Thursday, 29 December 2011

The Ministry of Special Cases

 Nathan Englander's debut novel The Ministry of Special Cases is set in Argentina, and deeper, in the Jewish community of Buenos Aires, and deeper still, in a family of outcasts of that community. Kaddish Poznan, a man with the sometimes irritating feyness of the traditional Yiddish hero, is the son of a prostitute, a girl who sold herself in Odessa to save her family, and transshipped to be part of the stable of the Jewish pimps 'and alfonses' (still wondering what an alfonse is) who take care of the appetites of Argentina.
Kaddish, a name redolent with death, and Lillian, his disappointed wife, have a squabblesome love fuelled by his only work: chipping the names of the dead - at least those with currently wealthy descendants - from the gravestones in the Jewish graveyard's own ghetto, the place where these whores and pimps were laid to rest; names like Talmud Harry and Bryna the Vagina.
Lillian's own job in an insurance firm is giving her an exceptional insight into the Argentina of the 1970s, because everyone wants the life insured now, even the general and his wife who turn up with a new baby that's obviously not theirs. 
Englander has used the Yiddish tradition, and a sophisticated sense of plot and character, to open the graves of the Disappeared. Just as babies are appearing in unlikely families, other families' children are disappearing, and nobody says a word.
As Kaddish and Lillian try to protect their 19-year-old son, Pato Poznan, a university student at a time when sociology lecturers and scientists and girls of 16 are seen one day and never seen again the next, Englander brings them and his quivering reader on a tour of murder. Every word of his book is based on what actually happened in Argentina, and throughout South and Central America, in those years: the murder-complicit priest taking bribes, supposedly to find out what happened to the desperate parents' child; the drugged children thrown from planes into the river ("like hitting a brick wall" from that height), the torture with electricity, the babies of murdered people given to the families of their murderers and of the directors of their murders. 
Englander tries for the black Yiddish humour - Lillian and Kaddish 'cut off their nose to spite their face', accepting erased noses in payment for an erased name; this makes them suddenly handsome; a last desperate kidnap attempt fails because the kidnapper has not factored in the coldness of heart of the ransom source; bureaucracy is at the root of everything, because if they're frightened of nothing else, the forces of law and order are always afraid of a paper trail. 
Englander's incisive eye is merciless: no government can succeed in anything without the complicity of the majority, he points out (a point that could well be noted in Ireland today). 
His dialogue is heartrending; at one point a wealthy military couple explain that there are no disappearences, it's merely a question of lax discipline - all over South America undisciplined youngsters are taking off to go and sun themselves on the beaches of neighbouring countries. 
At last, the most memorable character isn't Kaddish or Lillian, or the tousle-haired, rebellious Pato, the crooked plastic surgeon or the smooth insurance man, but the broken man whose job it was to push the children from the planes, sleeping children.

Sunday, 18 December 2011

Fostering happiness

  DANA Johnson’s research on Romanian orphans was picked up by astonished reporters all over the world. The paediatrics professor studied 136 toddlers in six Bucharest orphanages.  When half of the children were sent into foster care, the difference between them and those left in orphanages was stunning. 
The children had been underweight and undersized. Now, with loving care from dedicated parents, they shot up in height and weight. 
Amazingly, their intelligence also skyrocketed, with their ability to learn and remember improving in line with their sturdiness. 
“Each incremental increase of 1 in standardised height scores between baseline and 42 months was associated with a mean increase of 12.6 points  in verbal IQ,” the study says. “Growth and IQ in low-birth-weight children are particularly vulnerable to social deprivation,” Dr Johnson’s study found. 
Deirdre McTeague, director of services of the Irish Foster Carers Association, wholeheartedly agrees. She has seen a child of 12 arrive into foster care taking size 5 shoes, and within three months he grew two shoe sizes and was taking size 7 - with a simultaneous cognitive boost. He’s now a successful professional who took time to come home last year to mind his ill father. 
Over 5,500 children in Ireland are in foster care, in roughly 3,500 foster families. 
Deirdre moved from social work into fostering in the 1970s, when nearly 90 per cent of children in care were in institutions. Gradually the giant institutions were replaced by smaller group homes. “Now we’ve moved almost full circle, and 90 per cent are in foster care,” she says.
Foster kids - who typically come from troubled homes - can have a hard time with their self-image, says Deirdre. They may feel rejected by their birth families, and conflicted about where they belong - who they should be loving, where their loyalties lie.
The trend today is to try to foster children within their own extended family, so that it is as if the wider family has opened its arms to accept them. 
This has its own problems, though, since legally - and quite rightly - children can only be assigned to people with Garda clearance and references, through a court order or voluntary care order. 
And foster parents don’t have the same rights as birth parents. Until children have been with you for four or five years, for instance, you can’t apply for a passport for them without a social worker’s ok.
Since there is a long queue for services, some foster families just don’t go abroad on holidays. 
There can be huge delays in speech and language therapy, occupational therapy, psychological services for children - even where there are excellent services, like the Mater and Castleknock child guidance service clinics. 
Some foster parents, desperate for help for a child they love, have simply - and this is not acceptable - paid for private services. 
“They’re living with the child, and living through the difficulties the young person has,” Deirdre says. “You get very attached to the child. You can see the blossoming, and the reward of that is great.”
The best foster parents are down-to-earth people who don’t have specific expectations of a child. “Salt of the earth types, who can absorb a child with its own needs and its own quirky nature - the old kind of family who’d say ‘That’s Sean, he likes to play football, and that’s Tom, he likes to read’.”

Irish Foster Care Association:
TimeWise fostering for teenagers: 

Thursday, 15 December 2011

Sign's on it: the craft still lives

THE LYF so short, the crafte so long to lerne, as Chaucer had it - and so, all over Dublin, tacky vinyl signs are replacing the beautiful hand-lettered shop signs that once beckoned customers in.
But not everywhere. There are a few signmakers still left, like the Painted Signs crew at
You see them working, changing and restoring the lovely old gold leaf signs that were the pride of Dublin, bringing them back to their glory. And in the case of the Welcome sign on McCormack's Celtic Jewellery in Grafton Street, producing a glorious piece of fantasy.
In the multilingual welcomes, there's a curly fada over the 'Fáilte', and a 'kickout' - a dropping decorative serif on the 'N' of 'Benvenuto' that leads the eye into the centre line. The use of English and Irish in a larger face in the centre, and the longer welcoming words on the top and bottom line framing them, gives an impression of many more welcomes than the six there.
There are a few streets the vinyl bandits haven't got to yet, and there are a few shops that are searching out true signpainters who can give their premises signs of timeless beauty and lasting quality.
In a city that has abandoned the beautiful green street names with their white cló Gaelach and English lettering surrounded by a delicate curled line, and replaced them with a slamming industrial blue with misspelled, non-standard names in Irish, it's a real pleasure to see that someone keeps the faith yet.

