Bob Donlon, Neal Cassidy, Ginsberg, Robert la Vigne, Lawrence Ferlinghetti, outside Ferlinghetti’s City Lights Bookshop, Bay Area San Francisco, 1956. (US NATIONAL GALLERY OF ART all rights reserved – Allen Ginsberg Foundation – )

My introduction to the Beats came with a bizarre conversation I had with a violinist with the RTE orchestra in the 1990’s. I remember we were sitting in a bar drinking wine near the RTE buildings and and my erstwhile friend began talking about a writer I had never heard of, a man called William Burroughs, a drug addict and an alcoholic who had written this awful shocking book called Naked Lunch. Apparently, the violinist went on, he shot his wife. I was shocked. Bill Burroughs shot his wife, I repeated? Really? Yes, the Violinist went on, nodding at my understandable shock. He did. It was all a game, he went on. Some game, I thought. It all sounded horrifying. My friend went on to say it all happened when, at a party in Mexico,

in September 1951 when Burroughs, who was drunk and depressed all day, told Joan, his wife, to put a shot glass on her head as part of a ‘William Tell routine’. Now there was no William Tell routine. It was the first Joan had heard of it. So Burroughs, in a moment of supreme madness, takes out a pistol and tries to hit the shot glass Joan has put on her head. He misses and puts a bullet through her forehead and kills her. All that day, Burroughs later commented, the ugly spirit had been following him. He could feel it. That was what was depressing him. The story was, as I said, shocking, sickening, and I had to learn more.

So I read everything I could find on him. (For more articles on WSB go HERE) Burroughs was part of a group of writers, Herbert Huncke, Lucien Carr, Allen Ginsberg, among others, who comprised a generation of writers and thinkers who advocated more than simply a counter cultural revolution. They rejected Capitalism in favor of a type of democratic socialism. They also rejected militarism, racism, homophobia and advocated a radical re-examination of the human condition in the light of the Cold War ( a strange name for a war whereby super powers were stockpiling weapons so lethal that the extinction of all life on the planet became a real possibility). The Beats also were spiritual travelers. They advocated Eastern spirituality, particularly Buddhism, an embarkation on a kind of spiritual quest to the center of the human person and the use of hallucinogens’ to aid oneself upon this journey. Their rejection of formalism in favor of a kind of radical individualism made for an extremely exciting and new type of writing, one that while rejecting forms that did not serve their needs, did not do so in a way that betrayed any ignorance of other kinds of writing and creativity. These were people who read widely and deeply, which is one of the many reasons why their work will stand the test of time.

“We Went Uptown to see the Mayan Codices” Ginsberg photographs W.S Burroughs, Autumn 1953 Manhattan. (WSB had something of an obsession with Mayan Culture)

Their radicalism, in other words returning to the roots of writing, the personalization of their narrative, their awareness of the crucial part the individual writer as universe writ tiny within themselves plays in any narrative, all contributed to a body of riveting, disturbing, hilarious, clever and disarmingly authentic writing.

But to go back to my original story, I was of course very grateful to that violinist, whom I met only once or twice afterwards, for introducing me to the Beats. But back then I never got into reading Allen Ginsberg. I certainly read him as he was one of the exemplars of the Beat movement. I even attempted to read a few biographies of his life, but at that time it was William Burroughs more than any of the others that turned me on, if that is the right word when referring to the author of the The Soft Machine, Naked Lunch, The Wild Boys, The Ticket That Exploded, among others. Ginsberg eluded me until a student of mine suggested I talk about Allen Ginsberg’s Howl as a kind of introduction to William Blake, whom Ginsberg studied and read much of his life.

Then I read Howl. I actually had already read the poem, but I think this time the poem really spoke to me. There’s a world of difference between reading something as a purely ego driven or academic exercise so as to be well read, or to regurgitate facts, figures and theories for an exam, rather than to take the plunge and allow something to speak deeply to one’s soul. The goal of education is not to create an obedient functionary for the economic machine, but to create free individuals. But this is not always the case. In fact it is rarely the case if we look at education from this viewpoint. We are largely educated to fit into a particular worldview, to marry in a certain way, to have certain careers as opposed to others, not to disappoint others or bring shame to our families, which has far more personal disadvantages than advantages. Education should lead us to the doorway of moral choice, to be free to become who we truly are. Ginsberg among others wrote about things and themes that brought great confusion to others, including a lawsuit for writing obscene materials (one that was eventually and swiftly defeated)

Howl takes us on a Dantesque trip across the underworld of America, stripping away the bright smiles and the picket fences and the nuclear families and the post war optimism to reveal the desperation, the squalor, the horrors and the unhappiness behind the endless striving for military dominance and economic dominance, the narrow definitions of character and sex and personhood, the sexual repression, the endless search for love across the vast American hinterlands of the 1950’s. He lifts the lids of our eyes and while looking at these dark visions points of those who live along the margins of society. he, the poet, stands with the lost, the broken, the addicted, and the desperately lonely. So, in the midst of this, our eyes are drawn to that which would heal the soul of a nation individually and collectively: compassion, forgiveness, and most of all, love. But its not for me to interpret it. What do you think?

