Category Archives: Art
Last year after the publication of my short story SOMAT in The Long Gaze Back, I was asked to contribute to various events and public readings. I decided to say a big resounding YES to anything I was asked to write/do as an important part (for me) of being a writer is taking on the challenge of reading in public. I took part in a lot of fun events, the Barrytown Trilogy Readings in Dun Laoghaire when Colm Keegan was Writer in Residence, The Bogman’s Canon Fiction Disco, Staccato, National Concert Hall, among others. (Next Monday: 7th November, I’ll be reading a new short story at The Monday Echo at The Mezz in Temple Bar. It kinda never stops! What I learnt was that writing for public readings demands a different type of narrative, one that is less complex than, say, a short story for the page, where the reader is deliberately left thinking about what is inferred – particularly with story endings – and instead these pieces should concentrate on entertaining the audience in the moment. You have about ten minutes to make yourself understood in these kind of settings. You can do this by concentrating more heavily on dialogue, making stories easier to comprehend and to the point. Who are the main characters, what’s going on, what happens them, what changes. Simple! When I was asked to take part in the Eastrogen Rising as part of the Five Lamps Festival I wanted to write about an ‘unknown’ woman who was caught up in the Rising in some way. Lots of ordinary Dubs were left short of vital supplies (no fridges, people shopped daily for their grub) and forced to loot in order to feed their families, it’s believed now that this is how a lot of the kids who got caught up in the gunfire, died. As reported in the Irish Examiner last March, most of the looting took place in the first three days, amid the crossfire between the rebels and the British, but before the fires took firm hold in the central streets. Lower Sackville St was a focal point, with clothes, sports, and toy shops proving popular. Noblett’s and Lemon’s confectioners shops were looted for chocolates and sweets; the toffee axe may have come from one
of these. The Cable Shoe Company had its windows smashed, and contemporary newspapers reported that people were seen trying on boots and shoes, and returning for another pair if the first selection failed to fit correctly. I tried to imagine a woman whose husband was a bit of an eejit, he desperately wants to pick off some of the glory for himself any way he can while she’s left at home with some leftover veg and a baby to look after, until her friend Molly calls around and takes her looting. This show is running for the last time on December 3rd at the Annesley House in North Strand as the 1916 commemorations come to a close. It’s a fast-paced celebration of those women, from Constance Markievicz to the messenger girls, the ordinary housewives and the widows of the executed men. The multi-media show includes songs, poetry, spoken word, theatre pieces, video and recorded soundscapes. Fireworks taken from Lawrence’s Photographic and toy emporium on Sackville Street opposte the GPO were thought to have been responsible for much of the fires in that part of the city centre. It was these fires, started by looters that spread from building to building, which caused the massive destruction. Here’s my short fiction piece from the show that was Highly Commended for the The Colm Toíbín International Short Story Award. Read it fast in a flat Dub accent or come to the show in December to hear me read it instead! Tickets are available at the door on the night…
‘A woman of set purpose’, he says, ‘In these stirring times Kathleen, it’s no worse a thing you could be.’ ‘Ah right’, says I, ‘Everyone lays a burden on a willing horse Jimmy, but not every Irish woman is Maud Bloody Gonne’. He flicked the baby’s snot in the fire, and prepared to leave, carrying a piece of chair leg with him. That’s what I loved about Jimmy; he could suck out the clogged pipes of a bairn in one hand, and take on the might of the oppressor with a bit of wicker in the other, and still be home in time for a shindig supper. ‘You’re not listening, it’s on for certain’, Jimmy says, ‘The rebellion, it’s full steam on’ – the whooping outta him – ‘D’ye hear me Kathleen? It’s STARTED!’
A fella shot hoisting a flag high above City Hall…crowds gathering up around Sackville Street, fixed bayonets, people digging trenches, fires scorching from pinched fireworks, running in all directions they were. ‘Pray for me darling Kathleen, that I arrive back safe in your bosom’. As last words, no less dramatic than his ideals. ‘I will,’ I says, looking at the half a sausage, butt of carrot and scabby onion on the table, that, along with a sly sup of water, was going to magic into this week’s dinner. ‘I’m hoping for all our sakes you do come back love,’ I says. ‘Not least of all so I don’t have to explain to your employer up at the Royal Barracks that they’ll have to get a new shit shoveller when your turnip gets blown off.’
