Tuesday, 4 September 2018


There is a full chapter in E.M. Forster’s small, but significant, book on novel writing, Aspects of the Novel, on prophecy. Forster mines Herman Melville’s big and significant book, Moby-Dick, for examples of the prophetic in the novels he considers.
He focusses upon the coffin, which the ailing harpooner Queequeg commissions from the ship’s carpenter and which, though he lies in it, never actually bears his remains. Queequeg recovers to play his part in the galloping and horrendous chase scenes that form the climax of the novel. The coffin bobs to the surface and saves the narrator, Ishmael, in a turmoil of devastation and violence, the full and proper outworking of a grand sea-faring yarn of exploitation and madness that ploughs across the Atlantic and ends in the South Pacific’s bloodied waters.
To read Moby-Dick is to surge into the prophetic, but not in the ordinary sense of tellings about the future, but in a story that reaches back into the primordial past of the hunter, now capitalised by economic drives that launch men on vessels of war and rage in search of the largest animals on the planet to kill them mercilessly in order to harvest their oil and spermaceti to burn in lamps and to flavour perfumes. Essentially for money. When we now use the phrase ‘to monetise’ in relation to Apps and social media platforms, we are living out the prophetic tellings of Herman Melville’s great book.
The reader is swept into the power of the book as on a tidal wave, right from the famous opening injunction, “Call me Ishmael”, an Old Testament name that immediately draws the reader into the worlds of patriarchs of the Bible and the Koran and the prophetic songs they offer. From Genesis 16:11-12, we learn
And the angel of the Lord said to her, Behold, you are pregnant and shall bear a son. You shall call his name Ishmael, because the Lord has listened to your affliction. He shall be a wild donkey of a man, his hand against everyone, and everyone’s hand against him, and he shall dwell over against all his kinsmen.”
The name Ishmael can be translated as ‘God hears’. Thus the book begins with the Reader hearing voices that whisper and roar to create a demonic bedlam of character, story, incident, whaling lore, technical whaling information, philosophy, religion and sea-faring, sweeping the reader along, as much as s/he he wishes. Yes, you can skip chunks and still rush headlong with the thrilling yarn, but why miss the immersion in the prophetic?
And you can wrestle with the presentation of evil in the straight-forward revenge plot, that is the main-mast of the novel. Ahab, the monomaniacal captain of the whaling ship, Pequod, drives himself and all aboard in pursuit of the white whale, the Leviathan, despite the protestations and pleadings of his Chief Officer, Starbuck.
Moby-Dick is a tragedy for all, including the families of the men who drown. None but Ishmael survive, clamped to the bobbing coffin, not a symbol of survival but a prophetic enchantment of the tragedy of life served up with calculated literary irony.
The reader is left with a sense of having experienced a wonder. Questions of morality and action remain. What drives men to do such things? Monomania seems too simple an answer and can only be applied to Ahab. Ishmael says he goes to sea to overcome a deep sense of depression.
Yes, as everyone knows, mediation and water are wedded forever.
But not all the crew of the Pequod, and other whalers, sailed out of Nantucker into the Atlantic and away for three years or more, scouring the whale fisheries across the great oceans, north, south, east and west, because they were depressed. No doubt many were running away. For others it was ‘what they knew’, as their fathers and brothers went whaling before them. Throughout the novel, when Ishmael grows wistful, he muses on the economics of the activity and the huge draw there is, among the wealthier members of the society at home, for the products they seek. 
The reader is left with the question: when it becomes obvious that doom is the only possible outcome of the chase, why don’t some of the crew jump ship? It requires a massive weight of mythology, a burdensome anchor of loyalty and duty and an explosive charge of power to force men to stay, when all around them is violence, danger and dread. Is the hope of a pay-off always good enough in the face of poverty?
The desperation of poor people is also found in a later American novel, As I Lay Dying by William Faulkner. And once again it is the prophetic voice of the novelist that resonates throughout. Faulkner obviously read Moby-Dick. He has a coffin bobbing about in tumultuous water too. He has language you’d expect from a religious book or tract. And he has a story of monomania. E.M. Forster might have identified a prophetic writer in action here again.
One ordinary prophesy that Melville makes concerns the survival of whales into the future.
… the moot point is, whether Leviathan can long endure so wide a chase, and so remorseless a havoc; whether he must not at last be exterminated from the waters, and the last whale, like the last man, smoke his last pipe, and then himself evaporate in the final puff.
Melville links the extinction of the whale with the extinction of human kind. He is optimistic.
Wherefore, for all these things, we account the whale immortal in his species, however perishable in his individuality. 
Melville couldn’t have prophesied the massive industrialisation of whaling that has grown up in the 20thcentury. Or the pollution of the oceans by plastics, noise and effluent.
Expectations for the recovery of whale populations have been based on the assumption that, except for commercial whaling, their place in the oceans is as secure as it was a hundred years ago.
Sadly, this assumption is no longer valid. This is why we believe that commercial whaling in all forms must be stopped.
Moby-Dick is the great novel it’s cracked up to be. The reader surges with the seas and the prophesies. The reader is amazed by the lore and the technical data. The reader fumes at the racism. The reader is transfixed by Melville’s insights into human nature and by the total absence of women from the story. Would Melville write a different novel today? A different classic? 
He might reflect on E.M. Forster’s final thoughts on the novel.
If human nature does alter it will be because individuals manage to look at themselves in a new way. Here and there people – a very few people, but a few novelists are among them – are trying to do this.

