THE CLOSEST I have ever been to civil violence is about one kilometre. That is not very close, comparatively speaking. I happened to be in Dublin during the bombings of 1974, when three arteries out of the city were blown up during peak hour. Meanwhile, up the road in a country town just below the border with Northern Ireland, the same thing was happening at the same moment.
Like most writers, I wasn't involved personally, but other people whose stories I knew were. The residential house where I lived, next door to a night shelter which my group of youthful do– gooders also manned, was the nearest thing to a home that my fellow inmates, a dozen winos and semiretired prostitutes, had. As fate would have it, there wasn't a one of them lounging around that day. No, after jumping fresh from their beds at lunchtime or thereabouts, they'd all taken off for the city, up the Quays. So when the rumbling noise came down to us and was ignored, and when very soon after the news shouted in our ears – I have no memory of how, whether the radio was on or someone running in – that a bomb had gone off, adrenalin started pumping.
No doubt I left it to whomever it was who thought up plans of action to think up one. The first step required phoning our sister house, located in the thick of it. Thankfully, after an endless few seconds they answered. Then the impossible question: Could they go out and find our people, tick them off our hurried list? Drinking somewhere, some doorstep. Old Billy might be collecting money for looking after people's cars, try Gardiner Street. Mary Martin's lookalike said she was going with a friend up to Talbot Street, the worst possible place – but hopefully she was lying again to spare our blushes and had tried her luck up at the park instead, seeking employment of a casual nature.
And the waiting started. They trailed in slowly, one at a time. The hours went by. Meanwhile, next door the night shelter opened and the transient seekers after beds came knocking, all familiars, each greeted too with enormous relief. One of these, big Nelly, put the eyewitness spin on it. Yes, she'd been sitting in her usual doorway on Talbot Street all right, but no, Mary Martin's lookalike wasn't with her. At least, not as she recalled. Yes, she heard one of the old bombs go off. But she hadn't actually seen it, though it happened but a hundred metres away. She heard this sound, like, and thought it was a car backfiring and took another swig of Red Ruby. Who knows what would have happened to big Nelly, the brasser with a heart of gold, the cliché come true, if she'd been sober and capable of movement that afternoon?
By ten o'clock in the evening, every one of our dozen co– habitees had come home. And then we hovered around the radio, all of us, old Billy and me, the former or almost– former working women who were in their forties and fifties but looked closer to seventy, the ancient mariners of various merchant navies washed up on the streets years ago, all of us quietly listening, smoking. The names eventually came out – thirty– three had died, three hundred were injured.
One of the dead shared a name with my future husband. He was supposed to have headed down to Connemara early that morning. More phone calls. The phone number of the man– next– door to his borrowed cottage was ferreted out of someone's aunt, the country call made, the knock on the cottage door, and the call returned. I was lucky. Well, isn't that just typical of a writer? It wasn't me, it was the man himself who was lucky. Some other woman will never forget the loss of that terrible day.
Dublin itself took a long time to recover. It had been decades since there'd been war in the streets. No one of my age really believed the slaughter of the Irish War of Independence and the bloody Civil War that followed it. You hear about it, but you don't really believe it, do you? Suddenly Dublin was silenced. Suddenly it dawned on us that reports of bombings and shootings and God knows what else up there, across the border in Northern Ireland, where they all must be mad, were real. And possibly they might be as scared as us.
Who planted those bombs in Dublin and Monaghan? That remains an unsolved crime. No arrests. No court case. Though everybody knows who did it. That is usually the way in Ireland, particularly when it came to the so– called "troubles". "The dogs in the street know who done it." That's what they say. It's more than thirty years and the arguments go on, the missing files get curiouser and curiouser. There are reasons for not giving a direct answer sometimes. Sometimes peace is pricey.
SO THAT'S MY story and that's as close as I got. I could say I am part of the lucky generation, but that isn't quite true. Young boys my age went off to Vietnam, or else ran around with Commonwealth police after them. My parents' generation survived or didn't survive World War II, and my grandparents' got through both miserable affairs. So I am of the right generation of the right gender, but let's be honest and qualify it by saying so far. Who knows what the future might bring? War – like the poor – has always been with us.
