Friday, 25 November 2022

Wilko Johnson R.I.P.

As a further tribute to the late great Wilko Johnson, here's a review of the Dr. Feelgood boxset All Through The City, which I wrote in 2012, for the now-defunct website,

Dr. Feelgood

All Through The City (with Wilko 1974-1977)


Desmond Traynor


As the currently showing BBC 4 documentary series Punk Britannia persuasively hypothesises, the revolution of 1977 was the bastard offspring of the miscegenatious union of r’n’b and glam, when the pub rock and art college scenes met. From the former came most of the music, from the latter most of the look and attitude. Always somewhat Britcentric, the Beep elides the fact that as early as 1973 crazy Yanks like the New York Dolls were wearing women’s clothes while covering Sonny Boy Williamson and Bo Diddley songs. But then again, both Joe Strummer and Ian Dury attended art colleges and played in pub rock bands prior to New Wave apotheosis.

  Around the same time the Dolls were first trying on their high-heeled platform boots, Canvey Island’s Dr. Feelgood were tearing up the London pub scene with incendiary live shows which many seasoned gig goers were saying they hadn’t seen the likes of since the early days of The Who or The Stones. While scruffy off-the-peg suits were favoured as stage wear over silk or satin dresses, the same musical spirit animated them as that of their transatlantic tranny contemporaries. A brief band interview for Finnish television, at the end of the collection of live performances included in this marvelous new 3 CD + 1 DVD boxset of the band’s first four albums, plus unreleased demos, alternative versions, out-takes and live tracks, features the taciturn rhythm section of drummer John ‘The Big Figure’ Martin and bassist John B. Sparks (both of whom looked like burly bouncers you wouldn’t want to meet down a dark alley), the grimly polite singer Lee Brilleaux, and cocky young guitarist Wilko Johnson, who helpfully explains the r’n’b ‘revival’ thus: ‘It’s the best music. People have had six years of synthesisers and songs about hobbits. That’s for girls. People want to have a good time.’ As someone with a degree in Medieval English from Newcastle University, which he shrewdly kept quiet about, as well as considerable musical knowledge and ability, perhaps he was better placed to diagnose the deleterious influence of Tolkien on popular music than many would have given him credit for at the time.  

  They had their precursors, and their peers (Eggs Over Easy, Ducks Deluxe, Brinsley Schwarz, The Kursaal Flyers, Strummer’s 101ers, Dury’s Kilburn and the High Roads – even early Boomtown Rats), but they were the best. This was largely, in my opinion, down to Wilko’s wildly idiosyncratic guitar playing, whose self-confessed primary influence was Mick Green of The Pirates. Yet, although he was operating in a genre which thrives on notions of ‘passion’ and ‘feeling’, Wilko played like a machine, producing a weird r’n’b/motorik hybrid. Like forebears Otis Rush and Albert King, and the closer-to-home Jeff Beck, he eschewed the plectrum, his right hand a freestyle of fingers’n’thumb, conjuring choppy insistent rhythms and angular staccato lead lines, sometimes seemingly simultaneously. There’s less that separates the Feelgoods from Neu than you might think. The Man Machine, indeed. One shouldn’t, of course, overlook the solidness of the rhythm section itself in this process. Razor-sharp time-keeping was still the preserve of human beings in those days. Add to that the pent-up anger and frustration of Brilleaux, a front man who looked like he might hit you as soon as sing to you, which made him the scariest stage presence yet encountered in British live music, and who remained so until a sneering Johnny Rotten swaggered into the spotlight to unbeknowingly inherit his mantle, and the package was complete.

