Hartnett is back … and he has the Catholic Church in his sights

Adam Lowe

Trigger warning: this article deals with allegations of historic child sexual abuse.

The strikingly titled Child R*** Photos is a fictional television documentary set in 2016, written by award-winning Irish author Peter Paul Hartnett.

Hartnett, known for courting controversy, scandalised tabloids and broadsheets alike with his first novel Call Me in 1996, quickly followed by I Want to Fuck You and Mmm Yeah. His latest work of fiction deals with the history of child sexual abuse by members of the Catholic Church.

Although his work is often contentious, Hartnett on a face-to-face basis isn’t. As a photographer and writer, he has documented street and club culture since the punk explosion in 1976. For many years, Hartnett photographed youth tribes from punks and New Romantics to the club icons of Taboo, mingling with Leigh Bowery and Boy George and Galliano, before he settled down to become a teacher of children with special educational needs.

Should you ever be lucky enough to meet Hartnett (or unlucky enough, should you believe the tabloids), you’ll discover a sober, smart and polite man with a strong moral core. Hartnett deals with often difficult subjects, yes – but in contrast to the image presented by his critics, he’s often doing it for very ethical reasons.

This download-only title, which features a leather-effect cover embossed with a gold cross, is almost tasteful – although it’s likely to provoke accusations of blasphemy with its Bible-inspired design. The opening pages, laid out simply, recall a transcription, as per the documentary label. It’s clear that Hartnett is doing something very precise. He’s also doing something brave.

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‘This work should be seen as a punk attack upon Vatican City, the institutional culture of one negligent pope after another,’ says Hartnett over tea in my through-lounge. ‘We’re talking decades of strategic denial, skilled evasion and cunning concealment by the powers that be within Vatican City State with regard to sex crimes. Decades of blind eyes, deaf ears.’

At times admittedly connected to his time at an Ealing Catholic school, Child R*** Photos is a fictionalised recollection of the historic child sexual abuse that so many have experienced on an international basis in the hands of Catholic priests. Real characters seep through (although names have been changed, of course) and a damning indictment of alleged cover-ups oozes through very matter-of-fact prose.

It’s important to note here that Hartnett writes with personal experience and insights gained from researching case histories. In modern terms, he calls himself a ‘survivor’, albeit one of the lucky ones, who claims he managed to avoid attempted molestation as an altar boy, swerving from a priest’s systematic grooming.

The most troubling details are actually presented as a series of caesura and elisions – removed from the text, shocking in red, as if redacted for legal reasons. Indeed, Hartnett references the specifics of the Obscene Publications Act (1959) under which each excised description would fall, so that it becomes a courtroom artefact. That is, instead of describing the acts that take place (which might therefore make them artful, or even be perceived as pornographic), he denies us and any predatory voyeurs who might pick up the book the chance to indulge in these traumas.

The text steadfastly refuses to exploit the exploited for literary titillation, and that makes this a particularly factual piece of fiction. Evidence, almost. And this is the point: Hartnett is putting the disordered culture of many a Catholic Church school on trial for the abuse by priests of vulnerable children and teens for whom they had a duty of care.

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Hartnett claims that the dialogic form came to him after being filmed for a BBC television documentary he was to be a part of – a documentary that was never broadcast because of its far-reaching implications.

‘Old sins have long shadows. The tentacles of the Catholic Church reach far corners. Read between the lines,’ he says.

Given what we now know of what happened decades ago (and what seems to be still happening in some circumstances), this is unsurprising. Hartnett’s new work is very much of the moment, the culmination of a sequence of revelations about men of power and how an unchallenged patriarchy (from church to politics to education) has allowed those who are supposed to guide or lead us to instead abuse and degrade us.

Child R*** Photos is a moral work about immoral acts by so-called men and women of God,’ says Hartnett. ‘The moral perspective shines a light upon decades of global historic sexual abuse which has brought the Catholic Church to its knees. The work features four survivors of a Catholic school, who release punk rock tracks recorded nearing the end of the traumatic period of abuse, 1975-1976.’

If familiar with the biography of the author, then you’ll know that 40 years ago he left a Catholic school he describes to us as ‘Hell on Earth, W5’.

Adopting somewhat of an innovative spin, Hartnett has formed a band also named Child R*** Photos. The resulting single, EP and finally album (which Hartnett played over the second cup of coffee) are as harrowing as you’d expect them to be and yet, they’re very well executed. In the true spirit of rebellion, they’re performed in a punk style. The lyrics are dark and imply much, but they’re well written. Poetic, even.

Hartnett’s lyrics are either whispered, as if in a confessional box, or else blasted through a megaphone in act of protest. While certainly not something you’d listen to before going to bed, these tracks are nevertheless very playable, and their effect is of a rallying call. Hartnett is calling out abusers, and the abusers of all those who were entrusted to the care of supposed men and women of God by devout parents. He is urging others to come forward too.

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‘Anger is, indeed, an energy … but will a Catholic weekly such as The Tablet review the work? Will any of the social and religious correspondents dare connect?’ And as he says this, you realise Hartnett is challenging them too – are you part of the problem, or part of its solution? Will those in the Catholic Church denounce the acts of which he writes?

Playful to the end, Child R*** Photos is dedicated to Pope Francis, despite the work amounting to an attack on Vatican City, plus Jonn Lydon of Public Image Limited, aka Johnny Rotten of the Sex Pistols, whose energy infuses much of this literary revolt, including its spin-off album.

The single ‘Red Gloss Paint’ will be available for digital download from the start of March, quickly followed two weeks later by the EP, Pervert HQ, Vatican City. These will be followed by an album, Tripod, Camera, Self-Timer, due out just days before Easter 2015.

Hartnett will also release an album of spoken word later in 2015, called Ferris Wheel Kiss. This will accompany a download collection of what Hartnett refers to as ‘short, sharp shocks’ entitled Full Screen by indie press Autopsy.

As if the year is a marathon, a race against time, Hartnett ends 2015 with sex : male, a downloadable book series of 10 titles reflecting his prolific work since 1996, with revised and ‘remixed’ titles such as 16 and Rock ‘n’ Roll Suicide, plus new works such as pozmeup and Needs Discussion.

Check out hartnett.uk.com for more information.

About Adam Lowe

Adam Lowe is an award-winning author, editor and publisher from Leeds, now based in Manchester. He runs Dog Horn Publishing and is Director and Writing Coordinator for Young Enigma, a writer development programme for LGBT young people. He sometimes performs as Beyonce Holes.