The Laughing Boy

Protest 2

September 2014 and the Greeks are back on the street.

 

The following is the text of my piece that was broadcast by Sunday Miscellany on RTE Radio One on 12 April. It was recorded live in the Peacock Theatre as part of the Easter Monday celebrations titled, Road to the Rising. If you wish to listen to the podcast, here is the link:

http://www.rte.ie/radio1/sunday-miscellany/podcasts/

When I heard from a friend, Elias Tsonis, in Greece that Brendan Behan’s song, The Laughing Boy, was as famous there as Danny Boy or The Fields of Athenry is here, I was puzzled. I had never heard the song, nor heard of it. The only recording of it seemed to be a rather odd one that Behan himself made. When Aoife Nic Cormaic commissioned Barry Gleeson to sing it for the programme, he had to arrange it himself. What a fine job he did. If you are fascinated by this story, then explore the links hereunder and listen to the extraordinary renderings of the song in Greek. Behan’s original is also included.

 

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When I received an invitation to participate in the World Philosophical Forum in Athens, I couldn’t turn it down, could I? Especially as it was scheduled for September, 2014, forty years exactly since I last set foot in that city.

That summer of 1974 was momentous. The military dictatorship of the Colonels, who had ruled Greece for the previous seven years, was wobbling. They sought to buttress their rule by pulling off the annexation of Cyprus. We were boarding a ship to sail from Crete to Santorini when we heard that President Makarios had been ousted by a military coup. During the following week we heard of the unfolding events in fragments of broken conversations. The Turkish Government had read the intentions of the Greek Colonels, and reacted instantly by sending in their army to occupy the northern half of Cyprus. A war between Greece and Turkey seemed inevitable.

On Santorini the atmosphere was tense. The mobilisation of militias saw old men in faded khaki, with ancient rifles, patrolling the streets in pick-up trucks. Conscripted young men, many just boys, were wailed over by their broken-hearted mamas. With no chefs or waiters, restaurants closed shop. The banks and all public offices were closed too. Ships had stopped sailing, having been commandeered by the army to transport troops. Essential supplies ran out quickly. There was not enough food to sustain the thousands of tourists stranded on this tiny volcanic island.

When a ship eventually arrived, it was to evacuate all tourists. The advice was to leave the country fast. We boarded, but jumped ship again at the next big island, Paros. We were committed to our three-month holiday in Greece, and were not leaving, especially now that events had become so ‘interesting’. All summer the sense of Greece’s enormous discontent  filtered through to us. Because we had stayed, the Greeks treated us as guests rather than tourists. We spent the time going from island to island. One night we were sleeping rough under the canopy of a closed cafe on Mykonos. Suddenly there was gunfire and noise, wild shouting. We thought the Turks had invaded. But when we peeped over the sand dune we saw only the Greek army, and the soldiers were dancing on the beach, waving their guns over their heads, shouting. Citizens were arriving, all shouting, waving arms in delight. Then we learned the cause of the uproar. The Colonels’ Regime had collapsed. Greece’s seven-year nightmare was over.

We danced all night on the beach with the delighted Greeks, danced Zorba style. The Zorba tune had not been heard openly in Greece during the rule of the junta. Its composer, Mikis Theodorakis, had been the chief cultural antagonist of the Colonels, and every bar of his music was banned. Now the country was vibrating to Theodorakis songs. And when we joined the hundreds of thousands dancing on the streets of Athens it was all Theodorakis we were singing. His songs of resistance and rebellion seemed the absolute expression of the Greek soul.

Back in Athens in 2014, I had settled in to the conference when a Greek delegate smiled at me. With an interrogative lift of the eyebrows, he said ‘Ireland?’ I nodded. If he was going to ask for my analysis of Eriugena, I was flummoxed. But he just nodded, winked, gave me a thumbs up, and said, ‘Brendan Behan’. I was mystified as to Behan’s contribution to western philosophy, so I sought out my friendly colleague, and over coffee was briefed on the enormous status of Brendan Behan in Greece. Mikis Theodorakis composed the music for Behan’s ‘The Hostage’ which was staged in Athens in 1962. There were 16 songs, but one that made a huge impression, ‘The Laughing Boy’, a song Behan wrote about the death of Michael Collins. So popular was this song that the Greeks eventually forgot it was an Irish song, and attached it to various figures of Greek resistance by subtle adjustments or additions to the lyrics. During the Colonels’ Regime it became attached to the students who died in the army attack on Athens Polytechnic in 1973. To the present day it is sung in schools as one of the best loved ‘Greek’ patriotic ballads.

