Sara Crown, ‘Roddy Doyle: A life in writing’, in The Guardian (16 April 2011).

‘Anything you want – love stories, murders, whatever – can be written in these few streets’

[ Source: The Guardian - online; accessed 03.07.2011.]

The first book written by Dublin’s latest literary star had nothing to do with his home city at all. A sprawling state-of-the-nation saga, promisingly titled Your Granny Is a Hunger Striker, it languishes these days in his archive in the National Library, doomed to remain unread. “It’s never been published and it never will be,” Roddy Doyle says now, nearly 30 years after he wrote it. “Because it’s utter shite. I sent it to every agent and publisher I could find – and either it wasn’t coming back, or it was coming back unopened. There’s nothing at all in it of the area I grew up in. It’s absent.”

He didn’t make the same mistake twice. “Paul Mercier [the playwright] was teaching in the same school as me at the time; he was writing these plays set in working-class Dublin, and they were brilliant. He shoved me in the right direction. In the winter of 1986 I started writing the book that became The Commitments, and it’s riddled with the place I come from. It made me realise the area’s worth writing about. Anything you want – love stories, murders, whatever – can be written in these few streets.”

Doyle grew up in Kilbarrack, a straggle of shops and houses on Dublin’s fringes. It resurfaces in his novels as Barrytown, the name lifted from a 1974 Steely Dan song: Doyle, like Jimmy Rabbitte, hero of The Commitments, knows his music. These days, Doyle’s name is better known than the official one; he recounts tales of taxi drivers who’ve made a mint out of people demanding to be taken to see it. “I suppose it was a defence, to a degree,” he says of the decision to rename it. “If I’d called it Kilbarrack it would’ve been restricting. There’s a pub there, for example, that’s not 100 miles from the pub in The Snapper and The Van [the second and third volumes of his Barrytown trilogy], but the point is meant to be that it could be any pub on the outskirts of Dublin. Changing the name gave me freedom.”

It also served to derail any search for real-life counterparts of the hyper-ordinary men and women who shuttle through his pages. Doyle’s novels, particularly the earlier ones, are fundamentally exercises in people watching. Nothing much happens; in fact, the books are remarkable for their unremarkability: the three Barrytown novels can be summarised, respectively, as “kids form a band then split up”, “girl accidentally gets pregnant and has the baby” and “man loses his job and runs a chip van with his mate”. Their urgency lies rather in the psychological realism Doyle brings to his characters’ responses to their commonplace dramas, the sympathetic warmth with which he paints their unexceptional lives.

This sympathy is particularly evident in Doyle’s latest story collection, Bullfighting. Once again, the substance of the stories – middle-aged men, coping, or failing to, with decline – is mundane; once again, the remarkable thing about them is the compassion with which Doyle, 52, treats his protagonists. While he invokes all the usual signifiers – the hair loss, the cancer scares – customarily reached for when writing about men whose lives have passed their highwater mark, he nevertheless permits his heroes to be happy. These are men who love their wives, by and large; who take their physical failings more or less in their stride. The one thing they appear unable to accommodate, however, is unemployment. Several of the stories were written in the wake of the Irish bailout, and over them the shadow of the scrapheap looms. “It’s happening anyway,” Doyle says of the crash. “Why wouldn’t you write about it?”

The peaks and troughs of the past half-century have given Doyle plenty to write about; in fact, if you’re looking for a primer of contemporary Irish history, you could do worse than start with his novels. His latest collection paints a picture of life in Ireland after the death of the Celtic tiger, the Barrytown trilogy documents the recession of the 80s and early 90s, and his short-story collection on economic immigrants, The Deportees, gives a flavour of the boom-time in between. His Booker prizewinning novel, Paddy Clarke Ha Ha Ha, meanwhile, marks the moment where it all began: the 1960s, when Dublin was in the grip of its first wave of expansion fever. The book charts a year in the life of its 10-year-old narrator, Patrick, in a spatter of impressionistic episodes, all told in childhood’s endless present tense, in which the passage of time is conveyed only by encroaching construction works and the gathering cloud of his parents’ collapsing marriage. Doyle himself, born in 1958, is the same age as Paddy. While he’s adamant the book isn’t autobiographical (“My mother, who’s more qualified to answer the question, doesn’t see me in it at all”), incidents from his own childhood punctuate the text. And Doyle and his narrator share something unique to mid-20th-century children: a sense of being neither too early nor too late, of the world keeping pace with their own progress.

