Roddy Doyle has a grave confession to make. ‘You know, I’ve always hated Mustang Sally,’ whispers the Irish novelist, flirting with outright blasphemy.
Wilson Pickett’s R&B standard became the signature song of The Commitments, the band of disaffected, soul-loving teens in Doyle’s classic novel of the same name. It’s 30 years since he published the book, and almost as long since it became a hit movie. Has Doyle really spent all that time covering his ears?
‘Never liked it!’ he laughs. ‘There was a point where I’d be doing an event in a bookshop and some poor guy always thought it would be a good idea to introduce me by playing Mustang Sally. Awful! Then I’d walk out to 17 people, five of whom were asleep. It was terrible.’
Roddy Doyle will be 60 next year. Does the thought bother him? ‘Not at all,’ he says cheerily. ‘I couldn’t care less!’
Doyle attracts rather larger crowds these days. His vibrant, compassionate tales of working-class Dublin life have combined commercial and critical success, winning the Booker Prize and selling more than a million books in the UK alone. He has written about everything from domestic violence (The Woman Who Walked Into Doors) to male midlife crisis (The Guts), as well as children’s books, short stories and plays. He recently adapted The Commitments for musical theatre, while his new novel, Smile, is his most ambitious – and bleakest – to date.
IT’S A FACT!
All four of The Corrs appear in the 1991 film of The Commitments, as does skateboarder Peter Rowen, who had been the boy on the covers of two U2 albums.
It all began with The Commitments, self-published in 1987, when Doyle, now 59, was teaching geography at a Dublin school. The early reviews were particularly bloody (he was advised never to read them, ‘but it’s hard. You have to pick the scabs, don’t you?’)
‘Back then, there was this notion that I wasn’t writing literature, that I was trivialising working-class life. I remember being cornered at a party by someone who insisted they’d never heard the word “f***” being used in Dublin. I didn’t bother arguing the case, it just seemed so stupid. The language was there. Why shouldn’t it be part of the country’s literature?’
His fortunes changed dramatically following the huge success of Alan Parker’s 1991 movie – so much so that Doyle worried whether he’d ever escape his debut novel. ‘The film was such a monster, and has remained a monster. I did begin to hate it. I feel lucky about it now, but at the time I wanted to get away from it as quickly as possible, and not be defined by it.’
A scene from The Commitments. ‘The film was such a monster, and has remained a monster,’ says Doyle
Doyle’s new novel, Smile (left), is his most ambitious – and bleakest – to date. Doyle the 1993 Booker Prize for his fourth novel, Paddy Clarke Ha Ha Ha (right)
Winning the 1993 Booker Prize for his fourth novel, Paddy Clarke Ha Ha Ha, eased those concerns – ‘and made a huge difference, in terms of sales’. Do awards still matter to him? ‘Well, I got an email a couple of months ago from my publisher saying that Smile wasn’t on the Booker long-list, and I remember thinking, Ah s***! It’s a bit like your team losing. You’re disappointed for a while, you kick a door, and get on with your life.’
Author Amit Chaudhuri recently wrote that the Booker Prize has led ‘to a loss of initiative among writers: a readiness to let others decide why their work is significant while they busy themselves at literary festivals’.
‘That sounds like b******* to me,’ sighs Doyle. ‘Never once when I’ve been writing have I thought of the Booker Prize, or any other prize. It does its job, which is bringing attention to books which might not otherwise get it.’
As for literary festivals, ‘the one time I went to Hay, there were people camping’. He pauses to let the absurdity of this sink in. ‘I’d happily camp to see Brian Wilson or Arcade Fire, but the notion of camping just to see me, or any writer I know? I wouldn’t cross the road to see them.’
Doyle has been happily married for nearly 30 years to Belinda, with whom he has three grown children. Although friendly with fellow Irish authors such as Anne Enright and Sebastian Barry, he admits that ‘the last thing I’d want to do is sit around a table talking to writers about writing. The ones I really like, we talk about other things’.
ROY KEANE? THE BOY CAN WRITE!
Roddy Doyle is surely the only Booker-winning writer to co-author a football autobiography.
In 2014, he worked with ex-Manchester United and Ireland captain Roy Keane on The Second Half. Despite Keane’s bruising reputation, the experience was a happy one.
‘People in Ireland have opinions about Roy the same way they have opinions about the civil war,’ says Doyle. ‘I didn’t encounter any abrasiveness. He’s a great man to work with. Terrific integrity and a brilliant editor. He always had suggestions about changing words. It was very precise, line-by-line stuff.
‘And he’s very funny. My father was in hospital at the time, he was dying. I’d go in and tell him things that Roy had said. My father was sitting up in bed with the other patients, just in stitches laughing. That’s a lovely memory.’
He prefers meeting up with his group of male friends, some of whom he has known since school. ‘We go to my local pub once a week and talk about football, music, telly, Trump – now and again more personal stuff comes out. It’s a huge part of my life. My long-standing friendships with men mean more to me than anything else outside of my family. Growing old is a pain in the a***, but growing old together is less of a pain.’
Smile takes its cue – and its title – from an incident that happened to Doyle when he was 13 and a first-year pupil at a Catholic Christian Brothers’ school in Dublin. ‘One of the sparks was my memory of a Christian Brother saying to me, “Roddy Doyle, I can never resist your smile.” The good news is he said it when there were 30 other boys in the room; the bad news is he said it when there were 30 other boys in the room! Oh Jesus, it was terrible. To be clear, he never laid a hand on me, but there were consequences. For a while, among the boys, in a cheerful kind of way, I was the “queer”, the “homo”. They’d be at me to smile at him so we wouldn’t get homework. It was absolutely dreadful.’
The sense of dread lingers in Smile. Its protagonist, Victor Forde, is also told by a Christian Brother that he has an irresistible smile, but in the book the consequences are catastrophic. Underlying Forde’s awful descent lies a clear indictment of the abuse scandals that have rocked the Irish Catholic church in recent years.
‘It’s a bit like the Jimmy Savile/BBC story, where after a while you almost expected some Seventies celebrity to be implicated. It becomes a game: “What person who used to wear a daft jumper is going to be accused of something awful today?” It’s the same [in Ireland], except it’s the Catholic church instead of the BBC. I was reared Catholic. I’m now an atheist. Ireland’s a very different place to the one Victor grew up in, but at the same time you’re still constantly defending yourself, coming up against rules, traditions and impositions that are foreign to me. It just seems wrong.’
Doyle will be 60 next year. Does the thought bother him? ‘Not at all,’ he says cheerily. ‘I couldn’t care less!’ He’s content that his concerns as a writer are ageing with him. ‘If I was still trying to write The Commitments it would be a disaster,’ he says. ‘I constantly want to prove myself, to prove that I live in the present tense.’ He’s certainly doing that. As that ragged band of ruffians in The Commitments never quite sang: ‘Ride, Roddy, ride!’ e
‘Smile’ is out now (Jonathan Cape, £14.99)