Archie McDougall 5/7/1959—12/5/2021. RIP.

this is what a best man looks like (Archie on the right).

My brother Bod phoned to tell me Archie was dead. It was quick. I rolled out the platitudes. He was his pal, much more than mine. Archie only came to Clydebank once. And I was trying to work out when that was. I’d guess about ten years ago. Makadin (Davie Glen and Gordon Ritchie) were playing the bowling club beside my old school, St Andrews. That’s now housing. My next-door neighbour was there with his wife, and he’s now got dementia. I just went along to boo the band and meet up with Archie and Bod. Young Bod was seventeen and shouldn’t have been drinking. We went next door to play pool and laugh like schoolboys that had forgotten their homework and sneaked away from the band that was playing in the main hall.

Archie liked his music and could carry a tune. I’m the kind of guy the music teacher hands the triangle and asks them not to sing, and don’t dare move my lips, unless it was to say I was leaving. So we didn’t have that in common.

We both loved Celtic. Archie was born in 1958, the same year as Elaine C Smith, whom he looked a bit like, but with more of a belly laugh. Archie perched specs on the end of his nose to look down at you with that quizzical expression—that meant, fuck off with those kind of jokes.

1958, The same year ‘Gentleman John Ramensky’ British Second Word War hero and Scotland’s most notorious safe blower escaped from Peterhead’s maximum security prison for the third time was captured delivering gold, frankincense and myrrh to Archie’s Ma. She refused the gifts because they were knocked off.  Archie was four years older than me, but he’d tell me he looked younger because he’d hair, and was better looking, anyway. We both watched Casey Jones coming down the track on BBC Saturday morning telly and Zorro, with his swishing black cape, would make an appearance, cutting into the night like his mate Baz. And the other three wise men

Old Joe took Grangemouth’s three wise men, Bod, Baz and Archie in the opposite direction to show them the delights of his homeland. We all know about old Joe, who played international football with Ferenc Puskás, but escaped to the West and ended up in Grangemouth of all places. Did they make it out of the equivalent of the Hungarian Ship Inn? Answers on a postcard to yourself. That was 2016. Archie was hitting his peak season.

Bod joked Archie had another marriage in him. I think he was married three times and had eight more children than the Waltons. When I went to see Bod in Grangemouth, I saw Archie. Kevin had just started working and I’d first met Archie in The Ship Inn. The last time we were out, I’d a couple of cans in his house while we watched some of the Celtic game and went into the town. We might even have been treble-treblers. So that must have been two years ago, before lockdown. Three pints and I was drunk and ready for my bed.  

When Bod was having a hard time, Archie was the best man. For the second time, he stepped in and gave him a place to stay, and that was that. Deeds, not words, are what you’re remembered for.

Archie could be a bit forgetful. Perched on a barstool in Budapest’s Ferenc Liszt International Airport he closed his eyes for a moment and the flight home to Glasgow left without him. Old Joe couldn’t take him anywhere. That would be one of Archie’s last holidays abroad.

He worked to live, not lived to work. His last job was with the council, but before that he was a lorry driver. He was in no hurry to get anywhere; he liked to have a couple of pints in the local boozers with his mates. Listen to music, tell you it was shite, crack a pint glass on top of another to liven it up, give it bubbly. Archie liked to do a bit of moaning, but not about anything too serious. I’ll miss Archie, not because of his moping, but because he was one of the good guys. He was a distant pal. For my brother Bod, it will be like losing a brother. He was his best man in so many ways. RIP.      

Saved by a Stranger, BBC 2, BBC iPlayer, Presenter Anita Rani and Director Toby Trackman.

Brixton born Marc

https://www.bbc.co.uk/iplayer/episode/m000vlpr/saved-by-a-stranger-series-1-1-karl-and-emina

https://www.bbc.co.uk/iplayer/episode/m000vszb/saved-by-a-stranger-series-1-2-marc-and-peter

 The format for this serious is simple, and it’s in the title. People who have been caught up in some traumatic, life-changing event, and some stranger has stepped in to help them. I’m sure I watched the last series, but can’t remember if I did. It’s a feel-good programme.  

The cynical part of me suspects if  an American documentary maker made this programme there would be supernatural elements, but the only angels here are real people. Anita Rani meets with Karl and Emina in the first episode and Marc and Peter in the second episode and does a bit of acting: Will we find these strangers, she asks? That’s like asking will Kylie and Jason Donovan marry in the final episode of Neighbours—of course they will—and live happily ever after?

Karl was in the train carriage where 26 people died on London’s Piccadilly underground line on the 7/7/2005 (another 26 died when a bomb went off on a bus). He was a student dancer, training to be a professional. After the explosion, he prayed to God to let him out, ‘I won’t be gay any more’, was his bargaining chip. God knew he was lying, because He was God, but He also had foreknowledge of the 7/7 bombings and that Karl would push past the stranger that held his hand and told him it would be alright, in his rush to escape from the carriage.

God would also know about the atrocities in Sarajevo during the Bosnia and Herzegovina war in 1992. He would know that a doctor would arrange for Emina and her sister, Edina, who required surgery and had Down’s syndrome to escape on a bus, taking young mothers and kids out of the sieged state to live in Birmingham. God would know that some of the older boys would be taken off buses and shot, and buried in mass graves. Buses would be blown up crossing bridges. But Emina and Edina and their mother would make it to safety. He would know that their dad made the right choice not getting on the bus, despite their mother begging him. And he too would join them in Britain. God would know Britain hates refugees—and poor people, in particular, even their own citizens that have the wrong colour of skin— but since this is a feel-good story, we’ll kid on we don’t. He’ll know that Anita Rani will go through the charade of not being able to find the paediatric doctor who now lives and worked in Holland.

