Wednesday, March 30, 2011

Who Reviews the Reviewers

There's an interesting literary spat going on in the Letters Page of the Irish Times this week. Last Saturday the IT's chief fiction reviewer Eileen Battersby had a good go at Dermot Healy's new novel (Long Time) - suggesting dthat there were large amounts of guff to plough through to get at the meat. I haven't read it but found it refreshing to read a rigorous review of a new Irish novel - one that wasn't just a shameless puff by a writer friend.

In jumps Eugene McCabe with a letter on Tuesday suggesting not only that Battersby was ageist (hilariously citing her praising of Neil Jordan's latest as evidence of favouring younger writers), but that her writing was so poor that she wasn't worthy of raising a pen against the sainted Healy. In today's paper the heavy guns are wheeled in and John Banville (late of the IT parish) fires off a fusillade in Battersby's defence - rebuking McCabe for his "ad hominen and scatological attack".

The whole affair highlights the difficulties of getting any book honestly reviewed in this small island. Loyalty between writers is no doubt an admirable quality in a financially precarious profession. However, I am sick and tired of seeing them puff each other up in laudatory and uncritical reviews that ultimately deceive the reading public. And how many times do you buy a book adorned with celebratory names on the back cover and end up disappointed? I can think of recent novels by John Boyne and Josephine Hart that came festooned with critical garlands from fellow writers - and both were virtually unreadable.

I have always found Eileen Battersby to be a rigorous and fair-minded critic (although, by the way, I think she gets Neil Jordan's latest badly wrong) and I welcome her honesty . She certainly doesn’t deserve Eugene McCabes cheap and churlish assault.

Wednesday, March 23, 2011

Georgia on My Mind

Down in Schull last Saturday grinding the coffee and preparing for a leisurely breakfast: Irish Times, croissants, and some savoury delights – you get the picture. The wife in benign attendance. The phone rings. It’s the brother with tickets for the Ireland versus England match later in the day – 300 kilometers away. A Grand Slam confrontation with the old enemy is not to be missed so without much hesitation I take on the logistical challenge. First I have to jump the domestic hurdle. Our weekend idyll compromised an initially pissed off partner gracefully concedes. Breakfast is cancelled and our hastily showered hero hurtles off towards Cork.

Rendezvous with the brother at the Travel Lodge near the Kinsale Road and we’re on our way via the South Ring and the Jack Lynch Tunnel. Two hours later we negotiate the slight hiatus of the canal, pass Paddy Kavanagh’s statue, and reach our destination in Ballsbridge. There a transaction with a distinguished ex-international outside Paddy Cullen’s (involving a discreet envelope) yields two tickets. I brazenly ask the Garda at Shelboune Road to move his barrier so that I can access my work place (well I used to work there) and we find a plum spot outside IONA Technologies – just around the corner from the stadium. As it’s our first visit to the Aviva Stadium we decide to go in early and savour the atmosphere. Two pints of plain (excellent quality – albeit in plastic glasses) and a hot dog later we settle into our seats.

The English find the red carpet this time and after the endless anthems and much gratuitous hoopla the match begins. It’s clear immediately that the Irish are up for it more than the English. It’s evident in the early collisions and particularly the first scrum. They are double tackling the English and stifling any loose ball. A few penalties and a few creative moments and the job is done. Sexton and David Wallace are our heroes. The last 20 minutes are spent sitting tight – with O’Gara giving a master class in tactical kicking. The hooray henrys behind us are rendered mute. One dud note at the Aviva is the horrible hectoring music that erupts each time we score, accompanied by some shameless brash prick announcing the score that we can see perfectly well on the giant score boards. They want crowd participation yet they drown it out when it’s at its peak.

After the match we take the car into town and find a perfect pitch directly outside the Ely Restaurant in Ely Place. The restaurant is booked out I’d been told over the phone earlier but I drop in anyway and my old buddies on the staff promise to look after me. We adjourn to the Shelbourne Bar to have our aperitifs (ok, two more pints actually) and soak up the atmosphere. There’s a large contingent of Brits in evidence, many of them wearing their English jerseys – poignantly. Two seats become available beside us in the packed bar and we sit back and observe the carnival.

On then to the warm welcoming womb that is the Ely. We are fed and watered well. Our waitress is Georgia from Sardinia – full of lip (in both senses) and generous of bosom. It would be ungallant not to linger over a few ports.

And so to bed.

Friday, March 18, 2011

Recent Reads - March 2011

The Grass Arena by John Healy

These are notes from the underground – missives from a milieu that doesn’t normally send out letters. The world of the wino. Healy is a phenomenon, going from soldier to boxer to wino to chess virtuoso to award-winning author – and then back to obscurity. The structure is a bit sloppy but these anecdotes from the edge more than compensate. I love the details of their desperate ongoing search for drink. Methylated spirits, surgical spirits, and aftershave were all consumed when the conventional options were unavailable. Then there are the characters including one who was kidnapped by the gypsies and forced to work all day and was tethered to a wagon by chains all night. He also introduced me to the “water on the brain” phenomenon – a condition induced by extreme drinking. A poignant refrain throughout the book is his failure with the girls -notwithstanding his keen interest.

