'So long as I remain alive and well I shall continue to feel strongly about prose style, to love the surface of the earth, and to take a pleasure in solid objects and scraps of useless information.' ― George Orwell

Category: Writing

Henry David Thoreau – a consideration

Walden Pond

My article in The Irish Times.

For someone who worshipped trees, the writer Henry David Thoreau certainly made good use of them: his journal, increasingly thought to be his most important work, ran to two million words, collated across 24 years in 14 volumes. There’s also a sweet irony in that Thoreau came from a family that accrued its wealth through pencil manufacturing, for Henry was often accused of “swinging the lead” in the worst possible sense when it came to his own life.

Last year was the bicentennial of Thoreau’s birth, resulting in a number of new titles on one of the giants of the American literary canon. There is a new biography Henry David Thoreau – A Life by Laura Dassow Walls (University of Chicago Press), while more targeted takes on the author of Walden come in the forms of The Boatman – Henry David Thoreau’s River Years by Robert M Thorson (Harvard University Press) and Thoreau and the Language of Trees by Richard Higgins (University of California Press).

Up to now, any consideration of Thoreau’s life has usually been poured through a mystical sieve. Anyone with a passing familiarity of Thoreau will think of a hermetic, ascetic environmental philosopher who penned Walden, that great work on nature and the self and its related ideas of regrounding, renewal and rebirth. This is a decent transcription of the most important loop of the writer’s life. But there’s much more to Thoreau, and what we already know is not always read in the proper light either – something that Dassow Walls strives to put right in her excellent biography.

Living at Walden Pond gave rise to the notion of Thoreau leading a hermetic life. But this supposition can be debunked by the fact that the only time he lived alone was the two years he spent at this now world-famous landmark (Thoreau’s was a short life, dying aged 44 of TB). The charge of seclusion from society can be thrown out, too, as Dassow Walls describes Thoreau’s large social circle of fellow pioneers, some closer to him than others: (erstwhile mentor) Ralph Waldo Emerson, Nathaniel Hawthorne, Frederick Douglass, Walt Whitman, Margaret Fuller and John Brown, the sheep herder-surveyor who tried to form an army to counter pro-slavery insurgents who were forcibly taking control of the government of Kansas. The book also outlines Thoreau’s many trips to Boston, New York City, Canada and other places; how he would give regular lectures; speak publicly against slavery; spend time with Native American families; protest against unjust taxes (Thoreau thought a man’s duty is to break any law that’s immoral). He also, earlier in life, set up a school with his brother John based on progressive ideals, while being a skilled handyman meant Thoreau was constantly helping friends and family around his hometown of Concord. If “reclusiveness” shares such richness to society, then perhaps we should all utilise our great genius for staying at home.


Thoreau encountered plenty of Irish people during his lifetime. There were the famous encounters in Walden (which we shall not spoil for new readers by mentioning here) and due to the railroad expansion through Concord he met many families who arrived in town seeking work. His friends and family fretted over the Irish invasion of workers, but Thoreau soon rebuked them, saying: “The sturdy Irish arms that do the work are of more worth than oak or maple. Methinks I could look with equanimity upon a long street of Irish cabins and pigs and children revelling in the genial Concord dirt, and I should find my Walden wood and Fair Haven in their tanned and happy faces.”

Thoreau also happened to be at Cape Cod when, in nearby Cohasset, the famine ship St John, sailing from Galway, had foundered in heavy seas and high winds, breaking on the rocks just south of Boston in 1849. Only 23 of the 120 onboard were rescued and later Thoreau would use these unforgettable scenes to open his book Cape Cod after his visit to the disaster site. As he came to know the three generations of the Riordan family who settled in his home town, Thoreau wondered if they were living his ideals better than he was – dirt poor, yes, but living independent lives on the land, with little regard for “Yankee markers of success”.

Ever railing against injustice, Henry also intervened after hearing that Kerryman Mick Flannery won a spading contest at a county fair, only to see his boss claim the prize money. Thoreau drafted a petition collecting money to make up for the theft, while he also went door-to-door to raise the 50 dollars needed to bring Flannery’s family from Ireland, lending much of the money himself.

