By ANDREW MCGUINNESS
Samuel Beckett raps hard at my house. I hear him, but can’t see through the glassy eyes of the door. A package juts half-in, half-out of the mouth of it, poking fun through the letterbox like a rascally, white-furred tongue. My wife slips a fresh pair of surgical gloves on, sprays the surface with disinfectant, wipes it down, removes a book and repeats the process on the cover. You can never be too careful. Murphy dries on the kitchen counter, shining in the morning sun. I read the opening line, smiling at the magic of the words, grateful that some things don’t change. I carry him to the garden office, place him close to books written by other Irish writers: Joyce, Kavanagh, McGahern, Heaney, Healy, Ó Cadhain, McLiam Wilson, Enright, O’Brien and O’Brien (Flann and Edna), Banville, Toibin, Doyle to name only a few. Nestled respectfully alongside them are second-generation-Irish writers and editors: O’Donoghue, French et al.
As all writers know, to love writing is to love reading. According to the Reading Agency, 30% of the UK population is now reading more books than before lockdown; a rare positive in the current Covid-19 climate. Ironically, I’m no longer part of that statistic. I’m swimming in the other direction. Murphy, Beckett’s first published novel, would be the last book I’d read because I was up to my neck writing my memoir. When in full flow, reading muddies the waters. As Ali Smith once told me, writers are sponges and there comes a time when you can no longer absorb; you must squeeze yourself out, you must give back.
As an historian-turned-novelist, writing an autobiography shouldn’t be problematic. The plot’s already in place, the central character is well-rounded (too well-rounded after a month of lockdown). Memories are just reimagined scenes, aren’t they? My story has enough surprises and revelations, twists and turns to build a satisfying narrative arc. Yet when I started, the memoir felt harder to pin down than any of my fiction. Oddly, I was unprepared for writing my own story, and I wasn’t sure why.
For 18 months I devoured writers in every conceivable genre involving memory, which of course is just about everything and everyone you can imagine: novelists, essayists, memoirists, metamemoirists, neuroscientists, psychologists, philosophers and phenomenologists. I researched widely, feeling my way into my memoir as if fumbling for a light switch in a dark room. In reality, I was searching for a mirror that didn’t exist, that wouldn’t lie, that would speak the truth – and not just mine. My quest became the pursuit of my parents’ truth, and their parents, going as far back as 1900.
My father and his father before him were poor farmers in Clones, Co Monaghan. Prospects and opportunities for the McGuinness family were so shrivelled by the 1950s that he and all of his siblings migrated to London or Liverpool. My mother was one of twelve children, and there was too little work for too many hands in the small fishing town of Kilkee, Co Clare. Many of her family also crossed the sea for work and a better life, whatever ‘better’ might have seemed.
‘Slaveys’ in Hammersmith
Unskilled and undereducated, my mother became a hotel housemaid and my father laboured on building sites. Had they appeared in Joyce’s Dubliners, they would have been described as “slaveys”. They met and married in Hammersmith, started a large family, moved out of a damp, cramped Victorian basement onto a council estate north of the capital, where I spent my first 18 years of life. A natural place to begin a memoir you might think; my early years of awakening consciousness and identity?
Yes and no. After my parents passed away in 2015 and 2017, and I wandered through a barren landscape of lingering loss and longing, I tried to remember them and where they came from, and therefore where I had come from. I realised that very little of them had stayed with me; bits and pieces, fragments, but nothing solid, nothing written. As the French philosopher Paul Ricoeur says in Memory, History, Forgetting: “to be forgotten is to die twice”. To keep my parents alive, I had a few precious memories, stories told at large Irish gatherings or on holidays in Kilkee, listening to the tall tales of aunties, uncles and cousins. My father, I realise looking back, was a tight-lipped Monaghan man, rarely saying anything about his life before London or the extreme poverty he had experienced; though occasionally what spilled out of his mouth late at night, or even on cold sober mornings, shook me.
This gap in my knowledge, the hole in his narrative, which I was sure I needed to fill as part of mine, wasn’t filled by dry history but with the words of another Monaghan man, the peasant poet, memoirist and novelist, Patrick Kavanagh; an introduction to a strange, yet wonderful turn-of-the-century world of ploughs, praties and priests, not to mention clay. I felt an emotional jolt from his poetry and prose, the lyricism, his ready wit and warmth, his evocation of time and place. I felt a similar quiver reading Seamus Heaney’s first collection of poems, Death of a Naturalist, concerning a rural life my father would’ve understood better than I. It was published in 1966, the year I was born. I moved from poetry to memoirs, including Dermot Healy’s The Bend for Home, and from there to the novels of John McGahern. I reread Dubliners for the umpteenth time, realising that my themes were Joycean. I made copious notes as if preparing for a journey. Through the reading of fiction and non-fiction, I drilled down to the truth I’d craved in the beginning; that metaphorical mirror. Five fat notebooks were lying on my desk, bulging with mini-essays, vivid memories, names and dates and places, images and dialogue and faces, quotes and paraphrases, comedies and tragedies, ideas and contemplations. There were asterisks and arrows, and way too many question marks, but I had about 30,000 words.
