The Champion’s Portion

Chapter One

Bricriu thrust open the door of the Craobh Ruadh, so violently that the fire in the central hearth belched a cloud of smoke while the candles on the long table on the dais flickered before he stamped into the hall, slamming  the door shut and glaring around from under heavy black eyebrows before seeing Conor on the dais. The Craobh Ruadh, the Red Branch, was one of the three great halls within Eamhain Macha, the heart of the kingdom of the Ulaidh, and attracted the fighting men and champions who protected the northern kingdom and punished transgressors. These warriors and fighting men in turn were mentored by those former champions, heroes still, veterans like Conall, Ferdia, Fergus, Bricriu and others of their generation and older still, like Sencha the Draoidh. But now it was the time of the new generation of warriors and champions and, despite his age and seniority among the veterans of the Craobh Ruadh, Bricriu knew they called him The Bitter-tongued behind his back and refused to see him for what he believed he was.

Conor Mac Nessa, the once boy-king, looked up from the game of fiduchell he had been playing with Fergus mac Rioch and frowned. ‘Guard yourself,’ he muttered to his companion, ‘and keep a civil tongue in your head for you know full well the bile that man produces’. Fergus glanced over his shoulder and then shifted on his haunch so the his sword lay unimpeded by his side.

Conor knew the noisy arrival of Bricriu would do nothing to ease the ache he already felt in his temples and the top of his head from too much of the unwatered wine he and Fergus had been drinking but hospitality demanded guests must be allowed to eat and drink before stating their business but he guessed what Bricriu would demand.

Sétanta mac Sualtáim, or lately called Cú Chulainn, the Hound of the North, had recently returned from a lengthy foray into Alba and almost immediately on his return, had taken forcibly to wife, Emer, daughter of the wily Forgall Manach and there was much talk for what this would all mean, for Emer was from the southern kingdom of Laigheann.

‘An’ why wouldn’t ye have a feast for yer man?  Sure isn’t he just home here himself with his new woman and how else can we build relationships and keep our brotherhood strong?’ Bricriu demanded, knowing full well the old king’s reluctance to engage in extravagance.

‘It would not be seemly at this time,’ Conor replied.

‘Give Cú Chulainn a chance to settle down,’ Fergus chipped in.  ‘After all, it is a new experience for us as well as for the Hound.’ 

Annoyed by the old fool siding with the man who had usurped him, Bricriu was more than ever determined to go through with the plan he was beginning to hatch to sow discord among the heroes of the Craobh Ruadh, especially now that Fergus continued to belittle him

‘Well, lookit here to me,’ Bricriu said slyly, ‘if you lot won’t have a feast for your man that all will remember, then I will.  I will return on the morrow and you can give me the honour of accepting an invitation to feast with me.’ He pushed his cup of wine away and stood up abruptly. ‘Until tomorrow then.’.

‘What do you think, Fergus?’ Conor asked glancing over at the older man. Fergus the Unwise they called him, and with good reason, Conor reminded himself, after he had ceded this kingdom of the Ulaidh in return for the favour of his widowed mother, Ness. That was more than three decades past and the kingdom under Conor had prospered in that time and Conor had grown used to listening to the older man’s advice.

‘I’ll tell you this much,’ Fergus sat up and spat into the fire, ‘If we go to a feast organised by that venomous tongued pot-stirrer, there will be more of us dead afterwards than there would be to begin with. Mind you,’ he said, shifting painfully on the bench, ‘if he wants to have a feast let him build his own hall in his own grounds and the expense of that might soften his cough.’

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Bricriu feigned delight when Conor agreed to his idea of a feast for Cú Chulainn and his newly claimed woman, Emer of Laigheann.

‘And yes,’ Conor continued, ‘you may organise the feast, Bricriu but you will also bear the expense not just of the food and drink but you must also provide a hall worthy of our Craobh Ruadh and our heroic warriors of the Ulaidh.’

‘Not only that,’ Fergus butted in, ‘You yourself will not be welcomed at that self same feast you organise for if you attend, I know that there will be enmity and malice aplenty.’

Sencha coughed and reminded Conor that he should insist on taking hostages and Bricriu cursed silently at the effort it caused him to hold in his rage at this treatment.

Leaving Eamhain Macha he immediately began preparation for a feasting hall to be built at his lands at Dun Rudraige.  Remembering what Conor had said about the honour of the Craobh Ruadh, he determined to surpass the wonders of that building with his own great hall fit for heroes.  The Craobh Dearg, the second of the great halls within Eamhain Macha, was just a barracks for warriors, a place to store weapons and equipment always to hand, but this, Bricriu determined, his hall would surpass all buildings for heroes in the same way that heroes surpassed all other men. He smiled suddenly, a plan formed for these prancing upstarts, these so smart, so-called heroes, they would be his guests at his hall soon enough and he would see what they were capable of.

The huge pillars of oak had been labouriously brought by teams of six horses and the combined effort of all the slaves was needed to position each of the central pillars into the post holes that the Draoidhs had arranged down the central aisle of the hall while seven strong men were needed to hoist each pole into the rafters overhead so that the roof could be attached.  

The long hall was split in two by a walkway, on either side of which were trestle tables and benches with groups  separated by panels of beaten bronze laced with gold swirls and interlocking circles so that all had a space around the huge central hearth.

Every imaginable aspect, whether it be shape, plan, embellishment, pillars and facades, portals and design, was such that the whole outshone its parts. Artisans had expertly filled the inner wattle walls separating the area, fit for queens, furnished with the cured furs and pillows, the benches draped with quilts and skins, from the feasting hall for the men. A massive platform spanned the forepart of the hall, its facing panel studded with rich stones and the burnished metal of shields and naked swords. On that platform were the seats for Conor mac Nessa, king of the Ulaidh and the leaders of Craobh Ruadh, the Red Branch warriors, before whom all trembled.

