A Review of S-Town – June 2017

I wrote this after I’d listened to the full series over a week or two in Oregon and sent it to a friend but forgot to post it here. Comments welcome as ever.


An unexpected email to the radio show ‘This American Life’ in 2012 was the starting point for this long and winding journalistic narrative (by Brian Reed) which was released – in seven one hour episodes – in March of this year to widespread acclaim. The comments that follow assume you’ve listened to all of them as they are replete with spoilers.

It is a paradox of our time that ‘in depth’ journalism, the kind we associate with the BBC or the newspapers of record, has been all but obliterated by the rise of online content, universal publishing and the frenetic, unreflective deluge of ‘news’ coverage that is calculated to optimise the delivery of potential consumers to advertisers rather than convey anything that is new, still less challenging, to its audience. We appear to have more news than ever but less information and even less insight. It was a promising pleasure therefore to hear about S-Town (short for Shit Town) which took five years to make and required countless edits, rewrites and myriad fact checks in order to bring us a selective but wide-ranging and coherent slice of life in a small, remote and undistinguished town in rural Alabama. The chronology (a very apt word in this context!) of events is, by the end, pretty clear and the seven episodes cover the period from March 2012 to December 2016 more or less as they happened. But the programmes were not released piecemeal so the team were able to edit the ‘earlier’ episodes in the light of what happened in the following years and then present them as if they were a contemporaneous record of an unfolding story. This slight piece of artifice caused me to pause a few times – despite the thrall of the storyline – and wonder if it was really a ‘true’ story or just well-constructed and thoroughly researched historical fiction. Sometimes the editing was just too impeccable as sound bites were stitched into a knowing narrative – knowing more than the listener could ever have inferred.

There were other misgivings, one serious, the others minor, but, in fairness, I should first give credit for some of the excellent work embodied in this substantial piece of journalism. And there is much to like and to praise. From beginning to end there is a balanced approach to complex issues and situations. Subjects including racism, sexuality, poverty, fanaticism and ecology are teased out in the earthy language of the rural poor. Simplistic conclusions and stereotyped personalities are both studiously avoided by the production team so that we meet all our protagonists on their own terms. The tone, register and cadence of speech are captured in the verbatim recordings of the people of rural Alabama (and elsewhere). Initially we hear mainly from John B McLemore, our chief protagonist, as he talks frequently and at length with the narrator, Brian Reed. From the very start McLemore is a profane, profound and intriguing person. A self-taught polymath, who is either dirt poor or very rich, but whose longtime profession is that of horologist, specialising in the restoration of the most complex and rare timepieces. His initial allegation is that a murder has taken place in the town – which he christens Shit Town – and has been covered up because the guilty party is the scion of the town’s richest family. I got the feeling that it was not so much the alleged murder but the range and depth of McLemore’s knowledge that eventually caused Reed to travel to Alabama and meet him. McLemore does not disappoint. He is manic and magnetic. Talking rapidly and precisely about ecology and global finance, while showing his collection of clocks, his numerous dogs and his carefully constructed maze, which can be configured to vary its challenge. John lives with his declining mother and appears never to have had a serious romantic relationship. He inhabits a dystopic world, but he is not irrational, since he can provide scientific findings and published data to support his conviction that the world is on a disastrous trajectory. In the end he can’t provide much evidence for the alleged murder and the story might have ended there. A wild goose chase. A colourful interview. A bucolic road trip. Material for a short, light programme. But instead, John killed himself before the story had been wound up. Reed goes to the meagre funeral and stays on because his interest is piqued by the contradictions surrounding John’s death. There are grasping relatives – from central casting via Florida; Mourning ‘family’ – especially Tyler – John’s unofficially fostered son; evasive lawyer and mysterious town clerk. There is even a ‘death list’ – the names and phone numbers of people John wanted phoned as soon as he died. Most weren’t phoned, for reasons that remain unclear, but Reed follows them up and, in the course of the last three episodes explores and explicates the ever richer story of John B McLemore. Former (male) lovers are identified, John’s exalted status among his peer horologists is firmly established and, with some sense of closure, the cause of John’s terminal depression is identified as being mercury poisoning, contacted by using a very dangerous gilding process – ‘fire gilting’. But the riddle of John’s wealth (or lack of it) is not solved. The strange behaviour of the town clerk (Faye) is not explained and, as the series ends, we are unsure of Tyler’s fate as he has been charged with removing materials from John’s estate which he believes belong to him.


