Showing posts with label Scotland. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Scotland. Show all posts

Monday, July 28, 2014

Donal McLaughlin's "Beheading the Virgin Mary and Other Stories": Review

Seventeen stories alternate between an Irish boy raised in Derry whose family moves to Glasgow, and other tales, many about Irish people living among Scots, uneasy about their situation, and growing distant within themselves and amidst their neighbors. Donal McLaughlin's upbringing, born in 1961 in Derry, to a family who left for Scotland around 1970, reflects that of his fictional O'Donnell clan, and the fortunes of Liam, the young protagonist. Preferring a blend of dry detachment and steady immersion in a different type of Scots-Irish experience than that which dominates in Ulster, McLaughlin explores The Troubles and the gradual drift from religious allegiance and political loyalty which has characterized many of his generation, in Ireland and its diaspora.

"Big Trouble" set in late 1968 presages the burst of violence the following summer in the North of Ireland. It juxtaposes the O'Donnell children acting out a Civil Rights march for Catholic equality which is mixed, in their confused understanding, with the traditional Orange Order parades reminding the province's minority of the claims to domination by the Unionist majority. The little ones lack the awareness of their parents as to who is representing what; McLaughlin adapts a clever perspective for his play-act.

By the time of "Enough to Make You Hurt" four years later, the indifferent or dull reactions of those in Scotland who hear of the Bloody Sunday protests in Derry again represent the clash of one people with another, as the Irish Catholics in Glasgow tend to lose their accents and their identity the more they remain overseas, even if their sectarian faith in the Celtic football club persists as their true icon. Liam's father resents the lack of compassion shown by the assimilated Irish-Scots, who cheer the team but offer at best only lip service to pain felt by those who learn the names of dead Derrymen.

"A Day Out" in 1974 finds Liam beginning to blend in among his classmates in Glasgow. Hearing of I.R.A. threats to the Queen on the radio during a bus excursion, he fears retaliation from his mates. "Would they turn on him? Then he minded his Scottish accent now but. That he'd lost his brogue. Only the boys he went to primary wi knew he was from Ireland originally. Others wouldn't know unless they told them."  He relies on the trust of his new comrades to protect himself from old hates.

The old ways tug on another character, who in "Somewhere Down the Line" lies to his wife about going to the "[Cel]'Tic" match so he can wrangle quiet time to visit the People's Palace in Glasgow. There, he sees exhibits about the work his father and grandfather had done there, and he relishes the intimate contact with a past that few care about, given "fitba" and crowds as a boisterous alternative.

McLaughlin handles such figures well. In the stand-out story "The Way to a Man's Heart", Sean, a Derry emigrant, drives over half of Scotland, up to Inverness. His assignation with a woman, herself longer over from Ireland, turns poignant. He came for sex with her, but he stays for her hearty stew.

Another wanderer, the enigmatic "Kenny Ryan", claims darkly to have left Derry, but the O'Donnell's diligent inquiries among those back home cannot account for the reasons Kenny now insists on puttering around the O'Donnell's home so persistently. This mysterious miser hovers, and lingers in the memory of the reader, too. At his best, McLaughlin conjures up such lonely Irish men, still adrift.

The dour tones of Irish Catholicism echo, but fewer in Liam's generation pay homage to the likes of the elderly man whose favorite prayers included "Jesus, Mary, and Joseph, assist me in my last agony", or the sustained abuse uncovered sexually at home by a cruel father and in the parish at the hands of a cunning priest, a difficult subject limned sparely and effectively in "We Now Know". In a vignette "The Secret of How to Love", a son who admits his father told his mother to her face that he did not love her finds in his father's posthumous file of "Useful Quotes" tucked between saints' pious aphorisms this: "Love is not a feeling/ It is an act of will." The narrator adds: "Anonymous, I take it."

Liam's maturation follows, and while later stories dissipate the force of the earlier ones as music, school, and the Continent beckon, in his eighteenth year, 1979, his studies in Germany and German remind him of sinister echoes. "Dachau-Derry-Knock" attempts to, through Liam's associations, link the tin drum Oscar beats at Nazi rallies in the 1978 film adaptation of Gunter Grass' novel with the mass rallies for Mass held by the new pope, John Paul II. He appealed in his Irish visit to the I.R.A. to follow the path of peace, and this controversial message, within the tangled context of hunger strikes by I.R.A. prisoners for political status, and the clash of the Catholic with the Irish Republican ideologies, made for a delicate situation, or a hopelessly conflicted one, within the Irish public. As with James Joyce's portrayals of bickering within extended families over past political debates pitting men of violence against men of peace, the O'Donnells fail to reach concord between the two factions.

Weary of this, Liam agrees with his Gran's advice: "You're better off leaving it, sure. Not saying nothing." Again, rather typical Irish advice. In a manner again reminiscent of Stephen Dedalus' choice to leave Ireland for the Continent, Liam for university resolves to emigrate from Scotland.

The title story rushes headlong through its desecrating incident in compressed prose. Taking place on Boxing Day around now, it shows the O'Donnells leaving many traditions behind, unsurprisingly. A "bonus" story recounts a seaside ghost, again delving into the O'Donnell family McLaughlin can't yet leave behind, even if Liam has promised to do so. For, like Dedalus, he's back among the clan again.

As a translator of Swiss-German fiction (see my 5 June 2014 review of The Alp by Arno Camenisch), McLaughlin appears to have achieved Liam's ambition. These stories work best when tracking loners, those who cannot fit into the ethnic identities of their counterparts or cultural descendents abroad. Anticipating how this rarely explored dimension of recent Irish-to-Scot emigration plays off the legacy of The Troubles and of Irish-Catholic assimilation as religious ties unravel, McLaughlin follows the way his early life has transpired, if as in Joycean fashion, ambling into its preoccupied, idiosyncratic fictions. Out of familiar concerns of youth and adolescence, he plots his own direction.
(6-12-14 to PopMatters; Amazon US 7-28-14)

Thursday, June 19, 2014

Alan Warner's "Morvern Callar": Book Review

This 1995 debut novel should outlast the Spanish rave scene as I imagine it has the Walkman that Morvern Callar uses as the soundtrack of her life. The publisher's blurb sums up the gist of what Alan Warner takes on as a difficult challenge, matching the novel's spare form, relating her story in a nearly affectless tone in many parts to its content, the aftermath of His (unnamed) suicide and her decision to do away with that evidence on her kitchen floor--in the way of her warming pizza in the oven, after all.

Warner cuts to the essentials, without calling attention to his stark, numb style, to get us into Morvern's intensely limited perspective. It's not that she is mentally damaged, perhaps, as a Faulkner or Beckett protagonist may be, but she bears the impact of whatever has warped her to keep to such a limited routine. Gradually (some may overlook this), as she enters the natural realm nearby, and then on her two journeys to Spain, she seeks more descriptions to get across these new sensations, taken from the sea, snow, and sky.

Such phrases as wiping off blood with Christmas wrapping early on capture the mood. If that appeals, read on. I was often reminded of another novel from this time and place (neither that or this film version I've seen so far), Michel Faber's "Under the Skin." I admired that story's chilling, yet matter-of-fact portrayal of another cool female on the prowl in the same way I did Morvern. It's challenging for a male writer to enter the head of a female, and capture what this male reviewer imagines as true, and for Warner, to pare down the words used and images sustained, without caricature or stereotype. Repetition reigns, the same  "goldish" lighter, the same Silk Cuts smoked, the same slang, Scottish and speckled slightly with whatever this Strathclyde-set tale has kept from the dying Gaelic, as the neighbors in her doughty, drafty port town carry, each one, not their own name but an odd nickname.

The circular nature of the plot, twice off to Spain, twice back to Scotland, and the disjointed nature of the London visit and other events, fit Morvern's mental state, altered chemically. Parts of this seem to have originated as short stories, and the Spanish YouthMed icebreaker scene stands out for its black humor and cruel invention. A counterpart for this alienated commodification of flesh and cash, again from the same time period, would be the satirical depiction of the tourism industry in Michel Houllebecq's "Platform." But parts seem from stories stitched into longer portions, and one feels a bit of this fabrication. The drivers' test conclusion seems rather contrived, and the vague parts nearer the end, as in the London section, the retirement rant earlier of--and the news later given--Red Hanna, while true to Morvern's condition, don't move the story forward as much. For a short novel, parts felt elongated, and many incidents make you wonder why they were included. Not that they detract from the main story, but it's a digressive story and one you keep wondering about, with little fact to go on.

That may be Warner's intention. He creates a believable, perplexing inner voice for the narrator, and by keeping you trapped within her lack of affect, you are forced to stick with her no matter what. The final scene makes you wonder if a sequel awaits. It's artistic, but it's stripped down, and it stings you.
(Amazon US 5-20-14)

Saturday, May 31, 2014

Ag léamh faoi An Eilvéis

Tá mé ag léamh mír faoi An Eilvéis faoi láthair. Nach bhfuil mé ag léamh faoi Elvis as Gaeilge (rud a rinne mé anseo), mar sin féin. Is é a bhrí i nGaeilge ó fin nGaillis, chomh "Helvetia" i Laidin.

D'iarr Martin Brauer dom a léamh an leabhar le a iníon, Yangzom. Is maith liom chuid leabhar féin Domhan na hAisling ó Tibéid. Tá sé "Tibetologist" faoi deara, agus bhí mé sasta athbréithnú a dheanamh fós Ar fud ar lán Sléibhte aici.

Is docha, tá sí í féin ar an gchéad hEilvéise agus an Tibéadis riamh! D'imigh a máthair Tibéid (leis a máthair féin agus a hathair) i 1959. go dtí an India an chéad agus ansin in aice leis 1970 go an hEilvéis. Ar ndóigh, socraithe a hathair agus a mathair ansin, ach anois, tá siad i gcónaí freisin i Nua-Eabhrac agus an Ghréig.

