Category Archives: Laments

Catherine Dunne interviews moi about Room Little Darker

This feels slightly weird but in the run-up to the launch of Room Little Darker next Wednesday, 31st May (Hodges Figgis, 6pm, all welcome!) I wanted to post this author interview Catherine Dunne did with me on her website as it discusses some of the stories in the book as well as wider themes. So excuse the narcissism, and enjoy!


1 – ‘SOMAT’ is also part of this new story collection. Narrated from the point of view of a foetus, it is, among other things, a howl of outrage against the Eighth Amendment to the Constitution which can reduce pregnant women in Ireland to the status of incubators. But it is the irreverent inventiveness of the language that really grabs the reader by the throat. Can you give us an insight into how you gave life to this particular voice?

Marlise Munoz

J.C.: – There were two Frankensteinesque stories of women held captive in monstrous situations in 2014 that really smashed me in the gut and made me angry as hell. A woman from Texas called Marlise Munoz, who was 14 weeks pregnant with the couple’s second child when her husband found her unconscious on their kitchen floor. She’d suffered an pulmonary embolism. Though doctors pronounced her brain dead and her family explicitly said they didn’t want machines keeping her body alive, officials at John Peter Smith Hospital in Fort Worth felt differently.

The law in Texas is very like ours in Ireland. It required them to maintain life-sustaining treatment for a pregnant patient as long as there was a foetal heartbeat. Keeping a woman alive against nature’s will (her body was essentially rotting and she had to be drowned out in ‘somatic’ medicines to keep her ‘technically’ alive) as a human incubator when the baby/foetus is in no way viable was such a hideous scenario.

Her family fought their own grief and powerlessness for eight long weeks, having to go to court several times, before she could be taken off the machines. Think of the trauma of that? And the law is supposed to be there to ‘protect’ you?

Her husband, Erick Munoz, argued that sustaining her body artificially amounted to ‘the cruel and obscene mutilation of a deceased body’ against her wishes and those of her family. That was at the beginning of the year.

june caldwell - room little darker - invitation

June Caldwell’s stories are the roar of fury and clarity that Irish fiction has been needing – no really, it has. You haven’t read anything like this before. You haven’t had anything before like the headspin that these stories will give you. And it doesn’t hurt that they’re gaspingly, gutsily hilarious, as well as formally brave and unbothered with the rules. Just brilliant – Belinda McKeon

At the end of the year, an almost identical situation happened in Ireland. A woman who had suffered a spontaneous ‘brain’ trauma who was 18 weeks pregnant, ended up at the mercy of bonkers legislation in an ‘unnamed’ hospital, being fought over by medical staff, legal eagles and the Catholic church. The hospital refused her family’s request to discontinue artificial life support, citing ‘the country’s strict abortion law’ as their guideline. Then there was the usual circus offerings: lawyers representing the rights of the woman and of the fetus, but not her family, said they accepted the ruling from the country’s second-highest court.

Pro-life organisations saw the lingering horror as a kind of triumph in real-time and the men in dresses were issuing statements from stained-glass windows on God’s law over woman’s fate.

It was insane and really upsetting to read about. One doctor commented that the fetus was essentially “facing into a ‘perfect storm’ from which it has no realistic prospect of emerging alive.”

Even the most cogent argument couldn’t alter the facts, the ‘baby’ had nothing but distress and death ahead. The hospital was afraid of being sued for negligence or having to face murder charges under a 1983 constitutional ban on abortion, the strictest in Europe. Keeping her deteriorating body functioning only with the help of machines and drugs deprived her “of dignity in death”.

It subjected her father, her partner and her young children to “unimaginable distress in a futile exercise which commenced only because of fears held by treating medical specialists of potential legal consequences,” the court decided.

And of course, Government officials said the ruling would be studied for possible exceptions to the blanket ban on abortion. We live in a time where we are contemplating colonies on Mars and yet there are women left lingering in this freakish state in our hospitals, with their families suffering ridiculously.

It boiled my piss.

I wanted to write a story that reflected the trajectory of horror and I felt that it was best told from the fetus’s perspective, to highlight the hideousness. After spending years in journalism and being restricted on what you could say and how you could say it, I firmly believe that fiction can be more effective, more politicised.

wrote the story in a fit of anger to the 3,000 word brief (which was hard to do and sent it into Sinéad Gleeson, who was editing The Long Gaze Back anthology).

I was really nervous about how it would be received, if it came across as offensive, if it would get people talking. It turned out to be one of the most talked about stories in the collection.

The Open University now want it on their MA in Creative Writing (fiction module) and have asked permission to use it for the next nine years. That gave me hope that I have it in me to make a difference. Up until that point I had no idea if I could write a short story or not. Writing the story helped me understand the stupidity of our laws and the need to Repeal the Eighth Amendment and go for a referendum. I hope it happens. It needs to happen.

June Caldwell’s writing is audacious, wicked and profoundly funny; her prose cracks and sizzles. The stories in Room Little Darker are literary electrical storms and Caldwell’s voice is a genuinely fresh, bold and welcome addition to the Irish scene – Nuala O’Connor

2 – The characters in your stories often inhabit a nightmarish world, such as that wildly imagined one in ‘Imp of the Perverse’. They are frequently transported there by the ferocity of sexual desire:

‘In the garden I watch the guests through the heat of amber eyes. Grasses bristle and jostle. I stretch forward to lie flat in the flimsy sunshine of early evening. The clouds are hungry and my mouth waters. Wind tears at itself as I pull layers from the sky to lay over me. Laughter grey and mocking. They do not know the danger love carries.’

Can you talk to us about this – about ‘the danger love carries’ in your stories?

J.C.: – Well, yes, in adult life we are obliged to be ‘civil’ always, aren’t we, to be well behaved?

We’re not marauding teenagers anymore.

But sometimes we can’t or don’t choose our desires and the people who counter-inhabit them. They choose us. They untangle us. They sweep in from the unconscious and take us over, eat us up, make fools of us, flood us. Crazy behaviour can only follow. Desire as the invisible puppeteer. And these desires are often strongest where hierarchies exist, where taboo beckons, where warped lust lurks. In this story I wanted to look closely at two stereotypes: the randy professor who has more choice than sense, and the love-struck MA student who at first is overwhelmed by a genuine admiration for him and his work, but pretty soon that morphs into a dangerous longing.

The longing takes over and acts as Theatre Director in the drama, leading into murky corners, embarrassing come-ons. He, of course, plays with this at first, before becoming sickened or appalled by her. He is used to seducing women with his mind, ‘pinning’ with his eyes, flinging provocative sentences, lassoing.

He sees himself as a Gingerman type character and everyone is fair game.

Until the game goes wrong.

His character is quietly psychopathic. He’s addicted to the pleasure he gets from luring people in, of women wanting him, lasciviousness. He pulls the strings, the wires, he cracks the whip. His position also allows for this. It is the milky environment of emotional cancer, the alkaline is missing. He has a vast brain and deeply abusive psychological patterns that direct him. He’s also a fail-safe opportunist.

She’s not a victim though.

She’s also very clever and plays the ‘little girl’ around him a lot, knowing he likes the dynamism of that. But then she loses control and spills overboard, along with her sanity, ending up in the freezing cold sea. The only way she can cope with the idea of him is to turn him into an animal in her head, where he is predator and she is [willing] prey.

All well and good, but the game goes wrong when she realises he has no interest in her. She cannot compete with what he normally goes for. She unravels. Self-annihilation and destruction consume her. It’s all a bit disgusting and shameful. On the surface she seems to be the gudgeon, the martyr.

But then she examines his behaviour inside the kaleidoscope of power and realises that he can behave as he likes. The expectations on her, in the ‘lower’ hierarchical role, are more demanding and rigid. She gets angry and this perpetuates even more destructive behaviour. It’s a no-win. Going back is futile, revenge is futile, going forward is futile. She is straitjacketed. He will never like her, consider her, want her. His available pool of lovelies who admire him endlessly is so large, he drowns in it. They both drown, but in different ways. In the end she wanders into the ‘den’ and has a breakdown. What will happen when she emerges from that desolate place and sees more clearly? Sees that he’s just a man (how boring!).

What then? Will she feel remorse, will she feel sorry for him? Will she learn important things about herself? He doesn’t care however, and formally complains, consequence pours in regardless. She’s punished severely for her ‘transgression’. He’s every right to do what he does.

He’s also every right to bob along never scrutinising his own behaviour because he never believes he causes damage. It’s all just light-hearted ‘stuff’ to him. Maybe he is the ‘victim’ here, maybe he did nothing wrong.

She could be just relentlessly nuts after all. I want the reader to consider the macro, to like and hate and understand both characters. The meaning of meaninglessness! I use Edgar Allen Poe’s ‘Imp of the Perverse’ as a type of metaphor or structure for the story. In his original short story, which Poe wrote in part as an essay, he first discusses the narrator’s self-destructive impulses, embodied as the symbolic metaphor of The Imp of the Perverse.

The narrator describes this spirit as the agent that tempts a person to do things ‘merely because we feel we should not.’ He talks about how we are compelled to ‘commit acts’ against our self interest in life, that this is part of our intrinsically destructive impulses as human beings. The guilt that’s produced afterwards (even if we ‘confess’ to our ridiculous behaviour, our sins) is also futile. No one cares! Poe’s character eventually commits murder, gets away with it, but the overwhelming desire [triggered by an ‘invisible fiend’ pursuing him, the conscience] to confess leads him to the hangman’s alley.

I thought it would be the perfect metaphor to look at destructive desire and the crippling lonely lows it can lead us into.

I use some of Poe’s text in the story, sneakily.

It’s there in some of the sentences, but the modern context of the setting submerges the original text.

The moral of the story is that desire can be as treacherous as love is relative. We need to know how to handle it, how to bury it, how to accept defeat and walk off, how to forgive ourselves. Ultimately how to accept that sometimes we have no control. Perhaps it’s the only way we can truly learn.

This story could also be written about a priest and one of his congregation, a paedophile and a child, an alligator zig-zagging towards a juicy deer strolling aimlessly by. Ying without the Yang, sexual chemistry in a cul-de-sac.

Poe’s theory of the Imp of the Perverse is an early notion of the subconscious and repression which would not be fully theorised until Freud.

When people meet they’ve no real idea what private psychologies they’re banging off. It’s why we have boundaries in life. Rules. When we ignore them, or evade our own splurging instincts, we get into trouble. It was too tempting to have the student protagonist ‘win’ in the end by ripping him to shreds for hurting her, but that’s not realistic. The end is deliberately anti-climactic. Maybe they are both still out there and have learnt nothing in their separate dusty cubby-holes. That’s what I imagine anyway. Love, lust, desire, even the ugly deluded kind, are potentially traumatic and betraying to the delicate self. There is no midway point, no resolve, no understanding. We become marked, spoiled, swinging off the rope forever. Tread carefully and make sure there’s rubber soles on your slippers to cope with the rain.

June Caldwell’s stories are savagely inventive, full-throttle snapshots of the creepy, pitiable world it seems we all now have to live in. If the ghost of Angela Carter and a hungover George Saunders ever got together, they might turn out tales as full of the righteous ire and strychnine wit as the uproarious stories in Room Little Darker – Colin Barrett

3 – Your writer’s imagination seems to me to be a heady mix of hilarity and horror. In the visceral tale ‘Upcycle’, a daughter recalls the chilling abuse of a now-demented father. Yet the tale is leavened with a hearty dose of black humour, such as the mother’s futile attempt, long ago, to ‘poison his stew’. There are many times when the reader laughs, and then feels uncomfortable for laughing. Can you talk to us about the role of humour in your stories?

J.C.: – I always see the funny even in the horrific or even just in the ‘every day’.

Maybe it’s a feeling of healthy dislocation, but I find a lot of life ‘unreal’, and that also includes how we cope with memory. I’ve never grown up, essentially. We forget too that there are always two in a tango, that everyone bears the weight of responsibility, for their relationships, for their actions, and most tellingly, for their lack of action.

The crime of nonchalance, of missing the point of life. The ‘wife’ character in ‘Upcycle’ is portrayed first of all as a bit of a victim but really we have to ask ourselves, what’s in it for her staying with a man like that? Is it societal pressure of the time (the story swings back and forth from the 1970s and 1980s to the present day where the ‘husband’ is in a nursing home)? Again it is a story about the shifting sands of power: a man who is a bully in his marriage but is now out of control with the mites of madness eating his brain, behaves accordingly.

He loses control but tries to regain some of that control by haunting his family. Is he really haunting them or is it their own conscience playing havoc in the aftermath of a traumatic situation? The house becomes a metaphor for the man’s strong seething will and starts to break up all around them (the wife and daughter).

I guess there’s unintentional humour in that.

In the scenario itself. Fun in the absurd. We expect justice in life, appeasement, release from hard situations. It often doesn’t arrive, it doesn’t grace our doorstep.

Life tells us, ‘You picked this shit, deal with it, smell it, stick it right up your nose.’ Humour is sometimes our only saviour. Without giving too much away, by the end of the story, the protagonist realises that the father was always terrified of them, while they lived it in real time the other way around. Humour in hopelessness, the wrangle for reason.

What else is there to do sometimes but laugh? I hope that there is fun and humour is most of these stories. In ‘Leitrim Flip’ for instance, the scenario is horrific, but again the couple’s predicament in the cage is a consequence of not thinking things through clearly. There’s buffoonery in the role reversal: the ‘submissive’ character relents and accepts her fate. The ‘Master’ continually fights their predicament and refuses to accept it. Yet in his traditional role he’d expect her to handle anything he’d dream of dishing out.

In ‘The Man Who Lives In A Tree’, the tree is seemingly a ‘friend’ but Rashi soon realises that he’s a malevolent git. A Facebook friend who was sent a review copy wrote to me today to say she had ‘nightmares’ after reading the story.

She dreamt Liam Neeson turned into the tree and chased her.

I couldn’t stop laughing at that image. If I give people nightmares or make them laugh, I’ve done my job as a writer.

My 83-year-old Ma asked me why I wrote about ‘a tree who could talk’, and I said, ‘why not?’ Hippies believe that trees whisper and have voices. Maybe they do. And we, as people, as wreckers of the environment must piss them off no end. But all we feel is pity for ourselves, not for the havoc we wreak. The tree doesn’t care too much for humans, even ones like Rashi who are homeless and desperate. Why should it? That shouldn’t be funny, but maybe it is. I also feel guilty sometimes about using humour in inappropriate ways.

In ‘Dubstopia’ we should feel nothing but concern for the heroin addict character, but we end up laughing at the pointlessness of his day, at his own lack of control, at a city sizzling in menace. When I worked at the Irish Writers Centre, I remember one day standing outside in the porch to get some air, and I saw this really dishevelled junkie, he looked in a terrible state, really emaciated… and he stopped to read the menu outside Chapter One (you know, that really posh expensive Michelin star restaurant!). He looked like he’d emerged from a crumby bedsit, woken by the pains of hunger that pulled him out onto the street. He was reading the menu out loud driving himself mad! I knew it wasn’t funny per se, but I couldn’t stop laughing.

I felt bad but laughed for two days over that.

I felt ugly for my own immorality of being able to find this funny. It made me uncomfortable. I want my stories to do the same. Humour, laughter, to just plomp your face in your hands and say, ‘For fuck’s sake!’, is a great balm. We laugh uncontrollably from the time we’re babies and everything is hideous and new and distorted, to the hilarious cartoons of childhood that calm and teach us, to our mortifying teenage romances, right up to the myriad of things that can and do go wrong for us as adults. Humour is also a close colleague of pain. There is so much in life that is privately hellish or impossible to cope with. If we can take a moment to laugh, then isn’t that great? We’re all strolling towards the crematorium anyway. Imagine taking any of this shit seriously?

There is a seriously charged imagination at work here. Line by line, page by page, Caldwell brings a dangerous new voltage to the Irish short story – Mike McCormack

4 – Your stories deal with characters who find themselves ‘unmoored’ in a strange and hostile parallel universe. Although dark and terrifying, the world that you create is kept vibrant and somehow optimistic by the sheer energy of the language that you use – your metaphors are arresting, startling, illuminating. Is language or character the starting-point for you?

J.C.: – I love language!

I listen to how people speak, not formally, but how, you know, we have conversations in the pub or even in our heads (have you ever taken time out to listen to your head, it’s terrifying!) With ‘Natterbean’ for instance: that came about one day in a taxi. A junkie walked out in front of the cab and the taxi driver said, ‘I hate them fucking Natterbeans’. I asked him what he meant. ‘Every time they get into the car, they’re all ‘I’m natterbean up at the clinic and yer man said…’ and so on. It was his word for ‘I’m after been’, said in a frenzy. I thought, ‘I’m robbing that!’ Language straight off the street, right from the gob of a taxi man, you can’t get more Joycean than that.

Taxi men are the modern-day carriers of all things Ulysses.

Their warblings are a great example of how language is used to best effect in ordinary ways, in storytelling. Taxi men always tell you stories and they do it brilliantly.

We learn how to write ‘essays’ in school in Victoriana English. Short story writing is the opposite of that, in any fiction, we’re trying to mirror reality as we live and experience it. In SOMAT the foetus is not really talking like a foetus (we all know they can’t talk, right?) and the voice is peculiarly adult and ‘knowing’, but at the same time it breaks up/away into baby speak sometimes.

I wanted to give a flavour of ‘what if’. Voice for me is the most important thing in any writing. How that character inhabits their own reality. I admire writers who use language in subtle beautiful ways, but that’s not me.

