March 17th, 2016

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Interesting Links for 17-03-2016


Fantasy and the Easter Rising

Ireland is perpetually reminded these days that it is exactly 100 years since the Easter Rising of 1916, when a small force of revolutionary militia, combining romantic nationalists and hardline socialists, seized control of various strong points of central Dublin and held them for five days before surrendering to British forces diverted from the war then raging in Europe.

The events touched many people, some in unexpected ways. Nevil Shute, the classic stiff-upper-lip British writer of solid yet moving engineering stories, best known in sf circles for the twice-filmed 1957 post-apocalyptic On The Beach, a novel of a dying Australia, was a 17-year-old in Dublin in 1916 whose father, Arthur Hamilton Norway, was the official head of the General Post Office which became the headquarters of the short-lived Provisional Government during Easter Week. His mother wrote a moving account of The Sinn Féin Rebellion As I Saw It. Nevil , too young to fight, was pressed into service as a stretcher-bearer; by his mother’s account, he had a thrilling time (much to his parents’ dismay), but I wonder how much this early experience of combat influenced his later writing which often seems to circle around the themes of conflict and pointless death.

Lord Dunsany (full name Edward John Moreton Drax Plunkett, 18th Baron of Dunsany) had been publishing fiction for over a decade by 1916, and remains one of the most prolific fantasy writers of all time. Like most chaps of his class, he had joined the British forces (specifically the Inniskilling Fusliers) and was on leave at home during Easter 1916. When news of the rebellion came to Dunsany Castle, he rushed into Dublin, and in literally his first combat experience was immediately injured in the face by a ricochet, taken prisoner and hospitalized for the rest of the week. An inch of difference would have cut short his writing career, and his influence on later writers such as Lovecraft and Tolkien.

As luck would have it, another fantasy writer witnessed the incident in which Lord Dunsany was wounded. James Stephens, who had published the lyrical The Crock of Gold in 1912 and was now Registrar of the National Gallery of Ireland, was on his way to work (not allowing himself to be deterred from turning up at the office by armed insurrection) when he found his path blocked. He records, in his vivid The Insurrection in Dublin,
As I came to this point shots were fired at a motor car which had not stopped on being challenged. Bystanders said it was Sir Horace Plunkett's car, and that he had been shot. Later we found that Sir Horace was not hurt, but that his nephew who drove the car had been severely wounded.
Stephens is a bit disingenuous here (though perhaps he had to be careful about identifying living individuals too close to the time of events). He knew “Sir Horace Plunkett’s nephew” (ie Lord Dunsany) very well.

Edited to add: As filigree10 points out in comments, I had the wrong nephew. The circumstances reported by Stephens don't match those reported by Dunsany. I had spotted this at the time of writing, but thought it more likely that Dunsany was embellishing his account than that Sir Horace Plunkett might have had two different nephews who were injured in separate incidents in the Rising. However it's pretty clear to me now that the latter is indeed the case, and the incident witnessed by Stephens involved the otherwise not very famous Thomas Ponsonby of Kilcooley.

Dunsany had been a frequent contributor to and occasional funder of The Irish Review, a monthly literary magazine founded by Stephens and others in 1913.One of the others was Thomas MacDonagh, who took on the editorship of The Irish Review, which later passed to Joseph Plunkett; the visionary poet and writer Padraig Pearse was also a contributor. MacDonagh, Plunkett and Pearse wrote mostly poetry and polemic, but also some fiction which shaded the boundaries between folkways and mythology. They were also three of the seven signatories to the Easter Proclamation, and were among the fifteen leaders executed by firing squad after the Rising failed. They are the most obvious examples of writers of genre interest whose careers were fatally interrupted by Easter 1916.

I’ve been considering the direct impact of the Rising on fantasy (and, thanks to Nevil Shute, science fiction) here. But really this is the wrong way round. Just after the 50th anniversary of the Rising, William Irwin Thompson published his classic account The Imagination of an Insurrection: Dublin, Easter 1916, arguing that the whole affair is much better understood as a literary statement than a serious military initiative. Rather than the grizzled ex-combatants who were available, the planning of the campaign was entrusted to the very literary Plunkett and the leadership of the action to the equally literary Pearse. It was sheer fantasy to believe that a few hundred revolutionaries could carry out a successful independence revolt. The Rising was a deadly and realistic expression of the same sentiments that drove the Irish Literary Revival, and drew its roots both from romantic myth and the latest technology (the German guns which failed to arrive).

