Of writing, memories and transformation
The act of writing – just as with most experiences in our lives – involves a process of transformation.
From the raw material of memory, or emotion, or observation, or empathy, writers forge their responses to the world.
Possibly one of the most potent of these raw materials is memory: those vivid moments from childhood or early life that inform forever the way we see ourselves and others.
The moment that inspired this piece happened more than fifty years ago. It is important to me for many reasons.
My uncle Dónal was one of those adults who validated my passion for books, who encouraged me to lose myself in stories. I am grateful to him for that.
It is important, too, because this visit to the North of Ireland took place before ‘The Troubles’ came and tore this island apart. It would be thirty years before the Peace Process, three full decades of upheaval and bigotry and murder and mayhem.
Now in 2016, the peace, however uneasy, is holding. People are getting on with the ordinary daily business of their lives – working, raising children, walking the streets of their cities, engaging again with the arts.
I’ve always believed that books and reading and storytelling have the power to bring people together.
In the last few years, I have made several trips to the Book Clubs and libraries of Northern Ireland, along with many other writers, and we are all beginning to see more and more crossings – in both directions – of the psychological border that still exists in this country.
This month, April 2016, sees a wonderful new initiative. Dublin UNESCO City of Literature and Libraries NI (North of Ireland) have chosen one novel, Fallen, by Lia Mills, as the book to be read and discussed and thought about and celebrated during the entire month-long festival.
‘Two Cities One Book’ – shared by Belfast and Dublin – sees a huge range of activities exploring the tumultuous events of 1916, events that had a huge impact on the ordinary lives of so many people.
That year, 1916, saw the Easter Rising take place in Ireland – an armed insurrection against British rule, centred primarily in locations around Dublin city.
It also saw the carnage of the First World War on the Western Front. Loyalties divided people, tore families apart in all communities, in all parts of this country.
Exploring and respecting different traditions is part of growing up.
I believe that the arts have a significant part to play in this ongoing conversation. Reflecting on the events of one hundred years ago, talking to each other, trying to understand different points of view – all of these experiences help in the process of transformation.
Small steps, perhaps: small transformations.
But that’s how we grow.
My Uncle Dónal was a primary school teacher in Belfast.
He and my aunt Eileen lived in a big, rambling house on the Woodvale Road. It was a sanctuary, one that had grown up around his books, her easels, their by then adult children.
Collie dogs and fat tortoiseshell cats lazed in the sunshine of childhood summer gardens.
I loved going there.
Not only is the ten-year-old me allowed to sit in Dónal’s library, I am allowed to hold his first editions of Dickens. I can still remember their thick, creamy pages, not quite neatened at the edges, the leather binding cool under my inquisitive fingers.
Back when these trips North are still a routine part of life, Dónal likes to teach me. ‘See this,’ he says, pulling another volume off the shelf.
‘This is what we call ‘half leather binding’. And these,’ he runs his fingers over their surface, ‘these are hand-marbled paper sides.’
The books come from his father, he says, handed down with love. And now it’s his job to keep them safe.
There is a wing-backed chair to one side of the fireplace and that is where I sit: my legs not quite reaching the floor. All around me is the smell of books, of stories, volumes of endless promise. And the lingering scent of Dónal’s ever-present pipe.
I see myself turning pages: not understanding all of what I read, but compelled to continue, awed by a sense of grown-up privilege.
In those days of the mid-sixties, I have no sense at all of how our lives are about to be transformed. As I finally step over the threshold of adolescence, Dónal and Eileen’s house is set alight.
On one surprised and dangerous August night, more than forty years ago, mob-fuelled flames force them out of their home, out of that contradictory city for ever.
They flee to the bland safety of Dublin, but I don’t believe they ever truly settle there.
Books, reading and writing change through the years
Lately, I’ve been thinking about all the ways in which books and reading have changed, down through the years.
First, there was all the urgency of childhood – that intense impulse to find out what happened next, and when, and how and to whom. That time when the race towards an ending was what satisfied most.
Much later, the era of deconstruction followed: the University years, when, sometimes, reading felt sterile, forced, a means to an end. In between, and in the years that followed, taste formed gradually, satisfyingly.
I became more selective, more discerning. And in that time, too, writing began in earnest.
I no longer know at what point reading transforms itself into writing. I have no conscious memory of their separateness.
In Dónal’s library, my imagination is fired by new stories at the same time as I absorb the old.
And when Dónal talks, I learn a whole new vocabulary. I learn of hand sewn silk headbands. Full gilt gold leaf. Red morocco goatskin.
Even the sound of the words is seductive: I trace the binding with my fingertip, feel the warmth of the old man’s reverence for both book and bookbinder.
Those days are filled with a visual poetry I will never forget.
Today, reading is part of work, too, not just leisure. Dónal would be horrified: but I now own a Kindle.
Reading and writing in the time of Ryanair
In my defence, I tell him it’s different. Technology gives me access to text: it’s not the same thing as holding a book. Not the same thing at all.
The Kindle allows me to read, to research in whatever part of the world I happen to find myself.
And it is my anti-Ryanair device.
I can travel, weightless with all those dozens of weighty volumes that would never fit in my suitcase. And they can’t charge me extra.
I could love my Kindle for that alone.
Recently, when the last of my father’s sisters died, I inherited some leather-bound volumes, mostly the work of Sir Walter Scott.
I like their mildew-spattered pages, the faintly musty smell, the faded gold of their spines.
When I leaf through them, I am transported once again to the wing-backed chair, the sun-filled library, those days before the whole world changed.
I am saddened by the thought of all those volumes suddenly reduced to ashes, their dark shadows floating somewhere under the night sky of the Woodvale Road.
I am conscious, too, of the other volumes handed down to me.
They sit while I work, just above my shoulder, breathing.
I can hear Dónal’s voice, his Belfast lilt, his descriptions of gold borders, buckram cloth and end papers of watered silk.
Some days, I even believe I can smell tobacco. Or perhaps it’s that intangible sense of something precious handed down, handed on.
Fire of a different kind, still burning.
A shorter version of this article was commissioned by Sunday Miscellany and broadcast from the Kilkenny Arts Festival in August, 2011.