Review: Fiachra Sheridan – The Runners

Review of Fiachra Sheridan‘s debut novel The Runners from yesterday’s Sunday Business Post:

Dublin’s north inner city has never had it easy, but the 1980s were particularly deleterious.Unchecked urban decay, vertiginous unemployment figures and a deadly influx of cheap heroin made it a decade to forget for many of the capital’s poorest and most vulnerable.

But for Bobby Ryan and Jay McCann, the vivacious, impetuous 13-year-olds at the heart of Fiachra Sheridan’s debut novel, The Runners, the inner city in 1985 offers everything a boy could want – and more. Growing up in Ballybough, under the shadow of Croke Park, they fish in the Tolka river, swim at the pool on Sean McDermott Street and race each other past the Sunset House in Summerhill.

the runnersThis is primarily a novel about adolescent friendship. Written from the perspective of Bobby, it maintains a laudably naive tone as it follows the boys’ youthful japes, from robbing the local store to jumping the fence at a packed Dalymount to watch a Paolo Rossi-inspired Italy defeat Liam Brady’s Ireland.

While their friendship crosses class divisions – Jay comes from the flats while Bobby’s parents, despite surviving on welfare, own their home – social distinctions are never fully transcended. Bobby, we are told in typically simple prose, ‘‘was envious of Jay living in the flats. He had a real claim on being a Ballybough boy. Bobby pretended he was from the flats.”

The most important adult in the boys’ world is not a parent or a teacher, but Anto Burke, their Stardust fire scarred boxing trainer. A decidedly ambivalent character, Anto both instils discipline and determination in the headstrong youths and uses them to ferry drugs around the inner city, with predictably disastrous consequences for all.

Sheridan is a writer with an impressive family pedigree – his father is playwright and director Peter, uncle Jim is a serial Academy Award nominee – and The Runners is not without literary merit. The boys’ boxing and football-filled milieu is believably rendered, and the novel is studded with memorable scenes from their young lives, most poignantly when Bobby’s alcoholic father buys him a bargain bin England jersey instead of a Liverpool shirt for his birthday. (‘‘A fiver was all he was worth.”)

Sheridan employs a deliberately pared-back style but, at crucial points, particularly in the opening 50 pages, the story feels underwritten and slightly one-paced. The author seems to know the narrative he wants to tell so well that he neglects to put the hard graft into setting it up properly.

The demotic opening paragraph, with its description of ‘‘Dublin’s north inner city, one of the poorest parts of Dublin’’, reads more like the intro to a lazy news feature than the opening gambit of what is essentially a well realised, well crafted novel.

Sheridan’s narrative improves as Bobby and Jay’s childish innocence and their hopes and dreams are destroyed by the nefarious world of drugs and addiction that lives on their doorsteps. But the author’s determination to write in single-clause sentences and unembellished, flattened prose does leave some genuinely dramatic moments feeling strangely empty and stilted.

The engrossing, rather chilling denouement suggests that, with a little more verve, ambition and editorial work throughout, Sheridan might have had a real gem of a debut on his hands. Nevertheless, this intimate account of inner-city life is a respectable introduction for a writer with a bright future ahead of him.

Review: Ghosts and Lightening

Review of Trevor Bryne’s debut from The Sunday Business Post:

Ghosts and Lightning, the debut novel by Dublin-born writer Trevor Byrne, is set in a Clondalkin housing estate, to which Denny Cullen – an out of work 20-something with a passion for wrestling and Liverpool FC – reluctantly returns following the unexpected death of his mother.

The protagonist is more profligate than prodigal son; he left for Wales with dreams of university and a new life but, less than a year later, is broke, unhappy and back living in the family home, though without his mother’s stabilising influence.

The story follows Denny and his friends as they divide their time between drinking, taking drugs and signing on. Funny and entertaining, yet tinged with sadness and desperation, Ghosts and Lightning is full of colourful scenes. Convinced the house is haunt ed by her late mother’s ghost, his sister Paula harangues a sceptical Denny into organising a seance with the help of Pajo, a former heroin addict with a penchant for herbal medicine, eastern mysticism and the paranormal.

