Archive for September, 2019

Between your love and mine

Posted in Music with tags , , on September 22, 2019 by telescoper

Yesterday, 21st September 2019, would have been Leonard Cohen‘s 85th birthday, which made last night’s performance of Between your love and mine at the National Concert Hall in Dublin an especially moving occasion.

The piece – a Requiem by Leonard Cohen, rather than a Requiem for Leonard Cohen – was created by John MacKenna who, in the summer of 2016 approached Leonard Cohen with the idea of creating a requiem in memory of young people who had died tragically, and for those grieving for them. It roughly follows the liturgical form of the Requiem mass but with text and music provided entirely by Cohen. Leonard Cohen – a Jew who had embraced Buddhism – often referred to Catholic themes and imagery in his songs and poems so the work is in no way a contrivance but has a compelling unity and honesty about it.

The first `hymn’ Come Healing sets the tone:

And let the heavens hear it,
the penitential hymn,
come healing of the spirit,
come healing of the limb.
Behold the gates of mercy
in arbitrary space
and none of us deserving
the cruelty or the grace.

Some of the songs were unfamiliar to me, but there are some of Leonard Cohen’s famous songs in Between love and mine, including Anthem and If it be your will. There are three principal vocalists: Katie Jacques, Shane Sullivan and Eric Butler. The latter in particular gave a superb performance demonstrating wonderful versatility in his voice, including a passable reference Cohen’s own deep tone (that someone once described as `like a boulder rolling down a granite tunnel’) but also deploying his own natural register to powerful effect, especially in Anthem where he summoned up his thundercloud in fiery tenor tones. Three backing singers, two readers (including John MacKenna) and a small band of strings, keyboard and drums make up the cast of this intriguing and emotionally powerful work.

Naturally, given the theme, it was a sombre performance but at the same time very uplifting. Leonard Cohen may not have been there in the flesh, but he was certainly present in spirit. In more ways than one it felt like he was the host.

And those who dance, begin to dance,
those who weep begin
and “Welcome, welcome” cries a voice
“Let all my guests come in.”

 

Culture Night (and Afternoon)

Posted in Art, Biographical, History, Maynooth, Music with tags , , , , , , , , , , , on September 21, 2019 by telescoper

I thought I’d do a quick round-up of my little trip around cultural and historic Dublin yesterday after being stood down from duty at the Higher Options fair at the Royal Dublin Society (RDS). I have to say it was wonderful to see so many people out and about in the City’s beautiful parks and public spaces enjoying the September sunshine as I walked around.

The RDS is in the Ballsbridge area in of Dublin, to the East of the City. My route into town from there took me along Northumberland Road, where I took this picture outside Number 25:

A little further along I went across Mount Street Bridge, passing this memorial.

If you want to know more about the significance of these memorials to the events of the Easter Rising in 1916, see my post here.

My main intention during my afternoon off was to visit the National Gallery of Ireland which is situated on one side of Merrion Square. I have to say that this was even better than I’d expected, and I’m sure to visit again many times in the future. The ground floor is dominated by the work of Irish artists from about 1660 to 1965, together with European Art from 1835 to 1965. You will find works by Monet and Picasso in this section, which has much to savour. Among the Irish artists represented in this show is Jack B. Yeats (brother of poet W.B. Yeats), an extremely interesting artist in his own right.

The highlights for me, however, were found on the 3rd floor which displays examples of European Art from the early Renaissance (c. 1300) to the Enlightenment. One of the interesting things about this collection is that it is arranged thematically rather than by artist (or nationality thereof). There is, for example, an entire room of paintings inspired and influenced by Caravaggio, all of them with an intensely dramatic use of light and shadow. The gallery is worth it just for that room, but there are also fascinating juxtapositions of religious paintings from the renaissance with icons and altarpieces from the Byzantine and Russian orthodox traditions from the same period.

Elsewhere in the collection there are notable works by Vermeer, Rembrandt and Perugino as well as a number of British works by, for example, Gainsborough and Reynolds.

The work that really stopped me in my tracks, however, was this:

This is St Francis Receiving The Stigmata by El Greco. I knew about this painting but had no idea it was in Dublin. Seeing it close up is a revelation: the swirling brushstrokes give it an extraordinary texture that makes it hard to bring the image completely into focus. The hypnotic feel that results is a brilliant depiction of a man undergoing a kind of ecstatic vision. This work has an unbelievably powerful effect on the viewer (or at least on this one).

