Saturday 26 May 2018

Brendan O'Connor The quiet man

Brendan O'Connor is a calmer man these days. He tells Ciara Dwyer he used to be an asshole, but getting older suits him. As 'Cutting Edge' returns to our screens, his regimented schedule with early morning swims will keep him sane in his very hectic life

Brendan O'Connor
Brendan O'Connor

A few weeks ago Brendan O'Connor wrote a column about his habit of taking notes on anything and everything. As he goes about his day, he scribbles down random ideas and observations. An unsuspecting woman sitting beside him on a plane might end up part of his notes. He might come to a conclusion about her without even talking to her. But equally, a conversation could change that. Either way, he writes it all down. Then he sends emails to himself. He is always on. The following morning, he has another look at these notes and tries to decipher their meaning. Many times he is mystified by his own musings.

When I read this, I laughed. He reminded me of a character in a Woody Allen film; a pompous director who would pause during a conversation, pluck a dictaphone out of his breast pocket, and say, 'great idea for a film'. Everything was grist for the mill.

When I met O'Connor last Monday morning, he told me that he believed in Woody Allen's dictum - "I like to work, it's healthy. It keeps me distracted. If I stopped, I'd say, what is the point of all this?"

But boy, does he work. He is the deputy editor of the Sunday Independent, the editor of Life Magazine, he writes astute pieces for the politics section of the paper, front page pieces and also, a mid-life crisis column.

People are really curious about the last one. The column reveals a lot. I remember all the fiddly personal stuff. I can tell you that he buys his underpants and socks in bulk, wears them until he dumps them all at the same time, and then buys a whole new batch. He has a ton of reading glasses - it's an ageing thing. He hates the notion of having to wear them but he consoles himself that they make him look like an architect. One pair fold in two and he can wear them half-way down his nose and peer over them.

I'm not sure if he is a hypochondriac, exaggerates for copy or has serious health problems; but either way, he seems to get himself checked out a lot. He had a colonoscopy recently. Like a woman after labour, he said that the tea and toast he had afterwards was the nicest meal ever. He has a cosy dad armchair in his Sandymount home; and sometimes he sits on it by the fire and listens to Irish traditional band The Gloaming. He has grown his own tomatoes, rides a HighNelly bicycle with a crate at the front and after much deliberating, he finally succumbed to a slim-line Italian puffa jacket. That is the suburban family man strand of his life.

Then there is his broadcasting career. Frequently, he fills in for Marian Finucane on RTE Radio 1 on weekend mornings. This is something he does with great aplomb, which is kind of staggering when you realise that he is relatively new to radio. Then there is his programme Cutting Edge which will be back on our TV screens for season four next week.

To some it is still a little new. But this is a good thing. The novelty hasn't worn off and for those who watch regularly, it still provides food for thought. When I asked around, I was surprised to hear that some people still linger on the fact that Brendan's chat show is gone and that Ray D'Arcy is doing the Saturday night slot. I ask him how he feels about that.

"I think other people took umbrage more than I did about The Saturday Night Show," he says. "I did it for five years and I did something that we could be proud of. There is a much better buzz around this [Cutting Edge]. Would I go back to a chat show? Not on your nelly. I think this is much more exciting."

In our house, we liked the show so much that viewing it turned into a midweek date with my husband. If we didn't watch it live, we always felt a little deprived. (This was a first for us.) Essentially, it's a bunch of people sitting around a table talking about their views on news stories. And in some ways, it's kind of old-fashioned. It's about talking but listening too. The panel is chosen with great care, and along the way, they reveal something about themselves. It might be journalist Alison O'Connor talking about attitudes to drink in Ireland, or broadcaster Chris Donoghue telling us about his life as a tenant renting apartments in Dublin, or Dr Ciara Kelly with a glint in her eye, saying that she thought it was OK to send your lover a nude photo of yourself, as long as your face wasn't in the shot.

