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Finding a Maltese Falcon

February 21, 2012 by  

On the way back from Dublin airport on Saturday I decided to come off the motorway before the toll and went into Drogheda to spend an hour or two. Found a free parking space, near pensioners’ bungalows just off Scarlet Street, and in the glorious morning sun, walked into town via the fourteenth century St Laurence’s Gate, which was being photographed from different angles on the main road by a group of young girls, presumably tourists.

I was trying to remember where the St Vincent de Paul bookshop was that I had visited about five years ago. At the junction of St Laurence Street and Peter Street I asked a woman passerby if she knew where the shop was – and she did. But before giving directions (it was nearby, just up the hill) she asked me where I was from… and what was the weather like in Belfast. It was sunny when I left, I said, just like in Drogheda. She then proceeded to tell me that last week she had been “down in Kilkeel shopping in Asda” and preferred it to the shopping centres in Newry. I would have used the expression ‘up’ not ‘down’, to denote travelling from Drogheda to there, as down to me is longitudinally moving from North to South (or going from a higher point to a lower point)! But that’s me being pedantic and literal.

She said that her daughter had ran out of some things yesterday and went to the local store, came back, showed her mother the three bags of shopping and asked her to guess how much they came to. Almost €80 she informed me, outraged, “and she hadn’t even bought meat!” She said that they go to Kilkeel regularly and are able to fill the boot with groceries for the equivalent of €100 which is great but that you should be able to shop in your own town for the same prices. I said that her trip might even be made easier in the future if they build the bridge over Narrow Water which would cut out Newry altogether.

She told me about her day so far. She had been to the credit union and the hairdressers to get her hair done (I had noticed that; her face made up; her silky white scarf; an attractive woman still). She was in great form, was 69, and she and a friend to whom she was speaking after Mass in St Peter’s just yesterday, “both of us are going to be celebrating our 70th next year”, he was saying how lucky they were to have their pensions. But then, they had worked from they were fourteen when there were factories and mills all around the town and now there were none. If she and he were in government they would take the money of those that had it, “fuck them out” and give it to those who hadn’t! I wasn’t expecting that word!

She was going to a young person’s party tonight and the young ones would be wondering where she got the energy from. When she was a teenager her mother wouldn’t allow her to go North with her friends but they went anyway and slipped up to Newry because the men there were better at jiving than the home ones!

I wished her a great party and soon found the St Vincent de Paul thrift shop at the corner of Fair Street with its books part upstairs. I searched every shelf. Ironically I came across novels by two new authors I had recently read: ‘UFO In Her Eyes’ by Xialolu Guo and ‘Incendiary’ by Chris Cleave but had read enough of them to know enough. I got three books for €5: ‘The Maltese Falcon’ by Dashell Hammett (what a great real name), which I have been meaning to read for years; ‘Men At Arms’ by Evelyn Waugh (I have the unread second part of the trilogy of which this is the first); and ‘The Music of Chance’ by Paul Auster, who’s a favourite.

Had a conversation with the shopkeeper whom at first I thought was Polish. He is from Belarus and his daughter is at a local college studying. He told me his name is Ruslan. I said that when I hear that name I’m immediately reminded of the overture from Glinka’s opera ‘Ruslan and Ludmila’. He laughed: “You’re not going to believe this, but my wife is called Ludmilla! “ He was a PE teacher in Minsk but cannot get work in Ireland or else hasn’t got a work permit so has worked voluntarily in the bookshop for the past three years. He asked me about the North and was interested in the situation and had read about Bloody Sunday. Then we talked about writers. He loves anti-war writers like Hemingway, Remarque and Böll and asked me had I read Solzhenitsyn. I said I had read ‘One Day In The Life’ and parts of other novels but didn’t really like him and thought that he hated Russia [though Ruslan did not agree and thought that Solzhenitsyn really loved Russia but felt he had to challenge its rottenness). He had yet to read Camus and I told him about the MS that was found in Camus’s car after his fatal crash and which was published about fifteen years ago, ‘The First Man’, and which was wonderful. I also recommended ‘Alone In Berlin’ by Hans Fallada as a brilliant piece of anti-war literature. Then I hit the road.