After a break for a sit down and a cup of coffee I visited the Natural History Museum (which is practically next door to the National Gallery). This is a surprisingly old-fashioned affair, with hundreds of stuffed animals and birds crammed into two large rooms:

It reminded me a lot of visits to the Hancock Museum in Newcastle when I was a kid. It’s interesting, but more than a little creepy and would make an excellent setting for a horror story!

After adjourning to a pub for a pint of Guinness the final stop of the day was the National Concert Hall for yesterday’s Culture Night concert. On the way there I saw a big queue of people trying to get into one of the many free events around Dublin. It turns out this Culture Night was the grand opening of the Museum of Literature Ireland, which is situated in Newman House on the South Side of St Stephen’s Green. There’s another one to put on my list of places to visit.

The Culture Night concert was by the RTÉ National Symphony Orchestra conducted by Leonard Slatkin. The opening piece, Kinah, was a composition by the conductor himself and is a sort of memorial to his parents, both of whom were classical musicians, one a violinist and the other a cellist, and together they formed half of the famous Hollywood String Quartet. It was a new piece for me, and I found it very moving indeed. After that there was a bit of reorganization on stage to make way for the Steinway on which the brilliant Xiayin Wang played the Piano Concerto by Samuel Barber, which consists of two fast and furious movements either side of a beautifully lyrical slower movement. This must be a ferociously difficult piece to play – especially the last movement which is at a breakneck pace in 5/8 time – requiring not only dexterity but physical strength. It was a wonderful performance by Xiayin Wang, who rounded off the first half with an encore in the form of a transcription of George Gershwin’s song The Man I Love.

After the wine break interval came the main course in the form of the Symphony No. 4 in E Minor by Johannes Brahms. This is of course a much more familiar work than the previous two, but I really like concerts that mix unfamiliar material with the standard concert repertoire. It also gave me the chance to persevere with Brahms as my friends keep telling me to. It’s not that I don’t like Brahms, it’s just that I don’t find that he moves me as much as many other composers and so many people rave about him that I think I must be missing something. The 4th Symphony is a very fine work, and was performed beautifully last night under the direction of Leonard Slatkin (conducting, incidentally, without a score), but I couldn’t stop myself thinking how much like Beethoven it sounds. That’s not meant to be derogatory, by the way.

But you don’t need to take my word for it. You can listen to (and watch) the whole concert here:

Anyway, after the applause had died down I headed out towards Pearse Station for the train back to Maynooth. I was a bit tired after a very full day and wanted to get the 10.08 train so I didn’t stop to watch any of the numerous musical and artistic events I passed on the way, including an intriguing installation involving images projected onto one of the buildings to the side of St Stephen’s Green. I made it to the station with 5 minutes to spare and discovered that, because it was Culture Night, the train home was free!

Higher Options

Posted in Biographical, Education, Maynooth with tags , , on September 20, 2019 by telescoper

So here I am at the RDS in Dublin for the final day of Higher Options which is a sort of trade fair for Irish Universities, other tertiary education institutions and related organisations.

It’s my first trip to one of these events and I was a bit taken aback by the crowds when I arrived. I’m not very good in unfamiliar situations where there a lots of people moving around me.

Fortunately I soon found the Maynooth stand, which was fairly conspicuous:

Once I found the sanctuary where I was supposed to be it was all fine. There was a constant stream of people coming to talk to us until about 1pm, when it started to quieten.

Just as well really as we had run out of the relevant literature!

Now I’m a free agent and it’s a lovely afternoon so I’m going to wander around Dublin this afternoon until this evening’s concert at the National Concert Hall. My excuses for not going back to Maynooth are (a) that I didn’t fancy going back just to come into Dublin later this evening and (b) that this is the last day before teaching starts next week, and therefore my last chance of a bit of rest and recreation before term!

Update: there was, apparently, an incident outside the RDS while I was inside, but I wasn’t aware of it at all and only found out about it after I left.

Feline Matters

Posted in Maynooth with tags , on September 19, 2019 by telescoper

In gratitude for Maynooth University’s recent rise in the Times Higher League Tables reported yesterday, the authorities have made appropriate offerings to the deity responsible for this good fortune:

I notice also that Maynooth University Library Cat is clearly the inspiration for this visualisation of an inspiralling system, though I’m not sure what amplitude of gravitational waves this event would produce.

