Category Archives: History

Last of the Eastrogen Rising!

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Last year after the publication of my short story SOMAT in The Long Gaze Back, I was asked to contribute to various events and public readings. I decided to say a big resounding YES to anything I was asked to write/do as an important part (for me) of being a writer is taking on the challenge of reading in public. I took part in a lot of fun events, the Barrytown Trilogy Readings in Dun Laoghaire when Colm Keegan was Writer in Residence, The Bogman’s Canon Fiction Disco, Staccato, National Concert Hall, among others. (Next Monday: 7th November, I’ll be reading a new short story at The Monday Echo at The Mezz in Temple Bar. It kinda never stops! What I learnt was that writing for public readings demands a different type of narrative, one that is less complex than, say, a short story for the page, where the reader is deliberately left thinking about what is inferred – particularly with story endings – and instead these pieces should concentrate on entertaining the audience in the moment. You have about ten minutes to make yourself understood in these kind of settings. You can do this by concentrating more heavily on dialogue, making stories easier to comprehend and to the point. Who are the main characters, what’s going on, what happens them, what changes. Simple! When I was asked to take part in the Eastrogen Rising as part of the Five Lamps Festival I wanted to write about an ‘unknown’ woman who was caught up in the Rising in some way. Lots of ordinary Dubs were left short of vital supplies (no fridges, people shopped daily for their grub) and forced to loot in order to feed their families, it’s believed now that this is how a lot of the kids who got caught up in the gunfire, died. As reported in the Irish Examiner last March, most of the looting took place in the first three days, amid the crossfire between the rebels and the British, but before the fires took firm hold in the central streets. Lower Sackville St was a focal point, with clothes, sports, and toy shops proving popular. Noblett’s and Lemon’s confectioners shops were looted for chocolates and sweets; the toffee axe may have come from one

A cast iron toffee axe — normally used to break up large slabs of toffee in confectioner shops — became a weapon in the hands of a looter in O’Connell St. © Irish Examiner

A cast iron toffee axe — normally used to break up large slabs of toffee in confectioner shops — became a weapon in the hands of a looter in O’Connell St. © Irish Examiner.

of these. The Cable Shoe Company had its windows smashed, and contemporary newspapers reported that people were seen trying on boots and shoes, and returning for another pair if the first selection failed to fit correctly. I tried to imagine a woman whose husband was a bit of an eejit, he desperately wants to pick off some of the glory for himself any way he can while she’s left at home with some leftover veg and a baby to look after, until her friend Molly calls around and takes her looting. This show is running for the last time on December 3rd at the Annesley House in North Strand as the 1916 commemorations come to a close. It’s a fast-paced celebration of those women, from Constance Markievicz to the messenger girls, the ordinary housewives and the widows of the executed men. The multi-media show includes songs, poetry, spoken word, theatre pieces, video and recorded soundscapes. Fireworks taken from Lawrence’s Photographic and toy emporium on Sackville Street opposte the GPO were thought to have been responsible for much of the fires in that part of the city centre. It was these fires, started by looters that spread from building to building, which caused the massive destruction. Here’s my short fiction piece from the show that was Highly Commended for the The Colm Toíbín International Short Story Award. Read it fast in a flat Dub accent or come to the show in December to hear me read it instead! Tickets are available at the door on the night…

Eejit Rising  

‘A woman of set purpose’, he says, ‘In these stirring times Kathleen, it’s no worse a thing you could be.’ ‘Ah right’, says I, ‘Everyone lays a burden on a willing horse Jimmy, but not every Irish woman is Maud Bloody Gonne’. He flicked the baby’s snot in the fire, and prepared to leave, carrying a piece of chair leg with him. That’s what I loved about Jimmy; he could suck out the clogged pipes of a bairn in one hand, and take on the might of the oppressor with a bit of wicker in the other, and still be home in time for a shindig supper. ‘You’re not listening, it’s on for certain’, Jimmy says, ‘The rebellion, it’s full steam on’ – the whooping outta him – ‘D’ye hear me Kathleen? It’s STARTED!’

A fella shot hoisting a flag high above City Hall…crowds gathering up around Sackville Street, fixed bayonets, people digging trenches, fires scorching from pinched fireworks, running in all directions they were. ‘Pray for me darling Kathleen, that I arrive back safe in your bosom’. As last words, no less dramatic than his ideals. ‘I will,’ I says, looking at the half a sausage, butt of carrot and scabby onion on the table, that, along with a sly sup of water, was going to magic into this week’s dinner. ‘I’m hoping for all our sakes you do come back love,’ I says. ‘Not least of all so I don’t have to explain to your employer up at the Royal Barracks that they’ll have to get a new shit shoveller when your turnip gets blown off.’

That’s what got me in all this. Half dem fellas worked for the Empire or were away fighting into the afterlife for it. It’s not like we didn’t know how bad things were at home, but how would a Republic make our lives any different? We all knew scrabblers stuck in Tenements with just one flushable piss pot for twenty people! Sickness streaming down bannisters along with the dark lung. I saw a nipper feeding two childer a wet cloth to stave off the hunger, sucking a corner each, another cradled on the stone stairs in a half rag, brown smeared down the walls would turn the guts of a carthorse. A day here a day there down the docks when it came to work. I don’t mind tellin’ ye, all across the country, the men were drunk and the women were angry.

Out the door I see him swaggering towards Sackville Street to the GPO where a ‘certain comrade’ has confided in him the Big Barney is really kicking off. But knowing Jimmy, at the first sound of gunfire, he’ll drop the wood and slip down a side street until he’s at the back of The Gresham, heading north till he can knock up a couple of his cronies holed up in some kip near Dorset Street. Saluting two flags his new Citizens’ Army chums assure him will be flying on either side of the post office before he beats a sneaky retreat. Ah sure he’ll tell himself that he’s already ‘done his bit for the cause’, chucking four Lee Enfield rifles over the wall and into a blanket the rebels have spread out on the outside of the barracks. Humming ‘God Save Ireland’ until it’s drowned by the clatter of horses hooves of the British cavalry and the crick-crack of bullets whizzing to and fro. No problem to him to whistle a grand patriotic tune right up until he’s at the boarding-house overlooking the Royal Canal, hammering on the door until those bowsies let him in and invite the chancer to their card school. It’s well I remember Palm Sunday when he squandered the wages including pennies his newfound friends from Liberty Hall handed him for services rendered in the name of the Irish Republic.

It was a bitter night in January when he first brought Maud Gonne – who I later named ‘When is she gone?’ and Connolly to our lodgings. ‘Jesus Kathleen, the neighbours would be flabbergasted if they realised our company tonight!’ Jimmy said. I was flabbergasted as he expected me to have tea and brack, a drop of porter, fat logs on the fire and whatever else, and her with an accent you’d only hear back from a wall at a séance. ‘Such pretty little houses are these,’ Maud said, taking her bonnet and swishing it about her nostrils which were halfway up in the air trying to get away from the fish heads on the table. ‘And yet the enemy is intent on the wholesale destruction of these little habitats with their big brutish battering rams.’ Jimmy all impressed at her mouth swagger. ‘You should try living in one of these little houses Maud,’ I says. ‘That’s about the best way to know what you’re talking about.’ And as for Connolly! He sat there smoking a pipe like an American Indian, saying beautiful nought.

Jimmy is out prowling them streets, trying to get himself noticed with that chair leg. He couldn’t even do the decent thing and find himself a pike. There’s a rap at the window; the plump frame of Molly Gilroy crowned with a feathered hat beyond the pane. No, she won’t stop for a sup she says, when I come to the door to let her in. She’s swinging a box with twine over it dangling on her arm all excited and nodding her head to show off the fancy thing on top of her hair and a fox stole sporting an oversized head choking her neck-line.

‘They were just lying there among the mannequins in the smashed up shop and I says to myself I says ‘Go on Molly girl, now’s your chance. Even Edward’s war pension if he was to take one for King and Empire over in France would never get you into a place like this.’ Dublin’s difficulty is Gilroy’s opportunity…and yours too Kathleen,’ Molly shrieks as the booms and the bangs go off in the distance. I grab my shawl, stick the baby in his crib at the chimney and run out after her.

Molly has one hand on her hat and the other on her hip as she tea dances all the way down to the Liffey and back up as far as the shops near the bridge with their gouged-out fronts and broken glass. Oh God those Brit boyos are not going to be put off by troops of giddy blackguards swinging hurleys and anything else they can muster. Our lot are stupid as half-reared pigs with torn ears. There’s little left to scavenge when we get near Noblett’s sweet shop as all the ragged kids are wearing oversize boots and showing off stroked rings on their fingers. One lad is parading around in a liberated Aran suit from Clery’s while a jug-eared Monsignor from the Pro-Cathedral is clipping the neck of a scamp who has a box of Everton Toffees under his arm and who wont let go of his booty.

‘Take yer hand away from that chisler Father or I’ll have ya!’, Molly Gilroy bellows as she points to a green tweed cape lying amid slivers of glass outside Clery’s pavement. ‘Has there been anymore of our ones taken?’ says I to an old white head sticking out of a wool blanket in a doorway. ‘What’s all this for?’ he crackles back, looking more the worse for wear than aware. He may have been sleeping here a fair few days, more ragged ones being put out now when there’s not enough to go around. ‘Don’t you know?’ I says. ‘The Shinners have grabbed the city by its nethers this morning and they’re not going to stop until the whole place is sunk beneath itself’. He’s straining to look around. ‘Oh’, says he…’I could hear something alright, but on account of taking de drop, I thought it might be just in the ears.’ I tell him it’s going on since eleven this morning and no doubts will get hellsbells…he’d better get himself off the streets proper. ‘The Green is full of them too I hear and they’ve captured the Castle on top, and the Post Office, look at the smoke over there’. ‘My God’, he says, ‘The buggers are stirring up trouble for all of us.’

I pick up the garment Molly flings at me, her right hand now wristletted by a thick gold chain. I pretend I haven’t seen the sparkling jade brooch you’d see on one of those elegant ladies gliding into the Abbey Theatre of an evening. I’ll hide it from Molly, I’ll hide it from Jimmy. I’ll keep it planked in the pantry, maybe in the sugar bowl. If he loses at cards again this evening I’ll have something to take to the Pawn shops in Capel Street later in the week…if there’s a Capel Street still standing after all this is over.

Molly runs over and says, ‘Jesus Kathleen, your Jimmy’s up there, squeezed into a window at the very top of the GPO, screaming his lamps off, guns blazing!’ We lash up the pathway on the other side of the road, past the fruit sellers hiding under their stalls, a bread & milk van turned over, some youngones running with tins of bully beef, soldiers from our own side shouting: ‘Qut! Out! Get out of the way, looters will be shot!’, until we’re facing the main windows at the front of the building. By Jaysus there’s Jimmy, the big wide jawbone on him, and a gun alright, along with his gunner eye, pointing up into the sky shooting at any clouds that happen to be passing by. ‘He’s lighting up the sky over Ireland!’ Molly roars, busting her sides laughing, ‘Jimmy! Jimmy! The enemy’s down here!’ But he’s off with his own heavenly army in some other direction. ‘Grab what you can Molly,’ I says. ‘These are going to be tough times ahead for the likes of us, and I’ll deal with that eejit when he lands back down in the new Republic in the morning’.

Why London must not be allowed to suppress the awful truth about Kincora

Suspicions that paedophile doctor Morris Fraser was an MI5 ‘protected species’ have again raised questions about the state’s role in the Kincora sex abuse scandal…

Kinkora: former boy's home, © The Belfast Telegraph

Kinkora: former boy’s home, © The Belfast Telegraph

As the alleged VIP paedophile ring story at Westminster crumbles, there is still one scandal involving powerful people, blackmail and the abuse of children that continues to churn out disturbing, but credible, material from the past: Kincora.

The so-called former ‘boys’ home’ – an inappropriate, cruel misnomer if ever there was one – in east Belfast has this enduring ability to cast up fresh demons which haunt the lives of the victims that were sent there and also raise serious questions for the British state in Northern Ireland.

Last week’s revelations about the paedophile doctor, Morris Fraser, contained this killer line: that a Freedom of Information request about the child psychiatrist’s work in Belfast during the early years of the Troubles was blocked on the grounds of “national security”.

Which raised the possibility that Fraser, who – incredibly – was allowed to keep practising in his field of child psychiatry right up until the mid-1990s, despite a number of convictions for sexually abusing boys, was a “protected species” by the security services.

Richard Kerr

Richard Kerr

In addition, one of the Kincora survivors, Richard Kerr, remembers that his torment began not at the home itself, but in Fraser’s clinic in Belfast’s Royal Victoria Hospital, when the paedophile took pictures with a Polaroid camera of Kerr with his trousers down.

It was on Fraser’s later recommendation that Richard Kerr was sent to Kincora – and into the lair of a ring of child abusers working there.

Fraser’s activities, his link to Kincora and his ability to continue to work – even though the RUC and others knew he had a conviction for child abuse as far back as 1971 in London – suggests the paedophile rings connected to the home did not just involve a few old perverts who happened to be members of the Orange Order.

It raises the possibility that the web of abusers reached deeper into the middle-class professions, such as medicine, and was seen by the security services at the highest level as being of use in terms of spying, so-called “black ops” and blackmail in relation to extreme unionism at the time.

Academic Niall Meehan’s disclosure about the Freedom of Information request – and the reason for it being turned down – also remind us of another similar decision taken at Cabinet level, now in the 21st century.

It is worth remembering that Home Secretary Theresa May was prepared to allow for full and frank disclosure of all police, security service and other classified files that related to claims of a VIP paedophile ring allegedly operating in London around Dolphin House as well as Westminster in the 1970s and 1980s.

However, the Home Secretary has refused to include Kincora in that open investigative remit and, indeed, has even moved to block another inquiry based here in Northern Ireland gaining total, open access to all the sensitive case files and information relating to the east Belfast abuse centre network.

