With the slow demise of intimate snail mail it would seem that the numbers of epistolary books are dwindling, but here’s one to turn the tide; but, yes, not letters, emails.
Ailsa Piper is a ‘walker’, and some years ago she asked friends and their acquaintances if they had any sins they wanted her to ‘walk off’ on a planned pilgrimage along the centuries-old camino in western Spain to Santiago de Compostela. The response was overwhelming and far from the lightheartedness in which the offer was made: she was sent some very serious sins. The walk inspired a book, Sinning Across Spain (2012), now in it’s second printing. It was this book that Monsignor Tony Doherty read and so engaged was he that he emailed the author, a woman he had never met; and so began an extraordinary correspondence that eventually turned into a book: this book, The Attachment.
It’s impossible to say there is no narrative since there is a timeline, or, at least, a sense of time passing: Tony writes, Ailsa replies, Tony replies and asks a question, Ailsa answers and asks one back … a conversation. However, there are pieces written by each of them addressed to the reader, not to each other, which I was very glad about. It saves the work from that tricky sense of rude intrusion that unattractively hangs around a book of letters, like the lingering stench of too much information never intended to be shared. I don’t usually read other people’s letters for this reason.
Ailsa is an agnostic writer, director, walker and performer originally from the red-dry wilds of north-western Western Australia, although, during the writing of this book, from Melbourne; Tony Doherty, an urbanite, has been a parish priest in Sydney for over fifty years. They met well after their conversation began. Initially it must’ve been an admiring reader to an inspiring writer but it soon developed into a friendship that coloured topics like birth, death, child abuse, grace, forgiveness, god, family, belief, siblings, friendship, politics, nature, silence, celibacy, walking, creativity, professional calling, poetry, marriage, language, food, and words.
I once heard of, to my dismay, an Australian fiction writer and teacher who told her writing students to avoid dialogue. I hope I never meet her, but if I do I would simply urge her to read this book, if only as a strong argument for the revelatory and character defining use of dialogue. I should confess here that I know Ailsa but I have not met Tony, although I have recently found there is a close connection; how many degrees of separation are there these days? I had a few thoughts on Ailsa confirmed and a few debunked, but the voice is unmistakably hers, which gives me confidence that the sense I have of Tony is fundamentally correct.
It’s a quick read. Despite its size, the large font, thick paper, and wide spacing make it so – I’d love to talk to a publisher one day about these decisions – although the need to read the next reply, usually short and to the point, is strong enough to add page-turning to its excellent credentials.
Its other strong point is the encouragement, by an annoying urge, to join in the conversation of particular topics, like family, with points, anecdotes, arguments, and examples of my own. Tony comes from quite a well defined family; Ailsa from a messy one, of divorces, other marriages, more siblings, that has morphed into a loving and noisy tribe; mine was neither of these – what two families are alike? – and I was keen to add, “Yes, but…” and “No, I don’t agree because…”.
What this book will ultimately do to you is force you to find your own Ailsa, your own Tony, and tease out what you think and feel about important things that only a duo-logue of dark scratchings on a pale background can ultimately get satisfactorily right.
You can buy both books, Sinning Across Spain and The Attachment, including the audio versions, here.
The opening of “A Portrait …” is one of literature’s most famous:
Once upon a time and a very good time it was there was a moocow coming down along the road and this moocow that was coming down along the road met a nicens little boy named baby tuckoo.
His father told him that story: his father looked at him through a glass: he had a hairy face.
He was baby tuckoo.
There are several remarkable things about this opening. Firstly, the title has set up the idea that what you are about to read is going to be an autobiography, of the writer, the Artist, Joyce, about himself as a young man. But this is not what we read, this is not an autobiography in seems, since, if it was, the pronoun would be ‘my’ not ‘his’; so, it is not told by the Artist, the author, it is told by a third-person narrator. Secondly, it is written in the past tense, fine, as expected, but the moment you read the word ‘his’ you know that ‘his’ refers to the Artist, James Joyce. We only use a pronoun when it is clear who ‘his’ refers to and the only name prior to this pronoun is the author’s. It is him. This is confirmed by the line “He was baby tuckoo.” Again the pronoun and still only one name, the same name, the author’s, so, he is not the author. Well, yes, he is the author, we just choose to ignore that: we willingly accept what the author has written in order to enjoy the story. We play along. A few pages on this third person narrator, to confirm his existence, gives baby tuckoo a name, Stephen Dedalus. This is a story about a boy called Stephen Dedalus that we understand is the young James Joyce. Why has Joyce chosen to write his own story narrated by a third person god-like narrator? Because it is a much more useful novelistic tool. Writing in the first-person disallows the writer access to the minds, thoughts, tastes, dreams, wishes, and desires of all the other characters in the story. The first-person “I” can only describe what he feels, sees, tastes, dreams, and desires. The third-person god-like narrator has access to everyone and everything, but more importantly, the past, and the future. Also, the ‘baby’ language is the manifestation of yet another novelistic tool, new for 1914 and used here for the first time; so effective and now so widely used: a device that allows the narrator to adopt vocabulary, vocal mannerisms, colour, and tone of the character’s own speaking voice. In literary terms this is called free indirect discourse, or as critic James Wood likes to say, close writing. This is familiar to us now, (Edward St Aubyn’s The Patrick Melrose Novels, 2012, for example, and almost any novel written in the last 100 years) but innovative then. Also, usually for his times, early twentieth century and before, in novels of coming of age (Dicken’s David Copperfield, 1849 for one), biographical, or auto-biographical, the narrator wrote from the perspective of adulthood; there was a distance from the narrator to the subject. But here, as Stephen grows on the path to maturity, so does Joyce’s language. In 1916 Joyce’s text was radical. It’s as if Joyce, with this opening, was writing about Stephen at 6 years old when he, the narrator, was 6 years old. The action and tone are far more immediate, compelling, and authentic, and along with the non-judgemental narrator sets the ground-work for modernism which would be experimented with and adopted, not just by Joyce but by his contemporaries as well.
