Peter Hook: Bernard and I could reconcile. "On the end of a pair of duelling pistols."

Rob Pollard speaks to the former Joy Division and New Order bassist.

Peter Hook was the bass player and founding member of Manchester’s influential post-punk band Joy Division. After the death of their iconic lead singer Ian Curtis, the remaining members went on to form New Order, an electronic band that had a string of 80s hit singles. Hook left New Order in 2007, and is now touring with his band The Light, performing tracks from the Joy Division catalogue. His new book, Unknown Pleasures, provides an insight into the time he spent with Joy Division, detailing their humble beginnings through to their premature ending.

Hook is known for his unique, esoteric playing style which completely redefined the bass guitar. Echoes of both Joy Division, the architects of post-punk, and New Order, designers of synth-pop, are still heard in music to this day.

Here, he talks about his relationship with Bernard Sumner and Ian Curtis’ genius.

You’re currently touring with your band The Light, playing Joy Division songs. How’s that been going?

Yeah, we’ve been playing constantly now for two-and-a-half years, and I must admit I never expected to get another career out of it. I’m very, very happy and very, very gratified by the reaction to playing it. In fact, the only people who don’t seem to like me playing it are Bernard [Sumner] and Stephen [Morris], which is a story in itself I suppose. They don’t mind when they play it but they just don’t want you to play it. They played New Order and Joy Division songs before me but they seem to have forgotten that and just criticise me for playing it. Some journalists have asked Bernard why he doesn’t want me to play it even though he plays it, but there’s been no explanation. But Bernard is a law unto himself. One of the problems in New Order was that it wasn’t "do as I do" it was "do as I say".

Do you think Bernard and yourself will ever be able to reconcile your differences?

Yeah, probably on the end of a pair of duelling pistols, or maybe in a boxing ring. That would be good for charity wouldn’t it? Like Liam Gallagher challenging Robbie. It’d be nice. Winner takes all, and all the winnings to charity.

Atmosphere is a truly remarkable song. Was there a sense in the studio that track was something special?

What you have to bare in mind is that it gradually got better. So, from the moment Bernard and I started after the Sex Pistols gig up to the end of Joy Division, the songwriting, when you look at it and put the songs in chronological order, had improved immeasurably. By the time you got to Novelty and then you moved into Transmission, and all the tracks on Unknown Pleasures after the EP, the tracks were amazing. The weakest song we did was one called The Drawback and yet I play that now with The Light and it sounds fantastic [laughs]. So all the tracks that we thought were weak, like Sound of Music, Something Must Break, The Kill, I play those now and think they’re just as good as the others.

Atmosphere is an amazing song but it does always have that connotation that people use it at funerals. It’s heartbreaking to watch Control and see it finish on Debbie screaming and then Atmosphere starts; it rips your bloody heart out. It’s like at Tony Wilson’s funeral as well, they chose Atmosphere to be played there. It was awful. The emotional power of it when it’s coupled with grief or loss is unbelievable. I don’t think Ian meant that either because Atmosphere was written very early on in our career, before he was ill or before he had his mistress and his problems. We ended up sitting on it for quite a while and then recording it for Licht und Blindheit which was the limited edition Sordide Sentimental. We never actually released Atmosphere as a single in England, it was only released as a single in America.

You mention your work improving over time but one of my favourite Joy Division tracks is Warsaw.

Warsaw is absolutely mega. It’s quite an odd thing really because when you look at the four [An Ideal for Living] EP tracks in isolation - Warsaw, No Love Lost, Leaders of Men and Failures - they are all rocking songs. We have done four gigs on the trot, we did Lisbon, Florence, Milan and Rimini, and the audience in Rimini were quite quiet - they weren’t really fired up - so the answer was to play Warsaw because it gets them going. Warsaw and Failures get everybody going; it really does kick-off when you play them. Failures was the only song that Ian Curtis actually wrote musically. He saw the way the music should go and influenced its direction. The EP was so different to the demos we’d done before. It really did surprise me sometimes how much we’d improved our songwriting. It’s interesting because the better songs we wrote were knocking off the punky ones, like Reaction and all that stuff was just consigned to the bin, but it’s funny because, when I listen to Warsaw live at Middlesbrough, some of those punky songs were actually quite good because they caught the spirit of the moment, and they caught our naivety and energy very, very well.

You mention in the book about Ian coming up with the name Joy Division. In my opinion, it’s the best name for a band I’ve heard. How important do you think having a great name is?

