The Gunman

Denis Donoghue

  • The Star Factory by Ciaran Carson
    Granta, 304 pp, £13.99, November 1997, ISBN 1 86207 072 5

I made my first visit to Belfast when I was almost 11, late in 1939. The war had just started, and Italy had joined Germany in aggression. My father was the sergeant-in-charge of the Royal Ulster Constabulary in Warren point, Co. Down and he was instructed to arrest all enemy aliens in the town and convey them for internment to Crumlin Road Jail in Belfast. The only alien we had was an Italian who ran the fish and chip shop in the Square. He had anglicised his name to Tony Malocca. My father hired a car and a driver for the great occasion, and brought me along for the ride, letting me sit up front while he sat beside Tony in the back. We drove the forty-five miles or so to Belfast and stopped at the big gate outside the jail. My father told me to sit where I was till he had completed his business with Tony. From that day to this, I have thought of Belfast as a jail surrounded by drab, cold streets. The fact that my sister May has lived congenially enough in Belfast for many years has not altered my impression of the city. I visited her a few months ago and found it as grim as it was in 1939. But my experience of it, I concede, is limited. I stayed away from Belfast during the Troubles. I know it’s thought to be a friendly place by nature and on principle. But I’m a Dublin man by avocation, though not by right of birth.

Ciaran Carson’s The Star Factory is a collection of evocations and sketches of Belfast: not a social history, but a book of snapshots. Several of its chapters describe scenes well known to me in kind but not in particular. The book consists of vignettes, reminiscences and yarns of the Belfast he has known for nearly fifty years. He was born there in 1948, the son of a Catholic postman, a man unlucky enough to be interned for seven weeks during the war as a suspected member of the IRA, mistaken for his younger brother Pat, the genuine article. Carson Senior knew Irish – I wonder when and where he learned it – and passed on the love of it to his son. In The Star Factory Carson Junior writes with appropriate intimacy and warmth of the Belfast Street Directory for 1948: the Great Northern Railway, McWatters’ Bakery, the pubs of Belfast, old photographs, Smithfield before it was destroyed by firebombs in 1974, etymologies, place-names, the old threepenny bit, Radio Ulster, cigarettes, outdoor toilets, old books, inkwells, bookworms and the Family Rosary. Like the sentence you have just read, much of The Star Factory consists of lists, sequences nearly indiscriminate, meandering from one item of information to another:

Kelly’s is in Bank Street, formerly Bank Lane, which runs on one side of the long-since-culverted Farset, and it is a moot point as to whether ‘bank’ refers to the river, or to the Provincial Bank of Ireland on its left bank, or to the vast emporium of the Bank Buildings across the street from the Bank. Formerly again, it was known as Bryce’s Lane, then as Crooked Lane, or as The Back of the River; it connects Chapel Lane (where the original electric lighting station for Belfast was situated) with Castle Place, which borders on Royal Avenue built on the demolished Hercules Lane, commemorated by the Hercules Bar (its sign shows the eponymous hero wrestling with Hydra) on the corner of Chapel Lane and Castle Street.

Much of the material in The Star Factory, like those two Herculean sentences, will be familiar to readers of Carson’s poetry. The man with the black notebook and the ‘cracked lens fixed with Sellotape’ in the poem ‘Linear B’ from The Irish for No turns up again in the sketch ‘Library Street’, except that Sellotape has been replaced by Elastoplast. There is much lore of stamp-collecting, as in The New Estate, with as many details as anyone could want. A portentous adjective in ‘Second Language’ from First Language

gantry-clank and rivet-ranks, Six-County hexametric
Brackets, bulkheads, girders, beams, and
     stanchions; convocated and Titanic

– is explicated in The Star Factory by a sketch of the Titanic, built by Messrs Harland – Wolff at Queen’s Island, Belfast in 1911.

Carson’s method is loose association – appropriate when his theme is what he calls in Belfast Confetti ‘the haberdashery of loss’ – and one perception is asked only to lead casually to another. In ‘Barrack Street II’ he recalls smoking cigarettes with the local boys. Someone fresh from France produced a packet of Gitanes, no less, and another boy triumphed by opening a box of Rameses II, ‘distributed by Stephano Bros, Philadelphia, PA’, as Carson takes the trouble to report:

I am smoking one right now, by way of an experiment in time, as it scorches my tongue and wafts its sudden fug of burning socks and horse-dung into the kitchen where I write. Now I’ve just stubbed it out – it’s still smouldering – I remember something that I haven’t thought about or visualised for years, my father’s Vatican souvenir glass ashtray, which was a miniature of the great piazza of St Peter’s and its huge basilica.

This is followed by half a page from the Catholic Encyclopaedic Dictionary about the Vatican, and an etymological speculation on Carson’s part that the word ‘ “Vatican” ... must have something to do with vates, as defined by the OED’. And so on. Everything reminds Carson of something else. When he mentions C.P. Rang, a famous stamp-collector, he adds a footnote: ‘I still love this name: one can, of course, read it as the past tense of a verb; more interestingly “rang” is Irish for “class”, cognate, no doubt, with “rung” (as in a ladder) and “rank”.’