It is a compliment rather than a criticism to say that the story leaves many loose ends. These are testament to its real-world nature, where human stories don’t fracture neatly along plot lines but, instead, we have to accept that people’s lives are irregular networks which have no obvious beginning and no clear conclusion – apart from the biological. But I would have liked to know more about the relationship between John and Faye, the woman he rang as he was poisoning himself with potassium cyanide. Why didn’t she phone the people on the list and why did she feel compelled to say she did? And what happened to John’s clock collection? Was it shipped to Florida and sold off? These are minor quibbles and can be answered simply with the statement that the story had to stop somewhere and, at almost seven hours in length, it had already fulfilled its purpose. My main misgiving is with the level of intrusion on people’s lives. Even in the FaceBook era with its pervasive self-exposure I’m uneasy hearing the actual sound of people hearing heartbreaking news; the raging sadness of a mercury poisoned man (who’d been optimistic in his earlier years); the intimate details of a dead man’s love life – which he’d kept so secret while he was alive. Balancing this is the recorded testimony of an impressive life which might easily have gone unnoticed outside a small circle. The education of we, the listeners, in the real lives of poor but stalwart people and, to some extent, in the passionate interest of John McLemore. Assuming that all who were featured have given informed consent and, realising the exuberant mind that was to be recorded for posterity, I’m inclined to accept that the intrusion is justified by the result.


The Making of Donald Trump – review

I’ve just finished reading ‘The Making of Donald Trump’ by David Cay Johnston and I would recommend it to anyone interested not just in politics, US or international, but also to students of journalism, media and modern culture. Johnston is a highly regarded investigative journalist who happened, during the period 1988 to 1995, to cover Trump’s activities in great detail because of Trump’s involvement with casinos and criminals. At that time he was not expecting Trump would run for president but he didn’t rule out that possibility and, to his credit, he anticipated that Trump might win if he did run. His reasoning was that Trump had shown a lifelong ability to do exactly what he wished without abiding by laws, principles or morals and still get away with it. In precise detail, with extensive notes and references to back up his assertions, Johnston chronicles the rise and rise of Trump family and then of the Donald himself. He shows that Trump has perjured himself many times, by giving contradictory answers while under oath, and has had strong and long-lasting connections with criminals of all sorts. Citing Scott Fitzgerald’s dictum that ‘character is shown by actions’ Johnston makes no attempt to understand, still less judge, Trump’s character but confines himself to detailing his actions in business and in his personal life where he has shown himself, repeatedly, to be vengeful, dishonest, ignorant and unprincipled. The book was published in hardback just before the election and Trump, true to form, threatened to sue – a tactic he has used to suppress unfavourable press many times. Johnston stood his ground, believing he had substantiated every claim he made and Trump never took it any further.

Even for someone like myself who has read much Trumpology and formed a very low opinion of the man, the accounts in this book are astonishing. Trump has been sued over 2,000 times – most often by people he has double-crossed. His abiding motto – repeated ad nauseum in public and private – is to ‘get even’. His vengefulness has extended to close relatives, former employees and business colleagues. The most extensive set of scandals concerns Trump’s casino operation in New Jersey. On numerous occasions – detailed and documented in the book – Trump has escaped sanction by NJ authorities, even when his guilt was established beyond doubt. His operations in NJ were deemed ‘too big to fail’ so regulators, prosecutors and even the police force looked the other way as he consorted with gangsters, flirted with bankruptcy and broke numerous gaming regulations. More outrageous still are the accounts of property developments where Trump licensed the use of his name – took part, along with his family, in promotional events and materials – and when the developments folded argued that he was not the developer and had no responsibly to the investors who were left high and dry. Many sued him but while some cases are still in progress, the ones that were settled are all ‘sealed’ so no one knows what redress, if any, the investors secured.

Johnston’s strongest criticism is reserved for the US media who, throughout the presidential campaign, failed to challenge Trump on any of his well-documented misdemeanours. Johnston himself asked the editor the NY Times why this was so and got the unconvincing answer that it all happened ‘a long time ago’. Bogus equivalence and a twisted concept of balance led to Hilary Clinton’s deleted emails getting far more scrutiny than Trump’s well documented perjuries, racism and deception. In retrospect Clinton would have been well advised to reflect on this book before her debates with Trump. A single persistent question would have been more effective than any amount of in-depth briefings or memorised statistics. His narcissism and thin skin – combined with his deep misogyny – could have led to a melt down that would have ended his chances.

For anyone who values good journalism, or who has a friend or relation who voted for Trump, it is well worth spending the few euros it will cost to buy this book for your Kindle.

