The Quest for the Irish Celt



Considering the tools of their trade, should archaeologists surprise us when they become embroiled in old fashioned mud-slinging?

The Quest for the Ancient Celt sheds extensive light on simmering tensions between archaeologists on either side of the Irish border in the 1930s, and has all the elements of a Spielberg adventure yarn.

The search for the genealogical soul of the new Irish nation was spearheaded by an Austrian-born civil servant, later dubbed by the Fianna Fail government which employed and promoted him as the most fanatical Nazi in Dublin.

At stake in the battleground for Irish identity was the original ‘hard’ border: researchers at odds with each other found themselves in a race to find evidence of a cultural frontier from prehistoric times between North and South.

And if, from the vantage of today, the border dispute can feel that old, this academic sniping, while not descending to the blows dished out by Indiana Jones to his nemesis Rene Belloq, was serious point scoring between two fledgling states, the North and the Republic.

The question of the first arrival of prehistoric man on Hibernia’s shores was imbued with political significance: if the earliest bones were discovered in the North, he must have arrived from Britain. But archaeologists were in danger, writes Mairead Carew, ‘of interpreting past cultural worlds and creating new ones simultaneously to reflect their current political realities.’

And the new reality was nationalism in action: countries, because of patriotic fervour, were anxious to trace their pedigree as far back in time as possible.

However, a far sinister background involved the United States and Germany. The Nazis, represented in Dublin by Adolph Mahr, the Keeper of Irish Antiquities at the National Museum, were confident that Ireland and Scandinavia, having escaped the Roman mould, had pure racial affinities.

Ardent anti-Semite, Mahr rose swiftly through the ranks of the museum until De Valera appointed him Director in 1934. As the numero uno of the Nazi Ausland organisation in Dublin, he openly liaised with fellow expatriate fascists Fritz Brase, head of the Army School of Music and Heinz Mecking of the Turf Board, who would perish in Soviet captivity at the end of the war.

America, which had already dabbled with sterilisation of its most dependable and vulnerable with its ruling on Buck v Bell six years before Hitler became Chancellor, was interested in the racial affinities of the Irish because they made up one fifth of their population.

Historians can over egg the pudding of the importance of minor figures with walk-on roles in history, but Carew doesn’t have to: Mahr’s alliance with Harvard University’s quest for the mystical origin of the Irish, and the subsequent physical examination of thousands across the country, is the gift which keeps giving.

Harvard’s involvement is a curious affair. In 1927, when Mahr first landed in Ireland, the US Supreme Court ruled that Carrie Buck, a young mother described as ‘feeble minded’, should be sterilized by tube litigation, a decision justified by Judge Oliver Wendell Homes Jnr. ‘It is better for all the world, if instead of waiting to execute degenerate offspring for crime…society can prevent those who are manifestly unfit from continuing their kind.’

Siddhartha Mukherjee covered the case extensively in his book The Gene, An Intimate History.  With the sterilization of Buck, ‘the chain of heredity had been broken,’ he noted. The Nazis, lying in wait for power and always mindful of public opinion in America, took heed.

Against this backdrop, the Harvard Archaeological Mission to Ireland was organised by Earnest A. Hooton who viewed the country as culturally ancient but politically new, and he expected that the physical characteristics of the Irish would determine their unalloyed racial affinities.

Why was this relevant to Hooton? Two reasons. A country defined as white European Celt would be economically advantageous with the impending rise of a new political order in Europe, and Hooton, echoing Wendell Homes Jnr, had no qualms – on paper at least – about the legal removal of those doomed unfit from society.

While 12,000 Irish allowed themselves to be measured from head to toe by Hooton’s acolytes to determine their divine providence, the Nazis’ obsession with racial morphology progressed at an alarming rate. Secretly, they prepared the groundwork for Aktion T4, the euthanasia programme to eradicate quarter of a million genetic ‘defectives’.

What segued eugenics research in Germany to produce the Ubermensche befitting a thousand year Reich, and the Harvard Archaeological Mission in Ireland, was an underlying belief that physical anthropology and racial classification could justify discrimination and segregation, rife on both sides of the Atlantic.

