Bringing up the bodies

nora b

T’is the season for exhumations. First it was Franco, now it’s Joyce.

Dublin city councillors agreed last week to approach the Government with a view to repatriating the remains of  James Joyce, buried with his wife Nora Barnacle in Fluntern cemetery in Zurich. Labour councillor Dermot Lacey, who proposed the motion, said it would be “honouring someone’s last wishes” – a delightfully vague locution. Does he mean Joyce?  Does he know something we don’t?

However, unwittingly, Cllr Lacey is right.  Seventy years ago, it was Nora Barnacle’s hope that Joyce’s remains be returned to Ireland. It was a matter of honour for her, perhaps tinged by a touch of funeral envy.

In 1948, still living in Zurich because she wanted to be close to her husband’s grave, Nora observed the official pomp and ceremony with which the body of the poet W. B. Yeats was repatriated to Ireland from the south of France where he’d died in 1939. (Yeats had long expressed a wish to be buried in Drumcliff  churchyard in Sligo.)

“The coffin was taken from France to Galway bay by a ship of the Irish navy; there the widow, her children and the poet’s brother were piped aboard.  Then a funeral procession escorted them from Galway to Sligo where Yeats was buried with a military guard of honour and representation from the Irish government,” writes Brenda Maddox in her biography of Nora. “Why not the same for Joyce?”

The answer at the time, of course, was that Yeats was in much higher standing in Ireland than Joyce was; he had served as a Free State senator, a “smiling, public man”, whereas Joyce remained in the Irish imagination of the time as “shocking, blasphemous and arrogant”, as Maddox puts it, whose books if not outrightly banned were seized at the borders.

However, unofficial approaches were made. Joyce’s American patron, Harriet Shaw Weaver asked Count Gerald O’Kelly, a former diplomat and art critic and Georgian afficionado, Constantine Curran, a boyhood friend of Joyce’s, to inquire if the Irish Government or the Royal Irish Academy would consider requesting the return of the body.

Miss Weaver believed that if Joyce’s remains were repatriated, then Nora and Joyce’s son, Giorgio, might consider returning themselves.  (Nora had told American interviewer, Sandy Campbell, that she’d like to have a “cottage in Ireland, but the Irish don’t like Joyce so there you are”.)

Maria Jolas, another lifelong campaigner for the Joyces, added her support saying that Joyce ‘s body should be be brought back because his widow wished it and because he was a towering figure of Irish literature.  With a view to her audience, she also declared that Joyce remained a good Catholic.

But this view was not shared in Dublin.  Count O’Kelly’s back-channel inquiries revealed there was little support for Joyce’s repatriation.  Ireland had apparently not forgiven him for his scandalous work and the plan came to nothing.

Unlike the 1948 campaign, the present move by Dublin city councillers seems motivated more by gain than honour.  The James Joyce “industry” has long been a tourist goldmine for the city.

The Bloomsday celebrations – memorialising June 16, 1904, the day Joyce had his first date with Nora, and the date he chose to set his novel Ulysses on – is a fixture on the tourist calendar, although it started as a spontaneous tribute to the writer by a small group of literati in Dublin.

Comic writer Brian O’Nolan (otherwise known as Flann O’Brien/ Myles na gCopaleen), poet Paddy Kavanagh, writer Anthony Cronin, registrar of Trinity College, A J Leventhal, publican John Ryan and dentist Tom Joyce, a cousin of Joyce’s, made the first Bloomsday pilgrimage on June 16, 1954.

The shambolic expedition, complete with two horse-drawn cabs – echoing the one taken by Bloom and his friends to Paddy Dignam’s funeral in Ulysses – was cut short before all the sites in the novel could be visited, due to the amount of alcohol that was consumed and the fractious mood of the participants. (Fisticuffs threatened between O’Nolan and Kavanagh)

Since then, Bloomsday  – still observed and enjoyed by Joyce’s literary admirers – has been all but hijacked for its tourist potential by the Dublin authorities.  It’s those same authorities who’ve been leading the charge to dig up Joyce from his burial place in Zurich and bring him home.

The Swiss authorities are thinking the same way. Director of the Joyce Foundation in Zurich, Fritz Senn said there would be “resistance” in Switzerland as Joyce’s  grave has become a major tourist attraction there. After all, Senn pointed out, Joyce never accepted Irish citizenship and the Irish Government of the time neglected to send an envoy to his funeral.

The Swiss provided much-needed sanctuary for the Joyces at the the outbreak of World War 2 and Nora continued to live there till her death in 1951.

Both cities clearly have their eye on the next big Joyce anniversary which comes in 2022, marking 100 years since the publication of Ulysses. 

In the meantime, is it a case of bring up your bodies? If so, who’s next – Samuel Beckett?  Look out, Montparnasse!



Disputing light and shade

sorolla sad inheritance 1899

Why would anyone today want to spend time and money visiting a retrospective of such an oddity, asked Jonathan Jones in The Guardian earlier this year, decrying “Sorolla: Spanish Painter of Light”, an exhibition which has now travelled to the National Gallery Dublin.

Well, me for one, Jonathan!

Joaquin Sorolla y Bastida (1863 – 1923) was in his time a prodigious and prosperous painter whose work was literally drenched in light, as the subtitle of the show suggests.  Luminosity was his by-word, the effects of sun-dazzle on water, the lilac hues of evening on land, and its warm glow playing on skin and fabric. None of which is evident in the painting above, entitled Sad  Inheritance, painted in 1899, a prize-winner at the Universal Exposition in Paris in 1900, where it caused a sensation.

The “sad inheritance” of the title refers to the disabled children featured who are the victims of hereditary syphilis.  It’s a far cry from Sorolla’s usual impressionist landscape of sun-drenched beaches, parasols and picnics.  In this very large canvas (three metres  wide)  a black-robed priest tends to a crowd of naked boys, deathly pallid, blind and physically disabled, as they plunge into the sea for a therapeutic swim.

For 21st century eyes, it’s impossible to look at this image with any degree of innocence.  Everything about it screams abuse. It seems abusive even to look at it, something makes us want to look away – the nakedness and vulnerability of the children, the menacing presence of the grim-faced priest, the way his hand manacles the arm of the struggling boy on crutches.  The ghosts of Magdalene laundries and industrial schools and orphanages intrude and can’t be ignored.

But it raises the perils of retrospective criticism, dismissing a piece of art because the artist was ignorant of its associations for the generations who come after him. As John Berger asked in his seminal work, The Art of Seeing: “To whom does the meaning of the art of the past properly belong?”

Unusually, Sorolla painted this piece in the studio although most of his sea and beach scenes were done en plein air in his home town of Valencia, and later in San Sebastien, and Biarritz.

Although this painting built his international reputation, Sorolla abandoned an overt social realist strain in his work after 1900. But it didn’t disappear; instead, it was backgrounded.  When he depicted the luxuriant, fun-filled world of the Mediterranean seaside, children frolicking in the waves, boys running naked on the shore, white-clad and bonnetted women paddling with toddlers in the shallows, it was often accompanied by the working world of the beach.  Hawkers, fishermen, the drivers of oxen who pulled the fishing boats into shore populate the margins of these idyllic scenes.

