Monday, December 31, 2007

Gibbon, Post-Modern Polymaths & Jay Michaelson

This year winds down frugally. Few movies that I've seen, and nearly as few records premiered. Remodelling, tossing out trash and boxing up books for charity, and a general dearth of intriguing releases either proves my aging or the boredom that permeates much of the media today. The Writers Guild strike has cut our discretionary budget to austerity measures. I started reading a massive, albeit abridged, volume of Gibbon's "Decline & Fall" yesterday, as I had opened it at random, plucked from the sorting that precedes the division into wheat and chaff, sheep and goats and found myself both overwhelmed and taken by its orotund prose. "The name of Poet was almost forgotten; that of Orator was usurped by the sophists. A cloud of critics, of compilers, of commentators, darkened the face of learning, and the decline of genius was soon followed by the corruption of taste." (end of ch. 2) Same as it ever was, since Plato, perhaps. Yet applicable, perhaps to such as me blogging away, as a contemporary near faraway colonial shores.

That citation is immediately preceded: "But the provincials of Rome, trained by a uniform artificial foreign education, were engaged in a very unequal competition with those bold ancients, who, by expressing their genuine feelings in their native tongue, had already occupied every place of honour." I feel that lag, as I find out who among my college classmates now chairs the department where I earned my doctorate, and as the tenured critics and the published compilers among my po-mo au courant grad school Derrida'd and Deleuze'd colleagues darken the face of knowledge but fill the pages of the Chronicle. I, the commentator here, shuffle through frosh comp essays and prepare to teach six classes a week for what will soon be 48 weeks a year. I confess the sin of envy.

So, I bow out this year-- which has been on the other hand full of longed-for blessings in a family reunion, my first glimpses of the Puget Sound and my second of Donegal, daily sight of my two strapping sons, and waking up in a home that thanks to my wife with her inherited patience of Job (or Rachel, or Noah's wife) will be splendid-- by nodding to another talented scribbler, who rivals Gibbon if only in a breadth of knowledge that might have given the rotund gentleman pause. I doubt if that historian knew the Zohar. Jay Michaelson's somebody I'd go green with my sin of envy contemplating: Boston U. law professor, doctoral candidate at Hebrew U. in Kabbalah, award-winning fiction and non-fiction writer, GBLT activist, and a Buddhist to boot. He calls himself "Jewish cultural entrepreneur" and "a venture-funded software entrepreneur." His column, logically labelled "The Polymath," expresses much I and my wife, for once, agree with.

His editors at "The Forward" introduced it:A polymath is someone who has multiple fields of interest and expertise, and we think Jay certainly qualifies. Integrating culture and religion, sense and soul, the critical and the curious, the new column aims for a truly postmodern perspective: one that is neither a part of a continuous tradition nor wholly apart from it, and one that includes both theory and practice, breadth of perspective and depth of seriousness. In the age of the iPod, when all of us build our playlists from different styles and genres, is there any alternative?

Read him, no matter your denomination or lack of, and judge for yourself.

Here's a representative sampling, following perhaps Gibbon in variety, backward through his columns. He has five to date. I look forward, pun intended, to many more:

On "Thinking Green": Just as it’s hypocritical to be ritually pious but never give tzedakah, so, too, it’s fundamentally inconsistent to pray three times a day but still lead a wasteful, Styrofoam-laden lifestyle. We’re not talking here about political correctness or being a vegetarian. This is about waking up to the way our society transgresses ethical norms, defaces the Divine creation, and pretends that it isn’t to blame or that it doesn’t know any better.

On Christmas: I understand that neither Jews nor Christians will welcome my pagan interpretation of their winter holidays. But imagine if we did. Imagine if we saw our varying traditions as different responses to the same mystery, and as elaborations of the same basic human needs. Might we reconfigure our senses of self and other, of holy and not-holy, of enemy and friend? I’m not suggesting a bland universalism; I’m arguing for a psychologically mature, intellectually honest and fearlessly embodied post-religious consciousness of guts, earth and sex, right alongside with, and mutually enriching, a serious ethical commitment.

On keeping Shabbos: Personally, however, I’m interested in religion on functional, not mythical, terms: What does it do, how does it transform, in what ways does it loosen, and bind. If Shabbat works, in the ways I’ve described, I’m not so concerned with what God commanded and didn’t. If your Sabbath consists of reading a good book Friday evening, and it accomplishes the goals you’ve set for it, then I don’t care what Good Book you read, or whether you bless the kiddush wine afterward. What matters is the result.

On Michael Steinhardt, an enterpreneur who after dispensing $125 million wonders where the money's gone: Steinhardt, an atheist, has spent a decade funding synagogues and religious institutions — and now he complains that they aren’t reaching atheists like him. Why is this a surprise? What’s needed is a belief in culture: artists, arts organizations, magazines, independent publishing, cultural education. These are projects that will, over time, create a Jewishness worth affiliating with even if you don’t believe that God wrote the Torah. Of course, it takes time for this to happen; you can’t measure the effects on evaluation forms, and some cultural products will, of necessity, be of interest to only an elite. But then, we all understand that when it comes to the Met and the ballet, investments in culture are long term, and often work in a trickle-down way. Why expect instant results, and mass appeal, when it comes to Jewish life? And one more thing: culture succeeds when it’s allowed to flourish for its own sake, not as a tool to get Jewish couples to mate. Let’s stop demeaning ourselves, and undermining our own cultural efforts, by forcing Jewish culture to pimp for Jewish continuity. Nobody’s being fooled anyway.

On "The New Atheism" of Daniel Dennett, Richard Dawkins, Christopher Hitchens, and especially {Jewish atheist himself with Buddhist sympathies} Sam Harris: (the whole article's essential) I prefer to address the world as You rather than It. I love my relationship with God, even though I have no idea what that word means. That said, I share with the neo-atheists a serious doubt not only of my religion’s dogmas but even of my own religious sentiments and mystical experiences, which I have had thanks to serious spiritual practice. At the end of the day, whatever God is, It must be closely related to truth, and so certainty is the enemy of true religion, not its support.

But I find, when my mind is quiet enough to let the rest of me be truthful with itself, that the movements and notes of religion cause me to be more loving, more compassionate and more insistent upon justice. I don’t believe the nonsense that our religion often spreads about God, Torah and Israel. But I’ve found that there is something deeper than belief.

[Image: photo accompanied "The New Atheism" on the Forward's website.]

Sunday, December 30, 2007

Kareem & the Celts

Mark Heisler ("Close, But No Cigars"; Dec. 30. Sports) quotes Pat Riley: "I had to educate my players who the Celtics were," Riley wrote. "I asked if anyone knew. Finally Kareem [Abdul-Jabbar] raised his hand. He said the Celtics were a warring race of Danes who invaded Ireland.

"I had to explain that they were also a cunning secretive race. We had to learn to overcome the mythology of the Celtics."

Kareem's history degree from UCLA was well-earned, but he may have been on the road during the Western Civ before 1500 lecture that day. The Celts entered Ireland long before the Vikings invaded in the 800s. Celtic peoples were neither a race nor one tribe but Europeans who shared linguistic and cultural affinities. They may have arrived in Ireland as late as fifteen hundred or as early as five or six thousand years ago.

The attribution of a Celtic Central European homeland has been challenged by DNA studies suggesting Iberian origins. The psuedo-scientific conjectures that there existed a tribe of "Celts" constituting a "warring race" were popularized only in the nineteenth century, resurrected from references by Greeks and Romans.

Abdul-Jabbar appears to be confusing Vikings with Celts. As for their cunning and secrecy, these mythic qualities, as with their later "warring race" of Viking rivals, continue to cast a spell upon their foes!

My letter to the L.A. Times, sent today. Didn't hear back from them. I remain a loyal Bruin of UCLA (if not Boston hockey) allegiance, but not a Laker fan. Pedantic accuracy trumps hometown heroes; nature over nurture. Sorry, Niall. But I'm still rooting for the Dodgers, with you.

Saturday, December 29, 2007

Gaeilge graffito: West Belfast

Gaeilge graffito: West Belfast

"Labhair cibé Gaeilge atá agat"= Speak whatever Irish you've got.
"Is fearr Gaeilge bhriste ná Béarla cliste"=Broken Irish is better than clever English.

I'd been looking for pictures of these slogans, after my last visit when I forgot to snap my own shots near this entrance to Ballymurphy from the Whiterock Road. They inspired me as a tired learner returning from a fortnight at Oideas Gael in Donegal. I came to see my friends after a long bus ride only to then trudge down the Falls Road. (I wasn't able to flag a black taxi.) Ciarán Ó Brolcháin posted photos on the blog Indymedia /Saormheáin of the Six Counties Irish-language Act march from here to city center, and going up Black Mountain. A fine day! Monday 11 June 2007.

