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A WORKING MAN IN HIS PRIME
pat mcCABE is on a roll. Neil Jordan s film adaptation of his acclaimed novel The Butcher Boy has been rapturously received. His latest meisterwerk Breakfast On Pluto about a border county transvestite is about to be published. He s going on the road with Jack L. And what s more he was recently named Monaghan Man of the Year! Interview: liam fay. Pics: Mick Quinn
Liam Fay, 04 Mar 1998
For many, Pat McCabe is Ireland s greatest living
artist. Not alone did he write The Butcher Boy, the finest novel in modern European literature, but he also co-wrote its brilliant screen adaptation.
For some of us though, Pat McCabe s finest achievement will forever be his cameo appearance in the movie; his brief but immortal portrayal of town soak Jimmy The Skite (a character perhaps better known to devotees of the novel as The Drunk Lad).
The years of research I did on that one, chuckles McCabe. I always felt that the Irish drunk never got a fair shake. Especially on the screen, where he s always this mumbling eejit. But this man is dedicated, like any artist, to the pursuit of drink and extortion.
It s a fair enough approach to life. An entrepreneurial attitude. He ll adopt any strategy whatsoever, whether it s carrying statues of the Blessed Virgin or becoming holy, and then changing his mind. It seemed to me that this man had a powerful inner life that had to be reclaimed.
Jimmy The Skite essentially dances onto the screen and dances off again a few minutes later. It was the idea of director and co-scriptwriter Neil Jordan to cast McCabe in the role, but Pat was more than a little dubious about the capacity of his toes to twinkle. I did enjoy it but it was nerve-wracking, he says. I protested at first but Neil insisted. Although I ve done a lot of readings, you only use the upper part of the body for that. When you re acting, you suddenly discover you have fucking legs, which comes as a shock.
While McCabe is as astounded as the rest of us by the astonishing central performance of Killeshandra schoolboy Eamonn Owens as Francie Brady, most of the author s favourite scenes in the film involve the magnificently detailed work of the likes of Rosaleen Linehan, Brendan Gleeson, Tom Hickey and Birdy Sweeney in the smaller roles.
It s quite a rogues gallery, Pat grins. What pleased me most was that the compassion that s in the book comes out in the movie. There s no villains in it, really. All these characters we met when we were growing up, they were often seen as just bit-players but they were anything but. They are what gives the colour to the much-maligned rural environment. That s what used to keep me going, all that stuff.
No matter what corner you d turn you d meet some fuckin head-the-ball. My daughters noticed that when we were up shooting it. They couldn t wait to get back to Clones.
Pat McCabe loves small-town life, with its quirks, cranks and kooks. He is also besotted with the glitz, static and sleaze of the big city. It s the suburban locales in-between that he can t stand, as he discovered when he, his wife Margot and their two daughters moved back from London to Dublin, in 1993.
We lived in Kilburn. In a way, Kilburn is a giant Carrickmacross, with a fleadh ceoil going on all the time. You had the Afro-Caribbean thing, Somalians and all. You had music and all this other stuff going on. There s a kinda community vibe about it which was great.
But then, we moved to Sandymount, and I hated it. It didn t have any of that London stuff and it didn t have any of the rural stuff either. It was caught in this limbo. It s a lovely place to come home to and to lay your head down at night if you re an RTE producer. But it s no good if you re there all day.
It was the same when we tried living in an estate in Balbriggan. One of the most awful things about it was that everybody had kids the same fucking age, in an estate of 500 houses! That s why we left it. I couldn t stand it. When you were finished your day s work, where would you go? You can t walk into town. I actually realised then how much I missed small towns and small talk and all that. Even if you re not listening to what anybody is saying, it s a human connection, which is particularly important if you re writing all day. It s not a very healthy occupation.
I meet Pat McCabe in The Longford Arms Hotel, on Main Street, Longford, half way between Dublin and Pat s current home of Sligo. I live in the middle of Sligo town and I love it, he asserts. It s a good mixture of the urban and rural. I wanted to buy a house and house prices in Dublin are insane. Like anybody else who has a family, I m not going to pay a fucking hundred grand for something that isn t worth it. Sligo is full of writers and painters but that s only coincidental. I don t care whether it s full of painters and writers. I wouldn t like to feel I had to be part of some artistic community. Fuck that!
Longford is a familiar stomping-ground for McCabe. It was here that he secured his first permanent position as a primary school teacher, at the age of 19. Later, he was a regular visitor to the town when he gigged with an assortment of ballad groups and played pianette with those legendary country n western journeymen, Paddy Hanrahan & The Oklahoma Showband.
Music is the key to understanding Pat McCabe. He was into records long before he was into books. Born in 1955, his childhood in Clones, Co. Monaghan, was marked by a voracious appetite for rock n roll radio. Throughout the 60s and 70s, music dominated his imaginative life and instructed everything from his choice of girlfriends to the length of his hair.
McCabe has the eclectic tastes of the true fan. He plays records almost all day, every day ( like a lot of people my age, I ve gone back to vinyl ) and believes that he s now listening to more music than ever before. I ve a big record collection but I m not an anorak. I don t file them. I love Radiohead, the best band in 20 years. The new Dylan album is great. The Led Zeppelin BBC Sessions are amazing. And I m listening to a lot of Doris Day. I like her.
One of Pat s greatest enthusiasms in recent years has been his collaboration with Mr. Acoustico, Jack L. McCabe and Lukeman travel around the country to pubs and clubs where Pat reads some selections from his five novels while Jack provides the appropriate musical accompaniment. An extract from Carn sees Jack crooning Love Me Tender . A chapter of The Dead School is swathed in his magnificent version of Macushla . And so on.
We re gonna do a lot more of it now, because we get such a good reaction, Pat attests. He s the man of the moment, Jack. We done a few in Galway, done one in Monaghan. There s something stirring there that people like. It s not a Beatnik thing either, it s a kinda anti-Beatnik Beatnik show.
I m so tired of the bookshop scene. I really can t bear it anymore and I hate to be asked. I enjoy reading, but not to ten other writers and agents and all that. With all these festivals, it s become a circuit. A full time drudge. Ten Irish writers stuck in a hotel, it s like a busman s holiday. It s a glorified piss-up. That s the problem, that s all it is. That stops being enjoyable after a while.
On and off, Pat has also been tentatively working on a number of projects with Gavin Friday. Gavin is busy scoring movies right now, but they hope to do a CD together as soon as schedules and budgets permit.
And then, there s Pat s solo material. He s been writing his own songs for years; ballads, parodies, serenades, you name it. His catalogue includes such exotic numbers as Rashers, Sausages, Eggs and Beans ( that s about living in Balbriggan ), Midnight In Magheraveely ( a song for all those young lovers out there tonight ) and, most controversially, Bosco Is A Bollocks , a searing indictment of RTE s nefarious glove puppet.
It s an affectionate song really, but that little fucker did drive me to the edge of distraction, as he did most people, Pat asserts. I think I m speaking for the people on this one. That squeaky voice. He was a bollocks! I d see him on the television every afternoon when I d nip into the pub for a pint on the way home from school.
There s a disturbing similarity between the melody of Bosco Is A Bollocks and You Can t Always Get What You Want by The Rolling Stones. I have a whole range of these songs that I used to sing at parties and things. Just rubbish really.
Any plans to record Bosco Is A Bollocks ?
Ah Jesus, no. I wouldn t have a fucking ounce of credibility left. I remember playing some of these songs once for Gavin and all I can remember is him looking at me in horror. He said the lyrics were great but it was like watching some mad Christy Moore man on the loose with a three-string guitar.
If they were ever recorded, I d be afraid of people taking them seriously. If you re lying on your back squealing, it s a different story. People know that you re only acting the bollocks. But imagine if this thing was marketed? Butcher Boy Man Sings Butcher Boy Ballads? Oh Jesus, I d be finished.
