Lookit. I didn’t play my best today. I trained hard and I was totally prepared physically and psychologically. Totally. But lookit. When he came in with that final kick in the final two seconds of the match I thought it was all over. I was daydreaming, looking at a bird in the sky. Lookit. I mean a magpie or a crow or something that came out of the blue flying across the pitch and Lookit the ball shot right past me and Lookit I wish it hadn’t happened but Lookit it did and Lookit what’s the point it’s spilt milk Lookit it’s water under the bridge. Lookit we all played our hearts out Lookit all the lads they were brilliant absolutely brilliant Lookit sorry guys it was all my fault and we would have won it Lookit if it hadn’t been for that bird. I don’t know what it was, it was black. And white. Maybe it wasn’t a bird at all. But Lookit. These things happen. Lookit.
And then afterwards I was so pissed off. What do you expect after a thing like that? Lookit. I was driving along on my way back west as fast as I could and Lookit that dog came out of nowhere and Lookit I ran over him. Lookit. I take full responsibility. It’s the way life is, sometimes. Lookit, it’s my fault, but Lookit, as luck would have it lookit it happened. Lookit.
And Lookit, when that old woman came running after me, I lost it. Lookit, I thought she had something, a gun, a firearm. A bomb! Yeah, it was her handbag, but Lookit, isn’t hindsight a great thing? And, Lookit, she had that accent, the kind of accent women with firearms have. The gangs. Lookit, she sounded like a gangster’s mother from Summerhill or Ballymun or Blackrock or somewhere. What? Lookit, I’m from the country. I’m not an expert on these, you know, local distinctions. Anyways she sounded to me like she’d have a gun. Lookit, you know what I mean, she was crazy, I’d killed her dog. So, Lookit. I over reacted. Lookit, I shot her. Self defence. Look it I’m a goalkeeper, defence is my middle name. Where did I get the gun? Lookit, I’m from down the country. We shoot rabbits, don’t we? And foxes. Lookit, I’m sorry, but Lookit, spilt milk, water under the bridge, Lookit I’ll do anything I can to help. But Lookit. We lost the match and there’s two people Lookit… gone. Dead as doornails, yes, I mean. A dog and a woman. It breaks my heart, it really does, But ah sure! Lookit!
Sometimes a writer’s first book is their best – not something we writers who work all our lives like to acknowledge. Even when the early work is raw, less polished, even less deep, than the later stuff, it can have an energy and originality which is lacking in the later work. Sometimes the popularity of novelists like Jane Austen has depressed me – not because I’m envious (writers are often envious of more successful writers, but seldom of the dead ones). Inevitably, if there are Jane Austen fancy dress parties, movies and endless TV series, Jane Austen plays for Christmas, mystery novels and chick lit parodies of Jane Austen, her literary credit diminishes. You can have just too much success, carrying you over the threshold from greatness to cheapness. Pride and Prejudice, one realizes, is a good novel. But you begin to wonder if it’s really all that good? Everyone knows it inside out. Men who generally ignore all women writers claim that it’s their favourite book. Why?
So, Jane Austen.
But when I read Northanger Abbey recently – not for the first time, maybe for the fourth or fifth time, but I haven’t read it for about twenty years – my respect for Austen was revived. Northanger Abbey is maybe the least well liked of her novels – it doesn’t get filmed, BBC’d, dramatised, as much as the others. The ‘Oh I love Jane Austen’ brigade often haven’t got around to reading it. It was written when she was eighteen, bought by a publisher who failed to publish it, and finally saw the light of day eighteen years later, when Austen was successful and well known.
