Sunday 21 January 2018

McCabe's Jagger edge

Barry Egan

Barry Egan

'If Roddy Doyle is The Beatles of modern Irish fiction, then Patrick McCabe must be its Rolling Stones' -- so said Irvine Welsh of the Clones author, who reveals to Barry Egan that, with the publication of his latest novel The Stray Sod Country, it will be the last time he paints the town black

I HAVE to take a quick call on my mobile before the interview with Patrick McCabe starts. Conversation finished, I quip what did we do in the days before we had these hi-tech contraptions ... "Actually, I grew up in a little village," McCabe says, "and you used to have to wind the phone up. Wind it up. There was only one phone, you know, really, in the street at that time. I was born in 1955 and our electricity only came about 1957."

"Anyway," he continues in his warm Monaghan tones, "this friend of mine was a big Dylan fan and he had a fondness for this girl. He was always ringing her up. You'd be arrested for it now, I suppose. He'd ring her up and he'd say things like: 'If you see her, say hello. She might be in Tangiers.' Then he'd hang up. Then he'd ring again 10 minutes later and he'd say: 'The ghost of electricity howls in the bones of your face.' He kept on doing this. And eventually a voice intervened on the line: "*** *****. If you don't stop saying that, I'm going to go and tell your father.' It was the receptionist in the post office. That's what we've come from ... "

Reading McCabe's books, you'd know where he came from all right: somewhere between Clones in Co Monaghan and Mars. His madcap characters from Ireland's small towns are full of psychological turbulence and interesting quirks. Francie Brady in The Butcher Boy, or Patrick "Pussy" Braden in Breakfast on Pluto, or Malachy Dudgeon in The Dead School are probably not people you meet every day unless you are inside the intriguingly peculiar head of McCabe himself. He writes with originality about not just rural life in Ireland of a certain time, but the wider world, too.

His new novel, The Stray Sod Country, is set in the late 1950s in a small town on the border. Laika the dog has just been launched into outer-space by the Soviets and Golly Murray finds herself "oddly obsessing about the canine cosmonaut". "A hilarious circumnavigation around an Irish town and its vagabond inhabitants, in the grand tradition of Somerville and Ross and Flann O'Brien," said no less a writer than Edna O'Brien of The Stray Sod Country.

"I think this is a fine book," McCabe says. "It is well realised. It is finely wrought. And it is the end of the small town for me. I won't write about it ever again. It won't be a big city. It might be Dublin, but it won't be LA. It might be Newtownmountkennedy. There is nothing more to be said about the small town, because it is the end of that era. The town or the imagined town doesn't look the same. It is a totally different world. Even if it is changing in a way subtly, my time of it is over; my people are all gone. It is for someone else to do now."

I say that I can hear violins somewhere in the distance. "Oh, it is a lament," he laughs. "I'm waiting for some young gunslinger to come and blow me away now."

McCabe's dark, comedic prose about Ireland haunts you long after you've closed the book and gone to see a shrink or a priest. "My first book, or the way it is always perceived, was The Butcher Boy. That was a success, you know," he smiles. "But I had written a book called Music on Clinton Street, which about 50 people read. Then I wrote another called Carn, which about maybe 100 read."

McCabe can remember the first time he wrote something down on paper as a kid. He had a great teacher called Gerry McMahon at school. "I suppose every Tom, Dick and Harry writer has a teacher who makes a difference, but he was like the advent of the Sixties in a small town," he recalls. "This new, young teacher with a sports jacket. It was as close to hip as you'd get. He called people by their first names. That was a radical departure, rather than McCabe or Egan. Your self-worth went up.

"He used to give me essays and I wrote these essays, which he thought were very good. A lot of them weren't very good. A lot were copied out of comics and things. I like the scratch of the pen on the page. It floods from the blood through the veins into the pen."

He credits James Joyce with being the major influence on the ideas that flowed through those veins into the pen and onto the page. "It should be Kavanagh, shouldn't it?" he muses. "But it isn't. It is probably Joyce, you know, because the musicality of his language -- the way he hears things -- I could never f***ing come near it. But in terms of aspiring to the top of the mountain, it would be him."

