Patrick McCabe chooses Behan, Gigli and Peaky Blinders
Patrick McCabe, 67, grew up in Clones, Co Monaghan. In 1992 his novel The Butcher Boy, which was about the life and troubled times of Francie Brady, was published. It became an instant classic and was adapted into a film by Neil Jordan, much like his 1998 novel Breakfast on Pluto, which starred Cillian Murphy. For several years, McCabe was a co-organizer with director Kevin Allen of the Flat Lake Festival, an arts and literature festival near Clones. His new novel Poguemahone is published by Unbound.
Skinhead was part of a series of trash pulp English culture books written by what we thought was a young teenager like us called Joe Hawkins, who was a football fan and hippie-hating-cum-wearing racist wearing Crombie, Ben shirt Sherman, Doc Martens living in East London. The books were part of a fascinating teenage culture that is often forgotten. It was working class, violent gangs, thrash prose that I found interesting. Having been that age myself, I was trying to figure out what I would write about. Could I continue to write about the world of John McGahern – as magnificent as it is – or Frank O’Connor? They had, so why would I do it again? Society was changing.
Borstal Boy by Brendan Behan is the most formative book I read growing up. It’s a Republican prison narrative, but there’s also a sexual subtheme. Many of the books I read at the time came from an Ireland that I did not know. The people around me were singing ballads. They did not go home when they were told to go home. In fact, if told to go home, they could break the pub.
People who wrote books didn’t behave that way. They were the people telling us to go home, afraid of the priests and nuns. A long serious face seemed to be the order of the day. Ireland began its internationalization with the explosions of the Fleadh Cheoil of the 1960s, which found its adolescence in the 1970s with the Get to the Point festival and Lisdoonvarna. Borstal Boy was an expression of this psychic rebellion.
I loved The Ginger Man by JP Donleavy. There was a dissenting and extravagant quality to it, but it would probably seem pretty tame now. I would have read it around 1972, and it seemed cheeky. Brendan Behan featured in it as a character. He was funny. It was bouncy and happy.
The most notable piece of my time was Tom Murphy’s The Gigli Concert. I saw the original version with Godfrey Quigley, Kate Flynn and Tom Hickey at the Abbey Theater in 1983. Everyone who was there knew that – that something the theater did in Greek times or Shakespearian times s was going there. It was spellbinding theatre. Everything that Tom Murphy wrote interests me. If you can only write one Gigli Concert in your lifetime, that’s okay.
I saw Arthur Miller’s The Crucible in the Old Vic with Richard Armitage a few years ago. It was a magnificent production. It’s a great game. I know that very well. It’s good political theater. There aren’t many now. what is the truth? The big questions. Tell the truth. Does it matter whether you say it or not? It has resonance these days in the age of fake news.
I couldn’t be bothered by the music of my youth. I am not nostalgic. I’m interested in Lisa O’Neill and all the people around her like John Francis Flynn and Cormac Begley. There’s a whole psychedelic folk movement – they’re like the sons and daughters of Planxty. They move Irish music into the stratosphere. Lisa O’Neill would be leading the pack. She sees the world in a way that only she knows. It communicates eternal truths. She makes no compromises. As soon as you hear it, you know it’s original.
Topping the list of streaming shows on TV would be Peaky Blinders. In the first 10 minutes of the series, a Chinese woman steps out in the middle of an industrial, bustling downtown Birmingham. She blows a handful of powder into a horse’s face. Tommy Shelby is on top of the horse. And I thought it was going to be fantastic. From the start, they set the tone – it can be supernatural; it can be real. They used Nick Cave’s The Red, Red Hand to introduce it. And, oh surprise, who closes it but Lisa O’Neill, singing a Bob Dylan song All the Tired Horses.
What’s great about Roman Polanski’s Chinatown is that he didn’t know how it ended. When you look at the end – and know that he didn’t know it until the very morning he shot it – it ends like a black opera. It’s the most devastating ending you’ll ever see. It’s a complicated plot, but it never overwhelms you. It’s elegant. It’s nice. Jack Nicholson, who spent most of the film walking around with half of his nose missing, gives the performance of his career. The central pattern running through Chinatown is that you might think you know what’s going on – like when you’re in Chinatown you think you know where you are – but you don’t. What you’re actually doing is making it worse. So the more Jack Nicholson digs, the worse things get.
There’s a book by Sam Wasson called The Big Goodbye: Chinatown and the Last Years of Hollywood, which tells the story of the making of the Chinatown movie. It was an incredibly torturous journey to the screen – the number of scripts they had; they replaced the soundtrack at the last minute. It’s a fascinating insight into the world of cinema.
I love documentaries. Anything from Adam Curtis like, say, The Mayfair Set. He can connect all these seemingly disconnected things. It’s a conspiracy theorist’s dream. At the end of every Adam Curtis movie, you think, Ah, I got it. Give it 30 seconds and then someone asks you, “Well, what is it?” And you say, “Ah, my God, I don’t know.” This is the problem. His vignettes are fascinating. I don’t know how mischievous he is. He is one of the great documentarians.
There is another documentary that I would put up there. It’s about a BBC sound engineer called Delia Derbyshire: The Myths and the Legendary Tapes. She did the original music for Doctor Who. She operated in the 1960s. While at the BBC Radiophonic Workshop, she was a pioneer, a genius.