The world of work and play sit side by side; we may be, as Sorolla was, intoxicated by the nostalgic light he steeps both his subjects and us in. This glow is pure emotion, imbuing his beach scenes with the sun-blown, sand-dusted, unfettered memories of childhood.  But he never lets us forget the reverse side of this world, propped up by a working class who are darkly omnipresent. (In another painting of this period, Raisin Pickers (1901), Sorolla shows a group of women bent over their work in a gloomy interior, lit only by a wedge of forked light that slices the canvas in two, hinting at the bright, sunlit freedom of outside.)

sewing - sorollaIt is true Sorolla’s primary interest was painterly rather than social. Hardly a hanging offence for a visual artist. “Sorolla understood light not as an object but as spectacle, like energy that, in certain circumstances, converts nature and figures into overwhelming instances of vitality,”  writes Jose Maria Faerna Garcia-Bermejo in Sorolla: Modern Masters (Poligrafa).

But Jonathan Jones of The Guardian doesn’t agree. “Today Sorolla is doubly archaic.  Not only do his paintings capture the claustrophobia of traditional Spain before surrealism, anarchism and civil war shook its pieties, but his flamboyant academic style, touched by French innovations in painting yet wedded to much older ideals of figurative art, is blatantly pre-modern.”

Which is like blaming the painter for being born too soon.

Sorolla may well have been a conservative genre painter and may not have matched the sweep and riskiness of the Impressionists, but his treatment of light is both revolutionary and transformative, a gift that can only be appreciated by seeing his luminescent work in  – and on – the flesh.  All of the images here can be seen at the National Gallery where the show continues till November 3.

el pescador - Sorolla



The surreality show

diane lockhart

Almost everyone I know is either watching, or denying they watch Love Island.  I belong to the deniers because I’ve been following instead what I think is the most interesting reality (or should that be surreality?) show around at the moment – the American legal drama, The Good Fight.  

Just finished its third season, The Good Fight is a spin-off from a successful parent show,  a notoriously risky venture in the world of TV.  (Remember Joey, starring Matt LeBlanc which followed the actor character from the mega-successful Friends to a new life in LA.  No? I rest my case.)

The Good Fight sprang from The Good Wife,  a long-running, traditional legal procedural,  a celebrity vehicle for Julianna Marguilies (Nurse Carol Hathaway in ER), who played Alicia Florrick, a stay-at-home mother forced to return to the workplace when her Chicago state’s attorney husband Peter (Chris Noth) is jailed over a sex and corruption scandal. 

Christine Baranski was a stalwart in that series.  She played seasoned lawyer Diane Lockhart, a partner in the firm Alicia Florrick joins as a 40-something legal newbie.  But it was essentially a sidekick role, despite the oomph Baranski brought to it.

The Good Wife was solid, dependable drama. Plenty of courtroom action, a rather cloying unrequited love sub-plot, a smattering of dirty politics, and lots of legal horse-trading. So far, so predictable. It ran for seven seasons before dying of exhaustion and the news that there was going to be a spin-off was greeted with some trepidation. Especially by Marguilies’ fans.

That it would be built around the character of Diane Lockhart was encouraging. This was a bold move. Not that Baranski doesn’t have the acting chops to carry a series – she’s an Emmy and Tony-awarded performer (she sings and dances, as well as acts – starring in both Mamma Mias, for example). No, the risk was founding an entire series on a female character in her late 60s.  (Baranski is 67).

Furthermore, Diane Lockhart is a conservative feminist, in a strangely loose marriage with a right-wing Republican (played by Gary Cole) who does not share her political views, and she works at a predominantly African-American law firm where her white privilege is constantly being challenged.

But in its three seasons The Good Fight has grown away from its middle-brow TV roots, and morphed into something else entirely.  I’m not even sure what genre it is now. Quasi-fictional?  Auto-fictional?  Semi-documentary?

The Good Fight has inherited its predecessor’s template of riffing on the headlines for its storylines, featuring #MeToo type sexual predation charges, a Bernie Madoff-style  financial scam and Internet privacy challenges among its cases, along with a good dose of office politics. But that’s where the similarity ends.  The clue’s in the title.  Fighting the good fight is about trying very hard to do the right thing in trying circumstances.

That’s Diane Lockhart’s goal.  And the trying circumstances?  Being a good citizen in the middle of a Trump presidency. Trump is constantly name-checked in this series.  Barely a scene goes by where he’s not present, if only by implication.  One episode suggests First Lady Melania Trump has approached the firm via a proxy looking for a divorce. Another concerns possession of an incriminating video involving Russian prostitutes and urination. Often the president’s name doesn’t even have to be invoked for the viewer to get the drift.

The creators have all but jettisoned the romantic entanglements of their key characters  – is this a reflection on the late middle age of the show’s heroine? – and scaled down much of the courtroom action.  Instead they show us Diane and her colleagues battling the contradictions of living in the Trump era as committed liberals and/or Democrats (these are Chicago lawyers, after all.)

So, for example, in the third season, Diane’s frustration with Trump sees her joining a radical women’s resistance group which sets out, by fair means or foul, to undermine POTUS electoral dominance by filing false SWAT call-outs (one of which gets a White House aide killed) hacking electronic voting machines and engaging in the black arts of false news.

“The difficulty doesn’t come from weaving real life politics in, it comes from not weaving it in,” series creator Michelle King told Variety magazine last month. “Every day the writers’ room gets together and talks about what they’ve been reading and seeing in the news the day before and frankly what they find the most shocking and can’t turn their eyes away from. Given that it’s a group obsession, it’s a very natural flow from that to the show.”

As a result, The Good Fight has dropped all pretence of being a fiction. So closely does it stick to its political inspiration that the viewer is constantly playing who’s who with the cast.  Is Diane’s on-again/off-again marriage with right-wing ballistics expert Kurt McVeigh (now working for the Trump administration) based on White House adviser Kellyanne Conway’s relationship with her husband, George T Conway? ( Mr Conway is a distinguished lawyer who was once in the running to be US solicitor general, but is now an outspoken critic of the Trump administration which he has likened to “a shitshow in a dumpster fire”.)  Swap the gender roles and the similarities with Kurt and Diane are inescapable.

Another innovation the show has adopted is the insertion of animated musical shorts into the narrative to underline episode themes.  There have been skits on non-disclosure agreements, Russian troll farms and Chinese media censorship (more of this later).

These memes function as visual thought bubbles. The action and the characters are paused mid-scene while the viewers are given a short dose of agit-prop.  Trouble is, they are often not as witty as the satirical live action scripts. That said, it is refreshing to see a middle-aged, middle-brow TV drama dropping the fourth wall, stretching the visual vernacular and being really playful with form.

