Dubliners of a different kind – Dublin Seven by Frankie Gaffney



Dublin Seven, Frankie Gaffney, Dublin: Liberties Press, 2015, pb.

This uncompromising story about Dublin drug-dealers was published to acclaim in Irish literary circles, although this is the first UK review. Though the subject may seem parochial and is at times squalid, like Trainspotting (with which it was inevitably compared), Dublin Seven transcends period and place to offer a tale of universal interest – the progress of someone born in a sociocultural cul-de-sac who strives to rise out through native wit, and sometimes succeeds.

There may be a degree of nostalgie de la boue in the critics’ reception, but if so there is also a generous desire to see an unfortunate triumph against an unfair order. That the first-time author has educated himself out of a working-class background, and is pursuing a fellowship at Trinity College, makes for a perfectly 21st century literary package – a modern morality tale about opportunity through education, categories surmounted, authenticity, fulfilment through imagination. The protagonist, Shane Laochra – his surname Irish for hero, and serendipitously the name of a Celtic goddess, symbolising unrealised potential – might almost have been a portrait of the author as a young man, had the author been less lucky. (He credits reading with saving him.)

Shane is 18, with little to show for school, and few prospects. He is from the ‘wrong’ side of the Liffey, and the equally persistent east-west line, in a city where old authorities have been circumvented or subverted. Even his physically formidable father is ludicrous, unable to maintain a marriage, popping Viagra, working as a nightclub doorman, and campaigning futilely against drugs.

Shane soon notices the contrast between his life of penny-pinching and pointless training courses and that of drug-dealer Griffo, who sports desirable labels and moves besides in an exciting outlaw aura – a man dangerous to know but delightful to be acknowledged by. Shane’s experiences with drugs have been positive, the narcotics hazing injustice and ugliness. Why shouldn’t he bring pleasure to others, and make money so doing? Soon he is en route to profits – and perdition.

Dublin Seven is an allusion to Shakespeare’s “seven ages of man” (As You Like It) rather than necessarily the Dublin 7 postcode – but that inner-city locale, with its ancient echoes of exile, grim law-making, marginality and meat-markets, is an obvious locale. It is surprising the synchronicity-seeking author did not fully embrace the psychogeographical possibilities. More might have been made of the contrast between stately monuments to discredited powers – the Four Courts, and the fortress-like St. Michan’s Church, with its famous mummified bodies – and the mess of dilapidated if gentrifying streets and estates stretching back to bleed into the badlands of Finglas. Yet there are fine touches, and anyone who knows Dublin will be able to conjure Shane’s scruffy stage-set of pebble-dashed low-rises, Seventies flats, overpriced new-build apartments, booming traffic interchanges, bars, and branches of Macdonald’s, with magnificent Georgian terraces and long views of distant heights as ironic counterpoints.

As well as Shakespeare’s seven, the book has other connections with that talismanic number, as Gaffney told the Irish Times

…seven deadly sins, seven holy gifts, seven Biblical plagues, the seven Egyptian souls…the seven traditional colours of the spectrum, and the seven ancient Vedic deities/planets.

There exists a detailed “Key” to the book, in which seemingly casual incidents are revealed as larded with symbolism. This may sound off-putting, but it is lightly done, and lends fascinating layers to what might otherwise have been a latter-day Newgate Calendar. Painstaking construction is masked by unrelenting action, including coke-sniffing, corybantic clubbing, E-dropping, involuntary bowel-opening, sexual liaisons, beatings and sordid deaths, as Shane barges from one largely meaningless meeting to another in a maelstrom of redolent slang. Shane is heedless, sensate, never considering that he is enriching himself by impoverishing society, battening even on his own class, for whose quiet misery he ought to have empathy. When he starts to spurn these customers in favour of middle-class Southsiders, it is not out of compunction, but because Southsiders are more profitable.

The author describes himself as “Lefty”, but social critique in the early chapters is largely implicit – subtleties, such as when schoolboy Shane contemplates his set reading –

What did they have to study Jane Austen for? She had nothing do with anything.