In 1974 that was the Greek song we danced to on the beach in Mykonos, that we chanted on the streets of Athens with hundreds of thousands, celebrating the liberation of Greece from dictatorship. But we never realised that what we were singing was Brendan Behan’s ‘The Laughing Boy’.

 

Links to Greek performances of The Laughing Boy

 

http://youtu.be/iBRqMynXFuw (song, lyrics Brendan Behan)

http://youtu.be/gUn9n1MzmbU (Music of The Hostage)

http://youtu.be/j_r2NVwn6J4?list=PLD0E6FEA1CDEECEF0  (song, lyrics Bredan Behan)

http://youtu.be/n8j4luPWPmk  (song, lyrics Brendan Behan)

 

 

Brendan Behan’s original version

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Q5VMdqoRl5c

 

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Discussing Sufism and Peace in a War Zone

addressing conference

This piece was broadcast on Sunday Miscellany on 8 February, 2015.  If you would like to listen to the podcast, go to the RTE site:   http://www.rte.ie/radio1/sunday-miscellany/

At the centre of the top table is Salman Taseer who was assassinated a few months later by his own bodyguard – he took umbrage at Taseer’s criticism of the country’s blasphemy laws. On his way to court he was showered with rose petals by approving supporters.

I was close to Osama bin Laden when he was still alive. Of course I didn’t realise that as the bus conveying us from our well fortified hotel to the National Library of Pakistan meandered through the endless series of concrete roadblocks that punctuated the main thoroughfares of Islamabad. The steel helmets of soldiers peeping out from sand-bag bunkers, and the armoured cars before and after the bus, were further evidence that the country was in the grip of what we in Ireland might have described as an Emergency.

This was March 2010, and Bin Laden was living in the suburbs of the city with his family and friends around him. I was in Islamabad to participate in a Conference on the topic of ‘Sufism and Peace’. The motley collection of international writers and scholars included many who were deeply versed in Sufism. I myself was no more than somewhat informed on the subject. I had visited the shrines of Sufi saints in India. I had spent some time in a Dervish monastery in Turkey. And of course I had read some work of the Persian poet, Rumi.

It was a curious conference to be organised in Islamabad, with the full support of the existing Government, at a time when fundamentalists, particularly the Taliban, were perpetrating vicious attacks on Sufi shrines. The image in the West was that Pakistani officialdom was sympathetic to Muslim fundamentalists, and was conniving to assist them at every turn. But Sufism was anathema to the fundamentalists; they regarded it as a heresy that had no right to exist inside or outside Islam.

Sufism, like Islam itself, is a vast and varied religious tradition. In a nutshell it can be defined as the mystical brand of Islam. But nutshells and definitions are of little help in understanding something so complex. The central belief of the Sufis is that the experience of God is personal – and achievable, even in this life, by meditation and ascetic practice. They saw religious ecstasy as close to the aesthetic experience, so music, dance, poetry, could all be pathways to the experience of the divine. The practice and propagation of Sufism is based on the relationship of teacher and acolyte. Many of these teachers have been venerated as holy men, just as saints have in the Christian tradition.

Not surprising therefore that artists found much that was congenial in Sufism. Not surprising either that it raised the hackles of the Taliban who had carried out atrocities against Sufi worshippers at sites around Pakistan over the previous years. To them the veneration of saints was a form of idolatry.

But to judge by the absolute and unequivocal support of the government, Sufism had a very strong following in Pakistan. Presiding at each session of the Conference was a member of the Government, including the Minister for Education, and President Zardari himself, whose wife, Benazir Bhutto, had been assassinated four years earlier. The session at which I spoke was presided over by Salman Taseer, Governor of Punjab, who was gunned down by his own bodyguard a few months later because he criticised the country’s Blasphemy Laws.

Most of the delegates were from within Pakistan, and of course all of the audience. It was fascinating to talk with them and to get even a small glimpse into their lives. If I had closed my eyes, I might have been listening to the aspirations of the people of Ireland in the 70’s and 80’s. All they wanted was a peaceful world in which to rear their children and grandchildren. But they saw that world being torn from them by the militarists and the religious hard-liners. They talked of the manoeuvring of these self-appointed arbiters of theological correctness to control the minds of the ordinary people of Pakistan.

So, if I was not an expert in Sufism, what did I contribute to the Conference? I chose to talk about Peace. I started by reciting Yeats’s ‘The Lake Isle of Innisfree’. This little poem embodied a concept of Peace for many generations throughout the literary and literate world. A sentimental concept. Peace implied withdrawal from life with its tensions and its responsibilities. I described the landscape of the Northwest, where the poem was set, the perfect place to escape to, to escape in. Then I brought them to two small rural towns not more than an hour’s drive from the said Lake Isle. Enniskillen and Omagh. I described what happened there. And they knew exactly what I meant. They had been there, except the names were different, Peshawar, Rawalpindi. And I put it to them that Peace could never be established by withdrawal from the world. And if peace was viewed merely as the absence of violence, or as an intermission between wars, there was no hope. Only a philosophy of engagement with the world had any chance, a philosophy that had to be more powerful than any creed that had heretofore sent people out to kill one another. That philosophy could not be based in any one religion. It had to transcend all religions. Or else it had to operate on a level that joined all human beings at the most basic level, beneath that benchmark line, where humanity unites us, but  religion or race has not yet defined nor divided us.

 

 

Word count 882

Encountering John McGahern in the Censors’ Basement

26 Upper Pembroke St

The house in Pembroke Street, Dublin, that housed the Censorship of Publications Board, with their stock of banned books in the basement.

This is the text of a piece I wrote for Sunday Miscellany, broadcast on 25 January, 2015. If you wish to listen to the podcast, you can do so by going to the RTE Radio site:

 http://www.rte.ie/radio1/sunday-miscellany/programmes/2015/0125/675161-sunday-miscellany-sunday-25-january-2015/?clipid=1788089

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I first encountered, and fell in love with, John McGahern in a Georgian basement in Dublin in the mid-Sixties. It would probably have qualified as the seediest basement in Dublin at the time. But let me assure you that my infatuation with McGahern was purely literary.

 

When I signed up for a job in the Civil Service as an 18-year-old, I was allocated to the Department of Justice, and posted to an office upstairs in a house in Pembroke Street. On the Ground Floor of that building was the office of the Censorship Board, and in the Basement, behind locked doors and barred windows, was the store of books that had been banned.

 

By the 1960’s the banning of books in Ireland had reached its zenith. Thousands of books were banned as ‘indecent or obscene’. Many classics of world literature were unavailable in bookshop or public library. The list included, for example, ‘Brave New World’, and ‘The Catcher in the Rye’ – which has been studied in our schools for many years now.

 

This Basement fascinated me, this vault into which the obscenity and iniquity and blasphemy of Ireland was collected, and kept under lock and key, like a silo of chemical weapons, for fear they might escape and contaminate the public. The catalogue of banned books was itself a formidable volume, hundreds of pages in tiny print.

 

I took an occasional ramble down to the Basement, but always found the door securely locked. My fascination had to be satisfied, however, and so I befriended the man who held the key to this underworld, a jovial old Dubliner called Charlie. When trust and brotherhood were established, I was soon able to express a casual interest in seeing the Censors’ Basement. No problem. Charlie agreed to give me a guided tour on our lunch break the following day.

 

It was a climactic moment for me as the heavy door creaked open and, obeying a furtive nod from Charlie, I entered Satan’s den. But, after that, it was all anti-climax. The rooms were crammed with books, mostly stacked on the floor, although there were some steel shelves with titles displayed library style. It was as if an original intent towards order had been abandoned to chaos, overwhelmed by the scale of the operation.

 

Charlie was the only source of order here. He seemed to know what books were in each bundle. He picked some up fondly and passed them to me for inspection. He seemed to have an intimate relationship with each volume, probably a result of having followed it from its original indictment, to its trial by the Board, to its eventual conviction and incarceration. I asked him if he had read many of the books. He shook his head. Reading dirty books was not for him. But he had no problem letting me borrow some.

 

The first book I borrowed was John McGahern’s ‘The Dark’. Its banning had been a major news story because the author had also been sacked from his job as a teacher. The modern reader would find it hard to see what could prove offensive in this lyrical coming-of-age novel. But I could see exactly, because the copy I was reading was the same copy that had passed around the Censors, and they marked all offending material in heavy blue pencil. A reference to a girl’s breast, for example, was strafed on sight.

 

Brendan Behan’s ‘Borstal Boy’ proved difficult to decipher, because of the continuous line of blue from beginning to end. But I managed. And progressed to an early novel by Brian Moore, ‘The Lonely Passion of Judith Hearne’, then to Frank O’Connor, Sean Ó Faoláin, Liam O’Flaherty, Benedict Kiely, Samuel Beckett.

 

What an introduction for an 18-year-old to the great literature that was barred to everyone else. Charlie eventually tired of coming down to let me browse, and just handed me the key whenever I wanted it. So I regularly spent my lunchtime down there in the bowels of iniquity, blissfully browsing through my private library.

 

By 1967 the inanity of censorship was being highlighted and criticised. The then Minister for Justice, Brian Lenihan, Senior, amended the legislation to limit a ban to 12 years. Suddenly all the great works of literature that had been banned over decades were released from captivity and were available in the bookshops.

 

Because so many great writers had been banned, there was a perception that it was a badge of honour to have been numbered among them. Twenty years later I met McGahern in person and became friends. And I put that point to him. From his reaction, I knew I had touched a sore spot. He told me that being banned hurt at the time, hurt deeply. Obviously the wound was still raw, even after twenty years of literary success.

 

After five years in the Department of Justice, I was moving on too. But it was with a heavy heart that I bade farewell to that wonderful archive of forbidden literature that formed my mind. I often wondered afterwards what happened to those sad volumes marked out for ignominy in unforgiving blue. Did they end up in a furnace somewhere in a final incineration of all our national sin?

 

Benedict Kiely aka Patrick Lagan

Benedict Kiely

Broadcast on Sunday Miscellany, RTE Radio 1, on 20 October, 2013

Listen to it on the RTE Podcasts:

 http://www.rte.ie/radio1/podcast/podcast_sundaymiscellany.xml

 

 My path crossed that of Benedict Kiely long before I realised it. Like everyone else I had been mesmerised by the rolling tones of the storyteller as he relayed his anecdotes and shared his insights on Sunday mornings through Sunday Miscellany. I had relished his books, his volume of short stories, ‘Journey to the Seven Streams’, his novel ‘Nothing Happens in Carmincross’, his wonderfully intense novella of the Northern Troubles, ‘Proxopera’, and many many more. I had the privilege of meeting him first in the mid-eighties, and any time I met him afterwards it was like bumping into an old friend.

Ben’s intimate knowledge of the Irish countryside and country life fascinated me, as did his phenomenal repertoire of stories, songs, and recitations. I was even more fascinated by his memory, his ability to recall any element of his encyclopaedic knowledge at will. During the early nineties, Guinness’s brewery treated the writers of Ireland to a series of complimentary lunches in different pubs in Dublin. It might have been to acknowledge the free promotion they had received from writers in the past, or the quantities of their product that had been consumed by this sector of the community. We did not question their motives, however, as we enjoyed their complimentary lunches and imbibed their complimentary drinks. At the end of one of these Guinness lunches I was sitting beside Ben and he started telling me the adventures of someone called Big Bill Enright, the greatest swimmer in Omagh town. He was still narrating when Frances, his wife, came over to say that their taxi had arrived. Ben excused himself, regretful to have been interrupted in full flow.

Six months later, I was seated for another Guinness lunch when Ben entered and sat beside me. ‘Jack,’ said he, ‘I was telling you about Big Bill Enright, the greatest swimmer in Omagh town’. And he took up the story exactly where he had left off, as if he had dropped out momentarily to go to the toilet.

When I was at secondary school in Ballyleague, Co Roscommon, my teacher, Fr Tom Foy was an ardent literary man, and persuaded the diocesan newpaper, ‘The Angelus’, to allocate a page to new poetry from local poets. Fr Foy himself edited this page, titled ‘Poets’ Corner’, and published my earliest literary efforts. My father was a blacksmith, but was working for Bord na Mona at the nearby Mountdillon Works. One day he was eating his lunch when a workmate beside him unwrapped his sandwiches and began reading the page of the ‘Irish Press’ in which they had been wrapped.

‘Hey, John, isn’t this your young fellow?’ he said, passing over the page of the newspaper to my father.

That evening it was spread out in front of me on the table at home. It was an article or column by someone called Patrick Lagan, who was sufficiently impressed by Fr Foy’s ‘Poets’ Corner’ to write an article about it. He extolled the virtues of having such a page in a local newspaper, and analysed the poems included. He finished off the article as follows: ‘I’d like to quote all these Elphin poets but space does not allow me. But since I’ve a particular fancy for the green land around Lanesboro, for its lakes, canals, and above all the spreading, majestic Shannon, let me quote a sonnet by Jack Harte of Lanesboro. He calls it ‘Lakeside Reverie’.

