JJJanuary to June 2015

5 June 2015 ~ A History of Loneliness by John Boyne

This is the first work I have read by John Boyne, a name that until recently meant nothing to me. After this book, my eyes will be drawn to anything linked to him. If he had not already established himself as an author worthy of an international audience and a place in literary history through one or more of his previous twelve novels, A History of Loneliness puts him up there with the greats.


The subject of the book in the scale of clerical sexual abuse in Ireland, the part the Church played in covering up paedophilia, the devastating impact on children and, for those who didn’t commit suicide at an early age, their adult lives. A large part of the success of the book is the creation of the narrator, Father Odran Yates and the way he tells his story.

I found Odran a more or less reliable source of information. The suspicion that he might be attempting to gloss over his faults was countered by incidents he recalled that showed him as weak and awkward. One never quite knows the extent to which he chose to be a priest or was pushed by his mother.


What comes through strongly is how a culture deferential to the church and its clergy enabled almost systematic abuse of power and the hierarchy’s unwillingness to admit a proportion of its pastors could turn into sexual wolves. Bishops left flocks in the hands of priests who had been moved from other parishes after complaints about their predatory behaviour.

Part of the success of the narration is the style, which is not obviously literary other than the chapters jumping from one decade to another; the first five are set in 2001, 2006, 1964, 1980 and 1972 respectively. The chronology makes the story more complicated but also more rewarding as the reader gains more timely insights into what experiences influenced characters at key moments in their lives.

I sensed that Odran, despite his education, is in many ways a simple man who is slow too outgrow the naivety of his upbringing and being cloistered.   His language is plain and he often repeats Irish idioms when reporting speech, as if his first class degree and time spent in Rome have made him more appreciative of Irish English. His own use of idiom adds to the idea elsewhere conveyed in the novel that he doesn’t want to stand out.

Odran is not an abuser, appears to be a virgin and for a time his story suggests that he had more success than many seminarians and priests in setting aside his libido. However, in Rome during his final year before ordination, he becomes obsessed with a waitress and, later in life, describes his behaviour with her as that of a stalker. The passion blights his career in the Church though only a handful of people are aware of it. His year in Rome helps the story in two ways. We know this priest is not immune to sexual feelings and knows that they can become destructive obsessions. He also has insights into the politics of the Vatican and the tensions between Rome and Ireland.

Clever use if made of the year of three popes, 1978. Paul VI, elected in 1963, died in August 1978. John Paul I died in September and John Paul II then ruled from October 1978 until his death in 2005. Odran meets all of these men as he is assigned to sleep outside the papal bedroom as a kind of night porter.

Odran finds Paul VI remote and John Paul I warm and human. The novel uses Odran’s sister to suggest that John Paul II was a misogynist and other remarks portray him and Pope Benedict as having failed to act to stop clerical sexual abuse.

Elsewhere, Boyne has been scathing of the role of the Vatican.

“Throughout my youth, as Pope John Paul II travelled the world in luxury, playing on his popularity to reinforce concepts that were not only outdated but also destructive and harmful, he basked in the applause of young people while making sure to cover up every single crime that was committed against them. And still, in behaviour that beggars belief, tens of thousands of people, many of them under 30, poured into St Peter’s Square earlier this year to celebrate his sanctification.”  The Guardian October 2014

One might expect from this that A History of Loneliness would be polemic. Notwithstanding that many conservative Catholics would see it as such (as well as part of a greater media conspiracy against the Church), I find the book restrained. Not only that, it has compassion for the more innocent clerics, like Odran, who become the victims of the backlash against the sexual abuse when the scale of it and the Church’s prioritizing of public relations over helping the victims became apparent.

The book invites sympathy for the priests who feel betrayed by colleagues bringing the priesthood into such disrepute. Two scenes come to mind. In one, Odran dressed in black suit and dog collar is verbally abused and then set upon by a stranger, an enraged former victim of abuse, in a cafeteria and no one comes to his assistance, despite pleas, until an assault takes place. Like St Peter denying Christ, Odran insists he doesn't know the abuser being tried nearby. And Odran waits in the rain with altar boys when he has a key for their meeting place because rules introduced as the result of a former incumbent’s sexual abuse mean priests have to wait for a parent to be present.


