FRIDAY: Robert Fisk, in conversation with Pat Kenny (Church of the Assumption, Castle Street)
It was raining hard in Dalkey on Friday evening, water splashing back from the pavement, people scudding along under umbrellas, not even peeking at passing celebrities. We were all glad the night’s planned events were indoors. There may have been 500 people or more taking shelter in the Catholic church, an interesting choice of venue for a conversation that turned out to be largely about sectarianism in the context of the Middle East in general, Syria in particular – although Robert Fisk pointed out that on another level the conflict in Syria is a proxy war between America and Russia. He advised us to look at it with deep cynicism.
Robert Fisk is a power-talker, and I’ve four events to write about, so I’ll keep these notes to the comments that were most thought-provoking to me:
He talked about how Islamic science was way ahead of European science until, at some point in the 18th/19th century, a German linguist decided that Arabic languages were romance languages and European languages were scientific languages. That was all it took, apparently. First Islamic texts began to disappear. Then references to Islamic texts disappeared too.
(Did this mean that Europeans began to cite extant ideas and principles from Islamic sources as their own? Chilling thought)
It might seem far-fetched, this notion that one person could, with a single statement, alter the shape of global thinking, change the direction of knowledge. But I was struck by the parallel with Jennifer O’Connell’s recent column in the Irish Times:
When you think about it, history is full of examples of how one person, by a single statement or action, can change everything. Look at Rosa Parks, for a start. It’s a lesson, for those of us who might think we’re powerless to change anything, or that our choices don’t have consequences.
At one point, as RF named off the sectarian composition of various governments and populations, religious sects that a series of important and influential people belonged to, PK asked: “How do you know?” He cited people in the North who, when asked how they can tell if a person walking down the street is Catholic or Protestant, say “You just know.” There was a ripple of recognition in the crowd. We laughed when he said “Even in Dalkey, you can tell.”
RF’s blunt answer was: “I ask them.”
This got more laughter, some applause.
Our laughter suggested that we’ve come a long way, in Dalkey, from sectarian assumptions, but it’s disturbing all the same. We’d do well to remember how murderous those distinctions can get. See Brian Lynch’s long poem Pity for the Wicked, for example, for its unforgettable account of the murder of Margaret Wright, mistaken for a Catholic in a loyalist bandhall in South Belfast, 1994: http://theduraspress.brianlynch.org/pity-for-the-wicked/
PK asked an interesting question, about how Middle-Eastern countries adapt to cyclical regime/administrative changes in democratic countries like America and the UK.
RF said it’s easy, because as regards the Middle East, policy remains the same, relentlessly pro-Israel. Asked about his position on boycotts of that State, he said he’s not in favour, because:
- There’s a note of anti-Semitism in it
- It alienates rational, moderate Israelis. They already have one wall in Israel, we shouldn’t isolate them further
- They are so locked into the US economy that it doesn’t make any real difference
But he’d be in favour of boycotting products coming out of illegal settlements.
SATURDAY: Anne Enright in conversation with Sinead Gleeson (Dalkey Heritage Centre)
Anne Enright began by reading from her most recent novel, The Forgotten Waltz. She’d chosen an extract about a young couple’s search for a house during the boom, losing themselves in imagining the lives they might lead in this environment or that; settling, in the end, for what they could afford and listening for the sound of money growing, as their new home appreciates in value.
Sinead Gleeson asked her why she chose to write about the boom (when so many other writers seem to shy away from it).
AE said that, like Jane Austen, she’s extremely interested in money. People will talk openly about sex, but they won’t talk about money. She said she’d felt mildly accused after The Gathering. (Do I need to explain that she was talking about her novel, which won the Man Booker prize in 2007, and not the current tourist initiative of the same name?) She said that people asked her why she had to write that book, when we were having a boom, and everything was great.
About The Forgotten Waltz, she said: Adultery is a great subject for a boom … people know it’s wrong, but they do it anyway. The boom was a bit the same. We all knew it wasn’t quite right but we went along with it anyway and it was great fun; all that wanting and chasing and getting … and then suddenly it all falls apart.
She began to write the novel in 2009 when there was a sense of falling, and no one knew where it’d finish. She finished it in 2010 as the IMF rolled into town, when we’d a sense of waking up to the consequences; it was very poignant.
SG said she liked the book but found it hard to like the characters.
AE: Nobody likes my characters, but if you met Gina at a party you’d love her, she’s great fun. I’m not writing about her social exterior … I don’t know how likable the inside of anyone’s head is. The idea of likability is not important when you’re writing from inside a character.
