Gotham Diary:
A Visit from the Bishop
February 2016 (IV)

Monday 22nd

In this weekend’s Book Review, two of the books that have interested me lately are reviewed. David Denby, who has not, I think, worked at the Times, gets half a page, a rather desultory and obscurely competitive review by Dale Russakoff. “Denby argues eloquently for ‘the character-forming experience of reading difficult books’.” But Russakoff isn’t sure that Denby gets past that bromide. (I’m not quite sure, either.) What Denby does demonstrate — and here I agree more whole-heartedly with Russakoff — is “the irreplaceable role of great flesh-and-blood teachers who unlock knowledge day and day out for students who otherwise wouldn’t have access to it.” It was Denby’s account of the teachers that made Lit Up a breathtaking read for me. Their heroism faces down new monsters. Violence in schools is no longer much of a problem, it seems; nor are hostile administrators, at least in the classrooms that Denby visits. The enemy is the students’ immersion in a digital world that makes it almost impossible for news of a less banal way of life to find a point of entry.

A O Scott, the newspaper’s chief film critic, gets a full-page review, written by Daniel Mendelsohn, no less. Author and reviewer alike are astute critics of things ancient and modern, but Mendelsohn’s treatment is more rigorous, both as to analysis and explanation. Scott has a weakness for the new slang — for what Mendelsohn calls “a flippant, ‘popular professor’ tone.” Indeed, there were few moments in Better Living Through Criticism that made me slow down, much less stop to think what Scott might be getting at. Which is always a cause of wonder when Kant is the subject of discussion.

But then, Scott doesn’t actually “discuss Kant.” He dismisses him, after a respectable summary of the subjective universal, as no longer congenial. This is valid; I share Scott’s suspicion that neither philosophy nor neurobiology has a lot to tell us about the pleasures of art. But there is a polite flaccidity in the way Scott courses through the matters that he raises in his second chapter, “The Eye of the Beholder.” From Kant he goes to Maria Abramović, whose show at the MoMA attracted thousands. Then he moves on to Rilke’s engagement with the Archaic torso, and Larkin’s “Reasons for Attendance.” What he says is certainly intelligent, but it is not half, not a quarter, of what might be said. Nothing is really unpacked. Abramović’s allure — she sits still while sharing a mutual gaze with a line of visitors who take turns sitting opposite her — is likened to that of the Mona Lisa: “That enigmatic, long-dead lady in the Louvre is looking, and smiling, at me.” I’m afraid that I don’t consider that a very interesting or, in the best sense of the word, sophisticated response to da Vinci’s painting, but then, it’s no great favorite of mine.

On Rilke’s response to the Archaic torso — an extraordinary critical act, a beautiful sonnet into which everything is crammed: praise of the ruined statue, longing for the imagined mental/spiritual peace that is swept away by self-consciousness, the tension between the wild and the erotic, on the one hand, and the poised and transcendent, on the other — candidly betrays Scott’s excitement, the measure of which can be taken by his lament that, in today’s crowded galleries, it has become almost impossible to commune with masterpieces. Scott captures the interplay of critical perspectives that would make reading Rilke in front of the torso so thrilling, but he holds back from repeating the point of his first chapter, which is that criticism is the “late-born twin” of art. To say so in the context of Rilke’s sonnet would set an impossibly high standard for critics. It would also solve the problem of George Steiner’s thought experiment in Real Presences, by replacing comment on art with comment that is art. Nor does he recur to the example of Manet, at the end of the first chapter, as a critic of Titian and Velázquez. His own career as a writer of shortish pieces about movies would look almost shabby in comparison.

I was happy to see that Daniel Mendelsohn shared my view that Scott’s calling upon critics to be wrong is wrong.

But those errors of individual taste … are hardly proof that the critic’s job is to be “wrong.” The critic’s job is to be more educated, articulate, stylish and tasteful — in a word, worthy of trust — than her readers have the time or inclination to be; qualities eminently suited to a practice that (as Scott rightly if too glancingly points out) has validity and value only if it is conducted in public.

Ah, but what is “taste”? I have pondered this question viscerally ever since I heard Keith Jarrett’s recording of eight of Handel’s keyboard suites. For some reason, what I heard most clearly in his performances, far beyond his technical proficiency, was the display of good taste, something that I knew to be very important to Handel and his listeners, even if they never did a very good job of talking about it in terms that weren’t egregiously snobbish. (Taste was what highly-bred but worldly aristocrats liked.) What is taste? So far, I’ve tentatively concluded that it is actually a combination of Mendelsohn’s three other qualities: education, articulation, and style. At any given moment, one generally-shared vanishing point of taste — a particular blend or balance of the three attributes; I quite strenuously wish to avoid calling it an “ideal” — is coming into view, while an older one is slowly fading away. Education is simply exposure, serious, engaged exposure, the more of it the better, on the part of both artist and critic. (This is why the young ought to stick to criticizing the new.) Articulation is phrasing, modulation, emphasis. Listening to an old recording of Rudolf Serkin and the Philadelphia Orchestra playing Brahms’s second piano concerto yesterday, I was struck by the difference between Serkin’s articulation of the music and what you would hear from the best players today. You might not like Serkin’s way with Brahms, but it is, if I may be indulged, a fully articulate articulation, coherent and consistent. Nobody is wrong about taste, and there is really no such thing as bad taste. (Only the lack of taste — although I suppose it might be useful to speak of uncertain taste, in which the balance is off.)  Style, finally, is the deviance that points toward future possibilities of taste. New generations develop different blends of education, articulation, and style. Taste does indeed change. But it is always constituted of the same elements.

