Do What You are Told – Rebel!

Do what you’re told, Rebel! said Bernard McClafferty, describing a line of graffiti in Belfast back in the day when he was at the Cuirt festival last week. I think it was one of my favourite lines of Cuirt because it captured both the loss of independence and the silent wit that exists in the pages of Irish literature. Interestingly, it was a theme picked up by other Cuirt performers. Declan Kiberd, earlier that day, had suggested that Irish literature was an early warning system. Keats, Edna O’Brien, Beckett, Heaney, Friel, McGahern, Boland all flagged the future social issues of Ireland in their writing and the loss of Irish sovereignty through colonialism, religion, emigration, market forces and, more recently, austerity. Kiberd also discussed the demise and ‘privatisation’ of Irish public spaces. He cited the disappearance of the Irish pub scene, particularly in rural Ireland and suggested that we learn how to use public spaces from other countries to enhance and expand our culture, culture being a stake of revolutionary struggle and space being essential to a shared voice.

Bernard MacLaverty re-iterated this later when he talked about the importance of detail in writing. He said the more local you are, the more universal it becomes. Like the Irish Pub which, ironically, while closing, also went global. This link between local and universal, public space and literature struck me again while listening and reading the poems of Imtiaz Dharker who was born in Pakistan but lived in Glasgow, India and now London. Yes, I thought, the sharing of culture, in a public space provides backbone and energy to society. Exchanging culture is a way of understanding and talking to each other. Yet, so often, all we get to read and or see is the graffiti in the wall, graffiti which says ‘Do what you’re told… Rebel.’

However, it must be said, graffiti can work. Everyone loves Banksy. Graffiti can sum up effectively in one sentence what some essayists can take twenty pages to say. Generally, I like reading essays, if they are pertinent, and have a point. I think Montaigne was one of the best essayists. Interestingly, he wasn’t mentioned at the Essays and Ideas event at Cuirt. I’m not sure that essays work when they are read aloud. I find it hard to focus on the thread, if I have understood it in the first place, and I can find myself disappearing up the writer’s back passage, along with them.

Bernard MacLaverty also said he thought that short stories are a place of loneliness while the novel is a public place. For me, that feels right. We each need our place of loneliness, but we also need those public spaces to share our voices. So, I think I’ll finish this with a poem by Imtiaz Dharker, the treasure I unearthed from Cuirt, because I love the magic of poetry and this poem, I think, captures succinctly what I am trying to say in this blog (it is not an essay). And, I like its title because it refers back to my own collection of poetry, Threads, which I published last week just before going to Cuirt.

This Line, That Thread

Draw a line from finger to heart
Draw the water from well to mouth
Place a mark where the words were said
Map the distance from North to South.

Take it apart and start again.

Look out of the window at your neighbour.
Look in the mirror at your own face.
Breath on the glass to blur the border,
Watch it become an unowned space.

Wipe it away and begin again.

Hold the end of a single thread,
Loop it to others, weave it to lace.
Spread it out to see if the holes
Are an imperfection or a kind of grace

With their open heart, their otherness. (Taken from Luck is the Hook).

I had a fabulous few days at Cuirt. Our use of ‘public space’ may be being privatised but Ireland is a wonderful country for literary festivals, and these are very important public spaces to share ideas. I now can’t wait for the Borris Festival of Writing at the start of June. Photos are Imtiaz Dharker, Declan Kiberd, and Bernard MacLaverty

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