Ironically, the shorts have turned out to be more than mere technical gimmickry. One of them recently became a news story itself. Entitled “Banned in China”, the segment  was due to be inserted into an episode about the human cost of Chinese government censors until CBS pulled the plug.  Where the meme should have run, a placard appeared reading ‘CBS Has Censored This Content’. Initially, viewers thought this was part of an in-show  joke until the New Yorker broke the story. 

Responding, show runners, Robert and Michelle King threatened to pull out of the series, then insisted that the placard would have to air for the full 90 seconds that the segment would have taken. In the end they compromised on eight and half seconds.

It’s just one more example of the blurred lines between fact and fiction that the show has engendered. The closer its storylines get to “reality”, the more, it seems, reality bites.

In fact, the “reality” component of The Good Fight is so persuasive that it’s the fictional conceits that seem outlandish. British actor Michael Sheen has been chewing the scenery of late as fantasist attorney Roland Blum who cites Roy Cohn, political fixer and Trump influencer as a role model.  Maverick oddball Blum creates havoc in the plush, politically correct environs of Reddick, Boseman & Lockhart.  But the drama seemed over-egged and Sheen too over-the-top. In its willed eccentricity, his performance seemed to belong to another show altogether – the ridiculous antics of Ally McBeal, the 90s manifestation of the TV legal drama.

It’s as if the producers were trying to distract us from the “reality” The Good Fight is desperately trying to immerse us in  – with some really camp fiction.

Or maybe it’s all of a piece and I just can’t tell the difference anymore?

Or maybe that’s the whole the point?











Where are my companions?

20 Cappagh Road 1960

It’s clearly an Irish scene, a Dublin scene, but a “disappeared” Dublin.

“Cappagh Road” is by the Dublin painter Una Watters (1918 – 1965)  and depicts one of the new corporation estates in Finglas in 1960, where she lived and worked.  It appears on the cover of a new memoir, Down by the Liffeyside (Somerville Press) by Colbert Kearney (who knew Una personally) and is the perfect embodiment of the world Colbert describes in his book – the migration experience of thousands of  inner-city dwellers to the outer suburbs in the 1950s, at a time when the government of the day was at least willing to tackle Dublin’s accommodation crisis head-on.

Una’s Finglas is a microcosm of  the “new” suburb in its brave infancy, when much of life was still lived out on the street, rather than behind closed doors. Look at the two burly women on the right in their heavy coats, gossiping, as one pushes a go-car (what we used to call buggies in the 1950s) in which a toddler sleeps, skewed to one side.  We know they’re gossiping from their physical gestures. The blue-scarved woman is saying something to her companion, but the tilt of her head tells us that it’s a secret or a sly aside that’s being shared. On the left of the scene, another young mother – or an older sister, perhaps? – cradles a bottle of milk while trying to restrain a child in a blue bonnet who’s on the brink of a tantrum.  You can see the “I want” refrain in the operatic yawn of the child’s mouth.

A boy in short trousers grabs another by the sleeve as they chase after a ball in the middle of the street.  Is he trying to hold his companion back, or pass him out? Three more take up the rear in hot pursuit of the runaway ball.  In the mid-ground of the painting, another boy is stepping off the kerb heedlessly and about to collide with a hatted man on a bicycle who is swerving to avoid him. The moment of avoided impact is rendered by a circular compass-like brush stroke.

A young blade – a university student or a clerk? – is waiting for the bus.  He stands, debonair, slightly louche-looking, one hand around the pole of the bus stop, the other hand thrust into his pocket. The bus is coming though he doesn’t see it. There it is at the vanishing point of the painting, as green and solid-looking as the trees it emerges from.

It is a winter’s afternoon – a weak sun braves the chilly sky; the street lights are already on, the shop (the local chipper) is warmly aglow, the people are rugged up. Only the eerily precise black dog, padding softly across the foreground, sniffing out his territory, tail alert, seems intent on his own business.

The 1950s policy of forcing people out en masse to housing schemes in what was essentially the countryside, without adequate social supports, may have been questionable but what Una Watters depicts very clearly here is the vibrant communities that ensued, at least at first.  Here is a group of people of all ages interacting with one another.  The rectangular, grid-like arrangement of the canvas may hint at the conformity folk singer Pete Seeger warned of in his song about the little boxes “all made of ticky tacky and they all look just the same”. But the individual houses here are proud, solid homes, their span-new TV aerials visible,  their hedges carefully tended.

I have written here before about Una Watters (see blog September 30, 2018), a painter I feel has been criminally overlooked – particularly in the current climate of  revisiting the reputations of mid 20th century female painters like Mary Swanzy, who would certainly have known Una, since they both exhibited in Dublin in the 40s and 50s.

Sword of Light

Before Una’s untimely death at the age of 47, she had won an Arts Council award for her design of an emblem (see image) to commemorate the 50th anniversary of the Easter Rising in 1966.

Her “Sword of Light” was ubiquitous in the 1966 golden jubilee year, appearing on  badges, brooches and tie pins, stamped on all official publications, and showing up in hallmark form on special silverware struck by the Assay Office.

My hope, with the aid of Una’s family and friends, is to organize a retrospective of Una’s paintings based on the catalogue of a posthumous show of  37 works that her grieving husband, the Irish language novelist and poet, Eoghan Ó Tuairisc (Eugene Watters) organised after her death. Devoted to their art, they made a striking couple, honeymooning in a horse-drawn caravan which Eoghan had built himself, and summering in Ballinasloe (Ó Tuairisc’s home town) where Una painted and fished in the river Suck.

“Cappagh Road” was one of three paintings Una made of Finglas in the early 1960s.  We still have not traced the other two – “Schoolbreak” (1960) and “Building Scheme” (1961).  Perhaps, on the evidence of this painting, someone out there might recognize its companion pieces, either from the subject matter or the style.

If you do, or think you may have in your possession any Una Watters painting, please contact me via this blog.

We want the world to know about her!















Homesick at the Pension Russe

pension russe

The seaside resort of Nervi, the last outpost of suburban Genoa, Italy,  was not a place I expected to find the legacy of  the Russian poet Marina Tsvetaeva (1892 – 1941) so visibly remembered.  I was in the area for a month-long writing residency at the nearby Bogliasco Foundation and my daily walk took me past a slightly forbidding-looking villa on Nervi’s shady Via Aurelia, at the southern, less frequented end of the town.

After several weeks I spotted it, a plaque set high on the gable of the building  seen here on the left hand side of the photograph above, commemorating Tsvetaeva’s time here – from November 1902 to May 1903  – when she was just ten years of age.

Marina’s mother, a gifted concert pianist, had been diagnosed with TB in 1901, and her doctors decreed that her only chance of recovering was to move to a warmer climate.  Marina, her sister Anastasia (Asya), her father, Ivan Tsvetaev, founder and director of the Pushkin’s Museum of State Arts in Moscow, and her older step-sister Valeria (from her father’s first marriage)  travelled to Nervi so her mother could take the cure.