Graffito as Gaeilge i mBeál Feirste Thiar

Bhí mé ag lorg grianghrafaí faoi sluaghánnaí seo, roimh thug cuairt caite agam nuair ligith mé grianghraf mear a thógáil de seo i ndearmad in aice leis dul isteach seo Baile Ui Mhurchú uaidh an Bóthar Carraig Bhán. Spreagaigh mé orthu chomh mac leinn go tuirseach ag filleadh ar feadh coiscis é ar ais Oideas Gael i nDún na gGall. Tháinig mé a feiceáil mo chairde riamh turas fada ar bus mar sin a crágáil ag dul sios Bóthar na nBhfál. (Ní raibh mé abalta scairt tacsai dubh.) Thaisteal Ciarán Ó Brolcháin ar an bpost grianghrafaí ar an blog Indymedia /Saormheáin leis máirseáil Acht na Gaeilge Sé Chontae i dTuaisceart Éireann go anseo go dtí an lár-- agus ag dul suas Sliabh Dubh. Lá brea! De Luain, 11 Meitheamh, 2007.

Irish-language Classes on You Tube

Cáemghen ua Fidgeinti uploaded videos of beginning, intermediate, and advanced lessons in Irish. He posts to the Yahoo group "Learning Irish" that the content "consists of the classes I attend along with study sheets that go with each class that you can print out." The link's at the end of this blog entry.

Also, his Favorites at You Tube link to musical clips in Irish, vocal, instrumental, and sean-nós. At the site, Caemghen51 tells us:

This channel is specifically for providing resources for learning the Irish language using ongoing videos shot in a classroom setting. A link is provided next to each video lesson in which the learner can access the accompaning lesson handout sheets and print them out at home. So for all intents and purposes it puts the learner inside the classroom with everyone else and they can follow along and learn quite effectively. Most of the classes so far have been "intermediate" with a few "beginner" classes as well. I will be adding more beginner classes soon and "advanced" classes as well. Also, I have filmed quite a few Irish history classes, thanks to Pat Flannery, who holds a talk on the first Monday of each month on a different topic of Irish history.

Friday, December 28, 2007

Robert Graves' "The White Goddess": Websites

Reading Justin Wintle's "Furious Interiors" (reviewed here and on Amazon two days ago), I noted his admission that his subject, R.S. Thomas, rarely addresses the feminine dynamic with the poetic attention of a Ted Hughes or Robert Graves. Along with Sir Gawain, the complete works of Chaucer and Milton's "Paradise Lost," I remember my first day of grad school buying a remaindered copy with a bright yellow FS&G cover of the 1966 ed. of Graves' "The White Goddess" at the college bookstore. Signing up for a seminar in myth crit, I figured it'd come in handy. But, although its bold cover often beckoned me, I found myself discouraged by its rambling range and dubious claims. It appears he was experimenting with magic mushrooms when he wrote this, which may account for its style; similarly, he turned Laura Riding into an incarnation of the Goddess, and when she spurned his sexual yearnings, he sought the muse among quite a few other female companions. This set-up enlivened his scholarship considerably more than the likes of vicar R.S. Thomas, I suppose.

Still, at least before it wanders into uncharted realms that few of us can follow, RG does make his point. "Nowadays" is a civilization in which the prime emblems of poetry are dishonoured. In which serpent, lion and eagle belong to the circus-tent; ox, salmon and boar to the cannery; racehorse and greyhound to the betting ring; and the sacred grove to the saw-mill. In which the Moon is despised as a burned-out satellite of the Earth and woman reckoned as "auxiliary State personnel." In which money will buy almost anything but truth, and almost anyone but the truth-possessed poet. (cited here from Nowick Gray's representative essay on feminist poetics that reflects WG's impact upon neo-paganism):

This morning, nearly a quarter-century (alas) after I bought WG, I woke up curious about its contents. As any modern seeker would do, I went to Wikipedia! Here, in my own browsing of the web, are a few recommended sites.

Only one link's at Wikipedia's entry, to a site that was last updated at the start of this decade. It has further links: some dead, some surviving.

This compiler lists his own inspiration as being jumpstarted by John Montague's "About Love" collection with its translation of Nuala Ní Dhomhnaill's "Blodewedd." {You can also find it in Ní Dhomhnaill's "Pharaoh's Daughter," an excellent collection of her Irish-language poems with versions by leading poets into English.) "Blodewedd" rendered by Montague: (amidst a fine assortment of post-1950 poems)

Peter Berresford Ellis demolishes Graves for his lack of research into Ogham. RG constructed an untenable 13-letter lunar/ tree alphabet. Ellis reminds us in this article from an academic journal of astrological studies on-line (1997) that RG lacked knowledge of Welsh or Irish beyond what he gleaned apparently from secondary-- and often incorrect-- sources. Not for nothing is WG listed on Wikipedia under the "Psuedoscience" category.

"The Liberty Tree" summarizes WG; two brief excerpts from RG's reconstruction of the Welsh verse as "The Battle of the Trees" and his discourse on the "Tree Alphabet."

Brief entry on "The Fallen Temple of the WG":

Short excerpts from WG on Welsh & Irish poetry and woman as poetic medium:

From the RG Trust at Oxford's discussion list, a four-page 2002 thread re: sources, given the lack of WG bibliography:

Robert Loughrey in The New Internationalist, on WG as the "book that looks slantwise at deity & poetry":

John Woodrow Presley's short review of the third part of the biography by RG's nephew, Robert Perceval Graves, of RG and his relationship with Laura Riding, one-time muse for his WG:

Louis Simpson reviews the second installment, "The Years With Laura," 1926-40:

Not to overlook RPG himself, as a literary lecturer to entice sixth-formers:
Robert Graves and the Menage-a-Trois which Failed: In this lecture we are introduced to the extraordinary story of the relationship between the poet Robert Graves, his wife Nancy Nicholson, and Laura Riding, the brilliant and seductive American poet who became Robert's muse. The tangled emotional threads are drawn out surely and tastefully, and the story ends up elevating the audience.

Robert Graves and the White Goddess: This is an entrancing lecture, full of myth and magic. From it we learn not only how Robert Graves came to write The White Goddess (probably his most enduring work), but also about the message which he was trying to convey about what it is to be a romantic poet.

Asphodel Long considers WG in light of feminist scholarship:

Here's RG's poem "The White Goddess":

Thursday, December 27, 2007

Byron Rogers' "The Man Who Went into the West: The Life of R.S. Thomas" Book Review

Rogers has the advantages that, a decade earlier, Justin Wintle did not. Rogers met Thomas at 17, and had interviewed him and kept in touch with him for decades. With the help of Thomas’ colleagues, parishioners (first-hand recollections from those at Eglwys Fach and Aberdaron gain citation at length), and detractors, Rogers traces the same terrain as Wintle. Yet, with much of the path already blazed, Rogers takes detours as he tracks Thomas’ life across from Holyhead to Bangor to the English border and then back into Welsh Wales, such as it remains today. For, this characterizes the pain of Thomas’ quest. The title’s well chosen, for it shows the futility and nobility of his life’s journey.

In 1942, appointed rector of what Thomas presumed a Welsh-speaking village, “he was starting the long trek into his inheritance,” but after being born (of collier families on both sides, Rogers learns: a lineage Thomas took pains to ignore; he also adopted an exaggerated Oxford accent at theological college to antagonize his Welsh-speaking tormenters!) in 1913 Cardiff, “a man for whom the hinterland had been something glimpsed from train windows, this priest of the Border was about to become a Welsh-speaking Welshman and, all faery realms forgotten, a poet in the English language, whose first book was to be published from a room above a chip shop.” (123) In the very Welsh town where Rogers was raised! (He writes of Wales in “The Bank Manager & the Holy Grail, also reviewed by me on Amazon.)

This familiarity with cultural and critical touchstones enables his study to move more efficiently through the contradictions of Thomas’ personality, poetry, and philosophy that appeared to confront verities of faith and pieties of love with ruthless precision. His own wit appeared dry to a few and dessicated to many; incredible rudeness mixed with increasing shyness for many who met him. This acting ability, according to his long-suffering son, Gwydion, rarely faltered as he became more celebrated for his poetry in his middle age and more reviled for his strident support of anti-nuclear and pro-national campaigns. He inveighed against technology, anglicization, and the erosion of the natural and linguistic heritage of the land of his fathers.

A congregant at Eglwys Fach, Joy Neale, is quoted: “It is very difficult when someone is a priest and then for many becomes for many a god in his own right.” (209) His poetry shifted from a Wordsworthian analysis of the hill-farmer archetype, Iago Prythwerch, into a Coleridgian movement towards integration of the creative act with the intimation of the divine. As he lost his vocation as an Anglican vicar, unable to countenance the Queen or the “iconoclasm” of the Established Church towards the Welsh language he gained fluency in as an adult, he entered, in such collections as 1972's “H’m,” powerful evocations titled fittingly “Via Negativa” and “Balance” as he traversed the bridge across the bottomless depths of despair, reading Kierkegaard. He turned towards Wallace Stevens in his youth, and Geoffrey Hill in his later years: like these demanding poets, his own verse tackles enigmatically if with verbal gnomons and historical resonance, the demands of mortality upon the prescient and the participant.

