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Before The Deluge

August 21, 2015 by  

Really liked this book – Before The Deluge – a Portrait of Berlin in the 1920s by Otto Friedrich – which was given to me as a present by a couple from Nuremberg, Michael and Marion Wolf, whom I met at a left-wing book fair in Munich last year. The book helps one not only understand the rise of fascism post-WWI, particularly in Germany, but the cultural milieu, the ferment at the bottom of the barrel both life-affirming and squalid.

Germany, children post WWIAlthough there was an armistice the Allies continued to blockade the German coast.

Count Kessler, a diplomat, writer, and patron of modern art, wrote: “Germany lay prostrate. France gave open vent to her desire for our extermination, expressing it monumentally in her Prime Minister’s words: ‘There are twenty million Germans too many.’ The continuation of the blockage after the armistice was rapidly fulfilling this wish; within six months from the armistice it had achieved a casualty list of 700,000 children, old people and women… The German people, starved and dying by the hundred thousand, were reeling deliriously between blank despair, frenzied revelry, and revolution.”

Cakes in the Josty Café in Berlin were made from frozen potatoes and ‘Havana’ cigars from cabbage leaves steeped in nicotine.

One important and pertinent question that Friedrich poses is, ‘What caused the inflation in Germany in the first place?’ One experiences a frisson of déjà vu re Greece today.

“Germans of a nationalist persuasion have always placed most of the blame on the Allied demands for reparations, and it is undoubtedly true that any currency must suffer when the national wealth and the national production are drained to pay international commitments. More hostile observers, on the other hand, accuse the German government itself of trying to perpetuate a gigantic fraud. ‘Goaded by the big industrialists and landlords,’ as William Shirer put it in The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich, ‘the government deliberately let the mark tumble in order to free the state of its public debts, to escape from paying reparations… Moreover the destruction of the currency enabled German heavy industry to wipe out its indebtedness by refunding it obligations in worthless marks.”

Walter Gropius, the architect and founder of the Bauhaus school, responding to a question about state support of art, said: “Art and state are irreconcilable concepts.”

Art & War
‘Art never stops war, after all, any more than satire does, or armies of women marching with banners of protest. The only thing that stops war is defeat, not necessarily defeat on the battlefield but defeat in the sense of recognition that too much money is being lost, and, almost incidentally, too much blood. But if art does not stop wars, it may yet convince the survivors that military victory or military defeat need not be our basic standards. “The function of literature,” as Ezra Pound said, “… is… that it does incite humanity to continue living.”

On Kafka & Verisimilitude
“Like Kafka, Brecht not only made no attempt at accuracy but rejected the whole idea of accuracy. ‘Incorrectness,’ he said, ‘[is] hardly or not at all disturbing, so long as the incorrectness [has] a certain consistency.’”

On Max Reinhardt & the Stage
“A Viennese by origin, and trained as an actor, Reinhardt was short and stocky and rather handsome, with wavy hair and bright blue eyes. He had arrived in Berlin in 1894, at the age of twenty-one, as an actor in Otto Brahm’s repertory company at the Deutsches Theater, and eleven years later, when he succeeded Brahms as head of the company, he set out to revolutionize the fundamental techniques of the stage. ‘The theatre is neither a moral nor a literary institution,’ said Reinhardt. To him, it was a place for display, spectacle, magic. The revolving stage was his speciality, and so were the mysterious lighting effects that nobody else could duplicate. Reinhardt abolished the walls of conventional theatre sets; he abolished footlights and curtains; his actors moved out into the audience and made it part of the spectacle.”

“[Erwin] Piscator’s Proletarian Theatre expressed the guileless belief that the drama was a medium of revolution. The director favoured radical authors like Gorki and Upton Sinclair, and his actors were, at the beginning, not professional performers but unemployed workmen.”

brechtBrecht’s Political Ambiguities – Author in conversation with Stefan Brecht
“The conversation drifts into the question of Brecht’s political ambiguities – the ambiguity, for example, of a Marxist trying to earn his living in Hollywood (“Every morning to earn my bread,/I go to the market, where lies are bought,” Brecht had written. “Hopefully/I join the ranks of the sellers.”) And of a Marxist cooperating docilely with the House Un-American Activities’ Committee, supposedly investigating Communism in Hollywood. (“Have you ever made application to join the Communist Party?” asked the attorney for the committee, and Brecht said, “No, no, no, no, never.” And Ring Lardner, Jr.’ one of the so-called “Hollywood Ten” who went to prison for refusing to cooperate with the committee recalls that Brecht was very apologetic after the hearing but said he had to testify because he had to get back to Germany. And when asked whether Brecht hadn’t been a little – well, perhaps a little grovelling, Lardner indignantly says, “No, he was not, he was not grovelling.”) And of the famous libertarian finally returning, with an Austrian passport, a Swiss bank account, and a West German publishing contract, to his own state-subsidized theatre in Stalin’s colony of East Germany. (“We know,” wrote Günter Grass, in his accusing drama, The Plebeians Rehearse the Uprising, “that while the revolt in East Berlin [in 1953]… was going on, Brecht did not interrupt his rehearsals … We know that Bertolt Brecht took an attitude of wait-and-see… In my play the construction workers, who interrupt the Boss’s rehearsals, [believe] that he is somebody whom the government supports and tolerates as a display of cultural property, or as a kind of privileged court jester.”)

“And of that strange Brechtian story, which is fundamental to Brecht’s view of life, and to such great creations as Mother Courage and Galileo, of the man who said no. There once was a little man who lived peacefully in a little house, and one day a powerful official came to his door and said, “Will you serve me?” The little man did not say a word, but he let the official into his house, and for seven years, he bowed down to the official, and fed him, and served him. Finally, the official grew so fat and indolent that he died. The little man quietly wrapped the official’s body in a blanket and threw it out of his house. “Then he washed the bedstead, whitewashed the walls, breathed a sigh of relief and answered: ‘No.’”

“Yes, I think I understand that,” says Stefan Brecht, putting his feet on the desk, with the gray suede boots raised high. “It’s about hypocrisy, the hypocrisy of thinking no but doing yes. So many people do that. You’re wearing a white shirt and a tie – that’s doing yes.”

