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Doe on Fush: John Douglas Talks to Ben Doe About Nottwel

Posted By Ben On December 30, 2008 @ 5:04 pm In Interviews | Comments Disabled

from Issues II: The Wastebasket (special Nottwel publication), May 2004

 

Nearing the summer of 2001, and the end of Nottwel’s second season of mags, reformed English teacher John Douglas approached Ben Doe about doing an interview-with-the-editor for a future edition of Totally Fushed. JD conducted the interview with Ben one sunny afternoon over Bewley’s cherry cake and tea, and it was meant to be included in the first TF of Season Three. Unfortunately, by the time Ben had recovered from his bone marrow transplant in June-September ’01, JD’s interview seemed out of date, and was left by the wayside. During a recent clean-out of his room, however, Mr. Doe miraculously discovered the hour-long tape of his conversation with JD from that sunny afternoon so many years ago. The following is an edited transcript of the conversation…

 

The interview was conducted in three parts…

 

Part I

 

John Douglas: Are you having some tea?

Ben Doe: Not yet. I’ll have some Coke first.

JD: I wouldn’t think Coke and tea would be a nice mixture.

JD: As the next issue of Totally Fushed will be the last in the current series, Ben, this seems a good time for us to talk. I have to confess that initially I found TF a little too shocking, but it has grown on me (cliché?), or perhaps I’m terrified of losing touch with ‘De Younger Generation’, and have decided to loosen up my sense of humour…Perhaps you might like to start by reminding readers of how all this began?

BD: Well, em…

JD: Buying time won’t help you.

BD: Well, Nottwel itself began four years ago. The Totally Fushed project is sort of…Well, since I ended the first magazine series, which was The Fush Monthly, in May 1998, I wanted to sort of go back to Nottwel, but hadn’t really had time, or was just too lazy, with all the work building up to the Junior Cert. or whatever. So, around Easter 2000, myself and Michael were in Paris, and we were bored, and Michael asked me was I ever going to start the Nottwel magazines up again, and that sort of got the ball rolling, I suppose. I’d always wanted to start it up again, and there seemed to be a desire among former readers for another series of Nottwel mags. So Michael and I put together an idea for a first issue that afternoon, and that first new issue came out then that summer, after the JC. And I thought that was a good time to bring it out because we’d finished the JC and it was time for celebrations…!

JD: So there’s a celebratory aspect to this?

BD: Mmm.

JD: Now, Terry O’Driscoll, or shall we say ‘Big Daddy’ / ‘Utter Nutter’ was obviously a big influence…Has he continued to be so, would you feel? I mean, is there something about Terry O’Driscoll’s character that sort of feeds you in doing this magazine?

BD: Well, Terry O’Driscoll is Nottwel, I suppose. He started it, it was his idea originally. I sort of plagiarised it with his permission and made it into a magazine series, or a club as it was originally. I wouldn’t say he’s continued to be as much of an influence. If you look at the early mags, there’s a lot more craziness in them…We’ve sort of kept that craziness, but matured a bit at the same time to cover a broader range of topics. He was a very big influence in the beginning, because he had his Littal Buhrd poems and his Nottwel idea.

JD: So are you suggesting that the initial craziness was part of his character…

BD: Yes.

JD:…And that since you’ve moved away from that, your magazine has matured?

BD: Well, we’ve matured, and as we write the magazine, it’s come along with us. Initially, though, I sort of ‘clicked’ with the wacky side of Terry, and so used that in my own way in the magazine series.

JD: You mentioned your desire to use TF as a means of keeping in touch with old friends, particularly the BSP people. That’s meant a lot to you, the Bray School Project. You refer to that a lot.

BD: Yeah. Well, one of the main reasons I refer to it a lot is because a lot of our readership went to BSP. But, yeah, it has meant a lot to me. We were a very close class, and as you say, the original idea of the Nottwel Club was to keep people in contact. Obviously since then it has widened…

JD: Looking back, do you regret that BSP didn’t have a secondary stage to go on to?

BD: Em, yes, I would have liked it to go on, I guess. I never really thought about it like that…

JD: But it’s good to look back on something like that as well, you get a sort of sense of it…

BD: Yes, I mean, you can’t really get the sense of it until you look back on it…

JD: Yeah. And would you think, em, as this has gone along, you know, making the magazine, do you just grab things out of the air or has there always been a central theme? I mean, do you, for example, see the BSP thing in your mind and then sort of graft everything onto that, or do you just pluck things out of the air?

