I. FALSE DAWN
Call me old-fashioned. Call me that, for that is what I am.
This was the day I won your heart; a day sketched in sepia. A day of eagerly opening doors, clasping warm hands, and hoisting an umbrella against the grey pitter-patter Dublin rain. It was a day for a gentleman’s heart to rise from its slumber and fight against the groundswell of the grunts. A day spent well with a languorous lunch and a gallery stuffed with art, to tickle our already tendered minds.
Then, the early evening revival of sweet cakes and strong coffee followed by a screening of ‘The Third Man’, to take us deeper into a world we somehow lost along the way.
For my love’s prettiness was worth a film alone. She had a smile that burst the sky and green eyes of uncharted promise. Her full lips could’ve inspired Ellington’s ‘Prelude To A Kiss’ as she sashayed straight out of the pages of a Fitzgerald novel – beautiful, be damned!
I tried but I could not count the lucky stars blinking down on me that October night.
The Liffey lapped its approval as we walked over the Ha’penny Bridge, in hope of crossing to the next stage, as expectation was not a word for a day like this. Our talk was filled with things we cherished: old friends, old wine, old books, and old rhymes.
Can it have been all so different then?
The wind blew you close towards me and I scented your perfume, which lifted me back to the sweet apple orchard of my youth, and forward to the spring flowers of my future arrangements.
But why did it take me so long to blossom and get to you?
A cocktail for the road home, or the ditch depending on how my luck held out. I chuckled when you scrunched up your freckled nose – like a little rabbit, remember? Sipping your martini:
‘Too much vermouth and too little gin.’
‘We better have another one so, just to break it in.’
I stuck to the whiskey, with a dash of water to cool my overheated heart.
Already, your laughter said something I will never let go of. I moved closer to stroke the small beauty mark by your ear; for by now you knew my intentions clear.
Yet, fear is always measured in small moments.
‘The sunlight clasps the earth, and the moonbeams kiss the sea: What is all this sweet work worth, if thou kiss not me?’
II. THE LITTLE JUG
The welcoming glow of the fire in the small, whitewashed cottage was the only light greeting them when they returned from their evening walk on the strand. The shadows of the room lolled familiarly against the walls. A warm air and the aroma from the beef bourguignon cooking in the kitchen lifted the chill from their faces. Sarah went to check on the food, while Conor placed a couple of pine blocks on top of the blaze and lit the candles by the windows looking out to the sea.
‘Smells good,’ he said to his wife, blowing out the match.
‘Another 45 minutes and it should be ready,’ said Sarah, ‘let’s have a drink to warm us by the fire in the meantime. I’ll bring in the jug of water.’
He lifted down two heavy bottomed tumblers and the bottle of whiskey from a shelf in the oak bookcase – they always kept their booze in good company, Flann O’Brien on one side and Turgenev on the other – and set them on the coffee table near the sofa, before pouring two good measures. Sitting down, he studied his drink, the fire seemingly caressing and coaxing out its deep complexity. Sarah came in from the kitchen with the little porcelain jug and kicked off her boots before curling up beside him on the sofa. The walk in the cool spring air revived their minds and settled their bodies for the night. Conor leaned forward and put a little water in his wife’s glass – he never measured how much, somehow he just knew – and handed it to her. He sat back and pulled Sarah into him as they watched the blaze roar up the wide chimney chute, with a crack from the wood splitting the silence now and again.
His mind drifted back to when he started going out with her all those years ago and how he thought then that he would never be able to make her happy. She was ambitious, driven and always wanted to be on the move. Then one night, they had come home late, from dinner at a friend’s place, and over a nightcap he told her about this little white stonewashed country cottage he had been bequeathed years ago by his elderly aunt, who had never married. He said he intended to use the place as a weekend getaway and they both talked long into the night, with more whiskey being poured along with water from the little porcelain jug until the light streamed through the window and a new dawn bounced off their empty glasses.
III. THE LIFE-GIVING DROP
The rain outside made him thirsty, while thoughts of old lovers trickled down into the empty well of his mind as he lay in bed. Their images came to him like faded postcards from his life, some torn and frayed, yet each one a snapshot of a fond, far off land, now frozen in time.
Remembering every line of their bodies with the precision of an Ordnance Survey map, he placed each glorious detail of a freckle or beauty mark in their rightful places. He recalled rambles across pale white, sensual slopes, and discovering dark, lowlands of desire, which transported him back to those tender moments of respect, when he bowed his head to worship at the altar of the female form.
Woman’s existential softness keeps us brutes from tearing each other to shreds, he thought, for they are the grace notes in this strange harmony of life.
He remembered his first true love E. and blessed the ground where she now stands, for it was she who found light, where only shadows stood before. Her fresh flower of youth gave him his first taste of wine and honey and they both drank in deep, long draughts until drunk with love. Only then did they find that the clay with which they were shaping their lives was made arid by the dull hand of a father, caked in bitter barrenness.
Turning on to his side, the vision of T. appeared. She struck a chord in his heart and changed his tune so that their future song was left gloriously unwritten. In the end, her brass bed became rusted from her veil of tears but he was glad to have lived long enough to see her flood of change come pure, and he pictured her, a child again, leaping playfully from stone to stone above the deluge.
Then his mind turned to his greatest love of all: B.
Being with her, he felt like he held poetry in his hand; that he had finally unlocked the secret to tip the stark reality of the world into a rolling dream of the senses, where even her night-sleep breath fell upon his ear as though it were the beating of his heart. But she became heroin to him, exhilarating yet destructive, so that it shuddered his very essence and he needed a long time to kick her from his soul.
But he never did and, even now, he sometimes wishes for one sweet hit from her sunshine smile.
He lay on his back again. The door opened softly and he raised his head from the pillow to see the palliative nurse come in: R. was beautiful. She had white blonde hair cut up like a boy’s and heavily waxed, so that it looked like a shower of sparks flying upwards, while her blue eyes seemed to break a little piece of the sky every time she blinked. Leaning over him to adjust his pillows, she asked if he wanted a little water and he nodded his head, for he wanted that more than anything else in the world.
‘For us living more and more surrounded by intellectual schemas and masks and suffocating in the prison they erect around us, the poet’s eyes are the battering ram that knocks down these walls and gives back to us, if only for an instant, the real; and with the real, a possibility of life.’
It has taken me a long time to get ‘Astral Weeks’ by Van Morrison, but I have finally fallen under its spell.
Until now, somewhere in my subconscious it had always been too beautiful a butterfly to clasp between my hands; I’d always shied away from its sweeping majesty.
Of course, I had plenty of exposure to the album: my old housemate played it on the first day of spring every year, bringing it out of its winter slumber to softly tickle an expectant summer’s belly, and spun it regularly until the season shifted again. It’s a lovely ritual – he has grown up with the album, just as it has grown within him.
For he is a devotee of the wee man from Belfast and he savours ‘Astral Weeks’ like some redolent, complex wine, in that it gets better with every measured taste, and in it he finds truth.
But Van Morrison’s masterpiece was too rich for me initially, too deep, I think. The music went straight to my head, rather than slowly pulsing through the bloodstream, which is what it should do, and left my senses staggering. For many years I steered clear of its heady potency, but then, thankfully, aforesaid friend bought me the album on vinyl as a birthday present. This meant absorbing it as one long draught and in one sitting: from the invigorating bouquet of the eponymous opening track, right down to the lingering, dark perfume of ‘Madame George’.
Now, I have made it a rule to get drunk on ‘Astral Weeks’ at least once a month. Albert Camus said that at four in the morning, everyone in the world is exactly where they are supposed to be – and in my mind’s eye, everyone is listening to ‘Astral Weeks’, furtively sipping claret.
Thinking about the essence of the music reminds me of TS Eliot’s phrase of “those other echoes that inhabit the garden”. Each time I listen to ‘Astral Weeks’, I imagine being in a high-walled garden maze, unsure of the way out, seeing flashes of light and then darkness. It creates a claustrophobia that grips one with just the right amount of sensual pressure; some times I realise I am holding my breath while listening to it. Yet these reactions only emphasise the genius of the album, and how great art should provoke a physiological reaction, as well as cerebral caresses.
