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Hurling: Letter from Ireland (1937)

Sunday, 20 May, 2018

For some people in the Northern Hemisphere, summer begins with the start of the Munster Hurling Senior Championship. It’s a cultural thing that has its roots in an agrarian society driven by grass growth and the arrival of better weather. Today, the festival opens at 2 pm with Limerick vs. Tipperary at the Gaelic Grounds.

The connection between Munster hurling and Graham Greene would not be known to most attending today’s game, but the great English novelist was the editor of Night and Day, described as a British rival to the New Yorker, in the 1930s and during its brief life he published a piece titled Letter from Ireland by Elizabeth Bowen, the doyenne of Anglo-Irish writing. Snippet:

“Cork left Cork for Killarney when the All Ireland Hurley Finals were played there. Tipperary won. This was a great day for the whole of the South of Ireland; special trains were run and the roads for a hundred miles round streamed with cars and bicycles, most of them flying flags. The Tipperary contingent passed my way. Those who unluckily could not get to Killarney stood on banks for hours to watch the traffic. This is, in the literal sense, a very quiet country: the Troubles and civil war were fought out in an almost unbroken hush, punctuated by a few explosions or shots. Voices are seldom raised, and you can (so to speak) hear a dog bark or a milk-cart rattle or a funeral bell toll two counties away. But these great Sundays of sport galvanise everything; from the moment you wake you know that something is going on.

Hurley is the fastest game, short of ice hockey, that I have ever watched. It is a sort of high-speed overhead hockey, played with sticks with flat wooden blades, and it looks even more dangerous that it apparently is. Though a game that would melt you in the Antarctic, it is, for some reason, played only in summer.”

There are gems of appraisal and style in everything that Elizabeth Bowen wrote. Her observation that “the Troubles and civil war were fought out in an almost unbroken hush,” is revealing, given that her Letter from Ireland was published just 14 years after the conflict ended, and “Cork left Cork for Killarney” is delightful. Today, some 80 years later, Tipperary will leave Tipperary for Limerick.

Limerick vs. Tipperary


Jim Martin RIP

Wednesday, 16 May, 2018

On Saturday, in Munich, in the presence of those who loved him, Jim Martin died. He was an American, a pilot, an author, a bon vivant who loved the pleasures of France, a writer who was fascinated by Bavarian tradition and German history, a democrat in the broadest sense and a Democrat in the votary sense who enjoyed hosting a monthly salon where politics and wine were mixed with humour and hospitality. Our sincerest sympathy goes out to Winni and all the family.

Back in 2012, Jim was so dismayed by the decision of the Pulitzer Prize board to withhold its annual award for fiction — “Book lovers react bitterly to no fiction Pulitzer” — that he proposed setting up a fund for his choice, Denis Johnson, and he offered this guest post, titled “The Pulitzohr Prize”, to Rainy Day. Here goes:

Poet, playwright and author Denis Johnson was born in Munich, West Germany, in 1949 and was raised in Tokyo, Manila and Washington. He holds a masters’ degree from the University of Iowa and has received many awards for his work, including a Lannan Fellowship in Fiction (1993), a Whiting Writer’s Award (1986), the Aga Khan Prize for Fiction from the Paris Review for Train Dreams, and most recently, the National Book Award for Fiction (2007).

“English words are like prisms. Empty, nothing inside, and still they make rainbows.” — Denis Johnson

Not only does he get the prize money, but we buy him beer for a day in Munich (and he looks like he could put a dent in our wallet.)

I identify with the author. I’ve lived in Idaho — still have property in the panhandle. I’ve driven horse carts and flown biplanes there, just like Robert Grainier. I’d have been an orphan too, had it not been for my parents. I’m at least 42% crazy.

I cast my vote for Train Dreams. Here’s an excerpt from the New York Times Sunday Book Review by Anthony Doerr:

“The story concerns the life of Robert Grainier, a fictional orphan shipped by train in 1893 into the woods of the Idaho panhandle. He grows up, works on logging gangs, falls in love, and loses his wife and baby daughter to a particularly pernicious wildfire. What Johnson builds from the ashes of Grainier’s life is a tender, lonesome and riveting story, an American epic writ small, in which Grainier drives a horse cart, flies in a biplane, takes part in occasionally hilarious exchanges and goes maybe 42 percent crazy.

It’s a love story, a hermit’s story and a refashioning of age-old wolf-based folklore like ‘Little Red Cap.’ It’s also a small masterpiece. You look up from the thing dazed, slightly changed.”

