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Reflections on WWI

November 13, 2015 by  

In Cork on Wednesday night – 11th November – I was proud to be invited to speak at the launch in the City Library of Conal Creedon’s biography of Michael O’Leary, a Victoria Cross recipient from County Cork. Conal had also asked me would I write the Foreword to the book and I said I would.

In writing it I was forced to think about all those from Ireland (including my relations) who fought believing that their sacrifice was for the freedom of small nations.

So, here it is. The book The Immortal Deed of Michael O’Leary is published by Cork City Libraries/Leabharlanna Cathrach Chorcaí.


You can almost feel Conal Creedon’s frisson of excitement at his serendipitous find of an old shoe box containing letters and handwritten speeches by Michael O’Leary, the World War I Irish soldier and Victoria Cross-recipient to whose life and times Conal has become compulsively drawn, through family connections and with the forensic curiosity of a writer beholding the artefacts of a man’s history.

I know that feeling of privilege, having once been given a diary, photographs and love letters written by a young Canadian soldier, my wife Leslie’s great Uncle Bob Conklin. His aura infused every page and ink-written sentence, especially his vows of love to his sweetheart Isobel Howes whom he planned to marry. I held in my hand and read the telegram his mother received from the Director of Records regretting to inform her that on the 29th August, 1918, Bob died of gunshot wounds, sustained at the Battle of Arras. It arrived on 6 September, the day on which Bob would have been 21, just five weeks before Germany sent out her first peace note.

Eerily, because of the delay of mail from the Front, the Conklin family kept receiving letters from Bob after they learnt of his death: “Give my love to all and don’t worry on my account”; “Someday I’ll be able to say what I would like to, I think, if all goes well, and then there won’t be any need to close as follows. Well, my news is finished, so I’ll ring off. I will write mother in a few days. Love to all. Bob.”

Conal’s quest to discover the spiritual DNA of Michael O’Leary is an excursion through beautiful Iveleary-Inchigeelagh in West Cork, its folk and folklore, its mysteries, myths and truths, and the omnipresence of history in our lives. The distant past is actually in touching distance, if you think about it. Michael O’Leary was born in 1888. Seems a long time ago. But my Granny White was born in 1884 and knew people who survived the Famine.

Iveleary-Inchigeela, where Michael O’Leary was born, had a tradition of soldiering going back centuries and – until World War I – the stigma attached to those Irish who “took the Queen’s shilling”, as the pejorative expression goes, was fairly muted because the breadwinner of so many hungry families throughout the length and breadth of Ireland either became dependent on this source of revenue to survive or had to emigrate, with or without loved ones.

O’Leary himself hailed from the rural poor and was reared by his grandmother on a few acres, and so deprivation, along with John Redmond’s powerful rhetoric invoking guilt, duty and reward, explain his decision to voluntarily join the British Army.

It is true that down the centuries Irishmen took up arms in military conflicts in Europe and the Americas, sometimes as mercenaries. But I don’t believe that Irish people are predisposed to belligerency any more than any other people. But the myth of the ‘Fighting Irish’ persists, and I have read claims that Irish warriors invaded Greece with King Darius, served the Pharaohs, acted as body guards for Cleopatra, and crossed the Alps with Hannibal!

Robert Graves (who wrote a fine, revelatory and shocking memoir about his experiences in WWI, Goodbye To All That) immortalised this Irish military tradition in his novel Sergeant Lamb of the Ninth, based on the journals of the real life figure of Dublin-born Roger Lamb who as an infantryman in the British Army’s Welsh Fusiliers went off to suppress the American Revolution and was eventually taken prisoner.

But it was General Robert E. Lee, leader of the Confederate Army of Northern Virginia during the American Civil War who, as far as I can see, invented the nickname “the Fighting Irish” in response to the bravery of The Fighting 69th (the Irish Brigade), formed in New York from Irish immigrants.

It shouldn’t come as a surprise, then, that given the prevalence of this military tradition, if not a stoic acceptance of its persistence, that nationalism and republicanism would attempt to recruit those Irish in the British Army and exploit their expertise.

Irish history is littered with examples of soldiers and former soldiers putting to use their military training in the service of Irish freedom. The Fenians had 15,000 men in the British Army, 8,000 in Ireland alone, making nearly a third of the 25,000 troops stationed here. IRA men like Tom Barry and Emmet Dalton were former soldiers. In 1921 Sean Murray, ex-Sergeant Major of the Irish Guards Regiment (O’Leary’s old regiment), was the training officer for the IRA Volunteers in Iveleary.

The IRA during the War of Independence had infiltrated Dublin Castle with its spies (in an ironic reversal for Britain, used to being the spymaster) and had, of course, many allies in the Royal Irish Constabulary providing it with information and intelligence.

Even in more recent times the IRA was quick to recruit ex-soldiers for their military know-how. Former paratrooper Paul Marlowe trained the IRA in 1969, became an IRA member and was subsequently killed on an IRA operation. In 1971 after the introduction of internment the Catholic Ex-Servicemen’s Association, which claimed a membership of several thousand, was set up in Belfast and other nationalist areas with the stated aim of using their former British Army training to protect their neighbourhoods from attack.

(Incidentally, the first soldier to be killed in the North during the Troubles was Trooper Hugh McCabe, shot dead by the RUC, while defending the Falls Road in August 1969 when he was home on leave from the British Army.)

Ireland was not the only colony to supply Britain with military might. The cannon fodder came from all continents, all colonies, and they sacrificed themselves in all theatres of war without their sacrifices translating into freedom for their nations, big or small.

Why? Why did the Irish fight and die in such large numbers?

One quarter of a million Irishmen (including the UVF’s 36th Ulster Division) marched to war under the British banner. Among them was Michael O’Leary, and 4,000 young men from Cork City and County who were to lose their lives.

