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.

Why is Covid Killing People of Colour? Presented by David Harewood, Director Jason Bernard.

https://www.bbc.co.uk/iplayer/episode/m000sv1d/why-is-covid-killing-people-of-colour

David Harewood an actor (whose work I’m unfamiliar with) recently presented a BBC 1 documentary about mental health. His story about being black and being sectioned when he was aged 23, Psychosis and Me, asked questions of society. He found black men like him were more likely to be seen as a threat and sectioned and given higher doses of anti-psychotic medication. Here he has a larger stage to show that Black Lives Matter, when, of course, for the Tory government and society at large they clearly don’t.  

Kenan Malik, for example, quotes from a paper recently published by the Policy Institute at King’s College, London, Unequal Britain, and public attitudes to inequality. In it they find around 13% stated ‘most black people don’t have the motivation or willpower to pull themselves up out of poverty.’ This fits in with a larger class narrative of other people, black people, being responsible for spikes in Covid-19. A failure of morality framed around individual shortcomings, which was favoured by nearly half of those in the study. A Victorian response to the feckless poor was a call for them to learn life-lessons from Mrs Beeton’s Book of Household Management in the twenty-first century. Of blaming the poor for being poor. Of blaming Covid victims of bringing it all on themselves.

The report suggests conclusion ‘there is no appetite for change’ is mirrored by an exchange between Harewood and black MP (her skin colour is important) Kemi Badenoch, the government’s minister for equalities. He wants to know why she has dismissed the idea racism might have played a role in putting black and minority ethnic communities at risk from Covid-19.

‘Come on David, you and I both know that things are getting better’, she said.

The Tory government response to reports of structural racism endemic to society is to wheel out MPs like Badenoch, and Priti Patel, or even the Chancellor of the Exchequer, Rishi Sunak as exemplars of meritocracy. The no colour bar. The no class bar. That all we need to do as individuals is try harder and pull themselves up by their bootstraps. There’s no structural problems. No institutionalised racism.  Grenfell Tower, of course, stands as an indictment against such government propaganda that seeks to name and shame and neuter power, take it out of politics, and shut down debate about inequality and racism.  

Harewood visits Tamira, whose father was one of the first members of NHS staff to die from Covid-19. She tells us how not enough was done to protect him at work. He lacked protective equipment, but felt unable to complain. Senior-management posts are, of course, predominantly white for historical, racist reasons. And 95% of those medical doctors killed by the Covid-19 are not white.  Those facing the viral onslaught are people of colour.

Harewood’s experience as a young man is mirrored by researcher Dr Jenny Douglas investigating people of colours experience of the NHS during and after childbirth. Her research found black women are five times more likely to die during pregnancy and childbirth than their white cohort. Women she interviewed felt their concerns were not heard by health professionals. And black women were given less medication during childbirth on the assumption black women were somehow able to bare more pain than white women.

American professor Arline Geronimus suggests living with racism has a physiological impact on the body. Constant stress and the expectation that people of colour will be attacked verbally or physically produce cortisone which dampens the immune response. Black patients age faster and suffer from poor health much earlier – a process she calls ‘weathering‘.  Black patients’ chronological age does not match their physiological age. Their kidneys and hearts, for example, look as if they belong to a much older patient. And, of course, they die younger.

Harewood meets Andrew Grieve, an air quality expert from Kings College London, who states air pollution can harm every organ in your body, including the placenta. He shows a map of how this is related to income in London. The greater your exposure to air pollution the lower your income.

Rosamund Adoo-Kissi-Debrah, for example, lost her nine-year-old daughter Ella in 2013 to a fatal asthma attack. Ella’s most severe attacks coincided with local spikes in (mainly traffic) pollution. Simply, poor black people live beside busy roads. And in America hot spots which showed where temperatures were highest mapped out where black people lived. Places so hot it was difficult to get a breath.

 Rosamund Adoo-Kissi-Debrah campaigned to get air pollution listed as a cause of her daughter’s death. In a landmark ruling in December 2020, the coroner found in her favour, the first time ever that air quality has been acknowledged as a cause of death in the UK. Local authorities now have a duty of care to do something. But I wouldn’t hold my breath.

Dr Marina Soltan, a respiratory doctor, whose research shows that patients with chronic conditions such as hypertension or kidney disease are nearly twice as likely to die from Covid-19, and that many patients with these conditions come from deprived areas.

Dr Guddi Singh, a paediatric doctor and health expert, who reveals that what happened in Brent is mirrored across the country, where nearly 65 per cent of the local population are black, Asian or from other minority ethnic groups, but the borough had in March 2019 the highest Covid-19 mortality rate in the country. Harewood as a black man is nearly three times more likely to die from Covid-19 that those classified as white. Dr Singh explains that a significant risk factor is the job key workers do. They risk their lives, exposing themselves to the virus to keep the country running. People may clap them, but they’ll not promote them, or offer a pay rise.   

The documentary used empirical data to establish what we already know, IPPR and the Runnymede Trust recently estimated almost 60,000 more deaths involving coronavirus could have occurred in England and Wales if white people faced the same risk as black communities.

It found 35,000 more white people could have died if the risk was the same as for the south Asian population.

Investigating claims that there’s something lacking in people of colour that make them more susceptible than white cohorts to the Covid-19 virus. It’s not us, it’s them argument with racist undertones, that regularly crop up in relation to intelligence. The tendency of 70% of Afro-Americans, for example, to be Vitamin D deficient, which is mirrored in the United Kingdom.

This argument was countered in two ways. Going through the charade of Harewood being tested, which showed he was a bit Vitamin D deficient. And Harewood being told that levels of Covid in Africa tend to be less than in whiter Western nations.

Harewood had an obligation to speak out, and he did so, but given the tools to challenge a government minister’s waffling- quite simply- he folded. The working-class cringe is still alive and people of colour should wince when watching.  

Parasite (2019) screenplay by Bong Joon-ho and Han Jin-won, directed by Bong Joon-ho

Parasite won the Palme d’Or at the 2019 Cannes Film Festival. And it won a stack of awards at the Academy Awards. Best Picture. Best Director. Best Screenplay. In other words it was a critical and a box-office success. It made money.

This is a film about money and class. But when we talk about theme we sometimes get lost and wander away from the main purpose of a film (and often a book) which is entertainment. I hooted with laughter and had those moments when I cringed. In other words, I was hooked and wanted to see what happened next.

As working class I identified with the Kim family. Being bottom of the pile isn’t some metaphorical concern for the Kim family. They live in a sub-basement in South Korea. Most of us don’t really know what that is. It’s below ground. But not in that fancy way the rich in some parts of Kensington, London, for example, are burrowing to create carparks and swimming pools and tennis courts that are carefully modulated by air filters and heating. Below ground in the way domiciled servants used to live, hidden away from the main house. The highest part of the Kim family home is the toilet pan. Park So-dam as Kim Ki-jung (Jessica) and her brother Choi Woo-shik as Kim Ki-woo (Kevin) scramble up on the toilet pan to try and—fail—to get a signal for their phones, at below pavement level. Song Kang-ho as Kim Ki-taek (Mr Kim) and his wife Ang Hye-jin as Chung-sook are watching a video on their phone about how to fold and pack takeaway boxes. While the woman onscreen makes it look easy. They have less success. But with all the family helping, they figure they’ll make enough money to eat. A drunken man comes and pees against the bins above them and against their ‘window’. The Kim family are below shit level and being peed upon.

The metaphorical becomes played out in the film’s denouement to great effect. Shit travels downward.

Meanwhile, Lee Sun-kyun as Park Dong-ik (Nathan) father of the Pak family and business executive lives on the top of a steep hill. He has all the markers of wealth. But he has inherited the live-in housekeeper of Namgoong, the architect and previous owner of the house. The housekeeper, Lee Jung-eun as Gook Moon-gwang is competent and suitably deferential. Park Dong-ik tells his wife Cho Yeo-jeong as Choi Yeon-gyo there’s a line between being deferential and being over-familiar that he would never allow his employees to cross. He’s the boss and they should know their place.  Choi Yeon-gyo certainly does. She knows her husband is in charge. But with her housekeeper, she’s in charge of domestic matters and taking care of their son and daughter. Jung Ji-so as Park Da-hye is also a deferential daughter, with a closeted and controlled life. Jung Hyeon-jun as Park Da-song is the spoiled baby of the family, with an obsession with North American Indians.

There is grass outside to set up a tent and trees. There is also a bunker room built below the house big enough to contain the basement housing and street the Kim family are crammed into.

The two families mirror each other, but the distance between them is so vast that it would easier to travel from North Korea to South Korea.

How the Kim family gets inside the walls and protectorate of wealth is beautifully worked and quite simple. They fake it. And as an audience we want the plucky Kim family to succeed.

Kim Ki-woo makes the first breach in the wall. He is recommended to the family by Park Seo-joon as Min-hyuk, a friend, and Da-hye’s English tutor, who is going to study abroad. His sister helps him to Photoshop some suitable accretions. He poses as a Yonsei University student, and is hired as a replacement English tutor, and dubbed ‘Kevin’ by the Park family after Choi Yeon-gyo sit in on their first lesson.

 His sister follows the same route. When ‘Kevin’ overhears Choi Yeon-gyo speaking about being unable to get a suitable art therapist for her genius of a son, he respectively suggests that he might know. Kim Ki-jung (Jessica) ‘an art student of Illinois State University’ might be free, but she’d need to come and interview them.

With the Kim brother and sister inside the house they have more leverage, and find ways to oust the chauffer and housekeeper and replace them with their dad and mum. The Kim family have gone from being unemployed and unable to pay their phone bills or eat to being in full employment at rates of pay they could only imagine. A new equilibrium has been reached, but everybody is faking it.

