Thursday, 26 November 2009

Brazil, Belfast punk and Celtic Rock

I bought Welcome to Gomorrah by Niall Quinn (not the soccer player) in a Dundalk bookshop 15 years ago after reading the blurb. I was very taken with it at the time and read it three or four times but haven't read it in maybe 10 years.
Yet when I was setting up this blog last year and compiling my favourite books it was one of the ones I immediately included.
Reading it again I would have to argue that it is not a great novel but it is a fine piece of writing. Publishers would probably reject it now because it is too self-consciously literary, too much tell and not enough show and the author's voice constantly drowns out the action with interjections and polemics.
It tells the story of an unnamed narrator who arrives by ship from Europe in Brazil. He is a 'broken man', a mental wreck and with just $60 in his pocket believes that he will not survive long in South America.
He meets Lia, a young prostitute, who tells him he will be mugged and killed before he gets to the end of the street and she escorts him from the docks.
The story is probably predictable, the bitter, damaged man who finds salvation through a 'tart with a heart'.
Lia and the narrator, who is an Irish writer, become lovers. Their stories unravel along with Quinn's critique of the sort of society that brings girls like Lia to the street and others to the point of such absolute poverty that they crawl on a park bench to die while the better off turn their heads to ignore them.
It is an angry novel which Quinn uses as a vehicle to prosecute global capitalism for its crimes against huge swathes of the world's population.
It also follows the downfall of its narrator whose single book was lauded and praised in Dublin and earned him a literary prize which would allow him to study in the US for two years with all fees paid and a living allowance.
Yet when he gets to the university they have never heard of him. I tried goolging Niall Quinn to find out more to see if this element of the novel was autobiographical (it does have the feel of a lived story) but could find few references between the hundred for the soccer player of the same name.
He is soon living hand to mouth in abject poverty with no-one seeming to accept blame for his situation. Even when he is given an airfare back to Ireland he is regarded as a pariah (what had he done to offend the university he was sent to and abuse the literary honour he had been given?). He is not even able to claim the dole because he is regarded as having left his job in the US.
He goes to England, at the time of the miners strike, where he sees thousands of once-proud working people reduced to demonised jobless in Thatacher's Britain. He tries to take his own life but although he is saved he regards the man he was before as dead and the person who was pulled from the exhaust fume-filled car as a distortion of what he once was.
It is this wreck that arrives in Brazil and through Lia creates manages to re-engage with the world.
Welcome to Gomorrah is a novel of the underbelly of society and the narrator makes money by agreeing to launder money... some good tips here on how to forge passports (before the days of digitalisation), steal identities, and to wash illegal money through casinos, buying and selling jewellery and used cars.
It is a novel of attitude and Quinn is as concerned with making his sociological observations as he is with telling a story.
Tonight I bought another book to add to my already teetering unread pile but since the author and two of the main protagonists were in the vicinity I thought why not.
I first saw Stiff Little Fingers when I was 15 and have seen them half a dozen times since in various incarnations. I don't think their music as aged as well as The Undertones, or even The Sex Pistols or The Clash but maybe that is because their lyrics were so much of a time and place.
Some of the main participants of that time in place where in the John Hewitt bar in Belfast for the launch Roland Link's "Kicking Up a Racket - The Story of Stiff Little Fingers 1977-1983 inclduing the band's first drummer Brian Faloon (who played on Inflammable Material) and his successor Jim Reilly, who played on the next two studio albums and the still-superb live album Hanx.
Other faces, were Good Vibrations impresario Terri Hooley, Outcast Greg Cowan and Rudi's Brian Young.
At more than 350 pages the book looks as if it might give details of what brand of guitar strings the band were using in 1978 but SLF were the soundtrack to my youth so I can take that sort of indulgence.
I will of course now have to dig out my various SLF albums to listen to while I read which fits in with current musical mood as I've been listening to the compilation John Peel: Right Time Wrong Speed.
Alternative Ulster by SLF is on there, as is You've Got My Number by The Undertones. Other stand-out tracks are by The Wedding Present, Killing Joke, The Fall, Misty in Roots, Joy Division, Half Man Half Biscuit and even Ivor Cuttler.
Mind you there will be a distinct change in musical genres this week. I've already started dipping into The Tain, The Book of Invasions and the obscure and rather good Drive The Cold Winter Away by Horslips ahead of their reunion gig in the Odyssey Arena in Belfast.
Eamon Carr, who is for me probably the most interesting - he went on to become a journalist and also wrote a travelogue following the journeys of the Japanese haikuist Basho – has said he won't be playing, yet when I saw them on TV at the weekend he was behind the kit. See the footage here.
Will have to almost change my mindset from punk and post-punk to the glam infused absurdity that was Celtic Rock. Ach, sin scéal eile

1 comment:

Fionnchú said...

Tony, I am duly sending this on to the doyenne of Horslipsiana via FB. Thanks for a trio of intriguing references: I'd heard of Niall Quinn's book somehow but assumed it was another football player's ghostwritten bio. The novel sounds much much better.