Category Archives: Interesting to know

The Devilry of a Writer’s Workshop

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People sometimes ask why I still bother with writing workshops. You get the: ‘But you’ve been published in journals, you’re on all these shortlists, you seem to know what you’re doing?’ Knowing it’s all a bit excruciating, obsessional, frustrating, maddening…that dealing with loneliness is a big part of being a writer. Not being sure if any of it is any good anyway: mollycoddling your own unmoveable masochism. Yet there is something really peculiar that happens your own writing when you’re surrounded by people pushing the boundaries with theirs. It’s contagious and corrupting; reading the crushed muffle of someone else’s secrets, their desires, their strange reveries, their intuitions, their truth. How others in the room perceive those words differently on the page/screen, how the tutor feels it could or should work better. What is the writer really trying to tell us? How can they show it more effectively?

At an eight-week short story course at the Irish Writers Centre this summer, taught by Sean O’Reilly, the notion of the ‘repressed voice’ came up a few times. ‘Go change your name,’ he advised. ‘Because the person who’s writing is not YOU! It’s a different being and you have to let him/her out.’ In response to how nauseated or shocked newbie writers sometimes feel at what they’ve lobbed on the page, a story will often form a bizarre and unimagined curlicue. One that sets out with a calm, eloquent narrative, morphs into an ugly malicious pisstake; an angry rant at a family member; vengeance towards an old lover; hidden hurt at something that refused to happen despite unyielding desire. Life, essentially, and how it regularly doesn’t work out. We love to read about it. Peepers of mishap. Oglers of shame.

‘The writer’s voice is not programmed to say ‘kind things’ that will make you or others feel good for reading it,’ O’Reilly told us. ‘You don’t like this person, they terrify you. They contain everything you’re unable to say. The one who wants to write is a bad article! However, this other is the one that will write something interesting, the one that will produce art’. Hearing a base truth like go_into_youself-_mediumthis can be a real comfort when struggling to start a new story or facing into another redraft of a long abandoned novel. Embarrassment dissolves, the ‘stuff’ that’s been burdening you, that’s been stopping you writing, heads off into a grubby corner, leaving you to get the job done. It’s at this juncture that judgement wastes away and a group of writers really get to know each other, get to know the work. There’s nothing more gracious or satisfying than being part of shared trickery like this. It’s why I find myself back at workshops even though I know, essentially, that writing is something you need to grapple with alone, in the joyless hours. What is it that Rilke said? Nobody can counsel and help you, nobody. There is only one single way. Go into yourself.

povSo what do we do with fiction at these workshops? At its most elemental writing is about keeping ‘story’ under control in a form. We learn pretty quickly through reading each other’s work and listening to feedback that we need to lure the reader in with comprehensibility, with ordinary story (but even better if it manages to be gripping). We achieve this via a network that keeps the characters together, that makes the story glide and grow. ‘Action is thought!’ is the workshop mantra. In each paragraph something must happen, the story must move forward. Who is telling that story, point of view, the role of the narrator (close or from afar) will all impact on how the reader digests it, both consciously and subconsciously. This will determine if a story works or not. The obvious is often really tricky, we are told. It’s what blocks a lot of people from writing in the first place. You have a bunch of characters but for some reason nothing happens because the writer is avoiding the obvious in an attempt to be clever. But the obvious is often necessary. It’s that little link between one character and the other, why they are connected, we need that little bit of information, we need to know the intricacies of their relationship, we need to see it on the page.

If you doubt the veracity of your own story, apply the oral test: can you tell another person the story and keep them listening to you as if you were sitting in the pub on a Friday night rattling off the plot? Is the person going to get bored hearing you tell the story in an unexciting way? Similarly on the page you have to keep the reader linked into the guts at all times. You do this with action, with movement, you do it through the protagonist’s eyes. The reader cannot fade out if they’re not following at any point, if they get lost. It’s that awful, that crude.

For example if you’re going to deal with obsession, a character is obsessed with a ‘thing’ or someone…you’re going to have to treat that as a theme in itself. Establish the obsession, show it to the reader at work without relying or giving direct statements that ‘this is an obsession’. Timeline is crucial when it comes to hanging the story off a workable architecture. Writers often make the mistake of setting a story over a very short time-span. While a short story is just a ‘sliver of something’, a delicate insight, that sliver can still be set over weeks or months. It doesn’t all have to happen at a ferocious pace over half a day. You can’t establish obsession as a back story, you have to open out the metaphor. Dramatise it so we [the readers] can see it flouncing and floundering. We need to cringe and be entertained. We need to understand how this obsession works, how it is crippling or capacitating the main character. Trying to shove too much into a tiny little bit of action and not letting the idea establish itself over time if why a story falls on its rump.

After you finish that arduous first draft, you will need to ‘go back and rub your nose in it’ even if you let it sit for a while. It won’t just sit there and change itself. O’Reilly said there’s nearly always feelings of nausea and revulsion at ‘first attempts’, but that this can be a good sign. ‘It’s a bit painful to go back and face into what you’ve exposed of yourself onto the page like it is to go confront any situation where you’ve made a fool of yourself. It’s embarrassing, a bit disgusting, a bit shameful. But in there somewhere is what you need, the material trying to get out.’ One tactic is to resist it, the other tactic is to cover it in words so you can’t find it. We are often hiding the material from ourselves that drove us to write in the first place. After the workshop finishes, you’re free to head to the pub for some sneaky pints and a packet of Tayto, press *delete* on your laptop and vow to start all over again. This malarkey is all about resilience. Without it your stories are dusty ideas that’ll never make the gloss of day.

*This was written as part of my Online Writer in Residence gig at the Irish Writers Centre this autumn. Every year the Centre will host four writers on their blog to talk about the arts and to showcase their own work. 

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**

Changing The Agenda

gloss

This year, the Irish literary scene has seen a nimble rise of female-crafted fiction. Women are rejecting tradition and giving much-needed voice to untold stories.

In 2010 I returned from Belfast to Dublin at the height of a miserable recession and it seemed everyone I knew was retreating back into the garret to write. The cocktails and carousing were finito. Friends who had thrived in high gloss work environments (architects, project managers, journalists, big wigs in PR, etc.) were sidling up to social welfare windows like dehydrated cats. Next came the volunteer slots and ‘internships’ to stay sane. The men I knew had more of a problem dealing with ego-collapse. They got awful angry awful quick. No-one knew what to do.

Themes began to emerge both in the writing workshops I sat in on as an employee of the Irish Writers’ Centre. Men were writing about disaffection, not being taken seriously, Camuesque displacement, lack of sex, intimacy or belonging. The writing was good, sometimes great, but it was startlinglychicklet similar. Women who had, during the Tiger years, concentrated on romantic relationships and the pearls of materialism, diluted neurosis, etc., were turning to more serious issues: violence, misogyny, rape culture, crime, retribution. Chick-lit fell off the carnival float and was replaced with edgy young adult (YA) and high-end literary fiction.

sarahgriff

Sarah Maria Griffin

Sarah Griff began writing around this time. Her novel Spare & Found Parts is published next year with Greenwillow (Harper Collins); a story about a girl who builds herself a robotic companion. It takes the creation myth out of Victor Frankenstein’s hands and puts it back in the hands of a teenage girl.

“Women who are writing for Young Adults are, in some ways, writing the work they wish they had access to when they were growing up,” she says. “They’re composing their own cautionary tales, assembling tool kits for the ongoing madness of being an adult woman. I think these novels are equipping the next generation with more than we had – like a new mythology, a different compass for the road ahead.”

Justine Delaney Wilson whose novel An Ordinary Face is published next Spring by Hachette Ireland says that women are writing about what it means to live and cope in a fractured modernity, especially since recession. “The truth of human relationships, loss of self, coping with emotional turbulence – certainly these themes are prevalent now,” she says. “I wanted to write a tale about a family, about what’s left when the structures we’re used to collapse.”

New writers are emerging focussing on the darker themes of women’s experience.

Lisa Harding

Lisa Harding

“I chose to write a novel about two young prostitutes and their experiences could only happen to, and be felt by, a female body as a receptacle of the male gaze and desire,” explains Lisa Harding, whose novel is currently being sent to agents and publishers.

“The book came about because I was involved in a campaign run by the Body Shop and the Children’s rights alliance to stop sex trafficking of children. I heard firsthand accounts of the girls’ stories I wanted to give a voice to these invisible women and to try to inhabit their skin as closely as possible.”

Selina Guinness who is writer in residence at DLR Lexicon for 2015/16 maintains that Ireland has always had a tradition of strong women writers of literary fiction: Elizabeth Bowen, Kate O’Brien, Edna O’Brien, Jennifer Johnston, Deirdre Madden, and that list is expanding and warping all the time. “I think society’s loss of faith in the authority of institutions generally, many of which were strongly patriarchal – banking as well as the church –  means we now invest more hope in the informal communities which women have always sustained. And women tend to be supportive of other women writing,” she says.

There are some signs that contemporary fiction by Irish women may be consciously moving beyond female narrators, according to Guinness.

spill“Sara Baume’s choice of a lonely old curmudgeon as the narrator for her debut, Spill, Simmer, Falter, Wither, is brave for a young woman; Anne Enright is a straight woman who inhabits the voice of a young gay Irishman with effortless conviction in The Green Road; Belinda McKeon focuses on male gay sexuality again in Tender.”

Belinda McKeon says: “My first novel is a novel I’m still proud of, but it wasn’t until a year or so after I’d published it that I realised how firmly and obediently it sat with and with respect to a male literary tradition. That wasn’t a conscious decision. Pushing myself in a different direction, with a female protagonist and a female consciousness fully and unapologetically on the page, was a conscious decision and one about which I felt nervous.

“Social media, the support network, the sense of people talking about the process and the accompanying anxiety and challenges of trying to be a writer, has made a huge difference to me, and I think to other writers who are women as well. When I started out, I felt like a woman in one of those old-fashioned Gentlemen’s clubs on St Stephen’s Green. Now it feels more like a decent party in someone’s house. A house with a view.”

**This article of mine was published in The Gloss Magazine, 1st October, 2015.

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.

Jaysus, me fanny! The Barrytown Trilogy

 

bjtrilogyA quick advertisement now, but I’ll be reading at the dlr LexIcon, The Studio, Dún Laoghaire, 8-9.30pm with Colm Keegan & friends – Karl Parkinson, Stephen James Smith, June Caldwell (that’s me, yeah?) – musician Enda Reilly and singer Sinéad White.  The reading includes both an extract from the infamous Barrytown Trilogy (The Commitments (1987), The Snapper (1990), The Van (1991)) by Roddy Doyle as well as fiction of my own.

This year marks the 10th anniversary of the One City One Book initiative, showcasing some of the great literary works which have become synonymous with the city throughout its history. It’s 28 years since  The Commitments was published, the first instalment of the Barrytown trilogy which had us all in stitches and set a new precedence for realistic Irish fiction (read as you hear it). The ordinary going-ons of a bunch of working class hedonistic musicians based on the north side of Dublin marked the end in literature of a youth supposedly choked by the church and abandoned in a hopeless and endless recession/suppression. In the same way that James Joyce put the cuffs on a ‘modernist’ take on Irish culture, Roddy Doyle’s savage hilarity of 1980’s suburban life gave people permission to be themselves regardless of where they came from and what they wanted to do in life. Unlike Joyce, this fiction was as accessible as it was memorable. The ‘success’ of the book’s band was irrelevant as one of the protagonists in the novel would later claim, ‘Sure we could have been famous and made albums and stuff, but that would have been predictable. This way it’s poetry.’

Do you not get it, lads? The Irish are the blacks of Europe. And Dubliners are the blacks of Ireland. And the Northside Dubliners are the blacks of Dublin. So say it once, say it loud: I’m black and I’m proud.

In a recent Irish Times article Doyle maintains little has changed for the residents of Ireland’s capital despite the events of intervening years. ‘People still get pregnant I think, don’t they? People are still unemployed, young kids still form bands, they still talk in much the same way they used to. The city has changed but it’s still the same place. The books came out of a recession. We didn’t use that word back then, it seemed like normal life in Dublin.  The difference with this recession was that we had seen what life could be like so it came as an almighty shock. I think it took a while for the city and country to catch up with its sense of humour, there wasn’t much laughter in the first couple of years. Hard times seem to give birth to good humour’.

A one-page extract from The Commitments

A one-page extract from The Commitments

The Commitments was voted best Irish film of all time in a 2005 poll sponsored by Jameson Irish Whiskey and launched a generation of Irish musicians and actors. It also won a BAFTA for Best Film. A follow-on The Snapper (my own personal favourite) revolved around unmarried Sharon Rabbitte’s (surname ‘Curley’ in the film) pregnancy, and the unexpected effects this has on her conservative family (Jaysus, me fanny!). Again it was made into a 1993 movie, this time for TV, directed by Stephen Frears and starring Tina Kellegher, Colm Meaney and Brendan Gleeson. The third in the series, The Van, was shortlisted for the Booker Prize in 1991. Jimmy Rabbitte Senior (Sharon’s dad) is unemployed, spending his days alone and miserable. When his best friend, Bimbo, also gets laid off, they keep by being miserable together. Things seem to look up when they buy a decrepit fish-and-chip van and go into business, selling cheap grub to the drunk and the hungry–and keeping one step ahead of the environmental health officers.

