Friday, 3 January 2020


John Le Carré has written twenty-five novels, as well as essays and memoirs, works The Guardian of London says 
charted – pitilessly for politicians but thrillingly for readers – the public and secret histories of his times.”
As far back as his breakthrough novel, The Spy who Came in from the Cold (1963), Le Carré has largely written about British spies, their interpersonal politics, their antagonists, and their place in the world. Even The Constant Gardener (2001), an exception, set among diplomats in Kenya, only steps a feint away from East-West espionage into international pharmaceutical scandals, where there is plenty of deceit, duplicity, villainy and cant, staples of all Le Carré’s books.
In Agent Running in the Field, the Russians persist as arch-villains, taking the reader back to Cold War tensions, super-heated by the current Trump-Putin Axis. If the Russians are villainous, the Americans are grasping and overwhelming, pulling strings from afar and getting boots on the ground.
The hero is an experienced British spy, christened Anatoly, later Anglicised to Nathaniel and clipped, buddy-wise, to Nat. The English names have a chummy ring to them: Nat, Prue, Steff, Ed, Flo, Dom. Le Carré quotes Nat’s personnel file to give us his physical and personal attributes. He manages “fluent and capable argument, in the short term”. He is “headstrong” and sometimes resistant to discipline. He is ideally suited to deliver the shakedown that forms the conclusion to the book.
Nat is the hero who tells us the story in clear, deft and often elegant sentences, with set-piece scenes that move the reader about, without ever dropping his or her attention.
Ever since The Honourable Schoolboy (1977), Le Carré’s great novel of his Smiley series, he has often hung a story on the wilfulness and inexperience of a boy; if not entirely callow, then a youth nonetheless, fired up about something, an earnest idealist, who’s impulses and urges are honest but wrong-headed. In Agent Running in the Field (2019), Nat, more worldly-wise and experienced, saves the boy, Ed, from the forces of the State, in a chase sequence that has the mild whiff of an Ealing Studio comedy about it.
The key plot line concerns the chance (?) meeting between Ed and Nat, over a challenge to play badminton. There is more to Ed than the ungainly youth, who admits to working in an unrevealed area of the media, probably on-line, keen to take the club’s shuttle-cock champion down a peg ortwo. The reader wonders why Ed’s out-of-the-blue appearance does not trigger the full-scale forensic uncovering that Nat and his colleagues are advised to pursue in such circumstances. 
Weekly badminton sessions and a “kindly uncle/ebullient nephew” friendship develop between the men. Their conversations, over post-match pints, are mainly rants by Ed, airing his (and Le Carré’s?) frustrations at Brexit, Trump, Putin and the British Foreign Secretary (Boris Johnson), Nat’s ultimate superior.
When Ed discovers that elements of the British and American secret services are busy putting the clock forward, to take maximum benefit from the out-workings of Brexit, he embarks upon solo-run, way beyond his pay grade and experience.
When Ed blows his top, Nat calms him, in his reasonable and put-upon manner.
Yes, Brexit is indeed an unmitigated clusterfuck, though I doubt there is much we can do to put the clock back.”
Perhaps this is Le Carré speaking, through Nat, the long-serving spy, with years of experience behind him of being duplicitous and patriotic for the Crown, in Moscow, Berlin and other parts east. Iis a neat summation of the commitment within the secret and civil services to the survival of the existing order, echoing Supertramp’s album title “Crisis? What Crisis?
