Leitch, Maurice


Life
1933- ; b. 5 July, Muckamore, Co. Antrim, son of foreman at Linen Bleaching Mills, York St. Flax Spinning Co. (Belfast); ed. Belfast, school-teacher for six years, then BBC radio features producer, Belfast; wrote Fly Away Peter (1960), a radio play about a schoolmaster on the eve of retirement; his novels incl. The Liberty Lad (1965), reprinted by Panther (1968), and winner of Guardian Fiction Prize, 1969; also Poor Lazarus (1969), winner of the Guardian Fiction Prize, both being banned in Rep. of Ireland; also Stamping Ground (1975); followed by Silver’s City (1981), winner of the Whitbread Prize; left N. Ireland in 1970 to live in London, working for BBC to 1988; issued The Hands of Cheryl Boyd (1987), and Whispers (1987), a novella;
 

issued Burning Bridges (1989), set in London and Ireland; also screenplays, including Rifleman (1980), winner of Pye TV Award; dir. The Third Policeman for BBC4 ‘Late Book’ programme with Patrick Magee reading the text; issued The Smoke King (1998), a murder story set in wartime Ulster town concerning the false accusation of an American black soldier, centred on Denis Lawlor, an RUC officer who transferred north at Partition but still who listens to Radio Éireann; awarded an MBE for services to literature in 1999; issued The Eggman’s Apprentice (2001), a novel, and Dining at the Dunbar (2009), stories; issued atest novel Tell Me About It (2011), a novel set in the Irish community in N. London, where he lives; he was the recipient of the dedication in Derek Mahon’s poem “Autobiographies”. DIL

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Works
Fiction
  • The Liberty Lad (London: MacGibbon & Kee 1965), 308pp.; Do. (London: Panther 1968), 189pp.; Do. (London: Quartet Books 1974), 189pp.; and Do. [rep. of 1965 edn.] (Belfast: Blackstaff 1985), 208pp.;
  • Poor Lazarus (London: MacGibbon & Kee 1969), 207pp.; Do. (London: Panther Books 1970), 205pp.; Do. (London: Quartet Books 1974), 205pp.; and Do. (Belfast: Blackstaff 1985), 208pp.;
  • Stamping Ground (London: Secker & Warburg 1975);
  • Silver’s City (London: Secker & Warburg 1981), Do. [rep. edn.] (London: Abacus 1983), 181pp.;
  • Chinese Whispers (London: Hutchinson 1987), 71pp. [novella], ill. Sam Hunter [with imbossed gilt author’s signature on cover];
  • Burning Bridges (London: Hutchinson 1989), 224pp.;
  • Gilchrist (London: Secker & Warburg 1994), 388pp.;
  • The Smoke King (London: Secker & Warburg 1998), 360pp.;
  • The Eggman’s Apprentice (London: Secker & Warburg 2001), 346pp.
Short fiction
  • The Hands of Cheryl Boyd and Other Stories (London: Hutchinson 1987), 144pp. and Do. [rep.] (London: Arrow 1990), 144pp. [contains ‘Black is the Colour’, ‘The Temperate House’, ‘Monkey Nuts’, ‘Bedroom Eyes’, ‘Where are you Taking Us To-day, Daddy?’, Happy Hours’, ‘Green Roads’, and title story];
  • Dining at the Dunbar (Belfast: Lagan Press 2009), 281pp. [short stories].
Miscellaneous
  • ‘Work in Progress’ in Threshold (1966); also ‘The Hand of Cheryl Boyd’, in Threshold, 37 (Winter 1986/87), pp.41-47.

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Criticism
  • John Cronin, ‘Ulster's Alarming Novels’, in Éire-Ireland, 4, 4 (Winter 1969), pp.27-34;
  • John Cronin, ‘Prose’, in Causeway: The Arts in Ulster, ed. Michael Longley (Belfast 1971), pp.72-94, espec. pp.77-79;
  • J. W. Foster, Forces and Themes in Ulster Fiction (Dublin: Gill & Macmillan 1974), pp.268-74;
  • Tom Paulin, ‘A Necessary Provincialism: Brian Moore, Maurice Leitch, Florence Mary McDowell’ in Douglas Dunn, ed., Two Decades of Irish Writing (Carcanet Press 1975), pp.244-56;
  • Linda Leith, ‘Subverting the Sectarian Heritage: Recent Novels of Northern Ireland’, in Canadian Journal of Irish Studies, 18, 1 (Dec. 1992), pp.88-106;
  • Richard Mills, ‘“Closed Places of the Spirit”: interview with Maurice Leitch’, in Irish Studies Review, 6, 1 (April 1998), pp.63-68 [with photo-port].
  • Barry Sloan, ‘The Remains of Protestantism in Maurice Leitch’s Fiction’, in Irish Fiction since the 1960s: A Collection of Critical Essays, ed. Elmer Kennedy-Andrews (Dublin: Four Courts Press 2002) [Chap. 11].
Interview articles
  • , ‘Maurice Leitch’, in Julia Carlson, ed. Banned in Ireland (Georgia UP; London: Routledge 1990), pp.99-108;
  • C. L. Dallat, ‘Standing by the Work Ethic’, in Causeway 1 (Autumn 1993), pp.47-51.

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Commentary
J. W. Foster, Themes and Forces in Ulster Fiction (Gill & Macmillan 1974), remarks that Leitch is ‘rectifying one of the Protestant Ulsterman’s defects: his inability to know himself’ (p.127). Further remarks Incl. notes on The Liberty Lad, and Poor Lazarus.

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Robert McLiam Wilson, review of Gilchrist (1994), in Fortnight Review (Sept. 1994), identifies the unfashionability of Protestant Irish fiction (‘the Protestant vision, the Protestant version, isn’t popular’), and summarises, Gilchrist is a smudged evangel, an Ulster preacher rotting with shame and self-loathing. ‘Gilchrist is on the lam, having run away (churchfunds in hand) to the nightmare Spanish holiday resort in which we find him. / He encounters a young couple [...] his doppelganger, a younger, less intelligent version of himself [...] soon conceives a hot craving [for the blonde woman]. His relationship with this couple charts the progress of his guilt. [...] Gilchrist has the mettle to realise how entirely he lacks conviction [... &c.;] a Cullybackey version of Billy Graham [...] particularly gifted in convincing women [...] grim compulsion for underage girl in his charge [...] flashbacks [...] as the spooky double leaves his girlfriend and moves into Gilchrist’s apartment the novel becomes less disciplined. Jordan, the double tries to tempt Gilchrist into becoming a televangelist [...] denouement brings novel back on course. [...] conscious lack of glitter in Leitch’s prose [...] Leitch writes brilliantly about the kind of pessimistic Protestant lust that threatens to burst Gilchrist at the seams [...] Leitch has given us a definitive Protestant portrait. A Prod with rhythm, a perverse and loathsome rhythm, but big passion, big grandeur all the same. [...] Not overtly concerned with Irishness or Protestantism, it paints a sharper picture of those things than many works which proclaim their relevance on their sleeves. [...] Minerva soon to reprint some of [his] earlier works.’ Note: Wilson is cited as calling Leitch ‘perhaps the finest Irish novelist of his generation’ in notices for the 16th Irish Writers in London Summer School, at which Leitch appeared in June 2011.

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Liam McIlvanney, ‘War in Scotch Street, review of The Smoke King, in which Denis Lawlor, an RUC officer who listens to Radio Eireann but transferred north at Partition, is caught up in investigating a double murder of a local publican and military policeman from nearby US Army camp, involving the innocent suspect Willie Washington, a black soldier not involved but who has panicked and fled to an island; parellels with Southern States, and a landscape ‘manured with corpses’. (TLS, 13 Dec. 1998.)

Carlo Gébler, review of The Smoke King, in Fortnight (1 June 1998), pp.29-30: ‘nothing judgemental about Leitch’s take on his people’; ‘harks back to traditions of the nineteenth-century [...] done brilliantly.

Niall McGrath review of The Smoke King (Irish Times, 25 April. 1998): ‘the novel shows us how far we still have to travel if we are to live at peace with one another’; refs. To Willie Washington, Sargeant Lawlor, and Washington’s ‘fiercely independent lover Pearly Taggart and her illegitimate son Raymond’; ‘fist-tightening climax of a Greek tragedy.’

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John Kenny, review of The Eggman’s Apprentice (London: Secker & Warburg 2001), 346pp.; Liberty Lad won the Guardian Prize; Silver’s City won the Whitbread; omitted from Dermot Bolger’s anthology but included by Colm Tóibín; commends his courage especially for treatment of sexuality, akin with John Broderick; reputation not secure south of Antrim; ‘the more appreciable reason for Leitch’s lesser stature [than North/South differences] is that his robust and usefully discomfiting themes have usually not been matched by his aesthetics’; ‘rarely [...] so imprecise and uncontrolled as in the Eggman’s Apprentice; ‘no thematic [sic for ‘t.’] focus which might compensate for lack of style’; ‘poor wee Hugo’, orphaned, taken in at Larkhill, ‘strange, cluttered household’ in rural Antrim; massive burst of sexual awakening at 16; discovers remarkable balladeer’s voice in his throat; falls into company with the Eggman, a gangster; serves as ‘tick man’; graduates to driving the Eggman’s Cadillac’; Kenny finds that ‘Hugo and his retinue are all depthless creations’ and wonders ‘how many more sub-cinematic crime stories contemporary Irish fiction is going to give us.’ (The Irish Times, Weekend, 2 June, p. 15.)

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Rory Brennan, ‘The Brink of Terror’, review of Dining at the Dunbar [with Eugene MacCabe’s The Love of Sisters], in Books Ireland (Sept. 2009), p.175.: ‘[...] Leitch was more than just another offspring of Joyce, he was a true son, one who had learned from the laconic accuracy of Dubliners and from the robust mockery that flavours Ulysses as well.’ [Further comparisons with Kingsley Amis and Malcolm Bradbury.] Leitch has a number of recurring themes, among them the raw menace and black comedy of sexual obsession. Squalor is truly at home here in many avid evocations of nauseating foodstuffs from cans and packets. The names of brands, manufacturers and accessories are compulsively quoted, another of his motifs. One character has a Swiss watch and a tie from the exclusive London store, Liberty’s. This, among other things, gets him into trouble when the cosmopolitan Londoner revisits rural Ulster. Provincialism is another of his concerns and it dovetails into his overriding theme, the nature and fate of the Ulster Protestant. [...] Few record that never-never- no-man's-land air of non-belonging that pervades Northern Ireland or Ulster as comprehensively as Leitch - a place neither Irish nor English, neither independent nor integrated, neither modern nor traditional, supposing itself pragmatic yet locked in destructive stubbornness. Here in the land of the half-blind Leitch is the all-seeing king. Comeuppances are handed out to all who dare to rise above the common run of things. The returned Londoner gets mistaken for the “other side” because, although a Protestant, he is dismissive of a prominent politician, presumably Paisley. Of course he has to be beaten up. Ironically this brings him close to his aged father, the nub of the tale. Other unfortunates include a drunken evangelist puppet master (as Ulster Gothic as you can get), a retired country and western singer who attempts a hopeless comeback, a clever but conceited adolescent who discovers a professional writer marooned in a country house, a couple of hideous Irish porn consumers who take to rape in London parks. The title story refers to a wretch who has to pay off a debt by working in the kitchen of a UDA-type club. / Here is squalor ad infinitum, the most gross involving teabags and tampons. Of moral squalor there is no end either. There is little redemption and, strangely, little need of it. Leitch reinforces belief in the value of life by depicting it with vigour and wit and by tackling despair with comedy. I am happy to be back in touch with his work again and I suggest you make contact too at your nearest bookshop.’

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References
Books in Print (1994), The Liberty Lad (London: MacGibbon & Kee 1965; Belfast: Blackstaff 1985) [0 85640 332 6]; Poor Lazarus (London: MacGibbon & Kee 1969; Belfast: Blackstaff 1986) [0 85640 342 3] [Guardian Fiction Prize]; Stamping Ground (London: Secker & Warburg 1975) [0 43624 414 4]; Silver’s City (1981), rep. (London: Secker & Warburg) [0349 12179 6]; Chinese Whispers (London: Hutchinson [1987]), ill. Sam Hunter [0 091727 27 9]; The Hands of Cheryl Boyd and Other Stories (London: Hutchinson 1987) [0 09172632 8]; Burning Bridges (London: Hutchinson 1989) [0 09 1735 39 4]

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Notes
The Liberty Lad, Liberty Lad set in Antrim mill village in dying days of linen trade; Frank Glass, a young schoolteacher, is gradually turning his back on Kilgarden, the mill village of his youth, beckoned by the tantalising and threatening larger world beyond; failure to secure headship; his ‘friend’ is Terry, a homosexual who bitterly resents the narrowness and bigotry of small-town society; Frank is introduced to the local gay world which he observes, fascinated but ultimately uninvolved, and Bradley, Terry’s cynical MP friend, who tries to seduce him; fails in making love to Mona Purdy, the school’s married secretary; Blackstaff cover is a painting by Gerald Dillon, The self-contained flat [Blackstaff Catalogue 1985].

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Poor Lazarus, novel set in a predominantly Catholic S. Armagh Irish border town, concerns relationship between two men, Yar, a Protestant and a ‘character’ with a history of mental disorder, and Quigley, a Canadian who hopes to make a programme on the ‘oudl country’ for his Toronto boss, using Yar for material; at one point Yar tries to strangle Catholic girl who has gone into a field with him; reviewers [Brendan Glacken and Benedict Kiely] comment on its grotesque but vital vision of small-town, small-minded Ireland of the 1960s; horror, suicide, and cockfighting in Ballyboe (Blackstaff Catalogue 1986.)

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Silver City, Silver Steele, in prison, dying of cancer (unknown to himself); terrorist, ‘loved for being the original’; on getting involved, ‘someone in a pub one night casually asked if he’d like to make some extra bread helping the cause. it was as sloppy as that.’ (p.65.) Loyalist godfather Billy Bonner; psychopathic killer Ned Galloway is from Scotland (Caledonia); Galloway kills Nan, Silver’s woman; Galloway humiliated and physically abused; in his own conception a ‘naught one’; the sleeping partner is Mr Wonderful, a businessman who ‘runs this place [...] Not politicians or even government but people like me’ (p.158.) After sentencing for the murder of Galloway, ‘he [Silver] would have plenty of time to go over the things that crammed his head. That would be his sentence.’ (pp.181).

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Burning Bridges (1989): Sonny and Hazel, each exiles from Ulster, meet at the funeral of a friend in London. Sonny dreams of becoming a country singer in the mould of his idol Hank Williams and persuades Hazel to accompany him on a summer odyssey through the West Country where the two innocents confront disturbing realities. (See COPAC notice online; accessed 01.05.2011.)

The Eggman’s Apprentice (2001): Orphaned at a cruelly young age by the death of both parents, diminutive Hugo Dinsmore goes to live with brutish country relatives, determined to knock the refinement out of the frightened boy. He discovers a talent for singing which draws him into the entourage of the Eggman, a local gangster, before breaking free in his own spectacular but hazardous fashion. (See COPAC notice online; accessed 01.05.2011.)

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Gay Notes: The Royal Avenue (RA) Bar in Rosemary Street (the hotel's public bar, opposite the Red Barn pub) as portrayed in Maurice Leitch's fine 1965 novel The Liberty Lad (probably the earliest description of a gay bar in Irish literature) was the first in the city. It operated from some time in the 1950s being shared at times with deaf and dumb customers who often occupied the front of the bar. The two (straight) staff in the RA ran a tight but tolerant ship. Two lesbians, Greta and Anne, were the only females who in the 1960s were regular customers. At that time and until the end of the 1970s, pubs closed sharply at 10 p.m. (... &c.) Notes supplied by G. Walker at Belfast Telegraph [email].

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Terry Pratchett: The majority of 99 COPAC entries for Leitch are connected with the audio-recordings of works by Pratchett which Leitch produced for Corgi, viz., Equal Rights (1993), Mort (1994), Guards! Guards! (1995), Hogfather (1997), The Carpet People (1997) The Amazing Maurice and His Educated Rodents (2001), and Feet of Clay (2005), et al. [typically - both 3 discs, c. 3 hrs; for young adults aged 11-16].

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