The life and loves of a boy from Bandon
He is one of our biggest exports. Graham Norton tells Barry Egan about dealing with his father's death, growing up gay in Ireland, his teenage sexual awakening in France, living on his own in London, and how he doesn't believe he will ever meet a significant other at his age.
In his new memoir, the intriguingly titled The Life And Loves Of A He-Devil, Graham Norton is back in his front-room in Bandon, County Cork, again as an 11 year old. It was a Sunday night he'll never forget. At 8pm precisely he had a sexual epiphany courtesy of RTE, and a movie called The Yellow Rolls-Royce.
Like a bolt of carnal lightning, Alain Delon came on the telly and slipped his shirt off - "which took my breath away; I may even have gasped" - to reveal eye-wateringly golden shoulders . . .
What was it about the aforesaid upper joint of a person's arms that resonated so with him at that age? Forty years on, Graham Norton, who in his patterned shirt has his own shoulders well-hidden - though he is sporting a tan from a recent sun holiday, presumably - says: "Isn't that the weird thing? It must be the same for straight people where you're watching an image and you see something - you know, the way a woman's blouse is sitting? When you're tiny, it's not a sexual feeling yet it is a sexual feeling, you just connect with it in a very kind of - 'Ohh, what's that about?'"
"And, they were golden," laughs the blond bombshell from Bandon. "He had a beautiful tanned, impossibly smooth back. I didn't know what I wanted to do about it. I didn't know whether I wanted to touch him or whether I wanted to be him."
Five short years on from that sexual awakening, he continued the French theme. The 16 year old had his first actual sexual experience in France by a lake with a pale young local lad called Claude a week before the end of Graham's stay as an exchange student.
"Maybe it is something about French men!" he laughs now. "I have never encountered a French man since."
Graham thinks about this statement for a milllionth of a second, sighs, then rolling his eyes, adds, "Well - I probably have! But not in any meaningful way."
I compliment Graham on his imagination in the book, describing the Gallic frisson with the fellow exchange student thus: "Claude waved his penis at me like a fleshy baguette straight from the oven."
"I was trying not to be too graphic!" Graham laughs now (you can see why, when young Graham won an All-Ireland school debating award, the judges pronounced upon his "wonderful sense of humour." In person, as on his hugely popular TV show, Graham manages a delicate balancing act between camp, cerebral weight and a near-pornographic wit.) Naughty Norton ratchets-up the homo-erotic joke-ometer yet further when he describes in the book his last weekend with Claude when they went camping in the Pyrenees: 'As soon as the lights were out so was the baguette.'
"We were in France!" protests Graham with a laugh now. "Baked goods! But he was not a shy man. That's really what I was trying to convey."
I ask him was he a shy man.
"Oh, God!" the king of the chat shows shrieks. "I remember when I came home from that holiday - and so little had happened, nothing really - but I was so wracked with sort of shame and guilt. And it is awful. I think back to how terrible I felt, how miserable I felt. You feel so bad that a kid could be made to feel that awful about something that is just fun really."
He writes in the book of that time, 'I was far from gay'. "Because in my head," Graham clarifies. "I was far from gay. If I was gay, I would have just had a nice time. And some people do. Some people growing up have lots of uncomplicated sex with boys and it is all grand and da-di-da. I just didn't. It wasn't a thing that straight people were doing either! No one was having sex. That just wasn't happening. Clearly it was happening, but as far as we knew in Bandon, county Cork, we were not aware of anyone having sex."
The author of The Life And Loves Of A He-Devil also had girlfriends. Was that some sort of psychological denial? "Yes it is," he laughs. "But it was also, 'Let's give this a whirl!' before I commit to. . . because at that time and this is the weird thing about talking about this stuff, it is just how old I am. That I am talking about a time that doesn't exist. It is history."
"And," he continues, "I still feel I live in the current world and yet I have this link to this dark time. I was literally growing up gay in a world where being gay didn't exist."
"So of course I had girlfriends, because that's what people did. They dated girls. I was only living my life for myself. You're discovering that all of it is new: gay, straight, bisexual, whatever it is. It's all brand new. So it would be weird if you didn't give girls a go."
And what was it like to give girls a go?
"It was fine. It was fun." There was a French professor Graham was dating when he was 20 who, frankly, accused him of being gay.
"Again, the Gallic thing!" Graham roars with laughter. "But in fairness, she was nearly 40! What was she thinking? There must have been enough clues! I would have thought that someone as sophisticated as she would have been able to spot it."
The Irish star is sitting at a table in a fancy office of his publisher's on the 15th floor of a building on Euston Road in London surrounded by copies of his shiny new book. Asked did he learn any truths about himself from writing it, he shrugs his shoulder. From examining himself in such forensic emotional detail in The Life And Loves Of A He-Devil, does Graham like himself?