That’s what got me in all this. Half dem fellas worked for the Empire or were away fighting into the afterlife for it. It’s not like we didn’t know how bad things were at home, but how would a Republic make our lives any different? We all knew scrabblers stuck in Tenements with just one flushable piss pot for twenty people! Sickness streaming down bannisters along with the dark lung. I saw a nipper feeding two childer a wet cloth to stave off the hunger, sucking a corner each, another cradled on the stone stairs in a half rag, brown smeared down the walls would turn the guts of a carthorse. A day here a day there down the docks when it came to work. I don’t mind tellin’ ye, all across the country, the men were drunk and the women were angry.
Out the door I see him swaggering towards Sackville Street to the GPO where a ‘certain comrade’ has confided in him the Big Barney is really kicking off. But knowing Jimmy, at the first sound of gunfire, he’ll drop the wood and slip down a side street until he’s at the back of The Gresham, heading north till he can knock up a couple of his cronies holed up in some kip near Dorset Street. Saluting two flags his new Citizens’ Army chums assure him will be flying on either side of the post office before he beats a sneaky retreat. Ah sure he’ll tell himself that he’s already ‘done his bit for the cause’, chucking four Lee Enfield rifles over the wall and into a blanket the rebels have spread out on the outside of the barracks. Humming ‘God Save Ireland’ until it’s drowned by the clatter of horses hooves of the British cavalry and the crick-crack of bullets whizzing to and fro. No problem to him to whistle a grand patriotic tune right up until he’s at the boarding-house overlooking the Royal Canal, hammering on the door until those bowsies let him in and invite the chancer to their card school. It’s well I remember Palm Sunday when he squandered the wages including pennies his newfound friends from Liberty Hall handed him for services rendered in the name of the Irish Republic.
It was a bitter night in January when he first brought Maud Gonne – who I later named ‘When is she gone?’ and Connolly to our lodgings. ‘Jesus Kathleen, the neighbours would be flabbergasted if they realised our company tonight!’ Jimmy said. I was flabbergasted as he expected me to have tea and brack, a drop of porter, fat logs on the fire and whatever else, and her with an accent you’d only hear back from a wall at a séance. ‘Such pretty little houses are these,’ Maud said, taking her bonnet and swishing it about her nostrils which were halfway up in the air trying to get away from the fish heads on the table. ‘And yet the enemy is intent on the wholesale destruction of these little habitats with their big brutish battering rams.’ Jimmy all impressed at her mouth swagger. ‘You should try living in one of these little houses Maud,’ I says. ‘That’s about the best way to know what you’re talking about.’ And as for Connolly! He sat there smoking a pipe like an American Indian, saying beautiful nought.
Jimmy is out prowling them streets, trying to get himself noticed with that chair leg. He couldn’t even do the decent thing and find himself a pike. There’s a rap at the window; the plump frame of Molly Gilroy crowned with a feathered hat beyond the pane. No, she won’t stop for a sup she says, when I come to the door to let her in. She’s swinging a box with twine over it dangling on her arm all excited and nodding her head to show off the fancy thing on top of her hair and a fox stole sporting an oversized head choking her neck-line.
‘They were just lying there among the mannequins in the smashed up shop and I says to myself I says ‘Go on Molly girl, now’s your chance. Even Edward’s war pension if he was to take one for King and Empire over in France would never get you into a place like this.’ Dublin’s difficulty is Gilroy’s opportunity…and yours too Kathleen,’ Molly shrieks as the booms and the bangs go off in the distance. I grab my shawl, stick the baby in his crib at the chimney and run out after her.
Molly has one hand on her hat and the other on her hip as she tea dances all the way down to the Liffey and back up as far as the shops near the bridge with their gouged-out fronts and broken glass. Oh God those Brit boyos are not going to be put off by troops of giddy blackguards swinging hurleys and anything else they can muster. Our lot are stupid as half-reared pigs with torn ears. There’s little left to scavenge when we get near Noblett’s sweet shop as all the ragged kids are wearing oversize boots and showing off stroked rings on their fingers. One lad is parading around in a liberated Aran suit from Clery’s while a jug-eared Monsignor from the Pro-Cathedral is clipping the neck of a scamp who has a box of Everton Toffees under his arm and who wont let go of his booty.
