Last Night's Fun
Ciaran Carson (North Point Press)
Purportedly about Irish music, Last Night's Fun is in fact about much more. Music is the instrument with which the author leads his reader through reminiscences that have as many twists and turns as the back alleys of his Belfast youth, and the book does include passages that require a musical background to fully understand and appreciate. But in the end, one need not know a dirge from a ditty to delight in Carson's descriptions of Wellington boots, schoolrooms, movies, smoking, eating, pubs, drinking (lots of drinking), etymology - and time. Indeed, time is a recurring theme throughout Carson's book, though the reader is not always sure of where in time he is. "We are in Ballyweird on the outskirts of Portrush, County Antrim," Carson writes in his opening sentence, "and it's the morning after the night before" — the first of many such mornings, the reader quickly discovers. Carson does eventually note, "I think it's 1979," which is often as precise as he gets.
Carson doesn't worry about such matters as clocks and calendars, however, because for him, time is as ever-changing as the tunes he describes, and the two are inexorably bound. Speaking of one Irish tune — and it could be all — Carson writes, "Each time the song is sung, our notions of it change, and we are changed by it. The words are old. They have been worn into shape by many ears and mouths, and have been contemplated often. But every time is new because the time is new, and there is no time like now."
Early on he asks the reader, "...do we ever fully know a tune, or only versions of it, temporary delineations of the possible?" It is a question he ponders — and answers — throughout his unusual book. Speaking of an "absolute version of a given tune," he writes, "...such a thing clearly does not and never did exist.... The song," he concludes, "is always open to negotiation." An accomplished flute player, Carson is also a gifted writer whose descriptions transport the reader to wherever Carson's meandering memory takes him — which is just about anywhere.
His destination could be, for example, the Belfast workshop of flute maker Sam Murray. Carson conjures up this studio in all its cluttered beauty, its "many-layered scent of shellac, beeswax, raw and boiled linseed oil, tallow, almond oil, aromatic blackwood shavings, nitric acid and ammonia....I believe," he writes, "you can smell the blue steel blades and boxwood handles of the antique tools: gravers, gouges, chisels, pliers, diamond files and flat files, pincers, chasers. You can pick one up and feel its oily-sharp edge with grainy specks of sawdust on it. Then there are the immense solid lathes with their treadleboards and black cast-iron flywheels and counterweights, their headstocks and their tailstocks, their spindles and their mandrels."
He transports us, also, to O'Looney's Bar, where the author and his pub-crawling cronies arrive "by dint of polyphonic after-hours negotiation, by hooks and crooks of bendy roads and out-of-kilter crosses.... The floor is earth," he writes. "The smell is mould and alcohol and earth and smoke of turf and nicotine. Candles gutter in their yellow cataracts of wax. A turf fire glows at one end of the room. There is a makeshift bar at the other. In between are shapes hunched over instruments and tunes and tables. Feet pound the earth floor."
The reader can smell the food cooking when Carson describes the makings of a fry — the obligatory morning-after meal: "It's all sizzling in the pan. The almost-visible aroma wafts through the house. Soon, everything will be arrayed on mismatched plates. We will contemplate it briefly before eating it: the wavy bacon and the frilly-crisp, flipped-over eggs; the puckered burst seams of the sausages; the milk-tooth bits of fat in the black pudding."
Carson's humor fills the book with its own brand of music — he tells a great joke — and his love of life and the love of life of those around him are evident throughout. But musicians he of course holds in special regard: Carson likens his fellow players to "chameleons" who "have independent eyes by which they recognize each other while they blink at someone else. They understand that time itself is a chameleon, so they mark it and they keep it, and they syncopate it."
Even the rain doesn't daunt these players of Irish songs. Carson describes one sodden evening of music when the pub crowd has overflowed into a jerry-built tent in the backyard. "Everyone is spluttering and laughing into their wet pints," he writes, "and they don't give a damn, for this is any-weather music." In an any-weather book.