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Interview: Paul Waters

'Every society has its darkness': In conversation with Irish author Paul Waters

Print edition : Mar 11, 2022 T+T-
Paul Waters.

Paul Waters.

April 11, 2000: An officer of the Royal Ulster Constabulary (RUC) at its Belfast headquarters. From midnight November 3, 2001, the RUC became the Police Service of Northern Ireland as part of the restructuring of the police force under the Good Friday Agreement. Paul Waters: “The particular inspiration for Blackwatertown came from family members who served in the Northern Ireland police force, which back then was called the RUC,.... It was a force unlike any other in the U.K. or Ireland. As well as normal policing duties, it also served as a well-armed paramilitary force guarding the northern side of the border that divides Ireland.”

April 11, 2000: An officer of the Royal Ulster Constabulary (RUC) at its Belfast headquarters. From midnight November 3, 2001, the RUC became the Police Service of Northern Ireland as part of the restructuring of the police force under the Good Friday Agreement. Paul Waters: “The particular inspiration for Blackwatertown came from family members who served in the Northern Ireland police force, which back then was called the RUC,.... It was a force unlike any other in the U.K. or Ireland. As well as normal policing duties, it also served as a well-armed paramilitary force guarding the northern side of the border that divides Ireland.”

Families of the victims of Bloody Sunday and supporters marking its 50th anniversary, on January 30 in Londonderry, also known as Derry, Northern Ireland. The Bogside Massacre, which came to be known as Bloody Sunday, took place on January 30, 1972. British Soldiers shot at 26 unarmed civilians taking part in a protest march, killing 14.

Families of the victims of Bloody Sunday and supporters marking its 50th anniversary, on January 30 in Londonderry, also known as Derry, Northern Ireland. The Bogside Massacre, which came to be known as Bloody Sunday, took place on January 30, 1972. British Soldiers shot at 26 unarmed civilians taking part in a protest march, killing 14.

The main protagonist in the book, Jolly Macken, is partly inspired by Paul Waters’ great-uncle Mike, District Inspector Michael Murphy. In this photograph, which dates back to 1946, Murphy is with King George VI (on the left in naval uniform).

The main protagonist in the book, Jolly Macken, is partly inspired by Paul Waters’ great-uncle Mike, District Inspector Michael Murphy. In this photograph, which dates back to 1946, Murphy is with King George VI (on the left in naval uniform).

Interview with Paul Waters, author and TV and radio reporter and producer.

THE Irish novelist Paul Waters is an award-winning programme producer who has worked for BBC Radio 4, BBC 5 Live, BBC Northern Ireland and BBC World Service. He is a man for all seasons: “driven a cab in England, been a night club cook, designed computer systems in Dublin, presented podcasts for Germans and organised music festivals for beer drinkers”. He lives in Buckinghamshire, United Kingdom, with his family.

In terms of the sheer range of activities he has undertaken, Waters would easily surpass even the indomitable Eric Blair, more popularly known as George Orwell, whose early work, the autobiographical Down and Out in Paris and London , offers vivid vignettes from the underworld of London and Paris.

In December 2021, Waters was in Bhubaneswar for the Kalinga Literary Festival where he was on “the historical novel” panel for which this writer was the moderator. When this writer mentioned the Raj and looked somewhat accusingly at Waters, he exclaimed with a twinkle in his eyes: “Sorry, don’t blame me! I am Irish!”

Blackwatertown , his new novel, is a fictional study of the complex relationship binding Northern Ireland and Ireland with their fascinating histories and geographies, policemen and civilians. Described as an Irish thriller, the novel is set in a sleepy border town in 1950 and encompasses seven crucial days in terms of action, seen from the vantage point of the maverick Sergeant Jolly Macken. As the blurb on the back of the book says, the protagonist “accidentally starts a war, is hailed a hero and branded a traitor. When Blackwatertown explodes into violence, who can he trust?” As Waters explains, Blackwatertown stands for other lands too, such as the Indian subcontinent, caught in the vortex of violence and displacement, loyalty and betrayal.

Waters is learned, witty and a good conversationalist. He speaks about his novel and the genre of the thriller, the interface between journalism and literature, about strife and turbulence, love and loss, sin and expiation. His next novel, he says, promises to bring together Ireland and India. Excerpts from the conversation:

“Blackwatertown” is described as an “Irish thriller”. The Irish part is understandable, given your background; why a thriller? What prompted you to take up this genre? Frederick Forsyth described your work as “extremely intriguing”. Could you explain your use of the genre and Forsyth’s remark?

I’ve always been a voracious reader, across genres, fiction and non-fiction, but thrillers and crime fiction are where I go to relax. That’s one reason I wanted to write that sort of book. But it’s also because of the story I was bursting to tell.

The particular inspiration for Blackwatertown came from family members who served in the Northern Ireland police force, which back then was called the RUC, the Royal Ulster Constabulary. It was a force unlike any other in the U.K. or Ireland. As well as normal policing duties, it also served as a well-armed paramilitary force guarding the northern side of the border that divides Ireland. Like many people in India, my family comes from both sides of the border. The frontier recently reached the grand age of a hundred years old but somehow feels less permanent than ever.

It made life very difficult for a Catholic police officer. On the one hand, he was expected to risk his life for the Protestant state. On the other, he might still be regarded with suspicion, as a potential traitor, simply because of his religion. In addition, his police service could sometimes alienate him from his Catholic community or even put him at greater risk of assassination. And don’t forget, during the periodic outbreaks of insurgency, the front line for a police officer (whatever his or her religion) may be an assassin waiting at the front door of their home or a bomb under their car.

Pretty horrific to live through. But a rich seam for an author to mine. Moral dilemmas, divided loyalties, contradictions and betrayal, unexpected outbreaks of terror—great ingredients for the thriller or crime fiction writer. Blackwatertown is fiction.

Despite the historical basis and all the secret truths revealed transforming it into a thriller gives me the freedom to manipulate the facts in whatever way I choose. I can condense the action, humour and suspense into what Frederick Forsyth says is “a fascinating story with intricate twists and turns … extremely intriguing”. I think what he means ... is that the basic premise has a person in a seemingly impossible situation, which only gets worse, and how he or she rises to the challenge, with no certainty of success or survival.

How has your experience as a television journalist for the BBC and other international channels influenced your writing style in “Blackwatertown”, if it has?

I have been a television and radio reporter and producer, staff and freelance, mainly for the BBC, for many years. It has given me wonderful access to people and places and behind-the-scenes stories around the world. My broadcasting career of short sentences, short deadlines and other people’s tales is something I’ve had to put aside for my own stories, occasionally more meandering sentences and much longer deadlines.

You have had a chequered career, much of it as a “commoner”, (a cab driver, a night club cook, and so on). How has the view from “below”, i.e. the subaltern perspective, shaped your writing? Were you influenced by George Orwell’s “Down and Out in Paris and London”?

In theory, an author can conjure any kind of realistic or fantastical world solely from their imagination. But having what you call a chequered career certainly stimulates that imagination. Power corrupts. You get an insight into that phenomenon when working in a service role and get to see how an ostensibly reasonable or respectful person behaves when they think the other person’s humanity doesn’t matter.

You also have the privilege of joining behind-the-scenes gangs, learning the shorthand and shortcuts that are hidden to “civilians”. I’m nosy. My children complain that “no entry” signs draw me like magnets. I like looking behind the curtain.

I think it’s also about who is important. Is it only the kings and queens of commerce or politics? Or is it everyone else whose lives are shaken by the blithe commands of those in power? Not everyone travels in air-conditioned comfort. Some of us squeeze onto the bus. Some of us walk. It’s good to remember that. I think it makes for richer writing.

The protagonist, according to you, is modelled after your great-uncle Mike, the one-time District Inspector Michael Murphy. In your words, he was a “rare Catholic in the Royal Ulster Constabulary”. How have you transfigured the real-life Mike into Sergeant Jolly Macken in the novel? What liberties did you take in the portrayal of this character? And your reasons for doing so?

The main protagonist in Blackwatertown is a demoted police sergeant called Jolly Macken. He is not ... modelled on my great-uncle Mike but is certainly partly inspired by him, and by other relatives and people in the police. Uncle Mike was a much-decorated war veteran as well as a senior police officer. He stormed the Hohenzollern Redoubt on the western front during [the First] World War when he served in the Irish Guards regiment of the British Army. Later, when Ireland was partitioned, the larger southern part became independent and eventually the Republic of Ireland. Uncle Mike rose within the police force on the northern side of the border, in the smaller area that remained within the United Kingdom: Northern Ireland.

In June 1949, he escorted the then Princess (now Queen) Elizabeth as she inspected a guard of honour in front of Belfast City Hall . It must have gone well because he was promoted the following month.

It was not all hobnobbing with royals. There were also riots, attempts to kill him and dank, dreary rainy nights on duty. But this is clearly a Catholic who rose to a position of trust within the police apparatus even as the force became more and more Protestant overall. I remember when Uncle Mike died, British troops in Belfast let his funeral pass without hindrance through their roadblocks, which was puzzling for me as a child. So, it would be wrong for an author, for me, to paint a picture of unmitigated religious bigotry and discrimination. I feel that my fictional universe should bear some fair resemblance to the historical reality.

But few police officers are constantly courageous, efficient, honest and wise. I’ve also grown up on whispered stories of crises of conscience, faked ambushes, planted evidence and lawbreaking by the law enforcers. One of my favourites is the time when someone, no need for names, accidentally led an official motorised column over the frontier to occupy a town in the Republic of Ireland, a completely illegal cross-border invasion. His excuse? It was dark. They were lost. And the Irish border is more twisted than one of Frederick Forsyth’s plots.

One of the main differences between Uncle Mike and Jolly Macken is that the real District Inspector seems to have been a man in command of any situation. Jolly Macken is a man torn and confused, embattled and betrayed, clever and naive, a loner who looks for trouble, heroic but human.

The critic Peter May said that “a sense of menace drives the narrative”. How do you sustain the atmosphere of menace throughout the novel, until the very end? What techniques do you use?

There is a saying that it is not enough that you succeed, but that your peers must fail miserably.

That is the opposite of the encouragement I have received from other thriller and crime fiction authors. It’s a very supportive community.

One of the pervasive characteristics of Northern Ireland for me growing up was a constant sense of menace, that feeling that something bad was lurking round the corner or coming your way. My grandmother’s parting words whenever I left her house were “be vigilant”. And we were. Our eyes flitted from side to side, checking potentially suspicious cars, people, doorways, bags, alleys…. It was exhausting, cloying, all around.

One of my favourite authors, Eoin McNamee, conveys that sense of claustrophobia in his books, particularly The Blue Tango . Unease oozes from the earth, from the walls. That feeling that there’s no room to turn around and check behind you.

Another favourite author, Will Dean, builds menace and unease throughout his Swedish crime thrillers by sprinkling images from what he calls his “Creeps Book”. Will’s Creeps Book is where he records odd images he encounters—like a wooden troll decorated with animal hair and human toenails or a snow skull with lingonberry jam dripping like blood—for later use in his stories.

I don’t go in for anything quite as grotesque, but I quite like my introduction to the vicar of Blackwatertown village. I suppose the most effective way to depict menace is dramatic irony, when the reader knows more than the characters. I try not to be too explicit, but after a while the reader learns not to relax too much even when the story takes a funny, happy or romantic turn because who can you ever really trust?

According to a critic, your novel is about “love, loss, bigotry and kindness”. Do you think these traits have been the defining features of the Irish and Northern Irish experience during the war-torn, troubled histories of the two lands? Could you explain?

I think it’s important to remember and celebrate the kindness that persists during times of trouble and terror. Amidst horror, good people do good things. Life is not unremittingly bleak.

Love and kindness—and loss—are universal. Unfortunately, religious bigotry is something special (though not unique) to Northern Ireland and to some extent the Republic of Ireland in past days too. In both cases society has been evolving, for the better, I think. And that’s especially true in the Republic of Ireland, which has amended its Constitution to be more welcoming to all its citizens. Large parts of the population of Northern Ireland have moved forward too, though much of the political class is still lagging behind.

The determination of campaigners and ordinary people to challenge authoritarian intolerance is one of the very hopeful drivers for change and reasons for optimism on both sides of the Irish border.

David Roy in The Irish News describes your novel as “dark-hearted and darkly humorous”. In fact, there seems to be a brooding sense of darkness throughout the novel. Why and how have you made it so, and how has this become part of the overall vision in the novel?

I’m glad David Roy in [ The ] Irish News mentioned the humour, even if some of it is gallows humour. Every society has its darkness. I’ve learned that an overly calm and placid appearance may well conceal abuse. Excessive regimentation or kowtowing to authority stops up the cracks through which warnings and cries for help leak out.

Ireland used to be known as “the Land of Saints and Scholars”. I’m sure we still have a few of each. But we pay more attention now to the abuse of women and children by those in authority. Previously, we looked the other way, blamed the victims or denied it happened at all. A far healthier society is one that admits and addresses the cancers at its heart. My story is set in the days when we allowed the cancer to eat away beneath the surface.

Are you indebted to the tradition of the Irish novel? In what significant ways have your reading of the Irish genre shaped and influenced your novelistic craft?

I’m not sure what “the Irish genre” is, beyond sharing a close or distant link to the same island. I am though indebted to the Irish authors whose wonderful work I’ve read over the years and continue to read now.

I suppose one of the most important influences was feeling that it was worthwhile and also that it was permitted to tell a story set in Northern Ireland. The Northern Ireland I was fed through the British media as I grew up was a dreary, grey place where it was always either raining bullets or just raining. I remember thinking that I would like to live in Kent because the U.K. weather forecasts always seemed to refer to that part of south-east England with the phrase “and another sunny day in the garden of England”.

The bestselling Northern Irish author Adrian McKinty recounts how BBC TV commissioners told him that nobody was interested in stories from his part of the world. They sent him to scan the crime fiction shelves in a bookshop in the city centre, and sure enough, there were rows of Scandi noir, but almost nothing written by Irish authors. He ignored them and went on to write his acclaimed Sean Duffy series. And now more and more Northern Irish authors—like Stuart Neville, Steve Cavanagh, Brian McGilloway, Jan Carson, Lucy Caldwell—are captivating bigger and bigger audiences. It’s now legitimate.

I’ve found other Northern Irish writers like Glenn Patterson and Maurice Leitch inspirational in the quiet approach they’ve taken to opening the door on how life is and can be and how it sits in an Irish landscape and social milieu that is often slower, quieter and more reserved than the big cities.

Your lead quote in the book, by Napoleon, in the form of an epigraph, is: “What is history but a fable agreed upon.” By this, do you question the objectivity of narrative history as conventionally understood, facts, data, and so on? Or do you think that there is nothing like history as a set of verifiable facts that are causally linked; in other words, everything is conjured up and imagined/constructed in the crucible of narrative imagination, part of what has come to be understood as discourse. New historicists and others seem to suggest this approach. What are your views on this and your handling of history in the novel?

I come from a place where definitions, mandates and facts are disputed. Even the name of the place is not agreed on by those who live there: Northern Ireland, the Six Counties, the North, the wee North, Ulster, the province. Even the First and Deputy First Minister of Northern Ireland don’t agree on what to call it. The second city is sometimes called Stroke City, an allusion to the stroke, or the slash mark, between the alternative titles Derry/Londonderry, depending on whether you’re of an Irish or a British persuasion. (It’s a lovely place to visit by the way, whatever you call it.)

And now that I think of it, Derry, or Londonderry, is a good place to examine the whole concept of being north (Northern Ireland) or south (Republic of Ireland) of the border. Because, although Northern Ireland is indeed in the north-east corner of the island, it’s not quite that simple.

Let’s go for a drive. We’ll start in Derry, in “the North” and drive northwards until we cross the border into “the South”, more specifically beautiful County Donegal. Actually, you can also drive westwards from “the North” into “the South”. And southwards from “the South” into “the North”. Feeling confused? Don’t blame us. It was a gift from Britain. I think they may have gifted you in India something similar.

Another early memory is listening to a reporter on Downtown Radio. Dermot McDermott, I think his name was. He was very fond of the word “allege”. His reports on bombings and shootings were a litany of allegations with very few accepted facts. “The police say…. The army allege…. The local MP alleges…. Local people say…. The IRA [Irish Republican Army]/UVF [Ulster Volunteer Force]/UDA [Ulster Defence Association] allege…. The local priest alleges…. The government claims….” No utterance was taken as fact. Everyone was equally credible or suspect. Or at least that’s how I remember it.

And another aspect of Northern Ireland’s sad and bloody recent history is the evolution of derided conspiracy theories into accepted wisdom. I’m thinking of the previously ridiculed claims of state collusion with terrorists, which are now widely accepted as true; the deliberately misattributed atrocities; the Bloody Sunday killings by the Parachute Regiment that were blamed on the victims and, later, much later, apologised for by British Prime Minister David Cameron. Irish republican and pro-British loyalist groups have had their own chapters of fake history exposed over the years too.

So a reluctance to accept much at face value and an openness to alternative versions of the truth may indeed be part of the Northern Irish character. I wonder though if this is still true amongst younger people. Perhaps, we’re growing out of suspicion?

You took part in the Kalinga Literary Festival, Bhubaneswar, in December 2021 where your book was discussed by a panel on the historical novel. Was that your first visit to India? You told me that your Indian spouse’s family and that of yours happen to share close bonds and connections in historical terms. That sounds uncanny and interesting. Could you explain?

I had the great privilege and pleasure in taking part in the Kalinga Literary Festival in Bhubaneswar, thanks to the organisers and also to the British Council in India. It was a diverse gathering in many languages—poets, musicians, authors, visual artists, critics, commentators, journalists, sponsors and a Paralympic star. I was lucky enough to interview the singer Malini Awasthi on her efforts to preserve folk traditions.

It was not my first visit to India, but it was my first time in Odisha. I had the great good fortune to marry my wife, Aneysha, in Delhi last year. She and I attended the festival and were also able to visit sites around the city and other parts of the region, like Konark and Puri. She also discovered an unexpected link between our two families. I already knew of our family’s admittedly tenuous link to India through Mother Teresa. My grandmother and an uncle had both worked with her during her ill-starred mission to Belfast in the 1970s. But my wife found something else in our shared family history. Quite a while ago, an aunt in my family switched careers to become a nun and was assigned to India. She was principal at schools and colleges in Pune, Mumbai, Shimla and finally Delhi, which brought her into contact with the Gandhi family. But it was earlier in Pune that she encountered my wife’s mother, who was one of her pupils.

So, should we declare the later meeting and marriage linking our two families in India and Ireland as coincidence? Or fate?

I understand that you are now writing an Indo-Irish novel based on your (early) Indian experience. Could you give us an idea of the novel in progress, its genesis, plot, and so on (without, of course, divulging too many details)?

This is true. I am stepping with trepidation into writing a novel set in Delhi. And in return, I invite all Indian authors to set books in Belfast, Dublin, Stroke City or wherever else in Ireland they choose.

I’m exploring my own family’s links with India, while taking appalling liberties with the details in a fictional plot. I’m also leaning on my new friends and new family in India for guidance. The book was inspired by some very entertaining conversations I had in India in December. I’m hoping to look at some contemporary issues in India but tell a story that reflects the country in a way that’s positive and plausible overall. And hopefully fun. It’s also an opportunity to give international readers a different view of India’s links with the rest of the world, [one] that does not rest on old colonial connections.

Fingers crossed!

Sachidananda Mohanty is a former professor and Head of the Department of English, University of Hyderabad. He has published extensively in the field of British, American, gender, translation and postcolonial studies. He is a former Vice Chancellor of the Central University of Odisha.