Category Archives: Popular Culture

Rebel Yell

 

moorest

He turned onto Moore Street where his Ma slipped on a rasher and croaked. That was a good while ago now though he couldn’t be sure, it was all mushed. ‘Coconut head’, she’d called him in her fond no vodka moments, not because of the shape of his noggin but for the way his Da kicked the nelly out of it, side to side, smashinknorrg him into navy dots. Army boots with a clown’s mouth rip covered from the inside with a plastic Knorr soup packet to keep the rain out. She thought it was gas. Seemed a bit twisted to him now. He still snagged memories of her freckle-splattered arms doing the octopus sway in the bingo halls here when he was knee high to an ashtray, small as a mouse’s diddy.

Aul Ones with Rothmans-stained chins shouting, ‘Two fat ladies, go on Jimmy, get up and run, thirty one…dirty Gertie, clicketyclick, staying alive, eighty five!’ Some were able to handle four bingoand five bingo cards at a time, marking the numbers like Phil Collins on drums. Bash bash bash. He’d lay on his spindlies gazing up their A-Line skirts, musty whiff of brown tights on an afternoon in November 1970-something. Disco lights, apples sours, dusty bin.

Now he was out of the Seventies into a new Century where the whole world had descended onto the same street. “Anthony! Anthony! over here!” yer one shouted. A right carrot top. “This way!”

He hoped she wasn’t a social worker. Bottler, not Anthony. No-one called him Anthony these days. He couldn’t stomach those smug tarts from the Health Service Executive. He hadn’t practised what to say but his choice if she gave him one would be a course on computers. They’d blinked by him the years he’d been on the gear. Missed the whole digital revolution. Couldn’t even look up The Google now. Survived on stale pineapple cake and sloppy kebabs from out-of-date food skips outside Aldi. Got by on mobile phones. Plucking them from Luas carriages. Selling to teenagers in pink lycra. He felt bad about that shit. Pinching, grabbing, punching. Felt bad about not remembering. Found out in rehab over a cup of Rosie Lee that he’d slept in a dog kennel for a year, had half his guts removed, grew a batch of holes on his tongue the length of a scallion. But his Da was right, all you had to do in this life was survive no matter what and hope a rhinoceros doesn’t shit on your head.

She was standing on the corner at Buffet 79, holding a plastic folder, looking the mutt’s nuts.

“So nice to finally meet you! I tell you what, you’re a hard man to get hold of! We’ve been writing to you for weeks. Well look, you’re here now, thank God you answered your phone. I’m Aoibheann!” She was gripping onto his arm like they’d known each other since nippers. He was throwin’ a reddener on account of her being so over fucking familiar ‘n all.

“Howayea,” he said, unhooking her. “Ye alright, wot’s de buzz?”

“This is it here, what do you think, huh?” Hadn’t a crusty what she was on about. They were ppoutside an orange building with spitting air vents and roast duck stink. A poster with ‘group love’ on the wall and a load of slappers in red Tulip dresses dancing in a circle. She stuck a folder into his hands. Snap of a man facing sideways with a giant hooter on the cover, military uniform, oval cloud of mist behind him.

“I know what you’re thinking, not much on the outside. That was the planners’ intentions, you know, to retain the façade throughout the lane way, renovating the inside a la modern day.”

Her voice trailed off as he glanced at more posters on the opposite wall: a gold man pulling his torso apart to get to the gold coins inside him. Paul Weller looking on in dark glasses, arms folded. Two dykes sitting up on new Audis, whipping the bonnets goodo.

“There’s only sixteen apartments Anthony. You’re in the Padraig Pearse suite. Well now ‘suite’ is a bit American isn’t it!? I prefer to call them apartments or you might like ‘flats’. Whatever you’re comfortable with. Sure we won’t argue over it!”

He’d slip her one alright. Queer bit of skirt. Air bags knockers. Cheese puff lips.

“Will we head in so, shall we? Do you know who this is Anthony?” she asked, pointing again to the big-nosed spamhead on the brochure. “It’s Pearse himself! This is where it happened. Well, here and up the road…whole block is on the Record of Protected Structures now. While the main building is a good bit up, this is where a lot of the men actually died. Though it was a new beginning for the rest of us, that’s for sure, but oh God” – she stopped to grab her heart through her mint lambswool jumper – “It’s a desperate sad story. Brutality of it. Dozens fell on the stones right here. Bled to death in the gutters. O’Rahilly, riddled with bullets, managed to pen a letter in his own blood to his wife and kids. Sure you wouldn’t even have time to send a text these days, can you imagine?”

Well yeah, he could. It was in an alley just like this that they dealt with Scuttler for a €500 debt. Still gave him the night rattles. Draino sticking the knife in just above the belly. Flipping the fucker over to get to the spine. Doin’ his girdle sack, screams, like a girls’. ‘Shut that cunt up till I get the work done,’ he told him. Slicing upwards to make sure he was paralysed. Chinee sticking his head out from the back of a restaurant door and shutting it again, pronto, bolts clanking. Rain coming down, steel pin rain in goose grey, washing yer man’s wails away. Bleeding out. They lit two joints, watched him wriggle. “It’ll be over in a minute, stop stressing!” Draino roared. “I thought you’d take it a bit better than this, for fuck’s sake!”

“This is the entrance hall to the apartments,” Aoibheann explained. “The walls tell the stories of the ordinary lives, OK, not just the heroes! See this little man and woman, James Rooney and his wife Cora…they were in their eighties…braved the machine gun fire to hide some of the men in their basement that day, 29th April, 1916”. She turned to her paperwork to double check the date. Then pointed to a laundry room out the back and a shared shed for storage and locking bicycles.

“Fair balls to them,” Anthony replied, though to be honest, they looked like a right pair of spanners. The woman in particular.

“And here we have The O’Rahilly’s letter to his wife. We got a calligrapher from the National College of Art and Design to do it in gold leaf and flecks of bottle green. Beautiful isn’t it?”

