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Tag: Brendan Behan

Writers On Writers

“To read Patrick White is to discover an extra taste bud.”
Nicholas Shakespeare

“The whole of English Lit at the moment is being written by Anthony Burgess. He reviews all new books except those by himself, and these latter include such jeux d’esprit as A Shorter Finnegan’s Wake and so on….He must be a kind of Batman of contemporary letters. I hope he doesn’t take to poetry.”
Philip Larkin

“James’ repressions and evasions are many, varied and exhausting.”
Camille Paglia

“By saying Simone Weil’s life was both comic and terrible I am not trying to reduce it, but mean to be paying her the highest tribute I can, short of calling her a saint, which I don’t believe she was.”
Flannery O’Connor

“I had always had grave doubts about Eliot’s taste and, indeed, intelligence.”
Anthony Burgess

“Céline’s personal and artistic honesty are of a piece. If he made mistakes, grievous mistakes, in his life, as a novelist he remained true to himself and to his art.”
John Banville

“Behind every Chesterton sentence there was someone painting with words, and it seemed to me that at the end of any particularly good sentence or any perfectly-put paradox, you could hear the author, somewhere behind the scenes, giggling with delight.”
Neil Gaiman

“No one, it seems to me, can hope to equal Augustine. Who, nowadays, could hope to equal one who, in my judgment, was the greatest in an age fertile in great minds.”
Petrarch

“In regard to absurdism, Samuel Beckett is sometimes considered to be the epitome of the postmodern artist … In fact, he is the aesthetic reductio ad absurdum of absurdism: no longer whistling in the dark, after waiting for Godot, he is trying to be radically silent, wordless in the dark.”
William Desmond

“If the English hoard words like misers, the Irish spend them like sailors; and Brendan Behan … sends language out on a swaggering spree, ribald, flushed and spoiling for a fight.”
Kenneth Tynan

Sources: The Daily Telegraph, New Statesman, Wikiquote

Brendan Behan: A drinker with a writing problem

There’s a lot to be said for a man who could drink all of his compatriots under the table and still walk a straight line, namely that he had to be Brendan Behan. I say that with the greatest admiration which I have had for Behan ever since reading Borstal Boy. I learned a lot about Behan vicariously through his notoriety and J.P Donleavy, who once characterised his fellow Irishman by saying: “Behan always wore his shirt open to the navel; he never had shoelaces and the tongues of his shoes would always hang out… He was tremendous company…And a very, very interesting and profound man. He was a great raconteur and entertained everyone. Although he was shrewd about fame, most people assume that recognition changed Behan, that he became a great bubbling over, a very talkative, almost loudmouthed crazy man because of success. But he was always like that. He would walk into a village and start to sing….He would carry on conversations everywhere and with everybody as he walked through a street…That was Behan.” But there was also another Behan; a Behan who had an incredible literary gift demonstrated impeccably in After the Wake, a collection of Behan’s writings published by O’Brien Press. The book, with a superb introduction by Peter Fallon, contains some previously unpublished material and boasts a cavalcade of 21 pieces, some fictional, some autobiographical, charting the political, social and cultural history of Irish life through the eyes of one of her most talented but troubled sons.

With typical whiplash flippancy Brendan Behan once noted that the key defining quality of the Irish is “that that they have a wonderful lack of respect for everything and everybody”. This could not have been more true of Behan himself, as both his life and his work was marked by a distinctive tone of sedition. After Behan died in 1964 from sclerosis of the liver, Flann O’Brien wrote his obituary in The Irish Times, describing his one-time drinking pal as “more a player than a playwright, or, to use a Dublin saying, ‘He was as good as a play’.” Behan was indeed a hell of a showman, and a master deipnosophist, but he was also a remarkable writer with a knack for storytelling, an ear for dialogue, rambunctious wit and a dash of comic mayhem surging through his veins. He joined Fianna Boys (an Irish Republican Youth Organisation) at the age of 14, but was discharged for disorderly conduct under the influence of drink. Behan, nevertheless, carried his Republican politics like a tocsin and spent time in prison for a number of offences, including plotting with the IRA to bomb the Liverpool docks and an attempt to kill two gardaí. It was in jail that he honed his writing skills and gathered up material for his canon. Initially Behan’s literary reputation was built on the back of innovative work, but gradually his writing became secondary to the drinking which killed him aged 41. He died in Meath hospital after reportedly telling a nun looking after him: “Ah, bless you, Sister, may all your sons be bishops.”

Behan began his literary career by contributing patriotic prose and verses to Fianna, The Voice of Ireland, Wolfe Tone Weekly and The United Irishman between 1937-9. But his name became a household one after the publication of Borstal Boy in 1958; an autobiographical account of Behan’s arrest and imprisonment (1939 to 1943) for his involvement with the IRA. After the Wake contains a precursor to the autobiography entitled I Became a Borstal Boy initially published in The Bell in 1942. Written in emblematic Behan fashion with a quaint and loquacious medley of Irish and British slang, it alternates between the stark adrenaline-infused reality of confinement and the delicate and tender nuances of friendship informed, subconsciously, by the axiom that “no man is an island, entire of its own”. I Became a Borstal Boy recounts Behan’s sentencing to “three years’ Borstal detention” in a British correctional facility, and a brief description of another fellow who’d “battered in” his wife. With a sense of poignancy, Behan muses: “He spoke with such evident sincerity that when I read later an account of his execution I wondered if he has been guilty after all.” The piece immediately after, called “The Execution”, was first published in 1978 by Liffey Press, and follows three men as they take a snitch out far beyond the city and to his death, the narrator reasoning that if those who  “give away dumps on us” are overlooked “there’d soon be no respect for the army.” In retrospect, and with a dash of sympathy, the narrator says, “the poor devil wouldn’t have run even if we had let him,” and then with an unexpected sense of subdued altruism: “We put him in the grave. He felt quite warm. I told the lads to be careful not to get any bloodstains on their clothes. We began to shovel in earth. I moved a big stone off my shovel – it might smash in his face.” Behan’s writing has a ubiquitous quality and a remarkable vicissitude as it jumps seamlessly from the coarse to the doleful, thereby deliquescing convention to find a voice entirely its own.

The title story, After the Wake, charts Behan’s friendship with a married couple. The husband, a beautiful blonde man “always a little cultured, proud and happy to be so broad-minded”, she [the dying wife] always full of “adolescent pride in the freedom of her married state to drink a bottle of stout and talk about anything with her husband and husband’s friend.” It caused a bit of a stir upon initial publication in the Parisian magazine Points in 1950 for its portrayal of male friendship and unceremonious allusions to homosexuality. The story stands apart from all the others, whatever the provenance, due to its muted tone and the masterly balance of dramatic tension; for its illuminations of certain perdurable human truths and the ability of people to find solace in one another irrespective of circumstance. Behan concludes the story with a resigned sense of cynicism: “I fancied her face looking up from the open coffin on the Americans who, having imported wakes from us, invented morticians themselves.” Some people have dismissed After the Wake on account of moral turpitude and confusion over Behan’s sexuality. But, according to Behan’s wife Beatrice, the semi-destitute Behan was writing pornographic prose in Paris after the war for money rather than to add to his autobiographical catalogue. Either way, the story is marvellous.