Honestly, you agonise over your name, you really, really do, and it’s the thing that you argue most about. It’s the backdoor test isn’t it? To test your band name out, you should go to a gig, whoever’s gig it is, and shout it out in the audience and see what it sounds like. My mum always used to say the best way to name a child was to open the backdoor and shout the child’s name out the backdoor, and if it sounded good then you were OK. I actually did that with my son. I opened the back door and shouted "Jack" and thought it sounded good.

One of the alternatives [to the name Joy Division] was The Flames From Venus. Now, if the Flames From Venus had done Unknown Pleasures would it have been anywhere near as influential as it was?

It has always amazed me that Joy Division had such a short lifespan, yet have left a really enduring legacy. You’re still influencing bands today. Do you think being influential is the biggest compliment a band can receive?

You know what, if I had to sit and count how many people we’ve influenced it is unbelievable. Between Joy Division and New Order, we must be responsible for about half the music business. It’s funny because it’s always odd when you get sued for plagiarism. We got sued by John Denver and John Denver won, which was really weird. The thing is you should never consider suing anybody because they sound like you. I would never sue U2 because a song sounds like Isolation. I wouldn’t sue the Editors because they sound like Shadowplay, or White Lies or The Cure for In Between Days, it’s something you don’t do because it’s against the way that you’re brought up. You were brought up to use influences as inspiration. The big inspiration for us was The Sex Pistols and can you imagine Johnny Rotten coming on and saying: "well I inspired you so I want some money off you". Or maybe it’s a good idea actually; maybe I’ve hit on something there!

How different is the Manchester you describe in the book compared to the Manchester I see today?

Well, I enjoy Manchester and I like it a lot, and I think having the new club in Manchester, Factory, has given me a much nicer insight and much more of a connection with it than I’ve had for a long time. It still feels a bit dirty, a bit run down, but it has some wonderful, wonderful assets, and some truly startling features. I get the same buzz and the same feeling from it that I always did, and the odd thing is, wherever you go in the world, I’m always happy to get back to Manchester. I feel very much a part of it and I’m very happy to be perceived as an ambassador for Manchester music. It makes me laugh because when I opened the Factory, I got roundly slagged off for dwelling on the past, or using the past in some way like it was a dirty thing to do. And then two years later you’ve got 225,000 people watching The Stone Roses who we influenced completely. In some ways you do feel like you’re ahead of your time dwelling on the past [laughs].

It’s interesting you mention that because there are a lot of people who dislike what you do in terms of using the Joy Division catalogue to make money now. I seem to remember a blog called Fuc 51 which was rather disparaging towards you.

Well even the rest of the bloody band, Bernard and Stephen, say it, fucking hell! I was reading that article in the Guardian where the guy was going on about "the wreckage" of my career. Now, the thing is, surely all of us, at one time or another, have been in a job where we don’t like the boss or we don’t like the way the company's run, and even though your mum says to you you shouldn’t leave because there are people out there without jobs, you have to do something for your peace of mind, and for your justice, and for your spiritualism that makes you happy in the world. Yet, nobody looks at New Order and says "he’s obviously left because he was unhappy". It’s as if you’ve got off a gravy train and everyone thinks you’re crazy for doing it. It’s as if there’s no spiritualism or standing up for yourself. I’m lucky, I’ve worked hard over 34 years and I’ve got a very nice lifestyle and I have the luxury to at least be happy in my job because I was not happy in New Order.

Regarding that blog, I did find who that was, which was quite interesting. It was just a casual acquaintance who had an axe to grind. When I confronted them it stopped.

Where do think Ian Curtis ranks in the pantheon of all-time great writers and frontmen?

I’m a bit biased because I immersed myself in Ian’s work every night, and I must admit playing the songs again has made me realise how fantastic he was. Who is he like? I think he’s unlike anyone else. I do think his style, especially the way he uses words rhythmically and in an onomatopoeic fashion, was a real surprise to me. I listened to it all the time but it was only when I came to analyse it to sing it live that I realised just how fucking clever he was. He really was a clever, clever man with words. And it’s such an art when you see people like that because there aren’t that many people, even authors, who can impress you with their writing as soon as you read it. I wish I could have sat in and got involved in his process. One of the regrets is not knowing exactly how he worked.

Can we talk about your bass playing style? I find it divides opinion. People either absolutely love it or they think you’re playing lead guitar on a bass and not being true to the instrument. Where did that style come from?

I don’t know really, it just came about. It wasn’t something I worked on or strived for. It happened because Ian Curtis heard me doing it and used to encourage me every time he heard me play like that, and it became a way of writing, using the melody on the bass to write the song. It was actually quite simple and it just evolved. If you look at the first two Joy Division LPs, the bass riffs on them are fantastic.

Joy Division writing credits were all shared equally on every track weren’t they?

