Tuesday, June 28, 2016

Brexit and Northern Ireland

The United Kingdom's suicide attempt needn't become a murder-suicide if people act now. I'm talking about Northern Ireland and the possibility that it might disintegrate into chaos. Yeah, I know, I write detective novels for a living, I'm not a politician; but I am of a certain age and I remember The Troubles all too vividly. The Troubles, many people have forgotten, were a complicated struggle between Irish nationalists and the British establishment that more or less devolved into a bitter sectarian civil war between Catholics and Protestants in Northern Ireland. In a thirty year period more than 3500 people were murdered and Belfast became an apocalyptic landscape of bomb sites, checkpoints and derelict buildings. But in 1998 a fragile peace came to Ulster with The Good Friday Agreement and that peace has held ever since. 

Until last Friday, that is. Brexit day. Before Friday Northern Ireland and Southern Ireland were separate political entities but they were united together in the European Union. Anyone from any part of the island could work in or travel to any other part of the island with complete freedom. Brexit has changed all that. Although the overwhelming majority of the population of Northern Ireland voted to stay in the European Union, Northern Ireland will now go the way of the rest of the UK and leave in two years. Nationalists, who are mostly Catholic, have called for reunification with Southern Ireland, Unionists, who are mostly Protestant, have angrily rejected this. And thus the whole of the hard won Northern Irish peace process teeters above the abyss. 

In my Sean Duffy detective novels I attempt to conjure up the mundane horror of daily life in Belfast in the 1980s: the random bombings and sectarian attacks; the police, army and paramilitary roadblocks; the misery of life in a province at war with itself. As one character says “If you haven’t read Thucydides, I’ll boil him down for you into a simple moral: intergenerational civil war is a very bad thing.” 

For Irish millennials this all seems like a long ago dream or nightmare. When driving along the border today it’s impossible to say where the Republic of Ireland ends and Northern Ireland begins. The fields look the same, the cows look the same, eventually you notice that the road signs are in Miles Per Hour instead of Kilometres Per Hour but that’s the only clue. Everyone who remembers how difficult it used to be to travel from Belfast to Dublin in the 1970’s is happy that the border guards and customs posts are long gone. A three and a half hour journey from city to city can now be done in a nippy hour and a half with no fuss at all. 

Brexit, however, has thrust the nightmare back into the forefront of our imaginations. Britain’s new Prime Minister, whoever he or she may be, must attend to Northern Ireland as a priority. Assurances must be given that Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland will continue to be a “common travel area.” There must be no customs posts, no army watchtowers, no border guards along the 300 mile long, meandering dividing line between northern and southern Ireland. If trucks need to be monitored travelling across the border this monitoring must be done electronically. Furthermore Northern Ireland must be generously treated by the London government to make up for the shortfall in European bursaries and subsidies. Money won’t solve all the problems Brexit has thrust at Northern Ireland but there must be no more austerity budgets and penny pinching from London. 

Brexit has made the reunification of Northern and Southern Ireland much more likely and if this happens it must come peacefully. Ulster does not need another thirty years of blood feud and sectarian conflict. Politicians on all sides of the Irish Sea must now must work over-time to prevent Brexit  turning Belfast back into a war zone. The grim days of the 1970s and 1980s must never come again. 

Saturday, June 25, 2016

When To Give Up On A Book

no hard and fast rule here, but here are some guidelines:

1. If it's a classic that has stood the test of time I say hang in there until about page 50 to see if you can handle it. That's about the 1 1/2 hour mark on an audiobook. If you just can't bear it by page 50 then give up, life's too short, man, and maybe you'll pick it up again in a couple of years. It took me 3 bites of the cherry to read Middlemarch and in the end I was glad that I did. 

2. If the author's persistent racism or antisemitism or homophobia etc. is just really annoying you then you should feel free to give up immediately. Celine got on my nerves so badly by page 10 of Death on the Instalment Plan that I gave the book up in French and then again years later I gave it up in English at about page 20. The guy's just a dickhead and I didn't want to spend time in his company.

3. If the author's politics beats you over the head also feel free to give up the book. John Le Carre has always been a Manichean left wing ideologue of the Chomsky school but lately his formula (America + Britain = evil) has become tedious and thus his books are predictable and dull. Shame because Smiley is one of the all time great creations. Similarly with other authors who inject their dimwitted political opinions into their novels from the left and right and you can barely read the text for the noise made by the grinding of axes. Feel free to jump ship early. 

4. A beach book that "everybody" loves but you can't stand. Zeitgeist and luck usually explain the success of these books. And usually they're bloody terrible. Chapter 3 will suffice. Abandon ship with no guilt after that.

5. A Brief History of Time. I've heard so many people humble bragging about how they never finished A Brief History of Time (Charlie Rose for one) because it's so difficult. It isn't difficult at all. Just read it. Try some David Deutsch if you want difficult. 5 pages a day and you'll be done in two months. 

6. The Booker Prize longlist. 5 pages in and you'll have the gist of most of these. I read the first five pages of every book on the longlist and the only two I liked were Marlon James's Seven Killings and A Little Life. At the Sydney Writers Festival I met Marlon James at breakfast and wanted to tell him how impressed I was by the boldness of his temporal shifts and the polyphony of his book but I was too shy and instead I asked him how he was getting his eggs done and he said scrambled. 

