Tuesday, May 28, 2013

Trespassers by Julia O'Faolain

An edited version of this review appeared in the Sunday Times Culture magazine on 26 May 2013.

You might flit through this book and consider it merely an entertaining and well-written memoir of a charmed life.  Bright girl grows up in leafy Killiney with famous father and talented mother.  Their weekend callers are a who's who of Irish letters, including Frank O'Connor, Patrick Kavanagh and Conor Cruise O'Brien.  Her studies bring her to Paris, Rome, London, Florence and eventually the United States.  Along the way she's importuned by famous artists such as Lucian Freud and Patrick Swift. She has a couple of affairs with exotic and politically aware Europeans.  Eventually she takes up with the Renaissance scholar Lauro Martines, a man with only a slight blot on his escutcheon.  Their life is a sequence of academic appointments in nice places where they mix with the brightest and the best - poets, artists and the politically engaged.  A little louche occasionally but nothing too extreme.  And of course along the way she writes a number of well-received novels.

But there's a serpent in the garden.   While the book is loosely structured and entertainingly anecdotal there is a dark and constant motif running through it: the author's post-mortem reckoning with her famous father.  Seán Ó Faoláin was notoriously susceptible to a well-turned ankle.  Towards the end of his life he referred to Honor Tracy, with whom he'd had an affair, as "the best of the lot".  And it's clear that there were a lot - including the novelist Elizabeth Bowen.  (A piquant affair that, the past IRA Director of Publicity consorting with the future British Ministry of Information operative, or spy to you and me.)   And it's equally clear that Julia was not happy about all these affairs.  References to Seán, while often admiring, lack the warmth with which she refers to her mother.  Eileen was wounded by the Black and Tans but damaged far more it seems by her celebrated husband.   She agonises about abandoning her to "Seán's unreliable care" and  alludes to: "how badly, and how often, he hurt her".

We also learn that Seán Ó Faoláin, the scourge of the De Valera government, the deadly enemy of John Charles McQuaid, the ardent man of affairs, and the leading Irish liberal of his day, operated a double standard in matters sexual where his daughter was concerned.  He blackmailed her emotionally into leaving her first serious boyfriend - a Jewish Algerian communist student (what's not to like there?) and fought hard, but failed, to stop her marrying her eventual husband by digging up dirt on him through his Harvard network. Such was the acrimony about this match that Ó Faoláin and his long-suffering wife did not attend the wedding.  While Julia suggests it was to do with the expulsion of a Radcliffe girl with whom Lauro had been involved, it may have also been the fact that he had been divorced - anathema even to free-thinkers in the Ireland of the Fifties.  In her eighties now, it's clear that Julia is still much exercised by this fraught relationship with her father.

There are an abundance of juicy anecdotes - many involving Julia's sexual education.  There's a story of her posing for the artist Patrick Swift - a much older man.  As he set up the pose he quoted Cezanne who declared that when painting an apple he liked to eat one first.  This generated a frisson within our young heroine who admits "I both did and didn't want to be eaten".  There's also an early crush on the six-year old Garrett Fitzgerald, who apparently was a brave lad at climbing trees.  She's clearly not a fan of Anthony Cronin ("weedy Tony").  She warned a girl-friend to read his poetry but not to marry him.  The friend didn't listen and years later Cronin, who had been informed of her views, pulled a seat from under her at a party in Lugalla in retaliation.  Even a distinguished poet can be prone to petulance.

The trespassers in the title of these memoirs are the writer herself and her family.  She recalls life as an outsider initially in Dublin (they came to Killiney from London via Wicklow)  subsequently in France, in Italy and later the United States.  The book is excellent on period and place:  Protestant Killiney after the War, Paris, Rome  and Florence in the Fifties, and California in the Sixties.  It's a world of ideas, of art, and of political ferment.  She's inherited her father's anti-clericalism and recounts the ostracising of Hubert Butler in Kilkenny for daring to speak out about the crimes committed by Catholic Croatians during the Second World War.  Butler dared to question the saintly Cardinal Stepinac and mention his connivance with the Natzi puppet regime.  For this, the good burghers of Kilkenny boycotted him both socially and commercially.

