Professor Gerald Dawe
Read Gerry's full Writers' Rooms interview here...
Where are we?
In Dun Laoghaire, County Dublin. In a turn of the last century terrace house, with a wee back garden with a workstation currently our daughter’s office as we are cocooning. (Although I’ve been cocooning for many a year when the chance beckoned!). The house is part of the old ‘Kingstown’ housing stock. When we arrived here first there were still artisan cottages in which carpenters, electricians lived –who had serviced the extensive grand homes in the crescents and terraces up above us. The social history of the area is fascinating but now it’s mostly buried in the redbrick renovations. Cyril Cusack lived on the terrace next to ours and Wilfred Bramble (of Steptoe & Sons fame). The family of Beckett’s pal, poet Brian Coffey lived a little up the road. There was an Edwardian grocery across the street from us which was straight out of Joyce’s Dubliners. It’s apartments and a solicitor’s office now. It all reminds me of the north Belfast I grew up in in the fifties. Dublin Bay is a short walk away and the Martello Tower which opens Ulysses. There’s also the wonder of the harbour and lots of other literary references. But our family home is just that.
What are you working on?
I’m clearing the decks! I had several ‘projects’ languishing on the back of the back burner and now I’ve been sorting them out at long last. Prose books in the main, the legacy of publishing material that scattered to the four winds and disappeared. I’m trying to bring it all together into some kind of coherence. I’m also writing a few new poems but it takes me ages to find my way into that ‘space’ – cocooning or no cocooning - especially after having published a new collection (The Last Peacock) late last year. Thom Gunn remarked that he tried to hold back some poems when he published a new collection so that there wasn’t this kind of hiatus and you had something in the bank to work on. Not a bad idea.
What’s that over there?
That’s the Clock Tower of the Town Hall preceded by the steeple of St Michael’s Church. If you follow the flow you can imagine yourself in County Down before you know. The east coast of Ireland is really just a hop-step-and-jump between Dublin and Belfast, with the wonderful fishing villages and market towns vying with the bigger industrial city areas between the mountains and the sea. Hard to believe that it has all caused so much strife in our lives.
What’s that sound?
The sound of my dog Dash (real name: Kyoshi Dasheen) likely barking at a leaf falling. He (a ten-year-old Shiba) is very proprietorial and keeps us all in check when he is not in chilling-out mode himself.
How does isolation help or hinder you?
Writers really live for large parts of their lives in their heads. Certainly, I have, much to the chagrin of those close to me. But isolation can be dispiriting for the young, and for those who are lonely and alone. I’m beginning to get a bit edgy or tetchy now that the weeks are turning into months and by the looks of things more months ahead. One of the joys of my life is having a pint in the Errigle with friends when we’re back home in Belfast; a joy deferred. And we usually spend a good bit of time in the west but that has been forbidden, so there is a hindering at play, no mistake. But it’s all for the good: for those who are of a certain age, for those who have health challenges irrespective of age Really it’s just common cop-on but not really sacrifices. I’d say if one had a young family in an apartment with two or three children of differing ages, then it certainly would be a real challenge.
Time for a break…?
I walk the dog in the morning and last thing at night. Like a religious rite. He sniffs and checks out the trees and laneways. I ruminate and ponder what’s next. I’ve stopped, as best I can, watching the news. It’s too depressing to listen and watch the tragedy unfolding in Trump’s America and the suspicion that Johnson’s faction of the Tory party will take England into a very grubby and divided place. So, I try and NOT think about all this and reach instead for a decent Italian white and pretend I’m somewhere else.
What are you reading/watching/listening to these days?
I have just read Phillipe Sands East-West Street and Hilary Mantel’s absolutely riveting memoir, Give Up the Ghost. She has to be one of the most exceptional writers alive today. And Colette Bryce’s The M Papers - a wonderful poetry collection, moving and elegiac but also inspirational.
What might you revisit in times of crisis or uncertainty?
I’ve been listening to Bob Dylan’s RADIO compilations a lot (Kay Starr ‘Wheel of Fortune’, Patsy Cline ‘Walking after Midnight’: pure poetry) and R&B as well as jazz favorites and spending hours sourcing live performances on YouTube such as the incomparable Sarah Vaughan’s performance of ‘Misty’ (Sweden, 1964). We watched again Gary Oldman’s splendid performance as George Smiley. But I’m still waiting on a response from my suggestion of an evening of Ingmar Bergman!
Best advice for writers?
Just keep at it. And don’t worry a jot about anything other than what you think matters. Read. Read. Read. And not just what’s happening now but back in time. As far back as you like - writing is time-travel.
TO RICHARD FORD BEYOND IN AMERICA
‘Social criticism begins with grammar and the re-establishment of meanings’.
Nadine Gordimer (after Octavio Paz)
Are you in Maine or Montana
At your desk or hunting the wildlife,
Who’s to know but safe to say,
In my little eyrie at the top of the house
I have the radio as company
And what comes on but the President’s
Oohing and aahing as the sleaze laps
Around his unsteady steps.
When I started out as a kid in Belfast
I slept at the top of a house like this
Under sloping roofs, the water tank
That gurgled and froze in winter time,
With icy windows and blocked-up chimneys,
Of industrial mornings in such semi-dark
It was hard sometimes to tell the difference
Between a.m. and p.m. but there I was,
Nestled under the roof, the light bulb
Casting its spell and night after night
I read Moby Dick or The Great Gatsby,
Native Son, Carson McCullers, James Baldwin,
Until the spring arrived in
And I’d read just about every American
Poet or novelist that came my way…
Fifty years later, listening ain’t easy,
To think what has happened
To the words of that great republic
Which kept me awake at night
Dreaming about the new territory.
from Gerald Dawe, The Last Peacock (2019).