Monday 19 November 2018

Review: Autobiography: Just Joe: My Autobiography by Joe Duffy

Transworld, £18.99

Sit-in: Joe Duffy
students during
an occupation of
the Junior
Common Room
in Trinity College
Sit-in: Joe Duffy addresses students during an occupation of the Junior Common Room in Trinity College Dublin

Joe Duffy, the presenter of RTÉ's Liveline phone-in programme, has been responsible for some of the best broadcasting to come out of Montrose and also, to my mind, some of the most troubling.

His greeting at 1.45pm every weekday -- "Hello, and you're very welcome to Liveline" -- is the signal for 400,000 listeners to sit back and await some lively debate or the exposure of a scam or a social scandal.

For others, it is the signal to switch over to Lyric FM.

His autobiography, however, will appeal to both camps, and will probably go some way towards winning over the Lyric-switchers.

Just Joe tells the story of Duffy's life in a straightforward, chronological way. It is written in a plain, chatty style, yet for all its simplicity, there are moments of emotional power.

This is not a misery memoir, although there is plenty to be miserable about in those early years in a tenement in Mountjoy Place and then in Claddagh Green, Ballyfermot.

There is no self-pity on display as Duffy recounts the poverty, random violence and lack of opportunity in the Dublin of the 1960s and 1970s.

Joe's father Jimmy drank heavily, and provoked rows with Joe's mother Mabel just so he could storm out of the house and down to the pub.

In a scene that will resonate with many children of alcoholic parents, Joe recounts how, aged about 12, he decided to stand up to his father. He pushed him out the back door.

Jimmy, alcohol and adrenalin coursing through him, put his fist through the plate glass window of the door and shredded his arm. He had to be persuaded to go to the hospital instead of the pub.

Jimmy, whom Joe admits he did not know well, is an enigmatic figure.

One of the most poignant images in the book is of Jimmy standing in front of the china cabinet in the front room at 6.30 every morning saying his prayers with a small statue of St Joseph the worker in his hand.

The young Joe was determined to get out of Ballyfermot and to somehow escape from the life his parents had. The cliché is that boxing is the only way out of the ghetto; for Joe, it was education.

The passages dealing with his years as a student activist in Trinity College are, for me, the most enjoyable in the book. Here was the Joe of old, bearded and wrapped in his trademark duffle coat, taking on the dons.

For instance, when he discovered that proceeds from the student canteen were being used to subsidise staff meals, he led a boycott of the college facilities and set up his own restaurant in the Junior Common Room.

The issues of this period were the ones that shaped him: access to third-level education, grants, medical cards, the indifference of bureaucracy. He was a great man for a sit-in.

Joe was a resourceful campaigner. He was a doer, and admits that meetings and minutes were not his strong point. As is often clear from his campaigns on Liveline, he's not content to sit back and wait for things to happen.

After a stint as a probation officer, Joe took a chance, resigned his pensionable job and signed up for a producer's course in RTÉ.

His big break came when doing an outside broadcast for The Pat Kenny Show in 1989 about the redevelopment of Dublin's Sherriff Street.

Gay Byrne was impressed, and arranged for Joe to be transferred to his staff, where he went on to do many more roving reports while a bemused Gay interviewed him from the studio.

Joe's account of his RTÉ career does not have the grip or power of the preceding chapters. We move from a surprisingly moving memoir into celeb autobiography.

A chapter entitled 'How Liveline Works' may give RTÉ management nightmares. The station has defended the programme before the Broadcasting Commission of Ireland, saying Liveline does not call people and invite them on air except in the interests of balance.

But this chapter, and accounts of the many campaigns pursued by Liveline, shows just how actively managed the content of the programme is.

RTÉ "lifers" will scan the last third of the book for any scandal or slight towards Gay, Pat or the late Gerry.

But I suspect the ordinary reader will savour more Joe's account of his early years, his honest account of his drug-addict brother and his long-suffering mother.

Of course, if they don't, they can always "Talk to Joe".

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