Writers in Residence: James Harpur, 2010

28th February, 2012 : Monaco

‘Monaco is a theatre of dreams and fantasies and nothing could be better for a writer. It is a unique place, grounded on medieval history but insistently modern, its tower blocks surging towards the sea like a standing ovation.’ – James Harpur, Writer-in-Residence 2010

Between a Rock and a Blue Sea

I arrived in a thunderstorm and let a black saloon skim me along the
road from Nice airport, with forks of lightning teasing the ridges of
hills of mountains, and clouds the colour of wet limestone. In the back
seat, Judith Gantley, Administrator of the Princess Grace Irish Library,
began to fill me in on my four-week mission, and before long we had
reached the Principality itself. The saloon swept into an underground
car park, we slid into a lift, and emerged in the beautifully lit
interior of what looked like a hotel, but which was in fact a bank. I
felt I’d strayed into a Bond movie.

Monaco is a theatre of dreams and fantasies and nothing could be better
for a writer. It is a unique place, grounded on medieval history but
insistently modern, its tower blocks surging towards the sea like a
standing ovation. I had in fact visited the Principality before, way
back in 1976, when I was Inter-railing around Europe with a school
friend. Returning in 2010 was like walking into a déjà vu – a sense of
the familiar blending with the new. And this time I glimpsed what it was
like to be an insider – thanks to the warmth, friendliness and sage
advice of Judith and her back-up team of Géraldine and Síle, a
triumvirate of guardian angels whose practical help and sense of fun
made the month a constant delight.

Writers, they say, need a room of their own, or a room with a view, and
the view I had in the First Editions’ Room was of the spines of more
books I wanted to read than I could shake a stick at. The daily danger
was the lifting of the head from my own writing to think a thought and
inadvertently spot the first edition of Ulysses or some other
bibliographic treasure: my writing would grind to a halt while I
investigated the volume in question. The task I’d set myself for the
four precious weeks was to progress a long poem inspired by the Book of
Kells. And of course the library contained that most valuable of tomes –
the 1990 facsimile of the book published by Faksimile-Verlag Luzern, a
most extraordinary work that even reproduces the holes in the original
vellum. I felt like a medieval scribe, poring over Kells and scratching
away at my notepad. It was pure joy!

But even bookworms such as myself need to see the light of day and enjoy
human company, and there was no shortage of that. My stay overlapped
with a symposium on Children’s Literature in Ireland led by the scholar
Mary Shine Thompson and featuring a select group of Irish writers,
publishers and critics. I was allowed to sit on the sessions –
bookworm-cum-fly on the wall – and learned a lot about the current state
of children’s book publishing in the Republic. The symposium group was
great fun too, and one highlight was an outing to Yeats’s temporary
resting place along the coast at Roquebrune-Cap-Martin. It was also a
delight to meet Billy Vincent, Founder and President Emeritus of the
Ireland Fund of Monaco, and to discover that he and my father had fought
in the same Second World War campaign.

Another memorable moment of my stay was a visit to St Honorat, a tiny
holy island off the coast of Cannes. As someone who had written poems
about the medieval Irish saints I was thrilled to step on the ground
where St Patrick had trained as a monk before his return to Ireland as a
missionary. The group outing was enhanced by a talk on St Patrick by
Piaras Jackson, SJ, who reminded us of the breadth and relevance of
Patrick’s spiritual vision.

Then there were two enjoyable workshops with the students from Lycée
Albert I and a talk I gave to the friends of the library. The Lycée
students were charming and attentive – not to mention impressively
fluent in English – and engaged readily with my exercises on poetic
riddles and my explanation of why the Irish speak both Irish and
English. And my talk on the ‘Poetry Journey’ (a mixture of autobiography
and musings on poetic issues, such as poetry and silence, poetry and
identity) was given to a gratifyingly receptive audience. To cap it all,
my penultimate night in Monaco was attending the Ireland Fund of Monaco
Gala black-tie ball at the Hôtel de Paris, complete with His Serene
Highness Prince Albert II of Monaco and his future wife, Charlene, and
guest of honour, Mary Robinson. A magical evening, even though the size
12 black shoes I had hurriedly bought in a supermarket did hinder my
gyrations on the dance floor. A blessed mercy, some might say.

It was a wonderful four weeks of serious endeavour and new friendships
and I’d like to thank the Ireland Fund of Monaco for their generosity in
making it a month to remember, as well as Judith, in particular, for
all her support and good humour. I returned home to the grey October
mists of West Cork but the fierce sunlight, tanned faces, magical book
spines and reflecting surfaces of Monaco turned, and still turn, like a
revolving door in my mind.

James Harpur