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Reading between the lines

Irish heroes ha ha ha

Brendan O'Neill on an historical novel which reveals as much about the novelist as the history

  • A star called Henry, Roddy Doyle, Jonathan Cape, £16.99 hbk

Roddy Doyle, witty chronicler of Dublin's urban poor, has been accused of 'ravaging history'. His latest novel, A Star Called Henry, tells the story of Henry Smart, a handsome, unabashed lover and chancer born in Dublin at the turn of the century, who gets caught up in the fight for Irish independence. By his fourteenth birthday, Smart is a stunning six foot two and already a soldier in the Volunteers and Citizens Army. He shags, curses and murders his way through early twentieth-century Dublin, in a black comedy of love, war and bloodlust.

But it is Doyle's treatment of events around the 1916 Easter Rising and the War of Independence (1919-1921) which has upset Irish traditionalists. Smart joins the rising of 1916, when a band of rebels stormed the General Post Office (GPO) in British-occupied Dublin and declared an Irish Republic, and becomes one of IRA leader Michael Collins' special assassins in the War of Independence. But by the time of the partition of Ireland and the subsequent Civil War in 1921, Smart has been judged a 'dangerous man' and is wanted for execution by his former leaders. At the novel's close, he is disillusioned with the fight for freedom, describing the IRA and Sinn Fein as 'a little gang of cranky nuts and bad poets'.

'The novel reproduces the anti-heroic version of 1916 that began to replace the heroic one soon after the fiftieth anniversary in 1966', complains Irish writer Seamus Deane in the Guardian. According to the New York Times, Doyle 'cuts Ireland's founding fathers down to size and skewers several romantic notions held sacred by Irish nationalism'. What some find unforgivable is that Doyle depicts Ireland's heroes as losers and lunatics: Eamon de Valera wears red socks and smells terrible; Padraig Pearse has a squint and is overweight; Joseph Plunkett suffers from tuberculosis and says the rosary; and the rest are a bunch of anti-Semites who pursue 'reprisals and innocent victims and outrages' in their attempt to take over Ireland.

Doyle's novel is indeed fiercely anti-heroic. But if there is one thing worse than plundering the past to make villains out of former heroes, it is the notion that men such as Pearse and de Valera are beyond reproach, saint-like figures who should not be criticised. In reality, Doyle has captured something of the rebels' essence, by depicting them as fiery, unpredictable personalities, with enough of a hint of madness to want to take on the mighty British Empire and to tack a piece of paper to the door of the GPO declaring an independent country. Ó Î Sane, contented, comfortable men are hardly going to take such risks, are they? The history of rebellion is one of daring, crazy and sometimes blinkered men and women going to extraordinary lengths to realise their goals. Doyle's bleak cynicism leaves a nasty taste, but his pungent, rocketing prose bounces the whole thing along with a real sense of the chaos of events.

Reading A Star Called Henry, however, I couldn't help detecting a sense of envy in Doyle's unfavourable depiction of Ireland's founding fathers. As in his previous novels, he seems to be painting people that he knows are more interesting than himself. A former schoolteacher in Dublin, Doyle turned to writing to chronicle the life of Dublin's working classes - the kind of families that passed through his classroom, who may have used words like 'feck' and 'Jaysus' all the time and been scruffy and unkempt, but whose passion and drama were attractive to somebody like Doyle. As a result, even wife-beating Charlo in The Woman Who Walked Into Doors came across as a bit of a fascinating character. Now Doyle has applied this mix of admiration and envy to Irish history, with the end result that A Star Called Henry is at once a glimpse of Irish heroism and also profoundly anti-heroic.

'Strong stuff to give these women'

Review by Angus Calder

  • Shadows Of War: British Women's Poetry Of The Second World War, Anne Powell (ed), Sutton, £20 hbk

One fears from past experience that an anthology devoted to women's poetry will include bad work simply because of the gender of its author. Not so in this case. Anne Powell freely admits to the wide range of literary merit among the 132 she includes in 312 pages. 'Some stand on their poetic value alone; others, written in the urgency of the moment, offer an historic testimony on events of the time; many combine both these attributes.' This would exactly describe the contents of her thoughtfully compiled, excellent and moving anthology if she had added that beside 'events', many items represent the characteristic sensibility of the war years.

Of 1500 poets whose biographies appear in the Oxford Companion to Twentieth-Century Poetry in English (1994), edited by Ian Hamilton, only about 200 are women - a higher ratio than one finds in some reputable anthologies. It is worth asking how and why this happens, since several Victorian women poets were big bestsellers, and women seem to preponderate among both lovers and writers of verse. Of course, it is true that many promising women may have been thwarted or discouraged by the snootiness of male editors and publishers. But I think that a further explanation may be that writers of verse - good, bad and mediocre alike - can be divided into 'Careerists' and 'Sunday Poets'. Powell, who has spent 10 years finding her authors and tracking down information about them, provides evidence that many gifted women writers are not Careerists, though a number of her exhibits are successful novelists for whom poetry has been a sideline.

Intriguingly, the 'big names' here don't always look as good as the better Sunday Poets. There is a wonderful Stevie Smith and one excellent Molly Holden. I had never noticed before what a powerful writer EJ Scovell can be. But Frances Cornford, Ruth Pitter and Anne Ridler are less convincing than several unknowns, and Edith Sitwell, by far the most prominent female poet from the 1920s through to, say, 1960, seems ponderously bombastic beside delicate but little-known Frances Bellerby. Naomi Mitchison, a prolific novelist whose first, slim volume devoted to poetry alone appeared when she was 81, gets across with a strength which amazes me.

Technically, the most brilliant poem in the book is For the War-Children by Sylvia Read, a professional actress who has published verse widely, but never in a 'slim volume' (it reminds me, up to a point, of Death Fugue by the German Paul Celan, possibly the most imposing of all poems about the Second World War, though she could not have read it). One of the other technically ambitious poems here, a very good, big one, For the Undefeated, is by Eleanor Wells, about whom Powell could find no information at all. Can this be a pseudonym?

Few reflect the dominant, male influences of the day. Barely a sniff of later, clearer Eliot, of Auden's intellectualism, of Dylan Thomas' oracular posturing. A couple rather endearingly achieve a perfect reconstruction of Victorian style, many echo Rupert Brooke, many are generically 'Georgian'. Denise Levertov shows no symptoms of the later proclivities which made her prominent in the American avant garde. Were women of that time simply too conservative to command much informed, critical attention? If they had been fighting in the forces, where some served but only in auxiliary roles, would we have had a female Sorley Maclean or Keith Douglas?

'These five years have been strong stuff/to give these women' remarks Daphne Nixon in the book's penultimate poem, which suggests that women have been cast into 'male' roles. Yes, but while writers here served on the often horrific Blitz 'frontline' or attended frightfully wounded men in hospitals, there are, I think, only two poems here which take us into 'combat' experience. In Returned Airman, Pauline Lendon of the WAAF describes holding a bomber crewman as he dies back at base: 'Your blood that stains my battledress grows chill.' Joy Trindles, a sister in the Queen Alexandra's Imperial Military Nursing Service, advanced through France with the allies after 'D' Day. 'We thought we had seen it all.' Then she went, for nine weeks, into Belsen....'We had seen it all.'

If I have one criticism of this volume, it is that it contains too many vague poems evoking sons, lovers, husbands, male friends who have died in action, most of them saintly heroes headed straight for heaven. The best 'in memoriam' here is by Patricia Ledward, for an airman-poet, Timothy Corsellis, who is remembered for his 'wit and poses' and his love of nightclubs and jazz. 'Play on, O Harlem band, O sing your blues.' There is some refreshing 'brass' here.

