Monday, July 16, 2018

Coming Home: Art and the Great Hunger


An edited version of this piece appeared in the Sunday Times Culture magazine on 15 July 2018

There’s a veritable feast of Famine-related art on view in Skibbereen and its environs over the next two months. The corner-stone event, Coming Home: Art and the Great Hunger, features an exhibition at the Uilinn gallery in Skibbereen, opening on 19 July. It consists of 50 paintings from the collection of Ireland’s Great Hunger Museum at Quinnipiac University, Connecticut. It was shown in Dublin Castle earlier this year but its title takes on a more literal hue now that it reaches West Cork. Its curator Niamh O’Sullivan described the Great Famine “as the migration crisis of the 19th Century” and anyone viewing this exhibition and the associated shows will be struck by the contemporary resonances – not least the plight of 20th Century migrants on Lesbos and Lampedusa. On the days following the opening of this exhibition, a number of site-specific events will also take place in the surrounding area under the auspices of Ann Davoren and her team at Uilinn.

Skibbereen has long been regarded as the epicentre of the Great Irish Famine. In a travel journal written in 1847, Lord Dufferin referred to Skibbereen in the County of Cork as “the very nucleus of famine and disease”. It’s fitting then that the town should host activities that recover, record, and remind us of this shameful episode in our colonial history. A period where greedy landlords, entrenched racism and laissez-faire economics conspired to inflict a devastating famine on a country with plentiful alternative food sources.  It’s the time of the year when West Cork is busy with tourists, very many of them English, and these shows should help broadcast more widely a part of our history that many are still uncomfortable with at home and ignorant of abroad.

The Irish Famine had very little in the way of contemporary visual records or associated art. There were gross caricatures in Punch magazine (depicting Paddy’s plight as caused by his own brutish stupidity) and the sanitized drawings of Jerome Mahony in the Illustrated London News – which at least elicited empathy from a largely indifferent British public. The only contemporaneous art to depict the disaster was Daniel Macdonald’s romanticized work. Irish Peasant Children shows a chubby-cheeked trio, well clothed and seemingly carefree. Only a darkening sky in the background suggests trouble ahead. Aside from Macdonald and some of Mahony’s drawings most of the pertinent art in the Uilinn show comes from the latter half of the  20th Century and later. Two of the most persistent and effective chroniclers of the Famine are sculptors John Behan and Rowan Gillespie. Behan’s Famine Mother and Children is based on a well-known Jerome Mahony drawing called Bridget O’Donnell and Children – but Behan’s sculpture has the poignant heft of art that’s lacking in Mahony’s illustration. The most immediately impactful image on view is Lillian Lucy Davidson’s Gorta. It shows a gaunt and desperate trio burying a child in unconsecrated ground. Other striking and evocative works are Hughie O’Donoghue’s On Our Knees and William Crozier’s Rainbow’s End. O’Donoghue’s mother came from the Erris area of North Mayo, a place as devastated as West Cork was by the Famine. The artist has regularly turned to that area for inspiration and recently built a house and studio there.

Three of the associated art events are site specific and so carry with them the haunting relevance of their locales. Out past Reen Pier, near Union Hall, a narrow road leads to a large isolated property belonging to the artist John Kelly. Kelly was born in England but the family went to Australia when he was six months old. He has a Cork connection through his father who was born near Mallow. Kelly is best known internationally for his Cow up a Tree sculpture (a version of which sits on his land overlooking the sea, to the bemusement of passing sailors) but also paints and makes prints to service galleries in Melbourne, London, Cork and Dublin. Kelly has fabricated a scale model of the Tate Modern amidst the sculpted wonders that abound on his property. The Tate family’s fortunes were built initially on a green-grocery business in Liverpool. During the Famine their shops received the regular supplies of fruit and vegetable from Ireland necessary to sustain its business. A tour of the Reen Farm Sculpture Garden on the 26 July will include a reading by Jeremy Irons of the famous N. M. Cummins letter to the Duke of Wellington. The letter describes in harrowing detail what happened in the area round where Kelly has located his Tate model: “In the first six (hovels) famished and ghastly skeletons, to all appearance dead, were huddled in a corner on some filthy straw, their sole covering what seemed a ragged horse-cloth, naked above the knees. I approached in horror, and found by a low moaning they were alive, they were in fever - four children, a woman, and at what had once been a man.”

Another event that points directly to local experience around Skibbereen is Toma McCullim’s 110 Skibbereen Girls project. In 1850, 110 girls were plucked from the workhouse in Skibbereen and sent to Adelaide and Melbourne in Australia, ostensibly for domestic work. However, as there were nine men to every woman in the colony at this time, their primary role was as breeders. The project was referred to as the Earl Grey scheme after the Colonial Secretary of the time. McCullim who works as an art therapist in the Community Hospital, on the site of the old workhouse, came up with the idea of involving staff and residents in developing a permanent site specific artwork to mark this moment in history. She sees the girls removal from the workhouse as a positive thing “we can’t imagine the horrors they were leaving. It’s a story about courage and having a belief in the future.” Before their voyage each girl was given clothes, a bowl and a spoon. The significance of a spoon as a metaphor in the context of the Famine is obvious.The current hospital cares for the elderly. Staff and patients were given beeswax and asked to fashion individual spoons which would later be cast in bronze. These will be embedded in the original workhouse wall (an artwork in itself) just inside the entrance to the hospital. Viewers can stand on on a block of Australian sandstone, sourced and donated by the Australian Embassy to view this surreal and poignant piece. There are 10,000 Australian citizens directly descended from these girls and some of them will attend the official unveiling of this sculpture on the 20th July. These include Judith Constable who is a descendant of Jane Leary, one of the 110. Thereafter it will be on permanent display in the grounds of the community hospital.

The overgrown remnants  of the old workhouse in Schull will feature an intriguing multi-media event entitled Anáil na Beatha (breath of life) on 21 July. It has been created by Alanna O’Kelly, a multi-media artist with an international reputation. At 9.30 pm on that evening the audience will be guided in what O’Kelly describes as a “slightly processional way” through a landscape containing story tellers, contemporary videos featuring fleeing migrants and refugees, performance artists using black butter (a nod to the old butter road nearby), a local choir, and Cormac Begley breathing the concertina (no I don’t know either). The procession will culminate in a gathering around the Famine grave outside the walls of the workhouse. O’Kelly thinks of the workhouse as “a sacred site” and her aim “is bringing people there and giving them something to think about”.

Other events planned include schools programmes, lectures, walking tours, concerts and theatre. The Skibbereen Heritage Centre, under its energetic and innovative director Terri Kearney, provides an excellent permanent exhibition of the Famine story and will conduct guided tours of Famine sites during August. It will also unveil some new Famine information panels on the walls of the hulking old soup kitchen building near the Centre.

www.westcorkartscentre.com




Tuesday, July 03, 2018

The HSE - A Minor Sympton of a Major Malaise

Due to my impressive longevity the HSE have very kindly bestowed upon me a new medical card. It got the name of my GP wrong however so I called the designated number to correct this – as advised in the accompanying letter. The number was 1890 252 919. When I called this number I was advised that it could be expensive to make a call on this number and that an alternative number 051 595129 could be used. Very thoughtful I said to myself but why not tell us this in the first place. Anyway I call the cheaper option and am advised again that I should call 051 595129 – the number I am currently calling. I hang in there and am told to press 1 for English and 2 for Irish. This public service tokenism is standard so not a whit disconcerted I press 1. There’s the sound of a disconnection and suddenly I’m back being advised to use 051 595129 instead of the more expensive 1890252919. I go through this sequence a few times and give up (try it yourself). When I worked in IT the customer was sacred and fucking them around like this would lead to drastic consequences for the idiot who perpetrated it. It’s a simple system that no one in the HSE has bothered their arse to test. Your job is safe no matter how inept you are and the organisation always trumps the poor punter. Just a small example of a far greater malaise.

