Brave by Rose McGowan

Brave Heart

Rose McGowan Jan 2018.  

Brave is a memoir written by a woman who says she will not bow down before men. She rejects entirely the patriarchal nature of the world in which she lives. Her refusal to comply has cost her dearly.

McGowan has been at the receiving end of abuse, not just from men but also from women, from the moment she was cogniscent, if not before. She was born in Tuscany on land occupied by an American religious cult. The practices in the commune included polygamy, paedophilia and subjugation of women. Some women colluded in the repression of others.


Once in the US, McGowan was in almost permanent transit between her estranged parents and other relations. As soon as she could, she ran away and ping-ponged from one male ‘protector’ to the next. She over-exercised and under-ate for years often being labelled, by acquaintances and strangers, ‘a freak’. Too thin, short hair. Men shouted obscenities at her.

McGowan is very clear about her bravery and her defiance. In the preface she expounds on the subject of women’s hair. Proudly presenting a shorn head on the cover of Brave, McGowan says she thinks that the ‘real Rose’ slept under her long hair whilst a ‘fake Rose’ used it to pay her way in a world ruled by the male gaze.


She says that in Hollywood ‘I was told I had to have long hair, otherwise men doing the hiring wouldn’t want to fuck me, and if they didn’t want to fuck me, they wouldn’t hire me’. It is a no-holds-barred account.  McGowan is also clear about the complicity of certain women in Hollywood in the oppression of their sisters. They, like McGowan, have at some points in their lives prostituted themselves, as well as her, into a fake world. Some women were powerful agents or PR executives whilst others were costume designers and make-up artists. They encouraged her to fake herself by presenting pouting lips, burgeoning cleavage, pert buttocks and long hair. In this way she would, she says, become ‘fuck-fodder’.

Marilyn Manson and McGowan. Image:
Robert Rodriguez and McGowan. Image”

McGowan admits that her choice of partners has not been the wisest. One man, Brett Cantor, was kind but he was murdered soon after they met. Other men appeared to be supportive until they too slipped into unkind and cruel behaviour patterns.

It’s hard to read this book because it induces anger. Women are incarcerated by the law, zapped with electricity and drugged by medics in order to break their spirit and individuality. This sort of thing is explored in works of ‘autobiographical’ fiction such as My Name is Lucy Barton by Elizabeth Strout.


On the other hand some of the ‘greatest’ American novels by writers like Nabokov, Henry Miller, Saul Bellow, Norman Mailer and John Updike depict narcissistic misogynists who seem pretty much fixated on pornographical sex. Even some of their women characters seem to want to be nearly-raped because according to male protagonists that is what women want.

Whatever decisions McGowan has made it seems imperative that she should, without shouts of derision, have the freedom to say what she chooses, to write this book, to wear whatever she wants. As she says, ‘I didn’t do it to be sexy. I did it with power, to turn on the boys and the men of this world. I did it as a big middle finger’.

Let no one accuse her of being shrill, or neurotic, or mad.


Works cited

McGowan, R. Brave. HarperCollinsPublishers. 2018. Print.




A version of this review was first published on page 37 of the Weekend section of the Irish Examiner 17th March 2018.  It is reproduced here by permission of the Editor.


Where the Wild Coffee Grows

Where the Wild Coffee Grows: The Untold Story of Coffee from the Cloud Forests of Ethiopia to Your Cup.  

Jeff Koehler


Koehler’s descriptions of the cloud forests of the region of Kafa inEthiopia are magical. He writes of ‘the lattice of woodsy green’ and of animals and birds ‘materialising through it’. There are black and white colobus monkeys with tails dangling like ‘shaggy white lichen’ and white-cheeked turacos and large silvery–cheeked hornbills. These creatures eat the crimson coffee fruits and distribute their seeds around the forest. Wild coffee is, as Koehler explains, sown by birds.

In Kafa’s highlands and deep valleys coffee originated and it is140901-nabu-regenwald-koma-bruno-damicis_neu.jpegstill the staple of the indigenous Kafecho. Ancient understandings give families gathering rights over unfenced areas of forest. Beneath the canopy grow the ‘scrawny, moss-covered trees’ sparsely fruited by the few coffee cherries undamaged by rains, animals or birds.

The history of the Kingdom of Kafa is relatively unknown. History and myth were shared orally. Infrequest visiting Europeans wrote accounts, some of which were eventually published, but these have remained obscure.