Tuesday, 6 December 2011

Bad dentistry will mean bad health

“A YOUNG farmer came to me to have his teeth cleaned, and I looked into his mouth and saw something on the side of his cheek.” Wicklow dentist Dr James Turner says: “I didn’t like the look of it, so I sent him to a specialist. He had early stage dysplasia - a cancer in his mouth - which is completely curable, if it’s caught in time. The man has three young kids!”
But the changes in dental treatment for medical card holders mean that many people won’t be going for routine teeth cleaning. It’s no longer covered for anyone over 16 on a medical card. 
If you’ve lost your job and you’re trying to support your family on the dole, and you’re looking at that €50 note, what are you going to choose to spend it on? Getting your teeth cleaned, or buying food for your kids?
A fortnight ago [in May 2010], anyone with a full medical card had access to a range of dental care: examination, cleaning, fillings, extractions, dentures, front tooth root treatments. But last week the HSE decided that these people could only attend a dentist if they have an emergency - and then they can have one tooth out, or one filling.
“The mouth is the mirror of your body,” says James. “When we look in the mouth as dentists, people assume we’re there for the teeth, but we’re not, actually - we have to examine for all manner of conditions and the risks they present.”
There is a known link between bacteria in the mouth and cardiovascular disease - heart attacks and strokes. And expectant mothers who have periodontitis - a gum disease - are in danger of having underweight or overweight babies.
“Complications of diabetes will present in the mouth,” says James. “Therefore, dentists can be the first people to refer a patient to a GP or a specialist to have these symptoms checked out.”
Osteoporosis is obvious in your mouth: the terrible thinning and weakening of older bones that can end in a broken hip and ruined life. 
So is bulimia. “Sometimes we get young people - girls mostly - who show a striking pattern of erosion on the insides of their teeth where they eat too much and force themselves to get sick,” James says. “The acid in the vomit wears away the enamel.
“We can have a discreet word with the parents - and a disease that could destroy the young person is picked up early, and they can get help.”
And there are gum diseases. “If people have swollen or bleeding gums, that affects their physical health, because they can’t eat properly, and their mental health, because they’re dealing with long-term pain.” 
James has been in private practice for just eight years, and has already saved three patients with early stage cancer. But he’s heard the stories of older dentists, about the bad old days when people could only afford emergency treatment: “People in lines in their waiting rooms, with swollen faces, lots of kids in terrible bad condition with lots of pain, and they spent most of their days just extracting and trying to deal with emergency care.”
This changed with the introduction of preventative dentistry. “Since 1994, people’s dental health has improved immeasurably - the Government has got great bang for its buck. We were winning the battle,” he says. 
“Those huge gains are going to go. We’re picking up approximately three oral cancers every week in Ireland. By not allowing people these visits, all these oral cancers - the third biggest killer in the cancer ranking - will not be caught until a very late stage.”
Evening Herald, May 2010

Monday, 5 December 2011

Inequality: a social pollutant

DO YOU trust your neighbours? Do you lock your doors and windows up tight? Do you think you’re likely to be robbed on the street? If someone asked you whether you agreed with the statement ‘most people can be trusted’, how would you answer?
Don’t start. I know you’re going to go on about modern life and how kids can’t play in the road any more. 
It’s true - but not everywhere. In some countries, people answer those questions “I feel safe. I trust my neighbours. I’m unlikely to be robbed.” And they’re right, and not just about crime. They also have better health, higher education and longer lives.
Those countries may surprise you: Sweden, Norway, Finland,  Japan. All wealthy, but that’s not the reason they’re safe, according to two academics whose theory may change our attitude to wealth. 
Richard Wilkinson and Kate Pickett say the difference is how much more money a country’s rich have than that country’s poor. The countries that do badly are often surprising: the US, Portugal, Singapore.
You wouldn’t imagine that a study collating years of figures from the WHO, the UN, the OECD and other alphabetical luminaries would be entertaining, but Wilkinson and Pickett’s book Spirit Level has sold and sold. 
Wilkinson, a public health expert for almost 40 years, and University of York academic Pickett collated information from some 200 sources. 
Inequality - they say - affects everything from the number of people in prison to how long people live, to obesity, mental illness, teen births, drug use and violence. Countries where the richest are only a bit richer than the poorest do well. Countries where the rich have 300 times more than the poor are in big trouble. 
Ireland is fairly near the middle of the countries studied in total income - but just the wrong side of the middle in income distribution, Wilkinson told me. “Ireland has substantially lower life expectancy than we’d expect,” he says. “So your health is less good than we’d expect it to be. 
“Infant deaths are substantially higher - that might account for the low life expectancy. Only USA, Portugal and New Zealand have infant mortality as high or higher.”
Mind you, these figures are old - they’re from the early to mid 2000s. And the professors don’t have last year’s CSO figures - our infant mortality rate halved between 2000 and 2009. But as the gap between rich and poor widens in Ireland, our health care is likely to decline, our crime rise, and our educational standards fall - if the two academics’ figures hold true.
The weirdest thing Wilkinson and Pickett found was that bad outcomes in unequal nations hit the rich as well as the poor. Rich guys in countries with huge gaps between rich and poor live less long than rich guys in countries where everyone’s wealth is relatively level. 
“Some colleagues at Harvard called inequality a ‘general social pollutant’, because it seemed to lead to worse health amongst the whole population, not just the poor,” said Wilkinson.
If he’s right, someone had better call the water board, because as Ireland’s rich get richer and our poor get poorer, the social sewers are about to overflow. 
Evening Herald, May 2010

Sunday, 4 December 2011

Descriptions in fiction

Describing characters and scenes in fiction is the heartland - it's where you draw your readers in - but it's one of the trickiest things to do.
The big beginner's mistake is to ladle on description by the potload:

The tax inspector, Grindle, was a small, dark-skinned man with a huge nose on which perched a tiny pair of rimless glasses. His wavy grey hair failed to conceal enormous ears that flapped on either side of his head like a warning system for a nuclear winter.
He wore a tweed suit, the kind of suit you'd imagine worn by the first Ministers in the Free State parliament, devoted to buying Irish produce and heroically bearing the heinous scratching of their inner thighs by the hardy produce of mountainy looms.
His shoes had the mellow shine produced by daily saddle-soaping of the undyed pigskin; somehow Ferber imagined that he could see remnants of the soap caught in the patterned holes on the brogues' toes. 
He had the scent of a subtle, expensive but not too expensive aftershave balm. 
Even his briefcase glowed.
When he spoke, it was with a preliminary throat-clearing. "Mr Ferber?" he said, in a voice that rubbed its hands with every syllable.

About halfway through the second line of this stuff - all useful stuff, by the way - the reader is already mentally moistening a thumb, ready to turn the page, while the unconscious mind is jumping up and down pulling at the reader's sleeve and screaming, "WHERE'S THE STORY????"
And this is the important thing for every writer to remember. That's the question that every line must answer: where's the story, and what's going to happen next.
This kind of massive infodump doesn't move the story along at all.
Another basic mistake in the wodge above: whatever you do, be cautious of adjectives of size. Every time you use big, small, large, wide, minuscule, loud, soft, and all their evil friends, remember that the concept you reach for first may not be the strongest one.
If you want to get across the fact that Mr Grindle is small, for instance, the most powerful way to do it is through action:

Ferber looked down at Grindle. Grindle stepped back and looked him up and down, as if to say that anyone over six foot was a lumbering boor.

This brings us to subtext; every statement ever made has at least two meanings: the overt one, and the one that carries the action. Here, you've got Ferber trying not to irritate Grindle by towering over him, and Grindle making a power play. And you've described the size of both, and given an impression of neat little Grindle and big awkward Ferber.
Dialogue is a shocking temptation for fiction writers. It's a nice easy way to carry the action, and you can go on for pages at a time. If you don't want readers, that is.
The thing to remember about dialogue is that less is more. A good - short - dialogue is like a close-up, where the reader's vision moves right in to see the characters with every open pore in clear view.

Grindle pulled a gun. "Gimme the cheque," he rasped. 
"The cheque?" said Ferber.
"Yeah, the cheque. I've got a private jet booked for the Bahamas," he snarled. "And I'm running late."
"But... but..." protested Ferber.

