An Irishman Abroad
In the beginning the artistic influences came primarily from England and America – cinema, music, theatre, art in all its various guises, all stealing in like Soviet spies across the airwaves: films like Cool Hand Luke and The Sweet Smell of Success, psychedelic songs like Paper Sun by Traffic and the Bach-like God Only Knows by the Beach Boys, stage plays by Joe Orton, and Harold Pinter, and Simon Gray. There were Irish influences too of course but even they were often flecked with a patina of Englishness – George Bernard Shaw and Oscar Wilde and the like.
In my early days it was music that transfixed me – English and American folk, rock and pop mostly. If Europe raised its head at all – apart from Dana winning the Eurovision Song Contest with All Kinds of Everything – it was in the shape of groovy French images and phrases: Marianne Faithful adopting a slightly French accent when she sang As Tears Go By(like an English version of Françoise Hardy). And then there was Peter Sarstedt – with his cool Omar Sharif persona – singing Where Do You Go to My Lovely, mentioning in the process an impressive litany of names and places from Picasso to Sacha Distel to the Boulevard St Michel. The Rolling Stones had a French accordion on a song called Back Street Girl(from the Between the Buttons album), and their Ruby Tuesday reeked of French baroque. Michelle by the Beatles had an air of French about it too while Dusty Springfield had a huge hit with an Italian song called You Don’t Have to Say You Love Me. And let’s not forget Elvis Presley’s Wooden Heart with its German verse which the dogs in the streets of Wexford could ape and yodel.
The truth of the matter is we all had a secret, sneaky admiration for anyone and anything that smacked of the Continent. In fact it sometimes appeared that an air of romantic sophistication could be found in all things European (Maurice Chevalier and Marcel Marceau and Sophia Loren spring to mind). And then, to cap it all, Scott Walker introduced us to the songs of Jacques Brel – Mathilde and Amsterdam and Jackie – and that’s when it began to dawn on us – on the youthful me anyway – that this was not just a passing fad or a means to impress, that there was much more to this than met the eye. And soon the penny dropped: there are other ways – umpteen ways – to sing a song or spin a yarn; and, much more importantly, there are different forms of artistic structures than the ones we were both peddling and being peddled.
Fellini’s La Strada had a huge impact for starters, and the Greek myths were everywhere to be found: Orpheus Descending by Tennessee Williams (I would have first seen this in its film incarnation which was called The Fugitive Kind, starring Marlon Brando); The Searchers and Taxi Driver are both held up by the same myth of Orpheus descending into the underworld in search of the maiden. Arthur Miller had a hit with an adaptation of Ibsen’s Enemy of the Peoplewhile his A View from the Bridge owed a great debt to the Greek strategy of inevitability. Everywhere you looked – from Hollywood to Broadway to the West End of London – the European sensibility, and in particular the Greek myths, provided the poetic backbone to a variety of popular songs and stories.
And so, bit by bit, almost by osmosis, the European philosophy and modus operandi impinged its way into my own personal writing technique. In the beginning I – like most young men my age – slavishly emulated my heroes: Jack Kerouac, and Henry Miller, and Kurt Vonnegut to begin with, until one of them led me to Knut Hamsun and the other pointed to Voltaire, and before I knew it I was looking elsewhere for my inspiration. Madame Bovary by Flaubert soon followed (my favourite novel), and Death in Venice by Thomas Mann, and The Outsider by Albert Camus. The plays of Chekhov of course – Russian, I know, but yet endowed with a European sensibility. (Or could it be that everything that was not Irish, English or American was considered European?)
And what did I learn in my immersion? I think it is safe to say that I learned something that I probably, unconsciously, already knew, namely: to trust where I came from, to re-assess and recycle what I originally took for granted, to try and paint a picture that already existed, perhaps to strip back that painting to its very core and remake it in my own image and to my own liking. Lofty, I know, but …
My work has travelled outward of course – my stage play Lay Me Down Softly to Poland, my collection of short stories Tales from Rainwater Pond to Italy (published by Battaglia Edizioni), my one-woman monologue The Dog and Bone to Paris. And yes, wherever I go, I am struck by how similar we all are at heart, that, on close inspection (or even in passing) regardless of occupation, inclination, or nationality, there is much of a muchness about us all. But we are very different from each other too it must be noted – in looks and temperament and taste. And that is the beautiful, hidden flaw in the rough diamond called humanity – our unique habits and idiosyncrasies: hurling here, bullfighting there, flamenco somewhere else; horses racing through the streets of Siena; opera music pouring from the houses in the back streets of Naples; fashion, flourishing unashamedly, in Milan. I recall slipping around the back of a bullring in some little town in Spain to watch two young matadors in full regalia nipping out for a smoke at the back of the arena (like two Irish showband singers on a break); or, closer to home, the weathered, wrinkled old sean nós singer in Galway singing The Rocks of Bawn to a bunch of wide eyed tourists (as alien to me as it was to those visitors). The gondoliers of Venice; the house boats of Amsterdam, the merchants and artisans on the Charles Bridge in Prague: all of these things help to both unite us and set us apart in equal measure. I’m thinking now of my time spent in Lido di Jesolo (yes, where Death in Venice is set). One evening my wife and I followed a horde of excited natives as they swept towards the town square where Andrea Boccelli was giving a free concert. On the way we came across a beautiful old lady sitting in her car, surrounded by loving admirers: it was Gina Lollobrigida. I felt completely at home and at sea all at the same time. And in the amphitheatre in Taormina in Sicily I rose to my feet to welcome the wonderful Italian tenor Giuseppe Di Stefano onto the stage as he stepped out to receive his ovation for his direction of Cavalleria Rusticana; and yet again, as enthused as I was at the time, I felt vaguely apart from it all – like an Irish man abroad!
Does all of this toing and froing make me a European person or, more to the point, a European writer? Probably not! No, before I present my writing credentials to the world, I think I should revert back to my days on the streets of Wexford when we used to employ a little childish game to demonstrate our Galactic citizenship: Billy Roche, 83 Johns Street, Wexford, Ireland, Europe, the World, the Galaxy, the Universe.
And that’s me in a nutshell!