Friday, 30 August 2013

Seamus Heaney: An Apology

Seamus Heaney died today. 

If you went to school in Northern Ireland, he'll almost certainly need no introduction.  If you didn't, he was a poet.  If you went to school in Northern Ireland and weren't listening, he was a poet.        

Despite taking English Literature at 'A' level, I wasn't a big fan of the old poetry lark (and therefore Seamus Heaney).  I passed, but I think I was just a bit lucky.

I had two specific problems with the old poetry lark (and therefore Seamus Heaney). 

First, I found it boring and had a genuine tendency to nod off during lessons.  Spotting this weakness in my armoury, my teacher - Mr Quigg - used to single me out to answer questions. 

What happened next became almost ritualistic and went as follows:
  1. Colin Andrews would nudge me to wake me up;
  2. Colin Andrews would deliberately whisper me a made-up/incorrect answer; 
  3. I would relay the made-up/incorrect answer to Mr Quigg;
  4. Mr Quigg would gently humiliate me.
Second, when I was conscious and therefore capable of responding on my own behalf, Mr Quigg would pull out lines in Heaney's poems and ask me what I thought he meant.  I found this terribly irritating for one very simple reason, which I had a habit of pointing out. You see, Seamus Heaney didn't actually live that far away from our school.  So why didn't someone - Mr Quigg, for example - just go and ask him?  It would have saved so much time.

Anyway, that's how it went and, as I say, somehow I got though it.  That was in 1990.

Fast forward a couple of years to when I was a student in Newcastle, and a particular Sunday night in my room after Spitting Image had finished.  I was faffing around and the South Bank Show appeared on my portable telly.  It was a Seamus Heaney special.

My instant reaction was to turn it off (boring! boring! boring!) but, for whatever reason - perhaps it was fate - I didn't.  I wasn't initially listening to it, certainly not consciously, but as poems I was familiar with began to be rattled out, I found that I was. 

The next thing I knew, I was sitting on the end of my bed almost mouthing the words.  Well before the end of the programme, I even found myself "enjoying" what I was hearing, and Heaney's own explanations of what he had been banging on about for so long.

By the time the show ended, I felt a sense of guilt - verging on uncleanliness - for those lost years of failed appreciation.  Not just of Heaney's work, but of Mr Quigg's efforts in tempting me to like it.

There was only one thing for it; I had to apologise.

Without delay, that Sunday night, I got a pen and some paper out and scribbled a note to Mr Quigg - c/o Coleraine Inst - saying sorry for my failings and conceding that he was right all along.  I posted it first class the following morning.

Only days later, I received an immensely classy and witty response from Mr Quigg - he signed it off as Len - accepting my apology and making clear that he didn't hold any grudges.  I loved that.

So, on the day Seamus Heaney achieved full membership of the Dead Poets' Society, I feel it only proper that I make an unconditional public apology to him and his memory too. 

To quote him: "The end of art is peace.”    

I hope the great man has now found his.