Question: Is the Archaic torso, also sited in the Louvre, appropriately labeled as, somehow, Rilke’s?


The gift of gab.

Do I have it? And what kind of a gift is it? A good gift, or a curse?

And: Am I really Irish?

These have been ongoing questions all my life, never quite inaudible, and never seriously answered. For a very long time, I dismissed them with “I don’t care!” And I didn’t care; it really didn’t matter. The questions persisted, but so did weeds in the garden. I was lucky to live at a time and in a place that spared me the unfortunate consequences of being Irish that were known to earlier generations, both in the United States and in Ireland itself. (Not to mention England.) I never had reason to think that I suffered being Irish. If I was Irish. The adoption papers didn’t say.

My adoptive father’s forebears were wholly Irish. They came over in the middle of the Nineteenth Century and, instead of settling on the East Coast, headed straight for Iowa. My father’s father was born in 1874, in Clinton. His mother, considerably younger, was born in Davenport. A distant cousin told me that a courthouse fire destroyed most of the old records about the family. I have never done an iota of investigation. My adoptive mother’s father was of Irish background — again, wholly, I think. But her mother was of French-Canadian ancestry, born in Duluth, Minnesota. She was also a Protestant. Most interestingly, she was the eldest of thirteen children, her father having married twice. It’s possible that I made that up. From time to time, I would ask my elders to explain the family relationships, but I never wrote anything down, and I forgot most of it.

My adoptive parents were more people who had come from the Midwest than they were “Irish.” I was instructed, again rather interestingly, to tell anyone who asked that I got my red hair from my maternal grandmother, the non-Irish non-Catholic. Being Irish was a joke that my father put up with gamely. He let other people fuss over it, telling the jokes and using the odd Irish expression. We never discussed it, but I’m sure that he was aware of the irony that the Fighting Irish of Notre Dame were anything but, at least so far as the actual football team went. My mother collected Belleek teacups, perhaps unaware that Belleek — the factory, at least — is in Northern Ireland. She loved those teacups, she really did. But she never used them.

So you could well ask, were my parents, despite their inheritance, actually Irish?

In case you think I’ve been mooning about this lately, you’re right, more or less, as entries for 8, 10, and 12 June of last year show. I shall take them as read, particularly my distaste for the “crazy and common,” as well as how Colm Tóibín and Maeve Brennan helped me out of “My Ireland Problem.” What I didn’t say last summer was that Tóibín and Brennan work in a similar way: their stories are full of silences. Maeve Brennan, in person, apparently had the gift of the gab in spades. That’s why The New Yorker prefaced her Talk pieces with references to a “long-winded” lady. The pieces themselves, however, are not particularly long-winded; they’re moody and perceptive and soaked in nostalgia for a vanishing past, as the parts of Manhattan that Brennan loved were torn down and replaced, seedy old buildings giving way to soulless new ones. (Joseph Mitchell felt the same ache, but he was more concerned with vanishing ways of life than with buildings.) As a writer, my point being, Brennan shows and rarely tells, and what she tells is always palpably not the whole story. The stories that she set in Dublin, like Tóibín’s Nora Webster (set in Enniscorthy), show mostly by not telling, and their power doesn’t really come through until a second or third reading. It was precisely this anti-loquaciousness that aroused my interest in learning something about Irish history.

“They are both the sons of Belial,” Lloyd George said of the Ulstermen and the Sinn Féiners that he had to deal with in negotiating the treaty that would create the Irish Free State in 1921 (ratified in 1922). I used to think the same thing. The Irish were cursed with the incapacity to be governed, thought I in my ignorance. Then Tóibín and Brennan crushed that notion. They showed a willingness to be governed, yea, oppressed anew, that chilled me far more than my old picture of anarchy.