My heroine in this regard is Eimear McBride, what she does with language in ‘A Girl is a Half-Formed Thing’ is off the scale brilliant.

She knows how language is formed in the brain through her study of linguistics and she worked with that. It floored me. Seeing it performed on stage shook me to the core. It’s the best example of stellar use of language I can think of. I’m not in that league at all but I take inspiration from her.

I love reading a book where the character (and the writer in their role of occupying that character) seems almost possessed. Ross Raisin in ‘God’s Own Country’ or even ‘The Lovely Bones’ by Alice Sebold.

I hope that I use language effectively to make each of the stories different from one another. I’ve read short story collections where ‘the voice’ is the same throughout and while there’s great skill involved in achieving this, it’s not for me. I want each story to be so separate and identifiable from the next.

The average word usage for anyone using spoken English is between 20,000 and 35,000 words, but the Oxford English Dictionary lists at least 171,476 words with thousands of obsolete ones no longer in use. Look how much language has changed since the advent of social media? All those new buzz words and vowel-less offerings?

Language, like sexuality, is fluid, and it’s the writer’s job to exploit this to the best of their ability.

It’ll be interesting to see if some of the language in my ‘Oirish’ stories carries to an audience outside of here. Will it work or will it bore? Writers like James Kelman and Irvine Welsh have done Scottish street language proud. How will we move with the high-tech languages of the future and still stay true to our own unique way of expressing ourselves?

5 – After this blistering collection Room Little Darker, what’s next for June Caldwell, Writer?

J.C.: – I’ve a few short story commissions to write now (for The Lonely Crowd Welsh literary journal and Winter Papers here) and after that it’s time to return to an abandoned novella: a murderous tale about one of Ireland’s missing women, told from the dead, with a twist.

I was obsessed with the ‘triangle’ of missing murdered women that happened in the 1990s, but my story moves on a bit in time and looks at the idea of murderous intent and how so many men get away with the ultimate violence against women, and how as a country, we are still utterly unprepared to deal with that scenario.

I began the story on the MA in Belfast, but I’d never attempted fiction and it was very disparate and all over the place. That’s the next job at hand. After that, I may go for a ‘big’ novel. I also love hybrids: mixes of non-fiction and fiction. I feel like I’ve spent two decades in an incubator ‘waiting’ to write.

I can’t understand why I didn’t do it earlier. So I want to have all my babies now in quick succession. Then I’ll retire to the countryside to have as much sex as I can and look at the sea endlessly before I die. Well, hold on, I’m only in my forties so maybe there’s plenty of time to write a whole slew of disturbing books where I’ll be labelled a lunatic but one day someone will say ‘Yer one, she was a difficult narky character alright, but she could string a sentence together OK’. That to me, would be a life well lived.

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. 

Liam Clarke: A fearless and formidable man

Journaist Liam Clarke, © The Belfast Telegraph

Journaist Liam Clarke, © The Belfast Telegraph

Liam faced his illness, a rare form of cancer, with the same bravery that marked his journalism. He died early yesterday morning, suddenly but ‘peacefully’ at his home. His ability to hold on for so long after the terminal diagnosis also demonstrated his formidable personal strength.

The great truth that life is sweeter, more vivid and more precious because it must end, washed over me like a wave as I looked into the anxious face of Anand Gidwani after he examined my stomach.

Even a week ago, just before his death at home at the weekend, Liam was still scooping the rest of us when it came to political stories. He got ahead of the pack for The Belfast Telegraph with the first interview with First Minister-in-waiting Arlene Foster, shortly after she was elected unopposed to lead the Democratic Unionists. This was yet another example (we didn’t know it would be his last) of Liam getting his story out first.

It is also supremely ironic that the man at the centre of one of Liam’s greatest ever scoops – Thomas ‘Slab’ Murphy – is currently awaiting his fate after being found guilty just before Christmas of tax evasion in the Irish Republic.

Thomas "Slab" Murphy

Thomas “Slab” Murphy

In Dublin’s Central Criminal Court, Murphy was found guilty of failing to pay his taxes in the south. Back in 1988, no one could ever have imagined ‘Slab’ and his power being challenged through the courts of the land.

In that time, he held sway over the IRA’s South Armagh Brigade and helped through his organisational resources to smuggle tonnes of Colonel Gaddafi’s weapons into Ireland. And in the mini ‘Republic of Fear’ along the border, there was a vow of murderous silence that ensured the likes of Murphy would never be exposed… until Liam Clarke and The Sunday Times investigation team decided to probe the vast wealth of the south Armagh farmer and the allegations that he had been IRA chief of staff.

Murphy sued for libel in 1988, but the paper and Liam held firm, eventually winning the case after several years and exposing ‘Slab’s’ role in the Provisionals’ war. Liam became for a time a marked man and his journalist colleagues know of at least one IRA plot to kill him in the late ’80s.

Yet Liam’s compassion for people regardless of their politics stretched all the way from the fringes of Ulster loyalism to Sinn Fein and IRA members. I know for a fact that Liam found out about a plot to kill a senior Belfast Sinn Fein member by loyalists in the early 1990s. Liam immediately warned him, advising him to change his routine and beef up his security. The warning was heeded and mercifully the attack never took place.

His willingness to help a member of a movement that included others willing to kill Liam at one time was a measure of the man. It was also part of his political philosophy. He saw armed struggle and political violence as not only immoral but futile and counter productive.

This is probably why the young, radical, left-wing student from a Protestant background in the north west joined the post-ceasefire Official Sinn Fein/Republican Clubs, later to become The Workers Party (WP) in the 70s.

By 1980 Liam was co-editor of the WP paper The Northern People and worked alongside future Fortnight editor Robin Wilson. The formidable duo turned the paper from a dull, ideological leftist tract into an often interesting, left-leaning weekly tabloid that even broke some news stories, including, for instance, a scoop about a new plastic baton round the RUC was about to deploy.

However, Liam had ambitions to get into mainstream journalism. While he continued to sympathise with the WP line on Northern Ireland, Liam realised that journalism and political activism shouldn’t really mix. So he struck out in the local media first and quite successfully with The Sunday News, the local News Letter-owned paper that I also worked on as Dublin Correspondent in the early 1990s.

He joined The Sunday Times in 1984 and became a highly regarded member of staff. Its pioneering editor in the ’80s, Andrew Neil, in particular, was highly supportive and admiring of Liam’s work.

While arguably Liam’s greatest scoop was the exposure of Slab Murphy, there were other huge stories that he worked on. He was among the first journalists to suggest there was a super-spy at the heart of the IRA’s counter-intelligence/informer-hunter unit known as ‘Stakeknife‘.

He could be amusing too with his anecdotes, especially the one he told about being chased by Sean Mac Stiofain, the ex-Provo chief of staff, with a wheel brace after he turned up on his doorstep with a list of questions.

His prose was seamless, particularly in his columns and books. He penned one of the best books about the 1981 hunger strike and its role in the rise of Sinn Fein. His Broadening The Battlefield remains one of the most important works from the 80s for anyone studying the Provisional movement from armed struggle into democratic politics.

When I worked with him on The Sunday Times between 1996 and 1997, he broke a number of important stories about the Drumcree crisis and IRA ceasefires. He encouraged me to sniff out a few scoops of my own, including an LVF plan to foment sectarian strife in east Belfast by burning a Protestant church and then claiming Catholics from the Short Strand were behind it.

Liam was generous with his contacts and advice, often given out over a sensational bottle of red wine in Nick’s Warehouse or upstairs in the Morning Star. And when I had to have surgery to have a cancerous tumour excised from my inner thigh in that year, Liam was incredibly supportive.

As a fearless reporter, he saw no difference between standing up to tell the truth about Slab Murphy and challenging the power of the British state. He and his equally formidable wife Kathryn were arrested after they published MI5 and police covert transcripts of conversations between Dr Mo Mowlam and Martin McGuinness.

In 2003, police officers raided the Clarke family home and arrested both Liam and Kathryn over an alleged breach of the Official Secrets Act. They were questioned at Castlereagh Holding Centre for almost a day.

John Witherow, The Sunday Times editor at the time, defended them, saying that “the account of phone taps in Northern Ireland poses no threat to national security. It merely embarrasses ministers”.

51-O8AxP1tL._SX331_BO1,204,203,200_The material Liam and Kathryn obtained (another classic Liam scoop) exposed a chumminess between Dr Mowlam and Martin McGuinness. The transcripts were later used in the second edition of the couple’s biography on Martin McGuinness, From Guns to Government.

And, typical of both formidable characters, Liam and Kathryn sued the PSNI for wrongful arrest and won, which was just as well as this writer was later arrested over material from the same source as the Clarkes for a ghosted autobiography of a former RUC Special Branch operative. By taking their action, Liam and Kathryn bolstered the cause of free journalism unfettered by political constraints or state control.

When he retired after his long stint as Ireland editor of The Sunday Times, Liam went back to local journalism and became the Belfast Telegraph’s political editor. He seemed to be enjoying a late boost of energy and refreshed interest in local politics. Liam was there for all the big set-piece events that have led to the current power sharing at Stormont. I recall walking with him along a beach at St Andrew’s in 2006 as our conversation oscillated between talk of our respective families and his predictions, ahead of the deal, that Ian Paisley would soon sit down in government with Martin McGuinness. Through his network of contacts, Liam was certain of this positive assessment of where the talks were going, even while the press and media were locked out of the negotiations.

Liam, enjoying Christmas Day this year, using a selfie stick as a Star Wars light sabre.

Liam, enjoying Christmas Day this year, using a selfie stick as a Star Wars light sabre.

He remained a man of the broad, sensible left and a trade unionist to the end. Our union, the National Union of Journalists, summed up his career in a brief but highly apposite statement about his death on Sunday.

That is how we should live our lives, anyway, remembering death and the fact that life will carry on without us. Human relationships then become more important and winning arguments less so.

Irish NUJ secretary Seamus Dooley put it thus: “On behalf of the NUJ, I would like to extend sympathy to the family, colleagues and friends of Liam Clarke, political editor of The Belfast Telegraph and a former officer of Belfast and District branch of the NUJ, who has died.

“Liam was a fearless journalist. He was never afraid to challenge authority and was always prepared to stand up for the principle of media freedom.

“In The Sunday Times and, more recently, in The Belfast Telegraph, he covered some of the most significant events in the history of Northern Ireland.

“As a columnist he was insightful, authoritative and, at times provocative. He commanded respect across the political divide and his death is a loss to journalism in Northern Ireland. ”

There is that word again – ‘fearless’ – which, combined with a formidable intelligence, knowledge and writing style, best sums up the life and career of Liam Clarke.

* *This obituary was published in The Belfast Telegraph today**

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**

Proverbial

 

Did I ever tell you about my youngfella? He’s passed now, bless him. I said, ‘Don’t go out, not today, I’m warning you, I’m a witch!’ That awful cheeky smile. ‘I won’t be late Ma!’ he roared. He was a bit of a rossi, like you. The two of you would’ve got on like nothing else. An old broom knows the dirty corners best. ‘We’re having gammon steak!’ I shouted after him. ‘Don’t be late!’ Him running like a hare on a skateboard. He loved my gammon with those fluffy crinkle chips. Actually you rarely see them around these days. Crinkle oven chips.

His friend with the one eye, always a heap of trouble, knocked up at 6 O’clock. Entire family were oddball. Red hair, rust tempers. Mother had been a bit of a brokenpro in her heyday. Rigid as a wooden leg now. This kid was pure wild. Knife in the eye by his own hand. Said my youngfella had crashed on a motorbike up at the green. Come quick. His leg was caught. Stolen motorbike. We’re talking back in the day when the priest and the local guard could put you away for pinching a few sweets. Meaner than a butcher’s cleaver. Well my first reaction was to clout him around the ears. Give him a good puck. ‘I knew it!’ I roared. ‘I told him there’d be wigs on the green!’ Smashed in four places. Six weeks in the Mater. Pale as egg white. Hubby was furious. A wild goose never reared a tame gosling.

De hubby always kept the roof up which is more than I can say for a good few around here. Good at DIY. Planted a war garden. We’d everything out there. Marrows, even. You don’t get to see many marrows now. Marrow stuffed with spam. Marrow jam. Thrilled to the marrow I was. Then there were rhubarbs the height of giraffe legs. Spuds, peas, beans of all kinds, parsley and lots of it. He was hard on my youngfella. Very hard on all the boys. Ignored the girls. Well that’s what Louise says now. ‘No boys will queue up for the likes of you!’ he told her. She’s glad of it really because she feels around the same as a local anaesthetic for him. Though sometimes she can’t make up her mind. She’s like you. Indecisive. Rattle of fidgets and jumps. Won’t visit him in the home but wants it known to the rest of us she feels nothing. Makes a big almighty thing of it. Though I love her to the spine, she’d melt the fine hairs in your ears. I wish her luck with her own now. Her two are dreadful snobs. Though I will admit they speak very well. You can’t buy breeding and that’s the truth.

Well de hubby said he’d wait until my youngfella got home and he’d break the other leg. Took the motorbike to the Phoenix Park and went pure absurd on It. Tearing up the bark of trees, over newly planted corporation flower beds, into the groove of gates. Now de hubby can only take so much. He has a little bit of a temper. It’s not his fault. His nerves are in the ha’penny place. Always have been. I’m the only one who can deal with him. Know him like my own teeth. Never left me short of housekeeping. I always told Louise and Juliet to marry a man with money. It’s a miserable enough life. De hubby had a good job. Sure the ones around here were always saying that to me. ‘Your fella would buy and sell ye and rent your leg out in flats.’ Youngfella stayed with my aunt for a few weeks until de hubby calmed. ‘Let it be a lesson to you,’ I said to him. ‘I told you not to go out. I told you I was a witch!’

He’d ask me things after that, my youngfella. ‘Will I put in for that apprenticeship Ma?’ ‘Is there any point doing a stuntman course?’ I knew if he went off to England it’d be no good for good. This time I didn’t say as much. Sure he was a grown up, sure and simple. Years ago, before your time, people kept it fierce quiet when they went away to the sooty place. Bit of a shame attached to it. A golden ring can tie a man as tight as any chain. Aunt Florrie said the day hers left for England she had a proper wake for him at home because she knew that’d be it. Sandwiches and porter, a glass raised to the wind that carried him, may it bring him back if it had to. She was a diviner for sure. No-one down Clara way liked her. Told people they wouldn’t come back from the war. She was the one who cooked over an open fire, long after they had electric cookers. Amazing pot roasts. Caraway cake like I’ve never tasted before or since. My own mother couldn’t copy It, not for the job of trying. She read the flames in the fire. My mother, that is. Told people what might be ahead for them. What to look for. What to avoid. Who to love. Who to clear run from. Well that was her sister Florrie who was a bit of a witch. Like me.

When my youngfella went away to London, sure he was sheer lost. Never ask a fox to mind the hens, isn’t that what they say? Never buy bread from a butcher. He got the first one pregnant. That’s what they do now. Women don’t seem to take care. She ran off with the two kids up North. Got with dem Rastafarians. He never got over that. The second yoke, let me tell you, she was a right yoke of a thing. Jesus, the bake on her! You wouldn’t roast it on a fire. Upturned nose you could plant a fir tree in. That’s when the drinking got out of hand. I warned him to watch his health. ‘It’s in the family,’ I said. ‘A man too busy to take care of his health is like a mechanic too busy to take care of his tools.’ Oh he laughed alright. ‘Ah Ma, you still think you’re a clever old witch!’ Nonetheless he gave me that look. ‘I’m serious,’ I told him. ‘Look after your health…He who never was sick dies the first.’

Yer woman never cooked from scratch. Too busy throwing it about. I wouldn’t expect my youngfella to have a go. Sure de hubby could only boil an egg most of his life. The men need a good woman. A dishonest woman can’t be kept in and an honest woman won’t. In return my youngfella gave that yoke everything: new car every two years, six holidays a year. SIX! That’s some manner of madness. Ran off when he got too sick. Woman like a goat, woman of rushing visits. Her crowd, common as beetroot water. You could tell by the gait of them. Standoff at the grave was something else. Spread your cloth only as you can draw it. Even the priest came over to our side when he heard she’d deserted. Unheard of under the circumstances. What he must’ve gone through in that downtime, I can’t bear it! Oh Christ, such heartache! I’ve put my treacle jinx on her. Right bitch. Now I don’t say that too often about anyone. A closed mouth can only lead to a wise head. That’s how I would normally approach things.

The saddest part is that de hubby keeps asking about my youngfella now. Won’t accept he’s gone. Well that’s part of his condition. Can’t keep up. Doesn’t Hospital patientknow one minute from the one sitting beside it. Louise says he’s half pretending. Suiting himself. A greyhound finds food in its feet kind of thing. Bit like yourself. Sure you suit yourself too, only coming in here when you’re looking for something! Must be a male thing. I told him the first few times he’d died. Then I said I’d go with it. Now I tell him he’s out planting in the garden. Trimming rhubarb so it won’t get too carried away with itself.

I saw de gettup of you earlier. If you keep behaving like that, I’m telling ye, there’ll be a sore price to pay. Be in here by 11pm. ‘Don’t be late. Don’t stay out. There’ll be wigs on the green!’ You might think fences have ears but if you’re not back in here by then, the flap is shut. Don’t blame me if you come to no good. You could get your backside eaten out there. When the sun puts her head down for the night, the raw moon is not as accommodating. I’ve seen you chasing your head in its own shadow, making a mighty show of yourself. Like a lame man’s legs which hang useless. You’d sauté your soul to grab hold of a scallywag. If the ones over the wall got hold of you there wouldn’t be a sneeze’s second before they’d savage your eyeballs, spitting them out for toast. I’m no daw. I know how it works. Everyone is wise till he speaks.

