Archive for November, 2012

Poetry and Pints

Ok, I’m stealing the very clever title for the gatherings held by the English Society at Queen’s – but I’m stealing it because it so aptly describes a recent night.

This week I went to a poetry reading. I’ve been to prose readings before, but up until a few months ago you’d have been as likely to find me at a poetry reading as a football match. (I have been to both you understand, but neither would be high on my list of top entertainments). We were there en masse from the MA course – partly because we’re all ‘writers’ now, and partly to support one of the readers – poet Paul Maddern, who teaches us He was reading, along with Alex Wylie.

So, there we all were, crammed into the Crescent Arts Centre auditorium. It was another reminder of the shift in orbit my life has taken. The gathering was like a Who’s Who of the literary world of the Seamus Heaney centre – writers, journalists, poets, lecturers – and students of all the above. Not a politician to be seen though.

I was there to show my support too, and not really expecting to be really engaged with the whole thing – but it was amazing. Alex Wylie is clearly one of the bright young stars of the Seamus Heaney centre. Listening to and reading poetry again, after so many years, has made me realise it’s not a test – you can just enjoy it on whatever level you access it. I would love to read Alex’s work though, as on first hearing I was sometimes running to catch up.

Paul read some of The Beachcomber’s Report from the collection of the same name and absolutely spirited me away. As I gushed to him afterwards: “It was like a novel!” High praise indeed from me, whereas one suspects probably not what most poets want to hear. But what I meant was,  that it took us on a journey – a journey that ranged from Donegal to London and in between – and it compelling and engaging – rather than leaving us wondering what it was all about. I loved it.

So, bouyed up by literary enthusiasm and cheap red wine, our ‘group’ – the young’uns, the Carrick Lovely, and me – sat and chatted and eventually drifted to a nearby bar. Now here’s the worst thing about being a student – everyone shuffles up to the bar and orders their own drink. Of course totally sensible when we’re all living on a shoestring, but it seems so anti-social! But, even so, one drink led to another, and the chat ebbed and flowed, until, perhaps unsurprisingly in such a diverse group, age came up. I actually thought the young’uns were in theri mid-twenties, they seemed so mature. But no, it transpired they were all 21. The Carrick Lovely was admitting to early thirties I think, and then came my turn. I think, by the time you’re in your mid-forties, age has become pretty irrelevant, so I blithely spilt the beans. Most gratifyingly, there were disbelieving looks all round. “We thought you were 35!” gasped one of the young’uns. I was delighted, until I thought about it and realised that at 21, you can’t really imagine age beyond 35!





I’ve spent a couple of nights this weekend being well and truly entertained at the theatre, as part of the Belfast Festival at Queens. On Saturday I was gripped by Huzzies at The MAC , in jaw dropping awe at writer Stacey Gregg’s dialogue – sharp, stinging, hilarious . It’s a play about a band, so the music was a big part of it – and the actors managed to convince us they were shambling gauche youngsters, and would then let rip with these amazing voices. It was funny and incredibly sad in turns, and reminded me, again, what it is I’m trying to do this year. The Guardian wasn’t so impressed and I do agree that the plot left us hanging – but that dialogue!

But then, tonight, I saw Enquirer – a performance piece written using interviews carried out with dozens of  journalist, and set in a stylised newspaper office in an empty office block We, the audience, followed the actors around as they went from meeting, to desk, to water cooler chat – it was very cleverly done, and the ‘office’ was full of almost art-like installations, made from phones, shredded paper, over-flowing waste-paper bins, while we sat on piles of newspapers.  As the piece explored the crisis the press finds itself in, after the phone hacking scandal, it came up with some pretty repellent stories. But it also captured the humour, and bad language, that are endemic when you work in a newspaper office – and the dedication of those who don’t have the budget to bribe police officers, or schmooze with expense accounts.

For me, it’s nearly 20 years since I worked as a newspaper journalist, but it reminded me with a pang how exciting that job had sometimes been – and how I’d wanted to do it since I was 13. And for the first time since I left the BBC, I felt a pang that I am no longer a (practising) journalist (I don’t think you stop being something like a journalist just because you aren’t actually doing it). I suppose it part of my identity for too long for me to be able to just shed that skin so easily - and anyway, as I keep telling myself, it’s not set in stone that I won’t be a (practising) journalist again. But this was also yet another case of my past colliding with my future. Tomorrow, I begin teaching at Queen’s University on the MA in Broadcast Literacy -and I wouldn’t be doing that if I hadn’t worked a journalist.

But the play was also partly about the very real prospect of the death of newspapers. A lot of the content centred on the tension between online journalism, and the printed word. Last month one of my oldest friends, who I met at journalism college, and who works for a UK broadsheet, visited. He was full of tales of woe about circulation and in particular, doleful about the future of the printed version of The Guardian. It seemed fantasical to imagine a UK media without The Guardian – the newspaper that has just exposed one of the biggest scandals of the decade. But the very next day other newspapers were reporting that exact story.

However, as I walked back to my car in central Belfast, what did I see?

Monday’s newspapers in Belfast



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