At the time of writing, the Historical Institutional Abuse Inquiry, based at Banbridge courthouse, is hearing evidence against allegations of abuse of children at Lissue Hospital in Lisburn, which will run for at least a week.

The HIAI inquiry has already heard heartbreaking and shocking evidence, including eyewitness accounts about the sexual and physical abuse of children at homes, orphanages and other institutions across Northern Ireland since the state’s inception.

The long-running tribunal will eventually get to Kincora and what could be one of the most sensational set-piece public hearings since the Bloody Sunday inquiry.

Victims and eyewitnesses will be called to retell stories of rape and abuse by powerful and seemingly highly protected men; to amplify claims that the abusers were being spied on (and blackmailed to spy on others) and to charge that, all the time, the authorities knew, but did nothing to save boys from this gang of predatory child rapists.

In order for the full truth to come out about this festering and toxic scandal from the Troubles, the Home Secretary should be forced to reverse the decision not to hand over all of the files related to Kincora to Sir Anthony Hart, the retired judge heading up the HIAI inquiry, and his team.

Because, even if there are some grounds for not publishing these files in the full public glare of Banbridge courthouse, then surely Sir Anthony, Geraldine Doherty and David Lane could at least be trusted to protect “national security” while at the same time being able to read these documents in full and eventually factor the material contained within them into their final report.

Pressure on Theresa May and the Home Office should begin at Stormont and the next power-sharing administration following the Assembly elections on May 5.

Every political party seeking power in the new devolved government – and even those who will enter Opposition – should promise the electorate they will press London on this issue.

They should commit themselves to demanding a change in policy in London allowing for total transparency in connection to Kincora.

The demand that the Government in London hand over all the files to the Banbridge-based tribunal should be in every party’s manifesto in the run-up to the election next month.

Given this recent development regarding Fraser and his ability to have access to children in Northern Ireland and the referrals to Kincora in the 1970s, it is surely correct that the HIAI inquiry be allowed to quiz those health professionals, members of the General Medical Council, any RUC senior staff who knew about the 1971 conviction and, of course, former Secretary of State Lord Patrick Mayhew, whom as journalist Lyra McKee revealed in this newspaper on Monday, was a panel member at one session of a GMC disciplinary committee in the mid 1970s into Dr Fraser’s activities.

All these prominent people should also be summoned to Banbridge courthouse when the HIAI tribunal finally gets around to investigating Kincora to be questioned about the quality of the information in relation to Fraser in that period; to be asked if they think they were hoodwinked for reasons of state.

There are other cases, too, of “protected species” with links to extreme loyalism (their identities and activities revealed to this author by the late David Ervine in the early 1990s before he was a household name) that have connections to Kincora who continued to be used as assets by the security services right into the 1990s and who should now come under the spotlight of this inquiry.

*This column was published today in the Belfast Telegraph.

 

Author Profile: Maeve Brennan, by Eleanor Fitzsimons

Photograph of Maeve Brennan, contributor to The Long Gaze Back, published in September 2015 by New Island, with her story: ‘The Eldest Child’.

It sometimes takes an outsider’s gaze to capture the essence of a place with an authenticity that lies beyond the sight of the indigenous observer. For this reason, it should have come as no great surprise to readers of The New Yorker when the Long-Winded Lady, columnist and faithful, if eccentric, documenter of life in the eponymous city, was unmasked as Irishwoman Maeve Brennan, an immigrant who had arrived in her mid-twenties. John Updike, among others, realised that this watchful interloper ‘brought New York back to The New Yorker’. In her whimsical contributions to the exalted ‘Talk of the Town’ column, Brennan was rare in establishing a distinct persona, and unique in ensuring that this voice was a female one. Stylish, ambitious and armed with a waspish wit that conjured up recollections of Dorothy Parker, her personality contrasted violently with that of her passive, suburbanite alter-ego.

Between 1954 and 1968, Brennan documented a city in flux, a place where the wrecker’s ball swung in perpetual motion as residents embraced a post-war transience. She too drifted: a self-confessed ‘traveller in residence’, she hopped from short-lease apartment to anonymous hotel suite, or borrowed summer houses from glamorous friends like Gerald and Sara Murphy, Fitzgerald’s models for the Divers in Tender is the Night. In her wake she left little beyond a miasma of cigarette smoke and a trace of expensive scent. As one-time editor at The New Yorker Gardner Botsford observed, Brennan could, ‘like the Big Blonde in the Dorothy Parker story … transport her entire household, all her possessions and her cats – in a taxi’. In her story ‘The Last Days of New York City’, published in The New Yorker in 1955, Brennan confessed: ‘All my life, I suppose, I’ll be running out of buildings just ahead of the wreckers’.

Although rarely absent from New York State, Brennan used fiction to return to her native Ireland, which she had left while still in her teens. In The Visitor, her posthumously published novella, she explains why: ‘Home is a place in the mind,’ she writes, ‘when it is empty it frets’. Yet, her memories were never those of a misty-eyed romantic. Born within a year of the failed Easter Rising of 1916, to a staunch Republican father who was in prison at the time but was later appointed Secretary of the Irish Legation to Washington, Brennan was tangled up in political turmoil for much of her early life. The precariousness of her existence and the ever-present threat of displacement seep into stories shot through with anxiety and unease. In ‘The Day We Got Our Own Back’, from The New Yorker in 1953, Brennan documents how she watched wide-eyed as her family home was raided:

One afternoon some unfriendly men dressed in civilian clothes and carrying revolvers came to our house, searching for my father, or for information about him.

Throughout her life, she had a horror of being pinned down and she rarely made firm arrangements.

COVER_Springs of AffectionConventional boundaries between memoir and fiction are rarely observed in Brennan’s revealing Irish stories, many of them collected posthumously in The Springs of Affection: Stories of Dublin, a book compared favourably to Joyce’s Dubliners. Although these tales of lower-middleclass Dublin life appear superficially innocuous, they revealed an unfamiliar malevolence to second– and third-generation Irish-Americans who hankered after a mist-shrouded holy land. Her characters operate furtively, seeing out their thwarted lives in the shadow cast by a stultifying and spiritless Catholic Church.

From the safety of cosmopolitan New York, Brennan time travelled back to darkened confessionals where guilt-ridden children cowered under the gaze of a vengeful deity, and to the ante-chamber of an enclosed convent where a bereft mother strained to discern the voice of a lost daughter who sang in praise of her unearthly spouse. Teaching nuns, capricious in their accusations, note that the young Brennan was headstrong and wilful, traits that are inappropriate in Irish womanhood. Decades later, in ‘Lessons and Lessons and More Lessons’ from The New Yorker, Brennan described how, in a city where the ‘three-martini lunch’ is commonplace, she hid her glass instinctively when two nuns entered the Greenwich Village restaurant she frequented.

In New York, Brennan embraced her ‘otherness’; as one colleague observed, ‘She wasn’t one of us. She was one of her!’ To strangers, she could appear hard-edged and watchful, yet friends found her warm and generous, voluble and funny. Everyone agreed that she was beautiful. Barely five feet tall and beanpole slim, she looked younger than her years and compensated with vertiginous heels. She tottered along the robustly masculine corridors of The New Yorker offices at West Forty-Third Street, make-up immaculate, hair neatly coiffed and carefully chosen costume exquisitely cut, with a fresh flower in her lapel, generally a rose. She had the ceiling of her office painted Wedgwood blue and threw open her door while she tap-tapped away on her typewriter, a curlicue of smoke rising from the ever-present Camel clenched between her fingers. Her language was defiantly fruity, and the mischievous notes that she slipped under the doors of her male colleagues elicited great explosions of laughter: ‘To be around her was to see style being invented,’ recalled her friend and editor William Maxwell.

An ill-fated stint as fourth wife to fellow New Yorker writer St. Clair McKelway – a hard-drinking, mentally frail man – took her to bohemian Sneden’s Landing, a community of artists and writers that nestled alongside the Hudson in upstate New York. Brennan recast it as ‘Herbert’s Retreat’, a rarefied enclave where privileged New Yorkers partied under the watchful gaze of their derisive Irish servants. With an insider’s familiarity, Brennan used her stories to juxtapose the prudent Catholicism of her countrywomen with the flagrant immorality of their employers. As the beautiful and sophisticated daughter of a diplomat, Brennan enjoyed a status that allowed her to pass in society, yet she had rubbed shoulders with girls who would enter domestic service and must have felt a sneaking solidarity with them. As a former fashion writer with Harper’s Bazaar, it apparently amused her greatly when the trappings of Irish peasantry – shawls and tweed and tealeaves – were adopted as status symbols by wealthy American women.

At times, Brennan grasped onto the trappings of Irishness with a fervour that suggested desperation and displacement. She drank tea obsessively, and although her rented homes rarely featured a kitchen, she insisted on an open fireplace, considering a fire to be a living thing, company almost. When her marriage failed in 1959, she embraced a solitary life, borrowing houses in the Hamptons and walking the Atlantic beach with her dog, Bluebell before returning to the twin comforts of a scalding hot cup of tea and a roaring fire, which she shared with several cats, ‘small heaps of warm dreaming fur all over the furniture and the floor’. In summertime, when the Hamptons filled up, she would return to New York City or travel home to Ireland.

During her chaotic, alcohol-soaked marriage, Brennan wrote little of any worth. When one devoted reader requested more Maeve Brennan stories, she had her editor write to explain that she had shot herself when she was ‘drunk and heartsick’. However, the 1960s heralded a period of intense productivity. Several of her finest stories, set in Dublin and Wexford, feature Rose and Hubert Derdon, a couple who endure a dispiriting marriage: she is furtive and priest-ridden, while he ‘wore the expression of a friend, but of a friend who is making no promises’. Carefully crafted, these stories represent a stingingly accurate documenting of the disappointments that ambush even the most virtuous at every turn. Many of the stories from this period were published in In and Out of Never-Never Land. A number of stories from this collection are set in Forty-eight Cherryfield Avenue, in the well-to-do Dublin suburb of Ranelagh, the home she occupied as a child; William Maxwell described it as her ‘imagination’s home’.

AUTHOR_Maeve_Brennan

Photo of Maeve Brennan © Yvonne Jerrold

Brennan’s story ‘The Eldest Child’ was selected for Best American Short Stories 1968. Yet even as her writing elicited fresh acclaim, her life began to unravel and she drifted, physically and mentally, becoming unkempt, erratic and paranoid. Homeless and debt-ridden, she took to sleeping on a couch in the ladies room at The New Yorker offices, and she grew paranoid that her toothpaste had been laced with cyanide. When she was institutionalised for a time, one friend testified that she became very Irish, as if the years had fallen away, and with them the carefully crafted veneer. She was discharged once she had established a pharmaceutically induced equilibrium, but she could not be relied on to take her medication and drifted once more, losing touch with friends and colleagues. She was nervously tolerated at the offices of The New Yorker as a legacy of affection and with respect for her talent, but her behaviour grew erratic: she once nursed a sick pigeon in her office and, in a more sinister episode, wrecked the offices of a number of colleagues. Sometimes, she stood outside, handing out cash to bewildered passers-by. Inevitably, she produced little that was worthy of publication. Yet ‘The Springs of Affection’, her longest and, arguably, most powerful story, appeared in The New Yorker in March 1972. Although it is almost entirely autobiographical, Brennan twisted the facts in such a fashion that one aunt was prompted to write the words ‘greatly changed for the worse’ on a photograph of her brilliant niece.

Although Brennan continued as an occasional contributor to ‘Talk of the Town’, her offerings arrived out of the blue with no indication of where she was when she wrote them. In her final outing as the Long-Winded Lady, in January 1981, she described how, walking along Forty-Second Street, she had sidestepped a shadow that she recognised as ‘exactly the same shadow that used to fall on the cement part of our garden in Dublin, more than fifty-five years ago’. That year, she turned up at the offices of The New Yorker, grey-haired and unkempt, and sat quietly in reception on two consecutive days, but no one appeared to recognise her. Maeve Brennan died of heart failure in a New York nursing home on 01 November 1993; she was seventy-six. By then, she had descended into an imaginary existence in which she appeared unaware of her status as a celebrated writer.

Excluded from the canon of important Irish writing for years, she has enjoyed a posthumous revival. Two collections of short fiction, The Springs of Affectionand The Rose Garden, and her revealing novella, The Visitor, are still in print, as is a collected edition of Long-Winded Lady pieces. Jonathan Cape published Angela Bourke’s biography Maeve Brennan: Homesick at The New Yorker in 2004. Since then, several new plays and collections (such as The Long Gaze Back) have referenced or published the work of this significant Irish writer.

**This blog post was published today on the Thresholds international short story forum

 

Events must be balanced, not a partisan ode to republicanism

 

MI+Easter+Rising+1916+fights+bombs+IV

Patrick_Pearse

Patrick Pearse, born 10 November 1879 – died 3 May 1916.

Patrick Pearse’s critics often portray him as a dreamer-poet whose romantic Gaelicised vision for Ireland was more akin to the mysticism of German Volkish nationalism rather than the secular, anti-clerical democratic republicanism of the American and French revolutions. This depiction of Pearse is partially justified if you scan his writings as well as his obsession on blood sacrifice. However, the leader of the Easter Rising was at least grounded in reality when it came to one vital issue – Ulster.

Belfast saw virtually no action in Easter Week 1916 even while the centre of Dublin was burning and civilians as well as soldiers and insurgents were dying in the capital’s streets. The North in general remained quiet during the armed Liam Mellows 2insurgency and this is in large part down to Pearse’s authority. Away from the Celtic mysticism and the fiery graveside oratory Pearse was realistic enough to know that plotting a parallel uprising in Ireland’s second city, in the industrial Protestant heartland of Ulster, would only result in sectarian slaughter. He was so concerned about the units loyal to him in the North of Ireland that many of them were force marched across into Connaught to aid a mini-rebellion by Liam Mellows and his forces in the west, conveniently removing them from mimicking the Dublin rebels by causing trouble back in Ulster.

