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Strapped on, wheeled out, forklifted, locked

In position for the drive,

Bone-shaken, bumped at speed,

The nurse a passenger in front, you ensconced

In her vacated corner seat, me flat on my back –

Our postures all the journey still the same,

Everything and nothing spoken,

Our eyebeams threaded laser-fast, no transport

Ever like it until then, in the sunlit cold

Of a Sunday morning ambulance

When we might, O my love, have quoted Donne

On love on hold, body and soul apart.

Seamus Heaney? Oh it’s on now. I haven’t forgiven you yet, you vino voleur, you grog guzzler – I will have my vengeance!


And yet – when I read the poem quoted above, titled Chanson d’Aventure one of the early entries to this collection, I could not help but remember my father back home in Ireland. That frustration with wanting to say what is on your mind, but incapable of giving expression to these thoughts due to physical infirmity. Heaney’s words are instantly evocative for me of witnessing my dad’s irritation at his condition. The poem itself refers to the writer’s own stroke in 2006 (I just wasted ten minutes searching the Irish Times website to find mention of this. A golden goose for whoever can find it for me).

I should not be surprised really. A lot of Heaney’s work conjures up images of an Ireland I know, instantly familiar and well realized here through verse. The title is take from one of the poems collected here, which is dedicated to Terence Brown and describes the action of passing ‘bags of meal‘, along a line of aid workers. In this moment the individual becomes a part of a chain of humans, united in a rare moment of communal activity. The work is true, the goal worthy, allowing the insecurities and seperateness of the individual to vanish. An annihilation of self that he suspects can only be equaled by death itself: “A letting go which will not come again/ Or it will, once. And for all.”

My favourite poem from the selection here is The Conway Stewart, a beautiful transformation of a new pen into a living creature, an ally for the poet to help in the composition of future works:

The nib uncapped,

Treating it to its first deep snorkel

In a newly opened ink-bottle,

I am also fond of An Old Refrain which contrasts the ordinary English words for countryside fauna with the local idomatic descriptors of Heaney’s Northern Irish childhood.

Where I start to look in askance at the page is the later poems referring to the Aeneid and provincial French poetry. On the one hand I admire the effort to place poetry drawing a connection between Irish countryside life with Provence, but it is not an association that comes naturally. For one the poet mentioned here Eugène Guillevic seems like a more natural companion to English masters like William Wordsworth and Thomas Hardy. Peppering verse with different French words does not help the attempt at solidifying the connection between Ireland and the Continent. Ireland is part of Europe, but I feel as if this attempt to be more European only succeeds at turning a blind eye to life in my homeland. I am reminded of John Banville‘s early attempts to be a more European author:

“So I decided, with no cosmopolitan experience, to turn myself into a European novelist of ideas: Banville, the modern European master. I was young. I was reckless. There are people who tell me they think Doctor Copernicus and Kepler were my best books, but I feel now that in those novels I took a wrong direction, that I should have done something else.”

Even that famous neologism of Ireland’s most famous literary expat James Joyce – ‘riverrun‘ – appears in the poem Colum Cille Cecinit. Joyce is literary Ireland, but how many of the Irish have read Ulysses, or even A Portrait of an Artist As A Young Man? Perhaps that is an unfair question, but it played on my mind when reading some of these poems. They seem isolated from life at home.

Yes the material is familiar to me and I do not think Seamus Heaney could fail to evoke strong memories of home and the past if he tried, but I suspect for me it is not enough.


My parents had not met Mr and Mrs Grace, nor would they. People in a proper house did not mix with people from the chalets, and we would not expect to mix with them. We did not drink gin, or have people down for the weekend, or leave touring maps of France insouciantly on show in the back windows of our motor cars – few in the Field even had a motor car. The social structure of our summer world was as fixed and hard of climbing as a ziggurat.

I have this sad memory of my dad deciding to take the family on a spontaneous holiday to Connemara in Co. Mayo. No bookings were made and as far as we could tell there was no real plan either. We were just packed into the car and set off on the road. During the trip he began to tell us stories of his first trip out west, after he had left school I believe, the friendships he had made and the strange characters he had encountered. We even travelled out to the same B&B he had stayed in as a lad. Dad left us in the car to arrange for our rooms. My mother was very quiet, which of course only added to the tension.

When dad emerged he looked defeated. The landlady had not even remembered him. There were no rooms available for a family. We wound up staying in a cramped single room in Salt Hill just outside the centre of Galway city for a few days and then retreated to Dublin.

Memory can be a treacherous thing you see. The narrator of John Banville‘s novel, Max Morden, wrestles with the memories of his youth, that he tries to return to in order to have some small reprieve from the pain of the present. They often cheat him though, his recollection of events stopping and starting as he is forced to correct himself. So much of what he remembers is lost to the intense fog of emotion that he endured as a teenager, his infatuation with the Grace family still felt intensely after all these years.

The narration itself is not neatly stacked between the present and the past. Often his memories will be spurred on by an unexpected association with his present-day musings, and vice versa. Max himself is yet another one of Banville’s dissolute academics, men of letters, outsiders (Kepler; Mefisto) – whose minds are occupied and overcome by abstract thoughts that have shoved out any chance of seizing happiness in the moment.

As such the story yo-yos between his current life as a grief-stricken widower, alienated from his only daughter and frustrated with his progress on an artistic treatise on Pierre Bonnard; and his memories of the Grace clan, bound up with feelings of class envy and arousal for the women of that family. He is a man haunted, emotionally stunted by the experience, his numbed (and courtesy of a prodigious consumption of alcohol, even more numbed) reaction to his wife’s death the result of his failure to face the events of his past. His creative failure reflects the lack he feels within him:

I was trying to write my will on a machine that was lacking the word I. The letter I, that is, small and large.

The Graces themselves are an unusual family, even allowing for their social superiority to Max and his former friends from The Field (whom he quickly abandons for the company of the Grace children). The son and daughter, Myles and Chloe, shared everything, a result of the boy being a mute. His sister shares with him the experiences of someone who can communicate with this outside world. They are like twins, separate from everyone. Carlo Grace, the father, is a loud and gregarious sort, with a conspiratorial sense of humour that strikes Max the child instantly as ‘masonic’, even ‘satanic’. Mrs Grace, or Connie Grace as Max comes to think of her in the throes of his passion, becomes his fixation, with the disapproving gaze of au pair Rose acting as a barrier against the boy’s desires.

Max’s pursuit of higher learning as an adult can be seen as an attempt to raise himself to the social station of the Graces (there but for the Grace of God…), but it is also an escape from the tragedy that befalls them.

Brutally honest, a fine addition to the canon of this most European of Irish writers.

“Why did you leave Ireland”?

“I was sick,” he said. “I was sick of Ireland, he laughed.”

“Seriously Michael.”

“Seriously, if you knew anything about the country you wouldn’t ask me why I left.”

There is a moment towards the end of this book when the protagonist Katherine Procter walks down Grafton Street in Dublin late at night, crosses the Ha’Penny Bridge over the River Liffey, continues on towards Blackhall Place and finally reaches her destination of Carnew Street. I smirked to myself when I read this and remarked to Stephanie that you could tell this book was not set in the present day.

Eight months ago I was mugged at knife-point in Dublin. Every day after that I was scared to go out on to the streets at night. I desperately wanted to leave the city. The date of our departure for Australia seemed an eternity away.  When I think of Dublin now, that is what I remember, an unending, oppressive sense of fear. In a very real sense, I saw my travelling to Australia as escape.

Katherine is also looking to escape. Born and raised in Wexford, she has left her husband and child and fled to Spain. When she thinks of Ireland she remembers the dead relationship between Tom the man she married and her herself; her estranged son, who takes after his father in every respect; and finally she remembers the local people in the area who hated her family for being Anglo-Irish Protestants, who burned down her house when she was only a child. Her own mother left Ireland afterwards, terrified of the Irish and refusing to return from London. Now Katherine has followed in her foot-steps.

Barcelona is a world away from Enniscorthy. Katherine discovers an enclave of bohemian artists and begins to receive training in becoming a painter herself. She meets Miguel, an enigmatic man who uses art to frame the political upheaval in Spain following the Civil War and falls in love with him. Her mother sends her enough money to support herself and together with her new lover, she begins to reinvent herself, leaving her past as a member of the Irish landowner class behind.

The arrival of Irishman and Enniscorthy native Michael Graves in Barcelona puts Katherine on edge. Not only is he an insistent reminder of the life she ran away from, as a Roman Catholic he symbolises to her the same mob that attacked her home causing the breakup of her family when she was a child during ‘The Troubles’ in the South of Ireland. Furthermore he attaches himself to Katherine and Miguel from the moment they first meet him. She wakes up the first morning after encountering the Irishman to find him asleep beside her lover.