He then included the full text of the poem. And he ended up: ‘Every man, said George Moore – thinking of his beloved Lough Carra – has a lake in his heart. There’s a poet who would agree with him.’

I was overwhelmed. This man called Patrick Lagan had called me a poet and had re-published my poem in the Irish Press. It was my first step in the literary world, and I was enormously grateful to him. I cut out that article, with all its buttermarks and fingerprints, and pasted it into a brand new scrap book. I still have it to this day.

Towards the end of his life, Benedict Kiely published two volumes of autobiography, ‘Drink to the Bird’ and ‘The Waves Behind Us’. It was only when I read these that I found out Ben had written a column in the Irish Press under the name, Patrick Lagan. If I had known all those years earlier that it was Benedict Kiely who had praised my poem, I would have been even more overwhelmed.

When I mentioned to Ben that he had set my literary career in progress back in the sixties, he just smiled. ‘Yes,’ he said. ‘I had some good times travelling the country, Patrick Laganing’. And I could sense another story coming on.

St Cyril and a Cottage near Lanesboro

My regular Sunday morning chore as a kid was to buy the week’s supply of eggs. After Mass I would set off on my bike, the string shopping bag hanging from the handlebars, a ten-shilling note in my pocket.

 

The farmer from whom I bought the eggs was called Charlie Rhattigan, and he lived about two miles outside the town of Lanesboro in Co Longford. He was a lone bachelor growing into old age, like so many of his generation in the nineteen fifties. The initial impression he created was of a gruff, dour, inhospitable man. But, as I got to know him, I realised that this appearance was utterly deceptive. Sometimes when I approached the door of his cottage, I heard his gales of laughter, and the radio blaring, with the unmistakable tones of Maureen Potter in her weekly comedy show. But when I entered, he clammed up.

 

Yes, he was a shy man, and it was to break a moment of awkwardness one day that he went down to his bedroom and came back with two books, one a small one, one a huge tome in a leather cover. He put them in front of me, opened the small one, and pointed out a photograph. ‘Have you ever seen that house?’

 

I looked carefully. It was a thatched cottage, and the caption underneath read, ‘The house in which Fr Joseph Mullooly was born.’ There were still plenty of thatched cottages all over the countryside and, to me, this looked like any one of them. I quickly conceded defeat. ‘Don’t think of being a detective when you grow up anyway,’ Charlie tutted at me. ‘Why?’ ‘Because you’re sitting in that house right now.’

 

I grabbed the book and held it closer for inspection. Of course, now that I knew, I could recognise the distinctive features, even though if was obviously a very old photograph. ‘Who was Fr Mullooly?’ I asked.

 

‘He was my great-great grand uncle, and he excavated a church in Rome. Do you want to borrow the books and you can read all about him?’ Charlie was uncomfortable in conversation, and lending me the books, that were clearly his treasure, extricated him. But I was delighted, and intrigued. It was my first acquaintance with the kind of fame that was recorded in books.

 

The big tome was written by Fr Joseph Mullooly himself, who was born in Charlie’s cottage in 1812, and set out as a young man to join the Dominican Order in Rome. His ability was recognised and he was promoted at an early age to the position of Prior at the monastery of St Clement. He was clearly single-minded and fearless, and crossed words, if not swords, with Garibaldi in defence of his monastery.

 

But Fr Mullooly’s great achievement was as a pioneer of archaeology in Rome. His studies led him to believe that his church of St Clement was built on top of the early Christian basilica of the same name. So he began excavating the debris of centuries that had necessitated the building of the medieval church on higher ground.

Lo and behold, he discovered the intact early Christian basilica underneath. Underneath that again he found remnants of a pre-Christian temple. His discovery was the wonder of Europe. His presentation of the excavated site made it one of the main tourist attractions of Rome, and drew visits from crowned heads as well as those following the grand tour. The Prior of St Clements was celebrated all over the western world.

 

A few years ago, on one of my visits to Bulgaria, some writer-friends brought me to the Rila Monastery, their holiest shrine. ‘I presume this is where St Cyril is buried,’ I queried, referring to their national saint, who, with his brother St Methodius, had given the Slav nations their alphabet, the so-called Cyrillic alphabet. ‘No,’ they said, ‘St Cyril is buried in Rome in a monastery called San Clemente.’ ‘San Clemente,’ I uttered in disbelief. ‘Do you mean an Irish monastery, St Clement’s?’ ‘That is right,’ they replied. ‘An Irish monk excavated it and discovered the tomb of St Cyril.’