God, despite hating gay people, killing them with AIDs, and in the words of former police chief of Greater Manchester, Sir James Anderton, ‘swirling around in a cesspit of their own making’ will know he’ll get the backing of Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher, and Brixton born black boy Marc will be diagnosed with HIV at the age of seventeen. Marc will find a saviour in a counsellor called John (Wilks) and a place of safety in the Landmark Centre. God will know that the Tories will unleash savage policies in the name of fiscal prudence which took money from the poor to give to the rich and shut off local authority programmes like Surestart and close places like the Landmark Centre.

God will know about the Troubles in Northern Ireland. He’ll know about the Brexit border and every lie that Boris Johnson has told. Yet, God will know that the English voters found the little Trump to be good. He’ll know about Peter being shot in the legs by Ulster Protestant paramilitaries in 1979, and how his wife suffered post-traumatic stress disorder hit the booze and died young. God knows Peter will make it and have a pile of grandchildren and three great-grandchildren. Peter will never forget the angel, a nurse called Betsy that pulled him through his darkest days in hospital. God knows Anita Rami will go through the usual hee-haw of being unable to find her, but then, suddenly, a chink of light. Ahhhhhhhhh…that’s nice.    

Rangers 4—1 Celtic.

spot the Ajer swerve?

Rangers 4—1 Celtic.

I expected Celtic to win this one. As I expected them to win the last match against Rangers in the Scottish Cup. I’m Celtic daft that way. Rangers do the clean-sweep of Celtic.  There was talk of John Kennedy getting the Celtic manager’s job. The argument went like this, all he had to do was beat Rangers at Ibrox, win the Scottish Cup and go through the rest of the season unbeaten, and create momentum. Neil Lennon did it after Judas Rodgers left. After the Scottish Cup defeat we went to Pittodrie and got a 1—1 draw. As meaningless fixture as this one you wouldn’t have expected a largely unchanged team. A team that excels in spurning chances and concedes regularly from corners and free kicks. Losing half their goals from most teams in the league that way and before this game, conceding four out of five goals to Rangers in the same manner.

Today was no exception. Where you watching Eddie Howe? For some reason despite Kennedy’s abysmal record, both as a defensive coach and as first-team coach where he’s now being talked up as the next Director of Football. I’m not sure what that entails. But it sounds like flinging good money after bad and creating jobs for the boys, in much the same way as Boris Johnson has done for the English Parliament. It’s getting to the fuck-off point, where we don’t really care, but, of course, we do. That’s the whole point of a pointless match.

I’ll start with the keeper. Scott Bain was OK today. He made one save you’d expect him to make. He’d little chance from Roofe’s opening goal, but when we use terms like should have done better for Morelos’s goal, it’s just another way of saying he should have saved it. Alan McGregor would have. Bain is a bang-average keeper and at best should be used as back-up. Letting Craig Gordon go was one of our many mistakes made this season. Barkas should have played against Aberdeen and today and should also play in the remaining two—even more meaningless—fixtures. Perhaps we’ll have a new manager by then. The most important games next year are the Champions League qualifiers. £30 million the pot could lift us out of below mediocrity.

I’m not a fan of the former Kilmarnock player Greg Taylor. Everything I said about Bain applies equally to Taylor. We should have kept Johnny Hayes. Taylor was OKish today, but that’s never enough.

Jonjoe Kenny is one I’ll be delighted to see going back to his parent club, Everton. Sometimes loan deals don’t work out. This one hasn’t worked out for some time. Yet, Kenny has nailed down the right-back spot despite making more backward passes than a table-tennis player. He was at it again today in the first goal we lost. The obvious signing here was Aaron Hickey, the former Heart’s player, whose Cup Final cameo last year, and in the game before that at Parkhead, should have our Director of Football making an offer.

Stephen Welsh, phew. I’m not sure he’s any better than Tony Ralston.  We want him to do well. A neat enough passer of the ball. Pretty good in the air for his size, but not good enough. Beaten on the edge of the six-yard box when he went head to head with Goldson at a corner when it was just 2—1. The same Goldson that scored a double at Parkhead early in the year. Welsh didn’t fare much better with Roofe. Defoe turned him inside out to score the fourth goal. I don’t think Welsh will do, but then again, I never got my head around the McManus and Caldwell pairing, but at least they could defend when it mattered.

Kristoffer Ajer was given the captain’s armband when he went off. I’m sure Ajer, in his own head, will imagine he had a great game. He helped set up the first goal to make it 1—1 after half an hour by leaping at the back post and heading the ball towards goal, for Edouard to score. He’d a few runs from the half way line that wiped out the Rangers’ midfield and backline and create chances for himself and others. But he failed the Bobo Balde test. When the balls coming towards you, you eat the ball and the man, and bounce back for more. My da used to call such players fanny dancers. I think he meant fan dancers. But I’m sure if he were alive he’d have Ajer in mind. His best position, ironically, has been right back, where he doesn’t need to defend like a man. Ajer will go to a big club, and fail to keep a first-team spot. Little does he know his best years are past.

Scott Brown, good old Broonie, isn’t near as old as Davis or Defoe. His 44th game against Rangers, he’s won most. A loser today. Morelos turned him too easily for the second goal. Brown wasn’t bad. He wasn’t good. He was Broonie. It was pointless to play him, because he’s already pledged his allegiance to another team, and we came away pointless.  

Callum McGregor. I’m a fan of McGregor, he got booked for taking out Kent, after the winger nutmegged him. Then he clattered Kamara. The ref played on, and yet another cross into the box was met by the chest of Roofe for the opening goal to the Ibrox team. Three goals in six minutes and we lost two of them. And we were a man down. I’m old enough to remember when ten men won the league and Murdo’s strike soared into the net, and we all jumped in the Jungle, raising the roof. That was never going to happen here.

