The author's great uncle Mike
(RUC District Inspector Michael Murphy) escorting Princess (now Queen)
Elizabeth in Belfast city centre in the 1940s.
THE novel! Buy it now! Portrait of the author in the real bBackwatertown
Ah, yes, the Nothing is Cancelled Virtual Book Tour still exists! (Though most of my energy is now at A Mighty Blaze.) Here we are honored to host Paul Waters, author, journalist and broadcaster (check him out at www.paulwatersauthor.com) talking about his new book Blackwatertown, about betrayal, family secrets and Northern Ireland. And it's wonderful. Thank you so much for being here, Paul! And for writing such a great essay here below!
What was haunting me as I wrote Blackwatertown, a crime thriller set on the 1950s Irish border, were the generations of secret policemen stretching back in my family history. They’re the inspiration for the book.
It’s not that they worked in espionage. They weren’t spies. It’s more that we never ever talked about it. It wasn’t safe. Growing up during the Northern Ireland “Troubles”, you learned to govern your tongue. And no wonder, when you consider what some in the family did: escorted royalty (that’s my sword-wielding great uncle Mike with the then Princess Elizabeth in Belfast), faked ambushes, arrested a Prime Minister, and covertly invaded the Republic of Ireland – though to be fair, that last one was an accident.
They were police before and after, north and south of the Irish border. But it was a forbidden topic of conversation - because loose lips can lead to a mercury tilt switch wired to explosives being hidden under your car overnight.
We were Catholics. And being Catholic in the overwhelmingly Protestant Royal Ulster Constabulary added layers of complication. Catholics in general often felt alienated from what sometimes seemed to be an oppressive and discriminatory police force, especially when the political conflict turned violent. Meanwhile, Protestant officers sometimes felt suspicious of their few Catholic colleagues – a potential enemy within. Which made my own family members in the RUC very careful. Though the fraternity of being officers on the frontline together could outweigh the differences.
We kept a lot under wraps back then. School uniforms, for instance. My father would never start his car until every inch of uniform worn by his young passengers was covered up with long black coats. The regular route to school passed through a Protestant district of Belfast, where visible Catholicism might be spotted and noted, along with the car license plate.
Overall, we got off very lightly compared to others. When things did occur, as they did to many families, the trick was to never talk about it. Feign confusion. Be vague. Had it even happened at all? Occasionally the signs were as hard to miss as bomb damage.
Looking back now, I wonder how many were really fooled by our performance? But the “whatever you say, say nothing” lesson was firmly imprinted on me.
Which is one reason writing fiction did not come early or easily. As a BBC TV and radio reporter I’ve helped many other people tell their stories to the world. Not a problem – rather a privilege, a joy and sometimes a duty. But writing fiction reveals self. Opening up makes you vulnerable. And not just in the please-like-me/like-my-writing way.
That may be why I set my book Blackwatertown in the 1950s. It’s fiction, but draws upon real stories not recorded in the history books or reported in newspapers. Can anyone seriously still be angry or feel personally threatened by allusion to lawbreaking by the law enforcers so many years later? It turns out that the answers are yes, and yes. Maybe I should have tracked back another hundred years to be on the safe side?
The ‘50s feel like a forgotten time in Northern Ireland. BTV – Before TV. The 1950s were eclipsed by the assertiveness and noise and horror of the decades that followed. I’ve been gripped for years by the writing of Eoin McNamee and Maurice Leitch, who pick their way through the dreamworld before “the Troubles”. And I wanted to tell other tales from back then, that reflected the experiences of the family stories that haunted my imagination. They were too good to let be forgotten.
Inconvenient truths and misfits make good stories. Catholics in the RUC fit into both categories. Simultaneously not to be trusted in the most menial employment, (according to a Northern Ireland Prime Minister), while deemed to have the right stuff to escort a visiting king or princess. Or more relevantly, be shot at defending the state that deemed them inherently inferior.
My protagonist, Jolly Macken, is a Catholic police sergeant, demoted and banished to the sleepy border village of Blackwatertown after inadvertently surfing a long rock down a mountain into Northern Ireland’s loudest Lambeg drum and scattering an Orange march. RIP drum and exile for Macken. He’d rather be left alone to walk the Mourne mountains and fish for dollaghan. But over the course of a week in Blackwatertown he uncovers dark family secrets, falls in love, accidentally starts a war, and is hailed a hero and branded a traitor. There’s also the small matter of finding who killed his brother, even if that killer is a fellow officer. When Blackwatertown explodes into violence, who can Macken trust? And is betrayal the only way to survive?
It’s not all grim. Gallows humour is the funniest. Laughs can feel more liberating than the liberation struggle. Sicilian author Andrea Camilleri taught me that accidental nakedness perks up everyone.
But how did these stories, real and imagined, get their hooks into me as a child, when everyone around me was so secretive and close-lipped?
Somebody blabbed. Somebody always does.
Shout out another author:
I’m from Belfast. Thirty miles south is the small coastal town of Dundrum, home to author and guitarist Gerard Brennan. His latest book, Shot, is the start of a cool new contemporary crime fiction series set in Northern Ireland, featuring Detective Sergeant Shannon McNulty.
Shout out an indie bookstore:
If you’re ever in Belfast, you should visit the iconic and hospitable No Alibis Bookshop on Botanic Avenue. It’s Northern Ireland’s cultural hub and a magnet for writers from all over the world. The owner, David Torrans, was immortalised in Colin Bateman’s Mystery Man thriller. David claims he bears no resemblance to his fictional counterpart, but we know better. He also makes a decent cup of tea and has an online/mail order service for the latest in Irish crime, thrillers and mysteries.