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In One Life: The Bill Long Interview

from Totally Fushed, May 2004

‘I found my teeth’, Bill Long announces happily, smiling through his grey beard. I have just returned from the toilet, and we’re about to begin our interview. Bill explains that he had been writing until late the night before, and had accidentally left his false teeth in his medication box.

Mr. Long asks me if I’m ready. ‘Yes’, I say, trying to concentrate on inserting a tape into my portable tape recorder, and not on my toilet experience. At the top of Mr. Long’s stairs, there are two tiny rooms. In one room is a toilet, and in the other is a sink. You have to ‘do the business’ in the first room, then go to the next to wash your hands. Intriguing!

But his toilet and sink are not what I want to ask Mr. Long about, and are by far the least interesting things about this man’s life – a life during which Bill Long has been, at various times: in the British Navy, a journalist, a cyclist, a public relations officer, a ‘serious’ writer, a broadcaster and documentary-maker, and the recipient of a heart transplant.

I have to admit, I’m a little nervous. Normally when I interview people, they come to my house, or I meet them in some neutral location. This is the first time I’ve ever met an interviewee in their house. But I guess it’s understandable that we’re here and not in some coffee shop. Bill doesn’t venture out much anymore. Years of illness and pills have seen to that. And anyway – there’s no time for nerves. The questions have to begin!

I know that of all the things he’s done, Bill’s writing is what he values most. And so the first question I ask him is: Where did his urge to write come from?

Bill stirs milk into his tea. ‘There were two big influences in my childhood that made me want to become a writer’, he begins. One of these was ‘an alcoholic schoolteacher’, in Bill’s primary school in Waterford, who used to get Bill books to read: ‘It was very difficult to get books in the country at that time. I was born in ’32, so I’m now talking about [the late ’30s and early ’40s]. We didn’t have a county library then, and the National Library, they didn’t send a van around…’ So, this teacher provided Bill with his first taste of authors who have remained favourites of his to this day – ‘people like Robert Louis Stevenson’.

Mr. Long’s other great childhood influence was his maternal grandfather, ‘who was a rare old country man. He told stories every night around the fire, and I remember those…He said to me when I was about twenty and had got my first serious things published: ‘I’m glad you became a writer, because if you didn’t, you’d have become the world’s best liar’! He said writers have it in them to be two things: good writers, if they go in the right direction, and good liars if they go in the wrong direction! And he meant by that, I think, that you’re creative when you’re a writer, you use your imagination.’

Another thing I know about Bill, is that at a very young age he joined the British Navy. How did that happen? ‘Well’, Bill chuckles, ‘I went to boarding school when I was eleven…but I hated school, I really did. I always objected, and I still do, to being taught subjects I’m not interested in. I don’t know what good that does anybody. I objected strongly to mathematics, I was never interested in what four and four made…I liked history, and I liked Irish, and I liked English and I liked writing, and that was it.’

Thus, two months before he was due to take his Primary Cert., Bill Long ran away from boarding school. ‘And I made my way to Cork, and got a boat from Cork to Portsmouth, and joined the Royal Navy. I was only twelve and a half at that time. You had to be sixteen to join the Navy, but…nobody bothered really about your age if you looked halfway towards sixteen…’ Bill stayed in the Navy until he actually was sixteen, and ‘I had a wonderful time. I went up and down all the coasts of Europe. We spent most of our time off the Spanish, Italian and French coasts, clearing mines out of the water, mines that had been left floating after Dunkirk, and after the [Nazi] occupation.’

During those years he began to write a lot: ‘I sold a series of articles I wrote on board ship…to the only paper I knew, really, which was the Cork Examiner. They paid me for them, a lot more than I thought I’d ever get in those days – twenty pounds!’

Bill explains how this led on to an early career: ‘When I got those published, the Examiner sent me a cheque and a letter saying that, if I wanted a career in journalism, I could contact them when I got out of the Navy. When I came out of the Navy…There wasn’t any such thing as telephones in the country at that time, so I wrote them a letter…And I went to work for them as…you weren’t a ‘trainee journalist’ in those days, you were a ‘cub reporter’. I love that term, ‘cub’…

‘So, I worked in the Examiner for three years, and then they bought a newspaper in Waterford, and, because I was from Waterford, they transferred me back there to work on that, and I did that for another couple of years. And then…I got a job with the Irish Press. I went up to Dublin and got married at the same time, when I was about twenty-one.

‘And then in rapid succession, I changed every two years from the Press to the Times to the Independent, then went back to the Press again, went back to the Times again, and then I went to work in RTE, as a broadcaster.’

Mr. Long did not initially spend long in RTE, however. After a few months, he was made a seemingly irresistible offer, and joined international cosmetics giant Revlon as a public relations officer. ‘And I went to London and then America for them’, he says, ‘and then South America, for about seven years in total.

‘And…as I was coming to the end of those seven years, I met this old lady called Katherine Anne Porter…’ Bill’s 1999 book, Brief Encounters: Meetings with Remarkable People, details his incredible meetings with many famous individuals: David Niven, Seamus Heaney, Thomas Merton, Raymond Chandler…In it, he recounts coming across Pulitzer Prize-winning writer Katherine Anne Porter at a New York post box after midnight. He had ventured out to send some letters, but had forgotten stamps, and his hotel was several blocks away. Ms. Porter invited him back to her place for drinks, and offered to get him stamps!

It’s hard to believe sometimes, that such serendipity is not Fate at work. Bill had been thinking about leaving his PR job and becoming a full-time writer – his encounter with Ms. Porter made him certain that this was the right path to take. ‘She talked to me seriously…about what public relations did for you and to you!’ And she told him to read a book by Cyril Connelly.

Bill picks up a withering old hardback from the table beside him, opens it, and indicates two paragraphs for me to read. The author proffers his wisdom to the aspiring writer: avoid trivial scribbling, try always for an ‘assault on perfection’. Connelly’s advice really strikes you, I tell him.

‘Oh yeah’, he affirms. ‘So I decided I wanted to be a writer, a serious writer. But unfortunately…I decided that to become a serious writer, I would have to compromise somewhere.’ Bill couldn’t just devote all his time to his art and hope to get some stuff published – he had a family to support, a wife and two children. ‘So I came back to Ireland, and went to work as a freelance maker of documentaries with RTE. Between the late sixties and the mid eighties I wrote and presented over eighty documentaries…And in the end, I was able to write documentaries in my sleep.’

That’s when Bill returned to Cyril Connelly. ‘After many years, I read these two paragraphs again, and I thought I was on the wrong track, and that I was now locked into doing the kind of writing that this man warns about. And so I decided that I would pack that up.

‘And unfortunately, at the same time I decided that, I began to have a lot of heart trouble.’ Twenty years ago now, Bill had a series of heart attacks, followed by a quadruple bypass: ‘And I never quite recovered from that.’ In 1993, Bill had another series of heart attacks. ‘Over a period of ten months, I was having one every six weeks.’ Mr. Long was told he would have to have a transplant. ‘And I had a terrible wait then for another seven months for the transplant. Eventually I got the heart, and I had the transplant, and it was quite successful. That was just about ten years ago.’

Around the time his heart problems first emerged, Bill had begun to write books. His first book, Bright Light, White Water: The Story of Irish Lighthouses and Their People, was published in January 1993, just before he began to have the heart attacks that led to his transplant. ‘That is still a good seller’, Mr. Long tells me. ‘It’s incredible. They brought out another printing of it for the Christmas just gone.’

After Bright Light, Bill planned Brief Encounters. ‘And [I] had the publishers all set up to do [it], when I was called for transplant.’ And so the plan had to change. Bill ended up getting involved in a completely new project…John McColgan, the man behind Riverdance, who is a good friend of Bill’s, contacted him, and put to him a rather unique proposition: ‘John [wanted] to make a television documentary, a sort of, video diary, if you like…’ This ‘video diary’ involved Bill being filmed while he was in hospital for his transplant. Bill describes how cameramen came to visit him in hospital twice a week. They even got permission to film him in surgery. The final product was an hour-long programme for RTE called A Change of Heart.

Mr. Long goes on: ‘I kept notes while I was in hospital, [and my] publisher said when I came out, he said: ‘You should let me publish this’. So, I published that as a diary called A Change of Heart, so I skipped over [Brief Encounters], and I did [it] about two years later.’

And the book-writing has continued: ‘Just a year and a half ago, I [published] a book which I’d been working on for ten years, a history of Connemara, told through interviews with elderly people in Connemara.’ Bill shares credit for this book, Singing Stone, Whispering Wind: Voices of Connemara, with Raymonde Standun, a photographer friend of his from Spiddal.

‘So they’re the four books I’ve done, and I’ve been very lucky that I have made a fairly good living from those.’

