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Before yesterday I had not heard of Maeve Brennan. Last night I fell in love with her. I was introduced to her by the Irish Jazz singer Emilie Conway via a captivating performance combining the spoken word and music.
Brennan grew up in Dublin in the years immediately following the 1916 Easter Rising. Both her parents were actively involved in that failed insurrection, her father condemned to death then reprieved and imprisoned. After his release he participated in the brutal civil war between supporters and opponents of the treaty that gave independence to 26 counties, leaving 6 of Ulster’s counties still in the United Kingdom. Echoes of what many saw then as betrayal by former allies who signed the treaty resonate today in arguments about the presently invisible border, a border which may need to be made more visible if the UK fails to reach a satisfactory solution on it’s proposed departure from the EU – a decision that threatens to be every bit as divisive for Britain as the 1922 treaty was for Ireland.
But that is by the way. In the 1930’s Brennan’s father was appointed as Ireland’s first ambassador to the USA. When the rest of the family returned to Dublin Maeve remained. She is best known for her columns in the New Yorker as “The Long Winded Lady”. But, like many other Irish and Irish/American writers, she was a master of the short story, as this tribute piece by Ann Enright in The Guardian from May 2016 makes plain.
Emilie Conway is a singer who discovered Jazz whilst on a visit to Chicago in 1999. She has, in the past, performed concerts featuring the songs of Billie Holiday among others. This latest set, of which last night’s performance at Portlaoise’s Dunamase Arts Centre may have been the last (there is nothing on her website to indicate any planned future gigs), is her musical tribute to the writer. It was compiled to celebrate the centenary of Brennan’s birth and was performed in New York and Chicago, as well as Dublin, last year.
Conway’s voice has the ability to encompass a number of different styles and this lends itself to such an innovative event. From the near operatic style of traditional Irish ballads, sung in Irish, at the commencement of the set, through swinging jazz standards, to the raw harshness of an alcoholic’s diatribe in Gershwin’s Vodka, she brings a poet’s sensibility to every number.
The first half draws on Brennan’s writing about Dublin family life and the inability of couples, in that time and place, to properly communicate their emotions. The second half is a meditation on those New Yorker columns, and the loneliness and insecurities of the woman behind them. At one point Emilie hides her cocktail dress beneath a trench coat and becomes that lonely, insecure, writer, seeking a voice in which to express her contempt for the pretensions of the actors, artists, musicians and, yes, her fellow writers, with which she came into contact every day in Greenwich Village in the 1950s and early ’60s.
Emilie, too, delivers her own prose poem to the Washington Square Hotel and the generation of young writers and musicians that lived, worked and played in and around it. Accompanied by skillful improvisations from Johnny Taylor’s piano this was, for me, one of the highlights of the whole show.
I congratulate Michelle de Forge for having the courage to devise a series of concerts she calls Jazz in the Mezz, utilising a previously underused space within the Dunamaise Centre, to introduce Jazz to the people of Laois. The problem is that, outside of Dublin and Cork, there is no appreciation of, or appetite for, Jazz in Ireland. I fear that the experiment may be viewed as a failure. Certainly that is the only conclusion to be reached from the small number attending last night’s event.
I have pondered this absence of Jazz from the Irish cultural scene and have developed a theory about it. I have heard that, in the decades following independence, the population was force fed Irish traditional music and culture in an attempt to counteract generations of Anglicisation. Moreover, under the oppressive influence of the Roman Catholic
Church, jazz was seen as “the devil’s music”. So, whilst the rest of Europe and North America embraced jazz before its evolution into rock, the Irish were unaware of its existence. When the resistance to tradition finally took hold, rock was ready and waiting to be adopted by a generation eager to dismiss what they derided as ‘diddly-aye’ traditional music in favour of rock and blues, giving us Rory Gallagher, Gary Moore and so many others. Only now, thanks to people like Emilie Conway and Suzanne Savage, are the Irish beginning to understand the connection between their own folk traditions and the roots of Jazz.
If a performance by Emilie Conway is billed anywhere near you in the future, I urge you to attend. You will not be disappointed. Whatever her chosen theme, you can be sure that her voice and her interpretation of the music will delight you.