In effect then, thanks partly to Pearse, there was no rising north of what would become the border. Five years later the majority of the IRA’s units in Belfast demonstrated reciprocal realism, Pearse now long dead of course, by backing Michael Collins and the pro-Treaty forces after the Free State was founded and the civil war loomed. It is worth remembering this background particularly the absence of armed insurgency in Belfast during Easter Week 1916 when considering the republican launch in City Hall on Monday (this week) of a range of commemorations they are planning for next year’s centenary.

Launch of the 1916 Centenary Easter Rising Celebrations at the City Hall with speakers, Briege Brownlee, Tom Hartley and Lord Mayor Arder Carson with Kabosh actors Antoinette Morelli and Gerard Jordan.

Launch of the 1916 Centenary Easter Rising Celebrations at the City Hall with speakers, Briege Brownlee, Tom Hartley and Lord Mayor Arder Carson with Kabosh actors Antoinette Morelli and Gerard Jordan.

The top news line from the launch came from Tom Hartley, a Sinn Féin veteran, former deputy Lord Mayor of Belfast and a formidable local historian whose last book Milltown Cemetery was a superb, invaluable and balanced 51ItNyb82LL._SX311_BO1,204,203,200_piece of historical research. Hartley invited loyalists in the city to take part in the Rising commemorations as he noted that within the working class Protestant working class communities there is a burgeoning local history movement. His intentions are wholly benign and presumably he is realistic enough himself to acknowledge that any Ulster loyalist/unionist participation in these events are not going to turn them over night from ‘misguided Irishmen’ into fully fledged republicans and nationalists. The trouble with 1916 and all that is it that to the loyalist community it really means one thing only – July 1, the Battle of the Somme rather than the rising which unionists to this day regard as a ‘stab in the back’ during war time. The sacrifices on the Western Front, the thousands killed going over the top, the courage in the face of what World War One historian Lyn McDonald called ‘hurricanes of steel’ flying through No Man’s Land will also resonate much more with the unionist and loyalist community than the valour displayed by the 1916 rebels who at the time didn’t appear to command massive public support even in Dublin. That came later thanks mainly to British stupidity in firstly executing and making martyrs out of the leaders and then the imposition of conscription which deeply alienated Catholic Ireland.

None of this is to suggest that unionists and loyalists should engage in debate and discussion with republicans about Easter 1916 and its legacy. Republicans in turn have been re-analysing their own histories and their personal connections in their families back to Irish Regiments like the Connaught Rangers that fought in the Great War. Yet the unionist and loyalist community will not be attracted to any commemorations that are simply glorified pageants with people looking ludicrous in period uniforms and costumes. Rather any key events to mark the centenary should be historical think-ins, debates and conferences asking hard questions of everyone about the Rising’s legacy. They could start with this important question: why Dublin back then but not Belfast?

**This article was published today in: The Belfast Telegraph**

By Grand Central Station I Sat Down And Wept

by-grand-central-station-i-sat-down-and-wept-by-elizabeth-smart

An orgasm in a caravan with a convector heater on full blast and a thousand rounds of toast popping. Nothing can adequately describe the frenzied claustrophobia in Elizabeth Smart’s By Grand Central Station I Sat Down And Wept. When I read it at age 22 in a damp smelly bedsit in north London in the clinch of obsessive love for a co-worker who’d chosen a brilliantly achieved woman over me, I understood the heart-stopping power of literature for the first time. This little book grabbed me by the hair and dragged.

She had been there in the 1930s, Canadian writer Elizabeth Smart, and was able to explain it to me six decades later. Swallowing the earth with a married man, putting the whole untidy world into a nest, declaring that ‘love is strong as death’, especially the vetoed kind. I was flailing around with delusion in Wood Green, a harpy of relentlessness, addicted to hummus kebabs, drinking too much, longing for life with this man I’d met in a pet insurance company, screaming at him in red phone boxes, being mental. It was all a bit ugly and engrossing as often young love is.

George-Barker

Poet George Barker

The stifling descriptions of how Smart felt for poet-floozy George Barker after enticing him and his young wife to America – the length and latitude she was prepared to go to in pursuit of carnal hunger (she’d planned seven kids with him, though reality & economics restricted her to four) – her long-lived love story and how she wrote it became a strange anchor for me. I was relieved by its lunacy. In some ways it helped me move on. I entombed my man in London, moved back to Ireland, grew up a bit and learnt how to behave. Though the book, like sea lichen, left its tidemark.

I re-read it again recently and wanted to puke! A nauseating and brilliant ecology of desire and mental oblation. The reader is a peeper, an ogler, a watcher, through something mad, thrilling and rare. We witness Smart baiting her lover while sacrificing his martyr wife, the steamy affair that ensues across America, Canada and England, the ‘real’ trouble they get into because of the social mores of the time, the disgust her family experienced (Parent’s 11890440_10206884928495408_5758888108711341254_o (1)imaginations build frameworks out of their own hopes and regrets into which children seldom grow, but instead, contrary as trees, lean sideways out of the architecture, blown by a fatal wind they never envisaged) and her own mercenary journey through marvellous filthy love, horrible loneliness and eventual abandonment by a man who went on to have 15 kids with a bunch of women, while never managing to nab a full-time job. By today’s standards, he really was a Casanova shithead.

While the language and depth of feeling is still affectingly brilliant, it reads a little indulgent for our time. Nature, birds, prophecy, insects, shame, cheap hotels, Macbethian blood, betrayal, weather systems, crazed sex, all the things that suffocated her senses would peter out in a string of maniacal text messages today. Smart seems not very smart in truth, a posh girl hell bent on self annihilation and pissing off her parents, but her ability to sculpture language into terrifying and wonderful reflections marks her out as a unique and brilliant writer whose ‘whoring after oblivion’ with claws of biology and pity and hysterical hypnotism will leave you reeling in the trees. There should be a penance of a lot of pints after finishing this book. My dear, my darling, do you hear me where you sleep?

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

*This piece by moi will be part of Colm Keegan’s We Are What We Read exhibition, taking place at the dlr LexIcon, Dún Laoghaire, from 28th August – 31st October 2015, featuring a range of writers talking about books that had an impact on them.

Legal Highs Vs Lethal Highs

A handful of 'e' - © Belfast Telegraph

A handful of ‘e’ – © Belfast Telegraph

With apologies to The Prodigy in the early to mid 1990s every single drug scare hysteria started with an ‘E’.

Northern Ireland was not immune to the public panic about Ecstasy, or MDMA, or as it was known in the Rave party scene across these islands, ‘The Love Drug.’ There were stories about young people who had taken ‘E’ dying either from the dodgy chemicals that had been cut into the tablets, or, as was more common, the lethal effects of de-hydration brought on by the drug itself, the heat of the dance floors and lack of water intake.

It was during this period that I persuaded BBC Northern Ireland’s news and current affairs department to send me to Manchester where an interesting

The Hacienda, Manchester, © The Guardian

The Hacienda, Manchester, © The Guardian

experiment was taking place inside a club that for those of us who had been involved in the music from punk rock onwards was a Mecca of the alternative anti-pop underground: The Hacienda.

The club once owned by the survivors of Joy Division, New Order, and the Mancunian music impresario and Grenada TV presenter Tony Wilson. By the early 90s The Hacienda had moved from being a venue where the ‘Madchester’ bands took to the stage and had become the home of a huge dance-rave scene. And coming with that scene was the dancer’s drug of choice, Ecstasy.

To counter the dangers of dehydration from E-intake and dance-induced over heating, management at the Hacienda introduced a ‘safer dancing policy’ inside the club. They set aside areas known as ‘chill out zones’ which were cool and had instant access to water coolers to counter dehydration. Staff were trained up to administer first aid and cope with ravers who had dehydrated while on E. The whole set-up was a pragmatic one which accepted that many on the dance floors would consume E while partying there.

The Hacienda was actually proud of its ‘safer dancing’ regime and I remember a sweating, hungover but as always highly articulate Tony Wilson making a coherent case for this practical, realistic approach to recreational drug use, which he insisted had actually saved many lives.

When the special report from Manchester, to the immense credit of BBC NI, was broadcast on the tea time news there was a mixed reaction. From older and conservative quarters there were the usual accusations of promoting a soft, liberal line on drug consumption while from those directly involved in the local Ulster rave scene gratitude and relief that there were some rational debate being injected into the usual, hysterical reportage about this one aspect of drug and youth culture.

At that time on the continent meanwhile the always liberal, forward-thinking Dutch were going one step further than Manchester and the Hacienda. In etestHolland and in particular the rave-scene in Amsterdam, clubs were actually providing customers with E-testing kits, which could examine if the tablets they were about to consume were unadulterated and relatively safe. As a result of the amount of Ecstasy-related deaths in the Netherlands was far, far lower than the relatively small number of deaths around the rave scene in the UK.

Tony Wilson

Tony Wilson

Memories of driving around the grim, semi-vacant streets of Moss Side in Manchester, my cameraman taking tracking shots in our car of the area which then echoed to gunfire from the gangland wars that blighted the inner city district; of sitting down to interview the late, legendary Tony Wilson whom I had first seen on television back in the 70s when he promoted a new wave of non-conformist bands and filming in the interior of the club synonymous with the likes of New Order all came back to mind on reading about this week’s court case on legal highs.

Two men and a woman made legal history recently when a Belfast court became the first in the UK to convict individuals in relation to the supply of legal highs.

The whole issue of Legal Highs only highlights further the utter of absurdity of the Roaring Twenties-Prohibition approach to drugs in the western world including in Northern Ireland. Just as the ban on alcoholic drink in the United States only fuelled the illicit sale of booze under the control of the new organised crime gangs of the time, the prohibition of all narcotics has only made the gangsters which control the supply of heroin, cocaine, speed, ecstasy, etc., richer far beyond the wildest dreams of Al Capone and his cronies.

Ian Brown, Ashley Campbell and Susan Bradshaw all admitted to failing to comply with safety regulations by distributing a dangerous product at a Belfast city centre shop, i.e. legal highs. Yet the existence of ‘legal highs’, which are being produced synthetically and exponentially across the planet, demonstrates that while the state can shut down one type of drug on the market (and crucially on the internet) the chemists and the suppliers will invent another one almost the very same day.

Local politicians have, of course, fuelled the usual drug-hysteria and playing on words demanded that legal highs should be called instead ‘lethal highs’. They may be right about that nomenclature because there will undoubtedly be legal highs which are impure and of a chemical compound that will have lethal effects on those that ingest them.

However, the crucial word in the recent judgement at Laganside Court was the word ‘safety’. The three defendants admitted their guilt on the basis that they were compromising the safety of buying the product at Soho Bookshop in Gresham Street. Yet what they had taken health and safety regulations into consideration? What is there was a system where a synthetic, legal drug could be chemically/medically tested, its supply limited to a specific dose and then licensed? Under such a regime the trio would not be guilty of anything other than selling something probably no more dangerous than booze from an off license or tobacco from a corner shop.

soho

Why is it that local politicians lobby (absolutely correctly) as far up as Downing Street or the European Union to keep a factory open in Ballymena that produces a toxic product that kills millions around the planet, namely the cigarette, but at the same time demand new laws to completely prohibit other synthetic toxins which may in some cases be potentially lethal? There may be no answer to that doublethink other than the simple, practical suggestion that the so-called ‘war on drugs’ is now even more un-winnable with the advent of synthetically created drugs that exist in the penumbra between illegality and legality. That is to follow the spirit of The Hacienda’s ‘safer dancing’ policy or better still the logical, rational approach of the Dutch party scene and subject these new narcotics on the market to rigorous safety testing.

In Times of Fading Light

fadinglight

gooseA Monastery Goose was to several generations of an East German family what a Madeleine cake was for Marcel Proust in Remembrance of Things Past: a solid, tangible, evocative food treat that conjures up deep memories of an epoch lost forever in time. In Eugen Ruge’s In Times of Fading Light, this decadently rich Christmas dish wafts and recurs down through the decades of war, reconstruction, revolution, division and final disillusionment with a dream.

Those giblets cooked in hot coconut fat and the bird itself soaked and seared into a ‘sweet black glaze’ from a mixture of cognac, honey and port wine are also reminiscent of the festive feasts in Dickens or the groaning dining table on which Gabriel Conroy in Joyce’s The Dead is carving from. Cooking the goose succeeds in bringing you into both Irina’s kitchen and wider East German society.

For the Umnitzers, a family who fled Nazi Germany to Mexico and who returned to their divided country after 1945 determined as true believers to build Socialism in its eastern half, the Monastery or Burgundian Goose becomes a symbol of relative luxury and much later loss for a state that they once had faith in.

Paradoxically the bird stuffed with apricots, figs and other fruits, the one-off annual luxurious dish, becomes a contrast to the daily austerity and shortages egermof GDR consumption. In the 1991 Christmas, after reunification, the widespread availability of the Monastery Goose’s exotic ingredients then turns into a motif for an all conquering free market.

The most vivid description of Irina Umnitzer (Russian wife of the crotchety communist patriarch Kurt) occurs in 1976 just as the first shoots of dissent are rising in the Marxist-Leninist orthodox soil of the outwardly stable German Democratic Republic. Amid all the Christmas cheer, with Irina’s son Sasha arriving with a new girlfriend for the annual family get together, there are snatches of conversations hinting at the rebellion to come…albeit 13 years into the future when The Berlin Wall comes crashing down.

Berlin Wall, constructed in 1961, torn down in 1989

Berlin Wall, constructed in 1961, torn down in 1989

Irina is fed up hearing about Wolf Biermann, the dissident East German singer whose criticism in his protest songs of the regime leads the authorities to bar him going back into the GDR after a tour in the west. She is even irritated by talk of Christa Wolf, the country’s leading novelist and would rather think about Thuringian Dumplings than the writer’s subtle critiques of ‘Actual Existing Socialism’. Most of all Irina is annoyed by her son’s ‘dull blonde’ girl who announces at the table that she is a vegetarian and therefore will not sink her teeth into the Monastery Goose. Worse still the girlfriend, Melitta won’t even take a drink and may (horror of horrors!) be a full-time teetotaller.

