SL: Now did you come to write Borstal Boy?
BB: Actually, I forget the f***ing thing.
SL: Did you enjoy writing it?
BB: If you write a book and it goes off while youre working on it, its the happiest time of your life, A writer will never spend better time than when hes working. Provided hes got money, hes going to get food and hes going to get a certain amount of sex. He doesnt even need a lot of that. Proust said one time that the two greatest allies that a writer has are chastity and water.
SL: You had water?
BB: Gotta have a woman knockin round the place. Well, its preferable. Say if you were two blokes about19 or 20 youd probably get on okay together. But usually a woman is better. I got no prejudices one way or the other. But you got to have heat. youve got to have a reasonable amount drink, if youre able to drink. Yeah, when I started to write I was okay. I could drink a good jar. Good to live in France - in Paris because you meet other writers.
SL: You left Ireland just after they let you loose [from prison]?
BB: Sure. I was out-for a bit. I was released in 1946 in Ireland. Then I was arrested in England in 1947 and I got four months, because somebody had escaped from jail. A man called Richard Cohen, alias Timmons. Or Timmons alias Cohen. I came to France at the end of 48 or 49, I forget which. But I had been to France on little trips before. Id been to Rouen on horse boats. I used to go with sailors. They knew me - used to give me a lift over. But I finally arrived in the Latin Quarter and I didnt know any French. I said to a fellow. Wheres the Latin Quarter ? He said: Comment ? I said, Wheres the Latin Quarter ? I had never learned any French at school so didnt know any. Finally, I looked along the métro to see if it said Quartier Latin. Id have probably called it at the time Quarter Latin. I didnt see anything, but I did see Saint-Michel. Everyone knows Saint-Michel. So I got a métro... And while Im exceedingly fond of the French, I orbited principally amongst English-speaking French people and native speakers of English in the Quartier Latin. Because Im not Samuel Beckett, I dont love to be funny in two languages. Though I am funny in two Im funny in Irish and Im funny in English. But anyway, I worked for a little while as a housepainter. Drank anything I got. Wasnt much.
SL: Now tell me, when did you first think of becoming a writer?
BB: I was always surrounded by books, although we lived in the slum. My father used to steal books., mostly from convent libraries, or from the libraries of such Protestants as can read. I dont like employers. And since a lot of my employers happened to be Protestant, I didnt like a lot of Protestants. The Protestants produced great writers Yeats, Sam Beckett and others too numerous to mention, as the saying has it.
But most of the Protestant people around Dublin that had any money were business people who didnt read anything except the Bible and the bank-book. Mostly reactionary in politics and snobbish. Kindly for the most part, except if you were working for them... The idea that I became a writer in jail is a fallacious one. Nobody becomes a writer in prison. The only kind of writer you become in prison is a bad writer. There was one book written in jail, Pilgrims Progress. It was not a part of my education as a child. I was raised a Catholic and a Red. There was no place for pilgrims and progress in my childhood, Im happy to say. I read the f***ing thing afterwards. They should have stuck him back in Bedford prison for writing it.
In much of your work - The Hostage, for instance - prisons always seem to be very present. Well, the world is a prison for anyone who hasnt got any money. You know what Albert Camus said? He said: The duty of the writer is not to those who, are in power, but to those who are subject to them In the same way, an awful lot of people go to prison and it doesnt seem to fundamentally matter much what you go to prison for. Its not an important point. People get into jail for all sorts of situations. I mean, I dont try to shed tears for everybody in prison. But a great number of people live in the shadow of imprisonment for one reason or another.
SL: Whats the experience you remember most vividly from all your years in prison or in borstal?
BB: All my years? I dont remember. People forget; they dont remember. Except I remember professionally. If you were to stick $1,000 under, my nose, or £250, Id remember quick enough. Thatd jog my f***ing memory. But its an effort. I remember I had great health. I used to box at nine stone and two. I wasnt a very good boxer. Gene Tunney who was perhaps, the greatest boxer that ever lived, was the only man who ever looked at me and accepted the fact. He said: Yeah. He says: Yeah. Other people say: Oh Im sure you were better than you think you were. Youre just saying that. Youre just being modest.
Well, I was a very bad boxer for two reasons. I couldnt, fight except I was in a temper and I dont get in a temper unless I get scared. And when I was in the ring I wasnt scared. I guess I wasnt ferocious enough. Basically, I had a short reach - too short a reach for my weight, do you understand? And I remember everybody, they were a decent crowd. The people in charge of the place were English intellectuals. Any kind of intellectual is better than no intellectual. You cant get along with the f***ing intellectuals. Nobody can.
SL: How old were you when you left school?
BB: Twelve. I was at school with the French Sisters of Charity. Les Soeurs de St Vincent de Paul. They were mostly Dublin girls and some French girls. Dublin girls in a convent are very unusual because you dont get many Dublin priests and you dont get many Dublin nuns. well, these were mostly Dublin girls, from north-east Dublin near the docks. I went from there to the Christian Brothers when I was 11. They were the biggest crowd of f***ing bastards that I have ever met in my life. If I had a child I would not send him to anywhere except to where there were married men. I dont give a ballocks as to whether the men were young or they were old, but they gotta be married. No unmarried man is entitled to have children under his control. A woman perhaps, when the woman is getting screwed good enough, shes okay. Nuns seem to me to be an exception. They were very nice people. They were very good-humoured people. Whether theyre especially blessed by God or not, I dont know, but apparently the blessing seems to extend only to the female section of the religious communities. The men were just nuts. They used to beat kids up. It was obvious that they werent getting laid often enough.
And I dont like religious people to have charge of children either. Well, I like children to have a bit of religion, maybe, but not too much. If I was given the choice between having a very religious person and an atheist that was well-read and had advanced and progressive ideas, if I was given the alternative of having, say, a very religious persona who only read La Croix is that what you call it? and having an atheist that read LExpress or France-Observateur or LExpress. Id get the religion somewhere else if I wanted to
SL: What happened to you after you left the prison?
BB: So I went to France. In France I was writing in Englsh, of course. I wrote a bit. Finally, I got a job working for Mr de Valeras newspaper the Irish Press. A friend of mine whod been in prison over the IRA became editor of it, McGuinness. He gave me a column to do every week, which I did. And I leived on the column while I finished Borstal Boy. So Mr de Valera fdid this much good for literature, that he enabled me to finish Borstal Boy. I didnt have it finished, but I had most of it. And a man called Iain Hamilton from Hutchinsons who was a friend of mine I dont like publishers as a rule. But Hamilton was in the Shelbourne Hotel and he saw some of it and he said: Can I have it? I said: You can if you give me £150 for it in advance. He said: Sure. He gave me £250 to finish it.
SL: When did you start writing Borstal Boy?
BB: I started it in the Hotel Louisiane -which is the corner of the rue de Bucy - in an apartment occupied by a man called Desmond Francis Ryan who for some reason was called by the patron of the hotel Monsieur Rien. But Desmond Francis Ryan lives in Paris. He lives in the rue Molière. And hes a great - well, hes still a very literary, entertaining man - he is the Paris correspondent of The Irish Times.
I then left Paris and had no home, no place to go. I was skint in Paris - had no money - and I heard everybody saying you should have been here in Hemingways time, 1920 and so forth and so on. But the ex-GIs were there and those American guys; they were okay. They were very good to me. One of them who I knew very slightly was Norman Mailer, the man who wrote The Naked and the Dead. He bought me ham and eggs in the Pergola. Do you know the Pergola? Its in the Boulevard Saint-Germain. Well,he bought me ham and eggs at a time when I had not eaten some ham and eggs for a long long time.
