‘What did I learn? Other than The Sash My Father Wore the North really doesn’t have any good pub songs…and Yeats is very good.’
Sir Christopher Bland is the Anglo-Irish former chairman of the BBC board of governors, London Weekend Television, the Royal Shakespeare Company and BT.
His forebears came from Kerry and he grew up in Co. Down, served in the 5th Royal Iniskilling Dragoon Guards and fenced for Ireland in the 1960 Olympics.
At surface level he is as British Establishment as they come but, inevitably, there is a great deal more to him than that may suggest. Two years ago he wrote his first novel, Ashes in the Wind, which drew on his family’s experiences in ‘the Big House’ in Kerry and in so doing found a way to define his, and his family’s, Anglo-Irishness.
He was struck by how little so many of his friends and associates in this country knew about Ireland and how it achieved its independence. So, seeking to correct this, he wrote and financed his own play The Easter Rising – And Thereafter which is being staged at the bijou Jermyn Theatre in the West end all this week in the run up to the actual centenary of the Rising.
It is part drama, part revue, part Irish music session and – with an all-Irish cast who also learned things about the Rising they never knew before – draws on poems, songs and speeches by W.B. Yeats, Louis MacNeice, Winston Churchill and others.
He has another historical novel, set in medieval southwest France, called Cathar, due out later this year, has just harvested and bottled his own modest vintage of rose wine at his home in France (240 bottles) and wants to write a third novel.
It would be patronizing and condescending to suggest this is an admirable achievement for a man of 77 – especially when one looks at his business achievements – but it should be noted that he is also battling a diagnosis of terminal prostate cancer, for which he neither seeks, nor expects, sympathy. He spoke to the Irish World.
Asked what he hoped to achieve by staging the play his reply is characteristic:
It’s selling pretty well, I don’t think it’s quite sold out. Actually it’s only sold out on one day, on the Thursday and that’s largely because it’s a gala stacked with my friends. You can still get tickets, but it’s selling well and we’ve only just started marketing it properly. It’s a week, which is all they had in the theatre and, to tell you the truth, all I could afford – it’s an expensive business putting on a show.
Given he has written it and financed it would he call it a vanity project?
“The answer is ‘yes’, it’s the theatrical equivalent of a vanity project in the book world because I am funding it but if we sell out then the vanity will be very considerably reduced, or increased maybe.
“I wanted to do it and the only way of doing it was this way. It was never going to be a commercial project.
“What has it got to say? Well, why did I do it? I wrote my first novel, which was published a couple of years ago, about Ireland and I was struck by the number of people who read it and who came up to me and said how little they knew about the Rising, the War of Independence, the Civil War.
“It’s all blurred in the English mind into a vague ruckus at the end of which a generous England gave Ireland her independence.
“It seemed to me that was something that needed to be put right and at the same time Dublin, over Easter, you could find nothing else but the celebration of these events, the Rising in particular, in England very little, a certain amount but not much. There seemed to me a gap that needed filling and an educational gap. “Now I’m not going to educate a huge number of people in a 70-seat theatre over five days but it seemed to me worth doing.
As someone who grew up in Northern Ireland and lived in London at the height of the terror campaign has he been struck by how these Centenary celebrations have been more open-minded, receptive and questioning than they would have been in the past?
“There’s certainly a willingness to explore and at least pose the question was The Rising necessary? Was it desirable? Did it achieve what Pearse wanted it to achieve, the answer (to that) is ‘certainly not’ and that is very healthy, I think.
“And that has all happened between the 75-year celebration and the 100 years.
“But it is also true and quite interesting that the whole of our cast is Irish and they’re learning a lot too. It isn’t just that the English haven’t explored what went on.
“Easter has come and gone without anything terrible happening other than a celebration and a debate – and that is both remarkable and a relief. You know it could have been quite different and might have been. At the 75-year anniversary they were very circumspect about how they celebrated it all.
“This couldn’t have happened, and certainly didn’t happen, thirty years ago.”
What struck him during his research?
One thing struck me, there’s a lot of music in the play, pub songs, and the huge richness of song on what I might loosely call the Republican side, there’s almost nothing from the North, other than The Sash My Father Wore the North’s very short of really good singing tunes. “That’s the first thing that struck me. “The second thing that struck is what a marvelous poet Yeats was. I quote quite extensively both in his Easter 1916 poem and really everything, he was one of the first great modern poets.”
There is now a view, as expressed by people like President Michael D Higgins that the War of Independence or the Civil War was one of the worst things, or greatest evils, to befall Ireland. Would that chime with his own findings?
“The Civil War was certainly one of the greatest evils and unnecessary only in the sense that all civil wars are unnecessary, if only they could be replaced by negotiation and discussion.
“But while it may have been unnecessary you could also argue it was inevitable, there was such a strength of feeling among those who wanted a 32- County republic and those who were prepared to settle for an interim state of affairs and in the end that was only resolved by admittedly quite a brief but nevertheless incredibly painful civil war that left its mark across Irish politics for two generations.
“So, unnecessary? Yeah. But could it have been avoided? If Dev had been a different man, if Michael Collins had lived, maybe. The economic war waged by Dev that followed, the years of protectionism, surely wasted a couple of Irish generations as well?
“The economic war was yet another war, a war, you could argue, of Dev’s making, and painful for Ireland. England hardly noticed, it was a one-sided war in the sense our coal exports, as opposed to Irish exports of beef and lamb to Ireland, were completely disproportionate. The economic war was, as it were, the fourth war.
“That frugal comfort that Dev advocated in that famous speech, the ‘comely maidens’ speech, had a lot to answer for. There was more frugality than comfort in Ireland right up to the 1950s really and, of course, now that has changed. Ireland is a prosperous modern state – you don’t see children with bare feet any more.
“I can remember that, I’m quite old, but in the late 1940s and early 1950s there was tremendous poverty on BOTH sides of the Border.
In his first novel he drew extensively on his Kerry ancestry, does he retain his Irish links these days?
“Kerry is a remote and romantic connection there is no physical link there but in the North my wife’s sister lives there, I’ve got cousins in the North, cousins in the South too, near Portarlington in Laois, so I do have links still, but they’re stretched, and my son, to my great regret, doesn’t really have much of an Irish consciousness because he was brought up here.
“It’s a powerful call and I’ve taken myself to Kerry and we traipsed around various parts of Kerry and that did me some good and did him some good too.”
With that in mind, the question is put, light-heartedly, if has he ever been approached about being London Kerry Person of the Year?
He lets out a hearty laugh: “I’m ready, I haven’t been asked but the moment I am asked the answer will be YES, London Kerry Man of the Year, imagine.
Why should people go see this show?
Do write about it, encourage people to go see it because they’ll have a good night out, sing some songs and even learn a bit, unless they’re absolutely up to speed with their Irish history – which few of us are.
He admits that writing his first novel, which while fiction drew on bits of family and local history which had been “baked into him” growing up, was very important to him.
My first novel my voice was very much an Anglo-Irish voice, the second book the voice is less personal, more research based, putting myself in the position of something I never was and can’t be, by definition, a Cathar knight in the 14th century, the first was personal, it was not autobiographical but there were bits of family life and personal knowledge there, baked into the book, and me, but the second book is less personal in that sense.
Anglo-Irish identity matters to me, you asked did I exorcise some feelings about that writing it, exorcise is a good word. I remember writing a page in that book which I think is quite a good page, defining what it is to be Anglo-Irish and I remember thinking as I did it, that’s it I’ve got it done, so I have exorcised it.
If the first exorcised some demons might the next one – inspired by his 20 years living on and off in Gascony – even be Cathar-tic?
He groans, good-naturedly and patiently, and says such a terrible pun can be forgiven.
Given his troubling cancer diagnosis is there anything he either regrets not having done or would hope to yet achieve?
“If I hadn’t written a couple of novels that would have been a real lacuna, a gap in my life. I always thought I should be a writer and should write (in retirement he took creative writing courses at Birkbeck and at a publishers. He was rejected the first couple of times which only made him more determined).
“So no, I got around to that. So if I have a sudden onrush of the cancer I can die happy.
“My father died at 76, I’m 77, so I’ve outlived him. I am tackling it aggressively, I’ve had chemotherapy and, yes, I’m taking the pills. I’m on Abiraterone, which is extremely expensive, but has less aggressive side effects than the chemotherapy.
“The main side effect is tiredness so I have a two-hour nap every day and I can’t walk long distances (the interview is conducted at his London flat near Westminster Cathedral) but apart from that, quality of life at 77 is not too bad.
As mentioned earlier, he has also harvested his first complete batch of wine. Does he feel legitimate or a fraud about that? There is, after all, a very noble tradition of Anglo-Irish winemakers in France.
“Yes, I’ve started making wine, it’s drinkable, we bottled 240 bottles of vine rose last week, of drinkable vin rose. I feel I’ve passed my exams with this latest crop and I’m an ecological wine maker, we don’t use chemicals. Well, that’s not quite true: we use sulphite on the land which you have to against blight but I don’t think there’s anyone who doesn’t do that, but otherwise we don’t sulphite the wine, we don’t put sugar in the wine, and we do it all ourselves, we don’t send it off to the co-op.
“I’ve got a little winery in a room about the size of this living room.
So what’s next, after this play is finished?
“My third novel, don’t know what it is yet. Got to get the play out of my system and done. Then I’ve got to pick up my pen and start on the third and, given my diagnosis, that’s quite important to keep going. You have to laugh rather than weep.
So, does he feel he is a legitimate novelist at last and is he pleased with the books?
“The next one is Cathar. We have a house in Gascony and we’ve lived there for 20 years and I’ve been interested in the Cathars during the time we’ve been there and I wanted to write my second novel about them. There’s a Troubador song in my book that plays an important part and I’ve just got the final proof there waiting for me to crank through it. “I am (pleased), yes, interestingly I’d put it down and I hadn’t seen it, literally, for two or three months, and picking it up and reading it I thought that’s not bad. I’m a more accomplished writer after my first novel, I got a few cobwebs out of my system and I learned some tricks of the trade as it were so I am pleased with it, yes.
“I hope this (one) is translated, that would be good. It’s quite serious it’s somewhere between the beach and the Booker. So Ken Follett won’t be worried, Jeffrey Archer won’t lose sleep and at the other extreme neither will the Booker Prize winners of the last two or three years.
Tickets are £22.00 | £15.00
Tue, 26th – Sat, 30th April
Jermyn Street Theatre,
16b Jermyn Street,