“Take Off Your Uniform and Apologize to Your Mother”


WARSAW, POLAND OCTOBER 23 RD 2020 Photo by Agata Hudomiet

With the exception of rape, incest and when the mother’s life is at risk, almost all abortions have been banned in Poland as a result of a law passed in the last few days. The health system is somewhat outdated and the judicial system is very closely allied with the ruling PiS party, which adds to the outrage over this new law. But, own opinion aside, it is also regarded as a hugely controversial move by the PIS party in Poland, which holds a clear majority in the Polish parliament. This is the case for a number of reasons: Firstly there is the timing issue. Everyone is worrying and coping with with Covid 19 pandemic. Thus one would not expect much opposition in a Country in near lockdown. If this was the PiS party’s intention, they miscalculated, considering the huge crowds that flooded the streets of Poland’s major cities. More of that later.

WARSAW, POLAND OCTOBER 23 RD 2020 Photo by Agata Hudomiet

There is the second reason. Because of the PiS party’s close association with the Catholic Church, an institution that holds considerable social and political sway in Poland, the law is seen as a clear interference by the church in the affairs of the state, where, it is argued, it should have no input. As a corollary, this law is seen as payback to the Church as a result of the Catholic Church delivering on its promise of a clear number of votes in recent party and presidential elections. The PiS party is seen as repaying the Church in the form of a law seen as anti-woman and anti human rights, just as the establishment of anti LGBT zones, seen as homophobic and anti human rights. The establishment of such zones have garnered widespread criticism worldwide.

The above paragraph might is a distillation of my own views, the views of people close to me, people I meet and work with as a teacher in a small private school in Karpacz, a more liberal part of the country. But what transmits better is to see pictures of the demonstrations and see the kind of outrage people feel.

This is not a country to live in Photo by Agata Hudomiet

The government were well prepared for demonstrations when the law was passed. Police from all over the country were moved into the centers of major metropolitan districts (Poznan, Warsaw, Wroclaw and Krakow) and were in full riot gear. but the epicenter of dissent is certainly Warsaw, and the photos here are from the demonstrations in Warsaw on the 22nd and 23rd of October, where the police were protecting the parliament buildings, and the home of Jaroslaw Kaczynski. Lately demonstrations have spread from these centers to around sixty Polish cities.

WARSAW, POLAND OCTOBER 23 RD 2020 Photo by Agata Hudomiet

The title of the blogpost (“take off your uniform and apologize to your mother”) comes from what the protesters are shouting at the police. The intimation here is that the police (or whoever is holding a uniform or holding office) should feel shame at their stance in defending a clearly unjust law, that they should remember that they too come from their own mothers and that as such should remember their families, their sisters and the rights being taken from what constitutes half the population of Poland. Polish culture and society puts considerable social capital on appearance, to be seen to do things correctly and in accordance to social norms. Shame follows one like a vapor trail when one steps out of line socially. Poland is also a country where the figure of mother is venerated. To be confronted with a chant by many, many thousands challenging the police to publicly apologize to their mother and throw down their uniforms is a rather pointed criticism of the establishment and the police.

Dead I won’t give birth to a child, I don’t want to give birth to a dead child. Enough! A sentence upon women!. Women’s Health. They keep breaking our rights, but you won’t break us! Women’s rights are human rights!” Photo by Agata Hudomiet

WARSAW, POLAND OCTOBER 23 RD 2020 Photo by Agata Hudomiet

thanks to Agata Hudomiet for these photographs.

Bo Peep and the literary butler

bo peepBo Peep in micromanagement mode

The hardest lesson I ever learned about being a writer was when I spent time on Bo Peeps farm. It was a long time ago (20 years at least) in another country (I’d rather not say), and most of the people involved are long dead now (so I’m given to believe). I arrived at the farm in a state of disarray, my life in considerable turmoil after my leaving the Church and religious life. I was very slightly known then as a writer, and, the owner of the farm, Ms Peep, who had several buildings available for rent, gave me somewhere to stay, with more than a gleam in her eye. She seemed excessively pleased on learning I wrote (not that I told her) and mentioned loudly she was planning a book on the subject of her historically significant home. I said I was a novice in the literary game. “A few poems, the odd story, nothing special,”  I said. But she suggested I stay and at least consider the possibility. I said nothing beyond offering her free lessons. Yet despite such enthusiasms, Ms Peep had had previous experiences of members of the artistic community staying on her lush pastures and domicile of extensive cultural and historical significance, however they didn’t always come up with the rent and left suddenly, so  I was questioned about my ability to pay. Offended, but suppressing my anger, I offered three months rent in advance. This was declined and I was shown to my place and introduced to the other members of the community, who disturbingly all had had difficult times in their lives and were down at the farm trying to get over troubled lives. But I was told the good news. I was apparently already writer in residence. Yes indeedy. And I thought- me – a writer in residence? I was a kid (no pun intended).shaun                           I’m the startled looking lost sheep (2nd from left)

“I hear you are writing a book about the place,” my fellow lost sheep bleated. My ego was tickled at the thought, or even the rumour I might be doing something as cool as penning a book. Me -a real writer? I might even make money. “Er, yes,” I said, while remembering some loose discussion initially about writing, but mainly assisting Bo Peep in her literary endeavors. I initially began making notes for the book, to the delight of my shepherd, and also began not only researches into the place, but began to get to know the people who lived there. And the more I got to know them the less I wanted to write about the place. “Everyone here has a story, you know,” Ms Peep piped up. No shit Sherlock, I thought. Do they really? “And they all come here for a reason. I watch over them, you know.” “What type of book do you want?” I asked. Our shepherd and glorious leader, put aside her shepherd’s crook for a moment and looked intently at me. Off in the distance one could see heavy dragon shaped clouds. As I looked up she spoke,. Bo Peep knew exactly what she wanted. “A light table top novel. Humorous. Good holiday reading.” Dear Lord, I thought. I was now a holiday novelist. I was rather more ambitious than that. Also, I was developing a problem with this. I mean, I thought of the people living around the Big House. I wondered if they would consent to being so trivialized, lives reduced to summer reading, their stories distorted into fiction. Was that fair? I wondered, no matter how much I employed the fashionable Kevlar of fiction to insulate myself from potential lawsuits, was it right to use these peoples personal stories, even if they were all to consent to it, as fodder for some type of lame upwardly mobile bourgeois tennis club boast over afternoon cocktails? (I was reading Karl Marx at the time, you have to forgive my naive revolutionary zeal)