However, we know from this opening that this is going to be a story about a person called Stephen Dedalus (James Joyce) and that we are starting at the time when he was a very young boy and that his father wore spectacles and a beard. The original title of this book was another name, Stephen Hero, but he changed the title and the hero’s name.
In Greek mythology Daedalus was a skilled inventor and architect who built the labyrinth for King Minos of Crete to house the Minator, a monster, half man, half bull. He was also the father of Icarus. After Theseus killed the Minator, with Daedalus’s help, and fled with Ariadne, the king’s daughter, Minos imprisoned Daedalus and Icarus in the labyrinth but they escaped – after all, Daedalus built it – and flew the island by making themselves wings of feathers and wax.
Despite his father’s warning, Icarus, excited by the thrill of flying, flew too close to the sun god Helos as he rode his flaming chariot across the heavens, and the waxed wings melted, and Icarus fell and perished in the sea. Daedalus, after surviving another vengeful plot by Minos, escaped and finally settled in Sardinia where he joined a group led by Iolaus, nephew of Hercules; and as far as we know lived to a ripe old age.
In Romanticism, Icarus came to denote impetuousness, rebellion, and hubris, while Daedalus represented the classic artist, skilled, mature, and successful.
The young Stephen Dedalus is an observer, a listener. Early in the narrative he describes in great conversational detail a heated argument at the family Christmas table; an argument about Parnell, an Anglo-Irish politician, who by shrewd but steadfast political decisions became the figurehead of the Irish nationalistic movement in the nineteenth century; he renounced violent anti-Parliamentary action, but he was a protestant. Colm Tóibín writes that this scene could easily have been refracted around the tables of Irish dinners in the 1970’s and 80’s as family members argued over what was going on in Northern Ireland. And the scene where Stephen is unfairly punished resonated with Irish readers and writers: corporal punishment in Irish Catholic schools continued until the 1980’s. The influence of this book overshadowed generations of Irish long after it was published in 1916.
The young boy is also a thinker:
Was that a sin for Father Arnell to be in a wax or was he allowed to get into a wax when the boys were idle because that made them study better or was he only letting on to be in a wax? It was because he was allowed, because a priest would know what a sin was and would not do it. But if he did it one time by mistake what would he do to go to confession?
He asked the kind of questions Irish Catholic schoolboys have been asking themselves – and no-one else – for decades.
The first chapter ends with Stephan ‘reporting’ to the rector his unjust punishment at the hands of the prefect of studies, Father Dolan. This was a brave thing to do and his classmates hoisted him up, carried him along and shouted “Hurroo!” and threw their caps into the air. A stirring chapter-end of vengeance, courage, just fulfilment, and Joyce’s poetic language, not in a character’s words but from the narrator’s prose.
The fellows were practising long shies and bowling lobs and slow twisters. In the soft gray silence he could hear the bump of the balls: and from here and from there through the quiet air the sound of the cricket bats: pick, pack, pock, puck: like drops of water in a fountain falling softly in the brimming bowl.
Stephan has grown up a lot since moocow and baby tuckoo.
Chapter 2 is a portrait of a disillusioned young man in search of something profound which even he does not know what it is: “He wanted to meet in the real world the unsubstantial image which his soul so constantly beheld.” This “it” became “her” as if they would “make their tryst … in some secret place … and in that moment of supreme tenderness he would be transfigured … Weakness and timidity and inexperience would fall away from him in that magic moment.” This “her” in his mind (his muse?) is mingled with the heroine from Dumas’ novel The Count of Monte Cristo, Mercedes, or maybe its Ellen who, after a family bit of singing and dancing, comes with him on the tram where he is aware of her closeness, her wish for him to catch hold of her, “nobody is looking. I could hold her and kiss her” but he did neither and “stared gloomily at the corrugated footboard.”
This, a constant battle between the developing Artist and the developing Young Man.
And when he finally writes something about the tram, and Ellen and the kiss not made he “thought himself into confidence” over “a new pen, a new bottle of ink and a new emerald exercise” and “there remained no trace of the tram itself nor the tram-men nor of the horses” but only “of the night and the balmy breeze and the maiden lustre of the moon” and the kiss not given became a kiss “given by both.” Finally, the Artist at work; and, so often, his muse, his Art is so confounded with women, with sex. Women “demure and innocent” he sees by day, but by night “her face transfixed by lecherous cunning, her eyes bright with brutish joy” and he is left by morning nothing but a “humiliating sense of transgression.”
