Friday, December 30, 2016

My Departure from the Consensus on Arrival

I’m not a big fan of science fiction although I did enjoy the high-kitsch of early Star Trek. I also loved 2001 a Space Odyssey and Blade Runner is one of my all time favourite films. Generally however I have problems suspending my disbelief and like my films to engage with a world I know. A failure of imagination I suppose although I do retain the belief that there are more things in heaven and earth than are dreamt of in my philosophy. In lists of the best films of 2016 Arrival was much mentioned and the fairly reliable barometer of Rotten Tomatoes read 94%. So off I trotted to see what all the fuss was about. It has its positives but I exited the cinema feeling there was less to it than meets the eye. Firstly, Amy Adams was outstanding in the lead role. She must have one of the most subtly expressive faces in the modern cinema and she dominated the film. However, the rest of the cast were lumpen cliches played by stock types: Forrest Whittaker as a soldier again. The aliens were played by giant octopuses with finger-like tentacles. They sprayed an ink-like substance to communicate and lo and behold Adams as the linguistics expert was able to both understand them and empathise wth them. Parallel to her efforts to communicate with these aliens was her unresolved sorrow at the loss of her young daughter to cancer and the opening of possibilities of communicating with her also. This was more implicit than explicit but added an eerie and mysterious sub-text to the blatant nonsense on view: A space craft shaped like a giant rugby ball in a muted green landscape, helicopters flying around to no great purpose, troops massing aimlessly, much brute pragmatism from military etc. The ending was fairly risible: world peace ensued and Adams regained her lost paradise. I didn’t believe a word of it. Very disappointing.

Monday, December 19, 2016

Review of Teethmarks on My Tongue by Eileen Battersby

Nijinsky and Lester Piggot
  An edited version of this review appeared in the Sunday Times Culture magazine on the 11 December 2016. I've corrected an egregious misnaming of one of the characters.

Eileen Battersby is best known for her championing of fiction from outside the Anglophone world and for the bracing honesty of her literary criticism. She has been known to ruffle some well-groomed Irish reputations. Her first novel is quite the heavyweight at almost 400 pages but despite being replete with references to literature and high art it canters along in an entertaining way. It's a classic Bildungsroman. We follow the emotional education of the narrator Helen Stockton Defoe (a resonant surname for its solitary heroine). In the character of Helen, Battersby has created a memorably monstrous prig. While her classmates were listening to Dylan and Neil Young she was listening to Bach and Schubert. She sneers at their trite music essays which are applauded enthusiastically "While my celebration of Bach's pioneering use of counterpoint ...might not have been." Following a squalid sexual encounter in Paris our brave heroine bemoans her fate: "How easily he had fooled me, the girl voted by my school as most likely to win the Nobel Prize". Her redeeming feature is her occasional expression of rueful self-knowledge: "even a prig like me couldn't miss this".

 Helen grows up in a "fine residence", complete with stables, in Richmond, Virginia. Her austere and intellectual father is a distinguished vet who breeds horses. Her mother is a shallow, social-climber who, Helen tells us,  "Father regarded as a domestic pet". Helen has little affection for either of them. She is offended by her father's "sneering smirk, his pompous voice" and by her mother's persistent slights about her appearance. She was born with different coloured eyes and her mother once informed her that: "Those eyes, they absolutely ruin your face". The story opens with the mother being shot by a spurned lover. It doesn't seem to have much impact on the impregnably self-absorbed Helen, apart from her having to suffer the tedium of the funeral and watch the female mourners flirt with her father.

 Helen runs off to Paris after two traumatic events. Her father sells Galileo, her favourite horse (not the Galileo that is the corner stone of the Coolmore stud), and Billy Bob, her Man Friday at the stables, disappears. In Paris she spends most of her time at the Louvre giving us the benefit of her wide knowledge of European art. Then, following her sexual misadventure, when she is at her lowest ebb, she meets Hector: an old, half-blind, scruffy and incontinent dog. She is immediately smitten and touchingly indicates what's at the heart of her plight - the absence of any love in her life:  "Most of all he really liked me". From then on Hector is the centre of her universe. She can't return to the USA because of quarantine restrictions so she decides to make her life in France. An unlikely encounter at Longchamp leads her to a job at Monsieur Gallay's racehorse training establishment in the Loire Valley and to her first real romantic encounter (not counting Hector).

 Ms. Battersby knows her way around a tack room and is familiar with the routines and equipment associated with riding. But she clearly knows little about the world of horse racing and the book contains a number of howlers. A race horse can be a gelding or a colt but not both at the same time. Horses have prep races or trials but not practices. A jockey that rides at Longchamp (a flat racing course) is never going to ride in the King George VI (a steeplechase) at Kempton. Also, her heroine's throwaway comment about Nijinsky is just plain wrong. She claims he was "too high strung to settle in an atmosphere as carnival-like as that of Longchamp on Arc day". Nijinsky won the Derby at Epsom - a far more carnival-like milieu. He probably lost the Arc because of a very hard race in the St. Leger not long before. But these are quibbles about detail that will just bother racing buffs like me and leave most readers unmoved.

 Helen's rural idyll continues for a while before a series of tragedies sends her off on the road again - alone and bereft. She heads for Germany in pursuit of the paintings of Caspar David Friedrich and with thoughts of suicide swirling through her mind. She identifies with the character in Friedrich's famous painting "Wanderer over a Sea of Fog".  She even takes a risky journey into East Germany (it's set in the mid-80s) to find the artist's grave. Her downward spiral is arrested by an event which comes as a major surprise not only to our heroine but to every reader of the book. You can make up your own mind whether it's a wonderful coup de théâtre or a ludicrous non-sequitur.

 Dalkey Archive Press
 395 pp  

 John P. O'Sullivan

 P.S. I wonder if Ms. Battersby can drive. Her heroine can handle a stick shift but has trouble with the automatic she encounters in France. It's mostly the other way around for Americans who customarily grow up with automatics. Curious.    

Monday, December 12, 2016

Recent Reads - December 2016

At the Existentialist Cafe by Sarah Blackwell

If you don't know your Heidigger from your Husserl this is the place to go. It traces the roots of Existentialism from its beginnings in Phenomenology to its literary apotheosis in the writings of Sartre and Camus. It also introduces you to that unfailingly nice man Maurice Merleau-Ponty.  The core of existentialism is personal freedom and personal responsibility. You're on your own mate so get on with it. The concept of angst is the dread that can accompany that requirement to constantly make ourselves who we are. The essence of this book is that it makes the discussion around these concepts accessible and that it uses the lives of the protagonists to illustrate this philosophy in practice. And we get further detail on how that great feminist icon Simone de Beauvoir pimped for Sartre. He was apparently too pug ugly to look for himself.

One of Us by Anne Seierstad

 This tells the story of Anders Behring the right-wing crank who killed 77 people in Norway in 2011.  It's an absorbing read and tells us as much about Norwegian society and the essential decency of its people as it does about its sociopathic villain. At the end of the book when Behring has been captured and is being interviewed ("interrogated" would be too strong a word) you will be astonished at the forbearance of the police at his arrogant demands. After what's gone on before you are hoping for a bit of old-fashioned police brutality. The book takes us through Behring's unsettled childhood and over-protective mother and charts the various intercessions of the social services who certainly play a very proactive role in Norwegian life. Behring was at various stages a prominent tagger (graffiti artist), business man and political activist before settling in to a life playing violent computer games. Maybe that's why he found it so easy to embark on a deadly shooting spree - just adding another dimension to what he'd been doing online. The book also inserts us into the lives of a number of his victims so we can feel their loss more acutely. It's a engaging and disturbing book.

 Ted Hughes by Jonathan Bate

 This biography will not make you like Ted Hughes. And the occasional prurient details it provides of his sex life (it mentions twice how he "ruptured" Assia Weevil during sex) don't seem necessary. However, it is very good on the details of his background and on his inability to deal with Plath's suicide in his poetry until late in his life. A lot of his energies went in to maintaining a network of girl-friends and you end the book with a sense of a failed career. Between the highlight of Crow and the later confessional Birthday Letters (which dealt with Plath's suicide) there was much mediocrity.  He produced an inordinate number of small and very expensive limited editions of his existing poems. The best side of him was his love of nature and his passion for fishing. He spent many holidays in Ireland in the company of Barrie Cooke and of Richard Murphy and often spoke of settling here - away from the incestuous London literary world.