This award-winning novel shifts back and forth across time and appropriately the contiguous chapter to the 1976 Christmas dinner is set on 1st October 1989 with the GDR only just over a month away from its rapid, unexpected collapse. The echoes of dissension and opposition are by now thunderous and menacing for the dwindling band of communist loyalists such as Kurt, Irina’s husband.

In reverse gear Ruge’s time-machine narrative then thrusts back to the bleak winter of 1979 and captures the decrepit but oddly attractive quarter of East Berlin which was mildly Bohemian in GDR times. For anyone acquainted with this area either before and shortly after the Wall came down, the author paints an accurate picture of the Prenzlauer Berg district. This is portrayed during a pivotal encounter between Sasha and Kurt with the ‘stucco façades’ of 19th century apartments that are ‘blackened by the smoke of coal-burning stoves, and in places where the bare masonry showed through. Balconies looked as if they might fall at any moment.’

Sasha’s ascetic existence in this episode, living in a sparsely furnished room lit by a naked single bulb, separated from Melitta and their young son, having not only abandoned them but also his dissertation in history at university, epitomises the growing alienation of the younger generation from their society and the ideals that old Kurt fought for against Nazism and later Capitalism.

Reading Ruge’s gritty depiction of this shabby, half-empty, near desolate after dark bohemian bolt hole reminds the reader of similar enclaves of protest and freedom on the other side of the Wall; in the ’79 of the Berlin of Iggy Pop and its ‘Ripped Backsides’ lyrics of The Passenger, and the electro-kinetic sounds of Bowie’s Low, Heroes and Lodger. For the Sashas of ‘Actually Existing Socialism’, bored into catatonic torpor, life is elsewhere beyond the every day organised lies and dull oppression of the eastern bloc.

And yet the writer who himself emigrated from the GDR in 1986, creates sympathetic portraits of the Old Believers like Kurt or Wilhelm, the latter who is rewarded for his service to Socialism in a ceremony at a local party office in an equally comic and touching passage. Ruge never forgets that ageing, decaying men like these were once in their youth on the frontline in the fight against fascism and some of whom also endured the terrors of the Stalinist Gulags whilst in exile in the Soviet Union, and yet who still remained convinced of the correctness of the communist cause.

The novel ends with Sasha returning to his father’s old haunts in Mexico where he reads Kurt’s disjointed, jaggedly structured letters. His son cannot work out whether the notes his father left behind for him were jottings for a novel or the second part of his dad’s memoirs of life in the GDR. Sasha discovers writings about that grim day in February 1979 when his father came to see him in Berlin, to straighten his son out, to find out why he had left his partner, his child and his future as an historian. Only a few words come back to Sasha as he reads this diary note. “People are starving in Africa!” his father protested, angry at his child’s indifference to food, interior décor, hygiene, personal ambition, wife and son and lack of belief. These are some of the most powerful and poetic sections of a deeply moving family saga.

Yet Sasha blots out the unsettling memories these letters conjure up by escaping into a listless afternoon playing chess with a Mexican biker and later drifting off into a siesta-sleep, rocked gently by the swing of a hammock and the ‘indifferent, roar of the sea.’

hon

Eric Honecker

It an apposite place to draw the family’s arc through modern German history to an inconclusive yet somehow restive close. Because it was also Latin America where another old communist fighter from the 30s and 40s, from Kurt and Wilhelm’s generation, chose to flee and end his days after the GDR imploded and Germany was reunited once more. Eric Honecker died in Santiago, the capital of Chile on 29th May 1994.

In Times of Fading Light is not the novelistic equivalent of Goodbye Lenin and its Ostalgia for all things GDR from Spreewald pickles to Young Pioneers singing the Socialist anthems from his childhood. Nor is the book like The Lives of Others and its narrow but brilliant focus on the bloodless, obsessive invasiveness of the all-seeing, all-knowing Stasi. Ruge’s story of a family often at war, both of the hot and cold variety in the 20th century, is somewhere within the hinterland of those two films about East German life. It is located in that penumbra where everything and everyone is grey rather than black & white, where there are little or no downright heroes or villains but rather only frail and flawed human beings.

Dark Threats from the Big Lad

funny

I remember exactly where I was when the death threat against me was issued. My sister and I were sipping coffee in a cafe inside Madrid’s Barajas airport waiting for a flight to London. The mobile rang and it was someone from the police press office back in Belfast who informed me that the Red Hand Defenders had released a statement to the BBC newsroom warning that both myself and my colleague Jim Cusack were in their crosshairs.

The police press officer on the other end of the line advised that I get back home as soon as possible and talk to someone in Castlereagh RUC station about my personal security. Hours later I returned to the house in East Belfast, my children dispatched to their grandparents’ home along with their mother while I waited for detectives to come around to my then home.

There had been threats and warnings before but according to the plain clothes officer assigned to my case this one was extremely serious. At the time the RHD (a cover name for the UDA’s C company in collusion with elements of the Loyalist Volunteer Force) were still very active in the business of murder and intimidation. And despite my many loyalist paramilitary contacts the specific individual(s) behind this threat were not to be moved to lift it.

cctvFor almost a decade later I lived in a house with protective steel barriers on reinforced doors, panic alarms, hidden CCTV cameras with constant checks underneath the car and nightly vigils in front of the TV screen to scan the footage from outside and in the garden.

Martin_O'Hagan

Journalist Martin O’Hagan

That particular death threat occurred in March 1999 and only two years later killers from the LVF murdered Martin O’Hagan, gunning down the fearless investigative reporter in a Lurgan street in front of his wife.

O’Hagan was an employee of IMN newspapers, the same media group recently targeted in a speech by Gerry Adams in a swanky New York hotel. To chortles and laughter from his well heeled audience (including representatives of a company that employs one of Ireland’s most wanted men: the disgraced former Anglo Irish Bank chief David Drumm!), Adams regaled them with a tale from Irish history. He recalled, inaccurately, that Michael Collins himself had held a gun to the head of an Irish Independent editor because the Big Fellow had objected to the paper’s opposition to violence. In fact the Independent actually backed Collins and his pro-treaty stance in 1921 which drew the wrath of the republican die-hards who later stopped the printing presses at gunpoint in the paper’s old Middle Abbey Street HQ.

However, Adams’ little reminder of what happens to those who cross Irish republican chieftains was a chilling vision of the near future. While quipping that he was only joking, the reference gives us an insight into how a party based around the cult of personality and rigid internal discipline would like to manage the media.

There is no real, state power at Stormont where our locally elected politicians ultimately have to defer to the UK Treasury in all major economic decisions and have delegated security policy to MI5. However those elected to power south of the border can wield real state power including in areas like policing and justice. There have been instances in the recent past in the Republic were politicians abused those powers. Think of Charles J Haughey for instance authorising the bugging of journalists’ phones in the 1980s.

Jean McConville who was abducted by the IRA in 1972: © NBC News.

Jean McConville pictured with three of her children, abducted by the IRA in 1972: © NBC News.

Earlier this year there was another phone tapping/email hacking scandal in the Republic, this one though not exercising state power…well at least not yet. At the height of the Boston College tapes scandal culminating the arrest of Gerry Adams in relation to the Jean McConville murder, a couple at the centre of the storm raised allegations that their phones and emails had been intercepted illegally.

Carrie McIntyre, the wife of ex IRA prisoner, author and key researcher on the Boston College-Belfast Project, found to her horror that private conversations between her and American Embassy officials had been reprinted almost verbatim in a Sunday tabloid. These were wholly private communications with US diplomats that she insisted were never disclosed to anyone else. Her conclusion was this – either someone was bugging the call and hacking the emails at the American Embassy in Dublin – or else her home phone and computer had been compromised. She and her husband Anthony are in no doubt that it was the latter and that a specialist unit set up by a senior ex IRA man was involved. The Garda Síochána are currently investigating their claims which are also to be raised in the Dáil by Fianna Fail.

If they are correct then the McIntyres have been subjected to a dirty tricks operation the likes of which Richard Nixon and his cronies would have been proud of. And if there is any proven link to a secret political unit set up to smear the opponents of Sinn Féin it might end up as an Irish form of ‘Watergate’. For once that over used and abused affix ‘gate’ would have some real meaning in reportage.

Maria Cahill, © The Guardian

Maria Cahill, © The Guardian

The latest hostile anti-INM remarks by the Sinn Féin President have to be seen in that context, one in which any criticism of what the dear leader say over his handling of the Maria Cahill controversy, is portrayed as being either “anti patriotic” or “anti peace process”. Because within the party itself there are no independent voices speaking out against the leadership, no one inside dares even to question it.

Upcycle: An Account of Some Strange Disturbances in Botanic Road

Short Story Prize logo SEP 2014

It is hardly worth telling, this story of mine, or at least in a modern context, because so many people go through the same these days and feel it too dull and inconsequential to mention. We have to take our modern horrors on the chin in the same way sewage is turned back into drinking water, axiomatically. Some small trace evidence of evil was always there, hanging on a hammock off his organs, in the grubby suitcase inside his head: laughing at a rape on the television, laughing at the old woman up the road dying of cancer (in the most excruciating way). Laughing at a crushed dog out on the main road, a cut knee, house repossessions, floods, poverty, puberty, forest fires, riots, stock collapse and all else sitting mean and keen in-between. It’s funny to think of the exact relay now, as I have not been able to leave the house since. And I have not been right in the heart since! Both of them dead now, lost to me, lost to the ignorant beauty of everything.

There are days when I crumple on the couch giving in to endless interlude, boom-box of Jeremy Kyle, mini flask of vodka, crows crying their lamps out in the chest-hair back garden. Slow Joe next door moving his furniture around to nothing but his own sound. Eventually I’ll squirm up to bed when I know I’ve successfully folded enough hours of the day into the next so that neither is in much of a shape to be useful. Even then I cannot escape the watching. That his eyes are stuck on me and me alone, I am completely sure. That she is unable or unwelcome to come through at all, I am also completely sure.

From his hospital bed he seemingly figured it all out. ‘Here ye go Frank, have some nice yoghurt, c’mon now, try to eat a little something’. The mind is a peculiar thing, the manager told us. He seemed to know we were doing up some of the rooms, I told her, he said so. He said he could see it in his mind’s eye. ‘That’s impossible,’ she replied. ‘He might’ve heard one of the staff talking about renovating a house or something along those lines. If you think of it a bit like the way magpies work, on clear days when the blood flows normally, they can snatch bits and bobs of other people’s reality, processing it as their own.’

spook

I always had a strange relationship with this house. When I left for University in London twenty five years ago, I was plagued with memories of levitating in the sitting room as a small child. When I returned to Dublin on holidays my mother wrote it off, sniggering ‘oh my daft daughter!’ but he didn’t. ‘I used to do that in digs years ago, down the quays,’ he told me. Levitate after concentrating like mad. Best done standing upright with your fists clenched by your side, head up, breathing deep. Think your way through the weight of human rubbish, out the lid on the other side, slowly ascending. Think yourself into lightfooted, sheer, unsubstantial. ‘If you lose confidence even for a second, that’s you,’ he explained. ‘You’d be right back on dry land again. Sometimes it might only be an inch or two you’d go but what of it. Other times you could rise high into a dusty corner of the room no bother.’ One night after his room-mate caught him the old bag who ran the boarding house called in a priest to ceremoniously bash and threaten with stern words. The priest, when he realised my father was a moss back atheist, called in a mutton-faced guard and the guard called in a doctor of psychology after he demanded to know what the exact charge was. In 1950s Ireland it was put down to a physical malaise caused by communist blathering. They backed off with a polite warning. He was a public servant by then: that particular type tended to get away with a lot.

My brother Arnold, six years older than me, remembers Top of the Pops posters falling from the four walls in the back bedroom when he stared into the old gritty dressing table mirror. The same dressing table that recently got a chalk paint up-cycle by Annie Sloan. Myself and a teenage pal used to sit drinking cider and smoking dope in that mirror until she eventually got the creeps sufficient and wouldn’t come to our house any more. Another brother went clear mad in that room. Ran off to the army and got stranded on Carcass Island during a far-off war – not actually fighting – but overseeing penguins and derelict buildings when everyone else scarpered. He put a £90,000 bet on a horse and flung himself out a B&B window in Warwick after they paid to get rid of him. My mother invited him home to rest it out but he stayed five years and turned mustard in the room. He eventually died giving himself over to numerous drug trials to feed his gambling habit. He always said he saw faces and not just in the dead leg of night. Mean wizened women’s faces, out of holy nowhere.

There were so many rumours about the clump of houses (not just ours) not far from the old walls of the Botanic Gardens in Glasnevin. In Irish: Glas Naíon, meaning ‘stream of the infants’. A stream infected with famine-time cholera from sinking bodies in the nearby crater of graveyard. That was one theory for some residents going a bit plinky plonky. Ley lines, lead pipes, electrical brain teasers from mobile phone masts. Nothing was ever proven.  Point is, he was dustybinnever going to leave the house willingly. And the house was never going to spew him up willingly either. In reality he had this vulgar indwelling of power despite the brandy having pinched his mind, his heart, his intellectual abilities, his ambition, his bowels, his bank, his false teeth, his legs.

When they first married my mother was his Word War II coal queen for sure. The newly-built 1950s semi had four fireplaces, including one in a double bedroom upstairs for any wife to squeeze babies out in comfort to lay snug in a chest of drawers. No one bought cots in advance then. A mantelpiece adorned with a Padre Pio genuflection, ceramic Holy Mary, broken fireguard, a photograph of her dead father dancing at a dinner party and Dusty Bin won in a Blackpool bingo hall. I was born in this room.