Is Le Carré being humorous when he calls his place of work The Office? It used to be called The Circus, but perhaps the fun has gone out of it for him. The public politics remain resolutely at the macro-level. The private politics are clearly middle-class and at the level of The Office, the cringe-making tv comedy (sic). 
With Russian villains and overwhelming Americans, the worst that can be said about the British is that they’re bumbling and individually self-serving, strapped onto ski-lift T-bars on the slopes of the permanent civil service, going up and down, sometimes sideways onto lesser slopes, which is Nat’s situation, as he returns to London to be put out to grass by Dom, his boss, another professional paid to lie and kill when required. Dom survives, as the shakedown unfolds, reportedly set for a safe seat in Parliament, via the Westminster-City of London-Civil Service revolving doors. Le Carré doesn’t tell us which party offers Dom his new home.
As in all Le Carré’s spy novels, there is a God, an all-powerful being, above the fray, but stirring and managing it. In Agent Running in the Field, this God is Welsh, curiously Roman Catholic, though named Bryn for the Non-Conformist Chapel, the Pit and the Valley. Bryn, the top spy in The Office, lives in a gothic villa overlooking Hampstead Heath. He is inscrutable, unflappable and always one step ahead of his underlings. He is minded to be merciful, even as he plunges the knife into Nat.
Do you still love him? Not carnally. Love him for real?”
The knife draws out the muted, yet impassioned 
I’m fond of him, Bryn.” 
There it is, neatly opening the book’s final section, blazing under the typesetter’s star, to confirm its importance, on page 227 of the Viking 2019 paperback edition: the impulse that drives Nat to undertake Ed’sconvoluted and hectic salvation.
There are many other strong scenes, such as the interview between Nat and Bryn. Possibly the best is the dialogue between Nat and his daughter, Steff, on a ski slope. They ascend in a lift, then sweep down on skis in silence, before continuing the dialogue again. Steff, as headstrong as her father, huffs, when he reveals he is a spy. She sends him, and her mother, Prue, back out into the cold.
Is Le Carré having another laugh, naming Nat’s wife Prue? She’s an ace lawyer, focussing on pro bono work. She has major venom for Big Pharma (as does Le Carré himself, fair play to him). The reader learns how the young Nat and Prue made love in their flat in Moscow, where Nat’s cover was as a cultural attaché, with KGB listeners attentive to their every whimper, moan and call. Grim it is, yet the tone remains “Posy Simmonds”. 
In the end, Nat and Prue reprise their early Moscow spy-craft, to save the young couple in jeopardy. It is unclear how salvation will work itself out beyond the pages of the book.
Marriage is the remedy for the ills of determined women. Both Nat’s daughter, Steff, who reportedly had great fun with the boys at her boarding school, and Flo, Nat’s junior, who simply grows tired of lying and walks out of the Secret Service, end up engaged to be married to different men, concluding their parts in the narrative. It feels like a modern-day taming-of-the-shrew. Perhaps it is.
If The Spy who Came in from the Coldis a tragedy, Agent Running in the Field is a melodramatic romance. It may be a lesser work – a matter of opinion, obviously – but it is wonderfully written and entertaining. It offers the vicarious pleasures of subterfuge, the chase and a peek into the undercover activities of states. It is a human drama, played out, almost wistfully, against the bellowing background of the clashing tectonic plates of world affairs. 

