Paul Howard’s new project is about a British playboy, but his D4 classic still has appeal for those outside the Pale, says Richard Fitzpatrick
SATIRIST Paul Howard has a full dance card this year. In September, he will publish his 17th Ross O’Carroll-Kelly book. He has a couple of “top secret” TV and theatre projects planned, and in the autumn he will submit the manuscript for his biography of Tara Browne, which will be published in 2016 to coincide with the 50th anniversary of Browne’s death.
Howard’s description of his subject’s life indicates how much rich material he had to include in the book. A member of the Guinness family, Browne had a short but gilded life. The Beatles immortalised him in ‘A Day in the Life’ (“He blew his mind out in a car/He didn’t notice that the lights had changed”).
Browne, who died aged 21 in that car crash in South Kensington, London, was in close contact with many of the 20th century’s cultural icons. His bohemian mother, Oonagh Guinness, was a friend to John Huston, Samuel Beckett and Edith Piaf. Browne, who modelled for Vogue and ran a fashion shop, Dandy Fashions, on the King’s Road, socialised with the Rolling Stones and introduced Paul McCartney to LSD.
Browne’s parents separated a few years after he was born. His mother took up with a charlatan, Miguel Ferreras. “I have to be careful with my words here,” says Howard. “He was a gigolo, really, this man, and a bit of a conman. You might say he was a Spanish-American dressmaker.”
The pair married after “an indecently short courtship”, moving to Paris so Guinness could finance Ferreras’s dreams of a couture business. In Paris, he carried on a secret gay life. Secrecy was a way of life for him — he stole a dead man’s identity, and fought with General Franco in the Spanish Civil War, and with the Nazis in the ‘Blue Division’ in the Second World War.
Browne’s early teenage years were spent in the shadow of this man. He got his ‘schooling’ in his mother’s drawing room and in Parisian jazz clubs. “I interviewed a lot of these girls,” says Howard, “who were kind of debutants — that ritual in England of ‘coming out’. Before they came out, they were sent to Paris, to finishing schools like the Sorbonne. They were 18, 19 years of age. Tara was 14, 15. He was so worldly at the age of 15 that he was bringing those 19-year-old girls to nightclubs, and they were listening to a lot of the jazz greats who were in Paris at that time. People like Bud Powell.
“They would sit in these jazz clubs, and Tara would have a drink in one hand and a cigarette in the other. He was a very angelic-looking 15-year-old. He had this blond, pudding-bowl haircut. He looked like a little cherub, teaching these girls, who were four or five years older than him, about modern jazz.
“He was friends with Judith Keppel, who is a cousin of Camilla Parker-Bowles and the first person to win a million on Who Wants to Be a Millionaire?, and with Candida Betjeman, who was John Betjeman’s daughter. All these debutant girls were drawn to this kid because he was so streetwise.”
Presumably, he was a character that Ross O’Carroll-Kelly and wife Sorcha would have kept their debutant daughter Honor away from. In the third Rossmeister stage play, the couple are having trouble with the teenager.
The play is set in the year 2022. Unwittingly, Honor has invited Traoloch, a cocky, lecherous ringer for a younger Ross, as her date. As events unfold, he may well be another illegitimate son of Ross, to the ire of Sorcha.
“What the fock is wrong with your family?” she wails in a restaurant when Ross breaks the news. “Jesus Christ, you’re like the focking Kardashians. Every time you think you’ve met them all, someone opens a door and there’s focking 10 more you’ve never met before.”
Ross’s son, Ronan, has given him nine grandchildren, including Nidge, John Boy, Tommy and Darren.
Pitching the action in the future allows Howard licence for huge fun. Bertie Ahern is back in harness, at 71 years of age, for his fourth term as Taoiseach. After years as a cab driver, he’s busy piloting the flight of the Celtic Phoenix economy. David Drumm has returned from America and wants to set up a bank. Ross has never heard of him. “I’m glad to hear you say that, Ross. I’m glad to hear you say that,” says his dad, Charles, director of elections for a resurgent Fianna Fáil. And despite their troubles, the marriage of Ross and Sorcha has endured.
“They did break up for a while, but I just felt they were much more interesting together than apart,” says Howard. “There’s a great line from that casino owner in Las Vegas, called Steve Wynn. He broke up with his wife and, a year later, they were back together again. Somebody said to him, ‘I thought you two got divorced.’ He said, ‘We did get divorced, but it didn’t work out.’ It’s kind of like that with Ross and Sorcha. They had a kid, Honor. Ross will always be a player, as long as he has it in him to play.
“Sorcha will always forgive him, because she looks on marriage the same way she looks on her activism, vegetarianism and environmentalism.
“It’s something she has committed herself to, and she’s going to make it work.”
Howard attributes her conviction to her instruction as “an elite, south Dublin head-girl”.
The world of Ross and Sorcha is secluded and peculiar to a small, Anglo-Irish corner. “Ross’s dad, for example, would even like to surrender parts of Dublin’s northside to the sea,” laughs Howard.
The auhtor says, however, that Ross is familiar to people beyond the Pale.
“If I’d written Ross, say, when I was a kid, people might not have got Ross the same way outside of Dublin.
“People like Ross were concentrated in small pockets along the DORT line in Foxrock and Blackrock.
“One of the things the Celtic Tiger did was take people who would have been middle class and turned them into Ross O’Carroll-Kelly types. It’s not so much about geography anymore. It’s about lifestyles and aspirations.
“People outside Dublin recognise those bits. As well as a Dublin 4, there is a C4 in Cork, around Montenotte and Douglas, and a B4 in Belfast, along the Malone Road. People recognise those stereotypes around, say, the rugby scene in Cork. There’s a bit of Ross to Simon Coveney.”
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