Writers often think they're raising the stakes by having conflict rise through a run of dialogue. Usually not. Usually, dialogue works best when it's short, terse, characteristic (Grindle should talk like a tax man, Ferber like whatever he is, without exaggerating it too much).
It's important in the commentary ("he said", "she whispered") to avoid allowing these phrases to take over the dialogue. If you find they are becoming intrusive, it's usually a sign that your line of dialogue is too long.
Young writers have been taught a passionate hatred of adverbs. There used to be a happy game called Tom Swift, which consisted of fitting horridly apposite adverbs to a statement:

"Gotta run," said Tom swiftly.
"I could eat a cow," said Tom hungrily.
"Is that a violin?" asked Tom musically.

...and so on, mocking an early 20th-century usage. Nowadays adverbs are regarded with such delicate horror that apparently some (probably second-class) agents simply do a global search of any submitted manuscript for words ending in 'ly', and if they come into thousands, the agent takes the manuscript in finger and thumb, drops it delicately, carefully, distastefully into an envelope and immediately writes a rejection letter redolent of horrified refusal like a country virgin of 40 who's met the Devil at the crossroads outside the graveyard.
(Which reminds me of such a story in which the Devil made a shocking suggestion involving oral pleasures to such a virgin, who was on her way to Midnight Mass; "Oh no, I couldn't," she said, "I'm receiving.")

Friday, 2 December 2011

Is your home a deathtrap for children?

EIGHT months pregnant and crawling around the floor - not a good image. And way too late - you should baby-proof your home the very second you know you’re going to have a child living with you. 
The first five years of our lives are when the real dangers lie. Delicious poisons under the sink and in the drinks cabinet, just begging to be tasted. Exciting games to be played near a stove bubbling with boiling soups and porridge. 
If you come from a family with a horrified addiction to scéal mór an úafás, you’ll have heard about the toddler that rocked itself in its high chair to the window of a tall Georgian house in Harcourt Street, and plunged to its death, chair and all. That’s why Victorian nurseries had bars on the windows.
Accidents are just waiting to happen. But you can make your home safe, if you think carefully about what the dangers are. 
Child-proofing your home is a matter of common sense, says Galway doctor Sinead Murphy. “Look at everything from the chemicals under the sink to the sharp knives that might be in the top drawer, but still within reach,” she says.
“Look for boiling kettles where the flex is trailing - and the same with other electrical equipment.”
Pad sharp corners and edges - little children racing unsteadily around can get a real crack on the temple.
Tie up the cords of blinds and curtains out of the reach of children to remove any risk of strangling.
  Paddling pools need to be treated sensibly. Dr Murphy warns that you should never  leave the pool full of water when it’s not in use. “And if you’re out in the garden with children playing in a paddling pool, if you have to answer the phone, bring the children with you - or else don’t answer it.” 
If you have a garden pond, cover it, or fill it with pebbles until the children are old enough to be safe with water, when you can gradually take the pebbles out. 
And lock away the medicines, even those innocent headache pills, says Dr Murphy. Ibuprofen, aspirin, paracetamol and codeine are among the commonest poisons for children. Liquid medicines are also dangerously tempting for toddlers.
Surprisingly, these are not the most deadly poison. More insidious, more permanently harmful, is something far less obvious.
“People won’t think of it as a major hazard, but probably the most serious problem in the home, and the one children are most commonly exposed to, is cigarette smoke,” says Dr Murphy. 
“Depending on the amount of exposure, in some children it can make them prone to respiratory conditions, asthma and recurrent respiratory infections, as well as failure to thrive.”
Dr Murphy also warns against keeping alcohol in unlocked cupboards - a long drink of vodka will do a toddler no good at all.
Always be on hand, and always be watchful, she says. “It’s when you’re off your guard that children are going to do something ridiculous.”

Where to Get Help:
The Poisons Information Centre of Ireland, based in Beaumont Hospital - - has very good seasonal information about everything from jellyfish stings to alcohol hand gels.
An American site with an excellent child-proofing list: 
Published in the Evening Herald in August 2010

Monday, 28 November 2011

French health care: vive la difference!

IT’S the best in the world; France’s healthcare system is held up as a model of good practice. It’s where you want to be if you get sick.
But when you look at how the system works, it’s not unlike what Mary Harney wants for Ireland. Except for one thing. 
“What’s important is to make sure that the private sector would not be like a poker player and only interested in the money, and to ensure that they stay focused on the main topic which is healthcare,” says  Gabriel Ko.
Dr Ko has worked in Ireland and in France - he is a biopathologist, formerly the leader of the French junior doctors, and now works for Claymon-Biominis and for the French government.
He admits: “When I saw the salaries of the Irish doctors, I said: ‘Oh my God, I should definitely live in Ireland!’”
French doctors earn, on average, from €50,000 to €100,000 a year. Not a fortune - but a solid income.
From the patient’s point of view, it’s a great system. Everyone over the age of 16 has a ‘treating doctor’ - usually people choose a GP - who coordinates any medical treatment the person needs.
A visit to the doctor costs €23. If your doctor sends you to a specialist, that visit will cost you €25. 
There are three ‘sectors’ of doctors - Sector 1, in which most GPs are; and sectors 2 and 3. Sector 2 docs charge more, with part of your payment covered by social security and part reimbursed by medical insurance. Sector 3 is tiny - about 1.5 per cent of French doctors - and more absolutely private. This includes a lot of alternative medicine practitioners. 
“Sector two  means that you will be allowed to charge whatever you want to charge a patient, but you have to do it with a certain measure,” says Gabriel. 
“You have to ask the patient if he’s got any private insurance, or any kind of money to pay that.
“Roughly, to give you an idea, in Paris for a gynaecologist in the private sector, the average charge for consultation would be €60 or €70.
“But out of that up to €25 will be reimbursed from Social Security, and the difference between €25 and €70 would be more or less reimbursed by your private insurance.”
You can also choose a specialist not recommended by your doctor - but then you’ll have to pay out of your own pocket. 
Hospital is different too. “With regards to hospitals: we don’t have such a definition of consultants like in Ireland,” says Gabriel. 
“What we would have is senior doctors.  and the majority of the senior doctors are not allowed to ask anything more than the hospital will ask of the patient.
“If you’re going to the cardiology department or going to the pathology department you would have a consultation or even full hospitalisation, and then you will be charged directly by the hospital.
“The doctor would charge you exactly the same as any other doctor: this is the price that is fixed by Social Security.”
Professors or heads of service are allowed to work privately within the hospital - but this is limited to around two-and-a-half days a week.
 “But at the end of the year the public service look at how much they asked to the patient in this private activity,” says Gabriel.
“So if you are making  €1 million as a doctor working in the private sector, well that’s something that will not be tolerated.”
If you’re in an accident or taken suddenly ill, you call for help - but what arrives isn’t an ambulance. It’s the SAMU (Service d'Aide Médicale Urgente).
This is a specialist team, led by a doctor, which may include doctors, nurses and a driver, and is qualified to give emergency treatment on the scene or transfer patients to hospital as needed.
“For the French patient I think the system is quite good,” says Gabriel. 
Published in the Evening Herald, Dublin, Ireland, in June 2010

Saturday, 26 November 2011

'TIS in Kilkenny, it is reported, the marble hearts are as black as ink - in JJ Toner's noir thriller St Patrick's Day Special, the ancient city is where a gangster tout is being hidden away from his former friends.
At the beginning of this tense story, DI Ben Jordan of the Garda Síochána is on his way to take over babysitting the tout. But when he arrives, there's nothing left to babysit: the supergrass and Jordan's colleague have been wiped out, seemingly by a murderous pizza deliveryman.
Jordan, obsessed as he is by Ireland's most vicious gang leader, Lafferty, is determined that Lafferty will go down for this: it's obviously his handiwork.
Which leads us into an intricate story involving Jordan's troubled daughter and her beaux, his unhelpful bosses in the Gardaí, his own disintegrating personality, his dicey marriage and new life in a seafront mansion in Dublin 4, and myriad twists and turns.
In a dark vision of drug-ridden post-Celtic-Tiger Ireland, Toner's Ben Jordan makes the first appearance; we're going to see more of him.

