Sam Coll’s Explosive Debut ‘The Abode of Fancy’ has Few Peers

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“I do things like get in a taxi and say, ‘The library, and step on it.”  
– Infinite Jest (1996) David Foster Wallace
Flann O’Brien for the Inbetweeners crowd? The Abode of Fancy is new and wholly Sam Coll, wildcat wielder of high lyricism, whose mission is to amuse and to move.

Sam Coll finds the strange alchemy of self-promotion somewhat uncomfortable as we meet to talk about his dazzling debut novel The Abode of Fancy, published Thursday, the 27th of October, by Lilliput Press.

An actor throughout college, his brain is wired for audience cues. Sitting close to him you can hear his synapses firing for material.

“The whole thing has a posthumous feel for me. That’s why I’ve difficulty getting excited.” The Abode of Fancy was written more than six years ago when Coll was a precocious undergraduate in Trinity College. “Eighteen to twenty-one, dangerous, self-important years… The audacity of ignorance, youthful arrogance, I’ve lost a lot of that lately… “

Most of us shun our younger selves, but few are capable of prose like this:

Enraptured by the heady flow and gush of language that flooded his brain, he choked and gagged to set it down, couched in the coarse grid of a meter he would master through stint of a novice’s blundering, squaring ten syllables and five stresses to the line, counting his cadences and testing his inflections, learning slowly the steady pulse, the stately throb of redoubtable iambics: if it was good enough for the Swan of Avon, well, he’d give it a go.

This publication is long overdue and it comes as a relief to the author who is keen to get on with his writing.

“It’s a dead man wrote this novel, effectively, or a boy for that matter! Not me anymore… The thing I hate is that this is a book that was written when I had hair and it’s being published when I’m but too bald to enjoy it.”

***

Aware of the lauded (and often not read) literary pathways he’s roaming, Coll sets off in the novel at such a verbose lick that there’s no time for genuflecting. Almost 500 pages later, that intensity is maintained as little stagnation can be found amongst the spectacular prose hijinks that greets the reader page after page.

A sprawling Gaelic epic full of Rabelaisian bluster that flits from the arts block in Trinity out into the landscapes of Anglo-Irish literature traversing the pyschogeography of our literary past and stopping along the way at various Dublin pubs and Ben Bulben in Yeats country.

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There’s a mix of fantastical and farmyard characters, students and local drinkers, as they sup, sulk, blather, philosophise and copulate their way through the book. Extrapolated within is the love-loss central to all youth:

“Ah… yes. Love. Sweetest of dreams, our life’s bitterest mystery, our foremost misery. I know the feeling well, old as I am, and have felt so frequently in my time its prick and sting, its brief and intermittent bliss that will so swiftly turn to rancour, that yet will come again to be a craving for sating, wringing our anguished hearts until we can take no more – though forever always we eternally do come back for more….

Sent reeling from unrequited love the reader goes pub crawling around the city where the twin inevitabilities of ageing and decline are imparted to the protagonist Simeon Jerome Collins (who shares his initials with the author); this is all rendered hilariously maudlin by dint of the barstool delivery.

Coll himself is full of contrasts and they’re evident in his writing. An introvert yet also an actor, painfully shy yet gregarious company, seemingly born to the wrong century yet able to render the self-importance of today’s youth in incisive depictions.

Like a jukebox of impersonations, he harbours both a wide-eyed naivety and a world-weary cynicism and this twined outlook litters his prose with sharp observations.

“The joke is on me. I set off trying to be experimental and push the boundaries but what I produced is a glorified 19th century novel. It has a beginning, middle and end. There’s even cliffhangers. But with the gimmick of being set in 2008. In trying to go forward I’ve actually gone backwards but ultimately perhaps stayed in the same spot.

“It irritates me because there are too many novels out there about young men,” he cringes,”I tried to vary it as much as I could. There’s plenty of inter-generational stuff going on and also the fantasy elements. 

These contrasting layers lend the novel its humanity which sits absurdly alongside set-pieces full of a virile cast of hares, cows and mystic figures such as the Mad Monk, the Banshee, the Puck, the Pooka and The Clunge Monkey (don’t ask).

***

When Coll first started in Trinity back in 2007 he could be seen walking the cobblestoned campus like a character straight from James Joyce’s Dublin.

The time-warped garb was not the only thing he was trying on as a fresher, he was also busy scribbling literary imitations of his hero.

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With friends on pilgrimage to Joyce’s father’s grave. Photo credit : Niall McCabe

“Initially, it was a Ulysses rip off: Monday, December the 3rd, 2007.”

That was the exact day he started and after getting about halfway through the facetious exercise, having written about four hundred pages, he got some advice:

“The ever quotable Colm Tóibín came to the Literary Society and he quite rightly said, ‘forget exercises and write for publication.’

“It was going to be a short story. Then I got into it and kept adding and adding and adding.

“I filled a jotter hand-written. Then I started typing up that jotter. And it’s so easy to add stuff on a computer, god knows.

“If somebody like Joyce or Proust had had access to a computer, their books would be at least the height of the ceiling or beyond, wouldn’t they? Accretiveness, I love it, but there’s a time and a place.”

For his subject, he would plumb the depths of his disappointment, milking the great and aching sad lack of his life, his melancholy the fulcrum of a masterpiece…

 

There would be room for infinity in the grandiose cathedral he dimly foresaw. Higher and higher the scribbled cluster of pages piled…

 

… Everyone he knew was in it, their names unchanged, their foibles and faults held up for scorn and ridicule, their virtues venerated, their quirks revered, yes, all, all of them would be given their space to shine and their page to prance, he would pull their strings and make them talk and walk, like a demented crackpot deity.

 

In part it would be the Great Trinity Novel…

This passage hints at the grandiose intentions of the undergraduate who scribbled away so fervently as his imitation became wholly his own imaginative adventure.

However, Coll knew that he’d have to break from the confines of campus life in order to develop his story.

“It was so much the Trinity novel that you just wanted to puke. I was trying to write a Ulysses rip-off but too much of it was set in the goddamn arts block. It’s such a limited bubble of a place, you need to get out. Get out more! Yeah, that was the thing to do.”

The breakthrough came when he plucked a character from a 1,000 page comic book he’d done years before.

“The Mad Monk entered. He was a refugee character from a comic book I’d been writing six years prior to that called Life of Watt. The doggerel [in The Abode of Fancy], if you remember, is an attempt to condense that thousand page comic book into about twenty pages of crap verse, to spare the innocent.”

The Mad Monk’s fantastical journeys gave the narrative its zeal.

***

When it is put to him that this is a madcap university novel he bristles at the thought before telling of his own brush with the Trinity authorities.

It happened as a result of an idea he had for a short play involving an ailing Jonathan Swift. It grew into an unhealthy obsession as he envisaged Michael Gambon playing the part.

“Gambon has this problem at the moment, he can’t remember his lines. So I figured the perfect part for him… Michael Gambon in a rocking chair, he has one line. Playing the old Swift rocking back and forth, saying: ‘I am what I am… I am what I am.‘ Surrounded by a thousand other voices speaking lines from Swift’s other works.”

“All Sir Michael has to say is one line, it’d be an experimental half-hour with film… He’s already played Churchill with a stroke. He’s doing a series of great men in decline, so it would work.”

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His compulsion for the idea became excessive and this culminated in him losing his temper in the Players Theatre. He was shouting and roaring trying to convey his idea in completely the wrong fashion.

“I got possessed with it. I got aggressive in my means of trying to convey it to people. Stupid… I’m ashamed of it in retrospect. But the only solution is to stay out of Trinity.”

This incident lead to him being banned from the college campus. He’s quick to point out the cynical showbiz angle that could be taken from the story:

“This novel is the Trinity book, by a Trinity student, who can’t enter Trinity!!”

***

“…the original Japanese name for tearoom, Sukiya, actually roughly translated as The Abode of Fancy, inasmuch as it is an ephemeral structure built to house a poetic impulse…”

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Length was an issue. There was work to be done to get it in a form that publishers would even read. Originally the first draft was nearly 700 pages of manuscript, he got that down through a process of substantial cuts that avoided “amputation without aesthetic.”

This was when Daniel Caffrey of Lilliput Press got involved. What was his first response when he heard the title?

“I laughed because I thought it was the most ridiculous title I’d ever heard. It sounds like a bad joke,” says Caffrey, “When you hear it flat without any context that there might be a great book attached to it… I wasn’t aware of the Japanese concept.”

Caffrey can trace the dates exactly because he received the manuscript while his wife was pregnant with their first child. It was four weeks before she was due. He read the manuscript, mostly in the bath, and had his literary eureka moment.

“You never start a manuscript thinking, wow! This is a work of genius. You are stacked against the author in a way. I don’t know why… After a while you are just in this bad reader mentality. Honestly, print out Anna Karenina, send it to every publishing house you can. You will get it back with red ink everywhere, complaining, whinging – it’s just an attitude.”

“What’s great about a great book is that at a certain point you suddenly feel that falling away and then you’re really reading again. I got that after two or three chapters. That’s a great feeling.”

He finished the manuscript the night his wife went into labour.

“My heart was honestly racing when I finished the book. It was a very intense feeling. Look not everything is for everybody. But there are some things that are so for you. The book was exactly the book I’d been waiting to see.

“It is totally abnormal in the Irish literary landscape. There was something great about seeing someone just letting rip linguistically.”

It took four more years to get the book published. This timescale is not unusual in the “glacially slow” world of book publishing where talent like this is often found by smaller publishing houses whose Sisyphean work depends on moonlighters and interns. Any substantial cheques cashed on successful writers are usually realised by bigger publishing houses on subsequent deals.

***

While the editing was being done Coll moved to Kildare becoming temporary caretaker of a house Daniel Caffrey owned. This favour proved the perfect escape for the writer as he completed his MA thesis on Samuel Beckett, edited his novel and caught up on reading some doorstoppers. He’s nostalgic for that uncomplicated time:

“13 months, it was wonderful. It was a Jack Torrence [from The Shining] setup, except without the wife and child and that’s how I kept my sanity. Talking of a place to read that’s where I finally got through War & Peace, finally got through Thomas Mann’s Joseph and his Brothers, got through all of these things.”

He had only six visitors during the year, apart from the gardener, who’d drop by every two weeks.

“He’d come and cut the hedges, deliver the post and say, ‘Don’t be working too hard now.’ To which I could say, ‘Oh, no fear of that, no fear of that! hey!’ Hash-tag banter!”

“It was so damp in the winter, my job was I had to move the portable radiator around from room to room to prevent the books from getting too damp. All these wee little beasties would come crawling in and you had to sweep them out, sweep them out, before they laid their eggs in his precious first editions.

“It was damn good fun. Happiest time of my life, in retrospect.”

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***

Caffrey struggles to say exactly what it is about novel that so enticed him. This is often the case with things we really like, our critical faculty goes and we are left with just the visceral feelings.

“When I first read The Abode, Sam wrote as if he was both very young and very, very old. So he kind of covered the spectrum of human possibility. He seemed childlike but also had this incredibly gloomy sort of cynicism as well.

“Most writers I know that are strong in fantasy and imagination tend to be a little less penetrating on human beings, about actual emotions and feelings. But he’s very good at both… He writes naturalism and fantasy interchangeably.”

