A podcast journal, questioning the creative life. I delayed posting this for a long time. It was recorded at a moment when I felt very emotionally vulnerable. A time when I was questioning the assumptions underlying the life I’ve chosen – the penurious road of the struggling writer. Maybe the open vein is the best to drink from. Take a listen.
My final piece for Culture File’s series on ‘Silence‘, is an interview with performance artist Amanda Coogan. I don’t want to preempt the piece by writing too much about it. I will say that of all the conversations I’ve had this year, both on mic and off, this was perhaps the most personally meaningful. Amanda is an unusually sincere person who seems truly present in the moment. There are people I occasionally meet, whom I feel honoured to send time with, because they are present without pretence or defence. Perhaps those moments are why I’ve gravitated towards jobs that involve attempting real conversation – psychotherapy, music journalism, whatever the heck I do now. In those moments I’m reminded that life can be more engaged and meaningful than our fears and shibboleths usually allow.
Below is a transcript of the Culture File piece, and I’ve also made available a largely unedited recording of our interview. Our discussion spanned a variety of topics from the relationship of performance art to shamanic practice, to Irish societies treatment of the other, the evolution of performance art, as well as embodiment, the abject, and the phenomenology of performance.
My latest report for RTE Lyric FM’s Culture File, took me ‘upstairs’ to the week long ‘Happy Days‘ Samuel Beckett festival in Enniskillen. The festival organisers and tourism board of Northern Ireland were wildly hospitable (many thanks especially to Cathy Kapande, Kirstin Smith, Allie Crehan, and Sean Doran). Little did they know I’m but a lowly scribbler, not some slick skinned journo-critter full of Celtic catnip. The festival was genuinely wonderful, and I hope my brief report goes some way to conveying why. Listen above. Scattered impressions below.
I remember watching a BBC production of Happy Days in the wee hours of the 1980s. Reading Godot in secondary school and finding it hilarious. Finally attending the play in college, only to find the staging dull as dishwater. Beckett’s name evokes the grim surrealness of his imagery, seized upon by Woody Allen, parodied by the manically incongruous Pythons. I haven’t seen nearly enough Beckett, but I’ve seen Beckett in everything. In the savage mysticism of Alejandro Jodorowsky’s Holy Mountain, in the relentless self dissecting voice of Wallace Shawn’s Fever, in the humane grotesquery of The Singing Detective, in the domineering monsters so beloved of the Mighty Boosh.
Irony, the keen inversion of pain, the honest lie, is somehow key to Irishness, in Beckett’s time as today. Call it rebellious post-colonialism, call it rain-drenched nihilism, few cultures delight more in black comedy. I could say that ‘like Beckett I write for radio’, but that would be ludicrous. No one writes like Beckett, his work is so readily identifiable, so iconic in popular culture, trivial to parody yet impossible to imitate.
I’ve always been quite afraid of Beckett. It’s hard to empathise with a man who helped Joyce finish Finnegan’s Wake. Beckett’s rejection of character in favour of the universal, of narrative in favour of the indeterminate, and of epiphany in favour of negative capability, are all off-putting. But there’s no denying just how emotional the plays are, an aspect sometimes lost in onerously respectful staging.
I’m in Enniskillen, where the annual Happy Days festival has brought hundreds of performers together to celebrate the great man’s work, on stage, through music and readings, in exhibitions, installations, lectures and performances. Somewhere, hidden behind an enormous platinum edifice of craggy cheeked, ice cropped late Beckett, there’s probably a Krapp’s Last Cronut stand. You have to admire the moxy of a festival featuring productions of Godot in French and Yiddish, but none in English. Beckett was educated here, in Portora Royal School, where Oscar Wilde had earlier attended. I’m hoping a little of that learning will wear off on me, as I make my first foray into Beckett Land.
I descend into the Marble arch caves, where an octophonic John Cage piece has been set up on hidden speakers, winding it’s way through the rocky depths. Around us stalagmites rear up like molten candles. We pass under honey glazed ceilings dripping deliciously onto the puckered dragon hide skins of chitinous crenellated monstrosities. Walk through monument valley, boulders piled above us threatening to tumble. Cross foot bridges above blood red streams, fringed by dunes of dun sand, where our contorted shadows pour over whalebone walls. Roaratorio follows a method Cage devised for creating music from any book. These fright noises, snatches of music and voice, fusing with the caves own eerie song, were composed from Finnegan’s Wake.
Early morning Saturday and I’m off across the loch a schoolboy Beckett would have rowed, to hear Donal O’Kelly read on a golf course by the waters edge. Later Donal tells me how fracking threatens to split this community once again along sectarian lines. At the centre of Enniskillan is a memorial to those who fought in the Great War: Impossible to pass without being reminded of the Remembrance Day Bombing. It’s a hundred years now since that war, and the rebellion it sparked. This square remains a reminder of the wanton violence spilling down through this countries history ever since.
I encounter a freelance reporter Ian Patterson, who writes for the Belfast Telegraph and a host of other publications. Ian tells me about his journalistic travels. Visiting Loas, writing about Laotian minority Hmong people. During the Vietnam war the Hmong fought a proxy war in Laos for the Americans on the promise of a homeland secured by the CIA. After the Americans lost in Vietnam, the Hmong were persecuted. The Laotian government promised genocide and many fled, to the forests, to the united state. Today, in exchange for foreign aid, the Laotians have built towns for the Hmong to encourage them to return from jungle and reintegrate into society. Some of those who travelled to the US suffered from a ‘culture bound syndrome’ of unexplained adult deaths. They were visited by the spirits of their ancestors sitting on their chests as they slept: The dead pursuing the living into the new world.
