Janis Ian and the Rose of Tralee

It was the summer 1977. I had just moved into my first flat – a tiny bed-sit, which took up the back reception room of a small terraced house in Tralee. Two elderly sisters lived there (when I say elderly, that’s the perception of my 20-year-old self – they were probably the age I am now!) Their hair was set in iron perms and they wore blue nylon housecoats to spare their clothes. We shared an entrance hallway and a bathroom; they shared an overweening interest in my social life. Under the house rules, gentleman visitors were expressly forbidden. And if you managed to smuggle one in, there wasn’t much hope of anything happening given the monastic single bed, the scanty availability of contraceptives, and, I was sure, the presence of one of the sisters with an ear trumpet to the wall.

I don’t know if the sisters ever got to grips with my erratic schedule – I was a cub reporter with the local newspaper so I kept uneven hours – but since they were creatures of habit, I soon learned their patterns and knew the evenings when the coast was clear. I made the most of it.

Not that the most was very much – it mainly consisted of playing records at young men. My sound bible of that year was Janis Ian’s “Between the Lines”. Everything about this album spoke to me, the complicated, clever lyrics, its poignant mood, Ian’s soulful, melancholy voice and, it has to be said, its air of romantically grandiose self-pity. That was absolutely fine by me; that was where I was at.

I remember playing the signature track from that album, the Grammy-winning “At Seventeen” to one suitor I was particularly keen on, who blithely dismissed it as juvenile and glib. I was quietly outraged. Little did he know – this was a test and he had failed gloriously. If you didn’t like Janis Ian, I didn’t like you.

What made his verdict more shocking was that very few people of my acquaintance (particularly of the female variety) actively disliked “At Seventeen”. If anything, it attracted too much identification.

It’s a song that voices the feelings of teenage wallflowers, ugly ducklings with acne who are oppressed by popularity politics at school, whose names are “never called when choosing sides at basketball”, who have to invent lovers on the phone to make up for the lack of action in the romance department. Trouble was even tall, thin, blonde, sporty girls who had oodles of boyfriends and no shortage of invitations thought of “At Seventeen” as their song and they would sing mournfully along when it came on the radio.

It was a case of “At Seventeen” – c’est moi .

They seemed to miss the irony that girls like them – the “rich-relationed home town queens who marry into what they need” – were Janis Ian’s target, not her audience.

Over the years, I’ve been a devoted follower of Ian’s – though, I must admit, that for the suitable suitor test, I moved on to “Rumours” by Fleetwood Mac and “Blue” by Joni Mitchell.

Throughout the 70s and into the 80s, however, I bought and savoured and sang along with all of Ian’s oeuvre – “Stars”, “Aftertones”, “Night Rains”, “Restless Eyes” and my own favourite, the concept album “Miracle Row”. Concept album – doesn’t that date both Janis and me! I saw her live twice – once in Vicar Street, Dublin, in the 90s and again in the early Noughties in Fayetteville, Arkansas, where I happened to find myself teaching.

The daughter of radicals – her parents were on a FBI watchlist – Janis Ian was a precocious talent. She wrote her first song at 12 and signed her first recording contract at 13. As a teenager, she partied with Jimi Hendrix and Janis Joplin – and survived! Both of them, heavily addicted, warned her off drugs and steered her away from dealers. She was friends with Nina Simone and James Baldwin, she did backing vocals for Leonard Cohen and James Brown.

Most people don’t class Ian as a protest singer, but her first album in 1965 (recorded when she was 14) featured “Society’s Child” about an inter-racial teen romance, which was considered so controversial that 22 record companies rejected it, and radio stations in the south of the US banned it from the airwaves. One radio station in Atlanta which included it on its playlist was burned to the ground and Ian was spat at on the street and heckled during performances. But it was championed by composer Leonard Bernstein and became a hit. Ella Fitzgerald dubbed her the “best young singer songwriter in America”.

She’s had two long breaks from recording, one after the breakdown of a violent first marriage, and again in the mid-90s, when she was defrauded by a business manager which meant there was no money for studio time and the proceeds of her live work were going to the IRS. But as she sings in the title track of her latest album, she’s still here.

It’s her first CD in 15 years, and she says it will be her last. Aged 71, she’s on a major tour of the US, after which she’ll devote herself to writing, but there will no more studio albums. For old times’ sake, I bought “The Light at the End of the Line” and although I’d lost track of her after “Breaking the Silence”, her “coming out” album, of 1992, I was delighted to find that although this is is a sparer, harsher sound than those lush, lyrical early albums, she still speaks to me.

This is a voice that has earned its melancholy, its bitter-sweetness and its anger. She hasn’t lost her edge. One of the tracks on the farewell album, “Resist”, a no-holds barred anthemic howl against misogyny, has been roundly boycotted by radio stations across the US for being too “sexual” and she’s been trolled and harangued on social media about it. Plus ca change.

Meanwhile, back in late summer of 1977, while I was quoting lines of hers at the suitors – “love was meant for beauty queens and high school girls with clear-skinned smiles who marry young and then retire,” my permed landladies were hosting a real-live beauty queen. It was the annual Rose of Tralee festival and one of the Rose contestants was staying in the house, chaperoned by one of the sisters. Chaperoning was a hands-on job, requiring strict supervision of the contestant and management of her social and moral diary, assisted by upright young men from good homes who acted as their escorts. (The language of “chaperones” and “escorts” makes it seem more like a Jane Austen novel than a 20th century beauty pageant.)

But the Rose of Tralee organisers were insistent the contest was not just a flesh parade, but a more wholesome enterprise. Inspired by a 19th century parlour song, contestants were required to embody the purity and innocence of the original Rose.

She was lovely and fair as the rose of the summer
Yet, ’twas not her beauty alone that won me
Oh no! ‘Twas the the truth in her eye ever beaming
That made me love Mary, the Rose of Tralee.

