Sunday, April 02, 2006

John McGahern

Obituary in the Times

“I must have been extraordinarily happy walking that lane to school. There are many such lanes all around where I live and in certain rare moments over the years while walking in these lanes I have come into an extraordinary sense of security, a deep peace, in which I feel that I can live for ever.” (McGahern about walks to school with his mother)

I idolised John McGahern in a way that would surely have horrified him. He was dreadfully shy. I'm not going to tell you what a fan I was over him, thirty very odd years ago -it's too embarrassing. I think I've read nearly everything he wrote, except "Memoir", which I heard him read on Radio 4's Book at Bedtime.

I was lucky enough to see and hear him at the Small Wonder short story festival last September, which I wrote about here. He was amusing and generous with his readings and the question and answer session. He asked the audience what they wanted to hear and they opted for a scene from Memoir, which he retold without appearing to read from the book. It was about an occasion when his father had him by one ear to drag him to a football match, and a priest had him by the other ear insisting that he come to Sunday school, and it was outlandishly funny.

His prose is the most meticulously self-effacing of any writer I've read. Just one little example, he would write "small coloured lights" where a lesser author would write "fairy lights" or "christmas lights". That example is from "That they may face the rising sun" (renamed "By the Lake" for the US). The Times obituary calls it a book "in which nothing happens". Funny, because everything in life and death happens in it, but that's nothing apparently.


  1. beautiful post. Did you know him 30 years ago? I don't think he would have been horrified by your admiration at all. Thanks for sharing your thoughts.

  2. I wish I could've talked to him. I envy you that -- not really in the fullblown mortal sinful sense of Envy, but... I just admired him greatly. He was one of those writers who make other writers despair, by saying so many things so well.