Tuesday, August 31, 2010


In a syntactic recess, stands
Vespered momentarily by the shadow–clock
Of my stolen equinoctial hour
Untempored by season, speed or even greed
My quest
From an Almagest

To touch the skivered spine
Of lime-washed butchered hide
Is to trowel a chard from ancient Persian mound
A wind rose
Liberated mind by ragtime rind
The bequest
From the Almagest

Far above Babel’s floor, silence
Seven climates traveled with Claudius
And the sages of Gilgamesh
The lapis lazuli gems of impassive Chinamen
Brief rest
From my Almagest

A Note on the Poem Ragtime:
My recent accounts of buying books in the Time Traveller's Bookshop in West Cork reminded me of this poem I wrote a few years ago to celebrate Kenny's Bookshop in Galway, a place I could linger in forever. Unfortunately the actual city centre shop closed soon after and the book selling has moved into the 'online' economy instead and from a warehouse outlet a little outside the centre. Not quite the same 'feel' to the place. (www.kennys.ie)

Wednesday, August 25, 2010

Layabouts and Marabouts

President Barack Obama and his family – code-named renegade, renaissance, radiance and rosebud by their secret service minders – recently flew to Florida’s Gulf of Mexico shoreline for their holidays. Here they will have lain about on recently sanitised sands, working on their tans and possibly utilising Factor 0 from the ‘D’Arcy Exploration Suntan Oil’ range (For more on D'Arcy see Blog of Dec 7, 2009)! Before he departed south Obama took a very calculated risk and, in a speech to mark the month of Ramadan, and took the opportunity to throw his political weight into the controversy surrounding the Cordoba Initiative’s plan to establish a new ‘mosque’ about two blocks from ‘Ground Zero’.

Obama forcefully endorsed the right of Muslims – and any religious group – to practice their religion. He said that this right,

“…includes the right to build a place of worship and a community center on private property in lower Manhattan, in accordance with local laws and ordinances."

He concluded by stating emphatically, "This is America, and our commitment to religious freedom must be unshakable."

I think that the speech was a very calculated gamble, but parking political cynicism to one side, it was also a very brave and necessary gamble.

The notion of a ‘mosque’ being sited at Ground Zero appears to be the most emotive and divisive issue. This is unfortunate particularly as the planned building by the Cordoba Initiative is more of a community centre and ‘lodge’ (tekke in Turkish, khanqah in Farsi, zawiya in Arabic) for the Khalwati Jarrahi Sufi Order whose Shayk is Imam Feisal Abdul Rauf. Khalwati derives from khalwa which means a ‘spiritual retreat’ and this is essentially what is planned for the top two floors – above the swimming pool – of the building rather than a formalized mosque.

Throughout their history Sufi Orders have depended on travelling missionaries or guides to bring their message of a more personal and mystical Islam to the world. Throughout history also the founder’s lodges have served as a ‘spiritual retreat’ for these itinerant marabouts. Somewhere to return to.

Where the controversy over the Ground Zero 'mosque' is concerned President Obama now needs an ‘Agarabe’.

Agarabe, in the Tamasheq language of the Tuareg people, is the descriptive term of the court-appointed position of Envoy to the Itinerant Marabouts, in the Court of the Sultanate of Aïr, in the Agadez region of Niger, on the southern margins of the Sahara Desert. 

Established about 1400 C.E. by a confederation of three Tuareq clans – the Kel Owi, Kel Ferwan and Itesen – the Sultanate of Aïr has survived the Malian, Songhai and French empires (the current Sultan is the 126th) to still control the lives and welfare of the people of this part of Niger.

Sufi marabouts or igurramen (in Berber) are individuals or families of ‘saints’ who can trace their lineage to Hasan Bin Ali, the Prophet Muhammed’s grandson and 5th Caliph. Marabout derives from murabit or ‘man of the ribat’, the Almoavid ‘holy warriors’ who were established in Sahara frontier outposts in the eighth and ninth centuries. Murabits were originally ‘holy men’ who lived as hermits but during the 12th century Sufism created ‘lodges’ or communities of these holy men where the way or tariqas to the knowledge and experience of God could be taught.

The Catalan Atlas of 1375 showing North African 
Kingdoms along lower border.

Later, originating in zawiya lodges of Morocco itinerant marabouts became a very important part of the North African pastoralist Tuareq society. Versed in the Koran, Islamic law and mystical practices they served not only as visiting judges and preachers but with a knowledge of Arabic and or Turkish could liase on behalf of the Tuareq people with the Arab coastal and Ottoman overlords. What all marabouts had in common, in the Tuareq language, was that the baraka or blessing of God was with them.

By appointing a special envoy, the Agarabe, to liase with these itinerant marabouts the Sultanate of Aïr was also visibly demonstrating the desire of the Tuareq clans to defend themselves against any accusation of laxity in spiritual observance.

The notion of wayside hospitality in the zawiyas of the marabouts of Aïr was a fundamental aspect of their existence. I suspect that the current American embodiment of what an Itinerant Marabout once did for the Tuareq, Imam Feisal Abdul Rauf, will maintain the hospitality tradition in the proposed building near ground zero. Hence its community focus.

I genuinely believe that this Sufi establishment  is not a development to be feared and should be embraced. Embraced not because the zawiya (or niche) presents an 'acceptable', inclusive and moderate promotion of Islam in contrast to the exclusive, fundamentalist and terrorizing aspect but because it will encourage dialogue between the faiths rather than deny it.

The new Sultan of Dare, Barack Obama should now continue to be pro-active and appoint his own Agarabe to accelerate the process.

Further Info:

Tuesday, August 17, 2010

The iAmerican – A Baedeker Guide

I mentioned in a recent blog entry about the happenstance of discovery of a new bookshop in Skibbereen, Co. Cork called The Time Travellers Bookshop. Having spent an hour perusing the shelves and making one purchase, Ernest Hemmingway’s Men Without Women for my father, I was about to leave when the owner, a German, asked me what type of books I might be looking for in particular. My book-buying forays in general are fairly catholic in outcome. Sometimes it is a title, sometimes an author, sometimes it is a tactile impulse generated by running my index finger along a book’s spine, sometimes it is the design, sometimes I have no idea why I bought a particular book. But a constant, particularly in shops that deal in antique books, are Baedekers guides.

The printing company behind Baedekers was founded in Koblenz by Karl Baedeker in 1827 and produced its first guide in the English language – on the Rhine – in 1861. Some of the first editions are quite collectable and in my own small collection of old guide books (Baedekers, Muirheads, Cooks, Guide Bleu) I have a first English edition (not unfortunately in its original cover) of Syria and Palestine (1876) and a particular favourite, an only edition of the Handbook to the Mediterranean (1911). I am always on the lookout for more …at a reasonable price of course!

I told the German bookseller of my interest in Baedekers and this suddenly sparked a flurry of activity.
‘I have just come in …somewhere if I find it, a United States, a second edition. Do you have one of those?’
‘No,’ I replied.
‘It is special,’ he continued, while searching random boxes. ‘The provenance is interesting.’
And expensive, I thought, but perhaps not as expensive as the 1904 3rd edition if it had the 9pp supplement celebrating the 100th anniversary of the Louisiana Purchase.

Eventually we found the book with difficulty. Its sienna-coloured cover, different from the normal red, had camouflaged its position. On opening the front the provenance was plain to see. This particular guide had once belonged to Arthur Meier Schlesinger (1885-1967), the very able American social historian – before he added Sr to his name in deference to his famous son Arthur M Schlesinger Jr, John F Kennedy’s advisor and historiographer – and Harvard professor. We agreed on a price and happy with the purchase I brought it away to a new home.

