Sunday, March 31, 2013

A Community Communing

St. Patrick's Dalkey
St. Patrick's in Dalkey was less than half full this morning. You'd imagine that there'd be a bigger turnout on the most important liturgical day of the year. However I gather a number of the local Protestant community, more in touch perhaps with their pagan side, had been up on Killiney Hill earlier to watch the sunrise and had gone home spiritually surfeited for their bacon and eggs.

The regular vicar has stood down prematurely (a bit like the Pope) and so there was a stand-in called Kingsley Long.  A new one will be instituted shortly.  He was an amiable old buffer, comfortable with the gig. After various hymns and prayers he launched into a sermon based on, of all things, James Cameron's film Titanic. The gist of it was that it was safer to rely on Christ than the White Star Line.  A rather prosaic conceit I felt.  It being Easter Sunday there was a lot of Alleluias been thrown about. However the hymns seemed not to scan so well - though the sentiments were fine.  No crowd pleasers like Christmas.  I find it hard to concentrate at these events because I'm monitoring the state of the people around with whom I'll have to share the sign of peace.  Sniffers plying bedraggled tissues are especially feared. There is a bit of mumbo-jumbo at the end around the communion ceremony (and alarming casualness about a shared chalice) but it all felt worthy and secular to me.  Decent folk singing heartily.  I am not spiritually impacted.

The congregation are all solid burghers: middle-aged, middle-class and racially homogeneous. I was surprised at how dressed down most were - lots of jeans and ne'er an Easter bonnet in sight. The church was immaculate with beautiful fresh flowers and tasteful shrubbery.  And afterwards the milling about and the exchanging of pleasantries.  A community communing.

Monday, March 25, 2013

The Sketchbooks of Jack B. Yeats at the National Gallery

Sketch of Synge Reclining
An edited version (no shameless product placement) of this review appeared in the Sunday Times Culture magazine on 24 March 2013.

The Sketchbooks of Jack B. Yeats, 1897-1955

Jack B. Yeats is an elusive figure.  He famously refused to discuss the meaning of his work or even his method of working.  An unintentionally hilarious interview with Eamon Andrews in 1947 features the broadcaster trying in vain to extract some illuminating sound bites from the recalcitrant artist.  Yeats' responses included "I am not at all fond of talking about my own work." and "I'm against the giving of personal details - we'll pass on that one".  His reticence about these matters resembled that of his close friend Samuel Beckett.  We know little of his influences although critics will nod towards Degas and there's certainly a connection with Oskar Kokoschaka.  Apart from being good friends with the Austrian, the later mature work of both artists valued expressive colour over draughtsmanship.  Yeats never took students or allowed anyone to see him paint.  His opinion of art theory was summed up in his famous dismissal of Cubism: "who the blazes is Gleizes".  At the time Irish artists Evie Hone and Mainie Jellet had come under the influence of the Belgian Albert Gleizes, one of the movement's key theorists.  Yeats was having none of it.  Observation and hard graft made an artist, not theory and airy verbiage.  After his death his library of over 2,000 books was found to contain only a couple that related to art.  That this reticence extended to his private life is borne out by how little is known generally of his wife Mary Cottenham Yeats (Cottie).  The contrast with the well-aired amours of his older brother is striking.

So this absorbing and well-presented show offers us a window into the little-known private world of our greatest artist.  We see in these visual diaries the political concerns, the leisure interests, the social life and the visual stimuli of this most secretive of men.  It also, by the way, provides us with a rich slice of social history from the early part of the 20th century.  Yeats' niece, Anne Yeats, presented the National Gallery of Ireland with Jack B. Yeats' personal archive in 1996.  This donation led to the creation of the Yeats archive by the NGI which has since been augmented from other sources.  The original gift consisted of a "significant" number of original artworks, 204 sketchbooks (one of which was Cottie's) and various ancillary items such as race cards, boxing posters and circus posters.  The show consists of 123 of these sketchbooks opened, we are told, on "particular and well-chosen pages".   In addition four complete sketchbooks have been photographed and the digital images can be viewed on an array of Samsung Galaxy tablets.  These tablets also display many family photographs and letters from the Yeats archive.   We can see that Yeats was a dog-lover from his dog Hooligan's regular appearances.  Artists' sketchbooks play an important role in the history of art, going back to Leonardo da Vinci.  Yeats favoured a ring-bound pocket sized book "containing 36 leaves of fine cartridge paper".  The supplier was George Rowney and Co. from London who is still in existence and who had also supplied the sketchbooks used by Turner back in the early 19th Century.  A nice NGI connection.

Some of the subject matter we are familiar with: the theatre, the boxers, the circuses, the horses, and evidence of the inevitable sojourn at Coole Park.  Other sketches bring us another side of the man, a political side.  There's a sketch of a man and boy hauling food to strikers during the lockout.  Yeats felt intensely the injustice of this event.   There's a large 2-page pencil drawing of Sackville Street and the quays after the 1916 bombardment.  There's also a depiction of a corn workers protest march in London.  Yeats was a life-long republican so we are not surprised to see a sketch of Padraig Pearse, head thrown back in full oratorial flow.   There are amusing juxtapositions everywhere.  The boxing and racing fan apparently also enjoyed the cricket and croquet at Coole Park.  The republican embracing ascendancy activities. There's even a self-portrait thrown in: a study of Yeats sitting in a barbers's shop (see image) bedecked with sporting prints.  Yeats travelled in the West of Ireland with Synge, and illustrated the resulting Aran Islands.  You fancy that the beautifully composed sketch of the great man in repose on a tree came from one of these jaunts, maybe during a stop off at Coole Park.  Yeats and Cottie had a warm and enduring marriage.  Amidst the multifarious couplings in his bohemian milieu he was never known to stray.  He was devastated by her death in 1947, saying at the time  "we were like two odd children who came to a party and stayed on".  We see this love demonstrated in a couple of affectionate sketches of her on the croquet lawn and resting on a hill overlooking Donegal Bay.  A lot of the later sketches are graphite only, while the earlier ones are usually a combination of water colour and graphite.

There 's an eye-catching piece called A Horserace from 1903 where Jack B. is clearly poking fun at his older brother.  He has used a quote from W. B.'s poem In the Seven Woods to accompany the sketch of a furious finish to a horse race:  "while that Great Archer, Who but awaits His hour to shoot, still hangs".  The Archer Jack has in mind is surely the great Fred Archer, jockey supreme.  While William would have been referring to a loftier being.

There's a minor mystery at the heart of this show.  Although it's advertised as showing the sketchbooks of Jack B. Yeats from 1897 to 1955 (when Yeats entered a nursing home), it's clear that the vast majority of the books cover a period before 1924.  In fact 171 of the 204 books cover the period 1896 to 1919.  After 1924 they peter out apart from a couple of sketches from the mid-1940s and a final poignant drawing of his old studio in Devon from 1955.  Did Yeats stop sketching abruptly in the mid-1920s?  Hardly.  Why would he abandon suddenly such an ingrained practice.  The art historian Ciaran MacGonigal accompanied his father Muiris on regular visits to Yeats in the Portobello Nursing Home in the mid-Fifties.  He recalls Yeats sitting in his ground-floor room overlooking the canal surrounded by his sketchbooks and pencils, drawing to the very end. The activity was as natural to him as breathing.  The NGI Yeats archivist Pauline Swords maintains that there was a definite slowing down in sketching activity in the 1930s.  In that decade he concentrated on his writings and did comparatively little painting.  Maybe he felt he'd enough images in the bank.  She believes that there is a total of about 240 sketchbooks in existence and most of the ones missing from the archive can be traced.  Yeats made Ernie O'Malley a gift of eleven of them and he occasionally sold others.  Nursing homes probably didn't come cheap in the Fifties either.

What is certain is that Yeats continued to mine these sketchbooks for material for his paintings right through his career.  One of the joys of the show is searching for connections between the sketches and subsequent paintings.  There are obvious ones like the 1899 sketch The Giant Spelling which is clearly the source for the 1945 painting The Giant Reading - the composition is almost identical.  Also, the sketches of Derrynane Bay anticipate the 1927 painting Derrynane.  The sketchbooks served to stir memory and emotion.  The poignancy of his 1928 painting The Singing Clown is reflected in Circus Clown, the sketch from 1913.   The two old characters in Old man reading to a friend among the timber on quay could be the same two that occupied a park bench in Stephen's Green in May Night in Dublin.

Leaving this fascinating and truly illuminating exhibition it struck me that all we were seeing was the very top of the tip of the iceberg.  There are about 150 images on display from the 123 sketchbooks in the show (not counting the electronic stuff).  The NGI has over 200 of these sketchbooks.  Each book (assuming they were all the George Rowney ones) contains 36 leaves, or 72 pages.  That's a potential capacity of over 14,000 sketches.  However, the catalogue essay on the archive states that there are around "nine thousand pages of figurative sketches".  So less than 2% of the available images are on display.  Every year the NGI wheels out its Turner watercolours and all very fine they are - if only a distant echo of that great master's work.  With the Yeats bequest it has an ideal opportunity to make this an annual event also, turning over the pages and giving us a new selection every year.  The display cases are there.  Most software companies would be delighted to fulfil the electronic side.  If Guinness can launch Arthur's day for their excellent product I can see no reason why the NGI can't celebrate another national treasure by giving us an annual Jack B. Yeats event.


Monday, March 18, 2013

Portraits of the Artists 6: J. G. Farrell

J. G. Farrell

An edited version of this profile of J. G. Farrell appeared in the Sunday Times Culture magazine on 17 March 2013.

On the 11 August 1979 the writer J. G. Farrell slipped from a rock while fishing in a remote cove on the Sheep's Head peninsula.  Improbably, for such an isolated spot, the accident was witnessed by a local woman.  She remarked on the absence of any visible struggle.  His withered right arm and cumbersome wellington boots were no doubt factors as he disappeared quickly beneath the choppy waters.  Derek Mahon remarked on Farrell's interest in Buddhism.  He saw his withdrawal to the silence of west Cork as the wise man growing weary of the world - empty of desire he becomes free.  While posterity for Farrell could be said to have begun with a flurry of  retrospective Booker recognition in 2008, Lavinia Greacen's absorbing biography J.G. Farrell - The Making of a Writer (recently updated) should help to secure his reputation as one of the leading writers of English fiction in the 20th century.   Along with her J. G. Farrell In His Own Words - Selected Letters and Diaries published in 2009, it provides a perceptive and well-rounded portrait of a driven and complex individual who let nothing get in the way of his determination to be a successful writer.

It's a tasty irony that Farrell owes much of his current popularity to the Booker prize.  An irony that most sardonic of men would have relished.  He won the prize in 1973 for the Siege of Krishnapur.  At the award ceremony Farrell's famous refrigerated poise deserted him.  According to Greacen "Jim had a go at privilege, public schools and the Royal Family before turning to overpaid chairmen and executives, and finally rounding on Booker's exploitation of low-paid workers".  While his diatribe would probably resonate better these days, at the time it was regarded as poor form - biting the hand that fed him and other impecunious authors.  And, unlike John Berger, another Booker hand-biter, Farrell kept the money.  His reputation fell into abeyance after his death in 1979.  This may in part have been because of his Anglo-Irish origins.  The Brits think him Irish, and the Irish see him as British - so neither country claimed his legacy.  Arthur Koestler had a similar identity problem with his British/Hungarian origins.  However the Booker committee came to his rescue - twice.  In 2008 the Booker of Bookers competition selected the Siege of Krishnapur on a short list of six.  Salman Rushdie's Midnight's Children eventually won the prize but the attendant publicity revived interest in Farrell.  And this was followed up by Farrell's Troubles winning the ''lost' Booker prize in 2010, for novels published in 1970, the year no prize was awarded because of a change in the qualification rules.

