15 Roses for 15 Years: ‘Something Unspoken’

Something Unspoken

Bewley’s Cafe Theatre, Dublin

Mon to Sat at 1:00pm

Nobody is ever going to accuse Tennessee Williams of being subtle. The playwright specialized in overwrought melodrama, writing plays that featured fragile belles, larger-than-life patriarchs, violent drunks, and repressed homosexuals, all struggling under the conformity and genteel manners of the Deep South.

It is to director Maisie Lee’s credit, therefore, that she has taken one of Williams’ one-act plays, Something Unspoken, and fashioned a quiet two-hander of desire that mixes its comedy and tragedy quite delicately to make a play that’s as refreshing as a mint julep.


Set over a tense breakfast in the splendid Louisiana home of ageing belle Miss Cornelia Scott (Catherine Byrne), Something Unspoken is about the things said and unsaid between Cornelia and her put-upon secretary, Grace Lancaster (Noelle Brown). Cornelia spends much of the time fretting over the upcoming election at the Confederate Daughters Society, determined to be acclaimed as President. Grace screens her telephone calls, and there is a great deal of comedy in the early portion of the play, with Byrne relishing the role of a haughty snob bellowing instructions down the phone.

Grace, meanwhile, seems on the verge of a breakdown, and seeks distraction in playing music on the gramophone. The cause of her distress soon becomes apparent; it is due in part to the difference between the two women, one rich, superior, confident; the other dependent, mousey, and a bundle of nerves.

There is also something else … something unspoken. As I said, Williams is not a subtle playwright, so it won’t take you long to work out what exactly is at the core of the women’s relationship.

So much, though, is packed into less than an hour: issues of class, sexuality, wealth, and race (the two women are white, and “the help” is noticeably absent because she’s attending “a coloured funeral”).

The two actresses work well together. Brown captures the look and feel of a widow who has been forced to accept a paid position from a friend, and who has worked for Cornelia for fifteen years, usually with little gratitude. Her big moment was delivered perfectly. On the day that I saw the play, Byrne seemed to abandon her Southern accent midway through the production, opting instead to put a generic superior grandeur in her voice (it doesn’t harm the character, and it occurs to me that Byrne would make a very fine Lady Bracknell).

Andrew Murray’s simple set suggests an elegant morning room: a nicely laid breakfast table, an ornate telephone, a handsome Victrola, a large window covered by a sheer curtain (the colour of which must be a deliberate choice), and most importantly, a single red rose centered between the two women.

There are similar grace notes in Barbara McCarthy’s costumes. The two women are in peignoirs and dressing robes: Cornelia’s is all rich, vibrant greens and purples, Grace’s is a more muted pink and grey.

Lee’s direction keeps the two women separated by the breakfast table. Cornelia starts the play at Stage Right; Grace at Stage Left. By the end of the play, their positions have reversed. They touch only twice, the play’s only directing error, I think, as I believe they should not touch at all, or touch only once.

Technically, the production is perfect: it’s nice to see a play that includes the sounds of a record playing and a telephone ringing where the sound effects are timed perfectly with their cues.

Something Unspoken runs at Bewley’s Cafe Theatre until July 23rd.

Making Hay at the Weekend

I spent a wonderful weekend of songs, stories and laughter in Kells at the Hay Festival Kells.



The heritage town was filled with writers, musicians and artists, including Hanif Kureishi. We strolled around town together, discussing the Book of Kells, medieval round towers, Brehon laws, and Cromwell. I don’t have many claims to fame, but I can now say that I explained the origin of the term Beyond the Pale to Hanif Kureishi.

I had been up until four in the morning in a lock-in working, but Kureishi wisely had an early night, so while he looks like a contented, successful author, I look a shambles.

We also talked about Brexit (it was the day after the result). He’s distraught. “When are you heading back to London?” I asked him. “We might just stay here,” he responded, only half-jokingly, I think.

Did you know that pole-vaulting was invented in Kells?

Or that under the Brehon code divorces were public affairs, with the couple standing on two mounds, facing each other and airing their grievances in front of a crowd before husband and wife turned their back on each other and walked away?

Those two facts are unrelated, by the way.

Part of the Kells Type Trail, a celebration of typography throughout the town

In the run-up to the Festival I interviewed poet Patrick Deeley about his wonderful memoir, The Hurley Maker’s Son. He gave a fantastic reading from the book, peppering it with anecdotes and asides, all delivered with a giddy, infectious enthusiasm and tremendous warmth, and was as delightful in person as he was on the telephone.

Patrick Deeley

He was also very grateful for the interview: he’d promised to buy me a pint.

I am happy to report that Patrick Deeley is a man who keeps his promises.

I had hoped to catch The Lost Brothers in concert but unfortunately missed them (see above), and it was one of those gigs that everyone was talking about on Sunday morning as one of the best I’ve ever seen.

The Lost Brothers (facebook)

The duo are on tour with Glen Hansard in Europe now.


Another highlight was getting to meet the brilliant, hilarious, scarily-talented Jax Miller. Because there were so many events at Hay, several readings happened simultaneously. Jax was reading from her thriller, Freedom’s Child at the same time as Eleanor Fitzsimons was discussing her book, Wilde’s Women. Jax was talking about bikers, meth, and hookers, and hurling f-bombs from the podium. A woman of a certain age arrived late and listened for a few minutes before she realised she was in the wrong room and loudly pronounced ‘This isn’t Oscar Wilde!’