Ag labhairt na hÉireann, tá mé ag déanamh dha léirmeaseannaí ar ficsean ar bealach ó Dónal Mac Lochlainn; tá sé an aois chéanna liom. Rinne sé aistriúchánnaí go leor ó na hEilvéis-Germáinis agus Romansh. Scríobh mé faoi An Alp le Arno Camenisch; tá féin de Surselva ansuid, i measc an teanga Romansh. 

Seo chugainn, bím ag léamh scéaltaí na Albanach agus Uladh le Mac Lochlainn féin. Rúgadh sé i nDóire ach tá a chlann d'imigh go Glaschú i 1970, freisin-- deoraíocht polaitiúil eile. Biodh a fhoilsiú Bain an ceann na Mhaighdean Mhuire i Meitheamh seo.  Triu Tibéid agus Éireann, mar sin, bíonn an dealbh na hEilvéis ag athrú anseo mar suas, go cinnte...

Reading about Switzerland.

I've been reading a bit about Switzerland recently. I haven't been reading about Elvis in Irish (which I did here), all the same. It's the meaning in Irish from the Gaulish tribe, as in Helvetia in Latin.

Martin Brauer asked me to read a book by his daughter, Yangzom. I liked his own book Dreamworld Tibet. He's a noted Tibetologist, and I was happy to review also her Across Many Mountains.

Probably, she herself's the first Swiss and Tibetan person ever! Her mother took off from Tibet (with her own mother and father) in 1959, to India at first there and then around 1970 to Switzerland. Of course, her father and mother settled there, but now they also live in New York City and Greece.

Speaking of Irish, I've been making two reviews about fiction by way of Donal McLaughlin; he and I are the same age. He's done many translations of Swiss-German and Romansh. I wrote about The Alp by Arno Camenisch; he himself's from Surselva over there, in the middle of the Romansh language.

Next, I'm reading Northern Irish-Scots stories by McLaughlin himself. He was born in Derry but his family left for Glasgow, also in 1970. Beheading the Virgin Mary will be published this June.
Through Tibet and Ireland, therefore, the image of Switzerland here as above is changing, surely...

Monday, December 17, 2012

Kate Teltscher's "The High Road to China": Book Review

In 1780, the Panchen Lama asked the Qianlong Emperor of China to enter into friendship with the Governor of Hindostan (northern India), George Hastings. As he was also the head of the East India Company, which had been opposed by the same Chinese power in their attempts to trade more than tea with the profits the Company amassed after taking control of the Bengal markets, this appeal by the lama to the Emperor appeared bold or odd. Stymied by the imperial ruling, the Company had appealed to the lama and a diplomatic detour into the realm another way. Hastings and the Company reasoned that Tibet might afford a byway into China.

George Bogle's report on his 1774-5 expedition to the lama that sparked the amity between Tibet and Britain inspired Teltscher to assemble her retelling of this story, and how it prepared the way for the Lama's 1779-80 foray into the heart of the Chinese empire. (As the latest Dalai Lama was not an adult yet, the Panchen Lama reigned.) Bogle, a young Scotsman, had been chosen by Hastings as possessing the patience and acumen needed to cross Bhutan and win over a Tibet cautious about any alliance with the Company or the Crown, as the British peered north over Asian barriers. Out of cleverly chosen samples, the trade mission lobbied to sway the lama. "How else to seduce a nation than with a tempting display of luxury goods, scientific instruments and mechanical toys?" (21) 

The ensuing 2006 account efficiently summarizes and cites Bogle's correspondence, and archives from the British Library and Indian government. It moves through the material carefully, and draws upon primary sources often (although to my frustration, one I wanted to track down is listed as an unpublished paper.) A London-based academic, Teltscher admirably avoids cant or jargon, although I wish she had given in certain endnotes precise references from the Enlightenment thinkers she nods to. As she had been intrigued by her main source, her quotes allow us to see him evolve on his great journey, the first Briton and the first European in decades to enter much of this remote and mysterious region. Getting acclimated to Tibet, Bogle wrote Hastings: "I assumed the Dress of the Country, endeavoured to imitate their Manners, to acquire a little of the Language, drank a deluge of Tea with Salt and Butter, eat Beetle [betel-nut] in Bootan took Snuff and smoked Tobacco in Thibet, & would never allow myself to be out of Honour." (qtd. 110) He adjusts happily to wearing Siberian furs and playing chess with Tartar pilgrims, settling in nicely.

The last third of the book, after Bogle ends his visit to the Panchen Lama, relates a lot of Company bickering and diplomatic negotiations over the Lama's eventual plan to lobby for Chinese-Company trade routes that could revive exchange that did not depend on tea, or entrance via Canton. He also wanted to reconnect Tibet with the cradle of Buddhism, India, where since 1192 it had been eliminated by the invading Moghuls. Bogle, by 1779, was invited back to see the Lama in Tibet. 

This coincided with the Lama's plan to visit the Chinese emperor for his seventieth birthday at the imperial palace, the Xanadu-like Chengde, just north of the Great Wall. The monarch had built there between 1767 and 1771 a version (a third the size, a false facade) of the Dalai Lama's residence. The emperor regarded the Lama's visit as a sign of fealty; the Lama interpreted the Chinese monarch as a patron, backing the mission of his spiritual superior--a cognitive mismatch with long-term impact.

A year away, the Tibetan procession eastward took time. Smallpox loomed, Mongolia stretched, and the Qing dynasty lavished funds and presents on the retinue as it advanced. The Chinese were bent on making the Panchen Lama's approach a sign of submission to the grandeur of the Qing hegemony. Even the initial gesture at their meeting, an attempted kneeling in the Tibetan version, a prostration in the Manchu, demonstrates the symbolic meaning underlying the power of the two leaders, a bow of respect for one, a kowtow for the other. 

For the Lama, a model monastery had been erected. A few months later, the entourage together entered Peking. The go-between long employed by the Company, Purangir, reported that the Lama and emperor had discussed Hastings and the possibility of trade, but the Lama suddenly sickened and soon died from the dreaded smallpox. 

Bogle, who had been waiting for his passport, had to return to Calcutta amidst "office politics." He sent back to Britain a mixed-race daughter to be schooled. His career was rising when he too died suddenly, drowning of a hemorrhage at thirty-four. 

Hastings selected Samuel Turner for the next mission through Bhutan to Tibet, where he met the infant Panchen Lama, the Fourth incarnation. Turner grabbed the chance to remind the toddler of his predecessor's friendship with Hastings! But, relations deteriorated as Nepal sought expansion. The new Governor General, Lord Cornwallis, did not want to get involved, but the Qing army rushed into Tibet to subdue the Gurkhas; the Company stayed clear of the conflict.

Meanwhile, the British with a warship arrived at Canton's harbor, determined to impress the Qing. This 1793 display failed. But the British spread a rumor that the late Lama had been poisoned by a perfidious ruler who hated the British and those who tried to advance the interests of the Company.

The Qing cracked down on Tibet, justifying their suppression as a mistrust of British skulduggery. The Manchu cut the line between Bengal and Tibet, blocking trade at the Bhutanese frontier. Purangir died defending the Panchen Lama's monastery against robbers.

Bogle's three "natural-born" children were baptized, and two survived. These girls were raised in Scotland. For the next eighty years, their father's journal and papers were unedited, while his memory faded. 

Teltscher revives his friendship with the Lama, and she traces in her epilogue the Indian and British echoes of his journal's "valedictory image of Tibet" after it was published in 1876. One who read it was Sarat Chandra Das, the model for Rudyard Kipling's "Kim," (see my June 2012 review) where the "Teshoo Lama" also repeated from Bogle's own rendering. Teltscher senses that the relationship of the orphaned Irish boy Kim and the Lama may find its evolution from the Bogle-Panchen Lama's bond. She also finds in the bloody, bold Francis Younghusband incursion commanding 1903 Sikh forces into Tibet a fantasy that the leader imagined, the first (in his erring knowledge) to enter the realm since Bogle on "an official Mission." His team justified their invasion with Bogle's journal.

So does China today, as Teltscher cites a 2000 statement quoting the Panchen Lama's submission when Bogle had tried without Peking's permission to trade with Tibet. The book ends by restoring these key players to their place in history, while acknowledging that this moment passed and will never return with such enthusiasm and hopes as when the emperor, Lama, and Scotsman intersected. (Amazon US 11-21-12)

Saturday, January 7, 2012

Anne Donovan's "Buddha Da: A Novel": Review

Three tellers narrate, in dialect (which flows fluidly even for foreigners after a few moments), what happens in their Glaswegian family after Jimmy McKenna starts attending a local Tibetan Buddhist center. He cannot explain it, but the comfort he feels overcomes his awkwardness and what began as a lark turns out to be a fascination with "this incredible feelin of peace come ower me, soft like. So ah just sat."

But, this happened on New Year's of the new millennium: Jimmy'd gone to the temple to avoid the drinking that had led him at his birthday party to make a fool of himself on video, and his discontent with his immaturity and his marriage amidst his career making a living as a housepainter leads him to renounce first meat, then alcohol and, at least for now, sex with his wife.

Donovan sets this Scottish situation of domestic strife and inner searching up nimbly, and the tension moves this deservedly award-winning 2002 novel along swiftly. In a Barcelona Review 2003 interview, she explains how Liz responds to smells and senses; Jimmy to visuals, and Anne-Marie to sounds and hearing, and the chapters do sound similar among the three family members while keeping subtly distinctive tones, word patterns, and attitudes. The book moves quickly and fluidly as Donovan uses the novel of family relationships to explore the appeal of the exotic and the surprising as they enter each protagonist's experience. Jimmy's birthday party, Anne-Marie's concert, a New Year's celebration, and a funeral all set up dramatic showdowns that integrate the shifts in the dynamic, as Liz's power seems to grow as Jimmy steps aside, as the novel continues over a year or so full of challenges.