Think about that: one quarter of a million Irishmen. The nationalist contingent of the Irish Volunteers, a majority of whom had sided with John Redmond, were led to believe by the leader of the Irish Parliamentary Party that in fighting for the freedom of small nations such as Belgium they were advancing and securing Irish claims to Home Rule. Factor in the dependents of these men and the many other Irish people working in war-related service industries and you get a sense of the national involvement, indeed the mass political investment in that war; the mass trust in Britain keeping its promise regarding Home Rule. And you also get a sense of the mass disillusionment (if not shame, but certainly deep and bitter regret) that would follow in the wake of Britain reneging on its promises.

From the unionist point-of-view, their men fought to prevent Home Rule and to maintain the union with Britain for all thirty-two counties or, failing that, for Ulster’s nine counties.

While Carson unionist and Redmond nationalist were away at the Front, the Irish Republican Brotherhood struck at home and at Easter 1916 declared a Republic. The Rising was brutally suppressed – how else could an imperial power react to such audacity.

As Yeats put it, dramatically, succinctly: “All changed, changed utterly.”

The writer, Tom Kettle, who was to be killed in September 1916, was appalled by the actions of Pearse and Connolly, denouncing the Rising as madness. Yet after the murder of his brother-in-law, the pacifist Francis Sheehy-Skeffington, and the executions of the republican leaders, Kettle knew his own position with the British Army at the Somme had lost whatever validity it initially had.

That huge disparity in numbers between, for example, those who fought and died in Dublin during the 1916 Rising (318 rebel and civilian fatalities) and those Irish who died during the disastrous eight-month siege of Gallipoli (2,800) inspired Canon Charles O’Neill, the parish priest of Kilcoo, County Down, to write The Foggy Dew whose lyrics contain these bitter, haunting lines:

‘Twas far better to die ‘neath an Irish sky
Than at Suvla or Sud el Bar

Britain’s betrayal of the estimated 35-50,000 Irish who died (the true figure is unknowable), undermined and destroyed Redmond’s Parliamentary Party which became quickly supplanted by Sinn Féin. Britain’s betrayal shattered and overshadowed the lives of returning war veterans who faced public apathy and animosity in a land experiencing a political revolution.

Support for the republican cause was confirmed by the massive increase in support for Sinn Féin in the December 1918 general election, with 73 elected out of 105 TDs. The suppression Dáil Éireann coincided with the rise of the Irish Republican Army, the War of Independence, Partition and Civil War – the ramifications of which are still with us today.

A new narrative was being written, in Irish blood for Irish freedom, and not for the Empire. The story of the returnees, about what they had endured and sacrificed, the loss of comrades, the bloodshed at the Front hundreds of miles from home, was totally eclipsed by a new reality – raids by the Auxiliaries, the Black and Tans, the British Army, the murders and harassment of the civilian population, Collins’ guerrilla war and the activities of Flying Columns, most famously in West Cork.

Though many ex-servicemen would be shot as spies, and some, like Barry would take their military skills into the fledgling IRA, Conal makes the point that a soldier of valour like Michael O’Leary was free to come and go in rebel Cork where he was held in great respect.

My own grandfather, Granda Jimmy Morrison, from the Falls Road, joined the Royal Flying Corps (later known as the RAF) in 1917 and worked as part of the ground crew. I have no information to suggest that he was ever cold-shouldered in West Belfast after he was demobilised. What I do know was that shortly after his return he was arrested and charged with raising funds for the IRA. He defended himself, was acquitted, went south and joined the National (Free State) Army, deserted, returned to the North (where his 11-year-old brother was killed by a British army lorry in 1922, at the time of partition), and married my grandmother Ellen Pyper.

When the 1939 war broke out he re-joined the RAF and was based in Malta during the Luftwaffe bombardment. Towards the end of WWII my father joined the RAF for a short time and was trained in an aerodrome called Long Kesh (where I would be ‘based’ as a republican internee two decades later!).

I am also aware that my maternal grandfather, Granda Billy White, would not let his own brother Paddy cross the door of his Falls Road home when he returned from WWI. Paddy was told: “Come back when you have taken that uniform off and then you can come in!”

I cannot be sure if there were different attitudes in ‘the North’ (which had yet to be established as the ‘Northern Ireland’ state) than in ‘the South’ towards the returnees. Perhaps, there was a greater forgiveness or generosity or dependence in the North, particularly in Belfast, from nationalists who feared for their safety and would require the skills of these veterans in the event of a crisis (which is what did happen).

Unionists, on the other hand, after 1918, scented victory. It dawned on them that the reality of a Catholic-Protestant, evenly-divided Ulster, temporarily opting out of Home Rule, didn’t give them the monopoly on power which they wanted. The Ulster Unionist Party would subsequently ditch its brethren in Donegal, Cavan and Monaghan in return for ‘a Protestant Parliament for a Protestant People’ in the six counties. Those in the 36th Ulster Division could take pride in their war and what they had achieved. They made the wearing of the poppy synonymous with their cause, thus creating a barrier for nationalists had they wanted to honour their war dead.

Irish people were not the only ones fooled by British promises. In 1914 India was in a state of growing political unrest and the National Congress was seeking independence. Encouraged to believe that the cause of independence, or at least self-government, would be served by fighting for Britain, Indians flocked to the war. But they too were badly let down. It was to be 1947 before India was granted independence (which included the partitioning of the subcontinent).

In the Middle East, in 1916, Britain promised the Arabs (including those in Palestine) “complete and final liberation” if they would rise up against the Turks. After the war Britain reneged on its pledges, drew borders here and there and partitioned the region regardless of the wishes of the local inhabitants.

The Palestinians are still waiting for their independence.

One hundred years distant from these events we who honour Ireland’s patriot dead should feel able to acknowledge the selflessness and patriotism of those thousands of Irish men and women who participated in World War I. They were quite innocent – they were not to know that their victory would be turned into their defeat. Clearly, they were brave and selfless men.

