A few folk asked if I would make available my remarks at the launch of the Caca Milis Cabaret anthology Red Lamp Black Piano, which took place in Wexford Arts Centre Last night. Here they are, plus an excerpt from the short story ‘The Blacklight Ballroom’, which first appeared in the 2011 Faber anthology New Irish Short Stories, edited by Joseph O’Connor.
Red Lamp Black Piano
In any time of hardship, people need to get out of the house. Folk erected Revival tents during the Great Depression. In Sarajevo, when the bombs were falling, they held surrealist beauty pageants. We’ve got the Caca Milis Cabaret: somewhere to go when we’re broken, or broken-hearted, or simply broke. A place to hear performers tell us we aren’t alone. A reason to unplug from the Matrix. To quote Peggy Seeger and Ewan MacColl’s ‘Springfield Mining Disaster’:
“We’ve no more water or light or bread/We’ll live on songs and hope instead.”
Red Lamp Black Piano is a collection of writings from artists who have appeared at the Caca Milis Cabaret over the past five years. I’m not going to bore you with a roll call of names: enough to state that the work contained herein is not just good work, great work, but that it’s brave and original.
We’ve heard it said many times that in a time of lean the arts assume a supreme role. Plays, films, songs, books, give us hope. The danger is that in such times we might cleave towards the the safe or the sentimental. The great thing about the material gathered in Red Lamp Black Piano is that it gives expression to voices that might otherwise be shut out by the tyrannies of not just our appetites for familiar pleasures, but also the tyrannies of media and marketplace.
Beware the machine that tries to pull our teeth and straighten our ties so we can be presented to the world as good little ambassadors for our country, our town, our street. There’s no sense of that in this book, only the expression of human truths, voiced by people who won’t allow themselves to be silenced by unseen authority, or fiscal embarrassment, “as if we’re only mouths to feed” in the words of Arcade Fire, echoing in turn the words of George Orwell.
Red Lamp Black Piano never attempts to pimp art as a nostalgia act or a heritage industry, or an ancillary division of the tourist board. The work presented here is by turns serious and barmy and profound and new. There are rebel yells and shaggy dog tales written by Wexford folk, Welsh folk, ex-pats and guests of the nation. It’s a litany of small rebellions, lamentations, secret truths uttered in the knowledge – or maybe hope – that no one’s listening, a collection of stolen moments of bliss and railings at the gods and mutterings into pints. It’s a great book. You should buy it.
So take a bow everyone who’s kept this show on the road. Helena Mulkearns, Elizabeth Whyte, Alexandra Caulfield, Ollie Dempsey, Noel Quaid and all the staff of the Wexford Arts Centre, and the hundreds of singers, actors, dancers, filmmakers, storytellers, poets, musicans, burlesque artists, comedians and scallywags who’ve appeared at the Cabaret over the past five years. From the polished professionals to the debutantes brave enough to give it a go for the first time, we salute you.
An autobiographical note: soon after I moved back to Wexford from Dublin in 2008, I was inspired by two events, Noel Quaid’s Blacklight Sessions open mic night in Enniscorthy, and my first appearance at the Cabaret, to write a short story designed as an allegory that might give some sense of the magic of people coming together in a time of siege. I imagined the ghost of Hank Williams appearing to a crowd gathered in a ballroom in some post-apocalyptic version of Ireland.
I thought it might be appropriate to read a few paragraphs from it tonight.
(from The Blacklight Ballroom)
Nearly a year into the civil war that no one cared to declare a civil war, they grew tired of hatching their fires and waiting to die in their dressing gowns, and blitz spirit drove the first ones out like animals after hibernation to test the wind. Then somebody got word from somebody who heard of a place to gather on Saturday night – the Blacklight Ballroom in the basement of the old Bailey Hotel.
Here is where they set it down, the weight they’ve borne, the penance done, where they array their woes together like tributes at a grotto, or offerings to be burnt. The hour draws near and they gather at the bandstand, not just to witness but to imprint on their minds the memory of what’s before them, and so to later tell others of their witnessing.
House lights dim. Drapes draw back. A beam flickers and takes form.
And here he is at last, the vision made incarnate in his fine white suit and his shining white boots and great white hat, a white guitar strapped across his chest. The room is filled with his pick and strum. So hark now: hear this voice so high and wild and lonesome. Hear the angel sing.
And if you should weep, well that’s all right. You weep because you’re mended. And if what you see here makes no sense, then ask yourselves: would you really want the mystery undone, to hear it’s a trick of the light, a lantern shadow show, a hologram or hallucination or an apparition or even to hear it’s a visitation or a miracle?
He is among you, faith. That is all that matters. You can look into those two blue eyes that bear the light of one close to death, the contours of a face so gaunt it’s just bones pushing out skin like tentpoles under tarpaulin. You can watch his bony fingers twang the strings and hear the truth of his heart and the raw song in his mouth like the call of a wounded old wolf. You can mend.
