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Friday, December 31, 2010

Legends of Benin, Legends of Angola

What an admirable man Samy Ben Redjeb is. He appears to spend his time travelling round Africa putting together compilations of lost musical traditions, two examples of which I’ve been greatly enjoying, namely, Legends of Benin: Afro-Funk, Cavacha, Agbadja, Afro-Beat, and Angola Soundtrack: The Unique Sound of Luanda 1968-1976. Gnonnas Pedro et Ses Dadjes, El Rego et Ses Commandos, Honoré Avolonto et l’Orchestre PolyRythmo, Os Bongos, N’Goma Jazz, Jovens do Prenda: how many of these musicians will anyone outside Africa ever have heard of? One point of reference at least for Europeans will be the Cuban influence, which seems to have been continentally ubiquitous, and of which Senegal’s Orchestra Baobab are probably the best-known example, and as recently revisited by the Afrocubism project (I was at their gig in London the other week). But then, I also read, Benin’s west coast is home to a large Brazilian community, descendants of freed slaves who brought the influence of samba and French chanson back with them. So there’s all manner of cross-fertilisation going on. Quite apart from how good the music is on these albums, the booklets that come with the albums are fascinating documents, full of interviews with the musicians and period photos (the trousers! the shirts! the haircuts!).

Of the Beninois musician Antoine Dougbé, one of whose publicity photos shows him posing in front of an eminently sensible-looking 70s hatchback with a sickle and machete, we read:

[his] father had been a very powerful and feared Vodun Priest (...) Dougbé had learned all the secrets from him and was a serious ritual of Vodun rituals and he had used his powers on different occasions. You really had to make sure there wasn’t the slightest misunderstanding with him. (...) I’ve been to his house many times to seek protection. He would rub oils all over your body, make you swallow bizarre stuff and he would give you protective ‘gris gris’ (charms), which you were always supposed to carry with you.

{Quotation ends}

As for El Rego, we read: ‘The best time to catch El Rego [these days] is on Tuesday mornings, when he makes his weekly visit to collect his earnings from his Nigerian prostitutes at Le Playboy.’

The liner notes for the Angolan album have a darker edge to them. ‘Independence meant a lot to us, we were expecting a new era, a new energy’, says Jovens do Prenda’s guitarist, ‘but instead we received an endless war.’ I’m guessing the musical pickings for the years 1975-2002 are a lot thinner, sadly (consider the fate of David Zé, one of the featured musicians here, murdered in 1977).

Youtube clip features Honoré Avolonto of Benin’s thoroughly addictive ‘Na Mi Do Gbé Hué Nu’. Avolonto was a leading light in the Orchestre Poly-Rhythmo de Cotonou, several of whose albums I believe are also available on Analog Africa. Avolonto was ‘surprised that a foreigner might be interested in his music’, writes Samy Ben Redjeb of his meetings with him (ps: HA is not dead, despite the colourful album cover at the top of this post). Everyone should buy these wonderful albums.

Wednesday, December 29, 2010

Monday, December 27, 2010

Friday, December 24, 2010

Myles na gCopaleen, Díoghruagach Ó Maol Blagaide, Sabhatarianism and Other Matters

Sitting in the National Library the other day and wondering what lessons from Ireland’s political past might usefully be applied to my nation’s current predicament, I found myself reading some election literature from the 1940s. My reading tended in this direction for Myles na gCopaleen-related reasons, which will emerge in due time, but I’ve always been a sucker, I must say, for the culs-de-sac of history and the odd detritus they leave behind. The last time I was in the National Library I turned up an Irish-language memoir by an unrepentant holocaust denier, and this time too the library did not fail to vomit forth some wisdom of the kind too often marginalized by the panjandrums of the liberal media, in thrall as they are to the stooges and running-dogs of the international freemasonic conspiracy. I refer to Ireland’s Twentieth Century Destiny, published in 1942 by one Gearóid Ó Cuinneagáin, leader of the short-lived fringe party Ailtirí na h-Aiséirighe, roughly ‘votaries of the reawakening’. I’d been nudged in that direction on learning that Seán South, leading light of the 1950s IRA campaign against artificial manure and foreign bacon, or whatever it was, had been affiliated with this organisation (he lives forever in our hearts). (The Irish form of ‘South’ is ‘Sabhat’, by the way, which leads me to assume that, good Catholic that he was, Seán South was a ‘Sabhatarian’, an Aryan on the Lord’s day but condemned to being a Mongolian or Mozambican for the rest of the week.)

