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Monday, October 25, 2010

And the Answer Is?!

In the US, where Tóibín will return for another semester after Christmas, he says ‘there’s a great rule, that if you’re invited to someone’s home you must be standing up leaving by 9.40.’ A couple of times he and novelist Jeffrey Eugenides, a colleague at Princeton, broke this rule and on one occasion a dinner ended in a row. He and Eugenides were on one side, defending their craft, while the art historians on the other side of the argument made the case for the avant-garde. ‘How dare you even mention Samuel Beckett’ was the gist of their attack, ‘when you’re pumping out old-fashioned social realist novels that middle-class consumers want to buy.’

(Guardian Review, 23 October)

Sunday, October 24, 2010


It is amusing to try to find the least interesting subject Larkin thought worth setting down in a letter to Monica. For my money, the prize goes to a 1959 letter, which begins:

I have four rolls of pink toilet paper on my low table, more or less at my elbow, but their only significance is that I’ve been too lazy to put them away. Pink is a new departure for me – only just discovered Bronco (why Bronco? Talking Bronco) makes it.

(Philip Hensher reviews Craig Brown, sorry Philip Larkin’s letter to Monica Jones in The Spectator; though by the way, Philip Hensher, it was Larkin’s secretary, not Monica Jones, who destroyed his diaries).

Hull Pubs (Cont.)

An update. Sean O’Brien has been in touch and shared yet more old Hull pub names, such as the (now-departed) Golden Ball on Air Street, on the confluence between Wincolmlee and Bankside, in my single favourite part of Hull. A quick Google search turns up not just these fine pictures of it but a fascinating accompanying article, detailing the sad deaths of a group of intoxicated whalebone-scrapers, of all things.

Someone commission me to do it and I will happily write a history of the Hull boozer. Someone buy me enough drinks and I’ll do it for nothing. Wonderful stuff.

I Am Only Now Catching Up With the Bunny Suicides Phenomenon

The Alexandra Hotel

Finding myself in the area yesterday, I dropped in on Hull’s only Jewish-themed pub (those stars of David on the façade), the Alexandra Hotel on Ropery Street off Hessle Road. A quick look on flickr suggests claims the building is a former synagogue are mistaken, but that the surrounding area was formerly a Jewish enclave and that there is still (?) a Jewish home for the elderly nearby. There is also a small Jewish cemetery just behind the pub, and inside it, I’m pleased to report, a raucous African grey parrot called Sparky, who once told Archbishop Sentamu to eff off¸ or so I’m told. He’d turned up for the annual fishermen’s commemoration, in case you’re wondering. The pub’s wood panelling is superb, as is the sight of an old piano on a small raised stage. The opening hours are advertised as 6 a.m. to 3 a.m. and you can stay overnight (those tricky three hours...) for fifteen quid. There is not very much else to do in the area, let me be the first to admit, though I was pleased the neighbouring Inkerman Inn is currently open too, after an intermission in the realms of the closed.

Still on Hull pub lore, I was discussing just that subject with Sean O’Brien the other week when he stumped me by mentioning a pub called the Marrowbone and Cleaver. I can now report that this is the present-day and spooneristically renamed Barrowman on Hotham Road.

One thing I’ve noticed with pubs like the Alexandra Hotel is how many of them stock Chestnut’s Dark Mild, which you never get in pubs on Newland or Prince’s Avenue, despite the wide range of beers most Hull pubs stock. Goes down very pleasantly too. But young people won’t drink mild. So what will happen to these historic pubs when their few old drinkers all die off? There was a depressing feature in yesterday’s Guardian on the South Bank area of Middlesbrough, where multi-generational unemployment is rife and the recession is picking off whole streets, canned-up house by house, and what was once a working-class culture falls through the trapdoor into sub-Shameless destitution. It is an appalling sight to behold, and there is plenty of it round here too, and what am I suggesting we do about it? Drink pints of mild in quirkly old historical pubs, that’s what. Well, it’s a start.

Tuesday, October 19, 2010

Follow Me Up to Carlow!

Follow you up to Carlow? I rarely wake up thinking I will have wasted the day unless I visit Ireland’s bonzai county, but when Fiach McHugh O’Byrne tells you to do something it’s probably as well to listen. Oh, and that new O’Hara’s stout (from Carlow) ain’t bad, I must say. Finding myself in Ireland last week and in need of a good hangover cure, I took myself south through Wicklow to Glenmalure and the mythopoeic mountain of Ballinacor. Though to all appearances an unremarkable protuberance on the Greenan to Aughavannagh road, Ballinacor was the site of Fiach McHugh O’Byrne/Fiach mac Aodh Ó Broin’s mountain rath or fortress, Gabhal Raghnaill, from which he ruled over much of Wicklow in what was by then (the late sixteenth century) the last surviving Gaelic kingdom in Ireland, and one whose close proximity to Dublin and the Pale made his elimination all the more pressing in the eyes of the crown. He supported Rory Og O’More’s rebellion in 1577 and survived retaliatory raids on his territory after the murder of Sir Nicholas White’s son-in-law. He pledged allegiance to the crown in 1579, but continued in his cattle-raiding ways, and the following year engaged Baron Grey de Wilton and his 6,000 troops in the Battle of Glenmalure. The mountainous terrain and tactical naïveté of the English led to heavy losses on their side (up to 3,000 soldiers), as commemorated in ‘Follow Me Up To Carlow’, that goriest of Irish rebel songs:

Lift, MacCahir Óg, your face. You’re brooding o’er the old disgrace
That black FitzWilliam stormed your place and drove you to the Ferns
Grey said victory was sure and soon the firebrand he’d secure
Until he met at Glenmalure with Fiach MacHugh O’Byrne.

Curse and swear Lord Kildare
Fiach will do what Fiach will dare
Now FitzWilliam, have a care
Fallen is your star low
Up with halberd out with sword
On we’ll go for by the lord
Fiach MacHugh has given the word,
Follow me up to Carlow!

See the swords of Glen Imaal; they’re flashing o’er the English Pale
See all the children of the Gael, beneath O’Byrne’s banner
Rooster of the fighting stock, would you let a Saxon cock
Crow out upon an Irish rock - fly up and teach him manners.


From Tassagart to Clonmore, there flows a stream of Saxon gore
But great is Rory Óg O’More at sending loons to Hades.
White is sick and Lane is fled and now for black FitzWilliam’s head
We’ll send it over, dripping red, to Liza and her ladies.


Even after his triumph, Hugh remained a beleaguered figure. He assisted Red Hugh O’Donnell after his escape from Dublin Castle and flight across the mountains to Glenmalure. Coincidentally, since O’Donnell was one of the Gaelic lords who would end up in continental exile after the Flight of the Earls in 1607, it is worth noting that the court bard of another flighty earl, Cuchonnacht Maguire (Cú Chonnacht Mac Uidhir), Eochaidh Ó hEodhasa, spent some time at Gabhal Raghnaill. Hugh was forced to sue for peace on his knees in 1596, but various local skirmishes later was tracked down and killed in 1597. His staked body was displayed outside Dublin Castle and his pickled head brought to London for the queen’s inspection, before ending up in the fork of a tree in Enfield Chase, where I trust he is still remembered fondly.

The Leabhar Branach is the bardic praise book of the O’Byrne clan, containing many poems in praise of Hugh. It was edited by Seán Mac Airt for the Dublin Institute of Advanced Studied in 1944 and, let me assume, won’t be getting reprinted any time soon. Some of those mildewed old editions do and some don’t have facing translations. This is one that doesn’t, a fact that has ever so slightly hampered my ability to read all 200 melodious staves of the average ode extolling Hugh’s ability to put the Saxon infidel to the sword. I was all primed to buy a copy in Hodges Figgis on this last visit of mine, only to find it not there anymore, a purchase that must have caused some surprise and even shock to the sales assistant who finally got the thing off their hands. The next time, maybe.

