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Roddy Doyle: 'In all honesty, I would rather have been a musician than a writer'

23 July 2013

As The Commitments hits the stage, Roddy Doyle shows us where it all began. By Rob Fitzpatrick.

Portrait of author, Roddy Doyle
Author, Roddy Doyle

You can learn an awful lot about a place if a kindly local decides to give you a tour. Right now, we’re out by Dublin Bay, just over the wooden bridge at Dollymount, walking up the long, thin road that bisects Bull Island. Up there somewhere lies the 128-year-old Royal Dublin Golf Club and beyond that a Victorian segregated swimming area.

Our kindly guide, the author and dramatist Roddy Doyle, is on home soil – he lives just a mile or so away – which may go some way to explain why he’s such relaxed and amiable company. 

Nothing is too much trouble and there’s a story hanging discretely on pretty much everything we can see, from the causeway we’re standing on (built on the city’s rubbish, so over-run with rats for years) to James Joyce locations on Three Rock Mountain.

Doyle likes to bring his wife Belinda up here to swim in the summer; they’ve both reached an age now where the segregation of the sexes is more of an opportunity for quiet reflection than some grievous affront to their person – and anyway, Doyle has an awful lot to reflect upon.

The Commitments becomes a musical stage play

Twenty-seven years ago, in the summer of 1986, he was a 28-year-old teacher with time on his hands and an idea for a book that wouldn’t leave him alone. Inspired by teenagers in his care at (the long since closed) Greendale Community School in the North Dublin suburb of Kilbarrack, Doyle wrote The Commitments, the story of  a disparate gaggle of youths brought together by a music fanatic called Jimmy Rabbitte to try to master black American soul.

The book, released in 1987, and the film – directed by Alan Parker four years later – were both hugely successful. Indeed, nine novels (Paddy Clarke Ha Ha Ha won the 1993 Man Booker) and multiple short stories, children’s books, screenplays and novellas later, it is The Barrytown Trilogy – each book marking out a piece of Kilbarrack territory – that Doyle remains best known for. 

That’s what happens when you’re as honest in your work as Doyle has been, when you write books such as The Snapper or The Van (the other two that make up the trilogy with The Commitments), which are driven by the sort of people who are generally left out of literature completely.

Now, after two and a half decades of politely declined requests, The Commitments is finally becoming a musical stage play, just as Doyle’s new book, The Guts, reintroduces Rabbitte, now neck-deep in a troubled middle age.

‘I’ve always batted away every request for a musical,’ Doyle laughs. ‘I’d never been to one and I had no wish to go to one. To me, a musical was The Sound of Music and I just wasn’t interested.’

But then, as ever, life took over. As his children got older, he started taking them to football, then on to a show; We Will Rock You (in The Guts, Rabbitte derides Queen as ‘cabaret’, a view shared wholeheartedly by Doyle), The Producers and, most importantly, The Lion King and Monty Python’s Spamalot.

‘They were all a revelation,’ Doyle says. ‘I began to open my head to the notion of a Commitments show. Honestly, I’d almost forgotten that I wrote the thing. I’d deliberately erased it from my memory.’

Writing the musical

Around eight years ago, while Doyle was away teaching in New York, his sons watched the film of The Commitments for the first time. When Doyle’s wife told him how much they’d enjoyed it, his feelings towards the piece began to change. 

Eventually he instructed his agent to pull out the old file that contained all the serious offers and everyone who had made a request was invited to a meeting – but one problem remained. How do you write a musical about a band that can’t play their instruments? After months spent tussling with writers, Doyle realised it would only work if he wrote it himself.

‘So that’s what I did,’ he smiles. ‘I read the book for the first time in 24 years and I discovered I wasn’t precious about it. I could happily hack away. I felt relaxed, because it was all such a long, long time ago…’

We’ve moved from the island and are standing on the concrete bridge that curls across Kilbarrack’s tiny train station. Twenty feet below us a pile of burnt-out beer cans collects around the blackened trunk of  a weedy, municipal sapling, but if you pitch up on to your tiptoes you can see sunlight bouncing off the sea.

‘Can you imagine anyone doing this now?’ Doyle says, his accent soft and rounded as he nods towards the water. ‘Building a council estate so close to the beach?’ In truth, nothing’s been built around here for years and it looks unlikely that anything will be in the foreseeable future. Doyle’s old school might be closed, but a lot of his old pupils still live in the area and many have been out of work for long periods of time.

