Mike Faulkner at Aspects
The Poet Laureate of Strangford Lough takes a gentle dander through his past with Fionola Meredith at Aspects Literature Festival
Modest, affable and an engaging storyteller, it strikes you that Mike Faulkner would be a pleasant walking companion. There was nothing to blow your socks off at this lunchtime question and answer session
with the man they call Strangford Lough's resident poet laureate, but then again, that was the point.
This was a gentle dander around the life and times of a man who, bankrupt and homeless, suddenly found himself starting a new life on the uninhabited island of Islandmore, along with his artist wife Lynn McGregor and their two terriers. His account of that steep learning curve, The Blue Cabin - Living by the Tides on Islandmore, was published by Blackstaff Press in 2006, and in 2009 Faulkner followed it up with another affectionate tribute to the island, Still on the Sound – A Seasonal Look at Island Life, this time including many of his own vivid photographs.
Travel writer and author Geoff Hill, putting the questions in his usual jocular style, summed up Faulkner's appeal: his talent, Hill said, was that 'he turns the everyday into the magical'. That was most evident when Faulkner spoke of his island home, the pleasures of taking a small boat out at dusk, watching the cormorants and seals, the flocks of Brent geese and the otters. 'There's nothing more rewarding. I can't think of a more inspirational place than Islandmore,' he said. 'It changes by the hour; the shoreline and vistas are always different – there's something new around every corner.'
Faulkner said that what he loves most of all is the purity of the silence there. He also spoke of the pleasant sense of self-sufficiency that comes with island's plentiful natural resources: 'we gather bucketfuls of mussels, there are oysters in the shallows, and a fisherman we know drops scallops and crabs off to us when he's passing.'
Island life is not entirely idyllic, however. Boat-only access, no mains electricity and a wooden cabin with the insulation values of a tent mean that there is a necessary simplicity and frugality to the Faulkners' lives on Islandmore. Faulkner said that their arrival in 2002, following the collapse of his furniture business, certainly wasn't an auspicious one. He was burdened by a feeling of guilt at taking his wife away from her Scottish home, family and her beautiful studio. 'We rowed out in November, in a howling gale, and at that time I felt like I was facing into a black hole. We spent the winter there with the woodburner turned up to the maximum, but then spring came and things felt different.'
Faulkner wrote a letter of apology to his wife, explaining his regret at imposing this island exile upon her, and that letter formed
the basis for The Blue Cabin, and a new life as a writer.
Mike is the son of Brian Faulkner, the former prime minister of Northern Ireland, and many of his most evocative anecdotes concerned his memories of his father. Brian Faulkner acquired the cabin in 1969, and – in between the demands of political life - spent as much time with his family there as he could. Mike recalled how Bob Dougal, the de facto harbourmaster, received official messages for Faulkner, the relative urgency of which he would communicate by raising a flag in his back garden, where it could be seen on the island.
'Half-mast meant it was something like a phone call from his parliamentary private secretary,' said Mike. 'But if it went to the top, my father would run and get his pinstripe suit on, grab his briefcase and head off to the jetty. The only way we could guess when he would return was by watching the news.'
Mike Faulkner says that Islandmore is especially important for him, because he associates it with the last times he spent with his father, who was killed in a hunting accident in 1977. 'His ghost still inhabits the corridor along the front of the cabin, where we used to see him when he came home, arriving unexpectedly at midnight in his oilskin coat.'
Aspects Literature Festival runs from Sept 23 -24 in Bangor. See the Culture Live listings for more upcoming events.