Sometimes it feels as if Michael Harding was born at the age of 58, middle-aged and fully-formed. A performer, an actor, a novelist, a memoirist and a playwright, he has come to inhabit that great unfathomable of the popular consciousness only over the past few years.
Staring At Lakes, his first memoir, a chronicle of depression and love and the jagged line between the two, won the Irish Book of the Year award in 2013. It was followed by Hanging With The Elephant last year and a weekly Irish Times column about life in the Irish midlands. From Cavan, his prose has echoes of the poetry of Patrick Kavanagh from neighbouring Monaghan, recognising beauty “in the habitual, the banal”.
Harding’s 50-minute show at the Hay Festival in Kells on Friday night was an unrelenting joy from start to finish, a fact that won’t come as a great surprise to anyone who has seen him in action in recent years – and there are clearly many, evidenced by the crowd which packed the Carmel Naughton Stage at Kells’ Church of Ireland.
A mixture of reading and performance, with the lines between the two blurred with a wizardry of narrative, Harding (62 this year, if Wikipedia is to be believed) delivered his prose/performance in his own distinctive style, suddenly diving off on tangents to tell the stories within the story: about a French former girlfriend, Sandrine, whose take on Irish men was that they “walk around with their umbilical cord in their hand, looking for someone to attach it to”; about a period at home alone when, driven by erotic passion, he decided to shave his genitals, the most immediate consequence of which was that everywhere he went he could feel a draught; about the economic crash, when his life savings became worth as much as “a box of bananas”.
The beauty is in the telling. Harding’s Staring At Lakes outlines his birth as a storyteller, as a priest in Derrylin, Co Fermanagh when he witnessed the paramilitary murder of the local school bus driver and Harding was the one to relate the tale to the gathering media. That episode was more than 30 years ago, and his growth as a storyteller of public renown was slow but steady from that point onwards.
Asked afterwards about the difference in his approach to writing and acting (he recently played Bull McCabe in John B Keane’s The Field at the Gaiety), Harding declared that he sees none – that he is a performer, and everything he does is an act of storytelling. For the lucky few who crammed into the back garden of The Railway Bar later in the evening, there was more wonderful storytelling and recital from Harding. His delivery of two Ulster poems, W. F. Marshall’s “Me an’me Da (I’m living in Drumlister)” and “I loved a papish girl” by Jimmy Young, had the audience in quiet rapture – quite a feat at 11 at night when thirst was in the air and the bar a few steps away.
On a weekend of several solo literary performers – there were illuminating interviews with Roddy Doyle, Ben Okri, Lynda La Plante, Paul Murray and others, but Anne Enright and Paul Durcan were among those tasked with a one-person show. It can be a difficult task for writers, more accustomed to solitude, to master. But then again Harding, while a fine writer of an ordinary man’s hyper-meaningful sentences, is more than just a writer; he is, as he says himself, a storyteller, across multiple forms.
He does all of them well, but none better than the live show.
For anyone interested in knowing more about “I loved a papish girl”, this by erstwhile Marmite comic Conal Gallen is definitely worth a watch: