Best of 2018

Here’s a list of some of the stuff I saw, did, heard, read – and a few of the places I ate and drank – in 2018 that I really enjoyed. As ever, it’s not necessarily the case that these things were produced, made, opened or published this year, it’s just when I got around to them.

Without a doubt, my album of 2018 was Shape of Silence by the amazing duo Saint SisterI was lucky enough to hear them live supporting Hozier in Oslo only a few weeks ago at an absolutely barn-storming gig. Saying that though, my gig of the year was Lankum when they played Riksscenen, the main venue in Oslo for folk music. The set was powerful, charming, and raucous good fun. The encore of “Fall down Billy O’Shea” was top class.

In terms of books, some of the best books I read were Christine Murray’s bind – probably the best book of poetry I picked up all year, in fact. Sally Rooney’s Normal People, her second novel was a stunningly good read and I absolutely flew through it. I also finally got around to reading Mike McCormack’s Solar Bones. Other books that had an impact on me this year were Mendoza and Peter Manson’s Windsuckers & Onsetters: SONNOTS for Griffithsfrom Materials; STEDET / DETTE by Gunnar Berge, published by House of Foundation; The English translation of Kjersti Skomsvold’s Monstermenneske, Monsterhuman, published by Dalkey Archives Press as part of their Norwegian Literature Series; Mathias Enard’s novel ZONE from Fitzcarraldo Editions was another standout and I finally got around to reading Inventing the Future by Nick Srnicek and Alex Williams from Verso.

At the Munch Museum this year, I really enjoyed the exhibition Mellom Klokken og Sengen (Between the Clock and the Bed). It was great especially to see Munch’s representation of The Death of Marat especially.

Places I enjoyed going to for coffee and other things in Oslo definitely include Galgen, San Francisco Bread Bowl, Egget Kafe and also Skippergata 22.

 

Advertisements

Rudolf Nilsen’s Arbeidsløs Jul / Jobless Christmas

Over the past while, I’ve been reading a lot of the poetry of Rudolf Nilsen (1901-1929) considered by many to be Norway’s greatest working-class poet.

Nilsen died in 1929, at the age of 28, not from a life of excess but from illness. He died in Paris from tuberculosis but was buried in Oslo. His grave can be found in the north of the city, in Nordre Gravlund. He is remembered today through a statue erected in his memory and the naming of a square as Rudolf Nilsens plass in the area where he used to live. His was a peripatetic existence, and although most associated in people’s minds with the Vålerenga district of Oslo, his family moved around a lot within the city. Born in Orknøygata, he later lived in several places within his first year, and later at Lakkegata 58 where his parents were divorced. He is most associated with Heimdalsgate 26, the place which formed the basis for one of his most well-known poems: “Nr. 13”.

Although he was working-class, in his short life he mainly made his living as a journalist, chiefly for Norges Kommunistblad, a Communist Party daily. Nilsen was a committed communist. Although he was initially a member of Norway’s Labour Party, when a split came in the party in the 1920s, he sided with the communists and joined the newly formed Norges Kommunistiske Partiet. He was also jailed briefly for his involvement in smuggling Soviet literature into the West and attempting to spread it with a friend, Kyrre Grep.

His first collection På stengrunn was published in 1925, by Andelsforlaget, followed rapidly the following year by På Gjensyn in 1926. A third collection, Hverdag, was in the beginning stages when Nilsen, in the company of friends, went travelling through Spain and France. On the trip he contracted tuberculosis, and died shortly after in Paris in 1929. He was cremated, and his ashes returned to the city he loved, where they were buried.

As I’ve been reading his work, I’ve started some tentative translations, so here’s one called “Arbeidsløs Jul” or “Jobless Christmas” as I’ve titled it. It’s from his first collection På Stengrunn.

Abreidsløs can also be unemployed but usually the term Arbeidsledig is used nowadays, implying a momentary gap between jobs rather than the more permanent sense of being long-term unemployed that Arbeidsløs can signal. My translation follows the poem in the original below.

Arbeidsløs Jul

Vi som er dømt til livet
i gråbeingårdenes by
feirer i dag en solfest
for ham, som er født på ny.

Vi har fått tyve kroner
å feire hans komme med!
For dem har vi kjøpt en julegran
og en hel sekk ved.

For dem har vi kjøpt en bayer
og et stykke hestekjøtt.
Det siste skal minne om stallen
hvor frelseren blev født.

