This action might not be possible to undo. Are you sure you want to continue?
Speech given by Garbhan Downey at the Derry Launch for ‘The American Envoy’ May 27, 2010 Hello – and thanks for coming. Before I start, can I just say, I’m particularly pleased to be here at the City of Culture offices
for this event. It’s a real coup to be associated with such a strong campaign. The campaigners have delivered a very strong vision for Derry, and – uniquely – they’ve managed to unite a full city behind a common goal. Everyone now wants this bid to succeed: business people, tourism leaders, the community sector, the arts sector and even politicians. I was in Belfast two weeks ago, where both the First and Deputy First Minister spoke at length about why they thought our city deserved this accolade. And they were both emphatic about their combined message:- we’re a many-cultured city – and there’s plenty of room for everyone. They were completely and utterly singing off the one hymn-sheet ... Even if one did sing the name as “Derry”, while the other sang it as “Londonderry”... Seriously though, the campaigners here have raised everyone’s sights; they’ve started debates, and they’ve got us talking about – and revelling in - our culture. They’ve showcased our great heritage for the world, and have raised our self-esteem and our hopes. They’ve revisited our magnificent past – and engendered a sense of emerging greatness to come. So win, lose or draw, we should appreciate what they’ve done for us. Not that there’s any doubts, for one minute, who’s going to win it. Now that Michelle Gildernew’s been put in charge of the count... Anyway. The book I’m going to read from now is a comedy thriller called The American Envoy. And we’re very proud to say that it’s the first novel ever published simultaneously as both a printed novel, and an ebook, by an Irish publishing house – Guildhall Press. And can I just, at this juncture wish a very happy thirtieth birthday to Guildhall Press too. Over the past three decades, they have become part of the cultural fabric of this town – and I’m very proud to have been associated with them for the past ten years and more. They are the most professional, and innovative publishers, on this island. So long life to them – and many more years at the top. The American Envoy, which we’re launching today, charts the many rises and falls of Dave Schumann, the new US Consul to Derry. The central character is a Boston newspaper editor – and major Obama supporter – who’s in line for a top posting, to Paris or Rome, before his big smart mouth gets him exiled to the next city south of Reykjavik. Once here in Derry, the new envoy is forced to contend with gangsters (none from this city I hasten to add), a feisty shock-jock who wants to burn him live on air and a renegade security team who are monitoring his every move. Schumann’s letters to his father and friends reveal his precarious struggle to keep a grip on things. And that’s before he discovers there’s a spy in the camp, who has dark plans for the Presidential visit... In spite of all his troubles, the new man quickly succumbs to Derry’s charms – and that’s before he even meets the local women. I’ll read you an abridged snatch of his first impressions of the city, in a letter to his father back in Boston…. US Consulate Whitman House, Derry
Dear Pop, Whisper it quietly. Though I’m only here a week, I’ve already fallen in love with the place. The city itself is stunningly beautiful, more of which anon. And as for the people – by God, they’re hospitable. Twenty years of alcohol-awareness messages have just sailed right over their heads. But the one thing that sets both Derry and its citizens apart is their abiding certainty that this little town (population 110,000 at a push) is the center of the universe. We’re not talking opinion here, either. They don’t think Derry is the center of the universe – not in the way that we believe DC to be. They know it. Forget whatever Galileo taught you. All life begins, ends and is centered here. Everything else is gauged only on how it relates to Derry. England, for example, exists solely as the country to blame for all of Derry’s woes. And while the British public sector still funds two out of every three jobs here, it is only fitting that they do so – to “pay for the colonial injustices of yesteryear”. The Irish government, ie the island’s main government based in Dublin, are likewise still suffering the consequences for allowing Derry (and the other five northern counties of the island) to be partitioned off into the, open quotes, United Kingdom, close quotes, in the 1920s. Dublin’s guilt is compounded by the fact that, for all their occasional antiBritish saber-rattling, they’d sooner put their shmekls in the microwave than re-unite the country. America, however, is a particular friend of the city: we’re pretty much regarded by all as the kindly uncle. It dates back to World War II when the city was the largest Allied naval base in the North Atlantic, and we’d a huge camp here. The GIs were great mixers and were never afraid to spend money; many of them even married locals. Their generosity - and the fact that we’d already beaten Britain in a war - made us many friends. If the US is Derry’s favorite uncle, however, there’s little doubt who, or what, is the city’s evil stepmother: Belfast. Belfast is home to the new Stormont administration, set up to try to run this little bastard state after 30, 40, 80 or perhaps 800 years of war – depending on what size grudge you carry. By any rational reckoning, Stormont is a not a government at all. It has no tax-raising powers, no law-making powers and can be overridden at the flick of a pen by London. Kinda like when you gave me my first motorcycle and fitted the block to make sure it couldn’t go over thirty. In effect, it’s a vastly overstaffed committee that carves up a regional budget. But it still manages to annoy Derry no end by ensuring that what little money, and industry, there is stays in and around Belfast, the state ‘capital’. By the way, if you ever want to start a fight in Derry, just refer to Belfast as the capital, without any ironic inflection. They’ll hang you from the Guildhall clock. The Derry politicians do the best they can, but there is an age-old Belfast reluctance to pump any money west of the River Bann just in case the Southerners ever rise up arms and seize back the territory. So, in effect, the Derry Cinderellas are left sucking thistles, while their Belfast stepmothers keep all the jam for themselves and the two ugly sisters ... Ballymena and Lisburn. My job, so far as I can make out, is to make Belfast spread the jam a little more fairly. But from what my staff tell me, it’s a tough ask. There’s a better chance of Hillary letting Bill hire himself a new 23-year-old intern. That’s all for now I’ll report back more later. So long and slán (stay safe) Your loving son David
Anyhow, the novel is essentially a crime romp – about how our man tries to stop a team of drug-dealers from cashing in on a presidential visit. It also casts a satirical eye on the state of modern politics. Though the big problem with writing satire is that as soon as you invent something so totally off-the-wall it could never happen, along comes some real-life client and knocks your efforts into a tin hat. True story, four years ago in a book called Running Mates I invented a right-wing politician whose sidekick was a psychiatrist who ‘cured’ homosexuals. Just one year after the book’s release, Iris Robinson was attempting to introduce the idea as DUP party policy. Though whether she intended to adopt my shrink’s techniques (electric shock treatment - and a big rubber hammer), we’ll never know... Still, all’s well that ends well... My envoy, Dave Schuman, though is a lot cleverer than most politicians - in that he completely distrusts all modern technology. Hence he writes nothing into computers – at all – and says very little into telephones or microphones. Dave’s mentor is the lawyer Tommy Bowtie, the only character who’s appeared in all my books. And Tommy is a man who deplores the written word. It’s his running mantra. In the prologue to Yours Confidentially (a novel I published in 2008), he advises a would-be MP: “If you want to get ahead in life, public or private, never put anything down on paper. The spoken word may occasionally catch up with you, but the written word will hang you ten times out of ten.” Tommy Bowtie also completely distrusts modern technology – PCs, cell-phones etc. And in The American Envoy he warns the new consul to ditch his iPhone, as soon as possible, as “they are both tracking and recording devices”. The envoy explains: “With anybody else you’d suspect paranoia, but Tommy holds the Irish record for having most clients murdered over the past 25 years...” This all actually derives from another true story. About six years ago, while I was editing the Derry News, the offices were broken into and nothing was stolen. We all immediately suspected, with journalistic paranoia, that something might have been left. A bug – or a listening device of some sort. So we contacted a very intelligent little man, who used to specialise in this sort of thing. And he came down for a visit. He told me two things. First, every phone in any room can be used as a listening device – even if it’s not on. Treat any phone like a live mike. And secondly, he said there was no bug in our building – as there was no need for one. If he wanted to hear what I was saying, he’d simply park his car a hundred yards down the street and aim a directional-mike at my office window. I went white thinking of all the conversations I’d had in the office. But he just laughed, slapped me on my shoulder and spoke the immortal words: “Too late now, Mucker.” One of the more serious themes this book looks at, however, is the immorality, or at best amorality, of big business. This thread, I’ll admit, was sparked by some dealings I had, with this US company that came to Derry in the late 1990s. When I was a reporter with the BBC. This company, who must remain nameless for legal reasons, promised our MP John Hume that they wouldn’t do ‘military work’ while in the city – just air traffic control.
But the rumours persisted so I managed to get myself, and another journalist, a briefing from them. Very serious affair it was. A big gathering of senior executives assured us that military work couldn’t possibly be done in Derry because a) No-one in Derry would ever get federal security clearance; b) And, nobody in Derry was qualified to perform the necessary algorithms for military software – always remembered that word, algorithms. If you could do the math for weapons, they said, you wouldn’t be in Derry – you’d be working for them in Silicon Valley, earning a 7-figure salary. This anonymous company were completely convincing and I bought the entire package. Trouble was, four years later when I was editing the Derry News, two workers from the company came to my office and confessed how they’d been working on military software for years. And after a long inquiry, sure enough the company admitted what they’d been doing. So, another tack in the book is the lengths big business will go to, to protect its interests. Though, if I’m to be totally honest, I was far more upset that I’d been played for an idiot than I was to hear that a company, which is known all around the world for making military software, had actually made some in Derry. The other element of the book which I drew from real life is smuggling. Schumann’s grandfather, Old Poppy, was a bootlegger in Boston, alongside a man called ‘Joey K’, back in the 1920s. So when the Envoy is having difficulty tracking his modern day drugs smugglers, his father – Pop is able to give him some insight into their methods. My own grandfather, allegedly, did a little bit of smuggling in his day – and like old Poppy, he had to shut up shop after he was ratted out by an informer. The difference though, is, that my Grandda was smuggling within Ireland. So his church and civic leaders always gave him full absolution – because as we all know, the border was a mortal sin in the first place. Moving on, and as in all my books, there’s a femme fatale or two at play. Ellie Boyce is the bolshie radio presenter who knocks the lining out of the Envoy during a telephone-interview – set up by her uncle, Tommy Bowtie, who as I’ve said is Schumann’s local mentor. Here’s the Envoy’s account of his first face-to-face meeting with Ellie, shortly afterwards: “Dear Pop, By sheer coincidence, Ellie was in the same restaurant Tommy and I were in on Friday night. The Derry Standard editor Mary Slavin was treating her to a celebratory welldone-you-kicked-the-shit-out-of-the-Yank dinner. “Gotta say, Ellie inherited few of Tommy’s genes, other than maybe his clever-bastard lawyering skills. She looks far less shrewish, and much younger, than I expected – kinda like a twenty-something Nicole Kidman, only less severe. Great smile, and you can see the humor in her eyes – all of which, of course, didn’t come across in the phone interview. She does have the dreaded McGinlay red hair, though hers is more of a dark copper color, and as straight as Tommy’s is wiry. Anyhow, after a couple of fairly cool introductions, I sent her over a bottle of wine to pretend there were no hard feelings. But apparently there were on her side, and she sent it straight back. Then, as they were leaving, I nodded over goodnight, and she looked right through me, before chiming out, “See you, Uncle Tommy. Thanks for setting me up another patsy.” Thus emptying the two of us with the same one-liner. Tommy burst
out laughing and assured me she really liked me. If she hadn’t, she’d have returned the bottle in her trademark, less-than-traditional manner. As I watched her leave the car park, she looked out of her little eco-car and gave me that exact same shit-eating grin the Fordham center gave me, when he pulled down my shorts at the end of Boston U’s worst mauling in living memory. And, I have to confess, I felt something stir in me. Maybe it’s because I’m not used to being beaten. Or maybe, just maybe, if I’m to be honest, it’s because she’s the type I might have gone for once – back before she made me a eunuch . . . Oh, God, don’t tell me this is how it’s going to be for me.” So that’s Ellie. But Schumann also has to contend with Dr Christina Diaz the Texan head of the local pharmaceutical plant. After a public outcry, he has to order her to close down her vivisection unit. And here, he tells his friend, Monty Boyce, about his first visit to her factory. What can I say, Monty? She charmed me, just like you said she would. If I’d been any more of a puppy dog, I’d have climbed right up on her leg. Long, slim legs they are too. A perfect complement for her spectacular black curly hair, and this generous Latina mouth - whiter teeth than a Mormon god. Add in half a yard of cleavage that would put a shake in your hand, and two perfect hazel eyes, and you’d wonder how in the hell anyone gets any work done at that plant at all. I’m sure glad I’m not employed there; I’d need a saline drip. It didn’t help that she was en route to a cocktail party and was wearing this very short and very low-cut yellow dress. Honest to God, I nearly snapped my neck in two, trying to keep my eyes on her face. Lot younger than I thought, too; CEO at twenty-nine. I was thirty-one before I made editor and, as you recall, I consider myself one of the smartest people I know. In a further twist, however, one of the Envoy’s women is not exactly as she seems. This happens from time to time in my books – just as it happens from time to time in real life. Unlike real life, however, there is usually a moral balance to my books. Comedy, since time immemorial, is concerned with righting wrongs and applying the exact amount of poetic justice. Or as Carl Hiaasen, the American satirist, would put it, the nastier the villain, the worse his comeuppance has to be. My villains have at various stages been filmed wrestling with their mistresses, blown apart while doing their gardens and sodomised with bananas. If you can’t do the time, don’t do the crime... And so it is in The American Envoy. But I’m not going to give any more away – or you’ll not bother buying the book... Finally, can I just say that I enjoyed writing the Envoy character more than any others I’ve ever created. Probably because he allows me to stand back and take an impartial and unjaundiced look at Derry. Ourselves as others see us. And despite all the drama, the one abiding message the envoy sends back home, is his real appreciation for this city and its people. He knows this is a very special place. A place unique in all the world. And now, thanks to the City of Culture campaign, the rest of the world is going to hear that message as well. So again, thank you all very much for coming – and I hope you enjoy the book.
This action might not be possible to undo. Are you sure you want to continue?
We've moved you to where you read on your other device.
Get the full title to continue listening from where you left off, or restart the preview.