Winter Pages: a treasure trove of soul fuel with deep roots in Irish soil

If this standard is kept up, writes Kevin Gildea, then Winter Pages will become as essential as a warm fire on the wet miserable nights of our Irish winter lives

The Winter Pages
Author: Edited by Kevin Barry and Olivia Smith
ISBN-13: 978-0-9933029-0-9
Publisher: Curlew Editions
Guideline Price: €40

It’s an exciting time for the literary/arts journal fan ...with Gorse, The Stinging Fly, The Dublin Review and Banshee now being joined by Winter Pages, an annual arts anthology.

On the cover of Winter Pages there is a moon veined with silver branches and this moon, together with the title, suggest dark ancient times.

Inside, on the first white page of this first issue there is a welcome from its joint editors – Kevin Barry (Irish writing star) and Olivia Smith. They suggest that the best way to read this fine volume in this cold wet miserable weather of ours is to pull up a chair by the fire and turn on the lamp. It's such a seductive suggestion – conjuring images of primal storytellings around old fires, creating caves of comfort out of dark night words – that I found myself sat snuggled, ready to be transported to some safely ancient places.

First up is an essay of poverty and social deprivation in modern Ireland. This is no fireside snuggle stuff; this is more electricity bill overdue material. Mixed Blesings by Marc O’Connell follows the story of Sean Duggan, a priest working and living in Cherry Orchard. The essay opens with the aftermath of a break-in, Sean cleaning up, once again. The story of a man living and giving to the poor in a place “that seems to have been purpose-built for social exclusion”.

It is a bleak stare at the reality of a shadow Ireland... an unadorned picture without the hint of a trite upbeat note. It follows this priest who genuinely follows Christ’s path to the extent that he eventually leaves having being worn down by this path, cut off from the official church and questioning his faith. It’s a tough read but still provides a moment of pure, moving love – a flicker of hope in this mess of despair. A powerful piece.

This theme of social exclusion is also evident in the excellent interview by Emer O’Toole with Grace Dyas, a co-founder of THEATREclub, who have produced among other plays a trilogy – Heroin, The Family and History. Dyas says: “A big impetus with the Irish trilogy was finding out why we are where we are. It’s about context – about trying to view now within a frame.”

Dyas considers herself an activist and these plays are developed in community contexts, working with the disadvantaged so that, as she says herself, “...the art exists to start a conversation”.

There are six interviews and they are uniformly excellent.

In the introduction Barry and Smith say the interviews will be craft-based – how creatives do what they do. Film man Lenny Abrahamson, director of the wonderful Frank, and Adam and Paul, is interviewed by writer and musicman Peter Murphy in a piece which provides brilliant insight into the nuts and bolts of working on set, setting the tone and getting it right. Genuinely insighful and interesting.

Barry himself interviews Tommy Tiernan, a seeming soulmate; it's described as a conversation (it's an excerpt from a live interview) and comes on like wild sparring that pulls up the soiled roots of the creative process; from what I gleaned by the energy of the exchange I get the feeling their creative process is akin to naked men running through the west of Ireland suckin' thistles and ridin' bad vibes. Perhaps.

There’s an interview with Blindboy Boatclub, a mad genius Rubber Bandit – another Limerick soul mate. Here the creative process is explored through the CV as BlindBoat delineates a manifesto of artistic freedom through the decisions and paths taken by the Bandits in their career. He talks about shedding their massive Horse Outside Audience and going back to the essential – what made each of them laugh in the first place; hence the song – Spastic Hawk, which could be a title for a Kevin Barry short story. Staying true to the initial creative thing – not the business.

There’s an interview (by Mary Kate O’Flanagan) with Jeppe Gjervig Gram, co-writer of the brilliant Danish TV series Borgen and Michele Horrigan interviews Seanie Barron who makes walking sticks or, rather, brings out the shape that’s in them when he finds them growin’. He cuts them from the earth. The roots become the handles – held pointing down – an inversion. The piece is called The Root of The Matter – which could be the shadow name of this volume: digging down into the soil of this country’s history – from the topsoil of the contemporary to the muddy bog of buried damage. The Winter Pages is a silver soil sampler – pulling up a tight compact tube, deep with many years.

It's in the fiction too: both The Guarding Hill, by Donal Ryan, and Plunkett Mundy, by John Kelly, have past IRA violence, haunting the present, at their centre.

After Eleanor Left is a brilliant story by Sally Rooney about a girl called June who is in a sort of love triangle with a boy called Mitchell and the absent Eleanor of the title.

In a wonderfully told story, with language that is unfussy and unadorned, yet somehow also replete with a turn of phrase that makes it beautifully contemporary; June is a finely detailed, slightly clueless character whose vulnerability is comically yet delicately delineated in a robust vivid world of youth.

Rob Doyle’s story Frank Casey begins with the unbeatable line: “I met Frank Casey in Barcelona, a city I’ve never been, and if you have a problem with that, fuck you...”, while Colin Barrett’s formally experimental excerpt from A Work in Progress offers exquisite writing: “early December, the air crisp, frost stubbling the smashed mandibles of the ditches.”

Interviews and fiction are interspersed with more essays: there is the brutal honesty of Lia Mills' essay on her relationship with her mother who has Altzeimers, and in F for Phone, Claire Kilroy puts baby and the birthing experience to bed and resumes her writer's life.

But everywhere this is a book that’s digging deep, tossing the soil of the past... mixing it, churning it, with the soil of the present.

In the essay Beverly Hills Wonderland Sara Baume describes memory as "a snow-globe in which a few choice things are fixed, and around which everything else swishes and glitters."

In Belinda McKeon’s story Two Cathedrals the vintage top she bought believing it to be in mint condition reveals its mothball scent through her rising body heat: “The bang of it is shocking; the bang of what is dead or hidden, or what should be.”

Past and present. A book whose mission is connection between the two. The special talent that is Desmond Hogan names it in The Metlar: "It was about segueing, the Metal Bridge, one thing leading to another..." – Hogan's paragraphs skipping sentence to sentence, and even within sentence, from country to continent, from bridge to river to shore – from present times to past times.

Hogan and his Technicolor dream words: like he’s taken Robbe-Grillet and shoved LCD down his lilac, neck-coloured neck!

Whole novels in a sentence, fragments of smashed worlds, the whole as seen through a thousand pieces of colouredy gravel from gravestones:

“‘That’s Gizmo Irwin,’ a woman in a two-tier coat of mail – flash lilac and silver links – wearing flash lilac earrings, with crimson hair, said to her banana blonde cowgirl companion with cotton cowboy handkerchief and in stirrup boots.”

“....Used cycle around Limerick with a smaller boy with face like a bread roll with a smile in it, on front of the bicycle, cigarette but in his mouth, challenging other cyclists to a race.”

“....Fluffy Geoghan got ninety days in Cork jail...”

Past and present collide in the palimpsestic landscape of Paul Muldoon’s unsettling poem Corncrake and Curlew. This is the last text. Turn the page and there is a final photo....of a hand holding a fishing priest made by the walking-stick man. A fishing priest is a cudgel used to whack the last life out of a caught fish. Or could lame a man. Here is the violence, the archaeology, the object of beauty.

The above is a selection. There are photos too.

This book is a beautiful thing, a treasure trove of interventions, energies unleashed....possibly half-trapped in the €40 cost.

I close the hard covers by my open fire, white with dying (the fire – not me!) and think if they can keep the standard up then The Winter Pages will become as essential as a warm fire on the wet miserable nights of our Irish winter lives. Before the new tilling of spring.

Kevin Gildea is a writer, comedian and critic