Archive for June, 2009

Rita Keane (1923-2009) R.I.P.

June 30, 2009

I wish that my great enthusiasm for the art of Irish traditional singing were matched my by an ability to talk knowledgably about the genre and its practitioners. If it were, then I’d still not be waiting to see in print a considered obituary for the great Irish singer Rita Keane who died in the early hours of Monday morning. I’d be writing it myself.

 In the meantime, and until something better comes along here is how The Irish Times has marked the passing of this remarkable singer.

 RITA KEANE, an internationally acclaimed traditional singer and member of one of Galway’s best-known musical families, has died. She was 86.

Ms Keane, an aunt of singers Seán and Dolores Keane, was regarded as one of the most influential traditional singers of the past half century or more.

Three years ago Rita, along with her older sister Sarah, were awarded the TG4 Lifetime Achievement Award in recognition of their outstanding contribution to traditional music and song.

Sarah Keane continues to live in Galway.

Their careers began more than 60 years ago in a céilí band which involved the wider Keane family.

The pair came to national and, later, international prominence through their highly acclaimed album, Once I Loved, a collection of songs in Irish and English recorded in 1968.

It took almost 20 years before their second collection of songs was released in the mid-1980s, At the Setting of the Sun.

Several well-known musicians and singers have paid tribute to the Keane sisters for having a major influence on them, including Paddy Maloney of the Chieftains.


Michael Jackson (1958- 2009)

June 29, 2009

Over the last four days, there has been a lot media time given over to discussing the life and death of Michael Jackson. So much in fact that one cannot help feeling that there is something in what this reader of The Guardian reader says

Shame on the Guardian for downgrading its online coverage of the Iranian election crisis in favour of a disproportionate amount of comment on the death of Michael Jackson. It would appear that all that is necessary for the triumph of evil is that good men are distracted by the death of a once-great entertainer.
Richard Baker

Clive James for Oxford Professor of Poetry? 3

June 26, 2009

In a posting yesterday, I suggested a good reason for Clive James’s being elected vacant post of professor of poetry at Oxford. An article by Boyd Tonkin in today’s edition of The Independent reminds me that there are things which may well – and possibly rightly –work against his candidacy.  His coming from the cosiness of a ‘literary London’ that now appears to be as smug and self-satisfied as any part of the establishment it once pitted itself against

Tonkin quite rightly takes a swipe at this  ‘Literary London’,  this “idea of a quasi-masonic cabal of metropolitan taste-makers”, that James – against his better instincts, I think – helped to foster.

Fresh from Sydney and Cambridge, he began to contribute to The Review and The New Review. Those magazines, stringently edited by Ian Hamilton for 15 years after 1962, wrote a stylish valedictory chapter to the story of a cohesive “literary London”. Hamilton’s own hawk-eyed, hard-muscled poetry – which Craig Raine sketched as “the laconic lifting into lyric. Tight-lipped. Vulnerable. Irresistible” – has now been gathered by editor Alan Jenkins into an exemplary complete edition, with an incisive preface (Collected Poems; Faber, £14.99).

In scores of essays, as well as via the comic sidelights of his memoir North Face of Soho, James has kept faith with Hamilton’s model of the exacting editor-writer as incorruptible gate-keeper. This stern custodian of values would turn the key only for a few rigorously chosen newcomers (Amis, Barnes, Paulin, Raine and James among them).

One can hear that fond longing for a time when a tiny handful of tough-minded selectors laid down the law echo through James’s lastest entertaining harvest of articles and reviews, The Revolt of the Pendulum: essays 2005-2008 (Picador, £15.99). Near the end comes a tribute to the late agent Pat Kavanagh – very much Hamilton’s no-nonsense counterpart in her neck of the woods.

Revealingly, James comments that “the literary world in London is quite small and everyone knows everyone”. Sorry, Clive: it isn’t any longer, and they don’t. Shorn of fulcrum figures such as Hamilton, today’s messier map has multiple addresses, with some doors open wider than before. However noble the old arbiters, we should not mourn the change. “Literary London” is dead. Long live literature in London.

