Bernard MacLaverty (2002) The Anatomy School.

I’m a fan of Bernard MacLaverty’s writing. He makes it seem so simple (try it at home) which is the mark of a craftsman. I was well into this book before I realised I’d read it before. There’s no harm in reading a good book again.

It’s a coming-of-age drama. The narrator, Martin Brennan is still at St Colum’s school in Derry. Londonderry if you’re a Prod. It’s set just as the troubles in Northern Ireland were kicking off. He has to re-sit because he failed his ‘A-levels.’ That glorious path to University and a better life.

His mum had scrimped and saved and prayed for him. His da posted missing. She’s sure he can do it, if he applied himself – and she’s sure he would, with the help of God.

Brennan’s not so sure. The book begins with him setting off on A Weekend Retreat with other schoolboys in which they stay in a dorm and examine their conscience. Ask the question, if God is calling them to the religious life. Brennan applies himself and God says ‘No’, a firm ‘No,’ even God doesn’t want him.

A priest, as far as him mum is concerned, is the voice of authority, to be consulted on all matters secular and sacred. Father Farquarson had the best seat in the kitchen. He was first served with tea and her home baking when her friends Nurse Gilliard and Mary Lawless came for supper and polite conversation.

‘Could you use a pepper seller for salt then? asked Mrs Brennan.

‘I suppose you could. There’s no law against it…’ said Mrs Lawless.

Kids today had it so easy and were so ungrateful was a backdrop to other troubles. Brennan found he’d a cock, before he was seventeen, and it betrayed him more often than Judas. His consolation was he was mates with other boys at school that didn’t seem to have the same quibbles. He gloried, for example, in being best mates with Gus Kavanagh, who didn’t get red faced talking to girls and claimed he’d had his hole. Kavanagh’s parents was a doctor, his sister was a doctor, it was a given that he too would follow in their paths and become a doctor. His grades were good, much better than poor old Brennan, but there was no guarantee. Kavanagh was also popular with the local jocks at school that played Gaelic football and met for a fly smoke in the locker room and toilets (the daffs).

‘Any jokes?’ Sweeny asked.

Everybody gathered around and Kavanagh grinned and they all leaned forward.

‘There was this guy, right?’ he said. ‘I kid you not. From the county – a big fuckin ganch – and he took this woman out. She was lovely, a real cracker—beautiful hair, big mouth, big tits out to here. Anyway, after the night out, she says to him would you like to come back to my place? And she takes him up the stairs and into the bedroom and lies down on the bed with her legs wide open. And your man says to himself, Jesus, if I play my cards right I might be onto something.’  

That’s the setup, or plot. Everything is going well for Kavanagh and not so well for Brennan. Schoolboy living much the same life and living in fear of the psychopathic priest,  Condor, head of discipline at school, not a Redemptorist, who had a low view of adolescent boys and was quite prepared to whip them all the way into heaven.

Throw into the mix, Blaise Foley, with the large house and the kind of money that makes Kavanagh look like a car salesman. Foley is a live-in boarder at the school. He’s been expelled from other schools. He’s the catalyst for disequibrium, with strange ideas that are so far out they might even be Protestant. It was Foley’s idea to steal the ‘A-level’ exam papers they needed to sit.   

It’s a heist movie, in reverse. They need to return the exam papers, after copying them, so they don’t get caught.

In the final section of the book we have the return to equilibrium. Our narrator is working as a technician in the Anatomy School of Queens University in Belfast. Kavanagh is studying medicine, but put it off for a year to do a Bsc, while he pursues the virginal, Pippa, who’s  quite prepared to wait, however, long it takes to please and worship God. She too is studying medicine. Brennan agrees to run an experiment for Kavanagh in the Anatomy rooms, an overnighter, and that’s when he bumps into a backpacker from Australia. A real girl and she seems interested in him. Will Brennan find salvation between her legs, is not the whole of the question or the answer. That would be too easy. Fling in the return of a drunken Foley. There you have it. Read on.  

Viktor E. Frankel (1959 [2004]) Man’s Search For Meaning.


Why should we listen to Viktor E.Frankel? Well, he’s a scientist, philosopher, a psychiatrist and author, but the real reason we should listen to him is because of the time he spent as an inmate in Auschwitz, Dachau and other concentration camps. That gives what he says heft, he’s walked the walk and suffered the indignity of being regarded as less than human and treated as a throwaway thing. His life and death as a Jew having little or no meaning for larger society.

So let us be alert—alert in a twofold sense.

Since Auschwitz we know what man is capable of.

And since Hiroshima we know what is at stake.

I’d fling in global warming and the threat of Trump and nuclear war, but I think Frankl covered it in his twofold sense, but such has been the propaganda war against the poor, common decency has been drowned out by the blaring voices, greed and sense of entitlement of the super-rich who have learned little or nothing of what it means to be human.

Frankl’s experiences in the concentration camps cannot be summed up in trite phrases, but he calls for a ‘tragic optimism’. In other words how it is possible to ‘say yes to life in spite of everything’. Life can be made meaningful if a human being learns he has ‘nothing to lose except his ridiculously naked life’. But there must be purpose in suffering. We must come to realize the truth of Nietzche: ‘Whatever doesn’t kill you makes you stronger’ [I’m not a fan of that idea] but the truth or in jargon-speak the will to meaning of the Nietzchean precept: He who has a WHY to live can bear any HOW.  In other words, how you live can be determined by outside forces, for example, the Nazis or Kapos in concentration camps, or President Trump’s persecution of poor people in America, but you choose how to interpret this.  Only you can be judge and jury of your better self. My better self says I’ve read this book before, but forgotten many of its lessons.

