Borstal Boy

BehanThe Irish playwright and novelist, Brendan Behan, was arrested in Liverpool with a suitcase full of high explosives. He was only sixteen at that time in 1939, but was full of the revolutionary spirit and the cause of the IRA.  Behan was underage and was remanded to what we now call reform school but in Great Britain is official called the Borstal Institutions.

Borstal Boy is Brendan Behan’s autobiographical account of his experiences in the Borstal, including his early detention, trial, incarceration, and release. I was surprised that this book didn’t have a greater exposure and following. Behan is an excellent writer, using clear prose that subtly sings to the reader. The narrative is engaging, human, and educational, the themes are universal and even the seamier parts are delivered with forthrightness while at the same time not becoming sordid. Most of the less gentile speech is smoothed over by the author’s representation of slang and regional dialect. Oh, and there are a goodly number of Irish songs woven into the narrative, some well-known, others more topical and specifically Irish (Behan was an excellent singer).

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I stood tip-toe on a little hill

Throughout my years of reading, teaching, discussing, appreciating literature I have tossed off a few pithy phrases that sometimes help to get the discussion going and sometimes shut it down and make immediate adversaries of everyone around me. I suppose it depends of the room I am playing at the time.

It’s All Fiction

This one I absolutely stand by—all writing is fiction—it may seem real but it is all filtered by the human imagination and intellect. People have argued that if history is fiction then the Holocaust didn’t happen. See the fallacy here? I didn’t say that the events in the history of the world were fiction, only that the writing about those events is fiction. All writers, whether they are involved with fiction or that bookstore categorization, non-fiction, select what they will write and how they will write it. Do you know they place Glenn Beck in the non-fiction shelves. That should tell you  … It’s all fiction!

All great English Literature is written by the Irish

This one has many exceptions but even so, think of the great writers of English Literature:  Oscar Wilde, Jonathan Swift, Oliver Goldsmith, W. B. Yeats, James Joyce, Laurence Sterne, Sean O’Casey, John M. Synge, Elizabeth Bowen, Samuel Beckett, Brian O’Nolan, William Congreve, Richard Brinsley Sheridan, John Banville, George Berhard Shaw, Maria Edgeworth, George Moore, Charles Maturin, C. S. Lewis, Edna O’Brien, Bram Stoker, J. Sheridan Le Fanu, … and many more.

To be a great poet you have to either die of consumption or a venereal disease, preferably at a young age

This one shows my focus on the English Romantic poets as an undergraduate (I shifted to Restoration Drama in graduate school). I’m sure that the list of English poets who died of old age is quite impressive, but for a while there, I didn’t know if I should cough or just head for the opium den.

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