'Forty beers please, oh, and if a woman called Beau Peep calls, tell her you never saw us.'
Forty beers please, oh, and if a woman called Beau Peep calls, tell her you never saw us.’

So I was a literary butler. I wrote on demand, And Ms. Peep though polite and superficially friendly, ruled her flock with a crook of iron. Well, maybe not iron, that’s heavy – something really rigid but light – you understand.  But then  I knew I might make some coin if I allowed myself to be pimped out like this. Bo Peep had influence. She had spent years climbing the society ladder, and already had close personal friends on all the top golf, tennis, and croquet clubs. I could be marginally less of a hopeless unknown. But then I said no to the whole project. I smoked some weed and grew a conscience, fool that I was all those years ago. I told Ms Peep that I couldn’t do it. And she was very angry indeed. She made life rather difficult for me among the very herd I was trying to protect (see fetching photo above.) Things got ugly. I was accused of not very nice things down on the farm. The other lost sheep seemed to draw away from me. They were disappointed their names were never going to be in print. Eventually the arguments, accusations of being rude, disrespectful and generally not being an obedient sheep and new member of the herd of lost sheep, became too much for this nervous woolly jumper. Even a sheep has a smidgin of dignity. I decided to go my own way, move out and find other pastures green. It was the best decision I made. Bo Peep went on minding sheep, and looking for other lost shepherdable sheep to mind – lost vulnerable ones needing pastures safe and fresh. I kept calm, started another book, and never looked back. A nasty experience.

Ten things Which didn’t Make Our Ten Day Stay in Alykes, Zakinthos Sheer Perfection

Caveat Emptor:



  We stayed ten days in Alykes, Zakinthos  and it was

1. Drafty: The way the wind howled through the cracks between the windows and the doors during windy rainy nights and we were freezing and that no one checked on us after the night that the thunder roared overhead and the heating didn’t work and water washed past the front door of our apartment.

2. The Apartment: That our apartment was unclean (filty) and we had to wash it ourselves and the shower curtain fell over and there was a small open drain in the middle of the floor in the bathroom and one of the windows didn’t lock and I mentioned the air conditioning didn’t work and it was dreadful and unhealthy.

3. Garbage: That fact our garbage remained uncollected (I used take it secretly down to a local bin). There was even garbage on the beach. (The place is nothing like the website.)

4. Value for Money: That the food was bad and overpriced and the supermarkets were overpriced and the taxis were overpriced and there was little fresh food and almost no fresh fish. They sure don’t cater for vegetarians.

5. Our Host: That the owner of the ‘villa’ (absolutely nothing like the photograph on the website) took our money and seemed to basically disappear for much of our stay after day three. (Did I mention no one checked in on us?) In point of fact he was called by another hotel owner we met on our cycling travels who berated him for being such a poor host.

6. The Unfriendliness: I could wax lyrical about the incredible sexism Iza endured, the whistles, the beeping of horns. It was awful. But let me give an example – We went cycling one day to the Blue Caves and turned up in a restaurant who didn’t accept cards (surprisingly only half the island accepts cards and has cash machines) and they insisted we give them our ID as proof of payment and we had to cycle 18 km with chest infections the next day to get our ID back because the owner just wouldn’t drive down to us (In fairness she was apologetic – but still …)

7. The Dirt:  Garbage left indefinitely in bins, trash thrown about, empty half-finished buildings everywhere, just sheer lack of cleanliness. I already mentioned the stuff on the beach.

8. Off Season: I thought all this was happening because we booked off season- or maybe they just didn’t like us. But other guests would turn up who had booked online and bang on our window in the morning looking for the owner who was nowhere to be found.

9. The Noise:  Construction work going on right beside our apartment, constant sounds of traffic, howling barking animals night and day, so bad that we had to move ourselves to another vacant apartment.

10. Stray Cats: That the place was full of stray underfed sickly looking cats living in bins and wandering the streets day and night. I mentioned the dogs. I didn’t mention they were chained up all the time – probably why they were barking and yowling day and night. You did see some being walked, just like you saw well cared for cats. But mostly chained up dogs or feral cats.

Those were ten things that didn’t make our ten day stay in Alykes, Zakinthos sheer perfection. I thought about amassing photographs and publishing them here and bringing some kind of documentary proof and so on to show you, dear reader, the state of the place. After I had done that I thought of writing a few pithy lines about how unfriendly I found the locals, how untrusting, how much you  -‘tourist’ or ‘visitor’, were there just to get money from (I remember one joyous moment I bought a bottle of cough medicine and some antibiotics and was charged thirty Euro). But I decided not to. Why? It was my experience of it. It might not be yours.

