Waiting for Beckett – An Irishman’s Diary about Samuel Beckett’s lost journalism career
Samuel Beckett. Photograph: PA
It may not be one of the year’s major literary anniversaries, but I was nonetheless excited recently to learn that 80 years ago, for however brief a period, Samuel Beckett considered becoming a contributor to this column.
There it is in his collected letters, volume one, from a time when he is still in his early 20s and wandering Europe at a loose end. In correspondence with his friend Mary Manning Howe, he admits he has written nothing recently and has no plans. But his family are suggesting journalism: “Mother writes why don’t I contribute to the papers, I write at least as well as the Irishman Diarist. Frank writes what about the Lafcadio Hernia I was so full of before I left.”
Frank was his older brother, and the excellent pun there is on Lafcadio Hearn, the Irish-Greek Japanophile, whose writings the younger Beckett must have channelled for a while.
As for the “Irishman Diarist”, as he puts it, a footnote to the letters explains that this was RM Smyllie, by then the Irish Times editor, who had begun the column in 1927 and in the early years wrote most of it, “with paragraphs from [...] freelance sources”.
Beckett’s search for a vocation was not being helped at the time by his would-be publishers, who were prevaricating over the manuscript of the novel Murphy.
A reader from JM Dent & Sons had praised “the humour, the sophistication, the sense of structure, and the queer originality” of the book and suggested it would be a “mistake [to] let him go”. But the decision makers were hesitating on an investment in another uncommercial author.
As for the Irishman’s Diary, Lafcadio Hernias aside, the same letter hints at the breadth of material Beckett might have offered, ranging as it does from his attendance at a Schiller play to the recent discovery of a painful lump in an intimate area of his anatomy (“between wind and water”).
He also refers, tantalisingly, to something Manning Howe had written: “The Yeats joke is excellent. Publish it before he dies.”
Alas for Diary history, however, Beckett did not act on his mother’s prompt. Murphy was published in 1938.
Thereafter, instead of becoming a journalist, Beckett was on a slippery slope that led to a Nobel Prize and literary immortality. What a waste.
Among the many aspects of this tragedy is that we would never hear the Yeats joke.
According to the letters’ editors, the content of Manning Hawe’s original missive is “not known”.
Speaking of anniversaries, the aforementioned reference to Smyllie suggests that, in its various formats, the Irishman’s Diary is now 90 years old, although the earliest sample I can find in our digital archive is from February 10th, 1928.
That day’s offering was a very eclectic collection of items, one of which suggests everyday life in Dublin then was much more colourful than today. Whether it was Smyllie writing, or one of his contributors, I don’t know. But whoever it was didn’t have to go far from the office to witness “inside an hour” the following string of incidents:
“First of all, a mad heifer ran amok and was shot on O’Connell Bridge after an exciting struggle and several reckless bids at escape, during one of which I had to jump in a tramcar for safety. Then a collision occurred a few yards away in Westmoreland Street between a motor car and a tramcar. [And then,] to put the cap on everything, three boys of about eight or nine years of age, perched like midgets on top of three great saddle-less horses, came charging down Westmoreland Street”.
The area around The Irish Times is sedate by comparison these days, although the return of tram tracks to College Green now promises an upsurge in dramatic incidents involving bicycles, at least.
Anyway, Beckett or no Beckett, this column soldiered on through eight subsequent decades, seeing many changes, including the first, earth-shattering appearance over it of the words “Irishwoman’s Diary” in 1949.
And when, 30 years after that, Beckett made a notable appearance elsewhere in these pages, it was as a famous interviewee for another female journalist, Maeve Binchy.
The occasion prompted him to nostalgia about the Smyllie era: “My memory of him was that he ran his newspaper from the pubs and that there were circles around him, listening to what he wanted to do and running away to do it”.
But of course that has all changed in 80 years. Editorial conferences are invariably held in the office now.
Only the Irishman’s Diarist is still expected to hang around in pubs.