All of which Bricriu could easily look down on from the loft off to one side among the rafter beams, which he had built, knowing the men of the Ulaidh would not tolerate him to be at his own feast.

Making sure there was a full supply of food and drink, he set out for EM to deliver the formal invitation.

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Conor was sprawled on his bench, idly looking at the boy troop exercising on the sward outside the Craobh Dearg when Fergus nudged him, alerting him to Bricriu’s approach.

Sencha sat up straighter and looked at the king enquiringly.  They had discussed Bricriu’s impending visit and they all knew that nothing would suit the cantankerous man unless they all immediately responded with enthusiasm to his invitation to a feast at his newly erected feasting hall at Dun Rudraige. It had been more than two hands worth of moons since he had first suggested holding a feast for the Hound of the Ulaidh and all attempts to delay the inevitable had finally stopped but the Ulaidh were still not resigned to going. Bricriu stepped a pace closer and looked at the faces of the men on the dais before looking around him scornfully.

‘I’ll tell you this much and I’ll tell you no more but what with the expense it has put me to, in not only its construction and victualing, but also in its style and grace, I will be hard put out if the brave warriors of the Craobh Ruadh do not deign to honour my hall with their presence.’

‘We will need those nine hostages,’ Fergus reminded him.

Bricriu ignored him and continued, ‘I will cause enmity between lords and men, between heroes and champions if they will not come to my feast.’

‘Listen to him Conor, worse things will happen,’ Fergus pleaded.  ‘If we go with him it will mean mayhem.  But if we must go, we must go on our terms.’

Bricriu shrugged. ‘I will cause enmity between fathers and sons, mothers and daughters and even between the two teats of the women until they are red, raw and bleeding and begin to grow hair and rot,’ he continued.

‘By the gods around us.’ swore Fergus, ‘I will not attend this bitter feast for I tell you now, that our dead will outnumber us if we accept.’  

‘If I may suggest’. Sencha intervened, ‘Perhaps, Fergus, you would reconsider if Bricriu not only withdraws from his very own feast but also permits a nine-man troop of your choosing to guard and protect him at all time.’

Conor nodded sharply at the former king and Fergus grunted ‘I will only attend if you yourself, Bricriu, are not present.’ before slamming his mug down on the table, sloshing some of its contents over his bunched fist. 

Document_2021-07-21_174214 (2) 2Detail from a 9th century Irish manuscript illumination in the Bodleian Library, Oxford [Auct D 2 19, f.52r]

Bricriu’s Feast & The Champion’s Portion

The Champion’s Portion is an extension to the story of Bricriu’s Feast and is thought to have been based on texts from the 9th century which, in turn, were based on texts from 7th century (those texts are no longer extant) but the tale would have been orally transmitted for centuries before eventually being committed to writing. 

Bricriu’s Feast is found in several manuscripts, including The Book of the Dun Cow (Lebor na hUidre) c.1106 so called because the original vellum, upon which it was written, was made from the hide of a brown cow supposedly owned by the abbot of the monastery at Clonmacnoise.

The Book of the Dun Cow was written in the 11th century and is the oldest surviving miscellaneous manuscript in Irish literature but is badly damaged: only 67 leaves remain and many of the texts are incomplete.

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Lebor na hUidre (Book of the Dun Cow) Royal Irish Academy

The manuscript is thought to be the work of three scribes, identified with the letters A, M and H.

A and M were contemporary. A began the manuscript and several of the texts, which were continued by M, identified as Máel Muire, murdered by Vikings at Clonmacnoise in 1106.

Based on orthography and an English loanword, H (so named for his fondness of inserting homilies into the texts) was apparently writing in the late 12th or early 13th century and added a number of new texts and passages, sometimes over erased portions of the original, sometimes on new leaves. Vellum, made of lamb, calf, or goat skin, was expensive, so a page was often re-used by scribes for another document after the original text had been scraped or washed off.

Bricriu’s Feast is also found in The Book of Leinster, a medieval Irish literary compendium of stories, poetry, and history, and it appears, from annals included in it, that it was written between 1151 and 1201, although largely completed by 1160 and now kept in Trinity College, Dublin. 

The manuscript is a composite work and more than one hand appears to have been responsible for its production. The principal compiler and scribe was probably Áed Ua Crimthainn who was abbot of the monastery of Tír-Dá-Glas on the Shannon.

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The Book of Lenister Trinity College, Dublin

In the story, Bricriu promises the Champion’s Portion of his feast to three different heroes. A violent dispute over precedence ensues, which leads to a series of contests. One night a giant carrying an ax challenges the warriors of the Ulaidh to behead him in exchange for a chance to behead them in turn. On successive nights two of the heroes behead the giant, who, each time, replaces his head and leaves but comes back to take his turn only to find that the warriors have departed.Finally, the undisputed hero, Cú Chulainn, beheads the giant and, when the giant returns, places his own head on the block, true to his word. The giant, really a wizard in disguise, proclaims Cú Chulainn the first hero of the Ulaidh. 

This is considered the source for the beheading game used in Sir Gawayne and the Grene Knight, a late 14th century tale in Middle English while Bricriu’s Feast was the definitive source for W.B.Yeats’s play The Green Helmet. Not bad for an old Irish tale!

Bricriu’s Feast was the first old world saga or story I ever read that made me laugh out loud. The story teller was fully aware of the comic aspects of the heroic tale.

There are, however, so many repetitions and duplications, which may well have sounded better in the telling, but the structure of the manuscripts leaves something to be desired. Errors in transcription and transmission and the insertions of the different Christian scribes do not make for easy reading.

Sticking closely to the original translations*, this is my version of the story broken into digestible (I hope) and coherent chunks.

I will post Chapter One soon.

