Root Menu

Paul Brennan

In conversation with Beth Cullen

I was born and brought up mostly in Oxford, a fairly average childhood. There’s four of us in the family, so I’m the eldest, two sisters and a younger brother. My parents worked really hard to keep the house and the family together, like most families. They weren’t particularly wealthy; dad worked in the factories so there were occasions in the factory when they were on strike or during the three day week period when money was a bit tight. Dad’s always been able to turn his hand to most things, a bit of painting and decorating, so he’d always be able to make a bit of money from somewhere. Dad’s attitude was head down, get some honest work done and get an honest day’s pay for it. Mum taught Irish dancing for thirty years and made Irish dancing costumes. My upbringing was very Irish influenced. Mum, with the dress making, would do various bits of work now and again for an extra few pounds, especially when Dad was on short time at work. She’s meticulous at what she does and built up a reputation for making nice things. She worked at one of the colleges as a seamstress and she did various other jobs. Eventually she started out on her own making dresses. I’d like to think I’m a happy medium between the two. It’s a good stable sort of a background, I grew up with a strong sense of honesty and principles, and a strong work ethic, that you get nothing in this life for nothing. I think most people one way or another learn that much. I’m glad I learned that even though as a child I often thought my parents were way too strict or too harsh. I remember my dad saying one time, “you may think I’m being hard on you now but you’ll appreciate this when you’re older”. I often thought of that as a child and promised myself I wouldn’t tell him, and still to this day I haven’t, but at the back of my mind I’m always saying it’s a good job that he brought me up that way. But most of my childhood was a lot of laughter and going places, we travelled all the time to different towns with my mum teaching the dancing and my two sisters dancing in competitions all round the country. It really is just average, just normal, working-class kind of thing. Anything I make of my life to one degree or another I’d definitely attribute to my parents, they’re just not lazy people and it helps unbelievably.

I had an average schooling. I went to school here in Cowley but a couple of times when I was younger Mum and Dad went back to Ireland to live so I went to school in Ireland as well and that was a bit of a culture shock in as much as there was a slightly stricter regime. It was my first introduction to caning for getting things wrong during your lessons. It was a bit of an experience going from an atmosphere that you know and you’re comfortable with, as a child into a new school many miles away, maybe not the other side of the world but far enough away in your own little world. But I got through it all right. There was a certain amount of pushing to do well at school in as much as there’d be a good stiff bollocking if you didn’t do well in lessons which more often than not I didn’t. It was always, “could do better”, “needs to concentrate more”, that kind of thing, because it just didn’t interest me whereas music interested me. I was a fantastic musician and a great singer, the one and only singing competition I ever went into, I won. They awarded my prize in Brent town hall by the Lord Mayor of Brent, there is no higher accolade! It was always music and acting that I excelled in at school and yet I never went into that. I left school at sixteen, my only focus if you like was just to copy my dad, get out into the working world as quickly as possible and to start earning some money, with the view to being able to buy your own home. But once I had a few pounds in my pocket all I wanted to do was buy cigarettes and go down the pub. And that lasted quite a long time!

I was determined to get out and make my own mark and even if it meant upsetting people or shocking people, no matter how rude or embarrassing I was I really didn’t give a toss. I wouldn’t say that I was a total wild child when I was younger but certainly I put my mum and dad in a few embarrassing situations. Now knowing what I do about how your community works and how you’re perceived by other people the only thing I would really and truly change about my life is that, given how hard my parents worked, I would have preferred to have been not quite so headstrong. I think that’s the main thing. It was particularly embarrassing for mum because she was certainly well known within the Irish community and for somebody who is well known to have a child who is going around being a bit of an arsehole, that’s got to be embarrassing. That’s the only thing I really regret. Ok I could have made decisions that would have taken me in a different direction, like instead of playing round at school maybe I could have knuckled down, studied and realised the seriousness of it all and have gone to Uni. I hope that my kids do much better than I’ve done, but in my own way given the qualifications, or lack of qualifications I left school with, I’ve done alright so far. There are choices left, right and centre, I made the decisions I made whether I like the outcome or not. But I’m not dead yet, I’ve still got an opportunity to change it and I like to try and find the positive where I can. So school I didn’t like, I tried to brighten it up the best way I could just to get my arse through it and now that I’m not at school any more I’m still looking for the bright side and trying to get my arse out of it.