While down in Kildare Coll also got a start on his second novel, The Benign Comedy, which he is contracted to write with Lilliput.

“I’m hoping book two will be a bit more formally innovative or experimental. From what I’ve heard, you can get away with a lot more in your second novel.

“And there’s a reason that Infinite Jest was a second novel and not a first. Or Gavin Corbett’s Green Glowing Skull, I’ve just started it, but it’s certainly far more weird. It might put people off, but those who get it, they love it and go with it.”

Similarly, The Abode of Fancy won’t be for everyone, but what is?

***

Aware that he might not have plugged the novel sufficiently throughout the interview, he makes an attempt.

“I can go one better than the jacket cover blurbs,” he croaks with delight, slipping into character again, “It is Flann O’Brien for the Inbetweeners crowd.”

That’ll do. But comparisons with “Flann O’Joyce”, as he remarks, do get tiresome. The new this that or the other. That talk misses something: art isn’t comparative, it’s cumulative.

This novel is new and wholly Sam Coll, the wildcat-wielder of high lyricism, whose stated aims with this adventure were simple:

“To amuse and to move…” he says, in his best Michael Gambon voice.

This piece was first published in The Irish Times on Thursday October 27th.

Photo credits: Greg Purcell (*except Gambon in Krapp’s Last Tape and John Joyce grave).

Documentary Theatre-Maker Una McKevitt in Alien Territory

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Two weeks ago, while directing Joanne McNally in the Fringe, Una McKevitt focused a spotlight on the comedian munching her way through an entire carrot during their show Bite Me, a one-hander in which McNally tells of her manic decline into bulimia.

This carrot scene was there to allow the audience into the story. It went on for three minutes as the light held on McNally as she slowly, and with a concerted effort, chewed her way through the vegetable while a pop song blared, “Love! Love will set you free.”

In that moment, watching her eat, the audience had time to digest what they had just heard about her addiction.

As she stood for what seemed like an age, the silhouette, created by her hair and the carrot, looked distinctly like Bugs Bunny. The wacky rabbit’s catchphrase, “What’s up Doc?”, came to mind. It was apt; the show is partly a call for help. But there is no wallowing. Instead, the decline is juxtaposed with McNally’s humour, she can make you laugh with just a facial twitch or eviscerate you with a searing, sarcastic glower.

“I wouldn’t have done that show if it wasn’t funny and neither would Joanne. It was about challenging her as a performer… An audience likes to feel they’re going through a journey with somebody. That they’re watching someone actually struggle on some level.”

McKevitt’s theatre has for years been about coaxing deeply personal anecdotes like this from friends and family and then presenting them in a way that is both relatable and compelling to an audience.

Subjects as serious as bulimia, adoption and mental health, as well as those as commonplace as friendships and singlehood, have formed the material for her theatrical exploration of everyday human experiences.

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Joanne McNally in rehearsals for Bite Me

These stories have been anchored in first person accounts, she is a trusted listener able to translate that experience to the stage. But she is keen to move from rigidly adhering to other people’s narratives into a more fictional exploration of the everyday.

“There does come a point of diminishing returns in terms of interviewing people… I’ll probably look at ways of experimenting with placing things within everyday conversations going forward but it may not always be true life stories, they’re a big responsibility.

“I want to try to be more inventive in the future. To find other ways, I don’t know what it is yet, but my foundation has always been interpersonal relationships, or interviews with people, and I’d like to find a new way of creating.”

***

Rehearsals are ongoing for the play Alien Documentary, opening in the Dublin Theatre Festival on October 6th at the Project Arts Centre, with preview showings on last night and tonight.

One of the main characters played by PJ Gallagher, better known as a newspaper-wielding comedian off RTE’s Naked Camera, has spent the day learning a monologue about Griselda Blanco (who? She’s the cocaine godmother of Pablo Escobar’s Medellin cartel) with the help of assistant director Kaija Louise Kennedy, who says of the stand-up turned actor:

“It comes so naturally to PJ, the meaning of the words, and the nuances, he says it like he’s saying it for the first time. He understands it, making it sound like he just thought of it there.”

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This naturalness is vital as the play is a series of conversations between three men who work together building and prepping stages for gigs.

“Ideally they’ll look like they’re going through the motions,” explains McKevitt, “Then the conversations they have are really random things, talking about fishing, the roadworks at College Green, or the Hutch’s and gangsters… These conversations, if you tried to put them in a traditional play, you’d be like, what are you talking about? It’s small talk.”

How men communicate with each other is central to the piece.

***

Within the play, there is a show on that night with avant-garde singer and performer Juno, played by the lead of the band Mongoose, Molly O’Mahony. Her coming in and out, sound-checking and testing the visuals, provides a contrast to these guys chatting away while doing their job of rigging the place up.

“There’s two bigger stories that get dropped into it. And the idea is that those revelations…that there’s not a big glitch between the small talk and the big talk.

“It’s an idealised world where everyone’s problems are discussed… Usually nine pints would be involved.

Alien Documentary, similar to Una McKevitt’s other work, is about relationships. She focuses in on masculinity and how men support each other through their conversations. The small talk quickly veers towards taboo topics; this is where the play’s heat is.

“There’s an intimacy when you’re talking with someone about something personal that’s happened in their lives; It’s a particular human experience to have that moment… Largely it’s got to do with listening.

“A lack of communication is what perpetuates things.”

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Actors James Scales and Barry McKiernan in rehearsals. Photo: Ste Murray

***

The title Alien Documentary is an oxymoron; how can you document the extra terrestrial?

This is a hint at the direction McKevitt is going with her theatre. While she is still rooting this play in source material – it is based on an interview she conducted and another overheard on the radio – it’s also a departure as she has created a fictionalised world with characters springing from the collected snippets. What’s been different in the fictionalising?

“Well, we started rehearsals with a script, making only minimal changes… There is some suspension of disbelief, which I’ve never really had before.”

“There’s actually a fourth wall here. It’s not very thick, but it is there.”

She had to curb the actors enthusiasm for backstory, this was done both to preserve the source material and to emphasise the characters’ discussions.

“They are actors, so some of them have instincts to build a character with this information. I have to say stop. ‘I think my character?’ No. ‘I think my…’ No. The character is in the text, so just do the lines.”

Clearly Stanislavski’s method is not welcome here. 

***

McKevitt has spent the last two years as an actor with Pan Pan theatre company in shows such as Seagull and Other Birds and NewcastlewestWatching Pan Pan’s artistic director Gavin Quinn working close-up was as much an apprenticeship as anything else.

Seeing how Quinn would assemble a large team around him for projects made her reflect on her own fledgling work, she felt some creative loneliness. 

“Watching that company operate, watching them collaborate, so it’s not just the director on his own, I really wanted to start having those relationships with people.

“I noticed with Gavin he always has a lot of people helping him. Whereas I was used to doing everything, not on my own, but sometimes I’d be writing, directing and producing the bloody thing. The more people involved the better the show is, I think.”

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Una McKevitt in Pan Pan’s Seagull and Other Birds

Surrounded by a bigger team, including longtime collaborating producer Rachel Murray, with Denis Clohesey on sound, John Crudden on design, as well as Kaija as assistant, McKevitt can focus solely on creating shows and getting the most out of the cast.

Her skill lies in the ability to sort and arrange material in a way that the audience can process, while constantly being alert to what can enhance the theatrical experience.

“I love looking at people. My favourite thing is the performer. Watching people be still or do nothing is interesting to watch.” This close attention pays off in rehearsals, “You are just watching people, if they do something nice and naturally, then you try to incorporate that.”

“[There are] many happy accidents in the rehearsal room, you couldn’t come up with them just sitting down to write.”

***

‘Arts disguised as entertainment’ is a throwaway quip McKevitt uses to describe her theatre, what is meant by it?

“Entertainment, yes. I have bored people in the past and it’s awful. I’m trying not to… I feel the audience are at the heart of the experience.

“I’m not cutting-edge to the degree where I think what I’m doing doesn’t have to be entertaining.”

“Art feels like a bit of a massive claim. It just seemed like a good tagline at the time… What I’m trying to say is that I’m not esoteric, there’s no big intellectual ideas behind what I do, but it’s still creative.”

Do you find art inaccessible?

“Lots of it is to me, yeah. If I go into a gallery, I’m like what the fuck’s going on here? Unless it’s a portrait. Part of me is quite traditionalist in that respect… I feel that things should communicate clearly. I don’t put intellectualism on a pedestal, I just want to tell stories.”

Alien Documentary opens Thursday the 6th of October in the Project and runs until the 15th as part of the Dublin Theatre Festival, tickets available here.

Viva! An Authentic Cuban Story Told by Two Irishmen

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Falsetto:

noun –  in music, the technique of artificially producing a high male singing voice that extends above the range of the singer’s full voice.

You need to pay close attention during Viva to catch the only hint that director Paddy Breathnach and writer Mark O’Halloran are foreigners making this Cuban film.

In one of the street scenes there is a flicker of a green jersey amongst the crowd in the background. ‘Ireland’ is written across the man’s chest. This was an accident; there just happened to be a Cuban wearing this top during one of the shoots and the camera caught it.

This is the only stamp of the writer and director’s nationality in the film and because it wasn’t intentional Breathnach let it through the final cut. This fitted with the style of ‘capturing not perfecting’ that he embraced in making this movie.

Throughout filming he was determined to leave things be, capturing the atmosphere of scenes rather than coercing his own views onto the lens.

The triumph of this laissez-faire approach has resulted in a project which eschews clichés. Instead, dressed up in authentic garb, and only tangentially colourful, the movie is a real Cuban story told in soaring falsetto; a tale of masculinity in crisis, with a father-son relationship at its centre, it succeeds in peeling back the chipped facades of Cuban society.

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Father & Son, played by Jorge Perugorría and Hector Media, two Cuban stars

***

Paddy Breathnach (director of films I Went Down and Man About Dog) and Mark O’Halloran (scriptwriter and actor known for Adam & Paul and Garage who has a deft way of rendering characters) started discussions about a collaboration over a decade ago when they met at a film festival in Berlin; Breathnach admired the compassionate writing in Adam & Paul and pitched a Cuban adventure to O’Halloran.

Breathnach first glimpsed the drag world when he was, what he calls, an accidental tourist in Cuba during the nineties. Going off his itinerary, he came across a drag show and found it profoundly moving.

“For me, it’s the mixture of songs sung by women in their forties and fifties who’ve been mistreated maybe and have a sense of injustice. They’re singing in a very direct way, asking direct questions. The emotions are raw. Then you get a drag performer who wants to express something else and has a desire to show themselves in another way. The combination of those things created a magical feeling that entranced me.”

Since that trip, he has had an image of a son serenading his father with the music that his father and mother fell in love to. This picture formed the imaginative template for Viva.

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Director Paddy Breathnach

***

When it got to shooting the film both were keen to avoid hackneyed troupes in depicting Havana. They kept reminding themselves of how daft Ireland used to appear to us natives when shown on the big screen.

“Up to the mid-eighties, most of our films were made by people outside of Ireland. They came to Ireland saw us and made films about us. Beautiful things, like Ryan’s Daughter, that usually involved a central character who wasn’t from the country or locality coming in to that country and the audience uses their eyes to see the unusualness of the society.” O’Halloran wasn’t interested in doing that; he felt it would be dishonest.

