Belfast Telegraph

Friday 18 April 2014

Why it's high time to bring Belfast to book

Northern Ireland is a country of writers - not that a visitor would know. Malachi O'Doherty is your guide for what a tour of our rich literary heritage could be like

Could I be a tourist attraction? Perhaps I wouldn't want people getting themselves photographed standing beside me, but I am a small part of Brand Northern Ireland. I am a writer. And Ireland is famous for its writers.

I and two of my Belfast Telegraph colleagues will feature in the Aspects Arts Festival in Bangor this month, so we are trusted to pull an audience locally. Why not some tourists then, as well?

I work, day by day, in the Seamus Heaney Centre on University Road, part of the most beautiful university in the UK, according to some.

But I can't recall when I last saw a charabanc pull up outside, while a guide explained the rich legacy of poetry, fiction and opinionated journalism which are distinctively local and an example to the world. Well, I can actually: never.

Hasn't the selling of Northern Ireland to the world missed a great opportunity?

Well, it has if it is true that we have a literary treasure here that the tourists would marvel at. And I think we have.

If tourists want to know about writers here, they can be shown the little monument to CS Lewis on the Newtownards Road and that's about it.

There is also an app they can have on their smartphones to tell them about many of our writers, but is there a decent tour available; are there books to buy and visits to essential locations that are part of the story?

Well, the good news is that there is a lot going on, but you never see tourists at the big events.

One of the most energetic arts organisations here now is the John Hewitt Society, which not only runs the Summer School in Armagh and the Spring School in Carnlough, but other events throughout the year - including this week's reading by the amazing Caribbean poet Kei Miller in the Ulster Hall on Wednesday.

It's a lunchtime event in the middle of Belfast for only a fiver, built around one of the wittiest performing writers to come here, but who'll be there to see it?

Just the usual crowd of locals who enjoy these things. Will tourists even know that it's on?

If tourists are coming here with an understanding that there is a literary tradition, it will be because they have heard of Seamus Heaney and CS Lewis.

Is there anyone to tell them that the story is more interesting and diverse?

Would they know that, not far from the Titanic Quarter, a clique of science fiction writers, who met while working at Shorts in the 1960s, included major international prize winners like Bob Shaw and James White?

Would they know that the amazing generation of poets that produced Heaney and Michael Longley has regenerated itself over and over again, down to a busy cluster we have today? They probably wouldn't. Many wouldn't care. Who buys poetry? Well, maybe tourists would if it was sold to them as a local phenomenon.

Certainly, the local literary scene needs a boost.

Irish publishing, north and south is small.

It is an industry kept alive on love and promises. Writers make little money and publishing houses that are devoted to keeping Irish writing alive are struggling by on Arts Council grants and low profits. It is the kind of work that no one would do for the money.

Worse, Irish publishing is virtually ignored by the local broadcast media, though it depends on publicity to survive.

Maybe tourism is the answer. We could sell our books to people coming off the cruise ships and make some money, while reminding the visitor that Ireland's reputation as a land of strangely disproportionate literary output still applies.

If I was running such a tour myself, I would take tourists to readings by living writers and lectures about the dead ones.

I would show them Camden Street, where Judith Hearne drank herself stupid in Brian Moore's novel about her passion.

I would take them up the Whiterock, to where Michael McLaverty and Seamus Heaney taught in the same school.

I'd show them the old press bars like The Duke of York, where Bud Bossence wrote his columns over a pint, and into the lecture theatre at Queen's where Edna Longley for years ran readings by Sorley McLean, James Fenton, Wendy Cope and others. I would invite them to listen to the walls. I'd get them another pint in White's Tavern, where the sci-fi writers met. I'd take them on the cycle ride round Belfast that Ciaran Carson made in Belfast Confetti and show them Exchange Place, the centre of his latest novel. I would show them Beechmount and blag them into buying the book by Tim Brannigan about growing up there as a black child.

But would they come? There's no knowing - until somebody asks them.

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