Doyle went on to win The Booker Prize with Paddy Clarke Ha Ha Ha in 1993 and has since published a glut of adult novels, novels for children, plays, screenplays, novellas, short stories and works of non-fiction. In 2013 he won the Bord Gáis Energy Irish Book Awards (Novel of the Year) for The Guts

There are over 60 events organised by Dublin City Council for the month of April to celebrate. I am delighted to be taking part in one of them.

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.

2015 in books: Literary debuts and short fiction

longgazeback

30 writers in this anthology are are: Niamh Boyce, Elizabeth Bowen, Maeve Brennan, Mary Costello, June Caldwell Lucy Caldwell, Evelyn Conlon, Anne Devlin, Maria Edgeworth, Anne Enright, Christine Dwyer Hickey, Norah Hoult, Mary Lavin, Eimear MacBride, Molly McCloskey, Bernie McGill, Lisa Quackinerney, Belinda McKeon, Lia Mills, Siobhán Mannion, Nuala Ní Chonchúir, Eilis Ni Dhuibhne, Kate O’Brien, Roisín O’Donnell, E.M. Reapy, Charlotte Riddell, Eimear Ryan, Anakana Schofield, Somerville & Ross & Susan Stairs.

I’m ethically pinching the text of an article (below) from The Irish Times as it mentions The Long Gaze Back, an anthology of Irish women’s fiction I’ll be published in next year, edited by the lovely Sinéad Gleeson and published by New Island in autumn 2015. I look forward to sharing sacred print space with some fantastic writers (living and dead) such as Éilis Ní Dhuibhne, Anne Enright, Christine Dwyer Hickey, Mary Lavin, Eimear McBride, Belinda McKeonMary Costello, Lia Mills, Lucy CaldwellNuala Ní Chonchúir, Maria Edgeworth and Elizabeth Bowen. In January I’m on a much-needed writing break to Salthill for a few days, in March I’ll be attending the Doolin Writers’ Weekend (invited back as a *guest* in return for helping with the first two years’ programming). I’ve been short-listed by Over The Edge to read at Cúirt International Festival of Literature 2015 (but will have to wait to see if I make the grade!). In May I’ll be in situ in the Loire Valley in France working on the novel at Cirlce of Misse – which is my reward from the 2014 Moth Short Story Prize – and on April 23rd I’ll be taking part in the Barrytown Sounds with Colm Keegan, dlr Writer in Residence and Friends at the The Studio, Dún Laoghaire, so already, even before the Auld Lang Syne sets in…an exciting and productive New Year. The very best of luck to all my writer friends spilling their dauntlessness as they do. Make 2015 a year that counts.

Sara Baume, winner of the Davy Byrnes award this year, will release her debut novel Spill Simmer Falter Wither in 2015 (pic from Irish Times).

Sara Baume, winner of the Davy Byrnes award this year, will release her debut novel Spill Simmer Falter Wither in 2015 (pic from The Irish Times).

Next year brings plenty of emerging talent to the bookshelves, both in Ireland and internationally.

theshoreFour brothers deal with a madman’s prophecy of violence in 1990s Nigeria in Chigozie Obioma’s The Fisherman (One, February). In Emma Hooper’s Etta and Otto and Russell and James (Fig Tree, January) Etta, an octogenarian, goes on a 3,000km journey to see the Canadian sea. Sara Taylor’s The Shore (William Heinemann, March) maps out the secrets of generations of women living off the coast of Chesapeake Bay, in Virginia. Sara Novic’s Girl at War (Little, Brown, May) explores the devastation wreaked by the Serbo-Croatian conflict. mcinerneyMore Saras as we move to Ireland, with the Davy Byrnes 2014 winner, Sara Baume, one to watch for her poetically titled Spill Simmer Falter Wither (Tramp Press, February), which tells of an unlikely friendship between two outcasts in rural Ireland.Weightless (Bloomsbury, March), by Sara Bannan, focuses on cyberbullying with the arrival of a new girl at an Alabama high school. A murder in Lisa McInerney’s The Glorious Heresies (John Murray, April) affects the lives of five misfits in postcrash Ireland. From Ireland to Illinois, Paula McGrath’s short novel Generations (John Murray, July) delivers interlinked stories of multiple characters as they seek to rebuild their lives after loss. Set in Victorian England’s theatre district, The Curtain Falls (Ward River, March), by Carole Gurnett, details the secret life of a gay writer. Henrietta McKervey’s What Becomes of Us (Hachette Ireland, April) looks at the role of Cumann na mBan in the 1916 Rising from the perspective of a journalist in 1960s Ireland. Debut authors are also well represented in the short-story form, with Andrew Fox’s Over Our Heads (Penguin, April) and Thomas Morris’s We Don’t Know What We’re Doing (Faber, August). The Stinging Fly continues its tradition of publishing new talent with Claire-Louise Bennett’s Pond (April) and Danielle McLaughlin’s highly anticipated collection due later in the year. Short Fiction Ireland’s love affair with the short story continues to grow, with a host of new anthologies and collections on the way. The Hennessy Book of Irish Fiction 2005-2015, edited by Dermot Bolger and Ciarán Carty (New Island, March) is the third anthology in the series chronicling an emerging literary generation.

Sinéad Gleeson, who will edit an anthology of 30 Irish women authors in 2015

Sinéad Gleeson, who will edit an anthology of 30 Irish women authors in 2015

The Irish Times contributor Sinéad Gleeson is at the helm of a collection of Irish female writers, among them Éilis Ní Dhuibhne, Anne Enright, Christine Dwyer Hickey and Nuala Ní Chonchúir. New Island also releases the seventh instalment in its Open Door series, featuring novellas by Roddy Doyle, Catherine Dunne, Colette Caddell, Ciara Geraghty and Claudia Carroll. As Gaeilge, Micheál Ó Conghaile makes a welcome return with Diabhlaíocht Dé (Cló Iar-Chonnacht, May), his first collection in 12 years. A combination of traditional prose, poetry, monologue and music, Alf Maclochlainn’s Past Habitual (Dalkey Archive Press, March) depicts an Ireland struggling with the effects of war. Edited by Deirdre Madden, All Over Ireland (Faber, May) is a mix of emerging and established Irish writers, including Colm Tóibín, Eoin McNamee and Mary Costello. Under the Rose (Faber, June) is a new collection of previously published stories by Julia O’Faolain, with an afterword from the author looking back on her work. honeyIn keeping with the themes of his novels, the human cost of loneliness and displacement is at the centre of Donal Ryan’s first collection of short stories, A Slanting of the Sun (Doubleday Ireland, September). Collections from international authors to watch out for include Honeydew (John Murray, January), by the American writer Edith Pearlman, and the Impac winner Juan Gabriel Vasquez’s The All Saints’ Day Lovers.