Imagine my surprise then when one night coming back to my bed-sit in the early hours, I came upon “our” Rose in the darkened hallway, in full ball gown regalia, creeping up the stairs, stilettos in one hand, leading her escort with the other. I was pretty sure she wasn’t going to be playing records for him.

The landladies were fast asleep; content that their chaperoning duties could be put to bed. I couldn’t believe my luck. Here was a juicy news story right on my doorstep; both the escort and the Rose would be drummed out of the competition for such licentious behaviour. But I suspected, given the importance of the festival to the local economy, that this was a story that might get buried. And I’d certainly get evicted if I spilled the beans about the transgression. So I opted for judicious silence.

There were tactical advantages to keeping it to myself. The secret could be used as ammunition in the future, I thought, if I was ever to be challenged on one of my gentleman callers.

Top: Janis Ian performing at the RDS , Dublin, in 1983 – Photograph: Kevin McMahon/Irish Times.
Above: Janis Ian today – Photograph: Peter Cunningham..

She came so far for beauty!

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As followers of this blog will know, I’ve been involved in mounting a retrospective exhibition of the works of Dublin painter and designer Una Watters (1918-65) – see unawattersartist.com, a site about Una that I curate. One of the first followers of that blog was my Australian friend, Helen Ferry, a painter herself, who became a fierce fan of Una’s work, as we searched for her “lost” paintings through the site with a view to setting up the retrospective exhibition – Una’s first in over 50 years.

That show – Una Watters: Into the Light – has attracted a wide variety of visitors, from Dublin – Finglas, in particular which features in many of the works – and Ballinasloe, Co Galway, where Una spent summers with her husband, the writer Eugene Watters (Eoghan O Tuairisc). But none of them are quite as far-flung as Helen, who decided she couldn’t miss the opportunity to see the exhibition “live”. She arrived in Ireland from Oz on St Patricks Day – right into the middle of the parade in Dublin, as it happens.

Although she missed the opening of the exhibition (March 10) she will be here for a reception to mark the final week of the show tonight – Wednesday, March 30 @ 7pm at the United Arts Club – where art historian Dr Roisin Kennedy (UCD) will give a short talk about Una’s work. All welcome!

Meanwhile, here is Helen with her favourite painting from Una’s retrospective, Girl Going by Trinity in the Rain ( 1959). Why does she like it? “It’s the driving rain,” she says. ” I can feel the texture and temperature of it and I feel I’m right under that umbrella.” And Helen, as an Australian, LOVES the rain. Even though she has just come from a deluge in Sydney!

You can see this and all the other works at Una Watters:Into the Light at the United Arts Club, 3 Upr Fitzwilliam St, Dublin 2. The exhibition continues until April 2.

Weighty matters

Female friendship gone sour is rarely centre stage in political dramas on TV. Particularly when the drama concerned features President Bill Clinton. “Impeachment: American Crime Story” breaks that mould. It’s the third outing for this FX series which creates drama from recent political history and true crime cases – OJ Simpson and the killing of Gianni Versace featured in the first and second seasons.

“Impeachment” concentrates on the affair between President Bill Clinton and a 22-year-old unpaid White House intern, Monica Lewinsky. This relationship – along with a sexual harassment claim made by secretary Paula Jones against Clinton when he was the state governor of Arkansas – ignited the impeachment process against him in 1998/99.

What’s interesting about this series, however, is that it views much of the action from the perspective of Lewinsky and her “friend” and colleague, Linda Tripp (46). It’s this relationship – rather than the one between Lewinsky and Clinton, or even the Clinton marriage – that makes the show so compelling.

The early episodes are like the Slimfast Chronicles. There is a steady diet of conversation between the two about weight, how many pounds each has lost, how long Monica has laboured at the gym. Linda Tripp’s meals are often product-placement Weight Watchers fare or Slimfast drinks, followed by surreptitious fast food at her desk or micro-waved dinners on a tray in front of the TV at home. Food and its consequences weigh heavily on both women. This seemed to me utterly and depressingly true to life; the lives of Western women are constantly circumscribed by their relationship to the scales. And in this case, it’s also the scales of justice.

In “Impeachment” Lewinsky is played as both steely and wide-eyed by Beanie Feldstein. She is annoyingly self-absorbed, touchingly romantic as well as sexually frank. Linda Tripp (an almost unrecognisable prosthetically enhanced Sarah Paulson) is sourly strident, combative and self-aggrandising.

The pair met in the Pentagon having both worked in the White House. Tripp was a career civil servant who’d worked in the Bush administration before the Clintons took over. According to author Jeffrey Toobin whose non-fiction book, A Vast Conspiracy , inspired the “Impeachment” script, Tripp “represented one of the archetypes that the right wing most despised. She was a civil service lifer whose mastery of the arcana of job rights, seniority, pay levels and retirement bred in her a sense of entitlement that scarcely existed anyone in the private sector”.

A Republican by instinct, Tripp was appalled by the laxness of the Clinton administration and believed she could write a book exposing its shortcomings. But, in reality, she was fixated on Clinton’s sexual misadventures which she felt were damaging the reputation of the Oval Office. “She believed that history would remember her as a truth-teller and a whistleblower,” Roxanne Roberts wrote in The Washington Post.

Linda Tripp does not fit into our rather vaunted notion of a whistleblower. She was not a likeable personality, though Paulson in the series, manages to arouse sympathy for her because of her social awkwardness and her belligerent righteousness. Though driven by ideology, Tripp was not an altruistic actor. She had already engaged a literary agent and planned to write a tell-all book about her experiences as a White House aide, before she befriended Lewinsky. After Lewinsky confided that she was having an ongoing sexual relationship with the president, Tripp turned into an opportunist . (This book was never completed or sold.)