Two centuries before Brecht, John Gay (who wrote Beggar’s Opera) was a Brechtian. “As a youth, he served a disagreeable apprenticeship to a London silk merchant. Trying to make his living as a poet, he became an unsuccessful supplicant to various aristocratic patrons. He invested his savings in a South Seas stock swindle, and the subsequent bankruptcy brought him to physical collapse. On his grave is inscribed one of his own couplets:

Life is a jest, and all things show it.
I thought so once, and now I know it.

On Lotte Lenya (who married Kurt Weill)
lotte“She was and is one of the phenomena of the musical theatre, now past seventy, but still singing and still fascinating audiences with a talent that defies description. She has, according to one critic, “a face like a clock without a second hand.” According to another, “she has a rasping voice that could sandpaper sandpaper, and half the time she does not even attempt to sing, but she can put into a song an intensity that is almost terrifying.”

On Mac the Knife
“Harold Paulsen, who was to play Macheath, insisted on wearing a blue bow tie that everyone else hated. He also insisted that his own role should be strengthened. Why begin, he argued, with Mr Peacham singing his gloomy ‘Morning Chorale’? Why not begin with a song about him, the highwayman, with his blue bow tie. Brecht agreed, at the last minute, and wrote, literally overnight, the Morität that is now known as ‘Mac the Knife.’ And Weill, also in one night, wrote the haunting melody that achieved the final triumph of his music over Brecht’s play…

“That opening night was, of course, a legendary triumph, and of every ten Berliners alive today, at least three claim to have been in the cheering audience. But the success was not without its ironies. One was that the ‘proletarian’ creators, Brecht and Weill, became rich. Another, more significant, was that the sleek and the wealthy, flocked to the Schiffbauerdamm to hear themselves derided and denounced.”

On Herman Mann’s The Blue Angel
Sternberg, the director, “changed the basic idea from the downfall of an autocrat to the downfall of a puritan, a victim not of social forces but of infatuation. And there is no recovery. The teacher’s degradation continues inexorably toward the harrowing scene in which he is forced to totter on stage at Lola’s cabaret and to crow like a chicken while an egg is broken over his head.”

GoebbelsOn Goebbels
“Several years later, looking back on his career, Goebbels told an associate that he had helped the Nazi cause in four essential ways: by introducing Socialism into a middle-class group, by “winning Berlin,” by working out the style of the party’s public ceremonies, and by the “creation of the Führer myth. Hitler had been given the halo of infallibility.”

“There was considerable truth in these boasts, particularly the last one, for, as a series of elections soon demonstrated, millions of Germans began to believe that Adolf Hitler, a semiliterate incompetent, a failure in everything he had ever attempted, somehow had the skill and intelligence to solve the nation’s problems. One of the most willing believers in the “Führer myth” was, understandably enough, the nervous and uncertain Führer himself. When one of his supporters once told him, in the course of an argument, that he was mistaken, Hitler angrily answered, “I cannot be mistaken. What I do and say is historical.””

In The Mass Psychology of Fascism Wilhelm Reich says that it seemed absurd to blame Nazism on any one class or nation. He argued that Hitler’s movement was simply “the organized political expression of the structure of the average man’s character… There is not a single person who does not bear the elements of fascist feeling and thinking… In its pure form fascism is the sum total of all the irrational reactions of the average human character.”

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Children of Las Vegas

August 11, 2015 by  

My friend the writer Timothy O’Grady has reached his crowd-funding target for his book about the children of Las Vegas. Below, he tells the story behind his writing the book. You can still subscribe to its publication and receive a variety of rewards:

Back endOne day in a class I was teaching in Las Vegas my students spoke of their lives. Their stories were so shocking I thought at first I’d misheard, or was being had – stories of being robbed by their parents, of raising themselves, of watching the disintegration of whole families as their members succumbed to the numerous addictions endemic to the city. It wasn’t just an isolated few. Around three-quarters of the class spoke in that vein.

I was in Las Vegas for two years. It’s such an attention-demanding city that if you write you are likely to be drawn to it as a subject. It was, though, difficult for me to see it. It seemed always to be covering up, throwing up illusions, stepping back. But when my students spoke that day I felt strongly that this was the story about Las Vegas I wanted to tell. These things had happened not only in Las Vegas but because of it. The city had been happening to them all their lives. They were its witnesses and had an authority I or any other visitor could never have. Their stories were both unknown and everywhere at the same time. I thought a book of them would reveal the city in an unusually direct way, but would also ask larger questions – How could such things happen to innocent people in the midst of so much money and frivolity? What is it about us that demands that such a place exists?

I had slim hope of writing this book, though. The stories were too intimate, too painful. Their tellers would dread the exposure. But that wasn’t the case. They wanted to be heard. In the end I interviewed ten people who grew up in Las Vegas – some students, a casino owner’s son, a businessman, a Native American woman who wound up living in the storm drains under the casinos.

This book has been on a long and twisted road and has not yet quite reached its destination. It has been taken up by the publishers Unbound in London, whose publication The Wake has just won The Bookseller’s Book of the Year, which also honours publishers. I know two of Unbound’s founders, John Mitchinson and Rachael Kerr, because they published another collaboration of mine with Steve Pyke, I Could Read the Sky, when they were at Harvill. Unbound works to a different model to conventional publishers, something more like crowdfunding, whereby a book is put up on their website and readers are invited to place orders. When enough do so to meet the production costs of the book they receive their copies and a trade edition is then sent out into the world by Unbound and Penguin Random House. So the ultimate existence of the book depends on this early support. Readers themselves bring it into being.

You can see a short film about this book and read a few excerpts here and also order it. Please understand that there is no pressure, no scores are being kept. The more people that know of the book, though, the better its chances of existing, so if you think of someone who could be interested in it please send this along. Thank you.

Timothy O’Grady


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Killing Lloyd George

July 17, 2015 by  

In 2006 I was speaking at the Writers on the Wall festival in Liverpool. When I came home I wrote this feature about prisoners, but which also mentions an attempt on the life of Lloyd George one hundred years ago. Here it is:

Alice court case Over breakfast at our hotel, Clive Hopwood and I talked about the panel discussion the night before and asked each other about our work. He has written almost 100 books for children and has had 20 plays performed. In recent years, he has worked in community arts and is currently the director of the Writers in Prison Network.

