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Monday, 12 July 2010

Ghosts and Lightning

 Ghosts and Lightning

[T]hat Celtic fuckin Tiger’s the one endangered animal I’d happily put a bullet into. — ‘Denny’, Ghosts and Lightning

Let’s start by stating the blinkin’ obvious: if you absolutely hated Trainspotting, the film and/or but especially the book, then I would imagine there might be at the very least a distinct possibility veering upwards towards an absolute-ruddy-certainty that Ghosts and Lightning will not be the book you want to curl up with on your summer hols. And that would be a shame. Because a) you probably never gave Trainspotting a decent chance in the first place and b) comparing one book to another is never that good of an idea anyway.

The sad fact is that if you were going to be superficial about it then these two books do appear to have a lot in common:

  • Set in the late eighties, Trainspotting follows the adventures of a group of heroin addicts in Leith, an economically depressed district of Edinburgh. The book is written in a variety of dialects. There’s also a lot of swearing in the book.

  • Set in the noughties, Ghosts and Lightning is about a group of mainly unemployed friends in Clondalkin , an economically depressed suburb of Dublin who spend most of their time smoking dope or getting drunk. It is also written in a heady mix of dialects and slang expressions. There’s also a lot of swearing in the book.

In a newspaper article[1] Irvine Welsh says that working-class people are allowed to speak, but not think, in middle class fiction:

The classic assumption of such fiction holds true: working-class people speak funny so are in fiction only for the purposes of humour. They do not have an internal life, therefore you traditionally do not have a Renton or a Begbie or a Spud expressing themselves in the narrative of a book.

trainspotting20front_jpg He says that the book and film adaptation of Trainspotting provide an accurate portrayal of working-class life without the patronising accompaniment of a middle-class voice. I mention this because I’m sure that Trevor Byrne would say much the same about his decision to present his characters in a similar light only instead of Renton, Begbie, Sick Boy and Spud this time we have a Denny, a Maggit, a Kasey and a Pajo.

One of the most common problems in transcribing dialect in literature is that, on one hand, an accurate transcription of a dialect will be very hard for someone not familiar with that dialect to interpret, while on the other hand, if the dialect is transcribed sparingly, but sufficiently enough "to trigger the illusion of reality, ... readers with a limited knowledge of a given language will accept its representation (but) readers with a sound knowledge will not".[2] I personally think that Welsh veers towards the unintelligible at times (and I’m a Scot!); Byrne does not but he still used a few expressions I struggled with. Once you get through the first few pages you soon get used to the typical expressions used by the main characters. Here’s as good an example as any. The book’s protagonist, Denny, who’s moved to Wales to find work, has just heard from his sister, Paula, that their mum has just died. On the bus home from the ferry port he is buttonholed by a young man:

―Grand to be home, wha?

You nod, the bus shunting forward.

—Can’t beat it, says the young man. —Over the water were yeh? Obviously, yeah. Fuckin ferry port, isn’t it? Swansea I was in. Deadly little city. Small like but cool, yeh know? Great fuckin craic. And this mad bird I met, oof. Should o seen her, Welsh lass. Fuck sake. Off her trolley she was, pure mental. ... Took her back to her place, few vodkas and that. She was pissed up like. Place was a bit of a kip yeh know? But fuckin hell yid wanna see this bird, absolutely fuckin stunning. Mad like but gorgeous, deadly fuckin bird altogether, tellin yeh.

If you can cope with that then that’s about as bad as it gets and, like I said earlier, it gets easier once you get into it. You’ll notice too that Byrne opts for the Joycean quotation dash rather than inverted commas.

Since we’ve mentioned Joyce let’s get that one out of the road too. About 100 years before Byrne wrote his novel James Joyce published a collection of short stories called Dubliners. He outlines his goals in a letter to his publisher in 1906:

My intention was to write a chapter of the moral history of my country and I chose Dublin for the scene because that city seemed to be the centre of paralysis. I have tried to present it to the indifferent public under its four aspects: childhood, adolescence, maturity, and public life. The stories are arranged in this order. I have written in for the most part in a style of scrupulous meanness...[3]

The conclusion Joyce draws in this collection is that the only way to extricate oneself from this paralytic state would be to leave Dublin — which Joyce did — and never return although in these stories he himself scuppers the few Dublinerschances he affords his own characters to rise from the morass. What happens in Ghosts and Lightning is that we see what happens when someone who had already freed himself has to return. What happens is that Denny Cullen finds his old, comfortable rut, crawls into it, curls up and plays dead. And one could imagine him playing dead for as long as it took him to actually become dead, be that sooner, due to overindulging in drink or drugs, or later, due to ill health or old age.

Only that’s not the future Byrne sees for his hero and he refuses to allow him to wallow. Denny picks up Joyce’s “looking-glass”[4] and doesn’t like what he sees. The first thing he sees is his late mother’s house, now occupied by his dipsomaniacal lesbian sister, Paula, and her girlfriend, Teresa:

I’m after forgettin me key so I have to ring the bell. No answer. I ring again than then I remember we need a new battery. I knock instead. And again. About eight years later Paula answers.


She looks at me and smiles.

—Ah, get chips, did yeh?


—Yer a life saver. There’s fuck all in that press.

We go inside. Paula gets a couple o plates out and rummages in the sink for forks. She pulls out two and runs them under the tap, dries them with a tea towel. The sink’s piled up with dirty plates and cups and glasses and all sorts. The kitchen in general – the whole fuckin house, actually – looks stale and sad. Me brother Shane was around last week, checkin up on us, like – he called the place a disgraceful fuckin kip and, even though he does me head in, he’s right. It’s fuckin awful lookin. Without ma the place is fallin apart.

Shane is the oldest of the siblings. There is another brother called Gino. The house is in Shane’s name but he’s agreed that his youngest brother and sister can stay on, if they pay rent and if they look after the place. Paula is not impressed. Denny is more philosophical about it:

—The rent goes to Shane, I say. —He owns the house like, that’s wha the solicitor said. Sure we knew that anyway. The solicitor’s said we’d be able to get rent allowance off the dole.

—What’s he gonna do with it?

—Give it to charity. Wha d’yeh think?

—That’s a fuckin . . . are yeh serious?

—That’s wha the solicitor said, Paula.

—And wha did you say?

—Wha could I say? Shane paid the mortgage off so it’s his, it’s all kosher. It was all sorted with ma, like. Before . . . yeh know.

—So he’s keepin the money?

—Yeah. Obviously.

—He’s actually keepin the rent money?

—Yeah, Paula. Yeh listenin? It’s his. It’s his house.

There’s a lot of dialogue in this novel. And a lot of it goes back and forth like that, small conversations about nothing much usually because at least one of the parties is engaged in, suffering from or recovering from overindulging. The negative effects of alcohol occur repeatedly throughout Dubliners and it’s no different with Ghosts and Lightning. Guiness Drinking is generally accepted as a part of Irish culture and a recent study confirms that binge drinking is considered the norm in Ireland.[5] I get it. Scottish culture is much the same. That said unlike the protagonists in Trainspotting you wouldn’t think of most of the people in this book as addicts but they all demonstrate the traits and adopt the kind of lifestyles one would associate with the long-term unemployed who juggle benefits payments and credit cards, the main one probably being a blasé-ness to the state they’re in. A good example would be Gino’s wife:

Gino used to have NTL but he got rid of it and got Sky instead cos, as his wife pointed out, with NTL yeh just get a little box that yeh put with yer video and that, under the telly, whereas with Sky yeh get a dish, which is more conspicuous; she didn't want people assumin she hadn't the money for cable TV.

There is no real plot to this book. It charts the few weeks following Denny’s return until his departure at the end of the book. When he comes home, apart from having no mother, everything is chugging along pretty much as it was when he left: his sister is still gay, his brothers are still distant, his father MIA; Maggit is still an absent (albeit doting) father and petty crook; Maggit’s brother, Pajo, still has green hair and is still on the Methadone and although his conversion to Buddhism is something new it is in character; Ned is still flogging out-of-date chocolates on street corners and Kasey still can’t get Denny’s name right — Dennicus, Denzerino, Denno, Denver, Denethor, Denstable...

These are ridiculous people, at times bordering on caricature, who seem incapable of making a good decision if their lives depended upon it although they’re full of good intentions: Maggit genuinely wants to make his kid happy and naïvely thinks that the stolen Playstation will do the trick:

—Playstation, says Anthony.

Maggit nods his head. —Yeah, he says. —The Playstation. That’s a great one that is, isn’t it? Isn’t that the one all the big boys have?