It always starts with a song. Pat McCabe s head is fitted with some sort of self-selecting juke box, crammed with stacks of weirdly wonderful and wonderfully weird 78s and 45s. Pop, rock, folk, country n western dirges, cop show sig tunes, ad jingles, all manner of strange fruit and stranger fungus.
Some years back, the track spinning on heavy rotation inside the McCabe skull was The Butcher Boy (a song which was not, despite recent reports to the contrary, written by Pat s father it s a folk standard). More recently, Count John McCormack s Macushla and Middle Of The Road s Chirpy Chirpy Cheep Cheep were the twin theme tunes which seamed and snarled The Dead School.
Next month sees the publication of Pat s fifth novel, which takes its title and something of its mood from a little-known 1969 UK hit by one Don Partridge called Breakfast On Pluto .
Breakfast On Pluto has got the loveliest lyric you ve ever heard, gorgeous, insists Pat. It s a jaunty kind of song about two kids, two young lovers: We ll visit the stars and journey to Mars, then we ll have breakfast on Pluto . It s just a harmonica and drum backing. And that s how the book started off, a jaunty, lilty thing, like a child s song. But then it mutated.
Breakfast On Pluto, the novel, tells the story of Patrick Pussy Braden, a young transvestite from the border town of Tyreelin. Pussy is the illegitimate scion of the local priest, farmed off for rearing by Whiskers Braden, a drunk foster mother, in a house teeming with children and empty stout bottles. Being the son of a preacher man himself, it s hardly surprising that Pussy develops an obsession with Dusty Springfield, and her attendant look.
When he eventually escapes Tyreelin, Pussy finds himself on the skids in London. To survive, he turns tricks, in and out of his blouson tops and milkmaid maxis, and pickles his brain in the pubs and clubs of the West End. It s the early 1970s. Violence and fear haunt the streets of London and every Paddy is a suspect terrorist. So, the authorities, and the reader, soon start to wonder whether Paddy Pussy is the forlorn chick-with-a-dick he seems, or whether he s a cleverly disguised IRA bomber ready to wreak destruction and death.
Breakfast On Pluto is another of Pat McCabe s masterful probes into the depths of human madness and despair. Riotously funny at times, it is also intensely disturbing and often horrifying.
It started off about a young girl and then I realised it s not about a young girl at all, Pat explains. I was drawn to the idea of kitsch male femininity. One of the 70s things, for me, is fractured identity. The book, in a way, is about borders; gender borders, the border of mortality and death, living on the Border. All that in-betweeny stuff.
Some of the funniest passages in Breakfast On Pluto involve the clash between Pussy s high camp and the dreary, dingy surroundings of his hometown. I wanted it to be a drab, windswept, roadside village so that it would enhance this guy s colour. You can imagine him in a kind of Lurex fucking pink dress and the looks he d get.
I love Dusty Springfield myself. All that Juke Box Jury stuff came from my sister. She was older, and had a battery-operated record player so she d be putting on dances for her friends. You just have an instinctive feel for music at that stage, and it makes you part of a secret club.
I was a bit of a Glam Rock freak myself. There might ve been only three or four of us into The Sweet, wearing satin fucking loons and stack-heels and going to Cavan, and listening to Dick Emery. It could be dangerous at the time too. You d get a dig, surely. You woulda got one in Dublin, remember, not just in the country.
But I wasn t so bad because I was into football too. I just thought you should be allowed to do anything. It wasn t that I wanted to disport myself in a cerise gown up and down Fermanagh Street. But I admired the abandon of all that.
McCabe was 17 when he first went to London. I hadn t a tosser. I went over on my own. Stopped at the boat: Where are you goin ? Got into trouble. On the streets for a while. Slept rough for a couple of nights. That was regular enough. Got a job. Lost the job. I worked in the kitchens of The Royal Automobile Club. I got thrown outta that too. I kept getting thrown out of jobs.
You thought you were the coolest thing on two legs until you realised you weren t one bit cool at all. You go to England and you want to be Bowie but you re just white trash. You feel that the English don t trust you. You re kinda searching for some kind of home. The scale of London was mind-boggling. Then, there was that whole sexual liberation thing in the 70s. I remember being really blown away by all that sex stuff when I arrived in England.
Even writing about it all these years later, there was some serious sweat hitting the page. The first time I went into a sex shop, I was in serious trouble. I wasn t fit to walk for a week. I hadn t the courage to buy anything. The excitement of being in there was nearly enough. Breaking a taboo. I went to a few porno movies then, and fell out onto the street. Street Sins Of Sexy Susan or some of these things. We were very innocent in those days. We really were.
The black, brain-sucking gloom of the Northern Ireland conflict is a presence in Breakfast On Pluto in a way that it has never been in any other Pat McCabe novel.
I wrote about it when I felt I wanted to write about it, he declares. Expectations never interested me. I don t care what people expect me to write about. A subject declares itself one way or another. This story provided an oblique way of dealing with the North.
I don t think it has necessarily to do with being born on the Border. I think everybody in the South has lived in the company of this fucking obscenity, in a kind of subtextual way. It s like if you d had a death in your family; you re really enjoying yourself and suddenly you remember this death and you re plunged into fucking desperation again. The North has always been like that for me.
McCabe is not especially optimistic about what the future holds for the North, but he is impatient. I m getting a bit exhausted with it now, to be honest, he avers. I m getting a bit fed up with these peace talks. Everybody knows the deal that has to be struck. If they planked a referendum now between you and me, I betcha we d agree on most of it. As would the people at the table beside us.
People are just fed up to the back teeth, hearing the same voices trotting out the same old clichis, again and again. Then, something happens. Another bomb goes off. Here we go again. Another lurch in the stomach. It really isn t fair in a democratic country to have to put up with this shit.
The calibre of politician up there is pretty poor. You would have thought the ceasefire would ve thrown up some extraordinary character but it hasn t happened. I m not particularly impressed by any of them, on the fringes or the mainstream parties.
Neil Jordan has bought the film rights to Breakfast On Pluto and is already working on the screenplay. Neil likes challenges but I think it ll be a bit easier to get a 17-year old transvestite than it was to get Frank Pig. I was very surprised when Neil expressed interest in it. He s gonna open it out, apparently, and write a lot of his own stuff. I believe he s gonna do a kind of a Pulp Fiction on it, with all the music.
Breakfast In Pluto was, Pat says, an extremely difficult book to write. Though the finished novel is barely 230 pages long, McCabe found himself chopping his way back from 600 pages at one point.
I just write and write and write. Maybe all the pages I was writing are part of another book. But eventually, I have to start looking for the book that I need to finish. Where is it? It s in there somewhere. This one took two and a half years, which seems kinda daft for a book that short. But to me, it isn t. That s how long it takes.
To get to the point where you feel confident about the short scenes, you have to do the painstaking, laborious, almost 19th century job on it. Then, start chipping away. One thing I hate in books is filler-bits. I had about 600 pages. I went through them with a fine comb, and anything that stopped the story, I threw it away.
At the moment, Pat is in the process of trying to track down Don Partridge, the man whose song so inspired him. He s still alive. Apparently, he busks somewhere in Leicester, with a little dog. He had three hits in 1969. Then, he went back to Leicester. There s no tragedy or anything. He just didn t like it. He s a one-man band, got lucky and had three hits. He was happy with that. So would I be. They were beautiful songs.
In the years immediately following the publication and success of The Butcher Boy, Pat McCabe used to worry about being seen as a literary one-hit wonder. These days, and with two further novels under his belt, he s considerably more sanguine.
I m glad that the book is gathering in reputation. It s what every writer dreams about. One book that you ll be remembered by. As long as it gives you the freedom and space to write other books, great.
Has he encountered any evidence of jealousy from other Irish writers, especially now that lightning has struck a second time in the shape of the film version of The Butcher Boy?
Not at all. If anything, the opposite. By and large, our writers are very generous. It s because everybody s got a piece of the action one way or another. Most major Irish writers, if they re not achieving in stage, they re achieving somewhere else. There s a lot to go round, there s a lot of attention. The people you re talking about might have an axe to grind anyway because it s not working out for them or something.
Of course, I might start imagining that they all hate me, now that you ve said it. But anyone who would be jealous, they re not professional. I don t think any less of writers just because they have a success. If I admire their work, that s it.
Though he has spoken of little else for almost two months, Pat McCabe still gets excited when he talks about the reaction to The Butcher Boy, the movie.
The reception we got in this country particularly has been fucking amazing, he states. There s always a little bit of tremulous anxiety before anything comes out. I think the reaction to it is worth a study, as to why there hasn t been any backlash. I think it proves that people appreciate it if you treat things with integrity, and don t try to rub their noses in it.
It s a tough movie, funny and all as it is. But, if you ve got a problem with it, you should be able to explain why. It s not just enough to say, Oh, The Blessed Virgin Mary swears and we object . My worries were that the press would start misrepresenting the movie and that you d have to talk your way out of it, instead of just letting the movie stand as it is. But none of that happened. That has been exciting. It seems that a Rubicon of some description has been crossed.
Of all the premieres he has attended, the double-showing in Monaghan last month was by far his favourite. The Monaghan night was wonderful. It s just a shame that the press don t cover these things in the country, when an author can go back to the home place and there s no bullshit. People are genuinely pleased. You never hear that story told. It s important, with our particular history, the treatment of writers, Kavanagh being ignored and all that. I got Monaghan Man Of The Year this year. The fact that a writer got it at all, rather than a GAA star, seems to me to be quite significant.
We showed the film twice that night, and had a party then. A singing songs til 7 in the morning type party. No local councillor tried to make a name for himself by condemning the movie, nothing like that. Not a whisper.
Apart from the fleadh ceoil in 63 and McGuigan coming home, making the film was the biggest thing that ever happened in Clones. I never had as much craic in all my life. It was like a living dream. There are 400 or 500 people from Clones in it and I know most of them and I know their families. We partied every night. I was out every night anyway. I m not speaking for the rest of the actors.
Having completed Breakfast On Pluto, Pat is taking a break from writing novels for a while. Writing about small towns is kind of over in a way too. I have a sense that I m at a crossroads now, as if those last books were part of a black trilogy. I want to stop writing about Clones. The story is told now and I m very happy to have that all done. There are no stories there for me anymore. There s nothing worse than people repeating themselves.
For Pat McCabe, junk culture is every bit as important as what they call high art. The highbrow thing is in there too, he insists. I would never disdain scholarship. I admire Banville and Joyce as much as I admire The Beano. It s just that I have so much affection for those things that it would be impossible for me to eschew them. They are it, as far as I m concerned.
When Pat McCabe reached 40, he shaved his beard off. Now, at 42, it s back again, almost bushier than ever ( My daughters told me to do it. They said I looked like Brendan Bowyer ). His big ambition these days is to write a book with a happy ending.
I m starting to get more optimistic now as I get older, he proclaims. The stories I m writing now are full of this abandon. People of my age are getting ill now and some of them are dead. You get to the point where you don t give a fuck. There is no point in worrying, in trying to figure things out and find what the plan is.
I never thought The Butcher Boy would make a book, let alone a film. You just have to trust your own instincts. Never try to second-guess anything. Just go with it. There is a compulsion there too. Something drives you towards it. I do have respect for the craft. You don t ever hand up cheap work or lazy work. As any so-called artist should do.
Has he achieved what he set out to achieve when he started to write?
I don t think so, he sighs. I d love to write a really funny happy book. A book that celebrates human existence. I certainly haven t done that. But I haven t a clue how to start it. I really don t. I might never write it.
To tell you the truth, I wouldn t know what to do if I didn t write. That s when I d go off the rails. The routine of writing is kinda what makes me happy. There is something noble about it, in a way. It advances your being on the planet. I d be in real trouble if I gave that up. n
Breakfast On Pluto is published by Picador, on April 24th.