Hes just written a third book for infants but Roddy Doyle is better known for the novels and films that depict a violent, impoverished Ireland. So what does he really think about his homeland?
[Roddy Doyle: Weve done an incredibly good job of selling ourselves as the land of the writing, singing, little people. Photo: Eamonn McCabe]
Doyle made his name, in part, from recollecting childhood. We are in his publicists office in Dublin, not far from where he grew up. He retains the posture of the kid in the back row: one foot hoiked against the table, slouched in his chair as if trying to avoid someones notice. When he speaks, his hand hovers in front of his mouth. It seemed like fun at the time, he says ruefully, of the books excesses. Doyle is at his best when hes working at street-level. In Paddy Clarke Ha Ha Ha he observed among other things what the desk lids at school tasted like (spicy like the ground under a tree) and the tests children set themselves - mad and in earnest (I had a book on top of my head. If it fell off I would die) in a wide-eyed style full of energy and humour that won him the Booker prize. But it wore a bit thin when applied, in later books, to the goings-on of adults. Doyle is never so fervent as when talking about the sorts of characters who populated his early trilogy, The Commitments, The Snapper and The Van: working-class kids with spirit, the legacy of 14 years of teaching.
Theres an energy level that I found extraordinary, he says. These kids, who if they had had a middle-class consciousness would have said, What the fuck is happening to me. Why am I here? And yet, the point of living was living as far as I could make out; the point of living was laughing. It had a huge impact on me. And in the absence of religion, these things raise the spirit. The sheer humanity of these kids ... I loved it.
The Ireland of those books - violent, impoverished, flattened by the church - is not supposed to exist any more. With a fervour the English are spared, all Irish writers are required to define what it means to be Irish, partly as a result of their own self-mythologising, partly through the tenacity of the stereotypes applied to them. In any case, says Doyle, being Irish has changed about 17 times in the last hundred years. He finds the image put out by the tourist board of Ireland these days hilarious in its cheek, particularly since all around the world people have swallowed it. Its a big con job, he says. We have sold the myth of Dublin as a sexy place incredibly well; because its a dreary little dump most of the time. Try getting a pint at one in the morning and youll find just how raving it actually is.
Earlier this year, Doyle got into trouble for suggesting, off the cuff, that James Joyce needed a good editor. He had practically to go into hiding; everyone from the New York Times to Icelandic radio was after him. But it still amuses him to kick against the po-faced orthodoxies of literary Ireland. You know, he says, Shaw left when he was 16 and Oscar Wilde was Irish, but you could just as accurately say he was British; the Isle of Man was probably their natural home, somewhere half way. And yet weve done an incredibly good job of selling ourselves as the land of the writing, singing, little people. Ive been asked why does Ireland produce so many great musicians, and the answer is it doesnt. When you count the great musicians Ireland has given the world in the last 20 years, you can do it on one hand.
The one massive change in the country is its wealth; the economic boom in Ireland has not been exaggerated and the only political question of the coming years, believes Doyle, will be how to spend it. At the trivial end, Why, for example, he asks, has Ireland come back from the Olympics with only one medal? Why are there still children living in poverty? We now have money but its not filtering down.
The money has succeeded in changing Irelands idea of itself. In his teenage years, says Doyle, his countrymen saw themselves ideally as Gaelic-speaking rural folk; we are European now. This hasnt ended the debate about Irishness; in fact it has only served to refuel it. In the Irish media there is a brisk trade in agony over whether the country has lost its way. This is typical, says Doyle. In the past, we agonised about our failure as a country and now its about our hyper success. Theres the worry that weve become materialistic. Ha! The glory of it is that youve got working-class people discussing whether theyll buy an apartment in Bulgaria and the solidly middle-class people resent this because its the kind of thing they used to talk about. I think the people must not have noticed what an absolute disaster the whole country was; the unemployment rate and the poverty. What it is that they miss I have no idea.
In sorting the myth of Ireland from the reality, there is one area that Doyle says is not overblown and that is the language. If a joke is doing the rounds between Dublin and London, he will always choose to hear it told in the former. The joy of reading Doyle is for his language, the colloquial snap of his dialogue, which he locates alongside Monica Ali and Salman Rushdie in its combination of the familiar with the unfamiliar.