 Damned to Fame: The Life of Samuel Beckett by James Knowlson

 This biography will make you like Samuel Beckett even more. Is there a more self-effacing major writer in the history of literature? His rueful self-deprecation is so pronounced as to be a shtick. He is living his dictum 'I can't go on ... I'll go on." Knowlson was a friend of Beckett's and is very good on his European influences and his incredibly broad range of knowledge. He was a true intellectual. He seemed to court the company of artists more than writers and was a big fan of Jack Yeats. I hadn't realised how extreme his poverty was during the early years of the War - he and his long-suffering wife Suzanne literally lived on hand-outs. Suzanne was very important in the promotion of his career before he achieved fame but then gradually faded into the background of his life. Once he achieved financial comfort following Godot, he was extremely generous to all and sundry. For a man who asserted the meaninglessness of life and the futility of endeavour he was pretty punctilious in supervising the productions of his plays all over the world. He was notorious for making a pedantic nuisance of himself at rehearsals and was on occasions asked to absent himself. His love life was hardly attenuated either and in fine French fashion maintained a mistress right to the end.  

Wednesday, November 16, 2016

RUA Annual Exhibition 2016

An edited version of this review appeared in the Sunday Times Culture magazine 6 November 2016

The Royal Ulster Academy's annual exhibition is usually a good opportunity to enjoy a panoramic view what's happening in the art scene north of the border and to spot some emerging talent. This year however the exhibition has a broader scope with a large number of selected artists and invited artists coming from south of the border. Conversely a number of the North's more established figures, and RUA members, are missing. Without running a fine comb through the exhibitors I notice that there's no Colin Davidson or Paul Seawright. Given the dearth of open submission shows in this country it's good to see the RUA casting its net so wide, with artists such as Karen Hendy from West Cork and Gavin Lavelle from Galway joining the many Dublin-based contributors.

There's a sombre side to the show. The  attractive and informative catalogue contains obituaries of seven members of the Academy who have died in the past 12 months. In addition to these texts, each of the deceased is remembered via two works in the exhibition. The best-known amongst them is Basil Blackshaw. He is represented by a fine portrait of his old friend the late T.P. Flanagan and by the very aptly chosen Big Brown Dog. Blackshaw was an animal lover and dog owner all his life and far preferred talking about his dogs than his art. In an interview a few years ago he was more animated about a champion greyhound he once owned than about any of his major paintings.The Irish art world is diminished by his passing.

 A feature of the exhibition is the large number of portraits, portrait busts, and generally figurative work on view. Poets and artists inspire a number of these. There's a bronze bust of a young Seamus Heaney and a ruddy and romanticised painting of Michael Longley holding a wren in one hand, some flowers in the other, and looking a tad embarrassed about it all. There's a very fine ceramic bust of Austin Clarke by Bob Sloan and nearby you can find his namesake the 1916 leader Thomas Clarke. Robert Ballagh has an austere painting of Brian O'Doherty (the erstwhile Patrick Ireland), a fellow artist who shares his interest in Irish politics. Hector McDonnell shows Neil Shawcross on a suitably red armchair amidst the contents of his studio. There's plenty of quirky and characterful portraits as well. Michael Connolly's Intern is a memorable study in gormlessness, Paul Bell's Wolf has a stolid menace, and Emily Scott's Filippa exudes character and elegance. There are so many good portraits it seems invidious not to name more. There's David McDowell's skilful pencil drawing Remember Me and Jackie Edward's burnished old man in The Heart That Asks. A few of the artists introduce a little light eroticism into the mix, these include Carol Graham's Iconic Allure of Light, and Kyle Barnes' Fixation.

 Of the many works relating to the human face or figure Francis O'Toole's One for Sorrow (above) stands out. This splendid, glowing, sinuous and troublingly ambiguous nude verily steals the show. O'Toole's meticulous painting devotes as much care and loving attention to the knots on the wooden floor as to the dimples on the subject's back.   Sculpture is very well served both in terms of quality and quantity. This seems to have been the result of a deliberate policy as most of the invited artists are well-known sculptors. As you walk into the gallery the first piece you encounter is Furrow by Eilis O'Connell, a small bronze that demonstrates those characteristic O'Connell qualities of perfect harmony and subtle suggestiveness. Further into the first gallery there's the powerful Woodquay Bull by John Behan and the playful The Visitor - a rampant bronze grasshopper by Deborah Brown that won the Mullan Gallery Award for best sculpture.The flag of abstraction is flown by Michael Warren with  Kireji, a blackened bronze slab with fissures, Stephen Deery's Deliverence, and Corban Walker with an intricate maze-like creation. Ann Butler's surreal white porcelain sewing machine and Peter Meanley's playful stoneware The Fisherman also catch the eye.

 There's plenty of paintings of the highest quality - these include The Garden Shed, an accomplished and painterly work by Clement McAleer, Breaking Wave, a fine brooding seascape by James Allen, Long Duree by Jennifer Trouton which won the Tyrone Guthrie Residency Award, Cormac O'Leary's Inisheer II, and Mick O'Dea's dramatic tour-de-force Study for the Burning of the RHA. There are two large lively works by Diarmuid Delargy and an uncharacteristically abstract piece by Neil Shawcross - the title Jazz is the clue to this freeform exercise. Our quiet woodlands are given their due by Keith Wilson with Being Here and Michael Wann's Woodland Shadow - the latter in charcoal, a medium not for the faint-hearted.

 Photography is not very well represented with less than a dozen works on show. Rory Moore's Brig Mary Jane, Westport-Baltimore 1847 is an evocation of the Great Famine. It shows a ruined and abandoned cottage against a brooding western sky. Aidan Crawley adds a further sombre note with Missing I - a study of the Somme landscape. In viewing a show with 329 exhibits it's hard to do justice to the eight video offerings which require more time to absorb than viewers usually have. Many of them can be sourced online for more leisurely perusal. Oona Doherty's Hard to be Soft featured the artist showing admirable litheness as she performed her expressive dance.

 Print does somewhat better than photography in terms of numbers. March is an accomplished lithograph by Elizabeth Magill, Margaret Mannion Kallen won the Nicholson Bass Printmaking Prize for Not a Walk in the Park, an etching and carborundum print, and Crona Gallagher produced a couple of charming copperplate etchings .

 There's plenty of fun to be had in this is an entertaining and eclectic show. You don't have to be a dog lover to enjoy Caroline Fellowes Obedience IV (a dog on a chair in a flood) which manages to be both surreal and poignant at the same time. And you'll surely smile at Stephen Johnston's photo-realist Cake in a Jar which earned him the KPMG Young Artist Award. The selection committee have done a good job in purging the show of the worthy landscapes and other stodgy fare that often dominate academy exhibitions.

 Ulster Museum

 John P. O'Sullivan
 November 2016

Monday, October 24, 2016

John Behan - Past and Present

This piece first appeared in the Sunday Times Culture magazine on 23 October 2016.

John Behan's fruitful and politically-engaged career started in 1960 when a bronze bull of his was accepted by the Irish Exhibition of Living Art. The cover of the catalogue for his latest exhibition features the Bull of Easter, showing that he is still mining that mythic source for his muscular and expressive sculptures. But there's lots more on offer in this rich and varied show that revisits old themes and explores new ones. The bronzes are accompanied by a series of acrylic drawings that served as preliminary studies. Lovers of W. B. Yeats are well catered for with a number of the pieces inspired by the poet. These include: Easter 1916, Horseman Pass By, Wild Swans at Coole, and even a spectral figure that evokes those famous lines "the ghost of Roger Casement is beating on the door". The most eye-catching work is his dramatic Death of Cuchulainn, with its ominous raven perched above the slain hero. There's a lot of death about, if you include his coffin ships and chunky war chariots. Death of a Dramatist - his homage to Brian Friel - shows a meticulously detailed wicker coffin being borne to the grave, the knees of those carrying it bent under their illustrious burden.

Solomon Gallery

Dublin 2



Monday, October 17, 2016

A Day at the Races

Yuften (in green) winning the Balmoral Handicap - Firmament on right.

I should preface this little story by saying that days like this are not the norm for your average bettor and that of course you never hear about a gambler's losses. But the foregoing does confirm that if you're going to bet you have a better chance if you stick to the good quality races where form can be taken seriously. I should also pay tribute to the Racing Post website where you can research in detail every race that every racehorse has ever run.

The flat season's last major event on Saturday was the Qipco Champions Day at Ascot. This features four Group 1 races and brings together all the best horses in Europe for one last joust. And it concludes with a high class handicap over a mile - my favourite distance for betting purposes. It's the kind of day where you can just watch and enjoy the quality of the beasts - or if you're like me you just have to have a bet. As usual I'm watching it on Channel 4 - going through its death throes as ITV waits in the wings to take over. It means that in future we'll be spared the jolly hockey sticks approach of Claire Balding, but will be denied the silkier talents of the fragrant Emma Spencer.

I did a little more studying than usual for this swan song to the flat season and came up with an each-way Yankee (6 doubles, 4 trebles and an accumulator) on Quest for More (12-1), Journey (8-1), Minding (5-2), and Yuften (12-1) - as well as individual bets on the same horses and a saver on Firmament at 8-1 in Yuften's race, plus a reverse forecast on Yuften and Firmament.

