Culture That Made Me: Paul Howard

From the Beatles to Only Fools and Horses, popular author Paul Howard tells Richard Fitzpatrick about some of his cultural touchstones.
Culture That Made Me: Paul Howard
Paul Howard wasn't always a keen reader but now would "read a hundred books a year." File picture.

The popular author of the Ross O'Caroll-Kelly Books tells Richard Fitzpatrick about his childhood memories watching pirate videos and discovering The Mamas and the Papas from television ads.

When we went to the library as kids the books I took home tended to be non-fiction books – about things like space and underwater exploration. I still have a preference for non-fiction over fiction. I probably read five non-fiction books for every novel.

I read Sue Townsend’s The Secret Diary of Adrian Mole, Aged 13¾ when I was about the same age as Adrian Mole. It’s funny — a lot of people who read the Ross O’Carroll-Kelly books think that Adrian Mole was the inspiration for the Ross books but I just found Adrian Mole sad.

I read the first two books and they made me really unhappy and put me off reading fiction for a couple of years. I was clearly reading the wrong books.

As a kid, I didn’t really have much of an attention span. I think I was quite skittish. We were outdoors kids. I wasn’t anything like a voracious reader of anything as a kid. Now I am. Now I’d read a hundred books a year.

Only Fools and Horses and structuring a scene

Comedy was a big thing in our house growing up in the 1980s. Laughter was the language of the home. I remember sitting around as a family watching classic British TV sitcoms. They were hugely influential. Something like Only Fools and Horses.

Only Fools and Horses: ‘The jokes are great but structurally they were so sound’
Only Fools and Horses: ‘The jokes are great but structurally they were so sound’

My books are quite episodic. When I write a scene, there’s a set-up that has a beginning, a middle and an end. The same applies for my weekly Ross newspaper columns — they’re a thousand words and they each have a start, a middle and an end.

I always think of Only Fools and Horses when I’m writing those because they were just so perfectly structured.

The jokes are great but structurally they were so sound — the chandelier episode; the one where Rodney pursues a rare butterfly that’s worth money; the one where they had to mind Boycie’s dog and they accidently give him Uncle Albert’s sleeping tablets. We watched those episodes so many times as kids.

Even when they come on television 35 years later, I can watch them and know every line and say the jokes before they say them.

E.T and video recorders

As a child, movies were such a novelty to us. We only went to the cinema about four or five times in our childhood. If you didn’t go to the cinema you had to wait years to see the movie.

If you were 11 years old and, say, E.T. was at the cinema and your parents didn’t bring you to see it, you could be 15 by the time you saw it, practically an adult. When I was 11 in 1982 the video recorder became a feature of homes in Ireland, which changed everything.

A few people in our estate in Dublin had video recorders, but there was no video rental shops.

They hadn’t been invented yet so there was a guy who used to go around in a van in our estate and he had about 300 videos in the back of the van in crates.

A huge number of them were pirate copies. The guards were always raiding his house.

The thing I remember most was that when you were watching a film on video there were all these heads in front of the screen because it was filmed with a video camera in a cinema, usually in America.

You could hear all this talking going on, American people going, “Hey, shut the hell up!” while you were watching this really sad film about this alien trying to find his way home.

Music from television ads

For music, I don’t think the 1960s or ’70s were ever bettered. It was a high point. My entrée to a lot of music from that period was ads.

I get annoyed when I hear people complain about songs they don’t like being used by ads on television because I always remember there were so many great bands and singers I got into after hearing one of their songs on a commercial.

Like I remember seeing an ad when I was about 15 for the News of the World when it launched a Sunday magazine, one of the first glossy magazines that came with a Sunday newspaper, and the ad jingle was “Sunday, Sunday…”, [an adjustment of] the Mamas & Papas song.

I never knew anything about the Mamas & Papas until I heard that Californian sound on a newspaper ad.

It’s strange the things that influence you. You think it’s just music, and that you hear it in a conventional way, but sometimes it comes into your life through the television.

Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band and Tara Browne

My dad had terrible taste in music, but he had occasional gems in his record collection like Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band by The Beatles.

I listened to it when I was about eight and it blew my mind — even though you don’t know music at that age but you know when something is good. It was a first press. Dad bought it when it first came out in 1967.

It was always treated like an heirloom in the house. If I listened to it, he had to take the record out of the sleeve he would put the needle down on the record. It was treated so specially that it taught me it was no ordinary record.

The song ‘A Day in the Life’ in particular haunted me as a kid. The set-up was so brilliant. It was typical John Lennon. He didn’t know what to write.

He picks up a newspaper, recognises a photograph of a guy who he knows is a friend of Paul McCartney’s, realises he’s dead from a car crash and just writes the lyric, “I read the news today, oh boy/About a lucky boy who made the grade.”

The scene Lennon sets about the people who stop and stare at the car crash. They’re speculating: was he in the House of Lords?

They’re class rubberneckers and when you listen to the song he’s inviting you to rubberneck along with them. You’re wondering about this guy who’s dead at the wheel of the car.

I read a few years later when I was about 14 — in a book about the meaning behind every single Beatles song — that he was a real person and he was Irish.

That’s when I first read about Tara Browne. I was intrigued about him and I wanted to find out more, and it all goes back to that song.

  • Paul Howard’s biography of Tara Browne, I Read the News Today, Oh Boy is published by Picador

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