“an author whose books were marvellous but rather the same” – Elizabeth Taylor and Andrei Makine


I have just begun reading Elizabeth Taylor’s At Mrs Lippincote’s (not, it feels obligatory to point out, not that Elizabeth Taylor. From Valerie Martin‘s introduction:

Though I never met either of them, Kingsley Amis introduced me to Elizabeth Taylor. He did it slyly, with deceptive nonchalance, as one might present a powerful relative to an acquaintance at a party; he knew she was important but had his doubts about me. This happened in his novel Difficulties With Girls. After a poor lunch of macaroni cheese, Jenny Standish, much neglected wife of the libidinous Patrick, has gone to the library in search of steady company. ‘Everything seemed to be out, bar an enormous saga about Southern Belles, but then she spotted a new Elizabeth Taylor on the returns shelf.’ At home, Jenny is disappointed to discover that ‘the new Elizabeth Taylor turned out to be an old Elizabeth Taylor in a new impression and with a different outside, and she must have been slipping not to have checked, always advisable with an author whose books were marvellous but rather the same.’

I am just starting to read Elizabeth Taylor (though I already know her mother died of politeness, suffering appendicitis on Christmas Day and refusing to bother the doctor), but, as Martin goes on to write “for any novelist, let alone one as famously cranky and hard on the women as Sir Kingsley, to stop cold the progress of his own story in order to extol the virtues of another novelist is unusual, to say the least” and so far I am impressed. The quote from Difficulties With Girls Martin cites also put me in mind of another novelist with a seemingly very different thematic concern than Taylor’s, Andrei Makine. I have had occasion to cite Makine a couple of times before. And I am nursing a longer essay on this remarkable writer, whose work is of a high pitch of lyrical intensity, who offers an unimpeachable insight into the tragedy of Russia in the twentieth (and twenty-first) century, with emotion but without sentimentality, managing to depict the USSR as a tyranny which treated the lives of its citizens (supposedly what the whole enterprise was about) as utterly disposable – while, without exoneration or excuse, capturing the moments of idealism that could capture youthful enthusiasm.


But they are rather the same – a narrator born in the post war couple of decades, now an exile in the West rather like Makine himself, recovering via memory a now vanished world which was defined by the gargantuan, heroic sacrifices of the Great Patriotic War (as WWII is still known in Russia) There are variations – The Woman Who Waited’s erotic longing and ironic release, The Life of An Unknown Man’s satire of the New Russia, Confessions of a Lapsed Standard Bearer’s more direct focus on childhood memory, A Life’s Music musical themes – but the overall pattern is the same.

And yet, his work is marvellous. So much for range!



Appreciating nature in the 6th Century: From “The Consolation of Philosophy”, Boethius

It is sometimes argued that an argument often made that appreciation of nature is a phenomenon of industrial societies. It is implied that nature is something that intellectuals and city folk appreciate – not people living in times where survival is more of a struggle.


One contra example is the nature poetry of the Irish monks which Flann O’Brien wrote about for his MA Thesis. Another seems to be this passage from Boethius (obviously an elite source, but nevertheless a contra example to the idea that appreciation of nature is a phenomenon of industrial society alone:

Perhaps, again, you find pleasure in the beauty of the countryside. Creation is indeed very beautiful, and the countryside a beautiful part of creation. In the same way we are sometimes delighted by the appearance of the sea when it’s very calm and look up with wonder at the sky, the stars, the moon and the sun.

(trans. Victor Watts

The passage in the context of The Consolation of Philosophy implies that these are common sentiments of the time. It goes on to somewhat throw cold water on consolation from the natural world:

However, not one of these has anything to do with you, and you daren’t take credit for the splendour of any of them. The fact that flowers blossom in spring confers no distinction on you, and the swelling fullness of the autumn harvest is no work of yours. You are, in fact, enraptured with empty joys, embracing blessings that are alien to you as if they were your own. I ask you, why? For Fortune can never make yours what Nature has made alien to you. Of course the fruits of the land are appointed as food for living beings; but if you wish only to satisfy your needs – and that is all Nature requires – there is no need to seek an excess from Fortune. Nature is content with few and little: if you try to press superfluous additions upon what is sufficient for Nature, your bounty will become sickening if not harmful.

