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Author Maurice Leitch: 'I know Silver's City wasn't a flattering portrait'

 

His classic Troubles-era novel, Silver's City, has been out of print for almost 35 years, but as Co Antrim-born writer Maurice Leitch returns to Belfast tonight to sign copies of a new edition, he talks to Ivan Little about the decades of exile in London, ageism in the publishing world ... and seeing the star quality in a young man called Liam Neeson.

Co Antrim-born writer Maurice Leitch allows himself a little smile as he recalls how he was once hailed as the pioneer of a style of Irish writing about the Troubles that was dubbed the Northern noir.

"At least it was a different colour from Orange or Green," says the former teacher turned radio producer turned best-selling author.

A veritable library of hard-edged books about Ulster's violence, sectarianism and terrorism have followed Maurice's award-winning novel Silver's City, which was undoubtedly a ground-breaker in the Irish literary world.

But although Silver's City struck gold and won the hugely prestigious Whitbread Prize in 1981, the book had long since vanished without trace.

Maurice says: "Second-hand copies popped up on Amazon every so often, but it was out of print. Until now"

Silver's City has been re-issued and the re-launch of a new edition is all down to an Enniskillen man James Doyle, whom Maurice Leitch has never met, even though they both live in London.

James's Turnpike Books firm has become renowned for reviving "forgotten Northern Irish classics" and Maurice will be signing copies of the "new" Silver's City in Belfast tonight.

Maurice says he's not concerned that his involvement with his publisher has been at arm's length, with their communications conducted largely via email.

He adds: "That's the way of publishing nowadays. In the old days it was all about lunches and meetings, but though James's path and my path haven't crossed yet we are going to meet up soon.

"James has done a wonderful job with the book, which is beautifully produced with a very nice cover and everything else."

James, a graduate of Queen's University, Belfast, has said that he read Silver's City in his youth and enjoyed it just as he'd done with a raft of books by other Ulster writers like Ben Kiely, St John Ervine and Janet McNeill whose work had "fallen through the cracks" as he put it.

Which is why James and his Turnpike firm have breathed fresh life into the books for a new audience.

For Maurice Leitch, re-engaging with Silver's City was a pleasantly surprising encounter with his past.

"I hadn't read it for over 20 years when I did a BBC Radio 4 dramatisation of it which starred the incomparable Scot Brian Cox and a little known Ulster actor, James Nesbitt."

Two decades earlier, the response to Silver's City was mixed, to say the least.

Maurice may have won the Whitbread Prize, but some of his Protestant co-religionists and even his relatives were unhappy with the way he portrayed - or in their eyes betrayed - the loyalist cause in one of the first ever books to deal with their feelings and issues.

Says Maurice: "I knew it wasn't a flattering portrait, but the thing about Northern Ireland is that people are anxious to project a certain image and if you somehow go against that and go your own way it doesn't go down terribly well.

"I remember an uncle who worked in a factory in Carrickfergus telling me that 'some of the lads would like to have a wee word with me.'

"And I knew exactly what that meant. But a lot of people admired the book and recognised that I was trying to do something early on during the Troubles."

Maurice says he's only too well aware that playwright Gary Mitchell was forced to leave his home in the Rathcoole estate because his work upset loyalists.

He says: "And if I had stayed in Northern Ireland, the same thing could have happened to me."

In the years after Silver's City success on the book stands, there were occasional suggestions that the novel could be turned into a movie.

But although Maurice had written screenplays for several of his other books, Silver's never hit the silver screen. One idea was to re-locate the action to the West Indies.

That, Maurice thought, was that. End of story.

"But when James Doyle approached me, I read Silver's City again and I was glad that it had stood the test of time and that I had found it was actually rather good," says Maurice, who had written two novels before Silver's City. The second one, Poor Lazarus, won the man from Muckamore the Guardian Fiction Prize.

The buoyed-up Maurice wrote Silver's City after leaving his job with the BBC here to work with the Corporation in London in 1970.

But though he quit Northern Ireland, he was unable to cast himself adrift from the politics and the Troubles back home.

"Obviously, there was no Google back then and what I was discovering about the situation at home was coming from all the papers I was reading.

"I had a very strong idea for Silver's City, but I didn't - and I don't - like doing too much research because it's a temptation to use all of it and a book can become top-heavy.

"In the end Silver's City developed into a study of three characters in Belfast." One of the main figures in the book is a feared loyalist leader called Silver Steele, who is sprung from prison and paraded around Protestant areas by his followers, but eventually the new breed of hard men realise their erstwhile hero doesn't fit in with their plans or their thinking.

But Silver manages to escape the clutches of the paramilitaries, who bring in a psychopathic Scot to track him down.

Anyone with a long enough memory about the Troubles would readily identify Silver with the UVF leader Gusty Spence, who famously didn't return to the Maze after being granted compassionate parole from jail in the 1970s.

"I did pick up some resonances of people from that time, particularly Gusty Spence, but you don't lift characters straight out of life. You adapt them and change them in many ways," says Maurice, who admits that the moniker, Silver came from a legendary street fighter from Belfast called Silver McKee.

Even after nearly half-a-century away from Northern Ireland, Maurice still keeps in touch with his homeland.

"I watch the NI news on my satellite TV and I have to say that many things haven't changed all that much.

"There's still a lot of violence going on, but you don't hear about that on the main news channels here, because people in England are bored with Northern Ireland.

"The politicians like Tony Blair seem to have washed their hands of the place, thinking that they've done a wonderful job fixing history through the Good Friday Agreement.

"But most people associated with Northern Ireland know that history hasn't been fixed satisfactorily."

Maurice says he screams at the television on a regular basis - "especially when I hear Sinn Fein talking about equality and respect. Someone should give them a thesaurus to find alternative words and we should all move on."

He's 83 now, but Maurice has no notion of hanging up his pen. His literary agent is currently trying to find a publisher for a new book about Spain in the 1960s during the fascist era.

But Maurice says the task of getting a publisher is becoming more and more difficult, especially for more mature writers. "So many more books are being written nowadays and more young writers are attracting the attention of young publishers.

"They want to hire younger people, because they think that reflects on them. As you get older, it's undoubtedly tougher to get your voice heard."

However, Maurice is currently attempting to circumvent the ageist system with his first ever stage plays.

One of them is a contemporary Northern Irish play and, though Maurice won't give anything away about the plot, an educated guess is that the Troubles are in there somewhere.

"All I will say is that I've sent it to the Lyric in Belfast, so here's hoping. I love writing dialogue. I always have done and I've really enjoyed plays for radio in the past".

And Jimmy Nesbitt isn't the only emerging star to take part in one of Maurice's productions.

"I wrote a play about a crazy diehard loyalist who was holed up in London. And the man who was cast in the role was a young man called Liam Neeson.

"He wasn't a big name, but it was clear to everyone that he had star quality."

Silver's City has been reissued by Turnpike Books and Maurice Leitch will be signing copies at No Alibis Books in Botanic Avenue tonight from 6.30pm

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