1.25 Ascot: Quest for More in the opening Long Distance race was up against an O'Brien hot shot who'd finished third in the Arc, but I reckoned he was the stouter stayer and at 12-1 was very good each wayvalue. I respect mightily his trainer Roger Charlton who stated he was clearly the second best horse on form. He ran his usual brave race, lying in second most of the way and looking like the winner as he battled for the lead a furlong out - but his exertions in Paris two weeks ago may have caught him out as the fresher Sheikhzayedroad stayed on better and beat him by half a length. O'Brien's horse never got into contention. So my Yankee got going with a decent priced placed horse.

2.00 Ascot: I ignored the next race which was a sprint, these horse keep beating each other depending on draw, going, a good start and other imponderables. Many serious bettors ignore sprints for this reason. It was won in good style by The Tin Man but I would never have picked him because of collateral form.

2.35 Ascot: O'Brien has another short priced favourite, Seventh Heaven, in the Fillies and Mares Stakes. However she's a three year old and I fancied the doughty John Gosden's more experienced four year old Journey - especially at the early morning price of 8-1. She had been second lastl year and I do like horses for courses - especially at Ascot. My girl lay up in second for most of the race and bounded clear in the final furlong to win by four lengths. Her starting price was 4-1 but I had my 8-1 in the bag.

3.10 Ascot: The Queen Elizabeth Stakes over a mile featured Minding, a dual classic winner for Aidan . She has been racing over 10 and 12 furlongs recently but nobody who saw her win the Guineas could doubt her prowess over a mile. The question really was could she maintain her consistency after a long hard season. They're were a number of fresher horse in the race and she was a filly racing against colts but she just seemed a class above the rest. There was a strong pace and she hit the front a furlong and a half out and just stayed on better than the rest. The yankee was now beginning to ripen nicely. Even a place in the fourth leg would yield me a decent pot.

3.45 Ascot: The Champion Stakes - I was initially going to back Found in this race but I felt that her heroic win in the Arc may have knocked the stuffing out of her. Also, she was up against Almanzor who had beaten her in the Irish Champion Stakes and who was a fresher horse having been laid out for this race. As it transpired the latter won comfortably with Found running a noble second.

4.25 Ascot: The Balmoral Handicap - this was a mile handicap with a large field but I had narrowed it down to Yuften and Firmament. In the end I went with Yuften in my Yankee because of a race in which he beat Sir Isaac Newton, a group horse trained by Aidan O'Brien, by four lengths. He seemed very well handicapped for a horse with that kind of form - although he had run a number of inexplicably bad races when trained in Ireland by Johnny Murtagh. Also, Roger Charlton's always informative web site had told me that he was going very well in his work. I backed Firmament because he keeps turning up in these competitive mile handicaps and just getting pipped. The race was the usual cavalry charge with Yuften getting a good position on the far rail. He went clear a furlong out and held on easily despite wandering across the track. Firmament had a more troubled passage on the near side and was just beaten for second place - spoiling my dual forecast. However, Yuften's win at 12-1 meant my Yankee and associated bets yielded a substantial four figure sum. We enjoyed a bottle of Sancerre with the chicken for dinner.





Wednesday, October 12, 2016

A Mild Moan about The Siege of Jadotville


I watched this on Netflix last night and found it deeply unconvincing. I have no doubt about the historical heroics of A Company and about how badly they were treated by politicians and by their own senior staff. My reservations were mostly about tone, about historical accuracy and about the actual battle. In the opening scenes the soldiers' uniforms were the wrong shade of green - perhaps they took poetic license for aesthetic or cinematographic reasons. I also had a major issue with Commandant Quinlan's saluting technique. I grew up on a series of military barracks (including the Curragh and Collins Barracks, Cork) and never saw an Irish officer use that horizontal style - it was always more a diagonal (see image above). Back in those days also the hierarchies were very strictly observed and there would be no casual banter between ranks - nor would a junior officer speak to a senior one in the manner they did in the film. I don't know where they got that scene at the end where Quinlan strikes the general - that would have provoked a major scandal and a certain end to his career. The portrayal of Conor Cruise O'Brien was also unconvincing. He was far from the cynical and worldly careerist portrayed and in fact suffered from his idealism throughout his working life. But the most unconvincing aspect was probably the depiction of the battle. If they had been overwhelmed and outnumbered in the fashion depicted, how come there was not a single fatality. There were bullets flying everywhere and not a single one had a fatal outcome on the Irish side - despite the hundreds that perished amongst the rebels and mercenaries. It must have happened differently - unless that mass they went to earned them a miracle. I'd give it two out of five. But I'm not a fan of action movies so maybe I'm biased.



Tuesday, September 27, 2016

Review of Paul Muldoon - Selected Poems 1968-2014


A slightly edited version of this review appeared in the Sunday Times Culture magazine on 25 Sept 2016

The lot of the Irish poet has improved considerably in recent times with Aosdána, writers in residence gigs, and even tenure in universities for the better ones. The grumbling compost heap in the corner of a pub is no longer typical. Paul Muldoon represents the apotheosis of this trend with the kind of career that under-appreciated and impecunious predecessors like Patrick Kavanagh could only have dreamt about. Professor of Humanities at Princeton, Professor of Poetry at Oxford, Poetry Editor of the New Yorker, and Pulitzer Prize winner are among his many achievements.

Muldoon also has the street credibility that comes from writing songs with Warren Zevon and having one covered by Bruce Springsteen. He has his own rock band at Princeton and even sports a hair style that channels the later Phil Spector. Commenting on this uncommon conjunction between high art and lower art Muldoon asserts that "coming from an Irish tradition I see no essential distinction between the poem and the song". The use of repetition and the refrain in many of his poems are also the staple diet of rock and pop music.

The new selected poems contains his personal choices from his 12 poetry collections - dating back to 1968. Reading and rereading these poems you are left with the abiding impression of playfulness. The poet is enjoying himself and so are we. He's a poet of many parts. You Can spot traces of his Northern contemporaries: Here the rural authenticity of Heaney, there the desolation of Mahon, everywhere the classical references of Longley, and there's even a soupçon of the sexual swagger of Montague - kissing and telling ("my hand on her breast"). But Muldoon has a distinct flavour all of his own - and it's the ludic spirit that predominates. The son of a farm labourer and a teacher, he brings both sides of his ancestry into his work with learned allusions from Beckett and Greek literature rubbing shoulders with pig castration and hot bricks in socks serving as hot water bottles.

He has a sensibility that can, like his beloved Metaphysical poets, consume any kind of experience. There are difficult poems, and there are obscure references, but the whole collection is leavened with humour and rueful self-awareness. Some of the poems, such as Symposium and The Old Country, are pure play. In the latter he strings together a litany of cliches to amusing effect:

Every slope was a slippery slope

where every shave was a very close shave

and money was money for old rope

where every grave was a watery grave

Another poem, Errata, is merely a list of corrections:

For 'Steinbeck' read 'Steenbeck'

For 'ludic' read 'lucid'.

But these almost throwaway pieces are counterbalanced by long sobering poems redolent with the bitter sweetness of a lost love, the brutalities of the sectarian feud in the North, or memories of growing up in rural Ireland. He is also capable of beautiful lyric moments as in: "The soft flame of a canary."

Many of the poems are built on the kind of conceits favoured by the Metaphysical Poets. Muldoon is an acknowledged admirer of John Donne and has edited his Selected Poems. This debt is made explicit in the poem Brazil where he refers to "the bracelet of shampoo about the bone", echoing Donne's "a bracelet of bright hair about the bone". Donne's The Flea is a good example of this kind of conceit, where the comparison is often more shocking than apt:

It sucked me first, and now sucks thee,

And in this flea our two bloods mingled be;

Muldoon plays similar tricks in poems such as The Soap Pig and the Hedgehog but most of all in Long Finish which could be sub-titled Shall I Compare Thee to a Simi Chardonnay. In this poem he use the conceit of a glass of Chardonnay to reflect on his long and rich relationship with his current wife interspersed with gory images of Northern atrocities:

that we've somehow

managed to withstand an almond-blossomy

five years of bitter rapture, five of blissful rows

Love and lost love are recurring themes. Incantata, his moving and self-deprecating tribute to the artist Mary Farl Powers is one of the most powerful pieces in the collection:

I thought of you again tonight, thin as a rake, as you bent

over the copper plate of 'Emblements',

He even throws in a reference to Dublin art politics here: "the Black Church clique and the Graphic Studio claque". There's also a more recent tribute to Seamus Heaney: Cuthbert and the Otters - a more dense and difficult work.

I cannot thole the thought of Seamus Heaney dead.