The last chapter is a crowning glory. In it, Odran is forced to accept that he ignored warning signs. That all through his thirty plus years of priesthood, events happened that he failed to connect because of personal and religious loyalties. For me, this denouement was all the more powerful as the reader has just observed Odran all but blackmail a bishop to be allowed to return to the post he occupied before being assigned to a parish to replace an abuser. When he stops being meek, it is to serve his own interests.

PS I have written factually on the blog about clerical sexual abuse in New Zealand that involved a priest who taught me. And a short story, Father Sweet in The Fetish Collection involves a priest horrified first to find that a colleague has taken advantage of their friendship to abuse altar boys and then at the Church's wish to hush up the matter despite knowing the offender has a history of paedophilia.


23 May 2015 ~ Gem Street: Beyond the Axis Edited by Deborah Rise McMenamy

My short story, High Point appears in this anthology recently published by the Labello Press. As with the other two Gem Street anthologies, the latest represents the winners of a Leonard A. Koval Short Story Competition. The book is available from Labello for €13.95 plus €2.95 for worldwide P & P.

Worldwide is very appropriate as the winners suggest international interest in the completion is high. Going by the author biographies the following countries are represented in the book: England, Wales, Northern Ireland, Eire, Holland, Australia, New Zealand and the USA. The range of settings of the stories and themes addressed is no less varied.

The winning story, The Parish State is a tour de force by Will Haynes, a runner up in last year’s Koval competition. While outwardly light-hearted, the tale has a great deal to say about contemporary issues. This is one of three stories in the anthology that make effective use of different typefaces. While many pieces of writing are perfectly formed using one font, I suspect others would benefit from using more than italics to draw attention to different kinds of information.

Congratulations to Labello and Deborah another great collection of short stories.


I appreciate all the more the efforts to reflect the full creativity of the authors after recently being invited by one competition to paste my entry into a text box that took out line spaces and indentations. Fortunately, the alternative of sending a copy snail mail was allowed and I opted for this. There was nothing about my entry that required additional fonts or other devices, but my story entered in the text box looked like lorem ipsum. And I find it hard to see how anyone would be helped to assess entries that are compressed in this way.


26 April 2015 ~  Oppenheimer at The Vaudeville

Yesterday Sue and I saw the RSC production, Oppenheimer. I found it disappointing because, as a result of trying to do too much, the main character remained largely a mystery. I say too many characters, too many scenes and insufficient depth.


Not one performance was outstanding. Many of the cast looked awkward; gestures often appeared unnatural and sometimes reminded me of the exaggeration found in silent movies. Some actors had difficulty projecting their voices. Because they were struggling to produce American and other accents?

The set, which featured a lot of surfaces used for writing equations, worked very well in the first half. There was also good use of projected images, a stunning red-lit scene and an atomic explosion was well-rendered through use of sound without light. The corrugated back wall of the second half did little for me.

I wonder to what extent the much narrower stage at the Vaudeville compared to the Swan, where the production has transferred from, has dented the staging?


23 April 2015 ~  Foyled Again / Short Story Readings

I first visited Foyle’s  c. 1980 when I was looking for textbooks for a course to qualify as a teacher of literacy to adults. My college was at a centre in Soho not far from the bookshop. Foyle's literally had heaps of books where shelf space had run out, generally poor organisation and demoralized staff. A rival bookshop ran an advertising campaign that used “Foyled Again?” to remind book buyers that there were better alternatives.

One alternative, but not better, was a sex shop opposite the college. For most of the year I attended the course, the shop's window featured a book called  Dairy of a Transvestite, which served as a weekly reminder of the need for literacy.

Foyle’s now is greatly improved. Subjects are easy to locate, books sit upright on shelves in some order and staff are generally welcoming and informed. Building works have added a pleasant café and a much larger room for book readings and other events. Sue and I saw the new venue for the first time last night, at one of two events where short stories shortlisted for the big one, were featured.

The big one, a prize of £30,000 sponsored by the a newspaper and a EFG Bank, is by far the richest financial reward for short story writers and as such attracts entrants from around the world. Among this year's shortlisted is New Zealander, Paula Morris, and I had chosen to attend the evening that included her story. Excellent though False River was, I was disappointed to find it, like the other two that evening, was set in North America. I had hoped for a nostalgic experience.

Actors rather than authors read, which made for a much longer evening than I had expected, given the stories entered had to be under 6000 words. All the readers added something to the stories, but I felt one added so much in the way of grimaces and pauses that she also detracted from the text.

PS. This year’s winner of the big one is Yiyun Li, born in China in 1972 and living in the USA since 1996.

23 April 2015 ~   Key Finds Locks Irresistible


A kiwi prime minister called Key

Tugged a waitress’s ponytail repeatedly

He claimed it was just horseplay

Not trichophilia or foreplay

But it seems quite kinky to me.


The limerick follows news that the NZ prime minister, John Key, has repeatedly forced his attention on a young Auckland waitress by pulling her ponytail. Key has apologised and has not denied any of the claims made by Amanda Bailey other than suggesting it was banter and no offence intended. 


In a short space of time since the story became public, an additional five images of Key touching the hair of different girls have appeared at http://johnkeytouchinghair.tumblr.com


As if Amanda Bailey hadn't suffered enough abuse, it appears that a journalist, Rachel Glucina, misled her, possibly with the help of the coffee bar owners, to produce a story in the New Zealand Herald that Amanda has complained about. It would seem that Rachel has form as a willing distorter on behalf of Key and his National Party. Nicky Hager, New Zealand's leading investigative reporter and author of a book called Dirty Politics, last year singled her out and described her as despicable while not naming other journalists whose ethics he found lacking.


The Fetish Collection didn't include a hair fetishist (tricophiliac), but one features in a story of mine, High Point, that is about to appear in a book, Gem Street; Beyond the Axis, to be printed in Ireland by the Labello Press this summer.


High Point is set mostly in Wellington. It tells of a man whose wife cut her hair short just before she leaves him to live with her boss. The husband finds solace for a while with a lover who allows him to fondle her long hair.


I restate that I have no issues with people having minority sexual preferences except where their activities interfere with the rights of others. I am sure there are many trichophiliacs who would never impose their fetish on any adult without informed consent and regard inappropriate contact with the hair of children as outrageous.


Other limericks at Head in the Clouds.



14 March 2015 ~  Kill Me Now ~ Park Theatre


The Canadian playwright Brad Fraser has a reputation for taking his audiences well beyond their comfort zones and most of his dramas have led to calls for banning. However, his writing has such flair that his plays have been performed in many countries and often enjoyed long runs.


Director Braham Murray, long a stalwart and asset of the Exchange Theatre, has directed four of Fraser’s works in Manchester and has orchestrated a stunning production of Kill Me Now in London, its European premiere.  The play first appeared in Canada and then the USA in 2013.


A flyer for Kill Me Now describes it as a black comedy. I see it as a tragedy. The production has great deal of humour and wit, but the topic is serious and the treatment is not sarcastic. I think it debatable whether it is even a tragicomedy when the humour highlights human foibles and their relationship to great physical and mental suffering.


The opening wastes no time presenting issues; a widower bathing his severely disabled teenage son notices he has an erection. This scene contains three of the plays themes; disability and sexuality, the strain of being a primary carer, and, less explicitly at this point, the question of what makes a life worth living.  Three other characters help to explore these and other issues. They are the father’s lover, a married woman;  his sister, who by sitting with the son on Tuesday, evenings facilitates the adultery; and a young man with foetal alcohol syndrome  who has befriended the son.


This would be in your face theatre  in a large auditorium. In a very intimate setting – no seat the Park Theatre is more than four rows away from the stage – the drama is ratcheted up. My knees almost touched the stage and parts of the action were inches away. Had we been any closer, Equity may well  have insisted Sue and I became members.