My Man in Havana


It must have been around 2001, while I was Registrar at the University of Limerick, that I was asked to host a visitor from Cuba who had expressed interest in the Irish software sector and, in particular, in how UL worked with industry though industrial placements and industrially funded projects. Such visits, by representatives from less developed but ambitious countries, were not unusual – I remember the excellent bottle of rum left by a delegation from Martinique – but this was the first from Cuba. I was intrigued, sharing the general liberal fascination with this feisty Caribbean nation, though conscious that it was by no means the workers’ paradise preached by some.

On the day, I greeted a heavy-set, quiet and bearded man who introduced himself as ‘Jose-Fid’ and asked that I call him by his first name. His card, as chief scientific advisor to the Cuban government, told a wider story, giving his full name as Jose Fidel Castro Diaz Baleart. It may seem incredible but I did not infer that he was in any way related to Fidel Senior, at that time still the all-powerful President of Cuba. I suppose I thought Castro was a common name and since he – Jose-Fid – did not allude to anything political or to his family or relations, I didn’t query him either. So we talked about computing, software development, the nature of industry in Ireland and especially about the best way of training future software engineers. His own background was in nuclear engineering – he had a PhD from Moscow University – but he had been involved in computing, which he called informatics, for many years and was promoting a government plan to establish an ‘informatics university’ just outside Havana.

For many years my wife and I had hoped to visit Cuba fearing, as did many others, that we might leave it ‘too late’ and that the coming, as we thought, inevitable thaw in US-Cuba relations would soon transform Cuba, both good and bad, into a standard less developed Caribbean nation complete with tacky souvenir shops, advertising hoardings, fast-food outlets alongside rampant deprivation. We got a good airfare for the last day of 2008, booking an Air France flight via Paris to Havana. Now comes the embarrassing part. I made email contact with Jose Fid telling him we’d be in Cuba during early January for 10 days, 6 of which would be spent on an organised tour of the west of the island. Politely he replied that he’d be busy for the first few days but that on the last full day of our trip he would love to host us for the day. Since the late 60’s I’d learned much about the Cuban revolution and its aftermath. I’d read of the guerrillas triumphant entry into Havana and of course I knew the year and date it had happened but I didn’t make any connection with our arrival being on 1 January 2009, exactly 50 years since the revolution’s culmination. Of course Jose Fid would be busy – there was a revolution to commemorate after all – but I just assumed he’d other things to do and was happy to take up his offer of meeting on our last day in Cuba.

Our time and Havana and on tour passed quickly. Impressions were manifold and contrasting. A proud people with reason to be proud but hungry to live and not just survive. Outspoken and uncowed in their criticism of the regime (but not Fidel) and yet not fully free either. Impressive medical and educational facilities even in remote areas being constantly undermined by the perversity of a twin currency system that caused surgeons to work as taxi drivers to supplement their incomes. One resort we stayed at had a specialist doctor to care for scuba divers but she also gave massages as these were paid for in exchangeable pesos. Overall it was a country in a controlled but unsustainable situation facing growing uncertainty as the revolutionary generation passed, reluctantly, into history having failed to foster a generation of successors.

The morning after we arrived back in Havana we were collected by a friendly young man driving a Hyundai minivan. He took us to the nascent Informatics University just outside Havana, Jose Fid’s pet project and the reason he’d been so interested in visiting UL. We were met by the man himself and a group of colleagues, mainly women, who were lecturers and admin staff in the college. The training model they had adopted involved the senior undergraduates working with a (state-owned) campus company on the development and delivery of software systems for both non-profit and commercial organisations in Cuba and a few overseas. I recall that they were providing the infrastructure of a modern immigration control system in Venezuela. It was noticeable that the colleagues deferred to ‘Dr. Castro’, as they called him but there was no questioning the high personal regard in which they held him. The ‘Informatics University’ was taking shape in what used be the USSR’s largest overseas intelligence station. Recounting tales of its previous use allowed our hosts to express their abiding loathing for their Soviet overlords who, they claimed, had stripped the site of everything – even pulling the phones off the walls – when they withdrew in 1990. We were told that ‘mass graves’ had been found – to the horror of the Cubans – indicating that ‘rendition’ wasn’t a CIA monopoly.  Next stop was lunch in the Havana Club.  It was surreal to walk through panelled hallways, past a pantheon of US movie stars from the 30’s and 40’s, and enter a beachside dining area where we were plied with exquisite food by a uniformed and thoroughly professional waiting staff. Jose-Fid was accompanied by his (second) wife and by his eldest son (from his first marriage). The latter spoke good English and joined in the animated conversation. I began by remarking to Jose-Fid that the Club seemed like a very exclusive place but he countered that it was ‘open to anyone’ but accepted they’d need many convertible pesos to afford the prices. When I questioned the wisdom of the twin currency system he was defensive saying that it was a necessary evil to fend off the twin threats of creeping dollarisation of the economy and abject poverty. The ‘local’ peso could buy local produce which ensured people could subsist, even on modest incomes, while the convertible peso, linked, unofficially, to the dollar, provided a fig-leaf of independence from the US currency. He wished for the day when, with economic growth, they could end this arrangement and have a strong independent currency. As for political developments, he was more forthcoming than previously. Yes he understood why I advocated multi-party democratic elections but Cuba was not yet ready for that, being under constant subversion and threats of invasion by its mighty neighbour. He was pleased and surprised at Obama’s election but cautious in his hopes for significant improvement in relations. With obvious pleasure he told how, a few days before, on the 1st of January, he had ridden into Havana on a tank, re-enacting the triumphant entry of his father exactly 50 years before. It was the only time I recall him mentioning his father. After lunch he posed for photos with us and we parted with assurances of continuing collaboration. None of this materialised however. I didn’t learn Spanish as I’d intended to do which limited my usefulness to their project. Surprisingly few of the IT staff or students spoke English. A few years later I had an invitation to attend a ‘world congress’ in Caracas, which was to focus on the potential use of IT in redressing the North/South imbalance. No doubt I’d have found the congress was dominated by Hugo Chavez but pressure of work meant I couldn’t go in any event. I

It was in February of this year that I heard, casually, that Jose-Fid had died, by his own hand, about a month before. I found a short article by Newsweek – which didn’t enlighten me much except to confirm the bald facts of his passing.

https://www.newsweek.com/fidel-castro-diaz-balart-cuba-suicide-fidelito-fidel-castro-797917  I contacted Jose-Fid’s office and his colleagues emailed that they were still shattered by his death. I don’t know the current state of the Informatics University but, whatever its state, it will surely miss his knowledge and leadership.

I’m left to wonder why he would have taken his own life. The Newsweek article said he suffered from depression and it may be as sad and simple as that. But it cannot have been easy for a shy, modest but immensely aware person to live his life in the shadow of a twentieth century icon, all the time knowing that the revolution they had all espoused was slowly withering away due, partly, to its internal contradictions but, ironically, probably far more due to the ubiquitous spread of informatics, as Jose-Fid would have called it.

The ‘Repeal the 8th’ Referendum and the Catholic Church – some reflections

Following the resounding defeat of the “No” side, Breda O Brien (Irish Times 16 June 2018 https://www.irishtimes.com/opinion/breda-o-brien-a-timid-religion-will-die-fast-1.3531901 ) returned to the fray with an article suffused with resentment bordering on the paranoid. She predicted the scathing headlines that will follow Pope Francis’ visit when – as she expects – there is no comparison with the numbers, the hype and the excitement of Pope John Paul’s visit in 1979. Commentators,from that fuzzily undefined group ‘the elite’ will ‘find it odd that things have changed in other ways since then’ and she claims to look forward to articles about the cost of the visit, which will cry out that ’the money should have gone to the poor’. The main thrust of her article however is that while Irish Catholics only have to endure derision and ‘casual sectarianism’ much worse is to come their way and they should be ready for it. With an infallibility that the modest man from Argentina would never aspire to, she declares that “In reality, the pope’s visit will just be a media circus unless it causes people to realise that there is a cost to being a Christian.” So even if many thousands of Catholics, orthodox and not-so-orthodox, other Christians and even non-believers may take inspiration from the manifest goodness of Pope Francis; perhaps be encouraged by his non-judgemental attitude to their human failings and even inspired to work for equality, justice and environmental causes, Breda dismisses all that in comparison with knowing the ‘cost of being a Christian’. She quotes, with approval, an apocalyptic rant of a US cardinal to the effect that secularisation of society might lead to one of his successors dying ‘a martyr in a public square’.  Her rallying call seems to be, as we say in Munster, ‘Stand up and Fight’.

I’d hoped for something more reflective. What was remarkable about the triumph of the Yes vote was that it cut across all the cliched divisions that commentators ascribe to Ireland. Only one constituency voted No. That means a majority of the citizens of Roscommon, Leitrim or Kerry, voted to repeal an amendment a previous generation had approved 35 years ago. Only the over 65 age cohort had a No majority and that wasn’t overwhelming. A second remarkable feature was the systematic way the question was deliberated upon by Irish society. A citizens’ assembly heard comprehensive expert and lay opinion, met over weekends and eventually came to the near unanimous conclusion that the existing situation was not tenable and that limited provision for abortion was essential. This reasoning and proposal were taken up by an all-party parliamentary committee who came, albeit with some dissension, to the same conclusion. Once the government called the referendum the established process was set in motion. The independent referendum commission circulated an impartial and clear statement of the implications of the decision, one way or the other, to every household in the land. During the TV debates – which many voters cited as influential – a serious effort was made to challenge unfounded assertions; to allow equal time for each side and to inform the public as thoroughly as possible about the arguments and examples put forward by both sides.  The Iona centre, with which Breda O Brien is associated, were prominent on the No side but their hard-line position – that abortion was wrong no matter what the circumstances and that a fertilised egg had the same value as a mother with children – may have contributed to the undecided voters swinging more to the Yes side, against the usual pattern in Irish referenda where they normally drift to the No side, whatever the proposition.

The real problem for the Catholic Church is that it lost the argument. Educated, intelligent and practicing Catholics voted in their thousands against the official teachings of their church leaders because they didn’t buy their arguments. Catholic moral teaching is founded on two pillars – Scripture and Natural Law. As scripture has nothing to say about many of the socio-sexual issues of the day the Church must rely on natural law, the basic premise of which is that an open-minded rational person, whether a believer or not, will be persuaded by the logical argument in favour of the Church’s position. Horrific posters and scare-mongering notwithstanding, a rational argument was put forward based on reproductive science and ‘axiomatic’ human rights but very few accepted it. If an argument from natural law cannot persuade Mary McAleese then it has failed. It is this failure that Breda O Brien should be addressing. The same Mrs McAleese has recently opined that the Catholic Church has yet to reconcile its claim to divine authority with the notion of universal human rights. That is hardly surprising since the church has, over the centuries, often been on the wrong side opposing, as it did, the moves towards freedom of religion, integrated education and access to contraception. Especially in the last case, it was opposed to citizens having the right to do something the church deemed immoral. In Ireland, Mary Robinson, another of our excellent presidents, successfully fought the case for access to contraception, despite vigorous Catholic opposition and this was the first in a long series of defeats. At no time, that I am aware of, did the Irish Catholic church make the distinction between what the State could allow its citizens to do and what the Church could approve of its members doing. The sort of debates that take place in places where Catholics are a minority, albeit an influential one, such as Holland, the USA, France and Australia, has not been replicated in Ireland. In these countries Catholic thinkers try to persuade the citizenry, of all religions and none, as to what is in the best interest of the country, accepting that a pluralist, secular democracy must avoid imposing restraints on its citizens that are merely the teachings of a particular religion. This means they must construct fact (not faith) based arguments that rely on shared human understanding and values i.e. on the ‘natural law’. Unfortunately, the record of the Catholic church, in countries where it had the allegiance of a majority of the citizens, has not been good. In Franco’s ‘Catholic’ Spain, even the public advertising of other forms of Christian worship was forbidden by law while Malta required Catholic doctrine to be taught in all state schools. Ireland was not unique in having ‘Christ and Caesar go hand in glove’.

Looking back on the past fifty years it is clear that the turning point was Pope Paul’s rejection of contraception in the Humanae Vitae encyclical. He did this against the majority recommendation of the expert commission he had established to advise him. That group, relying on natural law, concluded that it could be morally good to limit the size of one’s family and that the means used to achieve that end was of secondary importance. Within the context of a loving Christian marriage it was ok to have sex that was known to be sterile. The encyclical was divisive from the outset but, crucially, as an argument based entirely on rational natural law, it was a total failure. The vast majority of practising Catholics rejected it. Unfortunately that rejection was not interpreted by the church as a sign from the Spirit that the teaching was wrong, even though such a deduction is quite tenable under church principles. Personally I believe that the problem for Pope Paul was not contraception. He might well have been persuaded to follow the commission’s proposals. The problem was infallibility. While the rejection of contraception had not been officially proclaimed as an infallible teaching ‘of faith or morals, to be held by all the people’ it had been restated numerous times over the preceding hundred years, most crucially after a Lambeth (Anglican) conference had indicated a change in Anglican teaching to favour contraception. Infallibility really does mean never being able to say you’re sorry. However to save face and possibly to avoid that intrinsic evil referred to as ‘scandal’, Paul felt he had no choice but to stick with the established teaching. Of course clerical abuse scandals and the even more scandalous coverups contributed to the decline of adherence among the Catholic faithful but I am firmly of the view that Humanae Vitae was a wrong turn for the church of Rome, one that has done previous harm to its standing in much of the developed world.

Irish Times – Public Sector Pay & Austerity

Sir, – Your editorial (April 25th) contains the extraordinary assertion that “the unsustainable rise in public service pay in the first decade of the 21st century was the prime cause of the crisis in the public finances that led to austerity”. Some of us thought it was profligate lending by the golden untouchable circle to other members of that circle; others imagined it has something to do with a global financial crisis; still other innocent souls attributed it to our taxation system which eschewed taxes on property or wealth (that golden circle again) but was based, vulnerably, on property transactions and payroll taxes – both of which recouped a significant share of any public sector pay rises. And how much of our current massive national debt is attributable to our decision, taken under immense pressure, to bail out the unsecured creditors, while breaking, by fiat, the employment contracts of thousands of Irish citizens, and then to use public funds to rescue our collapsed property speculators? Incidentally, if your simplistic assertion is to be believed, what caused so many other countries to endure austerity for 10 years or more? Of course paying ourselves too much – in private and public sectors – contributed to our problems but I expect much better analysis from you than this right-wing cliché. – Yours, etc,


Nori Odoi – a Postscript

Nori spoke at her own memorial service. On the drive up from Boston to Peterborough NH, my daughter and I had agreed that Nori would definitely have framed the service in some distinctive ways. While she was fighting for her life, and savouring every minute she wrested from the jaws of death, she was also aware that her days and months would be few and, with calm deliberation, had been planning for her own demise. But I could never have anticipated what transpired.

Yes, Nori spoke at her own funeral. In fact she read two poems. We filed into the welcoming pews of the Universal Unitarian Church in Peterborough, an imposing red brick building, conspicuously adorned with large banners for ‘Pride’ and ‘Black Lives Matter’. We were welcomed by Rev. Diana McLean, who spoke tenderly and, in that setting most appropriately, of the universal experiences of grief which transcend all divisions of belief, culture and age. Then the sound system played a recording of Nori reading one of her favourite poems – ‘Do you Dance? Awed silence was broken only by sighs and soft weeping as her voice, bright and strong, echoed through the white vaulted wooden interior. This led naturally into a choral version of a popular song from the early 2000s – ‘I hope you Dance’.

At each of her weddings to Rags, there were three of them so as to accommodate their friends scattered around North America, there had been an ‘open mike’ where attendees could stand up and tell stories, give advice, divulge secrets or do whatever they felt appropriate in a bid to support, honour or even embarrass the happy couple. Of course it’s different at a funeral. But the open mike allowed many of us to share our loving memories of Nori; tell stories of her kindness, humour and counsel and, usually between sobs, attest to how much we had loved her and why. This was followed by what was, for me and for many, the high point of the service. With truly incredible courage, and a clear and full voice, Rags sang the song that Nori had asked of him – ‘Into the West’. Not being a Tolkien fan, I hadn’t heard the song before but this lament from Lord of the Rings was deeply moving with many of the lines resonating, almost eerily, in our broken hearts.

And finally Nori spoke again. She had written a valedictory poem which we heard her read in a firm, cheerful but contented voice. In it she bade us farewell with a realistic spirituality and some very pertinent instructions to carry on her generous spirit, her unbounded love and her joyful wonder. All she asked was that we remember her words. So here is the poem.


being of sound mind and spirit
Do bequeath to you
This testament
My last will of life.

To each of you
I leave my happiness;
The cuttings you first gave to me
I now return, grown lush and green
As forests, vibrant, rich with laughter,
Sprung from fertile land and sea.

Do not therefore grieve my life
Or say my life was grim with loss
Say that I danced it measure on measure
Embracing pain as swell as joy
Say I fell much but rose as often
And did not begrudge a single fall
And when at last I had fully lived
I freely chose to fully die.

To each of you
I give my love:
That which you have given deeply
I now return, yet also keep
For even more than bread and fishes
Shared love will grow until complete.

Do not therefore regret and worry
Or toil beneath guilt’s heavy load.
You remember a time you frowned
But I remember the times you smiled
And when you held me in sweet conviction
You warmed me in my soul’s dark night.
Your gifts were wrapped in gold and silver
I did not notice if a bow was bent.
My material possessions are not important.
Divide them
But do not forget
I loved you each for your own bright music.
Be generous, caring – and remember me.

