Tuesday, 15 March 2011

Malachi O'Doherty: Journalist or Jester

As it comes with the territory, I have had to find ways to overcome a fear of public speaking - I often quote Scout Finch, who said, 'I can stand anything but a bunch of people looking at me' - to the extent that I now sometimes walk onstage without tripping over; but four years and dozens of events ago, I gave what can only very loosely be described as a 'talk' at Wigtown Book Festival. It was more a few nervous introductory remarks about how we came to live on the island, followed by a hasty retreat into the relative safety of a reading from my first book, The Blue Cabin.

I remember feeling hugely anxious, mostly on behalf of the organisers, who had paid my expenses and put me up in a bed and breakfast, about whether anyone would actually turn up; and hugely relieved when one man - bearded, bespectacled and wearing a tweed jacket - came into the hall, took his seat and gave me a smile and a nod. He was duly followed by perhaps two dozen others, but as the first bona fide member of my first book festival audience, he automatically achieved talisman status there and then.

To end, there was a Q&A session, and of course there is always the worry that you will say, 'Very happy to answer any questions,' and your audience will look at you in a silence which can stretch from seconds to many, many years - these days, I'm always ready with a seamless follow-up about the time I gave a talk at such-and-such a bookshop to one man and his pet labrador, and he turned out to be asleep, etc etc. But no need to worry on this occasion - the same man asked me a question about my sharing a platform, as it were, with Ian Paisley, who was in Wigtown to talk about his recently-published memoirs, and the ice was broken.

Afterwards, he introduced himself as Malachi O'Doherty, and I can only come up with the rather lame excuse that I had been an ex-pat in Scotland too long, for being one of the few people in the spheres of arts or politics in Northern Ireland who hadn't heard of him.

Since then, our paths have crossed quite often, and when I heard he was giving a talk, as the BBC's Writer in Residence at Queens University, entitled, 'Journalist or Jester', I didn't want to miss it. The title provided Malachi with a neat framework on which to rest a thoroughly enjoyable - and annoyingly fluent - backwards look at his long career as writer and broadcaster, exploring the subtly different characterisations of him (by others) of impish inquisitor or inquisitive imp. These descriptions do put to bed the 'or' part of the title, 'Journalist or Jester', because he is self-evidently both; but neither, in my view, does him justice because they imply a less than serious approach to his work. Granted, he famously goes for the quirky angle and the mischievous question, but only because, as he said himself, he comes from a line of sarcastic characters with a sense of humour - he says he is conscious, when interviewing someone, of the ghost of his father sitting on his shoulder and saying, 'Go on, ask him that!' - and this approach is invariably used to shine a spotlight or tease out the truth. He told many stories, illustrated with recordings of his radio interviews, but my favourite was the time, I think in 1994 shortly after the IRA ceasefire in that year, when the parties were struggling to come up with a workable political framework, and Gerry Adams conceded that obstacles remained. 'So it's going to take a few more bombs yet, then?' said Malachi.

Who else could get away with it?

I see Malachi has posted a full recording of the talk at http://writerslog.net/?p=143
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