Monthly Archives: July 2011

Saturday poem #7 – Elegy For A Basset Hound

Poetry is a craft as well as an art, and all poets, whether beginners or advanced, need to master the tools of the trade – form, language, pitch and tone. But over and above that, the poet needs to find his or her own individual voice, which takes time. So says Poet Michael O’Loughlin, who spoke at the Irish Jewish Museum on Thursday. He gave a great talk about the challenges he’s faced over the years as a writer, time spent living away from Ireland for 20 years, writing as a vocation (and a pain in the arse). I hadn’t realised but he’s also a short story writer, translator & screenwriter. His feature film, Snapshots (2003), starred Burt Reynolds and Julie Christie and an award-winning Holocaust drama, For My Baby, starred Alan Cumming and Frank Finlay. “I’ve never really distinguished between my activities as a writer of poetry, prose, screenplays and criticism – even translations,” he said in a recent interview with the Dublin Quarterly. “To me, it’s all a question of how the subject matter or the initial impulse presents itself. I suppose, ultimately I see everything I write as part of the same project.”

He believes that the job of the artist is to confront society with a different reality, and not reinforce stereotypes. “One thing that strikes me, as someone who lived abroad for many years, is how low a threshold we Irish have for self criticism. The mark of a mature society will be when we actively encourage opposition to the accepted social realities. There are many Irish writers who while they have created work of real artistic value, do encourage the cosiness, the consensus. I’m thinking in particular of theatre, which is the biggest offender. In general, poetry doesn’t figure very highly in this because nobody actually reads it, and when they do, they don’t usually read it properly. But again, I think the crunch has yet to come.” Michael was born in north Dublin and has published many volumes of poetry and translations, including Another Nation: New And Selected Poems. He’s been Writer in Residence in Galway and Writer Fellow at Trinity College Dublin. His newly published collection, In This Life, is dedicated to his wife and daughter and is published by New Island. Here’s one of my favourites from his latest work:

ELEGY FOR A BASSET HOUND (by Michael O’Loughlin)

Other dogs feared you, perhaps rightly –

All that weight so close to the ground

The heft of those padded shoulders

The not-so-comical teeth concealed

Beneath your sadman jowls and pouches.

 

English-bred and born, according

To the Basset experts, my neighbour plucked

You off the autostrada near Lucca

Where you were wandering confidently

Like a nineteenth-century English explorer,

His mind gone in Antarctic snow.

 

You settled into an Amsterdam bookshop

Your basket firmly placed between

The New York Review of Books

And Literature in Translation

Where you accepted the ministrations

Of single gentlemen, but fell in love

With my wife and daughter,

Running away from home as often as you could

To climb like a legless man onto Judith’s lap

Where you slept for hours with one eye open.

 

Untrainable, unbiddable, I could barely hold you

Back on the days I took you with me

To collect Saar from her school, and

You made a beeline through the crush

Of mothers and bicycles, to the class where

The children fought to touch your mighty ears

As you gambolled ponderously on giant paws

Like an Ottoman pasha in his harem.

 

And yes I loved you for something else:

How on a brown December night

When the light had soaked into the wet ground

I saw you through the dusk of Utrechtsestraat

With trams and teatime traffic crashing between us

Out of earshot, almost out of sight,

You turned on the crowded pavement

And, like the old God of the Kabbalah

Lost in the darkness and unknowing before Creation,

You raised your nose and sniffed the fouled air

And I knew that you had found me

Random thoughts during last night’s insomnia

COTTAGE PORN: I can’t shake it off. I’d say, at a conservative estimate, I do about 20 hours a week on property websites. They’re truly the teddy bear of the bricks-n-mortar world. Small dinky cottages with two windows and a garishly painted door. After years of plywood apartments, listening to neighbours fart & beat up their wives, romanesque snores and kids painting walls with overly worked lungs, I demand life lobs me a cottage. In return I’ll try to be less aggressive towards people who let me down and junkies who I like to describe as ‘a Monet of clanking bones in silver Nike’. I love *tiny* cottages that really only resemble belt buckles, architect licked ones too beautiful to be lived in, awkwardly shaped ones that somewhere along the line begin to look as infirm as their cuppa soup geriatric owners, loud crashing seaside ones with sand and flowers and bugs in the garden, crooked ones that’d need a bus-load of Polish builders to put back together again. I love them indiscriminately in the way a deranged animal sanctuary owner loves pit bulls, without noticing any savage flaws. I’d fill mine with crooked wooden furniture, books I’ve no intention of reading on a rake of built-in walnut shelves and some awesome portraits by Emer Martin on the walls. I’d like a separate carved-out nook to write in, mosaic wet-room, open fire. Can’t abide people moaning about the ‘work’ involved in cleaning out the ashes, etc. What about changing nappies for years on end for kids you didn’t think twice about having and later deciding at 50 you didn’t really want (or need)? I’m easy too about where it might be, this cottage that’s coming my way: Dublin, Galway, France or Berlin. There are no cottages in Berlin. Obviously it goes without saying I’d need a cat too, a cynical black one or lazy black & white one (marmalades are malcontents). My love and I will take turns cooking dinner and in the summer we’ll drink low-end high-alco fizzy crap on a beautifully tiled & trellised patio with terracotta plant pots, not overlooked by inquisitorial neighbours who play their TV too loud when not moaning about roadworks and the cataclysmic drinking habits of young people.

AMY: So predictable as to be invertedly shocking. Why couldn’t anyone stop this kid in her tracks?

ENDA KENNY: Baffling moment in our pigeonhearted history of putting ethereal skypilots in their place. After accusing the blokes in dresses of frustrating the Cloyne inquiry, a holy row erupted between Ireland and the Vatican that led to the recalling of the Irish ambassador in Rome. Enda’s intonation was gritty-steely, genuinely angry and determined, a stance normally reserved for collapsing money markets and depreciation of brick. He rightly acknowledged that victim’s lives are shattered – they may never be able to pick up the pieces – while in some parts of the country, abusers continue to live freely and are still held in high esteem. A faithful Catholic demanding that the perpetrators of child sexual abuse face up to the full force of the law; this was a Cilit Bang moment in Ireland’s political recital. It ain’t that long ago that standing up to the local parish priest would ultimately result in total ostracisation, if not lynch-mob persecution from gobshites obsessed with life after death instead of living the present-tense fluky one. The local priest/bondage builder could tell you how to vote, who to marry, how many children to have, what to think. Standing up to clergy was only done if you were leaving town for good. “Childhood is a sacred space”, Enda declared, saying out loud what we’ve all been screaming for decades. “Safeguarding their integrity and innocence must be a national priority.” Irish politics is removing the cataracts just as the Holy See is declared righteously blind. The whole of Europe has been yapping about us since. Thank you Enda. Sorry for saying you looked as ineffectual as a petrol pump attendant from the Midlands in the run-up to the last election. Invariably, I was wrong. 

JOURNALIST IN A COMA: Found myself feeling conflicted about news of the sports reporter, at the centre of an underage sex scandal, being in a coma. Tabloid ‘news’ [Evening Herald + Star] informs us his organs are failing and he’s unlikely to make a recovery at all. This ‘kinda’ [at least to me] indicates an overdose at some point which would fit in with the fact that he’s been on suicide watch for some time. It also suggests some sort of conscience and regardless of the grisly facts, this is quite a tragic end for everyone, particularly for the man’s daughter who’ll no doubt be saddled with chunky guilt and not much resolution. There are two extreme angles here: he deserves everything he gets or in our hideously sexualised modern world: did he really do anything wrong? I include the latter because someone actually said that to me last week in one of those I wouldn’t say this out loud but I know I can say anything to you pub moments. This was followed by a declaration that most teenagers these days are sexually active and look/behave well beyond their years. Well, yes, he did, of course, do wrong: a big glaring ugly aberrant wrong. But the way through this was perhaps to own up to those actions, face the law, trawl through rehabilitation, atone, learn from it, teach us something from it, even if life was never going to return to a workable norm. I interviewed this man 14 years ago for a college profile I was writing on Nuala O’Faolain. She considered him a ‘dear friend’ and a ‘desperately good’ character. I can’t help hearing her firebrand apoplexy from deep within the grave: “You stupid stupid man, just because she had breasts, an iPhone, red lipstick and a spellbinding smile, doesn’t mean she wasn’t a gormless child. YOU were the adult and the shock of finally realising this has killed you”.

DETTOL SOAP: Yer only man for an itchy arse. Hard to come by though. Not in supermarkets. I buy mine in Superpharm, Finglas.

HYPOCRISY: Psychopath Behring Breivik ordered ‘anti-muslim’ badges from India that were made by an Indian Muslim. As reported in The Guardian, Mohammed Aslam Ansari, owner of a small company in Benares, northern India, received the email order in March 2010 for a badge showing a blood-red crusader sword vertically piercing a skull marked with the symbols of Islam, communism and Nazism. Breivik designed the insignia for his Knights Templar group, and paid Ansari £90 for two samples – one in silk, the other in brocade. Ansari dispatched the badges by courier service but although Breivik had said he was interested in ordering 200 badges, he never followed up on the order. It sums up the flagrant lunacy of this grotesque tale while at the same time highlighting the absurdity of fanaticism. Historian and novelist Philipp Blom wrote that ‘human need for creating personal meaning generates myths, holy texts or ideologies. Believing those stories to be the truth makes us susceptible to fanaticism.’ You can find out if you’re a fanatic here

CANCER: Nerves on high alert today as I wait for news on my 46 year old brother’s ‘Round 3’ cancer scan results. He’s been through the mill already and the thoughts of any further suffering makes me feel genuinely scared and angry. Thanks too to his c**t of a wife who left him in the midst of treatment, taking the kids (and all the white goods) with her. Enter Friedrich Nietzsche stage right ~ One should never know too precisely whom one has married. 

Excuse, minimise, distract, disacknowledge and deny

Heartsink days like today where I try hard not to react to the cretinous mumblings of David Quinn as I’ve done before, when he meshes antediluvian views of so-called canon law and criminal/civil law. It’s the type of attention seeking the entire ‘persecuted minority’ of Pope lickers crave. People whose inner wires are so trip-switched, they genuinely think the Catholic church is being unnecessarily browbeaten, even when fresh evidence of child rape and autogenetic cover-up are flung on the table. It doesn’t serve much purpose to rant and call him an ‘apologist’, or to scream in sheer frustration when he tennis balls blame back on the state or to say NO, David, NO, this most recent case with school caretaker Michael Ferry is not the first (or last) where those in a position of power deliberately mummify truth, enabling a dangerous pervert to go on and further abuse/destroy/annihilate young lives. It has happened many times before, as we saw with Fr Ivan Payne in the Murphy Report, and other calamitous cases in the Ryan Report, Cloyne and so on and on and on and on. Rape and sexual molestation were “endemic” in Irish Catholic church-run industrial schools, orphanages and bog-standard Irish schools too. And so too is the ritualistic cover-up of these crimes by both the church and its lay ‘fans’. There’s no point ranting about one individual because in truth there’s an entire unpalatable menu of people in Ireland still who are comfortable enough to excuse, minimise, distract, disacknowledge and deny.