It was to be a formative experience for the poet.  Because of her mother’s illness, she and Asya were left very much on their own. “Thus for the first time in their lives, they were free. They could behave like children, and they had a marvelous time with the sons of the owners of the pensione, climbing the cliffs, lighting campfires on the beach, learning to smoke, getting sun-tanned and wild,” writes Lily Feiler author of Marina Tsvetaeva: The Double Beat of Heaven and Hell.

The family stayed at the Pension Russe, a boarding house for Russian emigrés.  But this was no ordinary boarding house – its inmates, for the most part, were like Marina’s mother, invalids or TB patients. According to Baedecker’s 1906 Handbook for Travellers, Nervi  –  “surrounded with groves of olives, oranges , and lemons”  – was the oldest winter-station on the Italian Eastern Riviera, much frequented by English, Russians and Germans as a health resort.

“A feature of the place is the dust-free and sunny Coast Promenade (to the left on leaving the station), which runs along the shore above the rocky beach, and is protected by a lofty wall on the landward side. Pleasantly placed benches on the promenade and in the adjoining gardens afford resting-places for patients who wish to be much in the open air without taking active exercise,”  the guide goes on.

As well as unprecedented freedom, the sojourn at Nervi also provided Marina and her sister with more sombre life lessons. Although her mother’s health improved there,  she and Asya  were  constantly surrounded by the spectre of death.  “How many  I have seen of them during my mother’s illness, doctors coughing out the last shred of confidence that it’s a little bronchitis, and fathers of families who didn’t think ahead far enough to say farewell to their children,” she recalled in later years.

She remembered a young German,  Reinhard Roever, staying at the pensione at the same time, who was shortly to die of TB, burning a piece of cigarette paper one evening and as the ashes flew upward he exclaimed – “Die Seele fliegt” (The soul is in flight). “To the melody of his holy Bach in the darkening Italian room with windows like doors, he taught Asya and me the immortality of the soul,” Tvestaeva wrote in her memoirs.

The pensione was also a hotbed of anti-Tsarist politics – activists and anarchists frequented its rooms from whom the sisters learned revolutionary songs, with their mother accompanying them on the piano.

During their stay, the Tsvetaevs were joined by Professor Dmitri Ilovaisky, an eminent Russian historian, who was the father of Ivan Tsvetaev’s first wife.  Like his son-in-law, he had remarried after being widowed, and was the father of  two teenage children, Nadia and Sergei, (technically step-aunt and uncle to Marina) to whom she was exceptionally close. 

In his biography,  Tsvetaeva, The Woman, The World and Her Poetry, Simon Karlinksy notes that by age four Marina had developed a crush on Sergei, but her more serious attachment was to Nadia, eight years older than her. In a letter to Vera Bunina in May 1928, Tsvetaeva wrote that it was only after Nadia’s death that she could give her feelings true rein.  

But by the time they arrived in Nervi, both Nadia and Sergei were already mortally ill with TB. Nadia died two years later in Russia, as did Marina’s mother.  Recollections of Sergei and Nadia were central to Tsvetaeva’s memoir The House near Old St Pimen’s Church  (1934).  In it she described the damp and draughty quarters in which Illovasiky’s children from his two marriages were raised and which caused all but two of them to die of TB by the age of 20.  Karlinsky describes the memoir as the poet’s “monument to that youthful infatuation with the lovely Nadia”.

Marina’s subsequent life was to be a catalogue of upheaval and tragedy, a victim of the violent turbulence of her country’s 20th century history. She married army officer Sergei Efron in 1912; they had two daughters, Ariadna and Irina, and later a son, Georgy.  She survived the Russian Revolution, after which  Efron joined the White Army.  The couple were separated for five years while the Civil War raged. During the Moscow famine, Tsvetaeva, alone and penniless, was forced to place her daughters in a state orphanage, where the younger, Irina, died of starvation in 1920, aged three.

In 1922, Tsvetaeva emigrated with her family to Berlin, then to Prague, before settling in Paris in 1925. She never quite fitted in with the Russian literary exile set in Europe, and her denouncements of the Soviet system in her work meant that her name was unmentionable in Russia and her poetry ignored.

At the end of the Thirties, Efron was exposed as an agent of the Soviet secret police involved in several political assassinations, including, allegedly, Trotsky’s son. He fled to the Soviet Union.  Tsvetaeva, who apparently knew nothing of her husband’s terrorist activities, was subsequently ostracized by the Russian community in Paris.

Karlinsky writes she followed Efron to Moscow in 1939  in the mistaken belief that it would help him and secure a better future for their son. On her arrival, she learned that her sister Asya – with whom she had played on the beach at Nervi –  had been sent to a hard-labour camp.

Two months after Tsvetaeva’s return, her daughter Ariadna was arrested on espionage charges, and her husband was executed.  When the German army approached Moscow in 1941, she and sixteen-year-old Georgy were evacuated to Yelabuga, Tatarstan, where she committed suicide by hanging herself in August 1941. She left a note for her son in which she wrote: “Forgive me, but to go on would be worse.”

Georgy volunteered for the Eastern Front where he died three years later, but Tsvetaeva’s daughter, Ariadna, and her sister, Asya, also a poet and memoirist, survived the war and the Stalin purges, and both wrote about Tsvetaeva and her work.  Ariadna died in 1975, but Asya lived on until 1993.

Her poem “Homesickness”, translated here by Boris Dralyuk, captures Tsvestaeva’s vehemence and spiky alienation, its declarations of denial and defiance subtly undermined by the final melancholic line.  The spirit of the child who had frolicked in the waves at Nervi with her beloved sister, had been well and truly extinguished by then. 


Homesickness! Silly fallacy
laid bare so long ago.
It’s all the same where I’m to be
entirely alone —
it’s all the same across what stones
I lug my shopping basket,
toward some house as alien
as a hospital or barracks.
I do not care what faces see
me bristle like a captive lion,
or out of which society
I’m quickly forced into my own
fenced realm of silent feelings.
I’m like an iceless polar bear —
just where I fail to fit (won’t try!)
and am belittled, I don’t care.
My native tongue will not delude
me with its milky call.
I won’t, I can’t be understood
in any tongue at all
by passersby (voracious eaters
of newspapers, milkers of rumor) —
they’re of the twentieth century,
and me — no time is home to me!
Dumbfounded, like a log that fell
on an abandoned lane,
all is the same to me, all, all
the same, and what has been
most dear to me now matters least.
All signs, all memories and dates
have been erased:
A soul born — any place.
My homeland cared for me so little
that the most clever snoop
could search my soul for birthmarks — he’ll
find nothing with his loupe!
Yes, every house is strange to me
and every temple — barren.
All, all the same. Yet, if I see,
alone along the verge – a rowan. . .


May 3, 1934
marina t - plaque


‘These new delighted lakes’


The white speck just visible in the rock here is the church of San Martino near the village of Griante on Lake Como, Italy.  When I say it’s on the lake, that’s a misnomer, as the church stands on a cleft in a mountain outcrop about 600ft above the water. I’m really lucky to be spending a couple of weeks on a writing residency here and after several cold and wet days,  the sky cleared this morning and my partner in crime and I decided now was the time to do the San Martino climb.

