Michael Flavin – The Many Small Steps of Birmingham Irishness

February 16, 2024 00:56:32
Michael Flavin – The Many Small Steps of Birmingham Irishness
The Plastic Podcasts
Michael Flavin – The Many Small Steps of Birmingham Irishness

Feb 16 2024 | 00:56:32

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Show Notes

The proud possessor of three masters degrees and two doctorates, Michael Flavin is a Reader in Global Education in the African Leadership Centre at King’s College London. He is the author of two books on technology enhanced learning, two on nineteenth-century literature, and two novels. The first of these, One Small Step, tells the tale of a Birmingham Irish boy and the aftermath of the pub bombings of 1974. He’s also an open, incisive and entertaining interviewee. Plus John Merrigan and Danielle Morgan (aka Fatdan) raise two unique Plastic Pedestals
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Episode Transcript

[00:00:22] Speaker A: How you doing? I'm Doug Devani and listening to the plastic podcasts tales of the irish diaspora. And may we be the first to wish you a happy 2025. And there's a joke that may not last the next twelve months. What do I care? There's a cold wind blowing through the west wing here at plastic towers as Mel Thorne, our trusty retainer, places the last of the vintage red lemonade into a crate. Yes, we're moving domicile. Where to? Well, why not stick a pin in the map? Tell us. Really. We're open to suggestions. However, sunrise, sunset, some things must continue, such as our ongoing collection of the finest diaspora interviews this side of anywhere. Our first guest of the year is a man with more degrees than an oral thermometer. Dr. Michael Flavin holds three masters and two doctorates, suggesting extremely large hands, and has written two books on technology enhanced learning, two more on 19th century literature and two original novels. The latter of these was published in January this year, but it's its predecessor, one small step the semiautobiographical tale of a young Birmingham irish lad in the immediate aftermath of the 1974 pub bombings that has brought him to us. And us to him. Now, a brief warning. You may notice an element of reverberation in the questions of yours truly. The fact is, ever since they've taken down the aris, the tower does tend to echo a touch round here. Hopefully it won't put you or our guest off, as we ask. Dr. Michael Flavin, how are you doing? [00:01:55] Speaker B: I'm doing very know writing is going well. I'm gainfully employed. Kids have shoes on their feet and aren't shoeless urchins, so one takes what one can get, really. [00:02:09] Speaker C: Are they grateful for the footwear? [00:02:11] Speaker B: They've never been grateful for anything in their entire lives, but I think that's industry standards, so I have no quarrel with that, particularly. [00:02:17] Speaker C: And how old are the urchins? [00:02:19] Speaker B: Oh, this is scary. The youngest one is 22. I haven't the faintest idea how that could conceivably have happened. So, no, I'm absolutely mystified as to how that happens, but never mind, let it go. Yes. [00:02:33] Speaker C: What could I tell you? My oldest is 31. He's hitting that difficult age. Whereabouts are you? [00:02:40] Speaker B: I live in Canterbury. I was a postgraduate student at the University of Kent. I came down to here to do a phd in 1994, and by the time I submitted the thesis in December 98, I had a son who'd been born in July 98 and I'd got married in August 98. So I hadn't necessarily come down here with the idea of putting roots down, but you put your roots down, you end up somewhere, and Canterbury isn't such a bad little place to wind up. And obviously I teach in London, and so, like a lot of people in the southeast, London is just this colossal center of gravity to which all road and rail leads. [00:03:17] Speaker C: Do you consider Canterbury home? [00:03:19] Speaker B: That's a weird one, because it manifestly is. This is year 30. You don't sort of spend 30 years somewhere without that being a logical conclusion. And yet it's strange on that intuitive level. I think we had a conversation before where I mentioned it, and I suppose we have the same heritage. If my mother and father used the noun home, it meant Ireland, although they lived in Birmingham from the mid 1950s, when they were part of that huge wave of irish emigration. But they always called Birmingham was where we lived, but Ireland was home. And I don't know whether you carry that with you, that just enduring sense of temporiness, but you'd look at it objectively and say you've lived for 30 years in the same cathedral city in the southeast of England, that's where you're from. But I don't quite feel that depth of connection with it. And maybe that's part of a diasporic inheritance. But then, you know, the island I know is probably partly an imaginative construct and partly rooted in, you know, my mum and dad came from there, so I think I only have an attenuated connection to calling that home. Birmingham, where I grew up, I don't feel homely about at know, and I wasn't in tears in my departure. And when I left to go to university, I left. I didn't come back for the long summer mean, the thing about studying in a city, I think by temperament, I'd have quite liked to go to somewhere quiet. But the thing about a city is you can get a job. That tends to be what cities offer. So I stayed up in Manchester in my undergraduate years and worked through the summer and worked through Christmas. So when I left, I left. And so although Birmingham is where I spent my formative years and the only place I lived before I went to uni, I don't have that feeling about it either. And if I do go back there, it tends to be not the deliberate going back. In 2018, I was at a conference at University of Aston, and so took advantage of being in Birmingham for those two or three days to go and visit my parents grave. But I wouldn't go to Birmingham for the sake of going to Birmingham, which sounds very lacking in civic pride, doesn't. I do. Maybe those kind of never where's home? Tricky one. Sounds so simple. But I think for many of us, maybe with that roots elsewhere, it's a more complex question than its surface level would suggest. [00:05:51] Speaker C: I think there's also the case, and I've had it reported to me in various different interviews, that the island of memory and imagination has changed so much over the course of the intervening decades, that even first generation diaspora who've gone back to Ireland have found themselves slightly at ods with the country they've returned to. [00:06:10] Speaker B: Yes, I think, as I said, my father's funeral, which was 2006, I was talking, you meet cousins whom you haven't met for 1520 funerals provide that. And it was. They were telling me about how much it had changed. My mum and dad came from a parish near the nearest market town was Newcastle west in County Limerick, down towards the Kerry end. And I think I mentioned before, my mom and dad were both from large families, so I had 55 1st cousins. So wherever any pub I walked