Cakeface and Redser and Anthony look at each other.

—Playstations are stupid, says Anthony.

—Wha? Says Maggit.

Anthony’s turnin one o the joypads in his little hands.

—They’re gank, da. Playstation 2s are good.

He holds up the joypad and Maggit takes it, lookin at it like it’s some unfathomable fossil, alien and infinitely strange.

—That’s the old one da, says Anthony. —That’s Playstation 1.

The same goes when Pajo agrees to host a séance — yes, there’s a ghost in the book (you didn’t think it was called Ghosts and Lightning for no reason did you?), at least Paula insists there’s a presence under her bed — and what do you know, they appear to make contact:

—My name is Paula. Who are you?

—It doesn’t matter.

—Is this for real?


—Why are yeh here?

—I’m a wanderer. I’m always somewhere. Now I’m here.

—Wha d’yeh want?

—Is that not just Pajo talkin?

—Just shurrup will yeh? For fuck’s sake.

—Why are yeh here, though?

—I’ve been here before. You remind me of someone from long ago.

. . .


. . .

—Who do I remind you of?

—A woman.




—A long time ago.

—Who are yeh?

. . .

—Did yeh die here?

—I died in the North.

—North Clondalkin?


—The North.

—Wha d’yeh want here?


—Why are yeh here then?

. . .

—Yeh still here?

. . .

. . .

So, is it Pajo talking or someone talking through Pajo? We never find out. And that’s as much as we learn about the mysterious ghost. So, who died in the North and is connected with a woman called Emer? To an Irish person the answer would be obvious. Me, I had to look it up.

A bit of mythology: Sétanta was the adopted son of Cathbad who was an advisor to King Conchobar. When the boy kills the king's best hound with a hurley stick to protect a stranger he promises that he will take the dog'scuchulainn-logo-300 place and defend the king's property until he has trained the dead hound's pup. This earned the boy the name Cúchulainn, which means the "Hound of Culann".

When the boy grows up he falls in love with the daughter of the chieftain Forgall Monach, Emer, and sets out to woo her. He discovers that she would not marry any man without his having performed a heroic deed. To qualify Cúchulainn decides he would train under a woman warrior named Scáthach who goes to war with another woman warrior named Aífe. It is during this war that he performs the deeds that he can present before Emer.

Her father learning of Cúchulainn's interest in his daughter did not wanted the hero as his son-in-law. Forgall locked the gates, but Cúchulainn leaped onto the high wall of the dun and attacked the warriors. Forgall fell to his death when he tried to escape from the youth.

Cúchulainn carried Emer off and returned to Eṁaın Ṁacha, where they were married.

The novel is suffused with an underlying nostalgia for a return to “an older Ireland”, a phrase Denny uses throughout the book. Many times the name Cúchulainn crops up in the text (including a reference to the song by The Pogues, ‘The Sick Bed of Cuchulainn’) and eventually it’s hard not to wonder if Byrne is asking his readers to see Denny as a twenty-first century version of the Irish hero Cúchulainn, who, as Denny so eloquently puts it, "went on to do all sorts o mad stuff, taking on gods and monsters and the enemies of Ulster."

The only thing Denny needs is his Emer. A possible candidate appears right at the end of the book in the shapely form of the dreadlocked girl Aoife with the ‘Pink and Black Attack’ T-shirt. Nah, that meant nothing to me. But to Denny who’s heavily into WWF wrestling on TV this is practically a sign from the gods. ‘Pink and Black Attack’ is apparently one of a number of monikers used by one Bret Hart, a Canadian on-screen personality, writer and retired professional and amateur wrestler – thank you Wikipedia.

Ghosts haunt you. That’s what they do. And the reason they’re still here getting under the feet of the living is that they have unfinished business. Denny’s past is what haunts him. The actual ghost, if there is one (but if there isn’t, what keeps turning his car upside down?), is something of a MacGuffin. Denny is the ghost. He’s the one with unfinished business. Once the fog clears it’s clear that this is a book about loss, loneliness, growing up, breaking the cycle and finding your life’s direction masquerading as a comic novel. In that respect Byrne has a lot in common with not only Irvine Welsh but also Roddy Doyle.

And this is a funny book – when Denny goes to buy an old banger off his brother Shane he finds the thing in the back garden full of chickens and the only way he’s going to get it out of there is with the aid of a crane — but it is also a sad book; sometimes it’s poignant, sometimes downright tragic.

