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Extract: Caroline O’Donoghue’s Scenes of a Graphic Nature

By August 29, 2020No Comments

To accompany our piece by Caroline O’Donoghue this week, we have also got an extract from her latest book, Scenes of a Graphic Nature for you to enjoy…


By the time of the screening, I’m pissed. The Triskel Arts Centre is, satisfyingly, in an old church. Laura and I glide past the festival organisers and the smattering of local press, still linking arms. We smoke cigarettes in the graveyard outside, where people are milling around with plastic glasses of beer. We talk to strangers, some of whom are ‘excited’ to meet us. Laura nudges me as we’re filing into our seats.

‘Charlie,’ she says, ‘I don’t know if you’ve noticed, but there are some highly fuckable people at our movie.’ I laugh. I had noticed. I wonder idly if there’s an after- party, and whether people will want to talk to us at it. The room quietens and our titles come up. Suddenly my drunken high falls away and I feel frozen with nerves, solid all the way through with them. We’re finally playing our film to an Irish audience, in Ireland. Please don’t fuck up please don’t fuck up please don’t fuck up.


The actress who plays the grandmother I never met appears on screen.

Laura grabs my hand and holds it tightly. She lets me interlink my fingers with hers.


I watch my eight- year- old dad walk to school down a dirt road, carrying his books with a belt.


My father sits in his lessons, leaning too hard on his pencil and snapping it.

I look over at Laura and smile: we loved that pencil snapping, and I praised her about it endlessly. There’s an eeriness to the way she put the shot together, as if the breaking pencil is a breaking point in itself, a sign of something changing for ever.

A knock on the schoolhouse door. Mike makes a brief cameo. Laura and I look at each other again, and suppress a laugh. Most of the crew make up the non- speaking roles. Mike nods at the teacher and hands her a note. ‘Colm,’ she says, and everyone flips around to look at my father. ‘You’re to go home to your mother.’ Colm looks up from his broken pencil top. ‘Why?’ ‘It says here she needs you to run an errand in town.’ The class titters at this odd boy and his strange, sad, widowed mother: always calling him home for no reason. ‘It’s because she has no one else to talk to,’ says one snot- nosed girl, who will be dead by the next scene.

On the way home, Colm vomits into a bush. He has already ingested a near- lethal amount of carbon monoxide. He doesn’t know it yet, but the note from his mother has just saved his life. In the screening room, a shaft of light strips across. Someone has opened the door. Latecomers. I scowl. Rude. They are three men, and they sit a couple of rows ahead of me and Laura, looking a little tipsy as they do it. Maybe they just came from their own screening.

As the film ticks on, I’m reminded by how proud I am of it. Sure, we made it a year ago, on a £10,000 grant and every possible favour we could pull. Sure, I haven’t had any paid film work since. But it’s a good- looking movie, and nothing about it feels amateurish or film- school- y. I’m about to whisper that to Laura when I notice something. The three guys sitting two rows ahead of us turn to one another and start gesturing at the screen. I squint my eyes and try to make out their faces. They’re talking, during our film? Wait, no. They’re laughing during our film.

I start to feel hot, my underarms prickling and itchy. This is the proudest moment of my entire life, and three strangers are laughing at it. From then on, I can’t concentrate fully on what’s happening on screen. I keep my eye trained on the three guys, all of them in their late twenties, to see how they’re going to react. For a long time, they do nothing, and I begin to think I imagined it. I try to watch the film again: Colm has found out that there was a carbon monoxide leak in his one- room schoolhouse, and every single person in it – eighteen children between the ages of six and twelve, plus one school teacher – is dead.

The town grieves: journalists swarm. Laura’s camera follows Colm as the sole eight- year- old in a grieving town, with nothing but grieving adults for comfort. He spends the day wandering the shoreline alone. ‘Colm!’ shouts his mother from the door of their house. ‘Come in for your tea!’ The men in front of us completely lose it. They start stifling laughter again, pushing their closed fists into their mouths. I know that laugh. It’s not a joyful laugh. It’s a laugh you only give when you’re dying of second- hand embarrassment, when the only thing keeping you from jamming your fist into your eye socket out of mortification is the sweet, melt- on- your- tongue relief that this terrible thing is not happening to you.

Something happens, then. Something I’m so used to seeing in films and reading about in books that I can see its shadow creeping up on me moments before it lands. I am having an epiphany. That’s what this is. This feeling that my heart has stopped beating, this dry, open- mouthed terror. I’m not just embarrassed. I am realising something, and that something is this: My film is bad. This isn’t insecurity. This isn’t a crisis of confidence.

These boys are forcing me to see my own work with new eyes, and now I am fighting the urge to tear those eyes out of my skull. It’s just bad. It is bad because the dialogue is clunky and awkward. It is bad because it is full of tired, offensive clichés. But most of all it is bad because the whole story feels incomprehensible. It clangs with a sort of strange falseness, like one of those tinny pop songs you hear in a supermarket that is altered just enough so they don’t have to pay royalties. Laura nudges me. ‘What the fuck is their problem?’ she whispers angrily, pointing at the boys who laughed at us. I say nothing.

