Eastside Arts Festival: The extraordinary life of writer Robert Harbinson
The forgotten author is set to win new fans this week when director and actor Sam McCready launches a stage adaptation at the EastSide Arts Festival of his brilliant memoir, No Surrender. Ivan Little reports.
You could write a book about the late Belfast-born author Robert Harbinson and probably still need a second edition to complete the whole story of a man who was a walking, talking cocktail of contradictions.
His colourful, and at times controversial, life saw him moving from a job as a cabin boy on a Belfast dredger to working as a cleric, a missionary, a diamond prospector, a teacher and a writer, and still finding the time to become a bisexual friend of high society in the Anglo-Irish Establishment before turning whistle-blower about the Kincora scandal.
Harbinson penned acclaimed autobiographies and travel books but his later controversial tomes, which he published under his real name of Robin Bryans, about the sexual proclivities of the great and the good - including allegations about Lord Mountbatten - earned him notoriety among his erstwhile associates.
Harbinson counted the spies Anthony Blunt and Guy Burgess among his sometime friends, but his highly-affected plummy English accent - cultivated from listening to radio programmes - and his ostensibly sophisticated ways belied his background in the back streets of east Belfast.
He was born in April 1928 into a working class Protestant family who had close links to the Orange Order. When still a baby they moved from Dee Street, off the Newtownards Road, to Donegall Avenue, but he is barely remembered now in literary circles in Belfast, where he and his two siblings were raised single-handedly by their mother after the death of their window cleaner father, who fell from his ladder.
It was a tragedy that was to shape much of Harbinson's writing in four weighty autobiographical books covering his childhood in Belfast and Co Fermanagh, where he was an evacuee during the war - No Surrender, Song Of Erne, Up Spake The Cabin Boy, and The Protégé - all published by the prestigious Faber & Faber company.
Critics lauded his early books as authentic, powerful and humorous evocations of Harbinson's youthful years here, during which time he was seen as nothing more sinister than a loveable rascal who quickly learnt that the best way to survive in poverty-ravaged Belfast was by living on his not inconsiderable wits.
No Surrender, in particular, was a gritty insight into the dark and little-explored corners of loyalist Belfast where, at school, Harbinson said he had Protestantism drummed into him.
Like thousands of his contemporaries in the most fiercely loyalist parts of Belfast, Harbinson was reared on stories of King William and the Boyne, Carson and Craigavon, and catchphrases like "Ulster will fight and Ulster will be right".
In his books Harbinson also recounted how, at wildly contrasting ends of the social spectrum, mission halls and street gangs played important roles during his formative years. But observers say Harbinson's life changed dramatically after he encountered and made friends with a Catholic, a transformation he acknowledged in No Surrender, which has now been adapted for the stage by east Belfast-born, US-based writer, director and actor Sam McCready.
They never met, but McCready was fascinated by Harbinson's work, especially No Surrender, which was first published in the Sixties.
McCready, who was a teacher at Orangefield Boys School, encouraged his pupils, including Beirut hostage Brian Keenan and the poet Gerald Dawe, to read Harbinson's book.
"For many of those students, the book was a revelation," says McCready. "They were accustomed to the standard English classics so it was a surprise and a delight for them to read about a world with which they were familiar.
"They recognised No Surrender was about them and they realised that their own experiences were important and that they could write about them with a newfound freshness, freedom and truthfulness."
McCready says No Surrender has immense depth, adding: "If it was only banging on an Ulster Protestant drum, I might appreciate the writing but I wouldn't be interested in staging it."
Much of McCready's adaptation for the EastSide Arts Festival deals with the changes which Harbinson underwent after the epiphany of meeting someone from the 'other side'.
"He was enlightened. The book has a message of understanding and hope," says McCready, who is clearly a man on a mission about Harbinson.
He says the author has largely fallen off the radar in his native Northern Ireland despite the international success of his books, which McCready wants an Ulster publishing house to get back onto the shelves.
"My main purpose in adapting No Surrender for public performance is to have people read his books again and to have them republished. I want Harbinson to have his place among the pantheon of our finest writers," he says.
Getting him back into print has proved difficult for publishers, who say his estate is in turmoil.
McCready says he spent three years in a hapless search for his literary executor. But there may be other factors in what McCready says is the mysterious neglect of Harbinson.
He explains: "I think it is due to the collision between Ulster puritanism and the lifestyle which Harbinson adopted later in London.
"He came from a devout, evangelical Belfast family, and indeed was something of a protege as a preacher when he was in his early teens, so much so that an evangelical group in Belfast arranged for him to go to a Bible College in South Wales."
Again, a newly-established friendship, across the water this time, turned Harbinson's life around. Reports say a teenage Harbinson was seduced by the flamboyant Welsh poet Evan Morgan, 2nd Viscount Tredegar, who the Belfastman later said gave parties for young sailors and pressed them into black mass sessions.
Harbinson's later sojourns took him to Devon as a teacher and to Canada and South Africa as a missionary, trapper and diamond prospector before returning to London to work in the theatre, though he was soon heading off to live in Europe.
Back in London in the Seventies Harbinson fell out with Lisburn-born Charles Monteith, the chairman of the aforementioned Faber & Faber publishing house.
Harbinson launched into a vicious campaign of harassment against him, claiming in letters to judges and MPs that his erstwhile associate was a homosexual.
Harbinson ended up in court over the allegations and, after hurling a jug of water at a barrister, he was jailed for contempt.
However, prison didn't mollify Harbinson and his writing focused more and more on 'outing' prominent members of London society as homosexual at a time when such relationships were deemed scandalous.
He rarely returned to Northern Ireland, where even his mother said he was "posh". Others who knew him from his youth said his clipped aristocratic tones surprised them.
One observer said: "He wanted to be sure that no-one in England was going to think that he was some kind of gurrier from Belfast. All his airs and graces were manufactured by himself."
The polished, gentrified Harbinson can still be seen and heard on YouTube in a recording of late night Channel 4 TV discussion programme After Dark in 1998 in which former members of the British intelligence services and the former Northern Ireland Secretary of State Merlyn Rees talked about secrets and scandals.
Harbinson spoke openly about his soured friendships with the likes of Blunt, but he also repeated his claims that "old boys networks" were involved in gay sex orgies at country houses and castles north and south of the border and at the Kincora Boys' Home on the Upper Newtownards Road in Belfast.
He later told a Dublin magazine that Lord Mountbatten was a guest at a number of the parties in the Irish country estates.
In his book The Kincora Scandal Belfast journalist Chris Moore wrote that he had long conversations on the telephone with Harbinson about Kincora, and travelled to meet the author in London.
He said Harbinson reeled off the names of people in the Northern Irish and British establishments with such speed that it was difficult for him to keep track of the events and the connections he was describing.
Harbinson claimed that in the Seventies, before the Kincora scandal broke, he had written a series of letters to figures in authority in Britain warning them about the sex abuse, but he admitted that he hadn't mentioned the boys' home by name.
Despite all the controversy which surrounded him in his later years, critics say Harbinson's skills as a writer never faded, although his profile undoubtedly did.
He died in June 2005 and is buried in Cleenish churchyard at Bellanaleck in Fermanagh on the shores of Lough Erne.
His headstone refers to only one of his many books, Song Of Erne.
Sam McCready's adaptation of No Surrender by Robert Harbinson will be staged at the Strand Arts Centre, Belfast, as part of the EastSide Arts Festival this Thursday and Friday. For further details go to www.strandartscentre.com.