Yeah, it was absolutely correct to do it that way. When we got to New Order it changed and even though Gillian [Gilbert] got a writing credit, I think it it’s fair to say that Bernard did 95 per cent of the keyboards, and I’ve seen him say that in interviews as well. She used to play what Bernard had written but we gave her a writing credit.

Your new book, Unknown Pleasures, goes in to such detail about the band that I was wondering whether you thought it may remove some of the mystique that Joy Division purists hold so dear. Ian Curtis, in particular, has a fervent following of fans who may not want to know too much.

Yeah, I mean I was aware of that because I’m writing from a different point of view, but if anything the last year has taught me what a load of old bollocks this business is. Anything I can do to debunk it and make people aware of the horrible goings on behind their favourite groups I will do. It really is a dirty business and I suppose I was very, very lucky in a way to wait until the ripe old age of 55 before I encountered its rock bottom lack of loyalty and under handedness that even your friends and so-called business associates all suffer from. So, I was aware that I could shatter a few illusions but I think as long as you balance it with an appreciation of the guy’s artistry and his creative genius it’s fine.

People do have a vision of things. It’s like the Hacienda; I’m sure everyone thinks that we all lived upstairs in a flat, like Morecambe and Wise. I am aware of this and, you look at New Order, when we split up the first time and Bernard went off, there was none of this back biting, none of this deriding each other in the press, and then in 2006 when I split the band up it seems like the fact that someone doesn’t want to work with him has really hit him hard. It seems to all stem from that. He just will not shut up. And you look at it and he’s got New Order back, he’s toured the world, he’s made millions, what more do you want? But he still wants to have a go at me saying I don’t care about my children because I tour all the time and that I’m only doing it for the money. I mean, what’s he doing it for? He’s very careful not to mention what he’s doing it for. It’s an odd insult in music to be accused of doing it for the money. It’s an insult to you and an insult to your fans. It’s like it’s hidden - we do what we do what but no one mentions the money. It’s like a dirty thing.

If there was a General Election tomorrow who would you vote for at the ballot box?

I think I’d vote for The Green Party. I’m one of those old cynics that thinks, whoever you vote for, the government always gets in. David Cameron at least has an air of authority, whereas Ed Miliband, I don’t know if it’s my old age, but he just looks too young. He acts a little bit young and I don’t think it inspires confidence, certainly not from me. My father was always Labour and my mother was always Conservative, so I tended to sort of go in the middle. I always do try to encourage my children to vote and at least exercise their right. I think the county is just in such a mess financially, which has been brought about mainly by Labour, and everybody feels compromised by it. I don’t think it inspires confidence. And I think the way that the expenses scandal, even down to Jimmy Saville, all the foundations that have been built on for many, many years are really being rocked, and it is a very interesting situation at the moment from a historical point of view.

Do you not feel like Ed Miliband is the right man to lead Labour in 2015 then?

In my opinion, no. He doesn’t appeal to me and I think the fracas with his brother was very damaging for the party, and I think really we’ve just fell out of favour with the politicians in general because they come across as being very fallible and easily led. It’s something you suspected before but it’s been proven now with the expenses scandal. So there’s a lot of bridge building to do.

What are your thoughts on coalition government and how that works?

I think it was a noble gesture. Any coalition, especially where one party is more powerful than the other, it’s always bound to have a pecking order. The ideal in this world would be that we’d all get on because basically everyone wants the same thing. We all want to be happy, to be comfortable, for our children to be safe. Nearly all of us want the same thing so it should be quite a simple equation sitting down and sorting that out. I suppose it’s a very naive way of looking at it, and I suppose in a funny way the coalition seemed to be done, to me anyway, quite graciously at the time by David Cameron, to say ‘we don’t have complete control so why don’t you come with us and we can sort this out’. It was a lovely gesture but in the play-out it’s been a little bit unfairly weighted towards the Conservatives but that’s politics.

Do you feel properly engaged with British politics?

As I’ve got older I tend to read more about it, and worry more about what’s going to happen to us all. I must admit, up until about the age of 30-odd I really didn’t care. I just thought the most important thing in life was me, whereas I now realise there are many more important things in life than me. I do engage with it, especially being abroad a lot, I watch CNN and Al Jazeera and it scares the pants off you, it really does. Watching Iran and Israel jockeying for position in the way they are is a very frightening scenario and I keep saying to my wife how worried I am about it and that i should get my Ferrari but the world blows up.

I spoke to Kevin Cummins recently and he said Ian Curtis was a very shy person. How would you describe Ian?

