Tuesday, 3 April 2018


Roddy Doyle takes the literary notion of the ‘unreliable narrator’ to its ultimate end with a Walter Mitty-type character it is very hard to like, mainly because Victor Forde doesn't like himself. The book Victor Forde fails to write in ‘Smile’ is another literary conceit Roddy Doyle brings before the reader. The core of the story is loneliness, assuaged by middle-aged fantasies. The foundation of the story is rape.

With the recent reactions surrounding the alleged rape on trial in Belfast, Roddy Doyle's novel is a timely delving into the concept of consent and of the consequences when it is not present. Consent is a fragile concept, readily broken, mis-used, mis-understood and trodden underfoot. In the case of a man raping a woman, it is wholly askew to ask if the woman consented to the sexual intercourse in the first place. Already there is a yawning field of doubt for bad justice and worse law to plough. It is as if the woman has no agency but to say ‘yes’ or ‘no’ to what a man asks her to accept in matters of sexual congress. This is the model of sexual relations most favoured by heterosexual pornographers. It is not consent that is being tested. It is mutual agreement. Do both adults agree, as equals and without coercion, to the sexual intercourse? And, if not, then the crime of rape is committed.

In ‘Smile’, multiple rapes, committed by an adult on children, are revealed and recalled, late on. The adult rapist is more powerful physically and institutionally. There can be no doubt coercion, direct and indirect, is involved.

The raped narrator, Victor Forde, lives a victim’s life, often minimising the crimes perpetrated upon him, blaming himself and creating a fantasy of edgy public admiration, daring efforts to shock on national radio and in other media and socio-sexual success that borders on heroic.

As the story unfolds, Victor Forde shyly re-connects with men and women his own age. His social and sexual capacities are tested. At the point he may be about to find ease in such society, a former school-mate, another loner, but one more caustic and chilling, confronts Victor Forde’s fantasies in a laddish bout of violence, because Victor Forde may have ‘stolen his girl’, a middle-aged woman, whose husband ‘is working away’.

Victor Forde is hapless. All the men are hapless, to varying degrees. Only Fitzpatrick, the bully, also deeply traumatised by a paedophiliac Christian Brother at school, appears to have some agency. Only Fitzpatrick appears to be ‘doing’ something, even if it re-traumatising one of his fellow victims.

Smile’ is not an easy read, for a number of different reasons. There are longuers of middle-aged men swallowing pints and talking shite. There are detailed, unbelievable sexual encounters with a vivacious, compliant and intelligent woman, Rachel. In another novel, Rachel would not have stuck it out with Victor, the failing writer. She would not have had a son with him.

But she does in this novel. For her, consent and agreement are part of Victor’s fantasies. She is only saved from victimhood by being a literary fiction. All this leaves the reader wondering about their son, the one Victor never meets. Perhaps he is too much of a fiction to even appear.

The rape by the Christian Brother, so long repressed by Victor Forde until asserted by Fitzpatrick, is visualised as wrestling by a bigger, more powerful man on a smaller, weaker boy. It is named as grimly as Iago’s infamous call that ‘they are now making the beast with two backs’. Except the boy has not agreed to this tussle, groping and violation. This crime.

Perhaps there is another Victor Forde novel in which the narrator gathers agency and moves from victim to survivor? Perhaps Roddy Doyle will create another less hapless character, more enabled by his future than disabled by his past? He is a master novelist and certainly capable of anything he choses.

For the present, readers can frown, or like Victor, simply cry, for there are no smiles here, despite the angsty Dublin crack and the timid social and cultural references.

Smile, Roddy Doyle, Vintage, 2018; ISBN-10 1784706353


Monday, 26 March 2018


Two quotations, from very different writers, help reveal the context for the froth and bother that have followed the chemical weapon crime in Salisbury, England.

From the book, that led to the tv series, McMafia, by Misha Glenny:

Organised crime is such a rewarding industry in the Balkans because ordinary West Europeans spend an ever-burgeoning amount of their spare time and money sleeping with prostitutes; smoking untaxed cigarettes; snorting coke through fifty-euro notes up their noses; employing illegal untaxed immigrant labor on subsistence wages; stuffing their gullets with caviar; admiring ivory and sitting on teak; and purchasing the liver and kidneys of the desperately poor in the developing world.