Nevertheless, it was clear that understanding modern Ireland, or, rather, what R F Foster called “The de Valera Dispensation,” would require boning up on the history of the place, and although I knew that the history was complicated, I had no idea how complicated. This weekend, I struggled through a chapter in Ronan Fanning’s The Fatal Path, “The Treaty Negotiations,” that was like a nightmare in which I’d suddenly become involved in a structured finance deal with too many parties to keep track of. It was extremely wearying. The Catholic Irish were already divided on the question of recognizing the sovereignty of the British Crown; they both refused to negotiate the partition the six counties of Ulster as a Protestant preserve. (At least, that is, until Lloyd George came up with his elfish “Boundary Commission.”) For their part, the Ulstermen were divided between realists, who would accept the Home Rule that was being thrust back upon them, and the die-hards, who wanted to go on being part of Great Britain, and to preserve the Act of Union of 1801. The differences between any two groups might be slight, but they were always worth fighting over. The only constant in the story — Fanning’s subtitle is British Government and Irish Revolution 1910-1922 — is the willingness and determination of two prime ministers, first Asquith and then Lloyd George, to do whatever it took to hold on to the premiership. Lloyd George would do anything; Asquith preferred, if at all possible, to do nothing.

That “Irish Free State” thingy. Whatever happened to that?


Tuesday 23rd

The names were familiar. Eamon de Valera, of course: he was still the leader of Ireland when I was a boy. Charles Parnell. Michael Collins. The Easter Rising. The Black and Tans. Sinn Féin and the IRA, also of course, because of more recent Troubles. Roger Casement. Gladstone and Home Rule. And let’s not forget the Irish Free State.

There were other names that didn’t become familiar until more recently: John Redmond, Pádraic Pearse, the Curragh. But these were no different; I couldn’t put them in relation to the other names. I expect that mine was the sort of ignorance that characterizes a lot of educated adults, their heads full of loose nuts and bolts, gleaned inattentively during high school and college but never pinned to any sense of reality. It is not usual for me, however, to harbor such littered historical blanks. There is a great deal of history of which I am really quite completely unaware, but when it came to Ireland, until very recently, I was aware of quite a lot, but I didn’t know what most of it meant.

Now, thanks to the two books that I’ve been mentioning, I know what a good deal of it means, but by no means enough. Independence, for example. When did Ireland become independent of Great Britain? It’s a trick question, because independence came in stages, and was assymetrically recognized. (I think that’s right.) I am waiting for Ronan Fanning’s book about de Valera to arrive, after which I may read Thomas Bartlett’s Ireland: A History. I like Tom Bartlett already. (Ronan Fanning refers to him thus in the text of The Fatal Path.) I read the introduction to his book at Amazon and was presently birdseyeing the campus of his high school alma mater, in the Falls Road neighborhood of Belfast. Think what I’d know if we’d had Google Maps when I was growing up! Meanwhile, the advance of knowledge on this subject, if I’m to be honest, is glacial. The bare minimum has not sunk in yet.

I hope I’m giving some idea of what it’s like to be in the middle of learning a new subject.

Now, from a very early point, I was an enthusiastic, if extraordinarily uneven student of English history. At the top of the list of aspects of English history that I did not want to investigate was Ireland, an inclination that I appear to have shared with many leading English politicians. We all wished that Ireland would just Go Away. Especially because, if Ireland were to disappear, not only would it take the wild, incomprehensible and quarrelsome Irish with it, but it would no longer be available as a strategic base for French or Spanish invasions. Unlike the British statesmen, however, my fondness for England was supported by not knowing any Brits. I didn’t know many Irish people either, but Irish-Americans were everywhere, still distinctly Irish even if their parents had been born in the United States. The voices of those with Irish parents still echoed the old country’s way of talking. Americans of British descent were everywhere, too, but the background had been washed out of them by centuries of American life. (Plus, I learned from the dictionary, English speech and manners were far better preserved in the South, far away but its rebellion not forgotten.) I remember making my father laugh by declaring that all English people lived in big houses and had butlers. That I was trying to point out how disadvantaged we were now makes me laugh.

The first thing that I must do in trying to understanding my usually rather vague dislike of Irish-Americans (despite being arguably one of them) is to isolate the snob factor. It is difficult to distinguish this from general aspirationalism. Like my parents — at least when I was a child — I looked forward to a better world, and I believed that an essential step in advancing toward it was to get rid of the baggage of the past. In my case, that baggage included the present, my dreary everyday life. I was striving to reach a point at which I should no longer associate with the people I knew. I believe that I have discussed this eccentric snobbery elsewhere, and now is not the time to take it up. But I begin by recognizing that I was a snob.

Irish-Americans were unlike all the other hyphenated people in that they came equipped with English, but they did not speak it like the English, and there was something terribly wrong with them. They were Catholic. So were we, but, with us, it was different.

Rather than expatiate on the view taken of Catholics by the Protestant majority in the Village of Bronxville, New York — to tell you the truth, I have no idea what it was; I’d have died rather than find out — or to muse sociologically about the location of St Joseph’s Church, practically on the commuter railroad tracks, across which there were, in the tiny rump of Bronxville over there, no houses but only apartments, many of them over shops, and many of them inhabited by Catholics whom my parents did not know. Rather than all of that (for the moment, at least), I’d like to look at a few representatives of the species. Since Catholicism was the principal defining characteristic of Irish-Americans, I’ll start with Monsignor Scott, our pastor.

