Column: Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451

As those who follow me on Twitter may know, for the past year or so I have set myself an annual reading challenge. This was originally an attempt to read 20 pages every day, but it sort of morphed into trying to read the equivalent of 20 pages a day over the course of a year, which works out at 7,300. Last year I managed to beat it, this year I’m slightly behind schedule. Such is life.

That preamble out of the way, I want to talk a bit about dystopias. Specifically Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451, one of the greatest works of science fiction. It seems apt that a book about a society that burns books floated into my reading at a time when there is a serious threat to books in parts of America.

I have always loved dystopic fiction, perhaps ultimately because it forces us to confront wholescale world changes and how we cope with them. I like apocalyptic movies as well, so it’s clearly a genre I find appealing (I wrote about medieval ideas of the apocalypse too, but they’re quite different). This is a classic work, extremely short but essential reading.

In the book, a fireman (who burns books), Guy Montag, starts to come to the realisation that the extreme censorship and what he does for a living is wrong, and that there are other ways of living. Ultimately he decides to spend his days preserving books. That is a very simple summary of a book that has plenty of nuances, but it does the trick.

Ray Bradbury‘s style and the liveliness of the prose – and perhaps that much of the then fantastical technology such as immersive television experiences is not that far ahead of us now – make it easy to forget that the book was written in the early 1950s, when there were book burnings in America, and that one of his concerns is effectively the dumbing down of a population by the growth of television. But he wrote amid real fears about nuclear war – Hiroshima and Nagasaki being recent memories – anti-communist paranoia in America, and mass purges of intelligentsia and dissidents in Joseph Stalin’s Soviet Union.

Importantly, while it feels like a prophetic text, he himself would say it was about what might happen as opposed to what will happen. At its heart the book asks the question ‘what if people didn’t like books?’ and follows it through to its most extreme end to explore the sort of world that might result.

The most intriguing, and alarming, thing about Fahrenheit 451 is that the book-burning mandate didn’t come from the government or some autocracy. Rather, it grew organically because people felt they’d be better off. Montag is told, “Remember, the firemen are rarely necessary. The public itself stopped reading of its own accord.” That said, because this is relayed to the reader through dialogue it’s entirely possible that this is a story which was fed out as propaganda in favour of the changes, because it’s made obvious that the government is making what it deems best use of the situation.

News, for instance, is heavily sanitised at a time of nuclear war when bombers regularly fly over the homes of Montag and other characters. In fact the reader could ask if indeed cities across the United States (it’s only confirmed to by the US late on in the book) have been bombed already, given that it’s not clear if these are bombers returning from attacks or if they are attackers. Men are called up to the army, but none of their wives are particularly worried – they tell each other that it’s other women’s husbands who get killed.

Dissent exists, but it’s crushed. This dissent can be passive, such as through the mere existence of Montag’s neighbour Clarisse’s mere existence. She, free thinking and from a family that spends considerable time talking and interacting with one another as opposed to just existing, is in all her actions and force of personality the rank opposite of the sterile world that has been created, and while Montag is later told she was killed by a speeding car there is a strong inference that she was in fact killed by his captain. Thinking for oneself is a de facto crime.

The effects of not thinking for oneself are made clear by how Montag’s memory is in many cases weak: For instance, it is only toward the end of the novel that he can remember where he met his wife, and when he asks her this question earlier in the text she cannot remember either (though she places little importance on this).

Interestingly, there is the strong inference that people, at some level, realise that this is not how things need to be. Montag’s wife, who liberally takes sleeping pills, overdoses and he has to call medics to pump her stomach. The medics say they have multiple cases of this every night, suggesting that subconsciously even people who won’t question their reality openly are looking for an escape (a very final escape, but one all the same).

Sport, in this world, is the opiate of the masses (keep people occupied and makes them too tired to think really). But the key point about knowledge, and this is something I had in the back of my head when writing about the edits to Roald Dahl’s books (a decision now partially reversed), is that we need some sort of challenge if we are to evolve as individuals. As we are told in Fahrenheit 451: “We need not to be let alone. We need to be really bothered once in a while. How long is it since you were really bothered? About something important, about something real?”

This is not a new concept. In the sixth century, Gildas, who was a crusty old monk writing in post-Roman Britain, referred to how words, in his case vicious criticisms of power and hypocrisy, could be “darts” that lead to healing. He was writing about religious reform, but the point about using words to get under somebody’s skin (or simply into their heads) is the same.

This is Gildas. He is definitely judging you

It was, I’m sure, some subconscious filing quirk that had me put Fahrenheit 451 on top of Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four (1949) on the shelves, given that my copies are not the same size (one of my usual filing systems). Both grim dystopias but in very different ways, with Orwell’s book putting more emphasis on the use of state surveillance and the abuse of overwhelming power, exemplified in particular by the re-editing of newspapers to match whatever current politics exists: “Who controls the past controls the future. Who controls the present controls the past.”

I will explore dystopian fiction more in the coming weeks and months as I shake this website into shape.

Femicide special report pages

These pages from 2016 were a different sort of layout package to what I normally do.

We had a report in from Women’s Aid on the number of women who had died violently in Ireland, looking back over the previous 20 years of the Femicide Watch Project – 209 at that point, with 131 killed in their own homes. It was grim reading.

Our editor at the time, Allan, asked me if I could look at doing something different with representing it. We had the unusual option of making the centre pages of the main newspaper, normally where things like features are in the Examiner book, into a special report for news and of trying to get it printed as a panoramic (where there is no gutter down the middle because the pages are on a single plate).

To give this a chance at working it would have to be a four-page mini section (I’ve lost the PDF of the fourth page). There were, if I recall, two narrative pieces of text and it was suggested to me that I try and use as many faces as possible. I decided that our report should have a cover page before turning into the report proper. This is what I came up with:

Women’s Aid had compiled all the names, dates, and who killed the women into one list (some killers were awaiting trial at the time). This was bleak reading but essential to the whole point of the report. Pasting them onto the page and seeing how they filled it was cause for reflection. I had an image planned at first and was going to put the names under or around it but then it occurred to me that their names were the point. So I made sure they were, and faded out the word “Killed” behind the list, with each name in bold so you can read them clearly.

At the time, Clodagh Hawe would have been the highest profile of the names along with Elaine O’Hara but it was absolutely essential that no one person be highlighted as a lead image, contrary to typical design rules (which I only use as guidelines anyway). I spent several hours sifting through the archive and found… well, found that we had a great many of the women who had been killed in our database. Not all the image files were the same size, nor were they cropped similarly, so my solution was to run columns of same-size images.

You’ll see if you tap or click on the spread below that the columns are not mirror images of one another, except for the sort of frame of faces I created around the analysis piece, which needed to be as symmetrical as possible to avoid being too distracting to the reader. Generally though the columns have roughly the same number of images in similar shapes, albeit occasionally mixed and matched depending on whether the available photo was a headshot or more upright.

Regrettably, for reasons I don’t remember, this wasn’t printed properly as a panoramic but ended up with a small gutter down the middle. Thankfully it was the text that took the brunt of this and not a face in one of the pictures, which would have felt unforgiveable.

We don’t normally put content above the Irish Examiner titlepiece but do it when the occasion warrants it, so I made the argument that this was one of those occasions. The stock image I used is deliberately grim, and I had our graphics department convert it to mono but to colour the drops of blood on the shoe a very strong red so they stood out.

This is one of the packages I’m particularly proud of and the names concept, as I’m sure you’ve realised, was one I revisited in a different form for the Bessborough page.

Editing Roald Dahl’s books is wrong

To say the decision by Puffin Books to edit Roald Dahl’s books is perplexing to say the least. The intention is to make the language more inclusive, and to remove or replace more problematic words. As an intention this is actually meant well, but in practice it makes little sense. Some changes are baffling. Making the Oompa-Loompas gender neutral is one, because it’s completely unnecessary (how was their previous description problematic?).

Now, let’s be clear: Language matters and inclusive language matters a great deal. When I was writing up the Irish Examiner style guide, which dictates what terms and linguistic styles we use, I made a point that we should not refer to people who have a condition in such a way that that condition defines them. So, somebody with diabetes as opposed to diabetic. As a father whose son was diagnosed with autism in the years after writing up that document, I am more acutely aware of the need for such language when you do not have the issue referred to yourself.

But I digress slightly.

I don’t agree with the claims from some critics that the Dahl edits are “woke” or for “snowflakes”. The changes, some of which are highlighted here, are meant well. I see the point of the publisher and recognise that it worked with a group that focuses on inclusivity. But my first reaction to the Roald Dahl news was that it was absurd. These are books, not instruction manuals. Indeed, the French publisher is not going to follow suit. Works of fiction are, by their very nature, works of art and just as importantly works of their time. You don’t have to agree with what’s in them, and you certainly don’t have to agree with how the author expresses themself. Words carry an abundance of  meaning and nuance and it is impossible to avoid something objectionable to someone being written somewhere by any author.

My second reaction was more a question. Where does it end? One only has to look at the campaigns by conservatives in parts of the United States to restrict – sorry, vet – what’s available in school libraries, and in particular the targeting of texts with some LGBT content, to say that censorship on a wide scale has the potential for a very bleak future indeed. We as a species are already grappling with the seemingly endless tide of conspiracy theory and misinformation (as opposed to mistaken interpretation, which is different even though it can also be damaging). Do we really need to hide ideas instead of engage with them?

