Even better than the real thing?

This article was written for the Irish Independent the other week, nosed on the new drama, This England, in which Kenneth Branagh plays Boris Johnson. Now read on . . . ideally in a gruff, bumptious Boris-type voice.

How, as an actor, do you play someone like Boris Johnson? That’s the challenge faced – and, for the most part, met in style – by Kenneth Branagh in This England, Sky’s six-part drama series which landed this week and chronicles the first months of the pandemic in late 2019 and early ’20.

It might seem straightforward enough. Boris, after all, is famously identifiable in so many ways: scarecrow hair, lumbering-gorilla gait, plummy voice, poshness, all that Eton eccentricity. Stick on prosthetics and a daft wig, start babbling Classical allusions in a deep burr, and away you go.

Except that would be mere impersonation – caricature, even – rather than a proper portrayal, something that captures the essence of the man. More than this, you need something that fits into a broader dramatic piece: here, a dizzying twist of various storylines, of which Boris is but one.

There’s a further complication, the very fact that the former Prime Minister is, as mentioned, instantly identifiable in a variety of ways: the look, the sound, the mannerisms, the whole persona. As show creator Michael Winterbottom told this paper, Johnson is “quite a ‘big’ performer himself…we have a very strong, particular image of him.”

So not only did Branagh have to avoid delivering a caricature – in some ways, the subject is already a caricature of himself. Caricature of a caricature: how post-modern, but not quite the right fit here.

This England may be fictionalising history to an extent, but only an extent. It’s based on extensive research, some characters play themselves, some dialogue is improvised. Scenes of Cabinet meetings were based on notes of what was actually said in real-life.

Overall, with its handheld cameras and breathless “breaking news come to life” pace, there’s a definite “cinema verité” aesthetic to This England. No room, then, for outsized impressions of anyone, let alone the main character.

So Branagh does the usual Boris shtick – up to a point. He sounds, looks and bumbles along like BoJo, enough that the viewer’s subconscious forgets this is an actor in makeup and believe they’re watching a real person going through a time we all remember.

But Branagh also brings an undercurrent, hints of things unsaid; there’s an intriguing kind of strangeness, you feel, beneath the surface. Often, this is physically manifested: moments where the actor will stop and frown into space, do a barely perceptible shoulder-slump or jolt awake from weird dreams, take the performance from potential parody to something that feels artistically true, even if not necessarily “real” – and no, that’s not a contradiction.

It’s tricky, getting that balance, and testament to Branagh’s skill that he mostly pulls it off. I suppose, though, it’s tricky in general, producing these semi-fictionalised accounts of real events and people.

There’s casting all the other familiar characters, for starters; in this case, the likes of Rishi Sunak, Carrie Symonds, Chris Whitty, Matt Hancock and – coming across as villain of the piece – Dominic Cummings. The actors must look, speak and act like them…but again, we’re back to “impersonation vs portrayal”.

Vast tracts of information must be consumed, parsed and regurgitated, made clear and comprehensible. Agendas need to be scrutinised and ideologies questioned. In fairness to This England, it doesn’t take a hard line or point the finger of judgment at anyone (not even Ken/Boris); rather, it presents a narrative – “this is what happened” – and lets viewers make up their own mind as to how, why…and who, if anyone, was to blame.

Then there’s the question of how “reverentially” a filmmaker should treat something like a pandemic. Crisis, unfolding tragedy, people dying – you want to be respectful and sensitive.

At the same time, ultimately, This England is a drama, not a lecture or book or documentary. It’s entertainment and so, by definition, must be entertaining, or at least strive for that. It has to work on its own merits as a piece of dramatic art, or else it’s pointless, not to mention unwatchable.

In This England’s case, they walk that tightrope pretty well. The show has the excitement of a thriller but with large measures of thoughtfulness, compassion and hard facts adding ballast.

Not everyone will be interested in tuning in – if nothing else, many of us want to forget about that surreal nightmare as quickly as possible – but it all works well. You’d just love to be a fly on the wall in Boris’ sitting-room when he’s watching…


The enduring Irish love for a bandwagon

(This was written for last weekend’s Irish Independent; I trust they won’t mind me firing it up here…)

Presumably, everyone reaches that age where they become neurologically incapable of understanding or retaining new instructions. The grey-matter computer just won’t process the information.