In his later years, he escaped Aberdaron’s retirees, English military men and returned colonials, for what he hoped would be a refuge. But at the end of the land, next to the fearful sea off Llŷn peninsula, he found again a Welsh bastion succumbing to holiday-makers and second-home owners. Unable to afford to live there, the young left. The long-resident farmers abandoned their tiny plots. Bucolic communities were overwhelmed by incomers of a foreign language and ethos.

This drove him first into torment and then transcendence. His activism increased in the 1980s after he retired to nearby Sarn– a barrow-like residence where, his wife Elsi recorded, a New Year’s 1987 temperature indoors of 33 F/ 1.8 C without comment. She, a former Slade standout in London’s bohemia between the wars, had turned, it seems, increasingly like her husband. Loners, they rarely spoke, at least in the presence of outsiders. They ate mutton four ways four suppers a week, regaled one visitor with a baked potato as the sole entreé, and tore out at the troll-like burrow at Sarn, in their eighties, the central heating for its affront to their aesthetics. Still, Rogers knows that the two of them, despite their shared pose as middle-class artistes determined to shock the natives, were at least occasionally aware of their shenanigans, however deadpan their revelation could be to others. Rogers too understands their humanity persisted, and parts of his biography moved me in their exposure of a guarded, awkward, self-made intellectual’s chosen exiles among his few parishioners–who from the accounts and letters Rogers shares, gave as good as they got from the media’s “ogre of Wales.”

He knew his failings. Next to the door of the church at Aberdaron, he kept a lobster pot. This to remind him of when he had not been able to comfort one of his charges, who then had committed suicide. His duties as a vicar appear to have been light, by necessity or choice, but he did confront death’s entrance either suddenly or gradually, and his occupation exacted perhaps stammering words or awkward gestures for those grieving simply because he lacked the social graces for small talk and since he knew, in the honesty rare in a vicar, of how little his words mattered in the face of the eternal vastness that dwarfed and crushed human hope and platitudes.

In 1988, a late poem, the vicar, a decade after resigning his last assignment, may still have fumbled towards acceptance. Scorned for his support of those who chose arson to discourage holiday homes, Thomas learned how the media turn on a celebrity, even a poet, when as white-maned and grim as he. Elsi wasted away, Thomas labored on; he wrote perhaps hundreds more poems near his death. Thomas gives us a sleepless speaker: “And the thought comes/ of that other being who is awake, too,/ letting our prayers break on him/ not like this for a few hours,/ but for days, years, for eternity.” This verse is copied on slate at Aberdaron church.

Wintle prepares well for Rogers: both biographies mesh smoothly. Wintle scoured the poems themselves to capture clues into their author, who refused to talk with him. Rogers favors posthumous publication and the cooperation of the poet’s family and friends. He studies correspondence that, if in scattered and one-sided fashion, was retrieved. Gwydion brought but a few shopping bags of bird’s skulls, receipts, ephemeral letters, and detritus to Rogers. This refuse, all that could be found salvaged from Sarn, inspired Rogers to write this book.

Of note: Elsi’s artistic talent. This earned but cursory mention in Thomas’ elliptic and waspish autobiographies and recorded comments. The endpapers of my hardcover display two of the six panels she painted, by herself, 95 feet of “The Dance of Life” at Oswestry’s Orthopaedic Hospital; these merited praise of Stanley Spencer. Rogers earns praise for his attention which he restores to the fragments that survive (after being stored in a shed at Sarn to be covered in turkey dung) of her work. If she had not chosen to accompany Thomas on his decades-long excursion not only across Wales but into the soul’s darkness and the austerities of an enigmatic marriage, I wonder what a critical biography she would have been afforded today.

Wednesday, December 26, 2007

Justin Wintle’s “Furious Interiors: Wales, R.S. Thomas & God”: Book Review

This controversial biography takes an unconventional approach to this Welsh poet who wrote prolifically (a thousand published poems at the time of this 1996 study) but sparely. Famously, he railed in eloquent English against the anglicization of Cymru. Learning its language beginning in his late twenties, he found himself unable to create but a couple of poems in it. He chose it for much of his mature prose, in which his purported autobiography became a cryptic record of his bitterness at man’s depredations of the harsh beauty of his land. Working on behalf of the Established Church as an Anglican vicar, he often refused to address those he met on his daily birdwatching walks if they hailed him in English. Yet, he knew his own tensions and faced his own contradictions in verses that remain of a remarkably high quality– much more than his Romantic or Victorian predecessors’ total output. He apparently belittled Wintle, and the author begins his investigation by relating a pub crawl that turns in the wee hours to ponder the poet’s impact. (As Wintle critiques Byron Rogers’ interviews of Thomas, we can now compare Rogers’ “Man Who Went Into the West” biography, the authorized study published a decade later!)

Half of the results in 450 pages of narrative only take us up to Thomas around fifty, with a hundred poems down. The book, wisely, does not move entirely chronologically. It circles around its avian-loving, human-suspecting, divine-doubting subject cautiously. Wintle, with a background covering Southeast Asian conflicts, engages Thomas by taking on the microcosm– his readings of such creations as “The Lost” about language loss, Iago Prytherch’s début as “A Peasant,” “Abercuawg” compared to Yeats’ “Curse of Cromwell,” and the Ann Griffiths pair of poems turn engrossing as they burrow into the disquiet beneath surfaces that at first appear calm, gnomic, or mundane. Wintle knows that any reader of Thomas needs much help. The meanings that lurk demand explanation to those of us unschooled in, say, early Welsh saint’s lives or metrics, let alone Kierkegaard, John Jenkins and Derrick Hearne, Dafydd ap Gwilym, Robert Graves’ “The White Goddess,” or Nonconformity and Antidisestablishmentarianism. Contained within this study, exegeses on Ned Thomas’ “The Welsh Extremist,” prospects for devolution under Westminster vs. independence under Brussels, and the development of philosophical and theological ontological and epistemological debates all sparkle.

Parts did prove wearying, and it’s difficult to sustain the intensity that Thomas demands of his readers; Wintle appears to sense this. A welcome respite appears when he visits the vicar’s former living at Aberdaron and talks to the locals. Wintle received opprobrium for his methods, but I defend his integration of the personal quest into the literary research: the interplay of the two nourishes and stimulates him and us. We need a break from the concentrated seminar. Wintle, if the poet will not speak with him, speaks to those who did– or did not– talk with Thomas. These informants reveal a guarded, prickly, but predictably unpredictable and sometimes kind and exemplary figure: as we would expect, a man no less contradictory than us.

Thomas accumulates verses. “Celtic gestalt,” Wintle speculates, fragments cohesion: “splintering of the mother-lode into a thousand inter-coded messages."
(300) “Whatever Thomas acquires as a poet is put into a constantly expanding retrieval system,” and the poet– this book appeared a few years before Thomas’ death– continues to revise and alter and rework his material. Today, it’d be akin to a blog or a database that constantly’s tinkered with, perhaps a Welsh wiki!

(Posted to Amazon US and British Amazon today; next up: Rogers' "Man Who...")

Welsh Rare Beat: CD Review

Amazon US, posted Feb. 2006. Hard to fathom I'm still the only reviewer there of this. Pity I can't reproduce the map inside; it's similar to the "Dyfed Triangle" one for the upcoming WRB2 compilation out next month that's mentioned in yesterday's post. I've pre-ordered it already as my holiday gift to me, myself, and I.

This enjoyably eclectic and eccentric compilation of artists on the late 60s-70s indie Sain ("Sound") Welsh-language label makes a strong statement for the cultural nationalism that that era's agitation fomented. It reminds me of the Hungarian music from the same decades, when artists inspired by English-language rock and pop and folk decided to make their own assertive messages in the same idiom, but colored by their own traditions and in their native languages. Track 2 here, for example, sounds to me exactly like the Irish band Horslips, who similarly energized folk music for younger listeners with an infusion of harder rock. Compared to the British "acid folk" artists concurrent, the Welsh musicians tend to feature a grittier, tenser, and denser sound, even on the female-dominated vocal tracks here.

