Henning Mankell made me angry, Henning Mankell made me sad

Henning Mankell made me angry, Henning Mankell made me sad

Illustration by Andrea Ventura for The Guardian

I don’t think that any writer has ever made me as angry as Henning Mankell did, when he callously discarded Kurt Wallander at the end of The Troubled Man.

I still vividly remember my shock and dismay when I read the words on the page. It was in June 2011 and we were on holidays in the south of France. I was in Café Sola, in Collioure, where I’d gone for a pichet of rosé, to savour the final chapters of Mankell’s latest installation of Wallander’s lonely and melancholic police career.

This is what he wrote:

Wallander suddenly felt terrified. His memory had deserted him again. He didn’t know who the girl running toward him was. He knew he’d seen her before, but what her name was or what she was doing in his house he had no idea.

It was as if everything had fallen silent. As if all colors had faded away and all he was left with was black and white.

The shadow grew more intense. And Kurt Wallander slowly descended into darkness that some years later transported him into the empty universe known as Alzheimer’s disease.

After that there is nothing more . . .

It was like a punch in the face. I did feel sad about Wallander, but even more so I was raging at Mankell. I remember wandering back to our little fisherman’s house on Rue de la Fraternité to voice my outrage to Ciara, who had to work that afternoon.

I’d had no idea that he was finishing the series or that this was his last Wallander book. And it was partly that – that would be no more Wallander – but mostly the callous way he did it. For fuck’s sake.

Now I understand better. It turns out that he had wanted to write about Alzheimer’s disease all along. It also turns out that Alzheimer’s was his own biggest fear. He never had to face it. Cancer took him instead, last year.

Reading excerpts from Henning Mankell’s last book: Quicksand: What It Means to Be a Human Being, in the Guardian last night had me close to tears, several times.

And it isn’t just because it is about the death of a man I admired so much. (I think The Kurt Wallander series is the reason I want to write a crime novel of my own.) Nor because it describes his initial cancer diagnosis and subsequent treatment. My mother died of cancer too and it did remind me of that, but no, that’s not the reason either.

It was because I realised, when reading it, that his writing is so beautiful. And his writing is so beautiful because it is so true. And perhaps that’s why I admire the Wallander books so much. Because they are true.

And that’s why he also wrote about Wallander the way he did, at the end of The Troubled Man. It wasn’t Mankell who was callous, it was the Alzheimer’s. And the writing had to reflect that.

So I forgive you, Henning. And I miss you. And I’ve pre-ordered the book. And I’ll read it with joy.

Here’s a brief extract from the piece in The Guardian. You can read the full article here.

After about two months, when I had reached the middle of the first basic cycle of chemotherapy, I had the feeling one morning that a new sort of normality had entered my life. Nothing would ever be the same as it had been before I received the diagnosis, but nevertheless it was as if life was now taking on a form that in my darkest moments I would never have thought possible.

The days were getting lighter. Not a lot, but mid-winter was past. One morning, all too early, a blackbird started singing from its perch on the television aerial. It occurred to me that this was something I could record on my gravestone.

I have heard the blackbird. I have lived

Eimear McBride and Marlon James and a guy from the NFL

Eimear McBride and Marlon James and a guy from the NFL

I went to a reading in UCC last night. It was by Eimear McBride, an author, whose book A Girl is a Half-Formed Thing was published in 2014.

Here are some of the awards and notices the book received.

Winner of 2014 Baileys Women’s Prize for Fiction
Winner of the Goldsmiths Prize
Winner of the Kerry Group Irish Novel of the Year Award
Winner of the Desmond Elliott Prize
Winner of 2013 Geoffrey Faber Memorial Prize
Shortlisted for the Dylan Thomas Prize
Shortlisted for the Folio Prize
Publishers Weekly, Kirkus, and Library Journal’s Best Books of 2014
One of Time Out New York’s Ten Best Books of 2014
Selected as one of NPR’s 2014 Great Reads
A New York Magazine Best Book of 2014
A Boston Globe Best Book of 2014
Chicago Tribune Printers Row Journal Best Books of 2014
Star Tribune Best Fiction of 2014
Electric Literature 25 Best Novels of 2014
Largehearted Boy Favorite Novels of 2014
The New York Times Book Review 100 Notable Books of 2014
Vanity Fair 11 Best Books of 2014

Not bad for a first novel, eh?

