Pat Collins’ Silence: the sounds of wind, water, bird song, and the past conjure the spirit of place

Pat Collins’ <em>Silence:</em> the sounds of wind, water, bird song, and the past conjure the spirit of place

Two films with the same title were released in 2016. Martin Scorcese’s Silence (which I have not seen) received all the attention, but there was another Silence, directed by the Irish documentary film-maker, Pat Collins. An undemonstrative film, it will not be to everyone’s taste, being slow, meditative and melancholy, and having little in the way of a story. But I loved it and, thanks to MUBI streaming, I have watched it twice. Continue reading “Pat Collins’ Silence: the sounds of wind, water, bird song, and the past conjure the spirit of place”

Observe the Sons of Ulster Marching Towards the Somme

Observe the Sons of Ulster Marching Towards the Somme

We’re not making a sacrifice. Jesus, you’ve seen this war. We are the sacrifice.

On 1 July 1916, 2,069 men of the 36th Ulster Division were among the among the 19,000 British soldiers killed on the first day of the Battle of the Somme. That day was also the anniversary of the Battle of the Boyne, and some of the men of the 36th went over the top wearing orange sashes.

With the centenary of the Somme less than two weeks away, it was apt to have the chance of seeing a revival of Frank McGuinness’s great war play Observe The Sons Of Ulster Marching Towards The Somme at the Playhouse in Liverpool – especially as this was a co-production of Headlong, Dublin’s Abbey Theatre, and the Everyman. Continue reading “Observe the Sons of Ulster Marching Towards the Somme”

Seamus Heaney: Out of the Marvellous

Seamus Heaney: Out of the Marvellous
Seamus Heaney in 1970
Seamus Heaney in 1970

Between my finger and my thumb
The squat pen rests.
I’ll dig with it.
– from Digging, 1966

And he did. From 1965, when Death of a Naturalist, the collection that contained Digging, to his death on 30 August 2013 Seamus Heaney dug with his pen into the rich loam of experience, history and memory to bring forth great poems, just as his father and grandfather before him had dug with a spade for potatoes and peat.

Between my finger and my thumb   
The squat pen rests; snug as a gun.
Under my window, a clean rasping sound   
When the spade sinks into gravelly ground:   
My father, digging. I look down
Till his straining rump among the flowerbeds   
Bends low, comes up twenty years away   
Stooping in rhythm through potato drills   
Where he was digging.
The coarse boot nestled on the lug, the shaft   
Against the inside knee was levered firmly.
He rooted out tall tops, buried the bright edge deep
To scatter new potatoes that we picked,
Loving their cool hardness in our hands.
By God, the old man could handle a spade.   
Just like his old man.
My grandfather cut more turf in a day
Than any other man on Toner’s bog.
Once I carried him milk in a bottle
Corked sloppily with paper. He straightened up
To drink it, then fell to right away
Nicking and slicing neatly, heaving sods
Over his shoulder, going down and down
For the good turf. Digging.
The cold smell of potato mould, the squelch and slap
Of soggy peat, the curt cuts of an edge
Through living roots awaken in my head.
But I’ve no spade to follow men like them.
Between my finger and my thumb
The squat pen rests.
I’ll dig with it.

Heaney was born in 1939 near Castledawson in Co Derry, a remote corner of a remote part of Northern Ireland.

I come from scraggy farm and moss,
Old patchworks that the pitch and toss
Of history have left dishevelled ….
– from A Peacock’s Feather

He was the eldest of nine children, and grew up immersed in the calendar of the farming year and the rituals of rural Catholic life.  In his address on winning the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1995 he said:

In the nineteen forties, when I was the eldest child of an ever-growing family in rural Co. Derry, we crowded together in the three rooms of a traditional thatched farmstead and lived a kind of den-life which was more or less emotionally and intellectually proofed against the outside world. It was an intimate, physical, creaturely existence in which the night sounds of the horse in the stable beyond one bedroom wall mingled with the sounds of adult conversation from the kitchen beyond the other. We took in everything that was going on, of course – rain in the trees, mice on the ceiling, a steam train rumbling along the railway line one field back from the house – but we took it in as if we were in the doze of hibernation.

In 2010, in an interview for The NewsHouse (below), Heaney spoke of ‘a first life far from books, far from literature which was in a far-off time, really’. Though mid-way through the 20th century, the life he knew as a child was one unchanged in most respects since medieval times. In his poems, repeatedly, he tried to make sense of that experience.  Notably, in the poem Alphabets written in 1984, Heaney recalled how the process of learning – to write and to read – began what he described in his Nobel speech as ‘a journey into the wideness of the world’:


A shadow his father makes with joined hands
And thumbs and fingers nibbles on the wall
Like a rabbit’s head. He understands
He will understand more when he goes to school.

There he draws smoke with chalk the whole first week,
Then draws the forked stick that they call a Y.
This is writing. A swan’s neck and swan’s back
Make the 2 he can see now as well as say.

Two rafters and a cross-tie on the slate
Are the letter some call ah, some call ay.
There are charts, there are headlines, there is a right
Way to hold the pen and a wrong way.

First it is ‘copying out,’ and then ‘English,’
Marked correct with a little leaning hoe.
Smells of inkwells rise in the classroom hush.
A globe in the window tilts like a coloured O.


Declensions sang on air like a hosanna
As, column after stratified column,
Book One of Elementa Latina,
Marbled and minatory, rose up in him.

For he was fostered next in a stricter school
Named for the patron saint of the oak wood
Where classes switched to the pealing of a bell
And he left the Latin forum for the shade

Of new calligraphy that felt like home.
The letters of this alphabet were trees.
The capitals were orchards in full bloom,
The lines of script like briars coiled in ditches.

Here in her snooded garment and bare feet,
All ringleted in assonance and woodnotes,
The poet’s dream stole over him like sunlight
And passed into the tenebrous thickets.

He learns this other writing. He is the scribe
Who drove a team of quills on his white field.
Round his cell door the blackbirds dart and dab.
Then self-denial, fasting, the pure cold.