Derek Mulligan - endured systematic abuse by Michael Ferry

Last night as I watched the pained expression on Derek Mulligan’s face on TV3’s Midweek I could almost hear the dissenting voices questioning the veracity of his ‘truth’. Growing up you’d always hear disputatious whiny voices sticking up for the local priest or laneway pervert who had ‘a bit of a name’ for dropping the hand. ‘It’s all a bit of a nonsense’, they’d say, dishing up a Shepherd’s Pie and listening to the bells of a hypnotic Angelus in the background. ‘Is that young man Derek not a bit messed up on his own accord?’ Voices we grew up believing were fading into the achromatic past along with teacosies and pictures of Éamon de Valera and Matt Talbot over the fireplace. But foolish us thinking this era has passed! I heard of a man this week who goes to visit “kiddy fiddlers” in jail because he feels they’re “a lonely lot” and not long ago I interviewed a psychotherapist who told me he feels sorry for child molestors more than any other group of people: “Because surely they did not set out to do that kind of thing?” A family I know, the older brother abused his younger brother and sister, a fact that is being cruelly denied by his uber Catholic wife…she prefers to view the abuser as the victim. Poor guy, no-one is talking to him and all the good he’s done over the years and this is how he’s repaid! A very ‘typical’ response. Surely not, surely not, surely not…Very often those who have abused need to aggressively suppress any sign of the truth of the abuse surfacing. They can and do go to great lengths to silence victims and their supporters. In cases of familial abuse this can be especially difficult and destructive.

A few years ago I listened to the deposition of a Ban Garda who alleged when she was in training back in the day they were told of a sex abuse scam involving a phone box on O’Connell Street where lay perverts as well as members of the clergy would ring a local institution and ‘order’ boys to abuse – they were delivered on demand to a makeshift hut set up during road works – and if they came across this in the course of their work, to ignore it. In other words, the authorities knew, the police knew, but fiddling with the mindset of the clergy was not an option, and kids in the institutions were fair game. When I suggested publishing it, the woman was inconsolably horrified and said: “Oh no! They could work out who I am, even all these years later!” She was more concerned with her own reputation in the present tense than any retrospective guilt while at the same time the Editor of the publication I was going to write it for, decided her story was “too outlandish” to be true and wasn’t going to publish it anyway. At a dinner party in Belfast, a blockhead of a guy tried his drunken best to prove that ‘children as sexual beings’ is very much a run-of-the-mill part of our human dark side, in the same way that beastiality is strongly documented since days of the Roman Empire. The argument persisted for a good two hours. In reality it’s one step away from collusion. I’ve heard people label our tell-all eon [where experiences of abuse are openly discussed] ‘boring’. As if to say: ‘OK, they’ve had their say, when are they going to shut up?’ It may not be said shrilly, but it is being said. Minimising is still a going concern in the business of this country. Why are we surprised that child abusers, in all their forms, are culturally exonerated or even at times, protected?

When it comes to rural Ireland and the nod-and-wink culture that still pervades in places like Donegal where the Michael Ferry story broke, an example has to be made, a harsh one at that. Those responsible for allowing Ferry, a ritualistic persistent dangerous child abuser, to go back to work as a caretaker at that Irish language school, should be made to pay the price. There should be criminal charges or even civil ones levelled at them, perhaps the victims could sue on the grounds that they endangered their wellbeing by allowing this serial abuser to go back into a position of trust AFTER he had served a previous conviction for child abuse. An Garda Síochána should initiate an inquiry to explore whether anyone in the force up there played a part in giving Ferry the scope to abuse again and again. They too should face harsh sanctions and be made an example of. It’s time for Irish society to finally shut down forever the culture of the Valley-of-the-Squinting-Windows!

As for the Catholic Church and the whiners who believe its diminishing popularity is part of a bigger conspiracy, maybe a solution would be for it to become more Protestant. To allow its flock to follow their private consciences more, rather than adhere to the dictates of crazy Cardinals and barmy Bishops. This in effect is already happening. Catholics, or at least a majority of them are still believers. However, they’re not slavishly devoted to everything that the Vatican and the hierarchy lay down. They’ll take those loose shavings of their religion that they regard as precious and worth preserving. They ‘ll ignore other aspects they regard as dictatorial or inhumane. Some church leaders like the Archbishop of Dublin, Diarmuid Martin, clearly get this but judging by the behaviour of others such as Bishop John Magee, a significant section of the Catholic hierarchy don’t. Irish Catholics are no longer divinely sheepish in their devotion. Personally I feel the whole lot is a bucket of cack, but have to respect the fact that lovers of talking snakes and ancient ghost stories still deserve a bit of democratic respect. At least they’re starting to question and no longer feel a need to zip the gob regardless. There’s been too many wake-up calls in recent times to allow for a type of Pied Piper blind faith. A la carte believers and the Church must either adopt a new attitude or die slowly not trying.