Darling Nancy, I was shot leading a rush up Moore Street, took refuge in a doorway. While I was there I heard the men pointing out where I was & I made a bolt for the lane I am in now. I got more [than] one bullet I think. Tons and tons of love dearie to you & to the boys & to Nell & Anna. It was a good fight anyhow.

jcNames of more hoagies doused on the plaster, fucking eejits who shot themselves trying to bash down doors with rifle butts to save their own arses. Whacked some of their mates in the scuffle. Others lying with bits of legs hanging off, firing off orders. James Connolly on a stretcher, guts dangling. Some wounded plank tripping over him with all the gunsmoke, grenades and other shit the Brits had at their disposal. Must’ve been a right bunch of psychos. Photograph of a nurse who’d booted around like a blue bottle with messages for the main boyos, trying to get them to grab the white flag. He remembered none of this from school. The Safe Cross Code, how clouds formed from condensation, Christmas carols in Irish. That’s what he remembered in eight years of primary school. Not these maggots.

“This is your apartment, No. 3, well, that was the date Pearse was executed: 3rd May, they’ve thought of everything.”

His apartment? Was she a fucking brandy snap short of a picnic? But he’d keep stum, say nothing, sign nothing. A short stroll around a sitting room painted in hospital white looking out over McColgan’s Butchers. Her talking shite about skirting boards a quarter up the wall for an easy clean, plug holes, an interactive Wi-Fi telly with built in CCTV, steam mop in the cupboard. It was a lottery system, with all their names bunged in from the Rehab gaff. Irish men and Irish women, in the name of God and the dead generations, and whatever else. His name, third pulled. Lifelong sublet deductible from the scratcher. Part of the planning regs for the commemoration block and new Insurgents Visitor Centre.

“You have twelve days to sign the lease and get the documents back to Dublin City Council, OK? The address is here,” she told him, rubbing her fingers up and down where Pearse’s hoop was at the back of the brochure. “Make the most of the opportunity Anthony. You’re a hero now in your own right, the way you’ve knocked the drugs on the head for good. How long is it?”

“Two years,” he told her. “This Christmas or thereabouts, anyways.”

“Well good for you,” she said, “You should be well proud!”

He knew plenty who died for Ireland or because of her. Hasslebat, with his ginger eyebrows lit up like hot worms in a snow of forehead. Face half eaten by his own Jack Russell after overdosing in a boat-house down the canal. Gonzo and Widearse Wendy in a car smash down the docks when they were sleeping rough in the Punto. Many more in slob fights, knife slices, ganger brawls. He’d been too out of it in those times to make any of the funerals. Didn’t see the point when they were already wormfood.

ccIf Pearse could be President of his own Republic, then he could be too. Sixteen thousand troops swarmed into Dublin in 1916 to wreck the bleedin’ gaff. That was more than the entire Garda Drug Squad and army reserve now. Who the fuck did they think they were!? He’d call up his troops too:

Dickie who’d do anything for a six pack of Dutch Gold. Brains, the nasty little dwarf from up around Sheriff Street who’d stick a gun up your hole quick as a bum doctor in the Mater. The Finglas twins who loved to scrap for no reason, mad bitches. The preparation would have to be secret, no dribblers, no rats.

He could see himself in full Pearse pose swaggering down Moore Street commanding the charge: “We’re going to take on the Somali pushers,” he’d tell them. “Yez’ll horse up the lane here when I give the word”.

Each of them swinging a fifty euro shooter.

zimo“We’re putting a stop to this Zimovane shite the kids are selling for €8 a pack. It’s feeding their gaming addiction. Only a matter of days or weeks before they’re snorting the yayo or chewing the gat, are yez hearing me?”

“Yes Bottler!” they’d roar. “Yes Bottler!”

“We’re gonna free all those hookers they send into Jury’s Inn to suck off concert promoters, there’ll be no women sellin’ their holes in my Republic.”

“Yes Bottler!”

“We’re gonna clean up this town, no more stabbings or stupid fucking killings.”

“Yes Bottler!”

“We’re gonna bring eternal peace to these poxy streets.”

“Yes Bottler!”

“We’re striking for freedom, do yez even know what that means?”

“Yes Bottler!”

He stared across the sitting room towards the microwave. Never thought he’d own one of those pingers. Draino would be out of the clink in two years and he didn’t forget. No matter where he was, he’d find Bottler. icroOh his Ma always said he’d be kicked to death by some loon if she didn’t get hold of him first. Her arthritic claw reaching down the banisters, pulling him up onto the landing…stamping on his ankle bones when he was cowering on the ground before she’d start proper. It wouldn’t be that hard to find a plonker to sell a pizza warmer to. Had to be worth at least a tenner up around Argos. He took the SIM card from the phone, flicked it into the fancy swing bin, grabbed the keys. Snatched the €100 Dunnes Stores voucher Aoibheann left for ‘essentials’, mozied to the door.

“Losers!” he screamed at the faces pinned to the wall. “I’ve never seen a bigger bunch of fucking losers!”

** This story was short-listed for the 2016 The Sunday Business Post / Penguin Ireland short story prize. It was also read at the Bogman’s Canon Fiction Disco and Staccato Spoke Word night in Toner’s pub, Baggot St.

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**

Legal Highs Vs Lethal Highs

A handful of 'e' - © Belfast Telegraph

A handful of ‘e’ – © Belfast Telegraph

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

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

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

The Hacienda, Manchester, © The Guardian

The Hacienda, Manchester, © The Guardian

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tony Wilson

Tony Wilson

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

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

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

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

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

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

soho

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

The Paisley’s I have known…

Ian Paisley © The Guardian

Ian Paisley © The Guardian

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

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

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

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

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

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

Ian Curtis - Joy Division

Ian Curtis – Joy Division

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

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

Ian Paisley with his daughter Rhonda (from RTÉ stills)

Ian Paisley with his daughter Rhonda (from RTÉ stills)

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

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

Henry McDonald singing in his band, way back when…

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

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

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

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

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

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.

Hooleyganism: the “Good Vibrations” revolution

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Ken Bruen on crime, canines and the sound of savages

Ken BruenGalway-based author Ken Bruen is an enormously prolific, and celebrated author of crime-noir fiction. His many works include the Jack Taylor series which began with the Shamus Award -winning The Guards. As the series grew, it garnered many more awards. More recently, a selection of novels from the series have been adapted for a series of TV movies (one which was screened in 2012 and two more to follow in 2013). Ken’s novel Blitz was also adapted for the screen in 2011 starring Jason Statham, Aiden Gillen and Paddy Considine. In 2010, London Boulevard was turned into a film starring Colin Farrell and Keira Nightly. Other works include Dispatching Baudelaire, The Killing of the TinkersThe Magdalen MartyrsThe Dramatist and Priest (nominated for the 2008 Edgar Allan Poe Award for Best Novel), all part of his Jack Taylor series, which began with The Guards. Bruen is also the recipient of the first David Loeb Goodis Award (2008) for his dedication to his art. Ken will be reading at the Irish Writers’ Centre on Friday 22nd February at 1.05pm as part of the celebrated Lunchtime Readings series.

