Have you forgotten yet? …


Watching the commemorations at Thiepval for the Battle of the Somme which began 100 years ago today I was filled with nostalgia for a lost age: 22nd June 2016 – the day before my country voted to leave the European Union.


I am familiar with this, and other, First World War cemeteries from several school trips to the battlefields.  My students read extracts from poems, plays and novels at the exact locations in France and Belgium where the terrifying violent events took place. This extract from The War Graves by Northern Irish poet Michael Longley is an example of what we read at Thiepval.

The headstones wipe out the horizon like a blizzard
And we can see no farther than the day they died,
As though all of them died together on the same day
And the war was that single momentous explosion.

Today, however, it was the great and the good who read extracts.  Shivering, rain-showered school children from France, Britain and Ireland, merely laid wreaths on each individual grave in the serried ranks of simple, fanned out stones.


As the bugler played the Last Post tears issued from my eyes in concert with drops of rain squeezed from the lowering grey skies overhead.  The skies seemed to weep for the foolishness of those who promote nationalism above friendship and communal endeavour.  Those in power in both 1916 and 2016 are careless of those who are vulnerable.

Today our outgoing Prime Minister, David Cameron, sat and stood shoulder to shoulder with the presidents of France and Ireland; a position which must have seemed ironic to others as well as me.


Huw Edward’s, dignified and grave commentary did not, however, deal with this irony.  But it seemed obvious from Cameron’s shamed face and stance that he was grieving, not only for the millions of dead soldiers but for his own cowardly and destructive decision to call a referendum – mainly it seems to defeat Nigel Farage, who is not even a member of parliament, and whose disgusting party UKIP has only one representative in the House of Commons.

Simultaneously, back in London, having stabbed his erstwhile colleague, Boris Johnson, in the back, Michael Gove, a former education secretary (who was so hated by teachers that Cameron had remove him from his post) images.jpegattempted to bribe Conservative voters, with promises of money for the NHS, in his efforts to become an unelected prime minister.  I am ashamed of my country and its farcical leaders and, it is almost with glee that I watch them, across all political parties, self-destruct.  I am proud to be living in Ireland where the flag of the European Union still flies beside the trídhathach na hÉireann.  Not to say that the Irish have never been guilty of what Tisdall (see below) describes as ‘aggressively chauvinistic nationalism’.

I am filled with gloom and dread when I think of the future of my country and what may happen to the younger generation for whom, amongst other generations, the soldiers of the First World War fought.  In the Guardian Simon Tisdall paints a sorry picture of ‘England’s inexorable decline‘.

I am terrified by the current wave of racist attacks and slurs and by what may happen when those who voted to leave the EU find out that there is still a shortage of ‘proper’ jobs and reasonable housing.  I am terrified of what will happen when the cash-starved NHS cannot bring ex-pat nurses and doctors to heal the sick.  And I am terrified that when I am truly old there will be no kind Eastern European, South East Asian and African carers to watch over my failing body and mind.

As is so often the case I turn to W.B. Yeats for the necessary words:

Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;
Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,
The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere
The ceremony of innocence is drowned;
The best lack all conviction, while the worst
Are full of passionate intensity.

Still, I’d like to be optimistic like Jeanette Winterson who wrote in the Guardian about a new story for England and a new party for the left.  I’m with her.  Three cheers for the Equality Party.

Works cited

Longley, M. The War Graves

Sassoon, S. Aftermath

Yeats, W. B. The Second Coming


This Orient Isle by Jerry Brotton

But such a form as Grecian goldsmiths make

Of hammered gold and gold enamelling

To keep a drowsy emperor awake;

Or set upon a golden bough to sing

To lords and ladies of Byzantium

Of what is past, or passing, or to come.

English readers of This Orient Isle would think of Shakespeare’s lines ‘this sceptred isle … this precious stone set in the silver sea’ from Richard II, but the Irish would probably remember Yeats’s poem Sailing to Byzantium.

Unknown.jpegLike the final stanza of that poem, the pages of the book are filled with references to oriental gold. Ironically, for lovers of Yeats’s poem, Brotton tells of a gift, from Queen Elizabeth I to Sultan Murad III, not the other way around, of a clockwork organ which was played, in 1599, to entertain ‘the lords and ladies of Byzantium’ in the same palace that Yeats chose for his golden mechanical bird. The Sultan was not ‘drowsy’ but delighted, and offered the organ-maker, Thomas Dallam, his choice of the palace concubines. It seems that Dallam merely accepted a bag of gold.