It appears that not only is her past not finished with her, but Miguel’s own history has caught up with the couple. He refuses to hide his anti-Francoist fervour, risking imprisonment. His status as a former revolutionary and a Catalan makes him a target for police intimidation. Katherine cannot understand why he insists on reliving his hatred for the Spanish fascist regime, why he cannot simply plan a future for them together. She slowly comes to recognize that Miguel’s wartime activities are not so different from the actions of the landless Catholics who attacked her family thirty years ago.

This is a beautifully written first novel by Colm Tóibín. The parallels drawn between the Irish and Spanish Civil Wars are cannily illustrated, with Katherine’s blinkered inability to recognize the hatreds of her own upbringing causing her to view the historical wounds of Spain as exotic curiosities. Tóibín’s writing is reminiscent of John Banville’s European Irish fiction, with protagonists finding inescapable echoes of Ireland on the Continent.

I strongly identified with Katherine as my own relationship with my homeland has become twisted by fear, despite knowing how irrational that feeling is. Funnily enough I continue to meet Michael Graves all over Sydney, the Irish accent reappearing at the oddest times. This is the life of an emigrant, I suppose, finding reminders of home wherever I go. More importantly though I am no longer afraid of returning home. Australia, and in part writing for this blog,  allowed me the opportunity to heal.

This book is beautifully observed, thematically insightful and ferries its haunted protagonists to a welcome peace of sorts.

The story that follows can fairly be said to have two protagonists. One of them is Minor, the murdering soldier from America; and there is one other. To say that a story has two protagonists, or three, or ten, is a perfectly acceptable, unremarkable modern form of speech. It happens, however, that a furious lexicographical controversy once raged over the use of the word – a dispute that helps to illustrate the singular and peculiar way that the Oxford English Dictionary has been constructed and how, when it flexes its muscles, it as a witheringly intimidating authority.

This is the kind of book the Peter Ackroyds and John Banvilles of this world would give their eye-teeth to write. An incisive and witty account of the creation of the Oxford English Dictionary – with a surprising history of murder and madness interwoven into the tale.

This is, despite the quote above, the story of three men. The aforementioned Dr. W. C. Minor, an American medical doctor who suffered from what we would now recognize as post-traumatic stress and paranoid schizophrenia. Dr James Murray, a gifted polymath with humble beginnings that failed to prevent him from achieving honours and great success as a result of his work as editor on the Oxford Dictionary. Finally this is also the story of George Merrett, the victim of a gunshot to the neck. His murderer was committed to Broadmoor asylum and is recognized by history as one of the most important contributors to the Oxford English Dictionary. Unlike Minor, Merrett is largely unremembered and unmourned. This is a book that could not have been written without the sacrifice of his life.

For as a veteran of the American Civil War, Minor was haunted by delusions of pursuit at the hands of Irish deserters from the Union army. He was terrified by the thought of being hunted down by a man he was ordered to brand with a hot iron, as punishment for fleeing the field of battle. The Irish soldiers conscripted to fight the Confederate army initially were willing to fight, with a view to someday returning home to put their newfound skills to use in liberating their own country. Disillusionment soon followed though and Winchester huge numbers of desertions from the Union cause. Minor was also troubled by increasingly disturbed sexual fantasies. No form of treatment for his maladies existed. He was judged completely insane and though not found responsible for the death of George Merrett, locked away for what was judged to be the rest of his natural life in Broadmoor.

Murray’s early life was also touched by tragedy. The loss of his first wife and child before the age of thirty and been forced to eke out a living as a bank clerk despite his prodigious intellectual gifts. Winchester includes an extract from a job application Murray wrote where he claims fluency in over a dozen languages. His fortunes, however, improved with a happy second marriage and the fortunate society he kept with many other learned men, who recommended him for his eventual career as editor of the Dictionary. Despite the efforts of Samuel Johnson, the English were lagging behind the efforts of the French Encyclopédistes and Italian lexicographers. There was no enshrined account of the English language itself, its cultural forms mutable and unaccounted for. What Murray attempted was to collect proven definitions and associations for singular words, drawn from the literature of the time. Volunteers were asked to submit completed lists of words with their origins and usage clearly defined. This proved unwieldy and met with little enthusiasm once the size of the task was glimpsed.