Moby-Dick; book, 1851; Herman Melville; Penguin Classics Deluxe Edition; U.S.A., 2009
As I Lay Dying; book, 1935; William Faulkner; Chatto and Windus; London, 1962
Aspects of the Novel; book,1927; E.M Forster; Edward Arnold Publsihers; London, 1963

Tuesday, 14 August 2018


Our first step is to search on Google maps. For a better chance of actually locating Yemen, we focus on one place; Saada. We take care to find Saada in Yemen, because a number of places in different countries in the region share that name, just like in Ireland, where you’ll find any number of Ballys.

When we find Saada, we search for the Zaydi Cemetery. It’s between Mufrah at Talh Street and the N1, quite close to the central market, the city’s main mosques and the archaeological site of Bab Narjan. We search for the graves of the children killed in the recent airstrike on a bus. Forty children were among the fifty one dead.

"My son went to the market to run house errands and then the enemy air strike happened and he was hit by shrapnel and died," said Fares al-Razhi, mourning his 14-year-old son.

We are in north Yemen, close to the border with Saudi Arabia. If Yemen is one of the poorest countries in the world, Saudi Arabia is one of the richest. We pore over the Google map images of the border between the two states and wonder how that can be. 

There is a war underway in this part of Yemen. A complex war with militant actors frominside Yemen and also external to the country. The biggest external actor is the Kingdom and army of Saudi Arabia, one of Yemen’s close neighbours. What does that Kingdom and army want?

With logistical support from the US, Saudi Arabia and the UAE have carried out attacks in Yemen since March 2015 in an attempt to reinstate the internationally recognised government of President Abu-Rabbu Mansour Hadi.
In 2014, Hadi and his forces were overrun by the Houthis who took over much of the country, including the capital Sanaa.
Since then, the military alliance has carried out more than 16, 000 air raids on Yemen, the Arab world’s poorest country, with more than 3, 000 raids pulverising the Houthis stronghold of Saada.

We search the images on Google maps to see signs of ‘success’ for these air raids and bombings. The resolution on the maps breaks down as we zoom in. The maps cannot handle the devastation. They become coy and opaque. Can we hear the Yemeni people themselves?

Hakim Almasmari, the editor-in-chief of the Yemen Post, called it one of the worst days in Yemen in recent memory.
"Today is a tragic, sad day... that has gathered all Yemenis together. There are many people who oppose the Houthis, including residents of [the capital] Sanaa, but a crime like this has given the Houthis more support. You can't have sides when it comes to children." 

The war is three years old now. Young, in world conflict terms. Young, like the children blown to pieces.

"I didn't find any of his remains, not his finger, not his bone, not his skull, nothing. I looked through all the remains in the hospital and I didn't see anything."

We look on. From afar, knowing that great amounts of money are involved in the international trade in the weaponry that produces these tragedies. Jobs too. Do we cringe or quake? Do we feel remorse? Guilt? Who are ‘we’? 