BD: Well, obviously, I know most of the people who read the mag, and I would try and include things which would be interesting to them. I mean, one of the central themes of the mag is community…Okay, I don’t want to sound like a [Civics] teacher, but it does have that ‘by us, for us’ thing going on. Yeah, that is very important. This is supposed to be a thing where people can just give their work for the entertainment of others…

JD: You’ve touched on this before, but perhaps you might like to develop this point about maturing. I mean, I’ve noticed myself, you had the Gerard Byrne interview, and then you started covering topics like [the foot-and-mouth crisis of 2001]…And, well, there wasn’t really a tongue and cheek aspect to those, they were treated quite seriously. Would you see TF as becoming more like that? Would you agree that TF has matured like that?

BD: I’m not sure I agree with the idea of the magazine maturing, in the sense of becoming less zany, or whatever. At the same time, I think I would agree that it has matured in the sense that it’s got better.

JD: Well, when I say matured, I mean, a lot more personal creativity has come into it now, whereas before you’d obviously just taken bits from places and put them in. I mean, even you yourself are writing more personal stuff now…

BD: Yes…Em, well this sounds silly, but I guess I learned to ‘trust’ the publication as I saw people enjoy it, and so became more comfortable with including more of my own personal feelings. And also, you are, obviously, always striving for a better product than the last…

JD: Would you like it to become more of a wider school magazine as opposed to, well, it started off as this slightly cliquey thing. Would you like it to be broadened out?

BD: Em…

JD: Well, Andrew’s presumably do have a school magazine.

BD: They do. It’s called Grapevine. It’s crap. It’s very well designed and everything, but…It’s a bit of a joke, in terms of what they cover. I mean, they had complaints last year because they ran an article on teen suicide. Of course, I haven’t actually answered the question yet! Well, I would obviously like to see as many people reading the magazine as possible. But at the same time, I wouldn’t like to water down the content. And, on top of that, I don’t have the facilities to run off [hundreds of] copies at a time, or whatever, so that in itself is going to limit readership.

JD: Okay, well, I’m coming to the end of this first section, and we’ll have another cup of tea then. Well, this may be a bit trite, but I still think it’s an interesting exercise, I’ve tried to do it myself, just looking back over the issues…Can you select [some] of your favourite pieces from Totally Fushed?

BD: Gee.

JD: Well, now, for myself, I picked Shane T.’s poem Waste

BD: Well, I think Shane T. is an excellent poet, and we’re very lucky to have him on board! As for specific pieces…I really like Hugh’s [‘Wee Sceal’], and Shane T.’s poetry…

JD: And just in contrast, any major disappointments?

BD: I won’t name names [Laughs].

JD: No, no, not that…

BD: Hugh Doherty was a major disappointment [Laughs]! No, ehh, I think the first issue [of TF] was a major disappointment. I mean, at the time it was great, we were starting back with Nottwel…But when I look back at it, it’s an embarrassment compared to what you’ve seen recently, I mean, it’s just crap, basically! [Laughs] No, well, there’s some good stuff in it, but it’s not enough. But it was good because it started the whole thing off again.

JD: And then, obviously it’s given you great pleasure to see it progress from there.

BD: Yes.

JD: Before we move on, I think it’s right to mention The Nottwel Times. I feel that’s a slightly separate creation, because it involves a lot of your own personal creative energy…Perhaps you might like to talk about it briefly.

BD: The Nottwel Times was a nightmare.

JD: [Laughs]

BD: I would be up there at one o’clock in the morning, six hours before I was supposed to go in and photocopy the mag, trying to fill in all the blank spaces in the Times…Yeah, em, it was a lot of work.

JD: There was something very instinctive about it, I felt. The way you had the tight columns and all the reviews and everything fit together, I don’t know how they did all fit together…

BD: Yeah, I think material between TF and the Times was not necessarily interchangeable, I think they had slightly different themes…

JD: I think so, yeah…

BD: I’m not sure, with the Times, that we got the balance right between pithy, short reviews and something that you could actually get something out of. What did you think about that? Did you think the reviews were too short?

JD: No, I thought it hung together well. I mean, when you get TF and then The Nottwel Times – there’s a lot in it. It’s easy to say you’ve read it when in fact you haven’t read it, you’ve just glossed over it. You’d be amazed, like it took me four hours to come up with this interview, I went back over everything because I felt I needed to have a good grasp on it all before talking to you about it. But it’s amazing how much is in it, you know. But what’s great about The Nottwel Times, I find, is that, these little bits, you might miss one, and then you come back to it and you see something that you’ve never seen before. The Nottwel Times reminds me of these old bookshops, and you go in, and things are all over the place, and you’re finding bits as you go along…But obviously, from what you’re saying, that’s not going to be something you take on again.

BD: No, well we’re going to keep that theme of reviews and stuff, but I’m not sure we’re going to keep The Nottwel Times in its current form. But we might bring it back, I mean it was popular, and it had its own little quirks, like the weather column…!

JD: No, it was good! I think, in many ways, of the two, it’s the most creative, ’cause it’s all your own, in that sense.

BD: Yeah, but at the same time, writing the Times doesn’t really require much imagination, you’re just reviewing a videogame or whatever. We’ll have to see what happens with that in the future.

 

Part 2

 

John Douglas: Well, now let’s move on to the middle stage of this. I don’t think it’d be fair in an interview to just gloss along patting each other on the back! From a more critical viewpoint, how would you defend yourself against the criticism that at times there’s a very anti-society, perhaps anarchical streak behind the whole magazine thing. I mean, even the title: Totally Fushed. There’s a sort of misleading aspect to that, if you will. It’s almost as if you’re wanting to say something else and yet you’re camouflaging it behind this. Would you agree with all that, or do you think it’s a bit over the top?

Ben Doe: I don’t think we have to defend ourselves, or I have to defend myself, at all! I mean, obviously, we’re teenagers, we’re supposed to be rebellious!

JD: But do you think that aspect of the magazine might stop it from going head to head against Grapevine, or something like that?

BD: Ehh, yes. But, I mean the people who enjoy Grapevine wouldn’t necessarily like TF, and vice versa. I think, though, if you pick up a copy of TF, you’d have to say that there is some talent involved…

JD: So you think there is talent, it’s just that you also have young men going through a phase, being anti-society, anarchical or whatever…

BD: Yeah…

JD: …Getting it out of the system type of thing, but with a sense of direction!

BD: [Laughs] Yeah.

JD: Some people might argue that your magazine loses some of its impact because your range of articles is too wide. For example, you may have the serious and the seedy too close together. Like, you had a very good article on The Paralympics: Are They A Good Thing?, and then on the back of that a series of jokes called Just Kidding. Or, you had a very good [piece] on prejudice, and then in the same mag a feature on Ben Murnane’s webpage, where you have ‘My Philosophies: Let’s Kill Everyone, I Want To Kill You…’

BD: I didn’t make that webpage! Shane Odlum made that webpage without even telling me! But no, I mean I don’t think covering a wide variety of topics lessens the magazine’s impact. We’re not some clique with only one set of values to be preached down on people. We have a readership interested in lots of different things, and that’s reflected in the mag.

JD: Do you think there’s a slightly ‘Lads Only’ aspect to the mag?

BD: Well, I think there is because…Well, it’s interesting, because the majority of our readership used to be female, and now our readership is almost overwhelmingly male, and I suppose that’s why maybe some aspects have a male bias. I don’t think the majority of the magazine is ‘Lads Only’, though.

JD: No, no, I agree with you. In fact, there was a protest, I think, by some disgruntled female readers…

BD: There was, yes!

JD: Well, now, that brings me on to the next question: Do you think there is a reason for the lack of serious female contributors?

BD: I don’t know. I mean, we do have girls reading the magazine as well, they just don’t contribute as much as the guys.

JD: Well, why don’t they? Do you think it’s because they’d feel intimidated, or that they might be laughed at? What is the problem, do you think?

BD: I don’t think that’s a question I can answer, it’s a matter of personal choice for whoever wants to contribute, and I’m always more than happy to receive anything.

JD: No, but there is a serious point, I think you would agree that it would add to your magazine if you could get one or two ladies who would want to write for it.

BD: Oh, I agree absolutely. I think it would add to it immeasurably.

JD: What about the teachers in St. Andrew’s, do they ever offer an article or anything? I mean, would they just recoil from this stuff?

BD: There’ve been one or two teachers who’ve read it and have been impressed. I had an English teacher in First Year who enjoyed it and even sent in a letter…

JD: Well, I can’t finish this section without asking you about the use and abuse in the magazine of ‘bad’ language. Em, is this some desire to shock, or is it that important, or is this just the way young people communicate now, and I’ve been in the wilds of Connemara too long…?

BD: Well, you’ve been in the wilds of Connemara too long, but that’s a separate issue.

JD: [Laughs] Ehh, to give you an example, now…Well, there’s quite a lot of examples, but in The Second Last Issue…[in the editorial] you have: ‘fuck you for not reading this y’whore’s melt ya…’ Do you think you need to comment on that? Is it a fair criticism? Does it need to be criticised?

BD: Well, I suppose it is a fair criticism, but that’s just the way…

JD: So it’s not to shock?

BD: It’s not to shock, no. That’s just the way young people interact, not that I can speak for all young people or anything.