As the excellent liner notes by Gruff Rhys (SFA) explain, this meant no male choirs or winsome lasses with harps--although Heather Jones' couple of eloquent cuts do show this influence, if tastefully! He calls this music a blend of psych, blues, rock, pop, and proto-punk. The last of these genres can be best sampled from tracks 20 + 23, which sound as if the Super Furry Animals could've played them for the first time last week. Track 19 shows the more experimental side of the music; the latter half of the album tends to find the music opening up and stretching out into more innovative takes on then-current sounds. By comparison, the first half sounds more of its time, and the tracks often start out very strongly, but, as if constrained by the 3-minute-pop song rule, tend to suddenly fade out just when you wish they'd start to expand and take the song another couple of minutes! Certainly this feeling's rare for a listener to most such compilations of previously unheard music. I can see why Rhys favors best the Meic Stephens track 10--it's a clever and lively tune that shows why that artist's considered a peer of Dylan--Bob more than Thomas, perhaps.

The packaging deserves special mention. There's even a map of Wales which imitates the cut-and-paste graphics and period typography in showing the relevance of such movements as the Welsh Language Society and the Abergawn martyrs and the social unrest that led to the political as well as cultural demands for recognition of Cymric nationhood and autonomy--reminders that music does not always have to be explicitly topical to cause change in the wider society. The effect as a whole is not so much sounds you've never before heard, but the artists and label's right to simply convey the music they wanted to play in the language they wanted to sing.

Tuesday, December 25, 2007

"Y 'Steddfod Seicadelig!"

This outburst of Cymric counterculture comes via a trippy trail head-dead inadvertently by a "Babylon Wales" blog entry (which I found searching for a post that same month, May 2006) about 1960's activist John Barnard Jenkins and the MAC, Mudiad Amddiffyn Cymru, Movement for Welsh Defence. 21 May blog: "Welsh Terrorist Chic," not a title I'd have chosen. MAC acted far more responsibly, in that heated context of armagideon time, than most radical factions. Perhaps Christian currents swayed their socialist and militant stances: always an intriguing twist; an ideology which appears to distinguish them from their fist-raising peers. On this day of the Prince of Peace, I wonder what would Jesus do if asked to condone pacifism. Many of the Welsh in those days of rage sought an uneasy blend of resistance and endurance, as the lessons of their Beibl translated by William Morgan must have infused their dreams of liberation with a rather mystical, otherworldly tinge compared to Little Red Books or even the IRA's Green Book. Better the Black Book of Carmarthen, Llyfr Du Caerfyrddin, "Merlin's fort."

This week, I had featured Anthony Brockway's related "The Wolf Man Knew My Father" guide to Welsh popular culture; his blog "Babylon Wales" displays excellent snippets, pictorial and anecdotal, about this theme. It even mentions Mark E Smith and his admiration of Arthur Machen! The Fall were always fans of this alchemical scribe's influence on everyone from H.P. Lovecraft to Borges to Guillermo del Toro. MES: "The real occult's in the pubs of the East End." Spectre vs. Rector! Coach & Horses: I reviewed that song and its CD "Reformation Post TLC," on Amazon US.

"Babylon Wales" also reviews another favorite artist of mine, Gorky's Zygotic Mynci's singer Euros Childs' CD "Chops," and a link at the right of that month's archive takes us to Welsh Rare Beat 2. Gruff Rhys, of Super Furry Animals, had been instrumental in reviving the Sain-label's best from this period of acid-folk efflorescence. The reissue label, Finders Keepers, boasts freaky platters reissued from the Welsh Riviera of Dyfed, Anatolia, Hungary, Japan, and even France. Not to mention their splendidly titled cult craze curio mixtapes from Andy Votel: "Songs in the Key of Death" & "Music to Make Girls Cry." This hip map of the "Dyfed Triangle" comes from:Welsh Rare Beat 2 Press Release">

Monday, December 24, 2007

Asterisk Reality

Scott Kleinman in his medievalist-oriented blog "Mern Þonke" explains Tom Shippey's employment of this seductive (well, you're reading yours truly, a bona fide if underused --to adapt Steve Malkmus' song lament for my/his/our generation from "Brighten the Corners"-- doc in Old & Middle English lit too!) concept which I mentioned in an already rambling end to my Newgrange post immediately preceding this one. I figured this needed clarification for those of you not aware of how a philologist differs from a philatelist. Let alone what's PIE. Here's SK on TA (around p. 15 in Road to Middle Earth) on JRRT:

The term "refers to the philological technique of reconstructing aspects of cultures of the past based on surviving linguistic and narrative materials. In philology, comparison of, say Latin pater, Sanskrit pitar, and English father (along with a few dozen other languages) enables us to suggest that each of these languages is descended from a common ancestor, called Proto-Indo-European. Further, we can conlude that the word for father in Proto-Indo-European probably began with a p-. Further reconstruction allows us to suggest that the Proto-Indo-European word was probably something like *pater, with the asterisk indicating that the word has been reconstructed rather than attested from surviving evidence. And yet still further, we can take a word like English feed and trace it to the same Indo-European root. This gives us a window into the cultural consciousness of a lost civilisation. But, like its asterisked linguistic forms, this civilisation does not exist in reality. It is an asterisk reality, reconstructed from evidence surviving in cultures (and sometimes multiple cultures) from later periods in history. Shippey's argument in The Road to Middle Earth is that J.R.R. Tolkien's Middle Earth is a sort of asterisk reality; Tolkien has taken surviving evidence to reconstruct languages and cultures unattested by any historical record but possible given the languages and cultures that are attested.

Image credit. You try finding the right image for "asterisk + Tolkien." A cartoon pamphlet in Jack Chick's ubiquitous series, 1984's "Dark Dragons," attacked among its D&D targets not only Tolkien but C.S. Lewis, according to this fascinating entry at The Escapist: In the first printing of Dark Dungeons, this particular panel included a footnote that has since been removed. The words "occult books" had a double asterisk next to them, and the corresponding note below read "Including C.S. Lewis and Tolkien, both of which can be found in occult bookstores."

The story behind this footnote is detailed in Secrets of Dark Dungeons by P.D. Magnus, which tells us that the bit about Lewis and Tolkien was submitted to Chick by a man named John Todd - a preacher who "claim(ed) to have been an important figure in international witchcraft before his salvation" and often spouted rants and sermons about massive satanic conspiracies. . . .

Strangely enough, the footnote was removed by Chick Publications because their policy is that they "must be able to prove what is printed by more than one source."

Newgrange Winter Solstice 2007: Webcast

Live, from this World Heritage site built over 5,000 years ago-- and hundreds earlier than Stonehenge-- part of the Brú na Bóinne complex of standing stones and passage tombs at Knowth and Dowth that mark the sun's rise and fall precisely. I found this hour-long watch at a chilly (about 1 degree Centigrade) morning at 9. This dawn patrol reminded me how short the winter's day can be in Ireland. I thought last night about how long last midsummer's light stretched at Biofan as I hiked to its misty-sloped summit. On the video, watch around 47:48 as the sun forms a lovely star-shape distorted by the lens of the camera: a seasonal gift for the whole world incarnated, thanks to the Net.

This is the fortieth year since Professor Michael J. O'Kelly discovered the alignment; he had first to wait two years for good weather to confirm his hunch. As Professor John Patrick remarked-- after emerging from the chamber where he and (out of 28,000 lottery applicants) 50 guests (with a few government cronies) witnessed the sun's first light penetrate the roof-box to let the ray pierce 17 minutes into the slot across the carved stone floors-- this is one of the only experiences we can share with what the awed video presenters called "our Stone Age ancestors" so long ago. It combines sexual symbolism with potent energy. It keeps us humble and happy.

This celebration of warmth in the womb, stone turned molten, light amidst darkness moved me. I watched on a tiny corner of my laptop. Still, I sensed the wonder. The crowds outside cheered as the gold filled the sky. Children romped and elders hushed. The quartzite walls glowed with what in Irish we call grian-cloch, "sun-stone."

This sharp image is from last year, courtesy of the 22.12.06 Irish Independent. Posted on a site essential for preservation of another monument: Save Tara.

P.S. Verbal detour. Perhaps there's a reason why I was born the week of mid-summer, a couple of days after the feast of the mother goddess. Oddly, Celts did not observe a major holiday then, as their main four seasonal feasts fall about five weeks after those solar markers which Christians appropriate from Roman Saturnalia for Christmas and pagan solsticial bonfires for St. John's Day. Sukkot for autumnal and Passover/ Easter for vernal equinox show how ancient these traditions had been when Hebrews chose these times for their pilgrimages. I found that only two out twenty-four in my Advanced Comp class knew why Christ's mass was moved to this time of year by Pope Julius in 350, confident enough to plant baby Jesus as the Son of God where Mithras the God of the Sun once reigned.