Back in the days of Pat-a-cake, of hand-jive, when asked that first time she curbed a smile and ran like mad, in her A-line skirt & bobbysocks. My father ran after her. All of what you’d expect, naturally. It may have been the dead baby; lifeless in a Clark’s’ shoe box on the bedroom floor, that had the final say. Or it may have been nothing peculiar at all. Missed promotion in work, boredom, a stray urge. But sometime in his forties, he left himself and us behind. Yet we continued to love him despite the emotional violence, the daily drudge, the drinking, the incessant arguing, the drab awful iron-clad impossibility of it all. As you’d expect towards a father or a husband by a certain societal proxy. A hangover from Victorian times, maybe. We loved him because it was required of us. We battled hard to understand why he was always in such pain, why he needed to pass on some of that pain to us.

For the last three years, with everyone else gone, he’d wandered into the smelly elderly and utterly struggling pit. Manning the walls all day like a wood-turner. Agonising over what we now know were mites of madness softening at the base of his brain-stem. He cried out in the Murano glass corridors of sleep and at least a few times a night would clamber into our bedroom, where my mother and I slept after he became incontinent. He’d enquire as to where he was, looking for an explanation for the clatter trap in his head. Kept saying “sorry” for something he was never able to remember having done. ‘I can’t cope with him any more,’ my mum said. He had dementia. We were exhausted. It seemed no one else out there cared. Our local GP said he no longer made house calls because the HSE wouldn’t pay doctors for such variants of care since the recession. He had to make it to the surgery or rot. Towards the end of two summers ago, maybe in 2009 or thereabouts (it’s hard to recall exactly) I rang social workers attached to the local health board, put a plan in place and that was that. We were not to know what would happen. We had no experience of this kind of thing. Even in retelling the story, I find I’m just as upset and confused as when I lived through it. I cannot be absolutely sure of what occurred, of the timeline, except for the following:

The day came. We both said, ‘Be strong, this is it, the only way forward!’ Even as he sat in his wheelchair facing out at the eggy sun for the first time in four stickyears, the house showed signs of a problem. A water tank in the attic only replaced the previous year decided to manifest a swollen belly on the toilet ceiling, bursting through its own guts before the lift arrived. A mirror smashed with no window open or air circulating anywhere. The fridge gasped itself to a halt. I looked right at her and said, ‘Don’t even say it! Don’t be ridiculous! Don’t be reductive! We’re doing the right thing.’ The whole point of being here, of being human, was to take responsibility. That’s what we were doing, surely? God knows he couldn’t do it! He was incapable of doing anything. ‘Try to remember that much,’ I said to mum. She suffered hugely through all of this. She had made her bed. She would ‘till Doomsday’ lie on it.

Four days in a row he rang pleading for his life. We told him ‘NO!’ He could stay there for a month and give us time to clean up the house. It smelt like a Berlin urinal. It would have to be fumigated for starters. We would have to organise a new bed. Possibly a downstairs toilet with washing facilities. There might even be a grant available to convert the garage as elections were only around the corner. ‘I cant cope with this awful place, you’re my wife, please take me home!’ My mother never stood up to him, ever. She tried to poison his stew once, but that was a long time ago. ‘You’re in there for a rest, I need a rest too,’ she told him, slamming the phone down. On day three he had a stroke. On day seven we were summoned. ‘He has deteriorated significantly, especially emotionally,’ the nurse said. ‘I’m so sorry, but it could’ve happened at any time, anywhere.’ We didn’t quite know what she meant by that but when we saw him, by Jove we got a shock for sure. We’d traipsed the wards three times before we accepted the sack of crumpled grey maudlin was the same feisty person we left off for ‘respite’ just the week before. It took three more days and threats of legal action to get him moved from the stinking old TB sanatorium in the park to a proper hospital for the specialist treatment he needed.

Do Not Resuscitate, the sign above the bed read. Young slip of a thing from Killiney or somewhere affluent like that said with his age, with his expected quality of life, with the general prognosis (of which they were still not fully certain) there was no point in doing much at all. Just sit it out, wait it out. His life was now a junk-shop egg timer. Throat broken. Stomach empty. His head, well, basically, it had begun to thoroughly scoff itself. Middle cerebral artery: considerable shrinkage. Clots, many. Brain bleeds, more to be expected. Aspiration pneumonia. Muscle damage. He screamed. Roared. Pegged at us as if he were grabbing on to a half-inflated lifeboat. We should go home and take it handy, try to get on with things. Especially her, his wife, the overseer of his decline. She needed to push ahead, look after herself. Try to put things in perspective. Everyone will get to this point. There’s really little to do when it happens.

That night I woke at 2.22am. I will never forget the exact time because I saw in the pitiful light of the green alarm clock my father crawling around the wall, a crazed lizard. His body partially flattened with his old office clothes flipping and sagging. A much smaller head, but his eyes: a ferocious sickly yellow. His neck bent as if it had been snapped and yanked back into place with a heap of loose skin sewn back on roughly. Flipping and flopping around on top of the Billy bookcases, side to side, like you’d expect to see in House of Reptiles at Dublin Zoo. The most revolting noise as well. A kind of clacking sound that didn’t befit his human form. His smaller body thumped along the furniture as if he/it wanted to attack, priming itself for incursion.

I sat up and rubbed my eyes. Flicked on the bedside lamp. Checked for my mother in the other bed to see if she was at ease. Her small frame slowly rising and falling back into the salmon sheets. I was stuck in the forecourt of some outlandish car wash with the engine on and no idea where to head to next. I stayed like that for a good hour and the vision of absolute repugnance didn’t falter or fade or go away. I could barely breathe or move, my limbs became sore with fright. I could hear the mechanism in my chest chug out and suck in stale air, but I carried on watching him flip and hurtle and scoot with no sign of diminishing.

‘I heard him calling all through the night, Liz! Liz! Liz!, I’m not the better for it,’ she declared, the next morning. I was up at the crack of dawn trying to steady myself, doing things around the house that had been abandoned for some time. ‘It’s understandable!’ I assured her. ‘It’s a kind of guilt, you know, you’re feeling all out of sorts with the way he is, what he’s going through.’ No, she was utterly convinced it was really his voice she heard. ‘At one point I even heard him knocking on the window trying to get in.’ I thought of their window, the front double bedroom window, climbing out when we had the silly séance with a matchbox as a planchette back in the day. We all legged it from the house in unison, a herd of 11 year olds. ‘Move if there’s anyone here! Move if you can hear us!’ Then it flew off the bed, hitting the radiator all the way over at the far wall. It seemed an impossible manoeuvre for one of us with our small fingers and no experience yet of the trickery out there in the vast sickly world. Vickie Cawley laughing as ten crows. Me in pure fright mode. Billie Dunne jumping out that bloody window twenty feet up and running for dear life.
It was only two weeks after she found the baby in the plastic bag down the lane-way backing onto the Sisters of Our Divine Lady of Endless Charity. Same location where they later found twenty two babies and sixty skeletons of women whose deaths were never registered. Billie stumbled across the bag in 1981, opening it up without really understanding what she was looking at. Though a tiny bloodless hand was enough to send her rocketing. I guess this was how young women got rid of unwanted evidence then. It wouldn’t happen now with advances in DNA, with advances in social conscience. The laundries continued on into the mid 1990s unabated.

On the day of our séance my mother was working at the RDS Horse Fair on the Rowntree’s chocolate stall: Munchies, Caramac, Mars Bar. All the leftovers were piled into a large shopping bag and dragged across the city home to us. It was the first time I was allowed look after the house without Arnold or my sister Maedbh in situ. When my mother got home, she slapped me clear across the chops. She may have already met one of the mothers on her way – Billy Dunne’s was particularly hysterical – but if not her trademark intuition told her I had got involved with something unenlightened. Something mischievous and corrupt. She could feel it. The cold throughout the house was cavelike, wet and heavy as culm.

manspiderThe next visit wasn’t even in the deferential cubbyhole of night. I was sitting on the toilet with the door wide open, staring out into the landing, thinking. It was mid afternoon. Thinking of how to make her life better in the time she had left (she was already eighty three years old). Thinking about how to access funds to do essential repairs to the house, especially the kitchen and bathroom which were, after years of neglect, in a dreadful state. Everything was in his name. She was Mistress of Nothing. What I saw next makes me feel like I may have already been a composed and submissive inmate of the asylum. He thundered up the stairs, his head intact as I had remembered it but a spider’s absurd blackened body, eight legs quivering on the carpet in front of me. Darted about turning to stare me right in the face. In a moment’s stampede of panic he was gone again.

She better shut right up about him. All this harping on about how the stroke happened was not our fault. We didn’t give it to him! And if he had just allowed a bit more for our help at home, we would not have insisted he be removed in the way that he was. Obviously he had a problem with it too. What we needed to know was if he was doing this deliberately. Was he wilfully, determinedly, trying to teach us a lesson for what we had done, when in reality, we were left with no choice by then. ‘Dealing with this is like dealing with a forest fire,’ nurse Cáit said. ‘Even people with the height of expertise cannot deal with this at home sufficiently. There comes a time when you have to let the person go.’ He is talking about old relations long dead I told her. ‘Could he really be seeing them?’ It is a ‘thing’ with people who are sick, apparently. He will not be aware that they have already passed. Is he caught in some foyer between? I wondered. ‘It doesn’t make sense that he would ask about Stan,’ my mother said, ‘God knows he couldn’t stand him when he was alive. Him or his ugly West Cork wife’. We have to stop this, I told her, we have to accept that he’s getting the proper care and we have a right to live in the house now, the best we can.

The kitchen had been fixed up coffee colour shaker with high quality Italian orange stone tiles, a new water tank with titanium coating, floorboards in the front bedroom replaced entirely (as the urine had burnt right through). ‘For a second I thought he was there in the porch late one night,’ she said. No! that was the milkman I told her. At this stage it helped to be stern about the whole ordeal. Such was her slave mentality towards him for so long that she found it almost impossible to disentangle in any form. We painted the bedroom at the back where we both slept a genial grey, with some of the furniture a Provence green to ward off the evil eye. The garage was cleared of his things and the garden tidied up to such an extent that you could now sit on a small stone chantry down the end and draw in the air in long protracted puffs.

At evening time I thought it best to summon him in the mirror to stop any of the nonsense that would no doubt occur later on. She was already so scared of going to bed that I moved her into the spare single room where he wouldn’t think to go. All the years growing up he never bothered any of us in there. I gave her some ambien along with a few panadol to aid sleep into the night and sprinkled some valerian and chamomile on her pillow. Tucked away in there from early evening until well into the following day, I began to feel that she was not part of this any more, that I had chaperoned her away from potential suffering or fright.

dresser

His presence in the dressing table mirror was amorphous and vague, as if to show his full self to me was not part of the greater plan, that I was somehow not worthy. He would not have been like this with any of my brothers, had they been still alive, but men of his generation were sodden in misogyny whether they cared to admit to it or not. Though I didn’t doubt for a second that he was there, looking back at me, sneering, informing me that no men would come to do the door in a rush to take me out. That my skin wasn’t the best, that really I wasn’t the cleverest of them, a few forks short of a picnic basket.

His seething hatred began to make me laugh, as if any empathy I had left for him and his lousy condition was hidden away in a beanpole storage facility, the type people use for bundles of clothes they hope will come back into fashion some day. ‘Do you think I don’t remember what happened on Bingo Nights all those years ago?’ I told him. ‘When I pissed the bed and you rolled me out like a sausage roll and said I had to wait in the hall until she got home.’ What a lousy father you were but still you made us feel sorry for you. It was always about you! And what the hell did you do for your parents after they left Ireland? You barely bothered your arse ever seeing them again! When you did you were pissed out of your mind. They rang us here to complain, across the Irish sea, you with no respect, turning up for funerals two days late. You who demands so much of us now! What a bloody joke! Do your worst, go on, do your worst! Do whatever you think will work at this stage and do it with your sick brain in all its shrinking glory! Oh but if you think it stopped him slinking into those horrible animal forms and darting around furniture at night, my grousing in the mirror only made him worse and brought him nearer to me, instead of up on top of the bookshelves or the wardrobes or the wall. A ferret slinking in and out of the bed bars at the end of my feet, leaving drops of sweat and other depositions for me to see in the mornings.

When she passed in the single room I didn’t have her removed straight away because that’s exactly what he would’ve expected to happen. He’d expect her to be lying there, in state, in Fanagans Funeral Parlour on the Old Finglas Road, a twin-set and her navy skirt (always in navy, like a sailor’s wife on a first trip abroad, hoping to appear smart no matter where they went). I didn’t mention to him either that she was gone as I wanted to see if he’d tell me about it, if he really had the upper hand when it came to using his intuition, his greedy appetite for a good hunch. But he hadn’t a breeze! He did however begin to appear more frequently, more sonorously if you like, in the mirror. I am not sure if this was a kind of latent protest, but the house joined in by breaking even more of itself up. The heating system gave out and the plumbing at the back of the shower fell to pieces completely…twice I had to get a local hood in to bash things back into place or replace the piping entirely. Black mould broke out on the walls of both bedrooms. Dreadful shapes in butterfly splats and distant familiar patterns (the one of the Eiffel Tower was amusing, but I made sure not to laugh out loud), which I’d rouge over with chalk paint within hours of appearing.

I miss her terribly but part of me is glad she is resting up accordingly. No more, ‘Oh God, do you think we should go back out to him today? Does he have enough dark chocolate? Is there still a problem with his swallow? Are there enough clothes out there, I don’t want them to think we’re not making enough of an effort’. She had herself tortured to the point where she gave Catholic martyr wives a dreadful name! I miss her dressing gown shuffle and the barrage of tea that clicked into our day the same way felt tacks do on school board maps. Sad too that she would never get to go on a Royal Caribbean Cruise ship that I had promised we’d do. Those ships are something else! Ascend 300ft above sea level in a North Star capsule! Fine dining extravaganza that holds more than two thousands revellers at a time! He hardly took her anywhere truth be told, not for a long time. Hadn’t the energy, or the self governance.