This brings up the question of whether or not one of the great apologists for the “old arbiters” is necessarily the right man for the Oxford professorship. Personally, I think he still is, but I’m very sure that I meet who’ll disagree.

Clive James for Oxford Professor of Poetry? 2

June 25, 2009

Nearly a month ago, while noting that The Observer’s literary editor said that his paper was supporting Clive James for Oxford Professor of Poetry, I remarked that, while James would not have been “among my choices of candidate the first time around”, I could “see that this time around he’s a very good one.”

It is rumoured that my near-contemporary and fellow-countryman, the Irish poet and scholar, Bernard O’Donoghue, now favours James for the post

“I’d like Clive James” the poet is reported as saying. “He’s a big name and he lectures very well. This post now needs a big name.” I’d be none too certain that I’d want to see James get the post because he’s a “big name”, but I do think that the fact that “he lectures very well” is something that is taken into account as a qualification.

If anybody has any doubt about  just how well James talks about poetry, then they should be  be on the lookout for the July issue of Poetry in which he discusses,  among other  topics, James Merrill,  free versus formal verse,  some of the things make poems last, and the work of the late Michael Donaghy, to whose simultaneously published The Shape of the Dance: Essays, Interviews and Digressions  and  Collected Poems, (Picador) he recently contributed a seven-page introduction which did for Donaghy what The Guardian called the “useful job of writing him back into the story of recent American poetry”.

Cooley & Romani translate Neri.

June 24, 2009

My good friend Martha Cooley and her husband, Antonio Romani, are currently working together on translating the collected poems of Giampiero Neri into English.  Here, in a short piece for the this year’s  Manhattanville College Writer’s Program Blog, she reflects on some the lessons she, as primarily a fiction writer, has learned along the way.



“Is that how you’d say ‘for sure’ in Italian?”

“What does ‘cheer’ mean in English—not in the ‘hurrah’ sense but the sense having to do with a pleasant feeling?”

“What does ‘Liberty’ mean, in this line here?  What—a decorative style?  Well, why don’t Italians use ‘Art Deco’ instead of something so silly-sounding?”

 The foregoing are snippets of conversations between myself and my Italian co-translator.  We’re translating the collected poems of a wonderful Italian poet, Giampiero Neri, who has just published a new volume of poetry, Paesaggi Inospiti (Inhospitable Landscapes) at the age of 81.  Lauded in his homeland but little-known in the United States, Neri writes about what he calls the “natural theater”: nature’s quiet stage, incessantly dramatic and mysterious.  In his quietly moving poems, natural and human actors coexist, often uneasily, in settings of beauty, folly, and cruelty.  

 The work of translation is sometimes maddening and always stimulating.  I speak good but not fluent Italian; my co-translator speaks good but not fluent English.  We’ve spent countless hours talking about the imperfect tense, prepositions, slang, and context (some of Neri’s poems allude to the Second World War).  And we talk all the time about sound: the poems’ music in Italian, and how to convey it in English.

 My co-translator also happens to be my husband.  Added to the experience of translation is thus that of deepening our linguistic, cultural, and emotional bonds.  We marvel at how much we’ve learned about our separate languages, about ourselves, and about poetry—and how entertaining the education’s been for us both. 

 I’m a fiction writer who’s written poetry since I was a teenager but have published very little of it.  I consider myself a constant (in the joint senses of continuous and loyal) apprentice-poet.  As a novelist and story-maker, I cannot imagine producing my own work without reading poetry regularly: it’s always in my head and ears.  And as a teacher, I’m forever urging my fiction students to read more poetry—to read it aloud, read it daily, read it to other people (or to domestic animals, if humans can’t be drummed up).  Everything a fiction writer needs to know about selection of details, about compression, and about diction can be found in poetry.  Plus so, so much else…

 Because Neri often writes prose-poems, my task as a translator sometimes seems simpler than it might otherwise.  This makes me realize that fiction writers as well as poets ought to practice the art of translating poetry.  A fiction writer who speaks, say, a reasonable amount of French might want to have a go at the prose-poems of Baudelaire; a Spanish speaker might want to try translating Gabriela Mistral.  Working with a fellow-translator (spouse, friend, or amiable stranger—amiability’s important, as arguments are likely!) is exhilarating.  And for the writer of fiction, what’s learned is sure to be multifaceted and long-lasting, as poet-translators have known all along.