The difficulty, of course, is to separate commemoration and memory of the war dead from support for the British administration in Ireland or the cause of British military adventurism today. Recently, a former Fine Gael Taoiseach, John Bruton, even argued that 1916 was “a mistake”, shouldn’t have happened, and that because Home Rule was on the statute book (albeit suspended for the duration of the war), a Rising was unnecessary.

Some revisionists put up obstacles to republican participation in the act of remembrance through the invective they use. Some seek to create a sense of public guilt. By exploiting the war dead and war veterans, by making often disparaging comparisons between the warfare and sacrifices of those Irish who fought against the British in Ireland and those who fought with the British abroad, they seek to subtly, or explicitly, demonise the IRA, almost a return to the days when captured prisoners Pearse and Connolly were spat on as they were marched through the streets of Dublin.

In the view of these revisionists/partitionists the IRA’s War of Independence should be rejected, its heroes tarnished (and in the process the cause of Irish reunification). Undoubtedly, some of this is related to their discomfort with obvious parallels between the aims, objectives and modus operandi of the IRA during the War of Independence and the IRA’s armed campaign in the North from 1970 until the ceasefire.

We heard similar commentary in 2001 at the re-interment of Kevin Barry and nine other IRA Volunteers in Glasnevin Cemetery, men who had been court-martialled and executed by British forces in 1920–1921.

“Why could they not be exhumed and reburied in private?” asked the Sunday Times. The funerals, wrote Fintan O’Toole in the Irish Times, will offer “a great boost to those who want us to feel that the only difference between a terrorist and a patriot is the passage of time.” Kevin Myers, also in the Irish Times, complained that the event was all about reaffirming “a single narrative of suffering and sacrifice.”

Such commentators would have Ireland feel guilty about its past, without begging the same moral question of Britain about its disastrous role in Irish affairs. The funerals, they said, “are sending a dangerous signal to impressionable young people” and “will be widely and dangerously misunderstood”. What they actually meant was that “the people are stupid and we have to save them from themselves.”

It was nonsense to suggest that the reburials made Irish people retrospective conspirators to shootings and bombings, or that it legitimised the most recent IRA campaign, or acted as a recruiting sergeant for the IRA. If you were to ask any ex-republican prisoner or former IRA Volunteer to name who influenced their decision the most to join the IRA, the answer would not be Kevin Barry but would be, “a British soldier.”

I decide for myself how to honour those republicans who fought and died for Ireland. I decide for myself how to honour and do justice to those who fought in WWI believing they were fighting for the freedom of small nations, and those who fought fascism during WWII.

Last year in Malta I visited the Siege Bell Memorial overlooking the Great Harbour of Valletta which was erected to honour the 7000 people who were killed during the German bombardment. On a sunny afternoon I sat alone at a table on a small street café, bought a local beer, a type that my Granda might have liked, and toasted the life of one who took part in two wars only to die from emphysema at the age of 61, the age I am now.

Ten years ago my wife and I, her mother Sheila, her sister Wendy and brother-in-law Terry took the road out of Paris, driving for several hours up the A1, past the road to the Somme. We left the main road and went through Arras and out into the expanse of open countryside.

We turned off for the village of Ligny-St Flochel. There, the old church appeared to have tilted from the plumb, its limestone spire pock-marked as if by shells or gunfire, leaving nooks in which bickering crows were nesting. We took a fork to the left and after a few kilometres came upon a small, neatly kept cemetery of almost seven hundred graves. The day was bright but the wind was cold and cutting, leaving us sniffling as we buttoned up our coats.

We had the number of the grave – Plot II, Row F, Number 22 – and it took only a few minutes to find.

Two photographs were found on Bob Conklin when he was killed. Again, I remember holding these precious photographs which had sat next to his heart. One was of his mother and his sisters Dorothy and Isabel feeding some chicks, taken in June 1918 on holiday on the shores of Lake Ontario. The other was of Isobel Howes and on the back of the photo she had written: “How do you like my ‘wedding clothes’? In 1919, Isobel, broken-hearted since Bob’s death a few months earlier, died in the Spanish influenza epidemic that swept Europe after the war.

Wendy bent down and sprinkled over the small plot some earth she had brought from the grave of Bob’s mother and father in Toronto and took a little from Bob’s grave to bring back to Canada. Leslie buried beneath the soil a copy of the photograph of Isobel Howes in her ‘wedding clothes’ that had survived his shooting. Reunited symbolically.

Sheila was unable to speak. Here she was at the grave of her own mother’s adored brother – the first members of Bob’s family ever to visit Ligny-St Flochel. Terry, noticed a metal casket in a nearby wall. It contained weather-proofed notebooks detailing the names, ages and regiments of all the soldiers buried there who had died in trenches or crossing no man’s land in 1918. Another was for comments from visitors.

The date was 26 March 2004 and Wendy entered into the notebook the simple message: “Sorry it took us so long to get here…Thanks.”

And that is what Conal Creedon has done with this book which is really dedicated to the volunteers who risked everything, who suffered physical and psychological wounds, who were ‘forgotten’. It is to those 50,000 who died, and to Michael O’Leary and his comrades who fought for Ireland at the Somme, Guillemont, Ginchy, Messines, Salonika, Gallipoli, Basra and Gaza.

“Sorry it took us so long to get here…Thanks.”

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The Last Jews in Berlin

October 25, 2015 by  

Back endI read this book, The Last Jews In Berlin, whilst staying at a writers’ residential at Wannsee lake within view of Haus der Wannsee-Konferenz, the villa where in 1942 the Nazis planned the extermination of European Jewry. In fact, when I finished the book I cycled over to the villa, my second visit in thirteen months, and am pleased to say that seventy years after that unconscionable event visitors, especially German schoolchildren, throng to the house, now a museum, to learn about the meaning of evil. Before going to Berlin I met 94-year-old Erna de Vries, a concentration camp survivor, who was speaking at the same series of talks to students in northern Germany as myself.