Northanger Abbey is different from the other novels. Parodying the Gothic fiction which was very popular in the early nineteenth century –novels by Mrs Radcliffe, Mrs Humphrey Ward, about romantic heroines in Italian or Austrian palaces, full of ghouls and ghosts – it’s got a stylized, post modern, feel to it. You are constantly made aware that you’re in a novel; the author steps into the text on regular intervals and comments on what has been going on, or on where the novel should go next. The first half of the novel, at least, describes a visit to Bath by the seventeen year old Catherine Moreland, an innocent and beautiful girl, and a novel reader. She makes friends with the odious Isabelle Thorpe, and falls for the clever urbane Henry Tilney. Austen always sends up any sort of pretension, but nowhere does she do this more successfully than in Northanger Abbey. Isabelle Thorpe natters constantly about clothes and men. A husband hunter and incorrigible flirt, she is constantly saying ‘Oh, there goes Mr Tilney, we must avoid him’, and immediately setting off in hot pursuit of a bonnet or a piece of lace, procurable just where Mr Tilney, or whichever eligible bachelor she’s chasing, happens to be going. Austen employs ‘show don’t tell’ beautifully in these scenes of Isabelle’s: she had a natural, sharp talent of this particular technique. Isabelle’s brother, James, falls in love with Catherine, but bores her pants off with his constant bragging about his carriage. IN fact he brags about everything, exaggerates and tells lies till the cows come home. Again, Catherine gradually becomes aware of this, and so do we. Austen is incredibly skilled and sophisticated in controlling her story and letting James gradually reveal himself for what he is. Show don’t tell. Mr Henry Tilney is a trifle pompous, but very clever, well educated, and sensible. He turns phrases worthy of Oscar Wilde, or characters in Restoration Drama, which surely must have influenced Austen’s style, and manners. And so on until the crazy Northa nher Abbey scenes, in which Catherine allows her fantasy to run away with her, only to find that reality is as shocking as anything she can imagine. Jane Austen produces one of her most brilliant shock scenes in this novel, when Catherine is suddenly dismissed, without explanation, from the Abbey, and packed off home in a public stage coach. It takes the reader by as much surprise as it does she, and on a first reading I don’t think many would guess what the explanation for her mistreatment is.
This is a livelier, more daring, more experimental novel than any of the others. Never again did Jane Austen allow herself to parody other genres, to be as stylized and post modern in her technique, or even to paint such exaggerated portraits of characters. True, Mrs Bennet is over the top, and so is Emma’s father, Sir Walter, and of course Miss what’s her name, to whom Emma is so rude. But in none of the other novels is almost everyone over the top.
It’s as if a restraint took over. You wonder if it is the demands of the market. Readers preferred novels which were totally realistic, novels in which they could lose themselves, without having to be reminded that they were reading. Or if her earlier, highly honed sense of irony and humour seemed childish to the maturing writer. Emma, Mansfield Park, are lively, but much more serious, sometimes even portentous, than the light, sparkling, brilliant Northanger Abbey, written when the author was eighteen!
THE QUEEN’S VISIT
It’s the 17th May 2011. Queen Elizabeth 11 is making a historic visit to Ireland. This visit is richly symbolic. We know it’s historic and symbolic because the media commentators and the politicians have told us so about a million times during the past week.
I’m correcting proofs in Belfield when I get a phone call from somebody called Adrian from the BBC World Service. Well, that’s nice! The BBC World Service! Now,that’s not Raidio na Life or Newstalk. What can they want? Are they going to broadcast one of my stories? Adrian, who sounds really sweet, asks me if I would be prepared to comment on the Royal visit on a programme he’s doing, tonight. The World News or something. My heart sinks. Sometimes I am rung and asked to comment, at short notice, on the shortlist of a literary award, or the death of a writer. But not on events that are of historic importance and richly symbolic, involving heads of state. I say I haven’t got much to say about the visit one way or the other and would rather not. Curious, I ask him why he has called me. He explains that he wants a ‘cultural person’ – in a careful tone which makes me wonder if he has any clue about the form my particular ‘cultural’ credentials might take.
It’s four o clock, his programme is going out at eight. He’s obviously been let down. Presumably he was really looking for Diarmuid Feirtear or Declan Kiberd or someone who knows something about Irish history. Maybe he’s been going through the telephone directory, checking out people whose names are in Irish, hoping they’ll be rampant nationalists who will add a bit of spice to the World News with their risible views?
He must be desperate, if he’s ringing me, someone he’s obviously never heard of, out of the blue a few hours before the programme goes on air.
I say,what the hell, the BBC World News makes a change from Radio na Life. I say yes. I agree to to the interview on the phone, at home, at eight o’clock.
At five thirty, I’m home, and the phone is ringing as I walk in the door. Could I go to a studio? No. I couldn’t, there’s a limit. Ok, that is all right. Can we test my Skype then? Over the next two hours there are about six or seven phone calls, sound tests on Skype, various nicely spoken men calling. Adrian finds out how to pronounce my name. I write some notes, think about Irish history, wonder what we’d be like if we all spoke Irish. When you start thinking about it, the royal visit is quite interesting. Thought provoking. I don’t get any dinner, I’m so busy thinking about Strongbow, the Ulster Plantation, the cultural similarities between Ireland and England (Politicians mention the cultural similarities every few minutes but never specify what they are. Rugby, I suppose, they might mean. English. Or the full Irish breakfast?) Someone rings me and asks if I know any writer who might be a bit hostile to the queen’s visit, just to contrast with my reasonable attitude. I don’t. Actually the attitude most of the writers I know have to the Queen’s visit is benign indifference… sure, it’s deeply symbolic and richly historic but unless you’re one of the thousand invited to the state banquet, it’s as thrilling as the Queen’s Christmas message). But I put on my thinking cap. I ring back with a few telephone numbers, of men from Northern Ireland. I tell Adrian that writers from the North may have stronger feelings about the visit than we wishy washy, easy going, southerners. At this stage – since they’re using me to source names – I ask how he got my name and he mentions a short story I published recently in an English anthology. That sounds plausible and I wonder , though not aloud, if I will get a plug in for one of my books. When they ask me for biographical details I can mention that. An ad, all over the world!
At eight I get the final Skype call, I am listening to the BBC World Service news, we’re all set. Bertie Ahern is going first, then it’ll be my turn.I hear Bertie. He’s using his serious voice, to say that the visit is deeply historic and richly symbolic.
A voice comes on and mumbles something about holding on for a minute. Then the line goes dead. I assume this is in order although I thought I was hooked up now, on the air. Minutes pass. Ten minutes. Fifteen. I wonder if there’s something wrong with my Skype and start fiddling with it it. Am I even online still? It is very quiet in my kitchen now. A blackbird sings at the window – they stay up so late, these nights. At twenty past eight Adrian telephones me again and says bluntly, “ We interviewed someone else.’ He doesn’t have time to beat around the bush, or say sorry.
‘Who?’ I ask.
He sounds a bit embarrassed, I’ll give him that.
I didn’t want to be on their damned programme. I was doing them a favour –so it seemed to me. But they were using me. They must have invited Eamonn McCann too. I presume he wasn’t just passing by the studio at eight o’clock. Oh,howareye Eamonn! I must have been lined up as an unwitting understudy all along.
You ‘d have to wonder.
Adrian was the name of that Pope, wasn’t it? The English Pope, who sent Henry 11 to invade Ireland? Nine hundred years ago.
Now that was an historic event. More historic than symbolic. The real thing.
I’d forgotten about it, so it’s nice to be reminded.
I have a horrible confession to make, one which is particularly embarrassing for a writer. I am a word killer.
The words I have eliminated from my own vocabulary, and which, not by coincidence, have also been abandoned by the population at large, were commonplace in my childhood. They were part of my mother’s vocabulary, and of mine when I was a child – definitely when I was a pre-schooler, and probably until I was eight or nine, and becoming very literate and very self conscious and very snobbish, all at the same time, all probably related in some subtle or perhaps quite obvious way.