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.

Martin Amis: Zone of Interest

ds

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.

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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.

Along the Lines by Dermot Healy

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Dermot Healy who passed away yesterday.

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

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

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

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

He grew to hate that laugh.

It was not humour.

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

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

Goodbye Mister O’Hehir, nodded the barman.

Good luck Joe, called the plumber.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Off stage a cue was whispered.

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

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

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

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

Joe eyed him.

What happened? he asked.

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

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

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

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

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

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.

There is nowhere to hide in a screenplay

Ferdia Macanna: screenwriter, author, musician, raconteur

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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?

Botox, Big Macs and Mayo

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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.

Too many spas didn’t spoil my broth

The rather delicious parliament building in Budapest

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

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

The salt cave at Margaret Island

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

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

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

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

Szent István Basilica

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

The cops want my mobile phone

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

John Connolly on genre, cultural baggage, crime.

Novelist John Connolly gave a talk at the Irish Writers’ Centre recently on the history of crime writing in Ireland, our problematic relationship with criminality and publishing trends. ‘We have a very peculiar relationship with genre in this country,” he explained. “So few reviewers want to engage with it, they’d rather categorise books they don’t quite get as literary fiction instead.” Avoiding the subject leads to a fundamental misunderstanding of the nature of fiction, a distrust of popularism. “Genre is embedded in fiction, if you don’t understand it, then you don’t understand fiction. Novels were always the great populist form, designed to be read by a lot of people; it wasn’t drama or poetry. The idea of high-brow literary fiction as a separate identity is a recent enough (20th Century) notion.”

Irish writers traditionally wrote fantasy by the bucketload (but crime writers didn’t really survive the test of time). As a result, Ireland has a rich legacy of gothic writing: Bram Stoker, Robert MaturinSheridan Le Fanu, Lafcadio Hearn, even Oscar Wilde’s Picture of Dorian Gray. Yet somewhere along the line John believes we became very distrustful of genre. “I think it’s because we were a new country. One of the obligations on you as a writer in a new nation, is to engage with the nature of Irishness (in our case). What are we? What is our society? What does it mean to be Irish? There was also a distrust of humour…we viewed it as a lack of seriouness – which is a pity – as it can be a very effective weapon.”

So why did writers avoid Irish-based crime fiction? Ireland was a predominantly rural society for a long time and crime fiction works best set in large cities where everyone is knocking into one another. It’s a lot easier to imagine the sleazy bedraggled world of hardcore brutality set against a New York or Paris backdrop. Even an Agatha Christie mockscape is a microcosm of a city, filled with blackmailers, thieves, adulterers, murderers…people who’d usually be spread out over a large geographical area. “When Irish writers took on crime stories (plays included), they tended to borrow real life events as inspiration,” he says. “Historical crimes, cold cases, etc. The Field is a kind of version of what an Irish crime novel might be. We’re still obsessed about non-fiction stories. Books about scumbags in Blanchardstown are deemed fascinating for some reason – as if a dog will get up and start barking poetry – but they’re of no interest.”

The big elephant in the room is The Troubles. How could Irish writers pen fabulous fictional tales of Irish criminality when two hours up the road people were getting blown up for real? The real flourish in crime writing happened at the end of this phase in our history, when there was permission to write gritty urban stories. “The end of the war ‘up North’ gave us a certain freedom to pen the underbelly,” he says. At the same time there was a fracturing of Irish society to explore too: tribunals, white collar crime, institutional abuse, political corruption, it all came flooding into our social consciousness. “We’re now in a position to fully engage with Irish crime fiction and as a result there’s an explosion of it, though we’re still in a way waiting for someone to tell us it’s OK. That’s why modern Irish writers such as Tanya French make it onto the New York Best Seller list while hardly making a ripple here”.

I interviewed John in the run-up to the Peregrine series at the centre:

You have written 15 books so far. How do you keep such a prodigious tempo up?
I’m not sure, to be honest. I’m always surprised when a book appears, as I spend so much time fretting and doubting. I suppose I tend to work quite slowly most days, writing at least 1000 words daily, weekends excepted, when I’m working on the first draft. I’ll sometimes run away to Maine for a week or two if necessary, and my output is greater there because I cut myself off.  In the end, though, it’s just small, consistent steps. I enjoy the act of finishing a book within a reasonable time frame. You learn from finishing projects and moving on. I’m distrustful of the tendency to equate the worth of a book with the many years that it took to write it. If you look at, say, Donna Tartt, there isn’t a decade’s worth of progress between THE SECRET HISTORY and THE LITTLE FRIEND, although a decade separates their dates of publication.

Recently the English writer Stephen Leather was successful in selling his novel as an ebook and made a considerable sum from by-passing traditional publishers – would you ever consider going down the cyber-publishing route?
Possibly, but not yet. I’m grateful to my publishers for what they give to me, and I like the relationship I have with my editors. They make my books better. In the end, self-publishing is a lot of work, and the quality of what results just isn’t as good as what comes from an established house in terms of presentation, editing, and copy editing. It just isn’t. For unpublished authors, it’s clearly a good option, as at least it gets your work out there, but there still exists a certain distrust of self-published books, and legitimately so. Most of them, frankly, aren’t very good. If there are issues with the quality of some of the product of publishing houses, it’s multiplied a thousandfold when it comes to self-publishing. Without filters, more crap gets through, and it’s hard for people to pick out the good stuff. Nevertheless, e-publishing, in all its forms, is going to be a big part of the future. What depresses me about the debate at the moment is that, when it comes to authors who are already being published, it’s being conducted solely in terms of the financial benefits — look how much more money I can earn! — with almost no mention at all of quality.

Have you ever considered setting a novel in your native Dublin?
No. I enjoy the freedom that comes from writing about other locations. I’m an Irish writer, but by setting my novels elsewhere I don’t feel obliged to conform to anyone else’s definition of what an Irish writer should be, or at least not that narrow definition of an Irish writer as someone who is engaged with the nature of Irishness.

