Sour grapes, low spirits


THOSE of us who know the real thing when we read it are delighted that Seamus Heaney won the Whitbread Prize for his latest collection, The Spirit Level - the first book of poems to win this award Douglas Dunn's Elegies in 1985.

However there been mutterings of dissent across the water. Indeed, in the Evening Standard, there was an extraordinary outburst by A.N. Wilson, whose futile campaign on behalf of Beryl Bainbridge had continued long after his impassioned pleading of her case failed to secure her the Booker Prize and led him ostentatiously to donate his judging fee to charity.

"It has to be said," he pronounced, "that if Heaney belonged to an unfashionable race - were he a Welshman, for instance - his poetry - perfectly pleasant, mild stuff - would have been lucky to make it into the parish magazine."

That being just loony pique, it merits no comment. Equally daft, but more intriguing, was Lisa Jardine who, in the London Independent, maintained that Ms Bainbridge's sex lost her the prize. Here's how she argued her case:

"It is broadly accepted that older men have a certain gravitas, while older women remind us of our mothers. A man with a well established literary reputation is reassuringly grand - his greying hair, even his occasional hesitations, betoken a lifetime's serious thoughtfulness. A woman, however established her ouevre, is possibly a bit fey, a trifle lightweight."

In other words, as the legendary advertisement almost said, though you can go to work on an egg, a woman won't get there on an oeuvre. And as for Seamus Heaney's famous shock of grey hair, sure, didn't we all knew it was going to stand him in good stead some day?

SPEAKING of Seamus Heaney, I see that he and Ted Hughes shave completed a follow up to their classic and cherishably quirky 1982 poetry anthology, The Rattle Bag This is called (somewhat less memorably) The School Bag, and it will be published by Faber in April.

In anticipation of the occasion, the Arvon Poetry Foundation is holding a fund raising evening at the Royal Court Theatre Downstairs at the Duke of York's, St Martin's Lane, on March 2nd. Reading from the anthology will be both of the compilers, as well as Diana Rigg and Imogen Stubbs, and those who really want to splurge out on the evening can pay £125 for the most expensive tickets - such generosity will gain you a post-reading dinner at the Garrick Club and a copy of the book signed by the compilers. However, cheaper tickets are available at £50 and £30.

A total of 157 books have been nominated for the 1997 International IMPAC Dublin Literary Award, financially the world's biggest literary prize, with a cool £100,000 going to the winner.

Last year, as everyone knows, it was won by David Malouf for Remembering Babylon. As for this year, well, the list encompasses so many kinds of fiction that any kind of prediction is impossible: Gabriel Garcia Marquez rubbing shoulders with John Grisham, for instance, and Umberto Eco with Nicholas Evans. Go figure.

Three novels by Irish writers are nominated: John Banville's Athena, Colum McCann's Songdogs and Brian Moore's The Statement. And among other notable contenders are Richard Ford, Salman Rushdie, Martin Amis and Pat Barker. No Beryl Bainbridge, though.

Yikes, what will A.N. Wilson say?

SO you think that classical studies are fusty and boring? Think again. Theresa Urbainczyk of University College Dublin's Department of Classics writes to point out that a recent edition of Classics Ireland, the magazine with which she is associated, has an article by that most eminent of ancient fossils, Iggy Pop.

However, that's by the way. The real reason for Theresa's letter is that Classics Ireland is running a short story competition. Given the nature of the publication, the story you enter must be set in the ancient world (preferably between the 5th century BC and the equivalent century AD), should be no longer than 3,000 words, be previously unpublished, and be submitted by the end of this month.

Arts Council chairman Ciaran Benson and thriller writer Sheila Barrett will be among the judges, and the winner will be awarded £100 and five free copies of the edition of Classics Ireland in which it's published.

All Theresa asks is that you make three typed copies of your story and address them to her at the Department of Classics, University College Dublin, Belfield, Dublin 4.

BY the time he died in 1993 at the age of forty five, Conleth O'Connor had four books of poetry published. Now New Island Books are issuing Nights Without Stars, Days Without Sun, a selection of his best work (see poem on this page), with a foreword by Anthony Cronin.

The latter, along with Robert Greacen, Philip Casey, Anne Haverty, Dermot Bolger and others, will be reading from Conleth O'Connor's and their own work in the Irish Writers' Centre, Parnell Square, on Monday night at 8pm.