THE BOG OF STARS

THE BOG OF STARS

As a boy in national school many years ago my English primers for several years were the “Land of Youth” Readers.  They were published around 1950 by the Educational Company and had blue stiff cardboard covers. There was no indication of who edited or selected the contents which consisted of an eclectic and sometimes idiosyncratic mix of short pieces of prose and poetry covering, in the main, figures from Irish history and legend.

Tales of Finn and the Fianna were strongly represented in the Junior book together with pieces from history such as St. Patrick,  Brian Boru at Clontarf, the capture (and later escape) of Hugh Roe O Neill and the exploits of Sergeant Custume at Athlone. The material was carefully edited for the intended young readers (eight and nine years).

The more advanced Intermediate book had a broader stretch of material, with a good proportion of the pieces and poems identified by author. Again there was an emphasis on Irish history and some mythology but there were also pieces on Robinson Crusoe, Johnny Appleseed and Robert Peary at the North Pole as well as Kingsford Smith’s transatlantic flight  from Portmarnock in 1930. There was a translation of Pearse’s story Eoghanin na nEain as well as the words of “A Nation Once Again”.

While there continued to be careful editing for the intended audience, several  items introduced a deeper dimension and one even now seems heady stuff for 10 year olds. The piece on Robinson Crusoe focused not on Man Friday or the cannibals but on Crusoe’s realisation of the impossibility, and hence the futility, of attempting to build a boat to escape. Another quite short piece was entitled “The Man who was Ill” and is historically well attested to. It recounted a consultation with a doctor in early 19th Century London. There was nothing physically wrong with the patient, who was manifestly suffering from depression. The doctor’s suggested remedy was that he should cheer himself up by going to see the great clown Grimaldi. The patient explained, sadly, that this was impossible, simply because he was Grimaldi.

One piece was of a different order. Entitled “The Bog of Stars” it was a shortened version of Standish O Grady’s story of the same name published in 1893 in a work entitled “The Bog of Stars and other stories and sketches of Elizabethan Ireland”. The eight other stories include The Battle of the Curlew Mountains and Don Juan de Aquila, The Hero of Kinsale, but the title story is preeminent.  It is an account of an expedition some time late in the Nine Years War by Lord Deputy Mountjoy to attack the stronghold of an Irish chieftain, Ranal, known as the Raven. The expedition’s route took it past a bog called Mona-Reulta, which, it was explained to Mountjoy, meant the Bog of Stars, as its pools reflected stars at night.

Mountjoy’s forces included a drummer boy, Raymond Fitzpierce, who had been raised for several years at the court of the Raven, a period of which he had only happy memories. During the expedition he learned that its aim was to kill or capture the Raven. He determined this would not happen. So, when the chieftain’s camp was in sight and the element of surprise all but complete, he drummed out a warning. The Raven, his family and followers escaped. The boy was court martialled, saying in his defence that a star shone before him. Mountjoy, declaring “Then is a traitor turned poet” commanded that the boy not be shot but rather drowned in the Mona-Reulta so that he could add “his star to the rest.”

The Land of Youth version spared the detail of the execution (the boy bound hand and foot and weighed down with stones) and mentioned Mountjoy’s unease at the sentence he handed down, asking was there another prisoner. But it concluded with the moving and memorable last paragraph of the original:

“Then the sun set, and still night increased, and where the drummer boy had gone down a bright star shone; it was the evening star, the star of love, which is also the morning star, the star of hope and bravery.”

Heady stuff indeed.

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BUNNAFREEVA LOUGH WEST, ACHILL ISLAND

GOING THE WAY THAT I WENT

 “Just a hole in the ground with water in it”.  With these unromantic comments the young man in charge of the photographic exhibition in Dooagh dismissed one of the most striking topographical features in Ireland.  Bunnafreeva Lough West, the corrie lake on Croghaun Mountain in Achill, has to be one of Ireland’s best kept secrets. In part this is because of its remoteness and relative difficulty of access. It is tucked away near the top of the mountain, which is itself at the farthest end of Achill Island.