I associated voluptuous, venerable Ishtar/ Esther/ Astarte with the harbinger of Easter, but it seems that the Son-Sun accidental homophone may be closer to the truth of those who hail the Resurrection. Eostre suggests Eastern, as in where we turn to see the sunrise! Eos, Aurora, Austria! Proto-IE root *aew-s: to 'illuminate, especially of daybreak,' according to Wikipedia. Back to PIE *Hausos, goddess of dawn. "As a love goddess, she was also called *Wenos 'lust.'" Venus: morning star. *wen=PIE 'to desire.' So, we long looked to the sun, it seems, and women, so to love them both. As I delight in what T.A. Shippey's book on Tolkien labels as "asterisk reality" among philologists. (See today's separate entry on this phrase.)

P.P.S. At the estimable Julian Cope's also monumental Head Heritage/ Modern Antiquarian, I found more etymological insight, from "Rune."(N.B.: It's countered in the thread's next reply, however; Anthony Murphy & Richard Moore's new book "Island of the Setting Son: In Search of Ireland's Ancient Astronomers" on pp. 302-3 n. 11 admits debate but appears to favor the monastic "grange" as its place name. They acknowledge the "hallowed and enduring denotation" of the nearby hill over which beckons rosy-fingered "ruadh" dawn garbled as "Roughgrange" townland on p. 140.) Newgrange (which name comes from the Irish "An Uamh Greine", meaning "The Cave of of the Sun") "Lios na Grainsi" ("Stones of the Sun) The word "Grange" is an English rendering of the Irish word "Grian", which means "Sun".

Menna Gallie's "You're Welcome to Ulster": Book Review

This 1970 novel's one of the very first dramatizing the Troubles, and all the more worthwhile due to its pan-Celtic, wry, and first-hand perspective from a woman who had lived there for a decade in County Down, while her husband taught at Queen's University, Belfast. Menna Gallie's novels have been receiving renewed interest from scholars and readers of Anglo-Welsh literature; some have been reissued, although not this one. It can be found in larger public libraries, however. Sarah, nearing forty and recently diagnosed with a lump in her breast, decides to visit "Ulster" in mid-July, unaware of the celebrations of the Twelfth indulged in by that area's Loyalist community. A liberal who works at Cambridge, Welsh-speaking originally, leftist liberal but no Nationalist, nominally Protestant only because she is not Catholic, her sharpish tongue, no-nonsense observations, and wry mix of self-pity and idealism make for a busy week on the other side of the Irish Sea.

Gallie provides a cast of characters who, in their varying views on the situation beginning to worsen in the North, show everything from Marxist to Nationalist to Republican to Unionist to indifferent reactions to what ails the province. Seeing that she wrote before the worse stage of the war, her attempts to show, filtered through her own Welsh-Cambridge sensibility, the effects not only of war but desire for sexuality from the attitude of Sarah, long widowed and seeking to renew an affair she had previously five years back with a Protestant journalist sympathetic to the Civil Rights campaign, makes for a thoughtful examination by one Celt of another Celtic-tinged struggle for identity within a fracturing British-dominated system.

Particularly engaging are Sarah's reactions to the "stage-Irishry" within both Catholics/Nationalists and Protestants/Unionists are trapped, once the cameras come. The Hollywood-ization of the country that preceded the outbreak of violence gains a rarely addressed forum here.

The ending is not predictable, and although melodramatic elements do enter to spice up the plot, Gallie remains fair-minded to all involved in the story, and even though in the relative compression of time and place that this novel features, her fresh perspective by a Welsh woman on the Irish divisions that have already begun to spread--resisting the Anglo invader, or collaborating for the benefits of liberal democracy?--to Wales ensure that this overlooked novel remains relevant today.

Posted to Amazon US today with a bit of editing. Image credit: as Gallie's book's too "old" for a d.j. upload that I can find on the Net, here's a handsome representation of Dana/ Dôn. She's the source of the Dneiper, Danube, and, yes, the River Don; the Celtic mother goddess common to Wales and Ireland as well, and a formidable female herself. The site below gives other alternative forms, first listed being the Irish form of my birthmother's name!

Sunday, December 23, 2007

Welsh & Irish Activism via the Net:
Eulogy or Euphony?

I'm spending the break-- such as it is when I face a year of teaching ramped up to 48 rather than 45 weeks a year as we become incessantly "receptive" to our students' impatience and "responsive" to our employer's investment-- reading up on Welsh nationalism and republicanism. They take so much of their energy from an alternative to the rat-race. Looking at my shelves or those of a library, you can compare Welsh dearth to Irish depth. The latter's literature, history, diaspora, and sheer numbers of emigrants, media, rhetoric, and casualties all dwarf the Welsh numbers. For my accumulations at least, but the English-language audience for Wales shrinks beside that sold Irish content. Admittedly my perceptions come filtered via perceptions of publishers, my reliance on texts in Saesnaeg, and the blinders of this Net medium.

Two centuries of thwarted republicanism (a term which remains elusively defined) have resulted in independence for 3/4 of Ireland, a devolved Scotland, and an Assembly for Wales. But, tethered as "EnglandandWales" geographically and legally, the Welsh cannot detach themselves behind Offa's Dyke as easily as even their Celtic cousins north of Hadrian's Wall. Justin Wintle, in his study of R.S. Thomas that I'm in the middle of, eloquently summarizes, as of a decade ago pre-Euro, the political- economical argument for the Welsh to basically accept that their fate with Brussels as an independent entity would differ little practically from their predicament as a subsidy of Westminster. Then, he counters his own argument with another, based on Thomas' poem "The Lost": the extinction of culture, of community, and of language.

For the Welsh, unlike the Irish, the Celtic language articulates their identity; so Thomas and many compatriots argue. As a determined if clumsy learner of Gaeilge, I'm not sure if I agree. Yet, think of James Connolly: he warned us presciently of the Green Flag replacing the Union Jack while its wavers kept us slaves to capitalism. Yet, he made his arguments to workers and intellectuals alike in English. His Welsh comrades would have appealed most likely in both languages- to both constituencies-- unlike, famously, one Irish-speaker who disdained such a talent, Dan O'Connell. Collins and Pearse, DeValera and the 1916 rebels learned it, impressively well, but rarely campaigned 'as Gaeilge'. Peadar O'Donnell came from a disintegrating Gaeltacht; he chose English. Rarely did a native speaker (with the exception of Máirtín Ó Cadhain) agitate through Irish: few could comprehend such socialist efforts as "An t-Éireannach" to combine into a 'monster rally' sufficient to overthrow Saorstat Éireann, let alone His or Her Majesty.

A century ago, contrarily, 50% of Wales spoke Welsh. Given a polity of Cymry today still half a million strong, arguably a fifth of three million compared with perhaps a twentieth of that in the Gaeltachtaí and urban enclaves at best within an Irish population nearly double the Welsh, I weigh the impact. Compiling sites for this blog to gather the best Welsh republican and nationalist content, I am struck first by the relative paucity of material and the bilingual, or monolingual nature, of much of it. While both Irish and Welsh sites aimed at Saeson sprinkle (as I do) the Celtic tongue into their discourse, I bet you'd find fewer activist sites 'gan Béarla go léir'.

This inspires me for my Welsh cousins. It discourages me for we Irish. Call me a stereotype. I peck away, an armchair patriot who waxes about 'yr hen iaith' in the 'thin language' of the conqueror, 'yr iaith fain'. But, the association of Irish with a dictatorial schoolmaster or Christian Brother or balaclava-ed volunteer has long plagued the past century of its attempted revival. For the Welsh, who had to wear the "Welsh Not" sign as the Irish had the tally-stick when punished for their once-native speech in the schools run by the Crown, the language permeated the choir, the chapel, and the common market. It ebbed as the Catholic Church largely failed to maintain it in 19c and arguably 20c Ireland, so the schools' and bureaucrats' compulsion could not revive it in the hardened hearts of a population resigned to emigration to London or Amerikay. However, for many Welsh, it remained a natural choice which, in Ireland, fewer choose.

So, I suppose from my admittedly limited understanding given my lack of but a few words in Welsh (although I am working on it), there is much to be learned about this topic that will elude me. For the Irish, in Gaelic, studies likewise hover above my level of fluency, but my general knowledge appears to confirm that whatever hopes rest in Irish remain, as Michael Cronin has written, in the hands of the English speakers in Ireland and its survival depends on we who write and talk 'as Béarla'. For the Welsh, my hunch is that, although no monoglots remain of course, there remains a natural means of expression in Welsh that can exist (ardaloedd Gymraeg) confidently outside of Saesnaeg And this reservoir, as it were, adds a potent elixir to Welsh identity.

I wonder if what I find scattered about activist sites in English about Welsh compares less in amount today still extant for the Irish, or whether the two are roughly the same now. I confess years pass since I trawled the Net for RM sceal. What I mean is that, if I wrote this a decade ago pre-blogging, there'd be discussion lists go leor about Irish republicanism. I miss the frenetic bashing and prickly camaraderie. Derry, Albany, San Francisco, Seattle, Orange County, Texas, Australia: the IRL-D crackled with craic from a Communist former manager of punk bands, a transgendered Lenin-loving Druidess, a veteran NICRA-turned-Stickie, a Fenian autodidact, disaffected Noraid stalwarts, and lots of us similarly educated eager to debate our versions of the Virtual Republic.

Yes, with Paisley and McGuinness, Adams and Trimble as legislative colleagues, outbursts still occur-- the Omagh trials continue, and Paul Quinn's slaying in So. Armagh again raises, as have the Northern Bank and Robert McCartney ghosts of a spectral presence thought foolishly long past. However, the bonfires and flares have dimmed. Only a remnant of a "physical-force nationalism" RM flutters, post-David Rupert, Michael McKevitt and the FBI. Dissidents infiltrated, the armed struggle turned farce. The 'ra turns towards the petty thievery that stains so many across the 'peace divide' in Belfast. Both factions descended from protecting their communities into extorting their neighbors. The Cause finally ebbed from Hollywood after a flurry of Riverdance-related Celtic Tiger tax-haven cash-ins pitched at that smitten "Kiss Me I'm Irish" demographic. Culturally, much of mult-cult Ireland could care less about its heritage. They'll quickly wrangle open greasy tills at exorbitant ticket prices to admit we visitors. Then they curse our "green jumper" backs within earshot.

Dingle's proud natives spray paint "An Daingean" off their supposed Gaeltacht signs lest tourists can't figure out where to swim with Fungie, Sinn Féin asks for cooperation with the PSNI in arraigning those who made off with 12 July regalia from a Lodge, and Orange Watch itself-- a peace dividend-- finds reason to nod. (I hope Newton Emerson's wickedly satirical "Portadown News" still thrives; it gave me pleasure even if I missed many insider jokes when perusing its collected best bits while perched in my host's loo in Ballymurphy mid-July.) Derry boasts German superstores, Belfast fills with polyglots, and a mile or so down the motorway from the shuttered Kesh another mall looms. Forums buzz (if on a quieter level) that have supplanted the RM lists that subsided, from my observation, when the Marxists shouted down the rest of our crowd.

Slugger O'Toole and Newshound gather today's NI stories; blogs morphed with indie sites for the few Celts still restive and not on the mobile. I do miss contributing to "The Blanket" (see the link from this blog), but as its co-founder and I discussed its fate last summer, it appears, as so much of the Irish republican vision, to have faded. Its editor explained that community groups now existed to keep tabs, that many in this same community had harassed the founders and their family relentlessly for perceived disloyalty to the SF party line, and that the Belfast enclaves that "The Blanket" served had slid into sordid deals and moral squalor; the solidarity of the RM melted away into SF corruption and IRA thuggery.

Whether 2016 will prove the culmination of 1916 may occur by demographics, but how many of the Northern young bother with either Church or chapel? The realities of compromise, ceasefire, cessation and collaboration have undermined historical vigor and dampened ideological fire. I wonder, for the Welsh and Cornish, themselves under assault by anglicized monoculture and Anglophonic incomers, if they will fare any better than the Irish, themselves facing a present hardly imagined only a decade ago, pre-GFA and post-Canary Wharf, when Wintle mused about the prospects of the euro and the EU. Already, Polish outnumbers Irish as the nation's second most widely spoken language.

Taking its outrage from the drowning of Tryweren to provide water for the Merseyside, the militancy of Free Wales Army and later MAC (Mudiad Amddiffyn Cymru) and Meibion Glyndŵr reacted to the submersion, symbolically and literally, of the Welsh by the English. Now, on liquid channels, perhaps its language streams more rapidly. I marvel at the amount of Welsh in the media and in the resurgence of Sain, folk and pop music, thriving poetry and publishing (John Davies' History of Wales premiered-- in Welsh-- bestselling for Penguin). Listen to it flow on the Net (a place not to be underestimated) and into language learning resources. Rosetta Stone, Acen, Wlpan, CD-Book sets, and a plethora of aids on the BBC website that dwarf those on BBC-NI for Irish.

Contradictions of conservative distributism vs. decentralized schemes of Connolly's "Celtic communism," or a celebration of a scion from the 'uchelwyr'-- noble Owain Glyndŵr-- against the appeals of socialist and industrial solidarity, complicated rhetoric promoting a blend of nationalist, republican, pantheist, ruralist, medievalist, and Christian legacies. How many Celts want the Earls to return from their flight, or Marcher Lords to exact fealty? The miners singing the Internationale tended to belittle as divisive the anachronistic tongue. Chapels, parishes, and now trade unions, dwindle. Past powers over the peasants and proles host schoolchildren and coachloads; the Pit or the Folk Museum follows the Gothic cloister or the ruined castle, as globalized consumerism tramples us all. But, the Welsh enjoyed, however unwillingly dragged to preachers for centuries, an advantage: Nonconformists forced them to keep their language in daily use. Celtic speakers escaped Famine decimation; far fewer Welsh faced Holyhead's journey east.

Yes, of course republican links can be found: Ernest Rhys, Frongoch, Pan-Celtic leagues, the 1966 commemorations, the sale of arms by the Officials to the FWA, Welsh regiments stationed in NI. My post today merely ponders distinctions. For Irish, as my blog and Amazon US reviews labor to document, such resources also provide essential nutrients to sustain 'ár teanga beo'; my entry today seeks but to balance these against those I am discovering-- if in cyberia-- across the Irish or Celtic Sea.

Looking for a blog about such matters by somebody who actually can blather 'as Gaeilge'? Sample this re: recent subject Manchán Magan (which I doubt MM will be posting on his own site) about his "No Béarla" series vis-a-vis one in Welsh, "Popeth yn Gymraeg" at a lively bi-lingual blog 'as Gaeilge agus Béarla':

Saturday, December 22, 2007

Googling "Welsh Republicanism"

This list follows yesterday's posted here on Welsh Nationalism links. I attempt to sort out promising material for the curious.

Welsh Republican Manifesto 1950:

Welsh Republican Comment. Reminiscent of much of what appeared on the Net a decade ago for Irish counterparts. Overlaps with other hits. A bit rough, as many such projects, but speaks for a particular brand of grassroots militancy that such patriotic movements depend on, now as for centuries.

Cymru Rhydd/ Free Wales: In the same mode as above-- updated last in 2005:

Ditto if more current: Balchder Cymru/ Pride of Wales:

Welsh "Socialist Republican": Much terser than WRC entry. Anti-monarchy.

Resurgence Cymru/ Cymru Fydd: "Meme warfare for Welsh Liberation."

John Barnard Jenkins, of MAC, Mudiad Amddiffyn Cymru: 21 May 2006 post by Anthony Brockway at "Babylon Wales":

Cliff Bere's obituary in the Guardian, 1997, by Meic Stephens. A polemicist in the positive sense, active in the 1950s and 60s:

Dennis Coslett's obituary, 2004, by Meic Stephens. Commander of Free Wales Army. A eye-patched heir to the vision of Pádraig Pearse?

Harri Webb's obituary, 1996, by Meic Stephens, a one-time housemate. Poet and activist.

Julian Cayo-Evans-- tribute to FWA activist and, admittedly, a great raconteur:

BBC clip of 1968 FWA march:

The Red Dragon Hood: Cool Cymru t-shirts, including "Daffodil Soldier." Memoir of a 12-year-old's learning in 1969 about the FWA. (I, as a child even younger far away, recall my delight at reading about the protests against the Investiture in National Geographic!)

Welsh Republican Army/ Byddin Weriniaethol Gymreig:

Cymuned: Local activism to keep housing affordable, jobs local, and a sustainable Welsh-speaking community. "The price of a pint a month CAN change the world!" (a good source for Welsh history & culture) has a helpful essay on Welsh poets of the later 20c who often championed republican and national themes:

Y Lolfa: Began as printers for the Welsh Language Movement/ Cymdeithas Yr Iaeth in the 60s, now (along with Gwasg Gomer) the leading indie publisher in both languages.

Click here for a particularly appropriate title by Harri Webb:

Image: "Rhyfel y Sais Bach": uprising against the Land Enclosures 1819-26. Celts have long memories. See Eirian Jones' account of "The War of the Little Englishman":

Image courtesy of one of Gethin 'ap Iesytn' Gruffydd's many spirited blogs, full of archival lore, past and present, testifying to a long commitment, during his life and his ancestors, for the cause.

Rooted in the Body, Hidden in the Ground: Searching Beyond the Celt:

My review, in Epona 2 (2007) 1-6: Stephen Oppenheimer's "Origins of the British" & John Waddell's "Foundation Myths."

Images: figurine of a perky Epona, the Celtic horse goddess.

Reminded me of the 7-6 c BCE Hallstatt figure from the "Cult Wagon." Cowgirl up!