This Orient Isle explains Elizabeth’s alliances with the Ottoman and Persian Empires as well as the Moroccan Sultanate, relationships which frequently distracted her from her ‘disastrous military campaign to try to crush Catholic rebellion in Ireland’.

The Rainbow Portrait depicts Elizabeth in oriental fabrics

Although Brotton does not dwell on it, the narrative suggests many parallels to Europe’s current relations with the Islamic world. As Edward Said points out in his theory of Orientalism, Judo-Christian Europeans often see Muslims as the ‘Other’, as something alien and dangerous. Said argues that because of misunderstanding or ignorance, we cast all Muslims as the enemy in the ‘war on terror’.

Brotton sets out to detail and analyse, the process by which Protestant England, with her queen who was to be excommunicated in 1570, was seeking an alliance with this ‘Other’. England was struggling against against Catholic Spain, France and the Holy Roman Empire who had a stranglehold on trade. In 1566, the Bishop of Winchester wrote ‘the Pope is a more perilous enemy unto Christ, than the Turk: and Popery more idolatrous than Turkery’.

The English merchants and explorers, like many current Europeans, did not have much of an understanding of Islam; one of them, Anthony Jenkinson explained, in 1558, the difference between Sunni and Shi’a in terms of their facial hair: ‘the Persians will not cut the hair of their upper lips, as the Bukharians and all other Tartars do’. The task of these emissaries, after all, was not theological but mercantile. In pursuit of trade Jenkinson tackled the frozen wastes of the North West Passage and arrived in Persia after a long and hazardous trek via Moscow. He found that the heavy cloth that he offered for sale was of more interest in the cold climes of Russia than in the warmth of Persia where he saw ‘golden and silken garments’.

Another traveller was Henry Roberts, the first English Ambassador to Morocco (1585).  Roberts, who had been a soldier, was settled in Ireland after a period of quashing insurrection. Not only was he reluctant to ‘yield his place’ in Ireland, but he had no experience of trade or diplomacy. Brotton writes that to ‘a soldier like Roberts, used to the monoglot world of England and Ireland and its stark religious divisions between Protestantism and Catholicism, the multi-confessional and polyglot world of Marrakesh must have come as a massive shock’. In the three years that he was there, however, Roberts seems to have spent more time engaged in military and political matters than commerce. He traded munitions and agitated for the Moroccan emperor, al-Mansur, to join an anti-Spanish league.

Roberts was working under the auspices of the Earl of Leicester, as was a later adventurer, Anthony Sherley. After Leicester’s death Sherley’s patron was the ‘equally intemperate’ Robert Devereux, 2nd Earl of Essex, who would, the following year, be attempting to subdue O’Neill in Ireland.

Sherley is described as ‘a born intriguer, a complete opportunist’ and ‘ a completely sinister person’. Nevertheless, shortly after his arrival in Persia in 1598, Sherley’s relationship with Shah Abbas was, states Brotton closer than ‘that of any other Elizabethan Englishman and Muslim ruler’. Extraordinarily, by 1599, Sherley was able to claim ‘the right to represent the shah’s interests in Europe and to act like a Persian Mizra (prince) with the authority to mingle with kings and emperors’. Now he ‘was proposing to broker a grand anti-Ottoman alliance between Persia and Europe’s Catholic rulers’. It is not surprising that he was never able to return to England.

It is surprising that in 1888 a pamphlet written by the Reverend Scott Surtees suggested that Sherley was, in fact, the author of Shakespeare’s plays. Surtees argued that Sherley knew the ‘habits and the ways, the customs, dresses, manners, laws of almost every known nation’ and obsessed that the name Antonio, used in so many plays, came from Sherley’s own forename, Anthony.  Whether or not Sherley was ‘he who wrote these plays’, Brotton, himself, is extremely interested in Shakespeare’s works and has searched through them, like a monkey looking for fleas.

Abd al-Wahid bin Masoud bin Muhammad al-Annuri

In his first paragraph, Brotton, writes of Abd al-Wahid bin Masoud bin Muhammad al-Annuri as ‘a tall, dark, bearded man’ who in ‘is instantly distinguished from the crowd by his long black robe (thawb), bright white linen turban and the huge richly decorated steel scimitar, a Maghreb nimcha, which hangs from his waist’.  The implication, made clear later in the introduction, is that this man was the inspiration for Othello.  Brotton, states that ‘it is possible to discern some of the local raw material on which Shakespeare might have drawn for his portrayal of the noble Moor.’ The Morrocan envoy was in London in 1600-1601, the latter being the year that Shakespeare started writing Othello. But Brotton’s rather pedestrian recounting of the story of Othello in the chapter ‘More than a Moor’, along with his foregrounding of every possible reference to the Orient (such as the word ‘surely’ in Twelfth Night being an obvious pun on the name Sherley) are much less convincing and exciting than his account of Elizabethan deeds of derring-do.