Yet for those who make the effort, and can manage the climb, the result is well worth it. Bunnafreeva Lough is the highest corrie lake in Ireland, over 300 metres above sea level, and is located in spectacular surroundings close to the edge of sheer cliffs jutting into the Atlantic. Photographs rarely do it justice (including the one which failed to move one young man), though the accompanying photograph, taken by me several years ago, gives some idea of its unique beauty. There are also several fine images and descriptions to be explored on the MountainViews website, and another one is available on the Achill 24/7 website. But the best advice I can offer is to go and see it in person.

The lake is so off the beaten track that it scarcely features in most guides to Achill, which concentrate on the island’s more accessible features. Indeed I first learned of it by chance through the account in Robert Lloyd Praeger’s classic book “The Way That I Went”. The book, my copy dates from 1947, is an idiosyncratic account of a trip through Ireland by one of our greatest naturalists. Happily it was reissued in paperback a number of years ago making it available to a wider audience. Praeger is a master of understatement, classifying hair raising but spectacular walks along cliffs and promontories as requiring “a good head, careful progress” and, in the case of scrambling along Achill Head, “nailed shoes”.

Nobody could read Praeger’s description of the lake without becoming intrigued. He sets the scene with a quotation from Edward Newman, a London publisher and naturalist who visited Achill in 1838. Newman described Achill as “more like a foreign land than any I have visited”. He described Bunnafreeva Lough as follows:” Near the margin of the cliff a beautiful little fresh-water lake surrounded by an amphitheatre of hills. I should think its surface was 600 feet above the sea and its distance from the edge of the cliff scarcely 300, I doubt whether any Englishman but myself has ever seen this lone and beautiful sheet of water; its singularly round form, the depth of the basin in which it reposes, the precipitous sides of the basin, its height above the sea – all these are characters of no ordinary interest”.

My first two attempts to access the lake were thwarted by the weather. Croghaun is almost 700 metres high and no place to attempt to climb if the weather is uncertain, common enough on Achill. It was third time lucky during a recent summer. We took a house in Dooagh for what were two glorious weeks in June, with temperatures throughout nudging 30 degrees. I set out early one morning with my then 14 year old son.

The lake can be accessed by a more gradual climb leaving the village and heading up past the booley village of Tamhnach Mor but we chose the more direct and challenging route. We left the car at Acorrymore lake, the delightful, scenic –and accessible – corrie lake which serves as a reservoir for the island. Then it was uphill, at times quite steep, for several hundred metres. We struggled across an expanse of bog, where we were surrounded and feasted upon by clouds of midges. After this it was uphill again; then, suddenly, as we crested a hill, we were there.

Newman did not exaggerate. Several hundred feet below us lay the lake, wedge shaped rather than round. The ground before us sloped away steeply down to the waters while on the other sides  similarly sloping shale and rock lightly coated in green vegetation created the effect of an amphitheatre. The lowest side faced west, with Saddle Head and the Atlantic beyond. The lake itself was a deep intense blue, accentuated by a rim of white quartz stones, the effect contrasting strikingly with the lighter blue ocean in the background. We took a number of photos and then made our way back. Later in the holiday we visited the lake again, by the easier route.

Assuredly Bunnafreeva Lough West  is not just a hole with water in it!

June 2012

MEETING RATKO MLADIC

MEETING RATKO MLADIC

The arrest of Ratko Mladic a few days ago reminded me with a start that it is almost 20 years since I met the man. It was 8th February 1992 at a meeting in southern Croatia between Mladic and a delegation from the European Community Monitoring Mission in Jugoslavia, headed by an Ambassador from the current EC Presidency ( at the time the HOM was from Portugal).  Mladic was at that time the commander of the Ninth Corps of the Jugoslav National Army (the JNA). The horrors of the Sarajevo siege and the Srebenice massacre lay in the future, though he was already acquiring a reputation.