It is easy to explain why Hemingway wrote A Farewell to Arms: he was there, driving an ambulance around the killing fields. And he wrote For Whom the Bell Tolls after his time embroiled in the Spanish Civil War. Primo Levi's masterpiece, If This is a Man, is almost too searing to include, the book he pulled out of his guts, remembering his time in Auschwitz. Erich Maria Remarque's fabulous All Quiet on the Western Front was so real that Hitler ordered it to be burned – Remarque and Hitler shared the same war, the same army, they just emerged with different ideas about it. James Jones' From Here to Eternity is a terrific read, and it too was forged the hard way, coming out of the direct experience of Pearl Harbor, and his posting to Guadalcanal poured into The Thin Red Line. Tolstoy wasn't in the Napoleonic wars, it is true – being too young – but he did spend some time in the Russian army in the 1850s, and he saw serious fighting at Sevastopol. One of the great moments of imaginative literature is when Prince Andrei is wounded in the field. Tolstoy also ran away with the best title. War and Peace is taken.
Explain why fevered novelists in the lucky West are scratching away at the war novel, or its close relatives. And coming out with some pretty good stuff. Has Sebastian Faulks lived through it? Or Brenda Walker? Or Pat Barker? Well, Barker was born in Yorkshire in 1943, so she doesn't quite fit in there, but let's say conscious memory would be next to nil. We've all heard stories, of course. Perhaps seen the ravaged faces. Is that enough? What about the creative writing teacher's maxim: Write What You Know. Like Jane Austen, for example. Maeve Binchy swears by it, and tells everybody else to swear by it, too. Having lived in Ireland for more than thirty years, I have all the time in the world for Maeve, one of the great characters in Dublin (there are a few). And I love her best books, as it happens. And actually I agree with her in principle. But still ...
War creeps in. Creeps into the consciousness of the writer, prowls around, a dark, mesmerising presence. Calamity is recommended by Aristotle, not as a general rule for life maybe but more as a handy tool for the poet. Perhaps it's as simple as that. Writers are the ultimate users.
I have used "the troubles" to trouble my conscience into working out the plot of a novel. Some years later,The Rhapsody of Sweeney was produced. Its writing caused me to bring into the light my own tribal prejudice, my quiet assurance that, though we liberal types didn't in any way condone all that dreadful killing and maiming, we were right in the first place, the only problem to convince the other crowd of their wrongness. I probably still believe it, truth be told. So much for catharsis. Yet now and then something happens and a little bell gongs, far away maybe, somewhere up in the hills while we're busy down in the valley, weeding or something, but we hear it dimly, pause for a moment as it sounds inside us.
There was once a Loyalist terrorist picked up and tossed in jail for a rather serious offence. He was "the enemy". While in jail, he met a few people, one man in particular – another Loyalist – who spoke different words to him. And he came out with a question growing in his mind. It might be that he was a pretty spectacular type of a man, not your common or garden terrorist. He wanted to make peace. He read and he thought and he listened. He could see that life hadn't been rosy for "the other crowd". This understanding didn't turn him into one of them – no, not at all. He remained loyal to his Britishness, loyal to his own people, until the day he died. He died early this year, far too young.
It occurred to me his heart might have broken. I can't say. The peace was hard, and a long time coming. He was John the Baptist crying in the wilderness for a long, long time. Many of his own side didn't like what he said, or disclaimed his terrorist past. David Ervine died before the final agreement came. But he was a bell that sounded. The voice of the true man, the genuine hero. A sound that has a way of echoing. He touched my consciousness many years ago, watching him move among the enemy, make forays into alien territory, speaking his piece to curious audiences in the Irish Republic. He got our respect. It would be too much to say I transferred anything of his fineness to my little oeuvre, but I can say he was one who taught me to hold back my pen from vitriol.
AND NOT JUST him. When a novelist doesn't write from experience, she opts to write from complete ignorance instead. This is far from an uncommon position to take. My research trips to Northern Ireland began with bravado: I would turn up in the village where the action was set. The action, to explain, is a sectarian killing in the nineteenth century, underpinned by whispers of an ancient Irish poem where a prince once went mad in battle – it's known as possibly the most lyrical of old Irish poetry, pungent with beauty. So I would turn up, seek out a pub with a name similar to mine – Catholic in other words, Gaelic – and I'd wander in and ask a few questions, then I'd get back on the train in Belfast and come home with the answers.
Someone who'd absconded to the south years ago whispered in my ear: be careful up that way, it's not how you think, don't talk to just anyone. I laughed. What would they up there care about me? Anyway, I'm not even Irish. I would stick to Plan A.
Only there did turn out to be a problem – there were no pubs with Catholic names on them. There were five churches and not one of them was one of mine. So I stood in the middle of the main road of the little village and took stock of the situation. Counting on a sudden reversion to my Australian– born accent, I accosted the man in the tobacco shop; they always know things, don't they? He looked like the Reverend Ian Paisley, only bigger. Spoke like him too. I decided on a casual approach and inquired if there might be a local history museum about somewhere. "Go on up to the Rectory," he said, "and ask for the minister."
"Where would the rectory be?"
"Ach, beyond the barracks and on to the Orange Lodge and there'll you see it across the road."
The barracks and the Orange Lodge. It was like telling a lamb to go home via a den of foxes and on past a pride of hungry lions. Meekly, though, I obeyed instructions. Barbed wire rolled all the way around the yard of the Royal Ulster Constabulary barracks, concentration camp– like. (The RUC has since disbanded, replaced by the more cross– community PSNI, Police Service of Northern Ireland.) My shoulder blades met over my backbone. I trudged on, and yes, sure enough there was the Union Jack flying over the Orange Hall where absolutely "No Catholics need apply".
I was beginning to wonder about the wisdom of the expedition. I turned smartly left and marched into the front garden of what I took to be the (Anglican) Church of Ireland Rectory. It was a large stone house, rather lovely, and its porch door was hospitably open. I knocked. And then I knocked louder. I peeked in, but to see anything of the interior would mean intrusion. So I knocked again. The wait was truly awful. Eventually, it came to me that the Rector and his wife were cowering under the kitchen table, having been informed that a Southerner was on their doorstep, quite possibly with evil intent.
I slouched down the pathway and out on to the street and deposited myself in a pub where the barmaid's name was Heather (not Norah, or Eithne, or Mary). I could tell that she was suspicious of me. It took me a good half an hour, a bowl of soup and a coffee to eventually ask if someone could help me with local history. She advised me to go up to the rectory. I suggested that the rector may not have been at home. How I deduced this I did not explain. "In that case," she said, "why don't you buy the rector's book on the history of the village? It's across in the newsagent."
Well, miracles happen even in Northern Ireland. Away I went to collect my booty and to hotfoot it out of town. The newsagent was a softly pretty lady with blonde hair. She let me down quickly. The whole lot of them had been sold, they were that desirable. But never mind, the rector was bringing out another edition due to popular demand. Something about me must have appeared crestfallen, for she said she would go upstairs to her flat and I could have her copy. It would be easier that way, and she'd just get another when they came out and I wouldn't have the bother of coming up from Dublin for it.
And so it all fell out that way and I got home safe and sound and read the book. It was so good that I decided to write to the poor old rector, take a chance that he might be approachable, just like the newsagent. He wrote back about two weeks later, having spent the time doing research on my behalf. Unfortunately he'd turned up nothing, but was continuing to inquire as he went about the parish on sick calls and the like – and also, by the way, he'd mentioned it to his good friend the Roman Catholic priest in the next parish (there was no Catholic Church in the village, had I known?). Oh, and also by the way, perhaps we'd meet up the next time he was in Dublin. He was a Dubliner himself, by the way. In other words, thoroughly of the Irish Republic born and bred, he was wading through God knows what swamps of sectarian hatreds and distrusts to tend to his Unionist flock.
And that was how I learned things were not always as they seem. Although, to be upfront about it, it was a strange feeling not seeing my own people's names up there, not seeing my own people's religion, where once they had been. There are people going around the great city of Sydney with smiles on their faces and a dark knowledge in their hearts – where are my people now, where are our names for these places?
MY NEXT VISIT consisted of various hilarities, Irish anecdotes, was pervaded with that native madness of vision which might be better understood as the established philosophy – and that philosophy, like the rivers, doesn't stop at the border, nor break up into denominational streams. I won't go into much detail about the trip, for reasons which will become obvious, but let it be that there was an ex– Methodist who wouldn't have a bar of any of them, not after all of this carry– on, and his friend the Catholic who scrubbed his cheeks red when phoned to warn of the impending arrival at his door of two women from the south (for I had a chauffeur this time) and who gave us the great compliment of favourably comparing our brains to those of pigeons.
It took some weeks of consideration to solve that one. But the story of the research trip, oft quoted at first, turned out less than hilarious. Two years later I was in Rome, staying in the Australia Council's apartment, the Whiting Library, when I saw in the English newspaper I took daily that a certain guesthouse next to a certain RUC barracks in Northern Ireland had been blown up. It was one of the last IRA bombings of the war. I had no doubt that the guesthouse was where my friend and I had lodged, and our dear ex– Methodist owned it.
My friend worked for The Irish Times, which I rang immediately. "Yes," she confirmed, "it was them all right." The usual thing, the warning was issued; they got out in time, no one killed on this occasion. The place, however, went up. The beautiful old blackstone house, all the work they'd done on it, him and his wife of many decades, doting on each other.
"Oh, Jaysus," I said, "have they no sense! Of all the people in the world to blow out of it, why these good people? Why destroy the very ones who have no truck with any of it? The innocents?" Of course the Barracks was the target. They were only collateral damage.
My dear ex– Methodist and his red– cheeked friend found their way into the pores of two characters in the novel transmogrified there as they must. But they also transformed my rendering. The impact of individuals, the unexpectedness of their turnings. No character in a novel can possibly be as strange and wonderful as a strange and wonderful human being, though we know only the barest outlines of their story, can't read their minds, aren't let into their bedrooms.
But is the writer whetted by such privacy? Is it that which beckons us in? What secret despair, what battles with the bitterest of things, the reeking injustice, torture a man's heart, make him consider that after all his great hopes were futile? This is the great existentialist tragedy. And writers are never done chipping away at it, tiny chisels and hammers a– tap– tapping, day and night, year in, year out as they crawl over this ungainly edifice, the human predicament.
Despite a tendency to both self– inflation and self– deprecation, writers are human. When their own houses haven't been blown up by bombers aiming for the police station next door, they remember their own private moment of discovery, that the guy wearing the white hat doesn't win by dint of a white hat. It happens to us all. Life shouldn't be like that. If you're good, you should get showered with gifts. Only baddies in black hats should get stuck in jail or hang from a post.
I suppose this is why we do it, drawn into constantly rehearsing (in the old sense) those moments of intensity. It might come out as a love story set in gorgeous Tuscany, but then the main character turns out to be a writer writing about the Holocaust (a little ploy I used in my own The Italian Romance). It might come out as a mad king unable to bear that no breath comes from his daughter Cordelia. Or in the current rash of war novels, first and second, that fine writers spend their waking hours over. There's love and there's death and they are terribly, heartbreakingly connected.
I don't like writing about war, but not for any moral reason. I simply don't know enough, that's all. But to spend years writing novels without once mentioning social conflict, particularly after the record of the twentieth century, is either very clever or very perverse. The technical difficulty is overcome by sheer and powerful imagination, as in Sebastian Faulk's Birdsong, or got around by shifting the focus.
I happen to be writing a novel set in 1918 and after three chapters the only mention of the "w" word is so idle and by– the– way as to be barely noticeable. There is always the old stand– by, the woman who stays at home. Those at home read the newspapers, received deathly telegrams, worried themselves sick, but they also made the beds, fed the children, spoke over the back fence to their neighbour. This is one way of dealing with the writer's ignorance. Not only that, but the spirit of despair can breed the spirit of change, as manifest among the civilian population as the military. There is nothing idle about that suggestion; it is what happened after the Great War. The fall– out changed the world – argument could be put that things were changing anyway, but the change speeded up exponentially, explosively in some cases. And so the novel set in time of war does not have to be geared to battles fought in the field. The writer's nightmare is to not believe her own writing, to struggle on with plasticine characters wielding matchstick weapons, characters who topple over in death scenes which would delight a Vaudeville audience. There is a tension between knowing your strengths and stretching beyond one's own limits.
It's understood among novelists that we throw down the gauntlet – not to the readers, the publisher, the critics or even to society, but to ourselves. It is a craft and we have to work hard to be good at it. Every time we start a new book, we think we can't do it this time. This time we've ratcheted up the bar too high and we just don't have the wherewithal. We are going to fall flat on our faces. But if our job is to not just "express ourselves" (oh, dear!), but to express what it is to be human, then we plunge our hands in, try to reach something that keeps evading us, grab its tail and pull it up into the light. A story heard many years ago and never quite forgotten, a glimpse of the exposed face of a woman who just heard her son had been killed, the smell of desire: all these feed into the novel and it turns out we know more than we think. We might sit in our room all day and scratch out a few words, while the world is turning and people are getting richer and poorer, statesmen are making peace or war, but somebody has to put the marks of our existence up on the walls of caves. There is a kind of honouring in the craft, an honouring of the things people have gone through. Living a life is no easy thing. Even the palest remembering matters.