James Forrest has become a better player since he’s been injured he’s the stuff of myth-making. What we can say with certainty is he gives 15 to 20 goals a season, and creates double that number. Here, given a decent chance, just before half-time. He fluffed his lines for the equaliser, played in by twinkle toes Ajer. He’ll still be here next season. We’ll need his goals and assists.

David Turnbull has been our chink of light this season. Scores goals and creates chances and he’s young. The type of player to build a team around. He got booked for kicking an ex-Celt at Pittodrie last week. I liked that wee bit of nastiness. It showed he cared. Today, he was largely anonymous. Had a great chance with a header, set up by Forrest, on the 56th minute to equalise but put it wide.

Moi Elyounoussi won’t be here next year. I’m not sure if that’s a good or bad thing. He’s scored some amazing goals and is our second-top scorer this season. The strike in Lille springs to mind. Alan McGregor’s fingertip save, putting the ball onto the bar, stopped him claiming the opening goal. I’d give him pass marks today. One of the few.

Odsonne Edouard scored the equaliser. Let the line and looked like doing it for us. But then it just fizzled out and was taken off for Mikey Johnston (which baffled me). The Frenchman is a great player, but not a great Celtic player. As a striker he’s scored 22 goals, some of them penalties. He should have grabbed at least a double in the last Old Firm fixtures. I don’t think he’ll make it to the top, quite simply, he doesn’t score enough goals. Great strikers hit 50 a season for Celtic. Mediocre strikes like Scott McDonald hit at least 30. Edouard has had a poor season. He’ll be missed, but if it was a chance he’d probably take too long and hit it past the post.

Ryan Christie would have started today, as he did at Pittodrie, if Forrest had failed a fitness test. Christie used to play in behind the striker and get us goals. His decampment to the wing shows him falling down the pecking order. He’s on the bench for a reason. I like Christie, and would like to keep him, but he’s off for nothing. His best matches this season have been for Scotland.

Ismaili Soro came on for Brown after sixty minutes. Newspaper reports linked him with a move to Tottenham. Yeh? Twenty million and he’s yours. I’ll need to wait and see how good he can be. He’d a few half- decent games before Christmas. And he should have started today. Gave the ball away for the third Rangers’ goal, which pushed the tie out of reach.

Mikey Johnston is better than Edouard. He got the last 15 minutes to show it. I missed Mikey, he gives you something unpredictable when teams defend deep against Celtic, as all Scottish teams do. He’s shown promise. Next season is the time to deliver for us all.  

Andrew O’Hagan (2015) The Illuminations.

I didn’t know Andrew O’Hagan had Scottish roots and writes about Scotland. That puts him in the fast-lane of must-read books. The plot for The Illuminations is simple. Anne, aged 82, is losing her marbles. She’s in a sheltered-housing complex in Saltcoats. Her neighbour Maureen, aged 68, keeps an eye out for her. They’re friends, but even Jackie, the warden admits there’s only so much they can do. They’ve taped off Anne’s cooker so she can’t use it, in case she burns herself, but she’ll need more care than they can give.

‘Anne was fine most days, but she was changing. The rules at Lochraza Court stated clearly that any resident incapable of working a kettle would have to be moved to a nursing home…

Anne used to read lots of books. Somebody said that she was a well-known photographer years ago and Maureen could believe it. You know by the way Anne arranged her lamps…She had the kind of rugs you couldn’t buy in Saltcoats.’

O’Hagan uses indirect narration and follows the voice of his character, the nosey neighbour, Maureen, and tells the reader her thoughts (look at those rugs, they’re really something) without the attributable phrase, she thought or felt. The omniscient narrator of nineteenth-century fiction is given short-shrift. Maureen mediates the action, and in a screen-play this would be indicated by a voice-over. But without the limitations of a first-person narrator, who is supposed to be telling the story, because the baton of narration can pass to other characters. The language they use will reflect who they are and what they are.

Captain Luke Campbell, aged 29, is serving with a Scottish regiment in Afghanistan, and he is Anne’s grandson. When the point of view shift to the douchebags he serves with such as teenagers Privates Dooley and Lennox a more humorous tone is adopted. Far from home, the boys don’t talk in complete sentence or use proper English. They talk about their fucken cars and their birds. I’m not sure how true the dialect is, but it seems authentic enough.

Maureen is trying to decipher the mystery that is Anne. And Captain Luke Campbell faces existential problems of what he’s doing with his life and what’s he’s doing in the army, especially since he’s got artistic tendencies and reads books like his gran. His father was an officer killed in Northern Ireland, and he’s not sure if he joined up to prove a point. But he’s little doubt that despite all the government rhetoric of winning hearts and minds, there’s something shameful about being part of an occupying army in Afghanistan. He quotes Kim and Rudyard Kipling’s The Great Game.  

What brings Luke Campbell home to take his gran for one final fling at the Blackpool Illuminations of the title is a war crime. Major Scullion, Luke’s commanding officer, had gone rogue and off-track. While delivering a water turbine he’s organised a trip to see the remains of one of the great ancient civilisations. He’d taken a few of the army boys and Captain Jamal Rashid of the affiliated Afghanistan army to help translate. They’d been stoned by some local kids while attending a wedding and responded by opening fire. Rashid was killed after killing an Ayrshire soldier.  Mass murder was committed.

But under the latest legislation proposed by the Tory government this wouldn’t be a crime. The Geneva Convention null and void. Luke wouldn’t have anything much to worry about. And Major Scullion needn’t face court martial or need to commit suicide.

The commanding officer of C-Company, and his troops, an American Division of the United States army which entered the hamlet of My Lai in Vietnam on the 16th March 1968, on a ‘search and destroy’ mission which killed an estimated 500 women, children and old men, would not be prosecuted for murder. But since they also raped women and girls—before they murdered them—they could be prosecuted for that.  

Fact can be stranger than fiction. Luke, obviously, not a Tory, resigns from the army, as it’s the only honourable thing to do. He helps peace together his gran’s fractured past and bring closure. I must admit dementia scares me more that death. And I have been more forgetful than normal. If I ever say anything good about the Tory Party and the little Trump, Johnson—shoot me. Poor people don’t count.  

Rangers 2—0 Celtic.

Rangers 2—0 Celtic.

I was confident about this one. Couldn’t see Celtic getting beaten. I’m daft that way. Our first trophy-less season since 2009-10. All the bad habits we picked up this season are back again. Stephen Welsh after his new contract mistimed his first two challenges. He wiped out Ryan Kent after he turned away from Brown in midfield and drove at the defence. Diego Laxalt was too easily beaten by Joe Aribo and his cross scuffed off Ayer and Steve Davis, who never scorers goals, never gets forward, scored with an overhead kick to put Rangers one up after 19 minutes. Celtic responded with sustained pressure. Edouard had a shot saved a minute later, perhaps he should have scored (how often do we say that?) Christie had a shot saved. Forest wasn’t fit enough for the bench. Christie wasn’t good enough for the team.  McGregor made a run and was unlucky with his shot. Then from a corner on 23 minutes Welsh ghosted in, a tug from Helmand, but from three yards out the ball hit his heel and he should have scored. Should have—could have—epitomised much of Celtic’s season. Ayer missed the rebound. Patterson on the right was perhaps the most attacking player on the pitch in the first half. He created the second goal, jinking to the bye line and cutting the ball back.  Jo-Jo Kenny puts it into his own net. Game over. Kenny is never Celtic class. His loan deal isn’t as big a disaster as Shane Duffy’s because he’s not on massive wages and we didn’t incur a loan fee (at least, I hope not), but the only pass Kenny makes is backwards. Poor. Poor. Poor. Soft centred Celtic concede at every turn of Ryan Kent’s hips.  

Rangers had a few chances in the second half. Kent turned away from Brown and got a shot away. The rebound fell to Morelos who shot straight at Bain. Morelos should have picked up his usual booking for pushing Elyounoussi, just before the Rangers centre-forward was taken off by Gerard.

Celtic should have scored three goals, or more. Patterson gave away the ball to Edouard who jinked inside the box. He laid it off to Elyounoussi, whose first touch was poor and fired the ball off McGregor from eight yards. The rebound fell to Edouard who missed it.

With ten minutes to go, Edouard took a poor free kick, which hit the wall. Griffiths got in front of the defender and was pushed. Penalty and a dog’s chance for Celtic. Griffiths wants to hit it, but Edouard is having none of it. The French man misses. A poor return from him this season. The quicker he goes the better.

Christie who was invisible in this match, was subbed for Griffiths, who had a half-chance in the 92nd minute for a consolation goal. But there’s no consolation here.

Celtic’s season is finished. John Kennedy’s period as interim manager should be coming to an end. All the deadwood and loan players should be sent back—with a no-thankyou note. Everything that could go right has gone right for Rangers this season. And Celtic have done nothing right. No defence for their defence. Missed chances galore. Reserve team players should play the remaining matches, starting against Aberdeen on Wednesday. We need to start preparing for the Champions League qualifiers. Next season begins now.

Edouard should go too. The Frenchman has unfortunately depreciated in value. He missed at least two chances against Rangers at Parkhead. A hat-trick of chances today (including a penalty miss). The list goes on and on of who should go. It’s more difficult to pick who should stay. Build the team around Turnball, that’s obvious.

Ayer embarrassed us the way he went down injured today. Big girl’s blouse springs to mind. That’s an old-fashioned term. But he’s a new-fangled defender at six-foot-five that can’t head a ball and can’t defend. Take the money for him and run.  

A poor Rangers team have the bragging rights. Favourites to win the Scottish cup. But Hibs can beat them. Funny that. Me backing the Edinburgh team.   

Charles Egan (2017) Cold Is the Dawn

When people talk about literary merit, I wander away to the pub to have a pint. Since the pubs are closed, and I get smashed by a snifter of poitin, or indeed three pints, perhaps slightly more (when I’m watching Celtic) I’ll hang about. Literary merit is just a fancy way of asking if you liked the book. I don’t finish books I don’t like. Cold Is the Dawn is 427 pages. So you do the maths of how much I liked it.

If like me, you have a manuscript (or indeed manuscripts) lying about in various stages of distress then you note who publishes them. Cold Is The Dawn is published by SilverWood Books. I had a look at their business model. They help self-publishing authors publish. Something I’ve been thinking about. I know it’s not meant to be funny, but point 11 of Frequently Asked Questions: I’m publishing my book to make a profit—is that a good idea?

https://www.silverwoodbooks.co.uk/faq

You know when Oliver Hardy pokes Stan Laurel in the eye (you need to be a certain age to remember Laurel and Hardy) and stamps on his toe, then they accidentally bump heads with a knocking sound. And then they sing The Blue Ridge Mountains of Virginia, by the trail of the lonesome pine, because it makes more sense than I’m publishing my book to make a profit—is that a good idea?   

I guess a book deal with SilverWood Books costs an author around £10 000. An Unbound Book costs much the same. That’s the market rate if you’ve got that kind of dosh. So Charles Egan invested his cash, put his money down as an investment in literary merit. What did he get for his money?