My favourite, however, has to be The Confirmation Suit first published in The Standard in 1953. It is near impossible to reduce a reader to tears, but the story had me lachrymose; the coruscating, hardy prose describing an episode from Behan’s childhood is both tender and provocative, and relays the making of his Confirmation garb by his grandmother’s neighbour. He recalls his grandmother and Miss McCann, who proudly made the garments, crying as they saw him “in the velvet suit, with its small lapels and big buttons” and later celebrating with a “drink to the strength of my having grown to be a big fellow in the space of 12 years.” Embarrassed, Behan wears his topcoat during the ceremony, recollecting afterward how every Sunday from thereon in “my mother fought over the suit. She said I was a liar and a hypocrite, putting it on for a few minutes every week, and running into Miss McCann’s and out again, letting her think I wore it every week-end.” Only later, following the death of Miss McCann who loved him more than any kid she knew, does he realise what it meant to her to have fashioned the ceremonious regalia, concluding: “After the funeral, I left my topcoat in the carriage and got out and walked in the spills of rain after her coffin. People said I would get my end, but I went on till we reached the graveside, and stood in my Confirmation suit drenched to the skin. I thought this was the least I could do.” One of the most distinguishable qualities of Behan’s work is its ability to evoke unsolicited emotion and he does do throughout. Similarly, in the first, and formerly unpublished, story of the collection called The Last of Mrs Murphy which records Behan’s memories of an elderly neighbour who, on his fifth birthday, took him to “Jimmy the Sports” for his first “dandy glass of porter” and a bit of “white snuff”. But the story is about more than that; it is about the collective consciousness of a community closely knitted together trough fallen skies, madness, old age, marriage, death and beyond. When Mrs Murphy is taken to the “Refuge of the Dying” by Behan’s grandmother, Lizzie MacCann and Long Byrne, the three neighbours conclude that: “It’s not the kind of place I’d like to leave a neighbour or a neighbour’s child.” The scene ends with a little ardent banter between a nurse and Byrne, when the former says, sniffing at Mrs Murphy, “I get a distinct smell of whiskey”, to which Byrne replies: “How well you’d know it from the smell of gin, rum or brandy… Ah well I suppose practice makes perfect.”

The other previously unpublished piece of the collection is The Catacombs, a part of an unfinished novel, which commences with the following: “There was a party to celebrate Deirdre’s return from her abortion in Bristol” for which Behan “put up the money for the trip and the readies to pay the quack”. The story gets both more absurd and funny, as Behan relays his interaction with Deirdre’s Catalonian-Irish family, her “screwy old bitch” mother, Deirdre’s brother and fellow IRA sympathiser Ciaran, and uncle Hymie who mostly sits “in the corner blind drunk as he has been for sixty years” and infects the world with his poisonous yet comical persiflage. The seemingly copacetic state of affairs quickly develops into garboil as Behan gets embroiled in a forbidden dalliance, is accused of selling “Jesus Christ for three-quarters of a pound of beef,” and nicks a tenner while making his exodus from the pandemonium before heading down to the pub. The Catacombs is a brilliant piece of prose, as are most in the collection; not least the last of the longer pieces entitled A Woman of No Standing. First published in Envoy in 1950, and then some years later as That Woman in Creation the story is an all too human portrait of a deceased man’s “other woman” and her appearance at his funeral. On his death bed in “Pigeon House sanatorium” the man in question is absolved from all his sins, with the priest concluding: “It’s not when you die, but how you die that matters”. As for the other woman, “no one saw her to know what she thought of it, but the priest gave strict orders that she wasn’t to be let near the funeral”. The wronged wife forgives her husband “whatever lingering scald her heart might hold” only to be confronted by the other woman who, “bent in haggard prayer, dressed in the cast off hat and coat of some flahoo”, passes the widow by with “her head down and a pale hunted look in her eyes”. A Woman of No Standing has a wonderful human quality to it, a gift which Behan had in abundance and more than any of his contemporaries.

The remainder 14 pieces under the blanket title of The Same Again, Please were published in The Irish Press between 1954-6. Amusing, impulsive, perceptive, funny, they range in content and tone and style, as the opening of each attests. The following are some of my favourites, starting with: The Turnip Boat which commences with a somewhat arbitrary statement: “For some reason a friend of mine wanted to ship turnips from Six Counties port.” Another one called Toronto Spinster Frowned opens with an even more peculiar thought: “Myself and Winston Churchill were once upon a time in the same organisation; he as an Elder Brother of Trinity House and I as a painter for the Irish Lights.” Then there’s a piece called Red Jam Roll, the Dancer which sees Behan recollecting something with great wordplay: “I am reminded of boxing matters by an encounter I had this day with a former opponent of mine, pugilistically speaking. I do not mean our encounter this day was a pugilistic one, but it was pugilitstically speaking we last spoke.” And Three Celtic Pillars of Charity which deems: “This life is full of disappointments.” That may be true generally speaking, it is not so when it come to Behan. While there’s always a fear that a writer one admires but has read very little of might, in the end, turn out to be a disappointment, After the Wake is an Emerald Isle gem and much like the man himself a heady mixture of “hell and heaven and despair and presumption and hope”.

