Wednesday, October 18, 2017

The Story Behind the Story: “Ravenhill,”
by John Steele

(Editor’s note: This is the 73rd installment in The Rap Sheet’s “Story Behind the Story” series. Today’s contribution comes from Belfast-born author John Steele. In 1995, at age 22, he traveled to the United States and has since lived and worked on three continents, including a 13-year spell in Japan. Among past jobs he has been a drummer in a rock band, an illustrator, a truck driver, and a teacher of English. Steele now lives in England with his wife and daughter. He began his writing career producing short stories, selling them to North American magazines and fiction digests. This year’s Ravenhill—the subject of his essay below—is his first novel, and a second Jackie Shaw yarn, Seven Skins, has already been signed for publication by London-based Silvertail Books. Steele is currently composing a third, set in northern Japan.)

I have a scar on the back of my head, a fat white maggot squat below my crown which appears each time I visit my barber, then disappears in a week or so as my hair grows. Various people in various bars—or classrooms throughout my years as a teacher—have asked about that scar. The truth is pretty mundane, but I noticed the heady light of anticipation in the eyes of some of the inquisitors: Was it the result of a knife fight? A war wound? The legacy of some dark episode in my life?

We’ve all got one, whether big or small, and a scar is almost always the result of violence in some shape or form, whether a pratfall, a pot-burn acquired while cooking breakfast, or the legacy of a 9x19mm Parabellum round.

I was born in 1972 in Belfast, Northern Ireland. That was the bloodiest year of what has come to be known as the “Troubles” and I grew up in a city which today has more than its fair share of scars, both physical and those more insidious and unseen. I wasn’t exactly a war-child dressed in rags, walking to school on streets strewn with broken bottles and rubble, but everyone who lived through those dark years was informed to some degree by the relentless, often senseless, tit-for-tat violence that was a daily occurrence across the city and beyond. You probably know the history. A dizzying smorgasbord of terrorist acronyms, sectarianism, nationalistic hubris, and vicious, murderous gangsterism. Both republican and loyalist groupings preyed, to a large extent, on their own communities as well as taking potshots at each other and the security forces. Atrocities proliferated. Hotels—and the guests within—blown to pieces; the bombing of a war memorial, a bus station, a fishmonger’s shop. Bookies and bars were sprayed with bullets, even the congregation of a Pentecostal church.

So much for the history lesson.

In the 1990s, I left my homeland and spent time in the United States and Hungary before finding work, and my soulmate, in Japan. Then, 10 years ago, I went home.

To quote the author Kiran Desai, “The present changes the past,” and to paraphrase Lionel Shriver when discussing Belfast, where she lived for a number of years, all the wrong people did well (out of the peace agreements) in the city. Of course, a lot of very bad people did very well for themselves during the years of assassination and terror, too, and are still unwilling to let go of the godfather status such activities brought. So now we have terrorists and paramilitaries stripped bare, the causes for which they claimed to fight left to inept and corrupt politicians, sniping with school playground insults rather than AR-18 ArmaLite rifles. The populace is more interested in paying rent and holding down a job than chucking bottles and petrol bombs and taunting “the other side” (although, being Northern Ireland, periodic outbreaks of the old habits still occur). In short, Belfast is like many other cities in the UK or the Republic of Ireland, with an added sectarian undercurrent, a flourishing gun culture among the criminal element, and the odd homegrown dissident terrorist group thrown in.

In 2011, I was on the move again, finding employment in England.

By 2014, my wife was pregnant.

