15 February, 2020 • • 42.5FictionLiterature

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Sirens of the Foyle

Laura Hackett

Darran Anderson
Chatto & Windus

Perhaps it reveals nothing more than my poor sleeping habits that almost every night I listen to the shipping forecast before I turn off the light. But there is something almost incantatory about it; the mixture of cryptic repeated phrases (what does ‘cyclonic’ mean?) with the occasional recognisable place name. More than that, there is the comforting, familiar pattern of the end of Radio 4’s daily broadcasting – the lilting notes of ‘Sailing By’, the forecast itself, the closing words of the presenter as they wish you a peaceful night, and then, like a nod to a Britain of long ago, the national anthem. By the time the pips are played, I’m already half-asleep. As a native of Northern Ireland, though, the sense of familiarity is intimately tied into a sense of foreignness, of Englishness. Mark Damazer, the former Controller of Radio 4, said of the shipping forecast, ‘It’s eccentric, it’s unique, it’s English’, while Zeb Soanes, a regular presenter, said, ‘It reinforces a sense of being islanders with a proud seafaring past.’ There is a sense, perhaps, that the shipping forecast is not for me, not only because I’ve never commanded a boat, but also because I’m not English. But I’m left fascinated more than I am alienated.

As I began Inventory, Darran Anderson’s memoir of a childhood in Troubles-stricken Derry, I recognised this fascination in someone else. The book opens with a description of the magic of radio, the first of many objects which make up the chapters of the book. The radio enters the house via an old set found by Darran’s father in ‘the Glen’, a mysterious nearby dumping ground. A young Darran tunes into stations all around the world, feeling ‘like a secret agent prying into distant lands, where language sounded like verse, incantations, ciphers’. But it’s only during an illness, when he lies on the sofa through the night, that he catches the shipping forecast, and ‘the mystery seeped in, almost despite itself’. He begins sneaking down during the night to catch fragments of it. Indeed, the way the shipping forecast manages to make the strange familiar and the familiar strange is a magic found in Inventory too. Take Anderson’s description of the Glen:

I had written ‘X marks the spot’ on that expanse on my map, and rubbed it out and moved it so many times that it gave the space an impression as opaque and chaotic as the place actually was.

Anderson manages to create the Glen here as a concept beyond either its physical embodiment or its place on a map; the Glen is somewhere in between, somewhere undocumentable, a form or idea which is overburdened with stories and sadness from the past. Throughout this memoir, Anderson takes places and objects and remakes them in his image, sometimes literally, as with the mended radio, and sometimes metaphorically, as with its mysterious place of origin.

The mixture of the strange and familiar is necessarily rooted in the place of Derry, a city turned warzone, in which pubs become military bases, and front doors barricades. The skyline is dominated by a watchtower, ‘a kind of anti-lighthouse’ which exists to see rather than to be seen. The alienation that comes with the feeling of being watched pervades the city; the impression is one of Sartrean nausea, in which daily life is burden with the knowledge of its observation. Graffiti appears on walls like messages from beyond, from someone who sees you when you don’t see them, and young Darran tries to decipher them, with more or less accuracy. ‘Free all POWs now’ becomes onomatopoeic in his reading, comic book action made real, but he recognises that the letter ‘U’ is dangerous; it signals a threat from the other side, the loyalist paramilitaries – the UVF, UDA, UFF. Phrases half remembered from a feverish shipping forecast reappear on the walls as threats: ‘Mull of Kintyre … bodies roll in from the sea.’

Growing up in such an environment brings with it new forms of childhood adventuring. It’s not just irritated neighbours whom Darran and his gang must avoid, nor even the police, but the army, a foreign army. Playing with a new toy periscope in the woods, Darran hears the soldiers come closer. If he reveals himself, he will most likely be shot. If they find him hidden in the undergrowth, he certainly will be. He can do nothing but stay silent and still, heart pounding at the proximity to death. In the clear light of day and the open streets, the threat of the army is less clearly defined. Sometimes they joke around with the boys, joining in on games or letting them look through their sights. But it’s never quite safe. Darran’s friend Jamesy takes the banter too far when the soldiers let him inside the tank; he is promptly kicked out of it, landing flat on his face. There is a line which cannot be crossed, but the line is fuzzy, changing depending on the individual soldier or the events of the day. This was a dangerous place for a mischievous, curious child.

The juvenile misadventures of Darran and his mates sit uneasily alongside unutterable violence. One of the most moving chapters, entitled simply ‘Inventory’, presents us with a relentless list of atrocities. It’s an assault on sympathy, challenging the reader to comprehend the suffering of the individual while acknowledging a political environment which refuses comprehension. You can’t try to think about all this suffering too deeply, or you’d lose your sanity.

In Ballymurphy a gunfight ensues, and a private and an IRA volunteer are shot. Then a thirteen-year-old boy, throwing stones at the army, is shot through the face. Then a fifty-year old mother of nine children. Then a priest helping a wounded man, waving a white Babygro from the ground. Then a man who went to help them and had taken off his shirt to stem the blood. Paratroopers run a sweepstake on who got the most kills, a veteran later claims.

Derry in 1984 is depicted as a series of thens, an unforgiving barrage of murders, state killings and tragic accidents. Life is cheap, death is only a ‘then’. Names and stories become fuzzy as they pile up in Anderson’s list, taking on the mystical quality of those place names in the shipping forecast. For those of us who grew up after the ceasefire, some of the stories and images might ring a bell, or trigger a name, but they aren’t quite real. To exist in a world in which all these stories were real would be unbearable, and so they are brushed over, not really lingered upon, reduced to a subordinate clause.

