Paul Mason – Kicking Off the Revolution

On a bright Saturday morning early last year, a bleary-eyed Paul Mason sat down to pen a blog for Newsnight, the BBC current affairs programme on which he is economics editor. The previous evening he had delivered a lecture on the 1871 Paris Commune to a collective of free thinkers and radical students in a squat in central London, before retiring to discuss technology, economics, and the revolt spreading across the globe over a few ales in Karl Marx’s old haunt, the Museum Tavern.

Mason’s blog post – entitled ‘Twenty reasons why it’s kicking off everywhere’ – was a Martin Luther-nailing-his-95-theses-on-the-door-of-a-church-in-Wittenberg moment for the Occupy generation. Written in the penumbra of the Arab Spring, at the tail end of a winter of student occupations in the UK, Mason’s perspicacious analysis of the dynamics of the new political mood went viral almost as soon as it was posted. ‘Within 24 hours over 100,000 people had read it, people were retweeting it, posting it on Facebook, commenting on it. It was incredible,’ Mason says in the considered Lancastrian lint that has been a familiar feature of late nights on BBC2 for over a decade.

The Newsnight blog became the catalyst for Why It’s Kicking Off Everywhere, Mason’s lively, thought-provoking ten-chapter jaunt through a world in tumult. ‘It’s not just a set of musings. It’s more like a series of glimpses into what’s happening around the world.’ Mason remarks of the book, which opens in a garbage collector’s house in Cairo and ends among slum protestors Manila, with our engaging correspondent popping up everywhere from Bakersfield, California to Syntagma Square in Athens in between.
Just as he is in person, on the page Mason is everything you would want from a guide: knowledgeable, measured, garrulous and unflaggingly generous. The long-form format also gives him the opportunity to flex his not inconsiderable intellectual powers, with theoretical and historical expositions on politics, society and, most prominently, economics added to the first-rate reportage that has become the hallmark of his Newsnight packages.

Speaking on the phone from his south London home, Mason says that what is happening today is nothing short of a ‘fundamental change in politics and society’. As he writes in the introduction to the book: ‘We’re in the middle of a revolution caused by the near collapse of free-market capitalism combined with an upswing in technical innovation, a surge in desire for individual freedom and a change in consciousness about what freedom means.’

Central to this thesis are two factors: the rise of social media and a burgeoning class of jobless graduates. The revolt in Egypt that led to the overthrow of Hosni Mubarak last February is often referred to as ‘the first Facebook revolution’, but Mason, a social media acolyte with over 30,000 followers on Twitter, proffers a more subtle analysis of the power of technology: ‘What social media has done is allowed networks of protest to form. Now protesters can move faster, assemble faster and on a much more minimal basis than ever before.’

While Twitter and Facebook have changed ‘the dynamics of protest’, the protesters are changing too. The rigidities of the old Left – the seemingly endless marches, the inky newspapers – has given way to a new mobile, educated generation disillusioned with a system that offers little prospect of stable employment. These ‘graduates with no future’ – point number one on that seminal Newsnight blog post – occupy a vanguard role in Mason’s analysis: the similarities between the young, secular liberals in Tahrir Square and the occupiers in University College London, he argues, are greater than their differences.

‘This generation was already different – they live in a networked world. Their motto is ‘information wants to be free’. Now they find that their futures have been dashed, the jobs they were taught to expect aren’t there anymore.’ For Mason, the network changes everything: new, decentralised modes of communication allow protestors to directly challenge traditional structures and ideas in new, unexpected ways. Over time the power of the network will, he says, defeat the sclerotic hierarchies of established politics.

‘Mainstream politics stands in danger of quite rapidly being dissolved by the new political mood.’ A lifelong trade unionist with a passionate commitment to social justice that has defined his career, Mason prophesises the changing of the political guard more in expectation than trepidation. ‘The impact on politics of the networked generation is going to be very interesting. Eventually those on the streets will begin to look to parties and to politics – that’s when we’ll start to see changes.’

There are traces of the autodidact in Mason, who came late to journalism, abandoning a career as a musician because ‘I needed to make some money’. While Kicking Off Everywhere fizzes with the energy of the street, it also brings in healthy doses of critical social theory, from Marx all the way up to influential American sociologist of work Richard Sennett. It is an education in contemporary thought that Mason began while studying for a postgraduate degree in music in the early 1980s: ‘We sat around and read Das Kapital, we read Adam Smith’s The Wealth of Nations, at some leisure. Except during the holidays I never did a stroke of paid work.’

From Marx and Smith, Mason moved onto the current generation’s most obvious antecedents – the thinkers that inspired the 1968 student revolts, most notably the doyen of Situationism, Guy Debord, who argued that capitalism has replaced genuine social life with an inauthentic ‘spectacle’. ‘I wish mainstream politicians today had a little more exposure to those sorts of ideas, it might allow them to think a little bit more freely through the problems that they are confronting right now,’ Mason says.With one ear to the street and another to the boardroom, Mason knows better than most the sheer scale of the challenge facing politicians today. On the day the Sunday Herald spoke to the broadcaster, the latest bailout deal for Greece hangs in the balance, with bankers’ bonuses dominating the news headlines. Mason, whose last book Meltdown, was subtitled ‘The end of the age of greed’, is preparing to fly to the United States, which he contends could be the next country ‘kick off’. ‘It will take a lot for the poor of the US to rise up – but if they do they do, hold on to your hat,’ he says with the calm assurance of a man who has become an expert in spotting a storm brewing on the global horizon.

It is a far cry from the obscure trade mags that Mason cut his teeth on in the late 1980s. It was hardly glamorous but Mason quickly discovered he had found the career for him. ‘Journalism was a profession I liked. And it liked me. It used up all my creative energies, at least most of them.’ What was leftover went into fiction, which remained unpublished until the release earlier this year of Rare Earth a racy novel about a washed up TV reporter who stumbles across corruption – and a whole lot more – in Western China.

Mason wrote Rare Earth, which was based in part of his Newsnight investigations of corruption in China, in the back garden of the house he shares with his wife, an NHS nurse. It was the summer of 2009, and Mason ‘couldn’t get on the telly’. ‘The expenses scandal was raging and most people thought the crisis was over’.

As the continuing turmoil in the Eurozone attests, the meltdown began by the collapse of Lehman Brothers shows no signs of abating. Now in his early fifties, a time of life when many prominent BBC phizogs are to found fronting non-threatening documentaries, Mason continues to immerse himself in the white heat of the street, most recently in a series for Newsnight from a conflagration engulfed Athens. Such committed reporting won Mason ‘specialist journalist of the year’ at last month’s RTS television journalism awards.

Mason has no children himself but feels a gnawing obligation towards the next generation. ‘I am acutely aware of this fact: I have a pension, albeit it not a brilliant one. I have 30 years of intermittent work behind me. My education was free. I’m from a working class background. The level of insecurity in the minds of the people I’m observing is so high. I look at them and often wonder if I would have come out like I have today. I don’t know the answer.’

Why It’s Kicking Off Everywhere: The New Global Revolutions is out now, published by Verso, priced £12.99. Paul Mason will be appearing at Aye Write on March 10.

This piece originally appeared in the Sunday Herald, March 4, 2012.

Review: Why It’s All Kicking Off Everywhere by Paul Mason

‘It is easier to imagine the end of the world than it is to imagine the end of capitalism,’ Fredric Jameson, a leading theorist of post-modernism, wrote in 2003. Not anymore it isn’t. If the culmination of Francis Fukuyama’s Whiggish ‘End of History’ was the collapse of Lehman Brothers in 2008 – scuttling liberal democracy’s claims to historical inevitability – what’s happened since has arguably been more radical still: revolutions across North Africa and the Middle East, street protests in the West, social unrest on a scale not seen for generations.

Why It’s Kicking Off Everywhere is a journey, both empirical and analytical, through a world in tumult. Paul Mason, economics editor on BBC’s flagship Newsnight and one of the UK media’s most familiar faces, is essentially an old-fashioned beat reporter, but with a patch that stretches across the globe: the book begins a year ago in an occupation in Bloomsbury, central London and ends among slum protestors Manila, with our correspondent popping up everywhere from Tahrir Square to Bakersfield, California in between.

Mason warns readers ‘don’t file (this book) under ‘social science’: it’s journalism’. The 10 chapters that follow alternate – some more seamlessly than others – between first-class reportage and theoretical and historical expositions on the changing shape of politics, society and, most prominently, economics.

Like any good journalist, Mason doesn’t bury the lead. In the introduction he writes: ‘We’re in the middle of a revolution caused by the near collapse of free-market capitalism combined with an upswing in technical innovation, a surge in desire for individual freedom and a change in consciousness about what freedom means.’ In short, the global economic system is banjaxed and the web has fundamentally altered the political visions of the next generation, leading to a renewed search for social justice.

Mason – who, with this dulcet Lancastrian tones and background in leftwing politics, often cuts an unlikely figure among the plummy, small ‘c’ conservative BBC voices – comes to praise, not bury, what he terms ‘the new global revolutions’. Changing technology, and particularly social media, is central to his thesis: Facebook and Twitter don’t cause revolutions – as so many over-excited commentators proclaimed as first Ben Ali in Tunisia and then Hosni Mubarak in Egypt fell amid popular protest – but they do connect people in new and unexpected ways, sometimes with explosive results.

For Mason, the network is king. Like Howard Beale in the eponymous 1976 movie, millions of (mainly) young people are ‘mad as hell and won’t take it anymore’ – but while Peter Finch’s neutered news anchor’s only recourse is to threaten suicide live on air, now decentralised modes of communication allow protestors to directly challenge traditional power structures and ideas.

Big claims are made for the power of the network, supported by Marx, Foucault and other theoretical heavyweights. At times, however, this shock of the new feels slightly oversold and the power of diffuse, coordinated networks to defeat static hierarchies of power more often stated that demonstrated. Why It’s All Kicking Off is at its most persuasive, and engaging, when Mason moves away from sociology and onto the street. His terse dissection of the uprising in Egypt combines a coruscating analysis of the ‘neoliberal fiefdom’ built by Hosni’ Mubarak’s son and would be heir, Gamal, with interviews from Tahrir Square and among the zabbaleen, the 65,000 ‘garbage people’ who eke out an existence sifting through Cairo’s rubbish.

A spectre is haunting Europe (and beyond). Unlike 1848, this shadow is not communism; it’s the young, ambitious, connected graduate with a Blackberry in their hand and no prospects of a decent job. By turns inquisitive and informative, Mason is a peerless guide through the rapidly shifting milieu of global protest and revolution. Why It’s Kicking Off Everywhere provides a timely and highly readable firsthand account of a wave of unrest that shows no sign of abating anytime soon.

Why It’s All Kicking off Everywhere is out now published by Verso. This review originally appeared in the Sunday Business Post, January 29.

Review: The Black and Tans

This review of D.M. Leeson’s fascinating The Black and Tans: British Police and Auxiliaries in the Irish War of Independence appeared in the Times Literary Supplement, September 2.

 The Black and Tans ‘have gone down in history as the British equivalent of the Turkish bashi-bazouks or the German Freikorps.’ A 10,000-strong police force scrambled from unemployed, working-class ex-servicemen in urban Britain, the Black and the Tans – a sobriquet taken from the force’s motley uniform of army khaki and police tunics – were notorious for their brutality and violence during the Irish War of Independence.

By early 1920, when the first Black and Tans arrived at Gormanstown outside Dublin for the most cursory of training, the nascent republican offensive had already decimated the morale, not to mention the ranks, of a superannuated Royal Irish Constabulary. What followed – a gruesome litany of extrajudicial killings, political assassinations and punishment beatings – marked the period as among the most emotive in Irish history.

