Thursday, 30 July 2009


One of the pleasures of being a journalist is going on the occasional press trip where a company or organisation will fly you off somewhere in return for some coverage. In the past this has meant trips to Egypt, Jordan, Italy, Denmark, New York, Paris and Turkey to write travel features, to Strasbourg to report on the European Parliament and to Nicaragua to cover the work of the Irish charity Trocaire.
These trips can be challenging, as in my visit to Central America and fairly monotonous as with Strasbourg, but always rewarding.
The press trips to write a travel feature are more fun as journalists tend to be well indulged, taken to all the major sights and the best restaurants so when I was given an opportunity to go to Malaga to research a feature on the Andalucian city's 'cultural tourism' I thought great.
Malaga is a city I've visited often, twice in the last two years. This trip includes visits to the Picassso Museum, Cathedral, castle, gardens and Moorish ruins as well as scheduled stops at tapas bars, top restaurants and winery... yes I'll write that last word again - a winery.
It was an early start this morning, up at 3am, on the road for 3.30 to catch a 6am flight.
By 4.40 I was in the check-in queue and had clocked the two other journos on the trip, by 4.41 I was looking at Sinead's passport in my hands and wondering how the hell I had been so stupid not check that I had lifted the right one.
A quick phone call to Sinead and she was on the road and I was back out of the airport and speeding to a midway point to swap passports and then a mad dash back to Belfast International Airport, back to the carpark, into the terminal building only to be told that the check in had closed and there was no way I was going to catch the flight, even though I was flying at the invitation of the airline.
When I got home I emailed a very grovelling email to the PR company which organised the trip and got a more than sympathetic hearing and and a few hours later confirmation that I have been rebooked to go out tomorrow - although I will be returning late on Saturday.
Anyway as a great philosopher once said 'shit happens'. It will be another early start tomorrow and hanging out in departure lounges and a three-hour flight each way to get there for just over 36 hours in Malaga. But I still regard Spain as a second homeland so hopefully it should be worth it.

Tuesday, 28 July 2009

U2 - Croke Park (Saturday July 25)

IT’S 1982 and the roadies have just hoisted four white flags onto flagpoles as the young Dublin band run onto stage at the Maysfield Leisure Centre in Belfast and launched into their set in front of about 1,500 people.
The theatrics are gimmicky and the singer is a bit of a show off as he clambers on to stack of amps to serenade the audience from on high now and again but there is something infectious about this band with the singer’s earnest, falsetto voice and the guitarists searing, echoing guitar riffs.
Forward 27 years and the same band are playing below a sixty-metre-high space rocket, surrounded by huge girders in the shape of the claw in front of 80,000 people.
There are movable bridges jutting out from the stage that allows the band to promenade into the heart of the audience in Croke Park and a dazzling light show that probably uses up more electricity than a small city.
From the moment that drummer Larry Mullen strode on to the stage and started pounding at his kit a collective adulation gripped the Croke Park audience, which intensified to devotion as bass player Adam Clayton and guitarist The Edge joined in and then rose to all-out worship as singer Bono joined the band
U2 are a genuine phenomenon and probably the most successful band in the world but beneath all the hi-tech gimmickry and strutting about the place there was still that distinctive guitar sound and warbling voice.
When I first went to see them at Maysfield Leisure Centre it was to hear songs from their early albums – I Will Follow, Eleven O’Clock Tick Tock, Gloria, Sunday Bloody Sunday and The Electric Co.
In the years since then most of those early songs have been dumped from their set list to be replaced by some of the most iconic tracks in rock music – I Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For, Pride, With or Without You, Elevation, Vertigo, The Unforgettable Fire, One, Where the Streets Have No Name, and Angel of Harlem were all played on Saturday as well as three or four tracks from their new album No Line on the Horizon.
There were occasional musical diversions when Beautiful Day segued into the chorus of the Beatles Here Comes the Sun, and Bono paid tribute to Michael Jackson with an impromptu version of Don’t Stop Til’ You Get Enough.
U2 have always used their huge popularity to draw attention to global poverty and human rights abuses and on this tour it is the continued captivity of Burmese prime minister-elect Aung San Suu Kyi who has been held captive by the country’s military for most of the past 20 years.
As U2 played the song Walk On, 100 or so people holding Aung San Suu Kyi masks in front of them paraded in front of the audience and her face was flashed onto the huge overhead screen.
There were also video messages from Archbishop Desmond Tutu and the astronauts on the International Space Station.
It was a long way from the days when the edgy, post punk quartet played in a Belfast leisure centre and while I departed musically from U2 some time in the mid-1980s it was still a hell of a show.
(This review was puyblished in The Irish News on Monday.

