It is not that easy to depict in fiction the mind of a child: the innocence, the naivety, the vulnerability, the ignorance, sensitivity, the misperceptions, the misreading of the adult world.
Yet, Michael Flavin* has achieved that objective quite brilliantly, beautifully and sadly in One Small Step. His novel smacks of authenticity, this first-person narrative in the voice of ten-year-old Danny Cronin growing up in Birmingham’s Irish community at the time of the 1974 IRA pub bombings which killed twenty-one people.
His community lives with an omnipresent and profound irony: fleeing poverty and unemployment, or escaping the conflict back home in Derry or Belfast, but relying for their welfare and well-being on the very state ultimately, historically and morally responsible for their plight. Being grateful and resentful at the same time gives rise to a split personality but is countered by the strength and consolation of remaining close-knit outsiders, pining for home, clinging to their Irishness, their Catholic religion, and their rebel songs about Ireland’s long fight for freedom.
Danny has been to the Digbeth Irish centre and observes the respect the crowd gives to one singer, James McDaid: ‘He sings some nights and there’s shushing because people want to listen. He sings slowly like it’s a hymn, but he doesn’t sing about God. He sings about Ireland instead … Jamesie had bright blue eyes. His tie was pulled down like he was late for school . . . smiling and singing was what he did.’
Shortly afterwards McDaid is killed in a premature explosion while planting a bomb at a telephone exchange in Coventry. As his body is about to be flown out of Birmingham airport there are explosions in two pubs in the city centre. These are described graphically and are horrific. A number of men travelling to McDaid’s funeral in Belfast are arrested within hours of the blasts. The police are ecstatic that they have caught ‘the bombers’ and brutalise their prisoners, forcing them to make false confessions. (Known as the Birmingham Six it would be seventeen years before these innocent men were released.)
Danny’s parents also know some of the people arrested. The Irish community is in shock, in turmoil, and knows it will have to bear the backlash. Raids and arrests follow and scores of people are deported from Britain.
Older people here in Ireland, republican supporters, will know those feelings of demoralisation and, indeed, shame, that accompanied disastrous IRA bombings in which innocent people lost their lives. Imagine how many times magnified that was for the isolated Irish in Britain after the Birmingham Bombs and other IRA killings. Homes and businesses were attacked, windows smashed. They were demonised; there were calls for their expulsion, for the reintroduction of hanging. Irish workers were assaulted on the shop floor, friendships irrevocably fractured. Kids at school were beaten up and subjected to racist abuse.
In the midst of this atmosphere of terror and fear arrives Eamonn, an unwanted guest at the Cronin home, who insinuates himself into the family. My one criticism is that his character is a bit of an O’Casey-like stereotype—a drunk, a braggart and a bully, with questionable principle and one principal objective in mind. It is he—this cypher for Irish patriotism—who devastates poor Danny’s life and happiness.
Danny dotes on his mother who rations her affection, being distracted by her unhappy, unsatisfactory existence. Danny wants to be an astronaut when he grows up, and, inspired by books like Destination Mars on space travel, he writes unread stories for his mother—and, later, a plaintive poem. This parallel text adds immensely to the pathos of the narrative: ingeniously, how a child’s imagination sublimates into fiction his troubled life and sadness as a coping mechanism. It is also, at times, extremely funny.
The increasingly empty family home descends into slovenry. Danny is left to look after himself, noticing the grime on the collar of his unwashed school shirt. Towards the end of the novel he becomes hardened, embittered, disillusioned and sceptical, yet he is still a child—but capable of escape into the heavens, towards the stars.
This is a brilliant debut novel by Michael Flavin whose day job is as a lecturer in Kings’s College, London, but he is certainly a gifted writer and I look forward to his next novel.
Absolutely recommended reading!
– Danny Morrison, December 2023