Tuesday, April 24, 2007

Book Review: Distant Babylon

Distant Babylon by Patrick Ryan belongs to a developing serial niche of Dublin literature arising from the devastation caused in inner city working class communities by the heroin epidemic of the 1980's and 1990's. The Dublin these mainly auto-biographical tales describe is unrecognizable when compared to the one we inhabit today. Lyder in Pushers' Out for instance refers to Thomas St as one of the biggest open air drugs markets in Europe, while drug dealing persists there it does so in the shadow of new apartment complexes and expensive cafes.

In the opening of his account of this older Dublin Patrick Ryan declares how he wants to records "the positive upsurge of collective aspiration of the communities...like a breath of fresh air that swept through the city" when a strong social movement emerged to re-occupy community spaces from predatory drug gangs, "vomit and urine stained stair cases" and create a world for their kids where games such as "pusher dealer, snatcher copper"could be an oddity rather than reality.

Ryan begins his tale growing up among shored up yet to be renovated tenements "brokers" and a liberal sprinkling of head bangers with an excited Dublin story telling wit that often runs ahead of itself with a demanding repetition. Ryan excels in charting the introduction of heroin to the inner city through the cider party scene and it is here he began "skin pricking" himself. Ryan was an addict for about two years before a bout of hepatitis forced him to get treatment. Not so long after he would be "caught" and placed into employment by the Gregory deal which he accredits with saving "more young men than anyone will remember."

The death of his father came over Ryan like an emotional catastrophe, one worsened by a needless police raid on the pub where his family were grieving. Throughout the book Ryan details the constant scrutiny of "the police as part of the furniture" in working class communities, where it is only "bad copper - bastard copper" and this experience comes to define his sense of class. The deeply hostile role of the police comes to the fore throughout his experiences of community activism as well, with the harrassment faced by Sinn Feiner Christy Burke and the media hounding of a local so-called "provo-priest" moving the author to some solid conclusions about powers inabilty to understand and accept community mobilisation from below, similar to Rossport "a picture was painted to make them look other than they were" facilitating criminalisation and clampdown.

There aren't many thematic differences with Lyder's book, although Ryan does recount some shocking attempts by well organised crime gangs to break the movement including one forty strong attack by a group of men he accredits with breaking the resilence of his group and destroying the community vision associated with it.

Eventually as the book moves on the prose becomes worn down and bloated, beginning with a trip to England where the author fantasises about facing persecution similar to the Birmingham Six. Stick in an awful page long ode to the "Prime Minister" Bertie and his "language of the people" and some of the most off the wall, ill-researched rants about soft drug use and Ryan manages to lose you before the end of the book. If you are reading it for its social history you won't be disappointed, just be careful Ryan's barbed analysis of the drug situation towards the end doesn't sicken you too much.

Distant Babylon by Patrick Ryan is on sale for €10 in Connolly Books on 43 East Essex Street, Dublin.

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