Sunday, July 5, 2015

Bangor versus Carrickfergus...This Round To Bangor

Carrickfergus lies on Belfast Lough opposite the town of Bangor. Bangor and Carrick have been rivals for hundreds of years, indeed long before Belfast even existed. Carrickfergus's antecedents date back to sixth century taking its name from Fergus Mór mac Eirc, the 6th-century king of Dál Riata, the perhaps legendary, first king of Scotland. According to historian Michael Wood Fergus Mor may have been a confederate of King Arthur. Carrickfergus however really got going in the twelfth century when the Normans arrived and built their castle there. 
The Normans of course were civilised Vikings and Bangor has a less happy Viking connection too. This from Wikipedia: 

The Annals of Ulster tells us that the monastery of Bangor was founded by Saint Comgall in approximately 555[11] and was where the Antiphonarium Benchorense was written, a copy of which can be seen in the town's heritage centre. The monastery had such widespread influence that the town is one of only four places in Ireland to be named in the Hereford Mappa Mundi in 1300. The monastery, situated roughly where the Church of Ireland Bangor Abbey currently stands at the head of the town, became a centre of great learning and was among the most eminent of Europe’s missionary institutions in the Early Middle Ages, although it also suffered greatly at the hands of Viking raiders in the 8th century and the 9th century.

The two towns Bangor and Carrickfergus faced each other across the four miles of lough when Belfast wasn't even a village. I was born and grew up in Carrickfergus so my instincts are to promote Carrick at every opportunity. Carrick has the castle but Bangor has Rory McIlroy. Bangor has Colin Bateman but Carrick had Jonathan Swift. Etc. 
Unfortunately Bangor has taken a big lead in the cool stakes as far as I'm concerned. As a kid Ballard was my favourite novelist and my favourite two JG Ballard books were Crash and High Rise so when I heard that Ben Wheatley - my favourite British film director - was making High Rise into a movie I was very excited. High Rise takes place in London but for some reason Wheatley has chosen to film it in Bangor and Belfast. Tom Hiddleston, Jeremy Irons, Elisabeth Moss, Sienna Miller, James Purefoy have all been hanging out in Bangor. One of my favourite books is being turned into a film by my favourite director starring some of my favourite actors and its being filmed in Bangor. You win Bangor, this time anyway.  

Thursday, July 2, 2015

Young Lions

My better half & the mother of my children - Leah Garrett - has a new book coming out on September 15th with Northwestern University Press. It's called Young Lions and here's the Amazon listing: 

Young Lions: How Jewish Authors Reinvented the American War Novel shows how Jews, traditionally castigated as weak and cowardly, for the first time became the popular literary representatives of what it meant to be a soldier and what it meant to be an American. Revisiting best-selling works ranging from Norman Mailer’s The Naked and the Dead to Joseph Heller’s Catch-22, and uncovering a range of unknown archival material, Leah Garrett shows how Jewish writers used the theme of World War II to reshape the American public’s ideas about war, the Holocaust, and the role of Jews in postwar life. In contrast to most previous war fiction these new “Jewish” war novels were often ironic, funny, and irreverent and sought to teach the reading public broader lessons about liberalism, masculinity, and pluralism.
Leah has gotten a couple of early blurbs for the book. Debra Dash Moore, The New York Times best-selling author of GI Jews said this: "Young Lions persuasively presents a fresh interpretation that illuminates previously hidden aspects of these [novels]. Leah Garrett's lucid study will change how we think about World War II, the Holocaust and American Jews." The Harvard Professor of American and African American studies, Werner Sollers, said this: "theoretically sophisticated and probing,Young Lions is full of insights that are of interest to the literary scholar, the historian, and the student of American ethnic relations." I think its of tremendous interest to the general reader too. It's about the Jewish soliders in the US forces in WW2 (500,000 of them served) what they read on the line and what they wrote about when they came home. American war novels until then were in the mould of Red Badge of Courage or For Whom The Bell Tolls. All that changed with the publication of The Naked and the Dead, Catch 22, The Young Lions, Dangling Man, Battle Cry, The Caine Mutiny etc. and those novels influenced my favourite WW2 novel The Thin Red Line. There's also a good bit about Sergeant Bilko. 
Here's the Northwestern University Press page about the book

Monday, June 29, 2015

Why Justice Scalia Is Both Right And Wrong

America's 9 philosopher kings
While I endorse the result I'm a bit dubious about the method. Ireland did it the right way. In Ireland gay marriage became the law of the land because, after an intense campaign and many debates, an overwhelming majority of the Irish population voted to legalise gay marriage. America got gay marriage legalised in all fifty states because one man, Justice Anthony Kennedy, decided that gay marriage was going to be the law of the land. The US Supreme Court has four liberal judges and four conservative judges, Justice Kennedy is the swing vote and so what he says goes in cases like this. The judgement in the gay marriage case Obergefell v Hodges (2015) is worth reading in full, here. Kennedy's argument essentially came down to the equal protection clause of the 14th Amendment: "No State shall make or enforce any law which shall abridge the privileges or immunities of citizens of the United States; nor shall any State deprive any person of life, liberty, or property, without due process of law; nor deny to any person within its jurisdiction the equal protection of the laws." Kennedy based his judgement on the unanimous decision in the famous Loving v Virginia case which held that laws prohibiting inter-racial marriage were illegal because they violate the 14th Amendment. Kennedy's logic is that if the equal protection clause applies to Loving it also applies to Obergefell. Kennedy was joined in this decision by the court's 4 liberal justices. 
In a blistering, sarcastic and rather undignified dissent Justice Scalia assailed Kennedy's reasoning, prose style and the decision itself. Scalia was both right and wrong in his dissent but crucially more wrong than right. Scalia I feel is right to say that this kind of important moral decision should have been made by a vote of the people or by their elected representatives rather than by one man, Justice Anthony Kennedy. If three or four weeks ago when this case was being written Kennedy had decided to concur with the conservatives this would have been a 5:4 decision the other way. That's no way to decide a major moral issue. One man makes a judgement call over his breakfast and that's that? But Scalia is more wrong than right and his reasoning in Obergefell is both disingenuous and philosophically dubious. Here's why Scalia is wrong: 

