Culture That Made Me: David Mitchell picks his touchstone books, music and films 

The Cloud Atlas author includes John Banville, Joni Mitchell and John Spillane in his selections, and also reveals what appeals to him about West Cork 
Culture That Made Me: David Mitchell picks his touchstone books, music and films 

David Mitchell in West Cork. Picture: Denis Minihane

David Mitchell, 52, is the author of several best-selling novels, including Cloud Atlas. Born in Southport, Kent, he has been living near Clonakilty, Co Cork, for the past 17 years. In 2007, Time magazine listed him among its 100 Most Influential People in the World. In 2013, Mitchell and with his wife, Keiko Yoshida, translated Naoki Higashida’s memoir The Reason I Jump: One Boy’s Voice from the Silence of Autism. His latest novel Utopia Avenue is published by Sceptre. Upcoming projects include a collaboration with singer-songwriter Hollie Fullbrook, which will be performed at DeBarras in Clonakilty.

The magic of being a young boy

As a child, I had a bookshelf of impactful novels which I read over and over again. Today, I’ll cite The Ghost of Thomas Kempe by Penelope Lively, about a boy who releases the bottled ghost of an alchemist and has to handle the impossible consequences. I still remember scenes and lines 45 years later. What a wonderful book.

The Revolutions Trilogy

I read John Banville’s trilogy (Copernicus, Kepler and The Newton Letter) in Japan in 1996 in a giddy 36-hour binge. They were a formative masterclass in style. Every line is considered and burnished, compelling me to emulate that meticulousness, that respect for the reader’s time, that matchmaker’s strange love for these things called words. Yes, sometimes the sky is simply blue, but it behoves us to test the alternatives first. I’ve never met the author in person, but if you’re reading this, John – thanks.

A female perspective

Joni Mitchell’s Blue provided my first female set of perspectives on freedom, love, art, relationships and life. I’m embarrassed to confess how ignorant I was about the entire female half of humanity – in every conceivable way, including the one you’re thinking of – but I was made in sexist decades dominated by male narratives of everything. Blue was the start of a lifelong process of correction.  (Sexism doesn’t damage men in the same way it damages women, but the fact remains, sexism is bad for men also.) Blue is also great art that nourishes whoever, whatever, whenever you are.

Sergeant Pepper’s

Sergeant Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band by The Beatles is the first pop/rock LP that is also a journey, or a trip (nudge wink); that contains not one second of filler or lazy bridge; that consciously treats the LP as an art form in its own right, rather than a container for storing individual songs. It’s brave, strange, glorious, experimental, melodic.

My favourite live gig

I recently saw John Spillane, just him and his guitar, out the back of De Barra’s Folk Club in Clonakilty. I was all of 10 feet away. It was the first post-lockdown gig for all 30 attendees. He sang We Come In The Wind and my imagination layered on the vocals and backing arrangements from the studio version. Swallows flitted overhead. Candles flickered on tables. Condensation trickled down the outside of my glass of Murphy’s as it warmed in the air. Just occasionally this tricky life business is unambiguous bliss, like. Woo-woo.

David Mitchell with John Spillane in DeBarras, Clonakilty.
David Mitchell with John Spillane in DeBarras, Clonakilty.

E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial 

I saw Steven Spielberg’s E.T. in Malvern Winter Gardens cinema in Worcestershire, the month it came out. The bit where you think the big-eyed, spindly-fingered feller’s dead sure enough... but then the flower comes back to life, the protagonist Elliot, you and all the other surreptitious weepers in the cinema realise all is not lost.

I remember thinking, “But it’s only a story! It isn’t real!” Then: “But these emotions are real… that means something… what?” I’m still working on the answer, but it’s something to do with Neil Gaiman’s maxim: “Fiction is the lie that tells the truth.” 

The Straight Story

 One favourite of oh so many movies is The Straight Story by David Lynch. Family, love, self-knowledge, penance, the affirmation that however deep-rooted a grudge may seem, you can bin it in a heartbeat if both – or hell, if just one of you – is brave enough to say, “This is getting us nowhere and we deserve more.”

Mr Benn

I have a very early memory of being ill with mumps and watching an early 1970s cartoon called Mr Benn. I watched it on the sofa! With a glass of Robinson’s barley crush, the posh stuff! This Being Poorly Malarkey was the business! Every episode, Mr Benn visited a fancy dress shop, tried on a new costume, and went through a magic door to a land appropriate to the costume of the week. Here he righted a wrong using kindness and what we’d now call emotional intelligence. I think of Mr Benn as a metaphor for fiction. You put on a costume, have an adventure and come back to find yourself and the world subtly altered.

Golden age of TV 

We’ve had great streaming TV shows over the last 20 years. For breadth, depth, acting, complexity of narrative, directing, authenticity of language, characterisation, addictive qualities and ideas – i.e. pretty much everything – The Wire, which stood on the shoulders of The Sopranos, is the best of them.

Enjoying art exhibitions 

When I see a panting by Van Gogh, Vermeer, Howard Hodgkin or Mark Rothko at a museum, I lower myself into it like a warm bath and float there for a while. My son makes an insistent beeline to the Crawford Galley when we’re in Cork so I see every exhibition, usually two or three times. (Thanks to its autism-friendly gallery staff, if you’re reading this.) My go-to podcast Isaac Meyer’s History of Japan. What it says on the tin. A tin now grown to epic proportions over seven years or so. A majestic labour of love.

What I value most about life and culture in West Cork 

  • Acceptance of difference: Many Corkonians, upon encountering an autistic kid, respond with some variation on, “Ah, sure he’s grand, he’s just a bit a different, you ought to meet my cousin from Killarney, now he’s the quare one right enough…” In a broader context, the same spirit accounts for the referendum result leading to the Marriage Act of 2015. I’ve never been prouder to be a part of this society.
  • A self-sufficient can-do-ness: in the UK, too often, “getting something done” means “demanding it from the council and abusing councillors if they don’t or can’t provide it”. Here, people will form a committee, fundraise, call in favours and do it themselves: Surf2Heal, Ardfield Rathbarry Playground Committee, Tidy Towns, West Cork Animal Welfare Group, all the countless others, you know who you are, and you are Ireland.
  • Respect for, and common ownership of, language: People here aren’t intimidated by high-register language. They don’t belittle it. They’ll use it as and when they need to, and applaud others who do, and say, “Well said.” The twice-elected head of state is a poet. No wonder Ireland is a literary superpower: you can hear vernacular literature in every bar, every kitchen, every GAA sideline in the land. It’s in the cultural DNA. As for language, by the way, so for music.

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