As I was saying then, this noble band of doughty Christian soldiers pledged itself to the criminalisation of all religious faiths but Roman Catholicism, something suitably vague but horrible for any Jews around the place, the outlawing of the Saxon tongue, race-preservation through the outlawing of emigration too, ‘national reafforestation on vigorous lines’ (if only to have somewhere to bury the various hecatombs of Methodists, Parsees, Zoroastrians and other cosmopolitan scum), and sundry other worthy causes. However, I am failing to convey the tone of the pamphlet I was reading, so let me quote verbatim. We aim, our author claims, ‘to make Ireland mistress of the Atlantic as it is the wish of Japan to become mistress of the Pacific. With the difference that we shall be masters in the Pacific Ocean also’ (Emperor Hirohito’s copies of An Claidheamh Solais are in the post). A certain amount of backsliding has come to our overlord’s attention: ‘it is apparent that the elan and espirt of youth is lacking (...) bereft of the Irish-Ireland mentality we cannot but lose our national morale, our racial consciousness, confidence, convictions.’ Mention is made of an attractive female accomplice: ‘The hesitant and indecisive are seldom the recipients of the favours of Dark Rosaleen’.

What has all this got to do with Myles na gCopaleen, well you may ask. Next year is Myles’ centenary, and I had been reading Breandán Ó Conaire’s study Myles na Gaeilge and Carol Taaffe’s recent (and excellent) Ireland Through the Looking-Glass: Flann O’Brien, Myles na gCopaleen and Irish Cultural Debate, reconsidering the cultural politics of that most hilarious novel, An Béal Bocht. This is such a many-layered novel, not all of which most of its readers ever really plumb, I fear. First off, it is a hilarious piss-take of Peig Sayers, Muiris Ó Suilleabháin and Tomás Ó Criomhthain, granted, and the whole ideology of Irish-Irelandism. But it is also a satire born of incomparable insidery familiarity with this culture, not to mention enormous respect for Ó Criomhthain at least, whatever about the other two (cf. his deliberately literal renderings of passages from An t-Oileánach in The Best of Myles). But then another level opens up, namely the disjunction between the actual culture of remote west-coast Gaeltachtaí and the Irish-Ireland ideology of the Irish Free State. The attitude of the latter towards the former is full of misunderstandings and Gael-on-Gael cultural imperialism, as fáinne-wearing do-gooders descend from the capital to applaud the inhabitants of Corcha Dorcha for the Gaelically pure destitution in which they live, free of the corrupting taint of the washing machine, toothpaste and vitamin C (it was Myles, I believe, who first proposed the origins of the word ‘phoney’ in the Irish ‘fáinne’).

But here’s another level: the knowledge, on Myles’s part, of how uncomfortably close he was to the whole merry band of Gaeilgeoir Catholic fascists. One of his brothers was a member of Craobh na h-Aiséiríghe, a precursor organisation of the Ailtirí, and sounds like exactly the kind of demented crank who might adorn the feis in An Béal Bocht. It should not be necessary, if one takes an interest in the Irish language, to begin the day by clearing one’s throat to remind the world at large that one is not, ahem, a raving fascist, but in a Cruiskeen Lawn column of the 1940s Myles describes the unpleasant experience of hearing a member of yet another fringe organisation, Glún na Buaidhe, rant on a soap box about the ‘dirty nigger culture of America’. The first item on the agenda of any Irish political organisation, as any fule kno, is the split, and internecine feuding between Glún na Buaidhe and Ailtirí na h-Aiséiríghe crucially split the fringe Catholic fascist vote in the 1940s (allowing a clear run to that even more obscure Catholic fascist organisation, Fianna Fáil); but therein lies yet another Mylesian level.

