“The hardest thing of all is to see what is really there” (J A Baker)
I clatter down the stairs of the Tower Extension at the University of Dundee, heart pounding inside my chest, hoping that my voice will come back to me and my nerves will disappear like the rolling haar on the Tay on this fine October morning, as I prepare to meet the eminent Irish essayist, Chris Arthur. At first it is hard to spot him in the bustling melee of students exiting one lecture to head for the next, and I have to weave my way through hordes of bodies who all seem ten-feet-tall before I can catch a glimpse of him. I see Arthur, he has just hopped off his bicycle, chained it to the lamp post outside, removed his rucksack and is waiting patiently for the MLitt student he is meeting at 1.30pm. Only he isn’t simply waiting patiently; he is reading the contents of the glass trophy cabinet by the reception desk, no doubt focusing on some ordinary object, which might become the subject of his next creative meandering. A catalyst for his next meditative essay. I smile as I walk towards him, separating myself from the crowd and he reciprocates, introducing himself as we shake hands. His soft Ulster accent has an instant calming effect and as we walk back through the labyrinth of corridors, he tells me that though he has not worked at the University of Dundee, he has enjoyed a professional association with it for some time and always enjoys coming back.
Chris Arthur was born in Belfast and lived for many years in County Antrim. He has been employed at various times, as a schoolteacher, TV researcher, university lecturer and nature-reserve warden before becoming a full-time writer. He was a Royal Literary Fund Fellow there from 2014-2016, and at Queen Margaret University in Edinburgh from 2016-17. He has taught a range of creative writing classes, including at the Arvon Foundation; his essays have appeared in many of the leading North American Literary Journals, and he has been included in the Best American Essays series. He is frequently included in the annual ‘Notable Essay’ lists, compiled by series editor, Robert Atwan, and has also received numerous awards in the field of essay writing.
The fog on the Tay has lifted and we enjoy a panoramic view of the city, the river and its bridges as we settle down in the Tower staff room to discuss Chris’ life and work, including his latest collection of essays, Reading Life, with the drilling of workmen outside, providing a steady backing track.
Reading Life is Chris’ sixth collection of essays and his seventh, Hummingbirds Between the Pages, will be published in the summer of 2018. Chris laments how relatively unknown the essay form is in the UK. His work has been published in America, South America and Canada and reviewed in Japan, Africa and some Scandinavian countries, yet only a few pieces have been published in the UK as the essay form is still relatively little understood here. In defining what the essay is, Chris refers to the quote by Richard Chadbourne in the ‘Aftermath’ in Reading Life:
The essay is a brief, highly polished piece of prose that is often poetic, often marked by an artful disorder in its composition, and that is both fragmentary and complete in itself, capable both of standing on its own and of forming a kind of ‘higher organism’ when assembled with other essays by its author.
For Chris, what appeals to him about the essay is its freedom, flexibility, resistance to a tight definition and its ambulatory form; he explains, “In a sense you can do anything you want – it’s a very accommodating prose form which gives the writer leeway to go in all sorts of surprising directions and that is why I like it because I don’t feel constrained. I think a mark of an essay that hasn’t really worked is an essay where you can predict every step that it’s going to take; you start with something frequently entirely ordinary but where you end up is nowhere you would have expected to when you started to paragraph one.”
This kind of ‘artful disorder’ is the magnet of the essay form for Chris and he identifies his skill as being ‘alert to connections’ and seeing why and how, often-surprising things connect one with another. In Reading Life each of the lyrical, philosophical prose meditations starts from some ordinary object or event, but soon leads readers far beyond it. He remarks on Robert Atwan saying, of Reading Life, that “essays are a sign of a divided attention”. Chris reflects that perhaps he has a ‘divided attention’, his mind frequently leaping from one thing to another but the ‘artful’ bit brings these together, a process that is “both interesting and difficult because that is where the composition and the actual writing come in.”
