Cochrane, Ian (1941–2004), writer, was born 7 November 1941 in a two‑room cottage at Moylarg, Dromona (near Cullybackey), Co. Antrim. He was the third of five children of Tom and Sadie Cochrane and had three brothers and a sister. 'We lived in a little house right out in the country, seven of us sleeping in one bedroom. But I don't think I realised we were living in poverty' (Sunday Tribune, 26 September 2004). The family later moved to a council house in Cullybackey. Cochrane claimed that his childhood gave him 'rich source material' for his literary career; he recalled listening intently to fireside conversations and making maps of them.
His schooling was intermittent; however, he attended Tullygrawley public elementary school, Cullybackey, where he came under the influence of the locally famous progressive headmaster Robert Lamont Russell (1892–1957), author of The child and his pencil (1935). Russell encouraged his pupils to develop their creativity through drawing and writing, and Cochrane always spoke of him with gratitude: 'He was a man I admired greatly. I like to think that I write the way he would have wanted me to write – down to earth stories about country life' (Belfast Telegraph, 16 November 1970). Cochrane finally left school at the age of 14, presumably to work as an unskilled labourer. Two years later, after the death of his grandfather (the family member to whom he was closest), he suffered a severe illness causing total sensory deprivation; before his sight returned he learned to read and write in Braille, and on recovery he had to learn how to walk again.
Cochrane moved to London in 1959, where he trained as a musical instrument technologist (piano tuner), an occupation intended to compensate for his continuing eyesight problems. Cochrane subsequently took various jobs including lift attendant, working with drug addicts in rehabilitation, cleaning flats and a spell at the Ministry of Public Buildings. (His nursing experiences, combined with his earlier hospitalisation, influenced the frequent depictions of institutionalisation in his novels.) Around 1970 he decided to focus on becoming a writer; he was strongly influenced by the US Southern Gothic stories of William Faulkner and Flannery O'Connor, believing that the impoverished rural and small‑town society they depicted, with its combination of quasi‑pentecostalist religious fervour and brutalised sexuality, had many affinities with his native north Antrim. From the early 1970s he began to publish stories in literary magazines and in anthologies such as the Faber collection Introduction 4 (1971), which contained four of his stories, and Penguin modern stories (1972), of which a reviewer wrote: 'If the finger of the future does not single out Ian Cochrane…I am no prophet' (cover note to A streak of madness, 1973).
In 1973 Cochrane published his first novel, A streak of madness. This depicts the inspirational effect of a teacher (based on Russell) on one of his pupils, whose developing artistic interests arouse the suspicion and resentment of his churchgoing mother and her faith‑healing pastors. (As an adult Cochrane distrusted all forms of organised religion and was essentially an atheist, though in later life he took some interest in Buddhist spirituality.) The young artist in turn develops a protective love for one of his cousins, who has an intellectual disability. The young artist succeeds in defeating the attempts of other relatives to institutionalise the boy, with the assistance of the teacher who reveals that the 'idiot's' mental condition is partly due to having been kept in a henhouse in infancy because of the shame of his illegitimate birth: his father is a presbyterian minister, whom the artist's pious 'Ma' (the idiot's aunt) blackmailed into allotting a council house to her family. (This is based on the notorious 1956 Crossgar, Co. Down, case in which a widow kept one of her children in a henhouse because he was mentally and physically disabled.)
This plot summary gives the impression of a fairly conventional Bildungsroman; but the novel's defining feature is its narrative voice, for the story is told by the fourteen‑year‑old younger brother of the young artist, and Cochrane uses the flat and unreflective voice of a poorly taught provincial boy in his early teens to great effect in conveying an impoverished and mentally restricted society and the hypocrisies of its ruling powers. (There are descriptions of the narrator's work experience as a teenage recruit to the local linen mill, of which he remarks bluntly that though the local boys say they are only entering it till they get something better, many spend their lives there.) This narrative force covers some inconsistencies (the novel appears to take place both within a few weeks and over a period of several years) and a touch of sentimentality not found in Cochrane's subsequent novels.
Cochrane told interviewers that he wrote from a sort of compulsion, although the nervous energy involved in writing made him feel physically ill. By the time A streak of madness appeared he had accumulated several unpublished novels and novellas; this helps to account for the rapid appearance of his second novel, Gone in the head (1974), a noticeably more assured work giving a child's‑eye view of life in a council house with an ailing, frantically religious mother and a disreputable father. This was the most enthusiastically received of all Cochrane's books; it was runner‑up for the 1974 Guardian fiction prize, and the director Peter Bogdanovich expressed an interest in the film rights. Cochrane was able to live as a full‑time writer, teaching creative writing two nights a week at London University in the mid‑1970s, though he suspected writing could not ultimately be taught and required inborn talent.
In 1972 Cochrane married Maggie Ogilvie; for a time they lived in the Kent village of Goodneston, but Cochrane was ill‑at‑ease there and preferred the city. They had no children and divorced in 1979; they remained on friendly terms (she is the dedicatee of his last novel, The slipstream (1983)) and Cochrane treated her daughter by a subsequent marriage as if she were his own child.
