Mistaken identity?

When it was announced in April that H. G.Carrillo had died of COVID-19, I realised he was the first writer I knew to have died of the virus. Although he was only an acquaintance, whom I followed spasmodically on Facebook (he had a keen interest in art and posted wonderful images almost daily), I felt the loss of his engaging presence in the world. He was 59.

I met Hache (pronounced Hatchay) – as he was known – when I taught at George Washington University in the 2008/9 academic year on a Jenny McKean Moore visiting professorship. It was a momentous year to be in DC, the year Barack Obama was elected, an event that seems now to have happened in some altered and very sane universe. I attended the inauguration and felt lucky to write about it for The Irish Times.

My other formative experience that year was being welcomed into the academic community at GWU, a community that included Hache.

At any given time, English departments in universities have a contingent of visiting academics and scholars who pass through the halls and often fall under the radar. This was not how it was at GWU where strangers were actively welcomed and included in the life of the department.

I can’t say that I “knew” Hache – and, in retrospect, many of his friends and colleagues will find themselves saying the same thing – but what I did know of him was energising. He was stylish and intellectually bracing. He was a friendly, curious colleague – as a visitor, sometimes, that’s all you need; someone to be curious about you – and he was a great teacher. How do I know? Well, you learn this from your students because you hear them talking, or they mention it in passing in an unforced manner. (And if you’re a worrier, you’re wondering what they’re saying about you in other classes! )

He was popular – long queues formed outside his office for consultations – and though he was a tough taskmaster, students admired him. On a teacher rating, one student wrote: “This dude will kick your ass all semester long, but you’ll end up with a grade that accurately reflects the effort you put in. He is literally scary smart and his understanding of people is like nothing I’ve ever seen. It won’t be an easy semester but you won’t regret it.”

So far, so straigthforward.

After Hache’s death, the Washington Post ran an obituary, which provided a familiar narrative of his life. Born in Cuba in 1960, escaped to the US on a refugee boat with his parents aged seven, a young life in Chicago. It was a biography that he developed in his 2004 novel, Loosing my Espanish, into a compelling fiction. But when the obituary appeared, Hache’s sister challenged these biographical “facts”. Hache was not Afro-Cuban, he was African-American, Susan Carroll said. Born in Detroit, his name was Herman Glenn Carroll, and in his youth went by the name Glenn. There were, she added, no Latinos in the family. His biography, in other words, was a self-made fiction.

After he became a writer in the 1990s, his family did not see much of him, his niece Jessica Webley (36) said, although they were aware of his fictitious backstory. He had repeated it so many times over the years to his professors and academic colleagues, to his husband and fellow writers, that “he probably believed it himself,” his sister Susan said.

Cuban Americans were quick to respond to Carrillo’s deception and call him out for cultural appropriation. When his death was announced on the PEN/Faulkner Foundation website, where he was chair of the board of directors, Cambria Francesco demanded they amend the announcement to highlight the fabrication. “This is extremely disrespectful and harmful to Cuban, Afro-Latino, and immigrant people when his (Carillo’s) notoriety and work is based off of a lived experience that is not his own.”

To those close to Hache, in particular his husband, Dennis van Englesdorp, this alternative identity came as a bolt out of the blue. Friends felt betrayed. “The news was a slap in the face for those of us who knew him. We mourned him, but we also reeled in shock. Hache passed for something he wasn’t, even at home with his husband in Berwyn Heights; he did the same with colleagues and students at George Washington University and at the PEN/Faulkner Foundation. I wasn’t the only one who felt betrayed. And so terribly sad,” wrote author Lisa Page, a close friend and colleague.

“He chose not to be from Detroit, eschewing his Midwestern roots. Crossing shark-infested waters in a boat bound for Miami was a better story than leaving Motown for the District of Columbia and beyond. His black life mattered even as he left pieces of it behind. He shed it, like a chrysalis, to fly off and become someone else.

“Hache chose to become a Latino writer, lacing his fiction with Spanish. . . But reinvention has a price. He erased his African American heritage when he created his Cuban backstory. “

At an intimate level, this deception must be extremely hurtful. For his family it represents rejection. For those who loved him, Hache’s fabrication calls into question the very foundation of their relationship with him, and makes his untimely death doubly distressing. They are left with the ultimate doubt – if his personal origin story was a lie, how much else was?

The concept of an African American “passing” as another racial identity makes Carrillo’s choice extremely controversial, given the history of race relations in the US. But in purely literary terms, he’s not the first writer to have created a pseudoynmous existence – the Brontes, George Eliot, Colette; the only difference is how fully he lived it out.

I’m reminded of Michaél MacLíammóir (1899-1978), a doyen of the Irish stage, who was born, coincidentally, on this day 121 years ago.

His real name was Michael Alfred Wilmore and he was brought up in Kensal Green in London. An established child actor who worked with Noel Coward, he also studied art at the Willesden School of Art. As a teen, he read W B Yeats and became passionate about all things Irish. He learned the language and translated his very English name – into a kind of cod Irish. Constructing a backstory for himself – born in Douglas, Cork, he told people – he arrived in Ireland in 1924 a newly renamed “stage Irishman”. During the 1920’s he travelled and acted extensively around Europe and on a tour of Ireland he met his life partner Hilton Edwards. They settled in Dublin where they lived as a highly visible gay couple at a time in Ireland when homosexual acts were criminalised. In 1928 they formed The Gate Theatre which became a showcase for modern plays and design.

