- 01 Jul 19
There’s plenty of competition, but KEVIN BARRY has cemented his position among Ireland’s finest contemporary writers with Night Boat To Tangier. Drugs, dreadlocks, the Pixies, Justin Trudeau and the Rubberbandits all feature as he introduces us to fading Cork gangsters, Charlie and Maurice.
As regular Hot Press readers might know, Kevin Barry and I have what the dodgy drug smugglers in his new book, Night Boat To Tangier, might refer to as “a bit of previous.”
Cub reporters at the same time in Limerick – Kev with the Post, yours truly with the far superior (honest) Tribune – we decided in 1990 to fly our way over to Paris and from there train and ferry it down to Tangier for a week of reckless abandonment.
A massive William Burroughs fan, Mr. B had phoned ahead to book himself the room in the delightfully seedy Hotel el-Muniria where, in a state of chemical frenzy, his literary hero had written Naked Lunch.
The el-Muniria was run at the time by two former members of the Queen’s Coldstream Guards who’d moved there in the 1960s to circumnavigate the UK’s draconian ban on homosexuality. Disappointed that we ourselves weren’t gay – I was chided by one of them for having “unfashionably long hair” – the former soldiers nevertheless regaled us with tales of the excess all areas parties they’d attended there back in the day with the likes of Joe Orton, Gore Vidal, Tennessee Williams, Paul Bowles and Burroughs’ fellow beats Jack Kerouac and Allen Ginsberg.
On the way home we got stranded for the night in Algeciras, the hellhole Andalusian port town where everyone looked like they were on the run from the law. Little did I – and probably he – realise that 28 years later it’d be the starting off point for a pulsating novel, which also zooms back and forth through time to Málaga, Seville, Barcelona, Segovia, Cádiz, Cork, Beerhaven and the Beara Peninsula.
Normally, we’d be conducting this interview on a highstool in some fine Dublin hostelry, but with Kevin one of the star turns at the Irish Bodies & Irish Words festival in Montreal, today finds us with beers in one hand and mobiles phones in the other.
STUART CLARK: How’s Canada treating you?
KEVIN BARRY: Brilliantly. We spent the best part of a year here in 2013, so we know it well. Great fucking eating town! You know how we always used to go for curried chips in The Lobster Pot after pints in Limerick?
I was more of a Friar Tuck’s man, but yeah…
Well, they’ve got this thing called poutine, which is chips smothered in cheese curds and brown gravy. The last time we were here the Pixies were playing an indoor show to about 1,500 people, which we got hammered at. It was about minus-20 when we came out, and but for a feed of poutine we’d probably have died from hypothermia. Did you spot the, like, 50 Pixies refrrences in the book?
I did, and the Microdisney ‘The Clock Comes Down The Stairs’ one!
Well done! The two Cork lads, Charlie and Maurice, are a little bit older than me – kind of early fifties – so they’d very much have been around for Microdisney. There are also a lot of references to Sir Henry’s, which they’d have gone to, after having their flagon of cider in the Liberty. The Pixies would also have been very pivotal to their musical background. I always loved it when the Pixies threw in a few Spanish lyrics, and the album covers had that sort of seedy Hispanic look. Try explaining that to millenials!
My last bit of millennial-explaining was telling a 20-year-old from Montreal, funnily enough, about Justin Trudeau’s mum, Margaret, leaving his prime minister dad, Pierre, in the ‘70s and going on tour with the Rolling Stones, several of whom she was romantically linked with.
It was around the same time Keith Richards got arrested in Toronto for heroin and famously demanded they give the heroin back. It was announced with a degree of decorum that her and her husband were no longer together, and next thing she was spotted on tour partying with the Stones. I have to say, I can’t stand Justin Trudeau. He reminds me of Leo Varadkar. It’s all the surface, smiley stuff. And beneath it… they’re far-right people, really. That photo-op of them comparing socks… yuck! Generally, though, I love it here. It’s the US without the crazy shit going on.
Tell us a bit more about Charlie and Maurice whose mix of faux bonhomie and ultraviolence reminds me of when I interviewed the Kray Twins-era gangland enforcer, Mad Frankie Fraser.