Brotton, J.  This Orient Isle: Elizabethan England and  the Islamic World.  2015. London: Allen Lane.

This review was first published in the Irish Examiner on 28th May 2016.


Is it cos I is black?

The 2000 iconic catchphrase Is it cos I is black? from Ali G. is not a line in Joe Penhall’s play Blue/Orange, revived now at the Young Vic in Southwark, London.  But it could well be (I’ll be coming back to that).  I did not see the original production in 2000 at the National Theatre as I could not afford the theatre ticket AND the train ticket down to London from Cambridge.  This time I FLEW from Cork to London to see it, having received an email from one of my former A Level Drama and Theatre Studies students, Daniel Kaluuya, who has a role in it:

“Hey Miss, Long time no talk, been swamped with work so haven’t been able to reach out.  I’m in another play, called Blue/Orange at the Young Vic. We open tomorrow, just thought I’d let you know and say I’d love you to come.  Hope you’re well!  Speak soon.”

I snapped up a flight, a hotel room and a preview ticket (he likes my feedback before press night) and found myself, last Wednesday evening, being marched by ushers through a simulation of a psychiatric hospital, over-lit and under-furnished, on my way through labyrinthine corridors, to my seat.  Already disorientated, I was shocked to see ‘my boy’ had seemingly grown three inches upwards as well lost his cool: “Yeah yeah yeah yeah, makes me jumpy”.

Daniel Kaluuya in Blue/Orange at the Young Vic 2016. Credit: Alistar Muir

In the play, Penhall discusses ideas of cultural imperialism and ethnocentricity – not only in the area of Shepherd’s Bush, where he lived, but also, specifically, in psychiatric hospitals.  Christopher (Daniel Kaluuya), is the patient who has been sectioned for 28 days for doing ‘something funny’ in the market.  His young psychiatrist, Bruce (Luke Norris) has diagnosed Borderline Personality Disorder but is now concerned that it is more serious: schizophrenia.  The older consultant, Robert (David Haig) is called in to consider a longer stay in hospital.  Much of the play revolves around their power struggle: the compassionate idealist versus the budget-conscious realist.  Robert argues that, “Schizophrenia is the worst pariah … it isn’t newsworthy… it isn’t curable.”  Bruce accuses his superior of racism because of Robert’s references to Christopher’s “people” and “community” and his statement “where he comes from” as if it were somewhere other than Shepherd’s Bush.  Bruce probes: “But … you’re saying … what you’re really saying is Christopher’s … unable to distinguish between realistic and utterly unrealistic notions because … what…? Because he’s black?” Is it cos he is black?

There is a serious issue about BAME patients in mental health care.  Only the other day Jacqui Dyer and Patrick Vernon wrote an article in the Guardian entitled How Can Mental Health Services deliver better care for black patients?  But my concern goes far beyond this in terms of racism.  I see it all around me.  When I got off the plane in Cork, having seen Daniel in the play, I spotted that the drivers of the two cabs at the front of the queue at the airport were black.  Customers in front of me bypassed these cabs and got into the third and fourth in the queue, which were driven by white men.  Why would they do that?  Why would the white drivers allow queue-jumping?  Is it cos they is black?

Furthermore, in spite of his determination to air the issue, Penhall opens himself to challenge.  Why are two out of three of his characters white?  Why do they have more lines than the black character?  In this production why is the black character subjected to on-stage incarceration in a subterranean moat (like the one at the Zoological Society of London’s Whipsnade) even when he is supposed to be off-stage?