Friday, December 21, 2007

Googling "Welsh Nationalism"

I'm deep in it, around page 20, and part of research, if this counts as such, is sifting through 200 entries as disparate as Stormfront, Labourites frantically disassociating themselves from my search phrase, LuxuryVacationWales-dot-com, and orthographically challenged bloggers. Compliments my similar blog post this week on "Welsh Republicanism." Here's a few handfuls (plus two pop culture sprinkles) of useful sites, trawling backwards, which I record here to save you the trouble, whomever you are, of such sifting. Hwyl!

Chris Bertram's blog "Crooked Timber" weighs in on Byron Rogers' failure to win Welsh Book of the Year for his biography of R.S. Thomas.

Trash Fiction --Alwyn W. Turner's superb site of 1300 worthies-- trumpets a fine novelization of the Aberfan coal-tip collapse by John Summers, a journalist who covered the tragedy, as "The Edge of Violence." Reissued and abridged in pulp paperback as "The Disaster," this also relates a character's involvement with the Free Wales Army.

There's a separate link from this Trash Fiction site to an interview by Anthony Brockway with John Summers:

This in turn spins to Brockway's coverage, blogged as "Babylon Wales." His pages for "The Wolf Man Knew My Father: Notes from the Margins of Welsh Popular Culture, incisively interviewing inter alii Niall Griffiths, link to not only literary lights but musical splendor from the likes of Young Marble Giants & Super Furry Animals & Gorky's Zygotic Mynci. Not to mention Jon Langford. And (at least) three ladies famed in "Welsh erotica," for alert archival adepts.

Back to scholarship: Geraint Jones compiled a reading list on the Welsh language's recent impact, within the nationalist cause and cultural revival.

Jeffery Alan Triggs' MLA talk on "R.S. Thomas & the Problem of Welsh Identity" also looks at Joyce's "Portrait" passage about the tundish for context.

Welsh Republican Comment's page on Meibion Glyndŵr; WRC has related pages on leftist and radical Celtic movements and socialist & republican counterparts in Ireland and elsewhere.

Plaid Cymru activist Alan Jones at his blog "Independence Cymru" discusses his thoughts on nationalism:

Scott Keech's "The Red Dragon" examines, from this 1970 essay, Welsh nationalist arguments. It reproduces a then-current Plaid campaign poster; another article, not here, promises to argue against Plaid!

Ivor G.H. Evans & Graham Hughes debate, in 1983, "Wales' End?" (This did not show up on the search, but a separate one for John Jenkins and MAC retrieved it.)

Carwyn Fowler's a scholar and a harpist with many publications on Welsh political and cultural identity. I'd like to read her papers on Daffydd Iwan and on folk-rock in Welsh, but there's no link to contact her.

A Welsh political blog with a lot of insider babble and misspellings from its readers, but perhaps of use for those in on the lingo and gossip:

"Welsh Blog Index Welsh Political Blog of the Year 2007" so this boasts:

Sue Davies offers anti-monarchical inspiration:

Gethin "Iestyn" Gruffydd characterizes a trope of autodidactic nationalism familiar to me from my early days of Net discussion lists regarding the hardy Irish varietal, in the pre-Blogspot, pre- and post-GFA, and pre-decommissioning decade! Ireland's subdued, still Cymru shifts and Kernow stirs. Lots of energetic, if rough-hewn, related Welsh activist blogs under his profile.

Richard Wyn Jones, Aberystwyth historian of the movement, compares the Welsh ideology with the Irish and Scandinavian models in "Nationalism & Utopia":

Constance FitzGibbon replies to Conor Cruise O'Brien's essay on the Dylan [as in Thomas] myth in this 1966 letter from the NY Review of Books. She makes intriguing comments about the supposed lack of support by Irish nationalists for the language, contrasted with the Welsh insistence for its use as the very "kernel" of Cymric identity and ideology.

Trystan Owain Hughes, of Trinity College, Carmarthen, analyzes "Welsh Nationalism & Twentieth-Century Roman Catholicism."

Johan Schimanski lectures on "Cultural & Political Nationalism in Wales" in this dissertation excerpt. He glances at Plaid's journals in the 50s, Y Ddraig Goch & The Welsh Nation, the party's history, and Saunders Lewis, before a reading of a short episode in a Welsh-language novel by the author Islwyn Ffowc Elis, "Cysgod y Cryman," from 1953.

Image from the Wikipedia article on "Welsh Nationalism." Christopher Williams' "The Awakening of Wales," 1911.

Thursday, December 20, 2007

Patrick McCabe's "Winterwood" Book Review

This is the fifth novel I've read of his; you can find my reviews of "The Dead School," "The Butcher Boy," "Breakfast on Pluto," and "Call Me the Breeze" on Amazon US. By now, long into a career that has earned McCabe acclaim, his protagonist Redmond Hatch fits a familiar pattern of a steady decline from middle-class suburban happiness, marital bliss, and contemporary creature comforts. By now, it becomes apparent that "Winterwood" repeats the narrative arc, and defamiliarizing storytelling twists, that chart the decay of a mind, an erosion of ethics, and a collapse into violence. All these characterize McCabe's fiction: he excels at bringing you within a couple of hundred pages from stability into chaos, often channelled from a disorientingly casual, knowing, and comforting voice that takes you into its confidence only to relate escalating tales of mayhem and murder.

The reviews posted on Amazon US practically gave away the entire plot. Perhaps, given the trajectory of McCabe's sorrowful taletellers, this may not spoil any surprises. By the eighties, a third of the way through the book's pages, I saw the end coming, and the rest of the book, as they say, was all downhill. So, what kept me reading this grim account? McCabe's best quality remains his diabolically intimate, insinuatingly composed conversational style. It's as if the Archfiend took you into his parlor for a fireside chat.

However, few elements stand out for their individually rendered scene-setting, or their particular turns of phrase. The effect of such novels by McCabe accumulates gradually. They can be confusing; more than once I had to check chronology or casual asides that, in giving or withholding key details, otherwise would have left a casual reader bewildered. Although I wished for more about the promising clash of mountainy men and Slievenageeha Lidl (the name sums up not only the superstore but the juxtaposition that increasingly mars modern Ireland), the societal changes, well-evoked in a couple of quick paragraphs about the unceasing traffic of today's Rathfarnham and the shopping mall-with-casino that towers over the once-moribund valley of the author's childhood sum it up, I suppose, enough for McCabe. I have always been attracted by his male misfits, who find recourse to assault as their tender spouses turn adulterers and their parents and relatives (a bit too predictably by now, as in so much of Irish fiction alas based on fact the past few decades) turn molesters. McCabe understands the disintegration of the hapless figure who cannot withstand the impact of early deceit, and how childhood's shadows stretch across the twentieth century into our own frenetic age.

So, this novel, while strong in the manner of earlier novels, does follow this same path. It is McCabe's direction for his imagination to run wild within the tracks of insanity that he loves his characters to follow. He does, by now in his fifties, show his command of such themes. Yet, I do wish he could step aside from the twisted creatures he creates so delicately. You flinch when reading his stories. He doubtless would have it no other way, but after the fifth such encounter with these dark voices, I hesitate to return to another Irish gothic cry from the depths of evil.

Michael Huggins "Social Conflict in Pre-Famine Roscommon": Book Review

This book, a revision of a thesis, presents an academic’s examination of “whiteboyism” in this county, known for its labor agitation and land reform movements in the 19c. Huggins goes back to the half-century preceding the Famine to trace connections between the protests and the influence of the French revolutionaries and British radicals. He applies E.P. Thompson’s concept of a “moral economy” of the Irish crowd—itself a term that refers to Georges Rude in turn—to argue that the Irish were in fact, given the primary evidence—perhaps as attached to non-nationalist ideals as native ones. He uses the revisionist analysis that questions nationalist discourse as the leading mode of thought within Irish history of the past couple of centuries.

His study, while adhering to the conventions of current scholarship both in style and assumptions, seeks to present his view that a “secret” Ireland persisted behind the shadow of what the Gaelic-Ireland patriot Daniel Corkery proposed in the early days of the Irish Free State as a “hidden Ireland” beset by exile and emigration and republicanism and tradition vs. the Crown. Huggins diminishes, therefore, the impact of popular histories of Roscommon protest such as the Famine-era murder of Major Denis Mahon at Ballykilcline, in Robert Scally’s tellingly titled “The End of Hidden Ireland” and Peter Duffy’s new account of the same. A map would have been helpful, as few readers may have as intimate a knowledge of the townlands and parishes; also, the tone of this strives for such detachment that it risks drifting away from inherent interest created in this admittedly difficult topic: how to get into the minds of farmers and landlords two centuries ago, given crime statistics, testimony, and correspondence that tends to give the view of the accuser more than the accused.

Huggins may not earn the wider readership for his more measured investigation, which applies historiographic rigor more than vivid anecdote, but Huggins prepares the way for such popularizations, and his account fulfills a need for such studies that incorporate the new findings of such scholars as Peter Burke, Sean Connolly, and James Donnelly.

