Feature Articles


(Poetry Ireland News, November/December 2005)

The London critic Cyril Connolly on a visit to Dublin in the mid-1950s described literary Dublin as a ‘warm pool of friendly crocodiles’. In the passing of half a century little has changed except perhaps the crocodiles have become more competitive. The imminent danger is still palpable and you suddenly realise that it is you yourself who might be the ingredients of their late night supper.

In a similar vein, in an interview with Somerset Maughan, Malcom Muggeridge gently offered the opinion that writers were odious creatures, a suggestion with which the aged Mr Maughan energetically and enthusiastically agreed.  The point is this: writers often have to do a limbo dance and crawl lower than most people just to squeeze themselves under the taxing barriers of life. But in that nauseous descent if they write something of merit they can achieve honour.

One of the greatest short stories I’ve read was by Flannery O’Connor, a story about the troubled heart of a black man, a poor southern farmer without much going for him as he ploughs his arid acres with a team of horses in the sweltering noonday sun. But what courage he displays, what sense of purpose, even if he was never to succeed. And yet the world is full of such people, people who shine and radiate like stars. Because people are walking, talking rivers of heartbreak, and their daily acts of heroism and weakness often go unrecorded if not for the likes of the greats from our literary past, a Sean O’Casey for example, or a James Joyce. These are the people, both real and as literary characters, today’s writers can and should draw their inspiration and solace from.

They need to; literature is a tough business. Whether at the top of the premier league or struggling at the bottom of the fourth division, there is always the unforeseen prospect of a free transfer and the descent into the amateur league. In the words of a senior member of Foyles Bookshop in London, ‘some books are duds’. Irish readers, in particular the Dublin school, possess a highly selective pair of antennae for detecting duds, probably because under the skin of most Dubliners is a writer desperately trying to get out. Meet them and they are all on the slow burn – like bread in the toaster, a book is always just about to pop out. Yet it rarely does. Perhaps it can only happen when your back is pinned tightly against the wall and all your friends are elsewhere. Patrick Kavanagh was right: ‘nail the arse of your trousers to a chair if you want to write’.

And avoid provincialism in your outlook. Provincialism with its two in-laws, narrow mindedness and prejudice, are dangerous and dubious tenants of any household. For to see the world with a blinkered view is not to see the world at all, only a mean reflection. However, if the provincial mindset is not capable of seeing the world the way it is, the good news is that the world is capable of seeing provincialism for what it is, both petty and ignorant. The Celtic Tiger has made us a wealthy country but sadly it has not made us any less provincial. Or, is our provincialism to be celebrated, does it make us what we are, should we just accept it like the Saturday night drunks and the weather?

Open mindedness is all: if a writer can travel, whether internally or externally, and connect with a source which is both personal and original, then the juices of that journey are shared with the reader. This aphorism is as true now as it was in the days of the Klondike gold rush as recorded by Robert Service, who wrote that ‘There are strange things done in the midnight sun / By the men who moil for gold’. How even stranger now our deeds and the tales we tell ourselves in our hunt for gold, in a country and a world that desperately seeks consolation and mutual empathy. That desperately yearns for all ordeals to be over...

John McNamee is director of the Out to Lunch poetry reading series. His short story collection A Man with a Hat is available in Eason’s and all good bookshops.

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