So far so good, becomes so far so bad, when the Pak family go on a suitably high-class camping holiday.  Gook Moon-gwang buzzes the door just when the Kim family are relaxing in their new ‘home’, spilling drinks, smashing glasses and behaving uproariously. The old housekeeper asks to get in claiming she’s left something in the basement she has to pick up. She knows the master and mistress are away, but claims it won’t take her long. Letting her into the house changes everything again.

Appearances need to be kept up, when Choi Yeon-gyo phones home and tells the new housekeeper that the camping trip has been a wash out and there’ll be there in eight minutes, and demands a cooked meal, the clock is ticking.

Drama and comedy combine. Every scene adds to and fits in the other like a Babushka doll. There is no one denouement, but a series of denouements. Superbly crafted and a joy to watch. The question remains who are the parasites and for what reason? Discuss.  

Circling a Fox, BBC Scotland, BBC iPlayer, Writer and Presenter Matthew Zajac, Director Brian Ross.

https://www.bbc.co.uk/iplayer/episode/m000s083/circling-a-fox

Matthew Zajac is an actor. Acting is a precarious profession. The same old faces crop up with regularity. Trying to make a living from acting is akin to trying to make a living from writing. I’ve did a few shifts as an extra. I’ve no interest in being the next what-ever-you-call him/her. Writing, well, that’s a different story.

Writing is my game. I don’t expect to make a living from it. And with over one million self-published books appearing on Amazon every year if you’ve been paying attention, as I have, then you’ll know why.

Matthew Zajac in his downturn between acting and being invisible wrote his own play, The Taylor of Inverness. He took it to the Edinburgh Festival, and with the help of a fiddler, and some projections acted out the part of his dad. It received plaudits. Plaudits don’t pay the rent.

Next his—let’s call it an award winning play, because if it didn’t win something Edinburgh’s culture elite have fell asleep at the wheel—is taken up by BBC Scotland. The peasants up North, us, receive a fraction of the BBC budget to produce content for the fraction of the British population that are interested in that type of thing.

Matthew Zajac gets to play his dad again, for the cameras, in his award-winning play. But he also gets to travel to the Ukraine where his da was born, to put on the same performance for the natives of his father’s home town. But the programme also becomes one of those finding about your past kind of road trips where the viewer see nice scenery and meets quaint folk that don’t speak our lingo.  Money for old rope.

One of Zajac’s Ukrainian relatives tells him (and us) how a fox is hunted. Cornered in a field in every decreasing circles until its captors can bludgeon it to death. Money for old rope is a cliché. What it refers to is the rope hangman such as Albert Pierrepoint in Britain used to sell to members of the public per inch, as a trophy, after they have used it to hang convicted criminals.

Ukraine used to be thought of the bread-basket of Russia. Soil so rich that to plant a stick was to grow a tree. I’m going off at a tangent here as Zajac did with his da’s story. His dad was buried in Inverness. Whisper it, as a head mason. He’d given up his Roman Catholicism to join the order and risen through the ranks. (My understanding is you can be both a Roman Catholic and a Mason, as my da’s pal, Jimmy Mac, was). Zajac’s dad, despite coming from the Ukraine, fought with the Polish army for Britain in the second world war against their common enemy, Nazi Germany.

It all kind of adds up. Before the first world war Glasgow was booming and growing at a rate faster than London. In the interwar years this growth declined, but it was still enough of a metropolis to take a refugee from the Ukraine and for him to find a job as a tailor in Glasgow. And then head to the back of beyond to Inverness to find a shop of his own, a life of his own, a new life and kids. It’s the refugee made good narrative.

The Ukraine of the interwar and postwar years was one of bloodshed. Let me fling some figures at you. 20 million dead. Stalin brought the Ukrainians to heel by mass starvation. Most children under ten would die first. Millions more sent to gulags such as those in Siberia. Ukrainian nationalists fighting the Soviets who had ‘liberated’ them shot and their families deported. Acts of savagery, mass murder and rape. Teenagers, in particular, in the vanguard.

Let’s remember the death camps in the East and the Jews. Jewish tailors that had trained Zajac’s dad. We know around six million Jews were exterminated. But around half, as they were here, were taken into forests and fields and shot.

Zajac finds in the old reels of his father’s tape something unnerving. His story of being swept up by the Soviet machine and being deported to Uzbekistan has a facsimilia of truth. His escape along the Soviet railway, with its own gauge system for train that took three months, seems possible. Syria and up into India an incredible journey in which the good guy prevails. He joins the British Army.

An alternative story and shadow self emerges that is completely compelling as narrative, as history, or as drama, and a combination of all these.   This is much-watch TV. It shouldn’t be given a graveyard slot on BBC Scotland, but a Sunday night slot at 9pm. The kind of slot Small Axe: Mangrove demands and gets because Steve McQueen is a somebody. Zajac is a Scottish yokel, he’s give what he’s got and likes or lumps it territory. Listen up, I watched both and Zajac is better.  Watch and learn what a thing man is.