17th February. Introduced Jean Ann Day (American Indian Movement) at tonight’s fund raiser for the Leonard Peltier campaign. She gave a very moving speech at the function in the Rock Bar. She gave me a present, a hardback copy of Leonard Peltier’s Prison Writings and, ironically, I presented her with a copy of my book based on my prison letters, ‘Then The Walls Came Down’.

14th February. Finished the novel ‘Little Bee’ by Chris Cleave on the worthy subject of racism and the maltreatment of refugees/asylum seekers in the UK from Nigeria. Left me unmoved though there were passages were his powers as a writer peeped through.

Wrote a short feature for a brochure to celebrate the fiftieth anniversary of the building of the Patrician Hall in Carrickmore.





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‘The Provisional IRA’

February 8, 2012 by  

Tommy McKearney is probably the most articulate of all those former activists who left the mainstream Republican Movement. He is deeply committed, thoughtful, without bile or bitterness, more a dissenter than a dissident (to use that unfortunate, pejorative word which covers everything from the genuine objector to the Fake IRA).

Tommy and his family paid a very heavy price for their politics and profile during the conflict. He was a senior member of the IRA in Tyrone in the mid-seventies, served a life sentence and was on the first hunger strike for fifty three days in 1980.

When he became disillusioned he resigned from the IRA, left the H-Blocks and went to Maghaberry where he and a few comrades formed the League of Communist Republicans. He was released in 1993, has worked as a freelance journalist, is an organiser with the Independent Workers Union and is an occasional media commentator.

Last year his book, ‘The Provisional IRA – From Insurrection to Parliament’, was published by Pluto Press. Some of his analyses and contentions I would agree with, but his prescription suffers from a certain idealism and utopianism which are not unconnected to his Marxist outlook. Ideological class struggle sounds good but communism has been tried by Lenin, Stalin and Mao, to name the bigger failures on the blood-soaked canvass.

Despite a potential world recession and a scramble for new (or tried and failed) panaceas, communism has hardly been embraced by the working classes. And how are we to organise society between now and the communist utopia but to engage with reality?

He believes that the IRA failed, though he concedes that without the armed struggle the Orange State would never have been overthrown, though, he argues, it has been replaced by a lock-jawed sectarian state because parties have to designate themselves nationalist or unionist or other and they all prosper by playing the divided communities card. That, along with Sinn Féin becoming a centrist political party is as far as the Movement can go, he says, because it has not developed “a clear socialist programme”.

The North (surprisingly referred to throughout as ‘Northern Ireland’), the postulate goes, is being presented as a normal, healthy (albeit recovering) society and a false template for conflict resolution – though one that Serbia recently expressed an interest in with regard to resolving the disputed Kosova.

But the book is full of woolly thinking and contradictions. He suggests that the IRA by demanding a British withdrawal and an all-Ireland republic left itself no room for manoeuvre to contemplate an alternative to these stark objectives. Surely he appreciates that it was that goal which generated our passion and was what we were actually fighting and prepared to die for? And that during the fighting of a war to anticipate anything less than your sovereign demands is to undermine your struggle?

He then confuses the current outcome of the struggle (the Belfast Agreement) as apparently having been the real objective: that the campaign was about reform and redressing the wrongs which the civil rights movement identified, rather than about ending partition and establishing a thirty-two-county socialist republic. Clearly, given that Tommy did not believe this at the time he joined and was active in the IRA (or did those large numbers of republicans from the south who sacrificed their freedom and their lives), he has to come up with an explanation for the flaw in the campaign and all our eyes being wiped.

And he does.

It involves those bogey men – a “high-profile group of former internees from Belfast” – who beginning in 1975 challenged the leadership over the ceasefire, advocated the ‘cell system’ for ASUs (to improve security, which he believes is questionable), who then declared ‘the long war’, who adopted the dual strategy of combined electoralism and armed struggle, and who ultimately compromised and became centrists (because of their missing Marxist gene!).

Then there was “the impact … agents of influence had on the direction of the movement”:  that is, ‘guiding’ the IRA towards parliament. But he provides no proof for this statement, other than attributing fantastic sway to Scappaticci and Donaldson. Of course the IRA was penetrated, but if it was penetrated as heavily as claimed then how explain the magnitude of its successful operations in Ireland, Britain and Europe? Regarding fluctuating levels of IRA activity, Tommy would know from even his time that four out of five operations were abandoned because they were compromised for a variety of reasons and only sometimes because of penetration/betrayal.

And what about this scenario: what if the ones who are really penetrated and controlled by British intelligence are those feted in the media for their anti-Sinn Féin rhetoric, that is, the dissidents and their journalist allies who are being run/used by securocrats disgruntled at their failure to destroy the Republican Movement, and at the success and prominence of Sinn Féin?

Tommy claims that Britain organised the ‘Peace Process’. But, in recently released British papers, we can see that the British, rather than coaxing Sinn Féin along an electoral path, actually set out to discourage it. That explains why John Major procrastinated after the 1994 ceasefire, demanding ‘the decontamination of Sinn Féin’, and forestalling inclusive discussions to the extent that the ceasefire collapsed amidst a ton of rubble at Canary Wharf.

Tommy’s glib analysis – that the bulk of the Republican Movement was being led by the nose – insults the intelligence of so many people, especially those from Tyrone and South Armagh whom Tommy surely knows contributed to all the vital changes over decades which he now attributes to city slickers. Similarly, to suggest that it was an agent(s) who swayed the leadership and thousands of republicans to support the ceasefire, to support negotiations and to vote for the Agreement is reminiscent of a Punch caricature, that we are all just thick Paddies, and have no minds of our own.

Each chapter has a prologue – mainly little fictional dramatisations meant to prefigure and support Tommy’s analysis. But, in fact, they often tend to contradict the very points he is trying to make. For example, he is persistent that after the 1981 hunger strike the Movement squandered an opportunity to build an alternative, “that of a left-wing mass movement built from the experience and remaining momentum of the Anti H-Block movement”. The reason? The Movement was against social agitation (he must never have read AP/RN) and feared losing control to ‘new faces’ that would “not always agree with the movement and who will have different ideas and personalities.”

But in these prologues, Tommy’s fictional characters complain about being ‘shafted’ by other new faces and fear “that the movement would, in time, fall under the influence of career-minded individuals” (as if career-minded individuals are averse to leading mass movements!).

Anyone who was around in late 1981 can attest that seven months of intense street campaigning (and the five years preceding) had fairly exhausted the base which was now anticipating payback for all the suffering.

He queries the efficacy of the England bombing campaign with a naïve suggestion that given Thatcher’s assaults on the working class it might have been better for republicans to appeal to the English working class and the left to make Ireland an integral part of their agenda – which is to ignore the depth of jingoism in England and, indeed, the impotence of the mobilised masses to stop the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Tommy states that “those who had warned that participating in parliament would end armed struggle were correct” yet one page earlier he states as fact that there was widespread exhaustion and that most within the republican community were anxious “to lay down their arms”. Earlier he states that the war had run its course and he derides those preoccupied with the fetish of armed struggle.

His most simple declaration is the one with the most profound consequences for republican strategy: his contention that social and economic conditions are more of an issue with the majority in Ireland rather than the question of Irish unity.

Tommy currently, admirably, advocates organising and rallying the Protestant and Catholic working and lower middle classes around social, economic and political issues that potentially unite them: a unity ironically facilitated by the ending of the armed struggle, and the political arrangements that Tommy eschews.

There are lots of factual mistakes. Sinn Féin did not decide at the Ard Fheis in 1986 to take seats in a northern assembly, if established. The late hunger striker’s name is Kieran Doherty, not Docherty. The ceasefire was called in August 1994, not 1993.

Tommy’s is a history strong in opinions and assertions but weak in supportive references. But it is healthy and sobering to have such a man pitch such arguments which challenge us to think and reflect, and which check any incipient complacency.

The Provisional IRA – From Insurrection to Parliament by Tommy McKearney is available from Pluto Press at £12.50




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Xiaolu Guo

February 8, 2012 by  

Finished the novel ‘A Concise Chinese-English Dictionary For Lovers’ by Xiaolu Guo, published in 2007, the diary of Zhuang Xiao Qiao, a young Chinese woman who comes to London to learn English. The almost-charming book, written in mangled English, is funny and enjoyable, though the author has been accused of pandering to western preconceptions about China.