Farewell, Jim, Your words and quotations and writers were always well chosen. In his novel, Night Flight (Vol de Nuit), the French pilot and author Antoine de Saint-Exupéry expressed well what Jim Martin was and where he was going;

“The villages were lighting up, constellations that greeted each other across the dusk. And, at the touch of his finger, his flying-lights flashed back a greeting to them. The earth grew spangled with light signals as each house lit its star, searching the vastness of the night as a lighthouse sweeps the sea. Now every place that sheltered human life was sparkling. And it rejoiced him to enter into this night with a measured slowness, as into an anchorage.”

Jim Martin


Fish on Trump

Thursday, 19 April, 2018 0 Comments

“Verbal fluency is the product of hours spent writing about nothing, just as musical fluency is the product of hours spent repeating scales.” So wrote the great Stanley Fish in How to Write a Sentence: And How to Read One. Today, the literary theorist, legal scholar, author, newspaper columnist and intellectual Stanley Fish will celebrate his 80th birthday and we wish him health and happiness for many years to come.

Stanley Fish wrote his final New York Times column in December 2013, but he returned to the paper’s pages in July 2016 with a warning to academia titled Professors, Stop Opining About Trump. According to Fish, historians “are merely people with history degrees, which means that they have read certain books, taken and taught certain courses and written scholarly essays, often on topics of interest only to other practitioners in the field.” It’s not degrees, says Fish, but the strength or weakness of the arguments that tells in the end. Fish returned to Trump later that year in his book Winning Arguments: What Works and Doesn’t Work in Politics, the Bedroom, the Courtroom, and the Classroom. Snippet:

“And yet that performance has a method. Trump’s artlessness, like Mark Antony’s, is only apparent. Listen, for example, as he performs one of his favorite riffs. He begins by saying something critical of Mexicans and Chinese. Then he turns around and says, ‘I love the Mexican and Chinese people, especially the rich ones who buy my apartments or stay at my hotels or play on my golf courses.’ It’s their leaders I criticize, he explains, but then in a millisecond he pulls the sting from the criticism: ‘they are smarter and stronger than our leaders; they’re beating us.’ And then the payoff all this has been leading up to, the making explicit of what has been implied all along. Stanley Fish ‘If I can sell them condominiums, rent space to them in my building at my price, and outfox them in deals, I could certainly outmaneuver them when it came to trade negotiations and immigration.’ (And besides, they love me.)

Here is the real message, the message that makes sense of the disparate pieces of what looks like mere disjointed fumbling: I am Donald Trump; nobody owns me. I don’t pander to you. I don’t pretend to be nice and polite; I am rich and that’s what you would like to be; I’m a winner; I beat people at their own game, and if you vote for me I will beat our adversaries; if you want wonky policy details, go with those losers who offer you ten-point plans; if you want to feel good about yourselves and your country, stick with me.

So despite the lack of a formal center or an orderly presentation, Trump was always on point because the point was always the same. He couldn’t get off message because the one message was all he had.”

Stanley Fish was, and is, sharp.


A. A. Gill and the je ne sais quoi in France

Sunday, 4 February, 2018 0 Comments

Background: A. A. Gill was an English journalist who died of cancer in London in December 2016, at the age of 62. Adrian Anthony Gill was also an alcoholic who stopped drinking at 29 and followed the Alcoholics Anonymous (AA) “12-step plan” to recovery. In tribute to the fellowship, he began using the name ‘A. A.’ Gill professionally. His finest writing is collected in The Best of A. A. Gill and it covers his observations on food, television and travel. In “Markets,” published in July 2007, he pontificated on the phrase the French have created to “encompass it all”: je ne sais quoi. Snippet:

“My weakness, my pleasure, is markets… The Mercato in Addis Ababa, biggest market in Africa: dangersous red-eyed tribesmen, maddened and delusional on khat, unloading bushels of the stuff flown in daily from the ancient cities on the Somali border. The stalls selling coffee and the winding lanes of incense dealers, the gifts of the Magi, smelling of martyrdom and plainsong.

Tsukiji, the Tokyo fish market: miles of frozen tuna, lying like a thousand unexploded bombs steaming in the dawn as the auctioneers paint red characters on them, buyers cutting tiny nuggets of flesh from their tails to knead for water content.

Crawford Market in Bombay, the book market in Calcutta, the bird market in Denpasar, the karaoke market in Tashkent…”

However, when it comes to the market’s market, the perfect market, Gills puts his money on “the weekly markets of southern France.” And what makes them so superior? It’s the je ne sais quoi:

Je ne sais quoi is France’s abiding gift to the world. More je ne sais quoi for your euro is to be found in a French market than anywhere else. We wander down the aisles of trestles and stalls aghast at the marvellous repose of produce. There are peaches warm from the tree, ripe and golden. Figs, green and black, bursting with sweet, ancient, darkly lascivious simile. The smell of fresh lemon, the bunches of thyme and lavender and verbena, the selections of oil and olives, pale green and pungent, and the they honey, from orange blossom, from heath and orchard, and the beeswax. The charcuterie, the dozens of ancient and dextrous things to do with a dead pig, in all the hues of pink, and pale, fatty cream.”

