A ferocious, filthy, fiend of a night. Approaching the gates of the country mansion from the comfort of my Rolls, a malodorous mist almost obscures its magnificence. Munificence, even. My driver, Botherwell, cursing to bejaysus, at the wheel. Blue in the face, from maintaining decorum. Ready to commit vehiculacide. Rolls almost didn’t make it. A fine state of things. Approaching the gates, now. Opening the gates. Botherwell sent flying, by unseen electric fence. Most unfortunate. I told him to wear gloves. Marigold.
Two great lions guard the drive-way. A couple of bald eagles eye us, suspiciously. My Rolls gives out a colossal fart and then expires, gracelessly. I disembark, Botherwell fetching the luggage. Masses of luggage. Hadn’t a clue what to wear. It isn’t every day you get to meet JP Donleavy, last of the Irish literary geniuses. An Homme Fatal, if such a thing exists.
JP Donleavy is a man that many women might want to murder. After all, he was the creator of Sebastian Dangerfield, ‘The Ginger Man’. Every woman’s nightmare. A dashing rogue who would seduce you, shag you up the arse, slap you around the place, steal your savings and abandon you with the baby, while he made the rounds of the pubs, seducing other women. If you can invent such a man, I reason, there is every reason to expect you to be such a man. My mission is to discover the truth about Mr Donleavy.
‘The Ginger Man’ caused uproar, when it was first published fifty years ago, by the Paris based Olympia Press. Who also published Nabokov’s Lolita. It was considered blasphemous, as well as pornographic by many decent people, and was immediately banned in holy Catholic Ireland, where copies of the book were ceremoniously burned. A letter was circulated to all the churches, warning congregations not to read the offensive literature, which resulted immediately in hordes of teenagers travelling to the North of Ireland by train, to buy copies. In the book were descriptions of all kinds of depravities, including anal and oral sex. One woman that I spoke to had obtained a copy in her teens, but couldn’t work out what Mr Donleavy was describing, such was the innocence at the time. If they thought James Joyce immoral, Donleavy was beyond redemption. ‘Is it okay to pray for an orgasm?’ his hero wondered, in one memorable scene, whilst committing the sin of adultery.
I am unfashionably late for my first meeting with this literary lion. Ireland no longer produces geniuses of the order of Joyce and Wilde and Donleavy, so when you get to meet one in the flesh, at his own mansion, where he resides reclusively, you should be polite enough to arrive on time. I have been warned that he is an internationally famous pugilist, who wields a shotgun, if trespassers dare to encroach. I am invisibly nervous, as we bang on the wrought iron door-knocker.
The man himself appears. Wearing a tracksuit. Of all things. Myself in evening dress. Botherwell in tweeds and a monocle. Most unimpressed. I have studied images of Donleavy over the years, prior to my visit. In the 1950’s he was an iconic beatnik, devastatingly handsome in a dirty sweatshirt and a beard, the Bob Dylan kind that girls go crazy for. Moody and unsmiling, staring down the camera while his pretty wife cavorted in Wellingtons and a gypsy skirt. I imagined that Donleavy would be a drinker, with a tortured soul. Later on, he metamorphosed into a country gentleman, complete with tweeds and plus fours and hand made brogues. Smiling, bespectacled, amiable. Witty writer turned landed gentry, with Irish Wolfhounds, entertaining the Guinnesses to tea.
It is a mixture of these two, who greets us. The still-bearded beatnik smiles courteously, despite the lateness of the hour. Leads us through a charming Palladian vaulted corridor, lined with watercolours of his own creation. Curious, charming, clever and witty water colours. Child-like, yet sophisticated. Purple dogs with elongated penises. Black dogs, with millions of teeth. Brightly coloured birds with knowing looks and delicate legs. A multicoloured Anaconda. Ladies with clever faces. Donleavy the artist, much under-rated.
We are escorted to the kitchen. A clean, warm, bright room, on this murderous night, with a sizeable stove, and a round table. Offers spring water. “The purest in Ireland”. Do Irish writers drink water? So it would seem.
I compliment Donleavy on his kitchen. “It was,’ he says wryly “the work of the second wife.” I hesitate to enquire further. He elaborates. When she left him, for one of the Guinnesses that they had been entertaining, she took most of the furnishings, he says. But he’s not bitter about it. He does miss the children, he says, he likes to see children in a place like this, with so many places to hide.
Complimenting him on his radiant health. Accepts compliments incredulously, but graciously. “My God! Really?” Obviously pleased. Mother refused to allow Coca-Cola in the house. Or anything of that nature. Nothing that wasn’t home-produced, from their own garden. All organic. ‘So I can’t really be an American, can I?”
Glancing around the kitchen, curious tide-marks on the walls. “Oh yes. A lady friend cleaned the walls. She may have missed a bit. Lady friends often clean things, curtains and such-like. For some reason.”
Ah, yes, the ladies. Being something of a feminist myself, I am curious as to whether this gentleman is really as gentle as he seems. I am reminded of Marion, the skinny, long suffering wife of Sebastian Dangerfield, and of one scene in which she stands drenched in faeces and piss, after the loo has fallen through the ceiling. And I wonder.
Upstairs. Orange walls. Naked ladies with pubic hair. Fabulous stone staircase. Most elegant. And lots of photographs of women, all beautiful, all brunettes. This is clearly a chap who likes women. Have they liked him too?
My bedroom. Brass bed. Views of the driveway. Fall into bed, with a book called ‘Donleavy’s Ireland’. Pass out and dream of purple dogs with enormous penises.
