This time last year, as writer-in-residence at Farmleigh (thanks to the Office of Public Works) I worked on a project called Pieces of Mind.
The idea came from Georges Perec’s An Attempt at Exhausting a Place in Paris. In the course of one weekend in October 1974, Perec set himself up in a series of local cafés and recorded what he saw. His writing tries to keep up with the passage of time and everything he sees over three days in one city square.
I wondered if I could do something similar, preserve a verbal snapshot of a Farmleigh moment. During my time there I often sat in the Boathouse Café and watched people, wondering what was going on inside their heads and in their lives. We’re all consumed by our own reality, but multiple realities co-exist. Where do they diverge and where do they overlap? If I see someone drink a latte or feed the ducks – what am I missing?
So I asked people to talk to me about whatever was on their minds on two specified days in May, 2016. I assembled a narrative mosaic from what 35 people told me, as a kind of textual time capsule to be stored as a document in the Iveagh library.
Here are some of the things people spoke about:
- politics and the formation of the new Government – (10 weeks on from last year’s General Election)
- Water charges
- anxiety about the future, concerns about children, particularly adult children
- There was a lot about writing, reading and the arts
- There was talk of bereavement and talk of joy and quite a lot about the centenary commemorations.
- Of all the memorable conversations I had, the one that still haunts me is the woman who told me that she and her husband, both in their seventies, are the sole carers for a physically disabled son in his thirties: ‘What will become of him when we die?’ she asked. ‘Despite making extensive enquiries and efforts to have his future welfare catered for we have absolutely no idea. No one can give us an answer. No one knows.’
One woman spoke about feeling that we are being manipulated, not just in what we think but in being directed towards what we think about.
This unsettling comment is very much in my mind when I read the papers or listen to the news today. The ‘news’ seems strangely static. Read a story online; the next day you’ll read it in print, hear the same quotes on the radio and on TV: same story, little fresh information, few dissenting voices.
I wondered, if I was to work on Pieces of Mind now, what would people talk about? So I asked them. Politically, the focus is narrower, but with strong echoes of last year’s issues reinforcing a sense of the involution of news: the fragmentation of old certainties, Brexit and the border, Trump. No-one mentioned the Fine Gael leadership contest (which, in fairness was only announced that day) but there’s anger about the Catholics-first policy in our schools and the ownership of the proposed new Maternity Hospital.
People are still focused on mortality, bereavement, the luck of being alive and the pain of serious illness. There are the same concerns about spiralling housing costs & the future of adult children. They’re thinking about weddings, about music, dance, poetry. One person sent me a sequence of poems; another sent a description of hares in a field.
I’m thinking how lucky I am in the work I do and the people I do it with.
Printed versions of Pieces of Mind will be available for people to read in the Boathouse Café (Farmleigh) during the month of June. The book is not for sale.
This piece was broadcast as a radio essay on ARENA (RTÉ Radio One) on 19th May, 2017
(Photos by Simon Robinson, used with permission)