The rocks where J.G. Farrell was fishing when he fell into the sea.
Artillery Row Books

A literary pilgrimage to a watery grave

Following in the footsteps of the author J.G. Farrell

The funeral pyre of scrapped holidays continues to grow with summer plans—and quite possibly those further ahead—ruined by the fallout of COVID-19. We are left consoling ourselves with memories of holidays and trips of yesteryear, while scanning online “lockdown reading lists” for inspiration to while away the hours. 

This combination set me reminiscing about what you could call a literary-cum-journalistic pilgrimage I made to Cork in southwest Ireland to visit the grave of the Anglo-Irish writer J.G. Farrell. A wonderfully leftfield type of writer, perhaps Farrell’s early death in 1979 aged only 44 explains why he isn’t more widely known and remains under-read and under-appreciated. He has long been a favourite of mine after I found a copy of his intriguingly named The Singapore Grip on my father’s bookshelf. The title derives from the fabled sexual technique practiced by local prostitutes, and this story about the fallout of the World War II Japanese occupation of Singapore for a British family running one of the colony’s leading trading companies serves as the third novel in his series known as the Empire Trilogy, which deal with the political and human consequences of British colonial rule.

“When you staggered outside into the sweltering night, you would have been able to inhale that incomparable smell of incense, of warm skin, of meat cooking in coconut oil, of money and frangipani, and hair-oil and lust and sandalwood and heaven knows what, a perfume like the breath of life itself.” Reading that line lifts me every time. Lockdown hath no power with writing that good at conjuring a parallel dimension. 

Farrell became a further source of inspiration as I muddled along as a freelance journalist in the Horn of Africa. For he lived the life of a foreign correspondent in many ways, traveling to the US, Mexico, India, Vietnam and Singapore, taking extended stays to research his novels. Such immersion paid off. One of the qualities of his writings that I most appreciate is how he probed the complexities, contradictions and emotions that motivated colonialists and locals. The resulting historical fiction mixed comedy and tragedy—a far more accurate representation of foreign life than offered by most of the shallow interpretations you encounter in today’s media, especially with its fixation on “breaking news” and click baiting readers. During four years of sweaty freelancing in the Horn, I discovered how hard it is to persuade mainstream editors to run with stories from an African country outside the established narratives fixated on corruption, war, disease and crisis.

Such narratives embraced—and the lens that comes with them through which we gaze (or are forced to gaze)—can prove all powerful. Today, the tendency of revisionist history is to take a dim view of everything to do with the British Empire. But Farrell showed, through a combination of his creative genius and approaching troubled colonial histories with profound empathy, how the truth is always far more nuanced and slippery, containing both darkness and light, as well as a host of characters who are neither heroes nor villains. Quite possibly, such empathy was motivated by Farrell’s recognition of his own mercurial and paradoxical elements as described in Lavinia Green’s fantastic biography, J.G. Farrell: The making of a writer.

I owe it to her last chapter detailing Farrell’s final months in Ireland for inspiring me to plan my literary pilgrimage. From her narrative I identified four sites to try and find around the west Cork coast:  the cottage where Farrell lived while working on his final novel, the local pub he frequented, the rock he fell off when fishing, and his grave. The chapter gave few geographical details about any of these places that would actually help me track them down, but fortunately I set off accompanied by my best friend and fellow Farrell fan whose navigational skills far exceeded mine as we drove down the narrow Cork country roads heading southwest towards another intriguingly named locality, the Sheep’s Head Peninsula.

The author (far left) gazing at the slippery rocks and crashing waves, all too easily envisaging how J.G. Farrell met his end.

The proprietor of a small grocery store pointed us to the White Horse pub that we were after in the village of Kilcrohane. But my satisfaction at finding it dipped upon entering and discovering a remodelled café and artist’s gallery. A coffee machine hissed behind the original bar where Farrell must once have once stood. My spirits rose, though, when we heard that the pub’s original owner still lived in the house next door.  

“He was quiet but friendly,” the retired landlord told us, after answering our knock on his door. He offered to accompany us to Farrell’s cottage, though we declined, confident we could follow a description in the biography: “Past Kilcrohane on the road from Durrus, turn right at green shop, over brow of hill, right at a T junction, then fork left at cattle pen and first house on the right.” 

The rocks where J.G. Farrell was fishing when he fell into the sea.

After much reversing one way and then another, we eventually stood outside a large cottage.  But no one was in, and after much peering in through windows, there was nothing to confirm we’d found the right place.

“Are you lads all right?” a middle-aged man called from a car that pulled up alongside us. We explained our plight. “Ah, I wondered if that was what you were about—that’s why I drove up. Yes, this is where he lived.” We all introduced ourselves, after which I got a bit excited. 

The author meeting Jerry Daly, who taught J.G. Farrell how to fish and acted as a coffin bearer at the funeral.

“You’re Jerry Daly!” I exclaimed. “You’re in the book! You’re the one who taught him to fish off the rock.”

“Aye, that was me. I’ve often wondered about it,” he replied ruefully.

Jerry recounted the happier times he shared with Farrell before acting as a coffin bearer at his funeral.  Before he left us, he pointed out the track Farrell used to take from the cottage down to the sea to fish for his supper. 

We found small waves beating against the black jagged rocks, though suddenly a tranche of much larger breakers rose up to consume them. It became easier to imagine how Farrell had been caught out, losing his footing on the slippery rock as a blast of water surged around him, before plunging into the icy torrent below. The only adult witness was a mother walking with her two children at the time of the accident. In her account she describes how Farrell appeared strangely calm in the water and didn’t call for help or try to fight for survival, simply looking at her and the boys from the water before he “just went under.” In the aftermath there were even rumours of suicide. But it was later noted by the rescue team that Farrell had no chance of reaching the rocks due to the tremendous downpull of the sea facing the open Atlantic, added to which he had a weakened upper body due to a bout of polio at Oxford University. It was such a tragic and strange end to such a prodigy and son of Ireland and of Empire. 

