THERE may be people who don't find listening to Edna O'Brien like hearing a thousand pieces of chalk being dragged, shrieking, slowly down a blackboard, but they don't include me or my friends Mo and Sean, all of whom squirmed through her recent Desert Island Discs. Each of us volunteered that never - in all our years of living in England - had we been so embarrassed to be Irish.
"I wanted to switch her off," said Sean, for us all, "but it was like seeing a car crash and not being able to look away."
Every word was imbued with the deepest of significance ('Ah-vid-ih-tay' was Mo's favourite), every phrase larded with mist-that-do-be-on-the-bog rhetoric and the voice radiated fra-gil-i-tay: "There is a quest for something, so I am both glad and sad that I have this urgency within me to make out of nothing some little thing."
" 'My mother didn't want me to write; my husband didn't want me to write' ," quoted Mo sourly afterwards, adding, "And we don't bloody want her to write."
My sentiments exactly. Edna describes her ac-tiv-i-tay as "the turning over of the soil". I'm with the critic who described her books as "the cartography of the knicker-stain".
She is still looking for love, Edna confided, so Gerry Adams could be in luck. After all, she famously described him as "a lithe, handsome man [who] in a different century, one could imagine as one of those monks transcribing the gospels into Gaelic". What with Gerry being so inclusive, he might overlook the 18-year age gap, for Edna's favourite record is The Foggy Dew, a dirge with sentiments so maudlin they could have been written by the monk himself. Celebrating the event "that broke the chain the 900-year [sic] yoke", it includes such plums as:
Oh, had they died by Pearse's side or fought with Cathal Brugha/
Their names we will keep where the fenians sleep 'neath the shroud of the foggy dew.
Sadly, she wasn't asked if she thought the fenians should join the PSNI.