All five actors put in great performances. If I have one quibble it is that the character with foetal alcohol syndrome spoke too fast. Little suggested he had significant cognitive impairment, which the references to welfare support in the play suggested. This seemed all the more strange to me when the play did such a good job of including the son’s

slurred speech without seeming to slow down the barrage of pathos and humour. The excellent design lent itself to the fast pace of the production.

I stood to applaud at the end of the play. This would definitely be one of my ten Desert Island Dramas.


2 March 2015 ~  Raif Badawi & Apostasy


There are many online reports today of the possibility of Raif Badawi being tried for apostasy, which in Saudi Arabia merits the death penalty.  The man had already been flogged along with a ten year sentence for pointing out failings the Saudi regime and expressing views deemed to be critical Islam. Among other things he complained about the extent to which Saudi Arabia has and is producing the kind of Islamists who disregard human life and revel in killing those with different beliefs.


I am saddened that none of the news sites I read today allowed people to add comments. I hope this is not an outbreak of moral cowardice or kowtowing to Saudi influence.


Putting aside the issue of whether Badawi is or is not an apostate, I want to deal with the notion of punishing an individual for losing a faith. Such measures are unlikely to restore belief. The most they can do is promote self-censorship and force people to go through the motions of sharing the religion of the powers that be. Indeed, it could be counter productive as young people are quick to sense inauthenticity and are alienated by lip service.


Harsh punishments in such cases can only be seen as a form of terrorism; it is not so much about silencing one person as frightening others to toe the line.


It is hardly surprising to learn that Saudi Arabia has not signed the 1966 UN International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights. Only a handful of countries of any size are not signatories or have withdrawn form ICCPR, among them North Korea and Myanmar.


Amnesty International Online Petition for Raif Dadawi.


8 February 2015 ~  Short Story to be Included in Labello Collection


The Labello Press have announced their shortlist for their third Leonard A. Koval Memorial Competition and a printed book to be based on this called Gem Street: Beyond the Axis.


Congratulations to the three major winners, Will Haynes, Manuela Saragosa and  KM Elkes.


I am very pleased to have a third short story included in a Labello Book.  High Point, draws on my memories of Wellington in the 1970s and not least houses perched on steep hills and the weather that whips Cook Straight. It is a rather sad love story.


I again look forward to working with Deborah McMenamy the founder of the Labello Press. As well as being a great editor, she has offered much encouragement and support for my writing. If anyone is looking for a freelance editor, I strongly recommend her. Distance - she lives in Ireland -  has proved no barrier to working with Deborah.


I have grafted solidly over the last week on two stories, Pukatokato (which means forlorn in Maori and is an invented place name) and Blood is Thicker Than Water. The former I hope to see published in a New Zealand journal and the latter will be my entry for the BBC Short Story Competition.


The idea for Pukatokato came from reading Flannery O'Connor's  A Good Man is Hard to Find about a family driving along a rural road in Georgia encountering escaped prisoners. My short story is about four day trippers threatened by two armed men guarding a remote cannabis plantation.


Blood is Thicker Than Water deals with the relationship of two sisters in their sixties and in particular the revelation by one that she had at 17 a baby. The older sister, who couldn't have children, is stunned to learn she has a niece who was adopted.


30 January 2015 ~  Short Story Published in Headland


Headland is a new literary journal edited by two New Zealanders, Laura McNeur and Liesl Nunns. The contents are not limited to Kiwi authors and non-fiction appears along with fiction. The current issue contains no poetry.


Headland is available as an Amazon download.

Amazon US   Amazon UK

You can preview the first part of the journal at the Amazon sites. Price  US$7.98 and £5.27.


I am honoured that my short story, To Mahia, has been included. For those who don't know New Zealand, Mahia is scenic peninsula half way up the east coast of the North Island. I spent a very pleasant week there with twenty or so fellow student teachers and some staff from Wellington Teachers College. I was well paid as a student teacher and felt affluent after scraping by at university. It seemed the height of good fortune to be paid to go on holiday (the staff would not have called it that) in such a beautiful place and during fine weather.


However, the story is about a woman escaping a dying if not dead marriage and the memories evoked on the road as she flees from Wellington.


I admired many of the staff at Teachers College. The main exception was the principal, a man with no background in primary teaching or teacher training. He had come from leading a secondary school. I believe his appointment was political because of the number of Wellington student teachers who had protested against the Vietnam War and sporting links with apartheid South Africa. The liberal traditions of the college continued to some extent thanks to the staff who remained and some of the new appointments. 


The man who should have been principal was the deputy principal, Jack Shallcrass, who died last year. I had the good fortune to attend lectures by him after he joined the Education Department at Victoria University of Wellington. Jack was a gifted presenter of ideas and in his private life a leading humanist.


22 January 2015 ~  Reynard Rewrite


Events last year prompted me to search for old copies of the tale of Reynard the Fox, one of Europe's favourite stories going by the number of versions published over the last 500 years.


I have rewritten a small fraction of the legend  based on a version printed in 1701. It is available as a pdf.


Much of the last fortnight has been spent writing short stories, one for a journal and another, a tale of horror, for a competition. 


I like some older gothic short stories and the rather leisurely way their authors tell them, such as The Signal Man by Dickens and William Wilson by Poe. I also find it easier to tolerate the hints if not explicit inclusion of the supernatural when the work is over a hundred years old.


As much as I prefer horror without deviating from rationalism, this is not an easy trick to pull off and I failed to achieve this in the story just submitted. If anyone is aware of a horror anthology that consists only of stories that do not play on superstitions, I would be interested to hear about it.


6 January 2015 ~  The Visitors at The Bush Theatre


Last month I complained about the industrial scale of the O2 for theatrical events. Yesterday was the complete opposite. The Bush Theatre is still one of the smallest in London with 144 seats and perhaps the smallest with a long reputation for first class new writing and stellar performances. My knees last night were level with the stage and four inches from it. We were sitting in front of hearth stones, logs and a coal scuttle indicating a fireplace. A large poker was to one side and I half-expected one of the cast to thrust it over the stage while stoking the fire. This is the kind of dramatic intimacy and tension that I love.

The stars of The Visitor, a four hander, were the two older actors and especially Linda Bassett who played Edie. Her dementia will soon require a place in a care home. Linda had a very convincing West Country accent (despite her origins being in Kent), aged between scenes without going off-stage to alter make-up, and presented a convincing portrayal of mental decline. Almost as good was Robin Soans as Edie's husband. There were talented young supporting actors.

The script by Barney Norris is stunning. It faces awkward issues – father and son conflict as well as dementia and the failure of successive governments to provide adequate care – without mawkishness and a good deal of humour. Much of the latter is delivered via Edie without destroying the sense that her dementia is a serious and growing issue. I see the writing as an even greater achievement as Barney is in his 20s yet captures so well the relationship between two people old enough to be his grandparents.

This was my first visit to the Bush Theatre in its new home, a former library. While the auditorium has sixty more seats than the former pub home, I felt nothing had been lost in terms on ambience. I was particularly impressed by the large stage. At least another row of seats might have been added had profits been the only consideration.

However, I thought back to my first visits to the Bush in 1978. Before the Thatcher era cuts, London had many more fringe theatres like the Bush and the audiences were far more mixed at least in terms of age and income. While I am delighted the Bush has survived and thrived enough to become noted for fostering new talent, the audience last night was older, white and affluent middle-class for the most part. I am sure many theatres in London would welcome the funding that enabled them to return to playing to return to more diverse audiences.


2 January 2015 ~  The Brothel Keepers at Cliterati


One of the stories from The Fetish Collection has been posted on Cliterati by the editor, Emily Dubberley.


Anyone reading the story there will be able to add comments.


There are now two reviews of The Fetish Collection at Good Reads and one at Amazon. More reviews would be welcome.