I’m almost sure there’s a scientific explanation for the phenomenon of two similar things happening in quick succession. Something tells me that the brain is probably much more likely to notice the second one having encountered the first.
But having said all that, it still struck me that in just two forays into Irish writing on Tuesday, in an Australian radio bookshow podcast on the one hand and an email newsletter for a Dublin publication on the other, the words “writer from Carrickfergus, Co Antrim” were front and centre.
Firstly, there was Adrian McKinty’s extended, 40-minute interview on the Books+ podcast on RN, Australia’s Radio National, recorded before a live and apparently enthralled audience at the Sydney Writers’ Festival last week. (Listen on Audioboo here. Full disclosure: I have not yet read any of Adrian McKinty’s books.)
McKinty, now 46 (according to the Wikipedia know-it-alls, anyway), was born and raised in Carrickfergus but has spent his entire adult life away from Ireland, firstly studying in the UK, then working in the United States where his writing career took off before moving to Melbourne, Australia seven years ago.
Part of a generation of acclaimed Irish crime writers, which includes Ken Bruen, Stuart Neville, Tana French and Declan Burke – McKinty is relentlessly self-confident. If you can stomach it – and it is such a virulent strain that it won’t be to everyone’s taste – then beneath the bravado he has lots of important things to say, not least about class issues and the disproportionate influence of upper middle class England on English literature.
He takes issue with AA Gill, in particular, for the Sunday Times reviewer’s poisonous critique of Morrissey’s Autobiography last year, a review which was awarded the Hatchet Job of the Year in February and which, says McKinty, was emblematic of the class divisions which afflict British literature.
I grew up as a working class boy in a working class council estate north of Belfast, and I was very aware of class even there … A hundred yards from my house there was people living in comfortable middle class detached houses with gardens. It was like a different world, that we didn’t even enter … We just felt grubby and out of place. And it was completely exacerbated for me when I went to Oxford, [alongside] some of the richest people in England – you really feel like this oik from the sticks, walking around with the second Earl of Cornwall!
When you read English fiction now, so much of it is written by people who come out of the upper middle class, it’s written by upper middle class people for upper middle class people. All you have to do is look at the last 20 years of the Booker Prize, winners and shortlists. That’s about 100 novels and if you do a little analysis you’ll find that 75-80% of the English ones all went to the same schools, the same universities. This is not something that we should be proud of as a culture.
So if you read between the lines of Adrian Gill’s review [of Morrissey], he’s basically saying, ‘How dare this self-involved narcissistic guttersnipe from Manchester write an entire book about his childhood. Why would we be interested in these Irish people living in 1950s Manchester? It’s not an interesting story for anyone.’
I also get furious when I see someone like Martin Amis trying to write working class dialogue. The way they write, the working class are always stupid, they’re always racist, they’ve no sense of irony, they’ve no sense of self. And I thought, that’s the way they see us. We’re the great unwashed that they never encounter at their private schools, their universities or their private clubs. The great unwashed who go to the pub, watch sports, go home and watch TV. People just beneath contempt. And that’s just not true – we can be racist and tedious, but we can also be ironic and funny and interesting.
A little later in the day and there came the welcome ping of another edition of the Dublin Review of Books arriving to my email inbox. In between lengthy tracts about the history of Luke Kelly and British folk music and city planning in Brazil, I found myself looking over a brief little extract from a recently published poetry collection by Brendan Cleary, entitled Face.
Cleary, like his one-time neighbour McKinty, also felt the need to leave home when he came of age:
My impulse to leave was more leaving behind that damaged society. I didn’t have any first hand damage done to me, but I feel hurt by it. I feel like it affected me, growing up in a war. Belfast was a difficult place full of racism, full of hatred.
Face, published late last year by Pighog Publishing in Brighton, is a collection dedicated to Brendan’s dearly departed brother Martin, whose nickname gives the collection its title.
I have so many memories of him. I wanted to bring across the sense of the joy of him being my brother. His voice, his mannerisms, the company we kept.
With other people that I’ve sadly lost, I don’t think I would like to have written about them. Knowing Faceman, I think he would have been proud to have been celebrated in poetry. He was very proud of me, in a quiet way, and that touches me very much.
In referencing Rusty the dog and Manchester United and a Saturday afternoon lost fiver on the football, the title poem, “Face”, extracted in DRB here, is both heart-rending in its representation of grief and humorous, life-affirming, vindicating.
Two Antrim writers, from either side of the so-called sectarian divide in the North, in their own characteristic ways prove that this working class life ain’t so bad after all.
Brendan Cleary’s collection, Face, is available from Pighog Publishing here. Selected Poems by Brendan Cleary is due to be published by Lagan Press this year.
Adrian McKinty’s new novel, The Sun is God, centring on a real-life crime in the South Pacific in 1906, is published by Serpent’s Tail in July.