In 1937, W.H. Auden (b. York) and Louis MacNeice (b. Belfast), published their co-authored Letters from Iceland, “the most unorthodox travel book ever written” (Daily Mail). Less an account of their actual journey undertaken the previous year, than a mock-heroic model of collaborative practice, Auden describes Letters from Iceland as a “collage”—“a form that’s large enough to swim in.” Playful in spirit and parodic in intention, these verse epistles, absurd tourist notes and personal correspondence combine to produce a non-fictional text that refracts the poets’ anxieties about the imminent collapse of Europe. In a foreword to the 1965 edition, W.H. Auden explained: “though writing in a ‘holiday’ spirit, its authors were all the time conscious of a threatening horizon to their picnic—world-wide unemployment, Hitler growing every day more powerful and a world-war more inevitable.” This panel seeks to remodel, and reflect on, the conditions of this collaboration.
In Context 4: In Our Time.
The curators of the South Dublin County Council’s new programme for public art, Aoife Tunney and Claire Power, kindly invited me to speak at the launch of InContext4 on Thursday 15th September 2016. Their commissioning brief invites artists to propose work that acts as “a gathering point and catalyst for social change, focused on the sense of place, belonging and civic awareness in South Dublin County.” Havoc Dance Company embodied this exciting approach in their beautiful site-specific performance in the civic space around Tallaght Library on the night. Here’s my text.
I’ll begin with a paradox. If someone says ‘Know Your Place!’, aren’t you really being told to get lost, disappear? It’s a contradiction explored by Rebecca Solnit in her collection of essays, A Field Guide to Getting Lost. Solnit points out that “Losing things is about the familiar falling away, getting lost is about the unfamiliar appearing.” ‘Losing things’ may embody carelessness, absent-mindedness, a sense of dispossession that may be hard to master, but which probably won’t undo the owner’s very sense of existence. ‘Getting lost’ advances further down the scale of loss towards self-annihilation. Disorientation, involving the evaporation of all known compass points brings a forensic urgency to the task of observation. Once you have stumbled off the path, without a map in a place you barely know, don’t you look around for landmarks and take the position of the sun? All those reprimands: ‘Know Your Place’, ‘Don’t Get Above Yourself’, and best of all, ‘It’s Far From X You were Reared’ – all imply that adaptation to new conditions requires small acts of subversion to your identity. Individuality is discovered in the process of slipping that old, familiar leash.
It seems to me that Solnit’s title – A Field Guide to Getting Lost – provides a manifesto of sorts for In Context 4, this exciting new vision for the South Dublin County Council programme of public art.
When I was a kid, my dad decided to take a shortcut through Tallaght on the way to Newcastle one Sunday morning where we were due to go beagling across the fields. Lamp posts, and the skeletal frames of half-built houses, soon replaced the hedges, before the road flowed into a delta of new suburban tributaries around what is now Fettercairn. The Ordnance Survey could not keep pace with Tallaght’s development in the late 1970s. Without a map, but with the morning sun behind him, my father reasoned, we’d soon reach Kerrs yard, or as SatNav today would have it, ‘’our final destination”.
There were no clues in that half-built landscape to guide a stranger, and no kerb or corner had yet acquired the significance that comes with habitation. The sun was useless as a daylight star. My father should, of course, have stopped to ask directions, to start that conversation when a person lost entrusts his safety to a person found, and listens closely to hear the route described. “Do you recall a stack of breezeblocks about a mile back?” The most ordinary things are turned into landmarks when described to a stranger. Only through another’s call to look up and look around, can things passed, or passing or to come, become our way stations on the path back from being lost, places to recover meaning from that moment of panic when we face annihilation.
This is an old-fashioned story. The estates were empty that Sunday morning and it was some time before my father finally admitted defeat and found his way back onto the road that led directly home. It’s hard to get lost these days, and it’s not just the residents who know their way round. On Street View anyone can scope out a neighbourhood without risk of wet or conversation.
People too are mappable. We can all be scoped in profile, befriended or defriended, rejected or accepted before we’ve ever met. Emanuel Levinas says we discover our humanity in the gaze of the other, that moment of trust when we lose ourselves in another’s eyes. How I wonder, is this encounter compromised if we let our social network first determine who appears on that horizon? In the face-to-face encounter, the window rolled down, do we find new features to discover? Or, if we have lost our capacity to get lost, always knowing how to reach our final destination, do we not also lose our ability to engage fully with the people we meet along the way?
