You have chest pain. What do you do? Go to the doctor, or wait 36 hours to see what happened? Guess which option Paul Howard picked. The Ross O'Carroll-Kelly author told Dearbhail McDonald – sitting in for Brendan O’Connor – on Saturday that he spent a day and a half telling himself that his chest pain was down to indigestion.
"I get really, really bad acid indigestion and reflux anyway. I’ve had a whole lifetime of stomach problems. So, I kind of ignored it. I just thought it was that."
He may be, as Dearbhail observed, seriously productive – he’s involved with no less than four books published this year – but he’s downright negligent when it comes to his health because, reader, it was not indigestion or reflux. Paul had been reading up on the phenomenon called Sniper Alley – the health dangers pointing down from the rooftops at people – men in particular – in their 50s (he turned 50 this year). This was fresh in his mind when his chest pain refused to abate after 36 hours, so he decided he should maybe do something about it.
"Mary, my wife, knew it was serious, because the Champions League final was on and I left that 20 minutes in to go to the hospital."
The triage nurse in the Emergency Department was able to reassure Paul pretty quickly that he wasn’t having a heart attack because, even though he is appallingly negligent about his health, the minute a potential health problem is aired, he told Dearbhail, he begins catastrophizing about it:
"When I’m told something is wrong, I immediately go, 'This is it – this is nuclear!’"
Paul ascribed his seeming lack of concern about his health to his upbringing: as he put it, there was no man-flu in the Howard household. Nevertheless, he had some health scares that he – true to form – tried to wish away:
"I remember one time, I had – it turned out I had glandular fever. I just thought I had a cold, you know? My ear drum burst and I couldn’t hear and I still went out to work and I was taken to hospital because I noticed that my whole body had come out in these purple rashes. And it turned out I had septicaemia – the infection had gone to my bloodstream. So, by the time I got to hospital, they said, ‘Yeah, you had about 24 hours left.’"
He was admitted and the doctors discovered that he had a problem with his gall bladder (or ball gladder, as Dearbhail malapropped marvellously). A gall stone. A pretty big one: about the size of a golf ball, they told him. He was supposed to be having his gall bladder removed last week, but the procedure had to be postponed, so he’s waiting for the call to present himself at the hospital for surgery. And when Dearbhail told him he was looking well for a man who’d gone nuclear earlier this year, Paul tells her that the reason he’s a man transformed is all down to his internal golf ball:
"I’ve lost a load of weight. The whole summer, I’ve been on this diet. It’s a no-fat diet, which means I can’t eat steak – all the things I love: steak, cheese, red wine. So, I’m eating really healthily, so I’m eating fish, vegetables, you know, seeds. Like, who knew you could eat seeds?"
He must be, Dearbhail says, great fun at a barbeque and Paul agrees, saying he’s arrived at a couple of barbeques this summer with a ziploc bag containing a fillet of hake.
"I’ve lost so much weight that my friends, when they see me, they think twice about complimenting me on it, in case there’s something wrong."
Meanwhile, the 21st Ross O’Carroll-Kelly book, Normal Sheeple, has just been published. It’s the third of four books Paul has coming out in 2021. And he has the pandemic to thank for his extraordinary productivity:
"I remember in February last year thinking, ‘I’ve taken on far too much work. I don’t know how I’m going to do this.’ And when the lockdown happened, awful as it was, there was nothing else to do... It totally stripped away that social part of my life and allowed me to work."
How has Ross endured for 23 years, Dearbhail wanted to know. For Paul, it’s the way the character has evolved, so that now he’s the most sympathetic of the cast of the epic series, having started as the anti-hero:
"He’s actually become, in a strange way, the most likeable character in the books and actually the only normal character. The only character in the books whose moral compass in true."
In the new book, Ross’s father has become Taoiseach. This is not good for Ireland. His wife, Sorcha, is the minister for climate action and she has a plan – make sheep and cows extinct in Ireland. And we thought the pandemic was bad...
You can hear Dearbhail’s full conversation with Paul Howard – including Ross O'Carroll-Kelly's origin story – by going here.
Normal Sheeple by Paul Howard is published by Penguin Ireland.