I scrounged from Americans who were on the GI Bill of Rights, from a great number of French people. One of them was a lady called - she didnt set up to be a literary sort of a patron or anything of that sort - her name was Dame Housty. She lived in the Rue de Grenelle. How I came to meet her was I had been out all night in Paris. Paris is a city where you can be out all night. At least you could at that time. I never had trouble with the police in France until I became rich and famous... Well, not rich but famous. I had been walking around all the night because I had I had nowhere to go and I called into a couple of cafés to see would I meet anyone who would give me a drink and I couldnt find anybody. So anyway, it was a summers morning and I went down and... You go along windowsills in Paris, youre always sure to find something. People are in the habit of leaving odd pieces of food up in the place, so I found some old stuff. I went across the Place de la Concorde where they were making a film at the Cleopatras needle, the Obélisque. I went and stood with a crowd there. Finally, I wound up walking across the Champs de Mars at about six in the morning. No, I went to Les Halles and I scrounged a swig from a bottle from a clochard, from a couple of clochards, and I got a couple of pennies and a couple of francs there.
SL: Some people in France found your depiction of the member of the IRA in The Hostage to be a bit artificial. He behaved more like a West End type, a fashionable fellow, a character in a comedy.
BB: Well, its artificial only to people who do not understand the theatre. Only to people who do not know music-hall, vaudeville. Only to people who are such peasants, such Parisian peasants in this context, that they have never seen the Berliner Ensemble by Bertolt Brecht. I dont imitate, Brecht but... Have you ever read The Good Soldier Schweik by Jaroslav Hasek? Did you ever read Dickens, for Jesuss sake? What do you want me to do? Have them all sitting around a table? Have a rhinoceros running round the place like your adopted chum, Eugene Ionesco, who is a client of the US. I am a friend of the US and I love the US. Je ne suis pas un client, je suis un ami.
The only thing that your question convinces me of, Sylvère, is that youve got bogmen everywhere. Do you know what a bogman is? A paysan. Youve got them in France-Observateur. Youve got them in the Irish Press. But the people who say that sort of thing about me, they ought to go to the theatre more often. And Ill tell you what they ought to do. They ought to go to Paris more often. Not have their minds stuck on their own stupid garbage-faced old mother up in the Vosges, stuffing truffles up a ducks ass. That might make for a very good peasants wife, not for a good drama critic.
SL: And some shrewd French critics, just by reading your book translation, figured that youre writing in a special Anglo-Irish language.
First of all, I know more than your goddamn French critics, and I know more than any living person about the language - not just of Ireland - but about the spoken language. Im not going into any philological arguments about nationalist languages whether Breton or Provençal or the langue doc or Welsh. I know more about the language of the people that inhabit England, Ireland, Scotland or Wales than any other man living.
Im the only person living here that can say hello in every language spoken, apart from dividing it into dialects. [He says: Hello how are you? in many languages.] All those languages are spoken in these islands, but thats simply a kind of tour de force, a bit of a show-off. Im simply calling to your attention the fact that besides English, they also speak Irish Gaelic, they speak Scotch Gaelic, they speakWelsh, fewer people speak Manx and they speak French. French is spoken in the Channel Islands. Maybe you think they belong to France, I dont know. But in any event, the English language is, of course, the language of these islands and a very great and wonderful language it is. Now the first person to put a Cockey to write Cockney dialogue for the West End stage within living memory - was me.
I have been attacked on all sorts of grounds. Nobody has ever said that my Cockney is not authentic, that it is not just as Cockneys speak it, and that goes for Cockneys themselves. I can write the way that the north of England people speak. The Irish for the most part speak English the same all over Ireland. Theres not very much difference.
SL: Gaelic also is a literary language.
Lets stick to one thing at one time. Your critics allege that I had kind of fashioned a language of my own in English? What I write is,English. I write English as she is spoke. Perhaps one person speaks English one way and another person speaks it another. But Evelyn Waugh, when he went to write Cockney, was an abysmal failure. Cockney is a speech like any other. For instance, the use of the word f*** is very important. Because its an important part of the speech of the majority of people in these islands. Now if you were to ask Mr Samuel Beckett about that, who is a friend of mine incidentally, he would say that what I was saying is not true. Thats because he hasnt been in the habit of hearing it.
[ Edited version of an interview published for the first time in the Field Day Review. ]