De fattiges herre og mester!
Det var ikke godt for ham.
Han hengtes til slutt på korset
midt mellom synd og skam.

Godt det er bare en skrøne
at Kristus er kommet påny.
Så blir det en fattig mindre
å nagle på kors i vår by.

Vi i de mørke gater
feirer i dag en fest.
Til jul får vi tyve kroner,
til påske: Korsfest! Korsfest!

 

Jobless Christmas

Us doomed to life

in the bone-grey city

celebrate a feast today

for him, born anew.

 

We’ve got twenty quid

to celebrate his coming!

We’ve bought a tree

And a full sack with it.

 

We’ve bought a beer

and a piece of horse meat.

This last to remember the manger,

Where our saviour was born.

 

Our poor lord and master!

It did him no good.

He hanged on the cross

between sin and shame.

 

It’s just as well it’s a lie

that Christ is come again.

One less poor bugger

to crucify.

 

We in the dark streets

celebrate a feast day today.

For Christmas we get twenty quid,

for Easter: Crosses! Crosses!

Hotellrom i Oslo by Nordahl Grieg

I’ve been re-reading some Nordahl Grieg again and decided to give another go to translating one of his poems. This time it’s “Hotellrom i Oslo” / “Oslo Hotel Room”. The poem comes from his 1925 collection Stene i Strømmen (1925).

Below, I’ve ordered the poem with a stanza in Norwegian followed by my translation into English and then the English altogether in one so you get a sense of what I’ve done. The poem is written in rhyming couplets in Norwegian, but I have dispensed with this for the translation.

Hotellrom i Oslo

Her sitter jeg på sengen i et fremmed, koldt, hotell,

og min hånd er full av lengsel mot annen hånd ikveld.

I sit on the bed of a frozen cold hotel

my hand full of longing for another hand tonight.

 

Enshomheten slår fra gaten, aldri før så bittert ny,

fottrinn, skygger, buelamper, suset fra den mørke by.

Loneliness rises from the street, never so bitter before,

footsteps, shadows, arc lights, shaken from the dark city.

 

Der blir menske møtt av menske, med et rop, et blikk, et smil.

Mellom meg og dem dernede er det tusener av mil.

People meeting people, with a shout, a look, a smile.

Between me and them a thousand miles.

 

Ja, jeg sitter sitter her så ensom at det hvisker i mitt sinn:

er det sant jeg noensinne holdt en annen hånd i min?

So lonely, sitting here, a whisper in my mind I hear:

Is it so I’ll never hold another hand in mine?

 

Men blant alle øde skygger er det som jeg innerst vet:

aldri har mitt hjerte elsket før i denne ensomhet!

Among these desolate shadows I know full-well:

Never have I ever loved before this loneliness!

 

La de andre bare møtes, la dem gå forlovet hjem

til det aftensbord som venter tusen aftener på dem!

Let the others meet, let them go home engaged

to their evening table waiting with a thousand evenings!

 

Mine lengsler seiler lenger, over hav og kveld og gry.

Jeg behøver ingen sporvogn klokken syv til Homansby!

My longing sails longer, over sea and evening and dawn.

I don’t need the 7pm to Homansby!

 

Men er rikere enn disse som hver løs og ledig stund

kan få ta sin elsktes hender eller kysse hennese munn.

In each and every idle moment, I’m richer

I can hold my lover’s hand and kiss her mouth.

 

Oslo Hotel Room

I sit on the bed of a frozen cold hotel

my hand full of longing for another hand tonight.

 

Loneliness rises from the street, never so bitter before,

footsteps, shadows, arc lights, shaken from the dark city.

 

People meeting people, with a shout, a look, a smile.

Between me and them a thousand miles.

 

So lonely, sitting here, a whisper in my mind I hear:

Is it so I’ll never hold another hand in mine?

 

Among these desolate shadows I know full-well:

Never have I ever loved before this loneliness!

 

Let the others meet, let them go home engaged

to their evening table waiting with a thousand evenings!

 

My longing sails longer, over sea and evening and dawn.

I don’t need the 7pm to Homansby!

 

In each and every idle moment, I’m richer

I can hold my lover’s hand and kiss her mouth.

