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Nicholas Mackey

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I write. I take photos. Go figure.

That Wondrous Pleasure

You know that feeling, you open a book – yes, I’m sounding old-fashioned already having not yet truly joined the burgeoning kindle brigade – but on reading that first page I was hooked. Well and truly hooked. As I continued to read I felt the smoothness of the writing flow like a clear-running river as it navigated effortlessly the descriptions of the various bumps and eddies the main character of the book was experiencing in her life. But beneath the smooth surface there is an edge to her tale with murky depths not far off. 

In fact, I realised that as I read with increasing pleasure, I was consuming the book far too fast. I slowed down to savour the enjoyment of such incredibly good writing. I marvelled at how this writer broke the rules of authorship with finesse, redefined the word ‘silence’ for instance and then in a manner that was so ‘right’ manages to intertwine the physical and the abstract worlds that she was describing in her writing that I thought: “Gee whizz, this author knows her stuff”. I have grown envious of her well-honed and inimitable skill that at a touch adds drama to what she is talking about. Her phraseology can take on the essence of an expertly-flung, luminous javelin as it hurtles through your imagination with an unparallelled spiritual kick to it. It pierces deeply and you can feel it. It rocks you to your core so that somehow her moral thrust enters into your soul and you realise that she is forcing you to re-examine the most sensitive DNA of your ethical make-up. Permit me to quote a relevant part of the story I’m reading as the heroine skis down a mountain: “A keen wind that had been hiding itself struck me full in the mouth and raked the hair back horizontal on my head …… I plummeted down past the zigzaggers, the students, the experts, through year after year of doubleness and smiles and compromise, into my own past.” It also has the air of the confessional about it.

So far I’m half-way through her story and I’m amazed at my reactions and thoughts. It’s not often you read a book which makes such a unique impression. Now, here is a work written by a young woman some fifty years ago in America and I know her writing has affected me – a middle-aged man living 3,000 miles away in England in the 21st century. She has touched me profoundly and it is such an exciting discovery. There is something in her poetically sparse yet honest style that is so articulate which captures exactly what is being described at any given point in her book. But that’s not all. Somehow within this richly-endowed but concise technique of hers, the author can convey imagery and emotions with pinpoint accuracy. Every time she’s on the money with a minimum of narrative that is easy to read while communicating so much to her reader. Let me give you another example: the main character – a woman – is at the top of a snow-covered mountain in winter and the scene as experienced by her reads, “The cold air punished my lungs and sinuses to a visionary clearness.” It's her use of the word 'visionary' in this context that gives new meaning to the clarity of perception experienced on a freezing mountain during a clear winter's day. But yet at the same time within the same pithy sentence there are spiritual overtones verging on the poetic with the author penning the words, 'punished' and (again) 'visionary'. To pursue the quasi-religious metaphor further, she even touches on the idea of someone having a vision in connection with a supreme deity who might be living on high. In this way, her words multi-layered in meaning with differing 'connections' resemble James Joyce et al. in the use of this literary device.

I'm sure I've given you a sufficient number of clues as to who I'm reading at the moment and the well-known writer and poet who was married to another poet who went on to become Poet Laureate of England but, the author in question, sadly took her own life shortly after the publication of this her only novel in 1963 - a half century ago. I recall coming across this book as a first-year undergraduate way back in 1973 (only a decade after the author's sad demise) but was dissuaded from reading it because a group of militant feminists in Trinity at the time had hijacked this oeuvre loudly brandishing it as their pressure group mantra. But I'm glad to say that 40 years later I have rediscovered this gem and it is a wondrous pleasure. 

There is nothing like writing excellence and my goodness don't you know it when you come across it? This author's creative verve, in my opinion, provides us with an exclusive insight into the main character portrayed and the world around her. Why? Because as readers we have been most fortunate in being bequeathed a distinct 'visionary clearness' by this exceptional author, Sylvia Plath in 'The Bell Jar'.

