Michael Harding: ‘I’m like a bad car. I’m like an aul Cortina’

Author Michael Harding in the Poisoned Glen, at the foot of Mount Errigal, in Co Donegal. Photograph: Joe Dunne
Michael Harding has a new book out called, A Cloud Where the Birds Rise: A book about love and belonging. Here, he talks to Una Mullally about finding his words reflected back to him, how he coped during the pandemic, camper vans, and Donegal solitude
 

Are you ready for the interview?
I’m bracing myself.

The book is very calming, very meditative, the illustrations are beautiful.
Well, the book is a collection, pieces and sections that are culled out of six books going back to Staring At Lakes. It really is the credit of (the publisher) Hachette. I wouldn’t be thinking of doing a selection kind of book, but they said this was what was a good idea, and they picked out the stuff. Sometimes, I say things that I think are fairly obvious. You’re not trying to coin beautiful ideas. I found out more about myself reading it than anything else – like somebody reflecting you to yourself.

What did you feel when you were reading it?
I felt really pleased. Physically, it’s beautiful. The illustrations by Jacob (Stack) are tremendous. I felt – I suppose it’s corny, but – the idea of love comes out even in titles and collections of stuff. You think of your own narrative – depression, loneliness, the joys of relationship, the pleasures of a marriage, the beauty of Leitrim – that’s what you think you’re doing. But then somebody else picks out stuff, and is something about love in this. Love in the pressurised world in that we live in has almost become a radical idea.

When you’re having yourself reflected back at you by somebody else framing your own work and your own thoughts, what kind of person do you think emerges?
Somebody who is talking about love as the kind of dynamic of the whole cosmos, from the way humans relate to each other, to the way atoms relate – electrons to protons. What’s more real to me in it, I hope, is that it is reflections of someone who doesn’t actually know anything. I’m not a scholar or an intellectual, but there’s a sense of not knowing. And I hope that comes across.

Author Michael Harding in the Poisoned Glen, at the foot of Mount Errigal, in Co. Donegal. Photo by Joe Dunne 30/09/21

It’s an irony really because we live at a time when people claim to be certain about things. I suppose one of the things I’ve noticed with every year that comes around is that an expanse opens up. If you remain curious, expanses open up, and it becomes more uncharted territory to explore. That cliché – the more you know the less you know. You end up constantly having to be at peace with the stuff you don’t know, and even the things you thought you knew change or look different, and you realise you didn’t know them at all.
I totally agree with you. Every so often in life, five or seven years some kind of expanse opens up. It’s frightening because not knowing something is frightening. Saying “I don’t know” is scary. But it’s also so scary the older you get. That’s why there’s a danger in people as they get older, they become more convinced of things, more clench-fisted about what way GAA should be played, or which party should be in government. You know when you see them at a dinner table, they’re going f**king mad these people. They’re so convinced of something. Very often it’s because the older you get, those expanses don’t get smaller, and you don’t knit together some kind of coherent reality, the whole thing starts to disintegrate and unravel every seven years, and you find yourself with, as you said, an expanse opening up in front of you that you don’t know.

To go into that “not knowing”, you need a relationship here. You need a relationship with the hydrangea plant outside the window. You can’t do it any other way or you’ll go crazy. A lot of the things with climate change, which I think about more and more – we all do – I feel people are not going to think themselves into minding the planet. They’re only going to do it if they realise there’s a relationship between you as an organism and all the organisms around you, and all the air around you, and the interdependence of one and the other, that you’re not separate from it. That kind of symbiotic love-relationship, that’s why I think there’s a sense of love underneath everything, underneath physics in a way.

I’m not a scholar, I’m not a philosopher, I’m none of those things. I started all this when I was 16 wanting to be a storyteller. Not big noble stories, or archetypal stuff or huge dramas, but simply the story, as I saw it as a 16-year-old boy, was like, I don’t know, just the ordinariness of life, the chronicle of ordinary things, the uneventful things. The way that people fret over small things. That is what absorbs me to this day.

I was out in Dungloe there about half twelve, I was going for a walk and then stepped into some place for a coffee. The air is just full of conversations, people having intense conversations that you can barely decipher because they’re about things so minute. There’s two people talking about the kettle, and one is worried she got the wrong one because the top is too narrow to get in the water. I’m sitting there thinking “that f**king happens to me too”. You constantly spill the water when you do the kettle. That’s the kind of river that I swim in. That’s since I was 16, and finding that to be the case. Am I going on too long?

