Derek Bell (The Chieftains) and Samuel Beckett – As good as it gets!

Posts for Paddy’s Day 2

My dad, God rest him, was sparing with praise. Only those truly outstanding in their fields got the nod. Sportsmen such as jockey Lester Piggott and Hurler Jimmy Doyle were credited as being, ‘As Good as it got’.

The other accolade, very rarely bestowed, on someone considered unique in character and achievement was, ‘Now, he’s a one to himself’ which I remember him saying only about the actor Robert Mitchum and Muhammad Ali.

Taking up these terms I now use them myself though characteristically with more profligacy than he ever did! Even so it’s rare for me lavish both terms on an individual no matter how high my esteem for them.

But, the exception proves the rule. So, today’s post concerns an extraordinary Irish artist, Derek Bell; harpist, harpsichordist, pianist, oboist, arranger, composer and conductor and bona fide eccentric. If ever any man deserved to be called, ‘As good as it got’ and, ‘One to himself’ it is Derek Bell.

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He was born in Belfast in 1935 and before he was a teenager he was an accomplished pianist and the composer of a concerto. He had rigorous classical training at The Royal College of Music before taking up a series of prestigious posts with classical orchestras as an Oboist.

Incredibly, given his virtuoso status, he did not take up the harp until he was in his 30s. Searching through the harp repertoire in the Irish Tradition he inevitably came upon the work of the great 17th/18th century Harper, Turlough O’ Carolan.

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O’ Carolan is a mythic figure in Irish music and history. A bard, blind from the age of 18, who equipped with harp and horse roamed Homerically throughout Ireland composing and playing exquisite tunes that have immense melodic charm.

O’Carolan’s music has had no better champion than Derek Bell. His perfectly paced performance of the haunting, ‘Farewell To Music’ has a limpid beauty that pierces to the soul.

Here Derek puts me in mind of the great jazz pianist Bill Evans’ playing on, ‘Blue in Green’ ; only musicians of the highest order, secure in their craft and selfless before their music, can play with such simplicity.

It was a 1972 St Patrick’s Day concert of the music of O’Carolan that first brought Derek into contact with The Chieftains (referred to by one of his orchestral colleagues as a, ‘Tatty Folk Group’). The ever alert Paddy Moloney, the ringmaster of The Chieftains, recognised Derek as a great musician and knew that the the addition of a brilliant harpist would give the group an even more distinctive sound and expand their repertoire

So from 1975 Derek was a full time Chieftain, an inveterate tourer and a beaming collaborator with musicians running the gamut from Ry Cooder to Chinese Folk Orchestras. Beyond his musical genius he brought a wholly individual character and impish sense of humour to The Chieftains.

Derek cut a distinctive figure on stage: attired as he invariably was in a crumpled suit, tie and pullover with the short legs of his trousers allowing view of cartoon socks! He was often forgetful of the mundane elements of life. He was once arrested at Moscow airport for carrying a ticking alarm clock in his jacket pocket as he was about to board a flight!

Listen to him here with The Chieftains as they hymn O’Carolan and demonstrate their eminence as traditional musicians – individually brilliant and collectively harmonious.

For Derek what really counted was the music. Like Van Morrison he was a dweller on the threshold who devoted his life to his art with an open heart, an elevated spirit and religious fidelity .

His death in 2002 at the age of 66 was an incalculable loss to music. Ones to themselves don’t come along very often.

Ireland in the 20th Century was blessed with a dazzling gallery of Poets, Playwrights and Novelists who won critical acclaim, popular success and serial Nobel Prizes. To my mind the most eminent of them all was Samuel Beckett.

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I freely admit that I have been obsessed with the man and his work ever since I first encountered, ‘Waiting For Godot’ as a teenager. I have a zealot’s conviction that the tender Irish musicality, humour and precision of Beckett’s prose combined with the rigour of his thought and the scarifying uniqueness of his dramatic vision mark him out as the greatest writer of his era.

Beckett found in the actress Billie Whitelaw a muse who responded with dedication, wholehearted courage and endless commitment to the enormous technical and emotional challenges involved in the roles written for her by Beckett.

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He acted as a composer/conductor and she as a brilliant instrumentalist determined to play a seemingly impossible piece perfectly. The work they did together, just to cite, ‘Happy Days’ and, ‘Not I’ must constitute one of the most significant partnerships in the history of the theatre.

Today I’m sharing a film which showcases one of Beckett’s most intense and poignant late works, ‘Rockaby’. The artful structure and deep musicality of this short play reflects Beckett’s immense theatrical craft and imaginative daring.

The play expertly deploys rhythmical language in descending loops to evoke a dreamlike state where buried memories swirl around a mind and being that is closing down.

Rockaby faces head on some of the deepest questions in human life? Who am I? How do we know ourselves and how do we know another? What moves the rocking chair? How do we come to terms with our extinction?

Billie Whitelaw found the play, ‘very frightening to do’ yet trusting to the truth of Beckett’s vision she produced a performance which is note perfect and almost unbearably moving.

Now, as they say, for something completely different. There was a time when the humour was on me and pints of porter were freely flowing when I would stand up, whatever the company and launch into the mock epic ‘Sucking Stones’ speech from Beckett’s novel, ‘Molloy’. A wondrous performance of the speech can be found on YouTube embedded in Barry McGovern’s legendary one man Beckett show, ‘Beginning to End’

I would suggest you read the text below out loud to catch the full brilliance of its humour. Only Samuel Beckett could have written this. After all, he was one to himself and as good as it gets.

I took advantage of being at the seaside to lay in a store of
sucking-stones. They were pebbles but I call them stones. Yes, on
this occasion I laid in a considerable store. I distributed them
equally between my four pockets, and sucked them turn and turn

This raised a problem which I first solved in the following
way. I had say sixteen stones, four in each of my four pockets these
being the two pockets of my trousers and the two pockets of my

Taking a stone from the right pocket of my greatcoat, and
putting it in my mouth, I replaced it in the right pocket of my
greatcoat by a stone from the right pocket of my trousers, which I
replaced by a stone from the left pocket of my trousers, which I
replaced by a stone from the left pocket of my greatcoat, which I
replaced by the stone which was in my mouth, as soon as I had
finished sucking it.

Thus there were still four stones in each of my four pockets,
but not quite the same stones. And when the desire to
suck took hold of me again, I drew again on the right pocket of my
greatcoat, certain of not taking the same stone as the last time.
And while I sucked it I rearranged the other stones in the way I
have just described. And so on.

But this solution did not satisfy me fully. For it did not escape me that,
by an extraordinary hazard, the four stones circulating thus might always be the same four.

In which case, far from sucking the sixteen stones turn and turn about, I was
really only sucking four, always the same, turn and turn about.

But I shuffled them well in my pockets, before I began to suck, and
again, while I sucked, before transferring them, in the hope of
obtaining a more general circulation of the stones from pocket to
pocket. But this was only a makeshift that could not long content a
man like me. So I began to look for something else …

I might do better to transfer the stones four by four, instead of one
by one, that is to say, during the sucking, to take the three stones remaining
in the right pocket of my greatcoat and replace them by the four in the
right pocket of my trousers , and these by the four in the left pocket
of my trousers, and these by the four in the left pocket of my greatcoat,
and finally these by the three from the right pocket of my greatcoat,
plus the one, as soon as I had finished sucking it, which was in my mouth.

Yes, it seemed to me at first that by so doing I would arrive at a better
result. But on further reflection I had to change my mind and confess that
the circulation of the stones four by four came to exactly the same thing
as their circulation one by one.

For if I was certain of finding each time, in the right pocket of my greatcoat, four stones totally different from their immediate predecessors,
the possibility nevertheless remained of my always chancing on the same stone, within each group of four, and consequently of my sucking, not the sixteen turn and turn about as I wished, but in fact four only, always the same, turn and turn about.

So I had to seek elsewhere than in the mode of circulation. For no matter how I caused the stones to circulate, I always ran the same risk. It was obvious
that by increasing the number of my pockets I was bound to increase my
chances of enjoying my stones in the way I planned, that is to say one
after the other until their number was exhausted.

Had I had eight pockets, for example, instead of the four I did have, then even the most diabolical hazard could not have prevented me from
sucking at least eight of my sixteen stones, turn and turn about.

The truth is I should have needed sixteen pockets in order to be quite easy in my mind. And for a long time I could see no other conclusion than this,
that short of having sixteen pockets, each with its stone, I could never reach the goal I had set myself, short of an extraordinary hazard.

And if at a pinch I could double the number of my pockets, were it only by dividing each pocket in two, with the help of a few safety-pins let us say, to quadruple them seemed to be more than I could manage. And I did not feel inclined to take all that trouble for a half-measure.

For I was beginning to lose all sense of measure, after
all this wrestling and wrangling, and to say, All or nothing. And if I
was tempted for an instant to establish a more equitable proportion between
my stones and my pockets , by reducing the former to the number of the
latter, it was only for an instant. For it would have been an admission
of defeat. And sitting on the shore, before the sea, the sixteen stones
spread out before my eyes, I gazed at them in anger and perplexity …

One day suddenly it dawned on me, dimly, that I might perhaps achieve
my purpose without increasing the number of my pockets, or reducing the
number of my stones, but simply by sacrificing the principle of trim.
The meaning of this illumination, which suddenly began to sing within
me, like a verse of Isaiah, or of Jeremiah, I did not penetrate at once,
and notably the word trim, which I had never met with, in this sense,
long remained obscure.

Finally I seemed to grasp that this word trim could not here mean anything else, anything better, than the distribution of the sixteen stones
in four groups of four, one group in each pocket, and that it was my refusal to consider any distribution other than this that had vitiated my calculations until then and rendered the problem literally insoluble.

And it was on the basis of this interpretation, whether right
or wrong, that I finally reached a solution, inelegant assuredly, but
sound, sound.

Now I am willing to believe, indeed I firmly believe, that
other solutions to this problem might have been found and indeed may still
be found, no less sound, but much more elegant than the one I shall now
describe, if I can …

Good. Now I can begin to suck. Watch me closely. I take a stone from
the right pocket of my greatcoat , suck it, stop sucking it, put it
in the left pocket of my greatcoat, the one empty (of stones).

I take a second stone from the right pocket of my greatcoat, suck it put it
in the left pocket of my greatcoat. And so on until the right pocket
of my greatcoat is empty (apart from its usual and casual contents)
and the six stones I have just sucked, one after the other, are
all in the left pocket of my greatcoat.

Pausing then, and concentrating, so as not to make a balls of it, I transfer to the right pocket of my greatcoat, in which there are no stones left, the
five stones in the right pocket of my trousers, which I replace by the five stones in the left pocket of my trousers, which I replace by
the six stones in the left pocket of my greatcoat.

At this stage then the left pocket of my greatcoat is again empty of stones, while the right pocket of my greatcoat is again supplied, and in the
right way, that is to say with other stones than those I have just

These other stones I then begin to suck, one after the other,
vand to transfer as I go along to the left pocket of my greatcoat,
being absolutely certain, as far as one can be in an affair of this
kind, that I am not sucking the same stones as a moment before, but

And when the right pocket of my greatcoat is again empty (of
stones), and the five I have just sucked are all without exception
in the left pocket of my greatcoat, then I proceed to the same
redistribution as a moment before, or a similar redistribution,
that is to say I transfer to the right pocket of my greatcoat, now
again available, the five stones in the right pocket of my trousers,
which I replace by the six stones in the left pocket of my trousers,
which I replace by the five stones in the left pocket of my
greatcoat. And there I am ready to begin again. Do I have to go on?

There was something more than a principle I abandoned, when I
abandoned the equal distribution, it was a bodily need. But to suck
the stones in the way I have described, not haphazard, but with
method, was also I think a bodily need.

Here then were two incompatible bodily needs, at loggerheads.
Such things happen. But deep down I didn’t give a tinker’s curse about being off my balance, dragged to the right hand and the left, backwards and

And deep down it was all the same to me whether I sucked
a different stone each time or always the same stone, until the end
of time. For they all tasted exactly the same. And if I had
collected sixteen, it was not in order to ballast myself in such and
such a way, or to suck them turn about, but simply to have a little
store, so as never to be without.

But deep down I didn’t give a fiddler’s curse about being without,
when they were all gone they would be all gone,
I wouldn’t be any the worse off, or hardly any.

And the solution to which I rallied in the end was to throw away all
the stones but one, which I kept now in one pocket, now in another,
and which of course I soon lost, or threw away, or gave away, or
swallowed …