Finished Guo and because of my sleepless night I immediately began reading and finished by 4.30am the wonderful ‘Closely Observed Trains’ by the Czech writer, the late Bohumil Hrabal. It is the story of a 22-year-old apprentice railway employee, Milos Hrma at a rural station, a virgin out to lose his virginity but in the meantime becomes a saboteur against a German ammunition train. It is both hilarious and moving. In one scene his pretentious station master is giving off about a lecherous colleague and that perennial perception of the pious that atheism corrupts humanity:

“That is what comes of it when there’s nothing above folks any more! Neither God nor myth, neither allegory nor symbol… We’re on our own in this world, so everything’s allowed. But not for me! For me there is a God! But for the grunting pig nothing exists but pork, dumplings and cabbage…”

Milos can muster no sympathy for the German people when the war turns against them and the Russians come for vengeance and Dresden is destroyed by the Allies. He thinks: “But now, as these Dresdeners came flocking here out of their city, I could no longer pity them, nobody could pity them, except they themselves. And those Germans knew it. The train chief got up and said to the Germans: ‘Sollten Sie am Arsch zu Hause sitzen.’

In other words, to have avoided this catastrophe, instead of invading other peoples’ countries, ‘You should have sat at home on your arse…’

In 2000 I read Bohumil Hrabal’s ‘I Served The King of England’, the story of Ditie, a hotel waiter. There is a beautiful story in it about the real-life poet Tonda Jodl, which goes: “When it was damp and cold or when it rained, he would order a mug of tripe soup and a roll and take it across the square to those frail old women, and as he carried it he seemed to be carrying more than just soup, because in that mug, as least that’s how I saw it, he was taking those old women a piece of his heart, a human heart in tripe soup…”

Hrabal once described how he wrote: “As a rule, I have to wake up for writing unprepared, in a state of weakness, even in a sort of aphasia. Slowly and mechanically, I shave; unshaven I would never write a single line; I even scent myself with birch water and oil, and then, brooding, I sit down for a coffee; I like to drink coffee in the morning and I never eat. If I eat, that’s it for writing and thinking. So I drink coffee and I smoke and I sip Nescafé and that’s how I get myself into that ‘null’ situation, that zero state which the Greeks designated as the beginning of mystical thinking.”

3rd February. Meeting in Bank Square with council officials and local businesses re a possible mural for the area, supervised by Féile.

2nd February. On behalf of Féile I attended East Belfast Speaks Out in Ashfield Boys School.

1st February. My review of Tommy McKearney’s book, ‘The Provisional IRA’, was published in this month’s An Phoblacht. Was at the funeral today of my friend Harry Thompson, a veteran republican, who died of cancer on Sunday night. A huge turnout.

31st January. Attended a Titanic Information Session in the City Hall but left early and went around to the Healing Through Remembrance offices and listened to recordings from Radio Free Belfast in 1969. A great resource and archive.

29th January. Most of my January reading time was spent on ‘The Kindly Ones’ by Jonathan Littell. Almost 1,000 pages of close type and few paragraphs! It is the story of a German sophisticate, Dr Max Aue, a former SS intelligence officer on the Eastern Front, who was also involved in the death camps, but escaped justice and lives a comfortable life in France where he can listen to Rameau and Couperin and reflect upon his life. He is a probable matricide and never found any sex as fascinating as the incestuous relationship he had with his sister when both were very young. It is mostly brilliantly written but falls apart near the end, stretching credulity. It is extremely violent and at times stomach-churning but is an interesting insight into a diseased mind and its flawed attempts to justify and intellectualise inhumanity and genocide. Aue says to a colleague:

“We know that racially inferior groups exist, including the Jews, who present marked characteristics that in turn predispose them to Bolshevik corruption, theft, murder, and all kinds of other harmful manifestations. Obviously, that is not the case for all members of the group. But in wartime, in a context of occupation, and with our limited resources, it is impossible for us to carry out individual investigations. So we are faced to consider the risk-bearing groups as a whole, and to react globally. That creates great injustices, but that’s because of the exceptional situation.”