The Ginger Man Turns Home

Posted On: 29 Sep 2018

It was an honour to know him, Mr. Donleavy that is.

The Ginger Man Turns Home

Tradition dictates that when someone you know dies a few words are shuffled about by way of condolence or appreciation. I’d like to shuffle my few here, to mark the recent passing of JP Donleavy.

To me Mr. Donleavy was always that, Mr. Donleavy. Never did I know him as Mike or JP. Not that I wouldn’t have taken the liberty of assuming friendship, it’s just that he had my greater deference as a true creative. Although Ireland is a county littered with artists, it has few masters. He was one of that few. Originally New York born, for whatever reason (and he always half-jokingly said it was for the tax laws) he decided to make our country his home. If you think about it, what better place to get the the headspace than to write in the wilds of Ireland, behind the falling walls of your own estate. Which is exactly what he did, once the money started rolling in.

Oddly, given this vantage point, his novels and short stories were mostly urban affairs, their protagonists sophisticated urbanites. In ways, and this was no surprise, Mr. Donleavy was always in his own head – it wouldn’t matter where he was. This I mean as a compliment. His mastery of the written word, and his imagination, supreme. Unmatched in his class. He required no external influences to oil his own talent. One curious afternoon I looked at all the spines of all the books resting on the extensive bookshelves of his writing room. Just to see what he may have read. What authors might have been an influence? What did I find. Every single volume – and there were hundreds, if not over a thousand – by him! All the various editions of his own works, published world-wide in the many languages of the six continents. Not one book by another author. This entirely self-contained self-referencing spoke of the absolute assuredness of his own talent. Of course, on the downside, as regards conversation, if he wasn’t talking about himself, or you weren’t talking about him, he wasn’t listening. Ordinarily one wouldn’t put up with such station for too long, but his stories were always worth listening to. Enriching and a pleasure. He really could tell a yarn. If he didn't know you he could be reticent, but once he was comfortable, off he'd go, one after the other. 

It was about fifteen years ago when I first met him, even then he was in the later part of his life. The meeting was arranged by an old art world acquaintance, a real character, you couldn't make him up, now also dead. Anyhow, he had known and worked with Mr. Donleavy many years before. We had to go to see him, of course, Donleavy rarely left his estate. The world Always came to Mr. Donleavy. Living in London at the time, and with lack of adequate banking facilities, it was required that we drive all the way over in my battered and heater-less gun metal grey 1960s Mercedes. What I didn’t know before setting out was that my acquaintance was an unself-recognised alcoholic. It was his reasoning that if he drank only in public bars then he wasn’t an alcoholic, rather just a man in great social need. He also had this other thing. He would drink at great leisure only from half-pint glasses. Finding pint glasses inelegant, so inelegant that he could hardly bear to look at them, let alone hold one. An aesthest-ite I suppose we could call him. The trip took three days. 

Eventually we enter Mr. Donleavy’s drawing room to great welcome, my co-pilot was indeed a friend from older days. My first sight of Donleavy? On one arm of his chair sat a Japanese girl. On the other, another Japanese girl! Two Japanese girls. In Westmeath, straight from the plane. They recently read the Japanese translation of The Ginger Man and decided, on the instant, to make the pilgrimage from Tokyo to Levington. Turning up unannounced at his locked front gates they waited, and were now rewarded with their audience. Having read the book in Japanese they had only scattered words of English. Mostly they just fawned and giggled for the evening. Not an unpleasant distraction on a wet mid-winter’s night, the rain hitting the other side of the panes. The world as I said, came to him – he had the draw, the ‘it’.

Soon after this internationalist start we did some work together in London, Dublin and New York, with me working as his wildly unsuccessful art dealer. Of the artists I worked with, most got well reviewed both in England and Ireland. But Mr. Donleavy, he was the only one who got reviewed internationally. Always. He was a talented painter – and I don’t mean talented in a, ‘and so he did this as well’ way. It was recognised that he up there with the greats, but chose a different path. He did say to me once that he chose to pursue the art of writing as he found paintings once completed, too silent, too mute in their message. Once he’d decided on writing full-time, it was mostly only in the evenings that he’d take his pen for a walk, for distraction, just to give his mind a rest. Had he chosen instead to give himself to paint, I can assure you there would have been many, many more museum shows in his lifetime.