By rules that hardened the farther they reached north
He bends to his desk and begins again.
Christ’s sickle has been in the undergrowth.
The script grows bare and Merovingian.


The globe has spun. He stands in a wooden O.
He alludes to Shakespeare. He alludes to Graves.
Time has bulldozed the school and school window.
Balers drop bales like printouts where stooked sheaves

Made lambdas on the stubble once at harvest
And the delta face of each potato pit
Was patted straight and moulded against frost.
All gone, with the omega that kept

Watch above each door, the good-luck horseshoe.
Yet shape-note language, absolute on air
As Constantine’s sky-lettered IN HOC SIGNO
Can still command him; or the necromancer

Who would hang from the domed ceiling of his house
A figure of the world with colours in it
So that the figure of the universe
And ‘not just single things’ would meet his sight

When he walked abroad. As from his small window
The astronaut sees all that he has sprung from,
The risen, aqueous, singular, lucent O
Like a magnified and buoyant ovum –

Or like my own wide pre-reflective stare
All agog at the plasterer on his ladder
Skimming our gable and writing our name there
With his trowel point, letter by strange letter.

Seamus Heaney in 2004

In his Nobel Prize acceptance speech, delivered in Stockholm in 1995, Heaney recalled his first encounter with European languages via the radio in the kitchen of his home during wartime. Overhearing fragments of foreign sentences, he said, as the dial was moved from one accustomed station to another, ‘I had already begun a journey into the wideness of the world. This in turn became a journey into the wideness of language, a journey where each point of arrival – whether in one’s poetry or one’s life – turned out to be a stepping stone rather than a destination, and it is that journey which has brought me now to this honoured spot.’

The characteristic mode of Heaney’s poetry – its insistent recounting and reflection on experience – was singled out by his friend and fellow poet Lachlan Mackinnon in a tribute in the Telegraph:

“Hwaet” is the first word of Beowulf, which Heaney translated to wide acclaim in 1999. It is a notorious stumbling block for translators, like the first sentence of Proust’s A la recherche. “Wait”, it suggests, but it also means something like “Listen”. Heaney’s ingenious solution is “So”. The word gathers to it everything that has gone before, but also implies that there is much to come. It marks the beginning of reflection. It represents the characteristic mode of Heaney’s poems, to recount and reflect on experience.

Writing for two decades against the backdrop of bombings and shootings, riots and brutality, internment and hunger strikes in Northern Ireland, Heaney’s poetry often spoke explicitly about the Troubles and the divided society into which he had been born. In Funeral Rights (from the collection North, 1975) he wrote:

Now as news come in
of each neighbourly murder
we pine for ceremony,
customary rhythms:
the temperate footsteps
of a cortege, winding past
each blinded home.

Heaney never always sought the wider view, contextualised by history and the general human situation. Arguably, his outlook was summed up best in this passage from his Nobel speech:

The external reality and inner dynamic of happenings in Northern Ireland between 1968 and 1974 were symptomatic of change, violent change admittedly, but change nevertheless, and for the minority living there, change had been long overdue. It should have come early, as the result of the ferment of protest on the streets in the late sixties, but that was not to be and the eggs of danger which were always incubating got hatched out very quickly. While the Christian moralist in oneself was impelled to deplore the atrocious nature of the IRA’s campaign of bombings and killings, and the “mere Irish” in oneself was appalled by the ruthlessness of the British Army on occasions like Bloody Sunday in Derry in 1972, the minority citizen in oneself, the one who had grown up conscious that his group was distrusted and discriminated against in all kinds of official and unofficial ways, this citizen’s perception was at one with the poetic truth of the situation in recognizing that if life in Northern Ireland were ever really to flourish, change had to take place. But that citizen’s perception was also at one with the truth in recognizing that the very brutality of the means by which the IRA were pursuing change was destructive of the trust upon which new possibilities would have to be based.

The most arresting moment in Heaney’s Nobel speech came when he recalled, in his words, ‘one of the most harrowing moments in the whole history of the harrowing of the heart in Northern Ireland’, when a minibus full of workers being driven home one January evening in 1976 was held up by armed and masked men and the occupants of the van ordered at gunpoint to line up at the side of the road:

Then one of the masked executioners said to them, “Any Catholics among you, step out here”. As it happened, this particular group, with one exception, were all Protestants, so the presumption must have been that the masked men were Protestant paramilitaries about to carry out a tit-for-tat sectarian killing of the Catholic as the odd man out, the one who would have been presumed to be in sympathy with the IRA and all its actions. It was a terrible moment for him, caught between dread and witness, but he did make a motion to step forward. Then, the story goes, in that split second of decision, and in the relative cover of the winter evening darkness, he felt the hand of the Protestant worker next to him take his hand and squeeze it in a signal that said no, don’t move, we’ll not betray you, nobody need know what faith or party you belong to. All in vain, however, for the man stepped out of the line; but instead of finding a gun at his temple, he was thrown backward and away as the gunmen opened fire on those remaining in the line, for these were not Protestant terrorists, but members, presumably, of the Provisional IRA.

Heaney continued:

It is difficult at times to repress the thought that history is about as instructive as an abattoir; that Tacitus was right and that peace is merely the desolation left behind after the decisive operations of merciless power.

But, on another occasion, reflecting on the 1994 IRA ceasefire, he said:

I do believe, whatever happens, a corner was turned historically in 1994. We’ve passed from the atrocious to the messy, but the messy is a perfectly okay place to live.

Perhaps his position was best summed up by the line from his play The Cure at Troy (1990) concerning those times when ‘hope and history rhyme’.  It is a line which has been invoked frequently  – during the 1990s peace process in Northern Ireland, and at other times, in other situations:

Human beings suffer,
they torture one another,
they get hurt and get hard.
No poem or play or song
can fully right a wrong
inflicted or endured.

The innocent in gaols
beat on their bars together.
A hunger-striker’s father
stands in the graveyard dumb.
The police widow in veils
faints at the funeral home.
History says, Don’t hope
on this side of the grave.

But then, once in a lifetime
the longed for tidal wave
of justice can rise up,
and hope and history rhyme.
So hope for a great sea-change
on the far side of revenge.
Believe that a further shore
is reachable from here.

