Saturday, 27 April 2013

Writing tips 2: the end

A good end is as important as a good beginning, and nearly as important as a great middle. And surprisingly unusual. A perfectly ended story remains in your mind forever, its faintly astringent taste lingering on the tongue.
The most famous, and one of the best, is the end of F Scott Fitzgerald's The Great Gatsby. Our antihero, Jay Gatsby, has spent his misspent life one one ambition: getting to the point where he can be the husband of adorable young socialite Daisy Buchanan (née Fay; good thing boys don't take their wives' names or he might have become Jay Fay).
At the end Fitzgerald has his narrator, the slightly louche but perfectly socially placed Nick Carraway, standing on the edge of the sea, looking out across the bay at the house once lived in by Daisy and her horrid husband - the house Gatsby gazed longingly at every night.
And Fitzgerald does a wonderful thing: he encapsulates his story, but more, he encapsulates all of fiction, every story, because what are stories about but seeking the future in the past:
And as I sat there brooding on the old, unknown world, I thought of Gatsby’s wonder when he first picked out the green light at the end of Daisy’s dock. He had come a long way to this blue lawn, and his dream must have seemed so close that he could hardly fail to grasp it. He did not know that it was already behind him, somewhere back in that vast obscurity beyond the city, where the dark fields of the republic rolled on under the night.
Gatsby believed in the green light, the orgastic future that year by year recedes before us. It eluded us then, but that’s no matter — to-morrow we will run faster, stretch out our arms farther. . . . And one fine morning —
So we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past.
Fitzgerald has done a fabulous thing: he has made a philosophical statement, and it's a world-changer, but it's also not the 'moral' of his story - Fitzgerald would not be so cheap or so ill-mannered as to offer the reader who has done him the honour of entering his story a moral.

Not so with the Russian writer Alexander Solzhenitisyn, whose story Matryona's Place is a wonder and a jewel - until its last two lines. He manages to take a lovely, delicate story and turn it into a finger-wagging lesson, undoing all the subtle, gorgeous storytelling of the previous 38 pages and leaving the reader going "Bleaghhhh!"
In Matryona's Place, our narrator arrives home, and goes to the Personnel Office to ask for a job in some remote village where they need a mathematics teacher. He's sent to one place, but it's not of-the-soil enough for him - they buy their food and drag it home in sacks. So he goes back to Personnel, and describes what he wants, and they send him to the village called Peatproduce.
Here, the only person who can put him up is the aged Matryona. Her wooden house is lovingly described - its traditional Russian stove, her beloved fig plants set all around the windows, the mice, and the five layers of thick ribbed wallpaper stuck together and standing out from the wall that the mice run behind; the lame cat that pursues them; the miserable goat.
It becomes gradually clear that the teacher has returned from a prison camp. He and Matryona live happily together. She's hard-working - apart from her daily work, every day she has some special job, like collecting a load of turf semi-illegally, making pickles, collecting mushrooms in the forest.
At the time the teacher goes to live with her, Matryona is spending a lot of time going from office to office trying to get a pension. Her husband disappeared in the war; she always worked on the collective farm, but apparently not on "productive work", so she's not entitled to any pension for herself, but only as her husband's widow.
Meanwhile, all the neighbours call on her all the time for work - harnessed in the five-woman plough, collecting turf, digging, etc.
Eventually, Matryona is dragged into an unwise enterprise by her brother-in-law - the man she really should have married, and a thoroughly bad lot, spoiled by disappointment in love. She is horribly killed by a train, and her mangled body is brought home. Her body is prepared, the relatives quarrelling over who will get the house.
Everything she said about Matryona was disapproving: she was dirty, she was a bad housekeeper, she wasn't thrifty, she wouldn't even keep a pig because she didn't like the idea of fattening up a beast to kill it, and she was stupid enough to work for other people without pay...
Solzhenitsyn beautifully writes:
Only then, listening to the disapproving comments of her sister-in-law, did I see an image of Matryona which I had never perceived before, even while living under her roof.
It was true - every other cottage had its pig, yet she had none. What could be easier than to fatten up a greedy pig whose sole object in life was food? Boil it a bucketful of swill three times a day, make it the centre of one's existence, then slaughter it for lard and bacon. Yet Matryona never wanted one...
Misunderstood and rejected by her husband, a stranger to her own family despite her happy, amiable temperament, comical, so foolish that she worked for others for no reward, this woman, who had buried all her six children, had stored up no earthly goods. Nothing but a dirty white goat, a lame cat and a row of fig plants.
It's the perfect ending. But then Solzhenitisyn loses it. He can't trust the reader to get the point; he takes it out and slaps it down on the table like a side of fish:
None of us who lived close to her perceived that she was that one righteous person without whom, as the saying goes, no city can stand.
Nor the world.