A choice instance of Carson’s method occurs in The Star Factory when he is describing an Irish stamp called the Gunman:

Banal, pious, badly drawn, next to worthless in monetary terms, the Gunman is not a beautiful stamp, but it fascinates me. I love the blue-black ink that seems to have a tint of bottle-green in it, so that it summons up the dull enamelled frames of Royal Ulster Constabulary bicycles armed with upright handlebars, three-speed Sturmey-Archer thumb-switch gears, stirrup brakes and faltering hub-dynamo lamps; the colour of gunpowder, broken slates or magnets; the ooze-blue clay of the Lagan at low tide; coke-smoke from the Gasworks; livid, live-lobster blue; rubber bullets, purple cobblestones, a smear of rotting blackberries; cinder-paths at dusk, when no one walks on them; the black arm-band of the temporary postal worker.

All this from the faded ink on a stamp issued in Dublin in 1941.

Even those who know Carson’s poems may be surprised by the audacity of some of his prose flourishes. He holds himself immune to irony. Reporting on a boyish fancy about a chesterfield suite:

We often flew to Turkey in it and back in the space of a day, or less. We would always remember the sherbet fountains, the elaborate hubble-bubble pipes and refractory camels, the scent of kif and kumquats drowsing through the alleyways and cool arcades; when night came, suddenly as brushed mascara, we knew that it was time to leave.

Suddenly as what?

There is nothing quite as elaborate in The Star Factory as in Last Night’s Fun, where the lore of music and drink released him from every inhibition of style. I hope he is not getting tired of his own voice. Life in Belfast and other places would be a lot grimmer if we couldn’t rely on him to give us a riff now and then comparable to one of the most dashing set-pieces in Last Night’s Fun, a cadenza incited by a flute-player named Pakie Duignan:

His way of breathing was a joy: it had economy and grace and power; his management of time was perfect. He had the time to hit whatever note it was that came next, then to extend the breath into the next phrase like a sudden almost-visible extension of the room, as if this phrase had yearned to be united with its predecessor, and now they were together. Then he’d cut the end of that phrase and wander off into the split chink of a twilight zone, momentarily. Normal business would resume some time, but in this instant he had gone down steps he’d never seen till then, that led down to a dark harbour where water clucked against the boats and rocks and a constellation could be seen reflected.

By that high-wire standard, Carson has lost some of his daring. He can still play his flute, but he sticks to the shorter runs. When he gets an idea in the middle of the night and goes downstairs to make a note of it, why – you may wonder – doesn’t he keep pencil and paper on the bedside table? A fair question, but Carson has an answer ready:

It seems to me the journey downstairs is a necessary one: it is a process of refinement, palpable on the soles of my bare feet as they experience the various textural frissons on the way – the coarse-weave bedside dhurrie, the cool black-painted floorboards, then the prickly hessian landing-and-stair carpet, consequently the faux marble dining-room lino, and finally the freezing kitchen tiles. Phrases can be shaped by that declension, and my chronic inability to find my slippers, lost as they are in the dark, dust-balled purgatory under the bed, their gasping mouths bereft of feet.

Does he really mean that the slippers were gasping to be filled with feet? And is ‘consequently’ correctly used in that sentence?

I raise these questions with some misgiving, because Carson knows more words than I do. My feet are still hovering over the dhurrie, whatever that is. In the first 32 pages, I’m stumped by ‘pheromones’, ‘nacelles’, ‘sprued’, ‘obols’ and ‘bistre’. I can deal with ‘Stygian darkness’, ‘Pharaonic isolation’, ‘Caesarean dominion’ and ‘Arctic linoleum’. But I’m always afraid, reading him, that the next line will dismay me by its excess. He loves words, but not equally; he has his pets. In The Irish for No, one poem features ‘a dark umbilicus of smoke’, another has ‘the long umbilicus of dung’, a third has ‘a dark umbilicus of cloud’. Too many for a slim volume.

‘Words alone are certain good,’ Yeats wrote in an early poem. Carson has taken this message to heart. But the result is misleading. Readers who go to The Star Factory in the hope of gaining a clearer understanding of Northern Ireland and its pains since 1968 will be disappointed. But if they want to find release from the whole incorrigible question of the North and to see mayhem appear to be deflected for a while into talk, and sectarian hatred seem to be dissolved in phrases, they will be gratified. In The Star Factory every theme that might be a matter of lives and deaths is resolved in a photograph, a personality, an anecdote, an etymological diversion. Life in Belfast is presented as picturesque, an evening with the photograph album and Radio Ulster turned up loud. I remember reading Carson’s Irish Traditional Music and wondering why the politics of the music was not mentioned. It was traditional in my time for Nationalists to march through Warrenpoint to the tune of ‘Who Fears to Speak of ’98’, and for Loyalists a few months later to march the same streets to ‘The Sash My Father Wore’, but Carson turns a deaf ear to those rival musics. In Belfast Confetti the prose-poem ‘Intelligence’ subdues the issue of military surveillance to the imagery of Odd Man Out:

Down there, in the Beechmount brickfields, I can nearly see James Mason squatting in the catacomb of a brick kiln where I played Soldiers and Rebels, these derelict cloisters half-choked with broken brick and brick-dust, that are now gone, erased, levelled back into the clay, like all this brick-built demolition city, like this house we strain our eyes to see through the smog, homing in through the terraces and corner shops and spires and urinals to squat by the fire – coal-brick smouldering and hissing – while my father tells me a story.

In The Star Factory Carson is still playing Soldiers and Rebels, he is still a boy listening to his father’s stories. Indeed, the best parts of the book are those in which he gives himself over to nostalgia, evokes the smell of his father’s postman’s bag, his voice, the cigarettes, his coming home after all those rounds, those deliveries. It is no wonder that Carson is besotted with paper, envelopes, postcards, ink and the Conway Stewart fountain pen, one of my own early images of affluence.