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An Obsession


At the bedside of his dying son, Anatole, the poet Mallarme composed the following lines (here translated by Paul Auster):

Oh, you understand
that if I consent
to live – to seem
to forget you -
it is to feed my pain
- and so that this apparent
forgetfulness
can spring forth more
horribly in tears, at

some random
moment, in
the middle of this
life, when you
appear to me

I have to confess to being a morbid person. The dark music of Mahler and Shostakovich fill me with melancholy. Tragic poems appeal to me. Like Sylvia Platt’s scary poem, ‘The Mirror’. Or Phillip Larkin’s ‘Next, Please’:

Only one ship is seeking us, a black-
Sailed unfamiliar, towing at her back
A huge and birdless silence. In her wake
No waters breed or break.

When I look through the notebooks into which I copy interesting passages or descriptions from books I find that many of them are about mortality – and this just isn’t a recent habit as a result of growing old: ‘My death, when it comes, will not be something in general; it will not be a mere instance of dying. It is an ever-present possibility that demands my utmost concern’; ‘First the young, like vines, climb up the dull supports of their elders who feel their fingers on them, soft and tender; then the old climb down the lovely supporting bodies of the young into their proper deaths.’

When I look back over features which I have written I see that that theme appears often: ‘Come and Bury the Dead’, ‘Death of a Volunteer’, ‘Death of a Writer’, ‘Blessed are the dead’.

I am writing a book of essays which I hope to finish by Spring, though I keep popping up to comment on current affairs or write about political developments, or review books in order to make a living, so perhaps the aim of Spring is a  bit optimistic. I’ve about four or five completed essays and was thinking of an appropriate title that some how summed up or linked the essays. What alarmed me when I read over them is that most of them are about dead people – relatives, friends, comrades, informers, soldiers, dead writers and composers. But I can’t call the book, ‘The Dead’. I am not competing with Joyce.

In my teens I used to record ‘Pick of the Pops’ presented by Alan Freeman on BBC radio. On the last Sunday in August 1971, as the political temperature was rapidly rising from the recent introduction of internment, I was taping this catchy song, ‘Me and You and a Dog Name Boo’ by Lobo. Halfway through the record the volume was reduced and an announcer came on with a newsflash. He said that reports were coming in that a British soldier had been shot dead in Crossmaglen. Then the music came up again. Of course, once London realised that such broadcasts would perhaps increase ‘troops out’ sentiment they were dropped and the news became more managed, to the extent that the British dishonoured their soldiers by consigning their deaths to a few seconds.

Every time I hear that Lobo song I think of that soldier. Only now, for the first time, do I look up his name in ‘Lost Lives’. He was Ian Armstrong, a corporal in the Hussars, aged thirty two, married with one child, and lived in Hampshire. According to the British army he was hit in the chest while going to the aid of another soldier, after two Ferret armoured cars, which had crossed into County Monaghan, where ambushed on their return journey.

What brought up this subject of the dead was that my friend Jim Gibney, in reaction to last week’s IRA announcement that it had put some arms ‘beyond use’, wrote a very moving piece in ‘An Phoblacht/Republican News’. In the course of the article he said that his thoughts had become preoccupied with those comrades of his from Ballymacarret and the Markets who lost their lives in the struggle for freedom. I think he was not alone, in weighing up the heavy price in suffering and sacrifice we have all paid, and I think his words are well worth repeating as we come to terms with this huge gamble that the republican leadership has taken:

‘The IRA blood in my veins told my heart that the IRA did not need to do what they did; that the British Government and David Trimble were not worthy of such a huge move from the IRA; that they were not entitled to it because they had failed the test of the Peace Process.

‘But my head told me something entirely different. My head told me the IRA was right; that no matter how difficult it was for republicans, and it is more difficult than the IRA’s ceasefire of 1994, the IRA had to save the Peace Process and only they were brave enough to do it.’