Mas­ter story teller

Melvyn Bragg re­calls the ge­nius, hu­man­ity and wicked wit of his friend, nov­el­ist John McGa­h­ern

The Irish Times - Friday - The Ticket - - NEWS - WORDS BY MELVYN BRAGG This ar­ti­cle first ap­peared in John McGa­h­ern: Author­ity and Vi­sion, edited byZeljkaDo­lja nina nd Mái re Doyle( Manch­ester Univer­sity Press)

Melvyn Bragg on the ge­nius of John McGa­h­ern

In 1966 I did a tele­vi­sion in­ter­view with John McGa­h­ern, his first, not long af­ter the pub­li­ca­tion of The Dark. The con­ver­sa­tion took place in the leather-acred li­brary of Pak­en­ham Hall (now back to its orig­i­nal name, Tul­ly­nally), his cousin’s house in Co West­meath. John en­joyed the house, eyes con­stantly scan­ning it, not­ing, stor­ing it.

Tris­tram Pow­ell, who di­rected the in­ter­view, and I had been in­tro­duced to John’s work and to John him­self by the critic Ju­lian Jebb, who had a gift for spot­ting fine new writ­ers – Sea­mus Heaney was another of the many to whom he pointed us – and an en­thu­si­asm for shar­ing his plea­sure in them.

I re­mem­ber the faint glis­ten of im­mi­nent mildew in the stately li­brary, the cav­ernous kitchens, the copy of a first edi­tion of De­cline

and Fall hang­ing from a crude hook in a lava­tory, in­side which were the el­e­gantly hand­writ­ten words “What ge­nius I had then. Eve­lyn” – and the cau­tious but con­fi­dent pres­ence of John, who died 12 years ago next week, on March 30th, 2006. He was far and away the most con­fi­dent young writer I had met – and, as time has gone by, I can add, have ever met.

At the BBC – this was for the newly fledged BBC2 – there was a scrupu­lous method of preser­va­tion. Each year a form was sent around to the pro­ducer of a pro­gramme, and if a suf­fi­cient rea­son was of­fered the film would be re­tained. John McGa­h­ern, along with David Jones, Fellini, Renoir and oth­ers, was safely kept in its cat­a­logued tin.

The tin re­mains: John McGa­h­ern, 1966, then the name of the pro­gramme, neatly shelved. It is empty. Ei­ther bor­rowed and self­ishly un­re­turned, or stolen, or mis­tak­enly put back in another can among the many thou­sands. Who knows? The can re­mains ob­sti­nately empty.

In most ways it is not of such im­por­tance. There were other tele­vi­sion pro­grammes in which he spoke and spoke well. Be­fore be­gin­ning this I looked again at Colm Tóibín’s in­ter­view, which is very good in­deed. John’s mea­sured, well-honed and some­times deeply con­fes­sional an­swers were no doubt helped on their way by Tóibín’s love for and un­der­stand­ing of the work, which has, I think, in­flu­enced his own, most openly in his mas­ter­piece

Brook­lyn. And there are other in­ter­views. So noth­ing es­sen­tial is lost. We have the pres­ence of the man in vi­sion, the ex­pres­sion of the man, the face that some say re­veals more than words. But it was a cu­rios­ity.

One as­pect that caused com­ment at the time was that we chose to pick McGa­h­ern as a sub­ject at all. The head of the arts depart­ment at the BBC at the time, Stephen Hearst, an ex­tremely cul­ti­vated man whose fam­ily had fled to Lon­don from Vi­enna in the 1930s, quizzed me quite search­ingly. On what grounds had I cho­sen such a new­comer? And why had I in­ter­viewed him as if he were al­ready

It would do John an in­jus­tice were his ap­petite and tal­ent for of­ten wicked gos­sip not to be men­tioned. Few of his con­tem­po­raries es­caped hang­ing. His scorn was mag­nif­i­cently ex­pressed; damn­ing phrases are still branded in my mem­ory, if now locked away. But, my God, he could be fierce!

a long-es­tab­lished writer to whom all rev­er­ence was due?

It was be­cause there was that about him which, from me, called up rev­er­ence. Per­haps it was the all but vis­i­ble sense of vo­ca­tion that clung to him. Per­haps it was that awe-in­spir­ing cer­tainty of his.

We be­came and stayed friends. There are those who knew him bet­ter and for longer, but in those years in the 1960s we saw a good deal of each other, in Lon­don chiefly but also in and around Dublin. And from the out­set I thought he car­ried his own church with him wher­ever he went. Even into the pub and the or­der­ing of Guin­ness, of­ten ac­com­pa­nied by a rel­e­vant sen­tence from Joyce. But the church had be­come fic­tion. The Gospel was now the prose it­self.