Jax Miller


Zlata Filipović would probably prefer if you would stop referring to her as ‘the Anne Frank of Sarajevo’ (not least because she actually survived the Balkan siege). More than twenty years after her diary put a human face on the siege of Sarajevo, Zlata spoke with remarkable frankness and a great deal of humour about the hardships her family endured.

Zlata Filipovic

Speaking with Zlata about putting a human face on tragedy reminded me of the Kells Type Trail, art installations that are a celebration of typography. One of the installations is a tribute to Alan Kurdi, the toddler who drowned while fleeing Syria.

The letters form the Arabic for ‘Rise’, the theme of this year’s Type Trail

The last event that I attended before hopping on the bus back to Dublin was Mike McCormack reading from Solar Bones, a novel set in Mayo, a place that can seem “a penitential enclave” with its proliferation of shrines, hermitudes and penitential houses.

Mike McCormack

My scribbled notes from the talk include mention of a woman granted license by the Vatican to live as a hermit, and who later emerged from her hermitude confirming that “Hell is real, and it’s not empty.”

Afterwards, I asked him if there really is a resurgence in Irish literature. “I don’t know if there’s a causal link between the resurgence of Irish editors and the resurgence in experimental writing,” he said. “I’m not sure if there’s a link there, or if it’s just a coincidence. You’re the journalist, you figure it out!”

For a so-called writer and journalist, you’d think I’d have a pen to hand always, so I have to thank Lisa Coen from Tramp Press for lending me one so Mike could sign my copy of his book.


Historically, hospitality was highly important under the Brehon Law, and its spirit is alive and well in Kells. Thank you to everyone at the Hay Festival Kells, The Kells Experience and Teach Cuailgne  for their warm welcome.


The Dream Against The Deed

image (2)
Patrick Deeley. source: Irish Times

Poet Patrick Deeley has written a beautiful memoir about growing up in East Galway. The Hurley Maker’s Son has been hailed for its evocative prose, and for its moving celebration of life in rural Ireland in the 1960s.

As a child, Deeley was something of a misfit in his family: a loner, a dreamer, and somewhat melancholic, a mood that suffuses the memoir.

Some nights, however, a sudden sadness would touch me right in the place where my heart was and I’d put my hand there and feel the steady thump, and wonder what dying meant.

Deeley’s father, Laurence tried to impart his carpentry skills to the boy, without much success. While he could not master the bandsaw or lathe, however, Deeley was obsesses with the language of his father’s workshop, where his father would talk of the bas of a hurley or the felloes of a cartwheel, of spoke-shales and augurs and planes and routers.

His father’s language was in contrast to his mother’s. Mary Deeley was a farmer, and as such her speech was peppered with farm phrases and old Galway idioms.


Deeley has recollected all of this in The Hurley Maker’s Son, a moving elegy to a lost way of life, to the landscape that formed him as a poet, and to his late father (Laurence was killed at an early age when a tree he was felling struck him).

Donal Ryan calls it “a glorious book, a perfect elegy, a gorgeous tumble of memories of life, death, love and, above all, family”, while Theo Dorgan writes that “there is something both eerie and deeply convincing about Deeley’s re-inhabiting of the landscape that formed him, the family that shaped and nourished him.”

I had the chance to interview Patrick Deeley ahead of his appearance at this weekend’s Hay Festival Kells.

The interview is on the Irish Times website here.

Patrick Deeley will be reading from The Hurley Maker’s Son on Saturday, June 25th, at 6.30pm at the Presbyterian Church in Kells as part of the Hay Festival Kells.

Making Hay in Kells

The historic Irish town of Kells will play host to some of the world’s finest writers this coming weekend during the Hay Festival Kells.

home-collage_Kells (2).jpg


The line-up of fiction writers includes Hanif Kureishi (My Beautiful Laundrette, The Buddha of Suburbia, Love and Hate), Patrick McCabe (The Butcher Boy), Kevin Barry (Beatlebone), Lisa McInerney (The Glorious Heresies), Jax Miller (Freedom’s Child), Liz Nugent (Unravelling Oliver), Oona Frawley (Flight), Mike McCormack (Solar Bones), and Vanessa Ronan (The Last Days of Summer).

Lisa McInerney

There will also be a range of non-fiction authors, including Myles Dungan (How the Irish Won the West), Hilary Fannin (Hopscotch), and Patrick Deeley (The Hurley-Maker’s Son), as well as a series of talks on the graphic novel and game design.

Patrick McCabe

I will be blogging the Festival as a guest of the Kells Experience, and I will be interviewing several of the writers.

Posts will appear here and at 2paragraphs.com over the weekend.

Tickets for the Festival can be booked here.

Ahkil Sharma Wins International DUBLIN Literary Award

Ahkil Sharma’s novel Family Life has won the 2016 International DUBLIN Literary Award, the richest annual prize in literature.

He was presented with a crystal trophy and a cheque for 100,000 euros by the Lord Mayor at a lavish ceremony at the Mansion House in Dublin.

13428550_10154247071001112_7629193876843989280_n (1).jpg

How lavish? Very. Smartly-dressed servers moved through the crowd offering hors d’ouevres and  Prosecco.

And they weren’t stingy about it.


It was my first time inside the Round Room at the Mansion House. It’s lovely, as is the main reception room where the judges and other dignitaries were gathering before the event.

I know because I unwittingly crashed that get-together, and was politely and very tactfully asked to leave.

I did manage, however, to grab a few words with some of the judges.

Ian Sansom and Carlo Gébler told me how much they had enjoyed the process of reading 160 novels (the longlist), first delivered to them last August. “Perfect time of year for reading,” quipped Sansom. Gébler has written a truly wonderful piece here about the experience.


With that many novels from all over the world, there was a wide range of styles, ideas and themes represented. “Because it’s a celebration of global literature, you’re getting every kind of novel imaginable,” Sansom said. “I think it would be very difficult to try to identify any trends … but one thing I did notice were tales of movement, of migration across borders.”

Gebler noticed “a desire to recalibrate the past, to make it the present, and there’s a nervousness about Otherness, about nonconformity, about inappropriateness, and people want to make the past now, which is a very strange thing to want to do.”

Fellow judge Meagan Delahunt told me she was thrilled to see a strong gender balance among the nominated novels (the final shortlist was split 50/50). “I think we had gender balance. I think that’s really rare, in the English-speaking world, anyway. Most of the prizes go to men. There was a lot of women in contention for that top prize. I’m very happy that we had five women in the shortlist.”

She also assured me that the novel is not dead, and is in fine health.


Family Life is an autobiographical novel about immigration and illness. Sharma’s family emigrated from India to America when he was a child, and several years later his brother was severely brain-damaged in a swimming accident.

The day before the announcement, under a strict embargo not to reveal who had won the award, I was fortunate to speak to Sharma by telephone. He is a thoughtful, soft-spoken, charming gentleman, and our interview was marked by brief silences as he pondered how best to answer questions.

He was also overwhelmed and still processing the fact that he had won.

In person on the day of the announcement, he was more relaxed, still a little giddy, and as pleasant as you could hope a writer to be (the day before, he had asked me to come up and say ‘hello’ to him at the ceremony so he could put a face to a name).

He also introduced me to the Indian ambassador. Only another 197 diplomats to go and my bucket list will be complete.

One final note: when the Lord Mayor comes into a room, she gets her own music.

It was the theme to Last of the Mohicans.




EPIC Ireland – A Journey of A People – A Museum Reviewed

passport.jpgThe wonderful Beanmimo and I had a lovely day last Saturday wandering around EPIC Ireland in Dublin. Here’s Ben’s take on the experience. If you’re in Dublin, go. It’s not just for tourists!


My trip to Ireland’s newest Museum – courtesy of EPIC Ireland.

When I told a few friends I was planning a visit to the Irish Diaspora museum

EPIC Ireland – A Journey of A People

I got some typical Irish begrudging reactions. “That’s just for American tourists” and similar views.

Well begrudgers, you can eat that begrudgery followed by  humble pie. EPIC Ireland doesn’t just live up to its name but redefines the whole museum experience. It delivers history through deft use of 21st Century technology while mixing sparse and thoughtful design in the CHQ building which has a cool history all of its own.


When you descend into EPIC you are greeted with a charming ‘passport’ to the Irish Diaspora Museum. I see this being embraced by the generations of schoolchildren who will pass though the museum. We are told to stamp our passport (which doubles as a…

View original post 376 more words

the Irishman Who Witnessed the Charge of the Light Brigade

William Howard Russell
William Howard Russell

By Niall McArdle

It was the site of an infamous cavalry charge that was either an act of supreme bravery or one of sheer stupidity, or both. It inspired a famous poem that is still drilled into schoolchildren. A young woman in London, Florence Nightingale, was so moved upon reading the reports of the wounded that she journeyed to Crimea to set up a pioneer nursing service at the Front.

Balaklava has passed into that odd place in our cultural memory that holds truth and fiction in equal measure. When we think of it at all, we likely think first of Tennyson, second of Florence Nightingale, and, perhaps, after that the details of the battle itself. Like other famous places of conflict  – Troy, Hastings, Waterloo, Gettysburg, Ypres, Bastogne –  it conjures a mixture of history and myth. And we owe much of what we know of the tragic Charge of the Light Brigade to a young Irishman, William Howard Russell, who reported the carnage.

William Howard Russell
Russell in 1855, photographed by Roger Fenton

Russell was born in 1820 in Tallaght at Lilyvale, Jobstown, Co. Dublin. He studied at Trinity College. In 1841 he covered the Irish elections for the Times in London. He regularly reported on Irish politics, on Daniel O’Connell and on the Irish Famine. As a reporter for the Times he gained a reputation as one of its finest. In his time he was one of the world’s most famous war correspondents. With his long dark hair, flowing beard and somewhat shabby suit, he cut a curious figure among the gentlemen of the press. His peers thought he was “a vulgar low Irishman, who sings a good song, drinks anyone’s brandy and water and smokes as many cigars as a Jolly Good Fellow. He is just the sort of chap to get information, particularly out of youngsters.” 

Russell at the Curragh, 1854
Russell at the Curragh, 1854

Whatever his method, his reports from the Crimean War – perhaps the first war widely reported in the media – were so realistic that they helped change the public’s attitude to the war. John Thaddeus Delane, editor of the Times, urged Russell to “tell the exact truth” in his reporting, and Russell did exactly that, filing stories that highlighted the lack of ambulance care for wounded troops, and the battlefield surgeons’ “humane barbarity”. He coined the term “Thin Red Line”. As well as the Crimean conflict, Russell witnessed the Siege of Lucknow and the US Civil War.


