Notes on Sebastian Barry’s “A Long Long Way”

It was sometime over the recent long Memorial Day weekend I received a worn copy of Sebastian Barry’s “A Long Long Way” (2005), a gift from my old friend Dan, first person blogger at Tangential Meanderings at WordPress. I had mentioned Barry to Dan after reading a New Yorker piece about the Irish author’s writing (March 20, 2023). I had never read Barry.

I dug into “A Long Long Way” as into a trench somewhere along the Western Front. Barry in his technique seems to take the encyclopedia entries that summarize events and rewrites them using imagined characters, though apparently the Dunnes were part of his own family. My interest in WWI grew, and I read that a few years ago a trove of diaries written by soldiers during the war was digitized:

Many older people in Britain knew veterans of World War I. But the diaries provide a different level of detail, says Michael Brookbank, 84. On a recent day, he was drinking a coffee in the archives cafeteria. He had come to learn more about his father.

“My father very rarely talked about the war, and I think that is common with most of the veterans of the war,” says Brookbank. “The experiences that they went through and the conditions that they lived in were just something that, unless you were actually there, nobody could really comprehend.”

“From The Trenches To The Web: British WWI Diaries Digitized.” Heard on Morning Edition, 23 Jan, 2014. Ari Shapiro. Read here.

That idea of what it might take to comprehend, and of what point there might be to talk about it, about anything, one might add, incomprehensible to another, plagues many veterans. And in the Army, one does not step out of place, let alone speak out of place. Who does tell the stories then? And who will listen with comprehension?

The reader has no privileges. He must, it seems, take his place in the ranks, and stand in the mud, wade in the river, fight, yell, swear, and sweat with the men. He has some sort of feeling, when it is all over, that he has been doing just these things. This sort of writing needs no praise. It will make its way to the hearts of men without praise.

New York Times book review of “The Red Badge of Courage,” 31 October, 1896.

Crane, like Barry must have, had read accounts of those who had experienced the war in some way (Crane had not), and used them to create a truthful but fictional (a psychological rendering) account. The danger here, for most writers, is the chance the result will sound like a second hand telling. Also that it might affront those who actually did the fighting, or who in some way, psychologically, if not physically, experienced the war. But that begs the question: does a distant war not create an experience for the moms and dads, the girlfriends, the boyfriends, the folks back home, reading the headlines, the news, the letters from the front? And does not that experience test the dichotomy of mind and body – the psychological is physical.

In his blog “Time Now: The Wars in Iraq and Afghanistan in Art, Film, and Literature,” Peter Molin, himself a veteran and writer, furthers the discussion of who can write what with what authority:

The question of whether a writer who hasn’t been to war can write well about war also intrigues me. Gallagher cites Ben Fountain as the example par excellence of an author who never served in the military, let alone saw combat, but who can still convey what it is like to be a soldier. I love Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk, too, but have noted that Fountain evades extended description of battle. Is that a place he just didn’t feel comfortable going? Brian Van Reet, a decorated vet, portrays two horribly mangled veterans in comic-grotesque terms in “Big Two-Hearted Hunting Creek.” Would a civilian feel as comfortable doing so? Is there something wrong with someone who isn’t disabled portraying characters who are? Both these cases reflect the issues of credibility and authority that permeate discussions of war writing.

“Veterans Writing,” Peter Molin, 29 September 3013.

Sebastian Barry, in “A Long Long Way,” gives all his characters the credibility of war experience, even those who have no comprehension of what they’re going through, of the dehumanizing effects war tattoos on one’s memory, and a tattoo becomes a story:

‘And what happened to her, Pete?
‘That Belgian woman, Pete, that you – just like the sainted Germans did, just like all those stories we were told, Pete, what they did to the women.’
‘Don’t be so holier than thou, Willie. You’d’ve done the same.’
‘What happened to her, what happened to her?’
O’Hara said nothing for a moment.
‘All right, all right.’ But he didn’t seem able to say it for another few moments yet. Then he nodded his punched face. ‘She died of what had happened to her. She was bleeding all those hours. She was not treated right. She was fucking torn to pieces, wasn’t she? And she died. And we tried to save her.”
‘You think so?’
‘It’s just a story, Willie, a story of the war.’
‘You can keep your story, Pete. You can keep it.’


