Essays, Reviews & Memoir
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A TRUE IRISH HERO
Joseph O’Connor on his novel My Father’s House and the brave man who inspired it.
I can’t remember the first time I heard the story of Monsignor Hugh O’Flaherty (1898 – 1963), but I think it might have been in Listowel. I’ve been attending the world famous Writers’ Week on and off for thirty years, since my very first efforts at writing. At some point, late one night, someone told me about Hugh O’Flaherty and the Escape Line he organised and led in Rome during World War Two. Over the years, I researched and read more about him. I was always more amazed by his legacy.
Hugh O’Flaherty’s heroism is both gripping and inspiring. It always had the makings of a tense psychological thriller, and that’s what I hope I’ve written. A novel in the same vein of my Star of the Sea. But there are other nuances and meanings to his story.
Born in republican Cork, brought up in Kerry, the place he always called home, he came of age around the mistrust of England and in particular, English soldiers, that was one understandable and tragic bequest of the Black and Tans. Yet he came to live insistently by his own moral code, even when faced with the threat of death, and at the risk of being ostracised by his Vatican superiors.
In siding with the British prisoners to whom he was called to minister in the fascist prison of war camps in Italy, and in assisting thousands of them to safety when they escaped and fled into Rome, O’Flaherty revealed himself as a person who wouldn’t blindly follow orders, whether they came from friend or enemy. Complaints were made about him by the Irish government, whose policy was strict neutrality, but he ignored them, saving 7,000 escaped British and American prisoners from death.
In this he was assisted by a small band of remarkable friends, several of whom came from very different backgrounds and faiths. There was Sir Francis Darcy Osborne, Britain’s ambassador to the Holy See, a public-school educated member of the higher echelons of British society, who had at one time, so it is said, been in love with the late Queen Mother. He and Hugh became close friends and co-conspirators. Another member of this hugely impressive crew was John May, a Cockney, Sir Francis’s servant at the UK embassy. Also assisting the Escape Line was Delia Kiernan, who will be known to fans of Irish folk music and balladry as the singer Delia Murphy. Married to Ireland’s senior diplomat in Rome, she quietly flouted Dublin’s insistence on non-involvement in the war, showing tremendous personal and moral courage. There were other leaders, too, some of whose names we will never know: nuns, priests, everyday working-class Romans, communists, partisans, students. All were united by their work for humanity, always done at grave personal danger. Hugh’s priesthood would not have saved him. The Gestapo in Rome, led by the ruthless Herbert Kappler, used torture, intimidation and murdered several Roman priests. Hugh was well aware of the peril he was facing, yet he faced it. In the murky world of wartime, no doubt he knew, and perhaps dealt with, double agents and imposters of various sorts. What kept him steady was his faith, his remarkable instincts, and his willingness to disobey authority when necessary. Born in the Rebel County and raised in the Kingdom, Hugh O’Flaherty was nobody’s fool.
His personal papers, many of which I had the opportunity to study while researching My Father’s House, reveal a deeply humane, sometimes funny, wry, watchful man, who understood how the organisation that is the Catholic Church worked and was able to sail carefully but effectively around archipelagos of political intriguing. He has a lovable affection for life, for sport, including boxing and golf, even for the occasional punt on the Irish sweepstakes, and enjoys hearing all the gossip from back home in Kerry. The beautiful statue of him by Alan Ryan Hall in Killarney, placed there in 2013, captures something of his vigour, grit and joi de vivre. Maybe a hint of his cunning, too, in the half smile. One of his sayings, ‘God Has No Country’ is inscribed on a nearby wall. A message the world still needs to hear, alas.
The Hugh in my novel is a fictional character, inspired by the real man. The Hugh O’Flaherty Memorial society (www.hughoflaherty.com) does a fine job of celebrating his achievement, and there have been articles, nonfiction books, and a documentary, ‘Pimpernel Sa Vatican’. made by his grand-niece Catherine O’Flaherty for TG4. For my own part, I’ve taken license with characterisations, events and chronologies, in a work of the imagination. I emphasize that my Hugh is my version, and I have filled in several silences. My Father’s House isn’t intended to be a textbook or biography, but I hope that my novel does conjure the essence of this wonderful man, who has been part of my life for many years.
Hugh O’Flaherty’s story is a tale of borders and boundaries, how the Nazis painted a white line around Vatican City to keep him inside, how he would taunt them by meeting his contacts in St Peter’s Square itself, in open view of the German sentries. He and his friends risked absolutely everything, even the destruction of his beloved Vatican City, the physical embodiment of his faith, for what was right.
His stubborn, quiet defiance – some might say an Irish trait, even perhaps a Kerry one – was magnificent. That this amazing man was one of us, a hero when it was hard to be, is cause for pride and thought. And in our own time, when once again there is far too much false focus on the things that supposedly divide us – nationality, tribe, religion, belief – it’s good to be reminded that Hugh O’Flaherty and the small, brave band of women and men he gathered around him stood up to the world and said no.
WAGING HEAVY PEACE: A HIPPIE DREAM
by Neil Young
Review by Joseph O’Connor
One day, two years ago, Neil Young broke his toe. Recovering, he decided to write a book. At 497 pages, and 68 chapters, the result is a sort of quadruple album. To argue that it might have been better at about half its published length would be to miss the point, perhaps.
Young writes plainly and often directly, in the sort of baggy patchwork style that wouldn’t surprise any admirer of his jagged and open-hearted music. A curmudgeon might feel that the book is not wonderfully edited, but perhaps it’s a brilliantly effective simulacrum of being alone in a room with a sexagenarian rock-star who, back in the day, ingested more drugs than Lord Byron. (The author is now clean, he assures us.) ‘Waging Heavy Peace’ skips across time, moving back and forth. He rambles disconnectedly through his memories, showing scant regard for the attractions of chronology. Endearingly, he often comments on the difficulty of writing what you’re now reading. This is a chronicle that is always aware it has an audience.
If Young, a brilliant musician, is not a naturally gifted writer of prose, his account of a childhood touched by sickness is affecting. As a shy and lonely boy growing up in small-town Canada he suffered polio and its painful treatments. The divorce of his parents must have been more harrowing than he permits himself to admit here. But his tact on the point is in its own way revealing. This is no tell-all memoir, no attempt to make headlines or settle scores. Young writes with scrupulous dignity about those he has loved. The book contains few accusations. The tone, almost throughout, is that of a down-home, plain-speaking family man who admired certain aspects of the Reagan Presidency and is nobody’s standard-issue rebel. At other points it veers into more typical rock and roll territory. There are several accounts of driving through Malibu ‘amped on coke’ with ‘beautiful hippy girls’, an image that will seem bittersweet to those many of us for whom Neil Young’s music summons up the nights of our youth: the damp Rathmines bedsit, the six-pack of Harp and an eternal Good Friday of spotty celibacy.
Young claims, believably, not to understand song-writing. It’s something that happens to him. Thinking about it is fatal. Like an old bluesman or a Sean-Nos singer, he believes the artist is channelling spirits. In an era when the ultimate aim of certain young musicians seems to be to have their own brand of aftershave or bra, his once derided hippyism now seems radical. He was punk before Johnny Rotten was born.
That said, he seems unaware of piquant ironies that even the fondest reader will notice. A noted
ecologist, Mr Young always celebrated the release of his albums by buying a gas-guzzling vintage car. There are the usual celebrity laments about what ‘we’ are doing to the planet and not a lot of personal responsibility on that score, or on others. To be fair, he has invested heavily in developing technologies for cleaner fuel. But if you don’t like being lectured from the vantage point of a personal jet, you may find yourself skipping certain passages.
Several of his relationships with women are sketched with almost telegraphic brevity. But his marriage to the folk singer Pegi Young is beautifully described. Clearly, she saved his life. And the book bursts into colour when he writes about his children. Ben, born quadriplegic and with cerebral palsy, is ‘my hero, my warrior’, a constantly moving and life-affirming presence throughout this chronicle.
The book is sometimes gently funny. Young tells us that the song ‘Horse With No Name’ by the 1970s band America was so obviously influenced by his own work that his father, on first hearing it, thought it was by Neil. The three great groups to which Young was central – Crazy Horse, Buffalo Springfield, and Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young – are recalled with the coolness of the insider. He is immensely generous to his fellow musicians. Behind that, some will sense a subtle reluctance to be truly open about the no doubt mysterious processes involved in being a rock and roll Titan. ‘I want to love you, but I get so blown away,’ he wrote in one of his masterpieces, ‘Like a Hurricane’ (a track recorded in one take, he points out, only intended as a demo for his band). This book is no hurricane, rather a smokescreen of recollections offering themselves as a story that is perhaps intended to obscure before we glimpse the contradictions that made it. On that point, it does a wonderful job.
This is not a work for admirers of Bob Dylan’s brilliant Chronicles: Volume One or Patti Smith’s masterfully evocative Just Kids, in that it regards itself as an opportunity for the assemblage of interesting afterthoughts rather than a chance to make something more resonating than a rock star’s dreamy memoir. But there are deeply touching sequences too. Paul McCartney, Bruce Springsteen and ‘my friend Bob’ make shadowy appearances. Departed friends are recollected with sorrow and affection. It comes as a surprise to learn that the man who wrote such wild sixteen-wheeler riffs as ‘Into the Black’ and ‘Keep on Rocking in the Free World’ is an obsessive collector of model trains. Indeed, he positively revels in a kind of geekiness, waving it in your face, like Lady Gaga brandishing a steak at a Vegan.
Some of the book’s most likable writing is about guitars. He writes about ‘Old Black’, his 1952 Gibson Les Paul, with the tenderness of an old cowboy praising his sidekick. In the pantheon of great rock guitarists, there has surely never an earthier one. Young, in life a gentle and unassuming presence, on stage with a guitar becomes rock’s Incredible Hulk, a player who reminds you with earthquake power that this instrument is a lump of wood with metal wires attached and fifty thousand volts flowing through it. There are moments when the sardonic might feel his descriptions become a bit Spinal Tap. Young says the audiences at gigs by his band Crazy Horse were fortunate to feel ‘the force of the Horse’, a phrase only a legend could risk without attracting a beating. But the excesses are easily forgivable.
There is passionate, heartfelt railing against the introduction to the marketplace of digital sound – a CD, he tells us, has only 5% of the sonic inclusiveness of vinyl – and against the loathsome arrival of the i-pod’s ‘shuffle’ function, in this reviewer’s opinion the worst thing to happen to popular music since Rolf Harris covered ‘Stairway to Heaven.’ A generation of music fans has been robbed of the immense pleasure and challenge of discovering an album’s structure, the rhythms and chimings not noticeable on first listening. This is spreading through the culture like a ghastly virus, so that soon we will be able to download the bits of a novel some critic told us we might like and leave its other bits lonely in cyberspace. In the name of choice, we are enslaved to the immediate. But that is another story, worst luck.
Neil Young fans, and there are millions of those (this reviewer strongly included), will relish this elusively written and beautifully illustrated book for the unique story it almost tells. Those who feel the memoir can sometimes be more than an ultimately self-concealing genre may be left with the faintest regret. But the good thing is that many of them will be coaxed back to the songs, those strange and beautiful stories of fractured, hopeful lives as they were lived in the era of the long-playing record. This is a book by one of rock’s few enough truly important artists. The fact that he finds himself elusive as the rest of us find him shouldn’t necessarily be a surprise or a problem. Long may he run.
WHO I AM
By Pete Townshend
Review by Joseph O’Connor
Pennie Smith’s iconic cover photograph for The Clash’s brilliant 1979 album London Calling famously depicts their bassist Paul Simenon pounding the floor of a stage with his Fender Precision bass as though trying to bludgeon a hole through the floorboards. But like almost everything else that was acclaimed as new and revolutionary about punk, the image had its roots in the past. Johnny Rotten was a Dickensian urchin, the Artful Dodger grown up. Billy Bragg was Woody Guthrie plugged in. Siouxsie and the Banshees were like stragglers from Isherwood’s Berlin who had gorged on early Bowie and Iggy Pop. Central to punk’s origins, if usually unacknowledged, was an explosive band of misfits called The Who. They opened their shows the way dynamite opens a safe. The Beatles had claimed all you needed was love, a beautiful contention that no sane adult has ever believed. But The Who’s idea of stagecraft was to destroy their instruments while you watched. Sid Vicious, they made seem a wuss.
Their founder member Pete Townshend opens this eye-poppingly readable and long anticipated memoir with his account of the pub gig, in June 1964, during which he first reduced a Rickenbacker to rubble. He would do it again many times in the subsequent decades. Indeed, the opening artwork of this book shows a carefully staged re-enactment of the ‘auto-destruction’ that would become one of his trademarks, with Townshend, now 67, smashing up a guitar while apparently unaware of the cumbersome bunch of keys incongruously dangling from his belt. It’s like watching a slightly prosperous Fine Gael voter go suddenly bonkers while listening to Morning Ireland.
Who I Am traces a fascinating and circuitous journey from Townshend’s student days at Ealing Art College to the pill-popping Mod subculture of 1960s London, from there to the delirium of international stardom, the flamboyances of rock opera and the high tide of the Woodstock stage and beyond. He wanted to call his band ‘The Hair’, a close escape, proving that a rose by any other name actually doesn’t smell as sweet. There are not many rock legends who went on to be editors for Faber and Faber, publishing the writings of Jean Genet, Ted Hughes and Harold Pinter, as Townshend did, turning up to work every morning in a limo. He has lived a long, strange journey, and he recalls it with a stylish carefulness and an admirable degree of sang- froid.
Like so many of his searching generation of post-war English musicians, this son of an Acton saxophonist father and a jazz-singing mother began with an attraction to the blues. We will never really know why one tributary of the folk music of black America, radically reshaped by recording technology and internal migration, inspired legions of besotted imitators on the far side of the Atlantic Ocean, the happiest accident in all of Twentieth Century popular culture. The magnificent Howlin’ Wolf, Muddy Waters and Big Bill Broonzy were among young Townshend’s idols. But he quickly wearied of what he regarded as the limitations of the three-chord-trick and the faintly cringe-inducing cul-de-sac of white middle-class suburbanites emoting about the injustices of the Mississippi Delta or the mean streets of wintry Chicago. Elvis he found corny, ‘a drawling dope singing songs about dogs’. Bill Haley’s Rock Around the Clock at least swung. But from his earliest teens young Pete regarded himself as an artistic pioneer, a struggler to find a musical language capable of incarnating anything meaningful about the grungy discontents he saw around him.
The Mod movement, with its derision of greasy rock clichés and its Wildean sense of style as substance, gave him a look and a context for his restlessness. The ‘lovely Irish Mod girls’ of London were part of the attraction. (Irish people having recreational sex in London? In 1964? Why was a whole generation of Irish novelists never told??) With one of them he lost his virginity and a little of his crippling shyness, but he soon outgrew the parka and the pose. His early meetings with The Rolling Stones and The Kinks are recalled with generosity, a really touching and wide-eyed affection. This is a book by a music fan, first and last, a figure that for all his avowed ‘musical self-certainty’ seems unaware of his own immense contribution to the genre that burst his world into life.
Hearing the chugging mesmeric riff of Booker T and the MG’s ‘Green Onions’ opened doors. He tried to do with the electric guitar what black American soul musicians were doing with the Hammond Organ and with that most nuanced of instruments, the voice. Townshend, a figure who really did change rock music, in that he invented the power-chord, that muscular punctuation of the form’s basic grammar, writes with the attractive combination of deftness and forcefulness he always displayed in his playing. He was famous for ‘windmilling’ the guitar, a form of reiterated looping thrash, and if the book is sometimes a tad repetitive, as those windmills could be too — well, what the heck, it’s Pete Townshend, let him thrash if wants to, since he does it far better than most. If in doubt, stick on The Who’s Live at Leeds while you’re reading this memoir, as this reviewer happily did, at high volume. All sorts of things occur to the listener of such a stunning document. The main one is that economy can be overrated.
A self-searching, ruminative and troubled man emerges often from this long account. He suffered heartbreaking abuse as a boy, was prone to ‘depression and paranoia’, always felt like an outsider and has spent many years in psychotherapy. His early song ‘I Can’t Explain’ was played up-tempo and became a classic. But the struggle to explain the inexplicable has been at him a long time. he photographs of Townshend that illustrate this book show the particular combination of watchfulness and sadness you often see in the eyes of those whose childhood was sad.
Bands, like most other families, are often bound together by a whole nexus of loyalties only one of which is love. Ginger Baker and Jack Bruce once remarked of their own band, Cream, that it was essentially a jazz group but they decided never to tell their oversensitive guitarist Eric Clapton this fact, lest it upset him and cause him to leave. Somewhat similarly, the version of The Who that appears in these pages is a coalition rather than a band of true brothers. Their notorious drummer, Keith Moon, an anarchic spirit laid waste by the excesses of stardom, is evocatively and affectionately remembered here. But there is also, perhaps unconsciously, a fulgurating acknowledgement of the pain involved in loving a Gas Character. ‘Things they do look awful c-c-c-cold,’ snarled The Who in ‘My Generation’, their remorselessly brilliant anthem of stuttering teenage fury. ‘Hope I die before I get old.’ But Keith Moon and bassist John Entwistle did just that. A great song, a great slogan, but an empty one.
Lead vocalist Roger Daltrey comes across as a generous and fascinating presence, a wise, tough and lovable survivor, possessed of a measured intelligence. This reviewer happened to see him a couple of years ago in a pub in London’s Soho, looking hale of heart and leather of trouser. He appeared three times healthier than most of the establishment’s youthful clientele. You would see more fat on a chip.
There has never been a really satisfactory biography of The Who, one of the most exciting and perennially influential rock bands of all time. But this readable, honest, indeed bracingly frank account by an insider will do very well until we get one. For those many of us frightened children who couldn’t play guitar but sometimes wondered what it would be like to smash one to pieces before stalking regally from the stage, in an alleluia of screaming feedback, back to the magistracy of our haunted solitudes, it’s a compelling and moving read.
The first short story I wrote was a work of genius. It was austere and lovely, full of elegant sentences and sharp insights. Any reviewer would have called it a tour de force. Because the first short story I wrote was by John McGahern.
It’s called ‘Sierra Leone’ and it appears in the 1979 collection Getting Through, a copy of which had been purchased by my father and was lying around the house. In the story, a couple meet in a Dublin bar to discuss their complicated affair. I was sixteen that year. Complicated affairs interested me. My English teacher, John Burns, a wonderful man, who would rage like King Lear or weep at a line of Yeats, said writing could be a beneficial hobby for teenagers. It was the one thing he ever told us that was completely wrong.
