Tuesday, May 19, 2009

Colm Tóibín and Brooklyn

I first came across Tóibín in the early 80s when he was editor of Magill. You'd see him in places like the old Project Arts Centre, bearded like a patriarch and with a fine head of dark hair. His heart seemed generally in the right place - he was a critic of Haughey long before it became fashionable, for example. A position he retains with added vehemence today.

I remember one incident that gave me doubts about him. A friend of mine, back from the US, who used to be vaguely connected with the Irish arts scene was drinking with me in the Shelbourne bar one evening and he spotted Tóibín at the bar. Up he sprang, walked over and greeted him effusively. Tóibín blanked him - stared at him coldly and didn't respond. My friend repeated his greeting - again nothing. Just a cold stare. He rejoined me and we continued talking. As there were a few other people there I never got the chance to ask what might have caused such a creepy reaction.

In recent times I mainly encounter him reviewing or being reviewed in the NYRB or the LRB. Always great stuff. He did get a rap on the knuckles from the late great John Updike for inferring that Henry James was gay in his The Master - Updike chiding him for ascribing homosexuality to one who was merely asexual. Recently I heard him give an elegant and thoughtful speech at the Chester Beatty Library for the opening of the Graphic Studio's Artist's Proof exhibition. He praised the combination of craft and graft that is the printmaker's lot.

Impressed by this speech, I decided to lift my embargo on him, inspired by the Shelbourne incident, and read Brooklyn, his latest novel. I'm happy I did. It's a chamber piece without a false note. It charts the modest viscissitudes of a modest life. The scenes of small-town life in Fifties Ireland are beautifully observed and totally convincing. From our current free and easy perspective we are horrified by the conclusion - how the restrictions imposed by Church and convention limited the choices of his characters. Thank God we're out of that. Also, there's plenty of incidental fun to be had from the cast of characters (Mrs. Kehoe the landlady especially) and the period detail.

Monday, May 18, 2009

In the Heart of the Sea by Nathaniel Philbrick

This was a real find - thanks Paddy. It's the story of the the ill-fated Essex, a whaling ship rammed by a sperm whale and sunk in the middle of the South Pacific in 1820. The crew were cast adrift in three small boats. A couple of them kept diaries so there is a wealth of visceral detail about what happened. It ended of course in cannibalism but we got all the stages before that with Philbrick showing an impressive knowledge of the pathology and psychology of starvation and dehydration.

While the story is gripping, the real beauty of this book is the wealth of incidental detail. Life on Nantucket at the height of the whaling boom is lovingly depicted with details of how the Quaker women amused themselves while the men were away on their lengthy voyages. We also told what butchering a whale at sea was like -a bloody inferno. The head was a particularly important source of oil and was lovingly tapped of its contents.

Melville went to sea subsequently with one of the survivors, and the story inspired him to write Moby Dick.

Forget Patrick O'Brian, read this.

Sunday, May 10, 2009

Judgement on Sky

One disquieting aspect of the Quinlan affair is the way that the agenda was set by Sky Sports. I was at the match and saw nothing. Neither I expect did most people who watched on television until Sky started showing the incident repeatedly in slow motion. Cullen didn't complain after the match and neither did Leinster. However the amount of attention it got on Sky meant that a citing was inevitable. And so I expect is the suspension that will cost Quinlan his Lions place. Looking at the incident on YouTube I'd say that at best he can plead carelessness. He didn't gouge but he did grab Cullen roughly around the eye area - that'll be enough to condemn him.

The problem is that every rugby match contains many such incidents, some captured on TV, some not. Sky have it in their power to focus on one incident and ignore another - to suit the agenda of whoever controls these things. A smidgen of jingoism is enough to set such an agenda. And let's face it Sky are hardly famous for objectivity.

Friday, May 08, 2009

Bob Dylan at The O2

I was disappointed and bored for much of this show. But then what did I expect. I know his voice is shot, I know he famously does not engage with his audience.

The man is a gurning caricature of what was - wearing a wide-brimmed caballaro's hat and what looked like pyjamas. The voice can no longer handle the rolling grandeur of pieces like Desolation Row. The songs are broken into choppy segments and Dylan croaks out incoherent lyrics with random emphasis. It was as if he could only utter a few words at a time before running out of breath. He murdered Like a Rolling Stone and Blowing in the Wind and I only realised after the show that he'd performed Ballad of a Thin Man.

But the band were great and there were more than a few bright moments: Summer Days sounded like a rockabilly classic, Highway 61 Revisited was passable, and If You Ever Go to Houston accommodated his ruined voice better then the older work. The crowd in general seemed to like him and the new stadium is a huge improvement.

One notable flaw was the absence of big screens. Maybe this is part of Dylan's increasingly uncommunicative attitude at concerts. At the Leonard Cohen gig last summer you could see every expression on the great man's face no matter where you were sitting - and this added greatly to the atmosphere. Here Dylan lurked somewhere under his hat brim but his appearance and expressions were lost on most of the audience - half of whom he had his back too for most of the show anyway. And of course not a single word of greeting or thanks. Not that his fans care a whit. I can't help but see it as self-indulgent arrogance. And strange in one who talks to us on his radio programmes and confides to us in his Chronicles.

Monday, May 04, 2009

A Visit to IMMA

IMMA: what a wonderful resource for Dublin. One of the few things our Government got right. If you never go in to look at the art you can visit and enjoy the wonderful landscaped gardens - ideal for fractious children to burn off energy on those long weekends. We pay a visit to see the Hughie O'Donoghue show and to take in the Bank of Ireland bequest and the Seamus Heaney show, and we discover on the way in the added bonus of some Alexander Calder. Enrique Juncosa's reign has encompassed some preciousness and some political decisions but he's hit the spot with this lot.

