Soul searching: Henry McDonald's novel harks back to Belfast of punk and paramilitaries

In his new novel Two Souls, Belfast writer Henry McDonald weaves his conflicting personal histories into a tapestry of doomed love, its bitter bloody aftermath and former friends turning into lethal enemies He chats to Jenny Lee

Journalist and author Henry McDonald pictured at Belfast High Street subway, where he often used to hang out as a punk in his youth. The location also features in his new novel Two Souls. Picture by Hugh Russell

BORN in the nationalist Markets area of Belfast, as a child Henry McDonald's home was smashed up by the British army during Internment in 1971, then blown up by a UVF car bomb four years later, and finally attacked by the Provisional IRA in 1975.

As a grown-up he went on to receive death threats from loyalist paramilitaries, and through his work as a journalist he witnessed the carnage at the end of the 1991 Gulf War in Kuwait, went mine-hunting with Irish UN peacekeepers in Lebanon and was arrested for refusing to hand over leaked documents or reveal terrorist sources.

The author of eight critically acclaimed non-fiction books, mostly on the Northern Ireland Troubles, he is currently a staff writer for The Guardian and The Observer newspapers.

McDonald's latest book is a novel that encompasses punk music, football hooliganism and paramilitary activity in 70s and 80s Belfast. He is keen to stress the world he has created is a fictional one, while acknowledging its main narrator Robbie McManus is "the person I could have become if I had made the wrong choices".

A former punk himself in the 70s, who proudly sported spiked hair and DIY bondage clothes made from fabric scraps discarded by his dressmaker mum, in his novel McDonald charts how someone involved in a youth sub-culture that bridged sectarian divisions and uniquely brought people of all religious backgrounds together could still be tempted towards the 'dark side'.

Two Souls is played out to the soundtrack of David Bowie, as well as the punk classics from the likes of the Buzzcocks, The Fall and the Sex Pistols. It is a heartbreaking tale of how love, especially alongside ancient hatreds, can still tear us apart.

McDonald, who is a passionate follower of Cliftonville FC, uses the setting of the 1979 Cup Final at Windsor Park as a basis upon which to bring the three main protagonists together, intertwined with the summer of 1978 and a series of smuggled prison communications, to the paramilitary-stalked Belfast streets of the late 80s.

He has clear personal memories of the 1979 Cup Final. "I remember the stone-throwing, people on the pitch, our manager Jackie Hutton managing to calm things down and then this astonishing victory right at the very end of game. It was a moulding experience, but in later life, I look back upon it with ambiguity too," he says.

Two Souls is a story that has been "brooding" in McDonald's head for the past 25 years. He started writing it about 10 years ago, before others projects got in the way. But recuperating from heart failure and stomach cancer gave him the opportunity to complete this book, he says.

At times poignant, Two Souls tragically exposes our sometimes futile efforts to make the right decisions and to choose a life worth living. McDonald is grateful for the influence his father had upon the choice he made in life.

"The father figure in the book is quite similar to my father in terms of left idealist politics. That had a huge influence on me in terms of the direction I took in life and I'm very grateful for it," says McDonald, who worked as a journalist at The Irish News in the late 80s and early 90s.

Two Souls also features a passionate love story in the form of Sabine, the mysterious loner in Belfast punk venues The Pound and the Harp.

"She is loosely based on someone I had a relationship with. In fact I remember it was the real life Sabine who introduced me to Bowie's Berlin Trilogy. Ours wasn't a great relationship; so I imagined what it would have been like if the relationship had been more intense, more sexual and longer lasting."

Described by Belfast poet Gerald Dawe as "Withnail and I meets One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest with a manic dose of Clockwork Orange thrown in for good measure", Two Souls is also at times shocking in content and language – something for which McDonald makes no apology.

"A lot of the literature I read about Belfast in that period didn't correspond to my experience. I tried to be as authentic as possible and thus sometimes the language and things the characters get up to are quite shocking to a 21st century ear. There is a lot of political correctness and censorship nowadays which I think is profoundly dangerous," he argues.

Already McDonald's thoughts have turned to another novel.

"Our family have been doing a lot of research on our connections to the First World War and we've had a number of big surprises discovering relatives who served in both the 36th (Ulster) Division and The 1st Irish Guards at Somme and Ypres. I enjoy playing with time frames and I'm toying with the idea of a ghost story that bends in time from the present day back to the First World War."

:: Henry McDonald's book Two Souls will be launched on September 12 at the Oh Yeah Music Centre, Gordon Street, Belfast from 6.30pm-8.30pm, followed by DJ set. Guest speaker and DJ is Terri Hooley.

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