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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


Swift joke: Bankers and lawyers in hell

Monday, 27 November, 2017 0 Comments

On Thursday here, we 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. Therefore, the daily posts this week will commemorate these two significant figures in global and Anglo-Irish letters. First up is Swift, the most influential political commentator of his time, in both England and Ireland. His writings include some of the greatest works of satire in the English language and his poems and pamphlets display an extraordinary versatility in a range of genres. But before we examine his legacy, let’s have one of his jokes.

Swift told the one about a friend of a friend, a struggling writer, who had six brothers — three of them bankers and three of them lawyers. They prospered, but the writer didn’t and he died young and in reduced circumstances. Still, he was a decent man and had never harmed a fly so the expectation was that he’d go straight to Heaven. Imagine, then, his shock upon arriving in Hell. It was, however, a clerical error and once the Satanists discovered the mistake, they transferred him right up to Heaven.

“What was it like in Hell?” asked the curious Saint Peter.

“Oh, it was just like being at home,” answered the writer. “You couldn’t get near the fire for bankers and lawyers.”


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


Halloween horror tale

Tuesday, 31 October, 2017 0 Comments

Five werewolves came down from the cold North at the end of October. Old wily werewolf sniffed the fallen leaves and filtered their decay for a scent of humanity blown through by the recent storms. His younger mate lazily curled back her lips, exposing eager fangs, and looked back at the three cubs, their yellow-gold eyes filled with soullessness.

“Well,” she said, a note of impatience in her whine. “What did you find?”

Old wily werewolf stared into the dark, paused, and then spoke.

“I found hints of smoke and toast and traces of rosemary,” he said. “There was an unmistakable aroma of peat and aged birch and, if I’m not very much mistaken, bacon.”

The last word sent a jolt though his pack and they began to bark at the Hunter’s moon.

“Shut up!” he snarled. “Listen.”

“Listen to what?” the cubs cried in unison.

“Listen to me,” old wily werewolf commanded. “I have a plan.”

And he explained that the scents told him a story of an old woman living alone, just a night’s run from where they lay. She would be eager for company and the sound of three hungry cubs outside her door would evoke a natural empathy. From what he knew of human nature, she’d adopt and feed them, and then wily werewolf and his wife would slope by and kill her.

“And can we chew on the bones?” the cubs queried, their yellow-gold eyes now filled with psychopathic love.

“Certainly, lads,” said their mother. “And we can all live in her cosy house for the rest of our lives.” Together, they raised their faces to the sky and howled with joy.

Down the valley, the old woman had just finished her prayers beside the fireplace when the wind carried the werewolf voices down the chimney. “A hungry family by the sound of it,” she said aloud to the empty room, “I have just what they need.” So she got up, her back aching with the labour of almost nine decades, and began to take down the werewolf traps from the wall. Three small ones, and two big ones.

Halloween horror


The 2017 Nobel Prize in Literature: Kazuo Ishiguro

Thursday, 5 October, 2017 0 Comments

“All I know is that I’ve wasted all these years looking for something, a sort of trophy I’d get only if I really, really did enough to deserve it. But I don’t want it anymore, I want something else now, something warm and sheltering, something I can turn to, regardless of what I do, regardless of who I become. Something that will just be there, always, like tomorrow’s sky. That’s what I want now, and I think it’s what you should want too. But it will be too late soon. We’ll become too set to change. If we don’t take our chance now, another may never come for either of us.”
Kazuo Ishiguro, When We Were Orphans

Kazuo Ishiguro


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.”