But away from people with all the greed and the dirt and noise and the money grabbing, was the island itself. Arcadia. And it was glorious. I will never forget the beauty of the landscapes, the shades of deep blue of sea, the lines of waves and the sound of the Ionian Sea at night, the myriad birds, the flora and fauna, the olive groves, the orange and lemon trees, the bats and geckos and falcons, it was all transcendentally beautiful. That alone made our ten day stay in Alykes, Zakinthos sheer perfection and utterly unforgettable. Just stay away from populated places, ok?

O. Ryan
Its that man again…in Zakinthos


Since this has been posted (11.4.2015), Iza and I have found to our distress we have been banned from holidaying in Greece. This is as a result not only of this post below, but of our posting about what was a terrible holiday in Zante on Trip Advisor. There is, according to some hotel owners we have communicated with in Greece, a blacklist “like the Banks System is all the Hotel Owners make it to protect the Tourism Industry from some “Serious problems”” (and I quote). I was told that tourists were not to be informed about the list, but its there folks, and if a hotel owner in Greece doesn’t like what you write on Trip Advisor, well what happened to us could happen to anyone. The thing is, we were the ones who had the terrible holiday. The place would be shut down in Ireland.

Uneasyjet and the joys of Ryanair




A cathedral to capitalism: Gatwick duty free at four in the morning. Waiting for our connecting flight.

You don’t need to be fascistic to control your passengers. In fact things get easier the more courteous you are.

Unfortunately I find myself ranting. It’s actually worse than ranting. My feelings of outrage cloud my mind. Giving a biased view of a bad experience of flying with an airline is like complaining about the Irish weather. It’s happens all the time. Worse, when you do complain about it, you are being a bore. ( i.e – Of course it rains! Its Ireland, you fool! It rains all the time!)

Here, where I write this, in Greece, it rarely rains. Moreover as you read this, be aware I am an unreliable witness who remembers the slim aggressively perky hostess as she patrolled through the aisles of passengers, and stopped and leaned over to my partner, and said:

“Can I see that you have buckled your seat belt? Please lift up your clothing? I need to see. Thank you so much.”

I looked up in shock. Did I just hear that? I thought I was dreaming. My partner turned to me and said:

“Why are they being so awful? What the fuck?”

I shrugged with exhaustion.

“You have to remember, Iz, she is just one of that ‘fantastic team’ we were introduced to two hours ago.”

I mean I might have misheard. My ears were paining me with cabin pressure of thirty thousand feet and I had toothache, along with a knot in my stomach that would not go away.

“They are just, just awful,” I said.

Then we chorused:

“Well we won’t be going with Easyjet again,” and smiled ruefully.

You see, we were both unwell, under slept, and one does say such things in such circumstances. And when you say it, it has that strength and feeling of finality. But then I also remember that American girl queuing for Ryanair flight to Gatwick, the one where the cabin crew and the airhostess laughed and smiled all the time to the passengers. She was queuing just ahead of me the day before. You see, there was a delay before boarding in Dublin airport, and people get bored and start to chat and talk about things. She was telling her parents how awful Easyjet were. “They were just so awful.” Easyjet, or whoever, just don’t care. Not a bit. After all, you are one of thousands who fly with them day after day. Secondly you have to ask yourself: Do I mean it? Well, yes, of course. The proviso is this: that if there is simply no other way to get to a destination, one has to choose the available mode of transportation, unfortunately.

I write this on a beautiful evening on the island of Zakinthos, one of the smaller islands off the Greek coast. Downstairs a radio is playing mournful Greek ballads. I and my partner are here for about two weeks to recharge our lives, soak in some sun, and feel better. Here, the economy is in terminal decline. Though this apartment is okay. We are surrounded by ruined buildings and unfinished structures. Most of the local businesses are closed. We find a restaurant and go there regularly. The local supermarket is so overpriced as to be extortionary. But as with Easyjet so it is with the shopping. We are both sick, exhausted, depressed, and have headaches. There is no other way to get shopping, unfortunately.

This is a beautiful place. The sea is awesome. The local wine is rich and fruity and cheap. You can live on olives, bread, wine, and cheese here (you have to – foods not too good). There are olive groves everywhere. And oranges. And lemon trees you can reach out and pick. Buildings and gates and trees flake away in the sun. Dogs bark incessantly. There are goats and chickens in the surrounding fields. There is a pregnant cat sleeping on the doorstep who purrs and whines for cuddles as she approaches delivery. People drive past in cars with no windows, cars so old as to be at the point of disintegration. And then there are the locals, who try and fail so obviously to be nice to tourists that they are so obviously conflicted about. They stand and watch you pass with a dispassionate reserve. We got off the misnamed Easyjet at about midday today, tired and emotional. We flew to Gatwick yesterday evening, took a taxi to a hotel and slept for an hour or two, to rise at three am and pay twenty euros to be ferried one and a half miles to Gatwick to queue to get on board. “Sorry about that, mate. It’s the rules you see.” And of course he wouldn’t take a credit or a debit card. I felt such hatred for being so obviously fleeced. We went on in through security and bag searches and queued to get on board. My turn came and the Easy Jet person with the tightly controlled pleasant modulation took my passport and boarding pass. Its four thirty in the morning. I am rarely if ever awake at this hour. Normally I sleep eight to ten hours a night.

“Ah Mr Ryan, I see your passport expires in September.”

My eyes widened in incredulity. What had that to do with anything? It’s the second of April and we are away for two weeks. My boarding pass is scanned. I walk on a bit. I wait for Iza.

“Madam, you have too many bags. You must pack all these bags into one.”

“What difference does that make? The weight is exactly the same,” Iza says.

I too have two bags. I have a shoulder bag and a wheeled bag. But I have been let through without comment.