At school, he is studious but aware of voices urging him “to be a good gentleman”, “to be a good catholic above all things”, “to be strong and manly and healthy”, “to be true to his country,” “to raise up his father’s fallen state by his labours”, and “to be a decent fellow.” All this bidding by voices all around, “but he was happy only when far from them, beyond their call, alone or in the company of phantasmal comrades.” The battle continues. Even in his own existence. From 1904 he lived with a Dublin chambermaid who had little education nor any understanding of Joyce’s work and felt that he made his life more difficult by writing so strangely. She was vivacious, humerous, loved music, bore him two children, and stuck by him through intense poverty in Zurich and Paris while writing his most famous work, Ulysses. He was a husband and father, a Man, but then inside something else something separate, an Artist.
He is cast in a school play but his part humiliates him, “A remembrance of some of his lines made a sudden flush rise to his painted cheeks” but, surprisingly, the excitement and youth around him “entered into and transformed his moody mistrustfulness.” On stage he was amazed that the play during rehearsals that seemed a “disjointed lifeless thing” had taken on a life of its own and it was a success. He is amazed and confused by this and “his nerves cried out for further adventures” – this is Art and it is Alive! I want more! When he meets his family in the excited crowd outside the theatre he feigns an errand he annoyingly says he has to make and leaves them all before they can say a word. He strides alone through the city, his mind a “tumult of sudden-risen vapours of wounded pride and fallen hope and baffled desire” until he finds himself in a “dark cobbled laneway” where he “breathed slowly the rank heavy air.” Then this …
That is horse piss and rotted straw, he thought. It is a good odour to breathe. It will calm my heart. My heart is quite calm now. I will go back.”
Here the close writing of the third-person narrator (“he thought”) in the past tense gets so close that it slips from the past tense into the first-person (“my heart…”) present tense (“… is calm”) – truly radical for literary 1916 – and suddenly Stephen Dedalus is James Joyce. But only for these three short sentences. After the ***** the third-person narrator and the past tense returns.
Stephen was once again seated beside his father …
There is no linking action between Joyce’s scenes; this stream-of-consciousness would be picked up by his peers and by writers even to the present (Marlon James, The Brief History of Seven Killings, 2015). The dialogue is sparse but realistic, but Stephen’s internal thought patterns are poetic and constantly at battle with the world around him. He feels he is alien from his family, “mythical kinship of fosterage” and burdened with a “savage desire … to defile with patience whatever image had attracted his eyes.” Joyce transformed the narrative into isolated scenes, the paragraph into pictures of feeling, and the sentence into impressionistic bits; like the painters were doing to landscape and interiors in studios and fields all over Europe.
But it is in part 3 that Joyce’s major theme, his Christian faith, is described and exalted in a lengthy sermon as his sinful, lustful, self is set against it and painted as on a slippery but vengeful slope to hell and damnation. The Christian parable is given in a naturalistic and almost movie-like narrative; the glory of heaven rent asunder by the treachery and downfall of the once “shining angel’, Lucifer, who is cast from heaven along with his “rebellious angels” into their fiery haven of Hell; and to fill the gap in Heaven left by these fiends, God created Adam and Eve and gave them a wondrous garden to live in; but Lucifer was jealous of these clay-born creatures and tempted them to disobey God and eat the forbidden apple; so the archangel Michael cast them out into the “world of sickness and striving, of cruelty and disappointment, of labour and hardship to earn their bread in the sweat of their brow;” but God is pitiful and promises a redeemer that will take on all the suffering of the fallen people and give them a way to salvation. It’s a heady and powerful text to the developing mind of a teenage boy who sees nothing but poverty and temptation all around.
He came down the aisle of the chapel, his legs shaking and the scalp of his head trembling as though it had been touched by ghostly fingers. He passed up the staircase and into the corridor along the walls of which the overcoats and waterproofs hung like gibbeted malefactors, headless and dripping and shapeless. And at every step he feared he had already died, that his soul had been wrenched forth of the sheath of his body, that he was plunging headlong through space… Flames burst forth from his skull like a corolla, shrieking like voices: Hell! Hell! Hell! Hell! Hell!”
Alone in the darkness of his room, curled up on his bed, hands covering his face his fear of Hell becomes manifest with images of reeking dung and weeds and “goatish creatures with human faces … trailing their long tails behind them … soft language issued from their spittleless lips … circling closer and closer to enclose;” and so terrified he springs up, vomits, cries, prays and walks the city streets always conscious and fearful of his blackened and sinful self but fearing more the idea of confession: saying aloud what he has done, the seven deadly sins – he lost his virginity at 14 with a whore – he knows them all; the thought of saying it all to a goodly priest; shame fell on him like ash.
There has never been a more vibrant, terrifying description of a young boy’s idea of hell fostered by effective and horrific mind-altering descriptions from a pulpit, feeding the limited but hungry imaginations of those who listen. The Church knows how to do it.
But he does confess and is absolved of all his sins and the chapter ends with Stephen “sitting by the fire in the kitchen, not daring to speak for happiness” and dreaming of a glorious altar with fragrant masses of white flowers as he awaits among other communicants for the body and blood that will soon be his.
Stephen Dedalus, our 16-year-old hero, is now pious and as blameless as any person can be: his intricate piety and self-restraint – he allocates a rigorous discipline to all his senses – even surprised himself but they failed to eradicate “childish and unworthy imperfections” and he felt the “flood of temptation many times” but always eluded them like jumping back from an incoming wave which threatened to engulf him. His piety and dedication grows until the possibility of a priestly life is offered and his contemplation of it is many faceted in poetic language of the mind and the soul and the landscape and the image of an innocent girl standing island-like in the river shallows of the beach. Her skirts and petticoats are hitched up above the waves and “her long slender bare legs were delicate as a crane’s and pure save where an emerald trail of seaweed had fashioned itself as a sign upon the flesh.” He runs from the idea of her and has to eventually admit that his “inherent sinful nature” makes a religious life impossible.
The fifth and final chapter sees him a university student, living at home and still existing on watery tea and fried bread crusts soaked in yellow dripping. He is not a punctual student and misses more classes, English, French, Physics, than he attends. He, instead, seeks out compatible priests and peers and discusses with them his theories and definitions, based on Aristotle and Aquinas, of truth, art, and beauty. Such dissertations are punctuated by scenes of the everyday streetscape: passing students, argumentative men, noisy vehicles and pretty girls, “holding the umbrellas at cunning angles…their skirts demurely”, who were his only distraction. There is always a connection between women, art and sex: each can dislodge the over but it is always art that has the strongest power but which is the most hidden but aches to be exposed; he aspires to “the highest and most spiritual art,” literature.
The penultimate scene is a long conversation with fellow students culminating in a more intimate discussion with his friend, Cranly, about freedom, art, and escape. Finally, the third person gives way to the first, Dedalas is Joyce, in the form of diary entries from March 20 to April 27 1904 where his mother is putting his second-hand books in order and dreading the inevitable: the loss of her son’s love that enables him to learn his own life “away from home and friends what the heart is and what it feels.”
Welcome, O life. I go to encounter for the millionth time the reality of experience and to forge in the smithy of my soul the uncreated conscience of my race.
But it is his oath and his confession to Cranly, a few pages earlier, that rings the loudest and the most true:
I will no longer serve in that which I do not believe, whether it call itself my home, my fatherland, or my church: and I will try to express myself in some mode of life or art as freely as I can and as wholly as I can, using for my defence the only arms I allow myself to use – silence, exile, and cunning.
And that is what he did.
You can find the free ebook here, along with all his other works published by www.ebooks.adelaide.com a wonderful resource of texts out of copyright established and maintained by the University of Adelaide.
In a pub in the little cross-road town of Cullaville, just two fields north of the border between the United Kingdom and the Republic of Ireland, the bar has two till-drawers: one for Euros (Irish currency) and one for the British pound. More than 200 formal and informal roads (tractor and foot paths) cross the border and it isn’t often clear for travellers which country they are in; sometimes it may only be the change of the speed-limit that may give them a clue, sometimes nothing at all.
Alastair McDonnell, an MP from Belfast has been flooded with queries, following the Brexit vote, from his constituents about what will happen if the border becomes ‘hard’ again. It’s possible that come the reality of Brexit (2019 says British PM, Therese May) little border towns like Cullaville will potentially become the EU’s back door to Britain.
Anne Devlin, a resident of the North who buys her petrol in the South where it’s cheaper, said, “Brexit got everyone talking, that’s for sure. It reminds everyone who is who, where is where, north or south, the Troubles, all of that.” It’s been only 18 years since the last bomb exploded during the religious-based conflict that claimed more than 3,500 lives.
With the signing of the Anglo-Irish Agreement in 1985 between the UK and the Irish Republic the path was finally set for peace but which didn’t come for another 13 years with the signing of the Good Friday Agreement in 1998. In the summer of 1986 Colm Tóibín walked the border in preparation for his account of the feat published the following year: Bad Blood: a walk along the Irish border. Actually it was more like a ‘drink’ along the Irish border: Colm likes his ale.
For a border that may now need to be re-fortified, given the European refugee problem that doesn’t look like slowing down – certainly not within the next two years, its ‘hardness’ may have many other repercussions. Sometimes it runs through the middle of someone’s field; in South Armagh (the North) there is a shop whose “doorway itself was the border, the outside of the shop being in the North, every entry and exit involved smuggling”; and not only that, where the border separates County Fermanagh (the North) from County Caven (the South) there is a house where “the border went right through like a slicer through a block of cheese.
The house was a small, modest, old-fashioned cottage. When I knocked on the door a man in his sixties came out. His name was Felix Murray, I discovered, and the border ran through his house in which he and his two brothers lived. These days, he said, all three slept in the North, but there was a time when one of them had slept in the South. ‘Only an odd time now,’ he said, ‘we sleep in the State’. There was a sofa in the kitchen, he pointed out through the window. Where you could sit and let the border run through you.”
This was 20 years ago and things may be a different now but as you can see from the image below, the border to this day, seems a long way from logical.
His early non-fiction shows the development of Tóibín’s style later employed, to some extent, in his novels; his first novel, The South, was published in the following year, 1990. His fiction shows his debt to journalism with his plain unadorned prose, seen here in Bad Blood.
“I told him I was writing a book. He invited us in. He didn’t say anything. The front room of the house was small and comfortable. There was a fire lit. A television and a video machine stood in the corner.”
Compare this is a passage from his second novel, The Heather Blazing (1992),
“His grandmother was in the kitchen with his Aunt Margaret and his Aunt Molly who was married to his Uncle Patrick. Two of his cousins were in his the back room in cowboy suits. They all stood round as Eamon distributed the presents. Stephen sat by the fire, huddled in against the wall with his legs crossed. He opened his parcel slowly and smiled when he saw the book.” Short, bald, unadorned sentences.
Tóibín trusts his readers to do most of the descriptive work and gives them great responsibility to fill in the detail, so much so that in his latest novel, Nora Webster (2014) no place or person is described: every reader has a hometown, its feel and smells, and every reader knows a nosy neighbour or a favourite aunt and Tóibín relies on this reader-experience. In this way Toibin’s work, for readers, becomes very personal. A reader from Melbourne, Australia, on finishing reading The South, slept with it under her pillow for two weeks.
In 1989, even though the border may have been on the map it wasn’t, in a lot of places, on the land (large white crosses had to be painted on roads to make the border visible to British helicopter pilots), but it was in people’s hearts. Back then it was all about tension in the air but a stiff upper British lip, this is in the North, was still the way people behaved.
At dinner in a hospitable family house in the North the first course served was beetroot soup. Toibin, from the South, innocently commented that it was called borscht, and it was a great favourite of the Pope’s. That word hung in the air like a fart. Everyone stopped listening and became immensely interested in their soup and the care it took to not let it spill on the white tablecloth. No-one spoke.
Religion was not at the heart of it but at the bottom of it.
“Yes, one of them said, the older people maintained that the accidents were a sort of revenge for what was done to the Grahams. God, you know, did I understand? It was God. It seemed like a large number of young people from the same area, I said, to be killed in accidents. They nodded grimly. I said I didn’t think it was God. No, they agreed, they didn’t either. It was just something which was said.”
Since Brexit the talk now is again about Irish re-unification: Gerry Adams, leader of Sinn Fein (once a terrorist organisation, now a major political player), said that since the vote by the North against Brexit (56%) a referendum over unification was necessary, Michael Martin leader of the main opposition party in Ireland agrees; Arlene Foster, first minister of the North, thinks such a move would be ‘a folly’.
When Tóibín walked the border the air was still tense. Now a lot of golf is being played and it’s a nice place to be a cow. In people’s lives now the border is a shadow: it’s crossed for shopping, for school, for selling. No-one wants it to become a frontier again. What everyone wants is for the leaders in London, Brussels, Dublin and Belfast to manage Brexit while preserving the peace and allowing the economy to flourish. They’ve got 2 years.
Any child who has stumbled through childhood surrounded by unanswered questions, where adults were too occupied with their own demons to take notice; where one parent was largely absent in body and/or interest, and the other so shackled to society’s norms and buffeted uncomplainingly by the stings and shallows of the life they thought they had to lead, will relate to David Hare’s childhood in this, his 2015 memoir. David Hare’s father, Clifford Hare, a merchant sailor, was absent most of the time, while his mother, Agnes, conformed to the norms of the town of Bexhill, “a parody of suburbia”, between Eastbourne and Hastings on the Channel coast; a town described by James Agate as ‘bleak and purse-proud’ and used by the director Alfonso Cuarón as the location for those surviving Armageddon in his film Children of Men.
“Childhood is like going into the jungle without knowing what animals you will meet there.”
Saved from a fate he so easily saw on his horizon by cinema, the local theatre repertory companies, and his natural intelligence he weathered his upbringing and won a scholarship to Cambridge. Hare writes in a self-deprecating tone, which is endearing, but at the same time there is a feeling that he has done this to hide a sense of self-importance, as if his success and intellectual rise was inevitable. He wants to be liked. And steps in his making did seem to come easily and letter writing was one of his most successful modes of advancement: a holiday job in Los Angeles, a visit by Alfred Hitchcock, and a meeting with Peter Hall which had formidable repercussions.
It was at Cambridge in the 1960, ‘all wasps and no honey’ so said Kenneth Tynan, in a “self-deluded Britain” that Hare began his theatre-making, as both performer, director, and then as playwright.
“The very over-sensitivity which equips you to be a writer also makes being a writer agony.”
In 1969 while leading his Portable Theatre Company, Hare and co-founder Tony Bicât, had the idea of presenting, in their second season a play based on the history of evil and asked their new friend Howard Brenton, at the time working in the Royal Mint, to take it on. He eschewed the ‘history’ but kept the ‘evil’ in the character of serial killer John Reginald Christie, and set it in a pen made of chicken wire filled with old newspaper. Christie in Love “plays with the controversial notion that when Christie practised necrophilia, assaulting his dead women, he was, in his own eyes, expressing a kind of love.” Hare had only written one short play to fill in a gap in the previous program but Brenton’s “brilliant” play, directed by Hare, set Portable, and Hare, on a path of creating and presenting new plays.
“…my most important discovery about playwriting … Every line on dialogue, every exit and entry, every development of the story, every deliberate change of mood on the stage pleases or displeases the author for reasons they would be at a loss to explain. The mystery of style is exactly that: a mystery. Yes, of course, I could clean the play up. I could redraft. I could, if necessary, make the action more deft. I was perfectly capable of saying. ‘That scene’s working, but that one isn’t. That joke’s working, but that one isn’t.’ But to the basic question ‘Why is the play the way it is?’ I had no answer at all.” No matter what you WANT to write, “ultimately you are at the mercy of your imagination – what ever that might be”; a bit like Christie.
There are moments in everyone’s life when the wanting of something is far more powerful than the getting of it; and there are many times when our bodies and our imagination are at odds; the latter taking over from the former and causing a positive, or negative, but involuntary, outcome. A man knows when his body betrays his will with an unnecessary erection; a woman once was so attracted to Ted Hughes, she vomited, something she did not want to do; Marcel Proust wrote at the age of 18 that ‘Desire makes all things flourish, possession withers them’; and David Hare separates his wanting to write a play, from his imagination that finally finishes it. In this sense we are all victims of our imagination, which can give our lives succor, as in a creative individual like Hare, or destroy it, as in another individual like Christie.
Theatre “is about people, it is not about types. Shakespeare did not intend Macbeth to be an indictment of Scottish monarchy. Nor is the characterisation of Lady M misogynist.” Recently in the London Review of Books review of The Girl on the Train; the writer, a woman, was horrified that the novelist, a women, seemed to her, to hate women. Yes, the female characters are in turn, liars, drunks, traitors, and lay-abouts, but the story is about these women, not all women. Hare derides this “idiotic language of role models” as a symptom of the late 1988s but it continues today. He says, “…with the rising tide of programmatic wordsoup which would threaten the vigour and authenticity of theatre in the new century, I would have no patience. Work, when fully achieved, seemed to me a more powerful manifesto than manifestos.”
David Hare, now Sir David Hare, is a very British writer for stage and film with an impressive list of work over many decades: they include Knuckle (1974), Fanshen (1975), Teeth ‘n’ Smiles (1975), Plenty (1978), The Blue Room (1998), The Judas Kiss (1998), Stuff Happens (2004), South Downs (2011), The Moderate Soprano (2015). His Skylight (1995) play was presented by the Melbourne Theatre Company earlier this year. He also penned the screenplay for the 2002 film The Hours, among many others.
“When I was small I woke up in Germany… Then I got up and looked out the window and saw Ireland.” And Ireland was a place where people spoke English, a language his father ferociously banned in his house. Hamilton said later, “The prohibition against English made me see that language as a challenge. Even as a child I spoke to the walls in English and secretly rehearsed dialogue I heard outside.”
Primarily, Hugo Hamilton’s intriguing memoir, The Speckled People, is about this: a language war.
“We lived in an imaginary place that my [German] mother had created in her stories,” Hugo Hamilton told an audience in the South Lounge on the Lincoln Center campus in February 2011. “As a child, I knew exactly how to get from my mother’s house where she grew up to the bakery, though I’d never been to Kempen, where she came from. And then there was also this imaginary place that my father had, which was a vision of Ireland as an Irish-speaking country.”
“We are the new Irish. Partly from Ireland and partly from somewhere else, half Irish and half German. We’re the speckled people…homemade Irish bread with German raisins.”
The Speckled People is like no other book I’ve ever read. Firstly it is told, in the first person, not surprising as this is a memoir, but by the author of about 8 years old, and to a person of such a young age whose world is that created by his parents there are things he perceives and understands but there are things he perceives and does not understand. His thoughts are usually long, bumpy, and windy but sometimes short and pithy.
“My mother makes everything better with cakes and stories and hugs that crack your bones. When everybody is good, my father buys pencil cases with six coloured pencils inside, all sharpened to a point …My father also likes to slam the front door from time to time. He sends a message to the world depending who knocked. If it’s the old woman who says, ‘God bless you Mister’, and promises to pray for him and all his family, if it’s the man who sharpens the garden shears on a big wheel or if it’s someone collecting for the missions, then he gives them money and closes the door gently. If it’s people selling carpets he shakes his head and closes the door firmly. If it’s the two men in suits with Bibles then he slams it shut to make sure that not even one of their words enters into the hall. And if it’s one of the people selling poppies, then he slams it shut so fast the whole street shakes.”
And like a child’s idea of what and when things happened different tenses are mixed, matched, and juxtaposed carefully constructed to give the impression of a child’s mind making sense of the world, juggling memory and present action to create an unusual but gratifying picture of a childhood marred by confusion, paternal foolery but maternal strength and self-acceptance.
Secondly, there is very little dialogue; the text is dense but accessible, and the narrative is reduced to chapters like vignettes; riffs on a common theme: a young boy’s memory of how and why he is what he is.
This may give the impression of monotone, both linguistically and metaphorically, but the patches of storytelling are fascinating as children seem to see things, and collate things, that adults either miss, discount, or deny; but given this format, like snap-shots, there is still an over-riding arc of passing-time which sees his father lose the language-wars and die before seeing his Ireland completely Anglicised and lost to his romantic and nationalistic idea of it; and yet his mother, as with everything, anchors the final image of widow and children lost on a family outing, watching the day disappear, vainly searching “to find things”, memories of her past in a new land…
“My mother took out a cigarette because she was free to smoke after my father died. We stood on the road and watched her face lighting up with a match. We smelled the new smoke in the clean air and waited. She said she didn‘t know where to go from here. We were lost, but she laughed and it didn’t matter.”
Hugo Hamilton, born in 1953, lives in Dublin and is well regarded in Germany where his contemporaries tell him he speaks German, softly, like it used to be spoken. So successful was The Speckled People that he continued the memoir in The Sailor in the Wardrobe which was published in 2006, as well as turning the former volume into a stage play that premiered at The Gate Theatre, Dublin, in 2011.
In 2008 Hugo Hamilton took fellow writer and friend, Nuala O’Faolain – also represented on my 2015 ‘to read’ list – to Berlin for a few days. O’Faolain was sixty eight, wheel-chair bound, doped up on Xanax, and in the last stages of metastatic cancer for which she refused treatment. She died 10 days after the journey. Hamilton fictionalised the experience in his 2014 novel, Every Single Minute, another must-read.
