The Best of the British Bulldog

I am just back from a few days in Belfast. We stayed in a great apartment overlooking the Lagan and wandered around the city centre on the first afternoon. I’ve always liked Belfast, it chimes for me of Northern England: messy, incoherent streets with the occasional wow factor in buildings, like the Opera House and City Hall. During this particular meander, the city was stuffed with tourists wandering around, turning maps upside down, stopping on street corners. Streets seemed to be cleaner, buildings shinier. The city seemed to be prosperous, booming, none of the jaded, bombed out fatigue of the past.

The next day we walked along the river walk – through the old Docks, littered with art, artefacts, tourism trails, old ships, the magnificent Water Front, the Arena and finally arrived at The Titanic, itself an extraordinary building. It rises up from the Harland & Woolf Dock, a silver, concertina like structure, solid, assertive but also looking like it might fold into nothing. It was humming with people and taking the tour, I felt part of a well-oiled machine. I was impressed. I learned a lot about ship building; the gantry, rivets, and Belfast, itself a hub of industrialisation at the turn of the 20th century. I learned about the Belfast Ropework Company, the biggest and best in the world, the linen factories, the glass factories, the breweries. We traversed the experience of working the gantry in a rail car, rattling up and down, through heights and depths, screens of men drilling, banging, balancing, hammering, welding, made me aware for the first time of the dangers, the skills, the courage and the pride of the ship builders. The exhibition showed me the real story of the Titanic from its planning, drawing, manufacture, it’s fitting out with the best of everything: luxurious Axminster carpets, mahogany, oak, brass, gold, furnishings of the highest quality, chandeliers, four poster beds, porcelain basins, menus including potted shrimp, veal, corned beef, ox tongue, soused herrings, galantine of chicken, custard pudding. And then, after all this magnificent build up, it was gone in a flash, very appropriate. All that I saw next was a gin bottle and a china plate floating in the debris field at the bottom of the ocean.

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When I was driving home, I was thinking about what it must have been like to work on the gantry. The men would have to be skilled, courageous and have their wits about them to be working thousands of feet in the air with heavy tools and no safety provision in the elemental hazards of wind, rain, cloud, sun and no protection. So different to the miners crawling along dark, dank, dirty shafts. Both trades involved such dangerous work yet men were paid a pittance and many lives were taken. It is a warped world we live in.  I couldn’t do either, and I don’t think many could nowadays.  But in a sense, at least the ship builders must have felt the power and glory of working in the sky and creating something so extraordinary.

The reason I was in Belfast was poetry. I attended a poetry event at the Eastside Arts Festival, an event co-organised with Over The Edge, Eastside Arts Centre and Poetry Northern Ireland. To get there, and later to the hotel where our friends, Over The Edge facilitators, Susan and Kevin, were staying, we walked through close knitted, two storey, red bricked terraced streets of houses hung together with pennants and union jacks, conjoined with streams of bunting fluttering over gardens. On many corners were murals of militia, firearms, words of freedom and unity were painted with precision on walls.  Suffocating defensiveness or claustrophobia were the words that muraled my mind.

The event itself was wonderful. Poems flowed. The open mic wound around the room while people shared poems that reflected on love, division, equality, nature, silence, uncertainty, violence, change. I felt privileged to be able to contribute. The East Side Visitors Centre has been open a year. It is light airy, a café and exhibition space and the people are warm and friendly. It overlooks a skate boarding park which also celebrates CS Lewis and Aslan, the lion, stands proud in bronze. While waiting for the poetry begin, I watched two British Bulldogs skating on boards with great skill and panache, three legs balancing while the fourth leg pushed. I felt privileged to be British, yes, but happy to be living in Ireland.

british bull dog

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Bird Watching in Galway

I joined the Club of the Unloved last Saturday and can highly recommend the experience. It split me up and blew me away. It was set in the Town Hall Theatre, Galway – a city last weekend thronging with arts festivities and sunshine – a heady combination.

The show, ‘Tristan and Yseult’, was a pizza of a performance: a high dough of olives, cheese, anchovies, squashed tomatoes, capers, magic mushroom, sprinkled with pepper and cumin seeds. The taste of drama, dance, humour was set to a music mix of Wagner, Daft Punk and Roy Orbison. What delectable joy. It all combined to make my tongue sizzle and hang out. It was performed by a Cornwall based company, Highknee, that, to quote the brochure, ‘creates vigorous, popular and challenging theatre and performs with joyful activity.’ The set was clever and the story was staged in the Club of the Unloved where all the characters were dressed at some point in the garb of bird watchers with binoculars. Kneehigh regaled the epic story with flare, arrow points, and a spirit that made me laugh and cry. It was theatre at its best.

Following the matinée, the good humour continued as we weaved our way through Galway’s lanes and found our own perch to watch a different performance: that of Quay Street on a summer Saturday night of sun. The ever-flowing river of pale, usually tired, sometimes happy, often gormless, occasionally angry faces make me ‘wonder’ and create my own stories. I once wrote a short story about the flow of the Galway lanes where the ‘flow’ was employed and controlled by Galway City Council.

The ‘flow’ of the weekend continued over wine, tapenade and crisps with friends. It was a heady mix of poetics and politics which always puts me in a good mood, particularly when nesting with poets who are also political egg heads.

The final egg head event of the weekend took place, appropriately enough, at the University with Colm Tóibín and Catriona Perry (the Irish Times Washington Correspondent) discussing the ‘Impact of Power.’ Colm Tóibín who, (to continue the bird watching theme), reminds me of peacock and a humming bird combined, was good. He wove a story around Trump that illustrated chaos, controversy, and anarchy with a strong (to continue the theme of flow) under-current of fear. He created for me a creature true to the American myth of the self-made man of the American dream now morphed into a dastardly but truly unpleasant cartoon character inserted in a Shakespearean tragedy of epic proportions. It was entertaining. Colm Tóibín is lovely to watch: his rubbery, egghead face rumples and contorts with intelligence, his hands gesticulate with flourish and his words whistle and flow. This time he outshone his co-conversationalist who was rather disappointing, with no original insights. She reminded me (six inch heels, slender legs) of a stork on its way to an abortion clinic. It must be the suggestion of Armageddon that Trump inspires.

All in all, a great weekend.

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Me and My Cheshire Cat

kate garden

It’s been an odd week. It has been frenetic and fun but I have also felt oddly removed from it as if I was watching myself, rather than taking part, if that makes any sense. I feel like the Cheshire Cat has joined me (the smiling cat from Alice in Wonderland which occasionally appears to Alice and talks – at least I think that is what happens, I haven’t read it for 50 years). When I was younger, each day led to the next, and was part of the whole; life belonged to me; it was mine. I didn’t notice time go by. I certainly didn’t notice Cheshire Cats! Now it is different. Each day is an individual day  and is slightly tiring. Each event in a day is a discrete one, rather than an integral part of my life. Each day is what I consciously choose to do rather than unconsciously experience.

Last Tuesday, my Cheshire Cat suggested I  get off my arse and go out. Later I slightly regretted our ‘conscious’ decision to go and see Inside Llewellyn Davies, the new Cohen Brothers movie at the Ramor Theatre in Virginia. The film was set in the 50s and 60s and was about ‘loss’ and the ‘failure’ of  singer, song writer, Llewellyn Davies. I found it lack lustre but dark. Oddly enough, though, it was the first event of a week that focussed on the past, loss, old friends and family in Cavan, Dublin and Galway.

On Wednesday evening ‘my poets’ read their love poems in the workshop I facilitate and discussed loss – the theme I had chosen. (I should say, my Cheshire Cat rarely appears in relation to my writing. Is this significant?) We read elegies and poems about death. While their poems we workedshopped a week later were very good, and it is a good theme, it is also a very dispiriting one. I came home, head in a cloud. So, when on Thursday I headed off to Galway for my poetry workshop and to go to Over The Edge with my friend Patrick, I was pleased to be heading for the clear skies of the West.

