Listowel Writers’ Week: Slane for the brain
Bill Clinton described the Hay Festival as ‘Woodstock for the mind’. For people who like books, ideas and a generous dollop of celebrity, the literary festival is a summer fix
Authors Michael Collins and Michael Cunningham and playwright John B. Keane in the latter’s bar during Listowel Writers’ Week in 2000. The bar is headquarters to the hub of banter and fun throughout the festival. Photograph: Frank Miller
I have always been a lover of books and in a 40-year affair with the printed word I have measured out my reading life with forays into all types of fiction, from a childlike obsession with Enid Blyton to an adult devotion to the memoiristic discourses of Karl Ove Knausgård. Every room of my house is lined with bookcases thronged with books, the full A to Z, from Auden to Zola. A life without books for me would be an arid desert of gulag groundhog day, dull and dreary and essentially unintelligible.
As a young reader I had elevated all of my favourite authors to a godlike status and I believed that all writers lived a life of toil, pounding the keyboard, channelling Hemingway as they bled on the page with the fervour of artistic expression engaging in the mesmeric art of creating. In between books I imagined that they loitered on pavement cafes in Paris smoking Gitanes and drinking endless glasses of absinthe in the romantic light of the blue hour. Like William Burrough’s character in his short story The Lemon Kid, I imagined that all “writers were rich and famous. They lounged around Singapore and Rangoon smoking opium in a yellow pongee silk suit. They sniffed cocaine in Mayfair and they penetrated forbidden swamps with a faithful native boy and lived in the native quarter of Tangier smoking hashish and languidly caressing a pet gazelle.”
This year Listowel hosts its 44th Writers’ Week Festival. I first encountered the special magic of this event 15 years ago with some friends. Propelled by the wings of Bacchus and feeling culturally satiated, we went for a last drink to the Listowel Arms and ended up singing songs around a piano played with a flourish by Eamon Keane and Colum McCann. We emerged blinking and bleary into the square in the early hours. It was one of those nights forever singed into memory and imbued with more Technicolor details with each recall. Later that year, the then chairperson, the very colourful and talented Joanne Keane, asked me to join the literary committee of the festival. For this unreconstructed bibliophile this was a thrill of Man Booker-sized proportion. My only experience of this hallowed species “the author” had been a few fleeting glimpses of Brendan Kennelly striding through the archway during my student days in Trinity.
When did the vogue for literary festivals begin? The concept of the author touring and reading from his work dates back to Charles Dickens who travelled in America extensively in 1867 and to Thackeray who also performed and gave readings. The postwar years in Britain saw the emergence of the Cheltenham literary festival, which, in the true spirit of the sixties, that time when sexual intercourse began according to Larkin “between the end of the Chatterley ban / And the Beatles’ first LP”, had a seminar on Sex in Literature. The panelists included Kingsley Amis, Joseph Heller and Carson McCullers. Life imitated art on this occasion when Amis left his wife of 15 years for the festival organiser, Elizabeth Jane Howard. This whiff of the illicit put Cheltenham on the map and dispelled any notion that a festival celebrating the written word is a boring affair.
Bill Clinton famously called the Hay Festival of Literature a “Woodstock of the mind” and fused the worlds of rock and roll and literature with this pithy phrase.
Literary festivals abound during the summer season and people flock in their thousands to these meccas of the spoken word. The mood of our time is all about self-improvement, and festivals, whether culinary or literary, tap into this zeitgeist. These truly are rock festivals for people who like books and ideas and a generous dollop of celebrity. Literary festivals are a type of Slane for the brain for people like me who view writers as rock stars, who are too old and ennui-ridden to tramp through muddy fields and endure the gothic horror of port-a-loos.
Listowel Writers’ Week was founded in 1970 and is now an internationally acclaimed festival devoted to bringing together writers and audiences in the historic town in north Kerry. Authors who have come to Listowel such as Lionel Shriver and Ronan Bennett have remarked on the friendliness of the town and the people. Nuala O’Connor recently remarked that “there’s a gorgeous atmosphere around Listowel that is very enjoyable to soak up”.
In this convivial setting there is no barrier between author and reader and after events there are no velvet ropes and cordoned-off areas. Friends have been surprised when they’ve visited the festival and found Alain De Botton or Irvine Walsh at an adjacent table having lunch. You might do a double-take as you stroll towards John B’s in the evening and pass Germaine Greer or David Sedaris en route. This pub, founded by the famous John B and his wife Mary, is headquarters to the hub of banter and fun throughout the festival. Within its convivial walls festooned with memorabilia of the famous playwright’s vast canon of work many new plots and dramas and soliloquies unfold.
In the beer garden at the witching hour I have sat captivated listening to Edward St Aubyn recount tales from London society, listened to renowned sex therapist Esther Perel play guitar and sing Joni Mitchell songs and enjoyed Clive James’s rapier Antipodean wit scintillating all in his proximity. It was here that the swashbuckling DBC Pierre held court with his unique verbal dexterity as he wowed us with stories of his life and times. It was in this iconic public house that Lionel Shriver rhapsodied on the history of her famous novel, We Need to Talk About Kevin. Here, giants of the literary world have elbowed for space in the corridor outside Mary’s kitchen – Roddy Doyle, John Banville, Frank McCourt and Joseph O’Connor, the night air electrified with conversation and laughter, the written word transmogrified into the spoken, the word made flesh.
Margaret Atwood in her witty rumination on writing and the writer’s life, Negotiating with the Dead, mentions an epigram tacked to her office bulletin board which she pinched from a magazine – “Wanting to meet an author because you like his work is like wanting to meet a duck because you like pâté”. In my view both the author and the duck have spilled his guts for our pleasure and that commitment deserves to be celebrated.
Not all authors are as captivating in reality as on the page: the author is not his or her work just like the artist is not the painting. In this Society of the Spectacle, as Guy Debord predicted, the reader also wants to savour the visual thrill of the author reading and enjoys book signing for its transient communion with the author. If, as Jean Rhys says, “reading makes immigrants of us all. It takes us away from home, but more importantly it finds homes for us everywhere,” that home for readers and writers opens every year in Listowel when the annual literary festival throws open its doors.
Anne O’Neill serves on the literary committee of Listowel Writers’ Week, which runs from May 27th to 31st