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He is the largely forgotten Belfast writer who was name-checked by Joanna Lumley from the stage at last Sunday's Bafta awards... but who was Forrest Reid, and why does he matter?

Andrew Doyle, who scripted the Absolutely Fabulous star's closing speech, on how the late novelist's creative vision can be used to link 'high' and 'popular' art and why it's time his adoptive city learnt to cherish one of its most significant sons

Forrest Reid
Forrest Reid
Forrest Reid
Joanna Lumley at the Baftas

Last Sunday saw the 72nd annual British Academy Film Awards at the Royal Albert Hall in London, hosted by the eternally glamorous Joanna Lumley. I was privileged enough to be asked to write her closing speech and I decided to invoke the little-known Belfast novelist Forrest Reid in order to make a point about the role of the artist.

The anecdote was taken from Reid's first autobiography, Apostate (1926), in which he recalls visiting the Palm House in the Botanic Gardens as a small boy.

As Joanna Lumley recounted in front of the Bafta audience: "He went into the conservatory and looked out through the tinted glass, but through the vivid colours of the windowpane it wasn't a garden that he saw, but a tropical landscape of tigers and panthers burning in the shrubberies, and blue parrots screaming soundlessly in the trees.

"We all have our own perspective, our own unique way of interpreting the world, and the role of the artist is to invite you into their mind to allow a few precious glimpses of what they see through the tinted windows of their imagination.

"So, to all of you who are here tonight, thank you for sharing with us your visions and dreams."

It might seem an odd choice for a ceremony dedicated to the film industry, given that Reid's work has yet to be adapted for the big screen. But my intention was to find some way to connect the wide range of artists who were being rewarded for their efforts at this year's event.

There was the blockbuster superhero movie Black Panther, the comedy biopic Stan and Ollie, the hard-hitting biographical story BlacKkKlansman, the stop-motion animated comedy Isle of Dogs and the historical drama Mary, Queen of Scots, to name but a few.

Forrest Reid's view of the artist seemed to be an apt way to find common ground in such a diverse pool of talent. The films couldn't be more different, but I share Reid's view that the most effective art is that which allows us to see the world in a different way.

The writer Emile Zola once described art as "life seen through a temperament". Filmmakers, novelists, painters, poets, m usicians - all are striving to recreate their own particular worldview and share it with the rest of us.

Is it pretentious to describe superhero movies as art? Perhaps it is, but that doesn't mean that they don't spring from the same creative impulse. For every challenging and thought-provoking arthouse film I enjoy, I'll watch a trashy, bullet-ridden action flick.

I loved every single one of The Conjuring horror film series, even the utterly absurd gore-fest The Nun, but that doesn't mean I can't admit that a story about a psychotic demon in a habit terrorising the occupants of a Romanian convent isn't high art.

What I like about the Baftas is that cerebral and weighty work, like Alfonso Cuaron's Roma, or 2017's astonishing love story Call Me By Your Name, is rewarded on the same platform as Fantastic Beasts: The Crimes of Grindelwald and Mary Poppins Returns.

The key to the success of these films is that they are not pretentious. A great writer like James Ivory can produce a piece like Call Me By Your Name because he knows how to tackle a profoundly human story with a lightness of touch.

In addition, his script benefitted hugely from the directorial talents of Luca Guadagnino and a strong central performance from Timothee Chalamet. It evaded pretentiousness simply by being so good.

But Mary Poppins Returns deserves its accolades too, because the value of entertainment for its own sake should never be underestimated. Even someone like Forrest Reid, who despised sentimentality in literature from an artistic point of view, still couldn't resist the lure of saccharine stories.

One of his favourite films was They Shall Have Music, a charming, but undeniably sentimental film starring the young Gene Reynolds (who is soon to turn 96). It's a simple, but effective tale of a working-class lad who manages to join a musical school in spite of his economic hardship.

Along the way, he befriends a scruffy dog and gets to meet his hero, the violinist Jascha Heifetz. Reid saw the film in August 1940 as the first part of a double feature, but was so moved by Reynolds's performance that he walked out and missed the second film because he did not want to "destroy the impression".

The Baftas and the Oscars give the industry the chance to recognise the idea that both “high art” and “low art” have their value, without having to pretend that they are the same thing.

I find it tedious when trashy films take themselves too seriously. We saw this with the latest in the Jurassic Park franchise, Fallen Kingdom, whose stilted and portentous dialogue made it apparent that the writers had forgotten they were making a silly action film about genetically engineered dinosaurs.

I much preferred the critically slated The Predator, because although the plot line was full of holes, it knew how daft and dispensable it was. The action sequences were fun, and I was never bored. There’s a lot to be said for that.