Gaffney wisely lets Shane live in his moment, just as the contemporaneous country was living in its “Celtic Tiger” bubble. That decade seems for Shane an epoch of hope and change – and in certain frames of mind, he might see himself as just another businessman, no better, little worse than the kickback-taking planners, the tax-advisers and corporate scammers, the bullying Gardaí, and the Southsiders and ‘culchies’ running the economy and politics. The critique becomes overt when Shane encounters vigilantes, whose frightening yet somehow farcical activities are likened to the criminal justice system, sonorous Latin legalese subheadings pointing up the vigilantes’ clumsy questioning, these men in contempt of justice while believing they are complementary. In this Hibernian City of Men, do-gooders can do bad, and bad-doers are not as bad as is made out. Inner-city drug-dealers wreak harm – but on themselves too, and they are in some respects merely reacting to their class’s long betrayal by serried cultural, economic and political forces.

Shane reads horoscopes, but he takes little practical interest in the future, rarely thinking even of the proximate perils posed by the harder-boiled, like aptly-named Paddy Lawless, whose principal intoxicant is hurting those who get between them and their profits. Shane revels in “rebel songs”, and sensational accounts of true-life criminals; he does not see that these stories are better to leaf through than live through. Disillusionment nevertheless creeps on him, as he finds himself doing the same things over and again, the drugs work less well, and he begins to notice that time is passing. Griffo is revealed as another creep, and the ostensibly Robin Hood-like life as nasty, brutish and often abridged. Drug-dealers, Shane finds, may never experience all seven of their allotted ages.

He remains essentially unrepentant, still in search of “…the power – to be feared, to be known by the whole country as someone you couldn’t mess with”. But always inside the Moriarty-manqué is a small boy born into a bad world – always afraid, blind to his failings, impulsive, maudlin, haunted by fear of celestial as much as temporal punishments. As a big-timer, he might have been like the Mafiosi, or Mesoamerican narcogarchs, squaring cops and politicians, syncretising social harm with private acts of charity, ordering murders while endowing churches.

Dublin Seven is sad but salutary, illuminating ignoble aspects of today’s Strumpet City, this capital gone awry, with its bad faith and betrayals, its broken communities and corruption, its greed and gullibility, missed chances and myopia, and shocking but inevitable violence. The author made it out, but stares back still in anger, knowing what he might have become, remembering all the Shanes he knew, and those who are still there.

This review appeared in Spiked in December 2016, and is reproduced with permission

“Pity Poor Bradford”


“Pity poor Bradford”

Bolling Hall has squatted on its plot since the fourteenth century, hunched against the wind and rain of the West Riding – a North Country architectural essay in dark yellow sandstone looking warily down a steep hillside onto Bradford’s vale. Old though the building is, the estate’s foundations go deeper than Domesday, when Conqueror companion-in-arms Ilbert de Lacy abstracted it from someone called Sindi, his reward for sanguinary services rendered during the Norman invasion and the subsequent Harrying of the North.

De Lacy’s motte-and-bailey has been overbuilt, and his line is long extinguished, but other owners likewise felt the need to guard against restive locals, rival families, religious opponents, apolitical marauders, wolves, the Great Boar of Cliffe, or whatever other elementals might watch and wait from tangled woods, stony slopes and bog-cotton dancing moors. The family crests of manor-holders, scratched in black-and-white onto a window lighting the stairs to the Ghost Room, constitute a subfusc sort of heraldry, one informed by everyday sights as much as classical or chivalric conceits. There are martlets for the Bollings and Tempests, oak trees for the Thorntons, owls on a bar sinister for the Saviles, cudgel and shield-bearing wodewoses for the Woods, hunting horns and chevrons for Bradford. They feel like the arms and achievements of provincials attuned to rurality, and modest in their pretensions – although Robert Bolling overreached himself during the Wars of the Roses and was temporarily deprived of the estate. (A later Bolling, Edith, married Woodrow Wilson.)

The oldest part of the present building has been identified as a pele tower, although these are more usually associated with points yet further north, in the “Debatable Lands” between Scotland and England. Yet pele towers are likely enough in this valley long accessible only from the north, where the laws of London or even York held only spasmodic sway. Even with later fenestration which streams greyness into the Great Hall, and Adam-style remodelling, Bolling keeps a fortress feel, a sense augmented by dark Jacobean panelling cut deeply with cut geometric patterns, strapwork, acanthus leaves, flowers, birds and lions’ heads, interspersed with rubicund oils of English faces, and even a death mask of Cromwell. The Hall possesses what the poet-topographer Peter Davidson calls “northern rooms, rooms that expect nothing of the weather”. It could be a Hollywood haunted house, and indeed there is a legend attached to the Duke of Newcastle who slept here in December 1642 on the night before his planned attack on the almost defenceless Parliamentarian town. Bellicose before retiring, he came down palely the morning after, claiming he had been visited by the apparition of a weeping woman begging him to “Pity poor Bradford”. Whether genuinely believing he had seen a spectre, or just hung over, the Duke’s martial descent of that day was marked by relative restraint, with just ten deaths recorded.

The defences of Bolling never needed to be tested but enemies of an odd kind came upon it anyway, creeping up its hill in increments of meaner dwellings, so that now two aspects of the Hall look onto semis and a car park, and there is a noise of traffic where once there would have been bleating or birds. But this civic slight is in its way appropriate, in this region where melancholy falls as readily as rain.

Sometimes it seems almost a requirement to portray the North of England as  a single vast and tragic landscape. The imaginative equation of North with dearth goes back as far as Roman legionaries tramping gloomily up the Great North Road to garrison the edge of the empire at Hadrian’s Wall (although Septimus Severus died at York, and Constantine took the purple there). It gathered pace as the locus of English power slowly migrated south, as monarchs roamed their realm less frequently, ecclesiastical power centred on Canterbury, and parliaments fixed at Westminster. The great families of the North found themselves becoming provincials – and slightly untrustworthy ones. From the London point of view, they had too often been kingmakers or breakers, too often Catholic, too rich, too swaggeringly insolent, and their centres of learning at York and Durham were cultural as well as temporal rivals.

The Tudors unroofed the great Cistercian abbeys of Jervaulx, Rievaulx, Fountains and Byland, gelded the Prince-Bishops, started to centralise the legal system, and house-train the Percys, Howards and Cliffords. The North was just too close to Scotland to feel fully safe, and even after the crowns were united in 1603 longstanding fault-lines remained. Well into the eighteenth century, the North was seen as marginal, outside the English mainstream, a redoubt of recusancy potentially sympathetic to Stuarts, its untrammelled nature offending against both the logic of the Age of Reason and the aesthetics of the Age of Taste. Even when the beauties of Lakeland began to be discovered by poets, aquatinters and garden designers, they were slightly shivered at, seen as unreal, unpeopled, dubbed “Horrid” or at best “Picturesque” – places to be looked at rather than lived in.

The Industrial Revolution eventually made the North central to the English economy, making vast amounts of new money whilst undermining the aristocratic order – in a few cases literally, with landowners mining coal almost under inherited houses. When the borough of Bradford came into being in 1847, it contained no fewer than 46 coal mines. Encouraged by the Calvinistic municipal motto Labor Omnia Vincit, furnaces blasted day and night, chimneys choked, hammers clanged and cogs clicked, mills clattered and drifted lung-filling fibres – and 30% of all children died before attaining their teens.

The ugliness associated with industrialisation actually reinforced Southern notions of the North as a place apart. Seen from the safe South, Northern towns were increasingly seen as the haunts of grim-visaged Gradgrinds, building themselves vulgar villas while turning sturdy peasants into sickly slum-dwellers. Beyond the ragged edges of the ever-expanding towns, the savage scenery of moors seemed perfect habitations for Heathcliffs, ideal locales for a hundred Dotheboys Halls. The Devonshire-born Nicholas Nickleby’s reaction upon first seeing Wackford Squeers’ appalling academy is one of a Southerner feeling suddenly very far from home  –

As he looked up at the dreary house and dark windows, and upon the wild country round, covered with snow, he felt a depression of heart and spirit which he had never experienced before.

The names alone of places and people sound stark – Blubberhouses, Mytholmroyd, Uriah Woodhead, Savage Crangle, Hardcastle Crags, the ominous Nab Wood Cemetery and Crematorium, and countless others. Wanderers are furthermore constantly being arrested by disquieting associations, such as the plaque in smart Skipton that indicates the Bull-baiting Stone, or an antlered bronze demon looking saturninely out of a sunny New Age shop window in the same town, faintly disturbing among the trash of tarot. Such things can be seen in the South too, but they seem to have an extra level of significance when backdropped by low-lit moors and sharpened by frost.

