I meet Roddy Doyle in Penguin’s offices on Nassau Street, partly because he wants an excuse to walk around the city centre. Then we somehow end up chatting about songwriters – Luke Kelly, Bob Dylan, Randy Newman – and how narrative songs are often misunderstood as autobiographical songs.
“I think it was a big shock when Randy Newman used to walk on stage because he’s f**king huge,” says Doyle. “Audiences assumed from Short People that he was tiny. I’ve been getting that for 30 years. [After The Commitments] ‘Were you in a band?’ No . . . The only one I don’t think I was ever asked was: ‘Were you ever pregnant?’ after The Snapper.”
Of course, real life does leak into his fiction, as it did with Love, Doyle’s beautiful new novel about marriage, ailing parents and fractured friendships. “I started this book when my mother fell ill about three years ago,” he says. “And I’d put it aside, because myself and my siblings were trying to look after her . . . And at the same time, I found out that a friend of mine had a tumour and that his days were numbered.”
His mother died in March 2018. “I was a couple of months short of my 60th birthday, but I’d become an orphan. It does change things. There’s no one above you anymore. And the last vestige of the little boy running home to show [his parents] something is gone . . . I mean, I’d never have been running down to Kilbarrack to tell my mother things, but I think almost in the abstract sense, now there’s no one there.”
Now and again, you feel a bit younger than you actually are
Is writing cathartic? “Coming to the end of a piece of work is great. When I wrote the Two Pints play . . . the chronology of that and the rhythm of that was inspired by my father’s spell in Beaumont and dying there. And I remember thinking, when I finished it: ‘He’d like this.’ So to that extent, it was cathartic.”
Did his father usually like his writing? “I know that the last book he read, or reread, was A Star Called Henry,” he says. “And he couldn’t read much after that. He loved that book. And he loved the fact that I was doing this. He was a printer and he taught printing and worked for AnCo, which became Fás. He had to leave school at 15 to take up the apprenticeship . . . I think he’d have been happier staying in school, but it wasn’t an option . . . He went to the College of Art in the evenings. He still painted, particularly after he retired.
“He was an avid reader. I remember seeing him reading a Graham Greene omnibus when I was a teenager . . . He came to the end of one novel, and he didn’t even pause for breath, he just flicked the page to start the second one. He didn’t stop to say: ‘Oh that was good’ or look up to see what was on the news.”
Doyle says he wanted to be a writer as soon as he realised books had writers. After he became a secondary school teacher, he started in earnest. One summer he rented a bedsit in north London for the duration of the holidays and worked on his unpublished first novel, Your Granny’s a Hunger Striker. “Nothing’s unpublishable but if you could slap an embargo on it for aesthetic reasons . . .”
What was wrong with it? “It was just sh*te.”
He knew it was sh*te, he says, because when he started writing The Commitments he knew that was good. But he believes the experience of writing that first book while holding down a fulltime job was good for him. “I’d pushed aside a lot of mythology that says you have to devote your entire existence to writing . . . I remember seeing John Heard playing Kerouac and there he was leaning against a wall of a toilet, writing on toilet paper . . . It didn’t include the fact that he then went back to his mother’s house to put the book together.”
Doyle wrote in copybooks then. “I deliberately started writing on every third line, so there’d be two lines empty and I could go back the next day and start adding . . . I was kind of cutting and pasting. Quite recently, I went to one of Charles Dickens’s houses in north London, a little museum, and there’s a manuscript of one of the novels there and he literally cut out chunks and pasted them on top of pages.”
Love is about two friends, Davy and Joe, both of whom are going through life-changing events, as they talk over an increasingly drunken evening. “They’re pared down to the essentials . . . What I was trying to do was to haul them back to an earlier stage, 30-odd years or more . . . Davy takes on the Dublin accent again, and they become younger, wizened versions of the lads they used to be.”
Does that happen when he meets his older friends? “Recently, I met a friend for a cup of coffee in St. Anne’s [Park] and I bought a naggin of brandy because we used to drink in St Anne’s, and we both felt a little bit giddy,” he says. “I was feeling a bit like I’d been mitching school and that I was going to have to think of some sort of excuse by the time I got home . . . So now and again, you feel a bit younger than you actually are.”
There’s an almost elegiac section in Love about Dublin pubs that seems particularly resonant now that they’re all closed. Doyle feels the loss of them. While watching Kilbarrack United playing recently, he spoke with an older man he knew. “He said: ‘I don’t miss the drink but I miss the bullshit.’ It’s the slagging.”
What does he think that that slagging signifies? “It’s love,” he says. “Slagging is virtually always very affectionate . . . the retention of nicknames, things like that . . . It’s love. There’s no doubt about it.”
I was the sermon. It’s hard to imagine now . . . I was undermining the family
Doyle’s work has a tendency to reflect society at the time it’s written. This is important to him, though he doesn’t think it’s something “all writers should be burdened with”, he says. “ I do try to hear a little bit of Joe Duffy. Because the voices are often really great, regardless of what’s being spoken about . . . The attitudes towards the students in Galway, the notion of calling in the Army or the fire brigade . . . I love the idea of the lads getting the order to go down to the Spanish Arch and spray students.”
