A little Shakespeare for a warm, sunny morning.

On my daily walk along the river, there is a particularly warm spot, whatever way the river turns, or the shelter the trees provide, or the corner of the path – whichever. I always stop there for a moment, and today, this sonnet came into my mind. I hope you enjoy it.

Shall I compare thee to a summer’s day?

Thou art more lovely and more temperate.

Rough winds do shake the darling buds of May,

And summer’s lease hath all too short a date.

Sometime too hot the eye of heaven shines,

And often is his gold complexion dimmed,

And every fair from fair sometime declines,

By chance or nature’s changing course untrimmed;

But thy eternal summer shall not fade

Nor loose possession of that fair thou ow’st,

Nor shall death brag thou wander’st in his shade

When in eternal lines to time thou grow’st

So long as men can breathe or eyes can see,

So long lives this, and this gives life to thee.

I learned this off by heart at school, and still remember it.

From “May Toal” in We All Die in the End.

I was discussing domestic abuse with some friends recently, on the dreaded Zoom – I’m really not comfortable with it. I never know when to speak up and I miss looking straight at people, and reading body language as well. Anyway, I suffered domestic violence myself, as did an awful lot of women I know, which is probably why it appears in more than one of my stories. So, I thought I’d post a short passage from May Toal here.

‘”It was just the same as usual, Henry, that priest that’s visiting, Monroe, he’s called. Isn’t that gas? Do you think he’s related to Marilyn? He gave the sermon, better than the usual oul stuff, love your neighbour and all that. There’s nothing to tell, Henry, not a thing, unless you want to know what the neighbours were wearing.”

            Oh, but she had plenty to say for herself, lickity spit, lickity spit, galloping on. Henry slapped her hard; he felt the sting on his palm and she stumbled, reaching out a hand to the sink.

            “By God!” Henry caught her by the arm.

 “I’m going to find out what you’re doing with my money.”

            He shook her until the permed curls hopped and jumped and tears splashed from her eyes. Behind them the potatoes boiled up and water hissed on the ring. Henry’s fingers bit deep.

            “I went to the church, May. What do you say to that? I went to say a prayer alongside my wife, but my wife wasn’t there. And I phoned my wife but I got no answer. What’s up with you now? Speak up, woman! You had plenty to say a minute ago.”

            He grabbed the wiry curls.

            “Ah, don`t. Ah, don`t!” May cried out.

            “I went there in the storm,” he said into her ear, “to bring you home so you could make my dinner and not be whinging about getting wet.”            

Henry could feel the heat in his chest burning hotter and hotter. He forced May to her knees, still with his fist in her hair and he never even saw her arm swing up with the saucepan. It cracked against his head and he swayed there with his arms loose.

“Jesus . . .  ” he said.

            When the second blow landed he fell against the table and slid onto a chair. He stared with dopey eyes at May. She’d gone mad, was all he could think.

            “Now! Now! Now! Now!” she said. “I’ll tell you where I’ve been if you want to know, not that I could go far on the bit of money you dole out to me.”

            She laughed suddenly.

            “And did you wait there long? I can just see you lurking around and squinting up your oul face. Well, I was in Dinnie’s, Henry. Me and your Irene, yes, your sister – we go to talks in the ladies’ club, and after that we go to the pub, and after that we get fish and chips and go down to the harbour, and we sit on the wall and eat them. So now you know what the collection’s for. It’s for me! But you can stuff it up your arse in future because I’m going back to the Civil Service and I won’t need your oul money. The girls are gone now and I don’t have to be here all the time to cook you steak for your dinner and wash your dirty clothes.”‘

Star of the Sea | An unforgettable book

Who would ever forget the names Scarlett O’Hara, Heathcliff, Tom Joad, Yossarian? For me, Pius Mulvey joins the list. I was reading through Joseph O’Connor’s Star of the Sea, published in 2002. It’s on my TBR again list. When I first read the book, I carried it around with me. I was totally absorbed. I read it during meals, standing at bus stops. If I was watching television I read it during the ads. I literally could not put it down.