There are lots of 'muted' poems contrasting beautiful countryside with brutal war - some of these are good. There are good poems about children and shopping and about various kinds of war work. There are many straightforward expressions of Christian faith such as few male poets would by that time have made. There are also successfully witty 'light verse' poems, and it is pleasant to be reminded of 'Sagittarius', who for two decades regularly contributed elegant satirical verse to the New Statesman. Overall, variety is one of this anthology's great strengths. Whenever there's a dull moment, a lively one is sure to follow.

Angus Calder is the editor of Wars, an anthology of prose and verse recently published by Penguin

American warlords

Review by David Nolan

  • Black Hawk Down, Mark Bowden, Atlantic Monthly Press, $24 hbk

Towards the end of 1992, operation Restore Hope was hailed as the first time a Western power (America) had invaded a country (Somalia) in order to feed it. Former US president Ronald Reagan explained how the end of the Cold War 'has robbed much of the West of its common, uplifting purpose'. One way of overcoming this problem was to 'impose civilised standards of behaviour on those who flout every measure of human decency'. And that is what Western powers have attempted to do ever since. Unfortunately, the results of their interventions have been disastrous for those on the receiving end. In Somalia, the US intervention increased internal conflict and more recently led to an invasion by Ethiopia. There is a complete absence of the 'outbreak of Jeffersonian democracy' General Colin Powell demanded at the time.

Recalling the pictures of angry crowds in Mogadishu dragging American pilots and soldiers through the streets, Philadelphia Inquirer journalist Mark Bowden echoes President Clinton's questions at the time of the fight: 'How could this have happened? Didn't we go to Somalia to feed people?' Clinton's naivety notwithstanding, the battle Bowden describes rammed home the reality beneath the veneer of righteousness that surrounded this New World Order. As one American soldier described it: 'Here was a country not just at ground zero, but below zero.'

The US forces intended, on 3 October 1992, to capture several Somali 'warlords' from a building in central Mogadishu. While the elite taskforce of Delta Force Rangers was dropped from a helicopter and 'arrested' their suspects without a hitch, the back-up forces were misdirected and became bogged down under heavy fire from Somalis. Besieged, their communications and chain of command on the ground collapsed. A 40-minute foray turned into a night of hell, with 99 American troops pinned down overnight in a foreign city.

At the end of the fight, two high-tech Black Hawk helicopters had been shot down in enemy territory and another two had crash-landed at the base. The downing of the helicopters was especially important, as they were a symbol of American power over the local militias. The battle for Mogadishu turned into a popular uprising - the helicopter crash sites were surrounded and the city was alight with roadblocks. The whole episode put paid to the myth that the warlords had no popular support and that Somalis were desperate to greet a knight in shining armour - or a kevlar vest.

The American foray into Somalia, in fact, was called off the day after the battle, confirming one Somali supposition that while the Somalis were willing to die, there was no will among the Americans to sacrifice their lives. After one of the most one-sided battles in American history (grotesquely heralded as 'one of the great feats of arms in modern history' by one colonel), 18 American troops were dead. At least 500 Somalis died.

'Elvis lives in Irish trade data'

Review by James Heartfield

  • Inside The Celtic Tiger: The Irish Economy And The Asian Model, Denis O'Hearn, Pluto Press, £40 hbk, £12.99 pbk

American investment bank Morgan Stanley first suggested that Ireland had become a Celtic tiger, citing impressive growth figures, in the first half of the 1990s. In 1996 the Scottish National Party leader Alex Salmond embarrassed the British government by eliciting figures from the House of Commons library to the effect that Ireland would 'become more prosperous than the UK and Scotland by the year 2000'.

For a country that has lived for years in the shadow of the old oppressor, Britain, the news was a boost, especially as it indicated that the occupied North of the country, too, was falling behind Southern growth rates. What better rebuttal to the failed politics of Unionism and British imperialism?

