Last Saturday I was in Galway at the Cuirt International Festival for Literature speaking at a seminar on literary activity in prisons. I have done many readings in the past few years so I think I know what works and doesn’t work and believe that a prose reading, for example, should have a number of objectives, be it to enthral, entertain, inform, illuminate or educate.
There is nothing worse than putting an audience to sleep. After Friday’s two readings, given by novelists John Banville and Jim Crace, I spent the night avoiding Mr Crace in the hotel we were both staying in, just in case he was an amateur boxer. I had reviewed his last book, ‘Being Dead’, with the opening remark that it had left me brain dead. I had suggested that he call the sequel, ‘Being Alive’. In the past I had also attacked John Banville and he studiously walked past me in the bar, or else I was being paranoid.
Audience reactions can occasionally baffle. Sometimes they laugh when they should be aghast, or, they sit stony-faced when they should be wetting their pants. I have read the same pieces in Germany, Switzerland, England and Ireland and the various contradictory reactions would sometimes make you question the existence of universal values. Or even universal sounds. I don’t know about you but to me mice make a sound known as a squeak and the word squeak suggests the sound squeak, if you follow me.
In one of my stories a mouse under the bed of my prison inmate goes, “Squeak! Squeak!” But nobody in Germany, including my translator, knew what I was talking about. Oh you mean, “Pip! Pip!” he said. Pip, Pip? Mice in Germany say, “Pip! Pip!”?
Absolutely, he said. Yes, I thought, Pip, Pip, Poorah!
Anyway, where was I? At the seminar. Well, because I knew that I was going to have lots of opportunity of speechifying during the questions and answers I decided to begin with a few prison stories, including one about Rinty McVeigh from Andersonstown. Rinty was in H8 along with Rab Kerr, a lifer. He spotted Rab with a couple of text books in German and asked him was he learning the language. Rab said that he was but that it was proving difficult because – unlike French and Italian – he had nobody he could talk to and practice with.
Rinty then boasted that he could speak German and suggested that they lock up together in Rab’s cell over lunch. So, Rinty landed in with his cup of tea and the screw locked the door. Rab was all excited and wanted to get started so Rinty suggested that he would begin.
“Vat is your name and ver did you leive before?” said Rinty, in a Bavarian accent.
Rab was not amused! He had to put in another hour and a half with Rinty who said in consolation: “Here. I know a bit of Irish if that’s any good to you?”
Well, the story got a laugh in Galway, and then I went on to the more serious side of imprisonment and its use as a tool or repression. Dr Richard English of Queens University spoke about the library collection in the republican wings of the H-Blocks (which has been preserved by the Linenhall Library) and how it reflected the intense politicisation within that jail once the prisoners were allowed books after the hunger strikes.
I mentioned a ‘Guardian’ article published a few years ago, based on an NIO survey of the books ordered by prisoners from the official prison library. Eighty per cent of the books read by republicans were on politics, history, sociology, philosophy and literature. Whereas the most popular books down the loyalist wings, according to the NIO, were books on body-building, motor bikes and serial killers.
On Saturday night I spoke to Jane Mealey who teaches English and creative writing in Portlaoise Prison. Both Jane and her husband, Willie Joe, from Clogh in County Kilkenny, are poets and they were showing me some of the adult and children’s poetry they have published. I was in stitches at some of the kids’ two-liners:
My name is Jack
I hurt my back.
My name is Joseph Sealy
on my bike I did a wheelie.
And this one called, ‘My Pony’:
Once I had a pony
He was very bony
and his name was Tony
Now I’m lonely.
Incredibly, Willie Joe has never been to the North though his instincts about the conflict and who’s who were spot on. But it made me wonder how many other people from the Twenty-Six counties with low opinions of the nationalist community, who received their information through the fictions of the Kevin Myers, Cruise O’Briens and Eilish O’Hanlons of this world, have never actually been to West Belfast, the Bogside or Garvaghy Road?