Thinking about “Skippy Dies” by Paul Murray [Amazon]

Despite the fact that the title and the opening chapter give away the ending, there is still plenty yet to unfold over the course of this long novel so I’ll just talk around it.

It involves a group of young Inter-cert students at a posh boarding school in Dublin. It’s a very funny novel and brings back excruciating-but-comic memories of being 14 or 15. The eponymous Skippy isn’t the hero as such. The real fulcrum is the history teacher Howard who is probably the voice of the author. He’s failed at his career in London investment banking and has returned to Dublin to teach at his old school. He watches the upper middle class parents of his pupils parade in the empty vulgarity of materialistic modern Ireland. They’re building a Science Park at the back of his house, and nearly every day a power cut caused by the development thrusts him into total darkness. There’s a metaphor in that.

The book is fun if you can second guess locations and themes. For that reason, once I got into it (and it is definitely a page turner) I avoided looking up anything about the author.  I’m guessing “Seabrook College” = Blackrock College. The period must be the late 1990s or early noughties. I would have put money on Paul Murray having been a teacher, but apparently not.

My secondary school was run by priests (with about 40% lay teachers) and it had a mix of day students and boarders. Most of the boarders came from “down the country” and were therefore ignorant, as it was many decades before a YouTube video could be seen simultaneously in both Bogtown and Dublin 4. Feck, it was even before MTV! The day pupils mostly came from the posh end of town – dads were solicitors, doctors, accountants, businessmen, that sort of thing. They were sort of cool compared to the lads from the country. It is a mysterious phenomenon that the west coast of every country with a maritime border is instantly self-regarded as California. But as the 1970s rolled on it wasn’t enough to shake your blonde locks and take another dip in the (jesus-thats-freezing) Atlantic on an imaginary surfboard. No, the days of the Eagles and Jackson Browne slowly gave way to Glam Rock and Punk. Suddenly it was better to be an urchin from the council estates: a geezer, a cockney rebel, a boot boy or a ‘ned. That, and finding out that the threat of a good beating “next time me and me mates catch you up town” was a great enforcer tool in the social arsenal of a teenage boy. Ah, innocent times.

There’s still a bit of all this latent in Irish culture, and Paul Murray gets it. Howard’s relationship with the american Halley nods a bit in the direction of the Californiphilia above. Maybe “Ed’s Doughnuts” is after “Eddie Rocket’s”. The tension of the celtic tiger years is well captured. The rock and the hard place dilemma of a country run by either Priests or Management Consultants is pinned down. Priests may be sanctimoniuous and dodgy in matters of sexuality, but the management gurus are empty and boring. Damn both your houses.

He’s not so great on the whole “pre-history running like a ripple of the present” supernatural thing. There’s a nod in the direction of the White Goddess and the character of The Druid is interesting but underworked, like a draft for a song or a play that never got finished.

He definitely gets the whole young Nation, write your own history theme. He uses the World War 1 / forgotten soldier meme, in which participation in the “English war” was not a badge of honour once Ireland broke away from the UK. I was in my 30s before I knew my grandmother’s side were Protestants. There’s a family story which no-one has ever told me properly to this day in which I think one of her brothers was an IRA man and died in prison. My grandfather was in the RIC so his brother-in-law would have been a mortal enemy.  In 1919-20, the IRA considered the RIC police as their main adversary, rather than the British Army. We think we live in challenging times, but maybe we have it easy by comparison. Unless you’re actually in Iraq or Afghanistan, of course.

The soundtrack to this has to be “Sixteen” by the Buzzcocks. Original from 1978, this is the 1996 remaster. How I wish they would stop…

Buzzcocks – Sixteen