Liz feels she must deal with raising their daughter, who tells her own reactions to her parents' strife as she works on a tape to enter in a music contest, blending Tibetan chants with the "Salve Regina," and she finds herself soon living with a father who's does not stay at night at home, but in a sleeping bag at the temple. I felt her character needed more elaboration, and given Donovan was a long-time teacher, Anne-Marie's school settings appeared very underdrawn and dull, but that's a minor point in a very solid storyline. Maybe they reflect the girl's reaction towards school but she's meant to be a good student, so her seeming lack of attention to her environment and the comparatively little time devoted in the book to her studies puzzled me.

As Liz reminds him, Jimmy misses Anne-Marie's school concert "tae go and see this wonderful lama who's an enlightened being and is gonnae unlock all the secrets of the universe tae yous special people who sit on yer arses every night wi yer eyes closed while we unenlightened beins dae unimportant things like dae a washin or make a dinner or iron yer claes..."

Meanwhile, Liz finds her own escape. Her decisions create the uncertainty that she and Jimmy must deal with, if not solve, as the novel reaches its satisfying, open-ended conclusion. Liz watches in a doctor's office "the wee pulse of light, like a faraway star," and that symbolizes the possibilities that the author, in the voices of three convincingly related characters, creates to delve into the mysteries beneath the mundane working-class life in Glasgow that she, a native, invigorates with recognizable emotion and sympathetic compassion. (Posted to Amazon US & 3-6-11)

Wednesday, July 13, 2011

Ronald Hutton's "Blood & Mistletoe": Book Review

As the leading social historian of pagan movements today, Professor Hutton explores how the Druids, from the scant literary accounts left by their foes and by the few material traces left by themselves, have been interpreted over 2,000 years. He focuses upon their appropriation as cultural symbols, for better or worse, by the English, Welsh, and Scots. They have presented these ancient practitioners of wisdom and magic as demonic, romantic, proto-Protestant, anti-Catholic, death-obsessed, and/or socialist.

This broad array of categories demonstrates both the scope of the research necessary to uncover such traces in the British imagination, and the skill with which Dr. Hutton applies his understanding of historical bias and wish fulfillment to all who seek to claim or condemn the Druids as ancestors of the island’s three major nations.

Frequently, Professor Hutton notes how he had to condense an already massive study. This expands his popular 2007 study, and the endnotes, small print, and the elevated tone (leavened by humor as with his other books) do not detract from its readability for an audience committed to the advanced degree of both sympathy and distance which the author brings to his project.

He has gained in past work the cooperation of those who, as neo-Pagans, his own research has helped to challenge in terms of their own “origin myths.” Professor Hutton should earn again the respect of those open minds within the pagan community for his honesty, acumen, and fairness.

Blood & Mistletoe reminds us of the manner in which historians carry into the past their own present preoccupations. As a case study in the reconstruction of a barely-glimpsed group for whom linguistic or archeological evidence remains notoriously perplexing, the way in which scholars as well as seekers have labored to recreate the Druids in the images of their own ages and mentalities serves as its own testament to history’s inherent bias.

As soon as the Druids were introduced by such as Julius Caesar and Tacitus to their Roman audience, the priest(esse)s were caricatured as wise magicians (mistletoe) or barbarian butchers (blood). As with the Scottish highlanders or Native Americans cleared off their lands only then to be celebrated by their colonial conquerors, so, Professor Hutton demonstrates, the Druids were romanticized by the Romans after they had been castigated as savages. The evidence for an Iron Age Druid as selected from surviving later Celtic texts combined with archeological data, Dr. Hutton asserts, becomes warped by “the instincts, attitudes, context, and loyalties” of the interpreter.

Tracking the next 16 centuries, Dr. Hutton surveys the building of the legend. Historians, he explains, tend to follow a “hard” approach that favors a bold intervention by a person who shakes up the world, or a “soft” one that follows the cultural, political, and social shifts whose dramatic results may be delayed until the right person comes along. For this tale, William Stukeley follows the latter definition. His attempts to interpret the stone circles and monuments that puzzled the British ensured his popularity. He began by claiming a less Christian framework for their construction, but his increasing piety then led him to shift his argument. Either way, his influence persists even today among certain—if decidedly “alternative”—adepts.

Iolo Morganwg, the name assumed by Edward Williams later in the 18th century, follows Stukeley. The chapter on his checkered career as a “wayward genius” as determined to forge a future for the Welsh who resisted Anglicization and British imperial control shimmer with insight. It displays Professor Hutton’s command of complexity, for Iolo’s mission confounded a nation. Morganwg tainted the medieval Welsh-language sources he claimed to discover and edit. He ensured that the culturally threatened Welsh people would be trapped in their recovery of their own history as one in which truth and falsehood had been intermingled by him over decades, in ways so intricate that it took many years and considerable scholarship by experts to correct for some of the forgeries he crafted as claims of archaic Welsh rituals, legends, and occult practices.

However, from his entry into the historical record, Morganwg also inspired his fellow men and women to reclaim the practices of the Druids as they imagined them to have been carried out long ago. The traditions, albeit invented ones, have energized Welsh-language culture ever since. These also influenced the Georgian and Romantic poets and scholars who across Western Europe as well as in Scotland and England struggled to build frameworks based on Celtic and Scandinavian myth, the classic texts, and the Bible “in which to contain the early European past.”

When science emerged with Darwin to undermine biblical models of progress, antiquarians and then archeologists rushed in. By their own cultural assumptions via “explanatory models” stamped by their own time and place, they intruded heavily upon the same limited, fragile, evidence.

For nearly a century and a half, English figures of white-clad Druids (assembled as spiritual practitioners and as mutual support societies) have concocted their own ceremonies, fashions, and origins, based on Stukeley, Morganwg, and the nearly as challenging countercultural characters from long before the hippie era, first the formidably eccentric William Price and later the Universal Bond as headed by the intransigent George Watson MacGregor Reid. Price and Reid intriguingly shared a determination to legalize cremation, one of the many byways that this book reveals as it delves into the underbrush of British popular culture and social change from progressive and dissident forces. From the 1920s onward, the spiritualist and then New Age movements also overlapped with those who called themselves Druids, harbingers of change.

The familiar processions chanting around Stonehenge and similar Stone Age sites, as Dr. Hutton shows in English Victorian and early 20th century commemorations, have become less the radical, secular, or early countercultural protests they appeared to traditional Christians and more, by the advent of the rock-and-roll era, a sign of British tradition against modernity.

Full of anachronism, nevertheless these Druids came to stand for an enduring summer solstice tradition of their own. This modern invention on June 21st has persisted, on if often off, since the 1860s.

Even as the Bible was discredited and Darwin deified by many who shared the leftist mindsets of many Druid adherents, problems persisted among those who claimed to correct earlier misinterpretations. Popular perceptions a hundred years ago settled upon a romantic, Celtic visualization; secular scientists looked not to the Bible itself but to the same Middle Eastern roots for a civilization that dispersed its lore across the world, all the way to pre-Roman Britain. Professor Hutton incorporates his own knowledge of recent scholarship and his schooling with some leading scholars who proclaimed this model of diffusion from a far-off land of knowledge.

This section bogged down with intricate debates among archeologists, but even at its densest, the range of sources and energy brought to this project displays the professor’s sharp mind and generous spirit. The novelty of the Druids whose archives he scours appears to have lessened, despite the charges kept alive by a few reactionary Christians of their murderous sacrifices of babies, prisoners, and criminals.

I admit with surprise that recent film treatments such as The Wicker Man were not analyzed, and as the professor admits, nearly nothing seems oddly to remain extant of memoirs or accounts by the common folks who joined the Druid organizations in the past few centuries. However, this is already a substantial, long, and very detailed book.

Finally, Professor Hutton shows the mingling of those who speak for and then as the Druids—Stukeley, Morganwg, Reid foremost—as also those who make up its rogues’ gallery. Mingled deceit and honesty persists in this clever trio. They all provoked controversy and then shunned the limelight once public opinion fanned by prejudice or ridicule turned against them. Later, it edged toward them, attesting to their own adroit manipulation of a certain kind of media magic.

Secrecy endures as the ultimate legacy of this mysterious movement, then as now. Professor Hutton has uncovered and shared with us all he is able to in a book of 500 learned but accessible pages. It should remain the definitive source, not on the Druids about whom we know so few facts, but on those who claim in their homelands to remain true to their enigmatic but compelling spirit, thousands of years later. (Featured May 10, 2011 at the New York Journal of Books)

Sunday, June 19, 2011

D.D. Johnston's "Peace, Love & Petrol Bombs": Book Review

A humorous and poignant novel about anarchism: possibly a first? This young Scots burger-flipper turned street protester tells what happened a decade ago in a fast-food kitchen, a small town, and at the barricades of anti-capitalist demonstrations in Prague, London, and Thessaloniki. Johnston enlivens this short, accomplished coming-of-age story with what appears a character based on himself, given Wayne Foster's age and tenure at Benny's Burgers. He travels throughout Europe as he rallies against "profit before people".

The novel opens in 2000, in Prague during an anti-World Bank Summit march. Wayne's saved from arrest on a rail track by Manette, a French anarchist with a dirty mouth and broken English who will become one of his lovers. Many chapters follow the pattern of the first: they drift back in chronology and shuffle events, testing the narrator's powers of recollection, the structure of memory. As a comment on history and how it's created, this fictional device allows D.D. Johnston to undermine his authorial control. He imbues his novel with an uncertainty which reifies its content: how long can one refuse to submit to structure?

