Borstal Boy by Brendan Behan
I have to thank one of my musical heroes for this one, Shane MacGowan. Brendan Behan has appeared in more Pogues songs than I care to mention. Now, I consider Shane MacGowan something of a lyrical genius, so you can imagine the importance for me to read a book written by a man who is called a genius by the man who I call a genius. There is one particular song called Streams of Whiskey, happy and upbeat, always one of the first songs played at Pogues concerts and never fails to get audiences bouncing, which is soley about Behan and his hedonist yet somehow logical way of looking at life.
It seems not only MacGowan was influenced by this man, but a whole host of musicians, from Irish American punk bands, to Dexys Midnight Runners, to the Clancy Brothers. Shane MacGowan also sang The Auld Triangle, a song written by Behan for his play The Quare Fellow, which I think is on the Red Roses for Me album. Behan’s words inspire far and wide. That’s how I came into contact with him at the tender age of 22 (and in later life I’ve frequentely passed by Behan’s Bar which sits on the border of Hall Green and Yardley Wood in Birmingham and necked a cheeky Guinness or three). At the time I was working at Books Etc in Solihull where I could get 30% off books. I of course took full advantage of this, and Borstal Boy and Confessions of an Irish Rebel were two of the most important books I purchased.
For those who don’t know who Brendan Behan is, you can guess from his name that he was Irish and from the latter of the above books that he was involved in the troubles between the Irish Republican Army and the British Government. Borstal Boy is a memoir of his time in what is nowadays known as a youth detention centre in the UK, because it sounds more politically correct than a youth prison (or an oik’s palace), when he was found to be involved in a bomb plot in Liverpool. Behan joined Fianna Éireann, an IRA youth organisation, when he was 14 and then later joined full IRA when he was 16. I can’t remember how long he was incarcerated for, but I think he was moved around a fair bit. I seem to remember he went to prison before WW2 (it’s some time ago that I read it) as it involves something that happens to one of his best mates in prison. The Dubliner, a reputation that goes before most the city’s people, possessed gift of the gab, which is very evident in his writing with an eloquent and humorous flow of prose. It wasn’t a deceiving gift of the gab often associated with ladies men, salesmen or pimps, but a fierce charm and genuine self- confidence that looked kindly on others and a critical eye on himself. He was a thinker, or tinker, and this pours out in his narration. What also inspired me inspired me were his opinions of the working class Protestant English boys. He was a Catholic working class Irishman but he found religion had little bearing on how he got on with people of the same social class. He made great friends and mentioned how downtrodden and discriminated the English were by their own establishment (what’s changed?), and how the IRA should move away from civilian targets, despite the British military’s atrocities with the Black and Tans and the run up to the Easter Rising, and go for the powers that rule. Even though this was a real story, Behan is one of my favourite characters.
He was in and out of prison after his release, but put He went on to write plays and more memoirs, as well as poetry. He seemed to be a flawed genius though, and suffered from alcoholism which gave him diabetes and he eventually died in 1964 aged 41, having lived in London and Paris. He received a IRA guard of honour, usually reserved for the likes of Michael Collins, despite his criticism of the group in his later years.
This was a movie made about him, but I can imagine Behan was rolling in his grave when they cast Danny Dyer in his role. An artistic massacre of such a genius.
A great insight into the troubles with a calm, Irish tongue with many moving moments. Thoroughly recommended.