Joseph O'Connor on his love of Bob Dylan, Basil Fawlty and Eavan Boland 

Culture That Made Me: The Dublin writer selects seven of his touchstones through the decades 
Joseph O'Connor on his love of Bob Dylan, Basil Fawlty and Eavan Boland 

Joseph O'Connor. Picture: Urszula Sołtys

Nothing so funny as human suffering

The 1970s was a great era for sitcoms. To see Basil Fawlty in Fawlty Towers beating up his car with a tree for the first time – I can remember just laughing till I cried. The Fall and Rise of Reginald Perrin was probably my favourite. 

Both main characters in the shows have amazing similarity. They’re both very dark, both about men who are absolutely on the edge. It reminds you of Samuel Beckett's remark that there's nothing quite so funny as human suffering. If you look at what we laugh at often it’s sadness. It's cruel to laugh at somebody slipping on a banana skin. 

In the case of those shows, they're both brilliant descriptions of a kind of toxic male self-destruction years before people started talking about these things.

Bob Dylan’s rasping voice

I can remember being completely electrified by Bob Dylan's Desire (1976) the first moment I heard it. I had a summer job working on a building site in Dalkey as a tea boy, running errands. There was one fella on the site, a bricklayer, who was a great music head. 

Me and all my friends were into punk and new wave. The two of us were inside the shell of this apartment block, taking shelter. It was raining, and he said to me: “This punk thing. It's all very well, but what you wanna listen to, what you really got to get into is this Bob Dylan guy.” 

He picked up a piece of sandpaper lying on the floor and rasped it up and down the window frame. He said: “That's what Bob Dylan's voice sounds like.” 

A couple of nights later, I went up to my friend's house and his elder brother was playing a cassette and before he told me who it was, I knew it was Bob Dylan. I love Bob. I come back to him all the time. He's the totem for me.

Preaching against punk

I can remember sermons at mass about punk. I remember going to mass in Dalkey church where the priest was very nice, and he was preaching against the Boomtown Rats from the pulpit and a couple of years later against Pink Floyd’s Another Brick in the Wall. 

He got very worked up about it. Such was the strange, murderous innocence at the time that the Catholic Church would pretend the problem was the Boomtown Rats and Pink Floyd.

Bob Dylan: 'He's the totem for me.' 
Bob Dylan: 'He's the totem for me.' 

The show must go on

The first time I went to the theatre was with my parents. I was eight or nine. It was a bit of a rite of passage, being a Dub, that you would be taken to the Abbey when you reached a certain age. I don't remember the play. It was probably a Synge or an O’Casey. 

I was quite bored by the play. At the end, the actors came out and did their current call and then went back in. The audience stayed. They wouldn't stop applauding. They applauded and applauded, and the spotlight came on. This little man stepped out from behind the curtain. He had been in a bit part, as a farmer, barman or peasant. 

People stood up and the women around me were crying and he was crying. My parents explained to me in the car on the way home: the man's wife had died that day. What they were applauding was the great theatrical notion that the show must go on. It went into the centre of my soul. I think about him every time I’ve ever been in a theatre. I admire actors so much.

Donal McCann in Faith Healer

About 30 years ago at London’s Royal Court Theatre, I saw Brian Friel’s play Faith Healer with Donal McCann. It’s a very simple play structurally. It’s three people standing in front of the audience, telling versions of the same story. 

I remember being slightly late, rushing, running up from the Tube, just getting into my seat before the lights went out. No time to prepare for what was going to happen. I remember being floored by this play in a way that no play has ever affected me since. 

At the end, the faith healer Francis Hardy made his final speech, and the lights went down. That's the end of the play. When the lights came back up, McCann looked spent. He was gone. His face was white. He barely acknowledged the audience. Off he went and there was a standing ovation, but he didn't come back. It was the only time I've ever seen this. I think he’d given it absolutely everything.

Kingsley Amis and Philip Larkin’s friendship

The collected letters of a writer who is rather unfashionable now, Kingsley Amis, is a great, big fat book, about 700 pages. Kingsley Amis was born in 1922. It was the era when people still wrote letters. The book is very unusual in that the first few letters in it are letters he wrote as a young student in Oxford. 

The last letters in it are the ones he wrote a couple of weeks before he died. So it’s his entire life. There's a number of very close friendships, including one with Philip Larkin who was his contemporary. Kingsley writes to Phillip a couple of times a week throughout the entire book. You see them growing up, becoming friends, falling out, getting success. 

The other is happy for him, but he's a bit envious. They drift in and out of fashion. They drift in and out of relationships. They have problems with money. It's an entire, intimate picture of a writer's life. I love that book and I keep it by me.

Often what you want is right there in front of you

Since Eavan Boland died, as a way of saying goodbye, I’ve started reading all of her work in sequence. She left these amazing, delicate poems about everyday life, often about women being in kitchens, realising something as they make the dinner. 

Or the whole business of dealing with children or dealing with being a writer or with loving the world. Beautiful poems where nothing much happens, but the sun comes in through a window or rain is heard at night time. I read them a lot during the lockdown. I felt them to be kind of protective and life enhancing. 

They helped me to get through it because they're very often about what you want is right there in front of you. You just have to develop a different way of seeing it.

Born in 1963, the Dublin writer Joseph O’Connor’s novel Shadowplay is published in paperback by Vintage

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