David Haig (Robert), Daniel Kaluuya (Christopher) and Luke Norris (Bruce) in Blue/Orange by Joe Penhall @ Young Vic. Directed by Matthew Xia. ©Tristram Kenton 05/16

OK.  The white doctors are educated and articulate and Christopher is not.  He is poor and lonely and impotent in society.  But Penhall gives Christopher lines which made me uneasy.  His references to drugs and Red Stripe beer are jokingly directed at his doctors’ stereotypical views, but nonetheless, they are written for delivery.  His verbal tics “know what I mean?” and “innit” are uncut so that he seems unable to express himself precisely.  Matthew Xia directs him to pace the stage crabwise as if he were one of Whipsnade’s caged chimpanzees peering out at spectators – as often as not he was actually clasping an orange!  I wanted to heckle or walk out in protest.  For me there is something implicitly racist in the conception of the play and in this production.  If I were Xia I would have asked Penhall for some rewrites (the play is too long anyway) and I would have worked against any possibility of a racist presentation of the black character.  The writer and the director are, in my view, culpable, at the very least, of insensitivity and, possibly, of something much worse.Unknown.jpeg

But having recently seen Undercover, a series about a black family, written by Peter Moffat, I wonder how authentic any black character can be when written by a white writer.  And I also wonder what it’s like for Daniel to play a black man written by a white man?  I did not ask him.  Instead I take comfort in the fact that he is writing himself – he was even writing scripts for Skins when I was teaching him – and I hope that he will write more credible black characters.

What I did say to him, when he rushed out – still only 5’10” – after the show was “Are you going to be all right playing that character?”  I was worried about the mental, emotional and physical strain on him, night after night.  “He’s psychotic!”  I said.  Daniel merely smiled and said he’d “zen it out” and patted me gently  on the shoulder – so he’s still cool too.  “Don’t worry miss. Thanks for coming, it means a truckload to me!”

As to Daniel’s performance, you only need to look at the images and the reviews.  Here is the final paragraph of Dominic Cavendish’s review in The Telegraph: “The laurels go, though, to Daniel Kaluuya, as the piggy-in-the-middle of their tug of war; by turns slouching, casual, charismatic, erratic, vulnerable, fierce, propelled out of his wits by their wrangling, he dances on the border between the bloke next door and the psycho you’d cross the street to avoid.  He’s a mind-game played on our own perceptions and prejudices. My prognosis: unmissable.”

That’s my boy.  Or is it cos he is black?


Don’t miss the link on my afterword!  Is it cos he is black?




‘The Plough and the Stars’ Sean O’Casey

Imagine, if you will, my dismay at handing over €70 for two theatre tickets at the Cork Opera House!  I had just paid €36 for two tickets to Observe the Sons of Ulster Marching Towards the Somme (Frank McGuiness) at the Abbey Theatre, Dublin, and €18 for two cinema tickets at the Gate Multiplex, Cork.  How could this be value for money?

The Plough and the Stars. Abbey Theatre. Directed by Wayne Jordan. Photo: Ros Kavanagh 2012

But… The Plough and the Stars…?  I love the play having seen it twice before, once in 2012 on the Abbey stage, directed by Wayne Jordan and starring the award-winning, Denise Gough (see above)

plough and the stars the.jpg
Poster for The Plough and the Stars. Directed by Bill Bryden. 1977

and before that in 1977, when the late  Susan Fleetwood was nominated for an Olivier at the National Theatre in London (see left).  It is always a must-see.

So clearly, as it was on my door-step, this visit was a no-brainer.  And I have rarely been disappointed by Abbey Theatre shows, all previously seen at the Abbey itself.

I am not such a fan of the Cork Opera House as the stage is too large for many visiting sets and the auditorium is too large for most actors’ projection.  It works better as a backdrop for concerts and opera, as one might expect knowing its origin as a venue for local productions of Gilbert and Sullivan operettas.

Perhaps I shall have to pop over for the National’s 2016 production, directed by Howard Davies, especially as I note that the Travelex tickets are only £15.

The Plough and the Stars Publicity image for 2016 production at the National Theatre, London

But what of the show I saw on Friday?  I was not impressed by my seat in the Upper Circle and I was unable to follow the dialogue during the first half as I could not hear properly even though the actors were forced to shout to reach audience members at the back.  It was better after I popped into the front row of the stalls during the interval.

What’s to like?  What should make you rush to Wexford, Limerick or Galway to catch this production?  The poster is probably enough to put you off your full Irish breakfast.

Poster for the Abbey Theatre’s 2016 production of The Plough and the Stars.

Even the waiter in the House Café warned me, ‘Oh it’s very contemporary but worth a try”.  And my friend Roy said he did not like the look of the trainers.  But I said to him ‘Go.  Get a ticket for the last night in Cork’.  Did he?  I don’t know, but I hope so.

