1980s Ireland: a sad, fallen place where I found my inspiration

Danny Denton, author of ‘The Earlie King & The Kid In Yellow’, writes of an Ireland of dereliction and a young boy

Danny Denton,  author of The Earlie King & the Kid in Yellow (Granta Books)

Danny Denton, author of The Earlie King & the Kid in Yellow (Granta Books)


EL Doctorow said that writing was like driving at night in the fog and I agree.

In fact it’s a dark, unfamiliar road in thick fog: the headlights give you something of the next few yards – snatches of trees, a gateway – and sometimes you get a glimpse of something significant down the line, house lights on a distant hill maybe, but in the passing of moments you are always unsure, always ready for anything to happen.

In that way, parts of The Earlie King & The Kid In Yellow came to me as revelations out of the murk; parts of it were vaguely signposted.

I knew for a while, for example, that I wanted my next project to take place amid rain and dereliction, in a fallen or a falling world. Rutger Hauer once said that the saturated world of Blade Runner was so startling because it depicted the future as “already old”. Hearing that, it struck me that this would be true of any real future. Any present even.

I need not look forward for 'dystopia' I realised, but backward, and so Ireland’s past began to infiltrate the atmosphere

In any city I’ve lived in there has been dereliction – in and of itself a vision in miniature of the world ruined – and any future would be populated by such ruin. Thus, in discovering my fallen/falling Ireland, I knew dereliction would be a key thematic idea. Then, a ways into the writing of this thing, I came across a particular book and it was as if, on my dark, foggy drive, I’d suddenly entered a streetlight-swamped town.

Down Down Deeper and Down by Eamon Sweeney is a fascinating account of the 1970s and 1980s in Ireland, which opened my eyes as to what a weird, sad, fallen place Ireland was in that time. Tens of thousands amassed to see moving statues; the guards had a reputation for brutality; Ann Lovett died alone in a grotto; crime was a surging tide; there were endless strikes; heroin began to destroy the capital; bombs went off; flats crumbled; hostages were taken; rubbish piled up in the streets; journalists were bugged and corruption was rife; the Kerry Babies tribunal was, in effect, a witch trial . . . Reading Sweeney’s volume, I both marvelled and was horrified that such an Ireland could exist. I need not look forward for “dystopia” I realised, but backward, and so Ireland’s past began to infiltrate the atmosphere, backdrop, political turmoil and spiritual conflict of my own collapsing version of the country.

Take a Break

But, of course, this world I was building needed a story, and that story was one of the things that came suddenly out of the mist, like a barn owl or a crossroads. One day, in a doctor’s waiting room (or perhaps a dentist’s), I was staring vacantly about when my eyes came to focus on a Take A Break magazine cover. The image was of a young, pale, shaven-headed boy, and the headline said something like “A Dad At Twelve”. Well, for some reason, I couldn’t get that image and notion out of my head for weeks, of being a father when you yourself were still a child. Then I began trying to write it out of myself; it has now been with me for years.

I wrote about this boy as if from a wilderness in me, running down several roads at once; the manuscript (a hardback A4 notebook, the first of several) was soon drenched in image and song and myth and dereliction; somehow, a rainy tale was born on the page, built over fictional decades. In trying to make sense of this boy’s story, it became a book about how we build stories and how we tell them, and how they shift and morph over time and become mythic.

I felt that significant incidents in most cultures later re-surface in various forms: historical, poetic, fictional, oral, so when I was interrogating the story of this kid (now in yellow), I came to realise that the “narrative” (for want of a less prescriptive word) might be similarly fragmented. The simple fact of a 13-year-old boy (see what’s already happened) becoming a father and then stealing the child might become mythologised through decades of re-telling, in various versions and styles.

A reporter might try to report the facts in an article, but find that only a novel would do. That novel might falter, so maybe he’d try a play instead. Poems might be misremembered and altered by consecutive performers. A policeman might carry his remembrance of events around with him his whole life, telling anyone who’ll listen, and telling it different each time. Thus, I found myself reaching for various forms, written, spoken, seen, heard, the story itself growing arms and legs and tendrils, giving itself new names. This is how the fact of an image became a myth.

And if “story” (be it journalism, memoir, poetry, fiction, chat, therapy, weather talk or whatever else) is our way of processing the things that happen to us and the things we do, then clearly it is through storytelling we share knowledge, recover from trauma, survive, thrive, re-build, testify. I’m endlessly interested in figuring out what the source of that is, and how it develops. And if this novel is to be read as a dystopia then maybe one idea is that as long as we have story there might be hope in a fallen world, and, by extension, love and meaning might persist.

Reading as collaboration

But there is having a story – a tale told – and there is having a book.

The book is, for me, a collaborative thing, and I don’t think authors admit this enough. It is our book, not my book, because it takes the hearts, minds, passions and beliefs of many to make it a real thing. I listened to countless voices in the world, and saw myriad images, and I tried to compile those notions and sensations into a work that said something about the world.

Two or three trusted readers (and friends) helped me to make sense and story of early drafts. Lucy Luck (my agent) helped me to improve the thing again, and to give it the best possible start. At Granta, Max Porter’s belief and expertise in the craft of writing gave the manuscript its final notional shape (and so much more, from very early on). Together, we dreamed of what it could finally be. Then Christine Lo, Sarah Wasley, Stephen Guise, Kate Shearman and others stress-tested the lines, notions and typographical conundrums that the book presented. Typesetter Lindsay Nash splashed rain and font across the pages. Dan Stiles gave it a striking, immediately iconic face, one that illuminated the book’s spirit. Lamorna Elmer, Katie Hayward and Natalie Shaw championed this newborn; like missionaries they spread the word relentlessly. Then, Kevin Martin and his team at the CPI factory pressed ink to paper, glued cover to spine, and birthed a book amid the roar and run of the presses and conveyors. The dream became a thing, and so I thank these people again, and all the book people not acknowledged enough. A volume composed of the many-hearted world was borne again into the world, not unlike the myriad droplets of condensation lifted from oceans and rooftops to the clouds and born again as rain.

But the collaborative act of a book is not complete until it is read.

Readers-no matter our aptitudes or workloads-complete the books we read. A book lives with you for a while. It might reveal itself to you in the immediacy of reading, or it might lie dormant on your shelf or in your mind a while. But, by engaging, you bring the ideas and stories and feelings back to their rightful home: the world at large, and our shared story within it.

Thanks and salutations to all who collaborated on this book – most of all to you, the reader, whose faith in story keeps the world turning.

Danny Denton is the author of The Earlie King & the Kid in Yellow (Granta Books)

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