Thursday, 5 May 2022


I’m in a hospital waiting room, jotting down notes. Two men and a woman also wait. We’re seated in well-spaced chairs and wearing masks. A doctor in blue clinic-scrubs and a caramel hijab comes to the water-fountain, fills a plastic cup and, looking out of the window at the building work below, pauses for a moment.

A nurse calls out “Roy Carney”. A thin man gets up and, supported by a woman, gingerly steps forward. They follow the nurse to a consultation room. The doctor turns from the window and returns to the clinic.

Roy Carney? Close enough for me to consider it a synchronicity, even an affirming omen. The notes I write are on Colson Whitehead’s current novel, Harlem Shuffle. The protagonist in Whitehead’s story is Ray Carney, furniture dealer and crook.

After a soft opening of backstory and scene setting, the book plunges Ray Carney and the reader into The Harlem Riot of 1964, which sizzled in a heatwave between July 16 and 22. James Powell, a 15-year-old African American, was shot and killed by police Lieutenant Thomas Gilligan in front of Powell's friends and about a dozen other witnesses. The riot followed. 

Igniting the story in this time and place makes it a forcibly contemporary historical American novel. Police officers continue to kill African American children. 

At the end of the riots, reports counted one dead rioter, 118 injured, and 465 arrested.

But not Ray Carney, who continues to develop his furniture sales’ business and gear up his criminal activities by getting involved with a jewellery heist at a famous Harlem landmark, Hotel Theresa. The step for Carney from low-level fence of stolen goods to an active participant in a sophisticated criminal venture is instigated by his cousin Freddie.

Family is important to Carney. His father’s legacy, a villainous one, set him up in business. His mother and his aunt, Freddie’s mother, are hard-working matriarchs who hold Carney’s esteem. His wife Elizabeth and their children, May and John, hold Carney’s loyalty and love. His attachment to his cousin Freddie underscores the novel, right to the very end. Family sticks.

The American Dream of material betterment drives the story. Carney aspires to and achieves a home for his family on Riverside Drive. Driving and striving later secure him the greatest prize, when Carney supplants his patronising in-laws, by achieving the much sought-after historic Harlem address of Strivers’ Row. Carney’s part in his in-laws comeuppance is a side-benefit of his revenge play against a banker who stifled his striving by barring his admission to Harlem’s African American elite. 

Carney as a character and the actions of the book place Harlem Shuffle in an American crime novel tradition exemplified by the works of Elmore Leonard and Sara Paretsky. It is perhaps closest to the Los Angeles late 1940s crime novel Devil in a Blue Dress and other work by Walter Mosley. Might there be a film version with younger versions of Denzil Washington as Carney and Don Cheadle as Freddie? 

Moral behaviour is complex, venal actions underpin material progress, cops are self-serving and Carney admits to himself that he may not be able to sustain his double life as a furniture retailer and crook for very much longer. The 1960s move the African American experience into a form of modernity wherein social and class divisions intensify, while race divisions deepen.

Women characters are present but marginal. They are waitresses and hookers, one of whom plays a crucial role in Carney’s revenge caper. Elizabeth’s job in the Black Star Travel Agency improves, as African Americans’ ability to vacation at home and abroad increases, but she does not participate in either of her husband’s commercial ventures.

The history of Manhattan is present throughout the novel. The early Dutch colonisers survive in the Van Wyck family, the real estate magnates who animate the book’s final third through a relationship with Freddie. The Dutch colony of the late 1650s led by Peter Stuyvesant created the settlement of Nieuw Haarlem in the northern part of the island of Manhattan as an outpost of Nieuw Amsterdam at the southern tip of the island. When English colonisers over-ran the Dutch, the name was Anglicised to Harlem. Scant mention is made of the Lenape people who inhabited the island before the colonisers arrived. 

The reader is left to wonder at the end of this fine book how the drive and legacy of Carney and his community will play into the future where the killing of African American children by police officers remains.

Like all great crime fiction, this is a morality tale, set pert as a diamond on a stolen ring in a particular time and place. The detailed descriptions of home furnishing of the period are lovingly presented, vivid in themselves and redolent with the desire for material acquisition. Carney gets caught up in a crush downtown, when a nuclear attack drill is called, while he is on his way to transact a deal with stolen goods. He never otherwise stands so close to white people. 