In September, 1854, Dickens and Thackeray entertained the young man with a farewell dinner, and then he set off for the Meidtteranean. On October 25th, 1854, he stood with other spectators above the field at Balaklava, which “was as plainly seen from the verge of the plateau where I stood as the stage and those upon it are seen from the box of the theatre.” His report was issued from the “heights before Sebastopol.” From there he wrote  “a more fearful spectacle was never witnessed than by those who, without the power to aid, beheld their heroic countrymen rushing to the arms of death.”

Russell was moved by the Charge. “If the exhibition of the most brilliant valour, of the excesses of courage, and of a daring which would have reflected lustre on the best days of chivalry can afford full consolation for the disaster of today, we can have no reason to regret the melancholy loss which we sustained in a contest with a savage and barbarian enemy.”

The Siege at Sebastopol
The Siege at Sebastopol

The Crimean War was fought between a loose alliance of Britain, France and Turkey against the Russian Empire’s ambitions. Russia wanted a warm water port in the south–namely, at the Bosporus Straits and the Strait of the Dardanelles, the small waterways connecting the Black Sea to the Aegean and Mediterranean Seas. In 1854, the decayingOttoman Empire controlled that essential waterway and Russia sought increased power in this region. When the Russians advanced on the Ottomans, Britain and France allied with the Turks and laid siege to the Russians at Sevastapol. The charge at nearby Balaklava was just one event in a siege that lasted a year.

The entire event took less than half and hour. Seldom has a skirmish been witnessed by so many so clearly, or a military blunder so apparent. The foolishness, arrogance and stupidity of the charge is difficult to conceive.

Russell first vividly and accurately described the scene.

Balaklava, with its scanty shipping, its narrow strip of water, and its old forts … the valley and plain of coarse meadowland, occupied by our cavalry tents … two or two and a half miles across the valley there is an abrupt rocky mountain range of most irregular and picturesque formation, covered with scanty brushwood here and there, or rising into barren pinnacles and plateaus of rock.

He described it as “wonderfully like the Trossachs,” a reference not lost on any of his readers, who would have been raised on Sir Walter Scott’s The Lady of the Lake.


After the Russians had broken through, decimating the Turkish defences, the Turks retreated and formed a line behind the men of the 93rd Highlanders. Two columns formed, one “consists of the Scots Greys and of their old companions in glory, the Enniskilleners; the second of the 4th Royal Irish, of the 5th Dragoon Guards, and of the 1st Royal Dragoons. The Light Cavalry Brigade is on their left in two divisions also.”

Russell’s report may well mark the first time that the phrase “the silence is oppressive” is used. “Between the cannon bursts, one can hear the champing of bits and the clink of sabres in the valley below.”


The Russians on their left drew breath for a moment, and then in one grand line dashed at the Highlanders. The ground flies beneath their horses’ feet – gathering speed at every stride they dash on towards that thin red streak of topped with a line of steel…With breathless suspense everyone awaits the bursting of the wave upon the line of Gaelic rock; but ere they came within 150 yards, another deadly volley flashes from the levelled rifles, and carries death and terror into the Russians … they fly back faster than they came.

The Tin Red Line
The Thin Red Line

If that had been the end of it, of course, the skirmish at Balaklava would be scarcely remembered. What followed was viewed by Russell, Lord Raglan and others in utter silence. The Russians advanced again. “The Greys and Enniskilleners went right at the centre of the Russian cavalry. The space between them was only a few hundred yards; it was scarce enough to let the horses gather way, nor had the men quite space sufficient for the full play of their sword arms.” The Russians swallowed them; the Royals and Dragoons came in to charge the other Russian flank. Cheers went up among the spectators.

Lord Airey, who ordered the charge
Lord Airey, who ordered the charge

But then, Russell reported, “now occurred this melancholy catastrophe which fills us all with sorrow.” Brigadier Airey ordered Lord Lucan to advance.

Lord Raglan wishes the cavalry to advance rapidly to the front, follow the enemy & try to prevent the enemy carrying away the guns. Troop Horse Artillery may accompany. French cavalry is on your left. Immediate. R Airey.

The order was taken to Lucan by Captain Louis Nolan, described in terms so glowing you think Russell must have had a crush on him. “A braver soldier than Captain Nolan the army did not possess, a matchless rider and a first-rate swordsman, he held in contempt, I am afraid, even grape and canister.”

It pained Russell to report the order Nolan gave. “God forbid I should cast a shade on the brightness of his honour, but I am bound to state what I am told occurred.” Nolan ordered Lucan and Cardigan to advance, in spite of Lucan’s protests that it was madness to do so. Nolan flung his arm out and said, “there is your enemy, sir.”

Nolan had pointed in the wrong direction. The Russians were lined up on the ridge; what cavalry would ever charge without any infantry support? “Certainly, sir,” said Cardigan, “but allow me to point out that the Russians have a battery in the valley on our front, and batteries and riflemen on both sides.” Lucan replied, “I know it. But Lord Raglan will have it. We have no choice but to obey.” And so, due to an ambiguous order, the Light Brigade charged down the wrong valley – instead of through a parallel valley behind one of the two Russian lines.


Russell, watching all of this, wrote, “Don Quixote in his tilt against the windmill was not near so rash and reckless as the gallant fellows who prepared without a thought to rush on almost certain death.” Russell counted just over six hundred men, whose “desperate valour knew no bounds, and far indeed was it removed from its so-called better part – discretion.”

The Russians “belched forth, from thirty iron mouths, a flood of smoke and flame, through which hissed the deadly balls. Their flight was marked by instant gaps in our ranks, by dead men and horses, by steeds flying wounded or riderless across the plain.”


