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Barry Lyndon

Tuesday, 3 November, 2015 0 Comments

On this day in 1844, the English writer William Makepeace Thackeray completed his novel “Barry Lyndon,” a comic-tragic story about the vertiginous rise and fall of an Irish adventurer in 18th-century Europe.

Synopsis: Redmond Barry of Bally Barry flees to Dublin after a duel with an English officer. He falls in with bad company, loses all his money and, pursued by creditors, enlists in a Royal regiment headed for Germany during the Seven Years’ War. Hilarious complications ensue and the “hero” finds himself in the company of the enemy:

“At our table at the inn there was a Prussian officer who treated me with great civility, and asked me a thousand questions about England; which I answered as best I might. But this best, I am bound to say, was bad enough. I knew nothing about England, and the Court, and the noble families there; but, led away by the vaingloriousness of youth (and a propensity which I possessed in my early days, but of which I have long since corrected myself, to boast and talk in a manner not altogether consonant with truth), I invented a thousand stories which I told him; described the King and the Ministers to him, said the British Ambassador at Berlin was my uncle, and promised my acquaintance a letter of recommendation to him. When the officer asked me my uncle’s name, I was not able to give him the real name, and so said his name was O’Grady: it is as good a name as any other, and those of Kilballyowen, County Cork, are as good a family as any in the world, as I have heard.”

When a stranger travelling under Austrian protection arrives in Berlin, Redmond is asked to spy on him. This older man, Chevalier de Balibari (Bally Barry) is, in fact, his uncle, who disappeared many years ago. He smuggles his nephew out of Prussia and the two Irishmen wander around Europe, gambling and living by their wits.

Thinking that there must be easier ways of making money, Redmond seduces the wealthy and beautiful Countess of Lyndon. He moves into Hackton Castle, which he has completely remodelled at great expense, and spends his new bride’s wealth freely. The novel ends with (Redmond) Barry Lyndon lodged in Fleet Prison, where he spends the last nineteen years of his life, eventually dying of alcoholism-related illness.

Stanley Kubrick’s elegant, elegiac film of the book is a masterpiece and a perfect antidote to most of what passes today as romantic costume drama.

Barthes on Bond

Tuesday, 3 November, 2015 0 Comments

“When we are told that Bond, upon hearing the telephone ring, while upon duty in his Secret Service office, ‘picked up one of the four receivers’, the moneme four constitutes in itself a functional unit, for it refers to a concept which is necessary to the story as a whole (one of a highly technical bureaucracy). In fact, in this case, the narrative unit is not the linguistic unit (the word) but only its connotative value (linguistically, the word four never means ‘four’).” Roland Barthes, An Introduction to the Structural Analysis of Narrative (PDF).

Now that we’ve got our tickets for Spectre, it’s time to read what Roland Barthes had to say about James Bond. The great French literary critic, theorist and philosopher was a 007 fan and he subjected Goldfinger to close scrutiny in his ground-breaking structural analysis of the narrative form published in 1975. Nothing in that essay reflects the enormous technological changes in the past 50 years than Bond’s reaction to “hearing the telephone ring”. How did he react? Why, he “picked up one of the four receivers.” Imagine explaining that to 21st-century teens who spend most of their days and nights on their mobiles. What was a “receiver”? Why were four of them needed for taking a call? Back to Barthes:

“The administrative power that lies behind Bond, suggested by the number of lines on his phone, does not have any bearing on the sequence of actions triggered by the act of answering the phone; it only takes on value on the general level of typology of a character (Bond is on the side of Order).”

If Ronald Barthes were with us today, he’d have lots of fun deconstructing a recent item of Bond news about an object signified as a “smartphone”. Check this out: “Sony offered $5 million for Bond to carry the phone, with an $18 million bid to be the exclusive vendor. Samsung offered the same $5 million deal for Bond, but beefed the total payment to $50 million. Both offers were rejected by Bond actor Daniel Craig and director Sam Mendes, after judging the phones to be too lackluster for Bond.”

Towards the end of his life, Barthes said: “All of a sudden it didn’t bother me not being modern.”