 

 

Witnessing the Rune Stone

A little over a two and half hours’ drive from Oslo—near the village of Tuddal and under the towering impression of Gausta, Telemark County’s highest peak—there is a rune stone that stands high on a mountain path.

If you are leaving from Oslo, to get there you head west out of Norway’s capital past Bærum and Drammen, in the direction of Kongsberg—a town built first on the back of silver mining and later on munitions. Passing through Kongsberg you next arrive at Notodden. Once a booming industry town, it was part of a hydroelectric network that powered much of this part of Norway. The hydroelectric plant, which sits right on the water, is now part of a UNESCO world heritage site celebrating industry. Notodden is also famous these days for its annual Blues festival. There is also the Blueseum—a museum to the history of blues music that also serves as the main public library for the people of Notodden. From here you begin the swing away from the water and start to head inland.

Past Notodden you reach Heddal, an innocuous looking village with a star attraction: a twelfth-century stavkirke (stave church), a type of square, high wooden church that is unique to Norway.

After the stavkirke in Heddal, you come to Sauland, the administrative heart of Hjartdal kommune, where further on the road you find the long stretched out village of Tuddal. Tuddal’s “centre” has all you would expect of a small rural village in Norway. There’s the local Church of Norway church in its white wood paneling, the local school, a kro—a kind of canteen and inn—a little museum and arts centre, and because we are so close to one of Norway’s most popular mountains, a camping site and small restaurant that operates in the high season.

To get to the rune stone you drive through the village before taking a turn up right onto a steep road that corkscrews in a variety of hairpin bends before finally, thankfully, flattening out. To your left there is a large body of water, Toskjervatn as the locals call it in their nynorsk dialect, or Toskjærvannet as it is in bokmål. About two kilometres along this road on your left-hand side, you will find the Tuddal høyfjellshotell. Built in the nineteenth century and beautifully decorated, this wooden hotel is part of a network of hotels (høyfjell means high mountain) that sprung up in Norway in the 1800s to give people a place while exploring the natural beauty of their country, all a part of the nation building Romanticism and enjoyment of sublime nature that marked this period.

A little beyond this hotel you will come to a group of very old, much less grand buildings on the side of the road. This is the old summer seter,  a series of buildings used in the same way as a shieling, where it was possible, at one time, to get farm fresh milk, cream and cheese from the locals. The real hunt for the rune stone begins here.

Hiking out from this spot, you first go through grassy land that—in the summer at least—is rich in crowberries, blueberries, juniper berries and blueberries. As you move along you come to a birch wood forest. You begin to hear the burbling of a strong stream that comes from a waterfall down from the mountains above you to your right. Crossing over the stream, which runs a reddish colour because of the iron in the rocks, you make a steep ascent that doesn’t take long but is intense. Once you reach this small peak, you start along a series of winding paths through small foothills that are also covered in beds of various berries. Following a well-beaten path you curve around the base of two mountains known collectively as the knees of the much taller Gaustatoppen. As your path snakes round, you come into more open and windy ground. With the knees to your right and slightly behind you, the peak of Gaustatoppen should now be visible nearby. It is here, along this path, that you will find the rune stone, slanted slightly but upright.

***

The first time I hiked up here in search of the rune stone, I walked straight past it. I mistook it for an old milestone marker along the path rather than for what it was: a piece of living history that stretches back around 1000 years.

        Standing upright with the help of other stones at its base, the rune stone is about four or five feet tall. The side facing outwards is covered in dead and living moss, centuries old. It is along the left-hand side of the beautiful piece of stone that you will the runic inscription:

ᛡᛅᛁᛚᛆᛍᚽᛆᚦᚢᚮᛐᛂ

Which has been written up as: Hæila se aþ uote. This means “rock slab/stone be as a witness”. This gnomic phrase immediately begs the question: witness what?

        There are several theories as to what the rune stone was erected as a witness to. One local history recounts the story of a beautiful local woman who died up there in the unforgiving open ground while waiting on her lover whom she had arranged to meet in this spot. A more prosaic explanation of the rune stone’s job is to stand as a witness to a boundary between one area and another. Although the boundary has shifted somewhat over a thousand years, it is believed that this was its original function: to set, literally, in stone an agreement about where one area of land ended and another began.

        It’s hard not to think that both explanations have equal weight. Perhaps both are true. Standing up here in the pass, it is difficult not to imagine it as a perfect meeting spot for two lovers seeking some privacy—especially if it was a secret love. This spot is the backdrop that gives rise to ballads. If we accept the more prosaic version, that it is simply a boundary marker then it is still remarkable that it was marked in this way. A stone carved with a phrase that was both specific and nebulous, inviting questions.

***

        One thing you will notice when examining the runic inscription is that the runes are very nearly faded. They now form a part of a palimpsest of text on this rock. A palimpsest that bears witness not just to the death of a lover left waiting, nor of a settled dispute over land boundaries. Instead, it speaks to the human desire to say I too was here: I lived once and stood on this spot, looking at the same view as you who came before me and those of you yet to come after me.

        This rune stone is no museum piece. Therein lies its power. There are few monuments that are a thousand years old that we get to experience beyond temperature-controlled glass, not as part of an exhibit, nor with accompanying text. Understanding them requires seeing them in their place. Standing in front of the rune stone here below the knees of Gaustatoppen is to stand in front of human history. It forces us to imagine and to ask questions. Who put this here? What kind of lives did they lead? We have some answers of course, in the inscription, in the location. There are also other questions to be asked.

This is because this rune stone is covered in graffiti. Not graffiti as we now know and understand the term, but a different kind of graffiti from the 18th and 19th Centuries. As you read along the rune stone making out the fading lines of the runic inscription, it is the initials or the years carved into the stone, sometimes right over a line from the original runes that strike you.

My first reaction to this was a kind of horror at the desecration of this historic artefact. Yet, the more I thought on it the more I understood the impulse, of these people from 1776 and 1800, and other years since, to make their own mark on this rune stone. It is an intensely human need to show that we were here.

        The rune stone, which, based on the kind of runic alphabet it uses, dates most likely from some time in the 9th or 10th Century has stood in the same spot since a person or group of people decided to lift it from the ground, place it in its spot, and etch into it “rock slab be as a witness”. It has been witnessing ever since. It has witnessed more than a thousand cycles of the seasons. People and animals have crossed its path hundreds and thousands of times. They have died but it remains. Their lives, if ever remembered, now forgotten. The rune stone goes on witnessing.

        Standing next to the rune stone, contemplating it, running my fingers along the outline traces of the original runes you begin to understand something: that the boundary the rune stone really marks is the one between life and death. Between the short span of our mortality in the face of its near-permanence. This is the lesson of history: we are here for a short time, much has gone before us and something will surely follow after us. It is our job to witness this, to be aware that we will pass on one day, but this rune stone will likely still stand, here along the mountain pass, witnessing the next cycle of seasons, and all that comes with it, after us.
Notes: My main sources for the apparent meanings of the runestone and it’s gnomic inscription are the Aberdeen Skaldic Project, and Ivar T. Dahl’s Glimt av Tuddal før i Verden (1998) and Magnus Olsen’s Norges innskrifter med de yngre runer. 2 : V. Buskerud fylke ; VI. Vestfold fylke ; VII. Telemark fylke (1951). The latter especially was indispensable.

Wretched Strangers: Available to Pre-Order Now!

Today marks the 2nd anniversary of Britain’s historic vote to leave the European Union. I remember the day of the vote and the morning after when the shock result came through. I was living in Prague but was preparing to move home for the summer before moving once more to Norway. It was this very freedom of movement which a thin majority of the British people voted against, although most treated the vote to leave to the EU as a referendum not on membership of the EU and it’s institutions but rather as a referendum on immigration.

In the two years since then, Brexit and how it will function – what it means for those EU and EEA citizens living in the UK is still unclear. Likewise, the reality of sharing a border with Ireland – almost never discussed during the run up to the vote – now looms large in shaping what kind of Brexit can take effect. One of the few things that was clear in the immediate aftermath of Brexit was that many in Britain saw the vote as a chance to exercise openly a more aggressive and violent attitude towards immigrants and people of colour in the UK.

Wretched Strangers, a new book of poetry edited by JT Welsch and Agi Lehoczky, is a response to that, two years after Brexit. I am very proud to be one among many of the contributors to the book, which is available to pre-order now for just £12. ALL proceeds from the book go towards charities that help promote the rights of refugees. If you believe in a better world than the one Brexit signifies, read this book!

