MOTHER OF BEJASUS
Not so long ago I wandered into Selfridges' book department, and there it was in huge great piles. My first published work of fiction. Nervously I turned to the preface to see if ... Shitfuck. Yes, I do get a credit. If I ever meet the man again, I'll murder him for that (once I've got the last £75 he owes me safely, that is).
????????? they are saying. What is this, the Great East End Post-structuralist Novel, already so soon? Spill the beans, Frost, we want to see Hansen crawling on the floor with his tongue hanging out.
Ok, you've twisted my arm. Let me just get the tin-opener and ...
Right. (Over here, Robert.) You remember, I presume, 1982? The year of Channelcon, the Falklands Spirit, and the year I ran away to be a student? My studenting I did at the London College of Printing, and it was there I met Brian Behan.
Brian is the brother of the more famous Brendan, and the slightly-less-famous-but-still-more-famous-than-Brian Dominic, plus millions of other Behans who aren't famous at all outside the old IRA. And the son of the utterly wonderful, now 95-year-old, Kathleen née Kearney. And about the only working capital Brian has in his own quest for fame, apart from the now over-worked legend of the late great Brendan, is Kathleen.
Kathleen had quite a life, for someone who now Lives in an nun-run old folk's home full of retired Catholic Bishops. She was there at the Easter Rising; she was doorwoman to Maud Gonne, and opened the door to Yeats and Joyce and all the boyos; she saw out two husbands, one in the post-Great War influenza, one in the early 70s (as far as I remember), after years in the old IRA, put into prison by the Treatyites; she knew Michael Collins and Con Markewicz and Christy Brown and the lot of them; she's a famous Dublin folk-singer, and a Great Character, and she was A REBEL ALL HER LOIFE and a great example to Irish Womanhood. She was there in Jacob's Biscuit Factory when the British burnt the Four Courts, let me tell you, and she used to play the Red Flag on Radio Moscow out of the window to annoy the other people on the estate and she led the great butcher-shop revolt when Dev's rationing policy was screwing the working class and ...
(The Red Flag? Shit; should have picked that one up. As any bog-leftie kno, the Red Flag is totally unknown in the USSR; it must have been the Internationale. Never mind, when the rabid mobs of angry historians catch up with me, I can say that was the Tom Keating-style Deliberate Mistake. The funny thing is, that bit was actual genuine Kathleen. Maybe the sub at Hutchinson's got it. I'm not paying £8.95 to find out.)
So there I was, at LCP, and it was the first of Brian's shambolic General Studies classes. All the other students hated him on sight, for complicated reasons I don't fully understand; basically, poor daft little babies, they wanted to be spoon-fed with the Truth About Publishing, I think, and resented this mad Irishman who just wanted to talk about whatever came into anyone's head, occasionally getting in some mate to be an outside speaker. I thought he was great fun, myself.
And then Brian said, is anyone interested in a small copy-editing job? See me afterwards, he said. So I did. And next week, he gave me a pile of files, and I looked through them, and rang him up next day with an estimate, like what you're supposed to do. Very efficient; very professional, Absobloodylutely stupid, as it turned out,
I should have taken a bit more time and actually READ Brian's transcript of his interviews with his sainted mother, instead of just totting up the length and doing random samples to see how much editing would be required. Ok, it was my first freelance editorial job, but I'd been hiring, firing and generally working with freelance editors for eight years by then, and I shouldn't have been so bloody naive.
Kathleen was 92 when the tapes were made. At that age, you can't remember much, and you're inclined just to say Yes, Yes, when your son sits on the end of your bed rambling on about Women's Lib, Garrett FitzGerald, sex, the state of the traffic at the Elephant and Castle, and all his other current obsessions just as if it were a DPP General Studies class. I'm a fairly lousy interviewer, but I'm not as bad as dear old Brian.
Putting Kathleen into some sort of narrative order took me the rest of the academic year, on and off. The early chapters, about her childhood, were clear as a bell, and I rather liked reading them. I've heard that very old people can often remember more about the earliest years than more recent events, and this certainly bears it out. For the rest, I had to rely on native subterfuge, and my own and my friends' reference libraries.
For turn-of-the-century Dublin: Ulysses and Ellmann's Joyce. (Oh, blessed Goldsmiths' Prof! Little did I know as I listened enraptured to your lectures a decade ago how you'd save my bacon in this way!) For Maud Gonne: Ellmann's Yeats. For basic Irish history: first, a children's book from the library (having been a kiddiebook editor it's always my instinct to turn to them for a quick overview of anything), later various more solid tomes from various sources. For the Easter Rising: a 1916 copy of the Times War Supplement, lent by an ephemera-collecting bus conductor I know.
Plus, Brian had at times had the sense to fill in a few facts here and there, and he lent me his own autobiography, and various old newspaper cuttings and other stuff. So in the end, I was ok for basic facts: it remained to get the tone of voice.
