This month The Irish Times Book Club is reading Joseph O'Connor's latest novel, The Thrill of it All. Here is an extract from the first chapter, where Irish-born teenager Robbie Goulding remembers meeting the elusive Fran Mulvey, an orphaned Vietnamese refugee, for the first time while at college in 1980s Luton.
Let me tell of someone I first saw in October 1981 when both of us were aged 17. An exasperating and charming and fiercely intelligent boy, the finest companion imaginable in a day of idleness and disputation. His name was Francis Mulvey.
So many symphonies of inaccuracy have been trumpeted about Fran down the years that I find myself reluctant to add to the chatter. Unauthorised biographies, a feature-length documentary, profiles and fanzines and blog-sites and newsgroups. My daughter tells me there’s talk of a biopic movie with the Thai actor Kiatkamol Lata as Fran, but somehow I can’t see that working. She wonders who’d play her daddy. I tell her not to go there. Fran wouldn’t want me included in his story anymore. And he’s lawyered-up good, as I know to my cost.
These days my former glimmertwin is private, characterised by the media as a ‘reclusive songwriter and producer’, as though ‘recluse’ is a job description. You’ve seen the most recent photograph available -- it’s blurry and six years old. He’s with his children, attending the first Obama inauguration, sharing a joke with the First Lady. I barely recognise him. He looks trim, fit and prosperous, in a tux that cost more than my houseboat.
But the boy Fran, in his heart, was a demimonde figure, more comfortable in a second-hand blouse rummaged in a charity store in Luton, the town where the fates introduced us. I think of it as my only hometown, the place I grew up, but by literal definition we were immigrants. I was born in Dublin, the middle child of three. In 1972 - the year I turned nine - we moved to England following a family tragedy. I had happy times and tough ones. There was a lot of non-event, as we marched to our own little humdrum. I tend to divide my youth into before and after Fran. The former I recollect as a series of monochromes. Luton got colour when he came.
I'm told he no longer wears makeup, not even a dusting of rouge. When I first encountered Francis, in college in the '80s, he would pitch up for lectures sporting more lip-frost and blusher than Bianca Jagger at Studio 54.
I became aware of him during my first month at the Polytechnic. He would have been difficult to miss. One morning I saw him upstairs on the 25 bus, asking the loan of a compact-mirror from the unsmiling conductress, a Jamaican lady of about fifty who was not a believer in light-touch regulation when it came to Luton’s scholars. On supplying the mirror, she was then beseeched for a tissue, onto which he imprinted a lipstick kiss before handing both items back to her.
Who was this wraith? Whence had he come? My classmates traded theories about his birthplace. China was a candidate, as were Laos and Malaysia. Oddly, I don't remember anyone ever suggesting Vietnam, his long-departed actual motherland. What was certain was that he'd been adopted in South Yorkshire as a child, looked fabulous and didn't talk much. What Fran had wasn't confidence. It was a million miles from flounce. The closest I can come is 'dignity'. And you want to watch out when you've dignity in England because it can look like you're taking yourself seriously.
Our first conversation took place on the afternoon of Good Friday 1982, which fell on April 9th. The holy day tended to unleash a viral panic through the undergraduate body, for it was one of only two throughout the entire year when the student bar, The Trap, being administered by an observant Irish Catholic landlord, was closed. The unease would commence at the start of Easter Week, rising to full-blown hysteria as Spy Wednesday approached. There would be no drink. What would we do? By Holy Thursday night, you could have sodomised anyone in the college in return for a six-pack of Harp.
The form was to stockpile and repair to someone’s flat, in one of the many crumbling old houses partitioned into bedsits for students or the not-quite-destitute. There, the Zeppelin wailed and the wallpaper peeled as Christ’s tears spattered the windows. A nice girl studying Accountancy would end up weeping into the communal toilet on the landing, puking like a fruit machine, her hair held aloft by some monster out of Poe, his other paw working its way into her tights. Scholars in a wardrobe chewed at one another under damp coats. The corrugated kacks of the lessee or his cousin dried by an electric fire. Some wurzle would start a fisticuff and get kicked down the stairs, only to return, an hour later, eyes raging for forgiveness, the bottle of Blue Nun he’d stolen from the 24-hour minimart in the town his passport back into the pleasure-dome.
Rebel-yells, drunken gropes. Lachrymose talk. Backroom fingerings, declined lunges, Black Sabbath’s ‘Paranoid’, stale bread in the toaster at dawn. My Purgatory will be a thousand years of Good Friday, circa 1982, reeking of chips, old carpet, crushed sexual hopes and unlaundered nylon bed-sheets sprinkled with Brut aftershave by a student of Agricultural Science.