As a result, they bypassed the kitsch images of Ché Guevara, 1950s American cars and colourful buildings reproduced constantly on postcards and returned from every search engine. They choose not to film in Habana Vieja and avoided shots of the El Capitolio building; these places would immediately draw a tourist camera, they’re short-hand for the city, but they’re the background fabric often not seen by Habaneros as they go about their days.

They went deeper, choosing motifs and locations from which they could hang and unspool this tale of strife and melodrama.

They shot bridging scenes in the lush parks dotted all over the city which are regular pitstops for the industrious Cubans, who are always only seconds away from offering their services of one kind or another to passing tourists. O’Halloran is not just the scriptwriter but also has a minor, cheeky role as one of these seedy tourists.

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By ensuring all the main characters were Cuban the story was immediately elevated beyond the perspective of a couple of tourists.

The layers of Cuban society they focused on are those just below the clichés and familiar to locals: the macho world of boxing, Cuba’s great Olympic sport; the subversive drag scene, where nightly self-expression gets its stage; and the dilapidated colonial structures that are home to the mundane and extraordinary lives that keep on keeping on under the Castro regimes.

***

Jesus, our lead character (played by Hector Medina), is a hairdresser who, when he isn’t being short changed by elderly ladies for their haircuts, fixes the wigs of the vivacious drag queen Mama (Luis Alberta García), who owns the local club.

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Luis Alberta García as Mama

Jesus (Hey-Zeus) is taken by the vitality of the queens and buoyed by the freedom that seems to come with their exuberant personas, and so he wishes to emulate their on-stage performances.

Wigs play a central role in this movie both onscreen and off. When O’Halloran went to Havana to immerse himself in the culture, he needed a way of endearing himself with the drag community over there. Anyone familiar with Cuba knows there is a scarcity of resources; O’Halloran exploited this with a little help from his friends in the Dublin gay community. He borrowed twenty wigs from Pantibliss and brought them with him in his suitcase.

Having checked into a gay B&B in Central Havana – which he described as like a non-stop Mexican soap-opera – he approached a famous drag queen on the Malecón seafront. He introduced himself as a filmmaker explaining why he was here. She dismissed him until he brandished the wigs from his bag. “Ooh!” came the inquisitive response. Mark was quickly paraded around and introduced to all the queens.

Soon they were knocking on his door daily looking for the wigs. This was how he heard their stories; he made sure to hand out the hair-pieces slowly, one-at-a-time, while extracting all the detailed strands he needed to enrich his story.

***

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Jesus, when first auditioning in drag, is compared to an awkward Donatello Versace by the cutting queens. Clearly there’s more to this falsetto singing and lip-syncing than simply donning a dress, some eyeliner and lipstick.

The subversion of Cuban conformity that drag affords has to be earned. There must be feeling, you have to connect with your audience, Mama tells him.

Unfortunately, this is taken too literally as his first connection with the audience comes in the form of a punch. Delivered by his father Angel (Jorge Perugorría), a washed up boxer just released from prison, it’s an attempt by him to put the kibosh on his son’s new vocal vocation.

With this smack comes the drama of the film: a father reasserting his place, an older Cuba cramping the next generations’ efforts at being independent. 

Angel moves into the high-ceilinged apartment with Jesus and soon the dynamic between father and son blurs as past glories and present pains are mixed at the bottom of empty rum bottles.

Boxing, as the second strand in the movie, can be seen as a metaphor for a more macho and restrictive Cuba. One which, by the end, is ailing and emasculated, dependent on Jesus and the change he is determined to chase.

Maybe older Cuba is getting more tolerant of a freer tune, perhaps it can hit those falsetto notes.

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‘Boxing Boys’ by Anders Rising

***

Last December O’Halloran travelled back for the Havana Film Festival when Viva played to the people it depicts. The night before the screening he saw Carol in the two thousand seater cinema where Viva would be shown the following night. It was a typical Cuban crowd and they didn’t get the slow pomposity of Carol. They found it boring and were vocal in their displeasure.

Mark winced his way through this somewhat terrified at how they’d react the following night to two Irish interloper’s interpreting their city and way of life.

“Thankfully, it played beautifully. They laughed volubly at all the right bits. They recognised the actors and scenes. At the end there was a lot of tears, big tears. One women came up to me after and said, ‘This is a Cuban film not an Irish film.’

Viva was nominated for the foreign language Oscar and is showing in selected cinemas nationwide.

 

 

No Refuge for Audiences in Enda Walsh’s Dystopian Arlington

Arlington [a love story] by Enda Walsh makes Beckett’s Waiting for Godot appear plot driven as the playwright’s vision yields an unrelenting feast of grief and captivity that lacks any of his usual humour.
Enda Walsh

Friday evening, in late July, and the promenade in Salthill is drenched in a resplendent pink and purple glow as we leave the light of evening to go into the darker environs of Leisureland for Arlington [a love story] by Enda Walsh.

Walsh is climbing the steps of the venue as we get there. It is not a stretch to see him as resident playwright of this festival as he again premieres his work at the Galway International Arts Festival.

Dublin born, Cork realised, and London based, Walsh has been adopted by Galway. The atmospheric vision of his plays fits with the bleak and mesmerising wilds of the West and his work has adorned this fortnight for years.

The unusual venue – an amusement park transformed – has an eager audience waiting to see where his penetrating gaze is focused.

A curtain lifts on a vast white space: a sterile waiting room or cell with bolted down blue plastic seats, an aquarium, and a single window underneath which is a 1950s radio. There is a ticket machine, a palm tree and an LED screen where numbers are displayed. Lights flicker ominously.

In this tower, somewhere in the future, people are being held against their will.

Alington

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While the setting changes slightly from play-to-play, the world Walsh so viscerally invokes remains constant.

In his one-hander Misterman you had the musings of Cillian Murphy playing a crazed country preacher. The Walworth Farce saw a family stuck in a play-within-a-play in a tower block in suburban London. Ballyturk was set in a rural dwelling where three characters discuss the imaginary and eponymous town.

The patterns are familiar: one setting, captive characters, ceaseless dialogue and a clearly structured routine.

Here, in Arlington, we’re once more in a high-rise tower but this time we’re amongst the clouds in a surveillanced waiting room in a nondescript location. What fate awaits these souls when their number flashes up on the LED board?

His audiences are dropped into these strange scenes and made witness lonely characters constantly working within the confines of their captivity. They are people nobody usually thinks about. Pushed to extremes, the hope is that the frenetic frequency leads to some realisation within the characters and, when it comes off, the audience too.

While the manic routines cumulate, memories and the past are revealed through dialogue, dance and projection creating an atmosphere of mounting and overwhelming chaos. 

Crucially, the playwright leaves space for the viewer to come in to his work. He does this by ensuring the plot doesn’t clutter things. The work elicits your subconscious reaction through participation. Audiences love to have a role and he trusts them to make the necessary connections that lead towards empathy.

When it works, the result is a triple-trapeze act between the audience, the actors and the intensity of the drama.

Arlington

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Arlington has the components with which we are familiar but the usual synergy between audience, actors and the drama is missing and with that the magic of the coherent whole. The connections are too much of a stretch; bereft of any narrative drive we’re left instead with conjecture.

Scenes one and three open with a repeated yet reversed snippet of a radio play where two country characters, Maureen and Michael, talk about the weather and enquire after each other’s children. Each seems to have gone astray. Is it just malicious gossip? Or are these the people locked up before us? We get no answer.

Isla (Charlie Murphy) is the first character we meet. Indefinitely trapped, she seems well used to the situation as she stretches out for another day. Revealed after the drawing back of a curtain, and the crashing of glass, is an adjacent room where a chronically nervous Young Man (Hugh O’Connor) is sitting. He communicates to Isla over a loudspeaker while watching her on numerous tv monitors.

The man who usually talks to her has gone on something more permanent than a holiday, we’re told, and Isla has to explain to the newbie what they did all day. “Yeah there was a lot of talk. Some music and entertainment-of-a-sort but mostly just talking, you know. My plans and dreams and stuff.” This new relationship is our love story.

hughoconor_arlington_190

Conjured from the conversations between Isla and the supervisor, throughout the show we see impressions of an imagined outside world shown to us via projections. These play out on the white walls. This deft ploy is used to show the characters’ thoughts as dreamlike sequences of forest walks, bustling city streets and talk show hosts. Captivity is infiltrating their minds.

These Orwellian set-piece taunt us with their glimpses of character. The cute dialogue between the anxious O’Connor and the impatient Murphy sees them warm to each other in these bizarre introductory circumstances. There is a genuine connection, which, seen as they’re never in the same room, is quite an achievement by the actors.

As routines break apart their bond grows. Leading questions uncover some of the past. Isla tells how she got here as a four year old and the menace of the whole towered project is hinted at. Mostly, however, they bat facile banalities back and forward. They talk of their favourite biscuits or animals.

The towers can easily be interpreted as a critique of the current refugee crisis or our direct provision no man’s land. These cells are where lives are put on hold; they’re internment camps for families with no definite future.

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Scene two is performed solely through contemporary dance and can be seen as a departure from Walsh’s previous theatre. Or perhaps it is a continuation of his operatic work over the last 18 months which includes two pieces: Lazurus with David Bowiepremiered in New York last year, and The Last Hotel, which ran during the 2015 Dublin Theatre Festival.

falling manThis dance echoes the pain and loneliness of the first scene with its violent moves. Oona Doherty – whose character is never named and could symbolise the mass of people who’ve gone through these towers – uses the full stage as her beguiling movement gets across the anguish of the situation.

She looks distinctively and confusingly like Isla who has gone before her.

Choreographed by Emma Martin, the dance ends with a spectacular defenestration.

This is the culmination of Walsh toying with his audience as he leaves windows open and doors ajar clearly leaning heavily on the escape motif so cherished by his trapped characters.

There is tragedy in the leap to certain death and the body falling from these towers, through the clouds, immediately evokes 9/11’s falling man. As with 9/11, these are new horrors that we are unable to process. But there is a lack of context for us to care deeply enough about this dancer’s plummet.

Arlington Escape

With contemporary dance, Walsh is enlisting more firepower in his sensory assault but unfortunately combining drama, dance and music into a coherent dramatic whole is where this production has overstretched itself and left its audience behind.

Unlike The Walworth Farce and Ballyturk there is little comic respite, this choreographed madness goes from start to finish with characters who aren’t nuanced enough for us to suffer their acute strain with them.

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In act three we meet the now captive and beaten supervisor. There’s a new female voice (Olwen Fouéré), “Are you sorry now for what you did?”

There is another scene conjured on the wall. This time it’s a series of faces that flash up, people of all ages and ethnicities. The most sustained speech is played over the intercom like a drum beat gathering distress:

” – and what passes as life – the exhaustion of it – the getting up and stepping out – the choice of which road to travel…. – to read and write and learn – and stretch and age … – to grow they call it … only born and building towards what?

… no better than ants, someone said… and before progress was shown up for what it is… an instinct to clean up… it’s the ‘lower ones’… and at first horror when spoken – when made whole this idea – when said – but felt in everyone … and grown in dark corners until it can be held up as an answer this idea … how large can they grow those towers? – how many can they build?”

This staccato speech, like the rest of the play, has snippets that the audience can invest with their own understanding. Enda Walsh is getting at something more: a horrific final solution, a culmination of the world’s ills, a Trump Tower for imprisoning refugees that stretches through the clouds.

