The spirit of Aldeburgh

The Aldeburgh festival, started by Benjamin Britten in 1948, a few years before the Wexford Festival, is multi-faceted, and the emphasis is almost definitely on music and the arts, and not just your average accumulation of exhibitions with dodgy depictions of floating swans, collies on amphetamines and jumping horses.

For example, facing Snape Maltings Hall, the main concert venue which is surrounded by the gorgeous and occasionally moody vistas of the North Sea and the tranquil River Alde, were huge images by Anya Gallaccio, inspired by Orford Ness, apparently the largest vegetated shingle spit in Europe.

Because the aura of the sea is ever present, whether walking along the attractive Victorian hub of Aldeburgh, or, further in land, at Snape, the work of Gallaccio is a reminder that Orford Ness is tenuously connected to the mainland, just about four metres above sea level.

Symbolically, the relationship between the sea and the land, is in essence tenuous. No one knows when the sea might just throw a wobble.

There were many exhibitions and installations at Aldeburgh of the highest quality: Lily Hunter Green’s Bee Composed (a piano with an a busy hive of bees), John Cage’s Music-circus at the Peter Pears Gallery, Chikato Goto’s traditional Japanese woodcuts at the Pond Gallery, a nod perhaps to Britten’s 1964 church parable Curlew River (1964), when his conception of musical theatre took a new direction, combining influences from the Japanese nō theatre and English medieval religious drama.

The Suffolk coast is the most beautiful setting for a musical festival: Snape Maltings rises like a liner: it dates back to 1846, was converted into a concert hall in 1967 and it looks out upon heath and marsh and the great River Alde, a winding signature under a huge and expansive Suffolk sky.

Britten the composer of course was fond of allegory and Church themes: besides the aforementioned Curlew River, two other religious parables, The Burning Fiery Furnace (1966) and The Prodigal Son (1968), followed. An earlier church-pageant opera, Noye’s Fludde (1958), made use of one of the medieval Chester miracle plays.

And then The Rape of Lucretia marked the inception of the English Opera Group, with Britten as artistic director, composer, and conductor. This undertaking gave rise to the Aldeburgh Festival, which slowly became one of the most important alternative English music festivals and, specifically, the centre of Britten’s musical activities.

The current director of Aldeburgh is Pierre-Laurent Aimard , who , according to a report in the Financial Times on the eye of this year’s Festival, stood accused of not being ‘quite English enough’, which can hardly be his fault.

The charge sheet against him is petty: he is closely aligned in spirit with the postwar European avant garde, which Britten had little time for. But, if the opera cognoscenti didn’t split hairs over such trifling matters, it wouldn’t be the blood sport we have all come to admire.

The Festival proper runs for the second half of June, with operas, recitals, film, concerts, masterclasses and lectures, in a plethora of venues, including Blythburgh Church, Aldeburgh Church, Britten Studio, Jubilee Hall and the concert hall at Snape Maltings where I attended a performance by Ensemble 360, wandering at the interval, ice cone in hand, like a blithe spirit, among the reeds and water and Gallaccio’s photographs.


Four is a special number

Like Telemachus, I find myself on the shore awaiting the telltale configuration of silhouettes on the horizon to signal the return home of those whose reputation was forged abroad. Since Ben Barnes informed me about WexFour earlier this year, the adaptation for the stage at Wexford Arts Centre in October of new work by four Wexford writers who continue to bestride the world, far and beyond the anadromous caul of Loch Garman, has had the swallow note of Odysseus’s lyre.

Why a swallow? As every dabbler of Homer knows, swallows migrate and return to the nest they previously inhabited. Ben Barnes was born a stone’s throw from the Arts Centre and got his short back and sides from Syl and Willie Carley at the bottom of George’s Street; Billy Roche’s first incarnation of A Handful of Stars – the raw The Boker Poker Club – was directed here by Patrick Sutton, with a very young Gary Lydon, last seen in the Arts Centre in Roche’s One Is Not a Number; Eoin Colfer’s first full length play, The Crescent, saw the light of day in the Arts Centre when he was still unknown, and both Colm Toibin and John Banville have given readings here.

Four celebrated Wexford alumni: Homer’s lyre also had four strings, and one knows that Barnes is best suited to pluck Toibin, Banville, Colfer and Roche to enable us to admire the multifariousness of the works you are about to see which – having read the text – will have an enduring hold on your imagination.

Nicky Furlong maintains that the riches of the many parishes of Wexford fertilise the proliferation of living characters, ‘many of whom choose to express themselves with urging pens.’ I have to imagine that for Barnes, Colfer, Roche and Banville, raised in Wexford, and Tobin, who was educated here, the soundtrack of an average year in the life of the town when they were young was a riotous cacophony of the musical and the theatrical on its streets, especially during the Wexford Festival which continues to segue mild autumn and cold winter.

