Belfast Telegraph

Thursday 18 September 2014

DebateNI home of Northern Ireland politics

Our neglect of Belfast-born writer CS Lewis is a sad chapter

As a five-day festival celebrating the work of the literary giant kicks off, Ivan Little asks why the Belfast-born man is not more revered at home

Turning a page: four-year-old Daniel Pickering from Belfast at the launch of The CS Lewis Festival a few weeks ago

You've probably never heard tell of the city of Petoskey. But hundreds of devotees of CS Lewis have spent the past two months there, paying homage to the Belfast-born writer with all kinds of tributes, from bizarre Lego-building competitions of his fantasy castles to trick-or-treating Halloween expeditions with a Narnia twist to musical adaptations of his Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe stories and even pub nights in his honour.

But that's just the way they've been doing things for six years in Petoskey, which sounds like it could be a far-flung Russian outpost, but which is actually in northern Michigan, where the annual CS Lewis festival is a must-do on the cultural calendar.

Across the Atlantic, you wouldn't have stumbled across too many similar commemorations in the east Belfast backyard of the world-renowned writer and theologian from the Strandtown area of the city.

The website of the American festival gives not a hint of why Petoskey should be so enthralled by the literary giant, other than to eulogise him for his "beloved children's book series The Chronicles of Narnia, which touched the lives of millions of people during World War Two".

In equally obscure Headington Quarry in Oxfordshire, they did have a more obvious reason for marking this year's 50th anniversary of the death of Lewis with a festival at a church, because the academic they knew as Jack was a parishioner there for a time.

Nearby in the Masons Arms, they brewed a special ale called Jack's Delight, but in Belfast the marking of anything to do with Lewis has always been distinctly flatter beer, though thankfully a change is about to come.

And not before time, say his disciples, who have been campaigning for Northern Ireland to follow the lead of Westminster Abbey, which is unveiling a memorial stone to Lewis in Poets' Corner on the anniversary of his death, which was overshadowed by the assassination on the same day – November 22, 1963 – of President John F Kennedy in Dallas. From Monday, Belfast will at last pay its dues to CS Lewis with a five-day festival, which includes plays, exhibitions, films, music, tours and outdoor events.

At Campbell College, which Lewis attended in 1910, one of the highlights – literally – will be the switching on of the famous lamp in the grounds which is said to have inspired the lamp in Narnia, where Lucy first met Mr Tumnus.

Ulster-born Christian theologian Professor Alister McGrath, who has just published a new critically acclaimed biography of Lewis, will be the guest speaker at a worship celebration in St Mark's Church, where the writer's grandfather was rector.

But his is not the only new publication about Lewis. Another local man, Sandy Smith, is an acknowledged and passionate Lewis expert who has done more than anyone else to promote him.

With little, or no, official backing, Smith has opened a small exhibition centre in Belmont Tower near the Lewis family home at Little Lea on the Circular Road, bringing parties of international Lewis students here and organising tours of significant landmarks.

Now he's written an impressive book, CS Lewis and the Island of his Birth, which examines the author's life in the city before he went to live in England and how Ireland strongly influenced his writing.

Smith has for long chided Northern Ireland for ignoring Lewis, arguing that if the writer had been born somewhere else, more would have been made of his contribution to literature, which included no fewer than 30 books, including the Magician's Nephew, the Silver Chair and the Screwtape Letters.

In a week when another east Belfast icon, Van Morrison, has been at the centre of controversy over the cost of a supposedly free 'freedom of the city' concert, the debate is raging again over whether we are reluctant to laud our great and good.

Tens of thousands of people gave George Best the biggest funeral here in living memory, but the bad-mouthing started after pleas were made for cash contributions towards a statue of him. Alex Higgins' passing was mourned in Belfast, but within days the begrudgers were sharpening their tongues to spread stories of the snooker star's darker days. They queue up to write off Rory McIlroy (far left), or to put down Graeme McDowell over his mid-Atlantic accent, whereas Nadine Coyle gets stick because she still has a Derry air.

And how many people here acknowledge Eamonn Holmes as one of Britain's finest TV presenters, rather than chew the fat about his weight?

An anything-but-scientific survey on the streets of east Belfast yesterday resulted in a majority of people claiming they knew little about CS Lewis, even though most of them were aware of a Lewis statue outside the Holywood Arches library.

Yesterday, Belfast City Council officials were cleaning it up and library staff were putting the finishing touches to their contributions to the CS Lewis festival.

At the Belfast Welcome Centre in Donegall Place, however, visitors would have found information hard to come by. Staff said leaflets about it mightn't arrive until Monday – after the start of the festival.

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