Tag Archives: Alexander McCall Smith

Commonplace Thoughts of a Residual Welshman: Making Out on Cape Cod with Skunks

Contrary to popular belief, I have no penchant for philological congresses. I much prefer visiting the strikingly beautiful state of Montana, where I am now, spending time with a friend, Barbara, a pianist/philologist, though not a professional musician. She, in turn, has another good friend who is a member of the Crow tribe (Apsáalooke to outsiders; Biilooke to their fellow Crows). That Crow friend of my friend, by the name of Aaron, as well as being a cultural anthropologist, is a philologist, too. Here in Montana I had the pleasure of hearing him as he offered an impressive lecture on the Crow language and an understanding of the nation’s origins and religion.flag_of_the_crow_nation

The way I meet these philologists, Crow or otherwise, is quite accidental and probably stems from or is at least mildly associated with my reading of Alexander McCall Smith’s Portuguese Irregular Verbs, which is one of my favorite light reads—I’m due to read it again any day. If you’ve not read it, I commend it to you. I once discussed that very book with its author over dinner and drinks. But that’s another story; needless to say, Smith was surprised when I told him I knew so many philologists (actually, it’s not that many; but they do have a way of meeting me). Indeed, he was surprised that I even knew what philology was. (Now, just in case you don’t happen to know this word that is so esoteric these days that even the American Philological Association, to the chagrin of many, changed its name; it is the love of the logos, which in the case of philology is language.) In the casportuguese-irregular-vergse of Easter, I imagine it could be something else, something indebted to the first chapter of John. But that is the subject, yet again, of some other blog some other time, even if this is the appropriate weekend in both the Roman and Orthodox calendars, the first time in a long time those calendars have aligned.

Nonetheless, all that is well off topic, for I opened by mentioning about how beautiful Montana is; yet I don’t want to write about that or even how delightful Portuguese Irregular Verbs is or even how complicated Portuguese irregular verbs can be, but rather about a particular philologist of blue-collar Irish descent from Boston by the name of O’Reilly. Instead, I want to write about his father. For at this congress the younger O’Reilly happened to tell me a story over a beer. And that story is the subject of today’s blog—the story of his father, James, if names can be true.

I believe it all began in the second grade when James met Sarah McGillicutty, a fair skinned first-grader with red Irish hair and freckles enough for two. Now James, the future father of a fine philologist, loved her all through school, from Dorchester Grammar School to Dorchester High. But they went their separate ways at high school graduation, he to enlist for war, which by then was raging in Europe, she to secretarial school. Now just before they graduated that selfsame future father of my philological friend found his philological moment, writing a lovely sonnet to the girl, a poem she would treasure her whole life, like herself, a thing of beauty, a joy forever.

James married, had a family, but lost his wife to cancer some fifteen years ago. Sarah, though she was a beautiful woman, she never found true love. By age 22 she had a job in the police station as a dispatcher where she flirted with all the handsome young cops, one of whom (not the one she was hoping for) proposed—the “good match” had been encouraged not a little by her working-class father—even though he was a man easily ten years her senior. He was a certain Michael Thomas O’Mally, the stereotypical “Officer O’Mally” who walked a beat down by the docks. Before their fifth anniversary that selfsame O’Mally would be punched in the face and sadly die when trying to break up a fight in one of those rough bars that one finds all too often near the docks. Poignantly, Sarah took the call that reported an officer down.

As if to avenge his tragic death, Sarah, radiantly beautiful at age 28, went herself to officer training school, a rarity in that epoch, and became a good cop—a damn good cop, she used to say—for quite a long time, though she stayed away from the docks, working instead in a Boston suburb, Lexington being its true name. But disaster would visit her again, as she held a young man as he died, struck and abandoned by a reckless motorist. In her arms, a man whose death left her with no optimistic prophecy, no hope.

bowieSo she resigned from the force at about age 35 and moved to New Mexico, where she became a painter and met David Bowie. I did query my friend thoroughly about this, but he insisted it is true, though he did not know all the details—just that it something to do with art. Sarah became so close to that singer, staying in touch with him throughout her life, that he even once gave her two (undoubtedly expensive) oil paintings that he himself wrought. There, in lovely Santa Fe, she married a friend of Mr. Bowie, a wealthy rancher, and now nearly 40 years old even had a child by him. But tragedy struck once more, and her Irish eyes went from smiling to weeping, as she discovered, yet again that mortal things touch the heart. Her second husband also died in a bar fight that she sadly witnessed, for they were on a date to celebrate their third anniversary—such are the vagaries of life in the wild southwest.

Perhaps it will come as no surprise to learn that she moved back to the Boston area, never to enter a bar again, with or without a date. Specifically, she moved to the norther section of Cape Cod, where James encountered her when he was visiting the Cape with his church group. Managing to break away from the group, James and Sarah found a few minutes together to kindle their erstwhile romance afresh, sustaining it by a furious epistolary exchange worthy, my O’Reilly the younger would no doubt say, of the Ovidian double epistles.

And soon James took the local bus from Boston to the cape at least once a week to spend time with Sarah. On one of these trips, the loving, elderly couple tottered off to the beach, a short walk from still lovely Sarah’s lovely beach home adorned with artwork by David Bowie. After a lovely dinner and ample exchange of life stories—hers was of course the more interesting, for her son had turned out to be a diplomat, whereas James’ son is a mere philologist—the two of them took a lovely stroll along the beach, coming to rest on two Cape Cod style wooden beach chairs where they found momentary repose. A kiss, a hug, and then they reclined together, two old bodies entwined in love and friendship with the hope, perhaps of a new marriage. The sea and shore bore witness to the evening that was harbinger of such a hope, stardust zigged and zagged above them, the wind sang Ave Maria, the moon providing its face as if of a priest to pronounce them man and wife. They kissed again to seal their unspoken vows that were reflected in a brief recitation from memory by Sarah of a poem written some fifty years ago.capecodpostcard

All this would have continued on the romantic course were it not for the fact that two uninvited guests wandered into their fantasyland wedding. As they reclined there two skunks began to rub their feet and ankles. At first they thought that the soft and furry feeling was that of a cat, but lo, the smiling moon’s light proved otherwise. These skunks were quite calm and affectionate, almost domesticated by visitors, as they often haunted this beach. (The larger one, they found out later, was named “Jay” by tourists). They laughed, stayed calm and so avoided a malodorous misadventure. And that is the moral of the story, a tale of two old people’s modern love that triumphed in the end over the guiles of a skunk named Jay that, on that romantic evening, failed to make their long-lived love stink.tree-bee-drawing


Commonplace Thoughts of a Residual Welshman: Mars and French Food

north windAnyone who has ever been outside in a severe and bitingly cold wind knows what wind can do to your face, if you have not wrapped yourself with a scarf. It can dry out your face, crack your lips, and shiver every timber of your being. It can, in short, almost take your face away, if you don’t protect it.

Even on Mars, apparently, there have been such winds, no doubt colder and more severe than even the bitterest of such winds on this planet. Solar winds (gusts supercharged by particles from the sun) have recently been determined—thanks to the interestingly acronymed “MAVEN” observatory spacecraft—to have taken away Mars’ atmosphere.[1] These same wind-driven particles would sweep ruinously over our own planet, too—and do touch down here, but only at the poles, creating our spectacular northern lights

Northern Lights
Northern Lights

—if it were not for our robust atmosphere, an atmosphere held in place simply because of our planet’s fiercely abiding magnetic field. In other words, when Mars lost its sense of north and south, its compass as it were, Mars surrendered its atmosphere to the winds. This did not happen all at once, scientists believe; it happened slowly over time until finally the winds dominated the atmosphere that had once protected and have entirely reshaped the landscape.


Even the dust that covers its surface is foreign to Mars. What appears to us to be, and has long been called the red planet, was once not red at all. It was once a fecund place, or at least had the possibility to be so. It might have looked a bit like earth. It might have been able to sustain life, even if not that of Matt Damon, MattDamon Martianat least some kind of life. Yet when Mars lost its atmosphere, it lost its capacity to do so. Oceans, rivers, everything that could have produced agriculture, and culture, were gone.

My great-grandfather died before I was born, as most do. (His story is recorded in the Curious Autobiography [pp. 169–73], where he is correctly portrayed as a chef for Welsh miners.) He brought his cultural identity—French, in his case—as a contribution to his existing family culture, of which at that time was predominantly Welsh. I was thinking about him (and Mars) recently because, even as I write this, I am in France attending a colloquium. (The colloquium is on philology, not the most poultry area of study these days. If you wish to know more about this “p” word, I commend the fine book along with the series based on it: Portuguese Irregular Verbs, by Alexander McCall Smith. Portuguese verbs)

Aside from the obvious, such as being in France, sipping coffee in a delightful cafe or the occasional glass of Bordeaux, and superb French dining (from one dish of which I affix a recipe below, one that I understand from family lore my great-grandfather prepared, though what you will see below is not his recipe precisely, but my own recollection of what I ate just a few days ago), one interesting facet of such a conference is the opportunity for rich dinner-time or happy-hour conversations. Such conversations usually are held in numerous “scholarly” languages: German, English, Italian and, of course, French. (It was lamented by at least one Italian philologist that the Spaniards are so sorely underrepresented.) Nonetheless, in case you’re wondering, Mars was not discussed, so I will not yet tell you why I opened with that semi-scientific ramble. Instead, as is often the case with my European friends and acquaintances, topics that come up rather naturally are food (a tasteful subject, of course), life’s difficulties (particularly fiscal problems and taxes), politics, and sex (though chiefly only insofar as sex relates to political issues such as population growth or how impractical having children is, which of course it is for philologists). The first two of these—that is the incongruous coupling of food with worries about the economy—normally dominate the discussion, though I prefer the last of these topics, because I, in fact, like children. Yet at this philological “colloque” (to use the French appropriately), a rich discussion arose about cultural identity. So again, as I said above, I thought of my French great-grandfather, James Jacques, who bore in his person the family name that would later be spelled Jakes and would itself incongruously represent a culturally Welsh family.

To my new European friends, the problem was clear: the bitter chill of a wind of a new cultural identity has begun sweeping across the continent. This chilling wind was not, in the eyes of the person who was speaking to me with a low voice—low not out of shame or embarassment but out of, it seemed to me, grief or desperation—welcome. When I say “in the eyes of” this well-educated, middle-aged Italian professoressa (as such female educators are there known), I speak not of her opinion, but of the clear sense of sadness that I could see in those eyes.

“Italy’s borders are porous,” she said, “there is sea everywhere . . . Tanti musselmani vengono. So many Muslims keep coming in. Have you been to Genova?” She asked me. I nodded. “The culture there—the Italian culture is overrun. It is the same in France. Have you been to Marseilles lately?” she added. “We in Italy are losing our cultural identity. We are losing our food, our country, our heritage.”

Impolitically I added, “Some of that you sadly gave up when churches became mere museum pieces and when you gave your lire up for the Euro.”Lire billEuro

“It’s terrible,” another added despondently, “the loss of the lire, I mean.”

As the conversation ran its course, it became clearer and clearer to me that the professoressa (or any of the Italians present) was not “islamophobic.” She was not a hater of anything new or different. They all had high regard for religion and the shared moral code—what C.S. Lewis calls the “Tao,”[2]—that religions can offer. She was merely stating, as gently as she could, the difference from the old days and the way cultural acceptance is nowadays mandated in a politically correct world. She was affirming but lamenting the obvious: now, instead of the immigrant trying, but ultimately failing, to hold on perfectly to his heritage, he expects society (and society tells him to expect) to accommodate his every wish. He expects full inclusiveness, so that if an author were to be foolish enough to write “he” instead of “he or she” or “he/she” or, now I have also read, “zhe” (for which many a German is secretly rejoicing), or viley to use “they” as if it were the singular pronoun, they would no doubt be pilloried, mocked, or at least corrected.

Yet as I am not politically correct (though I do try to be polite), I not only did not rebuke her, but agreed that the immigrant needs to adapt to the culture, not the other way round. “But we are losing our culture, and I am not sure what can be done about it,” she said raising her voice the way one might at the end of a sentence with a question.

At this point I want to be clear: this fine person was not saying that Italy and Europe should not have a heart for the poor and disenfranchised. Rather, she was saying that in her view solar-charged winds are blowing, winds capable of wiping out a culture. And she is right. “When I was in Paris,” one of the other interlocutors said, “I heard the subway announcements in French and Arabic.”

And then I thought again about Mars, and my great-grandfather. Mars was overrun by winds that destroyed its atmosphere. That happened because it lost its magnetic field. It lost its sense of north and south.

“Europe has lost its moral compass,” another added. “I remember when my grandparents would eat their dinner—even in a restaurant like this one, they would cross themselves and say a blessing—every time! Now, well, nothing, just ‘Buon appetito!’”

And then I thought, yet again, of Mars. It lost its atmosphere because it lost, as it were, its compass. That compass, for Europe had long been not some new, insufficient and intolerant form of impolitical political correctness. It has been, rather, for lack of a better word, the Church. “Now no one crosses himself,” she added, a few seconds later, despondently.

So I close this blog not with an answer, not the answer Elaine Jakes at the close of her autobiography espouses I once gave to a dour presbyter in Wales (Curious Autobiography, p. 253) but with a question. Has America lost its moral compass? Are we more concerned about accommodating others, so worried about ensuring the privileges of a few that we actually harm and debunk the rights of all? My French great-grandfather cooked in the French manner, but what he offered was a contribution to a preexisting society; he did not make demands of it. Even the predominant ethnic group learned the language of Pennsylvania, English. I have learned to speak Texan (as best I can). I would not expect Texans to adopt my predominently Phillyesque accent. Or cook me cheessteak at a barbecue. But I ask again, are we so worried about the privileges of a few that we could actually harm the rights of everyone? If we bow to the demands of a politically correct world, could we soon wind up in the position that Europe now finds itself?

You ponder that one. I will return to my delightful French food. I recommend the potato dish, below. I just had it in Claremont-Ferrond, a city so nice they named it twice.

Tartiflette[1] CNN news (11/5/2015).

[2] C.S. Lewis, The Abolition of Man, passim.