Archive for January, 2011

At the Lake of the Jewel Mouth

17/01/2011 2 comments


I was back on the hills this week, in the heart of the Galtee Mountains, at Lake Muskry; back to where the pulse beat of the walking helps to pattern the rhythm of story and words.

Appropriately, it is the place of the ‘jewel mouth’. For folklore has it that the ancient name for Lake Muskry was Lough Beal Sead – Lake of the Jewel Mouth. This refers to the powerful Coerabar Boeth who was attended at the lake by her maidens and wore a necklace of red-gold with a sparkling jewel at its centre.

Many writers have put on their walking or running boots, seeing the fluidity of movement as an aid to their literary work. Joyce Carol Oates spoke eloquently of the connection between the ‘literary mind’ and ‘literary feet’.

Talking about her running routine she says, ‘the mysterious efflorescence of language seems to pulse in the brain, in rhythm with our feet and the swinging of our arms’.

So I plan to keep the literary feet moving this year and hope for some fluency benefits from the place of the jewel mouth high above the Glen of Aherlow.

A half-dozen selection of Irish Short Stories

12/01/2011 3 comments


It was one of my books for Christmas. The Granta Book of the Irish Short Story. And it was my recommended read for our book club this month.

But they’re a stubborn crowd, my book club lot. They know their own minds. What did they think of the book? 

Took a long while to get into.

Some of the stories were lousy.

There are writers  here  I like, but they have better stories than what we got in this collection.

Some of the stories had no beginning or middle or end.

These can’t be the best Irish short stories of the last century!

It was time to turn the discussion around, get it working on a more positive vein.

Well, can we talk about the stories we DID like. Let’s see if we can select a half-dozen.

This did the trick. Lots of stories were enjoyed. We got a consensus on the top half-dozen Irish short stories from the Granta selection:

Claire Keegan’s ‘Men and Women’

From the 1999 collection Antartica, this story gets going with the great opening lines, ‘My father took me places. He had artificial hips, so he needs me to open gates.’ For our discerning lot, Claire Keegan’s stories, set in her rural mythic landscapes, are a triumph of writing.

Colm Tobin’s ‘A Priest in the Family’

We admired the grit, the dignity, the self-possession of Molly, mother of the child-abuser priest. After informing her of the devastating news, Father Greenwood adds, ‘I’d say people will be very kind.’ Molly replies knowingly: ‘Well, you don’t know them, then.’

Edna O’Brien’s, Sister Imelda

It’s almost 30 years since this story first appeared and it captures the boarding school world of bacon and cabbage, tapioca pudding, ‘fairly green rhubarb jam’ and the nuns’  ‘monotonous Latin chanting, long before the birds began’.

Eugene McCabe’s ‘Music at Annahullion’

 Three siblings share a home on ‘thirty wet sour acres’ and their wretched lives are captured in words spoken in Annie’s dream: ‘I wish to God we were never born.’

Mary Lavin’s ‘Lilacs’

This piece goes back almost six decades to Mary Lavin’s collection Tales from Bective Bridge.  The images of dung and lilac counterpoint the worlds of gritty reality and class aspiration with astute precision.

William Trevor’s ‘The Dressmaker’s Child’

The last story in the Granta selection and the master does not disappoint with this world of the greasy garage, the wayside weeping statue and the strange dressmaker.

We all agreed there were enough good stories in this collection to be getting along with – even if each of us had our hate list.

A Strange January Magic

08/01/2011 Comments off

The Anti-Room blogger Catherine Crichton has the strange January addiction of watching the Dart Championships on TV and finding solace in the post-Christmas gloom. I’m not a dart enthusiast but I enjoyed her account below.

January. Don’t we all just hate it? The dark mornings, the return to dull routine, the lack of cash, the lack of a waistline.

But for me, every January there is a small gleam in the darkness, courtesy of the BDO Lakeside World Professional Darts Championships. In our house, this is genuinely one of the TV sporting highlights of the year. Though we don’t do much TV sport, in fairness.

Darts – a January TV highlight

There’s much to love about darts. First of all, the players themselves. Every man (and it is mostly men) has a nickname, a ‘walk-on’ song and a static-filled synthetic shirt, often with a wacky image stitched on the back.  An unwelcome development this year has been some toning down in the sartorial department – too many polite, minimally adorned polo shirts for my liking. Tats and sovs are still very much in evidence however.

