Category Archives: Family
This feels slightly weird but in the run-up to the launch of Room Little Darker next Wednesday, 31st May (Hodges Figgis, 6pm, all welcome!) I wanted to post this author interview Catherine Dunne did with me on her website as it discusses some of the stories in the book as well as wider themes. So excuse the narcissism, and enjoy!
1 – ‘SOMAT’ is also part of this new story collection. Narrated from the point of view of a foetus, it is, among other things, a howl of outrage against the Eighth Amendment to the Constitution which can reduce pregnant women in Ireland to the status of incubators. But it is the irreverent inventiveness of the language that really grabs the reader by the throat. Can you give us an insight into how you gave life to this particular voice?
J.C.: – There were two Frankensteinesque stories of women held captive in monstrous situations in 2014 that really smashed me in the gut and made me angry as hell. A woman from Texas called Marlise Munoz, who was 14 weeks pregnant with the couple’s second child when her husband found her unconscious on their kitchen floor. She’d suffered an pulmonary embolism. Though doctors pronounced her brain dead and her family explicitly said they didn’t want machines keeping her body alive, officials at John Peter Smith Hospital in Fort Worth felt differently.
The law in Texas is very like ours in Ireland. It required them to maintain life-sustaining treatment for a pregnant patient as long as there was a foetal heartbeat. Keeping a woman alive against nature’s will (her body was essentially rotting and she had to be drowned out in ‘somatic’ medicines to keep her ‘technically’ alive) as a human incubator when the baby/foetus is in no way viable was such a hideous scenario.
Her family fought their own grief and powerlessness for eight long weeks, having to go to court several times, before she could be taken off the machines. Think of the trauma of that? And the law is supposed to be there to ‘protect’ you?
Her husband, Erick Munoz, argued that sustaining her body artificially amounted to ‘the cruel and obscene mutilation of a deceased body’ against her wishes and those of her family. That was at the beginning of the year.
June Caldwell’s stories are the roar of fury and clarity that Irish fiction has been needing – no really, it has. You haven’t read anything like this before. You haven’t had anything before like the headspin that these stories will give you. And it doesn’t hurt that they’re gaspingly, gutsily hilarious, as well as formally brave and unbothered with the rules. Just brilliant – Belinda McKeon
At the end of the year, an almost identical situation happened in Ireland. A woman who had suffered a spontaneous ‘brain’ trauma who was 18 weeks pregnant, ended up at the mercy of bonkers legislation in an ‘unnamed’ hospital, being fought over by medical staff, legal eagles and the Catholic church. The hospital refused her family’s request to discontinue artificial life support, citing ‘the country’s strict abortion law’ as their guideline. Then there was the usual circus offerings: lawyers representing the rights of the woman and of the fetus, but not her family, said they accepted the ruling from the country’s second-highest court.
Pro-life organisations saw the lingering horror as a kind of triumph in real-time and the men in dresses were issuing statements from stained-glass windows on God’s law over woman’s fate.
It was insane and really upsetting to read about. One doctor commented that the fetus was essentially “facing into a ‘perfect storm’ from which it has no realistic prospect of emerging alive.”
Even the most cogent argument couldn’t alter the facts, the ‘baby’ had nothing but distress and death ahead. The hospital was afraid of being sued for negligence or having to face murder charges under a 1983 constitutional ban on abortion, the strictest in Europe. Keeping her deteriorating body functioning only with the help of machines and drugs deprived her “of dignity in death”.
It subjected her father, her partner and her young children to “unimaginable distress in a futile exercise which commenced only because of fears held by treating medical specialists of potential legal consequences,” the court decided.
And of course, Government officials said the ruling would be studied for possible exceptions to the blanket ban on abortion. We live in a time where we are contemplating colonies on Mars and yet there are women left lingering in this freakish state in our hospitals, with their families suffering ridiculously.
It boiled my piss.
I wanted to write a story that reflected the trajectory of horror and I felt that it was best told from the fetus’s perspective, to highlight the hideousness. After spending years in journalism and being restricted on what you could say and how you could say it, I firmly believe that fiction can be more effective, more politicised.
wrote the story in a fit of anger to the 3,000 word brief (which was hard to do and sent it into Sinéad Gleeson, who was editing The Long Gaze Back anthology).
I was really nervous about how it would be received, if it came across as offensive, if it would get people talking. It turned out to be one of the most talked about stories in the collection.
The Open University now want it on their MA in Creative Writing (fiction module) and have asked permission to use it for the next nine years. That gave me hope that I have it in me to make a difference. Up until that point I had no idea if I could write a short story or not. Writing the story helped me understand the stupidity of our laws and the need to Repeal the Eighth Amendment and go for a referendum. I hope it happens. It needs to happen.
June Caldwell’s writing is audacious, wicked and profoundly funny; her prose cracks and sizzles. The stories in Room Little Darker are literary electrical storms and Caldwell’s voice is a genuinely fresh, bold and welcome addition to the Irish scene – Nuala O’Connor
2 – The characters in your stories often inhabit a nightmarish world, such as that wildly imagined one in ‘Imp of the Perverse’. They are frequently transported there by the ferocity of sexual desire:
‘In the garden I watch the guests through the heat of amber eyes. Grasses bristle and jostle. I stretch forward to lie flat in the flimsy sunshine of early evening. The clouds are hungry and my mouth waters. Wind tears at itself as I pull layers from the sky to lay over me. Laughter grey and mocking. They do not know the danger love carries.’
Can you talk to us about this – about ‘the danger love carries’ in your stories?
J.C.: – Well, yes, in adult life we are obliged to be ‘civil’ always, aren’t we, to be well behaved?
We’re not marauding teenagers anymore.
But sometimes we can’t or don’t choose our desires and the people who counter-inhabit them. They choose us. They untangle us. They sweep in from the unconscious and take us over, eat us up, make fools of us, flood us. Crazy behaviour can only follow. Desire as the invisible puppeteer. And these desires are often strongest where hierarchies exist, where taboo beckons, where warped lust lurks. In this story I wanted to look closely at two stereotypes: the randy professor who has more choice than sense, and the love-struck MA student who at first is overwhelmed by a genuine admiration for him and his work, but pretty soon that morphs into a dangerous longing.
The longing takes over and acts as Theatre Director in the drama, leading into murky corners, embarrassing come-ons. He, of course, plays with this at first, before becoming sickened or appalled by her. He is used to seducing women with his mind, ‘pinning’ with his eyes, flinging provocative sentences, lassoing.
He sees himself as a Gingerman type character and everyone is fair game.
Until the game goes wrong.
His character is quietly psychopathic. He’s addicted to the pleasure he gets from luring people in, of women wanting him, lasciviousness. He pulls the strings, the wires, he cracks the whip. His position also allows for this. It is the milky environment of emotional cancer, the alkaline is missing. He has a vast brain and deeply abusive psychological patterns that direct him. He’s also a fail-safe opportunist.
She’s not a victim though.
She’s also very clever and plays the ‘little girl’ around him a lot, knowing he likes the dynamism of that. But then she loses control and spills overboard, along with her sanity, ending up in the freezing cold sea. The only way she can cope with the idea of him is to turn him into an animal in her head, where he is predator and she is [willing] prey.
All well and good, but the game goes wrong when she realises he has no interest in her. She cannot compete with what he normally goes for. She unravels. Self-annihilation and destruction consume her. It’s all a bit disgusting and shameful. On the surface she seems to be the gudgeon, the martyr.
But then she examines his behaviour inside the kaleidoscope of power and realises that he can behave as he likes. The expectations on her, in the ‘lower’ hierarchical role, are more demanding and rigid. She gets angry and this perpetuates even more destructive behaviour. It’s a no-win. Going back is futile, revenge is futile, going forward is futile. She is straitjacketed. He will never like her, consider her, want her. His available pool of lovelies who admire him endlessly is so large, he drowns in it. They both drown, but in different ways. In the end she wanders into the ‘den’ and has a breakdown. What will happen when she emerges from that desolate place and sees more clearly? Sees that he’s just a man (how boring!).
What then? Will she feel remorse, will she feel sorry for him? Will she learn important things about herself? He doesn’t care however, and formally complains, consequence pours in regardless. She’s punished severely for her ‘transgression’. He’s every right to do what he does.
He’s also every right to bob along never scrutinising his own behaviour because he never believes he causes damage. It’s all just light-hearted ‘stuff’ to him. Maybe he is the ‘victim’ here, maybe he did nothing wrong.
She could be just relentlessly nuts after all. I want the reader to consider the macro, to like and hate and understand both characters. The meaning of meaninglessness! I use Edgar Allen Poe’s ‘Imp of the Perverse’ as a type of metaphor or structure for the story. In his original short story, which Poe wrote in part as an essay, he first discusses the narrator’s self-destructive impulses, embodied as the symbolic metaphor of The Imp of the Perverse.
The narrator describes this spirit as the agent that tempts a person to do things ‘merely because we feel we should not.’ He talks about how we are compelled to ‘commit acts’ against our self interest in life, that this is part of our intrinsically destructive impulses as human beings. The guilt that’s produced afterwards (even if we ‘confess’ to our ridiculous behaviour, our sins) is also futile. No one cares! Poe’s character eventually commits murder, gets away with it, but the overwhelming desire [triggered by an ‘invisible fiend’ pursuing him, the conscience] to confess leads him to the hangman’s alley.
I thought it would be the perfect metaphor to look at destructive desire and the crippling lonely lows it can lead us into.
I use some of Poe’s text in the story, sneakily.
It’s there in some of the sentences, but the modern context of the setting submerges the original text.
The moral of the story is that desire can be as treacherous as love is relative. We need to know how to handle it, how to bury it, how to accept defeat and walk off, how to forgive ourselves. Ultimately how to accept that sometimes we have no control. Perhaps it’s the only way we can truly learn.
This story could also be written about a priest and one of his congregation, a paedophile and a child, an alligator zig-zagging towards a juicy deer strolling aimlessly by. Ying without the Yang, sexual chemistry in a cul-de-sac.
Poe’s theory of the Imp of the Perverse is an early notion of the subconscious and repression which would not be fully theorised until Freud.
When people meet they’ve no real idea what private psychologies they’re banging off. It’s why we have boundaries in life. Rules. When we ignore them, or evade our own splurging instincts, we get into trouble. It was too tempting to have the student protagonist ‘win’ in the end by ripping him to shreds for hurting her, but that’s not realistic. The end is deliberately anti-climactic. Maybe they are both still out there and have learnt nothing in their separate dusty cubby-holes. That’s what I imagine anyway. Love, lust, desire, even the ugly deluded kind, are potentially traumatic and betraying to the delicate self. There is no midway point, no resolve, no understanding. We become marked, spoiled, swinging off the rope forever. Tread carefully and make sure there’s rubber soles on your slippers to cope with the rain.
June Caldwell’s stories are savagely inventive, full-throttle snapshots of the creepy, pitiable world it seems we all now have to live in. If the ghost of Angela Carter and a hungover George Saunders ever got together, they might turn out tales as full of the righteous ire and strychnine wit as the uproarious stories in Room Little Darker – Colin Barrett
3 – Your writer’s imagination seems to me to be a heady mix of hilarity and horror. In the visceral tale ‘Upcycle’, a daughter recalls the chilling abuse of a now-demented father. Yet the tale is leavened with a hearty dose of black humour, such as the mother’s futile attempt, long ago, to ‘poison his stew’. There are many times when the reader laughs, and then feels uncomfortable for laughing. Can you talk to us about the role of humour in your stories?
J.C.: – I always see the funny even in the horrific or even just in the ‘every day’.
Maybe it’s a feeling of healthy dislocation, but I find a lot of life ‘unreal’, and that also includes how we cope with memory. I’ve never grown up, essentially. We forget too that there are always two in a tango, that everyone bears the weight of responsibility, for their relationships, for their actions, and most tellingly, for their lack of action.
The crime of nonchalance, of missing the point of life. The ‘wife’ character in ‘Upcycle’ is portrayed first of all as a bit of a victim but really we have to ask ourselves, what’s in it for her staying with a man like that? Is it societal pressure of the time (the story swings back and forth from the 1970s and 1980s to the present day where the ‘husband’ is in a nursing home)? Again it is a story about the shifting sands of power: a man who is a bully in his marriage but is now out of control with the mites of madness eating his brain, behaves accordingly.
He loses control but tries to regain some of that control by haunting his family. Is he really haunting them or is it their own conscience playing havoc in the aftermath of a traumatic situation? The house becomes a metaphor for the man’s strong seething will and starts to break up all around them (the wife and daughter).
I guess there’s unintentional humour in that.
In the scenario itself. Fun in the absurd. We expect justice in life, appeasement, release from hard situations. It often doesn’t arrive, it doesn’t grace our doorstep.
Life tells us, ‘You picked this shit, deal with it, smell it, stick it right up your nose.’ Humour is sometimes our only saviour. Without giving too much away, by the end of the story, the protagonist realises that the father was always terrified of them, while they lived it in real time the other way around. Humour in hopelessness, the wrangle for reason.
What else is there to do sometimes but laugh? I hope that there is fun and humour is most of these stories. In ‘Leitrim Flip’ for instance, the scenario is horrific, but again the couple’s predicament in the cage is a consequence of not thinking things through clearly. There’s buffoonery in the role reversal: the ‘submissive’ character relents and accepts her fate. The ‘Master’ continually fights their predicament and refuses to accept it. Yet in his traditional role he’d expect her to handle anything he’d dream of dishing out.
In ‘The Man Who Lives In A Tree’, the tree is seemingly a ‘friend’ but Rashi soon realises that he’s a malevolent git. A Facebook friend who was sent a review copy wrote to me today to say she had ‘nightmares’ after reading the story.
She dreamt Liam Neeson turned into the tree and chased her.
I couldn’t stop laughing at that image. If I give people nightmares or make them laugh, I’ve done my job as a writer.
My 83-year-old Ma asked me why I wrote about ‘a tree who could talk’, and I said, ‘why not?’ Hippies believe that trees whisper and have voices. Maybe they do. And we, as people, as wreckers of the environment must piss them off no end. But all we feel is pity for ourselves, not for the havoc we wreak. The tree doesn’t care too much for humans, even ones like Rashi who are homeless and desperate. Why should it? That shouldn’t be funny, but maybe it is. I also feel guilty sometimes about using humour in inappropriate ways.
In ‘Dubstopia’ we should feel nothing but concern for the heroin addict character, but we end up laughing at the pointlessness of his day, at his own lack of control, at a city sizzling in menace. When I worked at the Irish Writers Centre, I remember one day standing outside in the porch to get some air, and I saw this really dishevelled junkie, he looked in a terrible state, really emaciated… and he stopped to read the menu outside Chapter One (you know, that really posh expensive Michelin star restaurant!). He looked like he’d emerged from a crumby bedsit, woken by the pains of hunger that pulled him out onto the street. He was reading the menu out loud driving himself mad! I knew it wasn’t funny per se, but I couldn’t stop laughing.
I felt bad but laughed for two days over that.
I felt ugly for my own immorality of being able to find this funny. It made me uncomfortable. I want my stories to do the same. Humour, laughter, to just plomp your face in your hands and say, ‘For fuck’s sake!’, is a great balm. We laugh uncontrollably from the time we’re babies and everything is hideous and new and distorted, to the hilarious cartoons of childhood that calm and teach us, to our mortifying teenage romances, right up to the myriad of things that can and do go wrong for us as adults. Humour is also a close colleague of pain. There is so much in life that is privately hellish or impossible to cope with. If we can take a moment to laugh, then isn’t that great? We’re all strolling towards the crematorium anyway. Imagine taking any of this shit seriously?
There is a seriously charged imagination at work here. Line by line, page by page, Caldwell brings a dangerous new voltage to the Irish short story – Mike McCormack
4 – Your stories deal with characters who find themselves ‘unmoored’ in a strange and hostile parallel universe. Although dark and terrifying, the world that you create is kept vibrant and somehow optimistic by the sheer energy of the language that you use – your metaphors are arresting, startling, illuminating. Is language or character the starting-point for you?
J.C.: – I love language!
I listen to how people speak, not formally, but how, you know, we have conversations in the pub or even in our heads (have you ever taken time out to listen to your head, it’s terrifying!) With ‘Natterbean’ for instance: that came about one day in a taxi. A junkie walked out in front of the cab and the taxi driver said, ‘I hate them fucking Natterbeans’. I asked him what he meant. ‘Every time they get into the car, they’re all ‘I’m natterbean up at the clinic and yer man said…’ and so on. It was his word for ‘I’m after been’, said in a frenzy. I thought, ‘I’m robbing that!’ Language straight off the street, right from the gob of a taxi man, you can’t get more Joycean than that.
