Friday 19 January 2018

Portrait of the artist as a young punk

Barry McKinley's first book is based on his adventures in 1970s London during punk's heyday. It's been a long time in the making, he tells our reporter

Fact or fiction? Barry McKinley says his novel is 80pc true. Photo: Douglas O'Connor
Fact or fiction? Barry McKinley says his novel is 80pc true. Photo: Douglas O'Connor
Barry McKinley as a young man
John Meagher

John Meagher

Is the arts world obsessed with youth? All those features seeking out the best new talent seem to focus exclusively on young bands and young writers. If you're creatively minded but have not published your first novel or recorded that debut album before turning 30, you might be forgiven for thinking the opportunity has passed you by.

Barry McKinley has often heard such talk but reckons it's nonsense. It's never too late, he argues. And at 59, the Carlow native is as good as his word: his first book is being published next week. Granted, McKinley isn't a complete unknown in the literary world - he has had a number of plays staged, has written for BBC Radio 4 and RTÉ and his short fiction has found an audience through the Hennessy New Irish Writing platform - but A Ton of Malice is likely to be the first time that many have heard his name.

"It's a book I've wanted to write a for a long time," he says, "but life and work - and the uncertainty of work - got in the way. But it's done now and I'm proud of it.

"I know there's a lot of focus on younger writers, but I don't think I would have had the discipline to write this when I was younger - and, as the cliché goes, better late than never."

Barry McKinley as a young man
Barry McKinley as a young man

Subtitled The Half-Life of an Irish Punk in London, the book is an account of a cocksure young Irishman escaping a homeland memorably described by Bob Geldof at the time as the "septic isle" of "police and priests" for the anything-goes pleasures of Britain at the end of the tumultuous 1970s.

London - and Paris - feature in the book, but so, too, does the nuclear power plant Sellafield, where our feckless hero somehow manages to wangle a job.

The book is a curious beast. Although the central character is called Barry and is clearly based on the writer, McKinley doesn't like to describe it as a memoir. And yet, it's not fiction in the normal sense of the word.

"I would say it's about 80pc true to my experience when I first went to England," he says. "A lot of the scenarios I describe happened to me, as did the drink and the drugs."

And there are lots of those, something McKinley is likely to be confronted with when his children come of age to read their dad's book. "I didn't want to offer a sanitised account of that time, or to pretend certain things didn't happen."

McKinley kept a diary at the time and he plundered it years later. It's imbued with the sights and sounds and smells of 1979 - and having written much of it down when it happened certainly helped.

There's a sense of immediacy to the story, which is redolent of diary writing, and there's the sort of punchiness to the dialogue that one might expect from a playwright. McKinley's 2010 play Elysium Nevada was nominated for an Irish Times Theatre Award.

A carpenter by trade, McKinley lived something of a nomadic life back in Ireland before the Celtic Tiger came along and ensured that everyone working in the construction trade would feel as though they had won the lottery. Inundated with work, he says he found it hard to make the requisite time available to devote to writing.

"I'm not very workmanlike when it comes to getting the words down," he says. "Sometimes, I'm very productive and other times, it just doesn't happen. You have to find what works best for you."

Then the recession hit and all those certainties about a regular income disappeared overnight. He had just turned 50 when the bubble burst and found himself scrambling around to make a living. Ultimately, he was forced to relocate to New York, where he had made contacts, and where the building work seemed unaffected by the crash. It was a chastening experience, especially as he had never been forced to emigrate before.

"There are times where you'd long to not have to worry about regular stuff like work and just be able to devote yourself to writing full-time," he says, "but that's not a luxury afforded to many. And, if it is, you still need to be really disciplined to get your writing done."

Taking part in writers' groups helped focus his mind and the encouragement of a creative writing tutor, the Berlin-based Irish author Julian Gough, ensured that he took A Ton of Malice from work-in-progress to finished product.

Gough's glowing endorsement pops up on the dust jacket: "An astonishing portrait of toxic masculinity to rank alongside Denis Johnson's Jesus' Son and Irvine Welsh's Trainspotting."

Although McKinley says he was always fascinated by the power of words, an epiphanic moment arrived when he first encountered Waiting for Godot in the early 1980s. For most, that initial acquaintance is made in the theatre, but for the would-be author it was through reading Samuel Beckett's seminal play.

"I'd wanted to write a play but needed to get a sense of how to structure it, so I bought a copy of Waiting for Godot. It captivated me immediately. Straight away, you felt you were engaging with something very special."

That thrill was accentuated when he first saw the play performed and he was determined to put his own creative work out into the world.

At first, he thought A Ton of Malice might work best on stage, but the more conventional approach won out in the end. He probably made the right call.

There's a lot packed into 250-odd pages and while there's detail that's laugh-out-loud funny, there are melancholy moments, too.

"You're not just laying yourself bare as a writer," he says, "but in a book like this, you're going back over aspects of your life that some might think would be best left alone."

A Ton of Malice, published by Old Street Publishing, is out next week

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