Believe in miracles
and cures and healing wells.
Call the miracle self-healing:
The utter self-revealing
double-take of feeling.

If there’s fire on the mountain
Or lightning and storm
And a god speaks from the sky
That means someone is hearing
the outcry and the birth-cry
of new life at its term.

This week I watched RTE One’s brilliant documentary Seamus Heaney: Out of the Marvellous.. It’s on their iPlayer for another fortnight; a pity it can’t be available permanently.

The annals say: when the monks of Clonmacnoise
Were all at prayers inside the oratory
A ship appeared above them in the air.

The anchor dragged along behind so deep
It hooked itself into the altar rails
And then, as the big hull rocked to a standstill,

A crewman shinned and grappled down the rope
And struggled to release it. But in vain.
‘This man can’t bear our life here and will drown,’

The abbot said, ‘unless we help him.’ So
They did, the freed ship sailed, and the man climbed back
Out of the marvellous as he had known it.
– Lightenings viii, 1991

Update 7 September: there’s an excellent of appreciation of Heaney by Blake Morrison today in the Guardian Review in which he quotes Lightenings, adding:

His later poems make room for everyday miracles and otherworldly wisdom. … For Heaney, there were marvels enough in this world, and never mind the next. Ordinary objects and places – a sofa, a wireless, a satchel, a gust of wind, the sound of rain – were sanctified. His Catholicism ran deep: in his teens he made pilgrimages to Lough Derg and Lourdes, and he thought of writing as a sacred act: “When I sit opposite the desk, it’s like being an altar boy in the sacristy getting ready to go out on to the main altar.” Religion taught him reverence but the gods of the hearth were what he revered – the den-life he had known as a child. He kept coming back to it and finding new things, or seeing the same things in a new light.

Seamus Heaney

Though the poet and man who (all the elegies of past days reveal) was greatly loved has gone, there is much to savour on YouTube. Here’s a selection:

Seamus Heaney’s lecture on being awarded Nobel Prize for Literature in 1995:

Melvyn Bragg and Seamus Heaney, South Bank Show 1992 (Spanish subtitles):

Making Sense of a Life: conversation with Seamus Heaney (The NewsHouse):

When all the others were away …(Clearances iii)

Digging (BBC TV)

Scaffolding: ‘there’s a lad entering the state of matrimony with great ebullience’:

Punishment: ‘the exact and tribal, intimate revenge’:

Beowulf read by Heaney (audio – complete, 2 parts):

At his funeral we learned from his son that his last words, ‘written a few minutes before he passed away’, took the form of a text message to his wife Marie. It read: ‘Noli timere. Don’t be afraid.’

In District and Circle, his 2006 collection, there is a poem that conjures a private image of the couple savouring the morning sun in the garden they have planted:

At the back of a garden, in earshot of river water,
In a corner walled off like the baths or bake-house
Of an unroofed abbey or broken-floored Roman villa,
They have planted their birch grove. Planted it recently only,
But already each morning it puts forth in the sun
Like their own long grown-up selves, the white of the bark
As suffused and cool as the white of the satin nightdress
She bends and straightens up in, pouring tea,
Sitting across from where he dandles a sandal
On his big time-keeping foot, as bare as an abbot’s.
Red brick and slate, plum tree and apple retain
Their credibility, a CD of Bach is making the rounds
Of the common or garden air. Above them a jet trail
Tapers and waves like a willow wand or a taper.
“If art teaches us anything,” he says, trumping life
With a quote, “it’s that the human condition is private.”
The Birch Grove, from District and Circle, 2006

Timperley to Warrington 11

See also

Joseph Strick’s Ulysses

Ulysses might well be thought an impossible book to film, what with its stream-of-consciousness narrative and dizzying  stylistic switches.  But Joseph Strick made a good fist of it with his 1967 adaptation that I revisited when it was screened at this year’s Liverpool Irish Festival.

Strick had been enthralled by the Ulysses since he was a 16-year-old, reading a copy that had been smuggled into the USA from Europe by his Polish-immigrant, steelworker father in the 1920s. The book, first published in 1922, was banned as obscene in the US and Britain at the time of its publication, although the bans were lifted in the 1930s.

‘Even before I made it’, said Strick, ‘people were saying it was unfilmable. I think the truth is, some people just find the book unreadable’.  Apparently, Strick originally envisaged an 18-hour film version, faithful to every word and unsurprisingly he couldn’t raise the finance: potential investors no doubt fearing it would be unwatchable.

Just as Joyce transposed elements of Homer’s Odyssey to a warm June day in Dublin in 1904, so Strick decided to set the movie in 1960s Dublin: a decision that served to highlight the continuing relevance of  Joyce’s critique of  Irish social and sexual mores, since nothing of 1904 seemed out of place in 1967. Ramming the point home, the film was immediately banned in Ireland for being ‘subversive to public morality’ – and remained banned there until 2000.

Here in the UK, the British Board of Film Censors demanded 29 cuts, but eventually passed the film after Strick re-submitted it with the offending sequences replaced by a blank screen and shrieking soundtrack.  It gained the honour of being the first film in Britain to include the word fuck. Strick had already had a run-in with the organisers of the 1967 Cannes film festival – an event described by him as ‘corrupt and fake, and just a mechanism for keeping the hotels open’ – when Ulysses was shown with some of the French subtitles cut. During the screening, Strick stood up and yelled out that the film had been censored. He then went upstairs to the projection booth and turned off the switches. A scuffle ensued, and Strick was thrown down the stairs by security guards and broke his ankle. He withdrew the film immediately from the festival.

Joseph Strick was certainly a maverick in the film world; a lifelong anti-establishment figure, he carved out a career away from the Hollywood studios. After the Cannes debacle, he snubbed the Academy Awards ceremony when Ulysses was nominated for the Best Adapted Screenplay award. The film failed to win.  Three years later he  later made a short documentary Interviews with My Lai Veterans in which five American soldiers talk frankly about the 1968 massacre of up to 130 Vietnamese villagers in four hours.

There’s another good story about Strick: in 1969, against his independent instincts, he accepted Twentieth Century-Fox’s offer to direct Justine – based on Lawrence Durrell’s novel about a Jewess married to a wealthy banker in 1938 Egypt. He was sacked soon after filming began, having insisted that Glenda Jackson (with whom he had worked at the RSC) should have a role, but, he said, ‘they wanted a bimbo’. George Cukor took over as director and one critic described the resulting film as ‘Peyton Place with camels’.

Returning to Ulysses: one of the joys of Strick’s film is the superb black and white cinematography by Wolfgang Suschitzky which magnificently captures the landscapes of Dublin, its streets and bridges, pawnshops and outdoor bookstalls, monuments and seascapes.  Strick and Suschitzky have carefully selected locales that convey the same sense as the book of an atmosphere of teeming life in a shabby environment.  This is faithful to Joyce, who once remarked, ‘For myself, I always write about Dublin, because if I can get to the heart of Dublin I can get to the heart of all the cities in the world.  In the particular is contained the universal’.

Strick is also rigorously faithful to Joyce’s language, every word of the film deriving from the original text, though his decision to set the story in 1960s Dublin subtly shifts its focus to give a more intense, humanistic interpretation of Joyce’s novel. Famous lines, such as ‘History is a nightmare from which I am trying to awake’ and major themes (the hold of the church on Ireland, anti-Semitism, the father-son relationship, sexual repression) and the ironic parallels with Homer’s Odyssey (the sirens on the beach, the carriage ride to Hades and the funeral, the encounter with the Cyclops in the bar, and Circe in the brothel) are all present and correct, as well as almost the entirety of Molly Bloom’s uncensored concluding monologue.

The acting is uniformly excellent, too.  Apart from two English actors (Barbara Jefford as Molly Bloom and TP McKenna as Buck Mulligan) Strick cast a host of little-known fine character actors from Dublin, including Maurice Roëves as Stephen Dedalus and Milo O’Shea as Leopold Bloom.  The bar scene (below) is a particularly fine illustration of the quality of the acting.

The episode in the bar gives rise to my favourite exchange, Bloom’s contretemps with The Citizen:

Persecution, says he, all the history of the world is full of it. Perpetuating national hatred among nations.
But do you know what a nation means? says John Wyse.
Yes, says Bloom.
What is it? says John Wyse.
A nation? says Bloom.
A nation is the same people living in the same place.
By God, then, says Ned, laughing, if that’s so I’m a nation for I’m living in the same place for the past five years.
So of course everyone had the laugh at Bloom and says he, trying to muck out of it:
Or also living in different places.
That covers my case, says Joe.
What is your nation if I may ask? says the citizen.
Ireland, says Bloom. I was born here. Ireland. […]

But it’s no use, says he. Force, hatred, history, all that. That’s not life for men and women, insult and hatred. And everybody knows that it’s the very opposite of that that is really life.
What? says Alf.
Love, says Bloom. I mean the opposite of hatred.

This is one of several memorable passages from the novel that are realised with particular fidelity in the film.  Earlier, there is the famous scene at the school where Stephen Dedalus teaches, between Stephen and the head teacher:

History, Stephen said, is a nightmare from which I am trying to awake.
From the playfield the boys raised a shout. A whirring whistle: goal. What if that nightmare gave you a back kick?
The ways of the Creator are not our ways, Mr Deasy said. All history moves towards one great goal, the manifestation of God.
Stephen jerked his thumb towards the window, saying:
That is God.
Hooray! Ay! Whrrwhee!
What? Mr Deasy asked.
– A shout in the street, Stephen answered, shrugging his shoulders. […]

Mr Dedalus!
Running after me. No more letters, I hope.
Just one moment.
Yes, sir, Stephen said, turning back at the gate.
Mr Deasy halted, breathing hard and swallowing his breath.
I just wanted to say, he said. Ireland, they say, has the honour of being the only country which never persecuted the jews. Do you know that? No. And do you know why?
He frowned sternly on the bright air.
Why, sir? Stephen asked, beginning to smile.
Because she never let them in, Mr Deasy said solemnly.
A coughball of laughter leaped from his throat dragging after it a rattling chain of phlegm. He turned back quickly, coughing, laughing, his lifted arms waving to the air.
She never let them in, he cried again through his laughter as he stamped on gaitered feet over the gravel of the path. That’s why.
On his wise shoulders through the checkerwork of leaves the sun flung spangles, dancing coins.

Then there is Molly Bloom’s soliloquy which takes up the final quarter of the film; here’s the concluding passage:

I love flowers Id love to have the whole place swimming in roses God of heaven theres nothing like nature the wild mountains then the sea and the waves rushing then the beautiful country with the fields of oats and wheat and all kinds of things and all the fine cattle going about that would do your heart good to see rivers and lakes and flowers all sorts of shapes and smells and colours springing up even out of the ditches primroses and violets nature it is as for them saying theres no God I wouldnt give a snap of my two fingers for all their learning why dont they go and create something I often asked him atheists or whatever they call themselves go and wash the cobbles off themselves first then they go howling for the priest and they dying and why why because theyre afraid of hell on account of their bad conscience ah yes I know them well who was the first person in the universe before there was anybody that made it all who ah that they dont know neither do I so there you are they might as well try to stop the sun from rising tomorrow the sun shines for you he said the day we were lying among the rhododendrons on Howth head in the grey tweed suit and his straw hat the day I got him to propose to me yes first I gave him the bit of seedcake out of my mouth and it was leap year like now yes sixteen years ago my God after that long kiss I near lost my breath yes he said I was a flower of the mountain yes so we are flowers all a womans body yes that was one true thing he said in his life and the sun shines for you today yes that was why I liked him because I saw he understood or felt what a woman is and I knew I could always get round him and I gave him all the pleasure I could leading him on till he asked me to say yes and I wouldnt answer first only looked out over the sea and the sky I was thinking of so many things he didnt know of Mulvey and Mr Stanhope and Hester and father and old captain Groves and the sailors playing all birds fly and I say stoop and washing up dishes they called it on the pier and the sentry in front of the governors house with the thing round his white helmet poor devil half roasted and the Spanish girls laughing in their shawls and their tall combs and the auctions in the morning the Greeks and the jews and the Arabs and the devil knows who else from all the ends of Europe and Duke street and the fowl market all clucking outside Larby Sharons and the poor donkeys slipping half asleep and the vague fellows in the cloaks asleep in the shade on the steps and the big wheels of the carts of the bulls and the old castle thousands of years old yes and those handsome Moors all in white and turbans like kings asking you to sit down in their little bit of a shop and Ronda with the old windows of the posadas glancing eyes a lattice hid for her lover to kiss the iron and the wineshops half open at night and the castanets and the night we missed the boat at Algeciras the watchman going about serene with his lamp and O that awful deepdown torrent O and the sea the sea crimson sometimes like fire and the glorious sunsets and the figtrees in the Alameda gardens yes and all the queer little streets and the pink and blue and yellow houses and the rosegardens and the jessamine and geraniums and cactuses and Gibraltar as a girl where I was a Flower of the mountain yes when I put the rose in my hair like the Andalusian girls used or shall I wear a red yes and how he kissed me under the Moorish wall and I thought well as well him as another and then I asked him with my eyes to ask again yes and then he asked me would I yes to say yes my mountain flower and first I put my arms around him yes and drew him down to me so he could feel my breasts all perfume yes and his heart was going like mad and yes I said yes I will Yes.