1. Scalia claims not to care one whit either way whether gay marriage should become the law or not, he's just an impartial justice applying the law. This is utter rubbish. Scalia, a committed Catholic, was frothing with hostility about gay marriage during oral argument and has almost always taken a conservative Catholic stance towards moral questions. 
2. Scalia says that discovering the right to gay marriage in the 14th Amendment means that 150 years of case law is wrong as the orginal writers of the 14th Amendment could never have envisaged such a right. They could never have envisaged television either but in Citizens United Scalia said that political candidates and PACs could spend as much money as they wanted on TV ads. Similarly with assault rifles, drones etc. With Scalia if the Constitution is in tune with his personal views the intent of the framers is clear, if it's not "special scrutiny" is required. 
3. Orginalism is incoherent as an interpretive school of thought. Scalia believes that the way to interpret the Constitution is to discover the original intent of the framers and ratifiers. This seems logical until you think about. Hundreds of people had a hand in drafting and ratifying the Constitution. Does it really make sense to go through all their speeches and diaries and private letters to understand what they really meant? If we are to turn the clock back to the 1780s or the 1860s then that means Brown v Board of Education (1954) was wrongly decided and "separate but equal" and Jim Crow should still be the law of the land. If this is what Scalia believes he should come and say so, but of course he and the other originalists would never say such a thing because originalism doesn't make sense in 1954 or 2015. The constitution is a living document that has been modified by case law - that's how the common law works. The late Ronald Dworkin's fascinating book Law's Empire unpacks how judges should interpret the constitution and is a must read for everyone interested in jurisprudence. Dworkin has unpacked the incoherence of Scalia's interpretive school, here.
4. Loving v Virginia is the key to everything and this clock started ticking way back in 1967. To me the most compelling part of Kennedy's judgement isn't his appeals to Cicero or Confucius (!) it's his analysis of Loving

The Court has long held the right to marry is protected by the Constitution. In Loving v. Virginia, 388 U. S. 1, 12 (1967), which invalidated bans on interracial unions, a unanimous Court held marriage is “one of the vital personal rights essential to the orderly pursuit of happiness by free men.” 

The Loving case was decided in 1967 not 150 years ago by a unanimous court. Scalia, Roberts, Alito and Thomas (who takes the trouble to analyse Magna Carta (1215) in his dissent!) fail to explain why the Loving case was wrongly decided. If you believe, as all 9 SC judges clearly do, that Loving was correctly decided then you need to explain why Obergefell is substantially different from Loving. You don't need to go back to 1215 or 1865 or the 1780's. To me Kennedy's argument that the 14th Amendment covers gay couples is an understandable and compelling application of the Loving judgement and the judgment of the Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit should be reversed. This is not how I would have changed the gay marriage law in America but it is a logical application of the equal protection clause and the court made the right decision in this case. 
As I say, everyone who is interested in this case should read the full judgement, here. Unlike the SC cases of just 20 years ago the opinions have been written in a fairly easy to understand almost colloquial style. Kennedy's rhetoric is a bit over the top for my taste, CJ Roberts hits the right note in his dissent, Scalia is ill mannered but entertaining in his dissent and Thomas, as usual, is all over the shop. Thomas never speaks in oral argument and when you read his judgements you can sort of see why.

Saturday, June 27, 2015

The Devil's Making

Two years ago I had the opportunity to spend a lovely few days in Victoria, British Columbia. If there's a more civilised city on this Earth I don't know what that city is. Victoria has a Scottish pub, an award winning bookshop that was established by a Nobel Laureate, the BC parliament and just about the most beautiful place in the world to walk your dog along the cliffs over the Strait of Juan de Fuca (views to Olympic National Park in the United States, Mt Baker and the San Juan Islands). If you get the chance to go to Victoria, BC take it. We arrived via fast ferry from Seattle and that's a great way to get there going up Puget Sound spotting dolphins and orcas along the way.

I've wanted to learn more about Victoria for a couple of years now so I was excited to learn about a mystery novel set there in the city's formative years by Sean Haldane called The Devil's Making. Sean, you'll remember, was up for the Oxford Professor of poetry job that went to Simon Armitage in controversial circumstances. Sean grew up in Belfast, lived in Canada and now lives in London. (the great Irish novelist Brian Moore had a very similar trajectory.) Sean's poetry is extraordinary (take a look at some of his new stuff in English and Irish) and his brother lives on Manse Road in Ballycarry a road I must have cycled down 1000 times which is very close to the place where James Orr the famous "Bard of Ballycarry" lived. 

But I digress. The Devil's Making was the winner of the Arthur Ellis Award for best Canadian mystery and is an excellent historical novel. Non spoilerish first few chapter summary from Kirkus: 

Chad Hobbes is an Oxford graduate at odds with his father, a vicar deeply disturbed by his son's embrace of Darwin’s theories. For his part, Hobbes’ feelings about women and sex are complicated by his love for his mother, who once had an affair with his father’s curate. Unable to continue his education in jurisprudence without family help, he decides to travel. A letter of introduction to Chief Justice Begbie gets him a job as a constable in Victoria, whose local population is a volatile mixture of British, American, Black, Chinese, and Native American. Hobbes’ first case is the murder of Dr. McCrory, a self-proclaimed alienist, who is found dead and mutilated by visiting Tsimshian Indians. The Tsimshian send a runner to tell the authorities, who arrest Wiladzap, a medicine man. Hobbes, called to investigate, doubts Wiladzap is the killer and sets out to learn more about the victim...

Ok that's enough plot. I loved the book and found it to be a gripping, philosophically rich, historical adventure. I also dug the period setting, the landscape, the clash of cultures and the crackpot characters. It reminded me a bit of my own book The Sun Is God which also deals with a bunch of lunatics on an island at the end of the Victorian era. This period is clearly ripe for this kind of fiction and Sean loves exploring this world as much as I do. If you're one of the many people who gave up 1/3 of the way in to The Luminaries then you should try this one instead. Or indeed if you're one of the people who finished The Luminaries you should still give this a go. The Devil's making is a very nice blend of Caleb Carr, Brian Moore and Patrick O'Brian with sympathetic characters in a fascinating setting. I hope Sean continues to write more in a similar vein.

Wednesday, June 24, 2015

The Bone Clocks

David Mitchell was in Melbourne the week before last and very popular he was too. His talk was excellent. Mitchell is a really smart, interesting guy. Here's my review of his latest for the Sydney Morning Herald which is now available in pbk. Jason, my editor, wanted more of a career survey than just a regular review, which I was happy to do because I'm a David Mitchell completist (I'll read everything he publishes)

David Mitchell’s The Bone Clocks

Some novelists take an uneasy book or two to find their voice, others say everything in an audacious debut and then subsequently disappoint; rarer are the cases of the writer who arrives seemingly fully formed, producing mature, thoughtful books from the get-go and then at decent intervals over their literary career. The English novelist David Mitchell is an example of this latter type.

Mitchell burst onto the world literary scene in 1999 with an extraordinary debut novel, Ghost Written. Largely set in Japan, where Mitchell was living at the time, it is an alluring polyphonic tour-de-force that brings in such themes as magic, animism, Buddhism, Japanese millennial cults and international terrorism. Mitchell followed up Ghost Written with the slightly more conventional Number9dream (2001), a Bildungsroman about a Japanese student and his complex relationship with his wealthy family.

Cloud Atlas (2004) was the novel that confirmed Mitchell’s place as one of British fiction’s most interesting talents. Shortlisted for the Booker Prize and spanning a multiplicity of genres and time periods, Cloud Atlas was a series of superbly intertwined short-stories that revolved around ideas of loss, betrayal, duplicity, racism and grief. It was in Cloud Atlas too that we began to see something of Mitchell’s bigger plan with intriguing call-backs to his earlier books and the reuse of previous characters and settings.

