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Winter Papers 6: There’s nothing here that doesn’t earn its keep

Book review: If you’re hungering for intelligent creative responses to 2020, Barry and Smith have what you’re looking for

Winter Papers 6
Author: eds. Kevin Barry & Olivia Smith
ISBN-13: 978-0-9933029-1-6
Publisher: Winter Papers
Guideline Price: €40

Winter Papers, Kevin Barry and Olivia Smith’s annual of Irish writing, is beautifully made as ever, the gilt lettering and profile portrait on linen covers reminiscent of the early twentieth century hardback children’s books now used to represent literature on wallpapers and tote bags. Beautiful endpapers of birch trees, heavy cream paper, fine font: in these digital times there’s comfort in the well-made object.

The annual anthology must speak of the year gone, going by, and we know – we think we know – the only story in town for 2020, especially for the film-makers, theatre directors and musicians interviewed here. It’s too soon, I’ve been telling people, it’s journalists who write about stories when we’re in the middle of them, novelists stand back, wait for patterns to form, watch and listen, but I might have been wrong, at least for short stories and memoirs.

It’s surprisingly consoling to come upon all our new words between these gorgeous covers, on the good paper. Lockdown, Covid, Zoom, the words we didn’t know a year ago, all tucked up as if they make sense, as if we know what to do with them, as if writers and artists are still making meaning and readers are still safely between the beginning and the ending. If you’re hungering for intelligent creative responses to 2020 that are neither escapist nor despairing, Barry and Smith have what you’re looking for.

I also found myself reflecting on Roisin Kiberd's essay on the materiality of the internet

As in any collection, there are stronger and weaker pieces, and the mix of genres makes it impossible to please everyone. But there’s nothing here that doesn’t earn its keep and my own preferences are as much due to personal taste as critical judgment.

I thought about Louise Kennedy’s IMBOLC for days, not because the story of a failing marriage on a failing farm was unusual but because of the combination of detailed observation and lightness of touch. “The blue of the fields seemed to drain the air of light” as the young mother trudges from the lambing shed. A Supervalu lasagne, a mattress protector and an old man pairing socks ready for an unborn baby tell the story slant.

I also found myself reflecting on Roisin Kiberd’s essay on the materiality of the internet – not a subject to which I would usually be drawn – sharing her wonder and dismay at the undersea cables and paranoid histories of phone masts, reminded that though “the internet” moves through the air, through our houses and bodies, it is not metaphysical.

Kiberd goes down her parents’ garden in the early hours, looking for Elon Musk’s “satellite constellation”, “writing in an attempt to understand the thing that would eat my humanity if it had the chance.” She finds herself instead watching snails “leaving in their wake a mandala of slime”, “waiting for nothing in particular, except silence”.

The sharp tug of longing for real live performances with real live audiences recurs

Parents’ gardens are recurring settings in this collection, testimony to the precarity of a generation of artists, writers and musicians whose livelihoods have collapsed (and let us remember also those who don’t have parents, or don’t have parents with capacious houses and gardens, to catch them as they fall). There’s a great conversation between Niamh Algar and Nicole Flattery, perhaps regrettably titled “Straight out of Mullingar”, which is also a timely reminder of the long-term effects of community and youth theatre.

“I did after school drama classes and one thing I think they gave me was a sense of play”, says Flattery. Algar agrees: “I loved the freedom of it… You’re not listened to very often as a teenager. I mean from the start of the play to the end was the only time you could have lots of adults sitting in silence watching you.”

The sharp tug of longing for real live performances with real live audiences recurs, but there’s no self-pity and little nostalgia from any of the artists interviewed. Radie Peat speaks eloquently of growing into artistic success: “You have to have trust. [ Backers] are putting their confidence in you so you’d want to have a bit of confidence in yourself as well, and trust that you can pull it off.” Someone should put that sentence on a poster for green rooms, when we have green rooms again.

Louise Lowe and Owen Boss speak movingly and thoughtfully about site-specific, immersive theatre: “At the moment, we’re talking about the value of the artist and not the art, to society – how art can heal, how art can provoke – and I think if we reframe those conversations we might have more success. That’s my wish for us all.”