(Colmcille Press set to publish Paul Larkin’s latest novel)
In the spring/summer period of this year, the well-known and respected Irish publisher Colmcille Press of Derry will publish The Hidden Nature of Irish Plastic. Below, there is an extract from this novel, which follows the exploits of a young Manchester Irish teenager, Peter Baker, who joins the Danish Merchant Navy. The story is obviously partly inspired by my own career in Den Danske Handelsflåde (the Danish Merchant Marine) but as with all fiction, I learned – once again – that the characters took on lives of their own and are sometimes unpredictable even to this author. Nor did I really know what was going to happen at the end, which takes place in a Dublin TV studio – part of Empire Television. So the novel forms a prequel to my Good Friday Sting hexalogy, which has Éilis from the Flats as its opening volume. Also, many stories that I’d overheard or knew from my childhood friends and their families, or during my time at sea, began to bleed into the canvas in a way I never expected. They are not part of my direct life experience but seemed to have been waiting in a part of my writer’s subconscious for a chance to appear on my stage. I love this process of fiction osmosis and the metamorphosis it engenders within the author’s work. An extraordinary feeling of being sure what you want to write but also being on a wing and a prayer.
Where prose is concerned, and as many of you know by now, my great passion is, mostly, for 19th Century writers (though many of them have published works well into the 20th Century). I mean writers like Herman Melville, Dostoevsky, the two Scandinavian ‘Henriks’ – Ibsen and Pontoppidan, then Joseph Conrad, Thomas Hardy, Dickens and Jack London. Some readers, especially given the title of this essay, may be surprised that I also include Jane Austen and George Elliot (Mary Ann Evans) in that great literary canon.
My 19th century literary preferences are partly due to the fact that the profound authors I list above situate their dramas in what I see and feel as a real world – a world inhabited not just by upper and middle class professionals but workers, sailors, soldiers, office workers, prostitutes and peasants. White collar criminals and ghouls also appear alongside extremely lumpen elements. Dostoevsky’s hang for this ‘Underworld’ attracted much protest from his contemporaries, who viewed the upper classes and landowners as the only groups with fully fledged lives to tell. Dostoevsky was insistent that real art, spirituality and profundity lay within the seething mass of social poverty and unrest – social grief he called it. I feel the same.
It is not the case that modernist writers like Virginia Woolf and that long stretch of detached authors who came after her are not good (often brilliant) writers, but they always leave me with the feeling of disengagement. Actually that I am disempowered as a reader and engaged citizen. As if these writers prefer ennui, to real life and its struggles. To quote a recent very perceptive review of Sally Rooney’s latest novel and the way its characters are offered to the reader – “we are not invited to engage with their twists of art, thought and logic.” See Rozalind Dineen’s review of Beautiful World, Where Are You – ‘Times Literary Supplement’. 29/102021.
In the world I know about, people have rows about how the world can be made better, with many disagreeing and saying there is no point. Nothing can be changed. Oh yes it can. (Serious pantomime.) There are also displays of skilled work practices, or say, the drudge of work and how that is alleviated. It is also the world of working class men, a class of people we rarely see in novels these days, except as thugs and gangsters. Then there is also the portrayal of how people live – or are forced to live – and how their dreams are squeezed and flattened. This is the world I understand and empathise with and there are always people, characters, who actively seek to change things. Make them better for everybody. It is true that an author like Thomas Hardy often stands back from events and says: ‘this is life and the overwhelming mantle of circumstance and fate’, but he does so by way of a graphic portrayal of the world of work and, where the rights of women are concerned, he is clearly showing us society’s hypocrisy and the exploitative culture of a male dominated society.
In other words, big social questions are always being asked by my favourite authors and there is always a literary-political tension in their pages.