One of the very few drawbacks of living in our little corner of Ireland is that we don’t often get an opportunity to hear live jazz. There is, of course, plenty of music from other genres. In the last while I’ve seen performances from Barbara Dickson, the Black Family, Hazel O’Connor and, just the other week, a rip roaring, stand up and stomp your feet, performance from the versatile Jack L, back on home turf ahead of a UK tour to promote his latest album.
And, of course, there are many semi-professional bands and solo artistes doing pub gigs every weekend. But jazz, the music that spoke to my generation, that was written about so eloquently by Kerouac and Ginsberg, the rhythms and melodies, and alliterative lyrics of “The Great American Songbook” that underlies the best tracks of the best rock artistes of the last half century, that music is rare in our neck off the woods. Indeed, I suspect it is rare most everywhere these days.
So, when I learned that the innovative manager of our local community arts centre had commissioned a series of intimate jazz concerts in a small and hitherto under-utilised part of the building, I was delighted, and eagerly obtained tickets for the first which took place last evening. The artiste who had been chosen to fill this first experimental spot, it turned out, has flu. But she has friends in the business and was able to obtain a stand-in at a few hours notice. Never having seen the intended performer, I have no idea what I, and the handful of other jazz lovers present, missed. What I do know is that the stand-in is an incredibly talented singer.
She took me on a journey back to my first ever experience of live jazz, when, at just 15, I saw Ella Fitzgerald perform in a large theatre in London as part of a Jazz at the Philharmonic tour.
And she took me, lyrically, to New York and Paris and London’s Barclay Square. She asked me ‘Is You Is or Is You Ain’t My Baby?’ If only I were fifty years younger I’d say ‘yes’ to that in a nano-second.
She gelled beautifully with the two musicians accompanying her despite never having met them before. That, I suppose, is one of the delights of jazz standards – everyone who plays jazz knows them and even though they lend themselves wonderfully to endless reinterpretation and soaring improvisations, once you’re in the groove instinct takes over and there is a certain inevitability about the direction the music will take you in.
The young woman I speak of is called Suzanne Savage and it was no surprise to me to discover, from her Facebook page, that, among her accomplishments is listed chorister at Christchurch Cathedral, Dublin. The beauty of her soprano voice was evident last night. So, too, was her ability to use that voice as an instrument, bending notes, scatting along with the string bass and allowing the pianist space to riff while she moved her body with the rhythm before returning to the melody like a swallow returning to its nesting place after a sojourn in warmer climes, having just soared away into the rafters and roamed the basement of the former gaol that is now the Dunamaise Centre.
I can still hear her rendition of ‘Lullaby of Birdland’ in my head as I write this. Her voice contained delightful echoes of Dinah Washington, Sarah Vaughan and Lena Horne but was, without doubt, first and foremost, Suzanne Savage, a unique and wonderful sound to savour.
And she took me back to another concert, late in 1978 or early in ’79, another time when I was entertained by a stand-in because the billed solo instrumentalist couldn’t make it. On that occasion the stand-in was a very young man who sat on a high bar stool and played the coolest, and the hottest, acoustic guitar set imaginable. In a venue where the quieter passages of other concerts were often marred by the sound of conversations being carried on at the back of the room, he held the whole company in enthralled silence. His name? Martin Taylor. Within months I heard he had replaced Django Reinhardt, dueting with Stéphane Grappelli.
Will Suzanne Savage ever enjoy the fame of Martin Taylor? She is certainly earning rave reviews for her highly innovative current project which showcases her versatility. But jazz these days is no longer part of the mainstream of entertainment. Although Michael Bublé has had phenomenal success in recent years, and Imelda May seems to be doing okay, in an industry that prefers boy bands and potty mouthed young women, I fear that someone like Savage, however talented and passionate about her art, will struggle to gain recognition beyond the ever decreasing circle of lovers of jazz and other avant garde genres.
I hope I get another chance to hear her perform – she deserves a much bigger stage and audience than she had last night. The Albert Hall in next year’s jazz promenade concert would not be too wild an ambition. Clare Teal, are you listening?
Just as the media are filled with news of a book about life in the Trump White House, I offer my review of What Happened by Hillary Rodham Clinton.
