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.
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.
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.
Celebrating Muhammad Ali in words
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.
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.
Druid are doing Samuel Beckett’s Waiting for Godot, with 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.
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.
What to read?
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.
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:
Life is often a compromise, as Paul Noth’s cartoon illustrates: