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Congratulations to the following Former Pupils who have reached milestone birthdays this month:-
75 Joe Barrett; James Moran; William Gillon; Alexander Carrigan;
70 Robert Rostant; Paul Baker; Paul Cassidy; Ian Somerville; Paul Baines; Francis Geddes;
65 Richard Acomb; Stuart Gunn; Ryzard Czarnota; Peter Beard; Mario Coppola
60 Richard (Ciaz) Law; Stuart McLennon;
New e-mail contact:- Andrew Fleming; Peter John Hart; John Edgar;
Congratulations to Michael Davis on his recent marriage.
We are delighted to advise that information recently received about the death of Peter John Hart is incorrect. He is very much alive and living in London.
Ken Charles has advised the following book has been published:-
Roddy Doyle: ‘I’ve had death threats. I anticipate there will be hostility to this one’
The novelist’s new book is about abuse at a school run by the Christian Brothers — and he’s expecting a backlash
“Roddy Doyle, I can never resist your smile.” That sentence is etched on the author’s memory. Innocuous enough. Except he was 13, the person doing the complimenting was a teacher, a Christian brother at that, and it was said in front of the rest of the class.
Creepy. Or to use that underpowered word of our times, “inappropriate”.
Those eight words said in 1972 were what Doyle calls the “autobiographical spark” for Smile, his 11th and latest novel. It’s about Victor, a fiftysomething writer whose life has taken a wrong turn. He has split from his wife, lives in a scuzzy flat and doesn’t do much in the way of writing. By chance he meets in a pub a man called Fitzpatrick who claims to be an old schoolfriend. A number of boozy chats with Fitzpatrick force Victor to think back to his time at a school run by the Christian Brothers order.
Evelyn Waugh once said of his schoolmasters that “some liked boys too little and some too much”. Victor’s old teachers fit that description — they are violent, volatile, predatory and mad.
Doyle is quick to point out, when I meet him in a pukka hotel in his home city of Dublin, that he was never abused at St Fintan’s, the Christian Brothers school he attended. Nonetheless he has seeded Smile with his school memories. “It was a strange place — there was a level of violence that was quite amazing. The enthusiasm with which some of the teachers beat the kids . . . it was shocking the first time I saw it.
“The reasonably pleasant man at the front of the row could explode at any minute. And could throw a boy across the desk and beat him up.”
Doyle says that at worst he was slapped a few times. But darker things happened. He believes people were abused at school. “There was a brother who tried to keep boys back so he could teach them how to wrestle. He would have done it solid in the knowledge that they would not go home and tell their parents.
“I remember seeing a teacher attacking a boy on the ground in the class with a big wooden set square, like an axe. There was a dog there, and it was barking. Which adds to the madness. When would you see a dog in the classroom now?”
The “madness to the place” made it “exhilarating on one level, absolutely terrifying [on another] . . . There is nothing like laughing at the back of the room when you know that if you’re caught laughing you’re likely to be thrown against the wall and battered.”
Back to the creepy brother and his praise. “It was awful [to hear] at that age. So many inexplicable things happening — voice breaking — and this strange-looking man at the front of the room says this. You end up wondering, ‘What is wrong with my smile?’ And in some ways I still wonder about it. It was so unsettling.”
Naturally enough he was “slagged” — the Irish sport of mocking — by his mates. Queer, homo, nancy boy. It was mainly good-natured. “I would get a regular dig in the back — ‘Smile at him, tell him we don’t want homework.’ ” Still, Doyle wonders whether, if the circumstances had been different, that flirty compliment would have led to something bleaker.
My school was a strange place. There was a level of violence that was amazing
The “sheer madness” of his school years has stuck with him. “Being taught by a teacher who is drunk on a Tuesday afternoon is fantastic. He would forget he was supposed to be teaching and just rattle on about Roman history. Cheerfully drunk, but nobody would have ever dreamt of going home and complaining. As an introduction to the world of the adult man, it was very bizarre.”
He also remembers having to join a small choir, learning a sung Irish-language Mass for the funeral of one of the brothers. It being Ireland, the dying brother came to listen to them — “f***ing hilarious”.
Though there is comedy in the novel, there is a serious intent behind it. Ireland has had a sobering few years dealing with the institutionalised abuse of children, especially by priests and members of religious orders. “What I wanted to do was tell a story that was still capable of shocking, that would do justice to the subject matter.
“Thinking back to Jimmy Savile, it almost became a joke: who’s next? All the guys with the silly jumpers that you were almost half-hoping were next on the list. That’s awful. It’s not helpful to the victims. I wanted to tell a story that in its form would shock or stun people.” Smile’s shock value isn’t in graphic or harrowing detail, but in its dizzying twist, which upends expectations.
Doyle is quietly spoken, measured and restrained in his words, and not at all grand. He lives in north Dublin, not far from where he grew up, and is still close to his schoolfriends. Other than a brief stint spent teaching writing in New York, he has always been a Dublin man. He is a trim 59; his head so bald and polished it looks like a pink Malteser.
After attending University College Dublin he taught English and geography for 14 years in a secondary school in a working-class Dublin neighbourhood. He was clearly a groovy teacher. “All teachers, and I speak from experience, immediately are eccentric. They can’t help but be. They are at the front of the room being inspected by 30 teenagers, being inspected in a way that nobody else would be inspected. What seems like the most perfectly normal, dull person, their normality and dullness will be heightened and made mad by their audience of school kids.
“They called me Punk, that was my nickname, which in retrospect was a good nickname to have. I had an earring, I wore Doc Marten boots. I got a great kick out of the job . . . I’m still friendlywith a lot of them [pupils], I enjoyed listening to them, making them laugh and laughing at them.”
While there he wrote his first four novels. His 1987 debut, The Commitments, about a gang of young unemployed Dubliners who form a soul band, became a Bafta-winning film five years later. His fourth novel, Paddy Clarke Ha Ha Ha, won the Booker prize in 1993. Only in that year did he become a full-time writer.
It’s not hard to spot a Doyle novel — and Smile is certainly Doylesque. First, it will be set in Dublin. Barrytown is the fictional working-class neighbourhood for a number of them, such as The Commitments and his last one, The Guts. Doyle, who is married with three children, is himself from a lower middle-class background. His father, a son of a tram driver, left school at 15 to become a printer. He progressed to teaching his trade in a technology college. This puts him in the social “grey zone”, as Doyle puts it. His mother’s background was more middle class.
The second Doylesque feature is that his novels fizz with demotic zing
comic phrasing and the back-and-forth of Irish chat. Doyle says of Irish garrulousness that “words are in the air. We talk more and less self-consciously than in other places. Strangers talk to one another; people in queues.” There is more to it than chattiness; there is a special Irish grammar underneath the English.
“I couldn’t claim any Gaelic-speaking ancestry whatsoever, but it [Gaelic] adds elbows to the language. I remember getting a text from one of my kids — ‘I’m after getting in trouble’. Brilliant, that’s another generation saying ‘I’m after getting’. It’s a direct translation of Gaelic.” It pleases him that eastern European and African immigrants are picking up the Irish knack of speaking.
Recently Doyle had to practise a new ear for listening. In 2014 he co-wrote The Second Half, part two of the footballer Roy Keane’s autobiography. “No other sportsman that I know of would have interested me. He goes beyond football in that respect. People have opinions on Roy in the same way they have about the civil war.”
Doyle now counts Keane as a friend. “I was a slave to his words, but luckily he is a brilliant communicator.” At one time Doyle was listening nine hours a day to recordings of the footballer talking, so much so that “at one point my mother said I was speaking with a Cork accent”. (Rumours are that progress is slow on AS Byatt’s ghosting of John Terry’s memoirs.)
All teachers, and I speak from experience, are eccentric
“I anticipate there will be a certain hostility to this one,” Doyle says of Smile. “Over the years I’ve had death threats. A lot of hostility,” he says of his novels, which have dealt with issues such as unwed motherhood — in The Snapper, published in the more conservative times of 1990 — and wife-beating in The Woman Who Walked Into Doors in 1996.
Doyle has been an atheist since his teens. Smile, though, does not strike one as a furious broadside against the church and all its works, more an attempt to put a human face on an issue that we have become jaded with. At one point he reminisces about a Christian Brothers training college near where he grew up.
“On a Sunday afternoon you would see them in a crocodile line on their weekly walk, these young lads in their teens or early twenties, in their black suits; country boys up in Dublin. Even as a child I thought that was weird. In a way they were kind of prisoners themselves. A lot of them were taken to be brothers when they were children themselves.”
Yet, Doyle says, for many it would be easier to forget that the brothers who ran numerous schools and reformatories “had trapped boys. Literally imprisoned.” Many want to believe the comforting notion that abuse was just committed by a “few bad apples” rather than having to admit that it was institutional and that the Irish state, and many others, colluded in it.
“I’m not going out of my way to avoid controversy with this one. There will be hostility — I don’t mind that.” It’s an awkward topic, one that it would be easier to zone out. He will have to hope that readers will say: “Roddy Doyle, I can never resist your style.”
Smile by Roddy Doyle is published on September 7 by Jonathan Cape
Roddy Doyle will appear at the Cheltenham Literature Festival on Saturday, October 7 (cheltenhamfestivals.com)
Ewan Bremner, who played Spud in Trainspotting is the son of Aidan Bremner, FP of the school and former art teacher. There is a very good article about him in a newspaper “The Cork”
Read historic copies of newletters.