A magnificent set of dentures still leaves little to smile about

John Patrick Higgins is unhappy about the state of his mouth. His teeth resemble ‘broken biscuits’, a ‘pub piano’, ‘an abandoned quarry’ and ‘Neolithic stones. It’s all I can do to keep druids from camping out on my tongue each solstice.’ So he invests in a series of expensive interventions. He has seven gnashers removed, followed by three root canals, and acquires a natty set of dentures. They feel a bit weird at first (‘it’s like having an internal beak’), but ‘I look like the actor playing me in a Hallmark movie of my life.’ In this slim, refreshingly unpretentious memoir, Higgins, a middle-aged English filmmaker living in Belfast, chronicles

A tale of forbidden love: Trespasses, by Louise Kennedy, reviewed

Kenneth Branagh’s Oscar-winning recent film Belfast chronicles the travails of a Protestant family amid sectarian conflict in 1969. Louise Kennedy’s much hyped first novel, set outside Belfast in 1975, explores the same tensions from a different perspective. Like her protagonist Cushla, Kennedy’s Catholic family owned a pub in a Protestant-majority town, and Trespasses captures how it feels to be outnumbered and under scrutiny. Kennedy’s career is enough to inspire anyone. A chef for 30 years, she only began writing at 47, but her ascent since is far from typical: nine publishers fought over her debut short story collection The End of the World is a Cul de Sac and she

The Belfast Blitz: These Days, by Lucy Caldwell, reviewed

Caught outside at the start of a raid in the Belfast Blitz as the incendiary bombs rain down, Audrey looks up at the sky, transfixed by its eerie beauty. She watches ‘the first magnesium flares falling, bursting into incandescent light, hanging there over the city like chandeliers’. It is the sort of thing you never forget, she thinks, ‘not in a lifetime’. This scene in These Days, by the Northern Irish writer Lucy Caldwell, brilliantly captures familiar territory for anyone who has read about the Blitz. The awe at the peculiar beauty, the feeling that this is unforgettable and will change people forever, the desire to domesticate these undomesticated happenings

Troubles of the past: The Slowworm’s Song, by Andrew Miller, reviewed

Andrew Miller specialises in characters who are lost, often struggling to deal with the burden of failure. They don’t come much more adrift than Stephen Rose in The Slowworm’s Song, a former English soldier and alcoholic who is trying to start afresh with Maggie, a daughter he has barely met. Miller plunges straight into this painful yet beautiful novel, opening with the bombshell that drives the narrative: a letter that has arrived with the return address Belfast BT2, and a street Stephen may have walked down 30 years earlier. It is from an organisation calling itself the Commission, signed by an Ambrose Carville, inviting Stephen to come to Belfast in

Lonely voices: Dance Move, by Wendy Erskine, reviewed

‘The drawer beside Roberta’s bed contained remnants of other people’s fun’: so begins ‘Mathematics’, one of 11 stories in this outstanding collection by the Belfast author Wendy Erskine. The opening is Erskine in miniature: the wry, unostentatious prose; the sad interiors with their charged objects (‘a small mother-of-pearl box inlaid with gold, a lipstick that was a stripe of fuchsia, a lucky charm in the shape of a dollar sign’); a character’s casual curiosity about the intimate affairs of others. A bereaved mother scours Belfast with a paint scraper, removing the ‘missing’ posters of her dead son Dance Move might also have been titled Other People’s Fun. As in Erskine’s

Manipulative and sentimental but also affectionate: Belfast reviewed

After Artemis Fowl and Murder on the Orient Express you may have had concerns about Kenneth Branagh ever helming a film again — keep away, Ken, keep away! — but Belfast is plainly a different prospect. It is an autobiographical account of his earliest years growing up in Belfast during the Troubles, and it is heartfelt, warm and authentic even if it does sometimes tip into the overly sentimental and nostalgic. That said, it was good to see Omo washing powder once again. (It added ‘brightness to whiteness’, you may remember.) This presses buttons so deftly I welled up exactly as I was supposed to. Three times Branagh, who wrote