JD: So, you’d go along to someone in St. Andrew’s and say: ‘How’re ya doing, ya whore’s melt ya.’

BD: [Laughs] Well, actually, I first came across that phrase on a past Junior Cert. paper.

JD: What?! Well, there you are.

BD: Such is the nature of education these days.

JD: Just to take you back, then, before we close this middle section, to take you back to this whole idea of censorship. Do you think that the average adult, say person of your parents’ age, reading this magazine, would be shocked? And would you think that they would think that this should be censored, or watered down?

BD: That would depend on the person, but in general I think they would think it should be watered down. Certainly my parents, if they read it in its entirety – which I’m very careful never to allow them to do! – would think it should be censored.

JD: And is this just because of the bad language now, or…

BD: No, I don’t know, they might think it would be a bad influence on people, or something…But certainly, Totally Fushed is not going to be a bad influence on anyone I know, because everyone I know –

JD: Is totally fushed anyway.

BD: [Laughs] Is totally fushed anyway.

JD: I mean, it’s really a matter of seeing the magazine in its entirety, isn’t it? It can’t just be about seeing ‘Silly Sick Sex Stories’, and then saying: ‘This magazine should be censored.’

BD: Of course.

JD: And you don’t really have much time for the idea of censorship.

BD: In general, no.

JD: Because, I mean, you have your own sense of what’s appropriate and what’s not when you’re writing the mag.

BD: Yes.

 

Part 3

 

John Douglas: Okay, now to move on to the third section, if I can just get something organised here…I thought in this third section, if you don’t mind…

Ben Doe: Very intelligent questions, I have to say!

JD: What?

BD: Good discussion topics!

JD: This is wearing you out, is it?

BD: Ah, no.

JD: [Laughs] I don’t want to call up tomorrow and find out you’ve been rushed into Crumlin [Hospital] exhausted!

BD: [Laughs]

JD: Right. So, the third section. If you don’t mind, I thought we might concentrate on you: the brains behind the creation.

BD: Oh dear. What brains?

JD: It’s interesting, that the early Totally Fusheds had no Doe Slot. Then last Christmas there was Ink Like Blood, followed by Diseased Media, and other pieces of similar vein. If I could just refresh your memory, a couple of extracts, like in Ink Like Blood, where you go: ‘I look over at the door opposite me – a symbol of free air beyond; unlike the trapped, sterilised place where I write…’ and you go on in that vein, ehh, and this fellow Danny throws his ‘considerable weight’ on the bed… ‘At least my life is consistent. I was born in a hospital; for seven years hospital has been part of my existence…’ and so on. And then the other one, Diseased Media: ‘It’s funny, but one of the great teachers in life is serious illness…I can’t imagine myself without this illness…’ Em, I’m sure that refreshes your memory of those pieces. Both of them, especially Ink Like Blood, are extremely moving. Would it be fair to say that they reflect your most intimate, and if I may say, at times very painful feelings? Would that be fair?

BD: …Yes…I think it’s perhaps interesting that neither Ink Like Blood nor Diseased Media were written for Totally Fushed originally.

JD: Right.

BD: The latter was for The Irish Times, and the former was an exercise for English. But…Yeah, I think, yeah, they do pretty much represent how I felt at the time. It still is how I feel, really.

JD: So…Do you feel isolated? There’s a sort of ‘behind the bars’ thing here. I mean, Ink Like Blood, by any standard, is a very personal, very creative expression. Em…And…if I remember rightly, [in another issue] you actually had a cartoon or something about how nothing happens with a disease until somebody famous gets it.

BD: Yeah.

JD: I mean, I have my own problems, nothing like you, but I sometimes feel like that, you know, that nothing happens with the disease until somebody finds out that Jack Nicholson has it, or something like that.

BD: Well, that’s sort of true, isn’t it? But at the same time, I don’t feel any sour grapes or anything because of that. It’s just the way society works, isn’t it? I mean, if Jack Nicholson gets it, and everybody knows Jack Nicholson, then obviously the media are going to latch on to that and everything.

JD: Yes.

JD: When you say, here, that ‘I can’t imagine myself without this illness’, I mean, are we sort of getting into the area here where people say ‘Oh, my life has been richer because I’m ill’…? I mean, how do you feel about a comment like that?

BD: I don’t know. I think illness can certainly give you an understanding of life, of what’s important, that you mightn’t otherwise have. It can offer perspective to you, and to others around you.

JD: How do you deal with, em, you know, you put a lot of work into this magazine, there’s no question about that, even reading back through it you can see that…How do you deal with…I mean, you’ve been in and out of hospital so much, the whole last [eight] years of your life, really, have been taken up with this illness. Yet you’ve taken the time and the trouble to put a lot of work into this and do it well. You’ve put this sense of development into it, and obviously people respond to you because they support you in all this…How do you fight against the sense of futility about the whole illness thing? Does that ever cross your mind?

BD: Ehh…Well, obviously there’s very little you can do to, sort of, medically cure yourself, so you have to find other ways to keep going…

JD: Right. So you make a division in your mind, do you? That when you leave Crumlin, that’s that. Now we get on with life.

BD: In a way, but illness is part of my life at the same time. But there’s no point in asking ‘Why Me?’ I hate that. You have to play with the cards you’ve got. That’s the way it is.

JD: But you don’t see yourself as helpless?

BD: No. I mean, medically, I can’t cure myself. But at the same time there are things you can do in your personal life, keep being creative, or whatever…

JD: I’m sure the advice you’ve got from people meaning well has swamped you! Everything from ‘Keep the chin up’ to…[Laughs]

BD: [Laughs] Yeah.

JD: But I think, the interesting point here is that, if we talk about labels, and we how we live in a society which likes to label people, you’ve moved from having Fanconi anaemia to being Totally Fushed. I mean, in St. Andrew’s, you’re probably not seen as the guy who has Fanconi Anaemia, but the guy who runs Totally Fushed

BD: Yeah. I’d like to think so.

JD: …And that’s an interesting step to make, I think.

JD: Okay, well, we’re coming to the end of this now, so perhaps I should allow you a bit of time to make your own…I mean, seeing as we’re coming to the end of the series, is there anyone, you’ve mentioned Shane Odlum, is there anyone else you’d like to pay any tribute to? Or is there anything about the mag you’d like to mention or anything?

BD: Em, I think, Hugh Doherty has been tremendously supportive, he’s given a lot of stuff. Ehh…Michael Torrans, who actually helped me come up with the idea for TF in the beginning, as I explained…Em, Shane T., of course. And everyone else who reads or contributes to the mag, they sort of keep the magazine what it is, so…And, of course yourself, for…

JD: Er, I’m the interviewer, Ben

BD: [Laughs] Yes.

JD: And I think we’ve sort of covered about the future for Totally Fushed.

BD: Yes. I hope it goes on.

JD: But what about your own plans now? You’re currently awaiting a bone marrow transplant. What is the current situation on that, for your readers?

BD: Well, I go into hospital [toward the end of] June…But, hopefully, by the time they read this, it’ll all be over.

JD: You’ve got quite a period of ‘onto yourself’ about this, haven’t you? I mean, how do you intend to fill that time? Can you bring stuff in, or…?

BD: I can’t bring in anything which can’t be wiped down with alcohol!

JD: Interesting.

JD: You’ve got Fifth Year, then, and then Sixth Year, which will be the end of your schooling. One of your pieces, Diseased Media, led to the Transition Year work experience in The Irish Times, and then you also worked in RTE. Were they useful in terms of helping you look ahead in your life?

BD: I think so. The time in RTE sort of reaffirmed my interest in broadcasting. But then, the [St. Andrew’s] One Act Drama Festival [this year] was great fun and made me think that maybe I’d like to be an actor. Acting’s a tough profession, though…

JD: Yeah.

BD: …And then The Irish Times was good. Not sure if I could be a journalist, though.

JD: Yeah. Harrowing, I’d expect.

BD: Mmm.

BD: Just about the magazine then, again. I mean, I’d like to keep it going through Fifth Year. I guess it’s kinda become associated with Fourth Year, because I was able to start it up again, but, I mean, next year, [after the transplant] I won’t be [allowed] in school, I’ll have to work at home, and I hope I can keep the magazine going.

JD: Well, it’s kind of a sick joke, really, but, you’ll have the time, and if people send in stuff, you’ll be able to put it together.

BD: I’ll put it together, yeah. Send in your stuff now!

JD: Well, look, Ben, this has been a great pleasure. Thank you for all your hard work, and the enjoyment you’ve given people. I hope I won’t embarrass you but I have to add how much I respect your own personal courage. You’ve created your own personal path in life, and long may you continue on it.

BD: Thank you.

JD: As an afterthought, for future issues, how about a personal interpreter for Mai Byrne’s jokes?

BD: [Laughs] Yes, that may be a good idea.

JD: Well, look, thanks very much – good man!

BD: Yes, that was great.

JD: Good, I’m glad, I enjoyed it.

BD: Me too…Just hang on a second till I turn this thing off…

 

[Ben Doe was interviewed by John Douglas on the 30th of May 2001]

 

 


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