Saturday 10 October 2020

Britain is the country which made and Ireland has lost the old Northern Irish poet called Derek Mahon

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With YouTube clips of Derek revisiting his childhood home in Belfast and Trinity College Dublin and chatting with his old friend Michael Longley taken from the 2009 documentary, 'The Poetry Nonsense', now exorcised from this post, we still have Derek, in September this year, obviously very frail, but continuing to enrich us with his verse : 

Derek, who has died at the age of 78, lived for the last 20 years of his life in Ireland and, although he left Britain's province of Northern Ireland to study in Dublin at the age of 18 and although he returned to work in Britain, on and off over they years, he was never really a resident and remained stateless. The Dictionary of Literary Biography says of him : 'An awareness of being cut off from the lives of ordinary folk occupies a central place in the verse, and many of his most characteristic poems have a lonely, isolated figure or an odd man-out at their centre. We encounter such figures in all of Mahon’s books.' 

The obituary of Derek, published last week the 'Independent ie', said : 'It is a hallmark of Mahon's work that he could empathise with the rootless or dispossessed, such as the gypsies or the homeless of New York who he encountered during his own wanderings'. It cannot be contested, however, that the fact that he was born and brought up a Northern Irish, Belfast Protestant, left and indelible mark on him and shaped the poetry he produced from the age of 17 and throughout his life.

Derek was born during the Second World War in the late autumn of 1941, in Belfast, the son of Maise and Norman, who was an inspector of engines at the Harland and Wolff Shipyard. His was the middle class childhood of an only and lonely child inside the home, who belonged to the local in the street gang of kids outside the home, as he recalled in 2014 :

He had distinct memories of things around the house, which he considered to be his "best friends". He endowed each with what he later called, their own 'numen' or 'special divine force'. They included : "a 1940s radio set, a Japanese lacquered cigarette case brought back by an uncle in the Merchant Navy - the little things that you saw with a child’s eye when you were a child and that will never go away. My Aunt Kathleen’s white shoes in a rented summer house in 1945. No, I was on the floor, it must have been 1942. I was on the carpet. Those white shoes!" He saw himself as a “strange child with a taste for verse” who "emerged from a slow consciousness of the numina inherent in these things."

Thirty years later, when he was an established poet in his collection, 'The Snow Party', featured his most celebrated poem, 'A Disused Shed in Co.Wexford', which closely examined a cluster of mushrooms locked in an abandoned country hotel shed, came in 1975. 

He grew up in a red-brick terraced house in Salisbury Avenue in the Protestant inner suburbs of North Belfast. In the April of the year in which he was born a German bomb had dropped on the Avenue with dramatic consequences. In his back garden there was a coal-shed in which young Derek kept his bicycle. Here, he felt pity for the coal in the  shed and each time he closed the door he felt regret, if not guilt and asked : 'why should all that glittering coal be shut away and live an imprisoned anti-social life of its own ?'   

Thirty-five years later, in his poem inspired by Pieter de Hooch's painting 'Courtyards in Delft' he revisited that house in his poem,'Courtyards in Delft'.

His was a "quiet house". His father, who worked 40 -48 hours a week, when Derek did see him, was : "A quiet man. He did the same job, with some little promotions, for forty years. Belfast was his life. The shipyard was his life. My mother the same. She was from Belfast." It was not only quiet house, but also a spotless one, since his mother gave up work at the York Street Flax Spinning Company when they married Norman and "became a housewife and very house-proud in the obsessive way that a woman in that position often is." 

Derek recalled : "She’d keep dusting and keep everything as bright as a new penny. Of course, this was a bit of a strain on the child, an irritant. In fact, with my mother, no harm to her, I think it was pathological. But since little boys are usually rougher than house-proud mothers, there were times I would deliberately do things to be infuriating - knock over a cup or something."

The front parlour of the house was no place for a little boy to play and was reserved for visitors : cold and clean; china on the sideboard; upright piano - rarely played, with sheet music in the stool and on the rack a Chopin Prelude; newspaper in the grate with a sprinkling of soot and a brass poker and tongs with claws.

When interviewed in 2000, when he was 59, he said : "I remember this little girl who used to dress very prettily: she, in her back garden, would be visible to me up in my parents’ bedroom at the top of our house and I used to watch her, down there. I’d see other things besides, like a coal delivery, the sort of pictorial qualities of coal. That kind of thing - the running of cold water from a kitchen tap, the light. I had time to dwell on these things."