The year he retired may have been the exception. He took her to Nerja in Spain. She knew by then he’d been with her friend very early on too. It was her first sun holiday and she’d never seen anything like it. Three bedrooms in the apartment even though it was just the two of them. She thought it might be a mistake at first. Only two minutes from the beach and twelve minutes from the marina. Bakery on the ground floor. Fish in all the restaurants cooked any which way you wanted it. Sun as hot as an Aga. Of course he didn’t like that bit but she took to it like gravy on a turkey leg. Every morning bang on 8.30, she was down at the beach while he had a good lie-on.

Now that it’s just the two of us I feel I have an opportunity to understand him a bit more. I hope that if he sees that I know how he feels, how hurt he is, he might stop his games around the house and reach some sort of compromise. The dressing table was made for them when they first got married by a very talented carpenter, with the promise that no other identical piece existed in the whole of Glasnevin. The mirror carved in a classic baroque style. It’s good to concentrate on the positive aspect of where we now, and to forget all the things that didn’t work in the past. He wanted to be a writer, for instance, but couldn’t quite stick at it, not like I am now. ‘There is a lot more to life than jumping at every silly ambition that lands on your mat,’ I told him. He thinks this is a sound observation and one that will ward off disappointment from expectations that are perhaps a bit too high. ‘That’s the problem these days, people want so bloody much!’ he says. Isn’t it so true! We are able to agree, which I feel is genuine progress. I find it funny to think we were so scared of him years ago when he was the one who was clearly so terrified of us! That I would hide up here under the blankets with my fingers so deep in my ears they would be sticky and sore when my sister would burst into the room and pull them out again. ‘He’s gone to bed,’ she’d say, ‘The coast is clear for now and mum has shortbread in the oven.’

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moth

This story was a prizewinner in The Moth International Short Story Prize 2014, and is published in the Autumn 2014 edition of the magazine.

‘Charged language and a ferocious imagination; mad as a bag of spiders and genuine talent.’ – judge Mike McCormack

Martin Amis: Zone of Interest

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Conor Cruise O’Brien once reminded his late 20th century audience that anti-semitism is a “light sleeper”. Even after the terrible truth of The Shoah was revealed the ex-Irish minister and ex-judeeditor of The Observer maintained that Judea-phobia is still a resilient globally unique hatred, equal only to misogyny in terms of its longevity.

This dormant bacillus even raises its ugly head in the literary canon including Shakespeare and not only as Shylock in The Merchant of Venice. Martin Amis prefaces his new novel about the Holocaust with that infamous, haunting scene of the witches from Macbeth who make sure that they throw “Liver of Blaspheming Jew” into the bubbling cauldron along with “Gall of goat, and slips of Yew.”

Shylock himself re-appears in hooked-nosed form stalking and sneaking throughout subsequent centuries reaching his propagandistic, pornographic apex in the pages of the Nazi newspaper Der Sturmer when the Jewish Venetian merchant is depicted as a cartoon villain drugging and raping virginal Rapunzels in their beds.

Amis’ new and arguably greatest novel is a powerful antidote to all strains of that age old phobia: the original Shylockian schemer currently resurrected in the children’s school books of the Arab and Islamic world and/or the New World Order puppet master dressed up in a capitalist top hat with the Star of David on it moving his Marionettes in Washington and other power centres around.

In The Zone of Interest the real Nosferatus, the true grotesques of course are the perpetrators of the greatest crime of the last century. They include the likes of Paul Doll, the self-pitying, sexually frustrated, alcoholic, hypochondriac, cuckolded kommandant at Auschwitz who effortlessly transfers fault from perp to victim.

Here is Amis’ depiction of Doll on top of a pile of human bones recovered from a funeral pyre after the gassing, pyramided by the men given the worst job in history – the Jewish Sonderkommando who were tasked with helping to herd their co-religionists into the gas chambers and then ordered to steal the remains of the dead from gold teeth to thigh-bones.

“With his shirt off and gas mask on, Doll looks like a fat and hairy old housefly (a housefly that is nearing the end of its span).”

This image captures all of Doll: his menace, avarice and corruption much more powerfully even than his semi-drunken poses at the selection ramp when left, meant death, and right signalled a brief but brutal reprieve.

And yet it is to Amis’ credit that he gives brutes like Doll believable, authentic and, yes, all too human voices. The author, who has always been able to transport himself into the internal reflections of some of his most deeply unpleasant cast (think of the words he puts into the misogynistic mouth of Keith Talent, the dart-loving murderer in London Fields), has recreated this typical Nazi functionary’s language of self-exculpation.

Doll is the master of fault-transference as is evident in this passage when he recalls witnessing the horrors of the Warsaw Ghetto for the first time:

“As a loving father, I found it particularly hard to stomach their vicious neglect of the semi-naked children who howl, beg, sing, moan, and tremble, yellow-faced, like tiny lepers.”

Irma Grese

Irma Grese

Amidst all the industrialised slaughter and the random individual acts of sadism – the notorious female SS guard Ilse Grese makes several gruesome appearances – Amis injects a sub-plot. It is Auschwitz: The Love Story. Or rather love stories!

Hannah Doll exercises a strange power over her serial murderer husband as does his wife’s first lover, the spectral memory of an older Communist fighter Dieter Kruger, who may or may not have died in Nazi custody. Her husband’s other love rival, Golo Thomsen, also uses the possibility that Kruger might still be alive to woo Hannah Doll, the first lady of the Concentration Camp 1. Thomsen is a functional rather than an ideological Nazi whose task is to ruthlessly exploit slave labour in the regime’s quest for synthetic rubber vital to boosting the German war machine. He is protected from Paul Doll only because he is the nephew of the Nazi big wig Martin Bormann, one of the Fuhrer’s inner circle.

Through the course of the war with defeat looming Thomsen still pursues Hannah Doll both inside and far beyond ‘The Zone of Interest’, all the while holding out the bait that her first love Kruger may have survived. Thomsen however is not The Good German, not the foil to the monstrous Kommandant. He is an opportunistic Nazi who is obsessed about getting his task completed even if his alchemic project is built on the bones of the wretches worked to death in Buna-Werke factory, the so-called ‘lucky ones’ led to the right off the selection ramps on day one of their incarceration.

Another of the strongest character portraits concerns the leading Sonderkommando, Smzul, the survivor among the ‘saddest men in the Lager’ who work among the piles of dead with scissors, pliers, mallets, accelerant and grinders to plunder the cadavers in the interest of the Nazi war economy. He and his fellow Jews are among the most hated among the camp prisoners even though they save the odd life on the selection ramp and may, or may not, bear witness or even exact vengeance in the future.

fdd

Some of the passages in which Smzul recalls individual massacres such as the story of the “silent boys” are so painful as to be almost unreadable. Again the voices such as Smzul are entirely believable in this unimaginable inferno where men like him lie to the selected and the doomed, telling them they are going for a shower, simply to preserve “our lousy selves.”

img_cropThe existence of a love story among the Nazi-community in the camp gives the narrative an original if troubling edge. To impute love into this Hades Amis also challenges Theo Adorno’s claim that after the Holocaust there can no longer be poetry. The resilience of love even in Auschwitz, including the wretched Smzul for his wife Shulamit who may still be alive in the Lodz ghetto, is for Amis the single shard of light.

Euphemisms are peppered throughout this masterful tale from the death camps. So for instance Doll never refers to Hitler by name but rather as ‘The Deliverer’. The language in this novel also lacks the verbal whizz-bangs and inventive diction of his latest few books, and is all the better for it. Amis pares back his prose, stripping it down to basic structure and deploying a very traditional linear narrative that ends with Thomsen finding Hannah Doll again following Germany’s defeat.

Yet it is Paul Doll who comes out of The Zone of Interest as Amis’ finest fictional invention of late, as a fusion of two real life Nazi commandants rolled into one ball of self-piteous stupidity. For what Amis achieves in Paul Doll’s character is to expose an entire ideology and cosmological hatred for what it really is: an ignorant, absurd and ultimately comically-doomed project.

The Paisley’s I have known…

Ian Paisley © The Guardian

Ian Paisley © The Guardian

My family have had several set-piece encounters with Ian Paisley over the last five decades. The first occurred the year before I was born in 1964 when my late father joined a large group of demonstrators protesting against Paisley passing by their area of central Belfast.

On June 6th of that year riots returned to the streets of Belfast when Paisley led a band of hard-line Protestant fundamentalists on their way into the city centre. Their target was the headquarters of the mainstream Presbyterian Church to protest against growing links between the main Protestant churches and the reforming Vatican II Catholic Church.

cromacTheir route included marching past Cromac Square at the edge of the Catholic Market area. Young people from the Catholic district sought to block their route and violence flared up from the Albert Bridge to the Square. My dad remembered the clashes and a number of friends being arrested by police who were flanking the Paisleyite parade. This folk-memory of locals opposing Paisley and his band lasted long into the Troubles and was seen by many as a precursor for the far more ferocious sectarian battles ahead. It also became something of a badge of honour in the Market to say you were “out” against the Paisleyites back in ’64.

Growing up in the early 70s for young working class Catholics, the children of the men who tried to block Paisley’s path at Cromac Square in the previous decade, the bellowing, bible bashing unionist hardliner became the fountainhead of all that was wrong the state of Northern Ireland. His name often struck fear and loathing in nationalist-Catholic hearts especially when they saw him on local TV and newspapers wearing his clerical white collar while parading with the hard-men in paramilitary uniforms of the Ulster Defence Association.

Yet behind the blood curdling rhetoric and doomsday predictions of total war between his followers and the rest of us, there was another side to Paisley. And I saw it myself towards the end of the 1970s and early 80s thanks to his daughter, the youth missionary, future Belfast city councillor and fine art painter Rhonda Paisley.

She began a youth outreach mission project in Belfast city centre targeting the Punks, Goths, Skinheads and other youth cults that hung around the Cornmarket quarter in that period.

Ian Curtis - Joy Division

Ian Curtis – Joy Division

Exuding the same charm that her father deployed on the campaign trail, Rhonda spoke to, had tea with and sometimes counselled the kids that came together most Saturdays and sometimes after school at that fountain in the heart of central Belfast. Among the bored and often broke teenagers she befriended was myself and a couple of mates from the Ormeau Road, who moped around the fountain, trying to look pale and interesting in our long overcoats, spiked haircuts and glum post-Ian Curtis/post-Joy Division poses.

Before long, out of pure curiosity, we decided to take up Rhonda’s invite to come up to the Paisley homestead in East Belfast. There we were treated to games of snooker, vast pyramids of variously filled sandwiches and bible tracts designed to woo us away from the satanic temptations of early teen sex, drugs and rock n’roll. Although most of us succumbed to that trio of decadent delights, Rhonda did succeed at least in showing a side to the Paisley family that none of us (almost all from Catholic-nationalist-republican backgrounds) never saw in the media: a caring, loving family who actually and quite genuinely thought that all we needed was their help.

Ian Paisley with his daughter Rhonda (from RTÉ stills)

Ian Paisley with his daughter Rhonda (from RTÉ stills)

On a few occasions the Big Man himself would pop his head around the door in Chez Paisley to ask how we were keeping and wonder why we had styled our hair in such messed up and crazy contortions. What did we get out of it? Well apart from the free sandwiches and a few games of snooker, I think we were genuinely star struck. We were in the abode of one of the celebrities of the Troubles and would often boast about it to our mates, to state that we knew the Big Man personally! Even my father who could vividly remember that seminal day on Cromac Square back in the mid 60s seemed impressed by that.

Henry McDonald singing in his band, way back when...

Henry McDonald singing in his band, way back when…

In a Radio 4 documentary about two decades later on the unique, anti-sectarian Punk and post Punk scene in Belfast, Paisley himself was one of the interviewees. He recalled the likes of us traipsing through his front door in our home made-bondage trousers, torn T-shirts, DM boots, spiked up manes and chains. Asked why he didn’t give off to either us or Rhonda and her sister for bringing us home, Paisley said (am slightly paraphrasing here) : “They didn’t need any condemnation..all they needed was a bit of help!”

Many years later, on the campaign trail with Paisley in East Londonderry where he was canvassing with Democratic Unionist MP Gregory Campbell, I happened to remind him about my connection with his family. All he did was curtly nod to recall it. He was in no mood it seemed for idle chit chat as there was an election on.

It was 3rd March 2007 and my sister had just turned 40 that day. Paisley, Campbell and I were sipping tea together in a Coleraine hotel just as I was about to go off and write a colour piece about them for The Observer. I excused myself for picking up my mobile phone so I could make a personal call that Saturday morning. Then Paisley overheard me wishing my sister Cathy many happy returns for her 40th. Almost instantly Paisley snatched the phone out of my hand, took a deep breath and then bellowed down the line: “Hello Cathy, this is Ian Paisley….” I could hear my sister telling me to wise up and stop being stupid, that she was not in the mood for a phone prank now that she had reached 40. But the Big Man insisted and then sent her a blessing down the phone as well as best birthday wishes. It was a birthday she would never forget.

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*This article was published in The Guardian on Friday 12th September.

Berry Nide

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Adrian on hols in Amsterdam in late 1980s, before he moved to London.

Bro, you havent bothered getting in touch since you died a year ago today. In my headthe 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 fourbyfour, has now lost over six stone, inspired by the story I guess. Alcohol & gluten free; shes 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 its 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 cmon, 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. Ive 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 Laras 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 Pärts 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. Wouldnt it bite the toes right off ye? a woman said at the bus stop in October. I cant be doing with this heat! the same woman said the following summer. Only then did I realise so much time had slipped by.

Im booked in to see the oncologist at 9.30am Monday morning to discuss an action plan involving chemo and some new drugs on trial. Ill take anything thats 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. Itd 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. Theyre 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 bookbought 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 shepherds pies out of high-gloss ovens, who know what theyre 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 hadnt of gone to London, you know, if wed 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 wasnt 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 couldnt see a damn thing.

photo (16)

As a baba, 1966

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 whod 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. Its true, I was. A year after that again we shared a cockroach-infested house in Stratford in Londons 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 cant have another disaster, you told him, I cant 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 mustve dragged you down. 