Willie’s girlfriend’s (Gretta) father shares a test he uses to qualify one’s experience. It has to do with knowing one’s own mind. Gretta repeats it:

‘We have to wait, Willie.’
‘For what’ he said, a touch desperately.
‘For the war to be over and you to be home and you to know your own mind. There’s never any sense in a soldier’s wedding, Willie.’


If Barry’s characters and scenes seem stereotyped it’s because we’ve seen them so often. There’s not much of a plot. Boy goes to war, not really understanding why, maybe comes back, maybe not, still not understanding why. All the arguments are pandered down the ranks, where, in the end, they don’t hold water. The grunts do the work, the dirty work, for which they receive insult and despair. Barry’s approach gives the reader a kind of historical fiction without the overt history, such that the Easter Rising happens real time, with Willie and his cohort working laboriously trying to figure out what’s going on and why and how they should feel about it, what side they should side on, a process of getting to know one’s mind.

Who is the narrator? Not exactly Willie, neither can it be Barry. Some figure hovering over the gas clouds, looking through, picking out a figure here or there to zone in on. There are many to choose from. But the main characters are Willie, his sergeant-major Christy Moran, Willie’s father, Willie’s girlfriend, Gretta, Willie’s sisters, a few of Willie’s platoon members, Father Buckley, a Catholic priest who makes the rounds through the trenches trying to clean the spiritual and mental messes (which he does a fair enough job of). And Pete O’Hara whose single act of betrayal does more damage to Willie than anything the other side may have thrown at him.

The theme is irony, though it might seem somewhat backwards – the characters seeming to know something the reader does not, in spite of the reader’s armchair advantages. The book is composed of set pieces (gas attack, up and over charge, furlough – and the results thereof, field boxing match) and the action is described in realistic detail, too much detail some readers may feel. There’s humor, the excellent cussing of the sergeant-major, sarcasm and wit. On the whole, maybe it’s all a bit romantic, though, so full of purple vestment, not maudlin, but still sentimental, like the customs of Memorial Day, even if that day has yet to come anywhere in the novel. The dialog is brisk and easy and rings true. The point of the novel, if the reader must have one, is probably the Irish need and desire to have and know its own mind, which might also explain the need for every narrative trick, the deceit and betrayal writ large and small, the pawn-like movements that when stacked one upon the other make up the family histories that add up to a country’s history.

The title comes of course from the song, used to march by:

Up to mighty London
Came an Irishman one day.
As the streets are paved with gold
Sure, everyone was gay,
Singing songs of Piccadilly,
Strand and Leicester Square,
Till Paddy got excited,
Then he shouted to them there:

It’s a long way to Tipperary,
It’s a long way to go.
It’s a long way to Tipperary,
To the sweetest girl I know!
Goodbye, Piccadilly,
Farewell, Leicester Square!
It’s a long long way to Tipperary,
But my heart’s right there.

Paddy wrote a letter
To his Irish Molly-O,
Saying, “Should you not receive it,
Write and let me know!”
“If I make mistakes in spelling,
Molly, dear,” said he,
“Remember, it’s the pen that’s bad,
Don’t lay the blame on me!”

Molly wrote a neat reply
To Irish Paddy-O,
Saying “Mike Maloney
Wants to marry me, and so
Leave the Strand and Piccadilly
Or you’ll be to blame,
For love has fairly drove me silly:
Hoping you’re the same!”

Jack Judge, 1912.

Write with Calmness

Recently, I’ve been writing on WordPress using the Jetpack application installed on my cell phone and tablet, deprived of a real keyboard and downsized to essentials, but able to pull out the tool and continue playing around with a post throughout the day, adding, subtracting, dividing, etc., on the go (to the extent I ever am on the go these days, where go might look very much like stop). Writing is a disappearing act.

The laptop, my usual tool for developing and publishing posts, as get up and go as the laptop is, is not as flexible and doesn’t travel as easily as the phone or tablet (for one thing, the laptop batteries are down to a trickle, and it must be left plugged in to work). I thought the recent posts from the cell and tablet were displaying wysiwyg (what you see is what you get), but a couple of faithful readers let me know not so. Yesterday’s post, for example, a short poem titled “A Bout,” apparently appeared on their reading devices in a pale white font on a fog colored background, difficult, but not quite impossible, to read. By Jove, I thought, that format (if that’s what it’s called) accurately describes the theme of the poem, but it was unintentional. And the pale white font on fog colored paper was an improvement – posts previous to that one had not appeared at all, those same readers had informed me; under the title, on their devices, the post was blank.