This could be how to programme a piece of unfamiliar technology, or engage with the latest social media app – or even grasp what the app is supposed to do. I knew I’d reached this point when my children tried to explain Ludo – “It’s a really simple game, you throw dice and move along the board” – and my tired old brain refused to compute.

This probably explains why I’ll never play Wordle. I’m sure it’s fantastic. I just can’t get my head around…well, any of it.

What’s the point again? Is it acronyms? A quiz? Or like Scrabble, but without the board and cute little “troughs” for resting your letters? It’s acronyms, right?

In short, head no get Wordle why point.

Also, as you age, you get less bothered about trying new stuff – I believe the technical term is “couldn’t be arsed” – so Wordle and I were, like Romeo and Juliet, doomed from the beginning.

As is often the case, however, I seem in the minority. Wordle is a bona fide phenomenon – and the Irish have embraced it our customary gusto for anything new.

Ireland was recently named as “the leading Wordle-playing country in the world”, after research by an “online gaming platform” found 13 percent of the population googled “Wordle” every month. Britain was well back in second, at 9.4 percent. This, we can assume, translates to higher gameplay per capita than other countries.

When I read that Irish people had got into Wordle more avidly than anyone else on the planet, my first thought was: of course they have. This was my second thought too, and all subsequent thoughts.

We love a bandwagon, and always have, whether good or bad. We go nuts for any new fad, wheeze, development or social-cultural trend. A recent example is our world-record embracing of masks, vaccinations and restrictions…until Government sounded the all-clear and then we abandoned them, equally zealously.

It’s not only modern life: Irish people, it seems, have always reacted wildly to changes in the weather, be that figurative or literal (this proven by our hysterical response to every bit of a storm).

Go back a few years and we had an enthusiastic public vote for legal abortion. But go back a few years before that, and you had an enthusiastic public vote against abortion.

During the Celtic Tiger we took more cocaine than anyone else, and went completely doolally for property. In the 1980s we went to Mass more than anyone else – but simultaneously swore, cheated, fought and generally broke the Ten Commandments at a rate not seen since the glory days of Sodom and Gomorrah.

We shout loudly about pride in the tradition and primacy of Irish nationhood, yet insist on playing the role of class swot within the EU – the mildest critique verboten in our public discourse.

Travel to the 19th century, and Ireland had one of the highest global rates of both drunkenness and temperance, at the same time. How does that even work? Far in the distant past, we took barely five minutes to throw off millennia-old paganism and become the most ardent Christians in Europe.

Our lemming-like rush to embrace the new is summed up by an amusing meme, captioned “I support the current thing” and festooned with masks, syringes, BLM symbol, rainbow colours, Ukraine flag and so on.

What explains this tempestuousness in our nature? Is it passionate national character, which wants to go all-in on everything? An insecurity compelling us to copy what other peoples are doing?

Maybe we’re just bored all the time, forever craving a dopamine hit of freshness and unfamiliarity. We’re certainly susceptible to that headlong rush to “be on the right side of history” (whatever that can possibly mean, if anything).

It’s funny…and kind of sad. Personally, I have more respect for someone who sticks to their guns, an authentic position they arrived at themselves – even if I disagree –than one who jumps on every passing bandwagon like Pavlov’s unusually stupid dog.

We should probably think things out for ourselves a little more. I don’t necessarily mean some big “do your own research” thing. Just stop, take a breath and use the God-given faculty of sense and logic inside your head to arrive at your own conclusions, not someone else’s.

Or, indeed, none at all. It’s okay to not “have a position” on every bloody development. Just like me and Wordle.

Shiver is resurrected from the dead . . . just like Sláine

Shiver the Whole Night Through – if you’ve read it, you’ll recognise the name and resurrection reference in that headline – was published in 2014. That’s seven and a bit years ago, which is both amazing and horrifying to me.

Anyway, the novel lives on to some extent. An excellent new book recommendation website called shepherd.com – kind of a nicer, less weird and less vicious (and way more attractively designed) version of goodreads – recently contacted me, asking if I’d like to write something to promote Shiver on there. How it works is that you nominate five books, on a theme somehow related to your own. So, for Shiver, I went for “Best books where the forest feels like a character in its own right” . . . which is one of the core elements in my own masterwork. My selection included Italo Calvino, Angela Carter, Tolkien, Ballard, bit of Twin Peaks . . .

But that’s enough yakking out of me. Read the full thing here.

Then come back to this website and read a piece I wrote in 2014 – that’s so long ago! – which goes into more detail on how surrounding forests profoundly influenced me when writing Shiver. And that piece, my friends, is right here . . .

Why mandatory vaccination is morally wrong

NOTE: this piece was commissioned a week ago by one of the Irish papers, then unrelated circumstances resulted in it not being published. So I’m throwing it up on my own website, because I think it’s a VERY important subject, here and globally.

The situation, by the way, has changed since writing, for good and bad: the vaccine pass in Ireland is (the Government says – I’ll believe it when I see it) being phased out. On the other hand, masks for children remain in place, and the authorities are still full-steam ahead on vaccinating kids against this disease that doesn’t affect them at all, for God knows what reason. Meanwhile in Germany, actual Members of Parliament are barred from entering the chamber unless vaccinated. Austria has just confirmed that vaccination is mandatory, enforceable by police. The madness continues.

Anyway, the themes here remain revelant, so read on…

Will Ireland yet see mandatory vaccination, against compelling evidence that Covid-19 appears to be dwindling in threat-level to something comparable to normal ‘flu?

Professor Karina Butler,  National Immunisation Advisory Committee (NIAC) chair, this week said it should be given “careful consideration…there can be situations where making a vaccine a requirement is necessary for the overall good”.

Micheál Martin had earlier ruled it out, though experience urges a mental caveat on that: “Well, yes – for now.” If you think this is paranoia, remind yourself that throughout this ongoing horror-show, many things came to pass which we were promised would not, from masks for children and extended lockdowns to Covid passes and various intrusions on privacy and individual rights.

“Ah, that won’t happen,” Irish people say. Yet it keeps happening, all the same.

Mandates have already been introduced in several countries, from “State/health employees only” to “every adult citizen”. Frighteningly, Austria – of all places! – has gone further down the coercive rabbit-hole, incorporating teenagers. Even worse, Costa Rica introduced compulsory vaccination for five-year-olds.

So it’s going on elsewhere, and since when has Ireland made up its own mind or swum against international tides?

Indeed, I would argue that we already have mandatory vaccination: Covid passes. Refusal to submit locks you out of full participation in society, reducing you to a sub-class of unter-citizen. The pass is discriminatory, a form of medical apartheid, in contravention of Constitutional and UN rights.

And it’s coercive. Finesse it all you want with words like “persuasion” or “encouragement”, but that’s just sophistry. If non-compliance – insisting on freedom of conscience and bodily integrity – means withholding of civil liberties, you’re not being encouraged: you’re being compelled.

“Nobody’s forced to do anything,” the argument runs. “You can choose not to, but then accept the consequences.” That’s not really choice, though, is it? The man with a gun to his head can “choose” not to hand over his wallet…but then gets shot.

A “full” mandate, then, would merely amplify what already exists. And any sort of compulsion, from subtle to strong-arm, is profoundly immoral – simple as that.

There are practical arguments against mandates, as it happens. Vaccination doesn’t stop transmission; most people have a tiny chance of dying from Covid; those at risk can be easily identified and thus protected; almost everyone is vaccinated by now; the virus itself is becoming more uncontrollable but less deadly, from an already low mortality rate. And shouldn’t all this apply to ‘flu as well?

But my argument here is ethical. Forcing someone to take medicine, which they don’t need and (most importantly) don’t want, violates their physical self and basic human rights.

Your body is the only thing that’s yours, ultimately. Everyone has the right to deny interference, regardless of how justified people might think the reason.

This sanctified principle – the Biblical conceives of the body as a temple, a sacred and unique thing, manifested by divine will – is humanity’s most fundamental. Even atheists like me can see that, morally speaking, violation is anathema.

