Thursday, 26 November 2009

Brazil, Belfast punk and Celtic Rock

I bought Welcome to Gomorrah by Niall Quinn (not the soccer player) in a Dundalk bookshop 15 years ago after reading the blurb. I was very taken with it at the time and read it three or four times but haven't read it in maybe 10 years.
Yet when I was setting up this blog last year and compiling my favourite books it was one of the ones I immediately included.
Reading it again I would have to argue that it is not a great novel but it is a fine piece of writing. Publishers would probably reject it now because it is too self-consciously literary, too much tell and not enough show and the author's voice constantly drowns out the action with interjections and polemics.
It tells the story of an unnamed narrator who arrives by ship from Europe in Brazil. He is a 'broken man', a mental wreck and with just $60 in his pocket believes that he will not survive long in South America.
He meets Lia, a young prostitute, who tells him he will be mugged and killed before he gets to the end of the street and she escorts him from the docks.
The story is probably predictable, the bitter, damaged man who finds salvation through a 'tart with a heart'.
Lia and the narrator, who is an Irish writer, become lovers. Their stories unravel along with Quinn's critique of the sort of society that brings girls like Lia to the street and others to the point of such absolute poverty that they crawl on a park bench to die while the better off turn their heads to ignore them.
It is an angry novel which Quinn uses as a vehicle to prosecute global capitalism for its crimes against huge swathes of the world's population.
It also follows the downfall of its narrator whose single book was lauded and praised in Dublin and earned him a literary prize which would allow him to study in the US for two years with all fees paid and a living allowance.
Yet when he gets to the university they have never heard of him. I tried goolging Niall Quinn to find out more to see if this element of the novel was autobiographical (it does have the feel of a lived story) but could find few references between the hundred for the soccer player of the same name.
He is soon living hand to mouth in abject poverty with no-one seeming to accept blame for his situation. Even when he is given an airfare back to Ireland he is regarded as a pariah (what had he done to offend the university he was sent to and abuse the literary honour he had been given?). He is not even able to claim the dole because he is regarded as having left his job in the US.
He goes to England, at the time of the miners strike, where he sees thousands of once-proud working people reduced to demonised jobless in Thatacher's Britain. He tries to take his own life but although he is saved he regards the man he was before as dead and the person who was pulled from the exhaust fume-filled car as a distortion of what he once was.
It is this wreck that arrives in Brazil and through Lia creates manages to re-engage with the world.
Welcome to Gomorrah is a novel of the underbelly of society and the narrator makes money by agreeing to launder money... some good tips here on how to forge passports (before the days of digitalisation), steal identities, and to wash illegal money through casinos, buying and selling jewellery and used cars.
It is a novel of attitude and Quinn is as concerned with making his sociological observations as he is with telling a story.
Tonight I bought another book to add to my already teetering unread pile but since the author and two of the main protagonists were in the vicinity I thought why not.
I first saw Stiff Little Fingers when I was 15 and have seen them half a dozen times since in various incarnations. I don't think their music as aged as well as The Undertones, or even The Sex Pistols or The Clash but maybe that is because their lyrics were so much of a time and place.
Some of the main participants of that time in place where in the John Hewitt bar in Belfast for the launch Roland Link's "Kicking Up a Racket - The Story of Stiff Little Fingers 1977-1983 inclduing the band's first drummer Brian Faloon (who played on Inflammable Material) and his successor Jim Reilly, who played on the next two studio albums and the still-superb live album Hanx.
Other faces, were Good Vibrations impresario Terri Hooley, Outcast Greg Cowan and Rudi's Brian Young.
At more than 350 pages the book looks as if it might give details of what brand of guitar strings the band were using in 1978 but SLF were the soundtrack to my youth so I can take that sort of indulgence.
I will of course now have to dig out my various SLF albums to listen to while I read which fits in with current musical mood as I've been listening to the compilation John Peel: Right Time Wrong Speed.
Alternative Ulster by SLF is on there, as is You've Got My Number by The Undertones. Other stand-out tracks are by The Wedding Present, Killing Joke, The Fall, Misty in Roots, Joy Division, Half Man Half Biscuit and even Ivor Cuttler.
Mind you there will be a distinct change in musical genres this week. I've already started dipping into The Tain, The Book of Invasions and the obscure and rather good Drive The Cold Winter Away by Horslips ahead of their reunion gig in the Odyssey Arena in Belfast.
Eamon Carr, who is for me probably the most interesting - he went on to become a journalist and also wrote a travelogue following the journeys of the Japanese haikuist Basho – has said he won't be playing, yet when I saw them on TV at the weekend he was behind the kit. See the footage here.
Will have to almost change my mindset from punk and post-punk to the glam infused absurdity that was Celtic Rock. Ach, sin scéal eile