*Translations

Early Irish Myths and Sagas, Translated and with an introduction and notes by Jeffrey Gantz. Penguin Classics 1981

Fled Bricrend (The Feast of Bricriu), translated by George Henderson,

Medieval Irish Series, Cambridge Ontario 1999

Lady Gregory’s Complete Irish Mythology

Originally published as separate volumes by John Murray Publishers, London 

Gods and Fighting Men (1904) and Cuchullain of Muirthemne (1902)

Joni Mitchell Blue 1971

I was talking with sone friends recently, looking back at best times in our lives in comparison to the dread, exasperation and frustration that Covid-19 has engendered world-wide. Mind you, here in Perth, we have so far eluded the virus in Fortress WA, closed off from the world and most of the rest of Australia. Count our blessings! Anyway, we each recalled a different place or time in our lives when we were ‘happy’ whatever that means now. I remember a line from Dylan’s Workingman Blues – ‘ the place I love best is a sweet memort.’ We all came up with answers – places, cities, towns here, there and everywhere and Spain, specifically, sprang into my mind and then someone else bet that all our recollections of that best time were linked to an age range of between 22 – 25 years of age.

And then, just recently a friend send me a cutting from The Guardian* Joni Mitchell’s Blue: celebrating the albums’s 50 years and I fished out the cd, dusted it off and listened to it this morning while I lay on a mat and attempted hip flexion exercises!

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in 1975, I was half-way to twenty-three when I finished my BA (Old & Middle English, Language and Literature) and left Ireland to work in steel factory and a jam and fruit processing plant. Then the following year, manual labour over for a while, money in my pocket and the vague possibility of teaching English somewhere, I took a long overland trip to the south of Spain – hard, slatted wooden seats on a train to or from, I can’t remember, Irun in northern Spain. Of places and cities I have no memory from that time but for my arrival in the early morning in Seville where I mistakenly thought the laden orange trees were electrified, their colour so vivid in that grey dawn.

My life changed then because, among many other new and wonderful experiences and discoveries that spring time in a fascinating ‘barrios’ with tangled streets in the old quarter of Seville, I remember most, almost, the music! Sadly perhaps, not Spanish or flamenco but instead Blue by Joni Mitchell, Blood on the Tracks and Desire both by BoyDylan.

I have no doubt that time and places can imprint a song in the mind far more so than the occasional ‘ear-worm’ where snatches of song echo continually in your head without you intending it. I distinctly remember the three cassettes and the bulky boom-box I dragged around Europe with me – (no disc or walkman then, of course) then much later buying them again on CDs, which I still have. At the time I could listen to any one of those albums and feel that they were directly speaking to me and directly relevant to my particular situation at that time. The amazing thing is that, fifty years later, I can still listen to them and feel that unerring truth and relevance in each and every song.

So with Blue, right now and off the top of my head, I remember sleeping out on the flat roof in the barrio of Santa Cruz, under the stars and listening to Joni Mitchell ‘The wind was in from Africa / last night I couldn’t sleep’ and I felt like I was there, with Africa just across the straits.

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Unlike Leonard Cohen (in a previous post where I was perhaps a touch harsh on his vocal skill and guitar ability) Joni Mitchel  has a voice which sweeps all before it, rising and dipping, swooping into all areas and covering a gamut of emotions and feelings, evocative images forming, tangible. Her voice trembles, surges, chances so mercurially and yet I can’t resist her insistence

‘Come on down to the Mermaid Café and I will / Buy you a bottle of wine

And we’ll laugh and toast to nothing / And smash our empty glasses down’

and I thought of all the nights spent in late night basement bars and cafes, the tally chalked nonchalantly on the plain wooden  counter top.

‘Born with the moon in Cancer …’ summed me up, I felt, and was enticed by the promise of adventure and love and silver.

‘So I bought me a ticket / I got on a plane to Spain’ even though I had arrived by train, I still felt the whole album was speaking to me.

And there in Seville and later in LaRache in Morocco, everything was awaiting, adventure, fun, love, danger and excitement and further travel was no escape from love and a broken heart.

‘Turn this crazy bird around / Shouldn’t have got on this flight tonight.’ was the mildest of comparisons to how I felt when I finally left Spain with a newfound love for fine Spanish wines and sherries.

‘Maybe I’ll go to Amsterdam / or maybe I’ll go to Rome’ seemed to sum up my devil-may-care attitude at the time when I had both the leisure and the funds to afford it but I was deeply aware of what I had found and lost.

‘Oh I could drink a case of you, darling / and I would still be on my feet’. Somehow every single song on the album seem to resonate with my soul at that time and still managed to produce a twang when I listened again to it recently and saw the truth of it in myself now!

‘Cynical and drunk and boring someone in some dark café’

* The Guardian

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Pasta and Beans

I haven’t gone shopping for ages for various reasons  – lousy weather (Perth is in the middle of winter and while usually mild, this year’s temperatures seem to be much lower than usual), bunged up leg, lockdowns, pandemic – and instead of the usual weekend indulgences of monstrous roasts  and endless leftovers, I decided to just use whatever I could find in assorted cupboards, pantry and fridge. I didn’t realise I had so much – tins of this, packets of that, spices and herbs galore, veg, celery cunningly wrapped in foil-lined bags to preserve their crispness (I didn’t do that, of course), carrots, a capsicum and some tired French beans in a damp brown paper bag.
I remember eating something similar, – no, not the paper bag but ‘Pasta e Fagioli’ in a basement lunch restaurant in Milan somewhere near Via Manzoni back in the late 70’s – similar anyway, in the sense that tonight’s dinner (and tomorrow’s as well by the look of things) has pasta and has beans (tinned, admittedly) in it too. But after that, I am sure my pasta and beans will have no resemblance to anything a Milanese restaurant could come up with.