Amidst "the applause of shattering glass", many scenes evoke the feel of mass marches and sudden panic. As anarchists and socialists, Trotskyists and vegans, provocateurs and hippies, punks and perhaps a few workers drawing wages and not welfare convene, the sensation of change beckons them. But the apparently global triumph of capital represents an enemy before whom many capitulate. Benny's Burgers, the franchise where Wayne enters the ranks of labor and where he learns from his louche co-worker nicknamed Spocky about progressive alternatives, stands for how the means of production stamps out--and on-- today's proletariat.

Johnston illustrates deftly the predicament of how we consume, how few many workers leave as their options for meals and for shopping, how we work for the chain store and how we eat at the logo-laden franchise. He vividly dramatizes the automated regimen behind the grill, as relentless as any endured in Dickensian times. He shows the reality familiar to anyone, like myself, who worked in fast-food, or works in a setting dominated by managers with manuals, whether our labor is classified as manual or not. From the endless demand for more food, faster food, the kitchen's overwhelmed. "So much lettuce had been strewn on the floor that it looked like a lawn was forcing its way through the tiles". Escaping these pressures, Spocky, Wayne and co-workers online form "Benny's Resistance Army" to agitate, educate, and organize workers of this international chain.

This subversion draws him into anarchist circles. But, unlike many coming-of-age novels, Love, Peace & Petrol Bombs skims over Wayne's upbringing or family. He must find his own restive, rebellious comrades. These must be gleaned from the slim pickings of Dundule, between Glasgow and Edinburgh. "When you live in a small town, everyone is the friend of someone you know; the local papers are full of tales of serendipity, of long lost brothers who lived next door to each other and men who found their mother in law's wallet on the High Street; we all live like celebrities, worrying who will recognise us if we go to the shops in old clothes".

The novel favors a halting advance, similar to that of burgers assembled against the press of customers, workers against managers, or leftists against police. "Lives are shaped like asterisks. At any point, lines intersect in a multitude of directions. You can be diverted, driven, driven down tangents, and then made to reverse. It's the same when telling a story".

Later, Wayne will ride the trains around London, out to their terminus, back again, one line after another, in this ambling, impulsive search for meaning. One problem about this book was that at times, after Wayne leaves Benny's, I was uncertain how he managed to roam the island and then the Continent for so long; there are a couple of heists that play a role in the plotting to keep Wayne in pounds and pence, and he does understandably if non-ironically max out his credit card. Opposed to the system of exploitation and regimentation, his progress among the down and out--albeit an educated lot, aided by the dole, squatting, and the kindness of polyglot friends and lovers--turns into the tale of Wayne's way through this disaffected world.

The author articulates fewer political disquisitions than I expected. When his idealists express their ideologies, they do so haltingly, not as propagandists. One scene sends up the dreary college classroom lecture on Marxism, as most students resist the slightest indication that this theory may still be relevant in practice; another episode visits a Socialist Workers' Party campus meeting where the panelists outnumber the three bewildered attendees. Johnston's experience with these misfits allows for Wayne to retell such encounters with wit and energy. While the target audience for this novel, the second in a fiction series from venerable anarchist publisher AK Press, comprises those already converted to opposition, the appeal of this genial, engaging, yet serious search for meaning in a commodified global culture deserves wide acclaim.

For instance, while politics steps back, the tension of relationships edges forward. Wayne laments his lack of romance. He grabs at a one-night stand or a brief encounter in a toilet stall. After one slightly more stable amour, he recalls how he and his girlfriend "didn't break up like a vase or a mirror or a china cup; we split like a piece of wood. We cracked at first. We fractured until you could bend us and make us creak; then we snapped and splintered, until there were only fibres between us, and you could twist us around and pull us apart. When we finally broke, we broke jagged, shaped by our other half".

This passage reveals Johnston's skillful use of metaphor. Now a lecturer in creative writing at the University of Gloucestershire, he crafts an appealing, casual first-person voice. While I read this novel in a day, eager to find out about Wayne's fate, the care with which the prose has been created shows. I found the plot, in its asterisk-patterned chapters that spring out and then double back to the center core, sometimes skimming over the details of the daily grind that I figured would appear to show us how Wayne got by once he was on his own, but access to surreptitious gain apparently, twice over, helps him get by with a little help from his friends. This appeared a slight cop-out, so to speak, but given the milieu in which Wayne survives, it makes sense in context despite my suspension of total belief. At least he and his grousingly genial or annoyingly smug mates enjoy the benefits of wine, weed, or a bequest once-removed from some thriftier elder or greedier investor.

The liberation of such capital from its accumulators means Wayne and Manette and their friends can storm the barricades all over the Continent. In Thessaloniki, at Aristotle University, a leftist takeover of the campus shows what happens after the authorities are cowed to retreat. It's not exactly the reopened gates of Eden.

The Philosophy Building was guarded by a man in an unbuttoned sleeveless shirt, who sat on a broken wooden chair, chewing gum and tapping his palm with a short club. Inside, our feet crunched on broken glass. The paint fumes made you feel drunk, and the slogans were hard to read because so many lights were broken. 'By any means necessary.' 'The Future is Unwritten.' 'Ultras AEK.' 'No War Between Nations, No Peace Between Classes." The shadows, and the people in the shadows, and the closed doors, carried the suggestion of an ambush, so I found myself looking left and right, as if crossing a road.

Wayne and his comrades fight the good fight but the odds, as ever, overwhelm them. His pals and mates scatter; jobs, marriages, degrees, and careers beckon. He tries as in so many capers to revive the old gang for one last heist. He speculates how, at twenty-three, six or seven years on, the struggle had waned. "It was like closing a door to which you have no key: you want to hold it ajar while you check you have everything, and when you finally let go, you feel a fluttery panic, a sense of having left something valuable behind".

This thoughtful, modest, and winning narrative concludes with not a bang but a similarly muted closing of a door--to a millennial sense of possibility, of "no logo" and "rage against the machine" that energized a resurgent Left against Capital. Wayne and Johnston appear to merge their forces as the last sentences emerge. The narrator imagines the ultimate fate of his friends and lovers. Now, he includes us. "I'd like to imagine that you and I will meet during some as yet unimagined social struggle. We'll stand guard on a picket line or share the weight of a banner. When your hands are up and your head is bleeding and the police are preparing to charge, we will link our arms."

The traditional language of solidarity, of intimacy, and of meaning flows smoothly. Yet the last paragraph shakes us out of class-based, if romantic, reverie. His reader may recline in the bath, on the sofa, ready for washing hair or going to bed before another work day. Still, the chance for change remains: "I'd like to think you're on a train. You'll watch the fields pass until the sun sets, until you start to see only a reflection of yourself." These final sentences suggest the poetic touch under the raised banner, the rose held in the fist of socialist iconography, the thorn that pricks amid the beauty of a world that embraces us and alienates us. (PopMatters featured  6-1-11; book's publication 7-1-11)

Monday, May 31, 2010

Seamus Heaney translates Robert Henryson's medieval Scots verse

A middle-aged man contemplates the aftermath of Chaucer's tragic Cresseid. Abandoned by Troilus after she dallied with Diomede, did she deserve the contempt with which she was treated in this tale from the Trojan war? Robert Henryson defends her, and his serious consideration attracts Heaney to revive from his "mid-Ulster" upbringing the speech rhythms shared with a "hidden Scotland" that he hears within this late fifteenth-century poem's elegant defense of a fallen woman, turned a leper.

Heaney, as with his translations of the medieval Irish tale of mad Sweeney and his version of "Beowulf," keeps his own direct, confident manner foremost. "Who's now to guide, accompany or stand by/Me, set at odds and made so odious/ To Diomede and noble Troilus?" is the translation of "Quha sall me gyde? Quha sall me convoy,/ Sen I fra Diomeid and nobill Troylus/ Am clene excludit, as abject odious?" (10-11) You can see here the balance of freedom and fidelity that characterizes Heaney's interpretation.

Henryson's also known for his versified fables, expanded into morality tales from Aesop and other written and oral sources. He combined the popular and learned cultures and is supposed to have been a schoolmaster. Heaney admires the Scots poet's range, similar to his own, and explains Henryson's modulation as an appealing reason for rendering his tales for a wider audience.

There's no notes beyond a few sentences setting the context for the fables, and the introduction I found suggestive rather than thorough; these remain minor shortcomings of this version. Yet Heaney points us to scholarly editions, as his emphasis here's on accessible, brisk, and sententious storylines that convey sympathy with human predicaments and moral quandries. "Hence the decision to translate the poems with rhyme and metre, to match as far as possible the rhetoric and the roguery of the originals, and in general 'keep the accent'." (xiv) These do demand to be heard aloud, and the origin of Heaney's notice of Henryson was "to translate some other narrative that could be performed by an actor" after his reading of "Beowulf." (xiii) While fewer than five thousand lines of Henryson exist, perhaps this collection of his verse will inspire such a recitation of it for us today. (Posted to Amazon US 12-13-09)

Tuesday, May 25, 2010

Alan Guthrie's "Slammer": Book Review

Down the rabbit hole, prison style. Scottish guard, seven weeks on the job, finds himself trapped by a nightmarish chain of compromises. I can't reveal anything that'd spoil the plot of this psychologically complex thriller. It moves as rapidly as an action film, largely in dialogue that does not pander to noir cliché or police conventions.

Guthrie keeps upping the ante. The novel convincingly takes you through a logical cause-and-effect scenario for two hundred pages. Then, he drops you in the last fifty pages off the deep end. You're left to figure it out, with some hints. Still, the final section does hold many surprises.