Before Sat Nav, there were field guides, but they didn’t announce the species – you still had to use your own eyes to spot and identify the bird. Art’s best ideas come from making strange, from telling others why they should consider an ordinary stone a landmark. They come from risk, and adventure, from getting your feet wet in your encounters with the world. And if public art provides a door to elsewhere as tonight’s performance suggests, then In Context4 provides a brand new field guide to show us what is there to discover and inhabit just beyond those horizons we tend to set for ourselves.
 Rebecca Solnit, A Field Guide to Getting Lost, Penguin 2006.
Next Sunday, I’ll be reading from The Crocodile by the Door at a venue appropriately called ‘The Farm’. This is no mean and lowly stable but an impressive neo-Gothic manor house built by Lord Bandon in 1830, just outside the town. Refreshments will be served from 2 pm and the Glaslinn choir will perform. It all sounds very civilized. I’m reading with Eibhear Walshe who is something of an expert on drawing rooms, being a scholar of Elizabeth Bowen, Kate O’Brien and Oscar Wilde. I hope he may be persuaded to read from his new novel about a servant to the Wilde family, The Diary of Mary Travers, which Anne Haverty described as ‘remarkable’ and ‘strangely affecting’ in last Saturday’s Irish Times. It’s an exciting programme with Charles Tyrrell, Amanda Coogan and Billy Foley among the visual artists showing and a reading by Rob Doyle on Saturday. Vyvienne Long kicks festivities off with a gig on Thursday night. Do check it out.
I’ve always enjoyed teaching Kate O’Brien’s The Land of Spices to students who are often taken aback by the novel’s freshness and its daring.
It therefore gives me particular pleasure to be included among the readers this Saturday 22nd February at the Belltable Theatre (4.15 pm) for the Kate O’Brien Literary Weekend, Limerick. I’m looking forward to hearing Michael Frayn, Claire Tomalin, Frank McGuinness, and Anne Enright read from, and discuss, their own work.
Further details can be found here:
I’m delighted to let you know that I’ll be reading The Crocodile by the Door each night next week on RTE Radio One’s, Book on One. It’s a programme for night owls as it goes out at 11.10 pm after The Late Debate. It will also be available by podcast for four weeks – you’ll find all the details here:
Back in May, I had the great good fortune to hear Jennifer Johnston interviewed at the Headread Festival in Tallinn. She was wise, frank and witty about writing, politics and families. On September 8th, I’ll be sharing a stage with her, instead of Julia O’Faolain, at the Mountains to the Sea Festival in Dun Laoghaire. So come and enjoy this rare opportunity to hear Jennifer read; she’s the real deal.
I’ll be reading from The Crocodile by the Door this Thursday at 2 pm in Ballyroan Library. This reading was to have been held in Whitechurch but as roofing works there are well underway, the venue has switched to the shiny, bright, new library building behind gourmet row at Ballyroan. Free admission but the library say pre-booking is advised. Books will be on sale and there will be a signing afterwards.
I still remember my father taking me to Dundrum Bookshop on the Main Street to cash in the book vouchers I’d won for a school prize. I bought a collected Sylvia Plath, a collected T. S. Eliot, and two volumes of Mary Lavin’s short stories. Had I been left to my own devices, I think I might have blown the vouchers on the more ephemeral texts designed to attract the attention of a 16 year old girl. But I still have, and read, the books he recommended I buy.
I’m not sure if it was Liz Meldon who cashed up the vouchers on this occasion or whether her involvement in Dundrum Bookshop was a few years then in the future. But I’d like to think it was her, for I could feel then that next Wednesday I will come full circle when I read from The Crocodile at her current premises, the Rathgar Bookshop, where she also sells plants grown at Tibradden by Oliver and Liat Schurmann. So if you fancy a glass of wine and some entertainment, and a few perennials for your garden, come along for 7.30 pm start.
I’m greatly looking forward to reading in the Group Theatre at the Ulster Hall in Belfast next Tuesday as part of a series organized by the John Hewitt Society. It seems lunch hour up North kicks off early, 12.45 – 2pm. You can buy tickets here: