Julian Gough: acting the goat
The writer has never been afraid to make a statement – or to step on a few reputations – and there are clear targets in his ‘funny but important’ play about booms, hedge funds and a dead goat
CONSIDERING THAT HE has assiduously forged a reputation as an iconoclastic mischief-maker, Julian Gough has, over the course of an hour’s conversation, proved disappointingly reasonable and polite company. Then, with the interview winding down, he finally does what is expected of him and starts to hold forth on the state of contemporary Irish literature.
“There are loads of really nice Irish writers, and they write well, but I just feel a lot of them do not use their freedom,” he says. “We write the same stuff that my dad was reading as a kid, and it just annoys me. But look at the precedents in Irish literature. You’ve got Swift, Sterne, Beckett, Joyce. You’ve got so many revolutionary, original writers coming out of this country, and what we should be copying is not what they did but how they did it. We shouldn’t be copying their settings but their liberty of imagination.
“There’s a misunderstanding of what it is to be a traditional Irish writer. To me it means being revolutionary, to mess with people’s heads, to do stuff that will alienate half your audience and won’t find a genre in Eason’s or WH-effing-Smith’s. Make them invent a new category for you.”
As well known for his provocative pronouncements as for his fiction, Gough may know how to create a stir, but he has always been true to his word. Be it his anarchically inventive novels or even his tenure as singer with the indie band Toasted Heretic, the English-born, Irish-raised writer has always followed his own path, without heed to tradition, much less popularity.
“I like to collide together things that haven’t been collided before, to smash them into each other to see what happens. I think the spark of art comes from banging things together,” he says. “It’s like trying to create primitive nuclear fusion. Now, some people don’t like that.”
The Great Goat Bubble, Gough’s first theatrical venture, is in keeping with this ethos. The play, which opens at Galway Arts Festival on July 16th, is conventional in form, consisting of a dialogue between Jude (Ciarán O’Brien) – the orphaned naif who features in much of Gough’s work – and Dr Ibrahimbihi (Wil Johnson), a Somali economist who has just arrived in the Ireland of the mid-1980s.
As they sit on a station platform awaiting a much-delayed train, Ibrahimbihi tells Jude how he drove his three-legged goat on to the runway at Hargeisa airport, in his homeland, an action that saw him compensated with double the price of the deceased animal, in short order triggering the speculative frenzy of the title. In drawing together the unusual combination of goats and economics, Gough comes up with an arresting comic scenario but also manages to entertainingly elucidate normally opaque subjects such as market bubbles and hedge funds: hardly surprising, as the play started life as a prescient short story for the Financial Times in 2003, before becoming a BBC radio play in 2009.
“It’s been growing like a crystal, or a fungus, depending on your point of view,” says Gough, who feels the play’s evolution lends it the right balance of levity and heft. “This is very Reithian, but I really wanted the play to be entertaining and funny and about something that’s important.” By his own admission, Gough’s fondness for incongruous juxtapositions has deep roots. “My life collided together two things that explode when you bang them together.”
Born to Irish parents in London in 1966, Gough moved, at the age of seven, with his family to rural Co Tipperary, where his English accent made him a target for both teachers and pupils throughout his school years.
“It was just relentless,” he says. “And, very early on, you have to make a decision. Am I going to get into fights every single day here or am I going to change to fit in? And I felt I hadn’t done anything wrong – I probably had an overdeveloped sense of justice. So I didn’t change my accent, I didn’t change anything.”
Gough eventually left Tipperary to study in Galway, but the contrarian personality shaped by his school experiences was more difficult to shake. “It totally formed me – psychologically, I’m tediously easy to explain,” he says. “It made me a complete arsehole for years after, because I built incredibly strong defences to make sure nobody changed me.
“And those defences become inappropriate as you get older and go out into the world. I was still incredibly spiky. If anyone puts me under any pressure to do anything, I will ostentatiously do the opposite. So I was a nightmare for a period. During the Toasted Heretic years I was such a pain in the arse.”
Gough’s ostentatious stage persona and literate yet confrontational lyrics were by far the most memorable aspects of the band he fronted between 1985 and 1992. But he could not make up for his group’s somewhat generic indie sound; indeed, his antics probably ensured they never got beyond cult status.
“Right to the end of the band I didn’t see why any of these songs couldn’t be massive. But I think, because I was such a prick, it made it harder for the band – in some ways I was the problem.”
All the while Gough had been nurturing his long-held ambition to be a writer, penning two “practice novels” while still in the band. He eventually published his first book, Juno and Juliet, in 2001. But it was with his acclaimed 2007 novel, Jude Level 1, that he really found his voice, as he spun a picaresque tale of a lovelorn orphan whose misadventures include, among other things, the addition of a priapic nasal appendage after facial surgery.
“Jude, c’est moi. He grew up in Tipperary, he moves to Galway, he leaves; it’s totally autobiographical,” says Gough (whose nose looks thankfully normal). “The villain is a bribing Fianna Fáil property developer, buildings are getting knocked down and redeveloped and it’s all starting to go horribly wrong. Yet when that came out, in 2007, it was viewed as a totally frivolous concept.”
If the serious undercurrent of his fiction – which includes last year’s Jude in London – has often gone unnoticed, the same cannot be said for Gough himself, who has shown a flair for attention-grabbing gestures, not least his 2010 article about the timidity of his fellow Irish authors, which sparked a wider media debate. Notwithstanding his strong feelings on such matters, he concedes self-publicity plays a part.
“It’s about 50-50,” he says. “I like a bit of a row. Given the amount of conflict I had in primary school, this is a breeze. I don’t really mind if a few critics don’t like me or the Arts Council curse me under their breath. Who gives a f***? They’re not going to stab me. And I quite enjoy it at times; it’s invigorating. It’s nice not to be afraid and say exactly what you think, even if it might get you into a bit of trouble.”
Such confrontations, however, have not increased Gough’s marketability. A full-time writer working a niche furrow, he has never been financially secure. “I’ve been evicted.Sometimes we run out of money. But generally something comes in just before we go under,” he says. “Whether it’s a vice or a virtue, I do what I want and not what other people want me to, and I don’t care how much that costs.”
These days Gough lives in the cheap, artistically empathetic environs of Berlin with his wife and young daughter. But, as The Great Goat Bubble suggests, Ireland remains at the centre of his attentions. Gough will be ruffling feathers here for some time yet.
“You can’t escape Ireland,” he says. “But I think it’s useful to be quite far away, for different reasons. You can get better perspective if you stand far enough back. But another reason is you’re more fearless if you’re not going to bump into everyone the next morning. It’s a very small country and it’s difficult to tell the truth from inside the village.”
The Great Goat Bubble, produced by Galway Arts Festival and Fishamble: The New Play Company, opens at Druid theatre, Galway, on July 16th www.galwayartsfestival.com