This was given to me as a Christmas present. I found it to be a fascinating read. I suppose I should qualify that by stating at once that I am a sucker for anything to do with politics, even American politics. Other people become ecstatic about sport, obsessing about the fortunes of a particular football team or tennis player. For me, politics is my sport; I care as much about government policies as others do about the application of the off-side rule. Newsnight and Question Time mean far more to me than Match of the Day ever could. So to read about the ups and downs – and in Hillary’s case it was mostly downs – of an election campaign, is a delight on a par with reading about Andy Murray’s Grand Slam disappointments and successes.
But there is much more to this book than an account of the 2016 presidential election and the mistakes she admits having made. This is a self-portrait of someone who has dedicated herself to a life of public service and of attempting to create the conditions in which her fellow citizens can prosper and achieve their full potential.
From radical student politics in the late 1960s, through advocacy for the under-privileged as an attorney, to her period as Secretary of State in president Obama’s first administration and, finally, her campaign to become the first woman president of the USA, she has never shirked from what she sees as her Christian duty to serve the greater good of mankind.
Those ubiquitous e-mails
There is a lot about the e-mail saga and the way it monopolised media coverage of the election, despite extensive evidence that she had done nothing wrong. All her predecessors at the State Department used their personal e-mail accounts for official business, as did her successor at first. When published, the e-mails showed only that she was someone who cared deeply about the welfare of the staff for whom she felt responsible. State secrets were not shared via e-mails on that account, nor anywhere else. And yet the media and her opponent refused to let go of the accusation that she was corrupt and dishonest. Finally, when the scandal seemed to have abated and her ratings were on the rise, the head of the FBI, for reasons best known to himself, chose to revisit the subject with unwarranted insinuations that made many voters uneasy about supporting her.
From unguarded remarks taken out of context, to decisions to respond – or not – to specific accusations from her opponent, she takes full personal responsibility for any short-comings in the campaign. And she is eager to learn, and to pass on the lessons learned, from these mistakes.
She was sustained throughout the campaign, and in her efforts to overcome the disappointment of failure, by her Methodist faith and the example of her mother, the product of a broken home, neglected by the grandparents who brought her up, who, nevertheless, grew up to experience the ‘American Dream’ and to pass on the same Christian values to her daughter.
I cannot begin to imagine what it must have been like to have to listen to taunts of ‘Crooked Hillary’ and ‘Lock her up’ from her opponents, knowing she had done nothing wrong and sought only to better the lives of her fellow citizens. To her credit she has little to say about such things, concentrating instead on the policy proposals that never gained a proper hearing in the media, buried under the relentless e-mail fake news stories which she contends – she presents evidence in support of the claim – were orchestrated by Vladimir Putin and Wikileaks.
There will be many who will claim that she is part of the conspiracy by the wealthy elites to remove the hard earned assets of the poor. I believe that the opposite is the truth. When she says that her intention is to reverse that trend, I believe her.
As a Liberal I am in no doubt that there are two elites and that many on the political left fail to make the distinction. There is indeed an elite that seeks to amass great wealth with little thought to the people who are hurt in the process. Those are the corporate entities, and their owners, who fund the Republican Party in the USA, and advocate for Britain’s exit from the European Union, in order to remove, or substantially reduce, regulations intended to protect consumers and workers. They have the majority of media outlets in their corner. They deny the evidence of man made climate change as vigorously as they once denied the link between tobacco and lung cancer.
But there are, too, the ‘Liberal elites’ that the political right, supported by the bulk of the media, characterises as being out of touch with the realities of life as experienced by ordinary people, supporting policies that help minorities at the expense of the majority.
It is true that such individuals use their wealth to support a plethora of charitable causes and, in government, they do advocate measures that benefit the disadvantaged. But that does not mean they are not sympathetic to the plight of those who feel left out when minorities gain rights that others take for granted. As Hillary Clinton points out towards the end of her book, a way has to be found to demonstrate that seeking equality for all does not have to mean a race to the bottom. Rather, we need to make clear that lifting the downtrodden benefits us all in the long run.
I feel bound to add one other factor that looms large in the book, as it did through the campaign. Hillary believes herself to have been fortunate to have reached maturity at a time when the women’s movement was at its commencement. As a female lawyer in the 1970s she was a rarity, someone people came to look at out off curiosity. And much of her campaign strategy in 2016 seems to have concentrated on the significance of breaking the ‘glass ceiling’ and the idea that a woman could become president acting as an inspiration to girls and young women. I can’t help wondering if that emphasis on the feminist aspect of the campaign put off some potential voters, both men and women, who are deeply suspicious of the movement.
