John Thompson's Desert Island Texts

A literary afternoon delight, if not quite what Glenn Patterson was expecting

After five years as head of the School of English at Queen’s University, Professor John Thompson sees himself as a bit of an academic stepfather to the Seamus Heaney Centre for Poetry (SHCP). Thompson might not have seen the centre say its first stanza, but he has watched it grow through its formative years to the point where they have to start thinking about primary school education.

So when stepping down as head of the School of English in March 2010, Thompson wanted to celebrate the successes of the SHCP during his tenure. The vehicle was Desert Island Texts, an opportunity for Thompson to showcase some of the talented writers and writing associated with the centre. Or, as organiser and PhD student Paul Maddern jokingly puts it, ‘A selection of texts that he admires, or that at least were written at the Seamus Heaney Centre’.

The impressive line-up of readers includes Ciaran Carson, Leontia Flynn and Ian Sansom. Thompson has a fond memory of each text and each writer, as he calls them to up to read.

He keeps bumping into Glenn Patterson (who is thankfully no longer under the misapprehension that the event is called Desert Island Sex), he tells us, at Requiem Masses and the Belfast Eye.

Thompson recalls the workshops he and Sinead Morrissey did with Belfast schoolchildren to teach them about poetry and literary criticism (he thinks they preferred the poetry); and a friend of his in America who first discovered Ian Sansom’s books on the day her hair all fell out from chemotherapy, and who is coming over to meet Sansom at a conference soon.

The texts stand up to the hype as well. Morrissey’s whimsical speculation on the Greeks' response to Alexander the Great had he lived and returned from his conquest with the concept of zero is particularly charming (not that the Greeks as a whole had any great fondness for Alexander to start with, the filthy Macedonian barbarian that he was).

Equally charming is Leontia Flynn’s dryly humorous remembrance of her father singing at her as he treated her eczema and put her to bed at night.

Ciaran Carson and Ivan Harbison bring a sense of history to the occasion, reciting two ancient poems jotted down by long-dead monks in the margins of their respective manuscripts.

Not that it's all poetry. Sansom reads an extract from his Mobile Library mystery series, while Glenn Patterson calls up memories of 1973 with an extract from his book of essays Lapsed Protestant (confiding, as well, that he wanted to give the book a different title).

Half an hour to cover five years of literary development isn’t long, but if Thompson’s selection is representative of the work coming out of the SHCP then he is right to call it ‘a centre of excellence’.

For more readings from the event check out CultureNorthernIreland's YouTube channel.

Tammy Moore