Watching this, I was reminded of Eve Arnold’s wonderful photo of Marilyn Monroe reading Ulysses, taken in 1954. What I love about the shot is the extra frisson that comes from knowing which particular passage she’s reading (because you can see where she is in the book).

The whole of Joseph Strick’s Ulysses can be watched on YouTube, broken arbitrarily into 15 sections, beginning here:

This section includes the barroom encounter between Bloom and The Citizen:

This is the final 8 minutes of Molly Bloom’s soliloquy:


The Blackwater Lightship

The Blackwater Lightship

By a curious coincidence I finished re-reading Colm Toibin’s The Blackwater Lightship minutes before turning on the TV news to learn of the Irish government’s decision to accept a financial bail-out from the IMF and EU.  Toibin’s book was published at the height of the Irish boom (or should that be ‘bubble’?) at the end of the 1990s and what unfolds in the stories that the novel’s six characters reveal to each other as they attend the dying Declan in the crumbling house by the sea is, partially at least, the story of the changes in Irish family and public life in the last few decades, and especially in the boom years of the 1990s.

In The Blackwater Lightship, set in Ireland during the early 1990s, a young man, Declan, is dying of AIDS and around him gather his friends and his family – his sister, mother and grandmother. The family is the central focus: a dysfunctional family represented by three generations of women who find it hard enough to get along at the best of times. It is considered to be Tóibín’s best novel and was short-listed for the Booker Prize in 1999, regarded as one of the most perfect novels of loss and the painful inevitability of change of recent years.  It is entirely unsentimental, but deeply moving; Toibin’s writing is spare and exquisitely beautiful, and the narrative progresses towards an ending which offers no easy solutions or cheap sentiment.

Helen, her mother Lily, and her grandmother have come together to tend to Helen’s brother, Declan, who is dying of AIDS. With Declan’s two friends, the six of them are forced to come to terms with each other.  ‘You know, in my family,’ remarks Larry, the gay architect, ‘my brothers and sisters – even the married ones – still haven’t told my parents that they are heterosexual.’  This is one of the flashes of humour – and insight – in this harrowing and  deeply serious novel, which is not essentially about AIDS, nor a ‘gay’ novel. It is about the family, the limits of communication between family members and the isolation and hurt that can fester at the heart of the family.

Colm Toibin

Colm Toibin

The Blackwater Lightship is not a straightforward novel. There’s no happy conclusion. By turns it is shocking and moving. Its stark, spare prose lulls the reader into a false sense of comfort, a bit like the calm before the storm, because the nub of this novel is far from pleasant. Exploring the notions of family ties and how history binds us together no matter how hard we might try to escape it, it also looks at morals, manners and the pain we can dish out with one hand and hold close with the other.
Reading Matters

Colm Tóibín’s austere, monkish prose, in which everything is exactly itself and redolent of nothing else…explores ambiguous feelings in an unambiguous world. Its matter-of-fact portrayal of Declan’s physical decay intensifies the horror of it without being contrivedly clinical, which would be the mere inverse of sentimentalism. There are times when one wishes this tight-lipped author would break out of his extreme verbal evenness for some more costly imaginative gesture; Roddy Doyle has called his writing ‘daring and precise’, but this is only 50 per cent accurate. Even so, it is a style marvellously adept at registering the sheer contingency of things: how one light-switch is firm and hard while another needs only a small flick, how difficult it is to find a convenient hospital car park even when you have a dying man in the back of your car. The novel shows us discreetly what a practical, complicated matter dying is, how much logistics and paraphernalia it requires, and its unflinchingly exact style is a kind of respect paid to this. The commonplace and the catastrophic lie cheek-by-jowl, as Helen notes that the specialist treating her desperately sick brother seems to have had a pudding-bowl haircut. Few pieces of fiction remind us so unpreachingly that in the midst of death we are in life.
– Terry Eagleton, London Review of Books

Troubles: the prize at last

Recently JG Farrell’s novel Troubles was chosen by readers as winner of the Lost Booker award, intended to correct the anomaly that befell authors of books published in 1970, who missed the opportunity to be considered for the Booker prize when it changed from being given retrospectively to being handed out for the best novel in the year of publication.  This publicity encouraged me to return to a book I first read in the 1970s (as it must have done many others: when I ordered the reprint on Amazon they were initially out of stock, due to the high level of demand – so the prize certainly represented a successful piece of marketing). And this book deserves to be rediscovered:  it is a 20th century masterpiece.

