I’ve arranged to meet Dubliner Annie Macmanus, the former BBC Radio 1 DJ also known as Annie Mac, in an Irish pub called Maggie’s Bar in north London to discuss her second novel, The Mess We’re In. Arriving early to the Kensal Rise hostelry, I can’t help noticing the similarities between this pub and the one described in the book. It’s called Fahy’s and is also run by a woman with short grey hair, like the woman behind this bar. There’s racing from Bellewstown on the pub’s televisions and plenty of Guinness in the taps. The owner’s friendly dog wanders around, and on this rainy London afternoon the mostly male, older clientele are sitting in small groups or on their own, nursing pints. It’s April, but the ceiling is still hung with green, white and orange balloons left over from St Patrick’s Day.
Macmanus arrives wearing an orange jumper, instantly recognisable from her mop of brown curls and bright, lively blue eyes. She is, as I’d expect from listening to her podcast Changes, open and friendly, going up to the bar to order us glasses of Guinness, or “halves” as Macmanus puts it. “If I said ‘glasses’ here they wouldn’t understand me.”
The pub was her idea. She’s a proper local here now, having made a decision to integrate herself more in her local community while writing her new book. The podcaster and author lives a few minutes down the road. She brings her children here sometimes to watch football or play darts. Her husband, the DJ and music producer Thomas Bell, known professionally as Toddla T, is sober and not keen on pubs generally but “this place has got more of a community centre feel”. She is friends with a few local mothers from the school gates – some local trivia is that the first series of Sharon Horgan’s Motherland was filmed in this area. Macmanus and her school mum friends meet in Maggie’s Bar now for pints and bacon fries, preferring this refreshingly no-frills environment to some of the area’s more salubrious gastropubs.
In her new novel, set at the turn of the millennium, the young protagonist, Orla Quinn, works part time in an Irish bar while living in a dilapidated, mouse-infested house a few streets away from here in “County Kilburn”. Her housemates are newly signed rock band Shiva and her best friend, Neema, as she tries to figure out how to break into the music industry. Macmanus was hugely inspired by Sylvia Plath’s The Bell Jar, “this idea of a young girl coming to a city, with big aspirations, big dreams, and kind of getting the f**king wind knocked out of her sails”. The novel, a hedonistic, drug-fuelled, gritty coming-of-age story, is a love letter to London as seen through the eyes of an immigrant. It also explores themes that preoccupy many Irish people in this and other cities abroad: displacement, belonging, identity, home.
Macmanus has been grappling with these subjects herself lately, wondering whether she will stay in her adopted home or move with her family back to Ireland. She has spoken about how turning 40 nearly five years ago was a crucial milestone: that sense of time marching on prompted a re-evaluation of her goals. This led to the monumental decision to leave her hugely popular BBC Radio 1 show and her two million listeners after 17 years.
She had wanted to write since she was a child, and that leap “from curator to creator” saw her taking a writing course, which resulted in a critically acclaimed and best-selling novel Mother, Mother, a dark yet hopeful family saga set in Belfast, where she had studied contemporary Scottish literature and dabbled in poetry.
This is her first time talking about the new novel. “When I started doing interviews about Mother, Mother, the first question everyone asked is: where did this book come from? And I genuinely didn’t know. So I knew that this time it would probably be a good idea to think about what I wanted to write. What do I want to explore? What is meaningful to me? I know it sounds very basic.”
What emerged was that she wanted to explore the experience of being Irish in England. And having just recently stepped out of the music industry – the chapters of The Mess We’re In are all named after songs – she wanted to explore that, too. When she first arrived in London, she lived with a rock band on the other side of the city. “There were a couple of years that were really formative. I wanted to fictionalise it but also to try to remember as much of it as I could.”
In addition to The Bell Jar, two other books inspired her while writing The Mess We’re In. Hangover Square by Patrick Hamilton taught her how to write about pubs, she says. There is a “Bar staff wanted” sign outside Maggie’s Bar, and she seriously considered taking a job here to immerse herself in Orla’s experience, but in the end “I just frequented it a lot”. The other book, An Unconsidered People: The Irish in London by Catherine Dunne, was important in terms of the diaspora story. “There’s literally a dying generation of Irish people who came over to London after the war – a lot of them got stranded here and couldn’t go back. There’s sadness there and a real sense of isolation and loneliness.”
She depicts this beautifully in the novel, with Irish barfly characters contributing some of the book’s most affecting moments. “We don’t all get the luxury of belonging where we’re born,” one of them says. As she spoke to regulars in these north London Irish bars, such as The Coopers Arms in Kilburn, the pub scenes in the book “grew and grew. And I realised that this book is really about being Irish in England. And exploring who the f**k am I? How Irish am I? What does it mean to me to be Irish? Where do I belong? All of that stuff which is so prevalent for anyone who doesn’t live in Ireland any more. The kind of neither-here-nor-thereness of it all.”
She describes a recent Saturday afternoon visit to Maggie’s Bar. “My oldest, who is nine, was playing darts with a regular. I was sat with Maggie having a pint, and my youngest, who is six, was just sat at the bar, like an oul wan, for half an hour. But that actually meant so much to me, like profoundly. It scares me how much it meant. Like, what does it mean?”
Writing the book coincided with a point when she was thinking a lot about whether she should be going home for good. “So that thought was there all the way through, meeting different Irish people abroad from different generations and really trying to interrogate this whole idea of emigration and this idea of going home, which is not something I’ve ever thought about until now. And I’m not Orla, but I really wanted to show how I was at that time when I first came to England, going away without looking back, even once. With not even a thought of what you’re leaving behind.”
The pandemic was the beginning of me really thinking about going home [to Ireland], because it was the first time I had head space as an adult
She mentions a “threshold” moment, which happened a couple of years ago, where she realised she had lived in England longer than she had lived in Ireland. “It felt really significant. And you start asking all these questions.” During the pandemic she wrote an article for this newspaper about homesickness. “That was the beginning of me really thinking about going home, because it was the first time I had head space as an adult. I’d made time for myself, which was lovely and that coincided with Covid and not being able to see my family and then writing this book, it all kind of amplified in my head.”
Her trips home have steadily increased. She always goes at Christmas or Easter, and for a month in the summer with the children, but these days she also goes alone, just for a day and a night, to spend quality time with her parents. Her mother is 81, and her dad 76. “One little day with them on my own is like two weeks there with the kids,” she says. “It scratches that itch.”
We’re talking about all of this, about identity and home, when she casually drops the news that last summer she was offered an honorary MBE for “services to broadcasting”. She finds the email on her phone and reads out the message from the “director of protocol, foreign commonwealth and development office ... she proposes to submit your name to Her Majesty the Queen as an honorary Member of the Most Excellent Order of the British Empire”. The email asked if she would consider accepting.
The first thing Macmanus did was google Irish people who had accepted and rejected similar offers. “There are a lot of Irish people who turn them down.” She didn’t say no straight away. “I thought it would be disrespectful not to consider it. It made me think about my place in the world, my allegiances. I was never in any doubt about the absurdity of the monarchy, but it made me think about all of that.”
I hadn’t really felt trapped or anything - the BBC is a bloody lovely place to work - but I’ve never not had a boss since I was 15— Macmanus on quitting her radio job
The offer led to some deep conversations with family and friends. It’s not as though Macmanus will be celebrating today’s coronation of King Charles, but on the other hand she is conscious of how much Britain has given her. She recalls her mother’s response. “She was saying ‘England has been so good to you, look what it’s given you: it’s given you a husband, a job in the most amazing institution of British media, it’s given you a happy home, it’s given you friends for life.’” Macmanus’s response? “I was like, ‘All right, Mum, Jesus Christ,’” she laughs. “Because she’s right, you know. It really did make me look at things differently. It didn’t make me accept it, though.”
Her rejection reply was polite. “I emailed them back and said I really appreciated it and that it was an honour to be asked but I didn’t feel right about accepting. It’s the language of it, basically. The monarchy just feels quite absurd to me. It didn’t sit right.”
In her response she said she didn’t agree with the language, particularly with the word “empire”. “I said if they ever change the way they do the honours, then to get back to me, but right now the system just doesn’t work ... I haven’t told anyone until now.” Ventilating these issues in an Irish newspaper is probably less loaded than in the British press, she reckons.
How does she feel about quitting her job at the BBC now, nearly two years on? “It still feels new. It feels amazing to have been able to have the space and the choice to do it, to be able to walk away from a job like that. It’s not something I take for granted.”
It felt good to “take control and steer the ship” of her life. She knew as soon as she called her boss with the news that it was the right decision. “It just felt so good. I hadn’t really felt trapped or anything – the BBC is a bloody lovely place to work – but I’ve never not had a boss since I was 15, so for me to not have a boss and have an agenda to work towards was something that I’m still just really appreciating.”
There are downsides, of course. “The thing about working for radio and the BBC is that you are immediately in the middle of this huge world and community and you are a conduit of beautiful music and you feel connected. So I’ve really felt this lack of community ... Writing can be lonely and isolating. You spend all day on your own rattling around the house. I found that aspect, as a natural extrovert, really hard to do. In the book Orla is trying to find a sense of belonging and home in a city. But I was also trying to do that by coming to places like this and interviewing Maggie and integrating a bit into the community.”
My friend has just moved back here after being in New York for 10 years. And she was like, How the f**k are you not in therapy? Like, everyone in their 40s should be in therapy. And I said, ‘well, I just don’t like thinking about myself’
Macmanus arrived in London in 2001, the year Brian Dowling won Big Brother. “A very different time,” she laughs. In the novel, which is set around the same time, Orla is dealing with a lot of issues at home. Her father has left her mother and is living with another woman. There’s a sense that she is running away not just from her life in Ireland but from herself, from the problems she doesn’t want to face. A scene at a music festival, where she has a sexual experience she can’t quite remember, is powerful.
“She’s deeply ashamed and annoyed with herself about it, but like a lot of things that Orla does, she doesn’t allow herself to sit in that place very long ... I think I kind of wrote her as being someone who’s neurodiverse. Not that you would have ever [have been diagnosed as that] in the year 2000 or 2001. But she is someone with a lot of the characteristics of female ADHD. She’s not very good at emotional regulation. And she’s quite chaotic. She can’t seem to just organise those basic things.”
Orla couldn’t be further away from Macmanus in this regard. Something that comes up a lot in interviews is the fact that she actually likes herself. Some interviewers, particularly women, have found this natural confidence remarkable. Where does the confidence come from? “This is the bit that I always find really hard to answer because I’m not used to thinking about myself at all in an introspective way. I’ve never done therapy. My friend has just moved back here after being in New York for 10 years. And she was like, How the f**k are you not in therapy? Like, everyone in their 40s should be in therapy. And I said, ‘well, I just don’t like thinking about myself’ and she was like, ‘Go to therapy. Clearly you need to go to therapy, if you don’t like thinking about yourself’.”
She’s not completely averse to the idea. “But I don’t want to force it. No, if I feel like I will, then I will. I’m all ready to go now. Like, as menopause comes in, I’ve started feeling a bit sweaty.” Thinking a little bit more about her own confident nature, she credits her parents. “I was left alone a lot as a kid in a very good way. I was provided with a lot of love and a feeling of safety but I was allowed to form my own identity in my own way and in my own time ... My parents are amazing.”
Her confidence, no doubt, has helped when making some of her more significant life changes. Leaving the BBC, for example, and stepping away from (AMP) Annie Mac Presents, her production company that ran events with large audiences including her music festival, Lost & Found Malta. “I’ve stopped doing that ... I’m bowing out of all of the events that I used to do. That world was me as a curator of music, and it tied in so well with me on the radio. I don’t do that any more. Also, it’s a lot of responsibility. I really felt that as I’ve got older, this kind of burden of responsibility of being the figurehead behind an event where loads of young people are coming out getting rat-arsed, and I’m just too scared of somebody getting hurt.”
My husband is from Sheffield so London is neutral for us. In Dublin that wouldn’t be the case— Macmanus on the dilemma of moving back to Ireland
There is far less chance of that at Before Midnight, her new rave nights for people who like dancing but also enjoy a good night’s sleep. Demand has exploded for these events, which start at 7pm and end at the Cinderella hour – there’s a 10-date tour of the UK and Ireland in the offing. “It’s been so unexpected and such a rebirth,” she says. “I’d kind of written off DJing. I saw myself fizzling out. And now we’re trying to find a venue in New York.”
Then there is the podcast Changes, where she interviews celebrities about life-changing moments. She enjoys it but admits that it’s “a slog. Podcasts are really hard work. It’s a congested industry.”
Does she feel like a writer now, with her second book out in the world? “I’m still not actually able to say that word. If someone asked me what I do, I’d probably say, ‘I’m a DJ and I write books’. If someone calls me a writer, I would be scarlet in the best possible way. I’d be so embarrassed. I am also talking to myself every day, saying it probably won’t do well. And that’s fine. Because the process itself was really enjoyable. And whatever it is, I’ll learn and I hopefully will improve over time. I’m new, I’m learning. I would love to be seen as a writer, and I’d love to be considered that. But, you know, I’ve got a lot of work to do.”
My children really see themselves as English. And sometimes things happen that really hammer that home, like the Euros and, you know, they’ve got their English flags, and, as an Irish person, you are recoiling
For now, publicity for The Mess We’re In is taking priority. The book launch is happening here, in a downstairs area of Maggie’s Bar, which the proprietor no longer uses for public events but is opening especially for Macmanus. Her first book was launched “in a fancy hotel but this time we’re doing it with lots of Taytos and Guinness”. Interestingly, she doesn’t feel a weight of expectation with her second novel. “I haven’t felt that pressure to have to sell loads of books. It’s kind of lovely in that I can just write a bit more of what I want. And with this book, I’ve done that more than ever, I think I’ve stuck to my guns.”
And of course Annie MacMacmanus, MBE refusenik, is still ruminating on a permanent return home to Ireland. The youngest of four, she’s the only one of her siblings currently living away. There are issues to consider: her eldest son will be starting secondary school in a year and a half, and her husband’s work is mainly in rap music and reggae. “While Ireland is diversifying, there’s not much of an industry for that music in Ireland so he’d have to travel over here the whole time ... Is it better for me to be going over on my own and keep everyone in their comfortable place here and just go over on the holliers, or is it better to relocate everyone there? It’s hard,” she sighs. “Sorry, this is like a therapy session,” says the woman who has never done therapy. “My husband is from Sheffield so here is neutral for us. In Dublin that wouldn’t be the case.”
There is also the matter of her two very English children. “I hadn’t actually psychologically prepared myself for it, the amount of times I tell them, ‘it’s baath not bawth’,” she says, laughing. “But that’s the reality ... They really see themselves as English. And sometimes things happen that really hammer that home, like the Euros and, you know, they’ve got their English flags, their Union Jacks and as an Irish person, you are recoiling ... and you have to be cool. They take the piss out of me and I take the piss out of them.” She says she took “so much solace” from being an Irish person during Brexit. “What I always say to the kids is, if anything happens, we’re gone. Home. Yeah. It’s always home. They know that.”
The Mess We’re In is published by Hachette on May 11th