I meet Carlo Gébler at the main gate of Trinity College, in the heart of Dublin, where, as an assistant professor, he is teaching a course on writing for a living. In ebullient form, he tells me of an amusing conversation he overheard between a young couple the last time he lingered here. But when we repair to a bustling Buttery to chat, he tells me that he was far from happy last June.
A resident of Enniskillen in Northern Ireland, he was profoundly depressed when Britain exited the EU. It got him thinking about his London childhood, a time before the continentals civilised the country.
“London was horrible,” he says. “Really, really awful. It was dark and backwards. It was an oppressive, not quite post-colonial world, but it created these radicals who wanted to pull the system down. I was wondering whether, when Britain leaves the EU it will end up with what the Brexiteers fear most; which is something extremely radical and insurgent and left wing.”
Around that time, there was another issue angering the writer.
“I’ve been working in the prisons for many years, then the money ran out. There was some new work coming up, and I had to go and be interviewed. I thought, I have done this for 27 years, there is nothing I can tell the people that I haven’t told them. They know me. I was depressed on all fronts.”
Then he met his good friend, and fellow writer Glenn Patterson. They chatted, and Carlo mentioned a vague idea he had for a tale based on the London of his childhood. But, dismissing it, he added that life wasn’t great, and he might just as well go home and kill himself.
“And Glenn said, well actually, before you kill yourself, this is what you do.”
And, going on the plot ideas that Carlo had shared with him, he set out the bones of a synopsis, suggesting that the novel be set over a year in monthly sections.
“I did my interview, went home, and started writing. Once I knew that the structure could be calendrical with an event or two each month, off I went. Your choice is limited by your determined structure but that,” he says, “is liberating. A sonnet is easier to write than a piece of verse because it has rules. The novel is the same.”
Carlo’s traumatic early life, as the elder son of writers Edna O’Brien and Ernest Gébler has been widely documented. Having penned the memoir, Father and I in 2000, Carlo added a biography of Ernest Gébler, The Projectionist, in 2015.
The Innocent of Falkland Road feeds into his background, giving his novel added depth and authenticity. A stunning narrative, it follows a year in the life of Ralph – an only child of separated parents. It opens in August,1964, when Ralph’s mother departs for a year’s work in America, leaving the 12-year-old in the hands of the Irish housekeeper, Doreen and her war damaged husband, Tom.
Negotiating the London streets, and the bus trips to school prove difficult enough, when there are weirdos and teenage gangs to contend with, but it’s the behaviour of the adults close to him that prove most puzzling to the boy. I simply adored this gentle, beautifully told coming of age tale, with its period detail. How much of it was drawn from the author’s life?
“The filth and confusion of London, as it was in those days; and the fact it was always raining,” he says. “It was never not raining, you would endlessly be going somewhere and getting completely saturated. You would arrive at school, and everybody would take their socks and tie and jacket off and drape them over these horrible painted rusty radiators, and the room would fill with the smell of drying clothes.
“The sky, the river, the industrial nature of London – and the rudeness of people – and their horribleness to children. And there were a lot of weird people doing strange things. By the time you reached aged 12 all the facts of life were abundantly clear to you.”
There were lots of Doreens in Carlo’s life.
“Lots of them; both in London and in Ireland where we spent our summers. Everyone had servants or people who helped.” He, like his protagonist, watched Winston Churchill’s funeral. “It was gigantic,” he says. “I remember it really clearly. Not just the footage, but the people wearing black armbands in the street.”
Ralph’s home life is lonely. But when he spends time with his friend, Benedict, in the maelstrom of his parent’s vibrant circle of friends, there is a lot of unorthodox behaviour to confuse him.
“As a child, you’ve only got two sources of information. One is through adults, but that is often confusing. The other source is books. I wanted to write about becoming a reader. Of opening and book and going, ‘Ah! I didn’t know that.’ Ralph is trying to work out how to be a good enough person.”
The boy encounters kindness and understanding – and sometimes this comes from an unexpected source.
“That is another thing you discover about grown-ups,” says Carlo. “The shits often turn out not to be. You start off thinking, I don’t think this person is very nice, and subsequently they do something and you realise actually, you can trust them.”
Carlo knew an awful of adults – thanks to his socialite mother.
“And not just writers. She knew an enormous number of people in TV and script. People were brought over to create the drama on independent TV. She knew a lot of journalists as well, and musicians.”
They would all gather in the family house – along with dissident Europeans, and people from Ireland. He remembers seeing poet Roger McGough, but most of the visitors wouldn’t acknowledge an 11 or 12-year-old boy. There were exceptions.
“It depended on their humanity. Lionel Bart was incredible. He knew how to relate to me, and Kenneth Tynan would always focus in on me.”
And if people didn’t talk directly to him, young Carlo remembers listening to his mother converse with her friends.
“I remember my mother, and neighbours Nell Dunne and Elaine Dundy talking about the suicide of Sylvia Plath. I was aware of that, and of other suicides.”
He realised, through watching and listening, that adults could hide their inner life.
“There was a master at school who seemed very ebullient. But on a bleak winter’s evening I met him walking around the playing fields, and I had a vague sense of melancholy and despair. He came out of the fog towards me, his head down, shuffling, the absolute opposite of how he normally was. I suddenly saw the truth of his secret side.”
Carlo decided to be a writer as a teenager, after writing a television play for a young person’s competition. He loved the sense of pretending to be someone else. He came second, and thought to himself, it is possible to get across the tight rope and not fall off.
Hugely prolific, Carlo has written contemporary and historical novels; plays and screenplays; libretti; children’s books and short stories, as well as memoirs. Next up is a retelling of Easop’s Fables for the age of Trump and Brexit, in conjunction with the artist, Gavin Watson.
For all that, he claims that writing is no way to make a good living. Not one of his five children plan to follow in his footsteps.
“There was so little money when they were growing up, that they’ve gone screaming to London,” he says. “None of them are into the arts, but they all read.”
The Innocent of Falkland Road by Carlo Gébler. New Island: €13.95 Kindle: €7.98.
Published in Books Ireland Magazine, January 2018.
© Sue Leonard. 2018