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This item is taken from PN Review 220, Volume 41 Number 2, November - December 2014.

Back to Essex


In my review in brief of James Canton’s Out of Essex in the TLS (13 April 2013) I said that ‘it largely skirts the wilder shores of psychobiography’. In this I was perhaps over-generous if Chris McCully’s review (PNR 217) is true to the author’s intentions. McCully speaks of ‘pregnant mappings’, of ‘a mapping of intersecting memories’, and in a paean to Essex sees the county as ‘a flood-plain catching human tides’, as both ‘challenge and refuge’. Further, we are told that ‘writers use Essex’. Well one would have thought that some do, and some don’t.

For example, in the Edwardian period a number of prominent writers set up residence in the Home Counties: these include Henry James, Chesterton, Bennett, Shaw, Conrad, Kipling. Few made extensive imaginative use of their new locales, the major exception being Kipling, whose ‘Puck of Pook’s Hill’ magics up layers of human history from the Sussex Downs. Canton cites Wells and his Mr Britling, but for the most part these writers wanted only a more or less ‘rustic’ retreat that was in relatively easy reach of London. Conrad at one point lived in the Essex village of Stratford-le-Hope, though Canton’s researches fail to identify which house he occupied. But maybe this is something of a quixotic venture to begin with: what of significance would have been achieved had he succeeded?

Canton attempts to make connections with literary ghosts, and mostly fails, either because, like Shakespeare, they were never there in the first place, or simply because no traces remain of them. Could the tile he finds at Tilbury have once belonged to Defoe’s former brickworks? Maybe. Maybe not. Is there some occult significance in the fact that one of his informants in his search for Defoe bears the surname Flanders, thus recalling Defoe’s notorious Moll? Surely not, one would have thought.

Canton’s findings, it must be said, are scarcely very tangible, and his connections often so contrived, or merely whimsical, that one must have doubts about the method and the purpose of the quest, and indeed the intellectual credentials of psycho­geography in general. If the book, nonetheless, however much one might question its substance, has a certain charm, is well written, and offers some evocative descriptions of the Essex countryside, this is surely more despite, rather than because of, its guiding preconceptions.  

roger caldwell
by email

Dermot Healy


Dermot Healy used to tell a story of walking into Sligo town, late in 1995, and being stopped and congratulated by a woman who pulled over in her car to tell him that she always knew he had it in him. A bit bemused, he asked what it was he was being congratulated for: ‘The Nobel’, he was told. Healy grew used to being mistaken for Seamus Heaney and said he was occasionally, years later, still being asked to sign copies of the Derry poet’s work.

In PNR 219 Healy is again the victim of a case of mistaken identity, when the obituary credits him with founding Beaver Row Press, in fact the work of Dermot Bolger, another Irish poet-novelist.

Healy is best known for a memoir, The Bend for Home (1996), and his novels A Goat’s Song (which won the 1995 Encore Award), Sudden Times (1999) and Long Time No See (2011). He also wrote a clutch of plays and five books of poetry, including The Ballyconnell Colours (1995), What the Hammer (1998) and The Reed Bed (2001): his poems had the same rhythmic inventiveness as his prose and a quick, wry humour. Minute glosses on the natural world (‘Praise be the hares on Oyster’, begins ‘Hares on Oyster Island’, ‘as they curl on the stone beach / And look across at the Rosses! // Do they take that shape to look good – / A soul looking toward heaven / But not ready to go yet?’) as well as melancholy and sometimes comic exile’s letters, like this reflection on Philip Larkin: ‘Better be abrasive in Hull / than go shouting “Go fuck yourself!” // to no one in particular / on a windy peninsula.’

After many years moving between Dublin, London and Belfast, he settled in a house at the edge of the Atlantic in County Sligo, where he also founded and edited the notable literary journal Force 10. He was 66.

john mcauliffe
by email

This item is taken from PN Review 220, Volume 41 Number 2, November - December 2014.

Readers are asked to send a note of any misprints or mistakes that they spot in this item to
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