MacLíammóir held on to his constructed identity to the end even when most people in Ireland knew his so-called origin story was not true. It didn’t seem to matter. It was one more facet of his highly “performed” life.

So when does impostorhood become a transgression? If we were to look through the 21st century lens of gender identity, wasn’t Hache Carrillo simply deciding who he wanted to be and how he wanted to be viewed and treated by the world? Isn’t this exactly the freedom the trans community is seeking with regard to sexual identity? The right to declare who you are and have society honour your call?

Or was he just a plain old impostor with a rich interior life?

Sounds to me like the perfect description of a writer.

The Pictograms of Plague

A picture can paint a thousand words, a saying ascribed variously to “the Chinese”, 1920s American ad man Frederick Barnard, or the Russian writer Ivan Turgenev, depending on whom you believe. But the power of the pictogram cannot be underestimated. The facemask as a symbol of protection, or the footsteps plastered on the pavement as a metonym for social distancing, have become ingrained visual shorthand for all of us during the COVID-19 pandemic.

In Ireland, the plague palette has been yellow and black.

All of the official informational postering and most of the pictograms have appeared in these two colours. How were they chosen? Well, for one, black on yellow is typographically clear and arresting and the posters contained a lot of information – and at the start of the lockdown a lot of new information – so visual clarity was very important.

A warning from the 1918 flu epidemic

Secondly, we are conditioned to reading these colours as signalling danger from our roads and hazard signage. Ireland signed up for the Vienna Convention on Road Signage – yes, there is such a thing – in 1968 along with 37 other countries, including the US , Australia, Canada and Mexico, agreeing to use warning signs that were black on a yellow background. This colour combination is related to the insect world and our perceptions of it, apparently – think bees and wasps for whom we have a healthy respect lest they sting us, so we associate their uniform with danger.

This may be an old wives tale, but whatever the reason, the colours together have a skull and crossbones vibe about them, so we’re primed visually to brace ourselves even before we get to read the message. This in a world where a whole new vocabulary is in place, or the old one has been repurposed.

Cocoon and vector are part of the new terminology; flattening the curve has shed its weight gain associations. Quarantine, self-isolation, furlough, asymptomatic, working from home and vaccination have taken on a new emphasis since the start of the pandemic – another word that’s bandied about freely now. But as Paul Elie – https://www.newyorker.com/contributors/paul-elie – argued in a piece in the New Yorker in March, we’ve been employing the language and imagery of viruses for many decades, just not to describe literal illness.

“It was there in the computer virus. . . It was there, most blithely, as an expression of the reach and spontaneity of social media. We watched as cat videos, practical jokes, blunders, over-the-shoulder half-court shots, and celebrity meltdowns all went ‘viral’. And it was there in the notion that those who could make things go viral were to be celebrated, cultivated, compensated, imitated. The term devised for them – we realise in rueful retrospect – has a distinct echo of the worst virus of modern times, the influenza pandemic of 1918. They were called influencers.”

But if such language has been lodged in the public consciousness, how many of the iconic images of the pandemic will survive in the collective memory? What will be COVID-19’s equivalent to Rosie the Rivetter? (The bicep-baring worker under the “We Can Do It” banner was created by J Howard Miller for the Westinghouse Electric Corporation in Pittsburgh in 1942 and became the defining symbol of working women during the Second World War in the US.)

My vote goes to the image at the top of this post created by Israeli designer Noma Bar http://nomabar.com/ – in an initiative organised by Spanish graphic designer Alvaro Lopez and Italian paper manufacturer Fedrigoni to raise funds for the NHS in Britain. Artists were asked to design a series of limited edition posters on the theme of observing lockdown. Bar, who’s resident in London, dedicated his design to frontline workers.

“I wanted the viewers to discover the house shape in between the gap of the mask and the head cover; the eyes are two people in quarantine sitting by the window. I think that you can feel the level of stress in the eyes. They look sideways as if something happened outside.”

With graphic simplicity Bar manages to communicate several layers of meaning at once – the burden on the frontline, the isolation of quarantine, the interdependence of the two, and the pervasive atmosphere of fear, the latter surely the hallmark of our time of plague.

The Catfight Theory

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Cate Blanchett as Phyllis Schlafly, the anti-feminist activist who led the campaign against the Equal Rights Amendment (ERA) in the US in the 1970s

No sooner had the ink dried on the 10 Emmy nominations for Mrs America, a FX mini-series about the struggle to ratify the Equal Rights Amendment (ERA) in the US,  than veteran feminist activist and journalist Gloria Steinem came out to accuse the series of “misrepresenting history”.

The amendment to the US constitution, demanding equality of rights under the law regardless of sex, was  first mooted in 1923 and passed by the US Senate in 1972.  However, to become law the ERA had to be ratified by 38 states before a 1982 deadline.

It became a bitter battleground between the women’s liberation movement (pro-amendment) and STOP ERA , an alliance of the conservative right, headed up by pro-lifer Phyllis Schlafly, who successfully prevented it reaching that threshold.

This week Steinem penned an article in the Los Angeles Times  (along with Eleanor Smeal, president of the Feminist Majority Foundation) decrying the series.  She insisted she was not writing out of a personal gripe,  although she says the show “gets my haircut right and my character wrong”.

