John Walsh on Monday: How a famous face was nearly rearranged

THE ENDPAPERS of Peter Sheridan's memoir of growing up in Dublin show a seaside snap from the late Fifties of an angelic little boy with a Little Lord Fauntleroy-ish mass of blond curls, looking in amazement at the crab he is holding as he paddles, short-trousered, on the beach at Skerries, north County Dublin. Nothing could be further from the charming, bespectacled (and alas, no longer curly-haired) sophisticate I ran into in a Charlotte Street restaurant last week. Sheridan's book has zoomed straight to the top of the Irish bestseller charts and has just been launched over here. Entitled simply 44, after the number of his house, it's a thickly textured family portrait with a gamey whiff of hyper-realism about the parental rows, the sexual abuse, the sadism of teacher-priests and his friend's abscondment, en travestie, from a horrible Industrial School - written in rapt, neo-Joycean close-ups.

But it only got written because of a terrible disappointment. The brother of Jim Sheridan, the distinguished director of My Left Foot and In the Name of the Father (who appears in the memoir as an irritating mummy's boy), Peter was about to direct his own debut feature film in 1996, after years of working in the theatre. It was a slightly bruised peach of a project: a bio-pic of the life of the uber-Dubliner, the icon of sloshed, roustabout, Irish creativity, Brendan Behan. Jim was to produce it, Peter to direct, the money men had raised $11m (pounds 7m), and they'd found what seemed the perfect Young Brendan in Sean Penn, the former Mr Madonna.

"The film was to present Brendan all the way from 16 to his death," said Sheridan, "and Sean Penn was still believable as a guy you might find in a Young Offenders' Institution."

Things advanced. They'd made up Penn to look 18 stone. They'd been to an orthodontist clinic in Los Angeles to get a uglifying denture (Brendan's main facial trademark was the gap where his two front teeth once were). Then Penn pulled out. Sheridan, saint-like, bears no grudge. "There were a lot of personal strains in his life," he said. "The kind you can't dislike somebody for. But so much hinged on him, we couldn't re-think the film around some other actor, knowing it would always be 'the part that shoulda been Sean Penn's'..."

So he wrote the book instead, sold it to Macmillan for an advance of pounds 100,000, sold the foreign rights all over the world (in Germany every major publisher bid for it) and was asked to make it a trilogy. There are now plans to film the thing. And guess what? Sean Penn will be playing his father... no, all right, I made that up; Pete Postlethwaite is more likely.

SHERIDAN IS a new recruit to the shifty brotherhood of best-selling Irish childhood memoirists, like Seamus Deane, Dermot Healy, and Frank and Malachi McCourt, though the genre stretches back to George O'Brien's The Village of Longing and beyond). The popularity of these tales of long- johns, misery and boiling stirabout should be enough to explain why they keep being written, but some commentators detect more sinister impulses - like Kathryn Holmquist, who kindly explained in the Irish Times last month: "To put it simply, middle-aged men get in touch with their feminine side by writing bestselling memoirs... with one or two exceptions, they're trying to deal with their mothers."

Sheridan isn't convinced. "It's much more about gettin' in touch with me masculine side," he says. "Everyone is after versions of the truth now. And memoirs appeal to people who like a story with a strong blast of the truth."

Provided, of course, the truth is interesting enough. But Mr Sheridan has a knack for picking up splendid real-life stories that sound like fiction. Like when he ran the City Workshop in Dublin, and went looking for undiscovered acting talent in the streets. He wanted to put on a play about the Monto, the notorious red-light district in Montgomery Street. "One of the girls in the group talked about her grandfather who had lived there. He'd joined the British Army and gone to fight in the Great War. But he lost his eye at the Somme and was sent home. He wrote to the army asking for compensation, and they sent him a glass eye. It was the wrong colour.