To that end she began secretly taping Lewinsky’s private phone calls to have documentary evidence of her claims that the president was engaged in an affair. “Tripp posed in these conversations as a sort of wise aunt – commiserating, consoling, concentrating, as she often said on ‘what’s best for you’,” Toobin wrote in A Vast Conspiracy. But she was also genuinely offended by the way Lewinsky was being treated – she had a daughter a few years younger than Monica – and saw how the White House, engaging in damage limitation about the affair, was treating Lewinsky as if she was a deranged stalker. While busily entrapping her vulnerable friend, Tripp also managed to impart some sage advice – it was she who persuaded Lewinsky to keep the famous blue dress for evidentiary purposes. However, in the end, to save her own skin, Tripp shopped Lewinsky to Kenneth Starr, the independent prosecutor steering the impeachment process.

Of course, the #MeToo movement has had an influence on how “Impeachment” has been framed. What is highlighted with hindsight is the imbalance of power in a relationship between the president of the US and a much younger subordinate. When she was brought in for questioning Lewinsky was intimidated and bullied by FBI officials. The prurience of the questioning into Lewinsky’s sexual history and the unseemly interest of lawyers and politicians (predominantly men) in the mechanics of the sex between her and Clinton was nothing short of salacious .

(The whiff – literally – of sex is hard to escape in this story. Jeffrey Toobin, author of A Vast Conspiracy, who was originally an adviser on the show – and was replaced, ironically, by Monica Lewinsky – was forced to step down when he became involved in his own sex scandal in October 2020. He engaged in masturbation in the middle of a Zoom session for The New Yorker.)

But where Lewinsky’s position departs from the #MeToo script is that she has always insisted that her relationship with Clinton was consensual. The late writer and essayist Joan Didion commentating on the impeachment noted that Lewinsky was “far from passive”.

Columnist Anne Harris writing recently in The Irish Times applauds Lewinsky’s stance: “Despite years of slut-shaming and fat-shaming, she chose what Didion once called, ‘that most uncomfortable of beds – the one she made herself’. She was an active participant in the affair and she took responsibility.”

If their weight obsessed both Lewinsky and Tripp during the impeachment crisis, the body image wars continued to affect them afterwards. Linda Tripp’s appearance was a constant target of media comment. After the publicity died down, Tripp confessed that she realised from her TV appearances how ugly she was . She finally lost that weight she’d always struggled with and had cosmetic facial surgery. Paula Jones, whose original harassment case, had kicked off the whole judicial process against Clinton, had her teeth fixed, her hair straightened and had a nose job – sponsored by right-wing supporters of her case – to make her more presentable on TV. Lewinsky, who was virtually unemployable, became the commercial face of a dieting company for a short period. Plus ca change.

Lewinsky worked as a co-producer on the “Impeachment” series. Reviewers have commented that the show predominantly reflects her point-of-view, but others more intimately associated with the action, disagree. Tripp’s daughter, Alison, in an interview with Vanity Fair, said it showed her mother in a more sympathetic light than the media of the late 1990s had.

Over 20 years on, Lewinsky has created a hard-won place for herself in the contemporary discourse speaking out about bullying and pubic shaming, a role for which she’s uniquely qualified. Tripp left her government job and retired to a life out of the spotlight She died in April 2020, before “Impeachment” went to air. The two of them hadn’t spoken since 1998.

Above: Sarah Paulson, left, as Linda Tripp and Beanie Feldstein playing Monica Lewinsky in ‘Impeachment: American Crime Story’  Photograph: Tina Thorpe/ FX

“Owning” public art

What makes a public monument? And what if the public doesn’t like it? We’ve seen recently many assaults on statues in the UK erected in another time to honour men – and it is, mostly, men – implicated in and often profiting by the practice of slavery. In other jurisdictions, we’ve seen the toppling of the graven images of dictators. Remember the excited crowds in Firdos Square, Baghdad, downing the statue of Sadaam Hussein in 2003? Or to go further back, the purging of public statuary that went with the glasnost era in the Soviet Union?

I remember being in Moscow in the early 90s and visiting a “fallen monument” site featuring the newly dethroned heroes of the revolution, at what is now the Muzeon Park of Arts. The decapitated heads and mutilated busts of figures such as Stalin, Lenin, Sverdlovsk and Zherzinsky, had been unceremoniously dumped in the open air. It was an eerie sensation to see these monumental stone figures physically broken and lying dismembered in the trampled grass of a public park. (The Muzeon Park of Arts now boasts a museum of over 700 such pieces which have been restored to their plinths. It is no longer a graveyard but a tourist attraction.)

But apart from that experience, my closest encounters with public art are the sculptures on the by-roads and motorways of Ireland . I love that large black golf ball at the Naas by-pass (“Perpetual Motion” by Remco de Fouw and Rachael Joynt), the encrusted bronze bull by sculptor Don Cremin outside Macroom, or the mock “ruin” of a Famine house on the M8 near Cahir (“Settlement” by Cornelia Konrad). Of course, these pieces of public art aren’t memorialising individuals. They are large public sculptures designed to be seen in passing so they must make bold statements. De Fouw and Joynt, for example, saw their giant golf ball as being “a light-hearted and distinctive landmark” for travellers.

Recently, I was at the launch of a public sculpture at Kildonan Park, Finglas, by Belfast artist Sara Cunningham-Bell. http://www.cunninghambell.com/#/ It is one of five public sculptures that Dublin City Council and Sculpture Dublin have commissioned for public spaces around the city. My interest in “The Bridge – Fiacha Dhubha Fhionglaise” (Finglas Ravens in Flight) stemmed from the fact that Sara was drawing some of her inspiration from Una Watters (1918-1965), a painter whose work I’ve been championing, and who was born, lived and worked in Finglas. See unawattersartist.com

As a result, I sat in on a few of the over 40 public consultations that Sara conducted prior to making “The Bridge”. Over the course of nine months, Sara met and talked with local people to discover what they wanted to see going up in Kildonan and how they wanted their area to be represented in the sculpture. The wish-list was long and varied – a recognition of the vibrant GAA heritage in the area, a tribute to local uilleann piper master Seamus Ennis and the 1920s aviatrix Sophie Pierce-Healy, as well as an acknowledgement of the work of community activists, the artistic energy of young people in the area, a nod to the local dog walkers. I wondered how on earth Sara was going to incorporate all these features, and create a piece that was also true to her artistic vision.

