Aspects Irish Literature Festival 2007
Reviews and highlights from Bangor's word-fest
An evening With Martina Devlin, Rose Doyle and Sara Webb
An evening with Martina Devlin, Rose Doyle and Sarah Webb wouldn’t have been high on the list of events at this year’s Aspects Irish Literature Festival for a young man in his mid-twenties. But put yourself in that young man’s shoes. For a week he had been plagued by terrifying visions of Germaine Greer holding court over an Ann Summers house party, raucous and rowdy, with much sniggering at man’s expense and intimate readings of intimate moments.
But that young man shouldn’t have worried. Along with the forty-odd strong audience who had made it out to the restaurant room of the North Down Museum, he was in for a treat.
Devlin, Doyle and Webb took to the stage like old-hands – the only person on-stage who seemed a little nervous was our host for the evening, one Paul Perry. Immediately Doyle and Webb began regaling the audience with tales of misadventure – at Belfast they had taken a train to Portadown by mistake, and arrived in Bangor via Belfast in the nick of time. Devlin tried not to explode with laughter – dressed in a green and gold Chinese Kimono robe, she seemed like a beautiful Yoda come to calm us all.
Devlin was first up to discuss her latest novel, Ship of Dreams, a first foray into historical fiction for the raven-haired wordsmith that retells the tragic tale of her own great-uncle who perished with the Titanic, leaving a wife and unborn child to make good in New York City. ‘Chick lit’ this is not.
Doyle follows Devlin with a reading from her own Friends Indeed, the harrowing story of the ‘Wrens of the Curagh’, an ostracised group of women who lived in makeshift ‘nests’ on the plains of Kildare during the 1800s and who made their living mainly through prostitution. Like Devlin, Doyle has become enamoured with the process of writing historical fiction, citing ‘the seduction of research’ as one of the most enjoyable parts of writing the book. It’s quite an inspiration to learn of the extent to which both writers went to bring their vision to the page. ‘If you want to be a writer, you have to sit down and write. There’s no other way. It can be a struggle, but it’s worth it,’ Doyle claims.
Webb is the last to contribute. With titles like When The Boys Are Away and Always The Bridesmaid to her name, she knows who her audience is and makes no apologies for it. ‘My books are not about politics,' she quips. And yet, on closer inspection, they aren’t quite as flippant as they might seem. The inarguable lesson of the night: never judge a book by its cover. Doh!
By Lee Henry
Glenn Patterson in conversation with Gary Mitchell
‘The Lost World of North Down’ looks back on a Bangor in black & white, when kids congregated at the quays to go cold water swimming at weekends and circuses had entire communities giddy with excitement.
With less than 20 photographs it’s a modest exhibition - confined to one room of the North Down Museum - but precedes a book of the same name, published in October 2007. The book is an informal look at Bangor and the surrounding district between the years 1870 and 1940.
Ian Wilson is curator and manager of the North Down Museum.
‘Museums are always getting donations of old photographs, and rather than leaving them to gather dust in our archives it’s great to be able to get them out to the public.
'We have 104 photographs published in the book. A lot these pictures came out of the blue. There was one lady who arrived late one day, just when we were about to close, with a suitcase brimming with hundreds and hundreds of old photographs, mostly from the 1920s and 30. A lot of them were family photographs, but there were also scores and scores of wonderful views of Bangor from across the water.’
There are some striking images in the exhibition. William A Green’s 'Arcadian view of the Twizzle', or 'Kissing Bridge in Holywood' is straight out of The Wind and the Willows. Another photograph of children gathered at Picky Pool to get their picture taken is something of a compositional masterpiece, showing a young lady taking a photograph on an old Box Brownie camera.
But the exhibition also goes some way in showing the great social shifts that have occurred since the 1940s. Ask your average kid to go swimming in the cold waters of the Irish Sea nowadays and you’ll most likely end up the victim of a happy slapping. Suggest to a crowd of upmarket Belfast types that they take a steamer rather than a Beemer to Bangor on their holidays and you’ll never eat in Dean’s again.
‘The Lost World of North Down’ recalls a time when people worked, rested and holidayed at home or not too far from it. A time when communities were tight-knit and circuses operated without the fear of animal rights activists. They may not have had digital cameras back then, but they had cameras nevertheless, and thank God they did. Here's looking forward to the hardback version.
By Lee Henry
An Evening with Kevin Myers, Sep 26
Kevin Myers is a love/hate figure. Well, actually, let’s be honest, he’s more of a hate/hate figure. His provocative newspaper columns – the Irishman’s Diary in the Irish Times and recently The Belfast Telegraph – have rubbed more people up the wrong way than Janet Street-Porter and Jade Goody put together.
When reading from Watching the Door, his memoir of life in Belfast in the 1970s, he doesn’t disappoint. He puts the boot into everybody – loyalist, republican, security forces. No room for an iota of hypocrisy or cant.
Myers lambasts the current political agreement as ‘morally deplorable’, although he is desperately appreciative of the peace that has resulted. He is unhappy with the fact that the people who in his opinion provided the ‘moral inspiration’ for and were the engine of the Troubles – namely Messrs Paisley, Adams and McGuinness – are now in seats of power. And who can blame him? What the alternative is he does not say. Perhaps the depressing conclusion is that there isn’t one.
His delivery, as much of his writing, is impassioned and polemical but doesn’t feel contrived. Rather, this is truth-telling from the heart. Myers is a man with a clear moral compass, a man who is adamant that the many killings he witnessed on both sides during the Troubles were ‘evil incarnate’.
He wrote the memoir in a sense of duty to the dead that he knew. ‘All those people who lost relatives and loved-ones they have never got over this. They live with it still.’
It seems pretty clear that Myers is living with it too. When he reads his voice often cracks with emotion and threatens to pull him up short. The sheer weight of trauma that he has seen and endured, not just in Belfast but also in wars in Beirut and Sarajevo, has taken its toll.
An Irish Catholic raised in Leicester, fresh from University College Dublin, Myers was sent north to work for the Belfast bureau of RTE News during the height of the Troubles, at a time when ‘Belfast had become clinically insane’.
‘It was possible to believe anything of the other side,’ he says. ‘Any fantasy could drive policy, any paranoia could shape doctrine.’
Unusually he drank with paramilitaries on the Shankill and on the Falls. Now he is at loss to understand his ‘popularity’ or at least the paramilitaries’ tolerance of him. ‘I am not an person who is intensely likeable I have to say.’
As a chronicle of Northern Ireland’s descent into sectarian slaughter, Watching the Door serves as a reminder and warning of the terrible consequences of sectarian violence. Myers argues forceably that the triumph of David McKittrick’s Lost Lives, which details every death during the Troubles, is that future generations will have no excuse. Perhaps we will finally be able to break free from what he describes as the ‘unbroken continuity of murder in Irish history’.
The interviewer for the evening Seamus McKee is wise enough to leave Myers the last word:
‘Was that melancholy, weak, ruthless, strangely crippled, handsome young man really me?
‘The answer is yes, and more powerfully than I can possibly even begin to report. And yet, my present life… is infinitely more pleasant and rewarding. The darkness of my years there was an indispensable prelude to the man that I am: to the life that I live, the wife that I love and the world that is mine.
‘For in time I learnt that despair and unhappiness are mere seasons in your span, which will sooner or later pass. One life: one youth: one stab at being in your twenties. Beneath the long shadow of Ben Madigan, watching the door, waiting for death, this was mine.’
By David Lewis
Celebrating its 16th year, the Aspects Irish Literature Festival returns to the North Down Museum in Bangor in September and CultureNorthernIreland will be there every step of the way, producing exclusive podcasts and reviews from the only dedicated Irish literature festival in NI.
'We're looking forward to bringing our users some of the festival's many highlights, including exclusive audio podcasts and reviews of events,' says CultureNorthernIreland director David Lewis. 'There's so much great writing out there at the moment and festivals like Aspects are vital in giving our writers the exposure they deserve. CultureNorthernIreland is committed to producing exciting web content that reflects the quality and breadth of NI's literary scene.'
The festival programme kicks off with a keynote address from writer, broadcaster and novelist Kevin Myers, who reads from his latest book Watching the Door, based on his experience working for the Belfast bureau of RTE News during the height of the Troubles.
In line with Aspects' commitment to foster and encourage Irish writing, the festival offers a creative writing workshop for children aged 10-16, led by poet and novelist Grace Wells. And for the grown-ups there will be a creative writing workshop led by Damian Gorman, whose work spans television, film, radio and the stage.
Another highlight is Sir Kenneth Bloomfield, former head of the Northern Ireland Civil Service, reading from his timely new book A Tragedy of Errors: The Government and Misgovernment of Northern Ireland in the beautiful surroundings of the Council Chamber at Bangor's Town Hall. Acclaimed novelists Dermot Bolger and Hugo Hamilton will also be making appearances.
Aspects also gets musical on Sunday September 30 with the spectacular dramatic recital of Molly Says No!, originally commissioned for the Joyce Centenary celebrations in 2004. This features the considerable vocal talents of internationally-renowned soprano Judith Mok as Molly Bloom, wife to the hero of Joyce's Ulysses, Leopold Bloom.
Gail Prentice, Artistic Director of the festival, believes that this year's programme is sure to live up to all expectations.
'We try to aid the sustainability of Irish writing through specific events incorporated into the festival. This year we're sending writers to 20 schools in the borough to encourage young writers and to make sure that this artform lives on.
'There are lots of festival highlights this year. We're having a chick-lit evening with Martina Devlin, Rose Doyle and Sarah Webb, so that should be a really popular event. And we're also utilising the Council Chamber this year, which is a fantastic setting.'
For further information contact the Arts Office on 028 9127 8032. For booking contact the North Down Museum booking office on 028 9127 1200.
'The Lost World of North Down', North Down Museum