  What’s in the box? CD 1 has Down By The Jetty and Malpractice, both from 1975, the former the excellent re-master of the original mono mix released as a deluxe reissue in 2006 (thankfully still in mono), the latter, like the two albums on the succeeding CD, a new 2012 digital remaster.  CD 2 contains the peak and the valley, 1976’s Stupidity and 1977’s Sneakin’ Suspicion.  Produced, like the first two, by Vic Maile, who’d engineered The Who’s Live At Leeds, Stupidity is their masterpiece, one of the great live rock albums, made by a band who were always most at home in the live context. The rot set in with Sneakin’ Suspicion. Although signed to United Artists in Britain, they wound up on CBS in America, who felt their substantial promotional investment justified foisting their own choice of producer, studio veteran Bert De Coteaux, on the project. This resulted in an altogether too slick sheen to the sound, unsympathetic to a raw band like the Feelgoods. 

  There had been friction between Johnson and Brilleaux anyway. Wilko liked speed, and was partial to acid; the other three were serious drinkers (not that these recreational pursuits are necessarily mutually exclusive, but it proved so in this case). Jealously about ‘residuals’ may have also caused disputes, with Wilko doing the lion’s share of the songwriting. Whatever way you slice it, Johnson played on the album but never toured it, walking out of the sessions and subsequently forming the Solid Senders. As his replacement, the others drafted in John ‘Gypie’ Mayo, a perfectly adequate if rather more conventional r’n’b guitarist, who on later albums only served to illustrate how special Wilko had made Dr. Feelgood. Interestingly, some of the odds’n’sods on CD 3 are demos for Sneakin’ Suspicion, and tracks that were left off it, which show what a good album it could have been if the band had been left to its own devices. The DVD pulls together a variety of TV appearances (dig those cruel V-neck jumpers on The Geordie Scene’s audience) and live sets from shows at the Southend Kursaal (some of which wound up on Stupidity) and the Kuusrock festival in Finland. The package also includes a recent interview with Johnson, some natty comic strips and pics, plus a revelatory essay about their formative years, ‘The Breeding of Dr. Feelgood’, by poet Hugo Williams. (Another renowned poet, Tony Harrison, was apparently a huge mentor to Wilko at Newcastle, and later a close friend.)

  I saw them once, at the National Stadium in 1976 (don’t worry, I hadn’t even done my Inter Cert, as it was then known, at that stage) unfortunately just after Wilko had left. I saw the Solid Senders some years later, and have seen Wilco several times since. He played Whelan’s not so long ago. Good shows all, but together they must have been somethin’ else.

  The New York Dolls may have beaten their British counterparts to the punch by several years as progenitors of punk, but in this boxset you have a valuable document of one of the antecedents of British New Wave, the other strand of which was being provided by T Rex et al. The Feelgoods and Roxy Music? It’s a strange fusion, but that’s one of the great things about popular music: once you get beyond the fashion, it’s all there for you to choose your own particular pick’n’mix.

Sunday, 29 May 2022

Cathal Coughlan R.I.P.

Of a sudden, I recall that I did a phone interview with the great Cathal Coughlan in 2013, for the now defunct website, about his North Sea Scrolls project with Luke Haines and Andrew Mueller. Here be the text.

Cathal Coughlan / North Sea Scrolls

What do you get when put Cathal Coughlan, of Microdisney, Fatima Mansions and solo fame, Luke Haines, formerly of Auteurs renown, and music journalist and travel writer Andrew Mueller together in one room? Why, three men in colonial hats and It Ain’t Half Hot Mum jungle suits, singing songs about an alternative history of Britain and Ireland. These gents are bringing their demented North Sea Scrolls show, which started life at the Edinburgh Festival in 2011 and was subsequently released as an album last year, to the National Concert Hall on November 2nd. Cathal Coughlan recently marked my cards as to what to expect, and we chewed over some other old stuff as well.

  Just to fill the unsuspecting among you in, the North Sea Scrolls are ancient documents, long thought forever lost, which were presented to Coughlan and Haines by the actor Tony Allen, who found them in a bin outside Waitrose. They contain a proxy account of the recent past in these isles, demonstrating that pretty much everything you know and have ever learned about them is at best inaccurate, but more likely just downright wrong. 