Anyway I haven’t read the book yet but I will. It tells the story of an Irish girl/woman and her life. It’s a tough story, by all accounts, but brilliantly told. It’s also written in a mixture of modernist and realist styles. It’s been compared to Joyce and Beckett in style, which says a lot. Her reading of it was stunning – it came alive, you were inside the character. That’s partly why she chose that style – because it allowed, no it demanded that the reader be inside and not outside. A privilege to have been there.

It took her almost ten years to have it published, having written it in six month. She had so many rejections that she ended up putting it away in a drawer and she began another book. Most publishers who were interested said that their marketing departments couldn’t sell it so they wouldn’t publish it. And we know, we know, that publishing is a business, but still. I hope they are sorry now…

Which reminds me of Marlon James, the 2015 Man Booker winner. Here’s a recent Guardian article about him which I found very moving and inspirational. You can and should read it here.

He says that he failed the main test of a writer which is never to give up. To keep going, no matter what. He says he failed that test because, in 2003, after 78 rejections by publishers at the age of 33, he destroyed all copies of his first novel John Crow’s Devil – he wasn’t cut out for it. Writing wasn’t for him. Delete, delete, delete.

Then he went to a writing workshop with Kaylie Jones and she liked some of his exercises and she asked him for some of his work and he had to go back home and try to find a copy of his novel from one of his friends who hadn’t obeyed his edict to delete it from his or her computer.

And he did, and he gave it to her. And it was published in 2005 and here he is now. And here is Eimear McBride now. And we’re all the richer for it.

Which reminds me of a quote by an American Footballer from last year’s Superbowl. New England Patriots receiver Julian Edelman was assessed by a coach in 2009 who said he was too small, didn’t have the durabaility needed etc. He was quoted last year as saying: “There’s only two things you can do when someone says you’re not good enough: You can prove them right or you can prove them wrong.”


Rook of the Month, January

Rook of the Month, January

This is Terence, Rook of The Month for January.

His name is not really Terence. Bird names are both unwritable and unpronounceable to humans. They also involve difficult concepts like the subtle changes in light when the first shades of rust appear in the larger leaves of the higher branches of the Horse Chestnut tree in September – in a grove in North Cork, facing South South West – on a windy day. Or the intonation of the third and most important croak (not the correct word, but there is none) of an excited early fledge the first time she (and that’s an important distinction) announces to the parliament that she has seen a new food source – and where it is.

Terence’s real name involves five small silences of the group in late summer directed towards the mate of a well-loved female when she doesn’t come home to roost of an evening. That happened the night he was hatched. She had been working a busy bit of road near Kildorrery to try to get fat for a second clutch. Rooks have about five hundred and nine types of silence that they use for different purposes. We have NO idea.

Anyway Terence was fledged in a small rookery near Mitchelstown, but he prefers the city life in winter – there’s more of a buzz he says. He summers in Curabinny in a very large gathering. Last summer he mated (his first time) with a nice hen from Crosshaven but she seems to have headed north into the county. He hopes she’ll return but… “Well, I can’t wait around for ever. I’ll have to get moving soon. Last year we had eggs by the end of February, and nests don’t build themselves, you know.” He’s confident that there will be plenty nesting material and food this year, with the storms and the mild weather.

He swears by the ploughed fields near Garretstown. “Best worms in the country, wings down” he says. Rooks don’t caw by the way. Nor any Corvids. It’s a myth. Like that menacing music whenever they appear on films or TV. Stupid humans.

Terence hopes for more respect for birds in the future and an end to pesticides in farming. He’s very concerned about climate change and the large flocks of Scandanavian immigrants coming to Ireland every winter.

“It’s not so much the thrushes and blackbirds,” he says. “They all go back up there, and they have to come down because of the cold. But the larger birds have no business here and I’ve heard of cases where they stay for the summer and even mate with Irish hens. That’s just not on.” He’s also concerned about Buzzards.

