Sunday, March 26, 2006

The Sea by John Banville

I recently finished this book by the Irish author, John Banville, whose brother Vincent (also an author writing under the name Vincent Lawrence) taught me mathematics many years ago in St. Joseph's School in Fairview. The story is about a man, Max Morden, whose wife dies of cancer. Following her death, he returns to the seaside town in Wexford where he spent his childhood holidays. It is written in flashback style and moves effortlessly and seamlessly from the present and the death of his wife to his childhood memories. It also deals with his very difficult relationship with his daughter. There is also a hidden tragedy lurking in the book that shocks when it is encountered.

This is a most beautiful book. What particularly struck me about it was the quality of the language and the imagery used. It is almost old-fashioned in its respect for language. Morden's parents had a difficult relationship and eventually the father left them, which caused great resentment in the child that lasted in the man. He captures the tensions perhaps felt by many men, however, when he speaks of his father taking the train down to their holiday retreat "in a wordless fury, bearing the frustrations of his day like so much luggage clutched in his clenched fists." How many men come home from work every evening feeling exactly that sense of frustration from their day? In similar vein, he later asks, "Are not the majority of men disappointed with their lot, languishing in quiet desperation in their chains."

Coming to terms with his wife's impending demise, Morden could see on all sides "portents of mortality." "My life", he says, "seemed to be passing before me, not in a flash as it is said to do for those about to drown, but in a sort of leisurely convulsion, emptying itself of its secrets and its quotidian mysteries in preparation for the moment when I must step into the black boat on the shadowed river with the coin of passage cold in my already coldening hand." What absolutely marvellous use of language, resplendent with mythical echoes!

Recalling his marriage to Anna, his wife, when so many people today decide not to marry, he says, "Today, when only the lower orders and what remains of the gentry bother to marry, and everybody else takes a partner, as if life were a dance, or a business venture, it is perhaps hard to appreciate how vertiginous a leap it was back then to plight one's troth." What a lovely observation on current attitudes to marriage in contrast to the excitement of many years ago.

Talking of God, he says, "Given the world that he created, it would be an impiety against God to believe in him." A simple observation, but worth of consideration, nevertheless.

The traumatic events revealed in the book and the subsequent uncovering of the complete mysteries of the story make this a delightful read. The story is so beautifully constructed and so eloquently told that this book was, without doubt, a worthy winner of the Man Booker Prize 2005. Banville himself, I think, called it a "little book." In my view it is a little book that everybody should read and that should also be on the school curriculum. It is a long time since I have read such a beautifully written book. Reading it on the train while commuting to work, I suffered the embarrasment, on more than one occasion, of having to wipe a small tear from the corner of my eye.

When language has become so debased through the utilitarianism of business; the equivocation of politicians; the "spin" of advisors; texting; electronic mail, and the vulgarity of much modern discourse, it is no small pleasure indeed to read a truly eloquent novel.

Derry City

I spent a few days in Derry this week at a conference. Before I went I had been given the impression that it was a pretty boring city but I have to say that I was pleasantly surprised at what I found there.

Derry lies on Lough Swilly, into which the Foyle river flows. It nestles in a valley between two highlands and one can almost get the sense of threat that this location must have presented in the past. The lough and the river are really beautiful and it must be beautiful in summer.

Derry's city walls are a major attraction and they are quite impressive. I walked around them and got a sense of the history of the city and how people must have lived there. Of course, the famous historical event was the siege of Derry, which lasted for 105 days from 1688 to 1689 and is now commemorated by the annual Apprentice Boys' March.

Inside the walls are some lovely little streets with quaint shops in them. They reminded me of some of the places I have seen in continental Europe. Lovely little shops and apartments with elevated walkways make it almost a magical little enclave and haven from the large housing estates outside the walls.

On one side of the walls lie the Waterside and Fountaine, largely loyalist areas and on the other the Bogside, a largely nationalist area. Being from southern Ireland, I decided to visit the Bogside and look at some of the murals there that commemorate the events of the conflict in Northern Ireland since 1969. Although they portray a sectarian past, it is hard not to be impressed by them. They are a feature of both the Catholic and protestant pasts in Derry (or Londonderry, as the loyalists call it) and they really are interesting.

I decided to call into the Bogside Inn for a pint or two and, while I was not greeted by the locals or bade a fair welcome, I was at least left alone to enjoy my pints in peace. The walls of the pub have a gallery of excellent black and white photographs depicting scenes from the troubles: British soldiers attacking the Bogside and being repulsed by local youths; a bearded and youthful Martin McGuinness and friends leaning against a car holding a Tricolour; soldiers roughing up locals; crowds marching and rioting; Bill Clinton visiting the area; houses and buildings lying in ruins and razeds to the ground. One chilling picture showed several coffins lined up and I wondered what chilling event they were the sad result of but did not venture to ask. The photography is excellent and, once again, one can get a sense of the history of the place. I think one can also see why it is so real for so many people, even still.

I looked at the small group of men in the Bogside Inn: mostly middle-aged or old men. They were watching the horse racing on several huge televisions and, quite incongruously in my view, also watching Countdown on Channel 4 and answering the questions! They were almost all smoking.

I imagined what these men might have been at some 35 years ago - almost 40 now. Were they the children on the streets? Were the older ones the gunmen hiding in the shadows? Maybe so. But is sure was good to see them doing what old men do: having a few pints, betting on the horses and talking the usual rubbish you hear in pubs. Far better than shooting, bombing and mayhem.

There was one sour note to my visit, however. I went to the Metro Bar with a colleague one night and the staff could not have been nicer or more friendly to us. Sadly, we were faced with sectarian bitterness and hatred from one customer.
What shocked me was that she was a beautiful blonde girl, perhaps in her mid twenties. My colleague, a chap from the Falls Road in Belfast, offered her his hand in friendship after she uttered a sectarian insult to us, but she spurned his offer.

How sad for such a young person to still harbour sectarian bitterness and irrational hatred of people, simply because of their religion. And this some ten years after the first ceasefires and the start of the peace process. Well, someone bred this hatred into this otherwise beautiful girl. Sadly, her face was twisted with the bitterness in her heart and it showed in the tightly stretched lips, the jaw clenched and the eyes filled with contempt for us, but particularly for my decent friend. Her companion - a very pleasant girl of a mixed marriage - apologised to us for her behaviour and we appreciated this nice gesture. Nevertheless, we decided to leave the bar rather than be confronted by this type of sectarianism.

But I would definitely recommend the Metro Bar, nevertheless. The staff were so nice, particularly a very nice brunette lady who looked after us most of the night. We enjoyed the place. We also visited the Strand Bar as well and this was also a good and friendly place. And for excellent drink and food at the keenest prices, Weatherspoons on the Diamond is worth a visit.

There is a nice war memorial here to the fallen of the first and second world wars.

Although Derry is part of Northern Ireland - and there is something quite British about Northern Ireland towns in my view - it has a very Southern Ireland feel to it. There is something about it that reminds me of my regular experience in the Republic.

All in all, I found Derry to be a very nice city and would be glad to visit again. The surrounding countryside is beautiful and, of course, it is only a stone's throw from beautiful Donegal.

The drive up from Dublin is probably about three and a half to four hours, without stops, and depending on traffic. Unfortunately, much of the road beyond Ardee is single carriageway and it can be difficult to overtake. And on the way back, it took me at least 20 minutes to get through Castleblaney and as long to get through Monaghan. Despite this, however, it is a visit well worth the making. I recommend it highly .