Reflections on my top Spotify plays of 2018

It’s the moment you’ve all been waiting for! I wonder why Spotify do this with over three weeks of the year still to go? Perhaps it is so that is isn’t overwhelmed by Christmas songs. And I wonder does the “year” therefore comprise 11 months and a little under a week?


This year I expected (yes, I have been thinking about this) that the influence of my children’s use of our Spotify would become apparent. To a degree it has, with the Greatest Showman soundtrack featuring heavily. I thought I expected George Ezra’s Shotgun to be way ahead of everything else, but it wasn’t.  

The top two are both songs (or perhaps more properly recordings) which I have tended to use to endeavour to get my children (and myself at times) to sleep. Number 2 is a recording by Gordon Hempton, Ocean Dreams, nearly an hour of ocean sound. I have listened to it in full waking as well as as a sleep aid, and it is quite an aural trip:

The number one is Ekkehard Ehlers’  Plays John Cassavetes 2. Based on a recurring sample from the Beatles’ “Goodnight” Again it’s a wonderful listen for non-sleep related purposes also! Here is a video of it on a one hour loop, if you have spare time after Ocean Dreams:

Number 3 is “HImlico’s Map”, with Mick Lally speaking over Shaun Davey’s music. This is the opening of Davey’s “The Pilgrim”, and also the opening of a playlist I put together called, um, The Pilgrim.


Here’s an extract from The Pilgrim sleeve notes:

Himlico’s Map: Colum Cille Leaves Derry. Mick Lally, Narrator and Helen Davies, metal-string harp. Himlico was a Carthaginian who was sent during the 6th or 5th century B.C. to explore the coastline of Western Europe. Although his original report is lost it is thought to form a basis of a poem by Avienus, a 4th century A.D. official of the Roman Empire. An extract from this, one of the earliest written descriptions of the Celts, is followed by three of a number of verses ascribed to Colum Cille at the time of his departure from Derry in the 6th century A.D.

Here is “Himlico’s Map / Colum Cille Leaves Derry” on YouTube, with a fairly trippy visual accompaniment:

OK, I’m not going to go through each one like this… honest. I do think the playlist is a fairly accurate reflection of what I listen to, although I have been listening to quite a bit of fairly honest-to-goodness guitar-based rock lately which hasn’t made it to this (nor has much by way of country, and only a few electronica). I also listen to a fair bit of the Beatles, Sinatra and Dylan, but possibly too diffuse a range of tracks for one to make it. I also have some playlists which are basically multiple versions of the same song or piece – for instance this one of various interpretations of Chopin’s Raindrop Prelude . Quite a few of these versions feature in my annual top 100. That probably pushes the classical percentage, already pretty high, even higher.

Spotify also produce a playlist called “Tastebreakers” which is supposedly “a playlist of songs from genres and artists you don’t normally explore” Whatever about the artists bit, I can’t say that the genres are unfamiliar. A fair bit of jazz, a fair bit of country, a fair bit of soundtracks … it isn’t that far from my familiar furrows.



Tim Miller on the Bush funeral and “the sad truth of public theatre”

At his blog Truth and Silence, Tim Miller has a post on the funeral of George H W Bush and what it reveals about the media and our culture..

We have a funny view of politicians. Someone once said that politics is the only profession in which every says they would prefer an amateur to a professional (it was phrased a lot more fluently than that)

As mentioned before I have been reading quite a bit of Edwin Friedman lately. It has provoked a lot of thought for me about leadership, responsibility, and the recurrent patterns of our relationships. It struck me how much is projected onto leaders. Personally, I have always felt I would vote for someone who announced “Public administration is complex and challenging. I don’t have all the answers. Also, there are lots of things I and any government cannot possibly control. I have principles, relevant experience, and will respectfully listen to expertise and respectfully listen to concerns and  complaints – but won’t promise blind obedience to experts or that I can solve every problem.”

Would such a candidate get any, or many votes? Would a political party with a platform of “we don’t know the exact answers, but we will do our best” get anywhere? It seems too trite to load onto politicians the freight of taking the brunt of the decline in influence of organised religion – although I have a feeling they may identify with this post on clergy burnout, for similar reasons.  