Despite repeated petitions from human rights groups to Western powers over the sale of arms to Saudi Arabia, the US, UK, Canada, France and Spain have all sold weapons to the kingdom in recent years, some of which have been used in the conflict.
The US has been the biggest supplier of military equipment to Riyadh (Saudi Arabia), with more than $90bn of sales recorded between 2010 and 2015.

Are ‘we’ supplying weaponry to the Houthis as well? Probably. If not directly, then covertly, via brokers and dealers. There’s money in it. And probably alongside weaponry, with logistical and political support, from Iran. Wars are complex and multi-agency, often acting in overlaps and parallels. The war in Yemen is one of numerous proxy world conflicts between the Great Powers and their allies. We are well beyond the capacity of thetwo dimensional imagery offered by Google maps.

With grand profits to be made, it is not in the interest of arms’ manufacturers like Raytheon, who dispute the evidence of the use of their products in this war, to see efforts at a cease-fire make progress.

Images sent to Al Jazeera by the Houthis on Monday suggested a Raytheon Mark-82 bomb was used in the raid.
While the photo had yet to be independently verified, fragments of Mark-82 bombs have surfaced repeatedly amid the ongoing war.

Do we say “It’s not personal. It’s just business. If we don’t sell the arms, someone else will”?

Days after the attack, body parts remain unidentified and some families were still searching for the remains of their children. 

Are ‘we’ as two dimensional as Google maps?

The UN special envoy for Yemen, Martin Griffiths, recently announced plans for negotiations between the warring parties.
The peace talks will begin in Geneva on September 6 and focus on building a transitional government and laying down arms.

Can we go beyond the flat maps in the search for a further dimension? More than simply ‘laying down arms’, can we work to end the international arms trade?

