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John Boland: Hollywood be damned, Edna is still beguiling literary royalty


Edna O'Brien: still so alluring

Edna O'Brien: still so alluring

Edna O'Brien: still so alluring

In his chattily informative and highly entertaining Lives of the Novelists, English academic John Sutherland cites James Joyce's famous prescription of "silence, exile and cunning" for Irish authors.

He quotes this in an essay on Edna O'Brien, noting that, although she chose exile, she has never been silent, except about her personal life. "Cunningly," Sutherland writes, "she has kept hidden details of the many love affairs London literary gossip credits her with."

She kept them hidden, too, in this week's documentary, Edna O'Brien: Life, Stories (RTÉ One), save for a mischievously throwaway reference to Robert Mitchum as "a wild man . . . I'm leaving it at that".

Marlon Brando was also a wild and "magnetic" man, "full of stories and beguilement", but when he landed up at her Chelsea house he "stayed in my kitchen, not in my bedroom". Richard Burton, for his part, was "very engaging", while also turning up for parties at her place were Sam Peckinpah, Judy Garland, Sean Connery, Roger Vadim, Jane Fonda and Princess Margaret.

Those encounters, as far as I could gather, happened in the 1960s and 1970s, when the author was at the height of her media celebrity as an outspoken and alluring Irish author. But the heart of Charlie McCarthy's film lay in her reminiscences of childhood and girlhood, and in the account of her ill-fated marriage to the much-older writer Ernest Gebler, who was a control freak and who couldn't handle either her burgeoning talent or her sudden fame.

This aspect of her life has been well documented in interviews and in the 2000 memoir of her son, Carlo Gebler, but the basic outline of this "undeviatingly punishing and grim" marriage (her words) was arrestingly retold here.

Her parents were tellingly evoked, too -- the mother who remained devoted to her so long as she remained dependent and compliant; the "wounded, yearning" father who was an "angry drinker" and frequently caused herself and her mother to feel "in danger".

Possibly because of her fame (for decades she was the darling of the British media), O'Brien has always been an underrated writer, but I had always assumed she was rich. However, that doesn't seem to be the case -- as she pointed out, it takes her between two and four years to complete a book, and she's missed out on the largesse available from literary prizes, of which she's won hardly any. And then there are the subjects she chooses: "The only things I can write are stories that don't have Hollywood stamped on them," she drily observed.

Although a few strands of O'Brien's life were tantalisingly left unexplored, this was an engrossing profile of an admirable woman and a fine author.

The New Irish: After the Bust (RTÉ One) is tucked away at an unfriendly 8.30pm on Friday evenings, but from the one episode I've so far seen, its focus on how immigrants are surviving the economic downturn is deserving of a look.

Ainars, a 33-year-old from Latvia, came here when the Celtic Tiger was beginning to roar and spent almost a decade profitably working in construction. The crash, though, saw him homeless for the best part of a year, having become estranged from his partner and two Dublin-born children, and he soon fell victim to alcohol dependency, though he found some refuge in the Capuchin Day Centre, which provides 500 meals a day to the homeless.

Kim Bartley's film accompanied him as he made a bid for social and economic rehabilitation, though it was dismaying near the end to discover him on yet another round of bingeing.

The viewer learned that fewer than 15 of the 50 immigrants housed in the DePaul Ireland hostel were entitled to social assistance, though that fact obviously wasn't known to two hostile Dublin guys, who insisted that the majority of immigrants "have flats and BMWs while we're left on our bollocks".

The bind in which Ainars and other luckless immigrants find themselves is that while the prospects are very poor for them in Ireland, they're ashamed to return home, where they'd have to admit defeat to their families and friends. And thus, although a Polish repatriation agency arrived here to offer assistance to anyone in dire circumstances who wanted to go home, only five people took up the offer.

An arresting and sobering little film.

Meanwhile, Channel 4 was persisting with its crusade to attract connoisseurs of sexual tack. This is the channel that once brought us innovative and provocative programmes of real substance but that nowadays is content with spewing out Embarrassing Bodies and other fodder for voyeurs.

This week's offering was More Sex, Please, We're British, which informed us that, despite the recession, sex-toy sales are booming, especially on the internet. Not going out evidently has its upside for some entrepreneurs.

The film focused on an outlet called LoveHoney, which is based in Bath and which last year delivered to British homes 41km of plastic penises, and which sends out 11,000 discreetly packaged cartons of sundry sex aids every week.

For Mel, who's in the packing department, it's all in a day's work, while Andrea, who handles returns (about 200 every day) was dismissive of the notion that her job is in any way titillating, or even sexy. "People get the wrong end of the stick", Andrea said firmly. Hence, I suppose, the returns.

Indo Review