We’ve been eyeing the sanctuary church from where we’re staying for a while, psyching ourselves up for what looked like a daunting trek. It was a stiff walk on a country track first across Alpine meadows, then a rough cobbled path leading to a serpentine stone stairway until close to the summit, the path levelled out again in a bridge across a gorge and we reached our destination. It was worth the puffing and panting!

The view  from up there was a symphony in blue, the pooled shadows on the lake, the pellucid sky, the craggy striated peaks, still snow-capped, wrapped around by a cyclorama of cloud. You can understand why tourists of old came here for their health – the rinsed air and the painterly vistas are certainly balm to the mind, if not always to the creaking body!  (And when I say of old, we’re talking back to the time of Pliny the Younger, who fancied the lovely village of Bellagio, which we can see from our windows, and is now a very swish resort for the well-heeled.) Also need I mention George Clooney’s pad, a short bus ride away?  Nespressos, anyone?

One of the things about travelling – and of any experience when you get to a certain age -is that places constantly echo other places, new days resurrect old ones. As  I sat in the portico of this simple pilgrimage church – built in 1938 by a grateful Griante community in honour of the Blessed Virgin  – I was thinking two things.  One practical, one wistful. How did they actually build  this church so high up, moving all the materials up the sheer rock face when there wasn’t even a rudimentary path to follow?  And I was remembering my very first trip to Italy when I was 19,  indeed my first trip abroad ever, to another lake.

In the summer of 1976, I volunteered with VSI, Voluntary Service International, to go for a month on a workcamp to  Switzerland.  The deal was this.  You got yourself there under your own steam, and they gave you bed and board and a very modest allowance in return for your labour.  And in this case, it was hard labour.

The project was to help build a holiday retreat for deprived children in Ticino, the Italian province of Switzerland (where I could scarcely believe any lack of privilege could exist.)  The home was the brainchild of a tough, wiry 80-year-old Swiss German named Gerold (surname lost in the mists of time) who was extending his own modest, cut-stone home to provide facilities for urban kids who never got a holiday.

Gerold lived in Brione sopra Minusio, a small village close to Locarno, similarly overlooking a lake, but the other one, Lago di Maggiore. I remember my first view of that lake, at about the same altitude as San Martino today, and thinking I’d passed into another dimension.  The lake itself looked ethereal with plumes of cloud lazily idling in  mid-air,  while the clusters of villages nestling in the folds of slopes and shore – ochre, white and terracotta – and the sturdy ferries ploughing through the water like needles pulling frothy thread, looked concrete and prettily real. Add to that, since it was high summer, the sizzling heat and the sense of an exotic otherness was complete..

Tireless himself and zealously energetic, Gerold was a hard taskmaster – we toiled from 7 in the morning going to the quarry where we loaded rocks into the back of his Renault 4 and then heaved them on site with wheelbarrows and then proceeded to lodge them in cement to to make what was going to be the wall of a dormitory house. We mixed cement, we chiselled and plastered and we sweated.  (Thankfully, when the sun rose high in the sky, we followed Italian custom and had a siesta, going back to it at 4 for another three to four hours’ work.)

My companions were a Swedish student called Mats from Gothenburg, and a married Indian doctor in his 30s working in Tanzania who called himself Nikki, though he said that wasn’t his real name. He indicated that his own name was too difficult to pronounce for Europeans. Mats and I wondered what he was doing so far from home, working for peanuts in Ticino.

Our meagre living expenses did not go very far in hideously expensive Switzerland.  We could only afford to go out once a week on a Saturday night to the local pub, for two glasses of  Stella Artois, which was hardly going to turn us into roaring drunks.  (Though we did discover, if you hopped on a ferry to lakeside Cannobio, just across the border into Italy, both food and drink got cheaper and better!)

But it cost nothing to sit on the terrace in Brione, day or night, and just drink in that superb view.  The refined beauty of the north of Italy’s lake district that I was looking out at, was my first “foreign” scenic experience and it set the bar high for future travel expectations.

There were two other legacies of that sojourn.  One, I discovered new food – I became addicted to yogurt and oatflakes as a breakfast cereal (this was pre-muesli Ireland).  When I started eating this concoction at home, my mother was incredulous.  Yogurt was the equivalent of buttermilk for her, good only for baking bread, and as for pinhead oats, she said, we fed that to the chickens.

The other legacy was that several months after I returned, I got a letter from Tanzanian Nikki, asking me to sponsor him, his wife and three children for a visa to come to  Ireland to live and work, and maybe give them a place to stay?  You can imagine the reception that got at home!  But it partially explained what he was doing slaving away in Switzerland with two teenagers like Mats and me, building stone walls with his bare hands. He was trying to set up a track record of work in Europe to strengthen his case to migrate.

I wasn’t in a position to help him, and I didn’t hear from him again after that.

Before I left Brione, I remember signing my name in the wet cement of the wall I was working on and Gerold saying some day when you’re old you’ll come back and see it there.  As proof, he said.  Of what I’m not sure.  That I was there, that I’d done my bit?  As a teenager still,  I didn’t think of long perspectives, as Gerold did. I couldn’t even imagine being old.  Now that I am, and am geographically close to Lago di Maggiore for the first time in 43 years, I’m in the position to testing the hypothesis.

I’ve looked at images of Brione online but none of it looks even vaguely familiar. Would I be able to find Gerold’s house now in what seems a much more developed and upmarket Brione?  And even if I did find the house, I’m pretty sure that in 2019’s super-monetized tourist economy, the place is no longer his, no longer the rustic haven it was, and is most unlikely to still be a children’s home for the deserving poor.  Plus my initials have probably been obliterated by several architectural makeovers in the intervening 40 odd years. Would I want to be reminded how time alters and destroys?

Perhaps I’d be better off staying away and instead leaving the memories of that other lake, that other time, that other me, as they are, to be recollected in tranquility.

Can even death dry up/These new delighted lakes?

 – Philip Larkin: Wedding-Wind



















I was a Sputnik pothead

sputnik 1If you’re a writer words are your tools, your world-building blocks, and sometimes you think of them as merely functional, there to serve.  You don’t spend much time wondering how or when they came into being, you just reach and use.  Or reach and fail to find.

As another birthday has just recently passed, I took to wondering about the words that are as old as I am.

If there’s a defining word for the year of my birth, it has to be Sputnik – but more of that later.

Thanks to a fascinating and informative website – – I found a long list of words and terms that were recorded in print for the first time during my first year on the planet.

Some were a surprise.  Headage – as in headage payment (getting paid for each head of livestock in your herd for those Brexiteers with short memories) which I thought must surely have been a 1970s term so firmly associated is it in my mind with EU quotas and butter mountains. Frisbee entered the lexicon the same year – who knew that it was so old?  Its etymology comes from the Frisbie bakery in Bridgeport, Connecticut, whose pie tins had the perfect aerodynamic qualities required for the impromptu park game that became an international phenomenon, and was trademarked using the bakery’s name, with some minor spelling alterations.