Thursday, 24 November 2011

Image systems

Having slept through the TV showing of Forbrydelsen 2 (the Danish original of The Killing, season 2), I went back to watch the first episode again, and was pleased to see that they've got a big image system thing going. 
Image systems, for those not familiar with the minutiae of fiction, are used, often unconsciously by writers, more often as a conscious part of the storytelling by filmmakers, to hint at secrets, and to express the theme and to make a coherent emotional whole of the story.
Hitchcock was the boy for image systems - if you look at his Psycho, Vertigo, Rear Window, etc, each one has its own image system - dank in Psycho, vertiginous in Vertigo, sneaky in Rear Window. The Psycho image system is cogged to some extent from Henri-Georges Clouzot's spectacularly nasty Les Diaboliques, in which the plan to murder a woman gradually seeps up through the chinks in the audience's subconscious through the use of endless watery images: a dripping tap, an emptying swimming pool, a murderous bath.
But probably the most famous image system is that in Casablanca, which Robert McKee uses as his illustration in his useful seminar Story. Casablanca is riddled with subtext, both in the text and in the visuals: it's full of arches, the costumes of the lovers Rick and Ilsa grow closer in design as they grow closer to each other; a conversation about clothes in the market is a coded love scene.
Time is also a constant image - even the theme of the song is As Time Goes By. Ratcheting up the tension of the fast-approaching Nazi victory (as it seems in the film), an adorable old couple who are supposed to leave for America the next day explain that they are speaking only English now, to practise. "Sweetness heart, what watch?" the gentleman asks, and the lady answers: "Ten watch." "Such much!" he exclaims. Knowing as we do that these, as with millions of their like, are more likely to be murdered, the conversation has an extraordinary bittersweet horror.

And when the Germans in Rick's Café Americain strike up a pugnaciously anti-French Die Wacht am Rhein, and having stood it for long enough, Ilse's Resistance hero husband tells the band to strike up the Marsellaise and every liberty-lover in the café sings along - even, in the end, the girl who's getting off with the Nazis - you'd need a heart of stone not to be moved.

So it's pleasing to see that Forbrydelsen II is riddled with an image system whose meaning will become clearer as the episodes go on. So far, it involves a particularly bloody colour of red, in curtains, in heroine Sara Lund's blood-red jumper, on the walls, in hints of the blood-red Danish flag with its Crusader's cross, in a disturbing spiral staircase filmed from above, and in the curtains of rooms, in rectangles or squares in the background of many scenes.
The rain pours and pours down out of the heavens - or rather, it seems as if the world is just full of rain without it actually coming from anywhere. No one wears a hat or a hood or puts a newspaper over their head, they just stand stoically in it like cows in a field. (Why don't cows get shelters in fields, by the way? Surely they're just as miserable as the rest of us in the fleeping rain?)
There's also another dominant image: big wedge-shaped buildings, seen first from the outside, then entered to find that some organisation is leaning down on a fragile human; or big wedge-shaped tunnels down which the heroes must venture. And there's another rectangle that joins both systems: the military dogtags, sheared in half so that the numerals on them echo the slit windows of those buildings. 
It's also full of roads, bridges, railways, slick with rain, dividing one part of the story from another. 
And last, there's a forest glade with brutally broken-off stumps: we see it first at the very beginning, with the corpse of the first victim tied to one of these stumps, in a memorial garden - to Resistance fighters, the underground army that fought the Nazis who occupied Denmark, a powerful image, since the Danish army and its deployment in Afghanistan is already making itself clear as a large part of the story. This glade is echoed in the visiting room of the prison, where a psychologically scarred ex-soldier has, first, a conjugal visit with his wife, then a visit with a friend who is fleeing back to Helmand to escape whatever's going on; in that innocent-looking room with its mural of forest trees, he tells Raben - the ex-soldier that "it's not over". But soon he will be dangling like a blood sacrifice too.
There are the books, like the cowboy novel by Stetson Cody slapped on the desk by the pudgy but hardass new justice minister; the Chagall coffee-table book, the meaningful (I assume) Danish titles briefly lingered on in the bookshelves of various characters. 
Then there are the pictures: the new Minister for Justice's office is decked with black-and-white photos of his predecessors; his greeting present from his party is a framed photo; he finds in a briefing document the police stills of the murdered woman in the memorial park. It turns out that her killer has videotaped her. The strong and fierce and solitary Raben, alone in his cell, has covered the wall with his little son's pictures of dragons, strong and fierce, blu-tacked on the cement. 
What do the images mean? Already the heart knows; as you watch, your heartbeat speeds up when certain colours or shapes appear, your mood sinks at others. Ten episodes to the end of this series; the story will have borne out the warning of the images.

Tuesday, 22 November 2011

Fucked-up folks

Raymond Chandler and his buddies gave us a dark model of the crime investigator: impoverished, silent outsiders whose knowledge that the world is a corrupt place allows them to speed straight to the centre of the ill doing they've been hired, ostensibly to probe, in reality to cover up and obfuscate.
Philip Marlowe (the hero Chandler (left) called after a house in Dulwich College in London, which he attended at the same time as PG Wodehouse) is a pulp fiction detective, but like Wodehouse's Bertie Wooster, is a wisecracker; you'd have to assume that both honed their knives of wit under the tutelage of a master, the headmaster AH Gilkes, known for his "quality of merciless chaff". It is his savage wit that distinguishes Chandler's Marlowe from the creations of his mentors, Dashiell Hammett and the other writers of the literary detective story magazine Black Mask, in whose pages the genre came to maturity.
The detectives of this mid-century version of the genre are fucked-up folks, but they are working-class heroes, alone with their honour and taking arms against vicious upper-class criminals protected by the law that the criminals have bought and paid for.
In a series of these formal tilts, which spread from books into films, battle is joined between the cynically honest working detective and the cruel and wealthy: The Big Sleep, The Maltese Falcon and the ultimate iteration, Chinatown.
It's part of the understanding with the readers that the brave representative of the working classes fights the rich, but never wins. The basset-faced Humphrey Bogart played both Chandler's Marlowe and Hammett's Sam Spade with sepulchral decency; keeping to the contract, he's beaten down by the rich swines, but wins out morally, keeping the rotten contract between wealth and exploitation with all the indignant sorrow of the beaten wife who stays with her abusive husband.
Chinatown is the ultimate because not only is the rich swine about to become a multi-bulti-hulti-smulti-gazillionaire by cheating poor farmers out of their water rights to supply the new town of Los Angeles, but he is a child rapist who fathered a child on his own daughter. At the end of the book the old moneybags is preparing to repeat history as he takes control of this child, now an attractive teenager.
Is it - was it - a sign of a changed world when Donna Leon produced a very different type of detective. Commisario Guido Brunetti of the Venice police also investigates the crimes of the rich. But he is no sole trader in decency.
Brunetti is a policeman, for a start: he is within the system, and he has allies - good people, all prepared to bend the rules - within that system. Elettra, the beautifully named hacker, arrives first as PA to Brunetti's ambitious and vicious boss, Vice-Quaestore Patta, a Sicilian who is quite obviously destined for great political power. Elettra finds her way into every computer system with the innocent amorality of a visiting angel; she is a creature of glamour (in both the old sense of illusion and the new sense of being a fashionista), sitting in her office surrounded by expensive flowers and dressed in the loveliest garments the Italian couturiers can provide. Her formal amorality is a coating on absolute morality: she will come to the rescue of any oppressed creature.
His loyal constable, Vianello, is Brunetti's reflection, a decent man in an indecent world. Yet in Leon's hands, he is not a cut-out; somehow his baffled honesty deepens the picture.
Brunetti walks home for lunch and dinner, described mouthwateringly; his wife, Paola, is a university lecturer in English (Leon's own second trade), and the daughter of immensely rich aristocrats with a pedigree stretching back to ancient Rome, people Brunetti regards with deep caution. Their two children, typical teenagers, add to the deliciously uxorious vision of a happy home.
Brunetti's world, although there are corrupt wealthy people here too, and they act with the same cavalier spitting upon the rights of anyone not richer or more influential than themselves, is a world where there is an approach to equality.
I think that it's a vision that comes out of a brief blossoming of egalitarian values - values which swiftly gave way to the idea now gaining currency that only those who can express their greed and gather all the gold to themselves are worthy.
The times are changing, and the next generation of investigators will, I suspect, return to the bleak cynicism of Chandler and Hammet, as the food queues grow and the wealthy jet in to gift buildings to universities starved of municipal cash. We can look forward to a new Marlowe, and forget about Brunetti.

