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.