Leonard Gross, a journalist, was not the original writer of this book about those 4,000 who remained in Berlin after 1943 (when Goebbels ordered the arrest of the remaining Jews) and who were hidden by ordinary Germans, Gentiles, who risked execution if they were caught harbouring them.

The book was begun in 1967 by Eric Lasher who advertised in a Jewish community newspaper published in Berlin, and who received eighteen replies from both men and women. But Lasher was unable to finish the book, one reason being that he found the material so upsetting that he developed a stammer. And so, it was Gross who finished it in 1981.

When Hitler seized power in 1933 there were 160,000 Jews living in what was then the politically liberal Berlin. Many emigrated as the situation deteriorated; others committed suicide, many were disappeared and murdered; and some went into hiding.

This powerful book tells the story of twelve of those who were in hiding, were on-the-run, only a few hundred of whom survived, and what a spine-chilling story it is. Goebbels complained that in the final major round-up they had missed about 4,000 Jews because some of their employers forewarned them.

Wilhelm Glaser was one of the most daring escapees of the lot. He came home one night to find two hefty Gestapo waiting in his apartment. Wilhelm thought: “If God is on my side, something has to happen now. Once I’m in the car, I have no chance.” So, he pushed one of the men aside, bolted down the stairs, then threw his suitcase at the other one chasing him, and got out the door before they could open fire. Some months later he was caught and arrested but whilst awaiting transportation to Auschwitz he escaped again.

The resistance portrayed in the book is not that of sabotage, political assassination or guerrilla actions but defensive work – mostly attempts to save the lives of endangered persons, Jews and political dissidents.

The very wealthy Countess von Maltzan emerges as one of the great heroes of the war. She worked in cooperation with the Swedish Church in Berlin to provide a safe haven for Jews, deserters and forced labourers. She eventually married one of those she was hiding, the author, Hans Hirschel, but they divorced after two years. However, they remarried in 1972, and Hans died in 1975.

After the war, and probably as a result of PTSD, she experienced major breakdowns and became a drug addict. But in 1981 she opened her own veterinary practice in Berlin, often treating sick animals for free and worked to improve of the living conditions of immigrants.

In 1986 Israel named her as a Righteous Among The Nations, an award given to non-Jews who risked their lives to save Jews from extermination.

Incredibly, one Jewish woman managed to stay free because she was helped by a childhood friend, the sister of Horst Wessel, the extreme Nazi, assassinated by two communists, who wrote the Nazi Party’s official song and the secondary anthem of the Third Reich. Other stories tell of sympathetic policemen who supplied food to Jews in hiding, and even in one case that about a Gestapo agent who helped a woman in hiding maintain her secret.

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‘I Am A German’

September 22, 2015 by  

A StrangerA Stranger in My Own Country: The 1944 Prison Diary by Hans Fallada has been described as, ‘An outspoken memoir of life under the Nazis written from a prison cell’ (Independent), but which has also been viewed as an apologia because Fallada decided to live in Nazi Germany instead of leaving as had many other artists. He was in an institution for the criminally insane, the asylum at Strelitz, after discharging a weapon when having an argument with his estranged wife Anna with whom he was still living. In prison he secretly wrote this diary in tiny writing on the manuscript of another work-in-progress, his novel The Drinker. Initially, he shared a cramped cell with ‘a schizophrenic murderer, a mentally deficient and castrated sex offender and another mental defective locked up for attempted rape and murder.’

The book was edited by Jenny Williams and Sabine Lange and translated by Allan Blunden.

Fallada emphasises that he loves Germany: ‘I am a German, I say it today with pride and sorrow still, I love Germany, I would not want to live and work anywhere else in the world except Germany. I probably couldn’t do it anywhere else. What kind of a German would I be if I had slunk away to a life of ease in my country’s hour of affliction and ignominy?’

Re the pronunciation of his surname.

He is approached by some Brown Shirts: “‘Are you Fallada?’ one of them asked. Except that the speaker didn’t say ‘Fállada’ with the stress on the first syllable, which I prefer, because it sounds a bit like a triumphant blast on the trumpet; instead he pronounced it ‘Falláda’, which always sounds like someone who’s about to trip over and fall flat on his face.’

On German Jews:
‘And then came the time when the new regime seized power, and everything changed. Now Paulchen and Leopold Ullstein were always in a huddle, they always had something to discuss, and whenever somebody else came into the room they stopped talking. They were the Jews, and we were the gentiles, they belonged together, and we were the outsiders. During those weeks I came to understand that in the hour of danger a Jew feels closer to another Jew, however much they disagree and differ, than to his truest friend of non-Jewish blood. I realized that the Jews themselves are the ones who have erected this barrier between themselves and other nations, which we refused to believe when the Nazis claimed as much; and that it is the Jews themselves who feel the difference in blood, and insist on it, when we had always smiled at the notion. This realization did not make me an anti-Semite. But I did come to see the Jews in a different light. I’m sorry, but that’s just how it is. I really hate to say it: but I can’t alter the fact.’

On those exiles who attack he and his like for staying on:
‘I’m sure it was all very fine to be sitting in Paris or Prague and exhorting us German writers to engage in active resistance against the Nazis: ‘Refuse to obey them! Sabotage their initiatives! Call the people to arms! The fate of Europe lies in your hands, you are the spirit and soul of Europe!’ And so on – there was plenty more of this tripe, written from some safe haven. It all sounded fine and dandy, as I say, but to commit suicide cheered on by a bunch of émigrés did seem somewhat pointless to me.’

On writing Wolf Among Wolves:
‘But then I wrote Wolf among Wolves, fired by the old fervour again, I wrote without looking up from the desk, I wrote without looking to left or to right. This was a story, and these were characters, that absorbed all my attention for months!

‘…. Following a long period of complete despondency and creative drought, I had written this long novel in one go; the passion for writing, the rush I get from creating characters and developing them, seem to be indestructible in me.’