Muldoon has been accused of gratuitous esotericism. John Banville described himself as utterly baffled by his collection Madoc: A Mystery - feeling it to be wilfully obscure. While most of the poems are accessible there are certainly difficult areas where we are free to allow our imaginations roam - one of the pleasures of poetry surely. He also sprinkles his poems with unfamiliar terms such as thole, thurified, bris, quag and quoof that send us, sometimes in vain, to the dictionary.

These days it seems that even the banal effusions of a Rose of Tralee are considered too demanding and "olden days" for our intellectually flighty populace. Muldoon's playful, intelligent, and accessible demonstration of the poet's art is a bracing antidote to all such patronising twaddle.

Faber & Faber

pp 228



Thursday, September 01, 2016

Paul Doran at Hillsboro Fine Art


The following review appeared in the Sunday Times Culture magazine on 28 August 2016.

Paul Doran makes paintings that are demanding of the viewer. His earlier work often consisted of coils of paint that looked as if they'd emerged unmediated from their tubes. Process art was in vogue and Doran's work seemed part of that academic movement in which the medium took precedence over the message. But he has moved on and these days he creates art that engages the viewer emotionally, inviting comparisons with Howard Hodgkin, an artist he much admires. He has eschewed titles completely leaving us free to encounter these works honestly. The dark, dense, abstract images in oil on multiple layers of overlapping board are topped off with a Baconesque flourish in bright acrylic often on a sheet of archival paper. Lurking within the overall abstraction there is a recurring bird motif and the layer of paper that tops many of the paintings contains ghostly photographic images of apples, egg-shells, dappled shadows, and even an opened artbook. These small (around 14 inches square) works have an impact that belies their size. They have the kind of visual heft that you find in old icon paintings.

Hillsboro Fine Art

Mon-Fri: 10.30am-6.00pm

Sat: 10.30am-3.30pm

Phone: 01-8788242


Tuesday, August 23, 2016

Carol Hodder - Shorelines

This review first appeared in the Sunday Times Culture magazine on the 14th August 2016.

The Catherine Hammond Gallery has moved from Glengarrif to the centre of Skibbereen - just down the road from the great corten steel hulk that is the West Cork Arts Centre. Its dedication to work of the highest quality continues. The inner gallery currently contains paintings by Michael Canning, Martin Gale, Stephen Lawlor, John Doherty, and Donald Teskey. The main gallery features an impressive new show by Carol Hodder - who has shown at the RHA, RUA and the RA and who won a prize last year at NOA, the UK's largest open submission exhibition. Although the title of the show is Shorelines these are not landscapes or seascapes in any conventional sense. They are inspired by the real world but they push beyond it towards abstraction resulting in work that seems more metaphysical than physical. Many, such as Evening Shoreline (above), capture that elegiac mood when the light is fading and the divisions between land, sea and sky begin to blur. The predominant darkness of the work is relieved by a positively Turneresque use of light and by dramatic splashes of rich colour, mostly yellows and reds. These powerfully atmospheric and expressive works invite contemplation rather then mere viewing.

Catherine Hammond Gallery
Mon-Sat: 11am-6pm
Tel: 028 51690

John P. O'Sullivan


Wednesday, August 17, 2016

The Rineen Forest Incident

Alone all alone with my dogs In Reen, a couple of miles of bad road from Union Hall - that poor relation of prosperous Glandore. Out on my peninsula there's little scope for a decent walk - any alluring path crosses fields containing sheep or cattle - and probably a farmer with a loaded gun after that incident in Kerry recently. So I head off looking for a suitable location to get a brisk hour in - the minimum for this man and his beasts. The Drombeg Stone Circle beyond Glandore sounds promising so we head there first. It's a perfectly acceptable stone circle with lots of attendant stones and a fine location on the side of a hill. There's additional amusement to be had listening to the Germans trying to separate the Irish from the English on an information board that clearly hadn't had a usability test. We speculate a little on what those guys got up to 3,000 years ago and move on - our walking urge unsated.

Heading south towards Castletownshend I happen on a sign for Rineen Forest and park in the spacious but totally empty car park. A path leads from the car park into the forest so me and my intrepid hounds head off boldly - me swinging my gentleman from Gascony type walking stick (with its hidden extras). While attending to my rich inner life I simultaneously note things on my path. To my right, down a very steep incline is an Atlantic inlet with the tide fully in. Here an uprooted true, there two unfeasibly large dog turds. I come upon occasional small stone pyramids in the middle of the path: one with arrows going in three different directions, another suggesting P Run - ambiguous that. On I stride blithely. After about 20 minutes there was a fork in the path, one way was downhill towards the sea and the other further in to the forest. I took the latter. The path gradually narrowed but was still quite discernible for a another 10 minutes or so. Then I came to a dead end but noticed a smaller route uphill through the tress. Off I went - slower now clambering over fallen trees and up slopes that involved more climbing than walking. My breath came in short pants. I wondered what my cardiologist would think. The path suddenly seemed to peter out but I kept on - following traces of paths here and there hoping I might come upon a substantial trail or even happen on the car park - as I seemed to be heading in that general direction. I went left, I went right, I went up, I went down but no sign of any significant path. Before long I realised that I was completely lost. The woods were getting denser, the terrain more difficult, and I was unsure of how I could retrace my steps. I was now getting alarmed thinking that if I twisted an ankle I could be in trouble - images arose of my mouldering corpse found flanked by my faithful dogs. Shyla, the more sensitive of my two animals seemed to pick up on my anxiety as she began emitting the occasional whine. Missy strode on treating my plight with lady-like disdain. After wandering around for a while I glimpsed a field over to the right and thought I could get in there, find the gate, and be delivered. It meant fighting my way through brambles and rough terrain but I eventually reached the perimeter of the field and espied some comforting farm machinery in one corner. However the fence was about four feet high and electrified - and the wire mesh was such that the dogs couldn't squeeze underneath. Also, there was evidence of sheep wool on the wire so I wouldn't have risked it even if I could have got them in. I was sweating freely now and remembering creepy scenes from the Prelude where the boy (young Wordsworth) was lost in the woods and he felt that the thorns and branches were hostile nature clawing at him - the down side of Pantheism.

I began to toy with the idea of rescue at this stage but my mobile phone declared No Service. Also, I would rather perish than be the subject of an item on the news suggesting that I got lost on a routine walk. It's just me and nature - and my hapless dogs. I got a grip on myself and decided that the only way was back - trying to retrace my steps. I'd been walking more than an hour, and was soaked in sweat but there was no other way. I knew that the sea should be on my left and that I should be about half way up the hill. After a few desperate minutes I spotted the sea below. Back I went slowly and painstakingly all the while keeping panic at bay and the sea to my left.. After a while I lucked upon a discernible path then one of the little pyramids. A little later I passed the great uprooted tree and eventually the comforting sight of the unfeasibly large dog turds. Looking ahead I saw my roof rack peering over the bushes. Deliverance.

Wednesday, August 03, 2016

I Do Like to Take Umbrage

I do like to take umbrage so maybe that's why I regularly turn on Newstalk in the early evening despite my antipathy towards George Hook: saloon-bar bore and tireless be-labourer of hobby-horses (refugees, Sinn Fein, abortion etc.). But now he's gone elsewhere, to a time slot where thankfully I shall never encounter him again and Newstalk has a nice, lightweight lad called Simon Delaney in his place. Perhaps he's a summer sub rather than the permanent new host - I don't know. Anyway things have not improved. This evening he had some financial type on called Jill Kerby. In the course of a discussion about a new phone banking initiative she opined that older folk only used their iPads and smart phones to access photos of their grandchildren and would never use them to access their banks - preferring more traditional methods. This is not just ageist, patronising, twaddle - it's also wrong. Maybe a recent birthday has made me more sensitive to these matters. Right, time for a gin and tonic.

Thursday, July 28, 2016

The End of the Tour - David Foster Wallace Imagined

I am an unabashed fan of David Foster Wallace. I like the self-deprecating humour and sharp observation of A Supposedly Fun Thing I'll Never Do Again. I love his highly technical and insightful pieces on tennis - especially the essay on Michael Joyce. And I bow in awe before the cornucopia that is Infinite Jest. I'm not mad about his footnotes but that's a foible I'll accept because it's a small price to pay for the quality of everything else.

The End of the Tour depicts a promotional road trip with Wallace and the Rolling Stone writer (and Wallace memoirist) David Lipskey following the release of Infinite Jest. Jason Seger absolutely nails Wallace, capturing the slightly shambolic physical nature of the beast. He also captures the caged wariness of a writer who always seemed too thin-skinned and sensitive to survive in this world. The dialogue is based on Lipskey's recordings of their discussions and it exposes the uncertainty and anguish that was his constant burden. Aside from the big questions a lot of interesting incidental stuff comes up in their chats such as his reasons for wearing his bandana - sweat absorber and security blanket. Anyone interested in what made Wallace tick should check it out but it also exists in its own right as an absorbing road movie. I found it on iTunes but I'm sure it's available elsewhere.



