“It would be spoiled entirely.”

This quotation from Not Oleanders by Danielle McLaughlin seems to sum up her collection of short stories Dinosaurs on Other Planets.  But maybe the word “would” is too positive.


The Ireland that McLaughlin depicts is, indeed, since the recession, another planet for her characters.  And they find themselves dinosaurs on it.  Their modus vivendi does not suit the reality of their diminished world.  Some characters, such as the unnamed female protagonist in In the Act of Falling, make huge efforts to maintain or improve their trammelled lives, whilst others, sink, almost motionless, into a quicksand of debt and hopelessness.  McLaughlin presents an Ireland which is hostile and punitive.

Open the book on almost any page and you will find that the things which could be good are getting spoiled.  Look on page four, in the story The Art of Foot-Binding and read the following description of a daughter, “She turned fourteen the previous July, and is suddenly grown…”.  The sentence continues ominously, “taller and broader”.  And then, “Her face, already too round to be pretty, has become rounder, and she has taken to wearing her long, brown hair, her best feature, in a tight bun”. This is uncomfortable reading.  It nods to the body-facism that feminists, such as myself, fight against.  Whose voice is this?  The mother, Janice, or McLaughlin herself?  Janice is certainly the focaliser but does the writer agree with the sentiments?  Becky, the unfortunate daughter is considered too fat by her mother, her father, her teacher and her peers.  Set a homework task to research foot-binding, she takes it literally and starts trying to reduce her feet by binding them.  McLaughlin may be suggesting that the media creates a similarly alien and  cruel environment for young women as the Chinese did when they broke the bones of girls’ feet and extracted their toe nails.

The stories contain frequent references to both female beauty and female slovenliness.  The extraordinary A Different Country, is set in a Donegal which is “almost too beautiful … the colours too pure, the light too fantastical” (113). On the other hand a young inhabitant, Pauline, is “good-looking in a raw, violent sort of way (114)” and is described in the shower as “naked: the distended belly, the hair, black and wet and sleek, writhing in worms around her shoulders” (119).  At the end, when fishermen have shot seals which interfered with their nets, the reader realises that, like Synge in The Aran Islands and like Lawless in Grania, McLoughlin is conflating the locals with their landscape.  Men, merciless, battle the sea for survival and their women are reduced to nothing more than seals, which have been wounded, but remain alive, “bleeding out” (124).  In this story, as in the others, what might have been beautiful is transformed, by McLaughlin’s pen, into something “remorseless”, “slime green and rotting” (124).

In an interview for The New Yorker McLaughlin states that her “characters tend to negotiate the world with a mixture of fear and wonder; for them, it is a place at once both beautiful and alien”.  Although she seems happy in her own life, living with her three children in the countryside, McLaughlin does not allow her characters much of the “beautiful” or the “wonder”.  In the story Not Oleanders, McLaughlin ends as follows: “The horses broke into a trot, then a canter.  Then they were barrelling downhill, their unkempt manes flying, their tails streaming out behind them.  The slope brought its own momentum, and they were galloping now, neighing and snorting and whinnying.  They thundered past, trampling on daises, forget-me-nots, buttercups.  And as they went by, she stepped back into the trees, to shelter from the clouds of yellow dust flung up by the chaos of their hooves” (91).  This is evocative sensual writing, but note words such as “trampling” and “chaos”.  The protagonist, Lily, feels that life and joy are galloping past her, leaving her to seek solitary shelter from the chaos left by those who can survive in an alien world of fear.

Works cited

Lawless, E. Grania: The Story of an Island. 1892. ed. Michael O’Flynn. Rev.ed. Brighton: Victorian Secrets, 2013. Print.

McLaughlin. D. Dinosaurs on Other Planets Dublin: The Stinging Fly Press. 2015. Print.

Synge, J. M. The Aran Islands. Introd. and ed. Tim Robinson. London: Penguin Twentieth Century Classics. 1992. Print.


The Dead School at the Everyman Theatre

Last night I saw this show.

Decadent Theatre, website

Well, I saw half of it.

My heart sunk when I arrived at the theatre and realised that the company was Decadent Theatre , director Andrew Flynn.  I had seen their adaptation of D C Pierre’s Vernon God Little, or, at least, the first half.  If only I had done some research first, rather than relying on the name Patrick McCabe, whose brilliant novels, The Butcher Boy and Breakfast on Pluto, I have read, along with seeing both excellent film versions.

I should apologise.  I am a theatre snob.  Living in London for the last fourteen years, teaching English and Drama and Theatre Studies, I have been an avid theatre goer.  I generally arrange about 20 trips per year for my students and I also go regularly, and often on my own, to other shows.  Many theatres, such as the National, the Young Vic and the Almeida, all excellent, arrange “teachers’ preview evenings” at low prices.