With Le Brocquy atrophying and Blackshaw waning, it's clear that O'Donoghue is our pre-eminent living artist. And I suspect that history's jury will find in his favour also. He works on a scale that few Irish artists have attempted. Some of the pieces in this show are so big that IMMA cannot accommodate them sympathetically - there's one (An Anatomy of Melancholy IV) that's a whopping 10 feet by 20 feet. Like Shakespeare there's something for everyone in O'Donoghue. For those who feel insecure around abstraction there are the figurative elements - both painted and photographic: usually bodies, dead, adrift, or asleep. For the sniffers after the numinous, there's the big encounter a la Rothko and the emphasis on death and evanescence. For the artist and art buff there's the technique: the varnish, the matt, the layers of paint, the photographs encompassed, the newspapers painted over, the thematic coherence. There is an absolutely riveting video of the way he develops his work, the building up of layer upon layer, the going back and rejigging it, the use of photographs, the care and craft. It's a relentlessly elegiac show that will linger long in the mind's eye.

The Heaney show features a lot of prosaic art (Martin Gale's work is the exception) but some great manuscripts of Heaney's poems that make you want to go back and read more of the great man - one about a first encounter particularly struck me. The Bank of Ireland show is a disappointment, apart from a late Yeats' and an exquisite early William Scott of a young girl.

Irish Media Portraits

I have been subjected to these creatures on radio and TV over the past 20 years or so, and impressions have formed. If RTE figures predominate it's probably because that atrophied organ appears to assume that once it hires someone they cannot let them go no matter how rancid they have become. RTE observes no sell by date, so some of them had a fresh appeal that is long gone.

GERRY RYAN: Strictly for shop girls and taxi drivers. Mild scatology and bludgeon wit. His bloated self-regard a thing of wonder. Are his heaving bosoms the bellows of divinity?

EAMONN DUNPHY: Veers alarmingly between fawning uncritical unctuousness (Anne Madden interview) and ankle-biting spleen (Ronaldo, Sin Fein etc.).

JOHN WATERS: Beyond crankiness. The mute beside a ranting and deluded Christopher Hitchins (in a Gate debate on God) defined his true heft. His hair an objective correlative for his mind.

MARION FINUCANE: The heroine of Hume Street has become a cosy spokesperson for establishment Ireland with a strange undercurrent of antipathy towards the male of the species.

DAVID NORRIS: For God's sake David shut the fuck up. I admire your courage as Ireland's first unashamed homosexual (see Nell McCafferty) but you do go on a bit and you are the worst interviewer in the universe - but one of the best interviewees.

TRACY PIGGOT: Why? A seeming decent woman but with all the wit and charisma of a malt loaf. Surely her father's famous terseness should have been a clue.

NELL MCCAFFERTY: A clown for the media to patronise. Want a harsh-voiced lazy and predictable opinion on the North, Men, Women, or anything they can't find anyone else to talk about? Let's ask Nell. At least her erstwhile partner Nuala O'Faolain had the courage to admit she was a lesbian. For years Nell put up with the likes of Gay Byrne asking her when she was going to get married without reaching for the obvious rebuttal.

GAY BYRNE: Forgotten but not gone as the graffiti in RTE allegedly said. A nasty man gloating over the lengthy sentences drink drivers get - on some mid-afternoon show he has fetched up on. Who can forget his fawning interview with Margaret Thatcher when she was in Dublin her pushing her appalling autobiography? Or his less than gallant treatment of the unfortunate woman who had a child by his old buddy Bishop Casey.

Munster Mugged on Jones's Road

Went with the brother to watch Munster's lap of honour against Leinster in the Heineken Cup semi-final last Saturday. The portents were good. It was a beautiful sunny day and as we drove through town all the pubs we passed had their red armies in place. Yet I had a vague feeling of unease, Leinster's rearguard action against Harlequins showed a fortitude that had been missing in the past.

I had planned our route to embrace a trip to the Gravedigger's - cunningly hidden away in the heart of Glasnevin. It's an ideal staging post for Croke Park, away from the frenzy of the immediate environs but only a bracing 15 minute walk along the canal to Jones's Road. There were some of the more interpid Munster supporters around but there was plenty of parking and elbow room at the bar to quaff a couple of pints. The pub is a fine relic of bygone days and its only deviation from full-blown authenticity was the t-shirts for sale. A quibble.

And so to the match. There seemed to be more Munster than Leinster supporters initially but as the ground filled up it came close to balancing out. The organisers had laid on thousands of free flags for both sets of supporters - a nice touch that helped demonstrate the way the supporters were intermingled.

The match was a full on faction fight. At one stage there were four bodies stretched on the turf receiving attention and all through the referee seemed very lenient in allowing ministering medics come and go. The first significant incident was Contemponi going straight through O'Gara with malice aforethought. A statement of intent from Leinster. Rugby is all about motivation and intensity and it became clear very quickly that Leinster had it and Munster didn't. It showed in Elsom's ferocious marauding and it showed in the fearless tackling of D'Arcy and O'Driscoll in mid-field. It showed in the ferocity of their front five. Munster never got a chance to play - they were blown away. (Was that all-star pack minding itself for the Lions tour?) It was hard to feel too upset, the Leinster try scorers were the same guys we cheered on for Ireland a few weeks ago. And I have grown a bit weary of the Munster triumphalism that has been creeping in.

There is the sneaking feeling that this was Leinster's final. Can they build up to that level of intensity again? Or we will have to endure the roundheads of Leicster winning yet another Heineken Cup.