Nouveau-riche mill-owners, mine-managers and middlemen aped aristocratic manners and manors, attended ostentatiously at chapel or Low Anglican services, endowed and administered charities, but were always seen as bumptious, unlikeable and unscrupulous. However irreproachable many may have been, even when they were like Titus Salt, they were easy targets for either snobbish satire or socialistic critiques such as the Bradfordian playwright J. B. Priestley’s An Inspector Calls, in which a mysterious detective turns up late at night to quiz the inhabitants of a huge new house about the suicide of a local girl, exposing the callousness of the family and their recently-risen class.

Even now, with the old industries at last starting to be replaced, to the Southern English mind, the simple words “The North” as glimpsed so frequently in Transport Medium typeface on roadsigns connote both stonewalled fields and urban decay, poverty, grimness and lostness – to which can now be added vague but not unfounded notions of dangerously alienated Muslims. Anyone who ventures north of the significantly named “Home Counties” soon realises that this stereotypical view effectively means West and South Yorkshire, and Lancashire and Tyneside conurbations. The vaster Yorkshire comprising the lonely landscapes of the North Riding, and the semi-submarine East Riding with its drowned towns and dreams of the Hanse, not to mention history-clogged York itself, does not really enter into this equation. Nor do the Lakes, Durham Cathedral, the walls and rows of Chester, Carlisle, Liverpool, Newcastle, or Northumberland – all of them of course in the North, but not intrinsic to that particular understanding.

The Industrial Revolution itself has become the object of nostalgia as its rawness mellows into Grimshaw and Lowry tones, and the uncompromising communities that coalesced around milling, mining or steel are seen through a prism of foxing monochrome stills from the 1930s through to the 1980s. Guardian journalists still (and with justification) bewail the economic hollowing-out caused by Thatcherism, the once-powerful industries sacrificed to City speculators, steel, mining and milling workers fly-tipped into an abyss of welfare dependency and social squalor. Leftists take a special interest in the town because of its exploitative past, its innovations in education and medicine, and its role in the foundation of the Labour Party in 1893. (The present government is trying to make political inroads hereabouts by talking of “Northern powerhouses”, with devolved powers and better railways – suitably Victorian solutions for a town of phlegmatic traders.)

Leftists who emote about the North rarely have practical ideas as to how global economic trends can be reversed, and also tend to be uninterested in the Immigration Revolution that accompanied de-industrialisation and exacerbated the area’s social splintering. To them, it seems of little consequence that a quarter of Bradford’s 523,000 residents are Muslims, many cleaving to ultra-orthodox interpretations. Perhaps somewhere now in the city there are a few more idealists like Tanveer Ahmed, who in March went all the way to Glasgow to murder an Ahmadiyya shopkeeper who had “disrespected Islam” by wishing Happy Easter to Christian customers. Immigrants have long been attracted here by the wool-trade, which once made Bradford “wool capital of the world”, but had gone into irreversible decline by the time the first Asians arrived. The new immigration was therefore badly-timed as well as different qualitatively from the European incursions of the mid-19th century onwards (whose most unlikely product must be that composer of lush tone-poems Frederick Delius, who lived in the district still called Little Germany).

To a certain Panglossian kind of commentator, the race riots of 1985 and 2001, and the public burnings of Satanic Verses in between, were passing epiphemonena, regrettable but understandable products of low education, unemployment, Tory cuts, and social segregation caused chiefly by white racism. They would rather focus on such heartening factoids as that Bradford was declared “Curry Capital of Britain” in 2013 – that nearby Hebden Bridge is louche home to an unusually high number of lesbians – that Heathcliff was a victim of anti-Roma prejudice, and his creator of gender inequality – that the town had critical ethnic mass to host the 2007 International Indian Film Festival awards.

They would also be largely indifferent to the epic echoes of the pre-modern county, its still visible castles, churches, halls and houses, its mental habits and myths. If they were to visit Bolling, they would be most interested in the working conditions of turnspits. At Skipton Castle, they might glance up at the grand gatehouse, with its forward-looking family motto Desormais (“Henceforth”), but they would not find it strangely sad that Lady Anne Clifford, who placed the hopeful word there circa 1649, would be the last representative of a dynasty that had once commanded allegiance

From Penigent to Pendle Hill,

From Lenton to Long Preston

And all that Craven coasts did tell

They with the lusty Clifford came

Well brown’d with sounding bows upbend

On Clifford’s banner did attend.

What could neo-Puritans comprehend of the experiences or motivations of an Anne, who held the Castle three years for the King, or even bloodier-minded ancestors like Robert Clifford who entertained Edward I, and who chose to live in this dangerous zone so that he would never miss an opportunity of fighting the Scots? Another was  John Clifford, who had already earned the nickname “Black-faced Butcher” by the time he fell at Towton aged just 26. Even the most peaceable of the tribe, Henry (called by Wordsworth the “Shepherd Lord” because of his long exile in the hills) led the Craven contingent to victory at Flodden. No doubt all these would be adduced as arguments for historical inevitability, products of the irrational military-aristocratical complex, yet more reasons that order had to end. As for the Saxon high crosses in the church at Ilkley, with their writhing beasts and worn Jesus, they would be seen as stelae marking the resting-places of ancient delusions – a disdainful sort of analysis for some reason never extended to the ideas expressed in the West Riding’s mosques.

And what would urban chatterati make of Yorkshire’s underlying nature, its hard-edged pastoralism, its sudden stabs of beauty, more evident again now that mines have been backfilled, mills become apartments, and waterways transport fewer toxins? What would they think of if they were to walk under the sky-supporting arches of old abbeys drowsing along peaty rivers, knee-deep in summer flowers, their hedges silver-spangled with cobwebs on frosty mornings? Probably just that this was the inevitable end of an unsustainable system. They might smile at Geoffrey Hill’s playful poem, “Damon’s Lament for his Clorinda, Yorkshire, 1654”, which subverts urban and proletarian associations by projecting Arcadian and Renaissance imagery onto a winter’s day during the endless-feeling English interregnum –

November rips gold foil from the oak ridges.

Dour folk huddle in High Hoyland, Penistone.

The tributaries of the Sheaf and Don

bulge their dull spate, cramming the poor bridges.

The North Sea batters our shepherds’ cottages

from sixty miles. No sooner has the sun

swung clear above earth’s rim than it is gone.

We live like gleaners of its vestiges

knowing we flourish, though each year a child

with the set face of a tomb-weeper is put down

for ever and ever. Why does the air grow cold

in the region of mirrors?

But the best known poet celebrant of Yorkshire is Ted Hughes, whose most relevant collection for these purposes is his 1979 Remains of Elmet, honouring the little kingdom that rose and as unostentatiously expired in what is now West Yorkshire some time between the fifth and seventh centuries. The collection is as elegiac as the title suggests, and in some respects is itself rather dated. But “The Trance of Light” both looks back on a semi-mythical shire where small kings and Great Boars really did co-exist, and forward to a day when the last looms and Low Churchers go down to join the ancient Britons, the pinched life ends, and his beloved hawks can once more clutch creation in their claws –

The upturned face of this land

The mad singing in the hills

The prophetic mouth of the rain

That fell asleep

Under migraine of headscarves and clatter

Of clog irons and looms

And gutter-water and clog-irons

And clog-irons and biblical texts

Stretches awake, out of Revelations

And returns to itself.

So superb to think that it might, and that something substantive remains among all these layered remains.

The article appeared in the June 2016 issue of Chronicles, and is reproduced with permission

John Aubrey – remembrancer, romantic and forward-thinker – John Aubrey, My Own Life by Ruth Scurr



John Aubrey, My Own Life

Ruth Scurr, London: Chatto & Windus, 2015, hb., 518pp, £25

Just as English painting is renowned for portraiture, so English letters have been illuminated by some of the greatest biographers ever to burnish world literature. After Boswell, the best-known is John Aubrey (1626-1697), whose Brief Lives broke through deferential and stylistic boundaries to leave us vivid vignettes of historical figures of a kind that had previously been buried with their subjects, omitted from epitaphs, lost in posthumous politesse. Ruth Scurr seeks to remind readers just how original and engaging he was, and how fascinating his era.

Brief Lives is a congeries of notes and random jottings that was never intended for publication as a whole. It contains over 500 character studies, few of them complete (one consists of two words – “Simple man”), and many of the subjects were obscure even then. But taken as a whole, they amply bear out John Fowles’ opinion,

Not even with Pepys are we closer to an existential awareness of what it was like to be alive then.

Brief Lives throws open a casement onto the tumultuous country Aubrey knew, in all its violence and eloquence, bawdiness and loftiness, wistfulness and war, ignorant iconoclasm and soaring intellectualism. It is, in fact, just as well the text was never prepared for publication, because all kinds of piquant details would never have made the final cut. As Aubrey wrote to Anthony Wood, the peevish antiquary who had imposed on him the “Taske” of writing the book,

Now these Arcana are not fitt to lett flie abroad, till about 30 years hence; for the author and the Persons (like Medlars) ought first to be rotten.

We learn from him (and only from him) that the Cavalier poet Sir John Suckling practised card-sharping in bed. The seventeenth Earl of Oxford was so embarrassed by farting when bowing to the Queen that he went abroad for seven years (when he returned the Queen told him she had “quite forgot the fart”). We are told what happened when a loose stallion scented the mare being ridden in a church procession by a “mighty pontifical prowd” Dean of Hereford – that the jurist Sir John Selden “got more by his prick than he had done by his practice” – and that the funerary bust of the rather too “tractable” society beauty Venetia Digby, which had survived the Great Fire but lost its gilding, was for sale ten years afterwards on a market stall. One does not find such irreverent immediacies in Walton’s Lives or Fuller’s Worthies. As Aubrey said himself,

How these curiosities would be quite forgotten, did not such idle fellows as I am put them down!

Aubrey was clearly a quidnunc. He was also an astrologer, and the only book he published in his lifetime was Miscellanies, a gazeteer of omens and superstitions retailed as fact, with engaging anecdotes, such as Arise Evans who rubbed his “fungous nose” on Charles II’s hand. Yet he was also, as Anthony Powell noted in John Aubrey and His Friends (1948),

…one of the most arresting figures of the seventeenth century.

This stargazer and teller of tattle (Powell defends him against the charge of excessive credulity, saying he always wrote half-humorously) was simultaneously a noted antiquarian, who as Alain Schnapps opines in The Discovery of the Past, “ushered the antiquaries into a new world”, through pioneering the typological-chronological classification of monuments. Aubrey’s childhood of “eremetical solitude” in the haunted “thin blew landscape” around Stonehenge (he was the first to survey Avebury) lent impetus to a lifelong melancholia. His concern for the future of old monuments  and documents (it was common for medieval manuscripts to be used to clean guns, line pie-dishes or bung beer barrels) mirrored his concern about whether his writings would survive him; in a touching aside, he records watching the covers of his notebooks turn mouldy in the damp downland weather.

Unusually, the discoverer of the past was also a finder of the future, fascinated by developments in science, mathematics, engineering, philosophy, education, and the arts. He knew Christopher Wren, John Evelyn, Thomas Hobbes, Thomas Browne, Edmund Waller, Edmund Halley,  John Locke, Isaac Newton, William Harvey, Robert Hooke and scores of others, from experimental chemists to poets, cartographers to politicians. He played an active role in the Royal Society, and wrote “tumultuarily” among all the noise of Civil War, Protectorate, Restoration, plague and Great Fire, legal tussles, bailiff-dodging, and endless money problems. He spent twenty years living in friends’ houses, carrying on voluminous correspondence and indefatigable researches from spare rooms. That he was able to do this for so long without falling out with any of these friends attests to his agreeability; one of the very few who spoke ill of him was, ironically, the ingrate Anthony Wood.

Although instinctively conservative, Aubrey’s non-doctrinaire outlook enabled him to form friendships with Royalists and Roundheads, Puritans, Anglicans and Catholics, give credit when due, and report foibles with amused tolerance. So unassuming was he that he almost disappeared from history, despite constant fretting about whether his writings would survive him. Powell observes,

He contemplated the life around him as in a mirror – the glass of the Lady of Shalott – scarcely counting himself as one of the actors on the stage.

The only nod Aubrey made to a putative Boswell or Lockhart were a few notes, fit only, he said with what feels like genuine modesty,

…to be interponed as a sheet of waste paper only in the binding of a book

Powell’s profile of Aubrey set a standard unlikely to be surpassed – although he concentrates on Aubrey’s nostalgia and scants his neophilia. Cambridge historian Ruth Scurr has sensibly done something quite different – consider how Aubrey might have chronicled his own career had he had the leisure and inclination, using his words when possible, and filling in lacunae with empathetic imagination. Some might term this infotainment, but that always implies shallowness, whereas she succeeds admirably in adding to rather than taking away from Aubrey’s reputation. From the front cover illustration onwards she displays both deep sensitivity towards her subject and knowledge of his context.

The author cleverly interlards likely day-to-day worries – money, health, lack of success in amours, footpads, menacing politics, the perennial peevishness of Anthony Wood – with longer-term preoccupations about posterity and progress, and of course colourful anecdotes. All are rendered with an excellent ear for his gossipy language, including some words lamentably fallen into desuetude. She transmits an acutely alive and likeable personality – one who was kind in a cruel era, constructive among a mass of destruction, sane in a sea of “fanatiques”, appreciative of brilliance whoever its originator and engirdled by whatever “inurbanitie”.

She wrote My Own Life, she tells us in her foreword, “playingly…but with purpose”, drawn to his quiet conservatism by its marked contrast to her previous biographical subject, the wholly antithetical Robespierre. Her tribute may be lightly written but it is not lightly conceived, and must surely bring new readers to the Lives, and new attention to that redolent, revolutionizing England.

This review first appeared on Quadrapheme.com, and is reprinted with permission

Testing for humanity – The Plague Dogs by Richard Adams



The Plague Dogs (book 1977, film 1982)

I came across by chance recently a DVD of The Plague Dogs, a 1982 animation of Richard Adams’ bestselling 1977 novel. I was catapulted immediately back to childhood, when I had read the book shortly after publication, with a sense of distress and anger I can still taste. It had seemed to me an unusually powerful story, and I was surprised I had not known of the film’s existence. In general, the film seems to have been unduly neglected, notwithstanding a notable voice cast – including John Hurt, Patrick Stewart, James Bolam, Warren Mitchell and Bernard Hepton – and superb painting and animation. I accordingly purchased a copy of the book to remind myself why it is considered an anthropomorphic classic, on a par with Bambi (the book – although the Disney travesty has probably been more influential), Tarka the Otter, Ring of Bright Water, and Adams’ own Watership Down.

For most of their respective lengths, book and film follow the same storyline. Two dogs – Rowf, a large and fierce Labrador cross, and Snitter, a fox terrier – escape from a government animal research establishment in the Lake District. Rowf has been used to study physical endurance, and to this senseless end has been forced to swim daily in a water tank, while scientists monitor his functions and time his staying power. They always leave him in the tank until he starts to drown, only retrieving him when he sinks to the bottom. Snitter has been used for complex brain surgery, designed to make him confuse the objective and the subjective – and this has been all too successful.

Snitter is especially pitiable, because unlike Rowf he has known security and kindness from humans. He is only here because he was responsible for his master being knocked down by a lorry, and was subsequently sold to the institution by his master’s loathsome sister. He has frequent flashbacks to his old life, and this sharpens his confusion and sense of hurt at the latex-gloved hands of the ‘whitecoats’.

Nevertheless, Snitter has retained sufficient acuity to be able to spot an opportunity for he and Rowf to escape, and the two animals pass fearfully and uncomprehendingly at night through seemingly endless, Moreau-esque laboratories silent except for the subdued whimpering and fidgeting of animals deprived of one or other senses or body parts. They escape at last through a vent in the wall of the establishment’s incinerator, after resting for a time among the sharp bones of even less lucky inmates.

They find themselves at large in one of the very few places in England escaped dogs could hope to remain at large for lengthy periods – the sparsely-populated and barren Lake District, with winter coming on. Both book and film convey the spirit of this locale extremely effectively, the film unusually beautiful with its muted North Country palette, the novel featuring drawings by the renowned Alfred Wainwright, and both strewn with regionally-specific topography, nomenclature, flora, fauna, dialect and history. The fells, screes, becks, tarns and abandoned mines form a magnificent, merciless backdrop, and the animators shot most of the action from low-level, so that one gets the sense of painful progress along unyielding contours. Director Martin Rosen – who also directed the film of Watership Down – opted for a dog’s-eye view of the action, with human faces and expressions usually obscured or out of shot, adding to the meaningless nightmarishness.

Snitter is unusually intelligent and Rowf unusually strong, but they are also unaccustomed to fending for themselves, and with understandable behavioural problems – Rowf terrified of bodies of water, clearly at a disadvantage in this District, Snitter spasmodically hallucinating. The dogs nearly starve, but eventually contrive to kill and eat a sheep. They then fall in with a fox – the choice of James Bolam as “the tod’s”  voice was inspired – who offers survival tips if they share further “yows” with him, and for a while the uneasy alliance works. But farmers quickly notice their depredations, and the connection is soon made to the research establishment, despite bland official denials. A publicity stunt hunt for the sheep-killers is organized by a local businessman, but he is a kindly man haunted by the Holocaust, and when he sees the hideously scarred Snitter takes pity on the delighted dog, only to be killed by terrible accident when Snitter gets tangled in the trigger of his gun.