A true story that makes its way into Alone In Berlin:
‘The former party comrade was disappointed, and fixed him with a steady gaze: so much for loyalty to the cause! To hell with them all, then! He hesitated a moment, they were about to part, and then he said: ‘Well look, we can still be friends – you go your way and I’ll go mine! But could you do me a favour? I’ve got this great heavy suitcase here. I’ll be back in Berlin in two days, and I’ll pick it up from you then. Could you hang on to it for me until then?’ And Sas, always friendly and ready to oblige, took the suitcase, carried it home, put it down somewhere and forgot about it. Weeks went by, and he suddenly noticed the suitcase again because it was in the way. ‘Well fancy that!, he thought. ‘The good comrade didn’t come back for it in the end – maybe the old fox has been snared by his enemies after all?’ The suitcase really was in the way, and so he put it up in the attic. Then he forgot about it completely.’

…‘And then one day he was arrested without warning; his former comrade had indeed been caught, and now the wretched man had named no fewer than thirty-five people, men, women and girls…

‘The suitcase was discovered, inside was a portable printing press, which had been used to produce Communist pamphlets. A few printed copies were also in the case. But even now all was not lost, the evidence against him was not that damning – despite having been denounced by his former party comrade…’

More on the exiles:
‘And meanwhile these fools are sitting comfortably abroad, not in any kind of danger, denouncing us as opportunists, as Nazi hirelings – blaming us for being weak, for doing nothing, for failing to resist! But we have stuck it out, and they have not; we have lived with fear every single day, and they have not; we have done our work, tilled our acre of land, brought up our children, our lives constantly under threat, and we have spoken a word here, a word there, giving each other strength and support, we have endured, even though we were often afraid – and they have not!’

On lending money:
‘In short, we learned the truth of the saying that the quickest way to lose friends is to lend them money.’

Funny anecdote: ‘A farmer who had had too much to drink told people in the pub that he had a cow in his shed that looked just like Adolf Hitler. The farmer was taken to court and given a lengthy prison sentence.’

Defeat of Hitler:
‘I wanted the Nazis to be defeated, and the sooner the better. Under no circumstances did I want Germany to become the dominant power in Europe.’

‘Inward migration’ – editor’s note:
“This defamation of German émigré authors, which serves first and foremost to justify Fallada’s own decision to remain in Germany, contains the central argument of ‘inward emigration’, which was wheeled out after 1945 in the increasingly bitter argument between ‘those who had stayed behind’ and the ‘émigrés’. So for example Frank Thiess (1890– 1977), who famously clashed with Thomas Mann on the issue, claimed that it had been a great deal harder to live through the ‘German tragedy’ in Germany than to pass comment on it from the ‘boxes and orchestra seats of other countries’.”

“This ‘unpolitical writer’ is here making his first profession of political faith. It is revealing and instructive – but it fails to convince. Fallada is one of that group of artists who did not leave Germany during the Nazi years. So his memoir sets out to justify his actions. With his ‘catalogue of sins’ as a writer he finds himself the target of accusations and reproaches. His account reveals the bitterness and contradictions of those artists who felt they had no choice but to ‘stick it out’ in Germany and do what they could to defend the great German ‘civilized nation’ against the primitive violence of ethnic nationalism and racism. Like Ernst Jünger, Fallada believed that he had shared in the ‘tragedy of his people’. Those who emigrated, fleeing into ‘comfortable’ exile, were ‘slinking away to a life of ease’ in the country’s ‘hour of affliction and ignominy’.”

“The phrase ‘inward emigration’ was coined by Frank Thiess as early as 1933 – he too rejected the idea of German exile from the outset. After 1945 the rift between the émigrés and ‘those who had stayed behind at home’ grew deeper. The claim made by Thiess – that by ‘sticking it out’ in Germany he had acquired a ‘rich store of insights and experiences’ – culminated in the imputation that it had been harder ‘to preserve one’s identity here than to send messages to the German people from over there’. This egregious defamation of German authors in exile elicited an unusually sharp riposte from Thomas Mann. He argued that the literature of ‘inward emigration’ had forfeited any claim to the status of resistance literature. ‘It may be superstition, but in my eyes any books that could be printed at all in Germany between 1933 and 1945 are less than worthless, and not the kind of thing you want to pick up. The smell of blood and infamy clings to them. They should all be pulped.’”

Editor says: Fallada “is compromised by the revised ending to Iron Gustav, rewritten along the lines suggested by Goebbels. Indeed, Fallada found himself having a lot more to do with Goebbels’ Propaganda Ministry than he was comfortable with – as the Prison Diary also attests. So we see the author who was celebrating in ‘Schlichters Wine Bar’ in February 1933 turning up five years later in the Hotel Kaiserhof, where the Nazi state held court, and where Fallada now took part in discussions about a proposed project with the ‘National Actor’ Emil Jannings. The claim of the authors who had ‘stayed behind at home’ that they had opposed the regime, even if their opposition had to be read between the lines of their texts, was dismissed early on by Thomas Mann as a strategy doomed to failure.”

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Power-sharing and Trust

September 22, 2015 by  

I wrote a feature on Eamon Mallie’s website in response to an article by the loyalist Jamie Bryson who came to prominence during ‘the flag protest’. Here it is:

jamie_askaI was interested in Jamie Bryson’s recent feature, titled ‘Power-sharing, a matter of trust!’

Jamie speaks about “the dysfunctional nature of our power-sharing institutions” and that it is this mandatory power-sharing which leads to “mutual distrust”. This is to ignore several major facts, historical and contemporaneous. There is an abundance of quotes from the 1920s through to 1972 when Stormont was prorogued, speeches in Stormont or at the field on the Twelfth, where unionists boasted about not having a Catholic about the place.

