Category Archives: War

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 Survived on stale pineapple cake and sloppy kebabs from out-of-date food skips outside Aldi.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**

Martin Amis: Zone of Interest

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Irma Grese

Irma Grese

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

HHhH…Haunted by Heydrich

Reinhard Tristan Eugen Heydrich

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Then they came for him!

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

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

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

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

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

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

Saturday Poem #13 – To a Portable Radio

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

To a portable radio by Bertolt Brecht

You little box I carried on that ship

Concerned to save your works from getting broken

Fleeing from house to train, from train to ship

So I might hear the hated jargon spoken

Beside my bedside and to me pain

Last thing at night, once more as dawn appears

Charting their victories and my worst fears:

Promise at least you won’t go dead again!

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 cops want my mobile phone

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Saturday Poem #8 – Break of Day in the Trenches

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

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

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

 

Break of Day in the Trenches (by Isaac Rosenberg)

The darkness crumbles away

It is the same old druid Time as ever,

Only a live thing leaps my hand,

A queer sardonic rat,

As I pull the parapet’s poppy

To stick behind my ear.

Droll rat, they would shoot you if they knew

Your cosmopolitan sympathies,

Now you have touched this English hand

You will do the same to a German

Soon, no doubt, if it be your pleasure

To cross the sleeping green between.

It seems you inwardly grin as you pass

Strong eyes, fine limbs, haughty athletes,

Less chanced than you for life,

Bonds to the whims of murder,

Sprawled in the bowels of the earth,

The torn fields of France.

What do you see in our eyes

At the shrieking iron and flame

Hurled through still heavens?

What quaver -what heart aghast?

Poppies whose roots are in men’s veins

Drop, and are ever dropping;

But mine in my ear is safe,

Just a little white with the dust.

Saturday Poem #4 – Shema

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

SHEMA (by Primo Levi)

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

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

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

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

A long climb up the Matterhorn

soldier motions to a helicopter in Vietnam, 1970. Photograph: Rex Features

There are leeches fattened with human blood crawling up the “Jap’s Eye” of a Marine’s penis; a battle-field operation on an officer’s eye to extract shrapnel from it while mortar shells rain down; attempts by disgruntled black soldiers to murder some of their own officers and NCOs whom they hate and vast periods of time in between combat where boredom rots souls, and hunger and cold torment bodies. “Matterhorn” is a long arduous climb following the path of Bravo Company as they struggle to survive amid the madness of the Vietnam War but it is worth the trek when you reach the summit and survey the overview the author has provided.

The detail in this 667-page fictional version of a real life Lieutenant’s tour of duty for the US Marine Corps is at times excruciating to read and requires the stamina of a mountain climber who has miles to go before he or she peaks. Yet this novel centred on one mountainous corner of South Vietnam near the Laos border also contains passages of lyrical reflection, sharp insights into the nature of man and his inclination to war – the Beast-inside is never far from the surface even amongst the more appealing characters in Karl Marlantes’ work which took him two decades to bring to life.

‘Matterhorn’ will stand the test of time and become one of the great-war novels of literature. For once the critics who have heaped universal praise on the book were not exaggerating.

You know that feeling you get when you scan the dust jacket and the preliminary pages of a book littered with positive one-liners from the newspapers: you are expecting a major letdown. But Marlantes doesn’t fail you. This work really does what the critics say on the tin. The ex-Marine officer who won medals for valour in ‘Nam can be ranked alongside Hemmingway, Orwell and Mailer for his depiction of war and the things it can make men do.

On reaching the peak of this book, dizzying slightly from the rarefied atmosphere that Marlantes has recreated from his own wartime memories, I was struck by a question about war, carnage, conflict and its impact on people in a modern Irish context. Specifically, why is it that we have seen very very few novels detailing the warrior’s experience, whether they be British soldiers in Northern Ireland or Irish troops who have served in peace-keeping missions abroad? In regard to the latter there is one shining exception in Martin Malone, an ex Irish soldier who has written brilliant insightful novels based on his experience of serving as a UN peacekeeper in south Lebanon. Check out for instance Malone’s book Broken Cedar for a glimpse into this relatively unreported Irish military experience.

Given that thousands of Irish soldiers have been on tours of duty in conflict zones and that many have witnessed numerous scenes of horror and savagery you would think that there’d be more fictional takes (let alone screenplays or dramas both on stage and film!) about their time there.

Peacekeeping can hardly compare to the type of all out warfare Marlantes writes about in Vietnam. However, there are some parallels such as the numbing boredom; the terror of being under shell and mortar bombardment; the distress of witnessing comrades being killed or wounded, and that sense of alienation and dislocation from the world back home far away from the mud and blood. When I was researching Irishbatt – the story of Ireland’s Blue Berets way back in the early 90s – there was one incident that in particular stuck in my brain relating to the latter sensation. One Irish UNIFIL veteran recalled getting into a public row with his wife over dinner just a few weeks after returning from a six month tour of South Lebanon. He remembered starting a row after his wife ordered mineral water with her meal. The soldier objected because he wanted tap water on the table instead as it was widely available in Ireland…unlike in the ‘Leb where water was rationed particularly on summer tours. The UNIFIL veteran thought it was an extravagant outrage that people were paying for water at home and an embarrassing increasingly violent argument in the restaurant ensued. This single incident for me encapsulated how a life lived in a zone of death and darkness could mark someone who then gets transplanted back to the so-called normal world.

In Northern Ireland there has been a dearth of novels from the viewpoint of the soldier. Most accounts of tours of duty have been in the sub-Bravo Two Zero/Andy McNabb genre. There have been hardly any comprehensive, morally and psychologically sophisticated narratives about the soldiers’ war. What would be a fascinating read would be a literary take on the Troubles from the point of view of say a locally recruited UDR soldier or a southern recruit in a British Army regiment. It’s interesting that up to now most literature from the angle of a ‘combatant’ have come from those in paramilitary groups; most notably the IRA. In the novel I’m currently trying to hawk around publishers on both sides of the Atlantic, my main character is a British army military intelligence officer who’s left the armed forces to join the murder squad of the Berlin Police. His back story includes flashbacks to a tour of duty in Northern Ireland and an undercover operation, which leads to him killing a female paramilitary assassin. The ghost of this woman haunts him via subterranean apparitions on the Berlin U-Bahn. Yet it is only an echo back to the conflict in the north of Ireland not a full blown fleshed out story of being on the frontline of Ulster’s dirty little war.

But back to Matterhorn and Marlantes’ profound yet moving story based on his own time as a highly decorated front line marine. Throughout the book there are passages of great lyrical beauty and deep reflection such as this one when Mellas tries to come to terms with the fact that he may have killed a colleague in a ‘friendly fire’ incident during battle.

‘…He was overwhelmed by an emptiness that knocked him to his knees. Slumped in his wet hole, cocooned by two flak jackets, he broke. He was the butt of a cruel joke. God had given him life and must have laughed as Mellas used it to kill Pollini, to get a piece of ribbon to show proof of his worth. And it was his worth that was the joke. He was nothing but a collection of empty events that would end as a faded photograph above his parent’s fireplace. They too would die, and relatives who didn’t know who was in the picture would throw it away.’

“Matterhorn” is published in paperback by Corvus Books, £7.99.

Faith and my Father

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

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

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

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

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

And yet…..

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

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

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

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

I wrote this from South Lebanon 13 years ago…

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Copyright Spectator Apr 25, 1998