Winter Papers review: Invigorating anthology is full of elegance
Sarah Maria Griffin, Lisa McInerney and Kevin Barry’s essays are particular highlights
Mary Costello, Kevin Barry and Olivia Smith at the launch of Mr Barry’s novel Beatlebone in 2015. Photograph: Aidan Crawley
ed. Kevin Barry and Olivia Smith
I was sent a copy of Winter Papers, the second annual anthology of Irish writing, art and photography, and it didn’t fit through my letterbox. It’s a large old thing: A4-sized and with an altogether satisfying heft that makes it difficult to carry on the bus.
In an age where book sales are migrating to electronic gadgets that fit in your jacket pocket, it’s gratifying to be greeted with a work that announces itself – both in title and construct – as an unapologetically physical object. But it’s not exactly enticing.
I suspect the designers wanted the cloth-bound cover to look golden. Instead, it is a sludgy sort of brown reminiscent of a 1950s biology textbook. There’s a picture of a wind-blown umbrella on the front, which makes you cold just to look at it. Inside, the huge pages are covered with dense, small, single-spaced font so that the act of reading begins to seem a little bit like a chore.
- Second-generation Irish: ‘We were outsiders among the English – and the Irish too’
- Belfast Stories: Creative explosions in a city in flux
- Cartoons and the Irish: Two centuries of humour
- Troubles-based books Milkman and Say Nothing win Orwell prizes
- Stan Lee’s ‘first novel for adults’ to be published this autumn
And it’s not that I’m judging a book by its cover (apparently you’re not meant to do that), it’s more that I feel this admirable project comes weighted with a certain expectation of permanence and importance.
That’s the problem with an anthology. You always want it to contain the best – what Miss Jean Brodie would have described as “la crème de la crème”.
Occasionally, this affects the contents. There’s a sense, in some of the essays, that an author is trying just that bit too hard to make their writing worthy of being anointed by inclusion.
Darran Anderson’s essay, 36 Views of an Island (After Hokusai) comes complete with extensive footnotes and phrases such as “We recognise prophecy only in hindsight” (well, yes . . . that’s why it’s called prophecy). This detracts from an otherwise interesting dissection of what it means to be Irish.
In other chapters, there’s an awful lot of serious prose.
It’s all relationship break-ups and sawn-off shotguns and girls freezing on top of Errigal and still, deep bodies of water that might or might not be resonant of something else.
Most of it is well-executed and lyrically competent – and to be fair to him, there’s a great turn of phrase in John Kelly’s poem about the girl freezing on Errigal when he writes about her “lemon Fanta tongue”.
It made me long for an injection of that fundamentally Irish quality – humour.
So, I was thrilled when I got to Sarah Maria Griffin’s One Bad Tooth, in which she wittily recounts her resistance to cosmetic dentistry and the way her identity has been shaped by it.
And I absolutely loved Lisa McInerney’s brilliant essay, A South County Possession, about her south Galway cousin who regurgitates jokes he’s heard at the bar “like a drug mule upchucking a sequence of cocaine packets on a thread secured between molars”.
For me, McInerney’s essay was the highlight of the whole 200 pages.
She makes some deadly perceptive comments on how “unexpectedly self-centred” you become as a writer: “In particular writing has made me aggressive about unlearning all the things young girls are meant to learn: how to be obliging and attentive, how to be generous with my time.”
Other high points include editor Kevin Barry’s short story, Old Stock, about the death of a perverted uncle in Sligo (“Cause of death: the West of Ireland”). Barry is one of those frustratingly talented writers who excels in both the short and long-form and his skill is on fine display here.
And if you’re looking for other multi-talented people to be annoyed by, there’s also Max Porter, the author of the highly acclaimed Grief is the Thing with Feathers, which won the International Dylan Thomas Prize.
Here, he’s turned his hand to an incredible graphic poem, The Squire’s Bad Dream. Both his writing and his drawing are eerily beautiful.
I found the interview segments less successful.
Encounters with Kevin Rowland, of Dexys Midnight Runners fame, or Judy Hegarty Lovett who runs the Gare St Lazare theatre company with her husband, are interesting but never quite as fulfilling as the sections where writers are given free reign to speak in their own voice.
There are 11 pages devoted to the work of Brian Cross, a photographer from Limerick who made his name documenting the hip-hop industry. I was beguiled by the images but there wasn’t a single caption to tell me what they were.
Perhaps there was some wider point being made here about art being art for its own sake without the necessity of context. If that’s the case, then I’m a hopeless philistine because I would have loved to know who the photos were of, when and where they were taken.
But these are just minor quibbles in what remains a substantial piece of work. Editors Kevin Barry and Olivia Smith are to be congratulated on producing an invigorating anthology, full of insight, eloquence – and, yes, even humour.