TV Viewpoint: Great Books and Tricky Ladies Reveal the Wonders of the World

I remember spending (wasting, some may say) an excessive amount of time perfecting my handwriting as a child in primary school. I would obsess over the slant, the roundness, the size; I looked to my mother’s lovely handwriting for guidance, and still write my Fs backwards, like a 7, as she would do in her signature.

Handwriting is fascinating, something completely unique to a person, and seeing something written down is like bearing witness to somebody’s inner workings. Viewing the script of Coleridge and Wordsworth in the British Museum was so striking to poet Theo Dorgan in the late 70s, that it became the inspiration for the Great Book of Ireland.

Soon after he became director of Poetry Ireland in the 80s, he gathered some like-minded folk together to round up 50 poets and 50 artists to put ink to vellum to create this extraordinary book. Where greats go others will follow, and Seamus Heaney and John Montague were persuaded to kick things off by taking the first and second pages.

The documentary on the book aired on RTE One last Thursday, and was a beautifully made production charting the history of the book, peppered by some of the contributors’ readings of their work and detailing the stories behind them.

With the gentle tinkling piano music and sometimes echoey sound, the documentary had the feel of one of those short, educational film you’ll find on embedded TV sets in museums, which added to the overall effect of relaxed, unhurried learning.

Contributors explained their reasoning behind their additions to the vast work, which gave a wonderful insight into the mind of the artist. Rita Duffy was one of the artists who collaborated on illustrating a poem; she talked about her interpretation of it, and how her reaction to it manifested through her own art.

The programme itself would be a great tool for second level English and Art students. It not only reveals many of the poets’ and artists’ thought processes, but many of them also reveal with great honesty and starkness aspects of their personal lives that have affected their work.

The Great Book of Ireland is an incredibly valuable treasure, a time-capsule not wholly unlike the Book of Kells, in that it documents great Irish writers and artists at a particular moment in time. The documentary is a wonderful resource to access it, and to gain a fascinating comprehension into the lives and minds of Ireland’s scribes and scholars.

Despite my recent whinging about the lack of new programmes being added to the schedules (for obvious reasons), on my perusal of the TV guide I was pleased to see a repeat of Joanna Lumley in the Land of the Northern Lights was to be aired on BBC Four on Thursday (and can also be viewed in full on YouTube).

It was originally broadcast in 2008, and I missed it first time because back then I was gallivanting on the other side of the world. Serendipitously, that’s where Joanna’s story began, as a young girl in Malaysia, transfixed by a book depicting a penguin and his run in with the aurora australis.

Her lifelong dream became a mission to view the Northern Lights, which took her to most northern Norway. It was a truly delightful documentary fronted by the lovely Lumley, all signature enthusiastic plummy breathiness, as she marvelled at the snowy surroundings leading her on her quest.

A husky ride brought her to the very edge of the arctic circle, a visit to a town named Å revealed some of the myths and legends surrounding the aurora borealis. A stay in an ice hotel proved more comfortable than first expected and a snowmobile driving lesson from a four-year-old brought her in close contact with a herd of reindeer.

Her last stop was Svalbard, the most northern permanently inhabited place on earth, which I also happened to have visited, just this year, weeks before lockdown commenced. Like Lumley I found it a truly magical place, and I too had the fortune of catching sight of ‘the tricky lady’ as the lights are sometimes referred to. But that’s a story for another time.

  • First published in The Tuam Herald on August 16, 2020

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