Such was the bleak lock-in at which I first exchanged words with Fran, emboldened by the pint of snakebite I’d pretended to enjoy. He was wearing a kilt, scarlet-lensed sunglasses and a polo-blouse in the colours of the Italian soccer club A.S. ROMA, the only sporting association he ever admitted to liking. I felt the slogan he’d embroidered - ‘Up the Romans’ - was either deliberately offensive or grossly tactless in the general context of Good Friday.
‘Fakkin queer,’ remarked a boy, later an adviser to New Labour, passing by. ‘In your dreams,’ Fran nipped back at him, toeing a cigarette out on the lino. With difficulty, I took a step forward.
‘I’m Robbie,’ I said.
He raised the crimson shades.
I suppose it isn’t possible that he didn’t blink for 90 seconds but that was the way things seemed. Then he reached into his sporran and tugged from it a naggin of transparent liquid, opened it without averting his gaze from my own, took a docker’s deep slug, wiped the rim on his cuff and offered it unsmilingly. I sipped. Gin-flavoured paint-stripper was now on the market. Who knew? I downed a belter.
The first sentence he ever slurred to me was in the Gaelic language, ‘Abair ach beagán agus abair go maith é’, a proverb known to every alumnus of the Irish Christian Brothers. ‘Speak but little and say it well.’ It was clever of him to address me thus, a twiching of his antennae. My answer, being in Gaelic, seemed to admit me to the nightclub. His watchfulness lowered one notch.
Well, then he switched to English, or his own version of that language. This party was ‘a droolery’, he averred. Our host was ‘a shitehawk’, the guests were ‘lottery spittle’; enduring them was ‘an emotional groin-strain’. The college we attended was ‘a nest of illiterates’, training ‘flunts’ to be ‘hirelings’ and ‘couch-jockeys’. Bombing it would increase the average IQ of the Bedfordshire hinterland by no insignificant percentage. Vivisection should be wrought upon most of its professors, but they lacked the properties of a lab-mouse so what would be the point? I was flummoxed by his accent, heavily Yorkshire tinged with Connaught. Fran sounded like the son of a Mayo-man, which in one sense he was, a fact I learned only later.
It was hard to conceal disquiet at his defamations of our lecturers. Dipsomania was imputed to some, impure practises to others. Professor X was ‘an eel-faced sadist,’ Dr Y ‘a klutz’, the Dean of Humanities ‘a piñata waiting to happen’. Father Z, the Catholic chaplain, was ‘cottage cheese on legs’, his curate ‘a midget on stilts’. Great was Fran’s ire for the triumvirate of elderly scholars helming the Department of Comparative Religion. A puddle-eyed, ignorant, self-spanking fop, a mule-eared turd and a monk-sucker. Their achievements in bastardry, sloth and betrayal had considerably exceeded their scholarship. The Writer in Residence was a ‘turtle-necked rat’, the Porter ‘a dug-up Troglodyte.’
Nothing of music was said by us that evening. We swapped clichés and inanities about the early novels of John Banville, to whose works Fran attributed significance. Anaïs Nin and Brendan Behan he mentioned with similar mercy, at least I think it was mercy, it might just have been drunkenness. Elias Canetti, the 1981 Nobel Laureate for literature, was 'passable, if you like being bored'. Jane Austen? 'No.' Dickens? 'A perv.' George Bernard Shaw? 'A peeved vicar.' Only one of the Brontës didn't make you want to kill yourself: Branwell, the piss-head brother. I must surely know the writings of Czeslaw Milosz? I didn't, but I said that I did. It was difficult, given my condition, even to say 'Czeslaw Milosz'. Try it next time you're soused.
If I'm honest, he struck me as a disappointment that evening, silly and a bit predictable and spoiling for a quarrel. 'Don't follow leaders,' Bob Dylan advises. But at 18, who wants advice? And come on, don't be judging me. When young, you were grandiose yourself from time to time. If you weren't, you loved someone who was. And it isn't as simple as the attraction of opposites, more a matter of half-glimpsed recognitions. Friendship is a Venn diagram, not an inhabiting of the same space, and the philosopher Montaigne had it right: 'If you press me to tell why I loved him, I can say very little. It was because he was he, and I was I.'
An Irish Times Book Club podcast of Joseph O'Connor in conversation will be recorded in front of a live audience in association with the Irish Writers Centre, Parnell Square, on September 2nd.