Tuesday, 30 June 2009

Russian translation

A google alert pointed me to this website which has published a Russian translation of my Haiku which appeared in Shamrock Haiku Journal earlier this month.
I ran the Russian version through the online Bablefish and pasted its translation below.
The Russian website is at www.wowwi.orc.ru

rain on the window
an unfurling snail plucked
from its thrush-cracked shell

дождь за окном
от разбитой дроздом ракушки
освобождается улитка

rain after the window
the snail is freed
from the cockleshell broken by thrush

Friday, 26 June 2009


After two weeks of travelling relatively off the beaten track we have arrived in tourism central, testified to by the bustling crowds and the price of a coffee.
Dubrovnik is an absurdly beatufil walled town, with marble streets and intricately carved edifaces that juts out in to the Adriatic.
We booked a small apartment up a stepped side street, with half a dozen more staircases and twisting corridors inside before we get to our little Croatian hideaway.
On our way from Sarajvo we stopped in Mostar for a couple of nights, a town that was badlz damaged during the Bosnian wars of 2002 to 2006 but whose historic bridge and a Turkish quarter has been more or less restored but a couple of streets away the shells of buildings are testiment to the ethnic violence of 15 years ago.
It was in Mostar that we first noticed that we were no longer the onlz English speakers in town, with bus loads of people coming from the Adricatic coastal resorts in neighbouring Croatia.
That sort of prepared us for the falling standard of food in the restaurants we ate in and the price of drinks, which seemed to double from that advertised outside to what appeared on our final bill.
As we came in to Dubrovnik we saw a couple of huge cruise liners docked by the bus station whose passengers spilled into the town for a few hours before being ferried off to Montenegro, Venice or one of the Greek islands.
This morning the numbers of people pushing down the main street was unbeliveable and we felt glad that we could retreat to our apartment while everzone else got soaked in the thunderstorms that have been hoveing over the Balkans for the last few days. But we dont want to hide away for too long. It is the last day of our holiday and we will be flying back to Ireland tomorrow where the letters y and z will be back on their proper places on the kezboard and I wont keep making the same spelling mistakes.

Sunday, 21 June 2009


Just down the hill from the pension where we are staying is The Latin footbridge from where an assassin shot dead Archduke Franz Ferdinand and his wife Sopia in 1914, an event which popular history pinpoints as the spark for the First World War. Looking up from most parts of Sarajevo you see green hills and mountains where just 15 years ago Bosnian Serbs snipers shot at passersby and shelled their homes. The siege lasted for three years and claimed thousands of lives.
Even though my passport was stamped on Fridaz with an exit visa from Serbia and an entrance visa into Bosnia a few minutes later after crossing a bridge, the Serbian flag could still be seen flying from houses and official buildings while many signs were written using the Cyrillic alphabet, the Roman equivalent often spraypainted out. Most of the stunningly beautiful mountainous countryside we passed through on our way to Sarajevo lies in Republika Srpska, dominated by ethnic Serbs who are reluctant citizens of Bosnia and Herzegovina, although their political representatives now participate in the government.
Yesterday we walked past the Holiday Inn Hotel where the western media was based, in the rooms facing away from the hills, on a street known as sniper alley.
The words melting pot are overused when describing places, both in terms of history and culture, but its is hard to avoid when talking about Bosnia. At various times of day the sound of muezzuins calling prayers are broadcast from mosques scattered throughout the city while many women wear hijabs. We are close to the Turkish quarter where thick, tarry coffee and mint tea are served in cafes decked out with ornate carpets, yet a walk along the street will bring you into an area of classical central European architecture with an Orthodox and Catholic church and a synagogue.
It is a fascinating and beautiful city although the weather has broken and temperatures have plunged from the mid-30s to about 14 or 15 with persistent rain.

