Kevin Doyle Blog

Writing and activism

Posts Tagged ‘political fiction

Review of “Mentioning The War: Essays … ” by Kevin Higgins

with one comment

Mentioning The War: Essays and Reviews (1999-2011) by Kevin Higgins. (published by Salmon Poetry).

[This review first published in the Irish Anarchist Review No. 6 (Oct 2012).]

­­­Kevin Higgins is a poet from Galway and a long-standing contributor to the independent left publication Red Banner Magazine.  A former member of the Militant Tendency (now the Socialist Party), he has played no small part in making the world of writing a more accessible and pleasant place to be in this country – not least for those who don’t normally find themselves welcome in the hallowed, middle class halls of Literativille.   His approach is no accident.  Higgins knows that good writing can be found anywhere and is not the preserve of the privileged or the best educated.  But importantly too in terms of writing (and poetry in particular) he is committed to high standards.  ‘Political poetry’ with little poetry in it, and as well as doggerel in general are two of his bêtes noires.

His poetry should be treasured on the left (but it isn’t of course) in particular because we have so few poets who cherish the streets we wander along.   Dave Lordan or Diarmuid O Dalaigh in Cork might appear to fit that role too, but their concerns in the main are with the world outside the left.  Higgins in contrast often looks in at where we are and there is much that is valuable and sobering in what he sees.

His poetry I recommend highly but his essays, collected here by Salmon Poetry, are much more of a mixed bag.  One problem to be pointed out at the outset is that a fair number of his reviews (mostly attributed to The Galway Advertiser) are simply too short to be of much value.  I am all for brevity but with many of these, interesting points are raised only to be left hanging in their entirety at conclusion of said review.  A case in point being that of Lorna Siggins’ Once Upon A Time In The West which is strangely equivocal.  As I said, it would be interesting to know more about Kevin Higgins thinks about the significant yet tragically defeated protest centred on the Corrib gas fields.

When Kevin does have space to elaborate, he is invariably interesting and informative.  He is good at explaining and is always interesting and clear when writing about literature and poetry.  This is a real asset and rarer than you might imagine.  Not surprisingly his way with words is one of his strongest suits.  Generally he is even handed (see his review of Michael D’s last collection of poems) but he can be ruthless too as with his hilarious review of Ruairí Quinn’s Straight Left – A Journey Into Politics.  Such an opus was bound to provoke Kevin Higgin’s ire and it sure does.   Among many fitting observations about the Labour Party’s ultimate clown is the comment that Quinn “as a writer is dull beyond belief”.

Since this collection has been review elsewhere by general left commentators I will focus for the remainder on what anarchists and libertarian socialists might find interesting.  On the positive side Kevin is one of the few socialists who is prepared to face up to the authoritarianism (some call it the Leninist or Stalinist mindset) that is, even now, a significant feature of the serious left, both here and abroad.  This is a big plus for me.  The disaster that befell us all when the idea of socialism became inextricably linked to censorship, the Gulags, show trials, self-criticism sessions and so on and so forth (stand up Lenin, Trotsky and the others), is too easily glossed over by many within the marxist left.  Some don’t see the huge problem even now or imagine it to be some past aberration or some plot by the CIA to denigrate our ultimate goal.  Not Kevin Higgins, I feel.  He knows, as many of us do to our cost (I came across it myself only recently in the Anti-Household Tax Campaign) that the toxic world of authoritarian left politics is still very real and debilitating.

One the negative side, Kevin is just a bit too prone to lampooning the left, in contexts that are often not clear.  Some of this, I am guessing, is scar tissue from his Militant Tendency days, but often the swipes are too easy and undiscerning.  They are to be found here and there in this collection but an example is his observation about a speaker at a left meeting who was ‘earnest but dead-in-the-mouth’.   Of course this could well be true (and who hasn’t been at such meetings?) but the problem is that there’s loads of mundanity in trying to organise even the smallest of protests.  Our resources are almost pitiful when compared against those ranged against us, and I just wonder, in places, where the empathy is for the countless individuals who have been the foot-soldiers of important (and un-newsworthy) protests – against deportations, against the household tax, for choice around pregnancy termination?

Anarchists will find much of interest in this collection but there will be dissatisfaction too.  Like many from within the Marxist tradition, Kevin Higgins shows much insight into the problems of the authoritarian left.  But more searching scrutiny is not developed here.