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Anyway, here’s the stuff I came up with. A 500g box of pasta shapes, (I used about half), an onion, a few carrots and sticks of celery, a handful of tired green beans, a green capsicum, garlic, ground Coriander, Fennel seeds, a tin of Borlotti beans and a tin of whole tomatoes and a bag of shaved Parmesan!

I cooked the pasta in boiling salted water for a few minutes less than the suggested time on the box and while that was simmering away and filling a cold kitchen pleasantly with steam, I sliced the capsicum and the carrots, not too thinly, diced the celery and chopped the onions and the green beans. I heated some olive oil  in a large frying pan and sautéd the lot with a good spoonfull of the Fennel seeds and the remains of whatever ground Coriander remained in the jar and gave everything a good stir.

I drained the pasta and threw it back in the same pot along with the tin of drained Borlotti beans and put the lid on to keep it warm while I continued sautéing (messing, stirring and tossing) the veg. Next I tipped in the tin of toms and poured a cup or two of water and two  large spoonfuls of tomato paste (it came in a handy foil packet), along with a stock cube over the veg and brought the pan to a gentle simmer.

At this stage i realised I was going to need a bigger pot to hold all the pasta and beans along with the full pan of veg and spices. Anyway, I found a larger pot, gave everything a stir and let it simmer for a few more minutes until both carrots and pasta were ‘al dente’.

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Then in the garden, braving the cold for Basil and Parsley. Finally, a deep dish, freshly torn Basil leaves and Italian style parsley, shaved Parmesan awaiting the result.

Gorgeous!

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A few flakes of Parmesan and a pinch of pepper. I particularly liked the mild aniseedy flavour the Fennel gave the mix. Would go particularly well with a robust red wine (but I have just launched myself, for my sins, on Dry July!)

Leonard Cohen

I remember, back in the seventies, my father thought one or other of my sisters must have been particularly depressing / depressive because they had either bought or borrowed an album, a  vinyl LP, by Leonard Cohen, who was part but separate from, a growing band of musicians like Joni Mitchell, Neil Young, Jackson Browne and of course, Bob Dylan, who wrote their own primal ballads instead of pandering to the masses. In common, they could all perform as soloists, using either piano or guitar (in Cohen’s case) for accompaniment but this trimmed back, spare notion of their music also served to accentuate an aura of directness and to distinguish them from the more mainline rock and rollers of that time.Certainly, Leonard Cohen’s appeal had far less to do with his guitar playing or (limited) vocal range but more to do with his personality and that is probably true for the other singer / songwriters mentioned above.Document_2021-06-24_173108 (3)

So taken was I at the time back in the seventies that I bought Cohen’s novel, Beautiful Losers, but in all honesty, I have to say that I didn’t understand or appreciate anything in it. All I can remember now is that the paperback had a plain red cover!  Whatever mournful aura my father perceived hanging around Cohen at that time was balanced by superb songs and lyrics of love and regret on the 1975 album Greatest Hits in songs like Suzanne

And she feeds you tea and oranges / that come all the way from China / 

and just when you mean to tell her that you have no love to give her / 

Then she gets you on her wavelength …

or the beautiful break-up line from Hey, That’s No Way To Say Goodbye

its just the way love changes / like the shoreline and the sea…’

I have to admit using that line or a variation in my clumsy attempts at immature breakups!Handwritten_2021-06-24_173211

Cohen’s personality and distinct variations as artist, poet, novelist, singer, author and songwriter was compelling  and his voice was so subtle in his own versions of his songs that no other artiste attempting to cover his material could convey the same emotions and depths of feelings and the sense of urgency and impending doom. Nevertheless he then kind of drifted away from my mindset until a friend insisted that I listen to The Future (1992) and I was blown away by songs like the title track with raw anger and despair expressed so blatantly in lines like –

‘Take the only tree that’s left / And stuff it up the hole / In your culture / 

Give me back the Berlin wall /Give me Stalin and St. Paul / 

I’ve seen the future, brother / It is murder’

or the harsh honesty in songs like Be for Real

‘Are you back in my life to stay / Or is it just for today? 

So don’t give me the world today / And tomorrow take it away. / 

Don’t do that to me, darling.’

While the final track, the instrumental Tacoma Trailer soothes and calms the anger and hurt expressed in the other songs. His seeming passivity towards love and relationships and the helplessness he expresses through both humour and a mature insight perhaps stem from the fact that he was already an established poet and author before he released his first studio album when he was already in his thirties.

The Essential Leonard Cohen (2002) is full of the frustration and bliss of love as in Closing Time

‘And I just don’t care what happens next / Looks like freedom but it feels like death  / 

It’s something in between, I guess… /

And I lift my glass to the Awful Truth /

Which you can’t reveal to the Ears of Youth / 

Except to say it isn’t worth a dime…

The sadness and recognition of loss is beautifully captured in Alexandra Leaving with lines like 

Even though she sleeps upon your satin / Even though she wakes you with a kiss

Do not say the moment was imagined / Do not stoop to strategies like this …

Do not choose a coward’s explanation / That hides behind the cause and the effect …

Say goodbye to Alexandra leaving / Then say goodbye to Alexandra lost

Document_2021-06-24_172958 (2)Recently, on a whim one afternoon in a Perth Mall, I bought Cohen’s last studio album You Want it Darker (2016) made before he died. The title track is both accusatory yet suffused with a dull acceptance

‘A million candles burning / For the love that never came

You want it darker / We kill the flame

If you are the dealer, let me out of the game

If you are the healer, I’m broken and lame

If thine is the glory, mine must be the shame’

Treaty, the second track, mourns the barrenness of his relationship, despairing of the inability to connect with his love

‘I’m angry and I’m tired all the time

I wish there was a treaty,

I wish there was a treaty

Between your love and mine’

and the same wish is repeated in the last, semi-instrumental, track, String Reprise / Treaty.Document_2021-06-24_172806

