Unravelling Skins in The Hinterland

Each reader at The Hinterland festival in Kells is given an ornamental Alium at their end of their event. It is tall, graceful, white blossomed stem which looks like the perfect dandelion sprayed with l’Oreal. It belongs to the onion family which is appropriate because Hinterland is like an onion, each event another unravelling of a skin.

For me, Hinterland began with Sinead Gleeson in the Presbyterian Hall. Sinead is petite, with delicate features and she looked rather alone, sitting up there on a plinth, one chair, one mic. She had me bowled over with her easy-going, articulate and knowledgeable manner. I had seen and heard Sinead interviewing a series of literary greats, but I was interested to see what she had to say for herself. It was a lot. She was honest, open, encouraging and totally disarming. She talked about the women writers in The Long Gaze Back, the importance of the female Irish writer, their discrimination over the years, and suggested authors to read. She was interested in her audience and asked questions of us – a tip other presenters and interviewers might consider. Sinead also discussed the rise of the Essay in Ireland, as well as in the UK and US. I am interested in this. Is this a literary reflection of the increasing obsession with the ‘me’, the ‘I’ that social media has spawned. What is an essay? Is this blog an essay? Too often, I have found essayists to be too erudite for me to appreciate or understand what they are saying. So, I asked Sinead whether an Essay needed to be erudite. Not at all, she said. An essay is an exploration of a subject you are interested in and want to discuss. That’s good, I thought. I can’t do erudite. I guess the literary, educational, or humorous nature of the essay depends on how skilled a writer you are. Anyway, Sinead is running a workshop on it in Waterford in October. I might go and find out more.

Gerry Adams has a thing about hair, he told us. He dislikes having his hair cut. He’d prefer to have it ‘done’, like a woman. I remembered the caustic remarks from the past about him dying his hair from people who disliked his politics and/or activities and wondered why a man dying his hair is an insult. What I found stranger was that here, sitting before me was a man who has been a presence throughout my life (albeit through the media), a man of great courage with a strong commitment to the rights of people, a powerful man who fought for what he believed in, a leader of an army, who also came from an abusive background, a man who seems to have humility and who must, at this stage of his life, have a deep understanding of the human psyche yet he is a man who talks and writes in such a pedestrian manner. It was as if his public persona has taken him by the throat and throttled him. Or maybe he is just getting old, like the rest of us.

Frank McGuinness displayed no such frailty while reading from his novel, The Woodcutter’s Family based on the characters of the Joyce Family (James Joyce) about whom he is obviously obsessed. I say it’s a novel, but clearly it is much more: it a performance, a play, a poem. He certainly brought the book alive through the dialogue and his passion and has inspired me to not only read more Joyce but to read his biography. Frank McGuinness was fabulous. He deserved an Oscar.

Unlike John Banville who, in another of life’s ironies, received the first Hinterland Award for what…greatness? I think not. Apparently, four people are to be given an award by the Committee this year. I bristled at this. I had donated to Hinterland to keep it going and was delighted when it raised enough money for the brilliant committee to keep running an excellent, diverse and interesting festival. Therefore, I think I have a right to say that I don’t think festivals need to hand out awards. And they should not be given to writers who clearly don’t value the opinion of others, for, as he said himself in his interview, Banville is not interested in other people and doesn’t care what they think. I hate to think of my precious pennies wasted.

So back to the interview. I have read and enjoyed most of Banville’s books and I look forward to reading his latest, Mrs Osmond which is a sequel to Henry James’ Portrait of a Lady. I loved that book when I was twenty, and it struck me that Banville was probably the best author to write in the flowery but stringent James manner. Anyhow, as the interview went on and Myles Dungan and John Banville entwined their own vine-like way up the tree of self-absorption, I lost the will to breathe and I left the first day of the festival irritated by his arrogant and egotistical manner. I hope John Banville doesn’t turn to writing essays. No doubt, they would be erudite and, I think, I would find them unreadable.

While John Banville was turning his hand to Henry James, Colm Toibin (the author of The Master, the story of Henry James) was setting out to humanise the legend of Agamemnon and his wife Clytemnestra, their son Orestes and daughters Iphigenia and Electra, protagonists of the Iliad. I’m not great at the Greek myths, and, aside from Orestes whom Toibin fleshed out beautifully, for me, the characters did not escape their legendary status. I asked him if he had found it constraining to work with characters already well known. He said he was trying to write about the relationships between the characters. Maybe, I was too intimidated by the Gods to enjoy the book – though my favourite part was Clytemnestra’s rejection of said Gods. I didn’t have any of these concerns with Testament of Mary. Maybe it was because Colm Toibin was the first person to field Mary with a personality and thoughts that I found humane and interesting. Colm Toibin is always a pleasure to listen to and watch. He is passionate and witty.

Sean Harnett (not his real name) is the author of Charlie One, a book that describes his experience of being a part of the British Army surveillance team in the North. The author is Irish, from a Republican background, and the interview was conducted in darkness over a skype connection. All we could see the skimpiest outline of a figure amongst the shadows and darker shadows and Myles Dungan brightly lit on the stage surrounded by hi tec. This man is clearly one for the lime light! Anyhow, the interview hyped the usual dire warnings about surveillance, but after hearing Misha Glenny earlier in the month at Borris discussing cyber war, it was like water off a duck’s back.

The literary event of questioner, interviewer is apparently an Oxbridge concept. I have to say, I agree with Lisa McInerney that there must be better ways to do this. Like Sinead Gleeson, she was up on the stage alone and she performed well, but wasn’t at ease, and kept checking how much longer she had. Lisa was discussing the class divide of writers and how so few of her fellow working class comrades are given the opportunity to write. She talked in brogue, with an accent as broad as Cork, and her readings captured well the drugs, sex and rock and roll dynamic of life in the every day. I hope her publishers are working hard to get her in to schools and on the streets to get her read by those she is writing about, to encourage more writing from people who are not provided with such opportunities.

It is interesting to consider how festivals might change their routine of interviewer, interviewed, writer, reader. Sinead Gleeson asked questions of the audience, as well as answering theirs. That was good. Maybe there needs to be more engagement. But writers can be solitary creatures and that might not work. John Banville certainly wouldn’t be interested.


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