Rioting as a form of sexual gratification

© Kelvin Boynes/Press Eye

Riot addiction is a tad controversial in the six counties ‘up der’ and the syndrome tends to be denied by social workers, priests, shrinks, do-gooders, politcal counsellors and grant-guzzling NGOs. Typically, it’s a term used to describe the feral behaviour of a person who has an obsession with rioting to the point where it becomes clinically and politically significant. Addicts will usually resort to risk-taking to get their fix; often progressing to illegal activities such as throwing bricks at police, burning cars, shooting at members of the media, flinging petrol bombs, general scuzzbucket shenanigans, filmed on YouTube for added bravado & ‘craic’. Despite this release they are rarely ever satisfied. Causes of riot addiction are difficult to pinpoint. Some moccassin-clad Buddhist psychology experts, on paid government boards, point toward biochemical causes, while others cite familial conditioning or social issues such as unemployment. Either way, it’s a symbolic enactment of deeply entrenched unconscious dysfunctional relationships with self and society. Eeny Meeny Miney Mo: what housing estate did you grow up in, combines with incendiary socio-political factors. Hyperhatred of those who pander to a different religion might also be linked to prologned use of Nike tracksuits, designer-label baseball caps, large bottles of Blue WKD and headshop drugs. Just before a riot kicks off, you’re likely to hear a lot of this kind of thing: “Waddafeck ya doin yacuntye? Gis a sup of yer bucky…got any fegs? I’m gonna smesssh up de peelers, me, hate dem fuckers”.

Every year, the same senseless street carnage ensues when one idiotic group beats drums and the other idiotic group hurls random objects and abuse. Like I said this time last year, children of the ceasefire are definitively learning the bad lessons of the past. Unless someone takes an axe to the root and tells a new generation all that violence, both terrorism and street disorder, is futile and wrong, others will keep emulating it. This year’s damage will cost millions all over again but to a generation brought up to expect that the state will pay for everything, financial considerations mean nothing. The rioters won’t have to foot the bill!

pic from The Independent

The Troubles, per se, are not over at all: a big dirty unsaid fact. Even after the ceasefire paramilitary organisations on both sides fought a culture war over the legitimacy of their murder campaigns. They sought to portray them as heroic and glorious, and tried to conceal the reality of sordid vicious struggle. So, a new generation of baby blockheads, reared on folk memory, who’ve no grasp of what it was really like, how awful it actually was, think it’s legitimate to keep conflict chugging. Add to that the propensity to solve disputes, any dispute, be it political or even domestic, by violent means which is imprinted in the N.I. DNA and you have a toxic mix that can explode at any time. “Idle hands, idle minds,” a local priest in Ardoyne described the summer-fruit lawlessness last night. But mindless violence is the only way the youth of Northern Ireland can get its rocks off. In consequence, there’s no known cure for this type of riot addiction, so expect the same next year and every single year after that.

Attempt at debate between rival factions of riot addicts and their supporters usually goes something like this (pinched from an online chatroom earlier today):

  • Fuck up! Im a Catholic, and I have no problem with the orange order or the psni. Its because of bitter bastards like you, this country is in tatters. Grow the fuck up, this has nothing to do with you, so don’t get involved you silly little prick.

  • Here we go again, catholics start a riot and then try to blame it on the orange lodge. At the end of the day doesnt matter if the band didnt walk past the Ardoyne shops (dont forget Ardyone is mixed mostly catholics but still mixed) those scumbags would still riot, it happens every year and they try to blame everyone else for the riot. They mess up their own area then yap about it WHY yas done it urselves dont start riots then moan about it.

  • Why should we let loyalists parade in our area’s? Youse wouldn’t like it if we marched up the shankill during the easter parades.

  • Get a big pipe climb to the top of the watercannon and bend the cannon upwards.

  • Fuck the orange order and fuck the psni, they shouldn’t be parading in catholic areas!!

  • It’s simple, no orange parades in nationalist areas and you won’t have riots like this. What do the they not get about that?

  • Gerry Kelly is a stinking tout!!!

  • Another plastic paddy openly supporting terrorism…

  • Up the Ra!

  • The resistance lives on……….

  • Let’s face it, this shit’s never going away. Never will, it’s been implanted in our heads. The scum can riot, because it happens all too often. Obviously it’s wrong, but it’s now way too much of a traditional, and it’ll continue even when the marches stop, even when no one knows why they are doing it.

  • Do you think they might have been better prepared BECAUSE of the rioting in east belfast? Plus the police were getting attacked by both loyalists and nationalists in east belfast. You are looking for something that isn’t there.

  • It took police two days to use a water cannon in East Belfast after some of the most violent rioting in belfast for years. Why two days?? Because it was the loyalists rioting. But water cannons had already been deployed in Ardoyne two hours before the parade even passed. One law for 1 fuckin orange bastards

  • Knock the chip off your shoulder. Six policemen got hurt by the hijacked bus alone.

  • This is just ceremonial at this point. They have no viable cause cause, their just going through the motions, it’s part of the culture now.

  • Get a life kids.

  • Let’s wait till ardoyne tonight! more rioting.

  • How else are they gona get the next day off?

  • Fuk the british konts maggy thatcher can stick a didldo up her fat hole and toy herself to death the dirty bitch. protesting tomoro 😛 up the ra we will never be defeated.

  • Why don’t they just shoot the Animals they are Pure Scumbags Destroying the Ardoyne Community?

  • What you lads need to do it get something that can go over the shields, buckets of frying oil would be a good idea, burn the basterds out, or water ballons filled with petrol and cover them, then use a lit petrol bomb to ignite it. Think smart. And fuck the police.

  • fuck the orange order people wouldn’t expect the kkk to walk through harlem unopposed. orange order,kkk,nazis,facists they’re all the same white-trash inbred rednecks.

  • if the orangies wud just fuck off back to scotland but then again scotland doesn’t want them either cuz they’re fukkin trailer trash and there’s to many neds there already.

  • I bet none of you assholes have worked a day in your lives. It’s a disgrace, you should be shot by the police.