Internet Archive

One account by Dublin-born French Basque explorer, Antoine d’Abbadie, tells of travelling to Kafa in a prince’s caravan, to collect a twelfth wife from its capital, Bonga. Géographie de l’Éthiopie was published in French in 1890, 50 years after d’Abbadie returned from Kafa.

The conquest of the kingdom, in 1896, by the Emperor of Ethiopia, Menelik II, was well documented by his Russian military advisor, Alexander Bulatovich, and published in Russian. But Ethiopia Through Russian Eyes was not translated into English until 2000.

Koehler is the first to gather everything together in one, carefully researched, volume. Some of the tales are quite familiar. These include the versions of the ‘discovery’ of coffee as a stimulant.


There were some sheep, or maybe goats, and they behaved strangely one night, dancing on their hind legs. Shepherds or, perhaps, goatherds gathered some of the colourful cherries and ate them, becoming over-excited and sleepless themselves. A monk gate crashes one iteration, roasting the beans and making an infusion. But coffee was drunk in Europe long before any Holy Brothers travelled to the region of Kafa.

The last King, Gaki, resisted Menelik’s 31,000 strong imperial army. He ordered that no crops should be planted so that there was nothing to pillage. But at the end of the rainy season, when raging torrents returned to being roads and rivers, the invaders crossed the defensive ditches from all compass points.

Menelik II reviews his troops.  Image: allpostersethiopia

Gaki’s troops fought back using angry bees, feisty ants and poisoned water. They also had knives which they used to sever the genitals of their victims. These trophies were worn as headgear, bouncing on the foreheads of warriors.

In spite of their ferocity the Kafecho lost the battles and their kingdom.  Gaki was interned in Addis Ababa and those of his people who had survived the war starved to death.  Bulatovich wrote that ‘they had lost the appearance of humans and were terribly thin; more precisely, they were skeletons covered with skin’. They were decimated, losing 90% of the population.


The first section of the book looks at the history and geography of the original coffee trees. Then Koehler explains how, during the 20th and 21st centuries the cultivation of coffee spread elsewhere and its consumption became global. But now ‘diseases and a changing climate’ threaten coffee. Harvests have fallen by up to 80%. Finally, Koehler explains that the future of coffee lies in Kafa. There, in the forests, nature provides the variability needed for breeding resistant coffees.


images.jpegKoehler is insistent on the ‘mystique’ of coffee saying that its ‘romance allure and magic’ comes from the wild groves of its birthplace.

Works cited

Bulatovich. A.  Ethiopia Through Russian Eyes: Country in Transition. 1896-98. Trans. Richard Seltzer Lawrenceville. NJ. Red Sea. 2000. Print.

D’abbadie, A. Géographie de l’Èthiopie. Paris. Mesnil. 1890. Print.

Koehler, J. Where the Wild Coffee Grows: The Untold Story of Coffee from the Cloud Forests of Ethiopia to Your Cup. Bloomsbury. 2018. Print.

A version of this review was first published on page 36 of the Weekend section in the Irish Examiner on  17th March 2018.  It is reproduced here by permission of the Editor.

Strange Weather by Joe Hill

Buckle your seatbelts!

Strange Weather: Four Short Novels     Joe Hill


Joe Hill is an award-winning short story writer and graphic novelist. He is also the son of Stephen King – although he does not mention this on his website – and has co-written, as has King’s other son, Owen, with his father. In the volume Strange Weather Hill brings together four novellas all of which feature, not necessarily centrally, unusual weather events.

The first, Snapshot, takes place in an electric storm. Whilst his father is repairing power lines 13-year-old Mike is left home alone. As the lightning flashes and the atmosphere tightens the sky biblically torrents orbs of rain and thousands of frozen songbirds. Set in Apple’s hometown of Cupertino the story depicts a time before ubiquitous mobile phones. Mike is going to be the technical genius behind their invention if he can employ his TV-show-learnt skills to destroy the villain who owns the ‘Solarid’ instant camera and utilise its core of coltan-like ore.