The book concentrates on O'Faolain's life before her marriage at twenty-five.  Maybe her domestic milieu didn't provide the colourful encounters that punctuated her earlier years:  Patrick Kavanagh walking the ten miles to Killiney on Sunday afternoon for tea and cakes and exchanging poems with the young Julia; on the tear with the Irish rugby team in Paris the night before a match; observing John Sparrow sneering at William Empson during a Harold Acton dinner party; Lucian Freud in the lavatory of the Deux Magots in Paris removing her from his to do list because of some affair she never had:  "I no longer desire to sleep with you".  And beneath all the surface glamour, the bohemian revels, the stirring political debates, and the worldly success, the bitterness towards her father thrums.

Publisher:  Faber & Faber

RRP:  €18.90

Pages:  249

Friday, May 24, 2013

A Gourmand among Gourmets

Some good friends took us to L'Ecrivain last week - I fear the Michelin starred restaurant was wasted on me.  It started with the Starters.  Of the five on offer I couldn't eat four:  Rabbit, Pigeon, Foie Gras and Scallops.  The fifth was Hake which I love.  But my portion when it arrived was more a flake than a fillet - a two inch square, succulent but slight.  For my main course I ordered saddle of lamb - it sounded comfortingly substantial (plus sea-weed tapenade and other esoteric flourishes).  I noticed that none of us who selected the lamb (it was popular) was asked how it should be cooked.  Cowed by the precious ambience I failed to address this omission.  When it arrived I was disappointed on two counts.  It was a two inch cube of bloody meat with some slight attendant folderols.  I like my meat medium, pink not red.  My own bloody fault for not specifying.  But the size of the portion (price €41) was the major problem - a couple of good bites and it was gone.  Where's the bread?  All the while this was going on, the short ass blonde sommelier (with a rictus smile) was relentlessly filling our glasses whenever we paused for breath.  The contrast between the brimming beakers of wine and the paltry fare on the plates could not have been more extreme.

The company was great and the chat flowed as abundantly as the drink.  But I had a cheese sandwich when I got home.

Wednesday, May 22, 2013

A Travesty, A Tragedy, and an Abominable Injustice

Clermont Agonistes

Unlike soccer where it's difficult to score, the better team normally win rugby matches.  There are of course exceptions (Ireland against Scotland this year), but this general rule applies.  It's mainly to do with territorial domination usually leading to tries or to penalties against the defending team.  But at Lansdowne Road last Saturday there was one of the most egregiously unjust results in the history of the sport - as bad as that infamous occasion in 1959 when Don Clarke kicked six penalties for New Zealand against the Lions who lost 17-18, despite scoring four tries (old scoring values).

This was the Roundheads beating the Cavaliers. Darkness triumphing over light.  Evil over good. Toulon had a specific and pragmatic game plan: defend like demons, kick long for field position, and when in Clermont's half hope for penalties, Wilkinson will never miss.  It worked perfectly, with a little help from the referee who kept penalising the attacking team.  Clermont had a much simpler plan:  play attractive open rugby and tries will come.  And come they did, two beauties early in the second half, after they had dominated the first but couldn't beat Toulon's blanket defence.  At 15-6 they looked home and hosed - their 20,000 supporters were in carnival mood.  The dour couple of thousand from Toulon were silent.  Then Wilkinson chipped away a little at the lead with a penalty.  They were only six ahead - vulnerable to a converted try.  And then disaster.  The Clermont out-half Brock James gets a ball on his twenty-two and instead of hoofing it down field he attempts to run it.  A ruck develops and Toulon hack it out and into the hands of their winger who runs in unopposed for a try in the corner (accompanied by some cheap triumphalism).  Inevitably Wilkinson kicks the very difficult conversion and suddenly the team that never came close to scoring a try before that are ahead of the team that played all the rugby and dominated territory and possession.  But surely there's enough time left for Clermont to respond.  But that fatal flaw in their DNA that has resulted in an historic track record of losing finals asserts itself again.   They freeze.  A few pointless assaults, no redemption from the referee, a desperate drop goal attempt and it's all over.