“I recommended people not to employ Roman Catholics, who are 99% disloyal,” said Sir Basil Brooke, Prime Minister (1943-1963). “At a meeting in Derry to select candidates for the Corporation Mr. H. McLaughlin [Ulster Unionist Party, speaking in 1946] said that for the past forty-eight years since the foundation of his firm there had been only one Roman Catholic employed – and that was a case of mistaken identity.”

That’s, Jamie, why we needed mandatory and not voluntary fair employment legislation!

When I hear references to the dysfunctional nature of our power-sharing institutions, I think why stop there? Their ‘dysfunctionality’ is actually a product of the artificiality of the six-county state (based on a sectarian headcount, which is why Ulster’s Donegal, Cavan and Monaghan were excluded from the new state – too many Catholics!).

When I hear Jamie talk about the institutions as being “a perversion of democracy”, I think why stop there? Surely when a minority of people, the landed gentry and their officials, were ruling Ireland that was “a perversion of democracy”? Unionism had no problem with a united Ireland when it controlled the reins of power. Ulster unionism gathered apace when the extension of the franchise (that is an increase in democracy) in the late nineteenth century threatened its privileged position. And not only did it oppose majority rule in Ireland when that appeared to being achieved peacefully through the Home Rule Acts, but it threatened civil war, and established an illegal paramilitary army, the UVF, which threatened the will of the British parliament. That’s why I appreciate the irony of Jamie saying there must be no “threat of violence or coercion”. Ah, those change of rules! Those moveable goal posts!

Having said that, let me state my opposition to the armed actions of dissident republicans and my commitment to the use of peaceful means only to achieve my political aspirations.

The Republican Movement was repeatedly assured by successive British governments and sections of unionism that if the armed struggle was ended it would be free to agitate peacefully and through the ballot box for a united Ireland. But now that this is happening it suddenly becomes an attack on “unionist culture” and “our Britishness”. Ah, those change of rules! Those moveable goal posts!

The reason for power-sharing is because when the Ulster Unionist Party had exclusive power it abused it. In other words, because neither it nor the DUP which supplanted it could be trusted, the only form of government acceptable is mandatory power-sharing but one based on power being distributed among parties depending on their electoral strength.

Jamie wants to roll back mandatory coalition to voluntary coalition, which he says is acceptable to unionists. The voting arrangements in Belfast City Hall are along voluntary lines, yet when a voluntary coalition of Alliance, Sinn Féin and the SDLP, comprising a majority, voted to support the flying of the Union Flag on designated days, a wave of protest and violence was unleashed by loyalists demanding the flying of the flag 360 days a year. That’s very inclusive, very reassuring, commands a lot of trust! How does Jamie square that one?

The issue of trust for republicans is also one that goes to the heart of peace-making.

From prison I was in correspondence with the journalist David McKittrick discussing all these issues 25 years ago. David was arguing that the IRA campaign was futile whereas I was arguing that the IRA would not ceasefire unless there was the prospect of transforming the situation and creating real justice and lasting peace. I also said that the IRA would not do that in a vacuum and that, “Calling it off would certainly not lead to reconciliation or positive change in the unionist attitude, which would then be: ‘It was close, but we hung on and beat the bastards in the end.’”

And wasn’t there something of that premature triumphalism from certain loyalist paramilitaries in 1994, although there is none of that triumphalism, only complaint and grievance, today?

I also wrote: “When the time for talking does come and everybody’s talking, republicans will have to address themselves to realpolitik – to come to the crucial issue of the unionists, their identity, their rights, their security, their fears and the institutions they would be prepared to support. That is a huge subject and, obviously, one for negotiation.”

Back then, I was firmly of the opinion that “a six-county British state will always make me feel like the vanquished party”. But I swallowed my pride for the sake of peace and compromised to allow for the sensibilities of unionist people, what some choose to call “their Britishness”, and to trust that unionists were not out to wipe my eye or turn back the clock.

The fact that the state I now live in is not the state I grew up in and that so much has been transformed allows me to identify more closely with all the people here and not just nationalists.

Many unionists, former loyalist prisoners and former members of the RUC and British army have told me they also feel that way – that peace has liberated us from former fundamentalist attitudes.

I trust them.

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The Pigeons of Denshawai

September 18, 2015 by  

I wrote this about ten years ago. It’s still an important story.

Though Tony Blair and George Bush installed the interim Iraqi prime minister it was Winston Churchill who installed the first puppet King of Iraq and whose advisors carved its borders out of Mesopotamia, following Britain’s invasions in 1915 and 1918 as the Ottoman Empire collapsed.

After uprisings against British rule in the Shia holy city of Kerbala and in Basra, it was also Churchill who authorised the use of poison gas against Iraq’s “uncivilised tribes”, as he called them, thus leaving a bitter legacy which Iraqis have never forgotten. It wasn’t until 1932 that Britain gave Iraq notional independence; though twenty years later the monarchy was overthrown to be followed by a series of coups and ultimately the instalment of the West’s ally, Saddam Hussein.

Recently, I was reading George Bernard Shaw’s play, ‘John Bull’s Other Island’ and in the preface to the book I came across another reference to British involvement in the Middle East and an incident in 1906 which Shaw refers to as ‘The Denshawai Horror’.

Now, you will not find too many references to Denshawai in British history books and, I suppose, as an example of colonial cruelty it is, thankfully, at the lower end of the scale. Nevertheless, you can be sure that Arab nationalists and historians in the Middle East, including Iraq, are well aware of the episode. In Egypt there is a famous poem, ‘The Hanging of Zahran’ about the incident, and an Egyptian film, ‘Friend of Life’, based on the poem was directed by Nagui Riad (one of whose films won first prize at the Cork International Film Festival).

Even fifty years after the event the great Egyptian journalist Muhammed Hassanein Heikal used the expression, “the pigeons of Denshawai have come home to roost”, to describe Egypt’s triumph over Britain’s folly in trying to militarily re-take the Suez Canal along with the French in 1956.