Core of Solarid camera.     Illustration: Gabriel Rodriguez

Popular TV shows are a riff that goes through the stories, suggesting that Hill believes that his fellow citizens blur the line between reality and fantasy. In the much longer tale, Loaded, the protagonist Randall Kellaway appears as a guest on a number of TV channels. On air Kellaway relates his own story: he’s the security guard hero of a shopping mall shoot-up. But Kellaway’s backstory colours the events in a different hue. Loaded has overt messages about racism and American gun laws and the tension builds against the backdrop of a voracious forest fire. The finale plays out shrouded by dense smoke and backlit by falling sparks. Strange weather again!

The third story, Aloft, returns from the realism of its predecessor to the fantasy of Snapshot.

Unknown-1.jpegHere a sky-diver crashes into a cloud but does not fall through it to earth. This idea does not support much narrative as there are only so many words that can be used to describe cloud. But an allusion to time-travel holds the attention whilst a giant silk Old Glory adds colour to the grey.

old-glory.jpgFinally, after the electric storms, wind and mist, comes the Rain. It is a post-9/11 piece which conceptualises a terror attack. Chemists have seeded the sky with needle-like crystals falling like rapiers and penetrating not only skin and clothes but windscreens and sun lounges. Schools and churches, in the ‘test site’ of Boulder, Colorado, are used as temporary mortuaries. A terrified scientist on TV news informs viewers that ‘this new, synthetic crystal fulgurite is self-perpetuating, and it is in the atmosphere now – it might make every rain cloud on earth into a farm for crystal’.images.jpeg

Hill’s stories make a good fist of airing current issues in the US so that in Rain he confronts prejudice against lesbianism in the same way that he approaches racism in Loaded. In Rain a Tweeting president’s finger hovers over the nuclear button. Amusingly Hill comments, in his Afterword, that originally the president was to be a ‘fatigued, besieged’ woman and the plot outcome less catastrophic.


He also explains that Rain ‘arose from a desire to spoof myself and my own sprawling end-of-the-world novel, The Fireman’. Rain, like the others in the volume Strange Weather is short form.  Hill defends the length saying that it gives the opportunity for ‘all killer, no filler’. He thinks that a writer can develop character whilst still ‘running the narrative over the edge of the cliff’. Most readers, like Thelma and Louise, will enjoy the ride.

Works cited

Hill, J. The Fireman. 2016. William Morrow and Company.  Print.

Hill, J.  Strange Weather. 2018. Gollancz. Print.

A version of this review was first published on page 36 in the Weekend section of the Irish Examiner on Saturday/Sunday 4th/5th March 2018. It is reproduced here by permission of the Editor. 




Partition – 70 years on


Partition: the story of Indian independence and the creation of             Pakistan in 1947 by Barney White-Spunner

In the comprehensive index of Barney White-Spunner’s Partition there is no entry under Ireland. This is surprising because in the text there are many occasions when Ireland is important. For example, White-Spunner mentions that the representative of the Calcutta branch of Congress ‘visited Ireland and learned about leading revolutions against Britain from Michael Collins and the IRA’.

Subhas Chandra Bose.  Image:

Strange wording since he arrived in Ireland in 1936 fourteen years after Collins’s death. The visitor was Subhas Chandra Bose who, like his fellow party member Mohandas Gandhi, had been educated in England, at Cambridge. Bose was in opposition to the non-violent ‘Mahatma’ and believed in an armed struggle against the British. Some historians interpret Bose’s beliefs and efforts as those of an ‘Indian Michael Collins’.

The internecine struggle in Congress took place before the Second World War and, as White-Spunner shows, was only a small part of the complexity of the situation in which both India and Ireland found themselves in terms of their relationship with Britain. Indian politicians and thinkers kept a close eye on events in Ireland considering that there were parallels in the two countries’ roads toward independence.

What is revealed in Partition is that the British botch of the process in India was infinitely more incompetent, more negligent and more numbskulled than it was in Ireland. And it was an independence botch that left millions dead or maimed. The resultant partition of India and Pakistan caused political, religious and violent outcomes which are explosive even today.

At the beginning of the book White-Spunner provides a useful potted history of the relationship between Britain and India in the eighteenth, nineteenth and first third of the twentieth centuries. Most striking perhaps is the fact that with so few settlers the empire retained the colony for nearly 200 years.

In compiling his account the author has to juggle all the different linguistic areas, provinces, administrative districts, princely states, political systems, religions, taxes, plagues, famines and uprisings. His skill in doing so reflects, symbolically, the way in which the Viceroys and the Indian Civil Service administered the multitudinous complexities of the subcontinent for generations.