into in Newcastle west, there'd be a cousin there. Certainly. I remember my cousins who were teenage, when I was teenage, would get very frustrated at the villagey nature of somewhere like that. I remember once being about 17 or 18, I snogged some local girl, okay, as one does at that age, and within 48 hours my aunt knew about it. I said, well, how does that even happen? There wasn't even a witness. I mean, how does that even happen? These german stars used to write to my lot for tips. It was just their level. And I think my cousins found that kind of small townness and everyone knowing everyone else's business very stultifying. And I suspect if I was there all the time, I'd have felt the same. But for me, coming from Birmingham, which was anonymous and not very friendly, and where being Irish probably wasn't a good know to suddenly being. Spending my summers in this place where you had just this total safety net and security everywhere you went, it was idyllic. I accept that place only exists now in nostalgia and the imagination. [00:07:44] Speaker C: Do you have much contact with that vast variety of cousins that you mentioned? [00:07:50] Speaker B: No. It slips, doesn't it? And it's not kind of a conscious disentanglement. But I think, again, in my student years, I remember going back over there a couple of times and it was great in kind of the tail end of summer, before the new term started. But I think it was when I came down here and one a PhD is incredibly immersive. It just takes over your life for three or four years. And then I had children myself, one born 98, the other born 2001, and I always thought about taking them back. But it's a double edged sword, because I would love to have taken my kids for a summer to Ireland, but I also knew that you'd just be rotating around this never ending crop of aunts and uncles. And for the first two days, were they just being force fed red lemonade tattoos and Kimberly biscuits? It would probably be quite nice, but I think it would have just become know and a day out to Ballybanyan wouldn't really have rescued the. [00:08:48] Speaker C: You know. [00:08:49] Speaker B: I was always conscious of my children, of not wanting to overload them with irishness, and what they make of it is their business. So, yeah, I've kind know I've fallen away from it, which is pretty inexcusable, really. But. Okay, so it goes. [00:09:04] Speaker C: Well, we'll move back towards memory, irishness, childhood, et cetera, when we talk a little bit more about your novel. But let us take you on a journey back through time towards your parents, I suppose, both from Newcastle west, it's. [00:09:16] Speaker B: Down towards the Kerry end of. It's County Limerick. But if you look at where Limerick is in the Shannon estuary area, you sort of head south and west from there, and it's 26 miles away from Limerick city. And yeah, it's more down towards the Kerry and incredibly rural going there. Even in teenage years, it wasn't impossible that you'd see some old boy with his wooden cart being pulled by a donkey with a couple of churns of milk en route to the creamery. To me, that may as well have been planet Mars to a kid from Birmingham to see that. And it wasn't a kind of put on for the tourists, it was genuine, these kind of small rural farming families and communities. So, yes, but that's where they were from, Newcastle West, Monague parish, which is slightly outside of the town. My dad was one of nine. He was fourth of. I think, you know, you got the standard thing of the oldest. There was a farm. I mean, my father's family had a farm. It wasn't a large farm, but they had cows, it was dairy, but that wasn't going to come his way. And my mother's family, they had a roof over their head. I think she was one of six or seven. I know one of her siblings died young, so they had a roof over their head, but that was all they had. And I think the kind of level of grinding poverty in that Ireland, kind of post war with Britain, post civil war, this very kind of inward looking country with an incredibly powerful catholic church whose power was institutionalized in the constitution. I think it was tough. These people knew genuine poverty. And I think when they came over to England in the late fifty s, I mean, some land of milk and honey, a national health service. They'd both had the national school system, which you hit 14 and then if you couldn't afford to pay for more, you were gone. So neither of them had any formal education after the age of 14. And I think, yeah, arriving in England, a national health service, an education system, a socialized economy. For them, this was the land of milk and honey, notwithstanding that we were poor in England instead of being poor in Ireland. I mean, my dad got a job as a bus driver and that was what all four of us had to live on. [00:11:28] Speaker C: What did your mum do? [00:11:29] Speaker B: Well, said she died young. I mean, had circumstance been different, but I think she did. You know, the thing about this is for a long time after that happened, I kind of shut down memory on it, as I think children do. You screw the lid tight shut on it. It insists on being dealt with later. That's a separate story. I suppose. [00:11:53] Speaker A: You'Re listening to the plastic podcasts. We all come from somewhere else. Find us on Facebook, Instagram or X. Just like Danny, the central character in one small step. Michael Flavin was brought up Birmingham, Irish in the turbulent era of the pub bombings, marking their gruesome 50th anniversary this year. The world of his childhood is in many ways long since gone. I want to know more about Birmingham irishness in the 70s. But first we talk about the jobs for the Irish in the 1950s when his parents arrived in England. [00:12:27] Speaker B: I think there was a great wave of emigration at the time. No economy in Republic Ireland, plenty of jobs in the UK, things like, obviously, construction, but then the transport system, the NHS. There were a lot of irish people working the buses in Birmingham where my dad was. [00:12:43] Speaker C: So were you aside saying that your dad's wage covered the four of you? I'm presuming you what, two brothers, two sisters? [00:12:49] Speaker B: No, my dad, my mom. I had an older sister and me. And again, my older sister was about seven or eight years older than me and my dad was into his 40s when I was born. My mom in her mid 30s, which for that time was quite late. I suspect I wasn't a planned arrival. But that's catholic families for you, I. [00:13:06] Speaker C: Suppose, and endeavor to be smaller than your standard irish family. [00:13:10] Speaker B: Yeah, I think that was a thing when they came over here, because my father's older brother, one of his older brothers, lived in Birmingham as well. They had three kids, but because we lived in two or three bedroomed houses, Ireland was different. You did have space in Ireland. Again, that was a thing. I was so conscious of going over there at 16. It was just limitless. It was just this galactic sense of space, big fields, and that. If you grow up in Birmingham, you're not used to seeing mean Ireland in miles terms. It wasn't like I was traveling to South America, but in terms of the kind of worlds they were comparing southwest rural Ireland, to know Birmingham was like at the time, they're just totally. They were different worlds. [00:13:59] Speaker C: I recall my dad saying that for the first year over in this country, he felt oppressed by the presence of red brick. [00:14:07] Speaker B: Yeah, if I could just tell you one, you will know the holy water font inside the front door. When they moved over, of course, we had the sacred heart on the wall, we had crucifixes everywhere, and they had the holy water font by the front door. So occasionally, until, say, my neighbors, they were probably okay people. I didn't really know them, but someone would come round to visit, and as my mom would, leaving just without reflection or pause, she would dip her fingers into the holy water font and fleet water over these people. You imagine what the English made of this. Don't go there. There's a mad irish woman who throws water at you. And I think it was so ingrained, culturally ingrained, that that's what you did. My mom used to flick it on me before I went to school. I mean, fat lot of good that did, but that's a separate point. But you can just know the culture travels with you. So Catholicism and all its rituals, we could dig that furrow for a while. But, yeah, I think you take your culture with you and you definitely, in Birmingham could live as an. You know, there was the irish centre, a communal know. The kids I went to school with were overwhelmingly had at least one irish parent. And often know the Irish were a big racial minority in Britain at the time. And you could very easily live effectively as an irish person, notwithstanding that you were in Birmingham. But of course, after the pub bombings in 1974, that just stopped. And I get absolutely why that just stopped. And as far as I'm aware, it wasn't restored until the 1990s. And I'd left in 87. I think, post pub bombings, that community crept into its shell. And I get why it did, because obviously it was target. But then alongside that, there was an irish center in Digbeth which I write about at some length in one small step, my memories of what that place was like. But, I mean, I remember being there, being there in the early 80s. [00:16:01] Speaker D: But. [00:16:01] Speaker B: Even then, Ira songs form part of the repertoire and this would have been less than a decade after the pub bombing, so that culture still persisted, but I think it was more covert, I think, in a conversation we've had before. I mean, I went to Manchester for my first degree and there were irish pubs and clubs in Manchester. And partly because it was just something I knew, I often gravitated towards these places. I felt a lot more at ease with my irishness at Manchester because it wasn't an know. I recall going to a wolf Tones gig, which is just total chaos, but very good fun. I think Birmingham Irishness in that period, post pub bombings, pre Celtic Tiger, was that bit more hemmed in and furtive. And I don't think it had the confidence and ease of the Manchester irish community I experienced, and certainly not the London Irish again, you and I both attended an exhibition recently, the Irish at 50, and I thought what was so impressive about it was just the complete absence of apology. It was just this bold, confident, contented narrative of people who come here and made such tremendous impact economically, socially, culturally. I think there's. London Irish is a self confident community and it's all the better for it. [00:17:18] Speaker D: And. [00:17:18] Speaker C: Yeah, around about that same kind of period, late 70s, early 80s, there's bands like Dexies, Midnight, runners from the area who very much parade their irishness. [00:17:25] Speaker B: I can remember their first single, which was called Dance Dance, where Kevin Rowland's kind of howling. He doesn't know about Oscar Wilde or Brendan B and Sean O'Casey, George Bernard, Sean. And it's just this list of irish writers. So I think they were there, but I think they got subsumed, possibly incorrectly in hindsight, into the whole two tone movement, which was excellent. I mean, that's just black people and white people being in the same bands and people of different ethnicities and it's not even being an issue. I think, in retrospect, UB 40 were really groundbreaking. And I think the beat wrote great pop songs. Of course, the specials from Coventry got there. So I think Kevin Rowland, who was very, I think, became more and more assertively self conscious about his irishness. I think Dexes, probably in their first wave, the irishness wasn't as much in the foreground as it was when they did two Ray and afterwards Birmingham didn't have its pogues. [00:18:19] Speaker C: So just thinking on there as we were talking, your dad obviously, being a bus driver, did he have a particularly strong irish accent? [00:18:25] Speaker B: Yeah, my father never, ever lost his irish accent. I think it was as broad as when he died, as when he'd come over here in the second half of the 50s. [00:18:33] Speaker C: But I can imagine then in the immediate aftermath of the Birmingham pub bombings and also being a bus driver, very much facing the public and also having a very, very distinctive irish accent. [00:18:42] Speaker B: Could be a little hairy, I'd imagine it was. He never spoke about it. I mean, one that's just. There's a certain generational stoicism in that and I think a certain cultural stoicism in that, a thing I remember vividly now that no matter what the weather was like, we put the yards into the church every Sunday. I hated it, but I still remember we used to sit at the back. I mean, my parents went to the same church every Sunday morning. And we weren't the only irish family who did that. I think there was always that sense of we weren't really there, we didn't really belong. It wasn't really our church. It had been this kind of small english Catholic community who'd been the congregants. And there was this massive influx of our lot in the second half of the 1950s. And I always remember we would sit at the back, near the back of the church. We're never really of this community. I'd imagine it was hard for my father in the immediate aftermath of the pub bombings. You're right on the front line as a bus driver. You've got a broad irish accent. There were lots of irish drivers on the buses. I think that when I was doing research for one small step, a friend of my father's who was also on the buses, but also then was kind of a more prominent member of the Birmingham irish community. Used to organize benefit dances and gigs, pub gigs for the families of internees. Obviously, internment had been introduced in the north in August 71 and he used to organize benefit gigs because obviously then the families had no food coming in with the breadwinner. Interned without trial on british soil in the 1970s, he got picked up by the police in the aftermath of the pub bombings and taken in under the Prevention of Terrorism act. It was a fearful time to be irish in Birmingham. Obviously, the focus point fell on the six men who were tortured and framed and spent the best years of their life behind bars for a crime they didn't commit. But I think the Irish in general, it was a nervous time. Another thing I've got in the book is this vinyl record of IRA songs and it goes missing from the family's household after the pub bombings. That was real. We had this record called songs of irish resistance by Huey Trainor. This bloke with a nasal voice singing the boys of the old brigade. It wasn't exactly a top production, but it went missing from our home after the bombs. I'm pretty sure my parents got rid of it somewhere because I think they were genuinely frightened of what the next knock at the door might bring. And when one of my father's colleagues got taken was, I think there was legitimate fear in the Birmingham Irish because, yes, six people got framed for it, but the whole community was under suspicion. [00:21:25] Speaker C: How old were you at the time? [00:21:27] Speaker B: I would have been nine when the pub bombings went off. Yeah. [00:21:31] Speaker C: So that brings me on to what school was like around about that time. What were you like at school? [00:21:38] Speaker B: First of all, I was a nerdy kid and small and physically unprepossessing. But school was okay because we were all overwhelmingly irish. The walk home wasn't good because I had this uniform on which marked me out. Instead of sending me to the local state school, my mum and dad sent me to the catholic school, which was further away. And I just made my way there, either walking or bus or whatever. And of course, post pub bombing, you're walking home wearing that uniform. Frankly, I was getting beaten up on my way home after the pub bombings. I'm a nine year old kid. I mean, what are you actually gaining from thumping a nine year old kid? But looking back, I'm wearing this uniform of this catholic school, which is known as an irish school. If I'd been wearing a balaclava and waving a trickler around, I couldn't have drawn much more attention to myself. But of course, as a nine year old kid, you have no idea why. This horrible thing is. Know your knowledge of colonial history is somewhat scant when you're just a normal nine year old kid who likes reading science fiction books and wants Birmingham city to win on a know your horizons are befitting your nine year old existence. It was some years later before I was able to start immersing myself in the reading of history and politics, that gave me to understand the conditions that gave rise to. Well, it was actually some pretty shocking anti irish racism. Post pub bombings park near my house, graffiti on it. Some Herbert had painted. Irish kill rubber bullets, don't one? Not true. 14 people were killed by rubber bullets during the troubles, half of them children. Rubber bullets used to get doctored with razor blades by bored british soldiers. Not true. The person who wrote irish kill rubber bullets don't was probably not that interested in doing the research that confirmed the accuracy of their statement before they put it up. But that's what the general climate was like. It was very hostile to us. I said I was getting grief on my way home from school. As a nine year old child we would said in our immediate locality we were the only irish family because the house we had was close to the bus garage my father worked out of. I think there were other suburbs of Birmingham, like Balsall Heath, Sparkbrook, where there was a much bigger irish community and you probably had that relative safety in numbers there. But yeah, I would draw attention to the fact that contrary to London Irishness, with its rather bold and brashness and rather celebratory culture, there's Birmingham Irishness. I think it's my senses. It's grown since into much more positive forms. But no, the pub bombings were an abomination. I wouldn't seek to say anything other than what a terrible, awful crime, the murder of 21 people just out having drinks in two pubs. But the backlash, that wasn't good either. And I think that's something that's only been partially recognized. [00:24:35] Speaker A: We'll have more from Michael in a moment. But first, it's time for the plastic pedestal. That part of the podcast where I invite one of my interviewees to discuss a member of the diaspora of personal, cultural or political significance to them this time round, a bit of a difference. For with St. Valentine's Day a mere heartbeat ago in the great circulation system of time, how better to mark the season of love than with a double pedestal? Raised by both John Merrigan and Danielle Morgan, the husband and wife team also known as. [00:25:08] Speaker E: You know, for me it is Phil in it and I've started work writing his story. I've had discussions with some of his contemporaries and I think he's an incredible character who really inspired me growing up. His spirit, his attitude, his music, his character, all of these things really inspired me. Then Lizzie were my inspiration musically, growing up and just his whole story of taking on adversity, a person of his background, his courage, et cetera, et cetera. And we all kind of know the story of the final years of his life, his battle with drink and drugs and so on. But I think what is really rich is his early story. Growing up, when he moved to. He was born in Birmingham, he moved to Dublin when he was eight years old as a black person in Dublin at that time, it's just unimaginable, the difficulties that he must have faced and how he worked through that. And again, how people around him, people like Brian Downey and his mother and so on, how they were there with him and how he broke out of that and made such an impact around the world. So Phil Linnet is the guy I would put on that pedestal and I'm really enjoying exploring and knowing more about his life, especially his early life. [00:26:57] Speaker D: So this person, really, when I first discovered this person, I was really in a very low, dark place, musically, in terms of theater. My mum had not long died, my dad had just basically died. And I'd sort of given up on everything, really, and I chucked myself into the kids and I just tried to take each day as it came. And then this person came into my life and made me fall in love again with music and fall in love again with nature and life. And that person is John Merrigan. And there isn't anyone famous or anybody out there that I can turn around and say that has influenced me and has touched me and has had such a profound impact on me. And I was best friends with John for a long, long time before we ever ended up getting married. And I looked at him as like a big brother. I looked at him as this mentor. Every time I was down or low, he would say, you can do it, come on, pick yourself up, you can do it. And he would spend hours with me, talking to me, getting me to talk. I had some awful experiences when I was in the police in terms of things I dealt with, and he got me. He was the only one in the whole world, the whole world that got me, that was able to influence me with his drumming, with