A riot of our own

riot

Someone somewhere in Siberia, on the other side of the Urals mountain range, probably still has my “Clash” T-shirt secreted in their home. In an act of Irish-Soviet friendship I swapped it for a Red Army tunic with a Siberian in the dormitory of a third level college in Weimar, East Germany in the summer of 1981.

Looking back the exchange was not just an instance of late Cold War détente east-west barter. It was also a means to ward off the sexual advances of an older USSR soldier in his mid 20s who was three sheets to the wind thanks to East German schnapps and Polish vodka; a noxious concoction that smelt and tasted like it should have been fuelling the engine of a MIG fighter jet.

tshirtAs the big Siberian waved my T-shirt triumphantly in front of his friends from Irkutsk I suddenly realised the reach and influence of a Punk rock band fronted by the son of a former British diplomat and whose bass player was a poor white kid who grew up among the South London black community of Brixton.

Four years earlier the group came to a European city which had its own mini set of Berlin Walls – Belfast. One of the locations they visited on their brief, controversial and now myth-laden tour of the war torn city was the “Henry Taggart” police and army base in West Belfast. It was a photograph taken outside the heavily fortified, rocket protected station on the Springfield Road that later found its way onto that T-shirt, the one that ended up stretched over a Siberian’s torso.

The Clash take a strole through the Belfast warzone - (Dont Care Collection)

The Clash take a strole through the Belfast warzone – (Dont Care Collection)

Joe Strummer, Paul Simonon, Mick Jones and Nicky ‘Topper’ Headon also posed for photographs at the top of Royal Avenue, which at the time was secured at both ends by the so called “ring of steel” where civilian searchers flanked by armed troops and police checked the clothing and handbags of shoppers for firebombs. One image of the four of them in biker jackets and zipped bondage trousers, a British Army saracen just to their right, is still a powerful visual reminder of actually how grimly suffocating Belfast was in the mid to late 1970s.

It was out of this stifling atmosphere that a generation of the fed up and the angry emerged just as Punk Rock was exploding across the Irish Sea outraging a nation and prompting London dockers to threaten to put their boots through TV screens over the sight of these spiky haired, foul mouth alien creatures who saw no future in England’s dreaming.

goodvibrationsThis brief but creative flowering of protest, DIY musical innovation and emergence of some genuine talent is captured poignantly in the critically acclaimed Terri Hooley movie biopic “Good Vibrations.” One of the most important scenes in the film is at the end, which recreates Hooley’s Punk and New Wave music festival in the Ulster Hall in 1980. I can still remember the actual night he stormed up onto the stage to proclaim why the local Punk and New Wave scene had more substance to it than England or America. “New York has the bands, London has the clothes but Belfast has the reason,” Hooley proclaimed. Joe Strummer and The Clash at least always understood this, to them Ulster Punk was for real.

One band that failed to make it onto that stage during this period was The Clash themselves, at least in 1977 because they returned there a few years later. They were scheduled to play a concert at the Ulster Hall in October 1977 but never appeared.

Just like the old saloon bar republicans you used to meet on day trips with your parents to Dublin in the 1970s bragging that they had been ‘out in 1916′, a mythos grew up about the concert-that-never-was and the riot that broke out in Bedford Street as hundreds of young Punks and other Clash fans turned their anger on the police.

souizI was there partly because I only lived around the corner and also, even though I was just 13, I had a personal guarantee that I could sneak into any concert. My family knew several of the bouncers who worked the door and who later let me in for free to see the likes of Siouxsie and the Banshees (backed up by The Cure) and The Stranglers.

Yet ‘that’ gig that still exercises more power over the memories of the early Ulster Punk generation. This was and is in part due to the myth that grew up that the ’77 riot was the only one during the Troubles that saw Protestant and Catholic kids unite against common enemies. In fact The Clash myth is so enduring that the University of Ulster at the Art College hosted an academic conference in the second last weekend of June 2014 discussing the band’s relationship with Northern Ireland and its youth.

To declare a dog in the fight, this writer was chairing one of the sessions at the symposium although his mind was at times far away, soaring back in space and sound towards the east, wondering where the hell is that T-shirt gathering dust, tucked away somewhere in a wardrobe or drawers in post-communist Irkutsk.

***************************************************

*This is based on an column I wrote for the Belfast Telegraph last month.

**A Riot of Our Own was a weekend of events devoted to one of the most influential and controversial bands ever to have graced a stage. Over two days, a range of academics, journalists and artists gathered in central Belfast to discuss what The Clash meant and continue to mean three decades after their acrimonious and much lamented demise. Keynote speakers at the conference included Caroline Coon (artist, writer and manager The Clash between 1978 and 1980), Professor David Hesmondhalgh (University of Leeds, author of Why Music Matters), Chris Salewicz (author of the acclaimed Joe Strummer biography Redemption Song), Jason Toynbee (Open University), Gavin Martin (Daily Mirror) and Adrian Boot (photographer who took the iconic shots of the band in Belfast).

 

Along the Lines by Dermot Healy

dhealy1

Dermot Healy who passed away yesterday.

He lived in an ancient place. His house of three rooms sat to the side of a fort. Stone walls ran through the fields.

His back yard was a field of whins and grey gravel. Beyond it was the railway line where a few trains a day ran over and back between Sligo and Connolly Station in Dublin.

He was always at the back door to watch them go by as he learned his lines. After the first train in the morning he made the porridge. After the second he ate the pancakes. The midday train meant a shot of Bourbon. The one heading the other way in the late afternoon meant climbing on the bike, and heading for Henderson’s pub where the carpenters, plumbers and house painters gathered and met up with local farmers.

They talked of nothing but money, local deaths and shouted out laughter in a nearly insane manner.

He grew to hate that laugh.

It was not humour.

He could not enter the banter. He grew to hate that talk of hard times as more drinks were ordered. His face grew grim. They thought he thought he was above them. Sometimes his face would suddenly appear in an ad on the TV, and there’d be a momentary silence as they grinned and looked at him, and then at each other, and shook their heads before they re-entered the aggression of the recession while he checked the time.

Good luck men, I have to go, he said downing his glass of gin.

Goodbye Mister O’Hehir, nodded the barman.

Good luck Joe, called the plumber.

I would not like to be here after I’m gone, he thought as he stepped out the door.

Joe O’Hehir hopped on his bike and rode to The Coach Inn which was surrounded by cars. He sipped his Sauvignon Blanc and ordered goujons of cod with chips, and then sat by himself for two to three hours watching the old folk collect for meals alongside groups of young folk. Old professors, architects and electricians, sat alongside ancient nurses, doctors and secretaries. A nun and priest led a funeral party all in black to a table. In the background Frank Sinatra was singing, then along came Dean Martin as soup bubbled in spoons and prawns slipped through leaves of rocket. Joe read his books on Ghosts and Mysteries, then headed back to his script and began mouthing the lines to himself.

silverthreadsOver the speakers came I got you Babe, I want to go home, Take a load off Sally.

For weeks he’d disappear, take the train to Dublin and enter rehearsals, and eventually take his place on stage. He always stayed in the same B&B, a place filled with tourists and backpackers and computer screens. Amidst the entire furore his silence grew.

He’d stand under the bridge down the street to hear the train pass over his head. He reread old scripts in Mc Donald’s Café. The hallucinations grew.

Then on the opening night of the play towards the end he dried up. The others waited. He stared out at the audience. It was a sad moment in the script, and the distress the audiencre saw in his face they read as part of the character’s inner self as he approached the bad news.

Off stage a cue was whispered.

It looked like a tear appeared in one of his eyes.

He lay his head down, and the other actors watched their mate’s extreme trauma. In rehearsal the sadness lasted only a minute. Now it had reached three minutes of silence. Then suddenly he threw up his head and out of his mouth came all the mad laughs from Henderson’s, the laugh at what was not a joke, out came scattered lines with always the Ha-Ha, Jesus there’s not a penny to be had, Ha! Ha! Bastards, give me a half one, Ha! Ha!; he bobbed to and fro tossing imaginary glasses into his mouth, read imaginary papers for a second, Look at what’s going on down there he said prodding the non-existent article, Ha! Ha! They know nothing, nothing, do you hear me, nothing! Win a stroll in Christ! and he roared laughing as the curtain came slowly down and the lights went off, ten minutes before they should have.

I have inherited the gene, he said to himself as he ran down to his room, undressed and prepared to go.

Joe, stay there please, shouted the director. We need to talk. Badly.

Joe eyed him.

What happened? he asked.

*********************************************

dAlong the Lines was originally published in Silver Threads of Hope (New Island) in 2012. Sinéad Gleeson very kindly allowed me to use this story on my blog in Dermot’s memory.

His books include Banished Misfortune (stories), The Bend for Home (memoir), Fighting with Shadows, and Long Time, No See. which was selected for the International IMPAC Literary Award by libraries in Russia and Norway.

He also wrote and directed plays including The Long Swim, On Broken Wings and Mister Staines. He won the Hennessy Award (1974 and 1976), the Tom Gallon Award (1983), and the Encore Award (1995). In 2011, he was short-listed for the Poetry Now Award for his 2010 poetry collection, A Fool’s Errand.

Born in Finea, Co Westmeath, Mr Healy spent his childhood in Cavan before moving to London and back to Ireland, to Sligo.

Where I write, why I write

office

The totally wonderful and short story obsessed Paul McVeigh - whose blog on all manner of creative writing is the best I’ve ever read  – invited me to join this blog tour, though I’m horribly late given the month that was. Paul is a short story writer, blogger of renown and curator of the London Short Story Festival at Waterstones in Piccadilly. I took part in a blog hop last year too, asked by another wonderful writer and having read what I wrote then, I haven’t moved an inch. Sick family members aside (one dead too soon, one toying with the notion, the other hoping for renewed life beyond), it’s very hard to etch mental space to write but it’s still not a legitimate excuse either. Two months ago I pulled the old musty back bedroom apart, got the walls slopped in ‘warm grey’, carved out some book space (well, IKEA billy book cases), shoved in a cheapo writer’s desk, a lovely new bed, lobbed Annie Sloan chalk paint on the woodworm wardrobes, bribed a mate for an old rocking chair and away I went. This is the year it happens, says I. God belss June and all who ride and confide in her.

Paul McVeigh, short story writer, ace blogger and organiser of the London Short Story Festival.

Paul McVeigh, short story writer and curator of London’s premier short story festival.

1. What am I working on?

I’d love to say I’m working ‘on a collection’ of short stories, because that’s oh so in vogue. Something’s happening with Irish writers at the moment a bit like the property bubble. Nothing less than a collection and even better if it’s a disaffected theme: gouging the retina of the young male psyche, drug-addicted Georgian basement flat living, a swanky flâneur destined to skim the city sewers in a terminal loop looking for mislaid love, stories from a fucked-up suburban street (twitching curtains, lawnmowers, Shepherd’s pies), or the ageing psychopath’s screaming regrets in rural Ireland, all rolled into a tar barrel with a dead woman decomposing in a purple wedding dress. Humour and intolerance get in the way. Once I tell myself to write on a certain theme, I can’t be arsed with the mental rigidity of it. I hate being told what to do.

Last year I was stuck in rigamortis fiction, some stories published about my dead brother in literary magazines. It seemed a great way to process the shock. I thought that maybe this could be a theme if I worked on it backwards, from death to life, a bit like Jim Grace did in Being Dead (I love this book!) but off I ran on the Elipsos overnight train to Spain with my repackaged grief. I toyed with the idea of a ‘Dublin city’ book of stories but it seemed so vague and pointless, the kaleidoscope of packed place is no longer interesting or fun. Phases of life. A collection based on lovers. Places I’ve lived. People I’ve met and hated. My years as a journalist shouldn’t be wasted. I could take snippets of real stories, steal the kernel and crumple into something new. A plotless story I wrote for Literary Orphans in the USA is based on a real snippet from a journalist pal: a junkie having his ass robbed [of drugs] in Talbot Street…it never made the papers. The editor thought it was too unsavoury, so I stole it instead. Another story remnant I sent off for a competition was based on a man who lived in a tree in Broadstone in Dublin 7 for the last few years, before he was dispatched, unmourned, to the madhouse. So, real stories, with an unreal twist, maybe. Where an ex journalist sees some unholy scrap of truth and does something with it.

After that’s over, it’s back to the Domestic Blitz novel that’s more a ‘movel’ – part fiction, part memoir – a longer project that’ll take me into winter and some of next year. There’s already periphery interest in this from a potential agent in UK so I have to take my time (now that my time is back to being my own) and feel satisfied with what I write and how I write it. At the moment it’s blather fragments written in two time frames and it’s not exactly gelling.  I know instinctively it will work if I get into it. It has universal appeal. My heart is in it. The story is worth telling.

I even know what I’ll write after this is done, a story I ditched about one of the missing women, told backwards from two perspectives. I tried that on the MA at Queens’ and got caught in a hamster run. Stories for when I’m distracted, novel as a means of protracted focus, a novella I promised a dead woman I’d write if it killed me on the situation that killed her. In a nutshell.

2. How does my work differ from others in the genre?

Er, dunno. Social surrealism. I write like Joyce, says one (being all tea party nice), but I don’t at all! A nice lady whose course I was on a while ago said I write like Eimear McBride; the new best thing since the electric waffle maker. Anne Enright, sort of (yeah right!). An old humper from the past (now a novelist himself in London) emailed to say I write like David Foster Wallace, though his marriage recently ended and he might be trying to get his cyber leg over. I think comparisons with other writers are silly, hard to live up to, useless. I value and look forward to difference in writers, not sameness. I don’t know who I write like but I just know I get in a zone where sometimes I don’t even fully understand the language incursion, or the voice that ‘happens’ or the tone or the story or the need to write a certain way. There’s definitely a rage there and a feeling of ‘I don’t have a reputation to lose, so I’ll write it like this anyhow’. I even know when I’m writing something that it won’t be popular, will probably make a decent editor barf and a reader unfriend me on Facebook, with any luck. I also feel it could be different because part of me never wants to write for publication, so I don’t target it that way. The freedom of an affair! What I do know is there’s a lot of good people giving me the thumbs up at the moment and it feels very odd and reassuring.

3. Why do I write what I do?

I’ve no idea. Am I supposed to say it’s cos I’m lonely? I’m not. Writing is hard. But there really is nothing else.

4. How does my writing process work?

Snippets of mind dust. A journo interview I did a decade ago still haunts me. A woman being told in the early days of training to ignore a phone box in O’Connell Street where boys were being brought to and abused. The magazine in question didn’t want the feature in the end, as it seemed a bit libellous and kooky, but I still have that info and want to write it as a fictional story. Another who sought out a journalist to expose a cult who allegedly forced her to have tantric sex and when her husband found out, he dumped her. If the group was exposed then the husband would leave her best friend he ran off with and take her back (I’m not even kidding!) The radical feminist with the tea cosy on her head who’s spent a lifetime already living off men but fails to see the structural flaw in her politics. The man who chopped off people’s fingers in the Troubles and kept them as souvenirs. A swinger who travels the length and breadth of Ireland shagging abandoned wives but cries his lamps out because his own wife won’t dish up the turkey. A child who told her teacher that mummy ‘makes fire’ on her legs. An alcoholic taxi woman raped as a child by a farmer who used butter so he wouldn’t hurt her too much. Stories we tell each other in semi-occasional moments of privacy or hilarity: ‘I can’t print this but wait ’til I tell ye…’. Stories full of holes and for the birds. Start with a sentence that makes you sick or scud. I don’t want to write about good or perfect people. I don’t see the point. At the moment I’m writing Jesus of Wexford for a competition in July. I haven’t sent anything off all year so it’s a good self-recruitment exercise. He lives in a wheelie bin and his bible is a pizza box.

At some point I always manage to disturb myself and leave whatever I’m trying to write aside…I may dump a work in progress for good or come back to it. I don’t really know why I write, but as I said in a recent Irish Times article:

This is about spilling your guts in a dignified way, but don’t be frightened if a speckle of madness rears its head, too. Let it bring you where it will; don’t look back. Be excited. This compulsion is a courtesy, not a curse. Don’t compare your writing to others’. Instead get totally obsessed with what you want to write and start chewing the cud of the storyline or idea every day. Feel the words, develop a voice, put manners on your demons, write regularly.

I’ve nominated three writers I love to answer these same questions how they see fit… look out for their blog posts! Two are in a newly-formed writer’s group (with me!) and all are friends! Oh and one I roamed the streets of Dublin with at age 13/14 during the feral mod years. They’re all stupidly talented, dedicated, quirky and wonderful. Enjoy.

Alan McMonagle

psychoAlan McMonagle has published two collections of short stories, Liar Liar and Psychotic Episodes. Earlier this year his radio play Oscar Night was produced and broadcast as part of RTE’s Drama on One season. It’s about two sweet old ladies who go to the bad when their annual ritual is interrupted by an escaped felon.

doodsDoodle Kennelly was born in Dublin and spent her early years there. As a teenager, she moved to the United States, to Massachusetts, where she completed her secondary education. Later she returned to Ireland and attended the Gaiety School of Acting. In addition to her regular newspaper column, she has published autobiographical essays relating to the subject of female identity and body image. She has also appeared on national television. Doodle is the proud mother of three daughters; Meg, Hannah and Grace Murphy.

lisaLisa Harding completed an MPhil in creative writing at Trinity College Dublin in September 2013. Her short story Counting Down was a winner in the inaugural Doolin writer’s prize 2013. This summer she has been short-listed for Doolin, Cuirt, Listowel and the Bath short story awards. A story Call Me Moo is to be published in the autumn issue of The Dublin Review. Playwriting credits include Starving at Theatre503, And All Because at Battersea Arts Centre (as part of an emerging writers festival: Connect Four) and Playground at the Project Theatre Dublin. She is currently working on a new play Pedigree for which she was awarded an Arts Council bursary and a Peggy Ramsay award. As an actress she has appeared at the Gate, the Abbey, the Lyric and on RTE, among others. Her collection of sixteen short stories Crave is a work in progress, alongside an embryonic novel with the working title: Transaction.

Discussion of the Short Story with Nuala Ni Chonchuir and Mike McCormack

junecaldwell:

Sorry to have missed this interesting discussion in Smock Alley yesterday on the short story. Nuala Ní Chonchúir’s latest novel ‘Closet of Savage Mementos’ is available here: http://newisland.ie/product/the-closet-of-savage-mementos/

Originally posted on Susan Lanigan:

Taken by Carrie King - authors discussing short story

Taken by Carrie King – authors discussing short story

Today I was at a very interesting discussion led by Thomas Morris, editor at The Stinging Fly magazine, as part of the Dublin Writers Festival. It was a colloquy about the short story between two practitioners of that form, Nuala Ni Chonchuir and Mike McCormack, the latter my tutor during my MA in Writing twelve years ago (God, I feel old. Again.) I felt like a bit of a poacher-turned-gamekeeper as I haven’t written a short story in well over a year, and one of any considerable length in more than two. But it was interesting hearing what the short story had to offer and where short story writing, particularly in Ireland, might have lost its way somewhat.

View original 533 more words

Dubstopia

Dubstopia is a long short story where nothing and everything happens junkie Gonzo as he wanders around Dublin – and his head – on a dodgy errand. It’s deliberately ugly & experimental and has plenty of swear words, bad grammar and other unsavoury linguistic bits flung in. It was written on a short story course at the Irish Writers’ Centre a few years ago now and was published recently [in April 2014] in US journal Literary Orphans, ISSUE 12: Swift (Ireland & the Irish). The journal also features work from:

–Background Art & Illustration for this story is by Zak Milofsky

–Photo Art of building by Sarah Hardy

Image

Scrambled egg beside a steaming gee-pad Carol left on the mattress. Lidl brownie with ants. Two packs of Amber Leaf. Wet jeans. Sun tearing in the window through an A-Line skirt she stole from yellow teeth bag-face in Oxfam. Book of Yeat’s poetry open on a fumble in a greasy till and add a halfpence to the pence. Leather Joe’s address book with dead dealers whacked by the Nike gang in Finglas. A picture of his granny curled on a couch holding a bunch of Chrysanthemums; monster Holy Mary in a Punto blue dress peering down her seersucker top. Carol’s shoe stuck in an antique trumpet. His passport. Loose turf. Sunglasses mounted on a Stanley knife.

It was too late in the morning to leave The Old Bank: PinStripe would be downstairs showing clients around giving it the high-dough this and that: sash windows, safe room intact, De Valera around the corner, locked horses on the towpath, ladies with hats, worth a packet when the stock market convulses back, priceless mirrors, legend says there’s a ghost, sixteen rooms; would make a cracking hostel, Real McCoy Victorian chimneys. Gonzo decided to hang back a while and have a wank.

He wanted to bang the nurse in The Mater who took bloods. He wanted to bang her cos she talked down to him. He wanted to bang her cos of the dirty way she leant over and smacked the vending machine, pillow tits blobbing all over the gaff and well she knew it and well the old codgers with the fucked hearts knew it and well the pleated receptionist with the tall latte knew it and well the trolley-pushing hunchback in plastic green knew it and well he knew it: they’d jelly when he gave it to her goodo. She’d have to shut the fuck up saying shit about Hep-C, muscling, skin-popping, if Carol took mushrooms when breastfeeding the day the baby died. He wanted to bang her for saying things he didn’t understand – subcutaneous – posh words for abdominal bloating and liver damage, infertility and testicle shrinkage. He wanted to bang her.

zak-milofsky-11-300x300She’d be down at the Old Mill on the canal sucking off Leather Joe for a bag. Willy would be there too with the scab-ho wrestling over a lukewarm tin of Stonehouse, suckin’ her face off. Beamer the old tramp with the no veins. Hasslebat, his ginger eyebrows lighting up hot worms in a snow of forehead. Smell of piss hacking the sun-up. Widearse Wendy with her tales of Berlin, before Guzz floated down the river with a bag of leaves in his mouth. Guzz who survived winters in Leeds in the eighties sleeping under truck stop Lorries, draining antifreeze through slices of white bread under the engine holes. Phib, their Jack Russell in a rusty pram lickin’ stolen Satsumas. They’d be swaying by now, talking bollox, tapping passers-by. ‘Scuzzz me scuzzzz me scuwizzzzmeee. Do you want me to be like you? Is that it, do you want me to be like fuukin’ you?’

He didn’t mind what Carol did as long as no-one came in her. She’d be back with the gear in the afternoon, giving it the full candy: ‘Darlin baby I fuckin’ lurv you, d’ye know dat? I’d fuckin’ keel over fur yew.’ They’d lie on the wet mattress and roll into the Mournes biting sweat gashes off rivers, green slime, bits of broken helicopters, church bells in ears, cold tinny blue and God’s feet, big as cheese urns, landing unceremoniously in a crumpled scared heap, pulling at Carol’s scraggly hair to see was it a bastard lion’s head, vinegar swish-crash, fluff cellophane greed stirrup blood mount. Sometimes the bank would turn into a spinning barrel turning shrill pork belly with them naked rolling and banging into the ridges with running whiskey gag, the wood burner he nicked farting out leftover specks of fire on cling-film skin, until they couldn’t breathe alone or together and then Carol would hear the ghost of the bank inside the old windows, telling her to pick up the horse shit and bring it to the man in the Botanic Gardens for the flowerbeds.

“D’ye hear hiyim?” she’d say.

“Wot?”

“He’s in heeyore, talk’n aggen.”

“Curse he is, shurrrup an’ he’ll go ‘way, fuuksaike!”

She’d hear the dead baby too, asking for his doo doo. ‘Gimme boy doo doo, doo doo mine!’, and he’d have to pretend to hand the absent baby something, anything that might look like adoo doo and then he’d slap it into her to get her to stop seeing the baby and she’d ask for another one – tits well gone since they’d started using again – nipples were teacher’s eyes squintin’ at the crap way he pronounced Irish words. Sometimes he’d bash them, but she never seemed to give out about that.

“Gimme a baybeee, I want mi babee back”.

sarah-92He stopped bursting into her cos all three kids were reefed away. No way would he be doin’ that again. So he’d pull out and squirt on the wood floor, and she’d slip on it going to the jacks and call him a ‘prick’, falling asleep until the others came later. He’d collect them on the fire escape, one by one, no way hosay during de day in case PinStripe got to know about the squat. Couldn’t use the burner until late at night cos of the smoke snakin’ and they weren’t able to cook in it just on a camp hob so over and over again went without food for days sambo’d into a lot of other days. Lucky to have de place. Most had to sleep in the bandstand on the canal or in de laneway behind Doyle’s Pub that burnt down, sausaged in giveaway blankets with Leather Joe screamin’ inside night terrors of ginger arse rape Da until the sun flew up over the broken roof tiles and car beeps gnashed at them, pong of Spar hash browns, burnt dry, useless as donkey pelt.

By three o’clock the pains were rippin’ and no sign of her, so he lashed down the ladder with its shitbag of miry snails, out onto the North Circular Road. Chink Man was outside his shop with its windmill of sweeping brushes, Jesus clocks and Sudoku toilet roll. ‘You no come in here!’ he shouted. Carol dipped him too many times, taking a slash-swipe at his Mrs another time when she was packing the window with animal motion sensors. ‘Mine’s a beef satay bud!’ Gonzo hissed back, sticking his middle finger up in the air. ‘You complete b.a.s.t.a.r.d!’ Chink Man roared. Only once did Gonzo wonder why he hated him so much for taking a job he’d never want.

Quick glance down Goldsmith Street and onto more bump of side road. Every step up step down hurt like fuck. Fatsos by the cattle-cart stomping into Curves gym to the lyrics of I Will Survive. He sang along to stop the pain from slit-sucking out his intestines. And now you’re back from out der space…I jus walked in to find ye ‘ere with dat sad look on yer face. ‘C’mon now ladies, knees up and up and up again, that’s it, keep going, let me see those knees!’ The Russian tattoo shop and Made By Mary with its calf hole carvery, Brenner in De Joy on the left, IRA prick, dying for Mother Ireland in a 15 X 20 exercise yard, the hospital with its wheelchair morgue; militia of swollen ankles, around by the battered yellow flower shop and on and on, holding onto his guts like a stolen Christmas present. Sweats horsin’ down under denim, face the dye of fresh snot. Passed the launderette where his Ma used to wash the boy’s clothes on a Saturday before packet potato soup with dinosaur lumps. ‘Don’t sit on the machines Patrick, what did I tell you Patrick, are you listening to me Patrick?’ When he was small enough to be growing that snorkeler that would give him ‘Gonzo’ for all his days. He’d probably never see her again. She certainly didn’t want to see him again. Most days he’d clear forgot what she looked like.

Outside Reproductive Choices on Berkeley Street: he could see a scrape-load of them, redder than Mars moons, holding up placards for their right to life like taxi drivers at Dublin airport on the pick-up. He read in The Sun that Obama got rid of aborted baby cell flavours in fizzy drinks, the ones that make you belch. Bowed de corner onto North Frederick Street bucklin’ to puke; stream of moss green gooey liquor pouring into slick brick. “Look at de state of ‘im!” he heard a voice bellow from a basement flat. Gonzo wiped de puke with the corner of his jacket, using the other sleeve for his eyes. The worst was the misery of desperation. Digging up dead people for pocket watches, the scrap metal run, bashing old people in old houses for a twenty euro bag. He could hear more voices. More laughter. More bawl. Howling from inside the ancient sewers under Dublin filled with fibre-optic cables, calp, acorn turds, fermented Vikings, diagonals of dead birds flying through Centuries of tidal pools to get here to nowhere. ‘Down here ye wankorrrr! Gonzo, ‘ere!’

At Bustlers’ Gym, the ugly bake of Dessie Kearney peekin’ up, a cortege of dagged ewes geekin’ out from the slip of lace curtain with meringue holes for suckin’ in the day. ‘Have you got any gear?’ Gonzo asked. ‘I’m in de bads’. Dessie beckoned him down the spinal. In the sitting room on the table, he could see the spoon, tang of cotton fever. Plug-in neon wolf picture on the wall to send heads carroty spinners. Two cans of UHT cream on de mantle. Skinner in a Sideline jacket handed him a leprechaun head of Nescafé. They could sort him out, Dessie said. He could sort them out too, with a favour. Gonzo wasn’t known, or wasn’t that known, or cared about. Bob’s your uncle. Fannywollop’s your aunt.

Dessie held him down like a barber might do with a six year old boy. ‘Scank the Russians are sellin’ is drivin’ the cops plinky plonky,’ he explained. ‘Low grade cack that makes punters scrabble around dem streets like hogs. Dublin City Council having a right old mickey fit with collapsing junkies everywhere and those Triad muppets fucking about chopping gigot chops off wackos owing as little as a tenner. Kip so it is. It’s not how we ever did things. Even dem grannies are gettin’ in on it selling horse tablets down the Boardwalk till new stashes arrive. Bitches used to be happy shifting cauliflowers & pears. All of it needs sorting or we’re toast’.

Skinner piped up: ‘Going for a song as well, so it is. And they’re lobbing chemical splatter into the gear Gonzo. No competition. More addictive than Big Whippet or Mullingar Mud’.

The drug scene in Dublin had got boiled egg bad. Four friends in as many months had dropped dead from bad gear. He looked at Dessie who was eyeing two lesbos on the couch. One of them, skinny as rashers, was pretending to grate her tongue. ‘Yewer fuukin’ gas’, she said to her mate, bending over to kiss her full on the gnashers. Both wore matching Dolphin necklaces.

‘There’s small kids farting about on bicycles  picking iPods like apples off O’Connell Street,’ Skinner told him. ‘Muggings are up a thousand per cent, robbed cars selling for under €500, all cos of this new shit that’s on the streets. Havoc. Operation Stilts Gardaí are calling it. Clamping down like steel clips on a dirt-bird’s nipples’.

Gonzo hated Dessie even in school when he lobbed custard out the window at passing priests and pensioners, chasing after seagulls on de Buckfast zig-zag, giving his 15 yr-old girlfriend a black eye for buying de wrong smokes. Skinner was worse, he could tell. Grade-A psycho who’d snap yer fingers off quicker than a fat kid at de zoo smashes a Kit Kat. Now they were turkeychesting with Russians dealers, taking on the entire muscle-for-hire empire. Russian gangsters in silver jackets trafficking teenagers by day, raping dogs of an evening. Ghetto of mayhem and fear papers were calling it. Funnel-dump from ringworm roads right up to Talbot Street, Gardiner Street and down the flank of docks to Fairview, casting into surf and howling out of rust-caked eyes into waves, sand shifting beneath drug boats, narrow little sea gods sucking at gravel and dancing a slithery leap. Low-cost booze and spat-back-up methadone from lippy whores in slippery capsules was all you could see in the city centre before one o’ clock in the day. By early afternoon the needle peddlers creaked into the gush of lanes behind Moore Street, Abbey Street and beyond, sliding to a stop the same way drops of water do on Carol’s shampooed hair. Cops didn’t give a gypsies’ as long as people like him hurried de fuck up and died. Junkies only made news when they snuffed out at tourist sites or were found lynching from concrete tongues high up between those buildings on Dame Street.

He didn’t take much convincing. Skin’s hands spread his furry cheeks apart to do the business. Arse was a humongous burger, the ones he used to get in Wendy’s in O’Connell Street when it first opened in 1987: spongy warm baps, melted Easi-singles, hot pickle sauce. Slip slop, slip slop, up with de cacks. Three bags of scank in his butcher’s bin, street value:  €90,000. He’d drop de sludge and be back by three ticks, home to Carol for around five.

The city tipped down in a duck beak towards the Garden of Remembrance, rain scattering Swarovski beads on the path as he plonked along. He thought of Carol’s fresh face at 18. Cement angels leaned chin forward from Georgian chimneys. Dogs of light barked down. ‘I’m out of me bleedin’ nugget!’ he said, out loud. Pains fostered out elsewhere, he felt boundless, happy. Met her roight here with a gang of inner-city boys from de flats around Dominic Street, drinking cans and dancing to U2 songs on a ghetto-blaster sometime in the middle of 1994. She’d weight on her then, chubby sweet smile, horse-tail of hair whooshing from end to end in de sunbeams. They kissed for an hour without stopping: wet balmy tongue slosh he’d never done with any other burd. Sometimes he still felt guilty, but Leather Joe said, ‘There’s no stopping some, and ye never forced her to take it.’ The counsellor from NewPaths also explained that ‘damaged people have a knack of stumbling on one another no matter what, in the way that water always seems to meet its own level.’ It made sense that first time they tried to get off it together. Both their dads were alcos and bashed them. Both their Ma’s couldn’t see anything wrong with their Da’s and bashed them. Few weeks later, they fumbled and gorged and slopped into one another under the flat-leaf bushes in the Gardens. ‘What ye doin’ to me boy, wot ye bleedin’ doin’ to me!?’ Lads circling de railings, clutching chimps, uuumphin’ them on. ‘Slapper! Do her one!’ Afterwards they said Gonzo was a right grunter, like those fuckin’ mating seals on RTÉ. ‘It’s you and me babe, no-one else babe, you’ll do me babe.’

