Arminta Wallace interviews Ed O'Loughlin

After spending years reporting from Africa and the Middle East, Ed O’Loughlin has returned to Ireland and settled down with his young family. But the characters inspired by his time as a foreign correspondent live on in the pages of his debut novel, writes ARMINTA WALLACE .

‘THE CHARACTERS ARE not real people,” says Ed O’Loughlin of his debut novel, Not Untrue And Not Unkind . “And the narrator isn’t me.” But hang on a minute. A group of foreign correspondents in Africa. A lot of boozing and bitching and jostling for pole position back at the office. A total disregard for the humanity of the people they’re writing about. Enough big egos to inflate a universe. Not real? Is he kidding? I’m sure I spotted Kate Adie. And what about John Simpson?

“Kate Adie’s not in it,” says O’Loughlin firmly. “No comment on John Simpson.” He shakes his head and smiles his ghost of a smile. “He’s not in it either.” Is he absolutely 100 per cent certain? “Yep.” The book is not, he insists, a memoir disguised as a novel. Nor did he want to blow the whistle on the morals – or lack of them – of foreign correspondents.

“Obviously I used a lot of incidents that happened while I was working in Africa,” he says. “But the book isn’t about media coverage of Africa, and it’s not about debt relief, and it’s not about the need to reform African governments. It’s a very self-centred book. The narrator is quite self-centred. He’s writing about his friends and himself. The stories they’re covering are in the background – they’re not the main focus.

“I’m not trying to condemn the way reporters work. I’m not particularly down on the way reporters work. I think, by and large, people try to do a good job – and generally do. I don’t publish the stories which the characters in the book have filed back to their newspapers and television stations. Who’s to say they don’t go off and write really accurate, amazing stories?”

He adds that he even deleted a couple of his most objectionable characters. “When lawyers write books about lawyers, and doctors write books about doctors, they’re always heroic lawyers and brave doctors – but journalists always write books about sneaky, corrupt journalists. I didn’t want to write a book about sneaky, corrupt journalists; but I didn’t want to glorify the trade either. I’d hate to think I did either thing.”

Despite his years reporting for this newspaper and others in Africa and the Middle East, O’Loughlin bears little resemblance to the kind of hardened hack he writes about. He speaks so softly that he occasionally gets swamped by the noise in the lobby of the Fitzwilliam hotel on Dublin’s St Stephen’s Green – and we’re not talking tracer bullets or incoming missiles here. His humour comes across as mild rather than malicious, so gentle that it makes a Richard Curtis script look viciously subversive. And he’s a daddy, isn’t he? He rolls his eyes.

“I’m one of those really boring people who can’t shut up about it,” he admits. “Late converts. A lot of my friends did it 15 years ago; now it’s my turn.” He’s married to journalist Nuala Haughey and they have two children.

“We moved back to Ireland from Jerusalem in May last year, when we were having our second child. She’s eight months old now, and the elder is two years and two months. It’s great. They drive you nuts some of the time, but it really is quite nice to settle down. I didn’t think it would suit me as well as it has. I still get antsy every now and again – and so does Nuala. As you would. But the girls are tremendous fun.”

His debut novel is dedicated to his wife who, he says, “misses the sunshine more than I do.”

But if the book isn’t about journalists in Africa, what is it about? “It’s about a community,” he says. “A small group of people who work together and travel together and occasionally get off with each other. And they happen to be journalists who are travelling around Africa. It’s a love story set in a community.”

Not Untrue And Not Unkind contains much fine writing, as is evident from the appearance on the cover of complimentary quotes from literary luminaries such as Joseph O’Neill, Anne Enright and Christopher Hope. What sets the book apart, though, is the edgy ambiguity of its narrative tone, a quality encapsulated in the five words of the title – which is, it turns out, a line from Philip Larkin’s poem, Talking in Bed.

“I started with the title,” says O’Loughlin. “For years, I had this thing where I thought, ‘That would be a good title for a book’. I have a few titles in mind for books. All of which,” there’s the ghost of a smile again, “I intend to write, of course.”

The poem begins with the observation that talking in bed ought to be easiest; it is, or should be, the place of intimacy and honesty. As life goes on, however, silence creeps in.

“It becomes still more difficult to find

Words at once true and kind,

Or not untrue and not unkind.”

“The title was very important,” O’Loughlin says. “The mood; the punchline; the feeling that the poem establishes. That’s a feeling I wanted to steal for the book.”

He knew even before he started to write it that the narrative voice would be of crucial importance to the book. “I had an idea of the character as being somebody who is pretty confused. Not an unreliable narrator exactly, because he knows what happened and he doesn’t lie about it – he’s quite honest – but he hasn’t dealt with it.

“And then, he’s a journalist. Most reporters are quite cynical. Or at least, they think they are, and they pretend to be offhand about things which they’re not offhand about at all. It was important for me to have a voice that would sound coherent and interesting, so that I wouldn’t have to worry too much about all the other stuff that I didn’t really know how to do yet – such as writing stories and creating characters. I still don’t think I know how to do that yet.”

Did he enjoy it, though? Playing the creator, and whipping characters out of his fictional hat?

“Yeah, very much so. That really is the fun part. At first it’s terrifying, because as a journalist you’re painting by numbers, really. You get all the facts and then try and make some kind of coherent story. With fiction you can make up anything you like, and that’s terrifying – but when you get into it a bit it’s tremendous fun as well. And you don’t have to check all the facts, because there aren’t any.

“News stories are very formulaic, really. There’s a goody and there’s a baddy. It’s pure structuralism. I remember reading literary theory at university and not getting it: well, after 15 years as a reporter you go ‘right, I get it now’. It’s just plain nuts and bolts to a news writer.”

As Basil Fawlty once observed in another context, coping with the chaos of life in a war zone is no problem. Not carving up your loved ones, however – well, that’s another matter. Life as a foreign correspondent appears to be quite unrelated to life as most of us know it.

“Before I had kids, when something big happened and you had to go speeding off, it was an adventure,” says O’Loughlin. “But by the time I left the Middle East I was getting fed up with having big adventures. I had reached the point where the phone rings, you’ve got to go somewhere and it’s: ‘Oh, how am I going to get there, what kind of hotel will I stay in, when do I have to file the first story?’ Whereas 10 years ago – certainly when I first went to Africa – you just felt glee a lot of the time about the stuff you were getting paid to do.”

Yet he wouldn’t trade in his experiences – especially his experiences of living in some very unlikely places.

“Israel is a difficult place to live. We had very good friends there, and I had a very interesting job. We lived in West Jerusalem about 20 metres from what used to be the Green Line. We had a very nice apartment – and Jerusalem is, in many ways, a very comfortable city. It’s very safe, despite what you might read on the news. It’s probably safer than Dublin. Certainly it’s a lot safer than Johannesburg, where I lived for eight years. A very scary place. But Jerusalem is also a very ideological place. If you’re not Jewish, or an Arab, you don’t really belong there. You don’t really fit in – you’re not of interest to anybody.”

For all its faults, therefore, he much preferred Johannesburg. “Jo’burg is – and was – a scary place in terms of crime. But it was a lot livelier. South Africa is a fascinating place, and it’s much more welcoming than the Middle East. It’s also a very cheap place to live. So you can have a fantastic lifestyle – provided you have eyes in the back of your head.”

For the foreseeable future, the only place O’Loughlin will be moving to is his own attic. “I have a couple of very strong ideas for a follow-up novel, but in a very small house with two very lively girls running round the place . . .” He grins happily. War zones. Who needs ‘em?