From Bohemia to Fermanagh

Declan Bogue talks to writer Carlo Gebler

‘Such is the writing life, on Grub Street,’ summarises Carlo Gebler when pressed as to how he is putting in his time in as a writer. For the vast majority of people who ply their trade in the scribbling world, this could mean a raft of obituaries, some human-interest stories (of meagre human-interest) and local council news.

Gebler, however, has a paperback on release at the moment The Siege of Derry, which given it’s self-explanatory title is a retrospective of the events of 1641, is currently working on a book provisionally titled Cattleraid which shall be an updated version of the ancient text The Tain. This follows his previous book Bullraid, an interpretation of the Brown Bull of Cooley legend.

He lends himself to Maghaberry Prison one day a week to teach a creative writing course, is contributing a lengthy not-so-short short story for the forthcoming Faber anthology, is occasionally reviewing for The Irish Times, and another project looming in the foreground is a book about, and written with Patrick Maguire, the youngest of the Maguire family to be wrongly imprisoned in connection with the IRA bombings of Woolwich and Guildford in the 1970s. The man is consumed by stories. Fiction or fact - it doesn’t matter. He was destined for it.

Carlo GeblerWith his heritage, it should not surprise anyone. Born the son of Edna O’Brien, the famous fiction writer, and the much older established writer and Stalinist, Ernest Gebler, his was an unorthodox upbringing.

O’Brien was something of a controversial figure in the draconian, censorship-bound Ireland of the time, and she was more widely-known through her infamy than by being widely-read because of the scarcity of her works in her own country. In England, however, such literature was freely available and it hardly impinged on the young Carlo that such measures had been taken.

Eschewing all notions of spoiling children that were prevalent in post-war Britain of the time, Ernest Gebler headed a strict household, and forbid ice-cream, comics, and other treats that become the staples of some upbringings.

Despite this, Gebler comments that his life was richer in other ways. Although he refers to his father as ‘Victorian’ in attitude, the issue was clouded by Ernest Gebler’s refusal to communicate with his children after the demise of his marriage to O’Brien.

The waters were further muddied by the complications of a troubled man who had himself experienced a hard upbringing. Ernest Gebler’s most famous work is probably The Plymouth Adventure, a book based on the lives of the Pilgrim fathers, which was later to be made into a feature film.

But a bohemian existence lay ahead for young Carlo Gebler, as he embarked on his early life in London. Educated in state schools until he was 14, Gebler went to a boarding school in Petersmith, which placed particular emphasis on the written word.

‘It was there that I learned the secret of writing – that is, to re-write and re-write.’ He claims writing is a thing that has always been with him from an early age, whether it be scribbling away at poems, plays or stories.

Inspiration always surrounded him too – as illustrated in an episode of his teenage life. ‘We lived in Chelsea, and Samuel Beckett lived just around the corner, I can remember in my teenage years getting Tommy by The Who, and sitting Beckett down in my bedroom and playing him the entire first side of this rock music which he had never heard before. He sat in total silence, and at the end he commented, ‘It’s very Wagnerian, isn’t it?’ Nowadays Gebler's listening habits list The Artic Monkeys to Mendelsson to Mailer.

In the late 80s, Gebler came to live just outside Enniskillen, in Co Fermanagh, soon after the Remembrance Day bombings, and produced a work based locally, which he called The Glass Curtain – Inside an Ulster Community.

After buying and converting an old school house in the Garvary countryside, his ramblings came to a halt. ‘I didn’t choose to settle there, but your children start school, and you discover things you like about a place and you end up staying. I find it nice, although there are things that annoy me about the country – for instance the amount and poor quality of the building going on.’

The peaceful landscape and tranquillity of Fermanagh suits him as a writer, ‘In many ways, there are less distractions, no theatre-land, and you tend to get an awful lot more done.’ He doesn’t feel that the atmosphere of the place shapes or in any way influences his writing, but also states in a warming open way that he is open to correction on that.

As regards modern-day literature and drama, he is somewhat dismayed at the standard of programmes on television, deriding most supposed drama as soap opera. ‘Where has all the good writing gone? We can remember Boys From the Blackstuff, The Singing Detective and the bleakness of Alan Bennett’s work.’

The dumbing-down of popular culture has taken hold of the popular imagination and thinking, but for this Fermanagh resident, it remains a foreign country.