And from Mail on Sunday columnist, Peter Hitchens:

If Nato was dissolved tomorrow, you’d be amazed how peaceful Europe would become. The reason for its existence – the USSR – vanished decades ago. We don’t keep up a huge alliance to protect us from the Austro-Hungarian empire, the Ottomans, or any other powers that have disappeared. So why this one? It was preserved to save the jobs and pensions of its staff. It was only expanded because American arms manufacturers were afraid they would lose business when the Cold War ended.

So they spent huge piles of cash lobbying the US Senate to back eastward expansion, as the New York Times uncovered. Having survived and expanded, it needed something to do, and began to infuriate the Russians, and so that is where we now are. If you look for trouble, you get it.

Rather than being on the outside looking in, from the safety of their sofas, a mug of tea and a chocolate biscuit close at hand, citizens are living through a tv drama crime spree. Pubs and restaurants are chemically weaponised, as is much of the rest of the world. The innards of computers and smart (sic!) devices, where souls now reside, are mined for the ores of data they contain, which is refined and processed into political power and financial profit.

Even before the recent 8 part tv series McMafia, cultural and public processes to demonise Russia as a state and Russians as people – a huge number of individuals across a vast territory - as demonic and to cast them as the New Other, got underway.

Who do citizens believe when the Russian state, through its press secretary in Ireland, flatly denies any involvement, in the recent nerve gas attack?

Moreover, Russia has no means to arrange that kind of chemical attack since Soviet chemical programme has been stopped in 1991, and all the stockpiles have been destroyed in accordance with the Convention on the Prohibition of the Development, Production, Stockpiling and Use of Chemical Weapons, and their destruction was overseen by the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) observers. 

At the same time, as has been indicated by many experts, including former Soviet scientists involved in chemical studies and living now in the US, the type of chemical agent that the British government is talking about has been extremely researched in the US and several European countries, Britain among them.

The use of nerve gas in the city of Salisbury is a heinous criminal act. The rush by UK Prime Minister Teresa May and others to blame the Russian state is knee-jerk. It is also politically dangerous, because citizens have grown wary of assertions that the demons out there are mad and bear weapons of mass destruction pointing this way.

Citizens are not aware of the macro-moves around them. Most of the time. When the UK or the USA states sell yet more fighter bombers to the despotic regime in Saudi Arabia, the sales literally pass over citizens’ heads. Most of the time. But even within the criminally secretive world of arms manufacturing and sales, cracks are appearing and chinks of lights, often beamed by Quakers abseiling off road-bridges into the paths of arms convoys, are finding their ways into the high-rise office towers and sumptuous halls where the deathly deals are done.

So citizens live in a Hypocracy, where the demons own the most expensive houses on the most expensive streets in London. They bring their money, openly labelled as white (legal) and black (illegal) and launder it through the financial services industry.

Britain plays a central role in the global financial system, for good and ill. Our financial services are a major employer and tax-payer, but they also enable globalised corruption: according to the National Crime Agency, at least 100 billion pounds worth of illicit money flows through our institutions every year. Much of this money is corruptly acquired from some of the world’s poorest countries and, indeed, much of it ends up buying top end real estate, and luxury goods from the London’s finest brokers.

Citizens ring their hands, saying “of course we have spies and contract killers and agents. If only the New Other didn’t have them, we wouldn’t have to, but they won’t play the game our way. So we have to be vigilant. And if they didn’t launder their money in London, they’d go somewhere else. The benefits might as well be here.”

What benefits? What costs? As citizens experience life as a Kleptocracy, where wealth, services, data and livelihoods are stolen by nameless corporate agents of progress and modernity, masking the activities of individuals hoovering riches and power into fewer and fewer hands.

Business/enterprise/capitalism/profit-making, all the honoured terms that underpin the modern way of life, are weaponised against us, in a Grand Theft Data. Citizens are conned and manipulated   for political and financial gain. The data theft penetrates deep as a nerve agent and as far as the most powerful political party in Northern Ireland, if the conclusions in Fintan O’Toole’s article, The DUP and Cambridge Analytica (The Irish Times, 24.3.2018), hold up.

A letter writer to The Irish Times wonders if the Irish state is going to expel Russian diplomats, what about the expulsion of British, American and French diplomats for deaths in Syria, Afghanistan, Libya and Yemen?

A good question for citizens living in a Kleptocracy and Hypocracy.

