A wish to master Mandarin

DES BISHOP is moving to the other side of the world.

He has a couple of loose ends to tie up first.

He’ll complete a nationwide tour — which includes three dates at the Cork Opera House — in the middle of December. He’s also finishing off a documentary with Pat Comer, who has directed several previous documentaries with him, about addiction in Ireland, entitled Under the Influence.

Then in January he’s packing off to China for a year — to learn Mandarin, and, he stresses, to get an understanding about everyday Chinese culture, as he feels people in the West tend to know little about the country beyond talk of its economic engine and human rights issues.

His adventures will be captured in a documentary. The project has been in gestation for about four years, although it can be traced back to his first acclaimed documentary series, which was broadcast in 2004, The Des Bishop Work Experience.

In one of its episodes, he befriended some Chinese workers at an Abrakebabra outlet in Waterford. One of them, Leo, subsequently moved to Dublin and worked on the door at The International Bar, home of The International Comedy Club, which Bishop runs with his brother, Aidan. In 2005, Bishop travelled around China with his then girlfriend, during which he spent a week with Leo’s family in a suburb of Dalian.

“It’s hard to say what the Chinese are like when you cannot speak their language; not a lot of them spoke English. The hope is that I will be able to understand them better after spending a proper amount of time with them.

“People were nice on that trip. They were helpful. Leo’s family were seriously hospitable. His mother broke down crying when we were leaving. Family was a huge deal. They live in small apartments, in really close quarters. We slept in the mother’s room. She insisted that we sleep in the master bedroom, meaning that she was probably sleeping on a chair or something.”

Bishop’s wrestle with the Chinese language won’t be the first time he’s got to grips with a foreign tongue. In 2008, RTÉ screened a six-part series, In the Name of the Fada, which chronicled his year out living in Connemara and learning Gaelic. (Because he grew up in New York, he was exempt from taking Irish for the Leaving Certificate after being sent to boarding school at St Peter’s, Wexford in 1990.)

“Going to China is a bit like going to the Gaeltacht,” he says. “I knew nothing about the Gaeltacht before going there. I thought I knew a lot. I knew nothing. I learnt the language and through learning the language you feel really connected to a place. I figure that by going to China and living there and learning the language I will learn a hell of a lot about what Chinese life is really like. In a country where people are obsessed with how it’s evolving, I think it’s pretty valuable to say what China is really like.”

Learning the language holds the key to understanding a place, he says, something that hit home from his time living on Ireland’s western seaboard. “The main thing I noticed about the Gaeltacht was that the culture feels a bit different. It doesn’t feel like the rest of Ireland. As I said to a guy once in the Donegal Gaeltacht, ‘do you think that the Gaeltacht is different to the rest of Ireland?’ And he said, ‘Well, we speak a different language.’ That’s the biggest difference you can get about two places.”

In Under the Influence, Bishop will examine addiction in several areas of Irish life, including drugs, gambling, and sex, the latter a subterranean plight in society, only slowly coming to the surface, and perhaps a national compulsion Éamon de Valera’s generation would never have reckoned on.

“There are a lot of people who would say sex addiction is not really an addiction. However, when you talk to anybody in the world of addiction, they would say that you spend a bit of time with us and you would quickly see the damage and pain it causes. In fact, Frances Black, who we’ve talked to a lot from the RISE Foundation, begged me to deal with sex addiction because she felt it’s bringing the most pain to Irish families because there’s huge emotional wreckage attached to infidelity and the shame associated with sexual behaviour.

“My understanding so far,” he says, midway through production, “is it has to do with people who can’t stop looking at porn on the internet, who can’t stop using chatrooms, a similar low-level one would be men who can’t stop using sex chat lines. The more extreme examples would be men that can’t stop using escort sites, which is a problem that appears to come up a lot. Chronic infidelity would be part of that.

“Always when a celebrity gets busted for having an affair, they say they have a sex addiction and people just say, ‘That’s a get-out clause, an excuse.’ A lot of the people we’ve been talking to have said it’s damaging the way sex addiction is always brought up in relation to a celebrity’s behaviour because the type of people that are presenting to them in terms of sex addiction, there’s nothing glamorous about it. It’s very dark. It’s very painful. It’s very lonely. There’s a lot of isolation, a lot of powerlessness, a lot of people doing things they’re deeply ashamed about, but unable to stop, in the same way as a gambler, heroin addict, or an alcoholic.

“We talked to a guy about gambling and he said, ‘Never has an addiction and a technology come together like gambling and the internet.’ Technology just ramps up the accessibility. There’s no comparison to 20 years ago. You can sit on the internet all night long, gambling on Australian racehorses and Chinese badminton matches. You can have a bookie’s app on your phone and keep on hammering away on the gambling. Whereas before, you had to go to a bookie’s... those days are over.”

The series, scheduled to broadcast on RTÉ in February, will also explore Irish people’s enthralment with booze. It’s a realm that Bishop has first-hand experience of. He had to kick drink at 19 years of age. His father was dry for the last 35 years of his life, something which Bishop wrote about movingly in his remarkable family memoir, published by Penguin last autumn, My Dad Was Nearly James Bond.

“I’m not trying to make a controversial programme, but people are very defensive of alcohol,” he says. “I’ve been a non-drinker since 1995. Sometimes my sober presence alone can challenge people, let alone talking about it. I think when you’re challenging people’s behaviour, particularly around something as ingrained as Ireland’s drinking habits, there’s going to be some kind of response, sometimes not so positive. I don’t mind rocking the boat to a certain degree, so it’s possibly not the worst thing in the world to not be around when that’s happening because I’m easily wound up.”

* Des Bishop Likes to Bang! is at the Cork Opera House, from Thursday, Dec 6, to Saturday, Dec 8. For more information, visit: corkoperahouse.ie


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