A papier-mâché of condemnation always follows though nothing is ever really achieved in time for next year:

A SENIOR PSNI officer has defended the decision not to carry out large-scale arrests of rioters at Ardoyne after the father of a woman police officer who was hospitalised when a large stone slab was dropped on her head complained of police inaction. Assistant Chief Constable Duncan McCausland said police had identified the man who attacked the officer and would be seeking to arrest him. Rioters would be pursued, arrested and charged, he added. PSNI Chief Constable Matt Baggott briefed First Minister Peter Robinson and Deputy First Minister Martin McGuinness at Stormont yesterday on the trouble. (©Irish Times)

“It is hugely regrettable that we get to this situation each year. There are a large number of people across community groups, government and faith groups doing a huge amount to reduce the impact and change things for the better. We all need to redouble these efforts and sustain them to get a real and meaningful change for residents of these areas. That is the very least they need and deserve” – Assistant Chief Constable Alistair Finlay (©Belfast Telegraph)

North Belfast Democratic Unionist MP Nigel Dodds condemned the rioters. “These people have been intent on attacking the police and wreaking havoc in their own community. Such violence is senseless and has clearly nothing to do with protesting against a parade but is just futile rioting,” he said. (©Breakingnews.ie)

Alliance Party Belfast City Council member Billy Webb said the riots in Ardoyne had caused enormous damage to the local community. “Residents in the area are the ones who suffer the most with people feeling trapped in the own homes, scared to go out. Bus services are also affected in the area which the vulnerable rely upon,” he said. “This trouble is putting Northern Ireland in the headlines around the world for all the wrong reasons.” (©Breakingnews.ie)

Gerry Kelly, the Sinn Féin assembly member for the area and former IRA Old Bailey bomber, said he was concerned at the rising tension in this corner of north Belfast. “We have a situation where we have two parades at one time,” he said. While Kelly and Sinn Féin oppose the loyalist march, they have appealed for peaceful protests against the parade. He condemned those nationalist youths behind the violence but also blamed the Orange Order for failing to reach a compromise with Catholic residents along contentious parade routes. (©The Guardian)

“A peaceful marching season would be a far better value than stunts like cutting corporation tax. As far as the outside world is concerned it does not matter which side is rioting. What counts is the perception that Northern Ireland is unsafe and unstable,” said Peter Bunting, the northern secretary of the Irish Congress of Trade Unions. (©The Guardian)

Saturday poem #5 – I Go Back to May 1937

I Go back to May 1937 (by Sharon Olds)
I see them standing at the formal gates of their colleges,
I see my father strolling out
under the ochre sandstone arch, the
red tiles glinting like bent
plates of blood behind his head, I
see my mother with a few light books at her hip
standing at the pillar made of tiny bricks,
the wrought-iron gate still open behind her, its
sword-tips aglow in the May air,
they are about to graduate, they are about to get married,
they are kids, they are dumb, all they know is they are
innocent, they would never hurt anybody.
I want to go up to them and say Stop,
don’t do it—she’s the wrong woman,
he’s the wrong man, you are going to do things
you cannot imagine you would ever do,
you are going to do bad things to children,
you are going to suffer in ways you have not heard of,
you are going to want to die. I want to go
up to them there in the late May sunlight and say it,
her hungry pretty face turning to me,
her pitiful beautiful untouched body,
his arrogant handsome face turning to me,
his pitiful beautiful untouched body,
but I don’t do it. I want to live. I
take them up like the male and female
paper dolls and bang them together
at the hips, like chips of flint, as if to
strike sparks from them, I say
Do what you are going to do, and I will tell about it.

This poem of Old’s has been dubbed ‘formulaic’ by critics – it probably is – but given that she’s never spoken about her family, and so little is known about her personal life, it’s a valuable insight all the same. We can only assume by the theme and time-frame, it’s about her parents. Her poetry has been described as ‘morality plays’, to ‘pure fire in the hands, risky, on the verge of falling’…as well as rough, funny and grim. Born in 1942 to a ‘hellfire’ Calvinist family, she graduated from Stanford and then moved East  to do a PhD at Columbia. She struggled a lot with her writing and didn’t get too it ‘seriously’ until her mid-late 30s. After nabbing her doctorate, she stood on the steps of the library at Columbia University and vowed to give up all that she learned at Columbia in order to write her own poems, even if they were bad. “No one knows what poetry is,” she later said in an award acceptance speech. “But each tribe has had it, there’s never been a group without it, it’s as necessary, as automatically there, as government or medicine. As a species, we seem to be in great need of imagining each other.” She’s published 11 volumes of poetry since 1980; the latest: One Secret Thing was published by Random House in 2008. Here she is reading two poems:

Expensive foundation for some, coleslaw for others

Impossible not to comment on the Harrod’s outdated  personal grooming code in the papers this week. Melanie Stark, a former employee claimed her bosses ruled she must wear make-up to work every day and this is how she should do it: Full make-up is to be worn at all times: base, blusher, full eyes (not too heavy), lipstick, lip liner and gloss…maintained discreetly (please take into account the store display lighting which has a ‘washing out’ effect). In addition, ‘pearl or diamond stud’ earrings are preferred. ‘One ring per hand with exception of wedding & engagement rings…No visible tattoos, sovereigns, mismatched jewellery, scrunchies, large clips or hoop earrings’. And perhaps my favourite, footwear should be of the ‘smart black leather’ variety, but stilettos and ‘kitten heels’ are welcome on this sexist-posing-as-suavity menu.