Greacen's book chronicles the growth of the fledgling author of some juvenilia and an  autobiographical novel (The Lung)  into the mature and assured creator of Troubles, The Siege of  Krishnapur, and The Singapore Grip.  The book's strength lies in the way it brings to life Farrell's ruefully fatalistic but formidably independent personality as well as charting his development as a writer.  She uses interviews with a host of family, friends, colleagues, and lovers along with access to diaries and letters, to paint a compelling picture of a fascinating but not always likeable man.  She's particularly good on the writer's early years in Dublin.  His later success with the opposite sex was definitely not prefigured by his romantic skirmishes around Dalkey.

Perhaps the seminal moment in his genesis as a writer came shortly after he went to Oxford.  Studying Law and on his way to winning a blue at rugby, he was struck down with polio.  Within a short period the sturdy and extrovert athlete was turned into a frail and resentful invalid.  This event blighted his life - he never fully recovered the use of his right arm and was permanently debilitated.  A piquancy was added to his suffering by the successful athletics career of his cousin Tom Farrell who had just participated in the Melbourne Olympics.  In a creepy dress-rehearsal for his death, this once robust young man had to be rescued by friends as he struggled in the sea while on holiday in Acapulco.  His affliction also turned him into a writer.  He claimed that it was during his long stay in hospital "that I started writing and doing some thinking."  His convalescence lasted nearly two years and that period formed the basis for his novel The Lung which described the horror of being incarcerated in an iron lung for lengthy periods.  While Farrell's personality was already tinged with melancholy, this event exacerbated this trait.  His description of his polio ordeal centred on his struggle to breathe - providing another chilling harbinger of his eventual fate in the icy waters of Bantry Bay.

Anglo-Irish seems such an outmoded term - we're all Europeans now.  But if ever a writer seems to warrant that description it's Farrell.  His father was English with Irish antecedents and his mother was Irish with English antecedents. He was born in England, lived and worked in both countries, and died in Ireland.  His great theme was the decline of the British Empire which he first chronicled in Troubles, a novel set in Ireland during the War of Independence.   Yet the term doesn't apply to Farrell - he is very much a European writer.  While he admired Malcolm Lowry and Saul Bellow,  a lot of his reading was in French - initially Proust followed by an immersion in Sartre and Camus.  He was a fluent French speaker and taught for a period in Paris.  His interest in matters colonial was sharpened by being in France during the Algerian War of independence and by an illuminating visit to Morocco.  He brought a very modern sensibility to the historical events in his novels.  As Elizabeth Bowen, referring to Troubles, said:  "he had captured yesterday reflected in today's consciousness".  His only literary connection with Ireland, apart from a love of Beckett, was the poet Derek Mahon who was a friend.

Greacen is clearly smitten with her subject but this book is far removed from hagiography.  Her admiration for him doesn't preclude a full account of his many flaws and foibles.  The book devotes a lot of space to chronicling how badly Farrell treated the many women in his life. Described as "tall and slender and possessed of a slightly jaded and even sinister elegance", he was clearly attractive to women.  He in turn pursued them avidly, but never as far as the altar.  He had no interest in marriage or long-term commitment.  All enemies of promise were banished.  He cast a cold eye on life:  "The human condition - we all have my sympathy."  He was honest - making clear to his many girl friends the limits of their relationship.  This didn't seem to deter them.   His memorial service in London was remarkable for the number of attractive women gathered together.  In a 1970 letter to Bridget O'Toole, the only woman he even considered marrying, Farrell warned her to join him soon or "your mustard may be flavouring the victuals of one of my numerous other women.  From where I sit I can see them herded resentfully on the cobbles below, waiting for a glimpse". His womanising had a certain desperation about it that reminds you of Chekov - another sick man grabbing at life.