I recently read and reviewed the first book in this series. I can certainly recommend Ms Clarke’s Africa writings to anyone who wishes to gain a better understanding of that continent and its many and varied cultures.
I had a dream last night, not as earth shattering as Martin Luther King,
I’m not that famous and important, and frankly although I was standing on a stage too, no one was listening to me. Sad isn’t it?
Now most of us might dream of receiving the Nobel Prize for Literature and then being interviewed on a national Breakfast Show, simpering as the interviewer gushed about our brilliant book – right?
Well, my dream wasn’t like that. The stage morphed into a television studio and my interview went something like this:
INT: So, I understand Lucinda that hardly anyone bought your new book?
ME: Well a few did …
INT: Looking at this pre-order number on Amazon, well it’s a disgrace.
ME: I have at least 3 fans! I’m sure they ordered one and DH promised he would …
INT: I presume you told people about it?
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An Affair With my Mother by Caitriona Palmer (Memoir)
A Second Life by Dermot Bolger (Fiction)
I wanted to read these books when the opportunity came, in order to see if my treatment of the subject in Honest Hearts and Transgression was authentic. Both books deal with adoption as experienced in Ireland in the 1940s, ’50s and ’60s. This was a period during which any young Irish woman who conceived out of wedlock was regarded as a pariah. Her child was taken from her and provided with a good, usually middle class, home. The mother would be ostracised by her family and told by the nuns who ran the mother and baby homes, and arranged the adoption, that if anyone were to discover her secret no man would look at her.
Bolger’s book is fiction and set in the mid 1990s. The male protagonist has a near death experience at the start of the book and this triggers a need to discover more about his birth mother. The book was first published in 1993 but underwent a complete re-write before being reissued, in the edition I read, in 2010.
Palmer is a successful journalist. She began the search for her mother whilst in her twenties in the late 1990s. She was eventually able to set up a meeting with her birth mother. The problem then was that the mother was married with a family. Neither the husband nor the children knew about her earlier indiscretion. She was so terrified of them finding out that meetings between mother and daughter were conducted clandestinely, hence the title. These secret meetings went on for 15 years during which the daughter continued to seek information about both sets of biological grand parents.
When Bolger’s fictional protagonist finally tracks down his birth mother it is only to discover that she is dead. The only member of the family who has remained in contact with her is an older sister who does agree to meet her nephew. She is able to provide details of the events surrounding his conception and the subsequent forcible transportation of the pregnant nineteen year old to the mother and baby home. He visits the home and later meets the older brother, now a priest. He is angry at the role this man played in the cruel treatment of his mother.
These visits provide Bolger with an opportunity to present both sides of the argument about such treatment: the culture in which the woman was deemed to have sinned and it was necessary to protect the child by giving it a second life in a “decent” home.
Both Bolger’s protagonist, and Palmer, struggle with feelings of rejection; feelings that, in Palmer’s case, are not relieved by her mother’s insistence on secrecy. Both the fictional and the real mother are consumed with a need to know that their secret child is faring well. A need that is satisfied in Palmer’s case though not in the case of Bolger’s fictional mother. I believe my own handling of that aspect of adoption was adequate.
What is notable in both these books, and in the culture they depict, is an absence of any serious condemnation of the behaviour of the men who were responsible for these young women becoming pregnant. In Britain in those years, a man who was responsible for making a young woman pregnant was expected to marry her and most did. Knowing this, few took the risk unless ready to face that consequence.
Like Bolger’s fictional protagonist, Palmer visits the village in which she was conceived and the mother and baby home in which she was born. Palmer’s book was written six years after Bolger’s re-write and over two decades after his original. And yet, comparing Palmer’s real life experience with Bolger’s imagined one, one is struck by the similarities. Of course, Palmer’s is not the first real life account of these situations which were all to common in Ireland. The most well known is perhaps Philomena Lee’s 2009 account of her search for her son, aided by the British journalist Martin Sixsmith, played by Steve Coogan in the film Philomena. Palmer recounts a meeting with Philomena Lee.
