This book was a long time in the making, but well worth the wait
I knew for a long time that it was coming and was very curious to read about the Roman Catholic Royal Ulster Constabulary (RUC) character. Where I come from we are convinced that these guys are all Protestants, and black Protestants at that. The mere idea of an RC RUC man blows the mind. And for my ilk, they are the enemy. Probably not quite as bad as the B-Specials but an armed and violent force of occupation. The fact that they are all natives of Northern Ireland does not diminish this perception one whit.
And so it's no surprise to find the opening scenes in the book portraying Sergeant John Oliver Macken as a sort of recreational punchbag for the rest of his (Protestant) colleagues.
Following a bit of a disaster, not of his making, he is demoted to Constable and banished to Blackwatertown in the styx. Needless to say, there would be no book if Blackwatertown remained a backwater town, so he hasn't even checked in to his new assignment when the action hots up and the book turns into a page turner.
The narrative is compelling with its twists and turns. I was so immersed in the story that I nearly missed getting the dinner. Fortunately the story finished just in time and dinner was eventually served.
The book is set around 1957 when the IRA border campaign was sporadic and confined to blowing up the odd customs post along the border. Nothing to what went before and what was yet to come. Nevertheless, Blackwatertown has its share of serious, and not so serious, shoot outs in the course of the book.
We get a flavour of Northern Ireland electoral politics of the Caligula's Horse variety. There's at least one love interest. The Blessed Virgin is ever present in the most unexpected places via the Miraculous Medal and the Sacred Heart plays his usual role, which I had come to know in in the course of my own Catholic upbringing, as "the silent listener at every conversation". In this story it's his life rather than just his heart that he takes in his hand.
For those not familiar with Northern Ireland at that time, it may be all too easy to ignore the mutual hatred/distrust between Protestants and Catholics. Protestants were the overlords and Catholics the untermenschen. When pushed to the limits, every, but every, political issue boiled down to the "constitutional question" - resisting Britain's occupation of Northern Ireland on the one side and suppressing the subversive Taigs on the other.
So what may appear as banter to the outsider has really the most vicious of undertones and it is well to remember this when reading the book. The way Macken keeps his cool in the face of this shite testifies to a high degree of self discipline.
We even enounter the view that "the only good Fenian is a dead Fenian", but instead of letting Macken rise to this taunt the author treats us to an episode of pure Puckoon. For me this was one of the high moments of the book. An ingenious moment of comic relief in a story that was getting darker and darker.
I'm not going to tell you any more about the story as that would ruin it. The twists and turns of the plot make the book unputdownable and you're taken through the full gamut of human emotions from livid to laughter and through the tears of the valley along the way - all the more so to the extent that you appreciate the ever present sectarian background in which all of this is playing out.
I should add here, by way of background, that this is not a religious war that's going on here. It is more a colonial one about power and property. As John White, my politics tutor, once pointed out, the "coincidence of cleavages" in any society can lead to extreme conflict. This is a war between native and settler taking the form of a conflict between Catholic and Protestant. The settlement, by the way, was supposed to have been settled some four hundred years ago.
The author captures this neatly in the local bigwig's election address at the "hustings":
To those who say we cannot stand against the Pope and his legions, I say no surrender. And today we have a new cry to throw in the face of those who would try to bring down Ulster: Remember Blackwatertown!At the risk of descending into Joycean exegesis here, I hear the echo of the well known cry "Cuimhnigh ar Luimneach agus feall na Sasanach" (Remember Limerick and English betrayal) though on this occasion it's more like the Battle of the Boyne than the Treaty of Limerick, both part of the same four hundred year old campaign but from opposite sides.
I'll leave the story there though I could go on and on and spoil the whole thing for you. You are going to buy the book, aren't you? I really enjoyed my read though it brought me to tears in places. While the dinner was cooking I tweeted;
Just finished reading Blackwatertown. Stunning in more ways than one. A bit shattered, just like after reading Dostoevsky. Though this powerful narrative has a welcome undercurrent of Spike Milligan running through it to keep you sane.
So who is this Paul Waters, the fella that wrote the book.
Well, I have to declare an interest here.
Paul's current day job is producer on BBC Radio Five Live, but I came across him when he was actively blogging way back. And the name of his blog? You guessed it - Blackwatertown. It was and remains a great blog and I always looked forward to a new posting. He ran a very interesting series once, inviting people to relate how they were disappointed when they actually met one of their heroes in person.
I ended up doing a guest post on one of my heroes, George Morrison, who fully lived up to my expectations when I met him.
My recollection is also that Paul gave me a prize in a blog competition he ran but, of course, that has in no way influenced my commentary on this book.
Well done Paul. When is the next one?