Denis O'Hearn of Queen's University, Belfast, is an Irish republican by instinct who takes no pleasure from talking down Eire's economic success. O'Hearn shows that the South's growth falls well below that of the East Asian tigers, averaging around four percent a year in the first half of the decade - less than half the East Asian average. Moreover, East Asian tigers earned the name for sustained growth over 30 years, where Ireland's growth follows decades of poor economic performance. It is only relative to the slow growth of Europe that Ireland stands out.

But even the growth that has taken place, argues O'Hearn, is deceptive. Alex Salmond's intervention drew on EU statistics that showed Ireland's Gross Domestic Product (GDP) per capita was outstripping Britain's and even exceeded the EU average. But this estimation of GDP is not in one currency, but in what the Euro statisticians call 'purchasing power parities'; that is, units that would purchase the same services and goods in each country. This measure has a tendency to equal out inequalities between poorer southern European economies and richer northern ones. Measured in ECUs, the equivalent figures show Ireland's GDP at about 82 percent of the EU average in 1995, not quite the evidence of convergence that was trumpeted.

O'Hearn also argues that growth in Gross National Product (GNP), which excludes 'profits, dividends and interest that are removed from the country', would be a more telling measure than GDP. 'Ireland is unique in Europe to the degree that its GDP exceeds its GNP', he points out, indicating that a great deal of the surplus is being exported: 'By 1996, Southern Irish GNP was more than 13 percent lower than GDP', having consistently diverged since 1980.

Much of the recorded growth is due to foreign investment, which accounts for half of Ireland's industrial output and employment, and three quarters of its manufactured exports and imports according to a 1994 OECD study. But O'Hearn argues that this is deceptive, since a lot of the recorded output of foreign firms is fixed to take advantage of Ireland's low taxes on foreign direct investment (10 percent, according to Sarah Box, The Irish Economy, New Zealand Treasury working paper) and favourable government grants (around $69 million per annum, according to Box). O'Hearn shows that foreign firms import manufactured parts, components and raw materials at artificially low prices from parent companies, and assemble them in Ireland in order to realise the profits at more favourable tax rates. Many US firms with Irish subsidiaries are investigated by US tax authorities for just such price fixing.

The effect of this phantom growth - noted by Reuters under the headline 'Elvis lives in Irish trade data' - is that firms record growth without any noticeable investment. Indeed, income statistics show that wages, investment and government spending are all falling, while the value of exports rises exponentially. This, suggests O'Hearn, is the disguised repatriation of profits through internal price rigging by foreign investors.

The discussion of the Irish economy has been ill-informed in recent years, with most contributions impressionistically welcoming the emergence of a modern Irish economy. O'Hearn has returned to a critical examination of the subordination of the Irish economy to international capital. In a country where the foreign share of fixed capital investment rose from about 60 percent in 1988 to 75-80 percent in the 1990s, this is a well-made point.

Read On Read On Read On Read On

Review by Irene Miller

  • The Gabriel Club, Joydeep Roy-Bhattacharya, Granta, £6.99 pbk

When the woman who led the Budapest underground movement in the late 1970s goes missing, the police who had been harassing her quietly look away. She was, after all, somebody they had been trying to make disappear for some time.

But almost 20 years later, an effigy of her body is found floating in the Danube, and those remaining of her movement, the Gabriel Club, are held accountable. The harassment the club received from the Stalinist police takes an ironic turn, as the same sergeant pursues his old enemies.

The Gabriel Club is a serious debut novel, complicated, unpredictable and sometimes bizarre. Its language is dreamlike and complex, and Roy-Bhattacharya refreshingly keeps away from the traditional detective stereotypes. Sergeant Szegedy's mission is entirely personal - his dead brother had been a member of the club - and he cannot come to terms with the changes in his post-communist Hungary and the artificiality of the new demands made of him.

This is a sophisticated and complex novel, which provides an evocative insight into Budapest. Roy-Bhattacharya's description of the political changes in Hungary over these 20 years is created through atmosphere alone, and so avoids the crassness associated with more overtly 'political' thrillers.

Reproduced from LM issue 125, November 1999



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