His advance had been rapid as Jugoslavia disintegrated. From being a Colonel in Kosovo he had graduated to organising the activities of the JNA in Knin, part of the Serb controlled area in western and southern Croatia known as the Krajina. A further promotion to Major General followed when an older general was kicked upstairs to command forces in Banja Luka in Northern Bosnia. Was this a move by Milosevic and the generals to ensure that their most capable and committed military commander was well positioned and at hand should the Bosnian balloon go up? Perhaps the trial will reveal more.

The meeting took place during that peculiar period of phony peace in the run up to the war in Bosnia. It was however, entirely Croatia related.  European community recognition of Croatian and Slovenian independence had become effective in mid-January, a ceasefire between the JNA and Croatian forces was holding and the arrival of a UN peacekeeping force was imminent. Attention was now beginning to focus on Bosnia, where no ethnic group had a majority, with Serbs having declined to around 31 % of the population, still much more than in Croatia where they had fought a bloody war and still controlled one third of the country. Given the belligerent and intransigent remarks being made by all three factions in Bosnia, the outlook was sombre, but nobody could have foreseen the slaughter to come.

We met in an old farmhouse in the Krajina which our interpreter informed us had been where the Italians had surrendered to Partisan forces during World War Two. From the Monitors point of view the purpose of the meeting, one of an on-going series, was to seek to cement and stabilise the ceasefire with the Croatians (in accordance with the Mission’s mandate), build confidence and ensure freedom of access and guarantees of safety for the Monitors to those areas controlled by Serb militias.

Mladic’s presentation on the ceasefire was a heightened reprise of what we were hearing elsewhere at the time. These were to the effect that any and all incidents and ceasefire violations could be laid at the Croatians door, directly or indirectly. The EU, which had “done a lot for Croatia” he told us, should teach the Croatians how to observe a ceasefire. It was doublethink and speak of the type ratcheted to higher indices in Bosnia in the years that followed by both him and Karadic. His suggestions on access and safe conduct were classic. Why not make direct contact with those locals in charge in the areas of the Krajina, an unsubtle attempt to equate militia leaders with the government in Zagreb.

Mladic has entered public consciousness since as the bête noire of the war in Bosnia. The best description of him at this meeting, before it all began, is that he was an example of “What you see is what you get”. He was blunt, forceful, bombastic and unyielding, pounding the table several times during a three hour meeting. There was little of the courtesy paid to the EC
Mission by other Serb generals. He took particular umbrage to what he suggested was a translator’s mistake – a reference to “former Jugoslavia”; he hadn’t signed off yet on leaving Jugoslavia!

He spoke forcefully and with passion regarding Jugoslavia and the position of the Serbs. The country had been created and forged in blood, including that of his father, killed by Croatians fighting with the Nazis in 1945, as well as over a million others. It was wrong and unjust that Croatia had been recognised within its administrative boundaries (a line pushed consistently at the time by Belgrade). The Serbs did not want to be a national minority and would not accept it. His remarks were regarding Croatia, but there was a grisly foretaste here of the attitude struck by the Bosnian Serbs which informed and inspired their conduct over the terrible years that followed,  years in which Ratko Mladic was a major player.

June 2011

Rated Fiction 1 : BUS RIDE

BUS RIDE

Regulars. There every Wednesday virtually without fail, the man with the old woman in a wheelchair. Sometimes she had a word or a smile, sometimes she was asleep. God bless her son. He was a mousy little man, didn’t work, seemed a bit, well,  challenged,  but he certainly took care of his mum. Her weekly outing to the market, probably the only time she got out.

Come to think, they hadn’t been there last week; perhaps she was ill but good to see her back. He watched in the mirror as the son manoeuvred the chair, an old fashioned push job, onto the bus, middle door. She was well wrapped up and hunched over. Her son lurched up to pay, seemed  distracted. He made his way back and they took off.  A few stops and pick-ups,  some more regulars; a fat girl in a track suit with a child in a stroller.

They reached the market stop and he pulled the bus in; opened the doors. There was a sudden commotion, a shout and a piercing scream which morphed into hysterical shrieks; more shouts. Turning, the driver saw the mousy man shambling, running past the front of the bus, wearing a panicked expression, even as he took in the scene behind. Stroller and wheelchair were entangled at the door, the chair at a slight angle and what had been the old lady a bundle on the floor over which the fat girl was screaming. The child in the stroller was pointing a finger.

They estimated afterwards she had been dead for about nine days. Her son, when located, was described as severely traumatised. “It wasn’t quite Psycho but he couldn’t come to terms with the old girl’s death”; this from a council official. Charges would not be pressed.

THIS PIECE WAS LONG LISTED FOR THE FISH FLASH FICTION COMPETITION 2012

BOOKS TO DIE FOR: JOHN CONNOLLY and DECLAN BURKE, eds : a review

BOOKS TO DIE FOR

This is a delicious book, a veritable Wisden of Crime Fiction. The megastar of Irish Crime Writing, John Connolly, has teamed up with one of the rising stars, Declan Burke, to edit an anthology which brings together over 100 of the world’s best crime and mystery writers to nominate and write about their favourite book in the genre. The result is a hefty tome – 700 plus pages – that entertains, educates and stimulates.

The list of  contributors constitutes virtually a roll-call of today’s top mystery writers who overwhelmingly and enthusiastically  agreed  to participate by choosing  just one work by one author of particular importance to them.  Their choices  range from Poe to the present , covering  major and not so well known artists in the field, presented and analysed with a fresh eye. Some subjects get two contributions (Hammett, Ross Macdonald, Dickens), while some of the contributors are themselves the subject of articles (Rankin, Lehane, Pelecanos, Leonard, Connelly)!

All the types and themes of crime and mystery fiction past and present are represented including the eccentric high IQ and wealthy amateur sleuths, solving mysteries which the plodding police cannot, as well as the hard-boiled private eyes at the coal face of street crime.  Two thirds of the contributions cover the more cerebral and reflective authors and works of the last half century.

We get fascinating insights into the minds of the contributors, how they think, what influences them, even what inspired them to write. The essays are deep and informative, with fresh modern appraisals of both work and author. For the reader there is the added bonus that, as the editors point out, where a favourite author is the subject of an essay, chances are that the reader will enjoy the work of the essayist also. The result, not just one but two lists of books and authors to be read.

The editors also acknowledge that there will always be some to take issue with what is not there or even the particular book chosen from an author’s work. Take Raymond Chandler, where neither The Big Sleep nor The Long Goodbye make the cut, with Michael Connelly (a big Chandler fan) focussing instead on The Little Sister, because that book was more personal to him. Many of the contributions are in similar vein, inviting the reader to explore the designated author more thoroughly.

The selection is mouth-watering. The editors each have two choices, with  John Connolly selecting Michael Connelly’s The Black Echo, featuring Harry Bosch, and Ross Macdonald’s The Chill, with his  hero Lew Archer,  the subject of an incisive and sensitive biographical essay. Declan Burke chooses Liam O Flaherty’s The Assassin, a much underrated novel, and George Pelecanos’ ( the Washington D.C. writer and co-producer of “The Wire”)The Big Blowdown, ” a crime novel that can make you cry.”

Among the other Irish contributors, John Banville picks Simenon, though not a Maigret, but rather one from the darker side of the oeuvres, “Act of Passion,”  possibly the only Simenon work to be written in the first person. Colin Bateman picks on  one of Robert  Parker’s Spenser novels, explaining that when he wrote Divorcing Jack, Spenser was the model, Parker the style. Tana French writes about Donna Tartt’s The Secret History and its strong influences on her, with the characters driving the plot, rather than vice versa. Eoin Colfer picks The Ice Harvest by Scott Phillips, dubbing it a comedy classic and  genuinely hilarious as well as excellent crime noir.