Written by Kevin Doyle

November 27, 2012 at 9:46 pm

Q & A on the Worms That Saved The World…

with one comment

Mutual Aid

A: For as long as anyone can remember there’s been a walk out along the headland to the Old Head of Kinsale lighthouse in Cork.  It’s actually a very well known walk and remarked upon in many tourist guides to the area – there’s fantastic scenery right along the entire route.  But in the late 90s some developers purchased the headland itself and announced plans to put a luxury golf course on the area that they owned.   They blocked off access to the walk and declared that a walking path and their plans for a golf links were not compatible. To be blunt about it, they wanted it all for themselves and their clients.

A: A campaign got underway to defend the public’s right of way and the public’s right to access.  It was called the Free The Old Head Of Kinsale Campaign.  It organised some large public trespass demonstrations.  These were tremendous and inspiring and I was on a number of them.  But the developers had the Gardaí [G: Guards] on their side.  And, as it turned out, the courts too.  For a while it seemed like we might be able to regain access to the walk but in the end a High Court ruling broke the resolve of the campaign and access was lost. For the present, anyway.

A: While this was going on I had two young daughters to mind.  I was aware that there were few enough children’s picture books around that were any bit different.  There are lots of good books that look at the natural world in a respectful and sympathetic way, but there is lots of material around too about kings and queens, and princes and princesses and all that stuff.  The big problem is the imbalance in books available to a parent or a reader.  A lot of material out there simply reinforces quite traditional values – there is no question about that.

A: I am not sure how exactly the idea of the worms story came to me.  But it could’ve been the fact that one of my daughters had a real grá [G: love] for making these elaborate homes for worms out in the garden.  She would gather lots of worms and put them in lunch boxes with earth and leaves and all sorts of things.  Probably rough enough for the worms but I did noticed that they never really hung around for long!  When she returned to check on them, the worms were always long gone.  I also read at one stage about the problems on some golf course with the chemicals they use to keep weeds down.  And then I had this picture in my mind too of seeing a water feature on a golf course in the States once – the water was a strange ultra blue colour!   Looked bizarre, to me.  All these things set me thinking.  So I got a rough idea for a story.  But that was all it was for a long time: this community of worms having to suddenly contend with a golf course and all that involves.

A: Although I knew Spark Deeley, it wasn’t until I saw her book, Into the Serpent’s Jaw, on sale at Solidarity Books in Cork that I thought to approach her about working on the idea.  Into the Serpent’s Jaws is a beautiful book with really engaging illustrations in it.  So Spark agreed to take a look and went off with the bones of the story.  When we met up again, she had these wonderful illustrations done.  They were really brilliant and I knew from that point on that this was going in the right track.  We began working on more illustrations and then on finalising the story line.

Connie arrives at worm school

A: That’s where we are at now.  Spark has completed about eight or so illustrations for the book.  They have transformed how the story looks and feels.  In the meantime I have worked on finalising the story line.  There’s a good bit to do still, but we have started to approach publishers with samples.  Truthfully, we need a sympathetic publisher because the ideas at the centre of this story are different and, you know in their own way. they are subversive too.

A: Publishing is unbelievably conservative  – what I’ve seen of it anyway.   Whereas this story is outside the box.  Why, you ask?  Well the story really is about solidarity and community – that’s a big part of it.  It’s also about why sometimes we have to stand up for ourselves, and why sometimes when we do, it is best if we do it collectively.   I think  the ideas in Kropotkin’s Mutual Aid have also managed to get to the story, which is wonderful.  Oops, now I’ve really give the game away!

Before the struggle - rivals

[Note:the above are photos of illustrations by Spark Deeley.]

Written by Kevin Doyle

April 8, 2011 at 8:49 am

Don’t Mention The War at Frank O’Connor Short Story Festival

with 2 comments

2003 invasion of Iraq

Image via Wikipedia

Sometimes the best way to get your hands on the cream of short story writing for the year is to get along to the Frank O’Connor Short Story Festival, held in Cork.  This year the short list of six writer (see below) for what is regarded by many as the most prestigious prize for the short story in the world, included five writers from the United States.

There is no doubt that the short story is a valued form in the States.  Publications such as the New Yorker have in particular promoted the discipline and must be credited for their support for the short story over the years.  Frank O’Connor himself benefited enormously from US patronage when he struggled to make a living here in Ireland all those years ago.  Furthermore we cannot easily dismiss writers of the caliber of Raymond Carver, Richard Ford, Jane Anne Philips and Annie Proulx – to name just a few of the accomplished writers who have penned stories from over in the States.

But – and here’s the thing – it stuck me forcefully this year, with the US having such a strong presence in the final shortlist, that there is something wrong.  The United States after all is at war.  Actually it is fighting not just one war but two – in Iraq and Afghanistan.   These wars, it must be underlined, are major conflicts.