Troubles is set against the background of events in Ireland in 1919 – the struggle for independence led by Sinn Fein and the atrocities of the Black and Tans – and the story unfolds in the microcosm of the rambling and decaying Majestic hotel run by Edward Spencer, a conservative Protestant loyalist back from serving in India who demands that his tenants sign a loyalty oath to the King and stockpiles weapons to defend the hotel against the rebels. To the hotel in 1919 comes Major Brendan Archer, recovering from shell-shock, to be re-acquianted with the woman to whom he is almost certain he became engaged during the war.  The novel begins in the present, as Archer’s grandchild survey’s the ruins of the Majestic:

Curiously, in spite of the corrosive effects of the sea air the charred remains of the enormous main building are still to be seen; for some reason – the poor quality of the soil or the proximity of the sea – vegetation has only made a token attempt to possess them. Here and there among the foundations one might still find evidence of the Majestic’s former splendour: the great number of cast-iron bathtubs, for instance, which had tumbled from one blazing floor to another until they hit the earth; twisted bed-frames also, some of them not yet altogether rusted away; and a simply prodigious number of basins and lavatory bowls. At intervals along the outer walls there is testimony to the stupendous heat of the fire: one can disinter small pools of crystal formed in layers like the drips of wax from a candle, which gathered there, of course, from the melting of the windows. Pick them up and they separate in your hand into the cloudy drops that formed them.

Another curious thing: one comes across a large number of tiny white skeletons scattered round about. The bones are very delicate and must have belonged, one would have thought,to small quadrupeds … (‘But no, not rabbits,’ says my grandfather with a smile.)

The Majestic is the decaying symbolic centrepiece  of the novel. When the Major arrives in 1919 there is no one at the hotel desk to greet him, and he evenually finds himself in the Palm Court, ‘a vast, shadowy cavern in which…beds of oozing mould supported banana and rubber plants, hairy ferns, elephant grass and creepers that dangled from above like emerald intestines’. Storms and neglect have scoured the Majestic and undermined its structure. Windows are broken, the roof leaks, and stonework threatens to crash down. Roots from the plants have worked their way inside walls, floors, and even ceilings, swelling and cracking them. The hotel’s Imperial Bar is ‘boiling with cats’ which live inside upholstered chairs. The handful of mostly female tenants who remain at the hotel are aged, clinging to the faded elegance of the Majestic.

There’s a pervading air of melancholy sadness and encroaching violence in this book; but it is also very funny, with passages of almost surreal starngeness:

Leaping to his feet…Edward seized a bread-knife and began to slash away at  the foliage as if it were a machete.  And it was true that the growth of ferns, creepers, rubber-plants and Good only knew what had become so luxiarant as to be altogether beyond a joke.  Whereas previously the majority of the chairs and tables had been avaialble, here and there, in clearings joined by a network of trails, now all but a few of them had been engulfed by the advancing green tide…

There was a long silence as they sat there in the greenish gloom…A faint rustling sound  became audible, as of someone making his way with caution along one of the trails through the thicket. There had previously been a way through, the Major remembered, from one end of the Palm Court to the other (leading to a spiral staircase down into the cellars). It seemed, to judge by the steadily approaching rustle of leaves, that against all probability this trail was still practicable. The noise of movement stopped for a moment near at hand, and there was a deep sigh, a long exhalation of breath, almost a sob. Then the noise started again. In a moment whoever it was would step into view from behind an extraordinarily powerful tropical shrub which seemed to have drilled its roots right through the tiles of the floor into the oozing darkness  below.  No sound but for the rustling footsteps.. .The Major tried to see past the hairy, curving, reticulated trunk of this tree, to distinguish (between succulent, oily leaves as big as dinner-plates) the tiny figure that slowly shufiled into sight. It was old Mrs Rappaport.

She stopped in the clearing opposite the tea-table and turned her sightless eyes in their direction. ‘Edward!’ Edward said nothing but continued to sit there as if made of stone. ‘Edward, I know you’re there,’ the old lady repeated shrilly.


Edward looked agonized but said nothing. After a long pause the old lady turned and began to move forward again. For what seemed an age they listened to the decreasing rustle of her progress followed by a prolonged wrestling with the grove of bamboo shoots. Listening to the interminable thrashing as she tried to escape from the toils of bamboo, the Major wondered whether he should go to her assistance. But at last the thrashing stopped. Mrs Rappaport had won through into the residents’ lounge. Silence returned and it seemed to the Major that the greenish gloom had deepened into an intolerable darkness…

When it was first published, The Guardian commented:

“The evidence of change and decay at the Majestic is no parochial phenomenon and it is this feeling of the particular reflecting the universal, a feeling so successfully pervading page after page of this clever book that makes it a tour de force.”

It is the metaphor of the Majestic’s rapid decay that is Farrell’s triumph here,  supported by his gift for description, characterisation and wry humour. Into the narrative, Farrell inserts small news items that provide parallels to the rebellion in Ireland, illuminating a time when virtually all the colonies of the British empire were simultaneously agitating for independence. Newspaper stories about the British army’s firing on the populace in Amritsar, a ‘native’ uprising in South Africa, along with the Bolshevik attacks in Kiev, provide the context of the Irish rebellion.

Ion Trewin, Literary Director of the Man Booker Prizes commented:

Troubles is a novel of such lasting quality that it has never been out of print in the 40 years since it was first published. Had this been the winning novel in 1970, JG Farrell would have gone on to become the first author to win the Booker Prize twice.’ (Farrell won the Booker Prize in 1973 for The Siege of Krishnapur).

JG Farrell was born in Liverpool in 1935 and studied at Oxford University, contracting polio as a student (an experience which he drew on for his second novel, The Lung). He completed six novels, and was working on The Hill Station at the time of his death, drowned in a fishing accident on the Irish coast in 1979 . Asked why he wrote about the past, Farrell said: ‘History leaves so much out. It leaves out the most important thing: the detail of what being alive is like’.

In Troubles, Farrell speaks about the Anglo-Irish conflict through the words and thoughts of his characters and the metaphor of the decaying grandeur of the hotel. The poet Derek Mahon was so inspired by Troubles that he wrote
‘A Disused Shed in Co. Wexford’ and dedicated it to his friend, Farrell.  In the poem, travellers find ‘deep in the grounds of a burnt-out hotel, / Among the bathtubs and the washbasins’, a disused shed.  They force open a long-locked door to reveal a host of mushrooms crowding in the darkness.