And once you do, it’s open season for State and society to insist on anyone undergoing any sort of physical intrusion, against their will, “because it’s an emergency/public safety/protect the health service” et cetera. You think that’s hyperbole? I refer back to “Ah, that won’t happen…”

Vaccine coercion violates physically – and mentally. It makes people question their sanity: how can so many others be wrong, surely it’s me? It bamboozles them with specious arguments about safety-belts, long-ago polio epidemics, malaria shots for holidays.

In some ways, the ostensibly kinder, “let’s listen to their concerns and get them thinking the right way” approach is worse than the jack-booted “submit, schweinhund!” stuff. It’s the definition of gas-lighting: “You’re not thinking straight, but that’s okay – trust me and you’ll be fine…”

Or maybe it’s more like an unscrupulous sleazeball in a bar, turning the screws on a woman who’s already expressed her choice, clearly and repeatedly: “I said no…yeah, but you don’t really mean that. I said no…come on, listen to reason. I said no…but it’s the right thing to do…”

Mandates are a disgrace to so-called civilised society. They force individuals to betray their true self, renounce their rights and – worst of all – silence that precious “still, small voice of conscience” inside their head.

“The unvaccinated” (oh hateful term) have been psychologically assailed by government and society for months: an unending onslaught of abuse, calumny and fear-mongering. Leo Varadkar called these people – your family and neighbours – “the problem”. One columnist described them as “a threat to the nation”…not to mention fascists.

The dire mental toll of all this on refuseniks is obvious. Or is it? Maybe not. I suppose it’s hard to truly understand something until it happens to you personally.

If some people really can’t grasp this elemental principle – the corporeal sanctity of the individual, no matter the circumstances – one can only wait until the day they, too, are forced to take something into their body they don’t want.

Then, presumably, they’ll understand. We learn from experience, as the saying goes.

I have (yet another) NEW BOOK OUT!

We’re now running about nine months behind schedule on my (perhaps overly ambitious) plans to release one new book a month to Kindle, beginning last summer with YA adventure Red Raven. Still, not to worry – art can’t be rushed, and genius does what it must. Or something.

Anyway, I’ve now got to Book Number 5 and it is, in some ways, the best thing I’ve ever done. First written all the way back in the winter of 2004-’05, The Driving Force is a collection of short stories on a theme of movement (be that literal or metaphorical). It’s quite avant-garde so won’t be to everyone’s tastes, but it’s probably the single thing in my entire writing career, such as it is, that I’m most proud of. There are moments in this collection, here and there, where I come across a line, a paragraph, an insight or something else, and think, “Yeah – this genuinely stands comparison with the great writers I admire.”

Among them are Don DeLillo and JG Ballard, who are probably – maybe? – the biggest influences on The Driving Force, in theme and tone. But here’s the spooky part: for years I was pitching this book like that, citing JG and Big Don. It was only a few years ago that it dawned on me, I actually never read Ballard until AFTER I’d written The Driving Force. (Got into him sometime around 2006, if I recall right, and since then have devoured more-or-less everything he ever wrote. Yes, even The Atrocity Exhibition.)

How weird is that? I guess the great man’s groundbreaking ideas had percolated so deeply into the culture that I was absorbing and replicating them, even without reading his actual work. Which, of itself, sounds like it could be a JG Ballard story . . .

But we’re now in danger of falling down some bizarre metatextual wormhole here altogether, so I’d better stop. Read more about The Driving Force (plus a sample story, the longest and last and one of the best) here and buy a copy here.

I don’t HAVE a new book out . . . but I’m IN a new book

Don’t worry, they haven’t decided to introduce me as a character in the Jack Reacher novels . . . yet. (I could be Jack’s “streetwise” Irish “sidekick”, who helps him “crack cases” and “bring the pain” while being charming and poetic in a wistful, slightly sozzled way. You know where to reach me, Lee Child . . .)