Headstuff Article on class and reading

Headstuff published a short feature article of mine today on their site about what it means to be a reader from a working-class background. It’s a topic I’ve wanted to write about for many years, but haven’t had the courage until now to tackle it. This is a topic I’ve been thinking about since I first started thinking about class way back in my teenage years. Books like Richard Hoggart’s Uses of Literacy have helped me think through the meanings of being a working-class reader and the uses to which I put my own literacy. Here’s a short extract from the full article, which can be read here:

This is what happens to the self-conscious, the working-class reader: their education – set by those who they seek most to impress – teaches them to reject out of hand, because of its register, the place where they might actually first engage with reading – the only place perhaps.

Free Poetry: Irish Anthology

A new free anthology of Irish poetry, edited by Ellen Dillon is now available to read / download / print out from Martin Corless-Smith’s FREE POETRY website. The poets included are Ellen Dillon, Sheila Mannix, Anamaria Crowe Serrano, Sarah Hayden, Kit Fryatt, Trevor Joyce, David Lloyd, myself, Cal Doyle, Karl Parkinson, Fergal Gaynor, Aodan MacArdle, Geoffrey Squires & Christodolous Makris.

As such it represents a broad conception of what ordinarily would constitute “Irish” poetry & puts in one place a host of exciting new and established voices from Irish poetry, broadly conceived. Follow the link:

FREE POETRY: IRISH ANTHOLOGY

 

Books (and other things) of 2017

1103-2014116164031_540x360
A piece by Mainie Jellett, one of the artist’s featured in a retrospective of Irish female modernists, held earlier this year at Greyfriar’s Gallery, Waterford.

There’s still a good three weeks left in the year I know, but I’ve decided to put up my list of my books for the year and one or two other things that I enjoyed in 2017. As with previous years, not everything I read this year came out this year. Any way, for what its’s worth here’s my choices for good books and other things from the past twelve months (in no particular order):

Fastness – Trevor Joyce

Joyce’s new book is a modern rendering of Edmund Spenser’s Mutability cantos.

Ghosts – Sean Bonney

A new pamphlet from MATERIALS, it will rattle around in your head for days on end.

A Line Made By Walking – Sara Baume

A brilliant second novel from the author of Spill Simmer Falter Wither.

Autumn – Karl Ove Knausgård

The English translation of Knausgård’s first in his latest cycle of books – ostensibly a series of letters and explanations to his unborn daughter, the subject matter is wide ranging and unusual.

Essayism – Brian Dillon

An essay on the essay, but there’s nothing lazy or predictable about this brilliant short book.

Games without Frontiers – Joe Kennedy

The best book you’ll read on football and what it means now. A short, sharp book, it says a lot of what needs to be said about the state of the modern game and how engage with it.

Word by Word – Kory Stamper

A brilliant memoir of life working at the Merriam-Webster Dictionary and a love affair with words and their meanings. An homage to the power of reading and its emancipatory power.

Sillion– Johnny Flynn

A superb album of folky stompers. On an album full of highlights particular highlight is Flynn’s Yeats-inspired ‘Wandering Aengus’, and ‘Tarp in the Prop’ and ‘In Your Pockets.’

Swims – Elizabeth-Jane Burnett

A single poem made of many poems, in which the author swims in rivers, lakes and the coasts of Britain – mixing memory, history, and ecopolitics and poetics.

Hode ved Hode – Cronqvist, Bjørlo, Munch @ Munch Museet, Oslo

Two contemporary artists place their work next to their favourite pieces – the results are intriguing and sometimes unsettling.

Between The Earth & Sky – Lankum

The second album from the Dublin band formerly known as Lynched, highlights include ‘The Granite Gaze’ and their slow version of ‘The Turkish Reveille’.

King of the Vikings – Waterford, Ireland

A brilliant interactive engagement with Waterford and Ireland’s Viking history in the heart of Waterford’s Viking Triangle. Did it earlier this year with my family and we all thoroughly enjoyed the experience.

Beyond the Stars: The Mystical Landscape from Monet to Kandinsky – Musee d’Orsay, Paris

A superb and wide ranging exhibition of paintings which was mounted earlier this year. I was lucky enough to be in Paris on a weekend break when this was on.

‘Maine, Evie, Mary and Grace’: Women Who Led the Modernist Movement in Irish Art – Greyfriars Gallery, Waterford

This exhibition ran until the end of September in Waterford’s Municipal art gallery and was a fantastic retrospective showing the power of women in Modernist art in Ireland.