Still Silver’s city? Maurice Leitch’s 1981 prize-winning novel re-released.

A review by Daniel Magennis. PhD candidate at Queen’s University Belfast.

Silvers-City_PB.indd

Front cover of the May 2017 reissue of ‘Silver’s City’ by Turnpike Books.

A German once said the Irish always reminded him of a pack of hounds pulling down a stag, but, Nan, we only drag down our own kind. Or try to. (107-8)[1]

Maurice Leitch’s 1981 Whitbread prize-winning novel Silver’s City portrays a cannibalistic Loyalist movement holed up in a ruined cityscape, ‘the true terrain of nightmare, fixed in its horrible aftermath’ (92). Its protagonist, the once glorious standard bearer of Ulster Loyalism, Silver Steele, sprung from prison by countrymen with whom he no longer has any common ground, finds himself in an alien city. The careless violence he witnesses leaves him stunned and senseless:

‘He would never be able to cope in this mad world, he told himself, or with these mad people, for wasn’t it a sign of insanity that they had adapted themselves to the sudden see-sawings of violence? Some even embraced the idea of it avidly…’ (89).

Having been out of print for some time, the re-release of Silver’s City portrays a Northern Ireland of the past, but with some dishearteningly familiar echoes. In a recent interview with the Irish Times, Leitch notes with some regret that much of the novel has stood up to the test of time: ‘I suppose you could put it in a depressing way and say that it’s because nothing much has changed’.[2] One of the most prominent issues of the book – an alienation of protestant and unionist working classes in Northern Ireland – stubbornly persists in the modern political landscape. Aware of their marginality in Northern Irish society, we read the plain lament; “We were all second class citizens… and didn’t know it” (141), and the hollowness of the Unionist utopia is evident:

My so-called crime is their crime. We are all bound together by our life in that place. My destiny is tied to theirs, until that day when together, as one, we will smash our way out, glorious band of brothers, and nothing will stand in our way. This country will be ours once more, and we will rule it well and wisely this time. Not like before. Right is on our side, after all, and who can gainsay us… And such-like guff. (165)

At the time of writing, Leitch’s text was perhaps something of a rarity owing to contemporary authors’ apparent aversion for the conflict and the province wracked by it as literary subject matters: ‘The aesthetic impulse is as alien to the Shankill Road as the well-shaped plot is to the erratic behaviour of the home-made bombs’.[3] This source, however, seems to largely ignore the considerable heft of Troubles-themed thrillers (albeit of varying quality) that were being produced at the time of writing, although it is notable that a majority of these works were not produced by Northern Irish authors. [4] Silver’s City seems a book aware of its own idiosyncrasies and its place in the literary field. Broadly overlapping with the crime fiction genre, the dirty streets of Belfast are very far removed from the aesthetic elegance of Christie: “…reality wasn’t like the Ten Little Niggers[5], and he was no avenging genius in a dinner suit either” (132). A stylish, filmic criminality is similarly distant from the province’s capital as an out-of-place poster of Bogart’s Sam Spade looks down protectively and questioningly on one of the novel’s protagonists from a suburban bedroom wall, and pithy, hardboiled repartee is almost laughable in the Northern Irish context:

“Aren’t you a bit old to be playing with toys at your age?”
“This is no toy, and I’m not playing.”
The dialogue was vintage movie stuff, just as the gun was. (87)

Northern Irish motives for bigotry are at the same time uninformed and almost child-like – we read of the “inherent deceit of the average papish” (121) – and violence is portrayed as perennial and as natural as Irish drizzle: “Bombs had fallen from the skies then, now they were planted secretly like seeds that flowered suddenly at their own lethal whim… We’re a violent people. Look at us. Listen to us… This country came out of violence. It sits on the brink” (138, 148).

Silver’s City is a menacing and expertly written thriller which explores the disaffection of a people with their own home and lays bare the corrosive effects of casual and causeless violence. Silver’s City is a place where violence seems woven into its fabric, a desolate stage for the self-defeating blood sport that was much – if not all – of the Troubles. It is a city that “always made you pay for your dreams” (181).

leitch

Maurice Leitch will be at No Alibis bookstore in Belfast, on Friday 2nd June to sign copies of Silver’s City (https://twitter.com/NOALIBISBOOKS/status/870212580563963904).

[1] This and subsequent citations from Silver’s City are from the 1983 Abacus edition: Maurice Leitch, Silver’s City (London: Abacus, 1983).

[2] David Roy, ‘Maurice Leitch on Relaunching His Classic Troubles Novel, Silver’s City’, The Irish Times, 25 May 2017 <http://www.irishnews.com/arts/2017/05/25/news/maurice-leitch-on-relaunching-his-classic-troubles-novel-silver-s-city-1034811/&gt; [accessed 25 May 2017].

[3] Margaret Scanlan, ‘The Unbearable Present: Northern Ireland in Four Contemporary Novels’, Études irlandaises, 10.1 (1985), 145–61 (p. 147).

[4] In his study on the subject Gangsters or Guerrillas?: Representations of Irish Republicans in ‘Troubles Fiction’ (Belfast: Beyond the Pale, 2001), Patrick Magee counts 242 Troubles fiction novels from 1968 – 1984, including Leitch’s own novel. Magee notes that Silver’s City is one of only a few novels which scrutinised the theme of Loyalist violence, up to the 1990s.

[5] Somewhat shocking to modern ears, this reference was the original title of Agatha Christie’s 1939 masterpiece And Then There Were None. The novel’s original title was changed in 1985, along with instances of the, by then, racially loaded word “nigger” to be replaced by “soldier”.

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