The White Review

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Interview with Desmond Hogan


Desmond Hogan is probably the most famous Irish writer you’ve never heard of. In the early 1980s, with numerous award-winning short stories and an acclaimed first novel under his belt, he was tipped for international stardom. He shared the same literary agent as Peter Carey, Bruce Chatwin, Ian McEwan and Salman Rushdie, and counted Kazuo Ishiguro as a close friend.

But while the other members of this auspicious literary milieu established themselves as the leading literary figures of their generation, Hogan slipped into obscurity, retreating to the green hinterlands of western Ireland to pursue a more monastic writerly life after several years of anonymous exile in the capitals of Central Europe. A recipient of the prestigious Rooney Prize for International Literature, he was described by Robert McCrum in 2004 as ‘one of Ireland’s finest writers’. We published a new short story by him, From the Town, in our first issue.

A few months before we launched The White Review, we met Des in a café in the Portobello area of Dublin, his current home. He fits the bill of the reclusive Irish writer perfectly: eloquent yet eccentric, Hogan’s digressive and anecdote-studded answers testify to an intense imagination.


QThe White Review — ‘From the Town’, the story that we published in the first issue of The White Review, was sent to us as a typed-up manuscript. Do you not use computers?

ADesmond Hogan — No, I don’t. I wrote ‘From the Town’ on a typewriter. I did a computer class and after it finished I went and bought a vintage typewriter and I had to walk home and the tourists would be staring at this typewriter and I banged out this story. It was September, that was last year {2009}, you know, after Appleby.

I was the worst in the class but it was utterly necessary to do this computer course. If kids mention a pop star or something it’s necessary to go away and find out what they’re talking about. Some kids mentioned Eminem and Akon a few weeks ago and now I know what they’re talking about you know.

QThe White Review — Had you not come across them before?

ADesmond Hogan — Well, yea, I’d come across a mention but I didn’t really know them. And Soulja Boy and Lady Gaga I didn’t know either, but I did a course and even though I was the worst in the class it gives you the ability to go and bring up Lady Gaga on the thing and understand.

I was at Appleby Horse Fair in 2009 and it was snowing in June and the gipsy girls were walking around with no clothes, virtually nothing. When you look at Lady Gaga you understand why they wear nothing. She dresses like that, wearing girdles and tiny tiny bras. It was really cold – in the snow they were wearing nothing, it’s extraordinary.  Twenty years ago in Appleby the girls were wearing flamenco skirts. Have you been to Appleby?

QThe White Review — No. What is Appleby?

ADesmond Hogan — It’s the biggest horse fair in Europe. I come from Ballinasloe where the other biggest horse fair in Europe is held. A lot of the people at Appleby, they know where I’m from, you know, they’ve been there.

It’s just extraordinary. Twenty years ago it was really quiet, I got accommodation in the White Horse Tavern and it wasn’t a problem but now you couldn’t stay there. The police have got much worse. The industries really harass the travellers now, and the gypsies. It’s a real problem.

The first time I went to Appleby twenty or twenty-one years ago now there was this gypsy girl and she had a tame magpie and she offered it for sale. And I said how much is it and she said ‘I must go and ask my father the true price’. What is the true price of that magpie? It’s the years and it’s all this suffering and change and everything, the price of the magpie. I didn’t see any magpies this year or last year. The price of the magpies just change.

But sifting through the images of twenty years ago, they’re just very sparse. Gallows Hill, Fair Hill, not many caravans, a room in the The White Horse Tavern. Now the aggression is just magnified beyond all proportion. The police are trying to stop it apparently now. The gypsies and travellers tell you.

QThe White Review — When did the attitude of the police towards gypsies change?

ADesmond Hogan — They were stopping the gypsies coming into Appleby because some of the gypsies use agricultural oil and diesel. It’s coloured red and it’s cheaper and it’s illegal to use it in the car, so the police look in the cars, they check everything. It’s quite an extraordinary thing.

