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Much worthwhile Irish fiction has been and is being for one reason or another – fashion, politics, lack of a pr budget, bad luck… – undeservedly marginalised or forgotten altogether.
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In April of last year I received an email from Stephen Gilbert’s grandson, Matthew. An old ammunition case had been discovered in the grain loft of the family farm. It contained a batch of letters dating from 1937 to 1960, as well as a number of manuscript drafts of some of Gilbert’s unpublished novels. “I don’t know whether anyone will ever get through it all,” Matthew wrote, “but I thought I should let you know it exists”.
The damage caused by vermin was considerable; many of the pages had been badly shredded, and tiny tooth marks were everywhere visible. It was like the aftermath of a scene from Ratman’s Notebooks (1968), Gilbert’s bestselling novel about a young man who trains rats to cause havoc in the community.
One batch of papers that had escaped unscathed was a draft of The Bloody City, an unpublished novel written between 1969 and 1971. I was already familiar with the two extant typescripts in the archives at Queen’s University, but frustratingly the much improved later version had numerous pages missing. This newly discovered draft from the ammunition case could be dated somewhere between the two, and as such contained all the material that would be required to reconstruct the book.
That so many of Gilbert’s novels failed to see the light of day was a continual source of frustration for him. On 28 October 1999, at the age of eighty-seven, he wrote about his unfulfilled ambitions in his journal: “I would like to see my books coming into print again, attracting a considerable readership and leading to some of my unpublished books being published”. In recent years Valancourt Books has honoured these hopes, having republished The Landslide, Monkeyface, The Burnaby Experiments, Ratman’s Notebooks, with Bombardier forthcoming. When I was asked to present a lecture on Gilbert for this year’s Belfast Book Festival, it occurred to me that this might be the ideal opportunity to launch one of his unpublished works. Keith Acheson, director of the Crescent Arts Centre in Belfast, very kindly offered to support the venture and left it to me to decide which of Gilbert’s manuscripts most merited publication.
The Bloody City immediately struck me as a sound choice. The novel is of considerable historical interest as a fictionalised eyewitness account of the origins of the “troubles” in Northern Ireland. The story takes us through a single year in Belfast’s history from the perspective of a Protestant businessman, Frank Downton. It begins in the final months of 1968 – at a time when the civil rights movement was gaining support across the province – and concludes soon after the 1969 August riots that plunged Derry and Belfast into chaos. Gilbert wasted no time, and by the end of that year was already working on the novel.
Frank’s perspective, therefore, has a fascinating immediacy to it. Although not strictly autobiographical, some of his experiences originate from the author’s own life. As managing director of Samuel McCausland Ltd, a successful seed company based in Belfast, Gilbert understood the difficulties of running a business during the early years of the troubles. Samuel McCausland Ltd was located in Victoria Street in the city centre, and as such was in a precarious position. As Gilbert later recalled:
The firm has suffered damage from fire-bombs, blast bombs and a car bomb. The engine of the car was eventually discovered on Lytles’ roof, approximately fifty feet above street level. In addition to these inconveniences our staff have worked in constant danger of disfigurement, mutilation or death. Unfortunately one of our older workers did die of a heart attack almost certainly caused by the car-bomb.
For the purposes of The Bloody City, Gilbert chose to situate the Downton family firm in the Republican heartland of the Falls Road. When sectarian tensions escalate, Frank is thereby forced to confront them head on. While writing the novel Gilbert was living at 35 Colin Road in West Belfast. As Patricia Craig pointed out in Gilbert’s obituary for The Independent, this was “an unlikely, indeed a hazardous, habitation for a middle-class Belfast Presbyterian who sounded like an Englishman”. It is thanks to such fraught circumstances that Frank Downton’s account strikes us as so authentic.
Frank is a fascinating narrator. He is both sexually and politically ambivalent. Although ostensibly a Unionist, he has some sympathy for his sister Janet’s involvement with the burgeoning civil rights movement. He seems to be simultaneously attracted to, and repelled by, the revolutionary principles of his old schoolmate Finlay, a relationship seemingly underpinned by repressed sexual desire.
Like the unnamed narrator of Ratman’s Notebooks (christened “Willard” in Daniel Mann’s 1971 film adaptation, much to Gilbert’s irritation), Frank’s morality is open to question. Moments of tenderness are offset by his capacity for cruelty, and some of his admissions are surprisingly candid. But for all Frank’s faults, he is a victim of circumstance: an ordinary man living through an extraordinary time. In spite of the broader political themes, The Bloody City is a deeply human story, and a fitting contribution to Gilbert’s legacy.