It’s a strange and shameful thing to me that until fairly recently I’d read none of Ciaran Carson’s poetry collections, though one rarely stumbles upon his poetry in bookshops in England, either as new or (especially) in second-hand or charity bookshops (no doubt his brilliance makes the owners of his books loth to part with them). The reason why that’s odd isn’t just because I spent six of my formative years in County Antrim, but because when I’m reading him I get the feeling that I’ve been waiting all my life to read him, and almost as if the subject-matter is so close to my own concerns that I know what’s coming next, to the extent that his writing is a distillation of my own thoughts. That feeling is amplified even more in Carson’s prose works, or at least the two of which I’ve read: his utterly wonderful 2009 novel, The Pen Friend, which I read at a pivotal point in my life, in the summer of 2014, and this, another book of genius, The Star Factory, from 1997.
It’s written in such remarkably mellifluous English that it’s hard to credit that English wasn’t Carson’s first language, and contains a vast, agreeable vocabulary encompassing words like ‘melismatic’, ‘avoirdupois’, ‘Augean’ and the like. Ostensibly, it’s part-memoir and part-exploration of Belfast, the city Carson knows so well, and how it has changed over time, but such a synopsis doesn’t begin to do it justice. One might consider that The Star Factory could be classified as a ‘psychogeographical’ work, in the manner of Iain Sinclair (with whom, incidentally, I had a conversation, at the Tate symposium on WG Sebald in 2007, about the Metropolitan Police helicopters flying from High Beach, in Epping Forest, whence John Clare escaped all the way home to Northamptonshire on foot in 1841, to the skies over Walthamstow), but it’s much less mannered and knowing than the writings of Sinclair; and it’s crammed full of a rich accumulation of knowledge and a love of storytelling, handed down from his father, somewhat in the manner of Sebald’s four great ‘novels’, particularly The Rings of Saturn, or Borges’s books, though this is more overtly a memoir than fiction, despite a scattering of dreams and excerpts from other people’s books. It was written and published, like Sebald’s, just before the internet changed knowledge – or access to it at any rate – forever, at a point in time when the ‘word-processor’ was replacing the typewriter. I remember well in my first proper job, with Kingston Council, in 1992, sharing one word-processor between a team of 13 of us, but how preferable it was to fight to gain access to that primitive machine than to have to essay a trip to speak to the ladies of the Typing Pool, perhaps the worst kind of nightmare for a shy-ish young man to endure.
I visited and stayed in Belfast many times in the late ’80s, including most of the summer of ’86 in the area of East Belfast celebrated on Astral Weeks and 1985’s No Guru, No Method, No Teacher, featuring the lovely oboe of Kate St John, who had, a year or two before, also greatly helped to render beautiful Julian Cope’s second solo album. Belfast felt just the right size for a city – a feeling which I’ve since had in Sheffield too – and, though I was nearly always acutely conscious that being English in some parts of Belfast was considerably more dangerous than it was in Portrush, I liked it very much. I’ve not been there since 1991, when my then girlfriend and I visited a friend of ours briefly being held on remand in Crumlin Road gaol, but reading The Star Factory has triggered so many memories of places I went and hadn’t thought about for years, most notably the old Smithfield Market second-hand book dealers and the Corn Market, where I remember acquiring very ’80s blond highlights and an equally dodgy Top Man suit. In my memory, the Smithfield books may have conflated with the small bookshop at Coleraine station owned and run by an affable, brown-corduroy-jacket-and-cardigan-wearing chap called Liam, whose mass of frizzy hair made him look like he spent an hour with his hands around Van de Graaf generator every morning. From Liam I bought many a Pan edition of the short stories of John O’Hara, who was long out of fashion even then, and a first British edition of On the Road which I stupidly lent to one of my university housemates and never got back.
But I digress. Among the charming childhood memories which Carson brings to the surface and the etymology and nuances of Irish words, phrases and names (including Belfast itself), The Star Factory contains the likely suspects – the Titanic (about which my dad had pretty much every book ever written, for some reason only known to him), the marvellous Odd Man Out (the novel as well as the film, featuring the curious Oirish accent of James Mason, who hailed from Huddersfield and was schooled at Marlborough College, where he was in the year below MacNeice), Gallahers’ cigarette factory, linen mills, Milltown Cemetery, The Crown, the Europa, the often invisible divide between ‘Catholic’ areas and ‘Protestant’ ones, the oddity of being a Catholic with the surname Carson, etc., – but also many beautiful lyrical passages, concerning more obscure matters, including Carson’s fondness for bridges (who doesn’t like a nice bridge?), and, long before they became in vogue, murmurations of starlings:
Coordinated, countless sentences of starlings flit and sway in baroque paragraphs across the darkening sky, as they compose exploded founts of type. It is coming up to the time of the year when the clocks go back. An autumn chill is in the air, and shadows lengthen in the inky Lagan. The multitudes come home to roost in serried nooks and crannies, under eaves, on pediments and capitals, stilled and castellated on the tops of ornamental porticos, cornices and window-sills, in sooty alcoves and gazebo turrets, lining the balustraded parapets, perched on the spokes of cartwheel windows and weighing down the hands of the Albert Memorial Clock. (p.237)
I’ve also lately been reading two of Carson’s poetry collections The Irish for No and First Language and been repeatedly struck at how one would be hard-pressed at times to distinguish using the ear (and not the eye) his poetry from his prose, and to delineate where one ends and the other begins – though not because his poetry is prosaic, but because his natural inclination is to tell stories, much in the way that John Berger’s was. Interestingly, Carson’s usage of the phrase ‘exploded founts of type’ in the passage above is a repeat of the wording in perhaps his best-known poem, ‘Belfast Confetti’, published in The Irish for No three years before The Star Factory appeared: ‘Suddenly as the riot squad moved in, it was raining exclamation marks, / Nuts, bolts, nails, car-keys. A fount of broken type. And the explosion / Itself – an asterisk on the map.’ Whilst writers are perfectly at liberty to repeat themselves, one wonders if the echo here is deliberate or not. Although I’ve been kicking myself for not properly having begun to read Carson’s writings before 2014, I suspect that sometimes you have to be a certain age to appreciate fully the harmonious admixture of content and style of a truly wonderful writer. The joy for me is that I have so many more of his books to track down and read. Carson will be 70 next year and I hope he receives the festschrift that he’s due.
Ciaran Carson, The Star Factory, Granta, 1997.