“We’ve all seen them. They came over from Scotland first and now they’re mating as far down as Carlow. They live mostly off roadkill now too – they were never much for hunting, unlike other raptors. It’s a serious issue.”

But overall, Terence seems a happy go lucky rook and he’s well-liked among the younglings in the clamour. His own five chicks all survived the winter so far and he meets them the odd time, near the water by Crosshaven. They eat mostly off the mussels there but they are getting hassle from some of the larger Hooded Crows.

Terence says he doesn’t like this picture because it makes him look juvenile, which he isn’t. He can’t wait to build a new nest this year. He has a nice tall ash tree picked out already. A few hens have been hanging around but he’s biding his time in case last year’s mate returns. He does miss her, but he’ll have to decide soon.

young rook

Tuscany Downs 4: The Judge

Tuscany Downs 4: The Judge


A week like any other in Tuscany Downs – this little estate on the Banks of my Own Lovely Lee. Decrepitude is creeping onwards in its inevitable march.

I had another visit from my neighbour, that lady whose name I can never remember, two houses over. It appears she is being sued by one of those gurriers whom we are both unfortunately adjoining. A great pity that man was allowed to purchase the house at a ridiculously low price, with his ill gotten gains from a no-doubt spurious insurance claim after the bottom fell out of the market some years ago. I seem to recall his brother was a serial recidivist.

I don’t see what in the world she expects from me. I tried to explain the difference between the Circuit Court where I functioned and the High Court where she is bound in the unlikely event that her insurance company decides to contest the case. Of course I know the law but I have no intention of becoming involved. She will simply have to purchase the time of a solicitor – I tried to recommend one with an unusual level of honesty and ethics, but she seems determined to go with some Dublin firm who will undoubtedly part her with whatever life insurance monies she has managed to squirrel away when her strange husband died.

I spent a good hour this morning looking for my latest pair of reading glasses – to no avail. It is a real wonder to me how those infernal objects can disappear into thin air with such alarming regularity. I know that two of them broke in the washing machine, but that has been out of order now for two months so they cannot have been lost there. And another two went missing down behind the sofa – well they are a write-off without doubt. I found a few when I changed the bedding that time, but they’re not there now. Nothing for it but another trip to the pharmacy. That taxi company charges exorbitant prices but I can’t risk driving any more since that unfortunate collision on the Blackrock Road, which I still content was not my fault.

Of course if one of those alleged children of mine made the effort to visit their ‘father’ they could bring me into town to the optician and even arrange for someone to come and fix the washing machine. But the two plumbers that I phoned last week both hung up on me for some reason – I can’t fathom why. I’m sure I paid both of them the last time they did some work for me. Although I do recollect some words also…

No sign of the mysterious Mr. Jones, my other contiguous neighbour, for several days. I’m sure he’s a writer of some kind but I’m also of the firm belief that there is something clandestine going on there. That lady – she might be Cullinane, now that I think of it – never shut up about him both times she called. And if I’m not mistaken that was the girl of the Crowley’s paying him a late night visit the other night. I didn’t notice when she left. The mind boggles.

And that’s all the news from Tuscany Downs our little estate on the Banks of My Own Lovely Lee. Where I really do need to wash my clothes but dry cleaners are out of the question, I’m determined to get to the bottom of Mr. Jones’s secrets and I haven’t been bothered by that know-it-all at the top of the road for three weeks running – an all time record. Thank God for small mercies.

On Winter Nasturtiums

On Winter Nasturtiums

I always look out to the garden (such as it is) when I’m having my breakfast (such as it is), even in the paling grey mornings of an Irish November* (such as they are).

Just joking. The garden is fine, and the breakfast finer. And mornings bring miracles and the hope of renewal.

And outside the window there is a patio area and a concrete retaining wall painted white by my own hand. And growing from the apparently barren pebbles on the shaded ground below a proud unlikely nasturtium flourishes each year.

It appears in early Summer, full of curiosity and hope (as perennials do) and crawls its tiptoe creep along the stones and the patio slabs. One, two, three, four stems grow and thicken and seek the purchase they need to go upwards, onward, towards the bounty of light. Like fingers feeling under the bed sheets for the promise of a warm body’s splendour just out of touch.