Following its naval bombardment of Alexandria and its invasion of the Suez canal in 1882 the British occupation of Egypt began. It was to last for seventy-two years.

Denshawai was a small village in the Nile Delta where the locals supplemented their meagre incomes through pigeon farming. They had previously complained to the authorities about British soldiers shooting their pigeon stock as game and were given to understand that it wouldn’t happen again.

On June 13, 1906, five khaki-clad British officers with guns, an interpreter and a police official, arrived and began shooting the pigeons. The villagers were furious and remonstrated with them. There was a scuffle during which shots from one of the officer’s gun struck five villagers, including the wife of 25-year-old Abd-el-Nebi, who appeared to be fatally wounded. Abd-el’s grain pile in a threshing house was also set alight by the shots.

Abd-el hit the supposed murderer of his wife with a stick, and 60-year-old Hassan Mahfouz, whose pigeons had been killed, also used a stick on the officers. Other villagers threw stones at them. The officers, two Irishmen and three Englishmen, surrendered their weapons, watches and money to appease the villagers but were still pummelled. Two managed to escape. One of these contacted the British army but the other was smitten by sunstroke and died some distance away. Soldiers who found this dead officer beat to death an Egyptian peasant who had come to help the sick man.

Meanwhile, village elders had intervened and saved the soldiers, one of whom had suffered a mere broken wrist, and they were allowed to return to their base. The following day the British army arrived, arrested fifty-two villagers, including Abd-el-Nebi (whose wife had actually survived), Hassan Mahfouz, a man called Darweesh and Zahran (the subject of the poem). A summary trial (the judges were mostly British) was held and Hassan, Darweesh, Zahran and one other man were sentenced to death for ‘murdering’ the soldier who died of sunstroke. Abd-el-Nebi and another were sentenced to penal servitude for life; and twenty-six villagers were given various terms of hard labour and ordered to be flogged. The officers claimed that they had actually been ‘guests’ of the villagers and had done nothing wrong.

Hassan was hanged in front of his wives, children and grandchildren in the full-view of his own house, along with the others, aged 50, 22 and 20.

Had camcorders been available I have no doubt the British would have recorded the executions to press home their message though they would have suppressed the words of Darweesh on the scaffold:

“May God compensate us well for this world of meanness, for this world of injustice, for this world of cruelty.”Densawai

Shaw said that because “they had room for only one man on the gallows, and had to leave him hanging half an hour to make sure [he was dead] and give his family plenty of time to watch him swinging, thus having two hours to kill as well as four men, they kept the entertainment going by flogging eight men with fifty lashes each.”

The House of Commons was later told that “due dignity was observed in carrying out the executions”, “all possible humanity was shown in carrying them out”, and that “the arrangements were admirable, and reflect great credit on all concerned.”

The Egyptian police official who accompanied the soldiers to the village testified in court that after Abd-el’s wife had been shot the officers fired twice on the mob. For his testimony he was stood down, brought before a Court of Discipline and sentenced to two years imprisonment and fifty lashes.

Those in parliament who called into question the Tribunal and its legality were accused of being unpatriotic and of giving succour to “the venal agitators” in Egypt, that is, those who wanted an end to the occupation.

(Déjà vu! On Wednesday in the House of Commons when Tory leader Michael Howard repeatedly demanded an apology from Blair for exaggerating intelligence evidence on Iraq Blair went on to accuse him of failing to back British troops: “It would be more helpful if you would back our troops out in Iraq, rather than doing what you are doing now,” he said.)

Shaw warned then, in a message which resonates even now: “If her [England’s] empire means ruling the world as Denshawai has been ruled in 1906 – and that, I am afraid, is what the Empire does mean to the main body of our aristocratic-military caste and to our Jingo plutocrats – then there can be no more sacred and urgent political duty on earth than the disruption, defeat, and suppression of the Empire, and, incidentally, the humanization of its supporters…”

In a later preface to ‘John Bull’ Shaw wrote, “Nothing was learnt from Denshawai or the Black and Tan terror.”

What Shaw’s story about Denshawai does is remind us that for all the British guff about the unchanging “dreary steeples of Fermanagh and South Tyrone” and our local, allegedly never-ending conflict, there is one thing that truly never changes and that is British imperial arrogance – from Winston Churchill to Tony Blair.

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“No Smoke Without Fire”? Yeh

September 11, 2015 by  

Glenn 2Glenn Bradley is a former British soldier and member of the BHP who now works in various projects about peace and reconciliation. He is also a member of Veterans For Peace UK, a voluntary ex-services organisation of men and women who have served in every war that Britain has fought since WWII.

The following is an interesting story about the arrest of one man. No. Not Bobby Storey, although there is a parallel, but of Glenn himself by the PSNI!


No Smoke without Fire? Yeh, Mike!

When I watched Mike Nesbitt, the leader of the Ulster Unionist Party (of which I used to be a Party Officer) say on television “no smoke without fire” I cringed. Here’s why:

Most will know I am a member of the board of Interaction, an organic inter-community project on the west Belfast “peace-line” dedicated to peace and reconciliation through the process of engagement and outreach.

During June-July 2014 we where asked to host a Q&A session for visiting US and Canadian Political Students visiting Ireland, and so I was selected as part of a panel with other peace architects that included Pat Sheehan former republican Prisoner; John Howcroft former loyalist prisoner and Deirdre Hargey of Sinn Féin to participate. The venue was in Farset on the Springfield Road and in the run up to the event, John, Pat and I, had occasion to communicate by phone and media. In these exchanges the normal banter and humour, based on our shared experience as former combatants, naturally played out.

The event passed of brilliantly and was a positive demonstration of diverse people coming together amicably, discussing our past, our aspirations and our hopes for an evolving society here free from sectarianism & bigotry where all live in conditions of freedom, security and equity.

Over a month after the event in Aug 2014, John was arrested in connection with a shooting incident that had happened during a feud in North Belfast.