Sunday, 20 November 2011

The Killing II

For some reason, my ability to stay awake, even for the most gripping and heartrending drama, has suddenly lessened. So my understanding of the start of the second series of the Danish thriller The Killing is... well, gappy.
Sarah Lund, detective extraordinaire, miseryguts supreme, is out of her Icelandic gansey. Now she's arrayed in a new jumper, so deep red that it appears blood-soaked. Sarah has lost her nice job investigating brutal murders. Now she's doing some, um, kind of...
Sorry. Fell asleep there. I think Sarah's a kind of security guard or something now, having failed so tragically in her last investigation, the one in the first series of Forbryselden.
Anyaway. Whatsisname, the granite-faced investigator now investigating an orrible murder of a woman found stabbed a zillion times (one fatally) and tied to a pole in a park, comes to Sarah, well known for her spooky insight into murders and murderers, and lures her into the investigation. They reckon it's the woman's husband (why am I not married, remind me?) but they want to check with Sarah's instincts.
Sarah is just sitting there thinkin', and listening to the zeitgeist, when it is revealed that the husband has confessed. So Sarah goes back to boringland, and...
I'm joking. Of course Sarah has realised that it's not the husband.
At least... in the first series everyone became a suspect at some stage, and like others watching I suspected every character, to the point where I couldn't go to Superquinn without suspecting the checkout clerk, and never mind Lidl.
Last time, an unnervingly sexy clean-cut politician on the broad road from idealist to sleazebag was chief suspect. This time he's been replaced by a stocky new justice minister who is facing down the right-wing anti-immigration party's demands for banning of specific groups - a thing which has never been done in the history of the staunchly fair and egalitarian Denmark. No doubt the minister is soon to be implicated in at least one murder.
For the moment (as far as I understood between helpless snoozes - this isn't because of the writing; it's incredibly gripping, I just can't help it; once 8pm comes I'm out cold - the main suspects are a secret group within the Danish armed forces. A second body has immediately been found: Vyg (Myg? Smyg? Styg?) - who was about to be 'deployed' to Helmand.
But as soon as you start to suspect him, Vyg (?) is found hanging upside down, dead as a cabbage, with half a dogtag dripping with his draining blood.
Somewhere in there is a handsome, sad man in jail and longing for his wife and child, but involved with all this Afghanistan stuff. He seems to be a damaged man, perhaps suffering post-traumatic disorder caused by killing plenty of Afghanis.
Oh, and the woman who was stabbed a zillion times: a video has turned up with her giving some kind of Islamic anti-Danish message. In Danish, of course, which sounds as if she's speaking through a mouthful of turnip.
I'm dying to watch the second, or maybe third episode. I just wish they'd sell it on DVD now so I could actually go back and check what really happened.
Oh, and the acting and writing and direction are great. And the sets, with their moody, dark vision of Denmark, itself a character: an honest country under attack by the forces of corruption.

Thursday, 17 November 2011

Act of Union

I'm very afraid we're about to repeat the worst mistake Ireland ever made. In 1800 the Irish House of Commons voted by a narrow majority to dissolve itself and centre government in London.
This Irish parliament was barred to Catholics and dissenters, open only to Church of Ireland members, and it was famous worldwide for its corruption. The vote was achieved by enormous bribes, which enriched the members, and would impoverish the majority of Irish people.
Almost immediately on its passing, the money left Ireland, as the centre of power went to London. Landlords (the real strongmen then) abandoned their Irish mansions and took London houses, leaving agents to manage their land in the years running up to the coming famine.
Dublin had been a thriving city; it descended rapidly into a mass of slums and a gigantic barracks for British soldiers who were warehoused there. Prosperity declined catastrophically, as virtually all business and manufacture drained away and resited itself in England.
Angela Merkel wants to centre power in Europe now; she wants the Irish people to vote in a referendum that would give this our consent. If we did so, the same would happen; history would repeat itself. Our politicians would move to Brussels, their focus and their values would swiftly become those of Brussels, and they would function only as lobbyists and as constituency patrons, as happened to the Anglo-Irish and Irish-Irish politicians of the British Parliament in the years before independence.
You have only to look at the blogs and tweets of those famous Irish people who have moved to England for work if you'd like an illustration: they write about politics (British politics) and news (British news) and 'celebs' (British TV personalities). They become subsumed into the place where they live. And nothing wrong with that, unless it's of central economic and cultural importance to our country, as is our parliamentary representation.
The bosses in Europe are offering the false bargain of a dual choice. There is never only a choice between two; there are always other options than the two offered. They are pointing to the stupidity of the capitalists and the greedy troika of developers, politicians and bankers, and saying that a centralised power in Europe will prevent this happening again.
They could have prevented it before - not by putting the lámh láidir on the banks, but simply by speaking out about the danger that existed, by speaking out loudly and pointing to the countries whose housing market was not a Ponzi scheme, like Denmark, which legislated that rezoned land could not increase in price; or like Iceland, which has now legislated that no mortgage-holder must pay anything over 110% of the current value of their homes.
They could act for the people who elected them, rather than the businesses that are the most influential lobbies on the continent.
I hope that European politicians will grow bigger than they are now, more creative with their solutions, looking for an alliance of like-minded nations, not a Reich directed from the centre. But if it comes to a vote for their current dream, I'm out to shatter that dream and hold on to an independent Ireland that can achieve President Michael D's promise: "to move past the assumptions which have failed us and to work together for such a different set of values as will enable us to build a sustainable social economy and a society which is profoundly ethical and inclusive".
Michael D - before he was President, a creative politician who founded the best TV station in the country, the Irish-language broadcaster TG4, and who revived a dying film industry when he was Minister for the Arts - called for us "to build together an active, inclusive citizenship; based on participation, equality, respect for all and the flowering of creativity in all its forms".
We're at a turning-point. If we resist the attempt to centralise power in Europe, we can become the nation our founders dreamed of. We can never do that as a peripheral province of an empire. 

