On The Brinks

It is not often that a reader is fortunate enough to strike gold and come across a gem of this quality. Like a perfectly brewed cup of tea, the event is a rare one, to be all the more savoured for that. If the moment is missed, the elements move out of kilter. And the spot, well it just doesn’t get hit.

On The Brinks is one that reviewers sometimes take to awkwardly describing as unputdownable.  That rings as gawkily as unletgoable. There is nothing clumsy about On The Brinks and a term like ‘stunning’ better fits the elegance with which Sam Millar conveys his story.  If the book being translated into ten different languages elicits surprise it would be a feign one.

Once, when a friend asked me for something as a quick read I gave him On The Brinks. He returned it so speedily I thought he might not have read it. His response was terse; he had been bowled over by the sheer pace of it and had to go through it in one sitting.

Sam Millar, a former republican prisoner, might at first glance strike a reader in search of a good book an unlikely author. He did not feature in the H-Block literary landscape, from which a motley crew of writers emerged and subsequently went on to shape much of the wider republican narrative. Although an early PRO for the prisoners during the prison blanket protest, seriously creative writing for him began much later in a cell in a US penitentiary. Just as a book should never be judged by the cover a writer is not to be judged by presumption.

Led Zeppelin founder Jimmy Plant on discovering Robert Plant singing thought there might be something wrong with the vocalist. Plant was so talented that Page simply could not understand why he had not been signed up by a record company already so took him up to his house for a few weeks where he could observe him at close quarters.  As it turned out there was nothing wrong with Plant. He had just not yet come to public attention. His talent as a front man would soon come to dominate the rock scene of the 70s. Likewise with Miller. This former republican prisoner came up on the outside track unnoticed, eventually leaving his literati comrades watching the dust kicked up by his heels.

The prison writing scene was undoubtedly denied something by this talent not being in full throttle within the walls. Clearly this was a flower not yet ready to bloom. The prison produced some accomplished writers, Laurence McKeown and Richard O’Rawe being two of the better known. What Miller, who has never sought to cast off his prison tag, has managed is that whereas the others are generally known both as ex-prisoners who are writers he appears to have made it as a writer pure and simple. If there is such a thing as a natural born writer it is to be found in the person of Sam Miller. The words flow from his pen as sweet as the juice from a ripened fruit bursting.

Many years ago I read Jimmy Boyle’s great prison memoir, A Sense of Freedom.  Boyle, literally confined in a cage, had battled the brutal Scottish prison system for years on end. Once the era of intense prison conflict covered in the book had passed and moved onto Boyle being a sculptor-prisoner, he seemed to take his foot off the pedal. The energy of raw prison violence and conflict that so powered much of his memoir dissipated and the creativity that was its property frittered away. Miller never made that error; the tempo held throughout.

On The Brinks, because of the expanse it covers, is a narrative which has necessary joints. They are anything but awkward.  Taking fictional licence it is best described as a book of three halves! And I remain hard pressed to plump for one over any other. Sam Miller’s days in the H Blocks were riveting but they were matched both by his formative years and his time in New York, the scene of the robbery that would eventually see him on his way back to Ireland. 

The writing glides effortlessly from one situation to another and the story loses nothing in charting the changes. His early life prior to going to jail is fascinating for his story telling ability alone. He reflects with self awareness rather than self pity a challenging childhood in North Belfast. He was son to a despair afflicted mother who parted with his father when Millar was eleven. One failed suicide attempt prompted him to comment that his mother had ‘survived to die another day.’ He learned of that day during the blanket protest. But the news was ‘inconsequential’ as the imperative of survival demanded all his energy and attention.

In the rag store of his early years Sadie, the de facto boss running the operation on the ground, had been bitten so many times by rats that she seemed immune to them. On Friday afternoons, once the customary bottle of Mundies, a fortified South African wine much loved by Belfast tipplers, had been downed Sadie would down her knickers, displaying the war wounds on her back side to anyone inclined to pay attention. When Millar found a job in the abattoir he could bring home as much meat on ‘Fishy Friday’ as he wished, venting his contempt for Catholic tradition which viewed the eating of meat on Fridays as somehow sinful.

Fridays also played their part in allowing the reader to meet another character from this story, who despite only a cameo role was none the less memorable for that. Outside Peter Kelly’s chipper on a Friday evening the author as a boy would bump into the Lone Ranger with his invisible horse and gun. Much like a decommissioned IRA the Lone Ranger rode around in a make believe world, slapping his rear end, telling Silver to ‘giddy up’. The audience laughed rather than listened.

Tormented by screws during the blanket protest he developed a visceral hatred of the species; a breed apart as former blanket man Jake Jackson was fond of terming them. During the 1983 escape from the H-Blocks Millar saw the screws tied up and unable to wield their abusive power:

I couldn’t resist the urge to look in at the screws who were tied and stripped to their underwear, huddled together, fearful for their lives. Our fear had lasted years. Theirs only minutes. I felt cheated that their punishment should be so light and wanted to rectify it. I could so easily have set fire to the room and let God deal with it. The innocent would survive while the guilty perished.

All who underwent the blanket protest have at some time shared the feeling.

Millar pulls together something of what things were like during the early days of the blanket protest where incommunicado smothered news of the plight of republican prisoners and knowledge of it is largely word of mouth. It was an experience he shared with the other dogged pioneers of the jail struggle, some of whom are now dead.  Between them they dug in on the rocky ground of political resistance to British labelling strategies and refused to take one step back, holding the position until reinforcements arrived in the form of more imprisoned comrades. It was an unremitting struggle of human endurance against the grinding prison machine, in which the battle hardened blanket men prevailed over a bestial brutality.

After release Millar eventually made his way to New York, where his tales of casino life are humorous and insightful. There he worked with a strange crew including the untrustworthy bouncer Ronnie, rarely without a book by, or quote from, Marcus Aurelius.

The finale comes in the form of the robbery of the Brink’s Depot in Rochester, New York. If Millar and his crew could succeed in laughing all the way to the Brinks they would avoid penury. If not, the penitentiary would not avoid them. While they managed to pull off the audacious heist they were eventually apprehended. Once again the author found himself on the wrong side of a prison wall.

Perhaps only for that robbery the literary scene would itself have been robbed of a truly great writer whose ability as a story teller has surely made its mark.

Sam Millar, On The Brinks, 2003.  Wynkin deWorde: Galway


  1. Mackers,
    I have had that book here at home for quite sometime.
    Sounds fascinating, and I look forward to reading it.

  2. Nuala,

    same with me. When I did sit down to read it I couldn't believe how good it was. A very rewarding read.

  3. I liked Sam's story, "Red Hand of Ulster," featured among other worthies in the Irish anthology of crime fiction inspired by Irish myth, "Requiems for the Departed." I reviewed it on my blog and on Amazon last year. I'd love to read this now. P.S. Great comparison, AM, to Page & Plant: inspired!

  4. I thought Sam's book a fantastic read. His no nonsence writing style is pulsating and totally engrossing; a Roberet Ludlum or Andy McNab. As for his standing amongst the small franternity of republican writes, I rate him highly.

    Sam was renowned for his story telling ability and acute imagination. He had me spell bound for hours at the windows with hgis yarns and humour.

    A very decent guy was Sam.

  5. Alec,

    have never read McNab but have went through a lot by Ludlum. Ludlum is a different type of writer but there is nothing he has written that I would take with me to solitary before On The Brinks.


    read your review moments ago. Another one to be got now. I am reminded again of McGuffin's comment as he was approaching his end: 'I have so many books to read and still there's bastards writing more.' Love to know what you think about Brinks when you get to read it.

  6. Ludlum's plots are more elobrate, however, I found his books impossible to put down, likewise with Sam's. For me a good story grips the reader from the first page to the last. On The Brinks was that type of book.

    Funny you should mention it, I once read Ludlum on the boards and he transported me to another world for three days.

  7. Alec,

    Ludlum used to lose me with the plot at times. I enjoyed all his stuff nonetheless until I reached the Bourne set. Didn't take to that at all.

  8. £25 (Amazon) for 288 paperback pages?! Think I'll pass on that, thanks.

  9. Anthony
    once again, thanks for the coverage and for such a thoughtful review. Also, Alec, great hearing the opinions of ex-POWs, such as yourself. Means a lot to me, mo chara. Keep safe.

  10. Sam.

    great to hear from you after all these years. I actually stumbled across your book by chance rather than design. In fact, Mackers may have loaned it to me at one time? I loved it!

    A fantastic story from a brilliant story teller.

  11. Alec,

    I might have lent it to you. If I did you were not the only one. I think it was Richard O'Rawe who recommended it to me

  12. Sam
    I've been trying to get a copy of this book for a reasonable price for over a year now.Check out this link to Amazon to see how ridiculous the amounts being asked for your book. You would be a very rich man if you could command some of those prices.Is there any chance of the book being reprinted and then you could benefit from the sales and not these robbing bastards.http://www.amazon.co.uk/gp/offer-listing/0954260775/ref=sr_1_1_olp?ie=UTF8&qid=1320613414&sr=8-1&condition=used

  13. section 408
    I have had running battles with Amazon about the scandalous prices on the second-hand market for the book. Amazon said there is little they can do in a 'free market'. Worse, people actually think I profit from the second-hand market. No I don't! There are no copies to be got - even when friends and family ask for copies. I tried publishing the book on CreateSpace, so that people could get the book cheaply, but ran into legal problems. I have now moved publishers and am with The O'Brien Press. Hopefully, they will publish the book.

    Alec, as always great hearing form you, mo chara.

  14. Great book, very enjoyable read. Its hard to believe this book didn't get more publicity and totally understandable that it can be read in one sitting.
    Sam, Did I read somewhere that hollywood was interested in this? I think I did.

  15. BKeane
    Thank you for the kind words. Yes, you were spot on. The rights were bought by Warner Brothers, script completed, etc. Then the Bush Administration (under pressure from the British Government) put Warner under pressure to cancel the project because it ‘glorified terrorism’! This was shortly after 9/11 so feelings were understandably running very high in the States, at the times. I was shattered initially, but now thank god it was never made by Warner as the script was the usually Hollywood nonsense and nothing like the book. Ironically, once again interest is being shown in the book in the States. If it happens, it happens. If not, well, I can live with it. I’m hopeful that one day the right people will make it into a film. Once again, Bkeane, thank you for your kind words. Always appreciated.

  16. Here is a link to extracts from "on the brinks" for anyone who hasn't read it.