Tuesday, July 26, 2016

The End of the Modern World by Anthony Cronin

A slightly edited version of this review appeared in the Sunday Times Culture magazine on the 17 July 2016.

When the dust settles on Anthony Cronin's career I suspect that he will be remembered chiefly for Dead as Doornails, his classic memoir of Dublin literary bohemia of the Fifties and for his highly-readable biography Samuel Beckett: The Last Modernist. Despite a substantial output, his reputation as a poet doesn't seem to have acquired the heft of near contemporaries such as Heaney, Longley, Mahon or Kinsella. He is best known for RMS Titanic, his poem "about the death of an old school morality or decency.” In 1986 Thomas Kinsella omitted him from his capacious New Oxford Book of Irish Verse. A very pointed snub. It has been suggested that he went to London at a crucial stage in his career and thus fell out of favour with our parochial literary establishment. Or perhaps his versatility as a man of letters is looked askance at in a specialist area.

The End of the Modern World is ambitious in its scope. It is no less than a sustained elegy for the decline of the west. The poem is an expanded and amended version of a collection of sonnets first published in 1989. It now contains 179 sonnets - 18 more than the original, and some of the earlier sonnets have been amended. Cronin is not for the numbers that Petrarch flowed in, he aims at reason not rhyme and his sinewy iambs often feel more like declamatory prose than poetry. He describes his work as a "psychic history of western civilisation". The tone is sombre throughout and it concludes with the empty triumph of materialism and intimations of the essential meaninglessness of life. We are far removed from the romantic myth of Adam and Eve and a Paradise Lost:

The sun, a crucible of nuclear rage,

Knows nothing of such ends, it thrummed out rays

Of heat until the ooze transformed itself.

The nearest comparison is to T.S. Eliot's The Wasteland. In addition to their eloquent pessimism, both are replete with borrowings from literature, both lament the death of romantic love and they both occasionally let the poet intrude into his poem ("I must keep my iambic beat").

The key to understanding Cronin's poem is Browning's Childe Roland to the Dark Tower came. This poem also inspired Stephen King's highly lucrative Dark Tower series of book - an irony that Cronin I'm sure appreciates as his poem laments the triumph of brute capitalism. There are specific references to Roland and the Dark Tower within the poem, and many oblique ones. The final sonnet paints a picture of Manhattan and its skyscrapers, those symbols of materialism, that give the Dark Tower its contemporary shape:

Money's convulsions too are life-giving,

Neutral, imply no purpose in our hearts,

But blazed upon this rock to make Manhattan

Rise in resplendence, such a culmination

Just as Childe Roland involves a journey and a quest, Cronin's poem is a trip through Western civilisation going back to Roman Times, beginning with the invention of the plough:

Until the mould-board plough dragged through the mud

From there we are taken on a ride through feudal society, the cult of courtly love and the growth of the great manors, and the French Revolution. Ireland gets a look in via the Famine:

The horror of their hunger, so reflected

Even by burnished mirrors of rich corn

Was what they fled from in dumb multitudes.

Literary figures emerge regularly. Section two Of the sequence opens with a meditation on Milton, and Baudelaire and Byron also appear. Cronin is much possessed by sexual matters and he grimly records the transition from the brutal to the business-like with just a little courtliness in between.

Newspapers dangled girls like carrot bunches

The range of allusion to historical events is very broad, and abrupt changes occur with little transition - like Pound's Cantos. Mussolini "hung by the heels", scenes from Auschwitz, Robert Kennedy's funeral, Gaughin in Tahiti, De Sade's sexual prowess, Elvis's penchant for white panties all form part of his journey.

Sonnets 152 to 155 are all new and it's not difficult to see in them Cronin's ambiguity about his own role within the dark tower as Haughey's arts commissar:

A padded door, to lunch with Evil in

An inner sanctum. And of course he loved it,

While Cronin may have supped with the devil, his poem also contains many references to the hardship he endured by abandoning the Bar for a literary career:

The admonition from the EBS

Which threatened to uproot me every month,

The ESB which threatened instant darkness

This has a topical feel to these lines. His tireless advocacy for state subsidies for artists is based on bitter experience. But his concluding sonnets suggest a despair at the impotence of the arts in the face of the all enveloping power of capitalism:

A passionless acceptance reigns within

These air-conditioned spaces which absorb

To the faint murmur of a distant duct

The last assault waves of the avant garde




New Island Books


pp. 96

John P. O'Sullivan


Friday, June 24, 2016

Bill Griffin - the Oilman of Allihies



A slightly edited version of this profile appeared in the Sunday Times Culture magazine on 19 June 2016

The North Mon in Cork in the late Fifties was a fine breeding ground for hurlers but not for artists. Its robust and philistine regime did not encourage such airy notions. The young Bill Griffin had an aptitude for art but little outlet for his fledgling talents. When Griffin tried his hand at a few nude studies via two compliant cousins ("who were into art") his efforts were uncovered by a Brother correcting an English essay. Physical retribution followed as the skill of the drawing did not compensate for the flagrant inappropriateness of the subject matter.

Griffin grew up in Blarney Street in comfortable circumstances. His father was a dental mechanic with literary leanings who enjoyed an occasional pint with Frank O'Connor in Phil Moynihan's bar in Sunday's Well. His earliest encounter with art was seeing his father make little models from spare plaster. Like many artists he is mildly dyslexic and left school at 14 : "there's not a word in the English language I don't know how to spell a dozen different ways." Over the next few years he took a series of short-lived jobs while trying his hand at drawing and painting. He began mixing with real-live Cork artists such as Willie Harrington, John Burke and Maurice Desmond in Kealy's (a long-gone bohemian bar close to the old Examiner office). He showed one of his sketches ("a little drawing I was proud of") to the famously irascible Burke (then teaching in the Crawford College of Art). Burke tore the sketch into pieces in front of him saying: "don't give up the day job". Griffin didn't actually have a day job, having been sacked recently by Ford's, but discouraged he headed for London. Cork lads of his generation knew the route well: the Innisfallen to Fishguard and the train to Paddington.

His art aspirations caught up with him again in London. He was arrested for smoking marijuana and was incarcerated briefly in the cells of Marylebone Police station. There he bumped into Henrietta Moraes, muse and model to Lucien Freud and Francis Bacon, and later girl-friend of Maggie Hambling. She was in for burglary. They had a brief affair, or as Griffin puts it "I banged a tune out of her". She introduced him to the Colony Club and to Bacon and his set. Bacon sneered at his paint-splattered shoes telling him "you don't have to have paint on your shoes to be an artist". Griffin's ready wit didn't let him down as he responded "it does if it's your only pair." He found Bacon unfriendly but became particularly close to George Dyer, Bacon's ill-fated boyfriend. Dyer was a snappy dresser and he passed on clothes to the impecunious Griffin. "When I came home to Cork I was wearing Dyer's suit with a yellow shirt and pink tie". But life in London was hard, a spartan studio in Ladbroke Grove proved too expensive and survival became moot. He headed up to Yarmouth to work in the burgeoning off-shore oil drilling business. Art was pushed into the background as he found he had an aptitude for rig work: "I loved the physicality of it and I understood the technology better than the Yanks."

Oil exploration began off Kinsale in the early Seventies and Marathon Petroleum was looking for labour locally. Griffin was a step ahead of the posse. The legendary tool pusher Gerry Gunther hired him as a roughneck, based on his brief Yarmouth experience.The oil business, like the IT business today, is a true meritocracy and if you're good you'll thrive. Griffin quickly moved from roughneck to derrickman, from derrickman to assistant driller, and then to driller. He developed a particular expertise in directional drilling, whereby the suppleness of the drill string is exploited to enable you to drill almost horizontally as well as vertically. This arcane skill took him all over the world - initially working for American companies but eventually he bought two oil rigs and worked for himself. A downturn in oil prices killed off this business and he quickly discarded his overalls and donned a business suit - travelling the world as an oil consultant. He ended up in Iraq working with the Irish company Bula Resources on the Oil for Food scheme.

On his 50th birthday he decided to quit. In Iraq he had witnessed at first hand the corruption involved in the oil business and the suffering and death that resulted amongst the ordinary people. "I suddenly saw the kind of industry I was in and I didn't like it." He resolved to return to Cork and have a go at the art thing.

His old Kealy's friends Harrington and Desmond were supportive. "Willie (Harrington) was by far the most sympathetic" and "Maurice (Desmond) helped me sell paintings." He took no art classes but just rolled up his sleeves and started painting. He literally rolled up his sleeves because after some initial dabbling with paintbrushes he decided he would paint exclusively with his fingers - "ten digits yearning for expression". It's not a technique that's common in the art world. "It just became easier for me" he explains, "I can use ten different colours at the same time if I feel like it". His first break was in a group show in Saint Fin Barre's Cathedral - where the Dean Michael Jackson (now C.I. Archbishop of Dublin) became an early supporter. He was spotted there by John P. Quinlan of the Vangard Gallery. Quinlan gave Griffin his first opportunity by offering him a one man show. Quinlan explains: "I did so because I liked his story and wanted to give him a break". Griffin remains grateful: "to this day I appreciate what John did for me".

