Thursday, March 24, 2022

Future Shock! The Story of 2000 AD


I wrote this piece in 2017, for inclusion in the booklet in the Blu-Ray version of Arrow Video's re release of 2015's Future Shock! The Story of 2000 AD. I imagine enough time has passed for me to be able to post it here without upsetting the people who originally paid for it! And, rereading in now, five years later, I'm still pleased with what I wrote.

1976 was an interesting year. The sixties were long since over, and their promise of peace and love had somehow not come to pass. Long hair and flared trousers were increasingly out of place in a world that was crueller than it used to be. Into the increasingly commercialised social and cultural world left behind, the Sex Pistols launched their brief but hugely influential assault on the ears, wardrobes, politics, and morals of British youth, much to the abhorrence of pretty much everyone in the establishment. Their concert of 4 June 1976 at Manchester's Lesser Free Trade Hall would become the stuff of legend, the spark that lit the fire for Punk Rock’s anarchic road map to nowhere, and the launching pad for a thousand other bands. Predictable, the mainstream press hated them. Old hippies really hated them. But the youth of the day loved them. Revolution was in the air, mere anarchy was loosed upon the world, and something had to change. 

A few months before that, in February 1976, a British comics’ writer and editor called Pat Mills had created Action, a socially realistic comic in the style of, amongst other thing, Richard Allen’s then-popular Skinhead series of pulp novels, and containing stories so violent that a crusade was started against it by right-wing social campaigner Mary Whitehouse, who would also turn on the Sex Pistols, soon thereafter. Her crusade was eventually successful, and Action was closed down. But Pat Mills had other ideas up his sleeve. If he couldn’t do his social commentary one way, he would do it another. 

Pat Mills already had form in the UK comics business, having started working with DC Thomson as a sub-editor - which generally meant making the tea and removing all efforts by the comics’ artists to sign their work, a process known as ‘bodging’ - before going out as a freelance writer, along with his long term partner and co-conspirator, John Wagner, an American-born Scotsman with a liking for a lot of violence in his work, much like Mills himself. Action and 2000 AD would be Mills’s first major works, but he would go on to play an important part in numerous other influential British comics of the time, including girls’ comic Misty, Crisis, and Toxic! But 2000 AD is undoubtedly the jewel in his crown. 

There’s this weird old trick, if you’re a writer, that if you want to make an unpalatable point about something, you disguise it as fantasy. George Orwell did it with Nineteen Eighty-Four and Animal Farm. JRR Tolkien did it with Lord of the Rings. Jonathan Swift had done it with Gulliver’s Travels, way back in 1726. And that’s what Mills did in 1977, with 2000 AD. The name reflected a then unimaginably distant future point, when surely things would be different to how they were in 1977, although not necessarily for the better. There was a hint of 2001: A Space Odyssey, and a suggestion of Star Wars. They were going to use the future to teach us lessons about the world we were living in, right now. 

Right from the start, 2000 AD was just what the comics readers of Britain wanted. Up until then, British comics with titles like Victor, Valiant, and Warlord had been produced by anonymous men in cardigans and slippers, smoking pipes and publishing endless stories about how the plucky English Tommies had beaten those dirty Gerries in World War Two, stories which simply weren’t relevant to anyone, in the harsher and less forgiving light of the nineteen seventies. Unsurprisingly, the British comics business was in a sharp decline by 1977, when IPC Magazines launched 2000 AD. It sold 200,000 copies of its first issue, and is still being published today. And it’s not an exaggeration to say that it changed the face of comics forever, both in Britain, and further afield. 

Which is not to say that the opening line-up was perfect, but it was certainly promising. Harlem’s Heroes, a kind of futuristic take on the Harlem Globetrotters crossed with the recently released film Rollerball, but with jet packs and lots of violence, gave a glimpse of the comic’s future, as did Flesh, a strip about time-travelling cowboys, travelling back to prehistoric times to farm dinosaurs for their meat. Less successful was a revival of Dan Dare, which simply never got the traction on the public’s imagination that it once had. 

2000 AD broke with established British comics publication standards in virtually every way imaginable. One of the ways it differed from other comics was that it attempted to treat its readers as equals. They published letters and artwork readers submitted, entered into dialogue with them via the letters’ page, with Tharg the Mighty, the comic’s green-skinned Betelgeusian editor, awarding prizes to those he particularly liked. They also regularly held polls to find out what the readers did and didn’t like. One of the things the readers really liked was Judge Dredd, created by John Wagner and Carlos Ezquerra, which first appeared in the second issue, and is the comic’s longest running character, having appeared in virtually every issue since then. What is unusual about Judge Dredd is that, in a comic that could be seen as left-leaning, he is an ultra-conservative and neo-fascist future policeman; judge, jury, and executioner rolled into one, ruling Mega City One with a ruthlessness that early twentieth century fascists could only have dreamed of. Despite this - or indeed because of it - he has been the readers’ favourite character virtually from the start, and any attempts to moderate his behaviour into something more human have been violently resisted by them, every time the subject comes up. And the readers’ wishes were always seen as being paramount, so Dredd stayed as he was, if not more so. These days older readers, once crusty anarcho-punks, or black and purple satin-clad Goths, but now all settled middle aged suburbanites, still read his adventures, and still love him just the way he is. 