Tuesday, June 12, 2018

Recent Reads – June 2018

Who Do I Think I Am – A Memoir by Homan Potterton

**

It’s hard to believe that Homan Potterton is a country boy from Trim. He comes across in this  gossipy memoir as not just a West Brit but as a Brit manqué.  For the most part it’s a tedious round of all the important people he knew and all the wonderful soirées he attended – dinner at Castletown with Desmond Guinness, lunch in the Kildare Street Club with Diane Tomlinson etc. - ad nauseum. Nice work if you can get it. He was clearly a precociously knowledgeable expert on art – especially 17th century Italian art but not perhaps robust enough as Director of the National Gallery to deal with an obdurate civil service and a philistine government. His tenure there was not perceived as successful although he should be given credit for his role in acquiring some of the Beit collection. While he’s frank with his opinions of the ignorant creatures he had to contend with (including Haughey quoted as saying “fuck his National Gallery, it’s not Irish anyhow and nor is he”) in his time as director,  he’s noticeably coy about his personal relationships and his homosexuality. We are given no insights into the life of a closeted gay man in the Dublin of those days and only the odd carefully phrased sentence even suggests that he may have had a gay relationship or two. A very selective memoir then that quickly runs out of steam. One is left at the end with a strong smell of prig.


The Collected Letters of Flann O’Brien edited by Maebh Long

****

These are for dipping into obviously and very many of them are quite tedious as he deals with banks and publishers about mounting debts and missed deadlines. However, here and there we come upon gems of invective that make the whole book worth while. Early on he interposes himself hilariously between Frank O’Connor and Sean O’Faolain and their literary feud in the letters pages of the Irish Times. On page 107 he defends Patrick Kavanagh against charges that he, a mere writer, shouldn’t be reviewing the RHA Annual Show:  “anybody who has a bob or the social brilliantine to get a buckshee invitation is entitled to laugh, jibe, praise, deride or get downright sick on the floor”. The personal rarely gets through but most of the letters are from his later declining years and reading between the lines we detect the ravages of drink. He seems constantly to be sick or injured and unable to meet a deadline or a bank debt because of it. Some of the letters to banks show that the spirit is still intact. “Your Sub-Manager says that this £100 allowance is generous. That I regard as impudence. It should be explained to your Sub-Manager by some person in authority that people who deal with banks are CUSTOMERS, not necessarily spivs.”


Why Write – Collected Nonfiction by Philip Roth

*****

This was Roth’s last publication issued in the estimable Library of America series. It’s full of gems like his open letter to Wikipedia regarding its error about the source of the main character in The Human Stain – the one where a professor gets into trouble because he used the term “spook” meaning ghost but the PC brigade chose to interpret it as a slur on his black students. It’s mostly interviews and conversations and there’s one entertaining one with Edna O’Brien which certainly raises her in my estimation. A classic to be consumed in small slowly masticated bites.


Evelyn Waugh – A Life Revisited by Philip Eade

****

If you think Homan Potterton is a prig, and I do, he’s a long way behind Evelyn Waugh in this regard. Waugh came from a modest middle-class background but made it his life’s work to cleave to the great and the good and was quick to adopt the associated life style. If you like literary gossip and a lively turn of phrase, this is for you. It touches, of course, on his literary career and on the relationship between the life and the work but it’s written for entertainment rather then education. Waugh started life as a homosexual it seems before becoming a galloping heterosexual. I suspect the English public school system and the Oxford of those times meant a highly-sexed young man took his pleasure where he could find it. It’s replete with scabrous anecdotes including the one where Alec Waugh’s unconsummated first marriage was ascribed to his wife having “a hymen like a concrete portcullis”. Follow that.


The Uncommon Reader – A Life of Edward Garnett by Helen Smith

****

Unlike the Waugh biography referred top above, this focuses on the work rather than the life. The life indeed seemed fairly uneventful apart from an interlude where Garnett’s wife became besotted with a Russian writer who taught her Russian and then saved the day (and the marriage) by dying.  It is a good academic biography where we are introduced to one of the great mid-wives of 20th Century English literature. In his role as publishers’ reader, Garnett helped the young Joseph Conrad to discover his literary voice and was even allowed into the creative process of the great Henry James.  He also worked with D.H. Lawrence and Henry Green. If all that wasn’t enough, his wife Constance Garnett was the translator who introduced the English-speaking world to the writings of Tolstoy, Dostoyevsky and Chekhov. A formidable duo done real service in this fascinating book.


Monday, June 11, 2018

The Fox Hunt by Mohammed Al-Samawi

The following review appeared in the Irish Examiner on the 9 June 2018.

Yemen is a country mysterious to most Westerners. Its under-reported war where Saudi Arabia, Iran and their proxies inflict famine and violence on its populace North and South, shows no sign of reaching a resolution. This is the story of one Yemeni’s escape from the early stages of that deadly and pointless conflict, but more pertinently is shows him breaking free from the divisions and prejudices that cause such conflicts in the first place. Al-Samawi grew up in comfortable circumstances in Sana’a Northern Yemen – an area dominated by Shia moslems. His father was a senior figure in the medical establishment and despite being physically handicapped after a childhood stroke the author grew up to be a smart and curious young man. Cut off from sport and the usual pursuits of healthy teenagers, he finds solace on the Internet and in Facebook particularly. A sympathetic English teacher gives him a copy of the Old Testament and on reading it and researching the subject further, he discovers that his view of Jews and other non-Moslems is a partial and incomplete one. Through Facebook he establishes dialogues and makes friends across the religious divide, including many Jews.

In the course of his narrative we get behind the shutters of the restrictive world of the Moslem family. A girl in school daringly allows him to snatch a glance of her face when she briefly pulls aside her niqab. His parents find out and, after briefly considering marrying them off, terminate the relationship when they discover her family is poor. A cushy job and a suitable bride are arranged by his father and he settles into family life. You are struck by his absolute filial obedience to this authoritarian father. Even later, at the age of 26 and with a full-time job, he’s asking his permission to leave the country on a business trip.

Al-Samawi maintains his ecumenical interests and is soon attending conferences abroad for the promotion of racial and religious harmony. This leads to tensions at home and some creepy anonymous phone calls accusing him of being a Zionist spy. Ironically, as it transpires, he seeks safety by moving from his home in Sana’a to Aden to escape his accusers and to protect his family.

Shortly after he arrives in Aden, normal life in Yemen begins to fall apart. The Houthis, an extreme Shia group in the north depose the president and threaten to engulf Aden which is a Sunni stronghold. They are resisted by Al Qaeda on the ground and by the might of the Saudi Air Force. Al Samawi finds himself trapped in a small apartment with his food and water supplies dwindling. He dare not risk the Al Qaeda road-blocks because his name, his fair-skinned appearance and his accent all mark him as a Shia.

The core of the book involves his efforts to escape from this situation. He had built up a network of contacts through the Internet and manages to alert these friends to his plight. Indian ambassadors, American congressmen, high-ranking officials in international agencies, and sympathetic business men all cooperate in efforts to extricate him. Plans involve planes, helicopters, and boats and there are many false starts and dashed hopes before he manages to get out. The story is told in a naïve and breathless style and there are times when you wonder at the veracity of the whole thing. It seems astonishing that amidst the breakdown of civilized life in Aden he always managed to have an Internet connection. Also, there are two incidents involving encounters with Al-Quaeda that seem unconvincing. However, overall it’s an absorbing story and a window into a dangerous and exotic world. Al-Samawi now lives in the USA but his book concludes on a note of anxiety as he worries about the fate of his parents and family back in beleaguered Sana’a.



Scribe UK
PP. 310
£14.99


John P. O’Sullivan
April 2018

Saturday, June 09, 2018

Justifying Justify

All romantics want Justify to win the Belmont Stakes this evening and so achieve the Triple Crown. You could quibble that he’s never run over 12 furlongs but neither have the rest of the field and most of them, including Justify, seem to be bred for a mile or 10 furlongs at best. One statistic about him gives me pause. His five races so far (from first to most recent) have been won by 9.5 lengths, 6.5 lengths,  3 lengths, 2.5 lengths and .5 length - in other words by diminishing distances. He’s clearly the best horse in the field but he’s had a hard couple of months and is untried over the distance. He’s got the worst of the draw in the number 1 stall - the same draw coincidentally that another hugely hyped horse Saxon Warrior had in the Epsom Derby. Also he’s 4-5 so I won’t be backing him. I’ll watch the drama unfold and look for each way value with Tenfold.