 A translation by Martha Cooley and Antonio Romani of  Neri’s poem Pseudocavallo [Pseudohorse] can be found in AGNI 69, Spring 2009.

 I have not yet got my hands on the Spring issue AGNI 69, but  here’s  the original poem and a rough translation by Federico Federici that I’ve found on the internet.

Ethics for all?

June 23, 2009

In a recent posting to his blog, John Naughton writes of his long-held conviction that engineering courses ought to include courses in ethics.

Nothing I’ve seen in the last forty years as an academic in a technology faculty has changed that view. But ethics remains a taboo subject in most engineering curricula. Here’s a contemporary illustration of why we educators need to take the subject seriously.

Two European companies — a major contractor to the U.S. government and a top cell-phone equipment maker — last year installed an electronic surveillance system for Iran that human rights advocates and intelligence experts say can help Iran target dissidents.

Nokia Siemens Networks (NSN), a joint venture between the Finnish cell-phone giant Nokia and German powerhouse Siemens, delivered what is known as a monitoring center to Irantelecom, Iran’s state-owned telephone company.

A spokesman for NSN said the servers were sold for “lawful intercept functionality,” a technical term used by the cell-phone industry to refer to law enforcement’s ability to tap phones, read e-mails and surveil electronic data on communications networks.

In Iran, a country that frequently jails dissidents and where regime opponents rely heavily on Web-based communication with the outside world, a monitoring center that can archive these intercepts could provide a valuable tool to intensify repression.

And of course this applies even more to the technology Cisco & Co are supplying to enable the Chinese regime to operate their Great Firewall.


UPDATE: Rory Cellan-Jones just tweeted “Nokia Siemens just told me the software they supplied to Iran is the same “lawful intercept” system used by loads of western governments.” That’s what they all say. What it boils down to is this: “If it’s ‘lawful’ within the jurisdiction we’re exporting to, then we will supply it”. Which gives them carte-blanche to supply anyone, no matter how barbaric, so long as the client is a sovereign state. I wonder, for example, who supplies IT surveillance kit to the Mugabe regime in Zimbabwe?

I’d go even further and suggest that every educated person should have been exposed to at least one course in ethics. I do realise that this suggestion is hardly likely to endear me to those who think that ethics and religion are two sides of the same unacceptable coin.

The Anonymous blogger 2

June 22, 2009

Emily Bell, the Guardian‘s very wise director of digital content, considers the implications of last weeks decision by Justice Eady to overturn the injunction obtained by Richard Horton against the Times revealing him as the author of the NightJack blog

It was ironic that the ruling came in a week when Iranian protesters harnessed the power of the web and social media to spread their message and organise their demonstrations. How would the Times view anonymised Iranian bloggers? The unintended consequence of its action will be to restrict the free flow of information rather than to encourage it. A cynic might suggest that this is no surprise given that old publishing models benefit from restriction rather than spread of information.

If a citizen journalist, or a blogger, or a witness is only allowed to remain anonymous if published under the protection of an established news organisation, it suggests yet again that courts have some way to go before understanding the full impact of democratised media.

Why should the judiciary recognise this when one of our most august news organisations doesn’t seem able to either? The curious business of NightJack gives the strong impression that the Times views such publishing efforts as essentially competitive, when they have to be viewed as complementary. A further unintended consequence would be that if, as an anonymous police source, you felt the need to unburden yourself about some aspect of the force, turn into a whistleblower even, then where would you turn? How safe would you feel about your identity being protected if it were put in the hands of a publisher which apparently thinks it is in the public interest for anonymous writers, sources and citizens to be exposed?