Leaders tend to be the landing place of many projections. And when disappointed, the electorate are unforgiving. To give one of many examples, it is reasonably safe to say that Tony Blair and Bertie Ahern are the most despised politicians of the recent past in Britain and Ireland respectively – yet both were the most successful electoral performers of the last twenty years.  Of course, both are despised for very specific things, but some of the intensity is surely due to the rage of our own self-projections proving fallible.

Behind the scenes it does seem most politicians are hard-working strivers trying to do their best and navigate the various competing interests (which, of course, includes you and me and our own interests)

Anyhow, Tim Miller captures this better than I am. Here are some bits I especially liked:

Many of these moments—at least the ones that are now fodder for Twitter and cable news (I put Twitter first on purpose)—are clearly staged to some extent. But it’s also true that many of these kinds of meetings and friendships are genuine. Yet the cynicism of the 2016 election, and the mistrust of public figures and public spectacle that has been going on for decades, begs the question of what is going on here. How can Al Gore be talking to such an evil man as Dick Cheney, and how can Dick Cheney be talking to such liberal scum as Al Gore? Isn’t this the very kind of hypocrisy that normal people despise in politicians? And for those who aren’t talking and are just in the same room together, how can Donald Trump sit so close to Hillary Clinton without doing all he can to finally lock her up? Are these forms of public spectacle just the highest examples of the contradiction and insincerity that lies at the heart of political and social life, or are they examples of what civilization actually is, that people who disagree usually come together, and in some cases are friends?

No one in my lifetime anyway has had the ability to change how politicians and public figures are presented; at best, they are only the manipulators of the media landscape they live in. If anything, Donald Trump merely picked up what was already on the ground and used it better than anyone ever has, and it’s doubtful he would have been elected if the ways we communicate and receive the news wasn’t already so degraded.

That very degradation cannot deal with the complexity and the actual truth that these powerful people embody: that those with vastly different visions for how the world should work just might get along, and that outside of the kinds of rallies and invective the media encourages and the public seems to want, the truth is actually much quieter. So the real sadness of watching George H. W. Bush’s funeral is this: that while the politicians, supposedly the most insincere people in the world, realize the complexity of their positions, the public at large does not.


…Even more powerless than the politicians to change how we interact with others and the world, we regular citizens blindly accept the public theater as actual reality and have ended up despising one another, and quite literally rupturing any sense of wholeness, or a shared soul. Gore and Cheney can talk peacefully, while voters who admire one or the other are proud to hate each other. For my part, I’ve stopped believing that the right or the left can possibly be as idiotic, ignorant, childish, or brutal as the anecdotes that make it onto Twitter or Reddit or cable news claim to show. That is not who we actually are, and while I never thought I’d say such a thing, it’s taken politicians to show me this.







The demands of silence

The demands of silence

On of the recurrent themes of this blog has been various writings – by others, by myself – on silence. Of course, all this verbal activity on silence carries with it a kind of hypocrisy. A lot of noise about silence! I’m aware of the irony, and the risks.

I’m aware, too, of the downside of silence – those who have been silenced, had silence forced on them. I’m aware that to be silent can be to condone injustice. A book I read some years ago which has been very helpful in this regard is The Elephant in the Room: Silence and Denial in Everyday Life by Eviatar Zerubavel, full of examples of how conspiracies of silence are maintained, often without any formal “conspiracy.”

One concept Zerubavel mentions (rather in passing if memory serves) is the “conspiracy of noise” – wherein we do not find silence but the opposite, noisy activity about everything except what matters.

This concept, along with this passage from George Steiner – “Silence is not the contrary of the Word but its guardian”, have helped me in resolving this tension between silence as a positive, life-enhancing experience and silence as oppression or repression.

I’ve been gradually making my way through Maggie Ross’ “Silence: A User’s Guide. It is full of good stuff, arresting stuff, stuff that makes me question some of my own habits and practices.

I do have one caveat, which is a nagging sense that perhaps Ross’ approach may make the best the enemy of the good. Her scorn for much nonsense about “mysticism” and “spirituality” is no doubt justified. Similarly the related scorn at the commodification and institutionalisation of an experiential process.

