Monday 25 September 2017

Colm Tóibín, the rapt children and the magic of Listowel. . .

My abiding image of this year's Listowel Writers' Week, from which I've just returned, is of Colm Tóibín seated under the stairwell of the town's main hotel as he read to a group of schoolgirls who, hanging on his every word, were either sprawled on the floor in front of him or draped over the banisters behind him.

It was a scene you'd only come across at Listowel, a literary festival that hasn't lost its uniquely personal touch since I first covered it as a young journalist in the company of Séamus Heaney, Paddy Moloney, Seán Ó Tuama and other visiting luminaries.

Indeed, an event that has never shirked its serious intent still retains a spirit that's both bracingly parochial and cheerfully quirky. Where else would you encounter a writers' "week" that lasts for only four days?

Making Magic Happen (RTÉ One), a film produced, directed, filmed and edited by Steven Byrne, attempted both to capture the festival's disarming nature and to suggest why it has not just lasted but extended and prospered for more than four decades.

Tributes to its appeal came from a variety of eminences. "I love this town", was Neil Jordan's heartfelt declaration on winning the festival's Kerry Book of the Year prize for the second time. Fellow novelist David Park thought it "a very populist literary festival and all the better for that".

English literary editor Robert McCrum concurred that the best festivals were those "rooted in the community", while Colm Tóibín's devotion to Listowel is demonstrated by his continuing active role as the week's president.

The documentary itself was just as quirky as its subject, sometimes bemusingly so.

Frequent snatches of song by Eimear Quinn, Philip King, Julie Feeney, Mick Hanley and other festival performers gave the impression that music, rather than literature, was the event's main concern, while contributions by myself and a couple of other interviewees seemed quite irrelevant to the film's overall gist.

As to the festival's enduring appeal, Billy Keane, son of the late John B, stoutly maintained: "Anything that comes from the people will last." Meanwhile, Arts Minister Jimmy Deenihan argued that in a country whose international reputation has been "damaged" writers and other artists have become crucial in restoring "our national credibility".

TV3's credibility wasn't enhanced by the first episode of Dublin Airport: Life Stories, in which reporter Andrea Hayes was so agog to get a reaction from her interviewees that she quite lost the run of herself.

"You're getting very excited, aren't you?" she gasped to a woman in Arrivals, who was waiting to greet a friend coming from Australia, "you seem like you're going to just burst with excitement." Not half as much as Andrea herself, who looked ready to explode at the prospect of it all.

"Are you going to run over and give him a big hug?" she breathlessly asked a boy whose father was returning after two weeks in Seattle. "No", the boy said matter of factly. "But did you miss him?" she persisted. "Not really", the boy replied. Faced with such stonewalling, she turned to the boy's sister. "What does your daddy look like?" she asked.

There was no answer to that, nor to the query she put to Boston-based Tanya, who had flown over to see her boyfriend. "How did you fall in love with Declan, an Irishman?"

By this stage, I had a query of my own, but Andrea might not have wished to hear it.

It's not often that you see a science programme presented by a woman, but BBC Two went one, or rather two, better by getting three women to front The Transit Of Venus, screened to coincide with that planet's historic passage in front of the sun last Tuesday night and Wednesday morning.

Perhaps I'm being sexist in mentioning the gender of the presenters, but it was hard for a male not to notice that biologist Liz Bonnin, solar physicist Lucie Green and oceanographer Helen Czerski were far more pleasing to the eye than Patrick Moore or other venerable males. And to the ear, too, as each of them imparted quite complicated information with the minimum of either fuss or jargon.

For myself, I'd been observing the path of Venus by means of a brilliant phone app called Sky at Night, which displays and names every star and planet that you point it at, but I learned an awful lot more from Liz, Lucie and Helen about the significance of Venus's trajectory and our solar system in general than any app could provide.

I didn't learn an awful lot about genial football anchorman Bill O'Herlihy from Mary Kennedy's visit to his home on Nationwide (RTÉ One) beyond that he and wife Hillary live in a nice house with a nice garden.

However, that hardly warranted Mary telling Bill that "people are dying to see what your house is like" -- an assertion that Bill seemed to doubt as much as I did.

But nothing excites Mary more than people's houses and the knick-knacks with which they furnish them.

"Our humble abode", Hillary mumbled self-deprecatingly on meeting her, to be met with: "It's not a bit humble! It's lovely!"

If you say so, Mary -- and you constantly do.

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