(Posted today to Amazon US.) Image: 1880s "The Rivals," as (she's nicely filled out post-Famine) Hibernia's courted by a suave Land Bill Reformist who woos her over a thuggish Land Leaguer. Recall that my own great-grandfather Jack-- whom I doubt looked that troglodytish-- counted himself among the latter contingent, from this very Roscommon. He met his end mysteriously in the Thames, in 1897, after accompanying a delegation of Land Leaguers to perfidious Albion's capital city. Cartoon courtesy of

Wednesday, December 19, 2007

Manchán Magan's "Manchán's Travels: A Journey through India" Book Review

As his website relates (see the link from my own blog, or the logically named ), Manchán, who goes by the nom-de-plume "Mocha," with his suave brother Ruán as "The Tiger," as in the epitome of the Celtic breed, wanders about in service of TnG (now TG4), the Irish television station newly established at the time of this travelogue (about a decade ago). It's much more thoughtful and carefully written than frankly I'd expected. I had to send for this from Britain, and it took over two months to arrive-- slower than a clipper from Goa, I reckon. However, the wait proved worthwhile.

Since my earlier post on Manchán summarized his own perspective, let me skip to the chase. Actually, not a whole lot of the subcontinent's covered. The map is little more than one you'd draw in the dirt for all it shows of the five destinations: two in the Himalayas, one out in the deserts of Rajasthan, Delhi, Mumbai, and Varanasi on the Ganges. But, while not aspiring towards Lonely Planet or James Michener completeness, for who can tell of a land with a billion people and three hundred million deities, it does concentrate upon a few sights and a few encounters in depth. Mocha knows when to describe, edit, and cut. He may have learned from his debut before Tiger's camera as the presenter of what adds up to only a pair of half-hour episodes. While he prefaces and concludes his narrative with a gentle admission that it may not be all entirely verifiable, I do assume-- and he obviously kept diaries as well as the TnG footage as his aides-memoires-- "that it's based on a true story."

As an Irish learner, I became intrigued by his snippets of not only Gaelic but his rather gloomy prognoses on the state of the language. More about this later in his career, famously in his "No Béarla" series to speak the "first official language" with its citizens, but he does hold--at least earlier in his TnG career-- hope that such a medium can jumpstart (especially when he learns subtitles will be used; they were not for his later film!) the relevance of the venerable old tongue, which, he reminds us, has affinities with Sanskrit. He contrasts the rot of the last maharajahs in Rajasthan with the decay of the Celtic Revival, while noting the riches of today's Ireland fund the two brother's exploits in a last-ditch attempt to revive the language. He wonders if he leads the language home, like a reluctant emigrant, to die. I was reminded of Antoine Ó Flatharta's comments about euthanising Gaeilge to let it pass away with dignity.

The era of excess, patriotic or capitalist, certainly permeates this account. He shows economically but effectively the damage done to Bingo and Nadav after their Israeli army experiences in the intifada; he also witnesses the disintegration of Hosto and Witlauf's family as environmental devastation in India shatters their utopian dream that they could leave Switzerland for some Third World ecological refuge. I wish, in fact, Mocha had explored this phenomenon of drop-outs from the West more, and he does draw considerable attention to it. The attraction of non-linear thinking, modes of thinking that accept the dream-like illusion of our "samsara" world, our fitful period as divine beings who fell to earth remains fragmentary in Mocha's mind (for he begins this book rescued from his own stint caring for lepers desultorily while drinking urine and talking to angels in a hill-country cow byre), but he does manage to argue that these collisions of gurus and stoners may, deep down, portend a new awakening that, no less than Blake or Leary or Huxley, may yet move us away from our own juggernaut.

A telling line: "The furrows of the rice terraces were lit up like zebra skins in the full moon" (217)-- this while he runs in the near-polar chill to comfort Witlauf after Hosto's beat her again. Certainly such a jarring juxtaposition calls any neat boundaries of our existence into question: amidst the beauty of the Himalayas, Hosto lashes out as if an animal after being warped by viewing so much relentless, if unwitting, cruelty at man's rape of the Swiss and now Indian earth. The humanity and the carnality, the higher aspiration and the lower instinct, certainly make this a heaven within a hell and vice versa. As Mocha notes of the digital camera's one-chip mind, we cannot process all we see and make sense of it, whether as a computer or computing mind. The mystery and the heartache of our mortality pulses here.

Much of his storyline remains in thrall of Tara, who begins this book a shy leper coming out of the closet, and ends it adrift perhaps for a Lakota reservation, the demi-monde of outré post-modern bohemia, or points in between and unknown. Mocha's own sense of responsibility-- at one early point he imagines himself in Tara's place, spirited away by a well-meaning anthropologist a century ago from a Gaelic outpost to find himself at the receiving end of bull-whipping jarvies in some Wildean Edwardian London den of iniquity-- impels this tale with a moral insistence. How much is the author to blame for Tara's rake's progress?

The whole mystery of Indian submission to fate, the permeability of roles played, and the tired Kipling-esque "never the twain shall meet" dichotomy manage, despite themselves, to become fresh again, through the Irish-Indian perspective rather than the Jewel in the Crown p-o-v.

He compares the Irish and Indian lust for goods that replaces old verities. He finds himself in the clutches, briefly, of a fearsome matron who's dying to hear about Dev and Collins; I never thought that the colors of the Tricolour inspired those of a former Dominion, but she asserts it! The sad life of a generation, as with the Israeli vets, condemned to sacrifice its youth for a dream of nationhood resounds with Mocha's own lineage, and he poignantly wonders if he and his brother's efforts for TnG can be akin to yanking from a dignified funeral on the Ganges a relic from the flames of the pyre upon which Gaeilge attempts its hari-kari, or at least a widow''s demure immolation. Perhaps Mocha's too skeptical, but on the other hand, I must admit his experience as the Irish-fluent speaker and presenter. (This book appears to have been preceded by an Irish-language version from Coiscéim, but this is acknowledged neither in this Brandon Press edition nor by the author himself; shades of Ó Flatharta with his Grásta in Meiricea vs. Grace in America play of which you can find my article unearthing what author and critics alike had kept mum or sub-rosa:

Ultimately, whether Tara's fate, Mocha's own debate between his being a foolish dreamer or a manifestation of the divine in us all, or the prospects of Irish, the book takes the long view, like the Indians. In the midst of a tellingly boorish party of the nascent middle-class, there's MTV looming with some frat-boy bacchanal from back home: the natives fail to notice what Mocha sees, enlarged on the upper thigh of a peroxided blonde. It's a tattoo of the message from the gods, the primordial OM that Forster's elderly miss quailed to hear in the Malabar Caves. Mocha comments: "It is said that seeing this symbol is a transcendent experience-- a profound moment of darshan -- [connection with the divine through a human entity], which would have blessed even the smooching couples on the dance floor, although they weren't looking at it and weren't even aware of its existence."(178)

This reminds me of the Jewish idea of the 39 just men, who also live among us and without whom we'd have been long doomed; Mocha's told early on of immortal yogis with a similar power. It's just as well he never meets up with them. The journey's best found in the getting there, although I would like to visit, come to think of it, the hill-stations left by the colonials, replicating Dingly Dell ten thousand feet in the air above the humid summer plain. Not to mention Mount Kailash of Buddhist fame that promises all karma cleansed on its four-sided facets of gold, quartz, ruby, and lapis lazuli. Mocha may never find his own philosopher's stone, but in a wonderful passage after he meets up with Tara again, he contemplates his own realized wisdom.

The continuum may be familiar to anyone who's heard of Kinsey or Masters & Johnson, but Mocha manages to capture its allure. He finds, in his own longing for the impossibly desirable Niishraah, that categories must be, in the Indian fashion, unstable, and "simplistic duality" turns suspect. "Limiting it simply to a penis or a vagina was like limiting the beauty, fury and passion of a fire to the lump of coal that created it. Gender is about essence-- far more significant than the mere mechanism that makes use of polarity points in the body to create biological life. This process-- sacred and all as it is-- is little more than a chemical reaction. The act of bacteria souring milk or high pressure causing rain."(244)

In the end, while no conclusion can be tidily reached, the episodes get made, and the search for Tara-- which I am surprised did not earn an etymological allusion from the grand-nephews of The O'Rahilly but perhaps Mocha sought subtlety-- remains an unfulfilled quest for another adventure into the soul and the spirit and the unpredictable body. Final words sum up Mocha's gallivant in this Brobdinagian land: "We were gods who pretended to live out live out silly, tawdry lives as humans now and again." (146) 
(Edited and posted to British Amazon today, where I do have all of ten reviews vs. nearly eight hundred on this side of the pond. On Amazon US 6-2-12)