Nehru during the Quit India campaign in 1942.


In 1937 Congress emerged as the strongest party and, states White-Spunner, men like Jawaharlal Nehru and Vallabhbhai Patel, ‘intelligent students of how the Raj had managed to exercise total control across India with only the slenderest of resources’, learnt that they must keep all the key branches of government centrally in Delhi. This was one of the seeds of partition since if everything was so centralised a binary split into two nations would seem better than devolution or federation.

Subhas Chandra Bose.  Image: source unknown.

In 1938 the colourful character of Bose returns to the narrative arriving to take his place as president of Congress perched high on a 51 bull chariot. By 1941 he was in Berlin flirting with Nazism and organising Indian prisoners into an adjunct of the Waffen-SS. Bose then travelled, in a German submarine, to Japan and involved himself in developing the Indian National Army. The remnants of the INA were troublesome in the post-war run up to independence causing ructions during a series of courts-martial trials. Many regarded the INA as national and nationalist heroes rather than traitors. Bose, however, had died in an air crash in 1945 leaving India still under the yoke of imperialism.

Nehru, Gandhi and Patel in 1946. Image: The Hindu Archives.

After the war Congress was, according to White-Spunner, ‘the universal voice of the Hindu majority’. But within the party there were divisions and oppositions. Gandhi did not think that religion was problematic: instead he believed that all Indians should live together, as they had proved they could under the British, in an undivided post-colonial India. Patel was keen to proceed at speed and was likely to accept partition if necessary. Nehru, a socialist, was also impatient to govern – seeing India in a secular light but containing within his faction, to his left virulently anti-British refusniks and to his right, extremely intolerant, Muslim-hating Hindus.

The Muslim League was led by Muhammad Ali Jinnah. He broke from Congress in 1920 when he disputed Gandhi’s preferred method of civil disobedience. Jinnah preferred an approach of high-level negotiation with British rulers. In 1927 he had attempted to build bridges between Congress and the League but his proposals were rejected. Again in 1937 he approached Congress with power-sharing ideas, but again he was rebuffed. White-Spunner suggests that these occurrences were two of the ‘tragic missed opportunities that would ultimately lead to 1947’.

Louis, Lord Mountbatten takes the salute from the Governor-General’s bodyguard as he takes on the Vice-Regency.  Image: Getty.

Meanwhile, on the British side, Viceroy Archibald Wavell, had been sacked and minor royal, Louis Lord Mountbatten, briefed by Labour Prime Minister Clement Attlee, was preparing to take the reins. Sworn in on 24th March 1947 Mountbatten was the twentieth and last governor-general and viceroy. Mountbatten realised that India was on the edge of chaos but also that Congress, not himself, was in the driving seat so that his own role would be to facilitate speedy action.

The Indian Army were, according to White-Spunner, ‘the only effective instrument of power in the government’s hands’. But their commander-in-chief Auchinleck, devastated by the likelihood of dividing his command into two forces – one for what was to be Hindustan and the other for Pakistan – seemed no longer able to focus on what needed to be done. Plans should have been drawn up and further troops obtained to police the partition process. Instead the senior staff concentrated on the remaining Europeans and their protection. This inaction had disastrous results for Indians.

The Indian Army in 1948. Image: kindlemag.

Jinnah who had demanded separation mainly as leverage to achieve a federal India now found himself accepting the imminent existence of Pakistan. Congress, whilst insisting that the new state would not be called Hindustan, agreed reluctantly to ‘a partition of India… as it was a peaceful settlement involving the least compulsion of any group or area’.

Jinnah, first Governor-General of the Muslim Dominion of Pakistan takes the salute in Karachi 1947. Image: Getty.

Things were moving fast now and by May there was a date for transfer of power: 14th/15th August 1947. Mountbatten would attend celebrations in the Islamic Republic of Pakistan on 14th before travelling across to Delhi for India’s festivities on 15th.

The stage was set for the gory finale. In the preface White-Spunner warns the reader that the story he tells is full of violence and horror. In the subcontinent human life became, for a period, of little value. Neighbours raped, maimed and killed each other. Some killed themselves to avoid forced conversion to another religion. Trainloads of refugees were butchered as six million Muslims attempted to move to Pakistan whilst six million non-Muslims moved in the opposite direction.

Gandhi with Muslim refugees in 1947. Image: Getty.

White-Spunner, an experienced and senior commander himself, mulls over the British colonisation of the Indian states and the preparations for independence. He thinks, as did many of his colleagues, that the British Army experience in Iraq after the 2003 invasion can be analysed against the framework of Indian independence. He identifies a poisonous pattern of British governments interfering in other countries for money or status and then finding it difficult to leave.

The book deals clearly with the political process but White-Spunner also interweaves eyewitness accounts given by ordinary Indians from all walks of life. The personal stories add poignancy to what is already an entirely compassionate rendition of history. He dedicates Partition to ‘all those who lost their lives in India and Pakistan in 1947’. It would be interesting if White-Spunner were to write a similar account of the British in Ireland along with the manner of their leaving.

Works cited

White-Spunner, B. Partition: the story of Indian independence and the creation of Pakistan in 1947. London: Simon & Shuster. 2017.

A version of this review was first published on pages 34 and 35 of the Weekend section of the Irish Examiner on 24th February 2018.  It is reproduced here by permission of the Editor.

Found in translation

image: Gary Miller/FilmMagic

Why Dylan Matters by Richard F. Thomas

Controversy about the award of the Nobel Prize for Literature to songwriter Bob Dylan (76) raged for months over 2016 and 2017. In Why Dylan Matters Richard F. Thomas, a classicist at Harvard, provides an impassioned validation of the Swedish Academy’s decision. Dylan matters to Thomas because his songs have been a constant in his own life – important even before Thomas studied Latin and Greek. But Thomas also thinks Dylan matters for everyone because his work will endure just like that of Virgil, Homer, Ovid and Catullus.


Thomas mourns the fact that the young of the twentieth-first century rarely study the languages or literatures of the ancient world. Like Robert Zimmerman I studied Latin in my formative adolescent years. Like Richard Thomas I went on to spend my career teaching poetry, prose and drama. Unlike us, Zimmerman changed his name to Bob Dylan and wrote the lyrics and music for some of the world’s greatest songs.

image: NME

Speaking of his life recently Dylan remarked that ‘if I had to do it all again I’d be a schoolteacher – probably teach Roman history or theology’. 60 years ago he was one of the male members of the mainly female Latin club at Hibbing High in Minnesota. But from 1957 onwards his path was directed only towards being a musician, although as Thomas writes ‘Rome and the Romans turned up in his songs from early on, and they continue to play a role in his creative imagination’.

Bob Dylan seminar in 2016. Image: New York Times.

At Harvard Thomas teaches a seminar course entitled Bob Dylan. He treats the work as he would that of any other writer. It is possible that Why Dylan Matters is a transfiguration of those weekly classes. With his students, and now his readers, he undertakes close reading and draws attention to the sources that resonate in the songs. He provides grids to illustrate the material that Dylan reuses. Here are some lines by Catullus. Here is a song by Hank Williams. Here is a letter from Ovid. Here is Woody Guthrie. Here are Rimbaud, Verlaine, Cavafy, Timrod and Burns. And here, on the other side of the chart are Dylan’s ‘transfigurations’ of their words.

Thomas is an apologist for Dylan’s process. What research reveals is that Dylan’s work, like many texts, is full of allusions or intertextualities. In this way knowledge of the inspiratory work increases understanding of a song. But, insists Thomas, Dylan is actually a plagiarist or thief because he does not acknowledge or cite his influences. And he does not care to talk about what his songs mean.


In spite of his career as an academic, Thomas seems to admire this magpie behaviour. He quotes T.S. Eliot who maintained that it was the habit of immature poets to imitate whereas mature poets steal and turn other people’s work into ‘something better or at least different’. As we know one of Dylan’s albums is titled Love and Theft.

Why Dylan Matters is about what Dylan calls ‘transfigurations’. Thomas records and annotates these borrowings in detail but he develops his treatise with some discussion on the effects of translation. Greek, Roman and French literature has to be translated for most anglophones.

13627245.jpgVersions of the Odyssey, for example, differ from each other: the most famous perhaps being the one championed by Keats in his iconic sonnet ‘On First Looking into Chapman’s Homer’. The Odyssey, in English for the first time, was transfigured for the Romantic poet.

Peter Green’s Penguin translation (1994 – now out of print) of Ovid’s poems of exile appears as a ruling concept in Dylan’s album Modern Times. Thomas compares four lines from Workingman’s Blues #2 and one from Ain’t Talkin’ with five lines from Green’s translation of Ovid’s Tristia and one line from his Black Sea Letters.