A harrowing work of grief, loneliness and captivity, but without a more identifiable subject matter, or greater depth to the characters, we as an audience are reluctant to carry their burden past the final curtain, which comes as a relief.

* production photos by Patrick Redmond

Cultural Dispatches – 12/07/2016

Saul Williams parts the crowd in the Sugar Club and climbs over the red velvet seats to take his place in the unused centre of the auditorium. Standing in his bare feet, the audience surrounds him. He has left the stage behind, it cannot contain his message. He must infiltrate the crowd.

“Hack into comfort and conformity,” he urges, “Smash the binary.” The strain of his delivery pours forth in sweat.

Saul Williams

Williams is a poet, musician and activist, he’s also part of a long tradition of black Americans who have left the US for stints in Paris: James Baldwin, Nina Simone, Miles Davis, Ta-Nehisi Coates, to name a few. What struck them on their arrival in Paris was that, for the first time, they were identified as American first and Black second.

Living in a black body in the United States has been a continuous struggle: From 250 years of slavery, to 90 years of Jim Crow laws, to sixty years of ‘Separate but Equal’, to thirty-five years of Redlining (the racist housing policy that lead to ‘ghettoisation’). The continuous denial of basic human rights, as well as profiteering off labour and racist legislation, has been a part of the American narrative that remains unresolved.

Now, institutionalised racism in the police force, coupled with failures in the US Justice system, sees a fissure widening between black communities and those sworn in to protect and serve those citizens.

Last year, 102 unarmed black men were shot and killed by officers. Of those 102 cases, only ten officers were charged with a crime. Of the ten charged, only two were convicted. One officer was sentenced to a year in jail (source), which he could serve exclusively on weekends. The other was sentenced to four years in jail for murdering Eric Harris.

Saul Williams wrote The Noise Came from Here after the killing of teenager Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri. In the aftermath of that murder, the “Black Lives Matter” protest became a movement:

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#BlackLivesMatter  

APTOPIX Million Man March Anniversary

Since that Saul Williams gig, the killings of Alton Sterling and Philando Castile at the hands of police have once again made America’s racial wounds worldwide news. Those incidents were captured on video and seen by millions. Their crimes? A blown tail-light and selling cds. Since then people have taken to the streets, some with legally held semi-automatic weapons.

These deaths were followed by the tragic shooting of five police officers at a “Black Lives Matter”protest in Dallas by a lone gunman, an ex-army solider, Micah Johnston. He was a 24 year-old veteran of Afghanistan.

The officers killed were Lorne Ahrens, Michael Krol, Michael J. Smith, Brent Thompson and Patrick Zamarripa, more were injured.

Ta-Nehisi Coates

Ta-Nehisi Coates is a writer you must read on the subject of race. Two of his major pieces are The Case for Reparations and The Black Family in the Age of Mass Incarceration. In his book Between the World and Me, which is a letter written to his son, he says:

“I write you in your fifteenth year. I am writing you because this was the year you saw Eric Garner choked to death for selling cigarettes. Because you know now that Reinsha McBride was shot for seeking help. That John Crawford was shot down for browsing in a department store. And you have seen men in uniform drive by and murder Tamir Rice, a twelve year-old child whom they were oath bound to protect.”

And you know now, if you did not before, that the police departments of your country have been endowed with the authority to destroy your body… The destroyers will rarely be held accountable, mostly they will receive pensions. And destruction is merely the superlative form of a dominion whose prerogatives include friskings, detainings, beatings, and humiliations. All of this is common to black people. All of this is old for black people. No one is held responsible.

tanehisi-and-son“There is nothing uniquely evil in these destroyers or even in this moment. The destroyers are merely men enforcing the whims of our country, correctly interpreting its heritage and legacy. It is hard to face this. But all our phrasing: race-relations, racial casm, racial justice, racial-profiling, white privilege, even white supremacy, serves to obscure that racism is a visceral experience. That it dislodges brains, blocks airways, rips muscle, extracts organs, cracks bones, breaks teeth. You must never look away from this.

“You must always remember that the sociology, the history, the economics, the graphs, the charts, the regressions, all land with great violence upon the body.”

Today, 12th of July, at 6pm at the Spire on Dublin’s O’Connell Street, a crowd will gather to show solidarity after the recent spate of murders in the US. They will do so again at 2pm on Saturday.

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Clothing: A Canvas for 21st Century Protest

Repeal

Clothing might seem trivial in the face of the above, but the Repeal Project is anything but. Founder Anna Cosgrave got the idea for her jumpers when attending a vigil for Savita Halappanaver back in 2012. The tragedy of that case was just one of a litany of despicable stories Ireland has willingly endured because of our archaic abortion legislation.

Cosgrave had also spotted social and political activist Gloria Steinem wearing a t-shirt that read, “I had an abortion”.

This simple yet powerful message of solidarity and protest, openly displayed on a t-shirt, stayed with Cosgrave. With the jumpers, her aim was to give people, “Outerwear that gives voice to a hidden problem”.

AC Repeal

The first  pop-up shop, scheduled to run Friday to Sunday in Indigo and Cloth, was sold out by Friday evening, such was the popularity and support shown. Walking around town, the proliferation of black jumpers emblazoned with white block lettering is evident.

Anna, pictured above, was interviewed recently by Guts Magazine, you can read that piece here. You can order your Repeal jumper on their website at any time.

Their next pop-up shop will be at Longitude, this weekend, from the 15th – 17th. One performer, Roísín Murphy, who’s new album you can listen to below, has already shown her support. Pick up your jumper, be visible – what you wear is your canvas:

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What to go to?

Films of NoteSugar Club – runs until August 5th

Films of note

This month-long curated selection of music films has some of your favourite concert flicks – like the iconic Stop Making Sense, which is so popular, it is shown fortnightly to dancing hordes – as well as introducing audiences to the more obscure in the genre; thus unearthing new music, which is what it’s all about.

This genre has been enriched of late with Amy (showing July 14th) and Searching For Sugarman (July 18th) quickly assuming the mantle of classics. What did they have? Well, Sugarman had a potent mix of the socially conscious story, a cheated star, Rodriguez, and a fantastic sountrack, which was completely new.

It took on the behemoth record industry, raising questions about them as gatekeepers, while fixing the spotlight on an unintended consequence of apartheid South Africa; where Sugarman sold millions of records.

Amy worked because of its central star’s magnetism, her tragedy and a vault of home video footage that allowed director Asif Kapadia display and frame the story in such an effecting way.

Amy Whinehouse

With James Murphy bringing the band back this year, Shut Up and Play the Hits (July 30th), LCD Soundsystem’s 2011 farewell concert, has found itself somewhat devalued as they return to stages with a robust rewiring of their classic hits and a new album promised by year’s end.

This tear stained, friend grabbing, ennui fest is a major part of their appeal and is a perfect intro for those unfamiliar with the band who headline Electric Picnic this September. Arguably, there’s no better Noughties band. Read Una Mullaly analysis of their comeback and what it meant in her Murphy’s Law piece.

Get the full list of movies showing here.

Here are two favourites from this genre that I would have included in the schedule: The Band’s The Last Waltz and the Arthur Russell biopic Wild Combination.

What to Listen to?

Nils Frahm on Gilles Peterson – BBC Radio 6

Nils Frahm is a modern musical satellite, operating at stratospheric levels, he is one to keep your ears tuned to as he continues to soar.

Nils Frahm

Only in his mid-thirties, his combination of neo-classical piano and instrumental electronica is a fusion so advanced it puts him in a genre-less vacuum all of his own creation. He has opened up classical music to a wider and younger audience.

Recently, Frahm curated a festival in the Barbican, London, as well as playing a 6 hour show in the Louvre, Paris, with Ólafur Arnalds.

This two-hour chat with Gilles Peterson is an exploration of his influences and looks at where this prodigy is headed next – the answer is the studio. He selects a number tracks, treating listeners to an exclusive untitled track and an outtake from the movie score he did for the film Victoria, which was released last year and set in Berlin.

What is scary is Frahm’s evaluation of his musical output so far, “I feel like a lot of the stuff I’ve put out have been lucky accidents and side projects. I really love them all, but for me the next record is something where I want to experiment, build new things and invest more energy.”

Listen to the show in full here, he has also just released a new EP with spoken word from Robert DeNiro, yep, I am talking about him:



The Barbican show was his last performance for an extended time as he breaks from touring, retreating to his studio in Berlin to make good on that crazy promise of a more expansive record.

 

#NewMusic – Take Her Up to Monto, Roísín Murphy

Roisin Murphy

Irish Pop-queen Roísín Murphy is back within 18 months of releasing the cosmic Hairless Toys with a slower and more nuanced pop album. Take Her To The Monto, named after Dublin’s old red light district, was released last Friday and on a first listen it’s all there: the allure, the mystic, and the reason she’s not a massive star – she’s too elusive an artist.

She plays Longitude next Sunday, July 17th. Her shows, with hundreds of costume changes, descend into pure pleasure.

Listen to the album in full here:

Cultural Dispatches – 10/6/2016

Last Friday night word of Muhammad Ali’s deterioration was circulating. He was in intensive care and it was becoming clear that 2016 was after another icon. Early the following morning, a scroll on the nearest screen confirmed the news today, oh boy: the Louisville Lip was gone.

By coincidence, I happened to be staying in my teenage self’s bedroom. On the wall, still, are the remnants of impressionistic youth. The most prominent of these are posters of Bob Dylan and Muhammad Ali.


Dylan is in a top hat (borrowed from the hotel concierge!) strumming away on his electric guitar, exuding his zero-fucks stage presence, while Ali is triumphant over Sonny Liston having knocked him down in the first minute of the first round. The then Cassius Clay is in the process of “shaking up the world,” at just twenty-two years of age, without a mark on his face, he senses his destiny.

Halfway through and 2016 can be traced by these weeks of collective mourning, like the one just gone. Social media outpourings, newspaper pull-outs and personal anecdotes proliferate as the airwaves and newspapers are filled with eulogies. It seems the obituary is now the standard currency in journalism, a pitch at greatness quantified.

muhammad-ali-wallpaper-23

For young people, our idols are gateways, channels through which we cultivate our interests.

Dylan and Ali are my heroes. My first real obsessions, they have occupied a lasting place in my thought-dreams and opened doors, guiding me in ways I’ve tried to think about in recent days.

For me, the boxing was secondary in my fascination with ‘The Greatest’. I adored the early boxer – the Ali Shuffle, his speed, guile and taunts – and admired the later fighter who, while considerably slowed, adapted and absorbed in order to continue winning.

What he actually absorbed dismayed me. Realising that his jaw could take “punches that could knock cities”, unfortunately, thousands of jabs and hooks followed.

Impossible not to draw a line from those punches to the effects we saw for the past two decades or more, his beautiful faculties and stunning alacrity of mind and body were in sickly, sad decline in front of our eyes. If you were too young, you just had to watch the videos and interviews back to see.

BD & Muhammad Ali

In truth, it was Ali and not boxing I was interested in after all.

I thank him for what he turned me on to: sports writing, Race and American politics. He was the dignified window through which I encountered these exploitative and fascinating subjects for the first time.

His personality was the fuel that made this teenager read Norman Mailer’s The Fight, Dave Remnick’s King of the World and Thomas Hauser’s Muhammad Ali: His Life and Times. Through him I moved past the boxing and got to Malcolm X , The Black Panthers and Vietnam:

I ain’t got no quarrel with no Vietcong . . . No Vietcong ever called me a nigger.”

Ali was the prism through which establishment narratives of America, the twentieth-century empire, with its history told by victors, was examined and then subverted in my mind. He was the counterpoint for the US’s festering sores of race, war and opportunity (for whom?).

At the peak of his powers he took a stand against the Vietnam War. As he publicly, and conscientiously, objected to being drafted, his opponents were no longer just the boxing behemoths of the heavyweight division but now the most powerful institution in the States – the US Army. He was striped of his title for over three years.

This is not something a modern sportsman like Tiger Woods, Rory McIlroy or Steph Curry could fathom, in fact, it is laughable to even consider. Different era, different bosses.

With little to no formal education, Ali had a self-knowledge and supreme confidence from a precocious age and articulated this in the most memorable way. Not without the many flaws that come with humanity, he was willing to adapt out of the ring like he did in it:

“The man who views the world at fifty the same as he did at twenty has wasted thirty years of his life.”

Ali wasted none. If there is a heaven, it just received a floating butterfly, a stinging bee and the man that made this young mind rumble.

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Celebrating Muhammad Ali in words

Ali in the ring

Ali inspired some of the best sports writing ever written, here’s a selection of pieces that stood out this week and also some from the archives:

  • In this piece Dave Remnick, author of King of the World, articulated Ali’s lasting legacy, which is possibly bigger than boxing itself.
  • Norman Mailer was a writer with a comparable Ego to Ali, here he writes about the big E in Life Magazine.
  • Hugh McIlvanney dominated The Sunday Times pullout and he was there for Ali’s whole career, here he sat down with the fighter straight after The Rumble in the Jungle and that famous ‘rope-a-dope’ victory.
  • Ali was human, all too human sometimes, Brian O’Connor’s column deals in the imperfections.
  • Robert Lipsyte wrote The New York Times obituary.

Bob Dylan at 75

With one hero gone, I raced to check on those remaining. Thankfully, Dylan’s ‘Never Ending Tour’ continues.

To mark his 75th birthday, Tuesday week ago, I have done a personal playlist that includes one track from the just released Fallen Angels, his latest American songbook album.


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What to go to?

Galway International Arts Festival 11th – 24th July

Having recently been crowned Pro 12 champions, the West is awake on the rugby pitch, but when it comes to the arts it’s always been that way.

The Galway International Arts festival is their annual showcasing and the 2016 programme is full of the intrigue, daring and experimentation we have come to expect from this two week event.

DruWaiting for Godot- Druidid are doing Samuel Beckett’s Waiting for Godotwith Garry Hynes directing and a strong cast of Aaron Monaghan, Rory Nolan, Garret Lombard and Marty Rea (fresh from his delightfully deceitful Iago at the Abbey). It promises to be a highlight of the festival and runs from July 11th -23rd.

“On a bare road in the middle of nowhere, two world–weary friends await the arrival of the mysterious Godot.”

The critic Vivian Mercier famously described this as “a play in which nothing happens, twice.” Beckett’s biographer, Anthony Cronin, gives his thoughts on the play here.

Playwright Enda Walsh was recently interviewed by Jarlath Regan on The Irishman Abroad podcast. He talks about his journey from Roddy Doyle’s English class in Kilbarrack to Disco Pigs Cork and then London, with OCD, theatre and finally David Bowie as company. Listen here:

Walsh’s project Rooms is running daily in The Shed throughout the festival. Comprised of three individual installation pieces,  Kitchen, Room 303 and A Girl’s Bedroom, each lasting about 15 minutes, they cut right to the core of his theatre: immersive set-pieces dripping with atmosphere.

The musical highlights at the festival over the two weeks include Villagers, Elvis Costello, Dan Deacon, Imelda May, The Gloaming (already sold-out), The Hothouse Flowers and The SoulJazz Orchestra.

To see the full programme of events and book tickets go here.

Festival of Writing and Ideas – Borris House, Carlow, 10th – 12th June

During the summer, readers and writers love going to big houses in the country and talking about books and ideas. This is exactly what is happening in Borris House, Co. Carlow, this weekend.

For me, highlights include Martin Amis and Chrissie Hynde both separately in conversation with Michael Chabon, but there’s a plethora of interesting events over the weekend guaranteed to satisfy a variety of bookish tastes. Full programme here.

Talks and events are individually priced but you can get a €45 Sunday ticket here.

 Festival of Writing & ideas

Future Tense: Short Play Commission – Abbey Theatre, €6, 13th – 14th July

Part of being a national theatre is fostering and supporting new, homegrown writing. Events like Future Tense are what separate the Abbey from its more risk adverse competitors, and justifies their vastly greater funding.

Four playwrights – Sonya Kelly, Ross Dungan, Lisa Carroll and Tara McKevitt – have each been commissioned to write a twenty minute play to be performed on the Peacock stage on the 13th and 14th of July. From these exciting talents, we should get an insight into the direction Irish theatre writing is going in.

Read an interview Ross Dungan did with this blog from last year.

Future Tense.jpg

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What to read?

Fiction Issue of The New Yorker 

On the excellent front cover of June’s fiction issue is a drawing that reminds me of ‘The Long-Winded Lady’, the pseudonym Maeve Brennan used in her Talk of the Town column in the magazine.

As well as those New York city diaries, Brennan contributed short fiction and criticism to The New Yorker as a staff writer from the 1950s right through the 1970s. Her book of short stories, The Springs of Affection, mostly based in her childhood home in Ranelagh, has been republished by The Stinging Fly. Read Anne Enright’s introduction here.

Maeve Brennan

The rich tradition of short fiction in this magazine – epitomised by writers such as Brennan, Frank O’Conner and John Updike – continues today with short stories from Zadie Smith, Two Men Arrive in a Village; Jonathan Safran Foer, Maybe It Was the Distance; and a previously unpublished Langston Hughes story, recovered amongst his Yale University papers, entitled Seven People Dancing.

Listen to Zadie Smith read her story Two Men Arrive in a Village:

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Life is often a compromise, as Paul Noth’s cartoon illustrates:

Compromise- Hilary & Trump

Anthony Cronin and the Minor Miracle of Poetry

Anthony Cronin P.E.Maguire

Portrait by Edward McGuire 1977

Anthony Cronin is ensconced next to his bookshelf in the living room with a reading light shining over his shoulder. This venerable man of Irish letters is well-dressed in a purple plaid blazer with a sharpened HB pencil protruding from his breast pocket.

Cronin’s poetic masterpiece, The End of The Modern World (1989), expresses scepticism about modern technology in sonnet 171:

Gadgets which he never had occasion
To use or which were quickly superseded
By different models; cameras, recorders:
. . . aids which destroy
True evocation, memory, the past.

With this in mind, I ask permission to tape our conversation. “One must choose every word with those things,” he says.

Choosing his words carefully is nothing new to Anthony Cronin, in fact, he made crafting them his métier.

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We are in Ranelagh, Dublin, where Cronin lives with his wife, fellow poet and novelist Anne Haverty, in their logophile’s kingdom. He has joked in the past that here is his querencia – a term describing the bull’s safe spot in the ring, where the animal feels at home and can make a stand.

This writer’s stand now takes the form of a weekly feature for The Sunday Independent – where he selects poetry and gives an insightful note – as well as his latest collection entitled Body and Soul, published in 2014.

Just this week his publisher, New Island, have released a revised and extended version of The End of the Modern World.

Ranelagh have acknowledged the ‘myriad-minded’ poet’s presence by naming a laneway after him. Fittingly, the lane skirts the Village Bookshop with its dark towers of hardback ink and pulp stacked high in the main street window.

Anne Haverty & Anthony Cronin, Ranelagh Arts Festival, April 2016

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Cronin first took an interest in poetry when sent as a boarder to Blackrock College from his native Enniscorthy. Having joined the chess club, which got him off the school grounds unsupervised, he picked up a copy of The Century’s Poetry in a local newsagent, “Penguins as a whole were new then. They were cheap, six pence . . . So I bought a copy and that did the job.”

Century's Poetry

To the teachers patrolling after-school study it was incomprehensible that anyone would read poetry for pleasure.

“Denys Kilham Roberts’ anthology was my first introduction to modern poetry. The rest of the stuff was The Charge of the Light Brigade and that kind of thing.

“I found it not only pleasurable but, in a funny sort of way, a consolation and an illumination to read.”

Unbeknownst to his teachers, Cronin was with the “blunder’d” 600 charging into the valley of death with poetry as his newfound steed.

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Cronin’s work is far from confined to poetry and his other writing has had a lasting impact on the arts in Ireland.

After college he was called to the Bar, an opportunity he declined. Instead he took a desk job and started frequenting the pubs of the capital. This experience informed his deeply comic novel, The Life of Riley (1964), which lampooned the bar-stool intellectualising prevalent at the time and gave a voice to the literary aspirants of 1950’s Ireland.

The Life of Riley.jpg

This rollicking satire sees the author untether his sharp wit on every page. While this is his most overtly comic book, humour is a constant lens through which Cronin observes the world and his application of this wry gaze is a hallmark of all his writing.

While his character Patrick Riley worked hilariously hard to maintain his idleness, Cronin saw the drudgery of the working world and wanted little to do with it. By further indulging the autodidactic strain within him, he started pursuing the creative life through poetry.

***

Sam Beckett

In biographies of Samuel Beckett, The Last Modernist (1996), and Flann O’Brien, No Laughing Matter (1989), Cronin corralled his eloquent prose into compelling portraits of two Irish giants of 20th century letters.

If you were looking for Irish literature at the start of the 20th century it could be found on the Abbey stage with Yeats, Sygne, O’Casey and Lady Gregory. But as the century warred and wore on it was on the page, as well as the stage, where two distinct groups of writers carved a modern Irish identity and garnered an international reputation that Fáilte Ireland market to this day.

The two groups were made up of those who left and those who stayed. Firstly the exiles, Joyce and Beckett, who headed to the Left Bank in Paris for a better view of their country’s soul. Then there was the Dublin cabal of hard writing and harder-drinking 50s vagabonds: Patrick Kavanagh, Flann O’Brien and Brendan Behan.

The latter group called McDaids and various other pubs their garret. Friend and confidant to all three, Cronin would go on to memorialise these characters in Dead As Doornails (1976). In those pages he displayed the vibrant writing life he shared while documenting their penurious living arrangements and the sad demise that befell each of them. This he did without succumbing to hagiography.

In this honest and incisive depiction of these friends, there is the story of the first Bloomsday celebration organised to mark the 50th anniversary of the 16th June 1904, the day Joyce set his modernist masterpiece Ulysses.

First Bloomsday 1954

From the left: Tom Ryan, Anthony Cronin, Flann O’Brien, Patrick Kavanagh, Tom Joyce. Sandymount Strand, First Bloomsday, 1954.

On that day in 1954 a coterie of literary figures headed to Martello Tower at Sandymount to trace the route taken for Paddy Dignam’s funeral in the novel. In the purest coincidence, that same day, a horse called Elpenor won the Ascot Gold Cup. The race features in the novel and Joyce had based his character of Paddy Dignam on Elpenor from Homer’s Odyssey, a character who falls off a roof and then journeys to the underworld.

