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Between Two Rooms

Matthew Parkinson-Bennett

London Irish Fictions: Narrative, Diaspora and Identity, by Tony Murray, Liverpool University Press, 222 pp, £19.99, ISBN: 978-1781380154
A Struggle for Fame, by Charlotte Riddell, Tramp Press, 407 pp, €16, ISBN: 978-0992817046

A promotional video for the Irish sitcom Moone Boy features English actor Steve Coogan doing an impression of a rural Irishman. Shy, shifty, eyes downcast. The character explains that one day he discovered he could do a good impression of an upper-class Englishman – and then launches into it. An Englishman playing an Irishman playing an Englishman.

Coogan (creator of the fictional broadcaster Alan Partridge) was born in Lancashire to a mother from Mayo and an English-born father of Irish descent (an Irish-Englishman playing an Englishman playing an Irishman playing an Englishman?) Tony Murray’s London Irish Fictions, a study of Irish writing and writers in London since World War II, is full of accounts of playful identity-shifting on the part of both Irish migrants and their descendants. Murray describes Brendan Behan, the Irishman who was more Irish than the Irish themselves, in London alternating between an exaggerated Irish brogue and a Cockney accent. According to the recollection of JP Donleavy, Murray explains, the latter accent was adopted “in order to ‘fool them into thinking he wasn’t the Irishman they thought he was’ but ‘only imitating one’. As an Irishman playing a Cockney playing an Irishman.”

The experience of Irish emigrants has been copiously expressed in folk song: the Irishman reflects nostalgically on his homeland, laments the hardship and opposition he has encountered abroad, and regrets that he cannot go back. Murray warns us against accepting this as the definitive literary account. For one thing, the voice of the song is typically male, but it has always been the case that the majority of Irish emigrants are female. And for many – particularly the better educated – moving abroad has offered freedom and opportunity which was lacking at home. We often describe the emigrant’s situation as one of exile; Murray suggests a different word: escape.

Escape from what? Unemployment and lack of opportunity, certainly, as well as the confining influences of family, community and the church. But another factor has always motivated people to leave home: the desire to remake one’s identity in a place where one is unknown. However, once abroad, one finds that one has a national identity to deal with. In the case of writers seeking creative freedom, the matter is further complicated by the legacy of previous generations of Irish authors abroad, and the stereotype of the “writer in exile”.

Robert McLiam Wilson, as a young Irish author living in London, felt oppressed by the ghosts of previous Irish writers in the city, and the absurdity of seeking authenticity by walking in the footsteps of a man like Behan, who toyed with different personae until, in Donleavy’s description, he “stretch[ed] his point of identity to absurdity”. The novel McLiam Wilson created from this experience, Ripley Bogle, is “a resolutely self-reflexive account” in which the eponymous hero “becomes the protagonist of his own literary aspirations”. Unable to escape the Irish literary heritage, McLiam Wilson produced a character whose “identity is collapsed into a kaleidoscope of allusions to characters from novels” by Irish authors.

Murray makes much of the parallels between London Irish authors’ personal biographies and their fictional creations. One case is Donall Mac Amhlaigh, whose novel Schnitzer O’Shea is “a self-parody of the author’s autobiography”. Mac Amhlaigh channels something of the spirit of Flann O’Brien: Schnitzer, an Irish navvy in London, “sustains a brain haemorrhage and, as a result, acquires a facility for producing torrents of Gaelic poetry”. Subsequently his gift earns him an uncomfortable level of media attention, and as a result he “finds that he is in danger of having his identity configured by narratives beyond his control”. This comes to a head when he is falsely accused of being an IRA bomber and imprisoned. Schnitzer is not too bothered by this turn of events, however: he has finally escaped the forces in English society which oppressed him and found the privacy he needs to write his poetry.

An interesting chapter is dedicated to autobiographical writing by second-generation Irish in London. John Lydon, aka Johnny Rotten of the Sex Pistols, is not a man we are accustomed to thinking of as Irish – but his autobiography, Rotten: No Irish, No Blacks, No Dogs describes his childhood as the son of poor Irish immigrants.

Murray cites the surprising statistic that in the 2001 British census, only an estimated seven to eight per cent of second-generation Irish identified themselves as “Irish”. British culture is accustomed to thinking of race in terms of skin colour, and so the children of Irish parents can blend in more easily than, for example, Indian or Jamaican second-generation immigrants. Nonetheless, the following, quoted from The Falling Angels: An Irish Romance by John Walsh, shows the author as a young man becoming aware of the irreconcilability of his two identities as he struggles to entertain in one room, a local English clergyman, and in another, an Irish patient of his doctor father:

I stood in the hall between two rooms that were far more than rooms. They were two worlds that could never be brought together. One was a correct and formal, well-mannered and tidy sort of place, where people glided about discussing books and floral displays and classical music, and made slightly obscure little jokes and laughed as if they were coughing. The other was a shockingly informal, pungent, hairy, large-booted, shouty-voiced class of establishment where the people never looked right sitting on chairs, their conversation made no sense and they seemed to come alive only in a crowd.

Doubtless this book will be welcomed by scholars of modern Irish literature. Readers with a more casual interest in the topic will find much of interest, but this is a decidedly academic work, with all that that implies about style and readability.

In A Struggle for Fame – a nineteenth century novel by Irish-born novelist Charlotte Riddell, lately republished by Tramp Press – Bernard Kelly, a young Irishman travelling by train to London to follow his literary aspirations, is quizzed by a fellow traveller:

“And how did you leave Ireland?”
“By the Belfast boat,” answered Mr Kelly, taking the question literally. He was deeply offended; the stranger’s English accent seemed in itself an insult, and that he could possibly from his own speech be known for an Irishman assumed the form of a grievance too great to endure.