This distinction between high and low art was almost acknowledged this year when the Oscars committee considered adding a new category: Outstanding Achievement in Popular Film. Many suspected that this was a way to reward Black Panther; although the film has been nominated for Best Picture, it seems unlikely that a comic-book fantasy will be awarded with the most-coveted Oscar.

An award for Popular Film strikes me as a sensible idea; it is a way for exciting and technically accomplished films like Black Panther to get the recognition they deserve, without having to pretend that they’re serious works of art.

In an article in the Guardian this week, Hadley Freeman expressed her dismay that critics routinely perceive comedies and action movies to be “somehow less ‘excellent’, or artistic, or good, than self-conscious dramas full of Serious Actors doing their Serious Acting”. But this misses the point.

Action movies can, of course, be excellent, but on their own terms. It’s useless to pretend that Aliens, one of the finest action films of all time, it on a par artistically with Michael Haneke’s The White Ribbon, or Mike Nichols’s Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?

Which brings me back to Forrest Reid. He did not seek to please the general public in his writing and couldn’t have succeeded if he tried. But his form of artistry deserves much wider recognition, even if his work will never be commercially viable.

He is one of the great overlooked prose stylists of the 20th century. For those who are interested in exploring his work, I would recommend his autobiography, Apostate, as a good place to start, a powerful account of growing up in Belfast in the late-1800s.

Those more interested in his novels should try Young Tom, which won the James Tait Black Memorial Prize for Fiction in 1944.

To my mind, Reid is Northern Ireland’s finest novelist. It’s a view that was shared by the likes of John Hewitt, E M Forster and the Nobel Prize-winning writer Francois Mauriac. But, in spite of his achievements, Reid remains relatively unknown.

His final home, in Ormiston Crescent, bears a blue plaque, but there is no such commemoration at 20 Mount Charles, the house of his birth.

I have visited his grave in Dundonald Cemetery a number of times, but I’m probably the only person to have done so for many years.

Perhaps, in time, Belfast will learn to cherish one of its most important sons.

Andrew Doyle works as a writer and stand-up comedian

Why is Forrest Reid so unknown?

There are a number of reasons why a novelist can fall out of fashion, but in the case of Forrest Reid, the story is rather more interesting. Here are the main reasons why you may not have heard of him before.

 

Arrested development

Reid felt strongly that youth was a period of innocence and perfection, and the transition into adulthood a form of corruption.

When he turned 16, he attempted to take his own life, rather than face the experience of growing up.

Aside from a few sexual experiences in his teens, he remained celibate for the rest of his life.

This is why he repeatedly idealised youth in his novels and depicted sexuality as a grotesque and evil force. For many readers, this kind of puritanical mindset can be quite off-putting.

 

Homosexuality

As a child, Reid saw Oscar Wilde in the flesh, when the great writer paid a visit to Belfast.

After Wilde’s trial for gross indecency in 1895, there were few gay writers who would risk broaching the subject.

Reid seemed oblivious to such pressures, and wrote a fictionalised homoerotic account of his sexual experiences at school in his second novel, The Garden God, a book which so scandalised Henry James that he cut off all forms of communication. Even Reid’s autobiography, Apostate, makes it clear that he fell in love with another male apprentice during his time at Musgrave’s tea and sugar merchants.

There is little doubt that this quality in his writing was likely to limit his widespread appeal, especially given the homophobic backdrop of the time.

 

Accusations of paedophilia 

In Brian Taylor’s 1980 biography of Reid, he made the false assertion that Reid had a sexual interest in small boys. Even though there isn’t a shred of evidence for this, many academics have made the mistake of accepting Taylor’s claim uncritically and repeating it ever since.

The truth is that Reid despised sex of all kinds, but he reserved his most fierce condemnation for those who abused children.

Critics who claim otherwise are either unfamiliar with the documented evidence, or are simply advancing their own agenda.

In either case, such accusations are not to be taken seriously.

Lack of ambition

Reid was an artist, first and foremost. He was not interested in pleasing the public, or moving in the kind of fashionable literary circles that would benefit his career.

As E M Forster recalled, he “belonged to no clique and did not know how to pull wires, or to advertise himself”.

Without this inclination to network, Reid was closing himself off from further success.

 

A singular artistic vision

In spite of the elegance of his prose and the accolades he received in his lifetime, Reid’s work tended to alienate most readers.

He repeatedly wrote stories about boys who shared his own peculiar paganistic outlook — idealised versions of his younger self — and almost always set his stories in Northern Ireland.

Although a contemporary of the Irish Literary Revival, Reid’s work stands apart. His disregard for nationalism, and politics, frustrates attempts to classify his novels.

Rooted in the landscape of Ulster, his stories are nevertheless underpinned by ideals closer to Hellenism than to any observable Celtic tradition.

Such stories were hardly ever likely to fly off the shelves.

Belfast Telegraph

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