It’s a production of amazing clarity.  I absolutely love the work of its director Sean Holmes.   I first saw his work when he was with Filter.  I saw their Twelfth Night at the Edinburgh Festival in 2007.  I saw the production again, twice, at the Tricycle Theatre in Kilburn.  I saw Filter’s  Caucasian Chalk Circle at the National in London.  I saw Holmes’s  A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Three Sisters and  Blasted at the Lyric, Hammersmith, where he is artistic director.  For the latter I had to spend some of the time kneeling on the floor and peeping over the seat in front like a small child watching Dr. Who.  I would probably cross an ocean to see one of his productions.

In an excellent interview with Peter Crawley of the Irish Times (see also his review), Holmes states that the Irish ‘might get very, very cross that some English bloke has come over and desecrated a classic’.  It is easy to see that some audience members might consider the production a desecration.  And it is shocking to see the naturalism taken out of the play.  But I shouldn’t have been shocked.  After all Holmes treatment of  Three Sisters was his rebellion against the ‘many British productions [which] seem to treat Chekhov as if he was a Victorian gentleman’.

For The Plough and the Stars Holmes has chosen to take the Brechtian, alienating, approach of acknowledging ‘the audience a lot. And talk[ing] to them. Because I think that the play lends itself to that. It’s an odd mixture, a sort of presentation of reality as opposed to a facsimile. You’re really aware, all of the time, that you’re watching a play’.  So the style is declarative.  The actors are choreographed, for much of the time, to face the audience rather than each other, and they directly address the audience.

The non-naturalistic set, designed by Jon Bausor, and which I think is excellent, is minimalistic and centred around a three-storey lighting tower, representing the tenement block.  Excitingly, and in front of the audience, the scaffold is dropped onto its side in Act Four to represent, I think, the breaking of the dream.  Characters huddle inside it like wounded ants in their nest.  British soldiers bestride the top of the horizontal structure and British gunshots are notably far more powerful than earlier ones from the rebel snipers.

Slightly embarrassed by his status as an Englishman, Holmes explains that he sees the play as ‘an argument with Ireland . . . This play is as much about 1926 as it was about 1916. It was an argument with the new state and the betrayal of the promise, as O’Casey saw it, of what the [Plough and the Stars] flag represented for an alternative type of state’.

At the same time Holmes is confident of the play’s contemporaneity: ‘O’Casey was reacting against an oversimplification and a mythicisation of a very complicated, messy and contradictory event. So what you put on stage is all of those things: ideas of nationalism, the complexity of the continued relationship with Britain, the relationship with gender. All those things remain contemporary’.  Holmes achieves the contemporary feel with costumes and props, as well as songs: there is a mic. stand available to the actors for use whenever they need to give voice.  But all these technical elements span the century which has just elapsed, with a 1940s frock for Nora, a 1980s sofa bed and songs from the nineteenth century to rave music.  So the play is seen to be about all eras and all places – generalising from the specific as Brecht would have done.


Eileen Walsh as Bessie in The Plough and the Stars. Abbey Theatre. Directed by Sean Holmes. 2016.

Performances are strong, although I thought Ciarán O’Brien, as the young covey, played for laughs in a heavy handed manner.  Eileen Walsh, first seen in Enda Walsh’s Disco Pigs, as Bessie Burgess, moved me the most.  Holmes makes the final section between three women: Bessie, Mrs Grogan (Janet Moran) and Nora (Kate Stanley Brennan) the feminist centre of the play. It feels like Masha’s final speech in Three Sisters‘They’re leaving us… one of them’s gone for good… for ever!  We’re left alone … to start our lives all over again.  We must go on living … we must go on living…’.

Writing in the Guardian, Helen Meany sums up the production succinctly, ‘Scraping off the accretions of performance history, this production succeeds in being very moving, while asking insistent questions about social justice that often get lost in the fray’.

Works cited

Chekhov, A. Three Sisters. Moscow: Adolf Marks. 1901

O’Casey, S. The Plough and the Stars. London: Faber Plays. 2001.

Guests Of The Nation by Frank O’Connor

I have read the story for the first time – having only just heard of it!  The tale is a familiar one: the execution of Englishmen by Irishmen, in reprisal for English executions of Irish.  But there is something different about the way in which this story is written.  This blog is about what I noticed in the story but, as I have not read any criticism, I may just be repeating what everyone else has said.

Storyboard for short film Guests of a Nation directed by Daniel Speers. Swift Speers Productions.  2012.

The setting of Guests Of The Nation is clearly of central importance and there is a visual element about it which has led amateur and professional filmmakers, as well as theatre groups, to adapt it.  And its place in the genre of Irish Literature is assured by its stereotypical location – a cottage by a bog. But I am writing only of O’Connor’s use of language.