Thoreau – A Life is a brilliant, big-hearted, definitive and sympathetic biography that carries the original nature boy through a time of considerable flux in American life. It helpfully carries the reader to a different shore, too, for a refreshed view of this otherworldly, and yet truly American, writer and visionary. The writing always keeps a lightness of touch, yet is constantly weighted with scholarly research. Mirroring Thoreau’s eternal symbol of Walden Pond, Dassow Walls presents the reader with the strange, beautiful ripples of Thoreau’s personality that makes his life so fascinating, while at the same time she plumbs the documents of his journals, books, and letters to dredge up new ideas on his thinking and motivations. She is a confessed Thoreauvian, and this rewarding book is a testament to her, and its sometimes-maligned subject.

An idea Richard Higgins is keen to emphasise in his book is Thoreau’s – and our – relationship with trees. Readers of Walden are already aware that Thoreau held an unwavering faith in nature, and found solace in trying to comprehend his place within it. Thoreau realised that we sit within nature’s embrace, not the other way around; as though nature were mere window dressing to our everyday lives. He studied the fragility of nature, but was also aware of its force, and how it could consign humanity to the dustbin of extinction if need be. Thoreau watched the natural world as a realm of time, and as Higgins points out in this engaging book, he trusted his instincts: “we will sooner overtake the dawn by remaining here, where we are, than by chasing the sun across the western hills,” Thoreau observed.


From reading this book it is easy to imagine that Thoreau loved trees more than humans – to begin with, he believed trees did their duty more than his fellow citizens. “Thank God they (humans) cannot cut down the clouds,” he once wrote despairingly. This symbiotic love of his sylvan surroundings goes some way in explaining why some commentators now write him off as a crank; they view his abiding affection for nature as unhealthy, misanthropic. But his love of trees allows us to see his environmental prescience: he was writing of trees as purifiers of air and fountains of water long before terms like carbon sinks, or the word ecology even, were understood or defined. (Incidentally, Thoreau used the term “nature’s economy” in his writing.)

Writing on trees requires a special talent to make the subject come alive: Thoreau achieved this with aplomb, but Higgins’ prose sometimes fails to deliver. In compensation the book contains a number of impressive photographs of Henry’s “local world”, taken either by Higgins or from the historic plates of Herbert Wendell Gleason. It is a book to savour lightly and slowly, just as the subject himself might have prescribed.

Thoreau’s river years are covered in The Boatman, which is an admirable book, if less enjoyable compared with the others due to the narrowness of the subject and its academic anchor of style. Nevertheless, Robert M Thorson keeps his approach breezy enough to carry the reader downstream, and if the central current is a thin one, the author still manages to give a clear direction of Thoreau’s life and his links to the local waterways of Concord River Valley.

Inspiration for the title came from Thoreau’s file map of the Concord River – it runs seven feet in length – which he drafted a few years before his death in 1862. Emerson described Thoreau’s passion for the waterways in a letter: “Henry T Occupies himself with the history of the river, measures it, weighs it, and strains it through a colander of all eternity.” The Boatman leaves Thoreau’s woody persona on the shore without regret, and instead gets the reader’s feet wet with forensically detailed adventures in “Henry T” country.

Thoreau went to Walden Pond to live life on his own terms, and he wrote Walden in order to show the rest of us that it could be done. These books add worthy voices to the intention. Finding the opportunity to read the many titles on Thoreau is something to ponder all the same. In Dassow Walls’ selected bibliography there are 16 pages of writing linked to the writer-philosopher. How to find the time? We may need our own Walden after all.



A weekend with Hemingway

Wilde About The Place – Oscar Wilde Bar NYC

My article in The Sunday Times.


Made for a sunny summer Sunday 

The Russian Soul: Selections from a Writer’s Diary by Fyodor Dostoevsky/Rosamund Bartlett

(Notting Hill Editions)

Henry David Thoreau – A Life by Laura Dassow Walls 

(University of Chicago Press)

The Boatman – Henry David Thoreau’s River Years by Robert M. Thorson 

(Harvard University Press)

Thoreau and the Language of Trees by Richard Higgins 

(University of California Press)

Two hundred years since the birth of Henry David Thoreau. Fyodor Dostoevsky isn’t far behind him; the bicentennial of his birth is in 2021. I’m looking forward to starting these, and hope to review them soon enough. Chapeau to the publishers!