Día de los Muertos

Monday, 2 November, 2015 0 Comments

There is a Mexican saying that we suffer three deaths: the first when we die, the second we are lowered into the earth and the third when our loved ones forget us. Día de los Muertos, which corresponds with today’s All Souls’ Day, is dedicated to ensuring that those who loved us will not be forgotten.

This morning, at 7 am in the Theatinerkirche in Munich, a special memorial mass was celebrated for the souls of Kit Fitzgerald ( 6 September 2015) and Mick Fitzgerald ( 2 April 2011) of Ballylanders, County Limerick, and Mary Walsh ( 27 December 2004) and Tom Walsh ( 12 June 2012) of Mullingar, County Westmeath. May they rest in peace.

Mammy praying on the road to Knock

“People do not die for us immediately, but remain bathed in a sort of aura of life which bears no relation to true immortality but through which they continue to occupy our thoughts in the same way as when they were alive. It is as though they were traveling abroad.” — Marcel Proust

November poem

Sunday, 1 November, 2015 0 Comments

The shortest and most mystifying November poem has to be Fragment 8: Thicker than rain-drops on November thorn by Samuel Taylor Coleridge. In its totality, it reads:

“Thicker than rain-drops on November thorn.”

If a rule of good poetry is that the work should leave lots to the reader’s imagination, Coleridge’s crisp eclogue is a minor triumph.


Saturday, 31 October, 2015 0 Comments

Last autumn, the flames of our bonfire burned brightly at twilight. Sparks flew high into the indigo sky and merged with falling stars. We tossed fire into the face of winter and sprinkled ourselves with holy water afterwards.


Happy anniversary to us!

Saturday, 31 October, 2015 0 Comments


“If there is such a thing as a good marriage, it is because it resembles friendship rather than love.” — Michel de Montaigne

Mary McCarthy’s Macbeth

Friday, 30 October, 2015 0 Comments

“The idea of Macbeth as a conscience-tormented man is a platitude as false as Macbeth himself. Macbeth has no conscience. His main concern throughout the play is that most selfish of all concerns: to get a good night’s sleep.” With those three sentences written in 1961, Mary McCarthy challenged the traditional reading of Macbeth, the man, the murderer, the monarch. He was your everyday bureaucrat, just doing his job, she declared in “General Macbeth” (PDF 108KB).

Two years after McCarthy’s essay was published, Hannah Arendt questioned the common belief that anti-Semitism was what motivated the key Nazi pen pushers. “Eichmann in Jerusalem: A Report on the Banality of Evil” proposed that conformism was at the heart of top-level Hitlerian wickedness. Maybe evil is simply a function of thoughtlessness, Arendt suggested. Mary McCarthy didn’t use the “banal” word in her meditation on evil, but we know Arendt admired the essay and her interpretation of the efficient SS-Obersturmbannführer is in keeping with McCarthy’s interpretation of the man who would be King of Scotland. Mary McCarthy is brilliant here:

“Macbeth has no feeling for others, except envy, a common middle-class trait. He envies the murdered Duncan his rest, which is a strange way of looking at your victim. What he suffers on his own account after the crimes is simple panic. He is never contrite or remorseful; it is not the deed but a shadow of it, Banquo’s spook, that appears to him. The ‘scruples’ that agitate him before Duncan’s murder are mere echoes of conventional opinion, of what might be said about his deed: that Duncan was his king, his cousin, and a guest under his roof. ‘I have bought golden opinions,’ he says to himself (note the verb), ‘from all sorts of people’; now these people may ask for their opinions back — a refund — if they suspect him of the murder. It is like a business firm’s being reluctant to part with its ‘good will.’ The fact that Duncan was such a good king bothers him, and why? Because there will be universal grief at his death.”

As Macbeth and Lady Macbeth, Michael Fassbender and Marion Cotillard are a perfect team in Justin Kurzel’s new filming of Shakespeare’s noir masterpiece. His big screen Macbeth is a physical, atmospheric work made all the more chilling by a Scotland of snow, sleet, biting wind, bitter frost and badness and madness.


Those articulate scones

Wednesday, 28 October, 2015 0 Comments

The scones

No photograph nor no text can convey the warmth of what came out of that oven. Yes, the baking was all about converting ingredients — flour, milk, eggs, sugar, salt, butter, raisins — into food, but there was something else going on. Maybe “improvised tradition” is near the mark as each batch was different. No slavish adherence to a recipe handed down the ages, here. Creativity was at play. A pinch of this and a fistful of that altered the balance each time the scones were made.