Mitchell’s fourth book was the more subdued, semi-autobiographical Black Swan Green (2006) about a year in the life of a 13-year-old English boy with a stammer in the small village of Black Swan Green in the West Midlands. Set in the early 1980’s, this was a more intimate novel although it too had its wider resonances with the appearance of characters from Ghost Written and Number9dream.

Mitchell’s next offering, The Thousand Autumns of Jacob De Zoet (2010), told the tale of Jacob De Zoet, a young Dutch merchant who falls in love with a Japanese woman in eighteenth century Nagasaki. A full blown historical romance with fantastic elements De Zoet was a triumph: dark, lyrical and wilfully strange, this was a seasoned and witty reflection on love and loss and good and evil.

In 2013 Mitchell translated a Japanese teen’s Asperger’s Syndrome memoir and wrote a powerful essay in the Guardian newspaper about coping with his son’s autism in austerity challenged rural Ireland.

David Mitchell’s sixth novel, The Bone Clocks, is a recapitulation of many of the concepts and conceits of his earlier works. It begins with the story of Holly Sykes, a lippy Anglo-Irish teen, who runs away from home in Gravesend, Kent, in 1984. Holly and her little brother Jacko both have supernatural abilities: Jacko has precognition powers and Holly hears voices (the Radio People) that appear to be the internal monologues of other people. While Holly is fleeing home sinister forces come after her and successfully kidnap Jacko. The action shifts seven years forward to 1991 where dissolute Cambridge University student Hugo Lamb has just met Holly Sykes, now a chalet-maid at a ski resort in the Alps. Hugo is abducted by a mysterious and somewhat prolix group who call themselves Anchorites of the Dusk Chapel of the Blind Cathar of the Thomasite Monastery of the Sidelhorn Pass.

The Anchorites explain that they are not only able to teleport and see into the future but that they have also discovered the secret to eternal life. Hugo is offered a humdrum but safe existence with Holly or immortality (with a rather unpleasant murderous catch).

We jump forward thirteen years to 2004 where Holly is marrying her childhood sweetheart and then to 2015 where Hugo’s Cambridge chum novelist Crispin Hershey runs into Holly at the Perth Writers Festival. Holly has written a successful book about her childhood, The Radio People, while Crispin’s latest offerings have perplexed his audience. (There’s a very funny aside where Crispin takes to task reviewers who might dare to complain about serious English novelists writing fantasy books.) Holly and Crispin share a bizarre magical experience out on Rottnest Island, off Freemantle, before going their separate ways. We then slip back in time to a fascinating section of The Bone Clocks which takes place in an Aboriginal community just outside of nineteenth century Perth. This is the extraordinary moment when you realise that The Bones Clocks is a kind of sequel to Mitchell’s previous book, The Thousand Autumns of Jacob De Zoet. Doctor Marinus, a delightful character from De Zoet, re-appears in The Bone Clocks in a way that, unfortunately for me, robbed him of some of his previous charm.

The Anchorites, it turns out, are the bad guys, who are in a war with the Horologists - a group of benign immortals who are trying to protect the human race from the Anchorites’ predatory ways. Hugo must decide whose side he’s really on in this battle between darkness and light. The final part of the novel skips into a gloomy dystopian future where the ice caps have melted, the internet has collapsed and China is the hegemonic world power.

Although sometimes described as a “magical realist” Mitchell’s vision is very much in the English school of modern fantasy writing following a template laid down by writers such as Michael Moorcock, Clive Barker and Neil Gaiman. Mitchell’s long tenure in Japan has given him an appreciation too for the gothic fables of novelist Haruki Marukami, whose recent IQ84 is particularly resonant in The Bone Clocks.

Already long-listed for the 2014 Booker prize It is unlikely that Mitchell’s new novel will disappoint many of his admirers, but on finishing the book I found myself a little let down. The internal logic of The Bone Clocks is not particularly rigorous and many of the magical battles felt rather silly and Harry Potterish. Like Gaiman or the British writer JG Ballard, Mitchell seems to have the most fun in the exploration of big ideas from fantasy or science fiction, but he clearly has the skill to dramatize the humdrum existence of every-day life. For all the showiness of Mitchell’s arcane set pieces and impressive ‘world-building’ the bits of his novels that I think are the most enjoyable are his funny, touching interactions between ordinary people in realistic settings. Perhaps Mitchell needs to become more of a miniaturist, a voyager into what JG Ballard himself called the ‘inner space’ of our contemporary existential predicament, rather than the outer space so beloved of futurists and sci-fi novelists.

At one point in The Bone Clocks the reincarnated Doctor Marinus speaks of his love of the German Romantic poets; the most precocious of those poets, Novalis, famously declared his intention of concentrating his craft on the interior life of man because “inward goes the way full of mystery.” This is still good advice and as dazzling as Mitchell’s new book is I hope that next time he will turn his powerful lens inward and focus it a little closer to home.

Sunday, June 21, 2015

10 Things In Ireland That Are Different From The Rest Of The World

1. Everyone hates Bono. In the rest of the world most people hate Bono but in Ireland its everyone, including, of course, Bono. 
2. No one says "it's raining". It's redundant to say it's raining. We know it's raining. It's always raining. 
3. The Guinness is good. It's not good anywhere else in the world. No one can explain why but there it is. 
4. If someone calls you a "fucking cunt" it's not necessarily a bad thing. For example: "ach that wee fucking cunt, aye, he's a great wee lad, isn't he?"
5. If someone calls you "pal" run. You are about to get glassed in the face. 
6. Sense of humour. George Orwell says that the worst thing you can call an Englishman is "nosey parker"; the worst thing you can say about an Irishman or woman is to complain that they lack a sense of humour. If someone - a dour Presbyterian from Ballymena perhaps - appears to be humourless rest assured that you are being mocked in a deadpan style so elevated that it wd give Steven Wright pause. 
7. The past isn't past. You know that hoary old William Faulkner quote "the past isn't dead, it's not even past"? Well no one in Ireland, especially N. Ireland wd ever say that. Drive around Belfast and look at the murals saying "Remember 1916" or "Remember 1690" and you'll appreciate that the past is very much alive. 
8. Poetry. Only in Ireland is the poetry section of the bookshop bigger than the self help section. This is a good thing. 
9. Music. Nearly everyone in Ireland can play a musical instrument. This is one of the reasons why we hate Bono so much. Because he can't. 
10.A healthy breakfast. When I was a kid there were 2 breakfasts to be had in Belfast: 1) the quick breakfast: a cup of tea and a cigarette. 2) an Ulster fry: fried eggs, potato bread, soda bread, sausage, bacon, black pudding & sometimes white pudding (don't ask) - the healthy version wasn't fried in lard. 

Thursday, June 18, 2015

Ireland Is A Railway Poster: Adrian McKinty in Carrickfergus & Yorkshire

man in deck chair taken aback by appearance of 2 people under 60 in Harrogate
I'll be doing several book readings and events in July that you are very welcome, indeed, encouraged to come to. 

