Sylvère Lotringer, ‘A Hostage to Misfortune’ interview with Brendan Behan, in The Irish Times (Tues, 24 May 2005 ), “Arts” Section.

I did this interview in Dublin in January 1961; it has never been published before. Behan was a well-known figure in Paris then. The Quare Fellow and The Hostage had been resounding successes on the stage. His Borstal Boy had just been published in French and I was about to review it. I decided to get some background information directly from Behan. He was kind enough to meet me at his home on a Sunday morning. He seemed a little dazed at first, although already smoking a fat cigar. We sat in his living room, which looked a bit disorderly. On,the floor there was a half-eaten carcass of an animal, a chicken probably, lying on a plate.
  Behan’s eyes were red and puffed up, his face a bit crumpled. He must have stayed up pretty late the night before.
 Our conversation wasn’t exactly meant to be an interview, although it turned out to be one. Although Behan was full of goodwill, he was obviously trying not to talk about Borstal Boy, which he didn’t seem to remember very well. As a consequence, he kept introducing anecdotes about the history of Ireland, the IRA, the Communist party, his years in prison and the time he spent in France as a young writer.

SL: Now did you come to write Borstal Boy?

BB: Actually, I forget the f***ing thing.

SL: Did you enjoy writing it?

BB: If you write a book and it goes off while you’re working on it, it’s the happiest time of your life, A writer will never spend better time than when he’s working. Provided he’s got money, he’s going to get food and he’s going to get a certain amount of sex. He doesn’t even need a lot of that. Proust said one time that the two greatest allies that a writer has are chastity and water.

SL: You had water?

BB: Gotta have a woman knockin ’round the place. Well, it’s preferable. Say if you were two blokes about19 or 20 you’d probably get on okay together. But usually a woman is better. I got no prejudices one way or the other. But you got to have heat. you’ve got to have a reasonable amount drink, if you’re able to drink. Yeah, when I started to write I was okay. I could drink a good jar. Good to live in France - in Paris because you meet other writers.

SL: You left Ireland just after they let you loose [from prison]?

BB: Sure. I was out-for a bit. I was released in 1946 in Ireland. Then I was arrested in England in 1947 and I got four months, because somebody had escaped from jail. A man called Richard Cohen, alias Timmons. Or Timmons alias Cohen. I came to France at the end of ’48 or ’49, I forget which. But I had been to France on little trips before. I’d been to Rouen on horse boats. I used to go with sailors. They knew me - used to give me a lift over. But I finally arrived in the Latin Quarter and I didn’t know any French. I said to a fellow. “Where’s the Latin Quarter ?’ He said: “ Comment ?” I said, “Where’s the Latin Quarter ?” I had never learned any French at school so didn’t know any. Finally, I looked along the métro to see if it said Quartier Latin. I’d have probably called it at the time “Quarter Latin.” I didn’t see anything, but I did see Saint-Michel. Everyone knows Saint-Michel. So I got a métro... And while I’m exceedingly fond of the French, I orbited principally amongst English-speaking French people and native speakers of English in the Quartier Latin. Because I’m not Samuel Beckett, I don’t love to be funny in two languages. Though I am funny in two I’m funny in Irish and I’m funny in English. But anyway, I worked for a little while as a housepainter. Drank anything I got. Wasn’t much.

SL: Now tell me, when did you first think of becoming a writer?

BB: I was always surrounded by books, although we lived in the slum. My father used to steal books., mostly from convent libraries, or from the libraries of such Protestants as can read. I don’t like employers. And since a lot of my employers happened to be Protestant, I didn’t like a lot of Protestants. The Protestants produced great writers Yeats, Sam Beckett and others too numerous to mention, as the saying has it.

But most of the Protestant people around Dublin that had any money were business people who didn’t read anything except the Bible and the bank-book. Mostly reactionary in politics and snobbish. Kindly for the most part, except if you were working for them... The idea that I became a writer in jail is a fallacious one. Nobody becomes a writer in prison. The only kind of writer you become in prison is a bad writer. There was one book written in jail, Pilgrim’s Progress. It was not a part of my education as a child. I was raised a Catholic and a Red. There was no place for pilgrims and progress in my childhood, I’m happy to say. I read the f***ing thing afterwards. They should have stuck him back in Bedford prison for writing it.

In much of your work - The Hostage, for instance - prisons always seem to be very present. Well, the world is a prison for anyone who hasn’t got any money. You know what Albert Camus said? He said: “The duty of the writer is not to those who, are in power, but to those who are subject to them” In the same way, an awful lot of people go to prison and it doesn’t seem to fundamentally matter much what you go to prison for. It’s not an important point. People get into jail for all sorts of situations. I mean, I don’t try to shed tears for everybody in prison. But a great number of people live in the shadow of imprisonment for one reason or another.

SL: What’s the experience you remember most vividly from all your years in prison or in borstal?

BB: All my years? I don’t remember. People forget; they don’t remember. Except I remember professionally. If you were to stick $1,000 under, my nose, or £250, I’d remember quick enough. That’d jog my f***ing memory. But it’s an effort. I remember I had great health. I used to box at nine stone and two. I wasn’t a very good boxer. Gene Tunney who was perhaps, the greatest boxer that ever lived, was the only man who ever looked at me and accepted the fact. He said: “Yeah.” He says: “Yeah.” Other people say: “Oh I’m sure you were better than you think you were. You’re just saying that. You’re just being modest.”

Well, I was a very bad boxer for two reasons. I couldn’t, fight except I was in a temper and I don’t get in a temper unless I get scared. And when I was in the ring I wasn’t scared. I guess I wasn’t ferocious enough. Basically, I had a short reach - too short a reach for my weight, do you understand? And I remember everybody, they were a decent crowd. The people in charge of the place were English intellectuals. Any kind of intellectual is better than no intellectual. You can’t get along with the f***ing intellectuals. Nobody can.

SL: How old were you when you left school?

BB: Twelve. I was at school with the French Sisters of Charity. Les Soeurs de St Vincent de Paul. They were mostly Dublin girls and some French girls. Dublin girls in a convent are very unusual because you dont ge’t many Dublin priests and you don’t get many Dublin nuns. well, these were mostly Dublin girls, from north-east Dublin near the docks. I went from there to the Christian Brothers when I was 11. They were the biggest crowd of f***ing bastards that I have ever met in my life. If I had a child I would not send him to anywhere except to where there were married men. I don’t give a ballocks as to whether the men were young or they were old, but they gotta be married. No unmarried man is entitled to have children under his control. A woman perhaps, when the woman is getting screwed good enough, she’s okay. Nuns seem to me to be an exception. They were very nice people. They were very good-humoured people. Whether they’re especially blessed by God or not, I don’t know, but apparently the blessing seems to extend only to the female section of the religious communities. The men were just nuts. They used to beat kids up. It was obvious that they weren’t getting laid often enough.

And I don’t like religious people to have charge of children either. Well, I like children to have a bit of religion, maybe, but not too much. If I was given the choice between having a very religious person and an atheist that was well-read and had advanced and progressive ideas, if I was given the alternative of having, say, a very religious persona who only read La Croix – is that what you call it? – and having an atheist that read L’Express or France-Observateur or L’Express. I’d get the religion somewhere else if I wanted to …

SL: What happened to you after you left the prison?

BB: So I went to France. In France I was writing – in Englsh, of course. I wrote a bit. Finally, I got a job working for Mr de Valera’s newspaper the Irish Press. A friend of mine who’d been in prison over the IRA became editor of it, McGuinness. He gave me a column to do every week, which I did. And I leived on the column while I finished Borstal Boy. So Mr de Valera fdid this much good for literature, that he enabled me to finish Borstal Boy. I didn’t have it finished, but I had most of it. And a man called Iain Hamilton from Hutchinsons who was a friend of mine … I don’t like publishers as a rule. But Hamilton was in the Shelbourne Hotel and he saw some of it and he said: “Can I have it?” I said: “You can if you give me £150 for it in advance. He said: “Sure.” He gave me £250 to finish it.

SL: When did you start writing Borstal Boy?

BB: I started it in the Hotel Louisiane -which is the corner of the rue de Bucy - in an apartment occupied by a man called Desmond Francis Ryan who for some reason was called by the patron of the hotel “Monsieur Rien”. But Desmond Francis Ryan lives in Paris. He lives in the rue Molière. And he’s a great - well, he’s still a very literary, entertaining man - he is the Paris correspondent of The Irish Times.

I then left Paris and had no home, no place to go. I was skint in Paris - had no money - and I heard everybody saying you should have been here in Hemingway’s time, 1920 and so forth and so on. But the ex-GIs were there and those American guys; they were okay. They were very good to me. One of them who I knew very slightly was Norman Mailer, the man who wrote The Naked and the Dead. He bought me ham and eggs in the Pergola. Do you know the Pergola? It’s in the Boulevard Saint-Germain. Well,he bought me ham and eggs at a time when I had not eaten some ham and eggs for a long long time.