I went into the army just a year or so after I left school. Initially that was a music thing, I played the bagpipes for eleven years and going round to various competitions the army have their own pipe bands and they always used to play those competitions. There was always that notion that I could be as good as them, if not better, at least at the music side of things. After various competitions I’d been in as a solo I had had favourable comments from the military personnel, and they were always like, “ when you’re old enough boy we’ll have you”, that was very gratifying as a child and gave me a bit of a big head. So I joined up and it was a bit of a shock because I thought I was going to be playing bagpipes all day long and getting drunk with the lads at night. But as far as the army is concerned playing the bagpipes is not a trade. So I had to be a soldier first and play the bagpipes after. Anyone who plays main orchestral instruments are regarded as tradesmen, musicians, and that’s all you do all day, whereas playing the bagpipes, bugle, drums, that sort of thing, is seen as a sort of hobby. You are apportioned a certain amount of time to practise and appear in various military functions that come up, but the main part of the day is given over to soldiering.

I did my basic training in Northern Ireland in Ballymena, County Antrim, I was there for seven months and then the rest of my duty was mostly Chester but I spent some time in Dover and other places. The one place I wanted to go to was Germany, for the simple reason that the posting in Germany had a few short tours of duty in Belize, Hong Kong Singapore and places like that and that was my first opportunity. Typical luck, Christmas of 85, just when we were being shipped out from Chester, I was medically discharged with asthma. I had always done travelling of some sort be it from town to town, or back and forth to Ireland, I think I had been to France once. So there was that notion of getting in the car and going somewhere else no matter how far away it was or even if it wasn’t that far. The notion of travelling around but coming back to something secure. So the idea of going to Germany and seeing many other places from there was exciting, but it just didn’t happen.


I was in the army for less than two years, I was medically discharged after not quite eighteen months. That was very disappointing, when I enlisted I enlisted for six years and intended to make initially a short career out of it and depending on how that went, twenty-two years as a career soldier you come out of that with a nice tidy lump sum, enough to put down a decent deposit on a house and get an average job and trot along nicely or so I thought at the time. The pay in the army is not great. After I was discharged I came back to Oxford. When you leave the army they put you on a course aimed at getting you back into Civie thinking, it wasn’t so important for me because I hadn’t been in the military environment for as long as many others so the adjustment would have been a lot easier for me, not like some of these guys, particularly career soldiers, who had been in there for twenty odd years. They aim at giving you some kind of trade, if you’re not trained already, like mechanics or engineers. I did mine in electronics, that was four or five weeks and when I finished that I was back in Oxford. I worked for a bloke my dad knows for a couple of weeks and then got onto a course in Milton Keynes and I did that for a year, I got a City and Guilds Qualification in Electronics and then tried looking round. I applied for millions of jobs but it was a complete blank everywhere, for the same reason as kids leaving school, I couldn’t get a job because I didn’t have the experience and I couldn’t get the experience because I couldn’t get a job. My heart goes out to any kid leaving school and trying to get into any particular trade.

I enjoyed it mainly because I am quite detailed oriented and I like working with my hands, but it didn’t light my fire to the extent of going into research or design or going any further with it. The best I ever achieved was going into service and repair, which isn’t particularly great but with the small amount that I learned I achieved quite a lot, and then it was time to move on. I did pretty much twelve months on assembly, just putting components into circuit boards and soldering them in, and then was moved into stores and twelve months later was moved into repairs. I did that for a bit more than twelve months and then went into the sales department. Although I wasn’t selling any products, I was more on the administration side of things, it got me into contact with a lot of different customers, there were a few customers in particular who I’d keep up to date with the progress of whatever they had on the books. That was my first introduction I suppose with the service industry. It was nice to get feedback from customers, and one in particular flew in from Holland and wanted to meet me. He was pleased with the service and the company were pleased that I had solicited that kind of reaction from one of their customers. Then I had a medical problem and was out for a couple of months and when I came back the job that I had been doing had been spread between a number of people and as a result I was made redundant. I was out of work for a week, I got another administration job, did that for four or five months then resigned because it was convenient for both me and the company. Then I got a job in a pub called Rosie O’Gradies.

While I was working at Rosie’s I met loads of people who were travelling, just backpackers from Australia, Europe, America, all these different places. When you leave school a proportion of society go to University, then they get their degree and after maybe take a year out and go travelling. I didn’t go to Uni and then travel, I got into the working world as quickly as I could, but there were two places I always wanted to see because my parents loved them totally. Dad was in love with America and Mum wanted Australia. At one point when we were younger they applied to emigrate to Australia and they were turned down for whatever reason, so the two places I wanted to see were America and Australia and literally on the flip of a coin I chose America. That was a fantastic experience from start to finish because I often read these positive mental attitude books where they say focus your mind on what you want to do and it will happen. I am living proof that that is true because in the space of three weeks I had made the decision to go, found all the contacts I needed, and found a cheap flight. A flight at that time for three months to the States was between 650 and 700 pounds and I got a flight as a courier from absolutely nowhere. I mean I had been ringing round and there was one person who put me on to someone else, who put me on to someone else, and I got a ticket for like 400 quid and all I had to do was carry an envelope with paperwork to JFK, hand it over on the other side and that was it. And for me that was it. I liked America, definitely, there were a lot of familiar things, even though I’d never been there before, in as much as a lot of what is seen on T.V. is American based. Certain things were in some ways sentimental; my Dad was always a big fan of Charlton Heston and John Wayne, so it was nice to see some sort of example of the place where they lived and worked. I did various bits of work over there, I worked in a sandwich bar, making sandwiches and doing the washing up, I worked in a Tex Mex restaurant for about a month just on the door just seating people, showing them to their table. The American trip was a restricted experience in as much as I had a flight out date and a flight back date.

So the only real travelling I’ve done is America, and the UK and Ireland, but I suppose by some peoples standards that’s a bit. I don’t really feel comfortable or uncomfortable in any particular environment, it’s more the people that are around me. I probably see myself as being happy no matter where I travel to, like if for arguments sake a situation presented itself where I had to spend a few years in America I’d be perfectly happy there. The same as if I had to live in France or Germany or Thailand. From my point of view as long as people don’t try and change my way of doing things I’m fascinated by how they do things. I’ve never known myself to be critical of other people’s habits or beliefs or the way they do things, but I’m fascinated by the different ways things can be done.

I’ve often wondered why I still live in Oxford. I’ve lived in London, I’ve lived in Ireland, Southport, various places but I always seem to come back to Oxford. I don’t know whether that’s because I feel particularly comfortable here or just because I’m lazy. But I know people here so it was easier when either work dried up or situations changed, it was just easier. I think it’s laziness and that comfort zone, I think people get themselves into a comfort zone and it’s very difficult to break that habit.

When I got back to Oxford after America I ended up working at St Catherine’s College as Hall Supervisor. There are things that I enjoy about working at St Catz, but there are also things that annoy me about it. The things that I enjoy, if I didn’t enjoy them as much as I do then I wouldn’t waste my time. When it’s good it’s brilliant and when it’s bad it’s a pain in the arse. I think one thing I’ve learned from the various jobs I’ve done, is that no matter how bad a job is there’s always some aspect that you can find that you’re either good at or you enjoy or you are at least able to put up with, given whatever situation you’re in. But I am fairly intolerant of situations that I don’t find comfortable, I can withstand a certain amount of discomfort but as soon as it gets to a point that I don’t like I’m going hell for leather to change it. I mean an example is a job that I was unhappy with but put up with long enough to find something else, then resigned and moved into the other one. But with another job I had the attitude was intolerable, I detested the ground that they walked on, so I literally said, “there’s the keys stick them up your arse” and just walked out. I had nowhere else to go, I had a young child and no idea where I was going to get money from. I just had that notion that I’m able bodied, not a complete idiot so there’s got to be a job out there that will pay me enough to at least pay my rent.

