Donald Clarke

Whingeing about cinema and real life since 2009

The Telegraph thinks that Joyce, Banville and Flann O’Brien are British

A list in the Daily Telegraph includes Ulysses, At Swim Two Birds and The Sea among the 20 best “British” novels of all time.

Tue, Apr 15, 2014, 14:44


I beg your pardon? After President Higgins’s trip to the United Kingdom, we were all feeling very warm and cosy towards our nearest neighbours. Then this came along. In a list of the 20 best British novels of all time, the Daily Telegraph has included James Joyce’s Ulysses, Flann O’Brien’s At Swim Two Birds and John Banville’s The Sea. I beg your pardon once again? If you really wanted to get into pointless semantics, you could, I suppose, argue that — published at about the same time as the formation of the state — Ulysses might just squeeze under the bar (though why would you want to make such an argument?) But there is no reasonable excuse for listing Banville and O’Brien. What exactly is going on here? Does the Telegraph still regard inclusion in (a term rarely used these days, anyway) “the British Isles” as a definition of Britishness. Are they counting Flann as a Northerner? Is it possible the author is not aware that Ireland is a sovereign nation? The whole thing is utterly baffling. Anyway, I hereby withdraw last week’s column arguing for maturity as regards the anyone-but-England approach to football.

For the record, Henry James did become a British citizen. So the inclusion of that (by most definitions) American author makes some sort of sense. I imagine that arch-Nationalist Alasdair Gray, author of the brilliant Scottish novel Lanark, would be very uneasy about his place on this list. He will, however, have to wait for that referendum before getting a chance to lodge formal complaints.

EDIT 15/05/14: At sometime this afternoon, acknowledging the waves of fury sweeping across the Irish Sea, the Telegraph altered the headline to read: “best British and Irish novels”. It still beggars belief that anyone felt the original article acceptable.