Wednesday, June 22, 2016

Allez Les Verts: Why All Irishmen and Women Should Support Northern Ireland FC

a sort of recapitulation of an old post in light of recent events...last night Northern Ireland qualified for the final 16 (the knock out stage of the Euro 16 tournament) with their fans singing right to the end even as Northern Ireland lost to Germany. My favourite and the most devastating football chant is "you only sing when you're winning". True fans sing when they're losing. (That's the difference between Liverpool fans and Real Madrid fans.) Northern Ireland sang right to the end as they lost 1:0 Germany last night and then qualified for the knock out stage on goal difference as one of the best placed 3rd place teams. It was an amazing achievement for a team with fewer than 40 professional players to choose from and by a goal keeper who plays for Hamilton Academical...This is the post I wrote back in November when they qualified...
On Thursday night in Belfast the football gods smiled. Northern Ireland beat Greece 3:1 to qualify for their first tournament of any kind in 30 years: the 2016 European Championships in France. They will be joining Wales, England and probably the Republic of Ireland too who - incredibly - beat the world champions Germany in Dublin also on Thursday night. Northern Ireland are top of Group F and have qualified for Euro16 against impossible odds and when every pundit and bookie in the business said they would likely be fifth in the group below the European football power houses of Finland, Romania, Hungary and Greece. Now, if you live outside of Ulster you won't be hearing much about Northern Ireland's incredible achievement. Why is this? The answer is because everybody hates Northern Ireland. The meta-narrative of the Northern Ireland football team is seemingly not a good one because it is connected to Northern Ireland the state. This meta-narrative runs like this: when Ireland became gloriously independent in 1922 a tiny rump of six counties decided to stay with Britain. These largely Protestant fanatics ran Northern Ireland as a kind of Boer South Africa until 1968 when the whole statelet erupted into civil war. A civil war that did not abate until the 1990's with thousands dead. The name Northern Ireland therefore is stained with the legacy of sectarianism, racism, colonialism & war. The Republic of Ireland football team by contrast is Ireland's real football team that every Irishman and woman and every Irish exile should support. This is the meta-narrative and its why Northern Ireland seldom gets positive coverage in the press anywhere in the world outside Belfast. N. Ireland is something of an embarrassment. Of course a lot of this is true and it doesn't help that Northern Ireland's home games are played at Windsor Park the home of Linfield which has been described as the Glasgow Rangers of Ulster. Not exactly a welcoming place for Catholic supporters. And in the 1980s it was a pretty terrifying environment especially in the old kop stand where you could get roughed up by skin-heads (this happened to me) and where racist invective was all too prevalent. To shoot itself further in the foot these "fans" would sometimes barrack Catholic players and so some Catholic players decided reasonably enough that they wouldn't play for Northern Ireland at all and preferred to play for the Republic. So this is a pretty easy meta-narrative to embrace if you live outside of NI (or if you're a nationalist living inside Northern Ireland) - if you want to cheer for an Irish football team cheer for the Republic. 
Unfortunately for a world that wd prefer the N Ireland football team to just go away, the team is actually pretty damn good. In fact in terms of per capita population its one of the best teams in the world. Northern Ireland has qualified for three world cups. 133 countries have never qualified for a world cup and Northern Ireland has qualified three times. What's also very weird is that when they get to the world cup Northern Ireland always does very well. In fact some people have argued that in terms of per capita Northern Ireland is the most successful country ever in the world cup finals. You heard me right. Poor, benighted, ignored, loathed Northern Ireland always seems to shine on the big stage. And now we're doing it again. We were in Group F in the European Championships against 4 teams that when the qualifying process began had higher FIFA world rankings than us. We were expected to end up second from the bottom in this group. But it didn't happen. While all the media types were talking about England, Scotland, Wales and the Republic of Ireland, Northern Ireland very quietly, off screen as usual, just kept winning and drawing against superior opposition, gradually moving up the table. 
There's another problem with the meta narrative of a wicked Northern Ireland team and a cheerful plucky Republic of Ireland team that represents true Irishmen and women everywhere and its this: Northern Ireland is, in fact, the true Irish football team and it always has been and it's the Republic of Ireland & FIFA who divided soccer on the island of Ireland. In rugby, boxing, hockey, pretty much every sport you can think of there is only 1 Irish team but not soccer. Why? The answer is this: The IFA, the Irish Football Association was founded in Belfast in 1880. This was the period of the Gaelic Revival in Ireland and soccer was considered to be a foreign game by the intellectuals down in Dublin so they didn't care about it. It was only after the partition of Ireland in 1923 that the Free State authorities rebelled against the idea of having such a popular game as football controlled from a "foreign land", so they set up a rival organisation called the FAI and applied to FIFA for membership. It was the Irish Republic, the FAI, who divided football in Ireland. Sensibly the IFA in Belfast ignored this usurper organisation and continued to select players from all over Ireland for its team. It wasn't until the 1950s when that pernicious and corrupt organisation FIFA noticed that some players were playing for both the FAI team and the IFA team that they decided they had to put a stop to it. They insisted the IFA call its team Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland call its team the Republic of Ireland. The IFA didn't want to do this but FIFA makes the rules. So since the 1950s the IFA has only been allowed by FIFA to select players from the six counties of Northern Ireland. The FAI selects from the 26 counties down South (and anyone who has an Irish grandparent anywhere else in the world). The IFA reluctantly accepted this six county rule but didn't actually change the badge that Northern Ireland players played under until the 1980's when the worlds "Northern Ireland" where added to the IFA logo, again after FIFA pressure. But historically the IFA which is still headquartered in Belfast is the true Irish football team and until FIFA's meddling was the Irish football team from 1880 - 1954. But for FIFA's corrupt shenanigans the IFA wd still represent all of Ireland. De jure if not de facto we still do. We have been robbed of our birthright. We are princes in exile. We are kings over the water. Take a look at this George Best #11 replica shirt from the 1970s NI team that I own. The only thing it says on the shirt are the words: Irish Football Association.
This is the underdog story that no one but me will ever tell you about. Northern Ireland always ranks number 1 or 2 in the FIFA top 50 rankings per head of population. We always do well in the world cups. We always beat teams that are consistently ranked above us. But you'll never see a movie about the plucky NI team because the prevailing meta narrative is too strong. That's not our only burden. FIFA despises us, the Republic of Ireland is indifferent or hostile to us, Windsor Park is not a nice place to play football, Belfast is not a beautiful city, much of the Catholic population of Northern Ireland prefers to root for the Republic team. But that, however, is changing. A jubilant Rory McIlroy and many other Catholics were there on Thursday night to support a religiously and ethnically diverse NI squad. And even the Guardian think this team just might be able to bring both sides of Belfast together.
Still Manicheans  (those who simplify the world into good and evil) hate nuance and to support Northern Ireland you need to be able to embrace nuance. The Northern Ireland football team is too much associated with the toxic legacy of sectarianism and the Troubles for most people. It's so easy (too easy in fact) to be an England supporter or a Scotland supporter or a Brazil supporter or a supporter of team USA where nationalism for these nations is easily consumed, packaged, boring and simple. But to be a Northern Ireland supporter you need to have a heterogeneous mind able to do Scott Fitzgerald's trick: the bifurcation of your consciousness into opposing ideas. You need to be able to appreciate Ireland's complex past, you need to be able to ignore the rump idiocy of sectarian supporters on the terraces and cheer for a plucky bunch of 2nd rate players who somehow manage to raise their game on the international stage again and again and again.
Northern Ireland, Wales, England and the Republic of Ireland will all be playing in European Championships next summer. If you're an Irish exile I don't mind a bit if you cheer for RofI, but spare a thought, a prayer and a cheer for the original Irish football team who will be playing there too. Allez les verts. 