Seamus Deane (whose Reading In The Dark, set in Derry, is another great novel of the Irish Troubles) asserts that, like Troubles, Mahon’s poem, though it has Irish signifiers, is a poem about humanity: ‘It is a poem that heartbreakingly dwells on and gives voice to all those peoples and civilisations that have been lost or destroyed’.

Let them not forget us, the weak souls among the asphodels
– Seferis: ‘Mythistorema’

For J.G. Farrell

Even now there are places where a thought might grow —
Peruvian mines, worked out and abandoned
To a slow clock of condensation,
An echo trapped forever, and a flutter
Of wildflowers in the lift-shaft,
Indian compounds where the wind dances
And a door bangs with diminished confidence,
Lime crevices behind rippling rainbarrels,
Dog corners for bone burials;
And a disused shed in Co. Wexford,

Deep in the grounds of a burnt-out hotel,
Among the bathtubs and the washbasins
A thousand mushrooms crowd to a keyhole.
This is the one star in their firmament
Or frames a star within a star.
What should they do there but desire?
So many days beyond the rhododendrons
With the world waltzing in its bowl of cloud,
They have learnt patience and silence
Listening to the rooks querulous in the high wood.

They have been waiting for us in a foetor
Of vegetable sweat since civil war days,
Since the gravel-crunching, interminable departure
of the expropriated mycologist.
He never came back, and light since then
Is a keyhole rusting gently after rain.
Spiders have spun, flies dusted to mildew
And once a day, perhaps, they have heard something —
A trickle of masonry, a shout from the blue
Or a lorry changing gear at the end of the lane.

There have been deaths, the pale flesh flaking
Into the earth that nourished it;
And nightmares, born of these and the grim
Dominion of stale air and rank moisture.
Those nearest the door growing strong —
‘Elbow room! Elbow room!’
The rest, dim in a twilight of crumbling
Utensils and broken flower-pots, groaning
For their deliverance, have been so long
Expectant that there is left only the posture.

A half century, without visitors, in the dark —
Poor preparation for the cracking lock
And creak of hinges. Magi, moonmen,
Powdery prisoners of the old regime,
Web-throated, stalked like triffids, racked by drought
And insomnia, only the ghost of a scream
At the flashbulb firing squad we wake them with
Shows there is life yet in their feverish forms.
Grown beyond nature now, soft food for worms,
They lift frail heads in gravity and good faith.

They are begging us, you see, in their wordless way,
To do something, to speak on their behalf
Or at least not to close the door again.
Lost people of Treblinka and Pompeii!
‘Save us, save us,’ they seem to say,
‘Let the god not abandon us
Who have come so far in darkness and in pain.
We too had our lives to live.
You with your light meter and relaxed itinerary,
Let not our naive labours have been in vain!’

Bloody Sunday and Saville: on the far side of revenge

‘The conclusions of this report are absolutely clear. There is no doubt. There is nothing equivocal. There are no ambiguities. What happened on Bloody Sunday was both unjustified and unjustifiable. It was wrong.’
– David Cameron

‘The wait has been almost 40 years. Today the truth has been told. I say to my little brother Michael, at last you can rest in peace forever.’
– Catherine Kelly, whose younger brother Michael died on Bloody Sunday

The Saville Inquiry was commissioned by Tony Blair in 1998 to re-examine the findings of Lord Widgery on the events of Sunday 30 January 1972. On that day, 13 civil rights marchers were shot dead by British soldiers during an anti-internment march in Londonderry. Widgery’s findings, that there were “strong suspicions” that the army had been fired upon first, have been fiercely contested by the Irish Catholic community of Derry for 30 years.

The Saville Report, published this afternoon, finally and unequivocally exonerates the victims of  that shameful day, 30 January1972, when thirteen people were killed, while another died of his injuries later. The report is damning about the actions and testimonies of some of the soldiers.  For example:

We have no doubt that Lance Corporal F shot Patrick Doherty and Bernard McGuigan, and it is highly probable that he also shot Patrick Campbell and Daniel McGowan. In 1972 Lance Corporal F initially said nothing about firing along the pedestrianised area on the southern side of Block 2 of the Rossville Flats, but later admitted that he had done so. No other soldier claimed or admitted to firing into this area. Lance Corporal F’s claim that he had fired at a man who had (or, in one account, was firing) a pistol was to his knowledge false. Lance Corporal F did not fire in a state of fear or panic.

The final two sentences of the report state:

What happened on Bloody Sunday strengthened the Provisional IRA, increased nationalist resentment and hostility towards the army and exacerbated the violent conflict of the years that followed. Bloody Sunday was a tragedy for the bereaved and the wounded, and a catastrophe for the people of Northern Ireland.

Earlier, I listened to Bloody Sunday: Scenes from the Saville Inquiry, the 2005 BBC dramatisation by Guardian journalist Richard Norton-Taylor of four years of evidence of the Saville Inquiry, distilled into two hours.  It  created compelling drama from thousands of hours of testimony. The most telling aspect was the contrast between the civilian witnesses, who remembered what they saw in vivid detail, and the soldiers, with their evasions, lies and convenient memory lapses.

“I just want to say this to the British Government… You know what you’ve just done, don’t you? You’ve destroyed the civil rights movement, and you’ve given the IRA the biggest victory it will ever have. All over this city tonight, young men… boys will be joining the IRA. and you will reap a whirlwind.”
– Ivan Cooper, MP, organiser of the march to protest against the introduction of internment without trial, 30 January 1972:

I can’t believe the news today
Oh, I can’t close my eyes and make it go away!
How long?
How long must we sing this song?
How long?

And the battle’s just begun
There’s many lost but tell me who has won
The trenches dug within our hearts
And mothers, children, brothers, sisters torn apart

– ‘Sunday, Bloody Sunday’, U2

The dead: Paddy Doherty, 31. Gerald Donaghy, 17. Jackie Duddy, 17. Hugh Gilmour, 17. Michael Kelly, 17. Michael McDaid, 20. Kevin McElhinney, 17. Barney McGuigan, 41. Gerald McKinney, 35. Willie McKinney, 26. William Nash, 19. Jim Wray, 22. John Young, 17.

Simon Winchester was the Guardian’s reporter in Derry on Bloody Sunday. Read his superb piece reflecting on that day and this.

From The Cure at Troy by Seamus Heaney:

Human beings suffer,
they torture one another,
they get hurt and get hard.
No poem or play or song
can fully right a wrong
inflicted or endured.

The innocent in gaols
beat on their bars together.
A hunger-striker’s father
stands in the graveyard dumb.
The police widow in veils
faints at the funeral home.
History says, Don’t hope
on this side of the grave.

But then, once in a lifetime
the longed for tidal wave
of justice can rise up,
and hope and history rhyme.
So hope for a great sea-change
on the far side of revenge.
Believe that a further shore
is reachable from here.

Believe in miracles
and cures and healing wells.
Call the miracle self-healing:
The utter self-revealing
double-take of feeling.

If there’s fire on the mountain
Or lightning and storm
And a god speaks from the sky
That means someone is hearing
the outcry and the birth-cry
of new life at its term.


Recently I read Colm Tóibín’s Brooklyn, a small but exquisite gem of a novel. Tóibín’s writing is so controlled and understated, but brings to vivid life the story of Eilis, a girl from Tóibín’s own home town of Enniscorthy who can’t find fulfilling work there, so accepts a plan devised by her mother and Father Flood, an Irish priest visiting from Brooklyn, to find her to a decent job in his American parish. It is the early 1950s. Her father is dead and her brothers are away working in England.

“Eilis had always presumed that she would live in the town all her life, as her mother had done, knowing everyone, having the same friends and neighbors, the same routines in the same streets. She had expected that she would find a job in the town, and then marry someone and give up the job and have children. Now, she felt that she was being singled out for something for which she was not in any way prepared.”

The novel tells a simple, undramatic story, like life itself. Tóibín (whose full name is pronounced CULL-um toe-BEAN, the New York Times helpfully informs) narrates exclusively from Eilis’ point of view, gently revealing the feelings of affection and doubt that shape her life.

Brooklyn is a shock initially, and she is lonely and homesick:

“She was nobody here. It was not just that she had no friends and family; it was rather that she was a ghost in this room, in the streets on the way to work, on the shop floor. Nothing meant anything . . . . Nothing here was part of her. It was false, empty, she thought. She closed her eyes and tried to think, as she had so many times in her life, of something she was looking forward to, but there was nothing. Not the slightest thing. Not even Sunday.”

But she is sturdily capable and slowly finds her feet.  She works and studies and then falls in love with an Italian-American boy. Tóibín’s observation of the Irish community in Brooklyn – and Eilis’ contacts with people from other ethnic groups is measured and precise, with flashes of humour. “I didn’t come all the way to America, thank you, to hear people talking Italian on the street or see them wearing funny hats,” says one of her less-welcoming house-mates.

But when her older sister dies, she must return to Enniscorthy. Her boyfriend fears that she will not return, and persuades her to marry him. And indeed, the return to her roots throws Eilis into confusion. Home is home and her mother is now alone. Brooklyn soon seems a long way away. Will she return?

A review byRuth Scurr in the TLS reminds me of  Tóibín’s regard for the work of Henry James, and that his last novel, The Master (which I’ve not yet read),  was a fictional biography of James:

Brooklyn stands comparison with Henry James’s The Portrait of a Lady. Both books share a preoccupation with the conflict between personal freedom and responsibility, or duty. They both evoke feminine sexual inhibition, or fear. Despite her brother’s reassurance, Eilis is a young woman with no confidence or understanding of her own sexual allure. She attends dances at home and in Brooklyn and feels like an awkward wallflower, always thinking of an excuse to leave early. When she finds a boyfriend in Brooklyn, she doesn’t know how to slow him down and explain that marriage and children are not necessarily what she wants; she doesn’t really know what she wants, but is too polite, too well schooled in the habits of kindness and embarrassed repression, to say so outright.

Eilis’s social position is far more modest than Isabel Archer’s: Tóibín’s portrait is of a 1950s shop girl, rather than a nineteenth-century heiress. But both writers are concerned with describing in intimate and intricate detail the emotional content of a young feminine life that leads to a stark, distressing, dead end. In explaining Isabel Archer’s epiphany about her marriage, James writes It was not her fault – she had practiced no deception; she had only admired and believed. She had taken all the first steps in the purest confidence, and then she had suddenly found the infinite vista of a multiplied life to be a dark, narrow alley with a dead wall at the end. Instead of leading to the high places of happiness, from which the world would seem to lie below one, so that one could look down with a sense of exaltation and advantage, and judge and choose and pity, it led rather downward and earthward, into realms of restriction and depression where the sound of other lives, easier and freer, was heard as from above, and where it served to deepen the feeling of failure.

Isabel Archer’s prison is constructed by the Machiavellian motives of her sophisticated acquaintance. Eilis Lacey’s is rather the result of inherited social expectation, combined with bad luck and failure of nerve. She might have been free, she might have reached those high places of happiness – that certainly was her sister Rose’s intention – but instead she finds her life trapped on a course she has not really chosen; her only comfort to close her eyes and try “to imagine nothing more”.

With Brooklyn, Tóibín has transcended the homage he paid to James in The Master. He has returned to the themes of melancholy and grief that ran like dark threads through his earlier novels, especially The Blackwater Lightship (2000). Homesickness and rupture are the seminal experiences of Eilis’s life. The fact that what she is missing so much, even to the point of illness, is so painfully limited, only increases the pathos of her loss. Tóibín, more like Hardy than James in this respect, knows what it means to want something modest and simple at the centre of your life, but not be able to have it. Whether it is another person, society or fate, that is responsible for the deprivation, scarcely matters. There is in fact too much sorrow in the world, and Tóibín, better than any of his contemporaries, knows how to capture its timbre in fiction.