Ian was very shy until he’d had a drink and then he really could just go like the rest of us and be quite normal and quite a handful. But Ian was a really nice bloke and what he wanted in life was you to be happy, and not just you anybody around him and he did go out of his way to try to make everybody happy and I think that’s what caused a lot of his problems to be honest.

Unknown Pleasure - Inside Joy Division, is available to buy now. For more information, visit Peter Hook's website. Peter Hook And The Light perform New Order's first two albums "Movement" and "Power, Corruption And Lies" at Koko London Thurs 17th Jan and Manchester Cathedral Fri 18th Jan.

Peter Hook about to go on stage at first performance of Closer with his band The Light. Photo William Ellis

Rob Pollard is a freelance writer. You can follow him on Twitter @_robpollard

JOHNNY SAVAGE FOR NEW STATESMAN
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Kevin Barry’s chaotic journey from “stoner entrepreneur” to Ireland’s most unpredictable novelist

Ghosts, raves and the soul of John Lennon: Tom Gatti interviews the winner of the 2015 Goldsmiths Prize.

Walking to school in the 1970s, Kevin Barry would step over gutters running red with blood. This was a decade before Limerick earned the moniker “Stab City” for its gang feuds and knife crime – which eventually escalated into full-on drug wars, with drive-by AK-47 shootings and hand grenades lobbed into sitting rooms. In Barry’s time, though, most of the violence was directed at livestock. Limerick was then known as “Pigtown”, with seven or eight slaughterhouses downtown, and the noise of their bloody business (“awful squealings as the pigs get electrocuted”) was part of the daily soundtrack. A magnificent river, the Shannon, ran through the city but, perversely, Limerick was built with its back turned on the water, while its streets streamed with blood.

Pigtown stayed with him. In his first novel, City of Bohane, a savagely funny dystopian western set in Ireland in 2053, the meat wagons carry “peeled heads of sheep, and the veined fleshy haunches of pigs, and the glistening trays of livers and spleens”.

A hundred miles and four counties north of Limerick, Barry, aged 46, is sitting in his writer’s shed. Out front is his home for the past nine years, a sturdy, two-storey former barracks for the Royal Irish Constabulary, built in the 1840s on the edge of the village of Ballinafad, in Sligo. The ancient stove is seeping warmth and well-being. He is measured and contemplative, quite different from the garrulous, high-energy persona I had encountered at literary events over the preceding six months, talking about his novel Beatlebone. There’s still an impishness in the eyebrows when a notion tickles him, but when the talk gets autobiographical and the years peel back, Barry’s volume level drops so low that he worries my dictation machine won’t pick it up. Outside, this Sunday afternoon in April has a damp chill familiar to the north-west.

Writers and tourist boards generally agree on the “untamed” beauty of Ireland’s western seaboard. From Cork in the south to Limerick in the middle to Sligo in the north, Kevin Barry has made it his territory, in life and in fiction – and he can tell you that the brochures aren’t always right. The narrator of his story “Fjord of Killary”, having recently turned 40, decides to flee the city and buy an old hotel on the coast, thus making a “new man” of himself: “I was thinking, the west of Ireland . . . the murmurous ocean . . . the rocky hills hard-founded in a greenish light . . . the cleansing air . . . the stoats peeping shyly from little gaps in the drystone walls . . .” But the ocean turns out to “gibber” rather than murmur. He has to listen to his young Belarusian staff “fucking each other at all angles of the clock”. And then he is subjected to a highly localised flood of apocalyptic proportions.

“If I had to describe the west of Ireland character in one word it would be ‘rattled’,” Barry says. “A bit thrown off your curves. There’s the huge fucking presence of this big, black, throbbing ocean, which has an extreme effect on our psychology. And the weather it’s putting across us all the time . . . it’s a fundamental part of what makes us who we are. It’s an extreme place.”

Barry lives on the edge of a four-mile-long lake, and it rains almost 300 days a year. He calls it “the Sligo swamp”. When I telephone him a few weeks later there is hail coming down the chimney. “You feel like you’re being assaulted by the sky gods,” he says.

In Barry’s fiction, everything starts with place. Exploring the north-west alone on his bicycle, he often picks up “reverberations”: human feelings that he believes have settled into the earth of a particular place. Sometimes they are benevolent. Often they are not. The Tajo Gorge in Ronda, Andalusia, sent him into the “absolute fucking pits” (he later learned that on this spot during the Spanish Civil War, 300 men were made to jump to their death). He never feels right around the Ox Mountains between Sligo and Mayo. Hills tend to trap bad vibes: in various stories they are “malevolent”; they “brood”, looking on, “unimpressed”. On a melancholy day they are “blue-bleak”; on a bad day, “like a crouched beast”, “devil-haunted”, or even “homicidal”.

It was just such an eerie, haunted feeling that Barry experienced on summer cycling trips around Clew Bay, an other-worldly flooded valley whose lopsided drumlin hills break the surface to form more than 150 islands. That feeling was enough to start him thinking about a story. And then he remembered a piece of trivia lodged somewhere in his brain: one of these islands was owned by a Beatle.

***

In 1967, Dorinish island, owned by the Westport Harbour Board in County Mayo, went up for sale. Someone saw an advertisement in a London evening newspaper and showed it to John Lennon, who was interested in his Irish roots (his great-grandparents emigrated from County Down to Liverpool in 1848) and had long wanted an island of his own. He sent the Beatles aide Alistair Taylor to the auction in Westport and Taylor returned with the deeds to Dorinish, for £1,550.

Lennon visited that same year, spending a couple of hours on the island, enquiring about drainage schemes and drawing up plans for a fantastical house. In the summer of 1968 he returned briefly with Yoko Ono, arriving on Dorinish by helicopter after a night at the Great Western Hotel in
Mulranny (a night that may or may not have involved him singing Irish rebel songs and giving the first public playback of a new Beatles song called “Revolution”). Three years later, having got no further with his plans to build on the island, Lennon offered Sid Rawle (an Englishman known as “the King of the Hippies”) the opportunity to establish a free-living community there. The Diggers, with their tents and vegetable patches, lasted a year and a half. And then the story fizzled out.

Except, Barry thought, what if it didn’t? What if, in 1978, Lennon had returned to Clew Bay to spend three days on his island, to “scream his fucking lungs out” and clear his creative block? Beatlebone, Barry’s second novel, published last autumn, imagines he did just that – with the complicating factor that Lennon has no idea how to get there, or which island is his.

“I thought maybe I’d do a little radio documentary or write an essay or maybe a short story,” Barry recalls – “and eventually I found myself one dark, fateful morning scribbling down lines of dialogue and I thought, ‘Oh God, I’m going to do this as a novel, aren’t I?’ That was terrifying. He’s such an iconic figure, to plonk him down in one of your stories unasked . . .” Still, he thought it could be done in six months. Four torturous years later, with his shed buried under 400,000 words of abandoned drafts, he had a novel of 50,000 words. He knew it was finished when he returned to his desk one day and found a black lizard crawling over the text: in gratitude, he wrote a lizard into the story. This is an example of the “occurrences of sympathetic magic” that Barry looks for in a project. “If they don’t come I believe myself to be in trouble.”

The final version of Beatlebone is in nine parts: one section reads like a radio play, others are close to stream-of-consciousness, and two-thirds of the way through the book Barry coolly presents a vivid, non-fiction, first-person essay about the creation of the novel and his own unsettling experience on the island. A month after publication, Beatlebone won the Goldsmiths Prize, established in 2013 in association with the New Statesman to reward innovative writing: “fiction at its most novel”.

A more timid novelist might have skirted around Lennon, looked at him through the eyes of the people he encounters and left him, respectfully, “unknowable”. Barry does the opposite. “I kept thinking of a deep fat fryer with a bubbling cauldron of oils, and that was the inside of Lennon’s head, and I was going to lower the reader down into it.” Barry’s Lennon is funny, stubborn, scabrous, tender, sentimental, “haunted by his own self”:

 

Love, blood, fate, death, sex, the void, mother, father, cunt and prick – these are the things on his mind.

Also –

How many more times are they going to ask me come on The fucking Muppet Show?

 

Watching talk-show clips from the 1970s, Barry realised that Lennon’s “mood is so capricious that he will go from very light and charming and funny one moment, to, half a sentence later, paranoid and dark and quite spiky”. In 1978 the man was 37 and a global star, but Barry approached his character by thinking about who Lennon was at 17, “before that whole great maelstrom of fame. He was just an art-college kid in Liverpool, down the pub. A bit shouty. Quite cool.”

The more Barry reveals of himself, the more the distance between him and Lennon seems to recede. He, too, was a working-class, arty, cocky teenager, precociously interested in music, living in a city that erred towards the lairy, especially on a Saturday night. At 17 Barry – who had already been through his Jackson Five stage (his first record purchase, aged five or six) and his mod phase (aged 12-13, he listened exclusively to the Jam for 18 months) – was a devotee of David Lynch and the Velvet Underground, had 18 inches of backcombed hair and wore a poncho. You sense that young Barry and young Lennon would have hit it off.