 

When I related this to the Bulgarian Ambassador, his Excellency Emil Savov Yalnazov, and told him about Charlie Rhattigan’s cottage, he determined to visit it. I accompanied him on his visit to lay a wreath in the birthplace of Fr Mullooly as a thank you from the Bulgarian people. The cottage had succumbed to the fate of all thatched cottages and was now roofless, but was otherwise lovingly maintained by the current owner. And while the Ambassador spoke to the assembled guests of the significance to the Bulgarian people of having the grave of their patron saint restored to them, I was recalling Sunday afternoons and Charlie Rhatigan quietly wrapping eggs in torn-up pages of the Farmer’s Journal.

Ambassador of Bulgaria, Emil Savov Yalnazov, centre, with Jack Harte left, and current owner John Killian
Ambassador of Bulgaria, Emil Savov Yalnazov, centre, with Jack Harte left, and current owner John Killian in the cottage where Fr Mullooly was born

A Pilgrimage to Hampstead

There is something about the pilgrimage, the sacred or ritual journey, that is deeply rooted in the human psyche. Muslims go to Mecca, Hindus to the Ganges, Roman Catholics to Lourdes or Fatima. I have never been to any of these places, never gone to Knock or done Lough Derg, but I have undertaken my own pilgrimages. I have done the stations at the Keeve, St Farnan’s shrine in Tireragh, Co Sligo. I have climbed Knocknarea, the mountain of the moon, with my stone carried from the base to be deposited on the cairn on the summit. And I have been to Hampstead.

Yes, Hampstead. Hampstead in the suburbs of London. That was the destination of a pilgrimage I made in the truest sense.

When I was a child I loved poetry. I loved the ring of it in the ear, the way it massaged the tongue when uttered voicelessly, the way it set in motion an ocean of waves and currents when it was given voice, its explosion of images when it was lobbed like a hand-grenade into the unsuspecting mind.

And I first encountered John Keats on the Leaving Certificate course. There was a selection of his poems to be studied, and, reading them for the first time, I was stunned, eventually besotted:

Then felt I like some watcher of the skies

When a new planet swims into his ken.

His great odes were there, To Autumn, On a Grecian Urn, and To a Nightingale, as well as La Belle Dame Sans Merci and a string of sonnets.

But it was Ode to a Nightingale that captivated me, held me in thrall as Keats might have put it, with its sheer magnificence, its scope, its sweep of imagery, and above all the profound longing it articulated. Ah, yes, for an adolescent in the early sixties, The Nightingale had everything. My English teacher at the time was the worst imaginable. He didn’t teach, he merely allocated chunks of text to be learned by heart, his only teaching aid a heavy stick. But for me that was perfect. He never commented on the text, never reminded us of an impending examination. So I imbibed The Nightingale in its purity, unadulterated by anyone’s erudition.

On my first trip to England at the age of nineteen, I had a sense of purpose, a pilgrimage to undertake. I was going to visit the house in Hampstead where Keats wrote The Nightingale. But this was not to be a flying touristic visit, this was going to be more of a sacred journey.

I left it to the last day of my holiday. I set out, on foot, from the centre of London in the early morning. The day was long, I had my map, and there were many significant stations along the way. By the time I reached my destination in the early afternoon, I was breathless, partly from the exertion of the long walk, partly from the sense of expectation. And I wasn’t disappointed. The houses where Keats and Fanny Brawne stayed were still intact. But I wasn’t interested in the memorabilia or the exhibits in the glass cases. I just wanted to breathe the air in the place, listen to the wind ruffle the leaves of the trees that might have sheltered the sacred bird. And, having done that, my mission was complete, well the first part of it anyway.

There is a stanza in The Nightingale that always aroused the most profound thirst in me, ensured that my days as a member of the Pioneer Total Abstinence Association were numbered, guaranteed that, as soon as I left school, I had to try and slake that thirst with alcohol:

O for a draught of vintage! That hath been

   Cooled a long age in the deep delvéd earth,

Tasting of Flora and the country green,

   Dance and Provencal song, and sunburnt mirth.

O for a beaker full of the warm South,

   Full of the true, the blushful Hippocrene,

With beaded bubbles winking at the brim

   And purple stainéd mouth;

That I might drink and leave the world unseen,

   And with thee fade into the forest dim.

The return leg of the journey was also part of the pilgrimage. The final station on the way was the most famous Irish pub in London, the Crown in Cricklewood. Poetry has consequences. And wasn’t it in the tradition of the pilgrimage to include an inn as a staging post?