When (and why) did you start writing? I found it was a great way to off load rage, guilt, frustration. I was in my teens when I began to jot down notes, and see the value of words on the page, they seemed to dance, lilt and run riot on the very pages, fascinated me then, and even more now.
Do you plan more dark tales for Galway? Yes, C33, is out in September and is yet another jagged slant on Galway.
How does the ‘capital’ of Connaught view your portrayals of the city? Do you ever think they will make you a freeman of Galway? Will they put up a blue plaque? Galwegians  like Jack Taylor a lot as there have been five films shot in the city and as well as money for the city, many of the people appear in the movies. Channel 5 showed the the first of the Taylor movies last night.
Reading your work, is it true to say you adhere to Thomas Hobbes’ warning about the state of nature being nasty, poor, brutish and short? Indeed but always, vitally shot through with humour, and truly, if there is laughter, there is some light.
There has been an explosion in Irish crime fiction of late, at least in the Republic of Ireland. Do you have any thoughts on why that is so? Conversely, there seems to be a dearth of crime novels (Stuart Neville might be one exception) emanating from the north…any thoughts as to why this is the case? The Celtic Tiger and its demise made crime writing almost inevitable, chick lit isn’t quite the genre for deep recession and despair. I disagree about the North as there are a whole range of fine writers: Eoin Mc Namee, Gerard Brennan, Adrian Mc Ginty, Colin Bateman, Sam Millar.
magmartyrsDo you think that in the world of Irish letters, there is a snooty attitude towards crime literature? Some might even baulk at putting crime and literature in the same sentence! Yes, absolutely, it’s the poor relation you hide in the attic, and literary writers who do stoop to write a crime novel, describe it as……….slumming. A literary novel can bore you to a coma but a crime novel needs to be always…………always……….entertaining, entertainment in literary circles is regarded as sacrilege.
Is there any area of crime fiction yet to be explored in Ireland, geographically or topically? We haven’t yet seen canine sleuths but it can only be a matter of time. And probably canines with dope habit.
Do you think Ireland is finally coming to terms with the dark side of the Catholic Church and its abuse scandals? You wrote hard, disturbing, gritty books on those subjects….is the truth that leaked out about institutional abuse worse than you could have imagined fictionally? Every day, I read horrors that I didn’t dare put in my own works and on the news daily, the most abominable child abusers walk free because of age or some other supposed excuse.
What was it like growing up when the Church was such all pervasive political and social force? Did you experience the lash of the Christian Brothers’ strap? Yes, it was a long reed, fine honed for max swing and it cut into the side of your hand with precision, it had a sound I can still summon up. It was the sound of savages.
Edinburgh has its Rebus-Rankin tours, London’s Baker Street still attracts if fair share of Sherlock Holmes’ fans just as the east end draws in the Jack the Ripper devotees. How would you feel if Tourism Ireland started Ken Bruen tours around Galway? Unlikely as I’m on the Tourist Board Hit list, yet a bus of Japanese show up, asking for the Taylor tour.
Do you sleep well at night? I cycle a few hours daily so that kind of takes care of the sleep. My best and I hope darkest themes come when I’m walking past churches, in daylight.

Writing the short novel

Eoin McNameeblogpic

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Punk memorial idea has some hits and misses

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sculpture in Context – National Botanic Gardens, Glasnevin – until October 19th

The sleuth who slipped from Nazi grip

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Join the digi-revolution!

Being part of The Guardian’s digital revolution has seen a blurring of the old boundaries between the print and the electronic media. Once upon a time, not long ago, the dividing lines between writing for a newspaper and scripting for radio and television were clearly demarcated. Until recently my own career in journalism was a constant to and fro across the ‘No Man’s Land’ between print and broadcasting. The advent of digital media though has wiped out that distinction so that in any given working day I could be writing a 300 to 500 word blog for the on-line edition of Guardian Unlimited; doing a major feature article of more than 1,000 words that could take up to two pages in Saturday’s edition of the newspaper or scripting a 60-second think-piece for broadcast on the Guardian’s audio section.

Blogging, tweeting, podcasting, online/self-generated broadcasting…are all words and phrases becoming increasingly common place for writers. Novels are going straight from the author’s imagination and keyboard to internet delivery systems like eBooks and Kindles, by-passing traditional forms of publishing. The newspaper industry is no different. The Guardian for instance now emphasises the ‘Digital First’ philosophy where news stories, features, opinion pieces, editorials, sports commentary and so on are given their first outing online as opposed to the three-dimensional space of paper.

In terms of media intersection perhaps the most interesting challenge for journalists like myself who have come out of the tradition of two separate media worlds (print and TV/Radio) is to constantly interchange between the two. So for example take this story I worked on back in the summer of 2010 when I went out on a drug interdiction operation with the Irish Naval Service along Ireland’s western seaboard. This was a combination of a relatively long news feature, which not only went online, but also appeared in the paper itself. In addition there was the accompanying film that a Guardian cameraman shot, and I co-produced and scripted. This required not only the ability to convey a fairly dramatic scenario out at sea but also to script to pictures; to be able to write voice-over that was germane to the images and the overall context of the story. This increasingly is my working world!

In terms of combining the written word with the visual the Guardian writer/reporter is now also required to be a broadcaster. One of the popular audio-visual tools to describe a story is the use of the photographic slide show combined with commentary as well as of course a back-up written report. So for instance this unusual story about a man who keeps a museum to the Northern Ireland Troubles in his garden shed is in the usual form. However, accompanying that story which appeared both on Guardian Unlimited and in the actual paper was an audio slide-show.

This was a gallery of pictures taken by our photographer Kim Haughton underneath which ran a recorded, broadcast-quality, interview with the owner guiding us around his private museum. Another example of the multi-dimensional aspect of modern digital journalism in action. This is where the reporter/correspondent/writer can no longer just think in terms of his or her words on a page but also has to be able to script to pictures and sounds.