Melanie Stark, photographed by Sarah Lee for the Guardian

“I was appalled,” Stark told The Guardian. “It was insulting. Basically, it was implying it would be an improvement. I don’t understand how they think it is OK to say that. I know what I look like with make-up. I have used it, though never at work. But I just could not see how, in this day and age, Harrods could take away my right to choose whether to wear it or not.” Last week she resigned rather than comply with the code after working at the store for five years, three of them part-time while a philosophy, religion and ethics student at King’s College London, and the last two years full-time after completing her masters. Legally speaking, it’s perfectly hunky-dory of employers to impose dress codes with different requirements for women and men provided there are “equivalent” requirements. Employers however, are supposed to be able to show ‘good business reason’.

The code for male employees, by wieldy contrast, is any manner of ‘slick, sophisticated and debonair’…Clean shaven or full beards…Sideburns no longer than mid-ear length or wider than one inch, nails manicured (which here probably just means ‘cut’). Now this got me thinking. In 1995 when I returned from London to Dublin with my BA, I joined a rather prestigious job agency that specialised in mining female graduates to large corporate gaffs with a taste for pretty receptionists and ‘intelligent’ secretaries. I was promptly told ladies who joined this agency had the best of hairstyles as well as opportunities and it’d be good thing in the Utilitarian sense if I got to grips fairly pronto with cuticle health & purloined as many fashion tips as my degree’d brain could plow. Also, in preparation for crossing the threshold of this respected Gargantua, I learnt that important busy men are easily irritated by trivial womanish chit-chat, and that perhaps a quiet confident smile would add to the male day in a much worthier way. “Some of our lucky placements were even successful in finding husbands at this establishment,” the millionairess job agency owner shrilled.

Sure enough when I got there, it was a teeming nest of pencil-skirt secretaries hopping about with lever arch files mysteriously matching nail shades, whitening smiles akimbo, year-round tans, perfume wafts snaking after men at lift shafts in that Mmmmm BISTO style of old. New secretaries like me were lickety-split told of romantic successes – ‘Tania is now with Mr XXXX who’s soon to be in charge of the Banking Division, she’ll want for nothing’ – while the remaining wifeless were clearly tagged as potential connubials. It was the start of the ensuite loo era, but just before the holiday home & €30K car crapulence, if you played your gynic cards right, you were in with a chance of grabbing a lucrative cock: metaphorically & literally. At lunch time de wimmin nibbled tiny rye crackers barely touched with low-fat ‘philly’, in their measureless crusade to stay sexy-slim. They huddled in corners jabbering about graphic package triumphs and whose was a bit substandard-lacking and why and what could be done to fix it. They drank calorie-free drinks and resisted the microwave for fear of stinking up corporate air. By contrast the men – cordoned off by fabric partition screens – sluiced and slopped on factory lots of smelly coleslaw & egg mayonnaise. They savaged hot breakfast rolls filled with squirty fried eggs and overgorged on huge slabs of Quiche and meat pastry pies, often to combustion point.

Inevitable malodours of post-carbo-binge afternoons were treated with a type of 19th Century fartlore fondness. ‘Oh Joe is a right auld divil, always blowing off after his lunch, pooouuggghhh weee, what a whiff!’ I noticed too that the men, while clean-shaven and shirt-starched to bejaysus, often wore the same suit for the entire week and sometimes for weeks on end. Some stank of bovine sweat and could not have been daily communicants of the shower hose. They didn’t care what they looked like at work because they didn’t have to: their personal worth was solely aligned to intellectual ability and women would find them attractive regardless. On Friday evenings, the secretaries laminated themselves to bar-stools in snazzy hotel bars, sipping cocktails and laughing hysterically at everything male uttered, picking bits of fluff off suit shoulders, being fabulous and interesting. There were more personality splits than the banana variety; precious minutes being snatched in-between talk of University achievements to repaint lips & eyes. I realised in the sub-celtic-tiger cubby holes of corporate Ireland, men could look & behave in any state of [dis]grace, while women were mannequins of deliciousness and delicateness. It was a culture of wank-off Vs bank-off, and while most of these women were educated to degree level (and beyond) they were treated as marriage fodder, and disappointingly, put great effort into looking and behaving that way. It seems, this was normal work culture and I better get used to it. Except I couldn’t. Pretty soon my appetite for low-level anarchy kicked in, so of course I did something momentous to cause a turpitude of horror (details another time!) for the ritzy job agency lady, who never found me work in Dublin office blocks again. My escape from corporate Ireland was steadfast and complete.

In the years since I’ve never failed to notice this same unwritten rule – that men can look like pure shite in the course of their jobs but women must be groomed, painted-gorgeous and preferably slim…it applies to broadcast media, publishing houses, governmental offices, newspapers, radio stations and other jobs I’ve bobbed in & out of. Harrodsesque politesse is very much alive and pricking away at is own subliminal pace. Is it any wonder that some employers feel it’s OK to formalise these idiotic gender expectations? Hurray for geisha! Hurrah for the office slob! Even in the most low-level hellhole it’d be noticed (& talked about readily) if a woman turned up to work wearing the same clothes all week or was habitually untidy or hygiene lacking. I’ve been in jobs where the male equivalent was seen as charming, even hilarious! Nothing quite like the tousled armpit-stinking IT hippy in a Star Wars T-shirt for cutesy factor but don’t dare turn up like this if you’re female. Moronic workplace prejudices thrive at the top end of the spectrum too. I’ve a friend who worked in a very senior role in a government department in Dublin, who only wore trouser suits to work, so as to feel & be on an equal dress footing with her male colleagues. It became a kind of after work joke with her  peers that she was somehow doing this on purpose to ‘seem more aggressive’ and unfeminine, even ‘competitive’. She felt she couldn’t win. A lot of these cultural conjectures are facilely sinister…