Here’s an Irish joke: Monsignor Scott was a feisty but prim Irishman who, if he was born on American soil at all, it was to parents who had conceived him in Ireland. He called my mother “Bee” for some reason, which was confusing, because the youngest of my Protestant grandmother’s twelve siblings was Aunt Bee (for “Beaulah”), and she was certainly no parishioner of Monsignor Scott’s. (Additionally, she was someone else.) Now, I had started out in the newish parochial school next door to the church, but I had not fit in with the nuns at all. (Being terrified of them did not render me docile.) So my parents took me out of St Joseph’s and sent me to Iona, over in New Rochelle. The grammar school was still on the college campus during my third-grade year, but in fourth grade we moved to a new structure on Stratton Road. The school was run by the Christian Brothers of Ireland, and I got along with them well enough so long as I was a little boy. But when I shot up into early adolescence, everything changed for the worse, because now sports began to be taken seriously. I had learned to hate baseball at a summer camp (also in New Rochelle); I was sent to the farthest reaches of the outfield and paid no attention whatsoever to the game. I turned my back to home plate to stare at the passing traffic, and was bemused when balls occasionally rolled close by, at least until the roar of imprecations reached my ears. At Iona, I simply refused to play. I was spanked, I was cajoled; I refused. I was a very good student in those days, probably because there was no library in which to discover topics that had nothing to do with my course work. I don’t remember how the baseball crisis was resolved. Doubtless by summer, and the end of the school year. In sixth grade, I began to “have headaches,” and this brought an end to my sojourn at Iona.

Because I was already something of a lawyer, I always had sins to confess. One day, I realized that Monsignor Scott was on the other side of the grille. This was unusual, but I listed my peccadilloes as usual. I had stolen some money — I was always stealing money in those days. I was always caught, because I was a terrible thief, and I really did learn my lesson, which is that crime doesn’t repay the effort that you have to put into it if you want to get away with it. Having been caught, I thought I had nothing really to lose by confessing my crime to Monsignor Scott. Imagine my surprise, then, when he barked at me by name and told me that he was going to call up the principal at Iona and make sure that he knew what a vicious miscreant I was. The lawyer in me knew that Monsignor Scott was way out of bounds, and that even to repeat to the principal something that he had heard in the confessional would get him in trouble if it ever came out, so I didn’t collapse in dread. I’d like to say that I adopted a more circumspect policy, that I stopped confessing to stealing, and took up coveting, a lesser included offense. But I never ran into Monsignor Scott in the confessional again.

Among the many factors that kindled my desire to know more about Ireland and its history was learning, from Maeve Brennan’s stories and movies such as Philomena, how common Monsignor Scott’s infraction was in the Ireland of the “de Valera dispensation.” I got the idea that the Catholic Church was an adjunct of the civil justice authorities, such as the police, or that perhaps it was the other way around. And yet I had always known this. I can tell you why my family wasn’t really Irish: we did not recognize priests as the highest authority with whom we came into contact. My parents never, so far as I know, turned to a priest for advice, except possibly with reference to me or to my sister. Certainly they never sought political advice in the parish bulletin. But true Irish-Americans were different. It made enormous historical sense, of course; in the old days of British rule, priests were the highest authority with whom an Irishman might deal. The priest was a source of strength and counsel then, a source of reaffirmation on matters of faith and morals, a reliable guide to right living. After the British pulled out, however, the relationship between priest and parishioner seems to have soured. No longer oppressed by a heretic power, the priests and their hierarchy nevertheless failed to relax their vigilance. Now the danger came from below, from heretics within the fold, from intellectual hooligans who believed in a free press, contraception, and divorce. The Church threw its weight into the ostracisation of such deviants. The result was a modest strain of totalitarianism. Irish wits went into exile, abandoning the country’s anti-intellectual suffocation.

Totalitarians can admit no faults, so it’s no surprise that the Church failed again and again — failed institutionally — to deal with pedophile priests. The priests of old may have been good shepherds, but more recent Irish and Irish-American hierarchies were almost helpless in the display, once it showed, of their contempt for their flocks. As a result, last summer, during the referendum on same-sex marriage, many opponents stayed home, declining to vote rather than appear to support the Church.

Did anyone seriously think, in 1960, that John F Kennedy would take his orders from the Pope in Rome? The fear that he might do so was often mentioned by the press, as existing somewhere, but I never heard anyone express it. Anyone with even a passing knowledge of papal history knows that popes have only rarely got kings and prime ministers to do their bidding, but the Irish-American Catholic Church presented a different picture, and I expect that it was Catholics themselves who worried that Kennedy would defer to Rome, because they could not imagine their own refusal to do so.


Thursday 25th

Last night, we had second helpings. Not just leftovers, but more of what we had had for dinner the night before: Chicken Tetrazzini.