Sunday, 13 November 2011

First person narrators

Gabriel Rosenstock was on Miriam Meets this morning. This Sunday morning meditation is an interview with two people who are connected by love or friendship or family relationship, or, often, all three.
They talked about how the family came to be - a German doctor met a Galway woman in Jersey when he was in the Wehrmacht; his friends broke his arm to save him from being posted to the Russian front; they returned to Ireland where he set up a practice allied with a chemist's shop so he could import pharmaceuticals from Germany - funny enough, the same plan my grandfather had for my father, then a medical student, and his brother, a plan nuked when my father had a highly-praised student production of Eliot's Murder in the Cathedral and took to the stage.
They talked about the family poker games, played for real money, money that was lost and won and kept by the winner, even when the loser was 13-year-old Mario, losing £90 of the £130 he'd won the night before, a good lesson for a young gambler.
And then Gabriel started talking about reality. In a particularly hideous twist of fate, his uncle had been drowned while a schoolboy in Clongowes, and then his brother was drowned at 17 in Glendalough - it's possible, apparently, that his friends dared him to swim across one of the lakes, which look so narrow between their steep mountain sides, but are so horribly wide and cold.
Curiously, Marian did not ask him about the horror of the two successive drownings of athletic boys in two generations of the family. What she did ask him, from her own pain at the loss of her sister, was about the effect. Gabriel was dismissive of any idea of division from his brother - he was 10 when his brother died, and the death broke his parents' marriage. You are not born, he explained, and so you do not die. His brother - the essence of him, not his age or sex or nationality or intelligence or anything that we consider makes a person himself, but rather the essential core of that person - is still here, he said.
Marian said, in a voice that sounded so bereft: "But you can't touch him", and she leaned to touch Gabriel's hand. All the people living all alone now turned their faces from the radio.
When you write in the first person, you're mining the essential core that Gabriel Rosenstock was talking about. Your character (for some writers always a version of themselves - come to think of it, Jungians would say that for all writers each character is a version of themselves, because they are its creator) may be an observer, like Scout in To Kill a Mockingbird, who sees the action played out from the sidelines, while her growing-up is a subplot reflecting that main action. Or they may be the centre of the story, like Holden Caulfield in The Catcher in the Rye, whose disillusionment and rejection of his upper-class American world is the story.
But in every case, narration in the first person is heavy in subtext. Everything the narrator says has two purposes: to tell the story, and to tell the reader about the person who's telling the story. When Scout observes her father Atticus take off his glasses, draw a measured bead, and shoot dead the rabid dog, she does so from the viewpoint of a thrilled child discovering that her dull old dad is a hero. She's also prefiguring the later action when Atticus shows himself as a true hero, defending humanity. And the lemony regret that underlies her telling is a taste of the failure of that decency, because the man and the values her father defends will die at the end of the book.
In Holden's anger at the phoniness of his society, there is another subtext: Holden has only one spoilt choice in the end - no matter what he does, he is going to become part of his class, the class he hates and derides.
All this sounds mechanical; but a lot of the time a writer is bumbling along telling the story, becoming that core - whatever Gabriel says, we are all myriad people - and knowing nothing about the subtext that's writing itself without the writer realising.

Thursday, 10 November 2011

Radio review - the day of the general election

This was my last radio review, the day after the general election that swept Fianna Fáil and the Greens away and brought in the Fine Gael and Labour coalition last March.
Wonder what the Greeks are saying now, when they go out to riot: "We're not the Irish. We're not like that. We don't use democracy." Democracy in Ireland, though, is different. The politicians stalked the streets like exiled princes in the days before the poll. On the day, white-faced - or unbelieving and delighted - they stood in the count centres while the radio journalists feasted on them. There was a palpable air of schadenfreude as the interviewees - or in some cases, anticipatory schadenfreude, for who knows what the future will bring. Will it be premature coalition, or coalition interruptus, ending in tears and slaps? High points on the day the cleamhnas was set up were Newstalk's breathless early reporting - "Envision the picture: Taoiseach Enda Kenny, and in the seat directly opposite him (pause) Arise, Baron Gerry Adams" - Ivan Yates with a chuckle in his voice at 10am. I don't know who said it, but I choked on my tea, at home in the Dublin South Central Soviet, at "The blue bloods of Dun Laoghaire have turned blue for Fine Gael, while working-class Dublin South Central is red for Labour." By mid-morning Radio 1 was as avid as a cat looking at a bird and making that unnerving chattering noise with its teeth. The noon news reported: "Every Fianna Fail seat in Dublin is in danger.... the Greens are in a fight for their political lives". The most unconsciously telling statement for the fallen princes was from Sinn Fein's Dessie Ellis. Revealing how Fianna Fail's fortunes have changed, he said: "We're not going to be like the three main parties - and I include Fianna Fail in that." Radio 1's was a master feat of reporting, going on through the day, relentlessly circling from constituency to constituency, and Rachael English and Sean O'Rourke finally staggered off to bed at 4am, leaving those last few centres still counting, counting. It's all a dream - could it really be the end of the Tammany Hall fixing that has been the curse of Irish politics since the 18th century? By midweek, Fine Gael and Labour have their match well on the way, and the two stations were reporting Enda, spurning the Enda-pendants for the fine reliable farm of Labour, murmuring "D'you want to be buried with my people?" * A made match can work better, sometimes, than a mating in the full heat of passion; as the Indians say, in a love-match the kettle is boiling and is only going to cool; in a made match the kettle is cold when it's put on the fire and keeps getting hotter. Labour and Fine Gael, though, will have to have the same careful trust that goes into any marriage. They may get help from the book Little White Whys - about why men lie. Brian O'Connell gave David Harvey the skinny on it, having talked to author Ish Major. Everything you want to know about a man is in first three conversations, said Brian. He gave some helpful questions to ask a man if you're interviewing: Have you any legal problems? If you hear "Not that I care to discuss" or "Nothing that affects me now", run a mile. The texters were speaking tough love. "Little white lies will lead to big black eyes," texted Dave. Texter M was indignant: "I don't think that writer's going to have many male friends." David pointed out: "Giving away trade secrets." Listener Marie said bitterly: "Men are animals but some make better pets." And her ideal match, Noel: "Women's place in kitchen cooking - and they shouldn't be allowed on the road." PANEL: Election coverage, Newstalk, Saturday Election coverage, Radio 1, Saturday David Harvey, 4fm, weekdays