When we speak English, we speak a little bit more than English, he says, and thats true, I think, of a lot of the old commonwealth countries. There is other grammar bubbling under it. My daughter, shes at playschool, she played the Blessed Virgin Mary in the childrens play at Christmas - it was an absurdly proud moment - and her line was, Lookit, Joseph, were after having a baby. It could not have been expressed this way anywhere outside Ireland, because its actually a literal translation of Irish, were after having ... Very few of us are aware of how much of what we say comes from the Irish, and that doesnt matter. But theres almost a Shakespearean quality to some of the language spoken in Ireland, and we havent lost that and were not going to.
Doyles parents were bookish, but not what he calls tweedy. It wasnt a lifestyle choice, they just owned a lot of books. He was lucky in his early schooling, coming under the influence of young and enthusiastic teachers who brought their outside interests in with them - aerial photography, archaeology, things to inspire young minds. Then he went to secondary school and encountered a brutality which he says still shocks him. He gets occasionally worked up about it, then drops it again. It was normal, then, but I feel very angry about the position we were forced into. Because when a teacher is tearing strips off some other guy, your initial feeling is just one of relief. Or if hes making the class laugh at the vulnerability of another kid, youre laughing away, and its only later in life you realise this is absolutely dreadful.
Did he manage to avoid corporal punishment? No, no. It was part of the package. There were people who would hit you for anything; not reciting the times table fast enough; whacked for every second over 30 seconds. There was a teacher I recall taking hostages at the beginning of every class.
Yeah. Its actually very funny in retrospect. Hed take up three guys at the front and if there was noise in class theyd get hammered. You hadnt a hope because those who didnt like you would make as much noise as possible; and in the world of little boys, those who did like you would make as much noise as possible as well. A particularly Irish solution to an Irish problem: take hostages.
A lot of the teachers are still alive and Doyle says if he encountered them today, he probably wouldnt make an issue of it. Its like, you cant condemn Chaucer because he wasnt a feminist.
He was passionate about his own teaching career. When he talks about the kids, he grins and grasps the air. He left because he wanted to write, but also the repetition was driving him mad. He taught English and geography, and while the English course might change now and then, the course of the river Shannon doesnt change at all. That became tedious.
Doyle loathes Catholicism. In a country so saturated by it, I wonder if he ever wished he could just succumb as he might see it, to belief, for an easier life.
No. Never. All I ever wanted from the time I could first start thinking about it, was to get the fuck out of it as quickly as possible. If I have a feeling of triumph as far as what has been achieved in this country, its the idea that I got out of that institution and was still a living, breathing human being. And thats the biggest change in years; that I no longer have to explain why Im not going to mass or being a Catholic; now Catholics are beginning to have to explain themselves.Therell be no going back. Its still a huge power broker, but its day is done.
The romanticisation of the church in Ireland is something that has always mystified him. When he was in his early 20s, he recalls seeing Malcolm Muggeridge talking about Catholicism on a late night discussion programme. And I thought, whats he talking about colour and pageantry for? Pompous old shite-hawk. Because in Ireland, colour and pageantry didnt enter into it at all. It was grey. And rain was a compulsory part of Irish Catholicism. It wasnt a proper Sunday unless it was pissing down so you couldnt do anything else. Ive never looked for anything else and Ive reasonable confidence I never will.
He allows himself occasional regret for things passed. In the old days, for example, when there was a party, his parents and their friends would get up and sing a song or recite a poem. It would kill him to sing in front of anyone and he can barely remember a line of verse. It was never insisted upon. So there are certain patterns and skills that are disappearing. And whats going to replace them I dont know. Alcopops maybe.
He misses the dandelion market at the top of Grafton Street in Dublin, where U2 played their first concert and where he spent his Saturday mornings as a teenager. It is now a shopping centre. He would have liked his own four children to have had the chance to hang out there, but generally, he finds nostalgia futile; something to be fought. Lets face it, as I sit here at the age of 46, I wouldnt be spending my Saturday wandering round the dandelion market. And if I did Id probably be clucking in disapproval at the dress sense of the layabouts.
· Oh Play That Thing, by Roddy Doyle, will be published on September 13 by Jonathan Cape at £16.90