Stouffer’s, now a division of Nestlé, is still cranking out frozen Turkey Tetrazzini, which is what Kathleen and I encountered as children. It was one of the few meals of that kind that we actually liked. (You can still buy a case of twelves boxes of the stuff for about $70.) Neither Kathleen nor I has ever seen this dish on a menu. The original calls for chicken, much more of a delicacy back in the day when Luisa Tetrazzini was wowing opera audiences with her embellishments on “Sempre libera degg’io,” from La Traviata. James Beard gives a recipe in American Cookery, claiming that the dish was probably invented to honor the soprano in San Francisco, which does seem to have been, for a while, second only to Paris in the pursuit and attainment of pleasure.

I tried Beard’s recipe a long time ago, and wasn’t particularly impressed. Our enthusiasm for Tetrazzini must have faded with childhood, I thought. But last fall, I decided to have another go. I had an idea that a reduced and intense chicken broth was the key, and so it turned out to be. By the middle of this month, I had developed a recipe that owed its success to the broth that Agata & Valentina sells. I wondered if I might obtain similar results from broth of my own.

My record with meat stocks is not good, for the simple reason that I always allowed them to boil. I discovered that this is a no-no rather late in life, long after I had given up even thinking about making chicken or beef stock. I knew how to goose up commercial broths, and that seemed good enough. But now, possibly inspired by Tamar Adler’s The Everlasting Meal, I was beguiled by the idea of using one chicken to make the whole dish myself, at home. I already had another use for the dark meat, the parts that wouldn’t go into Tetrazzini. In fact, the only reason for roasting a chicken, and the reason for the problem of white-meat leftovers, is that the legs are the parts that Kathleen and I like to eat.

In the summer, I make chicken salads with the breast meat. But in the cold months, I want stews — pots of deeply flavorful bits of meat and vegetable swimming in delicious sauces. That is what brought me back to Chicken Tetrazzini last fall. The problem with classic chicken stews, such as Coq au vin, is that, as that name ought to make clear, they call for the sustained cooking of a mature bird. But nobody sells roasting hens anymore, much less cockerels. Stewing the kind of chicken that you actually can get your hands on simply kills the poor thing a second time.

Now, if I only knew what I was doing, I could make one chicken produce two dishes, both sure to be eaten up.

I bought a three-pound chicken at Fairway. I don’t buy meat at Fairway as a rule, but it wasn’t convenient to run down to Agata & Valentina (I wouldn’t after all, be needing their broth), and I thought that I might squeak by with a Bell & Evans bird. I spatchcocked the chicken; roasted it, along with the neck and the wingtips; served the legs to the two of us; and then dealt with the carcass. The breast meat, removed from the bone, was bagged and refrigerated. In a large stock pot, I gently browned a handful of mirepoix (diced onion, carrot, and celery). Then I tossed in the bones. After a few minuts, I poured in a lot of water. I lowered the heat a bit, and waited for the water to begin to boil. The moment it did, I reduced the heat further, so that the only motion in the pot was the rising of a shimmering lens to the surface, which never broke.

I had read that, if you don’t boil the broth, the albumen in the bones is not commingled with the broth, so that the broth stays crystal clear. Instead, the albumen forms a clear crust around the sides of the pot, nothing like the dirty foam that collects if the broth is boiled. After about an hour of cooking, I strained the broth into another pan, and discarded the solids. Over the same heat, I reduced the broth to the measure of two cups. It was quite brown, but also quite clear. When I was ready to use it, a few days later, it was a quivering jelly. A little more reduction, and it would have made a master chef’s aspic. All of this took time, but no effort.

When I was ready to concoct the Tetrazzini, I brought the broth to a boil and threw in the stems of a package of mushrooms. The caps I sliced and sautéed in the bottom of a large saucepan. Then I scooped them out and made a veloûté in the uncleaned saucepan. I’ll assume that you know how to make a veloûté. (In a wonderful little book from 1953 that my mother used, Casserole Magic, by Lousene Rousseau Brunner, veloûté is made less formidable by being called “rich cream sauce.”) When the sauce was almost as thick as I wanted it to be, I tossed in the cut-up chicken breast meat and the mushroom caps.

It remained only to cook some spaghetti. When the spaghetti was done, I tossed in some butter, as I always do with pasta, but this was a mistake, because the sauce was already quite rich enough. It would have been better to throw the veloûté mixture right away. After a good stirring, I poured the sauced spaghetti into a gratin dish, sprinkled grated Parmesan cheese on top, and ran it under a low broiler for a few minutes.

After two mouthfuls, we agreed that my Chicken Tetrazzini is ready for a dinner party for four. It is, frankly, comfort food, but the intensity of the chicken flavor brings haute cuisine not so much to mind as to the tongue. I believe that you could stir in peas at the last minute, but only they were worth dying for. (The mushrooms, it seems, are also my own idea.)


I have had to give some thought to the next part of my Irish-connection narrative. It has to do with naming names. This is something that I am very disinclined to do, for names belong to other people, whether they’re dead or alive, and they are not my playthings. At the same time, the alternatives to naming names are all a bit awkward, and they can slow things down. Also, as readers, we want the wicked pleasure of the dish. We want the thrill of hearing one person declare that another person is a pig. Especially when we’re young, and have no idea of the pain that can be caused, or, worse, the insult registered.