Friday, 1 July 2011

The Melting Pot

I'm watching The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance. This is the mid-century vision of America as the New World. There are homely Swedish men and women running a café pub at the far frontier; there's the educated lawyer from the Deep South - played by James Stewart; there are the second-generation Irish like the hero played by John Wayne; there are the schoolkids, a mix of Mexican and Irish and Swedish.
It was the 1940s and 1950s in Hollywood, the time when America was 'assimilating' a horde of the tired, the poor, the huddled masses, yearning to breathe free. Some - maybe most - of these films were propaganda. "If de big shots in Vashington don't do like we vant, den we don't vote for dem no more, by golly by gosh", as one of the children says in Liberty Valance.
Jimmy Stewart's character, a down-home lawyer, is trying to explain to local people that "if big ranchers north of the Picketwire River win their fight to keep this territory in open reign, then all your truck farms and your corn, the small shopkeepers and everything, your kids' future, it will all be all over, be gone".
The villain is Liberty Valance, "a no-good, gun-packing, murdering thief" (in an early scene, the interestingly-named Liberty wins the"dead man's hand" in poker with two pair, aces over eights". He is a right bollocks: whipping nice Jimmy Stewart almost to death in an early scene where he (Liberty, that is) robs a stage coach.
But everyone including the fat caricature of a town marshal, is afraid to tackle him. In an iconic scene, Ransom Stoddard wipes out the headline he's been using to teach literacy to the children and adults of the frontier town, "Education is the basis of law and order".
All this idealism is all in my eye when you look at 'Pompey', the one black character in the film - the name is typical of the Greek and Roman names given to slaves, in much the way that we name our dogs - who is referred to by John Wayne (the erect penis of the movie, as 'Tom Doniphon', obviously Tom Donovan, a standard Irish name - as "my boy, Pompey".
Pompey is superbly played by Woody Strode; his presence is a silence that draws the eyes. His dark presence subverts the obvious messages of the film, about the 'melting pot' that was a standard trope of American education in the 20th century.
Because this 'melting pot' included the Irish - who came from near slavery in their own country to America, armed only by their ability to use networking to gain political power; the Scandinavians - whose sheer hard work won them modest wealth; the Mexicans, whose position was that of the Irish in Ireland, to be mocked, to be powerless.
So much for the caricatures; the French were sweaty-faced seducers, cowardly at the last; the English were pompous asses; the Germans were wholesome. (In Casablanca, an elderly German Jewish couple discuss the time as they wait to emigrate to the Promised Land of America, practising their English on each other: "What watch, liebchen?" "Two watch." "Such much?")
The Spanish were proud aristocrats. The eastern Europeans were honest but sly peasants. The Chinese were smiling eccentrics. The Italians loved their mamas, but would knife you in a moment.
The exception to the Melting Pot was the Americans who had been there longer than most of the other immigrants; the unintending immigrants from the shores of west Africa who fuelled the enrichment of 18th- and 19th-century America, the black slaves and their descendants.
The screenwriters of the 20th century, leftists to a man, somehow failed to see these people as part of the melting pot. It was silently agreed that black people weren't really, umm, sort of, umm, human.
Wikipedia's piece on the former football star and decathlete Strode raises the eyebrows. He was "close to" director John Ford, it claims; in fact, he spent four months sleeping on the director's floor as his caretaker.
The tone in which characters address 'Pompey' in Liberty Valance is educative for the viewer; Goddard's attitude is stern and scolding as Pompey stammers his way through a text, where he has lovingly helped others who strove for literacy.
Pompey's character is almost an extra, but the effect of his silent appearance is like a paper cut on a sore: a running cut that is scarcely there, but by its force draws blood.
At the end of the film, as the golden lawyer walks off with the girl, Wayne as 'Doniphon' insists that Pompey be served at the bar, and teetotal Pompey refuses and brings Doniphon home, Doniphon throws the oil lamp into the wooden wall of his home in a tantrum, and Pompey runs in to carry him out and then rushes to save the farm stock, the horses corralled near the fire.
Some time later, "founder, owner, editor - and I also sweep out the place" - like a modern blogger - Dutton Peabody (played by Edmond O'Brien, born Eamon Joseph O'Brien) is nominating Goddard to represent the territory in Congress while Doniphon, now a pathetic drunk like the editor and the marshal in the earlier incarnation of the film,lurks at the door.
As the lawyer walks out, Doniphon stops him and retells the story - to save the woman he loved: "You taught her to read and write - now give her something to read and write about".
We see the lawyer and the gunman squaring off, and behind them Doniphon calling on Pompey, who throws the shotgun into his hands, and Doniphon shoots and kills Liberty Valance.
In the film, an aged Jimmy Stewart (hair powdered white) tells the story to journos, who throw away their notes, saying: "When the legend becomes fact, print the legend".
He pets the arm of an aged Pompey - whose white side-hair now makes him seem all Uncle Remus - and goes on to leave politics, leaving Pompey behind, echoing like a sore tooth in the conscience of the white audience.
And what for the black audience? I can't speak for them.

Tuesday, 21 June 2011

Three Stations by Martin Cruz Smith: Pan

Arkady Renko returns in Martin Cruz Smith’s latest Russian thriller, Three Stations. Renko, the Platonic ideal of the noir cop, is a Russian of the post-Soviet era, afloat in a corrupt force, constantly suspended or under threat of suspension, unloved, unwanted, a good man swimming in a sewer.
Arkady rescues his colleague in misery, Sgt Victor Orlov, from the drunk tank, and so becomes involved when a young prostitute is found dead - apparently of natural causes - in a workers’ trailer in the area officially called Komsomol Square but known to all Muscovites as Three Stations.
Here, at the conjunction of two Metro lines, ten lanes of traffic and the Leningrad, Kazansky and Yaroslavl train stations, feral children live off the unwary adults passing through. Some children are more innocent: Maya, a child prostitute who has escaped with her baby, only to have the baby stolen by the babushka who befriended her; Zhenko, Arkady’s adopted son, who plays chess for money and nests in an abandoned casino.
As Arkady investigates, more bodies turn up, each posed in one of the basic ballet positions. He follows the trail through the underworld of the poor, and that of the wealthy where a circus entertains millionaires donating money to help street kids, and through the home of every eccentric in Moscow.
Three Stations is a great page-turner. It’s fast, it’s constantly coming up with great turnarounds, it’s full of fabulous characters (the retired pathologist like a woolly mammoth in a white coat, the dog-loving street child and her guard dog Tito, the aged anthropologist devoured by curiosity).
It’s full of abstruse arcana (prison tattoos are a code: each barb on a length of barbed wire is a prison sentence cats show a career as a burglar, a web denotes addiction, a Madonna and Child means the criminal was born into a criminal family, not to the bourgeoisie; each teardrop is a murder victim.
These prison tats are done with a hook and a urine-soot mix. But the tattoo of a butterfly - denoting whoredom - on the first murder victim is clearly a professional job from a tattoo parlour, masquerading as the real thing.
All this should make the perfect thriller. And Martin Cruz Smith has written the perfect thriller before: the superb Tokyo Station, set in Japan in the five days before Pearl Harbour, with a protagonist who is a trickster and a player and a hero.
Here, though, everything’s too complicated. The story is awash with characters, many of them - like the aged anthropologist and the choreographer at the billionaire’s casino; and the mother who’s lost her child and the dog-loving street kid; and the billionaire Sergey and the former ballet star Sasha - too alike. It’s confusing. It’s hard to keep hold of the story when you don’t know the characters.
And Cruz Smith brings in a deus ex machina, in the form of a sudden influx of Tajik drug dealers, to solve a sticky plot point. And we never really discover how the original ballet girl died - only how she was knocked out.
So, if you want a gripping yarn to bring on the train and ferry, this is it. If you want a story that’ll rip your heart out the way Tokyo Station did, not so much. Not yet.
But it's gripping, it's fast-moving, at times it's even funny, and it's well worth buying for that tense train journey.

Sunday, 19 June 2011

Ovolution by JJ Toner

If you liked those yellow Gollanz Science Fiction of the Year collections that brightened the middle of the 20th century, you'll love JJ Toner's Ovolution.
This collection of 10 stories brings us back to the world fondly evoked by Mad Men: a world of suited men who are still boyish, with short-back-and-sides haircuts - a world where mad scientists design the perfect woman, and aliens lurk.
Toner's edgy sense of humour lightens this world. In the best of the stories - Short Back and Sides, in which a barber describes an encounter with DNA-hungry aliens; the title story, Ovolution, in which a suburban wife absconds with her newborn egg - reality teeters on an edge of dry wit.
Dancing is great exercise, the sprightly barber tells his customer, not that you need it of course, lovely figure, very Brad Pitt if I may say so. He chats on about the bus journey, his colleague's varicose veins, and of course his abduction by aliens and release. Somehow, it's all horribly believable, and horribly funny.
The warmongers of the army - whose army? doesn't matter - rejig a dead scientist to turn him into a killing machine, but the machine turns out to have more morals than its makers, in Bartlett Rebooted.
In Ooze, humans scouting a new planet and aliens are uncertain about each other, each wondering: are they intelligent? Are they good to eat?
In Scouting Party the shoe is on the other tentacle; the aliens are scouting Earth, but a hideous confluence of golf, tape recording technology and American driving is set to foil their plan for world domination.
A Smashwords collection to while away a rainy day - while keeping a nervy eye out the window for silver spaceships.