While his many admirers included such literary lionesses as Claire Tomalin, Hilary Spurling, Margaret Drabble, Alison Lurie, and Olivia Manning, he preferred to bed young literary ingenues or women on the fringes of the art scene.  The academic O'Toole was the nearest he came to boxing at his own weight.  Many of these young lovers were humiliated when it came to performing at the dinner parties he loved to host.  Anyone who lowered the mental temperature was subject to summary relegation.  Greacen doesn't try to conceal the occasional fall from grace.  When rebuked by a friend for taking his parents charity for granted his rejoinder was "it's a bonus for them to have a novelist as a son".

A curious feature of his story was his long-term relationship with a call girl (or "part-time whore" as she termed herself) which continued for a good portion of his time in London.  It was more friendly than carnal - although it had its sexual moments.  She was friendly with Christine Keeler and provided Farrell with an entree into a world far removed from Oxbridge and literature.  It gave him an insight into the hidden lives of prominent men - the client who liked to be dressed as a baby and other sexual foibles.  Her customers included judges, barristers, gangsters and Tory politicians (it strikes me that one person could be all of these).  She also vetted his girl-friends in a sisterly fashion.  When she eventually married he was the best man.  She even showed up at his memorial service in London.  A sensual and practical woman, she became the model for Lucy Hughes in The Siege of Krishnapur.

Farrell was a long time supporter of the Labour Party and, notwithstanding his Oxbridge background and elitist tendencies, he frequently spoke out for the less well off.  His Booker Prize outburst came from deep convictions.  He followed up his polemic by focusing a beady-eye on the economics and morality of colonialism in his next book The Singapore Grip.

For those new to Farrell, the best starting place is Troubles, described by many as his masterpiece.  The Majestic Hotel at the centre of the novel is a microcosm of Ascendancy Ireland, with the nationalists on the outside, like the Mahdi's forces surrounding Khartoum in his next novel The Siege of Krishnapur.  A parallel noted by Hugh Leonard who was also an admirer.

There is always speculation about those who die in mid-career.  John Banville suggested at a symposium on Farrell a couple of years ago that he had died at the right time - lacking, he asserted, the wells of passion within to augment his initial creative burst.  This seems poor judgement by one considerable writer of another.  Farrell worked hard at his craft, researching diligently, visiting the varied locales (including India and Nepal), and above all observing and recreating the foibles of his fellow man.  These traits surely equipped him for a long and fruitful career.  Unfortunately his bleak view of the human condition was confirmed by his absurd and untimely death on that August day near Kilcrohane.

Cork University Press
412 pages
RRP: €25
John P. O'Sullivan

Tuesday, March 05, 2013

Northern Ramblings - Part 2

Clambering at the Giant's Causeway
It's £8.50 each to visit the Giant's Causeway but we inadvertently found a way to do it for nothing.  At the entrance the road forks, one way to the GC, the other to the Giant's Causeway hotel. We took the latter by mistake and found ourselves in the hotel car park.  We cut around by the back of the hotel and found steps leading down to a path where we joined the hordes making for the sight.

A load of tour buses had disgorged 100s of Chinese and they were swarming over the stones taking each others photographs.  We were almost the only caucasians visible. The Christian Brothers doom-laden warnings back in the Sixties about the "little yellow men from the East" have surely come to pass.  On the GC itself, I am one with Dr. Johnson - worth visiting but not worth going to visit.  It's no Grand Canyon.