The plot of Mrs America, she says, seems to depend on a trivialisation of women, putting  the failure to ratify the ERA down to personal feuding and female in-fighting. 

“Would a national legislative failure of the civil rights movement be attributed to a rivalry between followers of Martin Luther King Jr. and followers of Malcolm X? Somehow, we don’t think so,” she writes. “The bottom line is this: Mrs America has described deck chairs on the Titanic but lied about why the Titanic went down.  Instead it has given us the Catfight Theory of History.”

For anyone recasting history as fiction – which I’ve spent my whole writing life doing – this is a familiar complaint.   Luckily for me, most of the characters I’ve written about – Franziska Schanzkowska  a Polish factory worker who claimed to be Grand Duchess Anastasia, Bella Casey sister of playwright  Sean O’Casey, or most recently Nora Barnacle, wife of James Joyce – are conveniently dead. But Mrs America chronicles events that are only 40 years old, and some of the players are still with us, including Steinem.

The show runners face the same challenges as historical novelists – how to collate a large amount of factual  material and present it in a digestible way with a satisfying narrative arc and characters with whom the viewer/reader can identify, without distorting history.

“Hollywood can tell any story, regardless of history,” Steinem concedes, “but this one is being presented as fact, and has arrived in a perfect storm of circumstance. Months of COVID-19 lockdown have given the nine episodes of Mrs. America a captive-at-home audience, and reviews have focused on women’s hairstyles and individual rivalries, not the real reason state legislators voted against the ERA.”

As an avid fan of the series, I  wouldn’t dare to argue with Steinem. She was there, after all.

But there are health warnings before every episode making clear that it is fiction not history and flagging that certain liberties have been taken with the characters; also, the series creators can hardly be blamed for the reviews or the lockdown bounce that also helped Normal People on its way.

I came of age in the 1970s, the era of American feminism and politics depicted in Mrs America. I’d read Betty Friedan (played by Tracey Ullman) and Gloria Steinem (Rose Byrne), but I found this series illuminating because it introduced me to so much that I didn’t know. I’d never heard of Phyllis Schlafly, the central character of Mrs America.  (Steinem argues that the focus on Schlafly credits her with undue importance as an influencer.)

Likewise, I wasn’t familiar with Bella Abzug (Margo Martindale) a three-term Democrat politician who battled to get women’s issues taken seriously inside the tent of congressional politics, and who led the National Advisory Commission for Women in the Carter administration – though she was ultimately fired unceremoniously by the president.

Neither, I’m ashamed to say,  did I know anything about Shirley Chisholm (Uzo Aduba),  the first black woman elected to Congress and a pioneering candidate for president in the 1972 Democratic Primary.  (That’s 37 years before Obama!)  Was that colour blindness on my part?

I’m wondering how many viewers out there are, like me, reaching for factual accounts of the era, as a result of seeing Mrs America.  Fiction, with all its limitations and compromises, has the power to ignite interest in the history.  And there are plenty of sources available – Steinem’s autobiography, My Life on the Run, is one. Another is the LA Times’ helpful episode-by-episode fact check of  Mrs America so that the discerning viewer can make up her own mind about the show’s filter and emphasis.

Speaking of filters, the creative decision to view a lot of the action of Mrs America through Phyllis Schlafly’s point-of-view was a brave one, given her ultra-conservative views on abortion, gay rights and working women. Cate Blanchett gives a riveting performance that combines a calculating feyness with a steely intelligence.  Schlafly is not demonised here (though Betty Friedan famously called for her to be burned at the stake during a heated debate) but portrayed as a serious woman, whose political and career ambitions were also thwarted by the prevailing patriarchy she so actively embraced.

My criticism of the series is not in its “fictionalising” of real characters for dramatic purposes, but in its treatment of its fictional characters. “Alice Macray” – played by Sarah Paulson – is one of Phyllis Schlafly’s right-hand women, who becomes turned on –  literally – to the other side’s arguments at the National Women’s Conference in Houston in 1977.  This was a major political event that attracted 20,000 attendees of all political stripes who met to draft a plan of action on 26 issues, including abortion, rape, childcare, and employment rights  – to present to President Carter.  Macray’s partial dark night of the soul eclipses the conference itself, which was characterised by Gloria Steinem in her autobiography as “the most important event nobody knows about”.

It may have been good drama to give one of Schlafly’s supporters a drug-induced Road to Damascus experience but it’s really a cheap Hollywood set piece. Interesting too, that it isn’t one of the feminist women who becomes a doubter – now that really would have been daring.

Equally underplayed is a counter-rally Phyllis Schlafly’s campaign group organised in Houston to clash with the conference, which attracted 12,000 supporters and was seen as a crucial turning point in American politics.

Historian Marjorie Spruill has argued that the alliances formed at this counter-rally –  between single-issue voters from disparate religious groups  – had the effect of uniting  opponents of abortion, the ERA and gay rights under a single “pro-family” movement that became increasingly influential in Republican politics. (President Trump gave the oration at Schlafly’s funeral in September 2016.)

The importance of the show is that it demonstrates that the ERA was not just about a battle for the hearts and minds of a sectional interest. As Spruill says: “The issues that polarised American women during the ‘70s basically have polarised the whole nation.”

This is what makes Mrs America so compelling.  Pace Gloria Steinem.

As for the Equal Rights Amendment.  Forty years on the ERA is still not law, even though in January 2020, Virginia became the 38th state to ratify it.  But that 1982 deadline still holds.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Press Button A

art of the glimpse

You’re wondering about the heading, aren’t you?

What has it got to do with The Art of the Glimpse (lovely title and exquisite cover design by  Owen Gent) of a new collection of  Irish short stories which features 100 practitioners of the form, old and new, including yours truly.  The anthology is forthcoming from Head of Zeus and edited by Sinéad Gleeson –  she of Constellations fame and the newly-announced winner of the Dalkey Book Prize.

Well, the story of mine that Sinéad chose is from my first collection A Lazy Eye (Jonathan Cape 1995) which is called “Divided Attention”.  It’s a story I have a soft spot for because it was the first time I wrote in the second person voice, but other anthologists haven’t shared my enthusiasm for it, until Sinéad came along, that is.

Because it was composed originally on an ancient Amstrad, I had to transcribe the story  on to my current laptop for Head of Zeus.  As I did some small edits along the way, I began to realise how archival the story had become in the 30 or more years since I wrote it.

It was an utterly 20th century creation, a story that couldn’t, and wouldn’t be written now.  Not because of political correctness, or the storyline, but because of technology.

Briefly, the plot is this.  The narrator, a woman in her thirties, shares her guilt about an affair with a married man, by confessing her feelings to a man who makes a series of abusive calls to her in the middle of the night.

Here are five props and devices (both plot and apparatus) I’d have to rethink if I were to bring the story up to date.

1.The landline: the telephonic encounter between the man, who is (mostly) silent, and the female narrator is  conducted exclusively on a landline. A what?

phone box

2. The phone box: the abusive caller, who’s engaged in what one might euphemistically describe as  digital activities (in the old-fashioned sense) while on the phone, uses a public phone box. Which is where the Press button A line comes in.  The phone kiosk referenced in this story featured a coin-operated phone.  You inserted your coins one by one into a slot on the top and dialled your number. When the other party answered you pressed button A in order to be heard.  (If there was no reply, you pressed button B and got your money back through a silver chute at the bottom – sometimes!) As I write this, I realise it doesn’t sound archival, it sounds prehistoric!

3. Caller ID: the narrator’s phone is a fixed, manual, non-digital, stand-alone instrument attached to a wall socket. It has no electronic display. Caller ID has not been invented.

4.  Public exhibitionism: The narrator describes a much earlier encounter with a man who exposes himself on the street.  For anyone of my generation, this was the persistent  sexual threat of our youth. There seemed to be no end of men in dirty macs whose full-time job it was to expose themselves on buses, in cinemas, on the street. The advent of the internet has driven them indoors; I imagine they’re all now porn purveyors on their screens at home.

5. Monetisation of the “dirty” phone call:  Nowadays you elect to experience smut on the phone, and you have to pay for it.  The free dirty phone call is a thing of the past.

Around the time I wrote this story one of my party pieces was a poem by British Poet Laureate Ted Hughes, called “Do Not Pick Up the Telephone” which I admired for its superstitious misanthropy.  It’s a most untypical poem of his in that it isn’t about eagles or crows, or nature, “red in tooth and claw”.  It’s about the perils of the phone, a purveyor in Hughes’ mind, of bad news and death.

I sought the poem out and realised that it’s almost as archival as my story.

Death invented the phone, it looks like the altar of death, he writes. Not any more, Ted.

You plastic crab, he berates it, which is a perfect analogy for those crouching models of the 80s and 90s, but not right for a slimline mobile.

World’s emptiness oceans in your mouthpiece/Stupidly your string dangles into the abyss – Mouthpiece? String?  All old hat with wi-fi, Ted.

But although the phone is as outmoded as the one in my story,  Hughes’ poetic rage remains admirably deathless!

“O phone, get out of my house

You are a bad god

Go and whisper on some other pillow

Do not lift your snake head in my house

Do not bite any more beautiful people. . .”

That’s the spirit, Ted!

The Art of the Glimpse includes work  – from across the centuries  – by Samuel Beckett, Sally Rooney, Melatu Uche Okirie, William Trevor, Marian Keyes, Kevin Barry, Edna O’Brien, Claire-Louise Bennett, Sheridan Le Fanu, Danielle McLaughlin, Elizabeth Bowen, Frank O’Connor and Maeve Brennan – and 87 others!  It appears in October 2020.

 

 

 

Did you watch Normal People, Hilary?

hilary mantel

Today I should be basking in the afterglow of having met and introduced one of my literary heroines, Hilary Mantel, who was due to read at University College Cork on May 19, 2020. Like so many literary events, the show could not go on because of the COVID-19 pandemic. But when you’re preparing for a public event like this, and it doesn’t happen, the questions still remain.

Some of my queries relate to the time before – the pre-virus world, if you like – and even in the unlikely event of the reading having gone ahead, the pandemic would, of course, have featured in the discussion.

Any interviewer starts off with a list of prepared questions, things she’s curious about, but the nature of a live event means that the course of an interview can never be predicted, much less managed. Because at its best, an author interview is an exchange and the interviewee’s answers often dictate the next question.

But given all that, here are some of the things I might have asked on the night.

