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January 22, 2017 by  

BACKTwo days after his meeting with communist GDR officials, Hans Herbert Grimm, went home to Altenberg and committed suicide. It was 1950 and Grimm was fifty-four years of age. Grimm, a schoolteacher, had taken part in WWI, and in 1928, anonymously, wrote a semi-biographical novel, Schlump, based on his experiences. Unfortunately, publication of his anti-war novel coincided with, and was overshadowed by the publication sensation of Erich Maria Remarque’s All Quiet On The Western Front.

Schlump can be a very funny book though not as funny as The Good Soldier Švejk by Jaroslav Hašek. Young Schlump (the nickname of the actual character Emil Schulz) volunteers for military service and is initially enthusiastic until he experiences the brutality and inhumanity of the front line and trench warfare, and the poverty and starvation at home when he is wounded and on leave. He curses the Kaiser and the military brass but it is the pacifistic subtext and the debunking of the propagandised myth of courage which the Nazis took exception to in the novel.

In one scene, after Schlump lands a plum office job away from danger, he meets a reservist called Gack who has been assigned to the post. Gack considers himself a bit of a philosopher whereas Schlump considers him ‘a right nutter’.

After a British bomb is dropped on the village marketplace, killing a young pregnant woman, Schlump rails against war and says: ‘This entire war is nothing but the cruellest, vilent slaughter, and if mankind can put up with such an atrocity for years, or stand by and look on, well, it deserves nothing but contempt. But he who fashioned mankind, he ought to be throughly ashamed of himself, for his creation is an utter disgrace!’

Gack thunders at him that he is talking blasphemy and Gack later says: ‘I am here because my captain ordered me here. I will go at once to the trenches, and with joyful heart, if he so commands. But I also know why providence led me to a place where I have a lot of time on my hands. Look, I know that we are going to win the war, and after the war there will be a great united Europe in which the soul of every people will be free to unfold itself. Its leader will be a man with a superhuman soul, a man from our nation, who has suffered more than any other.’

Schlump is flabbergasted ‘at the peculiar madness of Gack the philosopher.’

When the Nazis came to power they publicly burnt many books, including Remarque’s and Grimm’s. It was believed that no copies of Schlump had survived but in 2013 a manuscript of the novel was found hidden inside a wall at Grimm’s home and it was then realised that he had been the author.

Grimm joined the Nazi Party out of a sense of self-preservation and was a language interpreter during WWII. It was a decision for which he would be punished, postwar, when the communist government in Soviet-occupied East Germany banned him from teaching. A friend of his, another teacher, had been interned in Buchenwald (which remained open as a camp) and died there from starvation. Despite former pupils, and the head of the Cultural Department, vouching for him, and that he revealed himself as the author of the anti-fascist Schlump, GDR officials were unimpressed. Grimm was allowed to work in theatre for a time but then he was banned from even that and had to work in a salt mine.

It was two days after he was summoned to a meeting with GDR officials in 1950, about which no record remains and about which he said nothing, that Grimm took his own life, though by what means it is not clear.

In 1928 Hans Herbert Grimm had written, ‘My publisher hopes that one day someone will come along and rediscover Schlump.’

And so it eventually was – in 2014: a century after the awful war it depicts.

20th January. Did four interviews about last night’s announcement that Martin McGuinness will not be standing in the forthcoming Assembly election. First was with Richard Chambers, journalist with Newstalk’s Pat Kenny Show; next, BBC Radio 4 (along with Ian Paisley Jnr MP); then on BBC Talkback with Brian Feeney and Reg Empey; and finally on Radio Foyle after the 1pm news.

10th January. Did an interview with Niall Cullen, a PhD student in Contemporary History at the University of the Basque Country, on the reciprocal influence between Irish republicanism and Basque nationalism.


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Threepenny Novel – Brecht

January 7, 2017 by  

Finished reading and was very disappointed with Bertolt Brecht’s didactic Threepenny Novel, which was written in 1934. Couldn’t engage with it, found little or no redemption although there was some humour.

What I learnt is that in 1934 a soft boiled egg had to be cooked for four-and-a-half minutes!

I also noted this about the philosophy of the character, Peachum: “To swindle other people was, after all, the honest aim of every business man. Only the world was much wickeder than one thought. There seemed to be no limit to evilness. That was Peachum’s deepest conviction, his only one.”

I also liked the poem about

See also my feature, Before The Deluge, for some more about Brecht.

4th January. Gave a presentation to students on Boston’s Northeastern University Honors Program, organised by the indefatigable author and professor, Michael Patrick McDonald.


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Irish Echo on ‘Walls’

December 30, 2016 by  

My interview with the New York-based Irish Echo is now available and can be read here – irish-echo-interview




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‘Walls’ Now On Kindle

December 26, 2016 by  

The Irish Times cultural section carried a feature on Then The Walls Came Down and the US-based Irish Echo also published a Q & A with me on the book. Here they are, with the Irish Times first:

A prison diary made up of love letters

As Then The Walls Came Down is released on Kindle, Danny Morrison explains how he came to ‘write’ it:

H-Block 4, 1994, photograph by BBC TV's Panorama

H-Block 4, 1994, photograph by BBC TV’s Panorama

“Draft Notes for 4th book
Begun 8.20am, Tuesday, 3 May ‘97”

That was the entry in my logbook.

My third novel, The Wrong Man, a sympathetic portrayal of an IRA informer, had just been published, and I was ready to begin number four. I wanted to write a novel about a woman, from a woman’s perspective. I had already written a novel from a young gay man’s point of view but this new challenge proved an insurmountable task. Successive drafts repeatedly found their way into the wastepaper basket. I just couldn’t get into the psyche of my character – or perhaps faithfully portray a woman.

A year later I added in philosophical despair to the above entry, “Begun and abandoned many times”.

I had begun writing The Wrong Man in prison and finished it upon my release. From prison I had written to my partner every night. Prisoners were restricted to one sheet of paper per letter – which many of my comrades admitted they found difficult enough to fill – whereas I enjoyed writing, the practice of writing, and the thinking that it produced. So, daily, I had to request to see the governor, and, à la Oliver Twist, ask him if I could have more paper.

Some years into my eight-year sentence my partner and I broke up. I asked her to make sure she personally destroyed all my letters and not to entrust that to anyone else.

Fast forward. It was around about the time I was giving up on novel number four that a friend told me that my girlfriend had left two huge bags of my prison letters in her loft. It turned out that they hadn’t been burnt, after all.

Going through them I realised that as well as being love letters, I was also writing about men in prison, what they were really like beneath the bluster. I was giving a running commentary on the conflict, both inside prison and outside, and what I thought republicans needed to do to break the deadlock. I was telling my partner about the books I was reading, the music on the radio and the memories that songs and symphonies brought back.

Going through the letters I realised I was also telling her the story of my life: what school had been like, our teachers, the neighbours on our street, my first job, how I felt when I first met her, right through to how on top-of-the-world I felt after our last visit.

crumlin-road-jailIn Crumlin Road Jail (where we were locked up 23 hours a day) and, afterwards, in the H-Blocks of Long Kesh I read voraciously – hundreds of novels. I wrote reviews of almost every book I read (solely for my own advancement and delight) and commented on whether they “worked”, the author’s use of narrative devices, dialogue, plotting, etc.

I read many authors on the art of writing – from Angela Carter to Virginia Woolf, Somerset Maugham, Paul Scott, André Maurois. Edna O’Brien visited and wrote to me and I corresponded with several writers including Dermot Healy and Tim O’Grady. Writer Jennifer Johnston and poet Medbh McGuckian were also regular visitors and gave workshops to a group of us.

Scouring the letters, I realised that in my hands was the makings of a book. It took quite a while to transcribe them but even after omitting extraneous information, and much editing, I was still left with a huge volume of material, about 160,000 words, which was eventually honed to around 85,000.

I called the book Then The Walls Came Down, after the lyrics of the Traveling Wilburys’ song Tweeter and the Monkey Man, which brought back good memories my girlfriend and I shared, though the title also resonated appositely with the ceasefire and burgeoning peace talks.

Walls, first published in 1999, finally went out of print this year and so I decided to make it available as a Kindle download and also to reintroduce to the narrative several thousand more words from the unpublished letters.

This is what The Irish Times said at the time: “Remarkable as a human document… The flashes of humour and compassion bear comparison with those in Brendan Behan’s Borstal Boy. A must-read for anyone interested in the North.”

Looking back, it is also a picture of me as a writer on a learning curve.

23rd December. The US paper Irish Echo carried a piece on Then The Walls Came Down being adapted for Kindle:

Danny Morrison’s Then The Walls Came Down, which was first published in 1999 to favorable reviews, went out of print earlier this year. However, it’s now been made available on Kindle with additional material, some of it political, that had been excluded from the original for reasons of space.

“It’s a collection of my prison letters from Crumlin Road Jail and the H-Blocks before, during and after the IRA ceasefire,” Morrison said of the book. “It is very personal, about my relationship with my partner and the difficulties imprisonment imposes on relationships. But it is also about how I viewed the early stages of the peace process.”

A reviewer in the Irish Times said it was “remarkable as a human document” and another in the same paper described it as “one of the most important books to emerge from the conflict in Northern Ireland” and as a “vividly humane account of life in prison.”

A Belfast Telegraph reviewer had praised Morrison’s 1997 novel The Wrong Man in similar terms, saying it “should come to be regarded as one of the most important books of the Troubles.” The Sunday Times recommended it as a “powerful and complex piece of storytelling,” while The Oxford Companion to Irish Literature called the novel “a powerful evocation of betrayal, deceit and guilt.”

