Author Archive: Eamonn Fitzgerald

Ex-pat Irishman keeping an eye on the world from the Bavarian side of the Alps.

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“I don’t use a machine,” the gravedigger said

Saturday, 29 June, 2019

“He was walking back through the cemetery to his car when he came upon a black man digging a grave with a shovel. The man was standing about two feet down in the unfinished grave and stopped shoveling and hurling the dirt out to the side as the visitor approached him. He wore dark coveralls and an old baseball cap, and from the gray in his mustache and the lines in his face he looked to be at least fifty. His frame, however, was still thick and strong.

“I thought they did this with a machine,” he said to the gravedigger.

“In big cemeteries, where they do many graves, a lot of times they use a machine, that’s right.” He spoke like a Southerner, but very matter-of-factly, very precisely, more like a pedantic schoolteacher than a physical laborer. “I don’t use a machine,” the gravedigger continued, “because it can sink the other graves. The soil can give and it can crush in on the box. And you have the gravestones you have to deal with. It’s just easier in my case to do everything by hand. Much neater. Easier to take the dirt away without ruining anything else. ” — Philip Roth, Everyman

Grave


The English of the Future is English

Friday, 28 June, 2019

On 29 November 1968, at the 58th annual meeting of the National Council of Teachers of English in Milwaukee, the late Neil Postman gave a talk entitled “Growing Up Relevant” as the main part of a session entitled “Media Ecology: The English of the Future.” The talk was later published as a chapter in High School 1980: The Shape of the Future in American Secondary Education (PDF), where it appeared as “The Reformed English Curriculum.” Postman’s 1968 address marked the formal introduction of the term “media ecology”, which he used as the name for a field of study he defined as “the study of media as environments.”

In Postman’s time, the internet, texting and emoji were as distant as GN-z11 so his comments on the future of English have to be seen in that light. Snippet:

“Perhaps what I meant to say at the conference was that there ought not to be such a subject as English by 1980; that English as it is commonly taught, is shallow and precious, is not very interesting to most children and, above all, has very little survival value for people who are going to live most of their lives in the seventies, eighties, nineties, and beyond.

I will not take time here to catalog the shortcomings of English. If you have not already noticed that English is withering away, being consumed by its own irrelevance, the chances are slim that I can make you see that this is, in fact, the case. I do want to point out, however, that what happens in school should have survival value (or what’s an education for?) and that the soundest reason for having such a subject as English has always been that children need to be competent in using and understanding the dominant communication media of their own culture. When these media were largely limited to such forms as novels, poems, and essays, the content of English made some sense. My purpose here is to suggest an alternative to English for the high school of 1980 when we will be so deeply immersed in the nuclear space age.”

Given that English has become the lingua franca of a global economy, Neil Postman was spectacularly wrong on this subject, but on many others, especially media ecology, he was spectacularly prescient.


Heat interruptions unwelcome

Thursday, 27 June, 2019

“I can easily bear cold, loneliness, hunger and toothache, but I cannot bear noise, heat interruptions, or other people.” — Patricia Highsmith

Patricia Highsmith


Coming up roses

Wednesday, 26 June, 2019

“It was June, and the world smelled of roses. The sunshine was like powdered gold over the grassy hillside.” — Maud Hart Lovelace

Roses


Kwela: Nelson Makoka and Solomon Sibiya

Tuesday, 25 June, 2019

Central to kwela music is an instrument known as the pennywhistle or tin whistle. Malawian immigrants to South Africa and Zimbabwe mixed their music with southern African sounds and thus was kwela born. Many of the best practitioners preferred the Hohner whistle, which was popular before the advent of the modern variety with its plastic mouthpiece. The Hohner whistle consisted of a straight metal tube with a metal plug that sealed off the end to make the mouthpiece. This allowed the instrument to be inserted deep into the mouth and led to the characteristic embouchure that produces the distinctive timbre of kwela. Take it away, Nelson!

Hohner Musikinstrumente GmbH & Co. KG is a German manufacturer of musical instruments, founded in 1857. The company is identified with harmonicas and it produces more than a million of them a year, but Hohner also makes accordions melodicas, kazoos, recorders, banjos, guitars and electric/electronic keyboards. It’s innovative keyboards such as the Cembalet, Basset and Clavinet and the ADAM Digital Synthesizer helped form the sound of modern music.


Mailer on newsprint and newsprint on Boris Johnson

Monday, 24 June, 2019

A summer re-reading of The Spooky Art: Thoughts on Writing by Norman Mailer is especially relevant, considering what has happened to politics and the press and between the press and politics. The most recent example was provided at the weekend by the Guardian, which published the literal words spoken by Boris Johnson and his girlfriend Carrie Symonds in a late-night row in their own home, which it got from a recording made by a neighbour. This particular newspaper is now so determined to damage Johnson’s reputation during the Tory leadership contest that it will happily trash its own alleged commitment to ethical journalism and report verbatim an entirely private conversation. This is a new low for a low industry. Mailer:

“Centuries from now; the moral intelligence of another time may look in horror upon the history implanted into twentieth-century people by way of newsprint. A deadening of the collective brain has been one consequence. Another is the active warping of consciousness in any leader whose actions are consistently in the paper for he has been obliged to learn how to speak only in quotable and self-protective remarks.”

And who among us can deny that this has happened? As newsprint loses its power and presence, television has taken over the job of deadening the collective brain and that torch will, inevitably, be passed to social media. Many would argue that the toxic transition has already taken place.

By the way, Norman Mailer, to his credit, made no bones about his usage of “he” throughout The Spooky Art. In the preface, he writes: “By now, at least as many women as men are novelists, but the old habit of speaking of a writer as he persists. So, I’ve employed the masculine pronoun most of the time when making general remarks about writers. I do not know if the women who read this book will be all that inclined to forgive me, but the alternative was to edit many old remarks over into a style I cannot bear — the rhetorically hygienic politically correct.”

