EARLY afternoon sunshine streamed between the drapes on the impressive bay windows of the large room, which overlooks a small, neatly kept park in Glasgow’s leafy West End. “This flat has all the advantages of having a beautiful garden outside your front door, but never having to cut the grass,” Belfast-born writer Bernard MacLaverty (above) tells me.
The ‘flat,’ which Bernard and his wife, Madeleine, have made their Glasgow home has everything one could wish for in a house—apart from the fact that your neighbours live above and beside you. However, the MacLavertys seem to enjoy the close proximity of the madding crowd of Bohemian types, who live and work close by in Byres Road.
A pageant of gaily dressed poets, writers, artists and university students press together on the pavements and pubs around the University of Glasgow, the National Library of Scotland and Kelvingrove Art Gallery and Museum. Bernard had been cooking when I arrived on the doorstep half an hour early for my appointment, and there is the sense of something appetising on the stove. “I hope I haven’t spoiled your lunch,” I said apologetically to the acclaimed novelist and short story writer. “Not at all,” he replied in the Belfast accent, which has never left him, despite having lived and worked in Edinburgh, Glasgow and, remarkably, Islay in the Inner Hebrides.
I expected to see shelves filled with books as I stepped into the hallway, and I did. The MacLaverty collection—which lines the walls of a space big enough to hold a ceilidh in—is impressive. It includes the Russians, Tolstoy, Chekov and Dostoevsky alongside the Scots, James Kelman, Norman MacCaig, George Mackay Brown and Irish writers too, of course. James Joyce’s assemblage of short stories Dubliners takes pride of place, and Ulysses is also there.
“I enjoyed Ulysses,” Bernard said. “I didn’t try to read it with a dictionary in hand. That is not the way forward. There were so many words I didn’t know the meaning of as I went through the book, but I was not alone on that score.”
There too in the hall, in the space between the bookshelves and ornate cornices, is a collection of posters, photographs and other memorabilia. These have been acquired during Bernard’s eventful and successful three score years and 15.
Dressed casually in a black shirt and oatmeal-coloured gansey—it was he who used that very Irish word to describe his pullover—MacLaverty leads me through to the living room to meet his wife, Madeleine, a charming, soft spoken woman from South Derry. Madeleine was born in Monamore and went to school in Magherafelt, which is reasonably close to Seamus Heaney country around Bellaghy, Anahorish and Castledawson.
A mother of four, who is now a doting grandmother, she is country girl brought up in the era of Edna O’Brien’s controversially banned novel, Country Girls. Soft spoken and a touch mystical, Madeleine is an interesting person in her own right. She is the in-house IT expert, which brings her to lead us through to the computer in the small room which she and Bernard have turned into an office, a writing room. I express surprise that there are two desks, one for each of them, because writing is usually a lonely business. “Bernard works alone here most of the time,” Madeleine said. “And I just come and go. He allows me in here—sometimes,” she said lightly.
An elephant in the room
More colourful memorabilia decorate the walls above the desks in the office. Intermittent shafts of sunlight are streaming into the room from which Bernard and I take our leave of Madeleine. We walk to the large lounge and look out on the park, which is lined with yellow and bronze leaf-shedding trees. It is not the view outside, nor indeed the paintings and leafy green pot plants by the window that attract my eye though. It is the elephant in the room. A large patterned pink elephant about the size of a dog is standing there, facing towards the window as though it were looking out.
“There must be a story behind this,” I said to Bernard, patting the pink textile-covered back of the elephant which is patterned with white shamrocks or clover. “Is it to remind you of a hangover you once had? Pink elephants are usually associated with the morning after the night before,” I remarked.
The story behind Bernard MacLaverty’s elephant is better than that. He sits back on one of the large sofas and recalls that in 1940, a couple of years before he was born, Belfast Zoo, for the first time in its history, acquired an elephant. The MacLavertys lived in Atlantic Avenue at Cavehill Road. A woman neighbour landed a job there as a keeper. There were widespread fears in Belfast at that time, during the Second World War, that the Luftwaffe would target the city. The woman was so concerned about the safety of the elephant that she took it home at night to look after it. “I have never forgotten that,” Bernard said. “And did you write a short story about it,” I asked him. “No,” said Bernard. “I wrote an opera.”
He did too. For its 50th anniversary, Scottish Opera commissioned The Elephant Angel, an opera by composer in residence Gareth Williams with a libretto from MacLaverty. They took the extraordinary story of Denise Weston, the first female keeper at Belfast Zoo, and the Elephant Angel. During the Blitz, she would walk Sheila the baby elephant from the zoo to her house, where she was kept in the garage for the night, fed it hay from the family farm and returned to the zoo the next day, sometimes stopping by the bread shop for stale buns.
