Graham Norton is chipper as we chat in West Cork, where he spends much of his time when his eponymous BBC TV show is not on air, and to which he has repaired during lockdown. Despite the disappointing weather – Storm Ellen is about to wreak havoc on the west, and the following week will bring flooded roads and power outages across the area – and the daily waves of worse and worse news, he’s been quietly getting on with his other career, and the publication of his third novel, Home Stretch. “You know,” he says, “when I was rereading the proofs, it was in lockdown, Black Lives Matter and the world going to hell in a handcart, and I sort of thought, I’ve written an incredibly Pollyanna version of the world. But even if I have it’s a version of the world I like.”
It’s a lighthearted characterisation of his writing, but not entirely accurate. Although his novels are undoubtedly story-based, plot-driven and warmly entertaining – he described his first, Holding, as a “yarn” – they are not without darkness. His second, A Keeper, described the lengths that those in rural isolation will go to in the search for a partner, and Home Stretch is centred on the devastation visited on a small town after a fatal car crash. Beginning in 1987 and bringing us up to the present day, it focuses on an abiding theme of Irish life and literature – the relationship between those who remain and those who leave their families and communities – and also contains a vivid portrait of the evolution of gay life in Ireland.
The latter theme, he says, came about almost by accident. When I suggest that the novel appears to be first and foremost about sexuality, he replies, “Well, it does now that I’ve finished it,” explaining that, as he wrote, the possibility opened up of “this whole conversation between what it’s like being gay in Ireland now and what it was like being gay in Ireland in the mid 1980s. But I didn’t deliberately do that. I probably should claim that I did.”
When I was rereading the proofs, it was in lockdown, Black Lives Matter and the world going to hell in a handcart
However it came about, it’s impossible to imagine the book without it. One of its main characters, Connor, is forced to leave the small, fictional town of Mullinmore after his part in the car accident makes him a virtual pariah; but he is also concealing his homosexuality, and has to make his way, via the building sites of Liverpool and the squats and bars of London, to New York before he can live freely.
His story is in stark contrast to his nephew Finbarr’s, a gay man who finds himself, 20 years later, in 2015, visiting an exhibition in Dublin celebrating gay history and activism in Ireland. “What risks had they taken just to be themselves in Dublin in the seventies and eighties? They smiled at him from the past, happy despite never knowing how bright the future might become. They sat, not touching, only showing the camera what they could of their happiness. Finbarr thought of his Uncle Connor in Mullinmore. Had he known these bars and men existed? He doubted it.”
Norton is particularly fond of that scene: “I’m really struck by the bravery and the passion of those people who stayed. Who’d stay? You know, we’re a nation of leavers. That’s what we do. The minute we don’t have a job, off we go. The world loves us and that’s what we do, we go somewhere else. So the people who stayed and fought and changed minds and changed laws: I’m in awe of them.”
Norton’s own exit from Ireland was not sparked by a traumatic incident, like Connor’s, nor a sense of shame. Rather, he craved adventure and – he relishes the irony, given the fame he has achieved – anonymity. Growing up, he had wanted to be an actor, but couldn’t see a route from Bandon, the town in West Cork where he spent part of his childhood; the family had moved around the country because of his late father’s job as a rep for Guinness, but Bandon was where they ended up, and his mother still lives there. He knew no drama schools, no actors, no template to follow; so he went to university in Cork, and then away for a summer, to France and to London.
“And that was my first long period out of the country. And it was just great, I just loved it. I. Loved. It. And then I came back to Cork, and really didn’t love it. My first year in university, there was an anonymity that was just terrific. And then by some fluke, I did really well in my first year exams, particularly in English. And suddenly the lecturers knew who I was, the tutors knew if I didn’t show up ... and I hated it.”
He pauses. “I wanted out, out, out. I know. It does seem there’s a perversion in this story. So wait, you wanted anonymity? Sorry? But I did!”
Whatever the contradictions, Norton left his studies incomplete and ended up in London and at drama school. Then came the period of waiting for the phone to ring, a time when “no one cared. I just did not get jobs. I got a job in Harrogate, I got a job in Liverpool, but really wasn’t working at all.” His route to success, well documented in interviews and two memoirs, 2004’s So Me and, a decade later, The Lives and Loves of a He Devil, started with him putting a tea towel on his head and pretending to be Mother Teresa – “amusing for 15 seconds”, he says now, but he managed to work it up into an Edinburgh show (“I had a kind of Bulgarian voice, choir music, lots of candles”) and it provided his entrée into standup comedy. When Channel 5 launched and was on the lookout for new talent, Norton was there; and from there to Channel 4, Radio 4’s Loose Ends and, in 2007, to BBC television.