On the notion of likability in characters, see Claire Messud’s recent interview in Publisher’s weekly: http://www.publishersweekly.com/pw/by-topic/authors/interviews/article/56848-an-unseemly-emotion-pw-talks-with-claire-messud.html
SG: Lauren Sandler (journalist and author) says that a woman writer should only have one child or she risks damaging her career
[Lauren Sandler is not the first woman writer, by the way, to have this opinion: Alice Walker has an essay to that effect in her 1984 Collection In Search of Our Mother’s Gardens (“One Child of One’s Own”). But Alice Walker is a salutary example. Look what happened when her only child, Rebecca, grew up and wrote a book of her own: Baby Love: Choosing Motherhood after a Lifetime of Ambivalence. There’s no end to the worms that will emerge from this particular can, if you’re reckless enough to open it.
But Anne Enright, who writes in her living room, in the middle of everything – also like Jane Austen – is refreshingly dismissive of the idea that children undermine writing.]
AE: For me, having a baby was like the scene in King Lear where blind Gloucester jumps off the cliff. He thinks he’s jumping off a cliff, but he lands on a ledge. I landed on a ledge!! The baby slept five hours a day. You can get a lot done in five hours. You work hard. It’s like knitting faster so as not to run out of wool. A lot of writing is about not panicking; it’s mood management.
Talking about what she calls “The Baby Book” (Making Babies) AE said brilliant things I got too caught up in listening to record, about how when she started she wanted to say things Irishwomen hadn’t said before – that was a broad canvas, then – and writing the Baby Book was the same. A lot had been written, but look what there was – it was all about pain and blame, power and control, and who can I sue about this? And she wanted to talk about what it’s really like, what really happens. She wanted to say: this outward battle we were having in Ireland about women’s bodies in those decades, this is what it’s really, actually, about. She wanted to write about the physical, and about denial, and about the miracle too.
SG asked about the current debate about gendered reviews of books, how books (and reviews) by women are under-represented in the Books pages of newspapers and journals.
AE: Most readers of novels are female, but that’s not reflected in the statistics of book pages. The Vida website keep track, and report their findings every year. http://www.vidaweb.org/the-count-2012
Men are much better at being important than women, she said. Starting out, 20 years ago, she knew she’d never be important – “It’s very freeing, an opportunity to write something flexible and funny. Funny and important don’t always go well together. It’s a chance to do something that keeps moving, otherwise you’d be tempted to write something still and perfect … funny, moving, changing, mischievous, are all good things. They add up to a book that’s alive.”
“Issues of reputation can be galling or funny, but it has nothing to do with what you do when you’re writing You get cross, thinking about it from the outside, but you write from the inside …. You can’t control how the world sees you, you can only control your 200-300 words a day.”
I love the way this woman thinks and talks about her work, how deeply engaged and conscious she is, balancing all of that with the mystery of it. I was amazed by the man behind me who, when it was over, professed himself to be astonished by her intelligence. He’d go so far as to read one of her books, now, he said.
Where has he been for the last 20 years? What’s he been reading?
SUNDAY: Kevin Barry in conversation with his audience (Finnegan’s, Sorrento Road)
If Michelle Obama and her daughters had come to Finnegan’s on Sunday, when Kevin Barry was reading his recent New Yorker story, the Ox Mountain Death Song, they might have had more fun than they had later in the week, having lunch with 60 invited dignitaries in the same venue. My last post was about a Kevin Barry reading, so I won’t bang on about this one, except to say that it was every bit as good, and that you’d be listening a long time before you’d notice the crick in your neck. He ran his own interview, taking questions from the floor and talking openly about his work and his working habits.
About the future of books, KB said that he’s slightly worried about books, but not about stories – we need stories to shape our lives by. It’ll be interesting to see how they develop, what forms they might take.
On Writing: he always has an opening and a vague idea of where it’s going but there has to be oily blackness in the middle. The story has to be a surprise for him or it won’t surprise the reader… He tries to have fun when he’s writing on the basis that if he does, the story will be fun for the reader too. Even so, writing is rough work, difficult work. There’s a great Irish tradition that you write three books and then go off and drink yourself to death. But writers are different now. You have to look after yourself, get out on your bike every day …
If there’s a common trigger for his stories, he said, it’d be a line of talk overheard, the way Irish people talk to each other, the secret power battles of Irish conversation. He quoted Norman Mailer: Whenever two men meet in the street and say hello to each other, one of them loses.
Asked if he ever feels dishonest, gathering up these lines of dialogue (great question!) he quoted Joan Didion, who says You’re always selling someone out. You have to have empathy and sympathy, but a bit of coldness too.
SUNDAY: Carl Bernstein in conversation with David McWilliams (St Patrick’s Church, Harbour Road).