All of which means that I’m about to go home for an evening’s relaxation before spending tomorrow in Dublin…

Open Letter to the EU: Reinstate the Commissioner for Science and Research

Posted in Science Politics with tags , , , , on September 19, 2019 by telescoper

It may have escaped your attention (as it did mine) that, when the candidates for members of the European Union Commission were presented last week, the role of Commissioner for Research, Science and Innovation has apparently been phased out, and its remit subsumed by that of the Commissioner for “Innovation and Youth”.

Downgrading the role of Science and Research in this way is a retrograde step, as is the introduction of a Commissioner for `Protecting the European Way of Life’, which is a racist dog-whistle if ever I heard one.

Anyway, back on the subject of Research and Science, there is a letter going around protesting the loss of a specific role in the Commission covering this portfolio.

Here is the text:

Your Excellencies Presidents Sassoli, Dr. Juncker and Dr. von der Leyen,

The candidates for the new EU commissioners were presented last week. In the new commission the areas of education and research are not explicitly represented anymore and instead are subsumed under the “innovation and youth” title. This emphasizes economic exploitability (i.e. “innovation”) over its foundation, which is education and research, and it reduces “education” to “youth” while being essential to all ages.

We, as members of the scientific community of Europe, wish to address this situation early on and emphasize both to the general public, as well as to relevant politicians on the national and European Union level, that without dedication to education and research there will neither exist a sound basis for innovation in Europe, nor can we fulfill the promise of a high standard of living for the citizens of Europe in a fierce global competition.

President von der Leyen, in her mission letter to commissioner Gabriel, has emphasized that “education, research and innovation will be key to our competitiveness”.

With this open letter we demand that the EU commission revises the title for commissioner Gabriel to “Education, Research, Innovation and Youth” reflecting Europe’s dedication to all of these crucial areas. We also call upon the European Parliament to request this change in name before confirming the nominees for commissioner.

I have signed the letter, and encourage you to do likewise if you are so inclined. You can find a link to the letter, together with instructions how to sign it, here.

University Rankings Again

Posted in Education, Maynooth with tags , , , , , on September 18, 2019 by telescoper

Last week saw the publication of the Times Higher World University Rankings which have once again predictably generated a great deal of sound and fury while signifying nothing very important. I can’t be bothered to repeat my previous criticisms of these league tables (though I will point you to a very good rant here) but I will make a couple of comments on the reaction to them here in Ireland.

First let me mention (for what it’s worth) that Maynooth University has risen from the band covering 351st-400th place to that covering 301st to 350th place. That means that Maynooth went up by anything from 1 place to 99 places. That’s two consecutive years of rises for NUIM.

(I’ll add without further comment that I arrived here two years ago…)

The Irish Media have not paid much attention to this (or to the improvement in standing of NUI Galway) but have instead been preoccupied with the fact that the College of the Holy and Undivided Trinity of Queen Elizabeth near Dublin, known as Trinity College Dublin for short, has fallen by 44 places to 164th place; see, for example, here. Now there’s no question in my mind that Irish universities need an injection of income – especially in science subjects – in order to improve standards of education and research, but I don’t really understand the obsession with Trinity College. It’s a fine institution, of course, but sometimes it’s almost as if the press think that’s the only University in Ireland…

In response to its declining fortunes Trinity College has claimed that Ireland needs a `Rankings Strategy’. No it doesn’t. It needs something far more radical – a higher education strategy. The current government  doesn’t have one

Anyway, given the rate of Maynooth’s rise and Trinity’s fall it is a straightforward undoubtedly scientifically valid extrapolation to predict that in two or three years time, Maynooth will have overtaken Trinity in the World Rankings anyway!

(No, I’m not going to take any bets on that.)

Turning away from the exercise in numerological flummery that is the Times Higher League Tables, let me pass on some numbers that are actually meaningful. The week before term with not everyone yet registered, the number of students taking Mathematical Physics in the first year at Maynooth has increased by 31% since last year and the number on our fast-track Theoretical Physics and Mathematics (TP&M) programme has increased threefold. These increases are very pleasing. Although lectures proper don’t start until next week, I did an introductory session with the TP&M students this morning. It was very nice to be able to welcome them to Maynooth for what I hope will be an enjoyable time at Ireland’s soon-to-be top University!

Operation Market Garden – 75 Years On

Posted in History with tags , , , on September 17, 2019 by telescoper

Seventy-five years ago today, on 17th September 1944, the largest airborne operation in military history began. Operation Market Garden (as it was called) saw about 35,000 Allied troops dropped by parachute or landed in gliders behind German lines in Holland, with the aim of seizing key bridges in order to allow infantry and armoured divisions to advance, eventually into Germany. Of more immediate tactical importance was that capture of the Northernmost bridges over the Rhine at Arnhem would prevent German reinforcements from moving South to confront the advancing troops, tanks and armoured vehicles of XXX Corps whose job was to punch a hole in the German defences and link up with the airborne troops.

Operation_MARKET-GARDEN_-_82.Airborne_near_Grave

Motivated by the belief that German armies in the West were exhausted and on the brink of collapse as well as the desire if possible to finish the war before Christmas, Operation Market Garden was daring and imaginative, but began to unravel right from the outset and ended as a disastrous failure, with the loss of many lives.

I’m not a military historian, so am not competent to add anything significant to the huge amount that has been written about what went wrong, but I will add a personal note. A cousin of my Grandfather flew to Arnhem with the 1st British Airborne division whose job was to take and hold the bridges over the Rhine that would open the door to an invasion of Germany. Sadly, he was one of those many troops who never even made it to their objective. In fact he was dead before he even hit the ground; his unit was dropped virtually on top of heavily armed German forces and had no chance of defending themselves. I had always been told that he had been dropped by parachute, but the records at the cemetery revealed that was wrong; he was on a glider which was badly shot up during its approach and crash-landed with no survivors.

The action at Arnhem actually involved two bridges, one a railway bridge at Oosterbeek, and the other a road bridge in Arnhem itself. British paratroopers did manage to capture one end of the road bridge, but never succeeded in securing both ends of the structure. Cut off from the much larger force pinned down near their landing zones they were eventually forced to surrender simply because they had run out of ammunition. The other units that landed near Arnhem never made their objectives and had to dig in and hope for reinforcements that never came. They fought a brave but desperate defensive action until 25th September when some were successfully evacuated across the Rhine. The original battle orders had specified they were to hold their ground for 48 hours until relieved by armour and infantry advancing rapidly from the South, but 30 Corps was heavily delayed by fighting, poor tactical decisions and congestion on the single road.

Some years ago, after attending a conference in Leiden, I took time out to visit Oosterbeek cemetery, where  1437 soldiers lie buried. Such was the chaos at Arnhem that bodies of fallen soldiers are still being discovered in gardens and woods; as there were so many dead that there was only time to bury them in shallow graves where they had fallen. As remains are discovered they are removed and reburied in Oosterbeek. When I visited the cemetery about 25 years ago, there were several brand new graves.

At the time of Market Garden the local people looked on in horror as their potential liberators were cut down. It must have been deeply traumatizing for them. I think it is telling that when, in 1969, the British Army proposed bringing to an end the annual ceremonies in commemoration of these events, local Dutch civilians insisted that they continue.

As I stood by the grave I couldn’t help thinking of how lucky members of my generation are that we have not been called on to make such a sacrifice. Now I fear deeply that the rise of nationalism and xenophobia, not least in Britain, threatens to the peace in Europe that has held for almost 75 years.

The failure of Operation Market Garden had other terrible consequences. The winter of 1944/45 was a terrible time one for Dutch civilians in the part of their country that had not been liberated, with many thousands dying from hunger and the bitter cold.

And of course had the Allies succeeded in penetrating into Germany in 1944, the post-war map of Europe would probably have been very different. This is how the front lines were drawn in mid-September 1944, with the Western Front and Eastern Front roughly equidistant from Berlin.

(By Army Map Service – Document “Atlas of the World Battle Fronts in Semimonthly Phases to August 15th 1945: Supplement to The Biennial report of the Chief of Staff of the United States Army July 1, 1943 to June 30 1945 To the Secretary of War”, Public Domain, Link.)

Had Market Garden been successful would there have been 45 years of Cold War?

Eleven Years a-Blogging

Posted in Uncategorized with tags , on September 16, 2019 by telescoper

I received the little graphic above from WordPress yesterday to remind me that today is the 11th Anniversary of my first blog post, on September 16th 2008. If this were a wedding it would be a steel anniversary…

To be precise, the graphic reminded me that that I registered with WordPress on 15th September 2008. I actually wrote my first post on the day I registered but unfortunately I didn’t really know what I was doing on my first day at blogging and I didn’t actually manage to figure out how to publish this earth-shattering piece. It was only after I’d written my second post that I realized that the first one wasn’t actually visible to the general public because I hadn’t pressed the right buttons, so the two appear in the wrong order in my archive. Anyway, that confusion is the reason why I usually take 16th September as this blog’s real anniversary.

