So the big day arrived and there I was sitting waiting over to one side of the stage and as the announcer stepped up introduce me I waited for the signal to climb the few steps to the stage.
I’d finally settled on the poems to complete the set the previous evening and they were printed and ready in my hand with a copy of my book as back-up should I decide to make any changes to the set as I went along. All pretty normal except that my hand that was shaking less than it usually might and I was feeling quite calm.
The signal came I stepped onto the steps, thanked the compere for her lovely introduction and walked up to the single microphone in the middle of the stage. There had been no soundcheck so I was a little surprised by the strength of the foldback speakers but at least I knew the audience would be able to hear:
I’m a poet….”
With those first few lines of one of my longest lived poems I introduced myself and hopefully set the mood.
As I did so the organisers projected a massive fluttering Union Jack on the large screen behind me. I had absolutely no idea and as I talked to the audience I had no reason to look back.
Reading at Eroica 2016
Photograph courtesy of my friend Howard Broughton.
My poetry doesn’t shy away from issues and it is no secret that my strong beliefs in social justice and fair treatment for ALL human beings are dear to me and feature large in my writing.
So as I stood (unknowing) in front of that massive symbol of national pride I read “Universal Citizen” pointing out that we are all the same regardless of where we happen to be born, I read “Not like the rest” criticising successive governments for failing to treat some people properly and I read poems about my own Irish (immigrant) background.
I now know (because they told me) that some of the audience loved the irony of that juxtaposition of myself and my words against that flag.
To me Nationalism is all about pride based on things other people have done in a place where we happen to be born or originate from. Of course we can be justifiably proud of our backgrounds but the flag, like all national flags, is not just a symbol of pride and of belonging but it can also be an emblem of difference, a symbol of we are better than you and if not used with care it can become divisive.
I love the place I was born, I love the places my parents were born. There are also other places I have come to love.
I don’t wave flags because where I happened to have been born and where my parents happened to have been born makes me no better, no worse, no more entitled or no more deserving than anyone else.
I am the Universal Citizen; whether you wave a flag behind me or not!
As for the set itself? Well the audience were great, very responsive and very attentive. People reacted to all of the less obvious references in the poems although very few picked up the references to Pancho and Lefty. The applause was warm and I was particularly pleased when people I’ve never met before came along to buy copies of my book which of course I was very happy to dedicate for them.