One of Myles’s best-loved forms of mischief-making was writing letters to The Irish Times complaining about himself, complaining about the complaints about himself, and so on ad infinitum. Cf. the internecine wars among De Selby’s commentators, as played out in the footnotes of The Third Policeman, and their fine Irish satirical pedigree in the footnotes of A Tale of a Tub. But consider too the sheer awfulness of the life in Ireland to which Myles had condemned himself by not following Joyce and Beckett into exile. More so than any Irish writer of the twentieth century, his was a modernist sensibility trapped in the body of an inward-looking, insecure, small western European nation. Trapped there as he was, what could he do but wallow in it, in the whole insane parade of Irish and Irish-language identity politics, splitting himself into smaller and smaller sub-atomic particles of the personae who adorned his Cruiskeen Lawn columns, and consumed by an ever more fatal and morbid interest in the pathological debates and controversies of the day. Taaffe reminds us of some of Myles’s personae, such as Taidhgín Slánabhaile, the humourless pedant who corrects Myles’s pidgin Irish; Pangur Bán: Seán a’Díomais, the scribe’s pig, a member of Muintir na Tíre and a would-be TD; and my personal favourite, the immortally named Díoghruagach Ó Maol Blagaide, an eighteenth-century bard. Out of such local rows (not that he could ever be imagined quoting from the works of Patrick Kavanagh) Myles created an art that was both a true, and truly horrifying portrait of Irish cultural politics in the mid-century, but also the quicksand that year by year closed over his head until escape became impossible, the writing of The Third Policeman a long-repressed memory, and nothing remained but the alcoholic dregs of what had once been an artist. His work is thus the humorous cure for all these various ideological poisons – except for the unfortunate artist himself. What a sad and instructive tale. I’ll see you at the conference then. And in the meantime, in the words of the Myles column reproduced in today’s Irish Times, ‘I see where the Christmas is on. Things is in full swing’, which means it’s time for my last-minute flight to Yemen, North Korea or anywhere this awful festival remains unknown. ‘Here’s my bus. Happy Christmas now and mind yerself! Cheers now.’

Reference section: excellent article on Ailtirí na h-Aiséirighe here, and pdfs of their newspaper here (click for big).

Sunday, December 12, 2010


Yes, an armadillo in a bucket is a wtf?! moment. But so is changing your blogger template only to discover, first, that the site meter has fallen off (vanished, in fact), and that when I go looking for it in the blog template the template seems to have vanished too, from my dashboard. Anyone more tech-savvy than I am: help, please!

No wait, I think I did it. But not sure yet if it’s going to work. Still, nice armadillo, so where’s the harm in leaving it up.

If this post now counts as a performative contradiction, I am reminded of a letter of Proust’s to the Countess Caca or whoever saying, I have lost my umbrella, did I leave it at your house, now wait I’ve just found it, ignore this letter.

NO WAIT! It has replaced my links on the left with a much earlier version of same. Where have the missing ones gone? Any hints, anyone?