An unhappy man, Cohen seems constantly torn in On the Level between love and the rejection of both gratification and temptation

‘You smiled at me like I was young / it took my breath away’

yet, nevertheless,

‘They ought to give my heart a medal / For letting go of you

When I turned my back on the devil / I turned my back on the angel too’

and 

‘I was fighting with temptation / But I didn’t want to win

A man like me don’t like to see / Temptation caving in’

The only genuine love song on the whole album – If I Didn’t Have Your Love – where the world appears dark, cold, sterile and bare without a sustaining and creative love

‘Well that’s how broken I would be / What my life would seem to me

If I didn’t have your love to make it real’

but almost immediately he swings back into loss, accepting it and acknowledging both his own and his lover’s faults in Travelling Light

‘It’s au revoir / My once so bright, my fallen star…/

I guess I’m just somebody who / Has given up, on the me and you … /

I’m just a fool, a dreamer who / Forgot to dream of the me and you

I’m not alone, I’ve met a few / Traveling light like we used to do’

Old age and the increasing futility of chasing something so ephemeral as love strikes a resigned note of acceptance of the finality of relationships in Leaving the Table 

‘You don’t need a lawyer / I’m not making a claim.

You don’t need to surrender / i’m not taking aim … /

I don’t need a lover, no, no, no / The wretched beast is tame

I don’t need a lover / So blow out the flame’

Throughout all of Cohen’s songs, the overriding theme seems to be one of loss, rejection, and a love that fulfils yet torments but this last studio album, You Want it Darker seems to be the bleakest of all his albums (with the exception of the love song mentioned earlier), and yet somehow transcends despair and hopelessness and speaks to all those who have ever loved and lost. True poetry can never be nihilistic and Cohen brought poetry into mainstream music, not just through the beauty of the words but thought the inflection and the subtle variations in tone, his voice, so low and husky, so close and intimate in one’s headphones.

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Time Changes Everything

I wrote a blog a while ago about the pleasure of music in the most general sense when I actually sat down and did nothing else except listen to an entire album – The Rolling Stones Let it Bleed (1969) in a deserted tropical beach-front bar rather than just listening to a random selection from Music – Songs – Shuffle in the library on my phone or desktop which is what I usually do. I don’t know when I last listened to the full album but the same eerie memory of dread from that time remained. I’ve always enjoyed the Rolling Stones but gradually became more attuned, I think, to Keith Richards, lead guitarist, some writer and half of the writing duo the Glimmer Twins with his lifelong friend and musician Mick Jagger. So when Richards produced his first solo album Talk is Cheap back in 1988 or thereabouts, I bought it as a cassette, long since lost of course. Main Offender (1992) was next and I bought that on CD – and still have it! Vintage Vinos (2010) was next and somebody gave me a copy and I have just come across Richards’ latest and third solo studio album, Crosseyed Heart (2015).

So it was with some expectation when I recently bought – actually bought – among other things*, – both his Talk is Cheap and Crosseyed Heart albums which I listened to on an actual physical CD player.  Of course I have already transferred them into iTunes on my phone and desktop but I enjoy looking at the cd insert and, the first few times anyway, reading the lyrics and details of backup vocalists and session musicians while listening to the words. I don’t know, is it weird to actually sit down and listen to an entire and specific music CD? I mean, you sit down, usually, to read a book or newspaper or to watch a movie, for example. You do these things attentively in that you don’t read a book while exercising or watch a movie while driving a car! 

So, why does listening to music feel different?  Or does it? Is it me? Whether it is or not doesn’t matter because that is what I have started doing recently! {Is it an old man thing, like The Father?}

A big contrast to the way I usually consume music – on my headphones, any time of the day or night and usually while I am doing something else, like walking or cooking or listening to the radio while driving. 

I don’t have Spotify nor do I buy music on the App Store so, rather than some abstract stream, download or view of music, the physical items are anticipated and their arrival is always welcomed with surprise or excitement. I must be reverting to the teenage years when hip kids would walk around with collections of artistically covered LPs under their arms. 

Similar to the two other CD’s I bought recently (more about them later, maybe**), the two most recent acquisitions are the first and the most recent (or last?) album of a singer, in the twilight, as it were, of his 78 years or so.

Anyway, I thought I’d look for a common theme – love, lost, or just get on with it? – in Talk is Cheap (1988) conveys the Richards philosophy of sure, life is hard so toughen up!

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Not a great man for a soft heart, his take no prisoners approach to his world fending off unwanted advances but in Make no Mistake along with the featured vocalist, Sarah Dash, my heart was swept away be by lyrics like ‘No words can convey your lips melting into mine /… I’ve made up my mind about you’/. I sensed, nevertheless, an implied threat lurked there for whoever not to screw up this time in ‘I’m talking to ya baby / Make no mistake.’

The cynical anger in You Don’t Move Me ‘It’s better that you kill the light / You’re giving us all a fright’ is picked up later in Crosseyed Heart’s Blues in the Morning ‘Got a picture of your face and I hold it up to the light / But on a good day, baby, it sure gives me a fright.’

How I wish is the only love song on the entire cd with lyrics like ‘If I could see you, Oh just now and then / If I could feel you, I’d do my time again / Oh Honey, honey, honey, Yeah’.

In my stiffened and arthritic form, the slow, hypnotism of songs like Rockawile with Sarah Dash again and Locked Away with Waddy Wachtel on guitars welcomes me into an entranced gentle swaying exercise!

A justification of his hard-nosed attitude to society in general is Richards’ determination to live and enjoy the little things in life and if that is not good enough, too bad!

