Watchful eye with a shrewd and expressive turn of phrase
Published 18/06/2006 | 00:11
Crystal Clear: The Selected Prose of John Jordan Hugh McFadden (editor) Lilliput Press, ?25.00 IT SHOCKED the editor of this hefty volume (435 pages) to be told by his publisher that he would have to explain to younger readers who John Jordan was. "The idea that a literate reader interested in literature or the theatre might not be very familiar with the life and work of John Jordan was a somewhat startling one," he writes.
Indeed; but a generation has grown up since Jordan, the leading critic of his time, died in 1988, aged 58, and so Hugh McFadden, a student of Jordan's, and a friend, fills in the details with an affectionate introduction.
John Jordan was more than a critic. As he described himself on the cover of one book (of poems), "I have been a Corporation clerk, an actor, a University lecturer, a theatre critic, a book-reviewer, acolumnist, a broadcaster, a pain in the neck, especiallyto myself . . . "
But it is the critic who is remembered in the present book. He wrote in Hibernia and the Irish Press (themselves sadly missed) and elsewhere - and he wrote a lot. His name over a review was a sign that this was something worth reading.
Authors felt this too. Francis Stuart wrote to Jordan when Black List, Section H was published, in 1972: "It was a relief to hear you would review my novel. It has nothing to do with expecting something 'favourable'. I know you will say what you think, and, whatever that may be, needI tell you there could beno repercussions . . . "
The Jordan tone was severe, perceptive, well-turned, witty, urbane: no punches pulled, though he was aware that "only in Dublin perhaps is it necessary to announce that there can be such a thing as criticism unloaded with personal animus". A book of Desmond O'Grady's poems is "a depressing and suety book". Of Brendan Behan: "I suggest that he is not a great writer, but only a very good one, with glaring faults". Padraic O Conaire (Jordan's
To two Dublin boys who knew the city, Ulysses came as a revelation. 'We found that we were living in a work of art'
cosmopolitanism extended to the Irish language) was "a gifted slovenly writer in Gaelic who was encouraged to drink too much by men with fixed abodes and regularhot meals".
The cold eye of John Jordan is well captured by painter Edward McGuire on the cover; the portrait also suggests something of the warmth Jordan could bring to a subject: a sense of enthusiasm derived from his appreciation of the pains which a writer takes to venture into print.
He is warm about James Joyce, whose Dubliners he read at 15. He was impressed, as a Dubliner himself, by the "authenticity not only of brilliantly selected speech but of heard speech": 40 years after the book was written, but only four years after Joyce had died, the idiom of his own childhood in Harold's Cross, not far from Joyce's Rathgar, "sprang out on the page bright as fresh paint".
He notes that the idiom of the story The Dead is a sub-species: the idiom of gentility. This quality is on Jordan's mind when describing his own circumstances to the eminent English theatre critic James Agate, 68, with whom he conducted a precocious correspondence from the age of 14: "Gentility is confined to a few back avenues where everybody is as snobbish as can be, and the word 'common' echoes all through the day. When I was small I wasn'tallowed to play with 'common' children."
The young critic already had the splinter of ice which Graham Greene found in the heart of a writer. The precocious child finds his parents a grave disappointment: "My mother wallows in the philosophy of life propounded by Ethel M Dell," he wroteto Agate and his assistant,Leo Pavia. "My father readsthe newspapers."
Agate recommended him to Hilton Edwards, and within a year he was working in the Gate as a scriptreader.
Another Gate grandee, Lady Longford, who lived near the young Jordan, lent him Ulysses at the beginning of his last year in school; he read it in the "quite preposterously romantic setting" of Woodenbridge, Co Wicklow, that September with the painter Patrick Swift, and to two Dublin boys who knew the city the book was a revelation: "We found that wewere living in a work of art."This book is full of sharp observation (criticism, in other words) of a kind not seen much in papers now, for all our abundant "culture" of opinion and invective - whether about Jordan's friends and contemporaries or about more distant figures such as O'Casey, Wilde and Kate O'Brien.
Of Elizabeth Bowen's marriage he writes: " . . . in those 30 years she was never disloyal to him, though not, in the sexual sense, always faithful". To call Brian O'Nolan a "'humorist' . . . is both insulting and foolish". He is worth reading on "Mr Patrick Kavanagh and his London branch, Mr Anthony Cronin".
On the death of Kavanagh, in a piece apparently unpublished, Jordan writes of his "utter desolation . . . Let then his friends and lovers mourn the extinction of their source of gaiety, their fount of wisdom, their corrective to the sick fancies of melancholy".
Professor FX Martin, on John Jordan's death, expressed the hope that, having played "a stimulating role in Irish cultural life during the past three decades" he should not go unrecorded, in order to be able to counterbalance "the ponderous tomes of other Irish scholars".
This generous tome goes a long way towards fulfilling that hope.