Colum McCann: "What could be worse than being called a historical novelist?"

The Books Interview.

TransAtlantic moves back and forth between Ireland and the US. You haven’t written much about Irish history before now – are you becoming more interested in writing about the past?

I didn’t want to write a historical novel. Jesus, what could be worse than being called a historical novelist, as if you’re preserved in amber? Despite their complex and reasoned arguments, people like Peter Carey and Hilary Mantel run up against that assumption all the time. It’s the idea of becoming an alternative historian that really interests me: a historian of the smaller, more anonymous moments. It’s a privileged position for the fiction writer, one that opens up a lot of pores – and sometimes wounds, as well.

And, of course, there is a narrative element to any work of non-fiction.

I’m interested in the idea that these categories don’t really exist. Aleksandar Hemon says that, in Bosnian, there is no word for either “fiction” or “non-fiction”: there is only “storytelling”. He inserts himself into much of his work but it’s a construct. To put it another way, what Google or Wikipedia says about you might be an utter fiction. The storyteller must at least be responsible to a textural truth: not so much the dates and facts but the textural contradictions that he or she finds.

One great historical event in the novel is the arrival of Frederick Douglass, the former slave and orator, in Ireland. How did you come by it?

To tell you the truth, I can’t remember. Academics began to write about it in the late 1980s and early 1990s, probing the relationship between “the black and the green”, class, culture, slavery – asking questions like: when did the Irish become “white”? But I think most people had forgotten until Obama came to Ireland in 2011. He quoted Douglass: “I am covered with the soft, grey fog of the Emerald Isle. I breath and lo! The chattel becomes a man.”

Ultimately, the novel works around these events, through the lives of women.

I knew I wanted to write about Douglass and George Mitchell [the US special envoy for Northern Ireland from 1995-2001] but there needed to be something in between them. I thought, what is the matrix here? I became interested in Douglass’s housekeeper, Lily, and slowly it became a novel about women, about the line between non-fiction and fiction, the male narrative and the female narrative, the anonymous and grandly historical lined up side by side and working with each other.

I noticed in the acknowledgements that you spoke to Tony Blair as part of your research.

Yeah. Believe it or not, I got a half-hour face-to-face with him in New York. I told him first off: “I’m not going to talk about politics.” Or, “I’m not going to talk about other politics” – I was thinking, what if he googles some of my articles about Iraq. I told him I’m going to ask only about Northern Ireland and what the peace process was like. I asked him what he thought of Mitchell and, fair play to him, after a few minutes of dancing around each other, he said, “Look, I’ll be honest with you. That process did belong to Mitchell. A lot of us came in and stood on its back and it carried us a lot of different places. That’s politics. But it was people like Mitchell on the ground who did a lot of the work.” When I told Mitchell, he was very happy.

Colum McCann’s “TransAtlantic” is published by Bloomsbury (£18.99)

Colum McCann in Paris earlier this year. Photograph: Kenzo Tribouillard/Getty Images.

Philip Maughan is a freelance writer in Berlin and a former Assistant Editor at the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 01 July 2013 issue of the New Statesman, Brazil erupts

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I worked as a teacher – so I can tell you how regressive grammar schools are

The grammars and "comprehensives" of Kent make for an unequal system. So why does Theresa May consider the county a model for the future?

In 1959 my parents moved me from a Roman Catholic primary school to the junior branch of King Henry VIII, Coventry’s most high-profile grammar. The head teacher berated my mother for betraying the one true faith, but although she was born in Galway, my mum was as relaxed about her religion as she was about her native roots. Any strong feelings about the English Reformation had disappeared around the same time as her Irish accent. Her voice gave no clue to where she was from and – as a result of a wartime commission – the same was true of my father. Together, Mrs and Mr Smith embodied postwar Britain’s first-generation upwardly mobile middle class.

Their aspiration and ambition were so strong that my mother saw no problem in paying for me to attend a Protestant school. Why, you may ask, did my dad, a middle manager and by no means well off, agree to pay the fees? Quite simply, my parents were keen that I pass the eleven-plus.

King Henry VIII School benefited from the direct grant scheme, introduced after the Education Act 1944. In Coventry, the two direct grant schools were centuries old and were paid a fee by the government to educate the fifth or so of boys who passed the eleven-plus. When secondary education in Coventry became comprehensive in the mid-1970s, King Henry VIII went fully independent; today, it charges fees of more than £10,000 per year.

A few years ago, I returned to my old school for a memorial service. As I left, I saw a small group of smartly dressed men in their late seventies. They had strong Coventry accents and intended to “go down the club” after the service. It occurred to me that they represented the small number of working-class lads who, in the years immediately after the Second World War, were lucky enough to pass the eleven-plus and (no doubt with their parents making huge sacrifices) attend “the grammar”. But by the time I moved up to King Henry VIII’s senior school in 1963 there appeared to be no one in my A-stream class from a working-class background.

From the early 1950s, many of the newly affluent middle classes used their financial power to give their children an advantage in terms of selection. My parents paid for a privileged education that placed top importance on preparation for the eleven-plus. In my class, only one boy failed the life-determining test. Today, no less than 13 per cent of entrants to the 163 grammar schools still in the state system are privately educated. No wonder preparatory schools have responded enthusiastically to Theresa May’s plans to reverse the educational orthodoxy of the past five decades.

Nowhere has the rebranding of secondary moderns as “comprehensives” been more shameless than in Kent, where the Conservative-controlled council has zealously protected educational selection. Each secondary modern in east Kent, where I taught in the 1970s, has since been named and renamed in a fruitless attempt to convince students that failing to secure a place at grammar school makes no difference to their educational experience and prospects. That is a hard message to sell to the two-thirds of ten-year-olds who fail the Kent test.

Investment and academy status have transformed the teaching environment, which a generation ago was disgraceful (I recall the lower school of a secondary modern in Canterbury as almost literally Edwardian). Ofsted inspections confirm that teachers in non-grammar schools do an amazing job, against all the odds. Nevertheless, selection reinforces social deprivation and limited aspiration in the poorest parts of the south-east of England, notably Thanet and the north Kent coastline.

A third of children in Thanet live in poverty. According to local sources (including a cross-party report of Kent councillors in 2014), disadvantaged children make up less than 9 per cent of pupils in grammar schools but 30 per cent at secondary moderns. University admissions tutors confirm the low number of applications from areas such as Thanet relative to the UK average. Though many of Kent’s secondary moderns exceed expectations, the county has the most underperforming schools in the UK.

When I began my teaching career, I was appallingly ignorant of the harsh realities of a secondary education for children who are told at the age of 11 that they are failures. Spending the years from seven to 17 at King Henry VIII School had cocooned me. More than 40 years later, I can see how little has changed in Kent – and yet, perversely, the Prime Minister perceives the county’s education system as a model for the future.

This article first appeared in the 22 September 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The New Times