A Book of Evasions
- Visitors Book
Poolbeg Press, 191 pp, £5.50, November 1979, ISBN 0 905169 22 0
In his budget of 1969, Charles Haughey, then Minister of Finance, granted exemption from income tax to artists resident in the Republic of Ireland. In the past, Irish authors had been much given to exile: now, perhaps, they could afford to stay at home and exercise their proper talents for silence and cunning. That ‘standing army of ten thousand poets’ was then supplemented by a troop of foreign gallowglasses, all benefiting to a greater or lesser degree from this piece of ‘enlightened legislation’, some internationally best-selling soldiers-of-fortune to a very considerable degree indeed. Not since Lebor Gabala, or the Book of Invasions, that pseudo-historical account of the successive colonisations of Ireland from the flood to the coming of Christianity (including those of the Roman Cessair, Parthalan the Greek, the giant Fomorians, the Fir Bolg, the Tuatha De Dannan, the Gaels themselves under the command of the Spanish Soldier) – not since then had such a multinational company established a beachhead. This might be one of Mr Haughey’s more successful – and less contentious – import drives.
Ten years on, the year of Mr Haughey’s election as Taoiseach sees the publication of Visitors Book, which is subtitled ‘Stories of Their New Homeland by Famous Authors now Living in Ireland’. It is, alas, a fairly depressing venture. We learn from the extended blurb – or is this a curtailed introduction by the unidentified editor of the anthology? – that the Poolbeg Press invited 14 contributors ‘to write a short story with an Irish connection or directly inspired by their new homeland’. That might not appear to be such a tall order. But we need look not much further than the first three stories to see how these writers deliver the goods with a vengeance. The composite picture of Ireland that emerges from far too many of these pieces is of ‘shamrocks, Guinness, round towers, horses, the gift of the gab’ – those very impedimenta against which this same blurb rails in its insistence on ‘new times’ bringing ‘new images’.
Patrick Skene Catling’s ‘The Right Spot’ is the tale of an American professor of geology, Kevin J. O’Driscoll, who retires with his wife to a quiet corner of the old sod – West Cork, to be exact – where they buy a charmingly ethnic cottage. There’s no electricity supply, and you can’t get much more ethnic than that. Nor is there a well. A dowser is called in, and drilling begins. (All this is set against what might seem the unlikely backdrop of an impending national drought. It is in reality an altogether too accurate scenario: while a great deal of rain falls on Ireland, very little gets collected.) As it turns out, the charmingly ethnic dowser hasn’t quite hit the right spot, and O’Driscoll has struck oil in his back garden, a fact he is intent on suppressing:
He saw a big new house, big cars and a big cabin cruiser moored beside a new private quay. He saw a forest of oil derricks all over the hillside and wide new roads and rows of bungalows, a company town. He saw a refinery and factories and more houses and a shopping centre. He saw administrators, engineers, technicians and mechanics. He saw Keane’s Select Bar enormously enlarged and improved beyond recognition, with fluorescent lighting and wall-to-wall carpet and chrome and plastic all over the place and a juke box and one-armed bandits, the big room crowded with strangers shouting in strange languages. He shook his head to clear it and resolutely clenched his right fist.
Patrick Skene Catling has an ear for dialogue, an eye for detail. What he doesn’t have is a nose for the suspect. I would guess that his overall view of this ‘new homeland’ of his is not a hundred miles removed from Professor O’Driscoll’s. Briefly, that the old is good, the new bad. ‘The Right Spot’ is basically flawed by this element of naive tub-thumping, and Catling seems to have overlooked the essential irony in O’Driscoll’s moral stance: he doesn’t want his position of privilege, his place in the sun, overshadowed by an industrial estate.
With Malcolm Macdonald’s ‘The Last Holiday in Ireland’ we are again in the company of a skilful craftsman, It is 1941. A British ship is torpedoed by a German submarine off the West of Ireland. Mark and Alex and their parents are forced to take to a lifeboat, and are eventually rescued by a destroyer returning from the sinking of the Graf Spee. It’s a ripping yarn told with deftness and economy. MacDonald writes of the blood of a dead gunnery officer which Mark wipes from his shoes: ‘and then, surreptitiously, leaning into the darkest dark, he tasted it. His heart hammered frantically at the sin; it tasted like warm, sea-watery gum arabic.’ But, once again, a romantic idea of Ireland looms in the background. The memory of their last family holiday before the war, in that green and pleasant land just over the horizon, is set against their present predicament.
Nor am I in the least convinced by John Arden’s ‘The Fork in the Head’, in which Fionnuala, an Irish Republican/Trotskyite activist, rushes off to a political meeting in Galway, leaving her disenchanted English husband, Jackson, to potter about the house and environs. He has a dream in which she appears with a fork stuck in her forehead, and delivers herself of the legend: ‘It was yourself sank down the fork till it came into the flesh of my head: and I have come to bring it back.’ Jackson’s premonitions are well-founded. His wife has been fatally wounded during a fracas in Galway. The news is brought to him by two Civic Guards, and Sean Riordan, a member of the Special Branch: ‘You’ll understand, Mr Jackson, the outsiders in the community have their own place and their own welcome here. When all’s said ’tis a difficult matter. Your – your wife, now: they tell me, in the first place, from Dublin? And you yourself, would it be Birmingham?’ ‘No,’ said jackson, ‘no, I was born in York. As a matter of fact.’ ‘Don’t you think you should go home?’ ‘God shut up your mouth, man – I am at home!’ And there you have it. Who you are in relation to where you are is, by all accounts, a real issue in Ireland; and this is, after all, an anthology of ‘stories of their new homeland by famous authors now living in Ireland’.
‘The Bard of Ballyelohesra’ shows Wolf Mankowitz at his slightest. In this, the ashes of the poet Tagh O’Muirtagh (whose name is as improbable as his place of birth) are borne back to Ireland by that well-known Man of Letters, Jackson Sweetman. Sweetman carries the bard’s remains in a tin that once held a Molly Malone Irish Whiskey Fruit Cake. Now read on.
But the prize for the worst story must go to Erik Haugaard’s ‘A Decent Man’, which concludes with such illuminations as: ‘The mountains behind the town were shaggy and bald in patches, poor land. The town, itself, a dreary place; there were no rivers near for Dublin or Cork anglers or any sights of interest to make tourists stop. The houses were shabby, as if the inhabitants knew that there was no point in keeping up appearances. “Yet they are all decent men and women,” I thought, as I paid my bill at the garage; and then with self-pity added, ‘Who knows if it is any worse here than everywhere else?” ’
There are some good stories in Visitors Book. I was already familiar with Robert Bernen’s ‘Tales From the Bluestacks’, his evocations of a life spent among the sheep-farmers of those remote mountains in East Donegal. His contribution here is ‘The Rush’, a meditation on the persistence of the unremarkable life: ‘No wonder the poor farmer of the hill did not despise the rush, did not see it, as I saw it, as his enemy. For he saw nothing as his enemy, not rush, or dock, or thistle, or nettle, or any weed, and not the foxes either and the swarming rabbits that I so hated, but saw all things as part of an interlocking chain and cycle and harmony.’ The refreshing thing about Robert Bernen, in this context, is that he has eschewed any preconceptions about life in Ireland, including those of the Irish themselves. He has not only kept his own eyes open: he has believed them. Frederick Forsyth’s ‘Used in Evidence’ – a Dublin murder mystery – is also up to his usual standard, while John Gardner has a likeable treatment of literary piracy.