Friday, 19 August 2011

Lead by example?


In the fallout of the civil disturbances in England, David Cameron spoke of problems he felt contributed. He spoke of the lazy culture of youth that took what they wanted without regard. He was right in that but I don’t agree that the blame can just be laid at the doors of their parents.

I am a parent who has spent years trying to instil a sense of right and wrong in my children. In that, I have found myself working against the influences outside of the family. In the wider world, those who took what they wanted, without regard, are considered the winners and are celebrated as that.

How they achieved this was not that point as ‘winning is the only thing.’

We live in a world where we preach hypocrisy to our children. We tell them to be honest even as we are not. We teach them that compassion is important while we selfishly pursue our interests over others. We tell them to play nice together while we are in contention with everyone one around us. It is a classic case of do-as-I-say . . .

In England, like many other places, the allegations of phone tapping have striped the covers off what many have known for years. Politicians are far too cosy with large business interests, police forces can be bought and the media – the fifth estate – is now the mouth piece of corporate interest.

We cannot blame politicians because we, as voters, encourage and reward populism over integrity. We define our political taste through our emotions rather than a logic that would look at the longer term. We get the politicians we deserve.

We cannot blame the police because, just like the rest of us, they can be induced. They are, after all, public servants living on salaries that they feel do not compensate for the risks they take. Certainly when compared to professional athletes or corporate executives they could feel under paid.

So who can we blame?

I think we are all to blame! We are all so busy in our lives – putting bread on the table, big screen TV’s in the den, new cars on the driveway, new cell phones for the kids . . . The list is endless so it is no wonder we are all too busy minding our own business to have time to deal with the real business – our civilization is being eroded and soon there may be nothing left.

Riots of angry have-nots are not new and are usually a symptom of the disparity in society. Unattended, the underlying problems have led to revolutions and the overthrow of regimes. Sometimes that has improved the human condition and sometimes it has been disastrous.

England was in turmoil in the 1970’s and the solution to that was Thatcherism. Born out of a sense of solid work ethic, the concept was that effort and endeavour won reward. And even if the rewards went to those on the top of the pile the rest of us would benefit from a trickle down. It didn’t really work out that way and quickly morphed in a cheap money trick. For many years we were sated with convictions of our growing worth even though our real incomes were falling. We were all encouraged to get on the property ladder in that ‘all boats would rise on the same tide.’ It worked well until the crash! Then, it all felt like a worldwide pyramid scheme – which, when you think about it is a perfect explanation for Capitalism!

Back in the 1970’s, Socialism was not the dirty word it has since become. It has been ridiculed in favour of the free-market jobs and prosperity myth that has allowed Capitalism to flourish despite failure after failure. In 2008 we Socialised Corporate debt and now we criticise Governments for that, and other accumulated debt. We all went along with this because we had no other choice. We couldn’t let the whole thing collapse because that might have hurt our own interests. We are slaves in golden handcuffs.

So, maybe David Cameron, and all who agree with him, should stop and look at their own part in this. We all must because, actively or passively, we have created this mess. We are all to blame.

We cannot ignore the fact that we cannot have Civilization without civility – something that modern Capitalism discourages. We cannot spend all of our time competing against each other by means fair and foul and then complain when the marginalised stake their claim. Greed is good, we have been told and many of the champions of that have succeeded by questionable and shady methods. Should these not be decried too?

This is still our world and we make it the way we want it to be. If we want a better one we should lead by example because someone needs to lead us away from where we are going.

Monday, 15 August 2011

People always talk about books changing us. Could we actually measure that?

In the competitive world of book publishing, when the going gets tough, the tough get creative. In recent years that’s mostly meant investing in digital projects like e-books and apps. But one group of researchers suggests publishers might find great new innovation in an unexpected discipline: the psychology of fiction.

Keith Oatley, professor emeritus in the Department of Human Development and Applied Psychology at the University of Toronto and a leading expert in the field, says that for far too long, scientists have “sneered” at fiction and its effects on the human psyche.

“Psychologists like methods where they can very carefully justify the conclusions that are drawn because the methods they use are statistically sophisticated and reliable, so that anybody else who would go through the same procedures would find the same results,” he explains. It was through his research on emotions and his own creative writing that Oatley, author of the novels The Case of Emily V. (Secker & Warburg, 1993), A Natural History (Penguin Canada, 1998), and Therefore Choose (Goose Lane Editions, 2010), began exploring the possibilities of scientifically studying fiction.

“People always talk about books changing us. Could we actually measure that?” he says.