My epiphany begins to morph into a panic attack. The actress playing my grandmother is on screen, telling the actor playing my father that God spared his life for a reason. That he was chosen, special, meant for great things. What bollocks. What insufferable, trite, nightmarish bollocks. I remember the first time I showed Dad the film. Laura and I had managed to get the Genesis cinema in Whitechapel to let us have a ‘premiere’, a term we used semi- ironically, but my dad had rented a suit all the same. I sat next to him. I didn’t know exactly what to expect, but I think a small part of me believed that if he liked it enough, he would never get sick again. And he did like it! Even though he had criticisms. Even though he asked annoying questions, questions he didn’t really want the answers to but just wanted to show that he had them so no one would mistake them for a parochial Irish immigrant who left school at sixteen.

I caught him talking to Laura. ‘The scenery was gorgeous, Laura. Gorgeous. Like Trevor Malick.’ ‘Terrence Malick?’ she said automatically. The film student in her couldn’t let a thing like that pass. She said it casually, as though she were talking to anyone, but Dad had stiffened. His Irish accent hid like a startled lizard. ‘Yes, Terrence. What am I like? Of course. Terrence Malick.’ He started going red, appalled at making a mistake in front of my posh friend. ‘Trevor Malick! I’ve seen all his films.’ My mortification at watching the movie is as deeply outsized as his reaction to the Trevor Malick gaffe, but I can’t help it. Every new scene is fresh torture. Why did I ever think this was good? Why did the government give me money for this? I want to leave, but I can’t.

The seating is so tight in this ex- church that I would have to ask five people to stand up, and everyone would see the writer/director of this steaming shit pile of a film walk out, causing them to interrogate the steaming shit pile even further. The actress playing my grandmother Kitty wraps herself in a shawl and stands at the water’s edge, staring intently, thinking… Thinking what? I don’t know. I didn’t write any dialogue for this scene. The whole point was that we would rest the camera on her and just let her face do the work, let the emotional journey from relief to sadness to guilt play across her features as though they were moulding clay.

But the reality is that I don’t know how my grandmother felt about the aftermath of the accident. I don’t know what having the sole surviving son of an island does to a person. I remember my interviews with my father, the tapes still lining the desk drawer of my old bedroom. ‘What about Kitty?’ ‘My mother? What about her?’ ‘Well, did she socialise much? What was her life like on the island? Even after you left, what happened to her then?’ ‘She was a quiet person, Charlie. Socialising would never have been a thing for her.’ ‘But when she was all alone? Who looked after her then?’ ‘Looked after her? You must be joking. Those people wouldn’t give you the steam off of their piss. No. I sent her money every month until she died.’ ‘Did you ever ask her to come to England? So you could have looked after her?’ ‘Leave Clipim? You must be joking. The only way that woman would leave the island was in a box.’ He took a long sip from his tea then banged his mug down, rasping the speaker. ‘Which, eventually, she did.’ It didn’t make any sense to me.

In some stories, the people of Clipim were tender, funny and kind. In others, they were positively sociopathic: shunning my grandmother, isolating my father, making it impossible for either of them to get real jobs. Sure, I understand that people grieving after the accident might find Kitty and Colm Regan hard to be around, but outward cruelty? Why? And then there was the whole business of him telling me that Clipim was a rock with three old men and four teeth between them. That’s not true. I’ve known that for years. I’ve done enough research on the place to know that, while it is small, it has a thriving tourist trade. There are hotels, pubs, gift shops, museums, caravan parks.

Even during Dad’s childhood, Clipim was by no means an irrelevant speck on the map. In the early nineteenth century it was famous for being the last port of call before Irish ships left for America. Even the name ‘clipim’ is an English mangling of an Irish word ‘chipín’. Bain do chipín. It means: cut your stick, get ready to go. Which is sort of a round- about way of saying that there has always been money going through Clip. English money, sure, but the idea that it’s this windy outpost in the middle of nowhere just isn’t true. Yet, it’s what my dad has been telling me for years, and it’s how I styled it to look in the film. But why? Why have I been keeping up with this elaborate fiction?

The scene changes again. Different families are mourning their children. Some crying, some shouting at the sky, ‘Why me?’ Watching this is torture now. Is this normal? Is it normal to hate what you have created? I feel like it probably is. Scorsese doesn’t sit around watching Mean Streets, does he? It’s normal to hate your first film. It’s a rite of passage. No, Charlie, a stern voice from inside my own brain starts saying to me. You hate it because it is bad. It is bad because it doesn’t make sense. It doesn’t make sense because the information you based it on is wrong. And it is wrong because your dad, who you love, has been hiding something from you. And you, in all your glorious melodrama, have been letting him. Twenty minutes before the film ends, the boys leave.

Image credit: Gavin Day