his passion for music, with his can do attitude for music. I remember ringing him up once, saying, listen, I've got myself in trouble. I've overcommitted to something, because he would say, if you ever need anything, just ask. And I never did. And this one day, this sound guy didn't do what he should have done and it made me look bad, but it actually wasn't my fault. And I rang him and I said, look, I really need a favor. And he managed to get the Lady Gaga rig for this big, massive do for the Make a Wish foundation that I'd organized. I didn't organize do, but I'd committed to organizing the music and the band. And it was a massive, star studded event at one massive, big hotel. And without John, the event wouldn't have to just. It was like this night from anywhere. And he would just turn up and sort the gigs out, sort everything that happened bad. He was the one that said to me, how can I get you to do music? Name a studio, any studio in the world. And I said, oh, Abbey Road. And don't ask me how, but he got us into Abbey Road to perform. So John is my hero. He's that person up on that pedestal, whatever the future brings. But I'm talking about not from my love for him, but just him as a human and all of his achievements. So yeah, he is my inspiration. I know it sounds cheesy, but it is the gospel truth. [00:30:07] Speaker A: John and Danielle there. And if you want to hear more of their fabulous interview, and why wouldn't you? Well, why not take a listen after you finish this one, of course, just go to our website at ww plasticpodcasts.com, click on the episodes page and there they'll be, along with a veritable dragoon of diaspora discussion to see you all the way through to spring. Also available on Spotify, audible and Amazon podcasts. However, while you are at www.plasticpodcasts.com, why not subscribe? Just go to our homepage, scroll to the bottom, insert your contact details in the space provided, and one click and confirmatory email later. You too can be a member of our plastic band, the sweetest talking combo in the world. Now back to Michael Flavin. His first novel, one small step, tells the tale of Danny growing up in a Birmingham irish family at the time of the pub bombings in 1974, and the mysterious visitor who comes to stay the day after the explosions. Given there's so much time and distance between the lad he was then and the man he is now, I wonder what drove Michael to write such a potentially contentious piece for his first novel. [00:31:22] Speaker B: Basically, I'd started a new job in January 2009, which I really didn't like. So partly just to kind of distract myself in the working hours and partly to look busy, I just started at that stage, jotting down on word docs, vignettes from childhood, things I'd never written, things that were always there, and I produced about 20,000 words. I'd written books already, but academic books I teach at a university, so journal articles and books are just part of what you produce as part of your professional role. And they just sort of sat there for a bit. And then between 2016 and 2018, I did a master's in creative writing for my own development, which was a two year program. And on the second of those two years, I dug out what I'd written before and started writing much more, a novel about the Birmingham pub bombings and their aftermath, based on these vignettes that I'd written already. And I can honestly say it sounds arrogant, but I'll say it anyway, it was by far the easiest book I've ever written in that once I started writing, it just flowed and it was all my memories of that period. And then doing what I do for a living, I did the tedious academic thing and just read all the books I could find and all the articles I could find. So you're able to place things in much more historical context then and all that fed forward into the. Basically, by the end of the Masters, I had a full first draft of a novel of that second of the two years of the Masters. Then just bits and pieces. When time allowed, I did a bit more work on it. I kept reading, I kept editing, and eventually, then around end of 2021, beginning of 2022, I just felt confident enough in what I'd produced to approach a couple of publishers got very lucky. I did find that the places I sent it to, everyone got back, said, oh, this is really good, we're interested. But the first place that offered me a contract was bullpine. And my editor, who turns out came from Newcastle west. That's the Irish for him. The editor I work with there is from the same place as my mom and dad. That's the advantage of being diasporic, I suppose. Yeah, I was really pleased. He's been very supportive, publisher's been very supportive. And, yeah, then when it came out, the reaction to has been really positive. So writing is an arduous experience. It's not always a pleasant experience, but I'd have to say with one small step, that's what it's been. [00:33:43] Speaker C: It's a brilliant, brilliant book. There's part of me that sort of goes, is this because we're both of the similar generation, that an awful lot of prustian rushes kind of happen? It's the obsession with the Apollo missions and so forth. [00:33:55] Speaker B: Yeah, I think. I mean, look, if you were a kid at that time, space was a big deal. [00:34:01] Speaker C: There was so much of it. [00:34:02] Speaker B: Yeah, the Cold War, rockets, all of that. I mean, I was right into that. And as a kid who read a lot and liked to escape a lot, I mean, science fiction is such a brilliant, escapist genre. If you're a kid and you can postulate yourself in stories where you're zapping the hell out of aliens and things like that, I mean, it was just so great. It was such a fertile field to explore. So, yeah, I mean, the way that that was constructed in the book, the first draft, it only had two mentions of this thing where Danny starts writing this parallel science fiction story in which he's trying to almost act out. It's almost like the shakespearean play within a play, that it's the child trying to act out and make sense of these things that just don't make sense. So it becomes this stage on which it can perform. But the early readers who I showed it to were saying, look, I really like that bit where Danny starts doing this parallel fantasy where he's in a space story. And that's where I started to punctuate the novel with much more of them. And I think they're quite a substantial presence by the time it gets there. I think it's definitely generational. And I share your thing. I've been very scrupulous in trying to chase up people I know who've read it, who don't have that irish heritage and saying, well, did you get mean? I'm actually slightly incredulous. And people. I mean, I think the parallel thing is I never got why english people got Father Ted, because so much of it know the lovely girl competition. How'd you get that if you don't know what the Rose of trolley is? And yet still english audiences manage to get it. It worked on these. I was always slightly indignant, so you can't laugh at that. You're not irish. How are you getting it? The 1970s now gets lambasted when we look back