Saturday, June 02, 2018

My Derby Preview

Looking at it from a form perspective, Saxon Warrior has to win. He’s unbeaten and was always expected to be a Derby rather than a Guineas horse. Also the result of the first race today suggests that the number 1 draw will not be a problem. However I don’t back odds on and although I’d like to see him confirm his reputation I’ll be looking for value elsewhere. The two that stand out are Roaring Lion and Young Rascal. Roaring Lion was behind Saxon Warrior in the Guineas but he won the Dante convincingly and his breeding suggest he’ll stay the extra two furlongs. He’s trained by John Gosden who knows how to win a Derby. Young Rascal has won over 11 and 12 furlongs so he’ll stay and has an improving profile. He’s trained by William Haggas who’s also a previous Derby winner. Both horses are priced at around 10-1 so an each way bet on both of them looks the best option. Of course who knows what O’Brien has in the locker with his other runners - remember his 40-1 winner last year.

Sunday, May 20, 2018

From West Brittany to Wolverhampton - A Tale of Provenence















There was an amusing example of provenance by inference in the antiques section of Saturday’s Irish Times on 12 May. In a puff piece about Sheppard’s impending auction of the contents of Lissanisky House in Durrow (15/16 May),  Arminta Wallace writes about an interesting painting on offer by Frank O’Meara, the Irish impressionist artist who died of malaria in 1888 at the age of 35. He was, we are told, the grandson of Barry O’Meara, a former owner of the house, who was Napoleon’s physician on St. Helena. (Speaking of the history of the house auctioneer Philip Sheppard says in the article: “What we do know is that at one time it belonged to Napoleon’s physician”).  The painting (Lot 62) is entitled West Brittany: A Coastal Relief and it has a very reasonable guide price for an O’Meara of €3,000 to €5,000.

The casual reader of Wallace’s article would be forgiven for assuming that the painting had remained in the erstwhile family home over the generations. Not so I fear. When I spoke to the auctioneer Philip Sheppard he was quite open about this not being the case. “It came recently from a long-standing client of ours, a private collector.” The impending sale, he told me, includes both the contents of the house and additional items from other clients of the auctioneers. Sheppard disagreed when I suggested that the client in question had taken advantage of the O’Meara connection to place the piece in a context where an inference could be made about its provenance. He maintained that few would make the assumption that a work painted 60 years after Barry O’Meara’s brief tenancy would have found its way back to the house. However, Arminta Wallace’s article was unfortunately devoid of these pertinent dates and facts, leaving the distinct impression that there was such a connection.

The prosaic truth of the matter is that this particular O’Meara came from Cuttlestones Auctioneers in Wolverhampton where it was sold in November 2017 for £380. The UK auction house clearly had no idea what they had – although in fairness O’Meara is hardly a household name in Irish art circles either. The prescient buyer at Cuttlestones brought it back to Ireland to hang briefly where the artist’s grandfather had once lived briefly. A tenuous but romantic connection. Regarding its provenance prior to its sojourn in Wolverhampton we know nothing. The auctioneer has faith in his “longstanding client”. Those qualified to judge deem it a genuine O’Meara, the signature, the subject matter and even the canvas type all fit. There were a few interested parties at the sparsely attended auction and it sold to a well-known Dublin art dealer for €9,000. The buyer is a man noted for his strictness in matters of provenance so we should assume it’s the genuine article.

.

Saturday, May 05, 2018

Don’t Mess with Mr. Banville

You initiate a literary spat with John Banville at your peril. Hidden behind that jaded sardonic exterior there lies a coiled viper, ready to destroy you should you dare to impugn the pellucid integrity of his every utterance.  Barbara Ann Porte so dared in the April 19 edition of the New York Review of Books. She wrote a 500 word letter complaining about his “typically misogynist and inaccurate description” of Oscar Wilde’s mother in his review of a Wilde biography. Banville apparently described Lady Wilde as “admirable if slightly preposterous”. Porte went on to complain about the general neglect and disparagement of Lady Wilde(Speranza was her pen name) by male writers. Banvile’s response to this lengthy diatribe was a masterpiece of patronising economy:  “Ms. Porte’s letter is a touch strident, but I admire her for springing so vigorously to the defense of “Speranza”.

Thursday, April 26, 2018

Eric Bibb at the Tivoli Theatre


I don’t get to many gigs these days so it was a real treat to see Eric Bibb in action last night at the Tivoli Theatre. Unlike the arse-numbing Vicar Street seating, the Tivoli is a really comfortable venue. You sink down into your plush seats and let the music flow over you. There’s no allocated seating so we arrived shortly after the doors opened and got excellent perches a few rows from the front. Bibb had a first-rate band with him. He was accompanied on 12-string guitar, slide guitar and occasionally mandolin and harmonica by Canadian country-blues notable Michael Jerome Brown. On drums he had the grizzled Paul Robinson who played for 20 years with Nina Simone – a demanding role I’d imagine. There was also an excellent guy on bass guitar and stand-up bass but his name escapes me.  A great lineup who proceeded to put on a great show for an enthusiastic audience. Bibb is an interesting character. His background is hardly typical for a blues man. He attended Columbia University, had the great Paul Robeson for a godfather and left for Europe when he was quite young. He currently lives in Sweden. He’s a charming and personable man who quickly established an easy rapport with the audience. He opened with the classic Going Down Slow and proceeded to take us on a tour of his back catalogue. There was a lot of gospel-flavored songs such as Now Is the Needed Time, and Don’t Let them Drag Your Spirit Down with the audience singing and clapping along. He also included a nice tribute (Call My Name) to drummer Samantha Banks who died recently.  A great night was had by all. Afterwards of course there was the mandatory trip down Francis Street to Fallon’s – a fine authentic old pub – where we enjoyed a perfect pint (or two).




Monday, April 23, 2018

Now That’s a Long Shot


I was walking my dogs on Killiney Beach a few days ago as is my wont. It was close to low tide and I was throwing a tennis ball into the sea for Shyla to fetch. Missy, my other dog, is not competitive and refuses to participate. When bending down to pick up the ball where Shyla had placed it for more action, I noticed a brown square shaped object about a foot from the water line. At first I thought it was an unusually regularly-shaped stone but it turned out to be a small elegant Leica digital camera in a case. It was a bit sandy but the case seemed dry so the incoming tide had not engulfed it yet. Another 30 minutes or so and it would have done. I brought it home and fiddled with it for a while to see if I could  ascertain any clues from the stored images. The battery however was flat so I couldn’t get it going. I put it by thinking I’d drop it down to Dun Laoghaire Garda station later. Distractions set in. First I had to sit through the trauma of Munster’s hammering by Racing 92 followed by a restorative pint in the Druid’s Chair. It was my turn to cook so I put together an egg-fried rice dish with garlic prawns and then settled down for the evening. Flicking through my Twitter account I came upon a tweet forwarded to me by S. She was offering my services as a beachcomber to a woman called C. who had tweeted: “My precious camera was lost on Killiney beach yesterday evening … “ and showed an image of a Leica. S. Knew I walked the dogs there most days and told C. she’d ask me to “keep an eye out” for it. What are the odds? It transpires that C. lives around the corner from me so camera and owner have been reunited.

Friday, March 16, 2018

Showdown in Richmond

This could end in tears. As we saw recently in the England/Scotland match, hunger and intensity are the deciding factors when two evenly matched teams collide. I feel that a sorely aggrieved England will bring huge intensity into this match. Farrell is the fulcrum around which the team revolves and he should always be played at out half - as Jones now realizes. The pit bull Hartley is back also and you know England are going to play a brutal pragmatic game. The Irish pack is stronger - especially in the back row but I worry about our backs - especially defensively. England’s lethal back three, Watson, Daly and May could exploit this weakness. It’ll be very close but if it becomes a goal kicking competition I fear the worst. Farrell will not falter. Based on the crucial importance of home advantage and the hunger born of injured merit I suspect England will win

Thursday, March 15, 2018

Cheltenham Day 3 - A Few Terse Thoughts


The least distinguished of the three days and apart from the Stayer’s Hurdle it’s hard to get excited about the quality of the racing. However that doesn’t mean that we won’t be piquing our interest with a few (hopefully) judicious bets.

JLT Novices Chase

The term “Novice Chase” strikes fear into the heart of any serious punter. Approach with caution. I think that Henderson’s Terrefort (4-1) is a reasonably safe conveyance so the race should concern him and Mullins’ Invitation Only.

Pertemps Final

Another handicap hurdle lottery. There will be a few Irish dark horses lurking but I like Philip Hobbvs’ Louis’ Vac Pouch (8-1) and Jonjo O’Neill’s Forza Milan (12-1).  McManus has a few runners so we must of course check out the betting late on.

