The Last Irish Question is a pleasure to read, forensically and wittily observed, incisively mixing memoir, reportage and analysis
The Last Irish Question: Will Six Into Twenty-Six Ever Go?
Glenn Patterson Apollo £16.99
One useful thing to know about Northern Ireland, as the Belfast writer and resident Glenn Patterson explains, is that you can raise hackles simply with terminology. While Northern Ireland is still the preferred name ‘for the majority [of people] who live in it’, for example, many who back a united Ireland prefer ‘the North of Ireland… or just The North’.
After the words come the numbers: the geographical entity of Island Ireland is divided into 32 counties, of which the Republic of Ireland contains 26, while Northern Ireland has six.
The book’s title is a play on the unionist assertion that ‘six into 26 won’t go’. Nonetheless, the author asks: what if it did? And given the existing level of painful sensitivity, what exactly might a united Ireland look like?
One useful thing to know about Northern Ireland is that you can raise hackles simply with terminology (above, a boy plays with a toy gun in Northern Ireland)
For newcomers to the debate, he provides a deftly executed whistle-stop tour of the main events shaping the current situation, gamely starting in 8000 BC. Today unionists feel their place in the UK has been eroded by a post-Brexit protocol that places a sea customs border between Northern Ireland and the British mainland.
Meanwhile, a number of Irish politicians have become more vocal about the inevitability of a united Ireland. Sinn Féin’s buoyant Mary Lou McDonald recently put the time frame on a referendum ‘within a decade’.
Exactly how this new state might construct itself, and at what cost to whom, is much less discussed.
Patterson, one of Northern Ireland’s best-known novelists, makes an admirable attempt to examine it here. The year of writing, 2020, is an eventful one. January brings the resumption of the Northern Ireland Assembly after three years not sitting because of a stand-off among the main parties.
February ushers in the tortuous ‘Brexit transition period’ whereby Northern Ireland simultaneously leaves the EU along with the UK while staying in the EU’s single market.
Glenn Patterson (above), one of Northern Ireland’s best-known novelists, makes an admirable attempt to examine a proposed referendum. The year of writing, 2020, is an eventful one
Then the Irish general election sees Sinn Féin returned as the largest political party, an event celebrated by one new Sinn Féin TD, David Cullinane, with the exultant cry of ‘Up the ’RA!’
The author, born a Belfast Presbyterian and married to Ali, a Cork Catholic, is steeped in historical nuance and clearly sceptical of all hues of vociferous orthodoxies.
Even so, at a panel discussion with ‘contributors from both sides of the border’ he notices ‘glitches, moments when the difference of experience… become apparent’.
In Southern Ireland, history is often viewed through a different lens from the North, and one that is itself changing. Older Irish citizens tended to commemorate the ‘old’ 1920s IRA while condemning the Provisional IRA of the 1970s.
That distinction is eroding among a younger age group, or at least Sinn Féin’s perceived radicalism on housing and healthcare is often deemed to render its darker history irrelevant.
This ideological shift leaves Northern Protestants feeling increasingly isolated, something compounded by their freshly precarious position in the UK.
Then one gets to questions such as how a straining Irish healthcare system – where the going rate to see a GP is around £50 – might absorb nearly two million Northerners who currently access the NHS.
And a 2018 study by economists from Trinity College Dublin and Dublin City University, the author writes, ‘found that living standards in the South would drop by something in the region of 15 per cent annually in the event of reunification’.
In the following months, as permitted by the Covid pandemic, Patterson travels south to probe the dream and possible reality of Irish unity. Amicable conversations nonetheless carry a subtle electrical charge.
A fellow drinker in Birr, County Offaly, is warmly talkative in the pub but cool on the street the next day. And most people the author interviews – including some wary of reunification – choose not to give their names.
Is the careful reticence of Troubles-era Northern Ireland, famously observed by Seamus Heaney – ‘Whatever you say, say nothing’ – taking hold down south?
This book is a pleasure to read, forensically and wittily observed, incisively mixing memoir, reportage and analysis. Some of its best passages lie in the deadpan examination of Northern Ireland’s surreal politics, although I wondered if a first-time reader in the territory might occasionally get lost in some of our denser political thickets.
But it’s also threaded with deep frustration. Patterson’s natural optimism has been dented by Northern Ireland’s dragging sectarian dysfunction and the prospect of a future Ireland in which defensive unionism jostles with triumphalist republicanism.
The ending is starkly poignant. Patterson tells his younger daughter about the birthplace he still ‘helplessly’ loves: ‘The first chance you get, leave, and apart from visiting your mum and me, think long and hard before ever coming back.’
That alone should give politicians north and south of the border, and beyond, serious pause for thought.
Will She Do? Act One Of A Life On Stage
Eileen Atkins Virago £18.99
Eileen Atkins has had quite the life, a beloved star of the West End and Broadway, a winner of multiple awards, a co-creator of TV’s Upstairs, Downstairs, a Dame of the British Empire – and the late A.A. Gill’s favourite actress.
But as this disarmingly frank memoir reveals, the route she took to the top involved hardships and humiliations that are scarcely believable now, and were barely survivable then.
Raised on a Tottenham council estate by a dressmaker mother and a father who read electricity meters, the young Eileen was told by a passing gipsy that she would be a great dancer – ‘another Pavlova’. Close, but no cigar.
Eileen Atkins (above) has had quite the life, a beloved star of the West End and Broadway, a winner of multiple awards and a co-creator of TV’s Upstairs, Downstairs
She performed in working men’s clubs as London’s answer to Shirley Temple (creepy) and was talent-spotted by an instructor named Mme Yandie (a fraud), who wanted to adopt her. Her mother refused.
Elocution lessons and an encouraging head teacher paved her way to the Guildhall School of Music and Drama, though ambition was always at war with her insecurity: ‘I never had the right clothes or the right look or the right background.’
A quick temper would also get her into trouble: Peter Hall once gave her the boot for being rude to him.
Her touring in repertory recalls a 1950s of freezing winters, dismal bedsits and Spam fritters. The glamorous life seems an ever more distant prospect as she tramps up and down Charing Cross Road ‘doing the agents’.
And yet there are happy interludes to lighten the way, like dining on sausage and chips with Ronnie Barker, holidaying with Vanessa Redgrave (who introduces her to Tampax) or impromptu tap-dancing with Gene Kelly.
This last is a Dear Diary moment to beat all others – too bad she was employed at the time as a stook of corn (for a production of The Tempest).
At another unpromising gig – Butlin’s in Skegness – she meets future husband Julian Glover, whose raffish ease and bookish, bohemian family set off another deep yearning: ‘I was overwhelmed by the sense of what a family was, and I wanted to belong. This was, of course, unfair of me and snobbish. I had a family. I just preferred this one.’
She is the natural heir of Pip in Great Expectations. The account of her wedding day, riven with class tensions, reads like a poignant short story.
What distinguishes this from other stage memoirs is her forthright telling of her tale. She is as clear-sighted about her faults as she is her good fortune, and can look back on her 65 years in the business with a wry smile.
Even her regrets are turned to comic advantage. When she and Glenda Jackson are vying for a place in Peter Brook’s company, the director tells them to take their clothes off.
As Eileen hesitates, her rival is already down to her birthday suit – and gets the job.
Will She Do? is act one. Roll on act two.
A Carnival Of Snackery
David Sedaris Little, Brown £20
If you’re thinking that the world has gone barking mad, then David Sedaris’s diaries don’t just provide an abundance of comic relief – they’re oddly comforting, too. Dip in and you’ll realise that crazy as things may seem today, they were pretty bonkers back in 2003, when this latest volume opens.
Writers are legendarily sedentary folk but humourist Sedaris, by dint of fame (he’s forever on tour) and fortune (together with long-term partner Hugh, he owns multiple properties in the US, the UK and France), spends a great deal of time on the road.
At every stop he becomes a magnet for wackiness.
Even wildlife goes bananas when David Sedaris is nearby: in Newcastle he watches a seagull kill a pigeon. Each incident is logged in his inimitable deadpan prose
He finds it in language differences (Penélope Cruz has ‘the eyes of a donkey’, a French journalist confides); out shopping (oolong tea hand-picked by monkeys, anyone?); and on the plane (‘My seatmate feasted on himself,’ he notes of an ear-wax-nibbling – and worse – fellow traveller).
Even wildlife goes bananas when Sedaris is nearby: in Newcastle he watches a seagull kill a pigeon. Whether he’s having his head vacuumed in a barber shop or signing a book for a fan whose father ate her placenta, each incident is logged in his inimitable deadpan prose.
Sedaris’s first volume of diaries, Theft By Finding, opened in 1977, when he was 20, and ended in 2002, its entries charting his discovery of his voice and vocation. This second volume spans a further 17 years, ending with the pandemic and, while it lacks that ready narrative arc of its predecessor, its varied entries soon become addictive.
Has he changed much besides becoming sober and successful? ‘It’s a safe bet that I’ve become more spoiled and impatient,’ he admits in the introduction. He certainly doesn’t go out of his way to present himself in the best light.
Eavesdropping on a woman savagely berating her teenage granddaughter on the Eurostar, he can think only what a fabulous source of material the woman would be. ‘Her grandmother was a gold mine dressed like a gold miner, and looking at the girl, instead of feeling pity, I felt jealousy,’ he admits.
Though global events occasionally shoulder their way in (the invasion of Iraq, terrorist attacks in London, mass shootings in the US) along with more personal calamities (his sister Tiffany dies of an overdose; his homophobic father takes a tumble), Sedaris’s diary functions less as a confessional than a treasure trove of material.
A Carnival Of Snackery may not be quite as satisfying – or as revealing – as his personal essays but it’s a feast all the same: drolly absurd, irreverently scabrous and, every so often, touching.