Thursday, 9 August 2018


There is no need for a ‘spoiler alert’. This is a film in which a Goodie chases a Baddie and eventually catches him. Here is the chase in London.
The Baddie (August Walker, played by Henry Cavill) walks purposefully through thebusy streets of the City of London. The Goodie (Ethan Hunt, played by Tom Cruise) races across the roofs and through the office buildings of that financial district. The chase continues across theriver Thames to the South Bank,where both make for thconverted power station that houses the art gallery, Tate Modern.
Walker enters via a side-door he leaves open for Ethan Hunt now so hot on Walker’s heels that Hunt arrives at the lift right behind him. In classic Mission: Impossible fashion, Ethan Hunt grabs the underside of the metal cage in which Walkeris ascending. They converse, almost amiably, until Walker puta photo on the metal grid of the lift floor, face down to Ethan Hunt.This shows the thorn, the prize and the treasure, the British MI6 assassin Ilsa Faust.She is Hunt’s desire and she is in mortal danger, as you’d expect. Forget the missing plutonium, the mad anarcho-terrorist on the loose, the threat to millions from a contagion of small-pox. When the shake-down comes, it’s a simple love and death triangle between two men and one woman. The Goodie must save the treasureIlsa Faust (Rebecca Ferguson). We’re not sure if she’s a goodie or a baddie, though she most certainly is a killer. As with many a relationship in the modern age, it’s complicated.
(Aside: that line is used elsewhere in the dialogue, stolen directly from a facebook status that became common usage. The film's dialogue is well-filled with contemporary commonplaces, many of which warrant the label ‘cliché’.) 
As the film enterthe third act, Walker escapes via a helicopter waiting on the roof of Tate Modern. The lettering on the side of the helicopter shows GDE-UP, which the viewer reads as GIDDY UP.
Did the film makers intend this or was the viewer silently articulating a desire for the film to get on with it? Certainly a quickening is required at that point, because, although we’ve seen pacy chases through the streets of Paris in cars, vans, trucks and on motorbikes, action seemto be lagging, despite Ethan Hunt jamming a truck into a narrow street, neatly foreshadowing the jamming of two helicopters into a crevasse on a cliff-face, the location of the very final showdown between the Baddie and thGoodie.This turns out to be a curiously muted affair, in spite of all the crash-bang-whalloping pyrotechnics that immediately precede it.
As you’d expect, the film has a surfeit of technical devices; phones, transponders, drones, image manipulators and ear devices for communications, all of which work miraculously well, despite being bashed, thrown, pummelled, shot and jammed throughout the one hundred and twenty minutes of the film’s duration, too long by about half an hour. 
Would the old Hollywood feature length staple of ninety minutes better serve the 'and then.... and then.....' structure of the story?
There is a count-down, of course, given a slightly novel twist by lasting fifteen minutes, which is what the Super Baddie (Solomon Lane, played by Sean Harris) allots to give Walker enough time to get away with the detonator for their fiendishly clever double-plutonium bomb. This is linked by a trigger Walker carries as hgetaway.Again.Solomon Lane goes hara-kiri at this point.
Ethan Hunt’s side-kicks are Benji Dunn and Luther Stickler, played by Simon Pegg and Ving Rhames. Thlatter neatly self-deprecates throughout the film by referring to his ageing. The side-kicks pore over a bomb each and are separately assisted by paramours of Ethan Hunt; the MI6 killer Ilsa Faust (Rebecca Ferguson) and his former wife Juliawho is now engaged in humanitarian work, played by Michelle Monaghan. 
It is one of the great achievements of the Baddies in the films of the Mission: Impossible franchise that they contrive to gather all outlying threads of plot and relationships into one place for the final blast. In FALL OUT, we are among the snow-covered peaks and verdant valleys of Kashmir.
Though the agencies underpinning the activities of Ethan Hunt and his small team are from the USA, their challenges and endeavours are never domestic. They always happen far away from the territory of the USA. However, the current imperium and the role of those agencies in policing the globe from the threats wrought by rogues, individuals and states, means that everywhere is American territory.
Some domestic politicking does take place in the hissy-fit spats between the Mission: Impossible Secretary, Alan Hunley, played by Alec Baldwin and thCIA lead, Erika Stone, played by Angela Bassett, as they cross, double and multi-cross each other, right up to the film’s end. Theare, however, on the same side, the side of 'the good’, as are Ethan Hunt and his furiously adept side-kicks, the ageing and wise Luther and the clownishly wimpy Dunn. These aides are hi-tech savvy and Conor McGregor-level handy with fists and feet. They also firautomatic weapons in a night-time and undergroundfire-fight and come out well ahead and unscathed.
No irony is offered by the quest tkeep nuclear material away from rogues by agencies working for the superpower in possession of most of the weaponised nuclear material on the planet and, so far, the only human organisation to use such material, for bombing the cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, seventy three years ago almost to the day. 
There are women in the film, as well as Erika Stone (Angela Bassett). The blond double-agent, The White Widow, conflating espionage, arms-dealing and charity work, is the Lana Turner-channeling Vanessa Kirby. She kisses Ethan Hunt, but only in a loveless, dry manner. The MI6 assassin, Isla Faust (Rebecca Ferguson), is an ace motor-cyclist and markswoman. She, like everyone in the film, wants, one way or another, to “come home” but again, “it’s complicated”. The viewer is left with the sense that her relationship with Ethan Hunt will continue and develop. After all, she makes him laugh, despite his shattered ribs and busted gob.
Woman as “self-sacrificing Angel” is present in Julia (Michelle Monaghan). She is Ethan Hunt’s great, early love, who says she owes her maturation and self-worth, her very place in the world, to her relationship with him. Seeing her in thfilm, together with the stabbing to death of the Secretary, Alan Hunley, (Alec Baldwin) leaves the viewer with a sense that we might be coming to the end of something, especially when we consider we’ve seen much of all of this before, not only in the Mission: Impossible franchise, but also in the Bond and the Bourne versions, in the comprehensive Harry Potters and the upsurging Marvel franchise. 
The Baddies feature brutish East-Europeans, some dodgy French Fellas and, unusually, cockney wide-boys. There are no scheming Arabs and the Indian Army comes to the rescue at the end, led by the CIA, just as the US Cavalry did so often in the past.
Best scene? The street-side shootout when a Paris traffic cop, played by Alix Bénézech, stumbles upon Hunt and his team rendering their captive into the back seat of a car. A bunch of baddies surprises them and shoots the cop, wounding her. Hunt riddles the baddies, then, in the film’s keenest manifestation of human emotion, he leans over her and whispers Je suis desolé.
Apart from being too long, Mission: Impossible-Fall Out is just what you would expect. Drama-less and suspense-free, it is tamely predictable and un-troubling. It presents threat, fear and resolutions as neatly packaged experiences, well-managed by resources, endeavours and material readily at hand in the USA. We are cowered, but can still feel secure, if indeed we feel anything. That fine American-English word ‘hokum’ applies. As does the name of the Roman Catholic Church committee of 1622, the Propaganda.

