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Tag: writing

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.


Kavanagh: The Irish writing racket

Thursday, 30 November, 2017 0 Comments

Today, we celebrate the 350th anniversary of the birth of that great satirist Jonathan Swift and today also marks the 50th anniversary of the death of the superb poet Patrick Kavanagh. That’s why our posts this week have commemorated 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 and yesterday we looked at Swift’s Drapier’s Letters, which still resonate in the turbulent relationship between England and Ireland that’s now being overshadowed by Brexit.

Swift and Kavanagh were Irish and both were men of letters, and it’s those two factors that have made them memorable and lucrative, despite the passage of time. The act of remembering them has many facets. There’s a Dean Swift bar in London, there’s a Patrick Kavanagh pub in Birmingham, there’s a guide to Dublin’s Literary Pubs and Emerald Isle Gifts does a steady trade with its “Famous Irish Writers” poster that includes Kavanagh and Swift, along with Oscar Wilde, Samuel Beckett and James Joyce.

Oscar Wilde, Samuel Beckett and James Joyce… They’re a blessing for the pub trade, they’re a boon for Irish tourism, they’re meat and potatoes for academia and they’re dead. Patrick Kavanagh couldn’t stand the hypocrisy of a country that forced its best writers into exile and then profited from the legacies and he took to the pages of Envoy in 1950 to condemn the racket.

Who Killed James Joyce?

Who killed James Joyce?
I, said the commentator,
I killed James Joyce
For my graduation.

What weapon was used
To slay mighty Ulysses?
The weapon that was used
Was a Harvard thesis.

How did you bury Joyce?
In a broadcast Symposium.
That’s how we buried Joyce
To a tuneful encomium.

Who carried the coffin out?
Six Dublin codgers
Led into Langham Place
By W. R. Rodgers.

Who said the burial prayers? –
Please do not hurt me –
Joyce was no Protestant,
Surely not Bertie?

Who killed Finnegan?
I, said a Yale-man,
I was the man who made
The corpse for the wake man.

And did you get high marks,
The Ph.D.?
I got the B.Litt.
And my master’s degree.

Did you get money
For your Joycean knowledge?
I got a scholarship
To Trinity College.

I made the pilgrimage
In the Bloomsday swelter
From the Martello Tower
To the cabby’s shelter.

Patrick Kavanagh (1904 – 1967)


Swift and Kavanagh week

Sunday, 26 November, 2017 0 Comments

On Thursday here, we’ll celebrate the 350th anniversary of the birth of the satirist Jonathan Swift and on the same day we’ll mark the 50th anniversary of the death of the poet Patrick Kavanagh. Accordingly, the daily posts here will commemorate these two significant figures in global and Anglo-Irish letters. Age before beauty, they say, so we’ll kick off tomorrow with Swift:

“And he gave it for his opinion, that whosoever could make two ears of corn or two blades of grass to grow upon a spot of ground where only one grew before, would deserve better of mankind, and do more essential service to his country, than the whole race of politicians put together.” Voyage to Brobdingnag, Jonathan Swift

But we’ll have Kavanagh on Tuesday:

“I always say to these here, marry the first man that asks you. There’s only three classes of men a woman should never marry — a delicate man, a drunken man, and a lazy man. I’m not so sure that the lazy man isn’t the worst.” Tarry Flynn, Patrick Kavanagh


Gatsby and the greatest of all dreams

Sunday, 20 August, 2017 0 Comments

Our annual mid-August tradition of re-reading The Great Gatsby starts today. The custom began some 30 years ago during a magical mid-August holiday on what F. Scott Fitzgerald called “that slender riotous island which extends itself due east of New York”. In nine short chapters, he captured an era and Long Island’s appeal for the hedonistic and the nostalgic. This paragraph is immortal:

“The old island here that flowered once for Dutch sailors’ eyes — a fresh, green breast of the new world. Its vanished trees, the trees that had made way for Gatsby’s house, had once pandered in whispers to the last and greatest of all human dreams; for a transitory enchanted moment man must have held his breath in the presence of this continent, compelled into an aesthetic contemplation he neither understood nor desired, face to face for the last time in history with something commensurate to his capacity for wonder.”

In the novel’s barely 50,000 words, Fitzgerald gave Americans an enduring meditation on their country’s most central ideas, visions and obsessions: the quest for a new life, the hunger for wealth and those “last and greatest of all human dreams.”


The road-side dog

Monday, 14 August, 2017 0 Comments

On this day in 2004, Czesław Miłosz, the Polish poet, writer, translator, diplomat and Nobel Literature Prize winner, died in Kraków. He spent his life crossing borders and he wrote about the cruelty and beauty of this world in a language that ranged from the furious to the elegiac:

“I went on a journey in order to acquaint myself with my province, in a two-horse wagon with a lot of fodder and a tin bucket rattling in the back. The bucket was required for the horses to drink from. I traveled through a country of hills and pine groves that gave way to woodlands where swirls of smoke hovered over the roofs of houses, as if they were on fire, for they were chimneyless cabins; I crossed districts of fields and lakes. It was so interesting to be moving, to give the horses their rein, and wait until, in the next valley, a village slowly appeared, or a park with the white spot of a manor house in it. And always we were barked at by a dog, assiduous in its duty. That was the beginning of the century; this is its end. I have been thinking not only of the people who lived there once but also of the generations of dogs accompanying them in their everyday bustle, and one night — I don’t know where it came from — in a pre-dawn sleep, that funny and tender phrase composed itself: a road-side dog.”

Coppers


The Lord of Flies

Monday, 19 June, 2017 0 Comments

On this day in 1993, the novelist, playwright and poet William Golding died. Best known for his novel Lord of the Flies, he was awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1983 and also won the Booker Prize in 1980 with Rites of Passage.

The main theme of Lord of the Flies is the contradictory human desire for order — living by rules, peacefully and harmoniously — and the innate drive for power. A group of well-educated children descend into savagery when left to themselves on a paradisiacal island. Far from the constraints of modern civilization, they regress to a barbaric state.

“The pile of guts was a black blob of flies that buzzed like a saw. After a while these flies found Simon. Gorged, they alighted by his runnels of sweat and drank. They tickled under his nostrils and played leapfrog on his thighs. They were black and iridescent green and without number; and in front of Simon, the Lord of the Flies hung on his stick and grinned. At last Simon gave up and looked back; saw the white teeth and dim eyes, the blood — and his gaze was held by that ancient, inescapable recognition.” — William Golding, Lord of the Flies

Lord of the Flies


The dreary quarrels of Northern Ireland re-emerge

Wednesday, 11 January, 2017 0 Comments

In a time of global turbulence, when we should be focused on issues that will affect stability and prosperity, Northern Ireland threatens to divert attention with a crisis fueled by, well, fuel, and headlined “Cash for Ash”. The bizarre Renewable Heat Incentive scandal is exposing the old tribal antagonisms and the brittle peace is endangered. Nothing new, however. Let us pause for a moment and go back a century to Winston Churchill describing the aftermath of World War I:

“The position of countries has been violently altered. The modes of thought of men, the whole outlook on affairs, the grouping of parties, all have encountered violent and tremendous change in the deluge of the world. But as the deluge subsides and the waters fall short we see the dreary steeples of Fermanagh and Tyrone emerging once again. The integrity of their quarrel is one of the few institutions that have been unaltered in the cataclysm which has swept the world.”

High Dive The integrity of that quarrel is central to the latest novel by Jonathan Lee. High Dive centres on an event that took place at the Grand Hotel in Brighton on 12 October 1984. Then, the Provisional IRA terrorists group attempted to assassinate Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher and her cabinet, who were staying at the hotel for the Conservative Party conference. Although Mrs Thatcher narrowly escaped injury, five people were killed including a Conservative MP, and 31 were injured, by the long-delay time bomb planted in the hotel by the IRA.

Jonathan Lee’s book doesn’t offer an analysis of violent Irish republicanism or Tory party politics, but it excels in describing the particulars of the English hospitality trade. Lee, like so many members of the writing class, harbours some sympathy for the “rebels”, but the reader should be aware that the characters in his novel are no idealists. More than three decades after the Brighton bombing, the antagonists of Northern Ireland have turned their dreary, squalid feud into an industry that supplies their claques with cash from ash and other combustibles. The integrity of their quarrel is endless.