Do you worry over the phenomenon of “trending” in publishing particularly in the crime/thriller/mystery genre? To be specific, at present for instance Scandinavian detective fiction is regarded as “hot”.  Should writers track these trends or should you just write in the context, area, background of where you are most comfortable with?
Oh, there’s always some ‘trend’ in fiction, whether it’s genre or otherwise. Scandinavian crime fiction just happens to be the flavour at the moment in genre fiction, and they’re producing some very fine writers, but that trend has been spurred on by Stieg Larsson, and to a lesser extent Henning Mankell. Nobody could have predicted the Larsson effect, and it’s elevated a lot of other writers in its stead. So far, Ireland hasn’t produced a writer using an Irish setting who has captured the popular imagination in that way, but it may yet happen. The quality is there. But if you go following trends you’ll be disappointed, either because the public taste will already have begun to move on by the time you make your contribution, or simply because you’ll be producing inferior copies of pre-existing forms. You write what write because it’s what you have to do, and what you want to do, not because you smell a pay cheque.

How do you react to the description “Irish writer”? Does it often imply something unique and mutually exclusive to a writer’s DNA if there is Irish blood in their veins?
You can’t shake off your cultural or social baggage, so my work is infused with Catholicism and, I imagine, an world view that is Irish at its core. In the past, though, Irish writers were more admired than read, I think. It’s only in the last two decades that we’ve begun to encroach seriously on the popular imagination. I think Irish writers now have a different concept of what it can mean to be an Irish writer in the sense that you don’t automatically have to assume the historical weight and burden that the term ‘Irish writer’ used to bring with it.

There’s been a flowering of Irish crime fiction in recent years. Among those writers whom would you single out for praise?
I’d hate to do that, as I know and like most of them. If I start naming them all, I’ll leave someone out. With that in mind, though, I’m very proud to have contributed to the DOWN THESE GREEN STREETS anthology of (mostly) essays, to be published next month by Liberties Press. That really has rounded up the best of Irish crime writers, so the contributors’ list for that book would be a good place for anyone to start. Kudos, too, to Declan Burke and his website Crime Always Pays. He’s been hugely generous in his support for his fellow writers, and doesn’t get the credit he deserves for spreading the word about Irish crime fiction.

Will any of the Connolly-body of work get the Holywood treatment?
One of my short stories, THE NEW DAUGHTER, was filmed. It was a mixed experience. It didn’t get a wide release, and there are some problems with the last half hour, but everyone got paid, and everyone involved did their best for it. I’m probably more protective of my novels, but some of those are slowly inching their way to the screen.

Should Irish crime/thriller/mystery writers get out more and move off their home patch?
Not unless they want to. Mystery fiction is both a legitimate and interesting way to explore society, both contemporary and historical. In fact, Irish crime writers have more firmly grasped the thorn of writing about contemporary Ireland than a lot of their peers in literary fiction. I’ve just shirked my responsibility in that regard. Sorry.

Your work seems to be inching further into the borderlands of the supernatural especially obviously the ghost stories. Are we going to see a major ghost-horror novel from John Connolly?
I like the fusion of genres, as I’ve always felt that the most interesting work, whether in music, books, art, or film, occurs when one genre becomes infused with elements of another. I prefer the short story form for writing purely supernatural material, mainly because there’s no obligation to provide an explanation or major conclusion. It’s enough to allow people a glimpse behind the veil.

John’s first novel, Every Dead Thing, was published in 1999, and introduced the character of Charlie Parker, a former policeman hunting the killer of his wife and daughter. Dark Hollow followed in 2000. The third Parker novel, The Killing Kind, was published in 2001, with The White Road following in 2002. In 2003, John published his fifth novel—and first stand-alone book—Bad Men. In 2004, Nocturnes, a collection of novellas and short stories, was added to the list, and 2005 marked the publication of the fifth Charlie Parker novel, The Black Angel. John’s seventh novel, The Book of Lost Things, a story about fairy stories and the power that books have to shape our world and our imaginations, was published in September 2006, followed by the next Parker novel,The Unquiet, in 2007, The Reapers, in 2008 The Lovers, in 2009, and The Whisperers, the ninth Charlie Parker novel, in 2010. His first book for young adults The Gates was published in 2010. Its sequel was published as Hell’s Bells in May 2011.

Satruday Poem #3 – Oh God, Fuck Me

This poem may seem like an ugly tease at our recently updated Blasphemy laws but I find it saucily life-giving and intellectually stimulating! Funny as hell too, oh, and clever. A conceptual poem. Schwartz has a real talent for writing about sexual truths, and women’s sexual desire in particular, with a heady level of explicitness. More power to her elbow, I say. Down with repression and all who ride in and around her!

Oh God, Fuck Me (by Ruth L. Schwartz)

Fuck me, oh God, with ordinary things
the things you love best in the world –

like trees in spring, exposing themselves,
flashing leaf buds so firm and swollen

I want to take them in my mouth.
Speaking of trees, fuck me with birds

say, an enormous raucous crow,
proud as a man with his hands down his pants,

and then a sparrow, intimately brown,
discreet and cautious as a concubine.

Fuck me with my kitchen faucet, dripping
like a nymphomaniac,

all night slowly filling and filling,
then overflowing the bowls in the sink-

and with the downstairs neighbour’s vacuum,
that great sucking noisy dragon

making the dirty come clean.
Fuck me with breakfast, with English muffins

the spirit of the dough aroused
by browning, thrilled by buttering.

Fuck me with orange juice,
its concentrated sweetness,

which makes the mouth as happy as summer,
leaves sweet flecks of foam like spit

along the inside of the glass.
Fuck me with coffee, strong and hot,

and then with cream poured into coffee,
blossoming like mushroom clouds,

opening like parachutes.
Fuck me with the ticking

clock, which is the ticking
bomb, which is the ticking heart –

the heart we heard in the first months,
in the original nakedness,

before we were squalling and born.
Fuck me with the unwashed spoon

proud with its coffee stain –
the faint swirl of a useful life

pooled into its center, round as a world.

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

Ruth L. Schwartz is the author of four award-winning books of poetry and a memoir: Dear Good Naked Morning, selected by Alicia Ostriker for the Autumn House Poetry Prize (Autumn House, 2004), Edgewater, selected by Jane Hirshfield as a 2001 National Poetry Series winner (HarperCollins, 2002); Singular Bodies (Anhinga Press, 2001), winner of the 2000 Anhinga Prize for Poetry; Accordion Breathing and Dancing (University of Pittsburgh Press, 1996), winner of the 1994 Associated Writing Programs Award; and Death in Reverse: A Love Story (Michigan State University Press, 2004).

She’s won over a dozen national literary prizes, including two Nimrod/Pablo Neruda Awards, two Chelsea Magazine Editor’s Awards, the North Carolina Writer’s Network Randall Jarrell Prize, and the New Letters Prize in Poetry. She has received grants from the NEA, the Ohio Arts Council, and the Astraea Foundation. Her poems have been anthologized in The World in Us: Lesbian and Gay Poetry of the Next Wave (St. Martin’s Press, 2000), American Poetry: Next Generation (Carnegie-Mellon University Press, 2000), The New Young American Poets (Southern Illinois University Press, 2000), and elsewhere.

Born in 1962 in Geneva, New York, Ruth spent her childhood and early adulthood moving around the country. She received a B.A. in Women’s Studies and Writing from Wesleyan University, an M.F.A. in Creative Writing from the University of Michigan, and a Ph.D. in Transpersonal Psychology from the University of Integrative Learning. The San Francisco Bay Area has been Ruth’s chosen home since 1985; she’s also travelled extensively in Latin America, and speaks fluent Spanish.

Three days in Galway

A blonde toddler bounces up and down at the sight of a Shetland pony outside the pub while a random guy blows an alpenhorn towards a phlegmatic sky. Galway city on a Monday in June and it’s an entrada of ponytails, fisherman caps, stoners, shoppers, shifters, pint suppers, poets, cheese-makers, scallywags and tourists. There’s an incontrovertible giddiness about this city that’s hard to grasp when only two hours before, we’re wading through a load of pinstripes & junkies on Dublin’s Tara Street, where the morning cartage of people is swarmingly bad. A relatively recent wi-fi & loo enabled Go-Bus service from Dublin to Galway is a dream: 2½ hour uninterrupted sprint on the motorway compared to an original four. We dump our bags in the weeny boutique hotel in Cross Street and head straight for Nimmos.

Table 9 in Nimmos, my favourite place in the world!

It’s difficult to describe this place without raving in the style of a gourmet gobshite chef and a tosspot wine-snorting toff. I always feel excited strolling in here, in what used to be a part-derelict artist’s shack up until a decade ago. It’s now bulging with wild flowers and baskets of french sticks & chutneys, nooks/crannies, mismatched chairs, an industrial juicer, hippies sucking on morning eggs and lovers linking elbows in chequered corners. The staff are just gorgeous and if you’re [ahemm!] clever you’ll ask for Table 9, because it has the best of swan-filled views over the frantic Corrib, is snugly private and here an aardvarc snout like mine can sniff up all the fluky deliciousness of the kitchen.

The grub is really incredible, all that ‘simple ingredients cooked to the very best’ that TV ego-chefs rant about as they bash chrome for no reason. I’ve never had creamy seafood chowder sprinkled with saffron & mustard seed – each spoon tasting as a decent first kiss – not the wet tongue prodder from a stranger under neon lights in an 1980s disco with beer spilt on the floor & first impressions in tatters. Yer man had lamb tagine, but was staring my chowder out of it (this always happens!). Both dishes splashed aplenty in the house red; a mellow daytime buzz before heading into air to laugh at lost Americans with a map, hollering about a statue of Columbus. An old man with a flock of bird-nest silver hair stands staring out to sea. Galway is also a great place for transients and loners, for people who just want to stroll & think & let live. Two days later after a lush risotto & some window-gooing in Artisan, we’re back at Table 9 in Nimmos. The courgette, spinach, organic thyme & preserved lemon soup is so outstanding I ask the chef how to make it. On the other side of the river, three men crow-perch & roll joints…one by one we watch them slump back onto grass & stalk seagulls. There’s a posher version of this eatery in Ard Bia upstairs at night, but Nimmos during sapid Galway daylight is how I’d like to get married, divorced, gorge on happy news, grow up some more, fall ill and die.

Billy Ramsell is a young poet from Cork with an incredibly mature grasp on language. He was guest poet at North Beach Poetry Nights (now finished for summer) at the Crane bar. Blown away by the professional focus of his performance, not an easy thing to pull off in front of an inquisitorial beer-swigging audience. Poems about hurling, how the brain functions, Greek gods and flung-away love. I especially liked his celtic tiger parody Gated Community, about a man who loses it with a shredder. Arts in general seem to be delivered in a much more relaxed manner in Galway than in Dublin. Or maybe it’s just a closer knit [happier?] community than you get in the disarticulated jumble of big cities. That’s not to say Galway doesn’t lack an acid tongue towards critics either. Outside Neachtains the next day two playwrights are having a right old bitch about Fintan O’Toole. “That gobshite said on the telly we’ve produced nothing of worth for the past 15 years, so what the f**k has he been criticising & reviewing if that’s the case and who’s been paying him!?”

Pubs here are a heady mix of young & bolder-older. Daddylonglegged women in velvet garb drink at the same hatches as 70-something malcontents in woolly-horned Viking hats downing port. A great college buzz about the place at night even if noise levels give tinnitus a run for its money. Spent one night lodged in a Neachtain’s snug with some lovely Twitterfolk and another on a crawl North of the river, wondering into the bottomless fizz if I could live here full-time. A lot of unspoilt pubs with bubblewrap windows and simple wooden benches reminds of what Dublin so earnestly lost in the full tilt of boom. My favourite day time hang-out is Sheridan’s Wine Bar on Churchyard Street, opposite St. Nicholas’ Church (also worth a visit for the Jayne Eyre reference alone). You can share a cheeseboard here for a tenner and there’s rakes of yummy wines from around the world at €6 a glass.

On Wednesday night we managed to nab tickets for the Cripple of Inismaan on its last leg of a mega US and Irish tour, after proudly bagging nine awards. I’m actually going to puke very little here about this traumatic experience except to conjure up if I could: Father Ted, Ronnie Corbett, Carroll’s Irish Gift Shop and Dublin’s Leprechaun Museum, synchronously fed through a sausage machine without any herbs, flavouring or even Gaviscon for a touch of civility. I’m just as haunted now by the canned laughter of the audience as I’m sure the survivors of the Titanic were, bobbing away from the screams at 3am that portentous April morning. Or as a pal said on Facebook in response to my update horror: ‘It plays into the hands of what people want to pretend Ireland is like, and for us on this island we know it’s shite but we still start to pretend to like it because foreigners like it and we still have that self hate inferiority thing going on, it’s terrifically twisted’.

I can’t wait to go back to Galway in early August…

Working class pride & prejudice

Shaving this morning with my father’s old razor reminded me how even on any given weekday, out of work or down on his luck, he  still always tried to appear as pristine as possible.

Up until his recent illness, when he fought to catch breath, there was always a shirt and tie, the latter knotted tightly by my mother before he would venture outside the door. In winter he wore a Crombie coat or a reefer jacket over a suit and he always made sure whatever the weather his shoes were shiny, his hair was parted back neatly, his face as clean-shaven and bristle free as mine is today thanks to his razor.