Many British writers stick with their own. Peter Robinson picks Ruth Rendell, Minette Walters Du Maurier, Val McDermid Reginald Hill and Ian Rankin (Black and Blue chosen by Brian McGilloway) Derek Raymond. Mark Billingham revisits The Maltese Falcon, what many consider the greatest mystery novel ever,  cautioning against the iconic screen portrayal by Bogart( Houston’s preferred choice, George Raft,  far closer to Hammett’s original Sam Spade). Elmore Leonard picks The Friends of Eddie Coyle, which he describes as a revelation. Leonard, famous for his dialogue, learned from Higgins and considers the book “makes The Maltese Falcon read like Nancy Drew.” Praise indeed.

Jo Nesbo chooses Jim Thompson’s Pop. 1280, reflecting on the author’s sad decline as well as paying tribute to his best work, an influence on  Nesbo’s own.  Kathy Reichs  picks The Silence of the Lambs, inter alia because of the use of a strong woman as the lead. This was not, though, the landmark Reichs asserts. Sara Paretsky launched  V.I. Washarski , her iconic and feisty Chicago detective in 1982, a giant leap in the development of fictional  female detectives. Indemnity Only and Toxic Shock are subjects in the book, while Sara herself contributes a superb essay on Dickens’ Bleak House, focussing on his social conscience and compassion for the poor.

Just a taster.  No need to look any further for a Christmas present, though beware,  this is a book that fans will rush to acquire.

September 2012

JON MCGREGOR: THIS ISN’T THE SORT OF THING THAT HAPPENS TO SOMEONE LIKE YOU: analysis

Jon Mcgregor: This Isn’t the Sort of Thing that Happens to Someone like You

  1. Jon McGregor is  a young (36), highly thought of British writer, author of three successful and critically acclaimed novels, the first of which, “If Nobody Speaks of Remarkable Things” was long listed for the Booker Prize before winning the Betty Trask and a Somerset Maugham Award.
  2. This is his first short story collection. Most of the 30 have been published before. “Wires” was the runner up for the 2011 BBC National Short Story Award; “ If It Keeps on Raining” was runner up in 2010; an early version of “In Winter, the Sky” appeared in Granta magazine in 2002, “Which reminded her, Later” in Granta in 2007.
  3. In April 2010, interestingly, he wrote a lengthy piece, “A Long Way Back”, for the Guardian on a TV film about a trip back to Ireland by a group of elderly homeless Irish emigrants  resident in Nottingham.
  4. The stories vary widely in length from thirty pages to one line. The unifying element is Lincolnshire, one of England’s largest counties,  located on the east coast,  rural, agricultural and sparsely populated. It’s  quite flat topography and proneness  to flooding  present some distinctive  landscapes and skyscapes.
  5. Some of the stories reflect  the title, i.e. something unusual or unexpected happening to ordinary people. Others concern or involve people who are , in some way, not  ordinary. There are examples of eccentricity, alienation, violence (actual and hinted at), helplessness and regret. Flooding occurs as a theme in several stories, both the threat and the result. Three stories in particular stand apart from the rest, in language and tone, either directly or indirectly pointing  to a terrible event , a war or occurrence of apocalyptic magnitude.
  6.  Well worth looking at also are two pieces on You Tube, one featuring an interview with the author, the other  him reading  one of the gems in the book, “We were Just Driving Around.” His website is also quite entertaining and his piece on the book  features some interactive elements (maps, photos of the stories’ locations).

Some Analysis and Comments

  1.  The shortest story, “Fleeing Complexity” comprises one line: “The fire spread quicker than the little bastard was expecting.” Per the author, it is about a boy setting fire to a barn, and hints at unforeseen and possibly tragic consequences. Understating, or just hinting at events never touched on  characterises a number of the stories.
  2. “Wires” has been the subject of much critical acclaim. A sugar beet crashes through the windscreen of a young woman’s car on the motorway. She reaches the hard shoulder where two apparent Good Samaritan motorists in a battered blue van tell her what a narrow escape she has had and tell her they have phoned the police. She is persuaded to leave the car and cross the barrier and climb the embankment (“it’s safer”). While waiting she broods on her relationship with her boyfriend, finally deciding to end it and moves to retrieve her phone from the car. But her arm is held tight by one of the two men, while the other waits, looking tense, beside some nearby trees. The sense of menace is palpable.
  3. “If It keeps on Raining” is also highly regarded. An eccentric lives on a river bank. He is obsessed with the prospect of flooding, whether from the river  after rain or after a biblical deluge which never stops. He has survivalist aspirations and is building a tree house and plans a raft in preparation for the coming catastrophe. He is the laughing stock of the boat club, at the recollection of which he shows flashes of an inner brooding violence. But he remains convinced in his belief of what is coming. A much shorter story in the collection, “The Cleaning,” deals with the practical aspect of attempting to clean up after a major flood.
  4. “In Winter The Sky” – my personal favourite – has been rewritten for the book. A young farmer, decades before, accidentally knocked down and killed a pedestrian late at night. He buried the body, which is not found for years. After it is discovered, he has a conversation with his wife. He tells her that “They needed to bring things out into the open and deal with the consequences and stop trying to hide what it was doing to them both.”

Thus the narrative, which occupies the left hand pages of the story. But the facing pages consist of poems – her poems – with language scored out (final drafts  or finished). As well as presenting highly evocative and haunting images of  rural Lincolnshire, they flesh out the story. They form a continuous whole with phrases lifted from or associated with the facing narrative. We learn that he blames her – it would not have happened had he not been returning from a date with  her – that  they are haunted by his memory of the man’s arms lifted skyward when he was hit, that the event has corroded their relationship.

The language of the  poems merits mention. It is strong, lyrical, describing the sky, seriatim, in  different seasons, the landscape, the topography, some waterway names, the effects of flooding (again the flood theme), and the sky’s aspect during different times of the day. The final image is of “the great ship of Ely Cathedral just visible across the water.”