The horse was fifty-to-one to win as they snaked around the capital paying homage to the scenes from Ulysses but nobody backed the coincidence and the outsider only paid out through the writers’ future anecdotes.

***

For a dozen years, around the 1970s, Cronin wrote a column called Viewpoint in The Irish Times. It dealt in ideas as well as social and political criticism.

For a time, he moved from the artist’s “long tradition of the man alone, / Deriding all sides, driven out by all,” in order to take the role of cultural advisor to Charles Haughey where perhaps he “Tried to define an order in which art/ Might find itself the breath of common being.” 

Cronin often defended Haughey in print, saying he was the first head of government to make the arts an integral part of state policy. When Haughey died, he made a promise to stop defending his legacy in print, saying it was now posterity’s turn.

As for his own role, he says: “Going into the taoiseach’s office as an advisor, I saw the opportunity of doing things and bringing things into being: The [Irish] Museum of Modern Art (Imma), The Heritage Council, Aosdána in particular”

IMMA

Aosdána was established in 1981. It currently has 250 members and state support from the Arts Council in recognition of their contribution to Irish artistic endeavour. Was the organisation an attempt to mend the relationship with artists after censorship?

“Ireland fell out with its artists almost immediately on its foundation. Censorship was one of the things but it wasn’t the primary thing. The primary thing was the notion that all artists were anti-religious. There was a clash with the values and established beliefs of the country at large, which had just triumphed, remember.”

His poetry is critical of the triumphalism of the new State:

. . . The ones who fought the War of Independence
Did so, and let’s admit it in all fairness,
Out of the purest motives, with no thought
Of how things eventually would turn out,
Of how the banks, insurance, brokerage, commerce
Would fall to them. The dialectical process
Is to blame. They couldn’t know the bourgeois
Revolution would be a bonanza.
They hadn’t read their Marx and couldn’t see
How sweet would be the sweets of victory.

These spoils of victory didn’t accrue to artists. In fact, the first few decades of the Free State was an increasingly uncomfortable time for them. The ‘artists dole’, as Aosdána was nicknamed, and the tax exemptions were starting points in the state’s reconciliation of its relationship with artists.

Critics label the programme elitist, and some artists have refused the bursary after being nominated. However, even those would admit that it has served a largely positive purpose. It was surely no harm to artists that one of their own had Haughey’s ear in that ‘inner sanctum’ of deception and decision that was Irish politics.

***

Despite his many achievements as novelist, biographer, critic and cultural advisor, Cronin’s artistry is best represented in his poetry, particularly his longer verse: R.M.S Titanic, The Minotaur, Reductionist Poem and The End of the Modern World all stretch out over tens of verses and flow with the storied ease of a novel.

In these extended poems he revels in his ability to ruminate at length on subjects such as modern existence and the Irish State.

He renders cities of the mind in verse full of “true evocation”, probing what it has meant to live through modernity and amongst its inevitable human failings.

Attuned to the struggles of daily life, at times, his poetry is almost a form of heightened journalism, and he even makes reference to his own deadlines:

117.Collected poems

. . . I managed two
And sometimes up to four effusions weekly,
Facing the bedroom wall, my papers
Behind me on the bed. There were no stairs
Or battlements to pace upon in Stella.

118.

And yet I was embattled in the way
That most of those who are embattled are
In our society. I feared the post,
The admonition from the EBS
Which threatened to uproot me every month,
The ESB which threatened instant darkness,
The GPO which threatened severance.

The longer verse provided a semblance of normality to his daily writing routine. “I remember a poet George Barker telling me that one should write a long poem or two because you could sit down to it everyday like a novelist sat down to a novel.

“They’re a tremendous discipline. It also means that you’re the boss; it’s not the muse that you’re waiting for.”

The first of his long poems was published in the sixties, a time when a single poem could afford you a reputation (this is far from the case today), “I wrote R.M.S. Titanic immediately after seeing the movie, A Night To Remember (1958), in the pictures. The poem was about the death of an old school morality or decency.”

IX.

Coagulate with cold and dark the sea
Sucks down Titanic as the hiss of steam
Dies over empty distance. The boats gaze
On what was home, eleven storeys high,
Commotion crowding on its decks, its lights
Tilting above them as the band plays on. . . .

X.

. . . We live by living, survive by mere surviving.
Stubborn beyond our stubbornness or strength
Our virtues, like our weaknesses, prevail.

R.M.S. Titanic

***

These extended meditations provided more than a daily routine; they also formed the anchors around which his collections of poetry were built.

The End of The Modern World has occupied his mind for decades. Written throughout the eighties, and dedicated to Dermot Bolger, it was first published in 1989 (the year this interviewer was born) but this month this major work has been re-released in a solo volume for the first time.

The poem is an interrogation of centuries of European and classical thought – a sort of psychic history of Western civilisation from Roman times right up to a glistening Manhattan Island – with a familiar Irish squalor omnipresent throughout.

Like the Elgin Marbles in verse, it is a collection of significant events, both international and personal, juxtaposed with timeless works of art in some attempt to place modernity, as Cronin sees it, in a poetic frieze that is built to last.

After 179 sonnets he arrives at Manhattan Island and what, in hindsight, is an eerily prescient way to end a poem entitled The End of Modern World. But of course he couldn’t have known then that it would become the Ground Zero of the most modern of tragedies, “I ended on the Twin Towers, I didn’t think they were going to end at the time.”

img_3811-1

179.

Ask not what end, inquiring traveller,
Is served, what grim need to placate a god
Or worship him, what visions, definitions of
Our destiny, our purpose threw up these
Audacious towers to shine in evening light.
The sun, a crucible of nuclear rage,
Knows nothing of such ends: it thrummed out rays
Of heat until the ooze transformed itself.

Money’s convulsions too are life-giving,
Neutral, imply no purpose in our hearts,
But blaze upon this rock to make Manhattan
Rise in resplendence, such a culmination
Of history seen at sunset from the harbour,
Meaningless, astonishing and simple.

The scope of his vast poems, coupled with his meticulousness with words, must make them draining to write?

“I wouldn’t care to start a long poem like that nowadays, you might be trapped. Because it takes a bit of doing.”

***

Anthony Cronin proves a formidable subject. Deliberate, measured and scrupulous in all his responses, his life has been a war against cliché. He has strived through articulation to broaden our understanding of this “all too short life,” as he describes it.

His legacy is bound up with the import of language: its ability to both capture and expand experience on the page. Where he did this best is in his poetry, thirteen collections of it.

Anthony Cronin & Seamus Heaney

Seamus Heaney and Cronin sharing a joke. Photo credit: Brenda Fitzsimons

This brings us to his most recent collection, Body and Soul, and the succinct summation of existence in The Life of Man:

All that excitement, all that fear and pain
And snuff out and never be again?

“That is the question, isn’t it . . . Why do the events of a short not very eventful life, in many cases, have such extraordinary intensity and eventfulness if it means nothing? If we’re not going anywhere.” That poem isn’t a statement but a question, and one that none of us are equipped to answer.

“I rather like those two lines myself. The poem finds it kind of incredible that life should have any significance if it’s not one that’s carried on . . . But that may be a hangover from a Catholic upbringing. Maybe it has absolutely no significance whatsoever. Just a biological accident: you are conceived, you grow up and then, as the poem says, you snuff out . . . Could be . . .”

Nearing ninety the body may be creaking with the inevitabilities of a life, yet Cronin’s soul and mind are still engaged with these questions and are as sharp as that pencil in his breast pocket, so don’t be surprised if there are more poems to come from that prolific triumvirate.

And that is no small thing, as he says, because writing even one poem of value is a minor miracle.

A shorter version of this piece was first published in The Irish Times last Thursday, the 26th of May.

Dublin

Cultural Dispatches 12/05/2016

A bright evening light gushes in through the upstairs windows of The Workman’s Club claiming more and more of the wooden floorboards. The launch of Solar Bones, Mike McCormack’s first novel in a decade, has this bookish crowd indoors of a fine semi-Summer’s evening.

Tramp

Published by Tramp Press, Lisa Coen and Sarah Davis-Goff find themselves only across the hall from where, two years ago, they announced themselves on the independent publishing scene in Ireland by launching their first title, Flight by Oona Frawley.

Having published six Tramp titles since, Lisa and Sarah paid tribute to the enthusiastic readers that make an audacious book like Solar Bones possible. This is a readership that is underestimated, they say, before introducing Kevin Barry, author of Beatlebone, and a writer who keeps that readership invigorated with his own daring prose.

Kevin B

Barry evokes the flowing Liffey outside the window as a metaphor for the enthralling prose experience he had while reading this novel, “Here is a writer that said ‘Fuck it, we’re going to go for it.'”

As Barry details the hypnotic effect of being embedded with this Mayo family as things unravel, author Mike McCormack is leaning against a pillar in the middle of the room with his wife Maeve beside him. He has picked a spot somewhere off in Mick Wallace’s Italian Quarter on the other side of the quays and is staring attentively as the praise comes from his eleven o’clock.

“That’s why you don’t want to speak after Kevin Barry,” says McCormack, as he takes the mike.

Mike Mc Gaze

It was half two in the morning many months ago when McCormack hit send on his computer. The draft of the novel was on its way to his agent and eight hours later his first child was born, “Maeve had said it was either the book or the child, the house couldn’t have the two of them.”

McCormack tells of how this book was like a car whose hood was lifted by many publishers and editors, mostly male, who were flummoxed by its inner mechanics. They were unwilling to dirty their hands with the strange oil it ran on.

When Tramp received the unpunctuated story it posed only opportunities. They meet its author for coffee to convey what they envisaged for the novel.

“A book about all the declensions of manhood which was adopted by the all the women in my life,” he says gratefully.

To finish, opening the novel in his hands and smoothing out years of his creative work he says:

“There is one page that is perfect. And that’s rare for any book. On it are written two words: for Maeve

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What to Read?

Solar Bones – Mike McCormack, €15, all good bookshops

Screen Shot 2016-05-10 at 21.47.45

Mike McCormack’s new novel is one sentence, two hundred and twenty three pages long. Beautifully languid prose, metered commas, choice paragraph breaks and dashes make this feat of punctuation seamless for the reader.

A story of unravelling manhood, remembered within the timeframe of two tolling bells, sees engineer Marcus Conway’s world fall apart in a Mayo and Ireland on the brink of recession. The memories of a family in crisis are driven by a slalom-like sentence that gathers pace and force while rural life careens rhythmically out of the narrator’s control.

If launches are your thing, Tramp Press do take two in the wonderful Charlie Byrne’s Bookshop in Galway tomorrow at 6:30pm with Tommy Tiernan as the special guest. If McCormack thought coming on after Kevin Barry was tough imagine what it’ll be like after Tommy, especially if he does this.

Here is an interview with the author from the Galway Advertiser’s arts podcast:

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What to Watch?

Obama Out – Washington Correspondents Dinner

After 30 minutes of working the room for his eighth and final speech at the Washington Correspondents Dinner, Obama, in dicky-bow, had dispatched everyone: Hilary Clinton (“like your relative who just signed up for Facebook”), The Republican Primary mess, his own ‘black’ credentials, comrade Bernie Sanders, and of course, ‘The Donald’. And he revelled in it.

