I have been collecting John McGahern books for twenty odd years. Like William Trevor and Frank O’Connor he was part of the Irish Parthenon of writers that just sort of there…like kindly uncles. Because of my focus on poetry to the exclusion of all else I had neglected them.

I hadn’t read any of them for years so it was with a little trepidation I opened a recently purchased copy of McGahern’s final edition of his collected short stories re-titled ‘Creatures of the Earth’ from 2006 that he had re-edited before his passing that same year.

The story I chose was a classic McGahern tale of three rural characters interacting. A police sergeant,a housekeeper and a visiting surveyor. Denis Sampson’s study of McGahern ‘Outstaring Nature’s Eye’ has a detailed analysis of the story and picks up on a Yeats reference to his ‘Coole Park 1929’ and swallows which also more prosaically refers to the Sergeant’s imbibing of whiskey.

I immediately fell under this tale’s spell. Not least because of the depth of ‘suggestion’ dovetailed by a craftsman into the ‘simple’ story. The poetic way the story unfolds like a well made bed is deeply satisfying. Sampson picks out the overall theme of ‘timor mortis’ lurking behind all three characters actions. Only ‘Biddy’ the deaf housekeeper is involved with the day to day and knows that will get her ‘ safely to the toe’, an apt metaphor for impending death, as she knits socks oblivious of art and the frustrations and failures of life around her.

The mirror must not be cracked before the last breath.

Meanwhile the sergeant and the surveyor both grasp at the lure of art in folk melody and Pagannini’s example but fall back into the workmanlike clutching at straws and dragging Roach into a boat…the day to day that need not even be eaten and is thrown back.

The collision of simple folk’s aspirations and dreams with reality like the young man mown down on his way to a haircut by a negligent ‘rich person’ is simply the matter of fact reality. It is how things are. We are none of us Paginnini nor Christ though we strive to be.

Beautiful deep and rich writing that continues on re-reading to unveil itself.

A bit like coming home. This is how to write.

Listen to your uncles now for we are all just creatures of the earth….