  1. “Which reminded her, Later”, and its associated story, “Years of This, Now” tell of a vicar’s wife, frustrated in her own career and stuck with the downside of her husband’s job (vocation). A sponging house “guest” marks a type of watershed. When, in the second story, the vicar has suffered a  major stroke, the wife, with the prospect before her of decades as a carer, decides – she is off.
  2. Several stories feature people who are not ordinary. A woman seeks her father’s coat in a lost property office, but there is something strange about her, in “She was looking for this Coat”. An oddball has a phobia about finding a chick in an egg in the story of the same name. It eventually costs him his marriage. In “French Tea” another eccentric  sits in a café babbling senselessly about how to make, or not make, a good cup of tea.
  3. Some stories feature bereavement, actual and threatened. “That colour” concerns someone coming to terms with his partner’s creeping Alzheimers. In “Airshow” a widowed grandfather, coming from the funeral, is riven and distracted by his loss. In ”The Singing” a bereaved woman is coming to terms with the hollow emptiness of life, “with so many things to be done and no one now to do them for.” In “Vessel “ a newly widowed woman faces unwanted and disturbing approaches from a male acquaintance. In the grimly repetitive “The Remains” a man is haunted by the failure to locate the long missing body of his loved one, wife, partner or daughter. Her remains “have yet to be found”.
  4. Loneliness is explored, passim.  In “Close” a spinster has a near miss with romance on holiday in Japan –or was it all just in the mind? In “Looking up Vagina” a lonely schoolboy, who doesn’t fit in and is bullied in consequence, is perceptive enough to realise (or deluded enough to fantasize)that his destiny is above and beyond his yobbish schoolmates. In “New York” the lonely and alienated existence of migrant workers everywhere is touched on through an account of migrant agricultural labourers from Eastern Europe– a current feature in rural England – awaiting collection after work.
  5. Violence, in different manifestations, is another recurring theme. “Keeping Watch over the Sheep” features an estranged father trying to access the nativity play featuring his young daughter. He is a known and marked man. Led away in handcuffs, he is unreconciled to reality. He cannot understand why his daughter is reduced to tears by his antics or where his marriage went wrong, though he does concede that “breaking things had never helped.”
  6. In “Dig a Hole” – a two paragraph story – there has beenviolence and a man has been hurt. In “Thoughtful”, another two paragraph story, there is violence aggravated by drink. In “What happened to Mr Davison”, something serious, perhaps tragic, has happened to a landowner after four people took the law into their own hands; a mechanical digger is involved. While chastened by the outcome, the four do not regret their original action.
  7. “We Wave and Call” encapsulates the book’s title. Truly this isn’t the sort of thing that happens to someone like the person featured. A youth is on holiday, possibly in Croatia, with friends, and is swimming and snorkelling. His friends want to leave, but he is enjoying the warm sea, just floating, and tells them he will catch up in a minute. He continues to soak up the sun lazily. Then he realises time has passed, and sets out for shore. But the current has carried him. It is much further than he thought. He begins to panic, but reassures himself that he can make it and thinks about his friends, the apartment, drinking beer, and how he will describe his close shave to those back in England. Meanwhile , and despite his efforts, he is drifting farther away, towards the next bay; “sometimes it happens like this.”
  8. “I’ll buy you a Shovel” sees two ex-cons, casually employed, plot and carry out a minor theft  on the fringe of a wedding party. One of the longest stories in the book, we are introduced to several of the pair’s traits and life history, with minor acts of physical violence carried out on each other, fuelled by drink. An undertone of sexual menace obtains (one at least appears a sexual predator). The action takes place over a week in which RAF jets are repeatedly using the nearby sands for bombing practice, growing in intensity, with,  in consequence, the two judging the big one to be imminent.
  9. Three stories are markedly different from the rest. Do they reflect the author’s political views? They  concern war or civil strife or preparations for or the aftermath of an apocalyptic event of some sort. There have already been hints elsewhere , as in  “Shovel”  “I remember there was a hill”, a very short story, sets the scene. A small village seems deserted, devoid of life, as if in the wake of a neutron bomb. The public phone rings. It is answered. Shortly afterwards two planes fly over. An explosion is heard, then silence.
  10. “The Last Ditch” is difficult to read. It is very much tongue-in cheek and is not, properly speaking, a story at all. It is, rather, couched as a briefing note for an in-house meeting  of military/intelligence officials tasked with  planning for  self-sustaining mini communities to withstand/survive  major societal breakdown. The note goes into considerable and quite boring detail regarding defences, natural and otherwise, food, waste disposal, energy, medicines, reserves and weaponry.

There are sections also on the type of outside threat such a community could  anticipate as well as one entitled, delicately “Managed Exit”, i.e. the liquidation, voluntary or otherwise, of the community  to avoid capture, enslavement,  torture, rape and extraction of vital information. “Any proposed method must be a) quick, b)low pain/distress where possible, c) non-rescindable, d) enforceable/enactable by others if req.” An addendum makes clear that the controller of the briefing note’s  author is sceptical of much of its content, particularly the last piece,  while taking on board much of the basic intelligence information provided.

The cause of societal breakdown is left unsaid but McGregor points obliquely at an energy supply crisis or some outcome of acute global warming. It is sobering to reflect that someone, somewhere, in the real world may be working on plans along these lines.

  1. In the same vein, but an altogether much stronger piece is “Supplementary Notes to the Testimony.” Here Armageddon of some form has taken place, with Britain referred to as “the former UK” and  tracts of  south east England depopulated. Large numbers of British refugees have been living on the Continent, some, ironically – and obviously intentionally placed by the author – in Sangatte, including the “Appellants” who are giving the testimony. After five years in Sangatte they spent eight or nine years in “ a series of displaced persons camps in the Netherlands” before being expelled as “ the draft peace agreement was in force.” The “Notes” – and they are just that – suggest some of the means and routes for refugees to return to the Lincolnshire area, an area much changed in the aftermath of events.
  2. The last piece in the book is entitled “Memorial Stone”. It consists solely of lists of place names, presumably in Lincolnshire, grouped by ending. Thus we have places ending in “well”, “ham”, “Bank”, “Steeping”, “ton”, “field”, “worth” grouped. These are followed by “Moore”, “Marsh”, “by”, “try”, “thorpe”, “gate”, “dyke”, “Leake”, “beck”, ”brook”, “bridge”, “ford”, “Ferry”. There is then a group of place names containing the name of a saint; the final two sections are of places ending in “End” and some others. The piece seems designed to be read aloud – there is an attraction to hearing the names read out. I am reminded a little of Seamus Heaney’s “Weather Forecast” poem.
  3. Finally, a little gem. “We Were Just Driving Around.” (The clip of the author reading the story is available on You Tube.) A car with young people is driving around,  just driving around. Josh, the driver, is romancing about his plans for a shop making gourmet snacks. He gets slightly carried away trying to answer Tom’s practical objections to locating a business in a rural area (customer base, etc.). The music is loud; his voice is loud. They jolt over a small bridge, driving fast. Josh has a high pitched laugh and the decibel level in the car goes up.  Amanda asks Josh to slow down a bit. “He turned round to ask what she’d said so that must have been how come he never saw the corner.”

Assessment

  1. There is a certain organic unity about the book, diverse as the stories are. It should sell on the quality of the stories alone. Jon McGregor is clearly a very talented young writer about  whom we will hear much more  He has an older and wiser head on his shoulders than his years. His prose, his eye, his ear are all good. This book will cement his reputation.
  2. A good read? Certainly. Enjoyable? Definitely. A page turner?  Certainly the reader’s interest is held. Would I buy it? Yes indeed.

S.F.

23/2

YANKEE DOODLES by DENNIS KENNEDY: a review

YANKEE DOODLES

Dennis Kennedy, former deputy editor and long-time columnist with the Irish Times, was one of fifteen  journalists chosen to visit the USA in 1963, courtesy of the World Press Institute in Minnesota . Almost 50 years later he has published his reminiscences.

The one year fellowship, designed to increase awareness of the USA among foreign journalists, included a period at Macalester College in Minnesota, a spell working for the Newark News, an extended tour of 20 states and ended with the 1964 Republican Convention which nominated Barry  Goldwater.

The group’s well-connected hosts  also provided icing on the cake  in  the form of corporate access at a high level, including meetings and briefings with major figures from the Sixties, including the owner and founder of Time Magazine (Henry Luce) and Readers’ Digest,  Senators Fulbright and McCarthy, Willy Brandt (then Mayor of Cold War hot spot West Berlin)and Billy Graham.  Governor Wallace of Alabama, segregationist hero,  reminisced  to the Japanese journalist in the group about his part in the firebombing of Tokyo in 1945.

It was a memorable, indeed seminal  year. When he arrived in August, JFK was in the White House  and Martin Luther King had just made his famous “I have a dream” speech. Then came the bombshell of Dallas. Amazingly, their hosts got  the group  to Washington, flown on 3 M’s corporate plane, into the White House to view the President’s coffin and to witness the funeral, and even into the empty Oval Office.  Looking back, the author remarks not only on the assassination but on the smooth transfer of power and the first months of the new President, LBJ, who proved far more than the journeyman politician he had appeared.

The book contains a number of  vignettes covering the main events and places visited by Dennis, some amusing, some amazing, and offers a short time capsule of  the USA before  Civil Rights and Vietnam. In Newark he was house guest of  James Joyce and Joyce Joyce, proud Irish Americans. Particularly striking is his account of the US South and the “profoundly shocking” blinkered attitudes on race he encountered among some of the whites he met –many of whom denied there was any racial problem whatever in the South.  The world he describes, including a “Whites Only” municipal drinking fountain in Montgomery,  was  portrayed vividly recently in the film “The Help.”

A different era, certainly. All fifteen journalists were male, unthinkable today. By the end, the USA, though English speaking,  had become for the author “a foreign country with which I had a unique bond.” A sequel, offering comparison based on a return visit today, would  be fascinating.

A gentle book by a gentleman.

July 2012