When I was at school, I had little interest in poetry or novels or short stories. Poetry had no place in my contemptuous teenage heart. It seemed to be mostly about daffodils and Grecian urns and people not saying what they really meant.
The only poem that made an impression on me was ‘September 1913’ by Yeats. In it, Yeats talks about the shopkeeper “fumbling in the greasy till” and “adding prayer to shivering prayer”. I liked that it because it was mean spirited. I also thought I knew the shopkeeper Yeats was talking about. But, as for all those sonnets about flowers and Shakespeare comparing some woman he wanted to get off with to a summer’s day, they could keep them.
For our Leaving Cert English exam, we had to study both ‘The Great Gatsby’ by F Scott Fitzgerald and Emily Bronte’s ‘Wuthering Heights’. I read neither and failed the subject, which was an immense surprise to everyone, including, for some strange reason, me.
None of this mattered though, because Ronald Reagan was President of the United States and, any day now, he was going to drop the bomb. He actually said so in a radio broadcast once, when he thought the microphone was off. The nuclear missiles that were about to start raining down would put an end to poetry, hanging baskets and career guidance teachers.
There was one writer who appeared to also believe that the world was doomed. His name was George Orwell. Unfortunately, he was dead. Before he died, he’d written a book called ‘Animal Farm’ about a revolution that made things even worse than they were before.
I read Animal Farm in my own time and, by the time we did it at school for the Inter Cert, I knew it inside out. Unlike the poems about flowers and summer’s days, this book made sense to me. But like me, George Orwell was a rare bird. There appeared to be no others like him.
Years later, when Ronald Reagan was gone, having singularly failed to start World War III, I remember reading another book of Orwell’s ‘Down and Out in Paris and London’. At the time, I was working delivering flyers for a mini-cab company in London, run by people who were, well, criminals. It spoke to me. I knew that my world of sad little men with Rochdale and Wolverhampton accents, who worked for a boss whose real name they did not know, was one Orwell would recognise. Reading that book made me feel just a little less crazy.
Around this time, the world did end, but not in the way I’d imagined it. Someone I thought I was in a long term relationship with (we were supposedly engaged to be married, though we had only known each other for six weeks), suffered a complete mental breakdown.
Soon I was back in Ireland and she was in a psychiatric institution. I had no idea what to do next. I was really angry at Ronald Reagan for not dropping the bomb.
That same month, Kurt Cobain shot himself. I remember thinking that, for me, it was either do something creative or put an end to things. I began writing poems. They were really, really bad. But the first one I sent out to a poetry magazine somehow got published. I was away!
I set up a writers’ group because I had a strong instinct that people who were trying to write themselves were the best people to show my poems to. At this time I also wrote a novel, two plays and a couple of screenplays. None of these ever saw the light of day. And that’s probably for the best.
Once I brought one of my ‘plays’ in to the writers’ group, one member of the group never returned and, 15 years later, still avoids me on Shop Street.
That said, I found it useful to have a group on which to test my writing. Since then, I have published several books and read my poetry all around the world. I have been places the sad young man, who sloped back towards Galway on the ferry all those years ago, never thought he’d get to visit.
I work hard, too hard most of the time. I earn my living now from poetry, more from teaching it than from writing it, but still. I wrote a new poem last week and if I don’t write another new one next week, I’ll begin to get edgy.
A lot has changed, but George Orwell is still my favourite writer. And I still think the world is probably doomed.