The Last Irish Question: Will Six Into Twenty Six Ever Go?

Glenn Patterson                                                                                        Apollo £16.99


Glenn Patterson, a Belfast writer, explains that it is possible to raise hackles with terminology. While Northern Ireland is still the preferred name ‘for the majority [of people] who live in it’, for example, many who back a united Ireland prefer ‘the North of Ireland… or just The North’.

After the words, the numbers follow: Island Ireland’s geographical entity is divided into 32 counties. The Republic of Ireland has 26 counties, while Northern Ireland has six. 

The book’s title is a play on the unionist assertion that ‘six into 26 won’t go’. The author asks, however: What if it did? Given the current level in painful sensitivity, how would a united Ireland look?

One useful thing to know about Northern Ireland is that you can raise hackles simply with terminology (above, a boy plays with a toy gun in Northern Ireland)

One thing you should know about Northern Ireland: You can raise hackles by simply using terminology (above, a boy in Northern Ireland plays with a toy gun).

For those new to the debate, he offers a well-executed whistle stop tour of the main events that have shaped the current situation. He starts in 8000 BC. Today, unionists feel that their place in the UK is being eroded by a post Brexit protocol that creates a maritime customs border between Northern Ireland (and the British mainland). 

A growing number of Irish politicians are voicing concern about the imminence of a united Ireland. Sinn Féin’s buoyant Mary Lou McDonald recently put the time frame on a referendum ‘within a decade’. 

Much less is known about how this new state might be built and at what price.

Patterson, one of Northern Ireland’s best-known novelists, makes an admirable attempt to examine it here. 2020 is a significant year. January sees the resumption by the Northern Ireland Assembly of its previous three-year absence due to a standoff between the main parties. 

February ushers in the tortuous ‘Brexit transition period’ whereby Northern Ireland simultaneously leaves the EU along with the UK while staying in the EU’s single market. 

Glenn Patterson (above), one of Northern Ireland’s best-known novelists, makes an admirable attempt to examine a proposed referendum. The year of writing, 2020, is an eventful one

Glenn Patterson (above), one of Northern Ireland’s best-known novelists, makes an admirable attempt to examine a proposed referendum. 2020, the year of writing, is a very eventful one

Then the Irish general election sees Sinn Féin returned as the largest political party, an event celebrated by one new Sinn Féin TD, David Cullinane, with the exultant cry of ‘Up the ’RA!’

The author was born in Belfast and married to Ali. Ali is a Cork Catholic. 

Even so, at a panel discussion with ‘contributors from both sides of the border’ he notices ‘glitches, moments when the difference of experience… become apparent’.

Southern Ireland often views history through a different lens to the North and one that is constantly changing. Older Irish citizens tended to commemorate the ‘old’ 1920s IRA while condemning the Provisional IRA of the 1970s. 

That distinction is eroding among a younger age group, or at least Sinn Féin’s perceived radicalism on housing and healthcare is often deemed to render its darker history irrelevant.

This ideological shift makes Northern Protestants feel more isolated, a fact that is compounded by their precarious situation in the UK.

Then one gets to questions such as how a straining Irish healthcare system – where the going rate to see a GP is around £50 – might absorb nearly two million Northerners who currently access the NHS. 

And a 2018 study by economists from Trinity College Dublin and Dublin City University, the author writes, ‘found that living standards in the South would drop by something in the region of 15 per cent annually in the event of reunification’.

Patterson will travel south in the months to explore the possibility of Irish unity. Even though they are friendly, there is an electric charge to their conversations. 

Birr, County Offaly – A fellow drinker, who is friendly in the pub but cool in the street the next morning, is warm and talkative. And most people the author interviews – including some wary of reunification – choose not to give their names. 

Is the careful reticence of Troubles-era Northern Ireland, famously observed by Seamus Heaney – ‘Whatever you say, say nothing’ – taking hold down south?

This book is enjoyable to read. It is forensically and wittily observable, and incisively combines memoir, reportage, analysis. Some of its best passages lie in the deadpan examination of Northern Ireland’s surreal politics, although I wondered if a first-time reader in the territory might occasionally get lost in some of our denser political thickets.

But it’s also threaded with deep frustration. Patterson’s natural optimism has been dented by Northern Ireland’s dragging sectarian dysfunction and the prospect of a future Ireland in which defensive unionism jostles with triumphalist republicanism.

The ending is incredibly poignant. Patterson tells his younger daughter about the birthplace he still ‘helplessly’ loves: ‘The first chance you get, leave, and apart from visiting your mum and me, think long and hard before ever coming back.’

This alone should give politicians from both sides of the border and beyond pause to think about it.


What will she do? Act One of a Life on Stage

Eileen Atkins                                                                                               Virago £18.99


Eileen Atkins has had quite the life, a beloved star of the West End and Broadway, a winner of multiple awards, a co-creator of TV’s Upstairs, Downstairs, a Dame of the British Empire – and the late A.A. Gill’s favourite actress. 

This disarmingly honest memoir reveals that the path she took to the top was not easy. It involved hardships and humiliations that are hard to believe now and were barely able to be survived then.

Raised on a Tottenham council estate by a dressmaker mother and a father who read electricity meters, the young Eileen was told by a passing gipsy that she would be a great dancer – ‘another Pavlova’. Close, but not cigar.

Eileen Atkins (above) has had quite the life, a beloved star of the West End and Broadway, a winner of multiple awards and a co-creator of TV’s Upstairs, Downstairs

Eileen Atkins (above) has had quite the life, a beloved star of the West End and Broadway, a winner of multiple awards and a co-creator of TV’s Upstairs, Downstairs

She performed in working men’s clubs as London’s answer to Shirley Temple (creepy) and was talent-spotted by an instructor named Mme Yandie (a fraud), who wanted to adopt her. Her mother refused.

Elocution lessons and an encouraging head teacher paved her way to the Guildhall School of Music and Drama, though ambition was always at war with her insecurity: ‘I never had the right clothes or the right look or the right background.’

She could also be irritable quickly. Peter Hall once told her off for being rude.

Her repertory tour recalls 1950s dismal bedsits, freezing winters and Spam fritters. The glamorous life seems an ever more distant prospect as she tramps up and down Charing Cross Road ‘doing the agents’.

There are also happy moments to make it easier, such as eating sausage and chips with Ronnie Barker or holidaying with Vanessa Redgrave, who introduces her to Tampax, or tap-dancing with Gene Kelly.

This last is a Dear Diary moment to beat all others – too bad she was employed at the time as a stook of corn (for a production of The Tempest).

At another unpromising gig – Butlin’s in Skegness – she meets future husband Julian Glover, whose raffish ease and bookish, bohemian family set off another deep yearning: ‘I was overwhelmed by the sense of what a family was, and I wanted to belong. This was, of necessity, unfair of me and snobbish. I was blessed with a family. I just preferred this one.’

She is the natural heir to Pip in Great Expectations. Her wedding day is rife with class tensions. It reads like a poignant short-story.

Her honest telling of her story is what makes this book stand out from other stage memoirs. She is as candid about her failures as she is about her successes and can look back at 65 years of her career with a wry smile.

Even her regrets can be used to comedy advantage. When she and Glenda Jackson are vying for a place in Peter Brook’s company, the director tells them to take their clothes off. 

As Eileen hesitates, her rival is already down to her birthday suit – and gets the job.

What will she do? Act one. Let’s move on to act 2.

Anthony Quinn


A Carnival Of Snackery

David Sedaris                                                                                      Little, Brown £20


If you’re thinking that the world has gone barking mad, then David Sedaris’s diaries don’t just provide an abundance of comic relief – they’re oddly comforting, too. Dip in and you’ll realise that crazy as things may seem today, they were pretty bonkers back in 2003, when this latest volume opens.

Writers are legendarily sedentary folk but humourist Sedaris, by dint of fame (he’s forever on tour) and fortune (together with long-term partner Hugh, he owns multiple properties in the US, the UK and France), spends a great deal of time on the road.  

He attracts wackiness at every stop.

Even wildlife goes bananas when David Sedaris is nearby: in Newcastle he watches a seagull kill a pigeon. Each incident is logged in his inimitable deadpan prose

David Sedaris is close enough to wildlife that even wild animals can go bananas: in Newcastle, he sees a seagull killing a pigeon. Each incident is documented in Sedaris’s unique deadpan prose.

He finds it in language differences (Penélope Cruz has ‘the eyes of a donkey’, a French journalist confides); out shopping (oolong tea hand-picked by monkeys, anyone?); and on the plane (‘My seatmate feasted on himself,’ he notes of an ear-wax-nibbling – and worse – fellow traveller). 

Sedaris is always nearby and wildlife can go crazy when Sedaris’s there: Sedaris watches a seagull eat a pigeon in Newcastle. Whether he’s having his head vacuumed in a barber shop or signing a book for a fan whose father ate her placenta, each incident is logged in his inimitable deadpan prose.

Sedaris’s first volume of diaries, Theft By Finding, opened in 1977, when he was 20, and ended in 2002, its entries charting his discovery of his voice and vocation. This second volume spans 17 years and ends with the pandemic. While it lacks the ready narrative arc of the first, its diverse entries quickly become addictive.

Is there much more to his transformation than becoming sober and financially successful? ‘It’s a safe bet that I’ve become more spoiled and impatient,’ he admits in the introduction. He certainly doesn’t go out of his way to present himself in the best light. 

He can only imagine what a wonderful source of material she would be, as he listens in on a woman brutally berating her teenage granddaughter while on the Eurostar. ‘Her grandmother was a gold mine dressed like a gold miner, and looking at the girl, instead of feeling pity, I felt jealousy,’ he admits.

Though global events occasionally shoulder their way in (the invasion of Iraq, terrorist attacks in London, mass shootings in the US) along with more personal calamities (his sister Tiffany dies of an overdose; his homophobic father takes a tumble), Sedaris’s diary functions less as a confessional than a treasure trove of material.

A Carnival Of Snackery may not be quite as satisfying – or as revealing – as his personal essays but it’s a feast all the same: drolly absurd, irreverently scabrous and, every so often, touching.

Hephzibah Anderson