Hay at Kells: Bogs, boys and absolute brilliance

John Banville played his cards with a masterful poker face, there was poetry in the beer garden, and DBC Pierre did his best to steal the show with a fascinating, final showdown

Mon, Jul 1, 2013, 11:12

IF the first day of the Hay Festival Kells was dominated by women writers, on days two and three the boys fought back: big-time.  

There was, from the start, a pugilistic undertone to the session in which the novelist John Banville was interviewed by RTÉ radio presenter Joe Duffy. “Ah, come on, John,” Duffy cried, more than once.  And “What do you mean you’re not the same John Banville who writes the books?”  And – a dangerous one, this – “do you have a favourite word, at the moment?”  

“Lilac,” Banville announced with a perfectly straight face, bringing Duffy to a screeching halt.  ”It’s my favourite word of all time.  It’s just beautiful.  With that ‘k’ sound at the end.  It’s always slightly . . . damp.”

 In fairness to Duffy, we learned a lot from this entertaining encounter.  We got a sneak preview of the movie of Banville’s Booker prizewinning The Sea, due in cinemas in September. We heard that a Philip Marlowe novel will also be on the shelves before many months have passed. “John Banville as Benjamin Black as Raymond Chandler,” shouted Duffy.  One all, guys.

When Banville wasn’t fulminating about the amount of violence against women in contemporary crime novels – “a crime fiction writer has a duty to tell you how bad this stuff is” – he was producing a stream of ever more outrageous utterances in ever more perfectly-formed sentences. “The peculiar kind of anguished happiness that I remember from childhood.” “I don’t use big words.  I use accurate words.”  And – blissfully – “For years I thought women had one buttock.” Game, set and match methinks . . .

Most of the events at Hay Festival Kells are, by their nature, indoors affairs. But as part of the sustainability/eco-awareness strand, Saturday offered the opportunity to take a guided walk on a raised bog in the impressively knowledgeable company of the Kells fine arts dealer Oliver Usher – who had opened the festival with an auction of rare books – and the botanist Kate Brown of Meath Eco Tours.  Despite the steady drizzle several dozen walkers came to Girley Bog to gaze at grasses, ogle orchids and be seduced by spaghnum.  We also saw – or, in my short-sighted case, heard – a buzzard.

By nightfall we were outdoors again for a lighthearted poetry reading at The Railway Bar which, due to the number of people looking for tickets, had to be moved into the beer garden.  It’s not easy to do a reading outside on a chilly evening, but the presenter of RTÉ’s Arena radio arts show Sean Rocks warmed the whole thing up with his hilarious demonstration of How To Do A Recitation, based on a book, honestly, called The Ulster Reciter; there was also a bit of audience participation in, of all things, Christopher Logue’s adaptation of Homer’s Iliad.

Gerry Stembridge had the place erupting with his delivery of another classic text, Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales – well, it was that bit about the farting friar – while Nerys Williams had everyone’s hair standing on end with her atmospheric reading of a poem in Welsh.  By the time we got out we had missed David O’Doherty’s stand-up set. But hey.  Or, perhaps, Hay.  That’s literary festivals for you. You can’t see it all.

The absolute highlight of Hay Festival Kells 2013 came on the afternoon of the final day.  Festival-lag had set in: big-time. The road home began to beckon.  Ah, what the heck, I thought. The highly controversial DBC Pierre, interviewed by the highly personable Sean Rocks? I’ll give it a lash.

I knew it was going to be something special when they began with a quick-fire “quiz” in which Rocks asked DBC to account, at top speed, for his name – and he replied in kind, with inch-perfect timing. (“Dirty but clean”, in case you didn’t know; and the Pierre is a reference to a cartoon character.)  

As the details of DBC’s extraordinary life unfolded – hugely affluent childhood, total financial wipeout, many, many mental problems, triple-prizewinning debut novel, disillusionment with Blair’s Britain, move to Leitrim and much, much more – the quiet in the room grew so deep as to be almost a living presence. Boys, oh boys. Sometimes you’re just brilliant.

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