Does he get angry about politics? “I calibrate it a little bit because the awareness that we live in a small country sunk home recently,” he says. “When you hear a GP in Lifford pointing to three social events that caused the spike in Donegal, you realise you can’t be angry in the abstract way that perhaps you could in the United States. You’re talking about people who live around the corner. I would have shared the kind of outrage, almost despair, a lot of people would have had about Golfgate . . . but I know one of them gets the 130 bus.
“And you think: ‘Would I go up to him and shout in his face?’ No, I wouldn’t ever. So it’s not that one forgives them, but you’re constantly aware that they’re individuals, that they’re human.”
He’s also conscious that Ireland is a kinder place now, that the recent referendums and a new generation of politically active young people have changed things. When Family, the BBC/RTÉ television programme he wrote, aired in 1994, so shocked were some by its frank depiction of domestic violence and family breakdown that he was denounced from the pulpit.
There was one that was just a photograph of me with the word ‘dead’ across my forehead
“I was in a pub in Raheny village. Myself and a few friends had watched the FA Cup final in May 1994. Chelsea were hammered. And there was Mass across the road, and by the time people had come out of Mass I was a bit hammered too. Someone saw me and said: ‘The priest was giving out about you.’ I was the sermon. It’s hard to imagine now . . . I was undermining the family. I was undermining society, the Catholic Church.”
He even received death threats. “There was one that was just a photograph of me with the word ‘dead’ across my forehead . . . I was a bit numb to it really. Funnily enough , it worries me more now than it did at the time . . . If it happened now I’d immediately go down to the Clontarf guards. But back then I just binned it.”
And yet, Doyle has never become the kind of public intellectual man of letters who turns up giving his views on radio panels. His views are better expressed in his work, he says. “I don’t see any reason whatsoever to go on the radio or on the telly. ‘Famous man goes on the radio to say something is bad.’” He laughs.
Does he worry he might lose touch? “When I gave up teaching I thought: ‘Am I doing the right thing here? Am I cutting myself away from day-to-day living?’ But as we get older you’re cut off from things, quite rightly . . . The last time I was at the Electric Picnic I realised I’ve reached a point where [even] the nostalgic aspect was lost on me, because most of the acts I want to see are dead.”
Everything [in Ireland] was shut . . . and there was a stag party going on in the hotel downstairs - 40 men from Belfast, all wearing Hawaii Five-0 shirts
Though the details of Doyle’s writing day were unaffected by lockdown, many of his plans were put on hold. Love was originally meant to be published in May. A new play was postponed, as were extensive tours of Two Pints and the Commitments musical. Meanwhile, a novel he was writing set in “the present day” was rendered untenable by an ever-changing lockdown “present day”.
“There was a spell when I’d go for my permitted two-kilometre walk along the seafront when I really felt I was walking into darkness, looking at people doing the slalom . . . trying to stay the two metres apart . . . I’d think: ‘What am I going to do? Will I go home and try to work and think of things to do?’”
He began writing short stories. He’s just finished writing one, he tells me, about a nurse sitting in her kitchen contemplating the fact that she’s just heard the zip of a body-bag for the first time. A forthcoming story in the New Yorker was inspired by being in the UK when the first lockdown was announced. “I was looking at the Irish Times website and everything [in Ireland] was shut . . . and there was a stag party going on in the hotel downstairs - 40 men from Belfast, all wearing Hawaii Five-0 shirts, drinking cocktails out of pint glasses, going absolutely berserk.”
He’s also started a new novel and a television treatment and has been pleased to see his excellent creative writing charity, Fighting Words, working away online throughout the pandemic. Events have also given him some political optimism. “The private hospitals suddenly became public, places were found for homeless people, and [they were] interfering with the landlords’ right to put up the rent,” he says. “All this stuff they said can’t be done, it was done.
“And I think the response to the Leaving Cert results exposes the whole notion that there’s a sector of our society that thinks they own the Leaving Cert . . . the idea you can buy the Leaving Cert, that you go to a private school and you’re entitled to it. And again on the news, there’s another young woman from a school in Ballyfermot, I think, and she’s got the points to go to Trinity. And the joy. She didn’t feel entitled and was taken aback that she was going . . . I think if one good thing comes out of this, it would be dismantlement of the Leaving Cert.”
He talks about how relatively impressive our last government seemed in the early days of the pandemic. “And just when you’re thinking, ‘Ah they’re not so bad’, Golfgate happens. And you realise that Dara Calleary throwing the wobbler because he didn’t get the [Agriculture] ministry, what’s it all about? It’s all about the car and driving up to events like that, swinging your mickey basically. Some things don’t change.”
So “famous man says something is bad”, is my headline? He laughs. “Yeah.”
Love by Roddy Doyle is published by Jonathan Cape on October 15th. His short story about a nurse sitting in her kitchen will be published in The Irish Times on Saturday, October 24th