Never was A.A. Gill happier than when in France, the land of Armagnac, Calvados and a thousand cheeses, wandering its markets, savouring the je ne sais quoi.

Apples


Elizabeth Bowen: Goldilocks and Comics et al.

Wednesday, 31 January, 2018 0 Comments

Hollywood’s comic-book output shows no signs of slowing and this year will be especially packed with capes and tights and politically-correct superheroes. Coming soon: Black Panther, New Mutants, Ant-Man and The Wasp, Avengers: Age of Ultron, Captain America: Civil War, Aquaman and many, many more.

In August 1962, long before Hollywood turned into a conveyor belt for such dross, Elizabeth Bowen, the great Anglo-Irish writer, graced the pages of the New York Times Book Review with a piece titled Comeback of Goldilocks et al. “Much to be learnt from story-telling to children,” she had written in her Notes on Writing a Novel in 1950, and she expanded on the theme in her NYTBR article. “The fairy tale,” she observed, “in its extreme simplicity, is a supreme test of the narrator’s art. This is a tale of a kind to be told, not read.”

As regards the difference between fairy tales and comics, Bowen took a very definite stance and her thoughts from almost six decades ago are astonishingly timely, particularly in light of what’s being churned out for the big screen today. Snippet:

“The horror, to me, of comics (out-and-out ‘horror comics’ or otherwise) is their drabness, their visual ugliness, the lack — or, at any rate, the extreme rarity — of anything like or approaching wit in them and (for all their preposterous element) their prosaicness.”

And Goldilocks? This is typical Bowen: “And what was Goldilocks up to, making free with all that she found in The Three Bears’ cottage, while its proprietors (socially unknown to her) were out?” That “socially unknown to her” there is priceless.

By the way Elizabeth Bowen did try her hand at the fairy tale genre with a book titled The Good Tiger, which was published in 1965. A contemporary review noted that it was: “… the straight-faced record of a tiger on the loose among adults and children who accept his presence with absent-minded aplomb. The text is good exercise for beginning readers without having the sound of heavily managed, controlled vocabulary.”

The Good Tiger


When A. A. Gill ate mutton in Scotland

Sunday, 28 January, 2018 0 Comments

It was October 2015 and it led to this memorable sentence: “Scotland remains the worst country in Europe to eat in if you’re paying — and one of the finest if you’re a guest.”

Background: A. A. Gill was an English journalist who died of cancer in London in December 2016, at the age of 62. Adrian Anthony Gill was also an alcoholic who stopped drinking at 29 and he followed the Alcoholics Anonymous (AA) “12-step plan” to recovery. In tribute to the fellowship, he began using the name ‘A. A.’ Gill professionally. His finest writing is collected in The Best of A. A. Gill and it covers his observations on food, television, life and travel. In Scotland, he met Peggy McKenzie, “a retired gamekeeper’s wife who was one of the most naturally in-tune, modestly perfect cooks.” Both discovered a mutual passion for… mutton.

“I, like you, had forgotten mutton. With a great marketing and agri con, it was replaced by lamb. If you look at 19th-century cookbooks, you’ll see very few recipes for lamb and hundreds for mutton. Wool is what made England its first fortune. Fluffy gold, sold to the merchants of Ghent. Sheep weren’t slaughtered until they were four or five years old. The most valued were gelded rams. But today, wool has no value, and farmers want an immediate return on their animals, so the sooner they can slit their throats, the better. And the more they add value to young, tender meat, the better. Except it isn’t better. Lamb is a bland, short, monoglot mouthful compared with mutton’s eloquent, rich euphemistic flavour. We’ve been cheated by agri-expediency to eat an inferior, flannelly, infantilised alternative. In fact, we’re led to believe that younger is better for all meat, when the opposite is the truth. Flavour, richness, intensity and complexity come with age. Mutton is the true, base taste of our national cuisine, and it’s gone.”

This is excellent journalistic writing. Staccato sentences that hit the reader between the eyes: “Wool is what made England its first fortune. Fluffy gold, sold to the merchants of Ghent.” Factual and musical is his description of worthy wool as “Fluffy gold”.