I’d like to take this opportunity to send my best wishes, and to thank, everyone who reads this blog, however occasionally. According to the WordPress stats, I’ve got readers from all round the world, including the Vatican!

Lord, Let Me In The Lifeboat

Posted in Jazz, Politics with tags , , , , , , on September 16, 2019 by telescoper

Yesterday I noticed a now-typical outburst of British mean-spirited xenophobia in that people are cancelling their donations to the Royal National Lifeboat Institution on the grounds that it spends a massive 2% of its budget saving lives abroad rather than in the UK. Or at least claim to be cancelling donations. Judging by the kind of people commenting on Twitter I’d bet than none of them has ever donated anything to anyone in their entire crab-faced existence. The face of `Global Britain’ as represented by the Daily Mail gets more umpleasant by the day.

Anyway, as a regular donor to the RNLI I have this morning increased my contribution and will be wearing my RNLI pin badge in support of the brave men and women who regularly risk their lives to save those in distress at sea.

Incidentally, in case you were wondering, the RNLI also serves Ireland: there are 59 lifeboats based in 45 stations in the Republic as well as Northern Ireland.

Anyway, I don’t want to let all this get anyone down so I’m sharing this piece of music which sprang to mind. Lord Let Me In The Lifeboat was recorded in 1945 for the Blue Note label by a band led by Sidney Bechet and Bunk Johnson. The latter had just come out of retirement courtesy of Sidney Bechet’s brother Leonard, a dentist, who furnished trumpeter Johnson with a new set of false teeth to allow him to resume playing. Not a lot of people know that.

Understandably, Bunk Johnson’s chops were not in great shape on this session but Bechet’s certainly were! When I was a lad I used to spend a bit of time transcribing clarinet solos from old records, and I remember doing this one by Sidney Bechet. The notes in themselves are not hard to play, but few people could generate that heavy vibrato and rich tone!

UPDATE: Oh look! I found it. If you want to play along at home, here you are. It’s in B♭ Major, and comes with a best guess as to the chords:

Lifeboat

Update: Great News

Reasons to stay alive

Posted in Biographical, Mental Health with tags , , , , on September 15, 2019 by telescoper

I saw this message from author Matt Haig on Twitter last weekend and it affected me so much I couldn’t write about it at the time.

Twenty years ago, when he was in his twenties, Matt tried to take his own life. He didn’t succeed, but the attempt left him severely ill as he summarises in that tweet. He wrote about his crisis in his book Reasons To Stay Alive, from which I have borrowed the title of this post.

Why did this message affect me so much? It’s largely because the words he uses to describe his condition also exactly describe what I was like seven years ago when I was admitted to an acute ward in a psychiatric hospital. I wasn’t exactly suicidal, just so exhausted that I didn’t really care what happened next. I was however put on a kind of `suicide watch’, the reason for this being that, apparently, even while sedated, I kept trying to pull the tube out of my arm. I was being fed via a drip because I was ‘Nil by Mouth’ by virtue of uncontrollable vomiting. I guess the doctors thought I was trying to sabotage myself, but I wasn’t. Not consciously anyway. I think it was probably just irritating me. In fact I don’t remember doing it at all, but that period is very much a blur altogether. Anyway, I then found myself in physical restraints so I couldn’t move my arms to stop me doing that.

Eventually I was deemed well enough to move to a general ward and shortly after that I was discharged (with follow-up counselling and medication).

Experiences like that – which I sincerely hope none of you reading this ever have to go through – make you feel very isolated because you are lost inside your own head and body. Knowing that other people go through similar things, and not only survive but prosper, helps a lot. You feel a bit less of an outlier. Of course I’ll never appear on stage at the National Theatre, but although the intervening years haven’t exactly been plain sailing, the last seven have brought far more positives than negatives.

It’s hard to explain why Matt’s message had such a resonance. His experience was clearly far worse than mine, but when I was discharged from hospital the doctors made it very clear just how ill I had been, and that if there was any recurrence I should get help as soon as possible. As well as writing about it on this blog, I did a piece for Time to Change Wales, encouraging people to ask for help if they need it.

Anyway, this brings me to the point of this sermon. Yesterday I received this by email:

It’s from Niteline, an organisation whose volunteers offer students free confidential counselling, and it came with a suggestion (which I will follow) that I should share it with students before and after my lectures. I’m not sure how many students will read this blog, but I thought I would share it here too. If it encourages just one person who is struggling to find someone to talk to then it’s worth it.