“The plain was strewed with their bodies and with the carcasses of horses. Through the clouds of smoke we could see their sabres flashing as they rode up to the guns and dashed between them.” The blaze of steel was “like the turn of a shoal of mackerel” (this wasn’t Russell’s colourful description, but that of an officer standing nearby.) Russell went on “Wounded men and dismounted troopers flying towards us told the sad tale – demigods could not have done what they had failed to do.”

Then the Russians fired on their own troops as they were mingling and fighting with the British “an act of atrocity without parallel in the modern warfare of civilised nations“ The Russians fired “a murderous volley of grape and canister on the mass of men and horses, mingling friend and foe in one common ruin.”

607 men rode in. 198 men survived.

Surviivors of the Charge photographed by Roger Fenton
Surviivors of the Charge photographed by Roger Fenton

When John Bright read Russell’s report, he wrote “the Angel of Death has been abroad throughout the land. You may almost hear the beating of its wings.”

The public was outraged at the squander of life and laid the blame squarely at the commanders. The commanders themselves started blaming each other. Raglan blamed Lucan for the charge, claiming that “from some misconception of the order to advance, the Lieutenant-General (Lucan) considered that he was bound to attack at all hazards, and he accordingly ordered Major-General the Earl of Cardigan to move forward with the Light Brigade.”Lucan was furious at being made a scapegoat: Raglan claimed he should have exercised his discretion, but throughout the campaign up to that date Lucan considered Raglan had allowed him no independence at all and required that his orders be followed to the letter. Cardigan, who had merely obeyed orders, blamed Lucan for giving those orders. He returned home a hero and was promoted to Inspector General of the Cavalry.

Punch cartoon on the poor conditions of British troops
Punch cartoon on the poor conditions of British troops

In the following winter Russell reported on the hardships that the troops endured. “All the pictures ever drawn of plague and pestilence, from the work of the inspired writer who chronicled the woes of infidel Egypt down to the narratives of Boccaccio, Defoe and Moltke, fall short of individual ‘bits’ of disease and death which anyone may see in half a dozen places during an hour’s walk in Balaklava … the sick appear to be tended by the sick and the dying by the dying.”

Injured soldiers at Florence Nightingale's hospital at Scutari
Injured soldiers at Florence Nightingale’s hospital at Scutari

Russell retired as a correspondent in 1882. He was later awarded the Royal Victorian Order by King Edward VII, who allegedly said to him, “don’t kneel, Billy, just stoop.” Russell died in London in 1907.

The Irishman on the Laconia

and nights hanging around police stations and courts, periodically scuttling off to the scene of the most colourful crimes. These, invariably, were committed in the city’s slums, a teeming wellhead of stories that rapidly gave Gibbons the kind of education in the rawer side of human nature that no college can provide.”

In 1910 he managed to get into the home of a fugitive, John F. Dietz, getting an exclusive interview while the police surrounded the house and unloaded a thousand rounds of ammunition. When the Brunswick Hotel caught fire, Gibbons – knowing that the hotel was popular with wealthy businessmen and their mistresses – dashed into the burning building and grabbed the guest register. The day after the fire, he published his story of the fire, including the names of all the guests in the register.

During World War One he was a correspondent for the Chicago Tribune; he reported on the revolutionary Pancho Villa’s battles and scored an exclusive interview with him; he lost an eye at the Belleau Wood after being hit by machine gun fire; he became one of the first radio news reporters, his quick-fire delivery described as “a machine gun stream of syllables.”

English: RMS Laconia at New York.
English: RMS Laconia at New York. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

In 1917 he got the scoop of the year when he was aboard the Laconia as it was torpedoed. His presence on the liner was no accident. In early 1917 Germany announced it would sink any vessel that it perceived as a threat in the North Atlantic. The German Ambassador to the United States, von Bernstoff, was expelled, and many war reporters felt it would be safe to cross the Atlantic with him on the Frederick VII. Ever vigilant for a story, Gibbons deliberately chose the Laconia instead, knowing it might well be attacked.

The ship sailed from New York on February 17th, carrying 73 passengers and 216 crew-members and “loaded with cotton, foodstuffs and war material.” The passengers had several lifeboat drills and knew they were entering “the danger zone.” When he asked the ship’s commander, Capt. Irvine, where they were located, Irvine’s response was “it is jolly well none of your business.” Gibbons wrote that “submarines had been a chief part of the conversation during the entire trip.”

On February 25th two German torpedoes slammed into the side of the ship off the Irish coast. Gibbons’ report of the moment, with First Class passengers dancing, playing bridge and blithely commenting on the war, is a triumph of understatement:

The first cabin passengers were gathered in the lounge Sunday evening, with the exception of the bridge fiends in the smoke-room.

“Poor Butterfly” was dying wearily on the talking machine and several couples were dancing.

About the tables in the smoke-room the conversation was limited to the announcement of bids and orders to the stewards. Before the fireplace was a little gathering which had been dubbed as the Hyde Park corner — an allusion I don’t quite fully understand. This group had about exhausted available discussion when I projected a new bone of contention.

“What do you say are our chances of being torpedoed?” I asked.

“Well,” drawled the deliberative Mr. Henry Chetham, a London solicitor, “I should say four thousand to one.”

Lucien J. Jerome, of the British diplomatic service, returning with an Ecuadorian valet from South America, interjected: “Considering the zone and the class of this ship, I should put it down at two hundred and fifty to one that we don’t meet a sub.”