The cover of a group of miners (if that’s what they are) staring at the camera, with the superimposed image of an older man in a flat bunnet looking on—passable. The white font of white on black for the author’s name and the title of the novel stands out. The reader is told it’s ‘A novel of Irish Exile and the Great Irish Famine’.

The Irish Holocaust interests me, because I’m part Irish and I’m thinking of writing about it. The current population of Ireland is almost five million, with more citizens living in Dublin, than all of the other areas combined.  https://www.worldometers.info/world-population/ireland-population/ If we go back to the 1960s the Irish population dipped under three million.

Ian Gibson writes in the foreword The Great Famine, Ireland’s Potato Famine 1845-51, that out of a population of around eight million people, about a million people died, and around another one-and-a-half million emigrated, but there were no exact figures, and this is likely to be an underestimate. Many of the poorest weren’t registered and included in official data. They did not live in Dublin and were wholly dependent on the potato crops.

Charles Egan’s way into carrying the weight of such history is by concentrating on Luke Ryan’s extended family and their fortune in the aftermath of the potato blight. County Mayo, where Michael and Eleanor, Luke’s mum and dad, have a farm and quarry was one of the hardest hit regions in Ireland.

This is home territory, for Luke’s wife Winnie and their son, Liam, before they sail across the Atlantic to join Luke in New York and later Pennsylvania, where the couple starve in the new world.

Luke’s younger brother, Pat, is the bridge to England. Irish farmworkers often made the journey across the water to help harvest crops in England and send money home to pay the rent to rapacious landowners. But Pat returns to Mayo to work compiling reports on the effects of the famine.  This allows the reader to travel with him as he charts the impact of ‘The Exterminator’, Mayo’s largest landlord, Lord Lucan as he cleared the land he owned of tenants.

In the Preface, Egan tells the reader of the Railway’s boom and bust.

‘Of the estimated two hundred thousand navvies working on the railway construction in 1847, one hundred thousand were without work by the middle of 1848. For labour contractors on the railways, many of them Irish, this was an excellent opportunity to exploit hungry Irish workers.’

Egan places his characters in the middle of this moral quagmire. Luke’s aged Uncle Murty Ryan (he’s around my age) works on the construction of the English railroads. But to begin with he works as a clerk. Murty Ryan’s eldest son Danny is a contractor, hiring and firing Irish labour, shipped in directly from the workhouse in Mayo. And shipped back home by Bradford and Liverpool workhouses when they were no longer needed. They regarded Irish people as a pestilence and a plagued nation. But relief efforts were a fraction of the sum spent on The Crimean War.

Egan makes use of news reports to add ballast to his fiction. London, Morning Chronicle in November 1848, for example, reported, as an opinion piece that might  have been written by a Nigel Farage of yesteryear.  ‘We say therefore that we grudge the immense sums which we appear likely that we have to pay this year to Irish Unions very much indeed, because we know that it will be thrown into a bottomless pit, and because we feel that money, thus wasted, would be better in removing them than feeding in idleness the people of Mayo—in getting rid of the burden, than in perpetuating it.’

Murty Ryan’s eldest son, Danny had established a foothold in the railway construction business, before he committed suicide. An Irish man he was an exploiter of his fellow man. Something Murty abhorred. When his youngest son steps into his elder brother’s shoes he proves even more ruthless. He pays them even less than Danny and charges them rent for shacks. He pays them in script that can only be exchanged in company shops. In other words, Murtybeg is a good businessman that exploits needy labour. In modern parlance, he creates jobs for his fellow countrymen.

A subplot involves Murtybeg being played off by Irene, who claimed to be his elder brother’s common-law wife, and therefore in control of the company they created. Murtybeg, being merely a paid employee. He gets an immediate rise in pay of three shillings a week, but his workload increases accordingly. Irish navvies working for the company make do with a shilling a week. Murtybeg is both exploiter and exploited by Irene, but he’s far above the Irish navvy class. He’s almost gentry.  Facing off against Irene to take control of the company Murtybeg seeks legal advice. It’s not Charles Dickens Jarndyce and Jarndyce, (a book I haven’t read) but the way in which it was resolved had me thinking of another novelist. Emile Zola’s La Terre had a woman raped and falling in love with her rapist, which in a different era tied up plot points.

Exploitation takes many forms. Egan’s novel runs on rails and touches on the horrific and short lives that many lived, with children under ten, for example, working in Bradford mills, or pushing coal trucks in the fictional town of Lackan in Pennsylvania, where Luke holes up with Winnie and their child. His novel spans the old world and the new industrial order. It touches on the historical events such as cholera epidemics, fever epidemics, typhus epidemics, repeal of The Corn Laws, the rise in trade union activity, and the search for universal suffrage. The Molly Maguires get a walk on part, as does the less secretive Hibernian associations that tried to the poor Irish, especially those landing in New York harbour and fresh off the boat for exploitation.

Much of the novel relies on conversations between characters to carry the narrative. And like many modern novels can read more like a screenplay. Egan’s problem is characterisation. Luke Ryan, for example, has two lives. One in New York and in Pennsylvania. His backstory about being a gaffer and hated, because he had the power of life and death during an earlier famine, and the rate-funded road-building programme is relevant and stands out. But I couldn’t pick Luke Ryan out in a police line-up. I don’t know what he looks like. His friends and companions, say six in each region are interchangeable doodles. Different clothes, same person. Similarly, major characters such as Pat, Murtybeg, or Murty also carry the weight of another six, sometimes more, minor characters that are also doodles. Egan in going for greater breadth of worlds has given his characters less depth.

Pat, for example, slaps the Scottish philosopher Thomas Carlyle. Carlyle’s eugenic views were on par with ‘The Great Protector’ Oliver Cromwell, who was sure it pleased God that his troops had massacred 3000 men, women and children at Drogheda, with only a handful escaping.  Carlyle may have been in Mayo. Few would argue he needed slapped (add the moron’s moron Donald Trump and Nigel Farage to my list, fling in anyone that identifies as One-NationTory) but Carlyle seems smoke and air, and little of substance.  Where I  overwrite my characters, Egan underwrites.

Charles Egan has tapped into the Irish holocaust and the cultural heritage of The Great Famine at home and abroad. It did change the new worlds. Around 40 million Americans with Irish roots and the current President Joe Biden brings that message home. Capitalism in its rawest form and xenophobia combined. Somehow it seems a familiar tale of rich men and poor men, only one group dying of hunger, labour fodder for the new industrial age. I’m sure with global warming, the worst is yet to come.

Marita Conlon-McKenna (1990 [2017]) Under the Hawthorn Tree.

I’ve been reading about the Irish Famine 1845-51. I’m in the privileged position of never knowing life-threatening hunger. Under the Hawthorn Tree is a children’s book and international bestseller set in 1845—200 000 copies sold in Ireland alone. A book of 150 pages, its simple sentences and style meant I could digest the book in one sitting. I’m looking for markers that make it a success where other fail, something I could make use of.

The cover by Irish artist, PJ Lynch seems bog-standard.  Author’s name in black block on the title page. Name of the story, Under the Hawthorn Tree, in white below it, where green hills meet sky, the orange roof of a white cottage and the twisted branches of (what I suppose is) a hawthorn tree. In the foreground, three children. Eily O’Driscoll, the little mother, on the cusp of adolescence with an arm around her brother Michael aged 12 and wee sister Peggy aged seven.  Covers conform to a certain genre which reassures the reader that when they open then biscuit tin there’ll be biscuits inside. The cover ticks the boxes, without standing out. Below the image of Michael carrying a sack the reader is told (an advertisement) in white font—The bestselling classic trilogy: Children of the Famine.

What draws the younger reader in? In a word, empathy. Each short chapter has a common theme. Chapter 1, for example, ‘Hunger’.

‘Mother was crooning quietly to the baby, Bridget’s eyes were closed and her soft face looked paler than ever as she lay wrapped in Mother’s shawl, her little fist clinging to a piece of long chestnut-coloured hair.’

The same long chestnut hair that Eily has on the cover. An author’s job is to put obstacles in the protagonist’s paths. The Great Famine which killed millions of Irish men, women and children, and caused millions to emigrate or starve to death is no small obstacle, but the history of a nation.’

With the potato famine and hunger, little Bridget dies of fever. She is buried under the hawthorn tree with its connotations of other worlds, but it’s also more practical. They can’t afford a proper funeral. Rent is due on the land and cottage. Mother goes to look for Father, who is working on the Work Relief road-building scheme. The children are left in care of Eily, but they run out of food and are evicted and taken in a group with others to the workhouse.

Eily engineers their escape. She believes their Mother and Father may be dead, and they must find sanctuary. It lies several days walk away, following the river towards their long lost spinster aunts their mum had rhapsodised about, who owned a cake shop in town.

They get food from a Soup Kitchen in Kineen, but that too is dangerous. ‘Soupers’ like the child snatcher in Chitty Chitty Bang Bang want to spirit the children away and convert them into Protestants. Children were still dying from hunger in Protestant and Catholic orphanages in the 1930s. But the battle for souls was genuine, and hunger a weapon mobilised.  

The children show get-up-and-go and Michael somehow catches fish and miraculously kills a baby rabbit by throwing a stone at it. We’ll call that creative licence. The potato crop failed in autumn, but the children travel in sunshine and collect berries and fruit. Young readers expect, despite the difficulties Eily, Michael and Peggy face, they will become better people, and they will make it to a place of safety. And some of the protagonist’s fortitude will rub off on the young reader. The first part of the trilogy does what it says on the cover.

False Confessions, Amazon Prime, 2020, director Katrine Philip.

False Confessions, Amazon Prime, 2020, director Katrine Philip.

Watch False Confessions | Prime Video (amazon.co.uk)

What makes this interesting is we see footage of people who have been accused of heinous crimes—they were later proved to be innocent. We see, for example, police officers interviewing Lorenzo Montoya. He was fourteen-years-old when he walked into the police station 10th January 2000. He was convicted of the murder of Emily Johnson, a 29-year-old teacher at Skinner Middle School, and sentenced to life without parole. In the United States legal system detectives can tell lies in order to gain a conviction. One detective poses as a forensic expert and takes Montoya’s shoe away from the interview room and comes back and says it matched the blood splatter found beside Johnson’s body. Montoya confessed to the murder.

Twenty-two-year-old intern Malthe Thompson was arrested and sent to Riker’s island after he admitted sexually abusing 13 children at a Midtown pre-school in Manhattan. Detectives said they had video evidence of the offences. Thompson said he could not remember sexually abusing these children, but it must be true if they had images. In Denmark, where he was a citizen, police are not allowed to lie to suspects, and they are breaking the law if they do. Thompson died when he was twenty-seven.

Korey Wise was one of five black and Latino teenagers convicted in The Central Park jogging and rape case. I vaguely remembered this (the victim has recently outed herself and wrote a book about her experiences). Justice was swift. Police took in over fourteen suspects. Five of them admitted to the offences. Many of them, like Wise, aged 14-to-16-years old. Wise served thirteen years and eight months of his 6-15 years’ sentence on charges of sexual abuse, assault and riot. A serial rapist admitted to the crime and the boys were exonerated with the help of forensic evidence. They were paid damages.  

As usual, we have the talking heads such as former detectives such as Lieutenant Joseph La Corte who admitted that the way they went about things was simply wrong. That False Confessions weren’t worth the paper they weren’t written on. The whole system was corrupt.

In Britain, we know that policemen aren’t meant to lie to suspects, but we know they do. The Guildford Four, for example, didn’t suddenly decide to admit to a pub bombing they’d no knowledge of.

Psychologist, Saul M Kasin (John Jay College of Criminal Justice) offers us clues to why this happens. We all like to think that we’d be the exception to the rule. He cites Milgram’s classic obedience study in which the overwhelming majority of subjects went ahead and tortured those experimented on when commanded by a professorial authority figure. Milgram concluded that given the right conditions American citizens would behave in a similar way to their Nazi counterparts. The moron’s moron ran a larger experiment, when the 45th United States President asked his subjects to believe that the ballot for the 46th Presidential election was rigged, and they should storm the Senate and Congress. Four United States citizens lost their lives.

Kassin suggests that confessions are highly persuasive to jurors, sometimes trumping even forensic evidence at trials. Jurors, quite simply, find it hard to believe that anyone would admit to doing something they didn’t.

Suspects such as Lorenzo Montoya and Korey Wise are often vulnerable. But they believe the opposite to jurors. If they admit their guilt, they’ll get the detectives browbeating them off their back, and then they can go home. I used such a scenario in a novel I’d written years ago. The suspects believe they are innocent and jurors will know they are innocent too. They can’t quite work out why jurors won’t believe them. And jurors can’t understand why they confessed if they were innocent. Common-sense and morality suggests not only would that be wrong, but it would be dumb. Victims of miscarriages are the poorest members of society and have little or no one to speak for them. See, for example, the case of Ruben Carter.

Kassin goes back further to the Salem witch trials of 1692. He looks at the pattern of prevalence and links it to those prisoners like Corey and Montoya who have been imprisoned because of false confections but exonerated through advances in DNA forensic evidence and suggests that figure is around 20% to 25%, but that figure may be higher in capital murder cases. A ball-park figure therefore suggests more than a quarter of those executed did not commit the crime.     

Jeffrey Deskovic, for example, was released from a New York prison on 20th September 2006. He spent 15 years inside for a murder he didn’t commit. ‘I told them what they wanted to hear’, he said. He believed the American criminal justice system would exonerate him. ‘I thought it was all going to be OK in the end’.

Even when jurors know that confessions have been coerced, they don’t believe they’ve been that coerced. They believe in the American justice system too. Detectives can’t tell who the liars are because they too are lying. Judges and jurors side with what they know. And what’s been told them by men in uniform. Nothing new here. Burn the witch. Jail the black man.

Eddie Howe for Celtic?

I always thought Eddie Howe looked like my brother’s son Kevin O’Donnell, but only one of them is Celtic daft. Kevin, no doubt, will be asked to sign autographs soon. The deal isn’t done yet, but I guess we’re about ninety-five percent certain based on recent media coverage that Howe will be the next Celtic manager. It’s not inconceivable that Howe’s first job in charge will be Rangers away at Ibrox in the Scottish Cup.

A few years ago, Howe was touted to be the next England manager. He’d brought Bournemouth up through the English second division and into the Premier League—it’s all about the money. He kept them there for a few years while playing an attractive brand of attacking football. Then there were lots of injuries to key players. I’m not saying I was watching them or him, but on Match of the Day before I fell asleep having drunk three pints (Bournemouth was always last on the programme, or thereabouts) I thought he always seemed one of the good guys. He didn’t rant and waken me up, he kept calm and told it as it was. Even when they were sinking, he was thinking ahead to the next game, the next match.

 Playing the Celtic way. The transition shouldn’t be that hard. We all know where we failed. Defensive shambles. Almost fifty percent of goals lost from free kicks of corners. No one needs reminding Morelos breaking his duck at Parkhead from a corner. Another ball lost in the air and we don’t follow the runner and Morelos scores.

Howe is a bit like Brendan Rodgers. Sport scientists and training sessions mapped out. Opposition scrutinised and video-playback evidence. Inevitably, we’ll get the usual stuff about the playing staff being fitter than before (name your own manager here from Ronny Deila on). The media will make it sound like all the other teams have someone like Jim Baxter sitting on ball, smoking a fag and drinking halfs of whisky, while playing cards with Jimmy Johnstone to decide who has to buy the next round.

Players will be fitter and game smarter. They’ll all know their position. A few wins in and we’ll get the Eddie Howe bounce.

First up, we need to beat Rangers. A Celtic team with Howe in charge will be given time if we lose at Ibrox. I think we can win. Of course, I do. I’m a Celtic fan. But I’m also a believer in luck. Celtic have been unlucky not to win the last two games against Rangers. I know we’ll hear the Rangers’ faithful bemoaning the luck Celtic had when we won the League Cup final with Christopher Julien scoring from an offside position and a world-class performance from loan-keeper Fraser Forster. Our luck was in and now it’s out.

Second up, we need to beat Rangers. Rangers have had a season where everything that can go wrong has gone right. That can’t last. While everything that can go wrong in the Celtic dugout to the players on the pitch has gone wrong. It doesn’t help, of course, wasting £20 million in dud transfers and loan signings. It was no surprise when Kieran Tierney went, which just about balances our outgoings. Just the same as it’ll be no surprise when Odsonne Edouard leaves. We want rid of him pronto. Last year of his contract and he goes for nothing. It’s not been a good season for Edouard. He doesn’t score enough goals for me, or Celtic. A great Celtic striker should hit 40 a season, but I’d settle for 30. 20 goals or less is a very poor return. I don’t think he’s got it in him to make it as a top-class striker, and really, I don’t care, when he’s gone, he’s gone. I wish him well. But Celtic need to cash in now.