McCabe's wife Margot Quinn was perhaps as big an influence as Joyce in terms of willing him to get to the top of that mountain. He met her in Longford, where he was teaching. "She was in school. She was in her Leaving Cert year. It's not as bad as it sounds," he laughs. "I said to her: 'Go out and make me a cup of tea.' She was a young feminist."

He told her that he wasn't going to be a teacher forever; that he was going to be a writer. "She said: 'That's a good idea.'"

I ask him is it difficult for his wife to live with someone like him; someone who lives in his head.

He shakes his head. "No, because my wife is an artist. She lives in her head, you know. I met her when we were both very young." He was 19 and she 17. He shrugs. "So, I'm not advocating this, you know. I'm sure she had better things to do than hang around with me, but anyway."

Obviously she didn't, I say. And I mean that in a good way. "I understand. But it isn't the sort of thing ... I mean, probably for kids to hear that now, they probably think that is the most insane thing you've ever heard. As an artist, she was at the beginning. She is probably finding her voice now in a big way. So we kind of grew up together in that way."

You had a sense of shared idealism and the path you both took as artists was always going to be a hard one with no money in it. "There was no question of money. This thing about money and art is a relatively new thing."

The couple has two grown-up daughters, Ellen and Katie. Asked to describe himself as a dad, he smiles and says: "Hopelessly inefficient. Useless in terms of discipline. I give them all of my time, but in authority terms, I was never any use."

Growing up in Clones -- where he still lives with his wife -- McCabe says he was, "I suppose, an oddball". And have you changed? "Ah, yeah," he smirks through that gentle forest of a beard of his. "I think I'm more well-adjusted now."

At what point did you adjust? "I think if you get married. I'm not saying it works if you just get married. You can still be the worst **** in the world, too. I suppose if you have kids, you kind of wake up."

He dismisses Cyril Connolly's theory that the enemy of promise is the pram in the hall. "Oh, that's a disgrace. That is an Anglo-Saxon puritanical pile of lies. It has been since refuted by more eloquent people than me. Seamus Heaney writing about the human chain; if you're not linked into that, you're surely in deficit somewhere. I think anyway."

Irvine Welsh once said: "If Roddy Doyle is The Beatles of modern Irish fiction, then Patrick McCabe must be its Rolling Stones." Today, in a quiet corner of a pub in Dublin, the Mick Jagger of Irish literature is sipping his pint of Guinness. He is an engaging talker. He speaks excitedly about an exotic Irish sampler album from the late Sixties called Paddy is Dead and the Kids Know It.

He talks about going to a boarding school when he was 12. It was repressive but uneventful. "Mostly, it was walking around in the rain for five years." At 16, he took to devouring the classics -- "anybody who I felt you'd have to read if you were serious about embarking on this journey as a writer. You'd have to have a grounding in the great works. I would have been embarrassed to have told anyone about it. I wouldn't have been swanning around Clones saying, I'm going to be a writer. You'd get a box in the head really fast."

He summons up possibly the most passion of all to talk about his late father Bernard and the influence he had on him. "I was highly developed orally," Patrick says. "I was always listening. I couldn't see a f***ing brick wall in front of me, but I could hear. My dad had music on the go all the time. He had many jobs. He was a stone-cutter; he was a quantity surveyor at one point; a mental nurse at another point. But he really wanted to be a songwriter. But it was impossible. It was impossible for a lot of people. He wrote really lovely songs."

McCabe used to listen to an awful lot of music from his father's record collection around the house -- Hoagy Carmichael and John McCormack to Josef Locke and the Ink Spots, and then into trad jazz. "He wasn't really into rock 'n' roll," McCabe says. "He was a very keen musician. The place was full of records. Mostly 78s and a bit of vinyl too. When I was five or six, the first vinyl came in."

There is no great mystery where the musicality in Patrick's writing came from. "I suppose you become your father in many ways," he adds. "You look in the mirror in your 40s and he looks back out at you."

'The Stray Sod Country' by Patrick McCabe is published by Bloomsbury, priced €23.75

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