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.


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!

Books (and other things) of 2017

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.




Norway’s Nasjonalgalleriet

One of the first things I learned when I arrived two months ago in Norway was that the Nasjonalgalleriet was free on Thursdays. Finally, I got to go this past Thursday, and it is a place which I can see myself visiting many times over the coming years.

When you walk in and place your bag and coat in a locker, you walk up a simple stairs but are met immediately with the sight of not alone a famous painting but a painting which depicts a famous scene: Christian Krohg’s depiction of Leif Erikson voyaging to America c.1000 CE. The painting was completed in 1893, and must surely reflect something not just of the story of Norwegian discovery in the viking age, nor the country’s history of migration to America, but also the impending desire for independence from Sweden, which would come about in 1905.

Christian Krohg’s depiction of Leif Erikson’s discovery of America in c.1000 CE.

As you turn up these stairs, either left of right of the Krohg painting you begin your jounrey through the highlights of the Norwegian national collection. Currently what’s on display ranges from antiquity to 1950, and so as you make your way through each room you come a little closer to the present, and encounter most of the major movements in European art along the way. The experience can be something of an overwhelming one. For the first time in my life, I decided to take notes as I walked through the rooms – partially to slow my pace down but also so that I could remember which artists struck me most and so that I could actually go back and eventually find out a little more about some of those who interested me especially.

In the early rooms we have some examples of classical antiquity which are not entirely interesting – unsurprisingly much better examples of this kind of thing can be found elsewhere. Some of the christian art from Novgorod in Russia in the third room you enter is perhaps the most interesting of the first half of the exhibition.

There are old masters of the Baroque and Dutch schools to be found but what I was most interested in going to the Nasjonalgalleriet for was the Norwegian artists, whose work comes into prominence from about the mid-way point in the journey through the rooms.Rooms 9-12 give an excellent show case of Norwegian (and Danish – Denmark and Norway didn’t split until 1814) Romantic landscape painting including the work of Johan Christian Dahl, Thomas Fearnley (a Norwegian whose grandfather came from Hull), and Peder Balke, to name just a few.

NOR Stetind i tåke, ENG Stetind in Fog
Peder Balke’s eerie looking Stetind i tåke (Stetind in fog).

Among my favourite works as I passed through the gallery was Tidemand’s Low Church Devotion, which shows lay preacher Hans Nielsen Hauge preaching to poor farmers in the hearth-room of a family home.

Adolph Tidemand’s depiction of Hans Nielsen Hauge preaching.

From here we get a stronger impression of new movements in art which include works by Cezanne, Rodin, Gaugin and of course, Norway’s most famous artist – Edward Munch. The Scream, his most famous painting, is housed in the 19th room of the gallery.

Some realist painting is represented in the works of not just Krohg,but especially Erik Werenskiold. Krohg’s Braiding Hair is a good example of this genre in Norway, as is Werenskiold’s A Pauper’s Burial. I also enjoyed the energy of the painting of Halfdan Egedius, especially spil og dans (play and dance).

Werenskiold’s En Bondebegravelse (Pauper’s Burial).

In the 22nd room the standout painting for me was Per Krohg’s Cabaret from 1913-1914. The second to last room is the one which contains the work of Picasso, includng GuitarGuitar and Glass, and Poor Couple in Cafe. 

In all, the gallery is a tour-de-force and requires probably two visits, at least. Certainly, by the time I had seen the main exhibit my energy to go see the exhibition about the influence of Japanese art on Norway was non-existent. It gives me a good excuse to go back, and if you are ever in Oslo, make sure to make this gallery a part of your trip! You won’t be disappointed.

Reading History: The Fight for English by David Crystal

One of my favourite poems in the English language is Six O’Clock News by from ‘Unrelated Incidents’ by Tom Leonard. Here it is in all its short, furious glory:

this is thi
six a clock
news thi
man said n
thi reason
a talk wia
BBC accent
iz coz yi
widny wahnt
mi ti talk
aboot thi
trooth wia
voice lik
wanna yoo
scruff. if
a toktaboot
thi trooth
lik wanna yoo
scruff yi
widny thingk
it wuz troo.
jist wanna yoo
scruff tokn.
thirza right
way ti spell
ana right way
to tok it. this
is me tokn yir
right way a
spellin. this
is ma trooth.
yooz doant no
thi trooth
yirsellz cawz
yi canny talk
right. this is
the six a clock
nyooz. belt up.

A deceptively straightforward poem, in its short clipped lines, it is a coruscating riff on the place of accent in how we define class in the English language.

Our accents place us not just geographically, but in Ireland and in Britain, socially and culturally. As a kid, I knew that you made fun of people who went to what was then still a private school, Newtown School in Waterford, by saying the name of the school in the over-exaggerated way that it was imagined those schooled there spoke: Nootaunn. This was reverse accent and language snobbery in action. Knowing for most of my life almost no one who went to the school, I had no idea if they sounded like that, or if that’s how anyone who had ever gone through the gates of that famous Quaker school had ever in fact sounded. But I knew that when talking about Newtown you had to talk about Nootaunn. From early on in life, I learned that how you spoke and sounded impacted how people perceived you. Accent was a giveaway. It allowed others to place you.

When I got to college, I was acutely aware of this and so quickly adopted (and subsequently dropped) a bizarre version of the ‘posh’ Cork accent as a kind of defense mechanism. Language, and all its baggage – dialectical terms, accent –  I was learning in college, continued to be a means of placing and defining you. It sometimes seemed inside of UCC that having the right accent, and having gone to the right school were very important things indeed. Most people probably cared a lot less about my accent and the way I said things than I did, but I was very aware that I didn’t always sound like most of those around me who I met. A poem like The Six O’Clock News helps explain why that is perfectly.

My interest in poetry that took language as it was, in all its weirdness, inconsistency, malleability, that has persisted was sparked in the same years when my accent was more variable thanks to my awareness that in this new social context, among peers from different social backgrounds, my accent placed me – geographically but also socially and culturally. I got to meet some great people in those years who were interested in poetry that was experimental and innovative and playful when it came to spelling, accent, voice, dialects and more – the stuff of language that makes it most interesting. Without them I would have never heard of Tom Leonard, would never have heard or read the Six O’Clock News. Another important factor was studying English in my first year in UCC. Back then, just coming on ten years ago now – as part of First Year English, some of the course was given over to the field of linguistics. We were taught by Elizabeth Okasha. I must confess I don’t remember much about the actual lectures now, but Dr. Okasha’s lectures had one piece of required reading that helped to fundamentally reshape my entire understanding of the English language and was the start of a relationship with a writer which persists to this day. That required reading was The English Language by David Crystal. Although it would in time to come be replaced by The Fight for English as my favourite of Crystal’s books, it was in those lectures, and through this book I first encountered his take on the language. It was one which at the time to me seemed part of the same momentous shift in how I understood what poetry was and could potentially be. But The Fight for English is the David Crystal book which I would most strongly recommend to anyone to read.

Written in the wake of the popularity of Lynn Truss’ Eats, Shoots, & Leaves, Crystal in The Fight for English takes on not just Truss but many who came before her (and it will stand against many grammar obsessives who have surely come in her wake) who want to fix the English language in a particular time and place and say that this way of speaking, writing and using the language is the only correct one. If it is correct, it is because these are the people who wield the power to say what is correct and incorrect in a language – they are, in other words, the powerful; those closest to the centre of power whoo can say that their accent is “neutral” or that yours or mine is “regional”. The arbiters of taste and propriety since the eighteenth century. Luckily, Crystal’s book by taking a long look at the development of English as a language is capable of putting such nonsense to rest. It is vital reading for anyone who understands that language is a system that like all systems can exclude and attack those who do not control its reins. The English language is forever shifting and changing. The diversity of accents, the sheer number of loan words, the dialects of it, all point to the essential truth of Crystal’s book: English belongs to everyone not just self-appointed gate keepers. This truth is not one on which Crystal has ever reneged on in his writing since either, especially when you consider his book TXTNG: D GR8 DB8 which was a serious linguists early attempt to really understand what was happening in the development of text and online speech patterns, rather than dismissing them out of hand as infantile, or worse, illiterate.

The writing of poets like Tom Leonard, and the writing of linguists like David Crystal were vital in helping me understand that my accent, that the wordhoard which I inherited because of the place I was born, was an asset and not a liability. It was a rich social and cultural history in which to play, to discover and relate to my home. That goes not alone for the local but even the national. Without a book like The Fight for English, I would be ill-equipped in many conversations to argue what I always felt to be true. That language is not static. That we do have different voices, different lexicons upon which we call. That the variety to be found in English is part of what makes it so fun to learn, teach and create with. Not alone that, but by thinking about language in this way – who has access to writing it, having their voices heard on the page or through a recording devices – also has huge implications for how we understand the past and how we shape what eventually becomes history.

In the poetry of Tom Leonard, and others like him, once more the enormous condescension of posterity looms large. Such poetry is a pushback against that posterity.  This is something that David Crystal’s The Fight for English has taught me, and with each re-reading of it, continues to remind me of. There are few enough books that I will read in my lifetime from which I will take away so much.