There steals the nasturtium, wondering what it can do, wondering how great it can be.

Once it is long enough I attach the ends of the tendrils to the metal sculpture that hangs on the wall. And off we go. The plant grabs the metal as if its life depends upon it – perhaps it does, I don’t know. And it climbs and colonises and flourishes and beauty of beauties, it flowers.

It flowers and blossoms and basks in the glories of heat and light, trumpeting to bees the sweet Gods-loved nectar of its core. And it flowers and it flowers and it flowers.

And now the bees have gone, and the swallows and the screaming swifts have gone. The Summer holidays are spent, the hay is saved, the corn is cut. All Irelands won and lost. Back to school, the days close in, and the spirit nights of The Hallows are upon us. Christmas is coming and the goose is getting fat. But the humble nasturtium is still in bloom.

And I am nourished more at my breakfast in this chilly early November pre-dawn gloom by these flowers, still pristine, still expectant, than the porridge and honey I spoon into myself.

The orange flowers on the green stems, on the white retaining wall of our back garden outside our window. My little tricolour, and an anthem for my soul. I sigh, finish my food, rise from the table and go to work.

* Written November 2014

My Favourite Photo of 2015

My Favourite Photo of 2015

This is my favourite photo from 2015. It’s a cup of tea.

And that’s kind of the point.

I was working on a project for a writing course I’m doing right now. My classmates and I had to create what’s called a MEmorial. This is a term created Gregory Ulmer back in the 1990s and it’s a kind of online monument to… something. To a disaster, to a tragedy, to something beautiful – it’s a kind of citizen’s response in the internet age.

And I decided to do it on climate change, which is by far the biggest disaster to happen to our species (though, as usual, I suspect that many other innocent species will suffer more first) and then I baulked. It was too hard. Too much.

So then I decided to try to connect with those small moments of which our day is comprised. (You do know we have 60,000 thoughts every day, don’t you?) The many simple things that we do and experience every single day, mostly unconsciously and mostly that pass us by because we are not paying attention. And I did this through video, music, words and photos, using a software package called Premiere Pro.

So I called it my MEmorial to the Moment. And the first photo I choose was this one. Partly because it is about the early morning cup of tea – so it reflects the beginning of a day that will be full of moments, so it seemed like a fitting opening.

And partly because it captured exactly what I wanted from all the photos I took, only some of which I used. What’s it’s essentially saying is this: there is more to this cup of tea than you think. It’s not just a cup of tea. It’s wonderful. It’s nourishing (emotionally as well as nutritionally; in fact it’s far more emotionally nourishing than nutritionally – if you let it). There is nothing quotidian about it.

Cup of tea

Because it’s backlit, the steam rising from the tea is caught. I really wanted that. The sunlight lifts it too, and the sun is catching raindrops on the window in the background giving a sparkling effect. Everyday objects in the background are blurred but present. But the blurring draws your eye to the cup in focus, front and centre. The sunlight also plays with the small blue chopping board in the right foreground and the shine on the granite counter top gives a light/dark contrast. Contrast is good.

The otherwise mundane cup itself looks great too with the ring of sunlight reflected all around its lip, and the shine on the handle and side. The colours and designs are vibrant and attractive. Clearly this is not just any old cup of tea.

And that was exactly the point. A cup of tea is not just a cup of tea – if we allow it to be more. And that’s true of so many of the so called mundane moments or happenings of any give ‘normal’ day. They can be magic, if we let the magic in. If we see it, and are open to it, and are present to it.

This cup of tea gave me a lot of confidence in the potential value of the visual. As a means of self-expression and empowerment and consolation.

A cup of tea. Who’d have thunk it?

Here’s the full MEmorial if you have 4 minutes. I’ll write more about that some other time. I wish you could see all the ones my classmates did too – they were amazing.

The Revenant (film)

The Revenant (film)

The Revenant is a film by Alejandro G. Iñárritu, starring Leonardo DiCaprio (as Hugh Glass), Tom Hardy (as John Fitzgerald) and Domhnall Glesson (as Captain Andrew Henry).