At the time he had is heart transplant, Mr. Long was also lecturing in homiletics. ‘Homiletics’, he explains, ‘is teaching priests how to write short homilies, to get [them] out of the habit of writing long sermons.’ Thus, at the point of a colossal medical emergency in his life, Bill was working three jobs – lecturing, penning books, and making documentaries for RTE. He smiles: ‘After I’d had the transplant, when I was coming home, [the surgeon] who did the operation said to me…‘It’s one job!’…So I ditched the [RTE] work and I ditched the [lecturing].’

Bill is remarkably philosophical about having to make this sacrifice. He comments that all his heart problems were like nature’s way of forcing him to do what he really wanted to do – write books. ‘At the moment I have two books nearly finished’, Bill says. ‘I like to work on two books together. I do about two hours on one in the morning, maybe another two on the other in the afternoon.’ He’s currently two-thirds of the way through the first part of a three-part memoir: ‘and that [goes from] my birth, through my happy childhood, up to when I ran away from boarding school. The second part will be up to the time I left the Navy. And the third part will be from the time I left the Navy to the present.’

Mr. Long’s other work-in-progress is a novel for children of eleven / twelve upwards. The book is partly based on experiences from his own childhood. ‘That’s been wonderful’, he says. ‘I’m having great fun doing that…

‘So, they’re the next two books. And after that I’ll go back to the second memoir, and maybe another novel…’ He’s not slowing down in his old age, anyway!

But I want to come back and talk a bit about Bill’s heart transplant. During my bone marrow transplant three years ago, I wouldn’t even let anyone take photos of me in my hairless, weakened, strung-up-to-a-dozen-machines state. Did Bill not find having a camera crew in hospital with him to be a gross invasion of his privacy? ‘No’, he says, emphatically. He elaborates: ‘I had seen people go into hysterics, grown men go into hysterics, when they were told they had to have a bypass…’ Which, he clarifies, is a simple operation relative to a transplant. ‘And I thought it would help these [people] a lot, if I had the guts to sit up in bed, literally five minutes before they came to take me away, and talk to the camera.’

Bill says any indignity he was put through was made worthwhile by the fact that he got so many letters and phone calls from people in similar situations. ‘I must have got literally hundreds, and nearly all from people who had relatives who had bypasses or transplants, or from people who had the operation themselves.’

He reflects: ‘Looking back on it, not so much now, but looking back on it two or three years after, I used to say to myself: ‘How did I manage to do that?’ But it’s extraordinary, when you’re in the situation, it’s very different. It’s like looking at somebody else’s transplant.

‘I never [used to watch] any of these hospital dramas…’ ER and its ilk, he explains. ‘But since my surgery ten years ago, I watch every hospital drama that comes on. I’m fascinated by them. Sometimes my wife or my son or my daughter will come in the room and they look and there’s an open chest on the television and this guy is pulling out a heart, and they’ll say: ‘How do you watch that?!’ [But] I love watching [it]!’

Bill’s transplant was unfortunately not the end of his health issues. A few years later, he suffered an aneurysm. He continues to experience motion sickness – even the movement of getting up and dressed can give him nausea, he tells me. The steroids he’s on have given him osteoporosis, and he has to use a wheelchair whenever he leaves the house. But even travelling in a car is difficult, because of the motion sickness. He describes how, often, when he goes to the hospital, his wife will drop him at the DART station, and he’ll get the train into town while she drives in and picks him up at the other end…And with a bit of luck he’ll make it to the hospital without getting sick! He’s currently on over thirty pills a day, and around half of those are to offset the side effects of the other half. I can sympathise with him, having been on a similar number myself not so long ago. ‘It’s a terrible way to live’, he admits, ‘but that’s the way it is. I still manage to write most days.’

One of Bill’s current writing projects, of course, is his trilogy of memoirs. He tells me a bit more about that: ‘The thing that prompted me to write this trilogy of memoirs…The real motivation was I was given a present for Christmas three years ago of Frank McCourt’s Angela’s Ashes. And…on the back cover there were a lot of blurbs, and there was one from Frank McCourt himself, who said: ‘I wrote this book about an impoverished, diabolical, deprived Limerick childhood, because a happy childhood is not worth writing about’. And I thought to myself…I exploded really, I said: ‘The arrogant bastard!’ and I put the book down and never read it. I don’t want to read a book that’s written in that spirit.

‘I had a very happy childhood. So I decided this first part of the trilogy was going to be about a very happy childhood!’ He chuckles to himself.

Of course, while praise was heaped upon Angela’s Ashes from many quarters, there was a huge backlash against the book as well. ‘A lot of people in Limerick objected to it ’, Bill insists. Mr. Long says he has talked to Limerick people who tell him that the town was never anything like as bad as McCourt reports.

‘It’s funny the things that spark off your thoughts and prompt you to do other things’, Bill concludes. ‘You never know where motivation is going to come from.’

But Mr. Long’s own career has not been entirely free from controversy. He once had a rather major falling-out with our national broadcaster. ‘I had done this programme [on Radio One] very regularly…Just A Thought, A Thought for the Day…it’s had various names through the years.’ Several years ago, RTE rang him up and asked him if he would write and record five two-minute talks, one for each day of a working week. ‘I thought I’d pick five aspects of going back to school and I’d talk about each one of them on the five mornings.’ He wrote each piece from a different perspective: one from the child’s point of view, one on the parents, one on the teachers…Three weeks or so before the talks were due to be broadcast, Bill went into RTE to record them. ‘I knew the piece I had done [for] the second morning, about the teachers, that was the controversial piece.’ But he asked the producer if it was okay, and he assured him that it was.

‘I used to go around at that time and do courses for secondary schools on writing for radio. And I was down in [a comprehensive school] in Kilkenny [for a week], and every day I would have lunch with the teachers. I met all sorts of teachers there. And in this piece I did for radio I said, you know, that we have many different kinds of teachers, but, as parents, we had an obligation to make sure that the right kind of teachers were teaching our children. And I said I recently visited a large comprehensive to do a [course] there, and I had a shock because I discovered that in that one school there was one teacher who missed at least a day a week because he had a sideline job erecting tents for weddings and functions on racecourses. And, I met another teacher who had a second-hand car business down the road from the school, and ran up and down to that every day about ten times. And I met another teacher in that school who was married to a local farmer’s daughter, and they bred horses, and he took days off, two or three every month, to go to various horse fairs, and to go to various racing meetings…I had about four different examples of teachers doing these things. And I said, how can these people give it their best as teachers?

‘The piece went out twice a day: in the morning and late at night. It went out that morning. I didn’t listen to it because I wouldn’t always listen to things I’d done myself. But it went out, and at about half ten I was listening to Gay Byrne. After one of the ad breaks, he said: ‘I have an announcement to make about a radio programme which was billed to go out tonight, but has been withdrawn by the Director of Radio. And that is Thought for the Day by Bill Long.’ And that was the first I heard of it.

‘And it was withdrawn because there was a huge, huge rush to the head of blood from the three teachers’ unions. They’re powerful lobbyists. And they got on to the Director General of RTE and said ‘Pull this, these are not nice things to be saying about teachers.’

‘My big objection…was that they pulled it without telling me. And they had had it on tape for nearly a month!

‘Then I started getting letters from the unions threatening legal action for defaming those teachers, and [saying] that I would be forced to name the school that I did this [course] in. I wrote back, I checked with my solicitor: ‘I have been informed that you can’t sue for libel. You can only sue for libel when someone is proven to be telling lies.’ And I said: ‘If you want to try to prove that I’m telling lies, you know you can’t’, and they couldn’t. And I never heard about it again.

‘I got such support after that – from teachers! I got a letter from a woman, a teacher in the midlands, and she said she had found that everything I said was true, and she wouldn’t even sign her name to the letter she sent me. Because, she said: ‘I am afraid of repercussions.’ She was afraid of her own union, it was terrible.

‘For years after that I didn’t do any work for RTE…’ In the end, however, showing true sportsmanship, Bill repaired his relationship with our national broadcaster, and went back to doing work for them.

But – speaking of sportsmanship – what about that time when Bill really was a sportsman? I have written in my notes to myself that I must ask Mr. Long about his successes as a cyclist! He smiles: ‘Yes…When I went to work in the newspaper offices in Waterford for the Examiner, I had to cycle to work: twelve miles in and twelve miles back. I had an old sports bike…Bent handlebars were about the only concession it had to a look of speed, it was anything but a racing bike…’ And yet, every morning, Bill used to pass another man on a racing bike. They eventually got to know each other quite well, and the man, who was a racer himself, suggested Bill get involved in cycle racing.