Of course the corner stones of lucid, honest feature writing, reporting and indeed scripting remain essential. Good prose, to paraphrase George Orwell slightly (still the patron saint of journalists and writers alike) should be like a window pane: clear, devoid of jargon, verbal camouflage and crude propaganda, whether it be through the medium of printed paper or indeed cyberspace.

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I’ll be teaching an eight-week course at the Irish Writers’ Centre from 26th April to 14th June. It will focus on new forms of writing and novel ways of delivery in the digital age. As a comprehensive series of classes on various aspects of writing in the digital world, the emphasis will be on practical training and hands-on drills. The weekly itinerary covers blogs, podcasting, tweeting and audio packages. More information is available here and here’s an audio interview on the topic of feature writing.

Skippy Dies, then goes for lunch

Paul Murray (pic from beatrice.com)

Paul Murray is reading this Friday at the Irish Writers’ Centre’s ‘Lunctime Readings’ series. He’s the author of two novels: An Evening of Long Goodbyes (Penguin), which was shortlisted for the Whitbread First Novel Award and nominated for the Kerry Irish Fiction Award. His second novel Skippy Dies (Hamish Hamilton) was shortlisted for the 2010 Costa Book Awards and longlisted for the 2010 Man Booker Prize. Skippy Dies has been described as funny, rude, dark, sad, ambitious, imaginative, surreal, briliant. The Guardian said it was ‘one of the most enjoyable, funny and moving reads…a rare tragicomedy that’s both genuinely tragic and genuinely comic’, while the Irish Independent dubbed Murray’s characters ‘so three-dimensionally drawn and brought to such vivid life that they may haunt your dreams.’ Here, the author discusses loneliness, capitalism, posh schools, suburbs, butter churns and how becoming a writer is no different to becoming a plumber, pilot or podiatrist:

A novel set in a posh Dublin school is a far cry from the worlds of Roddy Doyle’s Barrytown or Dermot Bolger’s Finglas. Did you deliberately choose a radically different social setting with “Skippy Dies?” Or was this a purely instinctive, natural narrative backcloth? Well, I didn’t choose it just to be different. It was a world that I knew very well, which had the added attraction of having been somewhat under-represented in Irish books. In fact I had the suspicion, rightly or wrongly, that that world, the ‘posh school’ as you call it, and the boring, anonymous suburbs where so many people live now, weren’t seen as being worth writing about. They were seen as being less ‘Irish’, less authentic and therefore less fit subject for literature than more ‘real’ settings like the west of Ireland, for instance. That idea, that some places and some people are more real than others, and that we should all be writing novels about old peasant women scrubbing their butter churns, really bothers me. Maybe the suburbs are less real and less authentic. But the people living there are still people, and their experiences of this unreal world are absolutely real. So I wanted to write about that world I knew so well, and I wanted to write about it via teenagers – they’re the ones who experience suburbia most directly, because they’re stuck there. And again, teenagers seemed to be seen as kind of infra dig in Irish novels, so I wanted to give them their turn. 

The Guardian flatteringly described the book as a ‘hilarious satire on modern Ireland‘? Did you set out with that intention? Was this a work principally of satire? I’m not really that comfortable with tags like comedy or satire or whatever, like your book can only be one thing. I wanted to tell the story of these characters as faithfully and honestly as I could. There’s a lot of humour, because most of the characters are teenagers and they act in quite an unguarded and extreme way, but it’s mostly realistic and I’m not setting them up to be laughed at. The word ‘satire’ to me conjures up images of the author mocking the foibles of humanity from some great height – everyone’s a grotesque, and their entire world is revealed to be fundamentally deluded and ridiculous. I didn’t have any interest in writing a book like that. That said, setting the book in this school was a useful way of looking at bigger changes that were happening in the country – because these were the most privileged children of the people who were reaping the benefits of the economic boom. They were handed this new world that generation had created, so they were at the coal-face of that new morality and that new attitude to money and materialism. 

Although a comic novel there’s a darkness beneath it especially with menacing figures like Carl, how much of this came from your own experience of school days and the adolescent ‘jungle’? I went to secondary school in the 1990s, which though it wasn’t that long ago chronologically feels, from this vantage, almost prehistoric. So many interesting things have happened since then – the internet, the war on terror, mobile phones, X-Factor – and I wanted to write about those things. For all their supposed privilege, I think in some ways the kids in Skippy have a harder time than my generation did. Their world is so much more mediated, the forces of capitalism have a much tighter stranglehold on them so they have even more impossible expectations to try and fail to live up to. Compared to now, my time in school was quite benign. Certainly, it was a jungle, and there were large, terrifying creatures with BO lurking around every corner. But if you were fast, you could outrun them. How can you outrun Facebook?

Ruprecht concludes that our universe is built out of loneliness. Amid all the comic episodes and teeny angst there is this philosophical undercurrent via string theory, etc. Is this a central theme in your work, the loneliness, not only of teenagers, but man in general? Ruprecht comes to this conclusion shortly after Skippy’s death, when he’s hit rock bottom. The book doesn’t leave him there though. To say the universe is empty, that man is alone-in some ways those are quite self-aggrandising, egoistic notions. They ignore the infinite ways that we’re tied to each other, and they ignore the duties that we have to take care of each other. That seemed like a much more interesting idea to explore than this romantic-melancholic of loneliness, which perpetuates this fantasy of uniqueness, that no one has suffered quite like you have, and that your aloneness is somehow qualitatively superior to everyone else’s. Not to be glib but people in a famine don’t spend much time talking about man’s fundamental loneliness. 

Any advice for aspiring writers!? Becoming a writer is no different to becoming a plumber or pilot or podiatrist. There’s no magical secret. You just have to work really hard. For me, regularity is really important – a set routine. Writing a novel is like running a marathon. It takes a long time, and although you’ll have your moments of grace and exaltation, inevitably some of that time it will feel like a pure slog. It will feel tedious and dull, and you’ll feel disillusioned, and the temptation will arise to give up or set it aside and work on something else. At times like those, the routine may be what carries you through – you keep going simply because that’s what you’re used to. And pretty soon you’ll find yourself re-engaging and getting excited again. But to finish a novel, you need the bloody-mindedness to persevere with it, even when you’ve forgotten why.

Out of the closet…in Ambridge

This Christmas I want to come out of the closet. For nearly two decades now I’ve harboured a secret from family, friends, loved ones. A clandestine passion I’ve been hiding from all of them but can no longer conceal. The time is right to out myself. So say it loud and say it proud: I AM AN ARCHERS FAN!

