Gynocrats, Pimm’s, war and PJ Harvey: the Borris House Festival of Writing and Ideas

The Borris House Festival of Writing and Ideas had many big names and big ideas but the true star was the big house itself


It’s a special festival when audience venues are an atmospheric family chapel, a charming light-filled ballroom overlooking fields with sheep, and a “screening room” with chandeliers and ornate period cornicing that is usually a private sitting-room.

And, as more than one audience member observed, there wasn’t a high-visibility vest – usually the uniform of those running a festival with an outdoor element – in sight.

One of the key events was author Martin Amis in interview with arts journalist Sinead Gleeson. When asked if he was “anti-feminist”, due to the way he portrays women in his fiction, Amis replied that he is in fact a “gynocrat” who believes women should rule the world; a word much repeated over the weekend.

He referenced Nabokov and Bellow as the “twin peaks of my imagination” in the way they influenced him as a writer. “I’m not a reader of the young. I read the dead.” Speaking of his famous writer father, Kingsley, and of being the son of a writer, he admitted, “It has become a kind of curse. It sort of delegitimised me in a way – as if I was born with a complete set of writer’s genes.”

His next book will feature the Holocaust. “I think a lot of people are going back there again,” Amis said, describing the Holocaust as “a lacuna in the continuity of history”.

The event that had more than a thousand people seeking tickets was Anne Enright’s interview with PJ Harvey. It clashed with Fintan O’Toole’s discussion with novelists John Lanchester and Donal Ryan about how their recent fiction reflects the collapse of the economy and the property market.

O’Toole joked, “There are two kinds of people here today, people with a passionate love of the contemporary novel and people who couldn’t get into PJ Harvey – and the three of us here fall into the second category.” (They did, however, have Martin Amis in the audience.)

Speaking about his novel, The Spinning Heart, and how he wrote about the collapse of the boom years, Ryan said, “I thought of the recession as a war being fought in all sorts of small ways, even going to the shop to buy groceries.”

Lanchester, who lives in London, pointed out that, “One of the ways people describe their own lives is through houses: where you lived and where you live now and where you want to live next. Your house is a kind of metaphor for your being which, in every sense, you over-invest in. Because if you lose the house, then you lose part of your identity.”

He astutely described the obsession of recent years of flipping properties as “people treating their houses like giant ATM machines, or tokens in a gaming play.”

“It’s unfair to expect fiction to give us answers to these questions about the economy,” O’Toole stated. “But what happened is that the dividing line between fact and fiction in Ireland is not clear. The economy is the most fictional narrative we have. What we thought was true about the economy turned out to be stuff of the wildest and most reckless imagination.”

Property and houses also turned up as themes in Selina Guinness’s interview with Anne Enright. “Houses,” Enright observed, “are highly fetished in Irish society.”

Mick Heaney chaired a discussion between writer Kevin Power and filmmaker Lenny Abrahamson, who adapted Power’s novel Bad Day at Blackrock into What Richard Did.

Speaking of his time at UCD during the boom years, of which he kept notes, Power said, “It felt like being there for the Jazz Age. There was a great sense that we were the golden generation, and between 1999 and 2005, it felt briefly like the centre of some capsule world.”

Abrahamson revealed that when seeking locations for the film, they lost a number of them “due to the connections people had with the Annabel’s case,” even though it was clear Power’s book was a work of fiction. “I kept wondering: why is this subject so taboo? Why is it so distasteful to discuss this? It’s because it’s dirty laundry and the middle classes don’t like it hung out.”

When Sarah Glennie sat down to interview artist Dorothy Cross, she wondered happily how many people were “woozy from Pimm’s in the sun”, noting that some audience members were holding glasses of same.

Among the projects Cross had worked on, and that she discussed with Glennie, she also spoke of one that hasn’t happened. She was approached by Derry City of Culture for a piece for the Foyle. Her idea was “to paint a submarine in phosphorescence, put it in the Foyle, and get a helicopter to fly over to illuminate it. You’re referencing the fact that U-boats were once in the Foyle, and the 1970s in Northern Ireland, with the helicopter. It was perfect, and a little bit sinister. We had found the sub and everything. But they didn’t have the money to do it.”

A discussion that provoked much debate was that between war photographers Don McCullin and Giles Duley, and documentary maker Ben Anderson.

Duley lost part of three limbs when he stepped on an improvised explosive device in Afghanistan in 2011. “I could see bits of me everywhere as I was lying there,” he related in his gripping narrative to a compelled audience. Other photographers took pictures of him at the time, as he was now the story. When Duley finally saw them in his hospital bed, his first reaction was professional: “They were really badly cropped.”

Duley still works as a photographer in conflict zones. “I paid almost the ultimate price for what I do,” he said, “and the most depressing thing is coming back, and trying to sell pictures to Sunday papers. It is so hard to get them published.”

“Does war photography glorify war?” was the question from an audience member, wondering if such images had a place on gallery walls at exhibitions.

“I have 5,000 pictures in my house,” McCullin, famous for his Vietnam War images, replied. “I will do anything to get them on the walls. It’s amazing how many people go to museums and galleries, and then they see them. It’s always better that the pictures are seen than not seen. And we are not responsible for the wars we record.”

McCullin stated that photographing emotion during war, such as the image he took in Cyprus of a woman grieving for her just-dead husband, “is easy because people come at you, especially in the Middle East. But it doesn’t mean you have the right to feast on it.”

He stirred up some controversy when he said, “There is a bit of chauvinist in me. I know a few women war photographers, and a few brave ones, but I wonder if they’re meant to be there really. Now I’m going to get it.”

There were many other events, including a tender and moving personal narrative by filmmaker John Butler of his story of coming out; biographer Selina Hastings in conversation with Polly Devlin; and conceptual artist Michael Craig-Martin talking to art critic Aidan Dunne.

So what for the future? “We’re feeling our way through the process of growing our audience against balancing numbers,” co-curator Hugo Jellett admitted.

This year, Borris House festival, which is part of the Carlow Arts Festival, was jointly curated by Jellett, Vivienne Guinness, Eleanor O’Keeffe and Catherine Heaney. “A panel of curators gives you richer and better access to performers,” Jellett explained. Last year, their inaugural year, the festival had 1,600 visitors. This year, it had 2,100.

The ballroom, currently Borris House’s biggest venue, seats 200. “An option was to erect a huge marquee and sell 1,000 tickets for PJ Harvey, but a bit of hunger is a nice thing,” Jellett said. “And it also makes it very special for the 200 people who did get tickets.”

“When you lose the intimacy, you’ve lost a lot of the point of the festival,” Guinness observed. “Intimacy is what appeals to people.” Guinness revealed what PJ Harvey had told her after Harvey’s public interview with Anne Enright. In that interview, Harvey had spoken about being stuck; that she had not been able to work for some time. “Polly told me that being here had changed that ‘being stuck’ for her,” Guinness recounted. “That she feels she can now go away, and start working again.

“If the festival achieves nothing else, it has achieved that.”

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