce, Robert Lowell and Lorca have all held the title at some time or other and no doubt others will do the same.
Anyway those were the thoughts were going through my head last night while I was driving to Trim in Co Meath for the launch of Boyne Berries 5, which included my poem Wake. It took just over two hours to get there and involved an overnight stay with my brother in Dublin before coming back this morning. The poem I read has 18 lines in it and took just over a minute to read.
On another occasion I drove to Galway for the launch of an edition of Crannóg – five hours from Downpatrick to the outskirts of the city, another hour and half caught up in rush-hour traffic, plus the expenses of meals and a hotel bill and then the return journey for the sake of reading seven lines.
But the time and expense are worth it - it is not often obscure, minor poets like myself get an audience. In fact unless your name is Seamus, most of the better-known poets probably struggle to get an audience.
It was also a pleasure to sit and hear other people reading their poems and prose pieces. You can only learn and grow as a writer from reading and listening to others and quite often something which seems banal on the page can come to life when you hear it being read by the person who wrote it. Not all were to my taste, but then my poem was probably not to everyone’s taste. But I got the sense that each reader had total belief in their work and like me the fact that someone else has taken the time to read it, publish it and listen to it being read would inspire them to go on.
Last night was also enjoyable because there was an opportunity to simply chat with others about the joys and frustrations of what can often be a lonely and frustrating process.
Boyne Berries is published by The Boyne Writers group. You can visit their website and buy copies here.

Wednesday, 18 March 2009

Altan - Down Arts Centre

It must be at least 10 years since I last saw Altan play live but they have lost none of their energy or charm. Down Arts Centre in Downpatrick is a small venue, seating around 200 people and provided an intimate setting in which the audience could see puffs of resin flying off Mairéad Ní Mhaonaigh’s and Ciarán Tourish’s fiddles.
Their set is powered by the dual Donegal-style fiddling and Ní Mhaonaigh’s achingly pitched voice, singing both in English and as Gaeilge. Each set of tunes was introduced with an anecdote about where they came from or what the song was about and who had first taught it to them.
They dipped into their back catalogue from the days when the late Frankie Kennedy was with them, through to more recent material. I have always preferred their earlier albums and was not a great fan of the Dolly Parton collaborations and covers of Bob Dylan songs and thankfully tonight they kept it strictly trad.
Highlight’s were the songs Dúlamán and The Flower of Magherally - fitting for a Co Down gig and earning a cheer from the audience when Ní Mhaonaigh said she had often accompanied her late husband Frankie to support Down at Croke Park.
But it was the attacking fiddling that had the audience stamping their feet and whooping high-pitched wails.
There were slower moments letting each of the band members show of their talents – box-player Dermot Byrne, guitarist Mark Kelly and bouzouki player Ciarán Curran as well as Tourish and Ní Mhaonaigh.
Superb musicianship aside Altan can charm their audience with their banter among one another and repartee with the audience and let’s face it Ní Mhaonaigh’s is a sort of thinking Celtic hippy’s dream woman – witty, talented and beautiful in an Earth mother sort of way.
There is an understandable tendency to focus on Ní Mhaonaigh but Altan’s greatness is down to the sum contribution of each of its members – often understated as in the case of Curran who seemed to pluck almost wistfully at his bouzouki, but closer listening reveals that he is often playing a counter melody that gives the group a subtle, layered sound even in the middle of an all-out fiddling dual.
Given that it was St Patrick's Day and the saint is buried just five minute's walk from the Arts Centre it was great to see one of Ireland's finest trad groups in the town.

Friday, 13 March 2009

The Train of Ice & FIre by Ramon Chao

Below the main title on the cover of this book are the word ‘Mano Negra in Colombia’ but the band only play a minor part in this travelogue and actually break up about a third of the way through. The book’s cover also features the band’s singer Mano Chao, looking furtive, and he pops in and out of the narrative like a secondary character in a novel.
The Train of Ice & Fire was written by Mano’s father, Ramon, a Galician writer and journalist who has spent most of his life in Paris. As well as travel books he has written novels and broadcast from France for various Spanish-language radio stations.
Most people who come to this book will probably do so because of Mano Chao, who has gone on to pursue a hugely successful solo career in Europe and South America since the break up of Mano Negra in 1994.
The band were formed in the 1980s in France and combined punk, ska, reggae and Arabic sounds with elements of cabaret and stage theatrics. Chao sings in French, but more often in Spanish and pigeon English and because of his left-wing political idealism has often been compared to Joe Strummer and Mano Negra with the Clash.
I was only half-conscious of them when I lived in Spain in the early 1990s and to be honest didn’t take much notice of them at the time. It was only when I started buying their albums in the last six of seven years that I realised how of their material – being played in radios and bars – had formed the background music to my time there.
I first began to take a proper interest in Manu Chao in 2001 when I kept hearing the infectious track Me Gustas Tu on Spanish internet radio stations and bought the album Esperanza which in turn led me to its predecessor Clandestino. A couple of years later while travelling around South America it was Chao’s live album Radio Bemba Sound System which was my seemingly constant soundtrack and I eventually bought a copy in Buenos Aires.
The following year Sinead and I were among just a handful of Irish people among a pulsating mass of French and Spanish concert goers at the Point Depot in Dublin where Chao and his band played in energy sapping three-hour show. After that I started buying Mano Negra albums when I saw them – a Best Of…, Puta’s Fever and King of the Bongo. There is also an excellent DVD of the Radio Bemba concert which includes hours of extra footage following Chao in Spain, Italy and South America.
Although I came to Chao snr’s book as a fan of his son and expecting him to dominate the narrative I was not too disappointed. Ramon is fine, engaging writer whose whimsical, often deprecatory prose is filled with observations on human frailties, the group dynamics and a scathing criticism of the corrupt politics that have led to Colombia being one of the most dangerous countries in the world.
He had come to Colombia to accompany his sons Mano and Antoine (who also played with Mano Negra) on a train journey from the Caribbean coast of Colombia to its capital Bogota. Also on the train were acrobats, tattoo artists, a four-metre high fire-breathing dragon (constructed from scrap metal) and an ice museum.
The train is dominated by idealistic French people who want to bring a message of hope to isolated communities whose lives have been plagued by right-wing militias, Farc guerrillas, drug barons and government neglect. They plan to stop the train at remote stations along the way and set up their show but lack of finances, disorganisation, the threat of danger and personality clashed soon kick in and the idealism soon vanishes, along with many of the performers, including four members of Mano Negra.
Mano and his brother continue with a couple of other band members and improvise sets and jam with other musicians but the loss of the headline act leads to more disillusionment and further defections.
Ramon, a French/Spanish intellectual is an odd person but astute narrator to be travelling with with a bunch of anarchists and his observations are often interspersed with literary references – in particular Gabriel Garcia Marques’s One Hundred Years of Solitude.
He is also a keen observer of nature and how the landscape changes as the train journeys from coast, through mountains and high planes.
The book is peppered with snapshots of Colombian history and socio-political analysis and how US foreign policy has impacted negatively upon it.
“Colombia is second only to the Netherlands in cultivating flowers. Not everything is coca. And in any case, here they say: ‘ we only produce coca because the Yanks snort it’. There’s tremendous anti-Americanism here, so much so that Colombians would like to turn their country into a vast coca plantation just to satisfy the suicidal urges of the gringos’. (P37)
When the train arrives in Barranca its hippy and punk passengers are wary about venturing too far – “They know there are neighbourhoods it’s best to avoid, that the town is swarming with groups whose mission it is to rid the streets of undesirables – the destitute, the unproductive… Tramps, the homeless, street kids, homosexuals, are killed in bloody night-time safaris.”
We are also given an insight into the folklore of the native Colombians who “believed in the order of the universe, in nature as the supreme being. Their priests told them the earth was ‘the mother of all races, men and their tribes’. For them the spirit – that they called Aluna – was everything and concrete and visible things were only symbols’.”
Ramon Chao reports how street kids and disillusioned adults are constantly trying to stowaway on the train and reprints messages left by those who came to visit the carnival – most of them crying out for peace in this violent country. And while he and the others are affected he is constantly aware that for the French travellers it is a transient experience.
He writes: “We’re aware of the hope we raise among these forgotten people of Colombia. Yet we’re all so busy with our petty bickering, our settling of scores, wondering whether we’ll spend Christmas with our families, will we stop the tour, will we go on!”
While a bit of background information about Mano Negra and its former singer Mano Chao might help the reader put into context how important this group was in Colombia in the mid-1990s, Ramon Chao’s book does stand on its own as a piece of travel writing, but also a left-wing critique on Colombian politics and society and an observation on how idealism can be brought up short by contact with harsh reality and yet still survive.
Mano Chao has a great website featuring interviews, news, tour dates, music and video streams here.

Friday, 6 March 2009

Liam Ó Maonlaí - The Black Box, Belfast

I had banned myself from listening to Liam Ó Maonlaí’s album Rian because I was afraid I would play it to death. Since I bought it three or four years ago there was rarely a week went by when it wasn’t on my CD players, in the house and in the car, at least once a week, usually more often. After tonight’s gig at The Black Box it’s back on again and may be for a few days yet, although I think he only actually played one tune from it – the bódhran-driven Sadbh Ni Buruinnealadh.
There were more songs from his most recent solo album To Be Touched which I had bought with high expectations. I’d heard Ó Maonlaí live on John Kelly’s RTE Lyric FM show in November last year and he was doing some superb west African-style material, mixed in with Australian Aboriginal and Sean Nós influences. He had also made a documentary about a trip with uillean piper Paddy Keenan (formerly of the Bothy Band) to Mali.
I’d hoped this African/Sean Nós vibe with a bit of bódhran and whistle thrown in was the direction he was taking musically. However, To Be Touched turned out to be a series of self-penned songs, almost improvised or still gestating, with some backing from Glen (I’ve got an Oscar) Hansard and Market Irglova. It was alright but didn’t really grab me.
However, the songs from that album, including the title track, fared much better in the live setting – particularly the two he sang as Gaeilge – Siobhán Ní Dhuibhir and Amhrán na Féidireachta.
He opened with a Kerry air on the whistle before taking to the piano for a version of Dylan’s Forever Young, during which his microphone kept slipping lower and lower until his chin was almost touching the piano. Ó Maonlaí was then joined by double bass player Martin Brunsden for the most interesting piece of the night – a North African-style piece in which Ó Maonlaí played Irish harp. Sadbh Ni Buruinnealadh gave him a chance to show off his bare-handed bódhran skills before a short break.
For the second half he was joined by Cork singer/songwriter John Spillane, who for some reason I got it in to my head I didn’t really like and so didn’t even hurry to the gig to catch his opening set. I did see half an hour and realised that I needed to do a serious reassessment. That was reinforced in the final part of the show when Spillane and Ó Maonlaí, backed by bass-player Brunsden, got the floor vibrating with some almost punk-like renditions of of Gaeltacht favourites Oro Se do Bheatha Abhaile, Si Do Mhamo and An Poc ar Buile (in which Spillane managed to rhyme in the line I’ll fuckenkillya).
Both singers also took turns to slip in some of their own material with them finishing off with an almost inevitable rendition of Ó Maonlaí’s best-known song from his Hothouse Flower days – Don’t Go. Unfortunately they went after that. But what a night.

Tuesday, 3 March 2009

Man's Search for Meaning - Viktor Frankl

Holocaust survivor Vicktor Frankl combines personal memories of his time in various concentration camps with philosophical insights and an outline of the school of psychology that he went on to develop. It is an impressive feat in a book that runs to around 160 pages and can be read in the space of a few hours.
The words ‘nine million copies sold’ on the cover actually put me off when I saw it by chance in a bookshop in Belfast yesterday but a browse through it convinced me that there was enough in it to make it worth buying.
In the first hundred pages Frankl recounts his experiences as an Austrian Jew who refuses to abandon his parents in Vienna, despite having a visa for the US, who is rounded up and shipped from one camp to another. His parents and his wife both died in the gas chambers but despite the odds Frankl survived.
Although he tells us that it is right to do everything we can to avoid death or suffering Frankl writes that it is often inevitable and that it is sometimes better to trust to fate.
He recounts how on several occasion when in the camps he took what seemed the less favourable option only to find that those who thought they would be better off had been sent to a gas chamber. Just days before the war ended most his fellow inmates were taken from the camp in which he was imprisoned. Initially he was bitter because he had to stay behind in squalid conditions but only later found out that those who he had envied because he believed they were being fed and given proper shelter had in fact been taken to another camp and burned alive.
Despite what he witnessed, Frankl prefers to focus on the ability of people to adapt and to even grow from the situation in which they are in.
“… it is possible to practice the art of living even in a concentration camp, although suffering is omnipresent. To draw an analogy; a man’s suffering is similar to the behaviour of gas. If a certain quantity of gas is pumped into an empty chamber, it will fill the chamber and completely and evenly, no matter how big the chamber. Thus suffering completely fills the human soul and conscious mind, no matter whether the suffering is great or little. Therefore the size of human suffering is absolutely relative.” P55
He says that when suffering has filled the human soul to such a degree any relief, no matter how pathetic, takes on epic proportions so that even while walking barefoot in the snow to a days labour with only a meagre bit of food he can be blissfully grateful that he is not the one who has to empty the toilets, or work for a harsher foreman than the one he has. To paraphrase the old maxim ‘someone is always worse off than yourself’.
Frankl is astounded at how some men react to their circumstances.
“We who lived in concentration camps can remember the men who walked through the huts comforting other, giving away their last piece of bread. They may have few in number bit they offer sufficient proof that everything can be taken from a man but one thing: the last of the human freedoms – to choose one’s attitude in any given set of circumstances to choose one’s own way.” P 75
Most people of course are more concerned with self-survival and some will gladly sacrifice those around them to ensure it.
However, it is the few who can rise above and grow from what they are suffering that interests Frankl. In sometimes Dostoyevskyan prose he writes: “When a man finds it is his destiny to suffer, he will have to accept his suffering as his task; his single and unique task. He will have to acknowledge the fact that even in suffering he is unique and alone in the universe. No-one can relieve him of his suffering or suffer in his place. His unique opportunity lies in the way in which he bears his burden.”
It is not jus those few who have survived life in a concentration camp who this applies to, Frankl had developed his ideas that would come to the form the psychological school of logotherapy by 1938 and from his experiences in the concentration camps Frankl begins to draw out the threads of philosophy that he would develop into ‘Logotherapy’.
He is someone who is intensely interested in the individual and believes that everyone has something to offer.
“What you have experienced, no power on earth can take from you. Not only our experience, but all that we have done, whatever great thoughts we may have had, and all that we have suffered, all this is not lost, though it is past; we have brought it into being. Having been is also a kind of being, and perhaps the surest kind.” P93
He continues: “One should not search for an abstract meaning of life. Everyone has his own specific vocation or mission in life to carry out a concrete assignment which demands fulfilment. Therein he cannot be replaced, nor can his life be repeated. Thus everyone’s task is as unique as is his specific opportunity to implement it.”
Frankl outlines the basic principles of logotherapy in the final 50 pages of Man’s Search for Meaning.
He contents that people can discover a meaning to life in three different ways – by creating a work or doing a deed, through experiences or in relationships with or to others, and by the attitude we take towards unavoidable suffering.
In purely practical terms he says that someone can overcome a phobia or psychological trauma by using paradoxical intention. In the case of insomniacs he says they are unable to sleep because they are wishing too hard for sleep to come. Frankl argues that by reversing that logic the insomniac should simply resolve not to go to sleep when they go to bed and be determined to stay awake – the paradox of this intention will result in them falling to sleep.
It worked for me first try last night.
In the broader approach to life he calls for optimism in the face of tragedy that enables someone to turn suffering into human achievement, deriving from guilt the opportunity to change oneself for the better and even to come to terms with the inevitability of death by deriving from life’s transitoriness an incentive to take responsible action.
Frankl acknowledges that it will not work for everyone and that those who successfully live a logotheraputic life will be in the minority. But he concludes: “… I see therein the very challenge to join the minority”.