As a former football hooligan, punk rocker, hard-line Marxist and later ultra-libertarian, many of my contemporaries from the 1970s and 80s will be shocked, perhaps even horrified that I’m a devoted follower of what is regarded as the accepted soap opera for the middle classes. Some may even see it as yet another example of McDonald’s surrender to British bourgeois values. In terms of politics these critics are actually wrong as many of the plot lines in Radio 4’s longest running drama series are centred on the class divide within the county. At one end of the social scale are the avaricious landowners like Brian Aldrige and his boardroom-bores of the Borchester Land Corporation, while at the others are the farmer-labourers like the Grundy family who have endured the indignity of eviction from their land.

Although I’ve never lived in the countryside The Archers has been an educational experience for townies like me.  The great issues of rural life like foot and mouth disease,  Bovine TB,  the tension between organic farming and the agro-industrial farms,  the rise and disappearance of the Countryside Alliance, the arrival of migrant workers from abroad to harvest and pack the produce are all interspersed throughout universal stories of life, death, loss, betrayal, triumph and tragedy. However, the most attractive element to the programme are the characters themselves, many of whom I adore, some of whom I loathe. So here are some of my heroes and villains of Ambridge.

Lillian Bellamy is among the most entertaining of the cast given that she’s an irrepressible bon viveur. She smokes, drinks like a fish and has a gloriously dirty laugh that suggests a lifetime leading the libertine creed. Having gone through a series of lovers including the odd Toyboy or two she has settled down with a London spiv called Matt Crawford who recently spent time in jail for fraudulent business dealings. She calls him “Tiger” while quaffing her G&Ts and he refers to her as his “pussycat.” They are actually an ideal couple who are perfectly matched. Matt has no time for the lords-of-the-manor like Brian Aldridge (Lillian’s brother-in-law) while his wife has just taken charge of a new property development company and is proving to be a more acute businesswoman than her husband has ever been.

Eddie Grundy is also a bit of an operator albeit not exactly a sharp one. He’s up to all kinds of deals and scams along with his old man Joe. They are forever hatching get rich quick schemes that invariably go wrong while making dodgy cider to flog to gullible tourists visiting their county. They make for a picaresque pair of gentle, likeable rogues who are in constant mortal fear of Eddie’s wife Clarrie, who is scornful of their plotting. Joe Grundy once summed up the class structure of Ambridge by pointing out to a new arrival on the show that ….”everybody looks down on us Grundys.” Naturally I invariably side with  Eddie and Joe in their struggles to bring in a few extra bob even if they flirt with illegality.

Jack ‘Jazzer’ McCreary is the token Scot on the show who works with Tom Archer’s pigs as well as running a milk round for Mick Tucker. Eternally moaning and whingeing Jazzer provides comedic interludes between the more serious plot lines running through the series. The Glaswegian jock-of-all-trades is never lucky in love and has an unrequited passion of his own for the musician Fallon Rogers. He also recently lost out to his flatmate over wooing a Polish fruit picker who turned both Jazzer and his friend’s heads. This internal-immigrant from Glasgow has gone through dark nights of the soul taking drugs and stealing cars though has settled down of late but thankfully has not lost his dour Scotch outlook on life. If I could choose a fictional grand-father for him it would be the Scotch undertaker Fraser in “Dad’s Army”.  How great it would be to hear them howl in unison: “We’re all doomed!”

Kenton Archer is the family dreamer who has been bailed out many times by his parents over dodgy business dealings that go pear-shaped. None the less Kenton is a likeable loser who has gone through one failed marriage and one doomed relationship with goody-two shoes Kathy Perks. Yet, even after falling out with Kathy he maintained a friendship with her troubled teenage son Jamie, offering him a listening ear while others around him (most notably his mother) were berating the boy. The central point about the Kenton character is that despite the track record and the odds, you want him to win.

Lynda Snell is the unofficial village policewoman, moral guardian and unlikely eco-warrior of Ambridge. She is a required taste in terms of the characters. Posh voiced with an interfering sniffy nature she runs the local drama group, produces the Christmas panto and bullies others, gently of course, into good deeds for the community. Lynda is the annoying “involver” but if you were in a trench with the shells landing over your head, you could trust her to hold her nerve, keep the unit together and steel everyone for the big push.

Will Grundy. One of the most flammable story lines in recent years has been the re-enaction of the Cain and Abel story transported to the English countryside. Will was pitted against his brother Ed over Emma. She was once Will’s wife but conducted an affair with his brother that ended in a bloody confrontation, acrimonious divorce, a DNA test to establish who was Emma’s son’s father. In one memorable episode the cliff hanger at the end hinted that Will may have committed suicide in response to Emma shacking up with Ed. In fact Will has survived and prospered, and will be marrying the woman who saved him from himself, Nic Hanson, on New Years Day. By the way that DNA test proved that Emma’s baby boy was Will’s.

And finally Brian Aldridge. Yes I know he represents everything I object to in the English upper middle classes. He is arrogant, pompous, full of himself and dismissive. He likes to bulldoze to get his way, even to the detriment of the local environment. Brian is also on the personal front what some colloquially call a “complete shit.” He fathered a child to his Irish mistress now deceased whom his long-suffering wife Jennifer is helping to bring up. And yet…and yet. There is never a dull moment when Aldridge takes centre stage in the plots whether it’s battling with Matt Crawford or alienating Tom Archer over his nephew’s plans for his legendary range of sausages. Yes he is a shit but he’s our shit!

There are quite a few characters that I personally find irritating and wouldn’t mind if they accidentally fell into a combine harvester. These include Tom’s sister Helen Archer who was always deeply annoying and slightly non-credible but has become totally tedious since she got pregnant via the Turkey-basting method and had her son who is called, alas, Henry. The village vicar Alan Franks represents everything that is so wrong with the modern Church of England.  He is the trendy Rev who once took in a heroin addict to his vicarage and along with his equally nauseating wife Usha (she is a lawyer, need we say anymore!) seem to jar as characters with the rest of the cast. Kate Madikane would be my number one candidate to get caught up in a fatal carjacking in downtown Johannesburg. The daughter of Brian Aldridge, Kate is exactly like any of those rich rebel girls you meet in university who just decided to drop out and move to the Atlas Mountains to live with a tribe of Berbers in order to “find themselves”. This is not a moral judgement even though Kate abandoned her daughter Phoebe leaving her with father Roy Tucker. She simply reminds me of all those well-heeled posh birds who join the revolution just to piss off daddy.

Leaving aside these villains of the village The Archers overall cheers me up on dark weekday nights while I’m preparing a meal, doing the dishes or ironing clothes. It gives you 15 minutes out of your own time. The majority of the stories are a far cry from the endless doom and gloom of trashier soaps such as Eastenders although the iconic radio show does have its fair share of tragedy and misery. Thankfully the programme is available on the Internet via BBC iplayer down here in the Republic and if you miss any of the weeknight programmes between shortly after 7pm and 7.15pm, you can play catch up every Sunday after 10am when there is The Archers’ omnibus. If you are an Ambridge-virgin treat yourself to an episode or two and I guarantee you will become hooked. Eventually you will pluck up the courage to admit you are an Archers’ fan.

W1973

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Simultaneous Equation

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The laughable loathsome neo-nazis

Recalling his days selling race-hate literature in London’s East End, Matthew Collins says: “We took the traditional Brick Lane Sunday drink with the BNP that day, watching strippers and eating a selection of mussels and whelks off the bar.” All they would have needed was a Cockney-style sing-song of Horst Wessel Lied and Deutschland Uber Alles around the old Joanna and that would have topped off a perfect National Socialist Sabbath for Matthew and his comrades.

The above memory isn’t the only unintentionally hilarious anecdote contained within Collins’ new book, Hate – a recollection of his time both in the National Front and the British National Party. His evolution from the son of an Irish Catholic father to a fascist street fighter mouthing mantras of ‘No Surrender to the IRA’ is peppered with bizarre and often achingly funny passages, which in turn highlight how absurd, perverse and out of touch with reality most of his far right chums actually were back in the 1990s.

There are, however, more sinister segments of the book and they include his relationship with Ulster loyalists who had latched onto the NF and other neo-Nazi organisations in Britain. Of these the most prominent is Eddie Whicker, a UDA member from Belfast who became somewhat of a personality on the London far right scene at the time Collins was an active fascist. Whicker was one of the most militant of the extreme right street thugs taking on leftists, some of whom marched in pro-IRA rallies in the UK capital and other British cities.

Reading Collins’ fascinating memoir raised questions as to how useful, if at all, the various parties and groups on the far right were to the Ulster loyalist cause. The answer to that question, taking a long view of history, would be hardly at all. In fact, Hate confirms the analysis put forward by the likes of the late David Ervine that the far right’s embrace of the loyalist cause was nothing short of embarrassing. There can be no doubting the connections established from the early 1970s onwards between the NF, BNP and the more extreme Combat 18 to the two main loyalist paramilitary organisations. On a political and, dare one say social level, the disparate British far right were the only supporters of the Ulster loyalist cause in Britain.

Apart from their traditional allies in Scotland, particularly within the Orange Order and the Rangers football team’s support base, loyalism’s allies were few and far between. While loyalists across the sea could feel very much at home in parts of Scotland’s central belt or the Ayrshire coast, your average working class Ulster Protestant would feel a greater sense of isolation in English cities, particularly the multi-cultural/racial conurbations. As Collins attests to in his book, the NF and other rival organisations at least provided a home for an Ulster loyalist away from home but still in touch with the cause.

Logistically, the efficacy of British neo-Nazi help for loyalist armed groups has been wildly exaggerated. There were a number of gun running plots such as the one involving Frank Portinari, an English UDA member of Italian Catholic extract in direct touch with ‘C’ Company and a friend of the UDA killer John White. The important thing to remember about Portinari’s gun smuggling operation was that it was soon busted by the security forces. In reality the people who gained the most out of British fascism’s embrace of loyalism were MI5 and Special Branch.

Charlie Sergeant, for instance, crops up several times in Collins’ book as a prominent Combat 18 thug and strong supporter of Ulster loyalists. Yet after Sergeant was tried and convicted of stabbing a rival neo-Nazi to death it transpired he was also a police informant whose work included spying on any potential loyalist arms smuggling operations in the south-east of England. The Ulster Volunteer Force did, of course, meet with the extreme neo-Nazi Belgian VMO in the early 1980s. The Flemish fascists were fascinated with the home-made engineering skills of Ulster loyalists who were manufacturing their own sub-machine guns. In return, the VMO promised to hand over plastic explosives, as long as the UVF attacked a Jewish target in Belfast. This suggestion convinced the UVF envoys sent to meet the pro-Hitler terrorists that they were dealing with nutcases. The UVF search for explosives switched to commercial, ideologically neutral arms dealers.

On a propaganda level the activities of a handful of loyalists in England like Whicker was undoubtedly damaging. It only projected and solidified the notion that the average loyalist was as much a bone-headed, shaven, beery-breathed bigot as their neo-Nazi buddies smashing up Brick Lane. The ceasefire, of course, and the emergence of Ervine, Billy Hutchinson and other articulate loyalist politicians, changed all that. Observers of the far right will point to the career of Johnny Adair, who started his politico-paramilitary career in the NF. In retirement on the west coast of Scotland, Adair has admitted he always had his doubts about the English neo-Nazis, suspecting many of them of being “touts” or just terror-tourists not really serious about waging war on the republican movement.

It’s worth remembering that throughout his life Adair maintained an enduring love for one English band who emerged out of the post-Punk era. The group was comprised of two brothers from a left-wing background who sang about racism in America’s Deep South and who wrote socialist protest songs against Thatcherism and mass unemployment. To this day Adair loves UB40. That’s how serious the British neo-Nazis’ favourite Ulster poster boy was about their message of racial purity and ethnic hatred.

