I find him half-perched on a stool; one hand delivering to his mouth dregs of blackened coffee, the other flapping through a tarnished copy of a local newspaper. His appearance surprises me for a fleeting moment, but I’m quick to conceal it and preserve any integrity as a journalist that remains. I am fifteen minutes late to our interview, and I feel my cheeks redden as I proffer my hand and apologize profusely.
I take note of the bustling cafe adjacent to our meeting point in the lobby at a local theatre. The first thing I spot are children: a journalist’s nemesis where a recording device is concerned.
After pleasantries are awkwardly exchanged, we make our way over to an empty table littered with the remnants of a meal had by its previous occupiers. I get a chance to properly scan his appearance; his hat, a bright lilac trilby with a navy band, rests on the side of his head. It is what caused my earlier bewilderment, yet I cannot put my finger on why. Maybe it’s because he looks utterly out of place in a small, suburban cafe. But that motion is quickly overruled by the fact that we are in a theatre – the purveyor of panache.
Moreover, he looks dissimilar to how he had the week before; at an introductory meeting for volunteers hosted by local community radio station Phoenix FM, he stood up in front of the aspirant crowd and announced that he, James Nugent, had been a drug addict. If the station’s officials hadn’t already managed to garner the audience’s attention, with a seemingly endless succession of current volunteers extolling the virtues of working at community radio, they certainly had it in a vice grip now. James praised Phoneix FM for helping him to realise his potential and instilling a type of self confidence that he never possessed before.
He had since agreed to be interviewed by me, and gratuitously, I had turned up late. But he was ready to talk.
“What type is that?” he asks, nodding at my digital recorder. I tell him it’s a H2N Zoom recorder, not really knowing what that entails, and he looks distinctly impressed.
“I was never really interested in radio,” he volunteers. “I can remember having an interest in Journalism though, and I always liked literature and theatre and art.”
His ‘interest’ in the arts seems more than that though; throughout our interview he naturally digresses into chat about critical discourse, the ennui of Beckett, and draws comparisons between Eamon de Valera and Spain’s General Franco. It is his modus operandi and I can keep up only intermittently.
Born in The Ward, a small suburb nestled between Finglas and Ashbourne in County Dublin, James is a stoical man. He tells me he began drinking alcohol at 14 years old, and then ceded naturally into drug abuse. Hash was his preferred choice.
“No matter what it was, I’d try and make it revolve around drink. Eventually I was having a drink in order to go for a drink, you know. Then the drugs sort of took over, then eventually heroin. I was addicted to anything that allowed me to escape myself,’’ he laments.
He looks me dead in the eyes as he describes his past, and I never see a shadow of fear flash across his face. He is unselfconscious about bearing his past and the gamut of emotions it shores up to a complete stranger.
“Looking back I really couldn’t handle life or any of its situations,” he ponders. “I wasn’t an open person, very closed. I wasn’t looking at myself from my point of view, I was looking at myself through everyone else’s eyes. I was something of a chameleon. You know, I could be in one pub talking about football, and another talking about Beckett.”
He goes on to tell me that he was mainly employed in the catering sector, but it was a stint at Croke Park that was his undoing.
“I was just a mess; couldn’t get through the day without half a bottle of vodka and a mixture of coke and heroin. After that I became unemployable,” he claims.
“I still looked respectable but then I started to go downhill; I lost weight, wasn’t taking care of myself and I wasn’t shaving, or washing regularly. I started to gain attention at that stage, and the cops would stop and search me but lucky enough I was never charged. I probably wasn’t worth arresting though.”
I ask him about his family and he tells me that since the age of 18 he was of no fixed abode. During his 40s however, James moved back in with his parents but that stay was short lived. He tells me it was his sister who accosted him about his use of syringes in the family home, and prompted him to get urgent help.
