Celebrate the City

Three of Belfast's finest writers pay tribute to the legacy of CS Lewis

The inaugural CS Lewis Festival is an attempt, among other things, to claim Clive Staples Lewis for Belfast, marking the 50th anniversary of the death of the renowned author, theologian, sci-fi visionary and academic. 

Lewis has also been honoured with a memorial stone in Poet’s Corner in Westminster Abbey, the first Northern Irish writer to be honoured in this way. To this end, three writers gather in the Linen Hall Library to pay tribute to Lewis at an event entitled Celebrate the City, Celebrate its Writers, each introduced by Belfast’s poet laureate, Sinead Morrissey.

'I first encountered Glenn on television,' Morrissey says, remembering both the precocious articulacy of the 17-year-old Patterson, as well as his fabulous hair. Patterson has not let the coiffure slide and is, as ever, immaculately attired in Chelsea boots and a John Steed suit; all velvet collars and kick flares.

He opens with a gag: 'I’ll never forget where I was when somebody else died the same day as CS Lewis.' (Lewis died on the same day as President John F Kennedy was assassinated.) Then Patterson spends the next ten minutes on patter, delighting the crowd with off the (beautifully tailored) cuff stories.

These are nuggets of local detail he has accrued during his researches into the city. As Morrissey says in her introduction, Patterson’s books are 'preoccupied by place – this place', and certainly Belfast could be said to be the central character in the author’s work.

 

Patterson, however, has a little trouble with his passages. With a sorry look on his face, he fails to find the first pages earmarked for reading, and delivers only four of the five prose pieces he wrote for composer Phillip Hammond’s Requiem for the Lost Souls of the Titanic.

Nevertheless, the prose is deeply affecting. The barked repetition of the Titanic’s distress code – 'CQD, CQD, SOS, SOS, CQD DEMGY, MGY' – rattles around the room, punctuating the short story of the two doomed telegraph operators in the Marconi room. This was the first time that 'S.O.S' was used as a distress call, Patterson tells us. Not a great maiden voyage for that either.

Morrissey then introduces Ciaran Carson as a 'passionate etymologist', and Carson jumps upon this description greedily. He has studied the strange names that Lewis coined in his books, shedding light on the words Aslan (Turkish for lion) and the name of the faun, Mr Tumnus (he believes it to be a corruption of Vertumnus, Roman god of seasons, change and plant growth).

The single central image in Lewis’ oeuvre – that of Lucy entering the wardrobe that leads to Narnia – is, for Carson, analogous to his recent translations of poems by the French poet Jean Follain, stepping suddenly into a mysterious new landscape. His readings are breathy, his neck craning into the microphone, his diction precise with a long, serpentine sibilance.

Each of the translated Follain poems retains its French title, comically purred as if delivered by a sit-com seducer, and each is utterly distinct from the rumbled exactness of the poems. The undertow of Carson's voice is catching, a jagged burr.

His last poem, 'Wardrobe', is inspired by The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, concerns 'the boy who lies dreaming in the kind of house you never see the end of'. It occurs to Carson that rather than the rather mundane Turkish translation, Alsan may carry echoes of Aisling, the poetic genre where Ireland appears to a dreamer in the form of a woman. With that thought, he whips out a flute – a faun himself! But the instrument splinters in his hands. 'It’s falling apart, and so am I,' quips, heckling himself off stage.

David Park is introduced as 'not a writer who teaches, but a teacher who wrote'. And it is, you suspect, a description that he feels very comfortable with, as he spends most of his allotted stage time, in his quiet and thoughtful way, ruminating on 'the new utilitarianism' in education.

In the second half of his career, Park saw a change in the philosophy of education after the introduction of the National Curriculum, most markedly in the appropriation of the language of business in schools: children were now appraised, there was talk of audits – a tyranny of acronyms.

The logical conclusion of this reductive rationalisation, he fears, is the establishment of 'a way to teach', and that every teacher might be forced to teach in the same way. Of course, the teachers who meant most to him in school, the ones he remember, were the oddballs, the different ones, the mavericks.

Park reads from The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, describing the wardrobe as his best metaphor for the imagination. He reads slowly, softly, measuring each line of Lewis’ prose, reading 'A moment later she found that she was standing in the middle of the wood at night-time with snow under her feet and snowflakes falling through the air' twice, because he enjoys the words so much.

Tonight it feels as if CS Lewis really has come home, and this first festival dedicated to him is a fitting tribute to the man and his work – at least until planning permission is given for a Narnian Theme Park. Who doesn’t want to ride in the silver chairs?

Visit the Linen Hall Library website for information on upcoming events.