J. P Donleavy: Black humorist par excellence with a “ritzy accent” and “slamming talent” of Sugar Ray

A good several years ago I wrote to J.P Donleavy in a bout of frenzied, semi-maniacal admiration incited by the reading of The Ginger Man. Nothing came of it, but it felt quite cathartic to despatch a letter to a living writer I admire. Now, having just finished reading A Fairy Tale of New York, I feel like writing to Donleavy again. Or better yet, voyaging to Mullingar to visit him, Taittinger and Bournville chocolates (I hear he’s partial to both) in tow. One day, perhaps.

Born in Brooklyn, New York, in 1926, to Irish-American Protestant parents, Donleavy was raised in the Bronx, attended the Naval Academy Preparatory School and, after a stint with the US Navy during World War II, applied and was accepted to Trinity College Dublin – due mainly, he later said, to a combination of good luck and the administration’s ignorance. Donleavy arrived at Trinity in 1946 and quickly became a patron of all the illustrious drinking dens, where he met Patrick Kavanagh, John Ryan and Brendan Behan. Recalling his first encounter with Behan Donleavy once said: “He had just been released from prison then. He was in the IRA and I was surrounded by his cronies. As the afternoon’s joke, the two of us were introduced to each other as writers.” Both men of temper with fists-at-the ready, the two of them were squaring off to have a fight outside the pub within five minutes. It was the beginning of a tumultuous but enduring friendship. Behan was, in fact, after breaking into Donleavy’s cottage, the first person to read the manuscript of The Ginger Man. He scribbled intermittently throughout the bulk, interpolating it with little comments such as: “Leave this in,” “Take this out”, before concluding, with great prescience, that the “book will go around the world.” And so it did, several times over.

Brendan Behan died in 1964 from alcohol and hard-living. Donleavy, who once seemed to be heading down the same torturous path, is now 85 and ensconced in an anchoretic, prudent lifestyle within a crumbling Georgian edifice in viridescent Ireland. A tall, graceful, beguiling and uncommonly handsome man, with a hoary lattice of beard, he still looks every sartorial inch the noble literary acolyte renowned for elegantly tailored three-piece suits and handmade brogues. Years ago, when asked about writing, Donleavy simply said, “I knew I had to write.” Describing his own youthful arrogance as “gross stupidity,” he added, “I had incredible nerve. What happens, I think, with a feverish desire is that the imagination will supply for that desire an impetus so that it can be carried out.” I guess he’s living proof of his own prophesy. Later, speaking of New York as a source of inspiration Donleavy proffered: “There are tiny little incidents that happen in New York, that take five seconds to happen…I’ll take that incident and make it into a real story.” One assumes that that’s exactly how A Fairy Tale of New York materialised, but its verve, and its bawdy, riotous spirit has me convinced otherwise – there must have been some thought in it, some meditation in its brilliance.

The story opens when “Cornelius Treacle Christian of the Brooklyn Treacles and the Bronx Christians” returns to the city “on a monstrous boatload of sorrow” after a decade of education abroad; with one dead wife, who kicked-it during the voyage, one suitcase and barely one penny to his name. “Full of dying” and pining for Ireland, the grey skies and woollen blankets which “smelled like sheep”, Cornelius begins to settle into his new life, a new world of soot and baby cockroaches, “great silent weeping streams of people” and city streets bustling with “blacksmiths, bakers and candlestick makers of a hundred years ago.” Penniless and in debt to the funeral home for his wife’s burial, Cornelius gets offered a job by the sprightly funeral parlour owner, Mr Clarance Vine, who seems to be convinced that Cornelius has “the culture and the elegance” required for the hallowed vocation. Nothing could be further from the truth, yet undeterred and sure of his apprentice’s aptitude, Clarance is keen to impart the wisdom he has acquired: “To love your work is happiness”; “This isn’t death. All this is life”; “sorrow demands a perfect temperature”. All this while Cornelius absentmindedly ponders how best to move his “balls to the left side” of his trouser leg, restrain an “engorged perpendicularity” while talking to the female bereaved, or grab a “tasty handful” of some unsuspecting woman’s ass.