As well as his career as a writer and commentator, the former republican prisoner is secretary of the Bobby Sands Trust and was chairperson of Féile an Phobail from 2004-2014.

Morrison, Sinn Féin’s national director of publicity from 1979-1990 and an Assembly member for Mid-Ulster from 1982-1986, was well-known as the first to articulate the “Armalite and ballot box” strategy, which, he has said, “argued for the party to engage with and embrace electoral politics.”

Danny Morrison
Date of birth: Jan. 9, 1953
Place of birth: at home, 17 Corby Way, Andersonstown
Spouse: Leslie Van Slyke
Children: three sons, to two earlier relationships
Residence: Andersonstown, Belfast
Published works: West Belfast (1989 & 2014); On The Back of The Swallow (1994); The Wrong Man (1997); and Rudi – In The Shadow of Knulp (2012); Then The Walls Came Down (1999 & 2016); a memoir – All The Dead Voices (2002); a play – The Wrong Man (2005), and some scenes for the play Binlids (1998); a collection of political writings – Rebel Columns (2004); and editor of a literary anthology – Hunger Strike: Reflections on the 1981 Hunger Strike (2006). My short stories have appeared in a number of publications and have been broadcast on BBC, RTE and Lyric FM.

What is your writing routine? Are there ideal conditions?
I write in my upstairs study but I take notes everywhere, and at any time, whenever an idea comes into my head or I want to remember a snatch of conversation. I was at a residential in Berlin last year for some dedicated writing. But I also – unexpectedly – wrote the last chapter of The Wrong Man at Heathrow when my flight had been delayed.

What advice do you have for aspiring writers?
To write is to practice to write, to be always experimenting, to feel comfortable with words and sentences, where they sit, how they sound, do they communicate meaning and mood. One of the most important things one must do is: read! By reading classics – novels which have withstood the test of time – you will learn how the masters carried off certain effects, how they were in control of their material and how that material immortalized an imaginary life.

Name three books that are memorable in terms of your reading pleasure.
Anna Karenina by Leo Tolstoy; Alone in Berlin by Hans Fallada; Bury My Heart At Wounded Knee by Dee Brown.

What book are you currently reading?
Fear by Gabriel Chevallier.

Is there a book you wish you had written?
The Butcher Boy by Pat McCabe.

Name a book that you were pleasantly surprised by.
Brideshead Revisited by Evelyn Waugh.

If you could meet one author, living or dead, who would it be?
Oscar Wilde.

What is your favorite spot in Ireland?
Black Mountain, above West Belfast.

You’re Irish if…
You were born in Ireland, practice kindness, tolerance and hospitality, and go with the flow.

19th December. Did interview via Skype with Aidan Olsson, a seventh grader at Summit Middle School in Boulder, Colorado, who is doing a National History Day project on Bobby Sands and the effects of the hunger strikes of 1981.

11th December. Then The Walls Came Down went ‘live’ on Kindle.

6th December. At lecture in St Mary’s University College by lawyer Mike Mansfield who spoke about the McGurk’s Bar massacre, December 1971.

28th November. Went to showing of Tony Blair’s Killings in St Mary’s University College, Belfast, and spoke to George Galloway who made the documentary.

24th November. Attended reception in the Merchant Hotel for the new Canadian High Commissioner, Janice Charette.

23rd November. Spoke at University College Cork after a showing of the film about Bobby Sands, 66 Days.

stan-commemoration12th November. Spoke at Beechmount commemoration in memory of my friend and comrade, IRA Volunteer Stan Carberry, whose anniversary is on 13th November.

10th November. Wrote short piece for The Irish Times on my reaction to Donald Trump winning US Presidential election:

Around two-thirty you could see the disbelief on the long faces of pundits and politicians alike as it struck them that Trump was going to win.
Many US citizens, including that country’s intelligentsia, have been appalled and embarrassed by Trump’s racism, sexism, bullying, his vulgarity, political inexperience and general ignorance. But it was wishful thinking on their part to think that ‘common-sense’ would prevail at the polls and that Hillary Clinton would be a shoe-in.

They got it wrong.

Trump, the snake oil salesman, the purveyor of fraudulent goods and empty promises, got it right. He successfully tapped into the deep anti-establishment anger of millions of Americans – their fears, insecurity, every slight (real or imagined) visited upon them by federal government.

And so, now, it’s our turn to pay.

Trump’s protectionist policies will eventually hurt our economy, in addition to the anticipated damage and serious repercussions of the British government’s decision to leave the European Union – a Brexit, which Trump supported.

It’s impossible to know Trump’s foreign policy (he has no experience in that field) or whether his irresponsible threat to repudiate the nuclear deal with Iran was just campaign rhetoric. Among the first to warmly congratulate him were Russian President Vladimir Putin; Jean-Marie Le Pen, the founder of the far-right, anti-immigration French National Front party; and the Dutch MP and anti-Islam campaigner, Geert Wilders.
“No-one knows what he is going to do,” said one of his more honest handlers.

One man who did know the consequences of things – albeit three centuries ago – was Benjamin Franklin, one of the Founding Fathers of the US, who said: “Whatever is begun in anger ends in shame.”

Unfortunately, before it does end in shame, none of us will be immune from the effects of a Donald Trump Presidency on international peace and stability, on ours and the world’s economy.

8th November. Did interview with BBC Talkback on why Sinn Féin’s abstentionist policy regarding Westminster will not change.

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All The Dead Voices

December 12, 2016 by  

all-the-dead-voicesMy memoir, All The Dead Voices, was published in 2002 but has been out of print for some years. It was launched in Culturlann by the then Mayor of Belfast, Alex Maskey, and there was a large crowd in attendance. However, just before the launch, when the representatives of Mercier Press opened the boxes of books sent up from the Dublin warehouse they discovered that the printer had sent the wrong book! We managed to get some copies from a variety of bookshops in Belfast but still there was not enough to go around.

Anyway, it is now available for downloading for free as a PDF document, here.


“These accounts are honest and plain in their language but simple and effective as they convey the weight of sorrow that is inherent in the human condition”




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Reading Fidel

November 26, 2016 by  

Former British Army soldier Glenn Bradley, who is a member of Veterans For Peace, and participates in a number of reconciliation initiatives, recalls reading Fidel Castro whilst on duty in Germany.

fidel-1997-0325_f4a5ddc19b705c8265040d6d9e8446b0-nbcnews-ux-600-700Fidel Castro and Ernesto Che Guevara are constants in my life.

Che, murdered in tragic circumstances, became the icon, the poster boy for socialist revolution, and his iconic image adorns my living room wall to this day.

Fidel, the change management pragmatist, became the old man of socialist revolution whose appearance to me came largely via the televised media until I decided to learn for myself.

Dates are becoming blurred to me but I think it was around May 1989 I found myself on notice for deployment to what was then termed ‘Münster Nord Site Guard’.

At the time I was an NCO in the 1st Battalion, the Royal Irish Rangers (1 R IRISH). The Battalion had just completed a first historic operational tour in County Fermanagh as part of the British government policy to ‘internalise’ the conflict in Northern Ireland by pitting Irish people against Irish, but had returned to BAOR as part of the then Cold War postings of that era.

The FRB (Fermanagh Roulement Battalion) tour I’d just been on and the Operations in which I had participated during it had left a questioning impression on me about the “how & why” causes of conflict, and so I’d chosen to widen my mindset.

The site at Münster Nord was/is secret, but safe to state it was recognised that the US enjoyed sovereignty in this part of Germany and the site housed nuclear missiles. As a NATO structure the Americans controlled the Nukes, we Brits guarded/protected the site and the (then West) Germans monitored the wider soft structure perimeters through policing operations. The duties are laboriously boring and when not actually in an observation tower, patrolling or on radio stag, you’ve to kill time reading, watching TV, or whatever. However, when deployed to site, one was on site for the period, a little ‘nuclear cage’, as we’d have said at time.

I used the opportunity to learn and had brought with me History Will Absolve Me and Socialism & Man in Cuba by Fidel Castro.

I became engrossed, and became through Castro’s words inspired, yet even then the irony of my situation was not lost on me: a working-class, West Belfast lad, institutionalised by the British Army, respecting and being influenced by revolutionary socialism (Caribbean style), while sitting on top of a US Nuclear Silo!

The books were a catalyst for positive mindset change in my life, and given the passing of that ‘old man’, but inspirational leader Fidel Castro, I just wish to record my thanks to him and to Ernesto.

“My idea, as the whole world knows, is that the capitalist system now doesn’t work either for the United States or the world, driving it from crisis to crisis, which are each time more serious.”

RIP Fidel Castro


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The German War

November 1, 2016 by  

Finished reading The German War – A Nation Under Arms, 1939-45 by Nicholas Stargardt, a monumental work of research, condensed into a narrative featuring certain protagonists throughout, their letters and diaries: from soldiers, their lovers or wives; writers and journalists; doctors and tradesmen and railway workers; and the large numbers of civilian victims and Holocaust murdered.

Among the dead were Jehovah’s Witnesses who refused to swear oaths to Hitler or perform military service. They were beheaded for their stance. One was Karl Kühnel whose last letter to his wife, Rose, reads:

“When this letter reaches you I am a prisoner no longer. Instead, my earthly life is already finished. I already said farewell to you once… Do not lose heart, and harbour no rancour against anyone. It doesn’t help. Now forge your own good fortune.”

