Arts Week 2018: Gaelic hardship in Flann O’Brien’s ‘The Poor Mouth’

Charlotte Deadman, a researcher in fin de siècle Anglo-Irish culture, the Gaelic League, Gaelic Revival and the Irish literary revival, comments on Arts Week event Gaelic Hardship.

The key theme of this sell-out event was an exploration of movement between languages in Brian O’Nolan/Flann O’Brien’s 1941 novel, An Béal Bocht (The Poor Mouth), considered the first post-modernist Irish language novel. The panel – Joseph Brooker, Tobias Harris and Eoin Byrne – commenced proceedings with a timeline tracing O’Nolan’s background (born in 1911 into a highly-literate Irish-speaking Catholic family), his career as civil servant, epistolarian and novelist.

O’Nolan (as ‘Flann O’Brien’) contributed regularly to the letters page of The Irish Times, leading to his own column, ‘Cruiskeen Lawn’ (‘full little jug’), under the pen name Myles na gCopaleen: O’Nolan’s aliases – ‘brand names’ – were pivotal to his deliberate blurring of identity. In a letter to Sean O’Casey in 1942, O’Nolan wrote that An Béal Bocht was his ‘honest attempt to get under the skin of a certain type of Gael, which I find the most nauseating phenomenon in Europe’. The novel satirises the government’s gaelicising of Irish culture to the point that an onlooker could believe ‘all Irish literature was written for school children and nuns.’

An Béal Bocht was O’Nolan’s only Irish language novel; the fossilisation of the language, as he saw it, persuaded him to henceforth write only in English. However, O’Nolan refused to sanction an English version of his novel; Patrick C. Power’s translation was published in 1973, seven years after O’Nolan’s death. We learnt that the genesis of The Poor Mouth can be located in O’Nolan’s ‘Cruiskeen Lawn’ column and that the narrative framing – Bonaparte O’Coonassa’s autobiography edited by ‘Myles na Gopaleen (Flann O’Brien)’ – was intended to toy with reader expectations of the genre. The novel’s complex intertextuality draws upon a patchwork of phrases and events excised from well-known Irish language autobiographies, blended with pseudo-Gaelic myths, the significance of some of which has apparently been lost in translation. Eoin Byrne explained that the pen names in The Poor Mouth mirrored contemporary reality: while writers adopted nom de plumes, they all knew who was who and, affecting ignorance, publicly trashed each other.

Guest speaker, Hugh Wilde, read a passage after which Tobias Harris explained the significance of the ‘comic extension’ therein conveyed, suggesting O’Nolan’s ‘Jams O’Donnell’ represents a ‘sense of dual consciousness, of two cultural worlds’ – one promoting the idea of the heroic ‘Gael of Gaels’, the other Anglicised and hostile to the Gaels, expressed in Jams O’Donnell’s duality of language; Harris illustrated this duality, citing Irish passports which bear the holder’s name in both Irish and English.

Eoin Byrne speaks at the event

Eoin Byrne explained that the education system in Ireland set about eradicating the Irish language and that the resultant national linguistic divide became fundamental to a sense of identity: while colonial rule punished speakers of Irish, the Irish Free State’s ‘de-Anglicising’ agenda punished speakers of English. The Poor Mouth is effectively a collage of historical times, chronicling the ‘de-anglicising’ of Ireland, the English language symbolic of oppression.

Joseph Brooker then read a passage which he described as ‘a performance piece’, the Gaelic language portrayed as a marker of social prestige: O’Nolan’s parody of the Gael autobiography genre blurs into nonsense and consequently is incapable of saying anything of worth. Eoin Byrne’s animated re-reading of the passage in its original Irish form was a high spot of the evening.

The final reading was given by guest speaker, N. J. Harris. The event culminated in a focus on the novel’s portrayal of characters ‘living up to stereotypes…to their literary fate’ – although this is Bonaparte’s story, he is symbolically rendered silent – and that, central to the novel, is circularity of time, woven through in variations on the leitmotif ‘their likes will never be there again’. At the novel’s conclusion, parody is displaced by poignancy, reflecting on the cycle of imprisonment that runs in Bonaparte’s family: the novel is ultimately a commentary on the restrictions urban Dublin society inflicted on rural Irish speakers.

The panel summed-up The Poor Mouth as ‘a response to the cultural violence of extreme nationalism’ within the Irish language movement: a demonstration of post-modernist pessimism. This was an excellent evening, striking the perfect balance between informal and informative. I look forward to their likes being there again.

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Arts Week 2018: the architectural beauty of Cook’s Camden

Kayleigh Woods Harley, project support coordinator at Birkbeck, reports on Arts Week event Cook’s Camden: The Making of Modern Housing, a talk delivered by Mark Swenarton. 

On a beautiful Monday evening in the sunlit Keynes Library, Mark Swenarton addressed a crowd of architecture-lovers about his recent book, Cook’s Camden: the making of modern housing. The London borough of Camden in the 1960s and 70s was awash with high rise social housing. But that began to change under borough architect Sydney Cook. While adhering to the need for high-density accommodation, the new designs under Cook were all about simplicity, efficiency and quality.

In 1968 Cook commissioned young up-and-coming architect Neave Brown with his first major housing development at Alexandra Road, just off the famous Abbey Road. Brown was disorganised in appearance when he presented his plans for the site to a large audience wearing the ‘office tie’ which Cook had conscientiously supplied for such occasions. Nevertheless, they were greeted with applause.

The Alexandra Road estate is a seminal example of this new architectural style. Parallel rows of houses are accessed from a central, pedestrianized street. All the houses face one another, to accord with Brown’s belief that children playing in the communal space would be better behaved if all the neighbours could watch them from the window. (Brown designed his own house this way too; he installed a first-floor balcony overlooking the garden, allowing the adults to supervise the children in comfort.) Shirking tradition, Brown’s interiors lack any space-wasting hallways or corridors and he instead created light-filled open-plan spaces with the flexibility of Japanese-style sliding partition walls. The quality of the build and materials was such that these homes – many of which were bought by their tenants under Thatcher’s right to buy scheme – are still highly desirable today.

Brown’s designs became popular with planners because of their economy of space, filling out the development area right up to its perimeter –like laying a carpet wall-to-wall – and other young architects were quick to pick up the gauntlet. Arguably the most beautiful council housing in the world is the Branch Hill estate. Cook handed the strict brief to Gordon Benson and Alan Forsyth to build homes on newly acquired land belonging to the estate of the grand Edwardian Branch Hill Lodge. To fulfil the requirement not to build above two storeys, they designed an ingenious interlocking system of maisonettes, each with a large roof terrace overlooking the verdant grounds of the old estate. The development was a not-so-subtle statement about the repurposing of previously aristocratic-owned land for the wider public’s use, giving a snapshot into the political mindset of Cook’s department.

Sadly, when Sydney Cook retired, his grand, pioneering ideas went with him and his young talented architects lost out to their less innovative peers. The political landscape shifted to adopt less progressive notions about social housing, and the architectural style of Cook’s era waned.

Mark Swenarton’s beautiful book is a labour of love which has been ten years in the making. It is published to a high standard with gorgeous original photographs of both the exteriors and interiors of the Cook era developments and new cross-sections have been drawn to modern standards. The book has proved so popular that it is already sold out, but further copies are available to purchase directly from its publisher, Lund Humphries, with more coming back in stock over the coming months.

Kayleigh Woods Harley is a project support coordinator at Birkbeck College. She has held professional service roles at other universities such as the Royal College of Surgeons in Ireland and the University of St Andrews. She holds a PGCE in secondary English teaching and a Master of Arts in English Literature from the University of Edinburgh. Alongside her full-time job, she reads classic literature, art history, architectural history and natural history, writes literary fiction and has an active interest in sustainability issues.

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Arts Week 2018: Building a hive mind through immersive art

Eva Menger, freelance copywriter and MA Contemporary Literature & Culture student at Birkbeck, reports on Bee Composed Live, an immersive art and sound project featured in Arts Week 2018

When a bee flies into your piano, there are a couple of things you can do. You can choose to ignore it, get a bit annoyed, or carefully listen to the sound it produces and simply let it amaze you. Lily Hunter Green, contemporary sound artist, composer and current artist-in-residence at Birkbeck, opted for the latter. Starting in 2014 with ‘Bee Composed’, a project that involved transforming old pianos into beehives, she is now working towards ‘Bee Composed Live’, a live performance in which contemporary dancers, music and audiovisual compositions will function as an immersive and collaborative representation of the hive mind. As part of Birkbeck Arts Week, she shares her fascinations, findings and future aspirations.