But let’s go back to the beginning. I think a large part of my initial struggle with ‘Astral Weeks’ was down to the fact that I was brought up on the other Van Morrison. Hearing my Mum’s stereo as I was growing up, I walked the bright side of Van the Man’s road, listening to songs such as ‘Crazy Love’, ‘Days Like This’ and the any-family-occasion-theme tune ‘Brown Eyed Girl’. Here was the guy who didn’t disdain or snarl at his audience: here was Van Morrison the entertainer.
So hearing ‘Astral Weeks’ in its entirety for the first time as a 17-year-old was akin to taking a wrong turn on some pleasant, tree-lined walkway and ending up lost in Morrison’s pathless woods.
In relation to dark journeys, critics often wonder why Van Morrison never addressed the Troubles in his music more often, considering it was going on in his own back yard (when he did, it was through the fulminating falsetto of ‘Who Was That Masked Man’ from ‘Veedon Fleece’). But Van Morrison wasn’t looking for statements; he was looking to create art – what Saul Bellow described as “the achievement of stillness in the midst of chaos”.
Despite its shuffling, free-spirited rhythms and muggy, layered vision of sound, stillness is the word I attach most closely to ‘Astral Weeks’; when you get to the heart of the record, it is like a cool, clear pond, reflecting whatever you wish to see. The tousle-haired young man from Northern Ireland allowed no tainted waters to pass through – ‘Astral Weeks’ is a work with its own essential force.
For many who know the album well, it will have that lovely old dressing-gown feel, while for others, discovering its joy for the first time, as I have now done, the moment feels close to like standing under an ice-cold waterfall: it leaves one breathless, gasping for air from its soft power. It leaves you feeling renewed – and then you put the needle to the groove again.
Having a vegetarian lunch with a friend the other day, I told him a revealing titbit. ‘Did you know that Ghandi supposedly employed his grandniece Manu to lie in bed with him to test his ability to resist erections?’
‘What?’ said my friend, his face incredulous, ‘surely that can’t be true.’
‘No, it is. I was reading it in an article yesterday.’
‘I’ll never look at Ghandi in the same way again,’ he said, before filling his glass with water.
I began to wonder why the famous non meat-eater Ghandi did such a thing – did he do it out of need or desire? He obviously wanted to prove that he could accept an ascetic existence and rise above natural human cravings, but did he have to go that far? And was this performance, or lack of it in this case, designed to convince his followers that the spiritual could always overcome the physical? In a twisted leap of logic, I then started thinking about the vegetarian food we were eating. Was I doing this out of need or desire?
My buddy was treating me to lunch as a way of saying thanks for my gasp-and-grunt riddled help in shifting large objects of furniture that morning, as he moved his young family to their new home. Moving is such a horrible experience and when we go through it, I think the painful memory lodges so fixedly in the back of our minds, that we only choose to stay where we are just so we don’t have to do it again; not because of any deep-seated longing for place.
We tried to pace the day: get the heavy, backbreaking objects out of the way in the morning, break for food and then we’d sweep up the remainder of the items at a leisurely going, considering how our soon-to-be-full bellies might slow us up a little.
The writer Will Self says he has more or less ‘done away’ with lunch as one of his meals of the day and instead snacks on rice cakes and the like, which can perhaps explains the prodigious amount of work he produces, not to mention his lean, rakish demeanour. However I still have a fondness for the in-between meal – there is something devilishly good about it.
A long, indolent lunch can temporarily fool you into believing that you are a man of means, with nothing more pressing on the horizon than further lounging. Even the disparaging euphemism ‘out to lunch’ in the United States has its own poetic merit; it is the American way of saying that someone is, in the harshest light ‘crackers’, or with a little dilution, in a ‘world of his own’. And a good world it can be too, if like me, you have the luxury of eating outside of the prescribed lunch hour of one o’clock to two, thereby avoiding the bustling herd of workers grazing noisily on the crowded café pasture.
With the heavy lifting out of the way, we made our way to a little village nearby, where my pal (who it should be pointed out is a meat eating careerist) informed me that we were to lunch in a highly regarded vegetarian café. My heart sank.
Working up a serious sweat that morning brought out the carnivorous beast in me and I wanted to sink my teeth into something succulent, tender and fleshy and wash it down with something very cold and very alcoholic. Manual labour brought the Neanderthal out of his cave, beating his chest, primed for meat and chanting ‘Ug! Ug! Ug!’
Perhaps a few words of qualification are needed at this stage dear reader, in case you think of me as some kind of bog-snorkelling philistine, who would put my granny on eBay for the price of a ham sandwich: I believe in the philosophy and practicalities of vegetarianism, and respect the people who practise it. At times I wish I could be one too, but I’m not ashamed to say I couldn’t give up meat; to paraphrase Chuck Heston, you will have to wrench the bacon sandwich from my cold, dead hand. That said, one of the best meals I’ve had in recent years was in a vegetarian restaurant, ‘Café Paradiso’ in Cork, that has justifiably garnered praise from national and international reviewers and even the most worldly gastrosoph or plain-old beefeater would struggle to find fault with their food. However when it comes to eating out at vegetarian places on the whole, this has proved the exception rather than the rule.
Going out to lunch or dinner at a veggie joint is akin to having sex without foreplay: you get what you want out of it, but as you come away, you think that it could have been so much more fun. Something in your brain tells you that you are satisfied, but for some reason an empty feeling remains in your stomach.
I’m not saying that eating vegetarian food when dining out is not enjoyable because there is no meat. No, there are plenty of bad restaurants out there serving carnivorous calamities too. But there is something so specifically vague in the fare that is served up by a vegetarian eatery. To illustrate my point, when we arrived for lunch there were only two dishes to choose from (Greek Moussaka or Sweet Potato & Squash Korma) with the option of rice on the side, or a selection of two salads. Neither of these two dishes were inspiring and as a consequence we both picked the same thing, with rice but no salad as we knew we were eating later on.
The insipid food wilted my will for conversation (Ghandi aside). I sat there pondering it and its taste of nothingness. If you had burst into the packed café, put a gun to my head and asked me what flavours were in the dish, I would have failed to answer and pleaded for your mercy, with scared puppy dog eyes, not to pull the trigger. It would be easier for me to describe what mercury tastes like. I could get sweet potato, boy could I get potato! But that was as good as it got for my taste buds. It was a Jackson Pollock-style plate of everything and nothing.
Which, sadly, has always been my prevailing experience of eating out in ‘quality’ veggie places: each dish on their menu is the length of an Irish limerick, but the kicker at the end falls flat when you go to actually eat the damn thing. There never seems to be an overriding motif in their food, which is why I will never go to lunch or dinner in a ‘vegetarian vacuum’ again (we eat out so we can have a little slice of sweetness carved from the huge rump of everyday life). But these places suck the life out of me. Matters are not helped by the seemingly mandatory queuing system either; tray in hand, I’m immediately transplanted back to the days of canteen combat needed in the unforgiving food chain of an all-boys Catholic school and all the glamour that entailed. Thankfully, it seems unlikely that a scuffle would break out in a queue of vegans, considering their compassionate nature.
And this is the thing: when I observed the nice people around me eating, I thought this wasn’t an argument about food really, but it was a lifestyle decision. Maybe by choosing this ascetic lifestyle, it allowed vegetarians to feel better about them selves, not in a superior or arrogant way, but in a way that can justify their place in this world. It could be seen as a way of testing their character on a daily basis and that perhaps our craving for meat is a symptom of our basest vice: greed.
And for that, I respect them wholeheartedly. Unfortunately I can’t say the same about their food.
After our lunch, the two of us were busily moving furniture again in the strong heat of the afternoon sun. We talked about the parallel between veggie-based/meat-based food and beer/non-alcoholic beer. One was functional, I said, while the other was fun. You chose one for your needs and the other because of your desire.
‘Aye, and if Ghandi spent his day shifting furniture, I know which bloody one he would choose,’ said my buddy. I nodded in agreement as we locked the van and drove off with our job done; all that was ahead of us now was an Indian takeaway and the cold beers waiting in the fridge. Unlike Ghandi, we were looking forward to a stiff one.
Maria Johnston, Poetry Critic
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