Making Something of It


By Alan Cunningham.

When I read The Green Fool by Patrick Kavanagh, I read a book that – had I also been born in 1904 – I think I, too, could have written, exactly as it is; a book, however, that if I were to write it now would be a somewhat different book, being much more concise.

I believe in the possibility of exact replication because many of the thoughts expressed by Kavanagh in his autobiographical work – a very good book, by the way, but also a very flawed one – reflect attitudes and modes of behaviour that have changed little in Ireland in the intervening years, irrespective of external changes. I, and others, are evidence of this, as are events that have happened to me in that country.

I believe in the need for serious editing in order for it to be written again for two reasons. First, because certain sentences and paragraphs in the book stand out from the rest with a freshness, truth and clarity that diminish the rest, that cow them into irrelevance. And secondly because those sentences and paragraphs stand out precisely because they resonate with certain things that have happened to me and that are still happening.

It is those parts of the text, I think, that would form the substance for the writing of that book now, of such a rewritten book, A New Green Fool.

You will find parts of it written here.

They will come to form a much longer book, still, as yet, unwritten.

“Being made a fool of is good for the soul. It produces a sensitivity of one kind or another; it makes a man into something unusual, a saint or a poet or an imbecile.”
The Green Fool, P. Kavanagh.

For most of 2013 relations between my girlfriend and I were very strained. In August of that year, however, I was to go to Berlin for two months. I had received a grant from the Arts Council of Northern Ireland to edit a book I had been working on for about 18 months, a book about desire. I was glad that we could be apart for a time. No doubt my girlfriend was too.

While in Berlin I experienced an immediate relief from the strain I had been under, but I was unsure if the release from the strain was the result of now being alone or if it was the result of other things. There were a number of other things that could have been causing pressure: an unhappiness I had experienced in my job, which had ended just before my departure from London; a general unease in the city of London itself, related, as such things always are for me, to an unease with my body; and, most important of all, when I recall it now, an overriding obsession with writing, with writing the book that I had left London to edit in Berlin, a book about desire, about the light that draws us, about the pleasure of desire and the madness – the separation from life – that can often inspire it.

I believe now the writing of that book drove me a little mad.

In Berlin, I was given free rein to indulge myself in the texture of the book. I had money. I had time. I was vindicated in doing so, a resident artist funded by the Government. I spent most of my time in the midst of the words I had written, shifting them, feeling them, giving them texture, weight and value. They came to have as much material substance as the back of my girlfriend. Such activity necessarily separates one from the world. I am still unsure as to the value of this.

Foolishly convinced of some element of genius in what I was doing – and desirous of it, also, desire being the main focus of my life then – revelled in my solitude.

Sometimes it is up to a person alone to make a fool of his or her self.

When my girlfriend arrived in Berlin in late September we had hardly spoken over the duration of my residency. My reception of her was lukewarm; she looked fearful. I was still attracted to her. I still loved her. But the subject of my book – the world I was creating with my words – had overtaken my life, my view of things.

The relationship ended three days later.

“I often used to regret not having been born among the mountains or by the sea. Then I might have been brave enough to drink to excess the wild wine of fantasy. And I thought, too, that it would be a fine thing to be reared in a workhouse – fatherless, motherless, and so free from the net of love.”
The Green Fool, P. Kavanagh.

Having lived together with my girlfriend in London, I was now free to locate myself anywhere. But the attractions of Berlin – attractions I was well familiar with having lived in the city previously – turned stale after I had completed the first draft of my book and sent it to the publisher of my first book. And the possible attractions of other cities and places also felt stale. I decided to remain in Berlin for the time being and consider my possible options.

After a few weeks of waiting and distraction in Berlin, I was compelled to consider money – and work – once again. I had some money, but how long would it last? Especially if I was to continue writing. This is what I believed I wanted to do. I had convinced myself that it was the experience of being able to devote my time entirely to writing that had made me feel free again.

But there is no work to be done in Berlin: not the kind I wanted, at any rate.

December was fast approaching and with it the occasion of my regular trip back to Ireland for Christmas. I had also been invited to read from my first book at the Galway Arts Centre in mid December. My search for jobs was not going well. I had been invited to meet with the CEO of a tech startup in London after a Skype interview in Berlin. I had thought, perhaps, a change of jobs might be good for me; perhaps, after all, it had not been London that had been irritating me, perhaps it had been only the relationship, perhaps it had been the previous job. After booking my train tickets back, however, after arriving in Brussels to change trains to continue on to London I check my mail on my smartphone and find that I have received the following:

Hi Alan,
I hope you are having a great week,
I am afraid there has been a sudden change of plans. We have cancelled all remaining interviews this week. The position is now filled. Sorry for the abrupt change of plans.