Eugenics, coined a year after Charles Darwin’s death by Francis Galton, from the Greek prefix eu, meaning good, and genesis, was intended to mimic natural selection by human intervention. ‘Man has long sought to excuse his disregard of others’ rights by alleging certain biological differences which determine the superiority of his own race or nationality and the inferiority of others,’ enthused Hooton, by now a member of the heinous Committee of the Negro, which used comparative autonomy to divide humanity into races and compared African babies with young apes.

Meanwhile, the Harvard Mission lost no time in getting down and dirty the length and breadth of the country: from Meath to Sligo and from Waterford to Derry, they excavated crannogs and dormant burial sites for five years, in which thousands of objects were unearthed and probed for evidence of Celtic genius. Surveying over 600 artefacts at Ballinderry in Offaly, Hugh O’Neill Hencken, director of the archaeology team and a future American intelligence officer, compared Ireland favourably with Ancient Greece.

The classification of skulls at Knockast was deemed by the Harvard team to be especially significant, writes Carew, as a large cranium once contained a brain which, according to researchers’ notes, ‘from point of size is well above the average for modern Europeans.’

While the Harvard Mission did its best to overturn the Victorian caricature of the Irish as intoxicated simians, old prejudices were slow to change, stateside. Commenting on the discovery of a well-preserved Viking gaming board with ‘iron shillelahs’, the Herald Examiner in Chicago claimed the close proximity of smashed skulls ‘would seem to point at some ancient debate over rules.’


The Rivers of Dublin


One of the more memorable photographs of Bertie Ahern as Taoiseach features him, grim-faced in his wellies, braving the flood waters of the Tolka River. Although Tolka derives from the Gaelic, An Tulca, meaning flood, the ill-omened name never quite deterred residential and industrial development along its hazardous banks.

The lesson of natural history is that you ignore portentous warnings at your peril: the Tolka’s flat catchment of 58 squares miles and a narrow drop of 460 feet in just under 20 miles, is a recipe for a long history of flooding of Dublin’s north side, with frequent calamitous costs: the deluge of November 2002 which Ahern braved up to his knees, resulted in E20 million spent on flood alleviation.

This is just one of many interesting asides in a newly revised edition of the late Clair L. Sweeney’s The Rivers of Dublin, a labour of love for the Dublin Corporation engineer who devoted most of his life to tracing and walking, above ground and under, the estimated 60 watercourses circumnavigating and penetrating the city.

As an engineer, the author had unparalleled access to tributaries, creeks, brooks and streams which thrived in isolation. As the city and its population expanded in the last century, they became hidden from view and were largely unknown to many, though not from the persistent explorations of Sweeney.

He wasn’t averse to getting his hands dirty or his feet wet in reconnoitring some of the network of 1,300 miles of sewers under Dublin, advanced in 1810 because the over flooding of rivers like the Poddle, used by the labouring poor of the Liberties, caused dysentery, typhoid and cholera. ‘Ten to sixteen people of all ages and both genders were in a room not 15 feet square, in filthy conditions, with thirty to fifty people to one house,’ writes Sweeney.

The Poddle was also known as the Sologh, meaning dirty, at a time when the putrefying effect of waterborne sewage of the Liffey was dreadful.

Hence the moniker, dirty old town.

Sweeney, raised in the Liffey Valley when Palmerstown was a village remote from the city centre, sought out tributaries incorporated into the claustrophobic subterranean channels and tunnels. Delving like Indiana Jones into murky depths, he made important discoveries, such as finding the site of St. Winifred’s Well, near the junction of Eustace and Essex Streets, lost since the Middle Ages.

Norman Maclean memorably concluded his famous fishing fable, A River Runs Through it, with an admission that he was ‘haunted by waters.’ So too was Sweeney. Though without Maclean’s poetic flair for description, he can be as evocative and perceptive with his industrious arsenal of words. In Sweeney’s company, it is a given that all running water, in its natural form and before it is spoiled by pollution, is beautiful.

Unlike Orpheus, he does succeed in bringing the dead to life from the underworld: he enters the stygian darkness under Kevin Street via a manhole, walks for three quarters of a mile through a maze of culverts, some as low as five feet, encountering history at every turn: he details the exact spot where Red Hugh O’Donnell escaped from prison in 1591.

Sweeney believed that the long history of Dublin, like many of the old capital cities of Europe – Paris, London, Rome – was best understood through its rivers, and because many were hidden from view, he was motivated to breathe life into these alternate maps of Dublin. Imagine filling an abstruse crossword by candlelight and without the aid of clues: this is Sweeney’s achievement, and each paragraph liberates another watercourse from the hibernation of neglect.

Consider his investigation into the Bradoge river: it has had many variants – Bradok, Le Rughdich, Glascoynock, St. Michael’s streams – with each rooted in the colonisation of Dublin: the stream Michan is rechristened Glasmacanog by the early Christian Norse after they are persuaded to move to Oxmanstown, north of the Liffey, by the Anglo Normans. This could be the beginning of the recorded history of a stretch of water whose descent eastwards from its humble source, a ‘cow-drink pond’, is as adventurous and as colourful as the boat in Rimbaud’s Le Bateau Ivre.

You can sense Sweeney’s excitement as the river, forever escaping the clutches of warring tribes and rerouting by monks, is both a witness to and a participant in the nascent city’s growth. He is the ideal chronicler of every nook and cranny lapped by the Bradoge which flows resiliently through the ages until it is, eventually and inevitably, tamed by the public drainage system.

Books about rivers are ten a penny, but I doubt if you will find one with a comparable plenitude of minutiae as Sweeney’s, who connects vital gobbets of folklore and enumerated facts to create layers of story and meaning.

Sweeney is both detective and pathologist, who segues what rivers and their etymology have in common, how form and meaning change over time.

This is his great gift and his legacy: The Rivers of Dublin not alone charts the history of these vital arteries into the city, but does so with scintillating storytelling and meticulous illustrations, excavating entire societies and resurrecting ancient conduits.

The five main rivers of the Ancient Greek myths were associated with death, but Sweeney’s myriad of arteries throughout Dublin, brim with life. The Dodder, he reminds us, down to the end of the 19th century, turned mill-wheels all along its course – corn mills, cloth mills, flour mills, tuck mills, saw mills, paper mills, iron mills, calico print factors – but were ‘erased and forgotten by the grandchildren of yesteryear’s generation.’

The history of Dublin is that of its rivers, but until the sheer passion and hard work of Sweeney, it was a history in danger of remaining underground.

Domenico Starnone

book cover



Translated by Jhumpa Lahiri 

What a pleasure, two fine writers for the price of one: a thirteenth novel from a contemporary Italian master of fiction, translated by a Pulitzer Prize winning short story maestro and novelist.

Ties has the physique of a novel attired as a novella, but irrespective of its length, the absence of mise-en-scenes and a cast list shorter than a one act play – husband, wife, two kids and a neighbour – its reach is epical.

The novel opens with an evidently distressed middle aged woman berating her husband and father of two children for succumbing to the charms of a much younger mistress. “You think of us as an illness that’s kept you from growing, and without us you hope to make up for it.”

But that is the past and the second part of this triptych opens with our couple much older, wiser and together: they are planning a rare vacation, which in itself becomes a catalyst for a random occurrence of events, or so it would seem.

Starnone is not big on description, and where Lahiri excels in her translation, because dialogue is brief, is replicating the tautness of each sentence, like a tight line in which angler and fish, author and reader, are engaged in an endless act of catch and release.

Often it is akin to looking hard at a Mark Rothko canvas, where nothing appears to be happening, but viscerally you sense the simple expression of a complex thought.

Not easy to conceive, but Starnone passes Lahiri the ball, and she runs with it. Their chemistry is at its most demonstrative in this memorable passage: “I savoured the fortune of being, for a good seventy-four years, a happy transmutation of the sidereal substance that roils in the furnace of the universe, a fragment of living thinking matter, without too many aches and pains to boot, and barely scathed, purely by chance, by misfortune.”

When Robert Lowell translated Giacomo Leopardi, his approach was to keep something of the fire and finish of the originals, whereas Tim Parks learned his trade translating sales brochures for banks.

Lahiri decided to distance herself from Italian, dismantling it and rendering it invisible, of intuiting the meaning of a text. Starnone can be Vivaldi one moment and Wagner the next, but in Lahiri’s dexterous grip the English is a swaying field of fecundity.










The Fan Brothers/Helen Hancocks


The Night Gardener


Ella, Queen of Jazz

The Night Gardener and Ella, Queen of Jazz are exquisite publications, tactilely embroidered for those who love the physical feel of a book : both in hardback and suffused with  poetic or realistic illustrations – especially the former – these are books unafraid to permeate image and plain text with metaphor and the consequence of behaviour for their younger readers.

The Night Gardener by siblings Terry and Eric from Chicago, conjures the infectious magic of Raymond Biggs’ The Snowman, though the illustrations, rendered in graphite and coloured digitally, are significantly more detailed, specifically the nocturnal scenes and the almost Edwardian urban setting.

On Grimloch Lane, a mysterious gardener, working by moonlight like a nature loving Banksy, is turning trees into animal topiaries – a rabbit, a cat, a parakeet, an owl – magnificent arboreal masterpieces, which prompt an outburst of celebration among the villagers.

The brothers Fan achieve a notable efflorescence of colour ironically once the seasons change, and autumn denudes the trees of their verdancy, but it is – for the reader – a lesson in the nature of ephemera.

Ella, Queen of Jazz, has a more serious story to relate in that the racism which threatens to derail Ella Fitzgerald’s burgeoning career in a West Hollywood night club, the Mocambo, is stymied by the intervention of Marilyn Monroe.

Hancocks’ illustrations,  crayon, watercolour, ink and pen, combined digitally, capture the ambience of a multi-cultural society on the cusp of huge change, and Fitzgerald’s story is recalled almost like a comic strip.

Published to coincide with the centenary of Fitzgerald’s birth, Hancocks addresses a serious issue which afflicted black musicians on the East and West Coasts when bebop was revolutionising jazz like Fitzgerald, Miles David, John Coltrane and, tragically, Billie Holliday, who was arrested and handcuffed to her hospital bed as she lay dying.

Ella, Queen of Jazz has an important story to tell, and Hancocks does it without excessive piety.

Andree A. Michaud





Move over Nordic noir, the Canadians are coming !

It is an understated fact that so often in modern crime fiction, with books by the bucket-load appearing fortnightly, that style is the accepted collateral of a plot as fluid as a rushing stream.

There are notable exceptions, Andree A. Michaud for one.

Michaud, multi-award winning author of ten novels, is not in a hurry, and her sentences turn into paragraphs pregnant with the shifting contours of mood.

And though the sun shines brightly over Boundary Pond, a holiday haven in the late 1960’s on the US Canadian Border, it is an illusion, for the tight knitted community is being stalked by a killer with a lust for the blood of teenage girls.

And whilst they lark about during the summer of love, belting out A Whiter Shade of Pale and Lucy in the Sky With Diamonds with flowers and whatnot in their hair, a more appropriate soundtrack for Michaud’s turf is The End by The Doors.

For in Boundary Pond there is a killer on the road, and he lurks in the woods, which offers both refuge and sustenance. You can live off what the woods has to offer, but only those on the margins of Boundary choose to.

Like Pierre Landry, or war veteran Little Hawk, who survived the bloody Omaha Beach landing, and at some time or another were cloistered by the embrace of the wild.

Meanwhile, Michaud’s protagonists are not whisky-swilling loners bent over crosswords in a back street dive, listening to Wagner or Stan Getz, or sleepwalking out of another marriage. Stan Michaud, in charge of the police investigation, is determined ‘to knock on every door and to grill every last halfwit in Boundary’, for he has an acute grasp of the perils which young women expose themselves to.

Despite the obstacles –bilingualism, hostile terrain – what motivates him is a personal sense of duty to get to the bottom of the unpremeditated murder of Zaza Mulligan, by someone whose skill set includes trekking and setting traps.

And then Zaza’s best friend disappears: the randomness of the teenager’s brutal murder now acquires a more purposeful bent.

Murder and abduction aside, nothing much happens in this place, bordered by a lake and mountains, but Michaud’s prose excels in the vacuum of the ordinary, excels in the minutiae of the commonplace, where violence is a geyser in waiting.

Anuk Arudpragasam




The Story of a Brief Marriage

Anuk Arudpragasam


This is Arudpragasam’s first novel, but he writes with the composure and the confidence of a veteran, whose sentences shed the skin of what has unfurled previously, as a new stream replenishing itself across an otherwise barren plateau.

The book’s title, once Dinesh and Ganga extrapolate themselves – however briefly – from the front line separating the Tamil Tigers and the Sri Lankan army, and two become one after they are married, liberates Arudpragasam from the obligation to formulate a surprising denouement.