Parts reminded me of a Beckett story turned into Hitchcock mystery. Existential dread contends with brutal menace. Characters are relatively few and the plot stays streamlined to maximize tension. It's a satisfyingly disturbing entertainment, one you may be glad not to be experiencing except on the page. (Posted to Amazon 9-26-09)

Thursday, September 17, 2009

Simon Young's "A.D. 500": Book Review

What if a Byzantine delegation travelled to the British Isles in the chaos after the Romans left and the Saxons invaded? Young collates what's extant about British Celts, Welsh, Irish, Picts, Scots, and Saxons. He dramatizes this material as if recorded by a scribe editing the earlier ambassadors' log-book. The conceit reveals information that I predict even specialists will learn from, and the generalist will enjoy. It's instruction made entertaining, thoughtful, and even wryly witty.

Young's drawn upon archeological and historical reports that are up-to-date. He favors a rather earnest tone, but this reflects the mood he figures the Greeks would have assumed in reporting the wonders and barbarities they, emissaries from Constantinople, would have witnessed through skeptical, jaundiced, yet credulous eyes. I found the earlier material, as the dozen delegates sail up the Atlantic fringe to land around Cornwall to wander through the Pretanic homelands into Wales, rather familiar, but this time period for all its lack of substantial extant detail has been scoured by scholars. Similarly, the Irish portion must take in later accounts that are back-dated to allow us more insight into customs that presumably lasted long, and went back earlier, for the Celts.

The book does lumber along with the Greek trekkers, stringing along anecdotes but often-- if inevitably given the gaps we face in the historical record-- they seem more strung along than intertwined. As Young admits in his preface: "Though the following pages may not satisfy professorial standards of history, it is far more gratifying for reader and author alike to place the little beads of sixth-century knowledge on a fictional string, than don rubber gloves and forensically isolate them, putting each in its own sterile museum box." (x) I must agree.

I liked the Pict portion, for all its necessarily scantiness, for this people seems the most enigmatic for us. Going down through Scotland, when the party crosses the ruined Roman walls that bordered the war zones of what became England, the narrative quickens and the sense of excitement in the traveller's journals can be felt. "The days of glory, these, when legionaries knelt beside the writhing bodies of dying Picts and tried to read in vain the strange tattoos they found there" strikes the exact tone of a chronicler. (134-5) The dangers surrounding foreigners caught between the crumbling defenses of the Christianized, semi-Romanized remnants of British Celts and the ever-encroaching pagan, brutal, Saxon hordes gain vivid retelling. "In fact, modern Londinium is like a sandcastle barracked by the sea, where a child has begun to dig out its finely sculpted innards to add a few more desperate inches to its walls." (192)

This is a short book, that flows in parts-- especially in the pre-"English" section and also at the end that does not wrap up the events neatly-- too awkwardly due to the Young's task of integrating lore and data into the mindset of a sixth-century scholar editing eyewitness journals of the sights they saw in turn rumored or reckoned, taken in reality from fragmented evidence and textual scraps. Yet, he does manage to convey the horror and wonder that must have greeted perhaps the real Greeks that made it, perhaps from a couple of hints in the records, that far north. His book concludes with abundant references that support his hedges and his claims. For that reason, with hesitations, I recommend it. There's doubtless no easier way for the inquiring non-academic to dip into this century's British and Irish realms. From here, of course, the original texts and the scholarly journals can be entered. This remains my favorite period of history, for we know so little still about what fills imaginatively, if hesitantly, two hundred pages here. (Posted to Amazon U.S. and Britain, 9-17-09)

Thursday, May 7, 2009

Russell Miller's "The Adventures of Arthur Conan Doyle": Book Review

I've read a bit of Sherlock Holmes, knew vaguely of Conan Doyle's spiritualism, and heard he was a doctor. This lively account, the first drawn from CD's letters, tells much more, engagingly and efficiently. Anyone, Sherlockian or not, will find this an enjoyable and instructive narrative.

The early years open on mystery. CD's father's tragic alcoholism and insanity, his mother's strangely intimate longtime boarder half her age, and CD's own struggles as a poor medical graduate vividly evoke people's quirks and lapses behind the stern facade of later Victorian England and Scotland. While London, so well portrayed in the Holmes stories, surprisingly had been little lived in by CD, Miller's book conjures up the milieu effectively. He also does so in the wider world CD explored.

CD had an adventerous life even prior to his authorial success: whaling in the Arctic, sailing to Africa, golf at the pyramids, camel rides in Egypt gain in his letters as much verve and wit as the birth of his first child or the loss of his vacation home. Miller quotes from the correspondence to set off the anodyne autobiography, the mundane diary, and the assumptions of earlier biographers who lacked the letters as a crucial resource. From the letters, CD emerges as a hearty figure who in person was much more bluff and outgoing than readers of Holmes expected. Jingoistic, stubborn, and productive, CD after a rough start as an author found success with Sherlock, quit his practice, and wrote an amazing amount of work the rest of his life, albeit of diminishing quality.

Miller points out how shoddy and inconsistent even CD at his best could be in his fiction; basing Holmes on his extraordinarily perceptive Edinburgh professor Charles Bell, it's a conundrum many of his readers share with Miller: how a logical character like Sherlock could make so many mistakes, and how his author could fall from the celebration of rationality in his most famous creation into the credulity most supposed prevented CD from seeing through the faker of fairies on film and apparitions at seances.

Miller explains about CD's Holmesian contradictions: "In truth, he never bothered to keep track of what he had written, first, because he didn't see Holmes as an immortal, iconic character, and secondly, because although he earned large sums of money, he cared little for the work that did little, he believed, to enhance his literary status." (147)

Clearly, CD quickly tired of Holmes. In 1928, he told a newsreel crew how Holmes was a "monstrous growth from a comparatively small mustard seed." (465) Instead, his frustrated creator longed to gain recognition for his well-researched but more plodding historical novels, hefty war histories, and voluminous spiritualist propaganda. Sherlockian issues are dealt with almost in a perfunctory way by Miller; you will learn very little about the actual stories, and few of these are even summarized. However, given the immense scholarship already committed to Holmesiana, this biography redresses the balance in favor of CD as a prolific globetrotting traveller, war correspondent, military doctor, and indefatigable lecturer first on the Cottingley Fairies and then on spiritualism.

CD's unlikely friendships with the charlatan Charles Budd, Oscar Wilde, and then Harry Houdini, who sought to unmask the spirits CD venerated, also gain substantial coverage. His two marriages and the rather modern way he remained vowed to his first wife as she lingered with fatal tuberculosis while he set up an arrangement with his second wife long before his first wife's demise shows in a balanced way CD's very human predicament. Earlier, his refusal to gain a much-needed sinecure if he had capitulated to the Catholicism he rejected as a student shows CD's own iconoclasm and his staunch values that he rarely wavered from. (One error: thrice Miller labels the Jesuits who taught CD at Stonyhurst as "monks.") Miller in these situations mines the letters to great effect, correcting distorted views based only on the diaries or biographies rather than the much more revealing correspondence.

While CD's warlust blinded him in South Africa and WWI France to the suffering of the enemy, CD did do his best to minister to the British soldiers he treated. He was of his time, as Miller reminds us fairly, a defender of the Empire and a staunch patriot. He "chose not to see" what he did not want to as he travelled in trenches and hospitals, jungles and barracks, into seances and across colonies.

Miller eschews editorializing or sensationalism. He treats CD even-handedly: after making "up his mind he was unstoppable, impervious to argument, blind to contradictory evidence, untroubled by self-doubt." (371) His "artless credulity" confused many, but "sceptics failed to understand" a crucial self-fulfilling prophecy in CD's willingness, especially after the death of his son after WWI, to believe in spiritual communiques from the ectoplasmic realm. He could not be shaken "because he was constantly encouraged by numerous messages from the other world praising his commitment." (377)

This turns into a poignant last third of his life. Conrad and Dickens appeared to him, he reported, asking CD to finish their last novels that had been left incomplete at their departures from this life. CD wore himself to death by his lecture tours defending spiritualism. His literary output turned entirely to asserting his beliefs, and his money was poured into promoting his "Psychic Press." Blind to pain, he was eager to see in seances what he wanted, as he in wartime chose to view the carnage as fulfilling the destiny of the Crown and loyal, eager, and self-sacrificing servants such as himself. He died serving a cause that by the end fewer believed in than the Empire, and outside of the reason Holmes epitomized and his medical training inculcated, CD sought comfort in mediums and disembodied messages praising his own missionary efforts and lauding his faith in the ethereal.

Friday, October 24, 2008

Chess, Celts & the Sacred.

I've been mulling connections, elusive and evanescent, willful or weird, between how a game can reveal mystery and how we try to enter the mystic. In learning chess rudiments, I sense fleetingly the beauty of the nearly inexhaustible contest. They say Buddhists may have encouraged its early development as an alternative to war, one that fought the battles that our psyche seems to crave by manipulating pieces on a board rather than by the shedding of blood.

As the final endnote of a battered 1974 book I discovered in the library today, Alexander Cockburn's "Idle Passion," about psychoanalysis (sigh, he likes Freud, I like Jung) and chess, I noted his last entry enumerated proscribed games, a litany of eighteen forbidden ones, attributed to the Buddha: Buddha games list. While this iteration came too early for chess to be included, number one's "games on boards with 8 or 10 rows" and number two's "the same games played on imaginary boards." So, disappointingly if logically, such imaginative occupations are seen, if this document from "The Dialogues of the Buddha" proves legitimate, as distractions. It'd still be preferable, I muse, to those engaged in by most youths today. As the two in my care.

Watching my sons play "Medal of Honor" as they wipe out Nazi snipers with their Wii, I relive my own childhood. Despite very conservative parents, I was forbidden any toy weaponry, so I imagined my baseball bat, tucked under my arm, instead, and I too tried to fry the grim greyish Germans with magnifying glasses, concentrating the sun's fires upon their tiny plastic bodies. Chess men may look more elegant in their Staunton sculptures, but grown-ups still play--or fight-- to the king's death.

