In the Simpsons television cartoon show they had Springfield’s Saint Patrick’s Day Parade. There was a float full of The Fighting Irish Novelists. They were a lively bunch, jumping down at regular intervals to trade blows and abuse. There was reason to suspect that there was drink taken. Some said that this was grossly offensive, showing the worst stereotypes of the Irish character. It was particularly disappointing to those of us who aspire to being Irish novelists, but are no bloody good at fighting. Why would the Simpsons ignore the undoubted literary genius of the Irish in order to concentrate on our bellicose reputation?
When Jack Dempsey was preparing to fight Gene Tunney for the first time, he sent a spy to Tunney’s training camp. Dempsey was a hard man. He learned his trade in saloons and mining camps, fighting all comers. He was often brought home in a wheelbarrow. Tunney trained by chopping down trees— and sparring partners.
The spy returned in high glee.
‘It’s in the bag, champ’, he announced. ‘The guy is readin’ a book.’
Tunney went on to defeat Dempsey twice, although there are still arguments about the famous Long Count. If you want to put down your pint and step outside, we can settle it, coats off, man to man. Tunney’s father was from Cill Aodáin in County Mayo. Cue Raftery, the blind poet, ‘full of hope and good will.’ Raftery enjoyed a drink too.
This might suggest that literary types are natural tough guys. Hemingway liked to box. He was a fairly nifty writer. Brendan Behan set the gold standard for bellicose Irish writers. There was reason to suspect that drink had been taken. Drink makes some people bellicose. That means ‘warlike’ although drink and ‘bellies’ can have a different connotation. Drink makes others want to sing or become friends with everyone. A few believe that it fuels literary genius. The fuel can burn out.
I published my first novel many years ago. I was quite pleased and full of good will. I was having a drink in a pub, with a beautiful view of the harbour. I felt a hand on my shoulder. It was quite a large hand.
‘You know,’ said the man, ‘you’re going about this writing business the wrong way.’
Ah, here we go, I thought. You’re wrong, you know. They didn’t have helicopters at the Battle of Waterloo.( Didn’t they?) There’s a spelling mistake on page 147. The red mist of rage began to cloud my vision.
‘How come?’ I asked, with a steely edge to my voice.
By coincidence at the time, I was the same weight as ‘Marvelous’ Marvin Hagler. Marvin’s weight was distributed differently from mine. He had trapezius muscles instead of a neck. He had an iron chin. He had biceps and triceps. I had a couple of pints.
‘You should be drinking and getting into fights in pubs,’ said my interlocutor. ‘That way you would get all the publicity you could ask for.’
There is a tide in the affairs of men, which, taken at the flood, leads on to fortune. The bigger they come and all that nonsense. I thought of taking his advice and making a start there and then, by hurling him through the plate glass window and leaping after him to pound him with lefts and rights etc. in the way of Hollywood cowboys. I could have smashed a bar stool over his head. He who hesitates is lost. I began to weigh up the situation. The bigger they come, the closer they are to the ceiling.
I never like to cause a fuss. Plate glass is hideously expensive to replace. Those bar stools are quite heavy, you know. I hadn’t finished my drink. He is a foot taller than me. He played rugby for Ireland. Anyway I like the chap. His advice was kindly meant. I bought him a pint. I heard the doors of the Pantheon of Great Drunken Irish Novelists slamming shut. The noise still reverberates in my head.
I have won only a single decisive victory in a fight in my entire life. It was in fourth class in the National School. His name was Tom. His brother was one of the toughest lads in the school. His brother used more hair oil than the rest of the class put together. I bumped into Tom in the yard. He took serious offence. A fight was unavoidable. A crowd gathered around. I had read about John L. Sullivan and Gene Tunney in The Wizard. Scientific pugilism was called for. Tom was not a reading man. I shut my eyes and took a swing. I connected. I opened my eyes. One of the most beautiful things I have ever seen, was Tom’s astonished expression and the blood, snot and tears on his face. He retired in the first round. I was carried shoulder-high for a few seconds, until The Master appeared, swishing his cane, to investigate all the noise. It was a cane like Charlie Chaplin’s one. Not a bit funny. It was heady stuff, all the same. What a thing it would be, ‘to ride in triumph through Persepolis’. I have never been carried shoulder-high for any of my literary efforts.
I had a go at boxing in later years but I found that, not only have I a glass chin, I have a glass head. One punch gave me a blinding headache and visual disturbance. I concentrated on the writing. Marvin’s titles were safe. Not only did Gene Tunney read books, He wrote one as well. So it’s ok to write. Anyway, I always thought all that skipping was sissy stuff. Jack Dempsey went on the stage. He owned a restaurant. He complained that he was in more danger behind the bar, than he had ever been in the ring, from silly asses who wanted to boast that they had knocked out Jack Dempsey. He put it differently. Marvin went into movies. Rocky Graziano produced a great book.
King Levinsky, a Chicago fish seller, made a few dollars from the fight game. His manager, his sister, by the way, set up a bank account. The bank manager gave him a cheque book. The king wrote cheques. The manager called him in.
‘Your account is seriously overdrawn, Mr. Levinsky,’ says he.
‘What are ya talkin’ about?’ says the king. ‘ The book aint even half finished.’ Prize fighters and books, eh.
I wrote some of my best fiction for bank managers.
Is The Simpsons a work of fiction? Are there any real drunken Irish fighting novelists at all at all? The present lot look a bit too refeened. They occupy a higher plane. They are treated with deference. No need for them to take the coats off and have a good brawl. They duel with rapier wit and occasionally, pens dipped in acid. Can we believe anything we see on the screen? Special FX? Very bad spelling too.
John Wayne’s real name was Marion. Steven Seagal deals out punishment to bad guys, with the efficiency of a gents’ haberdasher tidying his shelves. ‘Suit you, Sir.’ Clint almost always relies on a gun. How come all the bad guys are such lousy shots? Bruce Willis causes major havoc and damage to property. He litters cities with dead villains. (Caution: never go up in a cinematic helicopter.) It’s all illusion. Read the credits: Fights arranged by… Fights choreographed… for crying out loud. Or is that Bruce Forsyth? Nobody seems to mind a flesh wound. Shaking your head to clear your vision is not wise. The hero is always bandaged up and comforted by the heroine or the kid who had been kidnapped. Ah, wuzzums! There is always a joke at the end. You would need a stiff drink, after all the explosions and car crashes.
Some silly ass shouted abuse at my fellow watercolourist, Eric Cantona. Eric took a flyin’ lep at the eejit and levelled him. I contemplated forming a Franco-Irish Fighting Watercolourists association. We could kick some ass, like the gentleman in the preceding paragraph. Then I saw him in a film. He was poncing around in tights at the court of Queen Elizabeth. He was pretending to be the French ambassador. Would you pick Eric for the Diplomatic Corps?
There is one great cinematic fight. It is the best worst fight of all. It is between Colin Firth and Hugh Grant. They were fighting over Bridget Jones. (Not a bloke’s film, but anyway..) They were spectacularly inept. Useless. They were utterly convincing.
If I wuz ten years younger, with a pint in me, I could fight either one o’ them. I’d… I’d…. Five years and a couple o’ pints, bejayziz….one hand tied behind me back…I’d take the both o’them together…What year is it anyway? …
Here, hould me coat.