A Place in the Sun

James Moran

Mr Lynch’s Holiday, by Catherine O’Flynn, Viking, 265 pp, €21.50, ISBN: 978-0670918560

Few people remember the BBC’s Eldorado with any fondness. Launched – with much fanfare – in 1992, to fill a high-profile gap left in the evening schedule by Terry Wogan’s popular chat show, the new soap, which featured the lives of a British and European expat community living in a fictional town on the Costa del Sol was designed to have something of the vigour and sun-kissed allure of Neighbours.

The programme was not, however, a success. It was shelved after only a year, and remains to this day a name to make television producers shudder. Indeed the BBC has remained largely allergic ever since to the idea of launching an original soap. When the brilliant dance group DV8 produced their widely praised performance of Strange Fish in 1992 it was little wonder that they presented one of the most irritating and lonely of their characters as an Eldorado fan. Fifteen years after the soap was broadcast, the Daily Telegraph reported that the lavishly created set –ten miles northeast of Marbella – lay largely abandoned, covered with beer cans and graffiti, its swimming pool full of algae and ducks.

Why did Eldorado fail so spectacularly? For sure, there were the superficial problems of amateurish acting and cliched plotlines, but many a soap has had these and yet continued to thrive. Perhaps a more fundamental drawback was that viewers in the UK struggled to sympathise with the sweating expats being portrayed onscreen. British soap operas have traditionally focused on the regional life of English urban centres, which are often portrayed with cartoonish nostalgia (from the supposedly working class London of EastEnders, to the cobblestone vision of Manchester in Coronation Street or the Birmingham motel-life of Crossroads). Eldorado ignored that tradition, and included some non-English actors and an entirely non-English setting, yet utterly failed to provide a meaningful kind of cosmopolitan engagement. Contemporary debates in university departments of social anthropology perhaps illuminated something of the problem. In the 1990s, some academics praised jet-setting “transnationals”, whose frequent travel allowed the sharing of “structures of meaning carried by social networks”. Such globetrotters could be distinguished from those lamentable home-birds who represented “more circumscribed territorial cultures”. But other academics quite rightly attacked this viewpoint, pointing out its obvious class implications. To put it most bluntly, a retired executive from Surrey who can afford to live in a gated community among other wealthy Brits on the Costa del Sol is likely to have a rather limited engagement with those in the wider Spanish community. A more meaningful version of cosmopolitanism might come, not from the seats in business class, but from those who are compelled to travel and to mix with those from outside their home community: working class migrants, forced settlers, and refugees. Perhaps the Eldorado millions could have been better spent on a meaningful collaboration with such people, rather than on a kind of EastEnders imperialism.

Such competing versions of the migrant experience lie at the heart of Catherine O’Flynn’s compelling new novel, Mr Lynch’s Holiday. The book explores the relationship between the thirtysomething character of Eamonn Lynch, who has recently chosen to move from his English home to the new Spanish pueblo of Lomaverde, and Eamonn’s father, who felt compelled to leave Ireland for England in the mid-twentieth century in order to find work, and has been based ever since in the city of Birmingham.

The situation at the start of the novel is this: Eamonn and his long-term partner, Laura, have decided to leave Birmingham, becoming the third investors in Lomaverde, stumping up a large deposit and taking out a mortgage of €120,000. “We got in early,” declares Eamonn, “Before the rush.” Except that when the novel begins we are in 2008 and the rush has not materialised: instead the economy has crashed and the bubble has burst. Eamonn and Laura have been left in a half-cocked building site that will never be finished. The only other residents are a smattering of demoralised expats caught in the same trap, and who can now see their investment crumbling into rubble around. The water in the swimming pool has been replaced by debris. The grass remains uncut. Vandals are at the gates. To make matters worse, the residents discover that the entire development may have been built upon a mass grave from the civil war. As Eamonn lapses into a kind of depressed snarkiness, Laura decides to leave him and return to the UK. Outside, even the local stray cats look like they are getting out.

In spite of their misfortunes, Eamonn and his fellow residents largely fail to gain the reader’s sympathy. Why is it that we don’t like them? Partly, I think, because Mr Lynch’s Holiday toys with the same cross-cultural and class dynamics that the BBC encountered with Eldorado. As one of O’Flynn’s characters comments on the investors in Lomaverde, “They have not emigrated from places with no work or money to a place with jobs and opportunities. No, they have left comfortable lives in search of somewhere even better. It’s a kind of greed, don’t you think?” O’Flynn depicts the lives of the residents with sharp humour, as Claire Kilroy recently did in the fine novel The Devil I Know, showing the schadenfreude that can be found when international property investors lose money (Kilroy imagines one investor deliciously raving: “Money doesn’t just disappear into thin air. Someone has to have it. Some fucker has our money. That foreign prick has our money.”)