A plaque set in the rock marking the spot where J.G. Farrell was fishing when he fell into the sea.

I’d forgotten the whiskey flask I’d planned to bring and toast Farrell’s memory. So instead, as my friend stood with clasped hands respecting my earnest attempts, I read out some lines that the Irish poet Derek Mahon wrote about Farrell and his whimsical world of Empire:

Whisper, immortal Muse, of the insanity of the great,
the futility of control, the proximity of the pit,
of babies in the dust, smoking rubbish, a circling kite.

Our hunt wasn’t over. Back inland, we spent a good twenty minutes peering at gravestones in a churchyard before noticing the conspicuous number of statues of the Virgin Mary. It was a Catholic church. But Farrell was Protestant. A short drive on, we found the more austere-looking St James’ Church of Ireland, a stone’s throw from a wind-tossed estuary leading out to the sea. His gravestone’s inscription is solemn and simple: James Gordon Farrell. Novelist. 1935 – 1979

The author standing outside J.G. Farrell’s house where he was working on a novel.

On the furthest bank beyond the whipped-up waters stood a large derelict building, appropriately evoking memories of the ruined Majestic Hotel in Farrell’s first empire novel, “Troubles”, about the 1920’s Irish War of Independence. At the end of the novel, the hotel is torched at night by Irish dissidents. The growing flames leaping against the night sky attract locals who gather around the conflagration. Farrell then gives us what has to be one of the funniest accounts of feline slaughter committed to paper as he describes the demise of the hotel’s primary inhabitants: vast numbers of feral cats that roamed its crumbling rooms and corridors.

“It was from these black windows that flaming, shrieking creatures suddenly began to leap—hundreds of them, seething out of the windows on to the gutters and leaping out into the darkness. Those not already ablaze exploded in mid-air or ignited like flares as they hurtled trough the great heat toward the earth. Someone in the crowd remarked that is was like watching the fiery demons pouring out of the mouth and nose of a dying Protestant.” 

J.G. Farrell’s gravestone at St James’ Church of Ireland.

We had a copy of Troubles bought earlier in a Cork bookshop that we laid beside the headstone as a literary bunch of flowers. Charged with the emotion of the moment and setting, I couldn’t help myself when an old couple walked past us on the path beside the church. “It’s the grave of J.G. Farrell!” I shouted at them over the wind. “The writer of the novel Troubles!” There was a pause as the man looked at me. “Oh, really,” replied the man before considering. “I think I might have read that some time.”

If you, dear reader, haven’t read any Farrell yet, I urge you to add him to your lockdown reading list. And I set you a challenge: read all three of the Empire Trilogy—the third instalment being The Siege of Krishnapur that recounts the 1857 Indian Mutiny siege of a fictional Indian town from the perspective of the eccentric British residents; Farrell wittily nails the strange alchemy of absurdity, idiocy, courage and British pluck that permeated the British colonial adventure—and decide on your favourite. You can while away hours of self-isolation arguing about it. Put a gun against my head, I’d go for The Singapore Grip. Actually, no, Troubles…no, I’m sticking with The Singapore Grip, because of scenes such as when Matthew, the earnest protagonist, first bumps into the beautiful Eurasian refugee Vera Chiang at The Great World Fair amid the cacophony of downtown Singapore. Seizing hold of Matthew’s hands, Vera tells him how sorry she is for the recent death of his father whom she knew, before offering further solace of a sort amid the crowd seething around them:

“On an impulse she flicked open a button of her frock and gently slipped his hand through the opening, clasping it with both of hers more tightly than even to comfort him, with the result that Matthew now found his rather damp palm moulding what appeared to be, well, a naked breast: whatever it was, it was certainly silky, soft, plastic, agreeably resistant and satisfying to the touch. He continued to stand there for some moments enjoying this unusually pleasant sensation though distinctly bewildered.”

There’s something so British about that type of irreverent, whimsical writing. It is a strange quality, British, one that we seem to struggle with increasingly, especially amid Brexit. Of course, there was much that was wrong about the British Empire and its class-bound hypocrisy and greed, plundering the resources of other countries—as described in The Singapore Grip—to fuel our industrial progress while hamstringing the development of others. But what is gained by wallowing in regret, an exercise of which I have some experience after my own misadventures in Iraq and Afghanistan? The Daily Telegraph columnist Julie Burchill recently took to task this navel-gazing tendency, especially among “pockets of privileged Westerners—often students—[who] demand that the West ceaselessly make a show of collective regret” over national sins of the past.  

It is a fair point, especially as we seem to have been making a fetish of it for some time now. George Orwell, who was no fan of Empire due to the iniquities he experienced when working for the colonial service in Burma, criticised the habit of handwringing and trite moralising that began with the Victorians and which means “we have developed a sort of compunction which our grandparents did not have, an awareness of the enormous injustice and misery of the world, and a guilt-stricken feeling that one ought to be doing something about it, which makes a purely aesthetic attitude towards life impossible.”

Finding ourselves now much less satisfyingly caught in The COVID-19 Grip, we have a job enough on our hands to secure our future. In order to meet the challenge, best fortify ourselves with whatever means we can, and if they sometimes be simply aesthetic, then so be it. Revel in past adventures around the world—around which we hope we will adventure anew soon again—or read writing that dares offer a rendering of reality that combines the serious and devastating with the flippant and wonderful. Never forget that “breath of life” that is out there.

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