Prior to his appearance in UCD, novelist Colm Tóibín talks gay babies, Dana, emigration and Starbucks with Sally Hayden.
It’s not every day you get the chance to chat to one of Britain’s top 300 intellectuals. Apart from the eternal question of Rice Krispies versus Coco Pops, this was Otwo’s first notable thought this morning. Even more notable because this intellectual is most definitely Irish.
Colm Tóibín is rankled about the recent Observer list too, but for a different reason. “I thought 300 was a lot of people, and some of the other people were not very smart at all. If they had said I was one of fifty I would have been happier. They should have ranked us!”
It is twenty-one years since Tóibín wrote The South. His first novel dealt with the topics of immigration and sense of self, themes that are recurring throughout his subsequent works. It is set in Barcelona, where Tóibín himself moved in 1975, immediately after graduating from UCD. A cyclical market and an unprecedented global downturn have ensured that our generation are fleeing the fatherland just as hastily. At the recent Irish Economic Forum Tóibín called this a “tragedy.”
Whilst noting the mind-expanding benefits of spending anything from a year in Sydney to two weeks in Costa da Brava, he points out the serious detriment of the “disaster” of relocation in the longer term. “The entire business of permanent migration, of losing your roots and your relationship to the place you were brought up in, and you suddenly think twenty years later that everyone drinks in the same bar as they did twenty years ago. You think everyone at home is the same age as they were when you left, when in fact they’ve got two kids.
“Your dream of home now doesn’t equal the reality. Your entire relationship to your peer group and your family begins to dissolve and change fundamentally, and you end up a decade later coming home less and less, and having less and less connection to home.”
Upon his return to Ireland after three years he found it backward in every way. “To give you one small example, in 1978, when I came back to Dublin, there was one coffee machine in the entire city.”
Now Dubliners are besieged by the epitome of the American coffee dream itself, in the form of Starbucks and its various competitors. However for Tóibín, modern Ireland is still founding wanting. “I think in most families there’s an absolute innate racism where you learn not to say things, but if your son or daughter came home with somebody from a different race you would be very concerned about that”.
The same applies to sexuality, negative attitudes to which still lie latent, the explicitness of which, according to Tóibín, we’ve learnt to “disguise”. “There’s no overt homophobia in political discourse, or the newspapers, or on radio, but it doesn’t mean that anybody longs to have a gay baby.”
Tóibín’s laugh is as infectious as his books are miserable. During our brief time talking Otwo chuckled, giggled, chortled and guffawed. His latest work is a film script. “I can’t write comedy. This really was a comedy, I swear to you. But I looked at it yesterday and thought ‘we’ll have to get sad music for it now.’”
As a patron and producer of the arts, he is delighted about the recent election of Michael D. Higgins to the Presidency. “He is stylish, he is cultured, he is articulate, and as he said himself, being old was not a secret he was keeping. So [I’m] very pleased with the result, I think he’s a most civilised human being. Perhaps more civilised than most of the people who elected him.”
Having said that, he did wonder if these voters deserved Dana instead. “I think it was a good idea to accuse Martin McGuinness of something, but it was hard to think up of the others. Dana had American nationality, who cares? Mary Davis was on some state board. Yeah, well, I’m on the Arts Council, I was appointed by Fianna Fáil. They needed someone competent, they appointed me. She didn’t defend herself enough by saying ‘would you shut up’.”
Sensing a prime chance to shape the political future of Ireland, Otwo slyly suggests President Tóibín for 2018. “You think I would tour around the country telling everyone that I thought I had qualities that were presidential? I think self-deprecation is actually fundamental to citizenship. I would hate the National Ploughing Championships. I would hate getting into wellies!”
Three times a Booker Prize potential, Tóibín also has no interest in the “theatre of cruelty” that are awards ceremonies. “I actually knew Anthony Burgess, and he wouldn’t go to the Booker ceremony unless he was sure he had won. It was that year that his wonderful novel Earthly Powers was beaten by some novel by William Golding, and Burgess just said ‘why does anyone think I’m just going to go and travel all the way over from Monaco and sit there and not win?’”
Though never previously renowned as a breeding grounds for British intellectuals, with the year of the Queen, the times they are a-changing. “UCD is a great place. I kneel down every morning and thank God I didn’t go to Trinity.”
Otwo tells Tóibín to not give up on the comedy.
Colm Tóibín will speak to UCD’s English and Literary Society on Wednesday 23rd November in Theatre O (Newman Building) at 6:30pm