Copyright © Roddy Doyle 2021
Dear Tsumura Kikuko
It was great getting your letter. A real letter too, not a text or an email—Hi! It reminded me of when I worked in London in the late 1970s and getting a letter from a friend back home in Dublin was very special—so welcome it was almost heartbreaking. I remember, a friend wrote that he’d been to a Ramones gig in Dublin the previous Tuesday. I wrote back, telling him that I’d seen the Ramones in London the previous Thursday. That seems a bit daft now, when we can text, but it made perfect sense back then.
In June 1972, when I was fourteen, I spent a month in the Connemara Gaeltacht, an area in County Galway where Irish, or Gaelic, is the spoken language. I was there to learn how to speak the language. In fact, I learned how to avoid speaking it. My teachers were Christian Brothers, a very strict, sometimes violent, order of not-quite priests, and their idea of encouraging conversation was to punish every mistake. In the moral world of the Christian Brothers saying nothing was never a mistake, so I kept my mouth shut most of the time. Anyway, my mother wrote a letter to me once a week while I was there. She sat down every Monday evening and wrote about what she’d done that day. She was a great believer in routine and did the same things every Monday. So, in reality, she wrote the same letter every week. ‘I went to the shop and had a nice chat with Mr and Mrs Butler. I walked to the bank and got the bus home. I phoned your Auntie Maura. She’s fine. We had shepherd’s pie for dinner.’ The same thing every week, but the letter, even my name in her handwriting on the envelope, was a joy to read—in English.
I mention the Gaeltacht because the first thing I read by you was your short story, “A Ghost in Brazil,” which I read in Granta, and loved from the first sentence: ‘I was ever so keen to visit the Aran Islands, but unfortunately, I died before ever making it out of Japan.’ I loved the way you managed to make the impossible and surreal seem quite mundane. I thought I might start the letter to you with a paragraph or two in Irish, if only to make the job of the translator that bit more of a challenge. But the Irish I learnt in school, for forty minutes every day for twelve years, started to leak out of me, like sawdust, within days of leaving school in 1976. So I’m stuck with English.
I’m delighted you’re a football fan. It’s something else that we have in common and is more important, I think, than the fact that we’re both writers. If we met—when we meet, we’ll spend a quarter of an hour talking about writing before we run out of steam but we’ll spend days discussing football. People who don’t share a language still manage to talk about football and make themselves understood.
I’m a Chelsea fan. I have been since I was nine and watched the 1967 FA Cup final, against Spurs, on TV, with my father. I decided I was up for Chelsea. I didn’t even know they wore blue, because the television was black-and-white. Chelsea lost that day but, as you know, you don’t switch teams. It’s not like marriage; there’s no divorce. It’s the great gift of football: it keeps us in close touch with our younger selves—like music, but with much more muck. One of the many things I liked about your novel, There’s No Such Thing as an Easy Job, was how brilliantly, in the narrator’s final job in the big forest, you captured the mad vitality of the football fan’s world.
My League of Ireland team is Bohemians, who play in Dalymount Park, on the northside of Dublin, where I live. I’m a season ticket holder and last Monday night—September the 20th—I was able, finally, after a year and a half, to walk up to the turnstyle and go straight into the stadium, to watch a 3–3 draw against Derry City—not a good result, but it was great to be there again, in the crowd. Like the J League, the League of Ireland runs from March to the end of the year. We had a good run this summer in the European Conference League, or whatever it’s called—the European club competitions seem to change name every time I turn my back. Anyway, we won three matches in Dublin, including a 2–1 win against the Greek side, PAOK, for whom Shinji Kagawa was playing. Supporting Bohs brings me great joy; I love everything about the club. There’s even a line from a Fontaines DC song—‘Dublin in the Rain is Mine’—stitched into the collar of the away jersey. The fans’ songs are great too, often funny. They sing Spandau Ballet’s ‘Gold’, but with ‘Bohs’ instead of ‘gold’—‘We are Bohs—Bohs! Always believe in your soul!’
I visited Japan in September, 1994. I was brought to see a football match, Yokohama Marinos v Nagoya Grampus Eight. Gary Linekar was supposed to be playing for Nagoya but he was injured and, actually, he announced his retirement the following week. And that’s how I know when, exactly, I was in Japan. I googled Gary Linekar. I saw amazing things—the Temple of the Golden Pavilion, for example, and the bullet trains—and had a wonderful time in Japan, but what I remember most about the trip is the absence of an English footballer.