What Pajo believes to be a voice from the spirit world – ‘‘Did yeh hear that?” – turns out to be the low hum of Simon Cowell passing judgment on an X-Factor contestant from an upstairs television.

Surprisingly thoughtful and considerate, Denny is often held back by his comrades and a life that brings little happiness, but from which he seems incapable of escaping. When he buys a decrepit old car for ‘‘the bit o’ freedom’’, it is destroyed by local Travellers in revenge for the transgressions of Maggit, an absent father, petty crook and childhood friend.

Ghosts and Lightning also transposes a favourite trope of 1990s male literary fiction – drug-taking – to contemporary Dublin. From the pills he pops himself to the bag of stolen cocaine that provides the impetus for the rather unexpected denouement in Donegal, drugs are a quotidian feature of Denny’s world.

Given such subject matter and the novel’s vernacular style, comparisons with Irvine Welsh seem inevitable, but this is no Irish Trainspotting.

Byrne’s fragile, dysfunctional characters are more likely to elicit sympathy than repugnance, and his attentive, lyrical prose owes a greater debt to Alan Warner, James Kelman and Cormac McCarthy than to Welsh.

Ghosts-and-Lightning-by-T-002Written and set just before the recent economic crash, Ghosts and Lightning is a remarkably prescient reflection on the lives left behind during the boom.

‘‘I’m not unaware of Ireland’s wealth, I’m just not party to it,” Denny remarks early in the book after an attractive Swedish ‘chugger’, a charity collector, approaches him outside Trinity College.

The question of how to counter such alienation and disenfranchisement is a central dilemma that, in truth, is never fully resolved. The novel is suffused with an underlying nostalgia for a return to ‘‘an older Ireland’’, a phrase Denny uses throughout, but this is not developed much beyond the city-dweller’s nascent yearning for the countryside of his childhood memory.

Nevertheless, there is much to applaud in Byrne’s powerful debut. His writing is concise and unfussy, yet not without literary flourishes: on numerous occasions he appears to abandon the narrative completely only to return a few pages later via an insightful or comic digression; and his use of flashbacks to reveal the character of Denny’s mother is particularly effective.

There are echoes of Roddy Doyle and Sean O’Casey in his use of language, and it makes a refreshing change to discover a new Irish writer using Hiberno-English outside quotation marks.

Judging by this poignant, compelling and often deeply comic tale of life on the margins of Irish society, Byrne seems certain to enjoy greater longevity than the Celtic tiger which abandoned Denny Cullen and his friends so comprehensively.

Orangefest aims to bridge the gap

Feature on the Orange Order’s attempts to turn 12th of July weekend into an Orangefest appeared in The Sunday Business Post.

orangefestMore than 100,000 people will gather in downtown Belfast tomorrow to watch the annual Twelfth of July celebrations. The customary flute bands, Lambeg drums and Orange standards will all be there, but so will local businesses as, for the first time, city centre traders open on the day.

Many of the city’s largest retailers and shopping centres will open their doors between 12.30pm and 4.30pm, after the parade leaves the town. The new initiative is part of a pilot scheme jointly coordinated by business leaders and representatives from the Orange Order.

It is the latest development in the ambitious rebranding of the controversial date as Orangefest, an inclusive, family-oriented event featuring on-street entertainment, circus acts and the traditional marching bands.

Now in its third year, Orangefest aims to create a festive atmosphere around one of the most contentious and divisive days in the Northern political calendar. But the age-old custom of retailers shutting their doors for the day did not help the organisers in the first two years.

‘‘Town was just completely dead once the parade passed,” said Billy Mawhinney, the festival development officer. ‘‘All the shops were boarded up and blocked. For tourists coming over, they couldn’t get a drink, something to eat or even a cup of tea.”

Funded by the Department for Social Development, Mawhinney’s post was created in 2006 – though not without controversy. Nationalists decried Orangefest as a sop to disgruntled unionists, while there was opposition from conservative factions within the Orange Order itself.

The event has also struggled to shake off the parade’s associations with sectarian violence and recreational rioting at interface areas, particularly in Belfast and Derry.
It is also hard to get away from the fact that it was traditionally a day when people from those cities left the North to go across the border. Now, the organisers are trying to get tourists to visit for the day.