At the Harrogate crime writing festival I'll be on a panel with some very big guns indeed: Eoin McNamee, Stuart Neville, myself and Steve Cavanagh will be in conversation with Brian McGilloway. This event is entitled Irish Noir and will be at noon on Friday July 17th. I'm supposed to arrive from Melbourne the night before so I'll be my usual punchy, pissed off, jetlagged beardy self. McGilloway will be charming. Nev will be funny. Eoin will be all intellectual and everything and Steve I dont know but he seems like a funny & witty bloke too. 

In Carrickfergus I'll be reading at Carrickfergus Library on Monday July 20th and I'll also be doing maybe 1 or two more readings that are TBA. 

Monday, June 15, 2015

Everybody Hates Us And We Don't Care

On Saturday night Northern Ireland got a draw against Romania who are the twelfth best football team in the world. This amazing result keeps Northern Ireland 2nd in group F and still on course for qualifying in the European Championship in 2016. The Republic of Ireland were also playing on Saturday and they managed to eek out a draw against Scotland who are similarly ranked to them on the FIFA table. The Republic will almost certainly not be qualifying for the European Championship but Northern Ireland have a very good chance of making it to Euro 2016. You can look at the tables here and you'll see what I mean. You'd think then that Northern Ireland's result on Saturday night would have dominated the British and Irish football media reports on Sunday morning. A plucky underdog taking on the European football powerhouse Romania and managing to hold out for a draw and getting a step closer to the championship? You'd have thought wrong then. The Guardian, the newspaper I read, did a live feed that was updated every 5 minutes before the Republic game and it had live updates during the game. The dismal result of that match was a front page story. No one did a live feed of the Northern Ireland game and the NI result was buried deep deep in the football section. Why is this? 
the current Republic of Ireland manager, Martin ONeill, was of course, a famous player
for Northern Ireland and one of the heroes of the 82 World Cup campaign
The answer is because everybody hates Northern Ireland. The meta-narrative of the Northern Ireland football team is seemingly not a good one because it is connected to Northern Ireland the state. This meta-narrative runs like this: when Ireland became gloriously independent in 1922 a tiny rump of six counties decided to stay with Britain. These largely Protestant fanatics ran Northern Ireland as a kind of Boer South Africa until 1968 when the whole statelet erupted into civil war. A civil war that did not abate until the 1990's with thousands dead. The name Northern Ireland then is stained with the legacy of sectarianism, racism, colonialism & war. The Republic of Ireland football team by contrast is Ireland's real football team that every Irishman and woman and every Irish exile should support. This is the meta-narrative and its why Northern Ireland seldom gets coverage in the press anywhere in the world outside Northern Ireland. N. Ireland is an embarrassment. Of course a lot of this is true and it doesn't help that Northern Ireland's home games are played at Windsor Park the home of Linfield which has been described as the Glasgow Rangers of Ulster. Not exactly a welcoming place for Catholic supporters. And in the 1980s it was a pretty terrifying environment especially in the old kop stand where you could get roughed up by skin-heads (this happened to me) and where racist invective was all too prevalent. To shoot itself further in the foot these "fans" would sometimes barrack Catholic players and so some Catholic players decided reasonably enough that they wouldn't play for Northern Ireland at all and preferred to play for the Republic. So this is a pretty easy meta-narrative to embrace if you live outside of NI (or if you're a nationalist living inside Northern Ireland) - if you want to cheer for an Irish football team cheer for the Republic. 
Unfortunately for a world that wd prefer the N Ireland football team to just go way, the team is actually pretty damn good. In fact in terms of per capita population its one of the best teams in the world. Northern Ireland has qualified for three world cups. 133 countries have never qualified for a world cup and Northern Ireland has qualified three times. What's also very weird is that when they get to the world cup Northern Ireland always does very well. In fact some people have argued that in terms of per capita Northern Ireland is the most successful country ever in the world cup finals. You heard me right. Poor, benighted, ignored, loathed Northern Ireland always seems to shine on the big stage. And now we're doing it again. We're in Group F in the European Championships against 4 teams that when the qualifying process began had higher FIFA world rankings than us. We were expected to end up second from the bottom in this group. Thats what all the pundits said. But it didnt happen. While all the media types were talking about England, Scotland, Wales and the Republic of Ireland, Northern Ireland very quietly, off screen as usual, just kept winning and drawing against superior opposition gradually moving up the table. 
the current logo. I believe the words "Northern Ireland"
were not inserted until as late as the 1980s. If you know
the exact date please let me know in a comment
There's another problem with the meta narrative of a wicked Northern Ireland team and a cheerful plucky Republic of Ireland team that represents true Irishmen and women everywhere and its this: Northern Ireland is, in fact, the true Irish football team and it always has been and it's the Republic of Ireland & FIFA who divided soccer on the island of Ireland. In rugby, boxing, hockey, pretty much every sport you can think of there is only 1 Irish team but not soccer. Why? The answer is this: The IFA, the Irish Football Association was founded in Belfast in 1880. This was the period of the Gaelic Revival in Ireland and soccer was considered to be a foreign game by the intellectuals down in Dublin so they didn't care about it. It was only after the partition of Ireland in 1923 that the Free State authorities rebelled against the idea of having such a popular game as football controlled from a "foreign land", so they set up a rival organisation called the FAI and applied to FIFA for membership. It was the Irish Republic, the FAI, who divided football in Ireland. Sensibly the IFA in Belfast ignored this usurper organisation and continued to select players from all over Ireland for its team. It wasn't until the 1950s when that pernicious and corrupt organisation FIFA noticed that some players were playing for both the FAI team and the IFA team that they decided they had to put a stop to it. They insisted the IFA call its team Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland call its team the Republic of Ireland. The IFA didn't want to do this but FIFA makes the rules. So since the 1950s the IFA has only been allowed by FIFA to select players from the six counties of Northern Ireland. The FAI selects from the 26 counties down South (and anyone who has an Irish grandparent anywhere else in the world). The IFA reluctantly accepted this six county rule but didn't actually change the badge that Northern Ireland players played under until the 1980's when the worlds "Northern Ireland" where added to the IFA logo, again after FIFA pressure. But historically the IFA which is still headquartered in Belfast is the true Irish football team and until FIFA's meddling was the Irish football team from 1880 - 1954. But for FIFA's corrupt shenanigans the IFA wd still represent all of Ireland. De jure if not de facto we still do. We have been robbed of our birthright. We are princes in exile. We are kings over the water. Look at this picture of George Best in the early 1970's. It's hard to see but the only thing it says on his shirt are the words: Irish Football Association.
This is the underdog story that no one else will ever tell you about. Northern Ireland always ranks number 1 or 2 in the FIFA top 50 rankings per head of population. We always do well in the world cups. We always beat teams that are consistently ranked above us. Why will you never hear this story? Because the prevailing meta narrative is too strong. N Ireland wont ever get the respect or attention of the British, Irish or world media. Our burdens are many: FIFA despises us, the Republic of Ireland is indifferent or hostile to us, Windsor Park is not a nice place to play football, Belfast is not a beautiful city, much of the Catholic population of Northern Ireland prefers to root for the Republic team.
Manicheans  (those who simplify the world into good and evil) hate nuance and to support Northern Ireland you need to be able to embrace nuance. The Northern Ireland football team is too much associated with the toxic legacy of sectarianism and the Troubles for most people. It's so easy (too easy in fact) to be an England supporter or a Scotland supporter or a Brazil supporter or a supporter of team USA where nationalism for these nations is easily consumed, packaged, boring and simple. But to be a Northern Ireland supporter you need to have a heterogeneous mind able to do Scott Fitzgerald's trick: the bifurcation of your consciousness into opposing ideas. You need to be able to appreciate Ireland's complex past, you need to be able to ignore the rump idiocy of sectarian supporters on the terraces and cheer for a plucky bunch of 2nd rate players who somehow manage to raise their game on the international stage again and again and again.
All of this is ok. I remember going to a Millwall v Chelsea game in the 1980s and I'll never forget the famous Millwall chant "No One Likes Us and We Don't Care". I found that chant pretty inspiring actually. The whole world can go fuck itself. We're Millwall, we know who we are and we don't give a shit. Intelligent Northern Ireland supporters say the same thing. We're not Brazil, we're Northern Ireland, we are the original Irish football team, we are underdogs in every game we play and everybody hates us and we don't care. 