The author of two books, both reviewed here and on Amazon, J.C. Hallman, has sent me thoughtful e-mails in response to my critiques of "The Chess Artist" and, a while back, "The Devil Is a Gentleman." For both of them, I add, I have since revised slightly my earlier reviews as I understand better, after reflecting upon his explanations, what he's tried to capture on paper about what flickers within the mind. Whether manifested as black vs. white, or as a variety of invented religious experience that attempts to re-bind (the root of the word "religion") us, we seek an attenuated or nearly severed energy that created us.

I marvelled over his analogy (transcribed in my "Chess Artist" review) comparing religious awe with that felt on the chessboard. He's on the trail of profundity, although like many such hunts, perhaps this quarry may outrun our chase to trap it in rational nets. Hallman, as one who's spent years immersed first in the world of chess players and then new American religious movements, studying them as what anthropologists might call a "participant observer"-- or what his fellow journalists might call simply getting to know one's subjects by accompanying them as they do what drives themselves-- immerses himself in his subjects. Chess and religion: simpler than a Balinese cockfight? I figured, as one of the few people on earth with a documented interest in both avocations and maybe the only book-length author on both, Hallman'd be able to decipher such coded messages from the ineffable.

I responded to his e-mail about my comments on "The Chess Artist," asking him if he'd followed up links between chess and belief. He seemed to indicate that when he'd finished the book on chess, he'd left chess behind. I wished he hadn't. But, I understand well the relief after an arduous task. It's been nearly fourteen years since I finished my dissertation, and for a long stint after, I've turned little to the side of my study that fills with medieval literature and history. Instead, the other half of my library, stacked with Irish culture and lore, has occupied most of my attention since my Ph.D. was granted. It does take time to decompress, even decades, after such an plunge into the pressurized realm of intense investigation.

Now, perhaps freed of the doctoral bends, knowing I have the ability to float wherever I wish in my own mental journey, I can voyage now and then to the Middle Ages. Also, I try to connect my antiquarian with my Celtic interests. I let them take me in spirals, not points of the compass. How chess fits with Buddhism may never gain much elucidation, nor will the Druidic foundations supposedly found by earlier wistful investigators trying to tie the ancient Irish game of wood-wisdom, "fidchell," to Tara or divination. [Overview: Keith Watt: Fidchell. Scholarship, if excised of its Old Irish sources: Eoin MacWhite, "Early Irish Board Games" Eigse 5 (1946): 25-35.] Still, in such medievalist reveries and academic fumblings, we gain a seductive glimmer of what may have impelled our ancestors to seek, on boards, what they sensed beyond them.

Last night, I moseyed on-line nosing about for "irish literature chess references" and "fidchell" and "irish chess history." When one finds your own blog coming up twice in Google's results, one feels, as "Fionnchú" on Blogtrotter, in a self-referential position. Borges, Beckett, Carroll, Kafka, and Nabokov come to mind, not always encouragingly. And, I note, many of them played chess well.

So far, not a lot of search-engineered inspiration. Cathair Mór who died 153 CE left a will with two "chess tables." But, any use of this term in translation's not exact. I understand now how "fidchell" has been reconstructed, and why it's not really "Irish chess," despite the Gaelic language's understandable use of the circular board game (adapted in "Harry Potter & the Sorcerer's Stone") as the etymological, if cognitive, cognate of a squarer sport that entered Europe only in the twelfth century. Beckett in "Murphy" has a game with Dr. Endon that may recall, J. C. C. Mays avers, a twist on the older games-- such as Fergus Mac Roich or Cú Chullain played.

Before the battle of Clontarf, when Brian Boru beat the Danes, "chess" according to Keating's "History of Ireland," weighed to foreshadow that martial contest:
"And it happened next day that Murrough son of Brian and Conaing son of Donn Chuan were playing chess next day-- or according to some, it was the Abbot of Glendalough who was playing with Murrough. Maol Mórdha began to advise Murrough in his play and advised one move that lost him the game."
Murrough compares this counsel ruefully to advice that beat the Danes at Glen Mama; Maol Mórdha sneers that if he gave the Vikings such advice then, he'd turn the tables now and tell them what could "make them defeat you another day." Murrough jeers, Maol Mórdha's furious, and he takes off next morning without taking leave of Brian. Now, this skedaddling by the King of Leinster leads to Brian trying to make amends; when Brian's servant catches up with the King, Murrough whacks him thrice and nearly murders him.

This leads, naturally, to a breach between Brian and Murrough. At Clontarf, in 1014, the Irish would win. Actually, begrudging Leinstermen opposed their fellow Hibernians. Losses were massive: about 6,000 out of 8,000 Dublin Danes, Leinstermen, and Orkneymen; 4,000 Irish. Factional fighting returned as Ireland lost its ruler. Both kings would die in the battle.

An additional quirk that I have not yet straightened out: precisely which game do those bickering Irish argue about? "Fidchell" or chess? Reason being, by the 11-12c, the Vikings brought chess from the Arab polity via Russia back into Northern Europe. (Alexander of Neckham in "De naturis rerum" included "de scacchis," about chess, 1180 being the first mention in Britain, but he may have learned of it in Italy. The elephant piece, "al-Phil," due to its unfamiliarity to Europeans, evolved into the "fou", the jester's cap in French, and, thanks to the groove that originally styled the tusks, transformed slowly into the dented mitre of the episcopate.)

I wonder how long it took before magnificent pieces such as the "Lewis Chessmen". Found ca. 1831 at the Bay of Uig on Lewis in the Outer Hebrides, these carved Romanesque walrus tusks and whale's teeth represent one of the earliest extant sets. Wikipedia paraphrases the summary by the British Museum: "Some historians believe that the Lewis chessmen were hidden (or lost) after some mishap occurred during their transportation from Norway to wealthy Norse settlements on the east coast of Ireland."

It figures, whether in Yeats' stylized 1907 poem-play "Deirdre" where she and Naisi as fated lovers carry out their game-- the same played by Lugaidh Redstripe and his wife the night of their death-- while awaiting doom by the hand of King Conchubar, or in the full game incorporated into Beckett's novel "Murphy," or in Brian O'Nolan's boasts: that the Irish have long loved combining braggadacio with insults, pugnacity, and a sense of devilish one-upsmanship. Stanford Lee Cooper, who interviewed for Time magazine August 23, 1943 this Man of Mystery, Flann O'Brien/ Myles na gCopaleen/ Brian Ó Nualláin, published with a straight face:
One of the few things O’Nolan takes seriously is chess. He is equipped with a pocket chessboard, plays promiscuously with chance acquaintances. He has informally beaten World Champion Alekhine.

Beckett, for his part-- and I wish he and Flann could have collaborated, but Sam was occupied in his efforts for the French Resistance at the time that O'Nolan regaled the Yank reporter with his tall tale-- excelled at chess. At Trinity, he served as treasurer of the chess club; during the war, he played against Marcel Duchamp (who abandoned, as David Shenk emphasizes in "The Immortal Game," his artistic career to turn to chess totally); he told Deirdre Bair that the game and music "had the same intellectual beauty." Beckett mentioned chess in "Watt," "Assumption," "Dream of Fair to Middling Women," and "Eleutheria." Not only in "Endgame" if more by allusion, but in "Murphy": as a fully annotated game between the protagonist and Mr Endon. (s.v. "Chess" in "The Grove Companion to Samuel Beckett," C. J. Ackerley and S. E. Gontarski, NY: Grove, 2004: 94-96.)

J.C.C. Mays wondered if that fictional game suggested the ancient contests that riled up our Irish heroes. Supposedly, their pieces in "fidchell" would levitate, as they do in Harry Potter. This invites, even if it does not reward, speculation. Did the Celts try to use the board to channel otherworldly forces? Given how little we know about my forebears, it's perhaps tempting but futile to try to answer this question. Even the most famous "real" chess player from the island, Belfast-born Alexander McDonnell, remains nearly a total mystery until he suddenly emerges to London fame, only to die there at 37 in 1835. James O'Fee has tried to unearth what can be found out about McDonnell from the archives. A heroic recuperation?

Ironically for a symbolic struggle perpetuated for millennia between implacable foes over another small field of battle, perhaps, chess gains less renown in the thirty-two counties themselves. Instead, we hear its power more sustained as "fidchell"-- if then rendered imperfectly as "chess"-- within the printed pages that capture storytelling new and old, and that again a faint cry from the Ulster Cycle's superheroes. But, if my dissertation entered the idea of purgatory in medieval literature, I suppose such aracane topics deserve as much consideration. Even if we dimly glimpse what thousands of years ago may have been much clearer, we must try to peer backwards.

What we may find, as I found on a linked article from "Chessquest," one of four sub-sections alone on "Historical Chess" within an enormous site, GoddessChess, may bring us full circle. None other than J. C. Hallman's "The Sacred Game." This pithy essay addresses exactly what I'd been trying clumsily to ask the author last week. After finishing his comparison of William James' pioneering investigations into religious understanding with contemporary American varieties invented during the intervening century, Hallman reflects briefly what draws his earlier quest closer to his more recent study.

The full article, enhanced perhaps by its brevity in that Hallman opens up neatly space for nearly limitless contemplation, tells better than I can summarize what an author who's spent years thinking about chess and religion has to tell us about the small, mysterious intersection where these two fields of human endeavor overlap, and where they may nod towards the infinite. It'd be great if this became his next book!

Here, sub-titled "Revelations," Hallman's essay's typically eloquent conclusion:
“Chess is not friendly to prose,” wrote Louis Menand, another Pulitzer winner, in a review of a chess book that was not mine. “Chess is, after all, a sport, but there is almost no way to convey what’s exciting about it to people who are not themselves deep students of the game.”