It was around this time that I was having a couple of beers with a mate, a Londoner who shares my love of ’70s crime movies and TV shows, both British (The Sweeney, The Squeeze, The Long Good Friday) and American (The French Connection, The Taking of Pelham One Two Three, Prime Cut). We were gabbing about movies and books. I was proselytizing on the virtues of crime writers Ted Lewis, who wrote Jack’s Return Home—later filmed as Get Carter with Michael Caine—and the venomous tour de force GBH, and Derek Raymond, author of the harrowing Factory novels (The Devil’s Home On Leave, I Was Dora Suarez, etc.). If you’ve never heard of these guys, check them out—but be warned, it’s pretty strong stuff. Gut wrenching in Raymond’s case. Anyway, several beers in, my mate bet me I couldn’t write a crime or thriller novel set in Belfast before I became a full-blown daddy. Never one to run from a drunken challenge, or the promise of an all-expenses-paid night in the pub if I won, I took the bet.

(Left) Author John Steele

The result is Ravenhill (Silvertail). Its protagonist, Jackie Shaw, has his own scars, including one on his arm where a terrorist tattoo was removed. The novel is split between contemporary Belfast and the city of the ’90s—back when Jackie was a getaway driver on a planned assassination. He disappeared 20 years ago under mysterious circumstances, but returns to Belfast for a funeral, only to be confronted by the long-buried violence of his past. Old cohorts are now drug dealers and gangster-barons of their patch in the east of the city, and the spoils of criminality drive the remnants of paramilitary groupings. Jackie is caught in the middle of a murderous struggle for ultimate control of one such organization.

As I said, I enjoy the hard stuff. The aforementioned Derek Raymond devotes the opening chapter of I Was Dora Suarez to the deranged inner workings of a killer’s mind. Ted Lewis’ most famous protagonist, Jack Carter, is a bastard of the highest order, and the narrator of GBH is a brutal pornographer in love with a sociopathic femme fatale. So it was with some satisfaction that I read a review of Ravenhill from the London Times newspaper praising the “palpable sense of menace” and the intensity of the “up-close violence” in my first novel. I had wanted to infuse some of the seamy grit of past crime and thriller novels into the book, and to portray the violence as adrenaline-fuelled, desperate, perhaps exciting and, importantly, ugly.

The novel unfolds within Protestant east Belfast. I was born and reared there, by fiercely anti-sectarian parents. I know this part of the city, and many beyond Northern Ireland don’t. Hollywood, and the media in general, has a lot to answer for in its portrayals of the mayhem in Northern Ireland’s past and has all but ignored the community in which Ravenhill is set, preferring a puerile IRA-vs.-British didactic. I know many people from Ireland, on both sides of the religious and political divide, who scoff or despair at past and present cack-handed attempts to set fiction within the context of the Troubles. So I gave it a shot. The result is one story and one perspective among many of the Troubles and of Belfast, of a man who returns home after a long absence and finds that home doesn't feel like home anymore, and that confuses him. The novel contains scenes between Jackie and his father that were very personal to write, at times cathartic. My father, unlike Jackie’s, wasn’t a drinker; but there’s a passage in which Jackie and his da drive around the city, his father relating stories about old Belfast back in the 1940s and ’50s, old characters, the bare-knuckle boxing that used to be held at Chapel Fields, as father and son strive to bond. That could have been my dad and I, sitting in his Ford, taking a tour of the old town to heal some father/son rift during my teenage years.

By the time I’d sweated a first draft, my daughter was a couple of weeks away from her grand entrance into the world. So, to a large extent, this book is for her. With a Northern Irish father, a Japanese mother, and being born and brought up in England, there’s going to be a lot to get her beautiful wee head around in the future. She’s been to Belfast a few times already and loves it, especially the attention of her large, extended family, but the city—thank God—is unrecognizable from my younger days. Like the city, I and the vast majority of those within, have moved on. But perhaps Ravenhill, when my daughter is old enough to read it, will help her understand a little more of where the old man is from, and how far her daddy’s homeland has come. Help her grasp what he’s droning on about when he has a couple of Bushmills and starts rolling out some old stories of life back in his day.

When the drink, or the long winter nights, or age stirs his Celtic blood and takes him back and he lets memories get the better of him, and shows his scars.

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