Patrick is an old friend of mine from England whom I have seen only twice in the last 30 years (different countries, marriage, children make it hard). He and I worked together in London during the eighties for the Labour borough councils. With our trusty type-writers, and fighting words, together we battled the Thatcher policies on local government cuts, rate capping and poll tax campaigns. But last Thursday, instead of politicking we were frolicking. Patrick is now doing  an MA in Writing in Limerick and so once again we were sharing passions and comparing notes. Sitting outside in the balmy winter weather on Quay St, we ate, drank and chatted about the poetry of life and love. It was as if the years had never passed. My Cheshire cat faded away!

I drove back to Cavan the next morning, feeling depleted, (more ghostlike than catlike) and was brought back to the present when I  discovered a  ‘homecoming’ was on the cards for that evening. Son was already here helping clear fallen trees and Daughter was on her way. A family dinner with all the accoutrements was required. Donning the mother mantle, I cooked roast chicken, parsnips, carrots, green beans, mashed potatoes, and it was all washed down with lashings of wine accompanied by love, laughter, bickering, and finally bed. Too busy to consider cats.

We all surfaced the following morning, misty minded, and set off on our different trajectories. Róisín (daughter) and I headed to the National Gallery in Dublin to peek at The Old Masters (and one Mistress) and an exhibition ‘Lines of Vision’ (highly recommended). This was  followed by dinner, a jug of sangria and a memorial concert at the National Concert Hall to celebrate the life of  John Ruddock, the father of one of my oldest and best friend in Dublin, who died last year. The concert was performed by the Vogler Quartet and the Scharoun Ensemble. I am not a follower of classical music or quartets, but to watch the musicians perform in the NCH was pure magic. The strings led and the wind followed, chasing their notes until they were perfectly inseparable. I cannot describe it. It was captivating. I know because I could see My Cheshire cat on the bar of the balcony with a big grin.

Yellow sunshine, blue skies, and that quiet, almost eerie calm of a Sunday morning in Dublin streamed in through Roisin’s bedroom window the next day. I got up and picked my way through the clothes strewn floor of my daughter. We had ended our musical evening with Graham Norton, Ann Hathaway, and a bottle of Aldi’s pinot grigot on the couch. After a cup of mint tea (no milk in the house) and a motherly daughter clash on  how to iron a ridiculous wrap around Penney’s garment, we set off over the hills to luncheon and reacquaint ourselves with our old and dear family friends.

We were armed with a delicious strawberry cheesecake from the Ranelagh Natural Bakery. It was oohed and ahhed at and joined an array of other lemon, raspberry, and strawberry cheesecakes, two banoffi pies, a remoulade, and a gluten free chocolate cake on the dessert table! They all looked very imperious, but an army of spoons and forks soon turned them into a veritable battle ground. The Cat had to fade rather quickly to escape injury! The white wine was gorgeous, and the house soon filled with musicians, my friend’s family, neighbours, and chit chat. It looked lovely. I didn’t watch myself mingle. I preferred to help with the food. At sunset, I took my leave and travelled north. The Cheshire Cat, snuggled on the passenger seat, talked to me as we wended our weary way to Cavan, to my own sofa, egg and chips, to watch Peaky Blinders (the BBC equivalent of Love/Hate set in the 1920s). Once there, the Cheshire Cat was chased off by Poppins, my real puppy.

The week ended  with more poetry at AT The Edge, Cavan. Kevin Higgins, Susan Millar du Mars and Philip Doherty read wonderful poems and short stories and the Open Mic was great. There was a good crowd and I was delighted. It was a success. I could be pleased, I told myself. The Cheshire Cat that sat on the podium with me as I curated the performance felt like the cat that got the cream. Later our visitors and I stayed up drinking in front of the fire, telling each other the different stories from our pasts. There are so many stories that make up a life. When we were young we had no stories to talk of, it was all about creating them…we wanted to change the world!

So my Cheshire Cat…maybe she is my inner being taking form. Maybe Philip Pullman would call it my daemon. Maybe she is my voice of experience. Whoever she is, I am learning to accept her as part of my life.

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