I drank water before I went in. I would recommend it, Madam, top hat man said and you wouldve 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. Thats 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 others hormones into an assemblage of demented bitching and chocolate splurging, weve 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. Theres 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 Im haunted by the grammar system we made up as kids berry nide a kind of warning system for people who might do us wrong. Hes not berry nide. But youre berry nide. No, youre nider! Youd 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, hows 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 Ive 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 thats 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 cant 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 shes cooking, not Daddy! Duck Arses chin hits the ground and she boots off like a rocket drive on Top Gear. Yet I know shell poison their heads when Im 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. Ill pick you up at Stanstead and spoil you rotten while youre 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 theres a football match, especially when Liverpool is playing. The hell he gave me! he says. He called me blue and white shite! Still hasnt 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, its the little things!

1916444_1859763370917318_2783708549230401987_nThe 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 didnt 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. Ive 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 wasnt invited. His vile-denial Catholic wife, a headless woman struggling to gawp out her own body, forgetting she no longer has eyes. You dont need me to tell you, especially at a time like this, but people like that, theyre not berry nide. Not nide at all. But you? There just couldnt be nider. No one in this giant shit heap of a spinning world is nider than beautiful gone you.

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This story was published in The Moth in March 2014, in memory of my brother Adrian Caldwell who died aged 47 (from cancer) in 2012.

A riot of our own

riot

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Where I write, why I write

office

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

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

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

1. What am I working on?

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

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

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

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

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

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

3. Why do I write what I do?

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

4. How does my writing process work?

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

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

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

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

Alan McMonagle

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

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

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

Hooleyganism: the “Good Vibrations” revolution

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Writing the short novel

Eoin McNameeblogpic

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Saturday poem #15 – Piano

PIANO

By D.H. Lawrence

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

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

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

Punk memorial idea has some hits and misses

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

HHhH…Haunted by Heydrich

Reinhard Tristan Eugen Heydrich

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The sleuth who slipped from Nazi grip

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Long slow soak of Titanic memorabilia

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Stan Fraser, by Peter Jolly Northpix/Daily Mail

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

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

Nuala @ her cottage in Clare. © Sunday Tribune

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

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

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

WATCHING NUALA O’ FAOLAIN EAT A SAUSAGE SANDWICH

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Then they came for him!

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

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

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

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

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

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

Saturday Poem #13 – To a Portable Radio

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

To a portable radio by Bertolt Brecht

You little box I carried on that ship

Concerned to save your works from getting broken

Fleeing from house to train, from train to ship

So I might hear the hated jargon spoken

Beside my bedside and to me pain

Last thing at night, once more as dawn appears

Charting their victories and my worst fears:

Promise at least you won’t go dead again!

We need to hear Troubles voices, not silence them

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

This article was published in the Belfast Telegraph yesterday.

W1973

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Simultaneous Equation

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

For a’ that (by Robert Burns).

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

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

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

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

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

Alternative Alternative Ulsters

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Lessons from Birmingham

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Saturday Poem #8 – Break of Day in the Trenches

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

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

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

 

Break of Day in the Trenches (by Isaac Rosenberg)

The darkness crumbles away

It is the same old druid Time as ever,

Only a live thing leaps my hand,

A queer sardonic rat,

As I pull the parapet’s poppy

To stick behind my ear.

Droll rat, they would shoot you if they knew

Your cosmopolitan sympathies,

Now you have touched this English hand

You will do the same to a German

Soon, no doubt, if it be your pleasure

To cross the sleeping green between.

It seems you inwardly grin as you pass

Strong eyes, fine limbs, haughty athletes,

Less chanced than you for life,

Bonds to the whims of murder,

Sprawled in the bowels of the earth,

The torn fields of France.

What do you see in our eyes

At the shrieking iron and flame

Hurled through still heavens?

What quaver -what heart aghast?

Poppies whose roots are in men’s veins

Drop, and are ever dropping;

But mine in my ear is safe,

Just a little white with the dust.

Memories of Captain America

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Saturday poem #6 – Ozymandias

 
Shelley’s poem is apposite in a week when we see, perhaps, the beginning of the end of the Murdoch Empire. I suppose Shelley’s message is that all things turn to decay and dust including mighty monarchs and emperors. Nothing escapes the erosion of time, the poet warns us. I already imagine the satirists doing a skit of this short but wonderful piece of verse with ‘Rupert’ replacing ‘Ozymandias’, and instead of desert sand all around the fallen idol the wasteland of Wapping. In addition to the power of its themes and imagery, the poem is notable for its virtuosic diction. The rhyme scheme of the sonnet is unusual and creates a sinuous and interwoven effect. It’s well accepted that this poem was the result of a competition between Shelley and his friend Horace Smith, a financier, verse-parodist and author of historical novels. Smith’s rival sonnet is called, less memorably, In Egypt’s Sandy Silence and disadvantages itself early on by the gauche reference to ‘a gigantic leg’.
 
OZYMANDIAS (by Percy Bysshe Shelley)
 
I MET a Traveler from an antique land,
Who said, “Two vast and trunkless legs of stone
Stand in the desert. Near them, on the sand,
Half sunk, a shattered visage lies, whose frown,
And wrinkled lip, and sneer of cold command,
Tell that its sculptor well those passions read,
Which yet survive, stamped on these lifeless things,
The hand that mocked them and the heart that fed:
And on the pedestal these words appear:
“My name is OZYMANDIAS, King of Kings.”
Look on my works ye Mighty, and despair!
No thing beside remains. Round the decay
Of that Colossal Wreck, boundless and bare,
The lone and level sands stretch far away.

Brian Moore’s neglected little masterpiece….

Even in cosmopolitan London or even thousands of miles away across the Atlantic there is no escaping Belfast and its spectres. Like the vampires from Salem’s Lot who follow the survivors of their feasting in the cursed New England town down south all the way to Mexico, the artist, the outsider, the rebel has no escape from his ghosts. That is the fate-loaded message of Brian Moore’s little masterpiece Lies of Silence. At the very end of this short literary thriller Michael Dillon appears to have eluded the tentacles of tribalism and terrorism that were suffocating him back in Belfast. He is in London, in charge of a swanky West End hotel, finally together the mistress whom he truly loves, on the edge of new freedom, a fresh start. And then in a final twist (albeit somewhat predictable) the IRA catch up with him and end his life, two young men wearing “jeans, T-shirts, sneakers” who raise their revolvers without masks and open fire. Dillon and his estranged wife Moira were captives of an IRA unit who forced the hotelier to drive a car bomb to the hotel car park in a bid to murder a Protestant fundamentalist preacher/politician called Pottinger. Of course Pottinger is a thinly veiled cipher for the Rev Ian Paisley.

The fictional hotel bears an uncanny resemblance to the real life Wellington Park on the Malone Road. St.Michan’s – his old grammar school – is in fact St. Malachy’s where Moore and later myself were educated. The novel’s hero defies the IRA and alerts the police before the bomb detonates fearing that not only Pottinger and his entourage but also a bus-load of tourists are slaughtered in the explosion. But what compounds the IRA’s hostility towards Dillon are two factors: firstly, his wife Moira begins a one-woman crusade against the Provos beginning at the outset on a live television interview; secondly and more crucially he decides to identify one of the young Provos who took his house over and held his wife hostage. The latter results in his death in the London hotel, his new life away from Belfast cut brutally short.

Over his long career, Brian Moore has mastered the literary magic trick of making the weighty seem graceful, making the dense and complex seem effortless and unadorned. One hopes that ”Lies of Silence” will inspire more readers to discover Mr. Moore’s earlier work, to experience the range and agility of this fine writer’s sleight of hand – The New York Times

I haven’t read Moore’s book since the early 1990s so it was a joy to return to this tautly written atmospheric tale of terrorism, betrayal and thwarted redemption. Perhaps the best way to read his novel (in my view his best) from a vantage point of elsewhere, at least if you happen to have been born in and moulded by Belfast. Because even though he left his native city for Canada way back in 1948 his evocation of Belfast is powerfully accurate. I re-read the book while here in Dublin, semi-detached these days from Belfast and yet more attuned to the social nuances Moore recalls of life in that city. His (or rather his character Dillon’s) memory for instance of St. Michans sent shivers down my spine. Facing the loathsome priest who is acting as an IRA conduit Dillon is transported back to his school days by the cleric’s recollections. ‘In the heat of a London summer’s afternoon, the odd classroom names were spoken like a false password, bringing back the school’s draughty corridors, the musical chairs of masters rushing from class to class, priests in chalk-stained soutanes, lay masters in ragged academic gowns, the whistle and sting of the punishment cane, the crash of feet in the school chapel, the creaking silences of the study hall.’ All of this is uncannily familiar to me when I look back to my days in St. Malachy’s even though Moore is writing presumably of his time there on the Antrim Road back in the 30s.

Although to be fair in my day during the 70s there was no punishment cane. Officially there were imposition exercises and detention while unofficially there were slaps and punches out of sight. The bulk of the action in Lies of Silence however, in the Belfast of the 1980s and Moore is true to the city at that time. There were still armed checkpoints and rings-of-steel around Belfast city centre; soldiers with rifles patrolling the streets; the pervasive presence of the IRA just beneath the social surface and the apocalyptic menace of the loyalists and their bible-bashing apologists. It was a grim time yes but made bearable by the existence of little islands of decency and escapism such as Dillon’s hotel where common humanity among the staff wins through over ideology. None the less Moore captures the claustrophobia that closes in on you in Belfast….even after the Troubles have supposedly ended. A decent but flawed man tries to make a break for it while doing one honourable thing before he leaves. He pays the ultimate price. There is no happy ending. In many ways this novel reminds me of a short story written by late cousin and fellow author Jack Holland. His Bye Bye Belfast, written some time before Lies of Silence, concerns the same thing – a man seeking escape from his home city and its madness. Unlike Dillon though Jack’s main character is fleeing from the other side of the lens, he is an IRA member seeking to leave behind his paramilitary past, to find a new life in the United States. He is caught in the middle of a feud with the Official IRA and loses his life on the eve of departure. Another shiver comes down the spine, in remembrance of Jack, in memory of those dark days of fratricide and bloodshed. ‘Our roots are bleeding,’ wrote DH Lawrence. For all those both remaining in and in exile from Belfast, we know exactly what Lawrence was getting at.

Brian Moore was born in Belfast in 1921. He wrote several early novels under the pseudonyms Bernard Mara and Michael Byan, including Wreath for a Redhead (reprinted as Sailor’s Leave, 1951); The Executioners (1951); French for Murder (1954); A Bullet for My Lady (1955); This Gun for Gloria (1956); Intent to Kill (1956); and Murder in Majorca (1957). His first novel under his own name was Judith Hearne(London, Andre Deutsch, 1995/reprinted as The Lonely Passion of Judith Hearne (Boston & Toronto, Little, Brown, 1956/reprinted as The Lonely Passion of Miss Judith Hearne (London, Penguin 1959). His subsequent novels are The Feast of Lupercal (London, Andre Deutsch/Boston and Toronto, Little, Brown,1957/ reprinted as A Moment of Love (London, Panther Books, 1965);The Luck of Ginger Coffey (London, Andre Deutsch/Boston and Toronto, Little, Brown,1960); An Answer from Limbo (London, Andre Deutsch/Boston and Toronto, Little, Brown, 1962); The Emperor of Ice Cream (New York, Viking, 1965); I Am Mary Dunne (New York, Viking, 1968); Fergus (New York, Holt, Rhinehart & Winston, 1970); Catholics (Holt, Rhinehart & Winston/London, Jonathan Cape, 1972); The Revolution Script (London, Johnathan Cape, 1972); The Great Victorian Collection (New York, Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 1975); The Doctor’s Wife (Farrar, Straus & Giroux/London, Jonathan Cape, 1976); The Mangan Inheritance (Jonathan Cape, 1979); The Temptation of Eileen Hughes (Jonathan Cape, 1981); Cold Heaven (New York, Holt, Rhinehart & Winston, 1983); Black Robe (New York, Dutton/ Jonathan Cape, 1985); The Color Of Blood (Jonathan Cape/ Toronto, McClelland & Stewart, 1987); Lies Of Silence (London, Bloomsbury, 1990); No Other Life (Bloomsbury, 1993); The Statement (Bloomsbury, 1995); and The Magician’s Wife (Bloomsbury, 1997). Amongst his awards are The Governor General of Canada’s Award for Fiction in 1959. He died in California in 1999.

Saturday Poem #5 – Questions From A Worker Who Reads

This is Brecht railing against the Great Men of History theory. I thought it was highly appropriate this weekend with the decline and fall of one of medialand’s so-called “Great Men”, one Rupert Murdoch. Especially given that it was the little people inside his corporation, who paid the price for the folly of the bosses.

Questions From a Worker Who Reads

(by Bertolt Brecht)

Who built Thebes of the seven gates?

In the books you will find the names of kings.

Did the kings haul up the lumps of rock?

And Babylon, many times demolished

Who raised it up so many times? In what houses

of gold-glittering Lima did the builders live?

Where, the evening that the Wall of China was finished

Did the masons go? Great Rome

Is full of triumphal arches. Who erected them? Over whom

Did the Caesars triumph? Had Byzantium, much praised in song

Only palaces for its inhabitants? Even in fabled Atlantis

The night the ocean engulfed it

The drowning still bawled for their slaves.

The young Alexander conquered India.

Was he alone?

Caesar beat the Gauls.

Did he not have even a cook with him?

Philip of Spain wept when his armada

Went down. Was he the only one to weep?

Frederick the Second won the Seven Year’s War. Who

Else won it?

Every page a victory.

Who cooked the feast for the victors?

Every ten years a great man?

Who paid the bill?

So many reports.

