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.

 

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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.

Books (and other things) of 2017

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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.

 

 

 

Books of 2016

As I did last year, I am going to list off the ten books I’ve read in 2016 that I think are worth hearing about. Many, if not most, are – like with my 2015 list – not actually necessarily published in 2016. I just happen to have read them in the last year. As it was with 2015, what I’ve enjoyed reading in 2016 has been motivated in part by the fact that I have once again moved countries; this time from the Czech Republic to Norway, and so some books I’ve read since coming here and have been using to help me learn more about my new home are present.

As usual the struggle with reading is tied up in the struggle with writing and the constant struggle to widen the horizons of the kinds of books I read. Such a list is also affected by the fact that it’s easier for me to recall what I’ve read probably in the last 3-6 months of the year than in the first half, but here goes.

Claire Louise Bennett – Pond

I’ve already written a long piece on the blog earlier this year after reading this book. A string of connected short stories, Pond is a powerful examination of secluded living. Absolutely essential piece of fiction.

Karl Ove Knausgård– A Death in the Family

The biggest name in Norwegian literature there is at the moment, Knausgård’s six-volume autobiographical novel, Min Kamp (My Struggle), a title which self-consciously invokes comparison with the title of Adolf Hitler’s screed Mein Kampf, is anything but. A Death in the Family is the English-language title of the first book in the series and, broadly speaking, revolves around Knausgård coming to terms with the death of his father although that hardly begins to do the novel justice. The fifth volume has just come out in English, and the sixth is on its way. The series has cemented Knausgård’s reputation and many more books are available in Norwegian and English of his. I am also currently reading his Home and Away, a series of letters he wrote with a Swedish author friend around the 2014 World Cup.

Neil Gaiman – American Gods

A book I’ve been vaguely aware of for years, I read this in the first few weeks of moving to Norway and I enjoyed it immensely, I read it just after finishing the next book on the list, and the centrality of a character named Wednesday, in homage to Odin, suited my new surroundings well. It is, I think the first piece of fantasy I have read in many years, and it was a thorough page-turner. A party I’m very late to, but glad to have arrived at nonetheless in the end.

Robert Ferguson – The Hammer and the Cross

Ferguson has just released a new book, Scandinavians, which reflects on his many years experience of life in Norway and the other Scandinavian countries. I picked up this book, The Hammer and the Cross, to get some better historical bearings on the viking period and the shifting sands of Norwegian and broader Scandinavian history. An excellent read, it provides a great overview of the impact that Viking invasion had not just on the countries they invaded but also the impact those places had on Viking belief systems in turn. A good companion book is Michael Pye’s The Edge of the World, a history of the world from the point of view of the North Sea.

Mike Savage – Social Class in the 21st Century

This Pelican introduction book, which was based in large part on the recent Great British Class Survey was assembled by a team of sociologists. It is an extraordinary attempt to map class as it appears in modern Britain (with parallels for Ireland and elsewhere). Attempting to define class in an age when someone may be economically less well off while having significant cultural and social capital is difficult but this book makes a fairly successful stab at asking questions around what things like the precariat really are and how it is that new forms of cultural capital actually operate.

Stephen King – On Writing

In an effort to spur myself into writing more again, I picked up this hugely entertaining memoir that while offering advice on writing in parts, is really the story of how to build writing into your daily life regardless of the motivation for that writing. It’s not a style guide or a strategy to write your first novel, but as a well-written book about the craft of writing, it provides its own fine example.

Susanna Clarke – Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell

Spurred on by the positive experience I had with Gaiman’s American Gods, I finally went on to read this book which has recently been adapted as a TV series by the BBC. Among the most fun aspects of the book are the copious footnotes and the entire world of magical scholarship which Clarke builds into the narrative.

Alberto Manguel – Curiosity

The first Alberto Manguel book I bought a few years ago was The Library at Night, a book which many of my friends will know, is among my favourite works of non-fiction. Here in Curiosity, Manguel uses Dante’s inferno and his guide in Virgil as the basis for an exploration of different forms of human curiosity. As you’d expect from Manguel if you’re familiar with his writing, it is erudite, philosophical, playful and ultimately affirming.