‘I think Ireland has relaxed into the notion that economically, this is where we are,’ Doyle says as we climb back into the car and drive along the coast. ‘There was a three-year period when people here were afraid to draw breath or to exhale in case something would wobble a bit and the whole thing would collapse around us. There was this colossal anxiety, then the IMF came in and humiliated us. That fear has got deep into our nerve ends.’

Rabbitte revisited

Doyle, now 55, would be the first to admit that his life was – and is – relatively unscathed by many of the financial problems his country and his countrymen are facing, but his characters are right in the middle of it. In The Guts, Rabbitte watches as the well-worn seams of his life are picked apart by serious illness and a family ready to fly the nest.

‘There is real grief as you sense the end of that primal relationship with your kids,’ he says. ‘That time when you can pick them up and hug them whenever you want.’

So, while Rabbitte’s mortgage is nearly paid off and his online business – fulfilling other middle-aged men’s need for vintage Irish punk (which he loves) and tiddle-diddle-aye folk-rock (which he can’t abide) – ticking over, there remains a sense that this time of life is a kind of living death. His very visceral fear of death is the catalyst for change and, as in The Commitments, a love of music runs through everything.

Doyle can – and does – talk passionately about Bob Dylan and Otis Redding, The Undertones and new Irish sensation The Strypes, who are a little like The Commitments transmogrified into the bodies of four teenage boys from the border town of Cavan.

In the book, Rabbitte brings all his old singles down from the loft and his children gaze upon them like holy relics. In real life, Doyle has done the same thing.

‘I was going through the records before I showed them to everyone,’ he says. ‘In all honesty, I would rather have been a musician than a writer and what I tried to do with The Commitments particularly was to find the innate rhythm of people’s language. I wouldn’t write a line of dialogue unless it had a rhythm of its own. I’d try to find an alternative word to get rid of an extra syllable – they were like bum notes.’

Back up in his attic, Doyle was considering a spot of self-censorship, thinking he really ought to leave the Rod Stewart bits up there – but he didn’t. And now he’s started to buy vinyl LPs again, things such as soul legend Sam Cooke Live at the Harlem Square Club from 1963 (‘He’s something of a smoothie in the studio, but he’s running amok here’), a toothsome Nick Cave piece from 1996 and a collection by German conceptualists Brandt Brauer Frick. Of course, the albums that have soundtracked Doyle’s life for decades are getting just as much attention too.

‘Oh, I’m still playing Little Feat,’ he laughs. ‘And Bob Marley’s Exodus is just unbelievable on vinyl – crackles and all! The irony is, when I was a kid, I’d be in the front room with the record player, my parents in the back room with the television shouting, “Turn it down, turn it down!” Now I’m in the front room with the record player and it’s my kids in the back room with the telly on, but I’m still the one being told to turn it down!’

Blurring fiction with real life

One album he has been playing is his old Hall and Oates greatest hits collection – a record that gets thoroughly disparaged in the book. ‘It does, yes!’ he says. ‘But actually some of those songs are brilliant. My kids wander around with the history of rock’n’roll in their iPods and the things they listen to! The other day one of them asked me, “Did you ever hear of a band called Supertramp?”’

Interestingly, in The Guts, Rabbitte pretends never to have owned a copy of Supertramp’s greatest hits, despite knowing every single song – which makes us wonder just how close Doyle and his most famous creation really are?

‘In some ways we’re very close,’ he says. ‘I like Jimmy’s approach to life, but while it’s natural to look for the real story behind the fiction, Jimmy isn’t me. Having said that, I think middle-aged Jimmy is closer to me than younger Jimmy was. Otherwise, I have never had, I hope never do have, cancer, but I lost a very close friend to it. I’m at a point in my life now where I go to a lot of funerals. I haven’t been to a wedding in years.’

Doyle still lives on the same street where he wrote The Commitments. Then he lived in a bedsit, now he has a large house closer to the bay with his wife and teenage children, but he clearly still feels utterly in tune with the young man who would sit alone and write for hour after hour.

‘If you listen to how people talk,’ he says, ‘if you listen to the values they have, they’re much the same now as they were 27 years ago. The truth is, if I was starting again and writing the book today, I really wouldn’t change that much at all.’

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