And in the medium term, though not the short term, it had the desired result. Although the Rising lacked popular support in 1916, the rapid execution by British forces of the revolutionaries, and London's failure to then address outstanding grievances in Ireland, rapidly tipped the political situation irreversibly against continued British rule for most of the island. Sinn Fein, the revolutionary political party which was generally (and quite incorrectly) credited with masterminding the Rising, won the vast majority of Irish seats in the 1918 general election, and went on to force the creation of the independent Irish Free State in 1922, covering 26 of Ireland's 32 counties. Sometimes fantasy, especially political fantasy, can turn out to be effective.

Road to Ruin, by Niki Savva

Second paragraph of third chapter:

Clare confided that in her previous life, not long after she had agreed to join the staff of former Labor minister Greg Combet, she was told that if she wanted to know what her life would be like as a press secretary, she should read my book, So Greek. She reached the bit where, early one day, my old boss, the treasurer, Peter Costello, sent the receptionist, Philippa, to get me out of the toilet in his Melbourne office, and I ended the same day by dropping the F-bomb on him in his Sydney hotel suite. This experience appeared in the opening pages, providing the title for what I thought would be my one-and-only book. Clare wobbled when she read that passage. She lasted six months in the job.

This is a book about Australian politics, of which I know little despite four years working for one of its more memorable characters. (He is quoted twice, one on the "Relevance Deprivation Syndrome" that hits politicians who have been removed from office, and once on Bronwyn Bishop: "Why do people take an instant dislike to her? It saves time.")

The story told is of the collapse of the government of Tony Abbott, who won the September 2013 election for the Liberal Party (as you know, Bob, the Liberals in Australia are the main right-wing party) and was then thrown out by his own MPs just before his second anniversary in power, six months ago. Savva is a journalist, but a journalist with a privileged position; she makes no secret of her support for the Liberals, who employ her husband and who she has worked for herself; and she somewhat obsessively tracks the last text messages sent by the protagonists to herself and to those she is friendly with. It's also a book written for those with more knowledge of and interest in Australian politics than I have; many crucial points of reference are simply not explained to the reader (eg the Bronwyn Bishop helicopter affair). The structure and style are journalistic rather than analytical, which I sometimes find tiresome.

But at the same time, it's a great study of how a political career can crash and burn. Two political careers, in fact, because Abbott's right hand (and occasionally brain and mouth) throughout his leadership, Peta Credlin, is portrayed as a key factor in his failure - centralising information flow, bullying staffers and political colleagues, leaking important stories to selected journalists (Savva seems never to have been one of them), demanding and getting special treatment way beyond the norm for her office. Abbott's key failing was that he took no interest in what other people thought, in particular his MPs but indeed Australians as a whole; Credlin's failing was that she protected him rather than help him deal with the problem, to the point that she became part of the problem herself.

Savva has been criticised for concentrating so much fire on Credlin, in the context of the atrocious misogyny directed at Julia Gillard during her term as Prime Minister from 2010 to 2013, and in particular for her coverage of the rumours that Abbott and Credlin were having an affair. But in fact she finds the rumours unfounded (though their relationship was clearly one of deep and unhealthy co-dependence) and it is hardly Savva's fault that the rumours were circulating. One could have wished for a more forensic interrogation of why there are always rumours of this kind in this sort of situation, but she actually isn't all that interested in it, unlike some of her readers.

In any case, she is very clear that responsibility for reining Credlin in rested with Abbott, and he failed to exercise it. I found it fascinating that the two key moments which prompted rebellions against him - one unsuccessful in February, and the successful one in September - were only marginally related to policy issues at all. The precipitating issue in February was Abbott's decision to award a knighthood to Prince Philip, which attracted widespread criticism for being tone-deaf and an unnecessary investment of political capital when there were much more serious problems to address. Abbott survived the February push, and promised to listen more in future. But his disastrous handling of an internal party discussion on same-sex marriage in August, which achieved the remarkable feat of deeply enraging both sides of the argument, was the final straw in convincing a majority to get rid of him - and the problem was not the policy itself, but the way in which Abbott dealt with it.

Savva's hour-by-hour account of how the coup was executed is the core of the book, and is very good writing. (The other really good passage is a historical description of how his staffers dealt with the disappearance of Prime Minister Harold Holt, who went swimming in the sea one day in 1967 and never came back.) On the backbenches, Abbott appears to have learned nothing and forgotten nothing - he blames his fall on "white-anting", an Australianism (that I had to look up) referring to termites undermining buildings; in other words, he was undermined because he was being undermined. He continues to ungraciously snipe at his successor, to Savva's dismay; she makes it clear that Abbott's behaviour risked and still risks bringing about what she regards as the ultimate catastrophe, the return to power of the Labour Party. I think reasonable people can disagree with her on that last point!

Thanks to Ryan Heath of POLITICO for flagging this up to me.