I assumed the problem was user error, and set out to discover how I’d messed things up so, and in the process found (under a three dot dropdown menu at the far top right of the WordPress screen) “Options,” one of which is labeled “Distraction free: write with calmness.” In other words, we have a choice: write, and consider yourself a writer, or fall down the convoluted rabbit hole of blocks, styles, editor this and that, and things Jetpack related – a dichotomy that is of course distorted, unfair, and entirely inaccurate. Well, maybe not entirely. Like the guitarist who trades in the acoustic classical guitar for an electric guitar and a panel of guitar pedals, the writer who incorporates a full spectrum of technological gimmicks or tools, as opposed, say, to simply using pencil on paper – um, one senses a loss of calmness. And yes, I know I just split an infinitive, but I do so in perfect calmness. It’s impossible to split an infinitive in Latin, which is where the absurd rule comes from, but this isn’t Latin class. Well, maybe that last bit is not so calm, after all.

And the point of writing is to becalm. If you find writing does not invite calmness, you may not be actually writing, but are engaged in some other method of spending time – not to say any one way has more value than another. Writing usually has some purpose, which is to say occasion, argument, intended audience, none of which would seem to invite calmness. Still, the act of writing, if one is to find the sweet spot, is a path toward calmness, invites calmness – because once under way, all else falls off. One becomes, indeed, free from distraction.

Swā, this post is being written on the laptop, as an experiment to see if the problems don’t correct themselves on the readers’ devices, thus isolating the cause to Jetpack on the cell and tablet. Let me know in comments below, if you’d like, what you see, or don’t see. But remain clam. I mean, calm.

Only the Lonely

Dr. Vivek H. Murthy, the United States Surgeon General, has declared loneliness a national health crisis. It’s as if the Pope questioned the doctrine of transubstantiation. The pioneer spirit feels a needle puncturing its balloon. It reads like a headline in the Onion, a bad joke.

Loneliness is epidemic, Murthy says, crosses and affects all sociodemographic boundaries and classes. There are no distinctions. The loneliness virus can infect anyone. Murthy recently traveled around the country, and everywhere he went, he talked to folks who questioned their self-worth, their connections to family and friends, the value of their very existence.

We might jump to an explanation, our personal predispositions and assumptions slipping into gear. Apparently, a trip to Walmart to stock up on beer and chips for the big game on TV is not enough to fill the void, but then neither is driving to Rodeo Drive in your Rolls Royce for a new dress. In church, one feels pewed-in, and the kiss of peace lacks true touch. And the more Mega, Meta, or MAGA one gets, the worse the symptoms of loneliness.

Loneliness looks and feels much like depression and anxiety, a lost in the world feeling, made worse by the vast numbers of people surrounding, none of whom one might talk to. One’s old drinking buddy is on the wagon. One’s ex (spouse, friend, religion, school, job) is full of the need for schadenfreude gotchas. One’s pronoun choices come up short. One feels a need to be a verb, as Buckminster Fuller said, only to have one’s grammar or usage corrected. And in one’s own home, one might feel like a direct object, put upon by a subject, or a noun without a verb.

I’m sorry I don’t have a cure, but Murthy has proposed a plan. Might be worth Googling (or see link below). Meantime, I’m reminded of the old Roy Orbison song:

Only the lonely
Know the way I feel tonight
Only the lonely
Know this feeling ain’t right

Loomings & Readings

“High time to get to sea,” Melville’s Ishmael says, feeling weary and wornout, petulant and putout. I’m with Ishy these days, but like Camus, find myself far from the sea – too, too far, not close by at all.

So it came to me, unable to put in with my surfboard at 42nd in El Porto as I might have were it somehow still 1969, to start a bookclub. Talk about absurd! Where’s Camus when you need him?