Remembering Jan Palach, 1948-1969

Today is the anniversary of Czech student Jan Palach’s death. Palach died on January 19 1969 after suffering for three days in hospital from self-inflicted third-degree burns. On January 16 1969, Palach, standing at the top of Wenceslas Square, at the foot of the steps of the Czech National Museum, poured petrol over his head and lit it on fire, to the horror of passersby. Palach left a short and succinct suicide note in which he stated he took this action:

Because our nations are on the brink of despair we have decided to express our protest and wake up the people of this land…

He signed the note ‘Torch Number One’. The idea was that Palach would be first of many students to protest the Soviet invasion of Prague in August of 1968 in this way. Palach, and others, were disappointed chiefly with the compromosing attitude of Alexander Dubcek and his government following the invasion. Palach’s protest was also directed at the new censorship which the period of ‘normalization’ embodied. In particular, his protest was directed at this new censorship and the pro-invasion newspaper, Zprávy, which Palach and his comrades wanted to be taken out of circulation. [1]

The greatest, and grimmest, irony perhaps of Palach’s death was that, as Paulina Bren notes, it simply served to reinforce the new state of censorship rather than rattle it. Bren writes that:

That day’s evening radio news included just a brief and official government report of the incident and made no mention of the of the suicide note… The next day, as Palach lay dying in  a hospital from his burns, the now Moscow-controlled Radio Prague distributed a memorandum to its staff forbidding anyone to broadcast programs or segments on Palach. The only exception was made for the youth broadcasting division, which was ordered to provide carefully crafted information on Palach and his suicide with the sole purpose of deterring young listeners from following suit. [2]

Palach’s death, and his funeral, managed not to cause – as the death and funeral of student Jan Opletal had done thirty years previously  and would do again in the future- a swelling of national sentiment that turned into political unrest. Instead, by allowing the funeral arrangements to be left in the hands of the student body of the city, and allowing people to line the streets as he was taken from the Arts Faculty in the city to Olsany cemetery, there was no sense of not being allowed to grieve. President Svoboda, on 20 January, gave a special television address to the nation stating that ‘without you, comrades and friends, neither Comrade Dubcek nor I can or want to govern.’ [3] International news, film footage of the funeral can be viewed on the British Pathé website here and Charles University’s dedicated site to Palach here.

While the decision of Palach to set himself on fire in protest is largely put down to inspiration from Buddhist monks in Vietnam, there is a theatricality to Palach’s decision that is very much in keeping with the spirit of the new openness that the Prague Spring represented. It might be better understood, in some ways, as a form of action art (akcní umení). As Pavlína Morganová notes in her book on Czech Action Art, “the arrival of Soviet tanks in August 1968 brought a definitive end to this blossoming in Czechslovak culture [from 1964-1968].” This was a period that saw Czechoslovak culture engage with avant garde practices including fluxus and much more besides. One of the key effects of the Soviet invasion, and the period of “normalization” that followed on Czech art was that it necessitated a shift in where art could happen and be made in the country. As Morganová also notes

It was in the seclusion of private alternative spaces or nature that Czech body art and land art developed during this period. Nature, where it was easy to avoid the gaze of secret police agents and informers, became for many a starting point for small-scale land art often closely linked to body art. [4]

This might perhaps provide us with another way to understand Palach’s form of protest. By lighting himself on fire in the centre of the city, at the foot of one its most famous buildings, he took his private thoughts into the public sphere. It would be ridiculous to extend the metaphor too far by claiming his act as an art action or performance, a kind of body art, but his violent protest has transformed the site, and the wider city in which he made this protest.

Palach’s legacy in the city is plain to see. The square in front of the Arts Faculty of Charles University where he was a student, formerly Náměstí Krasnoarmějců (Red Army Square) is now named for him. At the spot where he burned himself alive in front of the National Museum, a memorial cross is laid unevenly into the footpath, bulging out, as if struggling. It is a powerful memorial.

There is also a small plaque to both him and Jan Zajíc, another student who self-immolated, near the base of the statue of St. Wenceslas in the square where he died. And now, there is another physical reminder of Palach and his action. A sculpture designed by American architect and grandson of Czech emigrants, John Hejduk, has been installed on Jan Palach Square in Prague. This impressive structure, entitled “The House of Suicide and the House of the Mother of the Suicide”, was drawn up by Hejduk in response to David Shapiro’s poem The Funeral of Jan Palach. Shapiro’s poem, whose text is on the slab that forms the base of the structure, was published in his third collection A Man Holding an Acoustic Panel in 1971. The poem reads:


When I entered the first meditation
I escaped the gravity of the object,
I experienced the emptiness,
And I have been dead a long time.


When I had a voice you could call a voice,
My mother wept to me:
My son, my beloved son,
I never thought this possible


I’ll follow you on foot.
Halfway in mud and slush the microphones picked up.
It was raining on the houses;
It was snowing on the police-cars.