 Who’d have thought, for example, that far from suffering 800 years of oppression under the English yoke, in reality the Irish invaded and conquered Britain in 1948, later dividing it into just two counties, Northshire and Southshire? Or that Oswald Mosley led two successive British governments in the 1960s, with Joe Meek as his Minister of Culture, while Enoch Powell was Poet Laureate? (Apropos, I’m surprised they didn’t shoehorn Eric Clapton’s once professed admiration for Powell, elucidated drunkenly from a Birmingham stage in 1974, in there somewhere) Or that the failed kidnapper of Princess Anne, Ian Ball, made a Robert Johnson-at-the-crossroads-like pact with the Devil – a gent who appears in a cloud of sulphurous cigar smoke, with a rattle of gold chains, wearing a shell suit – who ‘fixed it’ for the Broadmoor Psychiatric Prison resident to swap places with his guitar-wielding namesake in the ‘bewilderingly successful’ indie rock band, Gomez. (Considering this twist, it’s odd the boys didn’t conjure some similar case of mistaken identity between above-mention thespian Tony Allen, and the identically named great Afrobeat drummer.) 

  Another song, Coughlan's 'Mr Cynthia', puts the record straight on how Joe Meek put a radicalized John Lennon under house arrest in the mid-’60s, to curb the Mop Top’s influencing the country’s impressionable young folk toward dissent. In his absence from the public eye, Lennon’s then wife Cynthia immerged from the shadows into a proto-Thatcherite champion of ‘blank common sense.’ Perhaps unsurprisingly, Jim Corr figures along the way too, persuading the retired IRA to dig up much of South Armagh because he believes that Shergar, the Twin Towers and many other things are buried there.

  The eagle-eyed among you will doubtless have spotted that, unlike how their illustrious predecessors the Dead Sea Scrolls act as an adjunct to official Christianity, the flaw with the North Sea Scrolls is that most of the events recounted therein would still be within living memory. Consequently, feeling that there is little point in quizzing Cathal as to the veracity of these claims, I inquire instead as to how he views the revelations of the scrolls in relation to the rest of his fine body of work. C’mon, isn’t it all just a humorous diversion, a Flann O’Brienesque jeu d’esprit?

  “It’s not just a bit of fun,” Cathal responds. “I like to think it’s visionary, but not very serious. It’s also not always necessarily me speaking with my own voice. I’m so distant from Ireland now, that my view of Ireland can be inaccurate anyway. But in the past I might have come over as too po-faced sometimes, so it’s nice to do something more tongue-in-cheek.”

  Which does cast into question if there’s any sense on the part of the writers, on the one hand, directing their considerable ire at soft targets like Gomez or Chris Evans (who gets burned at the stake), or in the audience, on the other hand, getting hot under the collar about a universe where Gomez and Chris Evans come off worse than Mosley and Powell. We all have our pet hates – don’t get me started on The Killers – but there again, would I bother writing a song slagging them off? Are the fairly innocuous actually more reprehensible than the outright awful? And what happens when the former are lampooned more than the latter? 

  Of course, Cathal is not entirely responsible for this state of affairs, as he and Luke Haines divide the songwriting credits, and vocals, between them. So, how did he meet Luke Haines? How did he work with him? Do they have an affinity?

  “Well, Luke has most of the punch lines. I’m a kind of foil to him. He supplied most of the English stuff, and I took care of the Irish angle. The songs were written over a nine month period, and it was nice to meet up every so often and just hatch songs. I’d bring what I had, he’d bring what he had. I’ve known him for seven or eight years. I’m certainly a fan of Luke’s, you’d have to ask Luke if he’s a fan of mine.”

  They are both lyricists – why do they need Andrew Mueller’s input?

  “He provides the narration, and some historical context. He brings a certain kind of Australian irreverence. He’s also an editor of sorts.”

  In his younger days across the water, Cathal was known for his antipathy towards the raggle taggle brigade back home. In the nascent days of Fatima Mansions in the early ’90s, he was heard to ask and answer from a London stage, “Am I the only person here with an Irish passport who doesn’t think Van Morrison is a god-like genius? Transatlantic fraud.” This was in the wake of the huge success of the Morrison/Chieftains collaboration, Irish Heartbeat. Might his Van ‘Grumpy’ Morrison comments be seen as kicking against perceived regression after the advances of the punk wars had dissipated? Or against perceived misrepresentation of Ireland on the international stage?

  “I hated that album, I hated it more than normal because I even paid for it with my own money. But I have to say I think Astral Weeks is a great album, particularly when you think how young he was when he did it. Looking back now, I think people find all kinds of reasons for why they don’t like something - the politics, the ideology, whatever - but there’s usually a more fundamental reason: they just don’t like listening to it.

 “It’s funny, when I started listening to English folk music, and discovered it was much more acerbic than Irish folk music, which is much more lush. But I’ve always loved Christy Moore, one of my favourite singers.”

  Would he ever come back to Ireland, or is he firmly ensconced in London now?

  “I’m over four or five times a year. But materially, there’s no way someone of my resources could just walk back into it now. I was skint then back them, I’m not that much better off now.”

  But London’s expensive.

  “But I have a support system here. I know where to go, where things are cheaper.”

  Any regrets about how he handled his earlier career? Would it have helped if he’d been less confrontational?

  “A lot of the problems to do with Microdisney stemmed from insecurity, anxiety. By the time we got to the final album it didn’t seem to matter what we did, because the audience was well and truly alienated anyway.”

  And his solo career?

  “What I learned from making Black River Falls was ‘don’t waste time on little things’. I brought in people to get help with the strings on that, and it dictated the rest of the album.”

  Has he anything in the pipeline now?

  “If I do something, it’s going to be very different from what I’ve been doing recently, or even in the middle term. It won’t have a strong rhythm section, and will feature more string arrangements.”

  Will he be recording?

  “I’ve come to think that making a record is of questionable use, either as a means to playing in public, or for documentation. It doesn’t get you more gigs, at least not if you’ve being doing it as long as me. But we’ll see.”

  Back to more immediate concerns, North Sea Scrolls has been recorded, but has divided opinion, with reviews ranging from ‘deeply engrossing and rings resoundingly with cultural and historical truth’ to ‘a discombulating listen, but also a daft, enjoyable one’ to ‘an in-joke gone horribly wrong.’ With a public interview before the show itself, you can get to explore how seriously or otherwise we should take these phantasmagorical tales, and make up your own mind this Saturday.

Thursday, 20 January 2022

Manchester City's Dominance

I composed the letter below in response to Ken Early's disparaging article about Manchester City (The Irish Times, 20/01/2022), and sent it to Letters to the Editor. Needless to say, it wasn't published, so I present it here.


As a lifelong Manchester City supporter, I feel it is incumbent on me to react to the clear biases on show in Ken Early's article, 'Manchester City’s dominance a reminder the rich always get their way' (Monday, January 17th, 2022). 

His assertion that ‘Guardiola’s style lacks excitement that club’s fans – and players – seek’ is utterly risible, and certainly does not apply to Manchester City fans, much less discerning neutrals. It is equalled only by this ludicrous observation: ‘Look at the joy Manchester United have given the world these last several years. Lurching from crisis to crisis, they continue to be more watchable than City’s vastly superior team.’ The truth is that Manchester United have for some time been a laughing stock. While there may be considerable schadenfreude to be derived by fans of other clubs in watching United’s steady decline into a comedic soap opera, they are surely not heading to Old Trafford to witness object lessons in how The Beautiful Game should be played. That takes place in East Manchester.