Mission: Impossible-Fallout

Tuesday, 17 July 2018

OAK AND STONE remnant 3


The siting of a city on a river is a contingent thing. Many confluences, promontories, bends and sheltered lagoons have not seen urban growth. Have not seen human settlement even. Or if they have, then, within a flicker of historical time, such settlements have vanished to leave post-hole markings in mud and stone, scattered shards of dun pottery and obscure coins that flummox scholars. Such sites become the playgrounds of earnest archeologists, while being continuously preyed upon by the ceaseless silting and unsilting of the river itself.
Not far from the walled city there is one such site that holds its name in the modern road that runs behind it, Dunnalong Road. The site, in Irish, is Dún na Long, translated to English as the fort of the ships. There are no ships there now. Once a major trading post, it is now a marshy bank where herons stilt-walk among the reeds. Bristly fish come and go in their circumspect lives. It is a place of quiet and calm, separated by no more than three fields from the major road where traffic grumbles up a hill, awkward gear changes and tyre squealing marking the presence of a climbing and over-taking lane. A pantechnicon coughs its asthmatic engine, then harrumphs over the final rise. Boy racers, two by two, descend full-pelt, screeching to slow at the traffic lights beside the petrol station, just where Dunnalong Road begins, before squirming their souped-up two-door sleekers into parkings in front of the Open 24 shop, behind the pumps, to replenish their stores of pop, fags, gum, phone credit, pastilles and dolly mixtures.
But by the river there are only the sounds of the gentle suck-suck of the water at the banks and the secrets whispered lightly among the reeds. There is little evidence now of the castle built by the O'Neill clan in the 17thcentury. There is little evidence of the renewed fortifications put in place by Sir Henry Dowcra, who's soldiers drove out the O'Neills and their families. No amount of red brick fragments, clay pipes, lead shot and shards of pottery will bring these people back, though they had docks, a brew house, horse-stalls, a market-place, houses and emplacements for cannon.
The river takes as it gives. The pushing and shoving that goes on between men and women in acts of business, love and war amount to no more than the debris found in a ditch or the burnings in an ash-pit. 

Sunday, 1 July 2018


‘What is really killing us now is blindness.’

BLINDNESS by Jose Saramago is an extraordinary and disconcerting novel. The conceit that people go mysteriously blind may be lifted from the 1951 John Wyndham sci-fi classic, The Day of the Triffids, but forty years later, in 1995, the Portuguese Nobel Prize Laureate, Jose Saramago used a mysterious blindness, and the collapse of order that flowed from it, as a socio-political allegory for the rise of solidarity and hope amidst the collapse of civilisation. 

And for the telling of a right good yarn.

BLINDNESS takes place in a mesh of power, appetites and fears. Many people hope. Some plan. Others panic. No one prays. An earnest acceptance comes through, more stoic than religious.

There are no names for characters and places. The era is contemporary. Computers and sophisticated organisations - civil, military, commercial and governmental - are involved. All fail, when the blindness, a loss of sight to ‘a sea of whiteness’, strikes randomly and then, as a contagion, affects all the city and country.

Being set in an Anywhere that could be Everywhere, BLINDNESS could be situated in the small and labyrinthine streets that rise and fall from the main square around the cathedral of St Cecilein Albi. Saramago was a Portuguese writer, who lived in the Azores for many years, working in light similar to that found in Albi, a small city in south-west France, during the Feast of St. John in late June.

The story line follows a small group held together by The Doctor and The Doctor’s Wife. She is the most important character in the story and unique in the world of the book. She can see.

