Authors: Graham Norton
First published in Great Britain in 2004 by Hodder and Stoughton
An Hachette UK Company
Copyright © 2004 Graham Norton
Some names and identities have been changed in order to protect the integrity and/or anonymity of the various individuals involved.
The right of Graham Norton to be identified as the Author of the Work has been asserted by him in accordance with the Copyright, Designs and Patents Act 1988.
All rights reserved.
No part of this publication may be reproduced, stored in a retrieval system, or transmitted, in any form or by any means without prior written permission of the publisher, nor be otherwise circulated in any form of binding or cover other than that in which it is published and without a similar condition being imposed on the subsequent purchaser.
A CIP catalogue record for this title is available from the British Library
Epub ISBN: 9781444717778
Book ISBN: 9780340833490
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For Billy, Rhoda and Paula
You suffer me, you support me.
S SOON AS I AGREED
to write this book, I phoned my mother. I explained why I was writing my autobiography now – I’d just turned forty, my career was about to take new and exciting turns – and without actually mentioning the vulgar sum of money the publishers had offered me, I asked her if she’d like to spend her summers in that lovely house we’d seen down in West Cork a few months earlier?
‘Write whatever you want,’ she said, which was her heavily disguised version of ‘Congratulations’.
I wasn’t finished.
‘One thing though, Mum. Promise me you will never read it.’
There was a long pause followed by a weary sigh that seemed to suggest I’d missed something very obvious.
‘No, I won’t want to read it, but I’m sure I won’t need to. Won’t everyone be only too happy to tell me everything that’s in it?’
My heart sank. She was right.
This warning is for all of those people in my mother’s life – the friends, the neighbours, the girls at bridge, the people from the gramophone circle, the mechanic who services her car, the woman who works in that new place just beside the shop where something else used to be, the officers who check her passport at the airport, and the journalists who periodically darken her doorstep:
my mother doesn’t want to
. All the important stuff she knows already, and all the other stuff she has no desire to know. If you break this perfectly reasonable code of silence just know that deep down you are not nor ever will be a good person.
From the Cradle to the Rave
HILDHOOD: DULL. OH YES, TO
the outsider looking in there was the cross-dressing, the bed-wetting, the moving house thirteen times, but for the little boy wearing his sister’s dress, lying in a pool of his own piss, in a house that would never be home, there was little sense of thrill.
I wasn’t lonely as a child, but at the same time I did spend a great deal of time by myself. This was for various reasons – we tended to live in the middle of nowhere, I was sent to Protestant schools in the south of Ireland so I never knew the other neighbourhood kids, who were Catholic, and of course one can’t forget the fact that I smelt of stale piss and sat around in my sister’s clothes until I was eight.
I am aware that such early symptoms could (and possibly should) make way for a disturbed and traumatised adulthood, with therapists fluffing up the cushions on their couches, but as a friend of mine, Rose, put it so well, ‘People get over things.’ My childhood was my childhood. It is only in looking back through adult eyes that I see that all was not as it should have been in a
Janet and John
sort of way. But I don’t think I was that different from the other children. Show me a family and I’ll show you a dysfunctional one.
What was brilliant about my parents was that they never made me feel like anything I did was out of the ordinary.
Of course they tried to protect me, warning other parents that their kid’s room would smell like an old people’s home after I had been to visit, or advising me that maybe shorts and a T-shirt might be a better choice for a trip to the shops than several yards of curtain material wrapped around my body and a lace doily pinned to my head. Because they never panicked, and – God knows what worried conversations went on late at night – what they hoped were just phases turned out to be just that. When I headed off to boarding school my slightly stained mattress was as dry as unbuttered Swedish crispbread and I didn’t insist on packing any pretty clothes. You can imagine my parents’ joy – their good behaviour had been rewarded. Their son was normal and ordinary. Isn’t life cruel?
I was child number two for Billy and Rhoda Walker. Their first, a girl, Paula, was already four years old when I was born in Dublin on 4 April 1963. When people ask me which part of Dublin I was born in – and yes, conversation can be that dull – I always say that I don’t know, because I genuinely don’t. We moved constantly. At first it was just around Dublin, but then my dad got a new job at Guinness as a sales representative and we really got into our stride.
I realise now that all the moving seems to have given me a slightly unhealthy relationship with houses. Now that I have money, I seem to buy them like people buy cans of tuna when they fear an impending food shortage. If the
deals with the problems of the homeless, I need a magazine called the
which deals with the problems of the chronically overhoused. Like, where did I leave my favourite sunglasses? To date I have my house in London as well as ones in Cape Town, New York and Cork. Perhaps
I do take after my parents, but I’m just too rich and lazy to actually move.
The first stop on our epic journey around Ireland was Tramore, which means big beach in Gaelic and is a seaside resort. Well, to be honest, and just in case anyone should use this book as some sort of holiday guide, Tramore
beside the sea but I dread to think what rough side of hell you would have to hail from in order to consider it a resort. Our house there was the first one I can remember. Twelve more to go.
