When the pains started in his chest, Paul Howard felt sure it was his heart. He couldn’t breathe properly. He turned to his wife, Mary, and said: “I think this is serious.”
few hours later, just days before we meet, he was lying on a hospital trolley with a triage nurse hovering over him. “They asked me what kind of lifestyle I was leading. I said ‘dreadful’. And I thought, this is it now. That’s when I got the flash that I need to slow down. To listen to my body. But I know I won’t. I’ll be back to work tomorrow.”
The issue turned out to be something to do with gallstones rather than his heart, and while he can’t kick the work habit, the health situation has meant he’s currently off all fatty foods, including his drug of choice: cheese.
“I have this weird relationship with cheese, I can’t pass the counter in Dunnes without loading up piles and piles of the stuff that will take weeks to eat,” he tells me.
The thing about getting nightmares from eating cheese before bed is not a myth, at least not for him. “I have them about stupid stuff. Being chased, having no teeth, being naked, the classic anxiety dreams. A lot of people get Leaving Cert nightmares, I get production-day nightmares from back when I was in the Sunday Tribune, that there is a two-page spread to fill and I’ve got nothing for it. I think it’s your subconscious’s way of trying to help you make sense of things.”
That’s the message for kids reading Aldrin Adams and the Cheese Nightmares, Howard’s new children’s book about a boy who can enter other people’s dreams after eating cheese at night. It’s a funny, occasionally dark story that recalls the delightfully disgusting whimsy of Roald Dahl and David Walliams, with gorgeous illustrations by Lee Cosgrove. “I worked on it last summer during that awful uncertain time,” Howard explains. “A child’s idea of a superpower is being able to turn invisible or fly, whereas this power might seem pointless. What I hope kids take from it is that nightmares are something to be frightened of in the moment — but they’re just helping you find a context for things in your life.”
The book is dedicated to his wife Mary, who is a solicitor, and the person he says he depends on “for everything — from big things to small things… she gives me pointers on pop culture things. She’s very rational, she doesn’t go to pieces.” He leaned on her last year when his brother Mark died, just before the first lockdown.
“We haven’t been able to deal with it as a family, because we haven’t been able to see each other. I’ve seen my dad twice through the railings of his apartment building in the last 16 months.” There were only 14 months between Paul and Mark, and he points out that he has already outlived his brother.
“He had end-stage COPD (chronic obstructive pulmonary disease), so Covid would have been hell for him anyway. I was in Dunnes in Cornelscourt parking the car and got a call to say he’d collapsed. They kept him alive on a respirator for a few days, but he had a bleed on the brain. He was a smoker and he shouldn’t have smoked. We got to have a funeral and had it been a few weeks later, that wouldn’t have been possible. Mark was complicated. From the time he was about 16, he went in and out of our lives. He had problems, mental health problems, addiction problems and he found life hard. I hadn’t seen him for four years before he died.”
We meet in Grand Canal Dock and it feels like a fitting setting for Howard, even if it, too, gives him nightmares. This, after all, is the fault line of Irish class, where old, salt-of-the-earth Dublin meets new, yuppy Dublin. Tech workers order iced coffees while children from the flats swim in the soupy dock water. Ross O’Carroll-Kelly might think of it as a bit of a war zone, and it sends a chill down Howard’s spine, too, albeit for different reasons. “This is where Anglo happened”, he says grimly nodding over at the Bord Gais Theatre.
The musical, he means, rather than the banking collapse itself. Solicitors came to the show and sat with legal pads making notes in the front row, and for the public, it was a little too soon to laugh at the banking collapse. “There were empty theatres every night. It’s remembered as a success because we got the show on, and a lot of the stuff in the script bore a frightening similarity to the Anglo tapes that came later. So people wrongly remember it as a success — but it was a disaster.”
One of the very few in his working life, since he quit journalism, it must be said. He has just finished another Ross book, as well as his second book with Gordon D’Arcy. And there are TV and film projects in the works. “They’re commissions, so there’s a good chance they’ll be made. I have a diary, I know what I’ll be doing in January this year. I work from five in the morning until five in the evening. This year, I worked every weekend.”
That work ethic comes from his upbringing. Howard’s father worked long hours in a factory.
“I was conscious growing up that that’s what work looked like. My life could be really cushy if I wanted. I could do Ross and live quite comfortably, but I can’t do that. I have this big guilt complex about easy money and I think it’s to do with growing up working class and seeing how hard he worked for money and what tiredness looked like.”
Howard spent the early part of his childhood in England, where his parents had emigrated. His father worked in a motor factory in Luton. Howard and his siblings holidayed in Ireland every summer. In 1979, when Margaret Thatcher came to power, his father decided that they would leave England. “We came home from school one day and that was it. My mother started packing immediately. Dad had a hundred quid in his pocket and four kids under the age of 10. It was completely unusual. The emigration trail was only going one way, and it wasn’t toward Ireland.”