In the vein of the room-service waiter who inquired of a champagne-swilling George Best where it all went wrong, I ask Norton whether, through all this, he was secretly hankering to be a novelist. He laughs. “In the back of my head, when I was much younger, yes, I wanted to write novels. But you know, when I was much younger, I was out. Who’s at home writing a novel? When you find writers who are 22 or 23, you’re like, really? You sat home long enough to write a novel? It really wasn’t until my 50s that I was home long enough to write a novel.”
Writing the autobiographies made him confident that “actually, I can at least churn out that many words. I can fill a thing”, but again, there’s a flippancy that belies how seriously he obviously takes the novels. When he started, I wonder, did he worry that people might think they were ghostwritten?
“If people want to think it was ghostwritten, what would you do?” he replies. His greater fear was “having the Morrissey thing of just people laughing and going, this is the worst book ever written”. So he challenged himself to imagine that happening, and then living with it: “And so for me the worst was, it came out, it got that Morrissey reaction, you allow your friends to enjoy the moment. And then in a year, six months even, it’s over, it’s gone. The people who watch my TV show, the majority of them probably don’t read book reviews, so their chances of ever encountering this book were quite slim. So hopefully it won’t damage the show. You know, it’s not like I decided, OK, in this week’s show, I’ll read my book aloud.” It was, he concedes, nice when the worst didn’t happen.
Norton writes, he says, wherever he has to, but a lot gets done in West Cork, where the pace of life, in or out of lockdown, is considerably slower than in London. He prefers not to speak about his private life, and says that the setting of his books is a way of separating himself from it: “I wanted people to be able to read the books and forget that Graham Norton off the telly wrote them. That was the main reason why I ended up in West Cork in the 70s.” The books, I remark, all take us back in time, and are largely set in small towns and villages rather than cities. “Don’t know ’em,” he replies. “I mean, I know Cork a little bit, but I would get lost if you put me in the middle of Dublin. I was born just outside of Dublin, but I don’t know it.”
And what about the UK, his home for decades now? It’s never made more than fleeting appearances in his fiction. “I’ll never know those places as well as I know here. I can say I know London, but you know, I’ve driven through lots of English towns and English villages, but I don’t really know what shops are on those streets.” I get his point: when I ask him whether Mullinmore is based on Bandon, he tells me it’s more a mashup of the Cork towns of Skibbereen and Dunmanway; as a resident of Ireland, I know what he means, but I’m not sure it’s a distinction that will travel very far. “There’s a lot of charity shops,” he says of English small towns, “I know that. We’re raising a lot of money for cancer. But see, that’s an odd thing I’ll do, where I’ll say ‘we’re’ raising a lot of money. And, and so I have that thing, because I’ve lived there since 1984; my career is there, my friends are there, I pay tax there, I vote there. And I work for the British Broadcasting Corporation. So there is a sense where that’s my tribe. Certainly I found a tribe that I can be part of in that country. And so, I’ve said this before, but it is that thing where I’m in London, I get on the plane, and I’m going home to Ireland. But when I leave here in September, I’m going home to London. And I think you can do that. I don’t think we have to be policed that strictly.”
Fair enough, I say, but that fluid attitude doesn’t seem to apply when he hosts Eurovision and, for an evening, throws his lot in with the Brits. He grimaces humorously. “Eurovision people go nuts about Eurovision. And you know, I get it, I understand why,” he says, referring to those who object to him effectively speaking in, as it were, a British voice. “But I suppose I think: ‘What do you think I should be saying in a way that would make sense to viewers of the British Broadcasting Corporation?’ If their correspondent, their commentator, is going well, ‘they’ve’ done very well. Who’s ‘they’? … So that makes me roll my eyes, that anybody gets exercised about that. If that’s how you define patriotism or nationality, then, yeah, big old eyeroll.”
Norton’s Cork seclusion will come to an end when The Graham Norton Show returns to the BBC in October. It will, naturally, be a different sort of show, with a vastly smaller studio audience and a mixture of “sofa” guests and those joining by video link, including Riz Ahmed and Dolly Parton. “We’ll muddle our way through,” he says. “What I kind of like about it is that having done this thing for 22 years, we’re still being challenged … And so it’s kind of brilliant, we’re all suddenly very interested again, because there’s no coasting. Everyone’s got to try hard. The guests have to bloody log on!”
• Home Stretch is published by Coronet (£20). To order a copy go to guardianbookshop.com. Delivery charges may apply.