And if only for this hour are you consoled and mended, then this hour only it must be.
Back in 1998, when I was still a cub, Hot Press dispatched me to interview former South African president FW De Klerk. Here’s an edited version.
“Hot Press eh?” booms FW De Klerk. “You’re the right-wing publication? I’m teasing!”
The background on a thumbnail: Frederik Willem De Klerk was born in Johannesburg, South Africa on March 18th 1936, of Dutch ancestry, although one of his direct ancestors was Indian, a fact seldom referred to when he was a child. The product of a conservative religious background, De Klerk followed his father into politics after pursuing a successful career as a lawyer, and became MP for Vereeniging from 1972 to 1989. He held several ministerial posts (including environmental planning, post and telecommunications, internal affairs and education) before becoming leader of the National Party and State President, succeeding PW Botha in ’89.
Soon after being named president, De Klerk began dismantling many of the provisions of apartheid, setting the stage for the 1994 multiracial general election. In February 1990 he lifted a 30-year ban on the ANC and other black liberation parties and freed Nelson Mandela from prison. Three years later, he was jointly awarded the Nobel Peace Prize with Mandela, and when the ANC leader was elected State President, De Klerk became Executive Deputy President, and held this position until 1996 when the National Party withdrew from the Government of National Unity, and he became the leader of the official Opposition. He retired from politics in 1997.
It’s not easy to predict how history will assess De Klerk’s role in the emergence of an equal South Africa. Although undoubtedly a major factor in the demise of apartheid, he was also vehemently opposed to sanctions and the African National Congress’s “unnecessary and counter-productive” armed struggle. And no matter how many reforms De Klerk implemented, one can’t forget that he also participated in a regime responsible for immeasurable injustice. Some men change history, some men are chosen by the times as instruments for change. De Klerk will most likely be seen as the latter, the intermediate link between Botha and Mandela, a transitional but important figure.
Peter Murphy: As a reformer, did it cause you any personal disquiet to go against your political heritage, to the extent of repealing laws your father had put on the books?
FW De Klerk: No. I really believed in what I was doing, and in my inner self I was convinced on the basis of what my father said, and his reactions during the last few years of his life, that he himself understood the need for change, and that he had also in the last years of his life, grown with the changing times. And I think I would’ve basically had his support for what I did.
In the early 70′s you were involved in an initiative to modernise South Africa’s censorship and publication laws, ostensibly to eradicate pornography. What kind of works were banned during this period?
I was not directly involved in banning. We had a censor board which viewed all films, put down age restrictions, said some of them are totally unacceptable. Books were only on complaint, in other words, there wasn’t ever a situation where each and every book published must first go through a process – that applied only to films. But when complaints were received from whichever source, then it would be looked upon. In the field of political works, I can’t think of a specific one. I think we were much too strict – one should cultivate a much more open debate, and that open debate was not helped along by keeping some works propounding views on specific philosophies out of the hands of students.
Wilbur Smith’s first novel When The Lion Feeds was banned because of some sexual descriptions of sex scenes. It was taken to the supreme court and was allowed then in a very important case, and I think the judge took the right decision. But also, there’s been development, and I think the pendulum can swing too far. Somehow or another I think a government has a duty to ensure that at least the really dirty stuff should not be readily available. Moral standards, as with law an order, are to an extent also the responsibility of the government.
On the subject of moral standards, Sun City had an international reputation as a “pleasure centre”, a gay holiday haven, and a city where what would’ve been considered “deviant” sexual practices, as well as gambling, were tolerated because they were a source of foreign revenue.
I don’t think it was ever seen on the sex side really, but the churches were strongly against gambling, and gambling was unlawful in South Africa. Sun City was erected because in terms of South African law, Bophuthatswana – although the rest of the world didn’t – was recognised as a free sovereign country. As we recognised France and America, we recognised Bophuthatswana. And as an independent country, they can do what they want. And now, with the new dispensation, all the other provinces and cities say, “But we also want the same facilities,” so the pendulum has now swung to the side where casinos will be spread across South Africa.
When you say “tolerated”, it was because they had the right to do so. It did bring in a lot of revenue for that specific country, and actually Bophuthatswana was quite well run, and most of the revenue that they got was used in upgrading the education, the housing and so on, so in the end they made good use of the income. It wasn’t a sort of an undercover thing that we said, “Okay, have a casino because we want you to earn money,” – there was a lot of pressure on us from the churches to step in and do something about it, but we said, “No, they are independent, and it’s their right to do what they want”.
You have stated that you believe sanctions to be more of an impediment than an aid to reform. When trade was carried out in breach of these sanctions, did you view those responsible as allies or as profiteers?
Well, to survive, we had to circumvent the sanctions, so it was almost economic warfare. And yes, in the process we had to cooperate with some agents who made it their business to create channels for selling our goods or buying whatever we needed, or what we couldn’t buy within the frame of the sanctions. In the end, the financial sanctions – at a price of course – were quite effectively circumvented. When I was a young minister of mineral and energy affairs, we had enough oil shored up, coupled with our own production of oil from coal, to withstand an absolute blanket successful embargo on oil entering South Africa for four years.
You have also repeatedly stated that you were “not aware of or involved in the gross violations of human rights perpetrated by operatives of the former security forces.” But as a member of the government, did you feel a personal responsibility for the many reports of police brutality?
Yes, and one would . . . you have an overall responsibility, so how do you deal with that? You participate in drawing up rules which can prevent it, you ensure that if those rules are broken, if something happens, that there is a proper investigation, and disciplinary action is taken. And if crimes have been committed in the process, that members of the forces are then charged in an open court for those crimes. This we did regularly. I’m not saying we succeeded in really stamping certain wrong things out, but we didn’t cover it up. There were such rules, and from time to time, and especially since I became leader, we expanded the rules, we made them stronger, we even, in my presidency, developed a special investigative group, because the allegation was made that the police can’t successfully investigate their own people. A special group was formed to carry out a more objective investigation on complaints of serious misconduct.
What about inequalities in sentences handed down to blacks and whites?
We always had a very independent judiciary, and while we had in many fields, discriminatory legislation, our criminal law never distinguished on the basis of racial colour in prescribing maximum sentences, and sometimes even minimum sentences – which I as a lawyer never liked because I think the court should have a discretion. For some serious crimes like drug smuggling and so on, there were efforts to bring in minimum sentences, but it was never racially discriminatory. So I know that there was that overall impression, but that is one form of discrimination which was never institutionalised, which was never policy. If it happened, it was in the hands of the individual. So I was always, as a lawyer, proud of our legal system. I’m not saying that there weren’t mistakes, or that there weren’t trends within the time-frames which now in hindsight seem to have been harsh. I think one can identify such things.
In your autobiography, you write that while as a boy you felt no animosity towards other black children, “such friendships ended at the kitchen door.”
Well, it was the typical life pattern almost all across the globe. It was the pattern with which kids grew up in America. It was the pattern with which the children of colonial civil servants grew up in the African colonies. There was racism, there was discrimination, and this really started only changing in the rest of the world also from the ’50s onwards. So, it’s a way of saying, not justifying it, but saying, “This is how it was”. I’m trying in the book to use the various stages of my development as a person, and through my eyes and experiences and that of my family, to explain the pattern of thinking, the whys and the why nots as it was perceived at that stage, and try to bring some perspective.
Because this image of Afrikaners hating blacks and having just these stamping boots and being cruel, it’s really not a true image. Yes, we have hardline racists, and we’ve always had them, as all races have. America has its Ku Klux Klan – it’s wrong. But the average moderate Afrikaner never hated blacks. And there’s always been in South Africa, even at the height of apartheid, an underlying goodwill. You could always walk into a department store or a supermarket, and you would find, generally speaking, a bonhomie; smiling people, not sullenness, not a confrontational tense atmosphere.
You also write about the effect that figures like Danny Glover and Bill Cosby had not only on blacks, but Afrikaners, in terms of accepting black people as figures of power, to the extent that conservatives were disgruntled at the influence of television.
Oh yes, I think young South Africans across colour lines followed trends with regard to heroes, you will find the same set-up of people liking Michael Jackson or whomever that you will find in Ireland or England or America.
Except it had far greater significance in South Africa.
Yeah, but no longer so. South Africa is now a non-racial country and some of the black singers have always been very popular in South Africa, like Tina Turner, because she sings so well.
U2 were extremely vocal in their condemnation of apartheid in the 1980s. Was there any recognition in political circles of what they were doing at the time?
Not that I can remember, but pop music and so on was not my scene. I had enough to keep me busy.
Do you really believe that equality would’ve come about sooner without sanctions and the ANC?
Generally speaking, yes, because I believe that economic growth and development is a tremendously powerful force in bringing about change. In the end, it was economic development which resulted in urbanisation, in bringing millions of blacks from their original homelands into the cities which resulted in economic interdependence, which resulted in job creation for them. So, I think the type of constructive engagement that we experienced from countries like England and Germany clearly had a more constructive influence than the influence of the countries who totally stood away from us, like the Scandinavian countries, and later on, the United States.
You speak very frankly in the book of the animosities between yourself and Nelson Mandela . . .
Can I just say, so far, with extracts that have been lifted out, that I also speak in the book of my regard for him, acknowledging his many, many good qualities and that he always found it possible to rise above our tensions and differences when it was necessary, and in the best interests of the process and the country.
Nevertheless, many Europeans and Americans would never have seen the – quite understandable – bitterness that you describe in him.
Can I reply by saying, whomever you interview, when you have to give an account, do you present it one-dimensionally, or does truth and honesty require of you as an author or a writer to give the full picture? I didn’t include that to grind any axes. I didn’t write the book to get at certain people. But there’s great interest in what really happened, and in the full picture, I tried to include enough to give a real tangible feel of what really happened. But I could have written four more books, not just on me and Mandela, but if I were to relate many more things. But I felt duty-bound to give a comprehensive account of what happened, and not to censor it to the extent of withholding facts which would create a proper perspective on everything.
When you and your wife went to Oslo to receive the joint Nobel Peace prize with Nelson Mandela, you were greeted with crowds shouting slogans like, “Kill the Boer” and raising their fists in the ANC salute.
Yes. That doesn’t mean the committee itself weren’t quite correct with us and so on, and I think that also comes out. I’m worried that people might think I’m accusing the organisers of the Nobel Peace Prize of being unkind to us – they weren’t, in any way whatsoever. But it was controversial. But I understand that against the background of the history of how young Scandinavians had been brought up about South Africa, and how deeply involved they were in the cause of the ANC. So it’s understandable, but it wasn’t nice. You know, I remember on the first visit to Denmark I think, the then leader of the Labour Party explained to me how in junior high school, they all had a main task focusing on apartheid and South Africa, I mean even in school, it was part of the curriculum to be anti the powers that be in South Africa, and to support the cause of the ANC, so it’s very deeply ingrained in those societies.
Where will South Africa be in 10 years time?
I believe in our capacity to deal with the very difficult problems that I list in the last chapters of my book, and to resolve them, provided that we do the right thing. And I want to be helpful, without ever becoming involved in party politics again. I’m going to establish a foundation, I’m thinking of calling it the Centre for Reconciliation, focusing on being a catalyst for making South Africa a winning country, in bringing socio-economic development to the very poor and those who have been disadvantage by apartheid in the past, and in setting up structures and action plans to try and recapture the wonderful goodwill we had shortly after the ’94 election, which unfortunately at the moment is under great pressure.
What was the high point of your political career?
There were many high points. It was obviously a high point to become the leader of your party, to be the head of government, the head of state. The referendum result was a great high point for me. And it was a high point for me to, at the end of the process, stand there as I described it in the book on the 10th of May, 1994, and to say that, with the shortcomings, within the time-frame that I have foreseen, I have succeeded in making the vision with which we started come true.
And the low point?
I have no complaints. All of us have our peaks and our valleys, but there isn’t a valley which I remember which haunts me.
‘The Sounds of the River’ a fictional review of an imaginary album, and an out-take from Shall We Gather at the River, is included in Red Lamp Black Piano, the Cáca Milis Cabaret anthology I’ll have the honour of launching at Wexford Arts Centre, Friday, 6pm. It’s a great wee book, with a brain-frying intro from Pat McCabe. See you there.
The Revelator Orchestra will be appearing at tonight’s Gala fundraiser in Wexford Arts Centre alongside Eoin Colfer, Billy Roche, B and the Honeyboy and more. Show starts at 8. We’ll also be playing a set at Sunday’s Fretstival soiree, 2pm-ish. We’ll be using both events to capture footage for ‘Isaac Miller’, a new track from our forthcoming album The Brotherhood of the Flood. Over and out.
Just back from New York City. Great to see The River and Enoch O’Reilly and Paul Lynch’s Red Sky In Morning in the book stores. Big thanks to all at Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, Little Brown, Brooklyn Book Court, Henry Review, Tres Gatos in Boston and Book Case TV. Big shout out to Will Chancellor. Amen.
Escape From NY
Quick reminder: I’ll be reading at the Fusion Salon in Wexford next Saturday, 8pm, along with Paul O’Brien, Michelle Dooley Mahon, Anne Marie O’Connor, Joe Neal, and Eoin Colfer. Bring a rotten fruit basket, coffee grinder, poltergeist detector, inflatable goatee, or whatever you fancy. Should be tons o’ fun either way.
I’ll be reading at Bandon Town Hall with Ciaran Collins, author of The Gamal, Sep 26. Details here:
Engage Arts Festival
Make sure and get your tickets for the Revelator Orchestra and Colm Mac Con Iomaire show in the Wexford Arts Centre, this Thursday, Sep 12th, at 8.30pm.
For our brethren in North Wales, the Revelator Orchestra will play the Caught By the River stage at the Portmeirion No. 6 Festival on Friday, late afternoon.
Brothers and sisters… The River and Enoch O’Reilly will be published in the US tomorrow. To mark the event, I wrote a short essay for Huffington Post entitled The Devil In Elvis Presley.
Feel free to post comment and/or review the book for Amazon. The River & Enoch O’Reilly will be a Barnes & Noble featured pick for two weeks from tomorrow.