Stop the madness - celebrity memoirs
From Gerry Ryan and Brian Cowen to Sonia O'Sullivan, Irish celebs are queueing up to outdo each other with their wild and crazy exploits. Will Hanafin checks out the 'I'm mad, me' moments from their memoirs, so you don't have to
In the new Coen brothers movie Burn After Reading, John Malkovich steals the show playing demented CIA analyst Osborne Cox. Having been booted out of the agency for being drunk and incompetent, Cox tries his hand at consultancy, which is the face-saving, middle-class term for unemployment, but it doesn't work out.
Malkovich's character then tells his acerbic wife that he's writing a memoir, to which she replies: "Who'd read that?"
It's a question that should be asked about the plethora of "I'm mad, me" memoirs in our bookshops -- terrifying tales about hard-drinking athletes, joint-smoking politicians and high-living DJs, not to mention the TV stars who are going commando.
Truth is, publishers are moving away from the strip-mined misery-lit genre of terrible childhoods and worse weather, and on to pumping money into the ramblings of the vaguely recognisable. That's a good call on their part, since our credit-crunched lives will soon resemble the less cheery passages from Angela's Ashes, with George Lee as the narrator.
But there are now so many books out there featuring the forgettable recollections of the famous and the faded that authors are under intense pressure to conjure up an angle that separates them from the memoirist herd.
Straitened times mean extra productivity, and even people in the luxurious position of writing their memoirs haven't escaped. Publishers are demanding that more madness be salvaged from the average memoirist's memory banks.
Even the least-mad individuals imaginable have been forced to dig deep for some "I'm mad, me" moments from their past.
Sonia O'Sullivan is one of our greatest sportspeople, and did the country proud by winning World Championship gold, and an Olympic silver in the 5,000 metres. And unlike a lot of biographical subjects, Sonia has quite a story to tell. But the last thing I expected to read in her book were tales of childhood high jinks, and admissions of youthful drunkenness.
There's a shocking revelation in the book about the time when no Cobh doorbell was safe from her demonic digits.
"On the streets we'd ring on people's doorbells, and go haring away helter-skelter though the gardens before they could answer. The others liked the danger. I liked the running," Sonia relates.
The countless episodes of Coronation Street that were disrupted, and the numerous bell batteries that were worn down by this mischievous knick-knacking doesn't bear thinking about. At least Cobh people now have some closure on those awful times.
Sonia also mentions the couple of months of her mis-spent youth -- blink and you'll miss them -- which she spent drinking in Cobh while home from university in America.
"The first year I was home I got involved for a short while in trying to misspend my youth. I wasn't exactly a barfly, but it wasn't exactly the diet of champions either. After work, we'd go to the disco in the Commodore Hotel. I think my mother thought I had gone mad," Sonia recalls.
"I can't drink at all. Even then, in the few months that made up my wild times, I could hardly drink, but my mother used to tell me I was drinking too much," she says. "I used to drink Guinness. There'd be crowds in the pub, milling at the bar, and my friends would be saying, 'drink something else -- we can't wait for that.' I wasn't committed to the Guinness. I'd drink whatever was handiest for them. My friends discovered that buying a pint of Heineken was cheaper than the equivalent volume in two glasses. We'd get a pint and split it into two glasses. And that was us."
As drinking stories go, on a scale of one to 10, with Mother Teresa being zero and Brendan Behan a 10, Sonia barely registers a one for these tales of pint-splitting and disco-dancing excess.
Sonia's not the only Cork sports star who has been detailing their wild ways in recent autobiographies. If it's tales of palm-tree-chewing, Club-Shandy-guzzling, shoplifting kids you're after, then Ronan O'Gara's autobiography is your only man.
Don't leaf through the book for the gambling rumours, or for tales of discord in the Ireland rugby camp; you've got to read Ronan's revelations about his hard-living primary school days, including this smoking- in-sixth-class shocker.
"We'd have a packet of John Player Blue, and at lunchtime we'd sneak off into the palm trees between Highfield and Bishopstown GAA. We'd get six cans of Club Shandy that had 0.001 per cent alcohol, and we'd convince ourselves that we were getting a buzz off it," Ronan says, before going on to add to the revelations. "To get rid of the smell, before we went back into class we'd chew on a bit of a palm tree. I remember getting sick a few times, but that didn't stop me. Not if you wanted to be a hard man."
When Ronan and his hard men weren't chewing shrubbery, their wild days continued with the great Dunnes Stores heist.
He recalls: "The other thing we used to do was walk into Dunnes Stores with one of their plastic bags, and rob fun-sized chocolate bars. Eventually, we were caught, and held until our parents were called. Our worlds fell apart that day. All the other lads were, like myself, from respectable families. There was hell to pay. I was grounded for a good stretch."
Sonia and Ronan O'Gara have spent years focusing on winning European Cups, or Olympic medals, so they have to be forgiven if their obligatory "I'm mad, me" yarns aren't quite up to scratch.
But the rest of them have no excuse. The maddest man in "I'm mad, me" Madtown this year has to be Gerry Ryan, whose book is crammed with mad stories, that, well, really aren't that mad.
Ryan was reputedly paid €100,000 for his memoirs, so the pressure was on to come up with some mad stuff. The chapter headings sound promising, with titles such as 'I Drink Too Much', and 'In Trouble with the Law'.
The newspaper serialisation of his autobiography went slightly over the top by trumpeting "his illness he kept secret", which actually turned out to be a mild form of obsessive-compulsive disorder.
Gerry valiantly tried to talk up his illness in a "I'm mad tidy, me" sort of way.
"I'm not quite David Beckham, arranging the Pepsi cans in the fridge, but I'm not far off it," he says. Yes, Gerry, the resemblance between you two is really quite striking.
His revelation in the book that he makes the bed before leaving for work, arranges magazines, and vacuums compulsively sounds suspiciously like he's started doing housework, rather than developed a full-blown disorder.
He does admit that he wasn't quite so thorough when he lived with his wife, Morah.
"I can't go to work until the bed is made. When I lived with Morah, she would probably have wished I was a bit more like that than I am now, but she was usually in the bed with my daughter when I left," he admits.
The book also reveals Gerry's secret shame (does anyone actually feel shame about this?) about men using vacuum cleaners and his admission that he himself is now a compulsive vacuumer.
"My father used to hoover an awful lot, and I used to be really embarrassed by it. I mean, a man hoovering? Shameful. Why isn't my mother doing it? I now hoover compulsively," he says. The shame!
Another devastating side effect of Gerry's secret illness is that he has to get cleaners in a couple of times a month to shampoo his carpet. I didn't think it was possible for OCD sufferers to sit back and pay people to do their cleaning.
Gerry's condition has even put the poor guy off his food. In restaurants, he freaks out when cutlery is out of place, and when things aren't happening in the correct sequence. Once he's finished rearranging the cutlery, he always looks around for the sommelier -- because, apparently, you can't beat a good sommelier.
"I think Irish people still need to wake up to the joys of sommeliers," he says. "If there's an expert at the restaurant you're in, tell them how much you've got to spend on the wine, tell them roughly the kind of thing you like -- and you can be as bog inarticulate as it's possible to be, just to get across the idea of what you like, even if it means saying something along the lines of: 'I like diluted Ribena.'" He truly is a man of our times, a model of restraint, who's acutely conscious of carbon footprints, and suchlike.
"My canteen is the restaurant of the Four Seasons Hotel. What a fantastic life! It's just unbeatable," Gerry says. "I have all my meetings in that restaurant. I know Louis Walsh does the same thing. I've really enjoyed the five-star hotels, the first-class flights, sitting at the front of the plane, having a good whiskey, knowing there's going to be a good movie to watch -- that I'm going somewhere that's interesting and different where there'll be great accommodation, a big fuss made of me and whoever I'm with. That, my friends, is better than the 44A."
He also told the nation in the book serialisation that he gets through about 60 units of alcohol a week -- a most unusual occurrence for a middle-aged Irish man, I'm sure you'll agree.
"One night, recently, I found myself washing down my cholesterol medicine with a glass of whiskey," he admits.
Then there's his drug hell. It's nothing crazier than the fact he takes the diet pill Reductil, and Udo's oil for his arthritis, I'm afraid.
"Pre-Reductil, I would go to Shanahans, and I would get an entire T-bone steak into me. Now, that doesn't happen. I can only get half the steak into me. And I can only get half the pea soup in," he says.
His charmingly understated manner about his abilities and his salary also permeates the book.
"I always worked on the basis that when a record company signed up a big band they always said what they'd given them. The Sex Pistols. Ten million! Virgin says: 'Hurray! We really believe in this band!' So I could never understand why RTE, when we were signing a contract, didn't kind of have: 'Gerry Ryan! A million euros! Isn't he fantastic? Have a cigar!'" Gerry says, ever-modest.
"My talent is to imbue a project with much more significance and theatricality than it actually deserves. This gives a sort of incandescence to it that makes things that are not all that bright, shine very brightly. I can bring that to the party. But, like it says in Blade Runner, the light that burns twice as brightly, burns twice as fast. How brightly I have shone," he says.
The Taoiseach Brian Cowen is another lad with a mad history. He hasn't the time, we presume, to be writing his autobiography, but he has found a few moments to cooperate with the author of a new biography, wherein the "I'm mad, me" spirit shines through the book like a dose of Gerry Ryan's incandescence.
There's his wacky recollections about his time spent studying law in UCD.
"The food in the flat wouldn't have been great. One had other uses for disposable income at that time as a young fellow -- more liquid lunches than anything else!" says the Taoiseach.
When reading many of these "I'm mad, me" memoirs, it's necessary to have a strong stomach, indigestion remedies, and the ability to resist the temptation to book portly chaps such as Ryan and Cowen in for a few sessions with Gillian McKeith.