Barry grew up with three sisters and a brother: he was the youngest by six years and so, in the classic way, became “a wise­acre, a joker, just as a means of getting attention”. Their street exemplified the “heavy Catholic breeding” of the time: their neighbour on one side had seven children and the other four, so between the three houses there were 16. The noise was constant; they were out morning to night.

The popular mood in Limerick then was pro-republican. Barry wrote in a recent essay that at his secondary school, “classroom support for the IRA ran at 100 per cent”. He went on marches for the hunger strikers. Bobby Sands, who died aged 27, after 66 days without food, “occupied a place I would say precisely commensurate with that of Bob Marley: legends”.

His father was “quite a devout Catholic” but turned a blind eye when Barry shirked Mass. Having started out as a carpenter with the railways, the senior Barry was “the classic working-class chap who took night classes”. He moved into insurance, and when Kevin was two the family left their council house for a private house on a private estate. His parents supported the (then left-leaning) Fianna Fáil and took the Éamon de Valera-founded Irish Press. Other than newspapers, the reading matter was more or less confined to biographies of jockeys. Barry’s abilities, though, were noticed early on. “I was always told the same thing by my English teachers: that I wrote ‘off the cuff’. They used to always use that phrase precisely – which meant, I guess, naturally.”

“Whatever it is that you’re most scared of surfacing in your work,” Barry writes, in the essay chapter of Beatlebone, “you can be sure that it’s nearby.” Lennon’s mother was killed when he was 17; hit by a car driven by an off-duty policeman. Kevin Barry’s mother, Josephine, died when he was ten. In thinking about Lennon, Barry cannot keep his own loss off the page. And so, for the first time in his career, he finds himself writing – two short, abrupt paragraphs – about his mother. Saying more about the ­experience, even now, does not seem easy for him. He tells me that she died of a sudden heart attack. But his thoughts keep looping back to his work.

“I was coddled from the trauma of it, to some extent, by the fact of having older sisters who immediately went into matri­archal mode around me. It’s amazingly common with writers and artists, the early loss of a parent, and it does seem to cause some desire to create in response to it.” He remembers discovering “with a happy jolt”, as a Saul Bellow fanatic in his twenties, that this hero of his, too, had lost his own mother young (she died when Bellow was 17). And he is certain that it shaped Lennon’s art. “It’s awful to say you wouldn’t trade it. But I’m sure it’s a fundamental reason why I’m a writer. And I like what I do.”

In December 1980, a few months after Barry’s mother died, John Lennon was shot at the entrance to the Dakota building in New York. Barry was 11, buying sweets at the corner shop, when he saw a newspaper headline. He felt it keenly, as a second loss.

***

Barry has a work ethic that is partly built on guilt. Every morning, seven days a week, he takes the three steps from his back door to his shed, sits at his austere steel desk, and writes, preferably in longhand. He likes to do this when he is still not properly awake: “You’re not too self-conscious and you can just kind of scrawl, and get the weird stuff from the back of the brain out on to the page.” He claims that he operates a successful mental trick by telling himself that God doesn’t turn on the internet until noon, but then confesses that he will still do the “walk of shame” back into the house, upstairs, to check his phone a couple of times a morning. He once worked out that he checked his email about 150 times a day. Pre-wifi, he used to access the internet using a dongle; he resorted to locking it in the car outside.

Barry is an obsessive self-editor. He felt that Beatlebone was starting to work when he introduced the character of Cornelius, a local Irish fixer, whose bizarrely comical-philosophical exchanges with John form the engine of the book. They read like Barry at his most brilliantly off-the-cuff. But he revised these conversations 60 or 70 times each, acting them out in his shed, returning to them in different moods and at different times of day.

It is when editing this way that he feels “useful”: “I feel like I have a trade. The sculptor has a block of stone and you’re just cutting away to find the shape that’s in there.” To get 5,000 words he will write 12,000 and then cut. Only one or two out of every ten short stories he writes will make it out into the world.

There is a strict system (in keeping with his search for “sympathetic magic”) determining where each project belongs. On the desk in his shed is a play called Night Boat to Tangiers, a commission for Dublin’s ­Abbey Theatre, about an Irishman in Spain searching for his daughter, who has run off with “a band of crusties”. Barry is increasingly drawn to drama, which doesn’t rely on the tedious scaffolding of prose fiction. He shows me an A4 pad on which he has drawn stick men in an attempt to make the page his stage.

Upstairs inside the house is another neat and narrow desk, this one with a view over Lough Arrow, and the beginnings of a short story handwritten on a yellow legal pad.

“Updike had four desks,” he says, a little enviously. “He had a journalism desk, a criticism desk, a poetry desk . . . I admire that. I like writers who get their work done.” It took Barry a while to settle at the desk – roughly a decade – and thinking about his unsteady twenties has given him a guilt complex. He is making up for lost time.

Aged 19, in 1988, Barry enrolled at the University of Limerick to do the only arts subject they offered, European studies. Two weeks in to the course, he was offered a cub reporter’s job on the Limerick Tribune, and became the university’s quickest ever drop-out. He attended court sessions and council meetings: the insight into the runnings of a city was later invaluable when he was writing City of Bohane. His ear for comic ­dialogue was fine-tuned by listening to the local officials argue the days away, in the “flat, nutty, a hundred miles per hour” Limerick accent.

“You’d have particular councillors who would be larger-than-life characters – and great speechifiers – in their own minds. Shannon Airport was always a big issue: the US military were stopping there during the Gulf War. There were huge pro- and anti-war factions in the council, but then you’d seamlessly move on to the fucking pothole situation on O’Connell Street. It’s a comic and common Irish delusion that even in a small place you’re at the centre of the universe.” Ireland’s cities do not lack confidence. In 1919 Limerick briefly declared itself a Soviet state.

Before starting university, Barry had spent a summer with friends in London, staying in a squat off Tottenham Court Road. It turned out to be the second summer of love. “We went over with our Leonard Cohen cassettes and came back as full-on acid-house devotees with our bright orange jeans and bowl haircuts, and suddenly on acid and Ecstasy.” On his return, he busied himself introducing Limerick to house music and organising raves in the countryside (where he encountered the west of Ireland’s community of freaks: hangers-on from the Lennon era of Diggers and screamers). Barry belonged to what he calls the “stoner entrepreneur” school of business. He returned to London in the 1990s and set up a stall at Camden Market selling house and hip-hop mixtapes, recorded by a friend from New York pirate radio stations. At three for £5, they made “an absolute fucking fortune” as he did his best to ignore repeated summonses from Westminster Council.

In 1992 Barry moved to Cork and started freelancing for the local papers. He wrote a comic Saturday column that made him “world-famous in Cork”. Through the 1990s, he lived at roughly a dozen different addresses in the city. In an essay in April’s New Irish Writing issue of Granta magazine, he recalls one house in which his bedroom looked out over an expanse of countryside. Lads would go “lamping” there: hunting rabbits by night, in old Volkswagen Beetles with high-powered headlamps “and an extra seat strapped to the bonnet for the shooter”.

 

I’d lie there in the winter nights and listen to the gunshot blasts and watch the icicles

form inside my window frame. There was no central heating. I had sleeping bags, blankets and coats mounted a foot thick on top of me. I was determined to be to Cork what Saul Bellow had been to Chicago but it wasn’t working out so well. Not least, perhaps, because of the amount of hash I was smoking.

 

The cocktail of drugs, dance music and American literature was a potent one. Barry became the “nightclub correspondent” for a listings magazine – he didn’t see daylight for months on end. On Barrack Street he had “some of the most intense hallucinations of my life: I thought I was a traffic light”. He was devoted to Bellow and Don DeLillo and “very cheesed off with Irish literature”, which seemed uninterested in the language and life of the city. His own 4am writing sessions produced “moon-shot prose” that invariably lost its gleam by sunrise.

And then, one day in August 1999, walking on the beach in west Cork, Barry gave himself the mother of all motivational talks. “I said to myself, ‘Are you fucking serious? Are you actually going to commit to this?’”

Barry refers to this as his “writer’s birthday”. He gave up much of his freelance work and followed his girlfriend Olivia Smith, a legal scholar, to Edinburgh (they married much later, in 2010). He stuck to his desk, even though it felt as if he was “writing into a void”. He published a short story, “Miami Vice”, about a reluctant wife-swapper, in a 2001 anthology, but it was a further six years before his first collection was put out by an independent imprint, Stinging Fly. There Are Little Kingdoms was a startling and funny take on Ireland’s “townie” mentality, its settings neither urban nor rural, but belonging to what the author calls “the third sex”, its tone best described by Nabokov’s phrase “laughter in the dark”.

In a high-risk handbrake turn, Barry followed up his sketches of town life with a novel offering a retro-futuristic vision of a city in the west of Ireland riven with gang warfare, dressed in zoot suits, speaking in a bastard Irish pidgin and set to a dub reggae soundtrack. Barry can talk Joyce and Beckett with the best of them, but his deepest influences come from the films he fell in love with as a teenager – the strange visions of David Lynch and Wim Wenders – and, in the case of City of Bohane, box sets such as HBO’s Wild West series Deadwood. “I robbed so much from it,” he says, “they could almost have sued me.”