Of course, quite aprat from responding to this passage int he context of the book and of the philosophy fo the time, one could ask whether “nature is content with few and little” is in fact a reasonable reason to give for deriving consolation from it.

Via Philosophers.co.uk

Harry Clarke: The Master of Stained Glass — A R T L▼R K post

Harry Clarke: The Master of Stained Glass — A  R  T  L▼R K post

Given how much I have been featuring Harry Clarke work (see also here and here and Harry Clarke Studio alumni here) I thought it might be nice to share this post from the Ark Lark blog on Clarke himself….

On the 17th of March 1889, Harry Clarke, an Irish stained glass artist and book illustrator, was born in Dublin, Ireland. The second son of Joshua Clarke and Brigid McGonigle, he was remarkable already as a child for his extraordinary individuality and intelligence. After attending several schools, including the Model Schools in Marlborough Street, he […]

via Harry Clarke: The Master of Stained Glass — A R T L▼R K

Stained glass from St Mary’s Church, Killenaule 

Stained glass from St Mary’s Church, Killenaule 

St Mary’s Church is one of the most striking Tipperary Churches I have come across. Designed by a student of Pugin (reportedly) it is an impressive structure set onto a hillside which accentuates the drama:

Some of the stained glass inside is among the most striking I have come across. Some of the windows are from the studio of Harry Clarke, and share the distinctive style of Clarke:

This saint reminded me of the less than saintly Klaus Kinski:

Here is the window in some context within the church :

This Visitation  (I think) was especially moving:

The window behind the altar is, according to the Killenaule.net site, said to be the largest in the country. Unfortunately I found my photos did not do it justice. Perhaps I will be more successful on further visits:

There is more “traditional” glass work here also, equally dramatic:

Here is Our Lady appearing to Bernadette, with a particularly ruminating expression. on her face : 

Here is an unfortunately out of focus image of the window above the entrance of the Assumption 

There’s a St Michael The Archangel battling a particularly red dragon: 

Here are windows of St Patrick and St Brigid – I liked the name plates below :

“A particularly bright, holy and gifted child” – the life and losses of Richard Robert Madden


In The Church of the Assumption, Booterstown, Dublin we find the above poignant plaque. Here is the text as the above turns out to be a little blurry:

MADDEN. Of your charity pray for the soul of
/Richard Robert Madden, M.D.
/formerly Colonial Secretary
/of Western Australia &c. “A man who loved his Country.”/
Author of “History of United Irishmen” and many other works.
/Remarkable for Talents Piety, and Rectitude, the 21st and last surviving son of/Edward Madden, born in Dublin August 20th 1798 died at Booterstown Feb 5th 1886
/and interred in Donnybrook Churchyard/
also for the soul of his relict Mrs Harriet T Madden, the 21st and last surviving child of
/John Elmslie Esq. Born in London August 4th 1801
/converted by a singular grace to the Catholic Faith in Cuba (circa) 1837
/died at Booterstown Feb 7th 1888/
A woman of rare culture, endowments and piety, a most loving Mother, and died as she had lived, her mind unclouded, her last breath a prayer.
/and for the soul of their loved son William Ford Madden/
who was drowned in the Shannon March 29th 1848 in his 19th year/
On whose souls sweet Jesus have mercy, Amen
also in loving memory of their grandchildren William Joseph H Ford Madden/born Jan 10th 1871 died Sept 14th 1871 and of Bridget Gertrude Harriet Madden (Beda)/a singularly bright, holy, and gifted child, born July 17th 1875 died on the 16th June 1882 in her seventh year.

I find these plaques moving in general, and this one even more so than most. One considers Madden’s long, interesting life, and the losses of his son, infant grandson, and later granddaughter. There is a certain restraint to the simple plaque which is a counterpoint to the ornate language.

Richard Robert Madden lead an extremely varied life: playing a role in the abolition of slavery and as a historian of the United Irishmen. The Egypt Sudan Graffiti page has images of Madden’s various graffiti on Egyptian antiquities.