So many questions.

Rioting as a form of sexual gratification

© Kelvin Boynes/Press Eye

Riot addiction is a tad controversial in the six counties ‘up der’ and the syndrome tends to be denied by social workers, priests, shrinks, do-gooders, politcal counsellors and grant-guzzling NGOs. Typically, it’s a term used to describe the feral behaviour of a person who has an obsession with rioting to the point where it becomes clinically and politically significant. Addicts will usually resort to risk-taking to get their fix; often progressing to illegal activities such as throwing bricks at police, burning cars, shooting at members of the media, flinging petrol bombs, general scuzzbucket shenanigans, filmed on YouTube for added bravado & ‘craic’. Despite this release they are rarely ever satisfied. Causes of riot addiction are difficult to pinpoint. Some moccassin-clad Buddhist psychology experts, on paid government boards, point toward biochemical causes, while others cite familial conditioning or social issues such as unemployment. Either way, it’s a symbolic enactment of deeply entrenched unconscious dysfunctional relationships with self and society. Eeny Meeny Miney Mo: what housing estate did you grow up in, combines with incendiary socio-political factors. Hyperhatred of those who pander to a different religion might also be linked to prologned use of Nike tracksuits, designer-label baseball caps, large bottles of Blue WKD and headshop drugs. Just before a riot kicks off, you’re likely to hear a lot of this kind of thing: “Waddafeck ya doin yacuntye? Gis a sup of yer bucky…got any fegs? I’m gonna smesssh up de peelers, me, hate dem fuckers”.

Every year, the same senseless street carnage ensues when one idiotic group beats drums and the other idiotic group hurls random objects and abuse. Like I said this time last year, children of the ceasefire are definitively learning the bad lessons of the past. Unless someone takes an axe to the root and tells a new generation all that violence, both terrorism and street disorder, is futile and wrong, others will keep emulating it. This year’s damage will cost millions all over again but to a generation brought up to expect that the state will pay for everything, financial considerations mean nothing. The rioters won’t have to foot the bill!

pic from The Independent

The Troubles, per se, are not over at all: a big dirty unsaid fact. Even after the ceasefire paramilitary organisations on both sides fought a culture war over the legitimacy of their murder campaigns. They sought to portray them as heroic and glorious, and tried to conceal the reality of sordid vicious struggle. So, a new generation of baby blockheads, reared on folk memory, who’ve no grasp of what it was really like, how awful it actually was, think it’s legitimate to keep conflict chugging. Add to that the propensity to solve disputes, any dispute, be it political or even domestic, by violent means which is imprinted in the N.I. DNA and you have a toxic mix that can explode at any time. “Idle hands, idle minds,” a local priest in Ardoyne described the summer-fruit lawlessness last night. But mindless violence is the only way the youth of Northern Ireland can get its rocks off. In consequence, there’s no known cure for this type of riot addiction, so expect the same next year and every single year after that.

Attempt at debate between rival factions of riot addicts and their supporters usually goes something like this (pinched from an online chatroom earlier today):

  • Fuck up! Im a Catholic, and I have no problem with the orange order or the psni. Its because of bitter bastards like you, this country is in tatters. Grow the fuck up, this has nothing to do with you, so don’t get involved you silly little prick.

  • Here we go again, catholics start a riot and then try to blame it on the orange lodge. At the end of the day doesnt matter if the band didnt walk past the Ardoyne shops (dont forget Ardyone is mixed mostly catholics but still mixed) those scumbags would still riot, it happens every year and they try to blame everyone else for the riot. They mess up their own area then yap about it WHY yas done it urselves dont start riots then moan about it.

  • Why should we let loyalists parade in our area’s? Youse wouldn’t like it if we marched up the shankill during the easter parades.

  • Get a big pipe climb to the top of the watercannon and bend the cannon upwards.

  • Fuck the orange order and fuck the psni, they shouldn’t be parading in catholic areas!!

  • It’s simple, no orange parades in nationalist areas and you won’t have riots like this. What do the they not get about that?

  • Gerry Kelly is a stinking tout!!!

  • Another plastic paddy openly supporting terrorism…

  • Up the Ra!

  • The resistance lives on……….

  • Let’s face it, this shit’s never going away. Never will, it’s been implanted in our heads. The scum can riot, because it happens all too often. Obviously it’s wrong, but it’s now way too much of a traditional, and it’ll continue even when the marches stop, even when no one knows why they are doing it.

  • Do you think they might have been better prepared BECAUSE of the rioting in east belfast? Plus the police were getting attacked by both loyalists and nationalists in east belfast. You are looking for something that isn’t there.

  • It took police two days to use a water cannon in East Belfast after some of the most violent rioting in belfast for years. Why two days?? Because it was the loyalists rioting. But water cannons had already been deployed in Ardoyne two hours before the parade even passed. One law for 1 fuckin orange bastards

  • Knock the chip off your shoulder. Six policemen got hurt by the hijacked bus alone.

  • This is just ceremonial at this point. They have no viable cause cause, their just going through the motions, it’s part of the culture now.

  • Get a life kids.

  • Let’s wait till ardoyne tonight! more rioting.

  • How else are they gona get the next day off?

  • Fuk the british konts maggy thatcher can stick a didldo up her fat hole and toy herself to death the dirty bitch. protesting tomoro 😛 up the ra we will never be defeated.

  • Why don’t they just shoot the Animals they are Pure Scumbags Destroying the Ardoyne Community?

  • What you lads need to do it get something that can go over the shields, buckets of frying oil would be a good idea, burn the basterds out, or water ballons filled with petrol and cover them, then use a lit petrol bomb to ignite it. Think smart. And fuck the police.

  • fuck the orange order people wouldn’t expect the kkk to walk through harlem unopposed. orange order,kkk,nazis,facists they’re all the same white-trash inbred rednecks.

  • if the orangies wud just fuck off back to scotland but then again scotland doesn’t want them either cuz they’re fukkin trailer trash and there’s to many neds there already.

  • I bet none of you assholes have worked a day in your lives. It’s a disgrace, you should be shot by the police.

A papier-mâché of condemnation always follows though nothing is ever really achieved in time for next year:

A SENIOR PSNI officer has defended the decision not to carry out large-scale arrests of rioters at Ardoyne after the father of a woman police officer who was hospitalised when a large stone slab was dropped on her head complained of police inaction. Assistant Chief Constable Duncan McCausland said police had identified the man who attacked the officer and would be seeking to arrest him. Rioters would be pursued, arrested and charged, he added. PSNI Chief Constable Matt Baggott briefed First Minister Peter Robinson and Deputy First Minister Martin McGuinness at Stormont yesterday on the trouble. (©Irish Times)

“It is hugely regrettable that we get to this situation each year. There are a large number of people across community groups, government and faith groups doing a huge amount to reduce the impact and change things for the better. We all need to redouble these efforts and sustain them to get a real and meaningful change for residents of these areas. That is the very least they need and deserve” – Assistant Chief Constable Alistair Finlay (©Belfast Telegraph)

North Belfast Democratic Unionist MP Nigel Dodds condemned the rioters. “These people have been intent on attacking the police and wreaking havoc in their own community. Such violence is senseless and has clearly nothing to do with protesting against a parade but is just futile rioting,” he said. (©Breakingnews.ie)

Alliance Party Belfast City Council member Billy Webb said the riots in Ardoyne had caused enormous damage to the local community. “Residents in the area are the ones who suffer the most with people feeling trapped in the own homes, scared to go out. Bus services are also affected in the area which the vulnerable rely upon,” he said. “This trouble is putting Northern Ireland in the headlines around the world for all the wrong reasons.” (©Breakingnews.ie)

Gerry Kelly, the Sinn Féin assembly member for the area and former IRA Old Bailey bomber, said he was concerned at the rising tension in this corner of north Belfast. “We have a situation where we have two parades at one time,” he said. While Kelly and Sinn Féin oppose the loyalist march, they have appealed for peaceful protests against the parade. He condemned those nationalist youths behind the violence but also blamed the Orange Order for failing to reach a compromise with Catholic residents along contentious parade routes. (©The Guardian)

“A peaceful marching season would be a far better value than stunts like cutting corporation tax. As far as the outside world is concerned it does not matter which side is rioting. What counts is the perception that Northern Ireland is unsafe and unstable,” said Peter Bunting, the northern secretary of the Irish Congress of Trade Unions. (©The Guardian)

Saturday Poem #4 – Shema

I once entered a heated debate around a dinner table about whether any art form could truly relay the unique horror of the Holocaust. This discussion took place around the time that Spielberg had just brought out Schindler’s List. Whilst I defended Spielberg’s attempt to capture the unimaginable through Schindler’s remarkable story I saw the point that my much lamented cousin and fellow author Jack Holland was making that evening: that the sheer scale of the slaughter and the cosmic cruelty the Nazis and their allies inflicted on the Jews is almost too much for art itself. Jack seemed to echo that infamous line about art & beauty dying with the camps. Perhaps we’re only capable of getting short insights into the cataclysmic nature of the Shoa, like an inverse of the Aboriginal universe, where the people on earth see glinting glimpses of heaven through the celestial apertures of the stars. That’s how the Aborigines viewed the starry night – they were pin pricks in the veil between heaven and earth. And so the compressed, tightly focussed vignettes of life in the Nazi death factories that Levi has left us are short pulsars exposing us temporarily to that black hole of a  hell manufactured on central European soil. It is depressing to remember that there are those in the dark corners of the Internet, in the nefarious netherworld of neo nazism and among the Islamist fanatics in the Arab world such as Hamas, who would call Levi a liar! Perhaps those on board the so-called Irish aid ship to Gaza could raise this denial with their friends if and when they get there!

SHEMA (by Primo Levi)

You who live secure
In your warm houses
Who return at evening to find
Hot food and friendly faces:

Consider whether this is a man,
Who labours in the mud
Who knows no peace
Who fights for a crust of bread
Who dies at a yes or a no.
Consider whether this is a woman,
Without hair or name
With no more strength to remember
Eyes empty and womb cold
As a frog in winter.

Consider that this has been:
I commend these words to you.
Engrave them on your hearts
When you are in your house, when you walk on your way,
When you go to bed, when you rise.
Repeat them to your children.
Or may your house crumble,
Disease render you powerless,
Your offspring avert their faces from you.

Primo Levi: a Jewish-Italian poet and writer, was born in Turin in 1919. Before the Second World War he was an industrial chemist. In 1943 he was arrested and deported to Auschwitz, where he survived due to his “usefulness” to the Nazis as a chemist. His most famous prose work is “If This is a Man” in which he wrote about his experiences in Auschwitz. Haunted by his Holocaust experiences, he committed suicide in 1987.

From Columbo to Berlin…RIP Peter Falk


Peter Falk’s greatest triumph on the screen was arguably the time when he played himself.  Although better known as the shambolic detective in the trench-coat who became the legend that was Columbo it was Falk’s performance as the actor Peter Falk in Wim Wenders 1987 masterpiece Wings of Desire that will stand the test of time.

Of course he endeared himself to millions all over the world in his role as the seemingly scatty-brained sleuth who outwitted rich and arrogant criminals, Falk was a true revelation playing the outlandish part of a fallen angel turned actor who has just arrived on the front line of the Cold War.

In Wender’s homage to Berlin, at the time when the Wall still cut the city into two ideological halves, we only learn about Falk’s former angelic status towards the end of the movie. It’s revealed in a comic yet deeply moving scene when Falk meets another fallen angel close to the Wall – the character played by Austrian actor Bruno Ganz. Prior to Ganz’s angel falling from the sky, his immortality sacrificed in pursuit of the beautiful mortal trapeze artist, Falk talks to the character in a number of black and white scenes. “Columbo” greets Ganz at an Imbiss food stall on bleak, blasted waste-ground running up towards a section of the Wall. He senses Ganz beside him and strikes up a bizarre conversation in front of the Imbiss owner behind the counter who only sees “Columbo” talking to himself. He describes the joys of smoking and drinking coffee at the same time, of rubbing your hands together in the cold to get warm and outstretching his hand to the invisible angel offering his friendship as a “companero.”

The next time the pair meet is in colour shortly after Ganz has abandoned his immortal form having fell to earth with his suit of angelic armour falling on top of him, subsequently wounding him in the head. The angel turned mortal spots Falk and cries out “companero”! They exchange greetings and then Falk offers Ganz a few dollars. To which Ganz replies that he has money and then Falk remembers he must have sold his suit of armour. Then it dawns on the former angel that Falk too – his companero – once had angelic status. Indeed Falk informs him that he was probably robbed as he himself made several hundred bucks selling his armour to a shop in New York City many years earlier.

Falk’s character is in part comedic but also partly melancholic. He strolls around Berlin with his sketch-pad drawing extras taking part in the war movie he’s starring in, stumbling about as shabby and absent-minded as ‘Columbo’ himself. And yet world-weariness is etched on his features. His internal dialogue recalls with affection his grandma and her long-lost world of pre-Nazi Berlin. He retraces her steps and finds only broken ruins and churned up earth, the scars of war, Holocaust and division. Amid the menacing backdrop of the Wall and No-Man’s land, in the winter cityscape with its skeletal trees, in the spectral light that Wenders shoots in through most of the film, Falk is the voice of the little man still clinging to his humanity, his empathy for others around him, even for the angels who other mortals around him cannot see, touch or sense intact.

On realising he’s in the presence of another fallen angel, Ganz expresses incredulity to which Falk replies: “Sure, there are loads of us.” It’s a comforting line in a film that creates so much ethereal beauty out of the barb wire, the concrete, the spot lights, the bullet-pocked buildings, the iron-bridges, the poky apartments and the packed claustrophobic subway trains of West and East Berlin.

Wings of Desire celebrates the crooked timber of humanity. Peter Falk stands out in Wenders’ tour de force as the crumpled, wrinkled, generous face of that humanity with all its faults and foibles. RIP Columbo. RIP the first of Wenders’ fallen angels.