The Ireland they came back to was gripped by Pope fever — John Paul II was about to visit — and dominated by the Troubles. Like the hero of his new book, Aldrin Adams, Howard felt like an outsider. “I remember a kid called me ‘Sasanach’ in class. We were surrounded, they were singing ‘What shall we do with the English bastards,’ so it was terrible. The hunger strikes were on and every time a hunger striker died, it was there in school, everyone was aware of it. I remember one of them dying and my mother told us as we were getting ready for school and my brother said, ‘How many of these f***ers are there?’”
He and his brothers moved around to a few different schools, as the family relocated from his grandmother’s home to an estate in Ballybrack. The neighbours came from different backgrounds. “There were Traveller families on the estate. They were trying to settle Travellers. It was well meaning but not what Travellers wanted. There were Vietnamese refugees, too. There were IRA men on the run. It was an amazing mix of people and that was when I stopped feeling like an outsider, because everybody was.”
In his teens, he read Das Kapital, listened to The Housemartins and developed a bit of a chip on his shoulder about class. As it would later say on the jacket of the Ross books, Howard didn’t go to Blackrock College. He never played rugby, never lived in Foxrock, nor did he do any of the things that Ross does in the book. But he did have a keen eye for the foibles of the Irish upper crust. He started work straight after his Leaving Certificate and began writing for Southside, a local Dublin paper, in 1989. As a young reporter, he wrote about local issues.
“I remember covering the Killiney beach awareness group. It was the first time I heard ‘awareness’ mentioned as an end in itself. They were concerned about seaweed and flies on the beach. I went to these catered meetings in this big house on the Vico Road. I remember seeing a kiwi for the first time. Everyone seemed to be called Fionnuala and that was where Ross’s mother got her name. I remember sniggering to myself and going home and telling my brother, ‘This is all they have to worry with all day, they flew in a guy from Italy.’”
He was a sportswriter for most of the 1990s — eventually becoming chief sportswriter at the Sunday Tribune, but his passion was dulled by the increasingly stage-managed athletes. “You’re spending months of the year trying to get an interview with a sportsperson and then you eventually sit down with them and realise that they don’t have anything to say because their world view is so narrow and they’ve seen so little. Football culture is a permanent, lifelong adolescence.
“Boxers were an exception as well as track and field athletes, although they could be quite intense.”
He ghostwrote the boxer Steve Collins’s autobiography but the two fell out. “He fell out with me more than I fell out with him. Most ghostwriters fall out with their subjects. [Promoter] Barry Hearn took a breach-of-contract case against him, and the book was an exhibit in the case. He talked about all Barry Hearn had done for him and so he had to put distance between him and the book. I was already sore because he’d gone on TV and said that I’d only helped him with the spelling. The embarrassment of it!
“Having claimed he wrote the book he then said he had nothing to do with it… We never spoke again. At a press conference, he called me the Milky Bar Kid. It was a perfect nickname, but he embarrassed me twice.”
He also ghostwrote Sonia O’Sullivan’s Tribune column and remembers her as an eccentric exception to the bland talents he was covering. “On any given day, she could win any race or she could be lapped,” he recalls. “She had a meltdown in Paris in 2003 because she left her running shoes on the train and the doors closed. She was going to all the lost and found offices in Paris, not really focused on the race. They sent her replacement shoes but they were red, and afterwards, she said, ‘Everyone knows you can’t run in red.’”
In 1998, Ross O’Carroll-Kelly, the dube-wearing Dublin schoolboy, was born from Howard’s observations of schools rugby and the entitlement of the
double-barrelled cubs of the Celtic Tiger. What was strange about the character, he observes, is that the very group he was satirising — rugby schoolboys — became Ross’s most ardent fans. The books have sold over 1.5 million copies and won him a slew of awards, and after taking a sabbatical to write them full time in 2005, he never went back to journalism. He thought that the crash might mean the end of the series, but there was rich comedy to be mined in the family’s straitened circumstances.
“I thought, this could be an interesting moment for Ross, when he gets his comeuppance. Sorcha’s [Ross’s wife] boutique in the Powerscourt Townhouse closes down and she has to open a Euro store. Ross has to get a job. I enjoyed writing that for those two years. I think in reality in Dublin, though, things carried on pretty much as normal. There are so many people in this city walking around with million euro judgements against them. And it hasn’t affected their lives. There’s no sense that it ruined them.”
And he says that the current crop of Irish rugby schoolboys have regained their Celtic Tiger swagger. “Adrian Lynch made a documentary on Ross [in 2019] and while they were filming at a [schools rugby] match, there was this amazing kid who was from Michael’s and he walked into the Blackrock section, with a Liam Gallagher walk, and he looked the Blackrock guys up and down. And they paused for a second while they took in that this was someone in enemy territory and then it began. ‘FOCK OFF BOCK TO YOUR OWN SOCTION!’ And he was smoking away, loving the abuse. And at the end, he looked at the camera and sighed, ‘Pack of focking virgins.’
“And I realised when I saw that it hadn’t changed a bit,” Howard says laughing. “They’ve still got it. They still think that Michael’s v Blackrock is a clash of civilisations.”
‘Aldrin Adams and the Cheese Nightmares’ by Paul Howard is published by Penguin Random House
Business News Governmental News Finance News