FacebookTwitterRedditEmail

Conspiracy, Blood and Filth

John Arden, at age 79, is one of the greatest living writers in Ireland. But you could be excused for not knowing that, for several reasons.

Although he has lived in Galway half his life, the Yorkshire-born Arden is not an “Irish writer”, in a nation that gets all too obsessed with such identity. (To be sure, he has dealt more pointedly with Irish issues than many an “Irish writer”.) Moreover, his “greatness”, freely acknowledged by the critical consensus in his country of birth, refers largely to his work as a playwright dating back fully half-a-century. His fiction since the 1980s, though honored (Booker nomination, PEN and Pritchett prizes), has never slammed into the zeitgeist with the  brute force of his Fifties and Sixties stage-work, some of which has been revived in recent years to considerable  acclaim.

So maybe the best idea for a reader in 2009 is to forget about the vagaries and vicissitudes of reputation and just enjoy the new Arden collection, Gallows and Other Tales of Suspicion and Obsession. (Original Writing €24.99 506pp.)

For Gallows, despite the title and its accurate suggestion of darkness and death lurking in this collection of short stories, is hilarious, entertaining, page-turning, fascinating and almost any other quality you might fancy in a damned good read, with the possible exception of “simple”.

That’s because most of the dozen longish short-stories here, set in Ireland and England across a span of five centuries, are involved in some way or another with plot, or perhaps with what our age might call “conspiracy theories”. Someone, somewhere, is always plotting, but often Arden’s main characters, and we as readers, aren’t quite in the room when the dastardly plans are being hatched, and we can’t be entirely sure we have picked them up correctly. And God knows half of the plotters could be double-agents.

From playwright Ben Jonson sneaking around the fringes of the Gunpowder Plot to a failed Anglican cleric conspiring with a Fenian prostitute for revenge against an English admiral to a shower of pretentious film-makers whispering murder against an ageing novelist at a remote film festival, Arden’s “plots” are both sublime and ridiculous, deadly serious and completely antic, of dubious but not quite dismissible historic accuracy. In “Yorkshire Sport”, for example, a small-town mayor in the 1820s calls an abrupt halt to a centuries-old traditional football match because he has been given reason to believe it may, somehow, be used to set the stage for a coup d’etat against the British government.

With typical daring, Arden begins that story by quoting an exchange between two RTÉ pundits during the 2006 World Cup, then writes: “Impossible to imagine a political personage of the twenty-first century who’d dare assert his civic probity by abolishing football. Yet there was such a hero, during the late 1820s, in the ancient Yorkshire borough of Kirk Deerwood. He was Dr Alcuin Fouracre….”

Arden tends to let the lessons of his historically-set stories speak for themselves, though the disconcerting title tale concerns a Galway child-abuse scandal from the early 18th century that literally echoes into the present day. Several stories, the final and best sequence in this wonderful book, involve that fictitious Yorkshire town of Kirk Deerwood and the centuries-long saga of the Fouracre family; and the ways these interact with and illuminate each other, jumping back and forth through history, is always interesting and occasionally breathtaking.

Arden is not afraid to get his hands dirty. The author has a well-earned reputation is as a radical, and his up-close view of anti-Iraq-war campaigning in Ireland yields some funny moments. But the stories’ political sympathies resist simplification, and all sides find themselves immersed in blood and filth, even the well-intentioned reformers who attempt to rise above the mess.

At least three or four of these stories cry out from the page for a movie adaptation, but their untidiness, their pure sodden nastiness, not to mention their often-unhappy endings, might prove Hollywood-resistant, despite all the violence.

Mind you, Arden provides something of an answer to any such resistance on the book’s accompanying DVD. Among the reasons, apparently, that Arden has “self-published” this volume via the Original Writing imprint rather than a traditional publisher is so that the paintings he has made of scenes from the stories can be seen by readers. And they are revelatory, little naïve-style dramatic scene-scapes, bright, colourful and sexy. (You can check them out, and buy copies, right here.) The pictures assure us, in case we missed it in the stories on the page, that Arden presents this material with a showman’s wink, that inasmuch as we are all headed for the gallows by a more or less circuitous route, we should enjoy ourselves in the meantime.

HARRY BROWNE lectures in the School of Media at Dublin Institute of Technology and is author of CounterPunch’s Hammered by the Irish. Contact harry.browne@gmail.com

More articles by:

Harry Browne lectures in Dublin Institute of Technology and is the author of The Frontman: Bono (In the Name of Power). Email:harry.browne@gmail.com, Twitter @harrybrowne

bernie-the-sandernistas-cover-344x550
Weekend Edition
January 17, 2020
Friday - Sunday
Jeffrey St. Clair
Roaming Charges: No Woman, No Cry
Kathleen Wallace
Hijacking the Struggles of Others, Elizabeth Warren Style
Robert Hunziker
The Rumbling Methane Enigma
Frank Joyce
Will the Constitution Fail Again?
Pete Dolack
Claims that the ‘NAFTA 2’ Agreement is Better are a Macabre Joke
Andrew Levine
Biden Daze
Vijay Prashad
Not an Inch: Indian Students Stand Against the Far Right
Ramzy Baroud
Sealed Off and Forgotten: What You Should Know about Israel’s ‘Firing Zones’ in the West Bank
Norman Solomon
Not Bernie, Us. Not Warren, Us. Their Clash Underscores the Need for Grassroots Wisdom
Ted Rall
America’s Long History of Meddling in Russia
David Rosen
The Irregulators vs. FCC: the Trial Begins
Jennifer Matsui
The Krown
Joseph Natoli
Resolutions and Obstacles/2020
Sarah Anderson
War Profiteering is Real
James McFadden
The Business Party Syndicate
Ajamu Baraka
Trump Prosecutors Make Move to Ensure that Embassy Protectors are Convicted
David Swanson
CNN is Trash
Rev. William Alberts
Finally a Christian Call for Trump’s Removal
Dave Lindorff
The ERA Just Got Ratified by Virginia, the Needed 38th State!
W. T. Whitney
Mexico Takes Action on Coup in Bolivia and on CELAC
Steve Early
How General Strike Rhetoric Became a Reality in Seattle 
Jessicah Pierre
Learning From King’s Last Campaign
Mark Dickman
Saint Greta and the Dragon
Jared Bernstein - Dean Baker
Reducing the Health Care Tax
Clark T. Scott
Uniting “Progressives” Instead of Democrats
Nilofar Suhrawardy
Trump & Johnson: What a Contrast, Image-wise!
Ron Jacobs
Abusing America’s Children—Free Market Policy
George Wuerthner
Mills Are Being Closed by National Economic Trends, Not Environmental Regulations
Basav Sen
Nearly All Americans Want Off of Fossil Fuels
Mark Ashwill
Playing Geopolitical Whack-a-Mole: The Viet Nam Flag Issue Revisited
Jesse Jackson
New Hope for One of America’s Poorest Communities
Binoy Kampmark
Harry and Meghan Exit: The Royal Family Propaganda Machine
Ralph Nader
Trump: Making America Dread Again!
Rob Okun
A Call to Men to join Women’s March
Kollibri terre Sonnenblume
We All Need to Be Tree Huggers Now
Tom Stephens
The New York Times’ Delusions of Empire
Julian Rose
Fake-Green Zero Carbon Fraud
Louis Proyect
The Best Films of 2019
Matthew Stevenson
Across the Balkans: Into Kosovo
Colin Todhunter
Gone Fishing? No Fish but Plenty of Pesticides and a Public Health Crisis
Julian Vigo
Can New Tech Replace In-Class Learning?
Gaither Stewart
The Bench: the Life of Things
Nicky Reid
Trannies with Guns: Because Enough is Enough!
James Haught
Baby Dinosaurs on Noah’s Ark
David Yearsley
Brecht in Berlin
FacebookTwitterRedditEmail