Beyond having set precisely this goal for myself when I wrote The Chess Artist, I’d have to disagree that there is no way to convey the feeling of the game. The trick, I’d say, is in indulging that side of the game that echoes the sacred, that faint twinge of community that comes along when you first sit across the board from a friend or an antagonist, the Yin to your Yang.

I’m not suggesting that chess is the paraphernalia of mystics. That would be an even odder hypothesis. But what’s clear from all this leftover research, perhaps—and what was already clear to anyone who’s ever played a serious game of chess—is that while chess is not an out-of-body experience in any way, it is precisely an in-body experience.

It can offer, in the depth of study, a faint sense of otherness. The actual experience of a game hints at the hypothesis that all these scholars and critics orbit without being able to describe. Here it is: maybe chess is still a ritual tool of some kind—a tool that triggers some special corner of the mind, where our finite organ, locked in the prison of the skull, nevertheless touches the infinity of the game and of the possible.

And perhaps in this way it is not combat at all. Perhaps in this way it reassures.

Photos: 1) Ballinderry Game Board, found 1932 in a crannog in Co. Westmeath. Perhaps "fidchell" or related "brandubh," descended from what the Vikings called "(Hnefa)tafl" table games, first recorded in 400 CE. This pegged board's 7" x 7"; the game has been reconstructed: Fidchell Rules. Recreation as re-creation: Nigel Suckling's "Celtic Chess."

2a) British Museum Set of Isle of Lewis Chessmen . 1150-1200 CE.

2b.1) Geoff Chandler demolishes this origin myth as a forgery; it's another "tafl" set: "Not Even From Lewis, Mate". Blame the bishop: he charges medievals crafted none until the 15th c.

2b.2) Alexander of Neckham called in 1180 what we know as the bishop "senex," (old man) rather than the customary "calvus/ comes/ curvus." [Marilyn Yalom, "Birth of the Chess Queen," NY: HarperCollins, 2004: 96.]

2c) I note Sam Sloan's essay-- articulating a Chinese rather than Indian starting point-- on "The Origins of Chess". His thesis may be indirectly integrated into Chandler's assertion. Sloan elaborates:
We know from the writings of Lucena (of "Lucena position" fame) that the modern form of chess was invented or at least codified in Italy during the period from 1475 to 1497 A.D. and spread like wildfire across Europe. This game brought together three features which medieval chess did not have: the modern queen, the modern bishop and en passant pawn capturing[. . . .] No doubt, the modern bishop and the modern queen were first thought of long before 1497. However, it was not until approximately that date that all of these elements were combined into the same game at the same time.

2d) British Museum may "check" Chandler's charge: Bishop Chess Piece, British, 12c. Walrus ivory, if far less abstract than Lewis; caption notes Vikings "probably" brought chess to Britain 10c; cites popularity with kings from 1100 (Henry I) onwards.

Friday, May 2, 2008

Ag guím ar Lá Bealtaine

Is é muinteoir "Bo." Tá sé i gconaí Áth na Damh. Tá céim dhoctúir na Léinn Ceilteach air ansin. Beidh sé ag dul go dtí an Ollscoil Dhroichead Caim go luath. Tá sé mac leinn na litreacht mhean-aois ann. Tá Bhreatnais, Manannais, Gaeilge Albanach, agus Sean-Gaeilge agam, agus ar ndóigh Laidin freisin.

Scríobh séisean ar a bhlog "The Expvlsion of the Blatant Beast" go hiontach scéal aice faoi Beltane anseo. Is í na féile tine agus athnuachan na h-iarraidh sin. Nuair léigh mé seo, shíl mé faoi leabhair eile go raibh ag léite le gairid liom. Dúirt Risteard Dawkins, Criostoir Hitchens, Dónal Dennett, Seán Marks agus Sheamh Harris uile orainn go bhfuil ag cur i gcontúirt na reiligiún stáit muidsan féin ionainn. Tá aithne agam ann.

Bheul, ní creid "Bo" im i nDia seisean. Mar sin féin, creid sé féin san urnaí. Insíonn "Bo" im sin go raibh ag déanta an turas beag seisean agus a chairde Suistín. Chuaigh siad go abhainn go halainn ar oiche Bhealtaine. D'inis "Bo" agus Suistín smaionte acusan. Molaidh a thabhairt do dhéithe adhartha. Deir siad rainn go raibh an ócáid a cheiliúradh.

Is maith liom seo. Faigheann mé ar an idirlion go deireanach duine eile go leor chomh "Bo" agus Suistín. Mar shampla, téigh ansin: Tre Gwernin: "Beltane". Tá Páganachd Bhandia le Caithríonn ap Rhys nic Dhána aice fós. Rinne siadsan deasghnáthaí Athchumaim Ceiltigh go bhfuil ag fréamhaoinn ina géilleadh do rhéamh-Chríostaí.

Anois, cloiseann muid faoi chreideamh a bheith agat i nDia go dona go minic. Ach, níor caithfeadh muid ag déanamh dearmad. Gheobhaidh muid a bheith dóchasach go heagnai as i Día nó déithe nó nádúr sísean féin. Go hiondúil, tá siad duine go bhreá ann. Déarfidh muid seo ar feadh ár thuaraimí machnaimhaí beatha an anama againn, chomh fada le ár bharúlachaí go raibh go déanta go curumach.

Praying at Beltane (May Day)

"Bo" is a teacher. He lives in Oxford. He has a doctoral degree in Celtic Studies from there. He will go to Cambridge University soon. He is a student of medieval literature. He knows Welsh, Manx, Scots Gaelic, and Old Irish, and of course Latin.

He himself writes on his blog "The Expvlsion of the Blatant Beast" his lovely story about Beltane here. That's the fire and renewal festival of spring. When I read this, I thought about other books that were recently read by me. Richard Dawkins, Christopher Hitchens, Daniel Dennett, John Marks, and Sam Harris all tell us about an established religion putting us in danger ourselves. I know this.

Well, "Bo" does not believe in God Himself. Nevertheless, he himself believes in prayers. "Bo" tells that about himself and his friend Justine making a little pilgrimage. They went to a beautiful river on the eve of Beltane. "Bo" and Justine spoke out their own thoughts. They gave praise to the "gods of [pagan, so my dictionary implies!] worship."

I like this. I encounter lately on the Internet many other people like "Bo" and Justine. For instance, go there to: Tre Gwernin, Beltane. There's also Kathryn Price NicDhána with her Páganachd Bhandia. They themselves made Celtic Reconstructionist rituals that are rooted in pre-Christian acceptances.

Now, we hear about believers in God often poorly. But, we must not make a mistake. We will find wise believers in God or gods or nature Herself. Usually, they are fine people. We should speak about our thoughtful opinions on our spiritual life, as long as our judgments have been made carefully.

Grianghraf/Photo: Belatane Festival on Calton Hill, Edinburgh, 2001

This week saw the ancient Celtic Festival of Beltane being celebrated, once again, with a large gathering on Calton Hill, Edinburgh. The 21st Century Fire Spectacle was a vivid reminder that our ancestors used Beltane as a symbol of rebirth and the coming growing season. The fires kindled on 1st may have very ancient origins, leading back to early Sun worshiping. Beltane was marked until Victorian times, particularly by hill shepherds, who would meet in a secret place, on some high hillside, to remember a festival which stretched back into the mist of history.At Beltane shepherds cut a circular trench and lit a fire of sacred wood. They made a caudle of eggs, butter, oatmeal and milk, spilling some on the ground to ensure the safety of their flock in the coming season and to placate the old Gods. They drank it with beer and whisky. Often an oatcake was baked with nine knobs dedicated to various deities and each shepherd broke off a piece and said, "This to thee, preserve my sheep." (Scots Independent)

Saturday, January 5, 2008

An Leabhar Mór: The Great Book of Gaelic: Léirmheas/ Book Review

Tá sé "An Leabhar Mór" eile (as Gaeilge seisean féin, agus Gaeilge na hAlban is Béarla, mar sin é)! Inné, scríobh mé faoi "Leabhar Mór an Eolais," atá é achmhainn go hiontach díobh páistí-- agus don fhoighlaimeoiri fásta fós. Inniu, scríobhann mé faoi dánta agus go bhfuil go ceangail na hEalaíne Uaisle de Tionscadal Cholm Cille, idir Albain agus Éireann. Cuirím léirmheas agam suas atá go déanta dó Amazon an lá seo go luath.

Here's another "The Big Book" in Irish itself (and in Scots Gaelic and of course English!) Yesterday, I wrote about "The Big Book of Knowledge," which is a wonderful resource for children-- and for adult learners too. Today, I write about poems and the fine arts that relate to the Colmcille Project, between Scotland and Ireland. I put up my review for Amazon which was done earlier this day.

This is to clarify the contents of this "Great Book of Gaelic." The previous two reviewers may be misleading-- the book is not only Irish but Scots Gaelic in its verse and illuminations-- and the other Celtic languages are not represented. It plays off of the co-editor Theo Dorgan's work with the earlier "Great Book of Ireland" in format and intent. This new Leabhar Mór commemorates 1500 years of cross-channel cultural connection between Scotland and Ireland. The 100 poems in the Irish and Scots Gaelic languages (here with translations) were nominated by poets (both as judges and contributors) and span from the 6th c CE to today. Fifty artists each from Ireland and Scotland were commissioned to use graphic media (calligraphy, typography, collage, photography, and all the varieties of ink, pen, brush, and paint) to enhance and play off the verses. The lines of the poems, in fact, are partially inscribed on each of the artworks: this alone links the hundred poems and representations to each other.

