Arts and Culture, Irish Authors, Literature

The Best of 2018: Roddy Doyle’s ‘Smile’ 

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Photo by Nik MacMillan on Unsplash

Rewind back to the spring of 2018 and celebrated Irish author, Roddy Doyle, is being interviewed by Stephanie Merritt as the celebrated Hay Festival enters its 30th year. The topic is Doyle’s latest offering: a harrowing story of childhood trauma, secrets, and self-revelation. The date of Doyle’s interview is significant: the 25th of May 2018, the day of the historic Irish abortion referendum: the people of Ireland voted by a margin of 66.4% to repeal the eighth. For Doyle, the victory was not just political, but deeply personal – as a young teacher, he often landed himself in trouble when leafleting to repeal the eighth. Ireland, for Doyle, is not just his homeland, but the physical and political tapestry onto which many of his best-selling novels are woven.

In Smile one of Ireland’s most troubling associations is cast into the spotlight: the sexual abuse scandals that have, and continue, to plague the Catholic church. Yet Doyle does not attack the Catholic church as a whole, despite his criticism of institutionalised religion. In an interview with Vanity Fair in 2017, he said:

There is great comfort in the notion of the few bad apples. There are a few bad Christians, there are a few bad priests who, if you like, made the whole institution seem rotten, and it’s not, it’s fine.

Though Doyle’s novel does possess what he calls an ‘autobiographical spark.’ As a child, he was a student at the authoritarian Christian Brothers’ school. A school where discipline and sickening violence were at the top of the menu.  The novel’s title, Smile, was conceived from an encounter Doyle had as a teenager with one of the Brothers: ‘Roddy Doyle, I can never resist your smile’, he said. Inevitably, ceaseless taunting and torment shadowed Doyle through much of his secondary school life. It was only much later in life that Doyle found out that he had got off lightly – over a discussion with old school friends, he discovered that a significant number of his friends had been sexually abused or assaulted whilst attending the Christian Brothers’ School. And so, the premise of Smile was born.

That’s not to say that the sexual abuse scandal took Doyle by surprise. In his conversation with Merritt he recalled how certain boys would be asked to ‘stay behind’ with the Christian brothers after school. Eventually, the other boys insisted on staying behind collectively to prevent the abuse from happening – safety in numbers proving key to preventing the abuse or at least making it more difficult for the Brothers to continue undetected.

Yet Smile is not just a novel about abuse, in the same way, that Two Pints isn’t a novel that’s just about two Irish blokes in a pub. It could be described as a meditation on memory and its unreliable, labyrinth-like nature. Smile portrays memory as not just a photograph, capturing a moment in time, but as an image with fuzzy, indistinct edges, where figures loom in the background, contorted and unfamiliar. When we first meet the newly single Victor Forde, he seems quite satisfied with what middle-age has handed him. He lives in a tiny apartment in Dublin and frequents his local, Donelly’s pub, where he sinks a pint or two whilst absorbed in his book. It seems like an attempt to bridge the gap between the solitary and the social, by doing an activity that involves a little of both.

Victor feeds us snippets. As a youngster, he was a wannabe music journalist, who enjoyed moderate success. He recalls how he met his wife (now ex)- Rachel, who had an ambition of her own: to become a top celebrity chef and television personality. The middle of the novel provides a departure from much of the chaos and confusion, as the storyline gives way to romance. We watch as Victor and Rachel bond over pints of Guinness, have sex and fall in love. For now, Victor has got the girl, but the reader already has the foreknowledge to know that this is not to last. Yet the Victor and Rachel of the past muddle through their poverty and pain for what they want – Victor, a career as a novelist, Rachel, her burgeoning catering business ‘Heels on Wheels.’ As a reader we can’t see what could possibly have gone so wrong – they struggle from day-to-day, but always hand-in-hand.