There are companies whose dress codes for men and women are equally ‘formal’ or even purposely casual (Abercrombie & Fitch and American Apparel demand staff look as ‘natural’ as possible, including very little make-up). All staff requirements are at least on an equal footing. An entire caste of dress codes is out there ranging from: ‘relaxed casual’ to ‘smart casual’, ‘professional’ and ‘formal’. Having them in place is not illegal. But asking something very different of women to men is another matter altogether. Just to be pedantic here, let’s remember that Harrods also has a ‘dress code’ for mere mortal shoppers too – prohibiting ripped jeans, high cut Bermuda or beach shorts, swim wear, athletic singlets, cycling shorts, flip flops or thong sandals, dirty or unkempt clothing…exposure of ankles or midriff – despite selling these very fashions. Since inception of this shopper’s dress code in 1989, the store has refused admittance to various people including: a soldier in uniform, a scout troop, a woman with a Mohican, a fifteen stone woman and FC Shakhtar Donetsk‘s first team for wearing tracksuits. However, to demand that make-up as uniform for female employees in the way that shirts or ties are for men, serves only to reinforce the idiotic gender stereotypes that I for one had assumed were left behind with asbestos and tinned carrots.

The Harrods Dress Code for staff seems hilariously Victorian on first reading, but I guess for someone like Melanie Stark, losing your job due to lack of bodily bedecking & garnishing is as unfunny as it gets. She may argue indirect discrimination – under the UK’s Equality Act 2010 – she’d have to show that the application of the provision, criterion or practice (PCP) put her (and other women?) at a particular disadvantage when compared with men in the same circumstances. Harrods could argue in return that it also practices a dress code for members of the public and therefore it cannot be deemed as discrimination to extend this to employees. Either way, I hope she siphons a ton of crisp notes off the sexist snobs…enough for a few decades-supply of make-up, should she ever choose to wear it.

John Connolly on genre, cultural baggage, crime.

Novelist John Connolly gave a talk at the Irish Writers’ Centre recently on the history of crime writing in Ireland, our problematic relationship with criminality and publishing trends. ‘We have a very peculiar relationship with genre in this country,” he explained. “So few reviewers want to engage with it, they’d rather categorise books they don’t quite get as literary fiction instead.” Avoiding the subject leads to a fundamental misunderstanding of the nature of fiction, a distrust of popularism. “Genre is embedded in fiction, if you don’t understand it, then you don’t understand fiction. Novels were always the great populist form, designed to be read by a lot of people; it wasn’t drama or poetry. The idea of high-brow literary fiction as a separate identity is a recent enough (20th Century) notion.”

Irish writers traditionally wrote fantasy by the bucketload (but crime writers didn’t really survive the test of time). As a result, Ireland has a rich legacy of gothic writing: Bram Stoker, Robert MaturinSheridan Le Fanu, Lafcadio Hearn, even Oscar Wilde’s Picture of Dorian Gray. Yet somewhere along the line John believes we became very distrustful of genre. “I think it’s because we were a new country. One of the obligations on you as a writer in a new nation, is to engage with the nature of Irishness (in our case). What are we? What is our society? What does it mean to be Irish? There was also a distrust of humour…we viewed it as a lack of seriouness – which is a pity – as it can be a very effective weapon.”

So why did writers avoid Irish-based crime fiction? Ireland was a predominantly rural society for a long time and crime fiction works best set in large cities where everyone is knocking into one another. It’s a lot easier to imagine the sleazy bedraggled world of hardcore brutality set against a New York or Paris backdrop. Even an Agatha Christie mockscape is a microcosm of a city, filled with blackmailers, thieves, adulterers, murderers…people who’d usually be spread out over a large geographical area. “When Irish writers took on crime stories (plays included), they tended to borrow real life events as inspiration,” he says. “Historical crimes, cold cases, etc. The Field is a kind of version of what an Irish crime novel might be. We’re still obsessed about non-fiction stories. Books about scumbags in Blanchardstown are deemed fascinating for some reason – as if a dog will get up and start barking poetry – but they’re of no interest.”

The big elephant in the room is The Troubles. How could Irish writers pen fabulous fictional tales of Irish criminality when two hours up the road people were getting blown up for real? The real flourish in crime writing happened at the end of this phase in our history, when there was permission to write gritty urban stories. “The end of the war ‘up North’ gave us a certain freedom to pen the underbelly,” he says. At the same time there was a fracturing of Irish society to explore too: tribunals, white collar crime, institutional abuse, political corruption, it all came flooding into our social consciousness. “We’re now in a position to fully engage with Irish crime fiction and as a result there’s an explosion of it, though we’re still in a way waiting for someone to tell us it’s OK. That’s why modern Irish writers such as Tanya French make it onto the New York Best Seller list while hardly making a ripple here”.

I interviewed John in the run-up to the Peregrine series at the centre:

You have written 15 books so far. How do you keep such a prodigious tempo up?
I’m not sure, to be honest. I’m always surprised when a book appears, as I spend so much time fretting and doubting. I suppose I tend to work quite slowly most days, writing at least 1000 words daily, weekends excepted, when I’m working on the first draft. I’ll sometimes run away to Maine for a week or two if necessary, and my output is greater there because I cut myself off.  In the end, though, it’s just small, consistent steps. I enjoy the act of finishing a book within a reasonable time frame. You learn from finishing projects and moving on. I’m distrustful of the tendency to equate the worth of a book with the many years that it took to write it. If you look at, say, Donna Tartt, there isn’t a decade’s worth of progress between THE SECRET HISTORY and THE LITTLE FRIEND, although a decade separates their dates of publication.