Kühnel had previously served in WWI but was determined that no machine gun of his would ‘tear a father from his children who had done me no harm. I tried to kill my conscience with counter-arguments and gradually succeeded to some extent… It is not possible to act against my conscience and so not possible to take up a weapon against a person and do him harm.”

backUnfortunately, Karl Kühnel was in a tiny minority of German soldiers (one hundred and twenty one) who refused to fight, while millions of others, lemming-like, succumbed to the cult of der Führer and brought disaster to many peoples and themselves. And one of the most (at least to me) shocking aspects of the book is the extent to which regime and society merged, and the extent to which many ordinary German citizens knew or had a fair idea what was going on regarding the extermination camps and the work of the Einsatzgruppen death squads in the eastern territories conquered by Nazi Germany.

Of course there was fear and intimidation, and subsequently many would take refuge in the fact that living under a dictatorship absolved them of personal responsibility. But Hitler could not have got away with half of what he did had it not been for the silence of the churches (Protestant and Catholic) and the quiescence of the population, too many of whom shared his anti-Semitic and racist views and enjoyed the spoils of war. Indeed, such was their understanding of their collective guilt that, as Stargardt points out, they came to view the RAF and USAF bombings of cities and the immolation of thousands of children, women and men (420.000) as divine (or Judeo-organised) punishment for what they had done.

The real heroes were those who had hidden, the 1,400 Jews in Berlin who survived the war.

It is also incredible the large numbers of people who squared in their head toleration of the regime (and ‘this or that’ thing it did) by arguing that it was the lesser of two evils – “the greater is to lose the war”. There was collective complicity. One journalist felt free enough to write in a newspaper: “yes, but the methods? Anyone talking about methods is always wrong. What matters is the result. For a doctor the result has to be the complete elimination of cholera, the result for our people the complete elimination of the Jews… Between us and the Jews the issue is who will survive whom.”

Even a soldier such as Willy Reese, who was horrified and guilt-ridden by what he had seen and done (and wrote it down as a poem), kept fighting for what he believed to be a future Germany, free and spiritual, without Hitler. He wrote:

Murdered the Jews
Marched into Russia
As a roaring horde
Muzzled the people
Sabred in blood
Led by a clown
We are his envoys
Of the one everyone knows
And are wading in blood.

After the war, old networks proved strong with the professional elites, says Stargardt.

“Soon, 43 per cent of the West German diplomatic corps were former SS men and another 17 per cent had served in the SD or Gestapo. In Bavaria, where American efforts at denazification had gone further than in the other Western zones, 77 per cent of Finance Ministry officials and 94 per cent of judges and state prosecutors were former Nazis.”

It is impossible to make sense of such killing, death and destruction. As the New York Times in its review said rather restrainedly, “It is an uncomfortable business seeking to understand a society so full of both perpetrators and victims.”

30th October. My recorded interview for BBC Radio 4’s The World This Weekend was broadcast today. It was on the issue of Brexit. This is what I said:

What Brexit reminds nationalists in the North is of Britain’s historical and divisive role of interfering in Irish affairs, whose legacy we are still dealing with in fragile, distrusting and testing circumstances.

Once again, Britain’s interests trump those of the Irish people, a clear majority of whom, both North and South, are opposed to the creation of a physical international border across the Irish landscape and the imposition of passport checks and customs posts.

British assurances about a ‘soft border’ or replicating EU financial aid amount to nothing, given the pup the British public were sold during the referendum that a vote for Brexit would result in £350 million a week going to the NHS.

It appears that Britain has forgotten all the lessons of the conflict and the compromises we on this island made in order to create peace and stability. I, like most republicans, do not trust Britain. That’s why the Belfast Agreement has the status of an international treaty. Our membership of the European Union provides us with some protection from British abuses – as well as being an economic lifeline, supporting farmers and border regions and multiple peace and infrastructure programmes.

It’s ironic that while the violence of dissident republicans has failed to destabilise the power-sharing administration or undermine support for the PSNI, the British government for its own selfish reasons is prepared to risk plunging the North back into conflict.

Unless the exceptional circumstances of Ireland are respected, you can almost write the script of a potentially unfolding tragedy. During the conflict roads were dynamited and bridges blown up by the British army in order to control the movement of traffic and people in border regions. As a result of the peace process all those roads and bridges were reopened and watchtowers torn down, allowing the free movement of people and commerce. Ditching those hard-won and precious gains would be a catastrophic mistake.

Farmers with land straddling both sides of the border, and the 40,000-plus who daily commute to work across the border in both directions will resent being stopped, delayed and ordered to show documentation as their nationality and status is checked, as their cars and vehicles are searched for refugees or contraband. You can count on protests, pickets, marches and rallies against customs posts, checkpoints and road closures. Police or border guards will confront protestors. Someone will get hurt. Arrests will be made. Imprisonments may follow. It could escalate from there.

I travel throughout my country regularly. I will not be producing a passport or a driving licence, or identifying my passengers, be they from Andersonstown, Athlone or Aleppo, just because of some little Englanders, obsessed with immigrants, who know little about us and care even less.

28th October. Took part in a platform discussion tonight in the Felons Club to commemorate the 40th anniversary of the death of Maire Drumm who was assassinated in the Mater Hospital on 28th October, 1976.

25th October. Did a television interview for Thursday night’s The View regarding my tweet joking about SDLP leader Colum Eastwood addressing the UUP conference last weekend.

22nd October. In the Armagh Harps GAA Club, Armagh city, I gave the annual Peter Corrigan Lecture on the subject of the 1981 hunger strike.

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The Other Woman

October 21, 2016 by  

back-end-diane-athillFinished Diana Athill’s wonderful, candid, scandalous and life-affirming memoir, Alive, Alive Oh! Born into privilege she knew from an early age that she was a rebel who sided with the downtrodden. Here she is on colonialism:

‘At the tail end of all colonial situations there are white people protesting that they didn’t deserve to have stones thrown at them by black men, or their houses burnt down, because they never took a penny from the place and devoted years to serving it – and often they are not lying. But even when they are not, their lament reflects their illusions rather than the injustice of the event. The black people who gathered on Tobago’s beaches to shout ‘Get out Whitey!’, and marched into hotels where they tore up visitors’ books and broke ashtrays (they were by nature a mild and law-abiding lot who didn’t want to hurt anybody) may conceivably, one day, burn down houses such as that of my friends. If that is all they do – and it may well be all, since there are few signs of constructive political thinking in Caribbean opposition politics – they will contribute nothing to their own welfare, but they will at least be expressing a more acute awareness of the truth than the people who built the houses. They will be saying that even if they cannot alter the economic structure which condemns them to exploitation, they will no longer stand being used as live furniture in someone else’s beautiful dream.’

bookNow in a nursing home, which she loves, she says, ‘“Sometimes I sits and thinks and sometimes I just sits,’” quoting someone whom she can’t remember! At ninety-nine she is as feisty as ever: “I talked about it [thinking about things] the other day with someone who is also in her nineties, though not so far into them as I am, and she said, ‘Yes, of course, men. What I do when I’m waiting to fall asleep is run through all the men I ever went to bed with,’ whereupon we both laughed in a ribald way, because that is exactly what I did too. It cheered me up to learn that I had not been alone in indulging in this foolishness.’

I love the little observations she makes: ‘After reading a biography of Jung I had concluded that psychiatrists were people who could make a little nuttiness go a very long way.’

A woman who never married, she preferred to have affairs: ‘The role that seems to me most comfortable is not that of Wife, but that of the Other Woman. And in that role I am good, because I have never for a moment expected or wanted to wreck anyone’s marriage.

‘What I was really happy with was a lover who had a nice wife to do his washing and look after him if he fell ill, so that I could enjoy the plums of love without having to munch through the pudding.’

She says that her philosophy was enjoy life to the full and ‘death was just something that would occur when I was old – and which was not, and never had been, frightening.

‘That this was true, I owe to Montaigne. I can’t remember when I read, or was told, that he considered it a good thing to spend a short time every day thinking about death, thus getting used to its inevitability and coming to understand that something inevitable is natural and can’t be too bad…’

For more on Diane Athill see here.

18th October. Finished The Islander by a friend I correspond with, John McMillan. Though told in the first person through the eyes of Rupert Carr (from Rathlin Island) the novel follows in the footsteps of John’s other coming-of-age and semi-autobiographical novels, Upstream; The Soul of the City; and Summer In The Heat. Rupert witnesses events in the early days of the Troubles (the Burntollet March) and then the trendy-lefty Sixties and Seventies days in England when micro-left groups proliferated and protested – and, later, mostly sank. But there was much I could relate to and he writes really well, evocatively, about this period.

14th October. Wrote small feature about a photograph which Bobbie Hanvey thought was one he took of Patrick Rooney’s funeral in 1969.

24th September. Spoke along with former Armagh Jail prisoner Brid Brownlee in Falcarragh, County Donegal, at an event to commemorate the 35th anniversary of the 1981 hunger strike.

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Amy Schumer!

September 23, 2016 by  

amy-bookFinished reading Amy Schumer’s The Girl With The Lower Back Tattoo – not my usual fare, needless to say. But I had seen and enjoyed her film Trainwreck, a few months ago, and heard her being interviewed on the radio where she came across as intelligent, confident and witty. The book lived up to my expectations of its author – raunchy and funny – and I found her candidness refreshing, especially the chapter on her mother.

Whether it was cathartic to write, I am sure her mother Sandra found it traumatising to read!

Her description of how she succeeded in comedy, through sheer hard work, is fascinating. But even though she has ‘made it’ there is constant pressure: ‘Unlike musicians, comedians are expected to always bring new shit. No one wants to hear the greatest hits, so I was back to square one. This requirement of comedy is exhausting and challenging, but I wouldn’t have it any other way. It’s exciting and humbling to have to start over – and the payoff is even better. You feel so accomplished when you’ve accumulated enough material – one joke at a time – for an entire special.’