The astronauts were weeping,
Going neither up nor out.
And my own mother was brave enough she looked
And it was alright I was dead. [5]

Shapiro’s poem was apparently inspired by a statement of Palach’s mother accidentally picked up by microphones. In an interview with Pataphysics magazine in 1990, Shapiro said that

Jan Palach was a young man who burned himself to protest against the Russian invasion of Czechoslovakia and even to this day his grave, or lack of a grave as it were, is a very political situation. But a personal funeral becomes a public funeral: what his mother said was picked up by a microphone – ‘My son, my beloved son, I never thought this possible. I’ll follow you on foot.’

The new monument, inspired by Shapiro’s poem, was originally designed by Hejduk for a class project with his students. A temporary wooden version was previously on view in Prague in the 1990s, but this new version is to be permanent.

Palach’s legacy then is assured, but what it will mean in the future, is uncertain. As ever, in memorialising, there is the possibility that his death, and the reasons for it, be forgotten.


[1] Mary Heimann, Czechoslovakia: The State that Failed, New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 2011, pp.272-273.

[2] Paulina Bren, The Greengrocer and his TV: The Culture of Communism after the 1968 Prague Spring, Ithaca and London: Cornell University Press, 2010, pp.30-31.

[3]  Heimann, Czechoslovakia: The State that Failed, p. 273.

[4] Pavlína Morganová, Czech Action Art: Happenings, Actions, Events, Land Art, Body Art and Performance Art Behind the Iron Curtain, Prague: Charles University Press 2014, pp.22-24.

[5] David Shapiro, “The Funeral of Jan Palach”, A Man Holding an Acoustic Panel, New York, 1971.

Jan Hus: radical proto-protestant, martyr, or nationalist myth?

Alfons Mucha’s painting of Jan Hus preaching in the Bethlehem Chapel.

In the formulation of the national and nationalist narratives that were such a part of nineteenth century European political and state formation, most countries sought to reach back into their disparate histories and to pluck from them figures who it might be politically expedient to present as being as being harbingers of a nation later to emerge. Jan Hus is one such figure from Czech history and since today is his day, I thought I’d take a quick look at some of the ways Hus has emerged as a figure of the Czech nation.

If July 6th is Jan Hus day in Czech Republic, a notoriously atheist country, then many who are unfamiliar with the country, will also be surprised to learn that the day before is also a national holiday, for Ss. Cyril and Methodius, thought to have played a significant role in the emergence of the Czech language. In both cases then, Cyril and Methodius on the 5th and Hus on the 6th, the primary reasons for celebrating these men is not religious but instead national.

To understand Hus as a figure of nationalism first, it might be best to start with Alfons Mucha’s extraordinary series of paintings, Slovanská epopej (The Slav Epic). This extraordinary cycle of over 20 paintings was completed between 1910 and 1928, and tells the story of the Slav people’s from their mythical prehistory to the apotheosis of the foundation of the first Czechoslovak Republic in 1918.

The eighth painting in the cycle, “Master Jan Hus Preaching at the Bethlehem Chapel” is subtitled “Truth prevails”. In the painting, at the top of the post, we can see Hus almost rapturously revealing the truth to those congregated. Hus was appointed to the chapel from the Prague University and was deeply involved in the debates around the various ideas of Oxford theologian, John Wycliffe. As Peter Demetz notes of Hus:

[Hus] was surely a man of quiet decisions, and he was far from being a belligerent radical, even though he looked like one to many. He grew with the events, in which schismatic popes, legitimate and illegitimate kings, comfortable prelates enjoying many benefices and ascetic theologians, the church’s legal establishment and the resolution to live in the truth of Jesus Christ, conservative Bohemian patriots and early defenders of the idea of a nation based on language rather than territory – all these were chaotically pitted against each other.” (Prague in Black and Gold, 132-133).

This, it might be fair to say, is an attempt to strip back from Hus the national connotations which he gained as a proto-protestant, national hero figure from the time of Frantisek Palacky’s five-volume History of the Czech Nation in Bohemia and Moravia (1836-67). As Mary Heinemann has noted:

A Moravian Protestant, Palacky took a particular interest in rehabilitating the reputation of Jan Hus, whom he presented, in the first volume of his History to be written and published in Czech, as at once a proto-Protestant and a proto-nationalist martyr. This view was to have a profound influence upon – among others – the man who was eventually to found the first state ever to to be named for the Czechs and the Slovaks: lapsed Catholic and fellow Moravian Tomas Masaryk. (Czechoslovakia: the state that failed, 13).

Heinemann’s observations are especially astute on Hus, who she sees as being moulded in the following way in order to help legitimate the initial claims for what eventually became the first Czechoslovak republic:

The Czech-speaking Bohemian priest and activist Jan Hus (John Huss), presented as a sort of Martin Luther, becomes the chief symbol of Czech resoluteness and independence; while the Taborite (radical Hussite) Jan Zizka, a kind of Oliver Cromwell figure, is cast in the role of proto-nationalist and primitive socialist. (Czechoslovakia, 3).

And this is not just Heinemann’s view, which is stridently myth-busting in her approach, but is also backed up by other scholars looking at how the myth of the First Czechoslovak Republic, led by Masaryk and Benes, was cultivated. As historian Andrea Orzoff notes of Palacky’s famous nationalist history, for Palacky – and thus for Masaryk et al. – Hus and his followers were not merely engaged in a discussion over church doctrine but became

freedom-loving, democratic, tolerant, egalitarian, morally righteous, and pacifistic until unjustly attacked. These were the qualities permanently bred into the Czechs by their national history, Palacky implied. (Battle for the Castle: The Myth of Czechoslovakia in Europe, 1914-1918, 27).

This view of Hus and the Hussites was reinforced in paintings like Mucha’s Slav Epic and also in the staggering art nouveau statue of Hus which dominates the heart of historical Prague, Staromestske Namesti (Old Town Square), designed by Ladislav Saloun and erected there on his 500th anniversary in 1915, three years before the foundation of the first Czechoslovak republic.

The Jan Hus Memorial in Old Town Square.
The Jan Hus Memorial in Old Town Square.

Jan Hus,the Hussites and also Jan Zizka and the Taborites, all have come to represent in the Czech Republic, a kind of ant-authoritarian resistance – whether it was Hus preaching the words of Wycliffe to his congregation, or the view of Czechs as a Protestant “nation” crushed and controlled by a Catholic empire – they have all come to represent something closer to the vision of Palacky than their real historical personages or that their own contexts could possibly have allowed. National identity and myth are built on such figures, however remote they end up being from the person who once lived, breathed and preached.

Prague: Silence, History and the Magical City

Before I ever started visiting Prague with regularity, the city was increasingly on my radar thanks to the writing of Tony Judt. I began reading Tony Judt when one of my sisters bought me his monumental Postwar for Christmas a number of years ago and through friends I discovered more of Judt’s work just as his illness seemed to have finally conquered him. His final few works which include The Memory ChaletIll Fares The Land and his conversation with Timothy Snyder, Thinking The Twentieth Century, all give special mention to the Czech Republic and to Prague and to the famed Prague Spring of 1968. Since I began reading this work, a change in personal circumstances has meant that I now visit Prague on a regular basis and over the course of my accumulated visits, I have learned incrementally more and more about the city, about the Czech lands and their history. I have toyed with the idea of writing something about this oft-written-about city previously for The Dustbin, but for the first time, and following my most recent visit, I feel I finally have something to offer up, something like a coherent thought about the place…

“It is as if we conjure the dead and they speak only

Through our own damned trumpets, through our damned medium:”[1]

Continue reading “Prague: Silence, History and the Magical City”

The Art of Football

Football is, in the minds of many people, perhaps the quintessentially modern, that is to say modernist, sport. Unsurprisingly then, many of the most well-known, and aesthetically appealing visual representations of football, particularly in the work of Italian and even English futurist-influenced painters,attempt to capture the dynamism of the movement of the footballer in action. Continue reading “The Art of Football”

The Art of History

Irish poet William Wall’s recent collection Ghost Estate (2011), begins with a poem called ‘Figures of Speech’. The poem is a response to Theodor Adorno’s Prisms (1955), where Adorno wrote that ‘to write a poem after Auschwitz is barbaric’. To which Wall’s poem responds:

after Abu Ghraib he says

for others it was Auschwitz

what can I say

art is in the unimaginable

& nevertheless necessary…[1]

The necessity of art in troubling times is as true after Auschwitz as it is after Abu Ghraib, or during the the worldwide recession in which people and their lives are sacrificed to the demands of the market, to the ideology of austerity. If as Wall writes ‘art is in the unimaginable/& nevertheless necessary’ then where does the art of history fall? Is it too in the unimaginable? Is it that art also happens to reside in the unimaginable, but the unimaginable does not have sole claim to what constitutes art?

Opening his chapter on the place of classical music in Hitler’s Third Reich in The Rest is Noise (2009),music critic Alex Ross writes that ‘in the wake of Hitler, classical music suffered not only incalculable physical losses…but a deeper loss of moral authority’. He notes that afterwards ‘classical music acquired a sinister aura in popular culture. Hollywood, which once had made musicians the fragile heroes of prestige pieces, began to give them a sadistic mien.’ Worse, he notes ‘by the 1970s the juxtaposition of “great music” and barbarism had become a cinematic cliché…now when any self-respecting Hollywood archcriminal sets out to enslave mankind, he listens to a little classical music to get in the mood.’[2] Such damage to the popular image of classical music is one deeply lamented by Ross, a writer whose collected essays Listen to This are a paean to his attempt at synthesising his knowledge of classical music with his experience of contemporary, popular music in order that others can derive the same pleasure, and participate in both musical worlds.

Ross’ work displays a sound knowledge of why history matters – of why the affairs of state, of such big history, has such apparent consequence on the human experience – be that the experience of a Hollywood film, or as it was for those Ross recounts in Theresienstadt, for whom the experience of music was a consolation at a time when their human experience was beyond the bounds of true empathy of other humans, who had hitherto not experienced the same displacement, physical discomfort and pain of the concentration camps.

As we approach the fiftieth anniversary of EP Thompson’s seminal The Making of the English Working Class, first published in 1963, the debate about what history is for – how it is to be written – indeed, who history is for, is as important now as it was then. For Thompson, of course, history and that particular history which he wrote was about one thing primarily more than any other:

                I am seeking to rescue the poor stockinger, the Luddite cropper, the “obsolete” hand-loom weaver, the “Utopian” artisan, and even the deluded follower of Joanna Southcott, from the enormous condescension of posterity. Their crafts and traditions may have been dying. Their hostility to the new industrialism may have been backward-looking. Their communitarian ideals may have been fantasies. Their insurrectionary conspiracies may have been foolhardy. But they lived through these times of acute social disturbance, and we did not. Their aspirations were valid in terms of their own experience; and, if they were casualties of history, they remain, condemned in their own lives, as casualties.[3]

Just like Ross feels about classical music, that it is accessible for everyone – it is just finding their point of access, so too for Thompson everyone deserves to be rescued from the ‘enormous condescension of posterity’ – everyone has a past, and everyone should have and should be able to access their history. Around the same time as these words of Thompson’s were in the bookshops, John Lukacs argues in The Future of History (2011) that a discernible appetite for history, hitherto unseen, presented itself. He notes the explosion of local historical groups, the development of the popular historical magazine since the early 1960s and the almost simultaneous shrinking of history as taught in second-level (high school and secondary school). He notes too in this period a rise in the interest in the United States in the Holocaust, something which Lukacs puts down to not just ‘curiosity about this and that in the recent past’ for him instead it indicates an ‘appetite for encountering some things and some people who were real.’[4]

Lukacs’ real people are, I feel, the same people who Thompson sought to rescue from the unformed, cruel and forgetful mess of the past. One aspect of that reality which historians engage with is people’s remnants: that which they leave behind – frequently, and for much of the past, that then consists of words, of paper of one kind or another. Lukacs makes the point when discussing the ‘re-cognition’ of history as literature that as well as the sources directly pertaining to their subject matter they ‘must read and know what to read – a knowledge and interest and, yes, an appetite that will not only enrich their minds but guide and inspire their writing.’[5] To writer Ian Sansom ‘everything that matters to us happens on paper. Without paper, we are nothing. We are born, and issued with a birth certificate. We collect more of these certificates at school, and yet another when we marry, and another when we divorce, and buy a house, and when we die.’ According to Sansom ‘we are born human, but are forever becoming paper, as paper becomes us, our artificial skin. Everything we are is paper: it is the ground of activity, the partner to all our enterprises, the key to our understanding of the past. How do we know the past? Only through paper and all its records…’[6] Intriguingly, Alberto Manguel throughout his splendid meditation on the library acknowledges that were a visitor from the past to arrive on earth now he would see among other things ‘huge commercial temples in which books are sold by their thousands’, ‘libraries with readers milling about in the stacks as they have done for centuries’. Manguel notes, despite seeing ‘a host of readers: on park benches, in the subways, on buses and trams and trains, in apartments and houses, everywhere’ the visitor would be wrong to suppose ours was a literate society. Why?

According to Manguel ‘our society accepts the book as a given, but the act of reading – once considered useful and important, as well as potentially dangerous and subversive – is now condescendingly accepted as a pastime, a slow pastime that lacks efficiency and does not contribute to the common good.’ Manguel is certain that his hypothetical visitor would soon realise that today in our society ‘reading is nothing but an ancillary act, and the great repository of our memory and experience, the library, is considered less a living entity than an inconvenient storage room.’[7] In the same chapter though Manguel writes that those things we can find in a library ‘histories, chronologies, almanacs’ each of them offer us the illusion of progress, even though, over and over again, we are given proof that there is no such thing’.[8] Here Manguel echoes Lukacs who wrote emphatically that ‘history does not repeat itself.’ More importantly, Lukacs follows this with ‘nor do the motives and conditions and purposes of historical knowledge.’[9] In this way we must recognise that the reasons why we want to reach back through time and engage with the paper versions of ourselves that Ian Sansom points to, must necessarily change, even if like Manguel suggests, at the same time, those things deposited in the library (real or imagined), give the appearance of sameness.

Tony Judt, a man whose existence in words and on paper became ever more important as his body was trapped in a collapsing version of itself, and authored his Memory Chalet, nevertheless felt it vital to state in conversation with Timothy Snyder that ‘I profoundly believe in the difference between history and memory’. For Judt, ‘to allow memory to replace history is dangerous. Whereas history of necessity takes the form of a record, endlessly rewritten and re-tested against old and new evidence, memory is keyed to public, non-scholarly purposes. It could take the form of ‘theme park, a memorial, a museum, a building, a television program, an event, a day, a flag. Such mnemonic manifestations of the past are of necessity partial, brief, selective.’ He felt ultimately that ‘those who arrange them are constrained sooner or later to tell partial truths or even outright lies…in either event they cannot substitute for history.’[10] So history as a discipline has its, very necessary, place.

Judt is sceptical of the commemoration of the Holocaust in so far as it has become the moral yardstick by which all other acts are compared – to which almost all pale, thus excusing their execution. Judt’s feelings on the difference between memory and history are echoed a little closer to home by Irish historian Tom Dunne, whose Rebellions show a deep ambivalence at a situation in which not just history but even memory are warped for political ends that are, however well-meaning, nonetheless misplaced. Cold War historian John Lewis Gaddis in his lectures that eventually formed The Landscape of History (2004) feels that history as such is about gaining ‘historical consciousness’ because it is something that ‘helps us to establish human identity.’ In the end, for Gaddis at least, it is ‘part of what it means to grow up.’[11] Growing up of course, begets growing old which begets death. But if history too is about exceptions, then those who in the now-fabled phrasing are ‘not left grow old’, are those from whom learning to grow up, grow old and die is most important. That there is a right way to do so. We must reach back to those who, dead because of times passing, have also ceased to age and are entombed for us really in their paper selves that they have left behind – those records that Sansom points to in our quest to become paper. The trouble with history of course, and the writing of it, is that it necessarily depends on paper – for its construction in both senses: with no records (no paper) there could be no history and with no paper (nowhere to record and arrange the record) there could no recording of history. The form which history takes is almost by necessity a narrative one; because of the shape of our books, the form we have given to our paper, we move from one leaf to the next in our histories, expecting continuity, however artificial that fluidity is because of the imposed structure on the mass (and mess) of historical sources from which the story is drawn.

History is also, like literature and music, incomplete and open to constant and continuous revision – it is never finished, never (so far as we can see) able to finish. New sound can be struck always by an instrument, new poems written, new characters placed in new worlds in novels; Anymore than our quest, so ably described by Greg Milner in Perfecting Sound Forever, to find the best means of recording our music and lodging it has never ended while shifting from the wax cylinder to the mp3, in some sense they are all just forms of paper – a record in the most literal sense. What after all was Alan Lomax doing throughout the United States and the many other countries to which he made field trips recording sound (almost always imperfect – almost always perfectly real) but putting on the paper of music (wax discs and magnetic tapes) those people and their songs – oftentimes their songs as history – who otherwise might have been lost to the ‘enormous condescension of posterity’ that so exercised Thompson.[12] So too, will the art of history never cease, there will always be those explorers of the past who will with pen and ink (or with processor and screen) continue to record in lost fields and places those whose voices remain, however thinly, somewhere in our past, asking to be let sing their song.

For philosopher Peter Singer, it was by way of his grandfather David Oppenheim’s letters that he could rescue just his grandfather and grandmothers lives from that condescending posterity – that he could recount for all the world to share in Pushing Time Away an account of his grandfathers life in Jewish Vienna that in some small way counteracts the horrors met by Oppenheim in Theresienstadt, the concentration camp whose story looms large over all that was despicable about the Third Reich. Theresienstadt, the model camp, full of artists and Europe’s middle class Jews – was paraded in front of the world for its rich cultural life and comfort – it was used as a propaganda site for the Red Cross to show how good the concentration camps were. For Peter Singer’s grandparents, it was to provide a grave, and for many more, despite the music and books, there was no ultimate consolation. Manguel tells us the story of the library in Block 31, ‘the family camp’ at Auschwitz, where all the usual rigours of library life were maintained, of which he writes ‘it is almost impossible to imagine that under the unbearable conditions imposed by the Nazis, intellectual life could still continue… this persistence adds to both the wonder and the horror: that in such nightmarish circumstances that men and women would still read about Hugo’s Jean Valjean and Tolstoy’s Natasha, would fill request cards and pay fines for late returns….reading and its rituals became acts of resistance.’[13]

In like fashion, Olivier Messiaen’s composition of Quatour pour la fin du temps, was a resistance of recording the time in which it was written, its context. Helped, according to Ross, by guards at Stalag VIII-A where he was a PoW, in composing the piece it was first performed at the camp on January 15, 1941 and the piece, with its strong religious tones was according to Ross an expression of Messiaen ‘responded to the mechanized insanity of the Second World War by offering up the purest, simplest sounds he could find.’[14] Messiaen’s resistance was, like the readers maintaining the rituals of the library in Auschwitz or the artists and intellectuals like Peter Singer’s grandfather in Theresienstadt, a small one, but the best one – continuing to create, continuing to refuse to be lost to history’s condescending posterity; by the simple act of staying alive and continuing the rituals of living they all demanded recording, on and through paper, by history.

Their stories, brought out in these books, ostensibly none of them really about history as such, is testament to the importance of understanding history as primarily participatory. Just like Thompson thought people were present at the making of their own history, so too were these people ensuring by engaging with a world forbidden to them, by resisting, that they would leave their marks on paper – in the form of love letters to their wives, in their prayers, and musical notation – and by transforming themselves into paper they ensured their survival, and the books which have been borne of their paper, ensuring their part and place in history, in the ultimate library, greater even than the one imagined by Borges. History no more ends than Francis Fukayama might like to think it does, nor is it necessarily the case, as John Gray notes of Fukayama’s thinking, that history is ‘a process with a built-in goal.’[15] Of Fukayama’s ‘end of history’, Judt said that the historian must be able to ‘take such such tidy nonsense and make a mess of it.’[16] It is difficult not agree with this assertion, neat readings of history such as Fukayama’s, though twenty years old now and widely discredited are still popularly considered to carry weight, why Gray termed one chapter of Black Mass ‘Utopia Enters the Mainstream’. In a Europe, and an Ireland, in which economic recession and the concept of austerity is beginning to create pain such as it is for thousands and millions of Europeans from Greece, to Spain, Portugal, Italy to Ireland, the notion that any one system, any one socio-economic political ideology is the inevitable outcome of messy historical process is at best naive, at worst a sinister and intentional misunderstanding and misreading not just of historical process but also the historian’s art – the history we write.

So where does that leave the art of history – the product of the historians labours? It is, like the best arts, a participatory art – a ritualistic, necessary artform – ultimately, it becomes a responsibility: a responsibility to participate, to create it, to write it. For Tony Judt, as well as responsibility to coherence, the historian has another responsibility; he said ‘we are not merely historians but also and always citizens, with a responsibility to bring our skills to bear upon the common interest.’[17] It has never been more important that the historian be a public figure, making messy the neat summations of others. In the words of Tom Dunne ‘the role of the historian should be to inform rather than to inspire, to be true to the sources that survive, to tell what actually happened rather than to cloud them over with dreams of what did not. State commemoration may stimulate historical inquiry, but it should not determine it.’[18] The poetic resistance to prevailing conditions offered by Irish writers like William Wall and the challenge offered to history to resist the situation where in the words of London-based poet, Sean Bonney

history is those who sit

inside their prepared vocab,

the comfortable ones,

the executioner, especially,

never utters an articulate sound,

quietly gets on with his work.[19]

is an important one. It is as important as the strains in Messiaen’s final movement of his Quatour, as the late stamps on the books in the library of Auschwitz’s ‘family camp’, as the strains of the blues collected in a church by Alan Lomax. Like all art, it is forever a resistance: to wilful ignorance, to tyranny of all kinds, to accepting that which we know to be unacceptable. For it to be otherwise would be unimaginable.

[1] William Wall, Ghost Estate, Clare: Salmon Poetry, 2011, 11

[2] Alex Ross, The Rest is Noise: Listening to the Twentieth Century, London: Harper Perennial, 2009, 334-335

[3] EP Thompson, The Making of the English Working Class, 1963

[4] John Lukacs, The Future of History, London: Yale University Press, 2011, 61-69

[5] Lukacs, The Future of History, 94

[6] Ian Sansom, Paper: An Elegy, London: Fourth Estate, 2012, xix

[7] Alberto Manguel, The Library at Night, London: Yale University Press,  2006, 223-224

[8] Manguel, The Library at Night, 232

[9] Lukacs, The Future of History, 66

[10] Tony Judt with Timothy Snyder, Thinking the Twentieth Century, London: William Heinemann, 2012, 277-278

[11] John Lewis Gaddis, The Landscape of History, Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2004, 147

[12] For a good biography of Lomax and his mission see John Szwed, The Man Who Recorded the World, London: Random House, 2012

[13] Manguel, The Library at Night, 242

[14] Ross, The Rest is Noise, 390-391

[15] John Gray, Black Mass: Apocalypse, Religion and the Death of Utopia, London: Penguin, 2008, 105

[16] Judt with Snyder, Thinking the Twentieth Century, 270

[17] Judt with Synder, Thinking the Twentieth Century, 268

[18] Tom Dunne, Rebellions: Memoir, Memory and 1798, Dublin: TheLilliput Press, 2010

[19] Sean Bonney, The Commons, London: Openned Press 2011, 21