51pjrp1mogl-_sx331_bo1204203200_.jpgSo, according to Green Ovid wrote ‘I’m in the last outback, at the world’s end’. Dylan sings: ‘In the last outback at the world’s end’ in Ain’t Talkin’. Ovid writes in Tristia ‘wife, dearer to me than myself, you yourself can see. Dylan’s version in Workingman’s Blues #2 is ‘You are dearer to me than myself as you yourself can see’.


Dylan clearly lifted the words and phrases directly from Green’s translation, barely transfiguring them at all. And these letters or poems of Ovid obviously appeal to him, states Thomas, because they are ‘artistic creations of the voice of one suffering from solitude in a hostile, unwelcoming setting at the end of the earth’. Thomas suggests that in Modern Times Dylan was making himself alternate or ‘other’ selves with which to populate the stories of the album.

Dylan has obviously been using Robert Fagles’s 1996 translation of The Odyssey. Like Green’s Ovid, Fagles’s Homer is reasonably contemporary. But it would be interesting to know if Dylan has yet read the 2017 iteration by Emily Wilson. In this, the first published translation by a woman, Wilson changes the focus of the story from patriarchal misogyny and exposes centuries of prejudiced translations that call Helen of Troy a ‘shameless whore’ (Fagles) or ‘bitch’ (Stephen Mitchell). Wilson has Helen explain that the Greeks ‘made my face the cause that hounded them’.


Dylan, who writes often about women, likened himself in his Nobel lecture last June to Odysseus saying that both of them ‘have shared a bed with the wrong woman, have been spellbound by magical voices, sweet voices with strange melodies’. He seems to see himself, like Odysseus, as a trickster who is ‘greater than them all and the best at everything’.

In the same lecture Dylan suggests that he’s ‘one against a hundred, but they’ll all fall, even the strongest’. In his own life Dylan has striven to keep himself ‘other’ from the Dylan that many fans want to preserve in aspic. A Dylan about whom every detail is known and whose songs can be mapped precisely against his personal experience.


Dylan however refuses to be pinned down. For him his songs are timeless – not about one marriage but about all marriages, not about one war but about all wars. He explains that reading Erich Maria Remarque’s novel All Quiet on the Western Front in high school was a life-changing event that led him to the realisation that wars are designed by people who ‘hide in your mansions / As young people’s blood / Flows out of their bodies / And is buried in the mud.

He spent a third of his Nobel lecture talking about the novel thus underlining the fact that his song Masters of War is no more about the war in Vietnam than it is about the Trojan War or any future war.


For me lyrics on the page are not poetry. Dylan is a songwriter and his words are for singing. The patterns that he creates work as music and performance but not as printed poems. The singing voice can compress or stretch words to create emphasis and rhythm and, of course, repetition is precious to the listener. Ironically the Odyssey and the Iliad were conceived as songs and what we actually experience now is the lesser form of printed translations.


Thomas describes Dylan’s working process as ‘a creative act involving the “transfiguring” of song and of literature and of characters going back through Rome to Homer’. But for all his scholarship he makes it a rule to attend several Dylan concerts every year. He lists Dylan’s set for November 19th 2016 and advises a visit to YouTube to get the full flavour. Because, as the final chapter heading reminds us, The Show’s the Thing. Listen to Bob Dylan in performance. But read this book for help on how to hear his lyrics.


Works cited

Dylan, Bob.  ‘Ain’t Talkin’. Modern Times. Columbia. 2006. Album.

—. Love and Theft. 2001. Columbia. Album.

—. ‘Masters of War’. The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan. 1963. Album.

—. Modern Times. 2006.  Columbia. Album.

—. ‘Workingman’s Blues’. Modern Times. Columbia. 2006.  Album.

Homer. The Odyssey. Trans. Stephen Mitchell. 2014. Atria. Print.

Homer. The Odyssey. Trans. Robert Fagles. 1996. Penguin. Print.

Homer. The Odyssey. Trans. Emily Wilson. 2017. Norton.  Print.

Ovid.  The Poems of Exile: Tristia and the Black Sea Letters.  Trans. Peter Green. 1994. University of California Press. Print.

Remarque, E. M.  All Quiet on the Western Front. Trans. A. W. Wheen. 1929. Little Brown & Co. Print.

Thomas, R. Why Dylan Matters. 2017. Harper Collins. Print.

A version of this review was first published on pages 33 and 34 in the Weekend section of the Irish Examiner on 17th February 2018.  It is reproduced here by permission of the Editor.






Somerville and Ross have a laugh

Two Irish Girls in Bohemia by Julie Anne Stevens

Julie Anne Stevens. Image:

Dublin academic Julie Anne Stevens is an expert on the great Irish writing duo Edith Somerville and her cousin, Violet Martin – who wrote under the pseudonym, Martin Ross. Prurient reader speculation on the exact nature of their relationship, however, remains unsatisfied. Were they more to each other than a professional team? Stevens quotes from a letter that suggests they shared the same bed. She also states that Edith rejected the advances of a well-known lesbian, Ethel Smyth. Other than that this book concentrates on their nascent feminism.

In the mid 1880s Somerville travelled frequently to Europe, studying art in Dusseldorf and Paris. She saw that men were more readily accepted into that world; women were thought of as muses or models rather than artists. Some of the sketches that Stevens has selected for Two Irish Girls in Bohemia are portrayals of women artists and others have women as central figures.

Interior of Colarossi’s Studio Paris. Sketch: Edith Somerville. Crawford Art Gallery.

Violet Martin was often a subject of the drawings including one entitled Miss Neruda Jones which was part of a cartoon strip showing an androgynous being in spectacles, bowler hat and short hair.

81iwfSeaVML._SY450_.jpgStevens suggests that there is comedy in the fact that Violet is pretending to be ‘Neruda’ who is herself posing as an artist. Somerville and Ross are mocking themselves by showing that their status as professional writers/illustrator is seen by the outside world as amusing frippery rather than serious work.

In Paris Somerville was able to live in a flat with other women artists, to study alongside men in studios and museums, and to move unchaperoned in the public parks. Combining her Anglo-Irish sense of social superiority with these new-found freedoms enabled her to define and develop a sense of professionalism which fed into the financial success that she and Ross, as impoverished latter-day members of their nearly extinct tribe, required.

Away from their family homes in West Cork and Connemara Edith and Violet were exposed to all sorts of exotic behaviours and these they diligently recorded. As well as being prolific correspondents they kept diaries and journals of notes and sketches. Stevens foregrounds many of the Edith’s drawings and suggests how they provide a context for the pair’s published work.

Edith and Violet.  Sketch by Somerville. University of Belfast Archive.

Although they spent time abroad Somerville and Ross wrote most memorably about Ireland. In their well-known works, The Real Charlotte and the series of Irish R.M. stories, they satirise all echelons of late nineteenth century Irish life. Visiting Englishmen, such as the eponymous Resident Magistrate, come in for the same savage treatment as the inhabitants of the Big House, the servants’ hall or the thatched cottage. They wrote more compassionately and enthusiastically about horses and hounds and pet dogs.

Violet Martin thought that, partly as a result of the work of Revivalists such as Yeats and Lady Gregory, the Irish had developed a ‘fear of being laughed at’ resulting in an ‘incapacity to recognise true art’. Ross and Somerville’s irreverent class and gender based humour was out of kilter with such works as W.B. Yeats and George Moore’s romantic Diarmuid and Grania. In their version of the tale Diarmuid becomes a skittish ‘horse called Dermot’ ridden and controlled by a woman.

Edith and Violet. Image: Irish Times.

In her informative, if somewhat repetitive, account of the lives and work of Somerville and Ross Stevens concludes that they might have been more lauded had they not been women with Anglo-Irish backgrounds who used ‘humour as the weapon to attack male vanity’. Their style, then regarded as vulgar, is now seen as ground-breaking.


Works cited

Somerville, E. and Ross, M. The Real Charlotte. London: Longmans, Green & Co. 1894

—. Some Experiences of an Irish RM. London: Longmans, Green & Co. 1899.

—. Further Experiences of an Irish RM. London: Longmans, Green & Co. 1908.

—. In Mr Knox’s Country. London: Longmans, Green & Co. 1915


Stevens, J. A. Two Irish Girls in Bohemia. Dublin: Somerville Press. 2017.

Yeats, W. B. and Moore, G. Diarmuid and Grania. 2011.


A version of this review was first published  on page 36 in the Weekend section of the Irish Examiner on 3rd February 2018. It is reproduced here by permission of the Editor.

Rise Above!

Rise Above! Letters from Tyrone Guthrie   Edited by Christopher Fitz-Simon




Tyrone Guthrie, from the moment of consciousness, loved his mother’s family home, Annaghmakerrig. The house in County Monaghan, surrounded by beautiful grounds, is now the Tyrone Guthrie Centre, a residential workplace for artists of all disciplines. Guthrie wanted to bequeath the property to his estate manager but his sister, Peggy and her husband Hubert Butler, persuaded him that it should become a creative retreat although at least the farmlands went to the loyal retainer.

Chekhov’s Three Sisters at the Tyrone Guthrie Theatre. 1963. Image:

Evidence of Guthrie’s artistic influence can be seen not just at Annaghmakerrig but also in the stages of the Royal Shakespeare and Chichester Festival theatres and also across the Atlantic in Stratford, Ontario and Minneapolis. Guthrie’s ruling idea, one that might win him the title of most influential theatre director, is to reject the frame of the proscenium arch and to advocate an open stage. His legacy is not only about theatre spaces, however, it’s also about exuberance and excitement in productions.

Annaghmakerrig. Image:

Guthrie’s catch phrase, ‘Rise Above!’ was delivered, after poor reviews, in the ringing tones of an Englishman educated at Wellington and Oxford. In spite of this, Guthrie and Peggy always considered themselves Irish and strained at the leash to leave their birthplace, Tunbridge Wells. Even as children they regarded Kent as tame and stultifying and they longed for the summers when they could run wild in Ulster. Peggy’s married life was spent in Kilkenny where she was a founder member of the Arts Week whilst Guthrie returned finally and met his end peacefully in his bed at Annaghmakerrig.

The selection of letters begins with brave little missives from preparatory school. Later, having won a place at Oxford, Guthrie devoted much of his final semester at school to the Officers’ Training Corps, preparing to fight in the Great War. Had the war not ended he would have joined the Irish Guards in January 1919. There is no indication of anything other than a stereotypically stiff upper lip in the expectation of facing death in the trenches.

In fact, and probably because of, etiquette, Tyrone’s letters are generally upbeat. It would never do to complain, and he is even jolly when his university results are disastrous. Anxious that the mater and pater might be ‘grieved’ he nevertheless skipped down the road in a Morecombe and Wise style with the distinguished J B Fagan. They were on their way to setting up the Oxford Playhouse Company, a theatre run in recent years by Rupert Gould, who is Guthrie’s successor in more ways than one. According to theatre critic Michael Billington the two men represent a similar ‘brand of visual bravura and reckless showmanship’.


Amelia Hall as Lady Ann in Richard III. Directed by Tyrone Guthrie. 1953. Image:

Perhaps this explains why Fagan dispensed with Guthrie’s services after one year. But letters show that ‘scrimmaging’ at OPC provided ample opportunities to stage-manage and play minor parts. Guthrie mentions Fagan’s mismanagement but is hardly better pleased with the organisation of the BBC in Belfast where he worked from 1923 as an assistant. Here he had a wide brief commissioning radio drama, music and comedy.

Tyrone Guthrie. Image: BBC.

Belfast was beginning to ‘steep’ Guthrie in ‘provincialism and rather bitter dullness’. And so to Glasgow which, after a honeymoon period, seemed ‘repellent’. The Old Vic in London called and before long the rest of the world became Guthrie’s oyster.

By 1931 his father is dead, his partially blind mother installed in the ‘melancholy’ of Annaghmakerrig and he is married to Jean Bretherton of Tunbridge Wells. From now on letters to his mother, sister and wife are sprinkled with the names of the glitterati with whom he was working: Peggy Ashcroft, Flora Robson, John Gielgud, Laurence Olivier, Sybil Thorndyke, Ralph Richardson, Ninette de Valois, Benjamin Britten. Guthrie’s voice is exuberant and his gossip fascinating. It’s easy enough to smile at his snobbery and political incorrectness because the story that the letters tell is invigorating and inspiring.

Tyrone Guthrie. Image: Belfast Telegraph.

Works cited

Fitz-Simon, C.  Rise Above! Letters from Tyrone Guthrie. Lilliput. 2017.

A version of this review was first published on page 37 of the Weekend section of the Irish Examiner on 20th January 2018.  It is reproduced here by permission of the Editor.