At times, however, the tone is a little like those three step I-You-He miniatures that Craig Brown (for one) has written (I have been try to recall what they might be called) in the form of:

I experience silence in the purest form
You have a rather superficial interest in the practice
He is a middle-class dillitante whose so-called spirituality is a mere commodity fetishism

Maybe a bit unfair to Ross, and no doubt she is right to be wary of romanticisation of monasticism and such. But it all seems rather harsh. Silence is a practice open to everyone (as Ross very clearly sets out – indeed even the term “practice” is too redolent of something forced)

It struck me today that silence has its own demands, ones that compete, usually unsuccessfully, with the demands of busy-ness and of the world. This is especially true as our culture becomes more and more always on, full of alerts and notifications.

I loved the Odon von Horvath quote – “I’m actually a quite different person, I just never get around to being him” featured in the post above. Which is of us, if we died tomorrow, would feel that the digital trace of our lives would be “me”, would sum us up, would capture our essence?

Silence is somewhere we encounter our essence. This encounter can have explicitly religious elements, or not This is an encounter, increasingly, that it takes specific effort to have. Our default is becoming noise and the vigilance of alerts (of course, there is a vigilance and threat with silence – a deeper threat indeed)

We also need to remember that “silence of the heart is much more important than silence of the mouth” and that a certain humility with regard to our own efforts is crucial. Absolute silence is probably physiologically unobtainable, indeed much of the discourse on silence is really about freedom from humanly-created noise.

In this context, we need to remember that Silence has its own demands. Just as sleep is something we need to consciously facilitate against various pressures of modernity, despite its “naturalness”, we no longer just experience silence but have to be open to its demands. To take things full circle, “the silent are never at home in our culture again”

Os Guinness on suffering in the digital age

The Table podcast features an interview with Os Guinness by Evan Rosa. Os Guinness is indeed the great-great-grandson of Arthur Guinness. This hasn’t exactly insulated him from suffering – two of his younger brothers died in famine in China (which as he alludes to in the excerpt from the transcript . This interview is a thought-provoking and at times difficult listen (Rosa reads a painful-to-listen-to section from Elie Wiesel early on)



I wonder if we could talk for a bit about your take on suffering in contemporary society, the trouble that we experience. For many of us, technology brings suffering closer than we’d normally be familiar with.

Of course, there’s the kind of life suffering that happens to just anyone, but the news cycle, and I suppose the very concept of feeding people’s almost wanton desire for the suffering of others that comes through Facebook. I comes through social media, Twitter feeds, and so forth. There’s a kind of consistency of the cycle of suffering.

I wonder what you think about this phenomenon of being exposed to so much evil and suffering, so that we’re constantly aware. Yet, what can be done about it?

Os: The way I put it— and I have a chapter on this— is that modernity has transformed evil and suffering. When you look at what’s happening in the world, people say we’re allowing more evil.

You take the fact that, say, 100 million killed in war, 100 million under political repression in the 20th century, and another 100 million in ethnic and sectarian violence. That’s incredible. Does that mean that people are more evil than before? I don’t think so. We’re the same old sinners as ever, but the fact is modernity minimizes pain.

If you take, say, the invention of anesthesia or, in 1899, the patenting of aspirins, historians say around 1900, for the first time in history, an adult in the developed world could live without any pain the whole of their life.

The downside is many modern people, certainly Americans, are very unrealistic about suffering. All they see is virtual suffering. Maybe, when someone in the family dies, they see them in hospital, surrounded with technology, and so on. I grew up in China. My two brothers died in a terrible famine. I saw hundreds of dead people before I was 10.

That’s actually much more typical of the premodern world. You think of infant mortality. Our Queen Anne had 14 children, all of whom died as children. She was the queen! That gave you a realism about life. The rest of the transformations are dark. You think of the transformation of destructiveness.

There’s things like the distancing or the diffusion of responsibility and the division of labor. Things like this that say, “Auschwitz was run like Volkswagen and the other chemical factories in Germany.” You say, “P‑29 bombers, if I see you in the white of the eye two feet from me, I’ll kill you.”

There’s a human element there that makes it much more real than pressing a button at 29,000 feet and obliterating a city. Drone strikes, civilian casualties, and so on.

Evan: Targets on a screen like a video game.

Os: Exactly. Dostoevsky predicted that science would outlaw compassion. What we’ve seen in the 20th century and now is that traditional categories like good/bad, right/wrong have been squeezed out as being relativistic.

What people have noticed is that the instinctive human ways of responding, a community hugging people who are suffering or giving meals to the homeless and so on, is overwhelmed by flying in grief counselors and telling us we’ve got to go through six steps of mourning, or else we haven’t really done it the right way. All the experts and the specialists.

You remember Columbine?

Evan: Yeah, I do.

Os: Compare that with Andy Murray, the great Scottish tennis player. He was four in the Dunblane massacre. In the response to that, the queen went up and just hugged the children and the families. In Columbine, that was the first response, and then in came hundreds of grief counselors, and mourning specialists, and all those.

You can see that just the simple human ways are being pushed to the side with science outlawing compassion, as Dostoevsky warned. Modernity has transformed both evil and suffering. They’re different but enormously. Followers of Jesus we begin with realism, because of the fall. The world has gone wrong.

If you look at evil as a whole, the worst evils are done by utopians. The trouble is the gap between the utopian ideal that we think is there and reality is so great there’s only one way to fill it, with force and violence. That’s why utopians actually create the worst evil.

The second worst are the dualists. Those people who think, “I’m good, you’re bad.” “We’re good, they’re bad.” If we’re good we can treat the baddies any way that puts them down. That’s incredibly destructive, too. Obviously, Christians can be prone to that if they’re not careful.

I remember the famous story of a Scottish preacher, Murray M’Cheyne, who was congratulated by a lady after a great sermon. He turned to her quite sharply, and said, “Madam, if you could see into my heart, you might spit in my face.” In other words, he knew his heart was as rotten as anyone he might be talking about, and I quote, “sinner” in Dundee where he lived.

Incidentally there is good evidence that automatically providing “debriefing” counselling after a disaster is not a good idea.

Via the everfascinating Pilgrimage in Medical Ireland blog here is a post on pilgrimage to St Declan’s Holy Well, Ardmore, Waterford featuring footage from 1910

The footage is from the IFI Archive, and was taken by the Horgan Brothers – other fascinating films by the three brothers can be viewed on the IFI Player. :

The Horgan Brothers’ films (1910- 1920) are some of the earliest moving images made in Ireland. Brothers George, James and Thomas Horgan began their careers in the late 19th century in Youghal, Co. Cork as shoemakers and photographers. They ran magic lantern shows in Youghal and in the surrounding villages and townlands. From 1900, following the success of their photographic studio and magic lantern shows, James Horgan began to use a motion picture camera to capture current events and their local community. In 1917 the brothers opened the purpose-built 600-seat cinema The Horgan Picture Theatre in Youghal, where they screened The Youghal Gazette – their local topical newsreel featuring events of local interest – along with contemporary international feature films. This practise was not uncommon among early cinema owners – who would frequently film events (such as fairs, processions etc) which were well-attended by locals thereby guaranteeing a full house of people keen to see themselves on the big screen . The Horgans experimented with photography and models and the collection includes the earliest surviving Irish animation which dates from about 1910. It features the Youghal Town Hall Clock standing on its head and pirouetting in place.

Review of “The Raw Shark Texts”, Steven Hall

A book from way back in 2007 which I initially reviewed for Nthposition and then a slightly different form on SF Site.

A relatively grumpy review. From his Wikipedia page, it seems Steven Hall’s main focus now is writing for games and ads such as Nike’s “The Last Game.” Which about fits.

Edgar Allen Poe was once described by James Russell Lowell as “three-fifths genius, two-fifths sheer fudge” (and who reads James Russell Lowell today, one might ask?). It might be a stretch to call any segment of The Raw Shark Texts genius, but the second three-fifths certainly pass the fudge test. The first 130 pages, however, are gripping. “Gripping” is one of those over-used terms of critical (or indeed sub-critical, being largely a staple of the blurb writer) praise, but every so often a piece of prose exerts a physical power to keep one reading. The Raw Shark Texts has this in spades, until typographic tricksiness and rather stale pseudo-avant garde ideas about texts and communication intervene.

We begin with Eric Sanderson. He wakes in an ordinary yet unfamiliar suburban house to a new life, in the literal sense of dissociative amnesia. He finds a card from “The First Eric Sanderson,” the man he was, giving him directions to a local psychologist, Dr. Randle. She tells him he has dissociative amnesia, and in a neat scene explains the condition very well:

Can you give me a line from Casablanca?” (asked Dr. Randle)
“A line from Casablanca”
I was in danger of being seriously left behind but I did what I was told.
“‘Of all the gin joints in all the world, she has to walk into mine.'”
“Good,” Randle nodded. “And who says that?”

“Bogart. Rick. The character or the actor?”
“It doesn’t matter. Can you picture him saying it?”
“Is the film in colour or in black and white?”
“It’s black and white. He’s sitting with a drink at…”
“And when was the last time you saw Casablanca?”
My mouth opened and an almost-sound happened in the back of my throat. But I didn’t have an answer.
“You see? All that seems to be missing, Eric, is you.”

The Raw Shark Texts is generally written in a rather matey, blokey style. In the beginning, this is part of the appeal, reinforcing the what-if-this-was-me effect that most adventure stories evoke. However, as the book comes by, and especially as the mythological and semiotic baggage gets heavier (more of which anon), the style grates. At first, however, it captures perfectly the suburban dullness of Sanderson’s house and town:

I walked over to the bedroom window. The outside world was a long street and a facing row of terraced houses. There were regular lamp posts, irregular telegraph posts and the sounds of a distant busy road — constant car engine hum, truck band-clatter and occasional bass box thump, but — I squashed my nose up against the glass and looked left and right — no people. It was a cloudy day, grey and edgeless.

Apparently it’s been claimed on the internet that Sanderson’s house is in Derby, England.

Dr. Randle attempts to counsel Eric, but further postings from the First Eric Sanderson warn him off the increasingly sinister psychologist. I don’t want to set the scene too much more, as these early chapters, with their sense of menace amidst mundanity, are by far the best of the book. In the early films of M. Night Shyamalan, the thrill was seeing a hoary comic-book conceit worked out in humdrum everyday life. In Unbreakable, we saw what having superhuman powers might mean in everyday, dull life. What holds the attention so viscerally in the early pages of The Raw Shark Texts is how closely Eric Sanderson’s attempts to make sense of his life tally with our own attempts to make sense of what is going.

Reviewers of the book have gone straight to the multiplex (the headline of Tom McCarthy’s generally approving review in the London Review of Books) in search of anchors of comparison. On the blurb, we have Mark Haddon pronouncing it “the bastard love-child of The Matrix, Jaws and The Da Vinci Code” while other anonymous critics invoke Jaws, Donnie Darko and Memento. A particularly hysterical Scotsman raves “Steven Hall’s brilliance aspires to Bach”, which is putting it pretty steep. As McCarthy observes in the LRB, the book reads like a movie treatment, and a less than innovative one in these post-Matrix days when Reality Is Not What It Seems has become one of the great clichés.

The slew of movie comparisons provides a clue as to why I felt so let down by The Raw Shark Texts. The 130 pages read like watching Memento — the heady sense of disorientation accompanying the gradual development of personal theories about what the hell is going on. “Tricksy” isn’t always a pejorative term, and Memento showed how a hoary old convention — the “experimental” or “non-linear” narrative — can sometimes enhance a plot, especially what is essentially a mystery or whodunnit. The problem is, Memento told a fundamentally simple story of lost love and of corruption. The Raw Shark Texts includes a simple story of lost love and bereavement, but actually tells a story of conceptual sharks.

Yes, you can’t beat an old conceptual shark story, can you? As an aside, I’m not ruining anything by telling you that Jaws is referenced and more than referenced pretty heavily throughout the book. These sharks are virtual and yet not virtual, for the world itself is virtual. Virtual sharks are made from bits and pieces of the detritus of human interactions. Eric is cursed by, or rather with, a Ludovician. A Ludovician is the Great White of the conceptual shark world, feasting on memories and thoughts belonging to a vulnerable mind.

How does the Ludovician manifest itself in The Raw Shark Texts? Firstly, in the relatively old fashioned means of purplish prose:

The dark shape glides up into the flow of conversations and stories, swims through the word-hum of packed Saturday night bars, circles the loops and edges of exchanged mobile numbers.
A telephone call is misdialed and, miles away, my unconscious self shifts in sleep, disturbed by a ringing bell.
From four degrees of separation, the shadow under the water catches the scent. A curved, rising signifier, a black idea fin of momentum and intent cuts through the distance between us in a spray of memes.