As I mentioned earlier, I read There’s No Such Thing as an Easy Job. I enjoyed it enormously. I admired how you managed to create a place that seemed familiar, even to someone living on the other side of the world; yet it was also unsettling and, somehow, worrying. You made everything—the streets, the people, the products—so calmly vivid. I loved the gentleness and casual eccentricity of the characters. I really liked Mrs. Masakado, the woman in the employment centre, and at one point thought how great it would be to send Mr. Micawber from David Copperfield into the employment centre, to see how Mrs. Masakado would deal with him.
Your narrator’s jobs reminded me of some of the jobs I had before I became a school teacher. In 1977, when I was nineteen, I worked in a food-processing factory in a small town near Dusseldorf, in West Germany. Through the summer and autumn, we put fruit and vegetables into tins and jars. In late autumn, for about three weeks, I stood at a narrow conveyor belt, holding a rubber mallet. To my left a line of Turkish women put gherkins into glass jars that rattled past on the conveyor belt. My job was to tap the top of each jar with the mallet, to make sure that the gherkins were well inside the jars before they went into a machine that squirted vinegar into each jar, then put a lid on the jar. Every now and again—twice or three times a day—a gherkin, thrown by one of the Turkish women, would hit the side of my head. The women thought this was funny and, actually, so did I. I think now that being whacked on the head by flying gherkins was my first experience of an inter-cultural exchange.
I recently re-read my first three novels, for the first time in decades. It was a strange experience, reading what I’d written more than thirty years ago. So much has changed in Ireland since I wrote those books, and I’ve changed too, of course. Early in The Snapper, Sharon says that abortion is murder. She wouldn’t say that if I was writing the book today. The law on rape is stronger today, so I’d have to write Sharon’s sexual encounter with George Burgess differently, to make it clear that it is consensual but also something that she quickly regrets. Her version of how she became pregnant—her fictional fling with the Spanish sailor—would have to be more carefully thought out, by her—by me—because so much of any evening out with friends would be photographed and filmed today, shared on Facebook and Instagram. Her family and friends would want to know why there aren’t any photographs of the sailor. She could claim that she lost her phone, of course, or that the battery had died. The story would still be there.
If I was writing The Commitments today, Jimmy Rabbitte wouldn’t be saying that ‘the Irish are the n******s of Europe’. He wouldn’t use the N-word; it’s not a word that he would say or want to say, in 2021. Also, the line wouldn’t make sense because Ireland has gone from being the poor neighbour of western Europe to being one of its wealthiest countries. The inequality is still here in Ireland, and the unfairness, and Jimmy would still be stressing the importance of the politics in their music, but his language and argument would be different. And, more than likely, several of the band members would be black Dublin kids.
I was moved by what you wrote about Jimmy Sr. in The Van. If your father was a bad seed, mine was a good egg. Here’s a little love story. A few years before he died, my father had laser eye surgery to remove cataracts. For the first time since he was a child, he no longer had to wear glasses. But my mother didn’t like the way he looked without the glasses; he’d been wearing them when they met in 1947. So he removed the lenses and wore the frames without glass for the rest of his life—to please my mother. He was ninety when he died.
I’m not U2’s biggest fan but I do think that Achtung Baby is brilliant. I’m from the same part of the world as them and we’re the same age, so perhaps I’m just envious—I don’t know. The school they went to is a five-minute walk from where I now live. When I travel into the city centre on the bus, I pass a hardware shop called Edge’s. The name ‘EDGE’S’ is on the slate roof of the building, in white paint. It’s been like that all my life. The legend is that the Edge got his name from that roof. The shop is very near the house that Bram Stoker, the author of Dracula, grew up in. So, U2 and Dracula come from the same street in Dublin. There’s also a very nice pub!
I’ve been double-vaxxed since early July. It’s one of the few advantages of growing old—you go to the front of some of the queues. Life is slowly—slowly, slowly—getting back to normal here. But, actually, I hope that we could go forward to a new, fairer normal. What impressed me most about what happened in Ireland at the start of the pandemic was how quickly the government acted. Suddenly, accommodation was found for the homeless. The division between private and public health care disappeared. The state school exams—a horribly rigid system, and an obnoxious, very limited way to measure intelligence—were suspended. All of these changes were/are temporary. My hope is that the push to reform will continue. The Roaring Twenties followed the Spanish Flu pandemic. As the father of three adult children, I hope something similar happens now. I want my children to have their own Jazz Age.
I’ve loved writing this letter. I’m glad we’re doing this.
All the best
Copyright © Roddy Doyle 2021