Taxi men are the modern-day carriers of all things Ulysses.
Their warblings are a great example of how language is used to best effect in ordinary ways, in storytelling. Taxi men always tell you stories and they do it brilliantly.
We learn how to write ‘essays’ in school in Victoriana English. Short story writing is the opposite of that, in any fiction, we’re trying to mirror reality as we live and experience it. In SOMAT the foetus is not really talking like a foetus (we all know they can’t talk, right?) and the voice is peculiarly adult and ‘knowing’, but at the same time it breaks up/away into baby speak sometimes.
I wanted to give a flavour of ‘what if’. Voice for me is the most important thing in any writing. How that character inhabits their own reality. I admire writers who use language in subtle beautiful ways, but that’s not me.
My heroine in this regard is Eimear McBride, what she does with language in ‘A Girl is a Half-Formed Thing’ is off the scale brilliant.
She knows how language is formed in the brain through her study of linguistics and she worked with that. It floored me. Seeing it performed on stage shook me to the core. It’s the best example of stellar use of language I can think of. I’m not in that league at all but I take inspiration from her.
I love reading a book where the character (and the writer in their role of occupying that character) seems almost possessed. Ross Raisin in ‘God’s Own Country’ or even ‘The Lovely Bones’ by Alice Sebold.
I hope that I use language effectively to make each of the stories different from one another. I’ve read short story collections where ‘the voice’ is the same throughout and while there’s great skill involved in achieving this, it’s not for me. I want each story to be so separate and identifiable from the next.
The average word usage for anyone using spoken English is between 20,000 and 35,000 words, but the Oxford English Dictionary lists at least 171,476 words with thousands of obsolete ones no longer in use. Look how much language has changed since the advent of social media? All those new buzz words and vowel-less offerings?
Language, like sexuality, is fluid, and it’s the writer’s job to exploit this to the best of their ability.
It’ll be interesting to see if some of the language in my ‘Oirish’ stories carries to an audience outside of here. Will it work or will it bore? Writers like James Kelman and Irvine Welsh have done Scottish street language proud. How will we move with the high-tech languages of the future and still stay true to our own unique way of expressing ourselves?
5 – After this blistering collection Room Little Darker, what’s next for June Caldwell, Writer?
J.C.: – I’ve a few short story commissions to write now (for The Lonely Crowd Welsh literary journal and Winter Papers here) and after that it’s time to return to an abandoned novella: a murderous tale about one of Ireland’s missing women, told from the dead, with a twist.
I was obsessed with the ‘triangle’ of missing murdered women that happened in the 1990s, but my story moves on a bit in time and looks at the idea of murderous intent and how so many men get away with the ultimate violence against women, and how as a country, we are still utterly unprepared to deal with that scenario.
I began the story on the MA in Belfast, but I’d never attempted fiction and it was very disparate and all over the place. That’s the next job at hand. After that, I may go for a ‘big’ novel. I also love hybrids: mixes of non-fiction and fiction. I feel like I’ve spent two decades in an incubator ‘waiting’ to write.
I can’t understand why I didn’t do it earlier. So I want to have all my babies now in quick succession. Then I’ll retire to the countryside to have as much sex as I can and look at the sea endlessly before I die. Well, hold on, I’m only in my forties so maybe there’s plenty of time to write a whole slew of disturbing books where I’ll be labelled a lunatic but one day someone will say ‘Yer one, she was a difficult narky character alright, but she could string a sentence together OK’. That to me, would be a life well lived.
Did I ever tell you about my youngfella? He’s passed now, bless him. I said, ‘Don’t go out, not today, I’m warning you, I’m a witch!’ That awful cheeky smile. ‘I won’t be late Ma!’ he roared. He was a bit of a rossi, like you. The two of you would’ve got on like nothing else. An old broom knows the dirty corners best. ‘We’re having gammon steak!’ I shouted after him. ‘Don’t be late!’ Him running like a hare on a skateboard. He loved my gammon with those fluffy crinkle chips. Actually you rarely see them around these days. Crinkle oven chips.
His friend with the one eye, always a heap of trouble, knocked up at 6 O’clock. Entire family were oddball. Red hair, rust tempers. Mother had been a bit of a pro in her heyday. Rigid as a wooden leg now. This kid was pure wild. Knife in the eye by his own hand. Said my youngfella had crashed on a motorbike up at the green. Come quick. His leg was caught. Stolen motorbike. We’re talking back in the day when the priest and the local guard could put you away for pinching a few sweets. Meaner than a butcher’s cleaver. Well my first reaction was to clout him around the ears. Give him a good puck. ‘I knew it!’ I roared. ‘I told him there’d be wigs on the green!’ Smashed in four places. Six weeks in the Mater. Pale as egg white. Hubby was furious. A wild goose never reared a tame gosling.
De hubby always kept the roof up which is more than I can say for a good few around here. Good at DIY. Planted a war garden. We’d everything out there. Marrows, even. You don’t get to see many marrows now. Marrow stuffed with spam. Marrow jam. Thrilled to the marrow I was. Then there were rhubarbs the height of giraffe legs. Spuds, peas, beans of all kinds, parsley and lots of it. He was hard on my youngfella. Very hard on all the boys. Ignored the girls. Well that’s what Louise says now. ‘No boys will queue up for the likes of you!’ he told her. She’s glad of it really because she feels around the same as a local anaesthetic for him. Though sometimes she can’t make up her mind. She’s like you. Indecisive. Rattle of fidgets and jumps. Won’t visit him in the home but wants it known to the rest of us she feels nothing. Makes a big almighty thing of it. Though I love her to the spine, she’d melt the fine hairs in your ears. I wish her luck with her own now. Her two are dreadful snobs. Though I will admit they speak very well. You can’t buy breeding and that’s the truth.
Well de hubby said he’d wait until my youngfella got home and he’d break the other leg. Took the motorbike to the Phoenix Park and went pure absurd on It. Tearing up the bark of trees, over newly planted corporation flower beds, into the groove of gates. Now de hubby can only take so much. He has a little bit of a temper. It’s not his fault. His nerves are in the ha’penny place. Always have been. I’m the only one who can deal with him. Know him like my own teeth. Never left me short of housekeeping. I always told Louise and Juliet to marry a man with money. It’s a miserable enough life. De hubby had a good job. Sure the ones around here were always saying that to me. ‘Your fella would buy and sell ye and rent your leg out in flats.’ Youngfella stayed with my aunt for a few weeks until de hubby calmed. ‘Let it be a lesson to you,’ I said to him. ‘I told you not to go out. I told you I was a witch!’
He’d ask me things after that, my youngfella. ‘Will I put in for that apprenticeship Ma?’ ‘Is there any point doing a stuntman course?’ I knew if he went off to England it’d be no good for good. This time I didn’t say as much. Sure he was a grown up, sure and simple. Years ago, before your time, people kept it fierce quiet when they went away to the sooty place. Bit of a shame attached to it. A golden ring can tie a man as tight as any chain. Aunt Florrie said the day hers left for England she had a proper wake for him at home because she knew that’d be it. Sandwiches and porter, a glass raised to the wind that carried him, may it bring him back if it had to. She was a diviner for sure. No-one down Clara way liked her. Told people they wouldn’t come back from the war. She was the one who cooked over an open fire, long after they had electric cookers. Amazing pot roasts. Caraway cake like I’ve never tasted before or since. My own mother couldn’t copy It, not for the job of trying. She read the flames in the fire. My mother, that is. Told people what might be ahead for them. What to look for. What to avoid. Who to love. Who to clear run from. Well that was her sister Florrie who was a bit of a witch. Like me.
When my youngfella went away to London, sure he was sheer lost. Never ask a fox to mind the hens, isn’t that what they say? Never buy bread from a butcher. He got the first one pregnant. That’s what they do now. Women don’t seem to take care. She ran off with the two kids up North. Got with dem Rastafarians. He never got over that. The second yoke, let me tell you, she was a right yoke of a thing. Jesus, the bake on her! You wouldn’t roast it on a fire. Upturned nose you could plant a fir tree in. That’s when the drinking got out of hand. I warned him to watch his health. ‘It’s in the family,’ I said. ‘A man too busy to take care of his health is like a mechanic too busy to take care of his tools.’ Oh he laughed alright. ‘Ah Ma, you still think you’re a clever old witch!’ Nonetheless he gave me that look. ‘I’m serious,’ I told him. ‘Look after your health…He who never was sick dies the first.’
Yer woman never cooked from scratch. Too busy throwing it about. I wouldn’t expect my youngfella to have a go. Sure de hubby could only boil an egg most of his life. The men need a good woman. A dishonest woman can’t be kept in and an honest woman won’t. In return my youngfella gave that yoke everything: new car every two years, six holidays a year. SIX! That’s some manner of madness. Ran off when he got too sick. Woman like a goat, woman of rushing visits. Her crowd, common as beetroot water. You could tell by the gait of them. Standoff at the grave was something else. Spread your cloth only as you can draw it. Even the priest came over to our side when he heard she’d deserted. Unheard of under the circumstances. What he must’ve gone through in that downtime, I can’t bear it! Oh Christ, such heartache! I’ve put my treacle jinx on her. Right bitch. Now I don’t say that too often about anyone. A closed mouth can only lead to a wise head. That’s how I would normally approach things.
The saddest part is that de hubby keeps asking about my youngfella now. Won’t accept he’s gone. Well that’s part of his condition. Can’t keep up. Doesn’t know one minute from the one sitting beside it. Louise says he’s half pretending. Suiting himself. A greyhound finds food in its feet kind of thing. Bit like yourself. Sure you suit yourself too, only coming in here when you’re looking for something! Must be a male thing. I told him the first few times he’d died. Then I said I’d go with it. Now I tell him he’s out planting in the garden. Trimming rhubarb so it won’t get too carried away with itself.
I saw de gettup of you earlier. If you keep behaving like that, I’m telling ye, there’ll be a sore price to pay. Be in here by 11pm. ‘Don’t be late. Don’t stay out. There’ll be wigs on the green!’ You might think fences have ears but if you’re not back in here by then, the flap is shut. Don’t blame me if you come to no good. You could get your backside eaten out there. When the sun puts her head down for the night, the raw moon is not as accommodating. I’ve seen you chasing your head in its own shadow, making a mighty show of yourself. Like a lame man’s legs which hang useless. You’d sauté your soul to grab hold of a scallywag. If the ones over the wall got hold of you there wouldn’t be a sneeze’s second before they’d savage your eyeballs, spitting them out for toast. I’m no daw. I know how it works. Everyone is wise till he speaks.
When my youngfella was lying in that hospital bed in terrible pain de hubby wouldn’t even look him in the eye. A right rossi, there is no expert without a fault, ain’t that the truth! ‘Da, I’m sorry Da, it was stupid, I won’t ever do anything like it again. I promise.’ It’s not like de hubby was extra hard, but he was the type who meant what he meant. Too much happened for him to act any different. One of the gang my youngfella hung around with ended up with The AIDS, doing half-witted robberies to feed his habit, before his lungs flooded him out of the picture. Another died at 21 from a beating in a public swimming pool in New York. Both their aulfellas were much harder than they ever needed to be.
If my two hadn’t have ignored each other for those years after – God never closed a gap but that he opened another one – the time now might be a different tide entirely. I will be honest with you here, I will, would my youngfella have been so quick to get himself over there, out of reach of here, had he have been able to patch things up? If de hubby just talked to him without the slippery ropes. Telling him that a bad path in life only rains soup and he’d have no hope going out in it armed with just a fork. But de hubby was always the belly depth of stubborn. He just stared out the hospital window into the car park beyond, the type that knows too well a silent mouth is musical.
*This story got an ‘honorable mention‘ in the Lorian Hemingway prize in the US and was long-listed for the 2015 RTÉ Guide/Penguin Ireland competition.
As the Premiership kicks off today, lifelong Everton and Cliftonville supporter Henry McDonald appeals for true fans to forego the plasma-screen TV and go along to a match.
by Henry McDonald
On a freezing late-November afternoon last year, with a stinging Arctic wind whipping off Cave Hill, I uttered a blasphemy inside the old stand of Solitude stadium.
Amid fellow Cliftonville fans celebrating the Reds carving Linfield to pieces in a 3-0 drubbing, I objected to a small section of our support haranguing and ridiculing our rivals, tightly packed and frozen behind the goal to our left.
By which I meant the hordes of so-called football “fans” in Northern Ireland, whose idea of following their club is to don the colours of the Premiership’s billionaires – the likes of Chelsea or Manchester United – and head down to watch the big game on Sky, or BT Sport, in the warmth and comfort of their local.
For if there is one element of those who watch the beautiful game that I find contemptible it is those who prefer to line Rupert Murdoch’s, or BT’s, pockets every weekend of the season, while never darkening the door of any soccer stadium on either side of the Irish Sea.
Although we will all succumb to temptation and watch our preferred English and Scottish teams on the bar’s big screen some time this season, if you call yourself a true supporter you should at least once in 2014-15 (or even once in your life) walk through an actual turnstile, whether that be to see Liverpool or Lisburn Distillery.
None of the above is meant as an attack on the fans of the mega-rich clubs, like Manchester United or City, Arsenal or even our friends from across Stanley Park on Merseyside that play in a place called Anfield.
There are legions of local fans who board boats and planes every weekend, spending large amounts of cash to watch their teams in action, rather than take the easy option and stay in the local.
There are authentic fans of Manchester United, for instance, whom I have known for decades, who have made the journey over to Old Trafford, in some cases even when the Red Devils were playing in the old Second Division back in the mid-1970s.
There are also supporters of Liverpool I am, ahem, acquainted with who kept supporting the Kop side during the years of Manchester United domination. (Although among the many mysteries of Northern Ireland Premiership fan culture is where have all those Chelsea supporters been hiding all the pre-Abramovich/pre-Mourinho years?)
As a lover of the game, I particularly admire the Rangers fans who have stuck by their team even after the Ibrox side were relegated into the third tier of Scottish football and who follow, follow the ‘Gers to every small stadium at away matches every fortnight.
They remind me of the Man City supporters who stuck by their club when they were mired in the old English Third Division at a time in the 1990s when the oil riches of the Gulf sheikhs that took them over were as chimerical as a desert mirage.
But if you are looking for one exemplary supporter who epitomises the authentic fan, then take the example of Ormeau Road man Pat McGrath, one of the greatest Evertonians I have ever come across.
McGrath has been following Everton all his life, through the glory days of the 60s, the fallow periods of the 70s, the conquering of England and Europe in the 80s, the relegation-threatening 90s and far beyond.
Now based on Merseyside himself, this Belfast Evertonian has followed the club even on pre-season tours of Scandinavia and the United States, and criss-crossed the continent on Everton’s adventures in the European Cup, the Cup Winners’ Cup, the Uefa Cup and, latterly, the Europa League.
Just one example among many will tell you how devoted “Paddy”, as he is affectionately known by the Everton faithful from around the world, is to the club.
About 15 years ago we were sitting in the lounge of John Lennon Airport, waiting for a delayed flight back to Belfast in the period when our club hovered just above the relegation zone. We passed the time over a few pints, following a home win that Saturday over Sunderland, musing on the away grounds we had been at to see Everton over the years.
One stadium had always intrigued me and it was one I had never been to: Molyneaux, the home of Wolverhampton Wanderers. On mentioning the Black Country team’s ground, Paddy recalled, “Ah, Molyneaux, yes. Boxing Day 1975. We lost 2-0.”
When I butted in, asking how the hell he got there, given the paucity of air travel from Belfast back in those dark days of the mid-70s, he regaled us with a travel-story that involved taking the boat the day before Christmas Eve and sleeping over the Christmas in Birmingham’s New Street rail station so he could get a ticket for the Wolves game on St Stephen’s Day.
There are other possibly more stranger-than-fiction, true-life stories Northern Irish Evertonians could tell about Paddy’s journeys, which together would make for a great cinematic or novelistic study in sporting devotion.
And there are other local Evertonians too who constantly fly and sail across the sea to follow the Mersey Blues, including a very close group of friends from the village of Coagh who are among the most decent, amusing and kind people you would have the pleasure of attending a football match with.
Some might object, rightly, that the rising costs of Premiership tickets, as well as the extra burden of paying for flights, boats and hotels, will deter most from putting their money where their mouths are most Saturdays, Sundays, or even Mondays.