“Madam, I must ask you to pack all your bags into one.”

“I don’t understand why.”

“Madam please pack your bags into one, or you will have to pay a fine.”

Iza’s boarding pass was taken from her. We were stuck there till we complied.

“This is crazy. It’s makes no sense.”

“Madam you will have to pay a fine.”

“Yes, you would love to charge me more, wouldn’t you?”

Just then someone walks past me, a passenger. The queue is moving again. He is stopped by the second Easy Jet person.

“Sir, sir!”

“Hm?” The man says sleepily.

“Your boarding pass. Let me see your boarding pass!”

Again the nasty imperious tone and the same frozen polite smile. Who are these people, I wonder? What dysfunctional fascist school of people management did they graduate from? What’s this obsession with the letter of all these rules and regulations? Its four forty five in the morning and they are treating us like unmanageable schoolchildren, making us pack our bags properly or we can’t get on the bus to go on our trip. Why are we acquiescing to this? Iza is the only one of us who stood up to this particular deeply stupid arbitrary rule. What’s wrong with me to put up with this? This is no way for any of the hundred and fifty plus passengers to start our holiday. And these two checkers are the gatekeepers to our weeks of holiday.

I squeeze my stuff into one bag. Two computers, six books, notebooks, bottles of ink, clothes, the whole job lot squashed into one small travel bag so heavy it felt like dark matter. Iza went back to get her boarding pass. Naturally she was made to wait. And wait. Eventually she just butted in and asked for it.

“Who is your partner?” Iza was asked after her boarding pass was returned.

“I am,” I said. The Easy jet person and I looked at each other. I took in everything. I didn’t want to miss a thing.

“Thank you for your co-operation,” Easy Jet Functionary said, not to me but to Iza. As if she had a choice! Its heading for five in the morning and this was the only way she was going to get on the plane.

“Do not re pack your bags into two bags after you leave here,” she was warned.

Suddenly there were other Easy Jet functionaries and airport assistants hovering. We were not compliant passengers. We were trouble, or some such other interpretation.

We walked onto the jet, discussing how awful that particular experience was. Rarely, we muse it’s the event itself, but more how one is treated.

On board Easy Jet functionaries are patrolling. Baggage is checked and rechecked and moved from one place to another. Passengers are smiled at and checked and rechecked and after a time we are all sitting. When we are seated the main Air Host speaks to the passengers after safety announcements and routine greetings. Apparently as I mentioned before, we had a ‘fantastic team’ looking after us.

“Ladies and gentlemen I wanted to once more take this opportunity to welcome you all on board this Easy Jet flight and to as you if there are any or many of you who are flying alone to Zakinthos this morning. We have a mother here up front who is not seated with her child and we cannot take off until this situation is rectified.” Easy Jet Main Host stares down the aisles of this Easy Jet Flight with a near apocalyptic seriousness. There is silence. The silence carries on. Then it clicks into my dim brain that seemingly it is now our fault we cannot take off. This is something the flight staff should easily resolve without big announcements. I look at Iza and roll my eyes in disbelief.

“Is there something I can do?” I ask, suddenly taking responsibility for this issue.

“No,” Iza said.

By then someone else had possibly volunteered. Why? Well, we were getting ready to taxi. At least we said to each other, it will all be over in a few hours. We tried to get some sleep. Thankfully it was.

I see there is a flight from Athens to Zakinthos. I am pretty sure Ryanair do a direct flight from Dublin to Athens. I will have to check that. It seems to be the only way to get here in future, and yes – we will be back.

Librarians and Civilization





As usual in Wicklow town the staff in the local Library are incredibly helpful and saved me a fortune in books by sourcing copies of volumes  on loan I was pricing on the Internet. There are few jobs more unappreciated than that of the librarian, which is not cool at all. That the work of librarians is so taken for granted is probably why in its infinite lack of wisdom our Government here in Ireland have decided to not replace librarians if they retire. It is therefore more and more difficult to keep libraries open. It is horrifying enough the cutbacks that are going on all along the Civil Service (esp. the Health Service –which is truly unconscionable), but it rankles how libraries are being affected. It is no understatement to say that  librarians are one of the gate keepers of civilization. The fact that so much is available via the internet should expand rather than contract the portfolio of the librarian, and libraries are rapidly expanding their grasp of the virtual availability of books and online data.

The electronic availability of media does not mean that the library should by implication be somewhere where paper books or  e-books or downloadable books or public study areas be discontinued incrementally and the availability of texts or knowledge  therefore relegated to the realm of the virtual or the marketplace. On the contrary it should open our society  to a new discussion as to how knowledge be disseminated and how libraries be libraries of the future, for a library is not a data centre and knowledge is not information nor is it cold dispassionate data.

A writer mines raw data and transforms into something intelligible, a product of  the intellect and the imagination, a finished piece of thinking which we call a book in this instance, a particular representation of a society and a culture’s self understanding at a particular juncture in history – that is whether or not one agrees with the contents of the book or indeed many of the books being written and published. It is not without significance that Google in its efforts to bring forth an ultimate Artificial Intelligence, sought to scan and download all the billions of books in the world, including everything currently under copyright. This was because within a book there remains the fullest scope of an act of human intellectual apprehension of a subject. Take for instance: in a particular historical scientific or sociological book there might be an introduction to the  study and its proposed scope, a grasp of the current state of research on the subject, an analysis of the research and an act of speculation not only of where research might be going but possible future avenues where a particular discipline might lead and where it intersects with other disciplines. Thus to have an up to date library, a repository of knowledge in as many towns as possible, that is a truly active library, makes a huge statement about the intellectual and cultural life of a town. To close a library, to restrict a library service, is a disservice to the community on more levels than one might imagine. It sends a bad message about the cultural and intellectual life of a community. One may as well start closing the Churches, the Town Hall and the pubs too.  Libraries are places where in any civilized country where one can investigate, think, write, research online for free, chat online, read the papers, bring ones children to play and read and make a fuss generally, play games online, listen to music, watch movies, or if you are me – fall asleep in the midst of reading and be woken up by a cross librarian and be told one cannot sleep and by the way I am snoring in a place where people are trying to work. 


