Bermudas or Long Shorts
My Favorite Car-Driver
Notting Hill, London, 1993
All Saints Road, no saints in sight. A smoked-window limo cuts cross my bike.
‘A low-ride nigga’ (Chester Himes) hollers through the sun-roof top, ‘Yer money’s sticking out’ I shoot to my back pocket and a crumpled fiver flutters into my hand.
The Great War
A marching song my sisters used to sing comes back to me. ‘Je vais, je vais, je vais, je vais à la guerre. Je vais, je vais, je vais, je vais à la guerre. Ou, va-tu, Mathilde, avec le grand chien ?’ I go, I go, I go, I go to war. But where are you off to Mathilde with that big dog. I wonder if the ardent schoolgirls understood the import of the words? The wife’s betrayal of a conscript. Gloire is for the pigeons, French for suckers, the jobless who sign up to become cannon fodder.
Me and the ‘Little
A hidden signature in all my books is a reference somewhere to a ‘Little Ease’ (a prisoner’s cell so small you could not move). My boyhood home had an extension with a guest room and a cupboard sized room called the ‘Little Ease’. It was used for punishment or isolation from infectious diseases.
I took to using it as a student. It had a little window and as I was banned from smoking my pipe in the house, in winter I used it to study and puff there. I had a long clay pipe and the smoke disappeared outside. While the pipe was alight, I could concentrate on my books. And on hearing Hemingway worked standing up I did likewise.
It was possible to squeeze through the window and jump eight feet to the lawn below. I used it to sneak out at night to do the town, hanging around the docks to observe the ships and the low life. Sometimes I went to a small dance hall with a jazz band. There the sailors danced with local girls and the music and the goings on were educational for a growing boy. The problem was getting back into the house. It was too dangerous to climb up the drainpipe, particularly if I had a pint and a half of stout (my financial limit). However, my father worked on his papers until dawn and I tapped on his window. He came out and we looked at the stars together. He was too abstracted by his work to notice the time or if I was tipsy. My mother who didn’t miss much suspected my gallivanting and asked him when did James come home. He was vague, only remembered us looking at the stars. Still, she had a latch put on the window, but I learned to unscrew it if I wanted to go out.
My ‘Little Ease’ was both a confinement and a release. Not unlike working on and liberating a manuscript into a book.
Soren’s Advice to an Unpopular King
Paraphrase from Kierkegaard’s Journals (1849)
Kierkegaard told King Christian VII not to worry about communism because it was a class war and when the basement is flighting with the first floor and the second floor with the attic, the landlord is not involved. All the different floors needed to have good relations with him.
Permitted by the king to be frank, Kierkegaard told Christian what an absolute king needs to be. He can be ugly, and deaf and dumb (invaluable assets), possess some stock phrases for all occasions that mean nothing. Above all he should be ill from time to time in order to arouse sympathy. The king broke in ‘’Interesting! That’s why you excuse yourself from visiting me claiming illness. You’re making yourself a king’.
Kierkegaard admired the sharpness of the aging king. But when Chrstian extended his hand, knowing he is expected to kiss it, Soren demurred. Despite an open invitation, he only returned once to give the king a copy of his new book, Works of Love. The king had hitherto remarked (like just about everybody in Denmark at the time). ‘We are impressed by your books but don’t understand them’. Kierkegaard’s stock reply to that was ‘Naturally, you haven’t got the time to read them all’. The king reads out the opening sentence. ‘’Thou shalt love, thou shalt love your neighbour, thou shalt love thy neighbour’’. He smiled and said ‘Too true. The subjective thou is love for a king’.
‘You made us free, not only to love others but oneself’. Juliet Greco’s tribute to Sartre. He was her king.
