Archives for the month of: January, 2013

Another gem of a Christmas present was a subscription to The New Yorker. The first issue arrived last week, and there is so much of interest that several days later I am still reading it, and this week’s issue is due tomorrow…

For now, I want to mention an article by James Wood on Becoming Them: Our parents, our selves (

Woods reminisces, movingly, of Sundays when growing up, mostly the rituals and the boredom, but also memories of classical music, which his father was passionate about, but perhaps his children suffered from composer overload at an early age…

However, years later Woods discovered himself a passion for classical music, which persists in his forties. Perhaps this, just like the gesticulations, the little phrases that creep in as we age, not to mention the physical reminders, are part of the ‘plagiarism of inheritance.’

Seeing my parents in myself traumatised me around 10 years ago. Now, I am much more accepting of it. When I first noticed it, they were both alive. Within recent years, both died in relatively quick succession.

Woods suggests that we ‘mourn them [our parents] only haplessly, accidentally, by surviving them.’ A friend of Wood’s challenges this view and believes that the real point is that we become our parents, taking on their gestures and habits once they have died.

A preservation of past generations, but not as in ‘they live on in our memories’, more in terms of those before us continuing within us in an unavoidable physical (and social) sense. Utterly rational when you consider science and DNA, not to mind ‘nuture’, but…

Thus, you potentially mourn your parents by becoming them. This feels more than a little weird to me (but may also merely reflect my own mourning processes, or lack of).

But Woods moves onto another interesting point. if you can mourn your parents by becoming then, then surely you can also mourn them before they die. This I get. As I child, I (shamefully and secretly) wished that my parents died together in a car accident. The thought that one would be left alone, forever grieving and sad for the other, felt unbearable to me.

As I grew up, and left, I dwelt less on the fact that my parents would inevitably die. Old age arrived, and with it a world for them that became increasingly smaller, and exclusive. In latter years, I never seemed to find a way into this terrain.

Woods challenges Larkin’s line about life being first a thing of boredom, then later replaced by fear, suggesting that fear comes first.

I am not convinced. Boredom seems to me the prerogative of children, and, from what I have witnessed, fear, if and when it appears, and this is of course by no means universal, can escalate as both time and worlds shrink.


I received the most wonderful and unexpected belated Christmas gift today, Bernard Meehan’s recent book on The Book of Kells. Meehan, as Keeper of Manuscripts at Trinity College Library, Dublin, is well positioned to write such an epic account of one of the greatest treasures of medieval Europe.

I have long been drawn to The Book of Kells, the ‘great Gospel of Colum Cille’, my namesake. Colum Cille (my father’s name), which means ‘the Dove of the Church’, is known to the Latin speaking world as Columba (my name).

I like the fact that Columba means dove in Latin, without, as a devout atheist, the church association…

But even as an atheist, the history of The Book of Kells, apart from the sublime beauty of the book itself, is fascinating.

Colum Cille was born in 521 or 522, into the ruling dynasty of present-day Donegal. Around 561 he travelled to Scotland with 12 companions, as pilgrims of Christ, and settled on Iona off Western Scotland in 563. Colum Cille died in 597.

Meehan describes Colum Cille as a charismatic leader (much information is available from Adomnan’s biography. Adomnan was Abbott of Iona in the 600s or so). He, and his companions, led a monastic life. Colum Cille was described as follows in a poem from the 7th-century:

‘He crucified his body…he chose learning, embraced stone slabs, gave up bedding.’ (p.20)

After his death, Colum Cille’s influence lived on in his successors, both on Iona and further afield.

The late 700s brought Viking attacks to Iona, and in 807 a section of the community found refuge in Kells, Co. Meath, Ireland, a ‘new foundation of Colum Cille’.

Meehan refers to Colum Cille’s influence on his followers:

‘…in life Colum Cille was often to be seen in the company of angels; in death, he took on a quasi-angelic status for his community.’ (p.20)

The first reference to The Book of Kells as the ‘great Gospel of Colum Cille’ appeared in 1007. It seems that the book originated from around 800, but this is controversial, as is its place of origin, whether Kells or Iona.

I am in awe of this book. Wondrous.

I have two ambitions for this year, to see The Book of Kells itself in Trinity College Dublin, and to visit Iona.



A snowy day in London made me think of poetry, and poems where snow takes centre stage, metaphorically or literally.

Louis MacNeice’s Snow, for example:

‘The room was suddenly rich and the great bay-window was

Spawning snow and pink roses against it

Soundlessly collateral and incompatible:

World is suddener than we fancy it.

World is crazier and more of it than we think,

Incorrigibly plural. I peel and portion

A tangerine and spit the pips and feel

The drunkenness of things being various.’

What wondrous lines, inspired by snow, yet suffused with a meaning that extends way beyond something physical and tangible.

Another of my favourites is the Czech poet Vladimir Holan’s poem Snow:

‘It began to snow at midnight. And certainly

the kitchen is the best place to sit,

even the kitchen of the sleepless.

It’s warm there, you cook yourself something, drink wine

and look out of the window at your friend eternity.

