Benjamin Clementine’s Untitled Ode to Cavan and Kevin Barry’s ‘Beatlebone’

During an encore to a gig in the Olympia Theatre, Benjamin Clementine expressed a desire to live in Ireland in order to develop his understanding of Irish folk music. Dublin wouldn’t hold much interest for him though. Throughout the evening, having dealt with an intermittently attentive and somewhat rude audience, he realised he’d prefer to live somewhere more remote. The suggestions from the crowd came almost immediately.

Someone yelled up ‘Waterford!’ which got a laugh, as a Dublin audience getting reminded of other counties without warning can often be induced to guffaw. Another audience member warned him against living in Cavan, but however the acoustics in the theatre work, Clementine took Cavan as a suggestion also, making clear that he preferred the sound of it, to the ‘scary’ sounding Waterford. He then began musing on his pastoral Cavan idyll, picking out a few sparse notes and chords on the piano while singing and talking through some lyrics. Anything related to Waterford tended to be accompanied by the bass end of the keyboard, whereas Cavan, with its ‘pigs, cows and precipitation’ (‘rain’ didn’t quite ring correctly) was accompanied by more uplifting, higher notes.

This escape to the more remote parts of Ireland has a long history, as part of the communal living experiments practiced by those participants in the Age of Aquarius, as the character of ‘John,’ an analogue for John Lennon that appears in Kevin Barry’s novel Beatlebone, realises when he, wrestling with angst, depression, restlessness, fatigue, etc, attempts to escape to a remote island he bought, called Dorinish, off the coast of County Mayo.

Many ‘back-to-the-land’ intentional communities took to the West of Ireland in the sixties and seventies. Accounts of this bohemia emerge fleetingly in Edna O’Brien’s In the Forest, by the bye, and many of them thrived, enduring as pragmatic and solvent communities driven by the hard work and dedication of its members. John’s fictional journey to Dorinish, with the help of the local Cornelius O’Grady, is analogous to the impulse of the stereotypical would-be communal liver, a desire to reject ‘society,’ escape into the wilderness and rid himself of residual emotional baggage from his childhood via primal scream therapy, in typical Freudian fashion.

Very few remote parts of Ireland remain to be escaped to in 1978, especially when the British gutter press is trailing him. John encounters plenty of the locals in a pub, the residua of a primal scream-based commune called ‘Black Atlantis’ and a talking seal from Formby. John isn’t terribly successful in purging himself of everything that he might wish to, perhaps subverting the notion that isolating oneself from society and curing oneself through self-reflection is viable.

John spends some time with the Black Atlantis commune and adopts their therapeutic methodology, by getting ‘the rants on,’ removing the filter that would normally discourage one from speaking one’s true thoughts on someone else, or even reaching for nasty, negative things to say, with the rationale that they’re better expressed than repressed:

“SUE . . . all you want is others to give, give, give and justify all you’ve fucking done and said and you want us to say oh John, John, all your choices were the right choices, John and you didn’t want to hurt nobody never but the truth is you’re a fucking sell-out, John, and you’re a liar, John, and you’re just suck-suck-suck, it’s everybody else’s energy you feed on, John….”

This section goes on at some length, with no narrative interpolations, just stage directions, of a sort, in italics, depriving us of a hold on John’s thoughts, the interiority that indirectly colours the narration in other parts of the novel, giving our viewpoint an immediacy, as if the reader were participating in the process. The utilisation of the formal structure of a play within a novel comes from Ulysses and in a similar way to the ‘Circe’ episode in which this happens, we feel as though John’s character may be on trial, but in a synthetic, performative sense. The members of the commune seem to be reaching for subject matter to irk John with. When the break does happen, and John’s sarcastic, defensiveness disintegrates, it also seems synthetic, and not addressing the root cause of whatever his issues may be:

“JOHN Do you really want to know what I am? Do you? Well I’ll tell you exactly what I fucking am. I’m fucking anxiety. And I’m fucking lust. And I’m a fucking booze hound and I’m a fucking dope fiend or I was and I’m a fucking sad sentimental Scouse sentimental bastard…I want to scrape his peasant fucking eyes or what’s left of em from the sockets of his skeleton head and tear his fucking bones apart with me fucking teeth or what’s left of his fucking bones.”

It’s visceral dialogue, but I think that’s most important to derive from it, if you’re in deriving form, is to regard its excess, rather than see it as a breakthrough moment. When the press do find John, not necessarily on Dorinish, but on one of many islands he finds similar enough for his purposes, he slips right back into his media-playing persona, adeptly having them hanging on his pseudo-profound verbiage:

“Any follow-ups, gents? Any further enquiries? A little more Manley Hopkins? Certainly. Blue-bleak embers shall fall, gall themselves and gash gold-vermillion. He was a fucking laugh, wasn’t he? Good night, gentlemen. Safe home the sea road.”

Amidst all this, and there’s no shortage of extended, semi-sensical rambles of the sort in Beatlebone, there’s the following: “Nature? I’ve had my fill of it, gents. Turns out it’s all an illusion. Pull the fucking drapes back and it’ll disappear.” Barry has spoken on the inevitability of the Irish writer’s lyrical response to the landscape, and how easy it can be to lapse into the extolling virtues of the scenic mode, but in Beatlebone, you can see Barry resisting it. At a number of points, there are references to the night moving around John, or enfolding him, in an almost sinister way. Nature isn’t facilitating John’s flight from himself, ‘ he is very much the John he is when he sets out for Dorinish as he is when he significantly, fails to complete the journey.

That said, I hope Clementine does move to Cavan. The bleakness of the landscape could hardly do his next record harm, and seeing someone of Ghanaian descent re-invent Irish folk, because you know he would, would be class.

Beatlebone is also very good.

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