Judge Dredd wasn’t the only strip the readers loved which also carried a less than covert political content. There was John Wagner and Carlos Ezquerra’s Strontium Dog, on one hand a story about intergalactic Search and Destroy bounty hunters, or SDs, but on the other addressing issues of racism and segregation in a grim future. And Pat Mills and Kevin O’Neill’s Nemesis the Warlock is arguably an allegory for and reaction to their childhoods as Irish-descended Catholics being educated by middle-aged nuns preaching hellfire and brimstone, whilst probably going through the hellfire of menopause themselves. It’s not difficult to see that the same processes were at work here as were influencing punk rock, with Irish-descended artists like Johnny Rotten, Elvis Costello, and Shane McGowan, amongst many others, growing out of the oppression of the No Black, No Dogs, No Irish mindset that was still common at the time. Another story by Mills, Sláine, which was loosely based on Irish myth and legend, was a less political representation of the broader Celtic ancestry of these islands. 

One important area where 2000 AD broke ground was in the use of female characters, especially in what was seen at the time as being largely a boys’ comic. The title character in Alan Moore and Ian Gibson’s The Ballad of Halo Jones remains a high point in the characterisation of an ordinary person in extraordinary circumstances. Other noteworthy female characters from the comic include the schoolgirl Roxy from the story Skizz - a sort of cross between the science fiction of ET and the grim social realism of The Boys from the Black Stuff, and which I still cannot reread without getting a little tear in my eye at the end - and Judge Anderson, originally a supporting character to Judge Dredd, but popular enough to soon feature in her own stories. 

One decision, to actually name the creators who worked on their stories, was to have long-reaching, and possibly even world-changing, consequences. Traditionally, in the UK, comics were produced without any information of any kind about who wrote or illustrated them - in fact, most people though they were probably created by machines, if they gave it any thought at all. Within the first year of its existence - in fact, to be exact, in issue #36 or, more correctly ‘prog’ #36, in October 1977 - 2000 AD initiated the use of what were called ‘credit cards’ - a small text box in the bottom right-hand corner of the first page of a story, containing the names of the writer, the artist, and the letterer in it, which meant that for the first time readers knew who was responsible for the stories they liked - and didn’t like. It’s true that American comics had been naming their creators for decades, but this was the first time it was systematically used in the British comics industry. At that time, the American and British comics industries were both figuratively and literally separated by a vast ocean, but the decision to put in those credit cards was to change that, in ways nobody could have predicted. Once those writers and artists were named, it meant that their names became their calling card, and with recognition came attention in the fan press, and the ability to use that fan attention as a bargaining tool. Naming them brought not only recognition, but gave them far greater control over their own destinies within the comics business. 

At around the same time as 2000 AD first appeared a group of British comic retailers and fanzine publishers had between them set up the Eagle Awards, to honour comics and their creators, named after the 1950s Eagle comic, which was at the time considered as the high point of British comic creation. Although the awards were originally designed to focus on the creators of the American comics that the people behind the awards were interested in, within a few years names from UK comics started to appear on the polls. 

One of the very first names from 2000 AD to appear as a winner in the Eagle Awards was writer Alan Moore, in 1983. Years later, Moore would say that ‘the comic industry awards are all voted for by thirty people in anoraks with dreadful social lives.’ Despite this unflattering assessment, across the Atlantic, in New York, there were American comics companies who must have taken them seriously, because it was in that same year that DC Comics editor Len Wein asked him to take over writing their ailing Swamp Thing title. It was heading for inevitable cancellation anyway, so there seemed no harm in letting this English guy play with it, just to see how he did. And what he did was change it utterly, and within a few months elevate it into one of the most important and influential comics in America, then and since. 

Alan Moore was not the only British creator from 2000 AD to work on the other side of the Atlantic, nor was he even the first, as artists Brian Bolland and Dave Gibbons had been there before him, working on Camelot 3000 and Green Lantern Corps, respectively. But Moore was different, because he became the first superstar comics’ writer, on either side of the Atlantic, and undoubtedly became the greatest, too. Without 2000 AD there might have been no Batman: The Killing Joke, created by Moore and Bolland, or Watchmen, created by Moore and Gibbons, or The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen, by Moore and Kevin O’Neill. 

Other British comics writers who did early work in 2000 AD went on to become important across the pond, too. Writers like Jamie Delano, Garth Ennis, Neil Gaiman, Peter Milligan, and Grant Morrison, all helped to bring a modernity and a complexity to mainstream American comics storytelling that simply had not existed before, and undoubtedly shaped that industry into what it is today, where every bookshop has a Graphic Novels section, where comics writers win major literary awards, and where every university worth the name has courses and degrees in comics’ studies. And it wasn’t just the writers, either. Besides the abovementioned Bolland and Gibbons, and Kevin O’Neill, artists like Simon Bisley, Alan Davis, Steve Dillon, John Higgins, and Bryan Talbot all brought their own distinctive styles with them to American comics, so much so that O’Neill’s first major work there, Alan Moore’s Tygers in DC Comics’ Tales of the Green Lantern Corps Annual No. 2 in 1986, was immediately objected to by the Comics Code Authority, set up in the wake of the moral panic about EC’s horror comics in the 1950s, who, rather than point out any individual issues with his work, as was usually the case, said the whole thing was objectionable from start to finish. DC chose to ignore their objection, and the CCA has now been consigned to the wheelie bin of history, whilst Kevin O’Neill’s work continues to go from strength to strength. 

This current documentary, this aptly named Future Shock!, takes its name not only from ‘Tharg's Future Shocks’ - a blanket title for one-off short stories by various creators in the comic, originally created by the late Steve Moore - but also from Alvin Toffler’s highly influential 1970 non-fiction book, Future Shock, which defined the title as meaning that sense of ‘too much change in too short a period of time,’ surely a concept we can all appreciate all the more in these troubled times. It is full to the brim of famous names from the past, present - and undoubtedly the future - of this wonderful comic. Something like forty different people, mostly writers and artists from 2000 AD, but also editors, comics’ scholars, and others, tell the story of the comic from its conception, and original reception, through some rocky times here and there, due to differences over the rights of creators to their creations, and some bad marketing decisions, to their position now, in safer hands, and stronger than ever. 

These days 2000 AD has at least one second-generation writer, with Leah Moore following her father Alan into their pages. Alan Moore himself does not appear in this documentary, but none the less his presence permeates it, as does that of its former editor and co-creator Pat Mills, who very much is in it. One other sad omission is current Judge Dredd writer Michael Carroll, who used to be my postman, here in Dublin. Although only writing Dredd stories since 2011, he’s already up in the top five most prolific Dredd writers. Perhaps for the next documentary, in 2057, beamed directly into our brains from the smoking stump of King’s Reach Towers, when he has neutralised all the other contenders, and finally ascended the Throne of Tharg, he’ll talk to us, surrounded by an army of Nth generation Moorebots, Millsdroids and Kevborgs, still producing the Galaxy’s Greatest Comic. 

2000 AD and its writers, artists, and editors, have, in its own very special and very British way, irrevocably changed the cultural landscape around us. The year the comic is named after has come and gone, but for some of us 2000 AD will always represent the future. May it ever be thus. Splundig vur Thrigg, Squaxx dek Thargo!

Monday, March 14, 2022

Poisoned Chalice Press Titles Now On Sale!

 Now, after having problems with Amazon's Kindle Direct Publishing (KDP), and having had all my titles removed from their online store, I have now listed all my titles so far up on Lulu. So, if you're looking for any of the following books, just click through the link!

Poisoned Chalice: The Extremely Long and Incredibly Complex Story of Marvelman (and Miracleman)

Mud and Starlight: Interviews with Alan Moore 2008-2016

Steve Moore: The Hermit of Shooters Hill

Let Me Ask You This! Interviews with Comics People 2008-2021 Vol I

Monday, August 31, 2020

Robert ‘Pen-Face’ Farren: The Man Who Wasn’t Flann O’Brien


Writing to Timothy O’Keeffe of British publishers MacGibbon & Kee on 19 August 1961, about
the cover art for his forthcoming novel The Hard Life[1], Flann O’Brien said,

Many thanks for your letter of the 15th August and copy of acting cover. I detest that photograph because 1) I don’t believe it is a photograph of me at all, and 2) whoever the man is was floothered[2] when the picture was taken. I Feel any biographical material should be omitted, particularly the disclosure that Flann O’Brien is a pseudonym. There is no point in it if the real name is also given. Incidentally, if a pen-name is admissible, why not a pen-face?

Little did either of them realise that the individual elements required to bring Flann’s conjecture in that last sentence into being were already in place, although he would not live to see it come to pass...

For whatever reason, there are only a handful of good photographs of Flann O’Brien in existence, so you get to see the same ones turning up quite regularly. He’s usually pictured wearing a hat and an overcoat, sometimes with a wall, or a public house interior—or even a wall in the interior of a public house—somewhere in the background. 

There’s one in particular that has in recent years appeared both on the cover of the Everyman’s Library edition of The Complete Novels[3] and the front cover of the first issue of The Journal of the International Flann O’Brien Society[4], aka The Parish Review[5], as well as sundry other places. It even features on a postcard as part of Penguin Books’ 100 Postcards from Penguin Modern Classics[6] box set, as well as in countless places online. And it’s easy to see why designers would choose it—it’s a black and white photograph of the top half of a relaxed, friendly-looking man, with the obligatory hat and overcoat, who has one hand up to the lower part of his face in a contemplative manner.