Friday, June 12, 2015

Ireland Is A Railway Poster: Philip Larkin In Carrickfergus

a post from last year
For years I've been single handedly peddling the concept that my hometown, Carrickfergus, is the centre of the universe, with admittedly, limited success. What I particularly like are the literary connections which are surprisingly rich in so small a place. Famously Louis MacNeice lived in Carrickfergus and wrote about it more than once. He brought WH Auden to the town to stay with him but what he thought is not recorded. Jonathan Swift lived in Carrickfergus (at Kilroot) where he wrote A Tale of a Tub (and possibly plotted Gulliver). Anthony Trollope lived in Whiteabbey near Carrickfergus where he wrote The Warden. William Congreve lived in Carrickfergus as a boy. Charlotte Riddel - best selling Victorian pot boiler novelist - was from Carrick. William Orr, United Irishman and poet, (with an ever more famous poet brother, James) lived and was, er, hanged in Carrickfergus. Currently the science fiction writer David Logan lives in Carrickfergus and my favourite Irish female poet, Sinead Morrissey, lives just up the road from Carrick. And speaking of poets I've just found this letter (below) from Philip Larkin to Monica Jones talking about his lonely visit to Carrick in 1950 when - who knows - he could have seen my mum and dad out for a walk around the harbour. Larkin is on fine miserable form thoughout...

Tuesday, June 9, 2015


Publishing that Muhammad Ali story (previous post, below) got me thinking that I'd previously written a celebrity story about a person who was an (amateur) boxer but was much more famous as an actor. For the Crime Factory Anthology collection Lee I wrote a story about Lee Marvin. The idea behind Lee was to write a fictional account of a moment in Marvin's real life. I chose to write about Marvin's evacuation to a hospital when he was a US Marine during the Pacific War. 
As Private Marvin lies in his bed in the safe surroundings of the hospital ship listening to Glenn Miller he thinks about his buddies still fighting on the island. He thinks about what his tough guy father will think about him being invalided out of combat in his first few days in theatre. He thinks about what he's going to do with the rest of his life after the war. . .
You can read the Lee Marvin story, here on my "pages" page. 

Friday, June 5, 2015

Brand New Sean Duffy Story

I've written a brand new Sean Duffy story for my old friend Dan Stone's Radio Silence magazine. It's a one off story not connected to anything that I imagine takes place several months after the end of the events in Gun Street Girl. I originally gave it the very literal title of The Champ's Visit To Belfast - A Fantasy but Dan has called it the more interesting Shadowboxing
Muhammad Ali came to Ireland many times over the years. The two most famous visits were in 1972 to fight Alvin Lewis at Croke Park and in 2005 to visit Ennis, County Clare which was the ancestral home of his great-grandfather, Abe Grady. In Shadowboxing I reimagine the latter visit taking place two decades earlier in 1987. After visiting Ennis, Ali travels up to Troubles torn Belfast where a nervous Inspector Sean Duffy is on crowd control duty.
You can read the full story, Shadowboxing, here

Radio Silence is a magazine of literature and rock & roll: the two other pieces I've written for them are both non fiction. I've done an article on the Van Morrison album Astral Weeks for the second print issue and an article on the Radiohead song, Creep that you can read, here

Wednesday, June 3, 2015

Vote For Alicia

Just a reminder that if you are an Oxford graduate you are able to vote for the new Oxford Professor of Poetry and I think you should vote for Alicia Stallings. The registration period closes on June 8th. There hasn't been much media about the election this time which is a welcome relief from the scandals of yesteryear but what media there has been has mostly been in the Guardian where they have been portraying the election as a two horse race between Wole Soyinka and Simon Armitage who are the two most famous people up for the job.
My two favourite candidates and the two best poets up for the job haven't been been getting much coverage. Sean Haldane writes rich, prepossessing, gorgeous verse, brilliant crime novels and he knows his poetry onions. My old friend Alicia Stallings has an extraordinary range as a poet writing in contemporary, classical and every other type of mode and her verse is funny, lyrical and beautiful. If I had a proportional representation vote I'd vote Alicia 1 and Sean 2 as its clear to me that they are the best two actual poets in the field. Alicia was my flatmate at Oxford & everyone realised she was brilliant way back then. She has since won numerous awards including a MacArthur Foundation "Genius" fellowship and she's the only American and the only woman up for the job. (Oxford has never had a female poetry professor. Never. You heard me right). You can register to vote for the position here. Here's Alicia last year talking about her craft and reading some of her poems:

Monday, June 1, 2015

Andy Weir's The Martian or Potato Growing For Beginners

Last year The Melbourne Age newspaper asked me (and a whole bunch of other much more interesting and famous people) to pick two books which I had enjoyed that I thought deserved a wider audience in Australia. The two books I picked were H Is For Hawk by Helen Macdonald and The Martian by Andy Weir. I'm not normally on the cutting edge of things but shortly after I mentioned how much I had enjoyed H Is For Hawk it won the Samuel Johnson Prize for best non fiction work and became a best seller; shortly after I mentioned The Martian the book got optioned by Ridley Scott for development as a movie (a movie which has - already - been filmed and will be released this Christmas) and it became a best seller too. If only I could apply this voodoo to my own bloody books. . .
Anyway what I wanted to talk about is potatoes. The Martian is a story about an astronaut who gets stranded on Mars, set roughly 20 years from now at around the time of the first manned mission there. Mars tries to kill the astronaut in a million different ways though mostly by cold, lack of air, lack of water and starvation. The fun of the novel is watching how the self mocking and resourceful astronaut manages to solve a series of engineering problems in an attempt to keep himself alive for a few days longer. And then there's the potatoes. He doesn't have enough food to survive for very long but he remembers the Thanksgiving potatoes that NASA gave them and because he studied botany as a minor at college (there is some good botany humour in the book) he manages to mix a little bit of potting soil with some Martian regolith and grow enough potatoes to save his life. The growing of the potatoes sequence is one of the most fascinating and indeed exciting (I'm not kidding) portions of the book. 
A few months ago I wondered how easy it would be to grow a potato plant on Earth so I took an ordinary small red potato and shoved it in a pot in the back garden. I forgot all about until this morning. Potatoes must clearly like it when you forget all about them. I never watered the plant or did anything else to it at all and this (above) is the result. This is the first thing I've ever grown from a root or tuber. Thank you Andy Weir you've made a botany convert out of me. 

Friday, May 29, 2015

The Coen Brothers Rated

Details of the new Coen Brothers film have emerged on the IMDB. Its going to be about a movie fixer in the 1950's attempting to right the ship of a troubled Julius Caesar film. It stars George Clooney and Scarlett Johannsen, who it must be said, have not brought the best work out of the Coens in the past. (I hope the film includes the bit in Caesar's career where he chases down Cassius before he can escape over the Hellespont. Why do I hope this? Well for the rather silly reason that that will be six out the last 8 blogposts where I have mentioned crossing the Hellespont for one reason or another. Go on check it out if you dont believe me.)
I've been a somewhat obsessive fan of the Coen Brothers since high school when I caught Blood Simple at the Queens Film Theatre in Belfast, and I've seen every one since. Here is my attempt at a rating of their filmography in the standard A,B,C,D,F format. A is a classic. B is very good. C is good. D is sometimes watchable. F is basically unwatchable. And remember, as the Dude says, this is just, like, my opinion, man...

1984 Blood Simple A  
1987 Raising Arizona A
1990 Miller's Crossing 
1991 Barton Fink  A
1994 The Hudsucker Proxy F
1996 Fargo A
1998 The Big Lebowski A
2000 O Brother, Where Art Thou? D
2001 The Man Who Wasn't There  F
2003 Intolerable Cruelty  F
2004 The Ladykillers  F
2007 No Country for Old Men B
2008 Burn After Reading  D
2009 A Serious Man C
2010 True Grit B
2013 Inside Llewyn Davis A
2016 Hail Caesar

Is there a pattern here? Yeah I think so. If you were to draw a Venn diagram with John Turturro, Steve Buscemi, Jeff Bridges and John Goodman as the sets then the intersection of these sets usually represents the higher rated films. The Clooney films maybe not so much...Incidentally when I last posted this list I gave Inside Llewyn Davis a B. I wasn't completely convinced by Llewyn's character - he seems like a Jewish guy from Brooklyn so what's with all the Welsh stuff? I've now watched it a couple of times since and I've decided to forget all that - the movie, for me, is an A. 
A final parting point: if a film maker has a lot of A's and F's - those are the people who take chances and the ones you should go see. 

Tuesday, May 26, 2015

The End Of Theocracy In Ireland

"yes and his heart was going like mad and yes I said yes I will Yes."
--Molly Bloom

The triumph of the "yes" vote in Friday's gay marriage referendum in Ireland is another nail in the coffin of the power of the church in Ireland. The Catholic Church vehemently urged its parishioners to vote "no" to gay marriage but the parishioners didn't listen and the yes vote won by a comfortable margin. Ireland is the only country in the world where gay marriage has become law by a popular vote in a plebiscite rather than by a vote from parliamentarians or a diktat imposed by a Supreme Court. 

The Catholic church's power has been waning in the Republic of Ireland for decades. The 1937 Constitution of Eire brought in by Eamon De Valera in consultation with the fundamentalist Archbishop John Charles McQuaid is a remarkably sectarian document that begins thusly:                                                                                                

In the Name of the Most Holy Trinity, from Whom is all authority and to Whom, as our final end, all actions both of men and States must be referred We, the people of Éire, Humbly acknowledging all our obligations to our Divine Lord, Jesus Christ, Who sustained our fathers through centuries of trial.

No "We hold these truths to be self evident" or "We the people"; nope in Ireland the laws come direct from heaven and heaven's administrators are the Catholic Church. The Catholic Church was given control of the schools and many aspects of life in the Republic. Drunk with power the church spent the next five decades abusing altar boys, raping kids, beating boys and girls, sending unmarried mothers to work as slaves in laundries etc. etc. etc. In the 1990s two things began to happen. First, the Celtic Tiger economy allowed many young Irish people to stay at home and work rather than emigrate. Second, an emboldened Irish media began to report on negative stories about the church. With the dissenters staying home rather than leaving and with scandal after scandal finally making the papers a tide of revulsion against the theocrats began. Once the floodgates opened and the Catholic Church began obfuscating and lying about the decades of abuse heaped upon children in its care the sensible people of the Irish Republic turned their back on what Christopher Hitchens called a "creepy cult of professional virgins." The gay marriage referendum is a sign of how far the Church's status has fallen. The church desperately wanted a no vote - the people voted yes. The next thing the Irish will have to do by plebiscite is change their - still - extremely restrictive law on abortion that regularly kills women (!) but, you know, one step at a time...Also it cannot be forgotten that the Catholic church controls education in the Irish Republic and in half the schools in Northern Ireland, but again one step at a time... 
In Northern Ireland things, however, are still pretty damn terrible if, like me, you believe in the sensible libertarianism of John Stuart Mill. Abortion is illegal in Ulster (the only place in the UK where this is the case), racism is still endemic in parts of Belfast and gay marriage is a long way off. Indeed Northern Ireland is now the only part of the UK or Ireland where gay marriage is not permitted. Northern Ireland is roughly 50:50 Protestant/Catholic; northern Catholics appear to be only slightly more conservative than their fellows down south but it's the unionists particularly the DUP who have blocked gay marriage in the Northern Ireland Assembly. Prominent members of the DUP would like to see creationism taught in schools as part of the science curriculum and many of their elected representatives believe that the Bible is literally true and that the scientific consensus on man made global warming is some kind of global conspiracy. Sheesh. The north still has some catching up to do if it wants to enter the twenty first century. Yes, you can attempt to impose a liberal morality on a reluctant population (Brown v Board of Education is an example where this has worked) and in Ulster the recent gay cake saga has attempted to do a similar thing, but its much better if the morality comes from the bottom up. (I agree with Simon Jenkins on this one) 
I wonder what would happen if a referendum on gay marriage were held in Northern Ireland? I think the politicians on all sides might be surprised by the results. There is some evidence that in the quiet privacy of the ballot booth the people might vote yes despite the Biblical rantings and ravings of their elected representatives. The population of Ireland is getting younger and young people have no truck with this kind of nonsense. The theocrats and Biblical literalists are on their way out. Plug Alert. You only have to read my, ahem, award winning novel, The Cold Cold Ground, set in the nightmare year of 1981 when homosexuality was punishable by 3 years imprisonment to see how far we have come since then. 
Ireland is marching into the future and there's not much the people in silly hats (mitre, bowler or beret) can do to stop it. 

Saturday, May 23, 2015

My Favourite Swimming Books

These are my favourite books about swimming, swimmers and the writers who have reflected on swimming. They are not coaching books or how to books. They are also in no particular order. 

Find A Way - Diana Nyad. Diana Nyad's life and what inspired her to try - again - to swim from Havana to Key West and succeed this time at the age of 64. Diana Nyad is one of my heroes. 