I stay in London for a week, my confidence shattered. The nearness of Christmas and the promise of the reading in Galway convince me to go back to Ireland – ostensibly for Christmas – much earlier than I would have done.

But then I find on booking my ticket that I do not want to go anywhere else.

When I arrive at the house of my parents, my first instinct – even though it is 10 o’clock at night – is to go out and climb the mountains that surround the city.

“My mother was a simple peasant woman, twenty years younger than father. She was without any schooling but was very shrewd, a good judge of men and animals and the best measurer of unknown quantities I have ever known. From my father I have inherited the spirit, from my mother the material garment of wisdom.”
The Green Fool, P. Kavanagh.

I told my mother of my predicament; from her, no doubt, my father heard it. Conversations with my father are often only practical but not absent love: questions as to plans, expressions of interest in the weather, queries as to the desire for tea or a scone. My father had worked abroad for most of my life in Ireland and though his love and care are obvious we have little real understanding of each other. Or perhaps he understands me better than I think.

Nothing much was said about my troubles but I received the usual platitudes:

“you’ve got to do what is right for you.”

“as long as you’re happy.”

More important to me was what was unsaid. My mother resumed actions I remembered from my youth: cooking meals for me though I asked her not to, repairing items of clothing she had examined and found wanting.

They knew I was also now out of work but it didn’t seem to bother them too much.

“Stay as long as you need.”

During the days, with nothing much to do but write, read and apply for jobs, I started walking. During my walks I noticed that I had in fact stopped writing. For me the act of writing often begins with a walk. It is during the walk that, in conjunction with the particular rhythm I have selected, a phrase will occur or a word to spark a phrase. In Ireland, no words were coming. Sometimes I would get the hint of one on my walks, but I never pursued it and it always disappeared. With such disappearance I experienced relief. I was walking, not writing.

I read Kavanagh; I read How Literature Saved My Life by David Shields. I spent most of my time in the house upstairs, reading. I think my parents thought I was writing – “you can’t be always writing, come down from up there” – but I was doing little of that.

Christmas and New Years Eve came and went without much incident.

“In the country places of Ireland writing is held in certain awe: a writer was a dangerous man from whom they instinctively recoiled.”
The Green Fool, P. Kavanagh.

The first major social engagement of the New Year – my first major social engagement in a few weeks – was a funeral in Wexford. The sister of the wife of my uncle had died. It was also an opportunity to see my grandmother again. I had not seen her in a long time.

She is quite old now and still lives by herself on a farm. The environment is probably not wholly dissimilar from that which Kavanagh experienced as a farmer. She has no central heating; there is no hot water, only water from a well. She is 89. As we sat by the fire in her living room, somehow talk turned to my book. This was inevitable: it was something I had done, something we could talk about. The publication of it had been an event in my life.

“You have a copy of it, here, don’t you? Have you read it?” my mother said to my grandmother.

I smiled, almost saying that I didn’t expect it to be read, knowing that it probably hadn’t been, or didn’t need to be. I felt embarrassed because I knew my grandmother would be polite in her response in any event.

“I have it”, she said, probably feeling sorry for me, as was right, before adding: “it’s a bit a-head a’ me.”

And all I could think was: nothing doing.

In the car journey back to my aunt’s house near Ballymurn, where we are staying while in Wexford, talk turns to the prevalence of male baldness in the family of my mother.

“You’re lucky” my aunt says, reflecting on my full head of hair: “you missed out on that gene.”

“Aye, I shook it well,” my father says, causing me to laugh.

We all laugh, then, but while laughing with some other memory my mother feels obliged to warn my father:

“Damian! Don’t say that. He’ll have it in his book.”

“I’m not against you writing if I could see you making something of it.”
The Green Fool, P. Kavanagh

My mother often tells me: “you need something other than the writin’.” She respects what I have done but it frightens her, I think. Perhaps for her literature has no real value but there is a residual respect, inherited from her ancestors, of those who practise the act of writing. After my first book was published she read it and I asked her what she thought.

“It’s deep,” she said, adding that she liked it.

It is the critique I respect most.

Shields writes that the value of literature – of a certain type of literature – is that it is a reflection of real thought, of the uncertainty of thought, the tumult of real thought. I agree with this but I also think: it is only a reflection. And it is only thought. And I often think, while reading Shields, about the act of writing itself, not only about the value of the finished thing. The sometimes necessary exclusion from life, the sometimes necessary distance. The solitude.

