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Pól Ó Lorcáin
Paul Larkin

Chroniclers are privileged to enter where they list, to come and go through keyholes, to ride upon the wind, to overcome in their soarings up and down, all obstacles of distance, time and place.
Charles Dickens - Barnaby Rudge, Chapter The Ninth

The invisible lives and philosophies of workers and immigrants (Guildhall Press set to publish Paul Larkin’s debut novel)

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Below, I provide an extract from my forthcoming novel, but before I do that, I beg readers’ forbearance whilst I give some background to the genesis of the book.

(I publish this essay on the anniversary day of the death of my grandmother - Nana Larkin - Sarah Larkin nee Laverty, who was truly a saint and truly a Manchester Irish saint.)

Where prose is concerned, my great passion is for, mostly, 19th Century writers like Herman Melville, Dostoevsky, the two Scandinavian Henriks - Ibsen and Pontoppidan, then James 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 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, prostitutes and peasants. White collar criminals and ghouls also appear alongside extremely lumpen elements.

This is my world also. It is a world I understand and empathise with – though it might sometimes petrify me as much as resurrect me. Dostoevsky’s “Demons” still terrifies me and I’ve read it five times. Is there any greater study of human deviousness and amorality than the nightmare psychological and political realm that Dostoevsky depicts in Demons?; a book that all too presciently foreshadows the rise of Stalin’s automaton Central Committee and secret police.

Herman Melville’s Moby Dick (the Great Whale), on the other hand, mostly enthrals me. I can still smell the creosote soaked timber, hear the strain of the masts in the hanging gale, imprint Queequeg’s tattoos in my mind and believe that I can begin to read the secrets of human existence upon the body of this regal, deceptively humble South Sea Islander. The madness and hubris of Ahab’s whale obsession also.

Replace the whale with the lunacy of greed and status accumulation in our own times and you can see that, just like Ahab’s dark mania, the world will be dragged down to destruction, if this headlong rush to embrace avarice and self obsession is not halted in some way. It sometimes seems to me that the whole world is the Pequod whaling vessel, ploughing ever closer to the awesome, annihilating Leviathan.

Compare the dramatic canvas above with the insipid gruel that is much of modern literature. Modern prose rarely moves me to any great emotions. It leaves me cold. In truth, hostile. I don’t find real people in the round of their existence within these grubby, cynical pages. Often the stories are about what is allegedly going on in the heads of the characters – failed relationships, or a lack of same, failed sex, failed gender, emotional crises, revolving door mind therapy, nobody can be trusted, all families are neurotic, most have suffered some form of abuse and there are no high ideals. It is the land that Post-Freudians begat. One in which lower class workers and peasants, if they appear at all, are given no dignity – often used as mere ciphers to be trodden upon or lampooned. Never do they think big, or existentially.

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Beware the underclass - the abiding message of a corrupt elite

I think that it is partly for this reason that Owen Jones’s non-fiction book Chavs struck such a chord with so many people. In essence, Jones portrays a world where the possession of obscene wealth and the ability to exploit and degrade people worldwide is perversed into being a good thing, whilst workers and peasants are portrayed as an underclass, or just simply vanished in a literary world where everything is relative - anything can mean anything as long as you have the cash. And of course, because working class people are locked out of the golden citadel that is writing and publishing, we are fed a constant diet of inward looking middle class angst instead of seeing ourselves within its pages.

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William Burroughs – the brilliant but neurotic and excluding face of 20th century art

This modern day self obsession and narcissism is brilliantly portrayed in a Guardian article on William Burroughs by author Will Self - see El Hombre invisible

http://www.theguardian.com/books/2014/feb/01/william-burroughs-junky-will-self/print

It is true that the context of Will Self’s article is a rereading of a text about drug use as a chosen way of life and the glorification of such a choice as depicted in a book like Burroughs’ Junkie, but Will Self does extrapolate to a wider point about the malaise of unbelief and self inflicted avant-garde despair in late 20th century society. Many writers in other words are not serious about society - they are only serious about themselves.

