How We Met: Cathal Coughlan and DJ Taylor

'He was known as this wild man of rock, but he is vastly different to the person I'd read about'
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The Independent Online

DJ Taylor, 49, is a novelist, biographer and critic. He won the Whitbread Biography Prize in 2003 for 'Orwell: The Life' and is the author of seven novels, including 'Trespass' and 'Kept'. He lives in Norwich with his wife, novelist Rachel Hore, and their three sons

I've always thought there were three great modern rock lyricists in this country: Mark E Smith of The Fall, Howard Devoto of Magazine and Cathal. A friend took me to see his band Microdisney, who I liked very much, at the Mean Fiddler in 1988 but they broke up about 10 minutes later. I thought his next group, the Fatima Mansions, were an extraordinary rock band. I've always like his lyrics, you see. Microdisney's music was sort of Beach Boys-ish, but there were these vicious, subtle words. Then Fatima Mansions was much more punky, but he was writing about all sorts of subjects – politics, religion.

Around 2000 he released a solo album which I very much liked, so I wrote him a fan letter to tell him. There was complete silence for about five years, then, when he released Foburg, he sent me a copy to apologise. And that's how we hooked up.

I was quite pleased to find that he had read one or two of my books before we'd met and I think he'd liked them. You meet someone who you admire working in a different field to yourself, and the first few times it's fan worship. And then that wears off and you have to deal with them as a human being and sometimes you don't make that transition. But what I find with Cathal is that he is a very culturally astute and he is interested in a lot of the literary and cultural things that I am.

It's great to have somebody to talk about the music I like who was actually there and part of the scene. Sometimes I mention a particular musician and he'll say, "Oh we supported them in Dublin in 1981." There's a story that Cathal was in the same room as [U2's] the Edge when he first picked up a guitar. It may not be true, but certainly he was there at a very formative period in Irish music.

I was rather awed by his reputation before we met, I suppose. He was known as this sort of wild man of rock in the 1980s and 1990s. There was a famous occasion when they toured Italy supporting U2 and he caused a riot by abusing a plastic statue of the Pope on stage. But his day to day persona is vastly different from what I had read about in the music press. To me he is very mild. He is a vegan, for one thing, and he doesn't drink. If we go to Starbucks he'll have a black tea; a complete antithesis to the rock-star persona.

Cathal Coughlan 49, is an Irish singer-songwriter who was part of rock bands Microdisney and the Fatima Mansions. His solo albums include 'Black River Falls' and 'Foburg'. He lives in Whitechapel, east London

Meeting David was a slow process. He wrote me a note when I released an album in 2001 saying that he liked it and making a characteristically erudite query about whether there was a connection between one of the song titles and a poem by Wifred Owen, which I hadn't read and still haven't.

I believe he saw me perform years ago when I was in Microdisney. It can be quite strange to meet people who saw me back then, because I have to admit that I've done things on public stages that I wouldn't necessarily wish to be classified by as a human being. In my typical fashion, it took me almost six years to respond.

We met in person soon after for a coffee in the East End. I suppose my only expectations were that he would be very civilised and urbane, and that was certainly borne out by what was before me. I'd obviously spotted a few re-appropriated song titles in his novels, but didn't realise how engaged he was with music.

I think he probably has more reverence for the post-punk period than I have. I suppose, having been there, I am more aware of the warts and all of the business. He brings to it the same kind of optimism that he does to the periods of history and literature that he is interested in. I find that cheers me up, because I am very much mired in recollections of what things were actually like. David has quite a different way of looking at the same raw material, and that makes him inspiring to be around.

His optimism extends to his family, too – he's always interested in what his sons are up to, and isn't freaked out in the same way that other parents of teenagers I know tend to be. We went to the Latitude festival last summer with his son, although we were there, feeling rather elderly, to see the reformed Magazine play.

I've lived in London since 1983, and most of my close friends have been fellow foreigners. I find it quite refreshing to meet someone who is native to here who can make me see the place in a different way. London can be terribly conducive to tunnel vision. David helps, I think, because as a writer he has moved around in the world more than most. That's the contrast between us, I think – he has put his learning and his skills to quite diverse use. I'm nowhere near as learned as he is, and the skills I do have are distributed across quite a narrow range of activities. It's nice to see him be able to pull that off.

At the Chime of a City Clock by DJ Taylor is out now (Constable, £12.99). Cathal Coughlan releases his new album 'Rancho Tetrahedron' in July, www.cathalcoughlan.com

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