It really is unconscionable that so-called football writers will not keep abreast of the tactical evolution of the game. Early contends that ‘Most of us don’t watch football for technical quality or tactical intrigue’ – an appalling admission from a supposed pundit. His naïve nostalgia for ‘the long-range screamer – arguably the most thrilling sight in football’ is, as he well knows from the statistical analyses he refers to, misplaced. In any case, for an example of the occasional judicious deployment of same, I would direct him to Vincent Kompany’s stunner v Leicester (May 6, 2019), which kept Liverpool in second place and helped secure City’s defence of the title that season. Indeed, one need go no further back than last Saturday’s 1 – 0 defeat of Chelsea, and point to Kevin De Bruyne’s match-winning strike from outside the penalty area, for evidence that the ball is not always ‘walked into the net’. (Cf. also: Rodri v Everton 19/11/2022; and Cancelo v Newcastle 20/12/2022.) Early also attempts to bolster his bizarre argument that City's playing style is boring by comparing a City match which he considers to have been 'dull and featureless' with another City match which he considers to have been exciting. Boring and exciting at the same time? He cannot have it both ways. As for Early’s disingenuous implication that City players are wanting to leave the club because they are supposedly so bored of the system, the reasons are more likely to hinge on personal issues (e.g. homesickness) or the brinkmanship involved in contractual negotiations, rather than discontent with playing style (and winning trophies). 

Of course, Early inevitably arrives at the usual source of carping for opposition fans: the money. The fact is that Manchester United’s transfer spend has exceeded that of City’s over the past five years – and look at the shambles they are. Money does not guarantee success, unless it is invested wisely, and the players it attracts are developed to their full potential. As for the accusations of ‘sportswashing’ and human rights abuses in UAE, I confess I fail to see how this is more reprehensible than the naked greed of the profit motive which drives the owners of other high-profile clubs, and which acts only as an advertisement for the ideology of neo-liberalism (to the detriment of those clubs). Great art has always depended on patronage. The Medici and Borgia families, including the Popes they produced, were not famed for having ‘clean hands’, but without them there would have been no Italian Renaissance.

Put simply: the Irish media are dictated to by those who engage with it, and in this country the majority of soccer fans who follow the English Premiership are supporters of either Manchester United or Liverpool. Through their bitter fandom of Manchester City’s nearest ‘rivals’, expressed via prejudiced, envious pot-shots, Early and his ilk provide clickbait catnip for these hordes, at the expense of the offence caused to longstanding City fans. To criticise City’s current dominance in the Premiership, formerly held by the clubs they espouse, is to display scant knowledge of how La Liga or the Bundesliga operate. Early’s Parthian shot is: ‘there is one thing City are good at making you feel, and that is the helplessness that comes from knowing that you live in a world where the richest will always get their way.’ The richest do not always get their way; but City’s deserved contemporary dominance makes me and other City fans feel great. 


Desmond Traynor

Saturday, 18 December 2021

Albums of the Year 2021

1. Floating Points/Pharoah Sanders/The London Symphony Orchestra – Promises

2. Can – Live In Stuttgart 1975

3. For Those I Love – For Those I Love

4. black midi – Cavalcade

5. Mogwai – As The Love Continues

6. Low – Hey What

7. Sarah Davachi – Antiphonals 

8. Arooj Aftab – Vulture Prince

9. Various Artists – Somewhere Between: Mutant Pop, Electronic Minimalism & Shadow Sounds of Japan 1980–1988

10. Joan As Police Woman, Tony Allen, Dave Okumu – The Solution is Restless

11. Viagra Boys – Welfare Jazz

12. Lou Reed – Live At Alice Tully Hall (January 27, 1973 - 2nd Show)

13. Jane Weaver – Flock 

14. John Murry – The Stars Are God’s Bullet Holes

15. Cathal Coughlan – Song of Co Aklan

16. The Hold Steady – Open Door Policy 

17. King Gizzard and the Lizard Wizard – Butterfly 3000 

18. St. Vincent – Daddy’s Home 

19. Ryley Walker – Course In Fable

20. Valerie June – The Moon and Stars: Prescriptions for Dreamers 

Bubbling Under:

Iceage – Seek Shelter; Deafheaven – Infinite Granite; Black Country, New Road – For The First Time; My Morning Jacket – My Morning Jacket; Rhiannon Giddens (with Francesco Turrisi) – They’re Calling Me Home; Robert Plant & Alison Krauss – Raise The Roof; The Weather Station – Ignorance 

Reissues I’ve enjoyed, which are not merely remasterings of the old stuff, but rather feature lots of new material (which means they are mostly live, or the originals were never properly released in the first place), include: Bob Dylan – Springtime In New York: The Bootleg Series, Volume 16 (1980-1985); The Knocking Shop – Half Orphan; John Coltrane – A Love Supreme: Live In Seattle; and Alice Coltrane – Kirtan: Turiya Sings. 

Music Book of the Year: Harry Sword – Monolithic Undertow: In Search of Sonic Oblivion – A virtual Bible, from which I’ve discovered so much good stuff I’d never heard of previously. 

Saturday, 13 November 2021

Autobibliography by Rob Doyle


By Rob Doyle

(Swift Press, £12.99 h/b)

Regular readers of these book pages will recall that throughout 2019 (aka ‘the before times’) Rob Doyle contributed a weekly column under the tag line ‘Old Favourites – A year of Rob Doyle’s best-loved books’, in which the acclaimed author of Here Are The Young Men, This is The Ritual and Threshold reread and wrote about some of the books which had meant most to him as formative influences. Well, here are all 52 entries collected under one roof, with added interpolated ‘memories and reflections on books, reading and writing, and the life through which they’ve flowed’ punctuating each entry, the latter born partly out of frustration with the original 340-word limit.

The result is a bracing smorgasbord of literary delights and oversharing, ranging from the oldest, first century B.C. Buddhist text Dhammapada (#33), to the most recently written, Emmanuel Carrère’s ‘post-fictional’ The Adversary (#35), by way of The Tibetan Book of the Dead (#11) and J.G. Ballard’s The Atrocity Exhibition (#47).

Not all of the following additions relate directly to the preceding text, or only tangentially so: Susan Sontag’s Against Interpretation (#18) is followed by a summary of the London addresses at which Doyle has resided. Regarding his reading habits, Doyle’s preference is for ‘non-fiction, including criticism, philosophy, aphorisms, history and books about what the internet is doing to me...autobiographical writing of all sorts…novels that don’t act like novels’, explaining that ‘If all that’s going on is yarn-spinning, with narrative proffered as an end in itself, I’ll sit there thinking, ‘What’s the point of this?’ Incidents, setting, character – these are well and good, but if there are no ideas charging through them I get restless.’ Perhaps unsurprisingly, Borges (#49) is nominated as ‘his century’s greatest writer.’

If this all sounds a little too heavy, be aware that humour is not least among the components in Doyle’s armoury. There is a riff on Schopenhauer’s (#5) ‘A precondition for reading good books is not reading bad ones: for life is short’; a couple of forays into self-criticism where he finds himself on ‘the wrong side of history’; a skewering of the culture of literary prizes; a hilarious ahistorical interview between RD and La Rochefoucauld (#45); and an extended analogy between the  Brazilian 1970 World Cup team and Latin American literature, in terms of ‘outrageous and ingenious embellishment.’

Because of his aesthetic judgements, and general worldview, Doyle is certainly the younger Irish male writer (younger than me, that is) with whom I feel most affinity. As he puts it in his after-the-fact rumination on Roberto Bolaño’s Antwerp (#2), in answer to the question ‘What is it we’re reading for?’: ‘…what I’m primarily in it for is friendship’, a fair proportion of which consists of like-mindedness, or as they say nowadays, empathy.   

