Patrick McCabe: ‘Even today you can walk into some Irish bars and be in a different dimension’ | Patrick McCabe

At one o’clock on a Thursday lunchtime there’s not a seat to be had in the Canal Bar at the Creighton Hotel in Clones, up near the border in the midlands of Ireland. Regular couples and groups of old friends have got here early for the blackboarded specials, the beef stroganoff or the Easter roast beef and are already on to sponge pudding. The Creighton is a grand Victorian railway hotel that lost elements of its stateliness when the railway station at Clones closed in 1957. Patrick McCabe, the novelist, creator of The Butcher Boy 30 years ago, grew up in a terrace of houses just along the street from here, and at 67 is old enough to remember the days when the maitre d’ at the Creighton greeted you at the portico with a carnation in his buttonhole. After many years living away, in London and on the coast at Sligo, the novelist again lives close enough to the hotel that when, after driving the couple of hours up from Dublin, I call him to tell him I’m in the Canal Bar, he wanders in, a big grin behind his beard, a couple of minutes later.

In the pantheon of storied Irish writers – Joyce in Dublin, Yeats on the west coast – McCabe has a special place as the conjuror of the small-town middle. His second novel, Carn, recreated a thinly disguised Clones. When The Butcher Boy was published in 1992, the irrepressible, murderous voice of Francie Brady established a new macabre magic realism for these provincial hinterlands.

McCabe is pathologically wary of pretence. When I suggested lunch to him, he wrote back to suggest we might run to a “bacon sammidge”. Seated in the Canal Bar with pints of Guinness each, we order the specials, stroganoff for him, roast dinner for me. The occasion for our lunch is McCabe’s new book, Poguemahone, an extraordinary 600-page free verse novel, already hailed in the Observer as “this century’s Ulysses”. In the days before I met McCabe its voices had taken root in my head. The narrator, Dan Fogarty, is looking after his sister, Una, who is suffering with dementia in a hotel-cum-nursing home in Margate. The drama of the book reconstructs the world of 1970s Irish London – Soho and Kilburn in particular – which Una’s mind insists on reinhabiting. Once you get tuned to McCabe’s brilliant playful wavelength, after a couple or three pages, you find yourself at home in Aunty Nano’s famous late-night club – “the land of Ziggy Stardust and Enoch Powell and Mike Yarwood” – and spending too much time at the “premier crash pad in all of north London”, paradiso or inferno, depending on your politics.

In the surreal days of 1960s “happenings”, McCabe suggests, the Irish had a head start. By way of example, he reminds me of the story of the avant garde film-maker Peter Whitehead, chronicler of the Rolling Stones. In the late 60s he came over to Dublin to make a promo film for Top of the Pops with the Irish folk band the Dubliners. He found them in their favourite bar one lunchtime. Within half an hour they had all hitched a lift on a horse and cart to start a pub crawl. Some days later Whitehead awoke in bed next to a beautiful red-headed woman he didn’t know, minus all of his camera equipment. “Back then, and still a little today, you can walk into some of those bars and be in a different dimension completely,” says McCabe.

You have a sense of that possibility talking to him. He gave up drinking for 10 years, but has the odd glass now, partly intrigued by the new language of craft beers. After a couple of pints, his conversation over three or four hours moves from Philip Larkin on jazz and the importance of dancing on tables without being filmed, to the third wave of Irish folk music and the inheritability of consciousness. If McCabe has a political theory, it’s that most societies should be run by women because put two men together and after a while “they’ll just want to get drunk and wake up in Donegal”.

I ask if he’s been working towards the voice of Poguemahone his whole writing life.

He suggests this is literally the case and talks of the genesis of the idea of examining that distinctly Irish hippy culture in a story he read by Ian McEwan called Last Day of Summer, back in the 1970s. The Clones of his childhood gave him a powerful sense of worlds elsewhere. These were first accessed in comic books, then in an annual folk festival – “our Woodstock” – in which “the beat generation merged with the banjo”.

Patrick ate beef stroganoff and rice, €11. Tim ate roast beef and mash, €12. They both drank pint of Guinness, €4.90.
Patrick ate beef stroganoff and rice, €11. Tim ate roast beef and mash, €12. They both drank pint of Guinness, €4.90. Photograph: Paul McErlane/The Observer

McCabe brought those ideas with him to London, when he first came over at 17. “I wanted all the pop culture and movies and music,” he says, “but it was also when the Troubles had just broken out and your Irish voice attracted attention when you didn’t really want to attract attention.” The soundtrack of Poguemahone, King Crimson and Bowie and Roxy Music, “is still ahead of its time 50 years on”, he suggests.

The other impetus for writing this book now, he says, was as a kind of personal inquiry into the nature of memory. “My father-in-law, to whom I was very close, had been afflicted with Alzheimer’s,” he says. “Pray God you never have to watch that, and because of things he was saying, the past began to merge with the present moment.” McCabe had been turning over phrases from a book of Victorian Irish melodrama and the two elements combined in his head to create the poignant voice of Una. “When you watch someone with Alzheimer’s you realise,” he says, “that we know nothing more about how the mind works than the Greeks did. DNA is another way of talking about the ghosts and goblins of the past really.” We pick over certain stories of our youth all the time, he suggests, novelists just dramatise that process.

McCabe always wanted to have that power. As a kid he was so in love with the world of ink he would steal foolscap paper and pens. When The Butcher Boy came out, he was 37; he and his wife Margot Quinn, an artist, were living in London in a tiny one-bedroom flat in Kilburn with their two small daughters. McCabe had been working as a teacher, but it had come to “be a writer or don’t be writer. I wrote The Butcher Boy. I thought it was pretty funny but I didn’t think anyone in England would be interested. Who gives a fuck about a small town in Ireland?”

Somehow, he says, the book got into the right sympathetic hands, found its way on to the Booker prize shortlist, became a movie. “Irish writing will never be the same again,” Roddy Doyle said. And suddenly McCabe and Quinn had a bit of money. “There was a funny thing, “ he says, with a laugh. “I was making something to eat for my girls and they had their little friend Will with them. Margot comes in all a-buzz, she’d heard this thing on the news that I was up for the Booker prize. It didn’t seem possible. And we were all shouting and screaming. And this little kid Will is sitting there. And eventually he pipes up. ‘That’s nothing,’ he says, ‘my dad’s got a huge boil on his nose.’”

There have been 10 novels since then. Their gothic extremes have sometimes seemed in contrast to McCabe’s life. He and Quinn have been married for nearly 40 years. Recently they opened an art gallery in a place called Carrick-on-Shannon, but Covid put a stop to that, and they moved back here.

I wonder, sitting in this same bar that his old man no doubt drank in, if he ever feels confined in Clones, hemmed in?

He looks surprised. “I never had that sense of wanting to get rid of it or anything,” he says. “To me, it was more like how the writer John McGahern described it: ‘The weather of your early life.’ The world has become very homogenised, but no one sees this place like I see it.” He looks around the bar and outside, at the high street. “As a writer I have to believe in it all,” he says, “the same way you might believe in a prayer, you know.”

Poguemahone by Patrick McCabe is out now (Unbound, £20)

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