In the past four weeks I've received invitations to three book launches and managed to attend two. The one I didn't get to, ironically, was for a book that included a contribution of my own; but as the launch took place in the City That Dare Not Speak Its Name, attendance was that bit more difficult.
The first launch was in west Belfast for Danny Morrison's All the Dead Voices. It's a collection of memories/essays, all linked by the theme of death. For some people, the title is enough they don't want to read depressing stuff. For others the author is enough they're not going to read a book by a former Sinn Féin publicist and IRA member (he writes of joining that organisation as a teenager). And then there are those, often Irish hacks working for English newspapers, who clearly haven't read the book but feel free to declare it a republican propaganda tract. Oh dear. That's exactly what it's not. The book traces Morrison's path from childhood through his days as an A-level student, to the early days of the Troubles, to tracing the World War Two experiences of his Canadian father-in-law. The recollections work most powerfully in encounters with the ordinary: the social pretensions of a local bar owner's wife, the whooping delight of a bike-ride in darkness down a Donegal hill, the pain of losing a younger sister to early death.
Reading the essays I kept thinking of George Orwell. Morrison doesn't write as well as Orwell who does? but like the English writer, he refuses to pretend that complex issues are simple and is always ready to re-evaluate early judgements in the light of fresh experience. Allied to this stubborn honesty is an energy which drives the prose along. The theme is loss and death; the abiding impression is of delight in life.
The second launch, two days after Danny Morrison's, was in the Linen Hall Library for Frank Costello's book The Irish Revolution and its Aftermath: Years of Revolt. This is one of these books that are humiliating and exhilarating, sometimes on the same page. I'm continually dismayed by how little I really know of the events and forces that brought Ireland to its present state, and I'm constantly rewarded by the insights and connections offered in Costello's fluent, readable prose. If you look at the cover, you'll see that historians such as Paul Bew and Eamon Phoenix have fallen on this scholarly work with cries of joy, and it does offer much to professional historians and academics. But there's a lot here too for those of us less scholarly, starting with the book's opening sentences, where the writer makes clear that what the north has endured over the last three decades can be traced directly to events and decisions made in the early decades of the last century. So much for Thatcher's shrill insistence that our Troubles were nothing more than a mass outbreak of criminality. But then, like Thatcher, most British prime ministers are baffled by Ireland. Costello quotes an exasperated Churchill, speaking less than a decade after the signing of the 1921 Anglo-Irish Treaty: "How is it that the great English political parties are shaken to their foundations and even shattered in almost every generation by contact with Irish affairs? How is it that she [Ireland] has forced generation after generation to stop the whole traffic of the British Empire to debate her domestic affairs?" How indeed. The book is crammed with such questions and possible answers, starting in pre-1916 days and ending in recent times.
The third book comes from the fertile literary loins of Derryman Sean McMahon and it's called The Derry Anthology. McMahon brings together a staggering range of writing about Derry city, from its earliest days up to the present. There's fiction, poetry, letters, travel writing; views on Derry from everyone, visitor and native, William Makepeace Thackeray to Nell McCafferty. My own little contribution is at the end of the section 'A Schooling', gasping for breath under Ms McCafferty. No pictures, but the dust cover shows men on a horse and cart, deliver-ing the sound system to the Palace Cinema in Shipquay Street in 1929.
I expect you've already bought and gift-wrapped that floor-poundingly hilarious, heart-achingly beautiful novel The Garden of Eden All Over Again by Watt Sissneim...You have? Well done. Now, if you've still people to get for, make a point of adding at least one of the three books above to your Christmas shopping list. Someone somewhere will be very glad you did.