In other words, we are expected to assume that either or both are doomed: it has been written.

The horror of war, as graphic as any Pat Barker scene mired in the trenches of Flanders, is served up by Arudpragasam without histrionics or theatrical embellishment, but from the opening description of torn limbs and shredded bodies, living and dead, we unmistakeably descend into one of Dante’s circles of the pits of hell.

The prose which blossoms from this dungheap of catastrophe makes Arudpragasam’s achievement all the more remarkable, for each sentence snares our imagination and we cannot escape, emotionally or philosophically, from what Dinesh sees and hears.

Arudpragasam is a young man, so on a personal level, The Story of a Brief Marriage doesn’t draw on his own experience, but is a work of research and imagination: unlike The Divine Comedy, it is not intended as an allegory, and the prose, when served as reportage, is searing.

‘Most children have two whole legs and two whole arms but this little six-year-old that Dinesh was carrying had already lost one leg, the right one from the lower thigh down, and was now about to lose his right arm,’ is the first line of the novel, and the tone and pace is fastened.

We are plunged into the heart of a war zone, where the innocent are encircled by the omnipresent menace of death from the air, and the only way Arudpragasam can leaven the horror is to have the bombing ebb and flow.

And in this sabbatical Dinesh accedes to the request of a man, mourning the death of his wife and child, to marry his daughter in the hope that the victorious soldiers will be disinclined to rape a married woman.

The tenderness which Arudpragasam unearths in the most trying of circumstances is not spolied by a cloying indulgence, and he captures beautifully the amorphous lightness of Dinesh’s uncertain and awkward effort to become a husband.

But love is the weakest force in this environment and is no match for the long reach of internecine war. ‘But if they couldn’t talk about their pasts, what could they say to each other at all, given that there was no future for hem o speak of either?’ writes Arudpragasam, not yet  a quarter way through the book.

Deaths of the Poets


By Paul Farley & Michael Symmons Roberts


If, as Farley and Roberts suggest –  based on research by an American academic – that being a published poet is more dangerous than being a deep sea diver, then the premise of this book is self evident: not alone should poets be uninsurable, but their company should be avoided at all costs.

However, while each page bears the colophon of a death’s head, and Farley and Roberts risk being literary pall bearers for the well known tragic poets – John Berryman, Sylvia Plath, Anne Sexton – and the less well known – the murdered John Riley and the reclusive Rosemary Tonk, the successful poet today has never had it so good.

Grants, Nobel Prizes, bursaries, Presidencies have gradually removed poets from the paucity of the garret and from living hand to mouth: indeed the last infamous suicide in the highly enjoyable Deaths of the Poets – a clearly certifiable Berryman from a Minneapolis bridge – occurred when both authors were mere chaps and studying Wordsworth at school.

With the exception of the Great War poets, and the authors had any amount to choose from (Rupert Brooke, Francis Ledwidge are not included), their exhaustive research is less cemetery rambling and more digging through copious files and correspondence and visiting places immortalised less by the poet’s final words than by their deeds: Dylan Thomas’s alleged eighteen straight whiskeys at the White Horse Inn, or Anne Sexton’s death in her garage. Farley and Roberts should be commended for knowing the difference between snooping and enlightenment and when they feel they are trespassing (inspecting unpublished notes by Thom Gunn) they back off.

Though death is the big line break, the authors are not obsessed with the more often than not abrupt caesura which shuffles off the mortal coil whether a poet is in their stride (Plath and Thomas) or not, William Carlos Williams and Marianne Moore.

Both authors are award winning poets and – thankfully – it shows with lucid expositions about the individual behind the poet, such as a brilliant investigate foray into the last days of Keith Douglas, killed in Normandy a short time after the D Day landings, or Byron in Greece, for many the definitive iconic image of the tragic poet, although he certainly had a good time whilst becoming a legend.

Familiarity with contemporary poetry writing in English eases one’s passage through this most enjoyable tome, and even a nodding acquaintance with Cal Lowell and his contemporaries, including Berryman and Elizabeth Bishop, or, closer to home, Ted Hughes and Seamus Heaney, helps distil the purity from the precis-like quality of the analysis

Winter: An anthology for the changing seasons



Commissioned to be selective and chose writers new and old for an anthology celebrating the season of winter in poetry and prose, Melissa Harrison didn’t take any short cuts by opting for the familiar – Ted Hughes, Seamus Heaney, J.A. Baker – but instead created her own Rattle Bag of contributions, which makes this volume compelling reading for anyone who may feel they have read enough about winter.

