Archive for the Literature Category

The Days of the Double Bind

Posted in Biographical, Literature, Politics with tags , , , , , , , on December 5, 2017 by telescoper

The last few days I’ve been trying to deal with the sort of apparently insoluble problem usually called a double bind, similar to the logical paradox which provided the central plot device of Joseph Heller’s classic novel Catch-22. I’ve seen this particular double bind happen to so many colleagues from abroad wanting to work in the United Kingdom that in a sense it’s quite reassuring that the same thing happens in much the same way in other countries too, specifically Ireland.

The problem facing me is that I need to find somewhere to rent temporarily in Maynooth until I can find longer-term accommodation (i.e. by buying a house). As convenient as St Patrick’s College is as a short-term residence, it’s not somewhere I would want to live for weeks and months. The trouble is that in order to secure private rented accommodation you need to prove that you are able to pay the rent, which generally means having a bank account. On the other hand, in order to open a bank account you need to have proof of an address. No address, no bank account and no bank account, no address.

This is not exactly the same as Heller’s Catch-22 (which is basically that an airman can’t be discharged from military service on grounds of being insane because his wanting to be discharged from military service means that he can’t actually be insane), but it belongs to the same broad class of logical quandaries where there appears to be no solution.

Although it’s quite intimidating to be put in a seemingly impossible position, Robert M. Persig’s Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance offers a way out: you just need to `unask the question’, and proceed in a way that denies the (binary) premises on which the conundrum is based. Engaging in a bit of lateral thinking, calling on the assistance of influential bodies, and employing a bit of gentle persuasion you often find that what look initially like hard rules turn out to have a surprising degree of flexibility.  Anyway, to cut a long story short, and with fingers crossed, I should have my bank account and place of residence both sorted out before I return to Cardiff on Thursday.

For me of course this isn’t anything like a life-or-death situation. I have been around long enough not to let bureaucracy get to me. Things like this seem very serious at the time, but there’s always a way to resolve the, usually because there are still some reasonable people in the world. And I am lucky. I can cope with the uncertainty and frustration of being in a double bind as I have resources to fall back on if there are problems. It would no doubt have been more difficult had I just arrived in the country as a recent graduate with no savings. I’ve seen many others at all kinds of stages in their career go through a similar impasse and, though it’s troublesome, such things invariably sort themselves out in time. Still, it’s nice to get such things settled sooner rather than later.

Thinking about this as I listened to the radio this morning, I was struck by another, much larger, more important, and slightly more complex, paradox. That is the inability of the UK government to find a solution to the Irish border problem in the Brexit negotiations. In essence, the nature of this pickle is that the EU insists (as it always said it would) that there should be no hard border between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland. That is possible if the UK leaves the EU but seems to require that Northern Ireland  remains in  the Single Market and Customs Union in some form. However, the PM has insisted that the United Kingdom must leave the Single Market and Customs Union. Moreover, the Democratic Unionist Party, which is propping up the Conservative government, insists (as it always said it would) that Northern Ireland should not be treated differently from the rest of the UK. If cast in these terms, there seems to be no solution to the problem.

Incidentally, and I now digress, here is a map showing the Four Provinces of Ireland, together with the current border:

These are historical divisions and nowadays have no political or administrative role, but I think the map is interesting because it shows, if you didn’t know it before, that: (a) the current Irish border does not coincide with the boundary of Ulster; and (b) the most northerly point of the island of Ireland (Malin Head  on the Inishowen Peninsula, in County Donegal)  is in the Irish Republic, not in Northern Ireland. Maynooth, incidentally, is in Leinster.

Anyway, I think the current stalemate over the Irish Border is the inevitable outcome of one of Theresa May’s `red lines’ which seem to me to make a negotiated settlement impossible a priori. The only option for the Prime Minister seems to me to be to frame the problem another way. One way of making progress would be to abandon the red line on SM and CU membership. I don’t think that will happen as it would look too much like an admission of failure. Another way to do it would be to use gentle persuasion to get the DUP to shift its position. That is more likely, but will prove costly in both political and financial terms.  The best way to unask this particular question is, of course, to abandon the Brexit project altogether. I’m not going to quote odds, but the possibility of the United Kingdom remaining in the European Union is increasing by the day. That won’t affect me directly very much, as I’ll be remaining in the EU come what may.


The Moon and the Yew Tree

Posted in Poetry with tags , on December 3, 2017 by telescoper

This is the light of the mind, cold and planetary.
The trees of the mind are black. The light is blue.
The grasses unload their griefs at my feet as if I were God,
Prickling my ankles and murmuring of their humility.
Fumy spiritous mists inhabit this place
Separated from my house by a row of headstones.
I simply cannot see where there is to get to.

The moon is no door. It is a face in its own right,
White as a knuckle and terribly upset.
It drags the sea after it like a dark crime; it is quiet
With the O-gape of complete despair. I live here.
Twice on Sunday, the bells startle the sky –
Eight great tongues affirming the Resurrection.
At the end, they soberly bong out their names.

The yew tree points up. It has a Gothic shape.
The eyes lift after it and find the moon.
The moon is my mother. She is not sweet like Mary.
Her blue garments unloose small bats and owls.
How I would like to believe in tenderness –
The face of the effigy, gentled by candles,
Bending, on me in particular, its mild eyes.