Saturday, 11 June 2011

MABS and the crisis

So the cousin's in trouble. He lost his job, couldn't meet the mortgage, got a loan from a moneylender, then a bigger loan. Now they're battering on the door looking for their money back.
"Look at all that expensive tech stuff you have," they say, peering over his shoulder. "You could sell that computer. What about those carpentry tools?"
"But I need them to run my life! I can't make a proper living without my tools, and the computer and internet connection get me customers!"
"Tough. Nobody forced you to borrow. Now it's time to pay us back."
This is the position Ireland is in with the IMF and the ECB: the moneylenders are peering past us into the hallway, looking for things we can sell to pay them back: our land (they want us to sell off the forest land that is 7% of the country's territory); our utilities (we already, disastrously, sold the phone company - now they want the electricity and gas, and even the water we drink, to be sold to private operators, greedy grinders for profit).
If the cousin came to you for advice, what would you suggest? Not selling the computer, I suspect. You'd take him to MABS, the money advice and budgeting service (not yet privatised itself...), and the MABS advisers would sit down with him and make out a budget plan to help him to order his money affairs.
They would tell him to talk to his lenders and make an arrangement to pay off his debts more slowly. The lenders will accept this, MABS would say, because they know it's more reliable.
Work is what is going to get you out of this problem, MABS would say. Take anything you can - a nixer painting the neighbour's house, a quick programming job setting up a database for your local school's scheduling of classes.
Grow your own vegetables: it won't get you an immediate result, but it will give you relaxing exercise, a way to think things through without being panicky, and then in the height of summer it will cut your food bills, and you can actually give something back to the friends who are helping you, with gifts of home-grown stuff.
If you have a skill, you can offer night classes to the same local schools and share your skill with others.
What MABS wouldn't say is "sell your tools to pay the moneylenders".
The European Central Bank and the International Monetary Fund are also telling the government to cut wages at the bottom - to make our poorer people even poorer - but to maintain salaries at the top.
This is a disastrous plan for the country.
I loved the Celtic Tiger - oh, sure, the arrogance of a small country that has suddenly got rich was embarrassing, but that would have passed. But I spent the Tiger years doing interviews for business magazines, mostly talking to tech entrepreneurs.
I loved it when someone running a company said "My dad was a trucker, my mam cleaned houses. But when the free education came in I was able to stay in school, and I turned out to have a real gift for programming and management."
This is something that was seldom heard in the 1950s, 1960s, 1970s or 1980s. Then, if your family was poor, you stayed poor. Because poverty smothers creativity. Poor people don't have the leisure or sense of relaxation - or the sense of ultimate possibility - that allows their children to dream, and to have the facilities to fulfil their dream.
I was in a suburb last night, an area that used to be dodgy when I was growing up. During the Tiger, it was gentrified, and the remains of this still show, in some beleaguered streets with gardens of penstemons and ceanothus and irises. But the sense of terror has returned. Turn a corner and the next street is filthy, with a group of teenagers jeering at the bus stop, a line of takeaways, and - I jumped to one side to avoid it - a syringe with blood clotted in the mouth lying on the street.
A wide division in salaries creates resentment and a dull anger that stops people working. "If that talentless swine is paid €300,000 a year and I'm paid €80 a shift, why should I bother working," people think. Even if they do work hard, out of pride in their trade, their simmering fury poisons the workplace.
(Even in the Celtic Tiger years, exploitation was rife, and not always at the bottom: for instance, one newspaper bare-facedly paid its casual sub-editors as "suppliers" to avoid PRSI and tax.)
In societies where incomes are relatively equal, there is not this resentment. You're valued for your skill rather than your earnings.
Ireland needs MABS thinking, but at the moment, the government is obeying the moneylenders' every instruction. If we look forward 20 years, what kind of country do we want?
The ECB and the IMF would like a privatised state run by capital for capital, with money as the motivator for all work.
I would prefer a country with relatively level salaries, where the bus driver takes enormous pride in his job, as does the surgeon and the childminder - and it's pride in the job itself, because the money is not an issue: because we all earn enough to live well.
Surely it's time for the government to take the MABS approach?

Thursday, 21 April 2011

Kavanagh Country

The perfect conjunction of genius has come together in this book: Patrick Kavanagh's poems and a little prose; a sensitive and learned introduction to Kavanagh and his work by PJ Browne, the photographs of David Maher, and the design of Syd Bluett.
David Maher is a sports photographer, whose pictures every week capture the moment of triumph of despair. But here, he photographs stillness: on the cover, Kavanagh's statue on a seat by the canal, deep in the meditation of composition. Or maybe terribly hungover.
Horses grazing in a mist-shrouded field, a postman wheeling his bicycle up Raglan Road, tufty grasses, a half-broken wooden farm gate, a statue of the Virgin railed off, a ladylike Grafton Street - the photographs in black-and-white enrich the poems without outsmarting them.
The introduction understands Kavanagh - his hunger for poetry, his small-farmer mentality, his acerbic Catholic Standard film reviews, his arrogance and kindess - without patronising him.
The layout is the best I've ever seen - utterly understated and graceful, the photographs perfectly chosen for each poem, the typeface exactly right to give the poems their voice, the titles - in large and small upper-case - gently exact.
And the poems... Raglan Road, The Great Hunger, Lines Written on a Seat on the Grand Canal, Dublin - to read them again is to learn them anew.
At the back are short notes on each poem - the place and circumstance of their writing, fascinating.
If you can get this book, snap it up. I hear there are a few copies left in Dubray.

Sunday, 17 April 2011

A Preparation for Death by Greg Baxter

GLOOMY and hilarious, Greg Baxter's mocking novel about a failed novelist (himself, in a wryly-created version of the dank Dublin bedsitter life of the exiled American artist) will have you whooping as you reach for the Luger to end it all.
He lays it all out at first: the arrival in Dublin, crushed by failure, his acquisition of a job teaching creative writing (no! not that!) in the Irish Writers' Centre, his smothering, humiliating memories.
But it's not long before he opens the gun cabinet, with a rib-busting, vicious description of a session of the Sewanee writers' week, carefully calibrated with the use of forgotten, once-famous writers.
"A group of white-haired and weathered figures were standing around looking like Southern writers," he writes, sharpening up his stiletto. "If you've ever seen a group of them together, you'll know what I mean. The closest I can come to describing it accurately is a highbrow and slightly effeminate fishing trip."
It was at this stage that I actually put down the book and laughed out loud.
Baxter has a killing eye for the telling detail, and watching him poking fun at the writing scene is like watching a horrid, intelligent little boy poking hopefully at the corpse of a putrefying lizard with a pointy stick - what can you do but snicker.
His mentor, it soon turns out, will be Barry Hannah - a fabulously typical character: the novelist as liar. Barry is in the middle of chemo, and eats only pink stuff through a straw. But when he drags Baxter off on a search for a burger, mitching from the conference, Baxter - blind as a bat - ends up driving them along the country roads, and is gobsmacked when Barry meets a coven of rednecks, moustachioed and survivalist, inspecting their Stars and Bars and ammo and reliving their defeat; Barry, whose books are awash with moustachioed Deep South villains just like these, agrees vociferously with their hogwash. Aha, so are all his promises of publication for Baxter lies too? Mm? Hm? Mm?
From this villainy Baxter delves further, into the death of his grandfather, a Waffen SS man, and his grandmother's marriages of convenience - material any writer would give his right ear for, of course - and we're back to the flat in Dublin, now shared with an Icelanding playwright for whom everything is part of her stories.
Anyone who's spent any time in the horror subgenre of writers' retreats and hope will love this book, or else find it so terrifying that they run for their life.
Terribly funny; perhaps too sharp for anyone but the brave.