Sunday, 19 July 2009

Murder in the Central Committee by Manuel Vázquez Montalbán

This is the second Pepe Carvalho mystery I have read, and I have another one sitting and ready to go. The Barcelona-based detective travels to Madrid at the request of the Spanish Communist Party to investigate the murder of the party's general secretary Fernando Garrido.
On the downside there are too many characters who drift in for a few paragraphs and who are never seen again. It is also quite heavy on geography and at times I found myself turning to a map of Madrid to keep track of Carvalho's peregrinations, although as a former resident I quite enjoyed picturing once familiar streets and landmarks.
Montalbán was a former communist and was imprisoned for four years under Franco's fascist regime and so Carvalho's memories of a similar fate and knowledge of Spanish left-wing politics ring true.
His fictional detective finds himself liaising with a senior policeman who interrogated him 25 years earlier and threatened to kill him by dropping him from a window. Other characters muse on their own involvement and the way it turned them into fugitives purely because of political beliefs and shaped the lives of their families.
There is slightly more detective work in Murder in the Central Committee than in The Man of My Life and Montalbán plants little nuggets along the way to exercise the reader's mind although the actual revelation of the murderer is more of a 'da da' moment that a gradual exposition.
Once again food plays a major part with saliva-inducing descriptions of meal and at least one recipe.
However, less well written was a set-piece sex scene, which was almost laughable, although it paved the way for a betrayal and a significant twist in the plot.
Like the previous Montalbán novel that I read he uses a fairly straightforward detective story as a vehicle for exploring a politically-edged theme and a commentary on contemporary Spanish life (at least contemporary in the early 1980s when the novel was published and Spain was still emerging from the Franco years into a fledgling democracy).
There is enough going on here to read this as a straight forward detective novel but I think you'd have to 'know' Spain – at least in terms of history and the regional tensions that exist there – to properly 'get' this novel.

Saturday, 11 July 2009

Alternative Ulster

Yesterday was a strange day which came at the end of a stressful week where I found myself getting caught up in all sorts of meetings and huddled conversations in my role as a union representative (for the National Union of Journalists) over various shifts in working patterns in the paper where I work.
Anyway I was feeling drained after forcing myself to be a conduit for other people’s worries and preoccupations and often finding my own analysis of things being totally ignored and so was just looking forward to getting Saturday’s paper off to the printers and coming home for a glass of wine.
Then at about 5.30pm we were told to evacuate our city centre offices because there was a suspected bomb close by. It was a throw back to a 20 years ago when such things were not that uncommon in Belfast but which now seems outrageously shocking.
After about 10 minutes standing outside we were told it would be at least 45 minutes before the bomb squad arrived and so split up in to various groups to go off to shopping, to pubs and in my case to a venue called The Black Box, where I had my book launch a few years ago.
I’d merely suggested it as a place to go for a coffee but when I and a few colleagues got in I saw Terri Hooley, ‘the godfather of Northern Ireland punk’ sitting talking to someone who I vaguely recognized but couldn’t quite place who turned out to be Don Letts.
Letts is an iconic figure in punk mythology, a ‘black English man’ who is credited with instigating the cross fertilisation between punk and reggae which so influenced The Clash.
It turned out that he was doing a question and answer session with Terri, in front of a modest audience of about 40 people. Within a few minutes Terri and Don were in full flow and reminiscences and names were being bandied about – Terri’s of Belfast, Stiff Little Fingers, The Undertones, The Outcasts and Rudi and Shane MacGowan. Don’s involvement was in London – Malcolm McLaren, Vivienne Westwood, John Lydon and the Sex Pistols, Joe Strummer and Mick Jones of the Clash, Bob Marley and The Slits.
Don Letts became involved in the Punk scene through a shop, Acme, he ran in the mid-70s and by becoming a DJ at the Roxy where many of the early punk bands played. He later turned his hand to filmmaking and his footage of The Sex Pistols and The Clash in 1976 and 77 provides some of the most iconic moments of that era.
He filmed many of the best-known punk bands and was later a member of Big Audio Dynamite, along with former Clash guitarist Mick Jones.
Unfortunately just as the conversation was getting interesting I had to make my way back to work, although when I got there I ended up standing outside The Irish News for another hour while a controlled explosion was carried out in a neighbouring street before we were allowed back in to the office to finish off producing the paper.
Anyway, by the time I was back at my desk I felt fully reinvigorated by the little interlude and my brief brush with punk history.

Tuesday, 7 July 2009

H. Manice

Has anyone ever heard of a Croatian writer called H. Manice? I have one of his novels and saw another seven or eight titles during my recent visit to Dubrovnik.
His books were on a shelf in the apartment where we stayed. There were more copies stashed on book shelves and piled in alcoves along the stairs and twisting corridors that led to our front door.
I flicked through them and settled on one called The Master’s Box. There were two copies in the apartment and I saw another couple scattered about the place and so thought there would be no harm in taking one.
The Master’s Box and all the other novels by H. Manice that I saw were professionally printed but had no ISBN numbers – maybe they don’t subscribe to that system in Croatia. Anyway that suggests that they may have been self-published, atlthough on the flyleaf it says “Publisher: Galerija Stradun, For the Publisher Galerija Stradun’. It also gives the copyright date as 2000.
Other novels by H. Manice are Anna Cardea, The Flat Room, Soledad and Java Luck.
However, despite this fairly prolific output I can not find any online references to H. Manice or any of his novels. All the ones that I saw were written in English, although the books were published in Croatia.
The Master’s Box is a short novel - running to about 150 pages - and is set in the Balkans, with fairly clear descriptions of Dubrovnik, although the city is never named.
Many of the the characters were participants in the wars that broke out following the break-up of Yugoslavia, with one portrayed as a military fugitive (a sort of Ratko Mladic or Radovan Kradzic figure).
The plot is vaguely science fictionish – a psychologist who has discovered a device/formula that makes people appear or disappear, which the military character wants to get hold of to further his evil plans.
That science fiction element isn’t overplayed and the novel is more focused on the search for this device/formula as various characters form alliances, betray each other, have affairs, get captured and escape – all against the backdrop of the coast of Croatia and in and around Dubrovnik.
It wasn’t a particularly good novel, but wasn’t bad either, with the loose plot used as a launching pad for ruminations on the effects of war, betrayal, shifting loyalties. It reminded me a bit of Michael Moorcock’s Jerry Cornelius novels, non-linear narratives, peppered with esoteric musings.
What intriques me now is not so much the novel itself as the H. Manice phenomena. The way the novels were placed around the apartment, clearly inviting residents to take one or more.
The fact that Dubrovnik and coastal Croatia featured encourages the reader to imaginatively participate in an adventure featuring landmarks that become familiar to them during their stay and the novelist H. Manice entres their psyche and becomes synonymous with the region.
That scenario I’ve just outlined reminds me slightly of a story by Jorge Luis Borges, or if not an actual story, the sort of one that he might have written.
The meta tags that I attach to this entry will ensure that google now deliveres a result for H. Manice. Maybe I’ve become caught up in the plot.