Wednesday, 24 April 2013


This is the first story in my collection Love. When I wrote it years ago, it was a playful homage to the mediaeval love stories based on the model brought back from the Middle East. I never knew it would prove so prophetic.

ELSEWHEN, the sky darkened over Fatima Mansions. Friday night, the call of a muezzin mixed with the Angelus bell and the handbrake turns of a stolen BMW. Joy spoke from the concreted yards.
The Omurchu caravan was coming into town, the camels tired and cranky as they trudged down Christ Church Hill. Tomáisín saw a door open, glimpsed in the blue paraffin light a family saying the Rosary, detailed as a Mansur miniature: grandmother, wives, daughters, faces lifted to the statue of the Virgin. 
The door closed, Tomáisín and the lead camel swinging forward to guide the line of beasts through the evening traffic jam.
A Guard held up his white-gloved hand as the Angelus rang, sounding its eighteen notes from the cathedral high behind them, the notes echoed and tolled by mosques here and there in the city. 
The traffic drew to a halt, drivers bowing their heads as the bell-notes struck on car radios. A one-handed man begging for a cigarette stopped with his mark, both faced east.
As the notes faded the spell of stillness fell away. Tomáisín's camel was bitten and lashed back. The ex-thief's cigarette was lit, the prosperous mark cupping the flame of the petrol lighter. The Guard repossessed his anger, stormed over, saw Tomáisín's Omurchu features -
"Is it yourself, Mr O. Go on ahead, so."
Tomáisín steered the camel train around, into the square, kicked up a leg and slid from the camel he rode. "Hang on a tick, I just want to check the bookings," he said to his overseer, Pangur. Pangur led the string of beasts in and parked them by the wall.
 As Tomáisín called the hotel, the Perspex door of the kiosk framed a picture, another picture for Tomáisín. Two women with buckets of disinfectant and floppy mops washed blood from the cobbles. A tipper truck full of boulders backed into position, directed by a porter from the bank. By the fountain an old lady stood, her eyes above her veil fixed on the barred truck from Mountjoy Gaol.
Tomáisín felt a shudder run down his back at this ordinary scene. He turned away.
The booking cleared, he remounted and led the caravan along the one-way system and across the bridge to Capel Street market. 
"You go on, Tom," said Pangur in his high voice, "I can clear up here." His broad Welsh face turned, checking the loads against the bills he held. 
"Are you sure?
"Sure, why not. I'll settle the lads in their hotels and join you after. Get this lot stabled. Go on and have a few pints."
Tomáisín Omurchu walked away, the sound of his shoes sharp, echoing through the streets following the dying echo of the bells back across the city, into the valley where Fatima Mansions rises, and where Ayishe is waking from her sleep.
I awake from sleep, the photograph of death, and go immediately to check my image in the mirror. The face is the same: had I expected it to change? I put on my grandmother's chador, consider, does it look as well with my red hair as it did with hers? My eyes stare back, Celtic grey, Moorish downward slant. Their expression does not reflect my thoughts. The stranger in the mirror is there again. "Ayishe, come to serve the food," calls my co-wife, and I go. Is the pictured person the mirror shows me a representation of creation?
I look out from the top flat, looking over at Christ Church and the river. My husband, like my family, is a thief, a super thief as he boasts, and an elderly one who has never lost so much as a finger. He sends me to work for him, setting up the men. 
We sit and watch television. First an American programme, guns and heroics, then a veiled Irish newsreader, her eyes furtive. We are laughing at the news when the call comes: I am sent over to the hotel by Capel Street Market. 
Tomáisín turned on the television. A newsreader. Little news. Stock market report: Omurchu up 4. 
"Can I get you anything, sir?"
Plausible face, blank, serviceable. "A pipe? Newspapers?" The face watched him. "A woman?"
"Why not?"
"Any preference, sir?"
"Not really. Clean."
So in she came and turned on the bath. "I want the tap end, mind."
"Hey — you're supposed to pamper me, make me feel like a master, not squabble over the bath."
"Oh yeah? And risk my life too?"
I climb out of my shalwar and dress and shake off pants and vest, sit on the edge of the bath and put the toes of one foot into the steamy water.
"Is it very bad at the moment?"
"You have to be joking. The Legion of Mary are everywhere, handing out immaculate medals and brown scapulars. Again you get a pint in your hand it's whup out and you're handed a Pioneer total abstinence pin. Girls being stoned to death wholesale in Dame Street. Bad? Are y'in earnest?"
She was in the bath, blue lights showing in her red hair as she fanned it behind her, careful to keep it out of the water. One strand escaped and he lifted it clear, wrung it out like a washerwoman.
"So what do you want me to do? Tell you stories?"
"Some men like that." His skin is smooth, dark and gold. His wrists are full of grace, widening to where the muscles run under the sleeves of his T-shirt. "Diarmuid and Gráinne. That's a racy one." My voice doesn't break but it roughens. What is this?
Tomáisín sat on the edge of the bath and looked at the woman. The rich flesh of her belly appeared and disappeared shyly as the water moved. Her nipples were small, unusually so. He could have covered them with a finger, a forefinger pressing each button. Her lips pressed out, a warm rose. 
I take the soap and begin to lather myself. I can feel my heart beat, even with my fingertips. Is he going to get on with it? In the way of business they sometimes need encouraging. Why is my heart beating so. I must have a fever coming on. Have I frightened him with all that old chat about executions? Of course he could buy himself out, no bother, but sometimes it's the rich fellows who are the most cautious.
"Did you come far, today?"
Is he not getting in the bath, or what?
"You must have been fairly shifting."
"The old camels can cover the ground, all right."
She kicked out the plug, wrapped herself in a yellow towel and sat on the edge of the bath, steaming, the steam rising gently into a cloud around her. Abruptly she dropped to her knees and caught his foot as he tapped it.
"Shoe the little horse,
 "Shoe the little mare,
 "But let the little colt go
 "Bare, bare, bare." 
She looked up at him, her lip caught between her teeth as she smiled. "What age are you?" She stood and walked to the bed, the towel falling until it trailed from one shoulder and she was a collection of shadows: her shoulder blades, her neck, her waist, the hollow which put a stop to the line from back to bottom. "Turn up the light." Her voice trembled.
He turns to the globe, but instead of pumping the pressure up he opens the valve and with a brief hiss the light turns from blue to yellow and shadows shoot up the wall as the light fades. 
"What's your name," he whispers, and when I tell him, he whispers, "Ayishe."
He crosses his hands and strips up the black T-shirt, falls beside me.
They lie together. Downstairs the porter is calling the Guards. Yes! He is a member of the Pádraig Pearse Youth. 
I look at him, Tomáisín. His eyes are very black, big and glossy. We have finished making love, he licks my lip with the tip of his tongue and my mouth floods with fresh water. 
"Love," he whispers, "Oh, love."
"Oh love," I whisper, "where did I find you?"
"Sweet one, I'm here."
Yes, they have found each other, and they lie together, these two strangers, his tears running into her eyes and her fingers holding the soft hair beside his ear.
When the knocking comes on the door I am safe in his arms.
"Open up. Open up. I am a Garda." The door shakes as the men kick it and hit it.
How sweet his kisses are.