No, the new book of which I speak is Brevity is the Soul, a collection of comic short stories from Dublin-based Liberties Press. Last year they ran a competition, judged by well-known funnyman Kevin Gildea; I didn’t win (boo) but did make the cut for inclusion in this resultant book (woohoo). My story – replete with the sensationally good title, Diary of an Expedition to Leave My Bed and Venture Downstairs to Find Sustenance in the Form of Coffee and Biscuits – is basically a piss-take of all those Ernest Shackleton-type tales of exploratory heroism and derring-do. And it’s FANTASTIC. As is the whole book, sure. But my story, Jesus Christ, I mean it’s BRILLIANT. Honestly.

Anyway check out libertiespress.com/product/brevity-is-the-soul for more . . . and feel free to buy several thousand copies. I thank you.


Finally, and only about three months behind schedule, I’ve got round to uploading the fourth of six planned books to Kindle. Pretend We’re Dead is a sweet-natured, funny and nostalgic dip into one summer in the lives of a motley crew of slackers in mid-1990s Ireland.

I started this story aaaaaaaaaaaages ago – literally, it was far closer to the millennium than the present day – or, to be precise, the autumn of 2003. And, funnily enough, it began life as a film script. A handful of people really liked this original version of Pretend We’re Dead, and John Crowley – of Brooklyn and True Detective fame – was nice enough to chat for an hour on the phone about it, after I took a flyer and posted it to his agent. (This really happened!) He had a lot of kind words about the quality of my script, but ultimately wasn’t interested in producing it as a movie…and unfortunately, neither was anyone else.

So, around 2012 – this is all so long in the fast-receding past now, I genuinely don’t remember exactly when – I decided to retool Pretend We’re Dead as a novel. Expanded some scenes, reduced others, added new ones, filled in the background and coloured in the scenery around the original dialogue and basic screenplay instructions. It’s essentially the same story, but obviously quite different in tone and rhythm. Hopefully still has a fairly visual sense at the same time.

Anyway, read all about Pretend We’re Dead here and buy a copy here. You won’t regret it, like.

A list of possible Christmas-themed horror movies

Halloween is my favourite time of the year, and Christmas would definitely be in the top four or five. Maybe even top three, depending on which Bond movie is showing.

Given all this, and my concurrent love for horror, I’ve always felt there was a dearth of festive scary movies. Krampus was good, and The Santa Clause is horrifying for entirely different reasons. But that’s not enough, dammit.

So I’ve taken it upon myself to come up with some scare-iffic ideas for Christmas horror flicks. As in, the title of some Christmas horror flicks. When it comes to either genre of cinema, horror or Christmas, that’s really all you need. The rest generally takes care of itself.

The full list is below. You can thank me/pay me in your own time, Hollywood. (Yeah, a voucher is fine.)

  1. Jingle Hell
  2. Rudolph the Dead-Nosed Brain Deer
  3. Santa Claws
  4. ‘Twas the Fright Before Christmas
  5. Deck the Halls…in Blood!
  6. We Wish You a Scary Christmas and a Happy New Fear
  7. Violent Night
  8. ‘Tis the Season to Be…Dead
  9. Strangle Bells
  10. Lashing Through the Snow
  11. The Three Wise De-men
  12. You Better Not Cry
  13. Should Auld Acquaintance Be Dismembered
  14. Ghoul-tide Greetings
  15. Cracker Attacker
  16. I Saw Mommy Killing Santa Claus
  17. Flay Bells Ring
  18. Laughing All the Way…to Hell
  19. One-horse Open Slay
  20. He Knows When You Are Sleeping
  21. Gristletoe
  22. Your Nuts Roasting on an Open Fire
  23. Reindeer Maims
  24. He’s Making a Kill-List
  25. Satan Claus
  26. Gold Frankincense and Myrrh-der
  27. Baby It’s Dead Cold Outside
  28. Christmas Evil
  29. Oh Come All Ye Hateful
  30. Hack Frost Ripping Off Your Nose
  31. Black X-Mass
  32. The Ghost of Christmas Slashed
  33. Season’s Beatings
  34. All I Want for Christmas is Your Head on a Spike
  35. Little Town of Deathlehem
  36. Oh Holy Nightmare


Sorry for shouting (yes, again). The third of six books I’m uploading to Kindle has just been, well, uploaded. BTW I’d originally intended to do this about once a month, but work and personal commitments mean we’re running around six weeks behind schedule – so it goes.