In 2003 the United States led coalition invaded Iraq. It deposed the regime there and installed another one.  Massive civilian casualties were suffered and many atrocities occurred.  It was discovered that torture and the ill-treatment of prisoner by US forces was rife – recall the Abu Ghraib revelations.  In sum Iraq has been bombed into a relic of what it was once by the US war machine for dubious and long discredited objectives.  Then there is the war in Afghanistan.  Attacked in 2001 it has been in a state of crisis for nearly 9 years.  Again the casualties have been massive.  Torture has been rife and there is the ongoing plague of drone bombings which have in fact escalated in intensity since the Barak Obama’s election.  Significant numbers of civilians have been massacred.  We are talking here of outrages as serious as what Guernica represents to modern warfare.  Now however it seems as if atrocities of the scale of Guernica have become so commonplace that they are hardly commented on any more.  But they are still outrages and they are still happening.

What has all this got to do with the short story?   Well, for me, it is this.  Here, on this occasion in Cork, we have five US short story writers shortlisted for a prestigious international award.  These are very good writers – some are new and have produced debut collections while others like TC Boyle and Ron Rash are established.   But is there one significant story about the above wars in the collective output from these writers?  Well, so far, if it is there, I haven’t been able to find it.  And by the way if someone does find such a story, then do let me know.

The pat explanation of course is that stories or literature (and art), if you want, are above these base matters.  Or another generous explanation might be that the material for stories about these wars has yet to filter down through the great sponge that is contemporary life and civilisation.  In other words, with regard to US output these stories will come in time – as indeed they did when we look back at the invasion of Vietnam by the US.

The above points are indeed reasonable.  Or are they?  Do they explain the avoidance of these US wars – that’s the question? Or maybe avoidance is too strong a word – is it?   ‘Omission’ perhaps?  Lack of interest perhaps?  Well what then?  Why silence about such important and vital events?

I accept that this blog observation of mine is not a scientifically valid study of contemporary US fiction and it’s engagement with war.  Fair enough. Nor is it intended to be of course!  And perhaps there is an explanation, or part of one, in the process of selection for the Prize – from long list to short list even.  There were, I think, over twenty US writers on the long list so, maybe, along the way the writers of war stories were weeded out.  I don’t know if that is so.  And so maybe I am getting the wrong end of the stick here?

But my main point has been taken up elsewhere too.  The dearth of novels about the current US wars has already been previously noted.  US writer and small press publisher, Tony Christini has pointed out in a number of articles that there is serious lack of material emerging in the States to do with the current wars.  Tony Christini’s points to a number of reasons for the paucity of fiction relating to these wars.  Publishers are business people (as we all know – don’t we?) and as such they are uncomfortable with any rocking of the boat.  And on the writer side, a focus on these wars  can lead to the stigmatization of the writer as ‘political’ or as ‘having an agenda’.  Apparently such qualities are good for your career.  So is the issue censorship or perhaps more worrying still: self censorship?

Returning to the collections at this years prize, something else struck me though.  And this in some ways is the most disturbing thing.  It is not just that the collections concerned here don’t touch on the various wars now being waged by the USA.  Rather there is also the inverse problem: this indeed is even more damning of the state of writing in the US to my mind.  What I mean is: the picture that emerges of the Untied States from the collective output of the shortlisted US writers for this years Prize is of a society NOT at war.   Indeed the concerns of many of the characters is rather of a world not unlike our own.  (Note that Ireland is not currently at war or in the process of invading any other countries – that I know of anyway.) What I mean is that the characters obsess about normal and everyday concerns (mean neighbours; bad parenting and so on and so forth).  And perhaps this is the double injustice of the literary output from the States as exemplified by this shortlist.  In these times the ugly truth of a nation at war and a society driven by a voracious military-industrial complex is not only not being examined, it could even be argued it is being airbrushed from the picture we are being offered to see of that same society.

As a short short writer myself and as someone who has always admired Frank O’Connor’s engagement with the political, I must say I am unsettled by what I’ve read, and by this short list.  But lastly let me say a few words about the worthy winner, Ron Rash.  His stories in this collection are a cut above the others IMHO – going by the US entries anyway.  While I couldn’t find any stories in his collection, Burning Bright, about the current US wars, this in a way is not surprising since his work has a focus on the southern, US Civil War dynamic.  Fair enough I suppose.  Indeed Rash’s collection points out well the problems in what I am attempting to draw attention to here and I accept that. Burning Bright is very good in its own right and indeed all the collections are worthy.  It’s just as I say: how can you, you know… (… THE WAR).  It’s still on everyone, isn’t it?  Right now.

