Last Night's Fun - book review

by Ciaran Carson

ISBN 0-224-04141-X Jonathan Cape

There are two ways of approaching a book about music.  One is to try and take an overview, to analyse, to produce your thesis for the outside world, to explain, in their historical context of course, the importance of one school or figure as opposed to another.  This is an approach that is logical, necessary and justified and which produces books which are often described as important but which are usually unread by all but the most determined reader.

This book approaches the subject the other way.  That is to write about what the music means to you.  This approach does not to produce a work of scholarship or reasoned analysis , but what it can do, and does do in this case, is to produce a work permeated with knowledge of, and love for, its subject.

Ciaran of course starts with a lot of advantages.  He is a musician; he is a poet.  He has what might be the best job in the world (Officer for Literature and traditional Arts at the Arts Council of Northern Ireland).  He brings these things together to produce a book about what it is like to love the music and about what it is like to be a musician; it is a portrait of a man whose identity is sustained by and whose life is enhanced by the music and the whole cultural experience that goes with traditional music in general and Irish traditional music in particular.

One of the things I was struck with, and something which is critically important, was that Ciaran's way in to the music was very similar to many of us who have ended up loving traditional music.  He started with the Beatles and the Stones and from there went to Pete Seeger and Bob Dylan and from there to the country blues and from there to the young Communist League (where Ewan Mcoll's accent was carefully copied).  Their activity was the subject of a tabloid expose which resulted in Ciaran's mother memorably rescuing him from that den of iniquity with the cry "Sacred mother of God, come you out of there, Ciaran"  His next stop was the Folk Music Club at Queens University where Irish music had equal rights with the English revival and where Ciaran, I would guess, formed the attachment to the music that has fired him ever since.  There is a critically important point here which we should reflect on; it is that if traditional music is to prosper and grow as I would like it to, we have to provide pathways into it - something which, all too often, we seem to make as difficult as possible.

The book is both a description of and debate upon Irish traditional music, and an autobiography.  Intellectually, I think Ciaran is spot on .  Early on he quotes the Reverend Dr Richard Heneby who debunked the notion of the "correct version" in 1928.  "I used to and order to assimilate such I considered suitable.  If this system of election has always...been going on...not only in instrumental music, but in singing also, then who shall say what is the absolute version of a given tune, for such a thing does not and clearly never did exist."  This is amplified by Ciaran, who points out that the music is heard not learnt, that there are "no keys in folk music, for the concept of the lock does not exist.  There is no perfect pitch", and that "to be in tune is a mysterious dimension that you can only enter when you are in tune" and that "the ideal space for traditional music is a room" where each member of the audience hears the music differently.  Learning a tune is a dialectic process usually ebgaged in over many months.  The process by which tunes and songs evolve is mysterious, but over time they are subtly ,but perceptibly changed, like bicycles in The Third Policeman.  (For example, when Dick Gaughan sings the "Fifty First Highland Division's Farewell to Sicily" now, it seems a different song entirely from the one he sang 25 years ago.)  This is all obvious, but it needs saying, especially for those of us argue against the tyranny of what is perceived as good music.  Ciaran has found a wonderfully typical quote from a classical music critic called Constant Lambert: "The trouble with a folk song is that once you have played it through there is nothing much to do except play it over again and play it rather louder."  One can wonder at a society in which someone with such self-evidently deaf ears can become a music critic - but as we know, the spirit of Constant Lambert is alive and well in our media and arts funding structures.

Appropriately however, although this is a book written by a fierce intellect, it is not an intellectual book.  At its core is a series of vivid images which are brilliantly and emotionally written.  Not all of them are about music.  In fact, I was tempted to say that the book's subtitle should be 'a book about smoking and breakfast'.  Tempted, but it isn't quite true, for the breakfast (you will learn the difference between the Dublin and the Ulster fry) and the cigarettes are part of a whole culture.  Cigarettes spend much of their time not being smoked (while the musicians play ) but form a central part of the musicians' rituals.  This is a book which you will enjoy even if you know nothing about Irish music, but you will enjoy it and empathise with it much more if you know a little.  You will learn about getting the change, how to play a roll on the flute, about the elaborate ritual to be gone through when meeting another musician for the first time and the way to choose the right pub to play in (rather than ending in a tourist trap).

I will end with quotation from a description of musicians not quite ready to play.  "The slowly setting pints are still untouched .  Some time will pass before there is a move towards music.  Then a fiddle player, maybe, looks with feigned uncertainty at the case beside him.  He takes it on his knee and snaps the catches open like you might undo a baby's Babygro.  He opens up the lid and looks astonished that the fiddle is still there, as if it were a waif that might have gone astray but didn't.  The bow is there.  The rosin.  He puts the rosin to the bow and sweeps the bow across it absent-mindedly before the other fiddler asks him for a loan of it.  Then hands are outstretched towards pints.  They grasp them in a cheironomic sequence and everyone imbibes in his or her good time with inhaled breath, then an exhalation. Sleeves lift lazily in an off-beat chorus and wipe away the foamy white moustaches. It is nearly time to think of tunes - but not quite yet."

If you can't afford a trip to Ireland, this is the best substitute you are likely to get.

Peter Greig - 18.8.98

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