Frontline Club, Kleptocracy 9

McMafia, BBC tv crime series

The Irish Times, Letters to the Editor; Vasily Velichkin and Eugene Tannam

Thursday, 15 February 2018


When news broke of the collapse of the current round of political attempts to bring devolved government back to Northern Ireland, as it is found in Edinburgh and Cardiff, government centres in other parts of the United Kingdom, hundreds of us went to the theatre, specifically to The Playhouse in Derry, to see Liam Campbell's terrific new play, The Bog Couple.

The show is a sell-out, which is great for theatres, but not for political parties, who cannot show a side on which the phrase ‘sell-out’ can be scrawled. The play opens with a cabal of poker players bantering and hectoring themselves into a lather of worry that one of their members, Felix, has gone missing and may be severely depressed as he has been rudely uncoupled.

Just as seems to have happened with the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) and Sinn Féin (SF) at Stormont, except that they’re both out of the house now. Along with all the other parties, who, when you tot up their mandates, represent a sizeable chunk of the voting population.

Thankfully, Felix turns up and, in early scenes of uproarious slapstick, expertly directed by Kieran Griffiths, involving keeping Felix away from open windows, kitchen utensils and pills, all returns to calm. Oscar, Felix’s friend, says he can stay until he gets himself sorted out. Felix is astounded and delighted and, in the play's most deliciously sentimental irony, Oscar admits that he is lonely.

Many of us aahed from the comfort of the bleachers.

No one wants to be lonely. Except perhaps Masters of the Universe-types who think they rule the world from corporate, governmental and banking high-rises. Or, in our own little world, from a colonial heap in Stormont.

The poker game in the play is a cabal. The talks in Stormont are a cabal. And, as one member of the DUP is reported to have said, ‘no preparation was made for the climb-down”. Silly that, for all political talks, like relationships, proceed in compromises and climb-downs, u-turns and revised promises.

The differences between the play and the politics are that the play is a rip-roaring laugh and that we trust the work before us and the artists who bring it to us, to not let us down. They meet all our desires not to be lonely. As a serial gag-fest, the play puts a strain on our ability to keep up, at times. Just like the politicians do. The play doesn't leave its audience behind, however. The politicians do.

Of course, they may have their eyes on other venues and settings. The DUP on Westminster. Sinn Féin on Dublin. There are reports of tension within the DUP between MPs, who wish to play power games with Teresa May’s Tories and locally-based Members of the Legislative Assembly (MLAs), who have to go to small towns and rural parishes and explain to people that “yes, there will be some kind of deal and an official recognition of Irish, just as there is in Wales for Welsh and Scotland for Gaelic, because we are as British as those places, but don’t worry, you won't have to put the name to your Orange Hall in Irish above the front door”.

The play’s strongest section is still funny, but more dramatically so. It occurs in the second act, at the point where cultural and national identity differences, partition (the border in the flat is drawn with sugar, a form of sweet rather than hard Brexit, perhaps) and the movement of people in the face of violence, including sectarianism, are jousted between Oscar and Felix. They acknowledge each other's sacrifices and efforts. They hold to friendship. They acknowledge hurt. But even they cannot hold together and Felix leaves/is thrown out, depending on your interpretation.

As an aside, the research commissioned by the Pat Finucane Centre into Protestant migration from the West Bank of Derry-Londonderry, 1968-1980, by Dr Ulf Hansson and Dr Helen McLaughlin, will be published in early March.

So here we are with regard to the failed talks. Sinn Féin, and many others, say a deal was close to hand, a classic fudge of language and legislation, over the weekend past, sufficient to get the Taoiseach from Dublin and the Prime Minister from London to put on their flak jackets and venture into the cabal-infested hotspots of Stormont. Usually such personages only land in the sticks when they can throw laurel wreaths around and rub noses with natives in joyous celebrations. This time the two leaders of the nations who guarantee the legal standing of our wee country left with their garlands in tatters and the sleety gusts of failure as their tailwinds.

Not so Felix and Oscar. Change, but never failure. It’s a comedy, after all. Or maybe they embrace failure as all there ever is. The words of Samuel Beckett ring in our ears. We should go on and learn to fail better.

We went home smiling, after a fine night at the theatre. Just like John McGrath (A Good Night Out) said we could.

You go into a space, and some other people use certain devices to tell you a story. Because they have power over you, in a real sense, while you are there, they make a choice, with political implications, as to which story to tell – and how to tell it.