At this moment the ship gave a sudden lurch sideways and forward. There was a muffled noise like the slamming of some large door at a good distance away. The slightness of the shock and the meekness of the report compared with my imagination were disappointing. Every man in the room was on his feet in an instant.

“We’re hit!” shouted Mr. Chetham.

“That’s what we’ve been waiting for,” said Mr. Jerome.

“What a lousy torpedo!” said Mr. Kirby in typical New Yorkese. “It must have been a fizzer.”

German Submarine UC 97, WWI
German Submarine UC 97, WWI (Photo credit: photolibrarian)

Gibbons spent that night on a lifeboat and eventually was rescued and shipped to Queenstown (Cork), from where he immediately filed the story.

I have serious doubts whether this is a real story. I am not entirely certain that it is not all a dreamand that in a few minutes I will wake up back in stateroom B19 on the promenade deck of the Cunarder Laconia and hear my cockney steward informing with an abundance of ‘and sirs’ that it is a fine morning.

It is now a little over thirty hours since I stood on the slanting decks of the big liner, listened to the lowering of the lifeboats, and heard the hiss of escaping steam and the roar of ascending rockets as they tore lurid rents in the black sky and cast their red glare over the roaring sea.

I am writing this within thirty minutes after stepping on the dock here in Queenstown from the British mine sweeper which picked up our open lifeboat after an eventful six hours of drifting and darkness and bailing and pulling on the oars and of straining aching eyes toward that empty, meaningless horizon in search of help.

Gibbons’ lively report of the sinking made headlines around the world. He spared no detail: the damage to the ship, the sense of panic and the hysterics of some passengers were described fully and with much colour:

The torpedo had hit us well astern on the starboard side and had missed the engines and the dynamos. I had not noticed the deck lights before. Throughout the voyage our decks had remained dark at night and all cabin portholes were clamped down and all windows covered with opaque paint.

The illumination of the upper deck on which I stood made the darkness of the water sixty feet below appear all the blacker when I peered over the edge at my station, boat No. 10.

Already the boat was loading up and men were busy with the ropes. I started to help near a davit that seemed to be giving trouble, but I was stoutly ordered to get out of the way and get into the boat.

We were on the port side, practically opposite the engine well. Up and down the deck passengers and crew were donning lifebelts, throwing on overcoats, and taking positions in the boats. There were a number of women, but only one appeared hysterical — little Miss Titsie Siklosi, a French-Polish actress, who was being cared for by her manager, Cedric P. Ivatt, appearing on the passenger list as from New York.

The lifeboat he was on slowly drifted away from the ship, even as passengers were jumping off and landing in the water.

A man was jumping, as I presumed, with the intention of landing in the boat and I prepared to avoid the impact, but he passed beyond us and plunged into the water three feet from the edge of the boat. He bobbed to the surface immediately.

“It’s Duggan!” shouted a man next to me.

I flashed the light on the ruddy, smiling face and water-plastered hair of the little Canadian, our fellow saloon passenger. We pulled him over the side. He sputtered out a mouthful of water and the first words he said were:

“I wonder if there is anything to that lighting three cigarettes off the same match? I was up above trying to loosen the rope to this boat. I loosened it and then got tangled up in it. The boat went down, but I was jerked up. I jumped for it.”

His first reference concerned our deliberate tempting of fates early in the day when he, Kirby, and I lighted three cigarettes from the same match and Duggan told us that he had done the same thing many a time.

The men began pulling oars, and at one point Gibbons complains of “the gibbering, bullet-headed Negro” who sat behind him and whose oar was digging into his back.

I looked into his slanting face, eyes all whites and lips moving convulsively. Besides being frightened, the man was freezing in the thin cotton shirt that composed his entire upper covering. He would work feverishly to get warm.

“Get away from her; get away from her,” he kept repeating. “When the water hits her hot boilers, she’ll blow up, and there’s just tons and tons of shrapnel in the hold!”

His excitement spread to other members of the crew in the boat. The ship’s baker, designated by his pantry headgear, became a competing alarmist, and a white fireman, whose blasphemy was nothing short of profound, added to the confusion by cursing everyone.

It was the give-way of nerve tension. It was bedlam and nightmare.

From the lifeboat the survivors watched the 18,000 tonne vessel sink into the murky depths.

We watched silently during the next minute, as the tiers of lights dimmed slowly from white to yellow, then to red, and nothing was left but the murky mourning of the night, which hung over all like a pall.

A mean, cheese-colored crescent of a moon revealed one horn above a rag bundle of clouds low in the distance. A rim of blackness settled around our little world, relieved only by general leering stars in the zenith, and where the Laconia lights had shone there remained only the dim outline of a blacker hulk standing out above the water like a jagged headland, silhouetted against the overcast sky.

The ship sank rapidly at the stern until at last its nose stood straight in the air. Then it slid silently down and out of sight like a piece of disappearing scenery in a panorama spectacle.

Duggan’s lifeboat, along with two others, bobbed up and down like a cork in the choppy ocean for several hours, until “we were suspended in the husky, tattooed arms of those doughty British jack tars, looking up into the weatherbeaten, youthful faces, mumbling thanks and thankfulness, and reading in the gold lettering on their pancake hats the legend ‘HMS Laburnum.’

The survivors were landed at Queenstown and put up in local hotels. Thirteen people died in the sinking. After Gibbons had cabled his story of the German attack, the Chicago Tribune responded:


To which Gibbons wryly answered:


A Poet’s Guide to Britain

By Niall McArdle

There are places that speak,

Telling the stories of us and them.

A village asleep, loaded with dream

An ocean flicking its pages over the sand.

Eventually we reply, a conversation of place and page over time,

Inscribing the map so that each, in turn, might hold the line.

Owen Sheers

As TV critic for the Sunday Times, A.A Gill used to dine out on the eccentricities and biases of the BBC, and he would frequently have a go at all the “Tristrams” who he imagined sat in plush offices in Broadcasting House commissioning the sorts of television programmes that would appeal to certain niche audiences that shared the Tristrams’ view of the world.

One wonders what Gill would make of Owen Sheers‘ marvellous A Poet’s Guide to Britain. It is a wonderful example of how television can explain so-called ‘high art’ to the masses. It’s not at all snobbish or pretentious, and it succeeds at the one thing you would imagine is more suited to radio than television: talking about poetry.

Owen Sheers
Owen Sheers

The series is as varied as its subjects. It’s a literary tour-guide of Britain; it provides slices of British biography and history; it’s an invitation to read and reread poetry; it’s both wonderfully twee and brilliantly subversive. It revisits and reimagines both the landscape and the poems they have inspired. Its appeal should be huge, watched by fusty Home Counties types as well as those who crawled out of dark Satanic mills. In other words, by more than just A.A Gill’s Tristrams.

The series examines the history of poems by six poets: William Wordsworth, Matthew Arnold, Louis MacNeice, Lynette Roberts, Sylvia Plath, and George Mackay Brown.  Sheer’s enthusiasm is infectious, and the series invites us to reexamine famous poems in the light of their creators’ lives and the landscapes they celebrated: Orkney, Belfast, Dorset, Yorkshire, South Wales, the Lake District, London, Dover. The poems are examined in relation to the events and other writers that inspired each poet: Milton, Coleridge, Hawthorne, Eliot, Mallory, Bronte, Lawrence, Dylan Thomas, Francis Scarf, the Viking Orkney Sagas, and Edwin Muir.

It also introduces us to contemporary poets, each of whom feels a special relationship to one of the six poets. So it has introduced me to the work of Owen Sheer himself, as well as Adam O’Riordan, Simon Armitage, Kathryn Gray, Paul Farley, Danny Abse, Gillian Clark, Clare Pollard, Jo Shapcolt, Don Paterson, Pamela Beasant, Morag MacInnes, and Daljit Nagra.

William Wordsworth
William Wordsworth

Sheer’s choice of Wordsworth’s ‘Composed upon Westminster Bridge’ is interesting. Although he likes the Lake District’s poet’s nature poems, he is more interested in Wordsworth’s sonnet about cosmopolitan London, and like the rest of the series, his choice invites us to reread a famous poem. London was halfway between the Lake District of Wordsworth’s youth and the revolutionary Paris that he visited after university, to where he was returning to be reunited with his former lover Annette Vallon and their daughter, Caroline. The poem is beloved by Londoners for its sublime quality of light and feeling at dawn.

Earth has not anything to show more fair:
Dull would he be of soul who could pass by
A sight so touching in its majesty:
This City now doth like a garment wear

The beauty of the morning: silent, bare,
Ships, towers, domes, theatres, and temples lie
Open unto the fields, and to the sky,
All bright and glittering in the smokeless air.

Never did sun more beautifully steep
In his first splendour valley, rock, or hill;
Ne’er saw I, never felt, a calm so deep!

The river glideth at his own sweet will:
Dear God! the very houses seem asleep;
And all that mighty heart is lying still!

Matthew Arnold
Matthew Arnold

Matthew Arnold’s ‘Dover Beach’ is about the religious doubt Arnold experienced, and considering it is such a shockingly desolate poem, it’s a surprise to learn that he wrote it on his honeymoon.

The sea is calm to-night.
The tide is full, the moon lies fair
Upon the straits; on the French coast the light
Gleams and is gone; the cliffs of England stand;
Glimmering and vast, out in the tranquil bay.
Come to the window, sweet is the night-air!
Only, from the long line of spray
Where the sea meets the moon-blanched land,
Listen! you hear the grating roar
Of pebbles which the waves draw back, and fling,
At their return, up the high strand,
Begin, and cease, and then again begin,
With tremulous cadence slow, and bring
The eternal note of sadness in.

Sophocles long ago
Heard it on the A gaean, and it brought
Into his mind the turbid ebb and flow
Of human misery; we
Find also in the sound a thought,
Hearing it by this distant northern sea.

The Sea of Faith
Was once, too, at the full, and round earth’s shore
Lay like the folds of a bright girdle furled.
But now I only hear
Its melancholy, long, withdrawing roar,
Retreating, to the breath
Of the night-wind, down the vast edges drear
And naked shingles of the world.

Ah, love, let us be true
To one another! for the world, which seems
To lie before us like a land of dreams,
So various, so beautiful, so new,
Hath really neither joy, nor love, nor light,
Nor certitude, nor peace, nor help for pain;
And we are here as on a darkling plain
Swept with confused alarms of struggle and flight,
Where ignorant armies clash by night.

Louis MacNeice
Louis MacNeice

Louis MacNeice’s ‘Woods’ is an examination of the conflicted identity that MacNeice struggled with for most of his life; his sense of being both Irish and English, caught between his father’s wild Mayo and the tamer countryside of Dorset, where MacNeice was sent to boarding school as a boy.