Waterlog - Roger Deakin. The eccentric Englishman's attempt to swim wild (in rivers, canals, loughs, lakes & seas) all over Britain. A classic of the genre. 

Hell And High Water - Sean Conway. An unemployed man living with his mum decides to swim nearly 1000 miles (in stages) from Land's End to John O'Groats and raise money for the charity War Child. 

Haunts of the Black Masseur: The Swimmer As Hero - Charles Sprawson. The best look at swimming through literature and attempting literary swims (the Hellespont, The Grand Canal etc.) Everyone should read this book even if they don't actually swim. 

Swimming to Antarctica - Lynne Cox. Maybe the greatest long distance swimmer of all time the amazing Lynne Cox recounts her adventures all over the world including, of course, swimming to Antrarctica. 

The Man Who Swam The Amazon - Martin Strehl. Another ordinary bloke who decided one day to swim the Amazon River. Why? Cause no one else had done it, of course. 

Swim: Why We Love The Water - Lynne Sher. Does what it says on the tin. A nice book to have if you liked Sprawson's Black Masseur and want some more in a smiliar vein. 

The Swimmer - John Cheever. A classic. No point in buying this though. One of my alma maters (can you have more than one mater?) has put it online for nothing, here. 

Thursday, May 21, 2015

Two Questions for the Game of Thrones Showrunners

When I read the first Game of Thrones novel in 1999 I liked the book's complexity, psychological depth and particularly the fact that it had empowered female leads. Until the 1970's fantasy fiction had a poor record of female empowerment. Just look at the covers of most fantasy books written between 1968 and 1978 and you'll see what I'm talking about. However the great Ursula Le Guin, the great Angela Carter and the great Julian May et al came along to shake up the assumptions of that tedious boys club. And then in the 1980s queer and feminist critics started making fun of the horrible writing and gender stereotypes in science fiction and fantasy and by the mid 90's when George RR Martin began GOT the old misogynous shit just didn't play anymore. Martin's female leads were just as ruthless, clever and brilliant as the men and the book was all the better for it. 
Game of Thrones the TV show initially was praised for the same reasons. Strong feisty female leads but lately the show has taken a backward step. If you're a regular reader here you'll know that I've supported GOT many times in the past. GOT is filmed largely in County Antrim where I grew up and its been a joy for me to see my beautiful home county shared with the wider world. Before GOT aired my little brother and I broke into the Castle Black set, I've talked about accents on GOT, I've raved about Peter Dinklage and I wrote a long piece for the Guardian unpacking some of the criticism of Thrones that it was just a cod medieval soap opera....
But Game of Thrones, the TV show, has had some very troubling gender politics and lately its been getting much worse. In this week's episode Sansa Stark was brutally raped on her wedding night - an event that does not happen in the book; last year Cersei Lannister was raped by her own brother - an event that does not happen in the book. Three of the four female leads in the show now have been raped in front of the cameras. Raped by the writers and showrunners Dan Weiss and David Benioff that is, because Cersei and Sansa were not raped in the books. The only major female lead left who hasnt been raped is Arya Stark who is played by 15 year old actress Maisie Williams...give them time I suppose.
Game of Thrones's treatment of female nudity has been preposterous and asymmetrical from the start. HBO is a pay channel with no content restrictions so they are free to show female and male nudity without worrying about sponsors or government censorship. And yet they do worry. My guess is that well over 30 female actresses and young female Irish extras have appeared nude on the show, whereas unless I'm misremembering only 2 male actors have been exposed to full frontal nudity. The male directors, writers and show runners have no problem asking young women to get naked but seemingly they do have a huge problem asking male actors to do the same thing. 
A real backlash has set now against this nonsense. The three best articles dealing with Sansa Stark's rape on the show were written by very pissed off women. Laura Hudson in the Wired recapJoanna Robinson in Vanity Fair and Melissa Leon in the Daily Beast. Men need to be as angry about this bullshit as women are. If you're a Thrones fan you should read all three articles.
My two questions to the Game of Thrones showrunners are these: 
1) why use rape to debase, disempower and humiliate the female leads in your show when this wasn't in the books and is entirely unnecessary for the plot? 
2) why are you so fucking prude about male nudity and yet so cavalier about female nudity? Why the asymmetry?

Monday, May 18, 2015

The American Dream Always Comes True: Mad Men's Unironic Denouement

Happy endings all around: Everyone got what they wanted in the final episode of
Mad Men (except for Betty who was disposed of like the wife
in the golf joke in episode 1) 
I was there at the beginning so I felt I had to be there at the end. Like the Sopranos, the show where Matthew Weiner cut his teeth, Mad Men ended with a whimper not a bang. When I reviewed the pilot episode a million years and two trouser sizes ago I said that it was an "intelligent, reflective television show that cast a witty and introspective light on the recent past." 
Mea culpa. Mad Men wasn't as smart or as introspective or as piercing as it or I thought it was. As if digesting fully David Foster Wallace's criticism that "irony is the song of the bird who has learned to love its cage" Mad Men decided to ditch irony and go for sincerity as the series progressed. In the final season Don quits McCann Erickson, has a mid life crisis, drives through the west having adventures like John Steinbeck in Travels With Charley or Kane in Kung Fu and then in a hippy colony comes up with the idea for the I'd Like To Buy The World A Coke ad and returns to work. That was it. Mid life crisis leads to a great idea for an ad for sugar water. This was basically the plot of every season of Mad Men. Mid life crisis, attempt to introspect or extrovert or find love and this attempt leads to a great ad idea for a client. Mad Men wasn't a rejection of post war American materialistic culture it was an attempt to shore it up. It wasn't Matthew Weiner's critique of his parents generation. It was a love letter to these parents. Even Ad Men Get The Blues: ahhhh. Occasionally Mad Men would have a straw man hippie attack Don as "the man", but we were supposed to know better. Don was on a journey, Don thought about things, you're wrong greasy hippie. But the greasy hippie was right. The Mad Men martini shakers, Mad Men tie clips, Mad Men whisky decanters attest to the fact. Mad Men wasn't a TV show at all really, it was just a vector to sell us ads on AMC, DVD box sets and Mad Men merchandise. 
You don't have to have an interesting political message if you can dazzle us with your writing. True Detective, for example, had a hoary old plot and old fashioned archetypes but my God the writing on that show: the brilliant structure, the superb dialogue, the idea that working class characters could be philosophically literate. Mad Men's writing declined precipitously after the first season when the ideas began to run out and then even dumb TV critics noticed that it was going in circles (but they thought the circles meant something). In the final episode the inconvenient first wife gets terminal cancer, the flighty second wife never gets mentioned at all and everyone else gets a happy ending: Peggy and Stan get engaged, Eyepatch guy gets to be head of advertising at his father in laws company, Roger marries again, Joan forms her own company, even Pete Campbell (who I guess we're supposed to forget raped a German aupair in Season 2) goes off with Trudy to run LearJet and become super rich. Everybody wins except boring Betty and Don takes the cake by creating the most iconic ad of the 70s.  
I'm not going to talk in depth about the overrated acting on Mad Men