Robert MacFarlane – Landmarks

I had several years ago considered buying MacFarlane’s The Old Ways, his walking tour of Britain’s lost, old or obscured roads and routes but put it off. Living in the Czech Republic and now Norway, my interest in walking, and the kinds of knowledge it gives has only increased. So, when I saw this book by him which considers the words-we-don’t-use-much-anymore to talk about landscape and features of nature while out walking, I couldn’t resist. Although it focuses on words and names related to the British Isles, it is such a treasure trove of writing, and a brilliantly curious book, that it will make walking anywhere – through any place name – a much more interesting experience.

Frederic Gros – A Philosophy of Walking

As I continue to do more walking, and to think more about the pleasures of walking and hiking, this book provides an excellent overview of some of the philosophical aspects of what different kinds of walking mean. Whether you are keeper of assiduous habits always walking the same route at the same pace at the same time daily, are an ambler, stroller, parader or conqueror, this book will give you pause for thought about what it is we are doing, what we are actually after when we go out walking.

Are any of these in your top books of 2016, or any time? Anyway, here’s to a year of good reading and to a year of good reading to come in 2017!

Reading History: Preventing the Future by Tom Garvin

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As this year’s budget is released in Ireland, I think it is timely to reconsider this book by Tom Garvin.

Garvin, a professor of political science at UCD for most of his professional career, wrote the book in 2004 at a time when – they tell us – we were all partying. Or at least, that’s what they would tell us once the hangover set in late 2008. I read this book while studying at UCC, and so far as I can recall, I didn’t read it until post-crash, sometime in late 2008, early 2009, in the final year of my degree.

The book, I recall, had an extraordinary impact on me at the time. Despite being written at the height of the boom, one reviewer notes that although “there is some discussion of later periods, this is not the place to look for an explanation of the “Celtic Tiger” era.” True enough, but that it was written in that era is not insignificant for how Garvin looked at the 40s and 50s, the period which receives the most sustained attention.

In essence, the argument of the book – and one which at base  I continue to think is nearly impossible to refute in most ways – is that the combined emergence of a new political elite from the revolutionary generation of the 1920s who were largely quite socially, economically and intellectually conservative combined with the rising power of the Catholic Church actively attempt to prevent the modernisation, and indeed secularistation of society in Ireland which was the hallmark of the postwar consensus across much of western and northern Europe. They were intent, as the books title suggests, to prevent the future.

And in some ways we live still with the success of their attempts to prevent the future, whether that be the future represented by the emergence of social democracy or something else entirely.

As the complainers on social media about a €5 increase to social welfare – miniscule in itself when we consider the same government just weeks ago sought to actively refuse €13 billion euro of owed taxes from Apple – indicate, Irish society sees social welfare safety nets not in terms of a collective responsibility to care for the vulnerable in our society. Emigration has rocked Ireland in the past eight years as it did during the period Garvin examines in Preventing the Future. Our homelessness crisis continues and looks set to continue as rent increases in our major cities show no sign of abating. The resistance to repeal the 8th amendment and finally provide women living in Ireland with the right to choose how to live their lives without fear of criminalisation and stigma remains. The idea that some are deserving of our sympathy and charity and others not persists. Ireland has yet to move beyond this.

Whatever future might have been imagined for Ireland once, it is hard not to feel that any number of these futures have been prevented. In many cases, this has been a mixture of the active insistence of Irish elites that the country works just fine as it is, and the passivity of the population in general not to change its own habits in terms of voting. This has meant the continued acceptance that our elected representatives have more often than not completely failed us as a people in making the choices that will actively make Ireland a fairer, more equal society. That is “just how it is”.