She rails against the fashion and media shaming industry which upholds slim models (‘waifish elves’) as the norm and promotes a masculine view of women. She says that when she gets out of the shower and looks at herself she looks ‘blotchy and messy and not at all like the girls in those magazines. But I am still fucking beautiful. I’m a real woman who digests her meals and breaks out and has sweet little pockets of cellulite on her upper thighs that she’s not apologising for. Because guess what? We all have that shit. We’re all human beings.’

Amy is one well-rounded (psychologically!) individual and writes honestly about herself, about love, family and relationships.

12th September. Took part in a solidarity picket at the Falls’ International Wall to mark the 72nd birthday of Leonard Peltier and call for his release.

8th September. Finished a delightful first novel Orange Boy Blue by Julia Roddy, a sophisticated ‘love-across-the-barricades’ East Belfast story.


4th September. Visited the scene of the assassination of Sir Henry Wilson outside his home at 36 Eaton Place, London; No 9 Eaton Place, the former home of Sir Edward Carson; and Gerald Road Police Station which is now a listed building, and where Wilson’s IRA assassins, Reggie Dunne and Joe O’Sullivan, were taken and badly beaten after the shooting.

3rd September. At Reading Prison, England, for the launch of the ArtAngel project around themes of imprisonment. It was here that Oscar Wilde wrote De Profundis, his letter to Bosie, Lord Alfred Douglas, which deals with the subject of alienation, sorrow and suffering. He wrote: ‘To regret one’s own experiences is to arrest one’s own development. To deny one’s own experiences is to put a lie into the lips of one’s own life. It is no less than a denial of the soul.’


My imagined ‘letter’ from Reggie Dunne to the IRA after the assassination of Sir Henry Wilson in 1922 is on display at Reading Prison in a cell and a recording by the actor Will Howard is available.

1st September. Read The Good Muslim by Tahmima Anam which I couldn’t really get into, although good writing.

28th August. Finished Red Dust by Gillian Slovo, a novel about South Africa’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission, with many twists and turns, as the torture of political prisoners, including one ANC member who has been ‘disappeared’, impacts on survivors, victims’ families and the culpable. Begs the question: is establishing the truth always more important than the pain it might cause?

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Children of the Revolutionaries

August 24, 2016 by  

Read again that powerful memoir Every Secret Thing by Gillian Slovo (pictured), which is a deeply personal examination of the damage done to familial relationships by parents who are full time revolutionaries/activists and whose love of, and sacrifices for the cause of freedom are also borne and suffered by their innocent children. It is a story that will certainly resonate with those Irish republicans whose commitments led to them being away from home either on-the-run or serving lengthy prison sentences. In fact, after a talk which Gillian gave some years ago at Féile an Phobail, the daughter of parents who had both been in jail turned to Bill Rolston and said with great conviction: “How does Gillian know my life story?”

From that moment Bill was determined to write a book on the subject which became, Children of the Revolution.bill-cover

In the majority of cases it was one parent who carried the family but in the case of Gillian Slovo both her parents were major figures in the anti-apartheid movement, away travelling and organising. Gillian’s mother, Ruth First, paid with her life. She was killed by a parcel bomb in 1982 in Maputo, Mozambique. Gillian’s father was Joe Slovo, a communist and the commander of the ANC’s military wing Umkhonto we Sizwe.

Having myself written memoirs, which invaded the privacy of loved ones, I could empathise with Gillian’s many dilemmas about the ethics of scrutinising and publicising the lives of others because their lives were so intimately a part of our own.

12th August. On behalf of the Bobby Sands Trust I was presented with a £350 cheque from photographer Stuart Borthwick, author of The Writing on the Wall, a book based on the mural photographs Stuart has taken over many years. The cheque is a contribution towards the upkeep of the Falls Road mural of Bobby Sands.

11th August. Chaired Scribes at the Rock and interviewed Paul Laverty about his writing and his long-collaboration with the director Ken Loach.

Thomas McElwee7th August. Gave the oration in Bellaghy at the commemoration for Thomas McElwee (pictured) following a march through the town. This is what I said:

“In my experience the damage inflicted on us by the sectarian six-county state and the British occupation was compounded by partition and the Free Statism of the southern establishment. When RTE covered Bobby Sands going on hunger strike, or Tom McElwee going on hunger strike, what they covered was their Diplock court convictions.

“They never covered the men’s political or moral convictions because that would have gone against the desire to criminalise our struggle which was much easier to do than confront the power of Britain and British intransigence.

“1981 was the longest year in my life – but what must it have been like for the families of comrades dying a slow death?

“I do believe 1981 was ‘our 1916’. After 1981 all was changed utterly. After the Easter Rising, within a few weeks the British had executed the leaders, but here in the North the hunger strike deaths took place over a seven month period.