He then made a fortuitous trip to Allihies. His brother has a large house there and he came down to paint for a week. That was nine years ago and he's still there. He met a local teacher, Deirdre Ni Dhonnchadha, and they both liked what they saw. "I think I landed on my feet" he says with a smile. She's also "a virtuoso tin whistle player" he informs me proudly. Ni Dhonnchadha is the niece of the legendary fiddle player Denis Murphy, Sliabh Luachra royalty.

Griffin is burly, he's bearded, he's bushy-haired, he's wildly unkempt, and he's extravagant in word and gesture. What characterises him most is his unwavering good humour and his infectious enthusiasm for life in general and the arts in particular. His role in Allihies is far more than that of another artist plying his trade. He seems to function as a kind pf power station for the arts in the parish. He organises the annual pantomime, he writes and performs one man plays (which he tours abroad), he organises exhibitions for himself and other artists in the Copper Mine Museum Gallery and he generally adds to the gaiety of nations. At present he is involved with Ni Dhonnchadha in running the annual Michael Dwyer Festival in honour of the renowned tin whistle player who lived locally.

Coming to art by an unconventional route and not caring a lot about the niceties of technique and compositional decorum, Griffin is often described as an outsider artist - or even by some as a naive artist in the manner of the Tory Island school. While Griffin doesn't quite bridle at this suggestion, he is quick to dismiss it. "I think my work is very sophisticated". He featured in Gemma Tipton's exhibition of outsider art in the Crawford a few years ago. "It was me she picked as her anchor tenant". He is not short of venues for his work and when he's not showing at his local Copper Mine Gallery has shown at the Triskel, the Vangard, and the Crawford in Cork, and at the Wexford Opera Festival. He sells well, his current show sold 13 pieces on the opening night. He bats aside all attempts at interpretation of his painting. He sees these ostensibly representational works as pure colour exercises. "In essence if you turn them upside down they will work as abstract paintings"."It's all about getting colour on the canvas". I point out similarities to the work of James Ensor but he says he's never heard of him.

For his current show Griffin tells me that he is "using the whole village as a gallery". The 60 odd paintings are on display at the Copper Mine Gallery, O'Neill's pub up the road, and a disused schoolhouse nearby. Wild and scenic Allihies is worth a visit at any time of the year but if you get down there in the next few weeks you will have the added pleasure of entering the colourful world of the Oil Man of Allihies.

The Copper Mine Museum Gallery

Allihies, Co. Cork

Mon-Sun: 10am-4.30pm

Tel.: 027 73218

John P. O'Sullivan


Monday, June 06, 2016

Nothing on Earth by Conor O'Callaghan

A slightly edited version of this review appeared in the Sunday Times Culture magazine on 29 May 2016

If I were an idle billionaire I'd occupy myself by suing the blurb writers of Ireland under the trade descriptions law. There are serial offenders out there such as Colm Tóibín and Joseph O'Connor but this careless puffery has reached epidemic proportions amongst well-known writers in our incestuous literary world. Whatever happened to "truth is beauty"? The first line on the front cover of this book is a puff by Donal Ryan, Conor O'Callaghan's stable companion at Random House: "Strange, beautiful and quietly terrifying" it advises us. Now I don't claim to know Donal Ryan but if he finds this book terrifying he must have led a very sheltered life. If he finds it beautiful then truly beauty is in the eye of the beholder. And as for strange, I can only concur.

This is a first novel by O'Callaghan who is a poet and academic - creative writing is one of his areas of expertise. He has a few poetry collections under his belt and a contribution to that tedious debate about Roy Keane: "Red Mist: Roy Keane and the Irish World Cup Blues: A Fan's Story".

His book opens with a dire warning from Leviticus about the dangers of sex during menstruation. Now there is sex in the novel, and indeed menstruation, but the link between them and any subsequent dark consequences is extremely tenuous. (I should point out that this review is full of spoilers.) Perhaps we shouldn't be taking the quote too literally but unfortunately it prefigures the book as a whole which seems like a patch-work quilt of non sequiturs.

The action is divided between the interior monologue of a sexually shifty priest, who could be an unreliable narrator, and descriptions of the lives of four characters uneasily residing in a house on a ghost estate near a small town. The only character to come alive is the priest so there is a basic problem about caring too much about the ultimate fate of the four estate residents: a couple with an almost silent daughter and the wife's sister. The sister, Martina, seems ripe for diversion but this leads nowhere except for a few jousts with the night watchman. Apart from the two discreetly written sexual encounters most of the action seems desultory. There's a lot of sunbathing - that rarest of Irish activities. We don't get to know the characters so that as they disappear one by one we are benignly indifferent. There's no attempt to justify their disappearance with prior intimations - either from within or without. One moment they are part of the action, the next they are not. And the sun bathing continues. The disappeared are never discovered and we are offered no clue as to their fates. There are hints of dark doings: doors opening, taps flowing, mysterious writing and unexplained noises. We must use our imagination I suppose but we are never engaged enough to bother. The priest seems to be shifty but innocent of any wrong-doing. His interior life is occasionally given to sexual musings, suggesting he is imperfectly adjusted to a life of celibacy. However, his interactions with the Gardai seem unlikely and the dialogue has a false ring "You run off and process some parking tickets".

At times the author's attempts to suggest the mysterious is plain confusing. If I were teaching creative writing I would use page 21 as an example of gratuitous obfuscation:

"The girl's mother was not 'Helen', but Helen will have to do for now. She did have a real name. It was, once, a matter of public record. What was it her real name? Nobody seems sure any more. There were even moments, towards the end, when Helen wasn't entirely certain herself."

O'Callaghan can certainly write but I am not sure he can tell a story. There is a hole in the heart of his narrative. There are promising dabs of colour, a pub scene, a grisly (and gristly) dinner party, a feckless landlord, a subtle description of oral sex - but in general nothing much happens and then the characters disappear. And the priest sweats on.

Doubleday Ireland

Pages 175

RRP: €16.99

John P. O'Sullivan

Wednesday, May 18, 2016

Cymbeline at the RSC


I do enjoy my occasional visits to Stratford-on-Avon - a town dedicated to Shakespeare and tourism, with some decent restaurants (especially the Scullery) amidst the twee shops. It's great for strolling around with interesting buildings, some nice walks along the Avon, and along the canals where there's plenty of barge activity. And of course each visit must be build around an RSC production. This time it was Cymbeline, a play I had never seen performed before. The only bit I know is the famous lament for Innogen: "Fear no more the heat o' the sun ..." - often recited at funerals. I remember Hilton Edwards declaiming it at the funeral of Micheál Mac Liammóir. Perusing the cast list beforehand I see that Cymbeline (the King of ancient Briton) is played by a woman. Also, one of his long lost sons, is also played by a woman. Ho, hum. Now Cymbeline is one of these slightly annoying plays by Shakespeare where the audience must work hard on suspending their disbelief as one of the characters adopts a disguise as a member of the opposite sex - in this case Innogen, the main female character. Twelfth Night has a similar scenario. It's quite clear to all of us that it's the same person but not of course to the characters in the play. So adding to this confusion by changing Kings to Queens and sons to daughters is compounding Shakespeare's confusion. Also, a large proportion of the cast are black which seems historically dubious if politically correct. As I'm on the subject of appearances, the actor playing Posthumus (Innogen's beloved) is small and wimpy while the aspiring and despised lover Cloten is tall, imposing and far better looking. Open your eyes girl.

But these are all superficial criticisms, the production generally is more like a pantomime than a play. The language gets lost, often literally, as the director Melly Still introduces French, Italian and even Latin dialogue - projecting the English version on the walls of the set. Still is a designer by trade, and she's accompanied by Anna Fleischle another designer so guess what - there's an emphasis on design elements and a deeply eccentric assortment of costumes: tutus, caveman outfits, sharp suits etc. Shakespeare should be all about the language but it gets buried amidst the alarums, excursions and pyrotechnics - smoke, streamers and percussion. The story, such as it is, gets lost along with the language so we settle back and enjoy the colour, the music and the movement. There is one beautiful, lyrical interlude where the lament for Innogen is accompanied by sweetly apposite music. Otherwise it's fun and spectacle but hardly what I wanted from an RSC production. Two stars.