We woke up to snow, recriminations and disagreements over what exactly did happen. What we do know is that bumbling, austere and thoughtless Tories will soon set budgets and take decisions on our hospitals, schools, roads, rail and social services. It will be neither a gag-fest nor dramatically funny.

Unlike The Bog Couple by Liam Campbell, in a fine Playhouse production, directed by Kieran Griffiths, well-served by a fine cast, notably Pat Lynch and Gerry Doherty, as the principals, which is both a riotous gag-fest and dramatically funny.

We need to get the people off the bleachers and into the game, the democratic game, where the cabal is shut down and the chips and the cards go about fairly.

Not easy.

As Neil Simon said

Take care of him/her. And make him/her feel important. And if you can do that, you'll have a happy and wonderful marriage. Like two out of every ten couples.


Friday, 2 February 2018

People in Northern Ireland ask: What social contract?

No harm to Jean-Jacques Rousseau and his fine words of 1762, but whatever Social Contract that exists between people in Northern Ireland and the State has just been ripped up and tossed in the bin with the sentencing of a confessed multiple murderer to 6 years jail-time, in a deal which sees Ulster Volunteer Force (UVF) leader and ‘supergrass’ Gary Haggarty give evidence in one trial, evidence which will only serve to confirm already existing DNA evidence and eyewitness testimony.

The arrest of Freddie Scappaticci, an alleged State agent within the Irish Republican Army (IRA), may lead to further shredding of the already well-shredded Social Contract.

Though apparently on different sides of a violent conflict, it has emerged that both men were actually on the same side. Both were working for the State, receiving various payments, support and a licence to kill, for information about people and their activities in their respective organisations.

All wars are, by design and by nature, dirty, and the activities of the State in sponsoring Gary Haggarty and Freddie Scappaticci show just how cruelly heinous the war years in Northern Ireland have been. No wonder the legacy of hurt is deep and seemingly intractable.

Jean-Jacques Rousseau would be astounded. His efforts to face the key question of the State’s relationship with its citizens have been trampled into the mud of collusion and violence.

I plan to address this question: With men (sic) as they are and with laws as they could be, can there be in the civil order any sure and legitimate rule of administration? In tackling this I shall try always to unite what right allows with what interest demands, so that justice and utility don’t at any stage part company.

Justice and utility have not simply parted company. They have been torn asunder, with utility (that which works; that which is useful to the powerful, in a self-serving way) trampling all over justice.

The scales of justice, never blind to the follies and connivance of the State, have tipped firmly in the direction of usefulness. It is a mean and trite bargain, between Garry Haggarty and his spook and police handlers. It is a sordid travesty of justice for the families of his many victims. Most of the people Gary Haggarty gave information about will not face charges. Given all the money, time and licence to kill he received from the State, he has been bought for a very dear price, as this BBC report shows.

A loyalist "supergrass" who admitted the murders of five people among hundreds of offences has had a 35-year jail term reduced to six-and-a-half years for helping the police. Gary Haggarty, 45, was a former leader of an Ulster Volunteer Force (UVF) unit in north Belfast. Haggarty was a paid police informer for 11 years. A judge said the offences were "ones of exceptional gravity" but that he had provided significant information. After turning state witness in 2009, Haggarty provided information on 55 loyalist murders and 20 attempted murders in the course of 1,015 police interviews. However, only one man is to be prosecuted, for two murders, on the back of the evidence. The vast majority of people named by Haggarty in his police interviews will not face prosecution amid state concerns about a lack of supporting evidence.

No representative of the State can speak as a neutral broker on the tragic legacy of the conflict. This outcome is a form of de facto amnesty for a murderer, enabled by the State. The argument that such collusive activities were the only option available to the police and justice systems and served as the lesser of many evils, reads very thin in the light of the Gary Haggarty case.

Various terms are used by the powerful to denigrate countries, and thus their citizens, across the world: failed state, rogue state, banana republic. The latest, and most dreadful, is shithole country.

Northern Ireland is variously referred to as ‘our wee country;’ and the ‘Six Counties’. New names may emerge following this police and justice disgrace. What do you call a State which shreds the Social Contract with its citizens and doesn’t even blush? Where no questions or debates occur in the Executive at Stormont (now on extended ‘gardening leave’) or in Westminster, the sovereign parliament of the State.

For people in Northern Ireland, the proper name of the place is ‘home’ and we do indeed ask: What social contract?

But the social order isn’t to be understood in terms of force; it· is a sacred right on which all other rights are based. But it doesn’t come from nature, so it must be based on agreements.

