Sunday, November 27, 2005

"The Sea" by John Banville

I've just finished reading this book which won the Man Booker prize this year. In common with a lot of good literature, I had to be patient and open minded as I read it. But it was worth it. I also have an unfortunate tendency to read at bedtime and my concentration wanes. I'll have to get into habit of reading at more alert times.

The first person voice style is the initial element which hits you. I say voice because it comes across deliberately raw, rambling and unedited of course, just as one might think out loud. I found it vaguely irritating for awhile but I gradually admired the freedom of expression. Previously I had been used to the first person style as offering a balanced reference type character. However I increasingly found myself disliking many aspects of the Max Morden character as the novel developed. Even the revealing ending didn't assist me too much in rekindling a liking for him. For me I found this both strange and interesting.

The imagery and descriptive quality was poetically excellent and often amusing. The characters were all well defined, although I found Max's wife's character a little tricky to believe. Oddly, I felt Max's daughter Claire was a very key player. To me she represented the true outside world, offering some degree of objective normality if you like. In that sense she was a useful reference point and of course had the helpful experience of knowing her father and experiencing the death of her mother. It was Max's interactions with his daughter Claire which initially and slowly kindled my dislike of him. It would be too easy to say that Claire's lack of understanding of Chloe from Max's childhood was a factor in their relationship.

Disliking the main character was the last thing I expected when reading a novel promoted as centring on the man grieving for his lost wife and dealing with some strong childhood experiences. Max came across to me as a somewhat introverted, arrogant and self centred individual. There is ample solid evidence to support this opinion. His tragedies I feel don't excuse his behaviour and mental attitudes to others, particularly evident with his daughter. John Banville paints Max as a rather complex dark character. He is an interesting and very believable character but the story line and tragedy might have been more powerful if Max was intrinsically a more balanced human being. I wonder is there a macho element at play in a male author dealing with a male central character's raw grief. I found Banville even made Max's wife a little detached from believable manifestations of grief as she was coming to terms with death. I just felt there was a failed opportunity to create proper emotional empathy to the characters from the well set up story line. Even Chloe was a bit weird.

I waxed in admiration of the fusion of past and present throughout the book. There is a general tendancy for particular memories from our own childhoods to rekindle when something serious happens in the present. In that sense there is perhaps a varying personal dimension to the novel for readers.

I'm not entirely convinced that the book's structure facilitated maintaining the attention of the average novel reader. For a long time you are treated to seemingly rambling disconnected thoughts and events. You are not automatically hungry to read on. However on completion of the book you realise that you have in fact experienced a good work of literature. There are depths to revisit. The written constructions in the voice style first person wanderings were on balance interesting, refreshing and liberating, almost flirting with the ungrammatical. Like all good literature, the book challenges the reader, one needs to be patient to gain the most from it.

I suppose the lingering value of the book for me was the interesting style of writing and the poetic descriptions as well as the fun in analysing the character of Max Morden and others.

Friday, November 25, 2005

George Best dies today.

Lots will be written about George. I grew up watching him at his spectacular peak in the late 1960s. His tackling skill and intuitive intelligence on the pitch was breathtaking to watch.

He was another of the amazing breakaway superstars of the 1960s who just didn't follow the rulebook in becoming exceptionally talented in their speciality. We had Muhammad Ali in boxing, the Beatles in music, George Best in football, what an exciting time it was.

Thursday, November 17, 2005

Willie inspects Army Ranger's guns in Pandora's box!

Minister Willie O'Dea is a little lad and little folk secretly like big toys.

For a few moments of blissful escapism Willie was a child again with machine guns, big pistols, all sorts of powerful weaponry. Suddenly immersed into a Freudian subconscious ecstasy world with boring responsible consciousness gratefully hidden behind an adrenalin built solid wall, Willie was having serious fun. He was 6ft 4 inch Clint Eastwood pointing the big pistol close at the camera and oh so much wanted to utter with gritted teeth "Well punk, do ya feel lucky?" Reality was nagging at him, threatening to pull him back through the wall from paradise.

But this was why I wanted to be Minister for Defense, everything was leading to climaxes like this moment. Nobody needs to know.

Oh shit, I'm on front of the Irish Times! Those feckers Rabbitte, Costello, Higgins and Sargent are giving out stink and the Ceann Comhairle can't even stop them. Joe Duffy's listeners are jamming the RTE switchboard.

"Ahem.... I didn't mean any offence to anyone"...hell, the gun wasn't even loaded.

Mmmh...loaded...that would be fun...must put some of Biffo's extra money into a new firing range...I'll need to open it of course, or maybe twice. Actually we need tanks as well come to think of it. Let me see that Irish Times picture.....Crikey I look the part! Big eyebrows, moustache the envy of Jessie James. Smirky nefarious grin and purposeful eyes aiming the big pistol to blow the brains out of the teasing photographer. Gimme a scissors, it's straight into the scrapbook. What a great life!

Monday, November 14, 2005

Slapping in junior school 1960...The Switch!

At school for junior and senior infants (teacher called it low babies and high babies!) in Clontarf there were about sixty of us in each classroom from 1960-62. We ranged in age from four to seven years old.

The teacher would routinely slap us for disciplinary offences. She had a black leather strap. It was usually three slaps on each hand but could be more depending on the offence. If a child was really bad then he was sent to the principal's office for a punishment which the teacher referred to as The Switch.

Now I didn't know exactly what The Switch was, but the few small children who came back into the classroom after being administered The Switch were a terrifying sight. They were bawling crying and in absolute agony. It made the hairs stand on my head to witness this spectacle of trauma. In a class of sixty children you tended to play in many separated groups and I never got to hear exactly what The Switch was. However, my imagination started to work it out from my various limited experiences....

I was familiar with electric light switches at home and my parents told me that electricity was very dangerous and could kill you. I knew my granny didn't have electricity in her house in the country and many older country folk didn't want it because it was so dangerous. Rural electrification was not yet completed in Ireland. Our house would not have had today's modern safe electric wiring with earthing everywhere and proper circuit breaker protection. So electricity was still a respected, misunderstood and feared energy even by adults.

Also at the time, there was a much older boy called Ian up our road at home who had an electricity experiment set. Ian once used this to electrocute me just for his evil fun! He asked me to hold a few electrodes and he then flicked a large switch. A piercing and frightening pain from a powerful invisible energy bolted though my entire body. I roared out loud. Ian gave a fiendish cackling giggle as he all too slowly flicked back the switch - causing the pain to gratefully and mysteriously vanish instantly.

That must be it, I was sure of it. The Switch in school is controling some kind of electrocution! My mind visualized the bold child being brought into a room where they were connected up to electrodes and wires and then the principal flicked The Switch. A more sinister thought also crept into my mind from the parental warnings on electricity. The Switch in the principal's office might even be powerful enough to kill you. Wow, really scary! I was determined to be as quiet as a mouse in class, it was not worth risking my life.

The image of The Switch suppressed all natural creativity, I was even afraid to ask simple questions in class. I explained my hypothesis of The Switch to some of my close classmates - so I inadvertently scared the hell out of them also! Funny how an incorrect image lingers for a long was only years later when I was told that The Switch was simply the name given to a thin wooden cane for slapping children.

Today even the cane would rightly be unacceptable trauma for children. I went to early school not too concerned about being slapped - but vividly concerned of being executed by electrocution!

Monday, November 07, 2005

Confirmation memories

The catechism of catholic doctrine – we kids called it the caddier. A weighty green book filled with questions and answers on a plethora of Catholic truths. Every 11 year-old had to know every question and answer off by heart for their confirmation day. Confirmation meant you were to be an adult Catholic – so knowledge of the caddier was crucial. After several years of preparation in learning hymns and intensive swotting of the caddier I was standing in St. Canice’s Church Finglas in 1966 for my confirmation. Like the rest of the boys I wore a dark suit with short trousers - chosen expertly by myself – no repeat of the cream communion suit likely! Nevertheless I was still nervous. We were told that the bishop could ask us a question from the caddier. There was a sense by most of us though – including our teacher - that there were too many of us in the church to get through everyone. It was more likely that some random sampling would occur for questions. Safe enough maybe.

The church was full with those to be confirmed, girls on the left, boys on the right. No parents or relatives in the church to protect us. The bishop with his entourage walked up the church in all his impressive robes and tall miter. Larger than life. The priests of the parish were figures of awe to us kids – but the priests were looking humble in the bishop’s wake. On reaching the altar the priest’s fluttered - including the parish priest - in alter-boy-like subservient activities around the great man. Was the bishop even human as we know it? This entity was powerful, 10 times more dangerous and scary than any priest alive. He was probably capable of sending us all to the fires of hell with one wave of his crozier. I was in a row about two thirds of the way down the church – gratefully distant from the altar. Even though I had classmates on either side of me, none of us dared speak a word. We had been warned by teachers. Eventually we noticed the unmistakable miter of the bishop moving slowly from left to right, then right to left amongst the boys near the top of the church. He was asking questions from the caddier. The awful truth slowly dawned on me and I broke out in a cold sweat. I had wondered why we were all in rows with every second row empty. The bishop and his entourage were passing between each row and quizzing the boys face to face. Wow! Surely he wouldn’t come this far down the church. Take too long.

Time ticked by endlessly. The bishop was sticking doggedly to his task. Going though every row of boys. The tall hat was getting closer. Eventually I could see the bishop’s face and the priests on either side of him. When he was a few rows from me I could see the pattern. The bishop had a well worn green caddier in his hand and was asking a question from it to every second boy. This pattern was very consistent, I was studying him with the heightened awareness of a drowning child. I did a desperate count of the number of boys ahead of me and came to the daunting calculation that the bishop would definitely be asking me a question. Closer and closer. I’m only eleven years old, too young for this terror. Then my throat dried in fear as I looked up into the face of the bishop – stationary and towering in front of me – the most powerful entity on Earth. The bishop was framed by two priests – one of them the parish priest. It looked like a firing squad. There was an eerie silence as the bishop selected a page in the green caddier. He called out a question. It did sound familiar, but I was almost frozen in fear. It was a question with a long answer. I struggled though it. Got mixed up with one sentence, made a bit of a mess of it. Too scared to think. The bishop paused. He wasn’t happy. He slowly flicked to other pages of the book. My heart was racing. He asked me another question. This one was better. Answer a bit shorter. I managed to get through it okay, but not quite perfectly. The bishop paused in silence. I avoided eye contact in fear of what anger his face might reveal. Then to my considerable relief the bishop and team slowly moved on to the next boy. I now ventured a glance up at the bishop’s face. He was staring back at me even as he moved, with disapproving eyes. The expression said to me – you really aren’t good enough, you barely scraped through. I wondered - what if I had messed up on the second question? Was I close to being marched out of the church, made an example of? What would my parents and friends think of me – a failure on this big moment in front of the bishop. Anyway, no point in dwelling too long. I was safe and the rest of the ceremony was a doddle after this.

I can laugh back at the confirmation catechism episode today. But it gives a flavour of how much in awe kids were at the time of priests, bishops, teachers and those in strong positions of authority. I can only imagine how easy it must have been for the deviant minority to get away with sexually abusing children and the horror it would have been for such kids. Fortunately I never experienced this, nor at the time did I hear of any who were. However, the irrational fear of those in strong authority lingered well into my adult life. Even today, as successful as I am and with my own company etc., there are still little traces left of fear of those in controlling positions.

Saturday, November 05, 2005

First Confession/Communion memories

Preparation for First Holy Communion was serious business at school in Ireland in 1962.

First Confession had to be prepared for initially. Our teacher, I realized later in my schooling, mimicked a scene from Frank O'Connor's short story First Confession. Fear of Hell needed to be instilled into kids so they would avoid sin. The teacher lit a candle on her desk and invited anyone to hold a finger over the flame for more than a few seconds. One or two tough guys tried it and ended quickly back at their desks yelping. The teacher then gloatingly explained that they had experienced a very tiny glimpse of Hell. However, rather than a quick pain in the tip of the finger, the fires of Hell gave continuous pain over over every inch of your body - for all eternity. Wow! We seven year old kids were almost traumatized with the thought. It was too much to take in. Better avoid sin big time. I became very fearfully interested in the technicalities of mortal and venial sin and telling a proper confession.

The 10 commandments were also taught to us carefully. The teacher did however gloss over the commandment "Thou shalt not commit adultery." She said that we would learn more about that sin when we were older. I wasn't impressed by this response and it worried me that I could be guilty of it without knowing. I looked at the wording carefully and coupled with the teacher's vague clue I figured that the sin had to mean pretending to be an adult when you were only a kid. When I went to confession I actually told the priest that I had committed adultery! After I landed this bombshell the priest leaned forward and looked carefully at me out of the grill in the dark confession box. "Do you know what adultery is, my child?", he asked. I suddenly realized that I must have been completely wrong in my notion of adultery. I then nervously said "Eh, no." A faint smile appeared on the priest's face but thankfully he dropped the subject and asked me to continue with my confession.

There was a test run in the class for receiving communion properly. We each went up to the front of the class in a line and received unconsecrated communion from the teacher. The idea was to practice the mouth opening and swallowing the communion without biting it. It was well before the time of having an option on receiving communion in the hand. Biting or touching communion was a serious offence. Everything in general went well on the test run except one boy did, perhaps by accident, bite the communion. The teacher noticed instantly. I recall that she did not slap the boy (although that was a very real option open to her - see my other article Slapping in junior school 1960...The Switch!) but instead made a major example of him and his fatal action to the entire class. I recall the kid in tears and terrible distress at his desk. The stigma the teacher made of his action was powerful and affected us all in the classroom. Even in the schoolyard afterwards the lad was identified in talk as the boy who bit the communion. It scared us all of ever biting communion. And this was just a test run. Imagine what the priest would do at the live event!

I have to say that by contrast to teachers and clergy, my mother had a gentle and friendly, albeit intense, approach to faith. She also wanted her only child turned out really well for First Holy Communion. However, I still can never forgive her for choosing a cream coloured suit for me! Just picture the view from the balcony of the packed church in St. Gabriels, Clontarf. On the left side of the centre aisle was an ocean of little girls in white dresses. On the right was a mass of boys in dark suits. Right in the middle of the dark suits was an idiot in white! I felt incredibly self-conscious and although I laugh at it now, it was quite an issue at the time (I made absolutely sure that I chose my own Confirmation suit four years later!).

My father had borrowed an old black Morris Minor car for the First Communion day. I thought this was very exciting - I loved cars and rarely had the opportunity to be a passenger. My Dad drove my Mum and I to my granny down in the country - a little cottage in a rural townland called Dorea, some miles beyond Ashbourne. I recall that I collected 7 shillings in total from relations and family friends - a good solid innings at the time, 44 cents in today's money!

Tuesday, November 01, 2005

USA and the World

It's almost fashionable to dislike USA foreign policy under Bush these days and it has generated a lot of general anti-American feeling - especially in younger people.

It's true that USA has meddled heavily in World affairs. Some of this is perceived as very morally questionable, but there is much which was and is extremely useful to the countries in receipt. Military intervention was very welcome in Europe in WWII and the subsequent Marshall Plan. The fear of Communism was passionate in the past and was a motivating force in Korea and Vietnam of course and created rather unsavoury unwinnable conflicts.

In the business world so many of us in Western Europe and elsewhere benefit greatly from American companies setting up and trading abroad. My own company is totally dependant on US suppliers and indeed US established companies in Ireland as customers. Business is a two way system however - it also suits the US companies to trade here from all the benefits Ireland have to offer. That is not to dilute the respect and gratitude each party is entitled to extend both ways. The USA are very good trading partners. We depend on them a lot and we have strong historical connections.

One of the factors which troubles myself and others is the USA's sheer dominance as a superpower. Bush has had a rather nasty tendency to make this factor look dangerous to us all since 9/11. A lot of his rhetoric to the nations of the World just before Afganistan and Iraq invasions was along the lines of "if you are not with us - you are against us". Their military might makes you wonder what could happen if someone a bit more right wing than Bush came along and got the US people motivated enough to believe that more and more countries outside USA are dangerous. The manipulation and ultimate ignoring of the UN was also a heavy handed step which compounds this future danger. Without the UN - who is able to tell the USA when enough is enough?

It's easy to imagine the above happening. USA is a big place with great geographical, climatic and to some extent cultural diversity. In the vaste majority of American states people's idea of a foreign holiday is going to places like California or Florida or Hawaii. I've been to USA many times on business and it's incredible how little that ordinary people know or care about places external to North America. You could picture a situation where they were persuaded that more places in the World needed to be made safe as threats to Americans. 9/11 having hit the USA heavily right in their quintessential heart - had the effect of silencing any major sense of American foreign injustice - as had happened for Vietnam.

I recall in 1996 when the huge (but aging and non-nucleor) aircraft carrier JFK was in Dublin Bay for about a week. The big HSS passenger ferry looked like a small toy as it daily steamed past the JFK. Dun Laoghaire was full of sailors in crisp white uniforms. On Sunday morning in our tennis club we all stopped our tennis matches to look up in awe as a handful of powerful American jet fighters flew right over our club. I thought to myself that these jets probably had the potential firepower to wipe out much of Dublin. The impressive Dublin visitation would have represented a tiny fraction of 1% of the USA's military might.

Let's not forget that in spite of USA's warnings on the dangers of nucleor weapons that the USA are the only nation to have used nucleor bombs as a weapon - twice in fact.

There is an uneasy feeling created from the Bush administraion that we mustn't get the USA too mad. We are lucky to have all the foreign investment and the protection and we should be very grateful and be good little democracies. There was hint of this squirmy feeling when Bertie kept the refueling in Shannon arrangement going even though we are a neutral state. Our condemnation to the Bush administration's ignoring of the UN was diplomatic eggshell walking. Our little country needs all the American business.

Having said all of the above, there have been and still are disgusting activities going on in foreign regimes. Many states seem to latch onto religious extremism and Al Qaeda are an exceptionally nasty group who have completely exploited Islam. There must be unity against terror. I just think Bush's style of being a shoot-from-the-hip old wild west sherriff is grossly over simplistic, encourages the terrorists further and makes traditional allies uncomfortable. A more sophisticated long term approach is required with considerably greater intelligence and less insightment to motivate even more terror.