Joyce, again, of course, and the Blessed Myles at times; both so much part of me that doing them comes naturally. And sainted Brendan's excellent 1950s plays, The Hostage and The Quare Fellow. And, believe it or not, Shakespeare -- for the rhythmic quality that makes Irish speech what it is. And my own grandmother -- a Londoner, with a brother in the Black and Tans, would you believe, but something in Kathleen reminded me of her, so I went to her characteristic idioms for the female, kitcheny bits that all those men couldn't supply ...
And for a while, everything I read became a way to understand Kathleen. An obscure bit about a relation who was an American gangster and offered her husband and his IRA buddies a job became crystal clear through Dashiell Hammett; he wanted guards for his liquor store, of course.
And yes, it was worthwhile when I saw a review in the Observer (having long ago assumed the project had been ditched through my inadequacy), saying something like 'the authentic voice, familiar from radio interviews, shines through ...' And then to see the book itself, check that it was mostly me (someone else did the later bits, for which there was no material at all, at all), and to think, I wrote this. Well, two-thirds of it, at least.
Why didn't I want a credit? Well, Kathleen thinks the Provos are good boys, carrying on the good old fight in the good old way. I don't like my name going in IRA propaganda. She's not to know, I think, that they aren't like the old IRA I romanticise so ... But maybe they are; or rather maybe those guys we used to sing about in folk clubs in the mid-60s, before we realised we couldn't any more were nasty thugs like the Provos. I don't know; there is no history, there are only texts and the Provos don't give a fuck about what either of us think, anyway. If Hutchinsons have any sense they'll have cut those bits, I tell myself consolingly.
Mother of all the Behans: The autobiography of Kathleen Behan, as told to Brian Behan. And also Abigail Frost's first published fiction. Dear god, I hope no-one takes it for Proper History, a Primary Text. Maybe I should write to the TLS about it ... No, I'm writing this instead.
Finished those beans already, Robert? Bloody Hell, Avedon, don't you feed him properly or something? Look, I'm not Mrs Thatcher, you know, and all I've got in my cupboard now is barbeque flavour with little sausages ... Oh boy, look at him go.
[Footnote to 'Martyr'd dead' image:] Actually the Irish version isn't bad, I've got a tape of her singing it.
WELL, HAVING PSYCHOANALYSED GREGORY IN TWP, THE LOGICAL NEXT STEP IS TO WRITE ABOUT DISGUSTING FEMALE PROBLEMS IN FRANK'S, I SUPPOSE ...
A sebaceous cyst is a completely harmless, non-infectious, little thing that most people have somewhere or other on their bodies, sez Dr Abdullah, my main woman in Charlotte Street. It's nothing to worry about and we don't bother to remove them unless they become infected, she says.
Ok, Doc, how do I infect a sebaceous cyst, do you know? Because where I've got one is about as intimate and self-image linked as you'll get, and it's uncomfortable. In fact, most of you Frankers don't even have the bodily structures necessary to appreciate how incredibly uncomfortable it is.
The first person I consulted wasn't a doctor, but I felt he ought to know about it anyway, 'It looks like a cyst to me', he said reassuringly. 'Don't you give me that it's a foul disease it's all your fault YOU'VE BEEN GOING WITH FILTHY WOMEN and now you've given me the NAMELESS SCOURGE THAT NEVER GOES and now I'll never be able to find someone who'll MARRY ME AND BUY ME A LITTLE HOUSE AND GIVE ME CHILDREN like what you're too NEUROTIC AKD SELF-OBSESSED and generally VILE to do ...'
'No I haven't. I can't afford to.'
'Well then you must have had it all along AND KNOWN ABOUT IT AND NOT SAID and I bet it's even worse it's the one where your nose drops off and you GO MAD and all your children turn out to be RANDOLPH CHURCHILL ...'
'Look, you paranoid hypochondriac, it's a bloody CYST, I've got one on my ear-lobe, look. Count yourself lucky ... some people get them on their penises ...'
(Double, triple, quadruple take. That's for Avedon, who gets a spare of this. After all, if 15 years of Women's Lib haven't, you'd still think three years or whatever it is of going out with me would have taught him what a crass and just downright stupid remark that was, in the circumstances ...)
So I worried about it for a while, and then went off to this place in Charlotte Street, where I'd heard they are nice to you. They are; highly recommended. (Mind you, I only know about the women's bit. For all I know the men get 99 Hail Maries, 50 strokes of the lash and the Restoration Comedy version of the Mercury Cure.)
So there I was, with Dr Abdullah, and she said it's a sebaceous cyst, and -- but you know that already; and, not that any of you have the slightest right to care about this, I don't have any of the things they routinely test for either. And they do the tests while you wait. And for comfort and not Punishing A Girl I'd actually rate them above the Family Planning. And (Public Service Announcement, though all Frankers are too clean-living to need it, I know) their phone number is 323 4819, they give you an appointment the next day and a New Patient appointment takes about an hour, and the name of this triffic place is ...
And this is the funny bit, this is why it's in Frank's, actually. Because, do you suppose, when David and Ann Pringle called their son James, do you think they had any idea that they were calling him after the trendiest VD clinic in London?
I think we should be told.
FRANK'S APA 10 (August 1984)