There is something in the style of The Green Fool that reminds me of how Shields writes in How Literature Saved My Life. There is much in the latter book that is relevant to quote here, but I do not have my copy to quote from. I could have fitted it in my bag when I left Ireland but I didn’t want to take it to London. I wanted to leave it where it was. I am in London now, writing this. I have offered all of myself back to my girlfriend and I am waiting, waiting. I don’t have much heart for reading and writing these days. I realise this is a confusing thing to write, but, then, the writing of this is not really a matter of choice.

“The start of the war coincided more or less with the passing of the journeymen shoemakers. Their visits were now divided by long intervals. The pulse of their world was beating irregularly, to beat for the last time when one of their brotherhood, Jem Fagan, walked out our door.

His last visit was pathetic. The old fire was gone out of his soul and his big eyes were dim. Father gave him a few shillings and mother offered him a meal. He talked very little, he who once could keep talk with a congregation. He used to tell stories in which he would lose himself. One time, with breakfast before him, he began a tale and completely forgot to eat. I looked at Jem as one looks at something that might belong to another world and time.

He sat for a short while on the bench where he once worked. He loosed out his cobbler’s kit and spread the tools beside him. He was having dreams. He rose and went out. Mother saw him out and I followed. ‘Where are ye headin’ for?’ mother asked. I didn’t catch his reply. It was something touched with affected bravery. When we looked at the bench where he sat we found that he had left behind him, a remembrance of the good days of the journeymen shoemakers, his cobbler’s hammer and a crooked awl.”
The Green Fool, P. Kavanagh.

While I was in Ireland and walking the mountains around Newry I often thought about a book I had written many years ago, a book finished but unpublished, a book about a man who returns to an island – probably Ireland – and goes on a journey with a boy. During their time together, the boy hears tales told by the man as he meets with people on the way, tales of his time away, tales within tales within tales.

He hears of how the man learned the craft of copying while he was away from the island – this book was set in the past. He hears how he learned it but he felt there to be a lack of life in the act. During their time together, an old friend of the man tells him of an obsession he has with a book: with the very material fact of it as much as the content. He asks the man to go and to copy it, surreptitiously – to steal it, in other words – or to free it – from those who had possession of it. And, though reluctant, the man does so and the boy accompanies him. The man is unable to return it after copying it, however: the act had disturbed him once again.

The man decides to leave the island. Before leaving he hands the copied book to the boy and asks him to take it to the friend who requested it. The boy, however – a carer of animals, unable to read, ignorant of the contents, uncaring of them – thinks it only too heavy and a burden as he makes his journey home.

He lifts it up and throws it into a bog.

“The gambling craze was in my blood, too.”
The Green Fool, P. Kavanagh.

I have gambled on many things over the course of these few last months. Part of why I stayed on in Berlin after the end of my residency and the break up with my girlfriend was because I was waiting on news of another grant. I thought: “if I get it I can stay on in Berlin, I can keep writing.” I knew my chances were very poor: almost nonexistent. I knew that I should makes alternate plans. I didn’t. I suppose 35 is as good an age as any for one to start to take risks. I was still in the grip of some madness. I waited, and I did not get it. It was the correct decision.

I gambled with the book I finished writing in Berlin, thinking as I was writing it that it was worth the tumult it was causing in my life outside those words, that it was worth that uncertainty. I do not know. The future of that book is unsure, but perhaps that is appropriate. It reflects the chaos of uncertain minds.

I have inherited the thirst for risk.

And I am still gambling now, writing this.

“Spring came round again with its magic and its innocence. And still I was one of the people. The land, when once it gets a grip on a man, will not easily let him go. The land is jealous of literature, and, in its final effort to hold a poet offers him, like a despairing lover, everything, everything.”
The Green Fool, P. Kavanagh.

And literature is jealous of the land and of life.

During my walks in Ireland I thought often only of my girlfriend. The solitude of the back lanes and the mountains were contrasted with my memory of my life with her: they were contrasted with my life.

My book is written, and it is impossible for me to read it again, now having written it. It is of little use to me.

She is alive.

I cannot write of the value of that.

I cannot write of her value, thank God.

And yet this helps me now: the writing of this.

Alan Cunningham is the author of Count from Zero to One Hundred (Penned in the Margins 2013). He was born in Newry and has previously lived in Belfast, Dublin, London and Berlin. He has taught on issues relating to appropriation and art at the Node Centre for Curatorial Studies, Berlin, and on Intellectual Property issues at Queen Mary, University of London.