I’m not talking about terms of endearment like ‘Alanna’, and ‘Shegoshga’, which my mother, in those far off days, used all the time – the second perhaps with a trace of irony. I don’t expect miracles of myself – even though when you think about it, there’s no particularly good reason to replace ‘Alanna’ with ‘Sweetie Pie’ or ‘Angel’, which were my terms of endearment par preference when my children were little, and couldn’t object to them. ‘Top o’ the morning to you!’: she never said that. Now it seems nobody ever could have. It sounds so absurd, an invention of the ‘Apes and Angels’ school of paddywhackery. But it’s most likely that it was used, since it’s fairly clearly derived from ‘Móra duit ar maidin’, which friends of mine to this day. But ‘Alanna’ falls into ‘Top o’ the Morning’ territory: it sounds closer to that, and the 19th century stage Irish, than it is, in the other direction, to ‘Sweetie Pie.’ So it was never going to be a runner, for a Dubliner of the mid twentieth century. Nor were phrases like ‘e’er a penny’, or ‘a haporth worth of something or other,’ which smacked of another century.
Nor am I regretting my lost Dublin accent. I must have had one, when I was three or four, and living in Rathmines. Everyone spoke a kind of Dublinese – unless they came from ‘down the country’ – in the little enclave of artisan houses where my grandparents lived, and where I spent a year or two at that exciting period of my life. Three to four. And in the slightly bigger houses in Ranelagh, to which we moved before I was five, most people would have spoken in a similar way. School, and the middle class people I met there, wrought the change. So now I don’t know how I sounded when I was four.
My mother ‘washed the delph’. She sent us up to the shop for ‘the messages’. She served ‘sweet’ after dinner. She ‘wet the tea.’ She went ‘to the chapel’, never the church. She was ‘perished’ when the weather was cold, never freezing. And it was often ‘spilling rain’, not pouring and bucketing down – though perhaps it was sometimes ‘lashing’. Weather in the summer could be ‘heavy’ or ‘sultry’: humidity was unknown, as a term. When it was sultry or heavy, we were often at the strand, not the beach, and we wore bathing suits, or bathing togs, not swimsuits. Overweight people were ‘stout’, never fat and obviously never ‘obese’ a term which has come in very recently. Children grew ‘as big as a house’. We ate rashers, not bacon, and fairy cakes, not cup cakes or queen cakes or muffins.
Rashers haven’t gone away – they might have, but the word has made a come-back, made it into the more tolerant, less post-colonial, vocabulary of 21st century youth. Occasionally ‘fairy cake’ is heard: it’s such a cute word. (‘Cute’ meant ‘sly’, in my mother’s vocabulary, and it was an adjective that found expression fairly regularly.)
The words I regret not using are words like ‘strand’ and ‘delph’ (and I hate the hyper correct spelling ‘delft’: nobody ever said that, in Ireland, and we don’t need to be reminded that you are able to consult an etymological dictionary, thanks very much). Why say ‘wash the dishes’ when we have a perfectly good word in lieu of the colourless and not very accurate ‘dishes’? Why eat ‘dessert’, or, even worse, ‘pudding’, when we had a much nicer, more descriptive, and less class ridden one, ‘sweet’? And what's wrong with 'strand' or 'bathing suit'?
You have to ask, why do certain words go out of fashion, to be replaced by others? And why do they go out of fashion in some places and some countries more than in others?
OK. Languages are always changing. Wizard and marvellous get pushed out by wonderful and super and cool and brilliant and awesome. Slang grows old and passes its sell-by date very quickly. But delph? Sweet? The English upper classes cling to some of their words – those which Nancy Mitford (I think it was she, expert on fashion) described as ‘U’. Napkin for serviette. Looking glass for mirror. But in Ireland, in my class, we couldn’t wait to get rid of our old words and replace them with whatever seemed more English, more American, more upper class, less Irish, than the ones we had. At least I couldn’t.
And the funny thing is, it’s hard to reverse, and to start calling ‘dishes’ delph, or dessert, sweet. Partly because the in-terms are so ubiquitous. You might decide on delph, in the privacy of your own kitchen, but you’re unlikely to put those plates, cups, saucers and, finally, dishes, in the delph washer. Sweet, maybe, is another story. I'm planning to revive that.