First published in The Irish Times, 6/11/2021

Friday, 18 June 2021

The Night Always Comes by Willy Vlautin

The Night Always Comes

By Willy Vlautin

(Faber & Faber, £12.99stg original paperback)

Willy Vlautin’s protagonists have a harder time than most. Whether it’s the Flanagan brothers on the run in his 2006 debut The Motel Life, the vulnerable and abused Allison Johnson striking out in an attempt to make a new life for herself in 2008’s Northline, the always hungry 15-year-old orphan Charley Thompson’s struggle to escape his fate in 2010’s Lean On Pete, disabled Iraq war veteran Leroy Kervin and the overworked nurse and janitor at his group home, Pauline Hawkins and Freddie McCall, in 2014’s The Free, or lonely ranch hand-cum-aspirant boxer Horace Hopper in 2018’s Don’t Skip Out On Me, the world wasn’t exactly made for these marginalised characters.

  Now we have Lynette, a pastry chef/bartender/escort/part-time Community College accountancy student from Portland, Oregon, who is cast from a similarly self-sabotaging mould, although it can easily be argued that it is a mercilessly acquisitive societal system which keeps all of them in an endless cycle of hand-to-mouth alienation as much as it is the consequence of personal misfortune or individual psychology. 

  Subjectively, 30-year-old Lynette has been saddled with: Doreen, her tired, defeated mother; a long departed, building contractor, alcoholic father who she only ever sees when he comes to cadge free drinks from her at the bar; and Kenny, her developmentally challenged brother, two years her senior, for whom she is the chief caregiver. She also has a history of abuse and trauma at the hands of Doreen’s former boyfriend, Randy, which caused her to run away from home when she was sixteen – the dark memories of which manifested even in the midst of happiness with her beautiful ex-boyfriend Jack Burns. Now Doreen has reneged on a plan for them to get a mortgage to buy the house they rent (by buying an expensive car), which amid rising astronomical rents and lack of credit, Lynette sees as their last chance to stay in the city before their landlord sells. So she embarks on a nighttown odyssey, featuring various lowlifes, in order to call in some longstanding debts, which imbues the novel with the noirish urgency of a page-turning thriller.

  We may be suffering a housing crisis in this country, but the ideological disease of greed which sponsors it – where people no longer speak of ‘my house’, let alone ‘my home’, but instead ‘my property’, and the unattainability of home ownership and the rise in homelessness which follow the accumulation of ‘rental properties’ (Great Oxymorons of Our Time: Fair Rent), which are direct consequences of said property being promoted as a legitimate form of investment rather than as a roof over your head – is imported from that beacon of neo-liberal capitalism, the U.S.A.. Portland, like Dublin, due to incessant gentrification, is pushing its working class out to new estates in peripheral towns they’d never previously been to, or in all likelihood even heard of, resulting ultimately in the evisceration of a city. When Lynette says, “The whole city is starting to haunt me. All the new places, all the big new buildings, just remind me that I’m nothing, that I’m nobody”, we can relate, as we walk by yet another new hotel or student accommodation, juxtaposed with tent dwellers along the canals, in our own capital.

  Frank Kermode wrote of one of Vlautin’s avowed influences, Raymond Carver, ‘…(his) fiction is so spare in manner that it takes time before one realises how completely a whole culture and a whole moral condition is represented by even the most seemingly slight sketch.’ It has become redundant to say that Vlautin is more well-known as a singer/songwriter, formerly with that alt. country band Richmond Fontaine and now with exceptional country soul outfit The Delines, as his reputation as a novelist has now exceeded that achieved in his initial creative outlet. But he brings the same eye for detail and knack for the telling phrase already displayed in his song lyrics to his prose fiction, where one seemingly innocuous line can reveal so much. That said, Doreen’s extended monologues, particularly the concluding one with its wholesale rubbishing of the myth of the American Dream (“Isn’t that the American dream? Fuck over whoever is in your way and get what you want”), ranks among the most direct, even didactic, writing Vlautin has ever produced.  

