Everyone’s a dick but me

Do you know these films? A man in the lead role and the underlying basis for it is that everyone’s a dick but him?

He always flicks the middle finger to authority. “That’s funny, you look more like a sack of shit in a cheap suit,” he’ll say to his boss (That won’t get him fired, because he’s being protected by someone who owes him a favour).

There’ll be a love interest and the dynamic is: she falls in love with him despite the fact that he’s always pissing her off. He started flirting with her the second time they meet. That’s the only way she knows he’s interested in her. She’ll keep wondering if she’s making “a mistake”.

And he’ll be doing “one last job” which, of course, is to atone for the biggest fuck-up of his life.

Halfway through the movie – you can probably time your watch to it – there’ll be a scene where this ol renegade makes a bad judgment call. Everyone loses confidence in him (everyone but The Girl) and he gets busted down to “issuing parking tickets in Alaska”, or some such degradation. How, how will he make his way back to the centre of the story? Edge of the seat stuff.

We watched one of those films over the weekend.

The man who has a lot of experience and gets hunches, versus the new kid, who represents the new techniques, which are BULLSHIT.


Milan Kundera for the Nobel Prize

I was reading one of the chapters towards the end of Kundera’s Book of Laughter and Forgetting yesterday.

It’s a dream-type sequence, or an imagination of a kind of afterlife, maybe a limbo, where you go before you really die.

Tamina, this woman, just ups and leaves her job in a café, hightails it with an angel in a sports car. He leaves her at a shore. She’s rowed to an island by a child, and then stranded there. She’s shown to her bed in a dorm, where all the other kids sleep. She’s the only adult. She searches for an escape. There is none and she settles down to living there.

The kids are fascinated by her.

There are teams of children, named after animals. The Squirrels sit shitting and pissing on toilets in the bathroom, while across from them, the Cats wash themselves at wash basins. Then they change over.

After a while, the kids want to wash her. She lets them, and it becomes sensual, sexual. They basically rape her. It’s written beautifully, strangely. You wonder if someone could write this today. You read the lines half-visualizing what’s going on, half trying not to visualize it, because it’s like one of those dreams that you’re not supposed to have.

He just says she’s rocked in a sensual way and gives in to it.

In between these scenes there are musings on music – his Dad’s love of it – Beethoven’s concentration on Variations at the end of his life – the inane music of today (“the monotonous rhythm of the soulless cry” which we all need, from time to time)…the usual Milan stuff:

  • “Sex is not love but merely a territory love takes over.”
  • “Children have no past, and that is the whole secret of the magical innocence of their smiles.”
  • “Humans do not revolt against the killing of calves in slaughterhouses.”

Milan will be 86 this April Fool’s Day. Why hasn’t he won the Nobel Prize?

Can we start a petition?

What we like determines what we are

I was reading this essay by John Ruskin last week. It’s called Traffic. It’s 1864. He’s invited to this place in Yorkshire to talk about an Exchange they’re going to build. Well, he rocks up and says: this Exchange of yours is the last fucking thing I’m going to talk about.

That’s John Ruskin for you.

He says: As far as architecture is concerned, there’s no point asking my advice once in a while. All good architecture is the expression of national life and character.

And then he whips out this phrase of his: “Taste is essentially a moral quality.”

He says: Let me tell you what I mean by that, because people have been picking me up all wrong.

Good taste, he says, is the perpetual contemplation of a good and perfect thing. “It is the kind of shit that the angels, if they were sitting around looking at art, would be looking at. Titian, Turner, Greek statutes, any of that kind of thing.”

He whips this one out, which I like: “What we like determines what we are.”

He says this – and I’m thinking of Ireland – that if a nation has any vices or weaknesses it’s inevitable that they come out either in their art, or their lack of art. That’s what he says. “In all time…every nation’s vice, or virtue, was written in its art.”

That’s John Ruskin for you.

Favourite Irish poem about potatoes

The Irish equivalent of the BBC conducted a poll to find the most loved Irish poem of the twentieth century – and a ballad to peeling potatoes, which involves love for one’s mammy, made the top slot.

This is not a joke.

The poem, inevitably, was written by “Famous” Seamus, Seamus Heaney.

The poem has been described as “only lovely”.

When all the others were away at Mass

When all the others were away at Mass

I was all hers as we peeled potatoes.

They broke the silence, let fall one by one

Like solder weeping off the soldering iron:

Cold comforts set between us, things to share

Gleaming in a bucket of clean water.

And again let fall. Little pleasant splashes

From each other’s work would bring us to our senses.

So while the parish priest at her bedside

Went hammer and tongs at the prayers for the dying

And some were responding and some crying

I remembered her head bent towards my head,

Her breath in mine, our fluent dipping knives–

Never closer the whole rest of our lives.


From New Selected Poems 1966-1987, Faber and Faber Ltd.


Yurusarezaraumono, yeah, that’s right: Yurusarezaraumono

We watched this Japanese remake of Clink Eastwood’s Unforgiven. The first question is, Did you realise this had been done? You’ll never recognize the name (“Yurusarezaraumono”) but it came out in Japan in 2013, apparently.

You’re watching it going “that guy’s Gene Hackman, that guy’s Morgan Freeman.” They lash in all this stuff about the end of the Shogunate (which you know nothing about), the crushing of the Ainu people (whom you’ve never heard of), and give a bit of a subtext about the birth of modern Japan, the fall of the men who used swords and the rise of the men who used guns (which you don’t spot, your wife does).