Before:

How long did it take you to master the history of Tudor England, its politics and its events, before you started to write, or did that happen in the process of writing?

Why so hard on Sir Thomas More?

In the public mind, the Wolf Hall trilogy has probably eclipsed your other work – do you mind that?

My favourite novels of yours are Eight Months on Ghazzah Street and Beyond Black. What’s your favourite from your pre-Wolf Hall work?

What marked your earlier novels out was the fact that no two were the same.  They explored very different worlds.  After 15 years writing the Wolf Hall trilogy – “working in the crypt” in your own words – do you crave a change from Tudor England?

The Wolf Hall success came after a lifetime of  writing to a loyal but limited readership.  Apart from the material rewards, are fame and acclaim welcome or intrusive, or both?

After:

The Mirror and the Light came out just as the pandemic took hold.  It became for many readers the ultimate early lockdown read, for its totally immersive properties.  Apart from its size (over 800 pages, and as we know in pandemics size matters) and the fact that it’s the closure of a trilogy,  what else would give it resonance for readers now?

You have written very movingly about how chronic illness has shaped and distorted your life in your memoir, Giving up the Ghost.  How did your own relationship  with what Susan Sontag calls the “kingdom of the sick” affect your attitude to the COVID-19 crisis in which everyone has been touched by the spectre of disease?

Would you write plague any differently, post COVID-19?

In an interview you mentioned you’d discovered Irish author’s Eugene McCabe’s Death and Nightingales during lockdown. You describe it as “truly one of the best novels I have ever, ever read. . . I wish heartily that I could have written it myself.”  What makes it so good?

Did you watch “Normal People”?

 

 

Portrait of Brian O’Higgins

Another guest blog on Una Watters portraiture, this time from her niece, Sheila Smith – check it out on the new dedicated site – unawattersartist.wordpress.com

Una Watters (1918-1965)

27 Brian O'Higgins 1963 Brian O’Higgins (1963)

Una Watters’ niece, Sheila Smith and her daughter Karen, write about the background to one of Una’s large, late-career portraits which demonstrates her unusual textured approach to portraiture. 

One of Una Watters’ strengths was portraiture as evidenced by the sheer number of pencil sketches and drawings of family and friends in her portfolio of work. Subjects frequently testify to the great likeness that Una achieved in these works. Late in her career, she also completed several portraits in oil, which featured in the 1966 retrospective exhibition, including one of her husband, E R Watters (1965), another of Tomás O’Muircheartaigh (1962), which we have still not managed to trace, and a portrait of Brian O’Higgins (1963).

The O’Higgins portrait was completed after the subject’s death. There was a family and professional relationship with Una Watters as O’Higgins had commissioned artistic work from her and was also…

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Una Watters goes solo

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The Flute Player – 1953

For some time now I’ve been championing the work of Dublin artist, Una Watters (1918 – 1965) whose reputation has, sadly, fallen into neglect. I’ve been working with Una’s family, in particular her niece, Sheila Smith,  in order to change this.  We’ve spent the last year-and-a-half trying to trace Una’s paintings with a view to mounting a retrospective exhibition and bring her work to a new public.

This task has been harder than you might expect because much of Una’s work has been held in private hands since the mid-1960s.  Only two paintings of hers, that we know of,  have come up for auction in recent times – one in 2007, and another in 2019.  There’s a reason for this.  After Una’s sudden death in 1965, aged 47, her heart-broken husband, Irish language novelist and poet Eoghan O’Tuarisc (Eugene Watters) gathered together 37 of her oil paintings for a memorial show. Afterwards, he distributed all of Una’s paintings among family and a wide circle of friends and acquaintances.

The catalogue of this 1966 show formed the basis of our searches, but because of the way the work was distributed, there was very little in the way of a paper trail.  Given the time that has elapsed, many of the paintings have passed on to the next generation or the one after that in families, and people may not recognize Una’s work or know the story of how her paintings came into their possession.  That said, everyone we came across, and there have been many, was very attached to their Una Watters and glad to share images of her work.

Due to their generosity, we have been able to launch today (April 28, 2020)  – unawattersartist.wordpress.com – a new website dedicated to Una’s work. This site collates the fruit of our quest with a gallery of some of the work we’ve found along the way. Our plans to host another retrospective show of Una’s work  – the first since 1966 – has been thwarted by the COVID-19 crisis but we’re hoping this site will be a virtual substitute for a show and will introduce Una’s work to the wider audience she deserves. We hope unawattersartist.wordpress.com  may become a resource for those interested in Una’s work both as scholars and/or art enthusiasts.

 

 

 

Viral echoes from history

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Bella with her daughter, Susan

So surreal is the current Corona virus pandemic that I’ve found it almost impossible to write about it, even privately.  Even if I could formulate some thoughts on it, I doubt that there’s anything new I could say.  Being in quarantine seems to enhance the feeling of emotional distance from the experience. A privileged position to be in, I realise.

It’s a strange paradox. Ten years ago, however,  without having any first-hand experience of it, I was writing about a time of plague.

The eponymous heroine of my 2013 novel, The Rising of Bella Casey (Brandon Press),  the sister of the playwright Sean O’Casey,  had the ill-luck of becoming an early Irish victim of the Spanish ‘flu, over a hundred years ago.