When he remembered his first school - Skegoniel Primary he said : "All I see is sunlight, classrooms full of sunlight, or windows streaked with rain - as everybody does. I don’t hear anything. I recently looked at an old school photograph of Skegoneill when I was six or so: all these wee old faces, thirty of them, and we’re all, each individual one, absolutely unique and crazy in some way, quite unbelievable."

He attended Church of Ireland services at St Peter's on the Antrim Road with his parents, where he "tagged along, scrubbed and kempt." Then his parents were approached by the minister who asked ; ""Could young Derek hold a tune, would he be interested in having a go with the choir? We can arrange for Mr. Wood to audition him on Wednesday evening. So in no time at all I was in the choir, which meant two services on Sunday, one in the evening, as well as choir practice on Wednesday evening."

Derek found that : "The hymnology invaded the mind." When it came to William Walsham How's 'For all the Saints, who from their labours rest', he found that when he came to the line : “From Earth’s wide bounds, from ocean’s farthest coast” he "created a whole geography of my own, around ocean’s far-thest, as it were far-flung, coasts. The words themselves became facts, objects; and I believed in those objects, those clumped printed objects."

As a boy of eleven, Derek didn't know what a Catholic was. When his playmate Sheila said she "had to go someplace", he'd asked : "Can I come too?" to which she replied : "No, it's only for Catholics." The little boy wondered what class of a creature a Catholic might be ? When visiting the village of Cushendun on holiday, on the coast, he'd asked another girl the name of her school and she replied : "Cross & Passion," and he'd agonized as to what kind of erotic academy she attended. 

Fifty years later he wrote : ‘I don’t think I have a religious nature in that sense but I have a consciousness of things over and above, beside and below human life. I am deprived of belief in God, if deprivation it is, by my own rationalist habits of mind. I make room for the numinious, for the unexplained.’ 

Having passed his 11+ exam in 1951, he entered the boys grammar school, the Royal Belfast Academical Institution with its motto 'Quaerere Verum' 'To Seek the Truth'. Founded in 1794, it was steeped in history and its first batch of masters belonged to Wolfe Tone's 'Belfast Chapter of United Irishmen'. It was here that his sense of alienation began and he recalled : "I started feeling not at home when I was at secondary school, at the beginning of adolescence. I started moping, brooding; I didn’t go in for sport. Mine was a great rugby school, rugby and cricket. I played some rugby and cricket, but then after a certain point I wasn’t interested anymore, The competition didn’t interest me. There were other boys in the school like this, a little group of us - oddities, weirdos - so I found a coterie, and there I was at home. Age fifteen, sixteen, or seventeen, we would go precociously to something that was just coming into existence in a place like Belfast in the late 1950s - a coffee bar and talk, and read Aldous Huxley."

Derek put his change of attitude down to the feelings of inferiority when he was compared to his cousin Conacht, who lived a few streets away and although the same age "was a bit taller and he always was considered the more interesting and more manly, more able one. I was a bit of a dead loss in comparison." He took things to heart and believed that it turned him into : "an eccentric or, as my mother always said, “an oddity.” It created a sense of inadequacy, a sense of “well to hell with that then, I’ll opt for the place where I can succeed, for other forms of value.” He recalled this period in his life in 2014 : (From'The Poetry Nonsense')

When he was 17 in 1958 he moved with his parents into a bungalow in a new estate in Glengormley near where his grandparents lived in a farmhouse and where as a boy he had played among the hens. It was here that, with his parents and cousin Connacht's parents, he began an annual visitation to Portrush, staying in guest houses. In due course the Portrush coastline was to become to become a primary a contour in his poetry as in his 1984 poem, 'North Wind : Portrush'. In fact, when asked once if he had a home landscape, he'd said: that it was "North Antrim where I spent most of my childhood holidays and not Belfast where I was born".

The new estate at Glengormley was devoid of what Derek would later call 'barraka', the Arabic word meaning the 'holiness that household utensils acquire through age'. In fact, he went further and said that : "The culture I grew up in was devoid of barraka. I was brought up deprived of a sense of the holiness of things. Protestantism is a rejection of barraka. The historical sources of Protestantism are rooted in a fear of disease, syphillis and plague. Cleanliness is next to Godliness or, rather, Cleanliness is Godliness." He returned to 'Glengormley' in poetry when he was 27 in 1968.

He described the interior of his parents' bungalow when he wrote 'Death in Bangor' to mark his mother's passing in1997. It had obviously remained unchanged with its straight-backed chairs and kitchen table and her wise monkeys and euphemistic ‘Dresden’ figurines, ornaments and other breakable stuff. 

'Oh, I can love you now that you’re dead and gone
to the many mansions in your mother’s house. 
All artifice stripped away, we give you back to nature
but something of you, perhaps the incurable ache 
of art, goes with me as I travel south
past misty drumlins, shining lanes to the shore,
above the Mournes a final helicopter, 
sun-showers and rainbows all the way through Louth, 
cottages buried deep in ivy and rhododendron, 
ranch houses, dusty palms, blue skies of the republic.' 

His teacher of History and English Language and Literature at the Royal Belfast, John Boylehad a big influence on Derek and his coterie of friends : "We thought of everyone else as peasants. But Boyle enabled us somehow to embody the notion of not being cut off, not being outsiders in a society that itself was outside something and the fact that Boyle was from Dublin was important, from some 'other' or larger context. He was an articulate representative of the other part of the island." 

He was 14 when he had discovered poetry. "Yeats's The Stolen Child - that was the first poem that really turned me on. Then Thomas's Fern Hill, and A Hunchback in the Park." 

'Come away, O human child!                                                                                                                         To the waters and the wild                                                                                                                            With a faery, hand in hand,                                                                                                                          For the world's more full of weeping than you can understand.'                                                    

When, recalling Mr Doyle, when taught by him at 17, Derek said : "One of the things he taught was Yeats. He taught Yeats as if Yeats were an historian of the time : Yeats as documentary. When Boyle himself was at Trinity he had gone to a debate where one of the speakers was Maud Gonne. So he was able to make it all real to us."
 It was the same year that Derek himself  was awarded the 'Forrest Reid Prize for Poetry' inspired by great Northern Ireland novelist who had died some ten years before. Eric Gregory and Philip Larkin had sat on the awarding panel.

In 1960 he entered Trinity College Dublin on a scholarship and said : "I had rumbled Belfast for the bigoted corrupt dump that it was and I was delighted to get out of it" and while he was there he "kicked the habit" of automatically segregating people, on sight, into Prods and Taigs. By this time he had modified his early boyhood image of the Free State as a "pastoral land without shipyards" where Dublin was a foreign city and a hive of German spies. 

He recalled a Trinity in the 60's where : "Conspicuous sobriety was frowned upon. Nor, contrary to tradition, was it us natives who were the most dedicated practitioners (though we kept abreast) but the Sloane Rangers, the tough fops with silk scarves and snarling red two-seaters. This lot, public-school men who weren’t bright enough for Oxford or Cambridge, and posh gels not tall enough for the Brigade of Guards, created noise out of all proportion to their numbers, bawling “Charles!” and “Miranda!”, Brideshead style, and revving their little roadsters."

"Girls dressed up then to go into College, the cobbles playing hell with their high heels. Men dressed up too, sort of, except for slobs like myself who wore the same sweater and jeans for four years. Front Square was like a Dior catwalk and the two sexes sat in the Reading Room with blurry volumes before them, sizing up the talent out of the corners of their eyes. The air crackled with sexual electricity." (from the 'Poetry Nonsense')

It was here that he sought out the bearded poet, Michael Longley, who had been two years his senior at school :
(From 'The Poetry Nonsense) Michael later described the two students inhaling “untipped Sweet Afton cigarettes MacNeice, Crane, Dylan Thomas, Yeats, Larkin, Lawrence, Graves, Ted Hughes, Stevens, Cummings, Richard Wilbur, Robert Lowell, as well as Rimbaud, Baudelaire, Brecht, Rilke”. Together, with Seamus Heaney, they met at the home of Queen’s University lecturer, Philip Hobsbaum. Derek later rejected the idea that "we were terrified provincial ignoramuses who needed someone from Cambridge to get us going.”

He said : "The Professor of English then was Phillip Edwards. Phillip was English, a nice man, but much more inspiring was a reprobate like Alec Reid or a humanly interesting person like Con Leventhal. We grew up in a very pleasant way. Physically the surroundings were extremely attractive. Beautiful college, beautiful trees, beautiful girls: wherever you fell there was something to please. At the same time, it was a place apart - golden days, golden moments."

"I thought of myself as a surly étranger in a donkey jacket, with literary pretensions. The way to seem was careless of the academic demands. Some, of course, swotted up furiously at night. I didn’t, and that was my mistake. So I drifted away from the academic but, like others, formed my own little university within. It was then that I had the notion that “this poetry nonsense you’ve been tinkering at for the past couple of years at school, if you’re going to take it seriously, you can do it here, and people will pay attention.” It was a very fertile environment, very supportive. Alec Reid was part of it, in a very personal way; he was great fun, and so human. A liberal education, was Alec."