O my God. Overslept. Too comfortable. Lunchtime already. Got to get dressed. Am I very rude? Probably.
Sebastian Dangerfield is the type who expects the women to fix breakfast. ‘Have it all ready on the table and then I’ll come down and act the good husband with ‘Ah, darling, good morning how are you? You’re looking lovely this morning,’ he says. Enraging feminists almost as much as the Catholics. But breakfast is waiting for me in the kitchen. Freshly squeezed orange juice, cereals, eggs. Most embarrassing. Donleavy appears. ‘Ah, there you are.’ Smiling, still track-suited. He takes exercise very seriously. ‘Did you have some orange juice?” He squeezes the oranges himself.
I’m drinking coffee out of an Orange Order mug. He notices. The mug was a present from Marina Guinness. “You do realise that I am one of the few people who can go to the North and have as many Catholics as Protestants in my audience? In fact, I invented a new kind of Catholic. The Protestant Catholic. A refeened kind of Catholic.” Donleavy is quite wicked. “But seriously,’ he says. “Religion is good for the immune system. It’s what the country needs, the restoration of the Church.’ He is speaking scientifically, of course. Having studied Micro-biology at Trinity.
So far Donleavy quite the gentleman, unlike his Dangerfield creation. Although one knows not what horrifying thoughts lurk beneath the amiable exterior. I consider a particular scene in which Dangerfield smashes his wife in the face and then tries to smother their child with a pillow.
I put it to Donleavy that the violence against the women and child in the book, while probably considered normal at the time he wrote it, is definitely shocking now, especially when you consider that the rest of the book is extremely funny.
‘I certainly have never been violent towards any woman,’ he assures me. ‘Quite the opposite. I think I have an exaggerated regard for women, always have. Gainor was the same.’
Gainor Crist was an American student at Trinity College Dublin, in the late forties, and Donleavy acknowledges him as the inspiration for Dangerfield.
‘Dangerfield was a man driven by running out of money,’ Donleavy explains. ‘Gainor always tried to keep up his dignity in the light of very difficult circumstances. He was a mid-westerner. And there is a tinge of aristocracy about the mid west. Best illustrated by Scott Fitzgerald, who had a similar background. Crist came from Dayton, Ohio, his father was a distinguished doctor and he had an affluent background. Went to elegant prep schools. He was very proper. He would come to attention, if a woman walked into the room and click his heels. Very solicitous and well dressed. But when I first met him, things had already started to go wrong. His father being rich, he expected to inherit a fortune, but he couldn’t come to terms with the fact that in the meantime, he had run out of money. And wasn’t able to keep up his standards. After all, standards are everything in life!”
The phone rings, and we are interrupted.
‘That’s Hollywood!’ Donleavy jokes. It appears that yet another attempt is being made to film The Ginger Man, possibly this time there may be success, because his son Phillip is the producer. I ask him who he has in mind for the lead. He asks my opinion on the matter. I suggest Johnny Depp, because I think he might make an interesting Dangerfield. Donleavy says that they have no way to contact him. I happen to have his phone number, which I am happy to pass on. We turn to the subject of food, as it is lunch-time. Unlike Dangerfield, Donleavy has always been able to live well, even as a student at Trinity in the forties, when everyone in Ireland was dirt poor, and children were barefoot in the streets.
‘I lived lavishly, on a combination of my mother’s allowance and the GI Bill,’ he tells me. ‘I would dine in the Hibernian, one of the best restaurants in Dublin.’
If you partook of the free meals at Trinity, you wore a black gown and someone said Grace before the meal in Latin.
‘There was a beer made specially by Guinness for the College,’ he tells me. ‘I had a suite of rooms, and a College servant who was a corporal in the British army. When I had people for tea, he would appear in his white coat and salute them.’
This air of grandeur is innate, it appears. Even though he was born of Irish immigrants, who had worked their way up to a comfortable existence in The Bronx in New York.
‘My father was the only orchid grower in New York city and he grew his orchids on the roof of the Ritz Carlton, in great green houses where he kept alligators and monkeys. He had studied to be a priest, originally. The Mac Donleavys were the last kings of Ulster and their coat of arms was the red hand of Ulster, which is now on every cross street in New York!’
At a prep school in New York, he learned public speaking, which might account for the opulence of his accent, which is actorly and rather grand.
‘A strange thing,’ he says. ‘For an Irish American. My family rarely ever referred to Ireland. You couldn’t tell that my mother had ever come from Ireland.’
As a young man in New York, and a member of the New York Athletic Club ‘a palace among clubs’, Donleavy mingled easily in the upper echelons of Society.
‘You could have anything you wanted in that place.
When I said I had been in Europe painting pictures, right away there were cards, introductions to every gallery owner in New York. When I interrupted and finally said ‘Look, I’m actually writing a book now’, there was an introduction to a member of the board of the Book Of The Month Club. Anything we wanted was done for us. That’s how I grew up.’
‘A charmed existence?’ I suggest.
‘Yes. It was. The Irish world is so different, of course.’
Did he have trouble fitting in?
‘No I was introduced into friendly circumstances right away. I shared rooms with a gentleman called James H Leathers and a more charming man I don’t recall meeting. He made my rooms an absolute mecca of people trying to be with him.’
There were a lot of IRA people around, Brendan Behan being one of them. A lot of people with political interests.