I said that I would like to write a play about an old people’s home. Clive said that, years ago, he had been involved in a reminiscence project with elderly people which resulted in the publication Those Were The Days.

One old lady, Beatrice Seaton, born in Derby but retired in a nursing home in Wales, told him about her Edwardian childhood, about one of her brothers dying in infancy. Then she added: “I had one teacher who tried to poison Lloyd George.”

My eyes shot open.

David Lloyd George, the man who, on December 5, 1921, issued an ultimatum to the republican delegation, including Michael Collins, that, if they didn’t sign the Treaty before 10pm, the result would be “immediate and terrible war”.

I thought: How different would history have been had Beatrice Seaton’s teacher been successful? How different would it have been had the delegation not buckled under that threat but walked away and the Republican Movement remained united to negotiate another day?

Beatrice had told Clive that her teacher, who was a Suffragette, had sent some poisoned chocolates to Lloyd George, who was then British Prime Minster but that she was caught and went to jail. Beatrice said: “And her mother — I have in mind her mother died in jail. Suffragettes were big at the time, just before the war, and she taught us a song for a concert:

“‘Don’t forget it, don’t forget it,
Soon the ladies into parliament will go,
Don’t forget it, don’t forget it,
If they do, you’ll know!’”

In opposition, Lloyd George had been a supporter of women’s rights but did little to help the cause when he was in power.

Researching the story, I discovered that Beatrice was right in the broad thrust of her recollections though she was probably referring to the case of Alice Wheeldon from Derby, her daughter Harriet Ann (who was probably the teacher), and Alice’s married daughter and son-in-law Winnie and Alfred George Mason. They were all charged with conspiring to murder Lloyd George — not with venomous Dairy Box chocolates but with poison darts. It was later alleged that the accused had been set up by British intelligence through the use of an agent provocateur and that Alice Wheeldon had been singled out because she had been hiding conscientious objectors (men who didn’t want to fight in World War I).

Alice plaqueShe was sentenced to ten years’ hard labour but was released after the war in a weakened condition. She died and was buried in an unmarked grave. Her daughter Winnie was sentenced to five years and Winnie’s husband to seven years. Harriet Ann, who had been held on remand, was acquitted.

Clive Hopwood and I had shared a platform the night before as part of Liverpool’s Writing on the Wall festival. Clive, who was chairing the event on the subject of prison writings, quoted the observation of Fyodor Dostoyevsky, the author of Crime and Punishment, that, “the degree of civilisation in a society can be judged by entering its prisons”.

There are 77,000 prisoners in jail in Britain, a state that incarcerates more people per head of population than any other European country.

On the platform were two former prisoners, George Gardiner and Ian Galtress. With little or no experience of public speaking, they bravely read out highly personal poetry, which had helped them express their inner turmoil. One — who had been six years in care — spoke about having sniffed glue from the age of eight, mutilating and trying to hang himself. “Drugs are the enemy/Don’t have a sad life”, read Ian Galtress.

The other speaker was Erwin James, who served 20 years in British prisons (but who didn’t say what his crime was) and was released 18 months ago. Writing saved James, who was barely literate when he was arrested. Without any trace of self-pity, he tells his remarkable story in two books — A Life Inside and The Home Stretch, both of which began as published pieces in The Guardian, for which James now writes full-time.

I spoke about how political prisoners coped with jail and viewed it as both university and battlefield, though they suffered the same emotional dislocation from family and loved ones and the same personal problems as all prisoners do. As I explained the blanket protest, the hunger strike, the big escape, the IRA explosion in the Crum canteen, the loyalist rocket attack the following night on the jail, the jaws of some members of the audience (and panel) literally dropped with incredulity.

James said that, for a time, he shared a wing with a number of IRA men, including Brian Keenan and Hugh Doherty. He said republican prisoners, though few in number, were in an entirely different category. Unlike the rest of the prison population, they were clearly political prisoners, a highly disciplined and motivated group, were selfless, nothing fazed them and they did time confidently.

In A Life Inside, he writes that, in jail, where any weakness is exploited, it is rare for inmates to make friends. You enter into the “precious relationship” of “true friendship” at your peril, he said.

It made me realise how lucky we republicans were, in a sense. Not lucky at having our near neighbours over for 800 years, but fortunate in that our prison history is a proud story of sacrifice, courage and defiance. Comradeships were consolidated and lasting friendships established. Within the criminal prisoner regime, the system is designed around the basis of the prisoner “accepting his or her crime and trying to become a better person”.

James writes compassionately about some of his fellow inmates but also about the norms of suicide, brutality and bullying, where it’s every man for himself in that “dark world”. One, a victim of childhood sexual abuse, self-inflicts wounds to his limbs, puts a pencil through his arm and matchsticks through his ankles, he is so full of self-loathing.

James also writes humorously and tells the story of three murderers sitting at the back in the TV room during an England/Romania match when the issue of English soccer hooliganism comes up. “Those yobbos are giving us a bad name over there,” said one, as the others nodded in agreement.

Though the prison-writing events are just a part of the overall Writing on the Wall festival, the organisers deserve credit for not balking at the unpopular subject of prisoners’ rights and the whole issue of crime and punishment, which often provokes a reactionary response from the general public.

On a lighter note, ever since Clive Hopwood told me Beatrice Seaton’s story, I haven’t been able to get ABC’s pop song Poison Arrow out of my head!

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Leaner and Pacier

June 17, 2015 by  

John Hedges, editor of An Phoblacht interviewed me about the writing of West Belfast. The interview appears in the latest print edition of the newspaper. Here it is:

A Story of a Community in Struggle

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Danny Morrison always wanted to be a novelist, from when he was around 15 or 16 growing up in Belfast. Being interned got in the way. He became embroiled in the struggle against the gerrymandered unionist statelet and the props which held up the Stormont unionist regime, the Royal Ulster Constabulary and the British Army.

“I wanted to be a writer and then the Troubles came along,” Danny smiles ruefully talking to An Phoblacht in Dublin.

Danny’s desire to tell stories was overwhelmed by the real-life story of the conflict in the Six Counties. Now he is an accomplished and critically-acclaimed author of several novels. But it took a while coming.