As a student journo in Dublin, also in the 1970s, we produced a newspaper from our classroom called the Rathmines Reporter – hands up who remembers? – which was a Getstetner production (an early duplicating machine, a crank-operated forerunner to the photocopier) preceded by a sticky layout process using Cow Gum (great fumes!) and Letraset, which for the uninitiated, was sheets of alphabetic transfers which appeared in 1957, and stuck around.

There are some signs of the political times in the words registered during this year– Cold War terms abound.  Overkill, Non-aligned. Now familiar geographical identifiers also came into being.  The West Bank was cited in the Oxford English Dictionary, from Jan Morris’s 1957 book, The Market of Seleukia:  “It is difficult to see the west bank, which includes the magnificent Old City of Jerusalem, ever being prised away from Jordan,” Morris wrote.

The word may have survived, but not the world it describes.

The Viet-Cong made their first appearance in English language reporting – in Vietnamese it means Vietnamese Communist. Other journalistic terms crept in too – a backgrounder, straight from the world of public relations, apparently.  Likewise the Mad Men-inspired Marlboro Man was created and named in 1957.  Believe it or not, Marlboro was originally branded as a woman’s cigarette in the 1920s, so the iconic cowboy image was quite a gender shift.


Lego was first trademarked – from the Danish leg godt (play well) as was Play-Doh.  And for the older kids, the term pothead.

Airport jargon came into being with the now monetized pre-boarding, a circumlocution, surely.  Before boarding, a passenger is simply waiting or queuing.  But originally, it referred to a range of activities undertaken by the crew and airport staff before the flight took off.  And maybe still does?

Colonoscopy was first termed in 1957 – how I wish I didn’t know what that word means!

I always thought Spanglish was the first English and foreign language blend to be used, but no, apparently the first cited of the ” -lish” hybrids was Chinglish (Chinese/English), also in 1957.

Ahistorical and reverse engineering made their debuts, as did sandfracing (or sandfracking) – a forerunner of today’s plain old fracking. Transexuals were first discussed in psychology journals. Off-off Broadway became a new destination for your debut play. Moisturiser replaced plain old face cream.

But if any word typified the flavour of 1957, it’s the Russian, Sputnik, the name of the first artificial space satellite which was launched by the Soviet Union on October 4, 1957.  “Sputnik” orbited the earth for three weeks before its batteries died; two months later it crashed back into the atmosphere. The launch of Sputnik (literally translated as fellow-traveller of the Earth)  triggered the Space Race between the Soviets and the US, and ushered in another phase of the Cold War.

Ironically, the phrase “fellow-traveller”came to be a pejorative term in the US during the 1940s and the 1950s for a person who was sympathetic to, but not a card-carrying member of the American Communist Party.


Chasing the I-deer

deer flying - pat dennehy

This deer doesn’t just run—it springs. Away out of the frame of your windscreen, leading your eye off the main road, into the wild unknown. This isn’t a slowly meandering deer, or one of a grazing herd; it’s alone, head held high, antlers up. It’s always seemed to you that those tree-like branches that sprout from its head must be too heavy to be borne.  Surely the deer should topple, carrying this cathedral of bone aloft, but it doesn’t. Particularly now as it’s become bipedal, pushing off its hind legs, its front legs powerfully tense. Sure-footed, isn’t that what they say? This is the idea deer. The i-deer.  Your turn to pounce. You feel the excitement of that first reckless leap…

tunnel warning

But as soon as you surrender to the i-deer, you lose that air-borne sensation, the feeling of being in another element. You feel more earth-bound than ever. You’re pretty sure the i-deer came this way so you faithfully follow and find yourself in a dark tunnel. Alone. No light ahead or behind. You abandon the car and go on foot. You have a pit helmet with a torch attached so you can just about see where you’re going once you’ve adjusted to the night blindness. You feel your way with your feet, one ragged step at a time. There’s no sign of that i-deer, of course—it’s as if he’s evaporated. If you stretch out your arms you’re sure you’ll feel the encrusted walls of the tunnel, but when you do there’s nothing solid there. Only the sooty darkness and the faint light of your own head to guide you.

slippery road

Back in the car, you careen out into an unfamiliar landscape made hazy and insubstantial by the sun’s brilliance. The brightness makes it hard to get your bearings. You’re tempted to take in the views, such as you can make them out. There are distant unfamiliar mountains shrouded in heat haze and you seem to be in the foothills. There are trees and, in the zebra sun dazzle, you think you see something move out of the corner of your eye—the i-deer? Is it? It might be but it looks different now and you can only get a sidelong view as it flees into the undergrowth. You’ve no idea where you are. Is there a map in the car? You reach out to scrabble in the glove compartment, one hand clutching the steering wheel. Suddenly the car swerves as if the road is icy, but it can’t be, it’s high summer outside. Or was a minute ago. Now you’re a bull rider trying to control the car as it bucks and sways trying to throw you off. Remembering old advice, you resist the temptation to apply the brakes. You hold your writing nerve.


Oh God, what is this, a hump-backed bridge? You’re travelling too fast now. You see yourself and the car airborne like in those movie car chases, all four wheels off the road; the kind of airborne you don’t want. The car will never withstand this treatment, the shock absorbers will be shot. This is high voltage stuff and your car, well it’s a bit ramshackle and bears the marks of several other journeys of this kind. A dent here, a scrape there, a shattered windscreen once. You’re not sure how much more it can take.  You lean into the bend before the bridge and make it over.


After all the alarums and excursions, it’s quiet for a bit. You travel on through a featureless valley. The dull, flat country of mid-project. The speedometer doesn’t seem to eat the miles as before. You get to wondering, why are you doing this?  All for an i-deer you only got a fleeting glimpse of. And what’s this coming up? The red triangle, the exclamation mark warns you of danger ahead, something you can’t see. But everything about this journey is unseeable.


The road turns into motorway. Thank god you’re done with those small by-roads, with their twists and turns. The signs tell you that queues are likely, but at least the motorway is straight, the road surface is good. All you have to do is cruise now, stay in lane and you’ll get to your destination, though you’re not even sure what that is. But you feel you must be on the right track. There are so many other drivers here. But is that a good thing? Are they all like you, following i-deers of their own? The i-deers may travel in herds and you may think you see them all over the place, but, in fact, they’re an endangered species and, of course, there are culls from time to time. Some regard the i-deer as a pest. And there’s another worry. Will some other hunter end up snagging your i-deer? But you can’t think about that 2

The motorway exit signs whizz by and you look at them longingly. Everything off road looks so attractive. A cup of tea, oh yes, and a nice meal, plus a ready-made escort to keep you company. This is what the rest of the world is doing while you’re running after an i-deer. Refuelling—that’s what you badly need now. You’re tempted but if you stop now you might never return to the chase. You press on, running on empty.


Oh look, an airport! On a whim, you take the exit. Maybe this is your destination? The sense of lift-off reminds you of the start of the journey, airy escape combined with a terminal, an end-point. Once, when you were having your eyes tested for a driving licence, the doctor held up his left hand above your head. How many fingers am I twiddling, he asked. You couldn’t say. You’ve a blind spot, he said. Is that going to be a problem, you asked.  Not unless you encounter low-flying aircraft, he said. You can hear the rumble of jet engines overhead but they’re hidden in cloud. Or are they travelling in your blind spot? You duck, just in case.

road narrows

The road narrows. You brake, then check in the rear-view mirror. But look, look what’s on the back seat. It’s a doe. How did that happen? It’s not the i-deer you spotted earlier. It’s smaller and it doesn’t have those magnificent antlers but its eyes are brown and intelligent and it has some lovely white markings that the i-deer didn’t have. It’s not what you imagined and if it were a dress you bought on the internet you’d send it back. On the other hand, it’s your very own i-deer, you can reach out and touch her, and she’s safely inside your car. She seems extraordinarily tame. But is that a good thing?


There’s a roundabout coming up. It’s decision time. Which exit to take? The doe is fast asleep in the back seat. Will she do the trick? You’ve grown fond of her, you have to admit, and a bird in the hand etcetera. Or could you do better? Is she just a wee bit too tame? Not the wild creature you saw initially. Should you cut your losses? Go all the way around, repeat the journey—maybe get a bigger, better I-deer, closer to the first one you saw? Or can you have both? Keep this one AND go back?

Should you go back?

Should you go forward?

Or should you just stop?



You go on.


This post was written for a new website hosted by EFACIS (European Federation of Associations and Centres of Irish Studies) called writers@work that features Irish writers talking about their process – go to :



House of Trump cards

claire uwood

We all know that fiction has faltered in the face of the reality of the Trump presidency – but it’s politics that fails in the final season of House of Cards, as Grand Guignol runs rampant. There is blood and tears, with lots of runny mascara!  Sweat? A little less so, unless you count the scriptwriters’ demented efforts to keep running a plot when the tank is dry.

The finale of the addictive series (I’m a total fan) reached our screens in early November via Netflix.  It has always grabbed from the headlines.  In fact, it’s been one of the series’ strengths that it has managed to mimic breaking news by altering reality ever so slightly. But this time around, House of Cards was making the news not following it.

Lead actor Kevin Spacey playing impeached President Francis Underwood, who at the end of Season 5 had ceded power to his loyal (?) wife and vice-president Claire, became the news when in October 2017 he was accused by Star Trek Discovery actor Anthony Rapp of making unwanted sexual advances in 1986, when Rapp was 14.

It was just a week after the Harvey Weinstein story had broken, and the House of Cards writing team – led by show-runners Frank Pugliese and Melissa Gibson – was in the middle of shaping the final season and had filmed the first two episodes.

“It was very surreal because, at the time, it was the very beginning of the #Me Too movement which was influencing our story and [within it,] what it was like to be president and female,” story editor Sharon Hoffman told

Within a week, a dozen men had accused Spacey of sexual assault, sexual harassment, and attempted rape and Netflix halted production. By November 3, it had severed all connections with him. That left the future of the series up in the air.

Season 5 had ended with Claire’s declaration to viewers that it was “her turn” to rule. The writers had been fashioning a finale where a female president confronts misogyny head-on. Melissa Gibson thought it would be especially “perverse” for the story of a woman in power to be denied because of the actions of a man and in the end Netflix decided to go ahead with a Spacey-less finale.

So does it work?  Or is the series mortally wounded without Frank Underwood?  The answer to that is yes, and no.

The foreshortened 8-episode last series feels like a very different beast to the previous five.  Why?  Because if House of Cards was about anything, it was about the gritty world  of politics i.e. the cut and thrust of democratic politics — caucuses, back-rooms, horse-trading and dirty deals.

The early seasons were fueled by set pieces of high-octane politics; it was the oxygen that drove Frank Underwood on, hustling in the corridors of power, leaning on the worthy but dull Education Secretary Donald Blythe, playing hard-ball with Jackie Sharp, the flakey Deputy House Minority Whip, setting up the vulnerable alcoholic governor-hopeful Peter Russo.  The titles tell it all.  We remember them because of their relative positions of power.  Because that was important to the plot.

Not any more.

Season 6 is all murder and vengeance as Claire inherits presidential power after Frank dies in mysterious circumstances.  As she cuts a swathe through her enemies, we’re treated to little pockets of flashback, which show how the cruel damaged little girl becomes the chilly, amoral woman. (Personally, I preferred it when no excuses were made for these characters and they were allowed to be plain bad in their own right.)

This final series is no longer about politics, it’s about settling personal scores. And that makes it very reductive.  House of Cards always had its operatic excesses, but this time it’s gone for pure soap.  Also, is the message that with a female president, politics inevitably gets shrunk to the personal?

The body count is staggeringly high. Doughty reporter Tom Hammerschmidt, Catherine Durant, the former Secretary of State, and Jane Davis, shady Foreign Department operative all meet untimely ends, as does Frank Underwood’s right-hand man Doug Stamper (Michael Kelly) who’s done in with the treasured letter-opener Frank Underwood had once presented to him. Is this a dagger I see before me etc?

It’s wrong to expect old-fashioned justice from a show that has celebrated downright cynicism and rampant political ambition. But the final season throws all of its sacrificial lambs under the bus, to mix my metaphors.  What about Zoe Barnes, Rachel Posner and Lucas Goodwin?  If nothing else, the narrative arc of fiction demands that their deaths be revisited, rather than simply name-checked perfunctorily when Tom Hammerschmidt finally pins Doug Stamper down for an off-the-record interview.

But the message of the final flawed season seems to be that not only does every bad deed  go unpunished, but every good one must be obliterated.  It’s nuclear option politics.

And ironically, by a circuitous route, that makes Season 6 the perfect replica of the current White House, rather than a token flagpole for the #Me Too movement as the scriptwriters seemed to intend.

Claire’s presidency is undermined by new characters Annette and Bill Shepherd, a power-brokering pair of billionaire oligarchs (brother and sister rather than husband and wife) with influential business interests, whom we’re led to believe had Frank in their pockets before his untimely death.

This is fictionally very dubious – here are characters who’ve never featured before, not even by name, but they’re rolled on to centre-stage now like evil twins to force her to stop undoing Frank’s promises. So it’s Frank Underwood’s legacy that’s being battled over.  Not so feminist then.

And did I mention The Baby? What baby, you ask. No one in the cast seems to bat an eyelid when the distinctly middle-aged Claire (Robin Wright who plays her is an extremely lithe 52) suddenly manifests a six-month bump.  Who’s the father?  Tom Yates, the writer and Underwood biographer, who until the end of Season 5, was having regular, cuckolding rumpy-pumpy with Claire is the obvious paternity candidate. However, Claire’s already seen to him and she insists to anyone bold enough to ask, that this is Frank’s baby.

