Did I ever tell you I met Colm Toibin?


This isn’t one of those articles that goes on to publicise a new biography and isn’t even a claim to fame. It is just a coincidence, or if you were to believe such things, serendipitous.

We had wandered to the central library in New York to admire the lofty ceiling of the foyer and found a small crowd standing listening to none other than CT.

His books were new to me, and Brooklyn, the first but magnificent introduction.
I was given Brooklyn by a very erudite nun, Elizabeth Strub. A wise woman who spoke to us in honeyed American tones. I know I was impressed at the time, but now of course would have to look again what her topics was. To do with love, for sure and a person’s duty viz a viz their fellows to do everything in their power to mitigate injustice, hunger, cruelty. Fired by her at the time but slithered back to old ways now, with other people and their problems a mere worrying crease in the brow.
I will be forever grateful for having my eyes opened to CT’s luminous, delicate prose.

CT spoke of the Testament of Mary with a rather angry contingent. His stage adaptation of the novella was being performed in N Y. And a woman took great exception to the imagery. He answered with such grace till eventually rescued by his interviewer and the talk moved on.

New Ways to Kill Your Mother


New Ways to Kill Your Mother is an amusing title and choosing it may have been Freudian, an Oedipal take on complex issues, but this behind the scenes look at the family relationships of literati makes good reading.

Colm Toibin, close observer of foibles and subtleties in relationships, writes with affection about the writers he has chosen for NWTKYM, Irish in the main for the first part.  The political background is as riveting as the family tensions. Private letters reveal petty jealousies visited on gifted offspring and even between the ‘greats’, leaving a desire to revisit the work in the light of these personal disclosures and to read hitherto unknown (by me) work.

There is analysis of the way an author chooses to depict fathers and mothers, whether fictional or their own.  Intentionally or not, the writer often reveals more of himself than of the parent, so it  becomes a dramatisation of the secret self. Or, a wider relationship is revealed becoming a metaphor for political differences that divide families and foster betrayal especially when a country is divided by war.

Betrayal comes in many forms from denial of mother-tongue to enforcement of it, control of those deemed suitable companions, control of activities deemed suitable. But when a father betrays a son he violates the oldest law on earth. It may be a political statement but it underlines deep schism, a flaw of character or a national trait.

On reading NWTKYM a final piece in the jigsaw of a novel I’ve tried to write fell into place. I know the novel is about families and identity but I had not fully grasped, how much more it is about betrayal.  What this says of my secret self, I am not sure.

The second part of the NWTKYM branches out into new ways to spoil your children. Fascinating.


The Gathering


I have been reading Anne Enright’s The Gathering, winner of the Man Booker Prize 2007.  Bit late, you might think and I would agree.  Impossible now to plug the gaping holes in my reading but like the little Dutch boy attempting to prevent disaster, I keep trying.

Enright examines  memory almost as a good Catholic examines conscience, at times with  gleeful detachment, at others with ensuing guilt, with the innocence of an eight year old and with the grief of a grown woman reassessing her life after the suicide of  her brother as the family gather for the wake.

The book is tender and subtle, as Colm Toibin says, but I am no judge if Enright’s vision of Ireland is ‘brave and original.’  It is an Ireland of thirty years ago, of seventy and of now, of her dreams, of her making and of her ancestry.

The book is about love and disappointment and is  beautiful and quite brilliant, as Joseph O’ Connor says.




In Praise of Fiona Shaw


Colm Toibin discussing the novella The Testament of Mary, patiently and charmingly made clear that once a book is published and out in the world it is out of the author’s hands as a woman repeatedly took him to task over the imagery used to advertise the play made from the novella and starring Fiona Shaw. It was the crown of thorns across her mouth I think  she objected to.

Fiona Shaw’s face behind the crown of thorns used as a gag is disturbing and arresting. Perhaps she just has a strong face but it makes her look like Christ.
She was a tour de force in the Testament of Mary stage production at the Barbican but I preferred the less mad Mary I had envisioned from reading the book. Somewhere between the two, perhaps.

The Guardian, Tuesday 20 May 2014 23.33 BST

‘Among the many fine things to come out of Cork are crubeens (pigs’ trotters), the short-story writers Frank O’Connor and Sean Ó Faoláin and the actor Fiona Shaw; the last is displaying her characteristic sense of adventure on stage in The Testament of Mary. In line with the demands of Colm Tóibín’s original novella, Shaw presents us with a mother of Christ who is, by turns, angry, sceptical, guilt-ridden and grief-stricken, and who fiercely resents the appropriation of her son. This is typical of a restlessly exploratory career that, in tandem with director Deborah Warner, has led Shaw to play an emotionally arrested Richard II, a biliously pregnant Hedda Gabler and an unusually resilient Mother Courage. Some actors take the stage by default; Shaw invariably takes it by storm and is unafraid to make bold choices and bare both body and soul. In an age of cross-gender casting, one has to speculate on what she’d be like as King Lear.’

The Power of the Internet


Thanks to Margaret Hall for her research and knowledge and for translating the inscription on this  baby’s grave.

Not knowing anything about who or why the inscription, dating from the middle of the 19th century, should appear to be runic, I thought perhaps the death of a baby son was a subject too painful to put in ordinary words.

Colm Toibin captures the feeling in The Testament of Mary. His Mary is still too traumatised even years after, to say her son’s name out loud.

“Making use of all the ideas and resources posted so far — thank you Kevin Ferguson for that table of bardic runes! — my best guess is as follows:

Y. G.

Note: C and K can be interchangeable, and there is no Roman numeral K, so I’ve assumed it stands for C = 100)

Y.G. must be a Welsh abbreviation, possibly meaning something like “here lies” or “the grave of”, but I’m guessing.

The next two lines seem to be “Ioan, baby of Ioan ab Huw”.
“ab Huw” being the Welsh for “Huw’s son”. So it seems to be the grave of a baby whose father was a doctor, also called Ioan.

The next part should be a date because III must be “3” and “dd” is equivalent to “rd” in English, so “3dd” or “trydydd”, ie “third”. Then the Roman numerals work out as 1840. Unfortunately, there is no Welsh month beginning with “O”, though I wouldn’t put it past Gorffennaf to have mutated! Otherwise it could be October if they used English for the date.

If anyone has any better ideas, however, please post!”

The link can be followed here, should you care to. https://plus.google.com/+HanniParker/posts/LMYiF7teK3G