Wednesday 21 February 2018

Gambling: king of all addictions

With his 'brilliantly observed' new novel, The Ponzi Man, just published, columnist Declan Lynch talks about addiction, obsession and the loves of his life

There was no one tragedy that made Declan Lynch commit to getting sober, but a million tiny ones. 'There was a cumulative effect,' he says. Photo: David Conachy.
There was no one tragedy that made Declan Lynch commit to getting sober, but a million tiny ones. 'There was a cumulative effect,' he says. Photo: David Conachy.
The cover of Declan Lynch's book, Ponzi Man
Donal Lynch

Donal Lynch

Well, this is embarrassing. After years of receiving each other's post, being vaguely confused with each other (I will accept any reflected glory) and reassuring people that we're not related, Declan Lynch and I are finally together in the same room. But for some reason we have decided to wear the same shirt. Our plan, to prove for once and for all that we are not the same person, lies in tatters. The intelligent jousting of ideas I'd planned suddenly gives way to a magazine split-screen ('who wore it better?')

Of course, one handy way to tell us apart is that I come up with ideas for novels and then leave them on errant scraps of paper under my bed, whereas Lynch senior actually gets on with things and brings his ideas to fruition. His latest novel, The Ponzi Man, described by Michael Harding as "brilliantly observed" and "beautifully delivered", is the story of an Irishman, John Devlin, who is about to be sent to jail for running a Ponzi scheme. Unlike the most famous Ponzi scheme administrators, and indeed most of the bad eggs of the banking crisis, Devlin doesn't have a secret stash of money to fall back on. And so, while he waits for the case to come up, he travels to a seaside caravan where he is tormented by thoughts of his astronomical losses, and the great music of his youth. There he meets an old friend who has "gone to the bad" and encourages him to continue with his old ways. "The central dilemma of the novel is that in order to get off or get a lighter sentence he has to present the scenario that he's turned a corner, that he has gone to Gamblers Anonymous and is helping other people," Declan says. "Whereas his friend is saying 'you're actually great at gambling, maybe if you kept going with it you could win back some money for the people who lost it to you, and that might even get you off altogether.' The challenge for me in the book was to imagine that this con-man who has ruined other people's lives as well as his own, that such a man might have a soul. That there is mystery in him of the better kind."

Gambling addiction - which is a daring, if clear-eyed way to define the type of financial sleight-of-hand described in the book - has long been an area of interest for Declan. In 2009, he brought out a ground-breaking non-fiction book, Free Money, which explored the phenomenon, and since then has written often on the subject. He calls gambling the "king of all the addictions" because, he says, all other addictions have essential elements of it. "They involve taking chances of some sort, whereas gambling itself is a pure taking of chances, stripped of any narcotic substances, and the desire to do it comes just from your own ego and sense of self. Gambling as most of us used to know it in betting offices, was largely about poor men recycling their dole money, but it's now the impulse that drives the entire world economy; when Nama was formed, one of our leaders said it's a gamble, like, the future of Ireland had now been punted on the proverbial 2.30 at Kempton; banking, the crash of 2008; it was all ultimately gambling. You could call it a new world religion, so to not write about it would seem remiss."

Declan himself has a "rock solid ceiling" for gambling dalliance but he's been to addiction Vietnam himself, miraculously returning without the squeaky smugness of the reformed. We've met in the city centre and he tells me that the hoppy waft discernible as he passes certain pubs brings on the sense memory of his misspent youth. "I don't know who that was, who used to go in there, to Mulligan's and those places. I would find that nightmarish now. The amount of energy you'd need to have to spend that amount of time drinking and talking would just be beyond me; I'm by nature quite a shy, diffident sort of person."

Journalism, by its nature, encourages alcoholism. The constant pressure-procrastination axis of deadlines would drive anyone to the bottle. There's no 9-5 to put manners on you and, Declan points out, before Twitter was invented hacks had to congregate in pubs to repeat the same truisms to each other. In the era he came up in, when one filed copy by hand under a gauzy fug of cigarette smoke, drinking on the job was de rigueur. "It was almost expected that you would have a problem with it," he recalls. "It was this magical substance that gave me confidence, one of the great loves of my life. I suppose I might have had inklings that something was wrong - sort of 'never again' the morning after - but they certainly didn't last."

There was no one tragedy that made him commit to getting sober, but rather a million tiny ones. "There was a cumulative effect," he tells me. "Eventually, I just got it. And I see friends of mine who could easily have had the same experience and didn't. The penny has to drop and it's a mysterious thing. It's so down to the person themselves. There is no power on earth that will stop you if you want to keep pursuing an addiction."

He wrote an acclaimed novel, The Rooms, about drinking and getting sober, and got a certain amount of flak for writing about AA meetings. "I also got a lot of warm and generous responses, and I still do, and I think I wrote very respectfully about AA. I certainly didn't breach anyone's anonymity except my own. The odd person objected to the very idea of writing about it, but I don't think AA should be the only thing in the world you can't write about," he responds. "For years there was a great movie out there called The Days Of Wine And Roses, starring Jack Lemmon, which had an AA presence. Oscar from The Odd Couple, Jack Klugman, was in it. I wasn't the first."