The Specked People is certainly not the Irish memoir of poverty and victimhood so universally popularised by Frank McCourt’s Angela’s Ashes and its ilk. This is unusual, bold and stimulating, profound and entertaining. Everything a memoir should be but satisfying in ways I didn’t expect.
In the early stages of my mother’s relationship with my step-father, when she could get what she wanted – don’t think she was asking for diamonds, she wanted a good sized bathroom, a good sized laundry and a flushing toilet and those she got – she also got me a piano.
Unfortunately the means to teach me to play it were limited. There were two possibilities: I could go to the nuns or I could go to the Shefte College of Music; but being a good Lutheran family, going to the nuns was completely out of the question and therefore not a possibility at all, so the Shefte College of Music it had to be.
This turned out to be the wrong choice since the teachers at the Shefte College of Music were sloppy and extremely unmusical. They travelled up from the city to my small country town every Monday so I stayed with Auntie Ivy in town on Monday nights since the music lessons were after school and I would miss the school bus back to the farm. I liked staying with Aunty Ivy on Monday nights because my Latin teacher, Miss Linke, boarded with my Aunty Ivy and it was Miss Linke on whom I had an enormous crush.
But back to the music. The music teachers from the Shefte College of Music taught piano and piano-accordion. I actually wanted to learn to play the harp as another crush of mine at the time was on Harpo Marx. No-body had a harp but I had a piano so the piano it had to be.
We already had a piano-accordion player in the family. One of my step brothers learnt to play the piano-accordion from a local girl. He was so good at it that he married her. They used to play piano accordion duets in his room where my mother insisted they play with the door open. It was understood but never said that they might do things to each other that my mother disapproved of. This puzzled me because if the door was closed I couldn’t understand what they could possibly do to each other while both had piano-accordions strapped to their chests and all four hands energetically engaged in pushing and pulling, keying and buttoning piano-accordion arrangements of songs from South Pacific. If you haven’t heard a piano-accordion duet of “I’m Gunna Wash That Man Right Out of My Hair” then your musical upbringing is sadly lacking.
The teaching method of the Shefte College of Music was based on the belief that all young people were interested in pop songs. Therefore they taught their students to read music only in the treble clef. They completely ignored the bass clef but trained our left hand to vamp the guitar chords which were always printed in a little box above the treble bars. This worked well for songs like “Beautiful Beautiful Brown Eyes,” “If I Were a Rich Man,” and “The Impossible Dream.” My earliest public performance was in the Glenelg Town Hall, in the big city, at the end-of-year concert where I was part of an ensemble of 10 pianos and 15 piano-accordions all bashing out “Lady of Spain” almost at the same time. The noise was … remarkable. It was my first taste of public acclaim. The audience applauded very loudly when it was finished.
When I asked could I learn the piano piece that accompanied a popular TV commercial about fabric conditioner they were a little surprised but they found the music which didn’t have guitar chords on it and that’s how I learnt to play a piece called “Fur Elise.” I only learnt the first page; it was a very short commercial.
My mother made me practice every day which I did after I came home from school. It was at this time of the day when everyone in the house was out of the house doing the evening chores. They all assured me that they could still hear me practicing and I was doing very well. I was particularly good, I thought, at “Sadie, The Cleaning Lady.”
During one Christmas holidays in another little country town I was baby-sitting my sister’s children. After the kids went to bed I decided to listen to some of my sister’s LPs. We didn’t have any music player on the farm. Music was more closely related to church, the organ, and Sundays. There was a pile of records in my sister’s very modern and very long HiFi unit, made of polished wood and glass with speakers at either end. It was a stereo system and you could stack on the central spike several records at a time and each one, and only one, would drop down after the previous record was finished. It was very mechanical and very modern and had a built in cocktail cabinet. Their record collection consisted of the James Last Band and Herb Alpert & the Tijuana Brass. That was it. But on this particular night I went right to the bottom of the pile and came across an LP that I had never seen before. It was red and written across the top were the words “The Original Motion Picture Soundtrack.” The name of the motion picture was incorporated into the design; red on red, so it took me a few moments to find it. It was called “West Side Story.” I had no idea what it was so I played it. I watched as the black disc dropped down and the arm came across and lowered itself on the first track; and I listened. I was mesmerised. I had never heard anything like this before. It was so surprising. You could tell that there were a lot of musicians playing a lot of different instruments all at the same time. It sounded like there were hundreds of them; and no-one was vamping. There wasn’t even a piano. For the next hour or so, while I sipped Creme de Menthe from a very little glass I played the first song – it was called “Overture” – over and over again. It was the most exciting music I had ever heard.
Those same Christmas holidays were my last on the farm. In February I went to the big city, to boarding school, to do my matriculation year before going to university. I left home. On the first weekend I took my horde of pocket money, I’d been saving for months, and I went into the city on the bus, by myself, and found a music shop. I wanted to buy some orchestral music but I had no idea what to buy. I found a little music shop in a little lane-way that sold not only LPs but cassettes and cassette players. I bought a cassette player about the size of a small type-writer. Then I searched for music cassettes of orchestral music. I spent hours in that shop. I only had enough money for two cassettes. After much deliberation, based on nothing but the picture on the front, I bought a cassette with music by someone called Saint See-ens; a piano concerto it was called, Number 2. I searched for number 1 but couldn’t find it. It was clear to me that although the composer was a saint I was sure it wasn’t religious music. I knew I didn’t want religious music. I also bought a cassette of music by someone called De-vor-rak. It was called “From the New World” and I bought it because of the word “New”. I liked the fact that it was new.
