Think the Troubles weren’t funny? You’d be surprised
Remembering a Northern Irish childhood through books: a look back, not in anger, but in something like nostalgic affection
Northern Ireland. It’s having a moment. Not a pain-in-the-backstop political moment, although we Northern Irish would be lying if we didn’t admit to a shard of schadenfreude at the unholy fuss being made about the border. Call us cynics, but the current imbroglio has only served to reinforce the Northern Ireland truism that nobody across the water even remembers we exist unless we’re giving them grief.
So it’s all the more meaningful, this cultural moment that at once recognises the province’s inherent uniqueness and its universality – no easy feat. In recent years, and thanks to generous grants, a lot of quality television has been set or filmed in Northern Ireland: Game of Thrones, The Fall, Line of Duty and the recent period drama Death and Nightingales, set in the lush Fermanagh countryside. Add to those the scabrously unfiltered comedy Derry Girls, Anna Burns’s Milkman, the first Northern Irish book to win the Booker Prize, and a brace of distinctive new novels, and it’s music to the ears of the diaspora, like me, who have fought shy of reading about our own history.
This month sees the publication of Music Love Drugs War (Fig Tree) by the Derry-born debut novelist Geraldine Quigley, and For the Good Times (Faber) by Scotsman David Keenan, whose first novel, This Is Memorial Device, a hilariously hyperbolic tribute to a fictional Airdrie band (à la This Is Spinal Tap), was a razor-sharp dissection of small-town disappointment and big-time dreams.
In Keenan’s new book, it is a couple of surprisingly dapper 1970s IRA men that come under his fierce, funny and at times hallucinatory gaze. For Sammy and his sidekick Tommy, the surest way to get past the average plod is to walk in like they own the place. “The peelers treated us like rats, waiting for us to sneak in the back door or shin up a drainpipe, nip down an alley in a black balaclava and a pair of camouflage slacks. Instead we turned up wearing cravats and with gold watches and with Italian handmade suits.”
The unlikely music favoured by this self-conscious pair is Perry Como and Frank Sinatra, adding a grotesque burnish of showmanship to the grisly proceedings. Yet it is Quigley who has the best tunes, or at least the best line about them. Two of her protagonists, Noel and Kevin, get caught up in a riot, and amid the burning cars, the shimmer of shattered glass, the flecks of brimstone, they hear the siren call of anarchy: “It’s like being in a film,” says an entranced Noel. “All it wants is a really good soundtrack.”
Although very different in style, both are long-overdue novels that might just persuade people of my generation to look back, not in anger, but in something approaching nostalgic affection. I fled my native county Tyrone for university in Edinburgh in the early 1980s, glad to be gone from Dungannon, a town where armed soldiers patrolled the streets, buildings were blown up with monotonous regularity, Catholics used one newsagent and Protestants another.
Classic Troubles narratives tell the story of a tiny scrap of land where historic grudges ran deep into the peaty soil and “each neighbourly murder”, as Seamus Heaney termed them, poisoned our groundwater a little bit more. Reality is always more complex; sometimes vexingly so. Dungannon was where my friend’s father was shot dead a few houses along from us, as he answered the front door at teatime. Did it matter that he was Protestant? It did back then.
Yet I was one of the lucky ones, for whom the Troubles were primarily a bloody inconvenience more than anything else – an uncomfortable truth audaciously captured in Derry Girls. Tiresome bomb scares and tedious road diversions changed our day-to-day lives in the most dreary of ways. But Northern Ireland was also the place where my generation grew up, fell in and out of love, laughed, argued about the Cure versus the Smiths, drank gin stolen from our parents’ drinks cabinets like every other teenager and were filled with that inchoate provincial longing for more, to be more.
And so I rarely picked up any book with the dread cover line, “set against a backdrop of the Troubles”. There were of course exceptions: Bernard MacLaverty’s Cal, Seamus Deane’s Reading in the Dark, Deirdre Madden’s slenderly elegiac One by One in the Darkness. In 2006 came Lucy Caldwell’s unsettling Where They Were Missed, a heroic, heartbreaking story of the Troubles’ effects on ordinary people, told from a female perspective. Then last year Anna Burns’s elliptic Milkman burst on to the literary scene, and ushered in (I hope) a new era of experimentation and even (whisper it) playfulness.
Milkman’s nameless characters and unspoken locations elevated it to the status of fable, a dissection of power and patriarchy, fear and wordless coercion that could be transplanted to any oppressive regime on the planet. And yet it was shot through with a gallows humour as unmistakably Northern Irish as our plangent how-now-brown-cow vowels. When the narrator, known only as Middle Sister, who is being wooed, harassed, by a major paramilitary player known as Milkman, attempts to disentangle her own thoughts, she ruminates: “I didn’t know whose milkman he was. He wasn’t our milkman. I don’t think he was anybody’s. He didn’t take milk orders. There was no milk about him.”
The milk of human kindness is certainly missing in For the Good Times. A stream-of-consciousness account of the savagery and farce of the fray is told to us with manic energy and vernacular punch by the jailed IRA man, Sammy. It’s by turns self-aggrandising and if not quite rueful, then reflective, leaving readers in no doubt about how political conflict intersects with, becomes a cover for, criminality.
But for all its visceral momentum, abrupt changes of pace and sudden profundities – “But there was always the chance that you could change the game forever. Fight the right fight. Hit the right stress points and it was all over” – I’m afraid it was too gleefully gory for my post-conflict sensibilities. “I broke a guy’s jaw with a wrench. Smashed full sets of teeth with a chisel and an iron bar ... tore a guy’s ear off with a hoover. Crippled two blokes with a pair of fire extinguishers ... beat a guy senseless, shaved his head, wrote INFORMER on his forehead.”
By contrast, Music Love Drugs War is a classic coming-of-age tale. Set in 1980s Derry, it follows the fortunes of an initially bewildering array of young characters hanging out together in an underground club called the Cave. (The roll call of Paddy, Liz, Christy, Kevin, Noel, Peter and Orla had me reaching for the explanatory blurb on the dust jacket more than once.)
They aren’t ideological, not even idealist, just preoccupied with youth’s most pressing pursuits – smoking cannabis, drinking lager, having sex and discovering their musical tribe. When someone’s boyfriend is caught buying Jealous Guy by Roxy Music, the indignation, tempered with grudging admiration, is pitch-perfect: “It was tempting to slag him. But fuck it, it was a good song.”
Events take over. When one of their number is killed by a stray plastic bullet, the main characters emerge, changed by grief and anger. Paddy and Christy gravitate towards the Provos and have their first meeting at a secret address, finding themselves being interviewed in a child’s bedroom; the bathos is conveyed with brevity and humour. “Paddy stared at the picture on the opposite wall, above the bed – a teddy bear’s picnic, in faded pastels. When he thought about joining up, this was not the scenario he had visualised. In his head, he had seen wood panelling and maybe a tricolour on the wall, not Holly Hobbie bed sheets and baby clothes.”
Unlike Keenan’s buccaneering, amoral Tommy, Paddy is still tentative and anxious. “He had joined the IRA and he wasn’t even sure what it meant ... Christy crossed the road to join him and Paddy saw he was wearing an Echo & the Bunnymen T-shirt. His biker jacket still had The Clash painted across the shoulders. Was this consistent with the dress code of a Republican paramilitary, he wondered? A soldier of Ireland?”
Not what you’d expect from a terrorist in the making, but for me the incongruity rings true. Quigley has captured a moment in time that I find I am now able to revisit – with my own really good soundtrack.
- © The Daily Telegraph