Category Archives: Books

Through the Fanlight Glass: Space and the Dublin Townhouse

Recently I have begun to think anew about space. No not what lies above in the starry heavens, but instead the spaces we inhabit and how we use them. Some of these spatial thoughts have been influenced by the practicalities of an impending move abroad, and the realisation I won’t have space for my whole library! Most of these thoughts have been inspired by my rather eclectic reading and watching experiences over the last few weeks, not to mention ongoing discussions about a proposal for a TV documentary on cooking and eating in the Irish country house (More of that in the future perhaps). Watching TV3’s fantastic documentary on Dublin’s Tenements has encouraged me to consider more fully the changing functions and arrangements of Dublin’s townhouses. The programme together with a relatively recent visit to New York’s brilliant Tenement Museum (why don’t we have one?) has given me a new insight into the appalling reality that lay behind so many beautiful if faded Georgian facades. Continue reading

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One eye on posterity and one eye on the neighbours: watching oneself in the 1950s

History tends to focus on important, pivotal moments; times of war, calamity, accelerated social change, revolution or unrest. But what happens when life gets back to ‘normal’ so to speak? When things began to calm down after those first few weeks of 1789 – even though the revolution continued – some people at least had to get back to work. And in May 1945, what happened after the first few days of relief and celebration? Soldiers returned home and everyone had to adjust to life as normal. But what is normal, in historical terms? And does it ever feel normal to those living through it?

These are some of the questions that the Mass Observation project, set up in Britain in the 1930s, sought to address. So-called ordinary people all over Britain were asked to keep diaries recording the details of their day-to-day lives. The aim, in the words of the organisers, was to bring about a ‘science of ourselves’. Nella Last was one such person; a housewife from the north of England, her wartime diaries were made into a television series, ‘Housewife, 49’. Unlike many of the other participants, she kept writing steadily almost to the end of her life, her diaries continuing right into the 1960s. Her lively and perceptive account of her own life is now published in three volumes, the last of which, Nella Last in the 1950s, was finally published in 2010.
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The Politics of Art: Writing the Arab Spring

Ever since I read the excellent Pereira Maintains in January, I’ve been meaning to write about it properly, but never quite got around to it. A novel by Italian writer Antonio Tabucchi set in 1930s Lisbon, it is told from the point of view of a middle-aged literary newspaper editor who becomes a reluctant witness to the violence and repression of Salazar’s brand of fascism and dictatorship. The story is sparse and simply told; stripped down to basics so much it reads almost like a fable, which Tabucchi uses to pose some powerful questions. What is the point of the printed word in a dictatorship, when newspapers aren’t allowed to inform people as to what is going on? And what is the role of literature, of art in a society such as this? When I went to the Artists in the World panel discussion as part of the Dublin Writers’ Festival a few weeks ago, I was reminded of the stark narrative of Pereira Maintains. Continue reading

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Political and Social Density in the age of Bubbles: Making Sense of the Present and the Past

By Patrick Walsh There is an old Chinese curse that says ‘May you live in interesting times’. Few of us would dispute that we are living in ‘interesting times’ today. In Ireland, as elsewhere in the world, the last few … Continue reading

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Tales of the Unexpected: The Secret Life of Roald Dahl

By Patrick Walsh Like many children of my generation I grew up hooked on the writings and stories of Roald Dahl. My parents purchased a copy of Charlie and the Chocolate Factory for me just after I was born. Today, … Continue reading

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Public intellectuals, trains and automobiles: Tony Judt’s post-war world

It soon becomes clear from reading any number of Tony Judt’s history books that he has a deep fascination with trains. Postwar, his highly acclaimed history of contemporary Europe, opens in a train station in Vienna. The Austrian capital was traditionally the gateway between eastern and western Europe, with its central position and imperial concerns further east. In post-war Europe, the city’s two separate train stations – one with routes heading east, and the other with trains travelling west, but never between the two worlds – became, in Judt’s mind – the ultimate symbol of the tragic and artificial divisions of the Cold War world. A history of railways was also planned until Judt became terminally ill with motor neuron disease. It is one of the many topics that he returns to in his posthumous new book, The Memory Chalet. He was a strange child, so fascinated by trains that he spent whole school holidays riding them alone across London and the south of England. Later, as he tells us, he discovered Europe from the window of a train carriage. Trains seem to mean two things to Judt; they represent the possibility of boundless travel across the European continent, while remaining connected to the landscape in a way that simply isn’t possibly with air travel. However the great European railways and the grandiose nineteenth-century station buildings are also physical reminders of the great undertaking of public service that Europe’s rail system represents. Continue reading

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What are you reading now? (Part 2)

Since the comments have finally dried up on the last ‘What are you reading now’ post, I figured it might be time for a new one. I recently finished reading Kate O’Brien’s The Land of Spices which I picked up while on holidays in Galway, vaguely aware of the title but unsure really of what to expect. Lately, I’ve been getting much more interested in a lot of the Irish literature I passed over in my younger ways in favour of trendier stuff. Considering that it’s set in a convent and features a Reverend Mother as one of the main characters, The Land of Spices is surprisingly engrossing. The book follows the lives of the nuns and pupils of a convent school for wealthy girls in the years leading up to the outbreak of war in 1914. Continue reading

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