In any case, I find myself these days growing closer to music, away with words, music without words, instrumentals I guess their called in popular lingo. So I’m already ditching the idea for a bookclub, and thinking of a garage band. We’d do train songs (with a few words), maybe in homage to my grandfather who was an engineer on the Louisville Nashville Line, though I never met him.

Where did the idea for a bookclub come from? My stack of recently read books is about to topple over. This set began with Art Spiegelman’s “Maus: A Survivor’s Tale,” which he worked on through the 1980’s and won a Pulitzer in 1992. It’s a graphic novel in two parts about his father’s life in Germany during World War II and later living postwar in New York. Its ghostly and maniacal scenes are not quiet surreal, but leave a similar feeling – for it is, after all, predicated on the cartoon. It’s a comic book. The irony of that is so penetrating. It’s told in first person that shifts between his father’s recounting and Art’s narrative coming of age the son of survivors. It’s a masterpiece. And I don’t know how anyone could read it without wanting to share it. But who wants to relive it? The secret sharer puts it in a blog few read. Never mind the book club.

But speaking of music, I also recently read Robin G. Kelley’s biography “Thelonious Monk, The Life and Times of an American Original” (Free Press, 2010). Monk’s mistreatments (self-inflicted or at the hands of others) are legendary; for example, the noted jazz critic Leonard Feather did more than criticize Monk – he attacked him for not being what Feather wanted him to be: “He has written a few attractive tunes, but his lack of technique and continuity prevented him from accomplishing much as a pianist,” Feather said (150). To be an original (in technique, continuity, or otherwise) is not necessarily to be accepted; on the contrary. Kelley’s book includes a good amount of history, Monk’s 20th Century environments: the causes and outcomes of the race riots of New York neighborhoods; the difficulties of surviving in the music industry; the difficulties for families of musicians who must travel to make a living; the prevalence of drugs in American cities, and the changes over time of police response; war, economic collapse, building and rebuilding, travel. Kelley gives us 600 pages, any one of which we might turn down a different street for readings to learn more about those subjects – again, the idea of a bookclub. But repeatedly we find Monk’s music dismissed by many of his contemporaries for its difficulties – difficulties which entertain rather than perplex today’s ears. Interestingly, the Beats and their poets found partnership in clubs that helped Monk finally flourish.

Bob Dylan’s “The Philosophy of Modern Song” (2022) would make a good bookclub paring with Kelley’s Monk book. Dylan is another American Original, and his writing might strike many ears with difficulties similar to Monk’s piano. I’m almost never disappointed with Dylan, and this latest warrants reading and re-reading and listening. I put together a YouTube playlist of the 66 songs Dylan explicates in his book. Many of them have been recorded by more than one artist, so the trick is to get the version that most coveys the feeling of its mystery – that being how something so simple as a popular song can both create and evoke an entire era or single day in the life of an American coming of age in the age of “modern song.” And for those readers turned off by philosophy, not to worry, there’s not much philosophy to sing about here – the philosophy, like music theory, remains in the background.

Speaking of philosophy, somewhere recently I noticed a new Mary Midgley book out, and quickly got a copy and read it. And, as it turns out, it’s her last one (Bloomsbury, 2018). Imagine living to 99 and the title of your last book? “What is Philosophy For?” Indefatigable, indomitable, Mary (look her up on YouTube and tune in to one of her conversations) defeats Dawkins and his ilk with real philosophy – that is to say, thought without propaganda.

Shusaku Endo’s “A Life of Jesus” (Paulist Press, 1973) is a strange book. I like strange books. It’s about the Gospels, how they came to be first talked then written. The environments and people described are different from what we might come away with from the Bible versions. Here, for example, we get a fuller picture of John the Baptist, where he came from and what he wore, what he ate, what he said and did. Life can be strange in the desert. Essentially, we get closer to Jesus in the sense that the time itself comes alive. There is no question but that Jesus was a real person; he lived, in a real place, in a real time. The question of his divinity and why it has to remain such a mystery, almost a game, Endo does not quite answer, though it’s clear that he is a believer. It’s strange even to try to put this into words. I really like Endo’s book, and will read it again. It reminded me in some ways of Pasolini’s “The Gospel According to Saint Matthew” (film, 1964).