(First appeared in Red Room, 18 September 2013) 


Recent Comments
Rosy Cole
A nice tribute Nicholas. I had same reaction upon reading The Bell Jar in my twenties, having been similarly stunned by Sylvia's p... Read More
Monday, 31 December 2018 13:31
Nicholas Mackey
Couldn't agree more with your comments, Rosie and the one major regret is that Sylvia Plath's early (and tragic) death removed a s... Read More
Sunday, 06 January 2019 18:53
1750 Hits

The Bolingbroke Hook

A note from my diary, Sunday 25th November 2018:

Yesterday, my wife and I joined four dear old friends in a south London watering hole called The Bolingbroke. We had a marvellous evening together and the name of the venue served as a hook to memory from 1969.

Now, there's a little story to tell about Bolingbroke, i.e. a character in a Tudor drama in this case rather than a location. Many years ago in Ireland, I was studying Shakespeare's Richard II at school as it was on our nation’s educational curriculum. Not only did we read it, but we studied it, we discussed it and then, joy of joys, we came to act it out. Among the dramatis personae of this play where our class was assigned the different roles of King Richard himself, Duke of York, John of Gaunt etc., I was given the part of Henry Bolingbroke, son of John of Gaunt. 

Our wonderful English master, Michael G. himself an Englishman and a veteran of the theatre where he had acted in repertory touring around England and Ireland as a younger man in the 1930s and 40s, would give us expert guidance on how to perform the various roles and what sort of play Richard II was. Fortunately, as our very same Michael G. was also our history teacher, he was able to place Shakespeare's drama within an historical context. This made for an enriched experience of not just the play, Richard II itself and the era in which the drama was set but Michael G. also delved into the technicalities of drama and even the structural aspect of Shakespearean plays. We even explored the fundamental nuts and bolts of Shakespeare’s dramatic writing in the form of rhyming couplets and the ubiquitous iambic pentameter occasionally interspersed with a trochee of course (not forgetting their classical antecedents) and our teacher even devised activities for us boys based on this poetic tool by organising the class into groups so that we would talk to each other in modern speech based on the iambic pentameter construction William S. himself had employed. We even played a simple game of consigning some of the capitals of the world either to the iambus or trochee camp on the basis of the inflection used in the pronunciation of the word. So, Madrid or Berlin, for instance, would be the former (unstressed followed by a stressed syllable) whereas Dublin, Paris or London would be the latter (stressed followed by an unstressed syllable).

It made the whole aspect of learning this stuff a complete and utter joy while also being very funny at times, so that I have such incredibly strong memories of these events of so long ago. I recall the intense excitement around this time as a young teenager when the whole shebang (iambus?) of the construct underpinning rhythm of speech used by Shakespeare and other playwrights ‘clicked’ one day and from then on there was no looking back. I found the role of Henry Bolingbroke so thrilling to act out and I remember researching about the actual historical character I was playing. Of course, in those days there was no internet so it meant a few extra-curricular forays on cold winter evenings where I had to hoof it down to our local public library which thankfully was well stocked with suitable volumes holding the kind of information I needed.

Our English teacher brought Shakespeare to life in such an imaginative and engaging way and as 14-year olds in class we revelled in the thrill of playing our respective roles in Richard II. For us boys back in Ireland in those days, it was exhilarating as we engaged with all the characters and the shenanigans of Richard II and his royal court. Michael G. did work us hard though. We initially read through Richard II and were also required to learn vast screeds of it off by heart, then we rehearsed it several times finally giving a performance of (most of) the play at the end of term.

It was around this time in the late 1960s, that the thought of acting and directing in the theatre entered into my consciousness as a possible future career and I remember the inner excitement that grew within as I learnt more about this fascinating universe. More later.