Yeah, that’s not too far off. I was thinking of old Harold Pinter plays like The Caretaker and The Birthday Party. They’re very funny but also have this menacing air that can and does explode into violence. These two fading Cork gangsters have kind of been in the room with me for a few years. I could hear them very specifically. They kept trying to elbow themselves into a short story or a script. I knew that they’d immediately destroy whatever they turned up in because the characters were too large. I eventually decided, “I’d better give these two their own story.”
It wasn’t always a novel...
I wrote the first draft of it as a play with just Maurice and Charlie sat in the ferry terminal. I have an ongoing thing with the Abbey Theatre where I show them scripts, but I quickly realised that it needed to be a novel. Then I needed to work out, “How did these guys, one of whom has a limp and the other an eye hanging out, end up in a place like Algeciras with these dreadful conditions?’” After a couple of months, I was like, “Jesus, this is all about grief. They’ve been through a great deal and, really, it’s a portrait of a strange, extended family.” I also strongly suspect it has something to do with me coming up to my 50th birthday. Charlie and Maurice talk about being “at the edge of the grave” but, while categorically not young anymore, they’re not about to kick the bucket. It’s more that the glory days are definitely over for them. I think everyone our age has a fear of that happening to them.
I have to say there are moments in the book that made me wince.
Because the writing is so shockingly bad?
No, because the descriptions of the nose biting and eye gouging are so vivid!
Writing violence is fucking difficult. The shocking, queasy feeling you get in the pit of your gut when you see somebody get headbutted in a bar is really hard to replicate on the page. It takes a lot of drafts. There’s a bit where Maurice stabs Charlie in the back of the knee, hence the limp. I had to act that out and try and get the angles and other stuff right. Then I looked it up on Google to see whether it would actually leave somebody with a permanent injury like that. You’ve the weird thing where, like in The Sopranos, violence can be funny. Violence and comedy start to interact in odd ways, which is the kind of tone I was trying to get.
I suppose the dangers are similar to writing sex scenes. Get them wrong and you’re going to be ripped apart by reviewers who tend to be failed authors trying to bring successful ones down a peg or two.
I couldn’t possibly comment… With sex scenes, I tend to avert the eye and present the aftermath of the unpleasantness.
Did you feel for your friend Julian Gough when he got nominated for a Bad Sex in Fiction Award?
Er, yeah, that’s possibly not the award you want to be up for. I really like his novels. I think Julian’s a terrific writer. I’m convinced he’ll have a smash hit at some stage. I’ve known him for a long time, and he’s a good guy at heart. He’s also the person that wrote the song ‘Galway And Los Angeles’. I loved Toasted Heretic. But, no, the Bad Sex Award isn’t really the one you want.
Thank you for introducing us on page 54 to the Spanish word for crusty, ‘perroflauta’.
Isn’t that gorgeous? A dog and a flute. It’s weird, though, talking to some of the younger people who’ve read the book because they’ve no idea what a ‘crusty’ is.
That’d make you feel feckin’ old!
It would! That kind of ‘new age’ traveller movement is far less visible in Ireland than it was in the ‘90s and 2000s, but it’s alive and well in Spain. Granada is a great crusty town, there are loads of them literally living in caves. Crusty-types have showed up in my short stories for a long time. It’s a really intense way to live. More often than not, you’re choosing an extreme form of poverty, living in benders and drifting around the place, living at the side of streets. That made me really interested in this kid, Dilly, who’s the key to a lot of things in the book. In the early ‘90s, there was very much a political aspect to it.
Can you explain that, please!
In our local paper days, I got an interview with one of the Spiral Tribe people who were out in Tipperary. They were at the free Castlemorton Common Festival, which ended in pitched battles with the police, loads of arrests and the introduction of the UK’s new Criminal Justice Bill. You know, repetitive beats and all that. They were agit-prop punk types with a manifesto. What happened then is that the new age traveller movement got caught up with the rave scene. There was a drug-dealing element too, so the original purity of the vision dissipated a bit. Spain is one of the great hold-outs. I was doing a reading in Barcelona at the same time that Beetlebone was being translated into Spanish and asked the guy doing it, “Do you know what crusties are?” He didn’t so I went, “Dreadlocks...” and he shot back, “Perroflauta!”
I must admit to flicking through the chapters to see if I feature anywhere in flashback, but alas no!
Dilly briefly goes into the el-Muniria, but otherwise the story of the torrid nights we spent together in Tangier remains untold!
Talking, as we have been, of drugs, what do you make of this new wave of Reefer Madness that’s been triggered by twenty Irish doctors saying that we’re “sleepwalking” into the legalisation of cannabis?
Well, I hope for full legalisation. I suspect if you went down the list, a lot of the same doctors were anti-Repeal The 8th last year. There is a constituency there that will be automatically opposed. There is absolutely the case that not everybody is going to respond well to strong skunk weed; like, we know this. What’s interesting when you go to places where it’s been legalised, like Canada and various American states, is that you don’t see everyone falling around the streets stoned. In Canada, they’ve a very well managed dispensary system. It takes a large amount of money from the criminal entities and puts an herb that’s of use and pleasure to so many into the regulated adult domain.
There’s still the old line about encouraging young people to take drugs...
Nobody’s suggesting that kids should be going anywhere near cannabis. The old school medical crowd will fight tooth and claw to hold things up. It will get through eventually – probably after we’ve had medicinal marijuana for a few years – because of the pragmatic reason that the government will see that it brings in a lot of money. In Colorado, all the money from legal weed goes into the school system. Something like $40 or $50 million a year. (Laughs) Apparently the school grounds are paved in gold.
I was talking recently to Siobhán McSweeney, AKA Sister Michael, who said, “I was a great fan of Kevin Barry before meeting him and despite meeting him, I remain a fan.”
Ah, she’s a joy. She’s become a bit of a superstar thanks to Derry Girls and rightfully so. We got her for the play we did, Autumn Royal. The first time I met her was on Skype doing a little read through of the scenes. Myself and Caitriona McLoughlin, the director, were at one end and Siobhán was in London on the other, and we were just nudging each other the whole time, and whispering, “God, she’s perfect for the role, she’s brilliant.” And she’s a fierce woman, as well, you know.
I love that herself and Nicola Coughlan, AKA Wee Clare, put themselves out there with their support for abortion rights and various other things.
Oh, she’s fearless. I’m dying to write more stuff for her because she’s a great actor and needs very little direction. She just has every beat of it naturally. It’s weird; when my first book of stories came out in 2007, I imagined that in ten, twelve years time I’d just be writing novels. Instead, I’m thinking about screenplays or “could it be something for the telly.”
Having gone down an absolute storm at the Dublin Film Festival, you’ve Dark Lies The Island hitting the big screen in September.
Yeah, more filth! I thought making a film was the hard part but, no, it’s the getting it into cinemas. There used to be two independent Irish movies a year, now there’s twenty competing for the same number of screens. Luckily, a couple of the people from Element, Nell Roddy and Robert Finn, who’ve started their own distribution company, Break Out, have taken a shine to it.
The cast is pretty fucking amazing.
Yeah, Pat Shortt, Peter Coonan, Moe Dunford, Charlie Murphy and Tommy Tiernan all do great turns. Actually, it was Tommy who originally introduced me to the director, Ian Fitzgibbon, by giving him one of my books. It was filmed around Boyle and Lough Key, which is dangerously close to home for me. My popularity in Boyle, which is based on me packing the B&Bs out for two weeks, might not last when they actually see it. I missed our big Dublin premiere on account of being in Montevideo, but had people updating me on how it was going. When somebody texted, “Michael D’s just turned up”, I had a panic attack thinking, “Oh my god, how many fucking c-words are there in it?” I was counting and going, “Oh no, the poor President!”
I was lucky enough to be invited to one of his and Sabina’s Áras an Uachtaráin garden parties. It was around Bloomsday, and she read probably the filthiest passage there is in Ulysses.
Ah, they’re great. It’s one of the things that makes you feel happy about the country. I’d keep them there forever.
Ian Fitzgibbon describes it a “dissertation on rural decline”, which sounds a bit Michael Healy-Rae to me.
Well, when you go out of The Pale and into the midlands and northwest and southwest, it does become a different country. It’s very scary imagining what’s going to happen to these small Irish villages twenty or thirty years down the line. It doesn’t seem to me that there’s a plan. Talking a while back to Pat McCabe, he said, “When I was growing up in Clones, there was a cacophony on the street all the time. There were kids running and stuff going on. Now, it seems so fucking quiet.” And he’s right. We lost the post-office last year in my village. So many of the post-offices around Roscommon, Sligo and Leitrim are gone. It’s a sad moment in a town when that happens.
