POSSIBLY THE very first thing John Hewitt the man said to me was “There’s no point being a poet if you keep your mouth closed.” It was 1984, I was 22, he was 76.
It wasn't my first encounter with Hewitt the poet. I had read his work in anthologies while at school in my hometown of Downpatrick. When I found he was the writer in residence at Queen’s in Belfast in 1978, I had written to him and sent him some of my own lame verse.
I am mortified still. He wrote back, his handwriting uncertain but in bold black ink, with advice and, above all, seriousness.
Some years later, I was at Queen’s myself when he was a formidable figure at events around the university. There were other poets in Belfast, of course - Padraic Fiacc, Michael Longley in the Arts Council, Medbh McGuckian, Paul Muldoon and Frank Ormsby were all in the same square mile.
But it was the old man who intrigued most.
I think now this was because he was something other than a poet - a public figure, a man of politics and history, a strong voice coming out of a dissenting tradition, although he stressed that he had no religion. As a public poet, he was a great advocate of using newspapers to get a message across and wrote often to and in the Belfast Telegraph. A few years later, in the wake of the Anglo-Irish Agreement, his plea on behalf of ‘some solid track across our quagmire state’ was to be printed in the editorial of the Irish Times. He was a politically-engaged writer, one with very definite views.
I liked that very much. And I liked his fidelity to ‘local’ things and his pride in his native place despite the headlines. His sense of himself as a lone voice from his perspective was attractive too.
Using the excuse of an interview for a literary magazine called North, edited by my friend the poet John Hughes, I engineered a meeting. Some writers - like Pat Ramsey, Martin Mooney and Dennis Greig - had made a connection with the old poet, but I had to see with my own two eyes behind the black-and-white door of the house on Stockman’s Lane that looked like a woodsman’s cottage.
He opened it himself, sporting the trademark goatee beard, the green corduroys, the briar pipe, the dark-rimmed spectacles, and travelling in very small, neat soft moccasins over very small feet. He was a neat dresser, not showy, distinguished, speaking in a clipped, breathy, precise way, softly. You might say he was dainty; but that would belie his sometimes abrupt and impatient manner. He had the slight shuffle in gait which was to become more pronounced over the next few years, due to failing sight.
A book was open on a chair at the ballad ‘Flannan Isle’ by W W Gibson. We talked about that poem and ‘clicked’ immediately.
I was there for hours, the C90 cassettes whirring away. His childhood in Clifton Street, his father the Methodist teacher and subject of some of his most moving poems, his mother, his uncle the pioneer aviator, his left-wing views, his beloved wife Roberta who had died in 1975, his difficulties with the Ulster Museum which led to his living for 15 years in Coventry, his strong views on his ‘native province’; his strong views on everything.
He showed me a small line drawing of a portly chap with a moustache, an Oliver Hardy with spectacles, and asked if I knew who it was. I didn't. It was, in fact, himself. The first of many surprises was that the venerable elderly slender figure with the goatee had once been just as argumentative, brusque and stylish but also a very stout young man.
He talked about ‘ancestors of the mind’ as well as of the blood - key personalities from the past who could provide sustenance in our own bleak days. For him, these included William Drennan, James Hope, FJ Bigger, John Toland of Inishowen, Alexander Irvine, “the asserters, the protestors”, as he described them. But these paled beside his respect for Mary Ann McCracken - anti-slaver, philanthropist, tireless and lifelong advocate for the poor - whom he regarded as Belfast’s greatest-ever citizen.
He also described what remains an intoxicating chain of allegiance: that he was an Ulsterman of Planter stock, that he was an Irishman, that he was British as part of the British archipelago and then a European. He insisted that if any one of these building blocks of identity was omitted then the situation was falsified.
How powerful were those ideas to a boy brought up with broad nationalist sympathies and with a vivid sense of Irishness! Was it possible to be more than one thing at a time? Could two or more of those things appear to be contradictory and still hold true?
Hewitt lived by the belief they could.
Over the next few years, we had many such adventures.
There was an excruciating encounter with Gerry Adams in Conway Mill, at an event in honour of Nobel Peace Prize winner Sean MacBride. Excruciating for me, that is. I saw the SF leader spot the old poet and begin to make his way quickly towards him, calling ‘John Hewitt!’. The poet had his moments of curmudgeonly outburst and everything was in place here for just such an embarrassing frankness. Adams arrived, expressing admiration for Hewitt’s poetry. Hewitt praised the politician’s memoir recently published as Falls Memories. Then, just when it seemed the crisis had passed, Hewitt added - not keeping his mouth closed - “You should have kept a typewriter in the other hand” - a reference to the recently-coined ‘Armalite and ballot box’ strategy of Sinn Fein in those very dark days of the 1980s.