Writing was like attempting to juggle with mud. I would sit in my bedroom, gawping at a blank jotter, wishing I had the foggiest inkling as to what might be written. McGahern often wrote about rural Leitrim, but we had no hedgerows or loys in the 1970s Dublin estate I called home. We had no thwarted farmers, no maiden aunts on bicycles, no small-town solicitors, no cattle-dealing IRA veterans. Simply put, there was nothing in Glenageary to write about. You could call it the original failure of the creative imagination without which no writer ever got going.
Whenever I tried to write, there was only frustration. I felt as pent-up as McGahern’s lovers. That’s how I recollect these youthful efforts at fiction: a haze of self-conscious fumblings and awkward gropings, second-hand sentences, sentenced to fail. One evening, in dismal hopelessness, I found myself copying out ‘Sierra Leone’ word for word. I ached to write a story. So I wrote one.
I must have felt that the act of writing would make the words somehow mine. But, if so, it was an act of literary adultery. I smouldered to know what that feeling was like: to write out a beautiful text from start to finish. I suppose this was comparable to wannabe pop-stars throwing shapes and pulling pouts in the bathroom mirror. But something richer and more interesting was going on, too. McGahern was teaching me to read, not to write: to see the presences hidden in the crannies of a text, the realities the words are gesturing towards. Perhaps this is what pulses at the core of the desire to read: the yearning for intense relationship with words we love. Not just with what they are saying, but with the words themselves. Perhaps every reader is re-writing the story.
The next evening, I transcribed the McGahern piece again. This time I dared to alter a couple of names. The male lead became ‘Sean’ (my father’s name). I christened his girlfriend ‘Deborah’ (after the punk singer Debbie Harry). Our next-door neighbour, Jack Mulcahy, had his name nicked for the barman. This felt taboo. It was like editing the bible. I was raised in a home where books were revered. My parents considered it disreputable even to dog-ear a volume’s pages. To interfere with a story would have been regarded as a form of sacrilege. Under the spell of McGahern, I became a teenage blasphemer.
Every few nights I’d guiltily rewrite the latest adaptation, changing the grammar here, a phrasing there. I’d move around events, break up the paragraphs, or tell the same story but from a different point of view. I must have written a hundred versions. The heroine’s beautiful hair became auburn or black, and finally – exultantly! – ‘strawberry blonde’. I learned the importance of punctuation in a story. A question mark could change things. A well-placed full stop had the force of a slap. Before long, I was murdering McGahern’s characters, replacing them with own pitifully scanty puppets. The pub became a discotheque, the couple acquired flares; I engaged them, married them, bought them a house in the suburbs, then a collection of Planxty records and a second-hand lawnmower. The lovers in the story were starting to seem familiar. They would not have appeared out of place in Arnold Grove, Glenageary.
I rechristened them ‘Adam and Eve’, after a church on the Dublin quays not far from where my father grew up. I altered their appearances, their way of speaking. I was afraid to admit it, but I knew who they were becoming. They roamed this fictive otherworld, this Eden designed in Leitrim, talking to each other about all sorts of things: how much they loved novels, how books shouldn’t be dog-eared. Sometimes they quarreled. I would have them reconcile. I could almost feel the firelight of that pub on my face as I watched my parents materialize through the prose.
I’d look at ‘Sierra Leone’. It became a kind of friend to me. I wanted to know it better, to learn how it ticked. At one point in those years, I could have made a fair stab at reciting the entire text by heart. It was breathtakingly simple, as though it had taken no effort to compose. In that, and in other ways, it was like an old Connemara ballad, of the kind I had often heard with my father on our holidays in Galway: so direct, so alluring, so subtly economical. It reminded me of ‘The Rocks of Bawn’: you wanted to know how it would turn out. It read, in fact, as though nobody had written it – as if it had somehow grown on the page. I recall one of the sentences: ‘Her hair shone dark blue in the light.’ That strange ache in the heart caused by precise words.
Each man kills the thing he loves. And so the vandalism continued, night after night, with me editing and re-writing this once perfect story with all the grace and deference of a wrecking ball in a cathedral, until gradually, over the span of my teenage years, every trace of McGahern was squeezed out of the text. Sierra Leone had become Glenageary. The story had been desecrated, but at least the resulting ruin was mine. When once in my later life I had the opportunity of relating this tale of destruction to the gentle master whose work I had so heartlessly destroyed, he replied, somewhat gravely: ‘You owe me a pint.’
Perhaps all writers have the story they will tell forever, the idea they will go on exploring, consciously or not, until they run out of masks or find their own way of seeing the world. McGahern’s ‘Sierra Leone’ helped me find mine. Every fiction I’ve begun, every story I’ve struggled and failed with, has been an attempted reaching-back to that heart-stopping moment of first encountering the power of his art. It’s a desire as doomed as any in the history of love stories. But you could spend your time chasing worse.
The Miro foundation in Barcelona, a city about which McGahern wrote with great grace, is arranged by chronology. You start with the child-artist’s naïve little doodles: his cartoon faces and multicoloured animals. Then you walk through the rooms organised year-by-year, through a life of struggle to say anything worth saying. You think of Patrick Kavanagh as you move through the still rooms: a man who dabbled in verse, only to have it become a life. Here are the pictures from the young Miro’s figurative phase, the bowls of fat oranges, the wine-bottles on windowsills. Then the warped guitars, the twisted limbs and mouths. You see him wrestle with the central question of Kavanagh’s career: how to balance the satirical impulse with fidelity to the sacred. And then the stuff gets stranger, wilder, more revolutionary. The faces are leering, the bodies apparently yearning to flee their frames; the world turns upside down before your eyes. And now paint itself begins to be abandoned: there are crazy collages, sculptures, ceramics, electric with the colours of the Catalonia Miro loved. It is a stunning experience to enter the last room and see the three vast canvases that dominate its walls. They hit you the way the opening notes of Beethoven’s Fifth do, or those last short plays of Samuel Beckett, in a way you know you will never quite forget. Each painting is an unadorned field of vivid blue, with a yellow snaking line bisecting the plane. The simplicity moves you with incredible force, the idea that at the end of such a long search there is only the very simple, the plain line across colour, the desire to leave a stain on the silence. To stand before these images always brings McGahern to my mind: the man who knew, again like Kavanagh, that in art there will always be two kinds of simplicity. The simplicity of going away and the simplicity of coming back.
Much more could be said about McGahern and Kavanagh, two rural-born Irish writers who chronicled versions of Dublin more memorably than did many a native. Again and again, the city appears in McGahern’s work, sometimes at a distance but often centrally. The exquisite short stories are peopled by migrant characters who see the metropolis as labyrinth of possibilities. Here is a Dublin of tatty dancehalls and uneasy courtships, of kisses in damp doorways and unfulfilled hungerings. His citizens are stalwarts of the city’s rural-born workforce, who take the first available bus home to the countryside on a Friday evening and the last one back to Bedsit-Land on a Sunday night. They are, in short, like most Dubliners were at the time, and as many are now, despite the new prosperity. Their flings and farewells make for writing of extraordinary beauty, with the city as forlorn backdrop to the search for love. Anyone who has ever lived away from home will find bittersweet beauty in these pages.
McGahern’s work acknowledges that Dublin (like capitals everywhere) is largely a community of migrants with conflicted loyalties. And I think of his explorations as opening a way for a number of subsequent writers. In that context it is striking that much of the most compelling fiction about the city has been produced by authors who grew up somewhere else. Ulsterman Patrick McCabe’s The Dead School and London-born Philip Casey’s The Fabulists offer powerful reflections on a place that changed radically in the 1970s, as political failure and corruption began to wreak havoc. In The Book of Evidence, Wexford-born John Banville produced a gripping novel set in the Dublin of that furtive era, a nighttown of whispered secrets and compromised positions. I find it hard to imagine how these novels could have been written without the presence of McGahern on the Irish scene. For me, he looms behind everyone. Every subsequent Irish novelist owes him a debt.
At UCD in the 1980s, encouraged by Declan Kiberd and the late Gus Martin, I read The Barracks, The Dark and more of the stories. I found them completely strange and always enthralling. At the time, the vogue among my friends was for Latin American ‘Magic Realism’. In those years it often seemed that no novel was worthy of the name unless it contained a talking leopard or a fifteen-page sentence. Against this blizzard of vowelly pyrotechnics McGahern’s work stood solid, starkly implacable, like a dry-stone wall in a windstorm. I loved its quiet faith, its insistence on its own terms. And then came his masterpiece Amongst Women, perhaps the most important Irish novel of the late twentieth century.
So much has been written and said about this sparely magnificent book. It does what was done by Joyce, by George Eliot and Miro, by Muddy Waters and Bessie Smith, the Sex Pistols and Miles Davis: it conjures a world that is absolutely specific to itself, down to the most minuscule, seemingly inconsequential detail, but in so doing manages the alchemy of saying something about every life. Not for nothing did this novel become a bestseller in Ireland, as well as being garlanded with literary awards. The family it depicts is somehow every Irish family of a certain era, held together by its secrets, bound by its evasions, by a nexus of loyalties, only one of which is love. Indeed, it is difficult not to read the Morans as embodying the profoundly uneasy nation in which they exist.
The book draws so subtly from that bottomless well of Irish familial images and returns them to us re-imagined, made wholly new. Moran, the disillusioned republican, burnished hard by pain, walks through the book like a living ghost, through drifts of memories of nights on the run, promises broken, responsibilities ducked. The women in the book, especially the elderly women, are so utterly real, so achingly recognisable that you forget they are products of someone’s imagination. They talk about the rain, about children and food, and you know something else is being discussed all the time. And the episode near the end, at Moran’s funeral, is the most powerful fictional scene I have read since my adolescence, when its author helped me first know what it is to read. We see the local hacks of the two conservative parties snickering together in the rural cemetery, as the embittered old revolutionary is finally buried. Sometimes great writers know things they don’t know. This tableau was composed a decade before the Celtic Tiger padded into Ireland, but it is the most forceful comment imaginable on that ambiguous, sharp-toothed beast.
His final novel, That They May Face the Rising Sun, took eleven years to make and surprised many of its creator’s admirers by addressing that rarest of Irish literary subjects: happiness. Here on the lakeside, near to Gloria Bog, little is happening beyond the everyday syncopations – yet, as ever, McGahern unearths resonant beauty. Gossip is a currency, as always in Ireland, and his dialogue, so subtle and carefully poised, abounds with the juiciness of popular speech. It is his most audaciously structured book to date, almost completely devoid of plot, suggesting reams about its characters while rarely telling you anything about them. Reading it is like reading everything he wrote: like moving to a place you’ve never lived in before, where you don’t know the neighbours or how things work. But thanks to McGahern, you want to know them, because somehow coming to know them, even though they might be nothing like you, is to come to know yourself and those you love, and to understand that there is still a kind of hope.
McGahern’s Collected Stories had been published in 1992, becoming a classic of the genre and, in his native Ireland, a bestseller. It offered itself as an assembly of ‘all John McGahern’s short fiction, fully revised, in a definitive text.’ But the statement of finality proved premature. McGahern, a rewriter throughout his career – he completely reworked his novel The Pornographer some years after its first publication – came back to these magnificent stories in the last seasons of his life. A new collection, Creatures of the Earth, appeared eight months after his death. As well as being the finest body of short stories published by any Irish writer in recent years is also a fascinating self-critique.
Nothing like academic completeness had been attempted, although, given the large number of drafts reportedly among his papers, a variorum edition will surely be published at some point. Seven stories had been removed. The order of appearance had been altered. Two new stories were included, ‘Creatures of the Earth’ and ‘Love of the World’. Some of the surviving pieces, already spare, had been trimmed.
‘The Creamery Manager’, for example, one of the most powerful short stories since Joyce’s Dubliners, is shorter, harder, less about its own ambiguities. This portrait of a small man disgraced by an act of petty fraud becomes even more heartbreaking in compression. Yet what is moving about the story is not just the protagonist’s situation, but the notion that a piece already so forceful was still worth work; the image of a writer approaching the silence but still keeping faith with the impulse for simplicity. Thus McGahern himself becomes a central presence in this collection, like a character in the corner of the room.
Where the completeness of the 1992 collection revealed the evolution of a unique way of seeing, this one, like any selection, is intriguing for its omissions. A couple of his editorial choices may be regretted by admirers – he was a little too tough on himself, omitting stories any writer would love to have made — but in a tantalizingly brief introduction McGahern clarifies his rationale. Some of his shorter fictions were too autobiographical to take flight, he came to feel, and were reworked for his last book, Memoir. ‘No matter what violences or dislocations were attempted, they continued to remain…obdurately what they were.’ It is tempting to read that sentence as an epitaph for its author.
The collection serves as a farewell to the characters that McGahern made his own. They walk through these unforgettable and assiduously-crafted miniatures like the archetypes of a modern folklore: the inarticulate lover, the distant, damaged father, the schoolteacher who doubts or despises his vocation. Several times we encounter the former student for the Catholic priesthood who abandoned that path on the verge of ordination, or the man who missed his cue when it was howled by the fates. These are lives marked by abrupt turnings, roads not taken, promises broken, the hopes of childhood crushed, but somehow a faith in the world survives, a notion that redemption is possible. He is brilliant on human weakness, on what it means to be powerless, this Chekhov of small town, pre-confident Ireland. His people have feelings of agonizing complexity but their language does not give them the power of expression. Like Beckett’s outcasts, and Brian Friel’s lovers, they seem caught in a perpetual struggle between silence and speech, but the style McGahern developed, shifting subtly between scrupulous plainness and high lyricism, somehow gives voice to their condition.
The collection draws so skilfully from a well of Irish familial images but returns them re-minted, infused with quiet force. In that way, the stories may be read as rehearsals for the novels, or as tributaries of one another, workings-out of implications. The father in most of them is a version of Amongst Women’s Moran, the disenchanted republican burnished hard by pain. The women in the stories, especially the elderly women, are so achingly recognisable that you forget they are products of an imagination. They talk about rain, about children and preparing food, and all the time something else is being discussed. The troubled couple in the masterful ‘Sierra Leone’ cannot communicate except in evasions. Yet he finds resonant beauty in such halting attempts at empathy, and his dialogue, so loving and carefully poised, crackles with the vividness of popular speech.
McGahern, a man of unfailing modesty, might have found some of his obituaries embarrassing. But it is difficult, reading these luminous stories of loss and desire, to avoid the kind of cliché he would have killed with his unforgiving blue pencil. He was the greatest Irish writer of the late twentieth century and this collection is an extraordinary triumph. Indeed, right to the end his work was opening ground, new ways of reading the silence. His work remains a reminder of the everyday miracle of fiction; one of the reasons why we want to read at all, wherever that grace is revealed to be available, in suburban bedrooms, or in bed-sits, alone.
Thousands of Dubliners will soon be reading a novel by one of their city’s strangest literary sons. An unsettling fable of power, corruption and lies, it was an immediate bestseller when originally published and has been translated into countless languages. Filmed, set to music and adapted for theatre, it has also been so heavily expurgated that it has been appropriated as a children’s classic when its author intended it as a ruthless satire in which evil triumphs over hope. Written 300 years ago by an angry priest, it has never been out of print since.
Jonathan Swift’s Travels into Several Remote Nations of the World has entered the iconography of Western culture as perhaps no other single novel, giving words to the English language and inspiring remarkably diverse acts of homage. Alexander Pope wrote fulsome verses in its praise, and the scriptwriters of Doctor Who produced a 1968 episode in which all of one character’s dialogue is borrowed from Swift’s dark masterpiece. Gulliver’s Travels is now Dublin City Council’s brave choice for April’s ‘One City One Book’ promotion, an award-winning annual campaign to encourage everyone in the city to read the same novel simultaneously. A political comedy, an existentialist meditation, a bleak thriller about an outsider caught between worlds, Gulliver is also a powerful reminder that size does matter after all.
Orwell, who loved the novel, claiming it among ‘the six indispensable books in world literature’, nevertheless misunderstood one aspect of its game, finding Gulliver’s obsequiousness to authority made him ‘an imbecile’. But in fact Swift’s anti-hero, a born survivor, has a politician’s ability to speak and purpose not. This is a novel about language’s ability to conceal, a handbook of ideological manoeuvring.
Lemuel Gulliver is English, a graduate of Cambridge, a surgeon by profession, an adventurer by inclination. Like Defoe’s Robinson Crusoe, the most famous slave-trader in literary history, a character Gulliver resembles and at least partly satirizes, Swift’s protagonist believes in geographies, charts, inventories, travelogues, statistics, measurements. The imperialism of veracity is mocked in the book, which is decorated with phoney maps and translations from fictional languages, but Gulliver has an 18th century Englishman’s unquestioning attitude that the world exists to be colonized. But interestingly, he has other, more private motivations, and they bubble through the murk of the text. Married with two children, we meet him as he is about to enter his forties, an era when the midlife crisis expressing itself as wanderlust is still not entirely unknown. These days, you feel, he might set out to climb Everest, probably in leather trousers and an earring.
Shipwrecked, he famously finds himself in Lilliput, where the natives are tiny, ruled by a diminutive emperor, and later in Brobdingnag, where the indigenes are giants who regard him as a celebrity, a plaything. Further voyages are chronicled, principally into the country of the Yahoos, bestial, degraded, pitiful savages who wander their wasteland naked, utterly devoid of fellow feeling, shitting on their enemies and grunting like apes. Much critical energy has been expended in wondering who Swift had in mind when he imagined these Neanderthal troglodytes. One answer might be suggested by an 1862 editorial in Punch magazine, which I found while researching my own novel Star of the Sea: ‘A creature manifestly between the gorilla and the Negro is to be met with in some of the lowest districts of London and Liverpool by adventurous explorers. It comes from Ireland, whence it has contrived to migrate; it belongs in fact to a tribe of Irish savages: the lowest species of Irish Yahoo’. What an irony that Swift, the onetime Dean of St Patrick’s Cathedral in Dublin, the genius who took his readers on an Odyssey beyond the wildest frontiers of imagination, may simply have been venting about his troublesome neighbours, wishing they would act more English.
Ultimately Gulliver washes up in the territory of the horse-like Houyhnhnms who live by the precepts of rationality alone and ‘have no Word in their language to express anything that is Evil, except what they borrow from the deformities or ill Qualities of the Yahoos.’ Here he collapses into an inertia that could well be madness but may also be merely a striking instance of the invader going more native than the natives. His attempted inculturation has cost him dearly. Returning to England, he cannot bear to be among his own species any more. Even his wife and children he finds repulsive, malodorous. By now, all humanity he regards as irredeemably Yahoo, with the exception, of course, of himself. Gulliver’s ultimate tragedy is his lack of self-knowledge, a vacuum which is filled by his deranged desire to be President of a republic of one. If no man is an island, as Donne hopefully claimed, Gulliver’s self-insularization renders him lonely as a hostage, crippled by a kind of Stockholm Syndrome that makes him worship the Houyhnhnms despite their fascist hauteur.
Michael Foot once wrote, ‘Everyone standing for political office…should have a compulsory examination in Gulliver’s Travels.’ And politicians have long been among those most interested in the book’s chillingly pessimistic vision. Yet the novel is scathing about all ideologies, and vicious towards those who propound them. Swift incarnates a world where politicians advance their careers by performing public limbo-dances in the presence of their patrons, ‘by leaping and creeping’, toadying and cavorting. Readers might be forgiven for thinking they have strayed into the matrix of Mandelsonian New Labour with its semantic and ethical gymnastics. Certainly, Doctor Gulliver is not the last Cambridge graduate to sex up a document in the hope that things can only get better.
Swift conjures a milieu in which wars are caused by differing interpretations of the same passage of scripture, where disagreements about the proper method of opening a boiled egg have caused the deaths of millions. Solidarities are meaningless, friendship an illusion, nationhood a matter of caste superiorities. If Gulliver is a story for children it is more Horrid Henry than Just William. As a fairytale, it is unendingly Grimm.
Freudian critics have been animated by the book’s obsession with bodily functions. Certainly, Swift’s preoccupation with notions of sublimation seems to anticipate later explorations. Neuroses about body image and inadequate sexuality punctuate and interrupt the text. There is even an outbreak of communal penis-envy when the Lilliputian males, marching under Gulliver’s spread legs, gape upward in awe at the giant’s genitalia, affording ‘opportunities for laughter and admiration.’ (One version of the book is available in pop-up format, a possibility that boggles the mind.)
But what strikes a modern reader most forcefully is the book’s metafictional quality, its constant awareness of its own textuality; that it has been mediated and is now being read. Like Coetzee’s Diary of a Bad Year and Nabokov’s Pale Fire, it presents itself as having been edited. We know parts of Gulliver’s story have been omitted or disguised. What can be so terrible that we must be spared exposure? And just how unreliable is the narrator? As in Orwell’s Room 101 and Kafka’s unspecified trial, we are invited to confront the worst of all terrors – the one we can only imagine. Thus, the reader becomes a central character, facing the magistracy of conscience, rather than being the passive recipient of a yarn.
But it’s also a book about shock, the effect of trauma on its narrator. Swift, who was fascinated by mental illness, left money in his will for the establishment of Dublin’s first psychiatric hospital, an institution still in existence. (He is said to have added, in a pithy codicil, that he would have endowed the building of a wall around the entire island of Ireland had only his wealth been sufficient.) The Travels, with its relentless atmosphere of disorientation, is an album of nightmares, a bestiary. His fictive islands are terrifying, Beckettian in their fearfulness; we enter the territory of the gulag, the rendition. Tied-up, paraded, vilified and eroticized in equal measure, Gulliver has echoes of the Guantanamo detainee onto whom fantasies of submission are projected. An exotic to some, a terrorist to others, banished from the kingdom when suspected of treason, he ends as the Enemy Within. The public discourse of every community he comes to inhabit swirls around the centrifuge of his presence. An illegal immigrant, an asylum-seeker accused of sponging, he is scapegoat for the desires of the local powerful, who would clearly treat everyone the way they treat their refugee if only they could away with it. And there are other resonances of the 24-hour media culture into which the book has survived to transmit its unique warnings. An early instance of what happens to all celebrities with purely physical charms, Gulliver falls so quickly from being VIP to persona non grata that his plummet is dazzlingly vertiginous. If the tabloid press had existed in Lilliput, you suspect he would have been the frequent subject of its hypocrisies.
This voyeurism and scrutiny is both means of communal bonding and method of public punishment. One of the worst of the many torments to befall Swift’s anti-hero is his public exposition as a freak. It is an ordeal he experiences as sexually abusive, in which the gaze of the viewer (and the reader, too) might stand for the Abu Ghraib lens. Basted in humour of the broad kind that always camouflages unease – Gulliver is used as a sort of sex-toy by Brobdingnag’s supersized girls – this is a drama of invasions, infractions and conquests, of political and psychological battlegrounds. Driving everything is the proto-Sartrean notion that all human relationships predicate themselves on power, that Hell is other people. Images of restraint and chastisement are everywhere in this novel of threatened personal space. Perhaps only Poe has written more anxiously of confinement, restriction and rebuke. For Yeats, who admired Swift greatly and wrote a poem based on his epitaph, to live in a body was to be ‘fastened to a dying animal’. Swift’s savage indignation is not so exculpatory. His humans are little better than insects.
But it is not merely a text about the small being bullied by the big. Gulliver is a meditation on moral downsizing, how the world is changed by violence. Another Irish classic, Frank O’Connor’s Guests of the Nation, is a story that recounts the terrible execution of two British soldiers during the Irish War of Independence. Perhaps Swift’s ghost was at Frank O’Connor’s shoulder as he penned his closing lines: ‘Noble [one of the killers] says he saw everything ten times the size, as though there were nothing in the whole world but that little patch of bog with the two Englishmen stiffening into it, but with me it was as if the patch of bog…was a million miles away…and I was somehow very small and very lost.’
Shock alters perspectives, dimensionalities, setting ethical compasses askew. Many will recall a certain Lilliputian on a battleship in May 2003, announcing his project in Iraq was ‘mission accomplished’, bigging himself up as he swaggered for the cameras, when to others he seemed so small. Midget Goliaths still haunt the latitudes of our morality, insisting on the blackness of white.
This pungent, dirty, hilarious, gloomy, thunderous rant of a book has long divided critical opinion. In 1847, Thomas De Quincey claimed that ‘the meanness of Swift’s nature, and his rigid incapacity for dealing with the grandeurs of the human spirit…is absolutely appalling.’ And in 1851 Thackeray denounced the book as ‘horrible, shameful, unmanly [and] blasphemous,’ its author as ‘a monster gibbering shrieks, and gnashing imprecations against mankind – tearing down all shreds of modesty, past all sense of…shame; filthy in word, filthy in thought, furious, raging, obscene.’ And modern readers have been repelled by the book’s misogynist stances (although it is notable that women and girls show far more uncomplicated kindness to Gulliver than do men.) Certainly, the smoke of Swift’s fury arises from every page, and, if it often intoxicates, it sometimes obscures. As such, it is not an easy or comforting book. Its vision makes Beckett’s look cheery. And its author himself did not plead innocent to the frequently levelled charge of misanthropy. Writing to his friend Thomas Sheridan in 1725, Swift remarked, ‘Expect no more from man than such an animal is capable of, and you will every day find my description of the Yahoos more resembling.’ It is a novel by a genius who despaired of his species yet wrote ‘for their approbation’.
But at the heart of Swift’s masterwork is an ennobling sadness, a lament for a world gone mad. This reaches its hallucinogenic climax in an inventory of the technology of war, which has none of Wilfred Owen’s sometimes anesthetizing portrayal of soldiers as always innocent victims. ‘I gave him a description of cannons, culverins, muskets, carabines, pistols, bullets, powder, swords, bayonets, sieges, retreats, attacks, undermines, countermines, bombardments, sea-fights; ships sunk with a thousand men; twenty thousand killed on each side; dying groans, limbs flying in the air: smoak, noise, confusion, trampling to death under horses feet: flight, pursuit, victory: fields strewed with carcases left for food to dogs, and wolves, and birds of prey; plundering, stripping, ravishing, burning and destroying….When a creature pretending to reason, could be capable of such enormities, he dreaded, lest the corruption of that faculty, might be worse than brutality itself.’ In an era when warfare is once again portrayed as a game of statistics, collateral damage and ‘mopping-up operations’, we need these stark reminders that war is finally, fundamentally, a set of euphemisms for the destruction of the body. Gulliver’s Travels is a howl of maddened grief, a threnody for a species whose accomplishments in mass destruction have so utterly outclassed its achievements in morality that language itself has been diseased.
It is perhaps this universality of preoccupation that can explain the book’s quite so numerous filiations. From Animal Farm to Alice in Wonderland, from Peter Shaffer’s Equus to Bram Stoker’s shape-shifters, Gulliver is the colossus who haunts the pages, lost in his culpabilities, his evasions. He shadows world literature, an Easter Island embodiment of our capabilities and our deepest fears. That those two seeming opposites are so profoundly connected is the most astonishing realization of this radically destabilizing vision, and the reason it is still needed by our age. For Gulliver speaks to us across the bloodstained centuries, broken, abused, unflaggingly human, a fragment of the problem he wrestles with. In a world of toppled towers and vanquished kingdoms, where death is a matter of solved problems on maps, his bleak, funny, sometimes ludicrous voice tells us we are not alone. ‘A book,’ wrote Franz Kafka, Swift’s greatest inheritor, ‘is an axe to the frozen sea around us.’ Literature has had a pantheon of lost and wrecked mariners, but the most poignant of all is Lemuel Gulliver, still alone on the ice-floe of the frightened self, desperate to find a way home.
Some of Ireland’s wisest literary commentators have been troubled in recent times by a reticence they perceive among the country’s writers of fiction on the matter of the new prosperity. The novelists have told us nothing — thus runs the argument. An Irish Amis has proved reluctant to appear.
Like most debating stances, it obscures as much as it reveals but its assumptions are more enlightening than its conclusions. Mass-market fiction, the historical novel, the thriller, the crime novel, the stand-up comedy routine, the pop lyric, the rock lyric and other incarnations of genre-based storytelling have not been adjudged worthy of critical purview, no matter their level of engagement, often remarkably direct, with the now deceased Celtic Tiger. Where, oh where, is our Bret Easton Ellis? And where is our Bonfire of the Vanities? You sometimes get the feeling the vestals of the flame may have been looking in all the wrong places. For Anne Enright’s Taking Pictures, Colm Toibin’s Mothers and Sons, Roddy Doyle’s The Deportees, Claire Keegan’s Walk the Blue Fields and Philip O’Ceallaigh’s Notes from a Turkish Whorehouse have each implicitly claimed a power for the literary short story to speak of its complex times. Now comes an outstandingly accomplished debut collection from Irish émigré Gerard Donovan. It might persuade those who have been waiting for the epic of affluent Ireland that size isn’t everything after all.
Colm Toibin wrote some years ago, in a witty allusion to Joyce’s ‘The Dead’, that ‘snow was general over Irish fiction.’ Anyone who grew up reading Irish short stories would smile bleakly with recognition at the metaphor. There was lyricism in the writing but it sometimes blanketed the actual landscape you suspected might be lying beneath. Donovan, the latest accomplished Irish novelist to enter the snowstorm – his novel Julius Winsome is an extraordinary achievement – has no truck whatever with strategies of concealment. His stories are meltingly beautiful.
This is an Ireland of traffic, of suburbs and over-pricing, of ‘pink and blue neon signs, huge hotels standing alone till more business built up around them, and then the rabbit-cage houses.’ Rural idylls are unavailable, the stuff of daytime television. ‘It was getting on in the day and after work. Dinners were ready, lights flooding rooms. The afternoon dramas like Emmerdale Farm were at an end, and soon it would be time for the news.’ Interestingly, the city exerting its magnetism on the characters is usually Galway, not Dublin, and subtly subverted images of the Irish west abound. ‘Play some national songs,’ says one character. ‘Let’s hear some patriot songs.’ This plea has been caused by a sentence Yeats and Synge could never in their wildest nightmares have imagined. ‘I declare, my father said holding the guitar, I love Waylon Jennings.’
The writing crackles with truthfulness, a piercing acuity. A troubled husband wonders ‘what kept any couple together, what preserved a marriage from the people in it?’ A surly construction foreman ‘wore impatience in the guise of curiosity.’ The winter sun is ‘a pale yellow circle pressed like a fingertip against the ice on the bedroom window.’ A man urinates ‘to such relief that he could have written about it.’ In the wrenchingly poignant title story, set at a charity fundraising race, a businessman’s ill-considered sprint becomes an understated but continuously deepening metaphor, not only for his life but for the fervency of a society that tried running before it had learned to walk. The literal presence of the ancient past is approached with immense skill in ‘Archaeologists’ (one of several pieces in which images of archaeology figure), a troublingly prescient story set in an Ireland whose real-life politicians wish to run a motorway through the ancient valley of Tara. Indeed, cars are the setting for many important scenes in this exquisite collection, imaging the paralysis and social separation of their gridlocked occupants as poignantly as Joyce’s boarding-house rooms once did. In ‘By Irish Nights’ — for this reader the only unsuccessful story – cars almost acquire the status of characters: ‘In the houses they pass some are not yet dreaming…Across the country, from Donegal to Tipperary and down to Kerry, the roads have begun to fill, coast roads, roads through small towns, roads widening into the midlands, narrowing into cities.’ Parallels with Joyce’s ‘After the Race’, an earlier Irish story about cars, seem to suggest themselves before disappearing like tail-lights in fog. ‘The Summer of Birds’ is a heartbreaking story, as perfect as a William Trevor miniature.
Much more than a book about the Celtic Tiger (although it is certainly that), this is a collection about the anxieties and sublimated fears of the Ireland that rejected the Lisbon Treaty in June, despite being commanded not to do so by its establishment. There’s a sense of having come too far, of something precious being lost, doing battle with a simultaneous and equally adamant mistrust of the past. Is Ireland European? A kind of America? Or both? What did the good years mean? Images of maps and cartography occur frequently in Donovan’s writing. It’s hard to avoid thinking we’ve pulled up a crossroads, the place where rural Ireland’s young people used to court and dance, but where the bluesmen of another storytelling tradition, fuelled by many a myth, sold their compromised souls to the devil. This is not the first fiction about Ireland’s economic boom but it may well be the first to see it for what it truly was, in all its shimmering newness and garish strangeness, its ugliness somehow related to its beauty. That Gerard Donovan manages to unearth such resonant grace from that paradox is remarkable. This is an important and haunting collection.
Roseanne McNulty, forgotten centenarian, long-time resident of the Roscommon regional mental hospital, is facing an imminent upheaval. The decrepit Victorian institution is soon to be demolished, leaving its residents displaced in a starkly changed modern Ireland that has all but buried its violent origins. Attempting to organise her memories, some reliable, others shifting, she embarks on the writing of a chronicle.
Her account forms the main part of Sebastian Barry’s compelling novel, in which Roseanne’s testimony interweaves with that of her psychiatrist, Dr Grene. A man who feels fatherly, “even motherly”, towards his patients, he is plagued by memories of an uneasy marriage. He and his late wife were “like two peoples that have once committed grave crimes against each other, but in another generation”.
Barry writes about loss, broken promises, failed hopes. This novel of crippled perspectives and ducked responsibilities comments on his 1998 book The Whereabouts of Eneas McNulty, a story about “scraps of people, blown off the road of life by history’s hungry breezes”. In addition, The Secret Scripture offers itself as a kind of thematic cousin to his Booker-nominated masterpiece A Long Long Way and his award-winning stage play The Steward of Christendom.
Barry, in effect, is making one operatically extended fiction comprising discrete but interrelated novels and plays, often inspired by his real-life ancestors. It is an astoundingly ambitious body of work, which establishes that family trees, like national histories, sprout “the strange fruits in the cornucopia of grief”.
He writes with a dramatist’s timing and a poet’s exactitude. (One character, a priest, is “cleaner than the daylight moon”; panic is “blacker than old tea”.) The result is a richly allusive and haunting text that is nevertheless jagged enough to avoid the anaesthetic of high lyricism. This is a novel in which swans enduring a rainstorm are “like unsuccessful suicides” and the accents of Sligo corner-boys are “like bottles being smashed in a back lane”. The setting is the western Ireland of traditional literary depiction – subtle Yeatsian references abound in the novel – but Barry’s destabilising of inherited images gives the book a punkish energy as well as fiery beauty.
Roseanne’s voice is urgent, colloquial, strange, a song of insinuations, non-sequiturs and self-corrections. It sifts the troubled memories it purports to be organising while always keeping faith with the impossibility of the task. Shards of stories intrude; fragments of lost narratives jostle. Half-forgotten quotations and scraps of ancient folklore blow around her mind like old leaves. Is she chronicler or creator? How much is reliable? “No one has the monopoly on truth,” she points out. “Not even myself, and that is a vexing and worrying thought.”
Her turn of phrase is bleakly funny and there are warm, vivid reminiscences, for a girlhood in rural Ireland “is not all knives and axes”, but as recollection coheres into a devastating story the nature of her sufferings becomes clearer. Dr Grene is both detector and hider of truths, and he finds himself in paradoxical reversal with his baffling patient, speaking to her of his own losses and hurts. But the book is arranged and imagined with immense tact, so that it is never unbalanced by its ironies. Roseanne and Dr Grene, though hardly ever described, are incarnated with such commitment and narrative astuteness that you feel you are standing in the rain of their lives. You are reading them, not reading about them.
As often in Barry’s work, Irish history is a malignant omnipresence, its antediluvian hatreds and innumerable betrayals forming not so much a backdrop as a toxic sludge through which the characters must wade, as best they can. The terrors of civil war have led to incurable enmities, the “sad, cold, wretched deaths of boys on mountainsides”. Innocence is murdered and idealism compromised by the dirty truths of sectarianism. The newborn state professes fealty to republican slogans but its bitterest irony is that liberty, equality and fraternity have proven so viciously incompatible. Trust is unaffordable. Love is a risk. The neighbour is the assassin, the former comrade the enemy.
In this territory of “murders so beyond gentleness and love that to be even in propinquity to them was ruinous”, identity itself is contested. Roseanne, as a working-class Presbyterian and a woman, is presented both as traumatised outsider and intimate commentator, a spectator of warring men whose allegiances and concomitant hatreds will have woeful consequences for her own family. Perhaps the act of telling her story is in some sense redemptive, but behind the mistrust of patriotism are more elemental questionings. This is a novel of masculinities; the damage done by men, to women, but also to themselves.
Students of militant Irish nationalism may be tempted to read Roseanne as a sort of personification. Certainly, the image of Ireland as a forlorn old woman has for so long been central to republican iconography that the novel can be filtered through the lens of those meanings even as it cleverly subverts them. But Barry is doing something darker and more daring than image-breaking. He makes enthrallingly beautiful prose out of the wreckage of these lives by allowing them to have the complication of actual history in all its messy elusiveness. “History, as far as I can see, is not the arrangement of what happens,” he writes, “but a fabulous arrangement of surmises and guesses held up as a banner against the assault of withering truth.” His achievement in this magnificent and heart-rending novel is a kind of restitution.
This handsome, slip-cased, double-volume set of short stories contains more than a thousand pages of William Trevor’s prose, superseding his Collected Stories published in 1992. Admirers of his persuasive and scrupulously understated writing will have read many of these stories before, but the power of this unforgettably impressive gathering is in the breadth and consistency of his achievement.
