Review: Rambler with a fixed abode

Lake poet of Leitrim: Michael Harding at Lough Allen. photograph: brian farrell

Lake poet of Leitrim: Michael Harding at Lough Allen. photograph: brian farrell


Staring at Lakes: A Memoir of Love, Melancholy and Magical Thinking, By Michael Harding, Hachette Ireland, 311pp, £13.99

Memoir has become one of the most popular literary genres of recent times, vying with the novel for readers. As the genre flourishes, its writers are challenged to find new techniques for presenting their biographical information. The traditional formula, which is to begin with childhood and move along chronologically, is replaced by more selective patterns. Memoir writers focus on a theme, or build the memories around selected places or objects.

Eibhear Walshe structured the story of his own childhood around images of his grandmother, Cissie, and her abattoir. The Hare With Amber Eyes uses objets d’art as the scaffolding on which to pin a family history. Michael Harding attaches his life story to lakes, for metaphorical and factual reasons.

He begins not at the beginning but close to the end, from which he hops to the middle: the moment in 1984 when he met his future wife, the sculptor Cathy Carman, in the artistic centre of Ireland, at the Tyrone Guthrie Centre, in Co Monaghan. She was at a summer picnic on the lawn above Annaghmakerrig Lake.

From this romantic nucleus Harding brings us on his roundabout quest for meaning back to his childhood, alighting here and there on telling episodes in his life as a priest, playwright, actor, writer, husband, father and traveller. As I read the book, my mind was perseverated by lines from a song, “I’m a rambler, I’m a rover, I’m a long way from home,” and from an Irish song on the same theme, An Spailpín Fánach.

Harding is a sort of philosophical spalpeen, but he’s a rambler with a fixed abode: a house he loves, a marriage to someone he always refers to as “My Beloved” and a productive career as an actor and writer, about which latter he tells us surprisingly little. A blurb on the back of the volume declares, with fine blurbese disregard for what’s actually in the book: “This frank and unflinching memoir offers a fascinating insight into the mind of the author of two of the finest Irish novels of the eighties.”

Although Harding has written almost 20 plays and three novels, as well as innumerable newspaper columns, there’s hardly any exploration of his writing in this book. References to his reading are likewise scanty. It’s a curious omission.

After their marriage Harding and Cathy Carman moved to Co Leitrim. If you’ve ever wondered how the artists and writers of Co Leitrim live, you’ll find Harding’s descriptions interesting, though probably not surprising. He spends his time writing, going for walks, observing donkeys and lakes, going to the Buddhisitic centre of Jampa Ling (in Co Cavan), doing up sheds in which to write, and wishing he could be somewhere else. He loves Leitrim, and his wife, but when the couple’s only child, Sophia, a horse-crazy girl (who has since become a successful showjumper), reached the age for secondary school, she and her father decided in a split second that Loreto in Mullingar was the right place, as it was a school with a good stable and equestrian team. Carman agreed that Sophie and her father should make the move while she remained in Leitrim. “It was one of those moments in my life when I rejoiced in the fact that I had married an artist; a woman open to all kinds of crazy ideas and possibilities.”

As readers of his column in The Irish Times know, Harding rented a flat and then a big house in Mullingar, and lived there for five or six years. He loved the cosmopolitan feel of the midland town, its lattes and the goths. “I liked having coffee in Café Le Monde on Harbour Square . . . watching all the people going in and out of Dunnes Stores.”

Disarming unpretentiousness

There are many moments of such disarming unpretentiousness in the book, as it flits from one topic to another with all the strategic planning of a mayfly on Lough Ennel. Attractively light in tone,it deals with some serious personal issues.

Although his pilgrimage in search of identity and truth – and lakes and women – brings him to many wonderful places, he is tripped up by his own demons: “A dark brooding shadow within watches me with indifference, or wants to wander in the past along laneways of regret and remorse. That is depression.”

There is also a a good bit about the symptoms of physical problems – colitis, enlargement of the prostate – that dogged the author for some of his later years. It is testimony to his charming frankness that he shares the details of these ailments, which happily were not life-threatening, with us – but although I am entirely sympathetic, there’s a limit to what I want to know about another person’s toilet troubles, however artistically justifiable the account is.

Amid all the amusing chat about lattes and donkeys, fundamental questions about “magical thinking” – about the point of life, religion and mortality – are posed. He never plunges deeply into any analysis or exploration, but he offers good answers on the wing. One we find already in the opening chapter: “In the end I was forced to let go of magical thinking altogether.”

At Lake Khovsgol, he had his most important epiphany: “I realised . . . why I had clung to religion for so many years. It was fear. And it is fear.”

But then, in the closing chapter, he seems less sure: “Perhaps a brave new world is coming where people will accept that life ends in the grave and heaven is a poppycock of the unconscious mind . . . I don’t know.”

In the end magical thinking seems to be replaced by what anthroplogists call quasi-magical thinking – which we engage in, for instance, when we don’t walk under a ladder or buy a car with “13” in the registration number, even though we know the superstitions are rubbish. A sort of spalpeen, Irish, “maybe and then again maybe not” reply to the big philosophical questions? This book is difficult to pin down but also difficult to put down. It’s very amusing and very readable. Harding closes with a paean to nature and love, and to the reward that everyone who is anyone in Ireland seems to get when they’re 50 or 60: a new double-glazed extension. That the courageous bohemian pilgrimage on the road less travelled ends in the same place as the suburban bus ride – at home on a new patio – seems curiously appropriate for this unusual, sometimes frustrating but mainly delightful memoir.

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