Saturday, June 18, 2016

Freedom, Horrible, Horrible Freedom! Terrence Malick Rated

I once had to debate freedom of speech in law school and I was on the unfortunate side of the argument having to argue for censorship. I decided not to take any of the traditional approaches about protecting the public from affront or stuff like that but instead I argued that human culture has flourished best when writers had to chaff against censorship. Look at the most productive eras of world culture: fifth century BC Athens, Julio-Augustan Rome, Elizabethan England, Victorian England, Tsarist Russia - all eras of heavy censorship and yet they produced pretty much all the great literature of our culture. Since the 60's there's been effectively no censorship anywhere in the west and we've produced what exactly? Any novel as good as Pride and Prejudice or The Brothers Karamazov? No, I don't think so either...
Anyway that was my argument. We lost the debate of course which is as it should be. Still, it's interesting to think that sometimes too much freedom can be bad for artists and giving them a box to play sometimes enhances creativity. Terrence Malick is a case in point. Success does funny things to film directors. Sometimes it gives them the confidence to be more daring & more interesting sometimes it makes them conservative and eager to churn out formula and sometimes it sends them off the deep end completely. Terrence Malick, it turns out, has fallen into that latter category. I am not thank God a Francis Ford Coppola completist so I haven't seen his latest films but I have seen every Terrence Malick. You know the Malick story: two early films in fairly quick succession were followed by a twenty year hiatus when he was rumoured to be teaching philosophy at the Sorbonne, living in an Ashram or selling surf boards in Malibu. In fact he was working on the screenplay for The Thin Red Line driving James Jones's widow batty with his queries and questions. The Thin Red Line should have been a total disaster (Malick's original cut was nearly 5 hours long) but it wasn't thanks to judicious editing and a strong central story that nearly hews close to the book. Malick's return was critically praised and every actor in Hollywood wanted to work with him. Malick's fourth film, however, was The New World which lost the plot in the second and third acts but was almost saved by Malick's use of the Vorspiel from Wagner's Rhinegold, a trick I'm pretty sure he stole from Werner Herzog. His next film The Tree of Life again had a piece of music that almost saved the film: Vltava by Bedrick Smetana. But nothing could save Malick's last 2 films which I'm sorry to say are unfocused, indulgent, horrible messes. Knight of Cups seems to have gone straight to video here in Australia and it's not surprising. Its like a bad student film with A list Hollywood talent. Dear oh dear. Freedom, Horrible Freedom! indeed.

Here's my ratings of his filmography in the standard the A,B,C,D,F format....

Badlands A

Days of Heaven A

The Thin Red Line A

The New World C

Tree of Life D

To The Wonder F

Knight of Cups F

Monday, June 13, 2016

So who has it worse: female writers or working class male writers?

the higher the bar the lower the social mobility in this chart
Trick question, the answer, of course, is working class female writers. There's a reason why Peter Carey has won the Booker Prize twice and Jeanette Winterson, Monica Ali and Zadie Smith have never won it. Peter Carey went to the poshest school in Australia, Zadie went to her local comprehensive. But my point is that its tougher for a working class man or woman to get published and taken seriously than it is for someone of the upper middle class. At least this is true in the UK and Australia - two countries where the class system still dominates and where social mobility is practically impossible. Australia pretends to be classless but it isn't and the UK doesn't even pretend. America too has almost zero social mobility and it's virtually impossible for an outsider to break into the Ivy League dominated North East coast world of letters. In America to be white and poor is to be despised and mocked. You can't get away with that kind of thing in the UK but even the Guardian is going to staff its offices mostly with posh private school types who aspire to be working class saviours rather than actual working class writers. Same at the BBC and all the other papers. Same at the New York Times. The posh, the connected, the well off who can afford to spend a summer interning for free in London or New York. 
But back to the original question. If the talent is equal, who is more likely to be published and reviewed - a working class male writer or an upper middle class female writer? It's the latter. Power always diffuses to power. In the literary world and in the media world being of the wrong class is much more of a handicap than being of the wrong gender. There are a lot of prizes for women's writing and organisations for female writers. As far as I know there isn't a single prize anywhere for working class writing. I'm not qualified to discuss race, but I can imagine that, say, a poor black woman has the hardest obstacles of all to overcome. Wrong class, wrong gender, wrong race for the literary agents and the publishers. Get ready for disappointment. As the great Zora Neale Hurston once more poetically put it: "I've been in sorrow's kitchen and licked out all the pots."

Wednesday, June 8, 2016

Sean Duffy Year Zero

this is just a random short, not part of a bigger work or a new novel or anything like that....

Sean Duffy Year Zero

Night coils above the eastern skyline. An occult sun sinks into an alien sea. The fog smells of rust and rot like an old bicycle.
The boat glides over the unseen water, its 25cc engine barely turning the prop. Belfast in Irish means black mouth and we are in the city’s throat, where the river Lagan is smothered by the lough.  
            Put put put goes the little outboard. The constable at the prow is waving a xenon arc lamp back and forth as I steer the skiff through the grey twilight. Dusk is falling and its not yet three in the afternoon. We are on a body hunt. The girl was last seen loitering by the Queen’s Bridge and is now nowhere to be found.
We glide over the opaque water, the surface hidden by a thin line of oil and a scum of weed. The yellow light of the arc lamp oscillates through the gloom revealing nothing. Constable Cathcart is a solemn, nervous young man and is not in the mood for conversation which suits me fine. 
From here the city looks abandoned. It has a hadopelagic air, a city of Doggerland or Heraclion or Atlantis. 
A flock of scolding herring gulls fly away from us and skid onto the greasy deck of HMS Caroline, a light cruiser dating from World War 1 that has been attached to the dock for so long that it’s now the second oldest commissioned vessel in the entire Royal Navy. (The oldest, of course, is HMS Victory in Portsmouth.)
            The stillness deepens. The odour of decomposing wood floats across from the crumbling Titanic wharf. Belfast lurks there in the night, swathed in black silence, as taciturn and broody and gruff as its populace. Even the Gazelle helicopter that hovers continually over the Falls Road seems muted, tired and far away.
            Calm the water is. Calm the heavens are. Calm the city is.
            But underneath the surface of the discernible world is another world of kin struggle and blood feud and death. An older order of ancient laws and obligations, customs that go back to the footfall of the first men through the grasslands of the Great Rift Valley in Africa.
            I steer the boat along the piers and jetties, everywhere I think a body might have washed up. Chip papers, newspapers, Coke cans, beer cans but nothing pertinent.
            “I’m cold,” Constable Cathcart finally says. “Can we go home now?”
            He’s asking me because although we are the same titular rank I am the senior constable. And realistically all of this - the boat, the spotlight, the search - is only for forms sake. The tide’s been going out for the last three hours, a body would be miles out to sea by now.
            Still returning so soon seems irreverent and unprofessional. “If you’re cold put the hood up on your parka,” I tell him.  
            He puts the hood up on his parka restricting his field of vision to about thirty degrees in front of him.
            I steer the nameless RUC dinghy into the deep water channel.
            An emerald sandpiper emerges from the murk with a crab wriggling in its mouth. It flies directly through the spotlight beam giving Cathcart a start. As it turns I see that in fact its not a sandpiper but a curlew, a whimbrel in fact, numenius phaeopus. Not that anyone cares.
            The deep water channel turns out to be far too choppy for the little boat and water starts coming over the gunwales. We’re out here in our uniforms, sans lifejacket and with our body armour on we’d sink like a stone if we went over the side.
            I turn us around and head back into the harbour towards the Harland and Wolff shipyard where the tide and current might have carried a body onto one of the slipways. Lights are coming on and a mile south across the channel are the chalky outlines of towers and steeples.
            We punt under the cranes, derrricks and gantries the whole of it like those drawings you did as a kid of factories and cities. You a sheltered country boy who imagined Derry or even Coleraine to be a place like Hong Kong or New York.
The ship looming in the dry dock is the SS Ravenscraig, a 950 foot long bulk carrier being built for British Steel. It’ll be one of the last vessels H&W will make for anyone. Not anticipating the cruise ship boom of the 90’s the Tory government will let the shipyards in Belfast and the Clyde wither on the vine. Once a third of all the ships in the world were built here but within a decade that venerable tradition will be all but extinguished.
            But the Duffy of that night doesn’t know that yet. The Duffy of that era knows hardly anything.
            The Duffy of that night starts whistling. It will take his girlfriend Beth to tell him that it’s unlucky to whistle in an open boat. The tune he is whistling is ‘Lament of the Lagan Valley’ whose last two lines are “Forgive us oh Lord the sins of the past/and may you in our mercy be kind to Belfast” which, when you think about it, is a little obvious, a little too on the nose to underscore this scene.
            Even the Duffy of that time can see that and his mind starts playing a different aquatic melody: the Vorspiel in E Flat Major of Das Rheingold, the culmination of Wagner’s work in Romantic drone music.
            “Over there along the wharves,” I direct Cathcart while I play in my head the unhurried Von Karajan version that so captures the tension within the counterpoint, as Wagner tries to hide his love/hate relationship with Heine. Love because how can you not love the poems, hate because Heine is a Jew.
            The police boat moves slowly back through the calm as the music swirls to a climax. The whiteness darkens into the shapes of buildings. Ruined buildings. Building that evoke despair. This city has been broken by ten years of bombings and murder and sectarian civil war. A city of the Aphotic zone. A city of the apocal—
“We’ve been out here nearly an hour, how much longer? I’ve a party to go to,” Cathcart mutters.
            Party? What party? What’s he talking about?
“An hour’s not enough. The sergeant will accuse us of not fulfilling our due diligence. Over there to left, mate.”
“The sergeant doesn’t give a damn about some wee doll who might or might not have thrown herself in the tide. We’ve bigger fish to fry now we’re on the Butchers.”
His hood has fallen down and I look at the back of Cathcart’s neck, white and young, quivering like a goose gizzard. He’s right of course. This whole thing reeks of pro forma. A going through the motions.
Our entire section has been seconded to the team under Detective Chief Inspector Jimmy Nesbitt, head of the CID Murder Squad in Tennent Street RUC. Nesbitt is investigating the Shankill Butchers – an Loyalist death cult who have slaughtered at least twenty people in random attacks over the last three years. Almost all the victims have been Catholics dragged off the street and hacked to death with butcher knives and meat cleavers.
The Shankill Butchers have become a cause celebre, folk heroes to some of the more warped denizens of Protestant West Belfast and bogey men to everyone else in the city.
DCI Nesbitt has been given carte blanche to try to bring the bastards in. And in fact the ring leaders are well known but no one is brave enough to testify against them so its catch them in the act or get forensic residue - neither of which is a very promising prospect.
In the end they’ll probably have to fit them up to get them off the streets.   
I look at my watch.
Yup we’ve been at this over an hour now and there’s nothing out of the ordinary. I turn the tiller to the right and head back up the Lagan.
An elderly cop waiting at the jetty throws me a rope.
“Anything?” he asks.
We tie the boat and get out.
The jarring suddenness of the land. The air shivering with the smell of rain.
Cathcart and I walk sullenly to the station. The pavements are slippery. The Vorspiel in my head circles continuously around the E flat major chord before it crescendoes, resonates and gutters into silence.
            We show our faces to the security camera, go in the station and report to O’Neill the big ruddy incident room sergeant.
“What’s the story, Duffy?”
            “No sign of her, sir.”
            “Waste of my bloody time. Waste of my officers time. Remember that Duffy. Police work is about priorities. No, no, don’t take your armour off, we’re heading straight out.”
            “Right now?”
            “Aye, right now. No rest for the wicked. We’re first responders. Nesbitt and the bloody TV news are gonna be right behind us. I hope for your sake you didn’t have a fry for lunch.”
            We drive to Montague Street where the body of a trainee nurse has been found with nineteen stab wounds in her chest and back.
            “Raped first, a new low for the Butchers,” O’Neill says. Her clothes have been torn off and she’s been disembowled.
            She has ginger hair and delicate features. A shy one you can tell. Kindly. Would have made a wonderful nurse.
            We set up a perimeter and began canvassing for witnesses.
            When Jimmy Nesbbit arrives with the BBC, ITN and hacks from the English press we’ve already done all the grunt work.
            “She was a Catholic, of course,” O’Neill whispers conspiratorally to me as we take a smoke break.
            “How can you tell?” I ask him.
            “Rosary in her left hand. She’d have been better to have had a bloody hammer.”
            I nod and say nothing.
            “Did you hear me, Duffy?”
“Yes sergeant.”
He looks at me. “Christ you’re exhausted. Get on back to the station, the boss wants a word with you and when he has that word you go on to your bed. You hear me, son?”
“Yes sergeant.”
            Back to the station through the devastated streets. Past bomb sites turned into parking lots and derelict buildings and huge craters brimming with rain water. I know I’m being watched by men in doors and alleyways. A peeler on his own. A tempting target. Death is very close here. And yet I know that I am safe. Not tonight. Not this night.
            The crow filled sky has darkened to a deep trance-like blue.
The stars slink out.
            Go back an hour, see what the Angels saw. See what the Angels saw and did nothing to prevent.
            The trainee nurse on her way to work. The intoxicated men pouring out of the car and dragging her away. Witnesses quickening their step, seeing nothing, hearing nothing.
            Go back four hours to the runaway girl sitting on the edge of the Queen’s Bridge. Driven there by what demons? Drunkeness, domestic violence, sexual violence?
Any civilization that fails to appreciate its women is lost.
Deserves to be lost.
Rosemary Street. High Street. The station. Upstairs to the gaffer’s office.
His hand out-stretched.
            “Congratulations, Sean.”
            I shake the hand. “Congratulations for what?”
            “Obviously the higher ups like what you’ve being doing here. I pride myself on being a mentor.”
“I’m still not clear what—”
“No more foot patrols for you, my lad. You’re off the bloody streets for good. You’re the new breed, I suppose, Duffy. University men.”
“I’m being transferred, is that it?”
“Transferred? What? No. You’ve been promoted. You’re not an acting detective constable anymore. In fact, you’re not even a detective constable! You’ve been promoted to detective sergeant. Jesus, you’re really being fast-tracked. In a year you’ll probably be bumped up to DI. Some quiet out of the way station with your own team. They’re grooming you, Sean. They like the cut out of your jib. Be a good boy and keep your nose clean and don’t get bloody shot and you’ll end up a Chief Superintendent or an Assistant Chief Constable or maybe even the big prize itself with the knighthood and the house in Bangor and the six figure pension.”
“Yes, sir. Thank you, sir.”
Downstairs again.
Rain battering against the bullet proof glass of the locker room. A detective sergeant? My own team? Maybe now I can really make a difference.
I change out of my uniform into my street clothes. White jeans, black T shirt, black parka.   
“Where are you going in this weather? Home I hope,” the desk sergeant asks.
“Just one more thing to do. I’m going to let Mrs Keeley know we didn’t find anything.”
The desk sergeant guffaws. “You’re going to let her know you didn’t find her daughter’s body? She won’t thank you for that.”
“Letting her know we’re still on the case.”
“We’re not still on the case. We’ve got dead nurses now. No one gives a shite about another teenage runaway.”  
Nevertheless I walk to Mrs Keeley’s house in a ruined terrace in the Markets.
Knock the door.
A big man answers. Big man in a white shirt, brown braces, brown slacks. “Who are you?”
“The police. Acting Detective Const. . .Detective Sergeant Sean Duffy. Is Mrs Keeley home?”
“She’s making the tea. What is it?”
“Well its just that we had a look for Louise and so far nothing has—”
“If you do find her you can tell that wee hoor from me that when she gets home she’s getting a pounding.”
“Who is it?” Mrs Keeley asks, appearing in the hall with a fresh black eye.
“Mrs Keeley just wanted to let you know that there’s no sign of Louise yet.”
“The harbour?” she asks, clutching her throat.
“We took a boat out and there was no sign of anything untoward. The eyewitnesses said she just sat there for a bit on the bridge. No one actually saw her jump.”
“That’s a relief,” Mrs Keeley says before her husband turns and glares at her and she goes back to the kitchen.
“Calling the police for the likes of this,” he mutters to her and then turning to me he adds, “you can run along now.”
And maybe it’s the exhaustion, maybe its the promotion and the knowledge that I’ll be moving to a new parish, or maybe it’s the Chief Inspector telling me to be a good boy and keep my nose clean. . .Because instead of running along I step into the house and close the front door behind me. “You like Wagner?” I ask him.
“What are you on about?”
“Big influence on Wagner was the poet Heine but he could never admit it because Heine was Jewish. You know any Heine? Schubert liked him too. Both were inspired by Heine’s poem ‘The Lorelei’. Ich weiß nicht was soll es bedeuten. Daß ich so traurig bin, which translates to: I do not know what this can mean, I am so very sad. The English doesn’t really do it justice though, trust me.”
“Are you off your rocker, sunshine?”
“No. I’m just sad. Sad about the way this city treats its womenfolk, sad that an evil bastard who beats his wife and beats his daughter always seems to get away with it because no one will ever testify against him. And you know what I think?”
“What do you think?” he growls, his face turning purple with rage.
I take the service revolver out of its holster and point it at his head. “I think they’d all be better off without you,” I whisper.  “I think the world would be better off with you. I think no one would miss you. What do you think?”
He falls to his knees. He starts to cry. Like many bullies, the merest hint of a pushback was enough. . .
I put the revolver back in the holster a little shocked to see that it got taken out in the first place.  
I open the front door. “I’ll be keeping tabs on you Keeley, any more bruises on Mrs Keeley or any of the little Keeleys and there will be a knock at your door. Do you hear me?”
“I hear you,” he sobs.
Outside the house I catch a look at my reflection in a car window. Jesus Duffy is this the kind of plain clothes cop you are going to be? Power corrupts, of course, but does it have to corrupt this quickly?
I walk back to the station through the drizzle. When I get into the incident room everyone is wearing party hats and blowing kazoos. Someone’s birthday? Surprise promotion party for me?
Sergeant O’Neill spots me. “Christ Duffy, you look terrible. I’ve seen better looking corpses down the mortuary. Thought I told you to go home. When did you come on duty?”
“What day?”
“It’s midnight Saturday. You’ve been on duty for thirty six hours straight!”
“What’s with the pointy hats?”
“It’s the new year, lad. It’s January 1st 1980.”  
“Happy new year, Sean,” WPC Porter says, kissing me on the cheek with motherly affection.
“Happy new year to you, Liz,” I say, kissing her back.
“Ach thanks Sean, and let’s hope the eighties are better than the seventies, eh?”
Sergeant O’Neill laughs bitterly. “Well, Liz love, they certainly can’t—”
Don’t say it! Don’t jinx it!
“—be any worse, can they?”