It was with Minor that Murray met great success. The two began to correspond over a number of years, with the American giving little hint as to his circumstances, at first merely submitting his exhaustive work without comment. Winchester argues that this research and study offered Minor relief from his painful delusions. He continued to be troubled, especially at night, by the thought of pursuit by invisible Irishmen, succubae and most disturbingly, children. Yet his work on the dictionary seemed to reflect a particularly erudite and reflective mind. I have always been struck by the phrase a ‘monk’s cell’, as if contemplation was a crime. Minor’s life following the death of Merrett symbolises that contradiction.

I love Winchester’s style of writing, with one phrase in particular just leaping off the page – seamless syrup of insanity. A beautiful, commanding book.

He even devised for himself a pseudonym for his alchemical work – ‘Ieova sanctus unus’, as a near anagram of ‘Isaacus Nevtonus’. The assumption of a name meaning ‘the one holy Jehovah’, may seem somewhat blasphemous, but it is perhaps indicative of the young Newton’s self-belief. Had he not been born, like the Saviour, on Christmas Day?

Peter Ackroyd’s historical fiction and biographies of notable figures are always a pleasure to read. He is incisive, witty and brings a vast array of references to the work at hand. He has published collections of his criticism that I would strongly recommend to fans of Clive James, or Anthony Lane. In the past I have enjoyed his novels such as The Lambs of London, The House of Doctor Dee and Hawksmoor, notable for inspiring Alan Moore’s Jack the Ripper tome From Hell.

In short he writes dense, yet very readable accounts of English history. I was surprised that his book on Newton was a straight biography, part of his Brief Lives series. I was expecting a fictional account, more along the lines of John Banville’s Kepler. It remains an authoritative text, despite its slim size.

Isaac Newton’s birth on Christmas Day was seen as something of a good omen, despite his sickly and weak appearance. His family’s circumstances were quite poor, his father already deceased and in truth he was not expected to live. Out of these troubled beginnings grew up a solitary, distracted young boy, already given to explosions of temper that would later be demonstrated by his inability to take criticism as an adult, as well as his controlling nature. Accounts of his early life often express surprise at his poor academic record in school, yet Ackroyd attributes this to a precocious intellectual fascination with more extra-curricular studies, such as experimenting with kites and self-made devices.

His head master and other notables recognized the adolescent’s more cerebral gifts and convinced his mother to allow him to continue with his studies as opposed to a life on the farm. He eventually achieved a place at Cambridge University, where he would spend most of his life. His early fascination with optics led him to study the philosophy of Rene Descartes, even going so far as to insert a ‘bodkin’, between his own eye in order to prove through experiment his own conclusions. Even at this early stage Newton was a fierce critic of overly hypothetical discourses, arguing that experimentation and logic were the only true arbiters of reason. Such passionate self-belief would lead to confrontations with peers such as Robert Hooke and Irish philosopher Robert Boyle. Newton’s contentions with these luminaries emerge only through private correspondence for the most part, as the student was still a sheltered and private man. He was also given over to controversial religious beliefs, such as a refusal to accept the Holy Trinity, preferring early Christian notion of Jesus being the son of man, not the Son of God. In addition, his fascination with alchemy would remain hidden well after his death, as it was seen to besmirch his later rationalist successes.

However, the support of Edmond Haley and his help in Newton’s eventual publication of The Principia Mathematica, a purely logical account of the forces of nature (written in Latin to warn off too-eager critics) catapulted the author onto the world stage. He would be feted by kings and tsars, contend with Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz and be cited by Voltaire in jest, earn the acrimony of William Blake and the Romantic poets for, in their eyes, stripping the natural world of its wonder. He was even chosen to be the Member of Parliament for Cambridge, on the side of the Whig party and a staunch defender of Protestanism. His quote regarding ‘standing on the shoulder of giants’, is printed on the British two pound coin, as he rose to the rank of controller of the Mint itself. He was a remarkable man, a polymath and undisputed genius.

Ackroyd shines a light on the superficially conflicting aspects of Newton. He was a rationalist with a mechanistic vision of the world who was nevertheless devoted to study of the Scriptures and the alchemical pursuit of the Philosopher’s Stone. A philosopher who has done more to define the nature of science and the necessary objectivity of the scientist. A thinker who was determined to apply himself to the practical considerations of running the Mint.

This is an informed and revealing account of one of the most important minds in scientific history, who did more to define our understanding of the world in his time, than anyone since Aristotle. A brilliant man and a fascinating study.

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