Alannah Hopkin

The festschrift of his father, the historian Professor James Hogan (1898-1963), was put together four decades after his death and launched by two ex-Prime Ministers in the National Museum. Nowadays we do these things while the subject is still around to enjoy it, and we do it online.

It seems as if I have always known James, though in fact I met him only 21 years ago. The Irish Times sent me Light Years (2002) by Augustus Young for review. I had never heard of the author, but I was immediately captivated. Light Years is a discursive autobiography which would nowadays be called ‘auto-fiction’, a mix of prose and poetry, about growing up in Blackrock, a Victorian suburb of Cork city, in the 1950s and moving to London in the 60s. I loved it: ‘I have not laughed so much since my first reading of The Third Policeman…this book is an oddity, but a beautiful oddity, which goes from high comedy to deep pathos in the flick of a semi-colon. The final impression is of a haunting sadness, as in all the best comic writing.’

We began a freewheeling email correspondence that continues intermittently to this day. We first met in person shortly after he had taken early retirement and he and his wife, M. had moved from Hendon to Port-Vendres in southwest France. He came to Kinsale as the first port of call on the reading tour later recounted in Storytime (2005). I was stunned to find that the slight, fit-looking man at the front door in Lycra cycling shorts and a fluorescent T-shirt was in fact the learned poet. I had not known that he was a keen (obsessive) cyclist, nor that his suitcase had got lost en route. He had kindly spared me the wrap-around mirrored sunglasses that usually completed the outfit. We gave Light Years its official launch in the tiny bookshop run by the poet Matthew Geden before an audience of about 20 people, none of them ex-Prime Ministers.

The most time I’ve spent with James was when my husband Aidan Higgins and I visited James and M. in Port-Vendres. (See my memoir A Very Strange Man [2021] for the full version). Besides sharing memories of Blackrock, where I lived as a child before moving to London, James and I are both fascinated by Ballymaccus, a creek on the shore of Kinsale Harbour, where he had spent several childhood holidays. We are also daily fair-weather swimmers. We swam at an uncannily similar place to Ballymaccus that he had discovered on the outskirts of Port-Vendres and other rustic swimming spots.  I encouraged him to make more of an effort to learn French, which M. spoke fluently, instead of making bad bilingual jokes, bad-tempered advice which he later thanked me for.

I got to know the poetry when I was editing On the Banks (2016), an anthology of poems and songs about Cork City. I think it helps to have read the prose first, to get a grasp of the unusually wide range of James’s interests, and the extreme playfulness of his way with words. From the sublime to the ridiculous, one could say, but ridiculous is wrong – the outrageous, the unexpected, the banal? The website (augustusyoung.com) gives a good idea of the scope of his work. It is a rare reader who will enjoy it all equally. Dánta Grádha is a personal favourite, and the bilingual m.emoire, a fine tribute to his beloved wife, and an extraordinary expression of love.

It is hard to believe that this perennial enfant terrible will be eighty this year. He will not change I am sure. He will stay forever Young (Augustus).

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The Duras Press

The Duras Press