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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.


Christmas at Bowen’s Court

Wednesday, 20 December, 2017 0 Comments

Fleur Cowles, an American expatriate writer, editor, painter, hostess and philanthropist, launched Flair in 1950. Alas, lavish production costs exceed revenue and Flair folded after a year, but it remains one of the most ground-breaking magazines in modern history. “Christmas at Bowen’s Court” appeared in Flair 1.11 (December 1950) and Elizabeth Bowen used the essay to blend the history of her Georgian home with the spiritual meaning of Christmas. Her love affair with the great Anglo-Irish house is tangible in this snippet:

“To speak of the house as awaiting one would be untrue — by coming back, one no more than rejoins oneself to an existence which is absolutely, tranquilly and timelessly independent of any one person. The effect of this is balm — the sense of fret, of crisis which one has come to associate with one’s own identity slips away. In that moment, one becomes simply another wanderer back for Christmas. As for Christmas, it has already fully taken possession. To this, the Festival, the house does defer, as it does to no individual son or daughter. An august, additional presence is to be felt as I walk from one to another of the firelit rooms.”

Horses and hounds at Bowen's Court

Circumstances forced Elizabeth Bowen to sell Bowen’s Court in 1959 and the wanton destruction of this cornerstone of Anglo-Irish heritage by its new owner in 1961 was a crime against history.

Tomorrow, here, a local memory of the ghosts of Bowen’s Court.


Christmas with Elizabeth Bowen

Monday, 18 December, 2017 0 Comments

Now that the third Sunday of Advent is behind us, it’s time to really focus on Christmas and we’ll be doing that in the coming week with the help of Elizabeth Bowen, the great Anglo-Irish writer, who died in 1973. Her writing about the meaning of Christmas is full of beauty and poignancy, as we’ll see over the course of the next seven posts, and we’re starting with an excerpt from an essay titled “The Light in the Dark” that she wrote for the American edition of Vogue in 1950. Snippet:

“The idea of Christmas is like a note struck on glass — long ago and forever. For each of us, this is the earliest memory of the soul. Day-to-day existence, as it goes on, drowns so much in its clamour, deadens so many echoes — but never this. Behind our busy thoughts and distracted senses remains a silence in which, again each year, the sweet resounding ring of the note is heard. We have expected Christmas, almost without knowing — wherever we are, wherever we turn, it claims us. The Holy Night links up all childhoods; we return to our own — to the first music, the first pictures, the first innocent and mysterious thrill and stir. With the folds of the darkness, something has happened; even the cities know it, and the winter country seems to hold its breath. Once more we have the vision of wide night snow, of the shepherds listening and looking up into the air rustling with wings of singing angels, and the Star in the blue of the frosty firmament. This is a time when magic joins hands with holiness. The dear, silly, gaudy symbolism of Christmas cards stems from race myths and ancient midwinter rites. We inherit this feast from out of the dark time before Christmas morning — mankind sought it, from some primitive need.”

Tomorrow, a famous portrait of Elizabeth Bowen.


Swift and Kavanagh: United by a common language

Friday, 1 December, 2017 0 Comments

“The Fame our Writers is usually confined to these two Islands, and it is hard it should be limited in Time, as much as Place, by the perpetual Variations of our Speech.” So wrote Jonathan Swift in 1712. He was concerned about the state of the English language so he penned a public letter to Robert Harley, leader of the government, proposing the appointment of a group of experts to advise on English usage. His model was the Académie Française, which had been supervising French since 1634.

A Proposal for Correcting, Improving and Ascertaining the English Tongue advocated that “some Method should be thought of for ascertaining and fixing our Language for ever,” and this should be done, argued Swift, “by rejecting ‘very defective’ grammatical forms and restoring some antiquated words ‘on account of their Energy and Sound.'” Like all such proposal down through the long history of English, it came to nothing, and no official overseer of the language exists.

Swift’s advocacy of “proper” English reminds us that Ireland, despite its relatively small population, has produced some of the most gifted writers of the language. Oscar Wilde, W.B. Yeats, George Bernard Shaw, James Joyce and Samuel Beckett are up there with Swift, and Bram Stoker and C.S. Lewis can be added to the list, if one is feeling expansionary. The poet Patrick Kavanagh belongs in this pantheon, too, because his language a mix of of Swift’s classicism and the Hiberno-English that was used by all those who tilled the “stony grey soil of Monaghan.” In 1948, in Poetry in Ireland To-day, he noted:

“Having written all this another question arises in my mind — the question as to whether it will be necessary to our native identity to carry on an artificial ‘Celtic Mode or ‘Note’ — now that the Gaelic language is dead. To carry on such an artificial language would be to be false if it did not arise naturally from life. It is not, as I have said before, language that denotes a man’s spiritual identity.”

And with that, we end our celebration of the 350th anniversary of the birth of the satirist Jonathan Swift and our commemoration of the 50th anniversary of the death of the poet Patrick Kavanagh. Our posts this week have paid tribute to these two significant figures in global and Anglo-Irish letters. To recap: On Monday, we had a joke by Swift; Tuesday, a poem by Kavanagh; Wednesday, we looked at Swift’s Drapier’s Letters, and yesterday we had Kavanagh’s take on the entire Irish literary racket.

“Proper words in proper places make the true definition of style,” said Jonathan Swift and Patrick Kavanagh followed his advice. Long may the two of them be remembered.

A Proposal by Swift