He eventually got fucked around by Faber & Faber when his street persona intruded on the genteel Oxbridge world of Robert McCrum and his chums. He apparently threatened to come visiting with his hatchet if his royalties weren’t paid. They pulped his books and threw him back into the gutter. It’s nice to see him reissued by Penguin Modern Classics and beginning to gain a new audience.

A City Boy by Edmond White

It’s the usual Edmond White autobiography. Look see what a naughty boy I’ve been – again. It’s entertaining but I’ve heard it all before. Also the relentless namedropping begins to get tiresome. Being a distant acquaintance of Susan Sontag is not the ultimate in human achievement. Well written and amiable throughout though.

John Osborne by John Heilpern

Or how the angry young man became an angrier old man. What a great biography this is – and what a monster Osborne was. He played fast and loose with the ladies until he met his match in that termagant Jill Bennett. He spent himself into acute poverty but never let that condition interfere with his champagne life style. He was a great hater and eventually rowed with almost everyone who engaged with him. At his funeral there was a list of people he didn’t want to attend pinned to the gate of the church – these included Fu Manchu (Peter Hall) and Albert Finney. Finney had starred in Tom Jones which made Osborne (who wrote the screenplay) very wealthy for a while - however he sued Osborne when he didn't get his due from the film. He wrote four great plays (Look Back in Anger, Luther, Inadmissible Evidence and The Entertainer) and a host of minor works and screenplays. An incidental delight in this book are the many hilarious examples of Osborne’s invective in letter form.

Sunday, March 06, 2011

The Irish Question

It'll be interesting to see if Fine Gael keeps to its election promise to abolish compulsory Irish. Or will this promise be sacrificed to appease the Labour lobby and preserve the multitude of state and semi-state jobs that depend on keeping this brain-dead patient artificially alive. I love Irish. I still regard Cill Cais as one of our most beautiful poems and I will enthuse about Caoineadh Art O'Laoire and the work of Sean O'Riordain. However this language is dead. It's gone, it has expired. It's not our mother tongue and it's not the language of daily commerce. It certainly exists in pockets of the South-West and West and long may it run there - I'm sure it's great for tourism. However, the vast bulk of the populace endure it at school and cast off the burden the minute they leave. It was surely significant that the leaders debate on TG4 before the election featured sub-titles. After nearly 90 years of shoving it down our throats it is officially recognised that most of us can't keep up with a banal political debate.

The only good reason someone would take Irish seriously is to get a job on TG4 - surely a situation of some circularity. We spend vast resources duplicating government output in two languages when only a tiny proportion of the population demand it. They don't need it by the way, they can all speak English, but by God do they demand it.

I don't propose we abolish it. We make it available to those who want to learn it - it should of course remain on the school curriculum. And I'm sure there will be a decent number who are interested in it for historical and sentimental reasons. And I'm sure it should continue to be pursued in universities. It is dead but it is part of our history.

The Brits successfully wiped out our language but we got our revenge by colonising (Joyce, Beckett, Yeats, Shaw, Wilde et al) theirs and we should celebrate this fact rather than persisting in this fruitless necrophilia.

Tuesday, March 01, 2011

Schull beneath the Skin

Down in Schull on the trail of the mot juste. It's a different place when you visit it in winter without your dogs and entourage. And without the mind-numbing presence of the TV. I'm hardly Lear on the heath but I am thrown back on my own resources - interestingly. Hackett's and O'Regan's offer the consolation of a good pint and there's a half-decent bookshop on the main street. Restaurants are a problem off-season so I'm eating in. One trip to Antonios in Ballydehob cured me of that option - appalling food and intrusive and charmless hoyden running the place. And Brosnan's supermarket is better stocked than my local in Dalkey. absolved from all negative comments on local bars and restaurants is O'Sullivan's in Crookhaven where you get wonderful sea food, a fine pint and friendly service. It's just too far away for regular use.

The town is bustling with activity notwithstanding the dearth of tourists. It's always difficult to find a parking spot on the main street. It's extraordinary that a town of this size doesn't have a petrol pump. You have to go as far as Goleen or Ballydehob to fill up. Also, it doesn't have a hotel. The one on the way in has fallen victim to the building bust and is now a NAMA asset. Also, the Courtyard, once the jewel in Schull's crown, remains closed. Newman's on the corner of Pier Road is also closed after a fire - but will reopen in June they tell me.

My first visit to O'Regan's involved a breach of local etiquette. Prime Time or some political programme was on TV and I started chatting to the dark-haired and personable woman behind the bar about the state of the nation and the political riff raff running the show. Two old geezers sitting at the bar listened intently - the place was empty otherwise. When the bar mad moved over in their direction one of them opined in a stage whisper that "there's no place for politics or religion in a bar". To her credit she scoffed at him: "Shure what else will we talk about".