Bernard, who has left Ireland “because he was heartily tired of everything in the country – turf, poor gentry, bacon, and the very few chances it offered to a ‘clever fellow like himself’”, is on a mission to remake himself in the anonymity of London. To his chagrin, he cannot avoid staying with Matt Donagh, a family friend and a preposterous pseud who believes – erroneously – that he has managed to shed his Irishness and mocks Bernard’s accent. The stay with Donagh is extended after Bernard burns his golden bridge shortly after arriving in London: travelling by bus to visit a rich relative he hopes will employ him, Bernard spots a man dressed in the ridiculous garb of the Victorian wealthy. He offends the man – and entertains his fellow passengers – by addressing him familiarly, and asking, “How’s Maria?” Baffled and outraged, the man exits the bus – they are shortly reacquainted, when Bernard learns that the man he mocked is in fact the very relation he was travelling to meet.

Nonetheless, Bernard gets on in London and establishes a successful career as a columnist and general man of letters, largely by way of playing down his Irishness, abusing the goodwill of others, cannily playing the publishing industry to his advantage and mimicking the style of successful authors. But late in his career he sets his sights on becoming a successful novelist – a mission in which he is not to be successful.

That, apparently, requires an altogether different kind of character. A Struggle for Fame exhibits the sort of morality we expect from a Victorian novel – honesty, integrity (“[The world] honours a man true and faithful enough to say from what he has risen and how!”), fidelity, diligence and frugality (“a life beautiful in its self-abnegation”) are the cardinal virtues. The best that the narrator can say of shrewd, identity-shifting and opportunistic Bernard is: “I feel I like Bernard Kelly, for at least no word of his ever lost a woman an hour of her honest work, or a man his ’bus fare through any even implied promise he failed to keep.”

Bernard’s fellow migrant and occasional acquaintance Glenarva (Glen for short) Westley, a character utterly herself and incapable of being otherwise, manages to become an accomplished novelist without the need to shed her Irishness or cut away her past identity. She realises the dream of literary success through years of hard graft and much pounding of pavements with her manuscripts, and via many rejection letters.

Glen’s modest aim is to defy readers’ expectations by “mak[ing] her people lifelike […] talking as men and women do talk in real life, and not as they so often talk in books”. At the peak of her career she causes a stir in literary circles by achieving this brave, if minor artistic breakthrough: “Glen had done a very daring thing – taken a very doubtful course in making love merely occupy the same position in her story that it does apparently in the lives of most of those with whom we come in contact.”

Glen is apparently based on Riddell herself, and the above could be a description of the aesthetic of this novel: resolutely anti-Romantic. Glenarva’s future husband arrives without fanfare and their love blossoms in a quiet, dignified, passionless manner. Riddell’s dedication to the real is such that fictional conceits such as suspense are absent from the novel. Nor are the fictions her character produces allowed to puncture the realism – this is a book about writers but with only the scantest detail about the content of their writing, which leaves the reader feeling a little unsatisfied.

Much of the action takes place in the offices of publishing houses, and Riddell describes a period of change in that industry, including the decline of the three-volume novel (of which A Struggle for Fame is one). Readers with experience of the modern publishing world will be entertained by Riddell’s account: “Save to the initiated – nay, it will be better to amend the phrase, and say even to the initiated – a manuscript is a very fearful and terrible thing to contemplate. Within its dark folds lurk unknown horrors.” London publisher Mr Vassett is a man who makes his living from the output of living writers, but holds “a notion not uncommon among those who prefer to seek their mental food among the past of literature, rather than browse the light productions of the present, that no more great books would ever be written.”

A new novel about Irish migrants in London in the mid-nineteenth century would be likely to contain lots of details about the Famine, providing the historical backdrop to the action; from today’s perspective, Riddell’s work contains few mentions of the contemporary situation in Ireland, but for one interesting passage. The conversation previously mentioned, between Bernard and an Englishman on a train, continues:

“What is the position of the country? What is the state of popular feeling?”
“About as usual,” was the reply. “The people are not satisfied; they never have been, and they never will be.”
“Dear me, that is very serious.”
“I don’t see why they should,” went on Mr Kelly argumentatively. “Perhaps if the English lived on potatoes and salt they might not be satisfied either.”
“But why do the Irish live on potatoes and salt?” […]
“Because they can’t get anything else; at least, now they can only get meal and salt, since the blight, you know. […] It is of no use tilling the soil; there is no sun in Ireland to ripen the crops if they were planted. Nothing does well in the country but grass.”
“Then it ought to be converted into a great dairy farm.”
“That would require money.”
“But that could be got –”
“We’d be very much obliged to you if you’d tell us where.”
“Capitalists are always glad to find a good investment for their money.”
“The last place on Earth they will send it is to Ireland.”
“Isn’t that the fault of the Irish?”

And so on.

A Struggle for Fame is the first of Tramp Press’s planned “Recovered Voices” series, an interesting project which Irish readers must hope will reveal some forgotten gems. As with all of the press’s books so far, this edition is a handsome object. It would have benefited, however, from a more careful proof-read. The text seems to have been arrived at by scanning the pages of an older edition and using text-recognition software and a large portion of what must originally have been commas have here become full stops, a problem that is disruptive of the reading experience.

1/6/2015

Matthew Parkinson-Bennett lives in Dublin and works as an editor.

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