Agent Running in the Field; book; John Le Carré; Viking, London, 2019

Friday, 29 November 2019


Anzio, Italy. World War 2.
Frank Sheeran, an American G.I. in full combat gear, carries an M1 carbine, standard issue for the infantry of the U.S. forces of the time.
Two German soldiers complete the digging of a hole in the forest floor. They climb out, throwing their shovels before them. Have they completed their task so well in the hope of gaining a reprieve?
There is no reprieve. Not in this war. Not in Frank Sheeran’s world, where the officer who ordered him to kill the German soldiers simply said: “And be quick about it.”
Frank Sheeran shoots both soldiers, who gasp in surprise, then tumble, with neat synchronicity, into their self-made grave. Frank Sheeran steps forward and fires again, applying coups de grace to both young men. 
There is no grace in the scene, though there is digital de-ageing of the character of Frank Sheeran, played with dour élan by Robert De Niro throughout the overlong telling of his life as a Mafia killer.
It is as if director Martin Scorsese (Taxi Driver, Mean Streets, Goodfellas, Raging Bull and many other acclaimed films) has created a summation of his own life’s work. It is yet one more telling of the life and times of a gangster psychopath, set in the sweeping context of historical events in America after World War 2. 
This film is paced to the metronome of a geriatric day-centre, right from the outset. See the cars: huge, sedate and lovingly pictured reversing round corners, in hearse-like motion, displaying their elegant tail fins.
Character development and plot advancement are largely achieved by dialogues that take place at tables with food and drink. Nobody is doing much running around. The delicious Italian practice of eating fresh bread with red wine appears throughout. The director loves this imagery of bread and wine – versions of it appear in many films, an image from his grand lore of Catholic rituals. There is, however, no resurrection from the dead, not for the young German soldiers nor for the numberless others Frank Sheeran later murders on behalf of his Mafia bosses and their Teamster Union associates. And of course, there is a baptism, the director’s central image of family regeneration and continuity.
The idyll of family life has a rotten core in Frank Sheeran’s case. His first marriage – to an Irish-American – ends as he deepens his relationship with his Mafia overlords by marrying a Siciliana-American. Did his first marriage unravel when his talent for following orders into deepening chasms of murderous violence became more obvious? He throws money on the kitchen table, saying he did well at the numbers, but Frank Sheeran is gambling on more than numbers. He is throwing dice, spotted with the lives of his family and of his victims. The scene where he pulverises the neighbourhood shopkeeper, with his bare hands, confirms what has been emerging. Frank Sheeran is a psychopath, very much at home within a Mafia family of psychopaths.
What choices does the director makin the way that scene, and others, are presented? Watching the film, the viewer asks, ‘what emotions are we supposed to be experiencing?’ Dismay, disgust, disbelief, disapproval? Coupled with the World War 2 scene, is this the scene that confirms that Frank Sheeran is a killer and the rest is no more than window-dressing on his vile actions?
The myth of de-ageing has a long legacy in art. Grappling for eternal youth is a trope found in literature and film, as well as in other forms. For Irish figures, we have Oisín in Tir na nÓg; Dorian Grey in is his portrait. And now we have the Italian-Irish Frank Sheeran/Robert De Niro, de-ageand ageing on the silver screen. There is no de-ageing for soldiers mouldering in the ground or gangsters, union bosses and others shot in the face. There is death, of course. Even for Frank Sheeran.
See the hunched figure of the aged and diabolical Joseph Kennedy, staring across the water from the deck of his house at his beloved Hyannis Port compound, where the Kennedy dynasty roosted. 
The film presents a chilling critique of organised power in its 20th century American forms. Organised labour. Organised business. Organised politics. Organised crime. It presents the manner in which they interweave and support one another to advance their several aims, using murder when tensions strain the existing order, causing violent convulsionto re-set the system.

Nowadays, young people, they don't know who Jimmy Hoffa was. They don't have a clue. I mean, maybe they know that he disappeared or something, but that's about it. But back then, there wasn't nobody in this country who didn't know who Jimmy Hoffa was.

Personal and national histories are woven into the telling. Frank Sheeran’s father was a house painter. Frank uses the euphemism ‘I paint house’ for his murdering. All of the action takes place in the aftermath of World War 2, with the intersection of economic development with organised crime, capital and labour sharpening the stakes, for all the actors; state, criminal and labour. See the rise of the young Kennedys, in law and politics, the emergence of Jimmy Hoffa in The Teamsters Union and the strengthening of the power of Mafia families. The use of Union pension funds as investments in Mafia casinos in Las Vegas is the key driver of the film. Pressure from Robert Kennedy, as Attorney General, seeking to bring Jimmy Hoffa and Mafia associates before the courts triggers Frank Sheeran’s violent actions. Not only does he pull triggers, but he also gets involved in supplying them to the mercenaries, US military personnel and exiles, making up the CIA-backed Brigade 2506, attacking Cuba as the infamous Bay of Pigs invasion. They were beaten back by local forces, commanded by Ché Guevara. 
Throughout the mayhem of this period of US history, Frank Sheeran kept taking orders, as he had in World War 2. He kept obeying and killing. It is no coincidence, perhaps, that the waning of Frank Sheeran's murderous career, in the organisation he served, coincidewith the rise of Black activism, the civil rights movements and the domestic refusal to unanimously support the new war in Viet Nam.

If they can whack a President, they can whack a president of a union. You know it and I know it.

This epic context is present, but kept in the background, as the film uses a road trip with two middle-aged couples to tell the killing of Jimmy Hoffa. Or a least tell Frank’s version of it, as Hoffa’s body has never been found. The director uses his A-list cast: De Niro as Frank Sheeran, Al Pacino as Jimmy Hoffa and Joe Pesci as Russell Bufalino, the Mafia boss. They are all terrific, Joe Pesci, in particular. There will be Oscar nominations. Women characters are well in the rear. African American characters come late and are marginal. All the cast play well, none more so than Scouser Stephen Graham as Anthony ‘Tony Pro’ Provenzano.

Then who? 
I'm gonna tell you. Tony. 
Tony. Which Tony? They're all named Tony. I mean, what's the matter? Italians, they can only think of one name.

Frank’s daughter, Peggy, is possibly the only actively moral person we see in the film. She is living the American dream in her own way, working as a teller in a bank, where she refuses to serve her father. The shield of security glass between them chillingly reflects the prison visits she never made.
What emotions are being offered in this final sequence, this slow, long-winded slide to the grave down the chute of an old folks’ home? Is the director seeking to evoke sympathy? Should we empathise with the murderer, while he rebuffs opportunities to express regret and seek forgiveness from his putative God, via the earnest young priest? 
The music is terrific throughout, from the do-wop of The Satins to the strings of The Barefoot Contessa, with scenes cut to the music and given crisp tone and shape by the edits. The music brings us back to the 50s and 60s USA from which much of contemporary, global pop culture arises.
The viewer lives through the legacy of these times, Frank Sheeran’s times, when orders were obeyed, when capital, crime and labour contested with each other, when psychopaths did the bidding of their bosses. Much like today.

Would you like to be a part of this, Frank? Would you like to be a part of this history? 
Yes, I would. Whatever you need me to do, I'm available.

The Irishman, film, Martin Scorsese, Tribeca Productions et al., 2019

Thursday, 21 November 2019


A Flourish for Ethan: on the occassion of his naming, 21.11.2019 

There is a piece of Gaelic wisdom which goes

Mol an óige agus tiocfaidh sí.

It translates to English as

Praise the young and they will flourish.

Dá bhrí sin, molaim Ethan agus tiochfaidh sé.

Thus, I praise Ethan and he will flourish,

Mar atá sé tagtha go dtí an lá seo

As he has flourished to this day.

Molaim Zoë, Brian agus Arlo agus tiochfaidh siadsan.

I praise Zoë, Brian and Arlo and they will flourish.

Agus sinne, fosta. Comhluadar Ethan.

And us, too. Ethan’s family and company.

Molaim muidne agus tiochfaidh muid. Le Ethan.

I praise us and we will flourish. With Ethan.

Friday, 1 November 2019


Blow, blow, thou winter wind,
Thou art not so unkind
As man's ingratitude;
The people of the UK woke up this morning to the shocking news that, despite his vehement promise, their Prime Minister had not been found dead in a ditch. Searches up and down the Kingdom, covering England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland, where ditches are particularly many, tangled and deep, revealed them all to be void of a Prime Minister. There was a surfeit of cans, plastic bottles, tattered Halloween outfits, used condoms, busted wardrobes by the dozen and a number of bed frames and mattresses showing evidence of people having been busy making the beast with two backs.
The UK Prime Minister gave a solemn promise that he would die in a ditch if UKexit/Brexit did not happen at Halloween. The fact that ditches across the UK do not contain a dead Prime Minister leads to a number of speculations:
Firstly, that the Prime Minister has fallen into a ditch at sea.
And having thrown him from your watery grave,
Here to have death in peace is all he'll crave.

That he’s somewhere on the shipping lane between Belfast and Liverpool, resting on a wet border in a seabed of new tariffs.
Secondly, that though he has indeed passed, he has not passed into immortality in a ditch, but, through the zombie machinations of arch-ghoul Dominic Cummings, who wears a permanent false face, regardless of season, that the Prime Minister is no longer human, but is, in fact, a changeling, taken by the Other World and returned to the UK even more malevolent, damaged and flawed than before, no longer to be named Boris, but from now on to be known as Síofra.
With that in mind, UK voters will enter dreary booths in December and adjust their preferences accordingly. Otherworldly promises will be made, gifts offered, platitudes, enticements and appeasements laid before them.
So, let's see: it was told me I should be
rich by the fairies. This is some changeling:
open't. What's within, boy? 
The election will decide if UK subjects will be ruled by a Síofra or by a human, a much-traduced human, in the person of the leader of the Opposition, who is variously coloured ‘flaming red’ and ‘dithering magnolia’.
Meanwhile … 
Number of food parcels given out across UK soars 73% in five year
New data released today shows April 2018 to March 2019 to be the busiest year for food banks in the Trussell Trust’s network since the charity opened. During the past year, 1,583,668 three-day emergency food supplies were given to people in crisis in the UK. More than half a million of these (577,618) went to children. This is an 18.8% increase on the previous year.
The main reasons for people needing emergency food are benefits consistently not covering the cost of living (33%), and delays or changes to benefits being paid.

Quake in the present winter's state and wish
That warmer days would come:

Friday, 16 August 2019


A friend told me he saw a copy of my play, DENIZEN, on the ground in the Guildhall Square. I don’t know if he picked it up.
Perhaps it was dropped by a District Councillor going into a meeting with The Mayor. Perhaps it fell from a backpacker’s backpack or from the bumbag of a coach-tourist. Perhaps it was discarded by a reader who couldn’t wait to be rid of it. Perhaps local gilet jaune launched it at the symbolic centre of civic power in the main square of our city, in a gesture of resistance and dissent.
I was reminded of one of the options I gave myself when I wrote thplay in 2013, with the support of the District Council, via their UK City of Culture programme. If I couldn't manage anything else, I would read the text in public from the steps of the Guildhall.
I was struggling to find a producer and create a production, so a solo reading was worth considering. There is an egotism at the foundation of writing a play. Sometimes the playwright can’t hide behind actors and technicians.
The District Council’s UK City of Culture programme was controversial. The very idea that Derry Londonderry, our city on the northwest edge of Europe, in Ireland and in a political union with Britain, should be considered a UK city, was controversial.
The organisers of thprogramme advised that artists wishing to make work on challenging and difficult matters relating tthe controversies could seek funds from money thecontrolled.
Such work had been part of my theatre practice for a number of years (Plays in a Peace Process; Dave Duggan; Guildhall Press, 2008). I thought I had concluded that work, with ceasefires and a peace process in place. My practice turned to narrative forms – novels, memoirs.
The presence and activities of republicans dissenting from the majority of republicans, who were engaging with the political process, sometimes reluctantly, drew my personal, artistic and professional attention.
Violence and how to lessen it has long been a focus of my practice. Conflict is at the heart of theatre. Conflict is not the problem. Violence, direct and indirect, manifest and latent, is.
I asked myself: “Could a dissident militant keep to that political position, using tactics other than violence?”
Such an abstract question is far removed from the material of drama, but soon a character – Denizen – emerged and developed; a story grew around him; a performative device – the speech from the dock – was harnessed to hold the work together in a manner that could engage an audience and – the key insight – I wrote the play in verse, in a heightened form of language used by Shakespeare and others.
I put poetic iambic pentameter, showing lyrical and brutal images, in the mouth of the militant, many people, including former comrades, referred to as ‘scum.’
I’d had enough of that language.
One of the capacities of theatre is the ability to elaborate, present and test new language, both within the work itself and within the thoughts and emotions of audiences and readers.

I entered the woods at the end of the day.
Hardly woods, a stand of Autumn trees, 
Behind the craggy hill that is my home.
A secret place that calms me when it can. 
Underfoot, mulch to hide my arms within, 
A cache for a handgun and some blunt rounds.
A sanctuary and a holy ground.

In the end I didn’t have to read the play off the steps of The Guildhall. Creggan Enterprises gave it a home and got a producer. They engaged a splendid actor to play Denizen, with a terrific technical crew and supporting cast. They staged it in their supermarket foyer, a covered village square, in Creggan and in the court houses in Strabane and Derry. I directed it.
The play text was published (DENIZEN, Guildhall Press, 2014), a copy of which my friend came upon in The Guildhall Square.
It made it there after all.

Hands I clasp more vital than hands you cuff.
Rocks cemented more solid than rocks thrown. 
Shoulders bound stronger than shoulders apart.
I will not collude the state’s gun-toting
And pledge to transform my righteous anger
Into a manifesto of the new.

DENIZEN: a verse drama; Dave Duggan; Guildhall Press; Derry, 2014