Monday, April 25, 2016

Mind Your Metaphors Crawley

The Irish Times special on the 400th anniversary of Shakespeare's death last Saturday was a celebration devoutly to be wished. However, the hideously inappropriate metaphor employed by Peter Crawley about Shakespeare's contribution to our vernacular ("flowing as usefully as fluoride through the water supply") struck a bum note. Most European countries including Germany, Sweden and Denmark ban fluoride in water because of its health risks. Shakespeare's language enriches and invigorates our discourse without any attendant perils.


Monday, April 11, 2016

Review of: John Behan - The Bull of Sheriff Street

An edited version of this review appeared in the Sunday Times Culture magazine on the 10 April 2016

Anyone seeking prurient details of bohemian antics a la Francis Bacon or Ted Hughes will be disappointed by this short biography of the sculptor John Behan. The discretion about his personal life is so absolute that we are not even told the name of his first wife. A footnote tells us that "the spouse of John Behan wishes not to have her name appear in this book" - a restriction that draws unnecessary attention to a banal fact. It's well known he was married to the artist Constance Short so why bother omitting it. Frazier undertook the book as a way of helping Behan deal with the death of his partner Emer McHale in 2012. He describes it as "a work of recuperation" in which Behan's friends "would get a nod to help out". So it would be churlish to chide it for being no more than it sets out to be - an entertaining tribute to the genial artist. However, along the way it succeeds in providing a fascinating insight into the politics of Irish art during a fraught and transformative period.

Although many would associate Behan with Dublin, and particularly the Project Arts Centre, he has lived in Galway since 1980. He made a lasting mark on the cultural life of the capitol in a number of ways before he moved west. The scion of a corner shop on Sheriff Street, he left school at 15 to serve a seven year apprenticeship as a metal worker. Playing with metal stirred some artistic impulse and he enrolled in night classes at NCAD in 1957. In 1960 a bronze bull of his was accepted by the Irish Exhibition of Living Art (IELA) and his career was on its way. The critic James White admired its "simple and witty conception". Subsequently he went to London and later Birmingham to work. The money he earned through working seven days a week meant that he could return to Ireland and pursue the artistic life. He never returned to structured employment. While in London he encountered the work of artists such as Henry Moore, David Smith, Elizabeth Frink and Michael Ayrton. These were influences that were to play a significant role in his evolution as an artist. He was particularly taken with the methodology of David Smith which showed him that being a metal worker was "an avant-garde advantage".

By far the most interesting aspect of the book is its account of the art politics of the 60s where the indifference of the Arts Council, and the cosy restrictiveness of the RHA and the IELA led to frustrated outsiders such Behan and Michael Kane having to find their own way of gaining the public's attention. Behan was part of a loose movement that included Kane, Brian Bourke and Charlie Cullen. They were working-class lads who felt excluded by an art establishment in general and the Arts Council in particular. That organisation was dominated by the architect Michael Scott and its director the colourful Fr. Donal O'Sullivan. The latter with his shot silk waistcoat and his personal wine cellar comes in for particular criticism. When he wasn't sharing a mistress with Graham Greene he was presiding over the Arts Council's buying policy which favoured the ethereal compositions of Louis le Brocquy and the decorative abstraction of Pat Scott (who was employed by Michael Scott at the time) rather than the rough, expressive figuration of these uncouth boys. The critic Brian Fallon described its policy as "arbitrary and exclusive to the point of cliqueishness", and excessively skewed in favour of abstract art "because it is abstract".

Behan was a prime mover in a number of initiatives to redress the perceived injustices suffered by him and his fellow outsiders. He was involved in the creation of the Project Arts Centre in 1967 and was the first artist to exhibit there - a collection of lithographs. He was also a major figure in the Independent Artists group which instigated its own annual exhibition as a reaction to the hegemony of the Protestant matrons who dominated the IELA - formidable figures such as Evie Hone, Mainie Jellet, Anne Yeats, and Norah McGuinness. One of Behan's most significant contributions to Irish art was his creation of the Dublin Art Foundry in 1970. Before this initiative Irish sculptors had to send large work to England to be cast. This often took many months as they waited in line behind Moore, Ayrton and the other big names of that era. Behan initially pitched the idea to the Arts Council but the elegant Father O'Sullivan who had "a hatred of sculpture" rejected his plans. Behan carried on anyway and raised the necessary money. His legacy is still with us today.

His engagement with the art establishment and his energy and enthusiasm for more inclusive and accessible art bore fruit in 1973 when the old establishment dominated Arts Council was disbanded and a new more democratic one was constituted with him as a member. He was able to put into practice his belief that art was for the people and not just for the few. His ascent from outsider to being a member of the new establishment was confirmed in 1978 when he was one of the first group of artists elected into Aosdána. Following the breakup of his marriage in 1980 to the coy Constance he moved to Galway - stepping back from art politics to focus on his work. Anyone interested in Irish art and our cultural history, will find much to admire in this doughty character and much to interest them in this generously illustrated and handsome book.

The Lilliput Press

Pages: 152

RRP: €25


Saturday, March 26, 2016

Mariah Garnett - Other an Father

An edited version of this piece appeared in the Sunday Times Culture magazine on 11 March 2016

The Metropolitan Arts Centre (MAC) in Belfast encompasses three separate galleries and a risk-taking programme that contrasts with the more conventional Ulster Museum exhibitions. One of its current shows features Mariah Garnett an LA-based film maker often associated with LBGT themes. Garnett's previous subjects included the iconic gay porn star Peter Berlin and the transgender historical figure Catalina de Erauso. Her first solo show outside the USA looks at the circumstances that led to her Protestant father's departure from Belfast during the Troubles because of his relationship with a Catholic girl. Garnett bases her film on the now seemingly innocuous BBC interview her father did back in 1978 that got him into trouble with both communities. The exhibit consists of three films: the original BBC interview, a recreation of the interview where Garnett dresses up as her father (convincingly but for the baggy overcoat) and a transgender actor plays his Catholic girl-friend, and finally a film of Garnett interviewing her father now as they watch the old BBC film. While Freudians may have a fine old time speculating on a woman dressing up as her father and employing a transgender actor to play his girl-friend, the resultant film seems more whimsical than portent-laden.

John P. O'Sullivan


Monday, March 21, 2016

Blue Notes

An edited version of this piece appeared in the Sunday Times Speakeasy column on 20 March 2016.

Blue arrived in our Cork secondary school half way through 3rd year from Dublin so he was always going to be an outsider. He was a rheumy-eyed, dirty blond haired boy with a blotchy complexion. Our school was relentlessly philistine and success on the sports field mattered far more than other pursuits. Blue had no interest in games and not much in academic matters either. He also had a fine line in insolence, which did not endear him to Brother Leo - our ferocious Latin teacher. Leo made it his mission to beat this insolence out of Blue. He was singled out for almost daily beatings that went far beyond the routine punishment we all suffered. Leo would often lose his temper as he beat him out of the room and continued his ministrations in the small adjoining teacher’s room. One curious thing I remember from that time was his virulent dislike of his mother. Issues with fathers were common-place amongst adolescent boys, but it was unusual to encounter such animosity for a mother.

We were never very friendly and I thought no more of him after we left school. A few years later between stints at university I spent some time in London. Going into Piccadilly Circus tube station one day I met Blue and a couple of other Cork guys – including the infamous Judd Scanlon (later to spend time in US, British and Irish jails for heroin dealing). We got talking and they told me that they had a scam operating whereby they went around different dole offices in London signing on under different names. This way they made a comfortable living. They also had acquired a pile of unused tube tickets and generously tossed a few in my direction.

I bumped into him and his cronies from time to time in London in ’68 and ’69. These were halcyon days – the anti-Vietnam protests in Grosvenor Square, the legalise pot rallies in Hyde Park and of course the Stones in the Park (a sad anti-climax that). Blue had started to deal drugs – mainly hash but also LSD and various uppers and downers. He had become, according to his friends, extremely paranoid and reckoned he was being followed around London. He carried a Polaroid camera with him every where and would wheel around in the street and photograph those walking behind him to try and establish who was on his trail.

I moved back to university in late ’69 and didn’t see Blue again for about 6 years. After university I spent a few years working on oil rigs around the world. Between operations we spent 6 months in dry dock in Amsterdam getting our drilling ship refitted. We would head into the bright lights most evenings after work. I was walking through the red light area one night on my own when I bumped into Blue. He was very upbeat and invited me back to his nearby apartment to sample some of his wares. It transpired that he had moved on to heroin dealing and was doing well. He introduced me to his very pretty 17-year old French girlfriend. She couldn’t stay long as she was going across the canal to her work in a live sex show - a thriving industry at the time. Blue made tea and invited me to join him in snorting some heroin. He was thoughtful enough to warn me that first time users often vomited when using this method. We sat back and reminisced about the old days in CBC. A little later there was a knock on the door and Blue opened it to reveal two middle-aged Chinese men in suits. It became clear that my presence was superfluous to requirements so I took myself off back to the rig.