The hangover from such a dramatic reconstitution of mortality still survives in Northern Ireland today. Wakes are a social affair, with gossip conducted over the corpse, and there are no qualms about immediate recourses to black humour, even (especially) from close family and friends. This connection between wartime and peacetime death is made explicit in Inventory by the interweaving throughout the violence of stories of individuals living and dying before, during, and after the conflict.

Inventory is not simply a book about the Troubles; it is a lovingly and painfully constructed family history. Anderson slowly unravels the tale of his paternal grandfather, a smuggler and habitual deserter in the First World War, who drowns in the Foyle on the day JFK is shot. He is followed into the river twenty years later by his wife. Once someone dies, they are unable to explain their own death, and it is left for those left behind to try to piece together an explanation. Anderson is fairly sure that his grandfather’s death was a drunken accident, a fatal slip on the bridge, and he is fairly sure that his grandmother intended to kill herself. But complete uncertainty is impossible, and perhaps unwanted. On his mother’s side of the family, tragedy changes pitch. His maternal grandmother died of cancer, leaving behind nine children and a husband who becomes increasingly tyrannical. Indeed, the chapters dedicated to Anthony, Darran’s paternal grandfather, are some of the most complex and touching. Anthony is uncomplicatedly bad, a bully who preys on those weaker than him. He is physically abusive towards his children, constantly changing the rules so they never know how to avoid punishment. Even on his deathbed he doesn’t mellow – his last words are “You’re all just a shower of bastards” – but Darran misses him nonetheless. Anderson allows for this complexity of feeling; he is generous with nuance. It is possible to feel more pain at the peaceful death of a bad man than at the brutal murder of an innocent one. It can be true both that family loyalties and attachments exist outside of broader judgements of morality or sympathy, and that those attachments can be deeply restructured or even shattered by broader hatreds and divisions. Family might be the very root of familiarity, but conflict can make it strange; when Darran finds out about his father’s former paramilitary involvement and his spell in prison, he seems to discover a whole new person, one who is defined not only as his father, but also as a citizen, intimately embroiled in a tense political conflict.

The book changes pace as Darran moves to Belfast for university (promptly dropping out), and we are treated to a pitch-perfect portrayal of the cocktail of frustrated aimlessness and titillating menace which still characterises parts of the city to this day. It is here that Anderson’s work on the theory of place in his previous Imaginary Cities comes into full effect. The city is alive with tension: streets take on identities; houses are either orange or green; walls and barricades and barbed wire and caged windows abound. There is nowhere like Derry’s mysterious Glen; instead, everywhere is overburdened with meaning. No place is apolitical. Darran takes on the role of flâneur in a city which disallows such a notion, and pays for it in muggings and assaults. Following a descent into an almost Dostoyevskian state of solitude, scribblings and substance abuse, Darran leaves the city with thirty quid in his pocket. And here we are faced with fifteen years of radio silence, only broken when he returns home for his cousin’s funeral. Anderson captures beautifully the complex emotions which accompany the return; everything is eerily familiar, but you are not quite part of it anymore. This is now a post-conflict Northern Ireland, with old hatreds in new clothes, old fears patched over with investment and industry. If home is no longer home, what is it? Darran muddles through the reunions, but no sooner is the funeral over, that the son of the deceased, Andrew, goes missing, and Darran returns once more to the water, searching for him. They pull out one object after another – ‘Rusted cans. Collapsed lobster cages. The jawbone of an animal, bleached white’ – but no Andrew. When he is eventually found, and brought home to be buried, Darran keeps a piece of wood from the river. It becomes the final object in his Inventory, and prompts us to consider how these items join together. Is it the inventory of a person or a place? Darran or Derry? A family or a conflict? These objects are the lenses through which we have watched Darran’s life unfold, but they refuse to be explained away or labelled. I think they do begin to form an anatomy of the individual, of Darran, but the result is not a cleanly labelled skeleton. We are left with something more disjointed and yet more true, a portrait of the artist in the style of Picasso, which acknowledges the rupturing power of tragedy and conflict, and embraces those wounds in the artistic product.

The bravery of Inventory as a literary endeavour can only be fully appreciated in a Northern Irish context. These stories of illness and abuse and suicide, of forbidden pregnancies, of paramilitary associations, of family fallouts and relatives never mentioned, would find expression in secrets buried deep in almost every family in the country. Our parents and grandparents have held them for decades, perhaps letting a detail or a name slip out every now and then. Anderson has done the work of piecing together those details, building up a catalogue of pain but also hope. It imagines a future in which stories and memories are dredged up from the water and exposed to the light. At one point he mentions a character from Kurosawa’s film Rashomon, who says, “We all want to forget something. So we tell stories. It’s easier that way.” But Anderson’s stories are ones which refuse to let us forget, which refuse to make things easier. They are painful memories, and throughout the memoir there is a sense that Anderson is searching for a pattern in the trauma he unearths. What’s the connection between these suicides, what keeps drawing people towards the river, and how can it be stopped? Anderson’s underlying ambition is almost meteorological, an attempt to write his own shipping forecast, to foresee the storms to come with the help of those past. He attempts to let go of the impulse to predict, and do nothing but offer those who are left ‘the possibility of a life worth living’, yet that impulse remains in his closing words: ‘The darkness is coming. Let it wait.’ We can tune in to the forecast, anticipating the storms to come, but at some point we must go outside. Inventory is a call to do just that; to listen to the pain of the past, but then to set sail into a different future.


Laura Hackett is reading for an MSt in English 1550–1700 at Brasenose College.