Vorspiel in E Flat Major Das Rheingold

Sunday, June 5, 2016

Muhammad Ali 1942 - 2016

I met Muhammad Ali just once at a strange place: Blackwell's bookshop in Oxford in June 1992. It was exam time and I should have been revising like mad but there was no way I was passing up the chance to meet Muhammad Ali. He was, of course, a shadow of his former self by then, suffering from various early onset Parkinson's symptoms that were almost certainly brought on by boxing, especially that last terrible competitive fight against Larry Holmes where Ali's brain took a pummelling. Boxing it must always be remembered is an awful sport if it can even be called a sport at all. But Muhammad Ali was from 1962 - 1974 the greatest fighter in the world, maybe the greatest boxer there has ever been. That period '62 - '74 can pretty much be summed up as the era of Muhammad Ali, George Best and the Beatles. All six had Irish roots. Best was born in Belfast and the Beatles were all 2nd generation Micks from Liverpool. Muhammad Ali's original name was Clay but his maternal family were Gradys from Co Clare. Grady comes from the Irish Grádaigh, meaning "noble". Ali visited Ireland many times over the years, to fight at Croagh Park, to appear on the Gay Byrne show and on his last visit to tour the home of his ancestral grand parents in Ennis, Co Clare.
That day in Blackwells was pretty emotional. Ali was touring a book and many of the hardbitten hacks in the British tabloids hadn't seen him for over a decade, not since he was the lippy, skinny, sarky promoter of his own fights, always by far, the wittiest man in the room. In 1992 he looked old, gaunt, grey. Some of the hacks in the front row were even starting to well up as Ali stood there holding his book, shaking and saying nothing. "You're the greatest, champ!" one reporter said as tears rolled down his face. Ali smiled and started fumbling in his tracksuit pocket. He took out a ten pound note, reached across the stage and gave it to the man. Then he winked and said into the microphone "I told him to say that." Everyone laughed. The Champ, brought low by disease and time, still bloody had it. 
I wanted to take the emotion of that little encounter with Ali and do something with it in my writing. I imagined a slightly younger Muhammad Ali coming to Belfast during the Troubles. He never did come to Belfast during the Troubles but I write fiction for a living so it wasn't difficult coming up with a scenario about what might have happened that day. Here's me reading Chapter 1 of Rain Dogs - the complete Muhammad Ali bit... Or if you're not into the whole youtube thing, you can read the entire thing here, too. RIP, Champ. 

Friday, June 3, 2016

Genre Fiction and Bad Prose

Bad prose is the bugbear of genre fiction. I get a lot of books sent to me to review and most of them are terribly written. If you're writing in a genre the rule seems to be that the more workmanlike the prose the better. Stephen King, in his famous rules for writers, has even suggested that if your prose is too interesting it will take the reader out of the novel and it should be rewritten to make it plainer and simpler. For King plot is all and the prose is only a vector for delivering that plot. At the Sydney Writers Festival last week I encountered a lot of wannabe writers who told me that they followed King's rule strictly and any time their prose got the littlest bit challenging they knew they were off the track.

I beg to differ. For me good prose is good prose and even if you're writing genre fiction you should take time over your words. Story is not all. I appreciate that I am in a minority here. If you look at the biggest genre fiction hits of the last few years the prose in those books has been perfunctory and written for the lowest common denominator. But fuck that. Do you want to write a book you're proud of or do you want to sell a lot of copies? If you're only in it for the money you should probably be in a different line of work anyway, a line of work where luck is not such a big part of the equation. 

If you still don't know what I'm talking about here's a little crime fiction home work assignment for you, check out: James Ellroy's The Cold Six Thousand, David Peace's 1980, Daniel Woodrell's Winter's Bone, Marlon James's A Brief History of Seven Killings, Lauren Beukes' The Shining Girls. Five crime novels from the last decade where the writer cares about how she or he is telling the story as much as the story itself. Ellroy and Peace in particular seem to have decided that they are going to invent an entirely new way of telling stories and if the reader isn't willing to go along with them on the ride, well to hell with them, that's not the sort of person they want reading their books anyway. Stephen King is all about expanding the audience, Ellroy and Peace are all about winnowing the audience - this is brave and even a little foolhardy, but I admire it. Sending your precious book out into the universe all by itself is a courageous act anyway, so why not send out the book you're proud of instead of the compromised vision that you think will attract the biggest possible audience.

