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Lessons in literature have the write stuff

Book lovers travel from all over for the John Hewitt Summer School, discovers Malachi O'Doherty

It didn't seem likely a few years ago that a lot of people would want to spend their summer holidays at school.

But they do, and the proof of that is the success of the summer schools dedicated mostly to Irish writers, such as Brian Merriman, Patrick MacGill and John Hewitt, running this week in Armagh.

Some in the audience were there for free, on bursaries provided by local councils.

Some were regulars who have been coming for decades and would not swap the Market Place Theatre in Armagh in July for a beach in Benidorm at any price.

They packed the lecture theatre to hear Jo Baker read from a novel based on the life of Samuel Beckett, one of the most difficult of writers in two languages.

Jo looks like a wee girl and talks like a sage. And she actually brings an occasional sing-song lilt to her readings, so who wouldn't love to be in her presence for an hour?

Or Leontia Flynn confessing that all she ever wanted to be for years was clever, then poetry found her out. She said, emotionally, that she was going to risk being sincere and saying that reality and values do matter, but that her education in poetry never entertained such ideas. That was in a lecture about the digital age and how it devalues text.

People in summer schools like that kind of candour. They like readers who pause to explain what they mean after using a word such as 'deconstruct'. They are thrilled when the same speaker uses words such as 'smart-arse'. Human failing is an unabashed part of it.

This year, the joke was that some of the projected names were misspelt. Jo Baker was Barker. Leontia Flynn was Leonita, but all of this seemed forgiveable in an atmosphere in which volunteers were still frantically putting it all together.

The genius of the Hewitt over the years has been to include people and to give them some heavyweight content, without ever making them feel small for not taking it all in.

People travel from all over Ireland to Armagh to be at the John Hewitt Summer School.

There is now also an Armagh Project based in the US, which brings over a dozen students to the summer school every year. They are part of the growth of actual teaching at the Hewitt.

Several writers now come for the week to teach memoir writing (Maureen Boyle), the short story (Carlo Gebler), and writing for stage and screen (Kimberley Lynne).

So, there is organised instruction as part of it, some of it sponsored by the Open University.

The whole thing is a celebration of reading and an opportunity for readers to meet writers at the lavish No Alibis bookstall. But you do not actually have to sign up for it all.

Nobody in their right mind goes to everything. The evening events at the Market Place include a poetry reading by Paul Durcan on Friday, now moved into the main theatre with demand for tickets so high.

Which is a relief. The last time he read in the theatre he asked for the fans to be turned off, and the place was like a sauna.

There are still tickets for Sam McCready and Kyle Riley doing Percy French on Friday.

But do not be surprised if a couple of pensioners are behind you discussing the digital age, or a couple of Americans in the bar are trying to get their heads round Beckett and their chops round a pint of Guinness.

It's July. It's Armagh. It's like this every year.

Belfast Telegraph


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