The Humber Mouth
Hull Literature
Festival 2002

Hull Literature Festival 2002 
 the humber mouth  14th - 24th November 2002

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Tariq Ali

An Evening with Jon Ronson

Weird Sisters Get Around

The Man with the Flower in his Mouth

Reality TV-How Real is Real?

Pete McCarthy

The Vagina Monologues

Reading the Metre

Canongate Crime

Robert Edric

General Enquiries:
City Information Service
at Hull Central Library
Tel: 01482 223344
E-mail: [email protected]

{ Critical Eye – on-line critic }
Diane Dubois

Pete McCarthy
Hull Truck, November 20th

A table and high wooden chair sit on stage in a pool of light. Hull Truck's own Dave Smelt crosses the stage to position a pint of Guinness in the middle of the table. On walks Pete McCarthy, a most congenial fellow, who picks up the pint, raises it to his audience, smiles and says, "Cheers!" So began this entertaining, often exceedingly funny evening recalling not so much a literary talk as a really good night down the pub.

McCarthy opens with a bit of good-natured banter with the audience, informing us of his recent, squeezed-in-before-the-show interview on Look North, involving a misguided taxi trip to Hull's BBC studios, which, as locals will know, is still a building site. You recognise, at this point, McCarthy's seemingly effortless skills at transforming even the most mundane of travels into an amusing narrative, and his amazing ability to not only structure real life into story, but locate and convey the humour in the situation for the pleasure of his audience.

My God, but the man can talk! McCarthy's stories spiral outwards through space and backwards through time. An anecdote that started an hour ago in Hull takes us back to the 1980s, and his work in the Humberside region as an actor with Cliffhanger Theatre Company. His theatrical ability is evident in his confidence as a performer and ability to accurately mimic accents from as diverse parts of the world as New York, Tasmania, Liverpool and his beloved Ireland.

Warrington born, McCarthy feels a need to account for his distinct Hibernophile bent. Over the course of the evening he reveals that much of his fascination comes from having Irish roots. Ireland, with its sad history of forced emigration, produced a scattering of expats determined to retain a sense of their estranged Irish heritage. As a product of this Diaspora, McCarthy felt the predominant cultural influence in his home to have been Irish. He also describes much of Irish culture as possessing a tradition wherein words are valued, certainly more so than his native Warrington, where, as McCarthy put it, you were likely to be "called a puff" for showing an unhealthy interest in writing.

McCarthy reads to us from The Road to McCarthy and McCarthy's Bar. Both titles point to the two other great loves of his life besides words-travel, and the music, the craic and the never-ending supply of booze to be found in the traditional Irish pub. McCarthy expresses his distaste for what he calls the "plastic Paddywhackery" of modern Irish theme pubs. His dislike of the fake and the mass produced extends beyond the corporate blandness of many of today's pubs to the contemporary music scene, which, he is saddened to observe, has become less about rebellion and more about conformity. He also despairs at globalization, and its increasing spread of uniformity of culture across the planet. As he says, "I like places that are like themselves."

The places McCarthy takes us to in his writing cover the four corners of the Earth. What emerges is a great, global story of disparate Irish strands. The unlikely-sounding Montserrat Saint Patrick's day calypso competition interweaves with the US Gaelic hip-hop scene. Cows vomit on the ferry to Cork, and turkeys, laden with their secret stash of poteen, explode in Canadian ovens. Some of these tales sound like apocryphal Irish yarns, yet McCarthy swears to us that every one of them is true. Each anecdote is immaculately structured and recounted, leaning towards the payoff of the perfect punchline like a well-crafted and well-told joke. Most hilarious of these concerned a jaded, expletive-spitting member of a travelling circus and his bitterly woebegone account of the animals in his care-chimpanzees, giraffes, elephants and rhino-all, apparently, "vicious fucking bastards."

McCarthy talks of his sense of responsibility to the real-life 'characters' that provide the human interest in his books. As proof of this, he presents to us, live on stage, the 'character' of Paul Buckley, "straight from page three hundred and twelve of McCarthy's Bar." Singer-songwriter Buckley plugs in his acoustic guitar and provides a fine musical backdrop for McCarthy's reading. His skilled finger-picking complements McCarthy's tales of travelling through Tasmania, with its rolling rhythms and freewheeling, forwards motion of the chord sequence. Little musical jokes come and go: a riff floats in from Waltzing Matilda, then a forlorn twang evokes Paris, Texas, and even The Twilight Zone. Buckley then takes centre stage and presents to us one of his own compositions, a mellow mix of blues, folk, Tex-Mex and country that is itself a travelogue.

McCarthy's work seems always to have been informed by an intense personal mission to write beyond the cliché, whether writing for radio, television or in book form. In his work there is not a trace of xenophobia, of the 'funny foreigners' school of so-called 'thought' that mars much travel writing. This openness to the unfamiliar, together with a genuine need to investigate and fairly represent one's fellow humans, however alien or strange they may appear, is a characteristic I have observed in nearly every writer I have ever met. McCarthy resists simplistic, empty-headed self/other dichotomies, and shows not one ounce of conceit, ignorance, arrogance or assumed sense of superiority in his writing, nor in the self he presents to us on stage. Instead, he speaks of the insecurities and paranoias that plague even the most talented and successful of writers. What emerges is a very generous, very funny, honest and good-natured individual, a fine illustration of the maxim that 'travel broadens the mind'.