I’m motivated by power, money and respect to the extent that it gets me out of bed in the morning…Power I’m not really sure about, I’m uncomfortable with the power thing because I’ve never really been interested in controlling people and my only experience of people with power are people who want to control people. To a certain degree with the job that I’m in at St Catz I’ve got power, and in jobs I’ve had before I’ve had power, but having seen how others wield it I’m fairly reluctant to put too much focus on that because I’ve seen people who let it go to their heads. Maybe they don’t want it to happen that way but they get into a situation where without thinking they just end up like that. Power is not so important, power would be nice if you could do it without hurting people, it would be nice to be in a position where I’d click my fingers and be a multimillionaire and not have to work any more, but that’s not really power.

Money is certainly important from a point of view of having a home to live in, most people might just want a three bed semi, but I’ve always wanted something more than that. So yeah, money’s been a motivator to a degree there but I don’t think that money is my ultimate because I had the opportunity to start my own business, it was one of these multi-level marketing things where you develop it in your spare time until it gets to the point where you have enough money to leave your normal job. The initial motivator there was money because I wanted the money that they were suggesting was available, but it got to a point where I started thinking the amount of effort that I’m putting in and the reward I’m getting don’t match so I clearly need to put in more effort to get to where I want to go. Do I really want to put that effort in? I suppose that comes back to what I said a while ago about being lazy. So is money really the motivator? If it was regardless of what amount of work there was I clearly would have done it.

Respect is earned, you don’t get respect. It would be easy to fall into the trap of thinking I am what I am at the college and so by definition you must respect me, but you try to get the staff to do anything or explain to the students that there are certain things they can’t do in a way that doesn’t invite respect and see how far you get. Catering is one of the worst trades to be in for keeping people happy particularly staff, it’s not very nice when you have to turn around and say “look that needs to be done and it needs to be done now and I don’t have time to explain” because people look back at you and think “who the hell are you shouting at? Who do you think you are?” I guarantee that there are a myriad of occasions where the staff I have to work with at Catz have turned around and said “God I hope a bus knocks him down” but none of it is ever an attempt at belittling anyone. As much as I can if I upset someone I try and remember and then go back afterwards and explain, but at that particular point in time the customers are sitting there waiting for something to eat and they don’t give two shits about the fact that I need to explain something to my member of staff. That’s probably one of the aspects that I really don’t like, but it’s got to be done, so you just bite the bullet and get on with it.

From my experience of St Catz, you could be forgiven for thinking that some people, by their airs and graces, were from a different class and had been brought up with a different set of ideals and ways of looking at life. Then you discover that they came up through the ranks like most of us. When you’re talking about class, or what money you have, or what upbringing you’re used to, there are differences. Like when the lottery first started that guy won eighteen million, that puts him into a different financial class but you couldn’t say that he was in the same class as people in that money bracket, could you? Watching them there is a subtle difference between those within the college who were born into that upper class echelon and the ones that weren’t. It seems to me anyway, that the difference between them is that those who are born into it are more polite, more accepting, of what’s become known as the lower class, on the whole. Those that have worked their way up have a kind of a snobbery that is not comfortable, that is not fitting, not natural. There’s a certain air about them that makes you think “just a minute pal you’re no better than I am”. But on top of that personality is thrown into it as well, I mean somebody who is just naturally an arrogant twat is always going to be an arrogant twat. The college environment is certainly not a good place to make good judgements about class.

Definitely the older you get the more you learn and you become more tolerant, even if you’re the most intolerant person on this planet, you definitely mellow. You get to the point  where your own personal energy starts to dwindle and you haven’t got the same sort of “I’m not letting you get away with that” attitude. I think if I was overly critical about the way people do things, it doesn’t matter how much I might like to talk to people I wouldn’t get on with people. I wouldn’t learn as much as I have. Again going back to my parents, mum and dad always maintained that it doesn’t matter what somebody else does as long as you do right by what we’ve taught you then that’s your standing and other people are welcome to do whatever they do. There was none of this, I’m not talking to you because you’re brown, you’re black, you’re this, you’re that. I never remember any racist overtones or even cultural intolerance from them in any way. When we were kids we used to have foreign students to help pay the bills and it was fascinating meeting people from different countries. Mum was always the same regardless of what nationality or colour they were, it was breakfast and dinner and a room, and there was always a smile and a welcome. The only time that changed was, regardless of colour or nationality, when the individual concerned stepped out of line. That was the only time my parents behaved any differently and they would have done that whether you were black, English, French, Spanish or whatever. Where you’re from or what you look like doesn’t mean as much to me as what you’re like as a person.

I never understood love at all as a child other than parental love, I knew my parents loved me, it didn’t matter how bad it got, they were always there, they may shout and scream or give me a slap but at the end of the day they were always putting a roof over your head, clothes on your back and no matter how bad you were they always accepted you no matter what you did. On a personal footing I like most had absolutely no clue what I was doing or what it meant or of how to acquire it, how to cope with it how to nurture it, even when I met Rachel, my wife. I’m still a selfish person to a great extent but not as much as I was. I think you learn by trial and error, certainly I didn’t give her a handbook and say there you go that’s how I am and this is what you can expect. When we first met we got on really well and then when work got a bit heavy, hectic or whatever then the harder I worked the harder I would play. For a period she had a problem with me drinking and she would complain about it, I’d bite her head off and say don’t interfere I’m doing the best I can. I’m not particularly proud of that, it does hurt. But that’s my experience of love, Rachel stuck with me. It was her willingness to hold on, I think she was just hoping things would improve or maybe she felt she had no option, maybe she saw something in me that I didn’t know was there, I don’t know. I’m glad she did hang on because I know I’m a better person now, certainly than I was before I met her. I know that I’m more tolerant of the family environment. That’s another can of worms though, you grow up in a particular environment and when you start up your own family you think that that’s how things should work. But you’re setting up home with somebody who has grown up in a completely different environment to you and the two clash, you endeavour to compromise and find common ground but that’s a nightmare in itself.

I think I’m a good parent in transition. I think it’s impossible to say what makes a good parent. You can say what a bad parent is, I think we’d all accept that a bad parent would be someone who kicks the kids and spends all the rent on booze and gives no thought to their family. But I think a good parent is defined by the individual themselves, you can look from the outside and see that the kids are always clean and tidy and well dressed and their manners are good, but behind the scenes you don’t know what’s going on. There might be hidden resentments, they might just be very good at disguising them and there have been examples of that in the papers over the years. I think that it’s a more personal thing. The general perception is that a good parent provides to the best of their ability for their family, pays their taxes, keeps a roof over their heads and all that. Possibly from that point of view they are a good parent. What satisfies me personally is that the more I teach the kids, and see how they react to it, the more I learnt from them. I read in a book years ago that very often the reaction you get from people is what you put across to them and some of the time the reason why people don’t like other people is because they see themselves coming back.

I don’t really regret anything, other than the big mistakes I’ve made! I value the experiences that I’ve had and I look back on them often and think, can I use that now, will it help me? But basically I’m lazy. I really don’t want to do anything, I just want to sit on a beach somewhere, get burnt to a crisp and drunk as a lord. But that doesn’t really put food on the table so I try and find the easiest and quickest way of doing things so that I can get away and go home, spend time with the kids and the wife. I’m pretty content now. I’ve got my wife and my two boys; my life is complete. It doesn’t really matter where we end up in terms of a house and a car and that sort of thing, maybe that’s a bit old fashioned, I don’t know, but in my mind that part of the journey is already complete, it’s already done, I’m there, I’ve arrived. The rest of it for me is how, between the two of us, we bring up our boys. How we help them to cope with the bullshit that we’ve had, because everybody has the same crap, it’s just how you deal with it.