Later I had a chance to study Schlesinger’s library identifying-sticker more. It contained everything that Schlesinger believed had become the American dream – or illusion – the ascent of the city. His very specific commissioned design documents in the foreground the arrival of immigrants into rural America, the availability of education, the subsequent movement uphill in wagon trains not to the empty wilderness of romantic western notions but to a small town, then further upwards to an industrial town and finally at the apex into the embodiment of all that he believed America to truly be, the city.

In a Presidential address to the American Historical Association in December 1940 Schlesinger introduced his speech by giving a visitor’s composite appraisal of the American character. He stated that

The attributes most frequently noted are a belief in the universal obligation to work; the urge to move about; a high standard of comfort for the average man; faith in progress; the eternal pursuit of material gain; an absence of permanent class barriers; the neglect of abstract thinking and of the aesthetic side of life; boastfulness; a deference for women; the blight of spoiled children; the general restlessness and hurry of life, always illustrated by the practice of fast eating; and certain miscellaneous traits such as overheated houses, the habit of spitting, and the passion for rocking chairs and ice water.

In two later astute observations he noted that the American love of cars and hyper-mobility had resulted in ‘The pursuit of happiness’ being ‘transformed into the happiness of pursuit” and that ‘the passion for associational activity’ had become ‘a sovereign principle of life.’

It was the city that continued to fascinate him however. The city was where as he put it, ‘the ancient (rural) prejudice against “useless” accomplishments could not long withstand the compelling opportunities offered’. This construct was as Graeco-Roman a revival as you could possibly imagine, save perhaps for the accelerated pace it occurred at in America.

And this is where I believe Schlesinger Sr, rather than his son, becomes the prophet of the iAmerican generation. The i standing for both the iPodded and iPadded individual and  collective imperium. The iAmerica of now where citizens and government would rather expose their lives, their Facebooked lives, to the television intrusion of Judge Judy rather than expose themselves to the censure of the International Criminal Court. Where the ‘passion for associational activity’ has created in the iAmerican character a fault line of amoral fraternities, biker-gangs, internet paedophile rings, messianic end-of-world groups, terrorist cells, CIA torture squads, and businesses all founded on ‘a profound conviction that nothing in the world is beyond its power to accomplish’ added to a Rumsfeldian ‘hyperbolic’ rationalisation.

All is not lost however. In a small hand-written note left within the book, identifying the Baedeker guidebook for his collection, Schlesinger had written on the reverse the names of restaurants in New Orleans: Moreau, Mme Venn’s, Flêcher, Victors. I was glad it was  New Orleans, the least iAmerican city I have visited.

Further Info: http://www.historians.org/info/aha_history/amschlesinger.htm

Monday, August 09, 2010

Men Without Women

There is absolutely no connection – that at a conscious level I can think of – between this blog entry and my July 29 posting concerning the new UN Women organisation. The title refers to a collection of short stories by Ernest Hemingway, first published in 1927. I recently happened upon a 1946 edition of it in a new bookshop in Skibereen, Co. Cork called The Time Travellers Bookshop.

What a wonderful name and caught in its 'timewarp' I spent a good hour trawling its shelves.

I bought the book for my father –  at 85 he has been a widower for nearly ten years and whom I was due to see the following day – for two reasons.

Firstly with my father in mind the title intrigued me. After the death of my mother he had established a new social pattern of taking out to lunch, on a reasonably regular basis, the widows of his deceased friends. This became a very important aspect of his life and something fully savoured. Unfortunately in recent times most of those women friends have either died or become too infirm to participate and once again he is a man without women in his life.

Secondly in the years after the Second World War my father moved to live in Barcelona for six months (the poor man’s Switzerland) hoping the dry atmosphere would help speed his recovery from pulmonary tuberculosis. He is somewhat reluctant to talk about his time there and in the silence it often strikes me that thoroughly scared by the prospect of dying from the disease he had also gone there to hide away, to die. Thankfully the climate had its effect – but also I suspect his enormous personal religious faith – and he described his sense of returning home to Ireland as having returned ‘undefeated’.

Undefeated’ happens also to be the title of the first short story in the Men Without Women collection. The story was an expansion of Hemingway’s fascination with the art, terror and brutality of bullfighting first seen in his 1926 book, The Sun Also Rises and which was to achieve its full expression in his 1932 book, Death in the Afternoon.

The recent vote in the Catalan parliament – in the Barcelona of my father – to ban bullfighting has inflamed enormous divisions particularly in the Pamplona of Hemingway. I have walked those streets of Pamplona along the route of the daily bullrun but only ever once went to a bullfight. I found it fascinating, terrorising, sensuous and barbaric all at once. I agree wholeheartedly with its suppression but understand equally its hold for the aficionados.

In 'Undefeated' the once-marvellous but now aged matador Manuel discharges himself from hospital and accepts a piffling amount to fight a ‘nocturnal’. It is all he knows what to do and he must express himself. The chosen bull is good and the reader is drawn into the contest. You will him to withdraw but he does not and although Manuel eventually succeeds in killing the bull he is gored badly. The story leaves off at that point, as Manuel is being placed on the operating table, his fate uncertain. His only concern was that they would cut off his ‘coleta’ or matador’s pony-tail: a sign of final retirement.

I gave my father the book and he remembered that he once had a copy, which he had lost many years ago. I looked at him, head down, leafing through it and in a strange way imagined his once jet black hair in a ‘coleta’. My father has survived pulmonary tuberculosis, diptheria, bladder cancer, cardiac by-pass surgery, and prostate cancer with his brain – and very personal faith – intact.

A man without women yes; but definitely undefeated.

To read Men without Women go to:

The Time Travellers Bookshop is at Worldwidebookshop.com 

Sunday, August 08, 2010

Pat Bracken (1951-2010)

Hands Prematurely Still

I was away from Galway when Pat Bracken, puppeteer, stonemason and ceramicist suddenly died and only got to know of his death when I read his obituary in the Irish Times on last Saturday. I am really sorry I missed his funeral in St Nicholas' Collegiate Church.

I knew Pat reasonably well, and yet not well enough. My first encounter with him, with his art, was on Saturday mornings in Galway in 1992 when I would take my children in ( but mainly myself) to see his puppetry performance on Shop Street. He was fantastic and particularly in the way he controlled ( if he ever did control them) his character puppets in those brief moments as they retreated from the interaction with the crowd. There was such rawness to those receding gestures, such a nakedness of soul, that they captured the essence of Pat himself.

Sometime later the very first book I published under the Wynkin deWorde imprint was a work by Galway-based playwright Max Hafler. The book was called Waking the Woodboy and its central character, in a very adult book, was an angry malevolent puppet. Although Max would never admit to basing much of the book on Pat ( and I did not press him on this), I felt it had to have been. To such an extent that when I was designing the book cover in order to assuage possible legal threats I asked Pat for the loan of one of his puppets for the photograph. I gave him a copy of the book to read and if he did have any reservations he never expressed them to me. He would have never stood in the way of what he considered a worthy artistic venture. The fee was agreed and a pint bought. I collected and brought back that puppet as if it were a Rodin.

Pat had an old world politeness and grace about him. Part of this politeness stemmed from being a third generational artisan, and the mutual recognition that that the relationship between patron and artist is always a delicate balancing act between admiration and utility. But more than that whenever we met accidently for a drink and he talked about his love for his son and his love of going back to college to study ceramics his gentleness and spirit nestled in the palm of care-worn and stone-battered hands.

Those hands are now prematurely still and the tools that he inherited from his father lie idle. I hope they will find a good home. They carry an enormous legacy.

See: http://www.irishtimes.com/newspaper/ireland/2010/0803/1224276088879.html