There are two things that mark this one out from the other photographs, though—for one thing, the subject is wearing glasses, which is not the case in any of the rest, and, for the other thing, the man in the photograph isn’t actually Flann O’Brien at all, despite all the above sources saying that it was.

This is how it all came to light: On Saturday 2 December 2017 the Irish Times published Professor Anthony Roche’s review of Flann O’Brien: Problems with Authority[7]. Accompanying the review was a photograph of three men sitting at adjacent tables, two on the left-hand side, and one on the right, which is subtitled as ‘Comic novelist and humorous columnist Flann O’Brien (right) in the Palace Bar in Dublin circa 1945. Photograph: Hulton Getty.’ The man on the right is not, as you might have surmised, Flann O’Brien[8]. The photograph was certainly taken in the Palace Bar, though, and is actually a companion to one mentioned above, and almost definitely taken at the same time.

Three days later, on Tuesday 5 December 2017, a letter appeared in the Irish Times that read,


Sir, – In a book review by Anthony Roche on a collection of essays concerning Flann O’Brien (Books, December 2nd), the caption on a photograph identifies the figure on the right as Flann O’Brien. This is in fact Robert Farren (1909-1984), poet, broadcaster and Abbey Theatre director. He was my father.

Hulton Getty has issued various versions of this photograph over the years with this misidentification; it appears in at least two British collections of Flann O’Brien’s works. 

Apart from the fact that I recognise him, it is known—and your resident Flannorak, Frank McNally, will I’m sure confirm this—that Flann never wore glasses. 

The figure lighting a cigarette in the photograph is the novelist Francis MacManus (1909-1965), an exact contemporary and close friend of my father. – Yours etc, 


The same photograph of the three men was published alongside the letter, this time re-subtitled as ‘The Palace Bar in Dublin circa 1945. The figure on the right is Robert Farren’...

The following week, on Thursday 14 December 2017, the self-same ‘resident Flannorak[9],’ Frank McNally, in his regular Irishman’s Diary column in the Irish Times, had written a piece called ‘The Phantom Flann—An Irishman’s Diary about the framing of Brian O’Nolan for a photograph he wasn’t in,’ and subtitled ‘O’Nolan spent his career pretending to be other people. And sometimes even the other people were not who they were supposed to be.’ An extract follows:

On behalf of Flann O’Brien fans everywhere, I offer belated thanks to Ronan Farren (Letters, December 5th) for solving a mystery that had perplexed our community. 
For some time past, Flannoraks were aware of an ever-more-widely circulating photograph, supposedly of the man himself, from Dublin’s Palace Bar, circa 1945. It had even appeared on reprints of his books. But although the location was entirely plausible, as was the hat, the bespectacled figure was clearly not Flann. 
My best guess was Niall Montgomery, his friend and collaborator, who did actually wear glasses. But I happily bow to the authority of our letter writer, who assures us the mystery man was his own father, Robert Farren, aka Roibéard Ó Faracháin, the poet. The file is hereby closed. Getty Images, please copy. 
It is not without aptness, however, that the real-life Brian O’Nolan should have been supplanted in this way: even to the extent, eventually, that the picture accompanied the review of a new book about him in The Irish Times, the paper his other main pseudonym, Myles na gCopaleen, adorned for 26 years. 
He of all people would have understood the existentially-threatening condition implied in a common Hiberno-English phrase: ‘He’s not himself lately’. O’Nolan spent his career pretending to be other people. And sometimes even the other people (eg Myles, often written by Montgomery[10]) were not who they were supposed to be.

 Both photographs were still to be found on the Getty Images website shortly after all of this appeared, still tagged as being Flann O’Brien, but not long afterwards a search with his name in it yielded no results, nor does it to this day—he had been erased, and had become a sort of Orwellian unperson, a situation that Dermot Trellis in At Swim-Two-Birds might have sympathised with, if it wasn’t for the fact that he had been erased himself.

The Third Man
Now, there’s nothing I love more than a mystery, and the more intractable it is, the more I like it. As far as I could see, there were several questions that I wanted answers to—various variations on those old what, where, when, why, and who kinds of questions. Who took the photographs, and when and where did they take them, and for what reason? Why did they end up on the Getty Images site, and how did they end up being misidentified as Flann O’Brien? And who was the mysterious third man in that group shot?[11] There was digging to be done, so I started with what I definitely had: that photograph.

According to the information on the reverse of the Penguin Books postcard, the photograph is © Hulton-Deutsch Collection/Corbis[12], whereas the inside front flap of the dustjacket on the Everyman’s Library book says that it’s © Picture Post/Hulton Archive/Getty Images. And, as indicated above, the Irish Times had subtitled the picture as Photograph: Hulton Getty. There were several names attached to the photograph, and I’d need to find a concrete starting point for all this to help me make some sort of sense of what had happened, like why there were so many different names, for a start. In cases like this the Internet is our friend, and the much-maligned Wikipedia is always a good starting point. So...

The most recent iteration of the various related corporate entities whose names are attached to that photograph is, the online presence of Getty Images, Inc, whose headquarters are in Seattle, Washington, having originally being founded as Getty Investments LLC in London in 1995
[13]. Essentially, they buy up older photo agencies and archives and digitize their collections, thereby enabling worldwide online distribution. In 1996 they bought the Hulton Picture Collection for 8.6 million pounds, which gave them the rights to some fifteen million photographs from the British press archives, dating back to the 19th century. Getty bought this collection from Brian Deutsch, where it was originally called the Hulton-Deutsch collection. Deutsch had, in turn, bought the collection from the BBC, who had bought it in 1957 from Sir Edward Hulton, who had set up the Hulton Press Library in 1945 as a semi-independent operation to manage the growing photographic archive of Picture Post, a British photojournalistic magazine published by the Hulton Press from 1938 to 1957.

Once the magazine folded Hulton apparently lost interest, as he sold the archive—a move that, in 21st century hindsight, was perhaps not as financially astute as he might have thought. Still, with Picture Post we have arrived as far back as we can go, and exactly where we need to be, as it turns out[14]. And we have managed to touch base with every single corporate name under which that photograph was attributed—Getty Images, Hulton Archive, Hulton-Deutsch Collection, Hulton Getty, and Picture Post—except Corbis, about whom I’m just going to quote a large chunk of text from Wikipedia, because it’s just too bewildering for me to try to succinctly synopsise, as I write this, so you may read it or not, as you please:

[Corbis] was founded in Seattle by Bill Gates in 1989 as Interactive Home Systems, and later renamed Corbis. The company's original goal was to license and digitize artwork and other historic images for the prospective concept of digital frames. In 1997, Corbis changed its business model to focus on licensing the imagery and footage in its collection. [...] In January 2016 Corbis announced that it had sold its image licensing businesses to Unity Glory International, an affiliate of Visual China Group. VCG licensed the images to Corbis's historic rival, Getty Images, outside China.

 So now you know—although we’re strayed very far from our original starting point. None the less, the date of some sort of semi-amalgamation with Getty in 2016 doesn’t quite explain their name being on the back of that Penguin Books postcard, as that dates from 2011. But there’s only so far we can go chasing down rabbit holes that are also potentially cul-de-sacs, so that’s as far as I’m going on this particular one.

Was any of this relevant, though? Well, yes, I thought it was. The two photographs, especially the one of Robert Farren, lovely and all as they were, were obviously professionally taken photographs, rather than simply the product of happenstance. The attribution of the photograph as having been taken in 1945, whilst it would prove to be wrong, was nonetheless at least a pointer in the right direction, and the fact that the date coincided with the establishment of the Hulton Press Library in the same year might not be entirely a coincidence, but simply a misattribution based on someone presuming that one date was the same as the other—although we’ll never know for sure. And, by now, I was sure that that this was all converging on the fact that those photographs had featured in Picture Post around that time. Everything seemed to point towards that—that they were almost definitely professionally taken, that they had been on the Getty Images site, and that one of the founding blocks of that collection had been the photographs from the Hulton Press Library, itself the archive of Picture Post’s photographs. And the attribution on the back of the postcard had even specifically mentioned the magazine. So all I had to do was to figure out how to prove that...

My next stop was the website of the National Library of Ireland. They had just one issue of Picture Post in their catalogue[15], it looked like, dated 11 April 1942. Could this be the one I was looking for? It certainly looked like it might be[16]. There was a feature in it called ‘In Eire To-Day,’ which was also the subtitle the issue was catalogued under. I no longer live in Dublin, but a week-long visit there to go buy books at the annual Trinity College Booksale meant I could easily go around the corner to the NLI and have a look at it for myself. And that’s exactly what I did. But, before I went, I would still occasionally put various possible search terms into Google, to see if I could find some combination that would throw out a viable result.

I wish I could remember what specific terms I used that night—it is likely to have been as simple as ‘Robert Farren’ & ‘Palace Bar’—but the very first result returned was for the Getty Images website, for an entry tagged with the date 11 April 1942, a date I had seen only a short while before on the NLI website. It is absolutely true to say that the hairs on the back of my neck, at least proverbially, stood up. I had, finally, found what I was looking for. The truncated Google search result (with my putative search terms highlighted in bold, as it would have looked) read, › detail › news-photo > irish-wri... 

Irish writer, broadcaster and Abbey Theatre director, Robert... 

... Abbey Theatre director, Robert Farren at the Palace Bar in Dublin, April            1942. Original publication: Picture Post - 835 - Abbey Theatre - pub 11th                 April 1942.