After the initial afflictions, the blind are quarantined in an old asylum. The novel recounts the collapse of order among the inmates in terrifying and gruesome conditions. The trading of women for food is the nadir that prompts stirring discussions of revolt against the men who have corralled the food. Violent action leads to the overthrow of the rapists and the destruction of the asylum by fire. The inmates break out and return to the city now devastated by the chaos wrought by blindness. They join the rest of the population in the search for food, shelter, home and lost loved ones in the midst of an apocalypse.

The First Blind Man and The Wife of the First Blind Man, members of the small group the reader follows,find their old flat up a narrow street, which could be in Albi, yes. Here Saramago unleashes one of the book’s great twists, whenthe fabulous meets the mundane to create something extraordinary – literature – in the sort of cameo-appearance Hitchcock made in his films.

In the final sections of the book, as people roam the streets searching for food and shelter, the small group led by The Doctor’s Wife, is joined by one of the dogs who roam the streets. It is a moment of mutual domestication and a rare instance of the appearance of ‘crusties’ in international literature.

The sequence where three women – Saramago relates them to the Three Graces – wash themselves and all the groups dirty clothes and footwear in a raging downpour of rain, is a relief and a benediction, full of pagan sensibility, ironic metaphysics and jocular folk phrases that deepen the joy of the women’s experience.

Later, The Old Man with the Eye-patch bathes alone. He experiences someone cleaning his back. His reason tells him it must be The Doctor’s Wife, but Saramago says that The Old Man with the Eye-patch does not believe in reason and thus joins the fabulous with the mundane once more, in lives no longer ordinary.

There are many such twists and turns of ardent beauty as the book courses to its end. It gallops through a scene in a church – the cathedral in Albi? - where acts of exultant blaspheming transform the tragedy of the world into a human ecstasy of the spirit, as Saramago writes ‘ultimately God does not deserve to see’.

All across Europe mid-summer fires have been lit for centuries. The fires at the feast of St. John are an example. The bonfires on 12thJuly in Northern Ireland are another example, slightly later than mid-summer due to the vagaries of papal calendars and the colonial depredations of Dutch and English kings. 

In Albi, the fire isLe Feu deSt Jean, litin front of the great brick cathedral of St Cecile. She is the patron saint of music in the Christian tradition and there are musicians and dancers in the square, organised by devotees of the language and culture of Occitan. Albi is very much in modern France, but on this night an ancient pagan ritual of earth, fire, dark and water, with people eating and drinking in family and friendship groups, small groups as in BLINDNESS, is enacted to celebrate and to stimulate the sun.

Food stalls are arranged around the Cathedral square. We enjoy savoury pancakes and aligot, with local sausage. We drink wine and beer. A band plays and sings in Occitan, surprisingly vital for a dead language. The brick edifice of the Cathedral, both citadel and church, acclaimed by UNESCO as a beacon of world heritage, looms over us all, reddening further, then darkening as daylight leaves the scene to stars and an ill-formed milky-white moon.

The Cathedral towers above the square as power-over, but the Le Feu de Saint Jean event spreads out as power-with among the descendants of the men and women who fired the terra cotta bricks from Tarn river clay and gave us the built heritage we admire and preserve.

When darkness falls, a parade of children, each carrying a lighted brand, accompanied by parents and guardians, enters the square and make its way directly to the pile of pine branches and timber arranged in the classic teepee form. No more than three or four metres high, this is not the dangerously gigantic pyre seen in parts of Northern Ireland, built rigidly and squarely of stacked wooden pallets that create a furnace, often filled with tyres and old mattresses and topped with political images.

In Albi, the brazier is modest and sylvan, set in its own square sand-box and railed off by tape. A single fire-appliance is parked discretely under the entrance steps to the cathedral.

Did The Boy With The Squint from BLINDNESS step forward with the others to create the light?

Light is central to BLINDNESS; the absence of it in darkness and the vehemence of it in the contagion that has everyone unsighted in a sea of milky whiteness. Except The Doctor’s Wife, who sees through all. She is the one we follow in the book (and in the film). Why is she not blind? Why her, above everyone else? Perhaps it is as The Doctor says, that we were never blind, we just did not see. Is she some latter-day chosen one, like Mary and Cecile, virgins mysteriously elevated to motherhood and sainthood? The Doctor’s Wife is more of a secular angel, more nurse than nun, more earth-rooted than heaven-bent.

