Cool Water: Pete Haynes (Caffeine Nights)
Pete Haynes, familiar to many as Manic Esso, drummer of legendary punk band The Lurkers, lived for a time in Belfast working as a project worker in a victim’s group. It is from this period in his life that he gained the insights into those affected by the Troubles in Northern Ireland which enabled him to write this remarkable book. Cool Water, whatever else it may be, is remarkable for a variety of reasons.
The foreword explains that the book falls into the category of social/political realism. It is set in Belfast following the signing of the Good Friday agreement in the year 2000 and explores the interconnectedness of the various parties with interests in the peace agreement, their attitudes towards it and their machinations and political and social manoeuvring as the dust settles.
The central character is Donny. A Belfast native, he has risen to become a feared (and through fear, respected) loyalist paramilitary member. His position within the paramilitary organisation affords him the opportunity to murder people, ostensibly for the loyalist cause. In reality Donny is a psychopath with a sexual interest in the murder and torture he commits. The book delves into Donny’s past and reveals that Donny was badly abused as a child by his uncle. It doesn’t take much of a leap to realise that Donny’s adult state is a direct result of the treatment he received as a child.
A central theme of the book is Donny’s meetings and increasingly dysfunctional relationship with Roddy Harding, a British peer of the realm. The two characters are drawn together by their shared interests, with predictably catastrophic results.
The book is littered with incredibly well-observed portraits of people at all levels with a stake in the peace process; from Donny himself, to English politicians, to the ambitious police chief, to the girl working in a Belfast travel agency dreaming of a decent life through hard work, to the hapless paramilitary footsoldiers and their pawn like status.
Ultimately, the book centres on Donny’s life spiralling out of control as the peace process brings in outside forces to bear on an already fragile and finely balanced state of affairs.
This is a powerful book, shot through with a deep misanthropic edge. It is graphic to the point of matter of factness in its description of atrocity and this plain speaking style serves to illustrate the emotionless void Donny strives to fill through his actions. At times the unremitting grimness perhaps makes it difficult for the reader to deal with. But it is a necessary assault if we are to appreciate the full depth of what is happening through the various strata of society in the story.
The final irony is that, although Donny is unrepentant about his actions and commits them with impunity, he is the character most deserving of sympathy. In the end, his actions are not the most wicked, or indeed the most wanton. He has been damaged and is himself constantly tortured by his past. The same cannot be said of other characters who are similarly morally bereft.
Pete Haynes’s writing often focusses on the lost and vulnerable in society. This book mines that same vein even though in this case the vulnerable character is also monstrous. For this reason among others the book is worthy of attention. It covers so much more than this however and, like a flawed jewel held up to the light, shines an unforgiving glare on many different and abhorrent aspects of human greed and ambition.
This book should be made compulsory reading for those who are content to infer their opinions on political processes from the broad stroke, anodyne, sanitised versions presented by the British media. It is not a comfortable read by any means, but this work of fiction is almost certainly nearer to the truth of the matter than any of us would care to believe.
Pete Haynes’website is here