Into O’Flynn’s Spanish setting wanders Eamonn’s father, Dermot, a widower who has decided to take a trip to visit his son. This is Dermot’s first ever holiday, indeed the first time he has been outside Ireland and the UK. Eamonn worries that his father might utter something gauche and racist, but Dermot is bewildered by this worry, pointing out that, whereas Eamonn never appears to speak with anyone who isn’t white, Dermot has spent his whole career working as a Birmingham bus driver alongside colleagues who are “West Indian, some from Pakistan, Bangladesh, Poland, Ireland, a few Brummies”. If using the bus was reportedly a symbol of failure for Margaret Thatcher, for Dermot it provides a wonderful multicultural meeting-place, full of Asian and Afro-Caribbean passengers who have left him with a set of surprising tastes, sympathies, and perspectives. In Lomaverde, he notes, buses do not run.

The arrival of Dermot connects the situation in Spain with other, earlier landscapes of ruin, providing a link between the ghost estates of Ireland, the bombsites of Britain and Spain’s ciudades fantasmas. Most notably, Mr Lynch’s Holiday allows O’Flynn to deal with issues of Irish history and identity in a way that she has not directly attempted in her two earlier novels. Irishness was certainly a kind of latent presence in the earlier works: O’Flynn set her first books in Birmingham – a city where, at the high point in the 1960s, 16.5 per cent of newborn children had at least one parent who had been born in Ireland. In her breakthrough novel of 2007, What Was Lost, she told the story of Kate Meaney, who attends St Joseph’s School, and is taught by Mrs Finnegan, as well as surrounded by fellow pupils with names like Noel Brennan, Paddy Hurley and Mark McGrath. O’Flynn’s second novel, The News Where You Are (2010) revolved around the destruction of a fictional version of Birmingham Central Library, a building that in real life had been built by the Irish employees of Sir Robert McAlpine in the early 1970s. But only now, with her third novel, does O’Flynn bring Irishness from the background into the limelight.

Her two protagonists in Mr Lynch’s Holiday, Dermot and Eamonn, each have vexed relationships with Ireland and with notions of where “home” might be. Eamonn was born and raised in England, but knows that he does not feel fully English: indeed, he never uses that word to describe himself and has left England precisely because of his dissatisfaction with the social codes he finds there. But when he is asked if he is Irish he denies that too. One acquaintance labels him a “self-hating Irishman”, while another declares, “So your mother is Irish and your father is Irish? I think Ireland is your country”, but Eamonn can only respond with a definitive No. In Spain, he now lives sheltered away from most forms of human contact and community, trying (and failing with wonderfully comic awfulness) to work as an online tutor and retreating into the womb-like safety of his bedroom. His father is bewildered by this: why, he wonders, does his son make so little effort to learn Spanish? Why doesn’t Eamonn speak to people face-to-face rather than via the computer?

At one point Eamonn’s own sense of identity is unpacked at greater length:

He had grown up in England, he had a Birmingham accent, he was so palpably different to them [his Irish-born parents] that it seemed preposterous to him to describe himself as Irish. But to call himself English seemed no better […] As a boy, cocooned in the small world of his primary school and parish, where nearly everyone he met was first- or second-generation Irish, his Irishness was largely invisible to him.

Having been raised with this “invisible” sense of national identity, Eamonn is left feeling bemused by the turbo-charged Paddywhackery of the Celtic Tiger period, seeing in it a kind of collective delusion:

In his first year at university he lived in halls with a boy called Kev Callaghan from Bolton. In their second term, while others were discovering their sexuality, Kev came out as an Irishman. Overnight he sprouted Sean O’Casey badges and Brendan Behan quotes, he started playing the Dubliners and Planxty loudly each evening in his room, and calling himself Caoimhín […] What began as Caoimhín’s own personal identity crisis seemed to become more generalized in the years that followed. Eamonn returned from university to a Birmingham filled with pretend-Irish pubs. Being Irish had somehow become a mainstream leisure pursuit, like eating Thai food and taking salsa classes.

Here O’Flynn is touching upon an idea that was explored most brilliantly by Shaw more than a century ago. In John Bull’s Other Island (1904), he presented the character of Tim Haffigan, who spouts begorras and top o the mornins but is quickly exposed as being “not an Irishman at all”. Although he comes from Irish stock, he is from Glasgow and has learned much of his Irish manner from the music hall. Shaw’s drama makes it quite clear that being born to an Irish father does not make the Glaswegian Haffigan into an Irishman. Similarly, in the later play Back to Methuselah (1921) Shaw describes the “Irish” of the future, who are all “devoted Irishmen, not one of whom had ever seen Ireland”. In Methuselah, these people are described as travelling all around the world, initially being seen as “the most interesting race on earth”, but eventually they are viewed as a “pestilence” or at best “intolerable bores”.

