Sectarian Legacy of Belfast Riots

From the Irish Examiner, June 24.

Sectarian Legacy of Belfast Riots

On Tuesday evening, the newly crowned US Champion Rory McIlroy touched down at George Best airport in East Belfast. It should have been a homecoming to unite Northern Ireland, a proud moment for the country, a positive face to show the world. Instead a typically sanguine McIllroy found himself in an unusual position – fielding questions about shootings, riots and sectarian skirmishes.

Less than five miles from the damp tarmac at George Best, the detritus of the previous night’s rioting – bricks, bottles, even golf balls – lay strewn across the junction of the lower Newtownards Road and the Short Strand. McIlroy, a native of Holywood, Co. Down, spoke for the vast majority of Northern Ireland when he told reporters how ‘saddened’ he was ‘to see what’s happened over the past couple of nights’.

This week’s riots are among the most serious civil disturbances witnessed on the streets of Northern Ireland in recent years – as the sudden ubiquity of foreign reporters in Belfast attests. Loyalists and dissident republicans firing live rounds at the police, a photographer and two Protestant youths with gunshot wounds, hundred-strong crowds lobbing everything from lit fireworks to petrol bombs: this is international news. And, unlike Rory Mc’s emphatic victory in Maryland, it is a Northern Irish story the world’s media are well versed in covering.

Less cut and dried, however, is the motivation behind the unrest. The Short Strand, effectively surrounded on three sides by a corrugated iron peacewall, is a staunchly nationalist enclave of less than 1,000 people in overwhelmingly unionist inner East Belfast. Relations between the communities have long been febrile: in 1970 the grounds of St Matthew’s Church was the scene of major gun battle between the IRA and loyalist mobs, while in 2002 clashes across the peaceline were a nightly feature for months.


Now the UVF, led by a renegade commander dubbed ‘the Beast from the East’, is reasserting their dominance in the area. Last month, in a marked departure from the current vogue for bright, friendly, inclusive murals on Belfast’s streets, a dour depiction of loyalist paramilitaries holding machine guns was painted on the corner of Dee Street and the Newtownards road. Kerbstones in the neighbourhood have been treated to a fresh coat of red, white and blue paint, lampposts to new UVF flags.

This ‘Beast from the East’ has the authority – and, more worryingly, the autonomy – to attract hundreds of loyalist youths, some even bussed in from other parts of the city, onto the streets of East Belfast. This was no spontaneous eruption of violence, whatever the ex post grievances about attacks on property last weekend by republican youths averred by the UVF’s putative political wing, the badly compromised Progressive Unionist Party.

Arriving on the heels of violence at the contentious Tour of the North Orange Order parade in North Belfast last Friday, the riots around the Short Strand mark a troubling detioration in the law and order situation in working-class districts of Belfast. As the marching season kicks into gear, the potential for further trouble in flashpoint areas – particularly at the Ardoyne on July 12 – should not be underestimated.

But to attribute the riots solely to the activity of a loyalist eminence grise, nefariously orchestrating mayhem behind the scenes, or the heightened political temperature that comes with the marching season, is to ignore important underlying aspects of life in Northern Ireland today.

Jobs, or more specifically their lack, are a festering sore on the body politic. At a whopping 28%, economic inactivity is higher in the North than anywhere else in the UK – a figure that rises sharply in deprived areas such as the Short Strand and Lower Newtownards Road.

The housing market – a key driver of the post-peace process boom – has, like its southern neighbour, gone into freefall. Average house prices have tumbled from an eye-watering £250,000 to barely half that in just four years. At the same time, the heavily public sector dominated economy is feeling the pinch of Westminster-enforced austerity – this year Chancellor George Osborne loped almost £500m off Stormont’s block grant.

A dispiriting economic situation coupled with lack of employment opportunities in traditional industries such as ship building is the perfect breathing ground for sectarianism.

The continued division of Northern Irish society along sectarian lines has been one of the prevailing, if seldom commented upon, features of the post-Good Friday dispensation. Since 1994, the number of peacewalls has trebled: in the five years since the signing of the St Andrews Agreement, which heralded the restoration of power-sharing government, 11 new walls have been built between nationalist and unionist communities. In terms of housing, Belfast remains by far the most segregated city in Europe. Only 6% of Northern Irish school children attend integrated school.

The political classes at Stormont have yet to demonstrate a sincere willingness to address the legacy engendered by generations of sectarian strife. A Shared Future, a government strategy for promoting community relations drawn up at a cost of many millions to the taxpayer in the early years of the last decade, lay in abeyance before being shelved completely by the incoming Sinn Fein – DUP administration in 2006. In the absence of either A Shared Future or its decidedly lukewarm follow-up Cohesion, Sharing and Integration Northern Ireland, rather remarkably, has no formal policy on tackling sectarianism.

Slowly, noiselessly, reconciliation has slipped off the political agenda in the North. Without much maligned community workers on the ground – it was they, not Peter Robinson and Martin McGuinness, who effectively brokered something akin to a ceasefire around the Short Strand on Wednesday – the situation in many communities would be even more perilous. At the same time funding for vast swathes of community relations work is under threat.

Major challenges lie ahead. Economic forecasts for the North remain dire, while a raft of commemorations, including centenaries of the Larne UVF gunrunning and the Easter Rising, will pose troubling questions for a divided society.

Rory McIlroy shows every sign of bagging more majors in the years ahead. Unfortunately, if significant investment and political drive in addressing sectarianism is not forthcoming, the amiable County Down man could find that questions about riots and street violence keep coming too.

Peter Geoghegan is the author of ‘A Difficult Difference: Race, Religion and the New Northern Ireland’, out now published by the Irish Academic Press.


Turning point in history

On the 30th anniversary of the death of Bobby Sands, the hunger striker is still regarded as a hero of republicanism, says Peter Geoghegan. (From the Irish Examiner, May 5, 2011).

THIS tendentious analysis of the death, and life, of Bobby Sands appeared in the Guardian on May 6, 1981. The previous day the Belfast native died on hunger strike at HM Prison Maze. Sands was 27 years old and, until his hunger strike, largely unknown outside Irish Republican circles.

Thirty years on, Bobby Sands is anything but a figure of dark humour or criminal treachery. The closest Ireland has come to a Che Guevara, Sands is vaunted as a hero of republicanism, his hirsute image adorning everything from gable ends to t-shirts and posters.

Danny Morrison, who was national director of publicity for Sinn Féin during the 1981 hunger strikes and also published Sands’s poetry and prose in the party’s newspaper, An Phoblacht, is not surprised at the posthumous fame.

“He was always an enigmatic person. He had this aura around him of authority. Even if he was living in the most horrific of conditions, he had the measure of the world. He always seemed to know exactly what was going on,” the head of the Bobby Sands Trust explains.

Anthony McIntyre, a former IRA member and author of Good Friday: the Death of Irish Republicanism, was in the Maze at the time of hunger strikes and remembers Bobby Sands as a “totally committed IRA volunteer”.

“He was imbibed with Pearsean notions of Republicanism. He was also very socialist, very left-wing with a great sense of struggle and history.”

On May 5, 1981, after 66 days on hunger strike, Bobby Sands passed away. He was the first Irish republican to die on hunger strike since Frank Stagg in 1976. On the war-torn streets of Northern Ireland riots broke out in nationalist areas, with thousands of plastic bullets fired by security forces and two people — milkman Eric Guiney and his son Desmond — killed following stone-throwing by rioters in nationalist North Belfast.

Inside the Maze the atmosphere was equally tense. “The mood in the H Block was terrible,” says Anthony McIntyre. “The screws (prison wardens) weren’t letting us out of the cells. We had a radio smuggled in but we had to wait to access the news. Brendan Hughes (the officer commanding during the 1980 hunger strike) announced Sands had died. Up until his funeral there was silence in the wing. There was a molten rage, anger, grief, but we didn’t say anything.”

Sands’s funeral was one of the largest public outpourings of grief witnessed during the 30 years of the Troubles. An estimated 100,000 people lined the route from Sands’s family home in the Twinbrook area of West Belfast to nearby Milltown Cemetery, where he was buried in the newly-created republican plot.

Journalist and writer Ed Moloney was working as a reporter for the Irish Times in Belfast in 1981 and remembers Sands’s funeral well: “It was immense. That’s about the only word to describe it. It was so large that we had a discussion in the Belfast office about how to describe it. I said simply, ‘It was the biggest nationalist demonstration in Northern Ireland since the Troubles started.’ Which is exactly what it was.”

By the end of that summer another nine hunger strikers had died, in the process changing utterly the Northern Irish conflict. “With the hunger strikes, the Provos demolished the myth that no-one supported them, that no-one voted for them,” says Moloney.

Sands was not just a republican prisoner or a hunger striker, he was also a Member of Parliament, having famously won a by-election in Fermanagh/South Tyrone on an ‘anti-H Block/Armagh political prisoner’ ticket, in April 1981. Sands’s election paved the way, later in 1981, for Sinn Féin’s entry into electoral politics, the so-called Armalite and Ballot Box strategy, and eventually, Ed Moloney suggests, the Good Friday Agreement.

“Looking back on the hunger strikes, even though it was regarded at the time as an event that would increase conflict and make things worse, ironically it had within it the seeds of the peace process, thanks to Bobby Sands’s electoral success,” says Maloney.

If Sands’s victory at the ballot box paved the way for Sinn Féin to emerge as a political force it seems fitting that the 30th anniversary of his death falls on the very day his former comrades contest elections to the Stormont assembly.

“1981 was a turning point,” says Danny Morrison, who was Sands’s spokesperson during his successful Westminster campaign and is also the man credited with coining the phrase ‘the Armalite and Ballot Box’.

“It’s hard to attribute it to one death or one person, but Bobby’s death was international news. Here was an IRA man, an MP, dying in a British prison. It politicised a whole generation.”

In the 30 years since, Sands has become a symbol of Irish republicanism and the Northern Irish conflict. Streets named after Sands can be found everywhere from Nantes and Saint-Denis in France to Iran, where, in an act of political provocation, the Iranian government renamed Winston Churchill Boulevard, the location of the British embassy in Tehran, Bobby Sands Street. In 2008, Hunger, director Steve McQueen’s film starring Michael Fassbender, about the life and death of Sands in the Maze, won the Camera d’Or prize at Cannes.

Bobby Sands’s death is one of the most iconic moments in the Troubles, but it has not been without controversy. In 2005, in his book Blanketman, Richard O’Rawe, who was the public relations officer inside the prison during the hunger strike, accuses Gerry Adams of prolonging the strike for Sinn Féin’s political benefit.

“The hunger strike ultimately created political careers for Adams and McGuiness,” argues Anthony McIntyre, who has long been critical of Sinn Féin. “Politically it didn’t achieve anything that the SDLP didn’t in 1974 (at Sunningdale). It added oomph to an IRA campaign that was flagging, but ultimately what was gained by that war was very, very little.”

Danny Morrison rejects the suggestion the Sinn Féin leadership could have stopped the hunger strike. “That’s complete nonsense. They were our friends and comrades, they were also our cousins and brothers, they were people we grew up with.

“If the Sinn Féin leadership squandered an offer to end the hunger strike and protect the hunger strikers and let six men die who would be the first to say it? The British government. And they never said anything like it.”

Debates over whether or not Bobby Sands would have supported Sinn Féin’s peace strategy have raged almost since his death. On this subject, Ed Moloney is refreshingly phlegmatic: “If you were to tell Bobby Sands in May 1981 that your death would eventually lead to a political settlement in which the Provos accept the existence of Northern Ireland, support the British security forces, and take part in Stormont, would he have continued? In my mind there is no way he would have said ‘Yes’.

“But if he had not died, and we’d ended up with the same settlement, I think he would have accepted that, too.”

The 1981 Hunger Strikes

THE 1981 hunger strike was the culmination of a five-year protest by prisoners at Long Kesh prison in the North. It began as the ‘blanket protest’ in 1976, escalating into the dirty protest, where prisoners refused to leave their cells and covered the walls of their cells with excrement. In 1980, seven prisoners participated in the first hunger strike, which ended in acrimony after 53 days. The second hunger strike, in 1981, was a showdown between the prisoners and then British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher. During the strike, its leader, Bobby Sands, was elected as an MP prompting worldwide media interest.

The hunger strike was called off on October 3, 1981. Three days later Secretary of State for Northern Ireland James Prior announced partial concessions to the prisoners, including the right to wear their own clothes at all times.

Sands’s election agent, Owen Carron, won the Fermanagh/South Tyrone seat at a subsequent by-election. Two hunger strikers, Kieran Doherty and Paddy Agnew, won seats in the Dáil in 1981.

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.”

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

Klas Ostergren – Swede Success

This interview with the wonderful writer Klas Ostergren appeared in The Irish Examiner back in October.