Fast forward 6 months to one day during January 2015 when I was attending the funeral of my old electoral running mate in the UUP, Dennie Robinson (Dennis was the son of Buck Alec and like myself was a former soldier who in his day was a member of our brilliant local boxing fraternity in West and North Belfast). My phone kept ringing with an unknown number and because it was ‘unknown’ and the reality I was at a funeral I rejected the call placing the phone on ‘do not disturb’.

Due to professional work commitments I’d to return to the day job after the funeral, and of course put my phone back to normal when I saw there where 6 missed calls from the ‘unknown’ number.

Suddenly my phone rang again and I answered to a chagrined male voice purporting to be a Detective asking me why I hadn’t answered my phone to earlier calls and why was I not at home.

Incredulous and suspicious I challenged the caller that he could be anyone for all I knew, and for him to calmly state what he wanted. The caller again stated he was a Police Officer from Tennant Street PSNI at my home and suggested that it might be better for me to return home so they could explain face to face. I told the caller I was at work and would be there as soon as possible.

Suspicious about the bone fides of the caller I asked a member of staff to accompany me to my house.

As I turned into my street you can imagine my surprise when I saw 14 armed & uniformed police officers (yes, I counted them) staking out my home, and scanning the area for violent intent (in the leafy suburbs of east Belfast).

I parked up and approached the senior officer, a uniformed Inspector explaining who I was. He stated that the detectives had left before my arrival to go to my place of work, and fetch me back to my house. He communicated for them to return.

The inspector explained they where a search team and took me through the procedures (and paperwork) to consent for a house search with regards to looking for firearms and munitions. Laughing at the stupidity of such a suggestion (given my military background) I consented because I’d nothing to hide.

Then two young Detectives arrived, and to my further incredulity formally arrested me for the attempted murder of a North Belfast man who’d been a former loyalist paramilitary.

As this was happening, a uniformed officer came out of my downstairs toilet (which is like a mini museum to my personal past). Looking on me he asked, “Are you a former soldier?”

Call me stupid but I would assume that before police would take a search and arrest warrant to a lay magistrate for signing off, that someone, somewhere, would have looked into who they where about to arrest so I declared, “Yep, and briefly a Peeler also”.Image
Next the Inspector returned and said: “I understand you’ve alleged you’re a former soldier and policeman?”

Pointing at my medals I stated, “Not alleged. I’m a former soldier and my police documents will be in that cabinet there.”

“Do you have guns in this house or outbuildings?”

“No, but I’ve raised two wee lads, there’ll be toy guns lying around somewhere still. My youngest keeps a model kit SA80 in his room but real guns, no.”

“We’ll see.”

I was then led out, with neighbours watching on and whisked away to Musgrave Street by the detectives. En-route I was asked who my solicitor was and gave his name. Within minutes I was feeling embarrassed because he could not deal with criminal matters – how was I to know! Only time I’d ever need of a solicitor in my life was buying a house or signing my passport photos. Thinking on the spot I advised the only other solicitor I knew and trusted Padraig Ó Muirigh whose practice is on the Springfield Road (great Brief by the way – highly recommend!).

On arrival at Musgrave Street, I was additionally arrested for a different named man who was also a former loyalist paramilitary, so now I was ‘inside’ for two attempted murders. I just laughed at the monumental stupidity of it all.

I was processed – a degrading experience for any punter. I was glad of my army experience on which I was digging deep. It’s quite weird being told you can’t take your shoes into your cell in case you attempt suicide: ‘love life, I do’, thought I at the time.

Padraig arrived and we met.

It became apparent that the basis of the house search and my unlawful arrest was based on a wholly innocent and humorous text message to John Howcroft back in July 2014.

I was interviewed and within one hour of that interview was conditionally released. However, the police withheld my phone (which incidentally was not the original phone I had seven months previously, which was verified during interview).

I returned home to enquiring neighbours (some authentic and some just plain nosy); a dishevelled house and a distraught wife. It was heavily embarrassing.

Like most businessmen my phone is my lifeline to the world, and losing it created untold inconvenience. As police continued to deny me the phone it resulted in financial loss as customers unable to reach me went else where for their trade.

After three weeks of holding a phone unrelated to the alleged incident the phone was officially returned, and I was quietly released unconditionally. No fanfare of police officers apologising, no polite, “listen, we were barking up the wrong tree”.

I’d an arrest record for two attempted murders and being a man who travels globally for business that does impact on you because some countries will not issue a visa (as I’ve learned).

Now, someone, somewhere seemed satisfied that a text message written, received and which was an obviously humorous exchange was sufficient evidence to warrant a search & arrest operation due to a suspicion about an unrelated incident over a month after the actual humorous texts where sent.

Someone, somewhere believed that I posed such a risk that the only proportionate procedure open to them was a search and arrest operation involving at least 25 police officers (that I am aware off).

We’d an old saying in the Army: “Tactics are like arseholes: everyone has their own”.

It is my opinion that the PSNI where totally unreasonable in their approach and that the action against me was disproportionate. A more judicious and impartial procedure to the illogical and unfounded suspicion of me would have been to check who I was then simply request I attend a station, to confirm the actual circumstances of the text message about which they were concerned.

Lay magistrate’s are meant to be the gatekeepers to overzealous Police Officers and again I question what the LM, who signed my warrant, was informed about me that deemed a search & arrest operation the only method to eradicate police suspicion.

Unable to afford an unlawful arrest court case against the PSNI, I complained to the Ombudsman. Their initial investigation (by a former RUC man) suggested police procedure was correct and proportionate so I sit here today, a wholly innocent man, looked upon by neighbours, employers and no doubt the likes of Mike Nesbitt as “…. No smoke without fire….” and yet, what happened was simply disproportionate, a waste of police resources and damaging to my good character & integrity.

Sometimes, there are pillions of smoke without fire but the question is: by who and why are they created?

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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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