For myself, though I have received many well-deserved letters demanding the return of borrowed books, I can never fully repay either libraries or librarian the enormous debt I owe them. For instance, and I don’t particularly want to become too personal here, my favourite place to avoid school was not to go to bars or snooker halls, but you guessed it – I just loved libraries. I would read literally all day, when not nodding off asleep. I would take one book off the shelf and if it was sufficiently interesting, read it through. I lived near a library, and round the corner from my primary and secondary school, so I would  be able to live my double life, a school life where I learned, well, some things (for instance how to use my martial arts training to protect myself) and libraries, where whole worlds of meaning opened up to me.

So if you are reading this and you want to do something send an email to AlexWhiteTD ( email (TWITTER @AlexWhiteTD )
telling this very newly appointed minister to rescind the moratorium on replacing library staff throughout Ireland as it is a disservice to the country and sends a bad message about the importance of learning in Irish Local Communities. Smile Thanks!

Publishing and not Being Damned

Getting work published and reducing the Tears Involved


Archive Image of Thompson Reuters Publishing – see

The purpose of writing is to be read. No amount of false humility will ever sufficiently delude a writer into thinking she is destined to a kind of solipsistic world of simply writing for themselves. Writing is communication. It cannot not be. So, with writing comes an audience, and therefore some kind of vehicle whereby ones work reaches a readership. Sometimes the work deserves an audience. Sometimes not.

That being the case its hard to fathom the amount of humiliation, suffering, frustration and soul destruction writers endure to get published and get successful. Its sometimes a baptism of fire leading to real personal and artistic growth, realism and maturity; sometimes an embittering experience which leaves the artist scarred – more often a bit of both.

My own personal worst experience was a publisher saying ‘yes’ to a novel of mine only to baulk when they feared getting sued – by a church. The book was subsequently published and did fine and nobody sued anybody.

The good thing is once you actually do get published, it gets a tad easier to get published subsequently, and one doesn’t take things like rejection slips too seriously. Publishers are invariably the gatekeepers of what’s worth publishing. That being the case, this doesn’t mean that publishers are always right.

For instances: Joyce’s ‘Dubliners’ took twelve years to publish, a work of genius. The publisher regarded it as something akin to porn. The New Yorker consistently rejected the work of the young rather angry J.D. Salinger, including shelving after accepting the very first short story where this weird fellow called Holden Caulfield made his first appearance. Let us remind ourselves here that ‘The Catcher in the Rye’ has subsequently sold sixty million copies world wide with an average annual sale rate of two hundred and fifty thousand copies. Moving on to much smaller sales but an equal brilliant game changing work, Becketts Trilogy, a  trilogy of novels – Molloy, Malone Dies, and The Unnameable, was rejected by so many publishers that Sam the Man actually made a list to ensure he reminded himself of how many publishers could actually get it wrong.  The first novel of Proust’sRemembrance of Things Past’, ‘Swanns Way’, was rejected, only for the publisher to come crawling back to apologize and admit he was wrong.

The list goes on and on and all it really establishes is that Publishers are only human and get it horribly wrong as do we all. To understand that is to forgive and to save oneself so much misery, especially if one is struggling and starting out, or trying to break into another genre, or just cant find a publisher for your new novel or book of poetry.

Of course there can be all kinds of reasons why one’s work is being rejected by a publisher. As publishers largely don’t give reasons why they say no (imagine actually have to give a reason to the hundreds or even thousands of submissions a publisher might get in a week), its better not to speculate too much on the why of things. When it comes to magazines, for instance, if I am constantly being turned down for reasons I simply cannot fathom,  I generally send in a piece I have published in another country more than once, in other words something I am reasonably sure is an okay piece of work, and if that too is turned down, I just don’t submit there again.

Ad hominen attacks: To get ‘personal’ with a publisher, to send them angry notes filled with nasty well chosen phrases, to spread unfounded stories about them is probably the most foolish and self destructive of actions. It rightly establishes you as someone who can’t really be worked with. Its a bit of a career killer. Of course ‘getting personal’ with a publisher is not the same as loudly and accurately complaining, critiquing and objecting to actions on the part of a publisher with which a writer has a real problem. That’s a writer’s job, and part of the creative process. On the other hand if your work has been rejected, move on. Read over the text after a week or two when one feels a bit better. Ask an honest friend to do the same. If it is okay, send it elsewhere. If it isn’t, fix it. If it isn’t fixable, start another book. This is what serious writers do. Its good to start over betimes.

Publishers come in many many forms, and having been published by many of them, I really don’t mind what their motivations are so long as they treat my work with professionalism.

1. The Political Publisher: This type may have serious ideological motivations around the published text, and may be connected to a religious or a political party or be financed by a governmental body. They have deep pockets and many friends and a rolodex that would be the envy of many a politician. They are generally quietly powerful, well connected,  generally produce high quality work, in other words they will turn your words into a well produced book which will be marketed and sold in many bookshops and be readily available online. There are pitfalls going with a publisher like this, especially the danger of being branded with the same markings as ones publisher, or being associated with the same ideologies or political parties that the publisher has such big connections with. Ask yourself why the publisher has said ‘yes’ to your work before going forward with it. If you are happy to proceed, then do.  

2. The Big Commercial Publisher: This publisher works for a big profit, takes big risks sometimes and has little or no ideology beyond the bottom line. The fact you might be a serious worker in the field of literary fiction or commercial genre fiction matters little to this publisher. As well as publishing interests they may hold a huge stake in television, radio or news media and they may also have their own political interests. This also doesn’t matter to them. They have signed a contract with you because they see money in your work. Whatever genre one works in, one might long to have a publisher like this. this is a company who will give you a six figure advance, a three book deal, and provide huge marketing and publicity machine behind your work. Who doesn’t dream of selling many many books and to be  a famous client of a huge publishing company? Beware though – one is but one of hundreds or even thousands of clients in a giant multinational company. Beware too: It is an incredible amount of pressure, and not  for everyone. It is certainly a type of success, and the type of success that is easily seen and easily measurable in terms of money and fame and books sold. The pitfall here is that such a level of exposure and expectation placed  on ones work and on ones personality can make one lose a sense of perspective and identity. Monumental egos are born in this womb of super fame and self destruction can be the result. It can also negatively impact the quality of ones output. One can be writing to feed the commercial machine one has become a part of rather than staying true to ones own vision.

3. The Small Commercial Publisher: This is a manageable arrangement for many writers. Here one’s work is sold to a regular audience of expectant readers and one can predict a level of income based on the appreciation of a manageable fan base. Publicity is also regular and one finds oneself on the radio and possibly television arts shows, magazines and news media. The pitfall here is the sheer predictable lack of challenge in such an arrangement. One needs some level of resistance and struggle to grow, which may come from other writers, critics or a demanding readership who expects more from their writer, rather than the same novel or text being reproduced in different ways over the course of a mediocre career, which is also a danger with large Commercial publisher. A politically or ideologically minded publisher would not for a moment stand for such a thing.

4. The Not For Profit Publisher. These publishers provide probably the greatest service to the world of writing, taking as they do previously unknown writers or struggling writers of worth and providing a sufficient platform for such writers to actually begin their careers. Not for profit publishing is on the rise due to print on demand services whereby small amounts of a book can be produced at low rates and enough numbers sold to make up for the money spent on small levels of publicity and the hiring of rooms for launches and readings. So many writers owe their careers to these visionaries. It is a sad thing they remain uncelebrated considering all they do. The pitfall here is that they are not for profit: Publicity is small and most of the work is done in the publishers spare time and there may be problems with the finished work unless one has an infinite amount of time and thoroughly  proofed and re proofed ones work before sending it in.

The publishing world is a veritable labyrinth. There are many variations on the above divisions of publisher. For instance: Small Publishing houses are owned by big concerns and are allowed to function independently. Do you homework before sending in manuscripts. Use agents and more than anything – rewrite. Its pretty much the essence of writing.

Travelling Light in Poland : 17- 27th October 2013


A fascinating piece of installation art we came across in a corner in Wroclaw. The statuary actually dissolves into the ground and emerges across the street. Arresting. Beautiful.