Beckett’s school is Wes Anderson nostalgic. We sit in the parish hall style school gymnasium. Around us are blackboards embossed with the names of sporting heroes, patrician busts of headmasters, turning their noses up to meet stray basketballs. Dressed like gypsy geniuses in odd assorted hats, Yurodny appear. Sweet melancholic scratches of divine fiddles, mysterious and plaintive, klezmer somewhere between Turkish & trad.
We’re here to see the New Yiddish Rep and their earthy human Yiddish Godot. There’s so much weight of humor and history in this performance. Vladamir & Estragon are Laurel and Hardy, a tragi-comic vaudevillian duo, almost romantically doomed. The text, translated from French, German and English translations, almost inevitably evokes the Shoah.
This is a production that says – we can each let go of our bonds and yet we continue to hold them, drawn towards our own nature, irredeemably, hilariously, tragically. Moche Yassur, the company’s artistic director, laments the dying of Yiddish, his native language, even as he works to give it new life.
After the interval, Yurodny return. We wait in pregnant silence for them to begin. A minute passes, two… I’ve never seen Cage’s 4’33’ performed like this. So as to emphasise not the noise of silence, but the music lost.
Through Tattygare roiled with union jacks. Over hills past window scratching branches to a mysterious location. I’ve travelled through the Fermanagh countryside to Adrian Dunbar’s production of Beckett’s catastrophe. Dusty pews and damp flaked green walled alter form a stage. Three figures – a capo / bossman / king some tyrant anyway (the director), his nurse / wife / lacky (the assistant) constantly reigniting his cigar and manipulating a figure posed on a plinth (the protagonist). Under his guidance she moves the figure, making notes to whiten the limbs, expose the flesh. Perhaps we are observing the subject of an experiment, perhaps their child, a living statue anyway, an exhibit. At one point horror strikes the director. Something is wrong with his subject, something awful. He flees to the stalls to inspect the scene. They’re preparing a play.
The morning before I leave two communities audibly collide – the Enniskillan of literary festivals and the prosperous working class town still riven by sectarian conflict. An enormous flotilla of tractors trundle through, some driven by rascal boys honking horns and making heavy-metal hand signs. The mass conspiring against capital.
Perhaps what appeals today about Beckett is his tasteful reserve. Modern concerns framed with a restraint that feels classical, universal and terse. Theatre emerging from silence and darkness. As our world becomes more noisy, and confused, we’re drawn towards Beckett’s quiet, his ambiguities, his acceptance of impossible contradictions.
Quite a while back I wrote a post about places to write in Dublin. More specifically I was whinging about the poverty of writing spots. Sure, Dublin is home to hundreds of cafes, and if you’re willing to spend twenty or more euro a day, and able to write in frequently noisy, hectic environments, they’ll do in a pinch. But, more than a year after I asked the question, during the (pretty ironically titled for a variety of reasons) Dublin Writers Festival, the city still lacks a cheap place to write. There isn’t a single venue thats a) open in the evenings (when most people in full time employment are free), and b) actively tolerates (let alone supports) writers.
I’m in an incredibly fortunate position. I’ve made a modest living from my radio work for the past couple of years, and it’s meant that I’ve been able to afford to dedicate a room in my apartment to recording and editing radio programmes. Still, I find it almost impossible to get real creative work done at home. Editing, sure, blogging, certainly, but writing? Not a chance. Instead I’ve found that I write best in my old college library. This is an incredible facility, and one only available to those fortunate enough to have graduated from Trinity or be a post graduate student of another Irish college. Alas, like most Irish college’s, TCD’s library is closed in the evenings all Summer long.
That’s why I’m chomping at the bit at the news that the A4 art collective are offering cheap work spaces in Dublin. Starting from €50 a month for access to a shared workspace, A4 will let writers, musicians, performers and visual artists work cheaply in Dublin city centre. The importance of this cannot be overstated for the cultural life of the city.
Two things give a city a real creative life – a population with spare time, and low rents. For a few years, when the current Irish recession was at it’s worst, falling property prices and high unemployment satisfied both criteria. This led directly to the birth of a plethora of non-profit creative spaces in the city. Mabos, Exchange Dublin, Space 54, Subground 43, Supafast, the Complex, the Factory, Blue Bottle Collective and more, all grew out of the inability of rentiers to make money from commercial uses of their buildings. All allowed artists to create new work and the public to enjoy the fruits of that work, most often for free. They helped rebuild something Dublin had lacked for a generation, an artistic culture. They allowed thousands of young artists and performers to develop their talents, without the necessity for them to be immediately profitable.
To resort to business speak: As a creative professional starting a career without experience in a ‘sector’ with very low margins, there is literally no chance I’d be able to do the work I do today, without those spaces having existed, and without inspiration, camaraderie and support of the volunteers who gave life to them. They are all now gone. Not one failed to pay their rents, find an audience, or ran out of steam. Each was wholesale slaughtered by a Dublin City Council that has shown active distain for public arts; and developers eager to cash in on the faint flickerings of growth in the property market. In their place we have high priced private arts businesses, like Block T and the Centre For Creative Practices that have their place, but through their financial burden serve to cut the arts off from the life of the city.
One new arts space isn’t going to solve all that. But it does at least sort out the thorny issue of where to write in Dublin. Writers are poor. For many even 50 euro a month will be too much. The the rest of us, lucky enough to be able to live off our work or skating by on day job wages, finally have somewhere we can create!
Experimental short documentary piece I made a while back. The narration was adapted from an unpublished short story called ‘The Wedding Tree’. The story was later adapted into a radio drama for Newstalk. I talked about the ideas behind this story in an Ignite talk at Mindfields a couple of years back called ‘The Nuts & Bolts Of Making Stuff Up’.