And logically, where would it end? How far back do you go in terms of sanitising? All of medieval literature would be in the bin, if that’s the case. I did a PhD on it, trust me. Most works considered “classics” would face redaction, some more extensively than others. The Bible endorses genocide and murder in some parts. Heart of Darkness is explicitly racist. Nietzsche is a misogynist. There is a short Marvel series where Captain America – Captain America! Supposedly all that’s good! – expresses disquiet about working with the X Men because “they’re not like us” (and X Men as a whole is a way of challenging racism and all its forms). Perhaps we should pay more attention to how adaptations take the essence of a story without the racism (eg, Apocalypse Now, the Chris Evans version of Captain America).

Decades ago, the Cork Examiner would have referred to women with jobs somewhat patronisingly as “girls” (eg, shop girls). I don’t propose to go back into the archives and change those. It makes me feel a bit too much like Winston Smith from 1984:Disney has taken to adding notes to some of its films, such as the original Jungle Book, to say they reflected older views which were wrong (and certainly the song at the end, where the girl dreams of a future “cooking in the home”, is extremely dated and I have repeatedly said this to my children, who love the rest of the film). I think this is reasonable enough, because it leaves the actual film intact as it was. And it’s a chance to explain to children what is or isn’t appropriate to say.

Some of Dahl’s phraseology is dated, and has been for years. He made antisemitic comments in real life. His work can be cruel toward overweight people – think Augustus Gloop in Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, where his weight is equated to his character as a human being. But then David Walliams is equally antagonistic when it comes to people’s differences, and I haven’t seen any campaigns to edit back his work, though the Telegraph claims it could happen. Elsewhere Dahl’s narrator betrays a certain patriarchal approach to the place of women and girls, like in Esio Trot, though some of it is kind of excused by the way he frames the narrator’s voice.

That voice in Matilda for example is very clearly somebody addressing the reader directly (including the interjection, during an extended riff on how it would be delightful to write caustic reviews of awful students, “but enough of that, we have to get on”). That somebody is not necessarily Roald Dahl, though on balance of probability it is. However, if you’re reading the book aloud to a child then that, in effect, makes you the narrator. It’s supposed to. They’re written as you would tell a story to a child, not just as a child would read them. And the way he plays with language and creates words in the BFG is masterful.

I have read a good number of the books to my sons, and we have listened to them in audiobook as well. I read some of them as a child in the early 1990s (or thereabouts) and at this remove can’t recall word for word any of them, let alone say a particular phrase influenced my thinking. What I can certainly say though, and it was only apparent while reading Matilda to my son, that Matilda instilled in my a lifelong hatred of bullying (and fascism) and an appreciation for kindred spirit bookworms (as I was at Matilda’s age and well beyond), as well as a warm affinity for teachers.

My approach, any time I came across something that I felt was wrong, was to simply tell the boys “you shouldn’t say stuff like this” or words of that ilk. They are not cruel and they understand this. But they do love the stories. And going back in to change the language changes those stories to some extent, and that is wrong.

Michael Verling – man overboard

It’s not often that your ancestor’s death graces the pages of a daily newspaper, but this is how the then Cork Examiner reported the death of my great great grandfather Michael Verling in October 1886. There was a terrible storm across Ireland and Britain which resulted in a number of fatalities at sea, including two crew members from the same shipping company which were combined into one story for the Examiner.

For clarity, the relevant part for us here says: “The SS Upupa, belonging to the same [shipping] company, was the scene of the second fatality, which happened while the vessel was at sea, on her way from London to Plymouth, for Cork. During the story of the previous night some hands were at work on the forepart of the vessel, and amongst them was a man named Verling, formerly captain of the Erin, one of the boats of the Citizens’ River Steamers Company. A wave breaking over the steamer carried the unfortunate man overboard, and he was swept out of the sight of his companions in an instant. Under the existing circumstance it was impossible to rescue the man from his doom. He leaves a wife and several children to mourn his loss.”

This is the Upupa on the right, immortalised in rescuing the crew of a ship called the Clan MacDuff, though I have no idea if Michael was on board at that stage. I imagine the stormy conditions here were not a million miles away from the night Michael died

It’s interesting that it says “wife and several children” because that glosses over the fact that he had children with two women, and that he had married the mother of his daughter Mary (Minnie) after his first wife Martha died. There’s nothing in my family lore that says children from his first marriage lived with his second family – in fact one of his daughters, Catherine, appears to have been listed as an orphan in Haulbowline school (an island in Cork Harbour) while Michael was still alive. Michael was from Cobh, then Queenstown, so it’s possible she lived with some of his relatives because Cobh and Haulbowline are easily reachable by boat. Coincidentally, I grew up not far from Haulbowline.

Catherine Verling-Tracy with an unknown child (photo via my American cousin Mary)

This is her in later years, by the way, after she had moved to Missouri to live near some of her siblings and her mother’s kin. She appears to have been a bit of a badass and nursed a fierce rage for Michael and how he had treated her mother. He certainly had a severe drink problem though whether he had tamed it in later life I cannot say, only that Minnie is said to have spoken highly of him.

Whoever wrote the Examiner report had obviously spoken to people who had been on board the Upupa (my uncle heard his mother mention this name once while they were travelling on a bus and it stuck with him all his life; the ship itself later sank) because the details included about his death are not in the official log of sea deaths. This is it:

It says: “Knocked overboard. The strap on which the hatch blocked was hooked on broke & struck Verling, pitching him overboard”.

That’s it, the total official log of my great great grandfather’s death. The Examiner report is more poetic, if grim.

It says something about Michael’s reputation that it was important for the Examiner reporter to refer to his captaincy of the Erin, a steam ferry that travelled up and down the harbour and in particular stopped at Michael’s hometown of Queenstown. This was… a problematic captaincy. He was a very popular captain but ended up prosecuted for a collision, the details of which I’ve transcribed into a small book for family and which I will explore a bit in a later post.

O’Mahony and Verling children in Cork

Maura and Michael O’Mahony at Tonyville, High Street, Cork,

Meet Maura O’Mahony, my grandaunt. She’s here with her brother, my grandfather Michael, outside their house in Tonyville, Cork, just up the street from where their mother Minnie Verling lived at the time of her marriage.

Maura is about 4 or 5 here. My grandfather, who with the blazer, tie, and glasses looks well into his 20s, is actually about 17 or 18 we think. Maura was by all accounts his great favourite and he taught her to whistle, which she did all the time once she had mastered it.

Maura had Down syndrome. She was born in 1927 when her mother was 47 and her father 53, and she was probably the last of their seven children (I can’t find the birth date for one, Celia, which either means she was either born after 1921 – more recent birth records aren’t available on – or registered under a different name. I have found several of these incidents in my family tree).

Poor Maura died of scarlet fever in 1936 when she was just 9, in Cork Dental Hospital, at a time when scarlet fever, dyptheria, whooping cough and other illnesses were rampant. Because of the limit on what birth records are available I didn’t even know about her until my aunt referred to her while we were discussing other relatives. Even my father didn’t seem to know about her. Every now and then I like to make sure she isn’t forgotten.

She, alas, was not the only O’Mahoney (or Mahoney, or O’Mahony, the records alternate) from that family to die in childhood.

Her brother Daniel Joseph died in 1913 at the age of 3 of “hydrocephalus and exhaustion”. Heartbreakingly, the death record shows he died at home with his mother. He was their first child, and my relatives had not heard of him so I like to think I’ve contributed to research in that way. Hydrocephalus is a build-up of fluid in the brain and a child can be born with it – possibly because the mother was infected with mumps or measles while pregnant – or it can develop after birth. Either way it puts an enormous amount of pressure on the brain so I don’t like to think about what he went through. I do, though, like Maura, like to make sure he is not forgotten.

The death registration of baby Daniel, age 3

Daniel’s death, incidentally, is also the breaking of a chain. I can find Daniels in the family all the way back to the early 1800s, but after Daniel Joseph’s death I can find no more.

Child mortality also befell Minnie’s father’s children. I choose the words deliberately because Minnie (Mary) was born after an affair between her father Michael and a woman called Mary Madden. She was their only child, but Michael had had at least 11 with his wife, Martha Kenneally.

The many children of Michael Verling and Mary Kenneally

In many cases, I was unable to find a death registration, though I deduced that previously siblings had died because the names were reused. This seems grim, but it was a way of remembering the dead children. So Thomas William Verling, died 1868, is followed that same year by William James Verling. There are also a number of Marys in the family – Mary (Maria, 1863-67), Mary Kate (b. 1871), Mary Margaret (b.1873), and finally Mary (b.1875).

I did, and still do, think of them often. For if I don’t, who will?

When I did my initial detective work it seemed very much as if his entire line had died out (I could only find one child who lived to adulthood, Hannah, who dropped off the records after that) when his son Michael John died in 1882 in Cork Fever Hospital, now long gone. Until… an unexpected DNA match and message from Kansas City, where not one, not two, not three, but four of the missing Verling children (as they were to me at that time) had emigrated and built lives for themselves. They seem to have had in many ways a wild existence, which in itself befits the sort of wild reputation I can find for their father (a brute to Martha when drunk according to his daughter in the US, almost a saint according to his daughter Minnie). But more of that anon.