The Black and Tans’ murderous indiscipline is often attributed to the young recruits’ experiences in the Great War, putatively exacerbating an innate propensity towards violence. This interpretation, however, betrays what social psychologists would call a ‘fundamental attribution error’: faced with an invisible enemy in civilian garb conducting clandestine, asymmetric warfare against the Crown, and a growing tally of dead and injured colleagues, the alienated, oft-inebriated force replied with ever more brutal reprisals. The Black and Tans’ situation – not their disposition – explains their behaviour. The infamous sack of Balbriggan was typical: on 20 September 1920, Head Constable Peter Burke was shot dead by an IRA flying column in the County Dublin town, within hours a hosiery factory and 54 houses lay in smouldering ruins.

The overwhelming majority of the Black and Tans and their irregular cousins, the Auxiliary Division, showed no tendency towards criminality or wanton violence prior to their Irish deployment. Yet once exposed to insurgent ambushes and nationwide boycotts, many became willing, anonymous participants in atrocities. Unwittingly the ineffective Unionist-led British government created ‘a large-scale version of the Stanford Prison Experiment, in Ireland.’

While the Black and Tan served for less than two years, their disastrous deployment has lived long in Irish cultural memory. Through dispassionate research and fastidiously marshalled sources, D.M. Leeson undermines many enduring misapprehensions that still surround this most controversial of police forces.


Getting with the programme

Review of Alms on the Highway, New Creative Writing from the Oscar Wilde Centre Trinity College Dublin. Appeared in the Sunday Business Post, 12 June 2011.

Can creative writing be taught? Wilbur Schramm certainly believed it could. In 1936, the so-called ‘father of communication studies’ founded the Program in Creative Writing at the University of Iowa.

Over the intervening three quarters ofa century, what became known as the Iowa Writers’ Workshop programme has produced seventeen Pulitzer Prize winners, four recent US Poet Laureates and counts among its alumni Flannery O’Connor, Michael Cunningham and John Irving.

But the legacy of the Iowa Writers’ Workshop is greater than the myriad published authors that have passed through the programme. Schramm’s most famous mantras – ‘Murder your darlings’, ‘Omit needless words’, ‘Show, don’t tell’ – have entered popular parlance, while the very idea that the heretofore opaque art of fiction can be revealed and inculcated in a classroom has travelled across the globe.

Today, colleges from Hong Kong to Cape Town offer degrees in creative writing, with even the venerable publisher Faber and Faber opening a writing programme, imaginatively titled the Faber Academy.

As with most things, creative writing as a discipline has its defenders and its detractors – a couple of years ago the much-vaunted novelist, screenwriter and playwright Hanif Kureishi described the courses as ‘‘the new mental hospitals’’ – but the reality is that they have become wellsprings from which many contemporary voices, particularly novelists, emerge.

Indeed, 75 years after the Iowa Writers’ Workshop first opened its doors, creative writing has become an established – if not always accepted – facet of the modern university. Ireland is no different.

Trinity College Dublin established the Oscar Wilde Centre in 1997, offering the first degree in creative writing in the country. Alms on the Highway is a collection of new prose, poetry and drama from the centre’s latest class, many hoping to follow in the footsteps of successful graduates such as Claire Kilroy, Claire Keegan and Chris Binchy.

An epigraph from Oscar Wilde’s De Profundis gives this collection its title, and there are dark, autobiographical aspects to much of the work on show. (Although I doubt whether the centre’s adopted patron, or any one else, would appreciate the volume’s garish cover, which features what looks like a homunculus with a traffic cone on his head, perched atop a grass-covered muffin.)

In his work The Program Era: Postwar Fiction and the Rise of Creative Writing, literary historian Mark McGurl argues that a focus on, and concomitant improvement in, the technique of writing has been one of the most influential aspects of the boom in creative writing courses over the last 50 years.

As author Kevin Barry notes in his foreword to Alms on the Highway, ‘‘there is a weight of care behind every construction and riff and setup (in the book). . . every piece here clearly has perspiration behind it as well as inspiration’’. Almost all the writers involved in the project display a commendable sureness of technique: from Chris Allen’s brief, evocative opening story, Feathered Cargo, through Eileen Casey’s exhaustive study of a marriage on the wane and the tale Big Pink, Marianne O’Rourke’s rumination on solitude and relationships set among the Nubian people of Sudan.

Gerald Dawe is the Wilde Centre’s course director, but it is the influence of another Trinity professor, Richard Ford, which permeates most deeply throughout the collection. Many of the stories echo the American novelist’s domestic realism in dealing with the intricate, almost prosaic nature of family and work relationships – even if few reach the dizzying heights of Ford (himself a graduate of a Californian university’s writing programme) at his best.

Creative writing programme sceptics argue that the emphasis on technique has created a generation of writers who are either ignorant of or afraid to engage with history.

That charge certainly could not be levelled at Melatu Okorie. Originally from Nigeria, Okorie’s If Lace Could Talk skilfully depicts the cruelties of her home country’s military junta through the pain of a young mother forced to make a new life in Ireland.

Elsewhere, American T Mazzara produces an unnerving, raw account of the dysfunctional relationship between a Gulf War veteran and his adolescent son, framed against the backdrop of the sclerotic social and cultural world of the Deep South.

Peppered throughout the collection, excerpts of poetry and drama often display a lightness of touch not always evident in the prose offerings (with a few honourable exceptions, most notably Fintan O’Higgins).

Breda Joy’s declaration that ‘‘I am a born-again Luasian/Virgin oft he touchscreen’’ and Kate Perry’s touching, humorous radio play Consuming Celia demonstrate that a literary engagement with modern Ireland need not be a sombre, high-minded affair.

Good writing and good stories share common properties, but the two are not synonymous.

While creative writing courses may be able to improve a writer’s style, no end of instruction will teach content. Thankfully Alms on the Highway boasts just enough overlap between the two – and enough fresh, new voices – to make it a creative writing programme-inspired collection worth dipping into.

Growing the seeds of greatness

Interview with Barack Obama’s sister Maya Soetoro-Ng, from the Irish Examiner back in April.

LIKE many American presidents before him, Barack Obama never knowingly plays down his Irish roots.

On his whistle-stop Irish tour next month, Obama will pay a long overdue visit to Moneygall, the picturesque Offaly village that his great-great-great grandfather, shoemaker Fulmuth Kearney, left for New York in 1850.

Moneygall is a far cry from Honolulu, the Hawaiian city where the 44th President was born and raised, but Obama is likely to feel perfectly at home in Offaly. He has an ease about him no matter what the situation, says the woman who has known him since childhood — his half-sister Maya Soetoro-Ng.

“He is a really relaxed guy, he is comfortable in almost every situation and doesn’t take himself too seriously,” she says.

Barack and Maya share a rich, diverse background that encompasses Moneygall, Honolulu and just about everywhere in between. Obama’s parents — Barack Obama Sr, a black man from a poor village in Kenya, and Ann Dunham, a white woman whose parents grew up in Kansas — met at the University of Hawaii and married soon after. He was born on August 4, 1961.

The marriage didn’t last, however, and Barack Sr later returned to Kenya, where he worked as a government economist before his death in a car accident when his son was 21.

When Obama was six, his mother married Lolo Soetoro, an Indonesian foreign student. Maya, named after the poet Maya Angelou, is a product of their relationship. The family moved to Jakarta, but, after four years, Obama returned to Hawaii to live with his grandparents and attend middle school.

Maya, an amiable, chatty lecturer in multicultural education at Hawaii university, believes that these early years were formative for the future president. “I do often marvel at our particular journey,” she says, speaking on the phone from New York where she is busy promoting Ladder to the Moon, her beautifully illustrated new children’s book, inspired by her late mother Ann Dunham.

“I think of all the layers of life, meaning, history that is tied up in (our family story). There’s so many connections: Hawaii; Indonesia and Kenya; Chicago and Washington. I feel like that has given my brother and I a remarkable perspective, it has taught us to always keep the bigger picture in our heads,” she remarks in the same deep, sonorous voice that has become her brother’s trademark.

By any standards, Ann Dunham, who died of ovarian cancer in 1995 at the age of just 52, was a remarkable woman. Despite growing up in the Midwest, Dunham, who was twice married and divorced, spent most of her adult life in Hawaii and Indonesia. She was a teenage mother who later gained a PhD in anthropology and, towards the end of her life, worked as a research consultant at Indonesia’s largest bank.

In the run-up to the 2008 presidential election, Barack, who once described his mother as the constant in his life, told Time magazine: “When I think about my mother, I think that there was a certain combination of being very grounded in who she was, what she believed in. But also a certain recklessness. I think she was always searching for something. She wasn’t comfortable seeing her life confined to a certain box.”

Ann Dunham’s unorthodox approach to life was reflected in her imaginative approach to childrearing.

“There was lots of storytelling, lots of play,” Maya recalls. “She would get down on the floor and really play with my brother and me. She even built us a kiln in the back garden for making pottery.”

Passionate about her professional work, Dunham was a sympathetic mother, too, drawing on experiences from her own childhood in rural Kansas to connect with her two children.

“She was a storyteller. She would tell us about making up stories based on the clouds in the sky when she was a girl, or of sitting with a copy of National Geographic in a tree and imagining herself in foreign places.”

Barack was nine when Maya was born, and although they only lived together for a couple of years, his younger sister still has memories of their time in Hawaii. “I can remember the apartment where we lived, the three of us. I remember my brother watching basketball and trying to get in front of him to get his attention — I still remember how much it annoyed him.”

Obama spent summer and Christmas holidays with his mother and sister but it was only much later, when Maya was 14, that the family was finally reunited in Hawaii.

After Obama had graduated from Columbia University he began working as a community organiser in Chicago, and Maya spent a summer with her big — and by now rather strait-laced — brother. “He was very serious back then,” Maya says, reflecting back on a time when her brother helped her choose where to study, introduced her to the writings of Toni Morrison and Gabriel Garcia Marquez and even enrolled his younger sister in a dance class.

“In college he became very serious, very philosophical. That was the time when he was collecting the building blocks for the future. Only later did he start lightening up,” she laughs.

Maya attributes Barack’s sunnier disposition in part to the resolution of the search for his own identity. In his 1995 memoir, Dreams from My Father, the future commander-in-chief describes feeling like a misfit in his Indonesian sandals and old-fashioned clothes when he started at school in Hawaii. As one of the few black students at Punahou he recalls students wanting to touch his hair and being asked whether his father ate people.

Struggling with his racial identity, Obama formed an image of his absent father from stories told by his mother and her parents. “My brother had to go and search for his father — which is the journey characterised in Dreams From My Father. I think he had to do that, particularly as a boy, but once he had made that journey he was OK,” says Maya.

The bond between Barack and Maya is still strong: he helped Maya get over the death of her father and spoke at her wedding to Konrad Ng, a Chinese American professor. Maya also has fond memories of working on Obama’s legendary ‘Change We Can Believe In’ campaign team in 2008.

“People had a sense that this was our future, they were asking ‘How can I make a contribution?’, ‘How can I help the broader community?’. It was a very exciting time.”

So much so that in the downtime during the gruelling campaign Maya penned Ladder to the Moon in the Obama’s Chicago home.

“I first thought about writing a story about mom when I was becoming a mom myself. It was only then that I actually did it.”

With military involvement in Libya, internal problems on Capitol Hill and, of course, that trip to Moneygall, Barack certainly has plenty on his plate right now with but the siblings stay in regular phone contact and Maya feels nothing but pride for her brother’s achievements.

“I think he is a great president and a great man. I’m proud not just of his position but his conduct, his efforts and his character under really difficult circumstances.

“I think there definitely have been easier times to be president.”

Old certainties gone for new writers

My review of New Irish Short Stories, edited by Joseph O’Connor from the Sunday Business Post.

Last February, Irish novelist Julian Gough was at the centre of a literary spate about the state of contemporary Irish fiction.

In comments published on his personal blog, and later picked up by the Guardian online, the Berlin-based writer railed against the ‘‘pompous, provincial literary community’’ back home.

‘‘Just when we need a furious army of novelists, we are getting fairly polite stuff published by Faber and Faber that fits into the grand tradition,” he said.

New Irish Short Stories is the third instalment in a well-established series from the same venerable London publisher bemoaned by Gough – so is this latest collection of new Irish writing more ‘‘fairly polite stuff’’, or a fiery, visceral rejoinder to the state of chassis we currently find ourselves in? The answer, almost inevitably, is a bit of both.

New Irish Short Stories follows up well-received collections of the same name that covered 2004-5 and 2006-7, both edited by the Late David Marcus, a titan of the Irish literary scene responsible for over 30 short story anthologies.

New editor Joseph O’Connor has preserved many of Marcus’s traditions, maintaining gender balance, as well as plenty of Northern voices. O’Connor has also adopted a pleasingly catholic conception of Irishness that allows for the inclusion of the likes of Richard Ford and Rebecca Miller, alongside established Irish authors and emerging writers.

While Marcus’s first two collections dealt largely with an affluent Celtic tiger nation – with stories set everywhere from Peru to Tuscany, and scant references to those twin pillars of Catholic Ireland, the Church and the GAA- this volume is loosely rooted in Ireland’s current crisis.

The cover features a panoramic glimpse of the Samuel Beckett Bridge in Dublin’s docklands at dusk, framed by cranes and half built office blocks; as O’Connor caustically notes in his brief introduction: ‘‘Old certainties are shattered.

We got fooled and we know it.” Crisis, in all its forms, threads its way through several of the stories included here: the global financial crash provides the backdrop for Joseph O’Neill’s slight tale of a New York highflyer in Italy, while it is an altogether more personal crisis of meaning that drives the anonymous protagonist in Philip O’Ceallaigh’s blistering The Fuck Monkey.

The global character of many Irish lives, and writers, is well represented. There are contributions from Bucharest, New York and Canada, stories set everywhere from Llandudno and London to Minnesota and Manhattan.

But some of the strongest pieces are suffused with an ethereal placelessness that mimics the disorientation of modern Ireland without seeking to faithfully reconstruct it in realist prose.

Crisis and confusion resonate throughout The Blacklight Ballroom, Peter Murphy’s powerful, dystopian vision of the future, set in a cashless society ‘‘nearly a year into the civil war that no one cared to declare a civil war’’. Echoes of JG Ballard, Michel Faber and contemporary science fiction abound too in Eoin McNamee’s short, unheimlich tale of post-industrial Russian workers on the edge of nowhere.

Elsewhere, Frank O’Connor’s description of the short story as an ‘‘intense awareness of human loneliness’’ infuses predictably adroit, delicately crafted contributions from Roddy Doyle, Dermot Bolger, Colm Tóibín, William Trevor and Kevin Barry.

When New Irish Short Stories is good, it is great, attesting to the continuing strength of Irish creative writing.

However, a few too many sepia-tinged visions seep into the 25-plus offerings on show.

The shadows of Frank O’Connor, Sean O’Faolain, Edna O’Brien and, particularly, John McGahern hang heavy over much of the newer work, with some of the writers featured seeking solace in well-trodden tropes of Ireland past.

Whether it is the shame of poverty in the 1950s (Vic McDade’s A Gift for my Mother) or the spectre of child abuse in Elaine Walsh’s Midnight Blue, there is a cloying, over-familiar feel to such clichéd depictions of Irish life.

Thankfully, not all the emergent contributors are buried under the weight of McGahern and company.

Kevin Power, whose debut novel Bad Day in Blackrock was published to deserved acclaim in 2008, delivers a coruscating dissection of Irish politics via the medium of the 2006 student union presidential elections in an unidentified Dublin university on College Green.

Another author who is certainly not guilty of any lack of imagination is Colum McCann. At barely four pages, Aisling is the briefest contribution, but McCann’s vision of a suburban Irish housewife wrestling her demons is perfectly realised – and devilishly funny to boot.

By their very nature, multi author compendiums of short stories are often uneven, dyspeptic affairs that struggle for a coherent flow with so many different voices.

New Irish Short Stories is not helped by the rather curious decision to present the writers in alphabetical order, which results in several jarring juxtapositions of tones, topics and styles. The absence of new immigrant voices is, as O’Connor acknowledges, also regretful.

Ireland has witnessed remarkable tumult and flux over the last decade and a half.

Unfortunately, at times reading this collection it feels that, like many of us, the next generation of Irish writers is still struggling to catch up.

This article appeared in the Sunday Business Post 20 March

The Secret Life of Stuff

Review of Julie Hill’s new book the Secret Life of Stuff appeared in the Sunday Business Post on January 9

Economic growth is always a good thing, right?

Not according to the New Economics Foundation. In January 2010, this left-leaning British think-tank warned, in the aptly-titled Growth Isn’t Possible report, that the prevailing orthodoxy of perpetual increasing, consumption based prosperity has left the world teetering on an ecological cliff.

Instead of trying to grow further, developed economies should look to consume resources in a stable, sustainable way.

While such views are unlikely to curry favour with many captains of industry, particularly in the face of a protracted worldwide financial slump, their influence reverberates across Julie Hill’s insightful, if occasionally frustrating new book, The Secret Life of Stuff.

Dismayed at ‘‘how little we understand the complexity of the material world that surrounds us’’, Hill draws on her 25 years’ experience as an environmental campaigner to examine where the ‘‘stuff’’ that clutters our lives comes from – and why we need to change radically the way we use, and abuse, the earth’s natural resources.

The problem is dispiritingly simple: we currently consume resources around 30 per cent faster than they are replaced naturally – and the rate is increasing annually.

Hill lays the blame for this sorry state of affairs squarely on the linear economy’s disposable philosophy – ‘‘make stuff, use stuff, throw stuff away’’. Growth at any cost simply produces more stuff, more waste and, crucially, a marked reduction in our core capital asset, the natural environment.