This question of naming names becomes particularly vivid at the fringes of family connections. Here, the measures of acquaintance and friendship are replaced by expectations of welcome intimacy. If you don’t feel particularly welcome or intimate with family members who are neither close nor remote, then there is a strong suggestion that you dislike them, that there is something wrong with them. You are supposed to like the members of your family, even though this rarely happens in practice, especially in metropolitan areas where people of very different backgrounds get mixed up together.

In 1957, retired, and two years a widower, my mother’s father married his secretary. It was all perfectly respectable. My mother might have been a little put out — she had always been a daddy’s girl — but Grace, the secretary, couldn’t have been less disagreeable. She was younger than my grandfather, yes, but she was older than my mother. Grace and my grandfather seemed to be very happy together, but it did not last for long, because within two years my grandfather was felled by a cerebral haemorrhage — a stroke.

The reason for my bringing this up is that Grace came from an Irish-American family in Windsor Terrace, the neighborhood to the east-southeast of Prospect Park in Brooklyn. Before marrying my grandfather, Grace lived in her father’s house, as did an unmarried sister whom I got to know well later, when she moved up to Bronxville to share an apartment with Grace after my grandfather died. There were brothers, and there were nieces and nephews. Someone might have been killed in the War.

We paid a visit to the house in Windsor Terrace. I thought it was gruesome; the idea of living there was so oppressive that I could not wait to leave. I have since realized that it was simply a respectable Catholic Irish house, not unlike the one that I mentioned last summer. It was austere, but it was not humble. Everywhere you looked, there was the gleam of highly-polished dark wood, on door frames, mirror frames, chiffoniers, and upholstered sofas and chairs. I have a strong recollection of colorlessness, but that may be an interpolation of other memories. There was also a great deal of glass, of old-fashioned Victorian plate glass. The effect was not to brighten the house so much as to remind me that light was somewhere else.

Grace’s father was still alive, a slim, compact man with a wry handsome face and white hair. Despite everyone’s best intentions, the visit entailed a clash of cultures, or rather the evasion of one. I could put it in socioeconomic terms, and wind up suggesting, without saying a word, that Grace’s father was determined not to be condescended to by relative grandees from Westchester who were Catholic in name only. I should rather talk about comfort. There was little thought of comfort in Windsor Terrace. I’m talking about physical comfort.

The house was ready for a bishop’s visit. Had a bishop ever visited our house, he would probably have relaxed into acting like an executive, like my father. The talk would have been of golf, and Scotch would have been the refreshment. A bishop in Windsor Terrace could behave as though such modern depravities didn’t exist. He could have shown up in vestments, surrounded by acolytes. (Grace’s sister, who was one of those quick-witted Irishwomen whom you don’t mess with, would have giggled, but only later.) Even in street clothes, he would have been treated like the ecclesiastical aristocrat that he was. And Windsor Terrace would have declared that it was worthy to receive him. Tea, biscuits, a glass of sherry at the most, all served with expensive Irish crystal and china and immaculate linen. A stiff and formal exchange of words would have afforded immense ritual pleasures to all. The visit of a bishop would have been an event second only to the birth of a child. Much more than a wedding! You never now how marriages are going to turn out. You never know how children are going to turn out, either, but there’s a big difference between little babies and full-grown in-laws.

All I could think, naturally, was that, if Windsor Terrace was what it meant to be Irish, then I didn’t want to be Irish. At the same time, without any conscious thought at all, I decided that Windsor Terrace was, without a doubt, Irish.

I can still hear the voices of Grace and her sister, though, and with pleasure. They could be impatient with me, but they were never really cross and certainly not unkind. They may have wondered why I was so peculiar, but I made them laugh and that was enough. Their voices were still very Irish. They had been born and raised in Brooklyn, and you could say that the sounds of Brooklyn haunted their speech as the sound of Britain used to haunt the speech of the most respectable Irish. But they spoke Irish, using English words. They could put ferocious palpability into the final “t” in “treat” or the “k” in “book.” I am sorry that I was not much older when I got to know them.

Now — and this is the only way to wind up my recollection — I could not have written any of this without having read Maeve Brennan’s Dublin stories. The idea of a bishop’s visit, in particular, would never have occurred to me. It is also the case that, without having read Brennan, I should never have had the slightest desire to revisit memories of Windsor Terrace. Which I’m very glad to have done.


Friday 26th

Having put down Jasper Ridley’s 1987 biography, Elizabeth I: The Shrewdness of Virtue, to read R F Foster and Ronan Fanning on Ireland, I’ve returned to Ridley and am nearly done. It’s a good read. As I recalled from the first reading, when the book came out, Ridley has two points to make about Elizabeth. First, she could not make up her mind. Second, she was obsessed with the incarnation of royalty — not that he ever puts it that way.

