Wednesday, January 28, 2009

In the Wake of Giants

One of the hallmarks of any great book is how much it makes you interested in something you normally couldn't care less about. Such is the case with In The Wake of Giants by Gerald Potterton*. Its subtitle (Journeys on the Barrow and the Grand Canal), caught my eye in the bookshop, not because I have any interest in boats, but because both waterways are fairly near me, and I have a deep interest in local history and general goings-on in my area (the Irish midlands, specifically County Laois).

The author is a County Meath farmer who, the blurb tells us, "dislikes most sports" (straightaway, a man after my own heart) and, in the proverbial nutshell, this is his account of the places he sees, and the people he meets as he dawdles along in his narrow boat (better known to terrestrials like myself as a barge). "Deadlines for destinations", he says, "have no place and would largely defeat the purpose of leisurely cruising along the water." An observation that, in light of the overall title of this blog, strikes another strong chord with yours truly.

This is no formidable tome bulging with technical jargon and arcane knowledge; on the contrary, it is a compelling, human story full of everyday life and everyday people by a man who, initially didn't know much about boats at all, but who is certainly no daw – there’s a Laoisism for you - when it comes to navigating the shifting depths of language. I loved his lively, anecdotal style, his evocative pictures of the countryside, the bits and pieces of river lore, his philosophical musings and, occasionally outspoken comments on - Brace yourself, Bridie - hooliganism, shop assistants, the EU, Sinéad O’Connor, Bord Bia, teenagers, tractors, traffic accidents, solitary walks, cabin cruisers and their owners. And that’s not the half of it! I was particularly taken by his views on the evironment and the whole energy crop/ food production debate. His boat, incidentally, was the first in Ireland to be fuelled on pure plant oil.

On the debit side, I might refer to the surprising misuse of the word ‘geyser’ and the phrase ‘rite of passage’, not to mention the fact that that whoever edited the Smoke On the Water chapter seems to have nodded off (too much Heavy Metal?) but, all in all, this is only nit-picking.

I find it hard to believe that I've actually written this piece at all. That's how good this book is. Did it make me see the Midlands through new eyes? It did. Did it make me - a townie who wouldn't know his starboard from his port - want to embark upon a similar journey? It did. But then I recalled his experience at one particular lock and I definitely tought twice about trying to be Odysseus of the Midlands....

*Published by Ballyhay Books, Laurel Cottage, 15 Ballyhay Road, Donaghadee, Co. Down, Northern Ireland.

Saturday, January 24, 2009

Music Everyone Should Hear

This list is in constant flux but at the minute it's:

Rain Dogs. Tom Waits
Revolver. The Beatles
Quintet in C. Schubert
The Sunset Tree. The Mountain Goats
Marquee Moon. Television
Mekanik Destrukiw Kommandoh. Magma
String Quartet Opus 18 No. 1 Beethoven
The Revealing Science of God. Yes
The Cygnet Committee. David Bowie
Inné Amárach. Téada
Faraualla. Faraualla
The Bootleg Series Vols 1-3. Bob Dylan
Tír na nÓg. Tír na nÓg
The Lord's Prayer. Roy Harper
The Sky and the Ground. Pierce Turner
The Rite of Spring. Stravinsky
Music For a New Society. John Cale
Hark the Village Wait. Steeleye Span

Friday, January 16, 2009

Liam Clancy's Voice

Of the hundreds of albums I heard in 2008, none continues to haunt me like Liam Clancy's The Wheels of Life. And the paradox is that it's not a brilliant album per se: occasional murky production and saccharine arrangements plus superfluous guests* all conspire to detract from it. But transcending all my reservations, and making it an essential purchase, is the sheer quality of Liam Clancy's singing. In these days of Auto-tuned mediocrity, his voice is a precious instrument, full of the joys, fears and foibles of humanity; a golden gift that moves his listeners and causes us to look deep inside ourselves. And surely that is the aim of all artistic endeavour?

I never thought anyone could surpass Kate and Anna McGarrigle's version of Talk To Me of Mendocino but, into a mere four minutes here, Clancy distills a vast universe of emotion. One moment his voice is full of regret, the next it is hushed with resignation; elsewhere it trembles with defiance in the face of mortality. The way he sings those lines about the Rockies will stay with you forever. Even better is his version of Shane McGowan's The Broad Majestic Shannon. Here, the addition of a single extra word transforms what is already a brilliant song into a magnificent elegy, a heartbreaking caoineadh for a great songwriter who has, temporarily I hope, sadly lost his way.

I could go on and on about the greatness of Liam Clancy's singing. Bob Dylan called him "the best ballad singer I ever heard in my life" and, on the evidence of this album, if he had left 'ballad' out of that sentence I don't think he'd have been guilty of gross exaggeration.

*(the one exception is Clancy's duet with Tom Paxton on The Last Thing On Mind - a performance guaranteed to make old folkies quiver with nostalgia and wonder where the time has gone.

Thursday, January 01, 2009

The Mind of a Grocer's Assistant #4

The best books I read in 2008. In no particular order...

Julius Winsome. Gerard Donovan
A Wounded Thing Must Hide. Jeremy Poolman
Skin. Jeremy Poolman
Things the Grandchildren Should Know. Mark Oliver Everett
The Road. Cormac McCarthy
Heads. Gerry Anderson
The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas. John Boyne
Travels in the Scriptorium. Paul Auster
The Gathering. Anne Enright
Two Caravans. Marina Lewycka,
On Chesil Beach. Ian McEwan
The Humours of Planxty. Leagues O'Toole
To Major Tom. Dave Thompson
Bowie, Bolan & The Brooklyn Boy. Tony Visconti

And the worst...

A Spot of Bother. Mark Haddon
His Illegal Self. Peter Carey
The First Verse. Barry McCrea
The Reluctant Fundamentalist. Moshin Hamid
All Summer. Claire Kilroy
Confessions of a Fallen Angel. Ronan O'Brien
My Kind of America. Jeremy Poolman
Terrorist. John Updike
The Fall of Light. Niall Williams.