Little Kingdoms had helped him win Ireland’s prestigious award for young writers, the Rooney Prize for Literature, but City of Bohane upped the stakes, taking the little-known but highly coveted International IMPAC Dublin Award, which, at €100,000 (over £79,000 at today’s exchange rates), is a considerably fatter envelope than the Booker. The villagers back home in Sligo (he moved there in 2007) hadn’t been sure what to make of Barry. “What is it you write, exactly?” the postmistress had asked him. But when he returned after the announcement, there was bunting up in the village. It turned out they had a writer of stature in their midst.

***

When Barry feels creatively stuck, usually around 4pm, he takes a ritual walk down to the lake. Having talked enough, we leave the shed and tramp out together into the damp afternoon. The cows in the field across the road eyeball us: if we were in a Barry story they’d possibly have murderous intent. On one side of the path we pass a cemetery with a romantically ruined church; on the other is a megalithic burial tomb. Death is all around, and it is oddly comforting. The lake is fringed with golden reeds and a little, dirty slick of oil shimmers by a jetty. Lough Arrow has the highest incidence of UFO sightings in Europe (thanks mainly to one diligent spotter, the late Betty Meyler) but Barry has never seen one. Nor has he picked up any particularly troubling “reverberations” – though the area has suffered violence. In the 1920s the IRA torched the roof of Barry’s barracks. Courteously, the republicans had given the RIC officers a week’s notice.

Birdsong surrounds us. Barry tells me that the lake gets curlews, sparrowhawks, choughs. A wren sitting on a stone wall, he says, is a gorgeous thing. A magpie attacking a young hare – which he has witnessed – is spectacular. A crow down your chimney, and in your bedroom, is horrifying. (“I did not cover myself in glory,” he says, which means his wife caught it while he hid under the duvet.) That progression – from the slightly twee rural image of a wren on a wall to the comic terror of battling, hungover, with a demented, feathered home intruder – strikes me as a good illustration of the off-centre nature of his fiction. When I call Roddy Doyle, the author of The Commitments and Paddy Clarke Ha Ha Ha, at home in Dublin, he tells me that Barry’s work is “so utterly Irish and rejecting it at the same time. The classic geography is there: the coastal features, the small town, the farm, the pub. He has all these postcards at his disposal. But he gets a marker down and draws his own things on the postcards. He scrambles what’s expected. The small towns are still there – but now there’s wifi. I think Kevin got there before a lot of people.”

There has been much talk recently of a “new wave” of Irish fiction: writers such as Sara Baume and Colin Barrett who have been nurtured by the country’s fertile ­microclimate of journals, prizes, festivals and small presses. Asked about the boom by the Guardian last year, Barry expressed pleasure that a sense of radicalism is starting to re-emerge: “We should always remember that being innovative and wild and not afraid to go completely fucking nuts on the page is what built [Ireland’s] reputation in the first half of the 20th century.” Some think it was the financial crash of 2008 that re-energised the scene, the money-hungry boom having neutered artistic ambitions. But Barry, who did his hardest, loneliest graft in the Celtic Tiger years, should take some credit. He showed how you could write against the grain and get away with it.

The sky has cleared and the afternoon makes a bid for freedom. As we circle back towards the barracks, a rainbow appears, one end plunging into the middle of the lake. “When I get back here,” he says, “there’s a sense of the breath slowing down again, and a calm, and it definitely feels like a benevolent place.”

It’s what Lennon may have been looking for on Dorinish – a placid solitude that he could puncture with his primal screaming, learnt from Arthur Janov in California. (The bruising song “Mother”, with its roaring coda, emerged from their sessions.) When Barry went to the island, he screamed, too, in a half-serious way, but so far that has been his only experiment with therapy. “I’d love to go but I won’t. The worst thing that could happen would be if they fixed me. If I was suddenly perfectly stable and rational I’d never write another fucking word again.”

The risk of retirement or Zen retreat is small. He is about to start work on a sequel to City of Bohane, and the first novel is in development for television. There are three plays in various states (they will start to emerge later this year) and a screenplay about a down-on-their-luck trainer and jockey who are a father and son. He has the second volume of his annual literature and arts anthology, Winter Pages, to compile. There are stories to grapple with and
sympathetic magic to summon.

“I have this hysterical nervous energy – mad fucking jangly nerves – which turns out to be very useful for keeping a load of balls in the air,” he says. “You just have to keep moving. If I stopped I’d be fucked.”

“Beatlebone” will be published in paperback by Canongate on 30 June

Tom Gatti is Culture Editor of the New Statesman. He previously edited the Saturday Review section of the Times, and can be found on Twitter as @tom_gatti.

 

This article first appeared in the 23 June 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Divided Britain