Jon Hamm can do two emotions, this:     :|    and this:     :\   

but I will talk about Mad Men's production values. Mad Men always looked cheap compared to an HBO or a BBC show. The sets looked fake, the few exteriors that were filmed were always in California, the back projection in the car driving scenes always looked terrible. (In a sitcom you can get away with horrible back projection but it doesn't work in a drama that's going for neorealism.) For a programme that made a boatload of cash for the network, the cast and the showrunners they sure didn't spread a lot of that cash around to the people who did the actual filming.
I suppose we get the culture we deserve. And we deserved Mad Men. We're a shallow, silly lot, who don't like to challenge the status quo and prefer things the way they are. We're not going to swim the Hellespont or work in an orphanage in Lesotho. We're going to watch telly and drink Coke and eat caramel corn. The Prime Minister of the UK is man who went to Eton and Oxford like a score of Prime Ministers before him. The 2016 Presidential Election will be another round of Clinton V Bush. Mad Men was perfect for us & that's why there's been so much lamenting about its departure. But don't worry, like a bad Coca Cola ad or an insincere politician or an entirely invented pop band there will be another Mad Men along soon enough to distract you and me from what's really going on. 

Saturday, May 16, 2015

Max Tegmark's Multiverses

Max Tegmark
one of my favourite posts from last year...
Our Mathematical Universe by physicist Max Tegmark is a popular science book in which he unpacks his theory of the level 1,2,3 and 4 multiverses and then in the last third explains his theory of the mathematical universe. I understood the multiverse idea (the first 3 multiverses anyway) but I didn't really get his concept of the mathematical universe (he's either saying that all the laws of physics depend upon fundamental mathematical concepts which isn't very interesting, or he's saying that everything in the universe (suns, planets, you, me, our conscious minds,) is mathematics itself, i.e. we are living in a platonic universe of numbers that only thinks it's a physical universe - this is a very interesting concept indeed but seems completely crazy to me.) I don't have the competence to judge the last third of the book but I do want to talk about the multiverse idea which is fascinating.
The level 1 multiverse is very easy to understand. All Tegmark is saying here is that space is infinite and beyond the visible light boundary of our universe there must be other shit out there. Indeed there must be entire universes out there. This is the cool part: since space is infinite and the different way atoms in a universe can assemble themselves is huge, but, crucially, finite, then there must, logically, be universes out there with an exact replica of you reading this and me typing this. Indeed there are an infinite number of universes out there with exact replicas of you and me, and an infinite number of universes where we are slightly different, or you became President or we both swam the Hellespont or I ended up playing rugby for Ireland (I still believe this cd actually happen). Infinity is a very powerful concept and creates some surprising results. Like I say, cool stuff. 
The level 2 multiverse is also easy to comprehend. In the expansion phase of our universe just after the Big Bang a 'baby universe' was formed that became our universe, an infinite number of these formed, some with completely different laws of physics than our own, but sentient entities like you and me could only exist in one like ours, the Goldilocks one where gravity, Plancks constant, the electro-magnetic force etc. balance perfectly. But again because an infinite number of these multiverses formed there are other yous and mes out there in slightly different physical realities.
The level 3 multiverse is a trickier beast to grasp. Tegmark and what he claims are "an increasing number of quantum physicists" are beginning to reject the Copenhagen interpretation of quantum physics that has been the dominant interpretation of quantum physics since the 1920's. If you remember the infamous "double slit experiment" from high school you'll recall that when an electron is fired through a piece of metal with a double slit in it sometimes the election acts like a wave and sometimes like a particle. No understands why this is so and it is deeply mysterious to this day. The Copenhagen interpretation basically says that the electron both goes through one slit and does not go through the same slit at the same time. When the election is "observed" by a conscious entity or by a machine (like a camera) its probability wave collapses and it picks one slit to travel down. This has lead to the Schrodingers Cat paradox wherein a cat is both dead and alive at the same time until it has been "observed" - a thought experiment meant to ridicule the Copenhagen Interpretation itself, which I think it did. One alternative to the Copenhagen Interpretation is the Many Worlds Theory. Here there is no need for dead-alive cats, because when the cat experiment is done 2 worlds are created, one in which the cat is dead and another in which it is alive. When you open the cat's box you don't collapse the cat's probability wave you just find out which universe you are in. Similarly when the quantum double slit experiment is carried out, many worlds are created full of scientists carrying out the same experiment. This, some people say, (smart people like David Deutsch) is how quantum computers work - an infinite number of computers exist in an infinite number of many worlds. I know this sounds crazy but I found this part of Tegmark's book very convincing and I now think that the Many Worlds interpretation of quantum physics invented by Hugh Everett is more logical than the Copenhagen Interpretation. Which would mean, if Tegmark, Everett, Deutsch etc. are correct, there is an infinite number of yous and mes existing in what is called Hilbert Space who can interact with one another at a quantum level. If you want to interact with another you in Hilbert space you can do so, here. 
The level 4 multiverse is the multiverse of Platonic mathematics that I didn't really understand. You can read Tegmark's short explanation of it on his MIT website here. Like I say, I didn't follow this in the book or on the website.
I would like to offer an an alternate level 4 multiverse that exists temporally rather than physically. Consider Paul Steinhardt and Neil Turok's idea that the universe goes through an infinite number of big bangs, expansions, heat deaths, brane collapses and big bangs...(This is not mentioned in Tegmark's book but I just thought I'd throw it in here. If this is true then not only have I typed this sentence before and you've read it before, but we've all done this infinitely many times in the past, which I for one find depressing. (As did Nietzsche when he thought about the similar notion of eternal recurrence.)) Another possible Level 4 or maybe Level 5 multiverse is Nick Bostrom's idea that we are probably all living in a simulated universe anyway, which he proves from 2 assumptions and then a statistical argument. 
Scott Aaronson
If indeed there are an infinite number of multiverses out there it raises some interesting questions. First of all it makes what I call Strong Atheism philosophically untenable. With an infinite number of universes there must, logically, be at least 1 universe in which a universal God spontaneously came into existence. It is impossible to say whether we are living in that universe or not. Its unlikely that we're in the universe with the God in it, but its impossible to rule it out. An atheism which denies the existence of all gods is therefore logically mistaken; however a more tempered form of atheism (Soft Atheism) which merely denies that there is any evidence for the existence of God works just fine. There are other really fun consequences of living in a multiverse that this dude has catalogued here. (Seriously click on that link and it will blow your mind and then come back here and leave a comment about how your mind just got blown.)
Max Tegmark's book really gave me food for thought. I didn't get all of it, but I enjoyed reading it and I would recommend it for any of you who have ever, Douglas Adams fashion, wondered about the big questions of life, the universe and everything. It got good reviews in the Guardian and The New York Times among many other papers. The best take down I've read of Tegmark's thesis was done by Scott Aaronson on his vastly entertaining and informative computational science blog Shtetl-Optimized.(Tegmark himself gets sucked into the really rather geekily clever comment thread.)