Saturday 23 September 2017

Heart of the conflict - how Rowan Somerville ditched MTV for writing

Rowan Somerville's new book tells the story of the heart transplant that became a prism for the Israel-Palestine conflict. Hilary A White talks to the author about why he ditched his rock'n'roll years in MTV for writing, friend Paula Yates' death and his infamous 'bad sex' gong

Author Rowan Somerville will be at the Dalkey Book Festival. Photo: Gerry Mooney
Author Rowan Somerville will be at the Dalkey Book Festival. Photo: Gerry Mooney

The bio accompanying the press release for Rowan Somerville's new title makes for bemusing reading, a breezy jog through working with Paula Yates, becoming head of programming at MTV Europe, writing his debut novel with Gillian Anderson's help and winning the 2010 Literary Review Bad Sex in Fiction award.

All these paled into insignificance when he found himself in the West Bank with the father of a suicide bomber responsible for ending 21 young lives at Tel Aviv's Dolphinarium nightclub in 2001. It makes for an excruciatingly tense passage of Beat, Somerville's standout new non-fiction book.

"There was anger but there was also a father who'd lost a son," Somerville recalls. "He was going crazy. I was nervous - I didn't have a newspaper behind me or anyone looking out for me. I wanted to know how you make someone into a suicide bomber, what's the process. When I wanted the translator to ask this, he refused. I was naïve."

Naïvety, curiosity and determination can feel like relatives. The rigour of Somerville's decade-long research into the bombing, its extraordinary aftermath and the venomous backdrop of Israel-Palestine have resulted in a book of huge scope and insight. It will engross, enlighten and challenge anyone with even a passing interest in this emotive subject.

"I went to Israel with an open mind and then realised I was actually a bit anti-Israeli without having been there," the 50-year-old admits. "I'd had this notion they were 'the bad guys'. But I was impacted by the humanity and atmosphere there that's like nothing else. There's a bit in the book where I see kids getting off a bus that involved tears for me. You can't be 'anti-Israeli' seeing that."

At the same time, Somerville - who has Jewish blood on his maternal grandfather's side - can see the Israeli government's actions for what they are and casts the net wide in his desire for balance. It makes for a strikingly considered discussion that brings in everything from Islamic extremism and the "absolutism" of Abrahamic religions to South African apartheid.

There is a figurative and literal heart to Beat, however, that elevates it to a higher plain. In the hours following the bombing, a random Palestinian man was shot in an act of warped revenge for the massacre. The victim's heart ended up being transplanted into a dying Israeli.

This symbolism-rich epilogue garnered huge media attention. After working for 24 hours on the operation, an exhausted Dr Yakov Lavie found himself before a sea of reporters, saying: "A short time ago, I was holding the heart of an Arab Muslim in one hand and an Israeli Jew in the other. And do you know what? There's no difference."

Watching it all unfold on TV, Somerville was hooked. Both his parents were celebrated cardiologists - his mother, Jane, is regarded internationally as a pioneer in the field while his Clontarf-born, Arabic-speaking father Walter treated everyone from Laurence Olivier to Saddam Hussein. Growing up in the West End of London, he had many Jewish neighbours and friends.

But the demographic of the bomb victims in Tel Aviv also hit a nerve with Somerville, who for years worked as a DJ in venues just like the one targeted. Today, as the father of two young daughters, the similarities of the recent Manchester attack - the age and number of the mostly female victims, the attacker's age - resonate jarringly.

What's more, during the London attacks that followed, one of the "maniacs" walked into his brother's restaurant and stabbed a 19-year-old girl. As Beat attests, humanity must prevail. "I've experienced anger in my life and it's not a constructive thing," he says. "It's a powerful force."

As a boy, Rowan's parents always kept sample hearts in the household freezer for testing. In 1999, an unprovoked attack at Notting Hill Carnival left him with seven fractures in his face and head that required a series of operations. Years later, his second daughter was born with a congenital abnormality known as oesophageal atresia, resulting in an eight-hour operation. During research for Beat - which revolves around that transplant - he was smuggled into an operating theatre overseas to witness the process live. Is his life a timeline of incredible medical procedures?

"I think that's a novelistic structuring principle," he gently replies, "but it's valid, in that I'm very involved in medicine. If your parents were musicians, you'd have a real sense of music. My daughter was seven months in hospital and because of my background, I was able to suspend all emotion until afterwards. Now it kills me just talking about it."

As a "dreamy, chaotic, eager-to-please" child, Somerville was keen to become a doctor but undiagnosed dyslexia got in the way. It was only when his love of books led to studying literature in Edinburgh that he was finally diagnosed as "textbook dyslexic". A "real weight" was lifted.

After trying to elbow his way into the film industry after university, he nabbed a job as a runner on The Dame Edna Experience ("Barry Humphries was brilliant, a properly talented human being"). Then came The Big Breakfast, where he worked closely with Paula Yates during its Gaby Roslin/Chris Evans golden era. Bizarrely, he'd met Michael Hutchence randomly outside a nightclub many years before meeting the INXS star through Yates. They also crossed paths a few times when he joined MTV Europe.

"Paula fell properly in love with him," Somerville says, "and him with her. He was a sweetie. He wasn't a mad drug addict, he was just a rock'n'roller. I think he died by accident. And Paula wasn't a heroin addict. She liked to give the impression she was more hardcore, more flirty, more 'everything', but she actually liked her family most of all. She was in a terrible situation of grief and [her death] was an accident. The coroner's report said the amount of drugs in her body wouldn't have killed someone who was used to it. It's just horrible and so sad."

Somerville tired of his high-flying 'rock 'n' roll' years. He left MTV when it became apparent that advertising was more important than youth culture. An epiphany akin to "coming out" hit him after a friend had cajoled him into putting pen to paper for his magazine. By then, he'd been unhappy and "destructive", he recalls, and only felt okay when getting "wasted one way or another".

With the help of a psychotherapist, he located his "internal barometer" and realised where his heart lay - writing.

He banished the ghosts of classroom dyslexia and red marks through every school essay. His confidence developed and he made up for lost time. His 2008 debut, The End of Sleep (penned on Gillian Anderson's Vancouver Island retreat), was pounced on by publishers and was shortlisted for the Commonwealth and Glen Dimplex prizes.

When a line in follow-up The Shape of Her ("like a lepidopterist mounting a tough-skinned insect with a too blunt pin, he screwed himself into her") won him the infamous 'bad sex' gong in 2010, he resisted the urge to tell the judges they were "basically a bunch of wankers". Instead, Somerville, who has had blissful stints living in both Ramelton, Co Donegal and Leenane, Co Galway, decided to distance himself from the "Benny Hill" Englishness of it all and embrace his father's Irish roots in his acceptance speech: "There is nothing more English than bad sex, so on behalf of your entire nation, I would like to thank you."

Any publicity is good publicity, I offer.

"If you're being bullied in the playground, you can't go, 'listen, you need to understand, etc'," he laughs. "So that's why I said that. It ended up in Time Magazine's quotes of the week - underneath the Holy Father, appropriately."

Beat by Rowan Somerville is published by Lilliput Press

Rowan appears at Masonic Lodge at 1pm today as part of Dalkey Book Festival

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