Beyond words November 28 2016
Recently we were thrilled to launch our 25th anniversary anthology, Beyond the Centre: Writers in their own words, at the Crescent Arts Centre in Belfast on 16 November. We were even more delighted when Carlo Gébler agreed to help us launch the anthology, little did we know that his speech would be a tribute not only to the Centre — but to the writers who comprise such a vital part of it. Read on for Carlo's full speech.
"In 1978 the New Review, literary magazine, English, held a symposium on the state of fiction: 56 writers supplied replies to a questionnaire. The respondents varied in age from mid-twenties to mid-sixties and they gave very different but very detailed replies. Peter Vansittart (1920 – 2008), 1st published novel 1942, 688 copies sold, described himself as, ‘fairly hopeful’ about being a writer. Auberon Waugh, son of Evelyn, confessed he’d eschewed the novel in 1972, when his 5th had earned him £600 on the grounds, and I quote, ‘it is not possible to bring up a young family of four on this sort of earning, and it is not possible to hold down any sort of regular journalistic engagement if one is to take three months off every year to write a novel’. You should be so lucky some perhaps thought, then, and even now.
Jeremy Brooks revealed his last novel Smith as Hero (1964), took three years to write, enjoyed good reviews, but only earned £1200 in total, so he gave up fiction for journalism. Francis King, sometime British Council employee, revealed that in order to support himself and novel writing: he worked as a reader for Weidenfeld & Nicolson, wrote a weekly fiction round-up for the Sunday Telegraph, a television column for the Listener, and took lodgers in to his house in Brighton with meals, which he cooked himself, included in the rent. Penelope Fitzgerald described how the managing director of Duckworth, Colin Haycroft wondered if an advance of £200 on her first novel The Golden Child (1977) was acceptable to which she replied, to him, ‘No, but I haven’t the courage to say no.’
So that was Albion. Thirty years later, different polity, we find, when we read Beyond the Centre, this marvellous collection of essays about literary culture now, and particularly Catherine Phil McCarthy, Jack Harte and Peter Sirr’s essays, those challenges as politicians would doubtless call them, encountered by writers, well, they haven’t gone away, have they? As several of the writers whose work is contained herein testify it is difficult, very difficult to make a living as a writer. Or, to put it another way, there simply ain’t enough cake to go round: not for writers, and not for the Irish Writers Centre either. This gruesome economic truth runs through the essays in this collection like Bundoran runs through a stick of Bundoran rock. And by the way, yes, I bought some Bundoran rock recently and I know of what I speak.
Now: These essays aren’t only about economics of course. This is an eclectic collection. The contributors have chosen to approach their brief from many different angles, not just the financial one and the book is the stronger for its breadth but it is, if any in power chose to read it, a bracing read because what would be born in on them is that the rewards for making literature are meagre. However, this is not artefact simply of complaint. There are complaints, yes, and the Irish state, its political elite and its arts bureaucrats get a quite a roasting, and fair enough, but this is also emphatically a book that celebrates collaboration, communal activity, solidarity between like minded souls and describes what people have done by pulling together.
Orwell wrote a marvellous essay on Dickens. It was inside the collection Inside the Whale. I love Orwell and in this essay I was particularly captivated by this, which I think Lisa McInerney, because of her contribution on culture and class in this collection, might particularly like:
‘If you hate violence and don’t believe in politics, the only major remedy remaining is education. Perhaps society is past praying for, but there's always hope for the individual human being, if you can catch him young enough. This belief partly accounts for Dickens preoccupation with childhood.’
I personally don’t believe in violence and I despair of politics and our politicians, so all I have left is education. That is, actually, all I believe in and that is indeed, in the widest sense what the Irish Writers Centre offers, as these essays also attest. You’re probably now thinking, What’s he talking about, the classes, the courses? Well, yes and no. They are educational and they are a core part of the Centres activities. The Irish Writers Centre has helped writing by teaching people to write better and in the process has helped writers by employing them to teach people to write better. Hooray. But I’m not talking about just that kind of educational endeavour, the pedagogical variety.
So am I talking about the huge number of happenings, events, readings, and the way the Centre has acted as an impresario for cultural activity, literary mostly, and that is in and off it self a jolly good thing. Again, yes and no. These are great. They introduce to readers writers and the work of writers they might not know. Fabulous. What’s not to like? And it is educational.
But the kind of education I’m talking about is the wider, deeper, fuller variety, the kind that raises consciousness, the kind that transforms actual thinking patterns and enables thereby, what hasn’t been thought before to be thought and then enacted, put in to practice, actualised.
And the basis and enabler of this consciousness raising is the utterly unpredictable but incredibly liberating, stimulating intellectual miscegenation that occurs by virtue of the Centre being a centre. Because it’s a centre people go to it. They bring ideas, literatures, attitudes, habits and social practices. They meet other people, talk, interact, blah blah, and all this psychic material gets mixed up, and then it gets churned around and then it gets broken down and then and then it reforms in to something not previously considered or imagined and then hey presto something new has arrived. This has been going on since the Centre started. Obviously a lot of what’s been made is written but there’s a lot more than texts made there and, moreover, we can name these things. The list is long, I’ll just list a few examples (don’t take it personally if you’re left out) the Liffey Project, the Bloomsday thingamajig, the Dublin Writers Festival, the UNESCO designation of Dublin as a ‘City of Literature, and a host of trade or industrial organizations and bodies. Other bodies were involved but the Centre was of some service in the case of these and more and these are the kind of educational outcomes that I believe in. I believe in things, programmes, rituals, whatever, that go out in to the world and change it for the better as all of the things that have come out of the Centre have done and I believe these things in turn, have an educational remit because they, in turn, all raise consciousness. You see, I have a thesis. There is a virtuous circle.
The world, at the moment, is not a happy place. We live in a mad world and we, writers, artists, what ever you want to call us, we have a job. Our job, to paraphrase Mencken is to afflict the comfortable and comfort the afflicted, or so I believe, and we do that by raising consciousness also in what ever way we can and the Centre’s function is, in every way, to enable that, and it has, and it does. It’s been doing it brilliantly for the last quarter century, as the essays attest, and I believe there is every certainty, given the people in charge, Valerie Bistany et al, I believe that there is every certainty that it will continue to fulfil this vital function. And in that endeavour it will certainly have my absolute and unqualified support."
Wednesday, 16 November 2016
Crescent Arts Centre, Belfast
Beyond the Centre: Writers in their own words is available now from New Island Books, just in time for Christmas!
On Tuesday 23 June 2015, Carlo Gébler launched Here’s Me Here, Further Reflections of a Lapsed Protestant – a collection of writings by Glenn Patterson (published by New Island Books).
Gébler's musings on the evolution of the writer, the human experience and that much sought after concept, truth, are likely to resound with many writers.
'We believe in glasnost. Of course we do. We’re in literature, on Grub Street. Glenn Patterson is my friend, my very good friend. Bear that in mind when you listen to what I have to say.
The ecology of literature contains constants that never ever change and yet at the same time, it is always morphing, it always in a state of flux and the flux stuff (the fluxing if that is a word – is it a word? thank you) the fluxing is usually bad, and always awkward.
Writers, novelists, I use the term interchangeably, need to be protean: they need to adapt, endlessly, indefatigably, tirelessly if they are to survive economically. Or, as others, with a more brutal, less lyrical temperament have put it – in the brothel all services must be offered. To survive we must write, because we are obliged so to do, in many registers, in many forms. It was ever thus.
Glenn is primarily a novelist. Additionally, he is writer of drama for the cinema. And the radio. He is a writer of short stories – or as I have sometimes heard him say when he’s heard this said, he is the writer of a short story (which I am sure by the way isn’t true). He is certainly a writer of memoir. And he is a writer, and he has always been a writer, of prose narratives stroke meditations, non-fiction writing which combines the personal lived experience and his thoughts about the society in which he lives, and so on and so forth. His first collection of such pieces was published under the title Lapsed Protestant (an interesting and revelatory title; remember Mr Freud, ‘There are no jokes’) and Here’s Me Here is a further collections of such writings.
When I look at a book it is, now I am entering advanced middle age, impossible not to think about where it is, and where the author is in the continuum, in the history of literature. Writers have always worked in many forms (they had to, to make a living – that was my protean point) but the registers in which they sang have changed and that is instructive. Three hundred, two hundred, a hundred years ago what was usually demanded of writers of fiction when they wrote non-fiction, was – for want of a better word – colour writing or testimony about place, or persons, or topography, rather than opinion, rhetoric or counsel.
But then, sometime in the last century, the precise date is contested but not the fact, God died, or if he didn’t die, he folded his tent and vacated the universe, disgusted by our endless capacity for stupidity and cruelty and his servants on earth lost their way (assuming they ever knew it, which some would dispute), and thereafter, once He went and the religion went AWOL, what was demanded of writers of fiction, when they sang in the non-fiction register, was no longer testimony about place, or persons, or topography, but analysis and insight, counsel and comfort that would fill the vacuum left by the disappearance of religious practice and spiritual content from our wretched lives. This is not an original idea of mine by the way. Oh no. I’ve stolen it, like all my bon mots. It was an American novelist called Bellow, first name Saul, you may have heard of him, he died recently, who first – to my knowledge – fingered this when he observed some time in the 1960s I think, ‘Now God is dead, novelists have acquired a priestly function.’ I quote from memory so I may have it wrong slightly, word wise, but that’s the gist. ‘Now God is dead, novelists have acquired a priestly function.’
And Mr Bellow was absolutely right. Just look around north, south, east, or west, and you will see novelists everywhere, in their droves, stomping around, speaking the truth about the past, the present, the future, the planet, politics, everything, and offering consolation, insight, understanding to us poor mortals abandoned by our maker and his helpmates. It’s a very interesting phenomenon and this book Here’s Me Here is part of that.
So, are the priestly constructs of my lapsed Protestant friend any good? Well, I can tell you this. The writing is sharp, precise, lean, and ludic. It will make you laugh. And I hope nobody will be offended if I go on to make the observation that sharpness, precision, leanness and laughter inducement are not what one traditionally associates with the utterances of most men of the cloth. However, and you knew there was a however coming, I know you did, exceptional literary burnish ain’t enough. You need more. The writing of authors fulfilling a priestly function needs more than style, though style is vital because it gives such pleasure. Writing when it’s in this register, needs to describe experience that is recognisably human and it needs to make sense of that human experience in a way that makes sense to other human beings.
This is very difficult: one, because language is a false friend, and two, because we are saturated and infected by the values of the society in which we exist through its control mechanism, the mass media. In other words, and this is my opinion, it ain’t everyone’s but I’ve got the conch tonight, and I’m not letting go, the sense we make of the madness around us rarely if ever reflects our actual authentic feelings or our deeply held beliefs and usually reflects, though without us being aware that this is the case, an interpretation or an understanding or version that is pre-determined, pre-authored if you like, by the culture in which we nest.
But what you encounter in Here’s Me Here is not that but an intelligence that in every word, sentence, paragraph and page has separated itself from the formulaic, the proscribed, the agreed, the traditional, the standard, and sees life and human experience as it actually is (or tries to any rate). Our political culture – the whole shebang, left to right, Orange to Green, Loyalist to Republican, et cetera, is oppressive, and our collective culture (vaguely socially democratic, light touch capitalist, big on rhetoric, very short on kindness and delinquent on love) is tyrannical, though naturally this is hidden. We need truth tellers who bear witness to this otherwise we ain’t going to survive, and we are most fortunate on this island with its two Irelands (Irelands which are, well, different to say the least) to have a writer who has volunteered for this vital but also thankless task, with Here’s Me Here the proof of that.
Ladies and gentlemen, Mr Glenn Patterson.'
Tuesday 23 June 2015Irish Writers Centre,
19 Parnell Sq.