Two years after he was released from Long Kesh, at the age of 22, he became editor of Republican News, which was later to merge with An Phoblacht. A few years after that, he was Sinn Féin National Director of Publicity, a post he held for 11 years. “Whatever putative talent I had for writing and speaking,” Danny recalls, “was poured into the Republican Movement.” Amidst all this, he was elected to the Assembly for Mid-Ulster in 1982. Danny lost out on the Mid-Ulster Westminster seat at the general election in June 1983 by 78 votes to the Democratic Unionist Party’s William McCrea. (He also stood twice in the European elections, in 1984 and 1989.)

In 1986, he had begun secretly writing West Belfast.

“I was too embarrassed to tell people I was writing a novel,” he says, thinking that some might ask ‘Who does he think he is?’. “The only people I told were my then wife, Sandra, and Gerry Adams, both of whom were very supportive, especially Gerry who had just published Cage 11, based on stories he had sent out to me when I was editor of Republican News.

He had risen to prominence as possibly the most articulate, engaging and down-to-earth republican spokespersons in the 1980s. He became the spokesperson for the H-Block prisoners and the Hunger Strikers on the outside.

A gifted communicator of the republican message, he became even more famous for his call to the 1981 Sinn Féin Ard Fheis: “Who here really believes we can win the war through the ballot box? But will anyone here object if, with a ballot paper in this hand and an Armalite in the other, we take power in Ireland?”

He smiles at memories of that moment because, in exploring the way the struggle was progressing and the military stalemate between a well-armed IRA and the British Army (who had admitted in secret documents it could not defeat the IRA), he became one of the early advocates of the Peace Process and remains one of its staunchest defenders.

Danny was arrested in January 1990 in connection with the abduction of Sandy Lynch, an IRA informer, and sentenced to eight years. It was just three weeks after West Belfast was first published so he had no chance to discuss it and get feedback, good or bad, and use that to develop his style. Needless to say, a promotional tour was no longer an option.

In prison Danny complemented his fiction writing by penning a column (‘Radio Times’) for An Phoblacht from prison.

“When I came out of prison, the IRA cessation had been called and I was ready to get stuck in again.” Gerry Adams urged him to take time out to get his life back together after more than five years away.

“I came out divorced, a grandfather, no home. So I got myself a rented house and my youngest son came to live with me. I had started The Wrong Man in prison so, during that year I had off, I finished it and I became very much tempted by the fact that I was now middle-aged, the cessation was on and if I was going to become a writer I’d probably only get one opportunity to do it.

“I remember the day when Gerry contacted me and said ‘Right, let’s talk about what you’re going to do now’.” Danny winces as he remembers that moment. “I had a heavy heart. We were sitting on a sofa in the outside yard of Conway Mill and I said, I didn’t think I could go back full-time and I really wanted to write.

“I felt immensely guilty because my brother was still in jail doing 27 years, Pat Sheehan (who I shared cells with) was still in jail, everybody that I had been in jail with was still there.

“I felt guilty because there were still people continuing on with the struggle and here’s Danny suddenly deciding he’s going to become a writer.

“And Gerry fully supported me, which I was very grateful for.”

Danny is also grateful for the advice of novelist and screenwriter Ronan Bennet (a Booker Prize nominee whose films and TV work includes The Hamburg Cell, Public Enemy and Top Boy) during long walks over Black Mountain. Dermot Healy, Tim O’Grady and former Irish Examiner Books Editor Tina Neylon have been influential in his development as a writer too, he insists on noting.

An incredible story
Hooded menWest Belfast is a tale of the nationalist community and how the political events between 1963 and 1973 affected its people. It centres on the O’Neill family, whose son John’s involvement in the IRA leads to his arrest on the day internment is introduced, 9 August 1971. It’s also a love story.

And West Belfast is a milestone on Danny’s journey as a writer. He freely acknowledges the first edition’s shortcomings and its “flowery language”. When his publisher encouraged him to republish to mark 25 years, Danny says: “I realised I could make it a lot leaner and increase the pace but it’s the same plot, the same characters, the same denouement but I feel the writing is much sharper.

“You have to understand that, back then, I didn’t know how to write a novel. It was written in the early hours of the morning, scribbled in the back of a car on any paper that was to hand, snatches of dialogue jotted down on an envelope when they came to me, all over a two-and-a-half-year period, in between the struggle on the streets, arrests, funerals, press conferences, elections.”

When it was first released West Belfast was “pretty much savaged” by critics, Danny recalls. “I think Fintan O’Toole in The Irish Times said the book was about ‘the sexuality of violence’ whereas I would argue there is a pacifist strain running through the book and one of regret, including in the sniper scene, which is often quoted, as well as the diaries of young Jimmy O’Neill who is observing the disagreements and arguments within a household where his older brother is in the IRA and their mother is worried sick about her son getting killed.

West Belfast was a reflection, a distillation of many things I had observed. The realism in it comes from what I experienced or the eyewitness evidence of people who I’d interviewed from all walks of life. I witnessed the pogroms, the Falls Road Curfew, the introduction of internment, and the firing by the RUC of live rounds from Springfield Road Barracks at a protest in August 1969. The protest was aimed at keeping the RUC in Belfast instead of them going to Derry to relieve colleagues exhausted by ‘The Battle of the Bogside’.”

Amazon describes West Belfast as “significant for its honest portrayal of a conflict which has been written on extensively by outsiders but rarely by the people involved . . . This is perhaps the first time that a modern Irish republican has attempted to show in novel form what his community has gone through under British oppression.”

Danny’s launches include a Q&A where he takes questions because he thinks it’s very important for people (especially young people) to understand about the conflict, why and how it occurred “and, not least, how to avoid conflict”.

“There is an immense narrative about what the people came through, what the prisoners came through. My motivation in writing West Belfast was that I wanted to explain how a small community, isolated, under partition, had the boot on its neck and how it could be moved from campaigning for and supporting civil rights then, when their civil rights were denied, many moved into supporting an armed struggle which lasted ten times longer than the Tan War. It’s an incredible story.”

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Naples ’44

May 9, 2015 by  

What a brilliant war memoir for its searing honesty in depicting the “ineptitude and cowardice” of senior commanders; the chaos and confusion on all sides (American gunners accidentally shooting down three Spitfires); the debauchery and cruelty of Allied soldiers (the so-called good guys); and how the destruction of war can return a humane and cultured people to the Middle Ages. But it is his accounts of the treatment of women by men at war which are the most disturbing and infuriating parts of this book.