So did she?

The answer is a resounding yes, in my opinion. “The Bridge” is a seven-metre-tall steel sculpture comprising two figures with arms raised holding high a mirrored steel “river rug” inspired by the clear streamlet that gives Finglas its name. 

As you mights guess, it’s a compendium piece, punched (literally) through with symbols and motifs reflecting the artistic and cultural life of the locality – including, I was delighted to see, the figures of running schoolboys from Una Watters’ seminal painting, Cappagh Road, and a representation of An Claidheamh Soluis (Sword of Light), the symbol she designed to mark the 50th anniversary of the Easter Rising in 1966.

On the day of the public launch it was clear, however, that the sculpture not only represented the Kildonan community, but it spoke to them. Carved out of the steel shanks were profiles of local people, hand-prints of children, cut-outs of sports players. Both adults and children were excitedly pointing out images of themselves or their friends, or artistic motifs that they had contributed to the sculpture. “The Bridge” had become sanctioned graffiti but with a view to permanence. Here was a piece that was being “closely read” by the community it was designed for, while still maintaining an aspirational quality in the two soaring figures holding aloft the river banner.

Sara even managed to include the dogs! The silhouette of a patient mutt stands guard at the foot of the sculpture.

Furthermore, the sculpture is interactive – a bar code at its base will lead the visitor to further online information on all the various influences Sara employed in making the piece.

Which brings me back to those contested statues. Rather than tearing them down, wouldn’t this interactive route be a better way to go? A bar code for every historical statue. That way the casual viewer could find out why these figures were honoured in the past as well as getting a retrospective insight into what makes them dishonourable in today’s context.

Their destruction erases visible signs of history, which is almost like saying the injustices of slavery, colonialism and political cruelty never happened at all.

The Bridge by Sara Cunnigham-Bell at Kildonan Park, Finglas – I am standing in, purely for scale!

Miss Carr’s, Mary Lou and me

The Sinn Fein leader Mary Lou McDonald is not someone I have a lot in common with. I certainly don’t share her politics. But when I was approached recently by her biographer, Shane Ross, I realised I had shared a number of formative experiences with her. We both grew up in Rathgar – cue “leafy suburb” tag – we both went to secondary school at Notre Dame des Missions in Churchtown – append “fee-paying” to that – both details that have been used as a stick to beat her with. What I didn’t know was that we also attended the same kindergarten school, Miss Carr’s on Highfield Road, Rathgar.

Despite these proximities, we never crossed paths (which meant I wasn’t much help to Shane Ross). Being a good decade older than Mary Lou, I didn’t overlap with her at either of these institutions, now both shut down. But all the same, I felt the chiming of connection with someone with an identical educational trajectory, at least as far as Leaving Cert. She went on to Trinity; I went to Rathmines Tech.

The Miss Carr’s connection was particularly powerful, maybe because the school was such an important foundation in my own learning life. Not least because of its guiding light, Miss Carr herself.

The school, called after its schoolm’am, now sounds quaintly Victorian. As was its location – a rambling Victorian red-brick house, two storeys over a basement. (Earlier this year, the house, long in private ownership, was sold for over E2 million. ) Despite her “Miss”, Miss Carr was a married woman and lived in the upper portions of the house. Her husband played no active part in the running of the school, and was a distant figure, always referred to – even by Miss Carr – as Mr Lee. Perhaps the school pre-dated Mr Lee, or Miss Carr was a proto-feminist, but she was indubitably the mistress of all she surveyed at 22 Highfield Road.

She was a warm, slope-shouldered woman with a soft face and a firm, carrying voice that suggested safety but command. She taught the upper classes (the school catered for children aged 4 to 7) while the two infant classes were taken by Miss Murphy. The diminutive Miss Doherty took third class. She did not wear the regulation blue nylon, chalk-dusted housecoat, but specialised in pert suits, cherry lipstick, heart-shaped spectacles and exquisite red shoes with high heels bringing a little touch of glamour to proceedings.

Even though the rooms were large, each classroom seemed filled to the gills. The two infant classes (Low and High Babies) and third class were in the basement and fourth and fifth classes shared the two light-swollen reception rooms on the ground floor with the folding doors between them. There was a lot of wear and tear on the fabric of the house. There was a certain battered quality to below stairs – chafed floorboards, scuffed footleafs on the doors. When the bell sounded and school was out, the drumming sound of the exodus reverberated throughout the house. Poor Mr Lee upstairs!

The joy of Miss Carr’s was its proximity. (For us just a few minutes’ walk from home.) It never acquired the institutional oppression of “school”; it was an extension of our domestic world. The hierarchy at Miss Carr’s was very fluid; once you were judged ready you moved on to the next class. But that didn’t mean she didn’t run a tight ship. Spellings were recited daily, tables chanted.

Reading was of paramount importance at Miss Carr’s and we were taught phonetically, now almost standard, but in the early 1960s very much ahead of its time. She kept a careful eye on slow learners. She spotted dyslexia before it became recognised officially. She gave extra tuition to anyone with reading difficulties. She knew the name of every child in her care, and knew about them. Whereas we knew very little about Miss Carr, not even her first name.

Thousands of children passed through her hands and she schooled two and three generations of some families. She maintained a keen interest in her past pupils – children who had left her at the ripe old age of six or seven!

Neither was her interest casual or disinterested.