When my youngfella was lying in that hospital bed in terrible pain de hubby wouldn’t even look him in the eye. A right rossi, there is no expert without a fault, ain’t that the truth! ‘Da, I’m sorry Da, it was stupid, I won’t ever do anything like it again. I promise.’ It’s not like de hubby was extra hard, but he was the type who meant what he meant. Too much happened for him to act any different. One of the gang my youngfella hung around with ended up with The AIDS, doing half-witted robberies to feed his habit, before his lungs flooded him out of the picture. Another died at 21 from a beating in a public swimming pool in New York. Both their aulfellas were much harder than they ever needed to be.

If my two hadn’t have ignored each other for those years after – God never closed a gap but that he opened another one – the time now might be a different tide entirely. I will be honest with you here, I will, would my youngfella have been so quick to get himself over there, out of reach of here, had he have been able to patch things up? If de hubby just talked to him without the slippery ropes. Telling him that a bad path in life only rains soup and he’d have no hope going out in it armed with just a fork. But de hubby was always the belly depth of stubborn. He just stared out the hospital window into the car park beyond, the type that knows too well a silent mouth is musical.

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

*This story got an ‘honorable mention‘ in the Lorian Hemingway prize in the US and was long-listed for the 2015 RTÉ Guide/Penguin Ireland competition.

By Grand Central Station I Sat Down And Wept

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

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

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

George-Barker

Poet George Barker

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

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

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

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

Upcycle: An Account of Some Strange Disturbances in Botanic Road

Short Story Prize logo SEP 2014

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

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

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

spook

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

dresser

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

moth

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

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

Martin Amis: Zone of Interest

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Irma Grese

Irma Grese

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

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

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

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

fdd

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

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

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

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

Berry Nide

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

Bro, you havent bothered getting in touch since you died a year ago today. In my headthe barmy idea that you still look like a slab of Edam and that I never got to say goodbye. The chipmunk breeder Alice you shacked up with in terminal time, when Duck Arse left for a pub bouncer with a metallic fourbyfour, has now lost over six stone, inspired by the story I guess. Alcohol & gluten free; shes even ditched the sloppy pillow burgers in blood sauce, the ones from your holiday pics when you told us, Bad days are in the post but for now its business as usual! Half the kids, the older ones, are fine. Edel is on her way to becoming a science buff in London even though, well cmon, we must be honest here, you expected her to be a hairdresser or something low-key but Christ has she started to fly! Saul is taller than you ever dared imagine, as if when you went skyward he did a Jack & the Beanstalk to get you back down again. At sixteen it was more than he could bear. Ive kept all your emails, eyeballing them from time to time.

Driving to France on Saturday with the kids just for a long weekend, Paddy cancelled his summer camp in York with the scouts so he could come and yer one is a complete cunt (Sorry, I just had to add that). Really looking forward to my first holiday with the kids only and staying on a campsite near Calais so a short drive will be better to contain Princess Laras immense puking skills. Saul & Edel are making their own way, old enough to travel solo would you Adam & Eve it? Booked a three bed mobile home this time so we are all a little excited! Divorce is ready to go, Duck Arse admitted in writing to adultery. How are you and your pet mice? And why 10 months off the booze?

Etch-A-Sketch of a year where I still ride the blanks and hope no one in the library notices. I set off most days with Arvo Pärts Spiegel im Spiegel playing in my head. Out past the squiggle of purposeless shops and homeless men who nudge their heads up like broken birds from splintered eggs in the basement of the church, and on to the Tolka Bridge where an orange city fox once followed me in the first draft of morning. Conversations become cataracts of sorts. Wouldnt it bite the toes right off ye? a woman said at the bus stop in October. I cant be doing with this heat! the same woman said the following summer. Only then did I realise so much time had slipped by.

Im booked in to see the oncologist at 9.30am Monday morning to discuss an action plan involving chemo and some new drugs on trial. Ill take anything thats going if it means squeezing a few more years, if possible. Remaining focused and positive. It was a hell of a shock for everyone as we were all expecting a routine operation and the surgeon was pale faced explaining to me why he could not operate. I will know more Monday afternoon. Been one mad year or what?

Aul ones on buses constantly bitching about fluoride in water, men in pubs, chemicals in clothes, joyriders in cars. Itd do your bake in. Aside from the militia of junkies in Phibsborough, idiot bankers, gym bunnies, people who tie terriers outside Tesco, absolutely nothing in Oirish suburbia changes. Theyre still slamming car doors, hauling kids to over-priced crèches. Sometimes, stupid I know, I find myself getting jealous of the ones who stayed and did it all by the smug pudgy bookbought houses with the charmed approval of grannies and aunts and far-off oil-owning uncles in Australia, purged children into the world and who now stroll through parks laughing their freshly-washed heads off, pull perfect shepherds pies out of high-gloss ovens, who know what theyre about, really about,, what they were planted here for. Little girls with springy curls, tubby-bellied boys full of, But mammy look! and Daddy look!

I think if we hadnt of gone to London, you know, if wed stayed and done it properly, rewrote the late eighties, jobs in IBM or IDA or any abbreviation of anything that would pay the way to a Semi-D and a bit of stability. But over you came and I was never stable anyway! Kipped on my couch, slept with nearly all my friends, laughed into the early hours too many nights to recall. Do you remember when a load of us went on the piss in Richmond, there wasnt enough room in the taxi, so you said, me being your little sister, I had to go in the boot!? God, yes, bombed out of my brain, roaring at the driver, Turn left now! and Turn right here! even though I couldnt see a damn thing.

photo (16)

As a baba, 1966

A year later we lived in Jersey where you worked the bar and I the lounge of a rundown pub, dolling out terrible abuse to geriatric millionaires whod travelled the world ten times over but had nothing left to do except grow holes in their jumpers and get pissed all day. She was the worst barmaid ever! you told the chipmunk breeder Alice later. Its true, I was. A year after that again we shared a cockroach-infested house in Stratford in Londons east end. Your stunt as a cappuccino salesman was a dreadful failure but we had machines steaming away in every room of the house, every night was a party. When I was at uni, you ran a pub just up the road, we were never far away. Two kids with the first wife (but she had great thighs!) and later, more disastrously; it was round two and another two kids with Duck Arse and her litany of hell. Your snooker buddy Darren told me before the funeral. He told me it all, out in the back garden with a stack of San Miguel. I wanted to bash your head in for keeping it all a secret. I wanted to dig you up and kick the crap out of you for never letting me know how bad it all was.

I cant have another disaster, you told him, I cant lose my kids again.’ Water meets its own level, our ma used to say, but your women were never bobbing anywhere near your level and somehow all of it mustve dragged you down. 

I drank water before I went in. I would recommend it, Madam, top hat man said and you wouldve laughed at the whirring fan receptionist with the bovine ankles whose job it was to spray disinfectant when no one was looking. Viewing chamber the size of a High Street dressing room: yoghurt stale & browner than a bum moon.

A dance with neutrons and protons. Thats what I imagine it is for you now. Sliding up and down wallpaper. Watching us in our daily drudge. Can you see me and the other women working in the library? We all pretend to get on, but aside from readjusting each others hormones into an assemblage of demented bitching and chocolate splurging, weve bog all in common. The building is Georgian, a carved wedding cake, crafted cornicing, walls of tedious green and piercing yellow, corridors cropped in spiderweb wigs where the elderly shuffle through to read or snore or attend literary readings upstairs. Almost everyone who strolls in wears glasses and carries a spiked umbrella. Theres a small cafe in the basement that serves tea, fair-trade coffee, tray bakes and ham sandwiches made at the curvature of dawn by an old crooked cook who reeks of rotten lilies. I always meant to show you around.

In the quiet clammy armpit of early afternoon Im haunted by the grammar system we made up as kids berry nide a kind of warning system for people who might do us wrong. Hes not berry nide. But youre berry nide. No, youre nider! Youd already been through it by then. Bogeyman in a house, up mountains, on holidays. Oh he got a mass said for you afterwards, your own special mass, hows about that! Dirty hypocrite, cheddar cheese chin of a wife, curse their life! Mass to make themselves feel good, exonerated, whole. No one speaks to them anymore. Not that we can make sure-fire connections. Medicine is a long way off that kind of jump.

Thanks for your long email and words of advice. Yeah, I was happy and loyal and Duck Arse is the most horrible person Ive ever met and I care not a jot about her now. Saw her today when I dropped the kids back. Still not allowed in her tiny house whatever thats about? I just felt relief. The look on her face on Sunday was priceless when she dropped Lara & Paddy off. I told them in advance not to eat as I was cooking a Sunday roast on the phone the night before. I could hear her howling in the background, But your Dad cant cook! like, even at this juncture, she still wants to put me down. When they got dropped off Lara ran back out the front door screaming at the top of her voice: Alice is here with her chipmunks and shes cooking, not Daddy! Duck Arses chin hits the ground and she boots off like a rocket drive on Top Gear. Yet I know shell poison their heads when Im gone. The older ones will be fine, but try your best to sort the younger ones. You are welcome here any time, nice spare room with a new double bed. Ill pick you up at Stanstead and spoil you rotten while youre here!

Hubby-One-Day will be up soon, singing in the shower, shuffling after me in the kitchen, soggy, smelling of boy spray. He talks about you every time theres a football match, especially when Liverpool is playing. The hell he gave me! he says. He called me blue and white shite! Still hasnt the energy for his own divorce, but like Duck Arse, yer one is living with someone new: A, B, C, D: to the soulless it hardly matters. Hubby-One-Day makes me curtsy for him in my Victorian nightdress in the mornings, up and down the kitchen, crab sideways, around in circles, a slice of McCambridges toast in my gob. Hey, its the little things!

1916444_1859763370917318_2783708549230401987_nThe town peacocks, de geezers, your Hawaiian shirt Jägerbomb mates, the ones you told (only towards the end) what happened, they never did smash up the Bogeyman when it was over. Somehow it didnt feel like you to insist they would. That bit jarred with me. There was rumour, conjecture, but a great big nothing happened. No grand retribution. No staged revenge. Instead your friends stood in a line outside the church, over half a mile long, hands behind their backs. Ive never seen such colour, ever, even though the colour has seeped from my life since. Aero & acid blue, amber, blush and violet. A woman head-to-toe in cameo pink. Duck Arse and her gombeen family. First wife and the older kids too. All there. Who knows where Bogeyman was, but at least he wasnt invited. His vile-denial Catholic wife, a headless woman struggling to gawp out her own body, forgetting she no longer has eyes. You dont need me to tell you, especially at a time like this, but people like that, theyre not berry nide. Not nide at all. But you? There just couldnt be nider. No one in this giant shit heap of a spinning world is nider than beautiful gone you.

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

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

Along the Lines by Dermot Healy

dhealy1

Dermot Healy who passed away yesterday.

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

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

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

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

He grew to hate that laugh.

It was not humour.

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

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

Goodbye Mister O’Hehir, nodded the barman.

Good luck Joe, called the plumber.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Off stage a cue was whispered.

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

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

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

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

Joe eyed him.

What happened? he asked.

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

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

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

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

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

Where I write, why I write

office

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

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

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

1. What am I working on?

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

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

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

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

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

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

3. Why do I write what I do?

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

4. How does my writing process work?

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

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

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

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

Alan McMonagle

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

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

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

The Lotus Eaters (Deliverance)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Ireland’s dirty washing

Magdalen-asylum

Pic from liberapedia.wikia.com

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Saturday poem #15 – Piano

PIANO

By D.H. Lawrence

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

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

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

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?

Saturday Poem #10 – What the doctor said

What The Doctor Said (by Raymond Carver)

He said it doesn’t look good

he said it looks bad in fact real bad

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

I quit counting them

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

about any more being there than that

he said are you a religious man do you kneel down

in forest groves and let yourself ask for help

when you come to a waterfall

mist blowing against your face and arms

do you stop and ask for understanding at those moments

I said not yet but I intend to start today

he said I’m real sorry he said

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

I said Amen and he said something else

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

and not wanting him to have to repeat it

and me to have to fully digest it

I just looked at him

for a minute and he looked back it was then

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

something no one else on earth had ever given me

I may have even thanked him habit being so strong

Random thoughts during last night’s insomnia

COTTAGE PORN: I can’t shake it off. I’d say, at a conservative estimate, I do about 20 hours a week on property websites. They’re truly the teddy bear of the bricks-n-mortar world. Small dinky cottages with two windows and a garishly painted door. After years of plywood apartments, listening to neighbours fart & beat up their wives, romanesque snores and kids painting walls with overly worked lungs, I demand life lobs me a cottage. In return I’ll try to be less aggressive towards people who let me down and junkies who I like to describe as ‘a Monet of clanking bones in silver Nike’. I love *tiny* cottages that really only resemble belt buckles, architect licked ones too beautiful to be lived in, awkwardly shaped ones that somewhere along the line begin to look as infirm as their cuppa soup geriatric owners, loud crashing seaside ones with sand and flowers and bugs in the garden, crooked ones that’d need a bus-load of Polish builders to put back together again. I love them indiscriminately in the way a deranged animal sanctuary owner loves pit bulls, without noticing any savage flaws. I’d fill mine with crooked wooden furniture, books I’ve no intention of reading on a rake of built-in walnut shelves and some awesome portraits by Emer Martin on the walls. I’d like a separate carved-out nook to write in, mosaic wet-room, open fire. Can’t abide people moaning about the ‘work’ involved in cleaning out the ashes, etc. What about changing nappies for years on end for kids you didn’t think twice about having and later deciding at 50 you didn’t really want (or need)? I’m easy too about where it might be, this cottage that’s coming my way: Dublin, Galway, France or Berlin. There are no cottages in Berlin. Obviously it goes without saying I’d need a cat too, a cynical black one or lazy black & white one (marmalades are malcontents). My love and I will take turns cooking dinner and in the summer we’ll drink low-end high-alco fizzy crap on a beautifully tiled & trellised patio with terracotta plant pots, not overlooked by inquisitorial neighbours who play their TV too loud when not moaning about roadworks and the cataclysmic drinking habits of young people.

AMY: So predictable as to be invertedly shocking. Why couldn’t anyone stop this kid in her tracks?

ENDA KENNY: Baffling moment in our pigeonhearted history of putting ethereal skypilots in their place. After accusing the blokes in dresses of frustrating the Cloyne inquiry, a holy row erupted between Ireland and the Vatican that led to the recalling of the Irish ambassador in Rome. Enda’s intonation was gritty-steely, genuinely angry and determined, a stance normally reserved for collapsing money markets and depreciation of brick. He rightly acknowledged that victim’s lives are shattered – they may never be able to pick up the pieces – while in some parts of the country, abusers continue to live freely and are still held in high esteem. A faithful Catholic demanding that the perpetrators of child sexual abuse face up to the full force of the law; this was a Cilit Bang moment in Ireland’s political recital. It ain’t that long ago that standing up to the local parish priest would ultimately result in total ostracisation, if not lynch-mob persecution from gobshites obsessed with life after death instead of living the present-tense fluky one. The local priest/bondage builder could tell you how to vote, who to marry, how many children to have, what to think. Standing up to clergy was only done if you were leaving town for good. “Childhood is a sacred space”, Enda declared, saying out loud what we’ve all been screaming for decades. “Safeguarding their integrity and innocence must be a national priority.” Irish politics is removing the cataracts just as the Holy See is declared righteously blind. The whole of Europe has been yapping about us since. Thank you Enda. Sorry for saying you looked as ineffectual as a petrol pump attendant from the Midlands in the run-up to the last election. Invariably, I was wrong. 

JOURNALIST IN A COMA: Found myself feeling conflicted about news of the sports reporter, at the centre of an underage sex scandal, being in a coma. Tabloid ‘news’ [Evening Herald + Star] informs us his organs are failing and he’s unlikely to make a recovery at all. This ‘kinda’ [at least to me] indicates an overdose at some point which would fit in with the fact that he’s been on suicide watch for some time. It also suggests some sort of conscience and regardless of the grisly facts, this is quite a tragic end for everyone, particularly for the man’s daughter who’ll no doubt be saddled with chunky guilt and not much resolution. There are two extreme angles here: he deserves everything he gets or in our hideously sexualised modern world: did he really do anything wrong? I include the latter because someone actually said that to me last week in one of those I wouldn’t say this out loud but I know I can say anything to you pub moments. This was followed by a declaration that most teenagers these days are sexually active and look/behave well beyond their years. Well, yes, he did, of course, do wrong: a big glaring ugly aberrant wrong. But the way through this was perhaps to own up to those actions, face the law, trawl through rehabilitation, atone, learn from it, teach us something from it, even if life was never going to return to a workable norm. I interviewed this man 14 years ago for a college profile I was writing on Nuala O’Faolain. She considered him a ‘dear friend’ and a ‘desperately good’ character. I can’t help hearing her firebrand apoplexy from deep within the grave: “You stupid stupid man, just because she had breasts, an iPhone, red lipstick and a spellbinding smile, doesn’t mean she wasn’t a gormless child. YOU were the adult and the shock of finally realising this has killed you”.

DETTOL SOAP: Yer only man for an itchy arse. Hard to come by though. Not in supermarkets. I buy mine in Superpharm, Finglas.

HYPOCRISY: Psychopath Behring Breivik ordered ‘anti-muslim’ badges from India that were made by an Indian Muslim. As reported in The Guardian, Mohammed Aslam Ansari, owner of a small company in Benares, northern India, received the email order in March 2010 for a badge showing a blood-red crusader sword vertically piercing a skull marked with the symbols of Islam, communism and Nazism. Breivik designed the insignia for his Knights Templar group, and paid Ansari £90 for two samples – one in silk, the other in brocade. Ansari dispatched the badges by courier service but although Breivik had said he was interested in ordering 200 badges, he never followed up on the order. It sums up the flagrant lunacy of this grotesque tale while at the same time highlighting the absurdity of fanaticism. Historian and novelist Philipp Blom wrote that ‘human need for creating personal meaning generates myths, holy texts or ideologies. Believing those stories to be the truth makes us susceptible to fanaticism.’ You can find out if you’re a fanatic here

CANCER: Nerves on high alert today as I wait for news on my 46 year old brother’s ‘Round 3’ cancer scan results. He’s been through the mill already and the thoughts of any further suffering makes me feel genuinely scared and angry. Thanks too to his c**t of a wife who left him in the midst of treatment, taking the kids (and all the white goods) with her. Enter Friedrich Nietzsche stage right ~ One should never know too precisely whom one has married. 

Saturday Poem #1 – I love drunks

Poetry makes me giddy but sometimes my bum muscles clench in the same wrung manner as a bad Eastenders story plot. Cringe factor heightens when poets with berserk eyes retch feelings onto the page, without any care for how layfolk should attempt to translate. At the same time guesswork of meaning is aerobic for a mind overbrimming with cabbage leaf. Good poetry, for me, is a platter of desserts that keep only the soul fat and the heart floating. You simply can’t go wrong with a shiny new Bloodaxe ensemble or the beautiful crazed utterings of a dead genius like Miroslav Holub. Just a pity that most living poets are brazenly, unabashedly mad and nearly always dreadful company.

I unwittingly fell into a poetry class on the MA in Creative Writing, chosen by mistake as I’d read the course criteria incorrectly (pick two of the following: poetry, prose, playwriting – I read that as ‘pick two subjects’ – when in fact it was pick two classes under the same topic umbrella to specialise in). As a result I did poetry and fiction, learning little from either, but finishing both to the worst of slipshod. Even now it’s hard to fathom what those two maniacal hours of attic neurosis actually entailed. The sheer torture of hauling my billowed boobs and cement hip up five flights of stairs, reading aloud the tutor’s Christmas cards for no apparent reason and being compelled to listen to jingling bells on a random lunatic’s skirt. Even the honeycomb brittle egos of the ‘serious’ poets falling apart when criticised didn’t get to me as much as the complete lack of instruction or learning did. That somehow being so near the curtain in Oz with this ‘revered’ poet who’d made it to a level we’d never lick, was enough of a résumé-adventure in itself. What did it matter if every single poem any of us wrote was construed and metaphrased as just another fold in a big menstrual minge? Even when a [male] classmate wrote a poem about views of Belfast a la whizzing bicycle, the tutor still managed to turn it into a sheela-na-gig blood cake. No difference at all between Dorothy, Scarecrow, Toto or whoever else was sitting on the other side of this soiled drapery. Most of us left none the wiser and twice as disoriented. I raved as if brain-burgled, after every single class. In the end I wrote my ‘project’ in one night and bastardised everything in sight from TV ads to antiquated indexes in out-of-print bird watching books. Not that it made any difference to the marks: in bought MAs nearly everyone ends up in the same passable, plastic category. It’s almost poetic, come to think of it.

Thankfully that naff experience hasn’t turned me off reading poetry or even occasionally, writing it. Last autumn, I sat through a truly delicious course at the Irish Writers’ Centre – taught by Peter Sirr – who recently won the 2011 Michael Hartnett Poetry Award. The course was a wonderful grounder and all-rounder. Peter showed us where and how to source poetic material, blurring boundaries between poetry and prose, the beauty and diabolism of staying with a poem until done. Brief interesting snippets too of poet lives and the conscionable lonely journeys to publication. I was introduced to poets I’d never heard of: Penelope Shuttle, C.P. Cavafy, Jane Hirshfield, Les Murray. “Terrible things happen and people reach for poetry to deal with it,” he told us. Poetry can make sense of horrible events but can also illuminate life’s brief thrills. You can goo the weekly schedule, complete with resources and tips, here. Meanwhile, I thought it’d be a good idea to post a poem on the blog every Saturday. I like this poem by Fay Hart for its elegant no-bullshit simplicity!

I LOVE DRUNKS

by Fay Hart

I love drunks, I always have.

I love guys that laugh,

hairdressers that gossip,

bouncers that scowl and tv presenters

that wear stupid wigs.

And I just love has-been rock stars that

blubber into their bourbon

about some distant drum solo

that I vaguely remember from

Ricky Munch’s bedroom on acid.

I like new young designers

and entrepreneurs

who always wear the right stuff

and have cute chicks with them.

I like big homos who call me

dahling and step back,

shaking their head in admiration.

Miss Thing, one of them once said,

we have just got to get you

your own talk show.

I like somebody’s dad

who spends half the night

trying to pick up girls

his daughter’s age

and the other half crying into his beer

about how his little girl never

calls him anymore.

I love caterwauling women

who take their tops off

just before last call

and shake about the place

like goddesses with bourbon breath.

I love drunks, I always have.

The Life of Brian

One of the most poignant quotes recalling Brian Lenihan who has just died of pancreatic cancer is one that came from his own lips. It was recorded on the BBC in a documentary on Ireland’s fiscal crisis and recalled his trip to Brussels to negotiate the international bailout package that still today is keeping public sector workers in jobs, public transport running, hospitals funded and social welfare payments still among the most generous in the EU. Reflecting on the snow thawing on the ground in the depths of winter, alone, preparing himself to plea like no Irish minister ever before had to and ask for a multi billion dig out, Lenihan simply remembered saying: “This is terrible.” 

How much was this feeling of impending doom applicable to himself as well as the government that he was serving in!? How did a man who had what we now know to be a death sentence over his head continue to remain in the centre of the economic and political storm for so long? Whatever one’s political affiliation you have to admire that sense of endurance and public duty. That’s why I truly believe the tributes paid to him from across the Dáil and over on the northern end of the border by unionists as well as nationalists were totally genuine. He personified that most inspiring of Churchillian maxims, BOR, Bugger On Regardles.

This is the obit I’ve written for tomorrow’s Guardian: http://www.guardian.co.uk/world/2011/jun/10/brian-lenihan-obituary?CMP=twt_fd

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.”

Faith and my Father

I am still terrified of death but I no longer fear the dead thanks to my father. He died on 7th May this year but I am indebted to him partly because of the mantra he kept hammering home to us in the first decade of the Troubles in Northern Ireland.

Back in the early 1970s Satan was making something of a comeback. The post-Street-Fighting-men-and-women of the late 60s radical protests no longer had sympathy for the devil. The Father of All Lies was back scaring everyone from Boston to Belfast, Detroit to Dublin thanks to an explosion of horror and supernatural films such as The Exorcist, The Devil Rides Out and The Omen. Demonic possessions, poltergeists, Satanic-ritual murder were all the rage again.

Even in war-torn Belfast with its pub bombs, nightly riots, drive-by shootings, tar and feathering, feuding, tear gas, rubber bullets and body counts, the ethereal threat from the forces of darknesses exercised our minds.  Hauntings, ghostly apparitions, people being possessed by evil spirits and so on were reported in a city where real people were slaughtering their fellow citizens in ever increasing and in some circumstances with inhumane, wanton brutality.

The parallel hysteria over the the menace from devils and demons was probably in large part due to the explosion of neo-horror on the silver screen in the seventies. My father always saw through this Satanic-panic dismissing nervous neighbours worried that a cloven hoofed stranger was about to enter their humble terraced dwelling in The Market area of Belfast with this advice: “The dead can do you no harm, it’s the living I’m worried about.”

Given that the “living” included people who were torturing their captives for hours on end before severing arteries in their necks with butchers’ knivers or cynical, cold blooded commanders (some of them now “respected” statesmen!) sending out teenagers to incinerate women in fashion boutiques with firebombs you could see my father’s point.

And yet…..

I recently faced a challenge to my existential fears and it concerned my father’s wake. It is traditional certainly in Catholic working class families for loved ones to remain beside the coffin containing their dead relative during the period before the funeral. That task was given to me and I accepted it gladly. After the throngs paying their respects had gone, once all the sandwiches had been covered in cling film, the trays of cups cleared away, the tea pots emptied and crockery put in the dishwasher: my mother, sister and myself were left alone. I had to stay on a makeshift sofa bed in the front livng room where the coffin was laid out, the mini altar adorned with candles and the sympathy cards piled up. It was a bizarre experience to sleep at a right angle to my father’s coffin, his fine sculpted facial outline still visible every time I propped myself up on my pillows, the tenebrous light from the candles illuminating his form.

