HIP Literature Editor PETE DONOHUE catches up with fellow Hastings-based Irish writer Tom O’Brien

I started writing seriously over 25 years ago. Oh, I had always been a bit of a scribbler but most of it wound up in the waste paper basket, so I thought it was time to give it a proper go. I didn’t go to university; in fact I barely finished primary school before I was working in the local porridge factory. Not that further education would have made me a writer; good writers are born, not made, as far as I can see. Would going to university have made Brendan Behan a writer? Or Sean O’Casey? Or Patrick Kavanagh? They had writing in their blood; that’s what made them writers. And I suspect that is true of most writers. And it certainly is true for me; my first play, Money from America, broke box office records at the Tabard Theatre in West London and had patrons lining up around the block to see it.

I grew up in Ballyhussa, Co. Waterford, Ireland and I guess we were poor. No running water, no electricity, no toilets, no TV, no car…you name it we didn’t have it. But then, money wasn’t as important as it is nowadays. If you had enough to live on you were doing well…Even the poorest cottage had half an acre of land attached, and enough spuds, cabbage and other vegetables could be grown to keep a family from the poorhouse.

But I had a happy childhood, not a bit like the miserable one that Frank McCourt wrote about in Angela’s Ashes. So the desire to leave Ireland and move to England had no bearing on my formative years. I left Ireland because of the wanderlust – we Irish are a migratory people by nature – and because of the belief that the grass is always greener over the hill. Mostly mistaken, I can now confirm!

They say you can never go back. And you can’t. Not really. Oh, I return and visit for holidays and to see my relations occasionally, but the Ireland I grew up in no longer exists. And neither does the boy I was growing up there.

Having spent most of my working life in the construction industry, both in Ireland and England, first as a welder and later as a carpenter, there was no shortage of story ideas for me in this field. And my book/play, Cricklewood Cowboys, focuses on various Irish characters working for ‘subbies’, or subcontractors, operating in the Kilburn/Cricklewood/Camden Town area of London. This was the sleazy side of the construction industry, where ‘subbies’ hired labourers on a daily basis for cash-in-hand and no questions asked. The venues were usually Irish pubs such as The Crown in Cricklewood or The Nags Head in Camden Town. Initially, these payments were in cash but then cheques began to make an appearance. Trouble was most of these men didn’t have bank accounts, so the Irish pubs would cash these cheques – usually for a fee. As these pubs were often owned by the ‘subbies’ themselves they were onto a good thing. Not only did they get paid for cashing their own cheques but most of the money was spent over the counters on drink as well!

When writing I work in a small, rather ‘claustrophobic’ room which I call my den. If it was big and airy and too comfortable I might be tempted to do nothing at all!  I write both novels and plays, and I suppose there is a difference between the two. I guess “Books are about thoughts, plays are about words,” is as good a way as any of describing the difference. You need much more stamina for a book – which is why I see myself more as a playwright than a novelist. You can’t sit there waiting for inspiration to come but that blank page can be mesmerising at times. The longer you stare at it, the less inclined the words are to appear.  I have borrowed a tactic from an author whom I greatly admire – Ernest Hemingway.  Papa always left a piece of his previous day’s work unfinished so that he had something to begin the new day with. I try to do that as much as possible myself.

These days my home is in Hastings. My wife Margaret and I moved here in 2000, and at present have no desire to return to the rat race that is London. Many of my plays have been written here, including Down Bottle Alley, which I adapted from a book by a local writer and alcoholic, Brian Harding.  Brian had been a drinker from an early age, had spent a lot of time as a vagrant alcoholic, frequenting Bottle Alley for many years, yet despite his alcoholism had managed to write a brilliant book about it called My Wretched Alcoholism – This Damn Puppeteer. The play was performed with great success at The White Rock Theatre and several other venues in Hastings, as well as in London. 

Here is what one critic said about it;  ‘What followed was…a play so brutally honest, so visually vivid and so terrifyingly real that there could be no hiding away from it…throughout the whole performance you could hear a pin drop’.

• Tom O’Brien’s books are available at Bookbuster, Queens Road, Hastings – please support local independent bookshops. If you can’t get to Hastings then find his work on Amazon. Tom’s website:  www.gorgeousgael.com 

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