The stadium is distraught - stunned supporters in their now poignantly bright colours (blue and gold) are devastated.  On the way out I'm approached by a large tearful man bedecked from head to toe in Clermont favours - including a bubble-perm wig.  He is bereft - babbling on about Brock James and the referee.  He clearly needs consoling so a lady in our party gives him a big hug and we go home - not able to muster the enthusiasm for a pint.

Toulon are a team of replicants, huge muscled up creatures designed for the modern game.  Their strategy is that of the wrecking ball.  We had great seats at pitch-side so we were privy to the brute physicality of the encounter.  You fear for the game when this dread pragmatism prevails.

Tuesday, May 14, 2013

Sean Keating: The King Canute of Irish Art

The Tipperary Hurler by Sean Keating
An edited version of this review of Sean Keating Art, Politics, and Building the Irish Nation by Eimear O'Connor appeared in the Sunday Times Culture magazine on 12 May 2013.

Sean Keating is the King Canute of Irish art, the man who tried in vain to stem the tide of modernism.  His own art has not always aged well.  His paintings do not speak to the modern viewer like the mature works of his near contemporary Jack Yeats - whose work he described as "foolish stuff".  Brian Fallon refers to a "certain formal woodenness" in Keating and "a limited colour sense".  There is however plenty to relish in his best work.  The series of powerful and evocative paintings he did at Ardnacrusha and Poulaphuca have aged far better than his romanticised Aran peasants.  His portraits vary wildly in quality.  The one of W. T. Cosgrave with a curious top knot is particularly insipid and there's a very weak late portrait of a fey looking Michael O'Leary, lost in a sheepskin jacket.  But then there's a dashing early portrait of the IRA man Sean Moylan, and the heroic Tipperary Hurler, modelled on another IRA man Ben O'Hickey.  The book has over 200 excellent illustrations that allow you to review his highly-productive career and make up your own mind.

Listening to some old Radio Eireann broadcasts recently I was struck by how articulate Keating was, his fluent albeit dogmatic contributions occasionally punctuated with French terms (he was a fluent speaker).  It was only when he began to ride his hobby-horse about modern artists and their "outrageous vices" that you get a flavour of the zealot beneath the surface.  He deplored those who failed to follow, as he did, the "apostolic tradition".  He learned from Orpen, who learned from Henry Tonks in the Slade, who learned from a French master who was part of a tradition going back to David.  He saw the advent of modernism as breaking this chain of tradition and spent his life railing against it.  He also had a healthy contempt for preciousness about art, considering it merely a skilled trade.

O'Connor fights a rear-guard action on Keating's behalf, suggesting that his antipathy to modernism was overstated.  An anecdote related by John Turpin in an Irish Arts Review article on Keating suggests otherwise.  He recounts how Keating rebuked one of his students for reading a book on Cezanne, warning him that "you're either with us or against us".  O'Connor doesn't hide the case for the prosecution.  Two of the most egregious examples she gives were his description of Henry Moore's Reclining Figure as an "absolute effrontery to good taste", and his condemnation of Georges Rouault's Christ and the Soldier as "naive, childish and unintelligible".  In both cases his opposition to the acquisition of these modernist pieces by the Municipal Gallery of Art was overcome.  The Rouault affair caused a life-long rift with Louis le Brocquy who said that Keating should have "no rest until he cleared the painting of the insult he has helped to place upon it".

Keating loved a good feud and there's entertaining material about sniping between him and Flann O'Brien and the equally contentious Sean O'Faolain.  We also get a detailed analysis of Keating's role at the Dublin Metropolitan School of Art (later the National College of Art) - a relationship which was to last for nearly 50 years.  Keating was never granted permanent status there and had to struggle on occasions to keep his job.  A French team inspecting the school for the Department of Education produced a scathing report on his behaviour:  "Enthusiastic on his own side but sceptical and unjust where others are concerned, he demoralises his pupils and brings despondency to his class."  He made no attempt to teach the generality of students, focusing instead on the few who showed some talent.  O'Connor writes in detail about the animosity between George Atkinson, principal at the DMSA, and Keating.  She claims no "outward acrimony" existed after 1937.  We learn in the Notes section that Atkinson committed suicide in 1941, with no further details.  In fact he gassed himself in his office in the school.  Maurice MacGonigal, who discovered the body, maintained that Atkinson's life-long depression was activated by Keating's accusation of some financial impropriety involving the annual Art Ball. This feud deserves a monograph of its own.