Last year I had an amazing conversation with a draughtsman. He says he suffers from the same block I have about computers and I think that is reflected in the huge suicide rate among Romanies and the travellers in Ireland. I think a lot of it is to do with technology. They can’t adapt to a technological world.

QThe White Review — You mean it doesn’t go with their culture?

ADesmond Hogan — No, and the Romanies and the travellers are dyslexic anyway so they can’t use computers. I was speaking to travellers in Dublin recently and some of them do have the internet and computers in their house but in Appleby people were saying they just can’t adapt the kids to a computer age. Gypsy boys, like traveller boys, a lot of them are actually dyslexic.

QThe White Review — Is that alienating?

ADesmond Hogan — It is. There was a guy there this year with a Cornish wedding ring. He was selling antiques and he said ‘I don’t want “www.”, I want to say, “Twenty sterling”. That’s the only language I understand’.

QThe White Review — Are the young generations more influenced by Lady Gaga and pop culture now because there’s more access to the outside world?

ADesmond Hogan — Probably, yea, but you see I only got that Lady Gaga thing a few weeks ago, but it made me understand the zeitgeist of the gypsy girls in the snow. They rub this creosote stuff they rub on railway sleepers onto their bodies. That’s what the guy at Smithfields {Horse Market in Dublin} explained to me. It’s disgusting brown dye or something and that’s how they have tans in the snow.

QThe White Review — You see a lot of fake tan in Dublin.

ADesmond Hogan — This isn’t just fake tan. It’s glaring. Do you know the colour of creosote? It’s ochre, and when the snow is on the ground it’s this wild yellow colour.

QThe White Review — What attracted you to Appleby the first time you went there in 1989?

ADesmond Hogan — The images of Appleby are amazing. The horses and somebody playing the border pipes and the swimming and the swimming horses. It’s just a tradition. There’s something quite fascinating about it in a technological world.

QThe White Review — Do you feel that your writing helps to preserve this tradition?

ADesmond Hogan — Absolutely. Two years ago, I met an extraordinary traveller woman selling country and western music. She sells communist CDs – they’re copied and she sells them but the police came and told her to stop playing the music, they didn’t confiscate her CDs but I witnessed the police confiscating the hairpins she was selling. Why they were confiscating the hairpins she was selling I don’t know but. They also got her to stop playing the music on the loudspeaker, or whatever you call it, that was blaring across Appleby Gallows Hill.

It’s called Gallows Hill and it’s also called Fair Hill. It’s very beautiful round there with the fells, those sea green fells. And with the snow last year it was amazing, snow in June with the Hawthorn bushes. The images were very different this year because it was really really hot this year.

QThe White Review — How does it compare to the fair in your home town?

ADesmond Hogan — They say Appleby is much bigger you know, but it’s just the same people who come and go, who interchange between the two.

QThe White Review — Do you remember the Ballinasloe fair from your childhood?

ADesmond Hogan — Oh yea, it’s a great fair.

QThe White Review — Do you ever go back?

ADesmond Hogan — No, I don’t. I was just reading a traveller’s statement about the Ballinasloe fair actually and a traveller describing how Ryan’s Pub was brilliant and how there was great music in Ryan’s Pub and how he used to go round the country make a few bob and come in to spend two and sixpence in the cinema and drink there, and the pony races are described and the boxing matches and how wonderful it all is. But he said when the fair isn’t there it’s a lonesome place.

QThe White Review — Is that true?

ADesmond Hogan — Oh yes, very lonesome, that was his description, a very lonesome place. But that is just a testimony that dates from the sixties that an American woman recorded. And I think it’s probably the same when the fair isn’t in Appleby. It’s a lonesome place too, I would imagine. I think it’s just probably old age pensioners going for day trips.

QThe White Review — Have you never been there outside of the fair?

ADesmond Hogan — No but I imagine it’s just full of old age pensioners going to Carlisle and stuff. The train is wonderful – the Appleby-Carlisle train – I’ve gone from Leeds to it on a number of occasions, you just see these parties. And once the travellers and gypsies are gone they will descend on Appleby and it’s just another picturesque British town. But there’s a strange strange beauty around there, the fells, and it could be Ireland in a way. Especially during the fair it looks like Ireland.

QThe White Review — Has the way the traveller’s community has been attacked by technology affected their story-telling traditions?

ADesmond Hogan — Every week in Kerry I’ll hear about a young traveller hung himself. Some sort of tradition is breaking down, they’re getting messed up with the drugs or taking their minds. They just can’t adapt, but that’s what people say in England, in Appleby, they just can’t adapt to the world we live in, the technological age. But there’s a slight contradiction about that, because some of them do, some travellers I met only a few weeks ago had looked up Appleby on their internet.

QThe White Review — Is this bound up with a more authoritarian state and the fact that police have greater jurisdiction? People aren’t able to travel in the same way they were and there’s much more pressure to move on. Are gypsies and travellers less welcome in communities than they used to be?

ADesmond Hogan — They’re less welcome. The police were really aggressive with them in Appleby last year and there was violence the year before apparently. The English police are much more aggressive than the Irish police.

QThe White Review — What got you interested in traveller culture? Was it just growing up around them?

ADesmond Hogan — Just growing up. Since I was a kid, I knew the travellers out and around, sleeping out in the road. But now I don’t go back home. I left when I was a teenager.

QThe White Review — Have you been back recently?

ADesmond Hogan — I did go back a few years ago to do this film which was shown on RTE last year. Just a few shots of me in a film about Antonin Artaud. He visited that part of Ireland.

QThe White Review — Artaud? Really?

ADesmond Hogan — Very famously he went to the west of Ireland to return what he believed was St. Patrick’s staff that the wife of a Danish painter had given to him in Paris. It was only a knotted staff but he took it as a very sacred object and felt that he had to go to restore it to Irish culture. So he went out in August 1937 to the Arran Islands and he met a fortune teller and had his fortune told. Then he went to Galway and stayed in the Fanta Hotel in Hurst Square before going back to Dublin. A legend of my childhood said he was in Ballinasloe for a few days but nobody can verify that. He was eventually sent back to France from Cobh in a straightjacket and spent most of the rest of his life in the ward after his Irish experience. It’s really beautiful round Ballinasloe. It’s not touristy, it’s middle Ireland.

QThe White Review — Did you start writing when you lived in Ballinasloe?

ADesmond Hogan — Yea, I was writing tons of stuff and my stories were published in the Irish press when I was still at school. David Marcus, you know, he started the new Irish writing thing in the Irish Press. I published a story called ‘Marigold Farm’ and some years later it won an award and one of the adjudicators was Elizabeth Bowen, one of my favourite writers. I always say that’s where it started, with David Marcus and the Irish Press and I was still at school then. I’ve been writing bits and pieces all my life since then.

QThe White Review — Is writing an urge for you or just something you enjoy doing?

ADesmond Hogan — It’s very much related to what I was saying about Appleby, it comes out of a tradition, the tradition of story-telling that is under threat. In many ways language is under threat now. It’s become very influenced by technology and it’s becoming meaningless. I don’t know if you agree with me.

QThe White Review — It’s certainly changing, perhaps becoming more homogenised?

ADesmond Hogan — Homogenised is exactly the word I was thinking of. London was a much more diverse kind of city fifteen years ago and much more freedom was allowed. It’s become a very restricted society from what I see. Belfast’s a very friendly place but there’s a lot of violence there. And there’s a lot of violence in Limerick but there’s a great story-telling tradition too. It’s a very alive language in the city compared to London.

QThe White Review — Let’s talk about the way you write. Does it take you a lot of writing to actually get a final draft?

ADesmond Hogan — They come with images now, images come together, rather than approaching anything sort of linear.

QThe White Review — Is it an impressionistic process?

ADesmond Hogan — The images just come together, it’s sort of thinking logistically.

QThe White Review — It’s intriguing, because ‘From the Town’ is so painterly, there are so many colours. We know that you love painting. Are you influenced by the painters you love, for example Georges De la Tour?

ADesmond Hogan — Yea, I saw an exhibition of his once in Paris when I was very young. It just influenced me. I love coming across new painters and stuff like that.

QThe White Review — Do you paint as well?

ADesmond Hogan — I draw and I also paint. Lawrence painted too you know, he painted all his life. In fact his paintings were seen as pornography at the very end of his life in England, but they’re not very pornographic.

QThe White Review — And his writing is also very full of images…

ADesmond Hogan — Yea, I think I got that a lot from Lawrence. When I was a kid I read Lawrence a lot and I think that’s the way he writes. On his travels in Australia or wherever, he’d just go into a room and write his impressions and a lot of his writing is like that. It gets really brisk in places, really quick, just written down, very impressionistic.

What do you think D.H Lawrence would think of contemporary England? Or Bruce Chatwin? He said he couldn’t write on a computer. What would he do now? Everything is on computers. He could only bang out stuff on his manual, portable typewriter. And that’s what I do, it’s ridiculous. There’s a wonderful photograph by Robert Mapplethorpe of William Burroughs with his typewriter and William Burroughs in Naked Lunch and his image of time as a broken typewriter. It’s just funny talking about these typewriters.

QThe White Review — Why do you like typewriters is it the idea of the physical engagement?

ADesmond Hogan — It’s just I began writing on a typewriter when I was a child and I just can’t change.

QThe White Review — There’s also a lot of historical references in everything you write. ‘From the Town’ opens with a couple of lines about Kinsale.

ADesmond Hogan — Oh, about the pirates. Have you been to Kinsale? It’s kind of like one of those towns in New England, you know those Catholic towns in New England. So it makes sense that these people went to the States.

QThe White Review — Is history something you’re particularly interested in?

ADesmond Hogan — Yea, I like to go back to the origin of things. Travellers tell stories that go back centuries you know.

QThe White Review — Do you think these things can be kept alive?

ADesmond Hogan — No, I think from what the travellers and gypsies were saying at Appleby, people are really trying to stop that. Something like Appleby stopping, it would be all the more homogenous. Because the contrast between Appleby and what I found in London, that gap was just amazing. That’s what I found in London, it really scared me. It frightened me because it’s really like Orwell’s 1984 and all that.

QThe White Review — You also lived in Prague for a while? Did you notice that changing?

ADesmond Hogan — I lived in Berlin you know and I went back to Berlin on and off for a couple of years. I travelled a lot, I got the train twice to St. Petersburg and I used to go to Prague a lot. I saw the change in Prague very quickly, by the 1990s already it had changed, the tourists were sweeping in, you know just over night, because the change had come in 1989. Already the American and British tourists sweeping over the place.

QThe White Review — What about Berlin?

ADesmond Hogan — Well Berlin couldn’t lose its identity because it was such a contrary city. But there was enough resentment in Berlin when the wall went. They had such a good life you know, a privileged life, and it was really supported by all kinds of international finances and then when the wall went they lost their privileges and prices went up and a lot of people very much resented the change. And I saw a lot of the beautiful cafes where the waiters would wear black and white just going and becoming fast-food places overnight. They had a lot of charm, those old cafes.

QThe White Review — Did you live in West Berlin?

ADesmond Hogan — Yes, I lived in all kinds of places. Mehringdamm first, you know, in West Berlin. Then I went back and I got a beautiful flat in Venning in north Berlin and then I was in Grunewald. I was given a room there. Dietrich Bonhoeffer had a house just beside us. It’s funny because Dietrich Bonhoeffer also lived in Forest Hill, near Peckham, where I used to live.

There’s a wonderful poem by W.H. Auden about Dietrich Bonhoeffer. He was hanged in Flossenburg, late 1945, just before the war ended, but what that poem says could be about contemporary technology. ‘Friday’s Child’, that poem was called by Auden. Bonhoeffer is a connection because the house he grew up in was right beside the house I lived in in Berlin. I wonder what Dietrich Bonhoeffer would make of it now. Because it’s become very much anti everything he was about.

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