At the edge O’Connell Street where pigeons shat on the cement noggin of Charles Stewart Parnell, a crowd of mallets warbled about pay cuts. Aulone clutching a salad cutter was ranting blue horror about pension rights. ‘Sixty four billion to those feckers in the banks so they can fix their own balance sheets!’ Grey-haired Sinn Féin geezer smellin’ of haddock was giving it welly about Éire needing a game changer. Group of girls, no more than five or six with banners: It’s My Ireland Too. Normally he’d stick around for de dip, but Dessie warned him not to feck about, get it done & dusted ‘pronto’. Skinner held onto his social welfare card and Carol’s dead Ma’s gold locket she asked Gonzo to keep safe for always. Cash and more gear when the job was done.

Gonzo wolfed sideways shrieking his childhood battle cry: ‘Me head! Me head!’ He spottedHot Wok on North Earl Street, stomach doing a Hare Krishna pink salmon drum. Thai waitress with ladyboy lips looked like a hot slapper off the internet with a rake of sausages slithered in so her shaggy wangle was a filtering system inside an astronaut’s suit. He sat at the window starin’ out at so many formless faces, then back down at strips of steaming courgette. ‘Tolkuchka’ was the word Dessie used to describe the Russian drug cartel that had taken over. All those words ended in a choke. Carol had done a few down the canal when they were clear out of dough…said they were rough as horseshoe crabs, cocks reeking of sauerkraut.

‘Every bit of ‘em smells like a belch,’ she said. ‘Love slappin’ their wimmin’ as well’.

Pumped up on steroids, egg hatch maggot breeders, dripping sex trade, artificial money, begging scams. He could even see those Soviet-bloc prozzies too, a whole PVC red army of them soggy-spread over the back seat of metallic Audis’, slurping on mafia peckers. Head nut was like Keyser Soze from The Usual Suspects except taller again, well able to giraffe over the walls of Mountjoy Prison, boiled eggs in his gob crammed full of heroin, dropping straight into famished jaws. Baba Yaga they called him, because of his man boobs. Lived in a steel hut at the edge of Rooster fields in North County Dublin. A gaff that stood on electronic chicken legs, garden fence emblazoned with teeth he’d personally knocked from debtor’s heads.

When the crowd in Foley Street got this new gear that Dessie and Skinner had messed with out onto the streets, napalm vomit and bedlam would rain down on Dublin town. Hail struck down everything that was in the field in all the land, both man and beast. ‘Nuclear button is up me crack,’ Gonzo murmered. He had a looming vision of advancing Russians from every stone wall and crevice in Ireland, marching into Dublin, fat knuckles fisting indigo sky. There’d be black smoke meandering their necks, hiding bricks in plastic bags, Glocks in socks, AKs, MAC-10s with their spray and pray facility, lumpy grenades, nail bombs, acid pellets, even animal traps to pull down the enemy at window displays outside Cleary’s. Вы ирландского народа умрут самой ужасной смерти! Где твой Бог сейчас!

He spotted Widearse Wendy out de window crouching down at the door of Dunnes, knickers on display, damp with piss maps of the Philippines. She was swinging a bottle of Old Cellar at passing shoppers scouting cut-price gizmos from the pop-up shops. ‘Gonzo, ah me old bud, GONNNNNZO!’ she spattered.

‘Carol was reefin’ for ye,’ she said. ‘Some onion head lookin’ for you, says ye owe him a wormload of Euros’.

She was sitting with a Roma pleb, trombone full of bronze; old feet smashed up for begging bone pickle. He was only ten minutes now from de clop. ‘I owe no-one nutin’,’ he said, trying to figure out who yer man might be. ‘Is Carol alright?’ he asked. ‘Hope she’s not giving dem uns much grief?’ She could get snarky sometimes when juiced up to de girders. ‘Ah she was givin’ Phib a bit of a kickin’ cos he was in and out of the water,’ Widearse said. ‘Leather Joe says yez should get rid of the smelly little fucker, more mischief than worth. But I says ‘no way’ sure it wouldn’t be nutin’ round ‘ere without him, mad little yoke. Ah Gonzo ye shoulda seen him, in and out of dat water, de little ears on him, smellin’ of knacker nappies so he was. Have ye any odds for uz?’

Gonzo told her discretely he’d no spondoolies but he’d soon be in de loadser if a certain thing worked out later on. They’d have ‘em around the squat in de morrow, beer and boiled cocktail sausages, Bord na Móna goat turds in de burner, enough gear so they could all stay stub for a few days, sopping in boogie. He leaned over slowly, down to her waxy ear crack where he murmured de score as a morning prayer O Lord open our lips told her what was inside him in anyways in the darkness of this age that is passing away. If she said ought to any fucker dem Russians would make sure he was floating beetroot body parts in a stinkin’ pot of Zharkoye in some nameless side-door soup kitchen down the quays.

‘You always end up on your feet while the rest of us are on our bleedin’ heads,’ Widearse Wendy laughed, handing Gonzo de Old Cellar. Then she bowed over and whispered in Trombone’s ear. ‘Don’t be tellin’ that cunt anything of a consequence!’ Gonzo snapped, sorta raging now she’d trust a metal nicker with anything he prized on dem der Russians. ‘Don’t be a mean bollox! Ferka’s me good pal an’ he doesn’t have an easy go of it ‘ere’. He looked at Ferka who was by now grinding his teeth, some of ‘em small wallets of gold. Gonzo wondered if he picked this patch deliberately cos it looked out onto the towering stainless steel spire stuck in the Vena cava of O’Connell Street. ‘Him and his crew are probably going to melt dat fuckin’ thing down and live off de pickings for the next forty years and you won’t see him for angel dust!’ Gonzo told her, taking another glug. Metal was big business for his lot and they seemed to be spreading across Europe melting whole cities and trapping as much heat as possible. ‘Youza faggot fucker!’ Ferka roared, punching him in the crotch with his trombone. ‘I’ll bash de fucking granny outta ye with dat poxy yoke!’ Gonzo said, lunging at Ferka, crushing Widearse Wendy in the push forward. She started roaring and banging at the window: ‘Stop, will yez fuckin’ stop dis!’

Two security guards ran out of the shop to see what was going on. Big black blokes in fiend blue, large dangly batons, torches on their belts, fortified faces, boulder braces mineral ore. ‘If it isn’t the all-important rent-a-cops!’ Gonzo quipped, still gripping Ferka’s greasy swab of hair. ‘Dis fucker needs to know his place, but it’s nothing to do with youse, no trouble here.’ Widearse was beside herself, leaping about like Marlin. ‘He’s not bashin’ my mate’s head in, he’s not!’ she told the taller security brawn, smashing Ferka from Gonzo’s grip. ‘They’re both having a go for no bleedin’ reason,’ she wailed, deep now in her tiny grief of fly speck and goose egg, big fat smelly daddy raging up into life to bang her head off the rusty washing machine one more time in the small Cabra garden. Rolling around she was – from Marlin of the Seas off Cotez to a cuntarse cement mixer in an industrial sandpit on the outskirts of a Cappagh horse camp – too drunk to see what was really going on.

‘Get out of this doorway now! Our customers do not appreciate this!’ Ruby eyes looked like he’d seen his fair share of gang rape and coercive migration. He was pointing his liverwurst finger up the road where the curtains flailed in the wind outside Guineys’. ‘Fuck off back to Bangurawopa or wherever it is that youse eat one another, fukksake,’ Gonzo said, trying once more to kick one over at Ferka’s head. Ferka had fear soldered onto his face: wankstain nomad from North India following the Bisto fart of Alexander the Great to fertile lands where they settled on roundabouts melting metal and washing scarves. ‘It’s in his trousers!’ Ferka began to roar, ‘He is up to no good that bastard!’

Wendy bundled up the street, her chondrite meteorite arse blocking out the sun. Ferka too, gone in search of iron seraphs. Arms grabbed Gonzo from behind, smashing him forward, bursting his face open on the pleated gravel below. Arms, maybe even more arms (the city seemed so full of them) reefing his jeans down. ‘Fuck’s sake, stop it, I ain’t done nothing!’ But still the voyeurs fanned in, mud-puddling butterflies to blood. Three, maybe four or more fingers…drilling turnin’ twisting into his insides deep inside his trousers. Never crazed up pain like it. All the fists he ever knew in the big clench of years: priests, uncles, mad burds, the fat cat who owned the billboard company and beat the bollox out of him in front of faces outside Mass, nothin’ was worse than the arms smashin’ him up in this dirt-bucket of Dublin day. Blood, a lot of blood, that’d grow darker with the afternoon, if he ever managed to get out of it.

‘Shut it or ye’ll get it in the head,’ one of the arms said.

An aulone in brown bandaged legs shouted, ‘Bowsies, feckin’ bowsies!’

There was no way he could explain this to Dessie and his Basement Bandits. Already he could see Carol’s head mashed open; these cunts didn’t mess about. Arms conked like a discarded doll in the playground up de flats, broken bottle rammed right up there for good measure. He was flung and rolled, rammed and kicked down the street into a side lane, where the bashing went on for barbed eternity.

‘I’m fucked, I’m fucked!’ Gonzo roared as he saw two teenage girls pointing, laughing.

Dilly no douse no dee, dilly no douse no douse no douse dilly no douse no deeeeeee.

‘Yez ‘av no idea, I’m a gonner!’

Did he tell Dessie & Skinner where the squat over the bank was? Was he boastin’ about the gaff before they iglooed his arse? Carol would be back by now, pissing the mattress, eating a batter burger, waiting on Gonzo to come back with new gear. ‘Yer nothin’ but fuckin’ trouble,’ she’d say, ‘useless prick like ye, and ye gave dem yer card?’

Ring stinger, so much so, he could barely toddle up Church Street. Now he knew how she felt the first time he gave it to her in the arse. He had to use HB ice-cream to cool her down after. A seagull played the bodhrán gliding up the street squawking about ham. Nothin’ would ever be the same. These were serious heads. Dangerous heads. Mavericks. Think nothing of using shooters. Maybe they’d be OK just hidin’ out in the bank for a while. Rest of Ireland was doing the same. Stay gizmo’d until he heard of them being popped. All of ‘em uns ended up popped. Time & time again, saw it rolling. He wasn’t going back inside either, leaving her to her own devices.

The city tipped down in a duck beak towards the Garden of Remembrance, rain scattering Swarovski beads on the path as he plonked along. He thought of Carol’s fresh face at 18. Cement angels leaned chin forward from Georgian chimneys. Dogs of light barked down. He  didn’t know if he was here already an hour ago. He didn’t know where he’d end up or how he’d come down and if he was really here or half here an hour or more ago. ‘I’m out of me bleedin’ nugget!’ he said. They’d have to lay still when he got back home, until a different kind of light shined. ‘Come out of charity, come dance with me in Ireland,’ that cunt Yeats said in the book under the mattress, but he didn’t know jack shit about the skank or de Russians or fiddlers like Carol, all thumbs and kettledrums, sucking off ghosts at the window in The Old Bank on Doyle’s Corner.

****************************************************************

I will be reading more fiction in Cavan town on May 6th:

cavan

Cadaverus

A flash fiction piece I wrote is published in the Spring 2014 issue of THE STINGING FLY, a literary magazine I really love. This particular issue is guest-edited by Irish writer Nuala Ni Chonchúir and features an eclectic mix of flash fiction, short stories, poems, literary criticism and reviews. An obvious play on words with the title and the rest should be plain sailing!

cadaverous
kəˈdav(ə)rəs/
adjective
adjective: cadaverous
  1. 1.
    very pale, thin, or bony.
    “he was gaunt and cadaverous”
    synonyms: (deathly) pale, pallidwhitebloodlessashenashen-faced, ashy,chalky, chalk-white, grey, white-faced, whey-facedwaxenwaxy,corpse-like, deathlike, ghostly;
    very thin, as thin as a rake, bonyskeletalemaciated, skin-and-bones,scrawnyscraggyraw-bonedhaggardgauntdrawnpinchedhollow-cheekedhollow-eyed
    informallike death warmed up, like a bag of bones, anorexic
    datedspindle-shanked; 
    rarelividetiolatedlymphatic,exsanguinous, starveling, macilent
    “his cadaverous face”
    antonyms: rosyfloridfatplump

 

Image
by June Caldwell

There’s a fan whirring and a smell of slag intestines snaking through to where I sit waiting to see a dead body for the first time, yours, of course. And that Remains of the Day arsehole in full hat-tip regalia telling me it’s a good idea to sip some water before I go in, like I might not even recognise you, uses the word ‘Madam’ from the Co-op Funeral Book, abbreviated ‘Mme’, plural Mesdames, who happen to be walking about outside smoking at the corrugated bins, talking about cheap cuts. You’re fucking dead. Straight as a pea shoot. Let’s get that out of the way from the getgo. Barley brushes of hell tickling sky-chin of a giant torn tuna with a blood clot at the end of your nose for sucking brains through. White jelly shoes a gardener might like to stick small plants in to cheer someone up. Tumour mash scoops, mole hills, speed bumps, a face of sheer beaver. Wax hands, ten embedded wicks, historically used as a method of timekeeping and picking up flame-grilled chicken tits layered with emmental cheese and back bacon, hickory-smoked BBQ sauce, seasoned fries and buttered peas. I walk outside. The roofs of Britain are pretty much cardboard same, piss ball up in the sky shining down on an awful lot of dogs and scratched cars, those street shores small children throw cutlery into all summer. Seems pretty meaningless to me. So I suggest we go for a pint. It’s the icing bar the two neon trannies from Blackpool own, where they bring other trannies for card games, dress-up nights and tin-can karaoke. The barman eyes you up pretty mean as if you’ve stolen the celebrity supplement of the Sunday paper, though he gets ‘the look’ back from me and serves us both to avoid some sort of face-off. You say nothing, gooing all around you, Mr Magoo, as if already, only twelve hours into rock-clot, you’ve forgotten the drama of being alive, the shit-arse boredom of it, the handing out of small change and tiny snatches of courteous dialogue in places like this that always have a launderette and enormous drive-in gizmo nearby with ATMs and small bags of rip-off coal. Ah sure, where would ye be going without a bell on yer bike? Better out than in. Like. If I don’t see ye I’ll see ye when I see ye. Phone calls have been made, sure, cos the door keeps beepin’ ‘n’ creakin’, a series of nods, string-boom of ‘It can’t be him!’, followed by what I would call collective anger not felt since the skinny nurse of war years sucked off a German soldier behind a plum tree in a public park and tried to keep it quiet. ‘He’ll have to go!’ the barman says. ‘Oh yeah, really?’ I say, turning around to take them all on, one by one if needs be. ‘Out!’ he says. You were gone, I was there. I could not have hated you more.

The Lotus Eaters (Deliverance)

Pain in me love spuds. On Moore Street the aulwuns are wailin’ bananas four for €1.50! while Madikane is tryin’s to drag me ta’ Wire Corner where Ruskies in blacked up four by fours drop off bags a’brown under the gawk of a goon with binos above in the unwashed windows of the apartments over Tesco. Slug killer she said to nab to mop up fat, black slime-balls trailing across the carpet. There’s an iPhone booth stuffed with hookers’ ad-cabs offerin’ smartin’ arse cheeks for bad-boy trainin’ and a fat pleb sweepin’ up nose gravy.

Not even the dill pickler Poles providin’ brassers for horny and abandoned nugs inside Jury’s Inn, or the Somali crack-hustlers <”Meth €20 a rock!> stop off at this spot. Best ta’ get out of dis hole Madikane I tells her and keep yer whims about marryin’ a gangy for a baby, bling alive as hive any which way you want it.

Two hefty yanks in tartan shorts and puke green & yellow polo shirts butt in. “Excuse me sir, where’s the spire, the O’Connell Street spire?” squashed nose asks. Scuzze me, scuzze me, are ya’ blind or wha? roars Midikane with her anti-Gathering gobbin’ and her pointing backwards. Doin’ me bit for da country I jump in: Ya see that giant needle stickin’ straight up God’s jacksey, right there..that’s it! Oh my, yankee doodle says. Oh my.

Before Madikane has de tramp’s claw out for da price of a cup a tay me head jerks and turns to a horsebox of knocked up wimmin outside da Rotunda; balloon-bellied in frog pyjamas puffin’ away while scangie-gangies in Adidas play rocks, scissors, paper guns with each other. Air bullets in the atmos. Gulls plop their spunky payloads on the pavement, King Leers smirk from taxis and bus stops, kids squashing their kidneys in railings, drills and beeps and howling, cranking umbrellas open on the dozen.

slugThere‘s no slugs I says to her dat morning. Eyes on me like it’s ten seconds to go on the X-Factor final. Hoppy hoppy. Curse ders bleedin’slugs I ain’t no thick mo-fo she says. I says it’s the garden. You’re not used to having a garden and the shed going in is after freakin’ ye right out. I can ask the landlord to get rid if you’ll only calm down a minute. It’s not the fucking shed I’m not mad she says I’m skiing on the fucking things. Ders something wrong with you not clocking dem! Slugs on her legs. In bed. On saucers. Inside the hotpress. They’re even in the high gloss kitchen she says. Wot? Your head is blowin’ since ditching de skank with my noggin’ taking a right rumble on top, not easy doing it like this, I says, maybe we were better off back then in de squat with half-o-nothing. It’s not my fault you’re blind as a crow, she says. I never knew crows were blind, but I’ll take your word for it I says. Off I go.

There’s a church in Parnell owned by the prods. Black calp, dark in rain, murky baked banana cake. Backwards after midnight under full moon, devil’s yours. Not the kind of gizmo for a priest with a beard and guitar singing Stairway to Heaven to make the likes of me feel all furry. I don’t bash grannies no more, dat’s gone. Clean as a spleen five dom2hundred and thirty three days, going backwards, learning about computers and plants, painting walls and budgeting. I go there to pray, ye can laugh yer nebs off but it’s been happening sure as shit, and him talking back sayin’ he knows I’m taking some gamble, appreciates what I’m going through ‘n all, but I gorra shun the bad road ahead, narrow, strewn with thorns; dem people who walk along it, spine tears and all kinds of suffering befalling, big cunting wheelie-bin of vile words, curses and blasphemies, each eye ball looking on to another of the eyeballs, twice the size of earth, gummy as honey, seeing on to nowhere. You don’t want to be doing that son. No way hozzay, I says, no way Mr Righteous, Top Man, you know more than most, took the bullet for us. Well keep coming back here to pray then he says.

It’s hot as snot in here. She’s never in the mood and me forever on the soft. So I took the Moore Street card into the church, Deirdre the Dominatrix. Wonderful Corporal Punishment. Tie & Tease. Guaranteed Happy Ending. Sitting on red sofa red tartan slippers red PVC red sky. Has Peter been a naughtie boy? Well, yeah, I suppose. Suppose is not enough she says. Suppose is for morons. Has Peter been a naughtie boy? Yeah, a dreadful boy, totally banging I says. And then him hanging there kinda implying I’d take the lad out and sorta sayin’ I’d be cottoned onto, with the caretaker coming in, his big lumpy head, asking what I was doing. Me putting the lad in an envelope on my lap, one of those church offering envelopes with a flower stuck on it. Well give it ‘ere then he’d say, me scarpering, wood and musk laughing, candles burning, God’s pantyhose worn by a thousand shitarse clerics, all them fuckers gooing. He’s only gone and wrecked me buzz, and there was me hiding from da’ slugs in me head by playing fingermouse down the crotch, thinkin’ of Deirdre-the-Dom swaggerin around the pulpit, all proddy-proud and in full control. The lad’s no longer at half mast, flyin’ the flag now, upright and uprooted, on the road back to Phibsborough.

I get back and she says, dead casual, have ye got the bleedin’ slug killer? I left it in the church I says. You’re a stupid bollox she says. I know, I says, but I’m learning.

Hooleyganism: the “Good Vibrations” revolution

Terri Hooley is the living contradiction of that old adage that in the country of the blind the one-eyed man is king. For despite losing one eye in an childhood accident and being equally famous and notorious for so long in a myopic, sectarian dystopia he was, and never will be destined to lord over his land.  Because the majority of his fellow citizens preferred siding with the forces of darkness and all their comfortable certainties rather than to the enlightenment.

goodvibrationsIn one of the final freeze frames  at the end of Good Vibrations, which went on general release, of all days with apposite timing, on Good Friday,  the cinema goer is given a potted, graphic history of Hooley’s iconic record store. It closes finally in 1982, re-opens again several years later in the 80s, then shuts, opens once more and so it goes on to several deaths and resurrections. The fate of the shop brings to mind Samuel Beckett’s existential advice to fail and fail again:  Hooley and his anarchic enterprises are trapped in an endless cycle of mini boom and major bust.  He is someone definitely destined to fail, fail and fail again.

Yet this is nothing to despair about.  The best advice he receives in the movie comes in a brief, touching moment between himself and his upright, English socialist father who also knows the bitter-sweet taste of struggle and defeat. Victory is not always so obvious, his dad notes, having lost election after election offering the voters of Belfast a socialist alternative they continually spurn in favour of tribalism.  At least, his father tells his son, he had fought the good fight and still had “comrades and friends in every part of this city” even during the height of the senseless slaughter of the Troubles.  This conversation in the garden of the Hooley family home where young Terri lost an eye as a boy is a deeply moving sequence, and evoked memories of my own often tetchy and troublesome relationship with my own father; a bond between us snapped cruelly apart forever in the final months of his life.  Regardless of our difficulties, and even the painful endgame, we always shared, like Hooley and his father, a common detestation of sectarianism and tribal simplicities.

Reviewers and critics have lauded the new film as a “feel great” movie and it undoubtedly it. Good Vibrations is also at times deeply funny reflecting in so many scenes Hooley’s own unpredictable, chaotic character.  The movie’s credibility is bolstered by the fact that Hooley is portrayed warts and all, as loving and kind yet also reckless and irresponsible.

richard dormerThere are several medals to be handed out on several fronts to a film that is, in fact, anti-politician but also highly political. Richard Dormer is outstanding playing Hooley and has even captured the way Terri strolls about Belfast, that swaying gait, the hands shoved into the pockets of his now ubiquitous black crombie coat. The actor also conveys Hooley’s sense of boyish wonderment when going to see the latest band and especially when he is knocked off his feet by The Undertones’s Teenage Kicks.  The latter sequence is deftly recreated in the recording studio where only Dormer-as-Hooley can hear the song because he is the only one wearing cans plugged into the audio system.  Just as he brought the genius, the madness, the menace and the wasted years  of Alex Higgins live onto the stage, Dormer portrays the central character in the Good Vibrations story in all his many colours, with all his faults and flaws in three dimensional glory.

Every secondary school kid in Northern Ireland from 12 up should see see Good Vibrations this year.

Directors Lisa Barros D’Sa and Glenn Leyburn create a moving and accurate time-machine experience transporting the viewer back to the mid to late 70s. The period detail in the film is precise and painstakingly researched. They also manage to import some magical realism into what is otherwise a grittily realistic film. The “trip” Terri enjoys over in London when he gets whacked out of his head on coke while trying to flog Teenage Kicks to a series music executives reminds you of the acid-tripping weirdness of The Beatles’ Yellow Submarine film.

Colin Carberry and Glenn Patterson’s script even includes a scene first referenced in this writers’s memoir Colours-Ireland From Bombs to Boom. In the film a British Army patrol stops Hooley and his gang of Punk followers as they traverse rural Ulster in a van playing gigs around the country. btbThe troops led by a black NCO P-check the lads, lining them up against the side of the van in the dead of night, threatening them with their SLR rifles, asking where they come from. In the movie the Punks shout out the different parts of Belfast where they are from and it becomes apparent to the black soldier that they are all from religiously-mixed backgrounds. Hooley is asked about this and replies pithily that he never thought the need to ask his friends what religion they were…if any. The NCO then asks if they shouldn’t form their own political party. This scene was transposed from a real life incident, re-told in Colours, when a group of young Punks in 1979 were P-checked (stopped, searched, questioned) on Belfast’s Great Victoria Street in early 1979. The police and soldiers who lined the young Punks up against an advertising hoarding (including a dog belonging to a friend of mine from Divis Flats who dyed our canine’s head green for the day) and asked where they came from. When the replies came back – the Markets (nationalist/republican),  Woodvale (loyalist/Protestant), Divis (nationalist/republican),  Glencairn (loyalist/Protestant) – an older police officer looked bewildered. He shook his head in disbelief at this sight of cross-community street style spontaneity and waved us on up Great Victoria Street to our ultimate destination – the Good Vibrations record store!

So it was personally pleasing to see that scene recreated albeit reset in the Ulster countryside rather than one of Belfast’s main thoroughfares. It was one of those show-don’t-tell vignettes where a subtle political message or social statement is conveyed without battering the viewer over the head with a political placard.

A few days after Maggie Thatcher died (a lady Terri Hooley  had little time for when she was alive!) some republicans in Derry ‘celebrated’ her death by organising a five day riot. Inevitably the attacks on police patrols in the city were followed by a sectarian onslaught against the last Protestant enclave on Derry’s West Bank – The Fountain Estate. Among those arrested on the republican-nationalist side of the line over the weekend was a 13 year old boy  accused of possessing  a petrol bomb. It is worth remembering that the Good Friday Agreement – the peace deal that was meant to put an end to the Troubles and its backwash – was 15 years old this Easter. Two years older in fact than the young boy alleged to be involved with other youths in attacking the last loyalist redoubt on the west side of the River Foyle. Clearly some of the children of the cease-fires and the agreements have been fed the type of poison and bigotry that infected Northern Irish society down through previous decades.

The tribal based politicians at Stormont have been worried of late about the emergence of a new lost generation that has no collective memory of how bad life actually was during The Troubles, and how dark places like Belfast were back in the worst days of the conflict. Rather than ring their hands and mouth platitudes perhaps they could make this suggestion to Minister of Education, John O’Dowd: ensure every secondary school kid in Northern Ireland from 12 up gets to see Good Vibrations this year. It might make a few of them think that there is to life there than hurling petrol bombs at the peelers, the Orangies or the Fenians.  Some might even embrace the anti-politics of the politics of Alternative Ulster.

Ken Bruen on crime, canines and the sound of savages

Ken BruenGalway-based author Ken Bruen is an enormously prolific, and celebrated author of crime-noir fiction. His many works include the Jack Taylor series which began with the Shamus Award -winning The Guards. As the series grew, it garnered many more awards. More recently, a selection of novels from the series have been adapted for a series of TV movies (one which was screened in 2012 and two more to follow in 2013). Ken’s novel Blitz was also adapted for the screen in 2011 starring Jason Statham, Aiden Gillen and Paddy Considine. In 2010, London Boulevard was turned into a film starring Colin Farrell and Keira Nightly. Other works include Dispatching Baudelaire, The Killing of the TinkersThe Magdalen MartyrsThe Dramatist and Priest (nominated for the 2008 Edgar Allan Poe Award for Best Novel), all part of his Jack Taylor series, which began with The Guards. Bruen is also the recipient of the first David Loeb Goodis Award (2008) for his dedication to his art. Ken will be reading at the Irish Writers’ Centre on Friday 22nd February at 1.05pm as part of the celebrated Lunchtime Readings series.

When (and why) did you start writing? I found it was a great way to off load rage, guilt, frustration. I was in my teens when I began to jot down notes, and see the value of words on the page, they seemed to dance, lilt and run riot on the very pages, fascinated me then, and even more now.
Do you plan more dark tales for Galway? Yes, C33, is out in September and is yet another jagged slant on Galway.
How does the ‘capital’ of Connaught view your portrayals of the city? Do you ever think they will make you a freeman of Galway? Will they put up a blue plaque? Galwegians  like Jack Taylor a lot as there have been five films shot in the city and as well as money for the city, many of the people appear in the movies. Channel 5 showed the the first of the Taylor movies last night.
Reading your work, is it true to say you adhere to Thomas Hobbes’ warning about the state of nature being nasty, poor, brutish and short? Indeed but always, vitally shot through with humour, and truly, if there is laughter, there is some light.
There has been an explosion in Irish crime fiction of late, at least in the Republic of Ireland. Do you have any thoughts on why that is so? Conversely, there seems to be a dearth of crime novels (Stuart Neville might be one exception) emanating from the north…any thoughts as to why this is the case? The Celtic Tiger and its demise made crime writing almost inevitable, chick lit isn’t quite the genre for deep recession and despair. I disagree about the North as there are a whole range of fine writers: Eoin Mc Namee, Gerard Brennan, Adrian Mc Ginty, Colin Bateman, Sam Millar.
magmartyrsDo you think that in the world of Irish letters, there is a snooty attitude towards crime literature? Some might even baulk at putting crime and literature in the same sentence! Yes, absolutely, it’s the poor relation you hide in the attic, and literary writers who do stoop to write a crime novel, describe it as……….slumming. A literary novel can bore you to a coma but a crime novel needs to be always…………always……….entertaining, entertainment in literary circles is regarded as sacrilege.
Is there any area of crime fiction yet to be explored in Ireland, geographically or topically? We haven’t yet seen canine sleuths but it can only be a matter of time. And probably canines with dope habit.
Do you think Ireland is finally coming to terms with the dark side of the Catholic Church and its abuse scandals? You wrote hard, disturbing, gritty books on those subjects….is the truth that leaked out about institutional abuse worse than you could have imagined fictionally? Every day, I read horrors that I didn’t dare put in my own works and on the news daily, the most abominable child abusers walk free because of age or some other supposed excuse.
What was it like growing up when the Church was such all pervasive political and social force? Did you experience the lash of the Christian Brothers’ strap? Yes, it was a long reed, fine honed for max swing and it cut into the side of your hand with precision, it had a sound I can still summon up. It was the sound of savages.
Edinburgh has its Rebus-Rankin tours, London’s Baker Street still attracts if fair share of Sherlock Holmes’ fans just as the east end draws in the Jack the Ripper devotees. How would you feel if Tourism Ireland started Ken Bruen tours around Galway? Unlikely as I’m on the Tourist Board Hit list, yet a bus of Japanese show up, asking for the Taylor tour.
Do you sleep well at night? I cycle a few hours daily so that kind of takes care of the sleep. My best and I hope darkest themes come when I’m walking past churches, in daylight.

Ireland’s dirty washing

Magdalen-asylum

Pic from liberapedia.wikia.com

We knew about it, heard about it, sensed it, listened to the battenburg gossip as kids in shit brown velvet dining rooms: wayward girls, missing aunts, those forever gone to a ‘London’ somewhere, women who went off ‘nursing’, ones who were ‘a bit touched’, wanton, promiscuous (“there’s a want in her”), the ones who returned comfortably dumb, “not all there”, the bastard smug carbo nuns, angry priests, grey institutions that cost a bob or two, we knew because it was roared red on church podiums what would happen those who tempted men in raincoats, hapless lads, civil servants, men with prospects, farmer’s sons, those who pissed in lane-ways, felt your arse at bus stops, spat in betting shops, bent over shop counters at pre-pubescent bumps, pulled skirts up at weddings or taught in schools but liked a yarn or two with girls after 4pm, the ones who dropped the hand, made a squeeze, chased on lawns, tapped a window or two, unzipped, insisted, grabbed, cajoled, raped, spunked and ran off besides. Women were to blame, no matter, and sure God on earth is in a dress just to keep an eye. Shock. Horror. No official apology. Misogynistic Ireland…Quelle Surprise.

It is possible that a lack of modern awareness of these Acts may have contributed to confusion or a mistaken sense that the Magdalen Laundries were unregulated or that State referrals of girls and women to the Laundries occurred in all cases without any legal basis.