An irresponsible newspaperman (a woman in the film) discovers that the establishment has a secret military section, where a former Buchenwald doctor is researching germ warfare – and in true tabloid fashion suggests that the dogs could have come into contact with bubonic plague fleas. Of course the dogs had not, but the suggestion naturally causes a frenzy. When the gaunt dogs devour the corpse of a fallen man (this scene was cut from most original releases of the film), public revulsion wells up. Soldiers are sent to the area to exterminate the dogs, and the wily fox’s luck runs out when he is killed by hounds.

The dogs manage one last lucky escape, by stowing away on a tourist train that carries them unseen through the military cordon, all the way down to the sea at Ravenglass. Here they are trapped between the terrifying and icy Irish Sea and the advancing soldiers, and eventually strike out to sea in a panicky attempt to find Snitter’s mythical “Isle of Dog”.

At this stage, the book and film diverge, but unusually the film is truer to the author’s intentions than the book – because the publishers prevailed upon Adams to alter his original ending. The film ends with the dogs still just afloat as Rowf’s strength ebbs for the last time and cold chews into their bones, while far out in front flickers a mirage of the green land they will never reach. This lump-swallowing outcome would probably be upsetting for most adults as well as children, and must be why the film never really caught on.

By contrast, in the book as redacted by the publisher, it transpires that Snitter’s master is not dead after all, but merely seriously injured. Recognizing one of the fugitives as his beloved terrier, he contacts the newspaperman, who had in any case been hoping for an uplifting end to the saga. The journalist castigates the master’s sister, and rushes Snitter’s owner to the beach at Ravenglass. Real-life naturalist Sir Peter Scott sails providentially into the bay, with just enough time to haul the foundering beasts aboard. Snitter is reunited with his owner, who also gives Rowf his first home. In both book and film, there is redemption for a young scientist who realises the awfulness of his employment and quits, liberating a test monkey and taking it home.

Reading it again now, this last chapter feels highly contrived, and tacked-on – but one can easily understand why a publisher in this (to use a tabloid cliché) “nation of dog-lovers” would have wanted such a conclusion to so unrelenting a story. Some earlier segments also seem heavy-handed – especially those to do with the media and politicians – and there are even a few Victorian-style examples of “Dear Reader…” But these things are amply compensated for by the moral and social significance of the subject, and Adams’ evocations of sensate animality – as the dogs wander and chase down prey or talk to the shrewd tod, they seem to transmute at times into the wolves that loped up and down Lakeland as recently as the 14th century. (There is a tradition that the last English wolf was killed in 1390 on Humphrey Head, an outlying fell of the District.)

As Adams notes in his introduction, Animal Research, Scientific and Experimental (with its ponderously jocose acronym) is unlike real establishments, because too many different kinds of experiments on too many different species are carried on there. Yet all the experiments described in the book were or are still carried out on real animals, and the sheer superfluity of many of these experiments shock and sicken now as they shocked and sickened in 1977. That the two central characters are dogs makes the story particularly poignant, because dogs have the closest relationship with men of any animal, and are bywords for trust and loyalty.

In the UK, vivisection has been pared back in recent decades, largely in response to hostile public opinion as formed by Adams and others, with companies that had carried out non-medical research often being pressurized into discontinuing (sometimes through violent direct action). This public opinion is fickle and at times hypocritical, because many who detest vivisection yet benefit from the medical advances that stem in part from these practices. In 2009 3.6 million procedures were carried out on live animals in British laboratories (1). While these things may make us “sick with horror” (to use Darwin’s words about animal experiments), it seems clear that sometimes there is no alternative, and that animal testing will be with us into the foreseeable future. Always in the background, powering our guilty emotions will be Adams’ story of harried innocents in one of England’s last wildernesses, which even if dated in specifics, still adds something to great, ongoing questions – about what it means to be an animal and, even more importantly, human.


1. The official UK figures for 2009 may be found by following this link. The global figure is estimated as anything between 50 and 100 million vertebrates. The number of animals used is expected to rise again across the EU, in order to comply with ever more stringent food and medicine safety laws