Ken Watanabe stars as Clint Eastwood. Likeable Ken, who’s currently playing the King of Siam on Broadway. The scenery’s beautiful. You could watch it for the scenery, and the curious feeling of having this story transposed…You start to think: maybe every country should remake Unforgiven. I’d like to see it set in Sicily and Ireland and Argentina and…

Smoke and mist

After Kenko I was on a Japanese buzz – but I couldn’t find any other Japanese texts so I bought a Chinese one. Typical. A guy called Shen Fu. Nineteenth century. Teed up as an account of his love for his wife. Okay, I said.

But you can’t repeat the book you just read. I’m forever reliving that lesson.

This guy was nothing like Kenko. He’s writing about his wife, telling you he loved her, but at times he just comes across as a dick. He can say some lovely things, like when they’re reunited at one point and he says “our souls became smoke and mist”. That’s top class.

But then he reveals what he really likes about her: she takes out these unfinished poems of hers and says she never finished them because she didn’t have a decent teacher: she asks him to be her teacher and he basically gets a hard-on.

Another time he asks her about ancient literature and she gives him the perfect answer: “I fear a woman’s learning isn’t enough to master it.” Again, he gets a major wang.

After that, he asks her whether she thinks Li Pai or Tu Fu is a better poet. When she chooses Li Pai he badgers her about it, can’t get over it, until he can find a way of slyly belittling her choice.

On certain days she doesn’t eat meat; it’s a Buddhist practice. So he asks her to give up the practice because it’s not convenient to him. Being a submissive woman, she does.

Another time, he finds out that she loves pickled cucumbers, and loves a kind of beancurd, both of which he hates, so – he asks her never to eat them and she goes: “shut up and fucking try them, will you”, and she lashes a pickled cucumber into his gob. From then on, all of a sudden he’s fine with them. I think that’s the one moment in their 23 years together when she comes out on top.

So that’s Shen Fu.


I read a selection of writing by Kenko. He’s this fourteenth century Japanese monk. Never heard of him before but they’ve included him in the Penguin €1 books series. Beautiful stuff.

Reading him, you feel the lack of smells in the city. He talks of the “famously evocative” scented flowering orange and the plum blossom. Christ, I’d like to linger beneath the moon on a plum-scented evening.

  1. “If our life did not fade and vanish…but lingered on forever, how little the world would move us. It is the ephemeral nature of things that make them wonderful.”
  1. “In all things, the beginning and end are the most engaging.”
  1. And what about this: “In general, I find that reasonably sensitive and intelligent people will pass their whole life without taking the step they know they should.” He has in mind people who could become poets, painters, Buddhas, but who instead are “forever pondering pros and cons.” On the other hand, he says that unfinished things are “very appealing” because they are “a gesture towards the future.”

Mozart’s Letters to his Dad

I read a few of Mozart’s letters to his Dad. I had no idea he was so religious. He’s in Paris for this concert. He’s not sure how it’s going to go. “I was really very afraid,” he says. “I would have liked to rehearse it again.” But there wasn’t time, so he goes to bed pissed off about it and fantasizing that if it starts to go badly he’ll dive into the orchestra, rip the fiddle from the hands of the first violin and conduct it himself.

It goes great. The audience laps it up, “especially the final allegro”. So what does he do afterwards? He heads down to the Palais Royal and buys himself a big ice-cream and says the rosary. He doesn’t even wait till he gets home to say the rosary. He lashes it out there and then, having his ice-cream.

When he hears of Voltaire’s death he says to his Dad – “You probably know that that godless arch-rogue Voltaire has died like a dog, like a beast – that’s his reward!”

I don’t know about you, I found it pretty funny.

But come here to me – one other thing – he’s talking about this great piano he’s been playing and he says there’s no “reverberation” off it. Does that mean he played his pieces choppily, without a sustain pedal? Could that be true? Did Mozart play his own adagios in a way that we would find – jerky?

An eighteens movie

We watched Basic Instinct last week.

The first thing that struck me was: this is an eighteens movie. I can’t think of a movie made in the last few years – a popular, mainstream kind of movie – where you’d say it was an eighteens movie. But Basic Instinct is. Jesus, the first scene. It’s not only sex – it’s sex where a woman is on top. That was probably prohibited in American until 1992. And then it’s violent as hell all of a sudden. A short while later, the Michael Douglas character rapes his ex-girlfriend (but it’s 1992, so I suppose the audience was supposed to think he was just coming on too strong).

The next thing that strikes you is: this is a shit movie.

And then half an hour after that, when you’re surprised you’re still watching it, you think: this isn’t a shit movie. And you start wondering if it’s just you or is the screenwriter, Joe Eszterhas, referencing Vertigo all the time: those car rides around San Francisco, the shots of the city’s streets, the platinum blonde, the uncertainty about two of the women – which is the real one (in this case, the real killer)?

The Philadelphia Story

I ducked off work to see The Philadelphia Story yesterday. In the last two weeks I’ve really started doing this. It’s not normal, I know, and I’m doing it because everyone keeps saying “go to the cinema while you still can”.

The baby’s due in two weeks.

So it was an early afternoon showing. 1.45. You know what that means. 1.45 on a week day in an art house, membership-based cinema. I was the only one there under sixty-five.

And I realised it was a blessing. The film was released in 1940, about five to ten years before most of the audience I watched it with was born. But there must be some rule about comedy: that your taste is shaped by the comedy that was popular not just in your childhood but in the years before you were born.

Because they loved it. I saw the film years ago and I didn’t like it, but seeing it with these over-65s…I’m telling you…In the opening scene Katharine Hepburn kicks Cary Grant out of the house. She breaks one of his golf clubs, smashing it across her thigh. And his reaction? He marches up to her – and face palms her to the ground. Yeah. A move that you rarely even see in rugby – a pure face palm. Next shot is her on the ground, with that “why you pesky little…” look on her face. And the over-65s – more than 2/3s of them women – they loved it.

So please, if you’re going to watch this film at home – go out and round up the oldsters.