Saturday and Sunday had been fine, but it began to rain again as the church filled up. Then it lashed. Bob from the Gutter (!) Bookshop was up at the front, piling a table high with books for the signing that would follow the talk. I was broke, after splurging at his pop-up bookshop in the wineshop (On The Grapevine) the day before, so I sat on my hands. It has to stop, this filling of the house with books.
We were asked to budge up and make room for the incoming crowd. Then Sian Smyth thanked everyone for their support during the Festival, although we were the ones who should have thanked her.
David McWilliams began by reminding us that the next day (17th June) would be 41 years, to the day, since someone at the Washington Post said, “There’s been a break-in …”
Carl Bernstein took up the story. He was 28 that night. He saw the commotion at the city desk and knew that whatever it was about, it was more interesting than the story he’d been working on. How right he was.
He offered to help out, and that’s how he and Bob Woodward began to work on the breaking story of Watergate. The story grew and grew. Over time they realized that money from Nixon’s re-election campaign had gone to the burglars. It gave the lie to the idea there was ‘no connection’ between Nixon and the burglary, but at the same time they couldn’t imagine it went all the way to the top.
Attacks were made daily on their characters, and on their paper, the Washington Post.
DMcW: What was that like?
CB: It motivates you not to make a mistake.
Asked about how news journalism has changed in the meantime, CB said that too much is made, today, of the death of investigative journalism. There’s great reporting being done, eg the Boston Globe reporting on the breaking scandal of paedophilia in the Catholic Church.
Almost straight away he seemed to contradict himself, when he said that if those (Watergate) facts were assembled and presented today, they’d be received very differently. Hundreds of millions of people are just not interested. They’re interested in things that will confirm them to themselves, their ideas and beliefs.
You can’t separate out the digital question from other questions, he said; journalism reflects other aspects of culture. Now, everything we do goes into a hyperactive jetstream, you have to be first, fastest, loudest … it’s hard to get the real work out there.
Later, he reverted to optimism:
DMcW: Is the commitment of newspapers shrinking? It would take a lot of time and money to research that story now.
CB: Yes, but. It’s easy to be nostalgic for a Golden Age that didn’t exist. There were never many such institutions, but there were some, and still are. The New York Times is the best it’s ever been, a remarkable entity, online and in print. The Washington Post still does great reportage on national security issues and politics. But fewer institutions have funding, you’re right … The most important thing is that standards are, and should be, maintained. The web is a great reporting vehicle, for sharing documents, photos, videos; and for opportunities to establish contacts with people. What bothers me is the greed of our business. The networks make millions, but news divisions have been decimated – why not keep them going, as a service?
Later still, he said: We’ve always had crap – it takes its own forms in every age.
DMcW asked about Obama’s recent announcement of support for the rebels in Syria: This will have enormous impact on foreign policy. Does America have the stomach or will, to go down this road again?
CB: America is a very complicated word.
DMcW: The American State then.
CB: The American State – very complicated terms. The real problem is: are we going to play into the hands of Al Qaeda or a similar group? We risk playing into the hands of those who would do more damage. It doesn’t take much will to get arms out there, to get soldiers out there. But are we unleashing forces such that we don’t know what the results will be?
DMcW: Is there another way?
CB: I don’t know the answers. That’s why I’m a reporter.
During the Q & A, CB was asked if the role of the whistleblower is as important today as the traditional journalist (in reference to the current Edward Snowden/ NSA/ Prism story)
CB: The basic answer is: no. Real reporting includes context, bringing stories up to date, further reporting … often the whistleblower has an axe to grind, we need to be careful. There’s a temptation to beatify some people who have been entrusted with confidential information by governments and go about disclosing it. Sometimes they see harm being done, and sometimes they’re interested in their own heroism, sometimes they’re just angry.
“Civil disobedience has consequences, it takes great courage, but I’m not so sure it’s heroic to hand over files to Wikileaks. There are reasons we have laws against such disclosure. Is it enough, with a document dumped out by Wikileaks to put it in a paper without checking it or giving it context? We have responsibilities, as journalists.”
The 2013 festival was huge. I love the way the events spread into new corners of Dalkey each year. Next thing we know, there’ll be pop up bookclubs in people’s houses, with the authors turning up for a chat. The prize for most inspired setting, this year, has to go to Stuart Carolan on Love/Hate, held in the building that was a Garda station in the days when we could still afford such luxuries.
Is it because of the unusual venues that total strangers sit down beside and chat to you? Sometimes I think this is the whole point of festivals: to get people together, thinking and talking about something other that weather or the banks. I still think Michelle Obama and her kids should have come to Dalkey three days earlier than they did. There’d have been something there for all of them.