Friday, April 05, 2013

I sang for the birds, for the river, the trees and the flowers but not the mullahs: Goodbye Shaun

I was shocked and saddened last night to hear, from my friend Francis, of the death of  Shaun Downey a couple of weeks ago. Shaun's blog, The Poor Mouth, was a year younger than mine, but I always thought he'd been blogging longer: he and his blog epitomise what blogging was once about for me, and should be about. Shaun (who blogged as Jams O'Donnell - more below on why) reached out on his blog, creating a large, dispersed and diverse community.

Although he claimed that "a macaque with a cleft palate is more eloquent that I am", he had a nice way of phrasing things, as well as great research skills and an omniverous frame of reference. He also had an incredible generosity of spirit, which you can see in the reactions in the comment thread of his final post, A young dancer.


Francis has written a lovely obituary, of sorts, for Shaun: Jams O'Donnell has left the building. I hope he does not mind me reproducing it here:
Bloggers are a peculiar bunch. A popular image is of recluses tapping away in poorly-lit rooms, speaking their brains on life, the universe and stuff. The political ones tend to be more focused, with a few of them leading lives of blameless bourgeois professionalism and domesticity. But by and large bloggers communicate with each other online rather than in real spacetime. 
I have in recent years developed proper eye contact relationships with a number of bloggers from various walks of life: academics, fellow journalists, bus drivers, handypersons, bureaucrats, the retired, unemployed and more. It takes all sorts to make a world, and some of them can write. 
In London some of us get together occasionally for a drink or three. Annually at least, with the next“droggy blink” of left-libertarians and other political misfits tentatively scheduled for next month at some or other hostelry in the heart of the Great Wen.

Among the band of bloggers of varying degrees of grumpiness who have taken part in these Londonish get-togethers is my friend Shaun Downey, a retired civil servant of off-message sensibility and some seniority who later took seriously to photography and writing.
The subjects of Shaun’s creative expression have been many and various. Cats, for example. Not silly snaps of kittens falling off sofas and the like, but proper portraiture, with wide open eyes and apertures, souls laid bare and immortalised. 
Shaun and his not-wife Shirley have over the years been cared for by a number of furry beasts, and I suspect that each and every one of them has in their relatively short lives been photographed more than me in my half century of existence. 
I regret to say that Shaun will not make it to the London pissup, for he died suddenly on Friday, aged 50 and a bit. I knew Shaun from our blogger summits, and had a lot of time for him. So too did many others. We shall miss Shaun, and the first toast in April will be to an absent friend. 
Condolences to Shirley and the family, both human and feline. 
RIP Shaun P Downey, Esq., Gentleman and Blogger of the Parish of Romford.
And here is a version of the tribute I posted to him over a year ago, as part of a post called "Mixing Pop and Politics". Shaun's comments on Marzieh are from his comment on the post - and his demeanour in the comment thread exemplifies why he was such a well-loved blogger. And I've added Mari Boine, who he blogged in response to the post.

The Poor Mouth
Speaking King's English in quotation / As railhead towns feel the steel mills rust water froze / In the generation / Clear as winter ice / This is your paradise
The lovely Jams O'Donnell mixes more photography than either pop or politics into the mix these days. And his musical taste has large areas of non-overlap with mine, but it was him (I think) that introduced me to the extraordinary Sephardic music of Mor Karbasi. So, here's her, then our mutually favourite Clash song, then some beautiful Iranian rebel music.

Mor Karbasi: El Pastor


The Clash: Straight to Hell

I realise that (although I'm not as old as Jams), it's about a quarter of a century since I first heard this song, and it has been intriguing me ever since. What is it about? I thought it's about imperialism, and the Vietnam war, and Graham Greene, and migration, and racism. So, inspired by writing this, I found that crowd-sourcing, via wikipedia and yahoo answered my queries perfectly, and the mystery is over. (Incidentally, if you don't know the song but there's something familiar, it is brilliantly sampled by MIA in "Paper Planes", which is also about migration, and which is in turn used to great effect in Slumdog Millionaire, mixed by the awesome AR Rahman.)

Marzieh: Sange Khara

Shaun writes:

To tell the truth Marzieh is new to me. My dear friend Elahe Heidari was in Paris in September for another stay at the Cite Internationale des Arts We decided to go to Avers sir Oise to visit places relating to Vincent van Gogh, including his grave. Marzieh is buried in the same graveyard. Before that I was not familiar with her life or music.
A very brave and remarkable woman. I love this quote of hers: “I sang for the birds, for the river, the trees and the flowers but not the mullahs.”

If you are interested,
An Bйal Bocht (The Poor Mouth, 1941) was the only book which Brian O'Nolan, alias Flann O'Brien, alias Myles na gCopaleen, wrote in his native language. Why only one, and this in particular? The answer may lie in the identity of the persona to whom the narrative was entrusted, Myles na gCopaleen... On his first day at school, Bonaparte O'Coonassa is asked to repeat his name for the roll-call. The litany which follows is a long-winded tribute to ten generations of noble aspiration, which have resulted in a total erosion of Gaelic identity:
Bonapairt Michaelangelo Pheadair Eoghain Shorcha Thomбis Mhбire Sheбn Shйamais Dhiarmada.. (Bonaparte, son of Michelangelo, son of Peter, son of Owen, son of Thomas's Sarah, grand-daughter of John's Mary, grand-daughter of James, son of Dermot...). [7]
At this point, the hopeful litany is cruelly interrupted by a blow from the English-speaking master and the terse announcement in a foreign language that "Yer name is Jams O'Donnell", a sentence which is uttered to every single child in Corcha Dorcha on arrival at school. 
Bonus track: Fairport Convention: Jams O'Donnell's Jig


Mari Boine: Elle

As Francis says, we will raise a toast to Shaun in a couple of weeks. I will also, in coming weeks, post some of my favourite Poor Mouth posts.

5 comments:

Flesh said...

What a punch in the gut this news is. He was a good man.

Francis Sedgemore said...

"What a punch in the gut this news is. He was a good man."

It's funny how someone you see in the flesh once or twice a year can have such an effect. In the interim you read their words on an almost daily basis, enjoy their photographs, and in the process get to know them such that you quickly become rather fond of them.

And not just them, but also the families who feature in their writing. Shaun Downey leaves a partner, sister and parents whose portraits have graced the Poor Mouth blog. Heartfelt condolences to them.

Shaun will indeed be missed. I propose that we dedicate our forthcoming night on the town to an absent friend.

TNC said...

My condolences to his family and you all. Take care.

Roland Dodds said...

Terrible news. Jams was one of the first bloggers I read when I started years ago, and was always one of the more positive forces in our little blogging neck of the woods. We had many exchanges over the years, and he turned me on to many great artists and tunes. Sadly, I never met him in person.

He will surely be missed.

modernity's ghost said...

Sorry to hear of Jams/Shaun's passing.

Read him over the years and he struck me as a cracking fella, complete with wit and humanity.

My condolences to his family.