I nipped over to Dublin for The Irish Times Literature Prizes, a bi-ennial extravaganza that rewards homegrown writers in four categories (fiction, poetry, non-fiction and the Irish language) and sneakily throws in a pounds 7,500 international fiction prize to lure rather grand figures from the wider English-speaking world. (It works, too: J. M. Coetzee, this year's Booker winner, who famously never goes to prizegivings or award ceremonies, in fact never goes anywhere, flew to Ireland without a murmur when his novel The Master of Petersburg got the nod in 1995).
Anyway, there we were, milling around in the library of the Royal Dublin Society, and when I say library I do not mean a grand neo-classical joint full of noble pillars like the Bodleian, or a Cretan labyrinth of hidden shelving like the London Library, I mean a startlingly bog-standard municipal library with subject categories stuck on the shelves in easy-to-read type, and a little man with a date-stamp device blinking importantly behind a sign saying "Silence". Okay, I made up the last bit; but this was not a place where you'd imagine an important enterprise getting under way.
Gracing the immemorial lino were several famous feet. The divine Edna O'Brien was there, fresh from rehearsals of her play Our Fathers at the Almeida Theatre, her green eyes sparkling as though with belladonna. Brian Keenan, the former hostage turned writer whose volcanically overwritten account of Beirut life, An Evil Cradling, won the non-fiction prize in 1993, was in roaring form. The rival bestsellers Maeve Binchy and Roddy Doyle were there, but of Frank McCourt there was no sign (I expect they asked him "Is it your intention to turn up at the Irish Times awards?" and he replied "Tisn't").
Seamus Heaney strode about looking stern and professorial, perhaps the result of getting the equivalent of a Lifetime Achievement Award for his collected works since 1966. The place was jumping with bookish gossip and faces familiar from the backs of jackets. And then the head of state arrived.Or rather, she was discovered. The crowd parted to reveal an impromptu stage on which seven people were seated - three judges, a couple of Times staffers, a chap in some complicated, Ruritanian army uniform, covered in frogging and pips - and a presidential vision in powder pink.
The Irish Times editor, Conor Brady, made a little speech, joshing the literary world for being unable to stop talking, and the dame in pink hit the floor. I'd never seen or heard Mrs Mary McAleese, the President of Ireland, before. I knew that she was from the north and was judged to be more of a politician than her saintly predecessor, Mary Robinson. But I wasn't prepared for the way she took the gathering by the hand and danced off with it.
A tall and severely coiffed woman, she carries herself like the head girl of the Ursuline Convent and sounds astonishingly like the young Mrs Thatcher, all cooing and steel.
But the way she handled the writers was something else. Though it was Mrs Robinson who started the tradition of the presidential address in the RDS Library, where the head of the nation chats to its writers as if they were friends or family, the new La Presidenta has made it a fine art.
She flirted in fluent Gaelic. She joked with Heaney about his having the builders in, and said "the Nobel Prize will just have to shove over" to make room for The Irish Times. She revealed with mixed feelings that, years earlier, she had taught the mother of one of the prizewinners. She laughed girlishly. She chatted about her family at the presidential home in Phoenix Park. She did everything short of going around topping up people's glasses.
You look on and realise there's no other head of state who behaves like this. (Can she be the same with, say, farmers and bankers and lawyers?).
You think of the Australians and their distant Queen; of the British and their equally distant Queen; of the Americans and their executive President; of the Russians and their impossible President; of the French and their aloof but influential President; and you are forced to conclude the Irish seem to have got it right, by luck or by judgement - to have a republic with a non-executive head who has the ability to talk to egomaniacal writers as if she were a.) a typical reader of their work; and b.) a friend who knows they have a life outside the study. We must get one of these without delay.
THE IRISH are famously touchy about stereotypes. They've suffered for too long from having their natural loquacity dismissed as "blarney", being traduced in the pages of Punch as savage and violent beasts with ape-like jaws, sharp teeth and flailing cudgels, being considered stupid or drunk or shiftless or excessively emotional.
When I was writing a book about Irishness - a memoir of mixed identity called The Falling Angels, if I may venture a plug - the question of national identity recurred all the time.