Monday, 6 July 2009

Imidiwan by Tinariwen

Tinariwen’s fourth studio album, Imidiwan: Companions, is no big departure from their earlier material, infact the tracks on it could easily segue into the playlist on their earlier albums (or at least the two that I have – Amassakoul, their second album and Aman Iman: Water Is Life, their third).
Chunking, hypnotic guitar riffs, bluesy lead breaks, guttural lyrics, tribal chants and the occasional female wail comprise Tinariwen’s trademark sound.
The mythology that surrounds the band is probably partially responsible for their success outside of north Africa - Touareg rebels whose sound was forged in refugee and guerilla training camps as they fought for an independent homeland in the deserts of Mali.
The Touareg are desert nomads who habitually dress in all encompassing robes, ride over sand dunes on camels and who have become almost synonymous, as far as the outside world is concerned with Tinariwen.
The band are led by Ibrahim Ag Alhabib, a rangy, long-haired poet, who looks a bit like Phil Lynott after a month on the rip. Other singers, also described on their album sleeve notes as poets, occasionally take up the vocals.
Visually they are an impressive band, as a DVD documentary packaged in with Imidiwan testifies.
The fact that the tracks on this album are not, in terms of style that different, from previous recordings is not a criticism. Each song is unique but utilizes familiar Tinariwen elements.
I’ve only been listening to Imidiwan for a week but don’t feel it is as strong an album as Aman Iman, which seemed slightly edgier. Despite that the new album is still travelling between my car and house and is almost on constant loop, aurally dragging me from the damp and humid greenness of Co Down to sun-blasted rocky deserts and cool tents where mint tea is drunk.

Wednesday, 1 July 2009

The Discovery of Heaven by Harry Mulisch

The plot twists of this novel occasionally resembles a soap opera gone mad. The most bizarre scene is when Max - an astronomer using data from a huge radio telescope, seems to be on the verge of discovering something that may lay beyond the universe and that existed before the big bang - is suddenly annihilated by a meteor as he sits in has back garden.
The novel also includes scenes where divine deities (angels sounds too much like Clarence in It’s a Wonderful Life) discuss and manipluate events on the Earth – including the meteor that wiped out Max. The theology owes more to Gnosticism than traditional Christianity but never-the-less takes a willing suspension of disbelief.
Yet this is also a novel grounded in European 20th century history, politics and philosophy. It is full of ideas, speculation, scientific theories and linguistics.
Mulisch could perhaps be accused of showing off by cramming in arcane vignettes and expounding a broad knowledge of art, architecture, science, maths and Biblical scholarship, yet somehow he manages to weave it in without jarring the narrative and losing sight of his plot.
Plot is actually the wrong word because Mulisch seems to have set his sights on a conclusion, taken a starting point and then launched himself haphazardly over 725 hugely readable pages to get to his endpoint.
The two Dutch protagonists (or at least so it initially appears) are Max, the astronomer, and Onno a linguist who becomes a politician. As the novel meanders we dip into their respective histories and psyches – Max’s Jewish mother was sent to a concentration camp by his father. Needless to say Max is a complicated guy.
Max, a serial womaniser, meets Ada and has an affair with her, but when it fizzles out she takes up with Onno. Yet when the three of them are in Cuba in 1968 for a communist convention Ada has another brief fling with Max and when she falls pregnant is unsure who the father of her unborn child is.
The twists of fate that befall the trio are bizarre and almost absurd as divine intervention runs amok in a bid to create the set of circumstances in which Ada’s child, Quinten- the ultimate protagonist, can fulfil his destiny – the return of The Ten Commandments to ‘The Chief’.
It is the sort of novel that in the age of the internet I would rather have been sitting beside my laptop so that I could follow up on some of the more obscure references rather than reading during my recent trip through the Balkans. Never-the-less despite its broad frame of references an occasional obscurity it brings you lurching along with it, particularly in the last 150 pages or so when it took on a new lease of life as I raced to get to the end. Definitely a novel to be kept within easy reach and read again at a future date.
While getting an image I realised that there is a film version as well so it will be interesting to see how that manages to distil such an erratic narrative.