on it. Oh, wasn't it terrible? Strikes and all that? The 1970s was also a time when you didn't pay any money to get a prescription. It was also a time when you went to university and got a grant from your local authority for it. You weren't putting yourself in a generation of debt for it. Because I think now that the kind of rear view mirror judgment on the 1970s is very harsh. But I think we're of an age now where I remember the 1990s in my laddish movement of the likes of Skinner and Badil. That doesn't look at all clever through the rear view mirror. If you think their fantasy football program and this chant they started about a black footballer, Jason Lee, that just followed that lad around the country and made his life very hard. That really doesn't look very clever through the rear view mirror at all. And I think when you live these experience and you are imminent in them, that's a very different experience to this kind of outside looking in perspective that history gives you. So I think we should credit the little more nuance. Yes, trade unions were much stronger then. I need a bit of convincing. That was such a bad thing. [00:36:54] Speaker C: It's also the time when Tyker, a certain type of irishman, rises up in popular culture. And I'm not just talking about the stand up comedian, but also you talk about Terry Wogan, Dave Allen. Those kind of individuals who kind of break a mold of erudition. [00:37:11] Speaker B: They do. I think even that's two edged. There's a couple of points there that I'd like to pick up on one. Yes, I think Wogan. Okay, leave Wogan where he is. Dave Allen was certainly, I think, an established. Instead of this manic running around like Ben Elton did in the late 70s, here's some irish guy who sits in a chair with a cigarette in his hand, a glass of whiskey for the side, and he's just like the oral storyteller. This fantastic indigenous irish tradition of almost kind of the round of fire, telling these long stories with the comic digressions to them. I mean, when you talk about what the 1970s were like, and you've just seen it there. And we'd mentioned music earlier, I think a big omission from that is steel pulse, the reggae band that came out of Hansworth. I mean, the first song I heard by them was Klu Klux Klan, where these. You know, you're saying, yes, the 1970s, there was a certain far right presence in the national front at the time. There were people who stood to face them and face them down. The anti nazi league turned out on the street. And I think what Steele Pulse did. So I think there were some interesting countercurrents and dialectical tensions in the 1970s, which perhaps with slightly different historical conditions, could have gone a very different way. And we might have seen a very different United Kingdom to the one that came out of post 1979 and Margaret Thatcher's conservative government coming into power. So I think there's kind of a notable cultural suffix there as well. I don't really know what more I can add to that particular point, except noting that the. Get this very monorail of bad press. If we draw out what was going on there, and I think I dig into parts of it in one small step, albeit with a certain political slant, I think there's probably still interesting things to be said about it. I think there was Andy Beckett's book called when the lights go out, which is a social history of Britain in the 1970s, which is incredibly readable and showed there was a very feminist stirrings, just left wing thinking in general. There were interesting things that were happening, but I think they got subsumed by what happened from the election of spring 1979 onwards. [00:39:17] Speaker C: Why do you leave Wogan to one side? [00:39:20] Speaker B: I think my mom and dad used to get angry with him really? Well, you know, when Eurovision was on. Okay, my parents would be like this. If any irish person was on television, we had to watch. It didn't matter what they were doing. And somehow that was us doing know. So an irish footballer doing know. Arsenal had lots of irish players. Someone like David O'Leary, Frank Stapleton. Any irish person doing well was somehow a reflection on all of us. And you'd have to gather around the telly to watch an irish person. It didn't really matter what they were doing. But Wogan, I remember, you know, in the Eurovision Song Contest, he'd used the we pronoun in relation to the United Kingdom. And that used to really piss my parents off because I think he was a limerick man. So that made it even know, the kind of the parochial insult. So I think there was always that thing about which side was Wogan on. You couldn't trust Wogan. So, yes, I think my kind of slight sense of marginalizing Wogan probably is an inheritance of my parents being slightly upgraded by his. He'd say, oh, Ireland got four points, but we got six. They'd be kicking off about this, that he'd be using the word we in relation to the United Kingdom. So, yeah, keep your eye on Wogan. [00:40:34] Speaker C: And yet still no problem with Valdunican. [00:40:36] Speaker B: Polar neck under a v neck. Never a good look. [00:40:41] Speaker C: So we're coming back to this. And also coming back to one small step. How difficult was any of your childhood to write about for you, or how difficult was your childhood to be read about by friends and family? [00:40:55] Speaker B: The latter first, I really don't know. I think if I started because at one point, Danny's out visiting his aunt and uncle in and, you know, there's clearly a bit of tension between the four adults there and my uncle's wife, my aunt makes a couple of barbed comments about the character who my mother is based on. So I think if I'd started taking people's feelings into consideration, I probably would have written a different book. And perhaps selfishly, I don't really see that as my responsibility. I think my responsibility was to write an interesting book. I mean, looking at it objectively, the whole circumstance. Look, you lose a parent when you're a child that isn't a good situation. And obviously it percolates through, but you don't want to make too much of this, because just listen to any local news bulletin on the radio, people have it thousand times worse and they get on with it. And I think there was a certain element of get on with itness. And like I say, at the time, I just kind of screwed the lid type shut on that experience, and it went there, I suppose. I mean, when I started writing the novel, I didn't have Danny's mother running off and abandoning him. So I suppose Dr. Freud of Vienna would probably read something into that. I don't have the clinical expertise to make the judgment, but there was a lot of things, like the fact that Danny's father turns out to be a tout, an informer. That didn't form any part of the novel's early planning. It just kind of percolated through from writing the drafts. There was a kind of a basic architecture of a plot. Know, Danny's this child in Birmingham around the times that the pubs go off, and there's this sense of not understanding why his world is suddenly different. I mean, the basic conception