  His staked-out territory remains the hardscrabble lives of America’s underclass (or squeezed middles), those lost or lonely or rootlessly marginalized blue-collar folks whom college-educated, upper middle-class Americans typically dismiss as ‘losers’ or ‘white trash’, as he continues to mine the terse, laconic, Hemingwayesque tradition in American letters, a seam whose subsequent practitioners include Carver, Denis Johnson and Nelson Algren.

  A late revelation from sympathetic co-worker Shirley about Doreen’s character reinforces our intuition that Lynette is better off cutting loose from her family and trying to make a life for herself, however painful it is for her to leave Kenny behind, even temporarily. It is not for nothing that Willy always signs his books ‘Good luck always’, in pointedly unironic contrast to that ominous admonition ‘May the odds be ever in your favor’. The odds are never in his characters’ favour (just as they never favour participants in The Hunger Games), but as she drives eastward out of town on the interstate at the conclusion of this harrowing tale, we are allowed to glimpse the hope that Lynette’s journey to the end of the night might just have led to a new dawn for her.

First published in The Irish Times, 12/06/2021.

Thursday, 13 May 2021

Seamus Deane R.I.P.

At U.C.D. in the '80s, I would learn more from him in 50 minutes than from everyone else in a year. His brilliant extemporary lectures were not rambling, but the verbal equivalent of improvisatory jazz, variations on a stated theme, weaving many strands until they arrived back where they started from in the finale, a couple of minutes before the tolling of the bell. But they could have gone on indefinitely. His books, equally, were something you broke your teeth on - you felt like more of a grown up after reading Celtic Revivals or A Short History of Irish Literature. Also, his novel Reading In The Dark is great, perhaps all the more so considering it is his only one. I admired him.

My favourite Seamus Deane story. Seamus strides into a lecture theatre and begins a disquisition on Middlemarch by George Eliot. After about ten minutes a student in the front row holds up a foolscap page with the letters T.S. written on it, in reference to the noted Missourian modernist. Realising his mistake, but not missing a beat, the Prof continues, “Which brings me to the influence of the novels of George Eliot on the poetry of T.S. Eliot.’

I find that I wrote a short review of Reading In The Dark on its publication in 1996, for Image magazine. Seamus' quip when I met him subsequently, after a reading: "You're marked for life."

Reading In The Dark

By Seamus Deane

(Jonathan Cape)

Firstly, an interest must be declared.  I am a former student of Seamus Deane’s, from when he was Professor of Modern English and American Literature at University College, Dublin.  He has since moved on to the University of Notre Dame.  This novel has been in gestation for almost as long as I have been aware of its author, and an extract appeared in Granta magazine as far back as 1986.  Literary gossip has it that familial objections to certain skeletons in the cupboard revealed in this highly autobiographical work were responsible for the prolonged delay.  So was it worth the wait?  The answer is a resounding ‘yes’.

    This is a Bildungsroman, a rites of passage novel which, in common with other recent Irish books in the same genre, Roddy Doyle’s Paddy Clarke Ha Ha Ha and Lia Mills’ Another Alice, follows the central character through their formative childhood and adolescent years.  But Reading In The Dark goes further, in being the first Irish novel since Joyce’s A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man to give us a glimpse into the childhood of a genius.

    This is a surprisingly accessible read, considering it comes from someone whose critical work is often very prolix.  The sectarian strife of Derry in the ‘40s and ‘50s is depicted well, but there is also a mythic quality present, provided by the nearby Sun-fort of Grianan, home of the warrior Fianna.  

    If one accepts William James’ distinction between the tough-minded and the tender-minded, Deane is very definitely tough, as is demonstrated by the scene in which the hero confronts his father by uprooting and destroying the roses in the backgarden, which shows his strength of character.        

    At the heart of the book is the family secret which the son knows, the mother learns, but the father remains ignorant of, and the consequent havoc this reeks in their interpersonal relationships.  Deane may be telling stories out of school, but at least he has the necessary ‘ice in the heart’ which Graham Greene said was required by all great writers.

First published in Image.