A Homage to the Borris Festival of Writing and Ideas

Last Friday night, a huge red orb, pulsating orange at its edges, was setting in Carlow. It looked like an African sun – too grand to sink behind the horizon. If it wasn’t for the mountain rising to meet it, I felt it would have pulsated there forever, spreading flame fire and destruction across the earth.
We were driving from the Borris Festival of Writing and Ideas to Graiguenamanagh, the small town where we were staying. My rather apocalyptic thought was no doubt a result of the evening I had spent immersed in discussion and debate with Margaret Attwood and Misha Glenny (he of McMafia fame) in Borris.

We were delighted with our front rows seats. I gazed with admiration and reverence at Margaret Atwood whose writing combines the love, desperation, greed and power of humanity to create what are frightening futures, but her scenarios are very much harnessed to our every-day realities. In her interview, Margaret Attwood was sharp, attuned and astute but relaxed. I was interested that her responses appeared to destabilise the usually direct and assertive Anne Enright asking the questions. Occasionally, from my bird’s eye, front row view, I thought could hear amused, ironic sparks crackling between them. The two women had a wonderful, eclectic, inchoate discussion ranging from women writers in North America, to Playtex bras and panty girdles, from women writing men (how do you check for accuracy?) to the crisis of masculinity; from a Christmas tie murder to totalitarianism, from Jung to writing for the unknown reader.

In the next session, Misha Glenny and Luke Harding discussed the rise of totalitarianism, and the increasing prevalence of organised crime in democratic society. The first question Misha was asked was what to do about it. Ask Margaret Attwood, I thought, she’ll be able to show you the inevitable answer and she would have been more articulate than Misha Glenny who fudged the question. But in his delivery, he was passionate, and extremely coherent: our democratic governments, our society is riddled and increasingly dependent on corruption, greed and guns, ruthless murderers and heads of state, like Putin. The collapse of the Soviet Union, Thatcher and Regan’s deregulation provided the drug lords, the gun runners with a laundering service second to none. Wars and porous borders now facilitate easy movement of cargo – whether it be drugs, guns, or sex slaves – and the increased enslavement of populations through either addiction, poverty or war. Time for wine.

At home, over supper and a glass of two of New Zealand wine, inevitably, we discussed the point of life and wondered why we were here, on earth? My answer? Sex, drugs and rock and roll – literally, it is what makes the world go around. We should do more of it…pass the wine.

On Saturday, the garden of Borris House bathed in the sun. Blue skies lorded over mountains and meadows, and trestle tables were long havens of chattering happiness; there were stalls of lobster, burritos, lamb kebabs and market produce. I was having coffee and brioche with raisins and cream when I spotted an old boyfriend from London making haste to the book stand. I called him over. He came and looked down at me inquiringly.
“Hello, my name is Kate Ennals, we used to go out together.”
It was amusing to watch the confusion on his face. I saw his forehead furrow. I could see him back tracking through his memory, his long fingers flicking through the years until he came to me, then he laughed, sat down, pleased to see me. It was a good start to the day.

Then we went to war – cyber war with Misha Glenny, journalist, Ben McIntyre and historian, Margaret McMillan. Here I discovered that the world is not as it seems. We are all infested with viruses, lurking, trawling through the Internet of Things, waiting to be unleashed by the dark, hidden and hooded figures of the Chinese red army, the Russian mafia, the CIA and Mossad. I had a vision of all the hoovers in Europe, leaping into action, hoses sucking and snorting, battling to retain a semblance of dignity as they cavort uncontrollably around our homes. The thought of such mayhem, chaos being at the finger tips of armies is alarming. I wished I could do something, but what? One really feels quite inadequate. What I need is Mary Poppins and her finger clicking abilities, I thought to myself.

What I got, however, was young Raoul Martinez saying (in a six-hundred-page book) that what we need to put the world to rights is empathy. It seems he had a moment of eureka and enlightenment as a teenager, when he realised that we are all merely products of our own up-bringing and that if there was more empathy in the world, there would be more freedom.
What shocked me was that he seemed to think that ‘responsibility’ needed by people was to self, not to society. It was the responsibility of the individual to hoick oneself up by the bootstraps and therefore we needed empathy, to appreciate his background. I was impressed with Michael Harding who was gentle in his attempt to probe Raoul as how this empathetic approach might work. If I’d had the chance, I would have asked Raoul two questions. I) Had he now succeeded in throwing off his own male, middle class, educated identity? 2) To describe the exact ‘freedom’ that his empathy had achieved for the people less well off than himself.

Brimming with knowledgeable irritation, which is always a satisfying feeling, I went to listen to Elizabeth Strout and was instantly calmed by her relaxed manner. Her philosophy (of which I approve) is that books make us feel less lonely, enable us to reflect, and allow us to share our lives. I loved her book, Lucy Barton which is about a relationship between a mother and a daughter, a daughter who was raised in poverty but who escaped its ravaging claws. I was struck by her comment that every sentence she writes is the most truthful sentence she can write. Even fiction must be told with truth.

And poetry. I was as happy as a pig in shit to hear Billy Collins read next. I love how he distils the truth. I felt like I was wallowing in pleasure. I adore his humour, his simplicity. He told us that it was important to listen to the poem being written, and I was very pleased to know exactly what he meant. I do listen to my poems, that’s why mine take so long to emerge because they keep changing their minds and telling me different things!

I have never been star struck before, never drooled over actors, or musicians but I made a holy show of myself asking for Billy Collins signature.
“You are my top favourite poet, I think I am going blub.”
I honestly felt close to tears. He regarded me with a straight look, saying nothing. The man queuing behind intervened and suggested that instead of crying, it might be better to have my photo taken with Billy. So, I did.

Now, meeting Billy was traumatic, so I grabbed a glass of red to recover and went to the Chapel to hear what Alan Hollinghurst and Philip Hensher had to say. I like Alan Hollinghurst’s books but I don’t adore them. They are very English, male and literary and not surprisingly, so is he. I left and decided to eat something. As I walked, munching on a delicious Korean Burrito, I got snaffled up by a happy, drunken American woman who insisted on dragging me for a cigarette “to the toilets” and then proceeded to get us thrown out of the White Garden (next to the toilets) for being too loud while she was telling me about the Airbnb she was going to set up in the house she was going to build in Borris. After that, I decided to call it a day.

That night, Steph and I had a picnic supper, a bottle of wine, and sat outside next in Graiguenamanagh, next to the tractor, under the stars and read poems but I was literary exhausted and we soon retired to bed. When I awoke at 6am, I headed out for my morning constitutional.

Graiguenamanagh is a well-kept Carlow/Kilkenny secret. It is crowded with five-foot concrete monks holding sheaves of corn, books, or pens. The monks await you on the tow path, the street corners, in the woodland walks. They are all made in China. Apparently, for three thousand quid, you can order one to be made with your facial features. The beautiful stone, five arched, bridge in the dip of the town is an architectural joy. Through the arches you can see the delights of summer reflected in the clear, golden water of the Burrow River: Boys diving, headlong, and flipping from traditional bouncing diving boards, canoes readying themselves for the day ahead. It was like a scene from an Enid Blyton book

Sunday morning, we went to breakfast with Claudia Roden and Darina
Allen. From her own account, Claudia Roden was hand reared in in Egypt in an minestrone soup of nationality (they were Arabic Jews from Turkey with a strong French influence). As a child, the food she ate was sutfadi (which has a strong Spanish Moor influence) and Italian, as her nannies were Slovenian. She went to finishing school in Paris, (btw, I think I am finally ready for finishing school), and then on to art school in London. During the Suez Crisis, her extensive family was forced to leave Egypt (as indeed were my parents who were working for UNESCO at the time) and they all descended on her in London where she gathered thousands of exiled recipes, full of love and farewells before they scattered the earth. Darina’s story was simpler: lots of porridge, gooseberries, roast chicken, and butter making.

Sutfadi would have been food to die for in California’s correctional centres where both life and death have bleak outlooks in the American justice system. Rachel Kushner was clear and concise. She described an up-bringing trimmed with crime and chaos in ‘Sunset’ as she knocked around with kids from a background of poverty and deprivation, destined for a life of police and imprisonment. Herself, a child of well educated, strong, engaged Beatnik parents, “my destiny was different”.

To write the book, Rachel immersed herself in the prison system in a different way – she succeeded in becoming a part of a ten day interactive tour of California’s prisons for future correctional centre staff, and she has many incarcerated friends, one of whom is serving two consecutive life sentences. In her talk, she described the strong oily, floral smell of cell block 64, the cleaning solution used in the penal institutions, the garden grown from seeds in the bird droppings gathered by one woman prisoner, the friendships, the ice cream sandwiches shared by women through the toilet system, the smell of the testosterone of 4,000 men. She talked of the ‘ecology of suffering’ and the ‘treacherous moral landscape’. The book, The Mars Room, is a homage to the people Rachel grew up with.

Rachel’s talk may have contributed to the tears gathering and wiped from my eyes with hurried embarrassment as Michael Longley read his poems. Indeed, he struggled himself to get through one poem, a recent one he wrote for Seamus Heaney, but as he said, ‘if we are not moved by our own poetry, how will others be?’ Michael Longley has an exquisite dexterity and can pluck and play with words that wallow in the back waters of the dictionary. He finds leverets, fire seeds, sand pipers, warblers. He claims, “syntax is the bones of a poem”. Maybe, but words are his bloodstream.

Finally, I laid out in the sunshine with Cillian Murphy, stretched out. I listened to him, Max Porter and Enda Wyley discussing grief, crows, fathers, sons. My eyes closed while their still boyish laughter ricocheted through the open ball room French windows, across the green grass and out into the meadows. I smiled at the thrill of their happiness and breathed a sigh of contentment.

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