“When I was born, Kilbarrack was right on the edge of Dublin – city on one side, fields on the other,” Doyle says. “But as I was growing up, the city corporation bought up the farmland and started building. From when I was eight or nine right into my teens, it seemed like the whole place was a permanent building site, changing as I changed. In retrospect it sounds a bit neat and tidy, but it really was like that. And it wasn’t just me, it was the whole country. Modernity was coming up the road as the cement was drying.”

Perhaps the pace of change at home explains why he never felt the need to leave. After graduating from University College Dublin, he fell into teaching and ended up at Greendale Community School, round the corner from the house he grew up in. Going back there allowed him to perceive it with a freshness that would serve him well when it made its way into his work. “It really opened my eyes to the place,” he says now, “though I wasn’t thinking of it in terms of writing. It was a good few years before I saw it as material.”

After the cul-de-sac of Your Granny Is a Hunger Striker, the books began to flow. The Commitments, which Doyle published through a company he set up for the purpose before Heinemann snapped it up, was a cult hit; the 1991 film version a mainstream one. The other Barrytown novels spawned films of their own, and The Van garnered an unexpected Booker shortlisting. But it was Paddy Clarke Ha Ha Ha that forced the gear change. Doyle’s freewheeling depiction of a Dublin childhood achieved moderate popular acclaim on publication, but its triumph at the Booker in 1993 turned Doyle into a bona fide phenomenon. The book sat at number one on the Irish bestseller list for a year; at one point, his first three books were also in the top five. Doyle was feted by an eager press as working-class Dublin’s jaunty laureate – though anyone who cared to take a close look at his books might have noted that despite the earthy humour, their emotional trajectory, from the romp of The Commitments to Paddy Clarke’s disintegrating ending, was firmly downward. “It was a strange thing,” Doyle says. “Suddenly there were requests to turn up to Irish Man of the Year, photo opportunities with the horse who won the Melbourne Gold Cup, because we’d both brought glory to our country! Until Family came out.”

Throughout the Paddy Clarke brouhaha, Doyle had been quietly plugging away at a four-part BBC/RTÉ series that painted a very different picture of his city. The title sequence, in which dirty blocks of flats loom out of the mist like sea cliffs, panned over a Dublin that wasn’t just poor, but grey, defeated. Each episode focused on a different member of the Spencer family – Charlo, smalltime crook and abusive husband, troubled teenager John Paul, Nicola, whose relationship with her father is slipping into turbulent waters, and Paula, Charlo’s battered, broken wife. In the Barrytown trilogy, family sat solidly at the books’ heart – knotty, certainly, but cherished, relied upon; in Paddy Clarke, although the story is one of familial breakdown, the institution itself is never questioned. In Family, however, the drama derives directly from the flaws and fissures within the unit, its fatal warping. The interactions between its members are joyless, alcohol-fuelled and destructive; the collective loyalty that sustained the characters in the earlier novels is gone.

“It caused a storm,” Doyle says, with something between a grimace and a grin. “The first episode was broadcast in Ireland in May 1994, a few days after the Eurovision Song Contest. What was significant about this particular Eurovision was that it unleashed Riverdance, this Vegas version of our culture. I’m not kidding: it was a major moment for Ireland. The country was sexy for the first time since St Patrick came over and brought his fuckin’ Christianity with him. And Family was on four days later. People said, ‘Ah, just when we were feeling good about ourselves ...’”

The repercussions were beyond anything he could have imagined. Doyle went overnight from Ireland’s darling to national pariah. “The celebrity status that attached to me when I won the Booker, invitations to open supermarkets and all that shite – it stopped the day Family was broadcast. There were accusations that I was suggesting this was normal working-class life, that I was undermining marriage. I was the subject of sermons, editorials, political programmes on TV. I got death threats. It was a very unsettling time, especially with two small children.” (Doyle married his wife Belinda in 1989; the couple have two sons and a daughter.) “I knew what I was writing, and I was proud of it, but I didn’t know it would have such consequences.”

