Wednesday, 12 December 2018

First with a rifle, then with a shovel...

My piece for The Irish Times was published today. For those of you interested in the historical background to The Glorious Dead - the facts behind the fiction - it might make interesting reading.

Here's a link: https://www.irishtimes.com/opinion/first-with-a-rifle-then-with-a-shovel-an-irishman-s-diary-on-the-postwar-battlefield-clearances-and-burials-of-the-great-war-1.3727995



Monday, 10 December 2018

Pat Barker: The Silence of the Girls

The Silence of the GirlsThe Silence of the Girls by Pat Barker
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

It's boom-time for classical mythology re-treads. They're all at it: Madeline Miller, Kamila Shamsie, Natalie Haynes. Even Stephen Fry's jumped on the bandwagon. And the most recent trend has been giving voice to history's silent voices: women. Circe, in Miller's case, and now Breseis in Pat Barker's female-orientated re-telling of The Iliad.

I spent much of the time I was reading this book thinking it was little more than just that: a re-telling of an ancient myth. Yes, from a female perspective; yes, giving voice to those denied it for three thousand years of history. But not adding much to the story: not providing any real insights into what is obvious to a modern reader of Homer, not adding much to help us read between the lines of the old, old text.

Only towards the end does The Silence of the Girls really get going. With the haunted dreams of Achilles (recalling the merciless slaughter of battle) we see the original hero for the first time as something more than a mere monster. And by then - just as with the Homeric epic it derives from - it’s (almost) too late. But just as Achilles’ one final act of contrition restores a glimmer of humanity to the story, Barker’s last-gasp grapple with some serious psychology restores her own literary authority, her ownership of this story, along with some sense that she’s done slightly more than merely re-write the original, adding the odd 'fuck' and 'piss' and 'prick' to the archaic dialogue.

That aside, there are some memorable lines, economically expressed. 'Thanks to them, he’s never alone, and because they’re not Patroclus he’s never more alone than when he’s with them' (p.255) writes Barker of a man sunk in depths of almost insurmountable mourning: 'because grief’s only ever as deep as the love it’s replaced' (p.248). And the changes in tense and perspective between Breseis’ first-person, past-tense narrative and the vivid but anonymous first-person narration of the author (? - it’s never made clear) are as smooth as the most sophisticated, well-oiled, chariot axle.

The Iliad may be among the oldest stories ever told but its's never been static. Each generation seems to express a need to transform it to suit a new audience. Latin poets such as Dares of Phrygia made of it a sort of 'boy's own' adventure to inspire heroic feats while Virgil, of course, transformed the events into the founding myth of Rome.

This is all understandable. We don’t get the 'happy ever after' in the original that we’re so desperate for. The reconciliation between Priam and Achilles comes to late. It ends badly for them both. And we don't even hear how (not in The Iliad at least).

Barker's magic, too, comes just a little too late to transform a prosaic retelling into something more, something is so obviously could have been, but which for most of it's relatively short length is a straightforward re-telling of the original... albeit from the perspective of a woman.

Then again, maybe that's all it needs to be?

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Friday, 30 November 2018

Brexit: the Conservative Conspiracy

I think we all know now (whether we admit it or not) that Brexit - however it happens - is going to be a disaster.

How we explain this mess to our grandchildren is another matter. Historians are no doubt already sketching out the broad narrative of a Tory rift, a foolish leader, a failed attempt to lance the boil and the inevitable slide into chaos and a deeply divided nation.

But just suppose, for a moment, that it wasn't. Just suppose the EU referendum was part of a deliberate plan. What if...

It was meant to happen?

I know, I know. Ridiculous.

But.

The main issue throughout the campaign and its aftermath has been immigration. Taking back border control. Restricting the free movement of EU citizens across national borders.

Theresa May - who as Home Secretary presided over Operation Vaken - has said as much herself in her spirited (you've got to give her that) defence of the Brexit treaty. We're not got much else out of it. But we've got that.


Immigration figured pretty high on people's reasons for voting leave in my neck of the woods. It's also figured high on people's fears post-Brexit. Because - in common with a lot of areas - there are an awful lot of migrants living and working here. Not just in the health service, or waiting on tables or helping in care homes. In the fields. Getting up at four a.m. to spend eight hours in back-breaking hard labour harvesting the food we buy fresh (and cheap) each day.

And what happens to that when they're gone? It's hardly skilled work. It doesn't demand much more than physical strength and stamina. So the thousands that do these jobs are hardly likely, it would seem, to receive protection in the new, post-EU Britain.

Unemployment is at an historic low. There can't be much slack there, can there? And yet there are (so it's said) over 800,000 job vacancies at present.

What if you think - thought, years ago - that there was some slack in the system? What if you thought that most if not all the benefit claimants were good-for-nothing slackers who needed to be made to get up off their comfortable sofa and apply for one of these vacant jobs?

And what if you deliberately dismantled the benefits system and replaced it with a something almost as coercive as parish relief, or the workhouse? And what it... you'd done all that deliberately, along with the (otherwise inexplicable) Brexit vote and treaty?

It's the novelist in me, I suppose. I can't resist a good conspiracy theory. It's almost certainly not true. Although it's strange how such an outrageous, immoral, anti-social, corrupt and outlandish spin can be put on things without much effort.

No doubt there are 'facts' and 'experts' out there who can gainsay it all.

No doubt.

But looked at from afar, and from a different perspective, it doesn't seem at all outlandish.

Does it?
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