In 1979 I had moved to Dublin and found more conventional employment. I was driving past the old Salvation Army hostel off Stephen’s Green one late afternoon and spotted Blue emerging. It looked like he was down on his luck. A few week’s later I was sitting in Stephen’s Green admiring the flowers. Suddenly Blue appeared making erratic progress across the grass and through flower beds. He seemed very agitated. He was shouting and gesticulating while he kicked the heads off inoffensive flowers. I left him to it.

My last sighting of him came around 1990. I had been staying in a hotel in Bloomsbury and was getting a tube to Heathrow the following morning. I was standing with my suitcase on the platform of Russell Square tube station when I saw a familiar figure working his way down the platform begging. He was very shabbily dressed and I particularly remember that the sole of one of his shoes was flapping. About half way down the platform he spotted me and before I had a chance to say a word he abruptly turned down one of the exits and was gone - into the underground. He's never been heard of since. Should I have offered some succour or was it too late?

Saturday, March 19, 2016

Cheltenham Post-Mortem

I'm glad that's all over. It was a vintage festival with many highlights but it's so all-consuming that I need a break now. Back to the rugby. Yesterday's best race was the Gold Cup and Don Cossack won impressively. I suspect Willie Mullins needed the ground softer for Djakadam who came second. It's rare to see Mullins' impregnable amiability punctured but his disappointment showed in the interview afterwards. Don Cossack was only 11-4 when I backed him but I was especially delighted with this result for Brian Cooper his star-crossed jockey and for the doughty trainer Gordon Elliot, tieless in Gloucster. I had another winning day thanks to yet another Paul Nichols handicapper - Ibis Du Rheu won the 4.50 for me at 18-1. That gave me a handsome four figure (OK, just about four figures) profit for the four days. Sprinter Sacre's win was the highlight for me although I thought Altior was sensational in the Supreme Novices and I enjoyed Annie Power in the Champion Hurdle - even if she did beat my fancy My Tent Or Yours. Thistlecrack was also superb in the World Hurdle (again I was second) as was Vaoutour in the Ryanair. The good ground helped matters. To end on a sombre note we can't omit to mention the death in action of No More Heroes and Long Dog - the down side for Gordon Elliot and Willie Mullins.


Friday, March 18, 2016

Thoughts on Cheltenham Day 4

Day 3: Post Mortem: While not quite a disaster Day 3 was worse than mediocre - a case of getting it slightly wrong and scraping by on my each way bets. In the JLT Garde De Victoire was going well until he landed clumsily three out and went arse over tip. Road to Riches was clearly inferior to Vautour as was Alpha Des Obeaux to Thistlecrack, I had them both each way - I just hate backing short-priced favourites as a general rule and so I often ignore the obvious. I will draw a veil over the Coral Cup although Broxbourne plugged on gamely. It was great to see Colin Murphy win with Empire of Dirt but I didn't trust his jumping and so eschewed a trainer I follow who always means business at Cheltenham.


Day 4: I'm getting bored now - I preferred when Cheltenham was just three days. It's hard to sustain the intensity for four days. The Triumph Hurdle is a hard one. but I like Paul Nichols young hurdler so I'll go for Zubayr. In the County Hurdle Wait for Me beckons although I will have a few bob on Cheltenian at a huge price. I will go for another fancied horse in the Alfred Bartlett: Shantou Village. The Gold Cup is best watched but if I bet (as I probably will) it will be Don Cossack. My policy of ignoring Willie Mullins apart from Vroum Vroum Mag has to be sustained. All his horses were at false prices - except Vautour (a bargain at evens) who it was claimed was below par.


Thursday, March 17, 2016

Thoughts on Cheltenham Day 3

Day 2 Post-mortem: After a distinctly unpromising start with No More Heroes severing a tendon when apparently going well two fences out, things got much better as Day 2 progressed. I had to back Sprinter Sacre (above) at 5-1 and he ended up giving us the biggest story of the Festival so far. He had been written off because of a heart murmur and many felt he should have been retired. Instead he recovered his former prowess and slaughtered the Mullins favourite. Bolger's horses ran disappointingly in the cross country and I was not alone in thinking the sainted Nina Carberry may have given Josies Orders too much to do. Although a mistake a few fences out didn't help. I should have stopped at this stage but decided it was time Paul Nichols had a winner so I backed both his horses in the Fred Winter. Diego Du Cahrmil had smart French form and word from the gallops was positive, as was the decreasing price. Romain De Senam was too long a price for his form so I added him for insurance. They finished first and second after the fortuitous last hurdle fall of two Irish challengers. That result ensured that this year I'll finish ahead no matter what happens over the next two days.

Day 3: But the show goes on. Nobody gets rich betting in Novice Chases so I'll put Garde La Victoire in my Yankee but otherwise will avoid the JLT at 13.30. The Pertemps Final at 2.10 is a puzzle so I'll chance Leave at Dawn because of Charles Byrne's hit rate when he travels from Ireland for big handicaps. I like Henderson's Broxbourne e.w. In this race as well. The Ryanair Chase is supposedly at the mercy of Vautour but I never bet odds on and so will look to another Irish horse Road to Riches for e.w. value. I've always been a fan of Mouse Morris at Cheltenham right back to Trapper John many years ago. He seems to have a knack with long-distance hurdlers so I'll have a bet on Alpha Des Obeaux in the World Hurdle. The last three races I may nibble at as the day unfolds but nothing jumps out at me except perhaps that John's Spirit is reasonably handicapped in the 4.10.


Wednesday, March 16, 2016

Thoughts on Cheltenham Day 2

Great start yesterday with two winners (Altor and Vroum Vroum Mag) and two seconds (Sizing John and My Tent or Yours). The most enjoyable and impressive win was Altior in the Supreme Novices - a race I have done well in historically. The biggest disappointment was Polly Peachum who never got going in the mare's hurdle. I suspect her very hard previous race took its toll.

I can't get too excited about day 2. I won't bet in the first race as I can't decide between Yanworth and Yorkhill. I think No More Heroes will win the RSA and I'll have a few bob on Politologue in the Coral Cup. Un de Sceaux seems unbeatable in the Queen Mother Champion Chase although if Sprinter Sacre could recover his sparkle he may surprise him. The Cross Country chase is usually a benefit for Enda Bolger so Quantitative Easing or Josies Order should win. But mostly I'll just be keeping my powder dry today and watching for fun.

Tuesday, March 15, 2016

Thoughts on Cheltenham Day 1

The first day of Cheltenham is always my favourite. You start with the Supreme Novices Hurdle, then the Arkle Chase, the Champion Hurdle and the Mare's Hurdle. There are also three indecipherable Handicap Chases that I will steer clear of except for a nibble at a Paul Nichols outsider. The four championship races I've mentioned are probably best watched as they all feature Willie Mullins (M) trained short shots with Nicky Henderson (H) training the most likely contenders in each case.

1:30 Supreme Novices: Min (M) or Altior (H)

2.10 Arkle: Douvan (M) or Vaniteux (H)

3.30: Champion Hurdle: Annie Power (M) or My Tent or Yours (H)

4.10: Mare's Hurdle: Vroom Vroom Mag (M) or Polly Peachum (H)

I may back these as forecasts rather than go for one or the other. Vroom Vroom Mag seems the best bet of the day (Ruby thinks so anyway) but Polly Peachum has great course form and is better each way value. She's probably my main bet.The Champion Hurdle is the most open in years - I'm not convinced that Annie Power is a two mile champion, especially on the drying ground so I'll look elsewhere.

For an outsider I'll stick a few bob on Southfield Theatre in the 2.50 Ultima Chase at 20-1.

Forget the last two races. They're novice chases, one with amateur riders, so anything can and will happen.

Thursday, March 03, 2016

Source - Eddie Kennedy

A slightly edited version of this piece appeared in the Sunday Times Culture magazine on 28 February 2016

Source, the title of Eddie Kennedy's new show, invites speculation. It could refer to the sea, the source of all life, that appears in many of the paintings. Or it could refer to North Mayo itself which thanks to the commendable support of the Ballinglen Arts Foundation is becoming to Irish landscape artists what Mont Sainte-Victoire was to Cezanne - a rich source of inspiration. Luminaries such as Hughie O'Donoghue, Donald Teskey, and Pat Harris have recently engaged with its troubled waters, its jagged coastline, and it's haunted past. Kennedy is the latest to be drawn the region. A Tipperary native he has abandoned the placid pastures of the Golden Vale to focus on the seas around Blacksod Bay and the imposing presence of Nephin. The predominant colours are the creamy white of the sea and the blue grey of the sky. These are bedecked with flecks of colour and the occasional bold horizontal of green or black. Kennedy resists the label of landscape painter but rather sees himself as one who experiences the landscape and transmutes this into art. The fruits of his encounter with the wild West are surprisingly tranquil paintings, restful on the eye and soothing to the soul.