There has been a bit of an exodus.
Around 2009, you suddenly realised, “All the young ones have fucked off to Australia or Canada or whatever.” That became very evident when literally the whole GAA team disappeared. What the government focus on is the bigger towns like Sligo and Carrick-On-Shannon, where to a degree there are jobs. The villages are set up as nothing more than commuting dormitories. I don’t want to make this about fucking rural broadband, but it is a fucking issue. I rang the helpline because we’re constantly having connection problems and the guy said to me, “Is there a hill nearby you can go up?”
The good news is that some of those places in the GAA team have been filled by the new Irish.
I think it’s the most wonderful thing that’s happened the country in the last 50 years. We’ve finally become a more mixed and, largely, more tolerant place. The far-right makes lots of noise, but none of them were successful in the European elections. In fact, most of them lost their deposits. What you see with this new strain of real rural poverty is the start of serious drug problems. In the small Roscommon and Longford towns, there are heroin and opioid issues. It’s scary. These places are being left wide open for the horrendous epidemics we’ve seen in the US. It’s much easier to get dangerous drugs into small rural places where they’ve closed down the Garda station. When you’re 16 or 17 and there’s fuck-all else to do…
Did I read somewhere that you’re writing a sequel or prequel to the multi-award winning City Of Bohane?
I’ve threatened to and actually attempted it, but other things have taken over. It’s still being talked about as a possible TV adaptation. I did a reading of it last year in an American university where it’s on the syllabus and thought, “Jesus, there’s a great vitality in the language.” Then I got to another bit and thought, “Oh my God, that’s terrible, I cold do so much better now.” I still think about the characters and the world of it. I wouldn’t be surprised if I had this notion to go back to it and write something very quickly – unlike the original book, which I spent a lot of time on. I prefer to take eight, nine or ten months to make it an intense experience for both reader and writer. Beatlebone has been optioned by an American company, which is very exciting.
I was chatting to an English Lit professor at a major Irish college recently who said the bad Hunter S. Thompson and Brett Easton Ellis wannabes have been replaced by bad Kevin Barry wannabes.
I’m almost a grandfatherly figure. The only glow of nationalism I have is when you see really fantastic Irish writers coming out, and there are dozens of them. I always fear not mentioning someone I should, but it’s great to see people like Nicole Flattery, Sally Rooney and Lisa McInerney putting quality stuff out all the time. I don’t want to be blunt, but it’s the one thing we’re really fucking world class at. We don’t have a decent government, but we do turn out high-quality writers. When I was a young lad in Limerick thinking about writing, there was one serious novelist in town, Michael Curtin. When it’s that rare it seems like an unlikely thing to attempt yourself, but when there are a lot of people around producing really good work it becomes more realistic. Long may it continue.
I seem to recall us seeing Dolores and The Cranberry Saw Us for the first time together downstairs in Cruise’s Hotel.
Yeah, they were supporting They Do It With Mirrors who had the record deal with Setanta and were about to go off to London. Kevin Brew, the singer, is in RTÉ now doing lots of radio drama stuff. Not much later, I remember seeing them in Sir Henry’s with (future Irish Independent man) Shane Fitzsimons and him nudging me saying, “She’s a goddess!” It’s been lovely to see the outpouring of love for Dolores since her tragic passing but it makes you wistful for the past. I love being in Limerick because there’s a different atmosphere. What you notice now with the younger crowd is that they’re more happy to stay whereas in our day it was, “If you want to get on, you’d better leave and go to Dublin or Cork or London or Galway.” Culturally, we had no confidence but that’s changed. Never underestimate the Rubberbandits effect. People going, “We have a fucking crazy way of speaking and perceiving the world and it’s cool and we can go with it.” I’ve noticed this in Montreal too, talking to guys in bands who ten years ago would have moved to New York or Toronto or LA. Now they’re saying, “You know what? It’s a shit winter here, but that means the rent’s cheaper so let’s stick around.” Creatively and artistically small towns are the future, because they’re more affordable. There’s also the pragmatic fact that big cities don’t want you. They want people who are working at Google and Facebook who can afford to pay three grand a month rent. Small cities are the way to go. Or swamps!
Night Boat To Tangier is published on June 20 by Cannongate