The last time I went home to Northern Ireland was in December 2000 from San Francisco, and that was the first time since 1970, just before I moved from London to New York. In 1970 I was in Belfast only for the day, under the radar, to interview the wife of a psychiatrist, never mind why. I told no one this was the city I’d been born in.
We made the TV news when the evening plane returned to Belfast for an emergency landing. The young reporter for the Belfast Telegraph who interviewed me after we slid down the chutes got my last name wrong, and invented the words he put in my mouth, every word, comma and full stop. I supposedly told him the air hostesses stayed cool as cucumbers (the only one I noticed was shaking) and an old lady knitted calmly as we landed (old ladies with knitting needles risked becoming dangerous projectiles in a crash).
I stayed frozen from feeling during the landing, able to hold and comfort a small girl as we waited in the drizzle for the buses to take us back to the terminal, until she remembered she’d been told to avoid contact with strange men. I was still frozen when I went back in 2000 from my home in San Francisco. I went back to see the place where I’d grown up because that’s what you’re supposed to do, and a trainee at a therapy internship had assured me I had unfinished business there, and I thought maybe, just maybe, I might surprise any surviving family.
I’d booked a room in the Belfast city center for four nights, though I ended up staying that long only because I’d prepaid the hotel and the penalty to change the plane ticket was too high. On the two mornings I no longer wanted to be there I watched from my window as Protestant schoolboys trudged through the rain to Inst, the downtown grammar school where boys are offered an excellent education. I went to a grammar school in Holywood, between Belfast and Bangor, the seaside town where I grew up, and mostly refused the good education it offered.
I was born a 15 minutes’ walk from that Belfast hotel, in the Midnight Mission on Malone Place on October 20, 1939. I may yet go back for good: You can rent a three-bedroom terrace house for £600 a month on Malone Place these days, about a quarter what it costs to rent a studio apartment in San Francisco, which is becoming uninhabitable for anyone but the permanently wealthy and the temporarily rich IT workers. But the Midnight Mission is gone since 1981. It was founded in 1860 to provide a home for the night to the women and girls found by charitable ladies in the Belfast pubs. Later a room was set aside for the confinements of unmarried mothers. But my mother was not homeless or unmarried or drunk when she gave birth to me in the Midnight Mission. MORE TO COME
Can a book be a cause célèbre if you can’t talk about it? My first reaction when I read that an academic had called my first novel Aubade “Kenneth Martin’s cause célèbre” in his treatise on queer literature was “news to me ” or “paper refuses nothing. ” I still spend a lot of time picking apart my ingrained cynical reactions to get at truths that tend to be complicated. It’s that awful uneducated response I still indulge in too often, born of too much too soon (along with too little), or Northern Irish cynicism (born of deprivation), or even up-close acquaintance with the ethics of the English popular press (though that’s more of an excuse than a reason).
When I sold Aubade and moved to London, the English teacher who made my life bearable amidst the fear and torpor of the middle forms stayed in touch with me. She told me that the headmaster had announced in assembly that Upper Sullivan pupils were forbidden to read Aubade. What did he threaten them with? Expulsion? “It’s understandable,” May explained. “Think what an effect Aubade could have on a youngster.”
Think of the contortions that statement contains. She condoned me, a 16-year-old boy, writing and publishing the book (a thrill, echoing her own dreams), but not the content of the book.
The question of being prosecuted for obscenity was raised only once with me, and that was regarding my second novel Waiting for the Sky to Fall. The night I went to hear my publisher’s and agent’s verdict on the novel, they asked me to change the number of male brothels mentioned in the book to just one. I have no idea why that would have made a difference, and in the end they didn’t pursue the change.
Offhand I can’t think of anyone directly addressing the content of Aubade with me around publication time (certainly not at the queer parties to which I was introduced, where it was a given in those men’s lives). One lodger in a rooming house I briefly stayed in when I first moved to London dug out The People interview and suggested I move to the colonies.
The reporters or TV personalities who interviewed me mentioned Aubade’s content (a schoolboy falls in love with an older student). Dot dot dot. Nothing more. One reporter dared to suggest that we were over-encouraging our young people to express themselves. No elaboration. At most they called the book “powerful.” One TV interviewer said it was the kind of book she’d hide in a brown paper cover. Quickly move on to calling me an infant prodigy or an angry young man. But absolutely no discussion of homosexuality, because it was disgusting and illegal and I was jailbait.
And to prosecute an adolescent or his publisher for obscenity would raise more issues than anyone wanted to air in public. It went against the prevailing narrative about the vice of homosexuality, in which perverted adults corrupted the young, or cruised public lavatories. Rent boys didn’t count, because they were the lower orders, and public schoolboys grew out of it.
Can a book be a cause célèbre if you can’t talk about? Of course. Hard for me to admit it, since I live my life fighting the denial I learned in the land of denial. The most important things aren’t necessarily those you talk about. And a lot of people, including in the corridors of power, were certainly talking. But I didn’t know about it.
I’ve been reading Edna O’Brien’s memoir Country Girl. We lived parallel lives in London in the 60’s, with countless connections, though we interacted directly only in two phone calls about an issue of The Observer Magazine I was writing. Country Girl is crafted with exemplary care, rich with meticulous detail about Catholic Ireland and the wild natural world of O’Brien’s childhood. I was floored by the late chapter “The North,” less memoir than first-rate journalism, about the troubles in that part of Ireland where I was born and grew up. O’Brien describes her childhood as dark, but it was drenched in a knowledge of Ireland’s history and culture denied to me in my Protestant schooling and family. O’Brien has devoted her life to literature and been justly feted. I couldn’t have written her book. But I wouldn’t want to.
In The Memoir and the Memoirist, Thomas Larson distinguishes between autobiography (“The author’s purpose is to set the historical record straight, an idea based on the assumption that there is a single record and that the person who lived it can best document it”) and memoir: “The memoirist, then, is one who while and after she writes realizes the existential limitation of memoir. … What the memoirist does is connect the past self to—and within—the present writer as a means of getting at the truth of his identity.” I’d add making an ultimately futile attempt to get at that truth.
Country Girl is billed as memoir, but it’s autobiography. Maybe part of the trouble is that O’Brien wrote it for the wrong reasons: “I was reluctant to write a memoir, but my agent, Ed Victor, was greatly enthusiastic and eventually managed to persuade me that I should do it. I mistakenly believed that it was going to be an easy journey.” So there was no pressured need to attempt to understand the mess of events and identity.
O’Brien is indeed a great prose stylist, but here the novelistic method seems off. Time and again she describes a particular moment in exquisite but questionable detail. Did birds really fly and dip with a jauntiness on that particular Christmas season morning so long ago? Did she make a note of it? On a childhood day were birds for miles around really making their evening excursions, swooping down into the rain barrel where midges had swarmed? Is she 100% sure of that?
O’Brien has been praised as “an exemplary female survivor.” Country Girl is full of suffering, but no attempt to place that suffering in a social or political context, discuss how that context has changed, or suggest that O’Brien’s view of herself or others has changed over time. (My take is that we change the narrative of our lives every second we live.) O’Brien’s husband is depicted as a villain, and the court hearing for custody of her two sons a nightmare stacked against her. But she did get custody. Which was always likely, because in those days courts still assumed kids would be better off with their mothers. Later, when O’Brien sends her sons to boarding school, she describes her decision as reluctant and the parting as “well nigh unbearable.” But she doesn’t take us through her reasoning in making that decision, though we learn about “the leaves on the trees turning russet” that day 50 years ago. The book ends on a note of unconvincing epiphany, the way main characters in novels tend to walk away down an autumnal avenue or the Elmer Bernstein music swells at the end of a Douglas Sirk melodrama to nudge us into feeling.
Though maybe not for the intended reasons, O’Brien’s book was salutary reading for me. I was shamed to be reminded of the disrespect with which I treated literature for so many years, and glad to know that plenty of people behaved worse than me in 60’s London. But O’Brian’s life comes across as unexamined, which can’t possibly be true. She tends to focus on what they did to her. I tend to focus on what I did, to myself and others. Maybe when I’m listening to the interesting chaos in my head, I could go a little easier on myself.
Brodsky says old men can only write a memoir or a diary. I tried a few sentences of a memoir, but making sense of the noise in my head felt too much like hard work. My days are full, I’m too busy for a diary. For years now I can only write if there’s at least a faint suggestion that someone might be interested in reading what I write. But a website blog needs content, which felt enough like an editor calling with an idea to get me going.
The posts come easily, though while I’m writing each post feels like the last I’ll have enough ideas to fill. I post Monday mornings. By Monday afternoon I’m writing another in my head. All I need is an idea and an opening sentence. But it always feels like the last idea I’ll have.
So far problems with self-disclosure haven’t stymied me: I’ve avoided thinking about it.
It helps that no matter how much tweaking I do after I write the first draft on Tuesday morning, I seem to forget what I’ve written when I close my laptop. I can’t obsess about what I’ve obliterated from memory. Which circumvents worrying about how I’ve violated that long list of things I’d forbidden myself to write about.
I’m a therapist. I’m trained not to talk about myself. Which is convenient, since I’m somewhat lacking in basic trust. Which is inconvenient, because it would seem to severely constrict my choice of things to write about. (When I used to write journalism I didn’t write about myself because I had nothing to say about myself, not because I didn’t want to write it.) I’ve told only one therapy client that I used to write fiction, and that’s because he’s a writer and I worried he might come across the republished books and think I’d been sneaky. (Decades ago, when I was doing a training internship, a client kept asking me to help him find an agent, so I suppose he knew I’d been a writer. In those days I was too green to handle the issue. I just ignored his requests.)
Who am I when I write? Therapist? Writer? I have no trouble calling myself a therapist because I have a license. I’m in considerable doubt about whether I’m a writer, not least because I don’t do it very often, not least because what I earn from writing wouldn’t feed a spoiled San Francisco mutt. Not that I earn much doing therapy. (How much I don’t earn from therapy was on my list of things not to write about.)
My truth is that the urge to write words that might get published is akin to a porn star exposing every orifice for a close-up. Once I start it’s hard to stop and I don’t obsess about the consequences. Writers (and porn stars, I think) need that sliver of ice in their hearts that Graham Greene referred to. I have that sliver, but mostly regarding myself rather than other people, at least nowadays. There’s a certain callous willingness to exhibit ourselves, and we’re only harmed by it if we think we are. Humans resemble onions with an infinite core. No matter how publicly revealed or degraded we are, however many layers are exposed, there is always more that no one will ever know. We’re only vulnerable if we think we are.
I couldn’t have written my first novel if I’d allowed myself to think about the consequences (what people would think of me) if it got published. I couldn’t have written my first novel if I’d allowed myself to think about the consequences if it didn’t get published. (Why am I indulging in this irritating mannerism that Didion uses to pad her sparse pages?) These days I’m more willing to admit to myself that there will be consequences. I’ll deal with it.