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Mocking society nearly three decades later with Crosseyed Heart, the third studio album in 2015 with the X-Pensive Winos, ambiguously named, I feel, Richards’ devil-may-care attitude soars for a while with short bursts like the title track Crosseyed Heart ‘Oh, she’s a sweetheart but she drives me round the bend / I go round the corner and find another friend’ and Nothing on Me  I’m walking out the door / Cause you got nothing on me, nothing on me.but begins to waver between not caring at unsatisfactory love to a sneering disdain in Trouble ‘Even though you are still inside I can get you off the hook / But I know when I get you out I won’t get a second look … Too much trouble’.

Old Age has brought doubts and fears too and wild swings between desperation in Love Overdue ‘And now I am a prisoner of loneliness … I don’t know just what to do, honey, yeah’ to an accusatory tone in SuspiciousNo matter what you do I’m still a part of you / You will never be free of me / … I told you from the start you better barricade that heart’.

As Sarah Dash took featured vocals in  Make No Mistake so too does Norah Jones takes lead vocals in a sublime duet with Richards in Illusions on this latest album.

Resignation in later years sinks in too  as in ‘I’m here if you want me’ sort of thing in Just a Gift. One of the most extraordinary things though about both the first and most recent albums is Richards’ ability to code switch, not just with his guitar skill but with his vocal range so much so that in Goodnight Irene, the old Ledbelly song from 1936, he transforms himself  into a southern Blues singer rather than the Londoner he was born.

The last two tracks, Substantial Damage and Lover’s Plea seemed amazed at the inappropriateness of the relationship along with a puzzled annoyance as to why his love is not trusted.

Superb guitar, vocals and backing from a host of wonders among the X-Pensive Winos, together on all three studio albums, with contrasting views expressed on the same topic  in his youth through the eyes of a contemporary songwriter, poet, guitar riff player and connsumate survivor. Well done Keef!

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** You Want It Darker – Leonard Cohen 2016

** Rough and Rowdy Ways & Murder Most Foul – Bob Dylan 2020

Chords – A New Category !

I seem to have run out of steam recently – and it is certainly not because I have been too busy! The pandemic powers on worldwide and where hope looms in a few places, disasters surge elsewhere. So, along with a slow recovery from several self-inflicted injuries (I still have no clear idea how I ruptured my Achilles tendon so badly) and quarantine restrictions I have been, for the most part, cooped up in my back yard – thank god for glorious WA weather – and I have just dried up in all creativity areas and hit a block with my scribblings, readings, cooking, celtic stuff, curiosity and, of course, travel.

So it is almost the last month of a beautiful Perth autumn and I have decided to jump start things by adding a new page,or whatever it is called, Chords in this blog thingy. It is going to be about music in the most general sense and only referenced by music I actually have accumulated over the last … Well, when did CD’s become commonplace and eliminate cassettes?

I probably acquired a CD player in Brunei Darussalam back in the mid 1980’s or so and since then my music collection swelled and sank as I moved here and there around the world. Certainly CDs – and later iTunes of course and MP3 players dominated during the early 2000’s – making music mobility much easier but when I just went through the remnants of my former CD collection, I was disappointed to find so many of the iconic cd art lost – think of the cover of Sticky Fingers (1971) or Blood on the Tracks (1975) – while their spectral remains still somewhere in the depths of a hard disk.

I lay no claim to be a music critic nor can I read, write or play any form of music whatever and my taste is mostly plebeian popular so I make no excuse for including or ignoring giants of the music age and I may occasionally ramble on about a particular piece of music or some quirk about a musician or singer or look for connections between common themes or styles. Please feel free to disagree or comment as you will.

The banner photo for this page is just a random selection of actual CDs spread out on my kitchen table and my rambles might encourage me to actually buy more CD’s despite the fact that the age of the CD is over and acquisition is a waste of world resources! Here goes anyway, my meagre effort to spread wealth!

PS. Just saw the movie The Father with Anthony Hopkins. Wow! Cuts a bit close to the bone at times. I’m just thinking of the opening scene of the movie and the basic premise of my next post, already begun and 90% finished.  Is it just an old man thing or just a dream?

Slow-Cooked Lamb & Potato Rösti

It has been almost a year since I posted anything. I have no idea why I stopped posting the usual medley and I certainly can’t say I was too busy. If anything I have had more time on my hands over the last year than I have ever had. Between Covid lockdowns and a reverse shoulder replacement – if you would credit it, where my right arm, instead of ending in a ball which fits snugly into the socket on my shoulder, now holds the socket while the ball is screwed into my shoulder blade – which took quite a while to recover from and then further major surgery to repair a ruptured Achilles tendon on my right leg which involved another 14 weeks of very restricted movement. So for nearly eight months I have been house bound, sitting around on the back deck, reading, dozing, listening to music and doing bugger all else while the garden and the rest of the world go to wrack and ruin. Thank God for fantastic West Australian weather! No chance of me catching Covid, I can tell you, restricted to the back deck and unable to swim, drive or walk anywhere. And then, last night in bed, of all places, I was imagining a succulent lamb roast for the long Labour Day weekend here in Perth so here goes for my first blog in nearly a year. 

I love lamb in that I feel it is the most free-range of all meats, unlike poor old cows herded into dusty feed lots and fed with minced pig brains or some such muck, or wretched battery chickens cooped up in appalling conditions, or gross sows rolling over and suffocating their squealing piglets. No, lamb, for me is the essence of  good red meat and I like to envisage lambs romping and skipping over the springy turf. (God, the temptation to use ‘gambolling’ to describe the wooly little brutes frisking about in sun drenched meadows was almost overpowering!)

Recently however, whenever I roasted a leg or a shoulder – sometimes with garlic and sticks of rosemary and cinnamon pushed into knife stab holes, sometimes slathered with anchovies which dissolve in the roasting, other times coated in spices, honey, nuts and yoghurt – it has turned out tough and not particularly good – I ate it anyway, of course. Perhaps it is my gas oven, maybe the door is not a complete seal or the temperature gauge is not working or else, God forbid – it is me and my cooking methods? But how can you go wrong with lamb?