A soupçon of Ian Nairn – review of Nairn’s Paris 

To call Ian Nairn a great architectural writer is too restrictive; he was a great writer who happened to write about buildings and places. If your preconception of writing on architecture is one of fusty, jargonistic, dandruff-dull prose, then Nairn brushes off any shouldered burden that may concern a reader. With brisk pen and plenty of shoe leather, he does all the work. It’s a given now that any publication by Notting Hill Editions is pleasing to the eye (this one features a warm and affectionate introduction by Paris resident Andrew Hussey). What gives this title extra sheen is that it has been out of print since 1968, with originals fetching £50. Cities change, but the quality of Nairn’s writing will always hold. He will take you to unexpected places, make you look at the familiar anew, or at least poke you into thinking about them again (For example, Nairn describes the basilica of Sacré-Coeur as “a waste of talent”.) But as he says, “this book is not an invitation to argument but to discovery… go and decide for yourself”.

* Article first appeared in The Irish Times


Ian Nairn and serendipity 

There must be something to it surely: in the week when I had my essay on the inspirational, non-clubbable writer and broadcaster published in The Irish Times, I had a peruse of a second-hand bookshop only to find, side by side, original copies of Nairn’s London and Nairn’s Paris. 

For the princely sum of £4 (in the inside cover of Paris is another marking for 20p).

I’ve added pictures below, comparing them with my facsimile of London, well thumbed as you can see and with some ale markings, and the new edition of Paris, published with typical elan by Notting Hill Editions. Just look at Nairn’s face on those covers – the child-like, goofy grin is nothing but endearing; he’s like a portly John Turturro.

I shall run Nairn’s BBC travelogues again this weekend (with some Guinness West Indies Porter, which I’m sure he would slap his lips in satisfaction with) as a small gesture to his ghost, if indeed he was tapping my shoulder to go into that bookshop. ‘Look here mate…’, I hear him saying. 

The Nairn films are infinitely watchable in spite of their low-budget, dated (happily, in this instance), and cobbled together feel. He has a strange, melancholic relationship with the camera; I find him as compelling to watch on screen as, say, Richard Burton or Marlon Brando. At times I imagine he might start riffing towards a Shakespearean soliloquy as he shuffles around Halifax.

Anyway, I shall finish with this, because I have just uncapped another porter: despite his documented drift into darkness in his personal life and an unhealthy relationship with the booze, Nairn makes me laugh hard, and often, in his writing. (Whatever people think about him looking through a glass darkly, my instinct is that he lived his life the way he wanted to, and if that meant living until 53 or 83 years of age, I imagine Nairn would have thought, ‘well, so bloody what’.)
Here he is describing a pub, one of his true passions, The King’s Arms on the Fulham Road:

Below is how they advertise the pub on its website today. Nairn, how prescient you were…

…once again I hear his ghost: ‘And nooooowwww look at it! It makes me burn!’

Fads will come and go. 

Ian Nairn will remain. Raise a glass, chin chin.


The World-Ending Fire by Wendell Berry: Environmental philosophy

American poet Wendell Berry is a ‘farmer of sorts and an artist of sorts’

Wendell Berry did not sit on my shelves before; nor yours probably. This collection sees the American published on these islands for the first time, and now he has finally stepped ashore, it’s worth getting to know him. He describes himself as “a farmer of sorts and an artist of sorts” and it shows. In these pieces, which span five decades, Berry overturns plenty of thoughtful topsoil on environmental issues with a precise pen, and clears any thicket of cosy consensus with a clear eye and cutting hand. Bound to the land, Berry speaks with a considered and credible voice. Part nature writing, part philosophy, part polemic, he examines humanity’s impact on the world – is the land unfit for use, or are we unfit to use it, he asks. Although he keeps his plough mainly on the furrows of nature and farming, there are digressions: Mark Twain, feminism, and computers among them. Berry believes there is a music to nature, so instead of drowning it out, we had better start listening. This book is a good starting point.

The World-Ending Fire – The Essential Wendell Berry. (£20; 354 pp Allen Lane)

  • Article first appeared in The Irish Times

Books which set the standards for journalism


The Fields family, Alabama 1936 (Photograph: Walker Evans)


Nothing dates so decidedly as journalism. This is probably one of the most solipsistic statements to begin any article, but it’s true: so much spilt ink is soon swept out from the attic of memory; very little journalism is read twice. I refer to traditional journalism in this case, as new media listicles and click-bait copy are rarely read through at all, despite the increasing volume foisted upon our mental space.

Reportage remains a style of journalism which can lift itself above the frivolous freeway of traffic-generating content that obsesses modern media. In such form, the strange hinterlands of a good story can be transformed from journalism into literature. The continuing success of The New Yorker, The Atlantic, and The Paris Review proves that there is still a place for long-form writing even in our increasingly time-starved lives. The United States seems to cherish its indepth journalistic tradition somewhat more than we do in Europe. This noble lineage was brought into mind reading the posthumously-published Cotton Tenants by James Agee. The 30,000-word book – punctuated with remarkable photographs by Walker Evans – originally was an article for Fortune magazine from 1936, documenting the lives of three families struggling through desperate times in Alabama. Fortune chose not to run it at the time of its writing for reasons that are still unknown. The book portrays a world that essentially doesn’t exist any more, a snapshot of impoverished cotton farmers, and I could not put it down until I had finished it.

Agee is best-known for his book Let Us Now Praise Famous Men (written later, it’s a much broader canvas for his work in Cotton Tenants; one is meant to be sung, one is meant to be preached, said the author) and as a screenwriter of two classic films The Night of the Hunter and The African Queen. Despite this, Agee always felt a sense of dread of squandering his talent, which he carried with him to his early death from a fatal second heart attack at the age of 45 in 1955. He died in the back of a New York City cab on his way to a doctor’s appointment.

Cotton Tenants is a small book but it packs a heavy punch with its clinical details of the families’ subsistence, where the weight of living is crushing them slowly, grinding them into the very ground they furrow. The three families are inescapably locked into capitalism’s cruel cycle; their only release will be death, the finality of their laborious existence is their only escape from the abject misery of poverty.

This brutal archaic agriculture system is no longer part of American life, yet it remains heartbreaking to read their stories all the same. The book is compelling, largely thanks to Agee’s machine-gun fire prose, as he rattles out descriptions of the families’ lives: diet, clothes, education and so on. The fact he never lays it on thick is part of the book’s appeal; then again, he doesn’t have to. The suffering is there in black and white, and in the photographs too, even if they do have a compassionate dignity to them. That being said, a page never slips by Agee where he’s not lifting the prosaic day-to-day into poetry: the families’ disenfranchisement always finds an unsettling death dance under his pen. The writer Adam Haslett describes Agee’s prose style perfectly as “Jesus strained through Marx”. For example: “A civilization which for any reason puts a human life at a disadvantage; or a civilization which can exist only by putting human life at a disadvantage, is worthy neither of the name nor of continuance.”

Some may ask why we should read a piece of journalism that’s 80 years old and recounts an age that’s long since disappeared. One reason is because the likes of Agee’s work sets the bar as to what journalistic inquiry should be. Another reason is that dehumanization can take different forms and remains with us today, be it in sweat shops in Bangladesh, tourist hustlers in Thailand, or the absurd debt trap culture forced upon ordinary working people in western society. In the modern age, progress is always pitched in positive terms under the yoke of capitalism. However you will be hard pressed to find many positives from such a consensus in David Bandurski’s valuable account of rural resistance to economic regeneration in China.

China’s seemingly unrelenting growth figures – which are readily cast in doubt by economists – has resulted in voracious demand for land and natural resources, meaning much of the ground rural villagers stand on is as valuable as diamond jewels. Hence the book’s title, Dragons in Diamond Village, from Bandurski who is an American journalist and film-maker. Being a fluent Mandarin speaker and having extensive experience of Chinese culture allows Bandurski to take us into the heart of the matter, and in meticulous detail he tells the human stories involved in the battle against corruption, cronyism and intimidation perpetrated by a faceless ruling class.

China had 320 cities when it put in place its economic reforms in 1978; as of this year the country has 660 cities, many of which have ruthlessly swallowed up urban villages, which traditionally were farmed and developed by rural communities. The Chinese state now wants even more of this land, at any cost, to continue the drive for economic growth, and (similar to the cotton tenants of 1930s Alabama) many poor people are at the mercy of the political establishment. There is no private land ownership in China; it belongs to the state. “State-held” land can be developed for commercial reasons, while “collectively held” land is controlled by village communities, and rural Chinese people consider this land their birth right. The latter is what the developers want to take hold of, by any means.

The villagers are organising and fighting back though, and Dragons in Diamond Village paints a painful, but brave, picture of their struggles against an unchecked ideology of communism on one hand, and capitalism on the other. (To give an idea of China’s development and monocratic political makeup, between 2011-2013 the country consumed more concrete than the United States consumed in the entire 20th century; as Bandurski notes, rural China is being paved out of existence. According to Forbes magazine more than 90 per cent of the richest people in the country are members of the ruling Communist Party). Bandurski makes a good fist of simplifying a complex land system and tradition, and densely details the plight of many individuals, while holding a light to the hypocrisy of the Chinese Communist Party. It is a just account of social struggle well worth reading.

Someone who had little time for any Communist party was George Orwell, a master of long-form reportage with such timeless non-fiction as Homage to Catalonia, Down and Out in Paris and London, and The Road to Wigan Pier. Orwell’s account of the working class in north England has often (depressingly) been used to give him an intellectual kicking post factum, especially due to a particular sentence he included in the book: “. . . the lower classes smell”. A simple statement of truth never got in the way of a revisionist ideologue’s opinion when it comes to a minor critic bashing a major reputation.

Thankfully the English academic John Sutherland resides nowhere near this cul-de-sac of cranks, but instead uses this sentence of Orwell’s as a jumping off point to write a biography of one of his literary heroes, warts and all considered. Having lost his sense of smell recently, Sutherland decided to re-read Orwell’s oeuvre and was struck by the importance the author placed on odour throughout his writing, be it shag tobacco, or furtive rolls in the summer grass with a lady friend (Sutherland does seem disconcertingly fixated on Orwell’s “rutting” throughout the book).

Having read three biographies on Orwell before, I wondered what more could be excavated from the bones of Eric Blair and his alter ego George with Orwell’s Nose. Sutherland’s book is an excellent read though. Written with a breezy and freewheeling style, he skilfully manages to encapsulate the life of one of the 20th century’s most important writers in about a third of the word count of other books. The prose is infused with wry humour and apt judgment on George’s endeavours. If you’ve yet to read an Orwell biography, it is a fine starting point. If you can’t resist all things Orwell, like me, then pinch your nose and dive in on this admirable portrait of a deeply flawed man with faultless prose.

Orwell’s Nose by John Sutherland (Reaktion Books)

Dragons in Diamond Village by David Bandurski (Melville House)

Cotton Tenants by James Agee & Walker Evans (The Baffler)

* Article first appeared in The Irish Times


Street life: visionary who changed how we think about cities


Jane Jacobs (photo: The Center for the Living City)

This year cannot be allowed to pass by without reference to its being the centenary of Jane Jacobs, the renowned American thinker and writer on cities and urban spaces. Jacobs was an activist who emboldened many to challenge the established order when it came to public planning, someone who said of the metropolis: “There is no logic that can be superimposed on the city; people make it, and it is to them, not buildings, that we must fit our plans.”

We should hold on to her ideas: Jacobs was a common-sense champion of how places should be allowed to grow and shape themselves around us, not the other way around.

Down the years her work has been a source of elucidation for many people who have cared for the environment surrounding them, but who perhaps have been unsure about how to mobilise their thoughts against the abstraction of civil bureaucracy, something which often seeks to depersonalise – disengage us from – our living space.

Understandably a raft of books have appeared to coincide with the centenary of her birth. Becoming Jane Jacobs by Peter L Laurence (University of Pennsylvania Press), Jane Jacobs: The Last Interview and Other Conversations (Melville House Books) and Eyes on the Street: The Life of Jane Jacobs, the biography by Robert Kanigel (Knopf) look like notable additions to the canon.

However, it is a masterwork from her own pen for which Jacobs will be best remembered. The Death and Life of Great American Cities was first published in 1961 – a reprint is available from Vintage – after an article by Jacobs three years earlier in Fortune magazine was noticed by the Rockefeller Foundation, which offered her funding to write about cities.