Is this a veiled autobiography though? That would be a hard one for Byrne to deny especially when you read the six page long ‘Some Things About Me by Trevor Byrne’ that the publishers have — wisely, I think — decided to include at the back of the book. The similarities between Trevor and Denny are manyfold. And when you see the author’s photo all I could think was, “Christ! I bet that’s what Denny looks like.”

This is not a perfect novel but if it lacks anything then the top of that list would be pretentiousness. Trevor/Denny tells it as it is. He looks back, looks around him and considers the future with eyes wide open. Its biggest weakness is that to get a fuller understanding of the book it would help to be Irish. Many of its subtleties — yes, it is surprisingly subtle — will be lost on foreign readers but the book doesn’t depend on an in-depth knowledge of Irish mythology; it is, however, enhanced by one. The swearing will put some people off. Byrne did a word count and of the 80,000-odd words a thousand are ‘fuck’ or some variant thereof. In an audio interview he says that he has simply written the dialogue the way he has grown up with it, that the swearing can almost be regarded as a kind of punctuation. And here he quotes Billy Connolly who famously said that there is no such thing as bad language, there was only language in the same way as there was no such thing as bad weather, there was only weather and the wrong clothing.

The big question is: will Ghosts and Lightning be a flash in the pan or will lightning strike twice? I think many people will be interested to see what he does next. He is working on another novel set in Ireland at the moment about the relationship between two brothers with an age gap of ten years between them who end up going on the run together so I guess we should look forward to a working-class-Irish-buddy-road-movie kind of a book. We’ll see.


Trevor Byrne Trevor Byrne was born in 1981 and brought up in Clondalkin in south Dublin.

I was the first of three kids. I was baptised and like everyone else in the Republic of Ireland, even the atheists, I was a Catholic.

He was intelligent but didn’t like school much and rarely attended. His mother who hated school before him did little to encourage him, so it might surprise you that he got into Trinity College. His English teacher, Ms Duffy, should step up and take a bow here because it was she who managed to get him an interview. There’s also the fact that the university was “being forced to take in kids from officially designated ‘disadvantaged areas’ who had potential.” He started a degree in History and Classical Civilisations, did two years and then decided to apply to the University of Glamorgan being attracted by the option of being able to take creative writing classes which he took to like a duck to water.

The end result? A good first. He also won the Alison Waite Memorial Prize for Writing. Then it was on to a M.Phil. in Creative Writing and that’s where Ghosts and Lightning Cast No Shadow (as the book was originally titled) began to take shape. He is currently a tutor of creative writing at Glamorgan University.



Lisa Glass interviews Trevor Byrne at Vulpes Libres

Joshua Lyon talks to Trevor Byrne on the Canongate site


[1] Gerard Seenan, ‘Welsh accuses the middle classes of cultural bias’, The Herald, 30th March 1996

[2] Hiltgunt Fanning, ‘The Value of Investigations of the Use of Dialects in Fiction’ in W. Viereck (ed.), Proceedings of the International Congress of Dialectologists, Bamberg 1990, p.16 quoted in Dinnae judge a book by its cover, likesay – The Functions of Non-Standard Dialect in Irvine Welsh's Trainspotting

[3] Stuart Gilbert (ed.), Letters of James Joyce Vol II, p.134

[4] "I seriously believe that you will retard the course of civilisation in Ireland by preventing the Irish people from having one good look at themselves in my nicely polished looking-glass" – Stuart Gilbert (ed.), Letters of James Joyce Vol II, p.64

[5] Deborah Condon, 'Binge drinking is "the norm" in Ireland',, 9th October 2003


Dave King said...

I'm not sure this is the book for me. I've neither read nor seen Trainspotters, not because I have any rooted objection to it, but simply because it has never grabbed me. I did enjoy Dubliners however. Dialect I can usually live with and swearing is no problem. The one thing that does attract me (somewhat) is your remark that it has no plot. I have this half-conviction, somewhere at the back of my head that too many novels are over-plotted these days.
This isn't a no exactly, more of a maybe.

Jim Murdoch said...

Exactly, Dave. I hate reading books where you can see the author is filling in the blanks. I’ve always enjoyed the slice-of-life approach. Yes, this book has a beginning a middle and an end; yes, the main protagonist grows because of what he experiences; yes, the book has a point but the book also meanders along in its own way and many of the chapters have the feel of self-contained short stories. It’s not a book I would have rushed to buy but it wasn’t something I had to struggle through. It didn’t pan out the way I expected but that’s not a bad thing either.

As for Trainspotting, if the film comes on and you have a spare couple of hours then give it a look. It is one of those films you should see. The book is a hard read. Welsh is pretty merciless in his use of dialect. Reading an ‘Aggie and Shuggie’ is all well and good but a whole book like that is asking a lot.

Kass said...

I saw the subtitled version of Trainspotting. I found it fascinating. The addiction theme is one I relate to, even though I don't drink or do drugs. I think most people check out of reality regularly by a vast array of means. And the attempt to sober up to a life no longer congruous makes for literary (and cinematic) intrigue.

There are some books that are hard to read because I feel like I'm looking for meaning where the characters aren't. But like you and Dave have said, maybe succinct meaning and plot aren't what everything is about.

I don't know how you seem to get to the heart of a book when its difficult to read. You are an epigrammatic and patient man.

Jim Murdoch said...

That’s an interesting point, Kass. I guess that’s the difference between us, as readers, and the characters who are basically rats in a maze. Life has no plot and yet, when you see films of people’s lives they can seem plotted. But just because my life doesn’t have a plot doesn’t make it meaningless. I think, like all of us, the characters in this book are looking for meaning, the main protagonist especially. He changes the direction of his life. He becomes the hero although he doesn’t do anything particularly heroic other than rising to the challenge.

As for me being a patient man, this is something new. I used to be a very impatient person so much so I had a saying: “I know three definitions of ‘patience’ – a girl’s name, a game of cards and an opera by Gilbert and Sullivan. I know no other.” It’s only in recent years I’ve not been in such a rush to get somewhere. I think in terms of months these days whereas it used to kill me to wait even hours for things in the past.

Max Cairnduff said...

I wondered if you'd mention Sick Bed of Chuchulain. When I was a kid I played that song to some of the alkies (a term I shouldn't use, but it feels dishonest to change it) I grew up around.

"You need one more drop of poison and you'll dream of promised lands".

It obviously spoke to them. It was true, which is key really. Key to most art in my view.

Trainspotting is marvellous (the book, and the film, a rare example of a successful conversion). I was fine with its dialogue, but then my family are Scottish.

The dialogue you quote here seemed very strong to me, skilfully written and convincing. I also found it very easy to read, but then I have Irish family too...

Anyway, great writeup, I'm glad I dropped by. I'll look out for this one.

Jim Murdoch said...

Actually, Max, I struggled reading Welsh. Perhaps I should have struggled on but by the time I got my hands on a copy of Trainspotting I'd seen the film and couldn't see the point. Had the subject matter interested me more then fine - there are several cases where I've read a book and then seen the film adaptation or visa versa.

Gwil W said...

I haven't read Trainspotting but I enjoyed the 'Reclam' edition of Anthony Burgess's A Clockwork Orange although I have to admit I did so with the benefit of a translator's footnotes: moloko, peet, mozg, deng, pitsa, rooker, pletcho, droog, veshch - just a few from the opening lines. So I think without the benefit of footnotes many, like me, would really struggle. Does Ghost and Lightning need them I wonder?

Jim Murdoch said...

I think, Poet in Residence, that a small glossary would not have gone amiss. I’m just reading a collection of short stories by a Pakistani writer set mainly in Pakistan who includes numerous expressions that I’ve needed to look up. One of the things I’ll comment upon when I do my review is how this distances readers, it makes what is already foreign positively alien. My gut reaction is to jump to Byrne’s defence here and say that he doesn’t need one, that the context is enough to help readers work out what’s going on. The difference with A Clockwork Orange is that even in context most of the expressions in that book are ones that even an intelligent reader could be expected to work out on his own. That Trainspotting needed subtitles in America says it all. As a Scot I want to be outraged but then I remember what it was like when my wife first came over here. I was having conversations with people and afterwards she had to ask what we’d been talking about. It took her a while to get used to some of the rougher accents in the city.

Gwil W said...

Thanx Jim. I'm always grateful to John MacDonald at for his translations. Yes, like your good lady, I'm not dumb. But I do need them.


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