Born at the outbreak of the Second World War he became part of that post-war generation who enjoyed unprecedented (albeit relative) prosperity compared to the grinding poverty that their antecedents had to endure. This generation prided itself on their appearance and spent new disposal income on the latest fashions coming from the United States and Europe. Hanging up in my mother’s house in Belfast for instance are Italian cut suits my dad picked up in the 1960s and his (and mine’s) favourite tie, a brown thin shipped corduroy-like material made by Abercrombie of Paris. Poring over old pictures of him last weekend, some black and white, others with that washed-out colour of 1970s photography, I was struck at how fashion-conscious even he was back in those days. 

There were many men like him at the funeral a month ago some of whom like him sported crew-cuts and wore trendy early 60s garb in those photographs I spent hours staring at on Sunday. The time these images capture was one when where there was still such a thing as working class pride.

One of the few utterances I ever agreed with that came out of Derek Hatton’s mouth concerned clothing. Apart of course from him like me being an Evertonian! The former Militant Tendency leader of Liverpool City Council during the 1980s had to defend himself constantly against charges that he was a flash-harry, that his sharp suits and equally sharp hair cuts were the antithesis of Socialist Man. Hatton who at least understand the working class better than the London-based middle class Trotskyites easily rebutted this charge.  He pointed out that working men and women loved to get dressed up, all suited and booted for the pub and the club especially at the weekend. There was nothing anti-socialist or working class about looking good.

Hatton’s detractors regarding his dress sense (let us leave aside Militant’s toxic legacy to the left) came from a media class in the main dominated still by the sons and daughters of rich people. Ask this media class today to visualise the working class and you will be offered up images of overweight men bulging out of tracksuits while chain-smoking and waking a pit bull; bloated bottled blonde young women scantily dressed and collapsing in the street while still managing to hold a blue bottle of WKD upright and gangs of feral young men in baseball caps driving around in souped-up Ford Fiestas, their cars blaring out the misogynistic anthems of nihilist gangsta’ rap.

My colleague at The Observer Carole Caldwalladr wrote a thoughtful piece last week on “Chav Britain”, the new underclass that has supposedly supplanted the old working class in the poorer, third tier of society. The personification of “Chav Britain” Carole pointed out was the character of Vicky Pollard, a gross stereotype who is work-shy, unattractive and repellent.  In this two-dimensional portrayal of the poor Pollard is in poverty because it is somehow her fault. And like so many other “Chavs” out there she is addicted to what I call the “Cult of Instantaneous Satisfaction” whether that be a “gobjob” or a brand new Kappa tracksuit.

The “Cult of Instantaneous Satisfaction” is a by-product of mass consumerism and the shift in society from “We” to “I”. It accelerated through the 1970s and reached a crescendo in the following decade with the arrival of must-have goods ranging from the new video recorders to microwave ovens. Combined with the decline of organised labour and the new philosophy of greed-being-good life for people even at the bottom of the social scale became more privatised.

In the 1990s there was a brilliant but depressing scene from the BBC television series “Our Friends in the North” that summed up this new brutalist, egomaniacal era. The Christopher Ecclestone character goes back to his native Newcastle to look after his father, an old socialist and trade unionist, who has succumbed to Alzheimers. The old boy lives in a block of flats terrorised by a local thug who is always accompanied by his black pit bulls. Rather than act sympathetically to the old man this yob intimidates and threatens him constantly. This one scene accurately reflected the shift in values on many housing estates across Britain and indeed Ireland where might was now right and the strong preyed on the weak.

The Observer asked why the other side of society’s losers, the people at the bottom of the pile who try to be decent, bring up their kids against the odds, hold down mundane and poorly paid jobs while maintaining their dignity and who try to put something back into their communities are missing from our television screens. Why has the luckless but loving, family man Yosser Hughes been replaced the likes of Vicky Pollard? The answer, as Carole proffered, is that television is dominated by middle class executives and producers, and that a laziness pertains in their culture which makes it acceptable to demonise the so-called “Chavs.”

I do not agree with the contention that the word “Chav” be banned from public discourse in the same way as the N-word (and rightly so) has been excised. But what is to be done as an old Bolshevik once asked? Here is one small suggestion to the trade union movement. Rather than wasting your members money on tokenistic adventures such as sending activists to foreign shores like Hamas-dominated Gaza (a clerical-fascist anti-trade union movement by the way) try to creatively address the negative stereotyping of the people you care about – both those in work and those without.  How about a trade union-backed documentary showing the positive side of working class life in the 21st century. What about establishing and supporting a film based business dedicated to dramatising the struggles and pressures and prejudices working class people face? Avoiding blatant agit-prop is it not time to fight back against the blanket labelling of workers and the unemployed as a tacky, bejewelled, gnarling, selfish mass of Jeremy Kyle watchers. 

Take a lesson from the Manic Street Preachers and their best and brilliant anthem “A Design for Life” which resonates to this day as a foil against those who would smear all of the working class as feckless addicts of the “Cult of Instantaneous Satisfaction.” There is a class culture war to fight and you won’t be able to rely on those in the media who think it is acceptable and “rather amusing” to sneer and snigger at the “Chavs.”

I wrote this from South Lebanon 13 years ago…

…and now I’ll probably be going back there in the near future because the Irish are back.

Henry McDonald finds that the Islamist party is adopting a more emollient approach particularly towards bibulous Westerners

THE HEZBOLLAH spin doctor poked his mobile phone into my expanding gut and said in perfect clipped English, `You should play a bit more sport.’

When the Party of God gives you advice like that you have to think up a good excuse to throw them off the scent. Being hung over with the Hezbollah is an unnerving experience.

The previous night a UN officer and I had drunk a few cans in the officers’ mess at the Irish battalion’s peacekeeping camp in Tibnin. ‘Er, actually I was unwell last year and had to put on some weight before my operation.’

Ever polite, the Hezbollah man nodded and whispered in Arabic to the phalanx of bearded security men around their military leader, Sheikh Nabi Qawook. `Then we will pray to my God that you will be better,’ the Sheikh’s press officer replied, and the guards with heavy metallic bulges in their cardigans nodded sternly in agreement.

Surrounded by Sheikh Qawook’s security team, I suddenly remembered that the last Irish civilian who was a ‘guest’ of Hezbollah was Brian Keenan. Those kidnapping days, the Sheikh assured me, were long gone, although he couldn’t resist reminding me that 20,000 Lebanese were seized during the civil war and little or nothing was reported about them in the Western press. He then pointed to the oranges, apples, grapes and fruit juice laid out on the table and urged me to eat.

Today Hezbollah, the movement normally associated with suicide car bombs and kidnapping Westerners, is on a sophisticated charm offensive. Just after Christmas the Islamic fundamentalist, Iranian- backed movement went on the Internet to promote their cause. They also published a freephone number asking for recruits among the non-Shia Muslim Lebanese to join their `resistance squads’ in the armed struggle to flush Israel out of its self-declared security zone in south Lebanon.