Arias, declamations, perorations and proclamations would have cruised colourfully through the cloistered and multilingually-baptised streets and lanes, forever descending in cobbled free fall to where Wexford began, the sea, a recurring source of the cathartic and the catalytic in their novels, short stories and plays.

And being from Wexford, it is inevitable their paths would have crossed: Billy Roche sheepishly gave the manuscript of his first novel Tumbling Down to the eminent historian, the late Dr. Billy Colfer, for his perusal, only for his young son, Eoin, to borrow it first and gobble it up. When an older Eoin, a teacher in Coolcotts and a member of the local opera society, was on the cusp of introducing Artemis Fowl to the world, he shared a stage at a reading event with both Roche and Banville in the Talbot Hotel, the scene – eight years earlier in 1992 – of his first foray into playwriting, the one actStereotypes.

When Ben Barnes was appointed artistic director at the Abbey at 43, he had already directed 28 plays from the Irish repertoire and 20 premieres of new Irish plays, including John Banville’s adaptation of Kleist’s The Broken Jug; he initiated the adaptation of Toibin’s Lady Gregory’s Toothbrush for the stage (they were at St. Peter’s College together and played tennis against each other) and Barnes awarded the Abbey Writer in Association to Billy Roche, which would culminate with On Such As We at the Peacock, featuring Brendan Gleeson.

Is it too much to consider, in the context of WexFour, that the town which binds them together can consolidate their identity, if only for the duration of a performance? Writers, however, are not tethered to the same vernacular, so what is important, to paraphrase Colm Toibin, is that ‘the word somehow remains – the beauty of the word.

Alan Furst



Midnight in Europe

Midnight in Europe is my first outing with Alan Furst and having read some of the book in a city which features prominently in the mise en scene, Berlin, it won’t be my last.

Furst’s immediate strengths as a writer is a precise and no nonsense prose: with the exception of descriptions of where people live and what they drink, his sentences are dramatically parsed.

His tableaux is Europe during the Spanish Civil War, the internecine polarity which ensues between Spaniards living at home and abroad, and – before the novel is half way spent – Furst brings you on a tour of New York, Paris, Berlin, Danzig and Barcelona.

Cristian Ferrar, a Spanish lawyer in Paris and a Don Juan between the sheets, puts his life and career on the line by helping a clandestine agency smuggle and supply weapons to the Republican forces under siege by Franco, abetted by Italian pilots in German planes who massacre defenceless civilians in Barcelona by the thousands. Think Picasso ‘s Guernica.

Furst paints a gripping portrait of those who wage a personal war against the tide of tyranny, such as Ferrar’s comrade in arms, Max de Lyon, eagerly sought by the Gestapo, and the erotically charged Marquesa Maria Cristina.

Furst, author of Mission to Paris and Spies of the Balkans, has a gifted ability to slowly unfold a matrix of plots and sub-plots, segueing interest with a forensically detailed description of an assortment of characters, major and minor, walk on and centre stage, but not for a moment does his attentive eye wane.

‘He was a big, handsome, square-jawed fellow with a thick moustache, and very much at ease – feet up on the desk, railway uniform jacket hung over the back of the chair revealing braces and a carefully ironed shirt.’

You get the picture. Midnight in Europe is a spy novel rooted in a continent on the eve of its self immolation: abience, naturally, is everything, and Furst nails it again and again. There is a brilliantly vivid portrait of, for example, Berlin in the countdown to Kristallnacht, a city mired in the claustrophobic terror of a police state.

Kristallnacht of course followed the shooting in Paris in November 1938 of the German diplomat Ernst vom Rath by a Polish-Jewish student, Herschel Grynszpan: so much about the atmospheric background to that incident permeates Midnight in Europe, and Furst distills the intricacies of history to embroider his fiction.

The Nazi shadow is slowly edging through out Europe, Germany is goose-stepping toward total war and it is only a matter of time before Paris is snared in Hitler’s web. The good spy novel is, in essence, a bricolage, but it takes a master to connect the dots, one such as Alan Furst

Los de Abajo

Mariachi Beat


Where to begin.

To my eternal shame I have to admit that Los de Abajo were new to me when Mariachi Beat landed on my desk

I might, just might, have heard them in the background in one of Wexford’s most enduring, and best, restaurants, The Vine.

But I’m not so sure, because it would have been late, and veritas doesn’t always follow the vino, but David K, the proprietor, has been promoting and advocating world music there for more years than I can remember.

So what little I know about Los de Abajo can be crystallised by a brief summation of Mariachi Beat: one of the most infectious CD’s I have played in a long time.

This is occasionally 90 miles an hour music. The musicianship and the singing is stupendously good. Hell, better than that. But even the scope and the mercurial radiance of the ten track Mariachi Beat doesn’t do Los de Abajo justice.

A ten piece group,  Los de Abajo were born to play live. There are any number of excellent performances available on You Tube, but – if your time is limited, and a coffee break is due – look up Me Dejo.

Los de Abajo are from Mexico and, starting out, they were the Latin American purveyors of ska, a mishmash of the virtuosity of the Jerry Dammers-led The Specials and the anarchy of Madness.

Talking Heads’ David Byrne matured their blend of rock and salsa and reggae and ska and cumbia and brought it to the attention of a global audience: they have evolved considerably since the fledgling days of salsa punk, but their joie de vivre has never slackened.

You wouldn’t associate Los De Abajo with soul searching, but Mariachi Beat is the consequence of a period of reflection, of introspection, in which the band sought an answer to the question: what does it mean to be Mexican?

I wouldn’t get bogged down, however, in semantics, because if anything, as songs like Toro Y Regina, Ya Me Voy and Mujer Cuerrera show, Los De Abajo as an ensemble is collectively superb at wooing and marrying a fusion of genres and cultures from near and from far.

Walking on the Wind


Listen to the music in these lines:

With rasping sighs the breeze-brashed branches

 fling their russetness 

 through churning skies to crust the ground

The leaves, which are not mentioned by name, just don’t cover the ground, they crust it, like a hardened layer.

Isn’t that a beautiful line: note how the poet used the alliteration of breeze-bashed branches to move the poem from a standing start to third gear.

And then these breeze-brashed branches fling their russetness through churning skies to crust the ground.

But the poet isn’t finished, not by a long shot: he is directing a film sequence for us to conjure…the breeze brashed branches/the churning skies/

And he continues

To crust the ground with autumn’s pall/ a detritus to delight us in the cough out calm that follows squall.

The poem is Walking on the Wind, the collection is Turn Now the Tide, and the poet is Joe Neal, from Wales but living in Wexford.

Joe is one of those poets, in the great Welsh tradition of Thomas and David Jones, who is concerned with the sound of the spoken word, and the relevancy of sound to form.

Joe Neal

Turn Now the Tide

Joe Neal is a manipulator of words. His poems are a mode of transport for his ideas. His repository of experiences and images is his own business, but his poetry, full of magic properties when combined with his identifiable style and music, undoubtedly belongs to the world. He makes each word count double and as a consequence all the fives senses are called into play.

Revisiting again individual poems in Turn Now The Tide, Joe’s second collection, Barbican Buffalo, (‘All the trains I’ve caught since then, bring that moment shunting back.’), Love At First Bite (‘The promise in your smile, is of something more to come.’), Shades of You (‘You see, when I paint or draw, we’re all the one, a passion marled and intricate, born on my palette.’) In The Biblical Sense (‘but disquiet came in dreams of threesome romps.’) and Too Wet To Woo (‘We shared a great hope, when we met in the rain.’) I encounter not alone a man of letters who is unhesitatingly committed to the ideal of love, but an acute and sympathetic observer of the human condition.

From the outset, I received Turn Now The Tide as a pean to beauty, to humanity, to music: what the poems share, filtered through the aperture of this poet’s vision, though more susceptible to gravity than Wordsworth’s ‘inward eye’, is an impeccable rhythm.

Though I have long admired Joe’s fishing poems in the journal Waterlog, alongside notable contributions from George Melly and Ted Hughes, he is not exclusively a poet of the natural world. He is cosmopolitan and cultured, a legacy of his time as a journalist in London, rubbing shoulders with some of the greatest scribes of his age and indulging his love of  jazz in Soho, before crossing the Irish Sea and retiring to Castlebridge, to be rejuvenated as an actor and as a poet.

I have seen Joe on stage dozens of times, from A Child’s Christmas in Wales in Wexford Arts Centre and a Wexford Festival Opera production of The Threepenny Opera, to an intimate but salubrious reading from Telling It at a Slant in Enniscorthy Castle, when he enchanted with more of a performance than a reading. Joe Neal doesn’t abandon his poems when the print is dry; he cares for them lovingly, as they are the repository of cherished memories, a record of exchanges and experiences from another time and another place. That he is often haunted by voices is not wide off the mark.


Joe’s retreat from journalism in the media capital of the world to the idyllic haven of Eden Vale, where the trout in the River Sow ferry moon beams on their back, was the actor and writer exchanging one stage for another. He needed space. He needed the clock of nature. He needed, ironically for one so sociable and equable, a form of solitude. His poetic vision – coiled in dormancy – required an oblique slant on his interests, yet he continues to sate what stirs his senses: admire his play with words in this e mail to me while I was in London.

Dear Tom

 I envy you that evening of Wynton Marsalis; did he use his blocky-square-modular trumpet to blow golden bubbles from his lips? Or the more traditional horn, that makes and breaks its own mould?

And was it an audience of striking-looking punters who wanted to be seen? (The Barbican is like that these days). Or were they Ronnie Scott’s nodding people of the darkness? I used to be one of the latter, by the way, and still have my out-of-date membership card. These things are the stuff of poetry – as is Wynton when he runs free within his own prison of perfection.. Marsalis nuda veritas est.


Bestest  –  Joe

Returning to the poems, Please, Not Love Again, unfurls with the following stanza:

‘Oh, my Beatrice, I am

So hopelessly perplexed

By your wantonness

Of beauty which teeters

Constantly on the cusp

Of ugliness when I forget

To say your name

The Italian way.’


It is entirely in character for Joe the poet, with the DNA of Joe the classically trained actor, to appropriate one of the great literary muses of Western civilisation, and toy with the raw quintessence of beauty which so beguiled Dante.

I grind theses peppers of desire with the pestle of my being!’ Joe’s Beatrice, unlike Dante’s, is not merely the optimistic figment of a colourful and inventive imagination. The poet is drawn to what he intrinsically understands, empirically and sensually.  When he is not being aesthetically ascetic in his cottage in the sumptuously sylvan Eden Vale, Joe is a kind-hearted and kindred spirit of the arts in Wexford and further afield where, one will observe, he exudes a demonstrable empathy for the opposite sex. Empathy is perhaps too weak a word. It lacks a pulse. It lacks the alchemy which is the livery beneath the spoken word of the poet.

To be on intimate terms with Joe’s poetry is to know that he has the potential to see a Beatrice Portinari in most women, not necessarily the incarnation of beatific love as painted by another Dante (Gabriel Rossetti), but as a depthless source of inspiration. In truth, Joe is closer to the Roman Catullus than the Florentine Dante, extolling the former’s skill in exploring the steps in a relationship and, as the raison d’etre of the poet, the reluctance to relinquish, no matter how brief, the electricity of the experience.


‘I still have her likeness, decades on,

My Com Soc comrade

–          but not in arms.

Oh no.

Free love? Alas,

She never towed the party line’


(from Com Soc Comrade)

There is a connection between his declamatory prowess and his choice of words, an unstated fidelity, as far as I know, to the belief that no poem that is not better heard than read is a good poem. His compatriot Dylan Thomas, whose centenary is later this year, and whom Joe remembers in Worshipping The Word (‘With tribrachic stutter of his poem gun, he gave it to them – all five barrels of iambic pentagram’) – Thomas’s invocation to the actors before the first performance of Under Milk Wood in New York – was a master of sound, sense and sensibility.

I have heard Joe deliver his poems with spell binding diction on many occasions, including Tumbling Down in this collection, which caught my attention because I hear the writer perform it when I revisit it, particularly the second verse.

Springtime’s best when acrobatic

Lambs flounce around the roof

And daffodils stand in

For the yellow of the morning sun.

The rhythmical phrasing is so acute: the phrasing dances, the joie de vivre is painted vividly. Tumbling Down and these lines from Getting On, where the poet wonders whether he will be dragged away in the future

‘To join old ladies

Playing Bezique

And drinking tea

With woollen rugs

Across the knee?’

serve as a reminder that poetry is either suggestive or selective, with a dynamic as instantaneous as a shooting star, and a shelf life as short. Joe handles his subject with kid gloves, sensitively and without malice, with a deftness of touch as sure and as true as a fly-fisherman unhooking his quarry. He is, I think you will find, an honest poet, a fair poet, a writer who imbues in his work a quality which defines him, what Ted Hughes referred to as a ‘healing benevolence.’

Until the night I saw

Lighting up my doorstep

The incandescent colours

Of a garden tiger moth –

Reminder that your beauty

Had never left this earth.’


(from Tiger On The Doorstep)


Though poets are reluctant to admit as much, the engagement between the poem and the reader has everything to do with the stab of recognition, that lightning ability to arouse, how a string of words segued by rhythm enters through the trapdoor of our imagination and engages the fearlessly protective memory.

Turn Now the Tide, to Joe Neal’s friends and to those who know him through his poems, is an affirmation of a generous spirit, a writer unafraid to be true to himself, a writer for whom the aura of connotation cannot be at the expense of finding the right word,  and for whom the distance between the literary and the familiar should not be an unbridgeable chasm.

‘But soon, with dawn, the time will come

When tide begins to draw away and the swoosh

And gush of unimpeded down-stream

Flow will bring again the music

That I have learned to see and know.


(from River Song)