‘ I knew that no IRA man went to prison without reading the Ginger Man. They become highly educated in prison. Which was why somebody stepped in, when I was having trouble with people trespassing on the land.’
The order was issued not to give Mr Donleavy any trouble. And it was duly obeyed.
The Dublin of the early fifties, in which the Ginger Man is set, was legendary for wild promiscuity and behaviour of a kind which is seldom heard of in these days of economic stability. There was one venue in particular which was immortalised by both Behan and Donleavy and that place was called The Catacombs, an underground warren of cellars, renowned for orgies and brawls.
‘That was run by an English gentleman, who was gay, as they say. I think he had been in the RAF. He would often meet his guests stark naked.’
‘And were there really always people having sex in the room?’ I enquire.
‘Yes. That was almost incidental, strangely. Brendan would say to me ‘Mike, sometimes you would reach over and turn the person’s head around just to see whose face it was!’
Donleavy prefers to be known as Mike, it transpires. One wouldn’t want to mess with him, having heard of his reputation. He delightedly demonstrates his lightning-fast punches, now.
“I train every morning. Four hundred punches, with six pound weights. Have to use weights, or I’d knock myself out.” Somebody timed him, once. It was seven and a half punches a second. ‘Most of them, you won’t even see.” I suggest to Botherwell that he might like to go a round or two. Botherwell not keen. Neither am I. “Boxing is the best form of exercise. Almost all writers end up boxing,’ Donleavy says. “Hemmingway, Mailer. I almost boxed Mailer, once. They were going to televise it.’
Back in Trinity days, he had hundreds of fights.
‘ I would plead with people. Beg them. I said ‘Please, please go awaaaaaay.’
This somehow would encourage folk.
‘On one occasion, a man was trying to throw me out of the room. He advanced upon me and I tried to keep him away. I hit him. And that was the only time I saw a man lifted off his feet and over an orange crate. My reputation in Dublin got to a point where people would come to Dublin looking for a fight.’
He was the only man with a beard in Ireland at the time, he claims.
‘ I wasn’t being deliberately provocative, I just did not want to shave, having been in the US Navy. To me, slashing at your face was a terrible thing.’
I ask him if he is a violent man.
‘ I am not in the least aggressive, I begged people not to attack me. And in America you would never go looking for fights, they would shoot you. But in Dublin they would come at you. But I hate bullies. That’s the reason you always see me wearing gloves.’
These days Donleavy stays in tip top shape not so that he can fight, but so that he can fulfil his role as country gentleman, by farming a few hundred acres and a herd of cattle single-handed. An organic herd, on land untouched by chemical pesticides or fertilisers. He taught himself to build dry-stone walls and as we take a stroll around the estate with our shotguns, he points them out proudly.
I am shown the spot where Donleavy intends to make his cemetery. He’s enormously fond of cemeteries. By now the rain is pissing down. Sky the colour of gun-metal. Sweet smell of cow-dung. I trail behind, with my stick, while Donleavy strides energetically ahead, demolishing thistles and collecting stray bits of plastic.
Back to the house. A new moon in the sky. Donleavy sports a new pale green silk handkerchief, for dinner. He suggests we eat in the dining room. Roast one of his own cows. Organic beef, home-reared, the best in the country. The dining room. Magnificent. Cherry red walls. Curved at one end. Paint peeling, where a lady friend came through the ceiling, with her bathtub. Ladies particularly love the bathroom directly overhead. I admired it, myself. The dining-room fire blazing, scented with dried orange peel. The Knight of Glin won’t stop looking at the chimney piece, when he visits. Fossilised Kilkenny black marble. The most beautiful fireplace in the world. Donleavy says “Come away from that fireplace.” He says “I can’t. I simply can’t.”
Donleavy produces an elegant bottle of whiskey and Cuban cigars. I reluctantly decline to smoke one.
We talk about bulls. A polo player friend wants to take Donleavy to a bull-fight, in Spain. He’s keen to go. “How would we get there?” “There are cheap flights.” “I do things properly. I’m not going on some bloody cheap airline. We’ll charter a plane. And do they have good hotels?” Donleavy has a passion for good hotels.
‘It’s a practical thing,’ he assures me. ‘The best hotels provide excellent working conditions.’ He keeps an account at Claridges in London, has done for forty years.
‘The wonderful thing at Claridges was that I would walk into the hotel and just sit down, contemplating, and my champagne would come. Once, at a very low point in my life, I was sitting there and the little orchestra were playing ‘The Mountains of Mourne’ and the wonderful waiter said in passing ‘You know who that’s for, Mr Donleavy!’ And he came back from the kitchen with a marvellous plate of hors d’ouevres. When I was finished, I would just get up and walk away. No need to sign anything. It was my club. Claridges was a place where you could sit and think. I would have a daily routine, in London. Tea at Fortnums, a glass of orange juice at The Ritz and then on to Claridges for a couple of glasses of Champagne and home.’
We discuss the lovely Marina Guinness, who has arranged my introduction.
“Ladies sometimes don’t take to country houses. Find them uncomfortable. Not Marina. I had a cow stuck in the bog, when she was last here. Most people would take that as an opportunity to beat a hasty retreat. I wouldn’t blame them. But Marina was already down in the bog, when I got there. Digging the cow out with her bare hands. Her bare hands. Can you believe?”
I nod, admiringly. Uncertain whether I’ll measure up to Marina, in Donleavy’s estimation. I ask him if he has always been popular with women.
“Popular?’ he replies, modestly. ‘I am not sure about that. But what I can say is that according to other people, I married two of the most beautiful women who ever lived.’