The territory is also sacred to mysterious Irish-language poet Biddy Jenkinson, let me also mention, a writer whose work I study with much respect and varying degrees of basic comprehension.

Coming down the valley I was charmed to come across M. J. Byrne’s pub in Greenan, which I understand has been run by a pair of brothers for many decades now, its décor unchanged since 1921. It was not open for business as I passed, though I did encounter a pair of local halfwits preparing to drown some unwitting collie dog puppies in a bucket (see photograph).

Fiach Mac Aodh abú!

Monday, October 11, 2010

This Is Way More Fun Than What You Are Doing (Well, What I Am Doing) Now Even If Nothing Is Happening Which Will Be Most Of The Time

They are one of only two species of oviparous monotreme in the world, they secrete poison from spurs in their ankles, they locate their prey in the water through a system of electrolocation, they close their eyes, ears and nostrils when they swim, they have ten sex chromosomes compared with two in most mammals, they are so awkward and ornery that having bred once in captivity in 1943 they refused to do so again until 1998 – and you can watch one live, here!

Hungarian Toxic Sludge Stages Coup, Outlines Vision of Inclusive, Toxic Sludge-Based (and -Covered) Society

Sunday, October 10, 2010

In Defence of John Dryden

It can only be a matter of time, but when I finally bow to the gravitational pull that comes over me in the newsagent every Sunday morning and transfer my loyalties from the Observer to the News of the World, one thing at least that won’t leap off the pages at me, in among the updates on Katie Price’s humongous knockers and Wayne Rooney’s continuing war with evolution, is a piece of gratuitous abuse heaped on someone who is only, for God’s sake, the best translator in the canon of English poetry and one of the two or three best political poets in the language.

‘Only a sadist would inflict Dryden on our schoolchildren’, screams the headline. It seems pouting Toryboy Michael Gove, MP for Dotheboys Hall, has been calling for the reintroduction of Dryden in schools (despite the fact that he still is on the syllabus, but that’s beside the point). ‘Where in the last half century have Dryden and Pope been routinely imposed on children? Even in the corporal punishment years, such abuse was rare’, screams Catherine Bennett. Em, in my school? Which wasn’t even in this sceptred isle, site of my current Babylonian captivity, but knew a good Papish rhymer when it saw one. I studied Absalom and Achitophel and MacFlecknoe, and the Rape of the Lock too (not the Rape of the Loch as Bennett chortlesomely calls it, though please, tell me more...) with something like enjoyment; and though Pres Bray may not have been the best of blahdy good public schools, such as Dryden readers should ideally be attending, my fellow minor baronets’ sons didn’t seem to mind the force-feeding of the ‘Augustan even other Augustans couldn’t stand’ down our pre-pubescent necks, as I was reminiscing to Lord Digby-O’Trumpington just the other day. Or not noticeably more than they minded the force-feeding of Thomas Kinsella’s ‘Another September’ or a spot of John Donne. At least it wasn’t Benjamin Zephaniah, we told ourselves as Brother Bosco gave us another six of the best. And that was just the boys he didn’t fancy.

A couple of points though: just as the school master who told Tony Harrison to stop garbling Keats with his horrible non-RP accent was somewhat misinformed about Keats’s own social class, Bennett too has allowed herself to be sadly sucker-punched by the political colours of Dryden’s latest fan. For (duh) Dryden makes a very poor example of a writer who saw ‘in the monarchy a source of benign, and necessary, authority, unpolluted by ambition and above the petty politicking of parliaments’, or Michael Gove’s idea of the monarchy at any rate. Dryden was a supporter of the House of Stuart. He refused to take the oath of allegiance in 1688, an action that lost him the laureateship. Absalom and Achitophel is saturated in the feverish atmosphere of the Monmouth Rebellion, the Popish Plot, and the Exclusion Crisis, this last hinging on the exclusion of Catholics from public life. Dryden was a convert. Pope was a Catholic. Read your English history, Catherine Bennett (and you too, Michael Gove). Do not tell me Dryden and Pope are pillars of the establishment you love or love to hate.

Still, Dryden knew a good dullard when he saw one:

Sh-- alone my own true image bears
Mature in dullness from his tend’rest years
Sh-- alone of all my sons is he
Who stands confirm’d in full stupidity
The others to some meaning make pretense
But Sh-- never deviates into sense.
Besides, his goodly fabric fills the eye
As though foredoomed to thoughtless majesty.

But wait, we’re not done yet! Because why, I want to know, is a newspaper that achieved a certain standing for its interest in poetry in, I believe, the 1960s, publishing not just one but two articles on the same day insulting that art in ways the News of the World never manages (Who’s For a Phwoarward Prize?! Top Bard’s Terza Rima’n’ Hookers Shame: if only)? For just a few pages further on we find Robert McCrum salivating over a rejected poem by Ted Hughes that has had the misfortune to tumble out from behind the sofa and into print and whose subject is (oh God no) the suicide of Hughes’s first wife. You’re still a bit too caught up in the subject matter, you can hear yourself counselling the teenager who brought something like this along to a creative writing workshop. The poem’s failure comes down to its knowledge of this fact but simultaneous determination not to retreat from it either. It doesn’t work. But then neither does most of Birthday Letters, a piece of inveterate mythologizing which still finds time to attack the feminist harpies who turned the flesh and blood Plath into a... what is the word... myth. Hughes was a flawed genius one of whose tragedies is to have recruited fans who mistake for his best work poems that are in fact among his worst. Step forward Robert McCrum:

The question that feminist critics have endlessly debated is: was she so obsessed with her dead father that her suicide was almost predetermined, or did Hughes’s behaviour, particularly his decision to leave her for another woman after six years of marriage, push her over the edge?

I don’t know about Robert McCrum’s seminars, but in mine we apply not just feminist but but structuralist and Marxist readings too, which helped us to decide just the other week that it was the signifier-signified split or, no wait, the execution of the Rosenbergs that ‘pushed her over the edge’, or whatever you’re having yourself to keep you from mentioning a single poem Plath ever wrote, over the course of an entire page in a broadsheet newspaper. This is a sad shambles of a soap opera for readers of a paper that should know better. No poetry coverage at all would be better than idiocies of this wattage. Now, where’s my News of the World.

Friday, October 01, 2010

A full lecherous beast in youth, swift, pliant, and merry

I found the image I used the other day of those medieval cats (one affectingly shedding a tear at the impediment to his throat-ripping ways represented by the bars of a birdcage) on Google, but have no idea which manuscript it derives from. Does anyone know? As I trawled around in search of answer, I did, however, come across the following most excellent description of cats in Bartholomaeus Anglicus’s thirteenth-century De Proprietatibus Rerum. Did Christopher Smart read this, I wonder? Our scribe writes:

He is a full lecherous beast in youth, swift, pliant, and merry, and leapeth and reseth on everything that is to fore him: and is led by a straw, and playeth therewith: and is a right heavy beast in age and full sleepy, and lieth slyly in wait for mice: and is aware where they be more by smell than by sight, and hunteth and reseth on them in privy places: and when he taketh a mouse, he playeth therewith, and eateth him after the play. In time of love is hard fighting for wives, and one scratcheth and rendeth the other grievously with biting and with claws. And he maketh a ruthful noise and ghastful, when one proffereth to fight with another: and unneth is hurt when he is thrown down off an high place. And when he hath a fair skin, he is as it were proud thereof, and goeth fast about: and when his skin is burnt, then he bideth at home; and is oft for his fair skin taken of the skinner, and slain and flayed.

To Whom It May Concern