To add a frisson of delight to our connect with Richard II in our English lessons at this time, Michael G. invited a leading light from the drama society of Trinity College Dublin, Stephen R., to perform for us. Stephen was then an undergraduate who had already carved out a name for himself as an actor and director on the Irish stage while also building up a solid reputation as a ‘safe pair of hands’ when a theatrical production was under consideration. You have to imagine the buzz in that Dublin classroom of 49 years ago when Michael G. and Stephen R. acted out some of the 'highlights' from the play. I recall vividly how energised I was by this drama being played out in front of us during our remarkable exposure to literary education don't forget on some long-past rainy Tuesday afternoon and you were (mentally) whisked back to the end of 14th century England. As far as I was concerned, I had become witness to King Richard II and the nefarious goings-on in his kingdom. It was captivating. It was such fun.

When Michael G. and this supremely-talented Trinity player had concluded their virtuoso performance the whole class erupted into thunderous and prolonged applause. Then, our English master suddenly turned to me and asked me to stand and recite the famous speech of John of Gaunt which marks the start of the action from Act 2, Scene 1 of the play. As I’m sure you will recall, in this heartfelt address, a mortally ill John of Gaunt gives Kind Richard II a very frank dressing down.

I was utterly thrown by this request for two reasons: firstly, the teacher had not given me any forewarning of this and, secondly, as I had committed to memory all my lines as Henry Bolingbroke as directed by my teacher, I reckoned that he must have momentarily forgotten the original part assigned to me. I do remember standing in that class barely able to utter the words of another character, albeit the important personage of John of Gaunt. Thankfully, Stephen came to my rescue and assisted me and, little by little, I was somehow buoyed up by the magic of the moment, fuelled with adrenalin and swept along by the metrical cadence of the words of Shakespeare, the lines seemed to work their way through me and I was able to deliver John of Gaunt's soliloquy:

Methinks I am a prophet new inspired,
And thus expiring do foretell of him:
His rash fierce blaze of riot cannot last,
For violent fires soon burn out themselves;
Small showers last long, but sudden storms are short;
He tires betimes that spurs too fast betimes;
With eager feeding food doth choke the feeder:
Light vanity, insatiate cormorant,
Consuming means, soon preys upon itself.                                               

This royal throne of kings, this scepter'd isle,
This earth of majesty, this seat of Mars,
This other Eden, demi-paradise,
This fortress built by Nature for herself,
Against infection and the hand of war,
This happy breed of men, this little world,
This precious stone set in the silver sea,
Which serves it in the office of a wall,
Or as a moat defensive to a house,
Against the envy of less happier lands,
This blessed plot, this earth, this realm, this England.                             

This nurse, this teeming womb of royal kings,
Fear'd by their breed and famous by their birth,
Renowned for their deeds as far from home, etc.

Somehow, I managed to finish the speech and was surprised to receive applause from my classmates, our charismatic theatrical visitor and our inspirational English teacher. 

FYI, Stephen R. in later life went on to be the director of a well-known theatre in London and subsequently became a longstanding and successful head of a nationwide charity. Michael G. continued to inspire as our school's English and History master for many more years and he remains to this day a shining star in my firmament of learning. Subsequently, when Michael G.’s teaching career concluded, he had a long and happy retirement in Cornwall where I had the pleasure of spending some time with him in 1996 not long before he passed away later that same year. On that visit, I was particularly touched when he showed me that he had given pride of place to a family photo I had sent him some years before of my wife, two sons and myself. It was placed prominently on his mantelpiece.

So you see, when I come across the word Bolingbroke, I am reminded of that excitement of participating in a school play from nearly fifty years ago where, as a youngster, I got to play two parts, albeit briefly in a drama by William Shakespeare. Also, when reflecting on this episode of my life long past, I think I was most fortunate to have had such an excellent teacher during those formative years who encouraged a lifelong love of language, literature, reading, drama, history and learning.

P.S. Now that I come to think of it, the above speech of John of Gaunt could possibly serve as a swingeing metaphor for the whole ridiculosity of the entirotrocious Brexit debaclorumminimus but of course that is another kettle of physhch, as they say in Kinnegad.

Recent Comments
Stephen Evans
What a wonderful memory! I learned Shakespeare this way in college, by putting it on its feet and acting it, and I have loved thes... Read More
Sunday, 09 December 2018 14:51
Nicholas Mackey
Thank you, Stephen for taking the time to read and comment. Agreed that this method of acting the actual Shakespeare play brought ... Read More
Tuesday, 11 December 2018 11:53
Rosy Cole
I'm all in favour of being thrown in at the deep end! It's a great way to learn. No time for nerves or destructive self-consciousn... Read More
Sunday, 16 December 2018 16:56
2284 Hits

The Butterfly of Memory

An extract from my diary of 12th October 2018:

Today, a white butterfly caught my eye as it flew briefly through the tiny garden of our ground-floor flat and as the wee airborne insect fluttered about, I was reminded of an event of many years ago.

It was 1970 and I had just exited the family home in Fitzwilliam Place in Dublin heading towards the city centre. I was on my own and the weather was fine. I remember passing Fitzwilliam Square, an urban haven of greenery, trees and harmony, and as I did so, a white butterfly suddenly landed on my left shoulder. Whilst not breaking my stride, I glanced at this beautiful presence expecting it to fly away at any moment but my impudent yet fine-looking visitor seemed very much at ease on this mobile resting place. 

As a 15-year old boy, I was truly fascinated at what had happened and I did eventually slow down and stopped in my tracks as I couldn't take my eyes off this marvellous interloper still calmly seated on my shoulder. I noticed the outline of its translucent white wings varying in whiteness, its exquisitely-thin body and the two small antennae gently moving to and fro. To and fro. I walked on and I recall an upsurge of happiness inside me as I pondered on why this delicate, tiny creature of the air with gossamer-like wings had chosen me as a new friend; someone to trust.

I wondered if this was an omen of some sort: was I good person or perhaps I might not be a good person and this butterfly was sent as a warning so that I might mend my ways and banish any evil tendencies lurking in my soul. Would I lead a long and happy life, I mused, or would some other pathway be mine? 

My miraculous butterfly remained with me for ages and I felt emboldened with its presence as I left Fitzwilliam Square far behind me. In a way that I couldn't explain, I felt a connection with this new-found companion. I felt happy. Happy.

Then, with a sense of drama to match its exciting arrival, all of a sudden my friendly butterfly flew away and as it faded from my vision, I felt a twinge of sadness that I had lost someone close. I was alone again.

Perhaps, the white butterfly of today just spotted in my compact urban garden was a reincarnation of that Irish winged friend all those years ago. 


Recent Comments
Ken Hartke
Nice memory -- wondrous things happen if we pay attention.
Tuesday, 06 November 2018 06:43
Nicholas Mackey
Hi Ken, Thank you for reading and commenting. I'm always amazed at how such memories lie buried for years and then something by c... Read More
Sunday, 11 November 2018 12:25
Rosy Cole
By some quirk of coincidence, I was thinking about this kind of synchronicity the day you posted this lovely piece. Having spent m... Read More
Monday, 12 November 2018 18:26
2925 Hits

An Irish Photographer at the Royal Academy Summer Exhibition


At the time of the 2010 Royal Academy Summer Exhibition in London, I wrote the following:  

It was an anxiously-awaited letter from a certain auspicious institution that stopped me in my tracks late that Friday morning. I ripped it open with suitable theatrical disdain. It dramatically announced that ‘with over 10,000 entries, the competition was extremely strong’, yes, yes I thought, get on with it, ‘however I am delighted to inform you that your work..........’ the rest of the missive faded away momentarily from view as I tried to take in the magic of what had been written by my correspondent, Sir Nicholas Grimshaw CBE and President of the Royal Academy. I could not believe that a photograph of mine had ‘been selected and hung in the exhibition’ – the Summer Exhibition no less at Burlington House.

I was a newbie to all this (on my second attempt) but I was determined to enjoy every moment of it and my wife has observed on several occasions that I have been floating on Cloud 9 since then. Enclosed with the letter was what my father many years ago used to call a ‘stiffy’ – an embossed invitation to the quixotically-named Non-Members’ Varnishing Day.

The big day arrived and thankfully a gorgeous summer’s morn beckoned. I journeyed up on the train turning up a little too early at the exalted address in Piccadilly with the unholy zeal of someone who is a reformed latecomer. Only the exhibiting artists are invited – not even significant others are permitted and I find myself surrounded by arty types presumably and larger than life figures standing on plinths disporting themselves in striking poses in the courtyard outside. Since I lead such an inconsequential existence in rural south-east England, I do not recognise a soul but even I begin to take the hint when I see largish medals worn demonstrably by various women and men; that’s what an Academician must be then, I surmise simultaneously discerning the remarkable sculptures of the late Barry Flanagan.

It feels like my first day at school with attendant ‘butterflies’ but many others greet each other warmly as long lost friends and display the insouciance of being on familiar territory. A carnival atmosphere is palpable as a steel band is playing and a television crew is going through its paces with smiling media personality, Andrew Graham-Dixon in full flow to camera. While waiting I strike up a conversation with Austin Ruddy, a Yorkshire-based artist (with Irish roots, he proclaimed) and who has been here before. He seems so cool and relaxed, detached even. As I normally have a camera with me, I snap away.

We are then gently called to order and led by the ‘great and the good’ of the RA world to an age-old ceremonial of thanksgiving. This is a brief moment where a main London thoroughfare, Piccadilly falls silent for artists as we march proudly to St. James’s Church nearby. The tone for the service and also for the Summer Exhibition is set with an uplifting but warm atmosphere bolstered by a gentle reading from Sir Nicholas as above, some superb choral music and a riveting sermon from Professor Tina Beattie of Roehampton University who forcefully says that art has direct relevance for us today quoting the poignant account of an ill-timed delivery of lipstick to a Nazi concentration camp at the moment of its liberation by the Allies in 1945 and how the former inmates then used this item of make-up to strike an artistic blow against the depravity of their inhuman surroundings. Not one for emotional display, even I felt moved and dare I say it, tearful, at this point.

After the service, we all trooped back to the Academy for champagne plus canapés and naturally to see our own work on display. For the record, my photograph with an Irish theme, Four Courts Dublin was eventually located by a member of the Academy staff in the Porter Gallery (Room X) near to the exit high up on the wall. While milling around in one of the galleries where mutual congratulations are being exchanged, the sound of a bell is heard and someone says that a speech is being given. We make a move to the Central Hall where the President of the Royal Academy, Sir Nicholas himself was discoursing on the high number of entrants to the Exhibition and the challenge of choosing the final successful supplicants with this year’s focus on ‘raw’ in mind. Sir Nicholas then introduced a coterie of fellow Academicians who went on to make a number of awards to the winners of various creative categories.

I bump into Austin again and as he recalls I have a camera, he requests that I take a picture of his painting in the Small Weston Room. ‘No problem’, I say but as it is quite high up, getting a decent angle on it would be a dilemma. Unperturbed, Austin turns around and sees a fancy bright red step ladder – presumably placed there conveniently and with some forethought to enable us artists to touch up or varnish our works on this very day – after all, it is Varnishing Day. Austin and I haul the piece of equipment near to his painting and he offers to hold the ladder securely as I mount it; I notice that we have become comrades-in-arms by now. No worries as I leapt up the contraption like a ferret after its prey. Very conveniently the restraining bar at the top is at just the right height to balance my camera on and I take two snaps of Mr Ruddy’s painting. At that moment, a polite kerfuffle beneath me ensues – I guess all such encounters at the RA are conducted with such finesse – where Austin is now locked in an exchange with an official who warns of the dangers associated with our actions and that health and safety is being infringed. As I feel confident about the pictures just taken, I decide to descend the ladder and meekly comply with this jobsworth’s ruling. Just at that moment, a young lady barred my path downwards with false bonhomie, asking mysteriously: “Is that a G9?” while pointing at my camera. Fortunately we photographers are switched on to such exciting developments in our lives and I immediately clicked into ‘techie mode’ recognising her rather impudent inquiry about my equipment. I crisply replied: “No, actually it’s a G10” showing my camera to her as best I could as I endeavoured to evade the steely glare of the gallery apparatchik who was by this time tugging at the step ladder to wrest it from Austin’s grasp lest we use it again. The impetuous camera lady then melted back into the crowd. As an Irishman abroad, I noticed that the fuss with Academy officialdom was amicably concluded in that quintessential English manner but this little vignette of an episode is emblematic of how a modern Britain is seized with a new tyranny: that the infantilising dogma of health and safety abuts awkwardly against certain well-oiled artistic practices of the past. But I digress.

Later on, when the throng had departed I walked around undistracted gazing in wonder at the inventiveness and creative skill exhibited. It was truly exciting but let me give you a very brief flavour of what is on show: David Mach and his striking collage, Babel Towers next to his incredible sculpture, Silver Streak (think of King Kong) made entirely of coat hangers; Bill Jacklin’s intriguing inkjet print, Wollman Rink 1; Norman Ackroyd and his enchanting etching on stainless steel, Gallapagos; The Crown of Esfahan: Mosque of the Sun, an entrancing and intricate creation of brass, paper and ink by Sara Shaffei and Ben Cowd. The whimsical but telling message contained in the topical sculpture, Crash Willy by Yinka Shonibare – winner of the coveted Wollaston Prize plus a cheque for £25,000; take note of the vehicle registration, if you can.

Irish artists are well represented and indeed triumphant with Elizabeth Magill’s large oil painting with a mysterious feel to it, Blue Hold which earned her the Sunny Dupree Family Award for a woman artist and Paul Murphy’s award-winning Untitled, a c-type photographic print. Other artists on show with Irish connections are: Carey Clarke, Francis Matthews, Terry McAllister Padraig MacMiadhachain, Séan Scully and Hughie O’Donoghue. The Exhibition is on until 22nd August.

No doubt there will be rumbustious critics who will lambast this artistic extravaganza with well-chosen bon mots based on entrenched prejudices fossilised sometime in the Kensington or Soho ateliers of the 1950s and who then enter into this post-modern world of wonder and inspiration sometimes verging on the anarchic only to weald an axe of destructive blithering ignorance. But I digress, again.

As a photographer, I should confess to a certain bias but Room X did have a number of striking images many of which were produced with the help of a camera rather than a brush, palette knife or chisel, such as Suzanne Moxhay’s Cablecar and Swarm, both archival digital prints with an indefinable eeriness about them. Also, Allen Jones’ Undressed Hatstand, a black and white silver print; Substrate Shadow, an archival digital print by Barton Hargreaves and Nicola Walsh’s Envelopes, a c-type digital print; all these images spectacularly observed the official remit of ‘raw’ for the Summer Exhibition. I was further heartened when chatting to Sir Nicholas Grimshaw towards the end of Varnishing Day when he voiced strong support for the photographic element of this event. This positive attitude should send out a welcoming signal to photographers that their images are now being taken seriously by the arts world; the Royal Academy has accepted photographs at the Summer Exhibition since 2006.

As a newbie, this magical day was coming to an end and I savoured it to the last knowing that for a very brief moment I had been privileged to play a small part in this world-class artistic occasion. It may never happen again but now that the lotus flower of the Summer Exhibition has been tasted ...............

©Nicholas Mackey 2010


Recent Comments
Rosy Cole
A graphic mix of subjective and objective experience on a wonderful occasion! And a very poignant account of the Nazi concentratio... Read More
Thursday, 07 September 2017 13:48
Nicholas Mackey
I appreciate the kind words in your comment and the words of that sermon I referred to in my article re. the value of art in our l... Read More
Sunday, 10 September 2017 23:05
Rosy Cole
You're welcome, Nicholas!
Wednesday, 13 September 2017 18:13
3877 Hits

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