The screenplay is by Iñárritu and Mark L. Smith and is based (in part, it says significantly in the credits) on the novel by Michael Punke.

It tells the story of a frontiersman/trapper (Glass) in the 1820s in the wilds of America who is mauled by a bear, left for dead (by Fitzgerald in the main) and his quest for revenge.

The word visceral is often used for films and books but in this case it fits very well indeed, both literally and metaphorically. It’s a story of great endurance, and physical and emotional suffering. And snow. The unyielding landscape is a protagonist in the film – perhaps even the main character. Almost every scene in the 156 minutes is outdoors in brutal and beautiful conditions – on river, mountain, forest and plain. And snow. Did I mention snow?

Iñárritu stresses the physical and the violent with close shots and slow detail. The fighting scenes are shot in short, fast-moving clips, confusing and seemingly haphazard – highlighting the sense of danger and the swiftness and randomness of death and destruction. This contrasts with travelling shots which are long, sweeping and slow, emphasising the majesty and power of the terrain. The tension is also highlighted by the score (by Ryuichi Sakamoto  and Alva Noto, with further credits to The National’s Bryce Dessner), which features long slow violins and synths for the wide landscape scenes, and percussions, deep base and cello for the build up to the confrontations – of which there are many. The score does not feature many harmonies ­– only one plotline is in need of them.

The camera is moving as often as it is stationary, giving a sense of identification with the characters and their closeness to the wildness of the setting and the harshness of the environment. Cinematography by Emmanuel Lubezki is stunning.

The acting is superb, DiCaprio’s in particular, but also Hardy – most of his scenes are interacting with other actors. Most of DiCaprio’s time on screen is alone, battling with his injuries, his grief and the brutality of winter in the wild. And groaning. There is more groaning in this film than in half a dozen porn films, or the first training session of a rugby team after a cider riddled summer – not that I’ve ever seen a porn film, or for that matter trained with a rugby team. And this sound is also close up and personal, as is the bear attack – as brutal a scene as you’ll see, and seemingly endless.

Brace yourself, Leo, this is really going to hurt. 

The film makers have made some significant changes to the story in the novel and one plot line is especially significant – and I think it works, since much of the focus of the book is the internalisation of Glass’s suffering and motivation. And Iñárritu must have felt that this needed strengthening by the plot – subtlety is not appreciated by the majority of film-goers these days and with a cost of $135 million on his back, and a length of over two and half hours, he needed to make things clear and strong. However, this change, and some others, fundamentally alters the nature of the story and brings the whole White Man/Indian conflict into the scope. Which is fine too, it’s done well, overall. He also changed the end, for cinematic effect, and it works, more or less. He also (unnecessarily) introduced a faded cliché (not in the book) for Glass to survive a storm – back to the visceral stuff there.

Despite the length of the film, the time did not drag for me. It was never going to be a rip roaring, trip along affair, given the story and the emphasis on one character. And DiCaprio is so believable in the role that it remains engaging and interest is maintained to the bloody end. All that snow couldn’t stay white forever.

A few interesting footnotes (thanks Mr. Wiki and Mrs Pedia): The rights for this were bought from Punke way back on 2001, before the book was even published. The initial proposed lead was Samuel L. Jackson, and then Christian Bale with Sean Penn in the Fitzgerald role. Overall I’m glad it went the way it did. The film was shot in three countries: Canada, USA and Argentina and there were all sorts of shenanigans in the financing and filming. The rumours of a rape scene by the bear on DiCaprio are laughable, especially given it’s a female bear protecting her cubs. I think that’s called transference.

A Revenant is a person who has returned, especially from the dead. This is explained in the book, but naturally not in the film – I’m surprised they didn’t change the title, maybe Punke insisted. Elements of the novel and film are based on what happened a real character, Hugh Glass around that time and place.

A gripe: why do film makers have to use the sound and sights of birds (Corvids or Raptors in particular) to create tension and intimate death. It’s been done to death now (ha ha). This is the second film I’ve seen in a few weeks at it (the other being The Hateful Eight, by Tarantino). Even the great Tim Burton does it in Corpse Bride, which I watched on TV at Christmas. End this cliché now!