Stayer’s Hurdle

I’ve always liked Jessica Harrington’s horses in staying hurdles and Supasundae (8-1) looks a likely sort especially given his course form. I also like Yanworth who returns to hurdling from chasing and is trained by another expert in staying hurdlers – Alan King. I think Sam Spinner’s winning run will be ended by the competitive realities of Cheltenham (like Black Colton yesterday).

Mares Novice Hurdle

There is no need to look beyond Mullins’ Laurina. Maria’s Benefit winning run will end here.

Kim Muir

A race to avoid but you know you’ll have a bet. I’ll have a few bob on Sugar Baron – a piquant combination featuring Nicky Henderson and Katy Walsh.





Cheltenham – Day 2 – Post-Mortem


Again on Day 2 there are a couple of foregone conclusion races where my interest will be Platonic – Altior should win the Queen Mother Chase and Samcro should confirm his reputation in the Ballymore, both at restricted odds. I’m more interested for betting purposes in the handicap hurdle races: the Coral Cup and the Fred Winter. And I have a fancy for one in the final race the Bumper.

Overall Post-Mortem:  A good day for those who stuck to the championship races and followed form. Alterior, Samcro, and Presenting Percy were all eminently predictable. You can enjoy the quality in those races but where’s the betting fun in following favourites. A disappointing betting day for me with only a few placed horses. Alterior’s win gave me an ante-post double with Footpad which provided a little balm for my wounds.

Ballymore Novices Hurdle

Samcro has been touted as the biggest certainty at the meeting – and a future great. We shall see – his biggest danger is Mullins’ Next Destination and it’ll be a surprise if they’re not first and second. My eye is drawn to the 80-1 on offer for Mind’s Eye. He has been hammered by Samcro and ran a stinker when favourite at Leopardstown in early February. However that race was too short for him and his novice jockey made too much use of him. Henry de Bromhead always does well at Cheltenham and unless he’s in as a pace maker for Samcro (both owned by Michael O’Leary) he might sneak a place.

Post-Mortem: Samcro won as predicted with Next Destination third. His win, however, was more workmanlike than brilliant. Maybe the going was a factor. Mind’s Eye plugged on into 10th and having lurked at the back of the field throughout was clearly not a pacemaker.

RSA Chase

Two Irish horses dominate the betting for this, Presenting Percy and Monalee – the former has formidable course form and should be thereabouts. My old school-friend Joe Donnelly runs Al Boum Photo who could make up for his disappointment at Melon’s narrow defeat yesterday. However, I’m going to look beyond my compatriots to Paul Nicholls’ Black Corton at 9-1. He’s won twice at Cheltenham and is ultra game. I suspect he’s slightly below Grade 1 class but hope that his proven courage will get him up the hill in front.

Post-Mortem:  This was dominated by Presenting Percy and Monalee as the betting suggested. Presenting Percy was very impressive and we’ll be hearing more about him. Black Corton jumped poorly throughout and on this show is just not in this class.

Coral Cup Handicap

I do like a good handicap hurdle I do. And I am inevitably drawn to Nicky Henderson’s horses who always seem to do well in the big ones. (Call Me Lord was beaten a whisker in the Betfair last Saturday causing me much financial distress). William Henry at 8-1 is the obvious choice but I prefer Burbank further down the weights. He tried chasing unsuccessfully and made a promising return to hurdling in January. Based on last years novice form he has a good ew chance at 16-1.

Post-Mortem:  The Henderson horses finished 4th and 7th and at least gave me a run for my money in a field of 27. The winner was a Mullins outsider who could not have been predicted apart from the fact that he was trained by Mullins whose horses are always trying.


Queen Mother Champion Chase

Nobody likes a short-priced favourite that is reported as being lame a few days before the race. Alterior reportedly had a hoof infection which necessitated some pus being extracted. We’re told he’s fine now but I notice he’s drifted out to 11/10 from odds on. He’s a Cheltenham specialist and if fit should win. Otherwise Douvan is waiting in the wings. No bet in this.

Post-Mortem:  Alterior’s win was the highlight of the day. I had him in an ante-post double with Footpad so at least I made a few bob. He wasn’t at his best in the going but his fabulous jumping and gameness saw him through.


Cross-Country Chase

The novelty event (over banks and bushes) is normally won by an Enda Bolger horse or a Gordon Elliot one – Bolger particularly has had any number of course specialists over the years. Causes of Causes trained by Gordon Elliot will be everyone’s fancy but I’ll take a punt on The Last Samuri at 13-2. He’s a guaranteed stayer having come second in the Grand National and if he takes to the eccentric course shouldn’t be far away. A small bet only.

Post-Mortem: The Last Samuri was backed down from 13-2 to 11/4 favourite but could only manage third. One of Gordon Elliot’s did the business. No excuses apart from a lack of course familiarity.

Fred Winter Handicap Hurdle

Another juicy handicap hurdle. My Cheltenham has been rescued a number of times by decent priced Nicholls’ hurdlers and being sentimental I fancy Grand Sancy at 16-1. He has the profile of an improving horse. He’s got a low weight, will love the ground, and has been chosen by the stable jockey – Sam Twiston-Davies. This race can be very rough so luck in running is the sine qua non.

Post-Mortem: This was won by Veneer of Charm at 33-1. No study of form would have elicited him as a possible winner. That’s handicaps for you – and Irish-trained horses. Grand Sancy ran a stinker and was pulled up. Maybe he’s sick the poor pet.

Champion Bumper

This is frequently won by Irish-trained horses especially Willie Mullins – he has the 5-1 favourite Blackbow. However I’m going to go for Acey Milan (13-2) trained by the up and coming English trainer Anthony Honeyball. He has course form on heavy going and has been very impressive in his last two runs. He’s being burdened with my best bet of the day.

Post-Mortem:  Sometimes I should listen to myself. Mullins, predictably, had the winner (Relegate at 25-1) and indeed four of the first five home. My selection interrupted a clean sweep by finishing 4th and earning place money.



Wednesday, March 14, 2018

Cheltenham Day 2 - Prognostications


Again on Day 2 there are a couple of foregone conclusion races where my interest will be mostly Platonic – Altior should win the Queen Mother Chase and Samcro should confirm his reputation in the Ballymore, both at restricted odds. I’m more interested for betting purposes in the handicap hurdle races: the Coral Cup and the Fred Winter. And I have a fancy for one in the final race the Bumper.

Ballymore Novices Hurdle

Samcro has been touted as the biggest certainty at the meeting – and a future great. We shall see – his biggest danger is Mullins’ Next Destination and it’ll be a surprise if they’re not first and second. My eye is drawn to the 80-1 on offer for Mind’s Eye. He has been hammered by Samcro earlier in the year and ran a stinker when favourite at Leopardstown in February. However that race was too short for him and his novice jockey made too much use of him. Henry de Bromhead always does well at Cheltenham and unless he’s in as a pace maker for Samcro (both owned by Michael O’Leary) he might sneak a place.

RSA Chase

Two Irish horses dominate the betting for this, Presenting Percy and Monalee – the former has formidable course form and should be thereabouts. My old school-friend Joe Donnelly runs Al Boum Photo who could make up for his disappointment at Melon’s narrow defeat yesterday. However, I’m going to look beyond my compatriots to Paul Nicholls’ Black Corton at 9-1. He’s won twice at Cheltenham and is ultra game. I suspect he’s slightly below Grade 1 class but hope that his proven courage will get him up the hill in front.

Coral Cup Handicap

I do like a good handicap hurdle I do. And I am inevitably drawn to Nicky Henderson’s horses who always seem to do well in the big ones. (Call Me Lord was beaten a whisker in the Betfair last Saturday causing me much financial distress). William Henry at 8-1 is the obvious choice but I prefer Burbank further down the weights. He tried chasing unsuccessfully and made a promising return to hurdling in January. Based on last years novice form he has a good ew chance at 16-1.

Queen Mother Champion Chase

Nobody likes a short-priced favourite that is reported as being lame a few days before the race. Alterior reportedly had a hoof infection which necessitated some pus being extracted. We’re told he’s fine now but I notice he’s drifted out to 11/10 from odds on. He’s a Cheltenham specialist and if fit should win. Otherwise Douvan is waiting in the wings. No bet in this.