Looking around Goodison Park sometimes, I see parents with a couple of kids beside them, all wearing the royal blue and white, and you can’t help wondering how financially crippling it must be in the age of austerity to take your family to a game; or, conversely, how much cheaper it would be to take them somewhere else to watch a live match on a giant TV screen.
Yet, if you call yourself a true follower of the game, and really can’t afford this season to support your English, or Scottish, team in whatever division they may be, then here is a challenge: at the very least, to demonstrate your love of the sport, ditch the comfort zone of the Sky screen, the central heating and the clink-clink of the pub pint glasses just this once and give your local team in the Irish League some support.
Do yourself and the clubs struggling to survive here a favour and, perhaps, even turn up a few times this season.
Meanwhile, some of us will go on enjoying the best of both worlds and escape the pressures of life outside for 90 minutes inside the two old grounds whose names alone can still lift the heart – Solitude and Goodison Park.
** This article was originally published in The Belfast Telegraph on 15th August 2014.
Bro, you haven’t bothered getting in touch since you died a year ago today. In my head … the barmy idea that you still look like a slab of Edam and that I never got to say goodbye. The chipmunk breeder Alice you shacked up with in terminal time, when Duck Arse left for a pub bouncer with a metallic four–by–four, has now lost over six stone, inspired by the story I guess. Alcohol & gluten free; she’s even ditched the sloppy pillow burgers in blood sauce, the ones from your holiday pics when you told us, ‘Bad days are in the post but for now it’s business as usual!’ Half the kids, the older ones, are fine. Edel is on her way to becoming a science buff in London even though, well c’mon, we must be honest here, you expected her to be a hairdresser or something low-key but Christ has she started to fly! Saul is taller than you ever dared imagine, as if when you went skyward he did a Jack & the Beanstalk to get you back down again. At sixteen it was more than he could bear. I’ve kept all your emails, eyeballing them from time to time.
Driving to France on Saturday with the kids just for a long weekend, Paddy cancelled his summer camp in York with the scouts so he could come and yer one is a complete cunt (Sorry, I just had to add that). Really looking forward to my first holiday with the kids only and staying on a campsite near Calais so a short drive will be better to contain Princess Lara’s immense puking skills. Saul & Edel are making their own way, old enough to travel solo would you Adam & Eve it? Booked a three bed mobile home this time so we are all a little excited! Divorce is ready to go, Duck Arse admitted in writing to adultery. How are you and your pet mice? And why 10 months off the booze?
Etch-A-Sketch of a year where I still ride the blanks and hope no one in the library notices. I set off most days with Arvo Pärt’s Spiegel im Spiegel playing in my head. 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. Conversations become cataracts of sorts. ‘Wouldn’t it bite the toes right off ye?’ a woman said at the bus stop in October. ‘I can’t be doing with this heat!’ the same woman said the following summer. Only then did I realise so much time had slipped by.
I’m booked in to see the oncologist at 9.30am Monday morning to discuss an action plan involving chemo and some new drugs on trial. I’ll take anything that’s going if it means squeezing a few more years, if possible. Remaining focused and positive. It was a hell of a shock for everyone as we were all expecting a routine operation and the surgeon was pale faced explaining to me why he could not operate. I will know more Monday afternoon. Been one mad year or what?
Aul ones on buses constantly bitching about fluoride in water, men in pubs, chemicals in clothes, joyriders in cars. It’d do your bake in. Aside from the militia of junkies in Phibsborough, idiot bankers, gym bunnies, people who tie terriers outside Tesco, absolutely nothing in Oirish suburbia changes. They’re still slamming car doors, hauling kids to over-priced crèches. Sometimes, stupid I know, I find myself getting jealous of the ones who stayed and did it all by the smug pudgy book … bought houses with the charmed approval of grannies and aunts and far-off oil-owning uncles in Australia, purged children into the world and who now stroll through parks laughing their freshly-washed heads off, pull perfect shepherd’s pies out of high-gloss ovens, who know what they’re about, really about,, what they were planted here for. Little girls with springy curls, tubby-bellied boys full of, ‘But mammy look!’ and ‘Daddy look!’
I think if we hadn’t of gone to London, you know, if we’d stayed and done it properly, rewrote the late eighties, jobs in IBM or IDA or any abbreviation of anything that would pay the way to a Semi-D and a bit of stability. But over you came and I was never stable anyway! Kipped on my couch, slept with nearly all my friends, laughed into the early hours too many nights to recall. Do you remember when a load of us went on the piss in Richmond, there wasn’t enough room in the taxi, so you said, me being your little sister, I had to go in the boot!? God, yes, bombed out of my brain, roaring at the driver, ‘Turn left now!’ and ‘Turn right here!’ even though I couldn’t see a damn thing.
A year later we lived in Jersey where you worked the bar and I the lounge of a rundown pub, dolling out terrible abuse to geriatric millionaires who’d travelled the world ten times over but had nothing left to do except grow holes in their jumpers and get pissed all day. ‘She was the worst barmaid ever!’ you told the chipmunk breeder Alice later. It’s true, I was. A year after that again we shared a cockroach-infested house in Stratford in London’s east end. Your stunt as a cappuccino salesman was a dreadful failure but we had machines steaming away in every room of the house, every night was a party. When I was at uni, you ran a pub just up the road, we were never far away. Two kids with the first wife (but she had great thighs!) and later, more disastrously; it was round two and another two kids with Duck Arse and her litany of hell. Your snooker buddy Darren told me before the funeral. He told me it all, out in the back garden with a stack of San Miguel. I wanted to bash your head in for keeping it all a secret. I wanted to dig you up and kick the crap out of you for never letting me know how bad it all was.
‘I can’t have another disaster,’ you told him, ‘I can’t lose my kids again.’ Water meets its own level, our ma used to say, but your women were never bobbing anywhere near your level and somehow all of it must’ve dragged you down.
I drank water before I went in. ‘I would recommend it, Madam,’ top hat man said and you would’ve laughed at the whirring fan receptionist with the bovine ankles whose job it was to spray disinfectant when no one was looking. Viewing chamber the size of a High Street dressing room: yoghurt stale & browner than a bum moon.
A dance with neutrons and protons. That’s what I imagine it is for you now. Sliding up and down wallpaper. Watching us in our daily drudge. Can you see me and the other women working in the library? We all pretend to get on, but aside from readjusting each other’s hormones into an assemblage of demented bitching and chocolate splurging, we’ve bog all in common. The building is Georgian, a carved wedding cake, crafted cornicing, walls of tedious green and piercing yellow, corridors cropped in spiderweb wigs where the elderly shuffle through to read or snore or attend ‘literary readings’ upstairs. Almost everyone who strolls in wears glasses and carries a spiked umbrella. There’s a small cafe in the basement that serves tea, fair-trade coffee, tray bakes and ham sandwiches made at the curvature of dawn by an old crooked cook who reeks of rotten lilies. I always meant to show you around.
In the quiet clammy armpit of early afternoon I’m haunted by the grammar system we made up as kids – berry nide – a kind of warning system for people who might do us wrong. He’s not berry nide. But you’re berry nide. No, you’re nider! You’d already been through it by then. Bogeyman in a house, up mountains, on holidays. Oh he got a mass said for you afterwards, your own special mass, how’s about that! Dirty hypocrite, cheddar cheese chin of a wife, curse their life! Mass to make themselves feel good, exonerated, whole. No one speaks to them anymore. Not that we can make sure-fire connections. Medicine is a long way off that kind of jump.
Thanks for your long email and words of advice. Yeah, I was happy and loyal and Duck Arse is the most horrible person I’ve ever met and I care not a jot about her now. Saw her today when I dropped the kids back. Still not allowed in her tiny house whatever that’s about? I just felt relief. The look on her face on Sunday was priceless when she dropped Lara & Paddy off. I told them in advance not to eat as I was cooking a Sunday roast on the phone the night before. I could hear her howling in the background, ‘But your Dad can’t cook!’ like, even at this juncture, she still wants to put me down. When they got dropped off Lara ran back out the front door screaming at the top of her voice: ‘Alice is here with her chipmunks and she’s cooking, not Daddy!’ Duck Arse’s chin hits the ground and she boots off like a rocket drive on Top Gear. Yet I know she’ll poison their heads when I’m gone. The older ones will be fine, but try your best to sort the younger ones. You are welcome here any time, nice spare room with a new double bed. I’ll pick you up at Stanstead and spoil you rotten while you’re here!
