Author Maurice Leitch on 'reviving' the work of Cullybackey novelist Ian Cochrane
Co Antrim-born author Maurice Leitch speaks to David Roy in advance of a special event at Seamus Heaney HomePlace to celebrate the soon to be republished work of his late friend, Cullybackey novelist Ian Cochrane
THE irony of discussing the writing of his late friend Ian Cochrane in the heart of 'Seamus Heaney country' is not lost on Maurice Leitch.
"In our younger days, Ian and I would probably have worked for people like the Heaneys," chuckles Leitch (84), the Muckamore-born author who will take part in Cullybackey Gothic: An Ian Cochrane Revival at Seamus Heaney HomePlace in Bellaghy next week.
The event marks the republication of Cochrane's third book, F for Ferg (1980).
"We both came from almost identical backgrounds," Leitch continues. "He was brought up in Cullybackey and our fathers both worked in the linen mill. We were sort of like country people even though we lived in a mill village.
"I always got the impression that the Heaneys were reasonably well-off farmers – so at one time Ian and I would have been working for the likes of them, gathering potatoes or pulling flax."
Indeed, the darkly comic F for Ferg, which returns to print on February 22 courtesy of Turnpike Books, offers a vivid and occasionally grotesque depiction of claustrophobic, sexually frustrated mill village life in a pre-Troubles rural Ulster, where disgruntled workers and the defiantly unemployed regard the town's well-to-do factory owner and his gormless son – the titular Fergus – with simmering contempt.
It and Cochrane's other books, including his acclaimed debut A Streak of Madness (1973) and the Guardian Fiction Prize-nominated follow-up Gone in The Head (1975) have have slipped out of print since the 62-year-old author suffered a fatal heart attack in 2004.
Thus, London-based Leitch, author of 1981 'Troubles noir' classic Silver's City (re-issued last year by Turnpike), is looking forward to celebrating his late friend's work.
"I'm so glad James [Doyle] at Turnpike is doing this," he says of F for Ferg's imminent revival. "I really think a younger generation might be rather interested and excited about reading Ian's books."
Born in 1941, Cochrane moved to London when he was 18 after recovering from a severe illness which destroyed his eyesight and forced him to learn to read and write again in Braille.
Though he lived and worked in London for the rest of his life, the Cullybackey man's formative experiences in the north always informed his England-based writing career.
"He and I never really felt part of any kind of 'literary movement' at home – although we did both write about what had gone on there during our childhoods," comments Leitch, whose new novel is due for publication through Turnpike later this year.
He continues: "When we were thinking of writing, we weren't really attracted to the English or southern Irish literary scenes. So we really had to forge our own identity and the place or region that we felt most at home with was the [American] deep south.
"Our favourite book was The Outsider by Camus, but Ian's biggest influence was definitely William Faulkner. We both liked Flannery O'Connor, Faulkner, Truman Capote, people of that nature. They wrote about Scots Irish, poor white trash: that rural background which hasn't really changed and could be transplanted to Northern Ireland or vice versa, no problem whatsoever.
"Ian had a very natural style. While none of his books could really be described as 'literary', he wrote straight from the heart – as people spoke and he himself spoke – and there was a sort of a freshness about that at that particular time. People appreciated it.
"His voice was so different, so new – everything before then was pretty traditional. I think the last big book to come out of Northern Ireland back then was Sam Hanna Bell's The December Bride."
As you can probably tell, the two Ulster-born authors hit it off immediately, as Leitch – a teacher-turned-writer who also worked as a BBC radio producer for a number of years – explains.
"Ian was my best friend," he tells me. "In the late 1960s I was producing a BBC radio documentary on people who were about to 'make it big', called First Flight. Ian was one of the people I picked out, along with (Ardboe-born writer and broadcaster) Polly Devlin and a couple of others.
"I came over to London to see Ian and instead of staying for a couple of days, I think I stayed well over a week. We clicked right away because we spoke the same language, we knew the same people and we wrote about the same people – so we were really on the same page.
"In 1970, I moved to London to work for the BBC and we became fast friends. Ian was wonderful, such fun. We were buddies – we met probably once or twice a week at our local pub, the Churchill Arms at Kensington Church Street, right until he died.
"It was and still is a bit of an Irish pub, and to this day there's a plaque on the wall there for him because Ian was such a cherished member of the fraternity."
:: F for Ferg is being republished by Turnpike Books on February 22. Maurice Leitch will take part in Cullybackey Gothic: An Ian Cochrane revival at Heaney HomePlace on February 22 at 7.30pm. Tickets £5 from Seamusheaneyhomeplace.com