Onwards to Bushmills along the most gloriously scenic coastal route, we espy Portbradden nestling prettily under the cliffs below.  We arrive at our B&B outside Bushmills to find that it's attached to a pig farm (with attendant pong) and that there's no dinner because the landlady's brother died the day before.  Wonderful.  So we head into Bushmills to watch the England-France match and then have dinner.  There's a lot of hoodied louts around and a fair few Union Jacks so I take the precaution of parking my southern reg car in the car park of the well appointed Bushmills Inn.  We go into the bar, very snug and very busy but not a TV in sight.  This is good and bad - I want to see the match.  You'd imagine a town aflutter with Union Jacks might want to see England play France.  We decide to look elsewhere.  The next pub down is unpromisingly called The Scotch House and has a Union Jack over the entrance.  Nothing daunted we go in.  The match is on TV but nobody is watching it.  We order a drink and settle in.  Immediately a clearly drunk individual  detaches himself from a group of burly middle-aged men at the bar and strikes up a conversation.  His opening gambit is "where are you from".  The others listen in.   I confess my shameful Southern origins and try to curtail the dialogue.  Nothing daunted he takes root - telling us how much he likes to visit Dublin.  (Yeah, probably to plant bombs I say to myself.)  He then offers us a drink.  I demur: driving issues, health issues, an impending dinner date, and we flee the premises - match unwatched.  Paranoia you say, and maybe so, but I have a good instinct about being in the wrong place.  The North is so bloody tribal.  On then to the Tartine restaurant in a building once the home of the original owners of the distillery.  The reception area is dominated by an appalling painting of Graham McDowell who hails from nearby Portrush.  The food is mediocre.

Next day the compulsory Ulster Fry from the recently bereaved but talkative and amiable landlady.  I don't eat sausages, or black pudding, or those soggy carbohydrates (farels, potato cakes, fried bread, whatever) so really it's wasted on me.  We take an inland route back towards Ballymena through Glendun, Glenballyeamonn and the beautiful Glenarrif - it outwicklows Wicklow in places.  Once we hit Newry we accelerate towards Dublin to catch the Ireland-Scotland match.  Wasted effort that.

Monday, March 04, 2013

Northern Ramblings - Part 1

We started with afternoon tea in the F.E. McWilliam gallery in Banbridge.  A very interesting gallery with F.E.'s old studio preserved for our delectation and loads to entertain the eye. The fare in the cafe is fine too and we are presented with a few free scones as we leave.  A nice foretaste of the friendly reception we got everywhere we went - except for one little exception.

On then to Newforge House through undistinguished farming country - albeit with well trimmed hedges.  Each village a riot of Union Jacks on utility poles.  Newforge House is warm and comfortable, and a with great bed but it's way too intimate for my taste. There are only five guest rooms and we are all herded into the small living room for tea. Why tea, by the way, it's clearly G & T time. Five disparate couples sit around awkwardly whispering to each other while drinking the most God awful grey brew.  It's quickly clear that the whole purpose of this herding is to get us to look at the dinner menu and place our orders early.  There's a disturbing lack of choice for such a highly rated establishment:  salmon or fillet of pork for the main course.  We strike up a conversation with an amiable couple who rise up against the hegemony of the tea by fetching a bottle of ~Prosecco from their room and sharing it with us.  They later provide good company at a disappointing meal.  A very good aubergine risotto followed by two pork chops in gravy, concluded by an average cheese board - for about €50 a head.

The grounds provide little diversion apart from a very well appointed chicken run - so we get on the road.  Getting through Belfast on Saturday morning is no bother - a dual carriage-way runs through it and gets us on to Carrickfergus.  We nod at the well-maintained and tourist infested castle and keep going. We've obviously chosen a Loyalist route as the Union Jacks persist as we travel onwards towards Larne and beyond. The scenery improves as we follow the coastal route north of Larne and get our first glimpses of the Scottish coast through the hazy sunshine.

We stop in the clean and well-appointed town of Ballycastle, from where the Rathlin Island ferry departs. Beside its small ferry port, and cheek to jowl with its famous Granny Rock (see image below), we come upon the jewel in the crown of this town. Its Morton's fish and chip shop. Attracted by a sign advertising fresh haddock we check it out. There is a short delay as everything is cooked fresh but when our fish and chips arrive they are the best I have ever tasted. The batter on the fish is thin and light and the chips are crisp on the outside and floury within. Potato perfection. This interlude proved to be the culinary highlight of the weekend.

And so on to the Giant's Causeway.