There is the priestly prom­ise to his mother, so deeply nour­ished, and the sense of vo­ca­tion there can be in a writer – “the se­cond priest­hood”. Both th­ese were em­bod­ied in John, all the time. Save for out­bursts of al­most vi­o­lent cheer­ful­ness, at or af­ter a foot­ball match – we used to watch Ful­ham at Craven Cot­tage af­ter a few drinks in the pub at the north side of Put­ney Bridge – or out­rage when some ig­no­rant or crass re­mark had in­flamed his sen­si­bil­ity, there was al­most an in­can­ta­tory tone to his speech. It was even a lit­tle sung from time to time, like a chant, and more of­ten than not stream­ing with quo­ta­tions from his sev­eral cher­ished writ­ers: Proust, Flaubert, Joyce, Beck­ett, Yeats . . . They and so many oth­ers em­bel­lished all his con­ver­sa­tion. Of­ten they were his con­ver­sa­tion. It all went back to the pri­mary in­ten­tion to be a pri­est; how­ever fully he had shaken off the skin of the ob­ser­vances and cer­e­monies of the Catholic Church, there was lit­tle doubt that he was still dyed in the spir­i­tual mys­tery of things.

In some ways it helped that there were su­per­fi­cial sim­i­lar­i­ties in our back­grounds. Like John I was brought up in a rainy, back­ward ru­ral quar­ter of the Bri­tish Isles, was snared by the church young and served at the al­tar, was un­usu­ally close to my mother, and landed up in Lon­don, a city of young ex­iles from the prov­inces look­ing for com­pan­ion­ship and ad­ven­ture, and re­lieved to en­counter those as be­mused and ex­cited by the city as I my­self was. And both of us had taken the un­think­able step of mar­ry­ing out­side the tribe: he to An­nikki Laaksi, a Fin­nish theatre di­rec­tor, I to Lise Roche, a French painter. The four of us met ei­ther at their flat around Por­to­bello Road, in a pub or, more rarely, in a small res­tau­rant. All I re­mem­ber clearly is that the four of us got on com­fort­ably and there was a great deal of laugh­ter, of­ten in trans­la­tion.

It would do John an in­jus­tice were his ap­petite and tal­ent for of­ten wicked gos­sip not to be men­tioned. Few of his con­tem­po­raries es­caped hang­ing. His scorn was mag­nif­i­cently ex­pressed; damn­ing phrases are still branded in my mem­ory, if now locked away. But, my God, he could be fierce! No pris­on­ers. He would flick from the great saints of po­etry or fic­tion (al­most in­vari­ably dead) to sin­ners against the word (al­most in­vari­ably alive and some­how to be knocked out of the ring). He would have been a fierce de­liv­erer of penal­ties af­ter a con­fes­sion.

He was an au­thor whose work and man­ner beguiled other au­thors. I re­mem­ber talk­ing to David Storey at a time when David’s plays dom­i­nated the West End and his nov­els were in­vari­ably well re­viewed. We were drift­ing on about our con­tem­po­raries and af­ter a while he said, “So what we think is it all comes down to McGa­h­ern.”

And Ian Hamil­ton, ed­i­tor of the Re­view and then the New Re­view, critic and in his time the War­wick of the world of lit­er­ary rep­u­ta­tion, was al­ways de­lighted to talk over his lat­est en­counter with John, ei­ther in the work or in per­son. We drank in Hamil­ton’s pub, the Pil­lars of Her­cules, in Greek Street in Soho. Ian was de­lighted when much later he read a re­view, by Sean O’Ha­gan, prais­ing John’s work. “He’s got through to the next gen­er­a­tion,” he said hap­pily, as sage as John was priestly.

There are many times to re­mem­ber. The cel­e­bra­tions af­ter the South Bank Show Awards at the Savoy Ho­tel when he won the prize for lit­er­a­ture, pre­sented by Edna O’Brien and ap­plauded by Harold Pin­ter, Sea­mus Heaney and other prize-win­ners; his speech, de­spite his un­for­giv­ing ill­ness, was em­phatic and cour­te­ous and held, as al­ways, to his char­ac­ter as a writer of vo­ca­tion. The day we spent at my par­ents’ pub, the evenings when he seemed to cast aside the cas­sock for a while and a twinkly, ap­pre­cia­tive, gen­er­ous na­ture was in play.

We spent time in Dublin to­gether, a few days. I had been there be­fore, and nei­ther then nor since have I been in such a vividly rich lit­er­ary city. John nav­i­gated his way around it like a pilot boat slip­ping be­tween a crowded fleet in a har­bour. Dublin was to him pri­mar­ily James Joyce, and he walked in the great man’s sen­tences. And this was where . . . and that was where . . . and, stop, lis­ten . . . the sound of bil­liard balls click­ing against each other. Then off to Howth on a fine day, and, as if he had been re­leased back to Co Leitrim, he glowed on the hill­side.

There was a good deal of the teacher about John. In Dublin it ex­pressed it­self in full voice. The city was seen through the words of its great­est writer and oth­ers who may have con­trib­uted mem­o­rable phrases. Noth­ing else counted.

Apart from all that he was charm­ing com­pany, a sin­gu­lar man with a lovely smile, a bard of what can seem or­di­nary, a writer who al­chemised much of his life into fic­tion. He ended where he be­gan, rooted in Leitrim, where he is buried along­side his mother, the teacher, the in­spi­ra­tion who walked be­side him all his life. Their two names share a mod­est head­stone.


Left: John McGa­h­ern. “He would have been a fierce de­liv­erer of penal­ties af­ter a con­fes­sion.” Above: with Edna O’Brien af­ter win­ning the Lit­er­a­ture Award for Mem­oir at the South Bank Show Awards in 2006. Right: Melvyn Bragg

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