In 1967 there was Waterford, a small city in the south-east corner of Ireland. Living here was different because we had proper neighbours and, because I hadn’t started school yet, the other kids didn’t know that I was a freak Protestant boy, and happily played with me. It was around this time that I realised that all families weren’t the same. The Connellys next door, for instance, didn’t eat the skin off chicken – what madness! I would stand like a small dog outside their back door and they would feed me the unwanted delicacy. The Kennys had to go to bed at six, which I personally blame for the failure of our plan to dig to Australia, and there was another family whose name I forget who put a blue sheet of plastic over their black and white TV screen to make it look like colour (children and adults united in thinking that this was not a great look). The boy of the house gained a certain notoriety when he started declaring that ‘his daddy and God were the best drivers in the whole world’. Had no one told him that thunder was God trying to parallel park?
Where else? Kilkenny – that was where I became a choirboy and the Dean’s son told me how babies were made. I refused to believe him. That was what dogs did and surely
God had some higher plan for his favourite creation? Sadly the Dean’s son turned out to be right; obviously the Supreme Being had been too busy trying to park.
Despite or perhaps because of the Dean’s son’s revelations, Kilkenny was also where I had my closest brush with religion. Obviously we went to church every Sunday but for me that had always been just something you did before you got a roast dinner. The Sunshine Club was different. I’m not sure if my parents ever knew how evangelical this after-school club was, but all the other children went, and besides it gave my mother a free afternoon.
We would meet behind the Methodist church and next to the cinema – so close to Satan’s lair! Rows of small children in handknitted clothes would sit and listen to larger ladies, who always seemed to be from Scotland or Northern Ireland, tell us stories about children in Africa being nice to their granny or being saved from a lion. These tales of the very expected were illustrated by large, dull monochrome drawings on a flip board. There was, however, one picture that I always looked forward to: Jesus dressed in his traditional drag outside the door of an English cottage. The entrance was overgrown with roses and weeds. Jesus was knocking. This picture, we were told every week, illustrated Jesus knocking at the door to our hearts – all we had to do was open that door and invite him in.
That picture clearly grabbed hold of my imagination, because after a couple of months I decided that the idea of Jesus living inside me sounded great. I sat with one of the big Northern women over a traditional Sunshine Club feast of diluted orange squash and soggy potato crisp sandwiches and told her that, yes, I was going to ask Jesus into my heart.
Given that this woman had been asking us to do this every Wednesday afternoon for almost a year, I had expected a certain positive response: a big embrace like the granny gave the little African boy when he arrived home uneaten; perhaps a simple cry of Hallelujah to the Airtexed ceiling; at the very least she would reach for her tambourine.
What I didn’t expect was her bland, ‘That’s nice,’ followed by a pat on the shoulder. It was all right for her, Jesus had been living in her heart for years. I was not accustomed to having any sort of lodger in my body, never mind the actual Son of God. As it happened, Jesus turned out to be a very quiet flatmate. I think it would be safe to say that I never even knew he was there. I assume he moved out at some point, but his departure was as uneventful as his moving in.
My primary school teacher at Kilkenny was a man called Mr Groves. At the time I thought he was about a thousand years old, but in reality he was probably in his late fifties. He lived with his wife in a house next to the school, and each day after lunch he would return to the classroom with a soup moustache. One day in class some precocious child asked him about homosexuals. He happily explained, using the colourful metaphor of pansies in a flowerbed, but then just as he was getting bored of the subject and trying to get back to how clouds are formed, someone called out, ‘Can homosexuals have babies?’ To this day I have no idea why, but Mr Groves said ‘Yes’ and then returned swiftly to the joys of evaporation. Perhaps he meant that gay men do produce sperm so that they are able to father children, or perhaps he hadn’t heard the question properly, but I am too embarrassed to admit how old I was when I discovered that it wasn’t true. For years, whenever I doubted my sexuality
I simply assumed that I couldn’t be a homosexual because they could have babies and I could in no way see a baby popping out of me.
Castlecomer was nice. I must have been about ten years old. We lived in the first of our new bungalows there. Bungalow Bliss – not just a state of mind, but also a book of house plans that took Ireland by storm. Everyone wanted one, so all over the country beautiful old farmhouses stood rotting while families moved into their slices of pebble-dashed nirvana. The trouble for our family with building new houses was that we moved so often they were never really finished, and just didn’t feel like homes. I remember once we were driving through the countryside late at night when we stopped so that I could go to the toilet – nobody wanted to take any chances with the back seat – and as I stood at the side of the road emptying my tiny bladder into the darkness I saw the lit windows of a cottage in the distance. I felt a sudden and violent longing to have a home. Not the buildings with poured concrete floors and bare light bulbs where we lived, but a real home where the air would be thick with smells and memories.