"I don't dislike myself!" he laughs.
That's a very Irish answer, I tell him.
"But I think mostly in life, that is how you approach it, isn't it?" he replies. "Do you know what I mean - I'm not happy; I'm not unhappy. And I think that's good. If you loved yourself, that would be terrible! So if you don't hate yourself I think you are in a pretty good place."
There is quite a serious side to the hilarious Corkonian we see charming Robert de Niro and Madonna and Cher on the telly every weekend. He says the lowest point in his life "was a hideous break-up with my first serious boyfriend," he says referring to an Australian called Ashley. "That was pretty grim. And actually, this bit doesn't really feature in the book because there are no stories about it. It was just horrible."
This hard time in London coincided with when he was starting off in his career, and great things were not expected of him at that point. "This was before I was doing stand-up - it was in restaurants, and literally the restaurants were shutting down. I was working in restaurant that were closing!" he quips like Groucho Marx in his prime.
"I was writing shows to take to Edinburgh [the annual festival] but not making any money at all. They were pretty dark days, where I was thinking: 'What am I doing? Is this worth pursuing at all?'"
What kept him on that path, he isn't too sure. "If I'd been my friend," he recalls, "I would have taken me aside and gone: 'Give this up!' So I don't know. I suppose because every now and then I would get a word of encouragement or someone would say something nice or I would get a new gig or be invited to a different festival. But in terms of how it would become a career or how - to use that phrase - I would monetise any of this, I had no clue."
How does one monetise oneself without losing a bit of one's soul?
"Everybody monetises themselves, just by showing up. 'You big sell-out! Look at you, making the coffee for the people paying!' Everybody is a sell-out. That's the point. If it was just fun, you'd be there anyway."
Writing the book, Graham saw, "weirdly", these patterns about his life that he didn't know were there. "Like there had been far more funerals in my life than I knew there were," he says. "When I look back, I don't think: 'So much death!' But," he laughs, "there has been quite a lot of death."
"I didn't think that 9/11," he says referring to the terrorist attacks on the Twin Towers in New York in 2001, "would pop up in my story as much as it does. But I suppose that does for everybody. Everyone's life is divided into before 9/11 and after 9/11."
Yet everyone didn't have Dolly Parton with them, as Graham did in America, on that most terrible of days. "In fairness," he smiles, "I do have quite a good 9/11 story that I was in Dollywood in Pigeon Forge, Tennessee, with the woman herself when the towers came down. We could have been in the tip of South America, because we seemed so far away from what was going on in Manhattan. It was extraordinary."
Graham describes his mother as "undimmed by age". He recollects one story of the time she met Bruce Forsyth with her famous son on the TV set of Strictly Come Dancing.
"'Hello dear,' said Sir Bruce to my mother as he walked by her seat at the edge of the dance floor. 'For God's sake,' she said to me, 'I'm younger than he is!' My mother on a good night when we are down at my house in West Cork, she is on," adorable Graham gushes.
"She is telling her stories and she is having a great time. But equally as a mother she knew how she was going to bring her kids up. She was not going to veer from that path. There wasn't room for manoeuvre. That's who she is. Oddly I think she enjoys the celebrity because you would think as someone gets older they would get more fixed in their ways and conservative with a small 'c'. And my mother is sort of like Ireland in that she is revelling in the newness of it all," he says.
"And revelling in the fact that actually it is quite a broad church now and you can meet all sorts of people. And people you thought you'd never meet in your life you can meet and really enjoy and have a laugh with."
The second child of Billy and Rhoda Walker, Graham Walker was born on April 4, 1963 in Dublin. His sister Paula was already four. His dad was working as a Guinness sales rep, the Walkers were soon moving all over the country - Tramore, Waterford, Kilkenny, Castlecomer - before eventually settling in a "Protestant enclave" in Cork. "Bandon," he wrote in 2005 in his first autobiography So Me, "where even the pigs are Protestant."
Graham once said that he felt as much out of place growing up Protestant as he did growing up gay in Catholic Ireland.
"Those two things are meshed," he says now. "In my head the reason I felt like this was because I was a Protestant boy growing up in Catholic southern Ireland. It was only really after I left and encountered lots of gay people in some rural places, they all had the same story. And it is that thing of feeling 'other'. You can't name it. You don't know what it is. But you do grow up and you don't feel like . . .[pause] you know there is something off."