Dithering — the inability to make up one’s mind once and for all — is regarded as a male weakness and a female characteristic. This is, of course, bosh. Men are simply more covert about it, as they have to be, if they don’t want to be mocked. The matters that Elizabeth dithered about were all matters of state, with serious, not to say fatal, pros and cons. Take the best known: the execution of Mary Queen of Scots, in 1587. And take just one strand of the deliberations: murder or execution? Elizabeth knew that the assassination of Mary would meet with much less shock and outrage than an official execution by the state. Kings and queens got bumped off all the time. Three English kings had been done in, Edward II, Richard II, and Henry VI, all in dark and dirty dungeons with no spectators. Even after Elizabeth signed Mary’s death warrant (which she did, for many reasons reluctantly, including this one), she continued the search for a hit man. As aficionados of this episode know, when she handed the warrant to Davison, Secretary of State, she may or may not have told him to hold on to it until further word from her. He claimed that she did not. He passed it on to the Council, who sent it to the Chancellor for the Great Seal, whereupon it went its official way to Fotherghay Castle, the relatively remote castle in which Mary was imprisoned. The Queen of Scots was duly separated from her head.

Elizabeth didn’t hear about it for four days, but when she did, she went ballistic. Davison was sent to the Tower, while Elizabeth sought advice as to whether she could execute him without a trial. Once again, she couldn’t find anyone to cooperate — a motif that I should like to have seen Ridley make more of. Davison languished in the Tower for twenty months. He was eventually freed and made whole — he’d been fined, and prisoners had to pay for their food and lodging in the Tower — but he was never employed by Elizabeth again. The general understanding is that Elizabeth was projecting her guilt for killing Mary onto Davison, as if the execution had been his fault. I disagree. I think that she had felt thwarted and frustrated at every step in her dealings with Mary, and now that Mary was gone, she exploded — because she could.

Elizabeth’s indecisiveness was the product of her scruples. She wanted to do the right thing in every way, and such a thing rarely existed. She also hated to spend money, so she was always promising to aid Protestant warriors in Europe but never sending the checks in a timely fashion. If indecisiveness was at all gender-linked, it was the result of not being taken entirely seriously by the men who served her. The core advisers served her for decades, and got very good at handling her, but not so good that she didn’t feel handled, and she hated that.

By “the incarnation of royalty” I simply mean the institution of the crown as a transfigurer of the personage upon whose head it rests. Such a person becomes God’s appointed minister on earth, answerable to no human judges. There was something almost modern about Elizabeth’s insistence on this, something more abstract (and much less magical) than medieval theories of monarchy. As a woman, she was obviously incapable of carrying out the primary duty of a king, which had always been, however figuratively, to wage war and defend the realm. More important as a handicap was the associated inability to occupy the ceremonial center of military life. She could not hang out in the stables or oversee the sports that Essex and Henri IV set up for their men during their frolic and detour at Compiègne. Elizabeth liked gallant soldiers well enough, but she was surrounded by gifted civilians, forebears of today’s statesmen. (They might have a military past, and Leicester always seemed to be on some kind of active duty, but by and large they pursued the arts of peace.) Elizabeth’s touchiness about lèse-majesté was a vital reminder that she occupied the top job, or perhaps that the top job was occupied by her. And don’t you forget it. She carried this to almost ridiculous levels when arguing on behalf of, say, Philip II, against his Nederlander rebels. She really did believe that they ought to obey him. At the same time, she believed in the Protestant cause. And, at the same time, she loathed Puritans. It was up to her, and nobody else, to settle Church doctrine. Elizabeth’s views are clear and even admirable, but they clashed constantly.

Scrolling through Amazon, I don’t see any titles that suggest a genuinely feminist appraisal of Elizabeth’s career. There are plenty of books that are written by women and that highlight the domestic side of Elizabeth’s life. However interesting this might be, it is not why we take an interest in Elizabeth. She was the first woman in modern Europe unambiguously to rule a kingdom by herself. So far as England goes, she was also the last, until Margaret Thatcher. It’s easy to romanticize her as Good Queen Bess, doing a jig for the troops at Tilbury; it’s just as easy, if far less popular, to scorn her as a nervous nelly. When we say that she was a great queen, what on earth do we mean? She had a gift for oration that puts her in Churchill’s neighborhood, but what else beside speeches? And what did she teach men about women?


Ronan Fanning’s biography of Éamon de Valera has arrived, and I’ve read the first two chapters, which take the reader up to the planning of the Easter Rising in 1916. There is almost nothing in these chapters to suggest that de Valera would emerge as one of Europe’s most durable statesmen in the last century, and there is one detail that I wish Fanning explored more fully, because it makes de Valera’s rise seem even less likely. Perhaps it is an object lesson in Lessons Learned. In 1904, de Valera was due to take his BA examination. He had not dropped out of University College, Blackrock, but he had taken a year off to teach at a “sister” college in Tipperary. Fanning can explain this move, and he tells us that de Valera may have had the time of his life at Rockwell College, for the first time enjoying undergraduate high-jinks.