I’m copying this information from Amazon, a little about the author, and a little from a review and a few lines about the book.

The Writer: Joseph O’Connor was born in Dublin. His books include eight previous novels: Cowboys and Indians (Whitbread Prize shortlist), DesperadoesThe SalesmanInishowenStar of the Sea (American Library Association Award, Irish Post Award for Fiction, France’s Prix Millepages, Italy’s Premio Acerbi, Prix Madeleine Zepter for European novel of the year), Redemption Falls, Ghost Light (Dublin One City One Book Novel 2011) and The Thrill of it All. His fiction has been translated into forty languages.

The Story: In the bitter winter of 1847, from an Ireland torn by injustice and natural disaster, the Star of the Sea sets sail for New York. On board are hundreds of fleeing refugees. Among them are a maidservant with a devastating secret, bankrupt Lord Merridith and his family, an aspiring novelist and a maker of revolutionary ballads, all braving the Atlantic in search of a new home. Each is connected more deeply than they can possibly know.

From a Review: “I have also never wanted to read a book more than once. Until I first picked up The Star Of The Sea. I have read it four times now over the years and I know I will read it again and again. I love this book. Beautifully written. Exciting characters / plot. I get something new from it every time I read it. This book will last me my lifetime. Thank you Joseph O’Connor!”

Here is the opening paragraph where we meet Pius Mulvey:

“All night long he would walk the ship, from brow to stern, from dusk until quarterlight, that sticklike limping man from Connemara with the dropping shoulders and ash-coloured clothes.”

Joseph O’Connor is a prolific writer and has written many non-fiction books as well as novels. There is one called “Inside the Head of the Irish Male” which made me laugh out loud so often I was afraid to read it on the bus!

If This is a Man | A poem by Primo Levi

This poem is printed at the beginning of Levi’s book, “If This is a Man | The Truce”, which is a truly wonderful book. I re-read it recently and felt I had to share the poem.

You who live safe

In your warm houses,

You who find, returning in the evening,

Hot food and friendly faces:

Consider if this is a man

Who works in the mud

Who does not know peace

Who fights for a scrap of bread

Who dies because of a yes or a no,

Consider if this is a woman,

Without hair and without name

With no more strength to remember,

Her eyes empty and her womb cold

Like a frog in winter.

Meditated that this came about:

I commend these words to you.

Carve them in your hearts

At home, in the street,

Going to bed, rising;

Repeat them to your children.

Or, may your house call apart,

May illness impede you,

May your children turn their faces from you.

Northanger Abbey | A Short Review.

I thought I had read all of Jane Austen’s novels but realised recently that I had missed Northanger Abbey and promptly downloaded it to my kindle. I wish I hadn’t; I can’t think of one good thing to say about this book. Can it possibly have been written by the same hand that gave us Pride and Prejudice, Sense and Sensibility etc?

This book was completed in 1803, the first of Austin’s novels to be completed but it wasn’t published until after she died. You might think from this that I dislike classics; nothing could be more wrong. I love the classics, especially the ones I studied at school – contrary to the experience of many people.

So, I began to read with anticipation only to be terribly disappointed. The writing is extremely wordy, vague, intricate and boring.. It’s like reading in a fog:

Compliments on good looks now passed; and, after observing how time had slipped away since they were last together, how little they had thought of meeting in Bath, and what a pleasure it was to see an old friend, they proceeded to make enquiries and give intelligence as to their families, sisters, and cousins, talking both together, far more ready to give than to receive information, and each hearing very little of what the other said. Mrs. Thorpe, however, had one great advantage as a talker, over Mrs. Allen, in a family of children . . . “

A lot of words saying nothing at all, even allowing for the utterly different style of writing in the 19th century.

Northanger Abbey itself doesn’t appear in the book until 66% has been read already (according to kindle), and is a peculiar sort of Abbey. I could get no idea of its shape and size. At this point some gothic nonsense is inserted and lasts for a couple of chapters. Some parts of the house would appear to be out of bounds, and peculiar furniture appears in Catherine’s bedroom with secret doors and drawers which give her an uneasy feeling. However this is all soon forgotten – with no explanation for the strange furniture – and returns to the main love story which is so uninteresting that the reader could not care less whether there was a happy ending or not.

The heroine is young, an idealist, and, sometimes, innocent to the point of imbecility. The hero does nothing heroic; he is just there for Catherine to fall in love with. There are a couple of female characters who could have been developed into interesting people to read about but it never happened. They remained as puppets. As this was Austen’s first book, perhaps she was simply trying out various ideas and never meant for it to be published. It reads like a very long first draft, with a little of this and that. The only thing the book does is give us an idea of society, the mores, the morals, the intricacies of class distinction, the manners and the dress code. An essay would have done that job very well.

Has anyone else read this book recently? I would be very interested to hear someone else’s view.

An Excerpt from “Thelma” in We All Die in the End

“I wonder if I should wash . . . Thelma, do you think I should have a wash?”

            Thelma dithered beside the bed, moving from one wee foot to the other, waiting to heave Thomas to his feet. The top of his pyjamas hung open and his belly bulged over the bottoms. There was a line of sweat where the bulge began and another across the back of his neck when he bent to look at his feet.

            “Whatever you like, dear. The water’s hot.”

            “Well, I will then. I’ll have a nice wash and you can change the bed. I’m a bit sticky. One of the boys spilled beer . . .   “

            Thomas waved a hand near his pillow and then clutched Thelma’s arm. She braced herself and waited while he moved his heavy legs to the floor.

            “Up we go,” she said. “Upsy daisy.”

            Slowly, Thomas pushed his feet into his summer gutties and hauled himself up along Thelma’s, thin shoulder. She glanced at his jacket hung over the chair, pockets sagging a bit with change, good! Thomas’ hand was tight on her wrist and she fixed her eyes on the plump, pink fingers. She would prick him like a sausage . . . prick, prick, prick, all over, and his pink skin would burst open with wee pops and the yellow fat would ooze out, relieved and grateful.

            “I’ll have a piss first,” Thomas said.

            “Yes, and have a shower,” Thelma said. “You’ll feel the better of it.”

            Thomas nodded and shut the bathroom door. Thelma could hear him coughing, and then he was pissing and spitting and farting and coughing all at once – the whole bloody orchestra, as he said himself. When the toilet flushed she footered about with the socks in his drawer in case he changed his mind and came back but after a minute she heard the shower starting up.

            She shook his jacket and pushed her fingers quickly into the pockets. Heavy change – she left a couple of coins so he wouldn’t miss the jingle. In his trousers two fivers were stuck together. Thelma took one. She slid the money into one of her green boots with the fur and counted with a quick look. Fifty pounds all told – not bad. She ran her fingers and her eyes over it and then she carefully pulled up the zip. Now, she said to herself, Irene can’t say I’m not trying.

            A whole weekend away! Up the coast, that lovely, old hotel, and the lovely, soft, sandy beach, not covered in stones like ours! Oh, it’ll be great, it’ll be magic, magic! She leaned against the chest of drawers with her eyes shut tight and her arms folded, one wee ankle twisted around the other. She’d eat steak and chips and drink Prosecco . . .

            She opened her eyes. The bed! She tore the sheet off and pulled at the duvet cover. Crumbs, beer stains, the pillow-case grey from his head. She ran round and round the bed, smoothing and tugging and then she leapt when Thomas roared from the bathroom:

            “How long am I supposed to wait here?”

            He’d be dripping all over the place! Thelma left the pillow and skipped into the bathroom. Thomas was shivering; he dabbed at himself with a towel.

An excerpt from “Walking With Ghosts” by Gabriel Byrne | A Memoir

This is a wonderful book, beautifully written. I have a feeling I’ll be posting more than one excerpt. Here, he is talking about going to dances long ago. The sixties – he’s the same vintage as myself!

“Crowds streaming out of the pubs, some walking or on bicycles; hard chaws in their fathers’ cars leaning out windows with cigarettes, like they were in a film, combing oiled hair into Elvis quiffs and whistling at the girls click-clacking by in short dresses.

On the stage the spangle-suited band, brass flashing, guitars twanging beneath revolving globes that scattered shards of light over the dancers.

Wallflowers looked out with shy, uncertain eyes.

How long had they spent in front of the mirror getting ready and here they sat unwanted, with thumping hearts, yet hopeful they might be chosen, having to look unconcerned when they were not.

I understood them, afraid of being rejected, as I was shoved towards them in a herd of Brut aftershave and Guinness.”

Another excerpt from “Walking With Ghosts” by Gabriel Byrne | A Memoir

What his mother told him about meeting his father, and about his birth.

“It was our fate to meet like that because of the rain and the matches and the Metropole and the doorway, and if it hadn’t happened like that you might not be here now. Isn’t that a strange thing to think? The way we all come into the world.

You gave the fight not to come, but out you landed in the end. And you didn’t like it one bit. The red puss on you, and the baldy head, not a lick of hair; upside down and a slap on the arse to set you roaring. O the bawls of you! The whole country kept wide awake. Three o’clock in the morning in the Rotunda Hospital there beside the Gate Theatre. Lying on my shoulder, eyes shut tight, sleeping like a kitten. O, but a cranky lump if you didn’t get a sup of the breast.”

Isn’t that marvelous? The red puss on you, and the baldy head. Love it!

Quotes from “Coming Up for Air” by George Orwell

“I was trying to shave with a bluntish razor-blade while the water ran into the bath. My face looked back at me out of the mirror, and underneath, in a tumbler of water on the little shelf over the washbasin, the teeth that belonged in the face. It was the temporary set that Warner, my dentist, had given me to wear while the new ones were being made. I haven’t such a bad face, really. It’s one of those bricky-red faces that go with butter-coloured hair and pale-blue eyes. I’ve never gone grey or bald, thank God, and when I’ve got my teeth in I probably don’t look my age, which is forty-five.”

There is so much more to Orwell than Animal Farm and 1984 and I love this book – Coming Up for Air. It’s the story of a man on a day out, searching for scenes of his childhood. It’s so very readable and engrossing. I read several passages over and over again. But I’ll just add one more here.

“I bent down to pick up a primrose. Couldn’t reach it – too much belly. I squatted down on my haunches and picked a little bunch of them. Lucky there was no one to see me. The leaves were kind of crinkly and shaped like rabbits’ ears. I stood up and put my bunch of primroses on the gatepost. Then on an impulse I slid my false teeth out of my mouth and had a look at them. If I’d had a mirror I’d have looked at the whole of myself, though, as a matter fact, I knew what I looked like already. A fat man of forty-five, in a grey herringbone suit a bit the worse for wear and a bowler hat. Wife, two kids and a house in the suburbs written all over me. Red face and boiled blue eyes. I know, you don’t have to tell me. But the thing that struck me, as I gave my dental plate the once-over before slipping it back into my mouth, was that it doesn’t matter. Even false teeth don’t matter. I’m fat – yes. I look like a bookie’s unsuccessful brother – yes. No woman will ever go to bed with me again unless she’s paid to. I know all that. But I tell you I don’t care. I don’t want the women, I don’t even want to be young again. I only want to be alive. And I was alive that moment when I stood looking at the primroses and the red embers under the hedge. It’s a feeling inside you, a kind of peaceful feeling, and yet it’s like a flame.”

There, that’s enough. Has anyone else read this? Or other Orwells?