From the DNB:

Madden, Richard Robert (1798–1886), author and colonial administrator, the youngest son of Edward Madden (1739–1830), a silk manufacturer of Dublin, and his second wife, Elizabeth, the youngest daughter of Thaddeus Forde of Corry, co. Leitrim, was born at Wormwood Gate, Dublin, on 22 August 1798. He was educated at a private school in Dublin, and studied medicine in Paris, Naples, and St George’s Hospital, London. While in Italy he became acquainted with Lady Blessington and her circle, and acted as correspondent of the Morning Herald. Between 1824 and 1827 he travelled in the Levant, visiting Smyrna, Constantinople, Crete, Egypt, and Syria; he published an account of his travels in 1829. He returned in 1828 to England, where he married Harriet (d. 1888), the daughter of John Elmslie of Jamaica; they had three sons, including Thomas More Madden.

Madden was elected a member of the Royal College of Surgeons in 1828, and was made an FRCS in 1855. He practised as a surgeon in Curzon Street, Mayfair, until, in 1833, he went to Jamaica as one of the special magistrates appointed to resolve disputes between black apprentices and their white masters in the transitional system which, in 1834, replaced slavery with apprenticeship as a preliminary to full freedom. His energetic support for the apprentices brought him into conflict with the plantation owners, and he resigned in November 1834. He published a two-volume account of his experiences, A twelve-month’s residence in the West Indies during the transition from slavery to apprenticeship (1835).

In 1836 Madden was appointed superintendent of the liberated Africans and judge arbitrator in the mixed court of commission in Havana. During his four years in Cuba he published a number of works on slavery, including an Address on Slavery in Cuba, Presented to the General Anti-Slavery Convention (1840). He left Cuba in 1840 to accompany Sir Moses Montefiore on his mission to Egypt to plead for a group of Jews from Damascus accused of ritual murder. Again he wrote an account of his experiences. The following year he was sent to west Africa as a commissioner of inquiry into the administration of British coastal settlements, where he exposed the ‘pawn system’, which was a disguised form of slavery. From November 1843 until August 1846 he acted as the special correspondent at Lisbon of the Morning Chronicle. In 1847 he was appointed colonial secretary of Western Australia, where he strove to protect the few remaining rights of the Aborigines. After returning to Ireland on leave in 1848, he took up the cause of the famine-stricken peasantry, and in 1850 resigned his Australian office in favour of that of secretary to the Loan Fund board at Dublin Castle, which he held until 1880.

Madden’s interest in his homeland provided the source of his most enduring work, The United Irishmen, their Lives and Times (7 vols., 1843–6), which was issued in a second edition in 1858; A History of Irish Periodical Literature from the End of the Seventeenth to the Middle of the Nineteenth Century (2 vols., 1867); and Literary Remains of the United Irishmen of 1798 (1887), a collection of ballads, songs, and other united Irish literary works. His other work of importance was the three-volume The Literary Life and Correspondence of the Countess of Blessington (1855). Madden had been an intimate of the Gore House circle since his meeting with the Blessingtons in Naples in 1821; despite this advantage, and despite his access to the papers, it has been remarked that ‘no one who attempts to use his book can help but deplore the chaotic arrangement, the faults of copying, the digressions and the frequent errors in plain statement of fact which disfigure it’ (Sadleir, 388).

Madden was a member of the Royal Irish Academy, and a corresponding member of the Society of Medical Science. He died at his residence, 3 Vernon Terrace, Booterstown, co. Dublin, on 5 February 1886 and was buried in Donnybrook graveyard there.

Madden’s medical career is almost incidental in the above. Interestingly, he was a “convert” to homeopathy

Among his many books is The Infirmities of Genius Illustrated by Referring the Anomalies in the Literary Character to the Habits and Constitutional Peculiarities of Men of Genius, . This has an arrestingly blunt opening:

It is generally admitted that literary men are an irritable race, subject to many infirmities, both of mind and body; the worldly prosperity and domestic happienss are not very often the result of their pursuits.

In the midst of the many words written by and about Richard Robert Madden, I can’t help longing to hear the voice of Bridget Gertrude Harriet Madden, Beda, the “particularly bright, holy and gifted child” lost at the age of seven. This is not to downplay the other losses recorded for posterity; her brother William Joseph, Richard Robert’s son William Forde Madden. There is something strongly affecting about the closing lines of this plaque, and whatever one’s beliefs (or lack thereof) surely a longing that Richard Robert and his granddaughter would have some kind of reunion is an entirely understandable one. As the final words of the plaque say, Requiesicant in Pace. Amen.