‘Take yer hand away from that chisler Father or I’ll have ya!’, Molly Gilroy bellows as she points to a green tweed cape lying amid slivers of glass outside Clery’s pavement. ‘Has there been anymore of our ones taken?’ says I to an old white head sticking out of a wool blanket in a doorway. ‘What’s all this for?’ he crackles back, looking more the worse for wear than aware. He may have been sleeping here a fair few days, more ragged ones being put out now when there’s not enough to go around. ‘Don’t you know?’ I says. ‘The Shinners have grabbed the city by its nethers this morning and they’re not going to stop until the whole place is sunk beneath itself’. He’s straining to look around. ‘Oh’, says he…’I could hear something alright, but on account of taking de drop, I thought it might be just in the ears.’ I tell him it’s going on since eleven this morning and no doubts will get hellsbells…he’d better get himself off the streets proper. ‘The Green is full of them too I hear and they’ve captured the Castle on top, and the Post Office, look at the smoke over there’. ‘My God’, he says, ‘The buggers are stirring up trouble for all of us.’
I pick up the garment Molly flings at me, her right hand now wristletted by a thick gold chain. I pretend I haven’t seen the sparkling jade brooch you’d see on one of those elegant ladies gliding into the Abbey Theatre of an evening. I’ll hide it from Molly, I’ll hide it from Jimmy. I’ll keep it planked in the pantry, maybe in the sugar bowl. If he loses at cards again this evening I’ll have something to take to the Pawn shops in Capel Street later in the week…if there’s a Capel Street still standing after all this is over.
Molly runs over and says, ‘Jesus Kathleen, your Jimmy’s up there, squeezed into a window at the very top of the GPO, screaming his lamps off, guns blazing!’ We lash up the pathway on the other side of the road, past the fruit sellers hiding under their stalls, a bread & milk van turned over, some youngones running with tins of bully beef, soldiers from our own side shouting: ‘Qut! Out! Get out of the way, looters will be shot!’, until we’re facing the main windows at the front of the building. By Jaysus there’s Jimmy, the big wide jawbone on him, and a gun alright, along with his gunner eye, pointing up into the sky shooting at any clouds that happen to be passing by. ‘He’s lighting up the sky over Ireland!’ Molly roars, busting her sides laughing, ‘Jimmy! Jimmy! The enemy’s down here!’ But he’s off with his own heavenly army in some other direction. ‘Grab what you can Molly,’ I says. ‘These are going to be tough times ahead for the likes of us, and I’ll deal with that eejit when he lands back down in the new Republic in the morning’.
Lisa Harding is a writer I truly admire. She nails *voice* like no-one else I know both in her short stories and in her newly-penned novels. This month (October) she signed with New Island Books for a controversial novel about trafficked teenagers (published next Spring) and she’s also Writer in Residence with Pavee Point in association with the Irish Writer’s Centre. I meet with Lisa fortnightly at our writer’s group in Brooks Hotel on Drury Street, so am familiar with her work and also with her struggle to stay earning while pursuing a life as a writer. I wanted to ask her some relevant questions that may be of use to other writers starting out on a similar track.
Let’s start with where things are at for you at the moment and that includes being on the radio recently to talk about your current accommodation difficulties. You made a very valid point that one in four people in Ireland rent and these numbers are growing, yet nothing solid has been done about the appalling conditions and escalating prices. You have your first novel coming out in 2017 with New Island Books; you are trying hard to contribute to society but as a freelance teacher, actress and writer, you feel that your own basic needs are being violated over. It’s a side to the writer’s life that’s maybe not talked about a lot. Can you elaborate?
This tension is a biggie for me: How to continue with my creative work while keeping a roof over my head? My balance isn’t what it used to be, and I don’t think I like teetering on that high-wire anymore…I moved back to Dublin almost seven years ago after thirteen years living out of a suitcase as an actress in London. That was all fine, then. But the time came when I wanted to move home to create some stability and focus more on writing. Since moving back I’ve had six moves in six years because of landlord’s vagaries: rent increases, taking back property for family members, selling under my feet and sometimes impossible living conditions such as no heat and damp.
How do artists live in a city where the average cost of renting a studio/one bedroom sub-standard dwelling is €1,000 a month? As Martin Doyle wrote in the Irish Times on the 7 Oct, the median income of professional authors is €12,000, but the typical median income of all writers is less than €4,000. So boohoo, some people say, grow up, get a ‘proper job’, or marry a rich man (yes, I’ve heard that one a few times!) or move out of Dublin, or share with a bunch of twenty-somethings. I love my hometown and happen to believe that the arts are an important, integral part of any society. Also, having spent over a decade in London, I don’t want to uproot again and be in a place where I know no one. Dublin has a rich tradition of producing writers, actors, theatre-makers. We pride ourselves on our culture, yet some prominent arts practitioners that I know live on less than the minimum wage.
I wish I knew the answer to this conundrum, but I know for sure that if I weren’t running around stressing and doing all my other jobs, which still don’t bring in enough for me to create a stable home I’d have much more time to spend on creating new work.
Tell us about your first novel, the genesis of the idea, how you decided to go about it?
When I was acting in Fair City, I was approached by a representative for The Body Shop to read some monologues written by girls who had been trafficked into this country. This was part of a campaign run in conjunction with the Immigrant Council of Ireland to stop the trafficking of children. I had no idea of the extent of the industry; how so many of these girls were so young and were being visited by men from all sectors of society, some of whom had daughters at home. I found the experience of reading the statements traumatic and wondered how their young bodies and minds could survive and assimilate this abuse. Or could they?
The testimonies I read aloud were true stories of girls who were now in safety, but I could feel their splintered psyches even in the simple language they used to relate the facts of their captivity. I really didn’t want to think any more on it, but I was haunted by their stories and couldn’t push these girls out of my mind. I tried. I wrote a series of unrelated short stories, but something was gestating and Iliterally felt compelled to write it. Some kind of a testament to these girls, to try to give ‘voice’ in some way. There was always the worry for me of ‘trespassing’ on other people’s misery, and not writing about something I’ve had no first-hand experience of, but once I became convinced that my motivation was coming from a pure place, I gave myself permission to write Harvesting. The novel has subsequently been read and approved of by a number of NGO’s who believe that the immersive accounts of two girls trapped in this world may raise awareness in a way that no amount of journalistic reports could.
You are currently the IWC Writer in residence with Pavee Point, what does this involve, what have you learnt so far?
My group is very varied in age and writing ability, so the sessions are mainly being mediated through discussion and aural storytelling. We are exploring the concepts of identity and purpose through the prism of inter-generational change. Some of the older women in the group are in their seventies and have lived through the enforced settlement and assimilation program of the 1960s. Others in the group are in their twenties and were born in houses and have never experienced life on the road. High levels of unemployment and suicide, are, the older generation believe, a direct result of loss of identity and purpose that the traditional traveller embodied in their roles as tinsmith, palmist, storyteller, voyager. They also cite a loss of connection with nature as instrumental in a growing depression. We are in the process of documenting these changes for each individual in the group. I want to record a series of podcasts addressing these issues, with personal resonances.
Your career before now was mainly acting, do you find that this has helped with ‘voice’ and ‘character’ in your fiction?
It’s definitely my strength in writing fiction, but also one of my limitations. I wrote a series of plays before attempting prose, and tend to approach all my fiction with that same dramatic intent. I always write in ‘voice’, even in a third person narrative, which is instinctive, but also highlights (for me) my lack of ability to write a long-lens third person, past tense narrative. I find the traditional form of the novel highly intimidating and have long put off attempting one, but now I just let what happens happen. It’s all story-telling at the end of the day, even if much more clever writers than me attest otherwise! I respond to character-driven work, where things happen on the page. I love beautiful prose too, but never at the expense of the truth of the psychology of the character or the sensibility of the world.
You write both short stories and novels. How do you manage the switch between genres?
I think everything I write is mediated through a dramatic lens, so my first short stories were really long monologues and mini-plays. Likewise my attempts at novels. I love short stories and find the process of writing them really freeing, especially with writers as diverse as Amy Hempel, George Saunders and Lydia Davis out there creating fresh forms. I enjoy writing scenes, where some conflict occurs, some tension in the central character is laid bare. Sometimes I write a series of disconnected scenes with the same characters and then lay them out on the floor like a patchwork quilt. My approach really is that lacking in technique! If the scenes about the same character keep coming then it’s more likely going to be bigger than a short story. I’m beginning to trust and luxuriate in the immersive process of living with characters for a longer period of time and fully inhabiting their psyches. I tend to step inside their skins, in much the same way I used to approach my acting roles. I don’t think I’m any good at ‘genre’ though. I just write in the way that comes naturally to me.
Do you have a writing routine?
My days are too varied, too caught up with making rent to allow a same-time-every-day approach. However, and I’ve only recently implemented this, I do try to write every day, at whatever time that particular day allows. As I’m in the process of first-drafting my second novel, I’m attempting to adapt the Stephen King approach of pushing out a set number of words a day. If I didn’t do this with the longer form, I’d lose momentum and energy. I’m also about to start into the editorial process with New Island on Harvesting and will happily carve out the time and space to do this.
You and I are both involved in Brooks Writer’s Group that meets fortnightly on a Monday afternoon. Have you found being part of a writer’s group useful? What are the pros/cons?
I have mixed feelings about writing groups as I believe sometimes remarks that come about because of another person’s need to sound knowledgeable or intelligent can be damaging, particularly at the beginning stages of a process. It’s important to be able to listen to other people’s opinions and yet not lose your instinctive flavour. I have attended groups where the tutor tried to corral writers into writing how they themselves would write. This is bad practice, and not one I would actively seek out. I have also participated in groups where the opposite was happening: where the individuality of each participant’s voice was nurtured. I believe that we are, in the main, highly critical of our own work anyway and don’t need further slamming, or excuses not to do it.
The pros of belonging to our particular group far outweigh any negatives for me, as we have a good deal of trust in each other’s motivations when critiquing. Everybody’s work is of a standard that means we can only get better by listening to each other. Also, as writing is a lonely undertaking, it’s great to be part of a group of like-minded passionate people. May I also say that I’m delighted to be debut-ing alongside yourself, my fellow Brooks Writer’s Group member, with New Island in 2017!
What keeps you awake at night?
Financial worries (and its attendant shame), family concerns, cruelty to animals, exploitation of vulnerable people… I could go on, but these are to the fore at the moment.
What [further] resources would you like to see for writers aside from workshops, retreats, etc?
In an ideal world I’d magic up more funding opportunities, particularly for writers who really are stressed financially. At the moment none of our funding bodies take the financial situation of the applicant into consideration. Perhaps some sort of a means-tested application would be helpful, alongside a foregrounding of the quality of the work of the applicant? Obviously, I wish publishing houses in Ireland were properly supported and resourced too.
Give me a few examples of fiction that really blew you away/had an emotional impact?
A Little Life by Hanya Yanagihara, My Name is Lucy Barton by Elizabeth Strout, The Narrow Road to the Deep Northby Richard Flanagan, Eyrie by Tim Winton, Cloudstreet by Tim Winton. At the moment I’m in a manic novel-reading phase hoping to unlock the secret code! I’m currently obsessed by Tim Winton: his storytelling voice, the beauty, brutality, grace, muscularity, humour, idiosyncrasies of his prose, his flair for writing exciting storylines, for creating colourful characters. He makes me want to read on and then read back again. Gorgeous stylist and masterful storyteller. Maybe some of it will leak through by osmosis. Sigh.
Lisa Harding graduated from the M Phil in Creative Writing, Trinity College Dublin. Three plays: Starving, And All Because, and Playground were performed at Theatre503, Battersea Arts Centre, and the Project Theatre Dublin respectively. Doghouse was work-shopped at The National Theatre Studio. She was awarded an Irish Arts Council Bursary and a Peggy Ramsay Grant for Playwriting. Short stories have been published in The Dublin Review, The Bath Short Story Award Collection 2014, and online on the Irish Writer’s Centre website. Her story ‘Counting Down’ was a winner in the inaugural Doolin Writer’s Weekend Competition. Other work has been short-listed for the Bath, Fish, Listowel, Cúirt, Over the Edge, and Penguin Ireland/RTE Guide short story awards. She has just completed her first novel.
An orgasm in a caravan with a convector heater on full blast and a thousand rounds of toast popping. Nothing can adequately describe the frenzied claustrophobia in Elizabeth Smart’s By Grand Central Station I Sat Down And Wept. When I read it at age 22 in a damp smelly bedsit in north London in the clinch of obsessive love for a co-worker who’d chosen a brilliantly achieved woman over me, I understood the heart-stopping power of literature for the first time. This little book grabbed me by the hair and dragged.
