An Irishman's Diary

 

THE RECENT Diary by Frank McNally on the late George D Hodnett, composer of the ballad Monto, brought back memories of the talented and colourful eccentric who was this newspaper’s jazz critic for many years.

A true bohemian, “Hoddy” liked to sleep overnight in this newspaper’s offices, then located in D’Olier Street, or wherever else he happened to be when the shades of night came down.

It was part of office folklore that our legendary editor, Douglas Gageby, once received a call from an artistic location in Belfast in this regard. The conversation went something like this: Concerned Belfast Caller: “There’s a Mr Hodnett from your paper who is proposing to sleep overnight on our premises.” DG: “Hmm, I see.” CBC: “Yes, he says that’s what he does wherever he goes, and that he sleeps at your newspaper most nights.” A pause. DG: “That’s right.” (Hangs up receiver.)

Mister Gageby, as we always addressed him, was an immensely capable man, but even he knew there were some situations he could not deal with and, though normally courteous and correct, it is quite understandable that he chose to put down the phone.

“Hoddy”, as he was affectionately known, was a man of set habits, fixed ideas and great determination and, if he wanted to sleep backstage in Belfast, that’s what he was going to do. Hopefully the Belfast caller came to the same conclusion in short order.

It was the present writer’s sad task to write Hoddy’s obituary for this newspaper when he died in 1990. He came from a well-known legal family in Co Cork and his father, Col George P Hodnett, was deputy judge advocate-general of the Defence Forces after independence.

George attended the Catholic University School in Dublin’s Leeson Street and, given the family background, he was inevitably sent to study law at Trinity College Dublin.

The Dublin musical and theatrical scene lured him away, however, and he never finished his legal studies. A talented composer and musician, he played jazz piano, trumpet and, of all things, zither.

Perhaps he learnt to play it from his Swiss-born mother, Lauré. The instrument became briefly fashionable thanks to the Orson Welles movie, The Third Manand, at the time, George was probably the only zither-player in the country.

Montowas meant to be a satire of traditional Dubballin songs in the rare aul’ times but, rather like The Fields of Athenry, it was so well done that it came to be seen as more authentic than the original: the sculpture took on greater life than the model.

Hoddy was deeply involved with the activities of the little Pike Theatre on Herbert Lane, with Alan Simpson and Carolyn Swift, and the latter wrote after his death of how George would “play a tune that set toes a-tapping and bring delighted cries from the assembled cast of whatever late-night, intimate revue was in preparation”.

But he lacked the patience and self-discipline to be a piano accompanist, preferring, like the jazz-player he was, to add flourishes and variations of his own. This made life difficult for the cast and Swift wrote of how it would bring “indignant shouts from Milo O’Shea, whose tap routine or comic timing would be thrown by the changes of tempo”.

He had a wide array of interests, ranging from Georgian architecture to the Cornish language. His strong conservationist views led him to take part in a protest occupation at Hume Street in 1970 and he was taken to hospital with injuries received when the occupiers were forcibly removed.

He also had a passion for collecting, whether it was memorabilia of the first World War, miniature editions of Shakespeare, or old newspapers. There was a theory that the reason he slept in the office was because so many items were hoarded in his normal place of residence that there was literally no room to sleep!

Hoddy was part of the milieu that congregated around “The Catacombs” in Fizwilliam Street which included such figures as playwright Brendan Behan and Gainor Crist, on whom the hero of JP Donleavy’s banned novel, The Ginger Man,was based. But I was told that, due to a failed love affair, there were certain “angst areas” of the city that Hoddy would always circumvent because they brought back too many painful memories.

If he were still with us, Hoddy would have much to say, doubtless in ballad form, about the state we are in, not least the depredations of the developer class. Indeed I recall how he felt that, in the context of the Irish property market, “develop” was an Orwellian contradiction in terms and that it should be used as a substitute for certain four-letter words in popular use.

Sadly, George D Hodnett is not here to brighten up our recession, but he and others who contributed in different ways to this newspaper, whether as writers, reporters, sub-editors, printers, advertising or other staff throughout the years will all be recalled and honoured in an interdenominational memorial service at the Unitarian Church, St Stephen’s Green, on Saturday June 11th at 11am.

The lives of Hoddy and all our deceased colleagues will be celebrated in music, poetry, song and reminiscences for an hour or so, following which we shall adjourn in the time-honoured fashion to a nearby hostelry to toast their memories. All are welcome, most especially the relatives and friends of those who have gone before us but who helped in their different ways to give this newspaper the high standing that it has attained.