Friday, 20 November 2009


THE Spanish artist Pablo Picasso may have left his native Malaga when he was just 14 but his association with the Andalucian city is giving it a cultural kudos on a par with that brought to Bilbao by the Guggenheim museum.
While Malaga's Picasso Museum may not have the architectural wow-factor of the Guggenheim, any building that contains more than 140 paintings, sketches and sculptures by one of the 20th century's most famous artists is guaranteed to be a huge draw.
The Picasso Museum has also had a ripple effect and in the six years since it opened Malaga has grabbed the cultural baton and run with it in a bid to secure the title of European City of Culture in 2016.
It now also boasts a museum of modern art, an interactive museum of music - which is aimed at both adults and kids - and even a museum of wine-making.
Thrown in to the mix are a baroque cathedral, Arab fortress, crumbling castle, theatres and concert venues as well as a unique regional cuisine.
In addition Malaga has the advantage of being just a three-hour hop away from Belfast International Airport.
A good starting point is Malaga Cathedral which was built on the site of a Mosque after the Arab Moors were driven from Spain by the Catholic monarchs in the 16th century.
The Moors had occupied much of Spain for 700 years and their influence can still be seen in terms of architecture, cuisine, place names and even on the Spanish language.
Some churches in Malaga simply took over former mosques and you can still see the outline of minarets and Moorish arches. However, the Cathedral was build from scratch, beginning in 1528.
From outside if you stand back from the main entrance you will see that there is only one tower, the other one is just a stub that was never completed.
A huge choir, with two organs, dominates the cavernous inside and set into the walls on either side are little side churches, dedicated to different saints, with some beautiful icons and paintings.
Most of the main cultural sights in Malaga are within walking distance from one another and about 10 minutes stroll from the cathedral is La Alcazaba, an Arab fortress, parts of which date back to the 700s.
A pathway twists up through the remarkably well-preserved fortifications to where the sultan would have held court. Plants and shrubs and running water help cool the air down during the hottest days, although for those who might find the walk too strenuous there is a lift which takes you to the summit.
You can see why La Alcazaba was built where it was for it provides superb views over Malaga and out to the Mediterranean which used to break at the foot of the fortress but which is now reclaimed land and home to the city's gardens and sea port.
Set even higher than La Alcazaba is Castillo de Gibralfaro, which dates from the 14th century, and while only a few ramparts remain it is worth visiting, once again, for some fantastic views along the coast and the mountains which lie inland.
More and more history is being uncovered in Malaga every day and just a few years ago an excavation at the foot of the La Alcazaba came across some Roman remains.
Since then archaeologists have uncovered an entire amphitheatre, its outline now almost fully exposed again after centuries of being hidden beneath the earth.
Just around the corner is Plaza de la Merced where Picasso was born
in 1881. His former home is open to visitors and contains a number of sketches and sculptures but for a fuller exposition to his work a visit to the Picasso Museum is a must.
The museum has works by Picasso covering every period of his life, from his early, fairly conventional, work through his famous 'rose' and 'blue' periods, examples of 'neo-classicism', 'cubism', flirtations with 'surrealism' and the sexually charged pieces of his later years.
He is one of the best-known artists of the 20th century and his style and themes will be familiar to anyone with even a passing interest in art.
Slightly more challenging is the work on display at Malaga's newly opened Centre of Contemporary Art.
Andy Warhol is probably the best-known artist on display here this autumn alongside Jean Michel Basquiat, Francesco Clemente, Gunter Forg and Gary Hume.
Huge galleries are home to sometimes spartan, occasionally interactive and always challenging works - and it's free in. Another new addition to Malaga's cultural landscape is MIMMA - an interactive music museum which has a collection of 300 instruments from throughout the world, some hundreds of years old.
A number of the instruments can be picked up and played which is great fun if you are the one doing the playing.
Malaga's main shopping Street is the pedestrianised Marques de Larios, with a maze of little side streets and alleys running off it as well. Being a Spanish city there are of course hundreds of cafes, bars and restaurants everywhere you go.
Tapas are a great way to sample a variety of different dishes in a single sitting. Malagan salad is made with potato, cod, onion, orange, olives and oil, and while a combination of asparagus, prawns and scrambled eggs may not sound that appealing it does work. The city also has its own version of Anadalucian favourite gazpacho and a regional variation of paella.
My favourite find was a long, narrow 'bodega' on the main thoroughfare, Alameda Principal. Along its back wall are dozens of barrels piled high on top of one another with a variety of wines ranging from strong, almost sherry-like, to light reds and whites.
The barmen notches up the price of each drink with a piece of chalk on the wooden bar before tallying up your total when you are ready to leave. A food vendor sells a variety of tapas, including prawns and smoked hams. A perfect way to round off a busy day of culture.

(This appeared in The Irish News Travel pages on Saturday November 21.

Monday, 16 November 2009

Rejuvenation, cooking and Chinese Dub

Youth Without Youth by Mircea Eliade could be classified as science fiction but then so could Jorge Luis Borges and Franz Kafka. An elderly Romanian scholar, Dominic, is struck by lightening and finds that his body has begun to rejuvinate and that his failing memory has been restored and amplified.
His case attracts international attention and he is secreted away by the Romanian authorities. The first part of the novel takes part in the late 1930s and Dominic is smuggled out of the country when it is learned that the Gestapo want to get hold of him.
He had devoted his life's work to the rise of civilization and the link between language and consciousness and his increased mental powers allow him to continued that work. But now rather than studying a book he can simply hold it and absorb it contents and a brief glance at a grammar book enables him to master a new language.
The more fantastic elements of this novella allow Eliade to explore broader themes about the human consciousness, the unconscious, the nature of time and memory. Dominic's physical rejuvenation has also resulted in a split in his mind where alter egos seem to take on a physical form.
He lives out the Second World War in anonymity in Switzerland and his story becomes a myth circulating in certain academic circles.
In the 1950s he meets a young woman called Veronica who has been left traumatised after her car was struck by lightening. Dominic recognises the language that she speaks as a version of Sanskrit spoken in northern India 1,400 years earlier. She tells Dominic that her names is Rupini and that she had been meditating in a cave when a lightning bolt caused rocks to cave in on top of her. When she awoke she was in another cave but did not recognise the world around her.
Dominic travels with Veronica other academics to India and they discover a cave where a woman's body sitting in a meditating position is found. The sight of her skull shocks Veronica back into reality and the academics use her case as definitive proof of transmigration of the soul.
Veronica and Dominic flee the publicity that follows them to Malta but Veronica continues to have regressions going back further and further in time, speaking ancient languages, that Dominic records, until her utterances are almost primal wails. However, the mental strain of these regressions take a physical toll and she ages prematurely. Dominic leaves her, telling her that when he is gone she will regain her youth.
Eastern philosophy, Jungian psychology, linguistics and even James Joyce's Finegan's Wake all make appearances in the novel. The film version, directed by Francis Ford Coppola, is fairly faithful to the novel but seems to get tangled up in itself.
Eliade wrote a novel of ideas and trying to transfer that into a movie format forces Coppola into contrived cinematography. The result is not unsatisfying and in a way it complements the novel but as a piece of cinema it doesn't quite work.
Also recently finished was Manuel Vazquez Montlaban's Southern Seas featuring the Barcelona detective Pepe Carvalho. This was my third Montalban novel, although it predates the other two.
Carvalho is a thinking detective who enjoys good food and wine who has been hired by the wife of a wealthy businessman whose body was found on a building site in Barcelona.
The murder victim's family, colleagues, friends and lovers had thought he had been travelling in the Pacific Ocean, following in the wake of the 19th century painter Paul Gauguin.
However, Carvalho discovers he had been living in a tough working class development in Barcelona built for profit by the murder victim and his colleagues with little thought for the people who would live there.
Montalban uses his novels as a commentary on contemporary Spain and this one, set in the late 1970s mulls over the state of ongoing flux as Spain emerges from the dictatorship of Franco into a parliamentary democracy. Yet it is still an elite who seem to govern while a huge underclass are merely expected to exist.
As with his other novels Montalban throws in the obligatory over-the-top sex scene and a couple of recipes.
Favourite music at the minute comes from Jah Wobble on his album Chinese Dub.
The former PiL bass player has long being carving out a a niche career as a world music champion. On this album he takes traditional Chinese instruments and tunes and sets them to a background of dub reggae. It shouldn't, but somehow it works.

Thursday, 5 November 2009

Disguise by Hugo Hamilton

Identity and way people construct a persona to deal with the world is the main theme of this novel. Gregor is a German musician who has constructed a history for himself based on the flimsiest of evidence. He believes that as a small child he was a Jewish refugee who was found during the Second World War and swapped to take the place of a dead German child.
He is convinced that the woman who claims to be his mother lost her own child during a Berlin air raid and was persuaded by her father to replace her real son with the orphaned refugee and say nothing, not even to her husband.
Gregor has no evidence to support this version of his personal history. He has no memory of living with another family or of another mother but the ramblings of an old man who knew his grandfather sow the seed of doubt.
AT 17 he abandons his war-veteran father and mother and travels to England, Ireland, Scotland and around Europe.
He rejects the version of his family history that he knew to that date and constructs a past, based on the words of a man who had been scarred both physically and mentally by the war.
Gregor makes his living as a musician and eventually meets and marries Mara and they have a son, Daniel. Mara and Gregor's friends in Germany accept that he is Jewish - Gregor had himself circumcised when he was an adult but fails to tell his wife this and she thinks it was done when he was a child.
His story starts to come apart when Mara makes contact with Gregor's mother and his marriage breaks up as does his relationship with his son.
The key to sustaining this story is that Gregor has not just made up the story about being a foundling, he believes it and is constantly searching for some dark corner of his memory that would confirm it.
The story is told when Gregor is in his sixties and to some extent has been reconciled with his ex-wife, although less so with his son.
The narrative jumps back and forward in time, blurring fact, half memory and Gregor's assumed version of events.
Author Hugo Hamilton can sustain a mood or create a vignette over several pages in which little happens but which carries the reader through on the back of his lyrical and layered prose.
Gregor may have manufactured a past for himself but it is what defined him as a man and is no less valid than what may or may not have been true.
And there is always the subtext that what Gregor believes to be his past may be the true one.