And  yet I never felt a second of fear or apprehension bedding down for the night beside my dad’s corpse. The sensation I experienced those three draining nights I stayed by his side was strangely comforting. Perhaps this was in large part due to the fact that we had a brief but sadly bitter exchange just five days before he died in Belfast City Hospital. Despite some harsh words I genuinely felt being alone with him in the days leading up to his burial brought forward some form of atonement.

In these last few weeks I have, on occasion, sensed his presence again or at least imagined him around me. The most pronounced instance of this happened on the final Saturday of May just three weeks after his death. I was now asleep on a brown leather sofa in the exact area where his coffin had stood. Across the living room lay my six year old son on the other sofa who was snoring contentedly in a deep and peaceful slumber. In contrast to him, my sleep was disturbed by a menacing nightmare. I was in north Belfast, near a sectarian interface possibly near the Crumlin Road along with a former photographer colleague from the Irish News. We’d strayed into a mass Ulster loyalist protest that turned threatening and malevolent. It was probably a dream-like copy of some real scenarios I found myself in while reporting in Belfast throughout the Troubles. As we walked down that road I spotted a knot of men gathered at a corner who were clearly looking at us, whispering games of malice, moving towards us with ever increasing menance. Suddenly I was startled out of my reverie. A jolt of electricity surged through me and I jolted back into consciousness. In the first few seconds of coming back to the surface as my eyes got used to the darkeness around me I thought I could make out a shape in the gloom. A human form. It was probably just as ‘The Triffids’ song went A Trick of the Light. At least I hope it was or so says my rationalist side.

As a philosophy graduate, atheist and materialist I am innately sceptical about the supernatural, the afterlife, ghosts, etc. But then I turn to modern physics and recall the view that all matter is energy and that energy is never ultimately destroyed in the universe but rather transforms into another form even unto death. This is not wishful thinking. This is not the product of post-Catholic guilt. Rather it’s an admission that all cannot be explained especially when it comes to the loss of a loved one and the continued sense that that loss is not utterly and totally final. That something remains perhaps amid those chemicals in the brain that revisits happy memories, care and love to sustain you in the most difficult of times. Or maybe something more non-corporeal, something that survives after the disintegration of flesh and blood…

Being depressed just means you’re not a moron

I once bled onto a Flintstone sock for four days in a Ballsbridge bedsit ’til it was hard enough to slash through human flesh or qualify for a Garda weapon’s seizure. Another time the man I was sleeping with just plain refused to crawl into my bed: ‘June, I can’t…there’s a phone in there and a half-eaten plate of pasta, beer cans and what looks like a piece of an ironing board.’ He was very sweet not to mention the month’s worth of dirty clothes, unread books, loose wires, odd shoes, an upturned lamp and decorative wooden salad fork set I bought as a present but was too lethargic to pass on.

While not very apt descriptions of prototypical depression, these two scenarios sum up the cloisterphobic clutter and superglue awfulness of an internal mood shift that can recalibrate your customary life into a bizarre orgy of silent dislocations. So much so that if you turned your head slightly to the left and saw your severed arm stuck rigid to the wall like a haphazard slot-machine handle, you wouldn’t bat an eyelid. Human voices become sloppily muffled, the tiniest of bureaucratic tasks: a crippling run between two lines of people facing each other and armed with clubs…days shadowed by sincere lack of interest in anything that breathes, moves, shivers, while all is accompanied by chronic tiredness the likes of which only a cat by a coal fire in January should ever experience. Here’s something your €75 an hour artificer of niceness in open-toe sandals won’t tell you: life is a throbbing bore. Inbetween the obvious bouts of anthropoid beauty − falling in love, exciting sex, University, babies, a glowing career, warm-hearted friends, laughter, cream cakes, awesome holidays, general milestones, packaged peace − there’s incessant stress, tragedy, ill-health, violence, sadness, rape, heartache, unworkable families, emotional abuse, lack of opportunity, dreadful dysfunction, absence of love: an entire giant wheelie bin of dispiriting melancholic glupe. Even just coping with people constantly is a colossal pain in the arse.

When I’m on top of things, in good form, I’m pretty good at sifting through the annoying bits, being diplomatic or even at times, being nice/kind/functional! But when feeling low, the prying bag at the bus-stop demanding all kinds of insights into my life or the wanton perv in the pub who refuses to let me sit and drink a pint & read the paper in peace (this happens a lot if you’re a woman out in public alone) can be a dreadful chore. ‘Why don’t you stick your hand down my knickers, it might be less intrusive’, I feel like roaring, sometimes. Come to think of it − now that I’m being randomly honest − I don’t think I’ve ever had a boss either who wasn’t a complete megalomaniacal gobshite. Relationship embroidery is pretty much set up this way. Predisposed patterns for sibling rivalry, petty jealousy in the workplace, power play, naturally opposing or defensive positions (“I can’t stand the mother-in-law”), competitive friendships, family feuds, what seems to be a natural urge for unflagging conflict both big and small, raining down around us all the time, with no hope of a brolly for protection. Layered on top of this is the earthly tendency for chaos and all that we can’t control, from tsunamis to car crashes, redundancy, breast cancer and beyond. I would argue that if you didn’t find life sporadically tough, tormenting, dull, painful and bleak, you’d be a complete and utter moron. You’d belong to the Louise L Hay School of Grinning Cliché and you’d probably find yourself dancing up O’Connell Street wearing a salmon pink sheet or belonging to some other sesame seed based cult.

The Irish Times recently published a heart-rending and beautifully written piece by Carl O’Brien on suicide. Phyllis MacNamara’s personal story about how she lost her best friend, life companion, lover, hubby, soul-mate, was so incredibly moving because it was also the re-telling of a 24-carat love story running parallel to a desperate man’s clamorous attempt to understand what was happening to him. In the terrible business of do-or-die, solicitor Michael MacNamara could not negotiate a way out of the extreme debilitating emotions he was experiencing. Although his symptoms were at the ‘severe’ end of the depression spectrum: ‘In the final three days his speech deteriorated badly. His words were jumbled…When he went to the supermarket he looked through a hand-written shopping list, came to the word “rosemary” and stopped. He didn’t understand what it meant’…he felt too ashamed to seek psychiatric help and his wife never thought for a nano-second he was capable of killing himself. He told her she was the best wife any man could have, that he loved her completely. Then he went to the barn and hanged himself.

Phyllis MacNamara with her late husband, Michael, whom she met at Trinity College © Irish Times

We are as ill prepared to deal with deep/severe depression as we are with tackling the current economic crisis. Except worse. The entire linguistic system girdling mental anguish is wholly redundant. When was the last time you saw a ‘pit’ for real (in a Gulag or Paddy field maybe) or craned your neck skyward to look at the always mentioned ‘dark clouds’? People all along the chromatic spectrum of off-kilterness need to be able to recognise where they’re at and to talk about it. In the early stages of depression, a navigable ear or a gesture of simple kindness, can pull a person back to where s/he is capable of being well, far better than any faux-pharma offering. In the mid-stages even knowing there’s plenty of functional sad folks out there getting on with life very well, with just a smidgen of guidance, could be a massive relief. At the late stages, recognising that intervention is needed and is not a contender for any kind of shame game, is the difference between life and death. We need to shear off the shite language and start expressing our sad selves for real, and know it’s just as ballsy to do so as it is to rant about our flagrant successes in the gilded good times.

Ten years ago I sought the help of a psychotherapist when I was in a bad way. The experience was an unfettered disaster. I was so solidly depressed I could barely speak or monkey-perform to his humanistic-integrative liking. I was totally incapable of crying into the plentiful supply of tissues like the ‘here’s a seashell for your window-cill’ attendees before me. He was clearly gifted at his job and incredibly intuitive and talented but that meant nothing, given the state I was in. I sat pulling the loose threads on a small black button on his Freudesque leather chair, week after week, boring him rigid. He battled long to get any reaction out of me at all. He also ate too many rashers and burned essential oils like a crazed hippie. There was a biography of Bruce Springsteen on the shelf and a book on iChing. If that wasn’t bad enough, I had an overwhelming urge to unzip him and star in my own private Flake ad. In between the imagined sex and the approaching breakdown he said some interesting stuff. “You’ve turned self-abuse into an art form…anger & sadness are on the same axis as fear and love”. When he did eventually begin to defrost me for real, it was all a bit nuclear-horrific. “I can’t help you anymore, there’s a lot of transference [and counter transference], it’s too difficult for you, it’s not working,” he said. Off I raged, unravelling to the level of Hitchcock’s Marnie for too long a time. An experience I hugely regret, on all levels. However, I still recognise the benefit of seeking professional help and would always encourage anyone dipping a toe into Dante’s Inferno to do so. Being alone isn’t worth the torture rack when everyone around you is similarly alone and creaking too.

 
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This post originally appeared on the Anti Room blog in November 2010. To read comments click here