The ‘flu epidemic swept through Europe and the US at the end of the First World War, and at its lowest estimate, claimed 21 million victims world-wide, a figure far higher than the war’s death-toll. (By comparison, the COVID-19 virus has, at time of writing, claimed 25,410 lives with over 565,000 cases registered world-wide.)

The ‘flu came in two waves – in early 1918, and then again later in the year.  It was known as the Spanish ‘flu because it was only in neutral Spain that newspapers were free to publish accounts of the spread of the disease. (Compare with Donald Trump’s odious “Chinese Virus” name-calling.)

However, it is now understood that the 1918 epidemic may have originated as early as 1916 in a British infantry depot in Etaples, 20 miles south of Boulogne. All newly-arrived British troops were sent for training at the northern French camp so that at any given time over 100,000 men were in residence.  Most lived in tents or temporary wooden barracks and conditions were overcrowded and unsanitary – a recipe for the spread of the respiratory virus.

In December 1916, dozens of soldiers at the camp began complaining of aches and pains, coughs and shortness of breath. As many as 40 % of these first victims died of what was described as “purulent  bronchitis”. It was a horrible death, where patients literally drowned in their own blood, their faces turning a peculiar lavender colour – indicating cyanosis (where the lungs cannot transfer oxygen into the blood)  – a tell-tale trademark of the killer ‘flu.

Other early outbreaks are placed in the US (Camp Funston, Kansas) and, ironically,  in China, both in 1917.

In Dublin, eye-witnesses remember it as the Black Flu. “When the 1914 War ceased, pneumonia swept through the country – every country ─ and took families away. . . The Black Flu came in 1918.  I was still a child.  It was a horrible old thing.  Well, my mother had the Black Flu and we only got her back from Heaven. Praying. And I remember sitting at her bedside and she was very, very sick. . . Oh, a dispensary doctor came up, but he had hundreds,” May Hanaphy told the author Kevin Kearns in Dublin Tenement Life: An Oral History of the Dublin Slums.

Bella Casey was not so lucky.  Her health was already compromised.  She had an underlying condition.

She had developed erysipelas, a skin infection caused by the streptococcus bacteria. Known alternatively as “holy fire” or St Anthony’s Fire, the condition can cause high fever, shaking, chills, fevers, headaches and vomiting. The skin lesions enlarge rapidly and are painful and hard to the touch transforming the affected skin so that it has the consistency of orange peel. Nowadays, it can be treated with antibiotics, but these were not available until 1928.

In Bella’s case, the skin rash may have been caused by an allergy to cleaning products of the time.  Although an educated woman, she spent the latter days of her life in poverty working as a charwoman. In The Early Life of Sean O’Casey, Martin Marguiles notes that “incongruously she always wore a pair of spotless white gloves and neighbours referred to her admiringly as ‘Lady Beaver’.” (Beaver was Bella’s husband’s name.)

“She suffered from headaches which became progressively more frequent and severe, until she had to stop scrubbing floors.  The headaches ─ symptoms of erysipelas – became so painful that she took to wearing a shawl, which made her white gloves appear more incongruous still.”

Bella’s husband, Nicholas Beaver, had died in his early forties suffering from GPI, general paralysis of the insane, an accompanying condition of tertiary syphilis.

In the end, however, the Spanish ‘flu claimed Bella Casey in 1918.  Her death certificate notes the cause of death as “Influenza, 10 Days Certified”. She was 52.

And now for the fiction from those facts.

Babsie, coming in at noon, found her mother still abed.  That in itself was strange for her mother was an early riser, but since Christmas she’d been poorly, laid low with a purulence of the lungs and a wild fever that had made her overheated one minute and perished the next. Babsie had put her husband’s dinner on – oh how she loved to say that, her husband; Babsie was a new bride – and leaving the door on Clarence Street on the latch she’d run around the corner to check on her mother.  She was relieved to find a peaceful scene and not the wracking sounds of coughing that had been going on for days. There was some kind of infection going round.  Some people blamed the soldiers for it; others said it was a kind of swine fever.  But that couldn’t be what Mam had, Babsie thought, for when would her mother have been mixing with either of those? She had urged her mother to call in the doctor but Mam had set her face against it.

“It’s just my old trouble,” she’d said to Babsie. “It goes quiet, you see, for a long time and then. . . it emerges again.”

The erysipelas was her mother’s old trouble.  Soon after she’d taken up charring, her mother’s skin had broken out in a rash. She’d had to wear gloves up to the elbow to hide her contagion.  A dress pair with a pearl detail for these were the only gloves her mother owned. But the rash had spread anyway.  It found its way to her face and washed up in a high tide close to her hairline.  She had to wrap a turban of fabric round her head when going out to keep the condition a secret.

“People will think it a want of hygiene,” her mother had said.  “But it’s a surfeit of cleanliness I’m suffering from, up to my oxters in suds all day.”

If you passed her on the street, you’d have given her a penny, Babsie thought, or be calling the clutchers what with the strange headgear and the dress gloves. The neighbours mistook it for another of her mother’s eccentric affectations.  My, my, the airs and graces, they would say, look at the Protestant wan, all tricked up as if going to a ball, and only off to do her charring.

Babsie’s brother John was sitting at the scored table reading a book.  Just like Uncle Jack he was, always stuck in a book. She poured tea from the cooling pot.  The milk when she added it curdled.

