Clair Wills

Clair Wills is the King Edward VII Professor of English Literature at Cambridge, and a fellow at the Columbia Institute for Ideas and Imagination in Paris.

Life Pushed Aside: The Last Asylums

Clair Wills, 18 November 2021

I am haunted by the figure of Rolanda Polonsky, walking through those hospital corridors. If my eight-year-old self had opened the doors that frightened me I might have found her, back then, exactly as she is now in the film I watch on my laptop. And it appears to me now that that’s why I was fearful: I didn’t want to hear the message she had for me. But she hovers like an uninvited guest from a half-remembered past – and she will not go away. What is it that she wants me to see that I do not want to see? What is it that she wants me to know? The ‘moral careers’ of Rolanda Polonsky and my mother were parallel to each other, and indeed dependent on each other. They both arrived at the hospital around the same time, and they both spent most of their adult lives inhabiting, and inhabited by, the institution. We were all walking those same corridors in the 1970s, but some of us came from the outside, and some were locked in. Polonsky was clearly ill, or had been, but by the 1970s part of her affliction was the hospital itself.

Claire-LouiseBennett is unpacking her library. Yes, she is. The books are not yet on the shelves. In fact, she doesn’t really have any shelves (she prefers to let the books pile up around her, a habit that gets her into trouble with at least one boorish lover). She has moved so often over the years that half her books are lost, having been packed into boxes and left in unremembered...

Unlike Tuam, which closed in 1961, the Bessborough Mother and Baby Home continued to operate until 1998. Members of the congregation claimed not to know where the children might be buried. The commission states that it ‘finds this very difficult to comprehend as Bessborough was a mother and baby home for the duration of the period covered by the commission (1922-98) and the congregation was involved with it for all of this time. The commission finds it very difficult to understand that no member of the congregation was able to say where the children who died in Bessborough are buried.’ But perhaps forgetting where babies were buried is a way of forgetting that they died. One sister who lived at the home for fifty years between 1948 and 1998 could not recall the deaths of any children at all during that time, although 31 children died there between 1950 and 1960 alone. Her name is given as the informant on a number of death certificates. It is a powerful act of erasure. No grave, no baby. No baby, no grave. As in Tuam, so in Bessborough. There must be people who know more, but they have not come forward.

MollyKeane’s gloriously camp novel, Good Behaviour, begins with the narrator, Aroon St Charles, a 57-year-old survivor of the Anglo-Irish Ascendancy, murdering her aged mother with a rabbit mousse. She doesn’t choke on it: Aroon has made sure that the quenelle in cream sauce is perfect, with ‘just a hint of bay leaf and black pepper, not a breath of the rabbit...

Mothers​ have a hard time in Ali Smith’s novels. I mean that Smith gives them a hard time, as well as acknowledging the hard time they’ve had already, just getting this far, in one piece. In Summer, the final novel of Smith’s seasons quartet, the harried mother is Grace. Grace gets good marks from the novel’s thirtysomethings for her resolve to live on easy terms...

On Hope Mirrlees

Clair Wills, 10 September 2020

The​ Turkish language has a tense for gossip. Officially known as the reported past, it’s also the ‘hearsay’ tense, in which it’s possible to say things without its really being you who says them, or even exactly you who knows them. In Turkish, statements such as ‘they were lovers’ or ‘she had the child adopted’ have a ghostly...

On Paul Muldoon

Clair Wills, 6 February 2020

PaulMuldoon enjoys leading his reader astray. On that the critics agree. I have been looking back at reviews of his work over the years. It is remarkable how often people quote from an early interview in which Muldoon describes his poems gently ‘leading people on’ and then leaving them ‘high and dry’ at some terrible party, while he has nipped out the bathroom...

No Waverers Allowed: Eamonn McCann

Clair Wills, 23 May 2019

Who began​ the killing? At root, arguments about the genesis of the Troubles are arguments about responsibility for murder, and that’s one reason it has proved so hard to disentangle history from blame in accounts of Northern Ireland since the late 1960s. In May 1974, in the New York Review of Books, the critic Seamus Deane lambasted Conor Cruise O’Brien, then minister for posts...

Anti-Writer: Plain Brian O’Nolan

Clair Wills, 4 April 2019

In March​ 1957 Brian O’Nolan – better known under his pen names Flann O’Brien and Myles na gCopaleen – then aged 45, applied for a series of jobs at the radio broadcasting studios in Cork, including station supervisor, programme assistant, and balance and control officer. The same month he announced his candidacy for the Irish Senate. His principal argument in his...

Ireland today is the place you are most likely to be happy. Your desire for a robust and rising standard of living, political freedom, strong bonds with your extended family, a marriage that survives, even a decent climate – all these wishes are most likely to be granted in the Irish Republic. At least this was the case in 2005, when Ireland came top – the UK was 29th – in...

In​ 1964, shortly after getting married and landing the first research fellowship at the new Centre for Contemporary Cultural Studies at Birmingham, Stuart Hall, the Jamaican-born analyst of...

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In the Gasworks

David Wheatley, 18 May 2000

Marcel Aymé’s novel Le Passemuraille, about a man who can walk through walls, would have interested Thomas Caulfield Irwin (1823-92). Irwin is cited in Paul Muldoon’s To...

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