As a grad student at U of T, Raymond Mar, now an assistant professor of psychology at York University and associate editor of Scientific Study of Literature, worked with Oatley on doing just that. Mar sums up the central assumption Oatley developed to frame their research: “When people are reading literary fiction, they’re creating in their mind a simulation of experience. It’s a simulation that’s cognitive as well as emotional, and has all these different components.”

From there, Mar says, it wasn’t much of a stretch to wonder: if we’re engaging in these various social interactions through fiction, might it be the case that those who read a lot of fiction are developing better social skills than those who don’t?

To test this hypothesis, Oatley and his colleagues developed experiments to measure empathy, and examine what Oatley calls the “big five personality traits” – extroversion, emotional stability, openness to experience, agreeableness, and conscientiousness. In one such experiment, the researchers randomly assigned readers one of two versions of Anton Chekhov’s short story “The Lady With the Little Dog”– a translation of the original and another comprising only basic plot points. Beforehand, researchers measured the readers’ personality traits and their emotions at the time of the experiment.

“We found the people who read the [whole] story changed a bit in their personality,” Oatley says. “What we found interesting was that they all changed in somewhat different ways.”

The observations of the researchers are significant because they differ from the psychology of persuasion, which assumes that media affects everyone in the same way. “In literary art, what you’re asking people is, ‘Alright, how does this affect you? How do you feel about this? How do you think about it?’”

Soon after starting their research, Oatley and Mar began meeting regularly with a few other psychology researchers as a creative writing group. By 2007, Oatley, Mar, Maja Djikic, and Rebecca Wells Jopling at U of T, and Kirsten Valentine Cadieux at the University of Minnesota, founded On Fiction, a blog dedicated to promoting the latest research in the field.

To Oatley, the website and the research it promotes is valuable to people interested in publishing and creative writing because, at its heart, it introduces the psychological study of creativity, which, he says, is “absolutely central” to all aspects of the industry. And if unlocking the secrets behind the creative process isn’t incentive enough, Mar says their work also provides ammunition in the fight against cuts to public funding of literary arts and libraries.

“It helps provide quantitative, empirical, scientific evidence for a lot of the benefits of reading,” he says. “For a long time we’ve been talking about the benefits of reading with respect to vocabulary, literacy, and these such things. We’re now beginning to see that there’s a much broader impact.”

Monday, 8 August 2011

When Jemser, Nodser and Aidan met Maurice and Gwen!

“I was hangin’ out with a few of the lads one night. We’d a few flagons an’ were just horsin’ around when one of the lads, accidently, put a brick through a shop window. He didn’t mean it – we were playin’ toss-the-brick an’ Jemser threw it at Nodser but the stupid bastard let it fly right past him an’ through a window. We were goin’ to run when Jemser pointed out that if we left; some thievin’ bastards might come by an’ steal stuff. So we decide to take all the good stuff an’ bring it home for safe keepin’. Just as we were doin’ this an old fella an’ his daughter walked by on their way to their car. He looked like one of those country squires – he had a tweed jacket an’ a tweed hat but his daughter was a bit of alright, if ya know what I mean!

“Anyway, we were just waiting for them to leave when he came back with a shotgun an’ started threatenin’ us. I wanted to try to lighten the mood a bit so I dropped my pants but the bastard shot me in the arse – the bollocks filled my butt with buckshot.

“But the woman, who turned out to be his wife, came over an’ held me in her arms an’ she smelled wicked, if ya know what I mean! She suggested that I go home with them an’ she would look after me until I got better. I wasn’t goin’ to argue with that, after all, everyone would believe them anyway. “That’s how I first met them. Later on he shot me again but that’s another story!”

An excerpt from a recent interview with Douglas R. Cobb

Curl up with a good book!

Ireland has produced more than its fair share of talented authors and poets: James Joyce, Patrick Kavanaugh, Austin Clarke, Brendan Behan, William Butler Yeats, and many more. With his stunning debut novel, Lagan Love , Peter Murphy is well on his way to adding his name to that impressive list. Named after an Irish song, Lagan Love is an atmospheric tour de force set during the Celtic Twilight in mid-1980s Ireland. This romance with supernatural overtones evokes the pagan beliefs that still thrive in Ireland, despite the best efforts of the Vikings, the English, and the Catholic Church to drive them out like Saint Patrick did with the snakes.

Aidan Greeley is Ireland’s rising poet, and he leads Janice, a promising young painter from Toronto, through the veil of the Celtic Twilight into the world of Irish folktales and myths. What they find on the other side threatens to destroy them both. Fame comes at a very high price. Is Aidan willing to sacrifice his shot at fame and glory for his love of Janice, or will he end up sacrificing Janice? Will Janice’s friend Sinead be able to save her before it’s too late? And is Gwen Fitzwilliam, the wife of the wealthy Maurice, merely Aidan’s patron and lover or something much darker - a creature out of Ireland’s myth and lore, a leanan sidhe, or lenanshee, a fairy spirit who inspires lovers to ever-greater creative heights, but at a price. Will the price be Janice’s love and soul?

The main characters first meet at smoke-filled Grogan’s pub. One reviewer has compared it to the bar Cheers from the television show (“where everyone knows your name”), but that seems a rather simplistic analogy. The pub serves the town’s rough-hewn workers, farmers, and lost university students, a place where you can raise a pint to toast a friend or get roaring drunk to forget your problems, at least for a night. Here Aidan meets Sinead and begins an affair with her, and here he does the same with Janice, with whom he falls in love and starts to think may be his one true love.

Murphy draws on Ireland’s rich history, tangled web of politics, culture, literary giants, myths, and legends to weave a wondrous tapestry of a novel. Aidan’s insights, his teaching Janice about the struggles and hardships that Ireland has had to go through to make it the country it is when he meets her, and Murphy’s introspective and very quotable observations about the human psyche make Lagan Love much more than a run-of-the-mill love story.

The author tells the novel from the many and varied points of view of its characters, even allowing us glimpses into the insatiable desires of Gwen. An impressive feat, that such a range of emotion and characterization could be achieved by a first-time novelist. The reader sees what is going on through the eyes of whichever character is on center stage at any given time. It’s sometimes difficult for a male author to write from a believable point of view of a female character like Sinead, Janice, and Gwen, but Murphy does a masterful job, making them come alive for his readers.

Lagan Love takes the traditional love story and ramps it up several notches, with a supernatural twist that makes it an instant classic. I would highly recommend Lagan Love to anyone who loves supernatural romances, urban fantasies, and great literature in general. I can’t wait to read what Peter Murphy writes next. If it’s anywhere near as good as Lagan Love , it will be well worth the wait.

Originally published on Curled Up With A Good Book at © Douglas R. Cobb, 2011

They fed us in the famine.

Many of the Lagan Love’s characters opinions, particularly those of Aidan, are simply the re-voicing of things that I heard growing up in Dublin and do not necessarily reflect my own beliefs. It is, after all, a work of fiction and as such, an effort to capture the echo of the voices of the Dublin I grew up in.

That said, some of these opinions, much like what we often believe to be true by virtue of widespread belief, are inaccurate in the true historic sense. Aidan, like so many people, expresses opinions to suit his purpose. Early in the story, while sitting in Bewley’s with Sinead, Aidan asks: “Quakers? Weren't they the fuckers who gave soup to anyone who gave up the Old Religion during the famine? They think we'd sell our souls for a bowl of soup.”

That comment caught the eye of Eamonn O’Loghlin, a decent honest man with a passion for accuracy and fairness, who sent me the following:


Just started reading “Lagan Love” and enjoying it very much. That being said, I note the less than complimentary comment on the top of Page 13 about the Quakers and Souperism during the Famine.

Understanding that “Lagan Love” is a fictional novel and the opinions are obviously of the characters in the book, I thought I would take this opportunity to set the record straight about the Quakers lest any of your readers came away with the wrong information.

During the darkest days of Irish history - the Great Famine, the Quakers, also known as The Society of Friends, saved the lives of thousands of our people by feeding them and not asking or demanding anything in return.

The facts are that the Quakers never practiced Souperism and I fear these words have caused them a great disservice.

For those not familiar with the term, Souperism was a phenomenon of the Irish Potato Famine. Non-Roman Catholic Bible societies set up schools in which starving children were fed, and were subjected to religious instruction at the same time. Its practitioners were reviled by the Catholic families who had to choose between their faith and starvation. People who converted for food were known as soupers, a derogatory epithet that continued to be applied and featured in the press well into the 1870s. In the words of their peers: they "took the soup".

Not all non-Catholics made being subject to proselytization a condition of food aid. Several Anglicans, including the Anglican Archbishop of Dublin, Richard Whately, decried the practice; many Anglicans set up soup kitchens that did no proselytizing; and the Quakers, whose soup kitchens were concerned solely with charitable work, were never associated with the practice (which causes them to be held in high regard in Ireland even today, with many Irish remembering the Quakers with the remark "They fed us in the famine.”

For the record.

Eamonn O'Loghlin
Editor & Publisher : Irish Connections Canada - A Voice for the Irish in Canada
Host : Reel Irish Radio - 1430AM Saturdays 11 - 12 noon
Executive Director : Ireland Canada Chamber of Commerce

Thursday, 4 August 2011

Lagan Love by Peter Murphy...Review & Giveaway!