When politicians cooperate with biographers, there's a risk that they can't resist telling a few of those 'hilarious' yarns which go down well in the Dail bar, but are as funny, in reality, as grabbing a granny's medical card. The Cowen book is no different.
There is one famous yarn about how Cowen and McCreevy dashed off to the Punchestown racecourse one evening, prior to a vote in the Dail scheduled for 8.30pm that night.
"McCreevy was pretty adamant that this horse we went off to back was going to win but, unfortunately, it was beaten by a nose," remembers Cowen.
The two men jumped into the car and headed back to the Dail.
"What's wrong with you?"McCreevy asked an obviously disappointed-looking Cowen.
"I spent too much money on that horse -- more than I should have. I lost a good few bob there," Cowen moaned.
"You didn't lose it! We know where it is," replied McCreevy, with perfect comic timing.
Indeed. With comic timing like that, Charlie McCreevy could well be the next Tommy Tiernan when the European Commission job comes to an end.
Later in the book Cowen appears very pleased about the reaction to his Hot Press interview, given during the last general election, which included an admission of marijuana smoking as a student.
"I would say there were a couple of occasions when it was passed around -- and, unlike President Clinton, I did inhale!" Cowen said in the 2007 interview.
In the book, our too-cool-for-school Taoiseach is chuffed by the prospect of acquiring a down-with-the-kids reputation because of this hash-smoking admission.
"We all had a student life and, while I'm a politician now, I grew up in the very same environment in the Seventies and Eighties as anyone else. While I don't put that forward as an excuse for something that, on reflection, I certainly wouldn't do again, the fact is it's better to be truthful about these things, and people see the human side," he said.
Maybe people should go easy on the poor Taoiseach. All that student drinking, smoking and overexposure to Charlie McCreevy's one-liners would affect anybody's ability to run a country.
Desperate to further showcase his human side, Brian Cowen really turns on the incandescence when talking about his wife Mary in this new biography.
"She's a great canvasser, and concentrates on that activity in her home area in South Offaly, as well as locally here in Tullamore," he reveals.
The compliments continue to flow like beer at a Fianna Fail think-in. "She's very easy to talk to and to work with," gushes the cuddly old romantic.
Kind of like the spread of a foot-and-mouth outbreak, our rash of "I'm mad, me" memoirs can be traced to the UK, where it's very much in vogue.
Top of the list is Cherie Blair, who published her autobiography, Speaking for Myself, in May. An alternative title, Too Much Information, was most commonly suggested by unkind reviewers of her account of life with Tony.
Cherie's "I'm mad, me" moments included her admission that she was two-timing when she met Tony, and coming up with the the unforgettable phrase 'contraceptive equipment'.
One parliamentary journalist, covering a recent event attended by Cherie, said of the phrase: "I am sure I was not alone in desperately trying to ban the words 'contraceptive equipment' from my mind, but censorship never works. The words kept popping up, in a thought bubble above her head."
On Cherie's previous visit to the Queen at Balmoral, the royal servants had unpacked Cherie's make-up bags, and laid everything out, including her dreaded contraceptive equipment.
Cherie was even more ashamed about her contraceptive equipment being discovered than Gerry Ryan was about men vacuuming -- so the next time the Blairs stayed at Balmoral she left her equipment at home.
Without her equipment, and with Tony beside her with his "really strong body" in a cold Scottish castle, the end result was their fourth child, Leo.
Just when you thought it was safe to go back into the bookshop's biography section after recovering from Cherie Blair's tales of her sexual exploits, Richard Madeley's gone and released a memoir. Richard has put the mad into Madeley with his book, Fathers & Sons.
He was in Dublin last month appearing on the Late Late Show to promote the book. Richard and fellow madman Gerry Ryan, standing in for Pat Kenny, spent much of the interview engaging in mutual backslapping about their respective memoirs.
And true, some of Richard's best "I'm mad, me" revelations happened during the interviews conducted to promote the book -- some of them would make even Cherie Blair blush.
He admitted that he goes commando.
"Always. I think it might have started when Jack [his son] nicked my socks and underwear. And I think one day I thought, fuck it, and couldn't be arsed to have a row looking for them, and I found it quite comfortable," he says.
The shameless TV host also revealed that his wife, Judy, doesn't follow suit, and opts not to go commando.
"No. Certainly not. She wears knickers. No, I just find it comfortable. It's like not smoking for some people."
Even squeaky-clean Cliff Richard is going for the "I'm mad, me" moments in his new book, My Life, My Way.'
Some of the shocking revelations in Cliff's book put Sonia O'Sullivan's illicit doorbell ringing in the shade. He's eaten camel's foot, prefers Vegemite to Marmite, and a fan once delivered herself in a cardboard box demanding an autograph.
Perhaps we need to rename the biography section in the bookshop. A notice indicating the way to the 'Too Much Information' genre may better prepare us for the life stories of joint-smoking, boxer-shorts averse, contraceptive-equipment avoiding, palm-tree chomping, sommelier-promoting, doorbell-ringing, mad yokes.