Heavy, eh? But more directly, we get to see the Ludovician, as well as a variety of less fearsome conceptual fish, in textual format. In the manner of the self-conscious conceptual cul-de-sac that was concrete poetry, pages and pages of the book are festooned with gobbets of text made up to look like sharks.

There is a sterility to these typographical experiments that leaks into the human story of the book. Once you’ve seen one shark made up of characters on the page, you’ve seen them all. Readers who persist with The Raw Shark Texts and who, like me, are tiring somewhat of the whole proceedings can be of good cheer. Towards the end — just at the stage when you have read so far that ’tis more tedious to go back than to go o’er — we are treated to 40-odd nearly blank pages. Blank except for flick-book style representations of a looming shark coming closer and closer.

To return to the plot, once the conceptual sharks appear, the taut mystery of the early pages disappears, and we embark on a rather tedious exercise in a thriller of memes. Essentially, Eric Sanderson goes in search of Dr. Trey Fidorous, a supposed expert in the conceptual shark world. His search is aided by Scout, a girl of the irritating pseudo-sassiness with which male writers encumber their attempts at strong young female characters with. It turns out that Scout has been stricken with Mycroft Ward. Mycroft Ward (note the hat-tip to Mycroft Holmes) was a Victorian who vowed to cheat death. This proved physically impossible but psychically quite straightforward — Ward cataloguing the key aspects of his persona, and then transferring them to a widowed doctor, who in later life began to repeat the process with two other subjects. The personality of Mycroft Ward begins to take over more and more people, and becomes an online entity, a gigantic self feasting off the selves of others. The only thing that can destroy Ward is the Ludovician. Imaginative readers can perhaps work out the terms of the final, Jaws-influenced climactic battle. Baffled readers will probably never bother finding out.

The mythical ballast is as heavy as the conceptual one. The first Eric’s girlfriend is called Clio (muse of memory, don’t you know) The tender, funny, ordinary love story sequences are set on Naxos, where Theseus abandoned Ariadne. There’s a boat called the Orpheus. Was it Philip Larkin who objected to the lazy use of classical allusion to evoke what should properly be described? Hall is trying too hard to give his love story some resonance, to act as a balance to the conceptual sharks and Mycroft Ward and such. It may make more sense in the multiplex, where the conceptual sharks may find their natural home in the world of CGI, but on the page they remind one once again that the avant-garde tricks of the early 20th century were an artistic blind alley. The genie’s bottle that is Reality Is Not What It Seems is a little like the “It Was All A Dream” ending that all schoolchildren are taught to avoid for their stories — it imposes a narrative sterility, making it hard to take anything entirely seriously. When everything is possible, nothing is at stake. When nothing is at stake, all the fish in the conceptual ocean won’t make your story interesting.

(This review first appeared on

Are Daffodils a native Irish flower?

The thought occurred to me randomly, and wasn’t sorted out by a few seconds of Ecosia searching (but it’s not Google) – only this article by Dick Warner from 2011:

I know that the hundreds of varieties of cultivated daffodil have been bred from Narcissus pseudonarcissus, the European wild daffodil. What I wasn’t sure about was the status of the wild daffodil in Ireland.

So I went on the internet — spent quite a lot of time on it — and ended up baffled and confused. One reputable site informed me that wild daffodils were a rather rare and declining species in Britain but were not native to northern Scotland or Ireland.

Another, equally reputable, claimed that they were native to Ireland, though rather rare, and there was even a mention of a woodland site where they grow in Co Kilkenny.

So what’s the story?

Perhaps they are not native here but have been introduced at some time in the past to brighten up estate woodlands in spring.

Or perhaps the daffodils that grow ‘wild’ along river banks and in some woodlands are actually cultivated varieties that have naturalised and reverted to a simpler form. Or perhaps, and this happens quite often, someone was reading a British textbook and came across the word ‘native’ and assumed it applied to Ireland. If any botanists out there know the correct answer I’d love to hear it.

I would love to too. Incidentally I cannot endorse Warner’s view that Wordsworth’s “Daffodils” is “awful.” Overfamiliar perhaps, like the Mona Lisa, but not awful.