Tuesday, May 31, 2016

Rain Dogs Up For Two Major Awards

We are still, ahem, between houses at the moment, but I thought I should blog the fact that my novel Rain Dogs is up for two major awards. I've been shortlisted for the Theakston's Crime Novel of the Year Award and I've been longlisted for the CWA Ian Fleming Steel Dagger Award. The way the Guardian tells the story the Theakston Award is JK Rowling's to lose and in truth the Theakston depends largely on voting from the general public so fuck that for a game of soldiers. Still its very nice to be shortlisted. Three times on the longlist, never on the shortlist. And I'm not forgetting Gun Street Girl which is up for the Anthony Award later on this summer. 
I really have no chance against these big name authors and their marketing machines. I'm the Bernie Sanders of the crime fiction world and a book about a cop in 1980s Northern Ireland is clearly very unfashionable (no TV series or book at bedtime or NY Times review or Richard & Judy pick for me) so I'm saying if you want to support my books don't even bother voting on the Theakston, that's a lost cause, instead please leave me a review on Good Reads or Amazon or somewhere like that where the casual punter might read it. Thank you and ciao until normal service resumes later in the year...hopefully...

Sunday, May 1, 2016


We just found out that we're being evicted from our house in St Kilda after 8 years. (We weren't bad, its just that the Melbourne real estate market has gone completely insane lately and our landlord apparently is selling to investors before it all crashes.) Gonna be pretty stressful over the next few weeks looking for a new place for us and the kids so I'm going to be taking a blogging break until things settle down and we have a new place and reliable wireless. (Cd be a few weeks or a month or perhaps longer if the search is more protracted.) Thought I wd explain the upcoming radio silence in advance so no one is worried that it's anything more serious. I am also unable to take or moderate comments at the moment as I dont have a permanent internet connection. Apologies for that! Ciao for now and do be good. 

Monday, April 25, 2016

Hail Caesar

I'm sorry but for me George Clooney and the Coen brothers are a match made in movie hell. I feel they clearly bring out the worst in each other. I hated Hail Caesar the latest offering from the Coens. I thought it was tiresome, annoying and unfunny. All the best bits (all 60 seconds of them) were in the trailer. Leaden jokes, storylines that went nowhere, Christ this was a self indulgent mess. To say, as some critics have, that it is a companion piece to Barton Fink is a mistake. Obviously its set in the same studio as Barton Fink but the former is a gothic masterpiece & Hail Caesar ain't even a slapstick masterpiece.

I’ve been a somewhat obsessive fan of the Coen Brothers since high school when I caught Blood Simple at the Queens Film Theatre in Belfast, and I’ve seen every one since. This is my attempt at a rating of their filmography in the standard A,B,C,D, F format. I've blogged this before and its been updated to include Hail Caesar. A is a classic. B is very good. C is good. D is sometimes watchable. F is basically unwatchable. And remember, as the Dude says, this is just, like, my opinion, man…

1984 Blood Simple B
1987 Raising Arizona A
1990 Miller’s Crossing A
1991 Barton Fink  A
1994 The Hudsucker Proxy D
1996 Fargo A
1998 The Big Lebowski A
2000 O Brother, Where Art Thou? D
2001 The Man Who Wasn’t There  F
2003 Intolerable Cruelty  F
2004 The Ladykillers  F
2007 No Country for Old Men B
2008 Burn After Reading  F
2009 A Serious Man C
2010 True Grit B
2013 Inside Llewyn Davis A
2016 Hail Caesar F

Is there a pattern here? Yeah I think so. If you were to draw a Venn diagram with John Turturro, Steve Buscemi, Jeff Bridges and John Goodman as the sets then the intersection of these sets usually represents the higher rated films. The Clooney films are all pretty much terrible. I'd rate them all F if the soundtrack on O Brother wasn't a peach...

Friday, April 22, 2016

Seven Swimming Pools, A Pond and A Lake

 Laugardalslaug...that slidey thing is fucking terrifying by the way...
We're back from our American travels. Last time Leah was on sabbatical and we did a jaunt in the US I did a blog about all the food I ate and beer I drank, this time I'm going to talk about swimming pools. Because of decades of rugby, the odd motorcycle accident and a genetic disposition towards bad knees in my family the only real exercise I can do these days is swimming. Fortunately I like swimming. Two of my favourite books are the swimming related books: Waterlog and The Swimmer As Hero both of which talk quite a bit about specific swimming locations even if they are only swimming pools. I thought I cd talk about our travels too through the medium of swimming pool description...

1. Sheraton Gateway Hotel Los Angeles Airport. We arrived at night, two days before Christmas after a long flight from Australia and this big, lovely, empty outdoor pool was a welcome relief. Cold yes but not freezing and we got a cabana each. Cobalt blue water and you were allowed to bring your beers poolside.

2. The YMCA pool on 63rd and Central Park West. This was my swimming pool of choice while I lived in New York. Very cold, full of eccentrics, beautifully tiled, run down, with a locker room that I never failed to get lost in this was a great little 25 yard lap pool. Swimming caps are compulsory unless you are bald and if an elderly man screams at you to circle you better circle. Here's a tip: if the water is too damn freezing on a January morning there is in fact a heated "small pool" right next door that they dont really talk about. 

3. Barger Pond, Putnam Valley, New York. I went upstate a few times to see various relatives and friends and on one particular chilly February morning went swimming here. Yikes. Pond scum, ice cold water, mysterious oily fishes and snapping turtles do not a pleasant swim make. 

4. The Laugardalslaug 50m pool, Reykjavik. Offered a ridiculously cheap transatlantic fair from the new start up airline Wow we flew to Dublin via Reykjavik and spent a couple of days in Iceland's capital. I went to several of their geothermally heated outdoor pools - which unbenownst to me is a thing to do - but the best was the big empty 50m pool in the Laugardalslaug complex east of the city. Swimming there at night under the high latitude stars through the black still water is a rare old treat. 

5. Trinity College Dublin Pool. When in Dublin do make use of the lovely Trinity pool which is in the north east corner of the TCD campus. Clean, efficient, not over chlorinated and with a slightly risque for Ireland multi gender changing room system this is a lovely hidden gem in busy Dub and a perfect place to burn off those pints of the black stuff and the full Irish breakfast. 