My musical education, taste, and the pronunciation of European composers have all improved, wandered, and grown over the decades since. I played Saint-Saëns Piano Concerto No 2 only yesterday which sparked my wish to write the above. It’s still one of my favourite concertos. However I cannot listen now to Dvořák’s From the New World, his Symphony No 9. I’m not sure why. It makes me cringe.
Little pieces like this have occurred to me lately, I suppose, because I have just finished reading a memoir. However the above was a little experiment on how to convey my naivety and wide-eyed wonderment at discovering orchestral music. Short and simple sentences, something that an eight year old might write, was my way of trying to achieve this; but it was also an experiment in meaning. I hope it was clear that when I wrote, “I was particularly good at “Sadie, The Cleaning Lady”” you understood that I meant the exact opposite and that despite my description of 10 pianos and 15 piano-accordions playing “Lady of Spain” you understood that it was probably the most hideous noise a pair of ears could endure. But, successful or not, I’m sure you’ll tell me.
I don’t often read memoir, or biography, or autobiography. I have read those of, or about, Tennessee Williams, W Somerset Maugham, Jane Bowles, Maurice Ravel; heroes of mine at the time; but yesterday I was reading Nuala O’Faolain’s remarkable memoir Are You Somebody? and suddenly this popped into my head …
I put down the book and sat down at my desk.
For Mrs Paterson
My earliest proud attempt at writing, at completing something, has stuck in my mind. I have thought about it often.
We were asked to write an essay on any subject but I chose to write a short story: completely made up. It was 1969, that year at Immanuel College, my last hurdle before University, boarding school, the best year of my education, when the Americans stepped on the moon; the first thing I wrote for the wonderful and sensual Mrs Paterson.
It went something like this, not the story itself, but my recollection of it.
In an unnamed little country town, every Sunday morning, an old widower, leaves his low-verandered cottage, a cottage with a frown, and takes a little bunch of flowers, whatever he can find in his garden, to his wife’s grave at the far end of the town; at the other end of the single street. Along the way he passes his neighbours and fellow towns-people pottering in their gardens or sitting on their porches, people he hardly ever speaks to except on Sunday mornings. He chats absent-mindedly to old Mrs So-and-so; to Mr and Mrs This-an-that. These people speak fondly of his dead wife, which is something he expects them to do; they knew her and they know where he is going and so they talk about her. They mention the time when she…; or the day they saw her ….; or even the time she told them about …; that sort of thing. They never mention much about him because he was always there and would, of course, know exactly what they are talking about. Like most people they speak in unfinished sentences where new thoughts interrupt the flow, or old thoughts occur to them again. He nods his head in recognition and chuckles when they chuckle, shakes his head at the likeness of her, at an anecdote he doesn’t remember but makes out that he does. And he shuffles on past the next house, the next garden, admiring the zinnias (he hates zinnias), getting a response or sometimes not. These little stories remarked on by the people he meets are sometimes the same as the Sunday before, and sometimes they are not; but on this particular Sunday, on this particular walk with this particular combination of familiar stories and unfamiliar stories, some he believes and some he thinks are pure humbug; on this particular Sunday morning with the clouds and the wind making these particular shapes against the blue, he gets to the little rusty gate of the little church cemetery and it dawns on him. They all hate him. They all hate him, and they loved his wife. She was the good one, he is the fool; she was the one who put up with his cantankerousness, his petty complaints about them, his way of blaming her for things he thought she had done. They talked behind his back and still do, he realises. If he looks back down the street now; if he turns his old fading body around he would see them all standing on their porches, amongst their silly zinnias, looking at him, whispering to each other about him. And that’s what they do every Sunday. It was her they loved. But he doesn’t look back because he is not brave enough to do that, not now. He shuffles on to do what he came to do. He stands on the damp earth by his wife’s neat little grave; and as he takes out the flowers from the little jam jar in its little concrete hollow his heart gives a jump because he knows his realisation is true: these are not the flowers he put there last Sunday. Other people tend her grave; these are other flowers, better than his. His old legs give way and he sinks to his knees still clutching his pathetic little posy, a daisy, a thistle, a piece of fern. As he feels the cold tears running down his cheek and feels the damp oozing through his trousers, he begs his wife to forgive him, she who was the good one, she who was loved more; and how can he get up and walk back to his little cottage when he now knows the truth: she is loved, he is not. What is he going to do? How can he possibly go on?
I was very proud of my story; god knows where it came from. I sat in my seat as Mrs Paterson gave back the stories to her students. I sat wondering how I was going to deal with the praise that I was sure would follow. Someone is always mentioned as the best. What would I say? Mrs Paterson, speaking in generalities about the stories, about her student’s work, paced up and down the aisles between our wooden desks and then she put my story down in front of me. I hesitated to look at the top of the page where the mark was sure to be, savouring the moment. Then I looked. I saw the mark, in red ink, at the top of the page and my heart stopped. Sixteen out of twenty. Is that all? I was devastated. There must be some mistake. I read the first line, “On a Sunday morning, like every other Sunday morning…” Yes, it was my story. But my story was a work of genius from one so young. Didn’t she realise? But by then Peter Fitzner was standing up receiving the praise that I was sure would be mine. Peter bloody Fitzner. Didn’t she understand? That was it. I had decided. It was as simple as that: she just did not understand. Genius can be so overlooked, you know. It had happened before, I was sure.