‘The Commitments’ and Meeting Roddy Doyle (almost…)

For someone who knows next to nothing about soul music, The Commitments still manages to hold remarkable appeal. This is even more impressive when you take into account that you can’t even hear the music being played, with whole pages often  devoted merely to copied out versions of the lyrics, or instrumental “Thu- Cudadung Cudadung Cudadung -“. But maybe this is because the key message of the book is not soul music itself, but what it stands for; working class people rising up together to make something of themselves. As Jimmy Rabbitte says, “your music should be abou’ where you’re from an’ the sort o’ people yeh come from”, and this is what drives the band and the story.

The sense of lack of opportunity – focused on much more heavily in the film adaptation than the book, which is almost entirely dialogue – is shown in the restriction the characters face in what they see of the world: “The Commitments didn’t see Billy again. He didn’t live in Barrytown” demonstrates the bubble of the estate they live in, so that Joey ‘The Lips’ Fagan’s stories of touring America with soul bands is a dream they can barely comprehend, while carrying the bitter reality of it most likely being fictional. The core of what the characters live for, what lifts them out of their daily lives, is the beautiful pure pleasure of listening to music: “It was the best they’d ever heard. They didn’t just hear it either. They were in its way. It went through them. Man’s music.”

As keen fan of The Commitments and the rest of the Barrytown trilogy (the other two being The Snapper and The Van), I was excited to be able to get tickets to see Roddy Doyle speak live at the Cambridge Literary Festival in November. He spoke about his new novel, Smile, which covers a rather darker subject matter than some of his other work, focusing on systematic physical and sexual abuse in the Catholic schooling system in Ireland.

Unfortunately, and not to go into too much graphic detail, a winter vomiting bug that had been hovering over me for the past few days finally caught up with me around twenty-five minutes into the talk, and I had to leave. However, I was not to be deterred, and my mum, who had accompanied me to the talk, stuck it out and got my book signed by the man himself.

[Evidence that my book did come into contact with Roddy, even if I didn’t.]

What I did take away from the talk was the importance of camaraderie in the face of difficult circumstances; he has met up with his school friends every week since they left school decades ago. When questioned on this, Doyle reflected that it was perhaps the fact that he and his friends had all experienced the same scholastic environment, reigned over by Christian brothers, and while he himself was never the direct subject of sexual abuse, this atmosphere had perhaps made them bond in a way that friends in other schools may not have. As The Commitments shows, comradeship can help you through the worst of times, and although the book ends on a slightly anti-climactic note, this was the message I was left with.

If you’re looking for something similar, the recent Irish film Sing Street bears many similarities to The Commitments; it shows the thrill of forming a band in the face of a difficult home life, and interestingly touches on the terror of the Christian brothers in a moving but not too overt way.

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