In token of these minor trinkets
One last thing I ask of you.
Hold tightly to the gossamer fabrics
I wove from words to leave behind
They mark the faint path of my passing
They are what I’ve learned in this brief time.

– Nori Odoi

Ní bheidh a leithéad ann arís – There will never be anyone like her.

Nori Ann Odoi

I first met Nori Odoi in January 1979 when she came to my basement office in Strong Hall at the University of Kansas. I heard a melodic voice say “excuse me Professor” and swivelled from my desk to see a smiling face turned horizontally so that a cascade of thick dark hair reached almost to the floor. ‘Professor’ is a reserved title where I come from – I would have been termed a Junior Lecturer – so I was perplexed at being addressed like this. Before I could query it, she introduced herself. “I’m your easy access student” announced this radiant, smiling, Asiatic-looking young woman. I hesitated, not knowing if I’d heard correctly and then said, impulsively, “I imagine that doesn’t mean what it sounds like”. In the next split second I immediately regretted being so bold and could feel the blood rushing to my face but, after a barely perceptible pause, she began laughing uproariously. Relieved, I joined in with gusto, and we both laughed until we cried.

Today I’m crying alone. Nori, my precious, inspiring, loving and lovable friend of almost 39 years, left this life yesterday and nothing will ever be the same again. Human memories are very selective about the level of detail they hold. Moments of great significance – a first kiss, being knocked off my bike, arriving in Kennedy Airport for the first time – these moments are stored in rich detail and stay vivid all our lives. Meeting Nori was one such moment. I sensed, in an instant, that hers was a unique spirit and I already had the inkling that, if the river of life allowed it, we would sail together for a long time. And so it proved. She audited my graduate course in Software Engineering – that’s what ‘easy access’ students could do – and, in the lectures, I soon noticed that she laughed heartily at my witticisms even when she had to laugh alone. The mid-western students were warm and honourable people but most were not accustomed to sardonic, Irish wordplay. Nori came to our apartment and loved our, in the context, exotic cooking. After 3 years in Zambia my wife and I were enjoying the freedom to chose the recipe first and then find the ingredients,rather than vice versa. Curries, stir-fries, casseroles and roast lamb were all relished by Nori and our other KU friends. A shared kitchen really is the basis for enduring friendship.

Nori’s career took her to New England which made it easier for us to meet in Boston or in Dublin. When my academic globe-trotting allowed, I would include a few days layover in Boston, knowing that Nori would somehow, despite all her myriad commitments, find her way to Logan airport, plonk me in her car and then announce that – “If you’re not too tired I thought we’d go for a stroll in Faneuil Hall, then have meal in Legal Seafood before heading back to New England”. I was never too tired. My two or three day breaks were always jam-packed with great food, often cooked by her – her breakfasts being a real tour de force – constant conversation and visits to sites popular and obscure. There was often some crazy driving too. On one occasion she drove up to Queen’s University in Kingston Ontario, collected me in her beloved Honda Civic, and then informed me that we were going to Quebec City and that, since she had a thumping migraine, I was going to drive. A journey of over 550km took us well into the night but on the next two days we enjoyed sunny crisp weather, marvellous historic sights and, even if it wasn’t Paris, some great French food. On another occasion she took me ‘leaf-peeping’, that peculiarly New England pastime of driving around looking at the autumn foliage. That’s also the season when cranberry ‘bogs’ are flooded to aid in harvesting the berries. The profusion of leafy browns and berry reds was a photographer’s dream. On the afternoon drive back to Logan airport Nori stopped at a highly regarded restaurant only to find, to her dismay, that it didn’t do late lunch or early dinner. Undeterred she went inside and emerged, just when I was starting to wonder about making my Aer Lingus flight, triumphantly carrying a set of disposable food containers. Somehow she had persuaded this eminent chef to make us a takeaway, including samples of his evening menu. We raced through the rolling woodland until we spotted a sheltered southwest facing clearing that would hold the sun for an hour more. And there we spread our blanket and ate as handsome a ‘picnic’ as anyone ever enjoyed. That day is captured in a poem Nori gave me some years later.

Cranberry Season

Come away with me, come away, old friend
They’re flooding the cranberry bogs
The wind is soft and the sun is warm
The leaves tumble scarlet and gold

Our paths have travelled in separate worlds
The berries glint red in the sun
But when we meet it seems no time has passed
The leaves whisper under out feet

You have had children and I have had cats
Berries float on the waters like beads
Let’s talk of our triumphs, our worries, our dreams
Acorns scatter and thud to the ground

We have only this moment before you must leave
The bogs will soon rest for the year
We’ll dine in the forest as the setting sun dims
The pines stand solemn and green

Though you live cross an ocean and our visits are rare
The bogs will bloom white in the spring
Companions once found will be companions again
As the seasons fall scarlet and gold

Nori Odoi – 23 October 2000

Nori became a fixture in our family. She was a close friend and confidante of my wife and of my daughters Sara and, especially, Rachel. She was, at the very least, an honorary auntie to my young girls and they were well into their twenties when I noticed that each of them still took to bed the cuddly toy animal that Nori had given them for their second or third birthdays. More remarkable still was Nori’s friendship with my mother. Widowed at 60 and wanting to scratch her permanently itchy feet by touring the USA, my mother, Noreen, told me she was going to Boston. There she would be hosted by my lifelong friend Liam but when I mentioned her trip to Nori there was an immediate invitation to come up to New Hampshire and be shown the natural wonders of New England. Without hesitation my mother accepted and so began a deep and mutually supportive friendship. It was so typical of Nori to befriend someone who was, superficially, the total opposite of herself. An Irish Catholic widow, whom she’d never met before and was about 30 years older than her. But they recognised in one another the survivor’s joie de vivre. They’d both had hard and painful childhoods and come through by being tough, determined and smart. Nori visited my mother a few times over the years and kept her appraised of her marriage to, and happy life with, Rags right up until she died, aged 92 in 2008.

When I heard Nori’s probable diagnosis this time last year I arranged to spend a week with her and Rags. She was still hoping against hope for a lesser sentence or a better path than chemotherapy. Even though she was in some pain she took her prescribed opioids sparingly and the two kindly, world-leading consultants remarked on her excellent physical condition despite her Stage 4 pancreatic cancer. But their verdict was consistent and unyielding. Her cancer was inoperable; immunotherapy treatment might prolong her life by a month or two and both recommended she take the most severe chemotherapy since “it might give you a year or more”. They were proven accurate on all counts. The initial chemotherapy while harsh had an immediate impact, slowing the tumour growth so that, between treatments, she had some high quality time to enjoy visitors, travel and even attend a family wedding in the Mid-West. With the new year came a new air service by Norwegian from Shannon – near me – to Providence RI – quite near Nori. I booked to visit her at the end of August and we agreed that this was a vote of confidence (or just sheer optimism) and that I’d probably, as she put it, be so mad with her if she wasn’t around when the time came, that I “would never talk to her again”. But while she waxed and waned over the intervening months, we had many animated and long Skype calls so that I anticipated her being in fine form when I arrived. But, as she has written elsewhere, “a funny thing happened on the way to the totality” [eclipse] and she was within two transfusion units of dying the week before I travelled. And yet I arrived, three days after she came out of hospital, to find her lording it over her kitchen from which she proceeded to serve a cordon bleu lobster dinner that would have graced any restaurant. She wrote on FB “I appear to be very much alive”. August was also her birthday and, for what I expected would be her last, I scraped out a poem reflecting some of our scientist-coloured speculations on consciousness and the afterlife.

Orders of Magnitude

How many quarks make us from head to tail?
More than our cells but fewer than our stars.
And is awareness only at our scale?
Each fleeting knot of molecules we are.

The ancient peoples believed their fathers’ souls
Ascended to become the stars of night
Why shouldn’t passing on reverse the poles?
And show the afterworld by quantum light.

The pattern we love may yet survive,
At scales we are ill fitted to discern
But while we are connected and alive
We take the time to cherish and to learn.

Kevin T Ryan – August 2017

When she invited me out again this November we were both aware that, one year on, she had beaten the odds by some margin but was, all the more so, living on borrowed time. We agreed I’d come at Christmas but, in our last exchange of texts – just last Wednesday – she pointed out that I was again taking a big risk. When I repeated my threat not to speak to her ever again if she departed prematurely she replied: “ I cannot promise the same 😉 “. Perhaps she will communicate with me but even if she doesn’t, or she does and I am too tone deaf to hear, I will hold her dear in my heart for the rest of my life. With Nori I experienced a depth of friendship that I suspect many people never know. It was a privilege and a blessing to have shared some of my life with her and it is a devastating loss to a huge circle of friends and relations that we will no longer be able to do so. I believe we can best honour her memory by living our lives to the full, with enjoyment, kindness, intelligence and laughter – lots of laughter – right up to the moment we too must follow where she has gone.