8 months ago

Writer’s Block with Homan Potterton


Homan Potterton is the author of two critically-acclaimed memoirs: Rathcormick: A Childhood Recalled (2002) and Who Do I Think I Am? (2017). Brought up in county Meath, he is a graduate of Trinity College Dublin and of Edinburgh University. He was an Assistant Keeper at the National Gallery in London from 1974-1980, and subsequently became the National Gallery of Ireland’s youngest ever director at the age of 33. To the shock of many, he resigned from his position after just eight years. He was the editor of Irish Arts Review (1993-2002) and has written several catalogues and books on fine art.

Potterton has met many colourful characters over the course of his illustrious career, including Soviet spy Anthony Blunt, Derek Hill, James White, Desmond Guinness and the unforgettable Charles Haughey. He helped secure the Beit Collection for the Irish nation and assisted the Gardaí in recovering those stolen from Russborough House by Martin Cahill in 1986. Potterton’s debut novel, Knockfane, is the beautiful culmination of a life-long ambition. A Big House drama set in the mid-20th century, we meet Julia and Lydia Esdaile, who live at home with their widowed father Willis at Knockfane, a country manor farm. The family are Protestants who have resided here for centuries. When Willis inexplicably banishes Edward, his only son and heir, he concocts a scheme to preserve Knockfane for future generations – only for him to pass away. The onus is now on his daughters to protect their family legacy. Teeming with rich, decorous language that reflects Potterton’s excellent artistic eye, here is a narrative that explores complex themes of blood-ties, money and inheritance against the Ireland of its time, and the customs that governed both sides of the religious spectrum in a rapidly changing society after Irish Independence.

Homan Potterton lives in south-west France. He is currently working on his next book. Knockfane (€16.95) is published by Merrion Press and available from all good bookshops.

On home

I live in a rural area of south-west France (near Toulouse) for most of the year (March to November). The winters can be too grim, as they are anywhere in the country, so I say farewell to my wood burner at the end of November and retreat to London for three months, where I catch up on some culture, museum exhibitions, the theatre, but no expensive dining and no writing, either. Although I might take the opportunity of doing a little research (in the library of the V&A or the British Library). At the moment it is my paternal great-great-grandfather, Sigismund Rentzsch, who was a well-known watch and clockmaker in 18th-century London.

As to my habitat in France, it is a very isolated place, an old farmhouse of the typical peasant type, where working animals like oxen lived one end of the house and the family the other end. No animals now, though as I’ve made it comfortable with a vaguely “Irish country” look. But it’s a far cry from County Meath, where I grew up: no grazing animals for a start. It’s entirely cultivated crops, wheat, barley, oats and a cereal called Sorghum, which was new to me, and sunflowers which, contrary to popular belief, do not turn to face the sun at every hour of the day. Or perhaps it’s just that they don’t turn to me, but the principal crop as such, are the vines.

On creating

My house is just plonked down on slopes covered with vineyards (which thankfully, don’t belong to me). The vines surrounding me would at one time have belonged to the family who owned my house and when I first bought the place there was still the old wine press in what is now the sitting room and a cast concrete wine vat took up most of what is now the kitchen. I pulled both out and installed a new second staircase which leads up to a small upstairs room that is my office and my writing room. It has a big window facing east out over the vines and only one other little house in view. For a brief period, a few years ago when I kept perky little black French hens, they used to come and sit outside this window and look in at me when I was working. I finished my novel, Knockfane, there and I assume they must have finished theirs too as they didn’t object when I gave them away to a friend. When I am writing there, I find I don’t make excuses to myself and break off to do the laundry or go out and deadhead the roses or cut back the lavender. And I never pop out to the local village for a coffee. I stick with my routine of five hours a day. That, in my view, is the only way to be a writer. Friends who come to stay ask me, “What do you do all day? You can’t just sit there writing.” It’s the simple life with a basis in reality and better any day than a daily grind and commute of going to an office.

On roots

I lived in Rathcormick as a child (as described in my memoir of that name), which is near Athboy, Co Meath. My nephew lives there now with his wife and son. I was the youngest of eight, so the house must be quieter now than when I was a child. Although I know I would be welcome, I rarely go there: it can be a mistake to revisit ancient memories. I remember the place with great affection and pride, and that’s the best way to keep it, as a memory. I am a different person now to the little boy who grew up there and I can’t see that going back would serve any purpose.

On early reading

My mother always read to my brother Alan and me, and I would snuggle up beside her as she did so. (Rathcormick was a cold house.) It was a diet of Enid Blyton and only Enid Blyton. None of the children’s classics (Dickens, Robert Louis Stevenson, Jules Verne, Mark Twain, etc) and I have always regretted that I missed out on those. But my mother was a very practical woman and, based on her experience of having already brought up six older children, she knew that Enid Blyton was likely to keep us quiet for much longer than the unlikely (for us) tale of Robinson Crusoe.

On bookshops

My favourite independent bookshop has to be Antonia’s in Trim, Co Meath. Antonia tries to stock all my books and, as it didn’t exist when I last lived there, it draws me back to Trim.

On his “To Be Read” pile

To even think about my “To Be Read” pile is to immerse myself in shame, as some of the books have been there for a very long time, and my only comfort is knowing that I have not been altogether idle; I have been reading other books that have leapt off the “To Be Read” table. I’ve given Antony Trollope a good innings over the past eighteen months and enjoyed for the first time his political novels. Reading is the essential accompaniment to writing, as I found out.

A “book to be read” that I dip into very often rather than actually sit down and read from cover to cover is Sold: The Inside Story of How Ireland Got Bitten by the Art Bug by John Burns (Red Rock Press, 2008). It’s a mine of fascinating and well-researched information, about the madness which overcame a few wealthy individuals in Ireland in the early years of this century.

On Knockfane

My memoir Rathcormick was more successful than I could have dreamed in that it sold very well and was well received by the press. I knew that I had more stories within me, although not about my own family. I realised that there was a market for tales about Protestant families in 1950s and 60s Ireland, so decided to turn my hand to fiction. None of the characters in Knockfane are based on any single individual but they are particular types that one finds among Protestant families, and when I started to write, the plot just developed and evolved around them. It became, in the writing, a very complex plot and I had to be very careful to ensure that it made sense. Amazingly, I did not draft out a plan before starting to write; the different elements and incidents all just seemed to come together. I remember the sensation, when I was actually writing, that my brain was weary as I dragged the characters and story out from nowhere. I never had that sensation when writing memoir. Towards the end of the writing, as I reached the final chapters, I sensed that I was really enjoying the whole experience and that I had surprised myself by reaching completion. It was important for me to finish and get the book published, as I wanted to succeed as I had done in my professional life. Writing art books, catalogues and articles was, of course, always part of that life, so I was used to getting words down on paper with some degree of efficiency. But I was also familiar with an old joke: if someone tells you they are writing a novel the stock answer is: “Neither am I.” A love of visual art and working in a museum was my vocation. Making words appear on a page is an accident of my retirement but I have to admit that publishing a first novel at the age of 73 has given me a thrill – indecent though it is to admit it.

On what’s next

I have different thoughts. For a long time, I’ve had an idea for a novel about a dishonest museum curator who helps himself to many of the most valuable objects in the museum; but I had forgotten that that actually happened years ago, in the Chester Beatty Library in Dublin, so it’s a subject that might best be avoided…


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