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Public readings can be tricky affairs. There's nothing more calculated to cause a gritting of the teeth, a shudder of the spirit or even a rising of the gorge than to be voluntarily confined in a Function Room to endure an hour-long ranting by the author in person, of predigested matter now regurgitated, delivered in a monotonous drone. It is enough to make a cat laugh or a dog throw up.

Since there are no limits to the depths into which a downrightly bad reading can sink, neither are there limits to the heights to which an outstandingly good reading can ascend. I have heard both.

That most modest lady Alice Munro of Canada, with eight great collections of short stories behind her, was reading in the Y in New York, and did she wow them? Sure she did. The auditorium was packed.

The other side of the coin was Brother Antoninus, a Beat poet togged out as a Dominican, atrociously vain, reading his drivel with cast-iron complacency at Amerika Hans in Berlin, where they don't take fools too gladly. It was a cruelly lit room, with neon-strip lighting, and the audience were leaving as fast as they were arriving, and Brother Antoninus was counting them and sweating, in between delivering his awful verse. It was an experience through which I would not willingly go again.

So the stuff you seem to be receiving may not be the same stuff I'm giving out.

Adolf Hitler never knew what he would say until he felt the mood of the huge crowd at one of those monster Nuremberg rallies; the mood of the crowd lifted him up and carried him on, the wind that shakes the barley.

You can embarrass an audience by being very vain, like the late Robert Graves, or very shy, like Marianne Moore. The best recorded performance I ever heard was of James Joyce himself reading from Finnegans Wake, late one night when twirling the knobs for different stations on the wavebands on an old wireless set and getting some European station, maybe Italy, and hearing for the first time Joyce's voice, the voice of a dead man which didn't sound at all dead, reading extraordinary material, which before I had taken to be nonsense. You couldn't hear him reading it and ever consider it nonsense.

I lived once on the top floor, the fifth floor, of a flat in north London overlooking Grouch End playing-fields. I left something cooking in a saucepan on an electric burner and went to the other end of the apartment, turned on Radio 3 and got the voice of Robert Lowell reading from "For the Union Dead" Ten minutes later, he was still reading and the whole apartment was filled with black smoke; as I ran back to the kitchen through this battle-smoke, I could hear Lowell still reciting himself. Nothing could stop those great American heroics, those brave cadences--truly the authentic voice of America. Gritty.

We had a builder in the other day to do a job. On the same day some copies of one of my books arrived from the publisher and I gave one to the builder for his wife, said to be a great reader. He read the title and the blurb, neither of which conveyed much to him, and inquired politely what kind of writing I did--musing, was it? I'd never heard it described in those terms: "musing" Was that what it was?

I found this question impossible to answer. Writing without beginning, middle, or end? Writing that won't sell?

"You mean like Addison and Steele?" I said. "Little essays."

"Yeah, geezers like that. Daft geezers"

"Dull geezers, you mean?" I said. "Dead geezers?"

"Yeah, dull"

"Well not exactly. I aspire to be amusing. A bit of a laugh you know. Never did anybody any harm."

I never heard what the wife made of Flotsam & Jetsam, and I don't believe her husband read a word of it. He was a hard-headed, practical man bringing up a family, and to him writing must have seemed a feeble sort of activity, hardly an honest occupation like plastering or painting walls and doors. The more serious the aspirations of those who wrote, the more futile and useless it appeared to him. Fiction writing is a game for fools and I should know, having spent most of my life at it. In lieu of life as it is lived, we have something supporting on the page.

What I have done is to compose an answer of sorts to this sceptical builder, who is probably known to some of you; for it's a viewpoint shared by many. He is an Englishman, born in Purley, who brought his wife and family over here for what he calls "the better quality or life" found in windy Kinsale. Like your humble servant, he is a blow-in, an honorary citizen.

Here, then, is the open letter: "An Open Letter to a Certain Sceptical Builder Who Maintained that Serious Writing is a Foolish Occupation"

Dear P.J.,

One of the heaviest prices we paid for our neutrality in WWII was the strict State censorship imposed on books, films, and even paintings. Rouault's Crucifixion, refused by the Fathers in Maynooth, springs to mind. It was the scantiness of the Lord's loincloth which offended the Reverend Fathers, although I myself have seen scantier ones in seventeenth-century Mexican churches.

When Neville Chamberlain discovered that Herr Hitler wasn't much of a gentleman, he thought he had discovered his weakness. Au contraire. Hitler was no gentleman and had no intention of ever being one, nor of keeping his word; which is surely the first requisite of a genuine gent--his word is his bond.