Top players include Martin ‘Wolfie’ Adams, Tony ‘Silverback’ O’Shea and John ‘Boy’ Walton. My favourite is Ted ‘The Count’ Hankey, who sadly crashed out in the first round of this year’s competition. He resembles an overweight Dracula, walks on wearing a cape and throws rubber bats into the crowd. He plays with a scarily intense, surly demeanour and is prone to bouts of ‘oche rage’. He’s great.

The venue, a vast function room in the Lakeside Country Club, Frimley Green, Surrey, plays host to packed houses every night. The fans are noisy and enthusiastic, dressing up in tribute to their favourite players and waving 180 banners in the air every time the maximum score for a throw is achieved. Altogether now – ‘Ooooonehuuuuuundred – aynd- eeeiiightteeeeeee’. For all their fervour, the crowds are also very sporting, respecting the calls for ‘best of order’ at crucial moments.

This also applies to the players. Rather than polite handshakes at the end of a match, you’re more likely to see full-on bear hugs and big smiles all round, albeit a little forced on the part of the loser.

The BBC coverage is also excellent. The commentators come up with regular gems – the other night they likened John Boy Walton to a ‘battered cod’ who was being ‘reeled in’ by his opponent. At the climax of the match they were calling for a milk float so they could see who had the biggest bottle. The BBC has also secured the services of darts legend and never knowingly under-bejewelled Bobby ‘Dazzler’ George as guest pundit. Bobby knows his darts, is never afraid to voice a frank opinion and loves a catchphrase – ‘trebles for show, doubles for dough’ being a favourite.

Ultimately however, the real joy lies in the incredible skill of the players. Their accuracy and consistency of scoring is quite amazing to watch, not to mention their mental arithmetic as they constantly recalculate what scores they need to achieve in order to check out on a double. The game also requires extreme mental toughness. Like all individual sports, there is often as big a challenge from nerves as there is from the opposing player. Players can suddenly lose their ability to hit the target, when they could do no wrong minutes before.

At these moments, the TV picture cuts away to the long-suffering wives and girlfriends, mums and dads. They are living every throw – and it’s pure torture.

Women players don’t feature hugely in the BDO tournament coverage. Unfortunately they are treated almost as also-rans and their matches are only ever a somewhat pathetic best-of-three sets, as opposed to best-of-13 for the men’s final. Things may be different over at the rival darts organisation, the PDC, (there was a split years ago) but as we don’t have any sports channels we are once a year BDO fans only.

This Sunday afternoon will see myself and my husband glued to coverage of the live final. Our kids are vaguely embarrassed by our enthusiasm at this stage, so may not join us in our little January ritual. They don’t know what they’re missing

Post a Week – I’m on board

07/01/2011 Comments off

I took my time about it but now I’m committed. I’m joining the post a week challenge.

I suppose I could really have pushed myself and gone for the post a day. But my problem is that I can’t rush the posts out; I find I need to ruminate, let a post idea churn around in my brain for a while, take shape, dissolve and re-form itself again.  For me, this rhythm is not suited to a post a day. Or, maybe I’m just lazy!

But post a week – here I go.

Categories: On Writing Tags:

Biography Poem from Painter Poet

05/01/2011 Comments off

Jo Slade’s biography poem The Artist’s Room traces the artist Gwen John (1876-1939) through Paris at the start of the twentieth-century: ‘I looked for her in Paris…/ walked from place to place, lived the smells, the sounds, / followed a plan I’d drawn.’

A painter-poet, Jo Slade uses her artist’s eye to distill the essence of Gwen John’s biography in a precise poetic structure where the artist’s decade-long relationship with Auguste Rodin is central. ‘Look, she’s holding out a hand to him / something like torture has begun.’

I envy those who, like Jo Slade, can write with a painter’s eye and express themselves with tone and precision in paint or ink: ‘Learning the habit of colour / raw umber, yellow ochre, burnt sienna.’

Sean O’Faolain provocatively wrote in an Introduction to Paul Henry‘s autobiography An Irish Portrait (1951): ‘Very few painters have written books and few of these are satisfying.’  Henry himself had a fascination with writing and finding the exact word to convey his emotions.

Jo Slade’s slim volume portraying Gwen John’s ‘passionate melancholy’ contrasts with the efforts of Mary Taubman – another writer and painter – whose work on the life of Gwen John became a life commitment.  When she did publish a book in 1985 it was not the expected comprehensive biography but a succinct monograph covering the events of Gwen John’s life.

Jo Slade says of Gwen John’s artistic impulse:  ‘She felt changes of colour, subtleties of tone / each of the other everything seeping together / making the world seamless, complete.’

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