Our protagonist is a roistering dandy, with a “ritzy accent”, living the life of a mendicant with “rotted out drawers”. He picks up stray whores, confabulates, coaxes the homeless out of pennies, seduces wives, fornicates with every skirt in sight, regards most people as “unconscionable, wretched fuckpigs”, and has a hook with the “slamming talent” of Sugar Ray. He is, to paraphrase his landlady, an interloper, a pervert, and a hapless “mortician spreading pestilence” in the town of New York – but one of a complex morality and considerable charm. His mind wanders like an inebriated wasp from the iniquitous (when he contemplates asking women, “Awfully politely. May I make use of your service entrance madam. Deliver you a catastrophic fuck. From your local supplier”) to the solemn (when he reminisces about his past: “I had a spouse. To build a life with. In the same bed through debts and worried nights. Shoulder to Shoulder. Till hers battered, caved in…Come to my country I said. To the cranberries and pumpkins and fourth of July parades. Come even to the barren shores where I used to run a mile on the hard sandy soil…now I’ve got to lie at night here between these sleepless sheets without you.”)

The narrative skips from the didactic and haughty to histrionic and ribald, and this linguistic tactic plays a vital role in the plot as the clarity of diction mingles with playful rhetoric, illustrating Cornelius’ despicable yet endearingly tragic persona. Donleavy displaces his protagonist in a foreign culture, dramatising the tawdriness and lack of soul in a modern world, as Cornelius declares: “I don’t belong in this country…This city is against me.”  New York and its flagrantly flawed social ethos is portrayed with topographical realism, which airs the city’s dirty laundry with a characteristically rebarbative tone. Donleavy sneers with impeccable finesse at modern-day America, which is characterised by “big envy, big lust, big greed”, and is a place that’s “sad and bitter”, “a land of lies…vulgarity, obscenity and money. A country of sick hearts.” The character ensemble in A Fairy Tale of New York is chaotically heterogeneous and consists of personages who seem to teeter on the edge, most notably Cornelius’ love interest, the pale-limbed Park Avenue blonde by the name of Fanny Sourpuss, who is obsessed with his “marvellous twitching cock” and constantly pleads for him to “undertake her”. But Cornelius has ideas of his own. Here he is weighing up his options: “Marry and be rich. Stay free and be poor” while “She gets richer. And I get a worn cock. Till death do you part. And your prick falls off in heaven.”

A Fairy Tale of New York is a rigadoon of rascality, a libidinous comic dirge of disappointment, tragedy and the feeling of being lost in a city swallowed by urbanity. Death is an all-pervasive topic and an unusually comic one enriched with the Irish tradition of the macabre. Donleavy has a knack for satirising both the quotidian dross and the sacerdotal as the various characters impart their (hilarious) little apothegms: “God is what your desires are. They should be plenty ass and plenty money,” or “The majority of homicides in this town are acts of justice…ninety nine per cent of the time it’s what people get for being rude,” and “If you eat good, crap good, work good, nothing can kill you except long life.” Donleavy is a black humourist par excellence with an unparalleled ability to lampoon modern life to unruly result, weaving it with witty, lusty, profane, concupiscent and achingly honest discourse. His monologues and dialogues contain a battery of paratactic devices, omitted or isolated words and phrases, reinforcing the ever-shifting voice, tense and subject matter, and making A Fairy Tale of New York a wild and roaring ride through America’s mid-century landscape. And like one of Cornelius’ mischievous dalliances, it feels jolly and sad, “good and bad all at once”.

Keith Waterhouse: Half-pissed half–the-time, but very prolific

Keith Waterhouse, known universally for penning the tale of Billy Liar, was a prolific novelist, playwright, satirist and Fleet Street tout.  His substantial body of work bears testament to a man for whom writing was not only a vocation but also something of a compulsion. Renowned for his sybaritic streak, he drank like a true Yorkshire man: liberally. And yet Waterhouse never failed to follow his lifelong practice of writing every day. I chanced upon a new copy of Palace Pier, one of Waterhouse’s later efforts, in an Oxfam in Hammersmith, and set about reading it over my morning tea. A couple of pages in and I was transported into the “seafaring town” of Brighton, its “pocket size pubs with the interior of drinking barracks”, its formerly glorious but now decrepit Pier, and the protagonist Chris Duffy’s matutinal routine, which commenced every day, without deviation, with “bran flakes and vodka… in lieu of coffee”.

