Monday, May 24, 2010

colm toibin in melbourne

MY friend Tristan and I met in Rose Street, near Essendon Station. Tristan teaches at a local girls’ school. He was halfway through a coffee at a cafe so I joined him. Together we read some of The Age, then boarded a train with a friend we bumped into, and headed for the city. Colm was due to start at 6:30, so at 5:00 we were very early. The night was slightly balmy and very clear- beautiful walking weather. There were a lot of people in the city, which there generally is at this time. The mood was positive, although it did seem that people were rushing, walking against lights. I saw two people slip right to the ground when standing on the same street corner. They got up quickly and tried to look nonchalant, as you do in that situation.

Tristan and I misjudged the location of the talk. We thought it was around the corner from the State Library in Lt Lonsdale Street, in a place called The Wheeler Centre, who were the people promoting the talk in the newspaper. So we didn’t want to drift too far from there, and decided to eat at an indoor shopping mall opposite. The food was terrible, but I didn’t care. Expectation was building. We ate and we could see that we still had quite a bit of time so further south down Lt Lonsdale Street we walked towards a little pub/ bistro for a quick beer. On the way we met the third person on this excursion, Bridget (originally from Co. Clare), a friend from work.

The three of us talked about books in this quaint pub. I had never been here before, and with its bohemian style, and its foreign beers, records and turntable, and European decor, I suddenly felt I was in a different country. For me this kind of atmosphere added to my anticipation. We left with not a lot of time left, and I walked imagining I was in Colm’s shoes, a foreigner embracing the excitement of a new and unfamiliar city.

The complication of the evening took place outside The Wheeler Centre, in that I suddenly realised it wasn’t the venue at all, and we quickly walked up Exhibition Street to Collins Street, and the Collins Street Baptist Church, anxious suddenly about the time. What was I thinking? I knew the talk was going to take place here. A true snapshot of my usual muddled forward planning.

The reverence of the church with its lovely white walls seemed fitting somehow for Colm Toibin’s talk. This was my third occasion with him, and I knew what to expect. A beautiful rich Irish voice, a warm and engaging manner, an unpretentious casualness, humorous and slightly self conscious, open and honest, and above all, interesting and intelligent. We were almost late- as a result, we were sitting in the balcony seats, ‘up in the gods’, like a rock concert with its large volume of people. I felt impressed and pleased for him that a quiet one- off visit to Melbourne would attract this much attention.

Colm was here primarily to promote his more or less recent novel, Brooklyn. Throughout the course of an hour, he completed three readings from it. The two that I best remember concerned the main character, and immigrant from Co. Wexford making the most of a forced situation, living in America. This was of an early chapter in which Eilish is sad and feels trapped because it is designated that she is the family member going to America, when she desperately would prefer it was her older sister, Rose. Eilish thinks of her packed suitcase forlornly, and reflects on the fact that the next time the suitcase will be opened, it will be in a new, unfamiliar country. It would be so much easier for her to continue her safe, ordinary life in Ireland.

Another reading Colm chose was of a time in the novel in which the poor people of Brooklyn are celebrating Christmas, 1951, in a charity house run by Father Flood, who introduced Eilish to Brooklyn in the first place. Eilish is working here this day, serving customers meals with friends. She suddenly sees a man that she momentarily mistakes for her father, and there is an odd little connection here, as the old man sings to the congregation and calls Eilish out of the crowd to share it with him.

Colm covered a disparate range of topics, some of which were familiar to me from interviews heard or read previously. He spoke of the challenges of teaching writing as an Irishman in America. He spoke of the difficulty of ‘getting somewhere’ as an Irishman in England, compared to the relative ease of finding something good in America (he put this down to the class system, not mentioning the Troubles). He spoke of the cheek some Irish people have when complaining about newly arrived Polish or Nigerian émigrés, because of the diaspora of Irish people all over the world for many years. Colm is apparently feeling more enamoured toward the Church again these days.

Colm spoke freely as well about the writing of his book. He was keen to create a strong, sympathetic priest in Brooklyn, as a kind of homage to the priests in former years who have helped immigrants settle in foreign countries ( a variation, he says, on the usual sordid association we read about in the papers almost daily). He created a lesbian passage (in the change rooms of Eilish’s department store) because he ‘couldn’t resist.’

The evening flew by. I watched my Irish friend’s face as he spoke of Ireland, and wondered if she was suddenly homesick at hearing tales of her former homeland in a warm and familiar accent. I looked around at others and marvelled at the shared experience and wondered what they had read and what they knew. There was time for a solitary question before it was wrapped up. I wanted to ask which parts of Brooklyn were the most difficult to write and why, but lacked the courage. A man in front somewhere asked whether or not the magical clothes dumping scene in the Venetian waters in The Master was true, and Colm explained that apparently it was, and was something he heard from a contemporary of Henry James on a radio programme somewhere many years ago. It is amazing how writers pick up little bits of information to use. Colm is using this technique of being alert to outside information in his new book, apparently, which is based on an anecdote from Lady Gregory’s diaries. Apparently James had a good idea for a story which didn’t eventuate, and Colm is going to do or has done something with it.

The evening ended with a long queue for book signing. I had three hardback works that hadn’t been signed and queued patiently. As I got to the front, I wasn’t absolutely sure I would be recognised. It had been at least a couple of years we had last met. Suddenly I saw a glimmer of recognition in his eye. He rose and tousled my hair commenting on how short it now was, and then asked how the kids were. I wanted to stay and talk but I felt the pressure of those waiting behind me, and tumbled outside, half running towards Parliament Station, exhilarated. A nice, warm night. Nothing too dramatic and no epiphany or sense of wonder. But exhilaration all the same at meeting, once again, one of the best writers of our generation.

May, 2010.

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