Eventually, James signed up to the Thompson Centre, an addiction treatment clinic based in Dublin 7. After one counselling session, he left armed with a batch of resource he was advised to contact, if what he wanted was to get better. One of those resources was the Coolmine Therapeutic Community, a treatment and rehabilitation centre for addicts based in Blanchardstown.
“I was going in to get the family off my back with the view of just taking a break from drugs so I could go back to using at the weekends,” he confesses.
“Two months in to the program I realised I needed to change – it was obvious to everyone that I wasn’t being honest. When I got honest and started to put some effort in, I began to gain confidence, some self esteem. Only a bit now, but it was enough. Hearing people coming in from NA [Narcotics Anonymous] and they were 20, 30 years clean, even a year, it was more than me. So these people sort of inspired me.”
Coolmine’s treatment model consists of four phases, and it was towards the end of phase one that James got his first taste for radio. “A hedge-funded company called Digihub got in touch with Coolmine about a radio production course, and I seen my name on a list down to complete it. We did a few shows, eight in total, I think, and then no more was said about it,” he adds.
Later, off the back of his localised fame, James was approached about working with Phoenix FM, the community radio station for Dublin 15. The station works with over 150 volunteers, and, as a not-for-profit organisation, receives very little state-funding.
James tells me of his paralysing fear at broadcasting to a larger audience through what I assume is his staple humour: self-deprecation.
“I could have sang mass in Latin for a bag of gear back in the day, but with nothing in my system in front of all those people? Terrifying,” he muses.
“The radio station was great for my confidence though. I loved interviewing people; I interviewed someone from an art gallery, another from the head of a homeless charity. And I was okay. I was able to do it.
“I never would have regarded myself as part of a community, I always felt like an outcast waiting on someone to tap me on the shoulder and say “we’re on to you, get out.”
It is admissibly ironic that James is now interviewing other addicts for his show; giving a voice to those who are maligned by society, perhaps due to an all-too-familiar paradigm associated with drug-users bandied about in the mainstream media.
“With community radio no one has an agenda. They don’t only want to be involved with ‘middle-class crack addicts’. For the 40th Anniversary of Coolmine I did a few interviews for commercial media, and I found myself on guard, especially with the newspapers. They wanted to know “well, what did you do for drugs?” You know, the criminal aspect to spice it up. I’m not sure if that’s what the people want at all though,” he admonishes. “With community radio, I can broadcast the fact that there is an answer to our drug problem – there are several agencies for people to go into in order to get help.”
Commercial radio didn’t escape unscathed either.
“I don’t think I could ever go in to commercial radio – everything’s the same. And the voices [laughs] You know, I’m finding my identity, and I feel like shaking them – you’re losing something that’s unique to yourself just to fit in. Ireland has some of the most beautiful regional accents – there’s such a musical lilt to some of them but they all evolve into a Dublin accent.”
After his lengthy missive, I press him further on his show about other drug addicts and question whether they feel less constricted in having a reformed user interviewing them. He sits forward, and with polite but firm indignation, rebukes my term for his status. “I’ll always be a drug addict,” he declares. “There’s no cure for it. It’s a way of thinking, but you just learn how to cope better with it.’’
I nod, slightly embarrassed at my ignorance, and raise the question of his future. I anticipate his continuation with Phoenix FM, since it was impacted so positively on his life. But, yet again, he surprises me and informs that he will be leaving his slot at the station to posterity.
“What I’d really like to see is someone in Coolmine take it over, because I think it’d be unfair of me to hold on to it. If I could hand it over to someone who could get the growth I’ve got out of it, I think it would be brilliant. I’m just waiting for someone else to come along.”
We both simultaneously check our watches and realise that it is time to finish up our interview. I gather my things together and, when I turn around, he is making headway over to the box office. I catch up with him, and overhear remnants of a conversation about Beckett between James and the receptionist. She glances at me and offers a subdued smile, then looks after James as he walks off. She notices it, too, I realise. And then it hits me. The hat. That elusive difference.