Hubby-One-Day will be up soon, singing in the shower, shuffling after me in the kitchen, soggy, smelling of boy spray. He talks about you every time there’s a football match, especially when Liverpool is playing. ‘The hell he gave me!’ he says. ‘He called me blue and white shite!’ Still hasn’t the energy for his own divorce, but like Duck Arse, yer one is living with someone new: A, B, C, D: to the soulless it hardly matters. Hubby-One-Day makes me curtsy for him in my Victorian nightdress in the mornings, up and down the kitchen, crab sideways, around in circles, a slice of McCambridges’ toast in my gob. Hey, it’s the little things!
The town peacocks, de geezers, your Hawaiian shirt Jägerbomb mates, the ones you told (only towards the end) what happened, they never did smash up the Bogeyman when it was over. Somehow it didn’t feel like you to insist they would. That bit jarred with me. There was rumour, conjecture, but a great big nothing happened. No grand retribution. No staged revenge. Instead your friends stood in a line outside the church, over half a mile long, hands behind their backs. I’ve never seen such colour, ever, even though the colour has seeped from my life since. Aero & acid blue, amber, blush and violet. A woman head-to-toe in cameo pink. Duck Arse and her gombeen family. First wife and the older kids too. All there. Who knows where Bogeyman was, but at least he wasn’t invited. His vile-denial Catholic wife, a headless woman struggling to gawp out her own body, forgetting she no longer has eyes. You don’t need me to tell you, especially at a time like this, but people like that, they’re not berry nide. Not nide at all. But you? There just couldn’t be nider. No one in this giant shit heap of a spinning world is nider than beautiful gone you.
The totally wonderful and short story obsessed Paul McVeigh – whose blog on all manner of creative writing is the best I’ve ever read – invited me to join this blog tour, though I’m horribly late given the month that was. Paul is a short story writer, blogger of renown and curator of the London Short Story Festival at Waterstones in Piccadilly. I took part in a blog hop last year too, asked by another wonderful writer and having read what I wrote then, I haven’t moved an inch. Sick family members aside (one dead too soon, one toying with the notion, the other hoping for renewed life beyond), it’s very hard to etch mental space to write but it’s still not a legitimate excuse either. Two months ago I pulled the old musty back bedroom apart, got the walls slopped in ‘warm grey’, carved out some book space (well, IKEA billy book cases), shoved in a cheapo writer’s desk, a lovely new bed, lobbed Annie Sloan chalk paint on the woodworm wardrobes, bribed a mate for an old rocking chair and away I went. This is the year it happens, says I. God belss June and all who ride and confide in her.
1. What am I working on?
I’d love to say I’m working ‘on a collection’ of short stories, because that’s oh so in vogue. Something’s happening with Irish writers at the moment a bit like the property bubble. Nothing less than a collection and even better if it’s a disaffected theme: gouging the retina of the young male psyche, drug-addicted Georgian basement flat living, a swanky flâneur destined to skim the city sewers in a terminal loop looking for mislaid love, stories from a fucked-up suburban street (twitching curtains, lawnmowers, Shepherd’s pies), or the ageing psychopath’s screaming regrets in rural Ireland, all rolled into a tar barrel with a dead woman decomposing in a purple wedding dress. Humour and intolerance get in the way. Once I tell myself to write on a certain theme, I can’t be arsed with the mental rigidity of it. I hate being told what to do.
Last year I was stuck in rigamortis fiction, some stories published about my dead brother in literary magazines. It seemed a great way to process the shock. I thought that maybe this could be a theme if I worked on it backwards, from death to life, a bit like Jim Grace did in Being Dead (I love this book!) but off I ran on the Elipsos overnight train to Spain with my repackaged grief. I toyed with the idea of a ‘Dublin city’ book of stories but it seemed so vague and pointless, the kaleidoscope of packed place is no longer interesting or fun. Phases of life. A collection based on lovers. Places I’ve lived. People I’ve met and hated. My years as a journalist shouldn’t be wasted. I could take snippets of real stories, steal the kernel and crumple into something new. A plotless story I wrote for Literary Orphans in the USA is based on a real snippet from a journalist pal: a junkie having his ass robbed [of drugs] in Talbot Street…it never made the papers. The editor thought it was too unsavoury, so I stole it instead. Another story remnant I sent off for a competition was based on a man who lived in a tree in Broadstone in Dublin 7 for the last few years, before he was dispatched, unmourned, to the madhouse. So, real stories, with an unreal twist, maybe. Where an ex journalist sees some unholy scrap of truth and does something with it.
After that’s over, it’s back to the Domestic Blitz novel that’s more a ‘movel’ – part fiction, part memoir – a longer project that’ll take me into winter and some of next year. There’s already periphery interest in this from a potential agent in UK so I have to take my time (now that my time is back to being my own) and feel satisfied with what I write and how I write it. At the moment it’s blather fragments written in two time frames and it’s not exactly gelling. I know instinctively it will work if I get into it. It has universal appeal. My heart is in it. The story is worth telling.
I even know what I’ll write after this is done, a story I ditched about one of the missing women, told backwards from two perspectives. I tried that on the MA at Queens’ and got caught in a hamster run. Stories for when I’m distracted, novel as a means of protracted focus, a novella I promised a dead woman I’d write if it killed me on the situation that killed her. In a nutshell.
2. How does my work differ from others in the genre?
Er, dunno. Social surrealism. I write like Joyce, says one (being all tea party nice), but I don’t at all! A nice lady whose course I was on a while ago said I write like Eimear McBride; the new best thing since the electric waffle maker. Anne Enright, sort of (yeah right!). An old humper from the past (now a novelist himself in London) emailed to say I write like David Foster Wallace, though his marriage recently ended and he might be trying to get his cyber leg over. I think comparisons with other writers are silly, hard to live up to, useless. I value and look forward to difference in writers, not sameness. I don’t know who I write like but I just know I get in a zone where sometimes I don’t even fully understand the language incursion, or the voice that ‘happens’ or the tone or the story or the need to write a certain way. There’s definitely a rage there and a feeling of ‘I don’t have a reputation to lose, so I’ll write it like this anyhow’. I even know when I’m writing something that it won’t be popular, will probably make a decent editor barf and a reader unfriend me on Facebook, with any luck. I also feel it could be different because part of me never wants to write for publication, so I don’t target it that way. The freedom of an affair! What I do know is there’s a lot of good people giving me the thumbs up at the moment and it feels very odd and reassuring.
3. Why do I write what I do?
I’ve no idea. Am I supposed to say it’s cos I’m lonely? I’m not. Writing is hard. But there really is nothing else.
4. How does my writing process work?
Snippets of mind dust. A journo interview I did a decade ago still haunts me. A woman being told in the early days of training to ignore a phone box in O’Connell Street where boys were being brought to and abused. The magazine in question didn’t want the feature in the end, as it seemed a bit libellous and kooky, but I still have that info and want to write it as a fictional story. Another who sought out a journalist to expose a cult who allegedly forced her to have tantric sex and when her husband found out, he dumped her. If the group was exposed then the husband would leave her best friend he ran off with and take her back (I’m not even kidding!) The radical feminist with the tea cosy on her head who’s spent a lifetime already living off men but fails to see the structural flaw in her politics. The man who chopped off people’s fingers in the Troubles and kept them as souvenirs. A swinger who travels the length and breadth of Ireland shagging abandoned wives but cries his lamps out because his own wife won’t dish up the turkey. A child who told her teacher that mummy ‘makes fire’ on her legs. An alcoholic taxi woman raped as a child by a farmer who used butter so he wouldn’t hurt her too much. Stories we tell each other in semi-occasional moments of privacy or hilarity: ‘I can’t print this but wait ’til I tell ye…’. Stories full of holes and for the birds. Start with a sentence that makes you sick or scud. I don’t want to write about good or perfect people. I don’t see the point. At the moment I’m writing Jesus of Wexford for a competition in July. I haven’t sent anything off all year so it’s a good self-recruitment exercise. He lives in a wheelie bin and his bible is a pizza box.
At some point I always manage to disturb myself and leave whatever I’m trying to write aside…I may dump a work in progress for good or come back to it. I don’t really know why I write, but as I said in a recent Irish Times article:
This is about spilling your guts in a dignified way, but don’t be frightened if a speckle of madness rears its head, too. Let it bring you where it will; don’t look back. Be excited. This compulsion is a courtesy, not a curse. Don’t compare your writing to others’. Instead get totally obsessed with what you want to write and start chewing the cud of the storyline or idea every day. Feel the words, develop a voice, put manners on your demons, write regularly.
I’ve nominated three writers I love to answer these same questions how they see fit… look out for their blog posts! Two are in a newly-formed writer’s group (with me!) and all are friends! Oh and one I roamed the streets of Dublin with at age 13/14 during the feral mod years. They’re all stupidly talented, dedicated, quirky and wonderful. Enjoy.
Alan McMonagle has published two collections of short stories, Liar Liar and Psychotic Episodes. Earlier this year his radio play Oscar Night was produced and broadcast as part of RTE’s Drama on One season. It’s about two sweet old ladies who go to the bad when their annual ritual is interrupted by an escaped felon.
Doodle Kennelly was born in Dublin and spent her early years there. As a teenager, she moved to the United States, to Massachusetts, where she completed her secondary education. Later she returned to Ireland and attended the Gaiety School of Acting. In addition to her regular newspaper column, she has published autobiographical essays relating to the subject of female identity and body image. She has also appeared on national television. Doodle is the proud mother of three daughters; Meg, Hannah and Grace Murphy.
Lisa Harding completed an MPhil in creative writing at Trinity College Dublin in September 2013. Her short story Counting Down was a winner in the inaugural Doolin writer’s prize 2013. This summer she has been short-listed for Doolin, Cuirt, Listowel and the Bath short story awards. A story Call Me Moo is to be published in the autumn issue of The Dublin Review. Playwriting credits include Starving at Theatre503, And All Because at Battersea Arts Centre (as part of an emerging writers festival: Connect Four) and Playground at the Project Theatre Dublin. She is currently working on a new play Pedigree for which she was awarded an Arts Council bursary and a Peggy Ramsay award. As an actress she has appeared at the Gate, the Abbey, the Lyric and on RTE, among others. Her collection of sixteen short stories Crave is a work in progress, alongside an embryonic novel with the working title: Transaction.
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.’
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?
Not good, terminal cancer, the text read. Limping into the first lecture on the WebElevate course in the steel-strewn auditorium, my phone *beeped*. This plug ‘n play’ digi-media environment is all high-tech & low-lighting: exposed brick, flickering laptops, vending machines (with Rancheros!), earphones large enough for chimp heads, flagstone floors, camera pods, see-through steps, a Bistoesque stream of hops snaking through the open window from the Guinness brewery next door. One of the first questions the surgeon asked my brother when they operated a few years ago was if he drank Guinness. Outside 300 people are dressed in Edwardian costume for yet another Titanic drama…silhouetted behind them are local kids beating each other up with tree branches as sabres, a lone junkie talks to her Jack Russell out loud. What is User Centred Design?’ the lecturer asks, and then answers before there’s room for answers. ‘It’s a design process which focuses on the user through the complete design, build, deploy life cycle…’ Afterwards he launches into a long dismal history of design failures: how Sainsbury’s had to write off a $526 million investment for a dud supply chain management system. How could they have missed the spread after so many scans? ‘I woke up in a room on my own, no drip in the hand so I knew they hadn’t operated, nurse couldn’t look me in the eye, doctor came in and said it was everywhere,’ my brother explained, when I rang. The rest is a blank. ‘So…the earlier in the process you discover the issues, the easier it is to fix,’ the lecturer concludes. A bit like cancer.
On the flight to Stanstead a young architect sitting beside me drops his Powerpoint presentation which spreads out under several seats; laminated peacock feathers. A slide on the human-designed environment lodges under the warbling air hostess’ blue stiletto. To fasten your seatbelt, place the metal tip into the buckle, and tighten the straps so that it fits low and tight across your hips. He throws me a ‘look’ for not helping him but I’ve no energy to explain about the wonky hip, an inability to bend, and anyway my brother’s going to die and he has four kids who will have to grow up without him, so there’s no time for floating pleasantries. The eldest turned 17 the day before we found out. ‘I heard about my dad’, she texted from Doncaster, a graphic of a downturned smile. Her younger brother is a Justin Bieber lookalike and only wears designer clothes, funded by a Coca Cola schoolyard scam & other teen-capitalist adventures. He’s great at maths and football and wants to study Science & Engineering in a few years. The younger two, with a different Ma who bolted a few months ago, have also been told. Both have to fill out ‘feelings diaries’ in their lunchtime at their new school. The older of the two, aged 11, has being acting out a bit since. ‘He’s angry,’ my brother says, ‘but the Scouts takes his mind off it…he loves fishing and building things’. Last year when we went to France he hogged my copy of Ulysses, managing to make animated sense of it. ‘The guy’s a total nutter Aunty June, but it’s obvious he’s writing it from inside a DS game’. He informed his English teacher of his findings when he got back to Blightey. The seven year old girl loves to read from an invisible medieval scroll: ‘McDonald of Belfast wishes to marry Caldwell of Dublin, do you agree?’
The drive from Stanstead to Ipswich takes just over an hour, a patchwork of chrome barriers, scorched fields, thatched roofs, shed sellers & spud floggers…the bro’s new Jaguar is smooth as liquidised soup, heated seats to boot, though unlike his BMW there’s no mini-fridge with complimentary bottle of Aspall’s for the journey. This time the drive is laden with horrifying technical info. ‘If the bowel stops working or gets blocked, they’re not going to operate, it’ll be straight to the hospice at that point, so I’ll be properly fucked.’ Yet he’s in great form; positive, composed, weirdly happy. All your droll problems just lift like the cliché says: bills, debts, work, women, blah blah, up and gone. Everything looks different. ‘I can eat as much Ben & Jerry’s as I want’. He might even go on a cruise, the Macmillan nurse is looking into it. There’s some financial advantages too that’ll help with cash flow, an end of life grant of sorts, the option of a motorised scooter to zip up to the nearby Fat Cat for some decent homebrew. ‘There’s great welly in those yokes and I’ll stick de bird on me knee for good measure’. His new lady, as I’ll soon find out, is quirky, warm and interesting. [An equal at last!] Her mum is a vicar and the dad fecked off to Thailand to open a book shop. She collects mini cars to refurb, breeds chipmunks, snores like a miner and has spent over £16K on some very intricate tattoos. ‘She’s had madder jobs than you!’ he boasts. A pet psychologist at one point, prison counsellor, bar manager, farmer. She loves his monstrous snores. ‘They lull her to sleep, can you Adam & Eve it!?’ Only in Ipswich.
The scar on his face is from a wax apple I threw at him in 1977, knocking him out cold, though he still disputes some of the minutiae. ‘You didn’t knock me out!’ We’re sitting in the kitchen of DunPullin – his family home – drinking Biscotti Baileys while the Bison Grass Vodka freezes to a decent down-in-one temperature. ‘He broke my Tower of London mirror.’ I explain, filling in some early life detail. ‘I’m very proud of that scar, proof of fight-back’. I tell her how I robbed his ‘card tin’ for years – he won so much dosh on late-night card games – and I had a teenage cider & fag habit to feed. ‘In 1988 we went on holidays to Portugal, Adrian insisted we pay for a meal in a posh restaurant but run off without eating it. He’s a big fan of reverse logic.’ Six years between us, he followed me to London in 1989, kipped on my couch till he got a place of his own, slept with [all] my friends, laughed into the early hours too many nights to recall. ‘Do you remember when a load of us went on the piss in Richmond, there wasn’t enough room in the taxi, so you said you’d go in the boot!?’ God, yes, I do remember, bombed out of my brain, roaring at the driver to ‘turn left now’ or ‘turn right here’, even though I couldn’t see a thing.
A year later we lived in Jersey where he worked the bar and I the lounge of a rundown pub, dolling out terrible abuse to geriatric millionaires who’d travelled the world ten times over but had nothing left to do except grow holes in their jumpers & get drunk all day. ‘She was the worst barmaid ever!’ he tells Alison. It’s true, I was. A year after that again we shared a cockroach-infested house in Stratford in London’s east end. His stunt as a cappuccino machine salesman had been a dreadful failure – but we had machines steaming away in every room of the house – almost every night was a party. When I was at Middlesex University in 1992, he ran a pub just up the road, we were never far away. There were holidays to Blackpool when the kids were young, mobile homes in France, trips to Belfast when I rented Castle Chester during the MA. Before the older kids arrive in Ipswich for the weekend, and before I start my usual cooking frenzy (he goes nuts for my leek & potato soup, keep showing him how to make it, but he can’t be arsed) the three of us stroll out to the back garden, where the night sky is clearer than I can ever remember. Alabaster stars flickering against a plush overlay of navy and there it is as we crane our necks: a shooting star, a dying star, zipping across the chaos on its way home. What a crummy beautiful coincidence. We clank our glasses and smile.
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:
Sitting in Abrakebabra last week – waiting my turn on an internet terminal in the loudest library in Ireland – I witnessed the most extraordinary event that heaves human life back to the Neanderthals. A young mother insisting her [3-yr-old?] son hit himself repeatedly in the face, for the amusement of her friend, who’d joined them for some high-fat food and low-content conversation. “Go on, show Mary!” she roared, while scoffing a burger. The kid started whacking himself on his left cheek, but kept his eyes peeled on the adults, who were shaking with laughter, slapping their hands on the formica and ‘whooping’ American baskteball-style. The more they shook, the more he battered himself on the chops. Soon his left side was sore, so he moved to the right. Whack, whack, whack. This was just the funniest thing, a tiny person beating himself up. As gut-busting as seeing puppies jumping up in the air for biccies or kittens swinging on sitting-room curtains Tarzan on the vine, except better, because as the mummy mid-way declared: “It saves me from having to bash him!” A lone man shoving onion rings in his gob looked on from the next table, two taxi men smoking outside looked around for a moment to clock what was happening, but seemed uninterested…the Chinese guy behind the counter saw what the boy was doing, but soon got back to grilling slabs of red pepper and stabbing the rotating kebab cow to see if it was cooked. No-one it seemed, cared, and who was I to run on over and start mouthing? Me, years older and with no sprogs of my own, onlooker, not a social worker, cop, counsellor, vile Jeremy Kyle or even just a concerned citizen. Instead, a hapless neurotic with chin on the table not quite fathoming what was going on. By this time the child’s face was red raw and he was clearly in pain, but this is how he’d learnt to get attention, to get his mother’s approval, her grotesque excuse for love, so was bound and determined to carry on smashing himself, to an orchestra of cackle.
Ten years later, when he’s kicking the brown out of other kids & robbing branded goods to order, 15 years later: sticking needles in his arm and drinking himself into oblivion or 18 years on (acting out his own scenario, just to get rid of it as Alice Miller says), knocking his bird around or breaking bones elsewhere – because it is that achingly clichéd – his mother will holler that she did her very best and can’t understand why her son chose the route in life he did. She’ll likely declare herself a victim and attest to anyone who’ll listen that he’s a good lad, with a huge heart, but got in with the wrong crowd. Anyway she didn’t have a good childhood herself. School of hard knocks, blah blah. I couldn’t say or do a thing, just stared in utter disbelief. Maybe ten or twenty years ago, when people roared out castigations on buses and squalled at this kind of thing in the street, the odds were relatively low for getting stabbed in the face for interfering. Or maybe it’s just easy for me to think that. Shame on the likes of comfortable commentating modern-day me for doing nothing. What must this kid go through behind closed doors and what will he continue to go through for the remainder of his kiddiehood, however short that’s destined to last? Two days later, a similar scene in the local social welfare office, a young boy around eight years old or so, trying to wriggle free from his mother’s lap to go and stand with his father, was slapped so boxing-ring hard in the face, words simply stopped flowing. Stunned, silenced and overpowered, exactly like you see in Barnardo’s ads. “You just wouldn’t shut the fuck up!” his mother roared, by way of explanation for what she’d just done, comfortably, in front of everyone. This time I managed a: “For fuck’s sake!” out loud, looking straight at her. A tad braver in the queue, with a gaggle of people around me. I hoped others might show signs of the same. Most ignored it. Few cared. Desk jockeys kept jockeying. One or two looked around at me and tutted, as if to say: “That’s not what you do here, you don’t butt in on other people’s business here.” I walked right out of there and kept going. In Ireland, people batter their kids in the street, and it’ll always be done with passion.
A good many moons ago, when Ireland was dubbed the ‘sick man of Europe’ and Wurzel Gummidge was being suitably saucy on tea time TV, I found out I was directly related to Oliver Cromwell. Although only ten years old, I knew it had to be De Da’s side of the family as he was particularly gifted at starting bloody civil wars in the house and claiming zero responsibility for the body parts.
American genealogists had dropped the bombshell in a registered letter to Dublin with a $2 note for a prompt reply. Oliver Cromwell’s mother was Anne Caldwell of Solway Firth. At some stage they moved to Northern Ireland and branches of sprogs settled in Fermanagh and Donegal, while others fled to America when Cromwell turned against them after Charles II returned to power. Cromwell’s right-hand General was also a Caldwell. You get the sordid sorry picture.
Whatever the truth, there’s skimpy point getting anal about it…or is there? Cromwell was obsessed with the bowels. His famous retort: I beseech you, in the bowels of Christ, think it possible you may be mistaken! wasn’t blurted in isolation. While he died of typhoid on the battlefield it was also documented that he’d ‘terrible trouble’ with his bum and may have been diseased in that region too. And he may have passed it on. Last summer as my 46-yr-old brother’s colon tumour made its way by courier to a fancy genetics lab in the EU, I sat the old man down to ask how his siblings and family members had snuffed it. “Oh the two brothers died of bowel cancer or…hold on, no, eh – can you get me some water for the whiskey – one died of a rectal disease…and the Da died of colorectal cancer at age 58 and I think an aunt did as well, at the age of 23…but I couldn’t be sure of her, there was talk she might’ve been a prostitute”. The glorious eejit had never mentioned it. I’d had my suspicions about bipolar disorder, alcoholism, schizophrenia and depression, hedging my bets for a lengthy stay at a nut house any day soon. A could-be related cancer to his lot was there too on my mother’s side: four near relatives were wiped out by the stomach variety, the youngest at 36. “Even aunt Lena the almost vegetarian!” she exclaimed. “And her who wouldn’t even eat peas from a tin!”
The brother in England (with the travelling tumour) rang the hospital with my mother’s family history and asked what was the difference between bowel and stomach cancer? “Basically a few inches,” the geneticist replied. Double whammy for our generation of Caldwell’s so. The results back from the lab confirmed there was a ’virulent’ familial strain. A few months later, by shabby coincidence, my mother was diagnosed with the same thing too. She’s just been through major surgery and follow-up treatment this summer. (An upside to the chemo for her is the restaurant in the Mater Private with its great array of delicious food, we always go for dinner afterwards. My brother also cited an unobvious benefit to his chemo many miles away in Ipswich: “the steroids give you a permanent hard-on”). The rest of us are currently marching along for tests. As I write I’m staring at a large box of ‘Klean Prep’ which I have to consume in a 4-litre load, to induce in vitro mud-slides, followed by a polite impaling at Beaumont Hospital in a few hours time.
Here’s the thing: genetics and predictive medicine is where it’s at. We’re on the cusp of a gilded age in science when a good old goo at your DNA code will reveal an accurate risk of cancer, diabetes, heart disease, etc. Medical folk will then be able to predict what drugs or treatment will work to keep you alive and well the longest. Within the next two to five years, geneticists maintain they’ll have the sequence of every major human cancer. Eventually they’ll ‘tinker’ with fated diseases when human life is still curled snug in the womb. In the bland old meantime, Irish families are still reluctant to talk about what killed those who came before them. “It’s not the done thing,” my mother said. “In my day people were dropping of TB and all sorts but we were too busy trying to get by to worry our heads about it”. Diagnosis was all over the place then, if anyone died of an unknown condition, it was generally lumped under the heading: ‘consumption’. The doctor, just like the priest and possibly the politician, was a sacrosanct golden cow you could only ever bestow a “thank you” to, and not bother with serious concerns or even questions.
Ireland has the second highest breast cancer rate in Europe, staggeringly high skin cancer rates too, and a steady stream of lung, ovary and prostate. We also have the third highest incidence of colorectal cancer for both males and females in the EU. Around 21,000 people are diagnosed every year with some form of the disease as well as a host of other auto-immune conditions, a lot of which could have hereditary starting points. The sooner you sit down and have that ‘genetics’ conversation with older family members, the quicker you’ll be able to jump on your health horse and deal with it. My near-genocidal ancestor (if I’m related to him) may have been a heinous shit, but he’s left me with a clear will not to kill indiscriminately and to breathe in and out for as long as is reasonably possible. How about you?