It is further evident from the mean-spirited attitude of those who see the €5 increase as a sign that life on the dole is better than working that many members of the Irish population, rather than reflecting on the experience of the past eight years that has seen services slashed, emigration rise and homelessness reach unprecedented levels, they have swallowed the rhetoric that pits us against one another. The deflection away from the staid thinking of economic policy in Ireland, away from the continued failure to account for the fact the current generation of under 30s have inherited a social and economic mess largely not of their making but for which they have paid the heaviest price, suits those who continue to espouse the orthodoxies of the market as king. In other words, as they did in the 1940s and 1950s, those with power in Ireland continue to prevent the futures of many as those many had imagined it. The longer we continue to accept that that’s “just how it is”, then eventually we will be culpable for preventing our own futures.

Reading History: Arthur Conan Doyle’s The Hound of the Baskervilles

I remember it well, the first time I encountered this story. I was in I think probably fourth or fifth class in primary school in St. Paul’s. Our teacher was out sick, and we had a substitute teacher in the shape of Mr Ryan. Of the many teachers I had over the years, I never was actually taught by Mr Ryan, few have gifted me with something as profound as he did by choosing to ignore the usual run of our schooling while substituting for the other teacher.

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The cover of the novelised version of the story in 1902.

Instead, over the course of probably two or three days, he simply read to the class the story The Hound of the Baskervilles, perhaps the most famous of Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes stories. At the time Mr Ryan read this story to us, I was first beginning to discover fantasy writing and was reading The Hobbit by Tolkien at home. It seemed to me a lovely coming together of new ideas and ways of hearing stories. Mr Ryan relished the telling of The Hound of the Baskervilles, and it was often requested apparently that he read it in whole or in part usually when he was prevailed upon to cover as a substitute.

Since then, I have only grown to love this story more and more. It was almost certianly my first introduction to the idea of a meta-narrative – a story within a story – through the letter explaining the Baskerville curse and in Watson’s own telling of things. It is also I am sure responsible, as Conan Doyle and Sherlock Holmes must be for millions of others, for my love of mystery, detective fiction and historical fiction.

Few stories manage to combine so many elements as this one story. The cleverness, the misdirection of ourselves, the reader, through our unreliable narrator Watson, who is – like us – desperate to emulate and outwit Holmes, is astounding.

There are few books, and even fewer fictional stories, which I can read again and again, but The Hound of the Baskervilles is one of those rare stories. There have been countless television, film and radio versions of this classic tale that makes us question the gap between what’s rational and what’s fantastical, but there is no greater pleasure than sitting down by yourself to read that opening paragraph that spins out to one of the most remarkable tales written in the English language:

Mr. Sherlock Holmes, who was usually very late in the mornings, save upon those not infrequent occasions when he was up all night, was seated at the breakfast table. I stood upon the hearth-rug and picked up the stick which our visitor had left behind him the night before. It was a fine, thick piece of wood, bulbous-headed, of the sort which is known as a “Penang lawyer.” Just under the head was a broad silver band nearly an inch across. “To James Mortimer, M.R.C.S., from his friends of the C.C.H.,” was engraved upon it, with the date “1884.” It was just such a stick as the old-fashioned family practitioner used to carry — dignified, solid, and reassuring.

The story too, after all these years is itself still solid and reassuring. The reason why, when you read it, is no mystery.

Pond by Claire-Louise Bennett

By a happy accident last week, I happened upon Claire-Louise Bennett’s debut Pond. After a meeting and a tour around Oslo’s Litteraturhuset, I spent some time browsing the Tanum bookshop on the ground floor of the building next to the cafe. I was browsing through the English language fiction section when the stark blue of the Fitzcarraldo Edition of the book jumped out at me. The book was actually first published by The Stinging Fly Press back in Ireland and is currently available in the US via Riverhead Books, and imprint of Penguin RandomHouse. I first encountered Bennett’s work in the pages of The Penny Dreadful, where the chapter of Pond known as “To A God Unknown” appeared in their fourth issue, so this discovery was exciting indeed.

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The book has received stellar reviews. The book review of the New York Times said of it that  it was “a sharp, funny, and eccentric debut … and that the book “makes the case for Bennett as an innovative writer of real talent. … [It]reminds us that small things have great depths.” Many have commented on the seclusion of the character who forms the centre of the book. On the pond and on Emerson’s Walden. The cover of the Fitzcarraldo Edition of the book with white lettering against a deep blue background adds heft to the pond in the book, which is a neighbour’s pond, pointlessly but also pointedly signed.

What I found interesting about reading Pond  was that it draws you in and on – it is strictly speaking a collection of short stories, although the character through whom we experience each story is the same woman. There are longer stories often punctuated with smaller snippets that break you, momentarily, out of the spell woven by the longer sections. The collection of stories has a certain degree of forward propulsion to it but it is best when you ignore this and luxuriate entirely in the telling. There is no plot as such, which can make it a very visceral, very real experience when reading. One of my favourite passages concerns an ottoman the character has and her hopes about who will sit at it during a party:

I think I’m going to throw a little party. A perfectly arranged but low-key soiree. I have so many glasses after all. And it is so nice in here, after all. And there’ll be plenty of places for people to sit now that I’ve brought down the ottoman – and in fact if I came here for a party on the ottoman is exactly where I’d want to sit…

The woman then contemplates a situation in which she imagines coming to the party and someone already sitting on it, and how she would slowly move closer to being able to sit on it. Among the guests to come to her party

I wonder who out of everyone will sit on the ottoman? Well, if you must know, that is not a spontaneous point of curiosity and I don’t wonder really because in fact I already possess a good idea – a clear picture actually – of who will sit upon the ottoman. Oh yes, a lovely picture as clear as can be.

This to me is a trademark passage of fixating on some thing, some object, and making it not from one thing into another thing but a conduit for thoughts and ideas and mental meanderings. In an interview with The Paris Reviewconducted by Philip Maughan he notes at the end that

At a reading in London last year you said that Pond was “a love story,” and it’s true there’s more sex, sensuousness, and longing in it than critics seem to have noted.

BENNETT

There is this phrase that something or other “has captured my imagination,” and I think that love captured mine at a young age. The madness and the mystery of it overwhelms me, the beauty and the tenderness of it reassures me. Love channels throughout my imagination in the same way that a fragile yet tenacious vine weaves in and out of an old wall…

Maughan is certainly right that sex, sensuousness, and longing form part of the story too. But not all the sex or the potential encounters are tender or reassuring perhaps. There is also the dread of potential sexual assault present. Jia Tolentino in her New Yorker article about Pond notes of  an encounter with a hooded man in the section titled “Morning, 1908” that:

The imagined danger is all the more frightening for the swiftness of her acceptance—the toll many women pay to make the experience of danger go away.

The narrator looks around at the pasture, at the cows, the incremental sunset. She thinks of the imagined rape, a vision that “had not been incited by fear of him but rather by the horror I had felt towards my own twisted longing.” She walks back home as the man’s figure recedes, dispassionately narrating the mundane psychosis familiar to anyone who has ever spent too much time alone.

Sexual violence, like so many other things in this set of stories, is represented as utterly quotidian. And it is Bennett’s ability to make so much of the quotidian that makes this such a powerful read. Another book which I recently read was Leaving Leaving Behind Behind by Inger Wold Lund. It was published by the Ugly Duckling Presse in 2015. This is another book I came upon fortuitously in another Oslo bookshop, Schou’s Books.

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Inger Wold Lund’s 2015 poetry chapbook Leaving Leaving Behind Behind.

In some respects it shares a certain amount with Bennett’s Pond and it’s worth thinking for  a moment about the similarities between both books. Bennett’s Pond is, from my reading of it, about extrapolation – about moving the focus out from the cottage and her character’s innerlife through a rich and profuse language. Inger Wold Lund’s Leaving Leaving Behind Behind which is somewhere between prose and poetry, and prose poetry proper, like Bennett’s book, loosely comes together in separate snatches of story and poem, and revolves in some way around the desire to find love.  Unlike Bennett’s work, the wording is spare and minimal, skeletal almost. It might read indeed as a kind of yet to be fleshed out counterpart to Pond. But it stands alone, and I read the book of poems in a single sitting and was, like with Pond, wanting more but also exhausted by the pressure placed on the words and the sense of being overwhelmed in this case by the blank spaces. Here is an extract to give a flavour:

Some years ago. Outside a studio.

The asphalt was still warm from the sunshine earlier in

the day. Inside there was a party.

So you are together now?

Yes.

But you know that he never stays.

What do you mean?

I mean that he always leaves.

Or this, later in the series of poems:

Many years ago. In an apartment.

He told me that he did not like it when men he met on the internet slept over. He preferred to clean his room, make his bed and put on newly washed clothes. Then he liked to sit without moving, while waiting for the doorbell to ring. That, he said, was his favorite moment.

What do you like?

He asked me.

I like it when my pillow smells of someone else.

Reading these passages again puts me in mind of the end of “Postcard”, a little after the halfway mark in Pond:

God in heaven it is raining so hard now  – straps are beautiful, just hanging in fact, off a chair by a pale unclean bathtub. It passed  – I came off the bed and I walked to the window and blew two or three toenails  out upon the wet roof of the very room where recently a dinner party to celebrate a birthday had occurred. The zip on my dress was long and gold, you see.

Both Bennett and Lund tap into something fundamental about intimate moments and the curious things that mark them. In a short review of Lund’s work for Rain TaxiTova Gannana writes:

Leaving Leaving Behind Behind could be written for a lover, or for a former self. In this way, Lund leaves space in her poems for the reader to enter, and the book grows in our mind, continuing to take its place in an ever-present “after.”

It would not be much of a stretch to say something similar about Bennett and Pond.

Robinson Crusoe på Norsk: Week Two

Or uke to, if you prefer. I haven’t been as dedicated to the bould Robinson’s adventures this week as my first. Consider it to be the reading equivalent of difficult second album syndrome, only its a week, and about reading.

Still, a little after time, I managed to finish the rip-roaring second chapter of this book, which in this format aimed at kids, moves a good deal faster than I ever remember the original moving – then again, we were reading that slowly in university for our course too.

After more adventures on the high seas, Robinson settles down for several years until some Portuguese plantasjeeier (plantation owners) suggest that Robinson travel to Africa in search of 400 slaves. He begins his next adventure, this time as slaver, on 1st September, the same day as eight years previously he left home. One suspects that Robinson’s avarice is going to get the better of him…

One thing I did notice from reading this week was that more words were familiar, more sentence structures, so that I didn’t have to spend quite as much time stopping and figuring out every third word. I could read it a little faster, and get the general gist a lot easier, although there’s still plenty of new words that may or may not be useful.

Take innfødt, for instance. It can be understood as native, aboriginal or some variation on the two. Født means born, and Inn means, well, in basically. So Inborn, if you will. It’s kind of close to Iron-born, but it’s not. And this isn’t Game of Thrones. It’s much more moral than all that. The opposite of being Innfødt is to be utlending: a foreigner. Our outlander, basically. Jeg er utlending. I am a foreigner. Jeg er ikke innfødt, I am not a native.

Of course, the words native or aboriginal carry with them a good deal of baggage from colonialism. If people use this word today, it’s probably a fair shout that they might be well aware of that rather heavy colonial baggage attached to that word. Nonetheless, it can’t be assumed that this is how the word is actually used. It may be that it has the more innocent connotations of saying one is native to a place: Jeg er innfødt av Waterford, or av Irland, for instance. It matters of course who’s calling who a native as usual. Incidentally, as I read this chapter, there was a speech given recently by King Olav V of Norway on ideas of belonging and who is and who isn’t a nordmann (Norwegian):

 

 

 

Getting into the sea: a new view on Waterford’s past

As a child, summer to me always meant the seaside.  Tramore. Bunmahon. Benvoy. Woodstown. Dunmore. The Saleens. The Back Strand. Annestown. The Guillamene. Some beaches were for bathing, some for walking, some for cockle picking, some for swimming, some for spinning to in the car. Some were hardly beaches at all. The smell of sea salt. Salt and Vinegar. Fishing nets and boxes. Trawlers. A whole world of sounds and smells. I’ve always loved looking out at the ocean. Imagining what lay beyond the horizon.