He tells me that he would have been unable to confront what George Eliot called 'empty evening time' without support, particularly that of his wife Caroline. He was with Caroline for three or four years when he got sober. "The fact that I was in a really good relationship was so important. I don't understand how some guy in a bedsit manages to give up gambling, or drinking or whatever, I have vast admiration for those guys. You need a structure around you. And it's a very profound thing, it comes into The Ponzi Man too, this process whereby you come out the other side of something and only then can you see anything of what has happened to you. Everyone has some notion that they may have taken a wrong turn and if they could only go back to that point in the road things would be okay. Mostly that involves tracing a path back to the things that make you happy. And mostly those things happened in your youth when music and love and those things were enough and all of the complications of adult life hadn't crowded in."

His own youth was spent in Athlone, where his school days at Marist Secondary School were mere background to a football-obsessed childhood; he has sort of become the designated witness of record for an infamous David and Goliath-tinged match between Athlone Town and AC Milan in 1975. He colourfully recalls the "scenes of total carnage" inside St Mel's when the referee pointed to the spot, followed, moments later, by the mausoleum-like silence which descended when John Minnock managed merely to kick the ball gently into the arms of Milan's famed Italian international goalkeeper, Albertosi.

After school, like his Sunday Independent mini-me, he could think of nothing better to do with his intelligence than study law, but after a few weeks realised the error he had made. "I think if I had gone the law route, I'd be dead now," he says. "With a few exceptions, I hate being around lawyers, I hate being down in the courts, I hate nearly everything about it. I felt I had to escape ... run away to the circus."

That circus was rock journalism. He began writing for Hot Press at 17, and was soon thrown into the melee of interviews with the likes of Johnny Rotten and Paul Weller and Joy Division. "I remember the first day meeting Niall (Stokes, editor of Hot Press) and beforehand sitting in the National Gallery, just to have somewhere to wait, and thinking 'can you imagine if I got this job, poncing around the place, meeting my heroes, earning not that much money but enough for the rent. It would just be the most glorious thing that could ever happen to me.'"

The second most glorious thing, he must mean, for tenure at the Sunday Independent was still to come. "The first piece I wrote for the paper, bizarrely enough, was about funnyman Hal Roach. I brought it into the office where I met Anne [Harris] and Aengus [Fanning]. They were so nice to me, and as Anne read the article she seemed to be liking it. Then she asked me did I want to do another one next week. Again I walked out thinking, did that actually happen?"

He met his wife, Caroline, first at Windmill Lane studios where she worked, and then more properly at a reception in Lillies - during the day, he hastens to add, lest I confuse him with a social columnist perhaps.

"I knew that she was the right person immediately. There was an absolute clarity about it."

A few years before that, Caroline had been married, but her husband Gerald had died of a brain tumour. They'd had a son, Adam, who was about eight when Declan met Caroline. And Declan had a daughter Roseanne from a previous relationship - now an actor, Roseanne will soon be off to the Edinburgh Festival with Overshadowed, an award-winning hit at the Dublin Fringe Festival for writer Eva O'Connor and the Sunday's Child theatre company. Adam is a sound engineer living in Berlin. Katie is Declan and Caroline's daughter together; she is 17 now.

When someone comes to a relationship in the aftermath of a death there can sometimes be a feeling that the absent partner can never be lived up to. I wonder if he ever felt that about Caroline's deceased husband and if there were any difficulties in navigating the relationship with her son. "I never knew Ger. I guess there are just no rules for these things, except to understand that these days there are so many different kinds of families in this world," he responds, slowly taking in the impertinence of being asked such a thing by a colleague. "It takes me about 10 minutes to describe the various permutations of our family, whereas the simplest way of looking at it is that we have three children between us. And even though we sometimes don't see each other much, we all get on great when we do see each other. It sounds more complicated than it actually is."

He tells me that since he stopped drinking back in the mid-1990s, he has led a "fairly ordinary and simple" life. "I don't have affairs with people or anything like that. Life is complicated enough without all the other stuff that tends to happen when drink is taken. I've tried all drugs, apart from LSD, but I was never a habitual drug-taker. They weren't my poison. My addictions, such that they are, are now things like football. I could watch football matches for ever. That tends to be a lot more manageable than, for instance, a lot of whiskey."

His friends are most likely to tease him about his "seriousness".

"I can be moved to rage by anything from issues of social justice to something I heard on the radio a few minutes ago," he says. "I suppose some of those who know me well would perceive that I have a certain social inadequacy. In social situations I always feel like I am the equivalent of a really bad driver. And, as it happens, I'm a very bad driver as well. But I try to accept who I am, I was out there long enough in lounge bars, pretending to be someone I wasn't."

The Ponzi Man is published on May 12 by Hachette Ireland. Price approx €17

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