Swift, Matt Haig and a must-read book on the Border campaign

Browser review: ‘Cuckoo’ is a small gem but a book on English Nationalism reaches some questionable conclusions

Jonathan Swift (1667- 1745) the Anglo-Irish poet, satirist and clergyman, born in Dublin and best known for his satire ‘Gulliver’s Travels’ (1726). Photograph: by Hulton Archive/Getty Images

Jonathan Swift (1667- 1745) the Anglo-Irish poet, satirist and clergyman, born in Dublin and best known for his satire ‘Gulliver’s Travels’ (1726). Photograph: by Hulton Archive/Getty Images

 

Best-Loved Swift

John Wyse Jackson
O’Brien, €12.99

The author considers Jonathan Swift a man of contradictions: “warm humour and bitter gloom”, “shocking coarseness and deep Christian faith,” considerable moral courage but couldn’t be truthful to the women he loved. He wanted to make the world a better place and the pen was his weapon - he was an ingenious writer and a master satirist. This beautifully produced book offers extracts from his works in chronological order. Most of his sermons as Dean of St Patrick’s have been lost, which is a pity if the extract included here from On Sleeping in Church is any guide to their quality. Much comic verse is included, such as Phyllis, or the Progress of Love, some of it scatological, especially The Lady’s Dressing Room. Swift’s enigmatic relationships with “Stella” and “Vanessa” are considered. His Stella writings are generally playful, sometimes ambiguous but always affectionate. Extracts from the great Gulliver’s Travels feature, as do parts of A Modest Proposal and much more. For fans of Swift - and surely there are many - this is a welcome publication.
Brian Maye

To the Back of Beyond

Peter Stamm
Granta Books £8.99

What happens when you disappear from your own life? This is the question underpinning Stamm’s new novel To the Back of Beyond, translated by Michael Hofmann. While his wife Astrid puts the children to bed, Thomas walks out of the garden gate, and keeps going, leaving his family, his job, and his whole world behind. He wanders through mountains and ravines, living hand to mouth, the description of his surroundings hypnotic, at times wearisome. He has the blank detachment of depression, subsuming himself in nature, his motives neither examined nor explained. Astrid meanwhile is left with two confused children, the relentless responsibilities of parenting, swallowed by her own grief; her existence reads like a dreamscape, where time shrinks and expands. The book blooms midway into its secrets, opening questions about reality and perception, fantasy and imagination: the story bends to these psychological and philosophical conceits - precisely what will satisfy some and frustrate others. Larkin’s “desire of oblivion” might be the novel’s impetus, but the whole narrative, particularly its conclusion, is a surprising and elegant elegy to love. Ruth McKee

Cuckoo

Linda Anderson
Turnpike Books, £10

Linda Anderson does not waste words, so I’ll try follow her lead: this book is a small gem. Cuckoo was originally published in 1986 and it has grown assuredly into adulthood. There’s no clearing of the throat as Anderson shoves the reader into the slightly frayed world of Fran McDowell, the novel’s protagonist, who leaving Belfast for London, retreats from the world after jacking her humdrum job, only to find life thrust (literally, unsettlingly) upon her. The narrative is made up of three strands, opening the vista of Fran’s future, present, and past. This involves Greenham Common Women’s Peace Camp, set up to protest nuclear weapons being placed in Berkshire; a curious ménage à trois with London liberals Caroline and Dominic, in which Fran becomes a makeshift conductor within a marriage that’s short circuiting; and addressing her experience growing up during Northern Ireland’s Troubles. Anderson sets a beautiful, controlled juxtaposition: Fran’s life spinning out of control finally allows her to take possession of it, and understand her worth as a complex, passionate woman. NJ McGarrigle

English Nationalism

Jeremy Black
Hurst, £16.99

Jeremy Black believes membership of the EU has led to a partial loss of British sovereignty, which has caused “a sense of dislocation” for many English people, and that the “four nations” approach to the history of these islands, “highly fashionable” since the 1980s, has paid insufficient attention to England. He also believes accounts of the British Empire have been “overly critical” and that “Britain has a more noble and more distinctive history than is often allowed for”. He gives English nationalism deep historical roots. Common Law, parliament, Protestantism and empire were its chronological building blocks. The decline of these has led to a loss of pride in English nationalism and to “anger, ugliness and insularity”. He rightly condemns as anachronistic the modern tendency to expect people from earlier historical periods to think and behave as we do but his tendency to ascribe “nationalism” (essentially a 19th-century concept) to the Anglo-Saxon and medieval periods might also be considered anachronistic. It’s certainly a timely book but reaches some questionable conclusions. Brian Maye

Matt Haig, Notes on a Nervous Planet

Canongate
€15.99

Endorsed by a host of celebrities, including Nigella Lawson and Stephen Fry, Matt Haig’s follow up to his bestselling Reasons to Stay Alive, tackles the western world’s spike of anxiety and panic. Those with Twitter will most likely have seen a quotation from Haig’s Reasons doing the rounds: “How to stop time: kiss./ How to travel in time: read./How to escape time: music./ How to feel time: write./How to release time: breathe.” Although Haig encourages us to let go of our smartphones, Notes on a Nervous Planet is designed for short attention spans: broken into (very) short chapters, lists, and other formats ideal for the social media generation. In his characteristically simple but generous way, Haig offers advice, and sometimes just lays out reasons to be happy or grateful. Though not always ground-breaking (Haig suggests connecting with nature, taking time with loved ones, making physical contact, and getting out of tedious and unrewarding jobs, as possible techniques for improving mental health), Notes avoids being overly twee or sappy. The cumulative effect is one of a convincing, wise, and reassuring book. Seán Hewitt

My Life in the IRA - The Border Campaign
Michael Ryan
Edited by Pádraig Yeates
Mercier Press, €19.99

If anyone believes that the IRA’s “Border campaign” of 1956 - 1962 was heroic, this is a must-read book. As Pádraig Yeates puts it in his perceptive introduction, this is a story of “suffering, hardship, frustration and constant disappointment”. He could have added rain, mud and freezing cold. Mick Ryan, from East Wall in Dublin left school at the age of 13 and joined the IRA at 18 just in time to participate in the Border campaign. Like many a young man of his generation, he dreamed of being in the GPO in 1916 with Pearse and Connolly and believed that their sacrifice, along with that of Tone, Emmett, Mitchell and others sustained his own. A vivid story-teller, Ryan describes in detail the tragicomic attacks with hopelessly antiquated weapons mounted against the northern state, punctuated by grateful stays at nationalist safe houses, with people gladly sharing what little food they had, sometimes only bread and tea. The book is also a poignant social history of Ireland in the 1940s and 1950s. Frank MacGabhann

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