‘As for living, let our servants do that for us,’ Yeats pronounced, with arrogance and pomposity. But there's something to what he says. Reading Michael Harding’s recent piece in The Irish Times about leaving Cill Rialaig, and being immediately confronted by the urgent, dismaying, need to sign some legal document or other - not connected with Cill Rialaig - I was reminded of those words.
I read his article while myself enjoying a retreat in one of those precious centres which give artists respite from legal documents, bills, commitments to this and that, and all the hassle of what Yeats referred to as ‘living.’ The place I’m in for a few weeks is the Baltic Centre for Writers and Translators, in Visby on the island of Gotland, Sweden. My only commitment while here is to my writing. I get up in the morning, make coffee in the little kitchen just outside my simple, comfortable room, go to my desk, and write. In the afternoon I walk along the seafront - the quiet Baltic laps with low sounds by the shore, ducks and ducklings, geese and goslings, swans and cygnets, are all busily paddling about enjoying the sun and the weeds and the water. Cyclists cycle and walkers walk. A lone brave swimmer swims. It’s warm and sunny but nobody gets into the sea before midsummer in Sweden. It’s still spring here. The lilac and the laburnum – which the Swedes call golden rain - are in bloom, and so are the apple trees. The tulips are just finishing. But in a few weeks it will be full blown summer.
Sometimes, instead of looking at the Hans Christian Andersen world of ducks and swans, I walk around the town, on narrow cobbled streets and lanes. The medieval walled town of Visby, a Hanseatic city on the edge of the island of Gotland, is in an almost perfect state of preservation. There are dozens, maybe hundreds, of tiny lanes, lined with perfect cottages with red roofs, white candle in the window. Eighteen churches in the city, a hundred on the island. As many cafes and restaurants, probably, but, in early June, a moderate number of tourists.
You could hardly imagine a more perfect place for a writers’ retreat.
But the main benefit of this as of the other centres is that they encourage the peace and tranquillity which – I realise when I’m here - is what a writer needs more than anything. There’s peace and silence, a sense of harmony in the simple but beautiful lines of the building, and there’s company as well. In the evenings in the kitchen you meet other writers, from all parts of… well, the Baltic countries (I’m lucky to get in, since Ireland is not on the Baltic, but my writing is, sometimes.)
Reading Michael Harding’s account of his attempts to get his signature witnessed by a Garda, and his sadness at the loss of the peace of Cill Rialaig, it also struck me that an aspect of the artists’ retreats is that they demand minimal paper work. Usually you fill in a simple form the first time you apply for a residency, and forever after, even if you come to the place dozens of times, it’s a question of sending an email or making a telephone call. Decisions are taken by a Board, in Visby as elsewhere, but they manage to do it without requesting reams of forms, references, reports. Nor do they ask for a report on what you have achieved while in residence - most residents achieve a lot (I’ve finished my draft, I’ve got the novel done, are lines I hear, as people leave.) But some read and think and don’t write much. It is accepted that a writer is not a machine. There’s a natural, easy atmosphere in the place. (And I should add that everyone here is on a scholarship - once accepted, residence is free. You pay your travelling expenses, and it is self catering so you buy your own food, but accommodation costs nothing. In a place like Visby, one of the most beautiful and most visited places in Scandinavia, this is worth a lot.)
Compare this with the extensive paper work which some organisations, such as our Arts Council, requires of artists who are applying for grants, or for the Aosdana Cnuas. Older artists find the mountains of paperwork intimidating. Everyone finds it tedious, and alien and unnatural. It wasn’t always like this. But a fussy, bureaucratic attitude has taken over the Arts Council. It reveals scant understanding of what artists need, or what they are like. If artists were bureacrats, they wouldn't be artists. I'm not saying that artists should be unaccountable for state funding. But I am questioning the nature of the accounting that is demanded, and its value to anyone. There are simple application forms, and application forms which seem designed to frustrate, intimidate, and torture. There are offices who operate according to clear and logical principles, and there's the Circumlocution Office.
There are artists' retreats, where you can escape from it all, at least for a while, and let others do the living for you.