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Wednesday 20 September 2017

Novelist Alannah Hopkin: 'It was so good when it was good'

Alannah Hopkin fell in love with fellow writer Aidan Higgins at first sight, and they were together until his death 18 months ago. She tells Emily Hourican about the struggles with his illness and how travel and writing have helped her through her sadness

Author Alannah Hopkin. Photo: Mark Condren
Author Alannah Hopkin. Photo: Mark Condren

'I always wanted to write stories - but back when I started, no one would get a story collection published if they hadn't published a novel." So says Alannah Hopkin, novelist, travel writer and critic.

And so she went "the sensible way," as she calls it, and published two novels, A Joke Goes A Long Way In The Country, in 1982, and The Out-Haul in 1985, with her first collection of stories, The Dogs of Inishere, only appearing now, 30 years later.

"I've published stories since 1982," she says, "but very haphazardly. It's notoriously difficult to get a short story published. I went through a rough patch because David Marcus didn't like my work." Marcus, whose name is instantly recognisable to any writer of short fiction, was editor of the Phoenix Irish Short Stories collections. "He liked everyone's work, but he didn't like my work," says Alannah with a smile. "I found a handwritten letter from him recently, saying 'please stop submitting stories to Irish Short Stories every year'. So it was difficult..."

But, she says, "I kept writing." The stories in The Dogs Of Inishere are subtle, memorable, carefully crafted, and deliberately blur fact and fiction. Characters may be Alannah's creations, but they interact with real people, in recognisable worlds - Soho, London; Co Tipperary or indeed Inishere. There is Kurt Karlsson, a reclusive actor and 'world's most handsome man', now buried in the Irish countryside but still boasting of visits from Peter O'Toole. Or the hard-living film PR who needs impetus to change her life, and finds it through a visit to Malcolm Lowry's grave.

The switching between London and rural Ireland is true to Alannah's life. Born in Singapore, where her father was a doctor in the British Colonial Service, she grew up in London, but spent holidays in Kinsale. "My father was English, my mother was from Kinsale, and I spent a lot of time here on my own, staying with different aunts and uncles, and got to know my Irish cousins."

Later, when Alannah was at college - she did Latin America Studies at Essex, then transferred to English at Queen Mary University in London - her mother bought a house in Kinsale. "At the time I wanted to spend a lot of time away writing. There was usually an empty house sitting there in Kinsale, which I was allowed to go and stay in. I did that for a few years, then I got really serious about moving back to Ireland when I was 31."

To test her seriousness, she went "to Ballydehob for the winter. The logic was, if you can stick that, you'll be OK! I did survive the winter, but only just. There was an immersion heater and the bathroom was off the kitchen, and you had to put the oven on to get it warm enough to have a bath. I was on my own, but not lonely. There were people in the village and a very friendly pub culture." Ballydehob being just that bit too far out, she settled in Kinsale.

Alannah had been working as a journalist for Time Out, travel writing and book reviewing. She had published her first novel, and had an advance for the second. "I reckoned I had enough money to get by for a year or two, if I kept going with the reviewing. I made a very poor living, but I got by, and I did a lot of reading and a lot of writing, which is what I wanted to do. I had all the things I wanted on my doorstep - the sea, walks - and I loved it."

It was there she met Aidan Higgins, author of the iconic Langrishe, Go Down, a largely autobiographical novel about a Catholic family in a crumbling Big House in Kildare, adapted for the screen by Harold Pinter.

"He came to visit a friend, I was asked to help to entertain him, and so I did," Alannah says. "I liked his voice on the phone before I even met him, then I found him very attractive in person, and that was that. We got talking and suddenly we seemed to have many things in common. I liked his gentleness, his hazel eyes - same as mine - his loyalty to his friends and his enigmatic smile." It was, she says, "a coup de foudre".

It was, she says, "a bit dramatic. And terrifying. It's quite scary. It really was like a thunderbolt. I was 36, and I had never considered it a possibility. I had no idea how old Aidan was at the time, and he looked a lot younger, but we just clicked". Aidan was 59 at the time; "I thought he was pulling my leg when he told me. I thought he meant to say 49, and even that would have been old. But it didn't seem to matter."

They moved in together "straight away", although they wouldn't marry for 11 years. "After about six months, Aidan started talking about buying a house, and I had to say 'stop, stop, you mean you really want to buy a house with me? Are you sure?' He said 'Yes of course, why not?' It was all easy. He was very decisive."

They would work separately all day - "I got the room with the door that closes, Aidan worked in the big open-plan sitting room with kitchen" - then meet in the evenings. "At half five or six we'd have a drink together, play Scrabble, maybe go out. We didn't really talk about the working day. He might if it was going really well, and I might if I had a gripe. But we would never read each other's stuff."