The query about Mary Lou McDonald resurrected a childhood memory I’d almost completely forgotten that establishes Miss Carr in my personal pantheon not just as a committed educator, but as the ultimate Good Samaritan.

In the spring of 1970, nearly seven years after I left Miss Carr’s, my father died. Miss Carr appeared at the funeral, of course. Same bubble perm and kind eyes, and with the same pragmatic empathy she’d always shown in school.

Exactly a week afterwards my bicycle – a much prized hand-me-down from a cousin – was stolen from outside the same church in Rathgar. (Enough to put a child off religion for life!) Miss Carr, always with her finger on the pulse, heard about the theft. She approached my mother and said she’d like to buy me a replacement bike. She’d had a windfall, she said – probably a white lie – and wanted to share her good fortune. There was only one condition – I was never to know who was behind the gift.

A few days later a brand new Triumph 20 was delivered in all its glory. Powder blue with 20″ wheels and 3- speed Sturmey Archer gears, this was the coolest bike for girls on the market. I couldn’t believe my luck. For many years, my mother maintained the fiction of the mystery benefactor. I’m hoping that Miss Carr saw me flying around Rathgar on the new wheels and realised the delight I took in it. That bike saw me through into my 20s until, in the spirit of Miss Carr’s original gesture, I paid it forward and gave it away to someone who needed it more.

It wasn’t until Miss Carr herself died that my mother revealed the secret. I wasn’t surprised, but I was sorry I’d never got the chance to thank her – not just for the bike but for the security and homeliness of that early education.

Despite our political differences, I’m hoping Mary Lou McDonald has similarly fond memories of it.

Photographs: Irish Times

Travelling without footprint

This summer I’ve managed to travel to a far-flung island in Greece, spend a month in Siena and do a whistlestop tour of Rome, Florence, Naples and Bologna and all without producing my Covid clearance cert. How did I manage it? I travelled by armchair, returning to a genre I haven’t read since my late teens. Back then I developed a passion for travel writing, probably as a response to an adolescent restlessness and a sense of restriction – a desire to be off, to be anywhere but here. Much like now.

I marvel that only two years ago foreign travel was often a casual and spontaneous decision. I wonder if we will ever return to that spirit again. And perhaps it would be better if we didn’t, given the climate change catastrophe that’s looming.

On the plus side, the armchair traveller leaves virtually no carbon footprint.

Paul Theroux (father of the now more famous Louis) got me started with the travel bug. His marvellous train journeys were gathered under one roof in The Great Railway Bazaar which charted his sometimes bad-tempered travels by train across Europe and further afield. (Some years after reading this book, I experienced travelling on the Trans Siberian Express for myself and recognised much of its rough charm from Theroux’s accounts.)

There were other travel books I read hungrily. Thor Heyerdahl’s The Kon-Tiki Expedition: By Raft Across the South Seas, Wilfrid Thesiger’s travels in the Empty Quarter in Arabian Sands, Robert Byron’s Road to Oxiana, Lawrence Durrell’s Bitter Lemons , or Tracks by Robyn Davison who travelled by foot across Australia with a caravan of camels. Then there was Bruce Chatwin’s Songlines , also about Australia, and In Patagonia, about the region at the southernmost tip of South America. Not forgetting our own intrepid Dervla Murphy’s Full Tilt, who took the world on by bike.

The attraction of these books was their narrators’ single-minded pursuit of exploration for its own sake. Shamelessly, I used that as justification for insisting on my honeymoon in 1981, that we follow the route Laurie Lee took in his seminal As I Walked Out One Mid-Summer’s Morning , a classic of the lone traveller genre. Lee was only 19 when he decided to walk through Spain in 1934. We went as far as Algeciras with him; then we parted company. He described it as a quaint fishing village with men mending their nets on the beach. But by then it was an industrial port, with chimneys belching out pollution into the clear blue sky.

As a travel writer, Lee was incomparable, but I realised I couldn’t use his book as a dependable contemporary guide. Too much had changed given the 40 odd years that had elapsed since he had taken his journey.

Lockdown has brought me back to the genre after a long absence. Lockdown number three ,in particular, with its desolate open-endedness and the prospect of stepping off the island retreating to a vanishing point. Exactly like being a bored and frustrated teenager with no means of escape.

Mermaid Singing by Charmian Clift is an object lesson for the restless soul. Clift was an Australian journalist married to George Johnston, a fellow journalist and novelist ( famous in Australia for his autobiographical novel My Brother Jack, originally published with a cover painted by Sidney Nolan ). They were slaving away as hacks in 1950s London with two small children, and writing novels together in their spare time. (What spare time?) Then one wet rainy Monday they decided they couldn’t bear the post-war austerity any longer and decamped to the Greek island of Kalymnos (one of the Dodecanese between Kos and Leros) where they lived the simple, sun-soaked life they’d always dreamed of.

I was drawn to Clift initially because she was name-checked in Nick Broomfield’s 2019 documentary Marianne and Leonard: Words of Love, about Leonard Cohen and his Swedish lover who inspired the song, “So Long Marianne”. Clift became a godmother figure to the ex-pat crowd of assorted hippies and Bohemians, writers and artists (including Cohen and the aforementioned Sidney Nolan) who camped out on the island of Hydra in the 1960s.

Mermaid Singing predates Clift and Johnston’s time in Hydra and is a flinty-eyed but lyrical account of settling on the island where she and George and their two children, Martin and Shane ( a daughter) are the only outsiders. Kalymnos was a centre for sponge diving and every spring the boats would leave the island for six months at a time heading for the African coast and taking most of the men with them. Sponge diving is a dangerous occupation and many of the island men died or were permanently maimed as a result of dives that had gone wrong. Clift wrote about the sponge divers and it inspired a novel that she and Johnson co-authored (The Sea and the Stone, 1955).

The cliche of the past as another country has never been truer – even if one were free to travel, the Kalymnos that Clift describes has disappeared along with Laurie Lee’s Spain.