The Short List:

If I Loved You, I Would Tell You This (Picador UK, 2010) by Robin Black
Mattaponi Queen (Graywolf Press, 2010) by Belle Boggs
Wild Child (Bloomsbury, 2010) by TC Boyle
The Shieling (Comma Press, 2009) by David Constantine
Burning Bright (HarperCollins, 2010) by Ron Rash
What the World Will Look Like When All the Water Leaves Us (Dzanc Books, 2009) by Laura van den Berg

Note: TC Boyle had to withdraw from the final contest due to an his inability to travel to Cork for the Festival.

The Long List is here.  (Scroll to the end.)

Related Articles

Irish short story about Garda brutality online

leave a comment »

I’ve put up an audio (mp3 format) of But Your Mother, the second story from The Heavy Gang triptych of stories I wrote in the late 90s.  The story is about the ‘hidden from view’ intimidation that political activists have to face when they take a stand against injustice.  It is told from the point of view of the activist who arrives home from a protest about unemployment only to find that the Special Branch have been to his house and gone.

Take a listen … and let me know what you think.

The Secret River and ‘The Lucky Country’

leave a comment »

The Secret River

Columbus’s journey to the Americas marked the beginning of a long and uninterrupted war against the peoples of the non-European world.   After invasion, came suppression and annihilation – not necessarily in that order.  Militarily, the European regimes – the Spanish, Portuguese, English, French for example – were superior entities.  They were ruthless and their hunger for new land and wealth was insatiable.  About all of this, much is now known.  For example Chomsky’s Year 501: The Conquest Continues give a good overview and perspective on what befell so many of the indigenous of the world.

Australia was an important theatre in this war. Its huge landmass was the subject of penetrative explorations from the 1600s on, and was finally declared ‘discovered’ by Cook in 1770.  Cook’s claim on behalf of Great Britain marks the beginning of a harrowing period in the history of those peoples that lived on the continent – a catastrophe for the Aborigines as the Holocaust is the Jews or the Nakba is for the Palestinians.

The war against the aboriginal peoples of Australia goes on to this day.  It is a war that has waxed and waned in termed of its intensity – veering from outright genocidal attacks on different tribes to more systematic efforts to undermine and destroy the social and cultural structure of the aborigines.  For those interested in exploring this history, I would particularly recommend Noel Olive’s Enough Is Enough which focuses on the experience of the aborigines of Western Australia and their efforts to weather the unceasing war that was conducted against them.

Into this harrowing and ongoing narrative comes an accomplished work of fiction – from one of Australia’s better known writers, Kate Greenville.  Entitled The Secret River, it was inspired in its inception by the stories told to Greenville by her grandmother about her own family’s coming to Australia.  The Secret River puts faces, names and feelings to a few of those who were the foot-soldiers of Conquest 501.  It is a powerfully told story, disciplined, revealing and ultimately damning.  It is a fine example of what top rate political fiction should be.

Grenville’s story centers on the life of William Thornhill.  After a long sea journey, he is put ashore into the small colony that is Sydney where he must fend for his family and his future. The story backtracks and we learn of the conditions that led to Thornhill’s deportation to Australia.  A working man, through illness and bad luck, he falls on hard times.  Involved in a botched effort to rob from a boat on the Thames in London, he is arrested, tried and sentenced to .  All but bereft of hope he is saved from the gallows by the efforts of his wife, Sal, the constant good fortune of his difficult life.  It is deportation instead of and so Thornhill ends up in Australia.

Like most people, Thornhill is a good person.  His only crime to date is that he has been born poor in a mean, ruthless London.  He takes with him to Australia an awareness of his place and he is not content with it.  He also knows what it is like to be poor and to be on the lowest rung in society.  In Australia he sees the same mean and privileged system that all but ed him back in England.  But there is a difference: there are more opportunities in this new land.   He works hard to become ‘a freeman’ once more and eventually does.  But he knows too that he still must thieve if he is ever to save anything from the daily grind that is his lot.  He learns how to be a better thief – to take small amounts and not get caught.   He sets up a bar with Sal and gradually his family does well.  Soon he makes his first journey outside the colony and via this he sees the vast and beautiful land that lies outside the decrepit colony that is Sydney.  Others around him are already laying claim to these very lands and he too finds himself caught up in the quest.  He sees a small finger of land that catches his eye which he names Thornhill’s Point.  He decides to make it his.