What is original about this collection is not just the diversity of relatively unknown talent on show, but the quality of the work, even if the editor’s preference is for prose over poetry

There are familiar faces – Roger Deakin, John Fowles, Robert Macfarlane – though I was surprised by the omission of two contemporary chroniclers of what it means to live with and endure the split personality of winter on a day to day basis: James Rebanks, whose The Shepherd’s Life is evocative of an existence, fast disappearing, on the periphery, and Philip Marsden’s Rising Ground, a chronology of Britain’s attitude to place.

This is just one of – naturally – four anthologies, so perhaps they surface elsewhere, but I was delighted to experience new voices, and not all of them of our time, even if they are timeless. Wilhelm Nero Pilate Barbellion wrote The Diary of a Disappointed Man, his reflections on nature and the brevity of life, and the brief excerpt here captures the illuminative features of his style: ‘An Elm lopped close showing white stumps which glistened liquidly in the sun.’

The Manchester-born Anita Sethi reflects on the segueing of the self and her garden by the drawn out and patient process of cultivation. ‘The sound bubbles up as if from deep within, deep within the core of the earth, as if this tunnelling through the earth was bringing out new depths in our own selves.’

Irish readers will have been weaned on the peerless final passage of The Dead, so memorably narrated by Donal McCann in the John Houston film adaptation, but reading it again it is a wonder to behold James Joyce outdoing Yeats on his turf: ‘His soul swooned slowly as he heard the snow falling faintly through the universe and faintly falling, like the descent of their last end, upon all the living and the dead.’

Childhood and winter scenes of white landscapes seem handcuffed to our memory, and the magic and innocence and playfulness I experienced long ago in A Child’s Christmas in Wales is omnipresent in Brian Carter’s passage from Mountains of the Mind, where ‘a coppery glow lit the sky just above the sea and the sound of heavy surf carried inland to magnify the sense of isolation.’

Perhaps of all the seasons, and writers in our neck of the woods are fortunate to have four, winter is the gift which keeps giving, and never more so among each new wave of poets, crystallized by the five stanza poem by Kristian Evans from Wales.

‘When the tongue melts the thistle

in the berry’s mouth like hail,

and the fractal folds its kisses

in a locket’s lost portrait.’

Peter Bazalgette


The Empathy Instinct


Empathy, easily definable without spelling it out, is like an emotional dopamine, especially in Ireland, where we are quick to react to a stranger’s plight – such as the corpse of a Syrian toddler washed up, face down, on a beach. And, like dopamine, empathy can have a short shelf life: closing our border to the thousands of Syrian refugees who undoubtedly would prefer our green pastures than the hell of Aleppo.

Empathy, writes Peter Bazalgette, who helped devise some of the biggest entertainment shows in recent British television history – Big Brother and Ready Steady Cook – is quite simply the inclination to understand others. ‘The ability to connect with and share another’s feelings.’ Empathy, it would seem, is the catalyst which enables us to act compassionately.

We take pride in an Irish naval’s rescue mission off the coasts of Italy and Africa because we empathise and sympathise with the refugees on overloaded boats, but not sufficiently to put a roof over their heads. So, quite frankly, empathy isn’t enough. It isn’t even a solution, but it is a start.

From birth we are susceptible to emotional contagion – a baby will cry at the sound of another’s wailing – but ultimately the capacity to empathise whilst growing is affected by toxic stress – emotional abuse – or an internal pot of gold– healthy emotional development.

Visiting a hospital recently, I was struck by three pregnant patients, in slippers and dressing gowns, puffing furiously on cigarettes, oblivious to the no smoking sign and indifferent to the damage to their babies. Is it stupidity or an absence of empathy? Where is their internal pot of gold for the as yet unborn?

Bazalgette’s book, naturally leaden with the research of others, including the omnipresent Simon Baron-Cohen, is insightful on digital dystopia: one in five children in Britain under the age of eleven has a Facebook account. Digital narcissism, writes Bazalgette, is all about the individual and what they are experiencing, regardless of how it affects the feelings of others.