The themes lament and celebrate. The work emerges from a period of hope with the peace in the North of Ireland symbolizing a reapproachment with the warring sides, each of whom in Ulster drew on Gaelic images and rhetoric in their territorial struggle. Also, such efforts as the Colmcille Project seek to re-orient the perspective of not so much British as Celtic isles and nations in the North Atlantic: this book carries such a mission into the realms of the aesthetic and the visual. The attention devoted to English, Scots Gaelic, and Irish, therefore, balances these three living sources of the words and ideas imagined here.

Essays on the poetic traditions, the art, and capsule bios of the writers and artists enhance this handsome volume. The originals were displayed in exhibition before being bound on handmade paper. A website also shows a sample of the work; the BBC also gave radio and TV coverage to this millennial project celebrating Gaelic history and identity. The content rewards close study, often with a magnifying glass, as you'd view a medieval manuscript. The scope recalls such disparate monuments as the Apocalypse Spanish texts of Beatus of Liebana (themselves inspiration for Umberto Eco's "Name of the Rose"), the ancient portrait of a Roman matron, fashion shoots and gallery photography, iconography, and doubtless dozens more influences I lack the erudition to compare.

Friday, November 23, 2007

Learning Welsh: Resources

Iechydd da! "Good day!" Dia duit. As if Irish isn't daunting enough. Mutations "go leor," fearsome changes, dialectical brawls that make Corca Dhuibne vs. Gaoth Daobhair look like a playground spat. Literary and spoken versions diverging apace with the red shift of the galaxies according to the Hubble constant. But, after thinking about R.S. Thomas and getting Byron Rogers' recent bio (still meaning to read Justin Wintle's one from last decade on the same) on this fractious nationalist vicar who, learning his native tongue (yes, I understand the contradiction) too late, could not write in it the verse which, many claim, makes him the pre-eminent poet of the last part of the last century in English, I figured perhaps returning to find out more about Cymraeg and Cymru would be inspiring. Or, at least make me appreciate my lack of Irish fluency better.

In 1979, staying near a village near the Pennine moors, Upper Cumberworth ("homestead of the Cymri" as one of their last interior North-Central outposts near the vanished realm about which Ted Hughes wrote a Yorkshire-themed collection titled "Remains of Elmet")-- with my decidedly raven-curled and dark-eyed hostess Rachel, whose father was Liverpool Welsh and had studied at Aberystwyth-- I heard on a jaunt to Fishguard (Abergaun= "mouth of the river") a Celtic sentence or two spoken for the first time.

Rachel looked Welsh, and although we had to look puzzled and wait for the question to morph again into our imperial form of address, I was taken by this interaction. The assumption entered into a casual exchange between strangers: that Rachel was Welsh and that she could speak a language other than English-- one that had endured 4,500 years in this part of the island. The bond that was offered chafed against the sundered tie. Emigration from Wales had dissolved ancestral link that connected her family to its roots. Yet, her genetic inheritance still attracted the gesture made by the lads who stopped her. (Me, I don't know-- I guess I was either Irish or American or German for that matter to them-- if not a Brit. Another reason why when travelling I tend not to speak up much, preferring to blend in and observe.)

It was one of those happenstance moments that defines a path for a lifetime. Two Pembroke (we were in Dyfed, formerly Pembrokeshire) Corgis walked with their owner on the shore. Dog loving me took this as a good omen. Locals asked Rachel where she'd gotten the fish & chips she carried as we walked along waiting for the ferry to Rosslare and my first, albeit brief, glimpse of Ireland.

On the middle of the night's return, I also recall being catcalled by local louts as I entered the Kingdom again. I hesitated. I was unsure if I could stroll in as easily as a subject of the Queen, but nobody seemed to care that I was an American in this unlikely port of (re-)entry. Crown security was much more casual back then about such matters, although we were held up an awfully long time before departure. The boat had been boarded and police wandered about amidst squalling megaphones. There were mutterings of the IRA's threats as we waited for the ferry earlier that day. The tension of the Irish campaign churned with dormant memories of what being regarded as English in the principality where holidaymakers meant. I had already enjoyed the lyrical if somewhat sentimental novels of Richard Llewellyn, and not only "How Green Was My Valley." "Green, Green Was My Valley" written in his grumpy retirement in the 1970s lamented not only the closure of the mines but the arsonists who attacked the vacation homes. My sympathies were and remain with the Meibion Glyndwr. Rachel and her innocently uncomprehending sort earned resentment from our Celtic cousins who remained behind, under such invasion by us outlanders for centuries. We forgot our mother tongues, and, like R.S. Thomas or myself (can't speak for Rachel), we labor all the more to regain what to a child comes so much easier.

Irony also entered that resort town. Fishguard's the location of "the last attempted invasion" of Albion. In 1797 a few clueless Gauls were apprehended on the same strand where the Queen's chosen breed trotted. The next "year of the French" resulted in the failed Rising of 1798 with thirty thousand dead Irishmen: history certainly remained relevant.

I was staying with the Johnsons for six weeks on a summer exchange program after I won an essay contest sponsored by the State of California on the quadricentennial of Sir Francis Drake's landing in the Bay Area. Later, the Manx held their assembly-- I think it was on the Fourth of July whose spectacular sunset over Denby Dale lingers in my mind-- and on the BBC I listened to a bit of that revived language also. Ned Maddrell, (arguably) the last native speaker of Manx, had died less than five years before. (See my recent review here of Mark Abley's "Spoken Here" and its chapters on both Manx and Welsh.) And, in the sunny July garden "off Carr Hill Road" (as the postal address went-- "car" comes from a P-Celtic "car[r]"), I read the now famous Jon Savage review, "Death Disco," of a nearby band's debut LP (Sounds, Melody Maker, NME all being my constant companions then along with gammon crisps, lemon curd & Bakewell tarts), "Unknown Pleasures" by Joy Division. Bilberries (blueberries to me) from the fields. Also, my first pints of Guinness at the Toss o'Coin. What a way to bridge my high school- into- college summer; I turned 18 in England! Yes, Rachel had a boyfriend already, Simon in the RAF; he and I went to Mass together in Barnsley, and he was quite a genial gentleman.

I reviewed on the British Amazon site a while back Pamela Petro's "Travels in Another Language" about her experiences trying to speak Welsh while visiting foreign places where, she reasoned, the conversationalists would be less likely to lapse into Saesnag. She had studied, as so many do, at the Wlpan (the only word in Hebrew likely to have been commonly adapted into a Celtic language, I reckon) and at courses at the University campus in Lampeter (whose site no longer has a link to the on-line tutorials, however). Surfing the Web today after a search for Sain Records revealed disappointingly little about their activist past, I wandered into language links.

I credit the post-colonial Beeb for great sites for adult learners in both Irish and Welsh. Following links, I noticed a second Californian writer who learned Welsh at an Wlpan. I guess it's like Oideas Gael, but financially larger and so grandly scaled. There's one year-round in the formerly deserted village of Nant Gwrtheryn. Again, the contrasts between the relatively intimate facilities for Irish learners and the extensive support for adults learning Welsh continues to astonish me; certainly Sabhal Mór Ostaig on the Isle of Skye has developed too a strong Hebridean presence. (I've read "A Waxing Moon"-- a history of SMO-- by Roger Hutchinson and meant to review it but cannot find my notes taken from the ILL copy.) The state sponsorship of Irish, contrarily, as letters continue to castigate Conradh na Gaeilge and the like for their lackadaisical efforts, makes the resurgence of Scots Gaelic and Welsh all the more admirable, undertakings that relied more on community energy than hidebound bureaucracy.

Here's a link to a review of what Thomas published (for the great publisher Y Lolfa, the Celtic cousin to Cló Iar Chonnachta "as gaeilge") about her joys and pains: "You Don't Speak Welsh." http://www.clwbmalu

BBC's Learn Welsh:
Mark Nodine's Welsh course on-line:
Harry Campbell's Welsh Informationary:

Shariah Program: Language-learning links from all over the world (including Ulpan/ Wlpan):

P.S. Image on right= "I'm learning Welsh." Tá mé ag foghlaim Breatnáis. Tá beagan Breatnáis agam. In Irish, the surname anglicized as "Walsh" is really "Breathnach," or stranger/ outsider/ foreigner. Compare "Wallace" in Scotland, as in Braveheart's William W. who, of course, fights the lisping Normans from England via France, Normandy via their marauding progenitors the Northmen or Vikings. Not to be confused with Wallachia near Transylvania or the Galizianers from Galatia on the border of present-day Poland and the Czech lands. (Not to be confused with the Galatians in Asia Minor who received a letter from Paul.) Gaul was conquered as were those Continental Celtic bastions by Rome, who at least named Cambria for the Welsh, Britannia for England, and Alba for Scotland. Confusingly, "Galles" is French for the Welsh. The Welsh speak a Celtic language but not a Gaelic one. Theirs is P-Celtic, or "Brythonic." Welsh, in English, derives from a term for stranger in post-Roman days as Britain was invaded by the Anglo-Saxons. Thus their term "wealasc" (cf. "commonweal"). Contrarily, "Cymraeg" denotes one of the people, a true native and not a sissified Saes in Welsh/ sinister Sasanach in Irish!

P.P.S. Britain derives from Prydain-- the same word used by the late Lloyd Alexander in his splendid tales that revive the Mabinogi. Brittany comes from the flight of the Celts from Britain into non-Frankish "Armorica," as the Romans called it. When the Irish call for "Brits out," they really mean "English," but this is complicated by the Union and the fact that many of the soldiers who were stationed in the North were Scots, or Welsh. (See "Soldiers & Innocents," Russell Celyn Jones' novel.) Many of those who first invaded Hibernia in 1169 were Normans who had taken over Wales a century earlier. And you all know that the Scotti were Gaelic migrants from Ireland, right?