Chris Duffy is a 61 year “out-of-the-frame” writer, who repines over his lack of success and the “basterdising bastards” who deemed his second novel a poor ersatz of the first. Rejected by every agent in London and told by his former publisher that one cannot “go on writing the same old novel over and over again” he wards off indigence by selling bibelots on North Lane market.  Desperate to get back into the writing game, Duffy will do anything, because he hasn’t a reputation to lose. He is a conflux of diffidence and arrogance, of substance and blatherskite, but above all, he’s “half-pissed, half–the-time” and only “half certain” about his literary capabilities and “that’s how books fail to get written.”

He resides, along with three other oddball denizens of Brighton, in a Victorian house owned by a “veteran pub lady” and Duffy’s part-time paramour called Maureen, a fellow bric-a-brac peddler and “lazy sod” Mickey, and a laggard elderly dear by the name of Olive, who “afflicted with stream-of-consciousness diarrhoea” lives in the garret “collecting waste paper and going slightly mad”. The characters are all as bonkers as each other, and propel the plot forward in bouts of interaction with the story’s egregious, yet likable, protagonist. Blackpool born Duffy arrived there after a fruitless pursuit of his estranged wife, Maggs, whom he married “pissed” and was “pissed when she left” him. Recollecting his past, Duffy’s seemingly care-free attitude begins to dwindle as he wonders “in which cloakroom” of which brackish seaside town he’d left his life and talent. But the introspection is short-lived as there are numerous “bijou pubs” to visit and even more drinks to be had until a state of such oblivion which gives “amnesia a bad name”.

The story moves across Brighton, from Theatre Royal, to the Metropole to Palace Pier and to and through numerous drinking holes dotted around the town centre. We learn about Duffy’s world through the nebula of an extended hangover. It is a world of bitter disappointment, offended pride and egotistical drive for glory because he never cared for the “dosh” anyway. The third person narrative is multi-eloquent, interspersed with the occasional vulgarity; it overflows with literary references and allusions to men of letters such as Kingsley Amis, Brendan Behan, Anthony Burgess, Ernest Hemingway and Oscar Wilde. Desperate to join the circle of literary greats, Duffy compares himself, with pomp, to world-renowned authors while detailing his raiment and concludes to look and be like one of them. But his frustration mounts as he staggers-along among the glittering panoply of the wealthy and the accomplished and the no-good upstarts gathered at the Brighton Literary Festival. By chance, and in a cruel twist of fate, he is asked to stand-in for an absentee speaker and interview a “corduroy clad bearded bugger” about his latest work. He tries to blag it but without much success, and asking the audience whether they have questions, receives a curt reply: “I have a question, sir. Where do I go to get my money back?”

Allusions to Duffy’s writing are sparse, apart from that of one novel, several decades ago, and pesky letters to the Guardian, but he himself confesses living by a slacker’s philosophy that dictates “last things last.” And almost everything comes last.  This is where the novel’s moment of peripeteia arrives, when Duffy, undergoing “a touch of alcoholic Alzheimer’s” his embonpoint ego deflated, resolves to find and “purloin an entire manuscript” written by one of his heroes, the “vastly undeterred” Patrick Hamilton. He learns of the unpublished manuscript through Maureen, and thus goes in pursuit of it, from there on in the book manifests into a farcical tableau – of stilt-walkers, fire eaters, estranged wives, snobby literati, broken reproduction vases, unfulfilled dreams and all sorts of adventures exclusive to a seaside town –   and ends on a somewhat sombre note exactly where it begins, on Palace Pier, where Duffy sits motionless watching hundreds of pages of the manuscript dance and dip “in the gale like wartime leaflets ejected from an enemy bomber”. 

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