Academic Dullardry

Right then, a new blogpost. Let’s get started with my work address and a brief self-reflexive commentary on what I’m hoping to achieve in this blogpost, shall we? No? And why would that be? Perhaps my head is still spinning from a bizarre journal I found in the library the other day, New Writing: the International Journal for the Practice and Theory of Creative Writing, and published by Routledge, no less. As anyone who hangs around in University English Departments may have noticed, the ‘creative writers’ who turned up for a cup of tea and a biscuit about twenty years ago never went home. Much in the fashion on John Divney at the beginning of The Third Policeman, they (ahem, we) just moved in. One of the problems with having them round the place though is working out how what they do should count as research. Do you publish critically acclaimed novels as a sideline to those charming essays you turn out for the Journal of Drummond of Hawthornden Studies? Right, we’ll have those for our REF returns, thanks. But when it comes to teaching creative writing, since there is a small but real chance that the work produced may not end up in the pages of Granta, we often find ourselves asking students to write a self-reflexive commentary wondering aloud why it is their writing is so wonderful/appalling/delete as applicable. It can seem a useful exercise. It’s a recognition of the fact that their writing is a work in progress, still a few bus stops short of its destination. But to open the aforementioned woefully named journal and find writers attempting to do it, in print, by way of a preface, seems to me not just laugh-out-loud funny but awful, and symptomatic of much that’s wrong with the institutionalisation of creative writing today. We’ve all sat through poetry readings where the reader gives an introduction longer than the poem or says something like ‘What I was trying to say was...’ So just say that and skip the rest. It’s an instant giveaway sign of artistic bad faith. In this context it signals a massive insecurity about the writing itself, since this is not something any actual writer would ever want to do (surely), and which the writer is attempting to overcome by bicycle-pumping his work full of proper academic status and respectability. But just as a rotten egg doesn’t get any sweeter if you eat all of it instead of a spoonful, bad writing is not going to get any better or any more serious if you tell me your address and what you were hoping to achieve by writing it. I suppose all this is some strange and morbid symptom of the more general meltdown of the humanities in these times we live in, but still, how depressing. Are you a writer? Excellent. Send your masterpieces to a magazine or a publisher that might eventually want to publish the work itself and not the covering letter. And do you produce research too – essays on Tennyson, books on medieval poetry, that kind of thing? Also excellent. But don’t expect to me to believe this manner of ‘what I was trying to say here’ faffing-around should be encouraged or taken seriously as writing or research.

Sunday, December 05, 2010

The Old Bull and Bush, Wincolmlee

This obscure Hull pub advertises itself as a ‘Theatre Bar’, or the sign over the door does at least. Associated in the public mind, when associated with anything, which may not be often, with transvestite line-dancing, this pub no longer offers transvestite line-dancing. What it does offer though are some very fine pub fittings. Through an alluringly dark connecting passage is a back parlour whose wallpaper appears to have wandered in from the nearest minor highland baronet’s hunting lodge. And look at that superb ceiling. Good pint of Chestnut mild too. A lengthy session ensued up the road, at which the health of a certain Sheffield poet-critic was drunk (thanks Ben), and at which I learned that the Old Bull and Bush has a loquacious parrot, who must have been upstairs doing his nails when I dropped in. I shall return. Readers, this is my life.

Friday, December 03, 2010

Tantum Potuit Suadere Religio Malorum

There’s an amusing episode of South Park where Randy has a few beers before turning up to get the boys a lift home and, for this misdemeanour, is sent to an AA meeting. He emerges from this convinced he is an alcoholic and starts drinking morning, noon and night, since – as his AA friends tell him – he is powerless in the face of his addiction, so he may as well, y’know, face up to it by getting constantly plastered. At the heart of the AA’s 12 step programme is the idea of submission to a higher power: it’s all very culty-sounding to me. Then again, perhaps it’s not for me to judge, not having had to live with the scourge of alcoholism. But when I read a column like this by John Burnside, I think: wow. This is one of the strangest newspaper columns I can remember seeing for a long time. Writing as a recovered alcoholic, Burnside invokes peyote and other druggy experiences, before announcing:

This is not a plea for the legalisation of street drugs, nor is it a flippant counter to vague public health measures that have been described as ‘window dressing’ and ‘lacking in detail’. What I would suggest, however, is that the best method of treating alcoholism, smoking and obesity is a religious one.

I’m at risk, I’m sure, of becoming a Dawkinsite bore on the subject of religion, but while I don’t much like the witch-finder generalish side of Dawkins’ personality (I am a zealot of indifference more than anything else), I think my objections to Burnside are prompted more by a concern for the nature of meaningful debate than by religion per se. One of the worst aspects (of many) of Tony Blair’s legacy has been the enshrining in public discourse, in the UK, of faith as an argument in itself, or more often, a roadblock to any argument taking place. Usually this position comes kitted out in the Ali G-esque motley of ‘respect’. I fully tolerate religion, meaning I do not advocate its prohibition, but I in no way respect it, at all. A simple demonstration of why not: substitute for the words ‘is a religious one’ at the end of the passage from Burnside above the phrase ‘belching loudly’. This is not a serious way of treating alcoholism, smoking or obesity. But neither is religion, and I don’t understand why these vaporous god-botherers are given the time of day in serious newspapers. I mean, scientists are not expected to conduct discussions with members of the Flat Earth Society.

But examples can come a lot more serious than this, as in the recently exposed practice (thank you Johann Hari) of abattoirs getting around rules on stunning animals before slaughter by using halal or kosher methods instead, which is to say cutting their throats and muttering some prayer or other about how pleased the most merciful is god that another sheep has got what’s coming to him. The blame for this practice, it seems, lies principally with abattoirs exploiting a religious loophole, but if the law did not provide these loopholes in the first place, this problem would not exist. And still on Tony Blair, in his public debate with him in Toronto recently Christopher Hitchens came out with this soundbite:

The Catholic Church holds it better for the Sun and Moon to drop from Heaven, for the earth to fail, and for all the many millions on it to die from starvation in extremest agony … than that one soul, I will not say, should be lost, but should commit one single venial sin, should tell one wilful untruth, or should steal one poor farthing without excuse.

And who said this: Bertrand Russell, Richard Dawkins? No, Cardinal Newman. And what is this but the essence of the religious worldview? And a vile and ludicrous worldview it is too. Tantum religio potuit suadere malorum. Pass me the peyote, pass me the whiskey. Because even if I did become an alcoholic, I would still have the use of my mind. But, John Burnside and all your fellow god-bothering friends, spare me the pie-eyed religious baloney, please.

Indomitable Irishry

The fallout from Patrick Crotty’s Penguin Book of Irish Poetry has rumbled on since its publication, with an aggrieved Michael O’Loughlin accusing it in an Irish Times opinion piece of being a ‘curio’ and of omitting a whole generation of Southern Irish poets. (O’Loughlin’s piece here and Crotty’s reply here). All this was put in perspective for me the other day when I stumbled on a copy of Devin A. Garrity’s Mentor Book of Irish Poetry. I say ‘stumbled’ because yes, I do like to leave books lying round the place in ways conducive to amusing domestic accidents (the pile of Dickens novels I’m perched atop as I type this is feeling none too safe, I must say). But I digress (‘digression assured’, as a small ad in The Hull Daily Mail promised recently). O’Loughlin’s choice of ‘curio’ is curious. If an anthology can never be merely right, in everyone’s eyes, the challenge is to provoke in a way that goes beyond the foibles and follies of the editor or the age. What is Michael Roberts’ Faber Book of Modern Verse if not a ‘curio’ these days? It also remains one of the most eye-opening and influential books of its time. That’s good-curio, then, versus Yeats’s bad-curio in his 1936 Oxford Book of Modern Verse, which still gets my vote as the single barmiest assemblage ever to grace or disgrace that fine imprint.

But to turn to Garrity’s anthology. ‘The Genius of the Irish’, it screams at us from behind its bile-green cover harp. Irish Studies loves to look back with wry understanding on a time when Ireland, its history and literature, weren’t just subjects but sagas, designed to quicken the pulse with the throb of racial music, but even without getting all gloaty-revisionist on Garrity’s ass, it’s painful to see the alacrity with which he bin-dips his way through some of the mouldiest dross of the Irish Literary Revival. There was some discussion on here a while back of Winifred Letts, with a commentator or two taking Patrick Crotty (of all people) to task for his summary dismissal of her. Having finally had the chance to read her in the Mentor Book I can now confirm that, boy, that woman sucked. Her twee little ditties would bring out the inner Ezra Pound in any Ireland’s Own poetry editor, and I hope they did, too. Execrable stuff.