Recently the English writer Stephen Leather was successful in selling his novel as an ebook and made a considerable sum from by-passing traditional publishers – would you ever consider going down the cyber-publishing route?
Possibly, but not yet. I’m grateful to my publishers for what they give to me, and I like the relationship I have with my editors. They make my books better. In the end, self-publishing is a lot of work, and the quality of what results just isn’t as good as what comes from an established house in terms of presentation, editing, and copy editing. It just isn’t. For unpublished authors, it’s clearly a good option, as at least it gets your work out there, but there still exists a certain distrust of self-published books, and legitimately so. Most of them, frankly, aren’t very good. If there are issues with the quality of some of the product of publishing houses, it’s multiplied a thousandfold when it comes to self-publishing. Without filters, more crap gets through, and it’s hard for people to pick out the good stuff. Nevertheless, e-publishing, in all its forms, is going to be a big part of the future. What depresses me about the debate at the moment is that, when it comes to authors who are already being published, it’s being conducted solely in terms of the financial benefits — look how much more money I can earn! — with almost no mention at all of quality.

Have you ever considered setting a novel in your native Dublin?
No. I enjoy the freedom that comes from writing about other locations. I’m an Irish writer, but by setting my novels elsewhere I don’t feel obliged to conform to anyone else’s definition of what an Irish writer should be, or at least not that narrow definition of an Irish writer as someone who is engaged with the nature of Irishness.

Do you worry over the phenomenon of “trending” in publishing particularly in the crime/thriller/mystery genre? To be specific, at present for instance Scandinavian detective fiction is regarded as “hot”.  Should writers track these trends or should you just write in the context, area, background of where you are most comfortable with?
Oh, there’s always some ‘trend’ in fiction, whether it’s genre or otherwise. Scandinavian crime fiction just happens to be the flavour at the moment in genre fiction, and they’re producing some very fine writers, but that trend has been spurred on by Stieg Larsson, and to a lesser extent Henning Mankell. Nobody could have predicted the Larsson effect, and it’s elevated a lot of other writers in its stead. So far, Ireland hasn’t produced a writer using an Irish setting who has captured the popular imagination in that way, but it may yet happen. The quality is there. But if you go following trends you’ll be disappointed, either because the public taste will already have begun to move on by the time you make your contribution, or simply because you’ll be producing inferior copies of pre-existing forms. You write what write because it’s what you have to do, and what you want to do, not because you smell a pay cheque.

How do you react to the description “Irish writer”? Does it often imply something unique and mutually exclusive to a writer’s DNA if there is Irish blood in their veins?
You can’t shake off your cultural or social baggage, so my work is infused with Catholicism and, I imagine, an world view that is Irish at its core. In the past, though, Irish writers were more admired than read, I think. It’s only in the last two decades that we’ve begun to encroach seriously on the popular imagination. I think Irish writers now have a different concept of what it can mean to be an Irish writer in the sense that you don’t automatically have to assume the historical weight and burden that the term ‘Irish writer’ used to bring with it.

There’s been a flowering of Irish crime fiction in recent years. Among those writers whom would you single out for praise?
I’d hate to do that, as I know and like most of them. If I start naming them all, I’ll leave someone out. With that in mind, though, I’m very proud to have contributed to the DOWN THESE GREEN STREETS anthology of (mostly) essays, to be published next month by Liberties Press. That really has rounded up the best of Irish crime writers, so the contributors’ list for that book would be a good place for anyone to start. Kudos, too, to Declan Burke and his website Crime Always Pays. He’s been hugely generous in his support for his fellow writers, and doesn’t get the credit he deserves for spreading the word about Irish crime fiction.

Will any of the Connolly-body of work get the Holywood treatment?
One of my short stories, THE NEW DAUGHTER, was filmed. It was a mixed experience. It didn’t get a wide release, and there are some problems with the last half hour, but everyone got paid, and everyone involved did their best for it. I’m probably more protective of my novels, but some of those are slowly inching their way to the screen.

Should Irish crime/thriller/mystery writers get out more and move off their home patch?
Not unless they want to. Mystery fiction is both a legitimate and interesting way to explore society, both contemporary and historical. In fact, Irish crime writers have more firmly grasped the thorn of writing about contemporary Ireland than a lot of their peers in literary fiction. I’ve just shirked my responsibility in that regard. Sorry.

Your work seems to be inching further into the borderlands of the supernatural especially obviously the ghost stories. Are we going to see a major ghost-horror novel from John Connolly?
I like the fusion of genres, as I’ve always felt that the most interesting work, whether in music, books, art, or film, occurs when one genre becomes infused with elements of another. I prefer the short story form for writing purely supernatural material, mainly because there’s no obligation to provide an explanation or major conclusion. It’s enough to allow people a glimpse behind the veil.

John’s first novel, Every Dead Thing, was published in 1999, and introduced the character of Charlie Parker, a former policeman hunting the killer of his wife and daughter. Dark Hollow followed in 2000. The third Parker novel, The Killing Kind, was published in 2001, with The White Road following in 2002. In 2003, John published his fifth novel—and first stand-alone book—Bad Men. In 2004, Nocturnes, a collection of novellas and short stories, was added to the list, and 2005 marked the publication of the fifth Charlie Parker novel, The Black Angel. John’s seventh novel, The Book of Lost Things, a story about fairy stories and the power that books have to shape our world and our imaginations, was published in September 2006, followed by the next Parker novel,The Unquiet, in 2007, The Reapers, in 2008 The Lovers, in 2009, and The Whisperers, the ninth Charlie Parker novel, in 2010. His first book for young adults The Gates was published in 2010. Its sequel was published as Hell’s Bells in May 2011.