My father who found the English landscape tame
Had hardly in his life walked in a wood,
Too old when first he met one; Malory’s knights,
Keats’s nymphs or the Midsummer Night’s Dream
Could never arras the room, where he spelled out True and Good
With their interleaving of half-truths and not-quites.

While for me from the age of ten the socketed wooden gate
Into a Dorset planting, into a dark
But gentle ambush, was an alluring eye;
Within was a kingdom free from time and sky,
Caterpillar webs on the forehead, danger under the feet,
And the mind adrift in a floating and rustling ark

Packed with birds and ghosts, two of every race,
Trills of love from the picture-book—Oh might I never land
But here, grown six foot tall, find me also a love
Also out of the picture-book; whose hand
Would be soft as the webs of the wood and on her face
The wood-pigeon’s voice would shaft a chrism from above.

So in a grassy ride a rain-filled hoof-mark coined
By a finger of sun from the mint of Long Ago
Was the last of Lancelot’s glitter. Make-believe dies hard;
That the rider passed here lately and is a man we know
Is still untrue, the gate to Legend remains unbarred,
The grown-up hates to divorce what the child joined.

Thus from a city when my father would frame
Escape, he thought, as I do, of bog or rock
But I have also this other, this English, choice
Into what yet is foreign; whatever its name
Each wood is the mystery and the recurring shock
Of its dark coolness is a foreign voice.

Yet in using the word tame my father was maybe right,
These woods are not the Forest; each is moored
To a village somewhere near. If not of to-day
They are not like the wilds of Mayo, they are assured
Of their place by men; reprieved from the neolithic night
By gamekeepers or by Herrick’s girls at play.

And always we walk out again. The patch
Of sky at the end of the path grows and discloses
An ordered open air long ruled by dyke and fence,
With geese whose form and gait proclaim their consequence,
Pargetted outposts, windows browed with thatch,
And cow pats – and inconsequent wild roses.

copyright Faber & Faber

Lynette Roberts
Lynette Roberts

‘Poem from Llanybri’ by Lynette Roberts is of special importance to Sheer. He is from South Wales. Lynette Roberts grew up in Buenos Aires and later lived in London before moving to a tiny Welsh village very close to where Dylan Thomas lived. Thomas was best man at her wedding to Cydrech Rhys. She had a passion for the village, as well as for Welsh poet Alun Lewis (the poem is for him.) Sheer describes her as a war poet, and the programme is a reminder of the poverty and deprivation that Britain went through during and after the war.

If you come my way that is …

Between now and then, I will offer you
A fist full of rock cress fresh from the bank
The valley tips of garlic red with dew
Cooler than shallots, a breath you can swank

In the village when you come. At noon-day
I will offer you a choice bowl of cawl
Served with a ‘lover’s’ spoon and a chopped spray
Of leeks or savori fach, not used now,

In the old way you’ll understand. The din
Of children singing through the eyelet sheds
Ringing smith hoops, chasing the butt of hens;
Or I can offer you Cwmcelyn spread

With quartz stones from the wild scratchings of men:
You will have to go carefully with clogs
Or thick shoes for it’s treacherous the fen,
The East and West Marshes also have bogs.

Then I’ll do the lights, fill the lamp with oil,
Get coal from the shed, water from the well;
Pluck and draw pigeon, with crop of green foil
This your good supper from the lime-tree fell.

A sit by the hearth with blue flames rising,
No talk. Just a stare at ‘Time’ gathering
Healed thoughts, pool insight, like swan sailing
Peace and sound around the home, offering

You a night’s rest and my day’s energy.
You must come – start this pilgrimage
Can you come? – send an ode or elegy
In the old way and raise our heritage.

copyright Estate of Lynette Roberts

Sylvia Plath
Sylvia Plath

I thought I knew everything worth knowing about Sylvia Plath: the move to Britain from America, the tumultuous marriage to Ted Hughes, her mental illness, The Bell Jar, her suicide. Sheer, though, introduces the viewer to a nature poem by her, ‘Wuthering Heights’, inspired by the same Yorkshire moors that moved Emily Bronte to write her famous novel. The episode also has a brilliant moment when hairy north country types sit in a darkened pub telling ghost stories. Plath was brought to Yorkshire by Hughes, and the gloomy Pennines, the supernatural setting, and the stones of the village echo in her poetry.

Copyright prohibits publication of Plath’s “Wuthering Heights”.

George Mackay Brown
George Mackay Brown

George Mackay Brown lived in Strongness in the remote Orkney Isles, and Sheer views him as a literary outsider. Unlike the other poets in the series, Brown wasn’t a part of a literary circle, and though he lived for a time in Edinburgh, he lived for most of his life in the tiny Scottish outpost. During the war Orkney became an important point for British naval defence. Brown contracted TB, and as a consequence lost his job and failed the physical for the Army, and so, sick and jobless, he was stuck in Strongness for the duration of the war. Luckily for poetry, the Scottish poet Francis Scarf was boarded at his house, and Scarf encouraged Brown’s poetic ambition. He also became friendly with Edwin Muir, who submitted his poems to publishers without Brown even knowing.

His poem ‘Hamnavoe’ is a celebration of the rugged island landscape and an elegy for his late father.

I don’t know if the series was popular, but I hope that the Tristrams at the Beeb commission a second series; Sheer – currently nominated for Wales Book of the Year – is a wonderful guide to both poetry and the landscape.