But in Mermaid Singing, the reader gets full immersion into more personal and fleeting moments of Clift’s island life. “The boat with the tan sail has come in close. Ropes are trailing from the side, and the children are dragging it in. They seem so small and bright and shining and far away, small singing scraps of flesh and colour in the great grave cadences of sunlight.”

Clift and Johnson followed their year on Kalymnos with a decade on Hydra, where they lived, worked and caroused and their children ran wild. (The postscript to their Greek idyll was tragic, however. On their return to Australia, Clift committed suicide in 1969 and Johnson died of tuberculosis a year later. Their children fared no better. Shane Johnston committed suicide in 1974. Martin Johnston, an acclaimed poet, died of alcoholism at 42 in 1990.)

Running wild has its downside.

“Only inside a book or in front of a painting can one truly be let into another’s perspective.” so claims British-Libyan writer Hisham Matar in his latest book, A Month in Siena, which does exactly what it says on the tin. In a quieter vein than Clift’s, it’s an account of his sojourn alone in the city. He’s drawn there by the paintings of Duccio, Martini and the Lorenzetti brothers, Pietro and Ambrogio, who created the Sienese school of paintings in the 13th and 14th centuries, with its echoes of Byzantine and gothic art.

Matar is great on the paintings – and the book has small but sumptuous colour plates. But he’s brilliant on the particular loneliness of travelling solo and the spontaneous and often intense relationships that can form when you step out of your comfort zone. This is contemplative autofiction, the self as city. It’s not about extravagant adventure, but philosophical reflection. Much like W G Sebald, Matar makes you feel less inadequate for having been melancholy in the midst of foreign splendours.

I’ve been accompanying my vicarious travel reading with American actor Stanley Tucci’s TV series Searching for Italy (CNN) which has satisfied my culinary wanderlust for the moment. Tucci, Italian on both sides, eats his way around the regions of Italy tasting the local produce and wangling a few recipes form the chefs he meets along the way. The food is good but the photography is even better. Made for an American audience – and built around numerous ad breaks – the programme tends towards the soundbite. Excuse the pun. But it excels in dunking you right into the heart of several Italian cities, wandering cobbled streets, sitting at outside tables with the ever present clink of conviviality.

Sometimes, though, you want even the lovely Stanley to step out of shot so that you can savour being in the fish market in Catania, or a bayside restaurant on the Amalfi coast during a lightning storm, without the chattering commentary.

Maybe I’ve been reading too much Hisham Matar?

A beach on the island of Kalymnos – Photograph: Reddit

Almost Bloomsday

In honour of Bloomsday, here’s an extract from Penelope Unbound, my speculative novel about Nora Barnacle that imagines a life for her without James Joyce. Here’s the assignation Nora and Jim fail to have before they reschedule for the iconic meeting on June 16.

They’d arranged to meet outside the Surgeon Wilde’s house, but she didn’t show. Told him a fib about having to work overtime, how Miss Fitzgerald came up to her on her way out the door, as she was trying to spear her hat with a pin in the hall mirror, and said that Molly Fowler was sick and couldn’t do her shift. 

Sure what could I do?  

It could have happened like that. Only it didn’t.  Instead she’d said – But Miss Fitzgerald, I have a date with my young man. 

As if they were an item but sure they’d only just met.  He’d picked her up on Nassau Street only a few days ago with a saucy smile and a sailor’s suit. A boy with jamjar specs, not her type at all.

I see that, Miss Barnacle, says Miss Fitzgerald, looking into the glass behind her with a kind of smirk, more music-hall than spinster. And before Miss Fitzgerald had time to cajole, for she had a way of getting on the sweet side of you when she wanted something, Nora had pulled open the heavy front door of Finn’s and gone tripping out into the dusty sunlit lozenge of the street. 

But as she hurried, hand on hat, towards Merrion Square, a strange desolate feeling overtook her, a pang of doubt. She slowed her tripping step to a heavy-footed stroll, and then to a halt.  What had possessed her, to say yes?  Yes to a college boy with a boater. Though he wasn’t the first college boy she’d had. Hadn’t Sonny Bodkin been at the university, even if he didn’t finish, too old for her, they said – no, she wouldn’t think of him now, not now.  She darted around by Sweny’s Chemists and scurried across to the pillars of the Gospel Hall.  She could hear singing from within. The Brethren must be at it, but I thought they didn’t hold with singing. But the place is thronged with them. Just as well, this way she can spy on yer man without him seeing her. 

She remembered the specs he wore. He won’t pick her out from the crowd at this distance even though the sun is glancing coppery off her hair. And, sure enough, there he was, a stick of worry, standing at the corner, hands on hips. Then pacing a little this way and that. He had on the same get-up as the day he chatted her up. Not bad-looking up close, a bit skinny, pull-through for a rifle, when did he last have a square meal, I wonder, and his clothes had seen better days. Then she remembered she’d told him where she worked.  He could duck down to Finn’s, if he had a titter of wit, and ask after her and then her fib would be exposed.  He’d know then she’d stood him up.  Deliberate like. And it wasn’t that she wanted to say no, she just wasn’t sure about saying yes.  Outright. 

And if he had come to Finn’s looking for her, would that have decided her about him? She just wasn’t sure, not like with Sonny Bodkin. Poor Sonny who had stood in the Pres garden and called out to her in the flogging rain.  And she half-delighted, half-mortified by him standing there, loyal as a beaten dog while she hid in the darkness of the auntie-room letting on she wasn’t there.  But this fella was no Sonny Bodkin, she could tell that even from afar. Sure, no one could be.  No one could be the first after the first. 

He was dithering now, she could tell.  But so was she and the longer she waited the stranger he became.  Was he a foreigner, was that what made her hesitate? A Swede maybe with those blond looks?