Fast-forward back to the present, and Victor’s solitary existence doesn’t last long. A man in shorts and a pink shirt, who calls himself Ed Fitzpatrick, interrupts Victor’s reveries one night in the pub. Fitzpatrick claims that he went to the same Christian Brothers’ school as Victor and vividly remembers the taunting Victor encountered: ‘“What was the name of the brother that used to fancy you? … Would he fancy us now, Victor?’” Fitzpatrick seems uncouth and provocative, but ultimately harmless. But not for Victor. For Victor, the sight of Fitzpatrick triggers an irrational hatred: ‘“I wanted to hit him. I wanted to kill him.”’ For Victor, Fitzpatrick embodies the uncanny: that face in the crowd that you can’t quite place, the nightmare that threatens to engulf the quotidian nature of life. Victor has no recollection of the man who claims they were at school together; whose sister apparently had a ‘thing’ for Victor. But isn’t that just the nature of memory? It’s slippery, half-formed and prone to rusting with age. Yet Victor also finds himself drawn to Fitzpatrick in a way that he can’t explain: he is repelled and intrigued in equal measure.

The shocking conclusion of Smile forces the reader to completely re-evaluate everything that has come before. We’ve had clues along the way – Victor reveals towards the end of the novel that Rachel was not his wife, after all, but that he found it easier to refer to her as that. In one intense scene, in the middle of their blissful relationship, he awakens in the middle of the night and tells her everything: ‘I exploded. I’ve nothing to describe it. No picture or sound. I burst apart.’

This ‘bursting apart’ is Victor’s revelation of the sexual abuse he experienced during his time at the Christian Brothers’ school. Victor’s mask is starting to slip – and this is just the beginning. The climax of Smile is sure to divide readers – but since when is that a bad thing? Literature that denies us a tidy ending – think JB Priestly’s An Inspector Calls or Anthony Burgess’ A Clockwork Orange – has often been praised for its verisimilitude and experimental nature. Doyle provides the reader with a twist that is surreal, outrageous, perhaps even dissatisfying, yet it also, oddly, feels like the only conclusion Doyle could possibly have written. With Smile, love it or hate it, Roddy Doyle is entering new territory and pushing the boundaries of his own genre. If memory is a tapestry, in Smile, Doyle proves himself a supreme craftsman.

Arts and Culture, Literature

Hay Festival 2018: The Highlights – Ian McEwan, Michael Morpurgo, Margaret Atwood and more!

Margaret Atwood Hay Festival 2018

The world-famous Hay Festival celebrated its 30th anniversary this year. The festival’s location is in the picturesque village of Hay-on-Wye in Wales, formerly known as ‘The Town of Books.’ Founded by Norman, Rhoda and Peter Florence in 1988, the festival has humble origins, with its events originally being held in a variety of locations including antique bookshops (Hay boasts twenty books shops) and the local primary school, before moving to a unified location just outside the village. The festival was hailed by former US President Bill Clinton as ‘The Woodstock of the mind’ and continues to attract bigger names and bigger crowds year on year. Read on to find out just what makes the festival the literary and cultural treasure trove that it has become.

Roddy Doyle talks to Stephanie Merritt

Saturday 26 of May, 5:30 pm

 Beloved Irish writer Roddy Doyle kicked off the Bank Holiday weekend with a lively discussion of his up-coming novel Smile. Hot on the heels of the historic Irish referendum which saw 66.4% of The Republic of Ireland vote in favour of overturning The Eighth Amendment, Doyle discussed his own involvement with the pro-reform movement in his youth, where as a young teacher Doyle frequently leafleted in favour of repealing the eighth. The Booker Prize winner’s latest novel Smile deals with the harrowing topic of childhood sexual abuse by teachers in Catholic Ireland. Doyle claims that the novel, whilst fictional has an ‘autobiographical spark’ and is inspired by his own time as a schoolboy at the Christian Brothers school. In Smile, Doyle combines his typical irony and charm with the hard-hitting and often distressing recount of childhood demons and personal renewal. Smile’s shocking climax will ensure that this is a novel that stays with the reader long after they have turned the final page.

 

Men and Suicide: Making sense and building resilience

Saturday 26 May 2018, 8.30pm

Suicide is the leading cause of death amongst men aged 20-49 years old in England and Wales. In this enlightening and often difficult discussion, Andy Bradley, founder of Frameworks 4 Change, was joined by Sarah Stone, Executive Director of Samaritans, Army veteran Luke Woodley and Dr Roger Kingerlee, Consultant Clinical Psychologist who specialises in male suicide prevention. On the surface, Andy Bradley had it all: a job he enjoyed, an adoring wife and children and a loving home, yet in December 2016 he found himself on the platform of a train in Hove, ready to take the leap. After mentally making a list of all those whose lives he felt would be better off without him, Bradley took a pause when he was unable to think of a reason why his wife and ‘soulmate’ Kirsty would be better off without him. Having sought help, Bradley is now considered by NESTA and The Observer as one of Britain’s most radical thinkers. He considers internalised and unaddressed shame as a source of the high depression and suicide rates amongst men, acknowledging that he himself is not ‘cured’ of depressive tendencies, but continues to manage his feelings through therapy and meditation. Highlights of the discussion included new means of tackling treatment and broadening options for young men, who may sometimes feel uneasy about talking-therapy, such as sports’ associations & the ways that employers can help employees feeling low, with Aviva acting as trailblazers in this area, with their implementation of a relaxation room providing an outlet for stressed and depressed employees. To find out about more of Bradley’s work in the field of compassion and care visit: Frameworks4change.co.uk

 Ian McEwan talks to Stig Abell

Sunday 27 May, 2:30pm

 Ian McEwan Hay Festival 2018

The best-selling author of Atonement (2001) recently made headlines when he revealed that an A-Level literature essay that he assisted his teenage son with, on his own novel, Enduring Love, only received a paltry C+. Humour is a major part of McEwan’s cannon and his personality. Humour, sex and sophistry are the hallmarks of the majority of McEwan’s novels, short-stories and novellas. During his discussion with Abell, McEwan attributed the highly-sexed characters of his formative novels to the fact that, as a young novelist: ‘sex was all I could think about.’ One positive of growing older, McEwan quipped, is that ‘you don’t think about sex…all the time.’ Much like his US contemporary, the recently deceased Phillip Roth, the motivations behind his characters’ actions have changed as he has aged – with less emphasis on lust and a shift towards considerations of mortality. Despite the glamour and allure behind many of his best-selling novels, McEwan admitted that such themes enabled him to live vicariously through his characters. He himself was a lover of school, a literature turned-creative-writing student, turned-teacher, turned-novelist. McEwan’s short reading of an excerpt from his latest short-story collection showed that the themes of sex, lust and displacement have not entirely disappeared from his writing: the chapter concludes, fittingly, with an orgasm. McEwan also welcomed onto the stage the winner of the 2018 Deborah Rodgers Foundation Writers’ Award, Deepa Anappara, whose wonderful reading of her work of fiction Djiin Patrol and Purple Line showcased the magnificent legacy that Rodgers has left behind.  

 

Peter Florence, The Pity of War

Sunday 27 May, 2018, 9:45 pm

 An event unlike any other at the Hay Festival, Peter Florence’s breathtaking reading of his father, Norman Florence’s, award-winning play about the poet and soldier Wilfred Owen, provided a stirring reminder of the universality of the pity of war. The tiny Llwyfan Cymru stage provided the perfect setting for an intimate and moving reading. Comprised of a combination of Owen’s letters, beginning at the outbreak of war when Owen was teaching in provincial France, and his world-famous poetry, Florence’s seamless interweaving of the personal and the political, the quotidian and the poetical, still leaves audiences spellbound to this day. Owen’s war poetry including the harrowing ‘Anthem for Doomed Youth’ and Owen’s famed response to jingoism ‘Dulce et Decorum Est’ have seen Owen’s poetry become a bulwark of the National Curriculum. Owen himself said that: ‘All a poet can do today is warn.’ Florence’s final reading of arguably Owen’s most rousing work, ‘Strange Meeting’, tells the story of an exchange between a British soldier and the spirit of a German soldier he has just killed. Owen himself died in action on 4 November 1918. A memorial to the poet, Symmetry, that lies in the grounds of Shrewsbury Abbey, contains an inscription, with ‘Strange Meeting’s’ most famous line: ‘I am the enemy you killed my friend.’ Florence’s reading proved that ‘The Pity of War’ is a discussion that shall never be done.