I scrounged from Americans who were on the GI Bill of Rights, from a great number of French people. One of them was a lady called - she didn’t set up to be a literary sort of a patron or anything of that sort - her name was Dame Housty. She lived in the Rue de Grenelle. How I came to meet her was I had been out all night in Paris. Paris is a city where you can be out all night. At least you could at that time. I never had trouble with the police in France until I became rich and famous... Well, not rich but famous. I had been walking around all the night because I had I had nowhere to go and I called into a couple of cafés to see would I meet anyone who would give me a drink and I couldn’t find anybody. So anyway, it was a summer’s morning and I went down and... You go along windowsills in Paris, you’re always sure to find something. People are in the habit of leaving odd pieces of food up in the place, so I found some old stuff. I went across the Place de la Concorde where they were making a film at the Cleopatra’s needle, the Obélisque. I went and stood with a crowd there. Finally, I wound up walking across the Champs de Mars at about six in the morning. No, I went to Les Halles and I scrounged a swig from a bottle from a clochard, from a couple of clochards, and I got a couple of pennies and a couple of francs there.

SL: Some people in France found your depiction of the member of the IRA in The Hostage to be a bit artificial. He behaved more like a West End type, a fashionable fellow, a character in a comedy.

BB: Well, it’s artificial only to people who do not understand the theatre. Only to people who do not know music-hall, vaudeville. Only to people who are such peasants, such Parisian peasants in this context, that they have never seen the Berliner Ensemble by Bertolt Brecht. I don’t imitate, Brecht but... Have you ever read The Good Soldier Schweik by Jaroslav Hasek? Did you ever read Dickens, for Jesus’s sake? What do you want me to do? Have them all sitting around a table? Have a rhinoceros running round the place like your adopted chum, Eugene Ionesco, who is a client of the US. I am a friend of the US and I love the US. Je ne suis pas un client, je suis un ami.

The only thing that your question convinces me of, Sylvère, is that you’ve got bogmen everywhere. Do you know what a bogman is? A paysan. You’ve got them in France-Observateur. You’ve got them in the Irish Press. But the people who say that sort of thing about me, they ought to go to the theatre more often. And I’ll tell you what they ought to do. They ought to go to Paris more often. Not have their minds stuck on their own stupid garbage-faced old mother up in the Vosges, stuffing truffles up a duck’s ass. That might make for a very good peasant’s wife, not for a good drama critic.

SL: And some shrewd French critics, just by reading your book translation, figured that you’re writing in a special Anglo-Irish language.

First of all, I know more than your goddamn French critics, and I know more than any living person about the language - not just of Ireland - but about the spoken language. I’m not going into any philological arguments about nationalist languages – whether Breton or Provençal or the langue d’oc or Welsh. I know more about the language of the people that inhabit England, Ireland, Scotland or Wales than any other man living.

I’m the only person living here that can say hello in every language spoken, apart from dividing it into dialects. [He says: “Hello how are you?” in many languages.] All those languages are spoken in these islands, but that’s simply a kind of tour de force, a bit of a show-off. I’m simply calling to your attention the fact that besides English, they also speak Irish Gaelic, they speak Scotch Gaelic, they speakWelsh, fewer people speak Manx and they speak French. French is spoken in the Channel Islands. Maybe you think they belong to France, I don’t know. But in any event, the English language is, of course, the language of these islands and a very great and wonderful language it is. Now the first person to put a Cockey – to write Cockney dialogue for the West End stage within living memory - was me.

I have been attacked on all sorts of grounds. Nobody has ever said that my Cockney is not authentic, that it is not just as Cockneys speak it, and that goes for Cockneys themselves. I can write the way that the north of England people speak. The Irish for the most part speak English the same all over Ireland. There’s not very much difference.

SL: Gaelic also is a literary language.

Let’s stick to one thing at one time. Your critics allege that I had kind of fashioned a language of my own in English? What I write is,English. I write English as she is spoke. Perhaps one person speaks English one way and another person speaks it another. But Evelyn Waugh, when he went to write Cockney, was an abysmal failure. Cockney is a speech like any other. For instance, the use of the word “f***” is very important. Because it’s an important part of the speech of the majority of people in these islands. Now if you were to ask Mr Samuel Beckett about that, who is a friend of mine incidentally, he would say that what I was saying is not true. That’s because he hasn’t been in the habit of hearing it.

[ Edited version of an interview published for the first time in the Field Day Review. ]

[ close ]
[ top ]