"He complained and they sent him another. Wrong shade. He wrote again. They sent another one. It took seven goes to find a true match for his good eye. And because he was too vain to go out of doors without both his eyes, it was four years before he stirred into the streets of Dublin, and he found the whole world had changed - the Irish Rising had turned to civil war and the new Free State had been born. The Union Jack had gone, replaced by the Tricolour. Everything had changed while he was waiting for his 'compensation'.

"So I asked the girl, 'What happened to the eye?'. And she said, 'I have it here in me handbag'."

WHICH IS the ideal New Labour sport? John Major put in a strong bid for cricket as the essence of the sporting, village-green Tory soul (along with a few less sporty images of district nurses cycling). Harold Wilson cosied up to the England soccer establishment, the ideal Labour sport back in the Sixties. Edward Heath was keen on the expensive and elitist business of yacht racing, with unfortunate results. But which sport should the Labour party embrace, to reassure voters that their hearts are democratically attuned?

One reads about the sporty pursuits of the current front bench with a sinking heart. Jack Straw is mad for hill-walking and running; David Blunkett for walking and sailing; Margaret Beckett for caravanning. Hopeless. Gordon Brown almost lost his sight playing rugby, and switched allegiances to soccer.

Apart from horizontal jogging, Robin Cook's leisure interests are apparently "eating, reading and talking" - none of them yet accepted as Olympic pursuits. The PM himself can muster, at short notice, an impressive display of "keepie- uppie", that business of bouncing a ball off your foot, knee or head, over and over again, for no particular reason. But that's it.

Surely it's about time the Labour leaders tried something more adventurous, more noble, more expressive of moral rigour. You can forget darts and shove-ha'penny, (too working-class). Rugby gets a stiff-arm fend-off (too public school), and soccer a body swerve (too Glenn Hoddle), while tennis is just too southern-softy-Home Counties to appeal to a gang of Scots and John Prescott.

Could golf be the answer? Provided you can afford the clubs, it's popular with all socio-economic classes, it's not a bruising contact sport, it relies on precision rather than strength, it's relaxing, can be played at any age, and you can chat about the Scottish Nationalists or Fiona Jones's expenses while lining up a 20-yard putt. And since the arrival of Tiger Woods, it's even ceased to be exclusively white.

These reflections coincide with an article by Charlie Whelan, the Chancellor's bullish and amusing former press secretary. Writing in the new issue of Golf International, he says, "As an ex-spin doctor, I find it astonishing that neither political party has bothered to take golf seriously. More than 4 million people play the game, and the Open Championship is as big a national sporting event as the Cup Final."

This is merely a prelude to some hot news: so many Labour MPs have joined the Parliamentary Golf Society that, for the first time in its history, they outnumber the Conservative members.

And one of the New Labour throng who should join without delay is the Prime Minister. Remember Bill Clinton's claim last year that Tony Blair was a gifted amateur at the niblick and spoon? It was, Whelan indiscreetly reveals, eyewash. Mr Blair is about as much use to the Royal St Andrews as General Pinochet is to the Missing Persons' Bureau.

"WE ARE seeking to degrade their capability," said a Foreign Office suit to an increasingly irritated John Humphrys on Radio 4's Today programme, explaining his curious usage by saying the Nato bombers' first priority was to wipe out any Yugoslavian means of retaliation. Apart from how unfair he made the air strike sound, his use of the word "degrade" was very revealing.

Every conflict throws up fresh neologisms or new-minted phrases to express the intolerable. This is a rare case of using a word's literal meaning to suggest something subtle: that when a B-2 drops 2,000lb bombs on Belgrade, it won't be trying to blow up munitions dumps, but to "(Biology) reduce to lower organic type; (Chemistry) reduce to simpler molecular structure; (Geology) wear down (rocks etc) by disintegration". It's only about a reduction in quality, you see, nothing too violent or terminal.

And when the Nato spokesmen settled on this wording, did they notice that "degrade" is a self-reflexive verb, meaning "to make dishonourable"?

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