One of the best points she makes is that the courts have “some way to go before understanding the full impact of democratised media”. I cannot for the life of me believe that there is any serious newspaper reader in this country who expects The Times to do anything other than protect its own narrow interests, and there is certainly nothing very surprising about its seeing independent bloggers as competition, or about its attempting to render them ineffective as information gatherers and discriminators. The fact that Justice Eady chose to take the argument that The Times was acting in the public interest by exposing NightJack on its fact value does show that courts not only do not understand what Bell calls “democratised media”  but are  still grappling with anonymous publishing and whistleblowing as concepts.

Simon Caulkin bids farewell…..2

June 21, 2009

I have no idea how many letters The Observer received in the last week protesting about the  its decision to drop Simon Caulkin’s management column, but I imagine that this one pretty much sums up what a good many of them said.

Truly a voice of reason

What a terrible disappointment it is to learn that Simon Caulkin’s management column is being removed from the Observer (“Farewell, with a last word on the blunder years” , Business, last week). His elegant and considered writing, as well as his open-minded approach to the world, are hallmarks of the kind of journalism I thought the Observer nurtured and valued. I have often thought if people like Gordon Brown read him more assiduously, we wouldn’t be in the mess we’re in.

The Observer needs to retain its distinctive identity. This can be done by keeping the “voices” of its treasured columnists. Reading Simon Caulkin, along with Andrew Rawnsley and Philip French, is part of the way I keep informed.

Alastair Phillips. Coventry

The TV licence fee and newspapers.

June 21, 2009

The one-time editor of The Guardian, an now regular columnist for it and it’s stable-mate, The Observer, Peter Preston, says in today’s issue of The Observer that that if the licence fee is to be used to fund ITV regional news and local TV consortia, then some of it should be used to subsidise newspaper websites which cannot charge because they are  presently competing the BBC’s news website which does not have charge because it’s funding comes out of the licence fee.

Give newspapers a slice of BBC’s fee

Boil down Digital Britain‘s 236 pages and what have you got? Admission that the licence fee is no longer the BBC’s alone; it can fund ITV regional news or local TV consortiums. Lord Carter, like Ofcom, wants competition and more voices. And one form of communication can fund another: £6 a year on the phone bill goes to spread broadband further.

Enter logic. The biggest blight for newspapers now is the BBC’s “free” (ie fee-subsidised) news website. Papers can never charge for online news while the BBC chucks in a £153m service at no charge as a natural part of broadcasting.

So why not let broadband operators collect £6 a year for newspapers’ sites? Why get stuck with old definitions of public service broadcasting when most newsgathering relies on reporters on the ground finding the stories for broadcasters to re-process? Carter sets up the argument. Now follow it through.

It’s a nice idea, but I’m not sure that the licence-fee payer, who has for as long as I remember has not been happy about having to pay a licence fee at all, and who is certainly going to resent the idea of some of it going to help commercial TV get over the fix it’s in,  would take very kindly to subsidising newspapers they never read,  and probably never  want to read.

Reading for pleasure.

June 19, 2009

According to Polly Curtis, education editor of The Guardian, it’s taken Ofsted three years to find  that 30% of English lessons are not good enough and that little attempt is made to encourage teenagers to read for pleasure. I’m sure that if you two had been paid what it cost for Ofsted to come up with that information, you would now be considering early retirement

Too many teachers appear to give up on pupils once they fall behind, the report suggests, with white working-class boys most likely to suffer. In some lessons writing tasks had “no purpose other than to keep pupils quiet”, inspectors found.

The report was based on inspectors’ visits to English lessons in 122 primary and 120 secondary schools across England between April 2005 and March 2008. It praises recent developments, including better use of roleplay and drama, and reading in primaries. But test results have hardly improved since 2004.

Inspectors found that “at best” in secondary schools, only year 7s were encouraged to read for their own enjoyment.

Anthony Browne, the new children’s laureate, said: “If children are not encouraged to read for pure pleasure, if they are dragged away from reading books they enjoy – including picture books – and pushed into reading educationally worthy books, then we are in danger of creating a generation of non-readers.”

What I wonder is who has been ultimately responsible for children’s not reading for pure pleasure and being “pushed into reading educationally worthy books”. Nothing to do with Ofsted, I’ll warrant.