Government memo from 1942 seeks advice on dealing with ‘immoral’ girls, from TheJournal.ie

Government memo from 1942 seeks advice on dealing with ‘immoral’ girls, from TheJournal.ie

  • The first Magdalene asylum was established in Ireland in 1767 by a Protestant benefactor as a home for ‘penitent prostitutes.
  • The first Catholic home was founded in Cork in 1809.
  • Penitents were required to work, primarily in laundries, since the facilities were self-supporting and were not funded by either the State or the Religious denominations.
  • A newly published report estimates that 10,000 women and girls were incarcerated in Magdalene laundries since 1922 with more than a quarter of referrals made or facilitated by the State, but other estimates are saying 30,000.
  • Irish laundries were run by the Sisters of Mercy, Sisters of Charity, Sisters of our Lady of Charity of Refuge, and the Good Shepherd Sisters in Waterford, New Ross, two in Cork, Limerick, Galway, and four in Dublin at Dún Laoghaire, Donnybrook, Drumcondra and Seán MacDermott Street.
  • The report states that the women were sent to the laundries via: referrals by courts, mostly for minor or petty offences; by social services; from industrial and reformatory schools; rejection by foster parents; girls orphaned or in abusive homes; women with mental or physical disabilities; poor and homeless women and girls placed by their families for reasons including socio-moral attitudes.
  • Referrals were made or facilitated by the State made up 26.5 per cent (2,124) of the 8,025 cases for which reasons are known (as reported in The Irish Times).
  • Almost 8 per cent were referred from industrial schools, another almost 7 per cent from health and social services and almost 4 per cent from mother and baby homes. Some women were referred to laundries by the health and social services because it was cheaper than State-run facilities.
  • Average/Median age at time of entry 23.8 years/ 20 years, age of youngest known entrant: 9, age of oldest known entrant: 89.
  • 26% of the women who entered the laundries were referred there by the state. The authorities also inspected the laundries, funded them, and registered the departures and deaths of the women there.
  • The state gave lucrative laundry contracts to these institutions, without complying with fair wage clauses and in the absence of any compliance with social insurance obligations.
  • Routes of exit included women who “left” or “left at own request” (23%), who returned home or were reclaimed by their families (22.2%), who transferred to another Magdalen Laundry (10.3%), who left for employment (7.1%) and who were dismissed or “sent away” (7.1%). An additional 1.9% were recorded as having run away, while others are recorded as departing for homeless shelters, hostels or other places.

Two of the victim’s stories from The Guardian yesterday:

Maureen Sullivan was first sent to the Good Shepherd Magdalene Laundry in New Ross, County Wexford, in 1964. Two years later she was moved to Athy and finally to Dublin. She left in 1969.

“I was 12 years of age and my father had died, my mother had remarried and my home situation was abusive.

“They told me I would have a great education and I went off to New Ross from my primary school, actually in a laundry van. When I arrived there they took my books from me that my mother had bought. That was the last I saw of them; that was the last time I had a decent education. From then on it was laundry every day, where it was horrible, where you were not allowed to talk to anyone. All it was there in the laundry was work, work, work.

“There was physical abuse where they would dig you in the side with a thick cross off the rosary beads, where you got a thump on the side of the head and where there would be constant putting you down, shouting, verbal abuse. You got the cross in the side of the ribs if you slowed down on your way around the laundry.

“[The nuns] ate very well while we were on dripping, tea, bread. I remember another torture – one when we were all hungry – we could smell the likes of roast beef and cooked chicken wafting from where the nuns were eating. That was like another insult.”

“I had no education, no means of applying for a job and for several years I was on the streets. It wasn’t until I tried to take my own life in the 70s that I went for counselling and then it all came back, all the abuse and exploitation I had suffered in those places.”

Mari Steed is a second-generation victim of the Magdalene Laundry system. Her mother, Josie, was transferred from an orphanage to Sundays Well laundry, Co. Cork, when she was 14. She was there from 1947-57. Mari became a third-time victim of the system because she, too, eventually gave up her daughter to a Catholic charity in the US in 1978.

“She lost me to adoption after spending the first two decades or more of her life in these institutions. So when she was released into the world she was vulnerable and susceptible to any man that paid her attention. She was in her mind 10 years old rather than a mature woman. And as fair prey, she found herself pregnant and then got sent down to a home for single mothers and was forced to give me up.

“It was a generational chain reaction and … a cycle we see often in the Magdalene woman. The vicious cycle tends to continue.

“It was slightly less miserable than what my mother experienced, but it was still pretty bad with a lot of stigma, a lot of shame. This was the chain reaction going on.

“I tracked my mother down in the early 1990s and she was open at long last to talk. She had had no other children because she feared having any more. She told me right out: “Mari, I was just so afraid that if the nuns didn’t take another baby then God would.’ So out of fear she and her husband decided not to have any more children.”

The Next Big Thing (here’s hoping)

juneconsidineLaura Elliot, aka June Considine, tagged me in the Next Big Thing Author Blog Hop. I know June from the Irish Writers’ Centre where she regularly teaches and is a member of the Board. She is the author of three novels: Stolen Child, The Prodigal Sister and Deceptions and twelve books for children, including the fantasy Luvender trilogy, the Beachwood series and the two teen novels View from a Blind Bridge and The Glass Triangle. Her books have been widely translated. You can read Laura’s contribution to the Next Big Thing on her blog.

Here are my answers:

What is the working title of your next book?

Dubstopia, a book of short stories that are connected but also stand alone. A confused book, for our times! Am also going to throw the dust off a novella I tried to write on the MA called Little Town Moone, a murderous tale told backwards. June Considine very kindly called it ‘spell-binding’ when I read an extract last year at the IWC for the first leg of the Italo-Irish Literature Exchange. But it was my first frivoling with fiction after a long stretch in journalism and it was hugely flawed so I left it under the stairs with the hoover. I’m ready go to back to it now and hammer out a good draft. So I’ll mainly talk about Dubstopia here because it makes me laugh and is fun, something I’m writing to stop taking the business of writing so seriously.

Where did the idea come from for the book?

A course I did at the IWC called Tales of the City which examined the cityscape as a type of icing layer of realism: writing about the things we see under our noses, uncomfortable things for the most part, as far away from stone wall farms and finches singing on thatched cottages and begorrah Ireland that so many writers are still overly concerned with. I wanted to write gritty awful shit, but pull it up a notch, play around with language, rob from Joyce’s Edwardian bread bin, make the reader cringe and laugh, but most importantly portray the characters as real in their tiny turmoils. There’s a ‘bigger story’ going on too, a thread with the Russian mafia and some junkies in Phibsboro who are squatting above an empty bank. The first story introduces all the characters (including a heroin addicted Jack Russell) but mainly involves the chaotic day in one of their lives. Stories that follow on are like a relay, they shove the bigger story forward, though some are just stand-alone fingerprints of how a particular character ended up where they did. Widearse Wendy for instance, who grew up in an affluent north Dublin suburb but ends up on the streets because of one awful thing that happens her. Leather Joe who is dangerously charismatic but a seasoned psychopath. Stories too from growing up in a crazed repressed Ireland that was brilliantly cruel. I want to mess around with form, with the idea of connected short stories that could also be a novel. There’s a lot about the traditional short story I love, but I hate the exclusive treatment it gets, that kind of meliority makes me uncomfortable. And a lot of the time I find novels boring, or at least they don’t drag me all the way to their end point without losing the plot. I like the idea of mulch, knocking some of the gentle beauty out of the short story, upsetting its privileged rhythm.

What genre does your book fall under?

Social realism panini’d with surrealism.

dgoldWhat actors would you choose to play the part of your characters in a movie rendition?

The whole of Phibsboro, especially down the canal. I’d offer a caravan-load of Dutch Gold to each citizen actor to star as themselves, no scripting required. If that sounds mean, go live in Phibsboro for a year.

What is the one-sentence synopsis of your book?

Dublin’s dank underworld and its visceral phlegm-filled charm, as seen through the eyes of ordinary struggling lunatics, not gangland or criminal butch.

Will your book be self-published or represented by an agency?

I don’t imagine anyone will want to publish a book of short stories by an unknown fiction writer, so one thing I’m going to do is send off each story to a decent literary magazine (Stinging Fly, Dublin Quarterly, The Moth, etc.) and see what happens. Here’s another thing that makes me uncomfortable: there are so many online journals, electronic post boxes to shove your stories through, but should we give our work away so easily? We’re in this [awful] era of self publicising as a form of arts mania. Writers belt-notching by sending out their work to all kinds of irrelevant places, just to get their name in print. Reading poems and stories in public every chance they get, flinging up websites with wonderful credentials they think set them apart from the next person with wonderful credentials. I feel exceptionally shy about all that yack. What is it to be published if you don’t care where or how? I just want to find out if I can be a good writer on the page, not to get carried away with the business model. I made the mistake of sending off first drafts (of anything) to competitions over the last two years, just to see if I could write and they all got shortlisted, but none of them were particularly up to scratch, writing I could feel proud of. I’ve learnt from that. Posting off imperfect tat even if it’s good enough to make the grade so far, I want and need to do better. It’s about borrowing the confidence until it happens on your terms, to stop grappling with that inner Stalin that sits smugly on every writer’s shoulder. I’m too conservative to consider self publishing, I know many people are making great headway here, but the idea makes me cringe. My idea is to let each story ‘get somewhere’ on its own accord and maybe then I’ll stick them together into a yoke with a gooey cover and give it to friends and dying enemies for Christmas. With Little Town Moone however, I’m relying on conventional publishing bewitchery! A friend of mine whose a book scout has said: “Hurry up June, I want to read it…it’s just you and one other person in Dublin whose books I’m waiting on!” A mix of orgasm & heart attack, that someone could believe in me that much from the little smidgen they read.

How long did it take you to write the first draft of the manuscript?

Writing Dubstopia now, gizza chance! The novella will be tackled on Eoin McNamee’s course, followed by a stunt away alone writing that my lovely lover is organising. Both will be done this year. Determined!

What other books would you compare this story to within your genre?

Ross Raisin: God’s Own Country, slight shades of The Butcher Boy gone urban, an ex lover said I write like David Foster Wallace, but I think this is more to do with guilt over leaving me crying in a phone box in Tottenham in 1994.

Who or what inspired you to write this book?

No-one seems to be writing the nitty about our gloriously shit city, it seems to be the reserve of the skewed detective in a crime series novel or tales of the middle classes struggling to find themselves in the underpants of a dreary bedeviled partner, or ghost stories about great grannies or worse, as is a recent trend, writers writing about writers writing, the worst type of literary cannibalism there is.

What else about the book might pique the reader’s interest?

Ridiculous characters too true to life, talking dogs, a Russian war-lord who lives in an electronic house standing on chicken legs, oh the things that drugs make you do, the city as a compost-bin Atlantis, liberal use of swearing and made-up words that still manage to make sense.

How the Next Big Thing blog hop works
An author answers ten questions and then tags authors to do the same thing the following week on the same day, which in this case is a Wednesday. For this purpose I’m tagging the wonderfully multi-talented Emer Martin whose books are ‘up there’ with the best of modern Irish fiction. She’s written three novels and has just completed a fourth. She’s also a painter, film director and creative writing teacher. Niamh MacAlister who also took part in the Italo-Irish Literature Exchange in Verona in May (and put up with my mood swings). She was shortlisted for the Hennessy New Irish Writing awards 2012. She also writes poetry and took part in the  ‘New and Emerging Poet’ Poetry Ireland Introductions Series and has been published in The Stinging Fly, The Moth, Raft, and Washington Square Review. I’m cheating abysmally here: Henry McDonald, author of eight non-fiction books and also my partner who shares my blog. He’s already completed one novel (a thriller) that’s looking for a publisher and he’s working on an exciting new novel about kids during one day of The Troubles.
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Writing the short novel

Eoin McNameeblogpic

Often criticised for stories that swerve uncomfortably close to truth, and yet hailed as a master of historical research, Eoin McNamee is one of those writers who never fails to cause a stir with his tales of dark, damp menace. The New York Times describes McNamee’s style as ‘refreshingly taut and spare, full of active verbs…He does not describe what his energetic characters are doing. He just lets them do it’. Eoin admits to having a strong interest in ‘people who have been corrupted,’ that this is what often drives his fiction. “My purpose as a writer is not to be controversial, it’s to explore themes and narratives…I draw things very close to me when I write and often emerge blinking into the sunlight”. For the next ten weeks he will be teaching a Writing The Novella course at the Irish Writers’ Centre on Monday evenings until 25th March. Here he answers a few strategic questions on the art of writing the short novel and why the term ‘novella’ is in need of overhaul:

the-blue-tangoSome of your novels, ranging from Resurrection Man to the The Blue Tango, are novelised versions of real life events, i.e. the Shankill Butchers and a pre-Troubles murder and fitting up of an innocent man. What are the pitfalls on basing fiction on factual events, and how close can you come to falling into what is known as ‘faction’? I’m still waiting for the ground to open under me, for someone to produce the definitive argument against the form, but it hasn’t happened yet. Defamation can be an issue. There is a moral dimension to entering other people’s lives and writing about them. I’ve always been wary about getting on an artistic high horse and claiming some kind of special pleading on the basis of art. I’d prefer to say that I’m drawn to these stories, that  I want to write about them and I’m a writer not a priest and am prepared for messy compromises and sins of intrusion into other people’s lives if it gets me a good book at the end of it. If there is a wrong involved, and there may well be, then that’s my business.

There are lots of novels that deal with the Northern Ireland Troubles such as your books (see above) and The Ultras. However, while many authors deal with individual incidents or ‘spots of time’ in the conflict, there are no contemporary authors that have done the ‘fictional grand sweep’ of 1969-1994. There’s no War and Peace, no Life and Fate, covering a range of characters and their stories over three decades of war. Is this overdue? Or is it even necessary? There’s no rule that says that events get the art they need or deserve. If someone wants to approach what happened in the North the manner of War and Peace, then you’d have to see how good the work is. Whether people would need it or not….I’m not sure that explaining things back to people is a function of fiction. I’m sure you could find the stories though – there was plenty of epic going on.

loveinhistoryWith the novella, can you define its difference from the short story and the full-blown novel? As far as I can make out the novella is simply a short novel. Or at least it should be. It doesn’t require the precision of the short story, the formal demands that put the story somewhere between a poem and a film script. In a short novel you can veer off course a little, digress, even slip up here and there. Let’s say it bears more resemblance to the novel than it does to anything else. Perhaps the problem of definition lies somewhere with the word novella itself. It sounds like something fragrant and a little racy that you’d find lying on the chaise longue in a Victorian lady’s parlour. Maybe we need a better name for the form.

Does the novella lend enough space and time for key characters to ‘fill out’ both psychologically and in terms of the narrative? Depends what you mean by filling out. You can define a character in a sentence or in a hundred pages. What more would you want to know about any character in The Dead for instance? (A short story) Or the old fisherman in the Old Man and the Sea? (A novella). What more story would be needed?

What is your opinion on experimentation with the prose form? Is it mere literary pretentiousness and showing off? Should writers stick with telling stories? The only criteria for judging technique is whether it works or not. As for defining what works, you pretty much know it when you see it. It would seem that there are limitations on what can be done in the prose form and that invention has run up against the buffers. But maybe asking questions about experimentation is missing the point. I admire people who can tell stories but what I’m drawn to are how wide open a writer’s eyes are, how they see the world and then tell it.

Your course Writing The Novella at the Irish Writers’ Centre kicks off on Monday 21st January, what will it entail, how will it be taught? It will involve I imagine a bit of discussion about what the novella is,  and then all the other things which go towards any piece of prose fiction. Story, prose technique, dialogue, character…It would be good if participants have a bit of work at the start to work on, and hopefully have added to it at the end of the course, but people shouldn’t feel under pressure. If participants come away feeling like better writers, and I have helped them towards that, then we’ll all have reason to be pleased.

Eoin’s ten-week workshop starts next week and is aimed at people who are working, or thinking about working towards completing a novella, those who have started a short story that looks as if it might outgrow the limits of the form, or a novel which may not fit the conventional length. It will be less concerned about the technicalities of what the form might be, and more concerned with getting words on paper, and hopefully having something to show at the end of the workshop. He is the author of fifteen novels including Resurrection Man (released as a film in 1998), Booker nominated The Blue Tango12:23 paris and Orchid Blue, and the novellas the Last of Deeds (shortlisted for the Irish Times Literature Prize) and Love in History. He was awarded the Macauley Fellowship for Irish Literature in 1990 and is Writer in Residence at Trinity College Dublin for the Hilary term, 2013. He lives in Co Sligo.

Pro-life propintoiletganda

prolife2
prolife1I’m not going to say very much about these *vile* posters that were on the inside of the toilet door in my local pub in Glasnevin, except to say they are utterly bizarre. Fetal arm that looks a tad photoshopped (reaching up for a latte in Cafe Sol or even the plastic property of a Sindy doll), the kooky ‘fridge magnet’ lettering, and perhaps most disturbingly, the text of the main poster which intimates if baby-in-the-making is saved from hideous pointless abortion, s/he will play for Ireland one day! Really! What does it say about the notion of ‘traditional values’ according to the pro-life sect? Will it be cuddly-toy anti-abortion embryo key-rings in branches of Carroll’s Gifts and Souvenirs next to remind us what is and isn’t fundamentally Irish?

So, I’m sitting there pissing some Guinness & Jägerbombs into the bog of this traditional conservative Fine Gael type bacon/carvery kip. Having been recently impregnated by a Denny-eating GAA red-pubed boyo, I’m pondering a quickie Nilfisking or what the pro-lifers are now calling a ‘social abortion’. Obviously I’m a selfish whore and don’t want the hassle of having a kid, what other explanation is there? I see this poster and start re-imagining the future. Tadhg in some Éire Óg prefab jobby on the outskirts of a sprawling housing estate training five times a week or perhaps it’s even Caoimhe (with her gentle graceful beauty, yet mysteriously able to knock the living shite out of any Buachaill on the field) and the day arrives for the All Ireland Final, when the joblot of worry and ire pays off. My precious non-aborted torso scoring a magic game-clinching goal, zoomed around the world by Setanta Sports (available on multiple platforms including Foxtel and Austar). Everything in the Universe making sudden peculiar sense, a cosmic arrow right out of God-licking supernovae. How lucky was that stray Christmas night in 2012 when I paid close attention to the poster on the toilet door! Proud father now spilling his giant bag of limited-edition Tayto all over the stands. He’ll be looking for a celebratory ride [no doubt] when we get home. It’s 2032 and still no male pill on the market and Ireland the only Catholic country in the world without female bishops or gender equality in the workplace or even in the government, where sentences for rape and sexual abuse are on a par with stolen designer jeans. But sure where else would ye be living and what kind of roguish craic would you be having and isn’t it grand altogether we did away with that silly notion of the individual a long time ago? Begorrah!

Saturday poem #15 – Piano

PIANO

By D.H. Lawrence

Softly, in the dusk, a woman is singing to me;
Taking me back down the vista of years, till I see
A child sitting under the piano, in the boom of the tingling strings
And pressing the small, poised feet of a mother who smiles as she sings.

In spite of myself, the insidious mastery of song
Betrays me back, till the heart of me weeps to belong
To the old Sunday evenings at home, with winter outside
And hymns in the cosy parlour, the tinkling piano our guide.

So now it is vain for the singer to burst into clamour
With the great black piano appassionato. The glamour
Of childish days is upon me, my manhood is cast
Down in the flood of remembrance, I weep like a child for the past.

Strange times; sharp sickle peaks

Three months since my brother died, laid out in his naff crocs & Hawaiian shirt, coffin stuffed with kid’s presents in a flat-pack funeral shed whiffing of piss, ulcers, Airwick and necrotic tissue. Since then there’s been a number of misadventures: his mate was found dead in the Orwell river a month later, an early morning gynae plunge from a doctor in Cathal Brugha Street after bleeding for a month (stress, it turns out), low-blood pressure blackout in the Botanics, an easily forgotten triptych, frenzied attack from a phlegminist with duck eyes, drink binges with a purple cauliflower and an unpleasant encounter with an S&M coked-up oily intellectual I mistook for a friend. All of it: a dance with neutrons and protons. The kind of weird shit ghosts probably do with each other. Grief is not what I imagined it would be. Some mornings I wake up kicking like a frog.

Days when I cannot slink out of bed at all. Ceiling seals me in and I crave the very thing that’s set to ruin me. Lanky spiders dangle as doom so often does, perilously, timidly, lowering and hiring like arcade claws.

I didn’t see my brother for months on end as he lived in the UK but I always went over for New Year, booking a flight around now. This year it’ll be early-February for a fund-raiser to pay for his headstone. Everything and everyone in the ever meantime is getting on my tits. Junkies sucking jam at the ATM, flat cap aulfellas snailing on crutches smelling of tobacco and cabbage, gym bunnies, crusties who tie terriers to the trolley train outside Tesco, colleagues talking incessantly, cultural crusaders who turn up to events blah-blahing for litre dollops of free wine, nosy neighbour frog-sprawling the compost bin to scavenge for news, backpedal/backtrack/capsize, geriatrics sky-diving into scones in the cafe. Isn’t it well for them, long life!? Remembering how shit and old and thin and tumoured my bro looked, dead in his 40s, neat little blood clot at the end of his nose where they’d drained him. “Madam, would you like a glass of water before you go in?”. Will I ever forget that day, limping into the cheap shit-arse industry job-lot of death, intestinal stench, tiny lobby where the receptionist filed her nails, fan buzzing on the desk, being led through a door to a pencil-case line of collapsible booths – one open at a time – other refrigerated bodies waiting for family members to park-up. Back home in Ireland, the witch in the off-licence around the corner counting the bottles of wine & winking, headless woman struggling to goo out her own body, forgetting she no longer has eyes.

I walk out past the squiggle of purposeless shops and homeless men who nudge their heads up like broken birds from splintered eggs in the basement of the church, and on to the Tolka Bridge where an orange city fox once followed me in the first draft of morning, calling me a slut.

My head has been [and is] a tin of mushy peas. As of this week I’ve told friends to piss off till mid-2013 and have dived back into the novel. It’s about junkies squatting above an abandoned bank in D.7 who get mixed up with the Russian mafia. There’s a rake of Band-Aid fleeting characters; Beamer the old tramp with no veins. Hasslebat, his ginger eyebrows lighting up hot worms in a snow of forehead. Widearse Wendy: ‘Scuzzz me scuzzzz me scuwizzzzmeee. Do you want me to be like you? Is that it, do you want me to be like fuukin’ you?’ There’s end-of-rope junkies all over the city and everyone’s ignoring it in literature. Writers are still concentrating on haybarns, finches, the country-girl’s lightening exit to London, angry farmers and the phasing out of EU quotas, lonely men sitting on Calor Gas barrels in winter! That’s the global impression of Ireland in books.  There are amazing Irish writers like Kevin Barry who are beautifully pissing about with form, with language, Mike McCormack’s dazzlingly strange short stories, Mary Costello’s quiet collection of small agonies. Few are writing about Shit City with the exception of maybe naff detective novels. I grew up in the city so I feel compelled to write about it. I was a Mod at 14, roaming the streets when the first heroin users were struck down with AIDS, that sliver of time when girls were still sent to laundries but the morning after pill was just available if you knew where to go. This novel is about Gonzo & Carol and their Jack Russell, Phib, a story of second-generation drug use, turgid love, the grisly struggle to survive. It’s grim, hairy, stupid, and it’ll be told from three different points of view. I’ve no idea if it’ll work but am determined as hell to give it a good go. Here’s a [wee taster!] on how they got together, part of the back story late in Chapter One:

The city tipped down in a duck beak towards the Garden of Remembrance, rain scattering Swarovski beads on the path as he plonked along. He thought of Carol’s fresh face at 18. Cement angels leaned chin forward from Georgian chimneys. Dogs of light barked down. ‘I’m out of me bleedin’ nugget!’ he said, out loud, pissing himself. Pains fostered out elsewhere, he felt boundless, happy. Met her roight here with a gang of inner-city boys from de flats around Dominic Street, drinking cans and dancing to U2 songs on a ghetto-blaster sometime in the middle of 1994. She’d weight on her then, chubby sweet smile, horse-tail of hair whooshing from end to end in de sunbeams. They kissed for an hour without stopping: wet balmy tongue slosh he’d never done with any other bird. Sometimes he still felt guilty, but Leather Joe said, ‘There’s no stopping some, and ye never forced her to take it.’ The counsellor from NewPaths also explained that ‘damaged people have a knack of stumbling on one another no matter what, in the way that water always seems to meet its own level.’ It made sense that first time they tried to get off it together. Both their dads were alcos and bashed them. Both their Ma’s couldn’t see anything wrong with their Da’s, and bashed them. Few weeks later, they fumbled and gorged and slopped into one another under the flat-leaf bushes in the Gardens. ‘What ye doin’ to me boy, wot ye bleedin’ doin’ to me!?’ Lads circling the railings, clutching chimps, uuumphin’ them on. ‘Slapper! Do her one!’ Afterwards they said Gonzo was a right grunter, like those fuckin’ mating seals on RTÉ. ‘It’s you and me babe, no-one else babe, you’ll do me babe.’

Punk memorial idea has some hits and misses

So, then, what about the stripper? Will the sultry beauty who used to take to  the stage on Saturday afternoons a few hours before the punk and New Wave bands  of the late-1970s carried out their soundchecks be included in the forthcoming  honour? Can Belfast City Council’s decision to erect a blue plaque marking the spot where the Harp Bar stood in Hill Street also be seen as an indirect nod to all  forms of entertainment that was once on offer in that dingy downtown pub during  the dark days of the Troubles?

The Harp, of course, was mainly famous for providing a platform for The Outcasts, Rudi, The Idiots, Ruefrex, Stiff Little Fingers, The Undertones and a whole host other punk-New Wave groups that performed there from 1977 to the  early-1980s. It was also one of the gathering places for all the young punks who suddenly  found somewhere to meet up, drink, listen to new live bands and, via the  turntable, the soundtrack of Seventies rebellion from across the Irish Sea.

It was also infamous as a place where, on Saturday afternoons, gentlemen  could enjoy the sleazy experience of watching strippers rip off their clothes on  the same stage; the Harp clientele’s favourite exotic dancer being a lady from Birmingham who used to travel over to war-torn Belfast to earn a crust gyrating  in the buff. Wouldn’t it be fun if she is still around and actually turned up for the  unveiling of the memorial plate in Hill Street next month? Just imagine the  reaction of the city councillors if she is still with us and manages to appear  on the day. The potential red faces at City Hall over certain veteran exotic dancers  attending one of their memorial events aside, there are less facetious reasons  why some old punks – this writer included – are conflicted about the blue plaque  at the Harp Bar site.

Back in the day, punks were not always so loved by Belfast’s establishment,  or its general citizenry. They were harassed, questioned and P-checked by the  police and Army when they gathered in large numbers. They were the subject of  scare stories and sensationalist press coverage. They were also viewed with suspicion by paramilitaries from both sides of the  divide, because organically, unplanned and unstructured, punks and their  hangers-on crossed every religious and social divide. Moreover, the venues where  they gathered were severely restricted by the council’s repressive licensing  laws.

In the streets leading towards Cornmarket, Hill Street, or Great Victoria  Street, where the Good Vibrations record store used to be situated, you risked  being spat on, insulted, or worse. Belfast was a cold house for punks and other assorted teenage rebels in the  late-1970s. Yet all those who lived through this period revelled more than a bit  in all this hostility, fear and suspicion directed towards us. Outraging the general public and the political establishment was part of the  punk calling; it was almost a requirement of a so-called ‘movement’ (horrible  collectivist word) that was watermarked into our DNA. This is why some feel a  slight discomfort in being honoured by a city that once held us in such  disdain.

But hold on a minute. Perhaps we are getting too crotchety in our middle to  old ages. Because there may be some valid reasons why the city should celebrate  one of the few positive social phenomena to emerge from the streets during the  Seventies. Why, after all, should the history and legacy be left to the ‘terror  tours’, with their fixation on walls and the things painted on them? As you will find out, for instance, on one of Arthur Magee’s informative  alternative tours of central Belfast, there is a hidden history of  non-conformist radicalism stretching back from the 18th century New Light  Presbyterians, who were in the vanguard of the anti-slavery movement, right up  to the 20th century punks.

This city’s history is much more complex and diverse than the usual narrative fed to the tourists as they pass by the ‘peace’ walls with stop-offs at the site  of this and that atrocity. Terri Hooley’s depressing revelation that a couple of loyalist pea-brains  verbally and physically abused him recently underlines the need to keep some of  that spirit of ’77, ’78 and ’79 alive. This squalid, menacing incident, during which the founder of Good Vibrations  was described as a “disgrace to the Protestant community”, confirms that we are  still far away from the Alternative Ulster we longed for back then.

Maybe a more lasting memorial to the punk era than a blue plaque would be a  new political force to emerge that would challenge the tribal duopoly of power,  not only in this city, but across Northern Ireland; that would stand up for  young people’s rights to have fun and party in the face of the new puritanism;  that would reflect the multi-cultural, non-sectarian, anti-homophobic elements  in our society. Terri Hooley sitting in the next Stormont Assembly would certainly be a  start.

This article/blog was published in the Belfast Telegraph today.

Sculpture in Context – National Botanic Gardens, Glasnevin – until October 19th

Shortlisted, eh!?

The Man Who Lived in a Tree

June Caldwell is a runner-up in the 2012 RTÉ Guide/Penguin Ireland Short Story competition

Balloon faces from years on the gear; bodies so thin they could thread through gaps in gates all across the lit grid of suburbia. They squalled and mauled their way around the city in the limp hours, hassling the likes of him trying to live out a life on his own. Most were just passing through the bend at Broadstone; heading on south towards Smithfield to score, or back down the crack in the road to Phibsborough and Finglas in the direction of home. “Story, bud!?” they’d shout up at him in unison, “Story?”

He wondered how they’d managed to spot him at all. For six months, four days and a couple of lean hours, he’d peeled off the pathways entirely and headed up the tree beside Comiskeys’ pub and the old abandoned factory that looked like a Sealink ferry flopped on its side. There was a small patch of avocado grass on the bend, where the houses tattletaled behind a hairy park, in front of redbrick flats (mostly boarded up) and the bulk of bus station with its kinked parked army poking out above a tall Victorian wall.

In the squiggle of high branches he laid out a single-plank bed using pilfered council clothing full of cotton wool to pinion him in. On the lower branches he flung bits of clothes, old bags, photographs, a leather satchel his father used as a revenue man, a tablecloth he’d stolen from Jury’s Inn, letters from his mother, Euro-shop tool kits, grilled crisp bags, and a lifelong collection of medals. If he lay on his side he could watch the locals paint their lungs in russet outside the pub,crowing about monies owed and goods stowed.

On his back, the 100,000,000,000,000,000,000,000 overcooked stars that seemed to have a lot in common with him. When he closed his eyes he was still able to muster up Lorna in their flat in Camden, pirouetting across the floor to Kate Bush’s The Whole Story, goading him about reconstituted spuds.

“One, two or ten?” she’d ask, cocking her leg behind her in a kind of chef-jest. “They taste of nothin’ but poxy water!”

For an entire summer they lived on tinned potatoes and Fray Bentos pies. She was taking a course in Contemporary Dance at a small amateur getup in North London and liked to prance about in the evenings in her blue knickers & bra, cooking up the same leaden fare on the one-ring cooker over and over. He adored her milky boobs and olive eyes, her animal cackle and the fact she could only fuck with her clothes on because she was so ‘County Wexford shy’.

On those smoky summer nights in ’88, he sprinted all the way from the building site in the still sweltering glare of evening to pin her to the bed for as many hours as he could. She found it impossible to look at him straight on but he’d stretch her elfin hands out behind her as far as the bed bars,  jammed like a butterfly, until she gave in, squealing. He’d kiss and lick the sweat off her for ages afterwards. He would’ve sucked her up whole through a straw if he could.

It was a good six weeks before the tree spoke to him. Speckles of information at first: age (169 years); classification: Grey Willow; planting date (as yet unknown, same too for exactly how he got in the ground); how he loved the rain and sodden soil beneath him; the classic oval-shaped leaves that tickled all year ’round; his greyish green fleece-like belly; the sawflies, aphids, caterpillars and leaf beetles that populated his arms and legs since the primary days; things he’d seen and witnessed: famine, republican marches, car crashes, building booms, child rape, dog snatches, stabbings, carnivals, Christmas celebrations, guided tours, industrial strikes, Luftwaffe raids, surreptitious deals beneath his bough when the chickpea moon was at full-flourish; his hopes and dreams for any kind of future at all.

“Is me being here dragging you down?” he asked Willow, and the tree told him that all was “grand & dandy” as long as he didn’t spill chemicals on him or cut into the branches with any sharp objects. He handed back tips on the art of being indistinguishable, what was the best time of day to leave the tree to find food or other sundries he may need, all kinds of kind advice he never expected from anyone anymore under any circumstances at all.

Willow also told Miller about the escalation of drugs in the area, gangs hawking their trade in the all-encompassing daylight. “They’re as brash as you like,” he said,”knack-bags dropping off stacks of cash and even guns, young kids from the flats flailing about in the grip of addiction, that bloke form over there who bit off the security man’s ear outside McFrowans where nurses go sniffing for prison officer husbands.”

It was all drink, drugs, litter, loss and mayhem, according to Willow.

“The residents have a right pain in their hole,” he explained, “.complaining 24/7 that there’s nowhere safe for the kids to even kick a ball”.

The old abandoned railway line was now off limits even though all plans to develop the Northern Luas line had fallen off the government’s fiscal arm like a scab.

By early evening Miller was gathering his bob-bits from the grass from under the scrag of bushes beside Comiskeys. Across the way Lower Dominick Street was coming alive, the plywood apartments with artificial fireplaces and hoary Formica kitchens emptying residents out through the gates in search of something to do. He’d lived up that stink of road before, sold himself when his mother composted him for good and he could do nothing but guzzle himself into more torpor after Lorna’s death.

“You can’t stay around here destroying yourself, making a show of us, not caring a damn,” she whined. He understood. She had, after all, seen his father do it for a bucket of years.

German men on ‘culture holidays’ looking for a group jiggle, brawny truckers with a furtive hunger they’d prefer their A-line wives not know about, the mobile phone boss who needed to be sucked off before bi-monthly stock flotations. There was more sex on the streets of Dublin than could ever fit in the snug mousy insides. It didn’t bother him much, it even worked for a while, and he was able to pay for a small room in an apartment in Parnell Street near the cinema. But two winters in he’d been roughed up too many times and found himself back out on concrete, living at the back of a wall beside a restaurant fan. There was always food in the laneways, a vortex of throwaway, and some of the foreign workers would leave dregs out for him after they’d cleaned up the spillage of nightshift: bits of sloppy burrito, jerk chicken, wild wilted spinach and other khaki leaves plucked from the roadsides of Wicklow and Meath for the benefit of three stars in Dublin.

“Take it out here and be good to it,” Dhudha would tell him, passing out plates of food through the ventilator hole. All the way from Uttar Pradesh, his English was hilariously bad and nothing he emitted made sense. “My boss says you are the baggabond! He kill me if he knew I food you!”

Sometime in 2010, the Somali dealers moved in around the laneways of Parnell Street pegging their needle-loads to the retro-famished. A lot of the restaurants closed down because of racketeering. He never saw Dhudha again but dreamt he was back in India in a jam-packed town selling clunky wooden toys to foreign children on the side of a hill, spending afternoons pointing his donkey-skin feet into the eggy sunshine. Three people were done with blades in the laneways and two men pretty much like him were hospitalised after been beaten to beyond what he thought might be the level of atoms. It became a tracksuit catwalk of mêlée & mayhem – not a ruddy-faced Garda in sight – so once again he moved on to the porch of a deserted banana factory at the back of the Four Courts and later, when the gang of teenagers began throwing cans at him when he was out for the count, moving up towards Broadstone to a bandstand in Temple Gardens.

“You are better off here in any case,” Willow told him. “I’ll watch out for you in case those scallywags come back.”

How could he intervene if they did more than shout at him this time? Willow was begotten to the earth shaking him and not the other way around. And lately, just lately, he’d asked for a cut of Miller’s street profits. “This way, we’re both self-respecting,” he explained, but Miller was becoming less sure. There were even nights where Willow was ‘finding’ punters for Miller and in the depth of agladdening sleep, he’d be hauled out of the tree to do the business.

“Come out Tarzan ye mad yoke!” the punters would roar, and Willow would gently push him towards them with his large hairy branches.

In truth, he was exhausted running away for a living, worn-out with people badgering and hassling, of voices following and shadows prickling him. He be even better off as an addict himself, as if he could ever afford it! He didn’t get why they were so angry in general but also at him, blaming the recession on everything. It’s not like they even worked during the good times, like he’d done for so many years; and as for the women in the flats across the road who started shouting abuse out the barred windows at him: “Get off the grass ye mentler!” “Stop scaring the kids!” The old guys from the pub who said he was upsetting the little ones making their First Holy Communion; babe-in-arms bouncing in meringues on rubber apparatus to the side of the bus station, and the traffic cop who told him that the man driving the Ghost Bus almost swerved when he saw him up the tree. He could wring all their necks at once.

“There’s nothing illegal about me being here,” he told Willow. He’d looked it up in the National Library, the new-fangled anti-loitering laws; there was only mention of being firmly on the ground, outside ATMs, beggars holding out their hands to collect money in polystyrene cups, Roma who live on roundabouts. Some of the laws were so old at this stage even though it was surely teetering on an epoch of hovercraft; the statute books in Ireland still insist you carry a bale of hay with you to feed your method of transportation. No-one could tell him he was doing anything wrong and Dublin City Council itself was not aware of any deeds for the tree.

He imagined the end would come just as he was dozing off, when he rested his tender neck on a gnarl for the night, faint buzz of white noise approaching. Dosed up on blue and green shots, glops of Goldschlager, gobs of Guinness. The gang would hunch up the road from Parnell Street banging the railings with sticks and bars, jokes and jars, in search of him or anyone like him. It was the coke too, sending them clear bats.”Let’s kick the living shite out of him; head right open, the seagulls will have his brains scoffed by morning.”

In front of them Lorna’s ghost is teaching his dead mother how to dance: two sets of legs, knitting needles in the dark, clanking. Willow wakes in a rage, sees what’s happening and spurts his tree sap all over the gang and the ghosts, submerging them beneath the ground. How funny that Miller’smum didn’t know the jive before now. “Like this Mrs Malone!” Lorna tells her, “Just let yourself go!” They would dance on for him even when he lay on the grass, wholly broken.

There is nowhere to hide in a screenplay

Ferdia Macanna: screenwriter, author, musician, raconteur

Screenplays break down roughly on the lines of scene, action, and dialogue. Let’s take the first of these. In terms of scene what are the basic rules of writing? ‘Get in late and get out early,’ is the best rule for writing a scene. Sometimes writers have difficulty writing or constructing a scene for a film or TV drama or short movie, mostly because of the visual aspect. There are two basic things to remember. A scene exists as an ‘event’ to move your story forward – i.e. it should be about something and it needs to have a purpose. The ‘event’ can be as big as a crucial moment in a battle between soldiers in Saving Private Ryan a revealing disclosure between lovers (i.e. why Ilsa dumped Rick in Paris without an explanation) or some kids finally freeing an endangered whale or it can be as small as a car driving down a street or even a knowing look between two apparent strangers. The other thing to bear in mind is we are writing for a visual medium – let’s ‘SEE’ what your scene is about, rather than ‘hear’ it. Film is a ‘story told in pictures’. It’s not a play or a novel. Only what we can ‘see’ or ‘hear’ should go into your screenplay. There are no internal narratives.

In relation to action is it a case of less-is-more? Is there a danger of someone coming from say, a literary background, being inclined to write too much direction? Does a novelistic background work sometimes as a disadvantage? Visual Writing is important. It’s a new way of seeing the world. Once a literary writer or a playwright or a short stort writer or a poet gets the knack of writing for a visual medium, then I believe it helps their literary work as well. There is nowhere to hide in a screenplay. Anything that isn’t essential or crucial must be jettisoned. I spend a lot of time in my workshops on Visual Writing because I believe too many screenplays are dogged by long banks of descriptive novelistic prose or excessive expositional dialogue. Your scene can be beautifully written, contain lots of witty dialogue and demonstrate intelligence and flair but if it doesn’t move your story along then it has no place in the screenplay. Keep it visual. Keep the pace going. Free your imagination. Learn a new language and have fun with it.

Dialogue, is there also a potential problem in terms of the character saying “too much”, spelling out the plot when an image, a fleeting glance, scene dissolving into another can tell the story rather than words from thelips of a character(s)? You said it. Too many screenplays come across like stage plays disguised as films. I come at these workshops from the POVs of a director and producer as well as a screen and scriptwriter so I hope that I can steer students towards more visual, creative and effective ways of realising their story.

Are there any templates of scripts/screen plays you would recommend fledgling screenwriter look at? The best book for me is Syd Field’s Screenwriting. It’s straight forward and clear and puts over the basics better than any other work I’ve come across. If you want a guide book into screenwriting, Syd is your man. Almost all screenplays are free and accessible on the internet. You should be able to find the screenplay of your favourite movie – from Casablanca to Dawn of the Dead or even Critters 3 – or sites such as Drew’s Script-O-Rama or – Simply Scripts. Reading produced screenplays is the best instuction for a budding screenwriter.

What in your opinion is the perfect screenplay/script? Casablanca is up there. But my favourites are The Third Man and the French movie, Amelie. I also hugely admire The Insider, As Good As It Gets. Walk the Line and American Beauty and anything by John Hughes particularly Ferris Beuller’s Day Off. I also love When Harry Met Sally and Four Weddings and a Funeral. And the Swedish film, Let the Right One In. I also have a huge weak spot for Zombie/Horror flicks and low budget trash. I don’t want to mention Napoleon Dynamite but I will. There, I’ve mentioned it.

Who are your favourite screenwriters and list some of the films they are noted for? John Hughes (Ferris/Pretty In Pink/’Breakfast Club). Eric Roth (The Insider). Epstein Brothers (Casablanca). Anything by Walter Hill, John Carpenter, Nora Ephron, Kathryn Bigelow and John Hughes. I also like Charlie Kaufman who along with Tarantino, has probably the most recognisable ‘voice’ in modern cinema. The most exciting and enjoyable screenwriter I’ve come across recently is the Irish writer Kevin Barry – he really has a style of his own and that’s a fiendishly difficult thing to achieve in screenwriting.

Do you think directors always make for good screen writers because [as you well know] some like to combine the two? Sometimes but not always. There seems to be a big emphasis on ‘auteurs’ in our culture. Not sure if that is always a good notion. I like to think that screenwriting is a difficult craft and possibly the most undervalued and unappreciated writing genre. Screenwriting is often collaborate, unlike say, novel-writing. It’s a tough craft to learn but once learned, I believe it really helps with other writing genres. It helps cut out excess description and it helps shape and present fictional characters.

Very few extremes. Too many unconvincing gangsters. I think we make very conservative movies at the moment and I’m not sure than Irish film-makers or producers think in terms of targeting an audience.

What is Irish cinema lacking in? Not enough comedy? Too much The Field style rural idyll drama? A dearth of urban gritty realism? Or should we expand our imaginations further? I like the look of Grabbers. I’m going to see it this weekend. I wouldn’t be a huge fan of recent Irish flicks. Too many boxes being ticked. The politically correct box. The intellectually correct box. Redemption buttons being pressed on virtually every character. Very few extremes. Too many unconvincing gangsters. I think we make very conservative movies at the moment and I’m not sure than Irish film-makers or producers think in terms of targeting an audience. We seem more focused on festivals and awards and that sort of thing. I’d love to see a situation where word-of-mouth attracts Irish cinema-goers to Irish films. Perhaps it’s a transition time. Irish films reached audiences at home and internationally in the 80s and early 90s with My Left Foot, The Snapper and The Commitments. Perhaps the success of The Guard will change things for the better. There’s no doubting the talent and the actors and our short films are superb along with our animators. Let’s hope we are entering a new era. Like I said, I like the look of Grabbers.

Would you like to see the great Irish sci-fi script-cum-movie? Absolutely. And if it’s a creature feature, I’d like a walk-on part please.

If you were to recommend one recently released film – either out on cinema at present or now on sale in DVD/Blu Ray- for your students on the course to watch and analyse what would it be? I would go for a classic like Casablanca. Everything you need to become a good a screenwriter is in there. The best TV drama I’ve seen recently is Breaking Bad. I would urge students to have a look at Season One. And to access the scripts online.

Some say one of the greatest modern British screenplays is Bruce Robinson’s Withnail and I….do you agree? It’s brilliant, but it’s a one off. I just wish the writer would come up witty another wonderful maverick idea like that. But let’s be grateful it exits in the first place. It’s hard to get a film made and even harder to get a good off-beat indie flick to an audience. Outline the key differences between screenwriting for feature films and TV? Feature film writing is particular – you have 90 minutes or so to nail an audience. Usually it’s a three act structure that stands or falls on the set-up (i.e. the first fifteen or so minutes). If the audience doesn’t buy the first 15 mins, your film will usually fail. TV drama is quite demanding. It comes in many formats including what’s now known as ‘the 8 act structure’ ) mainly due to ad breaks on US TV. I’ll be looking at both film and TV drama in these workshops. Most of the best screenwriting is now happening on TV drama series such as Breaking Bad, Mad Men, The Wire or The Killing.

Which TV drama-soap context would you like to set in an Irish context? Our stuff isn’t much fun. I’d like to see some really engaging extreme characters being created. An Irish Walter White. Or an Irish Cracker. Or an Irish Amelie.

What Irish book-novel would you love to dramatise on television? A really good question. My vote goes to City of Bohane by Kevin Barry. I’m also surprised that nobody has tried to make a movie out of Dermot Bolger’s The Journey Home.

Are we in danger of following ITV’s route and putting on too many cop-based TV dramas? Dunno.

*BIG thanks to Ferdia Macanna for this Q&A.

Fancy something erotic for autumn?

Writer Sean O’Reilly is hosting an erotic writing course this autumn – a bit of an experiment for the Irish Writers’ Centre – at a time when sexy stories are being sucked up by the global publishing industry. How can we write about sex in a tasteful effective way, causing a stir in the reader, while giving enough insight into the character’s psychology to make the story believable, intriguing, real..? Irish writing seems to shy away from any attempt to represent the reality and complexity of our erotic lives. Sex is a secret. Desire is merely a plot-device. The story of a character’s erotic life or the growth of a character’s erotic taste seems to have no bearing on a convincing psychological portrait of a literary character.

This 10-week course looks at the history of the genre of erotic writing, examining classic texts in both prose and poetry, and concentrating on student’s writing in this field. Using both poetry and prose, participants will learn that the ‘erotic’ is more than the description of sexual acts but the context in which they take place, about power and phantasy, and in particular, about the representation of desire itself. O’Reilly has a unique approach – forensic even – to analysing words. He is deeply interested in people who are serious about writing, and will do to your writer’s block what Polish builders did to concrete here during the boom. A story I wrote on one of Sean’s previous courses made it to the ‘Top Ten’ in the 2012 RTE Guide/Penguin Ireland Short Story Competition and is published on the RTÉ TEN website. A second one [a Dystopian tale about Dublin junkies] is being edited for inclusion in a literary magazine and has developed into a novel-in-progress.

Below is a Q&A I did with Sean for the IWC blog on the erotic writing topic. His published work includes Curfew and Other Stories, the novels Love and SleepThe Swing of Things and an experimental erotic novella: Watermark. [Click the book cover above to buy Sean's book]. The Writing Desire: Flesh Made Word course runs from 25th September, on Tuesdays for ten weeks – 6.30pm to 8.30pm – and costs €280 or €260 for members. Places are limited so if you’re interested…See you there!

“Degenerates are not always criminals, prostitutes, anarchists, or outright lunatics,” the physician and journalist Max Nordau cautioned in 1893, “they are often writers and artists”…is there any truth in this statement!? In the current situation in Ireland, where the arts seem to be a branch of tourism, of green jersey consensus, yes, it’s important to remember that the artist may be an outsider, an angry voice, a twisted voice, a moral outlaw, jailed and loathed, or a voice that doesn’t give a damn.

What empowered you to want to teach a ‘writing desire’ course at the Irish Writers’ Centre…was there a literary gap that needed to be filled (no pun intended)? Not sure what ‘empowered’ means. I’m interested in desire as a literary theme. As a subject. A premise. As the basic predicament for story. The question of pleasure for example. Anybody doing a deal with the devil will have erotic pleasure high on their list of demands. Or seduction. The magic of seduction. What is it to seduce, to cast a spell, to invade the fantasy life of another person? The story of a character’s desire-life is as interesting as the story of their intellectual or spiritual development. Or emotional. As morally interesting. In this course, I’d like us to look at how desire is represented in fiction, at how erotic tension is created, at descriptions of sexual fulfillment and disenchantment, at the body and its tastes but all of this with the aim of inspiring, reading and talking to inspire writing around these themes. People are there to write at the end of the day.

What is the core difference between ‘romantica’ and ‘erotica’ in fiction, given that our romantic and sexual lives are so inherently fused in real life? Are they? All I can say is good erotic writing is an investigation of the character’s world. The foundations and the Iimits of the self. Power. Society. The Law, the inner legislator. Bernard Schlink’s, The Reader, for example. Or Kundera’s hedonists in occupied Prague . Or Edna O Brien’s House of Splendid Isolation. Books exploring a culture, a time, through the story of desire. Or Angela Carter’s work; the sense we are backstage with the dramatis personae of desire, the bored divas, the villains with their false moustaches, the acrobats, the broken-hearted, all our dreams dripping with greasepaint. Or those poets interested in the physicality of the line, the tactility of the spoken.

Is there a long-strong tradition of good erotic writing that we’re not particularly aware of? There’s been writing about sex and sensuality for as long as there’s been storytelling. For as long as we’ve wondered about what the meaning of life is or been curious about other people. Long before there was even a notion of the individual self. We have some erotically charged early Irish poetry. Chinese literature has some very early examples. Boccaccio’s Decameron, published in the 1400’s, the source for Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales, is a good starting point for the European stuff. Or you can go right back to the some of the stories in the Old Testament. What was happening in Sodom that had to be stopped? Aside from the Marquis de Sade, and his forensic encyclopedias of pleasure, and censorship, I’d say the most powerful effect on the development of erotic writing in the West has been psycho-analytic theory. I’d point to Philip Roth, and books like Sabbath’s Theatre, as an example of a modern writer using desire as the driving force of his characters.

The ‘Writing Desire: Flesh to Word’ course will be taught by both you and poet Kimberly Campanello, how will this work in practice? Will participants have to be au fait at both prose and poetry or can they simply write in one genre if they prefer? The basic idea is to use the reading of both prose and poetry to inspire writing. Participants can write in whatever form they want but shouldn’t be afraid to read across a whole range of sources. For example I would encourage anyone to read Jean Genet’s play The Balcony. The course will suit anyone who is already working on/thinking about a piece of work with desire as the main issue. Each week there’ll be a loose theme, we’ll try to identify some of the different currents in erotic writing, the celebratory approach, the big Yes, as opposed to the more conflicted erotic text. Kimberly and I will take alternate weeks, using extracts from prose and poetry for discussion before we look at participant’s own work. Like I said, people should be there to write.

What do you think of the 50 Shades of Grey phenomenon? I think we’ll have to make it the starting point of the course. “This is wrong,” Anastasia says early in the first book during a romp with Mr Grey, “but holy hell is it erotic”. We’ll have a look to see if the writing actually manages to get above clichés and create any erotic tension, what makes a bad sex scene. And we’ll look at this notion of wrongness, of transgression, a common ingredient of erotic writing. But then again it’s interesting to think about reading and pleasure. Reading is sexy again. That can’t be bad. The book has now become a fetish object; it means much more than the words inside the covers.

There was a story recently in the papers about a court case involving a couple who had a row about the book, the man annoyed at the woman for reading the book again, for talking about it too much. The woman went round to her mothers. After a while, there was a knock at the door and when she opened it there was her boyfriend who, she told the judge attacked her with a bottle of brown sauce, pouring it over her head. Saucy? the man was shouting, You like saucy? I’ll show you what saucy means.

How do you delineate between the erotic and the downright pornographic? Or are we being unfair to porn….discuss? Does some porn contain literary value? I don’t think there’s any need to delineate anymore when artists in every medium play freely with them. Filmmakers, writers, cabaret, hip-hop, painters. Porn, like erotic art, wants to arouse. To stimulate. To turn the reader on. That used to be seen as not a fit ambition for literary art. A half-decent sex-scene should cause a bit of a stir in the reader. But when it’s a very good scene, I’d say, it should also be telling us something about the characters involved, about the meaning of the sex between them, and about the context in which it’s happening.

Is the widespread availability of internet pornography ruining natural erotic thinking/feeling, i.e., expectations of what a sex life should/could involve, the pull/drive that gets people together, how this is then expressed in literature & art? I’ve heard it said the 50 Shades of Grey phenomenon is a reaction against men and online porn. Against the infidelity of men on their machines. A rebellion. I’ve also heard it argued porn helps men NOT do certain things, a palliative so to speak. It keeps them off the streets. But the same was said about the use of prostitutes. And about sport! It could be entertaining to wonder what the 50 shades of Grey trilogy will help women NOT to do? Hopefully the internet is educating as much as it is ruining appetite. The sexual appetite, like any other appetite, can be sated and overindulged. It’s an old parable. The parable of excess. Think of Casanova. Those who have searched for wisdom in sensual experience. Enlightenment. Ecstasy. Think of Yeats poem, The Pilgrim. The sensualist, after years of erotic wandering, turns to fasting on Lough Derg, tired of “…passing around the bottle with girls in rags or silk/ in country shawl or Paris cloak” but by the end of it all, after excess and austerity, he concludes on his life’s journey, “I can put the whole lot down, and all I have to say / Is fol de rol de rolly O.“

What is your favourite piece of erotic writing and why? It would have to be JP Donleavy’s The Ginger Man. Published in Paris in 1955, it’s part of the uninhibited big Yes style of erotic writing. It was banned for obscenity. The central character is an American in Dublin, he’s got a wife and a kid, and money troubles. And when it comes to women, he just can’t stop himself. That’s his crime and his innocence. He can’t control himself. He is comically beyond any moral judgement or censor. His lust is all he has and leads him round in circles and deeper into the world of Dublin at the time, giving us a very real picture of the place, and even the predicament of women at the time. It’s the Dublin of Behan, Kavanagh, etc., and Cronin’s Dead as Doornails. He’s got a bigger appetite than any of them, free, guiltless. The writing, moving from sparse, short imagist sentences to rampant flows of interior randy monologues, will make you laugh from your guts as you savour and feel – and admire – his hunger: a powerful concoction. The flesh made word. I wish I’d been around to see Richard Harris in the stage version. Three nights it lasted in Dublin in 1959 before it was shut down!

HHhH…Haunted by Heydrich

Reinhard Tristan Eugen Heydrich

He’s back again! Reinhard Heydrich is haunting me. I thought I’d left him behind after finishing Philip Kerr’s latest Bernie Gunther novel Prague Fatale which deals with Heydrich’s rule in the Czech capital and his assassination by emigre patriots in 1942.  Now the ‘blond beast’ and the ‘most dangerous man in the Third Reich’ has returned.

Heydrich is the principal subject in an original novel by the French writer Laurent Binet entitled intriguingly HHhH – the codeword for one of the architects of the Final Solution AKA the Shoah/Holocaust.  But it is hard to classify exactly what the book is: Is it an historical novel about the Czech and Slovakian heroes who parachute out of the sky to rid the world of this Nazi monster; or is it post-modern play acting prose on the wilder shores of French literary pretensiouness?

The reason for the latter concern is that Binet injects himself into the story, fast fowarding in history from German occupied Prague during the Second World War to his own 21st century trips to the Czech Republic as he researches this incredible tale of single minded heroism.  The narrative of the real life events played out in 1942 is punctuated by Binet visiting Prague with his girlfriend during which he agonises over how to tell the story of the assassins stalking their quarry and the aftermath of Heydrich’s removal from the earth, puts words into the mouth of dead actors including such grotesques as Hans Frank or questions the validity of his story telling.

Despite Binet’s interventions the author still recreates a moving account of the way the secret plan to strike at the heart of the Nazi terror machine is acted out.  The three men who carry out the execution of Heydrich – Gabcik, Kubis and Valcik – are like characters who deserved to be portrayed by the likes of Humphrey Bogart or Jimmy Cagney as tough, pugnacious, fanatically brave individuals that refuse to flinch in the face of evil. Alongside four other resistance fighters, following the killing of Heydrich,  the trio hold out in a Prague church and manage to hold off 800 SS stormtroopers for 8 eight hours.  Four of the patriots are killed in the fire fight with the Germans, another four commit suicide rather than fall into the Gestapo’s hands.

Arguably the greatest acheivement of this novel is that the pace and plot line are not slowed down by the self-reflections of the author.  His commentary during which he expresses his doubts and concerns about his story-telling craft are respectful towards the key people in the tale – the Czechoslovak heroes. It is also powerful as a form of historical education with fascinating figures like Colonel Paul Thummel, alias Rene, a German anti-Nazi working inside the Wehrmacht to pass intelligence onto the Allies and the Czech resistance. There are also the Three Kings – senior Czechoslovak officers who organised resistance to Nazi domination and whom Philip Kerr also brings back to life in Prague Fatale.

Several critics including Martin Amis have described Binet’s debut novel as ‘moving’ – it is the most appropriate word to characterise HHhH.  The passages about the Nazi revenge wreaked on the Czech town of Lidice are painful to read. The men of Lidice from 15 to 84 are shot dead while the women are transported to Ravensbruck concentration camp while the children are taken to Chelmno where most are later gassed. All this done by SS murderers from Heydrich’s hometown who even kill all the dogs of Lidice and vandalise its cemetery in retaliation for Heydrich’s death.

The attention to detail in this carefully constructed, tautly written novel/history lesson is admirable.  Binet has mined deeply into history and archive into the dark black heart of Nazi occupation. The author also mines the anti-historical present.  In section 241 of the book Binet notes that an Internet site dedicated to getting young Czechs interested in what happened to Lidice after the Heydrich execution ‘is offering an interactive game, the goal of which is ‘to burn Lidice in the shortest possible time.’ He takes this piece of information from a news report in the French left wing daily ‘Liberation’ on 6 September 2006.  To his credit Binet shows but doesn’t tell. He doesn’t need to comment on the crass stupidity, nay tackiness of this end-game. Its inclusion in the narrative, albeit a future echo of amoral post-modernity, says it all.

Yet nothing can diminish Binet’s admiration and love for the men who knew from the outset that they would never return from their historic mission. Nor perhaps were they oblivious to the terror their killing of the ‘Blonde Beast’ would unleash on innocent civilians.  It comes out in this rather odd but compelling novel almost despite itself. You are left on finishing it with a tear in the eye, a lump in the throat. And the burning conviction that one of the great movie directors of our time should return to this incredible story and re-tell this tale of courage against all odds on celluloid.

The sleuth who slipped from Nazi grip

Unlike the vastly overestimated, cold and repellent novels of Stieg Larsson the cast list of Phillip Kerr’s historical crime fiction is packed with real life and death Nazis. Whereas Larsson’s Swedish fellow travellers and survivors of the Third Reich are made up amalgams of modern-day Scandinavian fascists, Kerr litters his books with some of the dark stars of Nazi Germany itself: Reinhard Heydrich, Josef Mengele, Arthur Nebe, Adolf Eichmann.While Larsson deployed a female Gothic bisexual young computer genius and a campaigning journalist (a thinly disguised stating-the-bleeding-obvious version of himself) against Swedish neo-Nazis, Kerr pits one fictional detective to stand up among a grotesque gaggle of original Hitlerite fanatics for what is left of a more decent Germany, indeed humanity throughout Europe before, during and shortly after World War II. Between the two authors’ creations it is Kerr’s Bernie Gunther who emerges from the pages of more than 15 works as the more believable, amiable and sympathetic of characters compared to Larsson’s literary inventions.Reviewers of Kerr’s work have compared his writing and his hero to Raymond Chandler and his wise cracking, hard-boiled detective Phillip Marlowe. Gunther’s voice rooted in working class Berlin vernacular and worldly cynicism is reminiscent of Marlowe’s flawed gumshoe immortalised in celluloid by Humphrey Bogart in Hollywood classics such as The Big Sleep and The Maltese Falcon. Throughout the books there are many Chandleresque echoes as we see an entire society corrupted by race hatred, power-worship and militarism through Gunther’s world weary eyes. Even in the heat, light and dust of post-war Argentina in A Quiet Flame there are passages that could have come straight from the typewriter of Marlowe’s creator.  Take this paragraph for instance in A Quiet Flame when Gunther, now on the pay roll of the Buenos Aires police hunting for a child killer who may be a Nazi refugee from post-war justice, encounters a seductive Jewish émigré:

‘She ordered a coffee and I ordered something I had no interest in drinking so long as she was around. When you’re having a cup of coffee with the best looking woman you’ve spoken to in months, there are better things to do than drink it. She took one of my cigarettes and let me light her. It was yet another excuse to pay close attention to her big sensuous mouth. Sometimes I think that is why men invented smoking.’

Read this section [above] out loud, close your eyes and you can just imagine Bogart and Lauren Bacall verbally jousting with one and other in a seedy basement bar amid a fug of smoke and sexual tension. Yet there is no underlying current of misogyny or wanton voyeurism in Gunter’s relations with the opposite sex. His women are more than often powerful figures in their own right whether they are left-wing opponents of the Nazi regime, stoic Jewish teenagers hiding away from the Brown-shirted bullies in Berlin Friedrichshain or sparky actresses in wartime Germany who have no time for the organised lies of Dr Goebbels.

Although Larsson deftly portrays Lisbeth Salander as a feminist icon-avenger wreaking vengeance on not only neo-Nazis but also rapists the prolonged description of the sexual assault on her in The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo is utterly gratuitous in its graphic detail and, worse still, its stomach churning longevity. On reading this rape-scene you can be forgiven for saying: “Alright Stieg we really do get the picture!”

Gunther’s world is equally filled with horror, cruelty, sadism and an entire polity based on the stupidity of a universal lie, the myth of the Master Race. Yet despite experiencing the horrors of the murder pits of the Ukraine serving in SS Police Battalions and living amongst such bloodless monsters as Heydrich, Gunther’s does not lay the guts and the gore on thick with a trowel. Indeed in his latest novel Prague Fatale Kerr brings Heydrich back to life in all his complexity: the family man whose wife defended his reputation as a noble German patriot until her death in 1985; the Nazi true-believer who liked to beat up prostitutes; the champion fencer as comfortable playing Schubert on his violin as he was swishing his sword about and one of the core architects of the Final Solution (the industrialised mass killing of the Jews in the gas chambers) at the Wansee Conference.

Kerr however often places Gunther in morally complicated scenarios where at times he is a servant of the likes of Heydrich or has to play the part of the loyal Nazi to fugitives like Eichmann in Argentina usually only for his own survival. Historically it is also questionable if someone like Gunther was so wracked by guilt over what some German cops were required to do in the Police Battalions sent out east to commit genocide. All the historical evidence suggests that the police battalions, which were often comprised not of Nazi ideologues but ‘ordinary Germans’ who were, to borrow the title of a controversial book on the era, Hitler’s Willing Executioners. But it has to be pointed out that Kerr’s take on the period is purely fictional with a sprinkling of pure history shot through it. In his defense the author demonstrates a deep understanding and knowledge of the Nazi era, before, during and after Hitler committed suicide in the bunker.

The historical footnotes at the back of Prague Fatale are chilling such as the one about the aftermath of Heydrich’s assassination at the hands of Czech freedom fighters. In retaliation 190 men and boys in the northern Czech town of Lidice were summarily shot because the Nazis suspected the place had a link to some of Heydrich’s killers. Kerr adds a horrific footnote to this detail reminding the world that Eichmann later had the women and children of Lidice gassed in Chelmo concentration camp in 1942.

Both in fact and fiction Kerr like another English author who appears to have been an inspiration to the former, recreates a world that makes the flesh creep. That other writer is Robert Harris whose masterpiece Fatherland imagines what would have happened if Hitler had won, setting this alternative universe in the early 1960s in a period of potential detente between Nazi Germany and the United States under its repugnant anti-Semitic President Joe Kennedy, the father of JFK.

Despite Fatherland being one of the most masterfully crafted English novels of the last 25 years Harris does not receive the plaudits of literary awards or the swooning admiration of the literati he certainly deserves. Because he writes as Orwell urged of all good prose – to be as clear as a window pane – Harris’s body of work does not merit him the accolades of the world of current ‘literary fiction.’ Despite the constant snubs Harris’ Fatherland and other works such as Archangel or even The Ghost will in years to come be regarded as much as high literature as the rip-roaring yarns of Graham Greene or Evelyn Waugh became.

The same should go for Philip Kerr and Bernie Gunther but in the meantime at least these taut, highly intelligent thrillers should enjoy an even wider audience than at present. So the next time you are sitting on the Enterprise train from Dublin to Belfast or taking a long LUAS ride on the tram lines out to Tallaght and you happen to get talking to someone with a Stieg Larsson Millennium trilogy on their lap or their table, gently suggest that they might try Phillip Kerr as their next read. If that person next to you happens luckily enough to be, say, a BBC or Channel 4 drama commissioner or better than that, a movie producer, you might even offer to send them one of Kerr’s novels in the post as a means of prompting them to bring Bernie Gunther to the screen one day. It’s just a pity that someone like Bogart isn’t around anymore who would be ideally suitable to play him.

Saturday Poem #14 – What the heart is like

What the heart is like (by Miroslav Holub)

Officially the heart

is oblong, muscular,

and filled with longing.

But anyone who has painted the heart knows

that it is also

spiked like a star

and sometimes bedraggled

like a stray dog at night

and sometimes powerful

like an archangel’s drum.

And sometimes cube-shaped

like a draughtsman’s dream

and sometimes gaily round

like a ball in a net.

And sometimes like a thin line

and sometimes like an explosion.

And in it is

only a river,

a weir

and at most one little fish

by no means golden.

More like a grey

jealous

loach.

It certainly isn’t noticeable

at first sight.

Anyone who has painted the heart knows

that first he had to

discard his spectacles,

his mirror,

throw away his fine-point pencil

and carbon paper

and for a long while

walk

outside.

One of the major Eastern European poets to emerge after World War II, Miroslav Holub was celebrated for his surreal mixture of scientific exactitude and absurdist humor. The poet Ted Hughes called him ”one of the half dozen most important poets writing anywhere.’ In The Government of the Tongue Seamus Heaney praised Holub as a poet who could lay things bare, ”not so much the skull beneath the skin, more the brain beneath the skull.” Mr. Holub’s poetry, he wrote, is ”too compassionate to be vindictive, too skeptical to be entranced.”

Miroslav was born in Pilsen, Western Bohemia, on September 23, 1923. His father was a lawyer who worked for the railways and his mother was a language teacher. After World War II, he studied medicine at Charles University in Prague, and worked in a psychiatric ward there. His dislike of “poetical” embellishment, his concern that poetry should be rooted in plain, unadorned fact, is a product of years of Communist propaganda in Stalinist Czechoslovakia. As well as Poems Before & After: Collected English Translations(1990/2006), Bloodaxe publish The Jingle Bell Principle, a book of his prose pieces, and Supposed to Fly, a highly original and entertaining illustrated gathering of poems with some prose interruptions drawn from his native city of Plzen (same as the beer).

Join the digi-revolution!

Being part of The Guardian’s digital revolution has seen a blurring of the old boundaries between the print and the electronic media. Once upon a time, not long ago, the dividing lines between writing for a newspaper and scripting for radio and television were clearly demarcated. Until recently my own career in journalism was a constant to and fro across the ‘No Man’s Land’ between print and broadcasting. The advent of digital media though has wiped out that distinction so that in any given working day I could be writing a 300 to 500 word blog for the on-line edition of Guardian Unlimited; doing a major feature article of more than 1,000 words that could take up to two pages in Saturday’s edition of the newspaper or scripting a 60-second think-piece for broadcast on the Guardian’s audio section.

Blogging, tweeting, podcasting, online/self-generated broadcasting…are all words and phrases becoming increasingly common place for writers. Novels are going straight from the author’s imagination and keyboard to internet delivery systems like eBooks and Kindles, by-passing traditional forms of publishing. The newspaper industry is no different. The Guardian for instance now emphasises the ‘Digital First’ philosophy where news stories, features, opinion pieces, editorials, sports commentary and so on are given their first outing online as opposed to the three-dimensional space of paper.

In terms of media intersection perhaps the most interesting challenge for journalists like myself who have come out of the tradition of two separate media worlds (print and TV/Radio) is to constantly interchange between the two. So for example take this story I worked on back in the summer of 2010 when I went out on a drug interdiction operation with the Irish Naval Service along Ireland’s western seaboard. This was a combination of a relatively long news feature, which not only went online, but also appeared in the paper itself. In addition there was the accompanying film that a Guardian cameraman shot, and I co-produced and scripted. This required not only the ability to convey a fairly dramatic scenario out at sea but also to script to pictures; to be able to write voice-over that was germane to the images and the overall context of the story. This increasingly is my working world!

In terms of combining the written word with the visual the Guardian writer/reporter is now also required to be a broadcaster. One of the popular audio-visual tools to describe a story is the use of the photographic slide show combined with commentary as well as of course a back-up written report. So for instance this unusual story about a man who keeps a museum to the Northern Ireland Troubles in his garden shed is in the usual form. However, accompanying that story which appeared both on Guardian Unlimited and in the actual paper was an audio slide-show.

This was a gallery of pictures taken by our photographer Kim Haughton underneath which ran a recorded, broadcast-quality, interview with the owner guiding us around his private museum. Another example of the multi-dimensional aspect of modern digital journalism in action. This is where the reporter/correspondent/writer can no longer just think in terms of his or her words on a page but also has to be able to script to pictures and sounds.

Of course the corner stones of lucid, honest feature writing, reporting and indeed scripting remain essential. Good prose, to paraphrase George Orwell slightly (still the patron saint of journalists and writers alike) should be like a window pane: clear, devoid of jargon, verbal camouflage and crude propaganda, whether it be through the medium of printed paper or indeed cyberspace.

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I’ll be teaching an eight-week course at the Irish Writers’ Centre from 26th April to 14th June. It will focus on new forms of writing and novel ways of delivery in the digital age. As a comprehensive series of classes on various aspects of writing in the digital world, the emphasis will be on practical training and hands-on drills. The weekly itinerary covers blogs, podcasting, tweeting and audio packages. More information is available here and here’s an audio interview on the topic of feature writing.

Long slow soak of Titanic memorabilia

You have to wonder about gits with money when it comes to all things Titanic. In 2007, a ‘collector’ bought a [used] Titanic life jacket for £35,000 from a UK auction house. Battered, ocean-licked and torn, it had been worn by a 3rd class passenger sparring for survival in the Findus-cold waters of the North Atlantic 100 years ago today. A few months later another life jacket sold for a staggering €119,000 – thought to be worn by the secretary to the wife of Cosmo Duff-Gordon – accused of bribing crew members not to return their half-filled rowboat to the sinking ship to pick up survivors. Class division has a price tag, even in an era of relics.

Business man Mark Manning is banking on a £2 million sale by breaking up and selling a tiny piece of the liner’s hull. The fragment was a scientific sample from the larger of only two known segments of the hull salvaged from the wreck in 1998 (Mark acquired his piece last year for £12,000, according to the Chester Chronicle) and formed part of the ship’s adjoining cabins C79 and C81. While Mark’s lump of liner is ‘privately owned’, the two larger pieces of hull and the rest of the New York auction, valued at around £122 million, must go to a single buyer with strict conditions relating to storage and preservation. “I will sell it to the highest bidder,” he told the paper. “Or I can get a guy to cut it into just over 1,000 pieces and I can sell them for £2,000 a time, if you do the maths, 1,000 x £2,000 = £2m”. He also acquired a wooden segment of the grand staircase from first class, a lump of coal from the boiler room and a fragment of a discarded off cut of carpet.

Since 1985, when the wreck of the Titanic was discovered, thousands of  sodden souvenirs have been hauled to the surface in seven expeditions: leather trunks, china plates, letters, shoes, wallets, candlesticks, keys to a first class toilet, rivets (one rivet made $15,000 at auction), a brass thunderer whistle, Clews teapot, creamer and sugar basin, tickets for the Titanic’s Turkish bath, Marconigram messages, White Star Line candy dish, deck chair, a steel section that broke away from the starboard side as the ship sank, lockets, gold coins, cuff-links, jewellery made with ‘authentic coal’ from the ship, have all found plenty of buyers. Titanic fanatics are also willing to pay $91,000 to get up close to the ship in small Russian submarines.

There’s no end to the line-dance of lucrative packrats prepared to pay top Euro/Dollar/Sterling/Ruble for lumps of the 46,329 tonne rust-bucket, in the hope of salvaging an ordinary piece of human anguish. A restaurant in Houston served up a $12,000 ‘last supper’ this week in honour of Titanic’s infamous Ritz restaurant. It hired top chefs to cook up an ice storm of consomme olga, poached salmon with dill-flavoured mousseline sauce, calvados-glazed roast duckling, pate de foie gras, asparagus salad with champagne-saffron vinaigrette, peaches in chartreuse jelly and chocolate eclairs. Titanic buffs and memorabilia hunters with lots of dough can jig like the dickens and fantasise goodo about herding bonnet-clad women into lifeboats, while smoking Garcia Perlas Finas cigars.

Some items recently up for grabs (in the currency they sold in) include:

  • Cigar box owned by captain Smith: £25,000
  • China saucer: $20,000
  • Postcard mailed from the Titanic: $2,068
  • Rivet: $15,000
  • Original launch ticket: $70,000
  • Keys to a first class toilet: $53,000
  • Menu found in 1st class purse: £76,000
  • Letter written by Captain E J Smith: £28,000
  • Titanic’s lamp trimmer: £59,000
  • Letter by steward James Arthur Painton: £15,000
  • Lillian Asplund’s personal collection (she was 5 years old when travelling on Titanic, her three brothers and father drowned): £120,000
  • Locker key and postcard: £70,000
  • Gilt pocket watch & gold chain, American money, a button, comb: £38,000
  • Job lot including letters, postcards, telegrams from survivors and photographs of passengers: $193,140
  • Deck log deck log from cable ship SS MacKay-Bennett: €100,000
  • First-class passenger list: £24,000
  • Victim’s watch [John Gill]: £25,000
  • Fragment of lifebelt: £6,900
  • First-class brochure: $ 11,380

Marine moonlighters & billionaire bandits could take inspiration from 47-yr-old Stan Fraser from Inverness. He built his own eco-friendly 100ft long Titanic model out his back garden complete with its own ‘Paris Bar’ without plundering a sea-morsel. Two caravans became the hull and over time he added a wooden shed and various cast-offs until his Ship of Dreams was complete. His model also features four funnels – three belch smoke, the fourth is just for show – just like the original. Any donations he receives from folk eyeballing his suburban compost ship go straight to the Royal National Lifeboat Institution.

Stan Fraser, by Peter Jolly Northpix/Daily Mail

The vast majority of the Titanic’s swanky furnishings remain in the two middle sections of the wreck but the ship is slowly being consumed by iron-eating microbes on the sea floor and won’t be around in another 50 years. It also rests in international waters, leaving it in a grey legislative area since no country can claim full responsibility for it. Now the UN’s heritage body Unesco is stepping in to protect the ship under a UN Convention on the Protection of Underwater Cultural Heritage, which covers wrecks only after a century has passed. It can impose fines and other civil penalties on anyone who disturbs the site and will hopefully pull the plug on a 27 year ghoulish treasure hunt. Maybe it’s now starting to sink in: “That’s the last of her.”

Work, read, sprint through poetry

Denise Blake is reading this Friday at the Irish Writers’ Centre (1pm), the last in the popular Lunchtime series. She was a participant on a creative writing workshop I attended two years ago at the Boston College with Dr Brenda Flanagan, Cultural Ambassador for the United States Department. Denise’s first collection of poetry, Take a Deep Breath, was published by Summer Palace Press. Her second collection, How to Spin Without Getting Dizzy, was published in Spring 2010. She’s a regular contributor to RTÉ’s Sunday Miscellany and her work has been published in The SHOp, Poetry Ireland Review, The Stinging Fly and West 47. She is a founder of the Errigal Writers’ Group and received an MA in Poetry from Lancaster University through the Poets’ House. Here’s a quick Q&A I did with her this week:

When did you start writing poetry? Firstly, I know the moment when I started to love poetry, it was when I read Seamus Heaney’s poem, Docker. We were studying the poem as part of the English segment in a foundation course in Magee College and I loved the imagery in the line; He sits, strong and blunt as a Celtic cross. It was the first time that I could see into a poem for myself. The course was to be my return to education but instead it was my awakening to poetry. I was in my thirties and I had young children. I would never have considered writing a poem before that time. I started reading poetry and writing my own pieces. I was so thrilled with myself when I started producing work. The excitement of seeing new words appear has never left me. There were two strong forces in Co. Donegal at the time – The Killybegs Writers Group and Letterkenny Writers Group – so there were people who were supportive and showed great encouragement. Eventually a group of us evolved into Errigal Writers and we still meet twice a month.

What’s been the greatest obstacle to becoming (and remaining) a poet? The “who do you think you are?” chorus sitting on my shoulder. But the question could be; what has helped you stay writing? This is a great country for writing and I have had so much support, starting with my local community. There isn’t a week goes by that I am not asked “are you still writing?” by someone who is willing you on. When we first started Errigal Writers we organized Gerard Byrne to give us workshops and the Irish Writers Centre helped us out. We continued to bring other established writers to Donegal over the years and they have all treated us with a professional respect. I was lucky to be chosen for the Writers Workshop in UCG ( as it was then) with Paula Meehan as our facilitator. You can’t get a more professional, and yet compassionate, person to work with. I was fortunate also to be able to do the MA course in the Poets’ House in Falcaragh. There are so many established writers who are generous with their time and energy. I’m on the directory for Poetry Ireland’s Writers in the Schools and that experience is wonderful.

What gets you started on a poem—idea, image, personal experience? The greatest motivation I have is being a member of the Errigal Writers. When I know we are due to meet things start moving in the back of my mind for a while. I become more aware of my surroundings and more susceptible to imagery around me. I will read more poetry in those days and watch performances on you tube. And then I try to find a silence that lets creativity come into the room. I have found my favourite type of moleskine notebooks and I always write the first drafts in longhand. I just love that moment when the first draft is finished.

How did you go about getting your poetry published? You have to get work published in magazines; Poetry Ireland Review, the Stinging Fly, The SHOp were the magazines who first accepted my work. I also had pieces on Sunday Miscellany and I love recording for radio. Again I’m fortunate in that Joan and Kate Newmann of Summer Palace Press have a home in Donegal. They used to hold wonderful workshops and readings in their home in Kilcar. Eventually they accepted my manuscript and published Take a Deep Breath in 2004. They put so much work into the editing process that it is a gift when the book is published. My second book, How to Spin Without Getting Dizzy came out in 2010.

You’re very involved in community-based projects, how did this happen and why is it important to you? I’m not as involved as I should be but I live in Co. Donegal, we don’t have organisations running readings and workshops on an ongoing basis so the Arts Scene kind of works from the earth upwards. Our Arts Officer, Traolach O’Fionnain is very approachable and he encourages us to create events. There were times in the group energy where we needed to perform, or meet other writers, or work with established writers or publish work, so the only thing for it was to organise it ourselves. North West Words is a group who now hold readings with featured writers and open-mic on the last Thursday of every month. I do think there is a hunger for poetry readings here.

Are festivals a good outlet for poets? Festivals have the funding for organising events and advertising. Anything that gets poets and writers performing in an area is good.

Do female poets face particular challenges? Do young male poets seem to have a higher profile? Yes. But whether that means that female poets face more challenges I’m not sure. It is a very long road.

What are you writing next? I’m writing poems for now. That is what is coming when I put the pen to paper and I’m grateful for them. Hopefully it will shape into a third manuscript.

Any advice for emerging writers? Love what you are doing. Work at the craft. Read. Be prepared for the long distance not a sprint. Don’t be crucified by rejections. Look carefully at the word emerging, it carries hope and a future. It isn’t: never-going-to-happen writers, but emerging. I love the feeling that anything can happen once you are writing and sending out work.

Nuala O’Faolain, a sausage sandwich & a cat in need of a hysterectomy…

Nuala @ her cottage in Clare. © Sunday Tribune

Nuala O’Faolain terrified me. I met her in May 1997 at her home in Ranelagh for a student interview. “You’re ‘too sensitive’ to make a go at journalism, too wide-eyed for shitheads in a newsroom,” she concluded, after just half an hour. Her family history had parallels with my own and despite the fact that she was completely intimidating, we somehow clicked. She scoffed a sausage sambo and laughed at me for being vegetarian. I was obliged to throw sticks at Molly the Collie and admire the ‘Victorian blue’ paint on the sitting room walls (sourced by her lodger Luke from a stately home in UK). Her grand plan was to live out latter days “writing about other people’s cats & dogs” in a cottage in Clare. Three hours later she drove me home in a battered car that could’ve belonged to a learner driver in Wexford and not  a woman whose book Are You Somebody? was topping the best seller lists worldwide.

When I sent her the typed interview she thanked me by dumping a cat in a basket on my doorstep with a £20 note & strict instructions where to buy ‘Sandra’ a hysterectomy. ‘Anyone who wants to be fully human should own a cat,’ the note said. I zipped around to Tesco on Baggot Street, turning the nice crisp hysterectomy dosh into a bottle of bacardi, fresh pasta & some scented candles. Sandra got duffed by the lesbians-in-the-basement’s ‘Felix’ and three years later, while Editor of a revenue magazine, I emailed her to come clean. She called me ‘despicable’, saying I was the worst type of person there was. Nuala’s emails were hilarious, often sad, always sickeningly candid. I was forever chuffed to hear from her, even when she told me not to have kids, that I’d make a lousy mother (and various other insults): ‘You can’t even look after yourself or a cat, imagine what you’d actually do to another human being!’ Another email read: ‘Perhaps an interesting job isn’t your destiny June, so boredom and sexual frustration will force you to write fiction.’ Every few months she’d write to ask me how I was, without fail. Her messages were always packed with funny little nuggets of advice: ‘Don’t go to male shrinks, they’re even worse than ordinary males.’

In 2002, she agreed to be my ‘referee’ for a Foundation Course in Psychotherapy at the Tivoli Institute, Galway. ‘After you’re done there, there’s a place in north Belfast that does great training at weekends, you’d be a brilliant counsellor, I’d go to you, just don’t ever ask me for a writing reference’. It transpired I was way too neurotic for counselling training and Nuala changed her mind about a writing appraisal when she read a feature I wrote for the Sunday Business Post. Once again she ended up as rent-a-judge, this time for an MA in Creative Writing at Queens’ University Belfast in 2007. ‘You will soar, eventually, but the effort will probably kill you,’ she said. After she died I wrote an article in The Guardian which I think would’ve surprised her. Last night when RTÉ aired Nuala, a profile by a cherished friend, Marian Finucane, I dug out the original interview I wrote 15 years ago, which I’m pasting below. Bear in mind it was my first attempt at a journalistic profile (it’s written in the present tense of 1997), so some of the language is manuka-sticky, but a few worthwhile insights survive.

WATCHING NUALA O’ FAOLAIN EAT A SAUSAGE SANDWICH

Relations between men and women are in an awful state. The old world is dead, but there’s no new world yet, we don’t know what to do or which way to go. There’s young-ones with money taking over Temple Bar and old Dublin, Joyce’s Dublin, is dissolved into paltriness. The whole point to Dublin was that it was accessible, shabby, alive. People wandered around it all day. Now they go from A to B, spiritually impaired. The wandering has stopped and mass exodus towards apostasy has begun.

This is what Nuala O’Faolain feels today, 11 months after her book Are You Somebody? was released. This arresting memoir, by a dedicated controversialist, presented itself by pure accident and topped the best seller list for 20 weeks in 1996/7. The book indwells itself in the public and private life of Ireland, so much so, that Nuala herself is stunned at the emotional episode it has created. People wrote to her from Trinidad, Australia, China, Chicago, and even from a trekker’s hut in Nepal, to offer her images of themselves in response to hers. In an unpublished extract called ‘Afterwords’, she writes:

‘I never envisaged such cherishing. When I called my memoir Are You Somebody? it was largely to pre-empt the hostile people who’d say, at my writing anything about myself at all, ‘who does she think she is?’ I never imagined awakening something a bit like love.’

She was asked by New Island Books to write an introduction to a decade’s collection of journalism articles. She felt it was impossible without chronicling some fundamental aspects of her life. She had no intention of ‘writing a book’, rather the lengthy introduction was an unavoidable resolution to a complex and lacerated childhood.

‘Trying to live and push as much life into myself,’ is Nuala’s motto. “Sensation and feeling, that’s how I want to live. I want to really live. On the other hand I can hardly live because I am missing all kinds of skins that enable other people to live fully. I’m 57, but it’s as if I’m 17, trying to learn how to be happy. Yet sometimes I feel it’s not happening, because I’m the only person who knows about me.”

Her cat Hodge is so like Patrick Kavanagh it’s not funny! He has the same cynical pissed off expression and he’s a begrudger. I imagine PK’s eyes were as strikingly gold on occasion, when he woke half dead from alcohol. But Hodge doesn’t indulge in the ‘wrong’ kind of drink or write poetry. He’s a misanthropic feline, with attitude, Nuala adores him, despite his mucky personality. “I bought him off a sinister man for £150,” she explains. “They’re both the same, they don’t have very good personalities…ah sure Patrick had his good days too, like when he’d win on a horse and want to share everything with you!”

In her UCD years, Nuala shared a flat briefly with Patrick Kavanagh, who used to piss and groan out the doorway in the mornings. Dublin was dark and dramatic then…Noël Browne’s Socialist Party met regularly in Moran’s Hotel to discuss the future of Ireland. Students sat around Bewleys, scoffing potato pancakes, discussing ideas for short stories. Nuala spent many a night drinking bottles of Vintara in Leland Bardwell’s flat in Leeson Street, writing bits of scripts for Radio Éireann. There was an unselfconscious scattering of ideas all over the literary Dublin of the time. You were assessed in terms of yourself, and warmly welcomed if you fitted in.

In 1958, while studying English at UCD, things did not always run smoothly for Nuala. At one stage she had to drop out of University and work in a hospital kitchen in London. When she returned to Ireland, Mary Lavin gave her an allowance for six weeks  so she could resit exams and finish her degree. Shortly afterwards she read ‘medieval romance’ at University of Hull and eventually secured a scholarship for a B.Phil in Literature at Oxford. After she graduated she taught English Literature (briefly) in Dublin, before moving on to the BBC in 1970.

She produced outlandish and stimulating programmes: protesting pornography with the Queen’s gynaecologist, querying religious sects that buried their prayers inside batteries at the San Andreas Fault, chronicling personal problems of Yorkshire transsexuals and a documentary on the Bogside Community Association. Yet she was never au fait with any aspect of her emigrant life. She became increasingly desolate and disaffected in the UK, to the point where she had not choice but to return home. The year was 1977. The same vigour that hauled her through those early years, was bulldozing her towards inescapable crisis. She signed herself into St. Patrick’s Hospital as a full-time alcoholic, addicted to tranquilizers, desperate for help. It became apparent that she had to go right back to the beginning of her life, and start again.

Nuala O’Faolain was born in 1940, in an era of art deco, when Cat Woman first appeared in comics, when faulty condoms were made out of sheep’s intestines and UFO sightings were reported on a world-wide basis for the first time. It was the same year John Lennon and Frank Zappa were born, and Scott Fitzgerald and Emma Goldman died. Irish ‘O’Faolain’ is a diminutive of ‘wolf’ and is among the fifth most numerous names in Ireland.

In 1939, Tomás O’Faolain joined the Irish Defence Forces, spending most of his spare time writing to his ‘chroidhe dhil’ (Nuala’s mother) with details of moving his young family to Donegal. The following year he cycled up to Dublin from Dunree on the Inishowen Peninsula to greet Nuala at the Rotunda hospital. Her mother and father were desperately in love. By the early 1940s, Tomás had metamorphosed into the auspicious Terry O’Sullivan. He began his journalism career by taking the ‘Radio Train’ to Killarney for Radio Éireann, and his ‘Dubliner’s Diary’ column for the Evening Press. His ostentatious career and social life, took him further and further away from home. Mrs O’Faolain, glorified wife and onlooker to numerous extra-marital affairs, began to feel totally cast aside. Increasingly, she sat in her armchair in the kitchen to drink and read. “This is how she chose to eventually die”.

Nuala attended seven schools in total, during these early years, when she lived in a farm-labourer’s cottage in North County Dublin. She was hauled off to boarding school in Monaghan in 1954, when puberty became ‘a problem’. There she nurtured her love of reading, and fostered an urge to learn. ‘My life only began when I learnt to read,’ Nuala once wrote. And she read everything she could get her hands on. Saul Bellow, Alice Munrow, Chekhov, Keats, Dacia Maraini, Dermot Healy, Joyce, Eoin MacNamee, Montherland, Richard Ford, Kaftka, Racine, Jane Eyre, Robert Lowell, T.S. Elliot, Shakespeare, Kawabata. For too many years novels were all Nuala cared about. She has read a book every few days of her life without fail. In later life, she sees the characters of decades, gathered around her, to keep her company.

“When I get on in age, I’ll have to write novels,” she insists. “Sure what else can I do here? I’m here on my own all the time: you can hardly call that living. I will go and live in Clare full-time and write my books, crammed with characters, men and women & other people’s cats and dogs.”

Her input in broadcasting has been sedulous and when she returned from England in the late 1970s, she took a job at RTÉ, producing the Open Door and Booklines programmes.  Journalist Jonathan Philbin Bowman debated many issues with Nuala over the years, but states quite clearly that his various opinions of her don’t always fuse: “Nuala is a very fine writer, equally capable of great sensitivity and occasional near sanity. There are times when she is not sure herself, how to bridge that gap between intellect and passion. But overall, she is consistent in the amount of human compassion she shows people.”

Nuala joined the Irish Times in late 1980, following a conversation she had on radio with Gay Byrne, about elderly Irish women. Today, she is a highly respected columnist, who writes about all miens of Ireland in a unique, manifold way. Angela Bourke, writer and lecturer summed up her journalism in the following way: “They are essays that have urged us over the years, to pay attention to the weave of the society we live in, weft as well as warp. She notices always the threads that run always: the lives of women, of children, of quiet men, the hurts inflicted and forgotten or suffered and remembered. Class politics, gender politics, power relations. These are her particular themes.”

Some find her writing uncomfortable because she insists on adjusting to a certain understanding of how things really are. A certain amount of people recoil when truth flails around so unselfconcsiously, other embrace her honesty as if it were a long-awaited benefaction.

On Poverty: ‘If you live one of those local authority estates on the edge of small towns – the ones whose name appears predictably in the court reports of the local paper – who will care about you?’

On Drugs: ‘Hard drugs are the worst thing to happen to Ireland since the famine. But we forget, we lose interest, we fortunate ones can afford to.’

On Female Sterilisation: ‘Women are in no position to be airy-fairy about their bodies, they bleed, their wombs swell, they labour just like animals to bring forth children, then they feed them, wipe the waste from their bodies, shovel grunge into their mouths…to bring them through to independence.’

She writes her articles, pen avec paper, on a rough wood table in her kitchen, where we sit now. Molly the half Collie, runs in from the back garden with a stick for me. We fabricated a friendship in the isolated minutes after Luke, Nuala’s lodger, showed me in and handed me a cup of cha. Nuala trundled down the stairs, hair soaked, wearing a blue flowery dress and a big, amiable smile. There is an extraordinary expression in her eyes, as she talks unhindered, with a sausage sandwich hanging halfway out her gob.

“My lodger Luke is the dearest man in the world, but I am terrified of him coming in drunk, my whole life I’ve been watching people come in drunk.”

What comes across most fixedly about Nuala’s life is that she is dreadfully hurt by what she calls “one of those hugely damaged, big Irish families.” It is this unresolved ache that propels her to discover truths that would otherwise be unreachable. She has undoubtedly survived all the things that have entranced, beguiled, sickened and outraged her. Yet at this stage in her life, she feels she has no immediate or momentous purpose, and is very alone.

Sean MacConnell, Agricultural Correspondent in the Irish Times is probably Nuala’s closest confidant. He has known her well for ten years, and worked with her father in the Evening Press many years before. To sum up Nuala in a sentence he told me, “She is an amazingly bright, remarkably strong woman, with great integrity and great vulnerability.” His first impression of Nuala was that she was unbearably shy but had a suave charm. “Just like her father, the one thing that really stands out about Nuala is that life is a huge learning process, and because she is so open to new interpretation, she can be very unpredictable.”

Going back to the book where the explication of her life and success ultimately lies, I ask her why she began and ended with poignant accounts of her parent’s ill-fated marriage? “I hadn’t realised that I’d go back to them, I think out of some mixture of loyalty and being imprinted by pattern, I was trying to oblige them by ruining myself. I was tempted to join my mother in her despair all my life. I was actually very close to her, even though I didn’t like touching her or being with her. I pitied her so utterly that I copied her. I am very lucky they both died when I was about 40, it gave me a chance to live. I have been very lucky too, that there must’ve been some instinct for life in me, that I was lucky enough to get off with Nell, who insisted on life.”

She spent nearly two life-giving decades with Nell McCafferty until they split up last year [1996] when their many differences became insufferable. “Back to whole relationship/family thing: take my brother Don, who just died recently in London. He had a family of his own, but couldn’t let go of the past. He sat in his room and drank and starved himself and drank again, until he could die. He was just following out the logic of it.”

She tells a story about ‘Michael’ and ‘Rob’, her two tremendous loves featured in the book. They haven’t even bothered to drop her a line, or pick up the phone in response to her story being published. Her whole life it seems has been flooded by moments of unimaginable intensity, followed by long spells of desert, and all-consuming work in between. Her mother had been the same in this respect; nothing matters except passion, mythos is something to covet, something to adore…

On the way out the door, Nuala points to the rocking chair in the kitchen and says: “You know I sit there and drink red wine and read and read and read, just like Mammy.” When the car chugs off up the road, almost of its own accord, I ask her if she travels around the countryside a lot. “I do,” she says, “just like Dad did.” So at 57, writing, reading, drinking wine and contemplating how to live, she is a synthesis of her mother and father. How could she be anything else?

Then they came for him!

Smelling of sweat and the sweet aroma of Rosewater Maziar Bahari’s torture-interrogator thinks Anton Chekhov is a Mossad agent. At one point during Bahari’s interrogation inside the notorious Evin prison in Tehran the imprisoned journalist’s inquisitor asks if the author of The Sea Gull and The Cherry Orchard is in fact a Zionist spy! Such is the paranoia and ignorance that infects the brains of those who operate the security organs of the Islamic Republic of Iran. The torturor’s inquiry about “this Chekhov” is one of the few laugh-out-loud lines in Bahari’s brutally honest and creepy account of his incarceration by the regime. Having left London in June 2009 to cover Iran’s presidential election, believing he would return to his pregnant fiancée, Paola, in just a few days the Iranian-Canadian journalist finds himself jailed accused of spying and orchestrating a media campaign (inspired of course by the CIA and the Jews) against the Mullahs.

He was eventually released thanks to an international campaign involving Hilary Clinton, the staff at Channel 4 News, family members both in Iran and the Iranian diaspora and fellow journalists. The title of his book documenting his time in Evin, during which he was told on more than occassion that he would be executed, is prescient: Then They Came For Me. Because his father had been a political prisoner under the Shah while his oldest sister fell foul of the Mullahs herself due to her membership of the Marxist Tudeh party. Now it was his turn when they came for him.

Amid the threats of hanging, the beatings, the intimidation and the menace there is another bizarre episode between Bahari and the man he labels ‘Rosewater’ in the interrogation rooms. Among all the crimes the journalist has levelled at him is the accusation that he attends and organises sex parties in Tehran, the object of which no doubt is to corrupt the morals of Iranian youth. The more Rosewater focusses on the sex parties allegation Bahari begins to notice that this man, who holds his life in his hands, is getting aroused. The thought of these decadent gatherings appears to be exciting Rosewater so much so that Bahari teases and entices him with snippets of detail about what might go on at one of these parties. Towards the end of his incarceraton Bahari begins to sense he has some semblance of power over Rosewater because he possesses the Tree of Knowledge and Forbidden Fruit.

Bahari’s verbal sparring with Rosewater is reminiscent of Orwell’s 1984 and in particular the obsession the futuristic dictatorship of Ingsoc has with sex and sexual deviancy. As Orwell noted tyrannies have in general tried to police the bedroom as part of their historic or theocratic missions to control over every aspect of individual life. In a theocracy like Iran young men are offered castration, sex change or execution if they happen to be gay, while the guardians of Islamic virtue wage an eternal war against women simply because they wear make-up or prefer to let their hair protrude from their headscarves.

In this book Bahari captures the paranoid absurdity and captive-minded mentality of Iran’s present leadership epitomised by the Holocaust-denying President who is pushing his country towards becoming a nuclear armed state. The author doesn’t bury uncomfortable facts about being in the jail and even admits that he did confess to being part of an international media conspiracy against Iran, although he never names names during his interrogation. Serialised on Radio 4 as Book of the Week the tone of the prisoner is quite guarded and his constant reference to his jailer/torturer as ‘Sir’ has a bitterly ironic sound to it.

Now that he is free and presumably back in London Bahari should seek out the addresses of a number of people who should read this book if they haven’t already heard it on the radio. Bahari should track down the likes of Lauren Booth (Tony Blair’s sister-in-law) and of course, George Galloway. This pair make regular appearances on ‘Press TV’, the English language propaganda station for the Iranian dictatorship. During Bahari’s imprisonment a so-called journalist is sent by Press TV to record the reporter’s confession, exposing the farce that this television station has some semblance of journalistic independence. It is the voice of the Mullahs and the theocratic thugs in the Revolutionary Guards who murder opposition activists and torture dissidents, and lock up journalists for writing the truth. Perhaps Ms Booth could review Bahari’s book on Press TV or maybe set up an interview with (this time naturally not inside Evin Prison) the author live. Mind you that looks unlikely given that the ultimate power behind this station are the tyrants that repress democrats and  currently threaten to unleash a news arms race in the Middle East.

A pen and a pot to piss in!

Daytime Astronomy, published by salmopoetry.com

How did you become interested in poetry? Betty McMahon. She was my primal Jean Brodie, my crème de la crème, my Sweet Afton twenty a day tab merchant, for five out of seven years at St Mirren’s Primary School. We had a text-book way back when, something like ‘Mainlining English’, so I was clearly a word junkie from around the ages of eight or nine I reckon. At home my Mother was a fierce reader of devoutly catholic tastes, still is, lovely pocket leather-bound sets of Dickens, Trollope, Thackery, Austen, the Brontes, Faery Tales – Grimm and Hans Christian Anderson. My Father was more of a Harold Robbins/Mickey Spillane/Willbur Smith kind of prod but as a young Glaswegian Merchant Seaman, he’d picked up a hard back copy of ULYSSES in some port of ill-repute – it’s the ‘durty’ Bodley Head 1967 Seventh impression, with the wrap around black & white cover of stills from Joseph Strick’s film version, with Blazes Boylan and mad-eyed Molly staring up from the crumpled bed sheets on the front cover and Milo O’Shea as Bloom, looking pleased as punch beneath his Homburg on the rear. The sleeve note talked about its wit, its poetry and it sat on the shelf with its white spine greying untouched and unread – my Da’ having quickly discovered it wasn’t the kind of filth he’d been led to believe during the ‘cultural revolution’ – until I was able to reach on tiptoe, able for the first few pages, to swim in its forty-foot echoes of Introibo ad altare Dei. Betty McMahon taught me poetry doesn’t have to rhyme. She also told me I wasn’t as green as my cabbage looked. I was and remain confused. And smitten.

Why poetry (as opposed to other forms)? I don’t think of poetry as being ‘opposed’ to other forms (see above). Look at Tarkovsky and the primacy of music in his compositional approach to cinematography, his ‘poetics’. Or Bill Douglas in his use of silence to embody specific sounds, amplify images that might otherwise go unseen. Paul Klee said, “Art does not reproduce the visible; rather, it makes visible”,  and later you have Rilke saying of Klee, ‘even if you hadn’t told me he plays the violin, I would have guessed on many occasions his drawings were transcriptions of music’.

Your latest collection, eight years in the making: Daytime Astronomy covers topics as varied as abandoned love, prison camp, birds, birth, death, hill climbing, body painting, and recession. Do you choose the subject matter or is it the other way around? Me…Prison camp, birds, body painting? Sounds kinky. I’m reminded of Bertrand Russell citing Heraclitus, ‘The Lord who is the oracle at Delphi neither utters nor hides his meaning, but shows it by a sign’. Or as a wiser man than me once said, sometimes you eat the bar and sometimes the bar, well, he eats you.

Do you consider yourself a certain type of poet? If I’m any kind of poet, a lucky poet; lucky to be alive and out of hospital; lucky to be a peredvizhniki with a pen and a pot to piss in.

How long do you spend on a poem? How long’s a piece of string (theory). As long as it takes, I suppose is the honest and mundane answer. I used to measure them in cigarettes, but the price of a twenty deck these days, it’s just not on. I tend to work like the kind of painter who goes at several canvases at once, sometimes concentrated bursts, other times constipated fits of rage. I’ll stop that when the oul’ Duke of Argylls kick in.

What’s your favourite poem by someone else? The Tryst, by William Soutar, gives me the horn every time but the poem I’d go to the wall for is Water, by Robert Lowell.

What’s been the greatest obstacle to becoming (and remaining) a poet? My undiminished fondness for the road of excess leading to the palace of wisdom.

Do you think a poet’s power diminishes (or grows), as the poet gets older? Indubitably. Dependent on the tigers of wrath being wiser than the horses of instruction.

Is too much Irish poetry rooted in the soil, too much of it centred on rural existence and nature as opposed to the urban experience? As a blow in, I wouldn’t like to say. But between yourself and myself, It seems to me that for every Rough Field and Great Hunger there are five hundred poems about fuchsia and having the quiet pint in some Nama infested rural bog water. Bertie had the right idea with beacons of shite like Adamstown, a car park and a carvery for everyone in the audience and not a blackthorn bush or dry stone wall left standing.

Is poetry in Ireland perhaps too serious? Are we not in need in these gloomy times of some mock-heroic/satirical poetry? Proper order! My next collection is provisionally titled: I Rattled it into Gerty, While her Mother was out for Turf.

How much does poetry intersect with forms of popular culture such as music lyrics or rap? When its horses for courses, my horse is distorted, as Scroobius Pip would have it in his introduction to Distraction Pieces.

We have a president who writes poetry. Is Michael D Higgins’ elevation to the highest office in the land an opportunity for poetry in Ireland? Can he be a force for encouragement? That would be an ecumenical matter.

Who were/are your biggest influences? See first answer, above.

With the rise of electronic poetry and digital books—what do you see for the future of poetry? It will all end in tears, under a bridge or in some batshit besmirched cave, two fetid packs of homunculi gouging lumps out of each other with the sharpened ends of their iPad 3s and Kindle Fires. This way to the Zombie Apocalypse Ladies and Gentlemen.

Readers are often apprehensive about poetry; do you have any advice about how to approach poetry as a reader? Be wise before you rise. Protect your vulnerable brain. They will want to eat it.

Paul was born in Glasgow, Scotland, in 1971. He moved to Northern Ireland in 1995, completing an MA in Creative Writing at the Poets’ House/Lancaster University; studying under the late James Simmons. In 2002 The Edinburgh Review published his first collection, The End of Napoleon’s Nose. His work has appeared in several anthologies including: The New Irish Poets, ed. Selina Guinness (Bloodaxe 2004); Magnetic North, ed. John Brown (Lagan Press 2006); The New North, ed. Chris Agee (Wake Forest 2008); Landing Places, eds. Eva Bourke & Borbala Farago, (Dedalus 2009). He lives in Belfast and is currently researching a PhD on the work of the Scottish poet and cultural philosopher Kenneth White for the University of Ulster. Paul’s most recent poetry collection Daytime Astronomy was published in 2011 by Salmon Poetry. If you’re interested in seeing Paul Grattan perform, he’s taking part in the Irish Writers’ Centre Luncthtime Series, next Friday, 17th February.

Botox, Big Macs and Mayo

Last week I travelled back in time. Specifically to a land that the rest of Ireland has almost forgotten ever existed; to an Arcadia where there is prosperity, jobs, optimism, hope. But this is not a long-lost idyll and I didn’t need a time machine to transport me there. It just took a gruelling four-hour car journey westward to our Atlantic seaboard, to the home constituency of Enda Kenny, or more precisely to the town of Westport in County Mayo.

Unlike the rest of Ireland this coastal town, famous for its tourist attractions, appears to be recession-proof. While most of Ireland’s high streets are suffering from a collapse in consumer demand and remain in a depressed state, Westport last Wednesday seemed to be thriving. My travelling companion and I even had to queue up to be seated in a charming little café in the centre of the town until a table became available. Business was booming – something you cannot say about the retail or catering trade in Dublin or any other urban area at present.

But it is not the tourists who are responsible for the Mayo town being fireproofed from the worst ravages of recession. The reason for Westport thriving is down to one word: Botox. The anti-ageing, wrinkle-busting treatment that is injected into the face is manufactured at the Allergan plant on the edge of the town. Westport is the only place on the planet where Botox is made and exported all over the world.

Last month the company announced it was expanding its workforce to 1,000 and building a new research and development centre within sight of Croagh Patrick. The knock-on effects of this investment and the presence of such a large employer are obvious. It’s a template for the one sector of the economy that has grown while all others have contracted: the multinational, hi-tech, big pharma, export-driven industrial base.

In Westport they are still partying like it’s shortly after 1999 when the economy was powering ahead with double-digit growth and the Tíogar Ceilteach model was the envy of the world. And that is why the local man who made it all the way to the highest office in the land will do anything to protect our 12.5% low corporation tax rate, which the executives at places such as Allergan stress is vital in keeping the multinationals on Irish soil.

However, you only have to go up the road a bit on the same coast in the same county to time-travel forward to the depressed days of 2012. In Ballina, another town that has always relied on tourism, they are getting desperate. So desperate in fact that they will welcome any foreign multinational corporation to their town, even the one with the big gold arches.

Normally in a rural idyllic setting the locals would throw their hands up in horror at the prospect of McDonald’s setting up in their territory. Think of the outrage of the trendy set in Hampstead when news broke a few years ago that McDonald’s was establishing a branch in their hip corner of north London.

Yet in recession-stricken Ireland the world is turned upside down. When Mayo county council blocked a planning application by McDonald’s to open a drive-thru restaurant in Ballina the people rebelled … in favour of the burger chain. A petition has been gathered with more than 1,000 signatures demanding that the council reverse its decision and LET the fast food giant build its proposed takeaway. The pro-McDonald’s lobby argues that it will bring construction and retail jobs at a time when both these parts of the Irish economy are in the doldrums.

So it’s a tale of two towns in the same county represented in government by the same taoiseach but with very different stories to tell about how the crash of the Celtic Tiger has impacted on their citizens’ lives during the global downturn. Note: this correspondent has no family connections of any kind with either the makers of the Big Mac or anyone in Mayo.

*A version of this blog was originally published on The Guardian on 7th February.

Skippy Dies, then goes for lunch

Paul Murray (pic from beatrice.com)

Paul Murray is reading this Friday at the Irish Writers’ Centre’s ‘Lunctime Readings’ series. He’s the author of two novels: An Evening of Long Goodbyes (Penguin), which was shortlisted for the Whitbread First Novel Award and nominated for the Kerry Irish Fiction Award. His second novel Skippy Dies (Hamish Hamilton) was shortlisted for the 2010 Costa Book Awards and longlisted for the 2010 Man Booker Prize. Skippy Dies has been described as funny, rude, dark, sad, ambitious, imaginative, surreal, briliant. The Guardian said it was ‘one of the most enjoyable, funny and moving reads…a rare tragicomedy that’s both genuinely tragic and genuinely comic’, while the Irish Independent dubbed Murray’s characters ‘so three-dimensionally drawn and brought to such vivid life that they may haunt your dreams.’ Here, the author discusses loneliness, capitalism, posh schools, suburbs, butter churns and how becoming a writer is no different to becoming a plumber, pilot or podiatrist:

A novel set in a posh Dublin school is a far cry from the worlds of Roddy Doyle’s Barrytown or Dermot Bolger’s Finglas. Did you deliberately choose a radically different social setting with “Skippy Dies?” Or was this a purely instinctive, natural narrative backcloth? Well, I didn’t choose it just to be different. It was a world that I knew very well, which had the added attraction of having been somewhat under-represented in Irish books. In fact I had the suspicion, rightly or wrongly, that that world, the ‘posh school’ as you call it, and the boring, anonymous suburbs where so many people live now, weren’t seen as being worth writing about. They were seen as being less ‘Irish’, less authentic and therefore less fit subject for literature than more ‘real’ settings like the west of Ireland, for instance. That idea, that some places and some people are more real than others, and that we should all be writing novels about old peasant women scrubbing their butter churns, really bothers me. Maybe the suburbs are less real and less authentic. But the people living there are still people, and their experiences of this unreal world are absolutely real. So I wanted to write about that world I knew so well, and I wanted to write about it via teenagers – they’re the ones who experience suburbia most directly, because they’re stuck there. And again, teenagers seemed to be seen as kind of infra dig in Irish novels, so I wanted to give them their turn. 

The Guardian flatteringly described the book as a ‘hilarious satire on modern Ireland‘? Did you set out with that intention? Was this a work principally of satire? I’m not really that comfortable with tags like comedy or satire or whatever, like your book can only be one thing. I wanted to tell the story of these characters as faithfully and honestly as I could. There’s a lot of humour, because most of the characters are teenagers and they act in quite an unguarded and extreme way, but it’s mostly realistic and I’m not setting them up to be laughed at. The word ‘satire’ to me conjures up images of the author mocking the foibles of humanity from some great height – everyone’s a grotesque, and their entire world is revealed to be fundamentally deluded and ridiculous. I didn’t have any interest in writing a book like that. That said, setting the book in this school was a useful way of looking at bigger changes that were happening in the country – because these were the most privileged children of the people who were reaping the benefits of the economic boom. They were handed this new world that generation had created, so they were at the coal-face of that new morality and that new attitude to money and materialism. 

Although a comic novel there’s a darkness beneath it especially with menacing figures like Carl, how much of this came from your own experience of school days and the adolescent ‘jungle’? I went to secondary school in the 1990s, which though it wasn’t that long ago chronologically feels, from this vantage, almost prehistoric. So many interesting things have happened since then – the internet, the war on terror, mobile phones, X-Factor – and I wanted to write about those things. For all their supposed privilege, I think in some ways the kids in Skippy have a harder time than my generation did. Their world is so much more mediated, the forces of capitalism have a much tighter stranglehold on them so they have even more impossible expectations to try and fail to live up to. Compared to now, my time in school was quite benign. Certainly, it was a jungle, and there were large, terrifying creatures with BO lurking around every corner. But if you were fast, you could outrun them. How can you outrun Facebook?

Ruprecht concludes that our universe is built out of loneliness. Amid all the comic episodes and teeny angst there is this philosophical undercurrent via string theory, etc. Is this a central theme in your work, the loneliness, not only of teenagers, but man in general? Ruprecht comes to this conclusion shortly after Skippy’s death, when he’s hit rock bottom. The book doesn’t leave him there though. To say the universe is empty, that man is alone-in some ways those are quite self-aggrandising, egoistic notions. They ignore the infinite ways that we’re tied to each other, and they ignore the duties that we have to take care of each other. That seemed like a much more interesting idea to explore than this romantic-melancholic of loneliness, which perpetuates this fantasy of uniqueness, that no one has suffered quite like you have, and that your aloneness is somehow qualitatively superior to everyone else’s. Not to be glib but people in a famine don’t spend much time talking about man’s fundamental loneliness. 

Any advice for aspiring writers!? Becoming a writer is no different to becoming a plumber or pilot or podiatrist. There’s no magical secret. You just have to work really hard. For me, regularity is really important – a set routine. Writing a novel is like running a marathon. It takes a long time, and although you’ll have your moments of grace and exaltation, inevitably some of that time it will feel like a pure slog. It will feel tedious and dull, and you’ll feel disillusioned, and the temptation will arise to give up or set it aside and work on something else. At times like those, the routine may be what carries you through – you keep going simply because that’s what you’re used to. And pretty soon you’ll find yourself re-engaging and getting excited again. But to finish a novel, you need the bloody-mindedness to persevere with it, even when you’ve forgotten why.

Saturday Poem #13 – To a Portable Radio

Brecht wrote this poem during the “darkest times” on the run from the Nazis when Hitler’s armies were storming all over Europe. The little radio he writes about is one of the few fragile links he has left with his homeland, a country [at the time] he may never have seen again. I too cherish a ‘little box’, a rectangular black portable radio I bought back in 1989 and kept with me whether I was in Dublin, Belfast, Beirut, Brashit, Jerusalem, the Saudi desert or Kuwait city. During the aftermath of the 1991 Gulf War it became a treasured possession and at night amid the howling sand storms I heard the bouncing beat of Lily Bullero booming out of the speaker as I tuned into the BBC World Service listening to reports of terrified Kurdish communities fleeing across the mountains to Turkey, with Saddam’s forces in pursuit. On nervous nights in south Lebanon listening, waiting for the dull thud of the 155mm shells from the IDF crashing into the UN buffer zone, curled up in a horse blanket, flak jacket at the end of the bed, clothes still on in case I had to dash for the air raid shelter, the ‘little box’ would keep me in touch with news from an equally troubled home. In my friend’s run-down apartment in eastern Berlin two years after the Wall crumbled, tuning in to the hourly reports of secret talks between the IRA and the British. Across Europe, on the trains, it never let me down. So when it died a natural death, its internal workings malfunctioning, the transmission gone ever silent, I still couldn’t bear dumping the ‘little box’ in the bin. At present it’s being ‘minded’ in a friend’s lock-up garage along with books, a Subbuteo box, photo albums, records, CDs and a few sentimental maps. It awaits being transported south to Dublin where we will be reunited in my new home.

To a portable radio by Bertolt Brecht

You little box I carried on that ship

Concerned to save your works from getting broken

Fleeing from house to train, from train to ship

So I might hear the hated jargon spoken

Beside my bedside and to me pain

Last thing at night, once more as dawn appears

Charting their victories and my worst fears:

Promise at least you won’t go dead again!

Out of the closet…in Ambridge

This Christmas I want to come out of the closet. For nearly two decades now I’ve harboured a secret from family, friends, loved ones. A clandestine passion I’ve been hiding from all of them but can no longer conceal. The time is right to out myself. So say it loud and say it proud: I AM AN ARCHERS FAN!

As a former football hooligan, punk rocker, hard-line Marxist and later ultra-libertarian, many of my contemporaries from the 1970s and 80s will be shocked, perhaps even horrified that I’m a devoted follower of what is regarded as the accepted soap opera for the middle classes. Some may even see it as yet another example of McDonald’s surrender to British bourgeois values. In terms of politics these critics are actually wrong as many of the plot lines in Radio 4’s longest running drama series are centred on the class divide within the county. At one end of the social scale are the avaricious landowners like Brian Aldrige and his boardroom-bores of the Borchester Land Corporation, while at the others are the farmer-labourers like the Grundy family who have endured the indignity of eviction from their land.

Although I’ve never lived in the countryside The Archers has been an educational experience for townies like me.  The great issues of rural life like foot and mouth disease,  Bovine TB,  the tension between organic farming and the agro-industrial farms,  the rise and disappearance of the Countryside Alliance, the arrival of migrant workers from abroad to harvest and pack the produce are all interspersed throughout universal stories of life, death, loss, betrayal, triumph and tragedy. However, the most attractive element to the programme are the characters themselves, many of whom I adore, some of whom I loathe. So here are some of my heroes and villains of Ambridge.

Lillian Bellamy is among the most entertaining of the cast given that she’s an irrepressible bon viveur. She smokes, drinks like a fish and has a gloriously dirty laugh that suggests a lifetime leading the libertine creed. Having gone through a series of lovers including the odd Toyboy or two she has settled down with a London spiv called Matt Crawford who recently spent time in jail for fraudulent business dealings. She calls him “Tiger” while quaffing her G&Ts and he refers to her as his “pussycat.” They are actually an ideal couple who are perfectly matched. Matt has no time for the lords-of-the-manor like Brian Aldridge (Lillian’s brother-in-law) while his wife has just taken charge of a new property development company and is proving to be a more acute businesswoman than her husband has ever been.

Eddie Grundy is also a bit of an operator albeit not exactly a sharp one. He’s up to all kinds of deals and scams along with his old man Joe. They are forever hatching get rich quick schemes that invariably go wrong while making dodgy cider to flog to gullible tourists visiting their county. They make for a picaresque pair of gentle, likeable rogues who are in constant mortal fear of Eddie’s wife Clarrie, who is scornful of their plotting. Joe Grundy once summed up the class structure of Ambridge by pointing out to a new arrival on the show that ….”everybody looks down on us Grundys.” Naturally I invariably side with  Eddie and Joe in their struggles to bring in a few extra bob even if they flirt with illegality.

Jack ‘Jazzer’ McCreary is the token Scot on the show who works with Tom Archer’s pigs as well as running a milk round for Mick Tucker. Eternally moaning and whingeing Jazzer provides comedic interludes between the more serious plot lines running through the series. The Glaswegian jock-of-all-trades is never lucky in love and has an unrequited passion of his own for the musician Fallon Rogers. He also recently lost out to his flatmate over wooing a Polish fruit picker who turned both Jazzer and his friend’s heads. This internal-immigrant from Glasgow has gone through dark nights of the soul taking drugs and stealing cars though has settled down of late but thankfully has not lost his dour Scotch outlook on life. If I could choose a fictional grand-father for him it would be the Scotch undertaker Fraser in “Dad’s Army”.  How great it would be to hear them howl in unison: “We’re all doomed!”

Kenton Archer is the family dreamer who has been bailed out many times by his parents over dodgy business dealings that go pear-shaped. None the less Kenton is a likeable loser who has gone through one failed marriage and one doomed relationship with goody-two shoes Kathy Perks. Yet, even after falling out with Kathy he maintained a friendship with her troubled teenage son Jamie, offering him a listening ear while others around him (most notably his mother) were berating the boy. The central point about the Kenton character is that despite the track record and the odds, you want him to win.

Lynda Snell is the unofficial village policewoman, moral guardian and unlikely eco-warrior of Ambridge. She is a required taste in terms of the characters. Posh voiced with an interfering sniffy nature she runs the local drama group, produces the Christmas panto and bullies others, gently of course, into good deeds for the community. Lynda is the annoying “involver” but if you were in a trench with the shells landing over your head, you could trust her to hold her nerve, keep the unit together and steel everyone for the big push.

Will Grundy. One of the most flammable story lines in recent years has been the re-enaction of the Cain and Abel story transported to the English countryside. Will was pitted against his brother Ed over Emma. She was once Will’s wife but conducted an affair with his brother that ended in a bloody confrontation, acrimonious divorce, a DNA test to establish who was Emma’s son’s father. In one memorable episode the cliff hanger at the end hinted that Will may have committed suicide in response to Emma shacking up with Ed. In fact Will has survived and prospered, and will be marrying the woman who saved him from himself, Nic Hanson, on New Years Day. By the way that DNA test proved that Emma’s baby boy was Will’s.

And finally Brian Aldridge. Yes I know he represents everything I object to in the English upper middle classes. He is arrogant, pompous, full of himself and dismissive. He likes to bulldoze to get his way, even to the detriment of the local environment. Brian is also on the personal front what some colloquially call a “complete shit.” He fathered a child to his Irish mistress now deceased whom his long-suffering wife Jennifer is helping to bring up. And yet…and yet. There is never a dull moment when Aldridge takes centre stage in the plots whether it’s battling with Matt Crawford or alienating Tom Archer over his nephew’s plans for his legendary range of sausages. Yes he is a shit but he’s our shit!

There are quite a few characters that I personally find irritating and wouldn’t mind if they accidentally fell into a combine harvester. These include Tom’s sister Helen Archer who was always deeply annoying and slightly non-credible but has become totally tedious since she got pregnant via the Turkey-basting method and had her son who is called, alas, Henry. The village vicar Alan Franks represents everything that is so wrong with the modern Church of England.  He is the trendy Rev who once took in a heroin addict to his vicarage and along with his equally nauseating wife Usha (she is a lawyer, need we say anymore!) seem to jar as characters with the rest of the cast. Kate Madikane would be my number one candidate to get caught up in a fatal carjacking in downtown Johannesburg. The daughter of Brian Aldridge, Kate is exactly like any of those rich rebel girls you meet in university who just decided to drop out and move to the Atlas Mountains to live with a tribe of Berbers in order to “find themselves”. This is not a moral judgement even though Kate abandoned her daughter Phoebe leaving her with father Roy Tucker. She simply reminds me of all those well-heeled posh birds who join the revolution just to piss off daddy.

Leaving aside these villains of the village The Archers overall cheers me up on dark weekday nights while I’m preparing a meal, doing the dishes or ironing clothes. It gives you 15 minutes out of your own time. The majority of the stories are a far cry from the endless doom and gloom of trashier soaps such as Eastenders although the iconic radio show does have its fair share of tragedy and misery. Thankfully the programme is available on the Internet via BBC iplayer down here in the Republic and if you miss any of the weeknight programmes between shortly after 7pm and 7.15pm, you can play catch up every Sunday after 10am when there is The Archers’ omnibus. If you are an Ambridge-virgin treat yourself to an episode or two and I guarantee you will become hooked. Eventually you will pluck up the courage to admit you are an Archers’ fan.

Saturday Poem #12 – & Forgive Us Our Trespasses

& Forgive Us Our Trespasses
by Sinead Morrissey

Of which the first is love. The sad, unrepeatable fact
that the loves we shouldn’t foster burrow faster and linger longer
than sanctioned kinds can. Loves that thrive on absence, on lack
of return, or worse, on harm, are unkillable, Father.
They do not die in us. And you know how we’ve tried.
Loves nursed, inexplicably, on thoughts of sex,
a return to touched places, a backwards glance, a sigh -
they come back like the tide. They are with us at the terminus
when cancer catches us. They have never been away.
Forgive us the people we love – their dragnet influence.
Those disallowed to us, those who frighten us, those who stay
on uninvited in our lives and every night revisit us.
Accept from us the inappropriate
by which our dreams and daily scenes stay separate.   

Bibliography

2009
Through the Square Window, Carcanet
2005
The State of the Prisons, Carcanet
2002
Between Here and There, Carcanet
1996
There Was Fire in Vancouver, Carcanet

Awards

2010
Forward Poetry Prize (Best Poetry Collection of the Year), Through The Square Window, shortlist
2009
T. S. Eliot Prize, Through The Square Window, shortlst
2007
National Poetry Competition, winner – ‘Through The Square Window’
2005
T. S. Eliot Prize, The State of the Prisons, shortlist
2005
Michael Hartnett Award for Poetry
2005
John Llewellyn-Rhys Memorial Prize, The State of the Prisons, shortlist
2002
T. S. Eliot Prize, Between Here and There, shortlist
2002
Rupert and Eithne Strong Trust Award
2002
Arts Council Macaulay Fellowship
1996
Eric Gregory Award
1990
Patrick Kavanagh Award

We need to hear Troubles voices, not silence them

An ex-Army intelligence officer can give evidence openly in London but not in Dublin. Just what are the authorities afraid of?

Two public inquiries on either side of the Irish Sea – the same witness speaking openly at one and being gagged at the other. This is the Kafkaesque scenario facing the former Army intelligence officer Ian Hurst. At the start of last week, Hurst gave open, public evidence in front of the Leveson Inquiry in London, which is investigating press standards following the phone hacking scandals last summer.

The ex-member of the Army’s secretive Force Research Unit (FRU) had been the target of phone and computers hackers working for News International. Hurst’s evidence concerned the hacking of his computer using a so-called ‘Trojan’ virus after he had been outed as a whistleblower. Hurst is famous (or notorious) for providing critical information on two scandals involving the security forces during the Troubles: the 1989 murder of Belfast solicitor Pat Finucane and the exposé of the agent known as Stakeknife operating within the IRA.

Among others Hurst provided evidence of how most of the UDA unit involved in murdering Finucane in front of his family were working for one or more branch of the security forces at the time. In relation to the revelation that Freddie Scappaticci- the IRA’s chief spy hunter – was himself a long-term British agent, Hurst played a central role in bringing this to light. Given his background and knowledge of the undercover war against the IRA and loyalists (which often entailed the morally dubious practice of allowing state agents to commit crimes up to and including murder), Hurst became the focus of attention by the News of the World.

Essentially, this meant spying on Hurst, ironically using a former colleague in the now-disbanded FRU to infiltrate and read the ex-soldier’s email system – presumably to glean what he was saying to journalists, politicians, human rights organisations and campaign groups about the Stakeknife scandal.

During his testimony to Leveson Hurst repeated allegations aired a few months earlier in the BBC’s Panorama programme about how the Irish end of the News of the World had spied on him illegally. Hurst is convinced that such practices – directed not only at himself, but also at the likes of former Labour Northern Ireland Secretary Peter Hain – posed a serious threat to both national security and the security of individuals working in the twilight world of intelligence.

For those in the Republic observing another tribunal currently running in Dublin, the contrast between Hurst speaking freely and unfettered was glaring. Hurst wants to give evidence in person to the Smithwick Tribunal in Dublin, which is exploring how the Provisional IRA killed RUC officers Harry Breen and Bob Buchanan in 1989. The inquiry is investigating allegations a garda mole provided the IRA with information to target the two police officers for murder. Yet Hurst has been told he can only deliver his testimony in Dublin behind closed doors, away from the media and the public.

Hurst claims to have evidence of Stakeknife’s role in the Breen/Buchanan killing and how the murder-plot was known to the highest-ranking members of the IRA and Sinn Fein at the time. This he contends, is due to the fact that Stakeknife was also aware of the plan to ambush and kill the policemen on the Louth/south Armagh border. In turn, Hurst has refused to go to Dublin unless he is allowed to speak in the open and under the scrutiny of the media like every other witness.He has stated he believes the tribunal’s refusal to let him do so is politically motivated; that this reticence flows from the official policy of protecting key figures in the Northern Ireland peace process. There is a further contrast between the strictures the Smithwick Tribunal wishes to impose on Hurst and the way it treated other recent witnesses – no more so than the founder of the Real IRA, McKevitt.

The inquiry even moved out of its usual location in Dublin’s Blackhall Place to another location close by to hear McKevitt’s evidence – the Republic’s heavily-guarded Special Criminal Court, where terrorist trials have been heard since the Troubles erupted. McKevitt was the Provisional IRA’s so-called ‘quartermaster-general’ at the time of the Breen-Buchanan murders and lived in the north Louth area not far from Dundalk Garda Station.

He was a leading figure in the Provisionals in the late-1980s and would have had knowledge of many IRA operations in the border region. Under the glare of the gathered media in open court, the convicted Real IRA member was cross-examined over allegations that he benefited from Garda tip-offs about raids on his home and that, implicitly, he and the local Provisionals had some ‘friendly’ police officers in the frontier zone.

The brother-in-law of the IRA icon Bobby Sands was afforded the opportunity to strongly deny such collusion existed which, of course, goes to the heart of Smithwick’s investigation. However, an Army intelligence officer who ran operations to counter the activities of McKevitt and his ilk is offered no such opportunity to speak in public. This begs an important question in relation to the whole nature of the Troubles’ secret war: just what are the authorities in Dublin afraid of in regard to Hurst talking in public under privilege?

This article was published in the Belfast Telegraph yesterday.

W1973

In 1973:  The Yom Kippur War breaks out with Egyptian and Syrian forces attacking Israel. It ends after 20 days with Israel victorious after early losses to the Arab armies. In response the Arab oil states impose embargoes on countries that supported Israel, triggering a global energy crisis creating an economic shockwave around the planet.

In 1973: A sinister new murder machine emerges from the shadows carrying out a number of sectarian murders in Belfast including the killing of 14-year-old Phillip Rafferty. An organisation called the Ulster Freedom Fighters claims responsibility – it is in reality the Ulster Defence Association the legal and open loyalist street militia to emerge early in the Troubles.