Take newspapers. If you’re reading this in print – and you probably are – then you can try to console yourself that newspapers today are printed on recycled paper. But this system isn’t an indefinite closed loop: paper can only be recycled half a dozen times before its fibres irrevocably breakdown.

Meanwhile, trees are diminishing. Half the world’s forest has already been felled; another quarter will be gone by 2050. Almost every other material resource – metal, minerals, water – is similarly overexploited.

So what’s the solution?

Not the ‘green consumer’ trend that, Hill argues, has simply produced a niche market for putatively environmentally friendly products. In its stead the author proposes a comprehensive overhaul of how we produce and use goods and objects: zero waste.

Zero waste ‘‘represents an aspiration to let as little stuff out of the economic system as possible’’, a philosophy of renew and reuse, not chuck away and start again.

It is a simple phrase, but one with devastating implications for our accepted ways of living and, even more so, doing business.

Alongside changes in government procurement policies and tax incentives for recycling and renewable energy, Hill proposes the introduction of binding ‘producer responsibility’.

Put simply, companies should be legally responsible for the entire life cycle of the products they produce.

Before buying a stick of timber or a spool of copper, businesses would have to consider how these raw materials would be used again after their product’s lifecycle.

It is a compelling argument with obvious benefits: massive savings in energy bills, the increased preservation of natural resources and the alleviation of the effects of climate change. But there are also drawbacks to zero waste at present.

Recycling technology is, in the main, remarkably primitive, even in the developed world. Economic inducements would certainly help change this, but progress takes time as well as legislation.

Lowering the price of renewables could also invite a Jevons paradox, whereby technological advances increase demand and consumption, negating any efficiency savings.

The Secret Life of Stuff is no dry, academic treatise.

Hill takes the reader on a journey from community incinerators on the Shetland Islands, to toxic spoil pits that pollute parts of Montana via ground-breaking recycling plants on the Japanese island of Shikoku, all the while explaining where our material world comes from, and how we too often waste it.

A range of sources are drawn on to produce a well researched, cogently-argued whole.

Unfortunately, the breadth of Hill’s reading is not always reflected in her style, which tends towards the demotic and too quickly becomes predictable.

Almost every section is prefaced with an historical anecdote, some of questionable relevance, while attempts to breakup the text with invented letters and hypothetical discussions fall flat.

Nevertheless, there is much to recommend here. The Secret Life of Stuff is a mine of revealing stats and facts: our consumption of agricultural products from other countries means that each person on earth uses a staggering 4,645 litres of water a day; Americans throw away 25 billion Styrofoam cups each year; the largest aluminium smelter in Australia uses as much energy as a city of one million people.

Ignore the rather misleading subtitle, A Manual for a New Material World, The Secret Life of Stuff is a polemical , often persuasive, manifesto for reusing and remodelling the planet we already have, not designing a new one.

Hill’s is a radical challenge to our prevailing economic culture, not just a paean to eating organic and buying local.

There are limits to growth; if we haven’t bumped our heads off them already, we certainly will soon.

Public Thinkers Beyond The University?

Last week a BBC Radio 3 scheme looking for “a new generation of public intellectuals” closed. Initiated in collaboration with the Arts and Humanities Research Council (AHRC), the scheme aimed to unearth a new wave of public thinkers with an expressed “interest in broader cultural debate”. The competition was open to all – as long as you worked inside a university and in a discipline that the AHRC supports (so economists, political scientists, sociologists, etc, were all excluded as well as Joe public).

Social innovator (and co-creator of the excellent Dark Mountain project) Dougald Hine has blogged about the Radio 3/AHRC scheme and the need to recognise and encourage public thinkers beyond the academy.

Now, call me self-interested, but by this criterion, the likes of John Berger or a young Karl Polanyi would fall through their net. I’m not comparing myself to those remarkable men. But as someone whose work gets cited by academics in a range of disciplines and is, I hope, beginning to make some impression in the public sphere, I’m disappointed to be excluded from consideration.

This isn’t just about me, though – there’s a whole network of people I’m aware of in the UK and beyond who are doing substantial new thinking from outside of academia – often in close and constructive dialogue with those operating from inside university departments. The way Radio 3 and the AHRC are approaching this project is going to miss out on a huge amount of the emerging intellectual culture of our generation – many of whose brightest minds saw what was happening to academia and chose to do our thinking elsewhere.

It certainly seems odd that, as one commentator noted, the very terms of Radio 3’s scheme would rule out Antonio Gramsci, inventor of the term “public intellectual”. Lots of excellent thinking goes on in our universities but, as almost any academic will concur, academic departments – and research councils – do not always encourage broad, cross-disciplinary thought that challenges the way we live. And with the pressures that seem certain to heap upon social sciences and humanities in light of last week’s events in Westminster it would be naive to expect positive changes in this situation anytime soon.

As well as writing to Radio 3 controller, Roger Wright, asking him to broader the terms of the “new thinkers” scheme, Hine has also called for nominations for innovative public thinkers outside the academy. I’ll put forward a couple of names, Pat Kane, whose sui generis writing on social life, and particularly play, has long been a source of inspiration, and Jenny Diski, who has spent a career unswervingly seeing the world differently without slipped into tired contrariness.

Who would you choose? What kind of public thinkers should we (and institutions such as the BBC and the AHRC) be recognising and encouraging?

Nick Ward – Closing the Circle

In the 19th century Fastnet rock was nicknamed ‘Ireland’s teardrop’. This small, clay-slate island, 11 miles off the coast of Cork, was, for many emigrants, the last glimpse of land before America. A hundred and fifty years after the coffin ships, Fastnet is now a byword for offshore yachting – the biannual race is the jewel in the sport’s crown – but the name retains its capacity to invoke sorrow and sadness.

On 11 August 1979, 303 yachts competing in the Fastnet race left Cowes on the Isle of Wight. The 606-mile course was supposed to take them south-west through the English Channel, across the Celtic sea, around the famous rock and back to the port of Plymouth, in Devon. Four days later, after a series of incredibly violent Force 11 storms between Land’s End and Fastnet, 24 boats were sunk or abandoned, and 15 yachtsmen dead.

The 1979 race was eventually won by American media mogul Ted Turner, but it is another name – that of Englishman Nick Ward – that became synonymous with the tragedy. Ward, then 24 and an epileptic since a brain haemorrhage at the age of 15, was one of six men on board the 30ft Grimalkin. Two of the crew – owner and skipper David Sheahan and Gerald ‘Gerry’ Winks, an Irishman – never made it off the boat, while Ward was left for dead, as the rest of the crew scrambled the life raft and escaped the badly damaged clipper.

After 13 hours alone on the Grimalkin with the body of his friend Gerry Winks, Ward was rescued by a Royal Navy Sea King helicopter somewhere off Land’s End. He was the last man to be found alive.

‘I didn’t speak about what happened for 25 years,’ Ward says, his soft voice quivering noticeably down the phone line as we move from talking amiably about his passion for boating and his chocolate Labrador to the events of that fateful race in 1979. ‘For so long I couldn’t talk about what happened to me on August 14, that day I spent with Gerry.’

It was a call from Sinead O’Brien, a Dublin-based documentary filmmaker, in September 2004 that finally led to Ward breaking his silence. O’Brien had intended to make a film about his story, but once the pair met in Ward’s home in Hamble, near Southampton, the project quickly morphed into a book. The writing process was drawn out – Ward would ‘write furiously in the middle of the night’, and email his efforts to O’Brien, who would make suggestions for redrafting – but the results are remarkable. Left for Dead is a gripping, thought-provoking first-person account of Ward’s experiences on board the Grimalkin, published in 2007 to near-universal critical acclaim.

‘Sinead brought a lot of things out of me that were hidden. She acted as a conduit, and without her I don’t know if I could have done it,’ says Ward, a warm, almost avuncular character whose modesty is ever-present yet never less than genuine.

What was the hardest part of writing the book? I ask. ‘Finding enough different adjectives to describe the weather that day,’ Ward laughs. ‘The waves were unbelievable. It was like standing at the bottom of the White Cliffs of Dover and looking up at the top – that’s how big the y were.’

Ward’s work as a chandler in the 1980s and 90s brought him into occasional contact with the crew mates who abandoned him on Grimalkin, after he was knocked unconscious following a massive wave. And while they never spoke of the incident, the writer insists he feels no anger and animosity towards his former friends.

‘A force 10 is a force 10. Things happen very quickly. I’d like to think that if I’d been conscious things might have been different – but I don’t know if they would have been. There are no hard feelings now. I used the anger to keep me afloat when I was on the boat, but that’s all over now.’

While writing Left for Dead was ‘a release’, Ward still felt he had unfinished business with Fastnet. His burning desire to complete the course, a passion he attributes to a childhood neighbour, led the by now-retired sailor to enlist in last year’s race, successfully taking the 30-ton clipper Aerial around the famous rock.

‘We only got 40 miles off Land’s End in 1979. I’d never made it to Fastnet before, and when we got the first sight of Cape Clear and Fastnet it sent shivers down my spine,’ he recalls.

Thirty years after almost losing his life on Grimalkin, Ward was finally able to sail into Plymouth at the end of a successful Fastnet race. ‘Closure is an over-used word, and catharsis is an over-used word, but 2009 was both for me. It was such an emotional event.’

Left for Dead has just been republished with an extra chapter about his experience on last year’s Fastnet. But Ward’s participation in that race was no marketing gimmick, rather the sailor wanted to honour those who lost their lives in 1979 in his own way.

‘Going back and doing the race again was, for me, the perfect way to commemorate those lives. There was an official church service in Cowes last year but I didn’t want to get into that depressing state. I wanted to commemorate them in my own way,’ he explains.

Not that everyone agreed with Ward’s decision to race again. His wife took several years of persuading, and there were plenty of 1979 veterans who couldn’t understand why a 54 year old would want to race again. ‘I met a couple of old friends outside the pub in Hamble before I did last year’s race. They had both raced in 1979 and they said ‘you bloody idiot. Why are doing this?’. I just said ‘don’t worry, I’ll come back’. And I did.’

Sailing runs through Ward’s veins. He lives just a quarter of a mile from the sea, and 500 yards from where he was born, and still races three times a week. While epilepsy put paid to his dreams of a full-time life on the sea, he passed on his feverish enthusiasm for all things nautical to his two children, 24 year old Sam, and Elizabeth, 18.

His eldest is a sailor on the RSS Discovery, currently off the coast of Iceland. ‘He has been through two force 10s in the past two weeks,’ his father says proudly. ‘I’m living his life vicariously. To say I’m jealous isn’t true but I would love to be with him.’

Thanks to Left for Dead, Ward’s story has inspired not just his family, but people all around the world. One of his most dedicated fans – a young woman who gave up her shore job and dedicated herself to sailing after reading his book – eventually became second mate on Aerial during last year’s Fastnet race.

Fastnet will always be with Nick Ward but, for him, the time for lamenting Ireland’s teardrop has passed. Having made peace with the past, he is happy to walk his dog, write and, of course, sail. Though that’s not to say he would never countenance another crack at the iconic rock. ‘I’d love to do Fastnet again – but whether my wife would let me? Now that’s a different story.’

Left for Dead by Nick Ward with Sinead O’Brien is available now, published by A & C Black priced £8.99

This piece first appeared in The Irish Examiner on August 8

A satire on schooldays puts Paul Murray at the top of the class

In Ireland, small talk is not what it was. For centuries, Irish people chatted idly about the weather, then, for one crazy decade, it was difficult to buy a pint of milk without being invited to give an opinion on property prices. Now it’s the ever-worsening recession that is inescapable. “How is it in Longford?” novelist Paul Murray asks, as he waits for his decaf coffee, in one of the countless upmarket cafes that sprang up in Dublin during the boom. My Midlands hometown is typical of much of Ireland: boarded-up housing estates, spending cuts, redundancies, public anger. “Yep, it’s the same up here,” he says, shaking his head wistfully.