Cross-Country Chase

The novelty event (up hill, down dale, over banks) is normally won by an Enda Bolger horse or a Gordon Elliot one – Bolger particularly has had any number of course specialists over the years. Causes of Causes trained by Gordon Elliot will be everyone’s fancy but I’ll take a punt on The Last Samuri at 13-2. He’s a guaranteed stayer having come second in the Grand National and if he takes to the eccentric course shouldn’t be far away. A small bet only.

Fred Winter Handicap Hurdle

Another juicy handicap hurdle. My Cheltenham has been rescued a number of times by decent priced Nicholls’ hurdlers and being sentimental I fancy Grand Sancy at 16-1. He has the profile of an improving horse. He’s got a low weight, will love the ground, and has been chosen by the stable jockey – Sam Twiston-Davies. This race can be very rough so luck in running is the sine qua non.

Champion Bumper

This is frequently won by Irish-trained horses especially Willie Mullins – he has the 5-1 favourite Blackbow. However I’m going to go for Acey Milan (13-2) trained by the up and coming English trainer Anthony Honeyball. He has course form on heavy going and has been very impressive in his last two runs. He’s being burdened with my best bet of the day.







Tuesday, March 13, 2018

Cheltenham Day 1 - Post Mortem

Cheltenham – Day 1:  Post Mortem

I’m struggling to find anything I really fancy on Day 1.  There are four short-priced favourites that will probably win (Getabird, Footpad, Buveur D’Air and Apples Jade) but they are of little interest to me as I won’t bet at such short odds.  I will enjoy watching the races however. My betting interests on Day 1 will be more speculative than passionately committed.

Overall Post-Mortem:   Three first and three seconds in the six races I bet on. However, the three seconds hurt as two were beaten by necks and the third by a head. If only, If only. I ended the day with a modest three-figure profit instead of a substantial four figure one had those narrow defeats gone the other way. All the fun of the fair.

Supreme Novices

This is a tricky looking Supreme – you could make cases for 4 or 5 of them. Getabird will probably get Mullins off to a good start but I’d prefer to have a few bob each way on Kim Bailey’s First Flow (11-1) – he will relish the ground and on form would be a shorter price if he had a more fashionable trainer. I’ll have a saver Nicky Henderson’s Claimantforgan at around 14-1 - Henderson has any number of decent young hurdlers so his selection for this race is worth taking seriously. Somerville Boy at 10-1 is a danger I’m aware of.

Post-Mortem:  First Flow wasn’t good enough and Claimnanmtforgan ran reasonably. My modest saver on Somerville Lad saved me.
Arkle Chase

Willie Mullins regards Footpad as his bet bet of the meeting and I couldn’t disagree. I won’t be taking 5-4 on a novice chaser however so I will admire him win without financial interest. If he trips up I fancy Petit Mouchoir to take advantage - Henry de Bromhead has an excellent Cheltenham record.

Post-Mortem:  Footpad won easily as predicted.

Ultima Handicap Chase

This is a bit of a lottery but you keep an eye out for course form amongst the lower weights which is why Singlefarmpayment and Coo Star Sivola head the market. However I won’t touch anything under 10-1 here. I like Paul Nichols Vincente at 16-1  and will have a few bob on him and on Pipe’s promising young horse Ramses de Tailee (14-1). Pipe wins this race regularly. Shantou Flyer who I backed in his last two runs (second both times) would do me a disservice if he wins this time – I think he has too much weight.

Post-Mortem:  Vincente ran a stinker and Ramses de Taille didn’t stay. I had Shantou Flier in a double with Somerville Lad – his neck defeat cost me around €1,500.

Champion Hurdle

Nobody wants to look beyond Buveur D’Air for this and it looks as if he only has to turn up. Faugheen is shot, Melon is flakey, My Tent or Yours is too old, Elgin is a jumped-up handicapper. My ew My Tent or Yours is a non-runner so I suppose an ew bet on one of Mullins makes sense. But which one? I will observe from afar.

Post-Mortem: I followed the money and backed Melon at 12-1. Buveur D’Air won as predicted but Melon only went down by a neck. Tough luck again Johnny.

Mare’s Hurdle

Apple’s Jade at 4-7 is another shoo-in it seems. Only a fall or a sniper will stop him. Mullins’ Benie Des Dieux is being backed (he’s 7-2) and he seems the only threat.

Post-Mortem:  No bet in this but Apple’s Jade ran no race and got turned over by a Mullins horse.


National Hunt Chase

I don’t bet in novice chases as a general rule. This one has the added uncertainty factor of having amateur riders involved. Put a gun to my head and I’d say back Rathvinden – despite his being brought down and unseated his rider in his last two races. He’s more mature than most of the field and Ruby Walsh likes him (he won’t of course be riding him).

Post-Mortem: I had a modest bet on Rathvinden who won at 9-2 after a nicely patient ride by Patrick Mullins.

Close Brothers Novice Chase

Another novice chase so again I will be observing. Gordon Elliot may get his double via De Plotting Shed but if I were to bet I’d back Henderson’s Rather Be (10-1) ew. If I am desperate at this stage I might just do that.

Post-Mortem:  I did just that but he was beaten by a neck at 12-1. I only backed him for a win unfortunately.




Cheltenham Thoughts - Day 1

Cheltenham – Day 1

I’m struggling to find anything I really fancy on Day 1.  There are four short-priced favourites that will probably win (Getabird, Footpad, Buveur D’Air and Apples Jade) but they are of little interest to me as I won’t bet at such short odds.  I will enjoy watching the races however. My betting interests on Day 1 will be more speculative than passionately committed.

Supreme Novices

This is a tricky looking Supreme – you could make cases for 4 or 5 of them. Getabird will probably get Mullins off to a good start but I’d prefer to have a few bob each way on Kim Bailey’s First Flow (11-1) – he will relish the ground and on form would be a shorter price if he had a more fashionable trainer. I’ll have a saver Nicky Henderson’s Claimantforgan at around 14-1 - Henderson has any number of decent young hurdlers so his selection for this race is worth taking seriously. Somerville Boy at 10-1 is a danger I’m aware of.

Arkle Chase

Willie Mullins regards Footpad as his bet bet of the meeting and I couldn’t disagree. I won’t be taking 5-4 on a novice chaser however so I will admire him win without financial interest. If he trips up I fancy Petit Mouchoir to take advantage - Henry de Bromhead has an excellent Cheltenham record.

Ultima Handicap Chase

This is a bit of a lottery but you keep an eye out for course form amongst the lower weights which is why Singlefarmpayment and Coo Star Sivola head the market. However I won’t touch anything under 10-1 here. I like Paul Nichols Vincente at 16-1  and will have a few bob on him and on Pipe’s promising young horse Ramses de Tailee (14-1). Pipe wins this race regularly. Shantou Flyer who I backed in his last two runs (second both times) would do me a disservice if he wins this time – I think he has too much weight.

Champion Hurdle

Nobody wants to look beyond Buveur D’Air for this and it looks as if he only has to turn up. Faugheen is shot, Melon is flakey, My Tent or Yours is too old, Elgin is a jumped-up handicapper. My ew My Tent or Yours is a non-runner so I suppose an ew bet on one of Mullins makes sense. But which one? I will observe from afar.

Mare’s Hurdle

Apple’s Jade at 4-7 is another shoo-in it seems. Only a fall or a sniper will stop him. Mullins’ Benie Des Dieux is being backed (he’s 7-2) and he seems the only threat.


National Hunt Chase

I don’t bet in novice chases as a general rule. This one has the added uncertainty factor of having amateur riders involved. Put a gun to my head and I’d say back Rathvinden – despite his being brought down and unseated his rider in his last two races. He’s more mature than most of the field and Ruby Walsh likes him (he won’t of course be riding him).

Close Brothers Novice Chase

Another novice chase so again I will be observing. Gordon Elliot may get his double via De Plotting Shed but if I were to bet I’d back Henderson’s Rather Be (10-1) ew. If I am desperate at this stage I might just do that.




Wednesday, February 28, 2018

Emil Nolde at the NGI



An edited version of this profile appeared in the Sunday Times Culture magazine on 25 February 2018.

Emil Nolde loved the Nazis but this love was unrequited. Heinrich Heydrich described him as “the notorious art Bolshevik and leader of degenerate art”, and over 1,000 of his works were confiscated by the regime. This was the same Nolde who asserted: “I have always and continually stood up for the National Socialist cause with the fullest conviction at home and abroad”. One of the most poignant and ironic scenes from his life shows the once-feted artist furtively painting small water colours in isolated corners of his house in Seebüll, Northern Germany. The Nazis had issued a Malverbot forbidding him from working and he had to follow his vocation surreptitiously between 1942 and 1945. The 1,300 or so watercolours from this period are referred to as his ‘unpainted pictures’. They are small expressions of bigger ambitions. Many formed the basis of larger oils that he painted after 1946 when the Nazi storm had passed. While we can sympathize with the constrained artist, we are also aware that he escaped the fate of Jewish contemporaries of his such as Charlotte Salomon and Felix Nussbaum, both of whom died in the gas chambers.

The Emil Nolde exhibition consisting of 120 works (oils, water colours and prints) is a major coup for Sean Rainbird and his team at the National Gallery of Ireland (NGI). It keeps up the momentum established since its reopening by two very successful shows featuring Caravaggio and Vermeer. However, in scale and career-covering comprehensiveness it surpasses both these earlier shows. Nolde is a significant figure in art history being one of the key 20th century Expressionists. After a late start, he had a long career, and despite his erstwhile affiliations lived to enjoy the spoils of his success. The West German Government awarded him its highest civilian honour, the German Order of Merit, in 1952.

The title of the exhibition, Colour is Life, is apt. The vibrancy and beauty of his images, especially his flower paintings, are evidence of how besotted he was with colour. In his autobiography he declared that “colour is strength, strength is life”. This is not the timid colour of costive hothouse flowers but the wild and vibrant reds, yellows and shimmering blues that he encountered in the South Sea Islands and in the enormous skies and windswept marshlands of his homeland in Northern Germany – between the turbulent North Sea and the more demure Baltic. Colour made his work expressive. He saw it as: “heralding happiness, passion and love, blood and death”.

Nolde was born Emil Hansen in 1867 in the village of Nolde, three miles inside the current Danish border. During his early years this area was annexed by Prussia and became part of Germany. Nolde retained an affection for both these countries but primarily for the area where he was born. So much so that when he married the Danish actress Ada Vilstrup In 1902 he changed his name from Hansen to Nolde. This dedication to his homeland, and to the Germanic notion of Heimat, goes some way to explaining his embracing of National Socialism and Hitler. In 1933 at a dinner in Heinrich Himmler’s house he declared: “the Führer was great and noble in his efforts and a man of action blessed with genius.” It does not however explain his anti-Semitism. At one stage he denounced his fellow-artist  Max Pechstein to Goebbels as a Jew. Nolde’s rows with Max Liberman and other Jews in the Berlin art establishment did nothing to ameliorate this prejudice.

Nolde came from peasant stock and started life as a wood worker – a skill he translated into some memorable woodcuts in later life. He studied carving and illustration in Flensburg and worked in furniture factories to earn a living. His travels took him to Berlin, Karlsruhe and Berlin and in 1889 he gained admittance to the School of Applied Arts in Karlsruhe. He spent a number of years afterwards taking private classes and visiting Paris where he immersed himself in the Impressionist movement. He was 31 before he began to began to work full-time as an artist and it wan’t until around 1912 that he began to achieve a degree of success. He was courted by Kirchner and became, briefly, a member of the Dresden expressionist group Die Brucke and he also exhibited with Kandinsky’s Munich-based group Der Blaue Reiter in 1912. In his autobiography Nolde acknowledged the influence of Manet, Cezanne and Van Gogh but most of all he wanted to forge a German identity for his art. “My art is German, strong, austere and profound”. Some of his earlier religious paintings hark back to Matthias Grunewald – often referred to as a proto-expressionist. There are echoes of Gruenwald’s magnificent Isenheim Altarpiece in Nolde’s 9-piece polyptych Life of Christ. Ironically this latter work was given a central position in the Nazi’s Degenerate Art exhibition of 1937. Goebbels was an early fan and at one stage hoped that German Expressionism would become the house style of the Third Reich. Hitler however had other plans. He saw all modern art as degenerate and demanded a return to the classical style. A style that Nolde, to his credit (and to which he owed his escape from post-war retribution), refused to embrace.

The 120 works in this exhibition, apart from a couple of works from the NGI’s permanent collection, come directly from the Nolde foundation in Seebüll. The work ranges across Nolde’s career embracing his visits to the South Seas, his travels in Siberia, his experiences in the cafes and nightclubs of Munich and Berlin, and rural life in Northern Germany. His tribal masks and grotesque figures denote his admiration for the Belgian artist James Ensor with whom he spent time early in his career. The exhibition is arranged thematically rather then chronologically. The themes are: Idea of Home; the Metropolis; Conflict and Ecstasy; the South Seas and the Exotic; and Sea and Garden pictures. There are so many highlights that it seems invidious to single out a few, but here goes: The dramatic woodcut Prophet with its hints of El Greco; the scarlet drama of Large Poppies (Red, Red, Red); his 1917 Self-portrait with that intense blue-eyed stare that evokes Van Gogh; and above all the dramatic skyscapes such as Light Breaking Through.

Half way through the exhibition the NGI, the will swap all works on paper for others sharing the same themes. This makes a virtue of the necessity to reduce exposure to light and preserve these delicate works. It gives the Gallery the opportunity to double the number of water colours on display and further broaden this already comprehensive survey of Nolde’s work..

When considering Nolde, Auden’s views on the separation of the artist and the work seem apt:

“Time that with this strange excuse/Pardoned Kipling and his views,/And will pardon Paul Claudel,/Pardons him for writing well.”

If we were to scrutinize the lives of many artists we would find much that is distasteful – Caravaggio and Picasso spring to mind. But we tend to regard the sublime art as somehow detached from the flawed life. The more so as time passes. Emil Nolde’s political naïveté and his anti-Semitism do not prevent us from admiring and enjoying his dramatic and timeless paintings.


National Gallery of Ireland











Tuesday, February 27, 2018

Observation on the Six Nations - So Far



So far, so predictable except I didn’t see Scotland winning last Saturday – passion and intensity undid a complacent England. We were very poor against France and were lucky to escape. It was the first match so it must be down to getting our systems up and running. There was a singular lack of creativity that luckily was not evident in the next two matches. Earls has been the outstanding player in terms of making things happen in all three matches. This is a late flowering in a career that was more steady and efficient than brilliant up to now. Elsewhere the front five have been rock steady and the back row, especially Stander, have excelled. I think Bundee Aki is a weakish link at centre – especially defensively, and I do wish Rob Kearney would stop running aimlessly into trouble. He’s been at it for years. Centre is a problem area with Henshaw and now Chris Farrell injured and Ringrose ring-rusty.  Sexton and Murray are of course indispensable but it seems that Sexton’s old kicking malaise has resurfaced. I never liked his technique – he sets up and then turns away for a little meander before he eventually strikes. We should never have let Wales get so close. We need a dead-eye dick like Owen Farrell or Halpenny. When we play England every point will count – and I’m not sure Murray’s agricultural style is the answer.

So what next. We shall surely beat Scotland (who won’t be able to crank up the same passion in Dublin) – and I suspect that England will beat a disheveled France in Paris. If we can get a bonus point against Scotland (very do-able) we may have the championship won before the finale at Twickers. We’d be 6 points ahead unless of course England score four tries also – not impossible. The most likely scenario after round 4 is that we’ll play England with them needing a bonus point victory against us and also of course a better points difference. That could turn very nasty but somehow I can’t see Schmidt allowing that to happen. Paddy Power has us at 3/10 to win the Championship - buying money I reckon. The Grand Slam is another matter.


Sunday, February 11, 2018

Recent Reads - February 2018

A Life of My Own by Claire Tomalin
****

I do like a blue-stocking and Claire Tomalin is a blue-stocking par excellence. This is the highly readable autobiography of the writer who made the transition from literary journalist to successful biographer of Dickens and Jane Austen. Tomalin doesn’t spare herself unpleasant truths: we hear about her womanizing husband Nicholas Tomalin who was killed while on assignment in Israel, her handicapped son, and the tragedy of her talented daughter who committed suicide. Tomalin was ambitious and a high achiever from university days and made sure she moved in the right circles. There is a certain smugness in her harping on about the intellectual and artistic heft of the area she chose to live in in London.  She bought a house with Nicholas in Gloucester Crescent and her neighbors we are told included Jonathan Miller, Vaughan Williams’ widow Ursula, George and Diana Melly, Beryl Banbridge and Alan Bennett. It seems like a L’Age D’Or for Guardian readers. She ultimately ended up married to Michael Frayn, the playwright, who also happened to be a neighbor in her increasingly gentrified area. She left the Sunday Times on principle at the time of its move to Wapping, and found her true vocation afterwards when she began to write biography. The only weakness in this entertaining read is the way it peters out at the end when she moves from her own life to her explorations of the lives of others. The last 50 pages or so seem rushed and cobbled together.


Form - My Autobiography by Kieran Fallon
****

This is mainly for those interested in the world of horse-racing. It’s hardly a master-piece of silver-lined prose but unlike most sports biographies it errs on the side of frankness and honesty. Fallon freely admits his cocaine use, his drinking problems and one memorable incident where he dragged a fellow-jockey off a horse (after the winning post it should be said). However, his sincere affection for horses comes across. Retired now, rather than sipping rum in the Bahamas, he still rides out every morning for the sheer love of it. For those who know their racing the best bit are his affectionate pen pictures of characters like Jimmy Fitzgerald, Sir Michael Stoute, and Aidan O’Brien. Of the latter he describes how well O’Brien treats even the most lowly member of staff at Coolmore. He never got close to Henry Cecil (nor, despite tabloid gossip, to his wife)  but nonetheless gives us some respectful insights into that withdrawn and austere figure. The book also contains a tactical master-class on riding in the Derby - a race he won three times.

Wounds - A memoir of War and Love by Fergal Keane
****

Dark doings down south during the War of Independence and the Civil War that followed. Keane is the son of Abbey actor Eamon Keane who theatre goers in the 60s and 70s will remember - I do. His family came from Listowel and the story centers on the doings of his grandmother’s brother Mick Purtill and his friend Con Brosnan. The murder of an RIC man, Tobias O’Sullivan, and the reverberations within the community in which both the victim and killers lived form the backdrop to an account of those troubled times. It’s a chilling book not least for the implacable righteousness with which the IRA went about their business despite their awareness of the vicious and random brutality from the Tans and the Auxiliaries that would follow. The detailed description of how James Kane was kidnapped and executed by the IRA for being a spy is an intimate account of how these things happened. He was allowed make a will, write letters to his family, and then knelt down with his captors to say a decade of the rosary before they shot the still kneeling man. Hard times.

Saturday, February 10, 2018

The Dog Shit Debate



There’s been a spate of hysterical outbursts in the media lately about the mortal dangers of dog shit. Some Meath backwoods man, a councillor French, has called for drone surveillance and DNA testing to counter the imminent plague. Environment minister Denis Naughten has got in on the act describing it as “a danger to public health”. Even our ostensibly enlightened local council (DLR) have been placing melodramatic notices (see above) around Killiney suggesting that our children will be blinded unless you pick up after your pooch. The same council might do better by supplying more rubbish bins. There are whole swathes of public walking areas in the borough with no bins at all. Check, for example, the fields and football pitches around Shanganagh.

Now we’re all agreed that dog shit is disgusting and stepping on it is an aesthetic disaster and a practical nuisance. So people should pick it up, especially if it’s on a footpath or in a public area. I’m not sure it’s such a problem in the middle of a field or on a deserted beach where tide and rain will take care of it. But I daren’t say that out loud. However, to suggest that that it’s a health danger is just plain alarmist and untrue. It’s an aesthetic issue and an inconvenience. Good citizens should remove it to make the environment more pleasant for all.

You have as much chance of getting seriously sick from contact with dog shit as you have of being hit by a meteorite. The incidence of toxoplasmosis from uncooked meats is quite high but acquiring it from dogs is extremely uncommon. In the UK and the USA Toxocariasis (acquired from dog faeces), is described as “a rare disease”. It affects 0.00% of the population in the USA. We in Ireland of course don’t keep any statistics.

Anyone who has a dog knows that its favorite indoor pastime is excavating its arse with its tongue. One of its next favorite pastimes is licking its owner on the face with the self same tongue. If dog shit was as toxic as this tribe of ignorant alarmists claim we would be seeing vast numbers of dog owners walking around blind. Their pets replaced, poignantly, by seeing dogs.

It’s disgusting, it’s inconvenient, it’s distasteful but it’s not dangerous. Stop pretending it is.

Monday, February 05, 2018

Gilbert and George at the MAC


An edited version of this review appeared in the Sunday Times on 4 February 2018

Gilbert and George’s monumental show at the Metropolitan Arts Centre (MAC) in Belfast, is dominated by whippets. Not, alas for dog lovers, the canine kind.These whippets are the small steel containers used for nitrous oxide – a popular recreational drug, especially in the gay community. In the blood-red apocalyptic world depicted in this exhibition, these bomb-shaped objects serve as a metaphor for both the violence and the careless hedonism of our blighted times. Gilbert and George themselves appear in the large pictures in a variety of guises: bemused everyman, appalled witness, shattered victim, or dead-eyed killer. “We are the centre of the art, we are always the centre of the vision”. The show is meant to be provocative. According to curator Hugh Mulholland its aim is: “To force us to examine our complicity in all that is wrong with society”. This is a thread in art that goes back to Goya’s Disasters of War and embraces the likes of Hogarth and Otto Dix.

Gilbert and George have been around as an artistic duo for a remarkable 50 years. Notwithstanding their outsider claims they have slowly morphed into national treasures in the UK. All the signs are there. They won the Turner Prize for their photo montages in 1986. In 2007 they had a retrospective at the Tate Modern that was the largest in that institution’s history. An hour-long interview with Mark Lawson on the BBC in 2011 further confirmed their place in the cultural life of their country. George is the Philip Larkinesque one with the glasses and Gilbert is the shorter one. They met at St. Martin’s College of Art in London in 1967 and have been partners in art and in life ever since. From their base near Brick Lane in East London they issue forth in character every day to pursue their inordinately ordered and well documented lives. “We are the living walking sculptures, walking through London.” It’s amusing to see them slipping into sculpture mode when our photographer began taking photographs. Like well-trained soldiers their arms go down by their sides and they assume the formal position.

When I met them in Belfast a couple of weeks ago I was expecting to encounter them in living sculpture mode – but they seemed perfectly normal and chatty. There was a distinct absence of preciousness or self-importance. But of course back in their early days they published the Laws of Sculptors that promised that they would be “always smartly-dressed, well-groomed, friendly, polite and in complete control”. The latter became evident when I tried unsuccessfully to steer the conversation away from their well-rehearsed beliefs towards more personal matters, such as Gilbert’s background in the South Tyrol. They were dressed in very smart tweed suits, one dark green, the other rust red. When I remarked on them George told me they were Donegal Tweed. “We’ve given up on Harris Tweed since the split.” This cryptic remark was aimed at Scotland and its import became clear later when they aired their views on Brexit.

Their dedication and persistence over 50 years clearly springs from a profound belief in what they do. It has always been thus. Back in 1969 after they left art college they were miffed to find themselves excluded from a major contemporary sculpture show When Attitudes Become Form at the ICA. “We felt outsiders at the beginning.” They proceeded to crash the opening and perform their Singing Sculpture routine for the delectation of the throng. The event was attended by the hugely influential German gallerist Konrad Fischer who invited them to show in his gallery in Düsseldorf (alongside such luminaries as Sol LeWitt and Bruce Nauman) and so their career was launched. They remain grateful to Fischer “everybody said no and he said yes”. Given that you can’t sell a singing sculpture, their early shows also included charcoal drawings and eventually they began to use photography and build their large-scale photo-montages.

The images in Scapegoating are bizarre, violent, and sinister. The predominance of women in burqas and bearded men in robes infers an Islamic source for the violence and mayhem. But they claim to have many Moslem friends around Brick Lane which has a large mosque. They also referred to the late Dutch film maker Theo Van Gogh as “a liberal and a bigot” because “he spoke against Islam”. When it comes to sexual matters both are ardent libertarians. A triptych containing multiple slogans urges us to:  “Keep a catamite – Snog in the synagogue – Caress a constable” and other more arcane sexual acts. Their tolerance does not extend to loving religion which they pretty much blame for all the ills of the world. Hence: “Beat up a bishop, Piss on a priest, Infibulate an iman”. Contradictions occur here also. We are urged confusingly to: “Masturbate a monk” and “Fuck the vicar”.

When asked what brought them to Northern Ireland their simple response was “Hugh just asked us.” Mulholland sees Northern Ireland “as a divided and fractured society at times unable to confront uncomfortable truths.” He maintains that Gilbert and George place themselves “and by extension us” within their work. Their concerns are universal – these pictures could be shown in any Western capital. They have no issues with Northern Ireland politics specifically or its conservative stance on social issues. When I mentioned that gay marriage was still banned there, they were unmoved. “It’s not relevant for our generation”, George maintained, “it’s too much like copying straight people.” He went on to express admiration for cult writer John Rechy, the author of gay classics such as City of Night and Sexual Outlaw. They have a civil partnership which presumably takes care of inheritance issues. Rather surprisingly, considering one is Italian and one is English, they are ardently pro-Brexit. George seemed to do most of the talking on political matters:  “We’re pro-Brexit of course. Who is running the whole show”, he asks rhetorically, “Germany and France of course”. He mentions that he was bombed out of his childhood home in Plymouth by German planes, so this animosity may have long roots..

For artists whose work sells for substantial six-figure sums they have a refreshingly democratic attitude towards the product, encouraging versions that can be distributed widely and cheaply. Gilbert boasted that “In London we signed 4,000 posters at £10”. In 2007 they allowed access to one of their posters on the Guardian and BBC web sites for 48 hours. They were delighted that subsequently, wherever they went, they were approached by people to sign them. “Do you know that lovely young actor Luke Evans, he’s unconventionally good-looking ?” George asked me. “He downloaded one and asked us to sign it in a New York hotel”. On the Friday after the opening in Belfast, they sat in the gallery for three hours signing catalogues.

When I queried them about their own tastes the surprised me with their enthusiasm for AE (George Russell) – whose mystical visions seem far from their hard-edged realism. They recently discovered pictures by him in a theosophical library in London and professed themselves beguiled by them. “We think he’s a great artist. You should have an AE Museum”. They were bemused at his seemingly lowly rating at home. “Why are his paintings so inexpensive. He’s madly underpriced.”

Although Gilbert was born a Catholic and George a Protestant, they eschew all religion, while claiming to be “more Christian than most of our detractors”. A barb aimed at the Rev. David McIlveen (father of the serving DUP MP) amongst others. Their previous show in Belfast in 1999 was described as "an assault upon decency and morality". As we walked out to get some photographs I asked George about McIlveen’s attack on their work. That doesn’t bother us he maintained. “Did you notice that his name has EVIL in it and our name has GOD in it. True?”




MAC
Belfast
Mon-Sun: 10am-7pm

Friday, January 19, 2018

A Jaundiced View of Three Billboards Outside Ebbing


I am loth to criticise anything associated with the late great Townes Van Zandt and a film that includes both his own version of Buckskin Stallion Blues at the beginning and Amy Anelle’s version at the end is bound to engage my sympathy – initially. However, the more I think about this film the less I like it. It’s entertaining and constantly engrossing but I still left the cinema with a bad taste in my mouth. Fargo it ain’t although it’s set in the same kind of quirky small-town location and has the same actress as main character. It’s a cold confection, lacking the charm of the latter movie. It wasn’t Frances McDorman’s fault – she was superb in the main role as was Sam Rockwell as the red-neck deputy. And Woody Harrelson did his thing as the sheriff – all folksy authenticity. Mind you I don’t know how he came to be married to a young Australian (Abbie Cornish) in Missouri but maybe I missed something. I suppose my major gripe was the whole farcical nature of the enterprise and the lack of reality in the seemingly realistic scenario.  I have no problem with farce or black comedy per se, but too many elements in the film didn’t convince me.  No mere deputy would be allowed to carry on as Rockwell did without censure from his seemingly decent boss and colleagues. Why were there no repercussions when McDormand assaulted two schoolchildren, attacked the dentist and burnt down the police station. At the very least she would have been held under suspicion for the latter. And to be a little petty, would such a small town have its own advertising agency?

The ostensible cause of the whole ruckus, the rape and murder of McDormand’s daughter, was only briefly and unsympathetically attended to – and never resolved. And why, oh why, expose Peter Dinklage (the dwarf in Game of Thrones) to a cruel and dwarfist vignette where his amatory ambitions were cruelly sneered at and dismissed. I think the bottom line for me is that the film was a series of visually spectacular and dramatic set pieces that didn’t coalesce into a convincing creation. It entertained briefly but irritated long-term. A bit like my relationship with plum pudding – I like the initial taste, the fruity bits and the brandy hit but then it lies leadenly in my stomach for hours.

Friday, January 12, 2018

Recent Reads - January 2018


Beautiful Shadow: A Life of Patricia Highsmith by Andrew Wilson
***
Patricia Highsmith was a fascinating character right down to the snails she carried around in her handbag and her voracious sexual appetite. She became an active and predatory lesbian while still a school girl – at a time (the late 1930s) when it was very much a love that dare not speak its name. No married woman or visiting journalist was spared her advances and she had a hit rate that would put Don Juan to shame. She was also a decent writer of entertaining novels – usually with a dark flavour. However, her biographer spends way to much time analyzing her books in detail – she was no Dostoyevsky. Her life, especially her tortured relationship with her mother, was more interesting than her work and this book would have been better if it were a third shorter than its 500 pages.


The Rub of Time by Martin Amis
***
I prefer Amis’s non-fiction to his fiction – especially in recent years. Earlier in his career I enjoyed Money and London Fields. But The Moronic Inferno, The War Against Cliché and Koba the Dread worked better for me. His latest entertaining collection throws its net wide embracing poker, porn, politics and literature. There’s even a piece on the Tangerine Terror across the Atlantic. There are very few duds and I especially liked his two essays on Philip Larkin where his ongoing admiration is tinged with some recent reservations. There’s also a very astute piece on Nabokov and of course something on his hero Saul Bellow. It’s not all high art – there’s a very good piece on the renaissance of John Travolta and a rather sad piece on his fading tennis skills.

Sticky Fingers – the Life and Times of Jann Wenner by Joe Hagan
***
I expected to enjoy this a lot more than I actually did. Maybe I grew weary of the relentless confirmation of what a prick the founder of Rolling Stone actually is. He had the gumption to realize that he could monetize the whole sex, drugs, and rock and roll scene that developed in San Francisco in the Sixties and didn’t much care who he stepped over to accomplish this. His interaction with people like John Lennon and Mick Jagger are occasionally interesting – the Stones were not amused that he called his magazine after them and threatened legal action. He pointed out that they had in turn taken their name from a Muddy Waters’ song and in the end there was a compromise whereby he let Jagger control a UK edition (which quickly foundered). There’s plenty of entertaining tittle tattle about sex and drugs and who was sleeping with who – everybody with everybody it seems. The early drug-fueled chaos of producing the magazine is amusing but it’s now a corporate advertising platform that not many people care about. I gave up about half-way through its 550 pages. I may dip in again if I’m stuck.


Lincoln in the Bardo by George Saunders
*****

This is a stone masterpiece. I avoided it for a long time because I felt queasy about the basic premise – uneasy spirits chatting in a grave yard while Abraham Lincoln mourns his recently deceased young son. But it works. The chatty corpses in Limbo are in denial about their state and look back towards their unfinished business on earth. They also take a keen interest in whether Lincoln’s son will linger restlessly with them or pass over fully. Their conversations are punctuated by contemporary accounts of Lincoln and his son, how he died and how the family dealt with the tragedy. It came as the American Civil War was in full spate and many thousands of families were mourning their dead. It’s a sophisticated and thought-provoking novel and it has sent me off to discover Saunders’ earlier works (all short story collections).


Midwinter Break by Bernard McLaverty
***

This is hardly the classic I was expecting from all the laudatory reviews I read over the past 6 months. It was a reasonably convincing portrait of a marriage stuck together by old custom that endured despite the yearning of the female partner for something more spiritually satisfying. She had survived a shooting in Northern Ireland and also felt the need to keep a promise to God. The husband’s relentless drinking (morning, noon and night) seemed unconvincing to me. The ice metaphor was a trifle crass also I felt – a bit too obvious. It kept me mildly entertained – no more.