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Kevin Barry wins the Goldsmiths Prize 2015 for his novel Beatlebone

The £10,000 prize for innovative fiction has been awarded to a book that imagines John Lennon’s adventures in Ireland in the summer of 1978.

The Irish author Kevin Barry has won the Goldsmiths Prize, run in association with the New Statesman, for his second novel, Beatlebone – a wild, discursive trip around the west coast of Ireland and into the mind of John Lennon. Barry was awarded the £10,000 prize for fiction that “breaks the mould or extends the possibilities of the novel form” in a ceremony at Foyles Charing Cross Road, London, this evening.

Born in Limerick in 1969, Barry lived in Cork, Liverpool, London, upstate New York, Barcelona and Santa Barbara, before settling in Sligo in the west of Ireland. His first short story collection, There Are Little Kingdoms, was published by the small Irish press Stinging Fly in 2007 and won the Rooney Prize for Irish Literature. His first novel, City of Bohane (2011), set in a violent, wild west-style Cork in 2053, won the International IMPAC Dublin Literary Award, and was followed by another story collection, Dark Lies the Island (2012).

Beatlebone is inspired by real events. In the spring of 1967, John Lennon saw an advert for an island for sale off the west coast of Ireland. He sent Alistair Taylor, a member of the Beatles’ retinue, to the auction and he snapped up the island of Dorinish in Clew Bay, County Mayo, for £1,550. Lennon had imagined the island as a retreat and drew up plans for a fantastical house but it was never built.

In Barry’s novel, set in 1978, Lennon decides to spend three therapeutic days on Dorinish: “That is all that he asks. That he might scream his fucking lungs out and scream the days into nights and scream to the stars by night.” But there are around 100 islands in the flooded valley of Clew Bay and Lennon hasn’t a clue which one is his. As his philosophical local fixer Cornelius tries to get him to Dorinish, while dodging the hordes of reporters, Lennon is exposed to surreal events and disturbing characters as his psyche becomes increasingly fragile. Flitting in and out of Lennon’s mind and mixing witty dialogue, hallucinogenic prose and authorial explanation (Barry interrupts the story with a description of its background), the novel was described in the New Statesman by the critic Chris Power as “an electrifying success”.

The other five novels shortlisted for the prize were Acts of the Assassins by Richard Beard; The Field of the Cloth of Gold by Magnus Mills; Grief Is the Thing with Feathers by Max Porter; Lurid & Cute by Adam Thirlwell and Satin Island by Tom McCarthy. In contrast to previous years, when the prize has been won by women, it was an all-male list. The judging panel was made up of the chair of judges, Professor Josh Cohen; the inaugural Goldsmiths Prize-winner, Eimear McBride; the writer Jon McGregor; and the New Statesman’s lead fiction reviewer, Leo Robson.

"It's a really cool prize," Barry said last night, "because it rewards innovation. And if the novel lacks innovation it's fucked." In his speech Josh Cohen said that in “intricately weaving and blurring fiction and life, Beatlebone embodies beautifully this prize’s spirit of creative risk.”

In a year when the Man Booker shortlist had its fair share of doorstoppers (including the winner, Marlon James’s not-so-brief novel A Brief History of Seven Killings), the Goldsmiths Prize favoured slim books. But Beatlebone’s compact form was hard-won: “It’s a 50,000-word book and I think I wrote something like 400,000 words for it,” Barry told BBC Radio 4 last week. Initially convinced it was going to be a six-month project, he took four years to complete the novel.

At an event at Goldsmiths University last month, Barry described the “sympathetic magic” that he looks for in the creative process: “Innovation is the place where I lose control of the text. All I can do by way of method is to look for occurrences of sympathetic magic around the edges of whatever project I’m working on. If they don’t come I believe myself to be in trouble. It took a long while to come with this book. I printed out nearly the last draft and had it in my work shed in County Sligo and was crawling around on top of it with a pen. I said ‘Fuck this, I’ll go in and have some coffee’, and took a break. When I went back out and there was a black lizard crawling across the pages of the text and I thought: OK, we’re fine. So I immediately got down with my pen and wrote a black lizard into the text, because that appeared to be part of the deal.”

After McBride, Barry is the second Irish writer to win the Goldsmiths Prize. He is at the vanguard of a new movement in Irish fiction that includes writers such as Colin Barrett, Sara Baume and Mary Costello and small but bold publishers including Stinging Fly and Tramp Press. “I think it would be smug and premature to herald a golden age but maybe a proper radicalism is at last starting to re-emerge in Irish writing,” Barry told the Guardian last month. “We should always remember that being innovative and wild and not afraid to go completely fucking nuts on the page is what built its reputation in the first half of the 20th century.” Barry’s short story “Hares in the Old Plantation”, set in the west of Ireland, was published in the NS last year.

The Goldsmiths Prize was co-founded in 2013 by Goldsmiths University and the New Statesman, with the goal of rewarding British and Irish fiction that breaks the mould or extends the possibilities of the novel form. Eimear McBride was the first winner for her debut, A Girl Is a Half-Formed Thing – a disturbing, original, language-rich novel that was published nine years after it was written, after multiple rejections, by the Norwich-based independent imprint Galley Beggar Press. McBride’s book went on to win the Baileys Women’s Prize for Fiction and was republished by Faber & Faber; her second novel, The Lesser Bohemians, will be published in 2016.

Last year, the Scottish author Ali Smith won for her novel How to Be Both – a book of two halves, in which one narrative follows a teenage girl in the present day trying to cope with the death of her mother; the other a fresco painter in Renaissance Italy. Half the copies of How to Be Both are printed in one order, half in the reverse – so readers have unpredictably different experiences.

Earlier this year, Smith credited the Goldsmiths Prize with altering the publishing landscape: “The change it’s made is that publishers, who never take risks in anything, are taking risks on works which are much more experimental than they would’ve two years ago,” she told the Bookseller.“That, to me, is like a miracle. And that’s the Goldsmiths Prize.”

Beatlebone by Kevin Barry is published by Canongate (263pp, £12.99).

Kevin Barry will be in conversation with Tom Gatti and Josh Cohen at the Cambridge Literary Festival on 29 November.

Hear Kevin Barry and Tom Gatti in conversation on the New Statesman podcast:

Tom Gatti is Culture Editor of the New Statesman. He previously edited the Saturday Review section of the Times, and can be found on Twitter as @tom_gatti.


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Against the Law: Peter Wildeblood must be one of the bravest men who ever lived

BBC2's historical gay rights film evokes bewilderment, fear and agonising pain.

My head told me that Against the Law (26 July, 9pm), the BBC’s film about Peter Wildeblood, the only openly gay man to give evidence to Lord Wolfenden’s committee, wasn’t up to much. Wildeblood was one of the three men who in 1954 were convicted of buggery in the notorious Montagu case (the others being Lord Montagu of Beaulieu and his cousin Michael Pitt-Rivers) – a trial that led, thanks to unease about the verdict, to the inquiry that resulted in the Wolfenden report, which in 1957 recommended the decriminalisation of homosexuality in Britain.

The film is based on the book Wildeblood published (he was a journalist) after his release from Wormwood Scrubs. Its script, by Brian Fillis, was underpowered and off-puttingly didactic, and I couldn’t understand, at first, the decision to keep interrupting the drama with the spoken-to-camera recollections of a series of elderly gay men. But at some point my heart, which was aching, told my head to shut up. This is… good enough, I thought, watching the film’s last few moments, in which the 89-year-old Roger and the 77-year-old Percy tenderly kissed for the camera. I was mad for Roger. Did he remember Wolfenden? My dear, how could he ever forget it? At the time, he was having an affair with Lord Wolfenden’s son, Jeremy, which certainly added piquancy to the newspaper reports as he read them over breakfast.

If I’d been casting this piece, I might have gone for a floppy-haired Matthew Goode type for Wildeblood, the former public school boy – but that would have been my mistake. It’s hard to imagine a finer performance than the one given by Daniel Mays, an actor who is not even remotely floppy haired.

Here was all of the wit and compassion you find in Wildeblood’s prose, combined with emotions I’d hitherto only been able rather half-heartedly to imagine: bewilderment, fear, agonising pain. As Wildeblood watched his former lover, an RAF corporal called Edward McNally, turn Queen’s evidence during his trial, May’s face grew slack with disbelief. He looked, to me, as if some unknown hand was quietly disembowelling him. By which had he been most betrayed? Love, or the law of the land?

Everyone knows what followed, but it was horrible to see nevertheless. Mailbags were sewn; aversion therapy was discussed (the prison shrink, played with viper-like precision by Mark Gatiss, told Wildeblood he could either receive a series of electric shocks or a drug that would make him vomit for two days). I thought, not for the first time, that Wildeblood must have been one of the bravest men who ever lived – though it’s not as if he wanted for company: the director’s talking heads, silver of hair and soft of jowl, reminded us of this at every turn, and I was glad of the human punctuation they provided. For most of us, this stuff is history. For them, it had been life.

Some people are devoted to newts, and others to hobbits; a few enjoy recreating the battles of the Civil War. The film My Friend Jane (17 July, 7pm) got down and not very dirty with the Austen super-fans, by which I mean not those who have read Sanditon and The Watsons but types who like to dress in full Regency garb and dance to the sound of a spinet come Saturday night. Actually, it’s scarier than this. A former doctor, Joana Starnes, breathlessly described her new career as a writer of “top-tier JAF”. Translated, this means highly superior Jane Austen fan fiction. She’s produced seven JAF novels, which sounds like a lot until you discover that 60 come out every month.

Zack Pinsent, meanwhile, who is 22, makes his living as a period tailor in Hove, where he likes to promenade in fall-front trousers – a flap enables the gentleman thereby to pee – and top hat. I wanted to laugh at him, and all the other empire-line eccentrics in this odd little documentary. But there was something touching about their obsession; at least they didn’t attempt to intellectualise it, unlike those literary fan girls who have lately taken to writing entire books about why their lives would be meaningless without this or that great writer for company. 

Rachel Cooke trained as a reporter on The Sunday Times. She is now a writer at The Observer. In the 2006 British Press Awards, she was named Interviewer of the Year.

This article first appeared in the 27 July 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Summer double issue