The first wife was called Valerie, an English speech therapist, they married in 1949. Judging from her photos she was uncommonly pretty.
‘She was from a rich background. But she hated luxury and never once did she complain about my poverty, even when we moved to Fulham. I was in a dreadful state after trying to get the Ginger Man published and my wife had been left a small legacy. So we were able to buy a place in Fulham. Nine hundred pounds, freehold.’
Fulham, apparently was social Siberia and friends used to refuse to visit the young couple. But then an astonishing thing happened.
‘A girl moved into the house behind ours,’ he explains. ‘And she had a little dinner party alfresco. Invited a handful of her friends. At about eleven thirty, Fulham went from being a social no-go area to the hottest place in London, through one single thing. At the table, in this young lady’s garden sat Prince Charles. The story got to Fleet Street at about eleven. She was the daughter of a Duke. My little house, when we split up very amicably…’
‘Why did you split up?’ I interject, curiously. He considers.
‘I don’t know. But being as attractive as she was, she was besieged by men. Besieged. Susan Hampshire used to call me and tell me that everyone was after my wife. And we grew apart.’
There followed a relationship which he describes as ‘the happiest stretch of my entire life.’
The lady’s name was Tessa Von Stockert-Sayle, she was an Austrian aristocrat, married to a journalist who had been sent to expose the pornographer who had created The Ginger Man.
‘Her mother was slightly impoverished, as the aristocracy often are, she’d been to lots of grand balls, but had no land and she was a secretary, very brilliant, spoke several languages fluently.’
The couple parted company amicably, after the business of The Ginger Man had kept Donleavy travelling and preoccupied and they went their separate ways. It was while on business, he tells me, that he inadvertently met the second wife, who is known as M.W.
‘I came to New York when we were producing ‘A Singular Man.’ And the young director was pursuing M.W. for the role and for herself as well. And I realised that he was going to get nowhere with this girl. But as people do, he would rush into a restaurant, trying to make an impression. And he brought me there to help. And he got up from the table to make phone calls and do deals and left me to deal with her. I talked to her and listened to her stories and that evening in the taxi, she said ‘What do you do in New York?’ I said I go walking. And she said ‘Would you like some company?’ I said yes, come tomorrow if you want to, and wear comfortable shoes. So she did. Everyone in New York was after her. I have never pursued women, never. I am polite to the extent of letting it be known that if they were to be interested, I was interested but I have never made overtures.’
‘Elusive?’ I ask.
Needless to say M.W married him and the couple found themselves an Irish country house, for tax reasons.
‘I went to Fortnum and Masons every day, and one day Mr White who used to handle my wine said ‘You know, Mr Donleavy, I do feel guilty.’
And I said ‘why?’
And he said ‘You buy so much caviar from us that I feel I should give you the address of the wholesalers.’ And so he did. In the same conversation, he suggested that I should move to Ireland, because of the tax situation. And I did. I became an Irish citizen.’
I broach the delicate subject of money, wondering if he’s rich.
‘Yes, very modestly, but my overheads are high. I have had four children at school and university. And I managed to pay all the lawyers. I must have made a lot, but it all seems to go out again!’
Oddly enough, when an old friend died recently, and tried to leave him several billion dollars, he wasn’t at all pleased.
‘Because my whole principle is that I only make money from my writing.’
‘Why?’ I demand to know.
‘Because it keeps you working and you focus on your work, because you need to. Having too much money can ruin you. I’ve seen it happen. If you take a billion or two, for example, the interest on that pays all your grocery bills! It’s a troublesome thing, because you find yourself thinking what shall I do this week? I know, I’ll buy the Pierre Hotel.’
‘Having too much money gives you too many options?’
‘Yes. And it can ruin your relationships with people.
When this embarrassment first occurred, a distant relation immediately asked for a million dollars!’
‘And did you?…’
‘No. I said I haven’t got the money. I haven’t even applied for it. I don’t want it. The man was a friend of mine and when he was alive he behaved very abstemiously, to the point of buying stale bread or cheap wine. He made the money as a currency trader. He often came to see me here because there were always girls around. My lady friends. He would immediately grab them and take them off somewhere in his little red Honda. One Sunday he was sitting here having breakfast and he kept looking at his watch. He was losing four hundred and fifty thousand pounds every fifteen minutes. To him that was a modest sum.’
Donleavy was angry at first, at his deceased friend, suspecting that he might have been punishing him, by attempting to spoil his life with too much money.
‘But I realise that whenever he would telephone me, I would always have a litany of troubles and despairs and he loved that. I would always say I was down and finished and washed up.’
It cheers people up, to hear that, I say.
‘Yes, that’s true. And things were always a struggle and they remain tough and always shall.’
A sumptuous, sunlit suite, on the top of the New York Ritz Carlton. No evidence of a struggle. Nice tea, in fine china cups and chocolate chip cookies of the best possible order. Central Park stretched out before us like an Aubusson carpet of fiery orange and golden leaves and elegant, swaying trees. New York is the top of the world and JP Donleavy is sitting on it, or rather pacing up and down it, giving me another chance to admire his lightening fast punches. ‘I’m not at my best,’ he apologises. ‘You could probably see that coming.’
Several years have passed since I first knocked tentatively on the door of Levington Park, the Donleavy mansion in the murky depths of the Irish countryside. Ireland. ‘A shrunken teat on the chest of the cold Atlantic,’ as Dangerfield cheekily refers to it. I have long since ceased to suspect the man that I now know affectionately as Mike of being anything at all like his creation. In fact, anything other than the most charming gentleman of my acquaintance, and a trusted friend and ally in the brutal world which we inhabit. As we sip tea elegantly in his lovely room, him in his customary tweeds, I in mine, the phone rings.
‘That’s Hollywood!’ He bounds, laughing, to catch the call.
It is, indeed Hollywood. Some time later tonight, we will take a long black limousine in which decent whiskey will be served from a Waterford Glass decanter, and we will drive downtown to meet the most enigmatic and glamorous Mr Johnny Depp, who has flown in especially for the occasion.
‘I’m terrified of meeting him, of course,’ Donleavy confesses, gazing thoughtfully down at the street below. ‘He seems to have an electrifying effect on people. In Grafton street now, his name having been mentioned in association with mine, people reach to shake hands with me, simply because of the association.’
There have been developments in the making of ‘The Ginger Man’ the movie. After a great deal of telephone calls to the South of France, Johnny has been contacted, and has agreed to play Dangerfield. ‘Without JP Donleavy, there would have been no ‘Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas,’ he has told me. ‘And I think Hunter would agree with that.’
Tonight, Mike will meet Johnny for the first time. It is clear that the two men have a few things in common. A certain eccentric style of dress and a rather wicked sense of humour, a cleverness, a reclusiveness, an air of unattainable, innate glamour. But most of all a kindness, a genuine warmth for and curiosity about their fellow creatures. An ability to make one feel special, in their company.
Donleavy has just seen ‘The Libertine’, Johnny’s latest film, in which he plays the dark and decadent poet, the Earl of Rochester.
‘ He is astonishing,’ he informs me, gravely. ‘My God! This man can play every single play of Shakespeare’s, his acting perfection is such. Like Gielgud or Olivier, in that class or better. He is clearly one of the great performers of all time. Doesn’t this man ever do anything wrong?’
This same night in the ‘Ginger Man’ pub, somewhere in Soho, a crowd gathers. A small, select crowd of friends and fans of Donleavy. It is a celebration of the fiftieth anniversary of The Ginger Man’s publication for the first time in Paris. Among the crowd, hovering shyly, glass of red wine in hand, is Depp himself. Several small children clamour for his autograph and he beams at them, showing rows of gold, pirate teeth. Mr Stefano Ferrari, one of the film’s producers notices that despite the smartness of his suit, Johnny’s shoes are ancient and scuffed. ‘I haven’t changed them for twenty five years,’ Johnny grins. And offers a cigarette in a perfect English accent.
Shane Mac Gowan has accepted the role of Brendan Behan in the movie and he is asked to sing something. Johnny takes it upon himself to protectively steer his old friend up to the stage. ‘We’ll be right behind you,’ he says reassuringly. Later on, he joins Donleavy for a chat, watched closely by the assembled crowd. Afterwards I ask Mike for his thoughts.
‘Oh, I thought he was wonderful. And being a farmer I couldn’t help realising that he would be perfect out there, digging the ditches. He is a practical man, you could put him out there castrating cattle. You could let him loose in the Rocky mountains and he would survive.’
‘What did you talk about?’ I enquire.
‘He has a tremendous interest in chemistry and chemical matters. So have I, having had a scientific education. We talked about substances,’ he informs me, intriguingly.
‘Johnny has a very black sense of humour’, I mention.
‘Yes, I told him a story I had written called the dog on the seventeenth floor, about a man who is minding a dog which jumps out of a seventeenth floor window and Jesus, he was jumping out of his chair laughing at it. It is a fairly gruesome little story.’
Whether it be because of the blasphemy or the blackness of the humour, or because he has unmercifully taken the mickey out of the gombeen men and out of the country in general, referring to it as a ‘Land of Crut’ in The Ginger Man, there has always been a certain amount of hostility towards Donleavy in Ireland. I predict that this movie will change that. In my opinion, I say, it will precipitate an enormous revival in interest in Donleavy and his work, and will introduce him to a whole new generation of adoring girls. A thing which cannot be so bad. He is ambivalent about fame, he says.
‘ I don’t like it, it’s embarrassing to me. People like Johnny and Shane are used to it and have a way of dealing with it. But with me, I am not used to it. I like to observe, I don’t want to be observed.’
The advantage, to a writer, of remaining anonymous, I can clearly see. But one senses a twinkle at the possibility of having to fend off yet more hordes of pretty girls.
‘You know,’ he tells me confidentially. ‘The doorman at the Merrion Hotel stopped me the other day and said ‘You know, Mr Donleavy, you were just as good looking as that Johnny Depp!”’
he was right.
This gallery contains 9 photos
Vogue Hommes International Spring Summer 2007
Copyright Victoria Mary Clarke
When I arrived at Claridge’s, Pete Doherty was already there, elegant in a black Dior Homme cape and stack-heel boots. Elegant, but nervous. I asked him if he liked the surroundings. “Yes but I’m not sure if they like me,” he whispered. His voice was so difficult to hear that you had to lean in close to catch it. Perhaps it was deliberate, perhaps not. It worked. I asked him why he had agreed to the interview. He looked at me very carefully, as if to asses whether it was a serious question. “I like reading other people’s interpretations of me. And then running into them again…” This, I could interpret as a threat, I suggested.