6. Carrickfergus Leisure Centre 25m Pool. Up from Dublin to Carrickfergus and the local leisure centre pool. This is where I learnt to swim when I was eleven years old. Little story about that: from the age of six or seven my father used to swim across Larne Lough to visit his granny McKee on Islandmagee every Sunday*. Fighting the current and the cold turned him into a powerful swimmer. He was pretty scandalised then to discover that by the age of eleven I somehow had never learned to swim. One morning he took me down to Carrick Leisure Centre, led me to the deep end, threw me in and commanded me to "swim!" Somehow it worked. The pool today is clean, hassle free and in a nice complex surrounded by a lake and a bird sanctuary. 

7. The Serpentine, Hyde Park, London. Not for the faint of heart this as its often chilly, full of crazy people and there can be a lot of, ahem, duck shit. I've swum the Serpentine several times however and its always been pretty pleasant. 

8. The Pan Pacific Apartments, Singapore. This was the first rooftop outdoor infinity pool I've ever been in. The way an infinity pool is supposed to work, apparently, is that you swim in the pool and look out a body of water and it seems like the pool goes on forever. If you go right in the centre of the swimming pool at the Pan Pacific Apartments it looks as if you are swimming across the Singapore Strait dodging dozens of enormous container ships with Indonesia in the background. This is pretty cool. 

9. The St Kilda Sea Baths, Melbourne. Home again to the St Kilda Sea Baths where on my very first swim back an old Russian guy grabbed my ankle and angrily told me I was swimming too slowly for the medium lane. Ah, it's good to be home.... 

*if you've seen the horrific zombie attack on Hardhome in Game of Thrones that's where it was filmed and its exactly the place where my dad used to swim and where I paddled as a little kid...

Saturday, April 16, 2016

Worst. Reading. Ever.

It was nice of JK Rowling to share her early stories of rejection and humiliation with us a few weeks back. Rejection, of course, is part of the book business but no humiliation is quite as abject as that of the book reading gone awry and Jo Rowling doesn’t seem to have had many of those to complain about.
Like comics celebrating their bad gigs however pretty much every other author can humble brag about book readings they have given where only two or three people came. This is far more common than you would think and in fact the majority of all book readings are probably for “crowds” of a dozen or less. You don’t get to hear much about these sad events because this never happens to celebrity authors or best selling writers, though for the majority of novelists it’s the humiliating norm: the crowd of four, two of whom are asleep, one of whom is clearly mad and the last person is your auntie.
Far more impressive to me are the authors who can boast of zero attendance at their book readings. For zero people to show up you have to be particularly skilled in the arts of non persuasion. This has happened to me half a dozen times and now I quite look forward to these nihilities as they are, actually, pretty easy situations to handle. If no one comes you simply sign stock and go home early free of the whole unpleasant business. Much trickier is the circumstance where one person shows up. Then you feel obliged to go on with the show, sometimes to the annoyance of the shop owner who is forced to go through the motions with you. Once in the Boulder Bookstore as I proceeded to read to one person (my wife’s cousin) the owner began aggressively putting away the clangy metal chairs he had laid out for twenty. "Tonight, I'll be reading a brief chap-" CLANG "ter of my book Dead I Well-" CLANG etc.
            I’ve got many other reading horror stories. At a book reading in Spain once my host began the event by throwing my book on the table, pointing his finger angrily at me and demanding “why I had betrayed the revolution!”
But my worst reading of all was in Boston, Massachusetts where I had to deal with a heckler. Comics are used to dealing with hecklers but not authors. I’ve had my share of online trolls, of course, where it’s easy for someone to say that you’re a “terrorist sympathiser” or a “provocateur working for MI5”; but it requires courage to show up to someone’s book reading and try that on.
At this particular store in Boston I had a respectable crowd of about eleven and I’d been reading for about five minutes when I noticed a man in the front row (they’re always in the front row) starting to get agitated. He was about thirty, well built, tall, wearing black jeans, work boots and a button down white shirt. He looked completely normal but evidently something I was doing was driving him crazy. Finally he could take it no more and yelled out: “This is shit!”
I decided to ignore him and carry on but a minute later he interrupted again, looking at his fellow audience members for support: “Can’t you all see this? This is such utter shit!”
Authors go through a lot of self doubt over their manuscript and as you read and re-read the book in the proofing and editing stages the jokes start to seem flat, the plot points predictable and the characters dull. Part of you is always thinking: “Can’t you all see this? This is such utter shit!” If I’d been, say, Stewart Lee, I would have articulated all of this and potentially disarmed the man, but as it was I kept ignoring him and attempted to continue. Incensed, he stood up, went to the podium, and tried to snatch the book out of my hand.
            “Look, what’s the problem, mate?” I asked.
            “This is shit.”
“Specifically what’s the problem?”
“What’s with all the big words? Who do you think you are? What can’t you talk in normal fucking English?”
A line from Fawlty Towers rose up in my head that I unwisely gave vent to: “What? Pretentious, moi?” I said.
This only maddened him further and he successfully snatched the book out of my hands. I tried to grab it back before he muttered: “I have a knife!”
            So do I, I thought, a whole kitchen full of them until it occurred to me that he probably meant with him, here, tonight.
            This particular bookshop had no security of any kind and enjoying what was turning out to be a much livelier event than advertised no one in the crowd was calling the police.
            “This word, what does this word mean?” he said shoving the book in my face and pointing at the word ‘tenebrous’.
            “It means ‘shadowy’ or ‘dark’,” I said.
            “What can’t you fucking say ‘dark’ or ‘shadowy’ then?”
            “I could have, but I’d said ‘darkness’ earlier on the page and if I remember rightly I liked the association the word ‘tenebrous’ conjured up with the Catholic liturgy of—”
            “My point exactly! You could have fucking said dark!” the man yelled triumphantly and stormed out of the bookshop still holding my book.
         The reading more or less ended there in mass embarrassment for everyone and if it had, in fact, been the worst book reading ever, the audience would have agreed with the heckler about my purple prose and left with him. Actually I got more sympathy purchases of the book than normal, although I still wouldn’t recommend this as a strategy for boosting your book sales up into the JK Rowling territories.

Thursday, April 14, 2016

Things In Ireland Are Different Part 27

This, for example, is good parenting, not a call to social services...

my daughter Sophie got a temporary bar job in my
sister's pub pulling pints of the black stuff and, ahem,
sampling the product to see if it passed muster