Bookworm

STORMIN' NORMAN

GREAT writer he may have been, but the late Norman Mailer was never quite as good a boxer as he thought he was. According to Irish writer and critic Ulick O'Connor, Mailer the boxer was little more than a punchbag for his sparring opponents. "I remember once meeting him in Manhattan and he was showing me his moves," he recalled. "I wasn't impressed at all: he wasn't a good puncher - his punches were just wild swings - and he had no footwork at all."

Even worse: he skipped like a girl. "He was showing off by skipping with the long scarf I was wearing. He couldn't do it properly, only one skip at a time. He was a fine writer and a nice guy, but not a boxer at all. He had all the style of a street brawler."

O'Connor knows whereof he speaks: although he's 78, he still holds the record for the fastest KO in Irish boxing history (four seconds). And it's through skilful use of his fists that he first got to know Brendan Behan, whom he befriended (and subsequently wrote a fine biography about) after beating him in a fight.

"Actually, Brendan was just the same kind of fighter as Norman," says O'Connor. "No style. Someone who really knew how to box - George Bernard Shaw, for example - would have beaten either of them."

O'Connor is not just a brilliant raconteur, he has known a wider range of famous people than anyone Bookworm has ever met. Over a delightfully long lunch in Dublin the other week, to discuss Christy Brown (see Scotsman Magazine, page 12) he rattled off anecdotes about the Mitfords, Muhammad Ali, Irish premier Eamon De Valera and many more. For all that, he still can't find a publisher for the second volume of his edited Diaries (1981 to the present) - which, in view of some of the tosh that does get published around this time of the year, is beyond baffling.

LAST WORDS

OF COURSE, Mailer the pugilist is not how most of us will remember him. In Edinburgh, those lucky enough to get tickets for his book festival appearance (via video link) will treasure memories of what turned out to be his last major interview.

Age had not withered the sharpness of his opinions, whether about Warhol ("I detested his work") or Iraq and Bush ("Small, mean, domineering wars are as catnip to political mediocrities"). The full interview is freely available on the Edinburgh book festival's site, www.edbookfest.co.uk