A postage-stamp synopsis of the book is that Jacobs felt cities to be organic, that they evolve and develop over time depending on how the people living in the space use it; cities would not be formed with some painting-by-colours methodology of planning.

The streets are what make the city, wrote Jacobs, which was contra-modernism and its fashionable Corbusien ideas at the time of neat grids and high-rise towers lifting people off the streets. These ideas would have resulted in a place where people are looking inwards at courtyards, rather than outwards to what Jacobs called the ballet of the daily workings of the street.

“Cities have the capability of providing something for everybody, only because, and only when, they are created by everybody,” said Jacobs, in her ardent opposition to one-size fits all planning. She wanted diversity, density and engagement and maintained that cities were safer with “eyes on the street”.

Jacobs was an autodidact and an outsider, just like that other great poet of place Ian Nairn. She was not some sleek metropolitan and The Death and Life of Great American Cities rocked the establishment and rattled architecture’s gilded cage.

Quite an achievement for someone born in the unfashionable coal-mining town of Scranton, Pennsylvania in 1916, and who had no college education or formal training.

It is also worth bearing in mind the general attitudes to a strong-willed woman in that era; all these facts probably added to the shock felt by Jacobs’s temerity; the New Yorker critic Lewis Mumford dismissed her reflections as naive while reviewing the book under the headline Mother Jacobs’ Home Remedies, for example).

Born Butzner to a doctor father and school teacher mother, it seemed young Jane was something of a firebrand from early on: playing pranks at school, showing little concern for authority by secretly reading books during lessons and holding imaginary conversations with Thomas Jefferson or Benjamin Franklin (depending on who was lodging in her imagination at the time).

She chose an unpaid internship at the Scranton Tribune instead of going to college, before moving to join her sister in New York in 1934. She worked various jobs, all the while immersing herself in the big city, before her first writing opportunity came. It was an unglamorous one in a metal trades paper, but it got her started, leading to a series of commissions from Vogue magazine.

Supposedly her pieces about the city were earning Jacobs $40 a time, while she was on $12 a week working as a secretary. While hosting a party in her apartment in April 1944, she met her husband, Robert Jacobs, an architect, and they married in May. Jacobs said later in life that she only wrote books due to his encouragement.

The Jacobs made their home above a sweet shop in 555 Hudson Street, in Greenwich Village, which these days can attract as many fans of architecture as any modernist masterpiece. Here she watched the dance of the street at dawn and dusk and evolved her ideas on urban planning even further by taking a position at the Architectural Forum.

The esteem bestowed on Jacobs after the publication of The Death and Life of Great American Cities saw her become involved in the protests against New York City planning chief Robert Moses’s proposals to build the Lower Manhattan expressway. This was to run through the heart of Greenwich Village and the very streets where Bob Dylan would scuff his shoes and polish his verse.

The tussle between Jacobs and Moses has already been well documented (there’s even an opera based on it) so there is no need to go into it here. But the victory and Jacobs’s organisation of like-minded citizens who fought to preserve the Village was the embodiment of citizen empowerment. It showed everyone else that planning was too important to be left to the planners.

The long-running dispute has become the stuff of legend, partly because “ordinary mom” Jacobs took the fight both on to the street and into the corridors of powers. She took on Moses, one of the most powerful figures in the US at the time, and won.

Many on the left saw her as an inspiration of how an organised community can take on capitalism and come out victorious. Of course, Moses’s haughty attitude to the public played a significant role in the project’s defeat as well: at a proposal hearing on the plans, he was quoted as saying: “There is nobody against this – nobody, nobody, nobody but a bunch of . . . a bunch of mothers!”

As time went on, and the proposed motorway’s momentum faded, one imagines Moses probably affixed another word to the merry band of “mothers”.

In the end those who fought to save Greenwich Village were triumphant, although the Jacobs moved on. They went to Canada in 1968 after their two sons said they would rather go to jail than be conscripted to fight in Vietnam.

Unsurprisingly, Jane Jacobs soon became involved in similar campaigns in Toronto. She remained there until her death in 2006, aged 89.

The historian Robert Caro, who has written a tome on Moses, said she was not the first person to stress the importance of neighbourhood, which is correct, but he went on to add: “But no one had ever said it so brilliantly before. She gave voice to something that needed a voice.”

What Jacobs would make of what we call “gentrification” today is hard to say. She believed in cities growing by themselves, so would her theories apply to the tech generation that has taken over San Francisco, squeezing out the diversity and freakbeat fabric that made the city one of the most distinctive in the world? Or to Paris, which is now mostly an urban centre for the wealthy, ringfenced by poverty and the rest of the population?

Organic developments can also embody undesired change and urban cleansing; it would have been nice to have heard her views on such places.

Ultimately, Jacobs helped change the way we think about cities, whether you believe her ideas stand or fall. She gave us another prism through which to consider how we plan our urban space: when we do intervene, it shouldn’t be just about making things new, it should be about making things better.

One hundred years on from her birth, we now have the necessary perspective to realise how perceptive she was. Those “eyes on the street” she talked about included her own, always framed by those striking owlish glasses. We were lucky to have them.

* Article first appeared in The Irish Times


The local


General disparagement that anyone concerned with their own patch must be a small-minded xenophobe fuelled the Brexit debate. Such lazy stereotyping of Leave voters by the liberal collective undermines its own self-perception as open-minded.

In the midst of this continuing existential maelstrom, my metaphysical GPS has been happily trekking a terrain of books based on the idea of place and our connection to it. The volumes are very different in style, sensibility, and age. But each one possesses a common thread: a love of the local, be it knowledge; the land; or the language we attach to it.

This convergence of homegrown thought enveloped a strong environmental message too. The books are a perfect rebuke to anyone who vaingloriously carries a lumpen backpack around the globe (with the associated grotesque carbon footprint) in an effort to accumulate knowledge about the world. The writings prompt questions: why do we disdain knowledge of the wild flowers that grow in our own fields, for example; why do we think learning is only impressive when the flowers grow 6000 miles away?

One of the books is by Hubert Butler, who died 25 years ago this year. His relatively littleknown voice is fortunately abloom again in a collection of essays published by Notting Hill Editions called ‘The Eggman and the Fairies’. I am grateful, otherwise I might not have found this tactful and enlightening writer. Butler’s unfussy talent might have been tucked away quietly in his home county of Kilkenny, travelling no further than the libraries of the literati.

The central philosophy of Butler’s connection with civic consciousness literally jumps off the page – the engraved quote on the cover reads: “I have always believed that local history is more important than national history. Where life is fully and consciously lived in our own neighbourhood, we are cushioned a little from the impact of great far-off events which should be of only marginal concern to us”. His inherent sense of locus is a refutation to the hate-lacquered acronym NIMBYISM and its implied curtain-twitching malevolence. Instead, Butler’s cipher could read: KYOBISM, Know Your Own Backyard: for there you will find a world of wonder to be getting on with.

In his introduction to the book John Banville places Butler alongside Hazlitt, Orwell, and Robert Louis Stevenson in the canon of great essayists. Banville describes him as “the least noisy of writers”, which is delineating as one moves through the pages with Butler, for he seemingly shuffles through places such as the River Nore or Fethard-on-Sea.

His markings are usually near to hand, but his mind is always large, pan-European, in spirit.

The sensibility can remain broad, even if the eyes are restricted. “These essays appear to be about Russia or Greece or Spain or Yugoslavia, (but) they are really about Ireland”, he writes in the preface, before expounding on subjects as diverse as Wolfe Tone or plans to build ‘a new Geneva’ on the River Suir in Waterford. “I go on believing that the strength to live comes from an understanding of ourselves and our neighbours or the diaspora that has replaced them”.

Butler was born in 1900. After an education at Charterhouse in England and St John’s College, Oxford, followed by some travel through Europe, he returned to his birthplace Maidenhall in Kilkenny for the rest of his days. His family was part of the landed gentry, yet he was staunchly Irish, describing himself as part of Ireland’s rich strain of Protestant Republicanism. The essays were written over a period of sixty years for various newspapers and magazines, as he cleaved – to use Banville’s word – steadfastly to the home place. The book is a treasure trove of knowledge, shared with dignity and a deliberate style. The topics are unapologetically indigenous, yet the themes resound universally, in an artful synthesis akin to Orwell’s musing on that quintessential English subject: the per-fect cup of tea.


Michael Harkin contrasts markedly to Hubert Butler in background, but when it comes to wit they could have been brothers. Born in Carndonagh, Donegal in 1830, he penned a precious jewel of local history while working as a post office master, ‘Inishowen – its History, Traditions, and Antiquities’ under the nom de plume Maghtochair. “Our legends and traditions are dying, the customs and habits of the olden time are nearly extinct, but in order to preserve some of them from total oblivion I thought it well to gather this collection”, he declares. The book is a tidy volume of rural life and community in microcosm: mixing topography, history, songs, anecdotes, and verse. Just like Butler, Harkin drew beauty and depth and anchored a deep-seated affection, in the local. Presented in gazette format, these segments also appeared initially in a newspaper, The Derry Journal(how many local or regional papers carry such columns today?). The stories were inspired by Harkin’s travels around the Donegal peninsula in a rattling little car, stuffed with books of poetry and prose, collating information from the local seanachies all the while. In Maghtochair, the people in the Big Houses are sidelined. Instead we find monks or clergy, and issues such as the fight for better rights for farmers in rural Ireland: “Was it the landlords who made our valleys smile with plenty and teem with fertility?”, Maghtochair asks pointedly. “Certainly not; it was the peasantry”.

A chapter on ‘Illicit Distillation’ is a joy to drink in, combining fact with plenty of fiction in all likelihood. It humorously sends up officialdom’s presumptive interference and folly in trying to reform human nature. He seems to say, “we like things that are bad for us: if you commit to the futility of preventing us from enjoying them, we will only enjoy them even more”. Maghtochair describes “the lynx-eyed constables of the Revenue Board” tilting at windmills with their still-hunting and concludes, not without reason, that the production of contraband Inishowen whiskey “probably will be carried on while light and dark succeed each other”. The imagination flickers at the thought of the Donegal night sky being lit up with torches firing across the landscape as a warning of custom men on the prowl.

Scraping and shaping of language is local too and can be carved in the land, as John R Stilgoe argues in ‘What is Landscape?’. Landscape is a noun, he tells us, stripped of ornament and necessity. Stilgoe is Orchard Professor in the History of Landscape at Harvard University and his love of language and the land sees him ploughing through outdated and specialist dictionaries for our benefit, in this illuminating and entertaining book (apparently Chambers Dictionary still champions Scottish perspectives unlike the Anglocentric Oxford English Dictionary (OED), he tells us). Reading this will have you thinking anew about words, as it breaks down both the language and the land that it may originate from or be attached to. Some words have been simply lost through time, fallen through sinkholes in our syntax. “Swashbuckler”, for example. Does it have any relevance in modern terms? Swash as a verb or noun can relate to water; but usually we take it to mean flamboyantly to swagger about, or to wield a sword (the word’s origin is to “make a noise like swords clashing or beating on shields” according to the OED; combined then with “buckler”, a small round shield worn on the forearm). We use the word rarely now, describing a film or a sportsperson’s style say, but swash still has everyday usage for local fisherman: to them it usually means a stretch of low-tide water snaking through sandbars.

Stilgoe’s book flows with sparkling streams of enlightenment; how language with the land can give it different meaning, and he unearths such diamond words as ensamhet, unique to Sweden, meaning “the restorative, relaxing effect of being solitary and thoughtful, but not lonely”. Along the way he notes plenty of quirks too: how experienced beach-goers know how to sit on sand; the idea of classrooms in the sky momentarily posed by the advent of aviation; how the mariner measures land with his fist. All robust and succulent.

‘What is Landscape?’ is a great read to dip into (another phrase I’m sure Stilgoe could give many new shades). Reading part of its preface again, it could apply to any of the three books mentioned: “neither dictionary nor field guide, it is only an invitation to walk, to notice, to ask, sometimes to look up and around, sometimes to look up in a dictionary…”. A nudge, to look around.

The Eggman and the Fairies – Irish Essays By Hubert Butler
(Notting Hill Editions)

What is Landscape? By John R Stilgoe
(The MIT Press)

Inishowen – its History, Traditions, and Antiquities by Maghtochair (Three Candles Printers, Dublin)

  • Article first appeared in The Irish Times & Village magazine
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