To be fair to modernism, it has produced works that engage with a swirl of ideas and allow us into the dialectic of argument; those “twists of art and logic”, amongst their characters; or say in the author’s third voice – evoking thoughts of characters or their mood but not with their direct speech. D H Lawrence, for example, was very much rooted in community – for good and ill – and even James Joyce for all his clever multiple narratives and literary/mythological referencing was very rooted in the lives of ‘commoners’ – their affinities and discord. In fact, I have just translated a Danish work of high modernism – At the Seaside (Ved havet in the Danish) by the extraordinary author, Peter Seeberg, whose Muse, in my view, inspired him to come up with a way to suffuse social polemic into the very fabric of a modernist novel, which on the surface drifts from one scene to the next without any apparent overall ‘argument’ as context. It is only when you finish the novel that you realise you have been challenged to decide what you think and perhaps change your life. Or perhaps become reconciled with life, mundane and profound by turns as it is. (Seeberg was very much influenced by Nietzsche.)
With his 1978 At the Seaside, Peter Seeberg literally broke new ground and explored new literary waters. The novel has never been translated into English prior to my translation.
With my coming book, The Hidden Nature of Irish Plastic, I believe that via the prism of a young man’s return to Ireland after a detour in the merchant navy – and half a century of most of his family having been marooned in England – I have created a work that manages to be both a revelation of an artist’s inspiration at a particular moment in time (that sudden poetic inspiration à la modernism), but also one that engages with its readers and by extension with society (polemical discourse à la Dickens or Dostoevsky, Jack London also). Every artist has a gift and I am clear that my own is to bring the realm of ideas down to earth. Or perhaps bring the Salt of the Earth to lofty ideas. To explain philosophy and spirituality to people even more normal than Sally Rooney’s. (In defence of Sally Rooney, I think her defiant message that she will write whatever it occurs to her to write about was brilliant. Her book Normal People was an important Zeitgeist moment. I believe also that she will finally produce works that take her beyond her apparent despairing fatalism as to whether anything can ever change, or anyway those characters who exist in that realm will come to her.)
The title of the novel – Irish Plastic – refers to that strange habit (mainly a Dublin habit, I personally have found) amongst the Ireland born of calling their Irish cousins born outside of Ireland – ‘Plastics’. In some ways, a light hearted issue. But also a vital (and often wounding) issue for the millions of Irish immigrants worldwide who were forced to leave Ireland due to drastic economic and/or political problems. They also sent a vast amount of aid home to Ireland, not to mention help in the revolution, issues and tensions explored in Irish Plastic. A painful process, therefore, that tens of thousands of new Irish emigrants have now experienced in the new economically enforced exodus from Ireland’s shores. And many of these new burgeoning ‘Plastics’ face hostility in a Brexit Britain that now has a virulent strain of racism in its veins, not least against the Irish.
However this “Plastic” issue is not the only theme encountered in the novel. Readers only really encounter this bone of Irish contention towards the end of the narrative. What really drives the story forward is Peter Baker’s discoveries whilst working with Danish sailors and also the fact of working with men generally. There is also the danger that awaits in lawless 1970s Nigeria and the companionship he finds there in the winding creeks of the Niger delta. Descendants of slaves, just as he is a slave of sorts. The love this boy feels for them, even to his own surprise.
Without giving too much of the novel away, these, often hard bitten and rough Danish seamen take the new galley boy under their collective wing and unbeknownst to this young man at the time, they decide to expand his wardrobe, feed him proper food, school him in the ways of the deck and nurse him through seasickness – or rather throw him out into a force 9 gale for the cure of same in traditional Viking fashion. They also fist fight sometimes, bicker over prostitutes or football and rib the new non drinking recruit unmercifully. Such are the ways of men sometimes. This is not an exercise in glorification.
But big hard men taking an interest in food and cuisine? Demanding high culinary standards. Sniffing the cheeses and liver pâté as a quality test. Discussing ways to cook things. Discussing poverty. The reasons for such poverty in England. Discussing democracy in England, Ireland and Denmark. All this was a culture shock to the young boy.
Obviously many Danes will be interested in these characters and this story. The immigrant Irish also. But why do we not meet more of this species in fiction and what is called the literary world? Michael Ondaatje aside, in his superb In The Skin of a Lion, what author nowadays moves within the world of the male working classes? The love and joy in skilled labour. Of learning new things amongst men. Pleasure in the simple grim satisfaction in hard graft also – despite the dangers and economic exploitation.