When confronted with the prospect of life after university, Derek himself admitted : "I didn’t know where I was. I suppose, looking back on it, that I was in some kind of crisis. Had I been accustomed to a disciplined and purposeful way of life, I would have gone on to whatever I was going to do then - trainee journalism, the BBC, doing a Ph.D. at Oxford, whatever it might have been. I would have proceeded. But I came to a stop because I’d been living indolently, with literary notions, so I had no direction."

In 2014, Derek admitted that he wasn't the most studious of undergraduates. In fact, he was suspended from Trinity for 'unsatisfactory attendance' in his second year and spent the time on the Isle of Man. On resuming his studies, in 1962, Stephen Enniss, his biographer, stated that he attempted suicide by jumping off Butt Bridge into the River Liffey. Derek himself saw it differently and said : "Jump in the river for fun and some will say you tried to commit suicide." Michael Longley said the jump was "partly theatrical, partly suicidal" and it was no doubt fuelled by Derek's intake of alcohol, which became an addiction which would blight his later life until, with the help of AA and supportive friends, he quit, at the age of 52.

As a poet he was both prolific and precocious during his years at university, publishing over forty poems with his first in the University's 'Icarus' journal in 1960. Michael Longley described his 'Subsidy Bungalows', as 'a witty portrait in sharply rhymed stanzas of his home, 'Glengormley. The voice of authority rang out through every line.' He also gained recognition outside the college's walls by having poems printed in The Irish Times and winning a prestigious Eric Gregory Award in 1965 where, once again, Philip Larkin chaired the selection committee that year.

He was 24 when he published his 'Twelve Poems' in 1965, which he himself later describes as his : “horrible, scatterbrained first book”. Nevertheless, it contained the themes of being alienated and outcast which he would repeat in the years to come. In the September after sitting his final exams he said : "On leaving Trinity, the only thing I knew I could do was get out of Dublin." He took himself off to the Sorbonne, ostensibly to study French, but in reality confessed : "I skived off and hung out at the Cinematheque and George Whitman's 'Mistral Shop' and obvious pit stops like the Cafe de la Sorbonne and Au Depart."

In the years that followed Derek travelled extensively and after working in London, New York and Paris, it was to Ireland, laden with honours, that he returned, living the last 20 years of his life in Kinsale and said : “We tire of cities in the end. The whirr and blur of it.” He didn’t drive and never used a mobile phone or the internet. All he required in his later years was a notebook, his typewriter, a table and chair, and a view out the window towards the port and the sea beyond.

He remained carefully neutral on Irish and Northern Irish politics, telling the Guardian in 2015 : “I never put a name to my own position and I still can’t, which suits me fine.” 

When he looked back to his Trinity days and the politics of Northern Ireland he said : "I think probably there were things that I should have come to terms with, researched, looked into, looked at, but I didn’t. At that time, Protestants like James Simmons, Michael Longley, myself could think that this was not our quarrel - our peculiar upbringing as middle-class, grammar-school-educated, liberal, ironical Protestants allowed us to think of ourselves as somehow not implicated. I told myself that I had more important things to do. Which were going to London, getting on with my own literary career as I had now started to conceive of it and writing directly about those conditions in the North was not part of that purpose. One of the damnable things about it was that you couldn’t take sides. You couldn’t take sides. It’s possible for me to write about the dead of Treblinka and Pompeii - included in that are the dead of Dungiven and Magherafelt. But I’ve never been able to write directly about it." 

However, 45 years before, when he was a young man in 1970 he had written : ‘Poets themselves have taken no part in political events, but they have contributed to that possible life, or the possibility of that possible life; for the act of writing is itself political in the fullest sense. A good poem is a paradigm of good politics - of people talking to each other, with honest subtlety, at a profound level. It is a light to lighten the darkness; and we have darkness enough, God knows, for a long time.’ 

'Everything is Going to be All Right'
, a poem of just 12 lines, which Derek wrote in 1990, was read out after the main Raidió Teilifís Éireann in the Republic of Ireland, on March 27, this year, the day the Irish Government imposed a nationwide lockdown to combat the coronavirus pandemic which would last seven weeks. It was the distinctive voice of the poet forged in Belfast, in Britain, over 60 years ago that was heard in households across Ireland.

                  Two years ago Derek mused in his poem, 'Data', published in the New Yorker :        





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