Mutton and child


When A. A. Gill visited Monte Carlo

Sunday, 21 January, 2018 0 Comments

It was October 2001, actually, and he wasn’t impressed. But, first, some background. A. A. Gill was an English journalist who died of cancer in London on the morning of 10 December 2016, at the age of 62. He was born Adrian Anthony Gill and he was also an alcoholic who stopped drinking at 29. He followed an Alcoholics Anonymous “12-step plan” to recovery and, in tribute to the fellowship, began using the name ‘A. A.’ Gill professionally. His finest writing is collected in The Best of A. A. Gill and it covers his observations on food, television, life and travel. From “Monte Carlo”, which he visited to watch the Monaco Grand Prix Formula 1 motor race, a snippet:

“Monte Carlo is a money puddle. A cash delta. It is as if all the wealth from the rich northern European pasture has run down the Continent and found its way here, to form a sort of mangrove swamp of avarice before running into the Mediterranean. Maybe swamp is the wrong term. Maybe some of you like swamps. Perhaps sewage outlet would be a better description…

…As a human being there are many, many things you can feel ashamed of. Things that will leave a metallic taste in your mouth, make you promise to do better. Try harder. Reorganise your priorities. And physically and symbolically, every single one of them is here for one weekend a year.

Monte Carlo is a gaudy parable. A speechless Sermon on the Mount. But no one’s listening. And they couldn’t even here if they were. The noise has reached concrete-splitting levels. It’s the roar of selfishness, greed, vanity, avarice, addiction, lust and pointless stupidity. On the giant screen above the slurping ashtray, shimmering in the petrol haze, the start lights are flashing. Red, amber, green. And they’re off.”

A. A. Gill


New Year’s reading: Gill

Monday, 1 January, 2018 0 Comments

It’s time to spend some time with the books that were the presents of Christmas past and we’re starting with The Best of A.A. Gill, a gift from the famously generous and well-read Noel Donnelly of Dublin via Leitrim.

A.A. Gill was a journalist who died of cancer in London on the morning of 10 December 2016, at the age of 62. Adrian Anthony Gill was also an alcoholic who stopped drinking at 29. He followed an Alcoholics Anonymous “12-step plan” to recovery and, in tribute to the fellowship, began using the name ‘A. A.’ Gill professionally. However, he continued to smoke some 60 cigarettes a day until the age of 48.

Gill was notorious for his brilliant, sometimes bitter, invariably witty and always humane observations on food, television and life in general. Here’s a snippet from a column titled “Sex and the City”, which was published in The Sunday Times in January 2009. The scene is a Sex and the City bus tour around New York City:

“We crawl into the Meatpacking District. Our conspiratorial and cosily gossipy stand-up tour guide tells us that this is where the girls did a lot of their shopping, and that it’s a sort of secret place only really savvy New Yorkers know about. She reels off a list of shops and what each character bought in them. We’re chucked off for 20-mintute retail reruns. I hide in Diane von Furstenberg’s changing room. And just in case you’re from Alaska, the Meatpacking District is New York’s secret like the Vatican is Rome’s.

We’re taken to the Magnolia Bakery, where queues of weirdly excited and messianic women wait impatiently to eat the teeth-meltingly sweet, infantile cupcakes like a votive Communion promising a blessed afterwork life of copious, cool sex, witty friendships, miraculously available taxis, Manolos, Cosmos, and happy-ending aphorisms. We don’t have to line up. Our cakes come with the ticket. Massive trays of cupcakes appear and are offered to us in a tramp’s pissoir alley on slimy benches beside a children’s recreational park. Feeding cake to yearningly single women beside a playground with happy West Village moms and their gilded tots was an act of sadistic patronage. We guiltily stuff our faces, begging the refined calories to transport us into closer connection with the fabled story arc.”

A.A. Gill had the gift, no doubt, and the best of his writing is an ideal gift.

A. A. Gill


The Christmas Toast: Home!

Saturday, 23 December, 2017 0 Comments

“The art of living beautifully…” is the motto of Homes & Gardens, a monthly magazine that has been published in London since 1919. The December 1942 issue featured an article by Elizabeth Bowen titled “The Christmas Toast is ‘Home!’ and an editor’s note accompanying the war-time piece pointed out, with typical British understatement, that “travelling may be impossible, none but the plainest food may be procurable and the Xmas holiday itself may make unexpected demands on our time and energy.” It was in this context that Elizabeth Bowen celebrated the meaning of “home” at Christmas:

“Above all, the home means people — their trust in each other, their happy habits of living, the calendar, year by year, of family life — returning seasons, anniversaries, birthdays and, above all, Christmas, the greatest home festival. At Christmas, how strong the pull of the home is! There comes a call that our hearts cannot deny. At Christmas, we turn to our own people: we go home. And, when the Christmas journey cannot be made in real life, it is made with all the more longing, in the imagination. The Christmas letter, or telegram from the exile to the people at home, saying, ‘I am with you today,’ speaks a real truth. At Christmas, wherever we find ourselves, our hearts are back in the beloved place.”

