Wednesday 7 December 2016

Stage: What to say when lost for words with literary icons

Maggie Armstrong

Published 05/06/2016 | 02:30

Extraordinary: Stephen Rea and Chris Corrigan in Cyprus Avenue at the Peacock.
Extraordinary: Stephen Rea and Chris Corrigan in Cyprus Avenue at the Peacock.

Literary festivals are back, with visions of cramped little stages in Big Houses; books come alive in the voices and faces of our favourite authors. The Borris Festival of Writing and Ideas, the Hay Festival Kells, the Dalkey Book Festival. Looking at the programmes I am excited. Then, as usual, anticipation gives way to discomfort, and to dread.

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It's summer, in Ireland - what's to dread? Frankly, literary festivals. It isn't that trading glances with the people whose books have bettered or even saved our lives is an unhappy prospect. It's that I, for one, never know what to say to these people. Only the stupidest things are said.

They say you should never meet your heroes. They are either too short or just mean. The myth of their greatness cracks asunder, leaving you with the truth of everyone's plainness, awkwardness, hurtling mortality. You will always be disappointed. But I am only ever disappointed by my own fawning and foundering conduct.

The question rears its head all the time at the theatre, not just boutique literary events. What do you say to someone you so immensely look up to? Autographs are over. Selfies are a plague. When I realise I am breathing the same air as a chosen one, I am attacked by doubt. How to express true admiration without disintegrating into a fangirl? How to stay tall, on an equal footing, with a giant?

The first half of Cyprus Avenue at the Peacock was ruined when I noticed Neil Jordan sitting directly behind me. I was so tormented, wondering how to express my awe for The Butcher Boy, not to mention his neglected novels, I forgot Stephen Rea was on stage playing a murderer in the performance of the year. I spent the second half spinning with fear that afterwards, Stephen Rea and Neil Jordan would both be in the bar.

When I was younger, I met Seamus Heaney at the Messiah. After 'Alleluia' he stood up and said, "You feel like you could fly after that, don't you?" I quailed under the kindly Laureate with the white hair and all I could fashion was, "So, you didn't come up in the Leaving Cert last year."

You don't have to like a person's poetry to turn to butterflies around them. Its enough that they are famous. They've got the halo. That deserves respect. At Borris one year, I happened upon Martin Amis outside the chapel, standing alone, sparking up a cigarette. "Hello," I said, and he said, "Hello." "I love your novels," I said. It wasn't a bit true. I had read none of his novels, yet I rambled off and talked a whole lot of bull. His conversation was polite, but his hooded eyes asked me not to say much more. I was told afterwards the approved ice-breaker is to ask for a light. Then you get two equals, safe within a ritual. Like knocking your pint glass with Bono's. We're all just people, going the same way, no?

But I am troubled by what an obstruction I am to these people. The harder great artists work, the more admirers they create. The more admirers they create, the less they can work. My very presence robs their potential, just as theirs nourishes and inspires mine. They must hate us, and literary festivals.

Perhaps some just want to blend with the crowd, forget their day job. You can take this idea a bit far, too. Having canapés after the screening of The Last Hotel by Enda Walsh, I spent so long trying to pretend Cillian Murphy wasn't Cillian Murphy that there was silence. We had nothing to say, at all. He is indisputably Cillian Murphy. Theatre and films have filled his life, as much as watching his theatre and films has taken away lots of my life.

Maybe we sort of hate them too?

When you meet the worthy, all the outer stability you have constructed since you were a child collapses. Your face glows red, your bon mots are lost to clichés and grovelling flattery. Your heart races. It must be similar to falling in love. But unrequited, and there are queues behind you waiting for their turn. You become the crowd.

Another danger is self-promotion, patriotism. When I had my chance with a big screen legend at The Gate, I found myself, cool as you like, delivering a short lecture on the latest Irish film and theatre. He gazed blankly. Key mistake: I hadn't asked the legend about the legend. There is, after all, a reason someone chooses the spotlight.

So Borris, the Hay, Dalkey beckon. Hot young guns like Kevin Barry, Donal Ryan, Sarah Baume, Rob Doyle are holding court. The nerves jangle. What would I say to Bruce Robinson, who wrote Withnail and I, that would sum up my feelings? Or to Simon Callow, who wrote a book about Orson Welles? Would I dare talk to Bob Geldof at Dalkey? Would you?

Borris Festival of Writing and Ideas, June 10-12, festivalofwritingandideas.com; Hay Festival Kells, June 23-26, www.hayfestival.com/kells/ ; Dalkey Book Festival, June 16-19, dalkeybookfestival.org

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