Cochrane's six novels are all narrated in the first person and driven by the disorienting effect of a narrator who is confined by his limited milieu; unreliable and even demented, he remains the reader's only point of identification yet often appears to be having a private joke at his expense. (It may be relevant that Cochrane became an immensely popular raconteur, singer and reciter on the London literary pub scene, a flamboyant, diminutive figure wearing a sailor's cap, long woollen scarves, and dancer's shoes.) This tricksterism is deployed to greatest effect in Cochrane's fourth novel, F for Ferg (1980), where the reader is provided with an unsettling surrogate in the person of Fergus Moore, the private‑school‑educated son of the local mill manager. Invincibly and terminally naive, Fergus appears to see the narrator and his layabout friends as D. H. Lawrence heroes, although their main occupations are cheating on the dole and sexually exploiting the local teenage girls, who accept this exploitation with a mixture of raucous complaint and terrifying provincial ignorance. As the narrator – and the reader – display increasing unease at Fergus's treatment, Fergus continues to praise these new acquaintances as 'natural' and 'unspoilt' while they subject him to brutal hoaxes and public humiliations, culminating in the murder of Fergus's father – who believed, with equal naiveté, that the locals could be got to do an honest day's work – and the burning down of the mill.
Cochrane's six novels fall into three groups of two; A streak of madness and Gone in the head depict childhood in a small‑town Ulster protestant lumpenproletarian milieu; Jesus on a stick (1975) and F for Ferg are set in a similar milieu but have adolescent narrator‑protagonists who attach themselves to older, more reckless men who drink compulsively, engage in sexually destructive behaviour at the expense of local women (one of whom significantly asks why men are so scared of the word 'love' – Jesus on a stick, 72), display potential or actual mental problems, and ultimately bring down destruction on themselves, their women, and their narrator‑accomplice. (The Northern Ireland Troubles rarely feature in the novels, though there is a vivid and unglamorous description of a provincial Twelfth of July parade in Gone in the head, which also refers to Ian Paisley (qv); there are no significant catholic characters, the narrators being so confined to their small‑town worlds that even Belfast only appears – grey, damp, provincial – in Jesus on a stick). These novels are remarkable for the verbal inventiveness and forceful expression of their blasphemy and bawdry, characteristics also found in the third pair, Ladybird in a loony bin (1977) and The slipstream, in which the narrators are Irish‑born artists manqués in their twenties, living impecunious and disreputable lives in downmarket London lodgings with groups of similar associates, keeping one step ahead of the forces of respectability who are generally (not always) bigoted and self‑righteous. The general milieu resembles that depicted in the film Withnail and I (dir. Bruce Robinson, 1986), except that the characters work less and are more heterosexually active (albeit usually with disturbed underage girls or depressed older women, whom they know themselves to be exploiting while refusing to acknowledge their needs).
Cochrane's work was criticised by some as sensationalist, yet even a critic who hated it thought it 'strong in its unpleasantness' (Maev Kennedy, Irish Times review of Ladybird in a loony bin, 18 February 1978). Other critics defended it as an accurate account of a certain hopeless and alienated milieu, a view that contains truth but downplays the conscious elements of exaggeration and playing on a wire in Cochrane's style. His principal significance lies in his role in adapting American Southern Gothic to the depiction of small‑town Ulster; his intimate friend and obituarist Maurice Leitch (himself an anatomist of the same milieu, though in somewhat different style) recorded that when he first met the novelist Patrick McCabe he was asked 'Do you happen to know Ian Cochrane? … Next time you see him tell him I stole his voice for [McCabe's 1992 novel] The butcher boy (Ir. Times, 4 October 2004). Although McCabe's version of grotesquerie is somewhat wider in focus and more attentive to popular culture than Cochrane's, the earlier writer's influence on this seminal literary text of 1990s Ireland makes a strong case for his reassessment, and Cochrane may be thought to stand in the same relationship to such earlier evocations of pious protestant poverty as Alexander Irvine's (qv) My lady of the Chimney Corner (1922) as McCabe does to popular Irish 1950s catholic devotionalism and romantic nationalism. The writer Shaun Traynor, in a tribute to Cochrane on his website, records McCabe as saying: 'Ian was a big writer … [one of] a number of writers of the seventies who haven't got the full credit they deserve' (Traynor).
Cochrane's career went into decline after 1983, as his work was seen as uncommercial. He continued to write, but none of this later work appeared in book form. In 1987 he intervened when he saw a large group of men beating and kicking a man late at night in Oxford Street underground station; he was beaten up himself, suffering injuries which permanently affected his ability to write and involved him in lengthy dealings with the Criminal Injuries Compensation Board for very little return. He remained, however, a well‑known and well‑loved figure at his favourite pub, the Churchill in Kensington Church Street. (When Cochrane died the landlord announced his intention of putting up a plaque where Cochrane had stood; he recalled how 'people loved to listen to his accent and his stories. He could make craic out of anything' (Traynor)). Cochrane also served as a much‑appreciated cook and babysitter for his circle of friends.
Ian Cochrane died of a heart attack at his London residence on 9 September 2004; his funeral was held at the Kent estate of Lord Fitzwalter, and he is buried at Goodneston.