CITY OF LITERATURE
The Board for Artists’ Money Etc. had gathered for its AGM in the Dublin Literary Club. ‘We’ll pay above the going rate.’
Two hundred Euro. ‘It’s a friendly gesture’. Simon hoped the friendly gesture would compensate for the reduction of the Literary Club’s grant from half a million Euro per annum to zero. This cut had been Simon’s
first decision as chair of The Board. The action had won wide admiration. Internet commentators and callers to Liveline, who seemed to believe that a fascist dictator would solve all Ireland’s problems, regretted that Simon was not
in politics, noting that he possessed in abundance the leadership qualities that our government lacked. The secretary of one political party had rung him up and asked him to consider running for president, an offer which he declined, believing he had
more power at the centre of Ireland’s cultural life. As everyone knew, the one asset Ireland still possessed, untrammelled by debt or mortgage, was its creativity. Financially Ireland was bankrupt but in its spiritual coffers
a million cultural goldbars confirmed the real sovereignty of the nation. Simon liked to think of himself as Governor of the Bank of the Irish Imagination.
The room they were in, like all those
in the Dublin Literary Club, was very beautiful. But it was also very cold. Wintry rain battered the lovely windowpanes.
‘Victoria is looking for an electric heater,’ said Simon cheerfully. Victoria was
the secretary. ‘We’ll soon be as warm as toast. Just keep your coats on.’
Simon had replaced Alan as chair following Alan’s tragic demise just after the AGM of 2007, the last meeting before the Bank Guarantee.
Alan had been murdered by a disaffected novelist, Francie Briody, whose application for an award had been rejected in a year when dozens and dozens of writers – all of them useless, in Francie’s view - had got pots of money.
Understandably disappointed, he’d blamed Alan, and shot him. But in a way, Francie had given Alan a lucky break, Pam, a Board member and old friend of Francie, thought. He would never have survived in the era of austerity, given his aristocratic
fondness for dispensing absurd largesse to those members of the artistic community who met with his approval, and of vintage wines and gourmet food to practically everybody.
‘I won’t detain you for long,’ smiled
Simon. He never detained anyone for long. Complementing that brilliant decisiveness which could guillotine a local drama society or condemn an emerging poet to a life of chick lit or bar-tending in Australia, was a talent for speed. Simon
could get through an ordinary meeting in thirty minutes and an AGM in under an hour. He was much in demand as a chairperson.
‘ Where’s Victoria? Never mind. I assume you’ve all read and agreed with the Minutes?’
He assumed right. They all had read the Minutes, since they were less than half a page long. Correspondence too was swiftly dispatched, whereupon Victoria returned. She sidled in next to Simon. ‘They
can’t find the heater,’ she whispered. ‘They’re going to borrow one from the Chinese take-away.’
‘Question, through the chair,’ Pam raised her hand.
Simon glared at her.
‘I believe you have a letter from Francis Briody?’
‘Yes, Pamela,’ Simon smiled. ‘And we’ll discuss that Item Five on the agenda. Is that
OK with you?’
Pamela nodded humbly. She had learnt from Alan, before he died, that the key to survival was to always agree with the person in the seat of power.
is one of life’s many ironies that night is always darkest before the dawn. His murder of the Chairman of the Board for Artists’ Money Etc. had brought Francie Briody the celebrity he had craved, as he wrote long experimental
novels at his kitchen table and collected rejection slips by the hundred. He spent the first six years of the recession locked up in prison. This was not a bad place to be in the era of austerity. According to his cell mate, Marty, a drug
baron implicated in the murder of more men than he could count, ‘Boom or bust, it’s all the same behind bars.’ The diet hadn’t changed, or the condition of the cells – neither of them had ever been good. The only difference,
Marty asserted, was that there were fewer classes, due to cutbacks in funding. ‘It used to be brutal. You’d be up half the night writing plays and memoirs and god knows what. We had one young one who was mad for sonnets.
Sonnets, fucking sonnets, she couldn’t get enough of them. That,’ Marty asserted, ‘was the worst.’ He thought for a minute, as he rummaged in his mattress for one of his mobile phones. ‘Apart from the sestinas. Are you into
Francie assured him that he was not. ‘I am a writer of prose,’ he said quietly.
‘Oh good,’ said Marty.
to the lack of undue pressure from teachers of creative writing and art, Francie had plenty of time to do his own thing, namely write long experimental novels. Within a week of his arrival behind bars, Marty, whose ingenuity was indefatigible and contacts
in and outside the walls innumerable, procured him a nice little laptop. All he asked in return was that his new pal should augment his supplies of his favourite substance by getting all his visitors to bring some in whenever they dropped by. (Francie’s
mother, sister, his friend Pam, and five of his former girlfriends, visited with some regularity. He was rather handsome.)
‘What’s that?’ Francie wondered which of them would be most likely to get her
hands on heroin. Even his mother would be able to get some hash, he imagined, from the people who sold it at their local railway station, but he doubted if that would be enough for Marty.
Fry’s Chocolate Cream. Marty could
not get enough of it. He never touched drugs himself, and drank beer only on his birthday and at Christmas. He was a regular Holy Communicant and during the Abortion thing had founded a Pro-Life group in the men’s prison (called ‘Jail For
Life’, the venture had not been a success. As soon as the group was denied day release to participate in a Rosary for Life demonstration outside Leinster House, most of the members stopped attending meetings.)
Marty had a new interest. Literature. In addition to supplying his cellmate with a computer, he offered his services as reader and editor to Francie. Every novelist should have a special friend whose literary judgment they trust totally, Marty explained. Since
he had attended dozens of creative writing classes in the course of his penitential career he knew things like that. Francie had never been to a writing workshop – too full of himself - and didn’t know the most elementary tricks of the trade.
In the forced conviviality of his shared cell the concept of the friendly first reader made sense. Marty is not the friendly first reader he would have selected, perhaps, but there wasn’t much choice. Nolan the warder did not seem literary.
Lugs Beag next door couldn’t read or write because after his first day at school he had spent his entire life on the mitch, and apprenticed himself to a drug dealer when he was four years old. ‘He can text,’ Marty explained. Texting
was an essential skill in the drug business, Francie gathered. ‘But he can’t do ordinary writing. Pity. The lad’s bright as a bullet.’
Marty himself had never been a great reader. As he was
the first to admit, he was a workaholic, and in the limited spare time he permitted himself liked to watch football matches or television dramas. But he had been in prison on and off now over a period of ten years, usually incarcarated in a cell which
lacked not only a toilet, but a television set. During this time he had developed a fondess for Scandinivian crime fiction. Henning Mankell was his favourite.
‘Mankell always uses short sentences,’ Marty said thoughtfully, when he had read the first chapter of Francie’s novel. ‘And you can understand what it is he’s trying to say.’
off a chunk of Chocolate Cream and offered it to Francie. ‘I love the bit about the fly on the cornflake.’ Francie smiled shyly. It was one of his own favourite passages: he had devoted two pages to an indepth account of the flight of the
bluebottle from the rim of the milk jug to the middle of his bowl of breakfast cereal, where – after six further pages – said insect eventually met his death by drowning. ‘But it’s too long.’ Marty’s voice rose. He warmed
to his theme and stood up the better to emphasise his point. ‘Twenty pages about a chap eating a bowl of cornflakes is too much.’ A tear rolled down Francie’s cheek. Marty sat down again. ‘That’s
what I think anyhow, but sure what do I know about ... um... literary fiction?’
‘Joyce devotes a lot of time to Bloom’s breakfast,’ Francie defended himself. ‘And then to Stephen’s.’
A polite shrug was all the acknowledgment this insight received.
With the repugnance of the genuine connoisseur forced to consume literary swill,
Francie agreed to have a go at Marty’s favourite novel. To his surprise he was up all night reading it by the light of the torch his cell mate provided to all prisoners (in exchange for two bars of Fry’s Chocolate Cream.)
Simon arrived at the main item on the agenda: MONEY. The electric heater had not yet been produced. Pamela snuggled more deeply into her coat and wondered if it would be bad manners to put on her gloves.
‘We’ll soon be out of here,’ Simon glanced at her disapprovingly. Victoria, a pale girl who lurked behind large round spectacles like a rabbit peering over the edge of a burrow, pushed a mountain of papers in his direction.
‘We’re in a very healthy position, I’m glad to say,’ Simon laughed. ‘This year, we’ve received a record number of applications for Awards and Prizes. Ten thousand, one hundred and
fifty seven, to be exact.’
The Board applauded. They went on and on clapping, once they noticed it got their circulation going again.
‘Is there any pattern
to their writing?’ asked Pamela,
Simon looked at Victoria. Under the terms of the Haddington Road Agreement, she had had to read all ten thousand applications on top of her normal day’s work as a clerical officer.
‘I did a breakdown, ’ She seemed delighted to share her breakdown with the Board. It was nice to see her excited about something, Pam thought. Victoria always looked sad and exhausted, which she was, since she commuted
every day from Portarlington to Kildare Street. She was one of those youngsters who had nabbed a job in the Civil Service in the nickof time, days before all recruitment stopped. Pam’s own daughter, Saoirse Aine, had not been so lucky.
Just a few years younger than Victoria, she considered herself fortunate to be employed as an indentured labourer in a uranium mine outside Calgary. (And she with a First Class degree in Civil Engineering.)
Victoria was reading her report
with gusto: ‘Twenty percent are memoirs of childhood, fifteen percent are about cancer, twenty percent are historical novels dealing with the Famine or the First World War, and thirty per cent are first person narratives told by half
witted people with funny accents.’
The Board clapped loudly again, and some stamped their feet. Laura frowned. Pam knew she was adding up the percentages to see if they came to a hundred.
on the Recession?’
‘One or two.’
‘We’re too close to it.’ Laura had an opinion about everything. Her sort of nunnish
Anglo Irish accent made her seem even more of a know-all than she was. ‘Writers need distance from an event in order to imagine the truth of it.’
‘Indeed,’ mused Paul. ‘Still, you’d
think it’d be easier for them to imagine how it feels to live through the Recession than how it felt to live during, say, the Famine.Or the First World War.’
‘This is very interesting, folks, but let’s
not go off on tangents.’
The one thing the Board never discussed was literature.
‘We have ten thousand applicants. The bad news is that we have only two grants to award .’
The Board sighed dutifully.
‘Naturally we’ll blame the Troika,’ Simon paused. ‘I am proposing that we give the first award to Francis E Briody.’
There was a silence
for which stunned is the only reasonable description.
‘But Francie Briody murdered our previous chairman.’
‘That is not a consideration. Francie Briody has served his sentence.
He has written a novel which has been highly acclaimed. He has already won three prizes.’Simon glanced at the application form. ‘And a chapter was published last month in the New Yorker.’
‘So why does he need a grant from us?’ Laura again.
It was time for Pamela to atone for previous pusillanimity in defending Francie’s cause.
‘Francis Briody longs for our endorsement. This is his twelfth application for an award. We know how disappointed he was, last time we rejected him.’ She gave them time to consider this. ‘Speculation about his economic circumstances
should not affect our decision. We should judge him on his literary merit.’
Merit was always a good word to use, at meetings.
‘So you second my proposal? ’
‘Excellent. And I propose we award our second grant to the poet Michael D Higgins.’
‘The President?’ Laura, of course. ‘Of Ireland?’
She scanned the form. ‘It doesn’t say.’
‘Is there an address?’
‘1 Chesterfield Avenue, Dublin 7.’
‘It’s him alright.’
‘Is he even allowed to apply
for an award?’
‘Victoria? Is there any regulation stipulating that Presidents of the country may not apply?’
Victoria shook her head firmly.
‘In that case I propose we
give it to him. He is a great poet.’ The Board stared at him. ‘Do I have a seconder?’
Laura found her voice, which was never lost for long.
‘What if some pest of
a journalist decides to make a big deal of it? The Sindo? Or Vincent Brown or Fintan O’Toole?’
Simon had a solution. He always had. They would ask the president to use a pseudonym. Michael D Yeats or
Seamus Biggins. Whatever. Victoria would think of something.
‘Don’t minute any of this, by the way.’ said Simon.
Victoria laid down her biro.
adjourned,’ said Simon. ‘Thank you once again for all your hard work.’ They grinned uneasily. ‘And now may I invite you to a little light refreshment? Victoria? Can you fetch the gourmet sandwiches?’
Victoria pattered downstairs. She had been up all night making sandwiches, as required under the terms of the Haddington Road agreement.
‘Remember when we used to go to L’Ecrivain!’
‘And Chapter One!’
‘And The Playwright!’
‘But these sandwiches will be special,’ Simon licked his lips loudly, even though he knew perfectly well what was in the sandwiches.
Some were ham, some tomato, and some ham and tomato. ‘And I’ve got a nice little wine here, to wash them down. My own treat, of course – Victoria, record that in the minutes. Where is she?’
Alan and his vintage wines!’
‘This is a Barolo’ said Simon. ‘As good a little Barolo as I’ve ever tasted. Pamela?’
The wine flowed gently, chesnut and amber, into her glass.
She walked to the window. It had stopped raining. The bare trees spread their branches wide, like the arms of sad ballerinas, or beggars in paintings. Beyond, acres of roofs and steeples were stacked against the Dublin mountains, a sort of sombre
purple colour in the fading light. How tranquil everything looked! For centuries – so it must be - people had stood at this window as evening closed in and gazed at the city, stretched out before
them like a child who has fallen into a sweet sleep.
The city was dreaming. Its people dreamt, and its poets and novelists and playwrights. Hundreds of them. It had always been so, and now there were more writers
than ever. In studios by the river and town-houses in the suburbs, in artisan cottages rotten with negative equity and shiny canal bank apartments with mortgages which could never be paid, they sat at their laptops, wondering and analysing, pondering
and pounding. Documenting the present, imagining the past and the future. Some were out to make a quick buck, others busy forging in the smithies of their souls the uncreated conscience of their race, or tracing the beauty of the individual
in the nightmare of history. All trying, like poor Francie, like Pamela herself, to scratch one inky mark on the patient, wrinkled face of the city.
The shadows thickened in the Garden of
Remembrance. One of the stone swans, the banished children of Lir, started to flap its wings. She heard them, the great wings, beating softly, softly, a whisper in the dusk. And then a sliver of moon, thin as a cobweb, slid from the
clouds, and swan was stone again.
I am a child of the earth, and of the starry heavens.
She went back to the table to grab a sandwich before they were all gone. She sipped her wine. Velvety
as the distant mountains. Plus ça change. (She often thought in French when she drank red wine. Even when the wine was Italian.) It was, she knew, the Barolo you get in Lidl. That’s not la même chose as
the Barolo from the cellars of the fine restaurants they frequented in the good years , when a perk was a five course lunch in a five-star restaurant, not a ham sandwich made by an overworked civil servant. It’s still a Barolo,
though. Much had changed, since the night of the Bank Guarantee. But some things had not changed all that much.
They wouldn’t feel it now till Christmas. And she’d be flying out to Canada to visit Saoirse Aine.
published Irish Times, 'Legends of the Fall', August 2013.