Nell by Nell

I'm almost finished reading Nell McCafferty's lovely "Nell." I have to say its a great book. The descriptions of people are so lively and alive you feel that you know them. The last time I read an autobiography that was so full of life was when I read John Bayley's "Widowers House", his lovely account of life without his wife Iris Murdoch. I have to say the pictures she draws of people she was close to is very loving and rich.

I have to admit like the other half of Ireland who've read Nuala O'Faoilain, Nell's ex-lovers autobiographies, I couldn't help but compare the two. O'Faoilean's book is deeply insular and weighs heavily on her own feelings and reactions. Curiously enough, both do make a point of the date in which "lesbian bed death" occured. (Though neither use this elegant description). Nell dwells far more on other people and is often highly self critical, whilst O'Faoilean barely mentions Nell at all. It seems to me that O'Faoilean lives in her own mind whilst Nell is far more conscious of her interaction with other people. I have always loved Nell's work, even though I don't agree with much of her politics, and this book reafformed my affection for her.

I also found a lot of her descriptions of people very insightful, for example her description of Eoghan Harris in his anti-nationalist millitancy did explain a lot of stuff, and her account of the contraceptive train ladies not being able to purchase the pill in Belfast and buying aspirin instead excellent reading. Nell is highly intelligent and descriptive. If she is ideologically driven, she is not afraid to say it, and I have to say that I can understand her sympathies with the republican movement, even though myself I find that movement utterly against everything I believe in.

My only criticism of the book is that it sometimes misses out on imoprtant issues. For example Nell entirely dwells on the feminist and northern crisises of the 1980s without once referring to the dreadful economic depression and resulting social misery caused by large scale unemployment and emigration. I have always felt myself that much of the difference between attitudes to the IRA in the 1970s and 1980s was that the huge numbers of Irish emigrants in 1980s London expirienced IRA terrorist campaigns at a closer range than happened in the 1970s, and so felt more uncomfortable with the impact of the campaign.

There is only one more tiny thing I noticed, which I would be very critical of. Nell, who writes so passionately in such detail about the dreadful conditions in working-class Derry, gives a mere one line to the collapse of her employer, the Irish Press Newspaper, in the mid 1990s. She mentions that she was owed 8 weeks wages. What she fails to mention is that 600 people lost their jobs on that occasion, many of them never recovering from the shock (though the paper had numerous problems over the previous 10 years). That I do find irritating.

However, its a great read, and well worth reading


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