Charged with attending the duration of the twenty-eight hour ‘Read for the World’ Guinness World Record Attempt for ‘The Most Authors Reading Consecutively from their Books’, I was feeling quietly confident about my chances of staying awake for the entirety of proceedings. My optimism was, in this respect, perhaps a little misplaced, but my excitement about the event itself was, I would discover, entirely justified. I had been to the Irish Writers’ Centre earlier in the week, to meet with the organisers, and their enthusiasm had been contagious. I got up bright and early on Friday, and after stopping for supplies, legged it up to Parnell Square. The centre was buzzing, and I got cosy in a seat that, though I didn’t know it yet, would be responsible for a really impressive bout of pins and needles in the early hours of the next morning.
And suddenly we were off! Larger-than-life David Norris, fit to burst with Bloomsday excitement, kicked off proceedings and when we had a chat, his declaration that I ‘was far too nice to be a journalist’ did at least have me in high spirits – the charmer. Next up, John Boyne, author of ‘The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas’, and former student of Norris’s, as it happens, really got down to the literary stuff, reading an excerpt of terse dialogue from his new novel, ‘The Absolutist’. That morning we sped through multiple Irish childhoods, flirted with punk rock and the Celtic Tiger, slipped in and out of geriatric wards and spent quite a while reflecting on dreams of a dinosaur. Each reader spoke for fifteen minutes, and we were flying through at quite a pace. At half twelve, I tucked into my Caesar salad, and was surprised to discover just how noisy a lettuce cruncher I was. I munched on self-consciously, particularly enjoying Iggy McGovern’s ‘Proverbs for a Computer Age’ (beware of geeks bearing .gifs, etc) and spluttered croutons everywhere accordingly. Later, Mia Gallagher put on a superb show, with a brilliant dramatic reading from her novel ‘Hellfire’.
Throughout the day, it was great to see so many of the speakers hanging about to hear each other read, and there was a really pervasive sense of both camaraderie, and general jollity that lasted the duration of the 28 hours. They came to support one another, but also no doubt to listen to writers whose work they hadn’t encountered before. At sevenish, my housemate rolled up, with some tasty treats to keep me fortified, just in time to hear Pádraig J Daly’s recitation of poems, from his collection ‘Afterlife’. She popped off before the next reader, and I was pretty content until about half twelve, when I decided to do a quick circuit of Parnell Square, for sanity’s sake, with a second bout of visitors, who had popped in for a few readings. They suggested a pint, but I declined, knowing that a drink would hardly be likely to stave off closing eyelids in the coming hours.
We returned to the Writer’s Centre for one-ish, and. I was welcomed back by a member of staff, who threatened to tie me down in the room in which I was supposed to be listening for the remainder of my sentence. He was joking, I think, but caffeine does strange things to people, and not taking any chances, I scurried back upstairs, all ears once again. The wise people at the Irish Writer’s Centre had thought the timetable through, so throughout, the speakers alternated between poetry and prose, and there was no early-morning lull in subject matter. Indeed, it was at this point that things started to get really interesting, as the younger writers took to the podium for the night-shift. It was pretty upbeat, and I particularly enjoyed a natty comparison between the courtship rituals of African Elephants and Dubliners drawn by Ross Hattaway. Then up stepped the monikered ‘Winston Smith’, to read from his book ‘Generation F’. He did tell me his real name, and I felt pretty cool to be privy to more than just his 1984 alias. However, in the days since the event, I have slept so deeply that I’m lucky to remember my own name, and hardly surprised that his top secret one has slipped through the net. His recital was hilarious, and just what we needed; it detailed his time working in social care in England; the numerous lines of red tape that he had had to wade through, and the range of eccentric characters that he was trying to help on the other side of it – the kids. When I spoke to him after, he told me that he still finds it bizarre that people are so amused by the whole series of events. It was just his life, he told me, rather modestly, though his reading was so well delivered, with faultless comic timing, that it’s hard to believe that he hadn’t at least got used to the books warm reception by now.
Sarah Clancy stepped up to read with a keen sense of fun, and pithy poems to match. ‘Thanks for Nothing, Hippies’ has achieved widespread acclaim, and Clancy skipped through it eloquently, and had everyone chuckling. Then, after a pretty chilling retelling of ‘Into the Grey’ by the author Celine Kiernan, it was time for a break from all the literary business, and so I slipped downstairs.
Twenty-eight hours is not really all that long a time to be awake for, I had thought to myself in the days prior to ‘Read for the World’. I knew that I’d lasted far longer than that before. What I hadn’t anticipated was the languor that set in after being read to for so long. My Mum used to read to me at bedtime as a treat when I was little, and it seems that it’s still as soporific as ever. I’d heard at least sixty-five speakers, and forgotten what it was to have feeling in my backside. I thought I’d nip downstairs, get a coffee and chat to some of the IWC staff for a while, and return refreshed, and ready to listen, to the room where the action was. I was a fool.