“How’s she been?” she asked him.

He shrugged, barely lifting his head from the pages.

“You’ve let the fire go out,” she said.  She tried to raise a flame from the embers in the grate.  The poker made a grinding sound as she hit the firebricks.

“Shh,” John said, “you’ll only wake her.”

“I wouldn’t have to do it at all, if you kept the place warm for her.  Is it too much to ask?”

Babsie was peppering for a fight so sick with worry was she about her mother.  But she seemed to be the only one.  She wanted only to be immersed in the newly-minted world of her marriage.  Everything about this house, like every other house they’d lived in, spoke of struggle.

“Has she eaten anything?” Babsie persisted.

John shook his head.  “She hasn’t moved since I got up.”

Only then did Babsie get up to investigate.  She tiptoed into the back room and over to the bed.  Drawing back the covers she placed a hand on her mother’s forehead.  She shook her gently by the shoulder.

“Mam,” she said gently, “wake up.”

She shook again, this time more roughly.

“Mam,” she repeated, panicked.

A tiny smart of irritation came over Babsie; she was forever trying to shake Mam  into action. She reached for her mother’s scabbed wrist – peeled back one of the gloves; yes, she even wore them in bed for fear of scratching herself unbeknownst in her sleep –  but Babsie knew even before she tried for a pulse.

“John,” she said evenly, “go and get Reverend Brabazon.”

“Ah Babs, I’m in the middle of me book,” he wailed.

Books, she thought, bloody books.

“Go,” she ordered, “this very minute.”

When he was gone, Babsie drew the curtains and stopped the clock.  She put the kettle to boil, for whom she did not know.  It was just something to do so she would not have to approach the bed again and look on her mother’s closed-in face.  She could not take it in; that the end would come like this, so quietly, as if her mother had just suddenly upped and surrendered.   Typical, Babsie thought, and inexplicably she felt her ire rising again.  It was something she had never understood. It wasn’t that her mother had lacked spirit – hadn’t she raised up five of them as a widow? – but her striving seemed always directed at appearances, the look of things as opposed to how they were. Well, Babsie thought, looking around, something would have to be done here. The scene looked peaceful, though hardly dignified.  Her mother’s face had a par-boiled look where previous bouts of the erysipelas had left angry blotches. The gloves and the makeshift turban seemed foolish and pathetic, and Babsie set to, unwinding the scarf from her mother’s head and peeling off the gloves, so that when the clergyman saw her, she would not look like something out of a harlequinade.

She unwound her mother’s hair from the matted mound the scarf had made of it.  Babsie lifted her head then while she combed the tangles out of it.  When she laid her mother’s head back on the pillow, her hair settled like a tortoiseshell fan.  Babsie laid her mottled arms by her side.  Then she straightened the bed.  Something tinny fell off as she turned down the counterpane. She had to go down on all fours to retrieve it.   It was her mother’s little birdcage. It was a useless little thing, she thought, not even brass but brightly painted metal made up to look like silver.  No pawn shop in town would look twice at it and so it had survived, a priceless treasure.  She weighed it in her hand and then lifted her mother’s and folded the stiffening fingers around it in a fist.  Tears came then, but nothing operatic – that was not in Babsie’s nature.  She wiped her eyes and steeled herself.   She went into the other room to fetch the two-pair  candlesticks.  There was a large dent in the stem of one, from what Babsie couldn’t recall. A domestic skirmish with her father, no doubt.  One of the many.  She lit them with a taper from the reawakened fire and set one down on each side of the bed. She bent and kissed her mother on the brow.   Then Babsie passed her fingers in swift benediction over her mother’s eyelids and closed them, her lips moving to some silent prayer.

Una Watters’ name in lights

 

GPO original

This is the face of Dublin artist, Una Watters (1918-1965).

Who, you might ask?

It’s a face you may well see if you’re passing the GPO this weekend in the hours of darkness.  It will be illuminated across the facade of the post office as part of the Herstory Illuminations Festival 2020 to mark St Brigid’s Day.

Her image – created for projection by NCAD art student Rebecca Sodegrad –  is there thanks to an  RTÉ Junior initiative, Who’s Your Heroine, in which schoolchildren across Ireland were invited to discover lost women’s stories.

The response was so overwhelming that in addition to commissioning a series of six original animations, RTE partnered with NCAD to create additional illustrations showcasing some of the many incredible women nominated by the children.

Alexa Bauer (10)  of Dublin 7 Educate Together school, nominated Una Watters for the project and wrote an accompanying essay explaining her choice.

My great aunty Rosie (still alive) and my great-grandmother Molly were both good friends with . . . Una. In our living room, we have a painting by her called “The Ladies Committee” and my great-grandmother is apparently in it, as well as a catalogue of all her [Una’s] paintings. . .

Una Watters should be one of Ireland’s most famous painters, but has sadly faded away.

The Ladies Committee - Laura Carrigan
The Ladies Committee – image courtesy of Laura Carrigan

So why has Una Watters been forgotten?

Partly because she died suddenly, aged 47, when she was at the height of her artistic powers.

After training at the National College of Art under the guidance of Maurice McGonigal, Una had become a versatile and prolific artist.  She worked in oils and watercolours, painted portraits and landscapes, and in her latter career developed an angular, almost cubist style.  Saturated with colour, her work is social, witty and observant. She sketched, was involved in magazine and book illustration, was an expert calligrapher and had a flair for design. (She won an Irish Arts Council commission to design a symbol to commemorate the 50th anniversary of the 1916 Easter Rising.)