The words “crook” and “crooked” echo throughout the book and resonate down the centuries.

Harlem Shuffle by Colson Whitehead is highly recommended.

Strivers’ Row, Manhattan, New York'+Row,+New+York,+NY+10030,+USA/@40.8181081,-73.9512673,15z/data=!4m5!3m4!1s0x89c2f67099017971:0xbd386814b9d388d!8m2!3d40.8183185!4d-73.9436973

Devil in a Blue Dress, film

See also Reading the Nickel Boys by Dave Duggan

Wednesday, 27 April 2022


A man on the radio said his mother was felled by a stroke. He phoned for an ambulance. It came three hours later. He had phoned for an ambulance when his father had a heart attack, thirty years before. The ambulance came in seventeen minutes.

The man wondered how that could be possible, given that the internet is now widespread, services are digitally connected and mobile phones are more or less universal in his locality.

That's progress, he said.

The proliferation of modern technologies was queried by a rail passenger, on a different radio programme. She still had the small cardboard ticket her grandfather used for return journey from London Euston to Fintown, in the west Donegal Gaeltacht. He went to Euston Station, bought the ticket from a person at a ticket booth, received his small token of carriage, boarded trains that made good connections, crossed the Irish Sea by ferry, boarded more trains, enjoying further, straightforwardconnections and arrived safe and sound at his home place, Baile na Finne. He was able to make his emigrant’s return on the same ticket, just as seamlessly. 

The woman explained that she could not make such a journey now. There is no train from Fintown, with onward rail and sea connections to Euston. There are buses, each ticketed separated, so she would end up with a sheaf of paper or a mix of paper and digital imprints on her mobile phone (which she would have to keep charged and linked to the internet, should she have a problem). The days of the tidy through-ticket are over.

That’s progress, she said.

The local pub shows English and European soccer games. Sometimes the pub is crowded, mainly with younger men, present to have a drink and take in the game. Many of them do not watch the screens, ranged on the walls. They watch the screens on their phones, not to view the action of the players, but to monitor the progress of their bets. The bets are placed on all manner of wagers: who will score first? who will get the first corner? will the game end in a score draw? The players are not athletes or sports-people. They are gamblers. Sometimes the wagers are combined into complex multipliers and combinations, building a tower of risk and doubt that topples like a gangly jenga.

That’s progress, the on-line bookmaker said.

Universal credit, cut by £20 a week in October, will rise by just 3.1 per cent, while inflation could soon exceed 8 per cent. Households will be around £1100 worse off over the coming year. (The average annual spend on groceries is more than £1300 per person, so those living on the poverty line will effectively have their food budget wiped out.) An additional 1.3 million people, including half a million children, will be tipped into absolute poverty as their household incomes sink below 60 per cent of the 2011 median.

A cost-of-living advisor said that our homes are full of vampire devices, which gobble the life-blood of our incomes by sucking electricity into themselves, even when they are not in use. “Stand by” mode is gobble-juice mode. Radios, tvs, microwaves, Alexas, computers and every other domestic power-user wastes energy and costs money just by being ready and convenient. There are many more such vampires in the home and the urge to have more is fuelled by advertisers daily. Our houses are Transylvania crammed with Draculas, hungry for electrical juice.

That’s progress, the advisor said.

Apples are up by 25 per cent, margarine by 31 per cent, milk by 7 per cent. Food is more expensive and people have less to spend. Food bank users are turning down rice and pasta because of the cost of boiling a pan of water. Worse is to come. Ammonium nitrate fertiliser has risen from £280 to £1000 a tonne in the last year, reflecting the increased cost of the energy required to produce it. Crop yields will suffer, and food prices will continue to rise.

In wealthy Western countries, hospitals have less beds, doctors and nurses. Food banks proliferate. High street banks cut opening hours, further dehumanising financial transactions between people. People who want to use cash are nicknamed recalcitrants, Luddites, un-modern.

That’s progress, the banker said.

The UK government has responded by lifting the energy price cap by 54 per cent, protecting companies from taking the hit despite the fact that the Big Six – British Gas, EDF, E.ON, npower, Scottish Power and SSE – have made £7 billion in profit over the last five years. With the new cap in place, household fuel bills will rise by £700 over the course of the year.

That’s progress, radio listeners said.

Rebecca Solnit writes: Hope is not a lottery ticket you can sit on the sofa and clutch, feeling lucky. It is an axe you break down doors with in an emergency. Hope should shove you out the door, because it will take everything you have to steer the future away from endless war, from the annihilation of the earth's treasures and the grinding down of the poor and marginal. To hope is to give yourself to the future – and that commitment to the future is what makes the present inhabitable.

Quotes from What it Costs to Live

Arianne Shahvisi, London Review of Books, 21.4.2022

Hope In The Dark, book, Rebecca Solnit, Haymarket Books, Chicago, 2010.

Monday, 21 March 2022


Three jesters stood at a street litter bin, resting after the carnival parade had finished. They wore sparkly costumes, with bells hanging from their hats. They dangled ribbon batons in their hands. A family group came up to them – two grandparents, a grandson and his friend. The jesters gave the boys the batons and showed them how to twirl their ribbons into colourful spirals. Two more people joined the group. Everyone began to chat, as the boys played and passers-by smiled. It was a joyful end-of-carnival moment. 

The adult conversations ranged across the parade, the spectacle, how good it was to be able to celebrate St. Patrick’s Day after the shutdowns of the pandemic, family matters, the weather and the invasion of Ukraine by military forces led by the Russian President, Vladimir Putin.

The discussion turned to the question of sanctions and the price of oil and gas. Would supplies from Russia be blocked? Would prices rise yet further? Where would supplies come from?

One man said that Saudi Arabia had executed 8people.

A council worker, a front-liner cleaning the city’s streets, came up and refreshed the litter bin, clearing up around it.

He spoke to the group: “I heard what ye were saying. About Saudi Arabia. There’s things going on in the world the media doesn’t tell us about at all.”

He moved on, performing his role in the city’s response to the post-carnival litter.

The jesters and the others went home to the news that the ferry company P&O had summarily sacked 800 staff. 

P&O is owned by DP World, based in Dubai. DP World purchased P&O, then the fourth largest ports operator in the world, for £3.9 billion. The acquisition was supported by US president George Bush. The company is headed by Sultan Ahmed Bin Sulayem.

Reports circulate in British and other media that government and business figures were aware of the company’s plans to use ex-military security people to run their own staff off their ships.

This was no jest. It was not part of the St. Patrick’s Day carnival. It was a poisonous act by the venomous snakes that Patrick didn’t get round to running off. 

Bono wrote a poem for St. Patrick’s Day and opened a poisonous pit of Paddywhackery. US Democrat Speaker of the House of Representatives, Nancy Pelosi, read the poem on Ukraine, described, on-line, as the worst poem ever written. It is reported that the audience burst into strained laughter, as the poem finished.

It reads, in part, as

That's when saints can appear

To drive out those old snakes once again

And they struggle for us to be free

From the psycho in our human family

Ireland's sorrow and pain

Is now the Ukraine

Bono’s cover for hobnobbing with rich and powerful liars and war-mongers, including Putin, at the World Economic Forum in Davos and elsewhere, is that he is no more than a loveable jester. 

An appeal to poetry is worthy, but fragile and unreliable. Ironically, on St. Patrick’s Day, the English poet Simon Armitage makes a better fist of it than the begorrahness of the Irish rock star.

But even Armitage falters.

It’s war again: the woman in black gives sunflower seeds to the soldier, insists 

his marrow will nourish the national flower. In dreams

let bullets be birds, let cluster bombs burst into flocks. 

The street cleaner and his colleagues are on strike this week, trying to secure a fair income for their work.

Neither Bono, Putin nor the Sultan are joining them.

There’s things going on in the world the media doesn’t tell us about at all. 

Especially in the gold-lined snake-pits.

Bono's poem and reaction

Simon Armitage poem

Friday, 18 March 2022

The Death of the Irish Language?

Here's the link to a piece of mine on language and colonialism, in the Dublin Review of Books.

Could people in Ireland be speaking Spanish rather than English?

Tuesday, 1 March 2022


The Putin regime in Russia launched an invasion of Ukraine last week, following on from the annexation of the Crimea region of the country in 2014. Attempts to understand, explain and predict the outcome of the current invasion falter ignominiously. Negotiations are underway as bombs fall, missiles destroy buildings, paratroopers land at airfields, tanks roar down country roads and across farmland, while local people die, flee or cower in whatever shelter is to hand.

There are a number of recent precedents for this process. The infernal exit of US and allied forces from Afghanistan has barely cooled on international media platforms. Assaults on Iraq, continuing attacks on Yemen and interventions in Syria and Libya asserted the same rationale: the need to defend people from the power of a desperate leader in an unwanted government or to re-integrate territories and ethnic groups in terms of a disputed historical argument.

The tone and content of reporting by Western European state-sponsored and independent media of the atrocities in Ukraine differs from the tone and content of those other interventions.

The change of tone and address occurs because Ukraine is not Ukrainistan.

The civilians, armed forces and militias who fight back against the invaders are not termed terrorists. They are termed heroes, using weaponry sold to them by arms manufacturers, largely state-supported, including a shoulder-held bazooka made in Belfast. A Unionist political leader asserted that people in Northern Ireland should be proud of this. He is preparing for election to the government Assembly. He intends to be a power-broker in the final shake-down. Will he support sales of bazookas to olive farmers under attack by Israeli-state supported settlers in Palestine? Will he advocate putting them in the hands of civilians in Afghanistan or Yemen?

War is good for business, depending on who is dealing. Selling fighter jets to the Saudi regime is good. Selling bazookas to Houthi militias is bad. Unless it takes place secretly. Who’s to know then? It’s just business after all, as dramatist George Bernard Shaw had arms manufacturer Undershaft, in his 1905 play Major Barbara, say

Think of my business! think of the widows and orphans! the men and lads torn to pieces with shrapnel and poisoned with lyddite, the oceans of blood, not one drop of which is shed in a really just cause! the ravaged crops! the peaceful peasants forced, women and men, to till their fields under the fire of opposing armies on pain of starvation! the bad blood of the fierce little cowards at home who egg on others to fight for the gratification of their national vanity! All this makes money for me: I am never richer, never busier than when the papers are full of it. 

The nexus of international finance, fossil-fuel and armaments economies that underpins the current world order drives land-grabbing, resource-hogging and human slaughtering by poverty and war. It is run by the power blocs: US/NATO/EU/RUSSIA/CHINA, and their satellite proxies, bashing up against each other like rowdy drunks jostling to get to the bar, as if they were thoughtless, inanimate and abstract tectonic plates.

But they are neither thoughtless, inanimate nor abstract. They are real, driven by the worst of human traits: hypocrisy, greed, sectarianism and racism. 

Reports are emerging of African and South-Asian workers and students being stopped at the Polish border, after being separated from Ukrainian fellows, who move onto sanctuary in an EU-country. The Africans and South-Asians are pushed back into the war zone. For them, it is Ukrainistan. The global economy doesn’t favour all equally.

As well as the annexation of Crimea in 2014, the current Russian invasion follows the brutal war between Russia and Chechnya from 1994 to 2017. There will be more. And the stock markets will continue to rise. The Undershafts of the world will continue to make money. Until people in Russia refuse to join the invading army. Until EU/NATO/EU/US/CHINESE citizens say ‘not in our name’ and refuse to work for the arms manufacturers and the war mongers.

Writing in 2016, in a prescient supplement in the New York literary journal n+1, Russian-American novelist Keith Gessen described a grim Pentagon press conference, following Russian interventions in Syria.

Some people at home,” one of the journalists posited, “would say that the Russians are giving the middle finger to the United States. How do you respond?” It was, on the one hand, a fair question; it was, on the other hand, an American journalist urging the Pentagon — the Pentagon! — to adopt a more warlike stance. Which is interesting and indicative. We do still live in a democracy, after all. Maybe not today and maybe not tomorrow, but these journalists will eventually get their war.”

Not in our name!

Major Barbara, George Bernard Shaw, stage-play, Court Theatre, London, 1905