Tom Paulin

Initially hesitant, the once 'notoriously combative' critic, essayist and poet eventually finds his voice on a return visit to Belfast

Tom Paulin is quieter these days. The notoriously combative critic, essayist and poet no longer rides into battle with the likes of Germaine Greer on Newsnight Review.

His name, once regularly invoked in the media, either approvingly – that 'rare thing in contemporary British culture… the writer as conscience' – or with scorn – 'a fully paid up member of the Awkward Squad' – has faded from public view.

Instead of a raging iconoclast, full of verve and brio, storming on to the stage at the Black Box in Belfast, the audience at the eight Out to Lunch festival witnesses a quiet, reflective, almost diffident man, barely recognisable from his former media persona. 

Paulin seems weary as he approaches the lectern, and when he begins to read from his poetry collections, he does so in a halting, slightly lugubrious manner.

When reading aloud, he has a curious habit of cutting off the ends of his poems, immediately beginning to speak again in his normal voice, without leaving a pause after the poem finishes.

He does not let it hang in the air, even for a moment. The effect is disconcerting – poems blur into anecdotes, comments and asides, and the felt impact of the words is lost. It is a strange beginning to this much-anticipated reading.

For Paulin, who grew up in Belfast, and whose thoughts – political, poetic or otherwise – often return to the city, it is something of a homecoming. Perhaps it is that sense of welcome return, together with a warm, appreciative audience, that calms his early awkwardness. Perhaps he simply finds his rhythm.

Whatever the reason, something shifts, and the poems – which at first feel like remote, intellectual exercises, admirable but dull – begin to come to life. There is more life in Paulin's voice, too, more energy and more range, as he gets to grips with his material.

(Paulin may not thank me for the strange comparison, but it reminds me of Ian Paisley's official final sermon at Martyrs Memorial Church. When Paisley first stood to speak, his voice was a frail echo of its former power, yet as he continued, that declamatory strength came back, and soon it was bouncing off the rafters, as of old.)

There is fresh confidence in Paulin's tone, even a hint of boisterousness, as he reads his translation of 'Belongings', by Palestinian poet Walid Khazendar: 'Who entered my room when I was out / and moved the vase on the mantelpiece just a tad?'

And his reading of his own recent work, 2012's Love's Bonfire, is suffused with a sort of wry, wary tenderness: Paulin remembers walking out with his young wife-to-be in the Northern Irish countryside, recalls the uncertainty and love and doubt of that faraway time.

But to my mind, the most successful part of Paulin's performance is an extract which he reads from a longer poem, 'The Wind-Dog'. Paulin seems to enjoy the richness of the language – some of it borrowed from the Ulster Scots tradition – on his tongue, speaking of 'the brangle of talk rising through the floorboards' and 'the soft quoof and crump' of feet walking on snow. There's more than one way of coming home.

Out to Lunch 2013 continues until January 27.