She was a member of the influential Society of Dublin Painters which featured a strong female membership, among them May Guinness, Grace Henry, Mary Swanzy, Mainie Jellet and Evie Hone, with whom she also showed.

One of her paintings, The Four Masters (1959), still hangs in the small suburban branch library in Phibsboro where she worked as a librarian. Another, The People’s Gardens (1963), is in the collection of the Dublin City Gallery (Hugh Lane).

Yet Una’s reputation has remained in the shadows.

The reason is, perhaps, related to her premature death. In 1966, a year after her untimely death, Una’s grieving husband, Eugene Watters, the Irish language novelist and poet, organized a memorial exhibition of 37 of her oil paintings, after which, heartbroken by her loss, he distributed her work widely among friends and family. This has meant that although she is loved and admired by those who are lucky enough to own an original Watters, her work has not reached a wider public.

For the past two years,  I have been trying to change that. With the help of Una’s family and friends, we have managed to track down 23 of the 37 works in her posthumous 1966 show,  and are on the lookout for more with a view to mounting a retrospective exhibition.

Slowly but surely, we hope to bring Una’s name into the light. Alexa Bauer has lit the first fuse. See Herstory 2020 for Alexa’s full essay: https://www.rte.ie/culture/herstory/2020/0128/1111507-herstory-illuminated-una-watters/

 

 

Driven potty by tourism

lello 3When is a bookshop not a bookshop?

On a recent visit to Porto – luckily, a winter visit; you’ll see why later – we made our way to Livraria Lello, ranked as one of the most beautiful bookshops in the world. And so it is.  Built in 1906, the shop presents an exquisite art deco, Moorish style exterior and an arabesque interior of mock-gothic shelving, a ceiling with high-church stained glass panels and a Gaudi-esque staircase curling its way up through the store’s three floors like the demented manifestation of a Dali nightmare.

Not only was the shop beautiful, it was thronged.

What’s not to like when a bookshop attracts hordes of customers? Particularly when many of them were making a pilgrimage to honour an author? As a native of Dublin, this is a concept I’m familiar with;  after all, Joyce’s imagined characters from Ulysses, and the places they inhabit, get a special day of celebration devoted to them every year on June 16 for Bloomsday.

So what’s the problem? Tourism is what.

Livraria Lello started charging its customer a fee to enter (set against book purchases) in 2015 when it was swamped by so many visitors the shop couldn’t function as a business any longer.  The business of selling books, that is. Now when you arrive on Rua des Carmencitas, you’re steered to a shopfront two doors away to buy a ticket. Then you queue on the street outside to gain entry.  Since it was December, there were only about five people ahead of us so we got in without a wait.  But in summer, the queue stretches for several blocks and people wait for hours on end.

lello outside

Nevertheless, despite the short queue, the long, high, narrow premises seemed very crowded indeed. There were clusters of stationary people stuck behind displays and frozen in the narrow alleyways arms aloft taking photos with their phones.  That staircase, in particular, was jammed with people taking selfies.  On the display tables in the middle of the shop-floor, there were beautiful gift editions of English language classics for sale, Dickens, Flaubert, Wilde (Livraria Lello is also a book publisher with a long tradition) but no one was looking at them. Likewise the shelves were packed with fabulous books on the arts, the sciences, along with celebrated Portuguese authors like Pessoia and Saramago, three floors high.  But the crowds were not here for any of those either; they were here because of Harry Potter.

The Livraria Lello bookshop is supposedly the inspiration for the Flourish and Blotts bookshop for wizards in the Harry Potter series. J.K. Rowling spent two years in Porto in the early nineties as an English language teacher and she wrote much of Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone while in the city.

Look, I’ve nothing against Harry Potter or the deserved success of J.K. Rowling. (Full disclosure: I’ve never read Harry Potter nor seen any of the films.)  Far from it, I see that Rowling managed to enthuse thousands of  reluctant child readers to tackle the long narrative, in the same way Enid Blyton did for child readers of my generation.  In fact, I’ve often thought that the Potter books are like Blyton’s boarding school series, just with wizards.

I understand completely why the Lello has monetized its premises.  It was, apparently, a failing bookshop, which it isn’t anymore. It’s a thriving example of cultural tourism, the same kind of tourism that fuels Bloomsday. But being a crushed sardine in a beautiful cathedral devoted to literature, to be unable to access, let alone browse through the books, because of the ever-pressing, onward urgent movement of the transitory visitors intent on the next photo op, was utterly dispiriting.

This was no longer a bookshop experience; this was closer to a bad airport trip.

The Potter brigade was not interested in the literary history, the architectural flourishes or the function of the shop. They were moved by the merchandising of a tiny, atomized sliver of J K Rowling’s fictional imagination. (I wondered how many of the Potter fans in the Lello shop that day had ever read the books, but just seen the films.)

“Livraria Lello is still a meeting place for thinkers, artists and writers,” the promotional pamphlet for the bookshop that we got with our E5 entry fee, declared, but it was hard to imagine it that rainy December Thursday.

Instead, the shop represented a depressing microcosm of viral tourism, in which volume distorts the very experience it seeks to promote.