I had was the William Blake shift from innocence to know that was kind of the overriding architectural idea, structuring the work as a whole. But a lot of the rest of it just came out organically. It's a problematic word to use, but I don't have another one through writing the draft. So I suppose what happened there in my mother's case and so on, is almost certainly a presence in the text, but it's not consciously drawn as a presence. You just recognize that becomes part of who you are and what you do. So, yeah, okay. I think it's a shame that she never gets to read it. That's a shame, because I think she would have as somebody, one thing I do remember about, and I don't have compendious memories about her, she was a reader. And this is someone for whom all formal education had ended at 14. But she would read books from the library. I mean, that was something my father would never have done. So I think she probably, again, someone like that, born in a different time and a different place, where there would have been educational opportunity, could have had different outcomes. But, okay, we really can't control these things. [00:43:53] Speaker A: You're listening to the plastic podcast's tales of the irish diaspora. We all come from somewhere else. Email us at [email protected] Michael Flavin is a highly anglicised member of the diaspora. I'm sure he'd agree it's perfectly valid. Being a member of the diaspora is no monolithic experience. Hey, listen to who's talking here. And when I ask the next question it's probably aimed as much to myself as it is to him. But it's Michael that has to answer. So just how good does he think he is at assimilating? [00:44:27] Speaker B: I'm a brilliant assimilant. One doesn't like to boast, but I'll go on. [00:44:32] Speaker C: If you can't do it now, you never. [00:44:34] Speaker B: I'm, I think, know as someone who's kind of, very, kind of conscious of their irishness and writes about irishness and I said I'm doing more academic work around Ireland and the troubles. Yeah, I mean, you know, Limerick, where mum and dad came from are like the Manchester city of know. They're. JP McManus has put a lot of money into them and they're like this machine that just keeps winning the All Ireland every year. But I'd much rather listen to test match special on the radio. I mean I'm going to have my kind of qualification for an irish passport revoked for saying something so heretical. But yeah, I would rather listen to test match special than watch hurling. I have no idea how anybody eats bacon and cabbage. You know, that irish meal? Oh for the love of God, that's horrible. I'm much more interested in who's turning out for the England team than the Ireland team. I'm a Birmingham city supporter. I watch there I would pass the Norman Tebbitt sporting allegiance test, probably. So. I think as far as accents go, when I went to Manchester I still had quite a noticeable Birmingham accent. And the thing about there, I think it's different now. People like Mike Skinner, again of fine irish heritage, is a great lyricist and his Birmingham accent, things like Fitbit, you know, it is just perfect. I think when I went away to university I was having the piss taken out of me for having a Birmingham accent and wrongly, in retrospect, I think I schooled myself out of it and became a much more kind of fairly just normal english accent that doesn't necessarily get pinned to any one place. So yeah, I think I probably disowned my irish accent, just went as soon as I went to school. So up until the age of four or five I had a broad irish accent. Then it became a broad Birmingham accent. But I've lived outside of Birmingham since 1987. I've been in Canterbury for 30 years. I basically sound like the archbishop now. I just swear a bit more. I have not wanted to load my children with the irishness and it's there. I've never kind of concealed it, but I want to let them find their own way through that because I think certainly as a kid we just had the fact that our irishness was just this impending weight on us. And as soon as I started to think for myself, my first reaction was to throw the shackles off. It was later, before I came to it, so I just don't think that's psychologically healthy. I mean, I have two sons and a daughter. My oldest son is from an earlier relationship and yeah, I think they know it's there. And my wife had, one of her grandparents was from Tipperary, so there's a slight connection there. I think they have at least passing interest. I think they read one small step and I think they got certain insights from that as to both childhood and the different. That culture is both a kind of a lens for looking through the world, but can also be quite an impending weight if you allow it to be. I did take my daughter when she was in her final, her year eleven, and we were looking at six forms. You forget, because I'm an atheist, I don't particularly immerse myself on a day to day level in irish culture. I took her to a catholic school that had a six form and you forget how bloody you walk in there and there's the stations of the cross round the wall and there's just all these images of butchery and violence everywhere you look. And I'd forgotten what it was like. And I think my daughter was absolutely petrified when she walked into this, a kind of crown of thorns blood. Jesus falls for the third time. And I think she was absolutely terrified and never even seriously considered going there, which I don't blame her. So I think I've been very hands off with them and it's really up to them if they want to find out about their irishness. It's all there and it's a very rich furrow, but I wouldn't hoist it on them. I don't even think that leads to a good sense of selfhood, that this is your identity. Deal with it. [00:48:25] Speaker C: I was going to briefly come back to one small step. Where's the differences? Where's the similarities, do you think, between then and now? How do you think the book resonates in that sense? [00:48:34] Speaker B: I hope it has things to say. And like I said to you before, I have been interested inquiring of readers who don't have that irish heritage. Do you get it. And when I was writing it, I did have this sense that on one level it is very particular. It's about the Birmingham pub bombings and the resultant anti irish backlash. But at the same time, I'm hoping there's a universal element to it because it's about a small boy who wants his mother's love, but for one reason than another, his mother's love is not available. And I think some of the novelists I admire a lot, like, you know, you have these incredibly particular stories. You have the maps at the beginning of Hardee's which show you where Melchester is and where Budmouth is and where Custerbridge is. But then the narrative structure of his novels is almost mythical. Know the return of the native, you've got two men in love with one woman. What's going to happen? I mean, that goes right back to ancient know. The mayor of Castorbridge is almost this classical greek tragedy of this know whose past deeds are going to catch up with him and there's