You can’t look after others if you are dead: Blogging the Octonauts – Manatees, S2, E19.

Having three children under 10, a reasonable proportion of my time is spent watching children’s programmes. While I have of late been damning the notion that there is such thing as a digital native, no one can doubt that we live in a far more media saturated world than the one we grew up in. Whether this actually has far reaching cognitive impacts is another thing, but it is a challenge as a parent to find the balance in a world where children could theoretically watch a programme literally all the time. This is even more so the case in world where the moral posturing and virtue signalling around children’s culture (a rather clumsy formulation, but there you go) is stronger than ever

Anyhow, one of my very favourite programmes is the OctonautsSlightly magna-ified sea creatures posse who embark on Jacques Cousteau-ish adventures, this show – based on Meomi’s book series (though somewhat more grounded in realistic marine biology)

The shows are warm, engaging, and often rather witty. It feels a little churlish to begin a series of occasional blog posts with a mild criticism, especially in an otherwise delightful episode… but here we go.

The Octonauts and the Manatees” involves the Octonauts moving a group of manatees away from a lightning storm. In this episode, the manatees themselves are engagingly detailed, laid-back surfer-dude type vegetarians. Gentle tiki tiki music plays as their theme. Indeed, they are one of my favourite among the creatures the Octonauts help (and in real life too – and I am sad to report just discovering that Snooty the world’s oldest manatee died only a couple of weeks ago.

Back to the Octonauts, what’s not to love? Well, there is one thing… probably the only quibble I have with the whole Octonaut canon (except possibly a mild tendency to product placement)

In this episode, Captain Barnacles’ GUP is struck by lightning. This is what leads to him meeting the manatees in the first place, and therefore his rescue. However, Barnacles has to abandon his GUP and finds his paw stuck in a giant claw. He cannot move at all. Yet he does not ask his fellow Octonauts for help – despite multiple occasions to do so, and ultimately runs perilously short of air. I won’t ruin anything else (well, this is a children’s programme) but Barnacles is show subjugating his own life or death situation to the need to have the manatees looked after.

The Octonauts spirit of helping all creatures great and small is admirable (although the moral dilemma of how one helps prey evade predator, and in the next episode predator out of their snafu, is not fully grappled with) In this episode, however, I was a bit disturbed by how far Barnacles takes the principle of not asking for help while the manatees need help. It is a well established principle that if you take care of others, you need to take of yourself. In life support courses from simple CPR ones to Basic Life Support to Advanced Cardiac Life Support it is emphasised to check one’s own safety first. This is for a good reason; dead, you can’t help anyone much.

Octonauts is a wonderful show and I hope to blog more (and in a more openly enthuiastic vein) about some of the episodes in future – but this rather reckless self-denial is something I wish were a little different.

“Something terrifying and majestic at the same time” – From “Broken April’, Ismail Kadare


Without the knocking at the door, everything would be so different that at times he was afraid to think of it, and he consoled himself with the notion that perhaps it had to happen this way, and that if life outside the whirlpool of blood might perhaps be more peaceful, by the same token it would be even more dull and meaningless. He tried to call to mind families that were not involved in the blood feud, and he found no special signs of happiness in them. It even seemed to him that, sheltered from danger, they hardly knew the value of life, and were only the more unhappy for that. Whereas clans that were in the blood feud lived in a different order of days and seasons, accompanied as it were by an inner tremor; the people were more handsome, and the young men were in favour with the women. Even the two nuns who had first passed, when they had seen the black ribbon sewn to his sleeve that meant he was searching for his death or that his death was searching for him, and looked at him strangely. But that was not the important things; what was happening within him was the important thing. Something terrifying and majestic at the same time. He could not have explained it. He felt that his heart had leaped from this chest, and, opened up in that way, he was vulnerable, sensitive to everything, so that he might rejoice in anything, be cast down by anything, small or large, a butterfly, a leaf, boundless snow, or the depression rain falling on that very day. But all that – and the sky itself might fall down upon him – his heart endured, and could endure even more.