My central theme had crystallised: living a ‘liminal’ life, being neither one thing nor another, somehow both, just like Beckett’s novel Murphy hanging in the balance, half-in, half-out, only half at home. I’m Irish and English, working class and middle class, not young, not old, but in the middle.
Before setting out on my memoir journey, I thought this liminality had had a negative impact on my life. I was in-between, incomplete, not whole. The fluidity felt like flimsiness. Whenever I failed at something, which of course I did, I blamed it on this liminality: I failed because I wasn’t English enough, or middle class enough, or English middle class enough, or no longer working class enough. I wasn’t Irish enough, even to be in Ireland. I was an outsider, and look what happened to him in Camus’ L’Etranger. But now I realise this liminality, this being in and out, moving between, is a gain not a loss. It is an amazing vantage point to see things differently. On reflection, it has shaped my life, my career, and my writing of fiction and non-fiction.
Many summers ago, during a year out from university, I worked as a slavey in London, just as my father had thirty years before. When he arrived in the 1950s he regularly experienced casual racism, called ‘Paddy’ or ‘Murphy’, in exactly the same way Beckett had twenty years earlier. In 1986, during a lunch-break, I was standing on the baking-hot rooftop of a multi-storey carpark near London Bridge. I was enjoying elevated, uninterrupted views along the Thames and across the city, when I got into a heated dispute with the foreman. For weeks he’d been getting under my skin, calling me ‘Plastic Paddy’. When he did it again this particular day, on that roof, I knew it would be the last time.
We argued noisily at first, finger-pointing. This transitioned smartly into the grabbing of arms and throats, then the swinging of fists and missed chins, then grappling and holding as we shuffled around the melting Tarmac like crazed dancers. We struggled on like this, losing breath, tangoing ever closer to the railingless edge. It was a fleeting sensation, looking down at the immense drop, watching myself fall to oblivion like Icarus. In reality, there was no falling, no myth-making. A fellow-worker intervened and I was given my marching orders.
Was I pretending to be Irish?
I still think about that fight, that synthetic, artificial name. Was I pretending to be Irish? If I’d been born in Ireland and worked in London as a labourer, I’d have been tagged a ‘Mick’ – 100% genetically unmodified Irish. Born in London, however, I was ‘plastic’. Damned if you’re Irish, damned if you’re not. The phrase ‘second-generation Irish’ has become familiar and acceptable in more recent years. In the absence of anything better, it’s exactly what, or who, I am. It’s something to be cherished, celebrated and explored.
When I first set out on this autobiographical odyssey, I knew I didn’t want to write a conventional, anecdotal, left-to-right chronology of experiences. Meaningful memories, like fictional scenes, should be turning points in a story and that story might not flow in a straight line. I wasn’t going to write a simple A-Z of myself either. I was going to liberate my self from the past, not be defined by it. During this stretched-out process (figuratively lying on a psychoanalyst’s couch), I was going to unearth all my personal dramas and disasters, exorcise my inner demons and devils and bury them with the dead. But importantly in this process, I learned a valuable lesson about structures and systems: everyone is born to someone, somewhere, at a specific time, in a particular place, defined by culture, identity and class. And these facts shouldn’t be fudged. In fact, they’re at the heart of it.
As we get older the past distorts like a forgotten Polaroid left curling on the windowsill. It will fade to oblivion. So the writer creates a clearer picture, a new truth, often refracted through the prism of writers gathered on the shelf. In the words of a relatively unknown second-generation-Irish writer:
“In the morgue of one’s memory
In that palace of people we forget
There’s meat on the bones of the skeletons of souls
In the family of redemption and regret”.
These are the trademark elements of my fiction, and they feature strongly in my current memoir too.
I’m hoping to complete it in 2020; then there will be different books to read, notes to make and new stories to tell. In such extraordinary times, these are the small, significant things that remain my touchstones of normality. Just as the sun still rises and sets, books still open and close, offering continuity and comfort. Although, to come full circle, the idea of continuity isn’t everyone’s cup of tea, as we discover reading the opening line of Beckett’s Murphy: “The sun shone, having no alternative, on the nothing new”. Perhaps a timely reminder that you can only be who you are. For me, it is being part of the Irish diaspora; second-generation Irish living in Britain. I feel very much at home with that.
A.F. McGuinness is the author of history and fiction including the novels ‘A Portrait of the Arsonist as a Young Man’ and ‘Anatomised’, and short story collection ‘Heidi Seek’. He has lectured in history and creative writing at universities across the UK. He lives on the north Kent coast.