by John Boland

Aodhan Madden and I were colleagues on the Evening Press and much of what he writes about his experiences there are familiar to me.

Well, semi-familiar, anyway. Here he is on subediting, at which both of us toiled for many years: “The subs desk in the Press was like a home for terminal eccentrics. They were mostly middle-aged men in varying stages of mental and physical disrepair. Some had stopped talking to others years before. Others were so permanently drunk and wet-brained that they merely went through the motions of editing copy. Readers who rang in to complain about misprints in the paper had no inkling of the bedlam behind the typographical chaos.”

The first half of that description is both true and funny, the second half is a mischievous distortion. Yes, there were hopeless alcoholics on the desk, but most of them were meticulous about their work and seldom brought their boozy ways into the office – or at least not until the first edition was put safely to bed.

Still, the author evocatively captures a vanished breed in a now almost vanished trade, and not without affection, either, especially in his fond portraits of Adrian MacLoughlin and John J Dunne, who were genuine one-offs – I always had a hard time trying to keep up with Adrian’s changing obsessions, from his fascination with old Dublin (he wrote a very scholarly book on the subject, now sadly out of print) to model trains and, in his last years, Kylie Minogue, with whom he became innocently besotted.

Madden himself was just as intriguing a figure as Adrian, and more obviously troubled, too, and he must be commended for addressing his sexual and psychological problems so frankly in this memoir – problems that caused him to spend time in St Patrick’s, about which he writes potently, with vivid portraits of some of the people he encountered there. And not without a welcome humour, either, whether telling of the evening when he injured himself trying to climb back into a locked St Pat’s or describing how he doused himself with flammable oil in the gent’s toilet of the Press – two stories that have gone into Press folklore.

Indeed, the hack in me wishes that the book was all about his time in the Press. Apart from Michael O’Toole’s More Kicks than Pence, there’s been little written about the daily grind of newspaper life in Ireland or about the characters who’ve done the grinding, and Madden’s reminiscences are often scathingly comic, as are those about his latter-day playwriting career (though I’m puzzled why he gives some people their real names while inventing names for easily identifiable others). But there’s no doubt that his candidly-described struggles with drink, sexuality and other demons lend the narrative a depth it might otherwise have lacked.

The book, though, has yet another and even more telling subject and that’s his relationship with his widowed father, whose North Circular Road house he shared and who emerges gradually throughout these pages as a figure of grace, dignity and integrity. The author’s loving depiction of this decent, concerned man, sometimes exasperated by his errant son but always tolerant of him, is what makes the memoir memorable.

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