Monday 19 February 2018

Review: How the boy next door turned out by Diarmuid gavin

Octopus Books €25.05
Diarmuid: How i grew into a tv star

Joe O'Shea

Diarmuid Gavin's story, as told in his new autobiography, is not your classic rags to riches, "how I succeeded against the odds" tale. The self-acknowledged "gardener off the telly" admits as much in the almost offhand title, How The Boy Next Door Turned Out.

Growing up in a comfortable middle-class suburb of Dublin, Gavin had a fairly typical Irish childhood of the 1970s and 1980s, with hard-working parents who wanted their five children to have broader horizons than they had been offered.

Where his story is most interesting is in the depiction of a young man trying to follow his own path in pre-Celtic Tiger times, an era that is in some ways about as remote to us now as the Desmond Rebellions.

Gavin went out into the world at a time when young suburban Irish people were, for the first time, starting to see options beside scrambling for a job in a bank or the civil service or taking the immigrant's road.

His father Jack, who worked hard to establish himself in business, had a lifelong passion for opera and would have loved to turn his passion for music into a career.

"How much more fulfilled would his life have been if the circumstances of his birth had been different? Opportunities exist now, whatever your background, that didn't then," he muses.

As he tells it himself, Gavin was a lacklustre scholar at best and only dimly aware of the possibilities offered to him by his one real passion as a young man.

Ireland in the early 1990s was beginning to stir but for Gavin, and many of his contemporaries, there were false-starts, missteps and lots of chancing to dumb luck.

His first job was in a Dublin garden centre for a modest wage (given in sterling as £60, many of the references to life in Ireland are translated for what the publishers are obviously eyeing up as a mostly Anglo readership).

"I planned to use the position as a springboard to try and secure a place the following year at the College of Amenity Horticulture. Suddenly I felt driven," he writes.

He found the course in the fusty Botanic Gardens in Dublin to be frustrating and Gavin, lacking anything close to what might be termed a business plan, eventually set out on his own to do something in gardening.

His stories of crashed vans, grimy flats and trying to satisfy the tastes of herbaceous border-obsessed suburbanites and the emerging affluent class are funny, real and involve plenty of rashers and chocolate hobnobs.

Gavin says he is not great in social settings but he did have the happy knack of meeting and endearing himself to people who could help him.

The socialite Terry Keane took what appears to have been an almost motherly, and at times amused, interest in the young gardener.

Success at the Royal Dublin Society gardening competition led to more work and greater ambitions.

But it was the Chelsea Flower Show, which he basically blagged his way into in 1995, that changed the course of Gavin's life. Gavin was, like his native country, largely making it up as he went along at that point.

But if he wasn't quite ready for the Chelsea Flower Show, the refined aristocrats of British horticulture certainly weren't ready for him.

The stories of "borrowed" diggers that accidentally burst water mains and scrounging fish and chips in Irish pubs ring true and stay on the right side of paddywhackery.

And as Gavin struggles to make his mark on the most frayed of shoestring budgets, you find yourself rooting for him. When he talks about his TV career, again, a series of coincidences, false starts and being in the right place at the right time, Gavin is honest in his assessment. "When things are going great on a programme, everybody loves me; I'm a character with charm and ideas," he says. "When I feel things are wrong, I get dragged down into a swirling blackness, I argue passionately and I disappear. Few people know how to handle me".

There is ambition and drive there. But Gavin appears smart enough to be able to take a step back from the game and realise that as a TV presenter he is a "commodity for the media".

The most personal passages of How The Boy Next Door Turned Out come right at the start of the story when Gavin talks about the loss of his brother Conor, when they were very young, in a road accident. It was obviously a deeply traumatic loss and he talks about this in a spare, yet moving way while establishing firm boundaries.

You get a very good sense of the man through these pages and Gavin's autobiography is an engaging tale of a sometimes chaotic path towards success and self-fulfilment. However, there is the sense that like the carefully ordered gardens of his suburban youth, Gavin still has his borders.

Diarmuid Gavin is signing copies of his autobiography in Easons, Marine Road, Dun Laoghaire, this Saturday, September 25 at 1.00pm

Irish Independent

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