Patrick McCabe: The writer and the duck that said ‘Quack!’

The novelist tells Paul Blezard how a love for The Dandy colours his work

There is an irresistible urge to lean forward when Patrick McCabe starts to speak. Quietly voiced and intensely focused on the question in hand, he takes pause and fixes you with a steady gaze from beneath the brim of his hat, making you pay attention, before he answers. Not least when talking politics.

“I’m almost depoliticised, apolitical, in the sense that I really do not know who controls everything. I don’t think that prime ministers make a whole damn bit of difference,” he says, before explaining that he has a friend, a noted anthropologist and professor at Indiana University who told McCabe his theory. “Once you’ve pushed away all the brambles, the smoke and the shadows clear and you’ve macheted your way through the secret service and the government, you get to the clearing and you think there’s going to be a guy turning a big handle, but it’s not.” “What is it then?” asked McCabe. “There’s no one there” the professor answered, “Just a huge lake, like a great big sheet of glass, and a duck, going ‘Quaaaack!’” He chuckles as he recounts the tale, revelling in the absurdity. “Supposing it’s true?” he says, “Supposing the whole thing is about a small yellow duck going ‘quack’ in the middle of a lake?”

His love of such silliness speaks of his early and abiding passion for English vaudeville; his father giggling as he read the The Dandy comic and Billy Bunter to the young McCabe and listening to Arthur Askey and Friday Night is Music Night. “It links into Beckett,” he says, “there’s a lot of Buster Keaton in Beckett. It has left me with a pathological obsession with English seaside towns, particularly in the dead of winter. Most people want Paris; I want Blackpool. It’s not an affectation; it’s about the magic in the ordinary, like Orwell, he paid attention to the big fat lady in her stripy swimsuit, the little put-upon guy, the seaside postcards. It’s a little slice of life, a weird version of an English coastal town and Desperate Dan Cactusville. It was the beginning of me thinking that in my stories I can rearrange the world whatever way I wish. It doesn’t have to be the temporal, unmanageable world. It can be turned inside out.”

McCabe has twice been Booker-shortlisted – for The Butcher Boy and Breakfast on Pluto, both filmed by Neil Jordan (“A very literary man with a giddy, childish excitement for the movies.”) with screenplays co-written by McCabe. He continues, “The books I’ve written haven’t all been successful and you’d imagine that when you get to my age those fascinations would wane, but I still have an obsession with Ken Dodd, Bob Monkhouse and so on. Perhaps because there wasn’t a strong music hall tradition in Ireland we’d listen to late-night Radio 2 and the Light Programme, both huge influences on me.”

As we talk of Ireland’s reputation for great storytellers, Frank McCourt’s name crops up and his theory that in rural towns, where you meet the same people a dozen times a day, you have to have something more to say than just “lovely weather,” and so the stories are created, told and refined. McCabe agrees, “It sometimes got to the stage where it became so Beckettian, so spare. There was a guy I used to see, he’d never say, ‘It’s bucketing down’, but would be holding a length of rope with an invisible arse on the end, on his way to some kind of transaction that would never be realised. He’d just stand there and say ‘rain’ and then walk on. It was the beginning of my seeing language, how some people would be florid, rococo and some would just be ‘I’m not going to say anything more than I have to’ spare with words.”

On literary prizes, not least the Booker, McCabe is clear. “There was a time when there was a thing called the book and I would see it in the same way my father did, as an element of self-improvement, not because he wanted to impress anyone or because it had been recommended. He would read “a book”, not “a literary fiction”; he would read Orwell or Dickens for the sheer enjoyment of words, with no perception of literature as some kind of trophy or badge of social distinction. I was very fortunate with the Booker, but the more I see of it now the less relevant it seems to be. At the risk of sounding like one of the old guys on The Muppet Show, never was there an age when people [authors] were more commodified and conservative, the idea of someone finding an Orwell or an equivalent is becoming more and more remote; the thought of writers being eccentrics or radicals is a joke now. You hear books referred to as product and a bit of you dies.”

Although the gothic gaudy of vaudeville is clearly an influence, it is Larkin and Ian McEwan that McCabe cites as early inspirations, specifically McEwan’s “Last Day of Summer”, a five-page story from the mid-1970s that details the end of the hippy dream from a London perspective. As McCabe talks about the development of his own authorial voice, he recalls: “I came across a review of it in a small literary fortnightly and I bought it. I was deeply envious of it for a start, which is always a good sign. It was so good I started copying it and others, learning my craft through a natural mimicry and then I ditched them all. But if I have a style it erupted like an aneurism in The Butcher Boy because by then I’d thrown everything away, I had nothing to lose any more, it came out of despair as much as anything else.”

That “voice” has perhaps never been stronger than with the new work, Hello, Mr Bones and its companion title Goodbye, Mr Rat, two ghoulish horror novels, bookended in the same volume, one read from the front, the other from the back, like back-to-back screenings of a cinema double bill. They are mischievous homages to Henry James’s The Turn of the Screw” and M R James’s Casting the Runes, and McCabe knows what he would like readers to take away from reading them, “What a dreadful, terrifying, mysterious place the world is, and always will be. After all the stuff we’ve discovered, the duck is still out there, going ‘quack’.”

And with that, the consummate storyteller tips the brow of his hat and walks away.

Paul Blezard’s new comic novel ‘Saving Grace’ is being crowd-funded through