Richard Needham takes a businesslike attitude to the Troubles

This memoir from Sir Richard Needham, 6th Earl of Kilmorey, businessman and former Northern Ireland minister, has a frank opening: ‘I came from a family of barely solvent aristocrats, who distrusted trade and despised politics. For some inexplicable reason, however, I had always been fascinated by both.’ Although generations of Needhams before him had ‘uneventful’ military careers, at 15 Richard decided upon an alternative plan: ‘I would first make some money, and then enter politics and change the world.’ What follows is the tale of how that scheme played out. The literary quality of political diaries can be hit and miss; but Needham is a skilled storyteller, who can deftly

Sad and beautiful: The Dear Departed, by Brian Moore, reviewed

Short story writers often find it irksome to be asked when the novel is coming out, as though their work was just rookie preparation for something more substantial. (That said, many do go on to write that novel.) The Dear Departed is, amazingly, the first selection of Brian Moore’s short stories to be published. Written between 1953 and 1961, they prefigure most of Moore’s 20 highly acclaimed novels, three of which were shortlisted for the Booker Prize. One can certainly appreciate how the stories of this collection display the concerns that would preoccupy the Belfast-born Moore throughout his career — those attempts to abandon the values and constraints of the

Good and evil on an epic scale

David Keenan’s debut novel, This is Memorial Device, about a small town in Lanarkshire and its post-punk scene, showed that it wasn’t easy being Iggy Pop in Airdrie. For the Good Times, his second, set in 1970s Belfast, shows that it isn’t easy being a Perry Como-loving one of the boys in the Ardoyne. In NI parlance, Sammy McMahon and his three friends are connected. This involves participation in punishment beatings, arms raids, killings, explosions and internecine feuds. But Sammy and his friends are not paramilitaries of the type you might imagine — the guerrilla ideologue or the Donegal tweed-wearing killer. This lot, travelling around in a van decorated with

The search for meaning

He’s not what you’d call prolific, Bernard MacLaverty. Midwinter Break is his fifth novel in 40 years, and his first in 16. And, in that time, it could be argued that Irish writers have moved away from his bare and declarative style into the wildness of, say, a Barry or a Barrett or a Baume; word-typhoons, of an affinity with the febrile and fervid times. What cannot be doubted, though, is MacLaverty’s awareness of, and wide aliveness to, the world’s flux, its writhings in the decades since his first novel Lamb; in his latest, his deep familiarity with, and angry love for, the workings of the UK, and Europe, and

What’s That Thing? Award for bad public art 2017

Imagine climbing the hills that surround Belfast and stumbling upon this 11-metre-high steel bollock. ‘It will be visible from a number of different points throughout the city,’ coos the Arts Council. Haven’t the people of Northern Ireland suffered enough? ‘Origin’ is the winner of our second What’s That Thing? Award for the worst new public art of the past year. The creators claim the six-metre ‘raindrop’ stuck on top of a five-metre pole represents the ‘elegant flow’ of the Farset River and ‘appears to hover’. Hover? Do you think they know what the word means? Clumsy, aggressive, cheap-looking (despite costing £100,000), it’s the very opposite of a raindrop. Like the

The view from my Belfast bus: tribalism as the enemy of prosperity

At Stormont on Saturday, we observed a minute’s silence for the dead of Paris. Our conference group of Brits and Americans had convened two days earlier to discuss conflict resolution, the idea that nationalism and tribalism are the enemies of peace and prosperity, and how all this might relate to the migration crisis; so the moment could not have been more poignant. We had reached the seat of the Northern Ireland Assembly by way of a bus tour that was a potted history of the Troubles: up the Catholic Falls Road, through a gate in the ‘peace wall’, back down the Protestant Shankill Road and across Loyalist East Belfast; onwards

Northern Ireland Opera’s Turandot will fill you with awe and revulsion

Chords as bright and sweet as pomegranate seeds burst and spill in Turandot, a splinter of bitterness at their centre. Left incomplete at Puccini’s death in 1924, the opera is his most radical and most cruel. You can taste something of Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring in the instrumentation, a musky roughness that rubs against the Italian composer’s customary silky precision. Woodwind and strings cling to the voices of the monstrous princess Turandot, her intoxicated suitor Calaf, and Liù, the slave who slavishly adores him because he once smiled at her. So closely scored is the writing that it is almost suffocating. This is love as an addiction: violent, sleepless, lethal.

