In the winter of 1989 I was living in south-east London, in the not entirely lovely suburb of Lewisham. It was a tough district that had escaped bombing in the Second World War, mainly (so it was said by some of the locals) because the Luftwaffe had looked down from their passing-by airplanes and assumed it had been bombed already.
For some years I had been trying to write, but it was not going well. Writing was like trying to juggle with mud. I would send out short stories to the literary magazines. They would come back in an unstoppable stream.
I had entered a short-story competition in the Irish Post newspaper to win a trip to Listowel for its world-famous Writers’ Week. I had not won the competition, nor had I deserved to -- but to lose seemed typical enough for any young Irish person of the era. You felt you had emigrated from a country that had failed, and that the last one to leave should turn out the lights.
One evening I came home to my cheerless bedsit to find there was a message on the answering machine. The voice was familiar, as it would have been to any Irish person. It was the voice of John B Keane.
Would I come to Listowel for the festival, he was saying. ‘What matter you didn’t win. We’d love to have you anyway. I hope London is good to you. Kerry’s full of O’Connors. You probably own Carrigafoyle.’
John B Keane had rung my flat. John B Keane had dialled my number. To me, it was the equivalent of winning the Booker Prize. In all the great city of London that night, there was no happier soul than mine.
His Letters of an Irish Parish Priest and his Letters of a Matchmaker were books my grandparents loved. As a young teenager, I had read them, been amazed by their contents. In the Parish Priest book, the narrator tells a story about two lovers overheard on a Kerry beach. The man utters to his sweetheart, about to plunge into the waves, perhaps the most romantic line in the whole corpus of Irish literature. ‘Your buttocks have me intoxicated.’ There were clearly other Kerries than the one to be found in the pages of Peig Sayers’s autobiography.
But there was loneliness in the books too; there was brokenness and loss. There were people who had taken wrong turnings. Everything about his work was based on one profound insight: that a small place, in a small country, could be the whole round world and all its adventures, if only you had the eyes to see.
For some reason I cannot remember, I didn’t go to Listowel. But some years later, after my first book was published, I did go, and I met that genius of storymaking. To say he was kindly would be like saying it sometimes rains in Kerry. The weather in his eyes was always warm. Like many of the greatest writers, he was modest about his work. Not falsely – it was a modesty that came from self-assurance, I always felt -- but he never seemed to want to discuss it. He would talk of other matters, with laughter and delight, and a kind of casual wisdom he didn’t seem to know he had. He would remember the names of your children, despite never having met them. He would ask to see their photographs. He would tell you they were beautiful. And what were you writing? And would you not give up the smoking? Always remember, your family is everything.
I was privileged to meet him a few times, always in the town of Listowel, a place I can never visit – and never will in my life -- without thinking of his kindness and grace. But I never got the chance to say to him what I wanted. That I had seen the Bull McCabe in Lewisham High Street, shaking his stick at the traffic. That I had seen the ghost of Sive in New Cross Gate, and the Hiker Lacey in Deptford. That his people walked Piccadilly and the Tottenham Court Road, and Archway, and Camden, and Kentish Town High Street, in those distant days, those unhappier times, when to be Irish in London was to be suspect or a joke, and to be poor was no laughing matter.
Who wrote about them? Few but John B Keane. Who told their stories? Who saw behind their tears? The quarrels over land, the secrets of families, the wants of young lovers, the memories of old men, the hurts done to these outsiders, and the hurts they did themselves. That he had taken all of these and made of them stories that would speak to people all over the world.
A writer’s life is punctuated with moments of remembered blessing. One of mine happened on a cold, wintry day, when life was not good and I felt very far from home. On an answering machine in London came the message like sunshine: ‘It’s John B. Won’t you come to Listowel?’