Eimear O'Connor's book is far from being a definitive biography, although we do get some fresh detail on Keating's origins in Limerick.  It's a beautifully illustrated piece of research that focuses on the public persona of Keating and his chronicling of the emerging State.  She also shines a light on his roles in those entwined institutions the Royal Hibernian Academy (RHA) and the National College of Art (NCA).  O'Connor herself makes no grand claims for her work.  In her introduction she describes the book as a "monograph".  The suggestion of academia and primary research implied by this term disarms any expectations of a warts and all picture of the man.  For no such picture emerges - he remains opaque.  His wife May is even more vaguely delineated.  It is stated that she was an active socialist and a proto-feminist but again the person remains hidden.    O'Connor recognises this problem in her introduction: "Keating was very private".  At the book launch Keating's grandson spoke of the artist's daily ritual of writing up his diaries - spending as much as a hour a day on them.  They apparently contained his opinions on people and the affairs of the day - no tortured inner life.   He spoke  of the warm domestic milieu Keating enjoyed.  There's a lovely photograph in the book of the artist with his arm around his two sons, Justin and Michael.  Maybe there are no dirty secrets.  He worked hard all day and went home to his family in the evening. The rest is silence.


Monday, May 13, 2013

Lucinda Williams at Vicar Street

Lucinda Williams in Vicar Street
In fairness now, as they like to say in Cork, she could have dragged a comb through the back of her hair.  Or maybe she's going for some trailer-park chic look.  She certainly wasn't trying to distract us from her singing by being a glamour puss. The fright wig hair style was accompanied by clunky black boots, baggy jeans, and a denim jacket.  She looked like a biker's moll gone to seed.  But that's all superficial shit.  She sounded great and the spirit is well intact. And you have to love that serious Texan drawl.  Unlike some of our rock heroes she engaged regularly with the audience and was clearly having fun.  She had the very smart Doug Pettibone on guitar and a bass player who alternated between electric and  double bass.  Occasionally he made up for the absence of a drummer by drumming away on the body of his bass.

She began with a great version of Lake Charles  (her birth place incidentally) and then straight into Bus to Baton Rouge.  The highlight for me though was Drunken Angel dedicated to the tragic Blaze Foley, the Austin song-writer who inspired it.  And a name check for his good buddy Townes Van Zandt - an equally self-destructive figure.  She played for the best part of two hours and gave us or money's worth.

Wednesday, May 01, 2013

John Doherty at Taylor Galleries

An edited version of this review appeared in the Sunday Times Culture magazine on the 28 April.

Parke's Chemist, Clonmel
John Doherty's photo-realism is so rigorous and accurate that you often struggle to confirm he's painting rather than taking photographs.  But this precision alone does not constitute art.  What's special about his work is its haunting quality, the mood its subject matter invokes.  There is a sense of failed aspirations - of something washed up and redundant.  It could be a beached buoy, an obsolete petrol pump, or a neglected shop in small-town Ireland.  His world is one where hope has faded.  As if to confirm this impression, his latest show features two old bookies shops - veritable repositories of lost hopes.

The exhibition takes us on tour of Ireland, recording for posterity artefacts and businesses that are past the point of rescue. There's the poignant incompetence of the lettering on the Bargain Stores in Abbeyfeale - its window full of plaster religious icons; a scathed petrol pump in Kilkenny; and an elegant old chemist shop in Clonmel (see image) desecrated with garish advertisements for pain killers.  And not a soul in sight in any of these towns except for some shadowy figures behind windows.

Taylor Galleries,
Mon-Fri: 10am-5.30pm
Sat: 11am-3pm
tel: 01 676 6055