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Marching to his own beat

Patrick McCabe, well known as the author of books such as The Butcher Boy and Breakfast on Pluto, comes to the Irish Cultural Centre this weekend for a night of spoken word, literature and music.

Entitled In the Smoke, the night will celebrate the publication of McCabe’s latest book Poguemahone while also marking the 25th Anniversary of the publication of Timothy O’Grady’s award-winning iconic book, I Could Read The Sky which features the photographs of Steve Pyke.

Timothy and Patrick will be Joined by the musicians Michael McGoldrick, Dezi Donnelly and Cathy Jordan of Dervish as well as the singer-songwriter Larry Beau.

Patrick McCabe will read from his epic latest novel Poguemahone which is a free-verse monologue steeped in music and folklore, crammed with characters, both real and imagined, on a scale Patrick McCabe has never attempted before.

O’Grady will read from the novel I Could Read the Sky, in which an old man from the West of Ireland lies in bed and remembers his life.

It is described as an emigrant’s story of innocence lost and redemption through music and memory and love.

O’Grady’s reading will be merged with music and song and weaved with the photographs by the world acclaimed photographer Steve Pyke.

Patrick McCabe told The Irish World where the inspiration for Poguemahone came from.

“The sound of a bodhran,” he says.

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“Which wasn’t mentioned at all (in the reviews). It’s all the way through the book,

“The beat of it is a  6/8 rhythm of a hand drum.

“I don’t know whether they are (picking up on it) or not, I mean, I haven’t seen anything about it anyway.”

What made you want to write about the sound of a bodhran? “I didn’t want to write about anything. It’s the way the rhythms come out.

“I didn’t sit down and think It would be nice to write a 6/8 time book.

“I don’t even particularly know anything about the bodhran but I am Irish so you have certain rhythms that you inherit from not just your parents, but from way back. You wouldn’t know when or how or anything else.

“I dig very deep when I write books.

“Timothy O’Grady’s book is full of music as well.

“I suppose I Could Read the Sky is a kind of lyric poem or maybe a little sonata or Symphony.

“Poguemahone is a kind of a reel or a jig so they complement each other very well.

“So it should be a rip roaring evening really.

“I would like to see as many people there as possible and I’m looking forward to joining with Tim. He’s a very entertaining and interesting person. It’s nice to be involved with the Irish Cultural Centre in Hammersmith who are doing great work.

“So it will be a good informative night.

“We’d be delighted to see people there.”

Was Poguemahone a labour of love? “It was, yeah. Maybe a labour of necessity.”

Have you been pleased with the book’s response? “I’m not so sure it was entirely understood to be perfectly honest with you.

“I think it was probably positively received, but maybe a little bit superficially.

“I think it perhaps might have been seen more as a social kind of analysis rather than a psychological or historical one.

“There was very little made, I thought, of the link with folk music and Irish speech and English speech, all those kind of syntactical kind of things that I put in there weren’t really addressed.

“I suppose it was positive enough but it’s a very long book and it wouldn’t be for everybody, I suppose.”

The Observer said of Poguemahone, ‘If you’re looking for this century’s Ulysses, look no further … a stunningly lyrical novel’.

“It is influence by Ulysses. I suppose if it has a strength at all, it has a playfulness in language and so does Joyce.

“I’m very, very fond of James Joyce.

“I mean, it’s nowhere near the standard of Ulysses but it has a kinship with it in terms of its, I suppose, unashamed Irishness and also it’s bounciness, you know? And its lack of sentiment, I would hope.”

Poguemahone is the story of two Irish siblings who leave their homeland and end up in Kilburn in the 1970s.

“It doesn’t just go back to the 70s, it goes back to the 18th century.

“People are peculiarly fixed on whether they remember a period or not.

“They go, ‘That’s a long time ago now, the 70s but so is Jane Austen’s world, so is the world of Henry the Eighth.

“Nobody says, ‘I wasn’t alive then so I’m not really that interested’.”

Like his characters, McCabe came to Kilburn himself, was it a time period that was relevant to him with his own experiences? “No more than anything else I write about, it just happened to be set in that period.

“Just because I lived through it doesn’t mean I’m any more bonded to it than if I was writing about the present or the distant past.

“It is what the novel demands.

“I suppose probably as a rule of thumb you might say that the characters in the book think in English and feel in Irish, the Irish language is a much more emotional and expansive language than English. Neither is better or worse than the other but they are different in that respect.”

Did you draw on your experiences of coming to Kilburn? “I would have used some of that material but I would have used a lot of other people’s experiences as well, whatever the narrative demanded.

“I just cherry picked, you know?

“The difficulty with writing about London is the whole narrative around Irish London is peppered with cliches, and they’re still going on I notice, people are still talking about the freedom they felt and they look at Ireland and Ireland’s changed, and they’re so proud.

“And all these are new cliches, you know what I mean?

“Obviously, if you go from a small town to a big city, there are the usual cultural misunderstandings and misapprehensions and excitements and depressions and all the rest of it.

“But I knew an awful lot about London culture long before I went anywhere near it.

“I knew an awful lot about the musical culture and the kind of historic inheritance of London so I was very keen to get there to experience all that as much as I would have been overwhelmed by it.

“And if you come from a small place, you will be overwhelmed by it.

“But the advantage the Irish have always had is that they speak English. It was a lot easier for us than it might have been for someone from the Windrush generation or India but my experiences were largely positive and continue to be.

“London is an ever changing beast, isn’t it?

“One area comes up, another goes down. You’re never disappointed by it in a way.

“That time it (Kilburn) was totally Irish, totally rural Irish as well rather than Dublin Irish or Belfast-  Well a bit of Belfast maybe but mostly Kerry/Mayo.

“I was right at home there, very rural Irish kind of inner city suburb so it was a great place actually to rear children.

“They went to the school around the corner, Christ Church in Kilburn and fitted in there very well, spent about 10 years there.”

Did you experience the anti- Irish sentiment that resulted from the IRA’s bombing campaign? “I never experienced any of that.

“(But) it would be a bit much to expect the people of London not to remark on the fact that somebody’s just blown the shit out of the West End, you know what I mean?

“It would be very curious if it wasn’t mentioned.

“Of course, it was mentioned but not necessarily that I was being blamed for it, it was discussed of course.

“It was a complicated time and turbulent time that has happily passed now.”

McCabe’s novels The Butcher Boy and Breakfast on Pluto have both been adapted into films.

Would you like to see Poguemahone as a film?

“Would it be possible even?

“It would depend who it was because a book like this, it’d be very easy to make it an hour and a half of pure and utter all out embarrassment, or an art movie that nobody would want to see.

“I don’t really think it would lend itself to a standard feature anyway, not these days.

“I was very lucky I had Neil Jordan who was like the James Joyce of the cinema world in Ireland so it was delightful from start to finish really and they’re both still very popular those movies. Movies usually come and go and die a death but you still see them on TV, people still talk about them.

“Breakfast on Pluto was sort of ahead of its time in a way.

“It was a very delightful experience.”

Patrick was not expecting the success of his 1992 novel The Butcher Boy.

“I was living in a one bedroom flat in Kilburn, teaching in Kingsbury.

“It wasn’t exactly the sort of news you’d come home to expect when you’re scratching away writing novels: That people are really responding to this book, because mostly it doesn’t happen to people really.

“I’m still surprised.

“I thought it would sell 2000 copies and that would be the end of it.

“It wasn’t the case.

“It became very popular in America, it still is.

“They likened it to Huckleberry Finn.”

You say you’re not sure the book has been understood, why do you say that?

“I could be wrong about that.

“But what I’m reading in the reviews is not really what I was writing about.

“I mean obviously the superficial story of a brother and sister going to the UK, but if you actually read the book carefully, the narrator doesn’t exist.

“Now, if you don’t mention that in a review, then you’ve missed something very important.

“I think there are so many demands on people’s time now with Netflix, and they don’t maybe read as closely as you might expect them to.”

You say you’re halfway through a new book…

“It’s called Golden Grove.

“It’s basically a black comedy thriller set in Dublin in the 50s and 60s. You might describe it as an Ealing comedy crossed with The Long Good Friday.

“It’s much easier to get that one across than maybe Poguemahone because it’s straightforward enough.”

You have been shortlisted for the Booker Prize twice for The Butcher Boy and Breakfast on Pluto, are they among your proudest moments? “Not at all. Absolutely not.

“No, no, no. I don’t think in terms of careers anyway, I just think whether I get a book right or whether I don’t.

“And I would say of Poguemahone that I was very proud of that.

“It didn’t win any prizes and it probably never will but that’s not important.

“What’s important is, ‘Is there anything I would change in it?’

“There isn’t so that’s kind of proud for me.

“There’s too much talk about them (awards) anyway.”

In the Smoke is at The Irish Cultural Centre in Hammersmith this Saturday 3 June.

For more information and to book, go to irishculturalcentre.co.uk.

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