Anyway here we are, and here is !!SuperHyperMEGASTAR!! Yes, those are four exclamation marks you see – including two before the word. I know, that’s not correct punctuation in English, but it’s absolutely necessary…as you will see when you read my fantastic book.

(As prep for that, read all about it here and then buy a copy here.)

!!SuperHyperMEGASTAR!! is a comedy, set in a fictional suburban town outside Dublin, about a girl with big dreams of stardom in stand-up comedy. Unfortunately, Neasa can’t actually perform any of the great material she writes, so she ropes in gifted actor (and complete airhead) Karl Donaghy to play the “role” of comedian. I’ve described it as a cross between Cyrano de Bergerac and The X-Factor.

Does that sound fun? Well, it is fun. !!SuperHyperMEGASTAR!! is fun and funny and sweet and smart-assed…and just the right balance of incredibly dumb and actually quite clever. So go read it, now. I said now! What are you waiting for, an invitation?

As before, keep an eye out, here and at my Amazon author page, for updates on further Kindle releases. Still to come: Pretend We’re Dead, a novel about slackers in 1990s Cork; The Driving Force, a short-story collection on a theme of movement; and There is a light and it never goes out, a sort of Cloud Atlas-type thing where five stories are wrapped inside one over-arching narrative.

That’s it. I’ll sign off with my usual declaration: hope you buy a copy or ten of !!SuperHyperMEGASTAR!!…and hope you enjoy it.



Sorry for shouting (again). As promised/threatened last month, I’ve just uploaded the second of six new works of fiction to Amazon Kindle. This one is Devil Hang Over Me, a tight, menacing and (he said with all humility) extremely well-written thriller with not one, not two, but THREE fantastic twists. (Actually, it might even be four – I lost track.)

Anyway you can read all about Devil here or buy a copy here.

Meanwhile here – as in here on this page, like – I’ll give a small bit of background on where it all came from. I had the opening scene in my mind for years. Two women wake from drugged sleep, trapped in a white room. Neither knows the other, or why and how they came to be there. No way in or out. What the hell is going on?

Initially, it had been a man and (slightly younger) woman. For various reasons, as you shall gradually realise if/when you read Devil, the sex of one character got changed. The motivation – the ultimate end-game being played here – has remained the same over years of writing and rewriting, but some of the details were radically altered.

I’m proud of Devil, I think it’s a damn good psychological/suspense thriller, with some nice literary flourishes. I’m most proud of the fact that, when you reach the end and understand who everyone is and what’s been going on, you can then reread over it and each line of dialogue, everything said and done by the two women inside that room, takes on a new colour, a new shape – new meaning.

Anyway, mindly interesting sidenote: originally (from late 2017) I sent this book out under a pseudonym. For a number of reasons, I didn’t want it published under my own name, so MD Burgess was born (my wife’s and my first-name initials, plus the surname of Anthony Burgess, one of the greatest geniuses in literary history IMHO).

Unfortunately, neither a publisher nor agent took the book on, although there were a few close calls. One very kind lady in England offered to publish digitally, but a family situation got in the way for a while and by the time I was ready to rock, she’d moved on from that role.

On the flipside, one Scottish publisher basically accused me of trying to “game” their submission process by sending in under an assumed name! Which was simultaneously insulting and amusing. I probably should have told her to “f**k off, how dare you accuse me of cheating”; sadly, being a powerless author, you have to suck it up sometimes and play nice with the so-called gatekeepers.

That said, I’m now doing it myself, so here’s a belated response to Scottish publishing woman: f**k off, how dare you accuse me of cheating! Ha. That felt good 🙂

Keep an eye out, here and at my Amazon author page, for updates on further Kindle releases. We’ve still got these beauties (!) to look forward to: !!SuperHyperMEGASTAR!!, a comedy/satire which crosses The X-Factor with Cyrano de Bergerac; Pretend We’re Dead, a novel about slackers in 1990s Cork; The Driving Force, a short-story collection on a theme of movement; and There is a light and it never goes out, a sort of Cloud Atlas-type thing where five stories are wrapped inside one over-arching narrative.

That’s it. As before, I hope you buy a copy or ten of Devil Hang Over Me, and hope you enjoy it…