There is a portrait of a doctor by Henri Toulouse-Lautrec in the museum that houses his work in Albi. He has the sedate countenance a reader might assign to The Doctor in BLINDNESS. The museum is housed in the brick palace built and rebuilt by Bishops to accompany the Cathedral. Both buildings are manifestations of religious and civil power melded together. Sited on the banks of the river Tarn, they were built as bastions against the heresies of the Cathars arriving from Carcasonne, Castres and Bezier. They present an illusion of order.

As the light from the fire of Le Feu de St Jean dies down, the Cathedral and the palace retreat into darkness. The people revel in the heat from the glowing embers and from each other. Sonorous pipes, thrilling flutes and resonant drums play melodies and rhythms that are ancient and timeless.

Is The Doctor’s Wife among the crowd, seeing more than all of us?

BLINDNESS is breath-taking. Jose Saramago is a stylist in the sturdy sense that a master bricklayer is. There is build, lift and height in the writing. There is great flow and pace as sentences race one into another to create ramparts, arches and walls of story. Dialogues run in and out of themselves as speakers debate, harangue, humour, absolve, love and frighten each other in extended sentences with no speech marks, only commas, to guide the reader, who is swept along as an angel might abseil down the curvedwall of Albi Cathedral to join the revellers in the square. 

There are angels inside the Cathedral, a plaster horde of them, ranged above the seats in the choir, where prelates and priests sat. The plaster angels are colourfully painted, as befits their status. Now they gaze upon tourists, who sit in the seats that once held clerics, audio aids offering guidance to the history, architecture and clericalism of the Cathedral, glued to their ears.

The plaster angels are blind.

Film version:

Monday, 18 June 2018

OAK AND STONE remnant 2


You are in a painting in a book, an image from the past, a man, in burnt umber tunic and breeches, walking along a sandy beach in the direction of a walled city that rises from the beach and the marshes, in ramparts of stone, behind which fine houses are clustered. Cheek by jowl, they rise to the highest point of the island city, where a grand, square cathedral sits prominent as a head-dress on a bride above the castellated chimneys and the regular streets and gardens.

It is an idealised image, of course. As you will know.

The man is tiny in respect of the city rising above him and which seems to be his destination. Or perhaps he is making for the low, thatched cottage that sits snugly within the walls of its own garden field at the end of the bog road that leaves a gate in the city walls and runs to the beach where the imprint of the man's toughened, bare feet dry promptly on the hardened clay, this glorious June day, as you return from fishing.

For it is you. Oak and stone. Present at all times in the story; there, you carry a wattle or an ash plant, perhaps a pole you use to reach the net you place across the mouth of the Penny Burn to entice and secure the salmon and the sea trout that assemble there. You view the gulls who squawk when you arrive. They flounce away, then confidently return when they see your back recede in the direction of the walled enclosure they know as a source of scraps and thrown objects.

You are oak and stone and it is an oaken switch you carry. Strong and lean, cut from the ground as a sapling, trimmed tight by your blade, now smoothed and oiled by your hands and the fish grease you toil through. Yes, you are oak. Strong and supple. Pliable and firm.

Your tread is purposeful and singular. You are on the advance. There are matters to which you must attend.

There, off the bottom end of the painting, only seen through shifts of space and time, another man stands, on an unused jetty of steel and concrete, astride a sundial, testing June shadows, close by where gulls define abstract line drawings in the air in swoops, hovers, dive and landings. This man, in suede, not umber, checks a pulse on the side of his head and looks sternly at the river corrugating in front of him, where the Penny Burn syrups out to meet the great flow of the Foyle. He stands on the raised metal letters and configurations of the sundial, his own shadow cast obliquely across the timepiece. When he turns to face back towards the city, he sees the quays, the riverside walk, the buildings that press hard to the water's edge. He even sees you, always there, your dark umber tunic a tiny sail in the air, your oak switch aloft your right shoulder. You are wearing a hat, almost a bonnet, to bring focus as you stare through water into your nets, thrashing with river life and sustenance. To garner shade in the June light of an earlier time.

What do you hope for as you progress to the city? Will the city deliver your dreams? Or will it dash them?