Rhyme, Right Reason and Marital Ruptures
Apollinaire wasn’t one to sweat blood like Baudelaire to secure a rhyme. His most popular poem ‘Le Pont Mirabeau’, bemoaning love’s short passage, says it’s like the slowness of life. Lente (slow) rhymes with the next line’s vioente (hopes). The reverse fugace (fleeting) would not only have half-rhymed with the subsequent line-ending helas, but it would be truer to life. Baudelaire would have torn himself apart to seal the right combination. But ‘Le Pont Mirabeau’s line, ‘La joie venait toujours apres la peine’, would please him, as a masochist (like Apollinaire). Still is it generally true that the joys of love come after the pain of a break-up (rupture)? Regretfully this is the only poem of Apollinaire that every French school-person knows. Marriages in France have an average life of seven years. No joy.
Could Joyce be Less Than Perfect?
Linguistic morale is usually boosted at the expense of someone else, someone, preferably dead. I chose James Joyce, and a passage from Ulysses (1922) …
‘Il est Irlandais. Hollandais ? Non fromage. Deux Irlandais, nous, Irlande, vous savez ? Ah oui! She thought you wanted a cheese hollandaise.’
In a Paris café Kevin Egan and his drinking companion are at cross-purposes with the waitress. Like a good Fenian, Egan is proudly declaring his nationality. But it is not hollandaise that would cause the mishearing, but néerlandais. So near and yet so far! False linguistic premises spoils Joyce’s joke.
The bishop of Marseille during the great plague (1720) isolated himself in his palace. The people who hitherto idolised him were shocked and angered, and took to throwing dead bodies over his high walls, hundreds of them…
There is No such Thing as Society
In 2022 when I came to liver in France, Mayday was optionally celebrated by working with the pay going to old people. It died out during the second decade and now is a forgotten gest. Last year the yellow jackets were out on Mayday protesting at petrol prices and their lack of purchasing power. This year’s epidemic has mainly killed elderly people (over 85%) due to privatised care-homes with lowly paid staff, largely untrained. Less than half of staff accepted vaccination until it became obligatory (too late for so many).
Reality and England
Being an outsider was a choice. England wasn’t my country. It was my father’s enemy. So, mine by proxy. But I had a socio-political agenda which couldn’t be pursued in Ireland or America.
I had no sense of inferiority as long as I didn’t join the ascent of the hierarchical ladder. I was happy seeming to be on the bottom rung. But was aware I had the lability of someone who wasn’t seen as competition, and who had a hot-air balloon that could rise above the establishment order if necessary, and an escape clause if it was pricked. I didn’t need it, except once when disappearing to Brazil was the easy way out of going too far.
I had few complexes in dealing with people. My father’s family had distinguished itself at home and abroad for several centuries. My mother came from a landless peasant family with nothing to lose. I treated everybody the same from working class to royalty. Some English people suspected me for this. Others were puzzled. I decided that, since my ideas were challenging theirs, not being understood was a strategy.
I was lucky. Thatcherism which I despised was confronting the establishment order’s fecklessness with money. And my specialty was cost-benefit analysis. Her civil servants were happy with that. I had ideas that they could use.
All that is in Heavy Years (Quartet, 2018) in a fictive form in order to be honest rather than justifying myself by the letter.
Being difficult to place proved useful even in my personal life. M, my life-partner, didn’t quite get me, and I didn’t get quite her. We didn’t quite get one another quite happily for four decades. We lived in a world which seemed temporary. And it is.
taught me that once the egg was fertilised it meant human life. At college medical
ethics was taught by a saintly Franciscan who once said we must believe in hell
but not that anyone is in it.
The issue with abortion was whether the mother or child should be let live if
they endangered one another's lives. The Church dictated that the child is
sacred being the future of humanity. But doctors had difficulty with allowing
women to die. Occasionally it happened. Not necessarily due to Church teaching.
Older women after a dozen births were vulnerable. The ethics lecturer when the
matter was raised admitted that since it was not strictly dogma it was a matter
of conscience. But advised us not to say that if the question came up in exams.
It never did. The professors had more sense.
