Friday, 30 August 2013

Iain Banks, Seamus Heaney, Louise Manson-Hing

It's been a horrid month for deaths.

Iain Banks was also known as Iain M. Banks. He used the two names to distinguish his persona as a science-fiction author from that of a practitioner of more conventional forms of fiction. I am far from an expert in his work, but I have read the science fiction novels Consider Phlebas, Player of Games, and Use of Weapons. 

The three novels can be considered space opera because of their setting, in which a partnership has been established between organic beings (their various species do not matter so much) and artificial intelligences who are considerably more intelligent but, on the whole, like having us around. The partnership is known as "the Culture." It is space-based, insanely rich, and both libertarian and liberal. It also tends to meddle in the affairs of many less advanced peoples to lead them in the direction of being more libertarian, more liberal, and richer. All for their own benefit, of course. As we know from recent history, such efforts are not always appreciated and sometimes cause more damage than good.

The artificial intelligences have long lifespans and a wide range of personalities. They generally appreciate irony. For example, when a non-Culture ambassador commented on their "lack of gravitas," many of them chose names for themselves that proudly advertised the lack: Experiencing a Significant Gravitas Shortfall, for example. Other names express the ship's attitude, such as Poke it with a Stick, or sense of humour, such as Ultimate Ship the Second.

Even though the Culture novels have a space-opera background, and space opera does not have a reputation for exploring ethical problems or developing rounded characters (may I mention Star Wars?), they do ask if individuals would suffer and grow, even in a liberal, post-scarcity utopia. The answer, very clearly, is yes.

Although Iain Banks is one of the best novelists of our time, I think I can call Seamus Heaney the best poet of our time. I first came across his work, oddly enough, in a Grade 12 English Provincial Exam. The poem was called "Digging." In it, the poet is attempting to write, but hears his father working in the garden outside. The sound of digging causes him to flash back to his father's digging of potatoes, twenty years before, and the children's love of the round roots he exposed for them to collect. Then a further flash back to his grandfather, "the best digger on Toner's bog," hard at work. Then back to the present. Although he is proud of them and their work "I've no spade to follow men like them." So he looks again at his pen and thinks "I'll dig with it."

I've summarized the poem so you can appreciate the delightful pride he expresses in his ancestors and his humility towards his own profession. You should read the poem itself, however.

I was taken enough with it to look up the author, something which I have never done for another poet that I've met in a Provincial Exam. I discovered that he had a Nobel Prize in literature and was often called the best Irish poet since Yeats. You'll have to make your own judgement of that, but how many poets could make it to the top of the New York Times bestseller list with a translation of Beowulf? If that is not sufficient to impress you, consider that "In 2009,...two-thirds of the poetry collections sold in the UK the previous year had been Heaney titles."

I will include my favourite poem by Heaney as my last word on the man.


Seamus Heaney
Fishermen at Ballyshannon
Netted an infant last night
Along with the salmon.
An illegitimate spawning,

A small one thrown back
To the waters. But I'm sure
As she stood in the shallows
Ducking him tenderly

Till the frozen knobs of her wrists
Were dead as the gravel,
He was a minnow with hooks
Tearing her open.

She waded in under
The sign of the cross.
He was hauled in with the fish.
Now limbo will be

A cold glitter of souls
Through some far briny zone.
Even Christ's palms, unhealed,
Smart and cannot fish there.
Finally, I come to Louise Manson-Hing. She is not famous. "She dwelt among the untrodden ways." For about fifteen years, she was the most important person in my life. She would have remained one of the most important, even after my marriage, if I had been able to keep up my contact with her. For reasons that I will not go into, I could not.

I met Louise in the back row of a university class. She offered me a muffin. Not a come-on; just simple fellow-feeling. She was not given to playing games with people's minds. She was very protective of her heart, however. She would sometimes reject people, push them away, to find out if they would go. Even when she was doing this, she was one of the best people to talk to for hours on end, and she never hung up. Her voice was well-modulated and beautiful. Her loyalty was intense.

Her personal courage was immense. For example, at one point in her life she enjoyed taking out her little dog for walks through the streets and parks at two or three in the morning. When she was warned that this was not safe, she simply did not understand why she should have to be afraid. Years after, after she had made contact with women who had been hurt by men, she said she felt ashamed for not understanding their point of view. She never adopted it, though. She could look after herself.

After years out of contact, after my own marriage had changed enough to allow it, I tried many ways to contact Louise again. I phoned her workplace a few times, but was told that she did not work there any more. I found her sisters on Facebook and left inquiries with them. Finally, though I knew that she would never have a web page or blog of her own, I simply searched the internet for her name and I found her obituary here. She had been dead from cancer for over a year.

I am ashamed that I was not there for her when she was dying. I wish, more than anything, that I could apologize to her.

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