Sitting in his office, a spacious wood-panelled room adorned with sabres and Union Jacks in an Orange Lodge on Belfast’s Shankill Road, Mawhinney acknowledged these points. But he was hopeful that Orangefest could broaden the Twelfth’s appeal beyond the North’s unionist population – and tap into the event’s unrealised economic potential.

‘‘We are convinced that the Twelfth can be a great economic driver, and that tourists are coming,” he said.

Andrew Irvine, head of the publicprivate partnership company Belfast City Centre Management, agrees. Since the turn of the year, Irvine has been working with Belfast Chamber of Commerce, Belfast City Council and the Orangefest organising committee to develop a dedicated business strategy around the day.

The Twelfth is a two-day public holiday in the North, and businesses have long pushed for Sunday trading to be extended to cover it – a particularly pressing concern, given the current economic climate.

‘‘From the retailers’ point of view, it makes perfect sense,” Irvine said of Monday’s half-day opening. ‘‘We are feeling the downturn, and it’s really important to keep shops open as much as possible.

‘‘What we are doing is making sure people have the opportunity to enjoy themselves and spend a few pound before they go away – it’s a no-brainer, really.”
A stg£23,000 grant from the European Union’s Peace III fund is being used by Belfast City Centre Management for a range of including hiring dedicated street cleaners to follow the parade, ensuring that shops will open on time.

For the first time, Orangefest has a small marketing budget, and the notoriously publicity-shy Orange Order has launched a major PR offensive, with colourful banners erected across the city centre and promotional material distributed to homes and businesses.

City centre retailers have broadly supported the new Twelfth opening hours. James Rider, manager of HMV in Belfast’s Donegall Arcade, said that the impact could be comparable with St Patrick’s Day in the chain’s southern stores.

‘‘It’s a fantastic opportunity, and we are expecting to get a lot of footfall into the store,” he said. ‘‘It’s basically a festival, so it should be a great day for us to sell.”

Rider said traders would benefit most if opening hours were extended to cover the times when the marchers were in the city, but the PSNI felt was still not viable. However, he welcomed the ‘‘normalisation of trading in the city centre’’.

‘‘This represents the reestablishment of a traditional holiday period, with lots of people coming into the city to enjoy the festivities,” he said. Whether or not tourists are actually travelling to Orangefest remains questionable.

According to Belfast Visitor and Convention Bureau, one of the event’s partners, the traditional dip in visitor numbers experienced in July – largely due to fears around personal safety during the marching season – has been reversed in the last five years.

In fact, Belfast’s hotel market records bed-night occupancies in excess of 80 per cent in the middle of July. However, a spokesman for the bureau said it remained too early to tell if tourists were coming to see the new Twelfth.

Irvine disagreed. ‘‘The Twelfth is the largest visitor number event in the calendar by a long shot,” he said. Last year, 7.1 million people visited Belfast, up from just half a million a decade ago. The organisers of Orangefest are keen to tap into this rapidly-expanding tourist market.

‘‘If people are here, wherever they are, we want them to come see it,” said Mawhinney. ‘‘We think we have a tourist product to be proud of.”

Since 2007, Orangefest has been working with Tourism Ireland and the Northern Ireland Tourist Board (NITB), and a spokesman for NITB highlighted of the importance of ‘‘developing the positive aspects of this event’’. Members of the Grand Orange Lodge have even participated in welcome host training, with two achieving NITB-registered trainer status.

The Twelfth of July is still a fraught time for many across the North, but realising the full economic potential for the event could have real benefits for all, according to the organisers.

‘‘This is just the start of the journey,” said Irvine. ‘‘We are not going to transform the Twelfth overnight, and there is still some resistance to the changes, but in the long run, there is tremendous scope to make this work for everyone.”

Passing the Time in Hell or Helmand

Review of Patrick Hennessey’s exellent book The Junior Officers’ Reading club. Appeared in the Sunday Business Post a few weeks back.

‘When all else fails, a blind refusal to look f acts in the face will see us through.” Blackadder’s feckless General Melchett was a hilarious send up of Lord Kitchener, but his fatuous words take on a grimly contemporary ring when Patrick Hennessey uses them to underline the British Army’s current shortcomings.

junior-officers-club-flatSince the start of the year, British forces have lost, on average, 15 men a month in what the red-tops often refer to as ‘Afghanistan’s lawless Helmand Province’. Whitehall responded to the latest surge in fatalities – at one stage recently, eight soldiers were killed in 24 hours – by wheeling out the tried and trusted war propaganda. There is nothing like images of flag-covered coffins and grieving relatives on the streets of Wootton Bassett to shore up support for a bloody military campaign.

Young, articulate and independently-minded, Oxbridge educated Hennessey gives a soldier’s account of life behind the colour parades, 21-gun salutes and dignified burials. Drawing on his three years in the Grenadier Guards, he has produced an unswervingly honest, and often brutal, account of Iraq and Afghanistan that is refreshingly free of both government spin and Andy McNab-style histrionics.

Despite his protestations to the contrary, Hennessey was almost predestined to join the army. His father and paternal grandfather served in the forces, and reading English at Balliol and swanning around society parties did little to blunt his desire to enlist; if anything, they were ideal preparation for the Old Colleges and New Colleges of class-ridden Sandhurst.

The book’s opening 100 pages or so are driven by Hennessey’s burning desire to get onto the battlefield. Here we find the young cadet frustrated by Sandhurst’s endless dry runs and training exercises (‘‘Hogwarts with guns’’), and genuinely elated at the news that he is being sent to Helmand.

‘‘All anyone wanted to know was: were we going to be shooting people? And: would we get into trouble if we did? The answers, to everyone’s relief, were ‘yes’ and ‘no’.”

Founded to pass long, empty days in Basrah and Baghdad, the reading club eventually founders in the dust and dirt of Sangin. While Iraq is largely frittered away in Hunter S Thompson’s Kingdom of Fear and surfing magazines, Afghanistan is too alive, too dangerous, too visceral for such heady pursuits. Instead the Taliban (nicknamed ‘Terry’ in a convoluted nod to the Viet Cong) gives Hennessey and his cohorts a bloody introduction to the deadly, staccato rhythm of modern warfare. ‘‘As quickly as everything starts, it stops,” a diary entry notes after one desert skirmish.

While the combat scenes are intense and frenzied – over all too quickly, it seems, for men addicted to action – the dead time between engagements is filled with gnawing ennui and endless waiting. In scenes reminiscent of Sam Mendes’s celluloid classic Jarhead, bored soldiers swap box-sets of Grey’s Anatomy and 24, flirt on internet dating sites and endlessly refresh the BBC Sport website – anything to pass the time until the armour next rolls out to the sound of Metallica or 2 Many DJs.

This is modern war from a combatant’s perspective, with the author’s contempt for his superiors, the ‘‘unthinking, rank-driven inflexibility of the upper-echelons’’, matched only by the opprobrium he heaps on reporters who come in search of contentious sound bites.

We also get a glimpse of how difficult it is to return to civilian life: in a series of powerful passages towards the end of the book, Hennessey finds Echo & the Bunnymen’s Nothing Lasts Forever a disconcertingly apt soundtrack for a Britain he no longer understands, and which no longer understands him.

He offers no solutions to the quagmire that Afghanistan has become – there is plenty of sympathy for the Afghan National Army, but it is clear they lack training, resources and are too fond of marijuana to fashion into an effective fighting force. Instead, in vivacious, expletive filled prose, he animates all too graphically the horrific situation on the ground.

Long after sententious politicians have tired of scoring points off Britain’s latest Afghan adventure, The Junior Officer’s Reading Club will remain a classic of modern military writing. Hennessey has left the army to study for the bar, but doubtless Graham Greene’s words from Brighton Rock still ring in his ears: ‘‘This is hell, nor are we out of it’’.

Antony and the Johnsons, Waterfront Belfast

Review originally appeared in The Sunday Business Post:

‘The only time I’ve ever played here,” Antony Hegarty’s sonorous voice intoned from behind his grand piano, ‘‘a lady gave me a packet of magic Rolos and said they’d bring good fortune.”

Touted by Lou Reed since their early days, Antony and hi s band, the Johnsons, have never wanted for luck, but perhaps it was the ersatz confectionery that gave them that crucial final push – a couple of months after their 2005 gig in Belfast , they s cooped the Mercury Music Prize.