What can you say about what a whole nation "does"? How on earth can you write a true sentence beginning with "All Belgians ..." or "Every male Frieslander..." It's impossible to generalise about millions of people.
Yet some such statements are incontrovertibly true. All English men fancy Joanna Lumley. All English people apologise to those who bump into them in the street. And so on.
I've gradually acquired a list of Irish national characteristics, behavioural tics rather than emotional states.
It's not meant to be reductive but observational. As Ardal O'Hanlon used to say when introducing his stand-up act, it'swhat I know:
r You can always tell Irish handwriting because of one thing: the use of the upper-case letter "R" where English writers would use the lower- case - as in "dReams" and "foRgiveness" and "LisdoonvaRna".
r Men and women in Irish pubs can order a round of drinks while sitting down, by catching the barman's eye and indicating "same again" through a simple circling motion of the right forefinger, a gesture immediately understood by the hostelry staff.
r When one of the company is singing during a musical evening, it is correct form for listeners to shout bewildering encouragements such as "Fair play to you, Hogan!", to the singer, mid-song, no matter what his or her surname might be.
r A "row" to an Irishman does not mean a verbal disagreement; it means a fight.
r At Irish funerals any expression of sympathy to the bereaved that does not involve the words "I'm sorry for your trouble" is considered pretentious.
r Irish people say "At this stage" and "At that stage" and "At some stage" quite promiscuously, adding nothing to the prevailing sense of what they wish to impart.
r All Irishmen over the age of 30 have a selection of violently patterned, thick woolly jumpers as an essential part of their wardrobe.
r Irishmen over 40 peel the skin off their boiled potatoes very slowly, with a weird ceremonial gravitas that discourages any suggestion that they may be removing the most nourishing bits of the potato in doing so.
r Teenage Irish girls are always known as "young ones". Teenage Irish boys are known as "the lads". One may inquire about a male stranger with the words "Who's yer man?"; but with a female stranger, one says "Who's yer one?". Irish girlfriends are often referred to as "mots", a contraction of "moths", i.e. exotic creatures who are seen out only at night.
r Irish people worry about dietary matters more than English people. They will routinely inquire "What's your cholesterol level?" as an English person might ask "What's your star sign?"
r Mysteriously, all Irish people, of whatever age, know the lyrics to Phil Coulter's song "The Town I Loved So Well"
PARTY TIME is approaching, the supermarkets are full of Millennium Champagne, party impedimenta and even (in Sainsbury's at any rate) a whole range of exciting Millennium plastic cutlery and plates, in sparkly purple.
But there is one area of preparation about which you can't be too careful. It's the tie-knot. Remember at the end of Hardy's Far From the Madding Crowd, when Farmer Boldwood is preparing a big party to announce his engagement to Bathsheba? He stops a serving man on the stairs and asks him if there's any style of tie-knot currently fashionable in London. The man doesn't know, being a Wessex hayseed.
But we can, I think, identify with Boldwood's urgent inquiry, those of us who've spent years in front of mirror, winding and flicking and coiling and yanking the foulard snake into an acceptably fat triangle of knot. Perhaps you sometimes wonder if you're doing it all wrong; perhaps you wonder if there are two quite different ways of doing your tie up; perhaps you've even heard of the Windsor Knot, a thick pyramidal construction invented by or for Edward VIII.
Well, now your wonderings are over. Into my hands has fallen The 85 Ways to Tie a Tie: the Science and Aesthetics of Tie Knots. It's a masterpiece of ludicrous arcana by two Cambridge researchers, Thomas Fink, an expert in "protein folding optimism theory" (I am not making this up) and his shadowy chum, Dr Yong Mao, who spends his time investigating polymers and colloids. Between them, both the art and the mathematics of "knot theory" are laid bare at last.
You can now distinguish with confidence a Plattsburg from a Nine-Move Hanover. Several famous tie-wearers, from Wilde to Dietrich, are pictured, including Joseph Conrad in (alarmingly) "a Prince Albert". And the authors offer a glowing, eclectic photo-montage of classic tie-knots, all of them seemingly identical. Lots of men will find this in their Christmas stocking. It's the biggest digest of utterly useless knowledge since The World Encyclopaedia of Fly Fishing.Reuse content