Cronin and Kavanagh in a bar

Sunday, 8 January, 2017 0 Comments

The Irish writer Anthony Cronin, who was born on 28 December 1923 and who died on 27 December 2016, recalled arriving arrived into McDaid’s pub in Dublin one Sunday morning in the late 1950s to find the poet Patrick Kavanagh with the day’s newspapers strewn around him. This impelled Cronin to remark that the News of the World was running extracts from an autobiography of the retired English jockey Tommy Weston.

“He must be broke,” Cronin said.

“Any man at all that’s writing anything whatever is broke. Don’t you know that by now?” was Kavanagh’s answer.


Book of the Year: Conclave

Wednesday, 21 December, 2016 0 Comments

With Imperium, Lustrum and Dictator, Robert Harris explained ancient Rome to an intrigued modern world. Now, he does it the same for the Vatican with Conclave.

As its title suggests, the novel is about a papal conclave. This one takes place sometime in a near future where the pope has died and the cardinals are gathering to elect his successor. All the classic elements of the English mystery novel format are here: a locked room, intrigue, rivalries, enmities, sex (!) and a surprise ending. Robert Harris writes about power, secular and religious, with an insight that places him beyond all his peers, and that’s why Conclave is our Book of the Year.

At the end of the aisle, where the nave gave on to the cupola of the dome, they had to pause beside Bernini’s statue of St. Longinus, close to where the choir was singing, and wait while the last few pairs of cardinals filed up the steps to kiss the central altar and descended again. Only when this elaborate manoeuvre had been completed was Lomeli himself cleared to walk around to the rear of the altar. He bowed towards it. Epifano stepped forward and took away the crozier and gave it to an altar boy. Then he lifted the mitre from Lomeli’s head, folded it, and handed it to a second acolyte. Out of habit, Lomeli touched his skullcap to check it was in place.

Together he and Epifano climbed the seven wide carpeted steps to the altar. Lomeli bowed again and kissed the white cloth. He straightened and rolled back the sleeves of his chasuble as if he were about to wash his hands. He took the silver thurible of burning coals and incense from its bearer and swung it by its chain over the altar—seven times on this side, and then, walking round, a separate censing on each of the other three. The sweet-smelling smoke evoked feelings beyond memory. Out of the corner of his eye he saw dark-suited figures moving his throne into position. He gave back the thurible, bowed again and allowed himself to be conducted round to the front of the altar. An altar boy held up the missal, opened to the correct page; another extended a microphone on a pole.

Once, in his youth, Lomeli had enjoyed a modest fame for the richness of his baritone. But it had become thin with age, like a fine wine left too long. He clasped his hands, closed his eyes for a moment, took a breath, and intoned in a wavering plainsong, amplified around the basilica:

“In nomine Patris et Filii et Spiritus Sancti . . .”
And from the colossal congregation arose the murmured sung response:
“Amen.”
He raised his hands in benediction and chanted again, extending the three syllables into half a dozen:
“Pa-a-x vob-i-is.”
And they responded:
“Et cum spiritu tuo.”
He had begun.

Conclave


Short stories by Truman Capote

Tuesday, 6 December, 2016 0 Comments

“Henry James is the maestro of the semicolon. Hemingway is a first-rate paragrapher. From the point of view of ear, Virginia Woolf never wrote a bad sentence.” In 1957, Patti Hill sat down with Truman Capote and the Paris Review interview was presented as “Truman Capote, The Art of Fiction No. 17.” What shines through is Capote’s appreciation of the short story format: “When seriously explored, the short story seems to me the most difficult and disciplining form of prose writing extant.”

Along with the short story, Capote was obsessed with the weight of the semicolon:

“I am a completely horizontal author. I can’t think unless I’m lying down, either in bed or stretched on a couch and with a cigarette and coffee handy. I’ve got to be puffing and sipping. As the afternoon wears on, I shift from coffee to mint tea to sherry to martinis. No, I don’t use a typewriter. Not in the beginning. I write my first version in longhand (pencil). Then I do a complete revision, also in longhand. Essentially I think of myself as a stylist, and stylists can become notoriously obsessed with the placing of a comma, the weight of a semicolon.”


Churchill on brevity

Thursday, 1 December, 2016 0 Comments

The great Winston Churchill was born on this day in 1874. He was the nemesis of Hitler, a champion of “the short expressive phrase” and an opponent of “the flat surface of officialese jargon.” This is the writing advice he sent to his officials on 9 August 1940, while engaged in the business of saving Western Civilization from its enemies.

Churchill writing advice