Anyway, after another disappointing roast last weekend – tasty but tough and chewy – I decided to try a new approach and I fished out my ancient Slow Cooker, acquired from David and Elaine B (Hi Guys wherever you are !) when they were leaving Brunei Darussalam to return to the UK in the mid eighties.  For the most part, I have only used the slow cooker for things like corned beef and an occasional chunky veg soup and each time, this battered but venerable, 35 year old appliance  has worked wonders so I decided to try slow cooking my rolled, boneless half leg of lamb.

First up was to throw a tin of tomatoes, a generous few slugs of Shiraz, a few stalks of rosemary, a good splash of balsamic vinegar and a decent spoonful of smooth Dijon mustard and a whole head of garlic, with just the tips cut off, IMG_3877into the crock pot, aka slow cooker, and left the lot to heat up while I browned the meat in a wok. A bit messy and splashy but it began to smell lovely as the fatty outer layer of the roast began to brown. Gorgeous smell.IMG_3874 I tipped the meat into the slow cooker on top of the gooey mix of tomatoes etc, put on the lid and planned to leave if for at least five hours.

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Unfortunately, I knocked the wok with the hot oil onto the kitchen floor, giving the worn jarrah floorboards a slippery sheen, nearly breaking my other leg as I slithered across the floor. Note: Be careful when browning a roast in a wok!

IMG_3880Next up was the Swiss style potato dish – Rösti. I used three peeled potatoes – any type of spud will do for this dish and I just picked up the first few spuds I saw in the market this morning. I grated the spuds coarsely and then roughly squeezed the excess water out of them. I ended up with about four or five handfuls of grated spud which I tipped into a bowl, along with half the grated white onion.

InIMG_3922to that, I added a good teaspoon each of ground black pepper, sea salt and dried Italian herbs, along with a bit of melted butter.

More butter and a good splash of oil into a frying pan and let it get really hot before I tipped the grated potato and onion mix into the pan and smoothed it out as best as IMG_3923I could with the back of a wooden spoon. IMG_3925I didn’t bother to stir or shake the pan, I just left it on high for about 10 minutes before carefully tipping up one edge of the stuff to see if it was browning nicely on the bottom. It was, so I carefully placed a large cutting board over the pan and flipped it over and then slid the rösti back into the pan so the other side could get browned.

While all that was happening, I turned off the slow cooker, fished out the lamb, practically falling apart after nearly six hours, and forked it apart with two forks. IMG_3924I poured the juice from the crock pot into a small saucepan and brought it back to the boil to reduce down and then stirred a spoonful of cornflour to thicken it.IMG_3926

The rösti slid out of the pan onto a cutting board and made a satisfying crunch when I cut into it with a pizza cutter. The pulled, tender, succulent and juicy lamb piled on top of the rösti with a velvety smooth, rich, meaty sauce,  a side dish of steamed spinach (and the rest of the bottle of Shiraz) made an excellent dinner.

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Disclaimer

Looking over the above, while every word is true, I have to admit my photography has room for improvement. My only excuse is greasy hands, a slippery floor and an Iphone 6 with an annoying habit of turning itself off!

Ingredients:

Lamb leg, rolled roast, 1,25kg, Tinned tomatoes, Balsamic vinegar, Red wine, (Shiraz), Dijon mustard, Garlic, Rosemary

Rösti, 3 spuds, 1/2 onion, mixed herbs, salt & pepper, Butter & oil

A ‘Pick Me Up’ for Hard Times

There is something about Easter and chocolate, isn’t there? Cadburys apparently made over 477 million chocolate eggs and probably the same amount of chocolate bunnies and I am sure Lindt and other manufacturers did something similar. In Belgium, the self proclaimed chocolate centre of the world (!), chocolatiers were declared essential workers in an otherwise locked down economy and chocolate bunnies were adorned with white chocolate face masks. bunEaster alone here in Perth without family, grandchildren and friends for lunch was no excuse for not indulging myself so I decided to treat myself to a slow roasted leg of lamb, creamy mashed potatoes and minted peas followed up by a fancy dessert.

Nearly a quarter of a century before – yes, really that long ago – two of my students were junior chefs from the Italian part of Switzerland and one night during a Sinners and Saints party at my place, they made a tiramisu and scribbled the recipe down which I recently discovered among old papers.

Anyway, for those that don’t know (or care), Tiramisu (Pick me up, in Italian) is a light, coffee flavoured dessert and is as classic an Italian dish as Spaghetti Bol, or Pizza Quattro Staggione or Saltimboca or … whatever.

I had tried the recipe a few months ago when I was having my son and daughter around for a Sunday lunch but it was a complete disaster, everything curdled and the resulting mess was soggy and unappetising. This time would be different, I swore, and the secret? Seperate the egg yolks from the whites and beat each separately! Simple as that!

OK, Ingredients firstIMG_3523

  • 5 eggs – all I had left in the fridge as my chickens have taken a break from laying
  • 500g mascarpone ( a light cream cheese, similar to Philadelphia but much nicer)
  • 6 dessertspoons of fine caster sugar
  • double shot of espresso coffee
  • l packet of Savoiardi sponge (lady) fingers
  • a scoop of Nutella
  • a double shot of Tia Maria coffee liqueur
  • a bar of dark chocolate, melted
  • …and a dusting of cocoa powder on top

IMG_3521First off, make the coffee. I made a double espresso and then ‘cooled’ it down by adding a double shot of Tia Maria. Next, separate the eggs, and place the egg whites in one bowl, and the egg yolks in another. I broke each egg into my hand and sort of dribbled the albumen from hand to hand and plonked the yolk into another bowl. I wasn’t able to keep them completely separate as I managed to leak a spot of yolk into the whites making them very difficult to beat, according to what my mother used to say!IMG_3524

Add 3 dessertspoons of sugar, whizzed in the blender to make it extra fine, to the egg white bowl and use an electric beater to whip the egg whites to stiffish peaks. Hopefully, after a couple minutes of whipping, the egg whites will start to thicken, in my case, barely, because of the drop of yolk, but I didn’t want to over whip the whites.IMG_3526

Set the stiff egg whites aside, and switch over to the egg yolk bowl. Add 3 more dessertspoons of sugar to the egg yolks and beat this for a couple minutes, until it goes from bright to a pale yellow.

Mix in the mascarpone and the Nutella IMG_3529(I used all that was left in the jar, but use as much as you want, and then mix thoroughly with the electric beater again before gently folding in the stiff egg whites, as slowly as possible.IMG_3530

Place the espresso and the Tia Maria (use any spirit your like – Sambuca, rum, brandy or nothing at all) in a small bowl, and then dunk each of the sponge fingers in the coffee and booze mixture for literally a second or two or the biscuits can become too soggy, (I like to see a dry core inside the finger when I break it in two), and lay a layer of them in the serving dish. IMG_3532Then pour a layer of the mascarpone mixture to cover them. IMG_3533Lay another layer of biscuits on top of that and cover again with the mascarpone. I threw the broken bits of dark chocolate into a small bowl in the microwave to melt and then dribbled the melted choc over the creamy mixture before adding a finely sieved spoonful of raw cacao powder over the lot. IMG_3536Bang it into the fridge and leave it for a few hours to sets as this lets the layers soak into each other and allows the mascarpone cheese and everything else firm up.

When cut into squares later, it should be fairly set, certainly not runny or goopy (like my first disastrous attempt).

IMG_3538Cheers!

Crises We Have Lived Through

My Irish father and mother were born in the last century, in 1911 and in 1914 respectively so my father would have been 7 years old at the outbreak of Spanish Flu in 1918 which appears to have been the worst global pandemic since the Black Death or Bubonic Plague which ravaged Europe and killed 25 million people between 1347 and 1351at a time when the world’s population was only 450 million. Back in 1918, approximately 20,000 people died in Ireland from the Spanish Flu while 800,000 were infected out of a population of about 4 million but I have no recollection of my parents ever mentioning the effect of the pandemic on their lives or that of their parents or grandparents.

And then there was WWII and my parents, along with most of neutral Ireland, survived that too, although my mother had stories of crouching, terrified, under the stairs when Germany bombed the North Strand in Dublin in 1941, only a few hundred metres from where she lived in Whitworth Road. My father, on the other hand, mentioned that while he was in the  Irish equivalent of the British Home Guard or Dad’s Army, the Local Security Force (LSF) the worst thing he had to endure was the filthy language some of the men used!

Then in 1958, when I was 5 years old, the world was rocked once again by the Asian Flu Pandemic with 2 million estimated deaths worldwide but once again, I and my family remained untouched.

In 1967 I jumped out of the second floor of an abandoned building in Sea Point, near where I lived at the time, and broke three bones in my left leg and left arm and spend the entire summer, lying on my back, swathed in plaster of paris and the Hong Kong Flu Pandemic, with another death toll of one million, passed me by once again, although I do remember the public warning advertisements on TV of ‘coughs and sneezes spread diseases’.

HIV / AIDS struck in 1981 or thereabout but I was living in semi isolation in a kampong on the north-east coast of Malaysia at that time, without newspapers or radio (I didn’t get a telegram telling me of my father’s death until a week after he had been cremated) and was totally unaware of what was happening world wide where 25 million died of AIDS while millions more are living with HIV.

Then in 2000, I moved to Hong Kong to live and work when Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS) was first reported in 2003, infecting over 8,000 people in a matter of weeks and taking approximately 750+ people’s lives. I remember being ‘inconvenienced’ in several ways then – my favourite Australian bar in Kowloon closed down, I had to wear a face mask when teaching and my new wife refused to accompany me back to HK in April 2003 after we got married in Perth, Australia but once again, the angel of death seemed to have passed me – and all of mine – by once again.

Although SARS did not claim a large number of lives, it changed the way the world responds to global spread of infectious diseases. Like today’s COVID-19, SARS was caused by the coronavirus, and was spread much like the common cold, through close person-to-person contact and respiratory coughs and sneezes.

In November of 2019, I managed to tear the Achilles Tendon in my (again) left leg and while that was getting better, I somehow ruptured the tendon in my other leg in late February 2020 and have been wearing an orthopaedic ‘moon’ boot ever since. So this recent COVID-19 pandemic, of which I took a fairly unalarmed view initially until my nursing daughter compared it to the Black Death, has once again passed me by as I am house-bound, barely able to hobble around the house and garden. Nevertheless, the extraordinary lock-downs and social isolations the world is experiencing, the incredible impact the pandemic is having on people’s lives and livelihood, the mounting loss of life worldwide and the ever increasing restrictions on daily life imposed by governments in an attempt to stem this tide of disease, death and destitution is impacting upon us all.

Home isolation is easy for me now, crippled temporarily as I am, as are the other restrictions but I wonder how well I will cope once I am mobile again.

Throughout history, there have been tumultuous waves of change (The Flood?) – from the wave of agriculture that transformed the world from that of hunters and gatherers to that of the industrial and later technological and communicative waves that revolutionised the way we live. Other waves too, of mass emigration for example, which so recently threatened to overwhelm Europes’s borders, have threatened to swamp us, ever since the first people left the Rift Valley in Africa and set out to people the world, and the barbarians broke through the natural frontier of the Rhine to bring about the demise of the Roman Empire in the fifth century but, like all waves, pandemics too typically slow and come to an end on their own, though the process may be accelerated through effective preventive strategies, such as the measures world governments are putting in place right now.

So, in the words of, I think, Winston Churchill, ‘if you are going through Hell, don’t stop, keep going’ and, above all, stay safe and well.