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The Sea Wolf mesmerised this author with its harsh conditions at sea and hard fought philosophical arguments

Of course there are modern prose writers who enjoy somewhere near the same stature as the classics above. If we draw a line say from James Joyce, DH Lawrence, John Steinbeck, Michael Ondaatje, Cormac McCarthy and pay homage to these fantastic modern female writers - Patricia Highsmith, Annie Proulx, Marilynne Robinson we see that they too imbue even their meanest, most negative characters with an aura of drama and emotional energy – where you feel that just as in life, anything can happen. These authors don’t skim. They PLUNGE into existence and the lives of people. They take life and writing and their characters seriously. It is serious fiction, even when it’s funny. Jane Austen, though writing, it is true, about a rarefied landed gentry culture, manages to be equally serious about human nature and also very funny. The opposite of the post modernist rule, which tell us that there are no common values and the author must not be, is not, present in the work, only the flash of his or her genius is imparted there on the page, to be then reinterpreted whatever way people want.

To put this another way, and to paraphrase Manchester Irish motormouth and exquisite song writer “Morrissey”, where modern literature is concerned – “Hang the Author – because the mental trauma they constantly perpetrate says nothing to me about my life.”

Now in giving news of the impending publication of my debut novel, I should stress that I am by no means placing myself in the august company of the above named 19th Century authors, nor their more modern inheritors. I cannot even say that I approach that lesser breed of modern novelist whom I describe so disparagingly – they at the very least deserve the respect of having built a body of literary work.

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Be all the above as it may, in the Spring of this year, the well known and respected Irish publisher Guildhall Press of Derry will publish my debut novel – “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 partly inspired by my own career in Den Danske Handelsflåde (the Danish Merchant Marine) but as with all fiction, I learned 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. Also, many stories that I’d overheard or knew from my childhood friends and their families, or during my time at sea, began to amazingly 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.

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An “Irish Plastic” public procession in the author’s parish of St. Sebastian’s – 1937. This school was of almost 100% Irish extraction

I should mention that where my general research into the Manchester Irish is concerned, I am indebted to author Michael Herbert and his superb book on the history of radical politics amongst the Irish in Manchester - The Wearing of the Green: A Political History of the Irish in Manchester. Anyone interested in the lot of Irish immigrants and their history of struggle would love this book, which can be bought at the "Pride of Manchester" website here - http://www.prideofmanchester.com/mancirish/books.htm

The title of the novel refers to that strange habit (mainly a Dublin habit) amongst the Irish 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. A painful process that tens of thousands of new Irish emigrants are now discovering in the new economically enforced exodus from Ireland’s shores.

However this “Plastic” issue is not the only theme encountered in the book. In fact, 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 waits in lawless 1970s Nigeria.

Without giving too much of the novel away, these, often hard bitten and rough Danish men 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 the 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.

Big hard men taking an interest in food and cuisine? Demanding high culinary standards. Sniffing the cheeses and liver paste 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.

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In The Skin Of a Lion – a mesmerising book about workers and immigrants

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 (again I am not comparing myself with this non pareil author), 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 captures immigrants in the same way.

Part of the point of my book is to assert a truth that was taken away from the Manchester Irish and that is that 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 pyschologically 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.


The Hidden Nature of Irish Plastic – Paul Larkin


EIBHLÍN



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 its 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.


Ends

Guildhall Press can be contacted here:


Guildhall Press
Unit 15, Ráth Mór Business Park
Bligh's Lane
Derry
Northern Ireland
BT48 0LZ

T: (028) 7136 4413
F: (028) 7137 2979

For general enquiries contact:
info[at]ghpress.com

For editorial queries contact:
Paul Hippsley, Managing Editor -paul[at]ghpress.com
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Title: The invisible lives and philosophies of workers and immigrants (Guildhall Press set to publish Paul Larkin’s debut novel)
Date posted: 07 Feb '14 - 15:22
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