Thursday, 18 June 2009


After the laid-back studenty vibe of Novi Sad, Belgrade came as a bit of a shock to the system. It is a bustling metropolis where people seem to work and go about their daily business rather than sit around in cafes all day.
We went on a bus tour this morning but unlike other cities there is only one each morning at 11am, rather than buses leaving every half hour or fifteen minutes and it seemed the clearest indication yet that Belgrade is not really the sort of place tourists come to.
As well as the usual castle, cathedrals, churches, museums and parks we passed a couple of crumbling buildings, their blackened interiors hanging out from craters in their sides which the recorded commentary told us were the remains of former military buildings bombed by Nato just 10 years ago.
Belgrade does have its charms. Last night we ate in a cobbled street called Sadrarska, the city's former bohemian quarter were we were serendaded by a Balkan ensemble, of violin, clarinet, accordian, guitar and double bass. The music was combination of Gypsy dances, whimsical Jewish laments and Parisian cafe music. When the musicians came to our table and asked us where we were from they went in to a quick confab and I squirmed at the thought of a Balkanised version of Danny Boy or something worse, however what we got was Love Me Tender.
We spent this afternoon wandering along the pedestrianised Knez Mihailova and sitting it the park which covers the citadel on the banks where the rivers Danube and Sava merge.
I've been struck by how tall everyone is - men and women. I'm used to looking over the heads of most people around me as I walk about the place but here my heights seems to be fairly average with quite a few topping me by several inches.
We're off tomorrow to Sarajevo - an eight hour bus journey. So that should be fun.

Monday, 15 June 2009

Novi Sad - Serbia

The train journey from Budapest to Novi Sad took more than seven hours and included an hour-long stop at the border. The countryside was flat agricultural land, stretching into the distance with few hedgerows and only an occasional clump of trees. Novi Sad has been a real suprise, juxtaposing, communist-era architecture with modern structures and a quint historic, pedestrianised centre.
Our hotel is in a grim, noisy street that is just around the corner from the quaint bit. It is a student city and so there is young vibrant feel to Novi Sad with hundreds of bars and restaurants spilling on to the streets.
We walked over a bridge spanning the Danube - which replced the one bombed by Nato ten years ago - to a citadel complex set on a hill. Great fun climbing there in 30 degrees but with great views over the city.
Food isn't as stodgy as Budapest.

Sunday, 14 June 2009


We have just spent the last three days in Budapest and are off now to catch the train to Novi Sad in northern Serbia. Budapest has a comforting familiarity about it and is reminicent of other eastern European cities such as Prague, Krakow, Llubjana and Zagreb that I've been to.
The hightlight was a visit to the Museum of Terror which was a former HQ of the Hungarian secret service. It chronicled the secret police surveillance, interrogation, capture and often execution of those who the state deemed as subversives during the Second World War, when Hungary was allied to the Nazis and then during the communist regime. In the cellars of the museum are cells where captives were held, the ones with a rough wooden bench and a blanked, and the one with padded floor and walls were the most poignent.
The food was heavy although after being given directions on our first night by the hotel staff to a recommended eaterie, we immediately took a wrong turn and ended up in a fantistic little venue set in a courtyard, where we ate evey night.
On Friday we took a bus tour around the city and saw all the major sights and yesterday we just wandered around, spending the early evening sipping some rather fine Czech beer and watching a jazz band in a little park. The local Hungarian beer, Dreher, wasn't bad either.
Anyway off to the train station now.

Thursday, 11 June 2009

The Man of My Life by Manuel Vázquez Montalbán

A novel set in Spain, or rather Catalonia, incorporating obscure religious sects, a world-battered outsider, fine wine and Mediterranean cooking was just too much for me to ignore. I’d never heard of Manuel Vázquez Montalbán until I spotted this in No Alibis bookshop in Belfast but now I will probably have to track down the rest of the novels in the Pepe Carvalho series.
The plot is flimsy and the writing is not great – although this is a translation – but there is a lot crammed into this supposed crime-fiction-genre novel – there are at least three recipes in here and dozens of other references to food, which had me salivating and on one occasion running to my larder and fridge to see if I could at least approximate one of the dishes.
In the course of trying to track down the murderer of the son of a leading businessman, the Barcelona based detective Carvalho also manages to reignite affairs with two former lovers, ruminate on the nature of nationalism and Catalan separatism, Cathars, Satanists and Barcelona Football Club.
The original Spanish (Castilian) title of the novel was El Hombre de mi Vida, which sounds a bit like the title of a movie by Pedro Almodovar. However, the cinematic backdrop, at least in terms of location, is probably more akin to Woody Allen’s New York as Montalbán leads us through the streets of Barcelona, past and present, lamenting the destruction of the old and celebrating its revitalization.
Montalbán ruminates on Catalan nationalism, how an autonomous region of Spain can assert its identity while incorporated in a nation state that itself is being slowly amalgamated into the larger, bureaucratic machine that is the European Union. The text is splattered with Catalan phrases and bits of folklore.
The plot is as much a platform for Montalbán to rehearse his take on globalization and an interesting take on Satanism – “God is lord of this world, and Satan is the negation of the idea that his creation is good. Satan is our critical intelligence, the culture of resistance.” (P178).
A pro-globalisation activists discussing Catalan nationalism says: “nations built on sentiment are an obstacle… that’s why we have to create them and destroy them at the same time”. (P192).
This is as much a novel of ideas rather than a great story, although the last 30 pages do re-engage with the traditional novel form and re-humanise the detective Carvalho and lift him from being a purely philosophical, and occasional culinary literary vehicle, into that old favourite of a hard-bitten detective on whom life has crapped and left him nothing to wipe himself clean with.

Thursday, 4 June 2009

Shamrock Haiku Journal

The Haiku is a style of poetry that evolved in Japan as part of the Zen school of Buddhism but which now has an international appeal. It has been embraced by a number of Irish poets, notably Gabriel Rosenstock – who writes in Irish but whose work is represented in some fine bilingual translations – and the late Michael Hartnett who published a collection called Inchicore Haiku in 1985.
It is probably the sparse, nature-inspired prose that appeals to poets and readers. The specification that a Haiku should contain
17-syllables over three lines (5/7/5) is not strictly applied to English language, nor Irish, Haiku, with some arguing that neither language lends itself phonetically to that format in the same way that Japanese does.
However there are a number of rules that are still insisted on. In terms of subject a
Haiku is “a three-line nature-orientated poem expressing poet’s direct experience of something, description of background/surroundings, and an original and deep thought based on it”. (Although even the three lines is no longer strictly adhered to).
It also must contain two distinct parts and avoid direct metaphors. In terms of grammar it should not use adverbs, pronouns or the verb 'to be', capital letters nor punctuation.
Good examples comes from the 17th century Japanese Zen monk Matsuo Basho, pictured above, whose complete Haiku I am reading at the minute:

the colour of wind
planted artlessly
in the autumn garden


in blowing wind
a fish jumps up
purification rite

The Irish Haiku society publishes the online Shamrock Haiku Journal. The latest edition has just been published and includes one that I wrote – which you will have to scroll well down to find. Click here.

Tuesday, 2 June 2009

Radio Pyongyang: Commie Funk and Agit Pop from the Hermit Kingdom

Given that North Korea is so much in the news these days I dug out a copy of the CD 'Radio Pyongyang: Commie Funk and Agit Pop from the Hermit Kingdom', which dates back to when I was an Andy Kershaw wannabe and writing a world music column.
The recordings were made by Christiaan Virant, who was living in China at the time, from broadcasts transmitted from neighbouring North Korea. The occasional hiss of white noise and distortion also gives the listener the impression of listening in on a shortwave radio.
The songs themselves are quite bland, a mixture of Asian-orchestrated pop that somehow combines a military four-four rhythm with sugary smaltz. There is nothing here to suggest that any of this music has its roots in native Korean culture. The music is interspersed with spoken announcements and news reports extoling the virtues of the secretaive communist state and its leader, Kim Jong Il.
There are some truly appalling pieces of music on this album - particularly a track of singing school children, who are probably praising grain production targets or something, in a sugary ditty that even their mothers couldn’t like. However, the album has its moments... well if you like Stalinist orchestration set to a funky beat, it has its moments.
It is an oddity that should only be played to close friends if they are very drunk and have a refined sense of the absurd and a passing interest in geo-politics.

Zen and the art of astrophysics

There are two schools of Zen Buddhism, one which focuses for the most part on meditation and the other – in which meditation also plays a major role – in which a teacher will try to shock a pupil into enlightenment with ‘koans’ (riddles) and occasionally even a smack to the head.
Possibly the most famous ‘koan’ is: ‘What is the sound of one hand clapping’. Its purpose is to yank the student out of rational thinking and to question the version of reality that we perceive all around us.
Like other schools of Buddhism, Zen teaches that reality is an illusion, that everything is transient, from our thoughts through to the very universe in which we live. That the person we believe ourselves to be will no longer exist in another second because our minds will have moved on. All is constantly changing and so when you pursue that concept to its logical conclusion the version of reality that we believe ourselves to be living in is false because once you identify it, it will have moved on and no longer exists.
‘Emptiness’ is a word that often crops up in Buddhist literature and it teaches that this is the true state of being – non-self. Meditation is a means of training the mind not to think, to stop the process of being self-aware and end the illusion that the reality we perceive really exists.
“Zen functions in non-duality. The process of thought, of reasoning, takes place in the field of duality. It follows that no thinking will achieve Zen.” (P97) writes Christmas Humphries in Zen – A Way of Life.
Even the fact that he has written a book about Zen seems to be a contradiction in terms of the subject he is writing about:
“… nothing matters save experience. Buddhism is only a collection of thought and doctrine about the Buddha’s enlightenment. But the words about it matter not; no scripture will take the mind one foot of the Way. Zen is not a system of philosophy, nor of psychology, nor of meditation, and when it tries to explain itself in these terms it ceases to be Zen.” P140
And a page later: “In Zen there is no authority for any man save their own experience…” P141.
Yet Humphries warns that there are dangers for those who try to peer too deeply into their inner selves without the guidance of a teacher.
Zen teaches that we can all achieve enlightenment, that the potential exists right now if we can manage to see beyond ‘duality’, although for most people it will take many reincarnations before this can be achieved.
By chance while reading Zen – A Way of Life by Christmas Humphries I was also reading Endless Universe – Beyond The Big Bang by Paul J Steinhardt and Neil Turok. The two books would seem to contradict one another in the sense that one is based on cutting-edge astrophysics while the other is based on a 2,500 year old spiritual tradition that began in India and mutated as it passed down over numerous generations as it journeyed through Japan and India, yet for me they complimented one another.
Steinhardt and Turok propose that our universe is one of an endless sequence that will eventually come to an end and be reincarnated as an entirely new universe, that the one we are living in at present is the direct result of previous universes that have come to an end.
They are not new-age speculators but respected cosmologists at Princeton and Cambridge and their arguments are based on the most up-to-date theories about quantum physics, the Big Bang, dark energy and dark matter and string theory, but written for the layman.
It concurs with mainstream physicists who believe that the universe in which we live had its origins 14 billion years ago in a ‘singularity’ in which all the potential mass and energy that became the universe existed. This singularity was concentrated in a space whose diameter took up a millionth of a centimetre and expanded across several thousand light years within a second of the Big Bang taking place.
Like a Zen koan the concepts outlined in Endless Universe challenge our concepts of reality as they morph from millionths of a centimetre and millionths of a second to millions of light years and billions of years. Our sun is just one of a hundred million in the Milky Way and the Milky Way is just one of a hundred million galaxies within the observable universe and beyond that their could be a hundred million more.
Our universe is expanding and conventional theory predicts that it will expand at such a rate that the atoms which make up us and the world around us will eventually drift so far apart from one another as to be negligible in the vastness of the universe, that matter will no longer exist and that the universe will become a dark void.
However, Steinhardt and Turok’s theory says the opposite will happen and that at some point the universe will begin to contract and that all matter and energy will be drawn back together to a singularity that will reach an optimum density in a minuscule space that will eventually explode again in a new Big Bang that will create a new universe. They argue that this has happened before and will happen again and again.
They argue that the known physical laws which scientists use to back their Big Bang and inflationary model are flawed and contrived, but that their ‘cyclical’ theory stands full scrutiny and does not have to be adapted to fit in with ongoing discoveries.
The cyclical theory claims to have resolved the question of how something apparently came out of nothing and how a universe suddenly came into existance, but it still has a huge gaping hole. Our universe may be the reincarnation of a previous one that expanded and collapse and a billion others stretching over incomprehensible stretches of time, but it still does not resolve the issue of how something came from nothing.
Meditate on that.