Behind the scenes at the Brighton bombing

Sadly, I can’t see it catching on, but one of the notable things about Jonathan Lee’s new novel is that it features a fleeting appearance by John Redwood. The late Geoffrey Howe is there too, distractedly eating fishcakes as he holds forth on the difference between humans and animals. Redwood, Howe and the rest of Mrs Thatcher’s Cabinet have gathered in Brighton’s Grand Hotel on the eve of the Tory conference in October 1984. In Belfast, Dan, one of the Provisional IRA’s brightest young stars, has been given the job of helping real-life bomber Patrick Magee plant the device that would kill five people — there has always been speculation

Keep the cops away from the radical clerics, be they Christian or Muslim

If you want to see our grievance-ridden, huckster-driven future, looks to Northern Ireland, which has always been a world leader in the fevered politics of religious victimhood and aggression. Just as the Tories and much of the politically-correct liberal centre think they can force us to be nice by allowing the cops to arrest those who ‘spread hate but do not break laws’ (in George Osborne’s sinister words) so Northern Ireland has all kinds of restrictions of ‘hate speech’ to police its rich and diverse tradition of religious bigotry. I suppose it was inevitable that they would catch 78-year-old Pastor James McConnell of the Whitewell Metropolitan Tabernacle in North Belfast.

Museum relic

On 1 July, at a swanky party at Tate Modern, one of Britain’s museums will bank a cheque for £100,000, as the Art Fund announces this year’s Museum of the Year. Sure, the money will come in handy. Sure, the publicity will be useful. But this posh bunfight can’t disguise a growing sense that museums face an existential crisis. Cuts are one problem — some say the present round will take museums ‘back to the 1960s’. But they also face a more profound dilemma. In the age of Wikipedia and Google Images, what are modern museums actually for? When I was a child museums were my adventure playgrounds, but was

First novels: When romance develops from an old photograph

The intensely lyrical Ghost Moth is set in Belfast in 1969, as the Troubles begin and when Katherine, housewife and mother of four, finds herself remembering an old love affair. Michèle Forbes achieves a vivid depiction of family life — the daily squabbles and teasing, the nuances of Katherine’s love for her children through a haze of exhaustion, one daughter’s struggle to be liked by bullying friends and another’s blushingly awkward first crush. Interwoven with these domestic scenes are chapters set 20 years earlier, in which we see the unfurling of Katherine’s haunting romance. The novel is in part a meditation on differing forms of love, comparing this all-consuming passion,

Warning: upspeak can wreck your career

A few weeks ago, I accompanied my daughter to an Open Day at Roehampton College, where she is hoping to start a teacher training course in September. I enjoyed it — and was impressed by the broad mix of motivated young men and women who, if all goes well, will soon be teaching the next generation of primary school children. Towards the end of the afternoon, the co-ordinator said she wanted to offer a few tips about the interview process that would begin once all the applications have been submitted. It turned out she had only one main tip: avoid upspeak. She stressed the point vigorously. Indeed, her message for

The Spectator’s notes | 20 June 2013

When he arrived for the G8 in Co. Fermanagh, President Obama told the people of Northern Ireland that those living with conflict in far-flung places are ‘studying what you’re doing’ and that ‘You’re the blueprint to follow’. If they really were studying it, they would be less confident of the blueprint status. It is not true that the Belfast Agreement meant that, as the President put it, ‘clenched fists gave way to outstretched hands’. What happened was that the roughest major grouping on each side — the Paisleyites and Sinn Fein — saw that they could crowd out their more moderate rivals and divide the spoils of office between them. If hands are

Jenny McCartney

Diary – 20 June 2013

The calendar of British summer events often involves a master class in surviving a deluge cheerfully, and recent years have tested that cheer almost to destruction. On Saturday it was the turn of the annual summer fair in Highgate, north London, home to Kate Moss and the grave of Karl Marx. The thin whisper of sun in the morning led many people to trundle hopefully to the square in straw hats and sandals, which proved a strategic error. The rain began as I was eating jerk chicken, watching the Whitethorn Ladies’ Morris Dancing group from Harrow doing their stuff on the central stage. The ladies, many of whom had already