Norman Lewis, a member of the British Intelligence Corps, was seconded to work with the American Fifth Army after the invasion of southern Italy. He and his colleagues had received little or no training.

In Salerno he witnesses a British officer interrogating an Italian civilian by hitting him about the head with a chair, the Italian’s face “a mask of blood”. The officer then called in a private and “asked him in a pleasant, conversational sort of manner, ‘Would you like to take this man away, and shoot him?’ The private’s reply was to spit on his hands, and say, ‘I don’t mind if I do, sir.’ The most revolting episode I have seen since joining the forces,” writes Lewis, not realising that there is even more to come.

Kids who jump on the back of jeeps or lorries hoping to steal something have their fingers severed by soldiers hiding behind the tarpaulin with bayonets. “God knows how many children have lost their fingers in this way.”

He also doubts an account given to him by an American soldier that they had been ordered “not only to take no German prisoners, but to use the butts of their rifles to beat to death those who try to surrender.”

However, in hospital recovering from a bout of malaria a short time later, a wounded US soldier confirms that those were their orders.

On his way to Sorrento he finds that most of the post offices have been sacked by the vanguard of the advancing troops who, he says sardonically, “seem to have been philatelists to a man.”

The village of Altavilla had been “shelled out of existence because it might have contained Germans.”

In Naples, which had finally resisted the Germans when they introduced forced labour, he is greeted with the sight of near-famine conditions, a father offering Lewis his starving daughter (in “some mutually satisfactory understanding”). All the tropical fish in the biggest aquarium had been eaten, people scoured fields for edible plants, including dandelions, and made ‘coffee’ from roasted acorns. Along the shore every winkle and sea-snail had been devoured (the Allies would not let fishermen fish in the bay). The tiniest of birds had been netted and eaten. The cat population of the city had ‘disappeared’.

Naples 2There are daily gunfights between rival gangs, pillaging and rapine by army deserters, kidnappings and reports of typhus. German bombers continue to attack and Lewis notes wryly, “The Germans murder only the poor in these indiscriminate raids, just as we did.”

He and his colleagues were inundated with information about suspected Fascists and felt they were simply being used and embroiled in many private vendettas. He also suspected that the Psychological Warfare Bureau’s report that 96 per cent of the Italian population collaborated wholeheartedly with the Germans to be exaggerated. The writ of the Camorra (a mafia-style organisation) ran strong and the Allies were often forced to work with and through local bosses.

The black market thrives on stolen property, much of it US equipment. Corruption is rife and he refers to Neapolitan kleptomania: thieves steal wheels from jeeps, telegraph poles and cables (cutting off entire districts), phials of penicillin, manhole covers – anything that can be exchanged or sold for food. (Some of the accounts could have come straight from Catch 22, or made their way into that novel.) When Allied troops or the local police seize smuggled or stolen goods, those same goods again make their way onto the black market through kickbacks.

It was estimated that out of a female population in Naples of 150,000, as many as 42,000 were engaged on a regular or occasional basis in prostitution. Lewis writes that probably three quarters of them would cease to be prostitutes if they could hope to stay alive by any other means.

The Germans were still in occupation of northern Italy. An American intelligence unit comes up with the idea of spreading streptococci and gonococci by sending diseased prostitutes North so as to spread venereal diseases amongst the Germans (who maintained the strictest of medical supervision over brothels) and diminish their fighting efficiency. They rounded up twenty attractive young prostitutes who had, but were showing no signs of, an exceptionally virulent and virtually ineradicable form of syphilis. Payment was to be paid in the form of gold coins which they could carry in their rectums. However, the women rebelled and the idea was dropped, so “the girls were then simply turned loose on the streets of Naples.”

A year later, British and American MPs, to deal with an epidemic of venereal diseases, go around arresting women in clubs, dance-halls and even in cafes, and bring them to the Pace Hospital for vaginal smears. If they are clear of infection they are released, while VD sufferers are forcibly detained for treatment as long as may be necessary. Lewis was invited along to witness the procedure and his description is stomach-churning:

“The inspections were to take place in an enormous room furnished with a row of gynaecological chairs. As soon as we arrived and joined the group of Italian doctors there, the detained women began to stream in like sheep about to be hustled through a dip. In most cases they were dressed with a respectable formality that seemed to intensify the indignity to which they were to be subjected. The operation moved at the pace of a bullfight. The first six women, some of them sobbing and protesting, were led forward, ordered to remove their knickers, pull up their skirts, and settle themselves in the chairs in which their legs, held in stirrups, were grotesquely raised and separated. At the door a constantly increasing group kept up a frantic argument. Among them were a few bejewelled courtesans and some obvious bar-girls, but the majority looked like young housewives, some with their shopping-bags on their arms, and there were some very young girls who were certain to be virgins. A suspicion grew that over-enthusiastic MPs had not been above snatching girls at random off the street.”

naples 4Just recently the Guardian newspaper reported that French prosecutors have ordered a criminal investigation into allegations that in 2013 and 2014 French peacekeeping soldiers raped children and demanded sex for food in Central African Republic. Lewis writes of the arrival of French colonial troops in Italy.

“Whenever they take a town or a village, a wholesale rape of the population takes place. Recently all females in the villages of Patricia, Pofi, Isoletta, Supino, and Morolo were violated. In Lenola, which fell to the Allies on May 21, fifty women were raped, but – as these were not enough to go round – children and even old men were violated.”

Lewis discusses with an old schoolmaster the raiding activities of bandits who were increasingly emboldened into carrying out ever larger operations (raiding police stations and Allied dumps for arms). The teacher tells him they have always existed, led by criminals and usually employed by great landowners to keep the peasantry in check.

He related an anecdote of the extermination of the last of the nineteenth-century brigands in a small town. “They were surrounded in a house, and the police couldn’t get them out. Every time they tried to break in someone was shot. In the end the priest was called in to act as a go-between. He got the police to agree that if the brigands surrendered, there would be no more bloodshed. The brigands gave in, and it was decided to kill them all the same, but as the police captain was not prepared to break his word about shedding blood, they were smothered one by one in a bed.”

