Ronan Bennett

The writer reveals his approach to politics, chess and armed robbers

As part of the west Belfast Feile, writer Ronan Bennett is in Belfast to speak about his work. Bennett grew up in Belfast during the 1960s and spent time in both Long Kesh and Brixton Prison. On leaving, he studied at Cambridge University and then began a career as a writer. He has published five novels, written for film and television, and keeps a weekly chess column in The Guardian.

Bennett was recently involved with a spat with the novelist Martin Amis. In an article for The Guardian Amis had questioned the Muslim world’s response to the events of September 11 and what followed. Amis asked for more pressure to be placed on the Muslim community and evoked changing demographics as a scare-tactic. 

In his lecture Bennett claims such talk - later characterised by Amis as ‘thought experiments’ and laughed off by Salman Rushdie as merely ‘knockabout’ - was the same kind of rhetoric once used about Northern Ireland in parts of the British and Irish media.

'Zugzwang', by Ronan BennettBennett takes his decision to challenge Amis as the starting point for a lecture describing the issues that seem to run through his work. For him the Muslim community is just the latest target of a social need to assign blame for certain events. 

This is a problem throughout history, and has inspired his efforts to explore people and communities who have been caricatured in a dangerous way. The persecuted, the ‘vilified’, and how they respond to being attacked are the main themes of his work.

Bennett’s novels are impressively wide-ranging in period and setting, from 17th century England to the Congo of the 1960s to 1950s Russia in his latest novel Zugzwang

‘I try not to write the same novel,’ he says of his preference for leaping from one period to another. For Bennett the big question is what the right thing to do is when certain forces ‘impose “higher standards” through coercion’. 

The response is often violent, and the repercussions that follow provide the main focus of each of his books. But, although his work is political, he avoids giving lectures in favour of the personal effect on the characters. ‘The political impetus for a story,’ he says, ‘must always be backed up by the personal.’

These themes lead to wider concerns about identity, belonging and community, and how historic forces can interfere with how we view ourselves and others. Bennett speaks fondly of living for 20 years in Hackney where these themes could be felt every day. 

And there is laughter when he remembers the brief ‘furore’ around squeegee-cleaners who worked near his home, leading an irate Tony Blair to reveal how ‘intimidated’ they made him feel. ‘I always thought squeegee-cleaners were quite handy,’ says Bennett.

Bennett’s concerns have led him into film and television, as illustrated by a clip from his Easter Rising drama Rebel Heart. Bennett seems on less solid ground here, and there remain doubts that telling the story of that period through the eyes of one person can encompass an event that’s so contested. His next project is a bio-pic of the gangster John Dillinger starring Johnny Depp and Christian Bale, though Bennett seems cautious on whether his vision will survive the rigours of Hollywood.

Bennett goes on to speak about his love of chess, which informs Zugzwang, and his continued fascination with armed robbers. The novel takes its name from a chess move ‘which leaves the player in a state of utter helplessness’, a perfect metaphor for Bennett’s fiction of making choices under extreme pressure. And it was during his time in Brixton Prison he became friends with armed robbers, fascinated with their ‘codes of conduct’ which informed the screenplay Face.

Following the talk, Bennett takes questions from the audience. At one point he is challenged on seeming to favour the stories of those who choose violence over peace. Bennett answers that, in fiction, other choices are ‘less dramatic’, which seems an odd position to take for a writer. 

For many, the choice of remaining unaligned or espousing peace brings consequences that are very hard to cope with, and some of the best fiction from Northern Ireland has addressed this. And when asked might he write an autobiography in the future he replies with a prompt ‘No’. 

It seems Bennett prefers other periods and locations far away from his place of birth. And his work is moving on - the next novel concerns the suicide of a 15-year-old boy in prison. A new setting for Bennett’s work on the marginal and alienated.

Gavin Carville