(My review of Hate is also published in the Belfast Telegraph today)

Impregnate me with ceramic

Surprise tentacles to make you feel horny on the way to hospital. The great thing about living plonk at the Botanic Gardens is the sheer amount of sensory goodies, most gratefully received on difficult days when the heart is heavy or the head sore. Yesterday, before I accompanied my mother to a post cancer diagnosis and moi geezer: whose own mother was cartered off in an ambulance for the third time in as many weeks, we took some time out for a long walk. Even when there’s nothing arty going down, the gardens are a real haven in what has been a moronically poxy and backbreaking year. Amid the parnsip soup slurping pensioners and the fat bees gorging on newly-planted flower baskets in the courtyard cafe, we dunk our tongues into some strong coffee and talk about death over a slab of nectarous pear cake. There’s always ‘stuff’ to see and hear, to do and learn, even just the unflappable change of seasons means this suburban Arcadia looks different every time you have a gander around. One of the smaller glass houses features an ongoing exhibition on the medicinal qualities of tropical plants, citing an example of an Amazonian weed that’s now used in the treatment of childhood leukemia (with 90% remission rates) or how ginger can help with flatulence (Men of Ireland: please take note) and lemon balm to salve symptoms of herpes. The recently re-opened 19th Century Herb Garden, which backs onto the historic Glasnevin Cemetary wall, is also clearly labelled with a welly of herb clout…from the toxin-ridding magic of parsley to the cleansing properties of mint. There’s a featured talk on 24th September on this very topic which you can find on the events page. Two minutes into our walk, we spot some pottery tree people lurking by one of the old stone walls.

It seems we were too distracted on the way in to clock the new Sculpture In Context exhibition posters. This ocular deliciousness is now in its tenth year at the gardens, running from Thursday 8th September to Friday 21st of October. The bumpf says it’s the largest outdoor sculpture exhibition in Ireland, featuring the work of 130 leading Irish and international artists. All the usual talented suspects: Cliodhna Cussen, Ana Duncan, Seamus Dunbar, Ken Drew, Jim Gannon, Seamus Gill, Janet Harrison, Leo Higgins, Fidelma Massey, Søren Schaarup, Beatrice Stewart and a plethora of others. As it’s in context the pieces are displayed (and planted) throughout the gardens, some more in your face than others. For instance, there’s a piece called Ghost Fruit amongst a clump of trees near the river that’s almost impossible to spot. Stare up into the giant umbrella canopy and there’s nothing at all obvious. We scratched our heads and looked about: “This is worse than a crossword!” I said. It was only when we walked on and stopped on the path to look back: newly hung ceramic leaves, an exact match to the trees’ own, but in a deliberately paler shade (thus the name). Many pieces are also cleverly hidden in the impressive restored Victorian glasshouses, (Turners’ Curvilinear Range and the Great Palm House) and in the elegant first floor gallery space of the Visitor Centre. The aim of this exhibition is to provide space for exhibiting work in venues outside of the normal gallery context. Artwork is produced using a wide range of materials including bronze, ceramic, glass, copper, steel and stone.

Minutes later, I spot alien tentacles sticking seductively out of a pond and mention that they’re good enough to get you pregnant, though geezer thinks they look like ‘animal spines’. We bump into long-haired Roli who knows the artist and apparently that’s her subject of choice – all things penetrative – I’m chuffed to have picked up the message so clearly having failed Intercert Art and being totally devoid of any artsy-craftsy competency! Art to me is very much what you make of it, once it’s out in the public sphere, you can assent and assume what you like. I can’t stand reading what I’m supposed to take from it, what this piece means or that painting intimates. Bog off and let me make up my own mind! There’s organic pods stuck up a tree bark with dinky cars growing in them (no doubt a profound message about how we’re making a fume-filled mess of the natural environment), a giant nest with bright blue duck eggs, sound boxes next to the river, tall bronze heron keeping some spoilt ducks company and strange objects hanging from the vines in the Victoriana glasshouses. A stone mattress leans curvaveously against a wall, a simple tagline Insomnia as its chosen communiqué. Two pieces of social commentary stand out: one is called Poppy Power which at first sight looks like a bed of ceramic poppies. Look closer and you see sad faces etched into some of the flowers, no doubt a statement on the heroin crisis, both at home and abroad. A bunch of old Irish money – made from limestone – is strewn on the ground at the side of the largest glasshouse. You can read this as mere nostalgia or not-so-subtle criticism of the current state of the eurozone…

Pretty soon we’re pulling each other in different directions with the capriciousness of a kid’s treasure hunt. “Look at this!” “No, come ‘ere, this is amazing!” and so on. There’s so much to see and so many whimsical pieces, I can’t decide what I like most. Scrunched Flowering Imps planted in the middle of a lush lawn or a line of torsos yapping on mobile phones with comical facial expressions, glass ball plants and metal flowers swaying in the midday sun. Mindfield is a flower bed planted with glass brains and there’s a dreamy-white yearning tree with dangling wishes from children: ‘I wish my mum would get in the swimming pool once in a while.’ We’re going to have to go back and gorge in the weeks ahead. Later that day I bring my Ma along (after the hospital) insisting she plunks down into a wheelchair even though she can walk short distances OK. There’s too much to see and I want to dash around, show her as much as an ordinary hour can shove in. The aulfella is housebound since April 2010 (refusing to use any walking aids or contraptions that would ensure a slice of normality) so she rarely gets out these days. Face to face with her first ceramic penis after 77 years on the planet, she gasps: “I know art is art, but Jesus Christ, is there any need for that kind of thing!?” Yes, mother, I’m afraid there is. Here’s just some of the pics I took on my phone and some more I pinched off a mate doing the rounds with a camera yesterday. I can’t recommend this exhibition enough – it’ll cheer you up and pull you out of the doldrums – if only for an hour:

 

Saturday Poem #9 – For What Binds Us

 
For What Binds Us (by Jane Hirshfield)
 
There are names for what binds us:
strong forces, weak forces.
Look around, you can see them:
the skin that forms in a half-empty cup,
nails rusting into the places they join,
joints dovetailed on their own weight.
The way things stay so solidly
wherever they’ve been set down—
and gravity, scientists say, is weak.
 
And see how the flesh grows back
across a wound, with a great vehemence,
more strong
than the simple, untested surface before.
There’s a name for it on horses,
when it comes back darker and raised: proud flesh,
 
as all flesh,
is proud of its wounds, wears them
as honors given out after battle,
small triumphs pinned to the chest—
 
And when two people have loved each other
see how it is like a
scar between their bodies,
stronger, darker, and proud;
how the black cord makes of them a single fabric
that nothing can tear or mend.
 