"I just read Rory O'Neill's book," Graham says referring to his VBF Panti's new autobiography Woman In The Making (which comes with a quote on the dust jacket from a certain Mr Norton: "The extraordinary story of a boy, a drag queen and a nation"), "and he has exactly the same feelings as me."
Does he think Ireland is less homophobic now?
"I do. I do. I have me and my bands of merry men wandering around Bantry during the summer. And, you know, I'm sure people talk about us behind our backs, but to my face I have never had any problems, or anyone shouting anything out or any homophobic abuse or anything like that."
Because that would say more about them than him?
"Yes, and also I might find out who they were!" he laughs. "You can do it in London because I am not going to track you down to your mammy's house." When his father died in 2006, Graham says that the sense of loss was overwhelming but at the same time "we all understood that he hadn't just left us - he had escaped", because, he ended his days, "made helpless by Parkinson's disease, in a bleak nursing home."
He writes in the book that his father's death was a major moment in his life. "The death of a parent is a huge turning point in any one's life because this thing that you knew was going to happen, but could never imagine happening, happens."
"And the arse falls out of your world," he adds, "yet somehow you go on." He remembers as a child thinking, 'What would happen if my granny died?' He couldn't, he says, imagine a world "without my granny. It just seemed impossible. And it is the same thing with your parent. But you are much older when you are thinking: 'What the hell will I do when they're gone?' The big change that came out of that," he says meaning his father's death, "was that it kind of made me like Ireland again."
He had fallen out of love with Ireland?
"I was never in love with Ireland. I grew up just expecting to leave. Like really from a very young age, I was out," he says meaning determined to get out of Ireland to somewhere else.
"I didn't like it very much. I didn't feel I fitted in. I didn't feel at home. And I knew if I was going to feel at home it was going to be somewhere else."
He lives on his own in a house on the river in Wapping in London with his two dogs. He jokes that being effectively on his own in terms of human company in the house is perhaps when he is happiest. "It seems to be!" A statistical breakdown of his relationship history reads thus: "five years with Scott, five - off and on - with a guy called Christian"; "and Ashley was two or three years." He writes, almost depressingly, in the book that despite all the men he's been with romantically that he has never met The One.
"You know what? Maybe I have found The One and it didn't work. You just don't know."
I ask him was Ashley the One.
"No. No. Well! The original Ashley, yes." Would Ashley not say - what about the original Graham?
"I don't think I changed. He went bonkers. I feel a bit bad for him because that is his real name. I did change some other names, but I left his in. Because when I wrote the first book I called him Ashley and he survived."
"Mostly," Graham adds, "I think I'm pretty even handed and fair with people in the book."
Not to the poor guy with the tight-foreskin, I protest! He will never be able to have sex again about reading that about himself. "He'd be delighted! He has already talked to me about it."
So, what's it like to go out with Graham Norton?
"To date me? Oh, I think it is the law of diminishing returns! But in the beginning, it's fun!"
Graham Norton says he "used to be a romantic man. I don't know if I am any more. Maybe I've just lost faith in romance. "
Because of Ashley? "No. Well, he certainly didn't help! But many people," he laughs, "along the way. But maybe that's just the mood I'm in today. Maybe if you talked to me tomorrow, I'd go: 'Yes, I do believe in romance.'"
Is he dating anyone at the moment?
"I love the 'at the moment'! I'm not dating anyone at the moment! I'm 51!"
What he has learned from his five decades on planet earth is, Graham says, that "it is nice being 51. It is nice not running around like a headless chicken and being quite settled and quite content and comfortable in your own skin. And quite sure of who you are. You know, a lot of the insecurities. . . yes, they are still insecurities." I ask him what is he still insecure about. "Er . . .I don't know!" he grimaces.
Is he insecure he will never find his big love?
"No, I am fairly certain about that!" he hoots. "Again, I think you need to be quite young and foolish to meet your big love. Because the longer you live, the more when you meet someone you kind of know how that story ends. And sometimes it kind of goes: 'Ok, I'll go with this.' But you know the story ends. I think for it really to work you need to be either very young and kind of go 'this is going to be forever' - and you genuinely believe that - or you are very, very old and you think this romance might out-live me!" he laughs again.
I tell him, slightly charitably perhaps, that 51 is still young.
"Fifty-one is not young!" Graham guffaws. "Let's not kid ourselves! It is in the middle there somewhere. But what I'm saying is, 51 is a hard place to be a foolish romantic. You'd look like an idiot if you were a foolish romantic at 51, whereas I think if you are 80 then it is very easy to be a lovely, foolish romantic, because even if you date them for two years it might see you out." On that note, I see myself out of his publisher's office in London.
The Life And Loves Of A He-Devil by Graham Norton is published by Hodder & Stoughton, price €28.99 hardback