Although I found aborting the mother an abomination, I felt all human life
should be allowed to live. The only honourable solution to this Cornelian dilemma
was to prevent the birth. But
contraceptives in Ireland were illegal (though readily available across the Ulster
border). In the mid-sixties I was on the train to Belfast where feminists went
to bring back condoms for public demonstrates in Dublin. Actually, I was with
the rowing team. But we cheered them along. Contraception took thirty years to
become Irish law. By then the average three children per family was closer to
England than political priests liked to admit. Abortions, traditionally
transferred to England, had fallen in number and indeed were to become legal in
Ireland after two referendums. If they were banned as recently in America the
danger is that with the political outrage the cart of terminating pregnancies
(TOPs) is put before the horse of contraception. Preventing the need for
abortions and not banning them is surely the salient issue.
Augustus, James Joyce and Frank Norris
went to the same Jesuit school as James Joyce, for a truncated term. I wasn’t
expelled for secreting a copy of Ulysses under the floorboards. I did a
runner when supposed to be attend a violin lesson in Dublin. I heard JJ’s name
mentioned only once. My English teacher, Father Condon, gave him as an example
of a writer who exploited real people’s lives for art’s sake, and recommended
we read Frank Norris’s McTeague instead. (Advice which puzzled us. There
were two Teagues in the class. One subsequently became a dentist like Norris’s
main character). Fr Conlon’s scorning fell on deaf ears. Youthful readers like
nothing better than when the dirt is being dished. Nevertheless, a pity he
didn’t tell us about Erich von Stroheim’s silent film version of McTeague,
Greed (1925). It was shown in a cinema Joyce briefly managed”.
Father’s Day (3rd Sunday in June)
In France Mother’s Day was introduced by the Vichy regime. Father’s Day was started by a cigarette-lighter firm in 1949. Sam Beckett would have been pleased, though was not known to be a father.
I must be the only Irish writer of my generation who threw up a chance to encounter Samuel Beckett in Paris. I had a letter of introduction from Brian Coffey, an intimate, and threw it into the Seine on recalling the numerous articles I read of such visits.
Beckett would be reticent, but courteous. He’d take the acolyte out for a pint. If you’re a drinker, keeping up with his consumption means you forget what he said, if anything. Fellow smokers invariably remember intense conversations about their lighters. Sam was a fan of pre-Zippo zippers, but had no time for the new disposable type. Particularly the French-produced Cricket. ‘They know nothing about the game’. However, as I only use matches to light my pipe, we’d have nothing to talk about. I was glad to get back to reading From an Abandoned Work.
P(l)ay it Safe
Mrs Thatcher invented the security business. ‘Buy-your-own-house’ came with a company deal. it expanded in every direction. The fanfares of my youth didn’t have accidents in the chairoplanes or high dips. In the 90s, they became regular back page news. the internet is security’s apotheosis.
In my paper today a company was launched to provide plastic covers to protect drinks from GHB (being spiked on innocents). Capitalism’s ultimate will be to reinvent the elixir, at caviar prices. You can hear the opera Love Your Con online.
Technology was intended to serve people. now we serve it.
And while the fat cats of industry make themselves and their investors richer by replacing staff with artificial intelligence, life for most of us is reduced to slaves who are trained by the whip:
Losing out to robots
is now sadly my lot.
The password that I’ve got,
a gordian with knots,
won’t cut it. I am not
quick enough with the tot.
I’ve been blacklisted by Amazon because a robot advised that I should change
my password (for an unspecified reason). But I couldn’t complete the security requirement as my mobile phone hasn’t a devise to tap in order to ‘confirm’ I’m me. Is it a ruse to get me to buy a smart phone?
Mosquitoes are abroad and deterrent sprays are advised. The latest security stupidity is making them only work at right angles. It would require a second pair of hands to achieve this for back protection. The declared reason for this is that it does not risk the bottle exploding. Although tested in manufacturers laboratories, there have been no known damage to clients using free-focus sprays. The real risk is for those who do not have a ready companion is malaria or dengue fever.
As they walk blindly what are they looking for in their i-pods? The young people frighten me with the whites of their eyes in close focus, staring downwards and not knowing where they’re going, plunging further into a miniscule screen. They never stop to take in their surroundings, and clench the plastic thing cheek and jowl with an anxiety for fear of losing contact. All around them the world rotates but their world is flat, and they are walking towards the edge of an inner clifftop. I keep asking the same question, what do they see?