Murray, a fresh-faced 35-year-old, started writing Skippy Dies – his wonderful, dark, comic, Man Booker-longlisted second novel – seven years ago, when his native land was in thrall to a credit-fuelled spending bonanza. “It was such a selfish, narcissistic place then. Everything was lost in a psychosis of spending. The amount of kitchens that were put in on our street was incredible. Everyone got a new one – except us. We probably brought prices in our neighbourhood down by €80,000!”

In person, Murray’s anger at Ireland’s political classes is barely contained, but anyone picking up Skippy Dies expecting a polemical rant against Celtic Tiger consumerism will be sorely disappointed. Set in Seabrook College, a traditional Catholic boarding school in a posh Dublin suburb, the country’s “economic miracle” provides only the haziest of backdrops for the story of Ruprecht “Van Blowjob” Van Doren, an overweight 14-year-old mathematical whizz kid and string theory devotee, and his reticent, thoughtful best friend, Daniel “Skippy” Juster.

The book opens with the death foretold in its title and the succeeding 650-plus pages deal with the events leading up to Skippy’s tragic passing during an ill-advised doughnut-eating competition. As a panoramic view of public-school life, Skippy Dies is both hilarious and perspicacious, but to describe it as a “teenage comedy” fails to do justice to the sprawling world Murray has created. Here myriad, seemingly disconnected, themes – including cosmology, Ireland’s role in the first world war, quantum mechanics, Robert Graves, fairy tales and child abuse – all coalesce into a fast-paced, coherent narrative that zings with originality and invention.

A rag-tag cast of characters stalk the halls of Seabrook; porn-obsessed adolescents, lustful French teacher Father Green (“Old Pere Vert”), acting principal Greg “The Automater” Costigan, and his ill-fated history teacher Howard Fallon. Dubbed Howard the Coward by his unswervingly prescient pupils, the failed City banker and Seabrook old boy’s doomed dalliance with beautiful supply teacher Aurelie McIntyre provides many comic highlights.

Murray could almost pass for a slightly older version of Howard. Pale-skinned, blue-eyed, he wears his sandy-brown hair in an unruly mop; his slow, considered speech is peppered with scholarly references (Barthes, Nietzsche, the Second World War). “No, I’ve never been a teacher,” he says, looking surprised when I ask if the novel’s stilted staff-room interaction is based on insider knowledge. “I think I lack the ability to intimidate or project an air of imminent violence that you need to succeed as a teacher.”

Raised in affluent south Dublin, Murray attended Blackrock College, one of Ireland’s most illustrious secondary schools, and his experiences there provided ample inspiration for Skippy Dies. “I’ve seen what a class of 30 boys can do. They are able to pinpoint a person’s weak spot and just take them apart. It’s frightening,” he shudders slightly, eyes looking down at the table guiltily.

After terrorising teachers at Blackrock, Murray read English at Trinity College, Dublin, returning to his alma mater for his debut novel, the Whitbread-nominated An Evening Of Long Goodbyes. An energetic journey through modern Ireland seen through the eyes of a rich college drop-out, his first book’s success bought him the time and space to concentrate on an even bolder follow-up.

“When I finished the first book I thought to myself, ‘I’m free of a lot of the pressures that most writers have. I don’t have a mortgage, I don’t have children. Now’s the time to go for it.’” Only, in 2003, Paul Murray had no idea just how big his second novel was going to be – in every sense.

The first draft of Skippy Dies clocked in at well over 1000 pages, a length even his literary hero Thomas Pynchon would balk at. “Initially my editor would suggest changes to the manuscript,” Murray says of the process of whittling down the original text. “Then one day, about six months before it came out, I’d a really bad hangover and I decided to just sit down and read it from beginning to end. It was over 900 pages at that stage and it just wasn’t working. By the end of the day I had got rid of 250 pages.”

The novelist’s swingeing editorial axe had the desired effect: Skippy Dies was published in February of this year to near universal critical acclaim, with Ireland’s foremost director, Neil Jordan, quickly taking out the film option. Murray also makes his debut at the Edinburgh International Book Festival later this month. And then, of course, there is the nomination for that literary prize …

“It was really, really strange and totally unexpected, to be perfectly honest,” he remarks of his appearance on the recently announced Man Booker longlist. An outsider for the prize proper – at least according to the bookies – the nomination has, nevertheless, given Skippy Dies something of a commercial kiss of life. “It is like a second birth for the book. People who never looked at it before are looking at it now. I would normally get about three emails a day but since the nomination there has been lots of interest.”

In the notoriously ego-driven world of literary fiction, Paul Murray is that rarest of beasts, a genuinely bashful writer. He shies away from praise of his work, and openly talks about the kind of self-doubts that plague most novelists, but which few would admit to. “No matter what you do as a writer, you’re always afraid that you’re going to run out of things to say,” Murray, who is currently working on novel number three, explains. “I think you’re always haunted by that fear.”

One worry that preys less and less on his mind is the place of the writer-as-artist in his home city. “For so long it felt that if you wanted to work as an artist in Dublin, you had to accept that you would never feel financially secure, you would never be able to own a house. You were forced to live in a society in which a really large chunk were being excluded,” says Murray, who recently moved from the middle-class suburb of Ranelagh in the south of the city to working-class Stoneybatter on the opposite side of the Liffey.

After more than two hours in conversation, we also decide to relocate to a nearby hotel for – predictably enough – a pint of Guinness. Sitting with his back to a row of pristine book-filled shelves in the library bar, Murray looks more comfortable than he has all day.

“I definitely find it easier to live as an artist in Dublin now. For a while you felt like such an outsider, the culture was so much about money and hedonism.” He pauses for a moment, taking a sip of his stout. “Thankfully that’s changing now.”

Skippy Dies is out now, published by Hamish Hamilton at £12.99. Paul Murray appears alongside Simon Rich on August 19 as part of the Edinburgh International Book Festival

Piece first appeared in the Sunday Herald, August 16