Sunday, 1 March 2009

The Old Man and the Sea - Earnest Hemmingway

This novella comes in at just under 100 pages but leaves the reader with more to think about than a novel running five or six times its length.
An old Cuban fisherman takes to sea, alone in his boat, and catches the biggest fish he has ever caught in his life. He had been having a bad run of luck and caught nothing in weeks and even though the marlin (a type of swordfishe) he has caught drags him further and further out to sea he is determined to draw it in.
Much of the novel is a dialogue the man conducts with himself and sometimes with the fish that he has hooked. While the old man is a simple fisherman he articulates the arguments as to why humans exploit nature for their own means.
“I have no understanding of [sin] and I’m not sure that I believe in it. Perhaps it was a sin to kill the fish. I suppose it was even though I did it to keep me alive and feed many people. But then everything is sin. Do not think of sin. It is much too late for that and there are people paid to do it. Let them think about it. You were born to be a fisherman as the fish was born to be fish.” P81
However, he acknowledges while man dominates nature he is not necessarily the better for that.
“…thank God, [fish] are not as intelligent as we who kill them; although they are more noble and more able”. P47
The old man has the greatest respect for nature and expresses his love for the marlin that is at the end of the line he is holding and swimming in the sea below him. He is at sea for three days, surviving on a few mouthfuls of water and raw fish that he hooks in on other lines. However, the battle with the fish is taking its toll on him, sapping his energy, the weight of the line damaging his hands and back.
“You are killing me, fish, the old man thought. But you are right to. Never have I seen a greater, or more beautiful, or more noble thing than you brother. Come on kill me. I do not care who kills who.” P71
Despite eventually managing to reel in the fish and kill it further trials await the old man as sharks begin to home in on the scent of blood from the marlin which the old man has lashed to the side of his boat.
“‘Ay’, he said aloud. There is no translation for this word and perhaps it is just a noise such as a man might make, involuntarily, feeling the nail go through his hands and into the wood.” p83
Despite fighting off successive sharks, killing them with a harpoon, a knife strapped to an oar and blunt bits of wood each attacker rips off another bit of flesh from the old man’s proud catch until at night, when he is unable to do anything to fend of the sharks, not much more than the head and skeleton of the marlin remain.
The novel could be seen as a parable of life in which despite overcoming trials and tribulations to gain a goal the old man’s victory is doomed to failure and stripped away until it is meaningless. Similarly in life our gains and successes are all ultimately doomed to failure and stripped away from us by old age, infirmity and death.
Perhaps it is a grim message but it is beautifully told by Hemingway.