My first thought when Gordon D’Arcy asked me to do a kid's book: how do I get out of this?
The children’s book by D’Arcy and Howard is a boy’s own story, a kind of abridged version of the rugby player’s career
Gordon D’Arcy and Paul Howard with Gordon’s Game, their new children’s book. Photograph: Alan Betson
It started in a titty bar. Yes, well, there you have it. Welcome to your Saturday morning.
Apologies, obviously. Not the usual intro to a piece about a kids’ book, granted, but there really is no other way to begin. The relationship between Gordon D’Arcy and Paul Howard started as an improvised joke about just such a venue of elastic virtue. Neither of them made it but everyone laughed all the same.
“There’s a scene in the very first Ross [O’Carroll-Kelly] play where Rory Keenan was playing Ronan,” says Howard. “We decided to use the box in the Olympia as part of the set because generally they’re not always used by the public. So the idea was that he’s in the box and Ross rings him and asks him where he is and Ronan replies, ‘I’m in a titty bar.’
“This particular night, Rory didn’t know that there was anyone in the box but when he got there, it turned out Gordon was in it. So Rory comes into the box and he’s about to do the scene when he realises, ‘shit, there’s someone in here.’ When his line comes and Ross asks him where he is, Rory went, ‘I’m in a titty bar with Gordon D’Arcy.’ And the whole place went up.”
Dublin being the sort of glorified village it is, the pair of them were bound to run into each other somewhere or other. And when they did, the gag – D’Arcy’s beet-red embarrassment at it and all – gave them an ice-breaker. That was over a decade ago, when D’Arcy was still the other half of Ireland’s greatest ever centre partnership and Howard was seven books into the Ross O’Carroll-Kelly series (which currently sits at 19 and counting). The through line from there to the publication of their first book together is dotted in places, solid in others.
“Genuinely, I have no interest in writing an autobiography,” says D’Arcy. “My philosophy on autobiographies has always been that the most interesting stuff about me is the controversial stuff and if you’re doing a book where you’re being completely honest about everything, you’re one person in a group of 30 people. And when 30 people look out a window, they see 30 different things. So I had no interest in ever writing that sort of book because I couldn’t do a fluffy one.
“But I was out walking with my sister one day and we were just chatting about kids and kids’ books and she said, ‘you should do a kids’ book.’ And literally the idea kicked on from there. I had a few ideas floating around my head, and when this one crystallised I reached out to Paul straight away and said ‘I have an idea, I’d love to share it with you’.”
This, of course, is a terrible thing to do to a writer. Christopher Hitchens is generally credited with the line that most people have a book inside them and that’s exactly where it should stay. Well, that goes double or triple for sportspeople. D’Arcy is the 14th member of the 2009 Grand Slam squad alone to put his name to a tome, so it wasn’t immediately clear to Howard what good it would do the world to be part of throwing another on the pile.
“When Gordon said he wanted to do a book, my first thought was, ‘how am I going to get out of this?’ I get asked to do a lot of sports autobiographies and, you know, I’m at a point where I’ve read pretty much all of the rugby autobiographies that have come out over the past decade and there’s a lot of crossover between them.
“Broadly speaking they’re the same book. Each player wants to highlight different aspects of it or settle different scores, but eventually they tell more or less the same story. So I was terrified that Gordon would want me to do his version of that.
“But then when he said, ‘I want to write my story but as a children’s book,’ that appealed to me. I just like things that are different. As far as I know this isn’t something that has been done before. I just thought it was a really interesting way of approaching it.”
The result is a boy’s own story, a kind of abridged version of D’Arcy’s career.
“Twenty-six years squeezed into a springtime,” as he puts it. The bones of it are all things that did actually happen; the flesh of it has been customised and retooled for a young audience.