Clicking through the link brought me to a page on the Getty Images site with that familiar photograph of Robert Farren, but now with text saying,

Robert Farren 

Irish writer, broadcaster and Abbey Theatre director, Robert Farren (1909 - 1984) at the Palace Bar in Dublin, April 1942. Original publication: Picture Post - 835 - Abbey Theatre - pub 11th April 1942. (Photo by Haywood Magee/Picture Post/Hulton Archive/Getty Images)

It even had the photographer’s name listed. Most importantly, it stated quite clearly that the image had appeared in a particular issue of the Picture Post, and that issue of Picture Post was equally clearly listed on the National Library of Ireland’s online catalogue. And, as I said, I was going to be in Dublin within a few days, and would have an actual copy of the very issue of Picture Post that had that photograph of Robert Farren in it put into my own trembling hands. This part of the mystery, at least, was solved. Except that it wasn’t...

*                      *                      *                      *                      *

The 2020 TCD Secondhand Booksale took place in the Exam Hall in Trinity College’s Front Square from Tuesday 18 to Thursday 20 February 2020. On one of those days I was also going for a stroll up to the National Library of Ireland, which was at most five minutes away, and my precious documentary proof would be there waiting for me. I entered through the tiled and pillared rotunda of the entrance hall, bade a good day to the security guard on duty, deposited everything except an iPad Mini, a pencil, and a note book in one of those ‘set your own secret combination on the lock’ glass lockers, and ascended the marble and stone staircase which so many other great intellects had ascended before me, presented myself at the front desk in the main reading room, and asked the librarian behind the desk to supply to me forthwith my issue of Picture Post. He pointed out that there were actually two different issues of the magazine on the catalogue, and not just a generic listing indicating they had a copy or copies of Picture Post, and then a specific listing for the actual issue they had provided a date for, which was what I had convinced myself I was looking at, that first time I had looked it up in their catalogue. None the less, I had the date I was looking for to hand, and they did actually have that issue so, after having gone off for a pot of tea in the excellent Café Joly on the ground floor whilst it was being retrieved from the archives, I returned shortly thereafter and, finally, I was given their copy of Picture Post #835 published on 11 April 1942. I was, at least on the inside, incandescent with excitement.

I sat down at my desk, put the magazine down on the support cushion, and turned the first page. The first few pages were almost all advertising, as was the fashion at the time, except for some remarkably jingoistic readers’ letters on page 3—somewhat understandable in light of the war, I suppose—and a contents list on page 5. The promise of the front page, with its IN EIRE TO-DAY strapline was certainly fulfilled by the contents listed: An article by Cyril Connolly called ‘Neutral Eire is Slowly Changing Under the Impact of the World’s War’ runs through the whole thing, taking in photo features like ‘Eire, Land of Talk,’ ‘Dominant Influence in Eire is the Catholic Church,’ Can Eire Defend Herself?,’ and ‘In the Abbey Theatre,’ all of which took up pages 7 to 15. Somewhere amongst all that, surely, I would find a photograph of Robert Farren, and maybe even a previously undocumented image of Flann himself?

I turned the page once more. And I kept turning pages, until I got, not only to the end of those pages that covered the Irish content, but to the very back page of the magazine itself. And not one of those pages contained a photograph of either Robert Farren or Flann O’Brien. I was sure I must have missed a photograph, or somehow turned two pages at the same time, or in some other way overlooked the very thing I was looking for. So I went back to the start, and checked everything—the date, the issue number, and then scrutinised anew every single photograph on every single page, making sure as I did so that I was checking every consecutive page number, just in case. But to no further avail. That photograph, which was originally said to be Flann O’Brien, but wasn’t, was also not in the issue of Picture Post I was told it was in. The very magazine that had been the bedrock of what became Getty Images had deceived me not once, but twice, with the same image. What on earth was going on?

I did the only thing possible, which was go through it all again, even more carefully. The thing is, there were photographs taken in the Palace Bar, in the ‘Eire, Land of Talk’ section, and of the Abbey Theatre, accompanying the ‘In the Abbey Theatre’ section, obviously enough. There’s a photograph of legendary Irish Times editor RM Smyllie in his office, another of him in the Palace Bar, along with journalists Alec Newman and MJ McManus, and one further picture from the Palace, showing a person identified as ‘Pierce Beasley’[17] talking to artist Desmond Rushton. And the photographs of the Abbey show both an interior and an exterior of the original building, with the useful information that it had once been a morgue. There’s a photograph of a scene of a pub fight[18] from Seán O'Casey’s The Plough and the Stars, and half a dozen head shots of actors, and one more photograph of an Abbey Theatre producer. But none of these people were who I was looking for.

I conceded defeat, handed the copy of Picture Post back to the person behind the counter, and went back to the Booksale, and eventually back home, unsure of what had actually just happened. However, I was not without either resources or further plans.