Similarly, Kristopher Ajer has been told by his Norwegian coaches, he needs to move to a better league. I agree. Cash in now, he’s overrated.  He’s great on the ball. And I’d keep him. But a Celtic defender also needs to be good in the air, as well as being mobile. Ajer loses too many balls in the air. The up-and-coming Stephen Welsh, is smaller, not as quick and better in the air, but still loses out to big, physical players. Perhaps playing with Julien, he’ll be better. I’m optimistic that way, but my preference would be for someone like Nathan Ake.

The deadwood isn’t just in the team, but loanees. Olivier Ntcham wanted away, he got away, but nobody wants to keep him. Jack Henry, anybody? Boli Bolingoli-Mbombo?

Roy Keane was touted as a favourite for the Celtic managerial post. The job looked his. Irish connections, Celtic background and knows Dermot Desmond. In a Yes or No vote, I voted Yes for Keane. All the usual guff about he would be too hard on the players and you couldn’t do that kind of thing anymore—sheer media shite. Celtic have been rotten this year. Anyone like us that have watched every game know that. Neil Lennon wasn’t too hard on them. He wasn’t too soft on them. We lost too many goals. Missed too many chances and Neil Lennon kept asking for more time, even when it was obvious his time was up.

His backroom staff remain in post. John Kennedy now picks the Celtic team. He’s a bit like when Rangers had Graeme Murty as interim manager before he had a meltdown. Murty was touted as the next great thing, just as Kennedy was favourite to get the Celtic top job. The idea of continuity.

Continuity of losing goals and losing games. Kennedy can leave any time, or he can go back to coaching the Under-23 team. From top to bottom, the rot has set in. I’d rather he wasn’t there, especially as a defensive coach his failings are on the pitch. Great Celtic teams should have players waiting to come through. Like shark’s teeth, when one goes another, like David Turnbull, should be ready to add a bit of bite to the team.

The major problem with Kennedy and Roy Keane to a lesser extent is they’re out of the loop. Eddie Howe with all his training notebooks and analysis of training methods lets him see a broader range of players. You couldn’t for example tell Jock Stein about any up-and- coming player in Scottish football. He already knew and had been to see him. He knew where they’d fit in with the Celtic way. 99.9% didn’t. Eddie Howe will have players in mind that he’ll bring in. I’m guessing that’s how we’ve took so long to announce him as manager. He want’s assurances about how big a budget he’ll have to spend. He’s not going to be a Ronny Deila type manager that had no leverage about who was brought into the club. Most great Celtic player leave. We’re a selling club. I look across at Ibrox and don’t see any of their players as worth buying. And I’m not buying into the media coverage that next year is an interregnum year and if we lose the league it doesn’t matter. One-in-a-row matters as much as ten-in-a-row. We’ve got to start somewhere. Win at Ibrox. Get us into the promised land of football riches, The Champions League. Win the league next year. Repeat. Repeat. Repeat. Repeat. Repeat. Repeat. Repeat. Repeat. Repeat. Repeat. Couldn’t be easier, Howe? I’ve already told you.

The Men Who Stare at Goats, BBC 2, BBC iPlayer, screenplay by Peter Straughan, adapted from a book by Jon Ronson, and directed by Grant Heslov.

https://www.bbc.co.uk/iplayer/episode/b00xhf50/the-men-who-stare-at-goats

In many ways this is George Clooney’s creation. He’s listed as one of the producers. Producers are the guys (and it is usually men) who get the money together to make a movie. Because he’s George Clooney he can do that kind of thing. Other people will fling money at him, because it’s a no-lose situation, a film starring George Clooney is bound to make money, and if it’s any good, it’ll make a lot of money, but the stars need to be aligned.

George Clooney stars with different haircuts and uniforms, but the same sugary smile he’s perfected over the years. His character Lyn Skip Cassady is ex-American army, and there are flashbacks to the time when the US military set up a shadowy organisation to create psychic warriors and conquer hearts and minds by making love, not war. Army maverick Bill Django (Jeff Bridges) led them to places they couldn’t have dreamed. Bridges re-jigs his role as The Dude, but in army military bases.  But The Men Who Stare at Goats is much more fun than The Big Lebowski. I laughed  aloud several times, and that doesn’t usually happen unless an old woman falls in front of a truck after jumping over a skipping rope.

We know all this because Bob Wilton (Ewan McGregor) tells us about his journey with Cassady on the road to enlightenment in an Iraq that is being liberated or conquered by American troops (depending on your point of view). There’s the realist tone Umberto Eco adopts in his masterpiece Foucault’s Pendulum with the ridiculous rubbing shoulders with reality. Cassady regrets, for example, under military orders letting his ego run wild, staring at a goat and stopping its heart. He admits that it might just have been coincidence, him staring and the bleating animal’s heart stopping, but he doesn’t believe in coincidences.

Cassady’s mission is so hush-hush, he’s not even sure what it is himself. He needs to find his former guru, The Dudeless Bill Django in a desert without road signs. The right road is often the wrong road as they are taken hostage by Islamic fundamentalists. But that’s a mere blip in Cassady’s inner radar, as Bob Wilton makes the inner journey from sceptic to true believer.

Larry Hooper (Kevin Spacey) is our Judas and nemesis of free-love and free-wheeling Django and Cassady in the military and world at large. (This was before Spacey was publically shamed, some would see that as proof of the dark side. Other examples being the large numbers of cast members that died in strange circumstance after making The Omen).

Whatever—this is a great and fun movie. George Clooney has never been better as George Clooney, Ewan McGregor even gets in on the act. Well worth watching for Dude-less fans. Try it.