Uncle Tim’s farm
The Ireland squad to which Gordon D’Arcy got called up to when he was a sixth-year in Clongowes had Eric Elwood and Conor O’Shea in it. In Gordon’s Game, it’s all ROG and BOD and Paulie and such like. It’s a deliberate breaking of the fourth wall, a tweak to keep the fantasy element alive.
“When I was a kid I used to spend a lot of time on my Uncle Tim’s farm,” D’Arcy says. “He’s a character in the book and all the farm stuff is based there. And I remember one summer when I was 10 or 11, he asked me had I my tractor licence yet. I immediately went: ‘Sorry, what? Tractor licence?’
“And that was it – I believed with all my heart there was a tractor licence that I could get. It didn’t matter that I wouldn’t be able to see over the steering wheel, he said that if I did a good week’s work for him I could get a tractor licence. He had me dangling the whole week for it.
“I remember being so, so annoyed when my mum went, on the quiet after a few days, ‘Gordon, that doesn’t exist.’ It was like I’d been stabbed in the heart. A whole two weeks of slaving away – he still cracks up about it now, saying ‘I’d never seen you work so hard.’ When you’re 11 you don’t apply logic, you don’t reason it out. As far as I was concerned this was going on the cards for me.
“But at that age, your mind runs wild. If you’re nine or 10 or 11 years old and you’re dreaming about playing rugby, you’re dreaming about playing with Johnny Sexton or probably now James Ryan or whoever. Or you’re dreaming of playing football with Messi. You don’t dream of your older self. You’re just there, you’re in it. That’s how kids dream. They don’t look for logic.”
Not that D’Arcy’s career ever ran along logical lines anyway. He was a childhood prodigy that didn’t make a mark until long after everyone else had grown up. He made his Ireland debut a few weeks after getting his Leaving Cert results but took another five years before he got his first start in a green jersey.
“My wife was reading it in bed the other night laughing and asking how much of it is true,” he says. “I told her most of it is cringingly, embarrassingly true.”
“This is the thing,” says Howard. “A book like this wouldn’t have worked for every player. Somebody like Johnny Sexton has had a career where his trajectory has been up all the way. Gordon’s story is different. He was called up to play for Ireland while he was still in school. We’ve exaggerated things a little bit in the book but essentially we’ve built it around facts. And one of those is that he was young, he was immature and he hadn’t a clue how to handle it.
“This was at a time when professionalism is just starting in Ireland. He was basically the first player to go straight from school to a professional rugby set-up. There was no guide book, there was no roadmap, nobody knew how to do it.
“And what was brilliant, and what made the book so exciting for me to do was that Gordon made all the mistakes. Basically so that in future years people like Johnny Sexton didn’t have to. He trod on every landmine.”
Above all, that’s the theme running through it. It’s not a telling of the story of Gordon D’Arcy, not really. Instead it’s a message to kids on the verge of adolescence, telling them they will make mistakes. The best did and look what happened.
“For me playing professional rugby, the start of it did not go well. Really, really did not go well. But then there was the learning part, and then there’s the successful part at the end. So what was that underpinned with? A really strong culture and really strong values. And that’s what I’ve taken from it – always learning from something, learning from failure, failing is not a bad thing.
“Having that perspective on it, there’s no point writing a kids’ book where the main character wants to play rugby, he starts playing, gets really good at it and then bang, his dreams come true and he wins the trophy. I couldn’t write that kind of book.
“If you knew me at 18 and you read all this stuff about me as a kid, you’d go, ‘ah, this makes a bit more sense.’ Always trying to please, my character as a person hadn’t built by that point. I was given all this responsibility and free rein, and I wasn’t able to handle it.
“You grow a little bit, you get a bit wiser, you don’t become perfect but you get to know yourself better. And all those things that happened, all that trying to get everyone to like you, you realise that actually you just have to be happy with yourself. And the people who will like you will like you. And the ones that don’t, you can’t control.”
Gordon’s Game by Gordon D’Arcy and Paul Howard is published by Penguin Ireland.