I just finished up what I think is a wonderful beach (or lake or porch or couch!) read....Lagan Love by Peter Murphy.  Here is the scoop...

I really got swept up into this story.  I do have to mention that it took me a chapter or two to find my "groove"with the author's style.  He is very descriptive and this is definitely NOT a bad thing and actually added to the story but it took me a bit to get into it.  There is also some profanity in the book.  It is not done in a very vulgar way and is appropriate in how you would imagine the characters to speak but it is there.  The story line was complex and interesting and a real study in relationships.  I really enjoyed the story of Janice, Aidan and Gwen but I found it so interesting how Murphy wove Irish myths in as well.  Very well done and it made for great reading.  Once I got into the swing of the book I could not put it down! This one gets a thumbs up from me and can be found on Amazon...

Tuesday, 2 August 2011

Lenanshee Shenanigans

Lenanshee Shenanigans
by Noreen O’Rinn

Ireland is a land replete with tales of the supernatural. It is a place where the Banshee’s cry can be heard on the crest of the wind; it is a place where fairy rings are respected and left untouched; it is a place where the wee folk troop around the countryside. Most of all, it is a place where the uncanny resides in the Irish psyche despite its professed Catholicism. The romance of Irish mysticism is as intoxicating as its Poitin, and has enthralled listeners and readers for centuries.

Peter Murphy plays with this mysticism in his debut novel Lagan Love, which takes its title from My Lagan Love a traditional Irish song that dates back to the 15th century. The song is an erotic and haunting melody and has been performed in recent years by many artists including Sinead O’Connor and The Corrs. Like the song, Lagan Love is also a beguiling tale of seduction and desire.  

The story begins in the1980’s, just as the rising Irish economy is giving birth to the Celtic Tiger.  Janice, a young Canadian from Toronto, has come to study at Trinity College, Dublin. She is homesick and lonely, and has only managed to make one friend, the levelheaded Sinead. Janice lives a rather timid existence on the edge of campus life, but harbours dreams of becoming an artist. Then, she meets Aidan, a working class poet with all the rough diamond charm of Colin Farrell.  He is a rising star and the toast of the Dublin literary scene. Janice is smitten and thinks: “Perhaps, when the time was right, they could become more.”

Janice and Aidan spend a lot of time at Grogan’s pub, where their relationship deepens in a haze of alcohol and superstitions. Grogan’s is both a bustle of gaiety and a refuge from loneliness, where “reality and myth mingles.” This is where friends sharpen their wits in slagging matches and old timers like Gerry have a story to tell for the price of a pint and an ability to predict the future with eerie precision. Not only does the bartender know your name, he can anticipate your needs before you have time to voice them. Grogan’s offers hospitality and Janice settles right in, adopting Aidan’s friends and becoming one of the regulars.

Ah, the path of love is never smooth, as Janice is about to learn.  Aidan encourages her to follow her artistic dreams, and assures Janice that he knows all the right people. His benefactor come literary agent, Gwen, is well connected in both Ireland and England. There is a snag: Aidan and Gwen are lovers. He has to find a way to tell Janice about their relationship, but more importantly he has to find a way to free himself from Gwen’s grasp without upsetting their professional relationship. What really complicates matters is that Aidan believes that Gwen is a Lenanshee. A mystic Celtic figure, a Lenanshee is a fairy lover, and a muse who can bestow and enhance creative powers, but, as with everything in life, she comes with a price.

Gwen is an attractive woman, cultured and sleek. Her marriage to Maurice is a perfect arrangement that allows them to maintain a high profile in the art world while leading totally separate sex lives. Gwen is in control of her life and likes to have control over her prodigy’s career and private life. Soon, she had Janice under her spell with the promise of an art exhibit and a glittering career. Gwen certainly has the power to make or break an artist, but does that make her a Lenanshee? Like Henry James’ The Turn of the Screw, Lagan Love masterfully keeps the reader guessing. Does Gwen possess supernatural powers or are Aidan and Janice psychologically unhinged? There is no definitive answer. Instead, Murphy leaves it is up to the reader to decide.

 Like the clouds that float above Ireland, casting a series of light and shadow, Murphy’s tale touches on poverty and the effects of prosperity, on faith and on a church that has betrayed its flock, on crudity and the necessity for civility, and on art and its fragility in the hands of artifice.

If Lagan Love is a love song, it is a love song to pagan Ireland, where the wee folk still haunt the airy mountains and rushy glens. It is the perfect book for midsummer nights’ reading.

Peter Murphy was raised in Dublin and now resides in Toronto.

Reproduced with permission from Irish Connections Canada, Summer 2011 edition.