There are other similarities: Bolger’s protagonist is a freelance photographer with a journalist friend who can help with his search, Palmer is a journalist with similar contacts. Palmer resides in Washington so, after the first few years, communication with her mother is mostly by e-mail. On the other hand, the duration of the search by Bolger’s protagonist is only a matter of months whilst Palmer’s spans several years.
Bolger enlivens his tale with a ghost story whilst in Palmer’s memoir we are treated to an account of her time in the former Yugoslavia working as PR consultant for an NGO.
Both books are thoroughly readable and provide valuable insights into a period of Irish history that has been the cause of much anguish for a generation of women.
I was given this book by a stranger. Not a complete stranger as I almost wrote, for we had met twice over breakfast. Allow me to explain. If you saw my posts from the first couple of days in June you will be aware that I spent a few days in North Kerry taking in some of the events of Listowel Writers’ Week. We stayed in a small bed and breakfast establishment just outside Ballybunion. The other guests at breakfast on Thursday and Friday morning were Andrew, a professor of English from Santa Clara University in the last days of a six week sojourn touring around Ireland. In the course of conversation he revealed that Emma Donaghue’s father had been one of his professors.
The other guest at breakfast on those first two days was a lady named Elaine, down from Dublin for a few days. On Friday morning we talked briefly about the book shops in Listowel and the importance of independent book shops generally.
Saturday morning she had departed before we arrived in the small dining room. Andrew handed a paperback book to me, saying that Elaine had left it for me. A surprising and delightful gesture. I’m truly sorry that I did not have the opportunity to thank her. More so now that I have read it.
Kalanithi’s family migrated from India to New York and thence to Arizona. They were a medical family but young Paul was more interested in literature than medicine. On obtaining a degree in English literature he realised his quest to discover the workings of the mind: the way it defines our personality and the way we relate to our fellow beings, required an understanding of how the brain functions. This, in turn, led him to neuroscience. Becoming a neuro-surgeon, he completed his residency and was ready to become head of his department when he was diagnosed with terminal lung cancer.
As a septuagenarian I am well aware that I have an ever reducing amount of time left. At the same time it is important to remember that death can arrive at any time. When I was in my teens three contemporaries lost their lives in tragic circumstances – a drowning, an accident with a shot gun and a motorcycle accident. Over the years since, too many friends have been taken by cancer. And yet there are people whose abuse of their bodies in their twenties ought to have finished them off decades ago but they are still living life to the full in their seventies.
Nevertheless, to be told in your mid-thirties that your life is about to end must be devastating. Kalanithi still harboured a yearning to write. In remission following treatment he is faced with a decision: have I long enough to go back to the work I love and that is changing lives or only long enough to write my book?
To say more would be to spoil the book for other readers.
There is medical jargon here, including words used in the USA to define the various levels of seniority in the profession that have different titles on this side of the Atlantic. It would have been helpful to have had a glossary. This, however, is a minor criticism.
People talk a lot about “bucket lists”: the things you’d like to see and do before you die. Too often these take on a selfish tone with a desire to see some of the wonders of the world, whether created by ancient civilisations: the Pyramids, say, or Machu Pichu; or by nature such as Ayer’s Rock or the Grand Canyon. Kalanithi’s book reminds us that it is what we leave behind us that is most important; what we’ve achieved, not where we have been or what we have seen. Life, he tells us, is essentially about striving. I would add that there are, in this 21st century world, far too many who are more concerned to avoid that struggle than to take part. Kalanithi was not one of those. He epitomises the work ethic that characterises Indian as well as the best of American and European culture. As such, his story is one of the most inspiring you are ever likely to read.
Horror is a popular genre. Fantasies involving zombies, mummies or vampires are as widely read today as they ever were in the past. But history is filled with real horrors. Which raises the question: is it ever possible for a novel to do justice to real life horrors such as The Great Irish Famine?
Part of my research for my novel set in the period of the Irish famine of 1845-51 has consisted of reading a massive volume entitled Atlas Of The Great Irish Famine.
Produced in 2012 by Cork University Press, it is a monumental work, consisting of a series of essays by academics, that seeks to analyse the events of that period from the perspective of a geographer. That is not to say that geography is the sole perspective of the book, but it is, as the title suggests, the dominant one.
By studying census returns from before and after the famine, alongside a range of other documents, the authors seek to establish the extent to which each part of the island was effected. The proportion of population lost to death and migration in each of the four provinces and, within those provinces, in example parishes, is exposed to detailed examination.
At the same time it attempts to place the events in a political, religious and social context with, for example, detailed descriptions of the Poor Law Unions and workhouses. It quotes extensively from contemporary eye-witness accounts. Its examination of the mass migrations that took place during the period does not stop at conditions in the vessels that carried the human cargo. It provides detailed accounts of the immediate destinations and subsequent dispersal within mainland Britain, North America, Australia and New Zealand.
Among the 58 contributors is Chris Morash who was, at the time of publication, head of the Department of English at NUI Maynooth. He is now Vice-Provost of Trinity College, Dublin. In an essay near the end of the book, Morash discusses the difficulty of portraying such events as the famine in fiction. He cites an essay by Stephen Marcus. Writing in 1963, Marcus noted a similarity between writing about the Irish famine and accounts of the concentration camps at the end of World War II. “Reality,” he asserted “had grown so monstrous that human consciousness could scarcely conceive or apprehend it.” He adds that “however mad, wild, or grotesque art may seem to be, it can never touch or approach the madness of reality.”
The writer of fiction about this period, according to Morash, is trapped between two irreconcilable difficulties: if he or she concentrates on the suffering of one individual, or a small group of related individuals, there is a danger that the scale of what took place is overlooked. On the other hand, any attempt to illuminate the scale of suffering runs the risk of failing to give due weight to individual circumstances. And the scale of the 1845-51 famine is such that there could not have been any one of the 8 million citizens living on the Island in 1845 who was not touched directly by what occurred.
Moreover, there were many more in mainland Britain and further afield who knew what was happening, from accounts published in newspapers and magazines of the time, and, in the case of politicians and bureaucrats in a position to influence the turn of events, from reports sent in by officials on the ground.
During the course of the past year or so I have read several novels that contain accounts of either World War I or II. Among them was Judy Picoult’s The Story Teller which contains harrowing descriptions of the treatment of Polish Jews by the Nazis. The narrative concentrates on the life of one young woman and her family, but the scale of the events is made clear by her encounters with others and her progress from relative normality in prewar Gdansk, through small humiliations, to forced removal to the ghetto where the family struggles to survive before being separated and transported to a series of concentration camps. Such events, which were the day-to-day experience of millions in 1940s Europe, certainly fall into the category of ‘inconceivable reality’ identified by Marcus.
My present reading, aside from famine research, is Glory, Rachel Billington’s 2015 novel set partly in Gallipoli in 1915. It includes episodes in the English country house home of a senior officer drafted out of retirement to participate in the ill-fated British and Commonwealth invasion of Turkey. Military hospitals in Egypt and Malta also feature.
The horrific scenes of death and injury on the battlefield are offset by the comparative normality of village life in early twentieth century England. But, inevitably, normality at home is disrupted, too, with the family seat converted into a convalescent home for injured soldiers. Once again we are in the realms of ‘inconceivable reality’, both in terms of the horrors experienced by the men at the front, the nurses in the hospitals, and the crass stupidity of the politicians and generals who utterly failed to see the folly of the enterprise.
In her portrayals of the upper classes in World War I England, and the contrast evident with the ordinary working people who volunteered out of a sense of patriotism and, in the case of many young officers, a desire for adventure, she brings to life a world – that of my grand-parents – often romanticised through such literary flotsam as Downton Abbey but in which the reality was far harsher than we can imagine.
That, then, is the task I face in my attempt to craft a novel set in a period of history which has cast a long dark shadow over the British Isles. As I see it at this early stage of development, my central character’s journey must match that of Jody Picoult’s heroine, whilst the context follows a similar path to Rachel Billington’s novel in its attempt to portray both the big picture, including, as it must, the indifference of politicians and officials, alongside the personal suffering.
If reading fantasy horrors, watching zombie movies, or, indeed, the horrors of modern warfare shown nightly on our television screens, dulls our senses, then it is surely the duty of the writer of historical fiction to remind readers of the real horrors endured by ordinary people. We have to make the unimaginable real if we have any hope of ending the indifference, born of a lack of empathy, that made those times so much worse than they needed to have been.