“Or maybe I’m just vain, and I like reading about myself in the papers”. In the News of the World that week, there had been sensational stories of Pete selling drugs and sex. “You knew he was wild, you know he was a junkie. But today we uncover the sordid secret past of rocker Pete Doherty and even his supermodel lover Kate Moss will be astounded by our revelations…”, the paper teased. So far, with his charming manners and considered approach, the truth about Pete seemed to differ from the image. “Thank God!” he laughed. “Some of your pictures are pretty hideous,” I said. “Absolutely disgraceful. Kate photographs good, though”. He mused, for a moment. I wondered how much of the hype was deliberate. The News of the World article was, he said, nothing to do with him. ‘I’m sure there are a few embellishments. I couldn’t actually bring myself to read all of it, to be honest. One headline even blurted out, ‘Pete was a £20 rent boy!’”
“But you actually did that stuff?” I asked. He scrutinised me, before responding. I got the sense that he found it difficult not to answer questions, even uncomfortable ones. “There was no shame, because I kind of knew that they were just lonely pissed-up queens. And twenty quid was a lot of money!” I suggested that maybe he should learn not to tell people so much. “If I lie to you, or I mislead you, that will make me feel guilty,” he said. “Not what you do with what I tell you.”
For one so young, he had accumulated a lot of press. There were 450,000 mentions of his name on the Internet. He seemed pleased. “Yeah, it’s building up. But there’s so much more to come out!” “Because you are very talented, don’t you kind of owe it to other people to…” He interrupted me. “What? To put all my songs on the Internet for free?” “No,” I said, “to preserve yourself.” “I am preserving myself,” he replied. I decided it was not my place to argue. Hedi Slimane, the designer behind Dior Homme’s comeback, and a keen photographer, was one of the first to fall under Doherty’s spell, authoring a book about him: “I met Pete three years ago. I began taking photos of him right away and documenting this highly unusual period during which the British [rock] scene revolved around one tumultuous group. Pete was well protected, this was in the days before his run-ins with the press. I’ve always had a soft spot for him. Especially for his music.”
The famous rock critic Nick Kent, who spent a lot of time with the Rolling Stones during their highest drug period, paints an accurate picture of Doherty and his borderline lifestyle. “Pete Doherty is a talented young songwriter whose life and career have been fatally sidetracked by drug addiction and tabloid infamy, both of which will probably end up killing him before long. He currently provides contemporary rock with a much-needed dose of bohemian glamour and genuine danger, but ultimately he’s not doing anything particularly new. The ongoing role he plays out as Kate Moss’s wayward romantic consort was done more convincingly in the ‘60’s by Keith Richards and Anita Pallenberg and more explosively by Kurt Cobain and Courtney Love in the ‘90’s (not forgetting poor old Sid and Nancy back in the ‘70’s). Ultimately he’s a living contradiction – the self-styled voice of the dispossessed and drug-diminished who simultaneously turns up in the pages of Voici every week with the world’s most successful supermodel on his arm. He’s clearly got a charmed life. Unfortunately for him, all the signs indicate that it’s going to be a short one, too.”
I left him alone for a few minutes to make a phone call. When I came back, Pete had made friends with the waiter, who had given him free champagne. He took out his crack pipe: a mini Martell bottle. I told Pete that I was quite sceptical about him. That I thought he was playing it up to get noticed. “I believe that at the core of everything I do there is an innocence,” he said. “I don’t care how soppy that sounds. There is a belief in dancing and unity through music and fuck everything else.” He explained about how he first came to London, from Liverpool in search of an Arcadian vision, which he had invented. “I come from a loneliness, I think. Reaching out for another world. I always stumble back into it sooner or later even if it’s for half an hour a day.”
I asked about his parents. “My Dad’s disowned me, really. It’s quite heartbreaking. Maybe it’s because he’s in the army. My mum will always love me, whatever.” It was perfectly obvious that there was a lot of love in the world for Pete. But in spite of all of it, he kept doing the drugs and he kept getting arrested, which he handled with astonishing good humour and good grace, often serenading the assembled crowds outside the courts, like a musical Robin Hood. When he wasn’t being arrested, he toured and recorded with this band Babyshambles, and my partner Shane [MacGowan, former lead singer of The Pogues] and I attended many of his concerts. He continued to entrance his audiences and to exhibit transcendent energy, even after a tabloid newspaper had printed pictures of him and Kate allegedly snorting cocaine, which resulted in much heartache and an enforced separation for the couple. It was sad to see two people who had been so enchanting together and so obviously enraptured with each other, like Romeo and Juliet, driven apart. Sometimes couples annoy me with their love, by being smug and exclusive and ignoring the world, but Kate and Pete together were like children at a party, infecting others with laughter and joy and including anyone who cared to play in their games. During this time, while Kate was away in America, Shane and I invited Pete to dinner, to try to persuade him to go into rehab. He was more than willing, he said, to try rehab again if it meant that he could be reunited with Kate.
Within a few weeks, he had checked into The Meadows in Arizona, only to check himself back out again and resume getting arrested. As it turned out, the summer of 2006 found Pete once again in rehab, this time in The Priory in London, and this time it looked like it was working. When I saw Pete again, he was in Ireland, touring with Babyshambles. Kate was with him. He was making excellent progress with his drug treatment, had stopped doing crack and seemed happy and enthusiastic about his life, even though the newspapers were still relentlessly pursuing both him and Kate, now that it looked as though they might once again be a hot item. In spite of all his problems, Pete had been writing prolifically and was showcasing new songs on the tour: deep, catchy pieces, carried by a more compact, articulate sound. One thing that I had noticed about him, in the short time I had known him was that he was almost never to be seen without a guitar and that he was apt to break into song in any location, with or without encouragement. In the dressing room, at a dinner, in the pub, in the back of a cab, absolutely anywhere.
In my years of associating with singers, many of them very popular and successful, I had never come across one so willing to sing when not actually being paid to do so. I sat him down for an interview, in between sets, at a gig in Ireland, and he immediately broke into song. “I know that a song’s just a game that I am good at cheating at…” he sang. “Talk. Yes you talk a good game, won’t you teach me the same? I never, never said I was clever…” I took the liberty of interrupting, because I wanted to get onto the subject of fashion, seeing as I was interviewing him for Vogue Hommes International. “Fashion?” he said. “Tight suits and gaffer tape?”
Pete’s mother, Jacqueline, had recently published a book about her “prodigal son” and even though Pete claimed not to have read it, I had, and was now full of inside information about his youth. “Your mum said you were always very interested in your appearance and you used to dress very well, with cravats and things. Like Oscar Wilde, she said.” “Yeah, at school I used to get called a fucking bender! Anyways, so there I am in the new tight-fitting Dior suit, Dior heels, a cape, nonetheless, and a hat, and all is well in Arcady and somebody has set a fire extinguisher off at some band, and so the band have weighed into us and we have weighed into them and the bouncers have weighed into us and we got bounced. And when I say bounced, I mean bounced! And I look and there’s an arm missing off the suit, half a leg missing and no cape. Blood everywhere. That’s Dior for you. I expressed sympathy for the Dior suit. “Will Dior give you some more clothes?”
“I hope so. Hedi Slimane, now he’s been very supportive. And he’s beautiful.”
“I hear he thinks you are beautiful, too” I said. ‘I think he is inspired by you.” “I know, its weird isn’t it? It’s one of the things that I can’t really afford to think about because it makes me too happy.”
“Isn’t that nice?”
“Well it’s more a vanity thing isn’t it? It’s all right. It’s a rare feeling for me, the feeling you get from seeing yourself looking all right. People do their level best to make me look anything but all right.”
This was true. As we had previously discussed, there had been some awful pictures published.
“Your are not photogenic really.”
“No.” But there had been a few really nice ones, too, I pointed out.
“You definitely need to do a bit of cutting and pasting before you put me on the mantelpiece, otherwise you have to keep your kids away form the fire!” he laughed.
He told me about his early modelling experiences, “Poncing down the catwalk in some fucking leather thing”, and about clothing company called Gio Goi, who were interested in hiring him. “Would you like to be a model?” I enquired. “I dunno if I’m that into it, to be honest with you. I think I would really have to manipulate my own image in order to be even half confident.”
“Everything.” He pondered the notion for a moment.
“Kit Kat offered me ten grand to do their advert. But her majesty is getting a million off Virgin, just for going ‘Hello!’ What’s that all about?”
“Yeah,” I said. “But she’s been doing it for ages. She’s a supermodel. You’ve got to work your way up.”
He showed me a poster of him and the band in drainpipe jeans and braces, a skinhead style.
“A good look for you,” I said.
“Yeah, I used to fancy myself as a suede head with my umbrella on the tube, waiting for some old bloke so I could take him back to his gaff and tie him up and rob him…”
At times, I suspect Pete of making up little stories to provoke a reaction. This suspicion has been confirmed by an old friend of his, who told me that as a teenager he had always thought of himself as boring. His mother says in her book that he was exceptionally well behaved as a child.
“Is it true that you were an extremely well-behaved young man?”
“Yeah, well I didn’t have much choice, did I?”
“Your were punctual, polite, happy…”
“She didn’t say that, did she?”
“Do you think it’s true that people who take drugs are unhappy?” I asked.
“You must be joking! But if you are in a good mood and you take drugs, and all of a sudden you’re on a downer, that’s no place to be, believe me. If it’s not working for you, pack it in.”
“You take drugs because you like them?”
“Yeah, but at what cost? Having a spliff, or a drink, to me that really is take it or leave it. But riding the suicidal wave of getting bang on the pipe, that’s something else. And the thing is, the things you do. You try not to look, but you do out of the corner of your eye, you can see.”
He began to tell a story. “I did come a cropper once when I come up behind someone in Kentish Town. I’m there, but I’m not there really because I’ve got a hood over my head and I’m on my toes and I’ve grabbed her phone, because I was doing my bit, bringing in the money for the crack house, to keep things…”
I interrupted. “You are making this up.” “I’m not making this up! I’ve grabbed her phone and this time I chose the wrong fucking person. She was some Australian athlete and she was chasing me down the street and she’s beat me and she’s sat on me and she’s got the phone and called the fucking police. She’s screaming and roaring, and I got myself out of there. I mean, snatching phones off people for fucking rocks!”
As this tour was taking place, Pete was also attending rehab as an outpatient. It was important that he do this, to prove to the court that he was serious about addressing his addictions.
“Don’t’ you think it’s too much work, to be in The Priory and be touring at the same time?” I asked.
“Work? Dunno. We’ll see. I just don’t want to go down, that’s all. As Kate would say, it’s not a good look! Innit? Nah. I’m going to consider this seven million pound deal with Calvin Klein!”
“Yeah, that is a joke, yeah.”
“Is it true that you were a happy child?”
“Yeah, just give me a ball and a gang of mates and streets and fields. We were happy. Dreaming dreams, singing silly songs. Putting on plays for ourselves. Dressing up. We would put on dresses and feather boas.”
“Are you narcissistic?” I enquired.
“Wouldn’t it be nice to be Dorian Gray, just for a day? Am I narcissistic? Yeah, but deep down I’m not really that arsed. What m I talking about? I am narcissistic, yeah! A very vain person. I’m a failed narcissist because I can’t get off on myself. I just can’t! I’m too disorganised to be narcissistic. Look at the state of me!”
I complimented him on the state of him. And told him that having read his mum’s book, I was quite envious of his childhood.
“Are you serious? I don’t think my mum and dad were particularly happy people, but because me and my sister had each other and we built these fantasies and we built these mad worlds that we lived in we didn’t have to deal with reality. And because of that, in my mum and dad’s eyes we were fine. We were good kids. I think it as instilled in us from a very young age what was right and what was wrong.”
“She says that things that other kids were allowed to do, you weren’t.” I tendered. “We weren’t allowed to do nothing. We weren’t allowed to go to the youth club, we weren’t allowed to borrow toys. I once swapped this marble for a steely and I got marched straight into the fucking kid’s house and I had to give it back. We were told not to swap things and not to give things.”
“I don’t know. I remember when I was seven, and I was old enough to know what adoption is. My dad said ‘I’ve got something to tell you. You’re adopted.’ And he showed me some book and said, ‘Look, here’s where we signed for you.’ It turned out he was only joking, but I didn’t know that. It was very strange.”
“Do you think you are born with a blueprint for who you are going to be?” I asked.
“Maybe. The treasure is hidden here in your heart, that’s where the treasure is, and you dig and you dig and you dig and lo and behold, treasure! And then you would happily share it, but people just want to stab you for it.”
“People? Like who?”
He mentioned some of the negative coverage that he was getting in the tabloids. “Most of the people who write stuff about you are jealous,” I said.
“They ain’t jealous. They genuinely disapprove of me. Or do you think it’s jealousy? I’ts been a long time since I’ve read anything about myself that isn’t prefixed with the word ‘junkie’. Junkie, junkie, junkie.”
I asked him if he judges other people. “I don’t have very strong boundaries, which means I can talk to all kinds of people. I can take in what they are saying, in a way that’s detached.”
“You don’t judge people? If I told you that I had killed my granny, would you think I was a terrible person?”
“Of course not. She might have wanted you to.”
The conversesaion again turns to Pete’s father, also called Peter. “He doesn’t want me as I am. I’m not compatible with his view of the world, what he thinks is acceptable behaviour. He thinks I am half the man I could be, if I had a fucking ounce of respect for him or my mum or myself. I represent everything he hates about humanity. A junkie and a liar. I remember once we were in a car, I was about fourteen and he pulled up outside a chip shop and he said he wasn’t happy. I said, “But you’ve got mum and you’ve got all the kids and we love you.” And he looked at me and said, ‘I know, but I will never be happy..’
And it’s weird, because it’s true.”
“Do you know why?”
“Yes, I know why. When he was nine, his mum took his sisters away. And him and John his younger brother were left with his dad, the Irish geezer. Ted. So my dad was left by himself with his younger brother and he drank, and he got kicked out of school at fourteen. He decided that he was going to become a marine. And he was a fit fucker, but the marine office was closed and next door was the army, Pete explained, his dad became a disciplined person, no longer a “worng un”. But also a disciplinarian. “Did you try and be what he wanted you to be?” I asked. Pete considered, for a moment.
“It came naturally. I knew that he was into football and I loved football.”
“Did you try and be really well behaved?”
“I never had a choice.”
“You could have been a rebellious child.”
“No. No. An army is an army, isn’t it? A firing squad. You can’t argue back, you’ve got to toe the line. Because these people are trained to put you down and keep you in line. It was only when I was older that I realised.”
“But you can see that he was only trying to protect you?” I asked.
“No, no, no. Not at all. Protect me? No, if you want to protect someone, you sit them down and fucking talk to them straight, you don’t hide behind army bollocks. I’m there for him. I’m his son, I love him. I idolise him. I’m not a wrong un. He doesn’t have to…”
That was a long, slightly uncomfortable pause.
“Yeah, but you are kind of a wrong un now,” I ventured hesitantly.
“Yeah, a little bit.”
“You’ve crossed the line.”
“I have now.”
PETER DOHERTY ANNOUNCES LIVE SUMMER DATES
Following on from the highly successful and long awaited Libertines reunion last year, Peter Doherty brings his acclaimed solo show back to Ireland this summer for three very special Irish shows which will see him play Dublin’s Academy on Friday 27 May, Nerve Centre, Derry on Saturday 28 and Mandela Hall, Belfast on Sunday 29.
Tickets for The Academy are priced €28 inclusive of booking fee and on sale tomorrow Friday, 28 January from Ticketmaster outlets nationwide and online fromwww.ticketmaster.ie
After years fronting iconic bands such as The Libertines and Babyshambles, Peter Doherty released his debut solo album ‘Grace/Wastelands’ in 2009. Recorded over the space of a year as Pete split his time between his homes in Wiltshire and Paris, and finally recorded for posterity in Olympic Studios in London enlisting the help of The Smiths and Blur producer Stephen Street. The album, which was critically acclaimed and was a top 20 hit in the UK album charts, is a brave exploration of one man’s soul, and an excavation of a heart left desolate.
Peter Doherty plays Dublin, Derry and Belfast this May. Tickets are on sale tomorrow at 9am.