“In the middle of the hunger strike we thought a breakthrough was possible. We had been told that the British government was interested in settling it. I was allowed into the prison on Sunday 5th July to meet with the hunger strikers. I can still see those men around that table in the canteen of the hospital wing. On my left Kieran Doherty, then Kevin Lynch, then Thomas, Thomas McElwee, who by that stage had served 1,300 days in a H-Block cell on protest. Martin Hurson was too ill to attend. At the bottom of the table was Paddy Quinn. On the right was Laurence McKeown, then Micky Devine, then sitting beside me in a wheelchair was my old friend and comrade Joe McDonnell who would be dead within three days. They all spoke, including Tom, and he was adamant that their demands must be met.

“Just before the first hunger strike in 1980 ended the British government was full of promises – that they would introduce an enlightened, progressive and liberal prison regime. But as soon as the hunger strike ended, and the pressure was off, the British reneged on their commitments, refused to budge and their bad faith triggered the second hunger strike.

“This experience of bad faith was what was foremost in the minds of the men around that table. They said they wanted to see what the British government was offering and they wanted it confirmed in a way that the British could not subsequently repudiate. The Irish Commission for Justice and Peace similarly asked the British to send in an official to explain what, if anything, was on offer.

“I left the hunger strikers to go to the doctor’s office where I was in telephone contact with Gerry Adams on the outside. He was liaising with Martin McGuinness who was liaising with Brendan Duddy the British contact. It was no way to do business and was open to misrepresentation and distortion. But as I was waiting to see what the British would say, a deputy governor, John Pepper, burst into the office and ordered me out and I never saw the hunger strikers again. The ICJP six times called upon the British to send in a representative to meet the prisoners but they never replied.

“After Joe’s death Michael Alison, the prisons minister, was asked to give the British position. He compared talking to hunger strikers as like talking to hijackers: ‘you continued talking while you figured out a way to defeat them,’ he said.

“And that was the policy that was to lead to the deaths of Martin Hurson, Kevin Lynch, Kieran Doherty, Tom McElwee and Micky Devine.

“I stood here 35 years ago and was honoured to give the oration at Tom’s funeral just as I am honoured to be here today in the presence of his noble family.

“Back then the British army and the RUC occupied and took up positions on surrounding roads. They were protected by not one but by six helicopters. Benny, who was also in prison on the blanket, arrived just in time from the H-Blocks on a 10-hour parole. Tom’s coffin was carried from the house by his sisters. At the end of the lane IRA Volunteers stepped forward and fired a volley of shots over his coffin.

“A piper played the H-Block song and many people quietly sang:

“‘I am a proud young Irishman,
“In Ulster’s hills my life began,
A happy boy through green fields ran
And I kept God’s and man’s laws.’”

“Among the mourners was Dinny Gleeson, a veteran of the War of Independence who had been in a Flying Column and had fought the British army and the Black and Tans – a real connection with 1916 and our long struggle for freedom.

“Chairing the graveside ceremony was veteran republican John Davey, who had been interned in the 1950s, 1960s and again in the 1970s. Indeed, it was in Long Kesh Internment Camp that he and I became friends. John himself was later to die in violent circumstances when he was assassinated coming from Council business to his home in Gulladuff.

“I wish to repeat what I said that day 35 years ago. Thomas McElwee was invincible from beginning to end, in life as well as in death.

“His dying words remain powerful and indeed were extremely prescient and are even more relevant today. Thomas said: ‘I bear no animosity, no ill-feeling towards anybody. I would like to live among the people… and promote peace and harmony among Catholics and Protestants and also with the British.’

“I have always found it remarkable that the oppressed are always more forgiving than their oppressors. It is very tempting to feel bitterness.

“The British were full of great spite and great cynicism. Their position was: ‘We know we cannot defeat you. But we will make sure you die.’

“I say they were cynical because not long after the hunger strike they conceded the five demands. When I was imprisoned in the H-Blocks some years later, I and my comrades had political status, prison conditions won for us by Thomas and his comrades.

“But the hunger strike was bigger than that. It inspired a new generation who put manners on the British, brought thousands more into republicanism, empowered the people, and created a political momentum which is unstoppable, a political movement in Sinn Féin which will un-partition Ireland.

“So we draw courage and great inspiration from Thomas McElwee and his example. He towers over the people who hunted him, arrested him, charged him, judged him, convicted him, stripped him, beat him, and the system that killed him.

“He towered over every one of them, and he was only twenty three.

“What a man. What a soldier. What a hero. What a son. What a brother.

“Thomas McElwee.”

6th August. Spoke at St Mary’s University College in panel discussion with the Rev Bill Shaw after the showing of Alain Frilet’s film, Long Road To Peace.

4th August. Did RTE interview with Eamon Mallie re 66 Days portrayal of Bobby Sands’ hunger strike.

2nd August. Did studio interview on Talkback, chaired by Mark Carruthers, about the film 66 Days, and a claim by the DUP’s Gregory Campbell that he was censored from attending a screening of the film in Andersonstown as part of Féile an Phobail.

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