In 1973: I finally make my Holy First Communion almost a year after most of my seven year old peers in St. Colman’s Primary School in The Market area of Belfast.  My mum buys me a dickie bow and accompanying frilly fronted shirt but changes her mind before we make our way to St. Malachy’s Church and lets me wear a plain white shirt and thick-knot dark blue tie instead.

In 1973: Richard Nixon tells reporters he is “not a crook” in relation to the Watergate spy scandal directed at the Democrats. Later his attorney general reveals the existence of the Watergate tapes including an 18 and a half-minute gap in the recording.

In 1973: The Republic of Ireland and the UK join the European Economic Community, and following elections in Northern Ireland that summer, a unionist bloc led by former Prime Minister Brian Faulkner, along with the nationalist SDLP and Alliance, agree to a power sharing government  in Belfast after negotiations at Sunningdale. Hardline unionists including the Rev Ian Paisley vow to wreck the arrangement.

In 1973: After Holy Communion my mum takes me to the Royal Victoria Hospital to visit her mother Florrie McManus (nee Stewart) who is seriously ill. She only lasts a short time and dies.

In 1973: A military junta led by Pinochet and backed by the Nixon Administration and the CIA overthrow the democratically elected Socialist government of Salvador Allende.  The date of the coup is September 11th. An East German friend of mine recalls crying when he heard about Allende’s death on DDR television, and later remembers Chilean left-wing refugees arriving in his home town.

In 1973: The Provisional IRA bomb the Old Bailey in London marking the beginning of the Provos England campaign. The bombers are arrested on route back to Belfast and include Gerry Kelly, currently a junior minister in the power sharing government in Belfast. Among others captured at Heathrow Airport are Marion and Dolours Price who later go on a hunger strike in an English jail so they can be repatriated to an Irish jail. During their incarceration they are force-fed by prison authorities. One man dies of a heart attack during the chaos caused by the bomb blast. Marion Price is back in jail in 2011 charged with encouraging acts of terrorism.

In 1973: Sunderland stun the football world by beating the might Leeds United in the FA Cup final. It is the first live final I ever see in colour on my own television in my house at Number 1 Eliza Street.  The giant-killing feat was re-enacted by me using a rolled up pair of socks and the gaps between sofas in the front living room used as goals.

In 1973: The first American prisoners of war are freed from Vietnam and the Paris Peace Agreement effectively ends US involvement in Indochina. The NLF is only two years away from victory and the capture of Saigon while the Khmer Rouge gains ground in Cambodia before seizing power and establishing Year Zero.

In 1973: A UVF car bomb explodes in Dublin’s Sackville Street killing one and injuring 17 others. The car used to transport the explosive device had been hijacked in Agnes Street on Belfast’s Shankill Road. It marks the first major attack on southern Irish civilians by loyalists.

In 1973: I spend a week in Sligo on a cross community children’s summer holiday which degenerates into sectarian scrapping. We stay in a boarding school style place and witness fist fighting on the disco floor. Everyone over the age of 9 appears to smoke Goldflake and Major while the older lads wield chains and show off “hot shit” pen-knives. No one gets stabbed but we get chased from an orchard by an old priest wielding a blackthorn stick after we poke at a bees’ nest.

In 1973: The American Indian Movement take over Wounded Knee sparking a violent siege in South Dakota. AIM activists chose the site because it was where 300 men, women and children were killed by the US army in the 19th Century.  Two Native American activists are killed and an FBI agent is paralysed during the armed confrontation. Literature from the AIM is circulated during Official Sinn Fein’s anti-imperialist festival.

In 1973: The Heath government imposes a three day working week in response to the oil crisis and ads appear on television urging us all “To Save It”. More than one million workers march in Britain in protest at Conservative austerity cuts. Plus ca change.

In 1973: My family home is the election headquarters of the Republican Clubs in The Market and a Starry Plough flag flies from one of our attic windows. My sister and I cover the lamp posts outside with round election stickers. No one from the party gets elected to the new and later doomed Northern Ireland Assembly.

In 1973: Both German states, the Federal Republic and the DDR are accepted as members of the United Nations. Meanwhile Red Army Faction/Baader Meinhoff terrorism continues to plague West Germany. A friend of our family has served a brief but disastrous jail sentence for an arson attack in Belfast inspired by the RAF-BM a few years earlier.

In 1973: We dance in the Silvertops disco in Belfast’s Hamilton Street to Gary Glitter’s I”m the Leader of the Gang (I am) blissfully unaware that our glam-rock/pop hero is a paedophile.  The Silvertops becomes the battle ground between the Provie and Sticky Fiannas with studded belts and steel capped boots being deployed on the dance floor beneath the glitter ball.

In 1973: The world is still divided into the capitalist and communist blocs although the threat of nuclear holocaust is receding with détente all the rage. The New Cold War is still far off and the Islamist counter-revolution (the first thrust backwards into history and the past) is yet to break out in Iran. Europe is divided and the Berlin Wall looks permanent.

In 1973: The unions in Britain still retain the power to shake governments and within a year help bring down Ted Heath’s administration. The optimism of Sunningdale and the prospects of power sharing are short-lived – the approaching Ulster Workers Council strike will bring down the cross community government. It takes 33 years and thousands more deaths before unionists and nationalists share power again, this time it seems for good. Seamus Mallon’s description of the Good Friday Agreement (the template for the later St. Andrew’s Agreement) as “Sunningdale for slow learners” seems tragically apposite. Among the dead for the new dawn are at least one of our relatives, a dearly beloved uncle, several friends and a couple of neighbours. Our home is damaged and my father and I narrowly escaped death from a UVF bomb outside our home.

W1973: A group of UVF members bulging out of dark suits, wearing streaky black ties, gather around a grave to hear an oration in Roselawn Cemetery East Belfast. It is Remembrance Sunday 2011. My sister and I look on at this menacing crew amid howling wind and rain. We are standing at the edge of a mushy, freshly turned over, rain-sodden piece of earth. We begin the work of cleaning up the black-headstone caked in hardened mud and dirt. As we move over the to wipe it with hot water and cloths, one of my feet sinks into the mire up to my knee. My leg is descending towards where my mother was laid to rest the month before. She lies on top of my father, who died four months before her. I lift my leg out of the sticky, viscous muck but my foot has left an imprint on the strip above where my parents are buried. When we return a few weeks later the shape of my foot is still visible and is filled with rain water. W1973: The number of the grave where my mother followed my father into the ground.

My lovely brother is going to die

The T-Shirt my bro wore when he got the ‘bad’ news.

Not good, terminal cancer, the text read. Limping into the first lecture on the WebElevate course in the steel-strewn auditorium, my phone *beeped*. This plug ‘n play’ digi-media environment is all high-tech & low-lighting: exposed brick, flickering laptops, vending machines (with Rancheros!), earphones large enough for chimp heads, flagstone floors, camera pods, see-through steps, a Bistoesque stream of hops snaking through the open window from the Guinness brewery next door. One of the first questions the surgeon asked my brother when they operated a few years ago was if he drank Guinness. Outside 300 people are dressed in Edwardian costume for yet another Titanic drama…silhouetted behind them are local kids beating each other up with tree branches as sabres, a lone junkie talks to her Jack Russell out loud. What is User Centred Design?’ the lecturer asks, and then answers before there’s room for answers. ‘It’s a design process which focuses on the user through the complete design, build, deploy life cycle…’ Afterwards he launches into a long dismal history of design failures: how Sainsbury’s had to write off a $526 million investment for a dud supply chain management system. How could they have missed the spread after so many scans? ‘I woke up in a room on my own, no drip in the hand so I knew they hadn’t operated, nurse couldn’t look me in the eye, doctor came in and said it was everywhere,’ my brother explained, when I rang. The rest is a blank. ‘So…the earlier in the process you discover the issues, the easier it is to fix,’ the lecturer concludes. A bit like cancer.

On the flight to Stanstead a young architect sitting beside me drops his Powerpoint presentation which spreads out under several seats; laminated peacock feathers. A slide on the human-designed environment lodges under the warbling air hostess’ blue stiletto. To fasten your seatbelt, place the metal tip into the buckle, and tighten the straps so that it fits low and tight across your hips. He throws me a ‘look’ for not helping him but I’ve no energy to explain about the wonky hip, an inability to bend, and anyway my brother’s going to die and he has four kids who will have to grow up without him, so there’s no time for floating pleasantries. The eldest turned 17 the day before we found out. ‘I heard about my dad’, she texted from Doncaster, a graphic of a downturned smile. Her younger brother is a Justin Bieber lookalike and only wears designer clothes, funded by a Coca Cola schoolyard scam & other teen-capitalist adventures. He’s great at maths and football and wants to study Science & Engineering in a few years. The younger two, with a different Ma who bolted a few months ago, have also been told. Both have to fill out ‘feelings diaries’ in their lunchtime at their new school. The older of the two, aged 11, has being acting out a bit since. ‘He’s angry,’ my brother says, ‘but the Scouts takes his mind off it…he loves fishing and building things’. Last year when we went to France he hogged my copy of Ulysses, managing to make animated sense of it. ‘The guy’s a total nutter Aunty June, but it’s obvious he’s writing it from inside a DS game’. He informed his English teacher of his findings when he got back to Blightey. The seven year old girl loves to read from an invisible medieval scroll: ‘McDonald of Belfast wishes to marry Caldwell of Dublin, do you agree?’

Adrian: an enduring sense of humour

The drive from Stanstead to Ipswich takes just over an hour, a patchwork of chrome barriers, scorched fields, thatched roofs, shed sellers & spud floggers…the bro’s new Jaguar is smooth as liquidised soup, heated seats to boot, though unlike his BMW there’s no mini-fridge with complimentary bottle of Aspall’s for the journey. This time the drive is laden with horrifying technical info. ‘If the bowel stops working or gets blocked, they’re not going to operate, it’ll be straight to the hospice at that point, so I’ll be properly fucked.’ Yet he’s in great form; positive, composed, weirdly happy. All your droll problems just lift like the cliché says: bills, debts, work, women, blah blah, up and gone. Everything looks different. ‘I can eat as much Ben & Jerry’s as I want’. He might even go on a cruise, the Macmillan nurse is looking into it. There’s some financial advantages too that’ll help with cash flow, an end of life grant of sorts, the option of a motorised scooter to zip up to the nearby Fat Cat for some decent homebrew. ‘There’s great welly in those yokes and I’ll stick de bird on me knee for good measure’. His new lady, as I’ll soon find out, is quirky, warm and interesting. [An equal at last!] Her mum is a vicar and the dad fecked off to Thailand to open a book shop. She collects mini cars to refurb, breeds chipmunks, snores like a miner and has spent over £16K on some very intricate tattoos. ‘She’s had madder jobs than you!’ he boasts. A pet psychologist at one point, prison counsellor, bar manager, farmer. She loves his monstrous snores. ‘They lull her to sleep, can you Adam & Eve it!?’ Only in Ipswich.

Me in my Ma’s arms staring at Adrian’s dodgy 70s bowl cut

The scar on his face is from a wax apple I threw at him in 1977, knocking him out cold, though he still disputes some of the minutiae. ‘You didn’t knock me out!’ We’re sitting in the kitchen of DunPullin – his family home – drinking Biscotti Baileys while the Bison Grass Vodka freezes to a decent down-in-one temperature. ‘He broke my Tower of London mirror.’ I explain, filling in some early life detail. ‘I’m very proud of that scar, proof of fight-back’. I tell her how I robbed his ‘card tin’ for years – he won so much dosh on late-night card games – and I had a teenage cider & fag habit to feed. ‘In 1988 we went on holidays to Portugal, Adrian insisted we pay for a meal in a posh restaurant but run off without eating it. He’s a big fan of reverse logic.’ Six years between us, he followed me to London in 1989, kipped on my couch till he got a place of his own, slept with [all] my friends, laughed into the early hours too many nights to recall. ‘Do you remember when a load of us went on the piss in Richmond, there wasn’t enough room in the taxi, so you said you’d go in the boot!?’ God, yes, I do remember, bombed out of my brain, roaring at the driver to ‘turn left now’ or ‘turn right here’, even though I couldn’t see a thing.

Adrian in the DJ booth of his pub

A year later we lived in Jersey where he worked the bar and I the lounge of a rundown pub, dolling out terrible abuse to geriatric millionaires who’d travelled the world ten times over but had nothing left to do except grow holes in their jumpers & get drunk all day. ‘She was the worst barmaid ever!’ he tells Alison. It’s true, I was. A year after that again we shared a cockroach-infested house in Stratford in London’s east end. His stunt as a cappuccino machine salesman had been a dreadful failure – but we had machines steaming away in every room of the house – almost every night was a party. When I was at Middlesex University in 1992, he ran a pub just up the road, we were never far away. There were holidays to Blackpool when the kids were young, mobile homes in France, trips to Belfast when I rented Castle Chester during the MA. Before the older kids arrive in Ipswich for the weekend, and before I start my usual cooking frenzy (he goes nuts for my leek & potato soup, keep showing him how to make it, but he can’t be arsed) the three of us stroll out to the back garden, where the night sky is clearer than I can ever remember. Alabaster stars flickering against a plush overlay of navy and there it is as we crane our necks: a shooting star, a dying star, zipping across the chaos on its way home. What a crummy beautiful coincidence. We clank our glasses and smile.

*******************************

Adrian Caldwell passed away on 12th August 2012, age 47, nine months after this was written. Here are two tribute articles that appeared in the Ipswich Star – click on the pics below to read. 

Happier (sillier) times in London circa early 90s: me, Rory, Adrian, this pic went into the coffin.

Happier (sillier) times in London circa early 90s: me, Rory, Adrian, this pic went into the coffin.

Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Simultaneous Equation

Watching the movie version of John Le Carre’s Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy is a bit like doing a Simultaneous Equation. You may know the result in advance but the working out of the answer is as informative and beautiful as the end product. If you have read the novel or seen the original BBC television series starring Alec Guinness as the spymaster George Smiley you will already be well aware that the traitor at the heart of British intelligence is Bill Hayden. He is Moscow’s man at the heart of the ‘Circus’, the agent being run by the legendary KGB spy boss Karla. None the less the way Smiley (played now by a faultless Gary Oldman) unravels this labyrinthine conspiracy is still fascinating to observe in the cinema. The unmasking of the Soviet ‘mole’ lasts for more than two hours and involves Smiley and his allies poring over past operations in Budapest and Istanbul; rifling through secret classified files locked away in the security services headquarters in London; re-interviewing sacked members of the service who shared the mythical ‘Control’s’ suspicions about an enemy within and setting up an elaborate trap for the KGB agent at the end.

The tone and texture of the new movie captures perfectly the England of the early 1970s with its glam rock, grimy streets, strikes and national stagnation. There are Slade posters in a MI6 sub-station in Istanbul, Dana’s All Kinds of Everything blaring out on a radio inside a safe house used by Hayden, Wimpy bars, a Skol larger logo reflected in a window, serial chain-smoking, Morris Minors and unreconstructed sexism in the workplace even with people who talk in posh accents. Tomas Alfredson (the director of the excellent Swedish vampire film Let The Right One In) has brilliantly captured this era. There are a few deviations from the novel and the TV epic from the 70s, the most questionable being the homoerotic static charge between Colin Firth as Hayden and Mark Strong as Jim Prideaux which climaxes in the latter assassinating the former just before the traitor is to be deported to Moscow. The shooting doesn’t happen in the book and TV programme: Prideaux wreaks his revenge instead by breaking Hayden’s neck. Nor was there any insinuation of a possible gay relationship between the two agents.

Regardless the acting is flawless and Oldman, if there were any justice in Tinsel Town, should win the Oscar for Best Actor in his role as Smiley. He is measured, reserved yet also slightly menacing beneath the cool English gentleman exterior. John Hurt as ‘Control’ is a perfect choice to play the ravaged, haunted boss of the Circus with a fatal obsession with the mole.  The other key members of the Circus are portrayed as creepy, shifty, social climbers who are keen to suck up to the Americans and in doing so are putty in Karla’s hands.

The Cold War ended effectively on the day the Berlin Wall fell in November 1989. To a new generation that conflict is as far away in history as the Second World War was for those of us who sat transfixed at the end of the 1970s to watch how Alec Guinness revealed the betrayer of the Circus and the man who set up Prideaux albeit in Czechoslovakia rather than in Hungary. That is why the new film is a reminder of that period when the world was cut into two rival ideological halves and the risk hung over the planet of nuclear annihilation. Although the divide between communism and capitalism was stark, there was by the 1970s great uncertainty within the west at least over the justness of the cause. This comes out in the film as it did in the book back in 1974 with the British spies (including Smiley) often questioning whether their system was superior to the one behind The Wall. Of course, once that barrier collapsed and the entire system failed, it was apparent that for all its faults the democratic West was still infinitely preferable to the dictatorships run in the name of the People by a small governing elite. Revisit The Lives of Others, the story/movie of how the Stasi ruined the lives of individual East Germans or read Anne Applebaum’s Gulag, her epic history of the Soviet concentration camp system if you still doubt that political judgement.

One story absent even without any reference in ‘Tinker, Tailor….’ was a parallel war running alongside the Cold one during the 70s when Le Carre’s masterpiece was published the conflict in Northern Ireland. At the time Le Carre’s novel came out Provisional IRA bombs were exploding in English cities causing widespread carnage while British troops were on the streets of Belfast and Derry in a state teetering on the brink of civil war. As with the novel genre, there have been few film or television series documenting the role of spooks and spies in the Ulster Troubles. Apart from Fifty Dead Men Walking say or Peter Taylor’s non-fiction book Brits dealing with the UK security forces covert war in the north of Ireland there have been very few novels, plays, TV dramas or films that have detailed the stories of  Ulster’s secret war.

The potential for great drama borne out of the undercover war in Northern Ireland is massive. Take for instance the Stakeknife/Freddie Scappattici scandal. Here was the head of the Provos’ counterintelligence spy-cathing unit, the so-called ‘Headhunters’, whose job it was to unmask agents in the IRA’s ranks, who was in fact himself a British spy for two decades. The moral ambiguity, the sense of betrayal, the double-games being played, the danger, the deaths and the torture of the Stakeknife story would all make for a riveting tale either told in print or on film. In particular such an artistic enterprise would focus on the morally questionable policy conducted by intelligence service bosses – of allowing one of their agents to oversee the torture and murder of suspected traitors within the PIRA – in order to protect and promote the British state’s asset within the Provos.

There are multiple stories of morally dubious spy craft and agent manipulation involving both loyalists and republicans during The Troubles that would produce fantastic fictionalised stories. They would certainly prove the old adage about truth being stranger than fiction. Whether it is  yet ‘politically correct’ or convenient for broadcasters in Britain or Ireland to commission stories of covert war is open to question, especially if the truth revealed in drama would happen to embarrass some of Freddie Scap’s former comrades, who these days are trying to be elected Ireland’s head of state.

Saturday Poem #11 – A Man’s a Man for a’ that

I have always loved this poem by Robert Burns, so when I heard it put to song at the funeral of an old friend and colleague I was moved to tears. We were saying farewell to Arnold Kemp who died suddenly while on holiday in 2002. Arnold was a news and comment editor at The Observer, and an experienced Scottish journalist. His death was a blow to all of us, given that he was such a popular figure among staff, as well as being a good friend. Inside a crematorium in his native Edinburgh – surrounded by leading lights in the Scottish and UK media – as well as politicians from both Scotland’s devolved parliament and Westminster, the final tribute to Arnold was the Burn’s poem put to music, a poetic manifesto for equality and democracy, the type of message our last editor believed passionately in. When I read Burn’s verse I will always think of Arnold! My lovely mother died last week too, following my father’s untimely departure only four months ago, so it’s hard to get death off my mind.

For a’ that (by Robert Burns).

Is there for honest Poverty
That hings his head, an’ a’ that;
The coward slave-we pass him by,
We dare be poor for a’ that!
For a’ that, an’ a’ that.
Our toils obscure an’ a’ that,
The rank is but the guinea’s stamp,
The Man’s the gowd for a’ that.

What though on hamely fare we dine,
Wear hoddin grey, an’ a that;
Gie fools their silks, and knaves their wine;
A Man’s a Man for a’ that:
For a’ that, and a’ that,
Their tinsel show, an’ a’ that;
The honest man, tho’ e’er sae poor,
Is king o’ men for a’ that.

Ye see yon birkie, ca’d a lord,
Wha struts, an’ stares, an’ a’ that;
Tho’ hundreds worship at his word,
He’s but a coof for a’ that:
For a’ that, an’ a’ that,
His ribband, star, an’ a’ that:
The man o’ independent mind
He looks an’ laughs at a’ that.

A prince can mak a belted knight,
A marquis, duke, an’ a’ that;
But an honest man’s abon his might,
Gude faith, he maunna fa’ that!
For a’ that, an’ a’ that,
Their dignities an’ a’ that;
The pith o’ sense, an’ pride o’ worth,
Are higher rank than a’ that.

Then let us pray that come it may,
(As come it will for a’ that,)
That Sense and Worth, o’er a’ the earth,
Shall bear the gree, an’ a’ that.
For a’ that, an’ a’ that,
It’s coming yet for a’ that,
That Man to Man, the world o’er,
Shall brothers be for a’ that.

Too many spas didn’t spoil my broth

The rather delicious parliament building in Budapest

Budapest is the only city in Europe where doctors prescribe playing chess in an outdoor spa as a health treatment. Here, 70 million litres of water, from 123 different springs, supply the spas daily. I’m reminded of this ambrosial fact as my well-organised buddy Louise jets off to this eclectic city for a well-deserved break: a trip I was meant to go on had I got my shit together in time. For ten years – when freelancing – I didn’t take holidays. I could never afford them and was constantly broke. However, I did roar “YES!” to as many press trips as I could. It was the only way to goo new places. There were ‘challenging’ property advertorials thrown into this gobetrotting emprise (will blog about greedy investors & culchie farmers sometime soon) and my truly bizarre arrest & deportation from America on Dublin airport soil (thanks euro-pinching Nan, if you’re still out there…I hope you pay for work visas these days). Still, I was privileged to visit some fabulous destinations in a squash of a few short years: Malta, Paris, Cape Verde, Madrid, Frankfurt, Dubai, a Royal Caribbean Mediterranean cruise. You *don’t get paid* for the ensuing aritcle (warning to journalism students!) but you *do* get spoilt silly for a few days out of time, which is a fantastic honour of sorts. Budapest still stands out.

At Széchenyi Thermal Bath in City Park, the largest public spa in Budapest, you will see businessmen taking a 20-minute dip before heading to work, university students at the end of the day, and every other hue of citizen and tourist in between. This is a country that is serious about its spas. Széchenyi has the deepest and hottest baths, with surface temperatures reaching 75 degrees. There are 27 pools in total and the biggest are outdoor – one is for swimming, another has water jets and aeration, and the third is for relaxing, to simply absorb the heat. The baths are rich in sodium, hydro carbonate-calcium-magnesium and sulphates, minerals that sore bones and achy backs dream of. I had a hip replacement operation at a silly young age and am plagued with stiffness, but felt like I could run 40 miles after just 20 minutes immersed in the warmest pool. It makes the shaggy dog story that is the Irish health system all the shaggier. I’ve thought about that fabulously soothing pool ever since. But what is truly astonishing about the spa treatments in Budapest is the prices.

The salt cave at Margaret Island

For 3400 HUF (€11.59) – summer 2011 prices & currency is the Hungarian Forint – you can buy a daily pass to Széchenyi, which also has a range of saunas and steam rooms. Public baths are exceptionally cheap (compared with hotels) for treatments too, starting at 2800 HUF (€9.54) for a 20-min aromatherapy massage. We stayed at Margaret Island (Margistsziget), a green belt area in the middle of the Danube. Beauty treatments here start at around 2500 HUF (€8.52) for stuff like eyebrow tinting, while spa treatments start at 4000 HUF (€13.63) to scream the bikini line, rising to 12000 HUF (€40.89) for a lava stone treatment that lasts an hour. The thermal bath, swimming pools, sauna, infra-sauna, steam-cabin, aroma-cabin and solarium are all complimentary for hotel guests. The range of treatments at these hotel spas is truly jaw dropping; everything from shiatsu to oxygen inhalation, ergometry and carbonic baths to dental treatments and cosmetic surgery. I chose a ‘salt cave’ treatment simply because it sounded bizarre, but it has to be one of the most calming treatments I’ve ever had. You’re wrapped baba-style in a blanket and lifted back at an angle until securely nested. There’s nought to do except stare at the ceiling for the duration of the session. A womb-like sensation with a touch of Solaris thanks to the funky music & lighting. The cave is purpose built with rocks of salt from the Dead Sea, and helps with all kinds of ailments, from common or garden asthma to chronic catarrhal inflammation and ulcers.

All bedrooms at the 4* Margaret Island look out onto picturesque greenery and the river, and the grounds are home to a historic water tower, music fountain, mini zoo and Japanese gardens. OK so it also looks like a vulva from the air (look left now!), but I’d be careful not to mention this in a travel article. The island resort is cut off from traffic, despite being in the middle of the city. There’s plenty of thermal & spa hotels to choose from, starting from around €70 per night for a double room for two. Budapest itself is two cities in one. The Chain Bridge over the Danube links Buda to Pest. Until 1873, the royal palaces of Buda – on the hilly west bank of the river – overlooked the citizens of Pest – on the smooth plains of the east bank – where there are now lots of good shops. The main shopping areas are located in Pest’s City Centre. One of them is Váci Street (Váci utca), perhaps the most famous shopping street in Budapest. Designated as a pedestrian precinct, it runs from Vörösmarty Square to Vámház körút (Central Market Hall) featuring a large number of fashionable shops, restaurants and cafés. Castle Hill is home to many of Budapest’s most important monuments and museums, with hushed, cobbled lanes that are in striking contrast to the bustling streets down below.

We had dinner in Apetito, where we sampled Hungarian fine dining at its best (the website peculiarly describes the food as: ‘modern paintings hanging on the walls’). Menu included French veal tartar with trout caviar, served with cress and lavender seasoned egg salad. I chose red mullet fried in saffron oil, and a virgin celery sorbet. I lost track of the descriptive bedlam of my friend’s dishes after three glasses of [strong] wine, recommended by the in-house sommelier no less! Eating out in Budapest is genuinely a kick. There’s countless fantastic restaurants and cafés serving authentic Hungarian goulash, as well as ethnic restaurants like Karma in the heart of downtown. At the time of our visit, there was marrowbone beef soup with strawberry leaf on special, lamb trotters with pea purée and frizzled morels. Pescetarians like me are not short on options: charcoal-baked ginger-chili gambas (prawns) with avocado & mango purée, for example. Same goes for pesky vegetarians: tapas, pasta, noodles, curry. For dessert: plum pie from Szatmár with homemade lavender ice cream, vanilla floating island in a swing-top bottle with caramel crisps.

Music and theatre are enormously important to Hungarians – Budapest boasts more than 50 theatres within a square mile of the city centre – with tickets to shows available at very affordable prices. The city also has a rake of festivals on every year to celebrate spring, summer opera, ballet…a Jewish festival, international wine and champagne festival. Our guide told us it’s the only way all classes of people get to mix, with all the changes taking place in Budapest’s rapidly altering society. Hiring a history guide (€20 – €40) who can give the lowdown on the country’s bumpy past is a great way to get to grips with how much Hungary has transformed. During communism, you could fly to any other communist country for less than a euro, and plenty of people who lived in Budapest flew to Berlin to work on a daily basis. Perhaps the best place to start sightseeing is at the Citadella on Gellért Hill, or looking down from between the turrets of the famous Fisherman’s Bastion in Buda’s castle district. The city is packed with incredible buildings from all ages, even the drab 1970s. However, notable highlights include the Parliament Building, Matthias Church and the Citadel.

Szent István Basilica

Matthias Church is the 19th century successor to Buda’s 13th century coronation church. It’s an important national shrine and a stunning example of neo-Gothic architecture. The dazzling Parliament Building, on the left bank of the Danube, is lined with 90 statues of great figures from Hungarian history. There are literally dozens of turrets, giving it a distinct fairytale appearance. Inside there’s ten courtyards and 29 staircases, and an elaborate heating system, whereby hot air gets sucked up through the chandeliers. Other must-see landmarks include Europe’s largest synagogue, the Szent István Basilica, the Buda Royal Palace and Heroes’ Square, a who’s who of Hungarian history (minus the poor old Habsburgs, whose statues have been removed and replaced). The transport system, built in the communist era, is a fast and inexpensive way to get to know the city. The metro, buses and trams all run regularly, and even taxis are cheap. Think: bite-size Berlin with a hint of Paris around the edges and a sprinkling of Moscow on top. Needless to say, I am still unabashedly available for press trips if Ireland ever gets back up off its arse, or if any wily travel editors stumble across this fantastically written travelogue and fancy trying me out for a free dinner. Cheers.

The cops want my mobile phone

Perhaps someone should provide the Sat Nav and the grid co-ordinates of Holywood, Co. Down to the PSNI station in Lurgan. Why? Because the dormitory town to the east of Belfast is presently home to the largest MI5 base outside of London. MI5 AKA The Security Services now holds primacy in terms of counter-terrorism within Northern Ireland. At its Holywood base in the Palace Barracks complex it employs a large number of spies and technical eavesdroppers who keep a watch not only on the homegrown terrorism of the republican dissidents, but also those involved in the Islamist terror front both in the UK and abroad.

Agents working out of the Holywood HQ have been deployed not only inside Northern Ireland but also, for instance, at foreign holiday resorts favoured by local tourists to track down members of the Real IRA, Continuity IRA and Oglaigh na hEireaan and try to entice them with bundles of cash to become informers. In addition the MI5 regional base is equipped with the state of the art listening technology aimed at dipping in and out of the messages transmitted between dissident republicans. The press and the public of course are not given access for understandable reasons to the type of hi-tech resources currently available to the spooks, although we can imagine how advanced the devices they are using to spy on the enemies of the state are these days.

Back in the early 1990s RUC Special Branch had a bug at one very important location where the former SDLP leader John Hume was holding secret talks with the Provisional IRA. According to one former RUC source the listening device was so sophisticated that there was a “live feed” between the meeting place Hume and the Provos were sitting in and the secure room at Castlereagh RUC station in east Belfast to which senior police figures would listen into whenever the talks were going on. MI5 also had access to this “live feed” and it is understood that at one stage when something potentially controversial was uttered during a conversation between Hume and the IRA, the feed was mysteriously disconnected. Privately the RUC always suspected MI5 had severed the link fearing whatever was being beamed in and recorded
could have been leaked either to the media or worse still, the loyalists.

That was then and this is now. More than a decade and a half later one can only imagine the leap forward being made in surveillance technology that the Security Services have at their disposal in their counter-terrorist operations since the early 1990s. The question is however: are they sharing them with the PSNI? An incident a fortnight ago involving myself and my battered Nokia E51 mobile phone suggests in some instances that they are not!

A couple of Saturdays ago I was enjoying a day off with two of my children at the Odyssey entertainment centre on the banks of the Lagan. As my girl and boy bounced around like maniacs inside a bouncy castle with the face of Spiderman on the top of it, the mobile rang. My heart sank. I suspected it might be The Observer news desk informing of a major breaking news story and that as a result I would have to go back on duty. In fact it turned out that the call was a local voice, claiming to be from the “Continuity Army Council of the IRA”, i.e. the Continuity IRA. He claimed they had fired a rocket-propelled grenade at a police patrol between roundabouts 1 and 2 in Craigavon in the early hours of that morning. Having given the recognised code word and once he had conveyed the message the caller promptly disconnected the call. Naturally on the LCD screen it stated that number had been withheld.

As well as contacting the Guardian Unlimited and the PSNI Press Officer (the latter having no reports or knowledge of the alleged attack) I phoned the UTV newsroom to get this claim out in the public domain. Within the next 48 hours I received two phone calls from an officer in PSNI Lurgan about the claim of responsibility. In one call I was warned that the police might want to examine my mobile phone in a bid to trace the call and perhaps even identify the caller. Immediately I decided to contact the Guardian high command and received their backing and legal advice, the view from the paper being quite adamant – under no circumstances should I hand over my mobile phone to the police.

Of course journalists cannot and should not be above the law. Nor should we encourage others to break it. None the less the suggestion that I surrender the phone to help the police build a potential case against someone claiming to represent a republican terror group is a potential threat to two principles: the freedom of the press and my right to life. As regards the former there has been in recent times increasing pressures on reporters on both sides of the Irish Sea to provide material which would enable the police to do their job more effectively. The BBC and UTV locally along with RTE, Sky and other broadcasters are facing demands that they hand over footage to the PSNI of the rioting in Ardoyne in July and East Belfast in late June. In England all the major broadcasters are facing similar demands to surrender unedited film of the riots that rocked English cities in August. Meanwhile colleagues at The Guardian recently resisted Metropolitan Police attempts to force them to reveal who told them that the News of the World hacked into the mobile phone of murder victim Milly Dowler. The bid to get me to hand over my mobile is yet another development in this phenomenon.

Journalists are not detectives but witnesses to unfolding public events and news stories. To start to harvest our material, contacts, sources and even equipment is to put us in the firing line. Just imagine if I decided to co-operate and drove down to Lurgan and handed over the mobile for technical examination. Consider the possibility that arrests might follow and the story emerge that it was my mobile phone call that enabled the PSNI to pursue a potential subject. As the judgement in the Ed Moloney and later Suzanne Breen cases concluded such pressurised collaboration could easily put my life in danger. Which is something one can expect when you cross paramilitary organisations and highlight their criminality and their butchery. That is our job as well as holding the institutions of the state and politicians to account. But our job is not to become an auxiliary force for the police in terms of counter-terrorism or general crime.

Meantime if the detectives really are keen to try and trace who made that brief call on my Nokia a fortnight ago they only have to contact their colleagues over in Holywood (Co. Down) and ask for assistance in tracking a call. Although that begs the question as two whether the spooks and the cops are fully co-operating with one another.

(This article was published in the Belfast Telegraph on 28th September)

Saturday Poem #10 – What the doctor said

What The Doctor Said (by Raymond Carver)

He said it doesn’t look good

he said it looks bad in fact real bad

he said I counted thirty-two of them on one lung before

I quit counting them

I said I’m glad I wouldn’t want to know

about any more being there than that

he said are you a religious man do you kneel down

in forest groves and let yourself ask for help

when you come to a waterfall

mist blowing against your face and arms

do you stop and ask for understanding at those moments

I said not yet but I intend to start today

he said I’m real sorry he said

I wish I had some other kind of news to give you

I said Amen and he said something else

I didn’t catch and not knowing what else to do

and not wanting him to have to repeat it

and me to have to fully digest it

I just looked at him

for a minute and he looked back it was then

I jumped up and shook hands with this man who’d just given me

something no one else on earth had ever given me

I may have even thanked him habit being so strong

The laughable loathsome neo-nazis

Recalling his days selling race-hate literature in London’s East End, Matthew Collins says: “We took the traditional Brick Lane Sunday drink with the BNP that day, watching strippers and eating a selection of mussels and whelks off the bar.” All they would have needed was a Cockney-style sing-song of Horst Wessel Lied and Deutschland Uber Alles around the old Joanna and that would have topped off a perfect National Socialist Sabbath for Matthew and his comrades.

The above memory isn’t the only unintentionally hilarious anecdote contained within Collins’ new book, Hate - a recollection of his time both in the National Front and the British National Party. His evolution from the son of an Irish Catholic father to a fascist street fighter mouthing mantras of ‘No Surrender to the IRA’ is peppered with bizarre and often achingly funny passages, which in turn highlight how absurd, perverse and out of touch with reality most of his far right chums actually were back in the 1990s.

There are, however, more sinister segments of the book and they include his relationship with Ulster loyalists who had latched onto the NF and other neo-Nazi organisations in Britain. Of these the most prominent is Eddie Whicker, a UDA member from Belfast who became somewhat of a personality on the London far right scene at the time Collins was an active fascist. Whicker was one of the most militant of the extreme right street thugs taking on leftists, some of whom marched in pro-IRA rallies in the UK capital and other British cities.

Reading Collins’ fascinating memoir raised questions as to how useful, if at all, the various parties and groups on the far right were to the Ulster loyalist cause. The answer to that question, taking a long view of history, would be hardly at all. In fact, Hate confirms the analysis put forward by the likes of the late David Ervine that the far right’s embrace of the loyalist cause was nothing short of embarrassing. There can be no doubting the connections established from the early 1970s onwards between the NF, BNP and the more extreme Combat 18 to the two main loyalist paramilitary organisations. On a political and, dare one say social level, the disparate British far right were the only supporters of the Ulster loyalist cause in Britain.

Apart from their traditional allies in Scotland, particularly within the Orange Order and the Rangers football team’s support base, loyalism’s allies were few and far between. While loyalists across the sea could feel very much at home in parts of Scotland’s central belt or the Ayrshire coast, your average working class Ulster Protestant would feel a greater sense of isolation in English cities, particularly the multi-cultural/racial conurbations. As Collins attests to in his book, the NF and other rival organisations at least provided a home for an Ulster loyalist away from home but still in touch with the cause.

Logistically, the efficacy of British neo-Nazi help for loyalist armed groups has been wildly exaggerated. There were a number of gun running plots such as the one involving Frank Portinari, an English UDA member of Italian Catholic extract in direct touch with ‘C’ Company and a friend of the UDA killer John White. The important thing to remember about Portinari’s gun smuggling operation was that it was soon busted by the security forces. In reality the people who gained the most out of British fascism’s embrace of loyalism were MI5 and Special Branch.

Charlie Sergeant, for instance, crops up several times in Collins’ book as a prominent Combat 18 thug and strong supporter of Ulster loyalists. Yet after Sergeant was tried and convicted of stabbing a rival neo-Nazi to death it transpired he was also a police informant whose work included spying on any potential loyalist arms smuggling operations in the south-east of England. The Ulster Volunteer Force did, of course, meet with the extreme neo-Nazi Belgian VMO in the early 1980s. The Flemish fascists were fascinated with the home-made engineering skills of Ulster loyalists who were manufacturing their own sub-machine guns. In return, the VMO promised to hand over plastic explosives, as long as the UVF attacked a Jewish target in Belfast. This suggestion convinced the UVF envoys sent to meet the pro-Hitler terrorists that they were dealing with nutcases. The UVF search for explosives switched to commercial, ideologically neutral arms dealers.

On a propaganda level the activities of a handful of loyalists in England like Whicker was undoubtedly damaging. It only projected and solidified the notion that the average loyalist was as much a bone-headed, shaven, beery-breathed bigot as their neo-Nazi buddies smashing up Brick Lane. The ceasefire, of course, and the emergence of Ervine, Billy Hutchinson and other articulate loyalist politicians, changed all that. Observers of the far right will point to the career of Johnny Adair, who started his politico-paramilitary career in the NF. In retirement on the west coast of Scotland, Adair has admitted he always had his doubts about the English neo-Nazis, suspecting many of them of being “touts” or just terror-tourists not really serious about waging war on the republican movement.

It’s worth remembering that throughout his life Adair maintained an enduring love for one English band who emerged out of the post-Punk era. The group was comprised of two brothers from a left-wing background who sang about racism in America’s Deep South and who wrote socialist protest songs against Thatcherism and mass unemployment. To this day Adair loves UB40. That’s how serious the British neo-Nazis’ favourite Ulster poster boy was about their message of racial purity and ethnic hatred.

(My review of Hate is also published in the Belfast Telegraph today)

Impregnate me with ceramic

Surprise tentacles to make you feel horny on the way to hospital. The great thing about living plonk at the Botanic Gardens is the sheer amount of sensory goodies, most gratefully received on difficult days when the heart is heavy or the head sore. Yesterday, before I accompanied my mother to a post cancer diagnosis and moi geezer: whose own mother was cartered off in an ambulance for the third time in as many weeks, we took some time out for a long walk. Even when there’s nothing arty going down, the gardens are a real haven in what has been a moronically poxy and backbreaking year. Amid the parnsip soup slurping pensioners and the fat bees gorging on newly-planted flower baskets in the courtyard cafe, we dunk our tongues into some strong coffee and talk about death over a slab of nectarous pear cake. There’s always ‘stuff’ to see and hear, to do and learn, even just the unflappable change of seasons means this suburban Arcadia looks different every time you have a gander around. One of the smaller glass houses features an ongoing exhibition on the medicinal qualities of tropical plants, citing an example of an Amazonian weed that’s now used in the treatment of childhood leukemia (with 90% remission rates) or how ginger can help with flatulence (Men of Ireland: please take note) and lemon balm to salve symptoms of herpes. The recently re-opened 19th Century Herb Garden, which backs onto the historic Glasnevin Cemetary wall, is also clearly labelled with a welly of herb clout…from the toxin-ridding magic of parsley to the cleansing properties of mint. There’s a featured talk on 24th September on this very topic which you can find on the events page. Two minutes into our walk, we spot some pottery tree people lurking by one of the old stone walls.

It seems we were too distracted on the way in to clock the new Sculpture In Context exhibition posters. This ocular deliciousness is now in its tenth year at the gardens, running from Thursday 8th September to Friday 21st of October. The bumpf says it’s the largest outdoor sculpture exhibition in Ireland, featuring the work of 130 leading Irish and international artists. All the usual talented suspects: Cliodhna Cussen, Ana Duncan, Seamus Dunbar, Ken Drew, Jim Gannon, Seamus Gill, Janet Harrison, Leo Higgins, Fidelma Massey, Søren Schaarup, Beatrice Stewart and a plethora of others. As it’s in context the pieces are displayed (and planted) throughout the gardens, some more in your face than others. For instance, there’s a piece called Ghost Fruit amongst a clump of trees near the river that’s almost impossible to spot. Stare up into the giant umbrella canopy and there’s nothing at all obvious. We scratched our heads and looked about: “This is worse than a crossword!” I said. It was only when we walked on and stopped on the path to look back: newly hung ceramic leaves, an exact match to the trees’ own, but in a deliberately paler shade (thus the name). Many pieces are also cleverly hidden in the impressive restored Victorian glasshouses, (Turners’ Curvilinear Range and the Great Palm House) and in the elegant first floor gallery space of the Visitor Centre. The aim of this exhibition is to provide space for exhibiting work in venues outside of the normal gallery context. Artwork is produced using a wide range of materials including bronze, ceramic, glass, copper, steel and stone.

Minutes later, I spot alien tentacles sticking seductively out of a pond and mention that they’re good enough to get you pregnant, though geezer thinks they look like ‘animal spines’. We bump into long-haired Roli who knows the artist and apparently that’s her subject of choice – all things penetrative – I’m chuffed to have picked up the message so clearly having failed Intercert Art and being totally devoid of any artsy-craftsy competency! Art to me is very much what you make of it, once it’s out in the public sphere, you can assent and assume what you like. I can’t stand reading what I’m supposed to take from it, what this piece means or that painting intimates. Bog off and let me make up my own mind! There’s organic pods stuck up a tree bark with dinky cars growing in them (no doubt a profound message about how we’re making a fume-filled mess of the natural environment), a giant nest with bright blue duck eggs, sound boxes next to the river, tall bronze heron keeping some spoilt ducks company and strange objects hanging from the vines in the Victoriana glasshouses. A stone mattress leans curvaveously against a wall, a simple tagline Insomnia as its chosen communiqué. Two pieces of social commentary stand out: one is called Poppy Power which at first sight looks like a bed of ceramic poppies. Look closer and you see sad faces etched into some of the flowers, no doubt a statement on the heroin crisis, both at home and abroad. A bunch of old Irish money – made from limestone – is strewn on the ground at the side of the largest glasshouse. You can read this as mere nostalgia or not-so-subtle criticism of the current state of the eurozone…

Pretty soon we’re pulling each other in different directions with the capriciousness of a kid’s treasure hunt. “Look at this!” “No, come ‘ere, this is amazing!” and so on. There’s so much to see and so many whimsical pieces, I can’t decide what I like most. Scrunched Flowering Imps planted in the middle of a lush lawn or a line of torsos yapping on mobile phones with comical facial expressions, glass ball plants and metal flowers swaying in the midday sun. Mindfield is a flower bed planted with glass brains and there’s a dreamy-white yearning tree with dangling wishes from children: ‘I wish my mum would get in the swimming pool once in a while.’ We’re going to have to go back and gorge in the weeks ahead. Later that day I bring my Ma along (after the hospital) insisting she plunks down into a wheelchair even though she can walk short distances OK. There’s too much to see and I want to dash around, show her as much as an ordinary hour can shove in. The aulfella is housebound since April 2010 (refusing to use any walking aids or contraptions that would ensure a slice of normality) so she rarely gets out these days. Face to face with her first ceramic penis after 77 years on the planet, she gasps: “I know art is art, but Jesus Christ, is there any need for that kind of thing!?” Yes, mother, I’m afraid there is. Here’s just some of the pics I took on my phone and some more I pinched off a mate doing the rounds with a camera yesterday. I can’t recommend this exhibition enough – it’ll cheer you up and pull you out of the doldrums – if only for an hour:

 

Saturday Poem #9 – For What Binds Us

 
For What Binds Us (by Jane Hirshfield)
 
There are names for what binds us:
strong forces, weak forces.
Look around, you can see them:
the skin that forms in a half-empty cup,
nails rusting into the places they join,
joints dovetailed on their own weight.
The way things stay so solidly
wherever they’ve been set down—
and gravity, scientists say, is weak.
 
And see how the flesh grows back
across a wound, with a great vehemence,
more strong
than the simple, untested surface before.
There’s a name for it on horses,
when it comes back darker and raised: proud flesh,
 
as all flesh,
is proud of its wounds, wears them
as honors given out after battle,
small triumphs pinned to the chest—
 
And when two people have loved each other
see how it is like a
scar between their bodies,
stronger, darker, and proud;
how the black cord makes of them a single fabric
that nothing can tear or mend.
 
Jane Hirshfield is the author of several collections of verse, which include Given Sugar, Given Salt (2001) and After (2006), Hirshfield has translated works by early women poets in The Ink Dark Moon: Poems by Ono no Komachi and Izumi Shikibu, Women of the Ancient Court of Japan (1990) and in Women in Praise of the Sacred: Forty-Three Centuries of Spiritual Poetry by Women (1994). Inspired by both Eastern and Western poetry, Hirshfield’s work often utilises a short form and hinges on a turning point or moment of insight. More info on Jane here

Alternative Alternative Ulsters

Shooting starts again in Northern Ireland this coming week but no one is going to get killed or injured – except for a few reputations. Someone who cares little about reputation or social standing is the subject of the latest film about Ulster’s recent past, the former Punk-music guru Terri Hooley. Filming starts on a bio-pic of Terri’s life focussing in particular on his founding of the Good Vibrations record label and music store, and his discovery of The Undertones.

I have known Terri since I first walked into his shop on Belfast’s Great Victoria Street back in 1978. For a generation of young Punks trying to escape the cloying boredom of life in Troubles-torn Belfast, Hooley’s place was a Mecca of freedom. There was something wildly exotic about passing the cut-out Elvis outside, climbing the stairs, inhaling strange aromas wafting from above and into a room surrounded by LPs and 45s. On the walls where strangely drawn and printed posters and my favourite single cover – a picture of The Slits, all of them topless, smeared with mud.

Before entering Good Vibes I had never contemplated shoplifting but I recall one rainy Monday afternoon in summer when I succumbed to temptation. I’d heard the most amazing and weirdly sung/constructed track on the John Peel Show on Radio 1. It was Howard Devoto menacingly warbling about being ‘Shot By Both Sides’. Given where I was living at the time – caught between the Brits and the equally hostile Provos – the sentiment struck an immediate chord. I had to have that record.

Alas on that soggy Monday I was virtually broke and had only one option: to swipe the Magazine EP which I did right under Terri’s eye….yes his other one is made of glass.

Many years later in a moment of drunken honesty at a party of a mutual friend’s I confessed to Hooley about my theft. He roared with laughter and congratulated me for liberating ‘Shot By Both Sides’ from his stock. As a lifelong anarchist he had no choice but to approve of my larcenry.

The beginning of filming prompted Jane Graham in The Guardian on Friday to write a wider feature on when is the best time for film makers reflecting on past youth cultures and their impact on society. The questions Graham raised were germane and especially how many years should elapse before you recreate the world of teenage sub-cults.

In a passage near the end of her article she quotes screenwriter Colin Carberry who looks back on the Troubles. He warns that “nostalgia works differently here” and notes that while virtually no one harks back to the dark, depressing 1970s, the new Hooley film will show “how youth transcends everything.” Then in the most dubious part of Carberry’s comments he points out that while there were plenty of agit-prop bands like The Clash around, The Undertones were in fact singing about fun and girls from their first breakthrough anthem “Teenage Kicks” (a song Hooley helped on its way and John Peel championed) to other famous tunes such as the maudlin “Wednesday Week” and “Here Comes The Summer.”

This assertion is firstly unfair to The Undertones. After all the band dared tackle the subject of the death fast in the Maze prison with ‘It’s Gonna Happen’ referencing Bobby Sands ‘…going to sleep without blinking a blue eye.’ Moreover, when the band broke up their next incarnation under the genius of John O’Neill became ultra-political. That Petrol Emotion was one of the most politically controversial and underestimated post Punk/New Wave bands of the 1980s.

Yet even during Ulster Punk’s heyday there were plenty of bands that recorded songs that were more about cars and girls. Stiff Little Fingers of course were the most famous of the agit-prop groups. Although ‘Alternative Ulster’ became their most famous anthem with its rage against ‘the bores and their laws’ and the sectarianism blighting so many young lives, I have always contended that the best song of their first album ‘Inflammable Material’ was ‘Wasted Life’ was the most politically charged they ever recorded. It is a howl of protest belted out in Jake Burns’ gravel voice against how an entire generation was being lured into paramilitary organisations that, in the end, only offered a squandered existence or a premature death. Even listening to it four decades later the lyrics and the thrash of the SLF guitars still sends shivers down my spine.

There were other groups too that took on political and social issues, the best of them being Ruefrex. The group from north Belfast, some of them from the loyalist heartland of the Shankill Road, wrote protest songs that still deserve to be listened to. Ruefrex’s targets included the loyalist paramilitaries on their doorstep; the Irish-Americans who funded the IRA from the comfort of their affluent suburbs in Boston and Wisconsin and the education system in Northern Ireland that kept and still keeps Catholic and Protestant school kids apart.

I wish the film about my old friend Terri the very best and I hope that it will do him justice. His contribution to Ulster cultural history has been neglected for far too long. There are though other stories to be told as well about the bands, the kids, the venues, the times that need to be aired. It is nearly 40 years on. Time to get writing about that unique period in Northern Ireland history when, for a short period of time, there was a flowering of youthful rebellion that was organic and spontaneous. There is work to be done here!

Lessons from Birmingham

Although three young Asian men are dead, several families are devastated, an entire community is fearful and angry, the city of Birmingham is still a relatively tolerant place. Having just spent three days in England’s second city, the overwhelming impression I got is that despite the triple deaths outside a petrol station in the early hours of Wednesday morning, there is still a deep degree of cross-community co-operation and toleration.

Witness an Islamic prayer service on the filing station forecourt on Wednesday night when local Muslims gathered to remember their three friends mowed down a fatal hit and run crash. While everyone around knew that it was members of the black community who had been responsible for the crash and indeed looting of Asian-owned businesses in the hours before the tragedy, there were people from all races standing side by side with the Muslims. Sikhs, whites and people from the Afro-Caribbean community paid their respects. A 17-year-old has [today] been charged for the triple murders and is remanded in custody, appearing at Birmingham Crown Court tomorrow.

On Thursday I strolled around the multi ethnic Dudley Road where the men were killed. Afro-Caribbean shops were open side by side with the Asian mini markets and grocery shops. Young black couples pushed prams past the make-shift flower adorned shrine to the victims, one girl in her teens blessing herself as a mark of respect as she passed by. There were, naturally, discordant voices among the younger Muslim males in the area and a frequent, disturbing use of the N-word when describing black people. But they were drowned out by the voices of decency within the Muslim community, the no longer silent majority epitomised by the grieving father who appealed for no retaliation and called for peace and calm to descend in Birmingham and beyond.

The local people I encountered were friendly, open and helpful. They wanted to tell their story and convey the message that a lawless violent minority of thugs would not plunge their city into inter-ethnic chaos. In many ways that narrative was the most hopeful in a week scarred by nihilistic violence across several English cities.

There are two broad observations I would like to make about the seven days of disorder in England. The first is to counter the nonsense spurted by some liberal media commentators that there was anything political or social motivating the rioters, the arsonists, the vandals and the murderers in Birmingham in particular. Their motives were anything but progressive and their victims in the main were people from the same social strata as themselves: the poor, the immigrant workers, fellow ethnic minorities, the dispossessed who maintain their dignity and their decency despite the odds stacked against them. To compare the violence that broke out in England to say the Arab Spring is a deep insult to the incredibly courageous fighters for democracy who are literally laying down their lives from Syria to Libya. The latter are putting themselves in front of bullets, artillery rounds, tanks and everything else that tyrants like Assad and Gaddafi are throwing at them. Their struggle is noble and heroic, the looters and the hooligans destroying their own communities in England are a national disgrace.

Many in Ireland but particularly in the north have noted the different approach of the police in England to their counterparts in Belfast or Derry. The PSNI dealt with rioters over here (many of whom, especially on the republican side, do actually have political motives) using plastic baton rounds and water cannon. Some have pointed out that the English police’s reluctance not to borrow from the PSNI and start firing baton rounds at their rioters proves there is one law for the Irish on this side of the sea and another for the English, even for its moronic apolitical underclass.

Yes I can see the irony and I hate the double standards but I am none the less glad police forces in London, Manchester, Birmingham and Bristol didn’t fire a single baton round over the last seven. Because the last thing England needed was the potential of a street thug being martyred after his or her skull was crushed by a baton round. The loonies and the looters don’t deserve that epithet.

How to punch your child comfortably

Sitting in Abrakebabra last week – waiting my turn on an internet terminal in the loudest library in Ireland – I witnessed the most extraordinary event that heaves human life back to the Neanderthals. A young mother insisting her [3-yr-old?] son hit himself repeatedly in the face, for the amusement of her friend, who’d joined them for some high-fat food and low-content conversation. “Go on, show Mary!” she roared, while scoffing a burger. The kid started whacking himself on his left cheek, but kept his eyes peeled on the adults, who were shaking with laughter, slapping their hands on the formica and ‘whooping’ American baskteball-style. The more they shook, the more he battered himself on the chops. Soon his left side was sore, so he moved to the right. Whack, whack, whack. This was just the funniest thing, a tiny person beating himself up. As gut-busting as seeing puppies jumping up in the air for biccies or kittens swinging on sitting-room curtains Tarzan on the vine, except better, because as the mummy mid-way declared: “It saves me from having to bash him!” A lone man shoving onion rings in his gob looked on from the next table, two taxi men smoking outside looked around for a moment to clock what was happening, but seemed uninterested…the Chinese guy behind the counter saw what the boy was doing, but soon got back to grilling slabs of red pepper and stabbing the rotating kebab cow to see if it was cooked. No-one it seemed, cared, and who was I to run on over and start mouthing? Me, years older and with no sprogs of my own, onlooker, not a social worker, cop, counsellor, vile Jeremy Kyle or even just a concerned citizen. Instead, a hapless neurotic with chin on the table not quite fathoming what was going on. By this time the child’s face was red raw and he was clearly in pain, but this is how he’d learnt to get attention, to get his mother’s approval, her grotesque excuse for love, so was bound and determined to carry on smashing himself, to an orchestra of cackle.

Ten years later, when he’s kicking the brown out of other kids & robbing branded goods to order, 15 years later: sticking needles in his arm and drinking himself into oblivion or 18 years on (acting out his own scenario, just to get rid of it as Alice Miller says), knocking his bird around or breaking bones elsewhere – because it is that achingly clichéd – his mother will holler that she did her very best and can’t understand why her son chose the route in life he did. She’ll likely declare herself a victim and attest to anyone who’ll listen that he’s a good lad, with a huge heart, but got in with the wrong crowd. Anyway she didn’t have a good childhood herself. School of hard knocks, blah blah. I couldn’t say or do a thing, just stared in utter disbelief. Maybe ten or twenty years ago, when people roared out castigations on buses and squalled at this kind of thing in the street, the odds were relatively low for getting stabbed in the face for interfering. Or maybe it’s just easy for me to think that. Shame on the likes of comfortable commentating modern-day me for doing nothing. What must this kid go through behind closed doors and what will he continue to go through for the remainder of his kiddiehood, however short that’s destined to last? Two days later, a similar scene in the local social welfare office, a young boy around eight years old or so, trying to wriggle free from his mother’s lap to go and stand with his father, was slapped so boxing-ring hard in the face, words simply stopped flowing. Stunned, silenced and overpowered, exactly like you see in Barnardo’s ads. “You just wouldn’t shut the fuck up!” his mother roared, by way of explanation for what she’d just done, comfortably, in front of everyone. This time I managed a: “For fuck’s sake!” out loud, looking straight at her. A tad braver in the queue, with a gaggle of people around me. I hoped others might show signs of the same. Most ignored it. Few cared. Desk jockeys kept jockeying. One or two looked around at me and tutted, as if to say: “That’s not what you do here, you don’t butt in on other people’s business here.” I walked right out of there and kept going. In Ireland, people batter their kids in the street, and it’ll always be done with passion.

Saturday Poem #8 – Break of Day in the Trenches

I spent last Monday morning strolling around a fascinating museum dedicated to the history of the Inniskilling regiment of the British Army. The museum is situated in Enniskillen Castle on Lough Erne right in the heart of the Co. Fermanagh town. In the courtyard close to the ancient Watergate there are captured German artilery pieces from World War One of which one was later converted for use in the next war as part of coastal defences against the threatened Nazi invasion of southern England in the summer of 1940. Inside the museum itself you are taken on a journey through the locally recruited regiment’s history from the wars against Napolean through to World War Two, Korea and the Cold War frontline of West Berlin.

As with much of Ulster military history there is heavy emphasis on the sacrifices the Inniskillings made on the Western Front and other theatres of the First World War. These include the struggle against the Ottoman Empire in Palestine and in particular the heroism of one Donegal Duffy from Gweedore who won a Victoria Cross for refusing to leave wounded men to die on the battlefield. Time and time again Duffy risked his own life to recover his injured comrades and carry them often on his own to safety. This was the final leg of a three day trip to Fermanagh and it turned out to be the most poignant. Why? Because only recently did I discover that my great grandfather on my mother’s side of the family was killed at the Battle of the Somme in 1916.  Great Granddad Tommy Stewart’s death on the western front was all the more poignant because my mother and her siblings were brought up Catholics on the other side of the line from where Tommy grew up. He was a Shankill Road Protestant but his daughter Florence married a Catholic and moved with him to the republican Lower Falls. Such is the way our roots are tangled up, our ancestral ties complex. 

Thinking about Tommy of late reminds me of my favourite verse from any of the war poets from WW1. He is Isaac Rosenburg, a working class Jewish soldier from London’s East End. Rosenburg inspired a dear departed relative of mine, Jack Holland, my cousin and co-author. Jack got the title of his first novel about the Roman invasion of Britain from the second line of Rosenburg’s poem, hence the book Druid Time. So this short, compressed verse about life on the frontline has a double meaning for me now. When I read it over I think of Tommy Stewart killed all those years ago in the slaughter of the Somme and of Jack, swept away so cruelly and far too early by a rare form of cancer. Please remember them too when you read this wonderful poem.

 

Break of Day in the Trenches (by Isaac Rosenberg)

The darkness crumbles away

It is the same old druid Time as ever,

Only a live thing leaps my hand,

A queer sardonic rat,

As I pull the parapet’s poppy

To stick behind my ear.

Droll rat, they would shoot you if they knew

Your cosmopolitan sympathies,

Now you have touched this English hand

You will do the same to a German

Soon, no doubt, if it be your pleasure

To cross the sleeping green between.

It seems you inwardly grin as you pass

Strong eyes, fine limbs, haughty athletes,

Less chanced than you for life,

Bonds to the whims of murder,

Sprawled in the bowels of the earth,

The torn fields of France.

What do you see in our eyes

At the shrieking iron and flame

Hurled through still heavens?

What quaver -what heart aghast?

Poppies whose roots are in men’s veins

Drop, and are ever dropping;

But mine in my ear is safe,

Just a little white with the dust.

Memories of Captain America

CAPTAIN AMERICA’s coming into being is nothing more than the story of Jacob usurping Esau but set in the Second World War rather than in the time of the biblical patriarchs. Just as the weedy, smooth skinned weaker Jacob becomes the unlikely chosen one to succeed Abraham as the leader of the Children of Israel, so an asthmatic bag of skin and bones is singled out by a Jewish émigré scientist to become a superhero who can save the USofA. Like Jacob the character selected to pick up the Star-spangled shield was an unlikely choice. Their rivals, Esau the hairy bearded hunting man of action and the sock-‘em-in-the-jaw-everytime GI Joe, who bullies the future Captain America on the army base, seemed the more obvious candidates to become the champions of their people.

They say there are seven basic plots to a story regardless of whether it is located on a page, the silver screen or passed down in oral tradition. I do not know if the Old Testament tale of feuding brothers is part of those seven categories but watching the latest Marvel comics superhero movie in a cinema on Belfast’s Dublin Road last Monday that story of cunning and brain winning out over brawn in Catechism classes suddenly flowed back into my memory. All those ink drawings of the prophets and the martyrs with their over-exaggerated eyes, like Marine Boy’s in the cartoon, persuading their brothers to sell their birthright for a mesh of pottage; or taming wild beasts inside the lion’s den or bringing down the walls of a besieged city with a collective rebel yell.

He’s the equal of Thor and loads better than the Green Lantern: he’s the summer’s pre-eminent superhero – The Guardian

It goes to show that even for an atheist who has long since eschewed organised religion the Bible and the fantastical tales that are shot through it (more so in the Old Testament it has to be said) have left an indelible mark on the subconscious.  The near instant association with Captain America’s birth with the Jacob/Esau struggle is testament, excuse the pun, to the power of biblical story telling. You might blame all of this on religious education by robotic rote but this schooling wasn’t akin to the brain-washing of children in Islamic Madrassah schools. It is the drama, the beauty and the symbolism of the stories themselves that have so much universal appeal…even today for non-believers like myself.

As for the film, you have to keep reminding yourself this is a ‘Marvel’ comic where the laws of space, time, gravity let alone believable plot or accurate history, are suspended. What starts as a seemingly straightforward battle between an American good guy agent in a funny costume and a mad, demented Nazi scientist turns rapidly into the classic “Marvel” battle between Superhero and Supervillain in which Sci-Fi gadgets of the future play a critical part. You also have to suspend your critical faculties as well as the laws of the universe in order to enjoy this neatly crafted, exhilarating and character-complex film. Perhaps its greatest achievement though is not the special effects, the battle scenes or indeed the acting.  The epilogue contains a clever plot device that carries Captain America forward from the closing days of World War Two to the 21st century which borrows a little bit of the faked-up world of the “The Truman Show” and the story of Rip Van Winkle.

On a personal level the film also succeeded in taking me on a journey back into the past. Back specifically to a place called “The Blue Shop” on Eliza Street in The Market area of Belfast; back to some time in the early to mid 1970s before dreams of playing professional football, puberty and then Punk Rock.  In that hiatus behind the still tender edge of early childhood and the cusp of teenage years I became an obsessive reader of what we called “the American glossies”, the magazines that printed derring-do tales of magical powers possessed by Superheroes like Spiderman, The Incredible Hulk, The Mighty Thor and of course, Captain America. I will never forget the excitement of leaving primary school every Thursday afternoon and walking towards that shop facing Inglis Bakery at the bottom of the longest street in the area or the thrill of seeing what tales from a multi-coloured, fantastical future were on sale and who your heroic characters were pitted against in the latest edition.

This was Life-as-Elsewhere in the guise of demonic plots by Dr Doom to destroy the earth in its entirety and Spidey’s desperate battle to save them. And yet beyond those graphics, over those pages there was a real war being waged all around you. On leaving the cinema with my two youngest children at the weekend, absorbing the impact of the first of what will be many Captain America movies ahead, I realised that by bringing this ‘Marvel’ character to life, the film makers had tapped into another potent subset of brain activity – the power of nostalgia.

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