Still of video projecting the collective consciousness of bees.

Bees are extraordinary. The way in which they work is astonishingly efficient and surprisingly relatable to our own neatly organised society. What makes them unique, however, is their ability to work as a collective consciousness. Despite having their own job roles – from bouncer bees to cleaner bees and architect bees – they are not autonomous and only work as part of something bigger, a phenomenon Hunter Green suitably calls ‘the hive mind’. Sharing life footage of this process, Hunter Green shows how it promotes togetherness – a strategy she doesn’t only applaud but tries to apply to her own way of working as well. Collaborating with people from all over the world, including molecular biologists, choreographers and computer scientists, she aims to educate on the science of the hive as well as the reasons why more and more bees are dying.

Having said that, she doesn’t want people to leave her performance feeling hopeless. Narratives around pesticides, climate change and modern farming are to be taken seriously, but hopelessness can lead to inaction – and that’s where Hunter Green wants to make a change. Unlike the 1950s science fiction trend of giant insects ruining everyday life, Hunter Green is keen to show how insects are something to be inspired by. Creating an understanding of their vital role in life through art will hopefully make people see that planting bee-friendly flowers in their gardens will already make a significant difference, she explains.

A piano-turned-into-beehive.

Turning bee science into a life composition seems appropriate both due to its resemblance to Greek tragedies (if there is more than one queen bee around, a violent battle awaits) and geographical nature. As just one of several dances bees perform to communicate with each other, the waggle dance serves to navigate the way to newly discovered food sources (fun fact: the better the food, the more excited the dance). The image below shows one of the contemporary dancers Hunter Green collaborated to visualise this process.

In addition to this dance, ‘Bee Composed Live’ includes visual recordings from the piano hive and original new compositions, ultimately intending to create a simulation of the hive mind. With issues as complex as bee extinction, immersive visualizations can help to create a public understanding. Learn more about Lily Hunter Green and her meaningful work, here.

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Arts Week 2017: Dematerialising Theatre with Andy Smith

This post was contributed by Elinor Perry-Smith

glass-of-waterSeeing this remarkable event and hearing Andy Smith talk about his experience and practice gave this particular playwright much to consider. Don’t get me wrong: I love props and spectacle in theatre. There’s something quite magical and transporting about well-thought props and costumes. Also the way in which actors embody the characters we create and say the word we have written for them to speak. But even so, where does the ‘theatre’ actually take place?

Andy Smith averred to an enthusiastic audience at Birkbeck’s Arts Week that it takes place in the audience. That the action, the drama, is not just unfolding in front of the audience, it is taking place inside them as well. To that end, the audience therefore (as I understand it) becomes part of the performance. This privileges audience experience and involvement of course, and makes the performance an exciting phenomenon, evolving before our very eyes, ears, minds and hearts, changing with each performance because the audience changes each time and therefore brings a different set of reactions, sensibilities, and willingness (or not) to participate.

Andy Smith himself is open, warm and funny yet I felt that dematerialised theatre has the potential for psychodynamic effect in all its participants and therefore may not be for everyone. Of course, I could be wrong about this. Andy used a cooking analogy: dematerialised theatre is like a sauce reducing and reducing. The result may not be to everyone’s taste. One phrase certainly stuck with me. It’s not about ‘less is more’ but about doing ‘more with less’. Props and people become representational of objects. Is it any less authentic a ‘performance’ than Robert De Niro wearing underpants made by Al Capone’s underwear maker?

Conversely, how does all this change the experience of the playwright, producers and actors of such a piece? Andy spoke of how plays might be performed by non-actors with scripts in hand and no prop above the size of a show; without the distractions of elaborate props, the attention is sharply focused on the action of the play and the feelings it engenders in the audience. I suppose a cinematic equivalent would be the ‘Dogme’ films where only natural light and sound is allowed. Or even the stage-like markings of Lars Von Trier’s Dogville and Manderlay, where the audience is compelled to imagine the sets.

Andy demonstrated dematerialised theatre to the audience, who willingly participated in the impromptu ‘performance’ that started with the transformation of a glass of water into a tree and ended with an audience member transforming into Miss Julie. It seemed to this participant that it spoke to a very primal understanding of story. One that developed in our earliest days as hunter-gatherers when stories and drama were orally enacted and so our imaginations broadened exponentially as a result. It was utterly fascinating to witness and certainly gave me the urge to research the whole process further.

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