Belfast Book Festival Review
Listen to podcasts and read blogs from the main events
Scenic Ireland - Colin McCadden and Christopher Hill
Scenic Ireland is a series of photographic books that covers every county of the island of Ireland. With stunning photography by Christopher Hill and words by his friend and travelling companion, Colin McCadden, the books serve to illuminate the darker corners of the country as well as to show more famous landmarks in a new light.
Both Hill and McCadden spoke at the Linen Hall Library (the bona fide Belfast Book Festival opening event at lunchtime on Tuesday, February 24), about their adventures compiling the books.
McCadden was first up, talking a little about the geological history of Ireland and the benefits of travelling the land in a camper van. He then introduced Hill, who proceeded to discuss many of the images he had taken, both north and south of the border.
His images, of course, spoke for themselves - breath-taking shots of the Cliffs of Moher, ghostly images of the Giant's Causeway, the Mountains of Mourne captured in all their rolling grace - but Hill's witty commentary provided an insight into the everyday life of the travelling photographer and his eternal search for 'the right light' that today's audience will no doubt have learned from as well as enjoyed. The inaugural Belfast Book Festival begins in earnest...
Booker prize-winning author John Banville kicked off the first Belfast Book Festival in style (Tuesday, February 24), with an enlightening conversation with broadcaster William Crawley, full of dry wit and humour.
Crawley highlighted Banville's many different fans, from those who have been with the Wexford-born writer from his early novels such as Copernicus and Kepler in the 1970s to more recent fans of his crime fiction under the pseudonym Benjamin Black. Here's a few of Banville's bon mots...
On the book he couldn't do without: "The dictionary. All the words are in there." On cartoonist Gary Larrson: "Deserving of a Nobel prize." On reading: "It's one of the greatest things you can do with your clothes on or even with your clothes off." On the Irish climate: "The greatest in the world. All that rain and those beautiful silver grey skies. I couldn't do without out." On the European tradition. "At the end of an extraordinary tradition but this is the end. The great European venture is at an end."
The Yellow Door - Simon Dougan
More than 50 foodies gathered today (Wednesday, February 25) in the Linen Hall Library to listen to Simon Dougan talk about his food - while assembling canapés for us to taste. And what a treat! We had smoked salmon with fresh horseradish served in wonton cones; boilie (goat’s cheese marinated in herbs and garlic) served with roasted beetroot; and crab mixed with Thai red curry dressing.
Simon enthused about local produce – Fivemiletown Cheese and Kilkeel Crab both came highly recommended – and encouraged us all to buy from farmers’ markets, greengrocers and delis instead of the big supermarkets.
He offered advice on growing your own herbs and vegetables – including horseradish, which is apparently very easy to grow but best not to harvest it for four years – and the benefits of using seasonal produce. He talked about his early days in the business, when orange juice was considered acceptable for a starter, but bemoaned the fact that so many of our speciality products, such as Lough Neagh eel, are entirely for the export market.
We then queued up to hand over our crisp £20 notes, bought The Yellow Door, published by Blackstaff Press and wanted to go straight home to try the recipes for ourselves. Anyone for dinner?
‘You can’t follow a ten step programme that will conclude with a novel.’ For Irish author Claire Kilroy, the act of writing is never an easy one.
One of the main draws at the Belfast Book Festival, Kilroy attended a reading group at the Linen Hall Library in the morning - during which time members of the public discussed her award-winning novel Tenderwire - and in the afternoon read from her new book, All Names Have Been Changed (set for publication in May 2009).
In between her engagements our own Peter Geoghegan talked with the Rooney Prize-winning author (click on the graphic above to listen to the full podcast) about the particulars of writing fiction. ’Each time you invent how to write a novel,' Kilroy continues. 'It’s the only way it’ll be new.
'I become more and more aware that you’re working with the imagination. It’s not an exact science. As someone who likes certainty, I find that very difficult. I’m much happier when I have a first draft which I can turn into a second, third draft. I’m a much better editor than I am an inventor. So that’s the chaos that I face. I don’t know what I’ll find today, but it’s important to look.’
Ciaran Carson Masterclass
It’s obvious why Ciaran Carson is a poet – he is fixated with words. From the sounds of the phonetic alphabet to slang and street signs, he loves language.
Carson is the perfect facilitator for a writing masterclass. Though this event is no show and tell - no one is invited to contribute their own stumbling verse. Rather, we are all enraptured by Carson’s evident passion for what he does – even if he doesn’t know quite how he does it.
He opens the class with a tune on his flute. Sound is a crucial aspect of his poetry, and crops up repeatedly over the course of the hour in all kinds of ways. He recites poetry in Irish and English and sings extracts of Dante’s Inferno in Renaissance-age Italian, as well as snatches of an old Blues song, ‘Delta’.
His music and his poetry are intertwined, and he shares his thoughts and musings on both. He maintains that the Irish lilt played on his flute is rooted in the ‘Aisling’ tradition, then carefully picks apart the meaning of the Irish word. He refers to the etymology of the linguistic term ‘dactyll’ with the same enthusiasm as he explains ‘karaoke’.
The insights offered into his writing life are the most fascinating of the numerous anecdotes Carson tells. After long stretches of creative strife, inspiration is like ‘someone appearing in my ear and says “here’s the truth. Everything you were writing was just lies – but here are the words”. But he speaks to his words just as they speak to him. He invites rhymes into his room and sends out those he dislikes – ‘love’ and ‘dove’ are campy high pitched Americans and rejected straight off. But he embraces those that he likes and apologises to couplets that don’t make the final cut.
Carson’s definitive advice to any wannabes or writers out there? Search the language, not to express your idea but to explore it – ‘even if it turns out to be wrong’.
Nursing Through the Troubles - Kate O'Hanlon
Kate O’Hanlon was not ‘in conversation’, nor did she actually read from her book, Nursing Through the Troubles at her Belfast Book Festival event. Instead the audience at Belfast Central Library got something a bit more like an Alan Bennett afternoon play.
O’Hanlon spoke confidently as she recollected aspects of her life and career as a nurse and sister-in-charge at the Royal Victoria Hospital. O’Hanlon is not a professional writer nor orator, but her straight-forward manner is attractive and accessible, evident from the sell-out crowd present who listened intently to her calm monologue.
Her tales of her childhood and youth, her training as a nurse in Belfast and Liverpool and the early days of the Troubles are not unusual or particularly bizarre, but the appeal of listening to O’Hanlon speak is her ordinariness. The lone voice telling the story of her life is compelling.
O’Hanlon is clear that the shootings, bombings, injuries and murders were horrific and devastating for so many people, but also a part of day-to-day living. Her job was to care for gunman and victim alike, just as she also delivered babies and bathed homeless people.
This now-elderly lady looks back over her life without an ounce of sentimentality or rose-tinted nostalgia. She remembers the pain that the Troubles etched into the lives of both patients and staff, and her experience in Gaza when she assessed the medical care of Palestinian hospitals was obviously challenging and difficult. Yet she recalls these times with a stoical compassion that you imagine contributed to her accomplishment as a nurse.
Seán Donnelly and Gerry Anderson - Click here to listen to a podcast
Opening for his friend and fellow musician Gerry Anderson - who would go on to read from his new book about the Irish showband era, Heads - musician Sean Donnelly played a fine set of traditional Irish songs (click on the graphic above to listen to his full set), interspersed with tales of how he discovered and learned the songs in the first place.
Before his set Donnelly allowed me a strum or two on his £10,000 Lowden acoustic guitar, made specially for him by the world renowned Northern Irish guitar maker, George Lowden.
Beautiful though the action on the guitar was, at first I was confused. None of the notes were as I knew them. Donnelly, a sparkle in his eyes, instantly recognised my problem. ‘It’s tuned to open D,’ he said with a smile. I explained that, even after seventeen years playing guitar, I had never tried an open or unorthodox tuning.
‘Well,’ said Donnelly, ‘I was a little frightened by the thought myself, initially. But once you come to terms with unconventional tunings, and get rid of the old chord structures altogether, it’s like you’re playing an entirely new instrument.
‘I remember how long it took me to get used to it; I had to start from scratch. But now I feel much freer. You play around the lyrics, around the melody, and play whatever you want. No more chords. You should certainly try it some time – call in to me in Newcastle and I’ll do whatever I can to help you along.’
Not only was it a magical experience playing such a beautiful guitar, and picking my way through a tuning I had never experienced before, it was also thoroughly entertaining and informative to talk to Donnelly himself. It’s not often an act will be so selfless before a gig. My thanks to the quiet man of the Irish traditional scene - the guitar hasn't been this interesting in years!