Jane Hirshfield is the author of several collections of verse, which include Given Sugar, Given Salt (2001) and After (2006), Hirshfield has translated works by early women poets in The Ink Dark Moon: Poems by Ono no Komachi and Izumi Shikibu, Women of the Ancient Court of Japan (1990) and in Women in Praise of the Sacred: Forty-Three Centuries of Spiritual Poetry by Women (1994). Inspired by both Eastern and Western poetry, Hirshfield’s work often utilises a short form and hinges on a turning point or moment of insight. More info on Jane here

Alternative Alternative Ulsters

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Memories of Captain America

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Rioting as a form of sexual gratification

© Kelvin Boynes/Press Eye

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

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

pic from The Independent

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

  • Gerry Kelly is a stinking tout!!!

  • Another plastic paddy openly supporting terrorism…

  • Up the Ra!

  • The resistance lives on……….

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

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

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

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

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

  • Get a life kids.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

John Connolly on genre, cultural baggage, crime.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

From Columbo to Berlin…RIP Peter Falk


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Satruday Poem #3 – Oh God, Fuck Me

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Fuck me with orange juice,
its concentrated sweetness,

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

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

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

opening like parachutes.
Fuck me with the ticking

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

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

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

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

pooled into its center, round as a world.

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

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

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

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

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.”

For Queen & someone else’s country

Every Republican under the sun, it seems, wants the Queen to apologise for the whole enchilada from Strongbow’s invasion of Ireland and the manky spud famine to Bloody Sunday (Part I & Part II). But won’t Elizabeth Windsor suffer enough faced with a barrage of Irish c’lebs from Amanda Brunker to Lorraine Keane − whose contribution to Irish culture has been to tell motorists to avoid the Kimmage crossroads during rush hour − to the bats-in-the-belfry yodels of Mary Byrne and the self piteous whines of a NAMA property developer? I’m assuming that Jedward will also be present, kickboxing at the cameras, demanding acreage of attention.

One group definitely not invited to the Royal hooley are those knockabout funsters in the Real IRA. They recently described the Queen’s 3-day junket as ‘the final insult’. Yet privately they’re probably salivating over the prospect of international broadcast attention from CNN, Sky News, NBC, and the BBC as they attempt to disrupt a blue-rinse pensioner lobbing some dried flowers on some very dead people in gardens normally occupied by Whacker, Thrasher, Basher and Redser, with their Nike logbags full of hypodermic needles and Druids cider.

To be serious for a moment though: after the national revulsion over Constable Ronan Kerr’s murder the dissies have now been gifted a chance of a propaganda-comeback. If they can turn parts of Dublin upside down as they did with the Love Ulster rally in 2006 they will score a publicity coup. The sight of globally renowned correspondents reporting live on the violence in Parnell St. will put the dissidents inflexibly back on the map. RSF has already announced their main demo starts at the Black Church behind Parnell Square (one time home to other dummies of a wax variety) where no doubt the track suit catwalk will charge like wildebeest towards a line of red-faced culchie Gardaí who’d give their left scrotum to be off-duty milling about with a Hurley stick somewhere bovine-deep in the midlands.

Security operations so far have involved a lot of Garda knocking on a lot of doors and ‘taking people’s names’ like they used to do back in the day of Garda Patrol (precursor to Crimecall) when a random Mrs Murphy’s garden gate was stolen. A pal who lives on Clonliffe Road backing onto Croke Park, which is part of Lizzy’s barnstorm, described how a country Guard knocked at her door and asked for her name and address. The name bit she could partially understand, but the address bit was a puzzle as he’d just knocked on her door after all! Bins have been confiscated, phone boxes soldered shut, student accommodation evacuated, sewers searched (perhaps even members of the voluntary Garda Reserve are manning the city drains and sewers?) All around Parnell Square the polished-bróga Special Branch have been not very discreetly placing sniper folk on sagging Edwardian rooftops in what I assume is an attempt to outwit other snipers belonging to more bothersome organisations who are way better at the gun thing and with more reason to use them. My bet is that an unemployed INLA man, unable to get onto a FÁS scheme due to the upsurge in quantity surveyors and solicitors hogging places, will send some bullets flying into the air, causing untold hysteria and horror, perhaps even a right royal stampede with Lizzy roaring, “Help! Help! My hat!” and De Duke saying: “Oh shit I say, here we go again old girl”.

The Twitter has been groaning with protestations all week: ‘What’s this about school children being drafted in to wave flags for queen’s visit? A reprehensible misuse of children,’ says Greystones branch of Sinn Féin. ‘Would ya really go on holiday to a place where the majority of the population want to see your head on a pike?’ asks another.

The tour is too long and is tempting fate. Already there are hoax bombs (London: yesterday, Maynooth and Inchicore Luas, this morning) and various ‘designed to disrupt’ shenanigans. There are too many venues and the opportunities are large for something to go badly wrong. Contrast with Obama who has just two venues to speak at before heading back into the burly blue sky. It would’ve been better if the Queen had tea & a few slices of McCambridges bread with Mary McAleese at Aras, followed by symbolic tree planting in the park, a pint of black stuff at Guinness Brewery and down to some stud farm in Kildare (where they’re all West Brits anyway) before heading back to Blighty. To put further blue fuel on verdigris flames, the geniuses in the Phoenix Park Gaff have invited UDA supremo Jackie McDonald and his loyalist entourage to Golden Bridge for the war dead ceremony. It’s a Tiramisu of farce, every day new and more flavoursome layers added.

Ireland, in the shitpit of fiscal smelliness, is forking out a fragrant €30 million to protect the Queen’s head and the Duke of Edinburgh’s torso (Philip’s uncle was blown up here). Costs could rise excessively if riots do erupt and British holiday-makers are scared off by the Queen’s getaway to the Emerald Isle ending in calamity. Fianna Fáil gambled and lost the banking industry through their disastrous 2008 bailout. Now, Fine Gael and Labour are gambling on one of the few businesses left in our economically ravaged country: tourism. Remember too that this prodigious PR stunt was planned as the final chapter in a long drawn-out  peace process. However, if things go awry it could be the preface  to an upsurge in Republican conflict all over again.

This is the biggest test of authority for the state since the 1981 hunger strike riots outside the British Embassy. The entire thing will be a sphincter-squeezing moment even if 10,000 strapping Guards, army and all 17 members of Special Branch manage to block the view of rampaging animals at the barricades. It will be like one of those icy moments out of sight in a Titanic lifeboat, where even from a polite distance there’s scant hope of drowning out the howls. The only good thing that could possibly happen if disaster strikes is Tonight with Vincent Browne would be forced to change topic, if only for a week.

This post originally appeared on the Anti Room blog in May 2011 – to read the comments click here