But Edward de Valera [it was “Edward” until de Valera got involved with the Gaelic League, largely through his wife, Jane Flanagan/Sinéad Ní Fhlannagáin] seems to have paid a high price for his uncharacteristic excursion into this less than lurid self-indulgence: it allowed little time for focusing on preparing for his BA examination in the summer of 1904. Although he left Rockwell and returned to Blackrock as soon as the school year ended, only fourteen weeks remained before the examination began. It was not enough.(17)

De Valera wound up with a “Pass,” which ruined in one blow his chances for the career in higher education that he seems to have had in mind. “He was thoroughly disgusted and was to regret it all his life.” The curious thing is that de Valera was always diligent, dutiful to a fault. His classmate, future primate of Armagh and a fellow leader of Irish affairs, John D’Alton, called him “a good, very serious student, good at Mathematics, but not outstanding otherwise.” The question isn’t how a second-rate student came to rule a new country — certainly not! The question is why this “good, very serious student” made such a catastrophic misjudgment on the eve of his examination. I’m not going to speculate, and perhaps there is no more evidence than Fanning adduces — de Valera was having fun for the first time in his life. But at least I should like to see that disgust and regret connected to the character of the man de Valera would become.


Another Irish-American in my childhood was “Aunt Peg.” The widow of a policeman, Aunt Peg lived on the other side of our apartment building on Palmer Avenue — the building (and even the same side) in which Grace and her sister would share an apartment many years later — and she encouraged me to visit her. This was not encouraged by my parents. When I did visit, Aunt Peg would take me up on her capacious lap and embrace me lovingly. She was always hot and damp, and there might be a disagreeable aroma lurking beneath her perfume; like any little boy, I tired of her embrace much sooner than she did. I suppose I was taking the place of a lost child; in those days, you didn’t tell children anything, if you could help it. But she loved me absolutely, and that was a good thing. My mother’s mother also liked to hold me, even though, like my grandson, I was a tall boy and hard to fit on any lap. My mother disapproved of all of this, and I’m sure that she read somewhere or was told that any sign of unconditional love could prove fatal.

By the time my sister and I became parents ourselves, we were not surprised to see that, while our mother loved babies, she began to lose interest when her grandchildren could talk — could talk back. They remember her fondly enough, but my sister and I watched that enthusiasm wane to dutifulness. Kathleen and I talk about this often. Kathleen never met my mother; my mother died at the beginning of 1977, and in the fall, I met Kathleen. But Kathleen has never cared for babies — well, hardly ever. When she was a girl, she hated dolls. What could be more dumb (in every sense) than a tea party with pretend-people who had nothing to say? My mother never talked about dolls, but then she had the undivided attention of her worshipful parents. It was clear that she preferred children to behave like dolls.

There was the spectre of another lost child in the apartment building, but I never figured out where he fit in. He was not really a child; he was killed in Korea, and I often saw a photograph him outfitted for football; he had been some kind of star somewhere, full of promise. Nobody ever looked more the part of the young American hero. His name was Donny. His photograph was guarded by another Irish-American woman, Loretta O’Brien. Loretta and my mother were good friends. My father and Eddie O’Brien were friends, too, in their taciturn way. Eddie was almost a generation older than his wife and my parents, and he smoked gigantic cigars. I think that he was a stock-broker. He was one of those men, not uncommon in those days, who had a high old time until having a high old time was more trouble than it was worth, whereupon he married a pretty younger woman. (My father’s father followed the same trajectory, way out on the Mississippi.) Eddie was twinkling and genial, but I didn’t understand his terse sense of humor. For every word he uttered, Loretta spoke forty. She loved me, too, but the love was verbal, so my mother had no objection. There were times when I could make my mother laugh; Loretta was always laughing. She was either laughing or she was talking, but she was not at all a silly woman. She was simply long-winded. But her exuberance filled one’s sails.

Loretta was farther from her Irish roots than the folks in Windsor Terrace. She had some kind of New York accent — highly diluted Bronx, I’d say — and I don’t recall her using any Irish expressions. Loretta had worked, as a secretary I suppose, in a way that my mother hadn’t. My mother had had a job behind the counter at a jeweler’s in the village, but this was a lark, really a sort of Peace Corps experience only not so high-minded. Loretta had done a real nine-to-five, which was presumably how Eddie met her. He had plucked her from the typing pool, something like that. But I have no idea what the facts were — none whatsoever. For all I know, Eddie met Loretta on a summer cruise, and pushed an unmentioned first wive overboard so that he could marry her. But I don’t think that that’s what happened.

Every now and then, Loretta would pull Donny’s photograph out of her purse and start to weep. This was hard, because I could never remember how Loretta was related to Donny. I thought that he was her son until it was made clear, with laughter not entirely pleasant, that he wasn’t. (Loretta would have been an indecently young mother.) And the aggressive masculinity of a guy crouching with a football put me off. Oh, dear. I see that I am going to have to say something about being tough.

Bon week-end à tous!