Brendan lets the guests shine. His job is to listen, to draw them out and make everyone listen to each other. There are no shouting matches.

"They listen to each other, which people don't tend to do," he says. "They point out to each other why they are wrong. We have it out and I sit there."

He tells me that the difficulty is finding people who aren't liberals.

"You realise that the voices we have in the media are middle-class and generally liberal, yet I think conservatives speak for a lot of people. On the show, the liberals have to listen to the conservatives and the conservatives have to listen to the liberals."

George Hook was a frequent panellist. When I ask Brendan if he will be back, he says they've only cast one show so far.

"There is no doubt that what George Hook said was wrong and awful and deplorable, but if it had happened on Cutting Edge, George would have been picked up on by other people and they would have had it out," he says. "There and then we would have had a conversation. It might have changed some people's minds. I think the valuable thing is to have it out and that's what we do, every week."

A key part of being a panellist is revealing a little about yourself. I find that this is one of the most interesting things about the show.

"It's an important part of the conversation that we get an idea of why people are the way they are and why they think the way they do," explains Brendan. "Usually it's down to their stories. We saw it with gay marriage and abortion too. There is no black and white any more. Most people's opinions aren't pure, and they come from their story. We're all a product of our story, of the good luck and the bad luck in our lives and how we've dealt with it. "It's important for people to say - this is my story and this is why I think this."

On one show, as the panellists were talking about counselling, Brendan piped in to say that he went too. He said that he found it helpful and he made it sound normal. It was so casual, as if he'd said that he preferred tea to coffee. Afterwards, nothing much was made of it. It disappeared into the ether. But his words lingered in my mind. I had a million questions, including how he managed to fit therapy sessions into his extremely busy life. When did he go? Why did he go? And does he still go?

"I don't want to jump on any mental health bandwagon," he says. "I don't have any mental health problems. I don't think it's a big deal. I've been going for years, to the same person, and I find it really helpful. It's almost more like life-coaching at this stage. But there are times when I need it a little bit more and I go a little bit more often."

Does he go once a week?

"In general, no but at the moment I've been going once a week because I think I found the end of the summer hard this year… the change of the seasons… It could be as simple as that. I'd say I've had depressive periods in my life. I'd say that my temperament could tend to melancholic, that my confidence, self-esteem and self-love fluctuate a good bit. But then you could ask why do I put myself in the situations that I put myself in?

"One thing I've learnt is that the shadow side of you is very powerful. It's a question of trying to engage with it, and challenge it as well. I would have regarded myself as a shy person and then I read a book called Quiet by Susan Cain. It's subtitled The Power of Introverts in a World That Can't Stop Talking. You don't have to cure introversion and there is a great strength in it. This allowed me to do the work I do. To manage this, I do things like make sure I get down-time because if I don't get it, I get burnt out. So I have to carve out quiet time. And swimming is a very necessary part of my life."

He swims every day, for 30 minutes, usually in the mornings. (That includes the mornings he is covering for Marian.) In summer he will swim in the sea. On the day that I met him, he'd caught the tide for a bracing swim in Seapoint and soon, when it gets too cold, he will be back in the pool a bit more. But he will keep up the sea through the winter.

Swimming has become his thing. He tells me that he never did any sports when he was growing up. Initially, he went for lessons because he didn't know how to swim, and he wanted to be able to swim with his children. He is married to the journalist Sarah Caden and they have two daughters - Anna (9) and Mary (7).

"I try to get the swim done first thing in the morning and then it helps you manage all the other stuff," he says.

As he says this, I know that this is one of the effective rules for successful people. Brendan reads a lot of these self-help books and he seems to be on a constant journey of self-improvement. "Swimming keeps perspective, it clears your head. It's like every time you get in there, it's like a baptism. The cold is a clarifying force."

Sometimes when he swims he will try to practise gratitude, other times he will put aside his problems and when he comes out of the water, a solution seems to appear. The repetitive strokes in the water are as beneficial for his mind as his body.

