Paul Durcan, review of Hugh McFadden, ed., Crystal Clear: The Selected Prose of John Jordan
in The Irish Times (15 July 2006)

Details: Paul Durcan, ‘Critical faculties’, review of Hugh McFadden, ed., Crystal Clear: The Selected Prose of John Jordan in The Irish Times (15 July 2006), Weekend. Available online; orig. access date unknown.

Being deleted from history is a disagreeable fate. Last year, in his The UCD Aesthetic, Dr Anthony Roche deleted from the 150-year story of UCD writers John Jordan (1930-1988), lecturer, scholar, critic, short story writer, poet, broadcaster, actor, editor, man of letters, Catholic humanist and aesthete.

At 8.40am on a sunny June morning in 1961, aged 16 years, I boarded a No. 11 bus outside Maureen’s newsagents in Upper Leeson Street. Sore beneath my ribs on account of an emergency appendicitis operation 10 days earlier, I sat down in the nearest-facing seat inside the platform. To my consternation I found myself sitting opposite my Matriculation exam invigilator, Mr John Jordan, nursing in his lap a brown leather briefcase. He was 31 but, such was his legendary status, he appeared to my eyes to be an ancient treasure of Dublin city. Blithe, lean and attired in a bottle-green corduroy suit, brown shirt and blue tie, he looked the picture of the cool, European intellectual. He gazed over my shoulder, preoccupied.

At the bus stop opposite Sandford Road church, Mr Jordan alighted and set off at a trot up the half-mile long avenue to the exam hall, myself tracking him. The exam hall was large and empty and Mr Jordan arranged himself at a desk on the stage. My seat was halfway down the hall. It was the day of the History paper and I was the only student sitting History. At 9.27am Mr Jordan descended and, inquiring if I was ready, fastidiously handed me the paper. While I grappled with Daniel O’Connell and Robespierre, Mr Jordan sat austerely on high, engrossed in The Irish Times and sucking sweets.

Six years later, in the summer of 1967, Mr Jordan’s friend, Dr Richard Riordan, loaned Mr Jordan and myself a tiny mews residence on Upper Churchtown Road . Our daily routine was as neat as Laurel and Hardy and as chaste as the Rule of St Benedict. At 11.30am he would rise and enter the living-room and sit down gingerly by the naked fireplace. Shopping bag in hand I would inquire “Can I get you anything, John?”. He would reply gravely, “A half-dozen of stout and The Irish Times”.

At 2.45pm we would emerge from the Mews, watered, victualled and informed, and take the No 15 bus into town, arriving at the top of Grafton Street at 3.28pm, thereby entering the haven of McDaid’s public house in Harry Street on the stroke of opening time, 3.30pm .

At 4.30pm we would sail around the corner to the Bailey in Duke Street where Patrick Kavanagh would have arrived from his quartier in Upper Baggot Street . Jordan loved Kavanagh and the respectful, humorous affection was mutual although, of course, vested in banter and barb. After Anthony Cronin, Mr Jordan was Kavanagh’s leading critical advocate; his assessments of Kavanagh were astonishingly honest and they are reproduced in this rich compendium of his literary criticism, edited by Hugh McFadden. Reviewing Come Dance With Kitty Stobling (1960) Jordan wrote that “If Ever You Go to Dublin Town” is “an inferior ballad” and that, n several poems, Kavanagh “collapses irremediably into sentimentality”. He wrote of “the unhealthy cult” of Kavanagh and that “Mr Kavanagh’s defects are grave”. It is to Kavanagh’s credit that, even if he blew a gasket, they remained friends. He valued Jordan ’s eccentric integrity. Jordan saw in Kavanagh “an abundance of vitality and purpose ... gaiety, wisdom and mental health”.

Jordan was one of the first and the few to understand that Stuart’s Black List, Section H (I972) is “a major work of art” and the first to recognise “the new magisterial Cronin” in The End of the Modern World (1981). He was the first to publish Hartnett and to recognise Kinsella’s Downstream (1962) as “a major poem”. He was one of the first to salute the poetry of Seamus Heaney and the “admirably toned prose” of Tom Paulin. From before he met her, on December 5th, 1948, he championed Kate O’Brien; when he mentioned The Land of Spices (1941) to a Retreat Director in 1946, the Jesuit “gave a little moue of distaste”; a phrase which strikes the Jordanian note as do favourite words: “nincompoop”, “tentacular”, “gritty”, “corner-boy”, “hogwash”.

This compendium is essential reading for anyone who wishes to understand what Jordan called the “fearful forties”, not to mention the ferocious 50s and the flowering ’60s. It is also the chronicle of a preposterously precocious teenager; at 14 he was corresponding with the 67-year-old Sunday Times drama critic James Agate, who was so enchanted by the boy’s letters that he reprinted them in his diaries, Ego (1935-1948). “I like my actresses to be about 39 or 40,” the 14-year-old wrote to Agate.

By the age of 17 Jordan had read everything from Shakespeare and Racine to Rimbaud and Mauriac. Was there a connection between this prodigious book-learning in boyhood and the illness which afflicted him in later life? Lilliput Press should commission a biography from Mr McFadden. This volume contains photographs of Jordan with his parents but one is left gasping for information on these two lower middle-class Dubliners who stepped out of the pages of Joyce gave birth to their extraordinary son.

As with every man of genius, he left his mark on all who knew him. I have heard him discussed at midnight in a restaurant in downtown Warsaw, his early 17th-century face gazing down at us; that scorched, censorious, gentle, piqued, amused, affectionate gaze. In our nutty, greedy, racist, ruthless Ireland of 2006, what a relief it is to read the civilised reflections of this Irish Catholic intellectual, this Tom Kettle man, this John the 23rd man. Brendan Kennelly remarked to me on the street last week that Jordan was a “royal” man. The age of John Jordan is gone. That of spin-doctors, Land Rover drivers and calculators has succeeded.

Perhaps the literary work which spoke most directly to Jordan was Pádraic Ó Conaire’s novel Deoraíocht (1914). He concluded his 1977 RTÉ radio lecture on it by asking the question: is Deoraíocht “simply an unforced blossom of the imagination, or the objective correlative of a great spiritual wound?” John Jordan himself was a great wounded stag upon the mountain-side but, like a doomed matador, he stumbled towards his doom with awkward, shocking dignity.

Crystal Clear: The Selected Prose of John Jordan Edited by Hugh McFadden. The Lilliput Press, 435pp. €25

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