In London, there is so much theatre that discrimination is necessary.  I choose very carefully, using my knowledge of playwrights, directors, companies and actors.  In order to keep within budget I rarely venture into the West End.  Dragging myself out, after an exhausting day in an Inner London comprehensive school, taught me another strategy.  If it’s not good enough, leave at half time.  So I left Ben Wishaw’s Hamlet.  I left The Rose Tattoo and many other shows. Listing them here would make my readers even more irritated.  In self defence I would say that I have earned the title of aficionado, but I do admit to being a theatre snob.

Flynn used a playscript but, wanting to use a large ensemble, also drew on the novel.  The result is both messy and, unutterably dull.  As I saw in Vernon God Little Flynn has very few theatrical strategies to draw on.  He moves his chorus of eight from one part of the small set to another – always ensuring that they literally have their backs against a wall and are out of the way.  They form, in height order, a phalanx either upstage centre or stage left.  They deliver, in chorus, largely incomprehensible lines or songs.  Sometimes one or another will venture out to interact with the two central characters.  Then they are sucked back into the lumpen mass of the pyramid.  It’s about as boring and repetitive as doing the washing up.

The protagonists take turns in standing centre stage and declaiming, in addresses to the audience, their life histories.  Eyes are wide, mouths are fully open (although diction and projection are not ideal) and bodies are at full stretch as if to take up as much of the embarrassing space as possible.  Whilst the one has his moment of dominance the other sits slumped stage right, focussing in a vapid manner on the orator.  Then they swap places in an all too predictable manner.  The audience experience is rather like doing the drying up with a damp tea-towel.

The music was quite nice.  I particularly enjoyed a rendition of Killing Me Softly with His Song but even this felt ironic as that was exactly what I thought the show was doing to me.  So it was home for a glass of wine and a bit of quality TV.  Perhaps the service engineer will come and mend my dishwasher today.  That might put me me in a better mood?

Works cited

Decadent Theatre. The Dead School 2016 dir. Andrew Flynn. Performance.

Vernon God Little 2015 dir. Andrew Flynn. Performance.

Fox, Charles and Gimbel, Norman Killing Me Softly with His Song. 1971. Music.

McCabe, Patrick. Breakfast on Pluto. London: Picador. 1998. Print.

The Butcher Boy. London: Picador. 1992. Print.

Shakespeare, William.  Hamlet. perf. Ben Wishaw.  London: Old Vic. 2004. Performance.

Williams, Tenessee. The Rose Tattoo. London: Olivier Theatre. 2007. Performance.




A Brief History of Post-Colonial literary ideas

marlon james
Marlon James: Pic. The Guardian Newspaper

By a strange synchronicity I am reading A Brief History of Seven Killings at the same time as preparing for my unit on Colonial, Postcolonial and Transnational writing.  I have not addressed the concept of transnational literature before and am not entirely clear what the term means.  I think it is akin to globalisation; an idea that suggests that no text can belong to one national context.  We haven’t had the readings for transnational theory yet so I will concentrate on postcolonial theory for the purposes of this blog.

In his book The Wretched of the Earth, Frantz Fanon discusses how when a country is colonised its indigenous culture becomes stultified.  This made me wonder about post-colonial literature in terms of the richness and contemporaneity of culture that post-colonial writers have at their fingertips.  Is there a vacuum, where culture should be, left by the departing, and generally despised, imperialists?  Is the remembered culture of the nation sufficient to provide a context for literature?

Marlon James presents the reader with an almost entirely negative version of post-colonial Jamaican culture in A Brief History of Seven Killings.  The novel is peopled by gangsters, by corrupt police and politicians, and by dodgy CIA spooks.  Poverty is extreme, guns are numerous and dangerous drugs destroy lives.  In spite of “the singer” (Bob Marley) at the centre of the novel, Jamaican culture seems to be  rotten to the core; influenced by the worst aspects of their new “imperial master”: America.

Fanon also suggests that a newly-freed nation must produce literature for its own populace.  James’s novel, however, was largely ignored in Jamaica, although revered in America (where James now lives and teaches) and in the UK.  It was only when it won the Man Booker Prize in 2015 that Jamaican papers and magazines took an interest.

Another idea which is discussed in detail by the authors of In Praise of Creoleness, as well as Ngügï wa Thiong’o in The Language of African Literature is the language to be used by post-colonial writers. The argument is that they should write in the indigenous language of their country rather than in the language of their imperial oppressors.  In A Brief History James’s many character-narrators are each given a separate language of expression, including American English.  Some character-narratives in patois might be initially inaccessible to most readers requiring them to learn at least some of a new language.  In addition, one character-narrator (Josey Wales) ranges through a number of registers in order to communicate, via interior monologue, his views of other characters and events.

An idea, from Edward Said‘s Culture and Imperialism, is that post-colonial literature is in thrall, and not only through the language of expression, to the literature of the colonists: Western literature.  This takes, as I interpret it, two forms.  Either the new writers try to emulate writing that they consider great, such as Conrad, or they upend form and content to such an extent that the very reaction against Western literature pays it homage.

James’s novel, based on fact and spanning a large number of years, is necessarily mosaic in structure.  The multiple narrators help to cement it by reappearing every few chapters and corralling the 75 or so characters.  James states that many of these characters  represent a type of “Jamaican-ness” that he wants to portray.  So the novel, which is certainly not brief, takes the form demanded by the task that James undertakes: writing a complex and deeply thought-out novel about his homeland.  He is now preparing a script for HBO.

In spite of James’s day job, I do not imagine that he set out to interrogate theories of post-colonial literature.  But, had I the time and space, I would like to analyse his novel in detail, not only as an example of post-colonial literature but also in terms of transnational theory, whatever that is.

Works cited

Bernabé, J. Chamoiseau, P and Confiant, R. In Praise of Creoleness. trans. Taleb-Khyar, M. 1993. France: Gallimard. Print.

Fanon, F. The Wretched of the Earth. trans. Constance Farrington. 1963. UK: Grove Press. Print.

James, M. A Brief History of Seven Killings. 2014 London: Oneworld. Print.

Ngügï, wa Thiong’o. The Language of African Literature. 1986. London: Heinemann Educational. Print.

Said, E.W. Culture and Imperialism. 1993. New York: Vintage Books. Print.

And Then There Were None

I have revealed myself to myself as something of a hypocrite.  Whilst in theory I delight in the idea of a post-electric society in which people return to small agrarian communities, in practice I get in a rage if my beloved electricals do not work.  So on my return to the flat, after two weeks away, I found that storms Desmond and Eva had been at work: the internet had gone down and none of my favourite programmes had been recorded.  So what did happen in The Last Kingdom (a delightful pre-electric story) and The Bridge? Why was my bath water not running hot?  Everything seemed to be a disaster.  But, all the switches were refreshed, and I was anticipating the adaptation of Agatha Christie’s And Then There Were None .

Apparently pre-reviewers, especially in the Daily Mail were up in arms about the text being blighted with swearing and sex.  Sounds good to me.  Would, commentators speculated, Aidan Turner repeat his notorious  torso acting from Poldark?  Rumours suggested, yes!  I don’t mind that either, although, in the event, when he did so the stylist had arranged his towel in such a silly way that my attention was stolen by his knot.

Sophie Hannah wrote an impassioned piece in The Guardian in which she analyses the responses to the new adaptation of, what many consider to be, Christie’s greatest murder mystery.  For this novel, Christie eschews her stalwart detectives, Poirot and Marples, choosing instead, an extreme version of the country house mystery.  But, to complicate matters, this country house is located on an island off the Devon coast; an island which is cut off from the mainland in bad weather.  Storms, like Desmond and Eva, raged continuously during the action, causing one character to shout, in agony, that he could not bear the sound of the wind.  I sympathised, as we watched some of the series against the background of storm Frank:

WilsonEngraving“Blow winds and crack your cheeks, rage! blow!/You cataracts and hurricanoes spout!/Till you have drench’d our steeples, drown’d the cocks.” The rest of the three episodes were snatched from us by Frank, who interrupted our signal. He certainly “drench’d” our satellite dish.

If you did manage to see the show, or if you ever manage to see the show, you might want to read the screenwriter – Sarah Phelps’s interview in The Guardian.  What interests both women, Hannah and Phelps, is not only the incredible craft of the novel – killing off ten people, one by one, with the murderer apparently among them – but the tragic weight and intensity of the work.  It is not mere frivolity, they suggest, but serious moral argument.  And it’s great to see an Irish actor getting so much attention: apparently he could star as James Bond next!  If so, I shall be sure to go to see him at the cinema so that my viewing is uninterrupted by technical issues.  Before then, welcome storm Gertrude.  I was going to read a book anyway! Happy New Year to everyone.

Works cited

Christie, A. And Then There Were None (first published as Ten Little Niggers). 1939. Collins Crime Club.

Shakespeare, W. King Lear. Act Three, scene three.

Wilson engraving: David Garrick as King Lear.  UCG Folger Collection.