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