The best of Eileen Battersby, from Tolstoy to Paul Simon

Eileen Battersby with her horse Sophie in 2010. Photograph: Alan Betson

Eileen Battersby, the late Irish Times literary correspondent, who died on Sunday, December 23rd, after a car crash in Co Meath, was renowned for both the depth of her knowledge and the range of her writing. Here are some samples of her three decades of journalism for this newspaper, with links to the full articles.

1988: Tolstoy

From Making sense of Tolstoy
Saturday, May 21st, 1988
Just as the 20th-century novel continually looks to Joyce, the 19th-century novel owes a huge debt to the eccentric Russian count for whom fiction was his version of how he wanted life to be. The story of Lev Tolstoy (1828-1910), monomaniac, psychological realist, domestic monster and saint, is one of contradictions and puzzles...

Born into one of imperial Russia’s grand old families – albeit one on the slide – Tolstoy was the fifth son. He spent his adolescence staring in the mirror, hoping for beauty and lusting after the servants. He had his first sexual experience at 14 and promptly burst into tears.

His brothers were the usual Russian mix – Nikolay went into the army on graduating, Sergy committed himself to fornicating with gypsies and Dmitry became a “Holy Idiot “ for a time. Read the full article here

1995: Darina Allen

From Simply Darina
Thursday, December 21st, 1995
It is a dark, winter afternoon. All along the coast, the sea is white. Even the smaller headlands look lonely, almost menacing. The streets of Youghal are deserted. Moving inland, the east Cork landscape softens. Bending under the weight of the relentless wind and rain, the bare trees are battered but defiant. On entering Shanagarry, there is a slightly surreal quality about Stephen Pearce’s brightly illuminated pottery shop, boldly named The Emporium, as it stands alone against the sky. But Ballymaloe Cookery School and gardens, despite the wild weather lashing the courtyard, are calm. From inside a nearby traditional-style henhouse, several watching hens appear mildly interested in the humans dashing in and out of the rain.

It is very romantic; atmospheric and evocative of times past, although there is also a strong sense of organised industry underlying the romance. These are people who have created a beautifully civilised lifestyle through a diversity of occupations and pursuits which all point back to the land. The cluster of 18th-century farm buildings covered with climbing roses and painted in faded pink wash – Venetian red powder mixed with burnt lime – have been transformed into luxury holiday homes and also provide accommodation for the students pursuing residential courses.

The converted apple house, now the main school kitchen overlooked by a huge ceiling mirror, provides the setting for the cookery programmes which have helped make Darina Allen’s face famous across Ireland. Willow baskets, timber, stoneware and terracotta furnish the cookery rooms. “I like real things. I want a kitchen to be soft, not clinical.” The school’s international reputation has established her in cookery circles all over the world.

The last of the graduating students of the three-month residential course which has just ended are preparing to leave. The farewell party of the night before went on late into the following morning. Allen is in her family kitchen at the rear of her house, a small room dominated by a large, old-fashioned schoolroom clock and a traditional pine dresser. “Bought by me for Tim [her husband] for £10 – when £10 was a lot of money.”

There is also the expected Aga cooker. “That one is 50 years old. Agas have always been a part of my life, I grew up with one.”

The absence of the dreaded microwave makes one immediately feel secure. Read the full article here

1996: Michael Viney

From Beachcomber extraordinaire
Thursday, October 10th, 1996
It is a murky day, with heavy constant rain given to sporadic glutting, the kind of rain which slides into your boots and moves deftly down your neck, into your coat. Croagh Patrick is shrouded in cloud. There are no long views today; the countryside appears almost bled of colour. The grey sea looks angry. The Viney house, with its two roofs and barrier of trees in a place of few trees, is easy to find. Part of a sperm whale’s backbone stands in the front garden, petrified by time and the elements. Read the full article here

1997: Stephen Fry

From Big Fry
Thursday, October 30th, 1997
Large, though leaner than he appears on the screen, Stephen Fry is a big man, capable of moving with a diffident grace when he has to. There is nothing sheepish about the way he stares back at the camera. His movements are busy, even emphatic rather than camp. Wearing a comfortable, well-worn jacket and corduroy pants, he looks like an academic and responds to questions with care and some deliberation, despite the speed at which he dispatches his eloquent replies. He waves his cigarette and flips his hair out of his eyes with a sharp stabbing motion...