Why care whether birth and death are merely points

when life is not a straight line.

Why torment yourself eyeing the calendar

and wondering what is at stake.

Why confess you don’t have the money

to buy Saskia’s shoes?

And why brag

that you suffer more than others.

If there were no silence here

the snow would have dreamed it up.

You are alone.

Spare the gestures. Nothing for show.’

The pureness of words and poetry, like just fallen snow, white and luminescent, and untainted. Brief magic.


I was pretty shocked to hear the results of this study, published in The British Journal of Psychiatry recently, on religion, spirituality and mental health (

The study analysed data obtained from interviews with 7403 people in England. Overall, 35% had a religious understanding of life, 19% were spiritual but not religious, and 46% were neither religious nor spiritual. The results suggest that those with a spiritual understanding of life without a religious framework are ‘vulnerable to mental illness.’

I have not read the entire paper, so a critical analysis is impossible. I do not know, for example, how spirituality was defined, or what constituted a ‘religious framework’. But over 7000 participants is a pretty impressive number. As a devout atheist and someone who considers herself a spiritual being, the results are certainly interesting, and just a little shocking.

I listened to a Radio 3 Night Waves programme on the topic, and the participants included one of the paper’s authors, Michael King. The study raises the question inevitably whether the possible association between spirituality and mental illness is causal or consequential. King mentioned an ongoing longitudinal study of ‘well’ spiritual people who are not religious, and who appear to demonstrate an increase in mental illness over time.

Spirituality, the discussants suggested, is now big business, lying within the consumerism framework. It’s providers attempt to tackle the most serious of issues, include mental and physical ill health, reflecting perhaps an increasing dissatisfaction with what religion can provide.

There is nothing new about spirituality. Originally embedded within organised religion, it now seems to have evolved into an entity in its own right. A contemporary phenomenon of sorts, current notions of spirituality and leading a spiritual life can feel more reactive than constructive, and as a result, it is perhaps also weighed down by the needs of those who seek alternatives and a new way of being.

Life is challenging, increasingly so, and society’s expectations of entitlement are often hard, if not impossible, to meet. Organised religion has floundered in the midst of this. Spirituality, as one of the discussants suggested, is a potent force, and by definition therefore capable of conferring both harm and good.

I am intrigued by the fact that spirituality always seems to be discussed within an ‘either/or’ religious context. For me, atheism and spirituality feel quite separate, albeit connected, but only in so far as all my beliefs are in some way interwoven, and ultimately define me.

It is good to have such issues openly discussed. Whether a scientific approach can define the norms of religion and spirituality, and where they might lead, I have no idea.

But my (non-defensive) spiritual instinct currently says, probably not…


I read this recent Guardian piece with interest ( In brief, it refers to, and (reassuringly) criticises, a recent article in the Daily Mail on “the disturbing rise of sick-lit”, ‘otherwise known as young adult fiction that dares to deal with real-life situations rather than dragons, wizards and vampire romances’, the Guardian journalist Michelle Pauli suggests…

Reassuringly also, the Guardian article attracted many comments, almost invariably vitriolic of the Daily Mail’s narrow minded and unenlightened stance, hardly surprising I guess as the Guardian tends to have a relatively broad minded and enlightened readership…

Clearly, the Daily Mail believes that teenagers should remain unaware of serious issues such as depression and terminal illness, amongst others. There is so much to be said about this, but I will resist. The Guardian riposte deals with the issue more than adequately.

The books quoted in the Daily Mail article had already been on my teenage daughter’s to-read list. She has read, as have I, Alice Sebold’s The Lovely Bones and Jenny Downham’s Before I Die. She does not appear to have been traumatised in any way by the experience. The opposite, I suspect. She has not yet read John Green’s The Fault in Our Stars, although she is currently enjoying one of his other books, or Joanna Kenrick’s Red Tears, but plans to read both.

I have asked said-daughter if she would like to write something here on her experience of reading such ‘sick-lit’ stuff. She is keen.

Watch this space…


I have only read a few of Banville’s novels, namely The Sea and also some crime fiction that he writes under the pseudonym of Benjamin Black.

Ancient Light (Viking) was published in 2012. I read it over the holiday period and was totally gripped and seduced, mainly enthralled by Banville’s prose and his use of words.

Perhaps I was also a little confused by the non-linear narrative, but possibly the whole point of the book is that all is not what it seems… Whatever, it did not detract from the enjoyment of my reading experience. On the contrary, it has left me still considering it, days after the last page was read.

I need a dictionary nearby when reading Banville. Reading Ancient Light, I learnt many new words and meanings, for example leporine, proscenium, caducous, homunculoid, susurrus (my favourite)… His observational and descriptive powers are staggeringly impressive, and the way he sees and feels, and assembles words – ‘steepled fingers’, ‘there is nothing like the loss of an only child to soften the wax of sealed convictions – is beautiful indeed to read.

The novel opens with the sentence:

‘Billy Gray was my best friend and I fell in love with his mother.’

An opening that does summarise a significant chunk of the plot and storyline. Yet, the apparent simplicity and straightforwardness of this short sentence tantalises and entices the reader into a story that is far from simple.

The main protagonist, Alexander Cleave, who has also appeared in earlier Banville books, is a semi-retired actor, currently writing his memoirs. The novel is written in the first person, and thus all that we are told and shown is through Cleave’s perspective.

Nothing is quite how it seems, which the author acknowledges at the outset, disabusing the difference between memory and invention:

‘Madam memory is a great and subtle dissembler.’

Only near the end of the book do we discover the origins of its title – the ancient light of the galaxies that travel for millions of years to reach us. Looking at the night sky, we are thus always looking into the past, and the novel’s core focuses on just that, and is deeply rooted in Cleave’s past. Indeed, the sections that are based in the present seem much less real than those describing Cleave’s childhood, specifically his love affair, at 15, with the 35 year Mrs Gray.

Central to the book is loss, Cleave’s loss of innocence, loss of friendships and an early loss of childhood within the clandestine relationship. His subsequent life seems to have been lived, and overshadowed, by this first, and short, love affair. In fact, it seem as if the past, particularly in terms of its associated feelings, recurs as a ‘pseudo’ present.

There is also the loss of Cleave’s daughter Cass (who also appeared in earlier books), who committed suicide, and the void and distress her death have left for both him and for his wife Lydia. Of Lydia, Cleave comments:

‘She drinks a little too much, but then so do I; our decade-long great sorrow will not be drowned…’

This is one of many black ironies that Banville slips in – Cass died as a result of drowning.

Cleave and his wife share only sorrow now, a ‘mournful telepathy’, and their grief sets them apart from others:

‘Bereavement sets a curious constraint between the bereaved, an embarrassment, almost, that is not easy to account for.’

For Cleave, mourning is ‘a constant, parching deluge’, which so wonderfully encapsulates the non-straightforwardness of human emotions, particularly grief.

Cleave is a tragic figure, mostly consumed by, and frightened of, his own grief:

‘The dead are my dark matter, filling up impalpably the empty spaces of the world.’

The young actress Dawn Devonport ,who Cleave works with, recently lost her father. She in turn attempts suicide, and there is an almost bizarre transposition of roles, as Dawn becomes a surrogate daughter to Cleave and Lydia… But such is Banville’s writing that such subplots do no feel overdone or manipulated.

Mothers dominate much of the book, including the boy Cleave’s lover Mrs Gray, his best friend Billy’s mother. Before she appeared in his life:

‘Mothers were not people that we noticed much; brothers, yes, sisters, even, but not mothers. Vague, shapeless, unsexed, they were little more than an apron and a swatch of unkempt hair and a faint tang of sweat.’

At the time, Cleave, an only child, lived with his own widowed mother. He suspects that on occasion, in the the throes of passion with Mrs Gray, he cried out ‘mother’… He also desperately wanted to make Mrs Gray pregnant… Cleave’s daughter Cass was pregnant when she died.

These snippets are dropped in almost casually by Banville. One is unsure what to make of them, if anything.

Cleave speaks of the phenomenon of coincidences, only to dismiss them:

‘The statisticians tell us there is no such thing as coincidence, and I must accept they know what they are talking about.’

Yet, he also comments, following Cass’s death:

‘Coincidences were not now what they had been heretofore, mere wrinkles in the otherwise blandly plausible surface of reality, but parts of a code, large and urgent, a kind of desperate semaphoring from the other side that, maddeningly, we were unable to read.’

Perhaps the greatest irony of all is that the book is fundamentally based on coincidences…

I get the sense that Banville ‘plays’ with his readers, very cleverly, and tantalisingly.

One could read and analyse Ancient Light on many levels.

My own conclusion is that it was a joy to experience this work rather than an enigma to be deciphered.


Over the past months, well since its inception really, I have received some informal feedback on this blog. The criticisms mainly focus on the title, ‘suffering’, and the content (which hopefully reflects the title…).

For some, I guess the word ‘suffering’ has a penitential connotation. For others, the blog content has a seriousness that weighs heavily on them.

I make no apologies for the blog title or content.

For me, life is wondrously rich and various and unpredictable and complex and enigmatic and contrary.

It is what it is, a heady mix of challenging stuff.

For me also, suffering does not have the negative connotations that it appears to have for others. Suffering is part of the complicated mix of what it means to be alive and living and experiencing.

Today, I thought I would throw a smidge of happiness into this rich mix, given the current climate of ‘Happy New Year’, which has followed swiftly on from ‘Happy Christmas’…

I have chosen two poems.

Firstly, from Raymond Carver’s Happiness:

‘Happiness. It comes on

unexpectedly. And goes beyond, really,

any early morning talk about it.’

Secondly, Stephen Dunn’s similarly titled poem, Happiness:

A state you must dare not enter

with hopes of staying,

quicksand in the marshes, and all

the roads leading to a castle

that doesn’t exist.

But there it is, as promised,

with its perfect bridge above

the crocodiles,

and its doors forever open.’