Saturday 17 March 2018

Our literary rep, bestowed from outside

Far from being a self-administered slap on the back, Dublin's Unesco honour is true approval, writes Eamon Delaney

Eamon Delaney

Eamon Delaney

You may remember those old Absolut posters for the designer vodka, specifically the series they had for world cities. It depicted the shape of the bottle made out of something associated with that city. For Manhattan, we had the streetscape seen from the air, for Geneva, it was metal clock parts, for Berlin, it was the famous Wall and for Dublin, it was a bookshelf. Dublin and books -- quality books -- go together: that was the message. And even better, it was a judgement made abroad, not a self-serving assertion made by ourselves. I thought about the ad when a similar judgement was made, when Unesco recently declared Dublin a world heritage city for literature.

The great thing about the Dublin Absolut poster was that it was an old rickety bookshelf, with leather bound tomes and which held not just the famous names of Joyce, Beckett and O'Casey visible on the spines, but also many other smaller and anonymous books, suggesting the varied and eclectic nature of this great heritage. It is the same with my own bookshelf, I hope. Not only are there the classics of Dublin literature, or any literature (Dublin only happens to be the starting point, and the material) but I also have some of the many other books produced by the city and its writers, and the strength of the capital's imagination is testified by their variety. There is Maurice Craig's Dublin 1660-1860, Flann O'Brien's The Dalkey Archive, poetry books by Thomas Kinsella, Patrick Kavanagh and Austin Clarke, but also latter gems such as Brian Dillon's In the Dark Room.

But the important thing about the Unesco honour is that it is not just about the past, but also about the present and indeed the future. And how apt that it comes just as the announcement of the Booker long list is made, with two titles by Dublin-born authors, Paul Murray's Skippy Dies and The Room by Emma Donoghue. What a shame, incidentally, that Joe O'Connor didn't also make it but such are the vagaries of these selections, especially the unpredictable Booker. But the presence of Murray and Donoghue I find personally heartening, and on a sort of personal basis, for they are authors with whom I feel a contemporaneous kinship.

Murray's first book, An Evening of Long Goodbyes, was compared to some of my own work (I'm flattered) and more importantly I used to see him around the cafes of the city, being the full-time writer and living the life I felt I was, but clearly now with more success. Skippy Dies took seven years to complete, a tribute to the dedication needed to write such a novel.

With Emma Donoghue, it was the same. I remember well her first novel Stir Fry, opening in a familiar setting of UCD and setting the scene for a new and exciting literary reputation, emerging in the 1990s when so many new young writers did. Long may it continue. For this is what the city's Unesco honour is all about. It is not just about putting James Joyce on a tea towel or Oscar Wilde on an ashtray. It is about nurturing and supporting new talent so that we live up to our literary heritage.

It is appropriate then that the designation was made by a body such as Unesco and not by an Irish cultural quango, just as it is appropriate and refreshingly different that those Absolut posters were not for the ould Guinness or a tourist-friendly whiskey, but for a very cool (literally, cool) and foreign vodka. Let's drink to that.

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