Stephen Fry in 1997. Photograph: Terry O’Neill/Iconic/Getty
Stephen Fry in 1997. Photograph: Terry O’Neill/Iconic/Getty

Face to face, his tired blue eyes seem smaller and are less hooded than they appear through a camera lens. Friendly and remote, he is attractive in an odd, charmingly indulgent, other worldly, kindly way. It would be possible to listen to him for ever, not only for the quality of his conversation but for the ambiguity he exudes. In a good mood he is unsurpassable. But a feeling lingers that should he happen to feel like jumping out of the window, he probably would. His demeanour is dictated by his mood of the moment.

Success is something he appears surprised at, yet he is as ambitious as he is hardworking. “It’s like I want to belong, to join. I want to be part of everything. I want to sing and dance, not to be a star, but just to belong. And yet, I also like being apart. I want to belong, but I also want to stand apart and observe. To judge.” Read the full article here

1998: Nigel Kennedy

From Nigel grows up
Thursday, October 30th, 1997
In a relatively picturesque street in the hillside town of Malvern in Worcestershire last week, there is only one clue to Nigel Kennedy’s presence. His car. Illuminated by a street light , the shabby Jaguar appears to have been vandalised. But the clumsy spray job in Aston Villa colours is intentional. Upstairs in the Georgian building (which at street level houses an old-style chemist), a party for Kennedy is in progress. Most of people are youngish, all are fairly cool: these are Kennedy’s friends...

The virtuoso is lamenting Villa’s departure from the Uefa cup in Europe the previous night: still boyish-looking, hair now modified-wacky rather than outrageous, he is wearing ordinary clothes and an eager smile. His team, it emerges, was defeated by a technicality, not superior skill. Inside the darkened kitchen, savouries and cheese and slabs of chocolate cake are on offer: Kennedy offers a glass of champagne. The conversation is unpretentious; there is no intellectual point-scoring. Most of the fragmented comments concern football. Read the full article here

2002: John McEnroe

From Seriously, John
Saturday, June 29th, 2002
At his best, on court, John McEnroe was a tormented artist capable of magic, if also a self-styled gladiator who never quite got the hang of enjoying his sport, or even liking it. He never figured out losing, either. It was never about the other guy simply being better on the day – there had to be a crisis, a nervous breakdown at the net, another tidal wave of self-hatred invariably misinterpreted by some “stupid official” as an attack on an opponent, the ball (the real enemy) or merely the world at large.

His book is true to that patent lack of enjoyment. McEnroe, however, loves fame, his own and everyone else’s; his fascination with it took him to Hollywood parties and his first wife, Tatum O’Neal. Of course, he was drawn to the “seen-it-all” young girl, an Oscar winner at 10, who never had a childhood and at 21 was still waiting for her career to resume. It never has. It will probably be impossible for her to recover anything, even her three children, of whom McEnroe has custody, following his horrific portrait of their eight years together. In response to her telling him she was pregnant for the second time, he replied, “There goes 1987,” before suggesting an abortion. What a guy. Read the full article here

Eileen Battersby on her favourite nonfiction books of 2013

Eileen Battersby on the 2017 Man Booker International Prize longlist

2004: Roger Bannister

From Roger Bannister: The fastest and finest – by a mile
Wednesday, April 21st, 2004
Bannister had arrived, as usual, at St Mary’s Hospital, in west London, where he was a student doctor. At about 11am he went to the hospital laboratory to sharpen his spikes on a grindstone. The running shoes in those days had long, sharp spikes in the soles, long since replaced by blunter needle or brush spikes. His stomach was probably already churning with nerves at the thought of the record attempt. More than sharpening his spikes, he probably wanted to be alone to ponder, possibly fret, about that evening’s race. On cue, the usual someone with an opinion walked into the lab, noticed his running shoes and the grindstone and remarked to Bannister: “You don’t really think that’s going to make any difference, do you?” It probably didn’t, but athletes acquire pre-race routines. He decided to set off for Oxford on an early train, alone, intending to think. Many things set Bannister apart. He never had a coach. His training sessions, always on grass, seldom exceeded 30 minutes a day. Not because he was cavalier or casual but because, as a medical student, he didn’t have time. He didn’t race very often and was unsuited to heats, semi-final and finals; two races was enough. Read the full article here

2010: Michael Longley

From ‘I wish I could appear more tormented, more Byronic’
Saturday, March 27th, 2010
There is a great deal to Longley. He is a committed artist, a master of form who merges lyric grace with profound truth. Too honest to pretend to have forgotten his outrage when he was described, or more accurately dismissed, in The Field Day Anthology of Irish Writing, as having “more in common with the semi-detached suburban muse of Philip Larkin and postwar England than with Heaney or Montague”, he still grimaces at the memory of it. “It was very unfair,” he says.

It was also wrong. He had been described as a British postmodernist, but Longley knows that he is an Irish poet, “not even an Ulster poet, but an Irish poet – or simply a poet”.

His concept of history owes far more to the natural world of birds and animals, flora and landscape, than it does to politics. A squirrel darts across the garden. “Ah yes, him. He lives here,” says Longley.

Is life better in the North at the moment? Longley, who has always been open in commenting on the madness and what he has referred to as the tribal choreography, pauses and says with weary irony: “At least we’re not killing each other.” Read the full article here

2010: My other life

From I never got to vet school
Wednesday, July 7th, 2010
Regrets? I’ve had a lot, a spectacular amount. My lack of judgment is epic, while my decision-making skills make Hamlet appear driven. But the biggest regret in a life of mistakes remains the earliest – not doing veterinary at university and settling, initially, for law.

The reasoning was logical, if flawed. Mom reckoned that I had the makings of a great doctor, as I didn’t much like people, but that I would be an even better lawyer, because of a fascination with the criminal mind – and, as a child I had, apparently, expressed an interest in justice. I don’t remember this, although I do recall having planned the perfect bank robbery only to realise that the great bank robber needs an elite team and, when I was 12, I just didn’t have sufficient underworld contacts.

Eileen Battersby with Kingsley, one of her dogs, in 2011. Photograph: Bryan O’Brien
Eileen Battersby with her dog Kingsley in 2011. Photograph: Bryan O’Brien

Anyhow, fast forward to me, aged 17, good with animals, not so hot with humans, known for my skill in handling rats and snakes, and intent on being a vet. Mom still maintained I was destined for tragedy; I would become too involved with my patients. I pointed out that not every case would be hopeless; many owners would arrive with pets requiring vaccinations, advice on skin allergies, diet, birth control, routine procedures, minor wounds, injuries and persistent scratching. Some animals are accident prone. There are horses who will manage to bruise their hock on the same fence very time they pass it.

But Mom knew better. Cats and dogs insist on running across the road, with horrific consequences. No, I would spend my working days weeping. This lack of professional detachment would prove detrimental. Read the full article here

2011: William Trevor

From ‘I am a fiction writer. It is what I had to do’
Saturday, April 16th, 2011
He stands in the hotel reception and glances around, noting everything and each person that passes. Dressed in various shades of green – a mossy shirt, tweed jacket, corduroy trousers – and wearing the familiar hat, he might be up in Dublin to visit grandchildren. William Trevor – Mr Cox to the hotel staff – is one of the world’s finest writers, yet there is no fanfare, no fuss. No one stares at him; there is no autograph hunter.

As soon as he spots me he smiles and says, “Good to see you again.” Trevor is gracious, friendly and practical. He makes a plan, explaining that he will go upstairs and will quickly return. “We’ll say hello again, and then we will begin.” He reappears as I have found seats and stretches out his right hand, demonstrating how stiff it has become. It makes typing difficult. He is at work on a collection of short stories. “It will be the last book,” he says with a smile of regret. Read the full article here

2011: Colum McCann

From ‘I decided to write the great Irish novel but couldn’t. I wasn’t messed-up enough’
Thursday, June 16th, 2011
He seems surprised on being reminded that he was an eyewitness for many people here in this country when he described the mood in New York following 9/11. It was McCann’s voice that was heard on drivetime radio. Then he smiles and leans across the table and announces, “I am going to tell you something that I saw.” He pauses and I realise that the likable, enthusiastic McCann, the best person to be stuck on a sinking ship with, is, in fact, a consummate storyteller. He sees the instant photographs that might be lost, or if in the right hands, become stories.

“On the day after 9/11, at lunchtime, I went out and I saw this woman sitting at a cafe table. That ash was still falling all around us; it was everywhere. But she was sitting there, with a slice of chocolate cake – no kidding – she was sitting there, looking at this piece of chocolate cake with a great dollop of cream, and I remember thinking, You cannot be really about to eat that cake. Sirens were going off, and people were searching for their loved ones. It seemed as if she was trying to decide to eat it, as if it was a moral decision. I still wonder about it. The city was full of extraordinary moments. She ate the cake.” Read the full article here

2012: Top books from each EU country

From For the week that’s in it, brush up on some of the highlights of European literature
Saturday, May 26th, 2012
Germany It is possibly the richest national literature in Europe and the most difficult to narrow down. But WG Sebald’s The Rings of Saturn (1995, translated 1998) remains inspirational. And how interesting that, for all his excesses, Günter Grass still has something to say.

Bulgaria Joyce and Kafka, with a little help on the visuals from George Grosz, race through Elias Canetti’s Auto-da-Fé (1935, translated 1946), a crazed black comedy about a reclusive scholar living in his huge library who makes the mistake of marrying his nasty housekeeper. It makes you think about the dangers of reading, never mind living, in a house full of books. Read the full article here

2014: Money

From Money by Martin Amis, for my money the best novel of the 1980s
Saturday, November 1st, 2014
Anyone interested in nominating the novel of the 1980s need look no further. This is it. Money (1984), a virtuoso satire of any age, is for all the grotesque, hilarious comedy, profanity and inspired set pieces a dark study of how money seduces, corrupts and destroys. In this, his fifth novel, Martin Amis consolidated the narrative gifts of plotting and characterisation, as well as the vague menace, that had begun to mature so dramatically in its intriguing predecessor, Other People: A Mystery Story (1981), and would triumph in his finest work to date, The Information (1995), which seethes with muted terror in the form of an unspecified dread. Read the full article here

2015: Oscar Wilde

From Elusive ego, extraordinary wit and enduring genius
Friday, October 16th, 2015
His literary career began with The Happy Prince and Other Tales, which was published in 1888. It seems appropriate that an individual who, for all his sophistication, was to retain an element of the child throughout his life would begin his career with children’s stories and fairy tales.

His only novel, The Picture of Dorian Gray, was poorly received on publication in a magazine in 1890, and in novel form the following year. In this Gothic parable Wilde articulates the restlessness and ambivalence which undercut his life and his work, played out as they were amid the cynically jaundiced sexuality and opulent decadence of the 1890s.

With its echoes of Poe and Baudelaire, it is a remarkable novel based on a Faustian pact struck by an anti-hero who fears the ravages of old age and is prepared to make a deal at any cost. For all the horror of the tale, Wilde exerts immense restraint. It is a skilled performance of imagination and daring.

One would almost be tempted to say his literary immortality could rest on it alone, were it not for the fact that Wilde was so gifted, an inspired comic with a sophisticated grasp of tragedy. His comedies are bright and shining, fast moving and hilarious. It is fascinating that even while watching classic contemporary British comedy such as Stephen Fry and Hugh Laurie, or the same duo enacting PG Wodehouse’s Bertie Wooster and Jeeves, Wilde appears to inform their timing. Fry was to portray Wilde in the 1997 film. The wit is always present, the sharp retort.

The Importance of Being Earnest (1895) remains one of the funniest plays ever written; Wilde’s epigrammatic humour is brilliantly served by the high-speed dialogue. It is a play actors invariably admit to loving. He remains one of the masters of cerebral, wordplay humour. Read the full article here

2016: Anthony Cronin

From When Anthony Cronin dismissed me as an idiot
Wednesday, December 28th, 2016
Within about two minutes of first meeting Anthony Cronin, he dismissed me as an idiot for not knowing the whereabouts of McDaid’s public house. He said it displayed an “unforgivable” ignorance of Dublin’s literary geography. When I said “ouch” he laughed, exercised his singular smirk, half-boy, half-knowing roué, and replied, “At least you have a sense of humour.”

Always good to have one’s sense of humour acknowledged, but at a potentially tense moment, and the chance that Cronin would walk away, it seemed wise to press an advantage, and I pointed out that Flann O’Brien, the desperately unhappy comic genius about whom Cronin had written a biography, had died on April Fool’s Day, in 1966.

Cronin growled but caught the irony and began telling a great story about how his father started working on the Enniscorthy Echo during Easter Week. “You do know about Easter Week, or don’t you?” challenged Cronin. Reference to my Leaving Cert history prize convinced him it was worth continuing. Read the full article here

2017: The Ministry of Utmost Happiness

From All too obvious
Saturday, June 3rd, 2017
Within pages of this messy and superficial but good-natured narrative, a sensation of deja vu takes over. It becomes apparent that Arundhati Roy is gamely striving for a Rushdie-like concoction while failing to replicate his trademark bombastic flourish...

About the most interesting aspect is Roy’s determined cheerfulness. That is not to suggest The Ministry of Utmost Happiness is funny or even amusing; it is not. Roy is not witty, although the prose is slangy and often achieves a sitcom-like banter. Yet it is far less ponderous than her overrated debut, The God of Small Things, which unexpectedly won her the Booker Prize in 1997...

Arundhati Roy in 2017. Photograph: Money Sharma/AFP/Getty
Arundhati Roy in 2017. Photograph: Money Sharma/AFP/Getty

Roy’s new book resonates with the confidence of a writer aware she can now get away with anything, and has, so the narrative slides between the two-dimensional characters and stark factual anecdotes...

The kindest comment to make about this formless, overhyped and conventional performance is that reading it is comparable to spending years knitting a giant sweater only to discover that it actually has three sleeves. Read the full article here

2017: Fourth of July

From Eileen Battersby’s best short stories for Independence Day
Tuesday, July 4th, 2017
Star-Spangled Banner is a powerful anthem, but it is also very difficult to sing, requiring the range of an opera singer and the lung capacity of a superman or superwoman – or so it is maintained. But hold on there: there is another way of looking at it. It is not that it is difficult to sing; it is simply that many singers are not as good as they think they are, or that they start out warbling so ambitiously that they quickly run out of voice. It is also quite long, and a full performance takes about five minutes. Even at the Super Bowl, we only ever get to hear the first verse...

If you’re not brave enough to take on the anthem, don’t let the day pass without reading at least one great American short story, of which there is an immense selection – and the one certainty about offering a tiny, tiny selection is that there will always be complaints about the ones that were left out, but here goes... Read the full article here

2018: Paul Simon

From Farewell and thank you to a near mythic troubadour
Friday, July 13th, 2018
Simon, a master guitarist, is the most subtle of cerebral US singer-songwriters; his near contemporary and counterpart, Bob Dylan, less than five months older, has always been edgier, that bit more openly cantankerous when protesting, and is possessed of a harsher sound, honed on the American folk of Woody Guthrie. Simon certainly admired Dylan and was influenced by the Everly Brothers.

He is a singular character, son of a college professor-musician father and English-teacher mother. He has a degree in English literature – he did experience a miserable semester as a law student but soon retreated back to books – yet has never seen his image-rich lyrics as poetry.

Paul Simon. Photograph: Vincent West/Reuters
Paul Simon. Photograph: Vincent West/Reuters

He is astute, if dreamy; the wry, witty, self-doubting romantic, an East Coast intellectual, a witness of modern America at war with itself and, yes, the sort of guy who would be reading Robert Frost and “noting our place with bookmarkers / That measure what we’ve lost / Like a poem poorly written / we are verses out of rhythm...”

Everything Paul Simon ever wrote and recorded is contained within my otherwise classical music library. I know all the words; I can sing all the songs, badly. The Boxer was the first tune I played on a guitar. Thank you, Paul Simon; thank you for a farewell-tour concert, you are Homeward Bound, graciously deserving of it, and what a contribution you have made. Thank you: two small words, and far too small for what you have given in songs and music that endure and will live on. Read the full article here; read Eileen Battersby’s review of Paul Simon’s final Irish concert here

You can read more of Eileen Battersby’s articles here