Note first that the title of the story, unlike that of the short film, incorporates the definite article, ‘The’ rather than the indefinite article ‘A’.  So Ireland is not a nation; she is the nation.  And this, it seems to me, illustrates a struggle that Ireland and Irish writers have engaged in, not only since 1916, and not only since 1926, but for many centuries.  Edward Spenser in A View of the State of Ireland (1596) presented an analysis of Ireland and Irishness, but this was a patronising, patrician, and, of course, English view.

How then is it possible for Ireland to establish herself as herself, rather than, what Edward Said terms ‘The Other’?   Even now, in 2016, the island of Ireland is still divided, preventing her from becoming,  as Donne said, ‘an island entire of itself’.  In using the definite article ‘The’ O’Connor is, as many Irish writers do, and have done, exploring the essence of his country and, perhaps, trying to contribute to the creation of Irishness.

In his ‘Nation’ O’Connor places some ‘Guests’ who are part of a occupying force.  The word ‘Guests’ might, at first be seen as ironic as the English have over the centuries not been invited guests so much as resented imperialists.  So what has O’Connor to say about this ‘Nation’ and these ‘Guests’? It is necessary, therefore, to see how he formulates the characters and motivations of the ‘Guests’.

Frank O'Connor.jpg
Frank O’Connor     (1903-1996)

This title, Guests Of The Nation, as titles often are, is key to understanding the text.  But I think the dialogue is even more important in explaining O’Connor’s point.  Something strange is afoot.  Register.  Cadence.  Syntax.  Accent.  The formal register, is usually deployed by English or Anglo-Irish characters in Irish Literature, but in this story, on the whole, it resides in the mouths of the Irish characters. One such, Donovan, who is described as having an ‘uncommon broad accent’ speaks thus: ‘And what difference does it make? The enemy have our prisoners as long or longer, haven’t they?’  There is no attempt to mimic an accent and the syntax is formal.  Donovan’s language is not recorded as regional.  Nor does it identify him as ‘slow’ although the narrator, the oddly named, Bonaparte, defines him as such.

On the other hand, one English character,  Hawkins, is almost more Irish than the Irish.  He knows ‘the countryside as well as we did and something more’.  Hawkins has also learnt to dance Irish dances, such as ‘The Walls of Limerick’ and ‘The Siege of Ennis” although he could not teach English dances to the Irish as ‘our lads at that time did not dance foreign dances on principle’.  O’Connor gives Hawkins a kind of Cockney ‘brogue’: ‘Mary Brigid Ho’Connell was asking abaout you and said ‘ow you’d a pair of socks belonging to ‘er young brother’.  The alternative spelling of ‘about’ seems to be O’Connor’s attempt to locate Hawkins’s language in a particular location and a particular class.  Additionally Hawkins loses the ‘H’ in his name, becoming, when addressed or described, ‘Awkins, but in his speech he adds unnecessary ‘H’s whilst aspirating those which should be pronounced.   ‘And you believe that God created Hadam and Hadam created Shem and Shem created Jehoshophat?  You believe all the silly hold fairy-tale about Heve and Heden and the happle?’

Clearly O’Connor is deploying humour here, as he does when he names the other Englishman Belcher, in spite of the fact that this character is generally silent.  When he does speak, Belcher invariably uses the word “chum”.  This word is slang, emanating from the upperclass English students of the University of Oxford, and means a friend.

Whether Belcher intended it or not his Irish guards choose to adopt both the word and the sentiment.  They become ‘chums’ of their English ‘Guests’.   At the point when the imminent execution is revealed Hawkins protests ‘Me and Bonaparte are chums’ receiving the reply from Bonaparte, who will take part in the killing, ‘I mean it, chum’.  There follows a heated discussion between the ‘chums’ opposing two ideas, that of ‘duty’ to a brigade or a country to that of being ‘chums’ and sticking together.  Bonaparte seems to agree with his ‘chums’ that the fellowship between men is more central to the human condition than any idea of ‘duty’.  Nevertheless he is complicit and active in the shooting of his ‘Guests’.  He is sticking to the principle that prevents the Irish from dancing English dances.  And also to the principle of saving his own life in the face of ‘men on the Brigade you daren’t let nor hinder without a gun in you hand’.

poster: http://www.swiftspears.com 2012

But it is O’Connor’s use of the oh-so-English word ‘chum’ that strikes me as central to an understanding of the story.  Despite the backstory of this execution being in retaliation, O’Connor positions the Irish characters as oppressors; in cold blood they kill their ‘chums’ and sink them ‘in the windy bog’.  The Englishness of the word ‘chum’, a word which Bonaparte states ‘lingers painfully in my memory’, permeates the text throughout and suggests the power of the English nation, and her insistence that, even when it is a bog, ‘there’s some corner of a foreign field/That is forever England’.  It’s as if O’Connor is portraying Ireland as still ‘The Other’, as still unable to eschew that which is English.  The most senior Irish officer, Donovan, says, ‘Why the hell should your people take out four prisoners and shoot them in cold blood upon a barrack square?’  His idiom is English.  Through dialogue O’Connor subtly and covertly acknowledges that the power of England, English and Englishness is still overwhelming any attempt to create Ireland as entire to herself.

Works cited

Brooke, R. The Soldier Gloucester: New Numbers Magazine January 1915. Print.

Donne, J. Donne’s Devotions (1624) Cambridge University Press. 1923. Print.

O’Connor, F. Guests Of The Nation. London: Macmillan. 1931. Print.

Said, E. Orientalism. London: Penguin. 1977. Print.

Speers, D. Guests Of A Nation. Dir. Daniel Speers. SpearsSwift Productions. 2012. Film.


A Little Life by Hanya Yanagihara


From gestation to publication A Little Life has had a controversial existence.  For this blog I am not going to analyse that discussion but, whilst referring to it, to give my own reaction to the novel.  The New Yorker, although the words are used positively, described the novel as subversive and graphic: I have read only about half of it and feel very uneasy.

At first A Little Life appears to be a paean to male friendship.  In an interview with Tim Adams, of the Guardian, Yanagihara states that she does not believe in marriage and sees friendship as ‘a purer relationship’.  This reminds me, oddly, of D.H.Lawrence’s interrogation of Rupert Birkin’s two relationships in Women in Love:  Ursula and Rupert alongside Rupert and Gerald.


As a young girl I was horrified to read Rupert’s mimicry of  Ursula, when he accuses of her of subconsciously yelling, ‘Do you love me? Yield knave or die’.  Ursula, as I did, insists on the supremacy of love over everything.  She wants to be everything to Rupert and for him to repeatedly tell her so.  But Rupert explains that she can never be enough for him; he needs an additional friendship with a man to be satisfied.  As in Rupert and Gerald’s relationship friendships in A Little Life contain, at times, homoerotic elements.

Oliver Reed and Alan Bates as Gerald and Rupert in the film of Women in Love      MGM 1969

In choosing four male friends for her protagonists, Yanagihara initially probes close, loving, long-lasting friendships between men.  Unusually she relied on a set of photographic portraits (collected over a number of years), not only as inspiration, but also to construct the narrative arc of the novel.  Two of these can be seen below; the remainder are on her Pinterest page.

Vestigial Velasquez by Geoffrey Chadsey 2010: The Guardian

The portraits are disturbing and I think it is by studying them that a reader can best understand the novel.  Critics have likened it to Nabokov’s Lolita, or to something in the horror genre by Stephen King, or to Donna Tartt’s  The Secret History.  Yanagihara herself speaks of A Little Life as being like ‘certain fairy tales’ and, in agreeing with her, I see a similarity to the dramatic and horrifying abuse explored in Martin McDonagh’s play, The Pillowman, which is also inspired by children’s stories.

The fact that there are no space breaks in the novel is important for Yanagihara as she wanted the reading experience to be immersive, and that may be why reading A Little Life makes me feel anxious and unhappy: resentful, perhaps, of being placed in the position of a voyeur.  Unsuprisingly Yanagihara found herself fighting with her editor about ‘how much a reader can take’ and seems to want the reader to feel complicit and ‘intrusive’.  It’s hard for the reader, exposed to such relentless pain, to bear it.  Before deciding to face the challenge of completing the novel I found it necessary to read reviews and research the writer.

The Backwards Man in his Hotel Room by Diane Arbus: icollection

‘I wanted there to be something too much about the violence in the book, but I also wanted there to be an exaggeration of everything, an exaggeration of love, of empathy, of pity, of horror. I wanted everything turned up a little too high. In the end you are really left on your own.’ Yanagihara’s credo cued me to think of W.C. Pilley’s reaction to the publication of Women in Love: ‘I do not claim to be a literary critic, but I know dirt when I smell it, and here is dirt in heaps – festering, putrid heaps which smell to high heaven.’ This is my response to A Little Life. I know that such abuses take place in the world, and are taking place at this moment but, in reading on, and being interested, I feel as if I am allowing or even encouraging the cruelty to continue.

