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Amnesiac: A Memoir by Neil Jordan - zippy, valuable and suitably odd

Meandering recollections and thoughts from the film-maker who, along with Jim Sheridan, became a John the Baptist for the cultural revolution that would overtake Ireland from the mid-1990s

Neil Jordan made art for an Ireland that didn’t yet exist. Photograph Nick Bradshaw for The Irish Times
Amnesiac: A Memoir
Amnesiac: A Memoir
Author: Neil Jordan
ISBN-13: 978-1804549957
Publisher: Apollo
Guideline Price: £25

“Maybe I have no reason to write this story,” Neil Jordan muses early on. “I wasn’t raped, abandoned, sent to a reformatory, abused by relatives unknown.”

That’s true enough. It nonetheless says something about Ireland at the middle of the last century that so many of the old discontents still creep into even a relatively happy memoir. The future film-maker was “beaten by priests with long straps”. A persistent paedophile – announcing himself with a keening “Ne-el” – pursued him for some years. John McGahern, who briefly taught the young Jordan, was, the author explains, dismissed from that post not for writing controversial novels, but for “marrying a Scandinavian divorcee”. On it goes.

There is reason beyond those familiar miseries to write the story. Amnesiac (a well-chosen title, as we shall see) is, in part, a record of how Jordan, along with others of his generation, made art for an Ireland that didn’t yet exist and, in so doing, helped reify that notional state. Not that he would be so pompous.

This is not a comprehensive anatomisation of the career in the style of Michael Powell’s My Life in Movies. Amnesiac is closer to the zippier Adventures of a Suburban Boy by his friend and mentor John Boorman. It begins with an eccentric shuffle through early life in Sligo and Dublin. We get opening experiments with Jim Sheridan at the Project Arts Centre. Acclaim as an author. Then unlikely success with Angel (1982) – from a time when “Irish people didn’t make movies” – and on to experiences in Hollywood.


Those later sections read more like a conventional showbiz memoir, but, even there, Jordan is at home to screwball flourishes. His unhappy experiences with the 1988 comedy High Spirits come together in three pages of rhyming couplets. (“You threaten to, if things get worse/ go back to writing awful verse.”) A test screening of the equally uncelebrated We’re No Angels is concealed within a rambling vignette of LA life.

All characteristically playful. Jordan is, however, at his most Jordanesque in the sections describing experiences before success claimed him. The prose echoes his speaking style. As in person, he constantly asks the listener questions. “Cycle from Sligo? Surely, I’ve got that wrong.” The reader exchanges seats with the author as we shift from first to second person. Doubt creeps in. Bob Dylan is playing at the Adelphi. A few pages later he is playing at the Carlton. The book is infused with unease at the shuttered capital, but also with affection for its grey mysteries.

There are controversies from the early years that, even now, cause old sparring partners to reach for the Basildon Bond. Jordan is cautious here. Following a brief description of one early professional disappointment, he writes: “I won’t go into the subsequent debacle, which would be repeated many years later, with the Donald Trump of Irish dramatic production.” Most readers will have no idea what he is talking about. Insiders will feel smug at identifying potential candidates for the unwelcome comparison.

He is equally delicate in addressing the furore that surrounded the financing of Angel, his debut feature. “The news gave rise to the kind of uproar that had ensued when JM Synge used the word ‘shift’ on the stage of the Abbey Theatre,” he writes. Space precludes even a summary of objections to the nascent Irish Film Board part-financing the project – the fact Jordan was “a writer, not a director” mattered ­– but the memoirist, noting how much opprobrium fell on Boorman, first chairman of the board, admits he “felt a fair amount of guilt”.

At any rate, the rough-hewn thriller, starring Stephen Rea as a musician who witnesses a murder, was a critical hit and propelled him towards larger projects such as The Company of Wolves, Mona Lisa and The Crying Game. Along with Sheridan, he became a John the Baptist for the cultural revolution that was to overtake Ireland from the mid-1990s.

Neil Jordan: ‘I couldn’t make The Crying Game today’Opens in new window ]

Though the later stages of Amnesiac have less of the spoken-word Jordan – the sense of a man rubbing hand through hair and staring absent-mindedly at a smudge on the ceiling – his gift for a saloon-bar anecdote is present throughout. One day, at home in Bray, a daughter tells him that “Stanley Cooper” has been on the phone. This turns out to be Stanley Kubrick, and a peculiar, asymmetric relationship develops over the succeeding decade. Jordan devotes several chapters to “Movies I Haven’t Made”. Alas, we will never see the version of King Lear he wanted to shoot with Marlon Brando.

Those in search of scandalous pull-quotes will be disappointed. Jordan has always been frank about his disdain for Harvey Weinstein, who distributed The Crying Game in the US, and declined to thank him when winning the Oscar for best original screenplay in 1993. “What I basically felt was he should have been tried for theft, long before,” he says of the mogul’s conviction for sex crimes. No shock there.

The book is more valuable for the originality of the author’s tastes and judgments. “I was confused by Princess Anne,” he says in a chapter on bridges. “I found her sexually attractive and couldn’t work out why.” Fair enough. When we eventually get to Michael Collins, his 1996 epic on that lost leader, he is happy to speculate on how history might have differed if the Corkman had survived, expressing enthusiasm for a notion the “smaller island” would have stood with the “larger” in the second World War.

By the time that film arrived, Jordan, an Oscar on the shelf, was already ornament to a nation he had helped change. He notes that lines from the film are now quoted at official events as if they emerged from Collins’s own mouth. The film briefly became the highest grossing ever at the Irish box office. Amnesiac reveals a man less changed by the experience than a more conventional thinker might have been.

Written in short chapters, each of which pretends to a theme, Amnesiac captures that persistent personality in both content and form: odd, meandering, uncertain, a bit messy. There was reason to write it.

Donald Clarke

Donald Clarke

Donald Clarke, a contributor to The Irish Times, is Chief Film Correspondent and a regular columnist