 Reasons not to approach. Now that she was here she could find a dozen. The minutes passed, five, ten, and her delaying was like a jelly left to set. If she had a penny for every time he changed his mind she’d have a fortune. There he’d go, gathering himself up then doubling back like a dog at a post sniffing, then trying and sniffing again. The hum and the haw of him. 

Hello, hello, she could have rushed up all breathless and false and full of sorrys and old excuses he wouldn’t even listen to because he’d be so relieved. Fellas forget themselves. She almost moved then but she didn’t.  She was stuck to the spot as if she was the one being stood up. And as she stood there debating, didn’t he make her mind up for her.  Fixed his cap on his crown and strode away up the west side of Merrion Square.  In a temper, she’d have said, by the look of him.

 And then she felt the let-down. 

What did she go and do that for? 

What was all the mirror-gazing in Finn’s for, and wondering will I do? 

She remembered the lightness of her step as she had set off and now she was morose and cursing herself for being so perverse. 

What ails you, girl? That’s what Mamo used to say. What ails you.

 No, she told herself shaking her head, I did the right thing, a fella who’d pick you up on the street like that, what kind of fella would he be? Not a patch on Sonny Bodkin, that’s what. 

 She turned to go, checking one last time to see had he changed his mind.  But he hadn’t – he was a cross white speck in the summer sunlight now. She trailed back the way she came, her hat in her hand, her hair dejected. She hadn’t the heart to do anything else with her precious night off. If she knew where Vinny Cosgrave was she might seek him out, but no, if he saw she was keen, he’d only get a swelled head. 

Miss Fitzgerald was at the desk when she came in and raised an eyebrow. 

Back so soon, Miss Barnacle? She was a prissy one. 

He stood me up, Nora, said as she donned her apron, lucky for you.

Dead or gone?

We’ve had a bird box for several years. It was a housewarming gift from a friend. There it sat, an A-frame wooden box with a tiny porthole in the front so small we couldn’t imagine any creature getting in there, let alone getting out. So it became an adornment, a pretty fixture without function, until this year when we discovered we had squattters – a couple of blue tits. Neither of us is what you might call an ornithological expert. (There’s a distinction in the bird world between the folks with the binoculars – bird-spotters who are known as birders, and bird-lovers, more commonly called bird-watchers.). We just about scrape into the latter category.

Like everyone else we’ve become more attuned to the world of our backyard since lockdown, and more aware of birdsong in general since the background hum of traffic was so drastically reduced. But that was as far as our interest went, until the blue tits took up residence.

Slowly but surely, we found ourselves watching the nest activity with as much interest as the latest Netflix box set. Not only did our focus narrow and become more concentrated, but we became proprietorial and protective of the precious cargo in our bird box. We stopped putting out food because it only attracted the bigger birds – pigeons, blackbirds, crows – and we wanted to keep our nest a secret, and safe. We noticed how vigilant the parent tits were, never approaching the nest without first doing a 360 degree scope to check that they weren’t being watched. We found ourselves doing the same.

The blue tits’ presence gave us a stake in the life of the garden which up to this had been about plant care and control. Overnight, we became invested in the part of our environment we had no control over.

All through May we watched the frantic activity of the blue tit pair. The female usually lays a clutch of 7-12 eggs which are incubated for up to 16 days, during which time the male will feed the female. After 20 or so days, the birds are hatched. The chicks are born naked and blind and need to be fed continuously involving thousands of foraging trips in and out of the nest. It’s estimated that each chick can eat up to 100 caterpillars a day.

And then the day we were waiting for arrived – when the fledglings left the nest. There were only three of them and we didn’t see them tumbling out of the tiny porthole in the box, but we discovered them on the ground trembling behind our pots, or camouflaged in the branches of plants. They were not much more than three yawning beaks surrounded by a circumference of plump yellow fur on spindly legs. They cried almost soundlessly, opening and closing those beaks with the expectation that mother or father bird might drop a morsel in there. The parent birds duly obliged.

We were looking forward to several weeks of watching them grown and thrive, but the next morning they were gone. We couldn’t believe it. Had they become victims of predators – cats, crows, magpies? (Our one raised bed and our dozen or so pots didn’t provide them with much cover. ) Or had their parents moved them elsewhere to protect them?

The answer is we don’t know. The young can stay with their parents for a few weeks after hatching. But the blue tit mortality rate is very high. Two-thirds of fledglings do not survive their first year. Of a family of 2 adults and 10 young, only one adult and one young bird will typically survive to breed.

Of course, we want to believe “our” blue tits are now fully grown and living independent lives elsewhere but the Covidian stealth of their disappearance suggests otherwise.

It’s fair to say we were bereft. There was something bleak and disowning about looking out into the burgeoning yard and not seeing “our” friends there. The daily ritual involved in hatching and rearing had become an absorbing occupation for us, a show put on for our benefit and to find the place tenantless reduced our yard to backdrop again, rather than habitat. For a while we felt shut out of the secret life of our own garden.

We’ve thought of taking the nesting box down. Could we bear to face the whole rigmarole next year should the blue tits return? For the moment, we’ve left it where it is. After all, this is nature “red in tooth and claw” – to quote Ted Hughes – and now we’ve progressed to being bird-watchers, we know the drill.

Who said knowledge is power?

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Plathology

In February it was quietly announced that Warren Plath, brother of the infinitely more famous Sylvia, had died in the US. He was the last surviving family member of Sylvia’s generation. Warren Plath had virtually no presence on the internet and the notice of his death – aged 85 – made no reference to his connection to the internationally known poet. It would be tempting to think this might mark the end of an era though the interest in Sylvia Plath shows no sign of abating, even now 48 years after her death.

For my generation, Plath was one of those writers whose work was handed around like samizdat. Her poetry collections, The Colossus and Ariel, and her novel, The Bell Jar, were staples on our bookshelves . In my early 20s, I devoured Letters Home, her correspondence between 1950-1963, edited by her mother, Aurelia. (It was Plath’s fate to be “edited” by those close to her. Much of the controversy about her legacy centres around her estranged poet husband Ted Hughes’ management of her work after her death by suicide in 1963.)