While the controversy triggered by the series continued to rage, Doyle holed up to spend more time with Family ‘s most complicated, compromised character. “When I was writing the final episode, Paula’s episode, I found myself wondering about her. What was she like as a kid? How did she meet Charlo? Why – that almost accusatory question we ask of people who’ve been in bad relationships – did she marry him? And I thought, there’s a book there.”

There was – but it turned out to be the most difficult thing he’d ever attempted. The Woman Who Walked Into Doors took the character of Paula Spencer – alcoholic, careening, desperate but still stubbornly clinging to her life – and produced a bleak, brave book that is widely held to be his finest creation. “Writing an alcoholic woman was hard,” he says. “Biology and circumstances put me a long way from her. It was a very slow piece of work at first. It took me a long time to get the register. Then in the second year, it began to click. Chapter 25, the longest one, the emotional heart of the book – it took just two days to write; it flowed out of me. By that point, I knew exactly what I wanted to do.”

In chapter 25, Paula recalls the first time Charlo hit her, when she was pregnant with their first child. “I fell,” Paula says, “He felled me. I’m looking at it now. Twenty years later. I wouldn’t do what he wanted, he was in his moods, I was being smart, he hated me being pregnant, I wasn’t his little Paula anymore – and he drew his fist back and he hit me. He hit me. Before he knew it? He drew his own fist back, not me. He aimed at me. He let go. He hit me. He wanted to hurt me. And he did. And he did more than that.” The stiff, fractured sentences and hammering repetitions convey the brutality of Paula’s marriage, and the mental excisions she has had to perform to survive it. “It is the triumph of the novel,” Mary Gordon wrote in the New York Times Book Review, “that Mr Doyle – entirely without condescension – shows the inner life of this battered housecleaner to be the same stuff as that of the heroes of the great novels of Europe.”

The novel transmuted the undifferentiated clamour that greeted Family into serious, respectful admiration. It also gave Doyle the freedom and confidence to embark on his most technically ambitious project yet. His writing had always been of the here and now; in the case of Family pressingly so. But his next excursion took him all the way back in time to the birth of modern Ireland. His hero, Henry Smart – street-thug turned IRA poster boy – proves a prickly, slippery guide to the Irish century, ducking and weaving his way through the history of the republican movement, from the clean fury of the Easter Rising to the 1970s’ churn of backstabbing and internal politics, over the course of three volumes that became known collectively as The Last Roundup trilogy.

“It was a very exciting thing to do,” he says of his trawl through his country’s backstory. “My grandfathers had both been ... ‘involved’, the word is, with the republicans. So it was there in the house, if you like; it was in the air. A tiny fragment of the population believed they’d inherited the chalice from the leaders of the 1916 rising. So strapping a bomb to a taxi driver and making him drive to a checkpoint, or kneecapping a kid, or whatever it was, was in the name of Ireland and therefore right. I knew I’d enjoy delving into that. And that notion of poking fun at republicans has always been there, too. When I was in secondary school and the Christian Brothers were getting teary-eyed talking about the men who died for Ireland, we’d all be whispering, ‘Blow it out yer arse, brother’. The books were just doing that in a more disciplined way. It was a nice job.”

Now, though, with Bullfighting published, Doyle is returning to familiar territory. “I’m actually writing about Jimmy Rabbitte again, as a man in his mid-40s. I thought it’d be interesting to see how he perceived the world today: he went through the recession, married and had children during the boom, and now everything’s gone belly up. Three years ago, when the crash kicked in, I found the immediate nostalgia a bit sickening. The radio jumped straight on the 80s soundtrack, and there was a lot of gleeful nonsense about how we’d become too materialistic, as if it was somehow a good thing we were sinking into this mush. And I thought to myself, Jimmy’d be a good guide. A dreamer, but at the same time very down to earth, for want of a better cliché.”

After nine novels and almost three decades, Doyle is back where he started. Although, of course, he’s never really been away.

[ close ] [ top ]