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No bedtime read

A new, dark yet humorous short story collection by Irish novelist Maurice Leitch is a worthy cause for celebration. Jane Hardy reports

Maurice Leitch enters Clement’s Cafe in standard issue metropolitan arty garb, black jacket, jumper, trousers and black shoes with orange laces. “Is that a political statement? Maybe I should be wearing a tweed jacket”, he says with a smile. He is slightly late and, apparently, Maurice’s mobile wouldn’t function as he made his way into town from BT9. “It could be that Malone’s too genteel for it to work ...” The Antrim man who has now spent half his life in Kilburn, London’s Irish borough, still knows his Ulster terms of reference.

According to Robert McLiam Wilson, Leitch is “perhaps the finest Irish novelist of his generation”. Maurice admits that this glowing reference, picked out by Lagan Press on the front of his new collection of short stories, Dining At The Dunbar (£10.99), is a bit of a burden. Maurice notes: “It’s hung round my neck like an albatross, although of course I was pleased that he wrote it.” He goes on to say that when one of his books was launched in London, a man took serious issue with the compliment. Maurice tells the tale deadpan. “This man walked in from the street, picked up the book, looked at the quote and said, ‘Is John McGahern dead?’ Then left the bookshop.” As Maurice tells it, he was eager to put the anonymous critic right, in a fairly physical manner. “Yes, I wanted to get the b******, and suffered from l’esprit d’escalier, the French term for what you wish you’d said but didn’t.”

Now 71, but looking a decade or so younger thanks to regular trips to the gym, Maurice Leitch was born in Muckamore and educated at area schools and in Belfast. He has been married twice, and used to own a house in Killyleagh. Maurice is impressed by the buzz in his old stamping ground, and enthuses about the Belfast Eye — “It’s terrific next to that Christmas cake of a building, much better than the London Eye”.

Although Maurice spent a short time as a primary school teacher, his writing talents soon gained him a job at BBC Radio Ulster in the features department. And from there it was but a short step to London in 1970. By 1977 Maurice had a dream job, editing Book at Bedtime on Radio 4.

Maurice admits to having enjoyed Book at Bedtime. “I chose all the books myself and often produced it. My very first book was Tender is the Night by Scott Fitzgerald.” In the 12 years Maurice was in charge of the nation’s bedside reading, he was a kind of arbiter of taste.

Yet when he left the programme in 1989, Maurice felt it was definitely time to go. He says: “The first week after I left, there was a sea change, they did a James Bond novel read by Joanna Lumley.” At pains to say he is not making any charge of dumbing down, Maurice feels that public taste had changed. He points to the current enthusiasm for chick lit, celebrity books and historical fiction, and says: “Publishing is money, sales and figures today. The accountants have taken over the world — and look what a mess they’ve made of it.” He adds: “They don’t really want literary fiction now.”

His own career contradicts that rather bleak assertion. Although Maurice Leitch’s writing belongs, as he admits, on the literary fiction shelf, he doesn’t shy away from controversial themes. In The Valet’s Room, one of the darkest stories in the new collection, Maurice has tackled a taboo subject by getting inside the minds of a couple of serial rapists. What is really clever is the way in which the characterisation and incidental details make Gerry Noonan and Declan Downey believable and, while hardly sympathetic figures, human.

This award-winning novelist — he pocketed the Whitbread for Silver’s City and the Guardian fiction prize for Poor Lazarus — relished the tricky undertaking. Firmly in the great Irish writing tradition, Maurice describes his stories as “short novels, really”. He cites a busload of celebrated Americans — “Raymond Carver, John Cheever, and William Faulkner” — as influences. Plus, as Maurice says: “You always go back to Joyce and The Dubliners — it’s about storytelling.”

In Swan-Song for the Nightingale, about a former Irish country star now consoled by the amber liquid, and her teenage son and minder, Maurice creates a kind of local updated version of one of Tennessee Williams’ tragic heroines. Interestingly, this story started life as a radio play. Dolores Quinn would spring off the page if she were more energetic; as it is, in son Kevin’s words, she sits with her “Bandaged brow. Chinese silk robe. Bare mottled stick legs resting on the Moroccan pouffe ...”

The man who knew the golden age of the BBC in Belfast and London, who met Dylan Thomas (“yes, he was quite often horizontal”) and Louis MacNeice and worked with Sam Hanna Bell (“my mentor and friend”) remembers early on in his career that he and his Radio Ulster colleagues would make their way to the Elbow Room for refreshment. “And if anybody rang us at the BBC, the operator would say, ‘Oh, they’re in studio E.’”

Maurice still writes in longhand before transferring his words to the computer. As he says, if you start out writing on the computer, “you don’t know when to stop”. Maurice regards writing fiction as a question of throwing everything out and “letting the subconscious get on with it”. He has had a lucky career to date. Maurice’s debut novel was accepted straight off by MacGibbon & Kee, Flann O’Brien’s publisher. He says: “You hear about writers who have had a lot of rejections before making it, and I wonder if I should have gone through that ...”

This self-described pensionista — “Sounds much better than pensioner, doesn’t it?” — was spending a few days in town and the previous evening had gone in to the Crown for a pint. “I knew the place when there were no tourists goggling at the ceiling, and you certainly didn’t have to book a booth.”

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