That’s not to say that girls/females can’t learn and work these things. of course they can. But there is a thing called a company of men, or Band of Brothers to quote the Bard, a company that has its own dynamic. A world that is almost invisible in modern western literature. Nor do we often meet immigrants as they are portrayed by Ondaatje – warm, loving, skilled at their work, exploited, cast aside when worn out. Only, perhaps, the superb philosopher and thinker John Berger RIP captures immigrants in the same way.
Part of the point of The Hidden Nature of Irish Plastic is to assert a truth that was taken away from the Manchester Irish and that is: – we were as immigrant as any black family coming from the Caribbean, and that our base sensibilities, fears and elations are utterly Irish. It would have helped psychologically perhaps if we too had been black.
In an extract from the chapter Eibhlín below, Peter Baker sits in a café in Dublin, trying to work up the courage to enrol for an Irish language course across the street, but the panic of it drives him to his notebook where he begins to write furiously about an important event in his life at sea. There is a bobcat truck in one of the ship’s holds that needs to be hoisted ashore and Peter Baker had been previously warned that he would be asked to perform this task by himself at some point.
He sits and looks at the building from the vantage point of a café across the road. He orders scrambled eggs with toast and a coffee but an attack of nerves gets to him and he cannot force the eggs down his clamped throat. After all the things that had happened to him at sea … Gael Linn it said above the door. The building looked dark and forbidding, claustrophobic. Turned away from the street. He takes out his notebook and begins frantically to write.
There is that dusk that is no dusk at all, the light falling so quickly in Scandinavia like the sky is suddenly invaded by indigos. This is it and there is only the now of it before the light disappears. A cormorant dipped by the ship – wham!
A few of the dockers were up on top. Big men. Who says I am only eighteen! I am only eighteen. But so what? Difficult manoeuvre yes. I will not forget this day. I know it. I never have. God was in the sky like he was giving it all to me – the whole world. Was this not my ship? Hadn’t I cleaned every hook, caressed every mound, greased every thick wire and mounted that mast so good, so good, especially when it was a bit crazy outside. When you go up, right up, you get really so close to the edge when it is blowing. The mast dancing this side and that side, wanting to kiss the whites of the waves so you hug it, because it’s the only thing that is keeping you away from the waves boy, so hug that baby as she heaves and dips. This is living. This is working. The body wracked and straining. Wash her. Ride her as she moves through the blast. My mast. My winch. My derricks and cranes. The glory in the dignity of my labours through the elements and the deliverance.
Laurids had predicted it, but the boatswain wondered whether I could do it? Can I do it! Jump up that ladder, take the guard off and grasp that joystick looking straight out over Svendborg harbour. Hold that jib so tenderly. Yank her up too forcefully and she’ll swing wild as a hung man on a gibbet. But not quite enough power, and she’ll surge into the sidewalls as she’s lifted. Lean over the railing, peer into the dark deep. Blond heads. Thumbs up. She’s on. Wave of the hand, pull her away and the dockers scatter like rats. Now she is airborne. So hold her. Caught like a thief just above the floor. The pleasure of the scrutiny of men. Some edge nearer to it. So I lift her and they laugh. Like the spider in his lair. All legs and webbing in tandem. The bobcat snared. There she goes straight up. Now I’m motoring. Rein in the slack but easing off as she comes up. Easy now. Then swing her across with the side jib. Swing steady. Sense the ship give, subside slightly beneath you and four big rubber wheels grace the quayside simultaneously.
No claps. No cheers. They are milling together down on the quay. Their backs turned to me. One man jumps into the cat and brrms it into life. I stand at the ship’s rail. Flat. He looks up. Starts the engine ready to drive her away and I turn to go back inside to my utter devastation.
‘Hej du!’ – Hey there!, he shouts. ‘Det var bra gjort’ – that was well done. I am eighteen. He is a big Norwegian. Probably forty three. He guns the cat into gear and disappears into a wide blue wink. Wherever you are in the world my Norwegian comrade, I salute you