At the end of his year in Naples (and in Benevento), Lewis thinks, “in their hearts, these people must be thoroughly sick and tired of us. A year ago we liberated them from the Fascist Monster, and they still sit down doing their best to smile politely at us, as hungry as ever, more disease-ridden than ever before, in the ruins of their beautiful city where law and order have ceased to exist. And what is the prize that is to be eventually won? The rebirth of democracy. The glorious prospect of being able one day to choose their rulers from a list of powerful men, most of whose corruptions are generally known and accepted with weary resignation. The days of Benito Mussolini must seem like a lost paradise compared with this.”

Italy, of course, did recover, due to Marshall Aid. Lewis, whose book was not published until 1978, could have before publication opportunistically tempered some of his contemporaneous observations and remarks. It is testimony to his honesty that he let his account stand, and what a portrayal it is of a city in ruins, of women in war and war on women.

Naples ’44 by Norman Lewis, Eland Publishing Limited

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He Fell From The Ninth Floor

April 28, 2015 by  

Freddie Gray, a 25-year-old black man from Baltimore, Maryland, died from a severe spinal injury he suffered in police custody. Yesterday, after his funeral, serious rioting broke out and Maryland’s governor activated the National Guard and imposed a curfew. Gray’s death reminded me of the 1979 poem by the late Christopher Van Wyk, In Detention, written in memory of the many people who were killed in custody (67 in total) when being held by the Security Police in apartheid South Africa. It is a brilliant poem and a political satire. Van Wyk himself was once arrested and brought to the top floor of the building in John Vorster Square where the police inspector pointed to the barred window and challenged him on how any prisoner could fall from the ninth floor. The inspector clearly didn’t ‘do’ irony.


He fell from the ninth floor
He hanged himself
He slipped on a piece of soap while washing
He hanged himself
He slipped on a piece of soap while washing
He fell from the ninth floor
He hanged himself while washing
He slipped from the ninth floor
He hung from the ninth floor
He slipped on the ninth floor while washing
He fell from a piece of soap while slipping
He hung from the ninth floor
He washed from the ninth floor while slipping
He hung from a piece of soap while slipping.

Freddie Gray

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A Story of Revenge

April 24, 2015 by  

Today, Armenia commemorates the 100th anniversary of what historians have called the first genocide of the 20th century when around 1.5 million Armenians died at the hands of Ottoman forces between 1915 and 1917. In 2001, I wrote a feature about the beginning of the massacres. I called it, A Story of Revenge. Here it is:

“THEY took everyone away… They struck and cracked my brother’s skull with an axe. They took my sister and raped her. As soon as the soldiers and the gendarmes began the massacres, the mob was upon us too and my brother’s head was cracked open. Then my mother fell from a bullet or something else. I was struck on the head and fell to the ground…

“I do not know how long I stayed there. Maybe it was two days. When I opened my eyes I saw myself surrounded by corpses… I saw my mother’s body; she had fallen face down. My brother’s body had fallen on top of me. When I stood up I realised that my leg was injured and my arm was bleeding…”Children

That’s how Soghomon Tehlirian began describing the Turkish massacre of 20,000 of his fellow Armenians from Erzinga in 1915 when he was a teenager. Turkey, at the centre of the Ottoman Empire, had earlier become a constitutional monarchy after a coup by the Committee of Union and Progress (popularly known as ‘the Young Turks’). They initially promised their multi-racial subjects reform and equality and were thus supported by the Armenians, who even joined the Turkish army in large numbers at the beginning of the 1914 war.

However, the C.U.P. became increasingly nationalistic and xenophobic, began ‘Turkifying’ the empire and demonising the Christian Armenians who had occupied their homeland for several millennia. The Armenians – like the Jews – had often been subjected to massacres – Turks and Kurds killed 300,000 in 1895 alone.

Talaat Pasha, Minister of the Interior, was the principal architect of the 1915 massacre, which Soghomon Tehlirian had survived. The genocide of the Armenians was well planned, and, just as the Nazis were to do two decades later, was carried out in a systematic manner under the cover of war. In 1914 Armenian army recruits between the ages of 16 and 60 were mobilised and transported in the back of covered trucks – believing they were going on a training exercise. Instead, they were publicly executed in town squares or taken to torture camps were they were murdered. Armenian intellectuals, MPs, teachers and doctors were next rounded up in Constantinople (Istanbul) and executed, leaving the Armenians leaderless.

Talaat signed the deportation orders for civilians in Armenian towns and villages. Whole populations were rounded up and removed to distant locations before being liquidated, 24,000 being killed in one three-day period of mass shootings. Others were placed on ships that were scuttled in the Black Sea or were forced on death marches to the Syrian Desert. At least one million were killed and two million displaced. Thousands were also rescued and sheltered by compassionate individual Turks, Kurds and Arabs, but these were a minority of cases.

Soghomon Tehlirian escaped into the mountains and was protected by a Kurdish family until his wounds healed. When war ended with the defeat of Germany and the break-up of the Ottoman Empire the Allies said that the Turks responsible for the massacres would be punished but they were never seriously pursued. Talaat Pasha and his cohorts escaped, Talaat being given shelter in Germany where he lived under a false name. In his absence he had been tried, found guilty and sentenced to death for ordering the massacres.

After the war Tehlirian returned home but only two families were left in Erzinga – and they had ‘converted’ to Islam. He wandered from place to place, suffered several nervous breakdowns, and whilst in Constantinople learnt from newspapers about Talaat Pasha’s central role in the exterminations. In 1920 he went to the USA where he joined the Diasporan Responsible Body, received special training, then went to Berlin where he and his comrades began the job of tracking down Talaat. Within three months they discovered his residence.

One morning as Talaat came out of his home Soghomon Tehlirian killed him with a single revolver shot. Over the next year other members of the A insideArmenian DRB executed the top six former leaders of the Young Turks in what later came to be called ‘The Armenian Nuremburg’.

Today Armenia is an independent republic with close ties to the former USSR. Some of its territory still remains under Turkish rule. To this day Turkey still denies the Armenian genocide – which is one of the main obstacles to it being accepted into the European Union.

Tehlirian was arrested in Berlin and charged with the murder of Talaat but a German jury – listening spellbound to his account of the Erzinga massacre and the killing of his entire family – acquitted him and described the shooting as justified homicide. He lived out the remainder of his days in California – an Armenian hero.