‘In Sweden, a writer needs to have a sense of humour,’ Klas Östergren smiles, pausing for effect before taking a sip from a pint of continental lager. Now in his mid-50s, the avuncular novelist has been a household name in his homeland since the 1970s but still he cannot compete with Sweden’s most famous export – ABBA. ‘After one reading a girl asked me to sign her book Benny Andersson,’ he laughs. ‘I explained that I’m not Ben Andersson but it didn’t matter – “It’s him I like,” she said. That’s what it’s like there.’

stergrenklas-47bf6ce23f772Thankfully Östergren is one writer who refuses to take himself too seriously. It could be the brown linen suit and overcoat that make him look like a pre-digital incarnation of Doctor Who or the bright eyes that coruscate behind his coke bottle glasses, but the amiable Swede carries a definite air of insouciant mischief. As we wait to be served in an upmarket bar in Edinburgh’s West End he recalls downing 38 beers to win a drinking contest in Amsterdam. ‘They were only little beers, and I was a much younger man,’ he remarks, running his hands through his corkscrew hair.

Ever since the publication of his debut novel, Attila, at the tender age of 20, Östergren has been something of a Swedish literary phenomenon. Five years later, in 1980, came Gentlemen, a stylish celebration of post-World War II-era Stockholm that cemented his reputation as a comic and insightful social critic. Since then he has written countless novels and screenplays and translated everything from Catcher in the Rye to Baudelaire into Swedish. In spite of his popularity at home, Östergren’s work was unavailable in English until recent translations of first Gentlemen and now The Hurricane Party finally brought him to the attention of the Anglophone literati.

A tale of urban dystopia set far in the future, The Hurricane Party is based on the Norse legend of the eagle that dared to defy Loki, the most sinister and menacing of the gods. The novel is the latest in the Canongate ‘Myths’ series, which has already seen authors including Margaret Atwood, Michael Faber and Alexander McCall Smith put a contemporary spin on age-old fables. Östergren was flattered to be considered among such exalted company but, he says, had reservations about his contribution: ‘I had to find my own heart and my own angle on the saga of Loki. It took me a year before I began writing the story.’

The protagonist of the Hurricane Party is Hanck Orn, a repairer and trader of ‘obsolete’ machines like typewriters and telescopes, whose world is turned upside when two members of mysterious ruling Clan call to tell him that his son, Toby, is dead. Hanck’s search for the truth, which puts him on a collision course with Loki, provides the novel’s narrative drive.

Despite its setting and subject matter, the book, Östergren explains carefully, is based directly on personal experience. ‘It is really a story about me and one of my sons who was born with very serious health problems. For the first three years of his life we thought was going to die. I barely slept, I didn’t eat, I lost weight.’ The novelist’s concern for his child, who is now fully recovered, was such that the panic attacks that plagued him since his own childhood abated. ‘It was as if I was cleaned by fire,’ he says. ‘This book is a way of approaching and understanding that whole experience.’

Having grown up and spent much of his adult life in Stockholm, Östergren now lives with his wife of 17 years and their three children on a farm near the seaside town of Kivik in southern Sweden ‘My wife is the green fingered one, the weeds are my business,’ he replies when I ask about his agrarian talents.

He spends his days writing, his evenings given over to the farm and the family home he is in the process of building: ‘I think TS Eliot’s life was quite bohemian compared to me’. It might be ‘a boring life to describe’ but after years immersed in the hothouse of Stockholm’s arts scene the writer seems genuinely happy to be out of the city, and its temptations. ‘I do not have a bad character, but I had friends who had bad characters,’ he says cryptically of the years during and after his first marriage, to well known Swedish actress Pernilla Walgren, which ended in divorce in 1989.

Writing always came naturally to Östergren, but he admits that the artistic process is not as smooth as it once was. ‘I find it harder to write because you become more of a critic. You become aware of the complexity of writing. When I started I probably understood only 10% of the complexity.’

Nowadays he thinks more about his readers, self-critically wondering ‘Am I the right guy to occupy you? Should you read something else?’ Such candour is typical Klas Östergren. ‘Perhaps it’s not fine art but I don’t give a shit for that,’ he says after listing Graham Greene, William Faulkner and John le Carré among his literary heroes. He does admit, however, that TS Eliot holds a special place in his affections: ‘He’s the only writer I read and reread’. Later he admits to being unable, or unwilling, to use a computer. The Swede has worked on the same typewriter since 1964, though even that is starting to grate. ‘Sometimes, when you’re on the final draft of something, you think the noise of the keys clicking is going to drive you mad.’

The life of a Swedish writer has its trials and tribulations but if anything Östergren is warming to the task: ‘I used to say give me any other job and I’ll take it but now I’m not so sure.’ While rustic living seems to suit his artistic temperament, it is difficult to imagine the author ever getting too comfortable. ‘I’m a little more anarchist that I appear if you scratch the surface,’ he smiles before polishing off his drink. If only the same could be said of Benny Andersson.

The Hurricane Party is out now, published by Canongate, priced £12.99

Peter Geoghegan