In the opera, the action switches by turns from inside the zoo to the street outside. Superbly costumed, grumpy zoo animals sing about being a long way from home, and the Belfast weather making the African animals shiver and the polar bear too hot. The head keeper arrives and tells them to behave as a new under-keeper is coming to help care for them. When the under-keeper names the baby elephant Shelia, the other animals fall about with laughter. Outside the zoo, local children sing street songs, play games and fool around, but the songs are given only a wistful musical accompaniment. Then one soldier arrives with a clipboard and another with a rifle and the heart-breaking core of the story is revealed. On the last full moon, Glasgow is bombed, and with the next full moon it could be Belfast’s turn. The city would have enough trouble without wild animals roaming free. The music continues but single thwacks on a snare drum tell the story of the deeds done off-stage. The air raid sirens go off, and strings of children are rushed to shelters. Sheila the Elephant escapes because the under-keeper has been walking her home to her house at night. In real life, the elephant lives for many years. The zoo is re-stocked with new animals who sing about their grandparents not making it through the war.
There is evidence of the MacLaverty interest in animals in the room where we are sitting. These include zebras drinking out of a bowl on a stout wooden coffee table. And brightly coloured images of animals printed on the linen throws and cushions scattered on the sofas. There are framed colour photographs of happy children and grandchildren on top of a room-length cabinet containing perhaps 1000 CDs and DVDs. “The grandchildren are great and keep us very busy,” says Bernard. “Some of the CDs you can pick up in charity shops for £1 and I can’t resist them.”
We move on to talking about MacLaverty’s new novel, Midwinter Break, which is receiving acclaim in press reviews and on radio and television programmes. Bernard is content. “I went to the Edinburgh Book Festival and enjoyed it thoroughly,” he said. “It was interesting and there I was speaking to a large audience and signing lots of books afterwards.”
What about Summer Schools in Ireland then? Does he attend many of those? “I haven’t been to many in Ireland, but I did once go to the Joyce Summer School in Trieste,” said Bernard. “I enjoyed that. We had an excellent time. Joyce’s work is the very best, especially Dubliners, his collection of short stories.”
MacLaverty himself has written five successful and highly regarded collections of short stories and, until Midwinter Break, four novels. The married couple at the centre of Midwinter Break—his first novel in 16 years—are facing up to the final chapters of the story of their life together. Gerry and Stella have survived the Troubles—so often for MacLaverty the real elephant in the room—and raised a son who is now living in Canada. Both did well at school and university and carved out decent careers in architecture and teaching. They grew up in the Northern Ireland of the 1940s and 50s as children from ordinary backgrounds with an uncertain future in a society blighted by sectarianism. Like so many well-heeled retired couples, Stella and Gerry take weekends away and have more holidays than ever.
Their midwinter break turns out to refer not only to a city break in Amsterdam, but to the very real possibility of the break-up of their marriage. The pair are talkative though and spend their days running through familiar shared routines and facing the indignities of old age with humour. Like many long-married couples, they come to realise that they do not share the same outlook on life. Their hopes and aspirations are quite different. Stella is convent educated and, burdened with scruples; she is the kind of good Catholic girl she was brought up to be. She would love it if her husband were similar. But he is not. Gerry is prone to rationalise and has an unquenchable thirst for alcohol. They have long conversations about how best to live. Below the surface of this story, shared memories and metaphors link their two minds. MacLaverty shows how decades of intimacy work to mingle consciousnesses as well as experience. And yet how far couples remain unknowable to each other.
Gerry often sees his wife from afar, lost in her thoughts or wrapped in prayer. He wonders how much he knows her at all. Stella prowls through early morning Amsterdam looking for her equivalent of the Holy Grail—a community of lay nuns called the Beguines. She gains a new perspective on life.
Stella has an agenda for the Dutch trip that goes beyond visits to Anne Frank’s house and the Rijksmuseum, but the time away from home exposes Gerry’s drift into alcoholism. With acute, understated tenderness, MacLaverty charts the medical palaver and hyper-awareness of the body’s fragility that come with age; the biggest themes in both public and private life; faith, politics and fanaticism; love and loneliness; joint compromise and individual purpose are explored.
While Stella ponders what to do with her life now that their son has been raised and educated, Gerry wonders where his next bottle is coming from. In 40 years of short stories and four previous novels, MacLaverty has written often about the distance between couples. About men floored by alcohol, and women examining their faith; about religious prejudice and the powerful presence of the Catholic Church. Midwinter Break reads as both a summation of his themes and a remarkable late flowering of his unquestionable skills. Gerry and Stella escaped Belfast decades ago by moving, like MacLaverty, to Scotland, but over the course of the novel their memories circle back to a life-changing act of violence there.
So, how did Bernard MacLaverty, a boy brought up in Cavehill come to leave his native city and seek a new life in Scotland? His father, Johnny MacLaverty, who was a commercial artist, died at the age of just 45. Bernard had ‘a great childhood’ and lived comfortably with his extended family. “My father must have been something of a saint for he brought in his father and my aunts to stay with us,” he said “We also had relatives who lived just across the street and there was a constant coming and going of people between the houses. Our life was interesting and secure. My mother was a secretary for a cinema group and her father had a good job in the shipyard, as did his brother. They did not appear to be discriminated against on the grounds of their religion, but their name was Boyd, which is difficult to pin down on that score.”
What’s in a name? Bernard MacLaverty was soon to find out. The novelist said that he did well at school, but remarkably for someone so absorbed in reading and writing, failed his A-level English. “I was very disappointed because I passed in other subjects, science and maths,” he said.
He passed by just one point the following year and was considering going to university when he heard there was a bursary available for anyone whose name was McLaverty. An old Canon of that name had left the money in a trust fund. But Bernard he was soon to find out that the money was not available to him or anyone else called MacLaverty. The Mcs and the Macs were two different tribes. Disappointed, he took up a job as a lab technician and stayed there for nine years during which he pursued his interest in poetry and prose. “My poetry was awful, absolutely awful,” he told me.
Bernard drew inspiration from other writers who lived around the Antrim Road and Cavehill area—Brian Moore, Michael MacLaverty and Robert McLiam Wilson. “I was inspired by Brian Moore, just by the fact that in his books, such as The Feast of Lupercal, included place names around where we lived,” he recalled. “I thought that if they could write books then so could I.”
MacLaverty quit the lab and became a student in the English Faculty at Queen’s University, where he was drawn into the Hobsbaum group. Philip Hobsbaum was a teacher, poet and critic. He organised a weekly discussion group, which included the emerging authors John Bond, Seamus Heaney, Michael Longley, Derek Mahon, Stewart Parker. Later, in Glasgow, Hobsbaum formed a group of distinctive authors, including Alasdair Gray, Liz Lochhead, James Kelman, Tom Leonard, Aonghas MacNeacail and Jeff Torrington. Hobsbaum was instrumental in setting up, in 1995, the successful creative writing course at Glasgow.
“Everyone else who met on those Monday nights with Hobsbaum had a far better academic background than me,” Bernard said. “I was this kind of bottle washer from the lab. And for someone incredibly aware of the limitations of what I was doing, having to read your story aloud was a trauma. But when people began to pick over it, what you got back was incredibly useful.”
The Troubles were at their height when MacLaverty graduated and went to teacher training college. He said: “I started applying for jobs away from Belfast and sent applications to Scotland. I wanted somewhere with a Celtic connection and Scotland seemed to be a good place. I had visited Edinburgh previously and thought it a very pleasant place to live and work—apart from the one o’clock gun, which gave me a start the first time I heard it. I ended up getting a job at St Augustine’s, where I taught English. I had a terrific class and no strict curriculum to follow. At that time, I was teaching Hemingway, Heaney and Irish poetry and enjoying it. The class did too and every one of them passed that year.”
Guidance teaching was just being introduced and MacLaverty was nominated to teach it. That made him think about moving. It was then he saw the job being advertised on Islay. “I had this vision of classes of children forming choirs and singing poems to the seals,” he said. “It was a load of romantic nonsense.”
A prodigious writer
During his years in the Hebrides with Madeleine and their four children, MacLaverty wrote prodigiously. Although short stories have provided the spine of his career, he has also written the Booker shortlisted Grace Notes (1997) as well as Lamb (1980) and Cal (1983), both of which were turned into acclaimed films. Liam Neeson and Helen Mirren were amongst the actors who took part in them. It is in the direction of Grace Notes he nods towards for his best work. “This was my first attempt to write from the point of view of a woman,” he said. “Madeleine helped me, of course, but I was content with the way I described what it was like for a woman to give birth to a child.”
Fathers, and father figures, have featured prominently in MacLaverty’s work, but it was his Aunt Mary, a retired teacher, who introduced him to storytelling by reading to Bernard and his brother on their way to bed. As a boy, he was a keen reader and an early writer, but his real ambition was to play for Manchester United. “So that was the thing, however unlikely it may seem, at the front of my mind,” he said. “But, in hindsight, I realise that when I was playing football, I was also picking up on everything around me: the smell of the grass, the look of the badly marked pitch, the sound of studs coggling on a concrete changing-room floor, the feel of the jerseys. All that stuff, the feel of a life, was absorbed and years later you find those are the very things that you need to unfold back into the stories.”
MacLaverty was said to have been working on this new novel ‘for so long that people’s expectations have been raised, which is the exact opposite of what you want to happen.’
Bernard MacLaverty is a master story-teller. He needn’t have worried about raising readers’ expectations. The success of Midwinter Break is guaranteed.
Midwinter Break by Bernard MacLaverty is published by Jonathan Cape and costs £14.99