Awkward to say the least; but, in an odd way, the fact that the dissenter Hewitt was present there at all in Conway Mill, on the Falls Road, in those days, was recognised as the gesture it was.
He had been born in 1907 in a united island and that remained his ambition. It coloured the pride he had in ‘Ulster’ and his keenness to emphasise the distinctive characteristics of a northern region which he could trace back to Colmcille.
But he also spoke about the Rhyming Weavers, the 19th-Century Ulster-Scots poets he had virtually rediscovered, many of whose small volumes he had in his astonishing library. That’s when I first knew how deeply embedded Ulster-Scots is in our shared culture.
Hewitt himself had become caricatured, probably affectionately, as someone whose ‘curmudgeonliness’ was a version of ‘unionist Protestant’ nay-saying. It was the era of ‘Ulster Says No’. As an old bearded figure with his walking stick and pipe, a prophet down from the hills, it was easy for simple categories to be applied to him; but he was far from all of those.
Yes, he embodied so much of what was being contested outside the walls and he managed to speak for a people and a culture few outside understood, or wanted to; he managed to interpret its values with sympathy, even though he was out of step with many of its social and political attitudes. He interpreted a view of Irish nationalism also which was complex though sympathetic.
That a poet had this unique role was certainly an impressive sight for me.
He was a solitary man, but not lonely. After his wife died, he had opened his home to the daughter of an old painter friend, Jean Craig and her two grown sons all of whom returned his gesture as loyal and good friends to the end. When they were on holiday, I stayed with him - as he joked, ‘babysitting’, though it was never that. We sat up very late talking, reading and - it may surprise some to know - watching The Young Ones, which he loved.
For a man who appeared so stern, he wasn't at all afraid of emotion. On one occasion, a Holocaust survivor described on TV how he was so weak another prisoner had to chew his bread for him and place it in his mouth. I heard a tiny noise and, when I looked across, the tears were running down John’s cheeks. All he could say was “Such a human thing”.
Wisely, he would take quick naps while I was speaking - something others have resorted to since! - but recover to continue a discussion vigorously rather than call it a night. I said “John, did you fall asleep there?” “Not at all,” he replied, “resting my eyes. You were repeating yourself.”
Once, we went on one of the early bus tours round Belfast, with the guide glancing down the aisle at Hewitt every now and then to be reassured that his version of Belfast history was passing muster. We had a lovely tea that day in Dunmurry,
I don't know what Hewitt got, if anything, out of our connection, but I know what I got. It was an education in values, in respect, in the fact that a country means nothing at all without its people.
Importantly, though, I also got the fact that we had to walk across the road to the other side at every opportunity. Not everyone would have the inclination - such is the depth of grief here - but for those who do and can, the journey must be made. It’s an ethical demand. There was little virtue in approving of what you approve of. He empathised with what he didn't agree with, reaching out the hand to those he opposed.
The old dissenter Hewitt reading his poems in the Workers’ Party social club in Friendly Street in the Markets was an example of that happening before my very eyes. Risk-taking. Truth-telling. John Hewitt was great fun.
Then he died, in June 1987. Now defunct. He left his body to science. As James Simmons wrote:
Your work is alive and kicking
In our heads and hearts,
After a lifetime of service,
Your body is spare parts.
There was no funeral. He was simply gone. Jean reported that, in the ambulance on the way to hospital where he died, he had said, when asked if he was in pain, “No. It is all very interesting.” It was the sceptical observer as ever watching the decline of his own senses.
I never got to say goodbye and I never got to say thank you. A school-friend of mine, Eamon Quinn, had been murdered in Damascus Street in 1981, so I knew that sometimes people go and never come back.
But I missed Hewitt and have missed him since. “In my best moments feeling justly proud,” as he said of his father, “I wait his smile and slow approving nod.” Or even his mischievous chuckle at my pomposity punctured.
I think he would have taken a dim view of what I haven't been able to achieve after 13 years as Head of Literature at the Arts Council of Northern Ireland. ‘Did you not learn anything?’ he might ask.
I did learn something. Those little books by Ulster-Scots poets - Orr of Ballycarry, Herbison of Dunclug, Thomson of Carngranny - had obviously been very well-loved by the local communities for whom and about whom they had been written, because they had been re-bound with old newspapers and bits of cardboard when repeated reading had left them falling apart.
Together with the literary festival that honours his legacy, and is celebrating its own 30th anniversary this week, deep down those are the kinds of after-life my friend John would have appreciated.
This piece first appeared in the Belfast Telegraph 25 July 2017