The war, in any event, was not going to be fought by gentleman; it was not going to be another Charge of the Light Brigade. If Chamberlain had remained in office, Britain would have lost the war, and Ireland become an offshore colony of Nazi Germany, used for pig breeding.

The hatred that Churchill inspired in Hitler was proof of his effectiveness; he was a dangerous enemy. We kept the ports but were stuck with Dev and his satrap Archbishop McQuaid, panic legislation and sterilisation of the mind.

James Joyce invented a sly neologism to describe the ineffectiveness of Chamberlain, concentrating on his rolled umbrella, his gamp. Joyce's new-minted word for Chamberlains futile foreign policy of appeasement was "umbrology" which suggests both rolled umbrella, an inability to make up one's mind, perhaps a proneness to make fatuous gestures ("Peace in our time" while waving a scrap of paper at the dupes), dithering, and taking umbrage. All that was umbrology.

When Sir Harold Nicolson of the Foreign Office declared to Mussolini that "rearmament no more produced war than umbrellas produced rain," the Dictator was only too pleased to agree with him, and, depend upon it, they both laughed heartily at such ready wit.

Meanwhile, on the emerald-green island, strange things were happening: Brief Encounter was banned because it seemed to encourage adultery, Chaplin's Monsieur Verdoux had an offending blasphemous exchange cut out of it.

In those days we were afraid of our shadows. The Dublin booksellers conducted their own secret censorship and refused to stock certain titles or else hid them under the counter like cats hiding their excrement. Miss O'Flaherty of Parson's Bookshop on Baggot Street Bridge refused to stock The Ginger Man; Donleavy's brand of dog-roughness shocked her. Parts of An tOileanach by Tomas O Criomhthain of the Blaskets was excised from the English translation put out by the Talbot Press. The cuts were made I suspect by "An Seabhac" himself, a Mr. Sugrue who had published a number of delightful tales in the language of West Kerry.

The Censorship of Publications Board had become a sort of minor Catholic Inquisition set up by Archbishop McQuaid in the middle of the Irish Sea. "Suggestive material," in Catholic theological jargon, led inevitably to "sinful thoughts" This continued into the 1960s when the miniskirt put an end to it.

A haughty Protestant bookseller at Hodges Figgis in Dawson Street, Dublin, when asked by me to explain their under-the-counter policy said: "If we don't approve of a book, we might stock it but won't display it," an extraordinary way to run a bookshop, like advertising cigarettes but advising smokers that smoking can kill. Under-the-counter books produced a nation of gropers; not gripers or grocers but gropers.

The young Beckett, whose first collection of stories, More Pricks Than Kicks, was banned, wrote a piece of virulent bile entitled "Censorship in the Saorstat," which had to wait years before it was published.

Bellow refers to the Hidden Prompter, which I take to mean something akin to Proust's "involuntary memory" that which delves into the past, to dredge up a line, a phrase, even a word, urging "Divulge! divulge!"

Perhaps it's something that begins in childhood, or used to begin; for now that the big TV screen, ever agape, ever chatty, has replaced the mother reading to her children by an open fire, that impulse must be much weakened or even atrophied as the world becomes noisier, and silence seems critically hostile.

Writing, the impulse to record, comes from reading itself, listening to someone reading to one; hearing one's mother reading is like listening to her breathing, sensing her bloodstream's flow, and all those pauses and verbal mannerisms become part of the story; the mother becomes part of the story, an involvement impossible with the TV screen which after all is only a machine, a tube.

Perhaps I overstate this a little, but not much.

Reading began for me when I was down with measles as a child, followed by my younger brother, and in those days that meant six weeks in bed in a darkened room. My mother bought a copy of Hans Andersen's Fairy Tales and read it all to us, with our hair standing on end; first in the darkened bedroom with the Venetian blinds half drawn and later under a yew tree on the edge of the tennis court. After Hans Andersen, we asked for the Brothers Grimm to really alarm us. If Andersen's fairy tales about swallows and frogs were coded messages about the author's secret life, the life he couldn't lead or even write about; the Grimms' tales were coded messages from the vast German forest where all the offensiveness which shouldn't be mentioned or seen was hidden away; a place of lost children, witches, gnomes, criminals.

The Germans were dangerous because they dreamed collectively, Count Ciano told Il Duce.

This may account for my later obsession with all things Teutonic, from Emil Nolde to Gunter Grass. And later, when I came to live in those great cities, Munich and Berlin seemed like home-from-home to me (although I never bothered to learn the language).

A German friend of mine, who died five years ago, had his ashes interred in a bluebell wood in Sussex. It was on the Ides of March. A walnut tree was planted in his memory and two firecrackers (in memory of his childhood in China) laid at the foot; a boy called Bertie lit them and out of them what should shower but confetti! Is it not pure Grimm?

My brother and I, cured of measles, could never get enough of these chilling yarns. We pestered our mother to read us more; until one fine day we began to read for ourselves, C A T finally definitely meant cat, the furred, tailed creature that moved about so silently.

One suspects that the average reader, the normal know-all fed on TV and daily doses of newsprint, can take in only just so much "serious" reading, and that in a cockeyed way, impeded by all manner of distractions, of which the least worry is the so-called Political Correctness.

Similarly, the Freudians can see only a Freudian text; the Feminists, permanently het up, are looking only for further pretexts to be offended-again!--by gross male piggery. The Magic Realists are ever on the lookout for the heavy influence of Gabriel Marquez; and the Postmodernists read a text all their own. While the reviewers, the hacks of the book pages, affect to know more about the book under review than the authors themselves, and know better ways of writing the books they so patronisingly scan.

I am not alone in seeing a levelling out process which seems to accelerate as we approach the millennium. Walt Disney is an entertainment machine, producing those god-awful winsome animals turned out in hundreds of thousands with tireless proficiency by his animators; McDonald's is a sausage machine; Kentucky Fried Chicken a chicken-processing plant; and the murky Murdoch a tabloid machine for extruding yet more tabloids. All are busily engaged in a flattening-out process, from the ever-chummy "Uncle Walt" to the more sinister media magnates with their global markets, their designs on our hearts and minds. Soon we'll all be mixed up together, we Irish, in Dr. Tony O'Reilly's Independent meat-grinder machine, our new Irish stew.

What, you may ask, has this got to do with the written word, the word we are talking about, the good word? Very little. And the gap between these two kinds of writing widens, yawns, daily, for the ideal reader in search of an ideal insomnia. "Perhaps all that the masses accept is obsolete" wrote Yeats.

Today everybody reads Angela's Ashes and sees the movies hyped to hell, Michael Collins and Schindler's Ark or whatever it's called, and of course Titanic. The great public at large know that Tiger Woods is big; everybody knows that. Everybody has become the same--as shopping malls and drive-ins and filling stations.

My mother knew and cultivated a number of minor Irish writers, among whom figured Crosby Garsten and Oliver St. John Gogarty in a wasp-yellow waistcoat and tan boots, who had nonchalantly removed Brother Bun's tonsils, as he had those of W. B. Yeats before him. I didn't know then that the first character to appear in Mr. Joyce's Ulysses was the self-same "Stately plump Buck Mulligan" of the tripping dactyls, seen strolling about our garden familiarly addressing my mother as "Lily."

She read us many books by Irish authors which in a vague, uncritical way I found disappointing, among them Frank O'Connor, Maurice Walsh, Francis McManus (what improbable heroics took place in Candle for the Proud and Men Withering!), Brinsley McNamara, Kate O'Brien (Without My Cloak and The Land of Spices were banned) and the oft spoken-of, well-thought-of Lynn Doyle, whose real name was Leslie Alexander Montgomery, a bank clerk who is remembered, if at all, as the author of several volumes of droll stories set in the fictional Northern village of Ballygullion.

A dead dog was floating down a river, passing under a bridge in the moonlight. Two old codgers stood gossiping on the bridge. It was an Ireland I didn't know or wish to know, supposing it existed other than in their addled heads. I thought that the middle of Ireland must be a mighty strange place; Longford, where my mother came from; Cavan, where her nurse came from; Roscommon, where my father's people came from--all were mighty strange places. "Here be dragons," wrote the old map-makers of the blank areas where no white man had ever set foot. They might just as well have written, "Here be monsters."

For me growing up as a child in the 1930s, the middle of Ireland was Terra Incognita. And I may say that the later old-fashioned novellas of John Broderick and John McGahern and Pat McCabe of The Butcher Boy fame, failed to make this central void any more appealing than it had first appeared to my childish eyes.

With these rays of sunshine I'll leave it; an uncontrollable mystery, my dear P.J. Watch out for falling joists.

Yours, Rory of the Hills

Paper read at The Lord Kingsale, March 30, 1998
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Title Annotation:discussion on public readings made by writers
Author:Higgins, Aidan
Publication:The Review of Contemporary Fiction
Article Type:Essay
Date:Sep 22, 2008
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