Cuckoo – Words have power, and power was what I lacked

Linda Anderson’s Cuckoo was first published in 1986, only a few years after the Hunger Strikes, when the remorseless violence forced Northern Ireland’s writers to look inward. Linda has described her first novel, To Stay Alive, as “set in the claustrophobia of 1979 Belfast,” and while Cuckoo also portrays the brutality of the time it offers a wider, more hopeful, vision. Cuckoo is an intensely political novel, built on the legacy of Northern Ireland’s Civil Rights movement and a feminist perspective. Instead of the aims of any political party Cuckoo places its faith in the growth of a young woman’s understanding of herself.

Linda was involved, as a young student, in the 1968 Civil Rights marches, and Cuckoo is among the legacy of that movement. As a novel it is driven by its energy, the feeling that individual action can create social change.

In Cuckoo Fran McDowell leaves a traumatic past in Belfast to discover a new freedom in London. London in the 1980s was a complicated place for the Northern Irish: “we Irish are just one big homogenous bunch of demented Paddies, but in the north-east corner of Ireland where I come from, we’re British citizens. Some are reluctant and some are enthusiastic about it.” Fran comes to realise that the violence of Belfast actually lies within a global context: “She wept over the mutilated Falklands veterans. Picketed the South African embassy. Visited Greenham Common.” At the end of Cuckoo Fran is in prison, part of the Greenham Common anti-nuclear protest, and she now recognises the part she has in shaping the future as a mother and in acting for peace.

The power of Cuckoo lies in Fran’s developing consciousness, her sense that Northern Ireland is part of a period and its global politics (war in the Falkland Islands, nuclear threat, the racism of British society). In abandoning the solipsism of Northern Irish politics, “something boastful and self-important about living in a violent city. A parochial conceit,” Fran opts for a new future, an alternative to her past: “the strange malevolent chain of fear and suspicion and circumstance” that makes up the Troubles.

Fran’s expanding political consciousness takes in the psychological consequences of the violence that happens around the world, in all the conflicts of the early 1980s: “Maimed and bleeding bodies in the Lebanon, Iraq, Ireland.” Eoin McNamee has recently written of Anna Burns’ Booker-winning novel Milkman: “How do people step out of their consciousness and become observers of their own soul-shrinkage.” Cuckoo addresses that ‘soul-shrinkage’.

It should be remembered that Northern Ireland’s Nobel laureates not only include Seamus Heaney, Mairead Corrigan and Betty Williams were awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1976 for founding the Community of Peace People. It can be overlooked that alongside the violence there were always attempts to build a peace throughout the Troubles.

Fran also turns to grassroots campaigning for a wider peace, taking part in the Greenham Common protests against nuclear weapons: “I wanted nothing more to do with all those tables of values and systems of salvation that lead to murder. That’s why I had to get away from Ireland.” The violence of the past does not need to define the future of her child’s life. Fran names her child Emily, after Emily Bronte, “with that name I wanted to confer on her power and truthfulness, the strength to follow beauty.”

Linda Anderson began to write after she left Northern Ireland in 1973. While attending a creative writing course in London she found the space to “move into a more authentic state, a lack of denial.” Linda came to see the novel as “the unlived life”, providing her with freedom from those she grew up among, the Ulster Protestant. Linda has said of the character of Fran: “although critical of the bigotry and rectitude of her tribe, Fran arguably survives by embodying the Protestant virtues of resistance and non-conformity.”

It is striking that both Linda and Maurice Leitch (another writer published by Turnpike Books) use the word ‘tribe’ to describe those they write about. In Northern Ireland the writer can often seem to be reinforcing each side’s single (unbending) identity. Cuckoo, and Leitch’s Silver’s City, are interested in “the varieties of Protestant identities” (in Linda’s words). They assert that tribes are made up of individuals but to be an individual is to remove oneself from the tribe. Northern Irish literature must provide the ambiguity that its politics avoids, in considering more than the binary choice (Loyalist or Nationalist) it brings the Protestant writer back to an older meaning of that identity. Maurice Leitch, after all, describes himself as a Protestant writer “because Protestants protest.”

Linda Anderson’s writing parallels an undeservedly forgotten anthology of Northern Ireland’s women’s writing, The Female Line, which was published in 1985. That anthology’s editor, Ruth Carr, identified one of its themes as “the birth of a self as an independent, political being.” In Cuckoo the character of Fran is such as “independent, political being” and her independence comes when she decides to become a writer, to control how her own life is expressed: “Words have power, and power was what I lacked.”

This new edition of Cuckoo comes when proper attention is finally being paid to Northern Ireland’s female writers, thanks to Linda Anderson’s own editorship of the Female Lines anthology (a sequel to The Female Line, which itself was re-issued as an ebook in 2016), Sinead Gleeson’s The Glass Shore, which contains one of Linda’s short stories, and Women Aloud! promoting contemporary writers. It also comes, appropriately, when the 50th anniversary of the civil rights movement in Northern Ireland is being commemorated.

However, perhaps, the only reason for publishing a new edition of Cuckoo is if it remains as topical in 2018 as it was in 1986. When I asked Linda about publishing Cuckoo again, she replied:

“I feared it might be like rediscovering some crusty old museum artefact… But the story’s atmosphere feels disturbingly familiar. Once again, we have a Tory government with a drastic yearning to remake Britain… the peace in Ireland is undermined… immigrants are uneasy, perpetual strangers in our midst…”