Crotty omitted Oliver St John Gogarty’s ebullient versifying, and while Garrity stretches to seven poems, including the long (overlong) ‘Leda and the Swan’, I think of them as being stored in these pages in the same way that old suitcases are stored in my attic – I know they’re there but don’t necessarily want to see them. In this sense, anthologies often set a formal seal on an author’s unread status: why should I go to the effort of reading so-and-so anymore? He’s in the anthology, isn’t he? Reading through the rest of the book I find a veritable litany of the lost. Eminent Victorian unreadables: Lord Dunsany, John Todhunter, Aubrey de Vere, Thomas D’Arcy McGee. Their tweedy offspring: the Earl of Longford. Palgravian rejectamentum: Arthur O’Shaughnessy. Modernist anomaly: Thomas MacGreevy (I mean anomaly by Garrity’s standards, though MacGreevy had enough indomitable Irishry in his make-up to compensate in Garrity’s eyes for his little eccentricities, I’m assuming). Member of my extended family: Sigerson Clifford (he is my niece Caoimhe’s great-grandfather). Up-and-coming young men: Francis Stuart, Bruce Williamson (?!). Someone or other with keen interest in uninhabited blip of rock off north Donegal coast: D.J. O’Sullivan (‘Dawn in Inishtrahull’, ‘Nightfall in Inishtrahull’). I thought she was a composer and didn’t know she wrote poems: Rhoda Coghill. No, wait this is quite good: Blanaid Salkeld.

But in case you think I’m scoffing here, Garrity also includes – and I think this is more or less his last anthology appearance before the brief term of his fame expired – the Larne-born poet Lyle Donaghy (1902-1949). I spent an enjoyable day recently in the National Library, in Dublin, re-reading all of this writer’s work (that would be At Dawn Above Aherlow (1926), Primordia Caeca (1927), Ad Perennis Vitae Fontem (1928), The Flute Over the Valley (1931), The Blackbird (1933), Into the Light (1934), Selected Poems (1939), Wilderness Sings (1942), and Wild Sun and Moon (1949)). There are plenty of reasons why Donaghy’s name has fallen into disrepair, but they are not the ones suggested above for the unfortunate Winifred Letts. He is praised in Beckett’s ‘Recent Irish Poetry’, published in Eliot’s Criterion and Poetry (Chicago) in his day, and is also one of the great secret poets of Co. Wicklow (cf. Beckett’s letters for more on Donaghy and Wicklow), giving as the place of publication for Wild Sun and Moon a mountain near Glendalough, Brockagh. He is a minor poet then, not in the Winifred Letts sense of pursuing a downward arc towards utter extinction, but of someone we don’t know much about, since he hasn’t been in print now for over sixty years, and who deserves better from us. Here is Donaghy’s ‘The Heron’. Even copying out this poem I’m failing to do him justice, since for the life of me I still can’t work out how to indent lines in blogger:

At night, when the black water-hen
Roosts by the first star,
The heron stands, a lonely king,
Where his possessions are;
The level flag-torn mere,
The oozy yellow lands,
The shells that thicken on the rocks
And blacken on the sands.
His shadow’s length away from him –
Shadowed in the moon rays –
Is she whom the subtle unknown love
Brought to his lonely ways.
Sometimes, askance, he sees the bright
Moon-silver float
Slow cones and arrows from her body;
But long ago the note
Of triumph went from him and still
When life exults and sings,
A broken water-sound pursues
His trailing feet and wings.


I knew the heron in his nest,
His voice not yet a cry,
When he lay on the flat spare twigs
And watched the sun in the sky.


There are more fine poems where that came from. I would hope to return to this subject.

Photo shows Sam the cat cavorting in the sneugh, seeking where he might make water, copious warm water.