Sunday 26 April 2020

Henry VIII & Donald Trump in a time of pause...

Feel like your life is on pause right now? It’s a stressful, anxious time – fearful too, especially if you wake at 3am with little hope of sleep.

I don’t have a cure but I do have a suggestion – a good book or two or three.

I’m reading two at the moment – wildly different but both engrossing. One, I’d been waiting for a long time, and the other I came upon by accident, more or less.

The Mirror and the Light by Hilary Mantel was worth the wait. If by chance you haven’t read the first two books of her Thomas Cromwell trilogy, I envy you.

Wolf Hall and Bring Up The Bodies were mesmerizing accounts of commoner Cromwell’s rise through the perfidious court of Henry VIII.

It’s hardly letting the cat out of the bag to reveal that we witness his comeuppance in the final book. 

It’s a rare person, indeed, who fared well in Henry’s narcissistic presence – the parallels with the present White House are startling.

Henry is better spoken than our current president and more interesting, perhaps because in his autocracy the Tudor king need only lie to himself.

Whatever your political persuasion you will find yourself rereading paragraphs both for the power of the prose and the sheer thrill of comparison.

You’ll emerge from an hour or so of this book steeped in the fascinating lore and the machinations of Henry’s world; alas when you switch on Fox or CNN you will be catapulted back into a comparable litany of delusion without the buffer of history for protection.

Ask Again, Yes: A Novel by Mary Beth Keane is on more familiar ground – the Irish-American family – but it is no less gripping. 

From the first page you’re enmeshed in the net of this finely honed story and instantly rooting for the well-drawn characters even as you sense their flaws and fear for them.

Then just when you believe you’ve arrived at the core of this interlocking drama of the Gleeson and Stanhope families another twist is introduced and you’re once again skating on dramatic thin ice.

For me this is a story of heredity and what happens to the good and bad we Irish bring with us when dropped into the far larger pool of Irish America. Mary Beth Keane suggests various possibilities all of which are believable - many riveting.

Although as different as chalk and cheese she sometimes reminds me of Edith Wharton, one of my favorite writers. Each has the capacity of ensnaring you within a couple of paragraphs.

Might I suggest any collection of Ms. Wharton’s short stories for these difficult times? You’ll meet a cast of characters well suited to these troubled times. 

I’d recommend Age of Innocence, perhaps her best known novel, but while I love the two women characters May Welland and Countess Ellen Olenska, I’m always disappointed with Newland Archer’s practical but bloodless decision in the final chapter. But then who knows what that says about myself?

I’ve read Ernest Hemingway’s For Whom The Bell Tolls three times now and I’d recommend it to anyone. It’s a terrific story of the Spanish Civil War. It’s also about the power of idealism and the willingness to sacrifice oneself for a greater cause.

Hemingway’s genius is that you never fully understand protagonist Robert Jordan or why he persists on his mission. In some circles Hemingway has fallen from favor because of his macho reputation, and yet there’s a tender, if fragile, romance at the heart of this book that is very compelling.

Two slim books from the backwaters of different continents will have you in stitches – An Béal Bocht (The Poor Mouth) by Flann O’Brien and A Confederacy of Dunces by John Kennedy Toole; they will also provide limitless stories and quotes with which you can regale your friends when the pubs finally reopen.

And if plays be your thing read the exquisite Girl From The North Country, the collaboration between Conor McPherson and Bob Dylan.

And for fans of Nobel Prizewinner Bobby, listen to his aural treatise on the Kennedy Assassination, Murder Most Foul. At 17 minutes it will either put you soundly asleep on some dark night of the soul or confirm that he is the greatest living artist. Your call!

Monday 13 April 2020

Wexford Quare Fellahs and the Price of Bullocks

Toddy Kirwan was a quare fellah back in Wexford, a town that boasted many such characters.

He was a first cousin of my grandfather, Lar Kirwan, a renowned cattle dealer. Lar was reputed to be capable of estimating the weight of any sized bullock to the nearest pound.

Toddy was a cattle dealer too but no one ever made such a boast about his bullock-estimating capabilities.

My grandfather was very successful in his chosen field and owned two big farms full of bullocks fattening up before being shipped to the slaughterhouses of England; while Toddy resided with his two sisters in Carrigeen in the heart of Wexford town. 

Both men drank at The Wren’s Nest on Wexford Quay in the cordial company of others engaged in the cattle trade.

My grandfather was a severe man who rarely loosened up before his first glass of Powers. 

Toddy, on the other hand, though quiet and kindly, never seemed to let his hair down – or what was left of it. Perhaps, my grandfather’s success and bullock-estimating ability cowed him. It’s hard to tell. 

Back in those simple times I hadn’t as yet delved into Freud or Jung – or as my grandfather would have called them, Fraud and Junk. 

Apart from estimating the weight of bullocks and the form of racehorses my grandfather was not greatly interested in the subconscious.

Between the jigs and the reels Toddy got into some manner of financial scrape – a not unheard of occurrence in the boisterous world of cattle dealing.

I never heard a figure mentioned, but the affair had something to do with a miscommunication with my grandfather. 

It was all very mysterious but my grandfather, a man of few words, was heard to comment, “You might as well be talking to the bloody wall!” 

There was rash mention of solicitors and a day in court to sort matters out.

Then drama! Toddy’s elder sister announced that her beloved brother had disappeared. He had last been seen on the boat train to Rosslare Harbour on his way to London.

There was much headshaking at my grandfather’s house that led to his cryptic question, “What the hell is that fellah going to do in London?”

The years passed but matters did not rest. There was occasional word of Toddy sightings around Cricklewood, and eventually a rumor that he had met his Waterloo over a game of cards.

Then very late one stormy night a carouser while heading up Summer Hill had the wits frightened out of him by Toddy’s ghost flitting across the road between St. Peter’s College and the Bishop’s residence.

And soon thereafter a motorist nearly crashed into the Bishop’s ornate gates when Toddy’s ghostly head peered out from a crack in the wall.

A priest from St. Peter’s blessed the haunted wall and we were all warned to give up the drink and choose another route home after midnight. 

Then one day out of the blue Toddy resurrected in the flesh on Wexford’s Main Street. Women fainted, hard chaws fell to their knees, even John Wilson’s placid dray horse neighed in terror at the sight of this walking cadaver.

But it was merely the bould Toddy jauntily heading down to the Wren’s Nest for his first glass of Powers in years. 

It is one of the regrets of my life that I wasn’t present for the reunion of these cattle-dealing first cousins. But I was in the kitchen when my grandfather proclaimed, “He’s made a holy show of us! Sure wouldn’t I have forgiven him the bloody money if he’d asked!”

It would appear that Toddy, rather than face his day in court, had hatched a plot whereby he retired to his room and never stepped out except for an occasional stroll up nearby Summer Hill in the dead of the night.

I met Toddy soon after and he greeted me in his usual affable manner, but not a word about his lengthy disappearance.

When I inquired of my father – another man of few words - why Toddy had re-emerged he merely shrugged, “He probably got a pain in his arse staring at the same four walls day in day out.”

That’s Wexford for you, a town of masterful understatement and a cast of characters to beat the band.

Wednesday 1 April 2020

Bob Marley, Ska, Skinheads and Sir Charles Comer

I always instinctively knew how to play Reggae. Part of that, no doubt, came from listening to my father’s Calypso and Tango records. 

But Wexford also had a very informed music scene, probably because so many locals spent time working in London; whatever was happening over in the “big smoke” was soon rocking our pubs and dancehalls.

Thus did Ska - Reggae’s forebear - gain a foothold with Wexford’s aggressive Skinhead community.

This puzzled me since Skinners weren’t known for their love of Black people; yet they would have died for Prince Buster, the Jamaican King of Ska.

However, I was to discover later that Wexford’s affinity for Reggae and Ska ran much deeper, Ireland being a major source of Jamaica’s DNA. 

That came about through the longstanding rivalry between England and Spain. The English, in their magnanimity, offered freedom to certain Irish slaves and indentured servants if they would move from Barbados to Jamaica and protect the island from an expected invasion.

The Spanish invasion never materialized but Irish and Africans intermarried leading to the lilt of Jamaican patois and the music of this beautiful but troubled island.

Fast forward to New York in the 1970’s. The era tends to get a bad rap nowadays because of the crime rate, but for young musicians the city was a paradise. 

You could live for practically nothing down in the East Village. And that’s where Pierce Turner and I ended up among poets, painters, musicians, and the general dispossessed.

Philip Glass, then a taxi driver, lived upstairs from us for a time and we could hear him rehearse his meisterwork, Einstein on the Beach.

We also used to trek uptown to attend the Schaefer Music Festival in Central Park. Before shows we often dropped into The Irish Pavilion on E. 57th Street where manager Joe Ruane would always buy us a round in his ongoing efforts to support Irish musicians.

‘Twas there we met Sir Charles Comer, Publicity Manager for Chris Blackwell’s Island Records.

Charlie – one of life’s great characters - had come over from Liverpool as a “go-fer” for The Beatles and worked his way up to knighthood in the adrenalized world of Rock & Roll publicity where he also represented Stevie Ray Vaughan and The Chieftains.

Charlie loved Turner & Kirwan of Wexford and was thrilled that we not only knew the names of his clients on Island Records but would also go to their New York shows.

Thus did we attend Bob Marley and The Wailers first concert in New York City. This event changed my life and a decade later I experimented with Reggae by way of such Black 47 standards as Fire of Freedom and Johnny Comes a Courtin’.

It was a hot steamy New York summer night. A thick haze of marijuana hung in the air as Turner and I worked our way up to the stage. 

The audience was mostly Jamaican with a generous sprinkling of music cognescenti attracted by the paltry $3 admission.

What a bargain to see Bob Marley at his prime. Even now I marvel that his music is still so fresh and vibrant though he long ago achieved universal legendary acclaim.

The Wailers were one of the great live bands: their earthy groove shook Central Park, and I-Three, the backing singers led by Marley’s wife Rita heightened the expectation with their hummed harmonies.

Then Bob seemed to float out from the wings. He began with the exhortation to “Lively Up Yourself “and well over 10,000 people proceeded to do just that.

Sometimes he played a golden Gibson Les Paul, more often than not he danced himself into a chanted trance, and we joined him there for the next two hours. 

At one point he descended from this ethereal high to sing “No Woman No Cry”, and you felt like you were back in the Jamaica of his youth eating “oatmeal porridge in a government yard in Trenchtown.”

Pierce and I eventually floated back to the Irish Pavilion, our lives forever changed by this Rastaman wizard. 

Joe Ruane bought us another round and, along with Sir Charles Comer, we toasted Bob Marley and how he had reunited the African and Irish diasporas on a magical evening in the New York City of the unruly 1970’s.