Last week saw the 26th John Hewitt International Summer School take place in Armagh and I, along with myriad other writers, soaked up the vast array of talent brought together for everyone to enjoy in five delightful days. As I wrote in my report to the JHS this weekend, the word ‘school’ is not to be overlooked, as the JHISS is a back-to-back extravaganza of literary and cultural events and the pace is hectic! That said however, I wouldn’t have it any other way and appreciate the effort put into the week-long event by the John Hewitt Society.
As a result of this extreme busyness and my lack of a laptop (yes, what a thing to forget, but I think it would have distracted me from what was going on!), I now have A LOT to blog about, so I think I will take it day by day and see how we go…
Following an early morning start, I arrived safely in Armagh with only one wrong turn (!) and it was straight up to my room at the Royal School Armagh and then over to the Market Place Theatre, where all the key events took place, to pick up my folder of tickets and info and meet and mingle before the first event. I was surprised and delighted to almost immediately spot Tina and Margaret from the Jane Ross Writers Group in Limavady, who happened to be sitting with Elaine Donnelly, the second bursary holder from Coleraine and not far from them, was Anita Robinson – who had facilitated the workshop I attended in Limavady a few months ago! It was lovely to chat with people I knew at the off-set, although we met many new friends throughout the week.
Our first talk was delivered by the Baroness Williams of Crosby, who spoke eloquently on ‘The Twentieth Century – The Century of Violence’, taking us through history and marrying together the key world events which have shaped our own local history and sense of place.
In the introduction, before the Baroness spoke, we were read a quote told to a former immigrant upon his arrival in the UK: “To be treated as an equal, you must become better than everybody else. You get to know the world better…”
This advice may have rung true years ago but, with our increasinlgy multicultural society, we are now more than ever ‘world citizens’. The question is – do we know the world better because of it?
The Baroness said that yes, ‘like it or not, we are living in an increasingly global society’ and that strangers could very quickly become friends and family.
We travelled with her from the turn of the century, when Pitt and Napolean were ‘carving the world up’ for themselves, to Edward VII and on to the fragmentation of the British Empire. We touched upon Kaiser Wilhelm and the saga of WW1, the Baroness speaking of the great war poets, such as Rupert Brooke and Wilfred Owen, who reflected the futility of this so well in their writing. She pointed out that young men had been brought up on a diet of the King Arthur legend, of battling knights and heroes and how the Great War had shattered their ideal of fighting… The Great Depression followed soon after WW1 and the Baronness tied this in with world events around the same period of history – The Rubicon (Spanish Civil War) took place, whilst elsewhere, Stalin and General Mao were wreaking havoc in their parts of the world, populations ruthlessly ‘shifted around’ by Stalin and deposited cruelly in barren landscapes. Mussolini and WW2 subsequently came into play, Hiroshima was bombed and history re-shaped itself once more and the people with it. Lives had been changed and continued to change dramatically and then – Eleanor Rossevelt championed the United Nations and Human Rights were cemented.
There was the independence of India, Ghandi and the Treaty of Rome, which brought peace to the Western World. Then came the Isms – the Korean War and the Cold War – the Vietnam War also – all of them horriffic. The triumphs came too however, with Martin Luther King and the Civil Rights Movement, Gorbachav and the unity of Germany – Mandela being released and apartheid abolished.
“Never forget this – we have learned painfully in this Century that the answers largely lay in communities… not in war,” said the Baroness.
“WH Auden said – ‘we must learn to live together and love together, or to die'”
This is an incredibly quick hurtle through what the Baroness spoke to us about, but you can see the sheer wealth of material the speakers covered and there was certainly a lot learnt and a lot left to think about!
We followed this with a lunchtime reading from Carlo Gebler, who read from his forthcoming ‘Confessions of a Catastrophist’ memoir and also from his novel, ‘The Dead Eight’. A very eloquent and engaging reader, this was a great session and offered an insight into Carlo’s interesting family background as well as a chance to enjoy hearing his writing. He also told us that – ‘we never grow up’ – which I particularly liked, as, having ‘celebrated’ my 30th birthday this year, I can certainly say that I feel no more grown-up!
The afternoon was taken up with our creative writing workshops, but I’m going to blog seperately about this, so on to the next event, which was… a talk from Andy Pollak, who spoke on ’14 years of cross-border collaboration: the usefulness of outsiders‘.
“In Britain, the term ‘collaboration’ still has negative connotations,” said Ballymena man Andy. “It assumes legitimacy and equality between both parties.”
He went on to tell us that he is more often asked to address overseas universities about his work within collaboration than those at home, but that ‘the strait-jacket within which people confine themselves can be replaced with more comfortable clothing…’
He added that wise governments were needed regarding education and training on the issue of collaboration and that support was needed for those volunteers working on the ground.
“At the very least, the NI and the Southern governments must stay engaged,” he said. “History is a plant that needs tended. By co-operation, we will build friendships and partnerships. If we can carry on doing this work, we can drive out the poison.”
With much to consider following this thorough talk, our first evening saw a reception hosted by the North South Ministerial Council and the opening of the exhibition: John Hewitt: Home Words. Frank Ferguson and Kathryn White from Coleraine’s University of Ulster also officially launched the auto-biography of John Hewitt – A North Light Twenty-Five years in a Municipal Art Gallery – which they edited together and we subsequently enjoyed the opening of the Ulster Arts Club Visual Artists’ Summer Exhibition and ‘Heads, Hats and Beards (Mostly)’ – teriffic portrait paintings by Neil Shawcross.
So… after dinner, the day was rounded off with a double poetry reading by the wonderful Simon Armitage and Medbh McGuckian, with Medbh very poignantly reading a poem she had written for the much-loved and respected Coleraine academic , Bob Welch, who sadly passed away in February this year. She also read poems she had penned for Seamus Heaney, Paul Muldoon and Dennis O’Driscoll.
Music then followed at The Footlights Bar and at the end of Day One of the JHISS, I was extremely tired… but happy!
[pic: Me and Elaine Donnelly – Coleraine Bursary holders! Above – my room and the view from it.]