Sadly I couldn't get there myself but I despatched an envoy to Sebastian Barry's event at Topping's Bookshop in Bath, and my thanks to Carol who has sent in her report of what sounds like a truly memorable event...
So, there I was in a good seat with a small notebook, and trying to look as unlike a blog spy as I could (think I got away with it!). In came a tall, handsome (more handsome than the pictures) man who immediately engaged with the audience by telling us he was going to sing!
Sebastian Barry introduced On Canaan's Side and set it in the context of his other stories, saying he felt like the co-author or editor, as this was Lilly's history and he was just re-telling it. Incidentally, he always spoke of his characters as if they were real people, more than any other author I've heard - at the end he was recounting the day the Queen came to Dublin and said he knew that Lilly's house was just along the way in the precincts of Dublin Castle, but the Queen of course didn't know that!
He described Lilly and Tadg when they were first together and that time when we are just realising we may have met our life's partner, and we keep on darting little glances at them, wanting to see them, and half hoping to have the glance returned, but half hoping not to be seen. He then began to read the passage when Lilly describes the visit to the gallery in Chicago (will say no more for fear of spoilers).
Well, that was when the whole room came alight. Sebastian did indeed sing - a snatch of the the folk song from the book, in a real singer's voice, and then launched into Lilly's persona, voice, stance - it was much more than just a reading and as I felt a broad grin creep across my face at the sheer exuberance of it, I glanced to each side of me and many others were grinning too.He went on through this dramatic episode, raising the tension, raising, raising, until his voice dropped at the end of the passage, for reasons those of you who have read it will remember. He was visibly moved, wiping his brow before turning to the audience as himself again.
It's not many authors who gain ringing applause at the end of each section of their reading, but I think we were so affected by the drama it seemed the only thing to do. Immediately there was a question about the tradition of the shanachie or storyteller in Ireland. He said his mother had been an actor and he had learned about words from sitting in rehearsal rooms as a child.
Sebastian Barry then spoke about the theme of violence in history, quoting Desmond Tutu as saying there was nothing a man could do that he wouldn't have done in other circumstances. Then describing a relation of his a couple of generations back who had fled to America after being given a death sentence related to the murder of Michael Collins. This had been hushed up in the family and other family members had a quite different explanation (which they believed) for him emigrating.
He clearly has an interesting history himself, with forebears on both sides of the divide and he spoke a lot about the theme of forgiveness. In a 'grown up' country there is a hunger to delve back into the secrets as it is only by knowing about the roots that you get rid of the lingering fear.
After reading two more passages and singing a little more we had to be dragged back to reality by the clock. This was a truly bravura performance by a very warm, engaging, funny and emotional man and made me realise, not for the first time, how very lucky we are in Bath to have Topping's and their commitment to bringing the very best authors to speak.
Team Tolstoy A year-long shared read of War & Peace through the centenary year of Count Lyev Nikolayevich Tolstoy's death, starting on his birthday, September 9th 2010.
Everyone is welcome to board the troika and read along, meeting here on the 9th of every month to chat in comments about the book.
Team Tolstoy Bookmark Don't know your Bolkonskys from your Rostovs?
An aide memoire that can be niftily printed and laminated into a double-sided bookmark.
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