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Tugs of War and Love

April 20, 2015 by  

The journalist Brian Rowan has reviewed West Belfast on Eamonn Mallie’s website. Here is the feature in full.

A weary British soldier sits amid the rubble of days of rioting in Belfast.The re-written and re-worked novel West Belfast is a story about how the ordinariness, the kindness and the innocence of this place became shattered.

Its setting is the sixties – stretching into the early seventies.

A story about tugs of love and war.

Danny Morrison’s novel was first published in 1989, and has been re-shaped in a 25th anniversary edition.

His story-telling grows from his roots in the Falls Road community and then his background in the IRA and in republican politics, but it begins before then – before the first shots were fired or bombs exploded. Its starting point is an adventure in the Belfast hills – young kids out exploring – seeing the geography of the city begin to take shape in their minds.

“The realness of it all, the Sundayness of it all, gave the picture a quality which could only have been appreciated from this height and at this distance. It was breath-taking,” Morrison writes.

In the page turns, you also read about the realness of family struggles, struggles related to work and money – trying to make ends meet at Christmas. There is nothing imagined or fictional or unreal about this. Those of us who know and remember the working class streets of the city back then, know there was little but, despite this, there always seemed to be just enough. People got by, people who lived and survived and held together as communities.

There is a love story woven throughout the pages of this novel, told in the young lives of John and Angela – a broken love and then a letter of hope.

Then, there is the ruthlessness and the rawness of an exploding conflict, told from a particular background and perspective by Morrison, but a story that can read across into other communities, and regiments and police families. Many mothers cried the tears that Catherine cries for Jimmy in Morrison’s book.

In real life, away from the pages of a novel, the loyalist David Ervine talked many times about the “something” that “happened” here. What he meant was that ordinary people – loyalist, British, republican were dragged into a war – into something that changed many lives and broke and destroyed and took many others.

Another loyalist William ‘Plum’ Smith, author of the recently published Inside Man, has spoken and written about being “born into conflict”. He too remembers the innocence and the ordinariness of Belfast before the wars.

There are ghosts in Morrison’s novel and ghosts in the realness of what happened here.

The long peace hasn’t exorcised the memories of the long wars.

Morrison describes ghosts that broke health and minds. And, there is a line he uses as Angela breaks-up with John.

“The truth would have wounded him even more.”

Think about that sentence and those words, not in terms of broken love, but broken bodies – the brokenness of conflict and the past.

Will ugly-truths make things better or worse?

Books – fiction and fact – written by many, including Morrison and Smith, give us an insight into not only what happened, but why it happened.

There is much reading and learning between their lines.

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April 11, 2015 by  

z2808n6“The twentieth century produced the greatest hopes for mankind,” writes Slavko Goldstein, in this informative but depressing memoir, 1941 – The Year That Keeps Returning. “It became the graveyard of great ideals. It taught us that ideals are most often a seductive chimera and that doubt is not a fatal weakness but a necessary defense against fatal beliefs.”

Goldstein gives a detailed account of life in Croatia during WWII and the fate of the Jews and Serbian Orthodox Christians at the hands of the Ustasha fascists who seized power and established, with Hitler and Mussolini’s blessing, the Independent State of Croatia. Goldstein’s father and many of his family members were murdered during the war and young Goldstein and his mother fought with the Partisans led by Tito. (The Partisans and the National Liberation Army were the only army in which Croats and Serbs were on the same side of the battle front.)

Tito’s ‘unification’ of Yugoslavia (‘Brotherhood and Unity) did temper local hatreds but also led to the suppression of freedom. Disillusioned, Goldstein immigrated to Israel before returning to Croatia. He had no time for the “fetishism of the state and a fetishism of the nation” and recalls Einstein’s famous claim that it is more difficult to break human prejudices than to break the atom.

“We were mature enough to resist evil, but we were not mature enough to crown our victory humanely. Like many military victories in history, ours did not remain untainted either.”

This comment, in particular, refers to the slaughter (“an orgy of vengeful wrath”) by the Partisans of Ustasha forces, their families, sympathisers, and those ‘mistaken’ as collaborators, 70,000 in total, who attempted to flee into Austria and surrender to the Allies but were refused access. The aftermath of the ‘Bleiburg repatriations’ and ‘the Way of the Cross’, as their surrender and return and massacre came to be called, remains a taboo topic and a huge challenge to Croatia/Serbian society on how to deal with the past.

‘Way of the Cross’, says Goldstein, “is an apt metaphor for the tortuous, several-hundred-mile-long march of starving and thirsty prisoners, many of whom could not withstand the torment and were killed.”

The past haunts the present not just in Croatia, Serbia, Bosnia, but, as we know only too well, in Ireland.

“Although some years later the Germans, with some self-satisfaction, created the word Vergangenheitsbewältigung (overcoming the past), I fear that they still haven’t fully confronted this past, even less so in the case of our eastern neighbours and here in Croatia. Hidden diseases still fester, the most stubborn roots of which lie in 1941, even if the years that came before and after aren’t guiltless either,” says the author.

And, of course, 1941 did return again in 1991 with the break-up of Yugoslavia, with the fall of communism, and a bloody civil war over contested territories, particularly in eastern Croatia.

bookshopGoldstein’s father, a bookseller, was arrested with other intellectuals and held in Zagreb Jail before being taken away and killed in some dark, unknown place. From prison he wrote to his son: “It is better to bear an injustice than to commit one.” They knew that he had been taken from the prison because a railway worker, again at great risk to himself, found a piece of rolled-up paper lying beside the track and bravely brought it to Goldstein. It had been thrown from the train and said, “I would be grateful if any honest passer-by would deliver this note to my wife.” It had her address written on it and a message that they were being transported to Lika (and to their deaths).

“I have not written the word ‘bravely’ by accident,” says Goldstein. “At that time, compassion and honesty were not enough for a person to take a prisoner’s randomly thrown letter so promptly to an unknown addressee, the prisoner’s wife. Indeed, the man must have possessed courage.”

This war was intimate, Croat Catholic neighbour against Orthodox Christian Serb, with thousands of incidents of cruelty and fewer acts of kindness and help involving great risk. One wonders if society can overcome such a bloody past. Goldstein was grateful to the Starešinić family who had taken over their dispossessed shop but who defied the anti-Jewish Ustasha laws and kept their property safe.

In one Ustasha massacre the militia raided a small village and took away 83 people, only six of whom were men. The rest were women and children (ten of whom were younger than five years old). They were tied together in groups of eight, shot and thrown into a deep cavern. One victim, a young woman, wounded, and lying among the dead, managed to drag herself out of the cavern and, “completely distraught, ran into Luk Miškulin, a resident of Boričevac and the father of two of the Ustasha who had participated in the killing. He revived her with some water and food and guided her on the road to her people, evading the Ustasha guards and patrols along the way.”

Croatia was also occupied in part by Italian soldiers who when quartered with Jewish families were kind and sympathetic. Yet Goldstein witnessed Italian soldiers robbing and setting fire to houses in two little villages – to the last house, the last barn, the last hayloft.

He wondered: “Were the men committing this evil – looting, robbing, burning, leaving only desolation in their wake, and taking 1,100 innocent villagers away to internment – the same good-natured, cheerful soldiers who softly sang “Mama son’ tanto felice” on the Karlovac promenade and played the melody of the “Chorus of the Hebrew Slaves” from Nabucco in front of Lopašić’s monument, and the same polite officers who brought sweets to the children of their landlords and saved those in danger?”

Yet, other Italian commanders adopted and cared for Serbian children who had been orphaned by the Ustasha massacres and some sheltered Jews in the northern Croatian coastal regions and Dalmatia despite demands from the Ustasha authorities and Nazi representatives to hand them over.

In the Ustasha death camp of Jasenovac a prisoner asked the camp commander whether he feared God’s punishment for the godless acts he was committing, to which the commander responded: “Say nothing to me. I know I will burn in hell for what I have done and for what I will do. But I will burn for Croatia.”

It is difficult to imagine a more descriptive characterisation of the fanaticism of hatred, says Goldstein.

It took me a long time to finish this book and not because it is 600 pages long but because I found it depressing yet compelling. I had to repeatedly put it down, only to pick it up again.

There were two villages, one Croat, one Serb, where at the beginning of the twentieth century neighbour would help neighbour restore a house, build a road. Then came 1941. Over the years, relations were being somewhat restored. Then came 1991.

Today old acquaintances pass by each other without a greeting. “Other people would greet each other coldly, but it was rare that anyone would stop and ask an old friend, ‘How are you? How are the wife and children?’”

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‘A sense of people and place’

April 8, 2015 by  

1969The political and cultural commentator Alan Meban has just reviewed my novel West Belfast on the Slugger O’Toole website. Here it is:

I grew up hearing Danny Morrison’s name on the radio at breakfast time as Sinn Féin’s Director of Publicity. More recently I’ve known him as chair of Féile an Phobail and spotted his attendance at many of the festival’s events in St Mary’s and the annual West Belfast Talks Back debate. But I’d never realised he was an author until his book (re)launch earlier this year at the end of January.

Spread over a decade, West Belfast is a coming of age story of John O’Neill growing up around the Falls against the backdrop of the civil rights movement, heightening tensions and the start of the Troubles. As well as watching John fall in love, move jobs, and explore the world, readers follow John as he deals with his inner tension, at first distancing himself from what was going on in his community before deciding to become involved.

“A strange sort of a fella … I used to think he couldn’t open his mouth. Very quiet. But he’s grown up now … Good looking and kind. Maybe a bit too serious.”

That’s how John’s girlfriend Angela described him early on in their relationship. It’s the age of Saturday night dances and cozying up to the sound of the Beatles.

After his first experiences of discrimination in a low wage job at an Ormeau Road engineering firm, John got work as a galley-boy on ships out of Belfast, before shifting to bigger trans-Atlantic vessels and becoming a trade union official. Returning to Belfast between crossings, John noticed the changes in his area:

“They were no longer the British Army but were now called “the Brits”. Confrontations were regular and people complained that the soldiers were worse than the RUC, assaulting young people and firing tear gas into streets at any pretext.

John began smuggling weapons from Montreal back to Liverpool and onto Belfast, and quickly became more involved with the IRA.

While the story is told through a republican lens, the novel doesn’t overly glorify violence or set the IRA up as heroes. Instead the author finds humanity and dignity in unexpected places and allows for the complexity of characters’ motives adapting as the situation around them changes.

The book describes a familiar slip from innocence into activism, personal tragedy, and portrays the chaos of fast-moving events like the Divis Street riots. The chapter that relives the experience of “The Hooded Men”, tortured and thrown out of an army helicopter that the men didn’t know was hovering just above the ground, is a gruelling read.

Angela’s tale is gentler and provides a good counterbalance to John’s descent into violence. Yet her life too is affected by the changing vibe in Belfast and necessitates a rapid flit to England before eventually returning home to be reacquainted with old friends.

Early on the text is thick with landmarks and street names, nearly trying too hard to root the narrative in its real location. The storytelling adopts a mixture of styles and the plot switches between characters, even spending a chapter inside the mind of an IRA sniper at work.

It was a couple of years before Danny Morrison told anyone that he’d started to write a novel. Soon after West Belfast was published in 1989 he was arrested and imprisoned. (The conviction was overturned in 2008.) “He wasn’t around to do much publicity,” novelist and playwright Ronan Bennett explained at the launch of the novel’s new 2015 edition.

Originally typed up on his 512k Amstrad computer, when Danny came back to republish his first novel it didn’t exist in digital format. So he scanned it in, fixed the spellings, and realised that back in the 1980s he had often used three words rather than one. So, although this latest edition has the same story, same characters, the same beginning, middle and end, the text has been tightened up and apparently some of the more embarrassing sex scenes have been removed.

While not strictly history, Danny Morrison’s novel captures the spirit and some of the events of a time not long before I was born. At times an uncomfortable read, over two hundred pages it develops a sense of people and place that will long stick in my mind. If you’re looking for a book that clearly identifies the goodies and the baddies, move along the shelf. But if you’re keen to explore the complexity of conflict and how it shapes lives, West Belfast opens an insider’s window into Irish republicanism.

West Belfast is published by Elsinor Press, priced £10 and available from Amazon, Sinn Féin’s Falls Road bookshop or direct the author’s website.


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