She had been there in the 1930s, Canadian writer Elizabeth Smart, and was able to explain it to me six decades later. Swallowing the earth with a married man, putting the whole untidy world into a nest, declaring that ‘love is strong as death’, especially the vetoed kind. I was flailing around with delusion in Wood Green, a harpy of relentlessness, addicted to hummus kebabs, drinking too much, longing for life with this man I’d met in a pet insurance company, screaming at him in red phone boxes, being mental. It was all a bit ugly and engrossing as often young love is.
The stifling descriptions of how Smart felt for poet-floozy George Barker after enticing him and his young wife to America – the length and latitude she was prepared to go to in pursuit of carnal hunger (she’d planned seven kids with him, though reality & economics restricted her to four) – her long-lived love story and how she wrote it became a strange anchor for me. I was relieved by its lunacy. In some ways it helped me move on. I entombed my man in London, moved back to Ireland, grew up a bit and learnt how to behave. Though the book, like sea lichen, left its tidemark.
I re-read it again recently and wanted to puke! A nauseating and brilliant ecology of desire and mental oblation. The reader is a peeper, an ogler, a watcher, through something mad, thrilling and rare. We witness Smart baiting her lover while sacrificing his martyr wife, the steamy affair that ensues across America, Canada and England, the ‘real’ trouble they get into because of the social mores of the time, the disgust her family experienced (Parent’s imaginations build frameworks out of their own hopes and regrets into which children seldom grow, but instead, contrary as trees, lean sideways out of the architecture, blown by a fatal wind they never envisaged) and her own mercenary journey through marvellous filthy love, horrible loneliness and eventual abandonment by a man who went on to have 15 kids with a bunch of women, while never managing to nab a full-time job. By today’s standards, he really was a Casanova shithead.
While the language and depth of feeling is still affectingly brilliant, it reads a little indulgent for our time. Nature, birds, prophecy, insects, shame, cheap hotels, Macbethian blood, betrayal, weather systems, crazed sex, all the things that suffocated her senses would peter out in a string of maniacal text messages today. Smart seems not very smart in truth, a posh girl hell bent on self annihilation and pissing off her parents, but her ability to sculpture language into terrifying and wonderful reflections marks her out as a unique and brilliant writer whose ‘whoring after oblivion’ with claws of biology and pity and hysterical hypnotism will leave you reeling in the trees. There should be a penance of a lot of pints after finishing this book. My dear, my darling, do you hear me where you sleep?
*This piece by moi will be part of Colm Keegan’s We Are What We Read exhibition, taking place at the dlr LexIcon, Dún Laoghaire, from 28th August – 31st October 2015, featuring a range of writers talking about books that had an impact on them.
A quick advertisement now, but I’ll be reading at the dlr LexIcon, The Studio, Dún Laoghaire, 8-9.30pm with Colm Keegan & friends – Karl Parkinson, Stephen James Smith, June Caldwell (that’s me, yeah?) – musician Enda Reilly and singer Sinéad White. The reading includes both an extract from the infamous Barrytown Trilogy (The Commitments (1987), The Snapper (1990), The Van (1991)) by Roddy Doyle as well as fiction of my own.
This year marks the 10th anniversary of the One City One Book initiative, showcasing some of the great literary works which have become synonymous with the city throughout its history. It’s 28 years since The Commitments was published, the first instalment of the Barrytown trilogy which had us all in stitches and set a new precedence for realistic Irish fiction (read as you hear it). The ordinary going-ons of a bunch of working class hedonistic musicians based on the north side of Dublin marked the end in literature of a youth supposedly choked by the church and abandoned in a hopeless and endless recession/suppression. In the same way that James Joyce put the cuffs on a ‘modernist’ take on Irish culture, Roddy Doyle’s savage hilarity of 1980’s suburban life gave people permission to be themselves regardless of where they came from and what they wanted to do in life. Unlike Joyce, this fiction was as accessible as it was memorable. The ‘success’ of the book’s band was irrelevant as one of the protagonists in the novel would later claim, ‘Sure we could have been famous and made albums and stuff, but that would have been predictable. This way it’s poetry.’
Do you not get it, lads? The Irish are the blacks of Europe. And Dubliners are the blacks of Ireland. And the Northside Dubliners are the blacks of Dublin. So say it once, say it loud: I’m black and I’m proud.
In a recent Irish Times article Doyle maintains little has changed for the residents of Ireland’s capital despite the events of intervening years. ‘People still get pregnant I think, don’t they? People are still unemployed, young kids still form bands, they still talk in much the same way they used to. The city has changed but it’s still the same place. The books came out of a recession. We didn’t use that word back then, it seemed like normal life in Dublin. The difference with this recession was that we had seen what life could be like so it came as an almighty shock. I think it took a while for the city and country to catch up with its sense of humour, there wasn’t much laughter in the first couple of years. Hard times seem to give birth to good humour’.
The Commitments was voted best Irish film of all time in a 2005 poll sponsored by Jameson Irish Whiskey and launched a generation of Irish musicians and actors. It also won a BAFTA for Best Film. A follow-on The Snapper (my own personal favourite) revolved around unmarried Sharon Rabbitte’s (surname ‘Curley’ in the film) pregnancy, and the unexpected effects this has on her conservative family (Jaysus, me fanny!). Again it was made into a 1993 movie, this time for TV, directed by Stephen Frears and starring Tina Kellegher, Colm Meaney and Brendan Gleeson. The third in the series, The Van, was shortlisted for the Booker Prize in 1991. Jimmy Rabbitte Senior (Sharon’s dad) is unemployed, spending his days alone and miserable. When his best friend, Bimbo, also gets laid off, they keep by being miserable together. Things seem to look up when they buy a decrepit fish-and-chip van and go into business, selling cheap grub to the drunk and the hungry–and keeping one step ahead of the environmental health officers.
Doyle went on to win The Booker Prize with Paddy Clarke Ha Ha Ha in 1993 and has since published a glut of adult novels, novels for children, plays, screenplays, novellas, short stories and works of non-fiction. In 2013 he won the Bord Gáis Energy Irish Book Awards (Novel of the Year) for The Guts.
There are over 60 events organised by Dublin City Council for the month of April to celebrate. I am delighted to be taking part in one of them.
I’m ethically pinching the text of an article (below) from The Irish Times as it mentions The Long Gaze Back, an anthology of Irish women’s fiction I’ll be published in next year, edited by the lovely Sinéad Gleeson and published by New Island in autumn 2015. I look forward to sharing sacred print space with some fantastic writers (living and dead) such as Éilis Ní Dhuibhne, Anne Enright, Christine Dwyer Hickey, Mary Lavin, Eimear McBride, Belinda McKeon, Mary Costello, Lia Mills, Lucy Caldwell, Nuala Ní Chonchúir, Maria Edgeworth and Elizabeth Bowen. In January I’m on a much-needed writing break to Salthill for a few days, in March I’ll be attending the Doolin Writers’ Weekend (invited back as a *guest* in return for helping with the first two years’ programming). I’ve been short-listed by Over The Edge to read at Cúirt International Festival of Literature 2015 (but will have to wait to see if I make the grade!). In May I’ll be in situ in the Loire Valley in France working on the novel at Cirlce of Misse – which is my reward from the 2014 Moth Short Story Prize – and on April 23rd I’ll be taking part in the Barrytown Sounds with Colm Keegan, dlr Writer in Residence and Friends at the The Studio, Dún Laoghaire, so already, even before the Auld Lang Syne sets in…an exciting and productive New Year. The very best of luck to all my writer friends spilling their dauntlessness as they do. Make 2015 a year that counts.
Next year brings plenty of emerging talent to the bookshelves, both in Ireland and internationally.
