- 18 Jan 21
It Was A Fine Idea At The Time… Newspaperman Patrick Freyne delivered one of the Irish non-fiction books of 2020 with OK, Let’s Do Your Stupid Idea. "A mix of the funny and the personal," he tells Pat Carty. Photo: Chris Maddaloni.
Patrick Freyne – reared, in part, by Hot Press and now columnist and feature writer with The Irish Times – took a step away from the paper of record in 2020 with his first book, a collection of personal essays entitled OK, Let’s Do Your Stupid Idea. The notion to explore this far from foolish scheme had been knocking around for a while.
“It had been in the back of my mind for ages,” Patrick tells me, as we ‘hang out’ on Zoom. “I love things like Clive James and a book that had a big impact on me was 45 by Bill Drummond, so personal essays, funny writing, and kind of self-mythology. In more recent years, I really liked that wave of really good female Irish essayists like Emily Pine and Sinead Gleeson. I wrote a mix of funny and personal ‘deep’ stuff.”
It is different to the more objective fare that Freyne’s admirers will be familiar with from his day job.
“I think it is because I’d never written about myself as a journalist, I don’t tend to write opinion journalism, I don’t tend to write about my life. Like you, I’m either interviewing people, or writing about culture. By the time I started writing these essays – two or three years ago – I was in my forties and I had a lot to say.”
It wasn't necessarily easier or harder, just different.
"I think I did have to figure out a few tonal things, and the mix," Freyne explains. "How you can mix funny and serious, I love people who can do that. My favourite TV shows and my favourite songwriters are people who can have really funny lines, but still move you. And I guess I was figuring that out. Pieces for the paper are often very separate - write a funny column or have a piece about something serious. So I was figuring out how humour works best. Sometimes I have a tendency to throw the jokes out where they didn't work, I'd be trying to write about something serious, and I'd get nervous. So I throw in a gag."
Ruin the mood by lobbing a custard pie?
"It was more that, like a lot of Irish people, my coping mechanism is through humour. So whenever I was writing about serious things, I had to figure out where jokes were appropriate in that context. Even in the essays about more serious things in the book, there's still jokes, but there's a kind of joke, as my editor pointed out, I was doing to kind of undermine my deeper stuff, where I'd have like quite serious points about depression or something else. And I'd throw in a gag at the end that deflated it. I think humour is a really good illustrative tool, but one of the things I had to learn was how to get the tone right, where humour works, where humour doesn't work, where it's selling out a more serious point."
Freyne’s father, who used to train the Army Rangers and would possibly make even Chuck Norris think twice, looms large over the earlier part of the book and seems like a thoroughly decent chap. One might have thought he’d be looking at his arty offspring and shaking a bewildered head, but this was not the case.
“Kind of counter intuitively, for a tough army man, he was surprisingly supportive, at least to other people it’s surprising,” Freyne remembers. “At home he was quite a maternal figure, he cooked and cleaned and changed nappies, but when he’d be training the army, he was like the Sergeant Major from Full Metal Jacket. He gave us a complex version of masculinity, I got a sense that masculinity is a form of drag, like he was going out and performing his masculinity. It showed me that you can have a few layers, you don't have to be this one kind of person all the time, which is a liberating thing. He had quite an evolved attitude, although my Mam would say she beat it into him. She would have been coming from quite a feminist background. She read all the books - Simone de Beauvoir, Germaine Greer, and all that - so we had those in the house. I think they ended up in this quite progressive marriage in a lot of ways, for the time.”
He Came Third Or Fourth…
Speaking of ‘versions of masculinity’, Freyne warmed the heart of a small town boy like myself who had no interest with his assertion in the book that “sport is just stupid.” Those who didn’t live for the game, back in the day, were conferred with outsider status by default.
“Yeah, totally,” he agrees. “I pretended for ages. I’m big, so I was sort of useful – put him in a fullback position and he might fall on someone. You were either a sports or a music person. When Oasis came along, we’d be touring England [Freyne was the handsome one in ‘90s indie gang, The National Prayer Breakfast] and we were surprised to find people in bands that actually liked sports. When we started, the music scene was made up of the leftovers, who didn’t like sports.”
Or were shite at it?
“Oh yes,” he adds. “And I added an extra problem because I don’t even know if I was capable of being good because I was so disinterested. I couldn't follow what was happening on the fields. A bit of me sometimes wishes I could go back and try it properly to see if I was any good. I'm sure I wasn't but I never really tried."
Back in the cold and lonely days before the internet united us all, growing up in small-town Ireland brought its own kind of weirdness, where the boredom led you to strange places, cut off as you were from the outside world. You developed in your own sweet way.
"That's it," he nods. "These are the kind of experiences that people don't really have anymore, the way you find art, and the way you find your identity. You get a hip friend at some point, like I did with Daragh in my band, who tells you that you should really be listening to The Pixies or Crass rather than all this kind of Phil Collins shite you were listening to, and everyone in our generation had that experience, where you're slowly led into the counterculture. Somebody in a song will mention a book and then you get that book, and eventually you've your weird group of friends who are doing their thing, but it's totally disconnected from other little weird groups of friends. Whereas now, I guess, if you're a "young person" into arts and culture, you have your group of friends, but you're also plugged into the world wide web and what everyone else is doing with their group of friends."
He's on to something here, so I stay out of the way.
"I think it was kind of liberating. At the time - I'm sure you've had the same experience - you've got your gang and it's them against the world, and your unrealistic notions of how life should be lived. One of the things I've noticed about younger people that is kind of destructive is that they've got this big sense of being in competition with the whole world, because they see it all out there, whereas my whole world was my family and my small town. Then, after I moved to Dublin, my group of friends and the music scene that we were kind of connected with, that was the world. There was a wider world that you were reading about in magazines like Hot Press. You might have wanted to be in The Dead Kennedys or something, but sure that's miles away, it might as well have been in the Nineteenth Century. In retrospect, I wish every kid had the opportunity to be kind of hermetically divided from the net to develop into their own little weird person."
Being bored is underrated?
"If I look back at my friends, we were probably activated by boredom. Now, at the same time,there's loads of young people who - two auld fellas talking here - are producing loads of stuff. So maybe they've ways of detaching that I don't have when it comes to Twitter. But what I loved when I was in my 20s, and I love it particularly in retrospect, was that you practiced with your band because you had nothing else to do, and even the way we put out records in the 90s and the early 00s was because we didn't know any better. At that time, it was a very healthy DIY music scene in Dublin, it was after the period when every band was trying to be the next U2, and there was a lot of post-punk attitude - if they weren't punk bands, they had that punk DIY thing. As I wrote in the book, we had these lofty aspirations of simultaneously being credible like Fugazi but huge like U2."
The dream of any reasonable "young person" - become a DIY millionaire and go around the place solving crimes.
"Yeah, pretty much, so completely unrealistic notions! But in the short term we were going to put out an EP and we were going to sell it in Road Records in town. And we'd sell it at our gigs to the hundred people that turn up. And my friend Daragh [Keogh] had a great line about how we were definitely not in the hundred best bands of all time, but we might be in the best 10,000 bands."
I’m Not Sure If I Am Laughing Or Crying…
Freyne’s writing has the ability to touch as well as tickle. The essay on his time as a carer is particularly moving and his ruminations on mental health and not having children are almost jarring in their honesty.
“The ‘Brain Fever’ essay about mental health is one of the first ones I wrote. I started writing that ages ago and put it aside. I was still too raw, and writing about your mental health when you’re in a bad patch isn’t a great idea. I think it works because I came back to it with a bit of safety and objectivity.”
“Those were essays that required more thought and more work and more drafts,” he explains. “You’re conscious that some of the readers will have experiences of these things, and may be raw themselves. You can still present it with jokes but you should be taking seriously what someone else might be going through.”
Did Freyne’s better half, journalist and author Anna Carey, object to the discussion about having children?
“Anna didn’t have any changes she wanted to make,” says Freyne. “I think that’s ‘cause we’re in the same place with a lot of it, and we talk about it.”
We should add here that there are essays about being pissed in Germany with his mates, and a guffaw-out-loud one about jumping out of a plane, to balance things up.
“They were fun to write in a very straightforward way. The process of writing essays about care work or not having kids was partly working out my take on it, how I feel about it. I’m not sure if there’s an underlying theme to the parachute story, my purpose with that was to make people laugh. My guiding principle was that the essays had to be entertaining or helpful, or both.”
• OK, Let’s Do Your Stupid Idea is published by Penguin Books Ireland. Click here for the Hot Press review.