In the everyday sense of the word, a tyrant is a king who governs with the help of violence and without regard for justice and the laws.

UVF 'supergrass' Gary Haggarty jailed for six years

The Social Contract; Jean-Jacques Rousseau; translated by Christopher Betts; World’s Classics, Oxford; 1994

Wednesday, 10 January 2018


Fintan O’Toole, lead critic with The Irish Times, once labelled him a genius and, with his new film, Three Billboards outside Ebbing, Missouri, writer/director Martin McDonagh may yet pin that badge on his lapel, along with the many other gongs and accolades that this film will garner for the London-Irish artist.

Previous film work includes the dreadful Seven Psychopaths, so opaquely ironic Martin McDonagh had to give extensive interviews to explain just how ironic the violence and the misogyny were meant to be and In Bruges, a brutal, tasteless and wasteful crime romp round a city which doesn’t seem to have any police force or visitors, unlikely in such a large Belgian tourist halt.

His stage work, lauded by critics and beloved by London and international audiences, were exemplars of post-modern paddy-whackery, with drunkenness, madness, oddness and violence as the standard tropes.

Yet even at its worst, Martin McDonagh’s work shows a marvellous grasp of the form and practice of drama, on stage and on film, of the history of theatre and film, and a command of the craft of writing for both dramatic forms. In Three Billboards outside Ebbing, Missouri, all of his many great gifts are in place and used to terrific effect.

The story is a small gem. A woman, Mildred Hayes, played to the heavens by Frances McDormand, demands justice and fair treatment from the local police authorities. She puts up billboards voicing her demands, using the engine of the Great American Dream – advertising – to make her point. The Police Chief is an honourable man, who sustains the moral core of the film by his letters from the grave, a telling device which brings ‘God’ into play in a unique fashion. The action, based in a small town, begins to take on an epic quality, when townspeople line up, when divisions appear, when death, violence and destruction are visited on people and buildings. There is awesome use of fire throughout. Burning billboards echo the Klan’s burning crucifixes, as the Southern states of the USA struggle to undergo change.

It is the change in the character of police office Dixon, played wonderfully by Sam Rockwell, that turns the arc of the film to its muted conclusion. He is racist and violent, torturing prisoners and beating up citizens. He appears as a modern neanderthal, yet he undergoes a transformation by fire, literally, while one of the Police Chief’s letters from the grave speaks to him on moral possibilities and on the bounty of love. Dixon edges towards those possibilities, aided by an act of kindness in a hospital ward where he lies, swathed in bandages. That kindness is delivered by the person Dixon threw out of an office window. Great pain, great pathos and great humour.

One liners rip through the film, as do extended, often comic, speeches on moral and political themes. When the priest comes to her house to ask Mildred Hayes to take down the billboards, she riffs on the relationship between the churches and urban street gangs, where collective culpability for crime comes into play. She could have included banks and corporations. She chucks the priest out of her house. Mildred’s challenge of meeting the cost of the billboards highlights the challenges facing many American citizens of accessing justice and fair treatment.

There is violence and oddness, misogyny and sentimentality, as in earlier work by Martin McDonagh. Why are the two young women presented as dumb and naive? Why are Dixon and his fellow police officers so violent and Keystone Cop-like? Is the dwarf character in it purely for a laugh? Is the move away from violence believable at the end, delivered as the two most violent characters in the film journey away from Ebbing and the tragedies there? And look out for the tortoise crossing Dixon’s mother’s lap, as he gives her an uncharacteristic caress? Is this the same tortoise, representing the slow passage of time, from Tom Stoppard’s great play, Arcadia? And like Arcadia, is this story occurring, not in a real place, but in art-land, a story-ville, where it is film not urban geography which delineates the place and where the townspeople, rarely seen close to the action, are like we viewers, an audience?

If you liked Fargo, you’ll like this film, mainly because Frances McDormand is superb and the story is brilliant and brilliantly told. If you liked Manchester by the Sea and its treatment of male violence in small-town America, you’ll like this film. If you enjoy well-made, well-acted films from America, which are not the thin soup offered by the dreadful Star Wars and Blade Runner franchises, then Three Billboards outside Ebbing, Missouri is highly recommend.

Hats off to Martin McDonagh, the genius redeemed.

Three Billboards outside Ebbing, Missouri:
An interview with Martin McDonagh: