Jun. 24, 2014

Irish Weather

by Tess Gallagher

Rain squalls cast sideways,
the droplets visible
like wheat grains
sprayed from the combine.
As suddenly, sunshine.
If a person behaved
this way we'd call them
neurotic. Given weather, we gust
and plunder with only
small comment: it's
raining; sun's out.

"Irish Weather" by Tess Gallagher from Dear Ghosts. © Graywolf Press, 2006. Reprinted with permission. (buy now)

It's the anniversary of the first exhibition of Picasso's work in Paris (1901). Art dealer Ambroise Vollard staged the exhibition in his gallery on the Rue Lafitte. Picasso, then 19, had already produced hundreds of paintings, but he was unknown outside of Barcelona. He exhibited 75 paintings at the exhibition, and the response of the few critics who visited was generally favorable; Picasso decided to stay in Paris, and by 1904 he had set up a permanent studio there.

The summer of 1901 also marked the beginning of his Blue Period, which lasted three years. Picasso used blue tones to evoke a feeling of melancholy and introspection. The Old Guitarist (1903) and Life (1903) are outstanding examples of the Blue Period.

It's the birthday of novelist Anita Desai (books by this author), born in Mussoorie, India (1937). Her mother was German and her father was Bengali. She said, "I am sure this is what makes my writing whatever it is; I see India through the eyes of my mother, as an outsider, but my feelings are my father's, of someone born here." She grew up speaking German at home, Hindi with her friends, learned Bengali from her father, and listened to Urdu poetry recited in the street. But she first learned to read and write in school, and in English. She said: "I think it had a tremendous effect that the first thing you saw written and the first thing you ever read was English. It seemed to me the language of books. I just went on writing it because I always wanted to belong to this world of books."

After she finished the manuscript for her first novel, Cry, the Peacock (1963), she wasn't sure what to do with it. She said: "Readers of the English language almost without exception preferred to read English written in its native land, the only English considered pure and acceptable; P.G. Wodehouse and Jane Austen clubs flourished. I, too, grew up reading Henry James and D.H. Lawrence, Virginia Woolf and George Eliot. No Indian author had entered the school or college syllabuses at that time. It dawned on me what a hopeless business it would be to make a living as a writer. No literary agents existed then and I made a list of publishers from the books on my shelves and started sending out the manuscript of my first novel to one after the other." Finally, she sold it to a tiny London publishing house that focused on international writing. She was not discouraged, and she has gone on to publish many novels, including Clear Light of Day (1980), Fasting, Feasting (1999), and The Zigzag Way (2004). Her most recent book, The Artist of Disappearance (2011), is a collection of short stories.

It's the birthday of writer Pete Hamill (books by this author), born in Brooklyn (1935). His parents were Irish immigrants, and he was the oldest of seven kids. He dropped out of high school, apprenticed as a metal worker, then joined the Navy. In the summer of 1960, he sent a passionate letter to the editor of the New York Post. The editor liked what he read and decided to hire the young man as a reporter, despite his lack of a high school degree. Hamill worked the night shift, starting at 1 a.m. In those days, the Post was located on West Street, on what Hamill described as "the thriving, noisy, dirty, exuberant waterfront." The owners of the Post didn't want to spend money on air conditioning, so the reporters had to work with the windows open, and all night they typed and slapped at insects coming in from the United Fruit Company Pier across the street. People were always noisy — yelling over each other, swearing, cracking dirty jokes. Hamill wrote about working for his editor: "Above all, he wanted [us] to be boxer-punchers, to write for this newspaper as if we were each a Sugar Ray Robinson at the typewriter. We could dazzle people with the moves of style, but that was never enough; we could only score knockouts with reporting."

Five years later, Hamill was promoted to a columnist. He said of his column: "I wanted it to be about common people. Good, decent, hardworking, forgotten people in New York City." He prided himself on being a generalist — he wrote about dockworkers, boxers, baseball, jazz, Irish neighborhoods, crime, local and national politics, and international wars. He said: "We came from a tradition where we were paid to have opinions, but the opinions were based on the reporting. We had been there, whether it was Vietnam, or Northern Ireland, or the wrong part of town. Now, to me, there's too many columns that are just based on reading The Washington Post that morning — and not going anywhere."

During his years as a reporter, Hamill heard stories that caught his attention but that he couldn't use because he couldn't prove. When he was first hired at the Post, his editor told him, "If you want it to be true, it probably isn't." He realized that maybe those stories had a place in fiction. In 1967, he took a break from reporting to begin working on his first novel. A year later, he was with his friend Bobby Kennedy when Kennedy was shot and killed — Hamill helped tackle the gunman. He was so depressed afterward that he wandered around New York and Mexico, unable to write anything.

One day he was complaining to his friend Paul O'Dwyer, an Irish-American politician, who informed him, "You're not important enough to have writer's block." That was all it took — Hamill laughed, acknowledged the truth of the statement, and went back to writing. His first novel was a thriller, called A Killing for Christ (1968). The next year, he went back to working at the Post, and for decades he worked as a reporter all over New York and also wrote fiction. He said: "When writing fiction I almost always begin by writing longhand on yellow pads, to get the tricks of journalism out of my hands (those that make for speed and compression), and to recover a certain innocence that I had before I learned how to type. The words flow in a different way. I do think that journalism remains a good place for fiction writers to begin, because it provides a broad experience of human life beyond the confines of the places where you were young. It says: there are many people who are not like you."

Hamill's books include The Gift (1973), Snow in August (1998), Tabloid City (2011), and a memoir, A Drinking Life (1995).

On this day in 1947, the first widely reported UFO sighting occurred. Experienced pilot Kenneth Arnold sighted "a formation of very bright objects" out the window of his plane while flying over the Cascade Mountains of southern Washington state. The Chicago Tribune printed his account on the front page two days later: "The first thing I noticed was a series of flashes in my eyes as if a mirror was reflecting sunlight at me. ... I saw the flashes were coming from a series of objects that were traveling incredibly fast. They were silvery and shiny and seemed to be shaped like a pie plate. ... What startled me most at this point was ... that I could not find any tails on them." Arnold said they moved like saucers skipping across the surface of water, which led to the common term "flying saucer." The Army Air Corps questioned him and later downplayed the sighting; their official position was that Arnold had been hallucinating.

Arnold's sighting was only the first of about 850 sightings that were reported that summer, including the famous Roswell, New Mexico, incident, in which an alleged alien spacecraft crashed into the desert and was — allegedly — recovered and hidden by the military.

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