                    poland2   It took twelve hours to get to Karpacz, three hours by plane to Wroclaw and nine by bus, mainly due to connections not arriving and many waits. I travelled light. One bag, and, despite my loathing of anything to do with Ryanair, the flight was flawless, and we arrived fifteen minutes early. Of course there was one less than minor irritation. Ryanair took ten euros as a penalty charge for two fellow travellers who did not check in. Why? No idea. Me? I travel light – one small bag, books, unsuitable shoes that by now because, of all the hours and hours of trekking and climbing are in shreds, and my notebooks and pens (can’t do without them). Also, I am wearing a borrowed coat because, yes, I lost my coat. Travelling is tiring. Some of the bus stations we stopped in were simply horrible – grim soulless post communist functional affairs devoid of warmth or light with equally grey grim looking people, young and old who didn’t talk to each other and filed silently onto the bus that is when it finally arrived, swinging into the station, mounting the footpath and then hopping back down on the tarmac as the doors swung open. Other stations were brighter and more modern and better organized. Overall the trip was, despite its extraordinary length, pleasant. People sat quietly, talked quietly into mobile phones, and left the transport in a neat orderly fashion. There is an ethos of orderliness, thrift, respect for authority and tradition, an anxiety about the future and search for security, a reluctance to take unnecessary risks, a wearing of sensible shoes and warm jackets, an impetus to settle down and make ends meet. I find Poles in Poland an intelligent, realistic, thoughtful, pessimistic, unhappy, deeply independent, terribly anxious people. Compared to how warm and  friendly and open I find Poles in Ireland, with a few notable exceptions (friends and acquaintances I met and socialized with whom I found utterly delightful), Poles in Poland are unfriendly and hostile, offputtingly depressingly so.  In a restaurant or huge shopping mall in Wroclaw there is a marked tendency to not look one another in the eye, or greet each other, or perhaps one could define the tendency is to walk past each other as if the other person is simply not there. if you buy something, change is not handed to to you directly, rather it is put on a tray between you and the service person, who does not look directly at you. I greeted someone in a lift who smiled at me, and honestly thought I was going to be attacked by her partner. As someone who has gotten into trouble for being somewhat over friendly, seeing this first hand is rather a surreal experience for me. Their anxieties over a great country’s troubled history and the enormous pride in Poland show in their faces and their endless concerns over protecting their futures and their own patch of turf seems a little too paramount and shows up in little ways – for instance television stations advertise more vitamin supplements and various forms of pain killers and drugs that would keep any virus in mortal fear of its existence. I am reminded how the Mayor of Paris told Parisians to be nicer to visitors some years back. Poles should take the lead from Paris’ experience. They too are a great hearted people. I was waiting outside a shop in Karpacz in Poland on the afternoon of Day four, and, as I was getting tired and a bit disoriented (I had a cough and temperature), I didn’t see the long black haired, wide-shouldered short stocky man walk towards me. He bounced off my shoulder and, as he nearly fell, I caught him and gave him a hug and apologised loudly in English for being such a twit. He grinned sheepishly at me, and, as he was rather drunk, began talking to me in polish. I don’t in the least look Polish, and it was pretty clear neither of us came from this country. I shrugged my shoulders and said something akin to ‘non polska’ which only served to widen his sheepish grin. He sat down beside me, and, in broken English told me he came from Peru, that his wife was Polish, that he was too drunk to drive, and that he was going to be in so much trouble when he got home. Then, shaking my hand and hugging me once more, he invited me for a beer sometime and when I said I did not partake of alcohol, he seemed quite disappointed. He wobbled off, and I wondered how someone like that got to live here, deep in southern Poland, high in the forested mountains, in the midst of the Polish National forest, surrounded by tall pointed dwellings with specially fitted snow protectors on the roofs, dwellings with double windows and piles and piles of carefully cut logs outside and inside. Here in winter the snow reaches three metres high and everyone skis and ice skates and toboggans. The area around Karpacz is gorgeous, mesmerizingly so, with vast sweeping silent forests that are hauntingly beautiful, with streams and old bridges and clefts and gulleys and huge knotted roots that reach up and dive down and reach up again and choke the ground so much you fear the roots are coming to get you like something out of Wyndham’s Day of the Triffids – this is  more the stuff of fairy tales than anything one can fix in twenty-first century life.  On day three I went mushroom picking and came home with a basket of weird reddish brown mushroom monstrosities that I was assured were very tasty indeed. They looked beautiful but I had never eaten such things before. So the monster mushrooms were cooked twice, sliced, and cooked with dill and cream – and made an amazingly delicious sauce that kept for days.

zabela Cwiszewska – who dislikes being photographed on forest trails. That’s my big head shadowed in the left foreground.

This place, Karpacz, is about the forest, for the forest surrounds, contains and completes this world. And this is a world older than imagination, and once one hears the forest’s  voice, once one sees the expanse of hills, once one understands the eternal silence of the forests, one knows there is no music like it. Compared to it the sound of the city is a torture and a dissonance that can only be endured for a while and one simply has to get back here or somewhere like it. We travelled up into the mountains, up a trail deep into the forest into the Czech Republic, to stay in a wooden hostel by a lake way above the forest line. poland4

Izabela taking a photograph of Mirela – whom we met by accident and who very kindly directed us to the lodge we stayed in when we got a tad misdirected. The lodge structure is to Mirela’s elbow. Note the lake and the hills in the background. Those sheer structures cause avalanches that killed quite a few people over the years. As a result the trail we took back to Karpacz is closed during winter.

As we travelled all day the trees got smaller and smaller, until all one was left with was a denuded proto artic landscape with ultra bright sun and piles of rocks and gorse like bushes and tiny trees stretching out onto undulating hills with patches of grey and green and a wide expanse of  mountains below with hundreds and hundreds of acres of forests with bald patches where the trees had died or were dying or had been cut away for fuel. In between the forest were houses and Karpacz and roads and places where roads were being built and rebuilt, and of course so many hotels and ski resorts. poland5

High Tundra Trail. Everything in the background is forest below you -as far back as you can see –for miles and miles and…

Before I came here I dug out some books about Poland from Dublin Public Library before departing on my trip, particularly Adam Zamoyski’s ‘Poland – A History’ which is a marvellous read. I am reading about the rather shocking era of the 1790’s where Poland as a national entity doesn’t actually exist, a horrifying experience for such a proud and brilliantly accomplished independent people, a dismembered commonwealth that was not in any way helped by the ruthless Bonaparte, who used the Polish Legions to further his own ends without in any way helping restore the commonwealth. (Those Polish soldiers actually saved his life at one stage.) More bits and pieces of history protrude in the region. I saw a hill with a rather shady looking building that was pointed out to me known as Goering’s Hill – a place completely fenced off and, yes, you guessed it – supposedly a dwelling house for the delightful Nazi himself. Hermann Goering. There is no mention of this place anywhere on the internet, yet there it was. I was left wondering what this strange half hidden building on that forested hill was really used for. Then I went for a meal in large rather conventionally built (so I was told) restaurant filled with animal pelts, a rather disturbing huge stuffed deer in the middle of the room  in the pose of calling out, toboggans carefully placed of maximum visibility, a roaring fire, and great glass jars of preserved fruits and vegetables equally placed for maximum visibility. Very touristy I was told. Its the economy, stupid, I told myself. Karpacz is filled with hotels great and small, some in the process of being rebuilt, and despite this the place is still real enough and inexpensive enough to give you a memorable visit. Yes, I know I am sounding like an advertisement here. I really don’t care. Check it out.