Plath’s letters had a certain resonance for me. I, too, was the daughter of a widow and recognised the push/pull relationship with her mother when I first read her letters in the early 1980s. (Otto Plath, Sylvia’s father died when she was 8.)

In a widowed family (since widowhood happens not just to the wife) the need for approval is concentrated on the mother. It’s often twinned with an underlying anxiety of what might happen should the remaining parent die. On the other hand, the daugther of a widow learns to withhold worries and tailor expectations – especially financial ones – for fear of overburdening her mother.  Signs on, even through much of her inner torments while at Smith College, and later in Cambridge, Sylvia’s letters to Aurelia were determinedly cheery.

Aurelia Plath was ambitious for her children and wanted the very best for them, despite – or perhaps because of – their straitened circumstances.  The dynamics of the widow’s family are all too evident in Sylvia’s young letters. She depended utterly on Aurelia, leaned on her for emotional and financial support, wanted to please her, but resented what she called her “hovering”. Her mother gave her conflicting messages – to excel and to conform.

Lest it be forgotten, the widowed mother often longs to be free of her double responsibilities as well. In the 1970s, Aurelia wrote: “I worked to be free of her (Sylvia) & at least live my life – not to be drawn into the complexities & crises of hers.”

After her first suicide attempt in 1953, Plath was given electric shock treatment at McLean, a high-end private hospital in Boston. Her stay there was funded by the author Olive Higgins Prouty, who was a mentor of Sylvia’s, since Aurelia could not have afforded it. (Mrs Prouty paid $2500 over several months to the hospital, a tidy sum at the time. She had not realised Sylvia’s stay would be so long when she first offered help.)

The most recent Plath biography Red Comet; The Short Life and Blazing art of Sylvia Plath by Heather Clark, drawing on new evidence, suggests that the decision to administer ECT was partly to do with Mrs Prouty’s threat to withdraw financial support. If Sylvia had opted for psychotherapy, for example, her stay at the hospital might have been extended for a year, or more.

Plath’s psychiatrist at McLean, Dr Ruth Beuscher, over-ruled the concerns of medical colleagues at the hospital, claiming that Sylvia’s “over-riding sense of guilt and unworthiness could only be purged by the ‘punishment’ of shock treatments”.

The medical necessity of the treatment seems to have been very far-down the list of priorities.

Ironically, after two of six sessions, Sylvia’s depression began to lift, even though the treatment was then in its infancy. ( Plath had been given ECT at another hospital earlier that summer which had been administered without muscle relaxants or anaesthetic.). She told friends it was like being murdered. She would never forget the effects of it: “I need more than anything. . .someone to love me, to be with me at night when I wake up in shuddering horror and fear of the cement tunnels leading down to the shock room.”

After her death, Ted Hughes claimed the controversial treatment “pervaded everything she said and did”. Nowadays we’d call that PTSD. Little surprise that one of the dominant tropes in The Bell Jar, an autobiographical novel about her experiences at McLean, is the image of the Rosenbergs going to the electric chair in 1953. And the metaphor continued to appear in her work. In a diary entry of June 1958 she described her life thus: “It is as if my life were magically run by two electric currents: joyous positive and despairing negative—whichever is running at the moment dominates my life, floods it.”

Although she was never diagnosed as such, Plath is often referred to in retrospect as manic depressive or bipolar.  But in many ways, it was the electric shock treatment that moved her into what Susan Sontag calls “the kingdom of the sick”. It medicalised Plath’s depression, turning it into a “condition”. But a reading of her early journals reveals nothing more than a young woman with a bad case of life.

She was 20 when she made her first suicide attempt, and her diaries from that time show what we might nowadays consider as typical existential angst, replete with the solipsistic striving of a high-achieving perfectionist and the disappointments of an idealistic young adult.

“I can’t deceive myself out of the bare stark realisation that no matter how enthusiastic you are, no matter how sure that character is fate, nothing is real, past or future, when you are alone in your room with the clock ticking loudly into the flash cheerful brilliance of the electric light,” she confided in her journal.

But they also show a woman in a pre-feminist era struggling with her female and her artistic identity.  “I’m just not the type who wants a home and children of her own more than anything else in the world. I’m too selfish, maybe, to subordinate myself to one man’s career.”

Even at that stage she was grappling with how to combine being a poet and a woman.

Sylvia Plath was facing those same choices in 1963 when she killed herself. She was a single parent, recently traumatically separated from Hughes, struggling to fend for two small (and at the time sick) children on her own – an unconscious mirror image of her mother? – while in the grip of a severe depression and the worst winter England had endured in decades.

She had an appointment at a psychiatric hospital set for the week following her death so help was at hand. But she was also consumed with dread that she might be forced into electric shock treatment again, something she knew she couldn’t face. It was almost as if the “cure” had become the illness.

However, she had resolved one of those choices. She left behind on her desk the completed manuscript of Ariel, her ground-breaking second collection of poems, which was published two years later to great acclaim and established her as a poet of standing.

As a tyro writer, I admired Sylvia Plath for how much she wrote. Her collected letters have been reissued in two massive volumes in 2017 and 2018, there are her journals and calendars, along with poems and fiction from an early age. She was constantly engaged with her interior life ( perhaps, sometimes, too much) and always observing – images and ideas from her letters turned up in poems, as did passages from her journals. There is no doubt how vividly she lived on the page. This wealth of material has also meant that Plath is a biographer’s dream. The sheer volume of material written about her amounts to a kind of pathology – or is it Plathology?

To which, I suppose, this blog is adding its two cents’ worth.

Above: Self-portrait in Semi-Abstract Style by Sylvia Plath, 1946: Estate of Robert Hitter