Sunday, 14 April 2013

Tips for writers, 1: Introducing your characters

Starting a story? Start it with your hero. One reason Edward Bulwer-Lytton's famous opening
It was a dark and stormy night; the rain fell in torrents, except at occasional intervals, when it was checked by a violent gust of wind which swept up the streets (for it is in London that our scene lies), rattling along the house-tops, and fiercely agitating the scanty flame of the lamps that struggled against the darkness.
is so famously bad is that there's no one there. Lots going on, but where's our hero? We meet him soon:
Through one of the obscurest quarters of London, and among haunts little loved by the gentlemen of the police, a man, evidently of the lowest orders, was wending his solitary way. He stopped twice or thrice at different shops and houses of a description correspondent with the appearance of the _quartier_ in which they were situated, and tended inquiry for some article or another which did not seem easily to be met with. All the answers he received were couched in the negative...
but don't really get to know Mr C until he takes action:
He was admitted by a lady of a certain age, and endowed with a comely rotundity of face and person.
"Hast got it, Dummie?" said she, quickly, as she closed the door on the guest.
"Noa, noa! not exactly; but I thinks as 'ow--"
"Pish, you fool!" cried the woman, interrupting him peevishly. "Vy, it is no use desaving me. You knows you has only stepped from my boosing-ken to another, and you has not been arter the book at all.  So there's the poor cretur a, raving and a dying, and you--"