Waterford city was established as a viking settlement early in the 10th century. A little earlier than that, there was, we now know, another important settlement at Woodstown. Waterford city has always been influenced by the sea. Things have long come in and out of the quays in the city be it people, goods or ideas. From Waterford you can draw lines to Denmark and Norway, to Britain, Newfoundland, and many more places, and in those lines trace the history of the city running north, south, east and west.

I didn’t really begin to think seriously about Waterford as a place connected to the sea until quite recently. Part of the reason why I began to think of the city, and the surrounding coastline as connected to something much bigger was driven by what I learned about the Atlantic world from reading Marcus Rediker and Peter Linebaugh’s The Many Headed Hydra. This book completely reshaped my way of thinking about how places on coastlines are connected by the history of sailing. In some ways, it was realising what I knew intuitively to be true, but I finally had, thanks to this book, a better idea how to express that same knowledge. It made the history of Waterford bigger, rather than smaller, by placing it into an even bigger context than a national history, placing it into an international history where the only barriers between places were ocean names. it is a part of a maritime history going in all directions.

I first encountered this way of organising history through that classic of twentieth century history, The Mediterranean and the Mediterranean World in the Age of Philip II by Fernand Braudel. But Rediker and Linebaugh’s work, a work of radical and revolutionary labour history  on the Atlantic in the early modern period, offered a very different way of understanding maritime history. I’ve since read many of Rediker’s books in particular, including The Slave Ship and Outlaws of the Atlantic.

This new frame through which to understand local, and indeed Irish history, has been extremely helpful to me. It’s also helped me to understand better some aspects of my family history, as you can see here. I’ve now moved to Norway, and it is through the sea which I am beginning to understand the history of this part of the world. I’ve just finished Robert Ferguson’s The Hammer and the Cross: A new history of the Viking Age and am just about to move on to Michael Pye’s The Edge of the World: How the North Sea Made Us Who We Are.

Both books have provided invaluable (and occasionally overlapping) insight into how to think better not just of the history of the seas north of Britain and Ireland, but how to reorient yourself entirely when thinking of how life was organised in the past. As Pye himself writes early in The Edge of the World: “The sea could kill, and yet it was the easy route: the connection, not the barrier.” He goes on, a few pages later, picking the theme up again:

Since the sea was not a barrier like the land, the world had a different shape. We would it hard to recognize. Suppose you crossed from Domburg to the trading port at Ipswich on the east coast of England, newly opened in the seventh century, your cargo might be pots from the Rhineland or glass or the hefty lava quernstones used for grinding in mills. Stand on the banks of the River Orwell and look out at the world. If you think in terms of the time it takes to get to places, then Bergen in Norway is closer than York in England… The coast of Jutland is closer, and better connected, than an English midlands city like Worcester. You could be over the water and in the port of Quentovic, on the border between modern France and modern Belgium, in half the time it took to get to London overland…

Reading this, and attempting a similar reorientation – imagining that the sea was a shortcut rather than a roundabout way of getting places at a time when roads were very poor, suddenly the history of a city like the one I grew up in makes more sense. The settlement by Vikings early in the tenth century, the religious vestments which were made in the medieval period to a design from Bruges with silk from Florence, the trade with Spanish and Portuguese ports including Barcelona, Bilbao, Cadiz, Farrol, La Coruna, and Lisbon in the 17th century; the fishing trade links with Newfoundland in the late 18th century, and the continued trade out of Waterford port right up to and including the twentieth century. The next time you find yourself at a quayside, a river mouth or a beach, it might be worth thinking, wherever you are of the hundreds and thousands of shipbuilders, chandlers, sailors, fishermen, dock workers, and more characters besides over the centuries who lived lives determined by what in various poems of the past world were called whaleroads and who saw the sea as the connection not the barrier.