A couple of books recently read did produce some disappointment: Christian Wiman’s “He Held Radical Light” (FSG, 2018) and Donald Hall’s “Their Ancient Glittering Eyes” (Ticknor and Fields, 1992). Don’t get me wrong; I liked both books. I even sent the Wiman to one of my sisters, thinking it would be to her liking also. These are both books about poetry, about poets, about poems and how and when they might be read and their purpose and import, their meanings, and the poetry and surrounding discussion I did enjoy. What I found disappointing was the emergence of an ego, a manic wanting on the part of both Wiman and Hall to write the poem to end all poems. Silly, that. It’s easy to see why and how poetry fails to live up to any kind of popular status in the marketplace – except for what we might find in popular song, in the philosophy of popular song, a philosophy that is lived but rarely talked about.

I also read and enjoyed Jay Caspian Kang’s “The Dead Do Not Improve” (Hogarth, 2012). I had read that it was about surfers in San Francisco, so of course was interested. It’s not too much about surfing though. It’s a mystery, and accomplishes what it sets out to do. It’s entertaining, provoking, somewhat in the classic noir tradition, its characters representative of types of a kind, also of that noir setup. The dialog is fresh and accurate, the scenes clearly drawn, you get the smell and the feel of the place. The plot is convoluted, a bit like a shuffled deck of cards, and then reshuffled.

That pretty much concludes my daytime recent book readings. To bed (to read) I’ve been taking Elizabeth Taylor lately (not the movie star). Reading now her “In A Summer Season.”

In the end, writing about writing is rarely as interesting as the writing one is writing about, but there are exceptions, and those exceptions I’m always on the lookout for. Meantime, I’m still working on the guitar. I’ve been playing guitar almost as long as I’ve been reading. Have no intention of giving up either, but talking about reading, like talking about music, is a different pastime than writing or playing original pieces.

One Night on the South Bay Strand

I walk past Willy’s Wine Bar, its surf blue
umbrellas hung over the wall, pointing
to the water, patio piano
jazz diminished by the incoming tide.
The noise crashes, a wave through pilings.

Mabel, the waitress, I used to know her,
does not say hello, busy with cheese plates,
her white apron purple stained thin cotton,
her silver hair held behind her long ears.
Years younger the torched sommelier tattooed

head to toe oranges and lemon yellows
over a bed of ivory azure.
Happy she looks even joyful against
brave Mabel’s bluejeans rustling all night long
amongst the grape aficionados.

A line for a table, fifty dollar
cover charge, and Komos, a cruel bouncer,
pushes me along to keep clear the Strand,
where people still adhere to atmosphere
of theatrical scenery, putting

off the real ocean as it floods the set,
rising up the old dunes to the green palms,
centurions on display bend and sway,
the Sergeant of Police, “Tarantara”!
recalls the popular air of pirates.

The ocean recedes and Mabel soon swoons,
soldiers in pirate costume sing cadence:
“Tarantara!” When danger is afar
leaves its deepest scar and never comes close
to the body but the mind’s eye closes.

A Talk Story

We recently purchased a used copy of the 2001 Modern Library Paperback Edition of “The Fun of It: Stories from The Talk of the Town,” edited and with a preface by Lillian Ross, who wrote for The New Yorker for some 70 years. Her “Portrait of Hemingway” appeared in the 13 May 1950 issue, and is still read today as a classic first example of literary journalism.

The earliest “Talk Stories,” in the 1920s, didn’t have bylines (the group of stories were signed “The New Yorkers” at the bottom of the “Notes and Comment” section) and their style was intended to entertain while educating with facts. Harold Ross, the first New Yorker editor, no relation to Lillian, “didn’t like bylines,” she tells us in her editor’s preface to “The Fun of It.”

“He wanted the stories in The Talk of the Town to sound as though they’d been written by a single person, and he wanted that person to have what he called ‘the male point of view.’ ‘We’ was always supposed to be male.” In spite of those constrictions, Lillian Ross went on to write “hundreds of Talk stories,” with “the singular challenge of creating these stories pure fun for all of us who do them.”

Harold Ross himself contributed Talk Stories, also anonymously, so it’s possible he was responsible for the August 12, 1927 Talk piece titled “Fence Buster,” about the new New York Yankees baseball player Lou Gehrig. The piece includes the staples of the Talk Story: “By the late twenties,” Lillian Ross says, “the department usually featured a ‘fact’ piece plus a ‘personality’ piece plus a ‘visit’ piece; the mix became traditional.”

Thus we learn, in about the required length of around 1,000 words, that the young Gehrig’s father was a “janitor and grass-cutter” at Columbia University, and that Lou looked up to Babe Ruth, though unlike the Babe, he did “not drink, smoke, or gamble.” Lou enjoyed fishing for eels, which his mother pickled. And in 1927, at the age of twenty-four, he made “about $10,000 a year.”

$10,000 a year is double what I made in my first teaching job around 50 years later. Of course, I had the summer off, while Lou Gehrig had to work. I suppose we could say now that I taught for the fun of it.

El Porto at Night

Out of ocean back to sun
slow purple tide drifts down
darkness like a tidal wave
floods and a dark fog falls.

Strand partygoers barefoot
swimsuit prance in sandals
streets car-lined seldom trees
dwellings cliche toe crammed.

Sleep cans built on sand hills
swept of seawrack the breeze
the moon in her habit prays
and down rains grace gently.

Each drop 15% ABV the lifeguard
says and turns on your nightlight
what a concept and flies away
into south Santa Monica Bay.

In the distance the bass bob bloom
of close-in closed out hollow waves
like artillery shells down the line
hear water mewling through shingle.

In the morning late for the school
bus stops for you up on Highland
you forget now why all those tears
on a lovely morning such as this.

For a New Year

Happy new year
one at a time
Happy new ears
ones that can hear.

Happy new shears
to cut the old hair
Happy new crown
for the frown clown.

Weary old year
falls into compost
Happy the earthworms
bring a new day.

Now in the rains
the ground soaked
the basement wet
the table settled.

Blessed the unsung
who hear buoy bells
Blessed the obscure
quilting deep poems.

In the New Year
may clear water
be your cheer
light your walk.

May you talk happily
quietly so hear poetry
may your words work
magic in the new year.


The sign on the door read closed
simply and clearly defied to be
misunderstood though cryptically
short did not attempt explanation
explication or anything of the sort
as an action word as still as ice
and as a modifier most unhelpful.

The door was obviously closed
yet several skeptical browsers
rattled the handle the better
to check and be sure the door
was not only closed but locked.

A few others cupped their eyes
peering through the windows
research for more information
the shelves are full they said
well lit by well placed lights.

A few loitered outside the shop
it looked warm inside friendly
somehow a coffee pot sat
at the end of a clean counter
a colorful display with creative
text menu wide aisles sparkling
linoleum floors booths of fat
Naugahyde benches a place
to dwell and tell and repeat
stories but Closed it read.

Garage Sale

The garage sale of my mind was well advertised
signs on telephone poles and online postings
but no one thought to see what they might find.

The mind is a dump full of toxic stuff
tossed flowers blues and greens faded to drab
food scraps bald birds pick at and hot rats scatter
as trash trucks dump squandered load after load
junk heaps smoldering bent metal smashed glass
furniture akimbo wood and styrofoam blocks
book pages torn dogeared magazines ripped
warped vinyl toasted surfboards jelled banners
all absurd plans unrolled blueprint messes
colossal architectural collapse
reductio ad absurdum that’s what
all effort reduced to brood swat and tricks
flood the roads in and out the ear brain zaps
of a blog heap pile to pile one subscribes
lost in here with no purpose no safe pass
age strength twisted steel shafts up and down
leaning precipitously toward the trash
piles of concrete slush crushed and composted
the worms finished their work years ago
today the skies clear ceiling drawn up
don’t let it drag us under these words
will all grow back come spring in new jangles
bright new jungles of fresh piles of junk.


We decline down the stairs
amid icy stares underground
stay warm huddled with others.

We refuse the cold’s summit
but around noon note a bit of
the bump and we stand still.

We see ourselves as heavenly
in the arc of the sun and crouch
of a close moon and our bodies

rotate out of hibernal touch
not to create a paradox
but the point is opposite

apogee if that makes you feel
any warmer the closer you get
the freeze-dry blue eyes.

Back in August when we slept
in the basement to keep cool
you worried about spiders.

All fragments yet perfectly
balanced along hot and cold
lines our lukewarm garbage

sustains us through this
our winter solstice
when even time stops.