When they were placed on the old wire trays, almost too hot to handle, the first tasting took place. It was all very far from what takes place when wine connoisseurs get together, but there were similarities. The aroma, with its remembrances of things past; the initial impact of legacy on the tongue; the lingering aftertaste of love crafted into nourishment.

“How does it taste?” The question deserved far more than the prosaic “fine” and “good” that were usually offered, but poetry was beyond us. The scones were more articulate.

Putin: Sicilian mobster, European darling

Thursday, 22 October, 2015 0 Comments

Andrei Illarionow was an economics adviser to Vladimir Putin from 2000 to 2005. Today, he’s a senior fellow at the Center for Global Liberty and Prosperity at the Cato Institute in Washington, DC. In an interview with New Eastern Europe Illarionow explains why Putin has such an astonishing number of friends in Europe: from Marine Le Pen to Gerhard Schröder:

“Unlike communism, which was rather alien to European culture even if it had some roots in European history, Putin’s Sicilian way of rule is much more familiar to Europe and closer to the European heart. It is also a reason why it is so hard to fight it.

The Sicilian mafia has not yet been taken down. It is very much alive in Italy. We see very similar types of behaviour in many other European states like Greece, Bulgaria or Hungary. Even in the Baltic states there are elements of this attitude. This type of behaviour is associated not only Russians or the Russian psyche. Yes, some Russians behave this way, but it is not exclusively a Russian problem. Look at Croats or Serbs. It is in fact deeply rooted in European human nature.”

And what can we say so far about Putin’s operations in Syria? In the north of the country, Russia has fired rockets at four of the five areas controlled by anti-Assad rebels and avoided hitting the nearby positons of the Islamic State. This has allowed the Damascus regime and the Islamists to advance further towards Aleppo. In fact, what Russia is doing is equipping IS with an air force of its own. In this way, it is advancing the goals of Assad, whose planes are bombing the very places that are being attacked by IS terrorists. “Four-fifths of Russia’s Syria strikes don’t target Islamic State: Reuters analysis.”

Now is hardly the time for the West to kowtow to Putin or ease up on IS, but this is exactly what Justin Trudeau, the prime minister-designate of Canada, is doing. What an awful signal to send to those who have to endure the wrath of the new Sicilians.

There will be a drone for that

Monday, 19 October, 2015 0 Comments

Imagine you’re a well-off citizen of the United Arab Emirates and you’re planning a shopping trip to London. You may be looking for a bargain apartment in the “golden postcodes” of Belgravia or Knightsbridge or just some hummus at Fortnum and Mason, grocer to the Queen. There’s a problem, though. The UAE has advised its citizens to stay away from “hazardous” parts of London, including Oxford Street, after two incidents in which Arab visitors were robbed by thugs brandishing guns, knives and hammers.

Solution? A personal drone that could follow a tourist through the city’s “unsafe” neighbourhoods and alert private minders or the police about an impending threat. And there’s a startup for that. Gofor was founded in San Francisco by Alex Cornell and Phil Mills and they envisage a future where drones are affordable and abundant. The sky’s pretty much the limit they believe when it comes to what personal drones that can do: “location scouting, HD documentation, personal security, telepresence, internet range extension.”

The optimistic Gofor vision is based on human kindness, but evil does exist and bad people might be thinking about the usefulness of drones for their purposes, too. Would it possible to equip a drone with a high-powered rifle, shoot a target and then crash the perp into the Thames Estuary? No sign of killer or weapon; the perfect crime. Sounds like pulp fiction but drones do have a history when it comes to negative headlines.

Inevitably, there will be calls to ban personal drones. First, however, comes the registration. The US Transportation Department is announcing today that it will soon require registration for all unmanned aircraft. Will drone sellers be required to collect customer information? This is a developing story.

Found wisdom

Friday, 16 October, 2015 1 Comment

My mother had a habit of jotting down facts, figures and bits of wisdom that took her fancy. The scripts were ornamented with arrows, underscores and ambiguous spellings. Here’s an example:

Mammy's wisdom