Copyright © Roddy Doyle 2022
I agree with you: letters are wonderful things. I used to write books for children, when my own children were children, and over the years I’ve received hundreds of letters from children who’d read the books, often with drawings of the characters or extra chapters or suggestions for more books. One that I opened about ten years ago started with the words, ‘Dear Roddy Doyle, I hope you are alive.’ It still makes me laugh. I’ve kept all of the letters. I doubt if I’ll read them again but they are there, on a shelf, if I ever want to.
I’ve never made the connection between letter writing and writing a novel, as you have; I suppose, because I’ve never spent much time writing a letter while writing a novel has often taken me years. When I started writing in the early and mid-1980s, I’d post stories and the first novel I completed to publishers in London. I didn’t know anybody who worked in publishing, so my letters always started, ‘Dear Sir/Madam.’ I’d post the manuscripts, and wait—and wait. For years, nothing happened. But those letters to unknown publishers were a bit like my early fiction, I suppose—both sent out in the same envelope in the hope that someone would read, first one, then the other, and then write a nice letter back to me. It eventually happened, in the summer of 1987, when a man called Dan Franklin wrote to tell me that he wanted to publish The Commitments. He wrote that he would phone me on a certain day of the following week, at 4 pm. I lived in a one-room bedsit, and the phone was a payphone in the hall downstairs; it was screwed to the wall. I vividly remember hearing the phone ringing and dashing out of my room and down the stairs, to get to the phone before the man who lived in the bedsit nearest the phone got there. It felt almost miraculous when I heard Dan’s voice coming all the way from London. And to know that my book was going to be published by this man with the posh English accent—it felt even more miraculous, so far away from what I’d ever thought was reasonable. Dan was my publisher until he retired two years ago.
I found making old-fashioned telephone calls very comforting during the third of our three lockdowns, at the start of 2021. I realised one day that I hadn’t been in touch with anybody outside of my immediate family for months, and that this was probably a big reason for my feeling so low. So I started to phone friends—no Zoom or FaceTime, just the phone to the side of my head. I sat in the kitchen and chatted, and listened—and loved the sound of their voices and the rhythm of their sentences, the reminders of why they are my friends. I felt quite elated after each call, and grateful.
Football is the esperanto, the universal language, that actually works. I’ve learnt that even people who don’t like football are very happy to spend time explaining why they hate it. Middle-class people, in particular, seem to resent the money that professional footballers earn. They are often under the impression that all footballers are multi-millionaires, even the lads who kick a ball around in the local park on Sunday mornings. They rarely object to rich tennis players or golfers, or film stars or lawyers, or rugby players or property developers—just footballers. And they are able to convey their resentment and class hatred by a mix of words and facial gestures. Middle-class people learn how to use their faces to express outrage from a very early age. I think there must be some secret after-school club that they attend, Face School, where they learn the expressive power of the lifted eyebrow and the sardonic smile.
I was at the F.A.I. Cup Final, along with 37,000 other people, last Sunday. My team, Bohemians, were playing and you, a football fan, will understand how difficult it is for me to type the words: we lost. After a penalty shootout. It wasn’t a great game, to be honest, although the atmosphere was terrific, and the half hour of extra time was good, as St. Patrick’s Athletic took the lead with a stupid goal that should never have happened but Bohs equalised very soon after with a great header that I had a perfect view of. At that point I was sure we’d win, and I’m convinced the ball crossed the St. Pat’s line, that we had scored another goal—I saw it happen—but there was no VAR, video-assisted refereeing. So there was no goal, even though I saw it. But the referee didn’t ask for my advice; he didn’t even know I was there. And the season ended in real disappointment.
The big advantage of supporting an Irish and an English team is that the football goes on all year. I’ve no Irish football to follow until March 2022, but the Premier League will be chugging along. And when it ends in May, the League of Ireland will continue right through the summer. There was a time when no amount of sunshine or Beach Boys music could compensate for the lack of football in the summer. But since the League of Ireland changed its structure, I’m quite content to live through the summer months, as long as I can get to Dalymount Park every second Friday night.
I can’t remember how long it was before I realised that my newly beloved team, Chelsea, wore blue, but I recall when our first colour TV was carried into the house, by my father. It was in 1972. My parents were about to go on a holiday together, the first time they’d have been away without children since they got married in 1951—also, the first time my mother would have been outside Ireland. I think they were going to Spain. I was fourteen, and my two older sisters were to be in charge of the house while my parents were gone. But just before they were due to go, my younger brother got appendicitis and had to be rushed to hospital. My parents couldn’t go to Spain, but they bought a colour TV instead. The Irish network, RTE, hadn’t started to broadcast colour programmes yet, so we watched everything on the BBC—literally everything that was in colour. The Munich Olympics were on and we gazed at the water on which the rowing was taking place, mesmerised. My house was a five minute walk from the sea—real water—but this German water, delivered by a British TV network, was so much more colourful. When my brother came home from the hospital he was much more interested in the cardboard box that the TV came in than in the TV itself, and spent hours in the back garden, rolling around in the box. I remember my mother worrying that he’d burst his stitches and have to return to hospital.
Ghosts interest me, too. I’m an atheist and have no belief in a life after death but, creatively, I do. I wrote a book for children, called A Greyhound of a Girl, in which a twelve-year-old girl called Mary meets a woman who turns out to be the ghost of her great-grandmother, who had died of influenza when she, Tansey, was a young woman. The outstanding Irish ghost is the banshee, a female spirit who announces a death in the family by wailing, or keening—a terrifying sound, I’d imagine. I didn’t want my ghost to be anything like a banshee and it struck me that if a woman was loving and fun when she was alive, she could still be like that after she’d died and become a ghost. She didn’t have to be frightening. Tansey died when her daughter, Mary’s grandmother, who is very ill, was a toddler, and she has come to help her daughter face her own death. She wants to be the mother she didn’t get the opportunity to be in life. The challenge was to make her seem real, a woman from a farm in 1920s Ireland, yet supernatural—a ghost. Electricity fascinates her, but she fades in front of electric light. I gave her ghostly qualities, but made her talk like my mother—who was very real, and lost her own mother when she was three.
I love your idea of the ghost in the football stadium. It reminded me of a book about the history of football that I read when I was kid. There was a photograph of the entrance gate to a stadium, and the gate was padlocked because the English club, Accrington Stanley, had ceased to exist. Behind the gate, the dereliction was clear; the stadium was beginning to crumble. It was chilling, and sad. The good news is that Accrington Stanley came back to life and are currently in League One of the English Football League. Perhaps it’s the ghost, or ghosts, of a team from the 1940s. Ghosts or not, they lost 2–0 to Wimbledon last night.
Just when things were slowly coming back to some kind of normal and the Roaring Twenties were about to take off, the Omicron variant announced itself. Three concerts I was going to go to have been cancelled—the American composer, William Basinski; Madness, supported by Squeeze, whose song, “Up the Junction,” is one of my favourites; and the Dublin band, Aslan. Three very different kinds of music—gone. It isn’t another lockdown, yet, but the theatres and music venues are particularly badly hit; I think this is because the authorities just don’t understand or care about the arts.
It must be difficult being away from your friends. I’m meeting two friends of mine later today, in a local pub. We can’t sit at the bar, our natural habitat, but at least we can sit together for a while at a table and chat. The Guinness helps too.
Winter has arrived and, perhaps because the days are shorter and much colder, the sense of isolation is much stronger and unwanted. So, I’ve got myself a new office in the city centre. It’s a half hour—walk and bus—from my front door, and I’m dividing my working week between this new office and the office in the attic of my house. I’m writing this letter in the city centre office. To get here, I had to travel on a bus with other people; I walked a stretch of Talbot Street and O’Connell Street; I crossed the River Liffey, and walked through Temple Bar. It was quite early but the streets were busy. There was an Atlantic storm earlier this week and yesterday, in particular, was very cold and windy. Today, though, it’s calmer, so I was in no hurry to get inside. In Temple Bar, I took a few photographs of the seagulls. One of them, standing on the cobblestones outside a pub, looked like he was waiting for the doors to open. I put on my mask and went into a café for an espresso; I showed them my digital Covid cert and driver’s licence, gave them my phone number, sat, took off my mask and drank my coffee, listening to the voices of people, the laughter, the one-sided phone conversations—‘Yeah, yeah – no – yeah – oh, no – fuck off, you’re not serious – really? God – yeah, yeah – no, that’s terrible.’ I haven’t spoken to anybody since I left the house, except to ask for the coffee and to say thank you, but I don’t feel alone.
I’m very fond of seagulls. I’ve always lived beside the sea, so their caws have always been a big part of my soundtrack. They’re not very popular and are often referred to as vermin. But I’ve studied their faces and I decided some time ago that they are, in fact, middle-aged Irishmen, reincarnated. Remember that the next time you see a seagull; it might be James Joyce.
All the best
Copyright © Roddy Doyle 2022