‘I was then about nineteen…I was very successful when I started cycling, and had a great three years, and then gave it up for lots of personal reasons.’ Bill explains how, while cycling competitively, he had to ride about a hundred miles every second night, just in training. And that became a drain on him. ‘But in that time’, he goes on, ‘I won about twenty-eight or thirty national championships. I remember, I was the first to break an hour for the twenty-five mile time trial on the Navan Road…

‘About twenty years ago, I was working in the front garden one Saturday, and a man pulls up outside in a big Jaguar. He was about my age. He came over to the wall and he said: ‘Are you Bill Long?’, and I said: ‘Yes’, and I was wondering: ‘God, what does he want, do I owe him money?’…And he said: ‘My name is Bill Long also’. And as soon as he said it I knew how he would know me and I would know him…’ Mr. Long (the one doing this interview) then tells me that he and the other BL rode for different cycling associations, and were constantly being mistakenly credited with each other’s achievements!

Bill says of his cycling days: ‘I had a wonderful time. I rode twice, two years in succession, on an Irish team in Britain. I had great fun. And I gave it up too soon, I suppose. But writing was always…If I had to give up anything, I would give up anything except my writing.’

It again comes back to the writing. And with so many years in the business, Bill must have learned some important lessons. ‘I think the biggest thing I’ve learned is…the biggest…’ he pauses to think of a word, ‘…sin, I suppose, is to rush things, to hurry things. Hurry spoils a lot of artists. Hurry, and you could put in brackets after that: money. And I think hurry comes from wanting money. I got over a long time ago wanting money. I never wanted money really, just enough money to pay my way.’

I invite Bill to tell me about some of the people he’s met, who were featured in his book Brief Encounters. He says of the novelist Raymond Chandler: ‘Like most alcoholics, he was a wonderful man and a terrible man. I often think he was one of many people that you met once and never again. And you would like to meet them again. But still, like I said in the book…’ He reaches for his copy of Encounters, which is lying nearby. He reads from his introduction: ‘These moments with all the protagonists have been unique, truly empathic experiences, and the value of the legacy they have left incalculable. They were such high points that continued meetings, even if possible, were neither necessary nor desirable. For after such high points, all subsequent meetings ran the risk of being lesser moments, perhaps even disappointments. Nothing would have been gained by meeting regularly and engaging in small talk over cups of tea or coffee…’ He asks: ‘Don’t you feel like that sometimes?’

Perhaps anticipating my next question, Bill goes on: ‘Sometimes people ask me which of [the people in the book] I would feel closest to, and without a doubt I would have to say I feel closest to Thomas Merton.’ Even from the way Bill talks about Merton, you can tell he holds great affection for the Cistercian monk and writer: ‘[Merton]’s not dead to me…I have forty-one of his books upstairs…’

Another of Mr. Long’s ‘brief encounters’ was with John Steinbeck. Bill tells me he has a quote from Steinbeck on his writing desk: ‘I woke this morning, sat at my desk, and I felt I held a fire in my hands, and filled the page with shining.’ Mr. Long marvels: ‘I think that’s the loveliest way to describe imagination at work, and putting something beautiful on the page…Filled the page with shining…’

My mum’s a big Steinbeck fan, I tell him. But, I announce regretfully, I haven’t yet read any of his works myself. ‘Oh, you have so much to look forward to!’ he informs me.

Bill asks what age I am, and I tell him. ‘Oh, to be nineteen again!’ he laments. ‘Although…People often say: ‘If you had it all over again…’ but I don’t want it all over again. It was marvellous once around, it couldn’t be any better the next time. Like I never regret anything I’ve done because I think, if you’re reasonably serious about what you do, and you try to help people, and you try not to offend people…there’s no reason to wish I had it all over again and do it differently. I’m kind of satisfied with myself at seventy-two now, the way I am. And, I don’t mean this in a narcissistic way at all, but I have learned over the years to love myself. And I think that’s the most desirable thing in anyone’s life, that you should come to love yourself. Not, as I say, in a narcissistic way, or a selfish way…You could say that you come to accept yourself or you come to like yourself or tolerate yourself…No, I think it should be stronger. You come to love yourself.’

I left Bill’s house that day feeling like I had just had a ‘brief encounter’ of my own. And later, as I listened to the tape of our chat and prepared the transcript, I thought perhaps there is another thing desirable in human existence that many of us could learn from Bill Long. How much it’s possible to live, in just one life.


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