If there’s one reason to celebrate the late Norman Mailer, it’s that: his aversion to the rhetorically hygienic politically correct.


Chasing monsters

Sunday, 23 June, 2019

Sydney Morning Herald chief photographer Nick Moir has a passion for pursuing the most violent manifestations of nature. For the past 20 years he has chased bushfires around Australia and storms across America, capturing their frightening, destructive beauty. As the adventure photographer Krystle Wright puts it, “to behold a monster storm up close is to taste the infinite.” Her short video about Nick Moir cuts “straight to the heart of what fuels his obsession.”


What did Malaysia know about MH370 and when?

Sunday, 23 June, 2019

Malaysia Airlines Flight 370 (MH370) disappeared on 8 March 2014 while flying from Kuala Lumpur to Beijing. All 227 passengers and 12 crew aboard are presumed dead and the vanishing of the plane into the widths and depths of the Indian Ocean remains the great mystery of modern aviation. If you wanted someone to write the foreground and background story of this mystery, the writer you’d pick is William Langewiesche, an American journalist who was also a professional airplane pilot for many years. The result of his investigation for The Atlantic is titled What Really Happened to Malaysia’s Missing Airplane and it makes for compelling and disturbing reading.

Two people play a central role in the mystery: Fariq Hamid, the first officer, 27 years old, who was flying the airplane, and the pilot in command, Zaharie Ahmad Shah, 53, one of the most senior captains at Malaysia Airlines.

“It is easy to imagine Zaharie toward the end, strapped into an ultra-comfortable seat in the cockpit, inhabiting his cocoon in the glow of familiar instruments, knowing that there could be no return from what he had done, and feeling no need to hurry. He would long since have repressurized the airplane and warmed it to the right degree. There was the hum of the living machine, the beautiful abstractions on the flatscreen displays, the carefully considered backlighting of all the switches and circuit breakers.”

The implication here is that Zaharie hijacked his own plane and intentionally murdered everyone on board. The inevitable comparison is with Andreas Lubitz, the co-pilot of a Germanwings Airbus who deliberately crashed it into the French Alps on 24 March 2015, causing the deaths of everyone on board. He had waited for the pilot went to use the lavatory then locked him out of the cockpit. Zaharie, as Langewiesche points out, however, “was not a German signing on to a life in a declining industry of budget airlines, low salaries, and even lower prestige. He was flying a glorious Boeing 777 in a country where the national airline and its pilots are still considered a pretty big deal.”

Lubitz suffered from depression and Langewiesche says that there’s a strong suspicion in the aviation and intelligence communities that Zaharie Ahmad Shah was clinically depressed. “If Malaysia were a country where, in official circles, the truth was welcome, then the police portrait of Zaharie as a healthy and happy man would carry some weight. But Malaysia is not such a country, and the official omission of evidence to the contrary only adds to all the other evidence that Zaharie was a troubled man.”

Langewiesche’s conclusion is chilling: “The important answers probably don’t lie in the ocean but on land, in Malaysia. That should be the focus moving forward. Unless they are as incompetent as the air force and air traffic control, the Malaysian police know more than they have dared to say. The riddle may not be deep. That is the frustration here. The answers may well lie close at hand, but they are more difficult to retrieve than any black box.”

The loss of MH370 was a tragedy and, according to William Langewiesche, quite probably a monstrous crime. That the Malaysian authorities could be an accessory to mass murder should terrify everyone who reads his superb reporting.

Malaysia Airlines


The blind leading the blind from Ballybunion

Friday, 21 June, 2019

We’re haven’t reached the end of June yet so it’s still a bit early in the year to be talking of the Pattern Day but this story by the late Kerry writer John B. Keane on the Pattern Day in Ballybunion, County Kerry, is worth sharing today. John B. never missed the 15th of August festivities when “the nine miles of road between Listowel and Ballybunion [were] black with a stream of several thousand bicycles.” What impressed the young writer most were the “scenes of humour near the Castle Green on the afternoon of the Pattern.” Example:

“It must be forty years ago now since we sat listening to a blind gorsoon singing This Poor Blind Boy while his equal innocent looking companion went around with a long collection sock explaining that the singer had been abandoned by his parents at the age of two and had been reared by asses. After he had cleared out what was cleanable from one party of onlookers he led the blind boy away to pastures new. I saw the pair later that night in Listowel and they staving drunk. The blind boy, now miraculously with sight recovered, was leading his companion who was now also blind drunk.”

He could tell them.


El llano en llamas: The Burning Plain

Thursday, 20 June, 2019

Born in Santiago, Chile, and now living in London, the artist Francisco Rodríguez paints pictures that “describe inner states of consciousness.” His first London gallery exhibition, The Burning Plain, ran from December last year to March this year in the Cooke Latham Gallery, a new space for contemporary art located in a 19th-century warehouse in the city’s Battersea district. As curator and critic Christian Viveros-Fauné wrote, “Rodriguez’s title is a translation of El llano en llamas, Juan Rulfo’s celebrated short story collection. Fittingly, Rulfo’s stories consist entirely of interior monologues spoken by characters that wander bleak, crepuscular landscapes. Like the painter’s figures, they haunt rather than traipse the desolate roads they travel.”

Francisco Rodríguez


The Great Media Disconnect

Wednesday, 19 June, 2019

Everyone knew that Rory Stewart didn’t have a chance in the Tory leadership contest, but it was almost impossible to read about any other candidate during the past few days. The great media disconnect is one of the most remarkable phenomena of our times. What’s happened to political journalism? When did it become so debased? Why?