Inspired by fellow countrymen Seamus Heaney and Flann O’Brien, Chris initially wrote poetry and fiction until in 1989; while a student of Philosophy and Religion at the University of Edinburgh, he was browsing in a bookshop when he ‘stumbled’ across a copy of The Best American Essays volume of that year. He recalls that, “To this day I don’t know why I bought it … but I liked what Atwan said in the opening pages, about the gathered essays being close to the pulse of human experience.”
That volume opened his eyes to what a whole range of writers could do with short lengths of prose. He then started to write essays and had what he termed ‘beginner’s luck’ in that the first serious essay that he wrote was accepted for publication by the first journal he offered it to, The American Scholar. The essay received a “great deal of very positive reader response” including an approach from a New York literary agent asking if Chris had a collection.
The essay was ‘Ferrule’ and it was the beginning of his extraordinary collection of essays based around the common themes of his Ulster upbringing, his studies of philosophy and religions in the East (in particular, Zen Buddhism), his interests in nature and memory and the overwhelming influence of family. Anyone, however, reading ‘Ferrule’ would disagree with Chris when he claims to have had ‘beginner’s luck’ and the sheer mastery of his language and depth of connections, begin to weave a ‘meditative spell’ on the reader’s mind and senses, drawing you into the creative meandering after starting off on the subject of his father’s walking stick.
And in the aftermath of decades of violence in Ulster, I realized that the scratch and taps of ferrules had become almost deafening. But their sound held none of the easy innocence of utility that had issued from the one, which had capped my father’s walking stick. These metaphorical ferrules served a darker, masking function, a shoring up of old hatreds, a keeping together of sectarian splinters that, without them, might have gradually worked themselves free and simply disappeared – as today they show some signs of doing.
‘Ferrule’, Irish Nocturnes, (1999)
Although a teenager during the Troubles in Northern Ireland, Chris had the security of a loving family through which he was able to have a balanced view of things and to see the positive aspects of his Ulster upbringing, possibly even more so after he had left to settle in Scotland. His earlier collection of Irish Essays – Irish Nocturnes (1999), Irish Willow (2002), Irish Haiku (2005) and later works, Irish Elegies (2009), Words of the Grey Wind (2009) and On the Shoreline of Knowledge (2012) demonstrate the intensity of his links to his Northern Ireland and the beauty of his prose, though the simplicity of Zen and the Haiku form are also present, particularly in the first four essays:
A blackbird’s solitary singing should not create any expectations of what comes next, what went before. Like a clear bell in a meditation hall it just punctuates the silence, focusing the mind on what passes before it now, this moment that will never come again.
Foreword ‘Beginning by Blackbird’, Irish Haiku (2005)
The influence of Haiku is obvious in much of Chris’ work; he quotes the great Japanese poet, Matsuo Basho, “Let not a hair’s breadth separate your mind from what you write,” as his inspiration for trying to close the gap between what is in his mind and what is on the page.
We move on to discuss Reading Life and other influential figures and factors in his work. The book’s epigraph, taken from Alberto Manguel’s A History of Reading, emphasizes its main theme:
We all read ourselves and the world around us in order to glimpse what and where we are. We read to understand, or to begin to understand. We cannot do but read. Reading, almost as much as breathing, is our essential function.
Common to all the essays is a search for the meanings that lie behind and beyond the superficial readings of ordinary discourse.
In ‘Coincidences, Graces and Gifts (Reading Seamus Heaney)’ Chris estimates that he first encountered Heaney’s work somewhere between 1969 and 1971, “precisely the point at which Ulster’s violence was clicking into gear.” In this essay, he states that
“His work provided a source of antidote to the social venom of the times”.
Speaking of Heaney, Chris says, “I’m a great fan of his work. I think it’s unfortunate that because of his huge reputation as a poet, people sometimes overlook the fact that he’s an extremely gifted prose writer. Some of Heaney’s essays, I’m thinking now of the pieces that are collected in a volume called Preoccupations, are fantastic, you know, they are really fine pieces of writing”.