From early masterpieces such as ‘Access to the Children’, ‘The General’s Day’, ‘The Ballroom of Romance’ and ‘Matilda’s England’ to the well-wrought wonders contained in his last four books, the characterisation is skilful and subtle. There is sometimes a scene of brilliantly spine-tingling unease, as disconcerting as anything in Kafka or Pinter, but generally his characters have been the ordinary lonely, lost people trying to make sense of their fate.
Whether the old curate in ‘Justina’s Priest’, the unhappy lovers in ‘Office Romances’ and ‘The Forty-Seventh Saturday’, or the middle-aged blind-daters who endure a mortifying encounter in ‘An Evening Out’, his people are recognisable strugglers. His genius is that everything they do is wholly believable, even when it is bizarre or out of character. And the hard-won compression of his careful style charges his depictions with an immense power. His ironies are sparing, organised with masterful timing, often directed at marriage or courtship. The story ‘Graillis’s Legacy’ reveals more about the demands of fidelity than does many an epic novel. And ‘The Penthouse Apartment’, a wonderful story, builds an atmosphere of almost dizzying panic.
What is remarkable about this collection is how it reveals the extent to which the touchstones of Trevor’s aesthetic were there from the very earliest stories: the crafted sparseness of description, the luminous sense of place, the extraordinarily profound insight into the depths concealed by social conversations. Each story proceeds at a kind of internal rhythm, the clarity of cadence and gracious austerity of the writing achieving an exactitude few living writers could match.
And his sense of eloquent tact animates every paragraph. He never crowds his characters or smothers them with adjectives, but allows them to incarnate themselves on the page. There is a wise, forgiving kindliness in his curiosity about human foibles, but it’s an effective strategy too, for it coaxes the reader into the story so irresistibly. He dares to leave enormous questions about his people unanswered, leaving you riveted while he slips unnoticed from the building.
A good number of these miniatures are quietly charged with the unquestioning, stoical, intoxicating sadness of so many rural Irish lives of the past. But his bleak English suburbs are conjured as evocatively, as are his hot tourist destinations from Jerusalem to Cap Ferat, and the denizens of his wrecked aristocratic mansions. He is wonderful on roads not taken, on responsibilities ducked, on guilty secrets and stunted compromises. Buildings and gardens come to life as he describes them. And he is brilliant on marriage, the tacit détentes and unasked questions that lock spouses together as powerfully as do love and fondness. He writes of one wife that something in her ‘had been smashed to pieces’. There is never a moment of false lyricism. Many of his women live in a world of choking passivity, where events can only be controlled at a price. He writes of another character. ‘She had once been Mrs Horace Spire and was not likely to forget it.’ We don’t forget it either.
Compassionate, poignant, clear-eyed, often heart-rending, these stories build into a sustained meditation on the problems that have long preoccupied their author: love lost, marital infidelity, duties of decency shirked, ageing, loyalty, self-caused loneliness. His characters become progressively more disrupted by politics as you move through the collection, but even in the stories that allude to Ireland’s sectarianism the emphasis is on people, not the slogans they live by, or die by. It is surprising to see how often imagery of childlessness surfaces in the stories, and how eerie some of the early pieces are. In tales such as ‘In at the Birth’ the ghost of Poe can be felt. Trevor is capable of seriously scaring you.
The prose is clear as water, but with so many eddying undercurrents of meaning that second and third readings yield startling new insights, and this is the greatest pleasure of this immensely enjoyable collection. What is extraordinary, looking back now at five decades of his work, is not just the restricted range of his linguistic palette – there is scarcely a metaphor anywhere in the book – but the truthfulness and scope he achieves with it.
The simplicity and authority of the writing is haunting and finally moving. Joyce is always present as an influence, not the linguistic pyrotechnician of Ulysses, but the modest and punctilious voice of Dubliners. (One story, ‘Two More Gallants’, engages directly with Joyce’s collection.) In Trevor’s work, plainness is everything, a kind of grammar as well as a worldview. It is hard to think of any writer who is better at silences, the subtle ways in which they articulate affection or power. ‘Her lipstick had left a trace on the rim of the teacup and Norah drew her attention to it with a gesture. Kathleen wiped it off.’ This moment from the strange story, ‘Sitting with the Dead’, is typical of his focused attentiveness. He mines whole histories from the unspoken, the denied. A widow remembers how her furious husband ruled by threats. ‘The time she began to paint the scullery, it frightened her when he stood in the doorway, before he even said a thing.’ And then there is the sheer grace of his sentences, the joy of recognition they bring. An eavesdropper ‘was skilled at breaking into privacies without the knowledge of the person observed; he prided himself on that, but twice, or even three times, he suddenly had to drop his scrutiny, taken unawares by having his gaze returned’.
Flannery O’Connor famously wrote that the short-story form is all about the point not understood at once, the thing half-glimpsed in a corner. It has been William Trevor’s achievement over nearly to 50 years as a writer to have shone light into those spaces with such unerring steadiness that you hardly even notice he is doing it. This is a magnificent collection, astonishing in its pleasures. The lack of an introduction is its only flaw.
It might overburden the Booker Prize- nominated Love and Summer to characterise it as Trevor’s finest novel to date, indeed as one of his greatest literary achievements, but the book is so persuasive and beautifully achieved that one is tempted to reach for superlatives. All the hallmarks of Trevor’s scrupulous style are deployed: the crafted sparseness of description, the photographically vivid sense of place, the extraordinarily profound insight into the business of being human. His awe-inspiring ability to express the most complex of realities in sentences of clarity and shimmering plainness has never been more admirable.
What I would describe as his sense of eloquent tact is present on every page. Trevor is a master at standing back from his characters. He never crowds them with his own cleverness or gets in their way but allows them to incarnate themselves on the page. There is a sort of wise kindliness in his curiosity about people and their foibles, but it’s a marvellously effective strategy too, for it draws the reader in so powerfully. He leaves questions about his people unanswered; it’s the reader who forms the picture.
The story is set in the Irish village of Rathmoye, some time in the middle of the 20th Century. A poignant figure, Orpen, a local Protestant who is not quite all there, is minded and tolerated by his neighbours in the town, as he wanders the streets, displaying pages from the archive he believes he is protecting for posterity. Summer beautifies the landscape, as much as it can, and nothing much is happening besides small-town gossip and grocery shopping.
A funeral opens the proceedings but it has a disquieting element: a stranger is noticed surreptitiously photographing the mourners. The daughter of the deceased woman, Mrs Connulty, becomes curious about the interloper, Florian, in the process becoming witness to events that will have far-reaching consequences.
The ensuing narrative is so masterfully clever and involving that it is hard not to reveal it. Suffice it to say that a deeply surprising love story is about to commence, a tale of passions kept secret even as they grow ever more reckless and the colder days of autumn approach.The book, like much of Trevor’s work, is absolutely wonderful on the subject of marriage, the evasions and tacit agreements that hold people together, as powerfully as do love and fondness.
A farmer, Dillahan, lives in a world of brokenness and grief, the guilt that he was responsible for the tragic deaths of his child and first wife as real as the fields he drifts through. Now remarried to a younger woman who came to his home as a housekeeper, he talks like a man with nothing left to say. And yet the pleasant platitudes exchanged between husband and wife, the remarks about the farm and the tasks of the household, become a sort of shorthand for much deeper emotions you suspect are always close to the surface. When those emotions do spill over, the result is a scene of spine-tingling unease.
In the work of a less skilful and subtle writer, this relationship would not be even faintly credible. Trevor makes it not only believable but achingly real and inevitable, somehow a meditation on all marriages of that era, and perhaps of subsequent eras too. No Irish writer of either gender has ever written more empathetically about women, as his previous novels Felicia’s Journey and The Story of Lucy Gault made clear. But Love and Summer has an unflagging power and quiet control of the material that Trevor has more usually achieved only in the best of his short stories.
His people live in a world of suffocating passivity, where things happen to you and can only rarely be controlled. Indeed, it’s an interesting hallmark of his dialogue and description that it is so often framed in the passive. A woman ‘had bread to get’ in the shops. A telephone call ‘was made’. These are characters who truly feel they can not affect the world, and the heartbreaking tragedy of the novel’s conclusion is brought about when one of them tries to. In a closing that brings to mind the transformative sadness of Joyce’s short story Eveline, it is accepted that the world will always do what it will, and most of us will fall into line in the end.
Quibblers will feel that the novel is almost too reticent. And it is notable that in this narrative of crazily passionate love, there is no description of lovemaking or sexuality or even desire. In my own view, this works magnificently, for as Patrick Kavanagh’s poem Advent has it: ‘Through a chink too wide comes in wonder.’ We form the love scenes in this novel ourselves, perhaps projecting on to them our own memories or wishes, rather than being browbeaten by those of the author.
Indeed, this is one of the book’s most interesting themes: how what we seek in a lover or partner is sometimes a version of someone we have lost, and how falling in love and the making of fiction are deeply related activities. But Trevor is too supple a storyteller to engage in lectures or agendas. If this novel has themes, they emerge with the delicacy and fragility of wildflowers in a summer meadow. And like those beautiful blossoms that linger in memory, this masterpiece lives fragrantly and hauntingly.
Notes from a Turkish Whorehouse, the 2005 debut collection of short stories from Philip O’Ceallaigh, garnered deservedly strong reviews and a handful of prizes. Its follow-up, The Pleasant Light of Day, will extend and deepen his already considerable reputation as an artist of extraordinary gifts. He is assiduous with words, a writer of craft and vision, and refreshingly so sparing with similes and self-announcing images that to read him is to be reminded of the power of plain prose to break into territories of the imagination. When he does use a metaphor, it bursts off the page. (‘The hoofed beast of jealous panic ran through him.’) Of the dozen stories here, perhaps ten are so perfectly achieved and exhilaratingly confident that you feel O’Ceallaigh is developing a form all his own.
There’s a focus on telling it as it is, not on saying what it’s like. In Uprooted, a story unusual for being located in his native Ireland, ‘Gulls quiver on the wind, swoop, rise again, wheeling in the updraught.’ The wind is ‘picking up the crashing swell at the cliffs of Inis Meáin, propelling it halfway across that island as salt rain.’ In Walking Away, a strange and compelling piece set shortly after a funeral, the narrator resists facile or inherited assumptions of the meaningful. ‘What foolishness, to speak of beyond, when we hardly know what we have here, on this earth, right before our eyes.’ What can be seen is always important in these vivid, measured stories. This is an author who looks at things carefully, annihilates the clichés. John McGahern wrote that any artist needs first a way of seeing. Philip O’Ceallaigh has one
This is a world where sexuality is tough, a contested ground, and the comings and goings of his hungry-hearted characters rarely yield a sense of communion. And in My Secret War he unfolds a nightmarish vision of suburban American life. ‘In the evenings, after the kids are in bed, me and Martha might drink a bottle of beer on the porch, listening to the crickets. A flag flies over our tranquil lawn, for our brave men and women in the service….Evil lies in every human heart, awaiting the faltering of our vigilance. There is no need to say much to Martha because she knows already.’ A resident of Bucharest, he conjures east-European cities with shimmering precision; these metropolises of trams and urban insularities and recently vacated pedestals. But the stories that have rural settings are brilliantly achieved too. In High Country, a hauntingly beautiful piece, a man hikes alone into the countryside beyond a provincial town, the resulting spell of self-confrontation unfolded with such exactitude and delicacy that you feel you’ve walked the same rainstorm. Revelations are few and epiphanies fewer. The trekker in the story is not quite sure of destinations but tells himself ‘the time patiently taken was what you offered up, trusting that the moment would come.’ It’s a thought that often arises on the journey through this exquisite collection, for this is work that invites slow re-reading, not in order to understand it, but so as to glimpse again the consolation of the world being described.
The standard is extremely high, which is one of the reasons why The Alchemist, an only intermittently funny satire of the work of the Brazilian inspirational writer Paulo Coelho, might have been better omitted. Fish in a barrel sometimes need to be shot, but the 32-page death they receive from O’Ceallaigh comes to feel dismayingly drawn-out. There is also a slightly cluttering inter-textuality, tropes from one story materialising in another. (O’Ceallaigh’s first book is referenced in the opening story, with a title so thinly disguised as to demand immediate recognition.) When the playfulness works, as it sometimes does, the result is an attractive complicating of the textures of the stories, a sense that they are linked like the verses of a song or the overlapping circles of a Venn diagram. This is a writer who is pushing hard at the boundaries of the form. If it doesn’t always come off, you admire his courage and purpose, his avowal that there are still things undone that words might do, in a genre that might yet come to be important for our times. In Another Country, the longest story, and thematically a central one, is a masterpiece that earns every line of its 53 pages. The prose is graceful and poised yet supercharged with the edginess that makes the events it describes unforgettable.
All in all, this is a profoundly impressive and haunting suite of stories, remarkable for being only the second collection from an author who is already touched by greatness. In one of them, a character kneels on a riverbank, ‘where the water was deeper than in other places and he could see the clean stones on the riverbed.’ It’s what O’Ceallaigh’s writing achieves, a clarification, a revealing, a pointing to realities so fundamental and unchanging that most of the time they go unnoticed. He is a scintillating talent and this is work of immense strength, but also of light, an elusive hopefulness.
A remarkable photograph appeared in the newspapers some years ago when the Swedish superstore Ikea opened its vast branch in Belfast. Pictured at the launch, side-by-side on a sofa, like buddies imitating members of The Royle Family for a giggle, were Northern Ireland’s First Minister, the Reverend Ian Paisley, and the Deputy First Minister, former IRA leader Martin McGuinness. ‘Home is the most important place in the world,’ announced the slogan behind them. You almost expected them to chime, ‘Home, my arse!’
The Irish peace process has produced daring and unlikely partnerships but David Park’s edgy and compelling new novel looks behind its uneasily constructed images. Set in an imagined future in which a Commission for Truth and Reconciliation has been established to offer possibilities of ‘communal healing and closure’, it destabilizes such terminologies and approaches. Has the language of psychotherapy anything to offer when the dysfunction has been entrenched so widely? The truth, as Wilde remarked, is rarely pure and never simple. It cuts in all directions, raising ghosts at every turn, perhaps undermining the very reconciliation it seeks to cultivate. It might set free. But it hurts.
Francis Gilroy, senior Provo turned hardworking minister in the power-sharing executive – Park has insisted all his characters are fictional — is reminder that some of Northern Ireland’s politicos, in former incarnations, wielded Kalashnikovs rather than manifestoes. Gilroy’s name (perhaps the subject of an authorial irony, for in its original Gaelic form it means ‘servant of the king’) is legendary among the Republican community he represents in the assembly. A hard man, long accustomed to nights on the run, his days are now spent in frequently gruelling engagement with the endless minutiae of governance. There are bills to be drafted, constituents to be appeased, delegations to be convinced, portraits to be sat for, comparisons with the ANC and the Sandinistas to be debated, lost dogs to be located for the voters. And there is ongoing war of glances with his inscrutable Civil Servant, Crockett, whose silences communicate volumes.
Memories of a horrific killing loom from Gilroy’s past. These days he is Minister for Culture and Children, attempting, by nightly immersions in literature, to read a way into his brief. James Joyce he finds inaccessible, Philip Larkin evocative and quotable, and perhaps nowhere in the world is the bite-size quote of poetry such a feature of public discourse as it is in post-Blair Ireland . Regular doses of Heaney are part of the roughage of self-improvement, but Yeats brings only ministerial indigestion. A pity Gilroy didn’t get to that poet’s ‘Among School Children’, in which an uneasy parliamentarian visits a classroom in an earlier traumatized Ireland, and is discomfited when ‘the children’s eyes/In momentary wonder stare upon/A sixty-year-old smiling public man.’ It’s a text that could reveal much to the Gilroys of the world but perhaps Park is correct to assume they wouldn’t notice it.
Henry Stanfield, the Truth Commissioner, the most interesting and complex character in the novel, is another kind of public man. Heading up the Commission is a wearying task, unalleviated by gloomy nights in a Belfast hotel, sometimes with a prostitute onto whom he projects his fantasies of belonging, although mostly she is ‘a ghost in his bed’. A fractured relationship with his daughter, who resents his treatment of her dead mother, offers versions of the questions he spends his days trying to answer. Can the dead be apologised to? Who is to forgive? Aren’t justice and reconciliation incompatible?
With immense narrative skill and structural deftness, Park maps the lonely road of his truth-finder through a windstorm of evasions. Driven to discover the fate of an executed boy, Connor Walshe, he senses hidden agendas, wheels within wheels, and is blackmailed by two operatives of British intelligence in a chilling scene slightly diminished by its employment of stereotypes. What was done to the terrified fifteen-year-old is the novel’s central event, so wrenchingly written that it is difficult to read and would be harder to believe did we not know that such terrors happened, and that worse was suffered, also, by so many.
In this world of ducked responsibilities and allegiances turned to hatreds, Stanfield gropes for a meaning. But collusions and complicities come in many guises; official files disappear or are altered to protect the guilty. There are stunning scenes involving a retired RUC detective, James Fenton, and others featuring Michael Madden, a former IRA member now living under an alias in America, whose escape from the past is thwarted at the very instant it appears about to finalise itself. Meanwhile, the bodies of the disappeared remain unreturned, while some of those who try to legislate a way out of the morass have the memory of blood on their hands. And nobody, in this story of men bonded by loyalty, trusts anyone. In a broken society, the straight word is suspect, the plain deal a figment, the handshake a weapon. Euphemism and prevarication are co-rulers of the wreckage, and we’re far from the flashbulbs of Ikea.
It is a brave writer indeed who ventures into such territory. The three most terrible decades in the 20th Century history of these islands have been called ‘The Troubles’, a war, a conflict, a struggle, a criminal gang-fest, a sectarian clash, and the argument over designation will long be continued in a place where language’s nuances are much scrutinized. Readers with clear-cut analyses will filter Park’s novel through the prism of their own definitions. Others will see it a remarkable tour de force, which tries to keep faith with redemptive solidarities while it smoulders with quiet rage against injustice and bigotry from wherever source they come. But finally it is not a novel about politics at all. Its preoccupation is the private, the battleground of the self, and it approaches the mysterious with a kind of unsparing simplicity that yields moments of heart-shivering beauty. Atonement, if achievable, is hard won indeed and few are exculpated at the close.
Fenton, Madden, Stanfield and Gilroy have lived in the masks they chose to put on. The time has come finally to face their choices uncovered, but the guises have adhered so that to remove them and begin again is to amputate part of the self. Park takes these four destroyed men who have come to seem strange even to themselves, and somehow, in describing them, while not fixing their brokenness, offers glimpses of what might have been, and of what still might be, too. A terrible beauty, but a powerful one for that, this is a magnificent and important book.
In 1815 in Dublin a ballad was collected that told the life of a soldier. Enlisting to fight in the Napoleonic wars, he had been maimed in action, his leg blown off, and the song tells the story of his mother’s reaction in powerfully moving ways. The song has various titles but it’s usually known by that mother’s name – Mrs McGrath. That’s all we know of her.
I thought of that mother recently, when the blue-collar Baudelaire – Bruce Springsteen – The Boss – came back to town. Irish audiences have always given Springsteen ecstatic receptions, claiming this son of New Jersey as an honorary fellow citizen. It’s clearly an induction he’s happy to have, as anyone who saw him in Dublin will know. Combining the wolfish howl of a natural-born showman with the gritty commitment of a rebel balladeer, this is Springsteen as stadium idol, at the age of 58, doing air-punching, sixteen-wheeler rock and roll with all the wild belief of a teenager. He is clearly relaxed, feels at home in Dublin. As well he would – for in one sense he is. The 19th century songs of Ireland are part of his music’s DNA, as his recording of the story of Mrs McGrath made clear. It’s a song he’s made new once again.
If folk music is America’s Ulysses, its Chaucerian saga, enriched by the darkness and desire of the blues, Springsteen’s modes of reinvention have charged it with power and given it back its authority. Standing at a microphone, alone in the spotlight, a battered acoustic guitar in his notably clumsy hands, is the last great embodiment of the American troubadour who sings an entire society into being. Archivist, lamenter, teller of stories, this is a writer of scrupulous beauty and precision, whose first-person miniatures of American life bring news not always easy to hear. His tales of star-crossed lovers, soldiers in the night, hard burdens shouldered and promises forgotten transmit the kind of magnetism encountered in traditional Irish song – that body of great art created by geniuses whose names we will never know. They are the American cousins of the Rocks of Bawn and I Wish I Was in Carrickfergus, — the songs that crossed an ocean only to be rescued in America, their broken culture saved from extinction. In Springsteen’s loving care they are reinvented; but still sung by a voice that has lost a few battles and knows it is far from home.
His characters shimmer up at you — you can almost see them, touch them. The girls who combed their hair in rear view mirrors, the boys who raced their cars through the dusk-lit streets. They came into an inheritance of foreclosures, repossessions, a patrimony of faraway battles. They are the people whose children do the dying in America’s wars, while the privileged wring their hands, or look the other way. There are still Mrs McGraths, in many broken countries, in the frightened Napoleonic empires of our world.
Springsteen, the laureate of American anxieties, has remained a relevant artist not by musical giftedness – there were always better singers and his voice has grown weaker – but by having what John McGahern said every writer needs most: a way of seeing the world. The people who live in his scrupulously realised songs are his Leopold Blooms, his Bull McCabes, his Judith Hearnes with their lonely passions; it is only that they don’t know it, have no language to say it, and nobody would be listening if they did. ‘The real war will never get in the books,’ wrote Walt Whitman, but it seeps into Springsteen’s uneasy reflections. A man who was Born in the USA – and no other country on earth could have produced him — but in another sense he could be the Irish writer we never had, the inheritor of that Dublin balladeer. For through the power of his art, its openness to the world, the waifs and strays of Irish song came home, dressed in their American clothes.
The American author John Dos Passos, who is sometimes described being as an author of jigsaw novels, said something with which I very much agree. ‘If there is a special Hell for writers it would be in the forced contemplation of their own works’. And so, on this occasion, I take a glimpse into Hell – even a dip of the toe into the flames.
I slightly resist the term ‘Jigsaw Novel’ when applied to own recent books, since, like all such labels, it is essentially reductive of what is in fact a fairly simple approach to storytelling. A jigsaw is as two-dimensional as any dime-store novel or pot-boiler, and a jigsaw, if we want to analyze it in narrative terms (which of course we often don’t, for why would we bother?) tells far more lies than truths. It says the image can be bordered, in an entirely closed system, where nothing outside of the frame has even the slightest relevance — except of course the usually pretty picture on the front of the box, which the puzzler knows he must build steadily and patiently towards. The pieces do not fit together in any way but one. That is the whole point of the endeavour. So we already know the journey before we even set out. We know the beginning, the ending, and how we are going to connect them. The only jouissance, to use a Lacanian term, is in arrival at that moment of relieved self-congratulation when we finish the ultimately meaningless picture. But then what do we do? Break it up again? Start another jigsaw? Smoke the equivalent of what used to be the post-coital cigarette? And feel the sadness of inevitable completions? Any novel that attempted to function on such a basis of narrative would not attract too many readers.
The jigsaw is two dimensional — literally ‘a cardboard cut-out,’ to employ a term that would be insulting when applied to any fictional character — and so are its themes and preoccupations. Nobody has ever seen a jigsaw of somebody dying, of a couple making love, of a woman giving birth, of a murder being committed, of Heathcliff in the storm, of a man eating a madeleine and remembering his times lost. The jigsaw’s range of subjects is the almost entirely photogenic, the reassuring, the safe, the stable, the serene, in a way that the novel’s has never been. In fact, the jigsaw could be completely blank and it would still function perfectly – the picture is only there as an aid. There will never be a jigsaw about Auschwitz — we would find such a thing horrifyingly inappropriate. But if there were no novels about evil we would think there was something wrong. The form and the content must fit.
The territory of the novel, from the form’s first appearance, has been vast, capacious and daring. The shipwreck, the riot, the revolution, the storm, the knights charging windmills, the madwoman in the attic, the children of the ghetto, the pickpockets of London, the explorer who finds himself in a land of little people, the Wuthering Heights, the depths. Through these territories, and many others, has gone wandering the novelist, with only his words as lamp. He has seen the hunchback in the cathedral, and Huckleberry Finn, Holden Caulfield and Emma Bovary, Count Dracula, Leopold Bloom. What a pantheon, what a party, what a multitude of selves. The novel has the capacity to face drama, even horror, as no other art form can do. The original Virtual Reality, it downloads more quickly than broadband, and its effects, as we know, are more widespread.
So the jigsaw is the slightly wrong metaphor, in my view, but I know what it means when it is employed. And I think of my own books – certainly my last two novels, Star of the Sea, and Redemption Falls – as perhaps more explicable in structural terms if I say they are very simple books. I have tried to set up narratives that see things in the round, as though the audience for the play were sitting in a circle and not obediently in front of the proscenium. But this has been done, in no sense whatsoever, to attempt experimentation for its own sweet sake. I think of myself as a very conservative writer in that sense: I dislike experimentation in fiction and especially dislike novels where the writer is telling me I have to work. I don’t want to work when I am reading a novel. (Often, I don’t want to work at all.) It is only that writing a novel requires a very great deal of work if you would like to attract any readers, which I would. What I have tried to do is to learn from the storytelling giants of the past and the present – to tell a story that keeps faith with life’s modes. Ezra Pound said ‘fundamental accuracy of description is the ONE sole morality of writing.’ And Marvin Gaye sang ‘Tell it Like it Is.’ This, I believe, is the task of the writer. To describe the world to itself in a way that is truthful. To tell it like it is. That’s all.
The traditional 19th century novel employs chronology ruthlessly. Not for nothing is Dickens’s masterpiece Oliver Twist subtitled ‘A parish boy’s progress’; for often built into chronology is a deeply ideological assumption that order exists in some ineluctable sense, that it cannot be escaped from except fleetingly, dishonestly, and that we need only find our track towards it and everything will be fine, and there will probably be a marriage on the last page. The boy gets the girl. The bad get punished. The good die young, or very old. The word ‘Progress,’ in English, is both noun and verb, and of course it is the totem of every political party in the world, whether of the left, the right, or the centre. It was also the guiding goddess of most English language novels before Joyce and Virginia Woolf. Thus we find ourselves in a fictive world that is ineffably strange, where everything is centrifugally swept into the unforgiving forwardness of narrative. But life is not like this, as we know.
We carry the past and the future as we go. We drag anchors that are attached to us – indeed we sometimes cling to them. And we follow the light at the end of the tunnel, even when it turns out to be an oncoming train. The very essence of the human is to experience time in this way. Eliot observed, in a deeply truthful line, that time past and time future are perhaps contained in time present. This is a line that would be recognised by Joyce and Beckett, by Proust or Toni Morrison, by Muddy Waters, by Swift, by many other geniuses whose stories have been treasured, and by anyone who ever felt the pull of memory. We also carry the pasts of those people around us, and frequently, also, their futures, which we embody, because we ourselves are part of that future, and will be part of our loved ones’ pasts. So the notion that any real story starts at A and moves uncomplicatedly to Z is really a profound untruth. Even the alphabet itself does not always work in this way, as a glance at any computer keyboard will reveal.
Sometimes novels that make at attempt to structure themselves around more self-evident realities are seen as experimental or even subversive of the form. But in fact it is the traditional novel which is most literally subversive, for it denies the basic textures of everyday existence with such subtlety and cleverness and often delicious craft that we do not even realise what it is doing. With what artifice and skill the traditional novelist works to construct his radical trickeries.
Multiplicity of narrative form may seem relatively new in the novel, although, in fact, it is no such thing. It has existed in the novel from at least the time of my countryman, Laurence Sterne, whose masterpiece Tristram Shandy might be regarded as the first jigsaw novel, among the many other wonderful things it is. But it has existed for centuries in the Irish, English and Scottish ballad tradition too, and in the immigrant songs of Appalachia, and in American gospel singing, which are often, of course, all related. Take the Scottish song Anachie Gordon, for example. With multiple narrators, including possibly a ghost, and a hero who never appears until the final verse, and many points of view, and even different tenses, the text, although so ancient that we cannot know its age, radically destabilizes the assumptions of narrative itself. And one suspects that it does this not to inflame undergraduate curiosities, but to say something in form about content. Reality is change. Stories are change. The ground is shifting beneath our feet. These truths are the real subject of Anachie Gordon; its plot, if it has one, is not.
And again, when we look at the some of the oldest stories out culture possesses, we see the modes of fragmentation everywhere. The Greek myths, as we know, were originally spoken, not written – indeed, they may be the reason why written poetry came to exist. But the text, in this worldview, as regarded as essentially only a kind of reusable pattern for the teller, who may break it, bend it, twist it out of shape or stretch it to whatever purpose is apposite. And what is the Bible, that stupendous work of Magic-Realist literature, if not a kind of jigsaw novel? Four separate accounts of the life of its hero, containing reports (often contradictory) of the utterly impossible and supremely outlandish, and spectacular events we might encounter in Marquez or Vargas Llosa, but here described as literal truth. Angels! Talking serpents! Dead men walking! In the beginning was the Word, the scripture tells us. But perhaps, in the beginning, was the Mystery.
And consider those fantastic words at the end of the gospel of John. ‘And there are many more wonders that Jesus did, the which, if they should be written every one, I think the whole of the world could not contain the books that should be written.’ How I love the childishness and innocence of that beautiful line.
The world is stranger than we can hope to understand – to picture it, to imagine it, is immediately to make a puzzle. Because that is what the subject of the picture is. Thus, the writer using radical modes is actually the figurative, and a Henry James, a Charlotte Bronte, is the absolute revolutionary, since James and Charlotte Bronte believe the demonstrably impossible is true — that the history, the touch, the DNA of an entire society, its emotional fingerprints, its falsehoods, its dreams, can be told in a linear description of one of that society’s persons, in a language, that because of conventional Anglo-Saxon anxieties, can not even mention sex. Remarkable! Incredible! Such suspension of disbelief! And oh, the brave technique used by every novelist who ever wrote ‘He thought [such a such]’ or ‘She felt [this and that]’, when if we could summarize all our feelings into one punchy adjective, we would have no need of psychiatrists (or novelists).
Human existence is ludic, a Rubik cube we can’t solve, no matter how many times we turn the squares. And history is not like the novel, at least not the traditional novel, with its neatly cut paragraphs and surveying past tense – as though lives may be observed from some high hill of morality where everything has been stabilized by time. The writer of historical novels needs always to remember these most essential facts; otherwise what he is doing is not literature at all, it is playing with themes instead of people.
I like a novel that feels as though you can walk into it, look around, touch the walls, the way we walk into a piece of great music, like Handel’s Messiah or Philip Glass’s Satjagraha. These are structures we want to experience again: one visit is not enough. I want the potholes of a novel, the bumps, the flaws, the cracks in the ceiling, the draughts. I don’t want it to be smooth; I want to see the textures. I want fiction with friction, jaggedness, juice. I want the words to rub together so the sparks fly in my face. I am tired of the domestic interior, the suburban adultery, the jealousies of campuses, the cerebral solipsism. Great, great novels have been made of these themes but also many bad ones, too many. And I can say with Anatole Broyard, ‘the more I like a book, the more slowly I read it.’ This spontaneous talking-back to a book is one of the things that makes reading so valuable. We are jigsaws to one another in the end.
In James Joyce’s great Ulysses there is almost no story at all. If that greatest of novels is, in any sense, a jigsaw, it is a puzzle that can never be completed. The pieces do not fit. That is the whole point. Rummaged from different boxes, thrown into the air, then placed in close proximity while not actually inter-clicking, they nevertheless can be arranged into deeply beautiful shapes that stir our profoundest recognitions. And every time we read it, we rearrange it differently. Thus it bursts into life again. There is no order, Joyce is saying. There is no destiny waiting. It is only that those whom we love become our destiny. Another way of saying the same thing, or a similar thing, was found by the Irish poet Louis McNiece, who suggested that the proper matter of the poet was always to remember ‘the drunkenness of things being various.’
The diverse is beautiful. And perhaps the diverse is itself beauty. It seems to me essential that we have people in the world who want to experience or even to dare to try and make beauty, with such abilities as they have, when ugliness is so widespread and profitable and apparently catching on that if one could buy stocks in it one would be a billionaire. There is a property crisis, we are told, but not an ugliness crisis. Invasions are justified on the basis of non-existent weapons, torture is called liberation, the hangman a hero, and everything Orwell told us has turned out to be true. Only his date of 1984 was wrong. Big Brother is a reality, or certainly reality TV. Language is debased on an everyday basis, often by being made too smooth. The best readers, once remarked Philip Roth, ‘come to fiction to be free of everything that is not fiction.’ But that beautiful remark is not quite true. The best readers come to fiction because of the paradox it offers. To know, briefly, what it is to transcend the self and to imagine, briefly, what it is to be someone else, is to come to know more profoundly what it is to be oneself.
Anyway, I am rambling. I am getting off the point. You are always tempted in situations like the composition of these remarks to construct programmes, manifestoes, slogans, rallying cries, positions, stances — those haiku of the definitive — to wave flags, nail down carpets, divide the tenors from the sopranos, plant banners into the surface of one’s moon. I think every writer is haunted by the nagging possibility that nobody, anywhere, is listening to a single word he says. So that when the opportunity of an audience ever comes along, the writer tends to seize it and press it to his breast for reasons essentially more psychotherapeutic than artistic. But every good writer believes dogmas are really absurdities, which is itself a very dogmatic thing to say, I know, but I throw myself upon the mercy of the jury. A writer works with the organic, the ruminative, the strange, the contradictory, the misunderstood – I suppose the word is ‘the mysterious’ — far more with the absences of a story than with whatever presences it incarnates, knowing everything about a story is in what you leave out, and knowing so very little else that he must write in order to grope a way towards anything. But if we are in the business of establishing credos, let me join in the game. Chronology wants to persuade us of absolute truth, and music wants to persuade us that all things are relative, and the approaches to the kind of fiction that is sometimes called ‘jigsaw’ are often trying to work in the borderland.
I conclude this brief (and strangely enjoyable) visit to Hell by raising my eyes towards the heavens. There I see the ten commandments of the jigsaw novel on burning tablets, and if I can decipher them, I will end by sharing them. Being jigsaw, they are not necessarily in the right order just yet – the reader will have to shape them as best she can.
I: A story should never answer all the questions it poses. Nor should it pose questions that can only be answered ‘yes’ or ‘no’.
II: A novel is always its style and almost never its ideas.
III: A novel’s style is its idea. And its idea is its style.
IV: A novel, even when pessimistic, should always be on the side of life.
V: Most novelists have nothing ‘to say’ in the form of the novel.
VI: Novels are not slogans, although they can work as those – but usually the good ones do not. Novels are about people, the business of being human, and those who want to write them need to love the main implication of that fact, which is that the novel will mean many things to many readers. If I wanted to say just one thing, I would hire a hoarding over a motorway, or plant it in flowers on a lawn. If I wanted to say just one thing to one person, I would write a letter and seal it. Novels are something else. In a way, they are almost nothing to do with writing. Certainly, what every novelist needs first is a way of seeing. The rest is only a matter of learning styles.
VII: Kafka said that the novel is an axe to the frozen sea around us – but an axe needs jagged edges or it cannot do its job.
VIII: The writer is doing something much less creative than the reader does. It is the reader, in fact, who constructs the story. The writer is merely providing the materials – important work, but only half the process. The reader, in the end, is singing the song. The writer only provides the sheet music.
IX: Every writer is first a reader, and must always be a reader.
X: Samuel Beckett, in his eightieth year, was asked by an interviewer if he wrote ‘experimental fiction’. This is what he said: ‘I write about myself with the pencil and in the same exercise book as about ‘him’. It is no longer ‘I’, but another whose life is just beginning.’ They are words I revere. I think they were hard-won. If I had a gospel, a religion, a faith, an adherence, those lines would be its final Credo. To understand the deep truth embodied in those two sentences is a good reason for wanting to write fiction.
Way back when I was a lad, I had a novel called “Desperadoes” published. With hindsight, the name may have been a mistake. Two years of telling people the title of your new book only to have them go: “Oh really? You’re a fan of The Eagles, are you? Didn’t they have a song called “Desperado”?
You have slaved away for years crafting this noble, intelligent and perceptive tome, only to have it sullied by comparison with a tawdry so-called “song” by Southern California’s answer to the Osmond brothers. You have spent all that time almost alone, writing. But now; you have to do The Author Tour.
You arrive in the first town. Your publishers have mistakenly put you up in a sensationally expensive hotel, thinking you were somebody else. It is the kind of hotel where they knock on the door every fifteen minutes and come in to turn down the bed-sheets. You are not used to this. The kind of hotel you USUALLY stay in, they knock on the door every fifteen minutes and shout: “Time’s up, Mac.”
But you begin to feel good about yourself. Hey, you’re a real author now. You strut around the enormous bathroom like a black polo-necked peacock, opening and sniffing the miniature plastic bottles of hair tonic, shoe polish and hand cream. You sniff so hard that you begin to hallucinate. The room pulses and vibrates in the manner of early Led Zeppelin videos, or the beginnings of flashbacks in cheaply-made soap operas. But you’re feeling cocky. All that hard work was worth it. You should really go home right now, while you’re still feeling good. But you don’t. You make the mistake of turning up to do…the reading.
Nothing in life brings you back to reality like arriving at a bookshop in a rainy northern English town to find the pallid and overworked staff trying to spread out and look like a crowd.
If you are EXTREMELY lucky, there might be thirty people at your reading. Perhaps ten will have come to hear you read and – miracle of miracles! – to buy your book. But ten of the others will have come to shuffle up to you before the reading begins and explain frankly how they read your LAST book and thought it a festering mound of rubbish, how they are all writing much more interesting books themselves, and how they would not buy your new book even at gunpoint. Of the remaining punters, four will be distant cousins who live in this godforsaken locality, begrudgingly press-ganged into turning up by their parents, who have threatened to disinherit them otherwise. You will not have seen them since you were seven, when you gave one of them a severe Chinese burn for saying your mother had a moustache. There will be two postgraduate English literature students down at the back. And there will be at least one amiable schizophrenic, who has wandered in for the free glass of Blue Nun and the tepid sausage roll.
You stand about for a few minutes feeling nervous. You attempt small talk with the manager and his underpaid staff. If you are Irish, as I am, the small talk will invariably be about how well RODDY DOYLE is doing. “Oh yeah”, the manager will laugh, “we ‘ad Roddy Doyle here last May and they were hanging out of the rafters. We had to turn four hundred people away!” You swear like a sodden sponge. You swig from a bottle of warm Harp. You light up a cigarette, forgetting that you’re in a bookshop so you’re not allowed to smoke. You stub your cigarette out in an empty beer bottle. Moments later, you forget you have done this, and you take a big reassuring swig from the beer bottle. You throw up all over the cash register.
Nobody has a tissue, so you absent-mindedly rip pages out of big thick books, and when the mop-up is finished the manager sighs and says you would have got a much better crowd if it wasn’t for the Match, or the Weather, or the Time of Year, or the fact that Coronation Street is on tonight, when what he really means is that you would have got a much better crowd if you were Roddy Doyle. You feel people’s eyes glaring at you, and then glaring at the life-size poster of you that has been sellotaped to the wall behind the wonky lectern where you are going to read. In the photo, you are slim, smiling, relaxed, groomed, and then very thoroughly airbrushed just to be on the safe side. In real life you are tired, tense, messy, grinning like a botched brain surgery case. You cut yourself shaving earlier, so a crimson hunk of toilet paper is dangling from your double chin. You couldn’t get the trouser-press in your room to work so your trousers look like you recently played second-row for Munster without bothering to take them off. The manager introduces you. “Joe will be reading from his new novel, Desperadoes.” Then he grins broadly. “Let’s hope all the Eagles fans are in tonight!” You stand up and begin to read.
The till bleeps and jingles all the way through your reading. All the jokes on which you worked so hard fall utterly flat, but as if to compensate for this, people laugh at the tender moments with such ferocity that you fear they will rupture themselves. Then – just as you to get to the particularly poignant bit, about granny dying with the cute little puppy the orphan gave her in her arms, the schizophrenic stands up, drops his trousers, and starts going on about being followed around by the government. Glancing up, you notice that the manager is gnawing his lip now. His own lip, that is. Not the schizophrenic’s lip.
Back in the hotel you eat all the peanuts in the mini-bar. This makes you unbelievably thirsty, so you start drinking heavily. You fall into a coma and wake up at dawn on the bathroom floor, singing “Drop Kick Me Jesus Through the Goalposts of Life”, with the plastic bottle of body lotion in your mouth and the disposable shower cap on your head. The hotel manager is knocking on the door, wondering what the commotion is about. You invite him in for a drink! He is cross. He tells you he would like you to check out. You don’t understand. You grab him by the lapels. You can check out any time you like, you tell him – but woah, you can never leave.[ENDS]
This piece is extracted from The Irish Male: His Greatest Hits, a compilation of Joseph O’Connor’s non-fiction published by New Island Books.
In the winter of 1989 I was living in south-east London, in the not entirely lovely suburb of Lewisham. It was a tough district that had escaped bombing in the Second World War, mainly (so it was said by some of the locals) because the Luftwaffe had looked down from their passing-by airplanes and assumed it had been bombed already.
For some years I had been trying to write, but it was not going well. Writing was like trying to juggle with mud. I would send out short stories to the literary magazines. They would come back in an unstoppable stream.
I had entered a short-story competition in the Irish Post newspaper to win a trip to Listowel for its world-famous Writers’ Week. I had not won the competition, nor had I deserved to — but to lose seemed typical enough for any young Irish person of the era. You felt you had emigrated from a country that had failed, and that the last one to leave should turn out the lights.
One evening I came home to my cheerless bedsit to find there was a message on the answering machine. The voice was familiar, as it would have been to any Irish person. It was the voice of John B Keane.
Would I come to Listowel for the festival, he was saying. ‘What matter you didn’t win. We’d love to have you anyway. I hope London is good to you. Kerry’s full of O’Connors. You probably own Carrigafoyle.’
John B Keane had rung my flat. John B Keane had dialled my number. To me, it was the equivalent of winning the Booker Prize. In all the great city of London that night, there was no happier soul than mine.
His Letters of an Irish Parish Priest and his Letters of a Matchmaker were books my grandparents loved. As a young teenager, I had read them, been amazed by their contents. In the Parish Priest book, the narrator tells a story about two lovers overheard on a Kerry beach. The man utters to his sweetheart, about to plunge into the waves, perhaps the most romantic line in the whole corpus of Irish literature. ‘Your buttocks have me intoxicated.’ There were clearly other Kerries than the one to be found in the pages of Peig Sayers’s autobiography.
But there was loneliness in the books too; there was brokenness and loss. There were people who had taken wrong turnings. Everything about his work was based on one profound insight: that a small place, in a small country, could be the whole round world and all its adventures, if only you had the eyes to see.
For some reason I cannot remember, I didn’t go to Listowel. But some years later, after my first book was published, I did go, and I met that genius of storymaking. To say he was kindly would be like saying it sometimes rains in Kerry. The weather in his eyes was always warm. Like many of the greatest writers, he was modest about his work. Not falsely – it was a modesty that came from self-assurance, I always felt — but he never seemed to want to discuss it. He would talk of other matters, with laughter and delight, and a kind of casual wisdom he didn’t seem to know he had. He would remember the names of your children, despite never having met them. He would ask to see their photographs. He would tell you they were beautiful. And what were you writing? And would you not give up the smoking? Always remember, your family is everything.
I was privileged to meet him a few times, always in the town of Listowel, a place I can never visit – and never will in my life — without thinking of his kindness and grace. But I never got the chance to say to him what I wanted. That I had seen the Bull McCabe in Lewisham High Street, shaking his stick at the traffic. That I had seen the ghost of Sive in New Cross Gate, and the Hiker Lacey in Deptford. That his people walked Piccadilly and the Tottenham Court Road, and Archway, and Camden, and Kentish Town High Street, in those distant days, those unhappier times, when to be Irish in London was to be suspect or a joke, and to be poor was no laughing matter.
Who wrote about them? Few but John B Keane. Who told their stories? Who saw behind their tears? The quarrels over land, the secrets of families, the wants of young lovers, the memories of old men, the hurts done to these outsiders, and the hurts they did themselves. That he had taken all of these and made of them stories that would speak to people all over the world.
A writer’s life is punctuated with moments of remembered blessing. One of mine happened on a cold, wintry day, when life was not good and I felt very far from home. On an answering machine in London came the message like sunshine: ‘It’s John B. Won’t you come to Listowel?’
In December 1964, when I was fifteen months old, The Dubliners recorded a live album at Cecil Sharp House in London, and at some point in the next few years my parents must have bought it, for it’s the first record I can remember ever hearing. The photograph on the cover was of a huddle of bearded prophets; they reminded me of Moses in a prayer-book a nun in school had shown me, but gruffer, dark-eyed, low-lidded, cool, like seamen come home from some forbidden adventure and sworn to fraternal secrecies. There were other records in the house – Danny Doyle, The Clancy Brothers – but nobody on their covers looked even remotely like a Dubliner. The handsomest of this pantheon was a young man called Ronnie Drew, who came, as did I, from Dun Laoghaire.
The record was pressed on heavy shellac, the material of the era, and it scratched very easily, and was brittle as thin slate, so there was a certain scrupulous caution in how you even touched it, as you eased it out of its wrinkled inner sleeve. The words ‘Major Minor’ were printed on the label. The crow-black disc was beautiful. The stylus buzzed and skipped as it nuzzled into its groove and those extraordinary sounds rose up once again through the crackle and rustle of the past.
The growling passion of Luke Kelly. The audience cheering wildly. Bottles clinking on glasses. A spangling, plunking banjo. And the oceanic thunder of Ronnie Drew’s voice, which would literally rumble the speakers if you turned it up loud. You’d feel it coursing through your body, up your spine like a drug, or like something more elemental — like weather. It was dangerous, dark, exciting, beautiful, a sound once heard never forgotten. Yeats writes of the Wild Geese that they were ‘the names that stilled your childish play.’ But what stilled my own play was that voice of Ronnie Drew, so etched into my memory that I don’t even have to put on one of his recordings to hear it. None of us do. It’s always there.
Oh thunder and lightin’, it’s no lark,
When Dublin city is in the dark,
So if you’ve any money, go up to the park,
To view the zoological gardens.
I had heard traditional music before; everyone in Ireland had, but it was often twee and sanitized in the early 1970s, cleansed of its power, made more hummable, certainly, and easier to listen to, and in no way at all unpleasant. But this was Irish song with dirt under its fingernails, as spellbinding as American gospel, as heart-rending as Puccini, as wild as the sea-spray on a Connemara cliff, as wrenching as a Kilburn hangover. These songs were our Chaucerian saga, our deck of tarot cards, our Odyssey, our blues, our soul music, our secret scripture. And in the voice of Ronnie Drew, so different from Luke Kelly’s righteously intense artistry, they found their Muddy Waters.
..If you pride your life, don’t join, by Christ,
With McAlpine’s Fusiliers…
How many times did I listen to that anthem of the Irish navvies who had gone away to England to support their families? Hundreds, maybe thousands. I knew its every phrase. You could almost see the beads of sweat on the singer’s brow, and the snarling nonchalance of that spat-out ‘by Christ’ was hundred per cent punk-rock before anyone had ever heard of it. This was music that meant something, more demonic than diddly-eye, full of discords, clashes, raw power, high emotion, electric with the force of its own searing honesty, performed with masterful self-belief. There was no cleaned-up mix; you got the botched chords, the mistakes, the roars of the audience, the repartee of the band. You could almost smell the beer, the loneliness, the joy, the grime of the Archway boarding house. You took it as you found it or you didn’t take it at all, and you felt it would be all the same to The Dubliners either way. It wasn’t the sound-track to a Bord Failte commercial; it was the music of the real place we lived in then, with its evasions, compromised options and terrible beauties. And nobody sang it like Ronnie. There was only one Luke Kelly, a Caruso of his craft, a maestro we will never see again; Ronnie’s genius was different, crackling with subtlety as well as muscle, alive to every phrasing and silence in a song, and together they fronted the kind of band that mattered, and will always matter to lovers of real music. Luke’s voice could lash you like a whip-crack when he wanted it to do that, but Ronnie’s gravely rasp seemed to come from someplace under the sea, a sound, as one critic put it, ‘like someone crunching coal beneath a boot.’ To listen to his recording of Brendan Behan’s ‘The Auld Triangle’ is to realise that a song can scorch its way into you and never quite leave you again. I knew by the time I became a teenager, full of adolescent certainties, that if you didn’t like The Dubliners, there was very little hope for you. And if you didn’t like the singing of Ronnie Drew, you were not to be trusted at all. You were nuthin but a hound-dog, as Elvis would have put it, and you couldn’t be no friend of mine. Stupid opinions, yes; the grandiosities of a kid. But as a middle-aged man, I’m not so sure I was wrong. The child is father to the man.
Quit yer throwin’ the whiskey around like blazes.
Be the thunderin Jaysus, do yeh think I’m dead?
He somehow entered a song and made it completely his own. He walked around in it, pointing out its beauty, its rage or its grief, never forgetting that it also had sweetness too, and that no art can move us quite like music. If the song was funny or risqué, as certain old Dublin songs are, you’d laugh out loud when he sang it. If it was sad you’d feel the painful smoulder of its truth, and it burned in you long and low. He inhabited his craft, as the greatest interpreters of a song always do; really he was inseparable from his music. The power of the voice reminded you that he’d named his band after the greatest collection of short stories in the English language, whose author, James Joyce, had loved song so ardently. A song sung by Ronnie Drew could somehow become a compression of the world, a miniature with the force of a novel.
Dubliners loved him. Everybody did. His grace, his knowledge, his passionate interest in literature and the theatre represented some of the best values of the country he sang about, and while other Irish traditional musicians ventured down sectarian paths, Ronnie and The Dubliners never did. Long, long before Ireland became a more peaceful place, they were singing the ballads of the Orange tradition, side by side with the songs of drink, work and love for which they will be always remembered. He was no unthinking tribalist, no flag-waver for causes. He let the songs do the talking, if there was talking to be done, and he trusted you to listen to whatever it was they said. You didn’t want to listen? More luck. No problem. He’d keep on singing them anyway.
No narrow artistic purist, he often worked with the younger musicians who idolised him, from bluesman Rory Gallagher, who in many ways he resembled, to the great Shane McGowan on whom he had been an immense influence. He had enough faith in his art to know it could survive new ideas, indeed that it needed them to stay meaningful. He was never an islander, in any sense of the word. He realised that a song can be an axe to the frozen sea around us, if wielded with the extraordinary skill he possessed. Such a gift comes from God, or providence, or fate. Knowing what to do with it comes from intelligence and compassion, and Ronnie Drew had both, in great measure.
Two last memories, both personal, and I treasure them now. One day when I was aged about eight, my parents and I were walking through the old Dandelion Market in Dublin, which was then located just off Leeson Street. Suddenly there was the kind of commotion that only flurries through a crowd when a hero of some kind has been spotted. I remember people’s excitement; their whispers, their pointing, as he moved among the stalls, I think with his wife, although I may be misremembering that. But I do not misremember what happened next. My father saw him coming and held out his hand, and it was accepted and words were exchanged. They nattered for a minute or two about this and that, and then Ronnie Drew looked down and noticed me. On Easter Island, in the Pacific, there are ancient stone statues of gods, which have watched the waves sternly since time immemorial and looking up at the face of Ronnie Drew that Sunday morning was like gazing into the puss of one of those. There was a sort of fierceness to his handsomeness and when he reached down to tousle my hair I was enthralled and petrified in equal measure. ‘How’s me buck?’ he asked quietly. I was suddenly meeting Santa Claus. In my memory, his was the first adult hand I ever shook, and if that isn’t true, it has become true to me now, so powerfully memorable an experience it was.
Many years later, on the second of the only two occasions when I ever met him, I told him about that morning in Dublin and how much it had thrilled me. I remember him laughing ‘Go’way.’ It was in 1997 and his son, the gifted actor Phelim Drew, was appearing in a play of mine at the Gate Theatre. Ronnie attended the opening night party, which was a lot of fun. There was an enormous crowd milling around the bar that night but only one of them caused people to behave with quite so much love. He was surrounded, asked for autographs, offered drinks, practically mobbed, and through all of it behaved with an extraordinary grace and modesty, his beautiful eyes twinkling as he shook people’s hands and heard their stories of what his music had meant to them. ‘That’s gas,’ he’d say gently. Or ‘Thanks for telling me that.’ In his sharp-cut pinstripe suit, he looked like a prince, a bearded ambassador for the Republic of Song. He posed for people’s cameras with a kind of self-mocking solemnity, stiffly upright, an old soldier come home. His utter pride in Phelim was obvious, as how would it not be? It was touching, to see him so proud.
Late that night, I remember introducing Ronnie to my father-in-law, John Casey, a beautiful man who passed away last year at the age of 82. John was from Loughlynn, a tiny town in County Roscommon. He had emigrated to London in the 1950s, worked all his life in the building trade, got married over there, been father to three English children. Of all the memories I have of him, my recollection of him meeting Ronnie Drew is one of the most achingly sweet. John had served his long days in McAlpine’s Fusiliers, and to shake the hand of the hero who had remembered them in song touched him in a way that almost moved him to tears. ‘Thanks for everything, Ronnie,’ he said. ‘Ah, no problem,’ Ronnie replied. And the two of them stood in that noisy, crowded bar, clapping each other on the shoulder, laughing. It was as though they were old buddies who hadn’t seen one another in a while rather than two men who had only just met. There were tears in my own eyes watching them, and I’ll admit to a tear or two now. For that was Ronnie Drew, a gentleman, a Dubliner, and to have even so fleetingly been in the glow of his presence was an honour I will never forget. His voice is on the stereo now, as I write these words, and of course the song he’s singing is not tragic or sentimental but one of the dirty Dublin ballads of the independent republic of The Liberties, where my own father was born and reared.
The queen she came teh call on us,
She wanted teh see all of us,
I’m glad she didn’t fall on us,
She’s eighteen stone!
“Mercy me, Lord Mayor” says she.
“Is this all yeh have to show to me?”
“Why no Mam, there’s much more to see —
Póg mo thón”
Perhaps that is how he would want to be remembered, with a grin, a wink, a smile at his native city, its follies, its foibles and its laughter at the expense of the pompous who mistakenly believe in their own power. If so, I write out the words, and I wish they were more prayerful. But they are what they are. So was he.
IN THE SUMMER OF 1977 I was thirteen years old and pretty miserable with my life. My parents’ marriage – unhappy for a long time – had finally disintegrated in acrimonious circumstances.
We lived in Glenageary, a middle-class housing estate in southside Dublin. There was a large stain caused by damp on the gable wall of our house, and if you glanced at it in a certain light, it looked exactly like the map of Ireland. I always thought this meant something important, but I could never figure out what. In the summer of 1977, with only myself and my mother living there now, the house seemed unutterably empty, haunted by lost expectations.
We didn’t see eye to eye, my mother and myself. Sometimes, when we argued, she would throw me out of the house; other times I would simply walk out to get away from her. So I spent a good deal of the very hot summer of 1977 just wandering the streets of Dublin, by myself.
And an odd thing was happening in Dublin in the summer of 1977. At first, in my hometown, punk rock was nothing much more than a feeling. I mean, nobody knew very much about it. Punk had been initially perceived as just another English invention, I suppose; another weird Limey oddity, in the same culturally wacko league as eel pie and pantomime dames. It’s important to say that this was a time when Dublin did not really figure on the world rock and roll map. We had Thin Lizzy and occasional gigs by Rory Gallagher, a handful of younger Irish bands. There was a quartet of northside born-again Christians who played Peter Frampton songs, and who, it was said by some, would never amount to much. (That summer, they were changing their name from The Hype to U2.) And that was about it. The city had no pop culture. But in the summer of 1977, when I was thirteen years old, into this vacuum stepped a monstrous and slavering spirit.
I got a job that July, on a local building site. One of the labourers was a cadaverous, scrawny youngfella, and it turned out that he would play a significant role in my musical education. Hubert was about nineteen, from a nearby working-class suburb which he referred to as ‘Sallyfuckinnoggin’. His language was flamboyantly atrocious, and so was his skin.
There were two things that made Hubert’s life complete. The first was pornography. The second was punk rock. He loved it. He absolutely adored punk rock, and he would talk to me about it for hours at a time. He told me about an establishment in town called Moran’s Hotel, in the basement of which there were punk rock concerts almost every night. It was all about being ‘against society’, he said; it was about ‘smashing the system’. Hubert himself was ‘against society’, he assured me fervently. There were legions of people in the basement of Moran’s Hotel every night of the week who were also ‘against society’, and they had stuck safety pins through their ears, cheeks and noses to prove it.
The bands who played in Moran’s Hotel were against society too, all of them. But the worst of the lot, Hubert confided, the mankiest shower of louse-ridden, no-good, low-down bowsies ever to plug in a Marshall, ram up the volume and hammer out a three-chord trick, was a year-old band called The Boomtown Rats. They were ‘fuckin’ scum,’ Hubert would say, and he would smile in a fondly contented way when he said this, as though attaining the state of fuckin’ scumhood was a development in which a person would take considerable pride. ‘They don’t even fuckin’ wash themselves,’ he would beam diabolically, although how he was in a position to know such a thing remained unrevealed (perhaps mercifully).
I would have loved to go to Moran’s Hotel, of course, but being under-age, I couldn’t. Yet I was frantically curious about this crowd of licentious and festering reprobates, The Boomtown Rats. I wondered what they would be like. The only real-life pop star I had ever actually seen was Gary Glitter, miming ‘I Love You Love’ in a television studio at RTE. I wondered if these Boomtown Rats could possibly be as entertaining as Gary. Well, one day Hubert told me that I would soon have a chance to find out. The Boomtown Rats had been booked to play a big outdoor show in Dalymount Park soccer ground. Hubert had bought me a ticket as a present.
That August afternoon, having lied to my mother about my destination – I think I said I was going to a boy-scouts’ day out – I went to the concert with Hubert and his girlfriend Mona. Mona was a healthy-looking girl, with the arms of a docker and a bewildering vocabulary of blasphemies and swear words. It was a very hot day and the stadium was packed. Thin Lizzy and Fairport Convention were headlining the concert, but I did not care about that, mainly because Hubert had discreetly advised that these bands were not sufficiently ‘against society’. So, like my mentor and Mona, I only cared about The Boomtown Rats. When their arrival was announced over the PA system, I thought Hubert was going to ascend body and soul into heaven, Virgin Mary-wise, so screechingly enthusiastic did he become.
I had never experienced anything quite like the phenomenal excitement as the band sloped onto the stage, picked up their instruments and began to play. I felt as though a lightning storm was flickering through my nerve endings. It’s something you never really forget, the first time you hear the scream of an electric guitar, the thud of a bass, or the clash of a real hi-hat cymbal. The lead singer, Bob Geldof, looked like an emaciated and drooling Beelzebub, as he leapt and tottered around the boards, spitting these extraordinary lyrics into his microphone. The keyboard player, Johnny ‘Fingers’ Moylett, wore pyjamas on stage, an act of the most unspeakable and unprecedented sartorial anarchy. The bassist, Pete Briquette, lurched up and down, leering dementedly, as though suffering from a particularly unpleasant strain of bovine spongiform encephalopathy. And if guitarists Gerry Cott and Gary Roberts, and drummer Simon Crowe, looked relatively normal, you still would have had not inconsiderable reservations about the prospect of any one of them babysitting your sister.
They played their music frantic and fast, incredibly LOUD, with a curious mixture of passion, commitment and utter disdain for the audience. I loved them. I had never heard a noise like this in my life. I was nailed to the ground by it. When they thrashed into their first single ‘Looking After Number One’, I swear to you, every single hair on my body stood up.
Don’t give me love thy neighbour!
Don’t give me charity!
Don’t give me peace and love from your good lord above!
You’re always gettin’ in my way with your stupid ideas!
I don’t want to be like you.
I don’t want to be like you.
I don’t want to be like you.
I’m gonna be like ME!
Now, this was what I called music. I staggered home that night with my head pounding and my heart reeling. My mother was waiting, of course, and she spent several centuries yelling at me, which made my headache even worse. But I felt empowered by the music, I really did. It sounds so naive now, I know, but that’s the way it was. I felt I had witnessed a kind of revelation. Suddenly it seemed that life was actually pretty straightforward. All you had to do, if someone was getting on your case, was tell them to fuck away off, that you didn’t want to be like them, that you wanted to he like YOU! I tried it out on my mother and she didn’t exactly see things my way, to put it mildly. But it was the summer of 1977, you see. It all seemed very simple.
Back in school in September, I told my friends all about The Boomtown Rats. These pals and myself felt we had something in common, in some odd way. I think we felt we had experienced more interesting pain than other people had, although, of course, being teenage boys, we didn’t talk much about such things. It turned out that my mate Conor had heard about The Boomtown Rats himself. He had read an article about them in Hot Press magazine, in which it was revealed that Bob Geldof had been to our school.
If I had been interested in the Rats before, my enthusiasm rocketed through the roof now. These leprous anti-establishment scumbags had actually been to my school. Blackrock College, this priest-run joint long famous for churning out obedient wageslaves had somehow produced The Boomtown Rats! How had this possibly happened? There was hope for us all.
One evening that autumn, Bob Geldof and the Rats were booked to appear on ‘The Late Late Show’. Once again, I lied to my mother, so that I could get out of the house and go up to my friend’s place to watch this.
The atmosphere in my friend’s living room was electric, as we uncapped the shandy bottles, passed around the solitary spit-soaked cigarette, and waited for the messiah to descend. Bob shambled onto the screen like an evil, bedraggled wino and sneered his way through the interview in a furtive southside drawl. He detested many things about Ireland, he said. He loathed the Catholic Church; he hated the priests who had taught him in Blackrock College, he disliked his father. He had only gotten into rock and roll in order to get drunk and get laid. Almost everything he said was greeted with horrified gasps and massed tongue-clickings from the audience, and wild cheers from my friends and myself. When the interview was over, the rest of the band slouched on, looking very much as though they had just woken up in a skip, and thundered into ‘Mary of the Fourth Form’, a feverish song about the seduction of a schoolteacher by a female student. ‘The Late Late Show’ had witnessed many exciting events throughout its long and colourful history, but never a youth playing the piano in his pyjamas. As the number climaxed in a clamour of drums and wailing feedback, the studio audience was absolutely stunned.
‘Well done, Bob,’ smiled the nervous host. Geldof turned around, scowling, wiping the saliva from his lips with the back of his hand. ‘Yeah, well, if you liked it so much,’ he snapped, ‘just go and buy the record.’ Fuck! The guy was giving cheek to the great Gay Byrne now! Well, this was something new and dangerous. This was practically revolution.
In Ireland, in the late 1970s, this was absolutely astounding talk. This was the decade when one million people – almost a third of the entire population of the state – had attended a mass said by the Pope in Dublin’s Phoenix Park. This was many years before Mary Robinson, or the divorce debate, or the legalisation of gay rights in Ireland. You could not legally buy a condom in Ireland in the 1970s, never mind go on the television and talk so blithely about getting drunk and getting laid and hating priests and disliking your father. And although I liked my own father a lot, Geldof’s pungent cocktail of motormouth arrogance, unwise trousers and disrespect for authority really did appeal to me. In time, I couldn’t get enough of it.
Soon after ‘The Late Late Show’, my friend Conor got a copy of The Boomtown Rats’ first record and he taped it for me. It wasn’t really punk at all, in fact; it was souped-up rhythm and blues played with a lot of aggression. But there were some fantastic songs on it. ‘Never Bite the Hand That Feeds’ and ‘Neon Heart’, for instance. The music was raw, brimming with verve and a crisp visceral energy. But there were other things I admired about it. The songs were full of characters, and I liked that. It made the songs seem like they were about real people. And there was a surprising facility for language; a gutsy pared-down approach to storytelling.
Sooner or later, the dawn came breaking,
The joint was jumping and the walls were shaking,
When Joey sneaked in the back door way,
Pretending he was with the band, he never used to pay;
He was never a great draw for pulling the chicks,
He’d just lie against the wall like he was holding up the bricks.
But on The Boomtown Rats’ first record there was also a slow piano-based ballad called ‘I Can Make It If You Can’. It was a tender song of vulnerability and longing. I kept the tape beside my bed, and I would put on ‘I Can Make It If You Can’ every morning as soon as I woke up. I felt that this was the voice of a survivor, a guy who knew about pain. I felt he was singing to me, and to people like me, and that there was some kind of integrity to what he was doing. I played the tape until it wore out and couldn’t be played any more. And there were many mornings around that time – I don’t mind saying it – when that song helped me to get out of bed. I can make it if you can.
I was so full of fear in those days that I would often feel it clenched up inside me, like a fist, literally; like a physical thing. My life sometimes felt meaningless. It was hard to see a future of any kind. It is a terrible thing to feel so hopeless when you’re so young, but I did for a while, and I have to say it honestly. No teacher, no priest, ever lifted a finger to help my family. There were three things, and three things only, which kept me going throughout those years. One was the love of my father, which was constantly and unselfishly given. The second was the support of my brother and sisters and friends. And the third was Bob Geldof.
I would listen to him singing ‘I Can Make It If You Can’, and I would believe it. I simply felt that I could make it if Bob Geldof could. I know I was utterly naive to think that, but I’m grateful now for the naivety of youth. I associated myself with Bob Geldof. He became a paradigm of survival, toughness and courage. He would never ever get ground down by anything, I felt, and thus, if I remembered that, neither would I. As time went on, I began to think more about Bob Geldof and his band. I derived an active personal pleasure from anything the Rats got up to. I bought everything they released – ‘She’s So Modern’, ‘Like Clockwork’, then the magnificent album A Tonic for the Troops. I really did think their success had something to do with me. I felt I was involved in it, inextricably linked to it, bound up with it in ways that nobody else could understand. I felt they were singing to me and to the people I knew. I thought of them as my friends, even though I had never met them.
In November 1978, anyway, The Boomtown Rats became the first Irish group of the era to get to the top of the British charts. On ‘Top of the Pops’ that week, as he jabbered the brilliant lyric of ‘Rat Trap’ into his mike, Geldof ripped up a poster of Olivia Newton John and John Travolta, whose twee single ‘Summer Nights’ the Rats had just ousted from the number one slot. In school, my friends and I were speechless with pride. Conor cut a photograph of Geldof out of the Hot Press and we stuck it up in the Hall of Fame, where the framed images of all the famous past pupils of the school had been hung. We stuck Bob up there, among the bishops and diplomats and politicians who had founded the state in which we lived. His gawky, grubby face fitted exactly over a photograph of former President Eamon de Valera, and this fact had the kind of exotically cheap symbolism that appeals very greatly to fourteen year-olds. It felt like a victory of sorts at the time, and if I am honest, it still does.
I listened to The Boomtown Rats all the time. I would listen to them for hours on end, and let them send me into a kind of comforting trance. ‘I Don’t Like Mondays’, ‘Diamond Smiles’, I knew the words of their songs off by heart. I would recite them, over and over again in my head, over and over. There were many nights when I went to sleep with the words of ‘I Don’t Like Mondays’ rattling around in my mind, and many mornings when I woke up still silently reciting them, like a prayer.
In December 1979, The Boomtown Rats came back to Ireland. They were supposed to play a big concert, but had been denied permission by the authorities at the last minute. The Boomtown Rats were seen as dangerous in Ireland, such was the murderous innocence of the times. The band took the authorities to court, and lost. That Christmas, my parents were back in court too. I went along myself, but the judge told me to leave. When I came out of the courtroom and into the huge circular hall of the Four Courts building in Dublin, I was upset. But an odd thing happened, then. Fachtna O’Ceallaigh, The Boomtown Rats’ young manager, was standing across the hall with his lawyers He was just kind of standing there with his hands in his pockets, looking cool as fuck. He might have been wearing sunglasses, although I’m not sure. Certainly, he was one of the few people present not wearing a wig. But I was very glad to see him. I felt it was a good omen. It made me think of Bob.
Christmas was dreadful that year. Terrible. The atmosphere in the house was one of pure fear. Early in the new year the Rats released – unleashed would be a better word – the single ‘Banana Republic’, which deftly summed up their feelings about Ireland. By now, they were feelings that coincided greatly with my own.
Banana Republic, septic isle,
Suffer in the screaming sea,
It sounds like dying, dying, dying
Everywhere I go now
And everywhere I see
The black and blue uniforms
Police and priests
It was a devastating attack on a society whose achievements in posturing cant and hypocrisy had so far outstripped its achievements in morality. It was delivered with lacerating power, at a time when it needed to be so delivered. Nobody but Geldof would have had the guts to do it. I don’t know how anyone else felt about it at the time, and I don’t care. I admired Geldof for calling it the way he saw it. I still do admire him for that.
But it was to be the last big single for The Boomtown Rats. Not long after ‘Banana Republic’, things started to wane for them. There were rumours of drug-taking in and around the band, I don’t really know if they were true or not. One way or the other, I think the Rats simply began to lose their way as the tastes of the record-buying public started to change. But I still chart where I was in those days, and what I was doing, by remembering their singles. ‘Elephant’s Graveyard’ was January 1981, the month after my parents’ last court case. ‘House on Fire’ was August 1981, the month my mother had to go into hospital.
There were a brief couple of days when we stayed in the house by ourselves and went pretty wild, my siblings and I. We stayed up till dawn, we painted the words FUCK THE POPE and BOOMTOWN RATS across the front doors of the garage. We were drunk with freedom. We practically trashed the house. We had the Rats on loud, almost all the time. That’s what I remember now, the intoxicating light-headedness of fear and freedom, the thud of the bass coming up through the floorboards, and the nasal roar of Geldof’s voice. When you’re in trouble, it is odd where you find consolation.
One Sunday afternoon, not long after my mother came back, my two sisters ran away and returned to my father’s home, where they were treated with the love, affection and respect they deserved. They never came back to Glenageary again.
‘Never in a Million Years’ was released in November 1981, just after I started college. That month, things got too much for me at home and I moved out too. One day, when I went to see my brother, who was still living with my mother, he had brought along the copy of Tonic for the Troops which I’d left in the house on the day I had finally run away. That tore me to pieces, I don’t know why.
‘House of Fire’ was released in February 1982, when I was going out with a girl called Grace Porter. ‘Charmed Lives’ was June the same year, just after we broke up. ‘Nothing Happened Today’ came out in August 1982, just after I finished my first-year exams. Almost everything that happened to me in those days, I am able to mark with a song by The Boomtown Rats.
The single ‘Drag Me Down’ came out in May 1984. I remember this, because I bought it one cold afternoon in Dun Laoghaire before catching the bus up to visit my mother. We had a violent argument and parted on bad terms. It was the last time I would ever see her. She died nine months later in a car crash. I ran away to Nicaragua to be by myself. I took a tape of the Rats’ last album, In the Long Grass, that included the beautiful single of that year ‘Dave’.
Flirt with Death
But never kiss Her
I see you bleed
I know you feel the squeeze
But please, believe
The view from on your knees
And I took a tape of their last ever single, ‘A Hold of Me’. In some ways I wanted to forget about home, and in other ways I wanted to remember every last thing.
I often thought about the old days, and sometimes when I did, The Boomtown Rats would come into my mind. Live Aid had happened earlier that summer and Geldof was probably the most famous person in the world by now. But the band hadn’t made a record in a long time, and they seemed to have no plans to do so.
And then, in May 1986, amid rumours that the band was about to call it a day for good, they came back to Dublin to play at a charity event, featuring Van Morrison, U2, the Pogues, all the great and the good of the Irish rock world. The Rats played a stormer. They blew everyone away and received a tumultuous reception from the audience. After the main set, Geldof strolled up to the microphone for an encore. He seemed taken aback by the warmth of the crowd’s affection. At first – unusually – he didn’t seem to know what to say. He appeared a little lost as his eyes ranged over the crowd. ‘Well, it’s been a great ten years,’ he muttered, then. ‘So, rest in peace.’
The thundering drum roll began. The opening riff pounded out. The familiar chords, D, A, G, E. The last song The Boomtown Rats ever played in public was their first song, Geldof’s hymn to snot-nosed anarchy and adolescent attitude, ‘Looking After Number One’.
Don’t give me love thy neighbour,
Don’t give me charity,
Don’t give me peace and love from your good lord above
I’M GONNA BE LIKE ME!!
It was at once a powerful homecoming, a stylishly ironic act of self-deprecation and a poignant farewell. And in some odd but profound sense, it seemed like a farewell to me too, a final goodbye to a time in my life that was over now. As I watched the show on television that day, I knew that I would leave Ireland again soon, that I wouldn’t come back for a long time, that I would try to move on.
Gradually I lost touch with my old schoolfriends. I moved flat five or six times in London, and somewhere along the way I left behind all my old Boomtown Rats records. But I remember their force and power still, the healing power of their righteous indignation. And I suppose that sometimes the words don’t seem quite as electrifying now as they did in Dalymount Park on a summer day when I was thirteen years old and breathless with discovery. But that doesn’t bother me much. Because great pop music sometimes heals us in ways that we don’t understand, or in ways that seem unbelievably trite or trivial when we look back. Great pop music is about the people who listen to it, and the circumstances in which they do so, and not really in the end about the people who make it. Maybe that’s what’s so great about it. I don’t know.
Last year, I was on a television programme in Ireland to talk a novel of mine, and Bob Geldof was one of the guests. He was absolutely great. He had the air of a survivor. He seemed like a man who had come through.
In the green room after the show we chatted for a while about nothing at all, his eyes flitting restlessly around the room as he talked, his fingers running through his straggly hair. When the time came to go, we shook hands and he got his stuff together and sloped from the room, a battered guitar case under his arm. It was like watching a part of your past walk out the door.