I decided the possibility existed that there might have been different versions of the individual issues of Picture Post. After all, there were local editions of papers like the Sunday Dispatch, which would publish Myles na gCopaleen’s Column Bawn column in the early 1950s in their Irish edition, so maybe there had been different local editions of Picture Post for different markets? I’ll tell you now that this wasn’t true, especially seeing as this was during the war years, when such extravagances weren’t exactly welcomed. None the less, it did lead me to buying myself a copy of the 11 April 1942 edition of Picture Post, just to see. But the contents of that were exactly the same as the one I’d already looked at, of course—although it did mean I had a chance to do more than just have a look through it in the library.

There was that other Irish-themed copy of Picture Post, though. The one I’d originally overlooked on the NLI online catalogue. I bought a copy of that, too, just in case. But it was a complete non-starter, for lots of reasons. If nothing else it dated from almost two years earlier, 27 July 1940, which meant it pre-dated the first Myles na gCopaleen penned Cruiskeen Lawn column in the Irish Times by nearly three months. And most of the Irish contents in that particular issue was about showing how poor we all were, it looked like. So that particular cul de sac was entirely cut off.

As a last resort, and seeing as I actually had access to me own copy, I set myself to reading Cyril Connolly’s essay in the April 1942 issue. It would be fair to say that it was at the very least condescending, and often substantially worse than that, and there were quite a few ‘Oh do you fucking think so?’ moments, as I read through it. But, near the end, I found this: 

Culture itself struggles on, not really taking that advantage of being out of the war which culture should, but represented by some interesting young poets and writers. There is Robert O’Farocháin, a gifted young poet, Francis MacManus, a novelist, Flann O’Brien (a Gaelic Beachcomer), Donagh McDonagh, a poet whose father was executed in 1916, and the story writer, Niall Sheridan.

 At last I had found at least a tenuous link between that photograph, originally thought to be Flann O’Brien, but later revealed to be Robert Farren, aka Roibeárd Ó Faracháin[19], and the 11 April 1942 edition of Picture Post. Was there any way to explain why the photograph wasn’t in that issue, though, even though it was listed on the Getty Images website as having been so? Maybe there was.

In the Wikipedia article about Picture Post there’s this paragraph, with bold emphasis added by myself: 

As the photographic archive of Picture Post expanded through the Second World War, it became clear that its vast collection of photographs and negatives, both published and unpublished, were becoming an important historical documentary resource.

So, if there had been a batch of photographs taken in the Palace Bar by their stringer photographer, Haywood Magee, which were for that issue, it would be reasonably that some would be used, and some not. And the unpublished ones would probably be in the Hulton archive alongside the published ones. Somewhere along the line, possibly when they were being digitised for the website, or possibly well before that, someone made a partially educated guess about who was who, going on the above paragraph from Cyril Connolly’s essay, and decided that the nice man in the black hat looked a bit like the only one of that group that there were a handful of photographs of to provide any sort of comparison, and tagged it as Flann O’Brien, and further presumed that, if the photographs were taken for that issue, then they must have been in that issue, and all the pieces fit together at last. The secret origin of Flann’s Pen-Face was revealed at last.

There were still a few loose ends that needed tying up, but I think I can provide answers for those as well. Who was the third man in the photograph that contains Robert Farren and Francis MacManus?

It’s likely that he was one of the five young writers listed together—
Robert Farren, Francis MacManus, Flann O’Brien, Donagh McDonagh, and Niall Sheridan. The first two are already in the photograph, it’s definitely not Flann, so it’s down to Donagh McDonagh and Niall Sheridan. From various online photographs of McDonagh I’m pretty sure it cannot be him, so that pretty much leaves Niall Sheridan. And there’s a certain resemblance between that third man and a grainy old photograph of him from the Irish Times. Perhaps somebody in the know will read this, and can confirm or deny that. And, if it is indeed Niall Sheridan, then Flann might not be in the picture, but at least one of the occasional (but not often) substitute Myles na gCopaleens is.

The one other thing, to go right back to where I started out, is the business of Flann’s letter to Timothy O’Keeffe of 19 August 1961, about the cover art for his forthcoming novel The Hard Life, where he said,

Many thanks for your letter of the 15th August and copy of acting cover. I detest that photograph because 1) I don’t believe it is a photograph of me at all, and 2) whoever the man is was floothered when the picture was taken.

I Feel any biographical material should be omitted, particularly the disclosure that Flann O’Brien is a pseudonym. There is no point in it if the real name is also given. Incidentally, if a pen-name is admissible, why not a pen-face?

The thing is—and this is very much the leitmotif for this essay—that cover for MacGibbon & Kee’s original 1961 publication of The Hard Life has no photograph, whether of Flann or anyone else, anywhere on the dustjacket. Nor is there any biographical material, and therefore no disclosure of the author’s name being a pseudonym. But this particular mystery at least has a more easily found possible solution—none of the things Flann objects to in that letter are in the UK first edition, but every part of it is to be found on the inside back flap of the dustjacket of the American first edition, published by Pantheon Books of New York in 1962. This is what it says:

Flann O’Brien was born in County Donegal a few years before the First World War. In 1943 Time wrote: “On one Irish matter there is no argument in all Eire: the favorite Irish newspaper columnist is Brian O’Nolan, who write for the Irish Times....O’Nolan, a novelist, playwright and civil servant, writes a six-a-week column titled Cruiskeen Lawn (The Little Overflowing Jug) under the pseudonym Myles na gCopaleen (means Myles of the Little Horses)....” Since then, Flann O’Brien has let down none of his three personalities: he has continued to be Ireland’s favorite spoofer and iconoclast in the Irish Times; he has been Secretary to three successive Ministers in the Irish Local Government and is Principal Officer of the Town Planning section; he has written several plays in Gaelic and has seen the extraordinary first novel that he wrote in his youth, At Swim-Two-Birds (Pantheon, 1951), rhapsodically acclaimed in England when it was reissued there last year. The Hard Life, written in a completely different style from that of his first, Joycean novel, represents the fourth dimension of this versatile writer.[20]

And the article was topped by a photograph. The photograph, unlike much of the information in that paragraph, dates from the same time as the book and, although there is no doubt that the man in it does indeed look floothered, there is no doubt that it is Brian Nolan himself, only a few years before his untimely death in 1966. Sic Transit Gloria Mundi, as he might have put it himself.

[1] The Hard Life, Flann O’Brien, MacGibbon & Kee, London, 1961; Pantheon Books, New York, 1962

[2] Maebh Long, in her excellent The Collected Letters of Flann O’Brien (Dalkey Archive Press, Dublin, 2018) added a footnote to this, saying that it was an Irish colloquialism meaning drunk. I can offer no further or better explanation.

[3] The Complete Novels, Flann O’Brien, Everyman’s Library/Random House, London, 2007

[4] Now known as the Journal of Flann O'Brien Studies.

[5] The Parish Review #1, International Flann O’Brien Society, Vienna, 2012

[6] 100 Postcards from Penguin Modern Classics, Penguin Books, London, 2011

[7] Flann O’Brien: Problems with Authority, Ed. Ruben Borg, Paul Fagan, & John McCourt, Cork University Press, Cork, 2017

[8] Nor was the photograph taken in 1945, but I’ll be coming to that later on.

[9] Although some of us prefer Flanneur.

[10] I take issue with the use of the word ‘often’ here, but that is very much an argument for another day, and one that Frank McNally is not entirely unfamiliar with upon my part. Research, as ever, is ongoing.

[11] Was he by any chance a policeman, and did he have a bicycle? No, probably not.

[12] I have a few copies of that postcard—although it originally came as part of a set of 100 postcards some sellers, both in the actual and virtual marketplaces, break up these sets, and sell the postcards individually—you can buy the entire box online for something like €15, so even selling them for a mere £/$/€1 each, there’s plenty of profit to be made. I have it on good authority that, certainly at the time the inadvertent imposture came to hand, that Penguin UK had about 2,000 boxes still to hand. Anyway, I like to have a few to hand to send to people, particularly since I found out about the inadvertent imposture on the sitter’s part.

[13] The Getty in Getty Images is Italian-born Mark Getty, who holds an Irish passport, and is the grandson of John Paul Getty, the oil tycoon, once reckoned to be the richest private citizen in the world, and notorious for his penny-pinching ways. Still, he’s dead now, for all the good it did him, and sure there’s no pockets in shrouds.

[14] To synopsise the foregoing paragraph: Sir Edward Hulton set up the Hulton Press Library in 1945, which he sold to the BBC is 1957, who sold it to Brian Deutsch in 1988, who then sold it to Getty Images in 1996. Who, at the time of writing, appear to still own it.

[15] There’s actually two, but I didn’t notice that the first time I looked. And there’ll be more about that a little further on, anyway.

[16] There had been an article by Allen Barra in the Wall Street Journal on 17 March 2011 (aka Saint Patrick’s Day) entitled ‘Flann O'Brien—Tall Tales, Long Drink,’ which was accompanied by the now-familiar photograph, subtitled ‘The author/columnist at the Palace Bar in Dublin, 1942.’ So this date was looking possible, as well.

[17] He was born Percy Beazley, but later used a gaelicised version of his name, Piaras Béaslaí, so misattributed here, regardless of which language you’re talking about. Piaras Béaslaí wrote an Irish language science fiction novel called Astronár, which I’m looking for a copy of. If you have one, get in touch!

[18] Presumably on the basis that, if you can’t get a good pub fight in an Irish pub, then one on the stage of the Abbey Theatre is probably the next best thing.

[19] So, once again, with Robert O’Farocháin, Picture Post had failed to get an Irish writer’s name right, in either language...

[20] It’s amazing how many errors, mistakes, and out-of-date material you can get into one paragraph, all the same, isn’t it?