nothing he can do about it. So I'm hoping. I don't think I should legitimately compare myself to either Thomas Hardy or Sophocles, by the way, but I think this same time, I have tried to make it a story that's universal as well as particular in terms of where we are now. I think it's certainly a happier place. I mean, I know if the St Patrick's Day parade means anything that's reinstigated now and is a big part of Birmingham's cultural life. I mean, I was around again in the 1990s when the irish theme pub was a thing, which I thought was hilarious because I'd never walked into a single pub in Ireland that looked remotely like an irish theme pub in England. But let that go as know you put a plow on the wall. So I always thought there was. I kept my distance from that because I always thought it was quite funny. But I think it's, know, post Celtic Tiger. I think it's an easier thing now to be irish in Britain. Of course, the peace process, the Good Friday Agreement, has been so instrumental in changing the mood music. I think it's easily forgotten that into the 1990s there were still some major bombing attacks by the IRA at Bishop's Gate and Canary Wharf, where it was much more economically targeted rather than at the civilian population, though we need to acknowledge there were still casualties. But I think the whole mood music around Ireland changed a lot. And I think it's a much, much easier place to be irish now than it was in the 1970s and would. [00:50:56] Speaker C: Be remiss of me, given the timing of this podcast, not to talk about your new novel. [00:51:01] Speaker B: Thank you very much. It's called the voice hearer, and it's a psychological thriller. There are two main characters, a psychotherapist and a psychotherapist patient who has a history of violent criminality. So it starts up in the therapy interface, but I think the motion, the tension, the direction of the novel is the reversal of the polarity. Over time, we become less clear about who's treating who, we become less clear about who's in control. And as that polarity reverses, it's the therapist's past that starts to get hauled to the surface, and it's the therapist who starts to really be threatened with the prospect of fundamental change. So I think it takes that standard therapist patient interface, but hopefully does something a little original in the reverse polarity through it, and we end up learning a great deal about our unreliable narrator just as much as we do about his patient. [00:51:58] Speaker C: Is there a metaphor there for Britain and Ireland? [00:52:00] Speaker B: You know what, actually, you sparked me thinking about this, because I was thinking this is much more genre fiction, and I'm hoping it broadens my audience. Although the next one I'm writing, which is provisionally called long, is the way the title taken from Milton's Paradise Lost. I'm hoping that will be ready for going to publishers before the end of this year. But you prompted me thinking about this and this sense of instability and identity being provisional and up to change and trauma, having that wrenching capacity to confront us with things we'd rather not see. Yeah, I could write a passable academic paper on there, though I had no consciousness of that at all when I was doing the writing. [00:52:42] Speaker C: It's all part of the plastic podcast service. [00:52:45] Speaker A: A couple of quick fire questions. [00:52:46] Speaker C: First single, you'll admit to buying Hellraiser. [00:52:50] Speaker B: By the suite, right? [00:52:52] Speaker C: All of a sudden I'm going starch. A trailblazer. Natural born raider. [00:52:55] Speaker B: Oh, it's pretty damn good. You know, that stands the test of time, rather. [00:52:58] Speaker C: Oh, yes. Well, actually, a lot of the suite does. I'm a big fan of blockbuster. [00:53:03] Speaker B: You know what I think the singer's surname was? Connolly. [00:53:07] Speaker C: Last thing that you listened to that you. [00:53:09] Speaker B: Oh, yeah. I've been listening to Erland Cooper's folded landscapes, which is a beautiful symphonic piece, which has the underlying theme of environmental damage. There's contributions to it by Simon Armitage, who I think, as well as being quite an interesting poet, has a lovely speaking voice. So I got into it. There's a presenter on radio three called Elizabeth Alker who does a Saturday morning show. And I'd say to anyone who's classical music averse, try listening to her Saturday morning show between seven and 09:00 because she'll play something by Beze, but then she'll follow it with Aretha Franklin's doing the old landmark and she's got a beautiful curatorial sense and quite often new music I hear, I get from there and then start listening to. So Erlen Cooper, I think, is a composer that more people should listen to. [00:54:01] Speaker C: First tv program, you got fixated with Doctor who. All right. And last thing, you binged. [00:54:09] Speaker B: Oh, culture wise. Oh, succession, believe the hype because so often these things get, oh, you must see, you must see, you must see. And then you see it and think, yeah, all right, bit formula, you've only seen it a thousand times before, but succession, you know the way the character Roman, who's like a think, oh, you know the way that know again, it's a bit like Sophocles Oedipus Rex, where you start and then the whole thing is this tumbling down. So, no, I think succession, I've watched all four series. I've now bought the script books because I'm trying to learn lessons about economy and pacing and characterization. It's a good instruction text for writers. [00:54:49] Speaker C: Last question. What does being a member of the irish diaspora mean to you? [00:54:52] Speaker B: It means a lot now, and I think, as I said to you before, as I'm getting older, I think it means more. It definitely means pride. We're the ones whose ancestors survived 1845 to 1851. We're the people whose ancestors survived war with Britain after the Easter rising 1916, a much more widespread conflict in 1918 partition. Ourcestors are the ones who then survived the civil war, which carried on until May 1923 and actually incurred more deaths than the conflict against the British had done. My father was born in 1924. He's an immediate post war, post civil war baby. These were people who had nothing. Sure, your family is the same, particularly if they came from a rural context. There was no electricity, there was no running water. We're the people who came out of that. You're broadcaster, performer. I've got two phds and my six books about to come out. I think we should keep going and show the bastards. So I think we've still got work to do. [00:55:55] Speaker A: You've been listening to the plastic podcasts with me, Doug Devani and my guest, Dr. Michael Flavy. The plastic pedestal was provided by John Merrigan. And Danielle Morgan, aka Fat Dan. And music came from Jack Devani. Find us at www.plasticpodcasts.com. Follow us on Facebook, Instagram or X, or email us at [email protected]. The plastic podcasts are a proud member of Irish in Britain.

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