I never got the chance to tell him what was on my mind that night. There were too many people around, and, anyway, I suppose I hadn’t really found the words I was looking for. But when I think about it now, what I wanted to say was actually very simple. It was this: when I was a scared kid, who felt that there was little point to life, his music and his example were second only to the love of my father and my stepmother and my brother and sisters in keeping me going through all the terror and misery. It helped me survive. It helped me sit out the dark days, and wait for the better times to come. They did come. They often do. But before they did, Bob was there. His music embodied a worldview with which I felt I had some connection. It opened my eyes to things that had never occurred to me before. Like the greatest pop music, it was fun, unpredictable, alive, iconoclastic, intelligent, witty, danceable, tender when it wanted to be, tough as nails when it had to be. It just made me feel better. It healed. And it made me think I could make it, if he could. A foolish and adolescent belief, if ever there was one. But in a world where I had to grow up too fast, at least Bob Geldof and his band allowed me to be foolish and adolescent just once in a while. I’m grateful indeed, for that little, or that much. I’m very grateful for that.
From The Irish Male at Home and Abroad (New Island Books/Minerva)
Although some of her girlhood had been spent in rural Ireland, I think of my late maternal grandmother as a Dubliner. Often as a child I stayed in her house on Keeper Road, Crumlin. A chain-smoker, a gently spoken, willowy woman, she was the most skilled teller of ghost stories.
I remember her in smoke, her hands moving quickly, as the stories arose from the ash tray and were glittered by her eyes. The Brown Lady of Raynham Hall in Norfolk (‘the only ghost ever to be photographed’), the weeping Grey Man who haunted London’s Theatre Royal, the banshees she had heard on wintry nights as a little girl. She would tell of the old library in Dublin that was haunted by its founder, the wonderfully named Archbishop Narcissus Marsh. His young ward had run away with her lover and had left a farewell letter in an unspecified one of the books; every night his ghost searched frantically through the volumes. But the greatest of my grandmother’s stories concerned a relative of her own, a cousin or uncle by marriage, who in his twenties had held, if not the most beautiful job in a Victorian city, certainly the most beautifully named. He walked the night-streets of Dublin as a lamplighter.
Like London or Liverpool, Manchester or Glasgow, the streets of Victorian Dublin could be thick with smoky fog. Not fog as we know it but filthier, almost touchable, ashy, roiling, full of smuts and stinking cinders. But he found beauty in his work, so my grandmother would tell me. The glow of his lamps through the filth, he had said, was not light but ‘the smiles of the ghosts’.
By my grandmother’s account, he was a personable, dapper man who enjoyed nattering with his fellow nightwalkers as he went about his mission of dispensing the ghostly glow. A passer-by here, a policeman there. He prided himself, said my grandmother, on never forgetting a name or a face, and ‘on being able to peel an orange in his pocket’.
One midnight, behind Dublin’s Four Courts, on Church Street, which takes its name from St Michan’s Anglican church, he noticed a young man standing alone, staring up at the steeple. The neighbourhood was desperately poor but the man was well-dressed. The lamplighter approached and asked if he was lost.
No, the diffident young man explained. He was looking at the church, a fascinating building, there were said to be mummies in the crypt. There were indeed, the lamplighter confirmed. Some mineral quality in the air had preserved, in their rotting coffins, the medieval bodies of several departed Dubliners, including a 300-year-old nun and a onetime soldier in the army of the Crusaders. Such stories were fascinating, the young man said, offering a cigarette, which the lamplighter accepted.
His name was Stoker, the young man mentioned. Abraham Stoker, a writer of ghost stories, by day a government clerk.
Months and seasons passed. Every once in a while, the lamplighter would notice the same well-dressed nightwalker, often in the same spot, or on the corner of Arran Quay. They’d exchange a wave or a nod. And then, after a time, Mr Stoker wasn’t there anymore. The lamplighter assumed he’d moved away from Dublin.
Years later, on an April night in 1912, the lamplighter, now retired, was walking his old beat. As though to greet him, as a onetime sparring partner now become afriend, the Liffey fog was swirling and thick. As he turned onto Church Street, he saw, in a shaft of cold moonlight, the figure of a man he recognised but had not seen in several decades.
‘Mr Stoker, sir,’ he said.
Stoker turned to him, weeping, looked him in the eye and strode away wordlessly into the fog.
I like to think of the silence in the kitchen, or the crackle of the fire, when, later that night,the lamplighter ’s wife told her husband, on hearing his story, of something she had happened to read in the Dublin newspapers that morning: Bram Stoker had died the day before in London.
And I’ve no doubt my grandmother’s story has elements of the tall tale. But it was quite something to grow up with the ghost of Bram Stoker, the Dubliner who gave Dracula to the world. It made me see the hometown of my ancestors differently. In that melancholy Little London of gaslight and parasols, of sepiaand rosary beads and wild-eyed plaster saints and nicotine-umbered mirrors in pubs, there were things that went bump in the night.
Growing up in Dublin, it seemed that you were living in a book of ghost stories, an anthology of the city’s past. You walked the streets of Narcissus Marsh and the spectral Dean Swift who was whispered to roam the Liberties at night. Taken, perhaps on a school trip, to visit Kilmainham Jail, you would come away enthralled by the story of rebel prisoner Joseph Mary Plunkett, who married the artist Grace Gifford the night before his execution. If you went to see rock band The Virgin Prunes, you would hear spooky lyrics written by Oscar Wilde, now screamed with the punk fury of the era. Philip Chevron’s band The Radiators From Spacehad been saturated in the city’s ghost story traditions. The cover of their album Ghostown featured a still from Nosferatu and crackled with gothic imagery and its cousin, sexual ambiguity. With song titles like ‘Faithful Departed’ and ‘Kitty Rickets’, it was as though Wilde’s Dorian Grey had discovered a Fender Telecaster guitar in some foul rag-and-bone shop on the quays. No other city in the world had rock music like this. In London, Johnny Rotten was snarling of anarchy. In New York, the Ramones were setting fire to guitars. In Dublin, Gavin Friday was quoting ‘De Profundis’ as he made with the eye-liner and the rouge. We had renegades, but they defied even the conventions of rebellion. Absence was a presence. The dead felt close.
The street-songs and Dublin ballads Stoker would have heard had always been stories: touching, dark, as alive to the stench of the eddying Liffey as to the possibilities of truth and beauty. Poe never invented darker characters. It was a world of broken lovers and tough survivors who had far more in common with the gloomy braggadocio of the Chicago blues than with the tweedy jollities of sanitised Irish folk music. Molly Malone, doomed starlet of Dublin’s most emblematic song, is herself a ghost who died of fever.
Father Holly, the old priest who, in 1979, taught me English for Ireland’s O-level equivalent had once seen Yeats’s beloved Maud Gonne crossing O’Connell Bridge. When we came to Yeats’s line that she had ‘beauty like a tightened bow’, he paused and regarded us with sternest gravitas before saying “I saw her, boys. She was otherworldly. Like a vision.” Other teenagers in the world might read that extraordinary poem, ‘Easter 1916’, and wonder about the Troy it attempted to burn. Dublin adolescents knew we were living there.
Joyce and John Synge had walked the seafront at Dun Laoghaire. On summer evenings their ghosts seemed to hover as you walked the breezy expanse of the pier. The phantom of executed patriot Robert Emmett haunted The Brazen Head inn. Soldiers’ ghosts haunted Collins Barracks. Statues of Edmund Burke and Thomas Davis stood sentry over the streets.Railway stations and parks were named for the dead heroes.
Through all of it, for me, walked the king of Dublin ghosts, Stoker, the greatest supernatural storyteller of all time. An eternally elusive man, nothing was named for him, but it was always his inscrutable face I saw when I pictured Dublin as a person, as though glimpsing him through a rainy windowpane. For me, he is the Easter Island god of the ghost story. Everyone else will be always in his shadow. Having known scant literary success in his lifetime, he is now recognized as the genius he was, immortal as his infamous antihero. My novel Shadowplaysees him in London, where he lived most of his life, a theatre manager wrestling with demons of sexuality and doubt, at other times a gentle, funny person, seeming comfortable in his skin, driven by intense love for his friends Henry Irving and Ellen Terry. Perhaps he remembered his hometown sometimes, as emigrants will. Perhaps, in his way, he brought it with him.
The lost Dublin in which Stoker night-walked was a shadowplace of contrasts, a provincial Victorian backwater throbbing with crusty elegance and pitiless squalor; the desolation of a scandalised diva now reduced to the dole. Chandeliers illuminated her mansions, candles glowed in chapels; red lights flickered in the backstreet brothel doorways. Joyce described his hometown as having ‘a faint odor of corruption’, a pungency that arises from every page of his masterwork, Dubliners. It is so like how Stoker writes about London in Dracula.
Dublin has changed but you still see haunting glimpses of the vanished city, an erased draft of a long lost story. The ruins of tatty dancehalls, the onetime mansions now converted into bedsits, or you sense a weather beaten lonesomeness expressed by the poet Louis McNiece in that aching line about the city of Stoker’s birth, ‘the bare bones of a fanlight over a hungry door’.
A quiet clerk from Dublin who, in life, was never a bestseller, Stoker lamp-lit our subconscious, shimmered our nightmares and made the darkness sexy as Hell. And I don’t care if my grandmother’s story of his ghost was a fiction. Every time I’m on Church Street, I’m a true believer. Especially on a foggy night.
In 1847, a dark year for Ireland, famine ravaged the countryside. Horror stories went the rounds, reports of half-starved evictees devouring the corpses of thevictims. The imagery of the undead was deployed by commentators. ‘The survivors are like walking skeletons,’ observed the English Quaker William Forster. ‘The town of Westport is a strange and fearful sight, its streets crowded with gaunt wanderers.’In Roscommon, one landlord was described as ‘worse than Cromwell’ by the local priest, as ‘a Nero or Caligula’ by others. In Dublin, on 8th November that year, Abraham ‘Bram’ Stoker was born.
His mother was from Sligo and had written a gruesome memoir about cholera among the local tenants. His father was a civil servant who worked in Dublin Castle. Bram, a lonely child, suffered an illness that made him almost lame, and he rarely attended school. Perhaps his mother read him the supernatural stories of her own rural girlhood: banshees, bad fairies, evil sprites.
His teens saw an astonishing physical transformation as the sickly boy grew into a bearlike athlete who once saved a man from drowning. A mediocre student at Trinity, he became a Clerk of Petty Sessions and an occasional, unpaid theatre critic. Through reviewing, he met the great English actor Henry Irving and moved to London as a young married man to be his assistant at the Lyceum Theatre, which Irving had leased.
It was a risky venture. Theatre was seen by the establishment as disreputable, a nest of prostitutes, low-lifers, disobedient women, dubious men. ‘Was ever one woman of the theatre more than two steps from harlotry?’ asked a contemporary pamphlet condemning the stage as a place of idolatry. When the actor William Terriss was knifed outside London’s Adelphi Theatre in 1897, Irving commented that the killer would never be executed because the victim was only an actor. With Stoker by his side, Irving set out to make theatre respectable. Their relationship was ardent, intensely loving, often turbulent.
Irving was a mesmeric, sexually charismatic figure whose performances of Shakespearian villains were often greeted by terrified screaming. On first meeting the great actor, Stoker himself was thunderstruck by Irving’s recital of ‘The Dream of Eugene Aram’, a poem about a blood curdling murder. ‘I sat spellbound,’ he would write. ‘The whole thing was new, re-created by a force of passion which was like a new power.’ As the reading concluded, Stoker, generally a mild-mannered sort, ‘burst out into something like a violent fit of hysterics.’
The coming years would see many emotional explosions between the two, and life would acquire an even zestier range of colours with the arrival at the Lyceum of the brilliant Ellen Terry, the most famous and highly paid actress of her era. Funny, unconventional, fiercely smart, independent, she and Irving became lovers and she was adored by Stoker, too. A trailblazing artist, she would be the only person mentioned by name in Dracula whom Stoker actually knew.
For now, a part-time writer with a highly demanding job, Stokerpublished criticism, spooky stories and a few rather workaday novels. There is little in his sometimes lifeless early writings to foreshadow the looming masterpiece.
Bram Stoker was far from the first author to pen a vampire story. Long before he wrote Dracula, it must already have seemed that vampires had been done to death. He would have trudged through The Vampyre by John William Polidori (1819), La Morte Amoreuse (The Dead Woman in Love) by Théophile Gautier (1836), James Malcolm Rymer’s Varney, the Vampyre (1845-47) and Carmilla (1872) by his countryman Sheridan le Fanu. From his work with Irving and Terry he would have known the many references to ghosts and vampirism in Shakespeare, from Hamlet’s vow to ‘drink hot blood’ to the statue of slain Julius Caesar spouting gore. But Stoker did something no one had done. He made his vampire someone the reader might pass on Oxford Street.
Far from being, like most early vampire novels, a slab of cod-medievalism, Dracula is a novel of unsettling modernity, featuring telephones, train timetables, women’s magazines, medical innovation, shorthand, audio recording, and, of course, blood transfusion. Stoker’s genius was to migrate the ancient archetype of the bloodsucker into the everyday world of the reader. Prowling by night, sleeping by day, the Count speaks to private anxieties, suppressed sexualities, asubworld of secret selves. This Luciferian noble is more compelling than the innocents he craves, who only come to life when he drains them. In a way, the Count is himself a sort of theatre, in which are staged the neuroses of his era. From Dr Jeckyll and Mr Hyde to The Picture of Dorian Gray, Victorian literature saw stories about a violent, depraved twin. Stoker’s contention was more disturbing, stirring darker recognitions: that we are only one bite from immortality and something in us desires to be bitten.
But intriguingly, Dracula has lighter touches, too. Stoker risks the occasional joke, telling us Dracula ‘would have made a good lawyer’. The Count is portrayed as raffish good company. In my own novel, Shadowplay, Ellen Terry remarks on the vampire’s charming manners, his fondness for English literature, quoting a passage from Dracula in support.
‘Whilst I was looking at the books, the door opened, and the Count entered. He saluted me in a hearty way, and hoped that I had had a good night’s rest. Then he went on.
“I am glad you found your way in here, for I am sure there is much that will interest you. These companions,” and he laid his hand on some of the books, “have been good friends to me, and for some years past, ever since I had the idea of going to London, have given me many, many hours of pleasure. Through them I have come to know your great England, and to know her is to love her. I long to go through the crowded streets of your mighty London, to be in the midst of the whirl and rush of humanity, to share its life, its change, its death, and all that makes it what it is. But alas! As yet I only know your tongue through books.’
Readers should be careful about discerning autobiographical revelation in fiction, but how tempting to imagine that this is Stoker, the London immigrant, allowing himself a moment of appreciative utterance, a nod towards his beloved adoptive city.
For Dracula is a great London novel. Stoker never set foot in Transylvania but London was home all his adult life. What he knew of Dracula’s motherland was gleaned in that remarkable portal to the whole world, the Reading Room of the British Library. But Londoners in Dracula flit frequently to Europe, thinking as little of skedaddling to Amsterdam as they would to Brighton or Whitby, a town Stoker knew well, an important place in Dracula. This is a novel that sees London not so much as well-ordered imperial capital but as metropolitan heart of darkness.
That Dracula is, too, a novel of intense physicality may be one of the reasons for its only limited success on publication. Victorian readers may not have been ready for Stoker’s particular take on the things that go bump in the night. There are scenes that crackle with artfully suppressed eroticism, veiled references to oral sex and pre-marital coupling, the swopping of blood serving as a metaphor for other intimacies. There are sequences, particularly those involving the notably kickass women vampires, where the book’s sexuality is allowed to boil. Intense same-sex affection is a presence in Dracula; the shimmering eroticism of the novel has led to speculation about Stoker’s orientation. As a young man taken by Leaves of Grass, he began a correspondence with Walt Whitman (they would later meet) in intriguing language.
‘I have been more candid with you—have said more about myself to you than I have ever said to any one before. You will not be angry with me if you have read so far. You will not laugh at me for writing this to you. It was with no small effort that I began to write and I feel reluctant to stop, but I must not tire you any more. If you ever would care to have more you can imagine, for you have a great heart, how much pleasure it would be to me to write more to you. How sweet a thing it is for a strong healthy man with a woman’s eyes and a child’s wishes to feel that he can speak so to a man who can be if he wishes father, and brother and wife to his soul. I don’t think you will laugh, Walt Whitman, nor despise me, but at all events I thank you for all the love and sympathy you have given me in common with my kind.’
If Whitman was Bram’s lighthouse, another iconic gay writer is so often present in the backstage of Stoker’s life that the two seem silhouettes of each other. Oscar Wilde and Bram were friends at Trinity. Stoker’s wife, Florence Balcombe, a peerless Dublin beauty, had been engaged to Wilde at one point. Their parting gift, piquantly for Dracula fans, was a crucifix.
But not all of Dracula’s influences were people Stoker knew. Those who have lived in cities beset by terrorism can have some idea of what London felt like during the ripper murders. Fears cawed like rooks. The predator seemed to rove at will. Vile graffiti splashed on walls blamed ‘the jewes’. The miasma of dread that gripped the fog-darkened capital loomed at Stoker, too. The ripper walks the margins of Dracula in spirit, before the attacker is destroyed by being stabbed with a stake, as one of the ripper’s victims was.
Some have seen Irving as the model for Dracula but there is no hard evidence. Indeed, in his shatteringly long biography of Irving, a snowstorm of facts unmitigated by insights, Stoker doesn’t mention Dracula at all. As a novelist myself, I wonder if novelists have role models in that sense. Novelists don’t draw what they see; they imagine the pictures. A kind of osmosis goes on as a novel is being shaped but it’s something more complex than mimicry. Writing is about being haunted.
And Dracula is a novel about writing. Its narrative technique is epistolary, a strategy that supercharges the storytelling. Stoker makes voyeurs of us, as we read other people’s letters. The novel’s many jottings and telegraphed words lend an exhilarating breathlessness to the prose. Dracula, a powerful antidote to the multi volume Victorian door-stopper, knows the reader has other things to do. Stoker’s experiences in the theatre have brought his work a powerful sense of the dramatic. He paints his chiaroscuro deftly and is not afraid to deploy smoke and mirrors. Once he gets you into your seat, he locks the doors.
That this scalding tale of eternal love was written by a quietclerk from Dublin is not its strangest element. That honour belongs to Dracula’s afterlife. Stoker died in 1912, not desperately poor but by no means financially comfortable, having lost his income on Irving’s death in 1905. Some years after Stoker’s passing, a German film company produced the pirated film, Nosferatu. Florence Balcombe, Stoker’s redoubtable widow, sued and won. But the movies fell for the Count, who has refused to stay dead ever since. Filmed dozens of times, selling tens of millions of copies, in hundreds of languages, inspiring scores of imitators, Dracula has become the most successful supernatural novel in history.
I look at a photograph of Stoker’s inscrutable face and wonder what on earth he would make of it all. On stormy nights I picture him laughing.