Four brothers deal with a madman’s prophecy of violence in 1990s Nigeria in Chigozie Obioma’s The Fisherman (One, February). In Emma Hooper’s Etta and Otto and Russell and James (Fig Tree, January) Etta, an octogenarian, goes on a 3,000km journey to see the Canadian sea. Sara Taylor’s The Shore (William Heinemann, March) maps out the secrets of generations of women living off the coast of Chesapeake Bay, in Virginia. Sara Novic’s Girl at War (Little, Brown, May) explores the devastation wreaked by the Serbo-Croatian conflict. More Saras as we move to Ireland, with the Davy Byrnes 2014 winner, Sara Baume, one to watch for her poetically titled Spill Simmer Falter Wither (Tramp Press, February), which tells of an unlikely friendship between two outcasts in rural Ireland.Weightless (Bloomsbury, March), by Sara Bannan, focuses on cyberbullying with the arrival of a new girl at an Alabama high school. A murder in Lisa McInerney’s The Glorious Heresies (John Murray, April) affects the lives of five misfits in postcrash Ireland. From Ireland to Illinois, Paula McGrath’s short novel Generations (John Murray, July) delivers interlinked stories of multiple characters as they seek to rebuild their lives after loss. Set in Victorian England’s theatre district, The Curtain Falls (Ward River, March), by Carole Gurnett, details the secret life of a gay writer. Henrietta McKervey’s What Becomes of Us (Hachette Ireland, April) looks at the role of Cumann na mBan in the 1916 Rising from the perspective of a journalist in 1960s Ireland. Debut authors are also well represented in the short-story form, with Andrew Fox’s Over Our Heads (Penguin, April) and Thomas Morris’s We Don’t Know What We’re Doing (Faber, August). The Stinging Fly continues its tradition of publishing new talent with Claire-Louise Bennett’s Pond (April) and Danielle McLaughlin’s highly anticipated collection due later in the year. Short Fiction Ireland’s love affair with the short story continues to grow, with a host of new anthologies and collections on the way. The Hennessy Book of Irish Fiction 2005-2015, edited by Dermot Bolger and Ciarán Carty (New Island, March) is the third anthology in the series chronicling an emerging literary generation.
The Irish Times contributor Sinéad Gleeson is at the helm of a collection of Irish female writers, among them Éilis Ní Dhuibhne, Anne Enright, Christine Dwyer Hickey and Nuala Ní Chonchúir. New Island also releases the seventh instalment in its Open Door series, featuring novellas by Roddy Doyle, Catherine Dunne, Colette Caddell, Ciara Geraghty and Claudia Carroll. As Gaeilge, Micheál Ó Conghaile makes a welcome return with Diabhlaíocht Dé (Cló Iar-Chonnacht, May), his first collection in 12 years. A combination of traditional prose, poetry, monologue and music, Alf Maclochlainn’s Past Habitual (Dalkey Archive Press, March) depicts an Ireland struggling with the effects of war. Edited by Deirdre Madden, All Over Ireland (Faber, May) is a mix of emerging and established Irish writers, including Colm Tóibín, Eoin McNamee and Mary Costello. Under the Rose (Faber, June) is a new collection of previously published stories by Julia O’Faolain, with an afterword from the author looking back on her work. In keeping with the themes of his novels, the human cost of loneliness and displacement is at the centre of Donal Ryan’s first collection of short stories, A Slanting of the Sun (Doubleday Ireland, September). Collections from international authors to watch out for include Honeydew (John Murray, January), by the American writer Edith Pearlman, and the Impac winner Juan Gabriel Vasquez’s The All Saints’ Day Lovers.
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.
As 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.
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.
This 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.
I 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).
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.
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.
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.
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.
There‘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 hundred 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.
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.
In 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.
There 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. The 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.
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:
Some 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.
With 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 Tango, 12:23 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.
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.
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.’
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.
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.
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 Sleep, The 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!
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,
and at most one little fish
by no means golden.
More like a grey
It certainly isn’t noticeable
at first sight.
Anyone who has painted the heart knows
that first he had to
discard his spectacles,
throw away his fine-point pencil
and carbon paper
and for a long while
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).
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 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.
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  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?
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 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.
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!
& 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.
- Through the Square Window, Carcanet
- The State of the Prisons, Carcanet
- Between Here and There, Carcanet
- There Was Fire in Vancouver, Carcanet
- Forward Poetry Prize (Best Poetry Collection of the Year), Through The Square Window, shortlist
- T. S. Eliot Prize, Through The Square Window, shortlst
- National Poetry Competition, winner – ‘Through The Square Window’
- T. S. Eliot Prize, The State of the Prisons, shortlist
- Michael Hartnett Award for Poetry
- John Llewellyn-Rhys Memorial Prize, The State of the Prisons, shortlist
- T. S. Eliot Prize, Between Here and There, shortlist
- Rupert and Eithne Strong Trust Award
- Arts Council Macaulay Fellowship
- Eric Gregory Award
- Patrick Kavanagh Award
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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: