The Hay festival has opened my eyes to Roddy Doyle in the flesh – but where to begin with him on the page?
I went to hear Roddy Doyle talking at the Hay festival yesterday evening, and god, he was good. Smart and warm, easy, canny, and properly funny. “Why is it,” asked an audience member, “that the Irish get away with swearing in literature and music?” “I haven’t a fuckin’ clue,” he zinged back, quick as a cat, then had to wait for the laughter to subside before gliding into a genuinely thoughtful response, “It’s in the rhythm; it’s in the air. The fight of parents to try and kill it off, make it respectable. Well, there are those of us who learn the subtlety of language, the words that you do and you don’t use, and the occasions when you use them. That’s what a good education should be always be about: when it’s a good idea and when it’s a bad idea. The subtlety of grammar, really; its glorious hypocrisy.”
He talked about the beauty of language; he talked movingly, and to a round of applause, about the sexual abuse scandal in the Catholic church. He spoke perceptively about the “ludicrousness” of patriotism, while at the same time interrogating the peculiarities of Irishness and the specific pressures of being raised in an insular – in the real sense of the word – nation. “When you grow up on an island,” he said, “what matters is how you stand to the sea”.
He also talked about his books. On this subject, as on all the others, he was scintillating: giving his take on the problems and pressures of staging discussions between historical characters and fictional ones, on how the books grapple with the idea of national identity “and how either we carve it ourselves or have it carved for us.” And this, alas, is where he lost me – for, though it shames me to admit it, I haven’t read a single one of them. I saw the film of The Commitments when I was 13 or 14 and it left me fairly cold. So, thanks to a snap-judgment formed nearly 20 years ago, I’ve avoided him ever since. Never read any of his Henry Smart trilogy; never picked up his Booker-winning Paddy Clarke Ha Ha Ha. My indifference was such that he hasn’t managed to sneak so much as a short story past me. And after yesterday’s event – which I hadn’t planned to attend, and only went to because I finished another interview early and realised I had time to sneak into something – I’m thinking, more fool me.
One of the great things about literary festivals is the way they expose your ignorance, explode your prejudices. Two decades of vaguely anti-Doyle sentiment were dissipated in an hour. Of course, I still haven’t read a word he’s written, so it may be that I’ll pick one of his books up, hate it, and end up right back where I started. But at least, this time, I’ll have something to base my feelings on. I’ve made myself a promise that by the time I leave Hay at the end of next week, I’ll have one under my belt. If you’re a fan, tell me: which is the best Roddy Doyle novel to start with? Having heard him speak and fallen for him, I’m desperate to love the books, too.