As the speech came to a close, Obama reached into the podium to grab a prop and after thanking the press corps for working with him, and holding the Republic to account, he had only two words left to say, “Obama out,” before mic dropping. Watch what for years will remain the coolest act perpetrated by a President, here.

With the presumptive candidates looking as bleak as they do, Dynasty Candidate versus Megalomaniac, we are already starting to miss the 44th President.

Obama Out

Obama is a polished and classy deliverer of speeches, first demonstrated here back in 2004, but who are the people that have helped craft his speeches since? These staff have written and contributed to serious policy rhetoric as well as providing flippant yet stinging party jokes and they are worth knowing.

Jonathan Favreau was writing speeches for Senator John Kerry by 21. At the 2004 Democratic Convention, Favreau interrupted Obama who was practicing his speech in order to point out some repetition. When Obama was elected senator he hired Favreau and later made him chief speechwriter – a position he held through the ‘Yes we can‘ election of 2008.

There have been others like Cody Keegan, who Obama christened ‘Hemingway’, but recently the New Times Magazine did a profile of Ben Rhodes that is worth reading for its sheer insight into a writer and West Wing insider who helped shaped foreign policy narratives during the Obama Presidency.

While the author of the piece, David Samuels, ridicules the Washington lapdogs in the press (27-year-olds who ‘literally know nothing’) and slams the 140-character diplomacy of the day, he is over-fawning of his own insider subject.

***

What to go to? 

Chris Kraus

International Literature Festival Dublin – Chris Kraus, 21st May 6pm, €12

Only this year has Chris Kraus’s 1997 cult American classic I Love Dick got a UK and Ireland pressing. The epistolary tale of infatuation, obsession and desire is a feminist coming-of-age that questions why the exposition of female needs, both artistically and sexually, remain taboo.

She has compared her writing to the process behind acting:

It’s like somehow I’m moving through the terrain of the book as a performer, but this time I’m transcribing. Literally, I see my writing as transcription – a transcription of what I see, hear, think, live. I’ve always been a fan of plain writing. I hate metaphor-laden, heavily larded, lyrical writing.

While her fiction is more than part memoir, with many characters sharing names and details with real life individuals, what her work really explores are the power dynamics at play in a world in which reality moves much, much slower than the platitudes given to equality et al.

Chris Kraus is in conversation with journalist Una Mullally on Saturday the 21st of May as part of the International Literature Festival Dublin, tickets via the title link.

Lisa O’Neil – Pothole in the Sky, album launch. Whelan’s, 20th May, €16.50

Lisa O'Neil

Lisa O’Neill has been part of Glen Hansard’s touring cavalcade for months, now she is taking to intimate venues around the country for a series of solo shows to launch her third record, Pothole in the Sky.

O’Neill is a unique folk vessel and stage seanchaí whose interludes between songs are filled with stories that abandon linear logic in favour of exploding asides. Her music comes from that same strange, alluring vision.

At the gig expect to travel with a gun runner called the Border-Fox, have tea with Elvis in O’Neill’s kitchen and begrudge the English and emigration for stealing her man.

Go to hear the new tales and you will fall for this spellbinding Cavan singer-songwriter-storyteller.

Have a listen to O’Neill’s recent interview with Róisín Ingle:


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What to Listen to?

Radiohead – A Moon Shaped Pool

At the above link, for the next month, you can listen to Radiohead’s new album A Moon Shaped Pool in full via BBC radio 6.

A smooth sonic treat, the album hums with a low-level angst reminiscent of our digital age. It’s a sound familiar to us from the band’s most innovative output, Kid A and OK Computer, where Thom Yorke’s vocals are set against an ever-encroaching culture: human warding off machine.

Here an N+1 archive feature looks at Radiohead’s place in popular culture:

Radiohead’s success lay in their ability to represent the feeling of our age; they did not insist on being too much advanced in the “advanced” music they acquired. The beeps and buzzes never seemed like the source of their energy, but a means they’d stumbled upon of finally communicating the feelings they had always held . . . They tilted artificial noises against the weight of the human voice and human sounds.

The band got Paul Thomson Anderson, director of Boogie Nights, The Master and There Will be Blood, to do the video for the single Daydreaming:

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Speaking the truth in job interviews, via New Yorker cartoons:

New Yorker cartoon

“In five years, I see myself with the same job title, about the same salary, and significantly more responsibilities.” 

Cultural Dispatches #5 – 27/2/16

Cuba has dominated this blog’s thoughts of late as our upcoming trip coincides with the first US presidential visit to the Caribbean island in nearly 90 years. Obama’s announcement of this further thawing of diplomatic relations came after we’d booked our trip (Perhaps the NSA got wind? One can never be too paranoid). Then came the news that 150 daily flights would start flying from the US to Cuba in the near future.

cuba

Going for the first time to a place is the only way to confound your preconceptions of somewhere you’ve never been.

We all do it. We build a place in our minds, constructing narratives even though we’ve never physically been. They’re usually tangental collections of popular culture that you gather from one place or another. They fester in your dreams and slip through your daydreams – they are reductive, powerful and hard to shake, even after you’ve been.

Cuba is one of these places for me.

Che 2

Currently my Cuba exists in an imaginative blender containing various snippets of history, pastiche movies and books. All I know about Cuba is what everybody knows, and I too had Che framed on my wall. Then came the Buena Vista Social Club, that album would be one of my desert island discs, I listened to it all the time. The refrain, “De Alto Cedro voy para Marcan/ Llego a Cueto, voy para Mayar,” was all I sang, without a clue of what it meant, just knowing it sounded great:

I developed this through Gilles Peterson. Taking his lead from the Buena Vista Social club’s millennial album, he modernised things by atomising more of Cuba’s rich aural tapestry within his Havana Cultura project; Cuba’s jazz, hip-hop and soul rhythms were captured in these compilations.

Reading some history and biography on the revolution, Castro and Che, particularly his motorcycle diaries, supplemented this interest further. Then somewhere in there came the real writers: Hemingway, Graham Greene and Hunter S. Thompson, with The Old Man and the SeaOur Man in Havana and The Rum Diaries. In the last few years the latter was made into a glimmering feature film with Johnny Depp as the star.

Rum Diaries

You get the point, I have a vision of Cuba built up in my mind, and while it’s foundationed in cliché, I can only start to erode that the moment my foot meets what I hope will be tarmac. When I smell the aromas and hear, for the first time, their Spanish spoken, “Que mi punto?”

Wandering around La Habana Vieja, spying the 50s American vintage cars and travelling in the Caribbean heat via hand-me-down trains and buses to the old Spanish colonial cities of Trinidad or Santiago de Cuba is when things will start to separate.

It’ll help to inhale the cigar fumes, drink the mojitos and swim in the Bay of Pigs. 

Somewhere along the way reality impinges on your mind’s eye and you’re left with only vague feelings of déjà vu to remind you of that constructed place you had.

I just hope that when I’m coming through customs in Havana they don’t take issue with my American J1 visa that’s stuck to page 8 of my passport. It’d be a shame to have to turn back.

P.S.

Americans, I wonder what your thought dreams of Cuba must be like?

The increasingly effective lame duck president is on the legacy trail, lift the trade embargo. . .

Yes We Can

***

What to go to?

ADIFF Closing Gala Screening of Viva – Savoy, 7:45pm

It so happens that the Dublin Film Festival must have got our Cuba memo too; they are closing their programme with a screening of Viva, an Irish written and directed film which was shortlisted for an academy award in the foreign language feature category.

VIVA.jpg

This project started when Paddy Breathnach planted an idea in Mark O’Halloran’s head – he was to go spend some time amongst the Cuban drag scene and see if he came back with a story.

O’Halloran, who wrote the lauded Irish tragic-comedy movies Adam and Paul and Garage, headed for Havana equipped with 20 wigs he’d been given by Pantibliss and some MAC make-up. These items he used as capital to trade in the gay clubs when he arrived in order to infiltrate the Communist seams of queer culture.

The blog hasn’t seen the results yet, but all the grumblings are positive.

Viva closes the Dublin film festival this Sunday, 28th, in the Savoy cinema.

Read this Maggie Armstrong interview with the writer for more insight into O’Halloran’s time in Havana and the creative process that spawned Viva.

For more deep background listen to Jarlath Regan’s Irishman Abroad. Here O’Halloran talks about grief, keeping a diary and slowly becoming the artist he is today. The conversation is full of warmth, which is a constant solace in O’Halloran’s dark stories and scripts:

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Some Mark Made – Magazine Launch, The Winding Stair Bookshop, March 4th

Some Mark Made

Edited by Sue Rainsford, the latest addition to the burgeoning literary magazine scene in Dublin is launching on Friday, March 4th in the Winding Stair Bookshop with readings from Shauna Barbosa, Christodoulos Makris and Julie Morrissy.

some mark made is a limited edition publication featuring experimental and speculative writing in the veins of poetry, prose and criticism. It will seek to engage our ways of experiencing prose, focusing on the materiality of the literary pursuit in a dynamic live setting.

Literature starts on a page, but it’s never confined to that page:

“It is worth remembering that literature is by nature expansive, tactile and interrogative.”

Details of the launch can be found here.

CC Brez Nightfall Album Launch – Whelan’s, tonight (Feb 27th), €12

The former lead guitarist of The Republic of Loose, CC Brez, is thankfully still married to slick, groove-inducing guitar riffs which are best relayed on the dancefloor, even if he’s singing about “The Breakup.”

It took 18 months to hone this first solo album; along the way he’s delivered plenty of parties at festivals and gigs so get along to Whelan’s tonight for your fill of funk and soul.

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What to read and listen to?

Don DeLillo short story Sine Cosine Tangent

You get used to heavyweights in the New Yorker fiction section, but a new Don DeLillo story still has the power to shake a reader with its clarity of perception and the immediacy of the characters. This short story is about the loss of a parent, and it opens bluntly with the line, “He was a man shaped by money.”

DeLillo is a busy writer in 2016 with his new novel Zero K due out in May.

On a recent visit to the Parisian bookshop Shakespeare & Co the author did a reading from his post 9/11 novel Falling Man. In conversation after he discussed how images often trigger an idea for a story and how peopling a novel helped him process those tragic events – while noting the omnipresent effects of the threat terrorism on our modern cities today.

 

In the talk he paid homage to Ulysses, which was published in Shakespeare & Co by Sylvia Beach in 1922 (5 days ago, on February 22nd), citing particularly the first three chapters of the novel for their virtuosity and beauty, listen in full here:

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‘When the Hospital Fires the Bullet’ 

A This American Life Collaboration with The New York Times  

Recently a friend, who’s a cop in Chicago, came to Dublin for a brief visit. He told a story from his police training days and I’ve thought about it a good bit since.

In order to carry a taser as a cop in the States you must get tased on video during your training. It’s voluntary, opt in or opt out, but anyone who is not willing to take part and get tased doesn’t get to carry a taser on the beat.

The video is kept and can be used in court as evidence that the cop knows the force they’re using when they discharge their taser on a member of the public. All very logical, but I wonder was this logic ever extended to guns? It couldn’t hurt.

America has a well documented problem of cops shooting unarmed black men, Alan Pean’s story is another shocking example.

Brought to us through the collaboration of two giants of American journalism, This American Life teamed up with Elisabeth Rosenthal of The New York Times to tell, in print and audio, the completely insane story of the day that changed Alan Pean’s life.

It serves to highlight America’s bizarre and constitutionally ingrained relationship with weapons and where they’re willing to have them.

Hospital

Room 834, the scene of Alan Pean’s nightmare

Read ‘When the Hospital Fires the Bullet‘ from The New York Times and listen to This American Life as they tell Alan Pean’s story:

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Music?

The Gloaming Phenomenon – Take ‘2

Travellers to Cuba are encouraged to come bearing gifts. Locals often ask you to leave stuff behind, things we take for granted but may be difficult to get over there. Usually these are practicalities. But when someone this week mentioned that we should go equipped with a copy of the latest Gloaming album as a gift it struck me as perfect.

Immediately the effect of hearing that Buena Vista Social Club record came back to me, the ability it had to conjure a Cuban magic. Could it be reciprocated in an Irish equivalent?

What would Cubans make of this trad-super group:

Have a read of this interview by Hilary A White on State.ie. It takes a look at the band’s scientific approach to their music:

The Gloaming 2 lands in all good record stores this Friday and sees lightning strike twice for a group who with every song and sold-out show seem to rewrite the periodic table of traditional music science.”

Gloaming

The Gloaming play five sold out gigs in Dublin’s National Concert from tonight, February 27th, to Thursday March 3rd. You will not get tickets for grá nor money, even dollars.

Listen to the results of their second stint in the studio, which was released yesterday:

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In other music news, Roisin Murphy is ready to follow up her splendid Hairless Toys record with frightening alacrity as she’s been in the studio and seems happy with the results:

Cultural Dispatches #4 – 4/2/2016

Since our last Dispatches, The Project Arts Centre in Temple Bar had a queue snaking from the first floor landing all the way down the stairs into the foyer and out the cumbersome, automatic front door onto the pavement of East Essex Street. On that Tuesday evening artist and actor Olwen Fouéré (TheEmergencyRoom) was performing Samuel Beckett’s prose piece Lessness (1969) in the Space Upstairs. There was a buzz palpable even with it only being a preview.

Meanwhile, downstairs, Project board members gathered for a meeting and they must have been pleased with the full house that started to arrive as they filtered out.

Lessness

The play was a performance of Beckett’s sixty sentence experimental prose piece in which he interrogates the brain’s way of deciphering and sequencing received information, read Lessness in full here.

This intense 45 minute meditation makes you engage with the work. Fouéré was seated upright at a desk with a reading lamp. She had a headset on and behind her a screen flickered. What F. Scott Fitzgerald describes as, ‘the satisfaction that the constant flicker of men and women and machines gives to the restless eye,’ in The Great Gatsby (pg 57, Penguin). Afterwards it was overheard that this onscreen flickering was in tune with the blinking of her eyes.

Near impossible to focus for the full performance, inevitably one drifts in and out of this piece picking up on snippets while allowing the experience to seep in.

What was interesting to me was that of the nearly two hundred or so present each audience member would’ve had their own different distractions occupying them throughout, and I impossibly wondered about what these were.

Mine was whether Bob Dylan was up to his usual lyrical love & theft with the opening line, “Ruins true refuge long last towards which so many false time out of mind.” Time Out of Mind was the title of Dylan’s 1997 album. I daydreamed on this as the hum of the white noise and Fouéré’s sonorous reciting continued.

When we all streamed out of the auditorium I found a friend switching his phone on to check the score in the Stoke v Liverpool FA Cup match. They’d won on penalties.

What were the rest of those present distracted by? Inside the auditorium our collective consciousnesses had ticked over, Lessness indeed. 45 minutes spent with your mind was perhaps what Beckett intended, and it was certainly eerily evoked by Fouéré.

This play runs for two more nights in the Mermaid Theatre in Bray on Friday the 5th and Saturday the 6th, tickets here.

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What to watch?

Olwen Fouéré interviewed on RTÉ’s The Works Presents

Olwen Fouéré is an intense and uncompromising artist whose career as a performer has burned like a silver flame on the margins of contemporary Irish theatre. She has been a conduit for the work of 20th century modernists James Joyce and Samuel Beckett, taking on their more challenging prose and performing it for theatre audiences around the country.

In this interview we get an insight into her Breton nationalist father who fled Brittany and France after the war and ended up as an exile in Connemara with his wife. This is where Olwen was born and grew up as a French speaking outsider before she moved to Dublin to pursue her career in theatre.

Here, with John Kelly, she discusses her innately physical art and the dreamlike realities she is accesses through her visceral performances.

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What to read?

Infinite Jest Turns 20

Infinite Jest, David Foster Wallace’s opus, was published twenty years ago on February 1st 1996, and to mark it we rounded up the best pieces we could find on this angsty, Generation-X classic that was possibly the last tome of a novel that reverberated at the forefront of popular culture while also taking its place on the shelf marked ‘The great unread novels’: Don Quixote, Ulysses, War & Peace, Gravity’s Rainbow, Infinite Jest…

This week The New York Times published an essay, ‘Everything about Everything: David Foster Wallace’s Infinite Jest at 20’ by Tom Bissell, which is the forward for the 20th anniversary edition of the novel. It talks of how Wallace displays an empathetic quality in the creation of his characters making him the equivalent of the method actor in American literature.

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Wallace’s utter devotion to words include his having sat on a dictionary’s usage panel and the result can be read in his essay Authority and American Usage which demonstrates his insatiable passion for languageIt contains the infamous and endlessly informative footnotes that were like lifting the hood on his brain to the most idiosyncratic part of his writing.

Like anything that’s really successful in the internet age, the novel engendered vitriol too; to give you some idea of the range here Mashable put together a collection one star reviews slamming it. This other more favourable review from The Atlantic came out in the same year the book was published.

Perhaps you are resigned to never reading the whole thing and only want the spark notes, if so here’s a selection of highlights. But if you do intend reading it why not follow the ‘Infinite Winter‘ schedule which has broken down the novel to a digestible 75 pages per week read-athon over the next 13 weeks.

This David Foster Wallace letter to his publisher before Infinite Jest was launched shows his mid-Western normality that happened to sit in the same vessel as his genius, and Jason Segel managed to capture this duality in last year’s movie The End of the Tour:

DFW Letter

The book’s original publisher Little Brown allowed fans to submit possible cover designs and this below by graphic designer Joe Walsh was selected for the anniversary edition:

Infinite Jest 20th Anniversary

Sean Penn the Journalist? – El Chapo Speaks w Rolling Stone

Recently Sean Penn was in the headlines, off the red carpet, as the Mexican drug lord El Chapo was captured by authorities only months after an interview Penn did with him for Rolling Stone Magazine; the first El Chapo had granted outside of an interrogation room. Once caught, Rolling Stone rushed the piece out to keep their exclusive.

For some context, El Chapo’s drug cartel is bigger than Pablo Escobar’s Columbian one ever became and Penn estimates that El Chapo ships more than half of all the cocaine, heroin and methamphetamine into the United States.

Sean Penn

Read the piece in full via the title link or here. Penn met El Chapo once and then submitted questions for him to answer via video as a second meeting proved impossible.

While Penn exploited his Hollywood connections and set out to do his distinctive brand of long-form “experiential journalism” others saw the piece as a misfiring polemic which gave a platform to a mass murderer without any interrogation of his crimes.

One mention of the death toll his subject is responsible for comes while talking about salsa… “Carne Asada, an oft-used cartel term describing the decimated bodies in cities like Juarez after mass narco executions.” When El Chapo puts on his body armour and weapons Penn calls the process a “Clark-Kent into Superman extravaganza.” Bizarre fawning like this is commonplace throughout.

At another stage, just before he meets El Chapo, Penn fears for his safety and in case we’re uncertain of his macho credentials he takes a “fond last look” at his dick while peeing. For the reader all this does is make us re-member that he’s no Hemingway. 

Penn’s ink seems only interested in flexing his writing muscles through purple prose and not in doing any real investigative work while he was among the purple plantations of opium poppies that have caused US-funded rivers of blood to flow through Mexico.

This journalism role was made for a Pulitzer, but in terms of prizes Penn will have to be resigned to Oscars in the future.

Clearly CBS’s 60 minutes host Charlie Rose couldn’t pinpoint a motive for the piece either in this follow-up interview. Penn’s submitted Q&A questions were answered via video recording which you can see in full here:

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What to go to?

This Is The Ritual by Rob Doyle – Lilliput Launch, Thursday Feb 4th 6:30pm, Stoneybatter

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Rob Doyle launched his latest collection entitled This is the Ritual in Hodges Figges last Wednesday evening and Lilliput Press, his Irish publisher, will do the same with their striking limited edition in Stoneybatter this evening, Thursday the 4th, at 6:30pm.

Here is Rob’s Guardian piece on the rise of the Stoneybatter area, have a read of it and go along and experience the literary scene in Lilliput while picking up a limited (only 500) edition of the book, just look at that cover above!

Lilliput

In this interview with Dave Lordan, of The Bogman’s Cannon, Rob Doyle talks about what drives him fictionally as a reader and writer and his want to articulate his certain disaffection. He quotes Public Enemy when quizzed on plagiarism, “Can I get a witness and say this is a sampling sport…”

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Bob Dylan, NYC 1961-64 Photographs by Ted Russell – Gallery of Photography, Free

It’s the early 60s and Greenwich Village is the last stop for vagabonds arriving off the folk freight trains equipped with guitars, wanderlust and a keen sense of injustice. One of them was Bob Dylan. Ted Russell was there with his lens to capture it as these photos display Dylan’s sharp features and puppy fat while he exudes an infectious enthusiasm to create.

These snaps were only recently dug up and are an exquisite keyhole look into the youth of someone who was on the brink of releasing some of the 20th century’s finest music.

One picture in particular – which is curator Chris Murray’s (Murray also did a lot of work with Andy Warhol) favourite piece – sees Dylan hovering over a record player in a motion shot. The simple record player was Dylan’s musical education, where he learned by osmosis, and these few photos are a way for us to see him at his most receptive.

Runs until February 21st.

BD Guitar

 

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What to listen to?

Kevin Barry Reads Brian Friel – New Yorker Fiction Podcast

Brian Friel’s story The Saucer of Larks was published in The New Yorker in 1960. In this podcast Kevin Barry, author of the novel Beatlebone, points to Friel as playwright in embryo as evidenced in this short story. He describes how “the story is running on the engine of its talk” and is crying out to be peopled and acted:

http://tunein.com/embed/player/t103392154/

 

Edith Bowman talks to Quentin Tarantino – BBC Radio 6, Screen Special

Tarantino’s movie soundtracks are must haves in any record collection, especially Pulp Fiction and Jackie Brown. Here you hear Tarantino select some of his favourite songs from his movies and discuss the process of making a film soundtrack in this hour long special with Edith Bowman which coincides with the release of The Hateful 8, which is scored by Ennio Morricone:

Thomas Morris IT Book Club Podcast

Thomas Morris’s short story collection We Don’t Know What We’re Doing has featured heavily on the blog recently and the interview we did with him was picked up by The Irish Times last week, read the piece here if you missed it.

Last Thursday this podcast was recorded in front of a live audience in the Irish Writers Centre, Morris once again demonstrates his humour and gives sound advice for anyone fumbling around with fiction either professionally or in their spare time:

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We’ll finish with a portrait of the writer who gave us the masterpiece of the internet age at a time when dial-up seemed advanced, DFW…

DFW