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Alan Paton Award shortlist: Interview with Charles van Onselen on his book Showdown at the Red Lion

Published in the Sunday Times

Alan Paton Award shortlist: Interview with Charles van Onselen on his book Showdown at the Red Lion

Showdown at the Red LionShowdown at the Red Lion: The Life and Times of Jack McLoughlin, 1859-1910
Charles van Onselen (Jonathan Ball Publishers)

We first meet Jack McLoughlin in your book Masked Raiders: Irish Banditry in Southern Africa. What prompted you to expand the story?
McLoughlin led an extraordinary life that ranged across the southern hemisphere of the late 19th-century British Empire. A biography offered the chance to illustrate what it meant to be Irish and a social bandit in a world growing smaller, one where formal opportunities were limited and the odds stacked against the underprivileged. I wanted to encourage the reader to see history as a process that transcends national chauvinism and national boundaries. National histories encourage nationalism, and nationalism frequently facilitates belligerence and intolerance.

Who was McLoughlin?
He was the oldest son of a poverty-stricken immigrant Irish family, born and raised in Manchester at the height of the Industrial Revolution. Like many of the deprived and poor he developed strong ideas about social justice.

What were your sources for the research?
Archives in many countries, birth and death records, court records, passenger lists and newspaper reports as well as secondary literature. Bog standard work.

Several of your books have examined the history of Johannesburg. What new insights did this research reveal?
This is not a history of Johannesburg even if the main event happens to be set in Commissioner Street. The research brought home to me just how mobile ordinary men and women were in the late 19th century. All this breathless talk about “globalisation” as a new phenomenon is so much hogwash, best suited to those teaching in business schools who are capable only of thinking back as far as the last Harvard Business Review.

You seem most interested in characters on the margins of history. Do we learn more through them than from major events?
No, I am most interested in mainstream social, political and economic currents – the processes that the mass of humanity is exposed to. But do I think it better to illustrate those processes and how they influence life-chances through the eyes of the marginalised rather than through the eyes of kings, presidents and prime ministers? Well, er, um, yes.

In what way do you think the book “illuminates truthfulness”?
That assessment falls to the reader. Hopefully the reader will emerge with a better understanding of the ways that the Industrial Revolution played itself out for men and women during the late 19th century and provide some understanding of the roots of ideas about being “masculine” in a colonial world. If one does not understand the roots of white male culture in the expanding 19th century how will you conceptualise what happened in the 20th century?

Do you admire McLoughlin?
Do I “admire” an anti-social individual, an armed robber, a misogynist, violent man and a murderer? No. Do I admire courage, determination, ingenuity and resourcefulness even when the odds are hopelessly stacked against you in terms of class, ethnicity, gender and religious belief? Yes.

What was the most difficult part of writing the book?
Trying to convey the underlying continuities in immigrant cultures as people move between, and adapt to, radically different worlds — between rural Ireland and industrialising England. These are enduring questions in all societies and the answers are often elusive.

What impression do you want readers to take away?
If readers emerge with an enhanced understanding of the fact that hardship, industrialisation and poverty are not confined to the modern era, to certain races and certain places, it may encourage empathy, sympathy and perhaps even a touch of wisdom.

How do you project what your character is thinking?
In the absence of a great deal of first-person testimony you have to make do with what you have. Then, from an intelligent reading of the record and the situation and the subsequent behaviour of your protagonist, try to demonstrate what thought patterns informed his or her actions. Common sense, emotional empathy and the parameters of logic all inform unarticulated thought when a biographer lacks abundant first-hand testimony.

What is the modern relevance of Showdown? Are there parallels to be drawn with present times?
History is about how the past links to the present and the present – possibly – to the future. If it were not so it would not be worth writing. Criminality, emigration, gangs, masculine violence, law-enforcement and the problematic links to justice are features of all societies at all times. The parallels are there to be drawn by those who wish to see and think beyond the confines of the printed page. Some, of course, may not want to do so. It can be tough going.

Do politicians pay enough attention to history?
The notion of a politician paying attention to history – other than as lip service to help underwrite selective experiences of “discrimination”, “hardship” and “suffering” in order to mobilise voters for ethnic or nationalist purposes is difficult to entertain. It’s a bit like asking a lion if it has any interest in an impala; yes, in a rather limited way.

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