Yanagihara is interested in the concept of ‘not getting better’ and states in an interview with David K. Wheeler that ‘if you are going to end a book without hope, then it has to be a hard-won without hope’ as she thinks ‘otherwise it’s just you showing how dark you are’.  So her aim seems to be that the reader buys into hope and that the hope will evaporate. In Women in Love Gerald finally finds the end to his suffering, ‘Yet why be afraid? It was bound to happen. To be murdered!  He was bound to be murdered, he could see it. This was the moment when the death was uplifted, and there was no escape.’

‘ He could feel the blow descending, he knew he was murdered. Vaguely wandering forward, his hands lifted as if to feel what would happen, he was waiting for the moment when he would stop, when it would cease. It was not over yet.’

A Little Life is not over for me yet and I do not know what happens in the end other than, as for Gerald, friendship will not save Jude.  Jude is the patron saint of lost causes: sadly he proves to be a lost cause despite his friends.

Works cited

Adams, T. Hanya Yanagihara: ‘I wanted everything turned up a little too high‘.  London: The Observer. 26th July 2016. Interview.

Lawrence, D.H. Women in Love. London: Thomas Seltzer. 1920

Pilley, W. C. John Bull 17th September 1921. Print.

Yanagihara, H. A Little Life. New York: Doubleday. 2015

Yanagihara, H., Wheeler, D.K. In Conversation. Youtube. January 26th 2016. Interview.

“abortive, monstrous or unkindly mixed”?

picture: the Guardian 


Looking at this face it is tempting to see dignity and compassion.

That is until you know that it is Radovan Karadžić, found guilty last week at the International Criminal Tribunal in the Hague; found guilty of ten out of eleven counts of genocide, crimes against humanity and other atrocities during the Balkan conflict in the 1990s.  The story has run and run, as indeed did Karadžić for years, disguising himself as a mystic faith-healer, so as to escape justice.


Veteran Guardian writer, Ed Vulliamy (62), has been involved in this story as an investigative reporter since the 1990s and has also written a book about it and about his relationship with Karadžić. In 2012, The War is Dead, Long Live the War. Bosnia: the Reckoning was reviewed by John Simpson for the Observer.  Vulliamy met Karadžić, several times: he took an ITN crew to film the concentration camps in Bosnia and, many years later, he visited him, at Karadžić’s request, in prison, before finally giving evidence at the trial.

Vulliamy is also a friend of Irish writer, Edna O’Brien (85), author of The Little Red Chairs  (2015). When she was researching the novel Vulliamy arranged for her to visit Karadžić’s trial. “I have an interest in and a great abiding fear of tyranny, and especially male tyranny”  explains O’Brien.

51r1ToSAS1L._SX317_BO1,204,203,200_In the novel O’Brien imagines that a character, Vlad Dragan, similar to Karadžić, ends up in a small town in Ireland.  The inhabitants seeing a face like the one at the top of this page, analyse it, as one might, as dignified and compassionate.  The novel deals with many things, but the images that stick in one’s head are the ones involving Fidelma, the heroine, and Vlad. Fidelma, childless and unhappily married, falls in love with, and becomes pregnant by, the newcomer.  Then, in a brutal scene, the baby miscarries as she is beaten by former associates of her lover.  Fidelma travels to Holland to attend the trial and requests a visit with Vlad.  There is also a dream sequence in which she meets him in the “conjugal room”.  O’Brien is fascinated by the seductive power of evil and stated in an interview with the Telegraph that she wanted to show “something of the suffering and the violations and the monstrousness of what is happening in the world”.  Fidelma suffers violation and some “monstrousness” but she is resilient and struggles to retrieve her sense of herself.  Many other women in the novel also show strength and fortitude in the face of “male tyranny”.

For this blog I have placed the image of Karadžić under my quotation from Milton as these words seem to encapsulate him: a man of great charisma who channeled his psychological talents into abominable cruelty, repressing his honour and compassion until they were, along with his victims, annihilated.


Works cited

O’Brien, E. The Little Red Chairs 2015 London: Faber & Faber. 2015. Print.

Vulliamy, E. The War is Dead, Long Live the War. Bosnia: the reckoning.  London: Vintage. 2013 Print.