When Elizabeth Bowen was writing those words, the news was filled with reports of crucial battles in far-away places: Stalingrad, El Alamein, Guadalcanal. The very survival of civilization was at stake, but Bowen was resolute in her belief in victory. “Peace will see many homecomings,” she predicted, and the light of Christmas gave her hope. “Christmas speaks the message of an eternal kindness. The Christmas Toast is – Home!'”

Elizabeth Bowen

Tomorrow, here, those whom Christmas touches only by its bitter meaningless.


Home for Christmas

Friday, 22 December, 2017 0 Comments

Mademoiselle was an American women’s magazine first published in 1935. It was popular and profitable for six decades but changing tastes and the arrival of new media platforms led to a decline in readership and a loss of advertising revenue. The November 2001 issue was the final one. Fashion was the primary focus but Mademoiselle was also known for publishing stories by authors such as Truman Capote, Joyce Carol Oates, William Faulkner, Flannery O’Connor, Tennessee Williams, Sylvia Plath, James Baldwin, Jane Smiley, Paul Bowles, Barbara Kingsolver and Alice Munro.

In 1955, Mademoiselle published “Home for Christmas” by Elizabeth Bowen. The theme is the returns and reunions that are hallmarks of the season but there’s another current running through the piece and it’s manifest in the final brace of sentences: “Dearer than memory, brighter than expectation is the ever returning now of Christmas. Why else, each time we greet its return, should happiness ring out in us like a peal of bells?” In this way, Bowen lets us know that the spiritual and Christian aspects of Christmas are central to its meaning. The opening of the story is magical:

“This is meeting-again time. Home is the magnet. The winter land roars and hums with the eager speed of return journeys. The dark is noisy and bright with late-night arrivals — doors thrown open, running shadows on snow, open arms, kisses, voices and laughter, laughter at everything and nothing. Inarticulate, giddying and confused are those original minutes of being back again. The very familiarity of everything acts like a shock. Contentment has to be drawn in slowly, steadingingly, in deep breaths — there is so much of it. We rely on home not to change, and it does not, wherefore we give thanks. Again Christmas: abiding point of return. Set apart from its mystery, mood and magic, the season seems in a way to stand outside time. All that is dear, that is lasting, renews its hold on us: we are home again.”

Bowen's Court

What a perfect phrase: “Christmas: abiding point of return.” Tomorrow, here, the Christmas toast at Bowen’s Court.


Bowen’s Court: the presence of an absence

Thursday, 21 December, 2017 0 Comments

When she was doing her MA in “Irish Writing and Film”, Jane Farrell created a blog called Ireland — Text and Screen. One of her most popular posts was about Elizabeth Bowen and her home, Bowen’s Court, and the reason for writing it was: “My mother’s homeplace is a few short miles from this location, and my grandmother met the lady herself, so from a young age I was always keen to learn more about this site. Besides that layer of interest, I am also an avid Bowen reader.”

Geographical note: To put things in local, north Cork perspective, the Bowens lived near Kildorrery and the Farrells near Doneraile.

Jane Farrell’s blog post of 16 October 2014 was titled “What remains of Bowen’s Court?” and it contains numerous valuable insights:

“Bowen had a great fear that the house would burn down (a trope in her fiction) but its tragic fate was no less devastating. The house which once embodied so many memories for Bowen (and transferred to us as her readers) is now obsolete and nothing remains except a gate and a field. However, the land will always bear the weight of its important inheritance and I find it difficult to envision what could ever take its place.”

Equally valuable are the comments the blog post attracted. Here’s one dated 9 November 2015 by Anne Bowen:

“I too am a Bowen. My father, originally from Co. Cork, told me of the connection with Bowenscourt and the branch of the family that moved to Limerick before moving back to Cork. For years I hoped to find a piece of the silverware emblazoned with the hawk. Or indeed any item connected with Bowenscourt. I have visited the site often and the Bowen graves in Farahy Church. Am wondering where the family portraits are now. I see some of the family characteristics in my own family… red hair, nervous disposition, clumsiness etc all very interesting.”

Jane Farrell concluded her post about Bowen’s Court with an evocative observation that sums up the meaning of its loss, “…in spite of the glaring absence of the house, it still maintains a presence.”

Bowen's Court

Tomorrow, here, Elizabeth Bowen on what she called the “abiding point of return”. For her that meant, home and Christmas.