It was, Alannah says, "so good when it was good". And for many years, it was good. But then Aidan began to behave in ways that were strange.

"He had vascular dementia, but it went undiagnosed for a long time, because he had other mental health problems. He had a kind of breakdown, a psychotic episode" - this was around 2002, and was, Alannah says, "accelerated by taking steroids for his eye condition, and seemed related to two of his friends committing suicide".

It wasn't the first such episode - "he had had one or two before, and they never really got to the bottom of those. They thought he was mildly bi-polar, so this dragged on for years".

Finally, in his early 80s, Aidan saw a geriatrician and was diagnosed.

"At least we knew then what was going on," Alannah says, adding "it's really terrible when the GP has to explain to you that he's not going to get better, he's only going to get worse. And it's so difficult for him, because he can't understand what's going on - although I think he knew more than he let on."

By then, Aidan's eyesight was failing and he couldn't read. "He became very reclusive and silent and no longer wanted to see his friends nor go out.

"They were very difficult times, because really it was just the two of us. He has three sons but they all live away. They were as helpful as they could be, but there wasn't a lot of support otherwise, except for friends, but he didn't want to see his friends, and that was difficult for them as well."

Long used to doing "all the practical things; the bank accounts, the car, all that stuff" Alannah now found that "I was responsible for his safety, and then it became very difficult. And dangerous. He would wait until I was busy working, and then he would creep out the front door, and would get lost immediately, poor man. He had no sense of personal safety at all; he couldn't tell day from night. But he retained his sweet nature somehow. He was always very nice, except when, inevitably, he would get frustrated - like a toddler having a tantrum."

As for the effect on her, apart from the pain of watching such a terrible decline, "you just get very tired", she says. "You don't want to do anything much, except sleep. Or be alone. I found the constant having to keep him company difficult. I do like being alone. The house seemed to get smaller and smaller, but," she says, "you get through these things. I'm one of those people who don't believe you're entitled to an easy life. You're going to have rough patches, so just get on with it."

Finally, when constant vigilance became too much, Alannah found a nursing home just three miles from the house. "It was a very good place, and they made him very welcome. It was so kind and so amazing, to find people I trusted."

In April, 2015 Aidan had a stroke, and he died in December of that year. The period in between was "decline, decline, decline. But he still had lucid moments and was pottering away with this book, March Hares, which is shorter writings. That kept him going, gave him the feeling he was getting somewhere.

"I hadn't realised how tough that time was going to be on me," she says. "The pure sadness of it, day after day. You try and look at positive things - we had nice ways of connecting. He used to love to warm my hands, I always had cold hands when I came into the nursing home. You'd have nice moments, and you try to treasure those."

Since Aidan's death, Alannah has been to Mexico, to see her sister, and to Paris, Germany, England, Sicily, and around Ireland. "I seemed to have to keep moving," she says. "It feels very final - you get this after about a year; you suddenly realise he's never coming back. It sounds funny to have to say it, because you knew, but it doesn't sink in for a long time."

Many of Alannah's stories contain strange moments, "slippage" is how she describes them in one story, between this world and another, unseen world. So does she believe in ghosts? "There's something there. Things are happening that we're not able to see until we're dead. I enjoy ghosts, I think they're great fun. Kinsale is full of ghosts, including the house my mother bought. People used to say to me, when I was living there alone, 'we don't know how you do it, it's haunted...'

"There had been people who had run out of that house. But I like the feeling. There are walks I go on in Kinsale and there are ghosts on them. I think there is something strange that goes on, and writing is an exploration of that."

It is when things puzzle or elude her that Alannah crafts them into stories. The title story here began life in a travel assignment.

"I was so disappointed when I visited Inishere," Alannah says. "I was meant to write a travel piece, and I couldn't, if I was going to be honest. So I tried to make sense of it."

Or the curious tale Strangers, set on a tiny island in Roaring Water Bay in Cork, in which the narrator meets an odd, lonely young girl.

"I loved the physicality of the island," Alannah says. "There are ruins and roads and telegraph posts and a bit of farming going on, but you don't see people. It was a ghost island."

Alannah's precise, evocative descriptions of place and setting owe much to her experience as a travel writer, but it is in the conjuring of ghosts and her curiosity about what lies beyond the precision of place, that give these stories their subtle, lingering edge.

The Dogs of Inishere by Alannah Hopkin is published by Dalkey Archive Press. Alannah will be at the West Cork Literary Festival on July 19 at 10am in Bantry House. www.westcorkliteraryfestival.ie

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