Funerals are almost a social thing...The person is able to share the grief. There’s something powerful about sharing the grief, and not being alone with the loss

Not at all. The things also that you’re talking about with regards to people holding on to “truths” or the fear that people have around not knowing – that rose up very explosively over the past 18 months with these assertions people had around having the solutions, or telling other people they’re wrong, or knowing exactly what needs to be done around the pandemic, when that’s a ridiculous thing to put a flag in the ground about, saying you’re certain about something considering it’s nothing the vast majority of people alive have experienced before.
Yeah.

What are your thoughts around those dogmatic points of view that people have? I get disturbed by people’s fundamentalism on all different sides, that desire to be certain. What’s that about?
Give me examples.

Regular lay people giving out yards about a particular suppression tactic, or other people saying that masks are a load of rubbish, or other people saying we have to do “zero Covid”. There are so many declarations of certainty and solutionism at a time when there was no certainty, and people are feeling around in the dark.
Fear is what drives people towards conviction in anything. It may be that there’s more fear around at the moment than people recognise. I’m thinking of western culture, particularly. There’s a big fear around the end of the world coming soon, with Australia burning up and fires in California. Climate change is happening at a very dramatic level. So that brings fear. The fear that comes from Covid, that no matter what people say, nobody knows if we’re in any way resolving this or whether we’re at the absolute foothills of a mountain of new culture coming at us for the next hundred years. Nobody has a f**king clue.

Fear is like not knowing. Fear is the last layer before you break through to a kind of serenity. Fear is the last little crust. Instead of just covering up with “I know how to fix Covid, you’re wrong, I’m right” – those desperate arguments that really spoiled people’s dinners. I noticed this in myself, I suppose. When I was young and in my twenties, I used to love what I called “a debate”. But it was really an argument. And it was really a way for my unconscious to exercise itself in all sorts of wild abrasiveness, in the cut and thrust of an argument at a dinner party. I realised when you’re putting effort into getting people sitting down at a dinner table, that kind of conversation completely spoiled the dinner. You might get away from it by the time the next course comes, or the coffee, or another bottle of wine comes, but it just sits there like a bad pool of water, stale in front of you. It’s an awful argumentative thing when people are holding on to “I’m right”.

Author Michael Harding in the Poisoned Glen, at the foot of Mount Errigal, in Co. Donegal. Photo by Joe Dunne 30/09/21

Obviously, the pandemic was a time of introspection for people who might not be used to that speed, did you find yourself quite able mentally to navigate it because you’re more attuned to that personal atmosphere, or did you find yourself going deeper again?
It probably was easier for people who live in the country. We had a big garden and about 100 big hardwood trees hugging the house to go out and sit under them. That really was something you’d be deeply aware of every night when you’re listening to the news, and there’s people in apartments and trying to cope with children who are not at school and all that stuff. So we had it easy as far as I’m concerned. We were lucky because I’m in a relationship. I have a partner, so we weren’t alone. It was hard for people who were alone. That’s all I can say about that. What I missed was touring. I always tour with every book. I miss that sense of theatrical connection with people. What I did was I started a podcast.

Yes, I’ve been listening to it.
I decided this is going to be completely amateur, there’s going to be no professionalism in it, it’s like a phone-call, I’ll just f**king talk. So I’m talking out there to the audience that I’m missing. I thought it would eventually evolve into something intelligent and sophisticated, and it evolved into revealing sides of me that I normally wouldn’t want to reveal, which would be like: I’m still madly passionately religious. But I don’t mind doing that. It’s the dynamic of performance I love. I love talking to people. I now have enough people where I sense they’re out there. There’s a good community of them. I even meet them over the summer, and they’d say, “oh, I’m listening to your podcast”. Sometimes I get people who would be listening and saying they’ve had a bereavement or something really terrible happened in their life, and they’re getting consolation from listening to me talking, in a kind of hopeful way, whether it’s secular or Buddhist or Christian, I go from one thing to another, but I try and share my optimism of just being here. The fact of just being here, it’s a miracle that if we could comprehend it, we’d go mad. All of the ways we rationalise society are actually nearly attempts to curtail the bliss. We don’t even know what’s going on.

By last summer, my whole lower body has stopped functioning. I couldn’t go to a bathroom, my liver, everything was in danger, my legs were going numb, and eventually I started falling, I couldn’t walk, and if it wasn’t fixed I was going to be very seriously ill. They did a procedure on it, you know, where they put it through the veins to try and fix it. The problem was an artery had started to link with a vein and was sending all the blood from the artery in the wrong direction.

I got up the next morning and my body was so sore, everywhere. My head was throbbing so much that I said to myself: my days in camper vans are over

Jesus.
Yeah. So they tried and they fixed it, but it didn’t work, so then I was going through last winter with that knowledge that I had done the operation and it hadn’t been successful. That was a long winter. They had the second go at it, they decided the only way was to go in through the spine, cut the bone, and get in there and fix it. And they got in and they fixed it. I’ve had about five bangs in the past decade. I can never get more than two years and something else seems to go wrong. It’s like a bad car. Always something going wrong. Anyway, I did the podcast because it was for me, genuinely, a way of relating to people at a time when I felt hugely vulnerable. If I caught Covid last winter, I wouldn’t have much of a chance, I think, because I was in a vulnerable state. Now, not only am I fine, I may be better than I was for 10 years, who knows, because it’s mechanical, and they fixed something. I think I’m like a bad car. I’m like an aul Cortina.

Don’t slag Cortinas.
I say it with affection! They were my youth! My love awakens!

Author Michael Harding in the Poisoned Glen, at the foot of Mount Errigal, in Co. Donegal. Photo by Joe Dunne 30/09/21

On illness and sickness, there are parts in the book about death and the Irish propensity to be very comfortable around it. I find this one weird, because we say that Irish people are very open about death, and communal and ritualistic around dying, but I think we’re less good at mortality. It’s almost as if we’re compartmentalising death as not necessarily linked to our own feelings of mortality.
In relation to death itself, I think that it is communal in Ireland. That would be my experience, going to funerals. It’s almost a social thing, and I think it does bring you into deep contact with the grief. The person is able to share the grief. There’s something powerful about sharing the grief, and not being alone with the loss. That’s the thing that happens at the funeral. The funeral is not us dealing with death, it’s us dealing with the living. I’ve been at funerals where somebody has died young, or where there was a tragedy, or where there was a suicide, and I think my experience would be is that there’s a very powerful communal sense to hold, hug, shake hands with, sit with the person. I think it just transforms the thing from being this lump of lead you’re holding yourself, to it’s shared. I also think one of the two unbelievably hard things I’ve noticed only as an outsider, was when people lost a loved one and couldn’t connect even when they were dying. It must have been unbearable. All I can say is: that’s terrible. To be on a screen with your loved one knowing that they’re going, that’s just unbelievable.

How has owning a camper van changed your life?
Haha! Profoundly! I realise I’m too old. There’s not much for me. When you get a camper van, it’s a fantasy at any age, and it’s a dream, and I think it works for people. The minute you sit into the camper van you’re on holidays. Even if it’s in the backyard, and you go out and sit in it and turn on the engine because you want to keep it running, you’re on holidays. It’s this little world of playfulness. We had a great two summers out of the camper van. At the end of it, just before Covid, I had the good wit to get rid of it. There was one night, up in Glencolmcille, the end of October, 2018, 2019, I can’t remember, f**k it. I remember at night, in the autumn, and I slept in it and I got up the next morning and my body was so sore, everywhere. My head was throbbing so much that I said to myself: my days in camper vans are over. I loved it though.

Where is your favourite place at the moment to walk?
Any beach in Donegal. Magheraroarty.

I know it.
That’s a good long stretch. Sometimes, I walk behind the sand dunes, and you’re taking in the whole mountain range and Muckish. And you get to the very end, a good hour and come back over the sand dunes along the beach. That’s a lovely walk. I look out there and think about Colmcille, and the fact that there was a 6th century monastery on the island and that there’s stone buildings still there from that time. I’m getting a big buzz out of being in Donegal. I come to Donegal for complete solitude when I’m trying to write something, a long thing like a book. The next thing I’m writing is trying to examine that sense when you’ve come to 68 years of age, and when you’ve had a few fenders fall off the car and your common sense tells you that life is not forever, it’s a very deeply mortal and transient experience. There’s something about that like being like a solitude, the great silence of death if you like. It’s not morbid, I don’t think, to talk about it. There’s something about looking into the unknown and realising that fear is the skin under which there is love.