The prisoners were only average men, but some at least, by choosing to be “worthy of their suffering” proved man’s capacity to rise above his outward fate.

Moment by moment, day by day, week by week, year by year, we make choices. They determine the kind of people we are. In Bernard MacLaverty’s Cal, he remembers his mother as being a great one for offering up her suffering to God. As a Catholic that’s something I recognise. Cal was unemployed. Frankl deals with unemployment neurosis as putting themselves in the wrong box. The unemployed are not useless but equate being useless as having a meaningless life. His answer they should volunteer and their depression would disappear. As should the tens of millions of the working poor. Because as Frankl says, ‘man does not live by welfare alone’. One way of viewing this is putting Frankl in the same box as Jeremy Kyle, get a job, even if you’ve got one. But that is to pander to my lesser self. To pander to a hatred of those Nazis that rob the poor and call it natural justice. There is wisdom in this book but if you search for meaning you’ll find what you look like. I once wrote a story (I think) in which the protagonist judges his own life. No god or the devil needed. I guess we all do that day by day. But I’m only happy when I’m unhappy. I’ll give the last words to Frankl.

‘Once an individual’s search for meaning is successful it not only renders him happy, but also gives him the capability to cope with suffering.’




Bernard Mac Laverty (1983) Cal.


I really enjoyed this short novel. Many of the themes resonate, identity, disillusionment, a search for meaning in a life that has no meaning.

He stood at the back gateway of the abattoir, his hands thrust into his pockets, his stomach rigid with the ache of want. Men in white coats and baseball caps whistled and shouted as they moved between the hanging carcases. He couldn’t see his father, yet he did not want to venture in. He knew the sweet warm nauseating smell of the place and they had no breakfast. Nor had he smoked his first cigarette of the day. Smells were always so much more intense then. At intervals the humane killer echoed round the glass roof. Queuing beasts bellowed in the distance as if they knew.

Cal hasn’t the stomach to work in the abattoir. His da Shammie had got him a job, even though they were Catholics and jobs were hard to come by, but Cal hadn’t lasted the week. Cal signed on the dole and peeled the potatoes waiting for his da to come in at six for dinner. His mum was dead and their Troubles didn’t end there. The house they lived in was the wrong side of the divide. They were the only Catholics left. Shammie wasn’t moving for no one. The trouble with that was they were Fenian bastards and others were determined to move them whether they liked it or not. Up the UVF.

They had protection of sort. An old revolver in the attic. But the price they paid was too high. Cal had to do a few favours. Drop things off. Do a bit of driving for Crilly for whom any cause that allowed him to create chaos was good enough for him and the unctuous Skeffington, whose fight for Irish freedom is a glorious thing – as long as it doesn’t directly involve him. Cal hasn’t the stomach for fighting. His terrible secret is he’s already acted as driver when Crilly shot a reservist in the police force.

Cal mopes about looking for a way out. Fate throws him in the path of the new librarian who’s come to help out. She’s the widow of the man Crilly shot. Coup de foudre. Merde. Shit.  Cal likes to talk to himself in a foreign language to make life interesting. But there’s no laughs here. He’s in love. But the reader know it’s going to end beautifully but badly. Marcella is as strikingly drawn character as Cal. Read on.

Bernard MacLaverty (2017) Midwinter Break

As usual I was trying to remember if I’d read Bernard MacLaverty’s work before. I’m a great reader but not very good at it. His work Cal strikes a note, but what kind of note I’m not very sure. Memory wise, nothing. Midwinter Break is quite a simple story that follows that clichéd pattern of nothing happens twice.

An elderly couple Gerry and Stella Gilmore go on a short break from their home in Glasgow to Amsterdam. They’re Irish enough to split their faith between them. Religion is woman’s work and Gerry, once an architect and then a lecturer, is happy enough to indulge her and get on with his drinking. MacLaverty is good on this one. The little sins of indulgence that becomes obsession and then possession. One of Gerry’s pals, for example, once told him that he shouldn’t drink alone that people like him needed other around him to slow him down, he was a pace setter, drinking more and faster than others. I’m in the slow lane here. At home Gerry can away with it because they live separate lives, him with his music and his few drams before bedtime. Stella with her school-marmish ways and memberships of local committees and church groups.

One of the dramatic principles often repeated is characters must want different things and this produces conflict. When in Amsterdam Gerry has a bit of a fall and finds it difficult to hide how much he’s drinking from Stella. She throws a bombshell of her own, not as large as when her and her first-born son were almost killed by a bullet during the Troubles in Ireland in the early seventies, forty-two years earlier, but small enough to hurt and cause pain. Her reason for the Midwinter Break wasn’t just a holiday, but an exploration of dedicating her life to God, fulfilling a vow after that bullet had passed through her and joining a semi-religious community in the city called Beguines. Gerry’s hidden alcoholism is old news for her and she demands separation and a new life, a turning of the page, away from settled ways and shores. Dramatist as he is MacLaverty, of course, shows that resolution is not always resolution.