Sheikh Qawook, reclining in an armchair under a blown-up picture of Sheikh Moussawi, the Hezbollah leader killed by the Israelis, seemed taken aback that the West would be surprised that his movement was opening its doors to non-Muslims. `Hezbollah was the first party to come up with the idea of national resistance squads. Our units will embrace all the Lebanese, Christians and other religious sects, in the war of liberation.’

Looming over all Lebanese is the spectre of Big Brother Syria. The road south from Beirut to Tyre is littered with Syrian pillboxes and checkpoints and portraits of the dictator Hafez Assad. Brother Assad and his army are there to impose peace on the warring Lebanese factions, but it is peace at a heavy price. Every businessman transporting goods to the south suffers blatant extortion by Syrian troops. (Those living inside the security zone suffer a double extortion because they have to pay Israel’s surrogate militia, the South Lebanon Army, as well.)

One of the traders who sells designer clothes and watches to Irish peace-keepers in south Lebanon told me he has to get out wads of dollars to slap into the hands of Syrian soldiers at checkpoints outside Beirut. `Tom Cruise’, as he is known to the Irish UN troops due to his remarkable resemblance to the Hollywood actor, said that on one occasion he had to slip several thousand dollars into the hands of a Syrian officer to pass through a roadblock.

The Hezbollah also have good reason to fear and mistrust Brother Assad. In 1982 his regime slaughtered thousands of Islamic militants in the Syrian city of Hama. Hezbollah supporters privately admit that once Israel leaves the Syrians will crush anyone who tries to upset a peace package made in Damascus. Perhaps the survival instinct is partly the reason why New Hezbollah is reaching out to other Lebanese, sounding more pragmatic on the Internet and being nice to hung-over Western journalists.

Henry McDonald is Ireland correspondent for the Observer and author of Irish Batt: The Story of Ireland’s Blue Berets in Lebanon.

Copyright Spectator Apr 25, 1998

Warning: bad sex may lead to a good heart

Vaseline. Prized for thickening eyebrows, healing cuts and aiding shoehorns, but a rabid pest if lobbed into rookie hands. It was 1988 and I was emigrating to London in three days and thought it might be a good idea to have sex before I left. It was all a bit new to me, the sex thing, and Random Paul seemed like a grudgingly safe bet. “It really turns me on if The Girl pretends she’s blind,” he smirked, twisting open a giant jar of the finest petroleum jelly. An hour or so later I was stuck to the bed, jellied tripe, while Random Paul bungled off into the sunrise, never to see his faux-blind harlot again.

Last night in Temple Bar, five of us well-watered journos began fly fishing for stories of bad sex and general mortification. As my fellow beer flunkies winced and hemmed and hawed and strained and moaned (and sang Michael Jackson tunes) to avoid coughing up the goods, Generation Game conveyor belt music starting going off in my head. There it was: the toaster, the golf clubs, the cuddly toy, a whole line-up of crap sexual experiences, sliding by as a consumer job lot of lousy shags.

A year after the blind-fantasy-vaseline man I was in the throes of my first serious relationship in London and apparently I was terribly frigid. “You’re not like other Irish girls I met, they were really dirty!” he protested. It was, of course, the start of a long line of gobshite men. To spice things up, and only because he owned a scooter and my flatmate’s boyfriend also owned a scooter, I suggested we try having sex with helmets on our heads. I thought it might be fun. In truth I wasn’t experienced enough to know what ‘spicing up’ meant? There was always helmets in the hall, broken umbrellas in the sitting room and booze in the kitchen. At first it was just sheer hilarious, we had to open up the visors that were steamed-up from laughing. We looked a bit like giant humping flies. But after a while when we really got into it, things got a bit road-crash hectic. Our heads were smashing into each other in full missionary force, my neck auto-whiplashing and the heat inside the helmet made it extremely difficult to breathe. By the time we abandoned our efforts there was nothing left for it but to get pissed and never mention it again. We broke up a few months later.

The London Years (1988-1995) were loud with all kinds of carnal clatterings. The jazz singer with the half-moon penis that he inherited in a bus crash, the Clapham barman who tried to ‘dry ride’ me when I was asleep and got his Winkle caught in his jean’s zip with disastrous ’bloody’ consequences; an ensuing trip to St. Thomas’s Hospital where I had to pretend to medical staff I was his wife. The manic-depressive whose post coitus musings included a desire to fling himself off a motorway bridge. A Sikh guy who used to put my hand down his trousers and say: “Sikh and you will find.” I was desperately, painfully, saturated in unrequited love for him. There was also an Italian IT expert who could only get turned on after watching National Geographic – stuff like wildebeest stampeding on  the plains and open woodlands of Africa. He’d smolder out his nostrils and demand we head to the bedroom for animatistic sex as the programme credits were rising. It was a miracle I made it back to Ireland intact.

So there I was in my early 30s in a pub in north inner city Dublin totally infatuated with a sooty-haired musician with a cheeky grin and those West of Ireland certifiable green eyes. For months I gave him crab-sideways libidinous stares, come-hither smiles and ‘look at me, aren’t I just the dog’s bollix?’ belly laughs. I also made sure he’d hear snippets of personal details and how great my career was progressing, when I was chatting to some of the local deadbeats. I’d lost four stone so amazingly men were glaring back for the first time in aeons and West of Ireland man became so brilliantly reciprocal I had no choice but to bite the bullet and ask him back to my plywood apartment. This was my first blatant seduction and I was sheer delighted with myself.

The next bit happened so fast and so non-passionately that by the time I could say: “Do you want a can of Miller?” he had his cock out in my purple sitting room, demanding to know what I thought. This is still very hard to describe, even now, but there was a foreskin problem of sorts, well most definitely…the full details proffered by him there on the spot. His Ma admitted that she should’ve got him circumcised when he was small but that she really couldn’t bear to “hurt her baby” and ever since he’d started “doing the business” years later, he had to manually fold it over, his nuclear mushroom cloud, and tuck it in like an overgrown pastry lid, before he could get it inside a lady. The entire thing was so shocking that I wish I’d had the guts or gall to utter that famous Wickerman line: “Oh, God! Oh, Jesus Christ! Oh, my God! Christ! No, no, dear God!”

If bad sex doesn’t lead to a good heart, it will certainly lead to a good sense of humour. Last night as the Anti-Room meetup came to a prudent close, five  diehards posed a question no-one with even a quarter of a reputation would ever want to answer: I kept my gob firmly shut. Some things are just better off left dead in the bed, world without end, Amen.

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