Fans of Hegarty’s stark, plaintive songs had to wait almost four years between the breakthrough record, I Am A Bird Now, and his third album, The Crying Light. Released earlier this year, it is a dark, moody opus often drenched in despondency. But when performed live, many of these same tracks exhibited an unexpectedly warm, even soulful character.

In his distinct, throaty singing voice – a curious hybrid of Boy George, Nina Simone and David Tibet – the cherubic Englishman delivered heartfelt songs of sadness, anomie and, as on I Fell In Love With A Dead Boy and For Today I Am A Boy, androgynity.

The Johnsons provided the perfect foil. Their guitar, drums, wind and string accompaniment – Rob Moose’s exquisite guitar tone was particularly impressive – complemented, but never drowned out, Hegarty’s magnificent falsetto vocals.

Mirroring the joyous sunshine outside, Hegarty quickly warmed to the generous crowd: bantering happily, introducing new songs with anecdotes, taking requests and – on The Crying Light – cutting the most animated figure behind a piano this side of Elton John, fingers clicking to the beat as his sizeable frame swayed in his makeshift brown robe.

An audience-assisted version of Dust and Water was followed by a majestic, uplifting Fistful of Love which, unlike other old favourites, was indulged, rather than truncated.

Two thoroughly deserved Standing ovations were book-ended by the fragile Cripple and the Starfish before an almost uplifting Hope There’s Someone brought the concert to a fitting close.

Soaringly beautiful, yet surprisingly grounded, Antony and the Johnsons clearly don’t need to rely on supernatural sweets any more.

Oh, What A Lovely War! Review Sunday Business Post 11/04/09

Joan Littlewood once said Oh, What A Lovely War! ‘is not aconventional play and will not come to life if treated as such’. From the Perriot clown who chastises the audience taking their seats to the pre-recorded sing-song by Bruiser Production’s patron Duke Special, this revival of Littlewood’s savage evisceration of the first world war seldom plays it straight.

First produced by the legendary Theatre Workshop in 1963, the play blends militant politics and entertainment as a Pierrot troupe perform sketches and songs while images and newspaper clippings about the number of dead flash up on a screen behind them. In this recasting of the great war the real heroes are not the callous, negligent officer class but the aptly titled cannon fodder.

This is physical theatre at its finest. The nine-strong troupe convincingly shift between intentionally jingoistic caricatures of the great powers – effeminate France, anti-Semitic Russia, officious Germany – and ribald trench songs about everything from poison gas and bombs to homesickness and fear of death: ‘I don’t want a bayonet in my belly/I don’t want my bollocks shot away.’

Humour is used throughout to both send up and underline the absurdity of war. In an early scene a reticent gang of Pierrots in English army caps practice rifle manoeuvres with pink parasols and sticks. Admonishing their squeamishness, a stereotypically foul-mouthed, moustachioed drill sergeant growls at them: ‘You look at Jerry, imagine he’s doing something to your mother.’

Commandingly directed by Lisa May, the play evokes strong emotional responses without drifting into sentimentality. The potent mix of facts and photographs attests the scale of the horror, while dramatic moments like the exchange of gifts and songs across no man’s land at Christmas 1914 provide haunting, poignant reminders of the gulf between combatants and cause.

The performances are universally excellent. Although it seems somewhat churlish to single anyone out the acting and singing of Patrick J O’Reilly, Faolán Morgan and Niamh McGowan deserve special praise.

By turns bawdry and touching, the songs retain a vibrancy that belies their age, and live instruments, including accordion, flute and drums, believably recreate the sounds of war.

In keeping with Bruiser’s maxim of ‘minimum set for maximum effect’, David Craig’s spartan set is wholly fit for purpose. All furniture needs are served by four movable slabs, and Sean Paul O’Rawe’s unfussy lighting – simple chains of naked coloured bulbs – complements the drama’s shifting tone.

From Afghanistan to Iraq, the spectre of war still hangs over all. While it would be fascinating to see Oh, What A Lovely War! updated for such media saturated conflicts, this excellent production is a fitting tribute to those who went to their graves in the first world war, and a damning indictment of those who sent them there.