‘Silvers City’ – Where did freedom lie?

I first read Silver’s City in 1989 as a teenager who had recently moved to Belfast to study and I still own that copy bought with money from my student grant. On re-reading it last year I realised that the concept of a ‘student grant’ is more firmly consigned to history than the violence depicted in the novel. It seemed ridiculous that Silver’s City had been out of print for decades. So, last month I published a new edition of it.

The Belfast I moved to in 1988 was a very different place to the city I now see in the lifestyle supplements of newspapers. It was the city described in Silver’s City. The novel opens with a car “cruising softly along tree-lined avenues” carrying Ned Galloway, a Loyalist paramilitary, who has been ordered to shoot a local doctor. The next day Galloway is ordered to free Silver Steele, the man who fired the first shot of the Troubles, from prison. Silver is freed and returns to a Belfast where he is a local legend, “fame spelled out on a gable wall”, but he no longer believes in the violence that he unleashed and is all too aware that he is now Galloway’s prisoner. Silver knows that he is “a ready-made martyr” and a martyr who is still alive is useless. With the help of Nan, a young prostitute, Silver makes a bid for his freedom, but the only way out is to fight Galloway to the death.

That synopsis of the plot may explain why Silver’s City is regarded as the novel that pioneered Northern noir. Once it seemed that Northern Ireland only produced poets, now it seems to have as many crime novelists as Scandinavia. Brian McGilloway has explained the emergence of these writers: “in the absence of a Truth Commission in Northern Ireland, fiction is the closest we will come to an understanding of the past.”

Silver’s City began that process. Maurice Leitch created a recognisable Belfast where the motives of his characters are ambiguous and arbitrary. He brought an authenticity to the conflict in Northern Ireland that undermined the lazy clichés that had been applied until then. Maurice Leitch’s Belfast is seedy and exhausted, the world of a Graham Greene novel rather than anything that we find in Jack Higgins. The paramilitaries of Silver’s City meet around kitchen tables, they reflect the domesticity and “neighbourly murder” (in Seamus Heaney’s phrase) of Northern Ireland’s violence, the casualness of a war where your enemy lives a few streets away and the only planning needed to kill someone was to knock on their door.

Silver’s City was written in London in the late 1970s. That geographical distance gave Maurice Leitch the freedom he needed to imagine a city where daily life was curtailed and shaped by its violence. Maurice has recently commented that his description of Belfast was not a flattering one, few honest portrayals are. Last year while reading Silver’s City again I was struck by its understanding, and the accuracy of its description, of a Northern Ireland that is now more familiar to readers, perhaps, through the novels of Adrian McKinty, Stuart Neville, Claire McGowan and many others. It seemed the right time to make Silver’s City available for a new generation of readers for whom portrayals of the Troubles in the 1970s count as historical fiction.

Turnpike Books publishes Northern Irish novels that understand fiction as “a beginning, a muddle and an end” (Philip Larkin’s definition of the novel). Silver’s City, like Benedict Kiely’s Proxopera and St John Ervine’s The Wayward Man, portrays Northern Ireland’s complicated history where all either side can agree on is:

“This country came out of violence… Yet everyone’s always amazed when it breaks out again – every time.” (Silver’s City)

The historical muddle its writers draw on is avoided by politicians. The recent election means that Northern Ireland is represented by two political parties who offer completely opposed futures based on equally opposed portrayals of its past. Writers who are willing to offer unflattering portraits of their society qualify such certainties and give context to the interpretations of history those political parties are built on. Silver’s City accepts the value of doubt: “Then the old despair returned, for where did freedom lie?”

Maurice Leitch