Ciaran Carson’s Last night’s fun is a constant delight—one of the great books about music (for more, see Carson tag).
The chapters are named after, and inspired by, the title of a particular Irish tune. In Boil the breakfast early Carson sings the praises of The Fry and depicts a fantasy of the perfect Belfast café.
If traditional musicians are engaged with constant repetition and renewal, infinite fine-tunings and shades of rhythms, variations on the basic, cooks are even more so.
He recalls the excitement of discovering the vocabulary for eggs in a New York diner:
A: How do you want your eggs?
B: Well… fried, I suppose.
A: What do you mean, fried? You want basted, over-easy, sunny-side up, over-hard, or what?
He soon graduates from the attractive-sounding but wobbly sunny-side up to over-easy. Indeed, “even the Irish fried egg has many schools of thought”. One thing always leads to another:
Then we engage the wider lexicon of “The Fry”, where the possibilities become Byzantine. Some exclude fried mushrooms or potatoes, say, from their definition of The Fry, as being side issues—distractions from the matter in hand. […] Sometimes I am attracted to the Puritan ideal of bacon and eggs, nothing more, nothing less. [For less, see here.]
By a meandering route involving two more tunes (The Kylebrack rambler and The Galway rambler, aka The Kylebrack), Carson recalls a story:
Then there was the café you always found by accident, above a haberdashery or alterations shop. The door that led upstairs was innocent of any label or description of the premises above. * You sat at the white-linen-covered table, and the table silver glinted with a sudden tang of memory; you knew you’d been here many times before. Waitresses in black stockings and little frilly caps appeared to serve you. There was a little scalloped butter-dish, silver slat and pepper cellars; toast came in a toast-rack. Besides the silver tea-pot was a jug of just-boiled water. The fry arrived on thick white wide-rimmed hot delph plates—“Mind the plates”, the waitress said, as she dished them out as if she were dealing cards. All the hands were flush: the famous Dublin Hafner sausages, the exotic Free State bacon, the coarse fat-spotted black pudding, the unctuous creamy texture of the white. The eggs wobbled and glistened their glazed orange yolks. […]
You sat at the window above the hum and buzz of the street below. At first you gulped and chewed and then decelerated as you realised that your hunger would be perfectly assuaged. Then you could eat contemplatively, picking bits and choosing bits you thought would make an interesting ensemble. You craned your neck occasionally like some astronomer, gazing downwards at the Milky Way of interweaving passing heads. The chinking noise of cutlery and crockery cut through the muted traffic noise. You pronged the last inch of Hafner’s sausage on to a tiny toast triangle that you’d custom-cut, and married it to the last remaining quarter of an egg yolk. You ate these morsels in one forkful. Then a gulp of tea. You settled back contentedly. An enormous cut-glass ashtray came from nowhere. Plates vanished, and you put your elbows on the table and lit up. The bill came in its own good time, unhurriedly. You looked with some amazement at the spiky old-fashioned Staedtler HB pencil-writing, quoting price current in the Fifties. You paid the carbon-slip. Then you descended to the mundane busy street. Absorbed into the crowd, you let yourself be taken by its flow, and became another corpuscle in its bloodstream.
We would spread the word about this last word of an eating-house. No-one ever found it, nor could we again when we determined that we would, because the universe is often stumbled upon by accident, or visualised in dreams. Only when the stars concur do we arrive. We stumble through the patterns of the Kylemore and the Kylebrack and we wander through the icons of the city, touching them in well-worn reliquary places. We are on a pilgrimage, and yet we do not know it…
We are fragile, and it is the morning after; rather, it is early afternoon, and we have settled in a dusty sunlit corner of the empty pub. Our talk is desultory till we think to play a tune, and we are all reluctant. Yet we start because we have to. And somehow, two bars into it, we sense each other’s playing in the way the Zodiac arrives at planetary conjunctions, and we can do more than play the pattern out. And though the stars, by now, are out of line with what they were two hundred years ago, we too have been moved, or have been moved to know that until now we had not played this tune. We did not know its beauty, nor had we realised the marks of other hands that knew it, and had passed it on to some they hoped would eventually manage to figure out its gorgeous shape. We repeat this same tune many times, and about the twelfth or thirteenth time, we know it’s time to stop, since we have gained a century in those few minutes of horology. Then we were like some watchers of the skies, or we had gazed at the Pacific for the first time, and we were silent as we contemplated time in all its mirrored constellations.
* * *
Boil the breakfast early is a reel, perhaps best known in versions by The Chieftains—here they play it live in 1981 at a BBC session:
And here’s John Whelan with friends in a medley opening with The Kylebrack:
Another title that reminded me of Li Manshan and Li Bin is Ask my father.