But the land he chooses is not ‘free’ land.  Is is used by the aborigines.  They visit the land and move through it; they also grow food of their own in various chosen areas. One of Thornhill’s first acts is to pull up their plants.  There is standoff but the aborigines do not attempt to remove him.  He and his family fall into an uneasy arrangement; the aborigines come and go while Thornhill establishes his ownership in terms of his own sense of what that entails: he builds a dwelling, establishes boundaries and plants crops.

The situation around him is changing quickly.  Other settlers are also claiming land.  Some make a point of living harmoniously with the aborigines but others are intent on and enslavement.  Thornhill wants no part in the latter and both he and Sal are thrown into a moral dilemma as they become aware of some of the crimes that are being carried out by the settlers.   Thornhill feels uneasy but he feels threatened too.  He is aware that what he is doing is not right but he is determined never to go back to what he barely escaped from with life – his old life as a poor man with no standing.  He prospers while Sal prods him about returning home to London one day; her big hope.

Thornhill was saved from the gallows.  The brutal system that almost killed him, spared him at the very last moment; it had some humanity in it.  Now Thornhill moves into a position where he will have the power to decide whether another human being lives or dies; in a sense the wheel has come the full circle for Thornhill.

We know the outcome and we know what happened.  Nonetheless the conclusion of this fine account of early Australia does not disappoint as it attempts to grapple with the crimes of the past.  In Thornhill’s story we see an honest, good man descending to the level of ed and thief.  The consequences of this are that in time his kit and kin will become the heirs to modern Australia and the heirs too to great wealth.  But it is an ascent that is washed through with – driven on by a foreboding memory of brutal exploitation left behind in Europe.

Grenville’s writing is superb.  It does justice to the harrowing story and is fateful throughout to the characters and their predicaments.  In some ways The Secret River  seems like an obvious story to tell.   But in Australia it would be a mistake to think this is so.  The ‘Lucky Country’, as it is called, is a place were vast numbers of people have willfully constructed a different narrative for how they came to take possession of that land and place.  The this ‘official’ narrative that Australia was in fact ‘terra nullius’ and that those who went there civilised the place and its people remains a cruel lie that still bears down on the peoples of that place.  Grenville has produced a fine book and has also done a small but important service to all those who live and struggle with the legacy of oppression and genocide.

do you like oranges? online

leave a comment »

In the 90s I wrote three loosely related short stories – each in some way connected to the issue of policing and repression.  I am adding each of these stories as PDFs to my site beginning with DO YOU LIKE ORANGES?

Do You Like Oranges? has been published a number of times, although never in Ireland.  In 1996 it was shortlisted for the Ian St James International Short Story Award and came runner-up to a winning entry by Michel Faber.

The idea for Do You Like Oranges? came from hearing about an incident that happened in Cork back in the early 80s.  At the time there was a lot of political repression.  Although mostly directed at ‘republicans’, many others were also getting caught in the net – intentionally, I imagine, in order to spread fear and intimidation.  I heard about an incident that went far beyond what you might consider ‘harrassment’.  If you place someone in a position where they perceive that they are facing imminent death – what is that?  I had heard of just such an incident.

I felt it was important to write about such a situation.  A lot of what the the Branch did back then – and still does when the ‘need’ arises – is legitimised for the public on the grounds of the ‘national good’ and the threat from ‘subversives’.   But the incident I had heard about – which incidentally is different to what happens in the story; that I made up – was serious and extremely worrying.  There was also at the time – and there still is  – an unwillingness to face up to the matter.  Torture is a problem for ‘elsewehre’, isn’t it?  Here in Ireland for example there has been little discussion about the so-called ‘Heavy Gang’ – a secretive and brutal section of the Irish Gardai charged with breaking suspect held in custody.  This ‘dark period’ in Irish history is usually glossed over and in any case there is the excuse that ‘a few bad apples’ just spoiled the barrel.  The reality of course is another matter entirely.  Torture orchastrated by the state comes from a clear stragegy decided from above; the torturers are often, literally, just followign orders.

In recent times the issue of torture – those who do and those who suffer it – has come back into the headlines.  We have had the exposure of state police activity around the so-called ‘rendition’ policy of Bush and Co – which has been aided and abetted by the state police in a number of other jurisdictions. The dreadful and shocking case of Binyam Mohamed comes to mind.  But Binyam is only one of a great number of people who have been grossly abused as part of the so-called ‘war on terror’.

Do You Like Oranges? follows a young man who returns to Ireland to stalk the man who tortured him many years before.  As he tracks the torturer he recalls what happened.  The story juxtaposes memory and action/ retribution (?) – although it is never clear if retribution either occurs or what it might entail.  As they say make your own mind up.

%d bloggers like this: