It’s fair to say that Sir Christopher Bland’s reputation precedes him. Chairman of the Canongate publishing company, he has served on the Board of Governors of the BBC, as chairman of British Telecommunications, and Chairman of the Royal Shakespeare Company. He also — and it’s a matter of no little pride — fenced for Ireland in the Olympic Games in Rome in 1960.
Born in Japan, reared in Northern Ireland, Bland has lived most of his life in England and has a small vineyard in Gascony, France.
It comes as something of a surprise, then, that his debut novel Ashes in the Wind is rooted in the wild landscapes of his beloved Kerry and encompasses over a century of Irish history.
Had I not known his background, I tell him as we sit down in the Shelbourne Hotel, I would have presumed he was an Irish writer.
“That’s because,” he says, sitting forward to emphasise the point, “I am an Irish writer.”
Bland is adamant that he belongs to what he calls ‘the lost tribe’ of the Anglo-Irish.
“I was brought up in the North,” he says, establishing his credentials, “and spent a lot of time in the South. My father was born in Dublin and went to Trinity.
My family lived in Kerry for 200 years. I was a frequent visitor to Kerry and Galway, and worked for some time in Cork for the Devlin Commission, looking at government structures in Ireland.”
There’s a very personal quality to his epic of Irish history.
“I don’t feel about Hampshire the way I feel about Kerry,” he says, “even though I’ve never lived in Kerry. So that’s strange. It’s an emotional response, not a logical one.
“The book begins,” he explains, “with two men — actually my great- grandfather and my grandfather— sitting on a rock in front of a castle in Kerry that’s eventually burned down. In the book it’s burned down during the War of Independence; in reality they sold it when they ran out of money in 1896, and it got burnt during the Civil War. So it starts with those men, and their world is completely going to change, and they don’t know it.”
The fate of those men — Anglo-Irish landowner James Burke and his young son John — is intertwined with that of Tomas Sullivan, a local Irish boy who grows up to join the IRA during the War of Independence.
In a wide-ranging novel, Bland takes his characters from Kerry to Cork and onwards to Spain and Mount Athos in Greece. Landscape, and how characters interact with it, is of crucial importance to the story.
“I think in Kerry in particular, which is one of the most beautiful places in the world in my view, the nature of the landscape, the mountains and rivers, the fuchsia hedges and the bogs, the lakes — they’ve always been a big part of my memories and imagination,” he says. “And I went from there to Béal na Bláth, where the landscape is sort of bleak. And you think, ‘This terrible thing happened here and it’s a sort of nondescript little valley, really.’ It’s not a kind of great, romantic battlefield, it’s just a place where they were driving along and perfect for an ambush where there was only one casualty.”
Bland is referring, of course, to the death of Michael Collins, one of a number of historical figures who play a part in the novel.
“One story I loved, and I hope it’s not apocryphal,” he says, “is the one about the Kerry Blue dog show, in the middle of the War of Independence, and Collins’ dog — called Convict 224, which was his Frongoch
Prison number — wins, and beats the British Army entry. At the time he was a wanted man with 10,000 pounds on his head.” He laughs. “I like to believe that that actually happened.”
Given that the novel depicts a number of famous — indeed, infamous — historical events, where did Bland draw the line between fiction and reality? “I think you draw the line where you feel comfortable,” he says. “I didn’t want to write anything that was ridiculous and impossible, and my account of Béal na Bláth is as good as the five or seven different conflicting accounts of what went on there — with the addendum that there is an ADC to Michael Collins, Tomas Sullivan, who wasn’t there; and there is Frank O’Gowan, who is the one casualty on the other side, and that didn’t happen. But it could have happened, and it doesn’t seem ridiculous — it’s not out of character, so to speak. If I’d turned it into a pitched battle, then that would have been wrong. If Collins had been hiding behind the armoured car the whole time, and only got killed by accident, that would have been wrong too. So I think it all needs to be in keeping — but you’re allowed, artistically, to invent. I think you can learn something about history through fiction that you can’t if you’re reading a historical account.”
Bland isn’t in the business of glamourising violence. Time and again, and particularly in the first half of the novel, his elegantly descriptive prose gives way abruptly to crude depictions of murder.
“That’s how it came to me,” he says. “And maybe that’s not a bad way to write about violence. You can’t sanitise it. The killing of Eileen Burke, the killing of Colonel Smyth — who isn’t somebody I would shed a tear for... I think violence is violence, and a clipped and brutal style was the way I did it.”
It’s not all war, mayhem and killing, however. As the novel emerges from its early stages, it becomes much more a lament — as James Burke gives way to his son John, and John in turn gives way to his son James — for that ‘lost tribe’ of the Anglo-Irish.
Now in his mid-70s, and chairman of a publishing company, it was that dissipation of the tribe (“My son is not Anglo-Irish,” he says, “partly because he’s hardly ever lived here.”) that Bland felt compelled to begin writing himself.
“I’ve talked a few books in my time,” he says wryly. “And I thought, given that I’m getting towards the end of my career, it was time to stop talking and sit down and write. So I went on a couple of creative writing courses, which stopped me talking and got me actually doing the business of putting pen to paper.”
The novel’s theme more or less suggested itself.
“It’s because I am Anglo-Irish,” he says, “and it’s a rather peculiar state.”
There’s a description of it in the book.” He picks up the novel from the table and begins to read aloud. “We don’t belong in England or in Ireland. We’re upper-class in Ireland, middle-class in England, if we’re lucky. We stand up for’ God Save the Queen’, we know the words of the ‘Soldier’s Song’, but not in gaelic. We want the Irish rugby team to beat the English and the English to beat everybody else. We dislike comic stories about the Irish unless we tell them ourselves. On the back of Swift and Burke and Sheridan and Yeats we give ourselves intellectual airs.” He closes the book again. “That’s the Anglo-Irish,” he says proudly, “and that’s what I am.”
We don’t belong in England or in Ireland. We’re upper-class in Ireland, middle-class in England, if we’re lucky