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AISHWARYA  SUBRAMANIAN
LEFT OF COOL

Left of Cool abandons the respectable and the popular, and turns its gaze to the odd and wonderful.

Myles fired the first shot in the war against cliche decades ago

his month marks the birth centenary of the Irish writer Brian O'Nolan, who is best known for the brilliant, absurd novels he wrote under the name Flann O'Brien. At Swim-Two-Birds and The Third Policeman are well-known and justifiably so. But some of O' Nolan's best writing is to be found in the "Cruiskeen Lawn" column he wrote for The Irish Times for more than twenty-five years under the name of Myles na gCopaleen.

My collection (from Harper Perennial, 2007) of the best of these columns confuses the naming issue further by attributing The Best of Myles to "Flann O'Brien". This is presumably done for the benefit of people who are likely to be familiar with the name from the novels. This edition also sorts the various columns into categories, rather than arranging them chronologically. Myles had various themes to which he often returned — his own status as an inventor and entrepreneur; conversations with the sibling of "the Brother", apparently a man of suspiciously great ability; his adventures with the WAAMA (Writers, Actors, Artists, Musicians Association). There are fantastic shaggy dog stories featuring the unlikely comic duo of Keats and Chapman, each leading up to an awful (or glorious) pun. So Keats, tracking down his runaway chestnut gelding is "dogging a fled horse", and the schoolboy Chapman, glued in unusual circumstances to his headmaster, is "a man who sticks to his principals".

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Despite the multiple languages and the intimidatingly clever books, O’Nolan was an accessible genius

The Myles na gCopaleen Catechism of Cliché sections are less innocent. In these columns the author exposes the number of clichés in daily use through a sort of question and answer format.

Is a man ever hurt in a motor crash?
No. He sustains an injury.
Does such a man ever die of his injuries?
No. He succumbs to them.

Or

From what sort of time does a custom date?
Time immemorial.
To what serious things does an epidemic sometimes attain?
Proportions.
A number of these clichés are to be found in newspapers and magazines even today, and I wonder how Myles' fellow Irish Times columnists and reporters felt about being thus exposed. Besides the Keats and Chapman stories, Cruiskeen Lawn is perhaps best known for its Plain People of Ireland (also something of a cliché) sections, which parody the supposed common people of the country.

y favourite columns involved Myles' involvement with WAAMA, particularly a subplot in which the author has hit on a clever new enterprise. He offers insecure consumers of culture the hire of a ventriloquist for the evening. This ventriloquist will be attractive and well-dressed, will attend an event (a play or the opera, for example) with you, and will cover both sides of the conversation, making you look sophisticated and culturally aware. The scheme falls apart when rogue ventriloquists infiltrate the theatres, blackmailing the customers and threatening to make them say all manner of terrible things.

The useful division of these columns by subject does make them easier to read - and considering that we're reading newspaper columns (about as topical a form of writing as can exist) decades after they were written, we need all the context we can get. The division isn't complete – Myles will occasionally touch on more than one of his broader subjects within the same column. Yet having my reading made this easy has made me wonder how it must have been to have read this column on a regular basis through the years of its publication. The Best of Myles, extensive though it is, doesn't even contain all of the columns. And it leaves out (understandably) the many Irish language columns. To follow these columns for twenty-six years, in two languages (and Myles was not averse to throwing in some Latin or German when it seemed like a good idea) and not in a conveniently arranged order seems to me rather daunting, yet it seems not to have appeared so to the Irish Times readers who followed Cruiskeen Lawn for that incredible length of time. I can only assume that this was because O'Nolan was a genius, and somehow (despite the multiple languages and the intimidatingly clever books) an accessible genius.

 
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