In episode six, our correspondent Jakob Ligvine Kreek finds himself at the launch of a book reissuing the essays of the late Hubert Butler. While despairing an increase of €1 excise on a bottle of wine in the latest austerity budget Ligvine considers whether these historic texts could offer an opportunity to re-think the Nation and re-drink the State. Could the sensibilities of Hubert Butler present an alternative to drowning our sorrows?
Aghast at the prospect of another draconian budget I found myself perusing the Irish Times for a distraction and came across a talk and book launch concerning works by the late Hubert Butler that was taking place in the Hub in Trinity College. The talk was to feature two of the great Irish literati of our day: Fintan O’Toole and John Banville. Both writers are great fans of the essayist who had been regarded as a malcontent and an unsettling annoyance to the architects of the newly independent Irish State. As a commentator on Irish society and also the greater world, Butler could be regarded in an Irish context as a non-conformist that caused horrific embarrassment to the profoundly catholic and inward looking administrators of the newly formed Free State and subsequent Republic. The distinct advantage enjoyed by Hubert Butler was that as a member of that more cosmopolitan constituency within Irish life, known as the protestant ascendancy class, he was perhaps at liberty to consciously look beyond the shores of this island, beyond the blinkers that the catholic church imposed upon the general masses, to develop his musings on the sensibilities of Irish culture and daily life. One of his greatest attributes was the way in which he always turned to the particular to address the universal.
I have always believed that local history is more important than national history. Where life is fully and consciously lived in our own neighbourhood, we are cushioned a little from the impact of great far-off events which should be of only marginalised concern to us. (Hubert Butler)
This sentiment resonated loudly in light of the austerity budget that had just been announced only a few hours before at Leinster house. Banville lamented the failure of the gombeen run state, and in light of the measured writings of this wonderful essayist, he wondered should we reinstate the protestant classes to administrate the banks and the country on our behalf. It was enough to drive a believer in this nation born of revolution, such as myself, to DRINK!
Speaking of drink….the assembled crowd were eyeing up the voluptuous brimming wine glasses laid out on the tables in the upper lounge. Due to the curious architecture of the splendid building, full of the logic of modernist architectural sensibility, the wine could be seen through the glass walls of the interior of the Hub on the floor above. What added an even greater level of anticipation, as the crowd looked up longingly at the inviting liquid, was the full knowledge that the minister for hardship had just added a full euro to the excise duty on the old bottle of vino. Full of dismay I was determined to fortify myself against the austerity by imbibing as much of the free wine as I possibly could. It was evident from the words of Banville and O’Toole that this damaged nation needed to be fortified against austerity and perhaps that in some peculiar way the words of Butler could help us navigate our collective consciousness back to a new found confidence. They even suggested that Hubert Butler could help redress our lost sense of place in the greater world. It all seemed to be a bit of a stretch. This stretching of logic seemed characteristic of the actual conversation between the two great minds of Banville and O’Toole as it was beginning to stretch on to some unknown point in an infinite future. The lengthening reflexive talk of the literary discourse could hardly be endured as the anticipation of imbibing the wine grew. Question, after question, after question, would there be no end to this interminable chatter? The audience were getting restless. The winter coughs and splutters became more audibly noticeable until Banville finally announced he was getting tired. What a relief to hear the rippling of the final applause. Although the audience was dominated by the literary and journalistic set the eagerness with which they tackled the stairs to get to the free bar was a familiar and warming sensation that made an art opening ligger like myself feel right at home.
The wine was very palatable indeed. For the red drinkers they were serving a Pasqua Montepulciano d’abruzzo 2011 from the Veneto, described as having, “piercingly fresh fruit flavours lounging amongst a great structure, it’s rich and juicy, plummy and suitably well priced” (www.Glengarrywines.co.nz). This formidable family owned winery began in 1925 and is the last winery operating from within Verona city. The white was also from the Pasqua range. This time they presented a Pinot Grigio 2011, “a fresh, fruity wine with lots of crunchy fruit. Crisp, citrussy acidity and a well balanced finish.” (http://www.majestic.co.uk/find/product-is-13230). Both of these enjoyable choices certainly added to the romantic flare of the fine literary evening. It must be said that this book launch had reached a little higher on the off licence shelf than most art openings might. I was wondering if they may fear the possibility of an embarrassing review that could appear in a varying range of publications. When you think about it, one could almost say that the lack of avenues for publishing art reviews comes as a distinct advantage when one considers the awful dross that many art galleries present to their opening audiences.
As I slowly descended into a grape fueled reverie I delighted in recalling the witty prose of Banville during the earlier discussion. He had certainly struck a chord with the sensibilities of yours truly when he stated in reference to Butler: “he understood, in a way, that to survive in this world we must suppress our imagination.” I personally find the best way to do this is with a bottle of the grape juice. Normally this would be my first option but profoundly the words of Banville and O’Toole convinced me to buy both volumes of essays which I am currently reading fastidiously. I would recommend these unique and erudite essays to anyone seeking a fresh and alternative view of Irish and international events, politics and culture written at a time when most other Irish commentators and writers were afraid of running against the insular agenda that grasped the nation in a regressive spiral of ignorance, intolerance and fear. But never fear dear reader no matter how much of this ascendancy commentary I read, the foul practice of protestant temperance isn’t rubbing off….I hope!
The launch of this reissue of the essays of Hubert Butler took place in the Hub, Trinity College Dublin on the 5th of December 2012. The two volumes “The Egg Man and the Faeries” and “The Invader Wore Slippers” are published by Notting Hill Editions www.nottinghilleditions.com and are retailing for £10stg each plus postage.