Sunday 19 November 2017

Let silence fall on the political noise storm

Diary: Fergal Keane

POETIC CALM: Russian poet Anna Akhmatova, in a portrait by Nathan Altman from 1914.
POETIC CALM: Russian poet Anna Akhmatova, in a portrait by Nathan Altman from 1914.

Fergal Keane

I am sick to my remaining back teeth of politics. Tomorrow in the pre-dawn cold I will stumble to a taxi to begin a long journey to a place where people are busy killing each other.

Those doing most of the dying have nothing to do with the causes of the war. But that won't trouble the opposing armies or the social media warriors who press their claims, or the five permanent members of the UN Security Council who are watching the flames lick at the doors of the future while they play proxy war.

To top it all we had the Government led by Nobel Laureate, Aung San Suu Kyi, icon of international human rights, feted by Bono and others in Dublin, banning reporters from reporting from the scene of ethnic cleansing in north-eastern Burma. Luckily for her the international community - whatever that means these days - cares even less about the unfortunate Rohingya Muslims than it does about the people of Aleppo, about whom it hardly cares at all anymore.

Well, that's a fine positive start to proceedings. Enough. I vowed that I would not write about the transatlantic escapades of Trumpian America or anything to add to the gloom of the nation. The anger and irrationality out there gets the better of me. I find it infecting my own thoughts. Winter has come and I have barely stopped to notice the migratory birds foregathering on the Thames, or the newly bare trees in Chiswick House. These are things that have always given me joy.

I realise I haven't been to see the deer or the mad green parrots in Richmond Park since the end of the summer. I write now to clear my head of the political noise storm before I head for the wars in the morning.

The cup of Barry's tea is made. I have one lamp switched on. There is only me here so nobody will wake if I play my music. On go the Field Nocturnes and I feel a calm flood the room. I think I heard Field for the first time in my grandmother's home in Cork in the early 1970s. She was the only person I knew who still had 78s and the machine to play them on. For the benefit of the young, including our sainted editor who may be perplexed by this reference, the 78 was a piece of vinyl that went around and around at 78 revolutions per minute.

As well as Field she had several records of Count John McCormack. She could not have picked two more contrasting characters. Field departed his native Dublin at the age of 10 to become a celebrated pianist in Tzarist Russia, only to end his days, after many peregrinations around Europe and surviving Napoleon's invasion, as a tormented alcoholic.

His friends called him "Drunken John", quite some accolade in a country as notorious for the consumption of strong liquor as Russia.

I don't think May Hassett was much aware of Field's tragic end. He belonged to a time far gone. McCormack was of her time. His voice brought back the era when she fell in love with my grandfather Paddy. They travelled together to see McCormack at the Eucharistic Congress in 1932 and May Hassett never forgot how his Panis Angelicus soared over the vast crowds.

On the train back to Cork she had a tiff with my grandfather and gave him back the engagement ring. It was quickly made up, probably over tea in the cafe above the Savoy cinema, their favourite haunt before and after marriage.

You will have noticed my mind is wandering a bit. I find myself waking at night a lot lately and thinking of the streets of Cork. It is age I suppose, and what Shakespeare called (in As You Like It) a "melancholy of mine own, compounded of many simples, extracted from many objects, and indeed the sundry contemplation of my travels…" When I wake I read, mostly poetry that sees me through the marches of the night. I would be fully mad without my books of verse. I leave myself when I read poetry, or maybe I come to who I might be, if I had a mind that sought more frequently the grace of quiet places.

Over the past week I was reading the great Russian poet, Anna Akhmatova. I remember a line from Raymond Carver where he wrote of Akhmatova and the painter Amedeo Modigliani in Paris "both of them untouched by their futures". Which in turn set me looking up details of their time together. I found these lines she wrote after he had died, at 34, of tubercular meningitis and the ravages of alcoholism.

"The breath of art had yet to kindle, to transform these two existences, this must have been a luminous, weightless, predawn hour. But the future, which we know casts its shadow long before making its entrance, was knocking at the window, lurking behind streetlamps, penetrating dreams, and frightening us with its dreadful Baudelairian Paris, which was concealed somewhere nearby.

"And everything that was divine in Modigliani simply sparkled through some kind of gloom. He was unlike anyone else in the world."

This in turn led me to Akhmatova's poem Everything, which felt like the perfect riposte to the tidal wave of malice, lies and vulgarity that have washed over us for months.

Everything's looted, betrayed and traded,

black death's wing's overhead.

Everything's eaten by hunger, unsated,

so why does a light shine ahead?

By day, a mysterious wood, near the town,

breathes out cherry, a cherry perfume.

By night, on July's sky, deep, and transparent,

new constellations are thrown.

And something miraculous will come

close to the darkness and ruin,

something no one, no one, has known,

though we've longed for it since we were children.

I don't really want to go out the door in the morning. But I have packed Akhmatova and it will be Christmas when I return.

Sunday Independent

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