Remember back in Season 2 when she was flirting with the idea of getting fertility treatment – well, it appears good old Frank gave a sperm specimen back then which has been frozen conveniently and Claire has called in his deposit.  But none of this is made explicit, so as a punter you have to have a very good memory, and a very gullible nature, to believe that one.

My theory is that this is a “fake news” baby – a phantom pregnancy created by Claire to soften her image. But just when you’ve got used to the idea of a pregnant Claire, the female metaphors start to proliferate. Her wardrobe and her brittle demeanour scream Black Widow, another role she’s busily playing. Is she mad?  Or is she mad with grief?

Is that why her dress sense has gone AWOL? Gone now the subtle neutrals, the stylish creams and taupes and the figure-hugging dresses of seasons gone by. Now she’s suited in Mao-like ensembles in mourning black and muddy green, or when she’s being political,  royal blues or primary reds – a kitsch embodiment of the Stars and Stripes.

The ironic thing about Claire’s reign as ice queen is that she – along with the final series – seems to have dispensed with the day-to-day politics altogether, once the show’s hallmark.  She may be presented as a feminist icon with her all-female cabinet, but Claire Underwood plays out an exact replica of Donald Trump’s first year in power.

Season 6 joins her when she’s 100 days in, which probably chimes exactly with the early days of the Trump presidency during which the scriptwriters were desperately tearing their hair out trying to reshape the show without Spacey.

They might want you to believe that Claire Underwood  – sorry, Hale; she’s reverted to her maiden name – is a feminist icon having sacked a cabinet full of old white men and replaced them with an all-female team.  They might even want you to ponder whether she’s a feminist gone rogue; could she be a version of what might have been if Hilary Clinton had won the presidency? Or is she meant simply as a warning of the dangers of any woman, let alone feminist, getting into the White House?

Claire rules with an iron fist – and an even sharper hair cut.  (Hair is important in US politics.) But she doesn’t seem to bother with pesky politicians.  Executive orders are the plat du jour.  The House of Representatives and the Senate barely get a look in. She has emasculated her vice-president with withering looks and school-marmish manner.

Where have all the politicians gone? The answer? Claire Hale has drained the swamp all on her own. Don’t let the gender agenda fool you. The last word from House of Cards is that Claire Hale is Donald Trump.

A version of this post appeared on Headstuff.  See –






Misreading Philip Larkin

philip and the mammy

I was amused by this photograph of the poet Philip Larkin and his mother that appeared in The Guardian last week accompanying a review by Blake Morrison of Larkin’s letters home.

First of all I wondered where on earth it was taken?  It couldn’t be at home, surely?  If so, what is that white bridal dress doing framed in the background? I’m guessing it must be a university common room or some such given the other period touches on view – the comfy but functional “easy” chairs, the 1970s catering coffee set.  Fashion-wise there’s Larkin’s priestly socks and sandals look and  his mother’s pert white handbag planted on the floor like a badge of respectability ready to be tripped over.

I’m also fascinated by the low angle of the photograph – was the photographer lying on the floor?  Or are the Larkins on a raised dais?

The photograph says a lot about their relationship – Larkin, studiously avoiding the photographer’s eye, appears to be busily writing, while his mother peers wistfully at us vainly trying to make a connection.

Most of the correspondence in the just published Philip Larkin: Letters Home (edited by Anthony Thwaite) were to his mother – and there was a lot of it.  For three decades, from his mid-20s to his mid-50s (until she died aged 91) he wrote to her every weekend.  Despite that, the relationship was, to say the least, ambiguous.

He described his visits home with piercing and chastening accuracy.  I defy any adult child of an ageing parent not to identify with at least a couple of the tropes in this litany of bad behaviour. “I become snappy, ungrateful, ungracious, wounding, inconsiderate and even abusive, longing only to get away, muttering obscenities because I know she can’t hear them, refusing to speak clearly so that she can hear, refusing to make conversation or evince any interest in her ‘news’ or things she has to say.”

I was fascinated to read in Morrison’s review that Larkin’s poem “Reference Back” is all about his mother, although when I read it first, I completely missed that.  I quote it here in full: –


That was a pretty one, I heard you call
From the unsatisfactory hall
To the unsatisfactory room where I
Played record after record, idly,
Wasting my time at home, that you
Looked so much forward to.

Oliver’s Riverside Blues, it was. And now
I shall, I suppose, always remember how
The flock of notes those antique Negroes blew
Out of Chicago air into
A huge remembering pre-electric horn
The year after I was born
Three decades later made this sudden bridge
From your unsatisfactory age
To my unsatisfactory prime.

Truly, though our element is time,
We’re not suited to the long perspectives
Open at each instant of our lives.
They link us to our losses: worse,
They show us what we have as it once was,
Blindingly undiminished, just as though
By acting differently we could have kept it so.

I discovered Larkin when I was feeling my way into poetry in the mid 1970s, and specifically when I bought Volume Two of Corgi Modern Poets in Focus (1971), a cheap and cheerful series that featured six poets – Wilfrid Owen, Thomas Blackburn, Philip Larkin, William Meredith, Keith Douglas and Seamus Heaney. corgi poets - philip larkin

Strangely, I don’t remember reading the other poets – although I have turned down the top right corner of the page featuring Heaney’s “Follower” so that must have impressed me at the time – but it was Larkin I was really drawn to, and “Reference Back”,  in particular.

I clearly remember believing that the speaker and the “you” in the poem were lovers, not mother and son; lovers where there’s a big age difference. I was at the time “going out” with someone who was 18 months younger than me and I was very touchy about that – two years seems a chasm when you’re 20. So I read – and drew consolation – from “Reference Back” even though I was completely misreading it.

Coincidentally,  I was still living at home myself at the time, and going through all those petty defiances with my own mother that Larkin describes above, but I never once saw that this was a poem about the disappointments and pitfalls of parental love.  Maybe I couldn’t afford to see it then.

When I read the poem now, I can’t see it any other way than as a paean to lost opportunities.  That brief flicker of optimistic, or desperate, contact at the start – that was a pretty one, I heard you call –  followed by all the “unsatisfactory” qualities of the home and the relationship – the unsatisfactory hall and room, age and prime.  The idle wasting of time playing records which his mother “so much looked forward to”.  And of course, the melancholy cadence of the poem that is so quintessentially Larkin – We are not suited to the long perspectives/ Open at each instant of our lives/ They link us to our losses.

I don’t think as a 20-year-old you can understand this kind of regret, so you tailor what you imagine are grandiose feelings to your own situation. On the other hand, it shows the generous open-endedness of a great poem like “Reference Back”.  It can be read at any age, and becomes whatever it is the reader needs it to be, because the experience it describes has been rendered so precisely.

Asked  in a interview in The Paris Review why he wrote, Larkin said simply: “The duty is to the original experience. It doesn’t feel like self-expression, though it may look like it. As for whom you write for, well, you write for everybody. Or anybody who will listen.”

I’m one of those anybodies still listening to – and maybe still misreading – Larkin after 40 years.