"I'm happy just pootling up and down at my own pace. I'm not a great swimmer and I don't think I ever will be. I'll never be super-fit or very well co-ordinated. I don't get involved in hard-core swims in wetsuits. This morning when I got in, you know that most people wouldn't get in there because it's cold. For the first five minutes, I could feel it biting my hands and toes. But you tell yourself that it's fine, it's fine. So it's about mastering mind over matter. It just shows you that you can do these things if you set your mind in the right way. If I thought about going into a TV studio, the idea would scare the sh*t out of me. But you find that if you do these things that you are afraid of, it's usually fine; once you prepare and stay calm. It's only something that I'm learning as I get older."

These days, O'Connor seems content in his skin. And even though I only know him from emails - the last time we had a conversation was five years ago - he strikes me as more compassionate and more at ease with himself.

"The great thing about not having been beautiful or gifted or athletic when I was young… I see so many people now and you can just tell that their best days are behind them. But actually I feel that my best days are ahead of me. I'm getting better all the time. I'm learning much more about what I do - the radio work exercises a whole new muscle - and I'm coming back into the Cutting Edge feeling confident."

He is leaner now than he has ever been and he has settled into this life as a suburban dad. Even he finds this a little surreal. He explains that he feels like he is playing a role in a film.

"These things are incredibly exotic to me because I never thought I'd be that person. We all think that we're different and that we'd never be able to live a reasonably normal life. I think I'm much more compassionate now. When I look back, I think I was a bit of an asshole when I was younger. I was possibly trying to be something that I wasn't. I was trying to fit in with the lads. Getting older has been a good thing for me because I'm relaxed about that. I don't have to fit into those kinds of things. When you're younger, it's harder. I'm working on the compassion with myself but for all that I'm not saying that I'm great now. I'm still a bit of an asshole, but less of an asshole."

Brendan is very close to his mother. I always think that this is a very good thing in a man.

"I don't talk to her every day but we talk a lot," he says. "She sets me straight and she is always right about things. She'd be way ahead of me about the way a particular story is going. She'll say, mark my words, something will happen.

"She's been around a long time and she has these insights. She has this cute west Cork thing. She is a great reader between the lines, and that's what I try to do as well. You take in everything and then you try to distil a gut feeling. In her own quiet way, she and my dad are quite proud of me. And that's nice because you want to make your parents proud. I probably didn't do a lot to make them proud for a lot of the time, I would have been uncertain where I was going to land.

You become more like your dad as you get older. When I was younger, we fought like cat and dog but he's a man who would go against the grain and wouldn't go along with the general thinking of the mob. He's quite a thoughtful man. He was a scientist."

Sometimes Brendan's mum will tell him that she enjoyed one of his articles; and then she'll add, 'I could have written that'.

"And she's probably right," he says with a smile. He quotes her a lot.

When I put it to him that he has a strong feminine side, he swiftly concurs. He loves living in a house full of women and tells me that he finds women more interesting, honest and communicative. He loves family life, and being with his daughters helps him to relax. Sometimes it's something as simple as being in the same room, all looking at their respective screens. All he wants is for his girls to be happy. He and Sarah have been married for 18 years, which he finds incredible.

"She hates when people say, 'How do you put up with him?' That suggests that she is meek. People could equally ask how do I put up with her? Sarah is a tough cookie but I like that. She is more the boss than I am. At the weekend, they left the kids with family and headed off for a simple 24 hours to be alone, as a couple.

"It was fantastic. As parents, you can fall into becoming a unit for the rearing of your children and when there is one that has extra needs, a lot of the practicalities of that fall to Sarah. Outside of work, I'm probably too much about the kids. It's important to remember who you are as a couple and have a laugh. We are going to try to get away more often."

And I'm sure they will. He probably sent himself an email as a reminder. Just another note to self, in his busy brilliant life.

'Brendan O'Connor's Cutting Edge' Starts Wednesday, October 4, on RTE 1 at 9.30 pm.

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