Later, when things came a cropper for me, in both personal and business life (entire misuse of the word business, over-compliments a more than dismal performance as an art dealer) I moved back to Ireland. For about five years, before I managed to get busy again, I’d regularly visit Mr. Donleavy, more or less on a weekly basis. These visits, when I look back on them now, are privileged memories. We never spoke of writing, or art. Rather it was of life; women and love, and not love, cattle, trees, stone walls, boxing, New York – whatever happened to drift into the conversation. The fun was just bouncing that conversation off him. He never refused my visits, even though I’m sure my company was as dull to him as his was fascinating for me. It was very kind of him to put up with me. What I also discovered was that he was an incredibly sensitive and perceptive man, a true artist naturally born, with the tools of artistic expression. Nothing had to be taught to Mr. Donleavy. In an odd way he was wise while at the same naïve. In speech his words were always measured, and in act was always beautifully mannered. Now that our conversations can never happen again they’ll be missed the greater. To misquote Dickens, from the worst of times came the best of times.

I’d like to also take this opportunity to tell a true story, to a word, which captures Mr. Donleavy’s perfect wit.

During these years, while drinking at the bar of a certain Dublin member’s club and running low, I was approached at the counter by a young man who knew that I had something to do with Mr. Donleavy. Describing himself as a ‘serious writer’ – whatever that is – he pushed it upon me that he was working hard on his first novel. Congratulations to you I said, keep it up, that sort of thing. But then he offered to buy me a drink, which sort of changed things. After my carefully seeing that the barman was paid, he then asked me if I could possibly show, when the time arrived, the finished manuscript to Mr. Donleavy. In hope I suppose that he might possibly write a few words of recommendation about it. Knowing full well that Donleavy would not be interested, but being at the same time the terrible man that I am, I said sure not only would I show it to him, but for the price of another drink I’d actually ask that he read it as well. The world soon became a happy place. Drink, drink, and drink upon more drink. With not a note out of my own pocket. He was exultant that young man. Always encourage the young is what I say.

And that was that. Carefully avoided him for the next year.

Thought no more about it until when, on my way out the side-door of a Dublin public house, the worst nightmare occurs. A very exhausted looking man, now suffering from alopecia and wearing a ragged turtleneck jumper (why do they always wear turtleneck jumpers), rushes up me while at the same time delving into a plastic shopping bag. Feigning non-recognition, my attempt at making the getaway thwarted by his physically blocking the door. Nail-bitten fingers produce the manuscript of telephone book thickness. Absolute worst nightmare. He holds it up, relic like, pushes it toward me, going on, reminding me of the money he could ill afford buying drinks that night, his suspicion that I’d been avoiding him since, that my promise is a promise, etc, etc. All that honour stuff. So, with what honour I actually do have (pitifully little as it happens), I put the telephone book into the boot of my car, promising the promise. Awful. Tried to read it. Dreadful. 

The following week bring it up, casually as I could, during my visit to Mr. Donleavy. According to literary circles in Dublin, I say, rumour exists of a possible new Joyce in our midst. We could have, if word is to believed, a young writer of such promise that he might actually change how we all look at the world. Tarted it up too much but....
“Really?”, Donleavy says.
“Yes, and not only that, I was lucky enough to actually meet him, snatched his latest manuscript out of his hand to show to you”
“Yes, it’s also being said, and I really don't see how it could be, but it’s going to be a publishing phenomenon. You know, maybe, if you were to have a look at it I could arrange, but it won’t be easy, there’ll be plenty of other big names, but if I could possibly maybe arrange that the few words about it from you would appear somewhere”
With no shallowness too great, I went on. “Yes, and by chance I actually happen to have it in the boot of my car”.
Mr. Donleavy, who must have been approached one thousand times in his life for the same request saw right through it.
“Show it to me, why not”
Quick whip outside, one rushed minute later handing it across the kitchen table. Holding it in his outstretched hand his eyes widen at the thickness. He just sort of looks at it. Weighs it up in his hand. Passes it straight back to me, saying only three words. It goes back into the boot of the car. Not another word on the matter. We open the better wine, that’s that. Off we go on our conversational meander. Not what I expected, but there you have it, life’s a learning curve.

The next week I meet up with the nail biting young man, say my piece, hand back the manuscript. And move along. Again, no more about it. Until about another year later I'm walking down Dawson Street, and there it is! The heavy tome, now published. And in the window of Hodges & Figgis. On the cover, and how that book was deemed worthy of publishing God only knows, but there, prominently on the cover, just under the title, are printed the immortal words, ‘World Famous Author JP Donleavy says, “Worth its Weight” ’.

The very words he said to me in the kitchen, before I placed it back in the boot!

It was an honour to know him, Mr. Donleavy that is.

Damien Matthews