 Ambient Literature

Writing Workshop, Monday May 28, 12-1:30 pm

 For those of you whose creative muscles have grown a little rusty, writer Tom Abba’s writing workshop will provide the perfect antidote to creative apathy. In a world where technology such as smartphones, social media and the internet are often blamed for plummeting concentration spans and a loss of natural creativity, Abba challenges this notion by showing us how we can use just our smartphones to create dazzling new worlds. The workshop begins with each participant being given an Ambient notebook, each labelled with sections that correspond with Abba’s PowerPoint presentation – participants are encouraged to make notes and engage actively with the material. Next up participants are divided into ‘readers’ and ‘listeners’ – with one set of the audience listening to Duncan Speakman’s It Must Have Been Dark by Then, whilst the remainder read the story. But what, you may ask, is the point of all this? Abba wants to show us how to untether our minds from linearity in order to create more innovative, exciting and unique forms of writing. The concluding part of the workshop, which saw participants engage in a wholly interactive experience involving words, speech and sound, encouraged participants to read Kate Pullinger’s ghost story Breathe: a story that shows us the equally terrifying and exhilarating possibilities offered by creative technology.

Michael Morpurgo in conversation with Peter Florence

Monday 28 May 2018, 2:30 pm.

 Michael Morpurgo Hay Festival 2018

Michael Morpurgo’s best-selling novel War Horse (1982) arguably cemented his place amongst Britain’s greatest children authors, with the novel having been turned into a hit film directed by Steven Spielberg and enjoying 8 record-breaking years in London’s West End. Morpurgo chatted to one of Hay Festival’s founders (and current director) Peter Florence about his new children’s novel, Flamingo Boy – a novel, which, much to Morpurgo’s amusement, few of the audience members appeared to have read. Flamingo Boy, set during WW11, tells the story of an autistic boy, Lorenzo, who perceives the world differently to others but also has a multitude of extraordinary talents – namely his ability to heal and communicate with animals. Morpurgo explained that the character of Lorenzo was inspired by his autistic grandson, adding that his experience with his grandson and the research he partook in the process of writing has led him to the conclusion that ‘we are all autistic to some extent.’ Morpurgo spent part of the discussion reflecting on the trajectory of his phenomenally successful year, from his beginnings as a day-dreaming schoolboy, to his days as a student at King’s College London, where he claims that his proclivity for ‘staring out of windows’ is what landed him with a Third-Class BA in English and French. But the highlight of the discussion was when Morpurgo engaged in a Q&A with some of his biggest fans – the children in the audience, enabling the novelist to flex his comic muscles. Questions ranged from ‘What’s your favourite animal?’ (a dolphin, for your information) to ‘How do you write so well?’ (a question I’m sure we’ve all asked ourselves.) Morpurgo’s discussion proved that, in addition to being a remarkable novelist, he also continues to be a consummate entertainer.

Margret Atwood, The Handmaid’s Tale

Monday 28 May 2018, 4pm

Margaret Atwood Hay Festival 2018 2 

Margret Atwood recently hit the headlines when she likened the treatment of Steven Galloway, the former chair of creative writing at the University of British Columbia who was accused of sexual misconduct, to the Salem Witch Trials. Despite the backlash that followed, with some labelling Atwood a ‘bad feminist’, it appears that the 78-year-old Canadian writer is as popular as ever, with this event, held in the venue’s largest tent, the Tata Tent, selling out months in advance. Atwood’s 1985 dystopian novel has recently been dramatised into a successful television series for hulu. The theatrical elements of the series migrated to the Hay Festival, with the discussion opening with the entrance of the hooded handmaids, accompanied by series’ chilling soundtrack. Atwood addressed the criticism that she has received surrounding the poetic licence that creator Bruce Miller has taken, including, most controversially, the sanctioning of a second series. Atwood revealed that the rights to the television show were entirely out of her hands, but despite having ‘no control’ she believed the production had ‘done a tippity-top job’ and she was particularly pleased to hear that Miller’s small team of ten consisted of seven women. Although Atwood’s dystopian horror story in which women are farmed out into sexual servitude and surrogacy may sound far-fetched, Atwood revealed that all events that occur in the book have taken place at some point in history. In the infamous scene in which the bodies of doctors who performed abortions are hung up on the outskirts of Harvard University, Offred comments that ‘in the time before…such things were legal.’ In the wake of the Irish referendum and the continuation of protests in Northern Ireland, Atwood’s novel has never been more relevant.