Like Shaw, O’Flynn examines some of the paradoxes of national identity felt by the second generation. But her book also probes the sense of belonging felt by the original Irish-born migrants who travelled to Britain. The character of Dermot is the moral heart of the story, its most compelling and beautifully drawn character. Unlike his son, he is happy to be labelled as Irish. However, he has little desire to conform to the stereotype of being a “proper Paddy”, and expresses a strong and well-considered aversion to Catholicism. He also feels utterly ambivalent about ever returning to the land of his birth, telling one woman that he does not regard himself as an immigrant and that “I miss all kinds of things, but I’m not sure I’d ever find them by moving back.” Hence Dermot realises that, even if he were to reappear in Ireland, he would no longer see the family, friends, and flotsam and jetsam of the mid-twentieth century that he once enjoyed there. He talks more about Birmingham than about any specific Irish place, and knows that a return to his origins would not necessarily be an act of recovery but an expression of loss.

That is not to say that he has found things easy or straightforward in his adopted English homeland. Towards the end of the novel, he bonds with Eamonn over the struggles faced by the migrant. If Eamonn is finding it difficult to start a new life in Spain then Dermot understands: he himself experienced a torrid time at first in Birmingham, and speaks about the dark days that followed the IRA bombings of the city during the 1970s. Mr Lynch’s Holiday is not the first time the Birmingham bombings have been depicted in fiction. Most notably, Jonathan Coe’s The Rotter’s Club (2001) and Granada Television’s Who Bombed Birmingham? (1990) push us up close to the white heat of the violence of that era. But O’Flynn does something quite different, and more nuanced, as we encounter the horror of the Troubles only through Dermot’s memories, which are nearly three and a half decades old. We thus avoid entering into the political blame game, and instead focus upon the long-term impact of such violence upon family and community life.

Here I must confess that, after I had agreed to write this review for the drb, I made the disconcerting and rather flattering discovery that Mr Lynch’s Holiday had drawn upon my own study, Irish Birmingham: A History, and that O’Flynn had included a kind and generous acknowledgment on the novel’s final page. So what does fiction add? Why not just read the history books? After all, the Irish diaspora’s complex feelings of belonging have been analysed, with considerable insight, in recent years by academic writers including Aidan Arrowsmith, Tony Murray, and Sean Campbell. Aside from a sunny setting and some new plotlines, is O’Flynn really adding anything new?

Well, yes. What makes O’Flynn’s work so fascinating, and so worth exploring, is her talent for characterisation. During the last few years, she has shown a genuine skill in describing, as the title of her first novel put it, “what was lost”. She repeatedly imagines the ghosts that haunt the decisions and actions of individuals, and her new novel consistently focuses upon the routes not taken, the love affairs not embarked upon, the children not born and raised, the letters not read – and, most significantly of all, the family members no longer seen or heard. In her novel those counterfactuals always remain present, and they stay in the characters’ minds as a source of worry, pleasure, and surprise. Thus, in this novel which is ostensibly about the fairly discrete issue of one family’s migratory progress, O’Flynn connects with a set of global issues, and illuminates the fact that the particular greetings and partings of our day-to-day lives – the births and deaths, the marriages and funerals – are all part of a similar pattern of migration, meeting, and mourning that make up what it is to be human. O’Flynn is often described simply as a comic writer, and much of Mr Lynch’s Holiday is indeed very funny, but much of it is also very sad and moving.

Her trademark style, which involves moving deftly between the comic and the ghostly, is deployed to full effect in Mr Lynch’s Holiday. My only quibble would be that the ending does perhaps wrap up the plot lines a little too neatly (perhaps there is an overeagerness in the final pages to reverse the story arc of What Was Lost, the only point where the novel runs the risk of cliche). Nevertheless, the novel is a fine piece of writing, managing to be both consistently amusing and often profound. If sometimes there is a danger that we become blase about the fact of emigration, O’Flynn asks us to think again, and to consider the daily joys and tragedies that the whole process might bring. The novel suggests that while we might all be searching for Yeats’s “acre of green grass”, we should hold tight to the people we love along the way.
23/09/2013

James Moran is head of drama at the University of Nottingham. His book on Sean O’Casey will be published this month by Methuen, and he is co-editor (with Neal Alexander) of the volume Regional Modernisms, which will be published next month by Edinburgh University Press.

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