I have fallen a long way. Clouds are flowering
Blue and mystical over the face of the stars.
Inside the church, the saints will be all blue,
Floating on their delicate feet over cold pews,
Their hands and faces stiff with holiness.
The moon sees nothing of this. She is bald and wild.
And the message of the yew tree is blackness – blackness and silence.

by Sylvia Plath (1932-1963)

Gravity begins at home

Posted in Music, Poetry with tags , , on November 30, 2017 by telescoper


The Stare’s Nest

Posted in Poetry with tags , , , , on November 28, 2017 by telescoper

The bees build in the crevices
Of loosening masonry, and there
The mother birds bring grubs and flies.
My wall is loosening; honey-bees,
Come build in the empty house of the stare.

We are closed in, and the key is turned
On our uncertainty; somewhere
A man is killed, or a house burned,
Yet no cleat fact to be discerned:
Come build in he empty house of the stare.

A barricade of stone or of wood;
Some fourteen days of civil war;
Last night they trundled down the road
That dead young soldier in his blood:
Come build in the empty house of the stare.

We had fed the heart on fantasies,
The heart’s grown brutal from the fare;
More Substance in our enmities
Than in our love; O honey-bees,
Come build in the empty house of the stare.

by William Butler Yeats (1865-1939)

I Grant You Ample Leave

Posted in Poetry with tags , , , on September 28, 2017 by telescoper

“I grant you ample leave
To use the hoary formula ‘I am’
Naming the emptiness where thought is not;
But fill the void with definition, ‘I’
Will be no more a datum than the words
You link false inference with, the ‘Since’ & ‘so’
That, true or not, make up the atom-whirl.
Resolve your ‘Ego’, it is all one web
With vibrant ether clotted into worlds:
Your subject, self, or self-assertive ‘I’
Turns nought but object, melts to molecules,
Is stripped from naked Being with the rest
Of those rag-garments named the Universe.
Or if, in strife to keep your ‘Ego’ strong
You make it weaver of the etherial light,
Space, motion, solids & the dream of Time–
Why, still ’tis Being looking from the dark,
The core, the centre of your consciousness,
That notes your bubble-world: sense, pleasure, pain,
What are they but a shifting otherness,
Phantasmal flux of moments?–“

by George Eliot (1819-1880)


Song of Creation

Posted in Poetry with tags , on September 20, 2017 by telescoper

Then there was neither Aught nor Nought, no air nor sky beyond.
What covered all? Where rested all? In watery gulf profound?
Nor death was then, nor deathlessness, nor change of night and day.
That One breathed calmly, self-sustained; nought else beyond it lay.

Gloom hid in gloom existed first – one sea, eluding view.
That One, a void in chaos wrapt, by inward fervour grew.
Within it first arose desire, the primal germ of mind,
Which nothing with existence links, as sages searching find.

The kindling ray that shot across the dark and drear abyss-
Was it beneath? or high aloft? What bard can answer this?
There fecundating powers were found, and mighty forces strove-
A self-supporting mass beneath, and energy above.

Who knows, who ever told, from whence this vast creation rose?
No gods had then been born – who then can e’er the truth disclose?
Whence sprang this world, and whether framed by hand divine or no-
Its lord in heaven alone can tell, if even he can show.

Translated by John Muir from the original (anonymous) Sanskrit text of a hymn.

Nothing, by Basil Bunting

Posted in Poetry with tags , , on September 4, 2017 by telescoper

I spent this weekend catching up with some old friends in London, and making the most of the opportunity to behave as a tourist. Most of my visits to the Capital are on business so it was nice to have the chance to wander around aimlessly. Anyway, when I got to Charing Cross I suddenly remembered I had a half-spent book token in my wallet, so popped into Foyles and bought this hefty tome, which had been on my list since I read about it when it was reviewed in TLS.

Basil Bunting was born in 1900 in the Scotswood area of Newcastle upon Tyne (i.e. not in the Midlands). His life story is fascinating. Imprisoned as a conscientious objector during World War 1, Bunting worked for the intelligence services in Persia during World War 2, after which he remained as the Times Correspondent in Iran. Eventually, after much travelling, he returned to England, winding up as a journalist working for the Newcastle Evening Chronicle. Largely through a very long poem called Briggflats Bunting established a reputation as a very important modernist poet who some felt was a worthy successor to T.S. Eliot, though Eliot did not rate his work particularly highly and Bunting’s main poetic influence was clearly Ezra Pound.

One thing I particularly like about the poems of Basil Bunting is that they sound so great when read out loud. `Compose aloud. Poetry is a sound.’ is a famous quotation of his. Unlike many poets he was utterly compelling when reading his own work ; see here for an excerpt of him reading Briggflats. He has a wonderful voice, and there’s music in the way he speaks.

Briggflats  is too long to reproduce here, so here’s a shorter one called Nothing:

substance utters or time
stills and restrains
joins design and

supple measure deftly
as thought’s intricate polyphonic
score dovetails with the tread
sensuous things
keep in our consciousness.

Celebrate man’s craft
and the word spoken in shapeless night, the
sharp tool paring away
waste and the forms
cut out of mystery!

When taut string’s note
passes ears’ reach or red rays or violet
fade, strong over unseen
forces the word
ranks and enumerates…

mimes clouds condensed
and hewn hills and bristling forests,
steadfast corn in its season
and the seasons
in their due array,

life of man’s own body
and death…
The sound thins into melody,
discourse narrowing, craft
failing, design
petering out.

Ears heavy to breeze of speech and
thud of the ictus.


by Basil Bunting (1900-85).