Ian Cochrane

Novelist of dark humour and tragic endings
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The Independent Online

Ian Cochrane, novelist: born Ballymena, Co Antrim 7 November 1941; married 1972 Maggie Ogilvie (marriage dissolved 1979); died London 9 September 2004.

Ian Cochrane's was a distinctive voice in modern British fiction. In a series of novels, by turns uproariously funny, bawdy, blasphemous, touching and sad, he gave expression to the feelings of the marginalised: the young, the unemployed, and people living close to the borders of sanity and respectability. Their clashes with parents, priests, bosses and officials reveal all the absurdity, selfishness and hypocrisy of their supposed betters.

Ian Cochrane, novelist: born Ballymena, Co Antrim 7 November 1941; married 1972 Maggie Ogilvie (marriage dissolved 1979); died London 9 September 2004.

Ian Cochrane's was a distinctive voice in modern British fiction. In a series of novels, by turns uproariously funny, bawdy, blasphemous, touching and sad, he gave expression to the feelings of the marginalised: the young, the unemployed, and people living close to the borders of sanity and respectability. Their clashes with parents, priests, bosses and officials reveal all the absurdity, selfishness and hypocrisy of their supposed betters.

Though the books' titles, such as Jesus on a Stick (1975) or Ladybird in a Loony-bin (1977), have a jokey craziness their humour is dark, and their endings often tragic.

Thus the antics of the lads in F for Ferg (1980) who hang around the factory gates looking for ways to have fun, and who decide to involve the boss's son, the Fergus of the title, in a romantic hoax with someone else's girlfriend, start off in a comic vein but have horribly fatal consequences. The group of Portobello wasters in The Slipstream (1982) who, among other escapades, attempt to rob the poor-box in the local church while one of their number distracts the priest with elaborate fake confessions, likewise end up reaping more than they thought they were sowing. The characters may be often feckless, but they are treated with sympathy and humanity, granted the gift of life through their creator's exceptional ear for dialogue.

Cochrane was born and grew up in rural Antrim, in Northern Ireland. "We lived in a little house right out in the country," he recalled, with "seven of us sleeping in one bedroom. But I don't think I realised we were living in poverty." Later the family was moved into one of the new council houses built after the Second World War, but he continued to attend the old two-roomed country school, where they had a female teacher at one end for the younger children and a male "master" at the other end for the older ones.

The master in this case was the progressive R.L. Russell (author of The Child and His Pencil, 1935) and it was he who encouraged the young Cochrane to write and gave him the confidence to escape to better things. He moved to London in the late 1950s and after abandoning a variety of jobs was eventually able to live as a full-time writer. Stories began to appear in literary magazines, and in anthologies such as Faber's Introduction 4 (1971) and Penguin Modern Stories (1972).

His first novel, A Streak of Madness, was published in 1973 and his second, Gone in the Head (1974), was a runner-up for the Guardian Fiction Prize. Much of his early life is echoed in his novels but, when asked if they were autobiographical, he said:

It's not science fiction, it's in the real world that I'm living in. It isn't just autobiographical, but I draw from my own experience.

There was a naturalness about the writing, a conversational authenticity, which he felt was a gift, like being able to play an instrument:

When I'm working hard on something, I feel the typewriter can't go fast enough, with all the feelings and the dialogue going through me.

Although he taught creative writing for a time, and had been working on a book on the subject, he was doubtful whether ultimately it was something that could be learned:

The people who do well are the people who can say: "Yeah, I knew that". I'm not saying it's not a benefit, because they might be really good writers and not know that they're good writers.

If the talent was there it could be encouraged, much as his own had been encouraged by his teacher back in Antrim, and many will attest to his untiring generosity in providing such help and advice.

His marriage in 1972 to Maggie Ogilvie came to an amicable end some seven years later and they remained close friends, Ian taking an active part in bringing up the daughter, Charlotte, that Maggie had with her subsequent husband, Charles Manicom, who was happy to allow Ian to remain part of the family. Ian and Charlotte were devoted to each other. That the arrangement worked so well is a tribute to the good nature and love of all concerned.

Ian Cochrane had little time for organised religion, especially of the triumphalist proselytising sort. In later life he became interested in Buddhism, but he was fundamentally a humanist. He would put himself out not just for his friends but for anyone in genuine need, sometimes at considerable risk to himself.

On one occasion, in 1987, he was in Oxford Street underground station late at night when he saw a group of eight to ten men beating up two others:

They were punching and kicking one in particular, really laying into him. There were a lot of other people around but everyone else was just letting it happen. They probably would have killed that bloke if I hadn't stepped in.

The rewards for his public-spirited intervention were severe and lasting injuries, which badly affected his ability to write and caused him to become involved in protracted and largely fruitless proceedings with the Criminal Injuries Compensation Board.

His resilience kept him going despite ill-health and increasing blindness, and he continued to write novels even when a change in the climate of publishing made it increasingly difficult to get anyone to take on anything quirky and original.

Though out of print now, all Cochrane's novels were well received by the critics and there must be a case for bringing some at least of his work back into the public domain.

Paul Magrath

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