For a start, it was really nice downstairs. The staff were friendly, funny, and all genuinely excited about the event, but not so consumed by it that they weren’t willing to admit that they too, were absolutely pooped. It was nice and light and airy downstairs, I could be noisy, and do a few star jumps to get the blood circulating in my limbs again, and I hung out with them for longer than planned. When I made my way back upstairs, it was even tougher than before I’d left. The room was warmer, and darker, and I had a few snoozing accomplices in the back row who were tempting me to follow their lead. I thought about throwing in the towel, and counted how long I had left. Ten hours.
At half past five, something had to be done, and so I went for a quick jog along O’Connell Street. Hardly a gym bunny myself, I must admit that if that last sentence appeared effortless, it was in fact an elaborate deception. Quick and jog, in combination with my own levels of personal fitness, might be described as something of an oxymoron. Naturally, in keeping with this sudden lifestyle overhaul I went to the liberty of buying a McDonalds. Unfortunately, at 6am, McDonalds do not stock their usual meaty treats but instead, have a range of creepy egg-in-bread produce. Who knew! My Mcmuffin was an abomination, though the hash brown that is surely meant to serve as some sort of aperitif was satisfyingly delicious.
Back to the Reading Room, and things were getting tense. I was sat next to a man who had arrived at about midnight, and by half six, the strain was beginning to show. The pair of us were pulling off some pretty impressive impressions of nodding dogs as we fought sleep, and his eventual descent into sleep was my cue. If I was ever to stay awake for the Heaneys and Roddy Doyle, I’d have to catch just one or two cheeky z’s. I perhaps could have planned it better than to have fallen asleep on the organiser and founder of the Irish Writers Centre himself, Jack Harte, who’s comfy arm unwittingly volunteered itself as a pillow, but he didn’t seem to take my fifteen minute snooze too personally. I hope the particular speaker whom I chose to nap through understood my plight.
At eight o’clock, and feeling comparatively well rested, I noticed that the room had begun to fill up again. Were these hardcore Heaney fans? In fact, I think that it was people just strolling in and out, perhaps before tasty brunches. However, from nine, I was pretty sure that the cavalry assembled had turned out to see Seamus. His wife Marie read first, from her retelling of Irish legends – ‘Over Nine Waves’. And then, the man himself, introducing himself to the packed room as “the husband of the previous reader.” It won’t surprise you to know that he, like many of the other poets over the course of the event, knew his work by heart. Ninety-six readers had gone before Seamus, all of them thoroughly enjoyable, some certainly with the promise of being as poignant. And yet as he read his poem ‘Postscript’ the whole audience was on edge, particularly for the last few lines:
“As big soft buffetings come at the car sideways,
And catch the heart off guard and blow it open.”
Perhaps it was simply that so many of the audience clearly already had a fondness for Heaney’s poetry, but the audience was absolutely rapt. Then, off he slipped back to Sandymount, his departure as understated as his arrival (despite the flock of fans that traipsed after him). It was good to see that the room didn’t empty completely after Heaney – and there was a large audience for the remainder of the day. The penultimate reader and old-time favourite Roddy Doyle had everyone in stitches and was followed by Jack Harte, organiser of the event, who spoke last. After reading one of his short stories, he thanked all the participants and organisers for their hard work, and then that was that! Twenty-eight hours since David Norris’s upbeat entrée, and the record had been broken. Everyone was delighted, and there was much running around and back-slapping done by all.
So, anything gained? By Saturday afternoon, when my friends joined me for a pub lunch before long-awaited nap time, I was sleep-deprived and delirious, but essentially feeling pretty jammy. I’d made a few pals, listened to Seamus Heaney read, chuckled at Roddy Doyle, and got chummy with David Norris. Yet easily the most important thing that I took from the experience was not, in fact, renewed confidence in my power to stay awake (if anything quite the reverse), but instead a genuine appreciation for the work of the Irish Writers’ Centre. There is so much going on – aimed not just at writers, but at readers also. I have every intention of becoming a member, and would definitely recommend that you pop along to the centre, or to one of their events, even if its duration is significantly less than twenty-eight hours.
The Irish Writers’ Centre is situated at 19 Parnell Square, Dublin 1. They put on a range of workshops throughout the year, and welcome people to pop in and look around the building, as well as offering a useful working environment for readers and writers alike. http://www.writerscentre.ie
All Images: Caitriona Gallagher