But enough - you can read Paul Clifford by Bulwer-Lytton on, should you wish. 
For an opening to be good, your reader has to sit inside the head of your hero and look through his eyes. Or her eyes. Looky here:
Many years later, as he faced the firing squad, Colonel Aureliano Buendía was to remember that distant afternoon when his father took him to discover ice.
See what Gabriel Garcia Marquez did there? You want to know immediately what's going to happen to the colonel in One Hundred Years of Solitude. And look at James Stephens' opening to my favourite dog story of all time:
There are people who do not like dogs a bit--they are usually women--but in this story there is a man who did not like dogs. In fact, he hated them. When he saw one he used to go black in the face, and he threw rocks at it until it got out of sight. But the Power that protects all creatures had put a squint into this man's eye, so that he always threw crooked.
Stephens' readers immediately sit down and settle in for the story. Even the dog-lovers do. Especially the dog-lovers, in fact, since they're the ones who have a stake in the fate of the dog we know is definitely going to walk into the story. The fact that the dog is an aunt of Finn Mac Cumhaill's will make the story all the more interesting - but that's for later. 
So when you're starting your story, start it with your hero, and make sure he's about to face a challenge that will define him and make your readers root for him, or hate him, but anyway make them absolutely want to know what's he's about to do. 

Sunday, 7 April 2013

Did chicklit cause the crash?

According to the Palma Index, the fate of the tax system, and of society, rests with the middle classes. The Palma Index is a measure of the ratio between rich and poor in society, just like the Gini Index, only different. Whereas the Gini measures the whole spectrum from the poorest to the richest, the Palma takes a new approach, comparing the richest 10 per cent against the poorest 40 per cent. The reason for this is that the Gini is oversensitive to changes in the middle, and as a result, it's less sensitive to changes at the top and bottom.
So if you have a society like Ireland at the moment, where there's a group in the middle who are getting along just about ok, but at the bottom 40 per cent you quite suddenly have people living in utter desperation, while at the top 10 per cent you have enormously rich people, the Gini won't measure this so well, but the Palma will.
When Gabriel Palma studied inequality, he found that the middle classes generally have around half the gross national income everywhere.
What's different is how much the very rich and the very poor have. And Palma said that how this shakes out depends on who the middle classes side with.
(All this is thanks to a great blog by Alex Cobham of the Center for Global Development and Andy Sumner of King's College London here
It set me thinking. The literature of the 1960s was plain about where its loyalties lay: with the working classes, the angry young men, the scholarship boys.
But when the 1970s segued into the 1980s and 1990s, there was a change of view. Now the heroes were men in red braces gambling and becoming millionaires and brash women in high heels and cutthroat shoulder pads kicking them out of the way to be millionaires themselves.
The chicklit that was a craze of the millennium had the same loyalties. I except Marian Keyes, whose warm, funny books were about girls from a working-class background, often baffled in the new world they'd found themselves in, and wanting only a nice guy like their dad who'd mow the lawn in a woolly jumper and be a strong and comforting love.
But an awful lot of the chicklit was set in an entrepreneurial world fuelled by gallons of crisp white wine, and with money as its beau ideal. Sure, the heroine was looking for true love, but they were using the model the Edwardians used to advise: "Don't marry for money, but marry where money is".
I wonder will we see a new kind of story, now that the rampant greed has led to rampant destruction.

Tuesday, 2 April 2013

Grace Plunkett's wedding

The report of Grace Plunkett's death in The Irish Press of December 16, 1955 describes her wedding to Joe Plunkett in Kilmainham Gaol on May 4, 1916:

The couple were married at midnight in the Prison Chapel, by Rev. Eugene McCarthy, Prison Chaplain.
The gas supply in the prison had failed and for the wedding ceremony the chapel was lighted by a single candle held by an armed British soldier.
Two soldiers moved their rifles from hand to hand when they were called upon to act as witnesses to the ceremony. The couple were separated immediately afterwards.
The newly-wedded Mrs Plunkett was taken away to lod§gings found for her by Father McCarthy, while her husband was led back to his cell. They met only once again. She was summoned to the prison on the following morning, just before his execution on May 4, 1916. Fifteen soldiers with fixed bayonets stood by while she talked to him for ten minutes.

The Irish Times of October 3, 1967 has an extract from RM Fox's 1935 book on the women of 1916, Rebel Irishwomen, including a description of Grace in jail with her elder sister, the (formerly) unionist and (always) strait-laced Katy Wilson, née Gifford. Mrs Fox paraphrases Grace's description of a search by warders:

The prisoners massed on the landing, and at 9 o'clock in the evening soldiers entered, attacking them, dragging and throwing them down the iron prison staircase from landing to landing. At the bottom, women searchers, like demons, fell on them, scratching and pulling. Mrs Wilson had her face ripped as if with an animal's claws. All night from 9pm to 7am, the struggle went on. Grace Plunkett describes it as being like a picture of hell, with screams and oaths and struggles. Women were being kicked and punched, while they packed close together and made what resistance they could...