The other two great influences in Chris’ work are those of family and nature, and birds in particular. Birds are recurring themes, partly because of the influence of his biology teacher and later, great friend, the ornithologist, Arnold Benington, and partly because of his work as warden at the nature reserve at Lough Neagh.
In ‘Footnotes (Reading my daughter’s feet)’, Chris takes as his starting point the simple affectionate action of stroking his daughter’s feet as she sits on his knee, which leads to meandering thoughts and connections from a human foot, to walking to evolutionary history:
I was concerned in that piece to try and give some hint of… [the magnitude of those journeys] but it was also, I mean, a very personal piece in terms of my concerns as a parent and thinking about what is going to happen to this small foot in my hand, where it’s going to walk to, who’s going to walk beside it, what sort of life is going to be developing and I think I was giving voice in that particular piece to something that I’m sure almost every parent feels.
Reading Life is organized by the themes of reading as metaphor and reading in the literal sense alternating between essays, with the exception being ‘Containing Agostino – Reading a copy of Alberto Moravia’s novella’, where Chris looks at a second hand copy of the book which contains the signature of a former owner and writes about the thoughts inspired by the signature itself.
Discussing this brings us to the title essay of the book, ‘Reading Life’, and the enormous impact on Chris’ life and work, of J A Baker’s, The Peregrine.
I think, as a prose stylist, Baker is simply superb and some of what he does with words I still find myself kind of gasping at – you know, how does he manage that, you know, how has he done it? And it is really exquisite artistry. It’s brilliant.
In this essay, Chris takes us through the ‘transience of life’ by firstly pondering on three readers, and focusing in on the painting Eiders in a Gale by Michael Benington (son of Arnold Benington), which provided the cover for Words on the Grey Wind. From this starting point Chris draws us into what reading involves and the relationship with writing:
Writing is the monumentally complete operation whereby experience, insight and imagination are distilled into language – reading is the equally complex operation that dispenses these elements into another person’s life.
He concludes that writing and its inseparable partner, reading, provide “the very life of life” and “the secret world” into which, both writer and reader are drawn, particularly by those books which impact upon us at impressionable stages in our lives, as Baker’s did with him:
Because of the ‘very life of life’, the ‘secret world’ offered up in such abundance in Baker’s text, the physical form of the book acquired totemic status; it became a touchstone, a charm, an amulet, almost a guarantor of safe passage, not just a printed text to read.
‘Reading Life (Reading J A Baker’s The Peregrine)’, C Arthur
Birds have been a particular influence on Chris’ reading and writing. His next collection uses birds as the magnet to draw essays out from different collections. He refers to two new pieces that he has been working on, one called, ‘Sparrowhawk Theology’ and one that is “kind of not quite with a title yet but which is essentially about an oystercatcher’s heart.” Chris hastens to add, however, that it will not be ornithology but rather about using birds as devices and ways into other things, and seeing what is “really there.”
We begin to wind up our discussion by talking about the challenges and joys of writing, laughing about how when things are going well it is joyous, but when you are struggling to get what you want to say down on paper it can be a real challenge, at which point Chris remembers an Ernest Hemingway quote, “We’re all apprentices in a craft we can never master.”
Following on from this, his advice to new writers is quite simply, “to treat rejection as part of your working life.” He then looks a little guilty, and adds:
I don’t know whether I should confess to this or not. Reading Life – I had difficulty finding a publisher. My next collection, Humming Birds Between the Pages, was accepted by the first publisher I sent it to. I see no reason why there should have been that difference. But again, it’s luck; it’s what publishers happen to have at any given time and again it just stresses the point, ‘Don’t let rejection put you off.
And with that ponderous piece of advice to new writers, we switch off the recorder and the drilling stops simultaneously. But as the workmen set off for their break, Chris answers my final question, and to my delight, signs my own copy of Reading Life and, inspired by this Ulster Zen master, I meditate on the question of whether that signature will become the focus of a future essay.