Research predicts that the most digitally connected – one in five of teenagers in South Korea use their smart phone seven hours a day – will suffer digital dementia: the right side of the rain remains underdeveloped, leading to a diminution in cognitive abilities.

The antidote, believe it or not, is reading: poetry, novels, the telephone directory, The Echo, The Bush Telegraph, whatever: a chapter a day keeps the doctor away. ‘The empathy instinct is an idea whose time has come,’ believes Bazalgette. ‘It could be the most valuable resource in the world.’ Thus, in the final chapter, he mounts a passionate defence of arts (and popular culture) as a means of bridging the widening empathy gap.

Demonstrative of art’s capacity as an agent of change for good is the most articulate and impressive sentence in the book, by a poet almost 200 years dead, Shelley: ‘The great instrument of the moral good is the imagination, and poetry administers to the effect by acting upon the cause.’

In 2016, Waterstones experienced a doubling in profits in Ireland. Literature is back in fashion. Maybe the times are a changing.

Kenneth Clark Life, Art and Civilisation



James Stourton’s observation, quite early on in this hefty tome, that his subject’s autobiography opens with one of the most memorable sentences in English (‘My parents belonged to a section of society known as the idle rich, and although, in that golden age, many people were richer, there can have been few who were idler.’) is in danger of leaving his reader avidly hungry for more of the same.

Stourton doesn’t disappoint, and one of the many pleasures of this illuminative and frankly enjoyable biography of a man who made it his mission to bring high art to the masses – he revolutionised how exhibits were curated in the National Gallery in London and later reached a global audience of untold millions with the first genuine television documentary series, Civilisation – is the skill Clarke deployed as a critic and historian. Throughout his life, whether in his autobiography, his publications, his television scripts or his copious correspondence, Clarke was incapable of writing a dull sentence, and it is uncanny that this gene passed to his eldest son, the MP, Alan, whose fame as a diarist whilst a member of Margaret Thatcher’s government briefly eclipsed that of his father in Britain.

As an interesting aside, Alan’s observations of his parents in his three volumes of celebrated diaries could be spiteful, and nor did Clark senior come to life in Ion Trewin’s biography of Alan: Stourton’s book is both timely and welcome because it readdresses the imbalance. Observers of both Clarks, however, will wonder why Alan felt the need to look for father figures so early in his career as a writer and politician (Hugh Trevor Roper, Enoch Powell) when he would have had daily access to the most famous art historian of his day.

But Kenneth Clark, a tenacious supporter throughout his life of artists from all backgrounds, keeps his distance from his growing brood. ‘Family history has very little charm for me,’ he wrote.

An only child, Clark had little in common with his parents – a psychologist’s dream, noted David Knowles – and his three children. Nor did his wife, Jane, (who was Irish, but Stourton dismisses her background), who grew to tolerate her absent husband’s affairs with dalliances of her own, a woman temperamentally unsuited for motherhood, whose milk of human kindness was alas no match for her alcoholism.

Stourton, thankfully, is much more interested in Clark the art historian than Clark the Byronic lover of women, of whom he had many on the go at the same time, some achievement considering the many demands on his time. Yet Clark always seemed to behave as a gentleman, and not the bullying misanthrope his son could often be. And yet, what segues both, are brains to burn and prosaists of the highest order.

Once you disentangle yourself from the chilling sangfroid of family life, especially after the Blitz, there is much to admire about Clark the art historian and Clark the great benefactor: though the scion of a wealthy family, Clare could be forgiven for becoming a lazy snob, but was anything but. He knew what he liked in art – the High Renaissance – but this did not blind him to green shoots in contemporary art – he was an early and lifelong supporter of Henry Moore and Sidney Nolan – and though he made enemies when he was appointed the youngest ever Director of the National Gallery, he didn’t bear grudges.

Criticism can often blind us to the beauty and magnificence of an objet d’art, but not with Kenneth Clark. He was forever his own man: though weaned on Ruskin and apprenticed to Bernard Berenson, it was never likely that one so precocious and gifted as he would be eclipsed by a polemical sage. He had confidence in the plenteousness of his prose to see, like Blake, a world in a grain of sand. And that is his legacy: a prescient critic. In Paris, Clark gifted Picasso a book on Henry Moore, and noted: ‘He sat for the rest of the meal, turning the pages like an old monkey that had got hold of a tin he can’t open.’ Wonderful.