Writing, Brexit & the Blight of the Border: The Listeners by Anthony J. Quinn
I write about fictional detectives and spies, but my true hero is the Irish Border between Tyrone and Monaghan, and its soft, mazy landscape of bogland and forest. I grew up and still live in the parish of Killeeshil, close to Aughnacloy, which was notorious during the Troubles for its covered army checkpoint. In those days, the village felt like a crossing point into forbidden territory, a realm of solitude and danger peopled by dangerous smugglers, soldiers and paramilitaries on the run. My childhood journeys across the Border still feed my imagination and helped create the noir fictional landscape of my Inspector Celcius Daly novels, the latest of which was Undertow.
However, for the first time in ten years, I’ve had to turn away from this childhood hinterland and retire my detective character from his border adventures.
In part, the reason is Brexit. I suspected that a noir Border novel written in 2018 might seem utopian by 2019 or 2020, and I was reluctant to plunge headfirst into the political maelstrom that was brewing. Brexit with all its political uncertainty and journalistic clichés felt like a stumbling block to a good story. So I thought it was best to refocus and find a new location for my stories.
I can’t write about a place unless I’ve actually inhabited its landscape. Fortunately, for my fictional obsession with borders, the only other rural landscape I’ve lived in for more than four seasons was alongside another historic boundary, which is why, in my latest novel, The Listeners (published on December 13), I’ve moved the plot to the true border, the most ancient division between the tribes of these islands, the Scottish Border.
It’s been a painful change of longitude. I’ve come to rely on the spirit of wildness and refuge the Irish Border gives my characters, and the mystical moods and layers of history it adds to my plots. Inspector Daly spends a lot of his time driving in his car to the edge of the Border and staring into its mood-enhancing landscape, not so much to solve the terrible crimes that take place there as to reassure himself of his sanity and his place in the world.
During the decades since partition, a long line of writers has made up the ranks of a literary border patrol, trespassing this disputed landscape in their imaginations. They’ve wandered along its wriggling geography and in their own ways subverted its physical and political constraints, revealing its hidden landscapes and moods. Writers like Eugene McCabe, Shane Connaughton, Colum McCann and Eoin McNamee, and more recently, Garrett Carr, Claire McGowan, Brian McGilloway with his deeply appealing Ben Devlin detective series and Neil Hegarty through his masterful evocation of the Derry and Donegal landscape.
Over the last ten years, I’ve been able to happily range back and forth across the Border, seeking inspiration and the ghosts of stories without once ever being stopped or interrogated. As a family, we’ve trekked the border countless times: canoeing along the Blackwater, tramping through Favour Royal forest near Aughnacloy, and exploring the hills and bogland paths overlooking the Clogher Valley. I’ve managed to replace the darkened terrain of my childhood with new stories and adventures. My warmest memories as a father have been watching my children take whatever they can from our forays across the Tyrone and Monaghan Border: the surprise of cycling along a bog road and seeing a hare bound across our path, too busy to pay us any attention; or watching the miraculous flight of a dragonfly on the Blackwater at twilight.
However, my children think I grew up somewhere else, a strange land of checkpoints and military hardware, armed men in camouflage greens and balaclavas, a land where going for a walk anywhere was inseparable from the sensation of being sighted along a gunman’s rifle. They have never noticed the Border, which runs so invisibly close to their lives, and they’ve never been able to locate my stories about the Troubles in the landscape they know as home.
Everyone likes to have a landscape they can call their own, to feel connected to where they came from and those who went before. They say that country people live in the past, but the reverse is true. The past lives in country people, in layers compacted from the lives of previous generations. Sometimes the Border landscape of Ulster feels like a claustrophobic stage, onto which too many competing tribes have been crammed, where the past lies cheek by jowl with the present, and every twist in the road, every thorn tree has its own tale to tell.
A large part of the history of Ireland has flowed over this terrain, and the Irish people have reinvented their idea of themselves countless times over the centuries. My grandfather was fourteen, the same age as my eldest daughter is now, when the Border was first created. He farmed the field I now live on, and in his way was part of a quiet war waged against partition, fought by daughters and wives, husbands and sons across this landscape. People of his generation moved livestock, tea, butter, sugar, alcohol and tobacco, anything that had a sufficient price deferential or scarcity to make smuggling worth the risk. The intrusive bureaucracy of the Border made them feel rebellious, and encouraged them to behave as they felt, like outlaws. Life was harsh and the temptation to hustle a financial gain from the Border was too strong. They had to make a living out of the landscape and learned to cultivate the twisted nature of the Border into their daily lives and in their character. The Border turned into something my grandfather and his farming neighbours, both Protestant and Catholic, learned to live with and survive.
We should be glad those days are past. Instead, political forces over which we have no democratic control seem intent on turning the Border into a political and economical problem our children may never get rid of or recover from. It seems like bad luck, the way the past might return to claim the landscape I call home and had hoped would spiritually nourish my children, but that might now turn into a smuggler’s paradise again, a line of contention between opposing jurisdictions.
My consolation is that in spite of Brexit, this murky heart of Ulster will stay the same, and sometime soon, I’ll return to writing about it again. The hills and rivers straddling the Border will still be themselves, still beautiful, if ravaged a little by the division and violence spawned over the decades by partition. The Border runs through some of the wildest countryside in the North, and nature has miraculous powers of healing. The thickets of thorn and gorse are unstoppably vigorous and the bog treacherously soft.
It’s a landscape that may prove to be a dangerous foundation for the latest plans of politicians.
(c) Anthony J. Quinn
About The Listeners:
A new crime series set in the brooding landscape of the Scottish borders from the author of the Celcius Daly series.
Not long out of the fast-track training course at Edinburgh’s police college, Detective Sergeant Carla Herron is about to be tested to breaking point.
She’s been called to Deepwell psychiatric hospital in the Scottish borders to interview a patient who has confessed to the murder of one of the hospital’s psychotherapists. The confession is vividly detailed, but for a man locked in a secure ward and under 24-hour surveillance, it is also utterly impossible.
So why can’t the supposedly murdered psychotherapist be contacted? Why are the hospital staff so secretive, so difficult to work with? Why have other Deepwell patients have made disturbingly similar confessions over the past year? Against the advice of her superiors, Carla delves deeper into the hospital’s past and is plunged into a labyrinth of jealousies, lies and hallucinations.
Struggling to separate fact from fantasy, Carla embarks on a chilling trail through the bleak uplands and dark forests of the Scottish borders, every step taking her closer to a final – deadly – reckoning.