“There are no days more full in childhood, than those days that are not lived at all, the days lost in a book.” John McGahern
Patricia Craig is a critic and biographer (Elizabeth Bowen, Brian Moore) who grew up on the Falls Road area of Belfast in the 1950s – after the war and before The Troubles, which was a period of relative calm with tensions simmering just underneath.
It’s a time of skipping ropes, corner shops and Saturday afternoon matinees at the Broadway Cinema on the Falls Road
Patricia was, and is, a reader. A bookworm whose love affair with children’s literature began not with Winnie-The-Pooh (too ‘twee’) but with Rupert the Bear. In Bookworm: A Memoir of Childhood Reading, she lovingly and entertainingly recalls the books that lit up her childhood and recreates a map of Belfast, signposted by the libraries that fed her insatiable need for fiction.
Starting with Rupert the Bear, Craig chronicles the books she voraciously read and as you would expect from a literary critic, her views are strident. A lover of Blyton, she was particularly fond of the adventure stories, The Famous Five and Secret Seven, the Adventure and Mystery series that sparked her imagination.
We were proxy mystery-solvers, looking forward to the real thing; though as time went by and no solvable burglaries or strange disappearances occurred to require our attention in the vicinity of Slemish Way or La Salle Drive in west Belfast, we were left bemoaning the scarcity of real-life adventures on the Secret Seven model.
A ‘picker-upper’ of every type of fiction open to her in the library, she charges through the Just William and Billy Bunter series, but has little time for Wind in the Willows or Little Women – ‘the title alone was enough to depress the spirits’! She refers to an array of children’s books from the 50s and 60s – from Nancy Drew to the Chalet School, Hans Christian Anderson to LT Meade – and evokes that wonderful ability that children have to quite literally get ‘lost in a book’.
And soon I’m indoors, getting thawed by a blazing fire, cheerful adults about the place and a tea consisting of homemade wheaten bread, a piece of cake and a beaker of milk before. And reading, reading, reading.
Bookworm is ostensibly about the books Craig read, but it is also a love song to the libraries she used and the power they had to capture her imagination. Books were expensive and not plentiful at home, so the local library became her haven, a place where her need for fiction could be satisfied and as she traces the different libraries she used at different times in her childhood, a picture emerges of Belfast’s history and topography.
The place where her love of reading was fostered appears here to be as important as the books that were being read. The territory she covered was extensive. When she exhausted her local Carnegie Library on the Donegall Road, she moved on to the Falls Road Library and then on to the slightly dodgier terrain of the Protestant Shankill Road. As she gets older, the bus trips to different libraries get longer and Craig thinks nothing of a making a two-hour round bus trip to the library in Ligoniel in search of fictional treasures.
You alighted from the red city bus just opposite the library on a hilly street, and shot across the road with your assortment of books, eager to exchange them for other vivid titles and once again disarm ennui.
The book explores the history of these libraries and imagines other writers, such as Brian Moore or Ciaran Carson using them and presents a version of Belfast that is little seen and little explored. She does not completely ignore some of the underlying sectarian tension that is simmering in the city, but neither does she allow it to impede on her bookish adventures.
Like every Belfast child above the age of reason, I was well-schooled in the principles of sectarian expediency . . . Within a stone’s throw of Sandy Row I’d have had a Papist despicability to answer for.
Patricia Craig is not only a reader and a writer, but she is a book collector also, something she sees as ‘a natural corollary of the primary activity.’ Her love of childhood literature meant that she started collecting first editions while still at grammar school.
I should admit at this point, that I know Patricia – having curated two exhibitions for her husband, the painter Jeffrey Morgan – and I have visited their lovely old rambling home and Patricia’s study in particular. It is filled, from floor to ceiling, with shelves containing her vast collection of books from this era and attests to her love of children’s literature. Indeed the front cover of Bookworm is a close up photograph of Patricia’s own shelves.
Bookworm is written in a lovely relaxed style – mostly chronological, but with a conversational, relaxed style, that draws the reader in to Craig’s word-filled world. It is a stirring celebration of the joy of reading; the franchising power of the library and the love of the physical object that is a book.
What I’m trying to describe goes beyond an ordinary engagement with the narrative. What separates the fiction addict from the occasional reader is equivalent to the gulf between an acorn and an oak tree, or a rocking horse and a living pony.
Now, who amongst us could disagree with that?
About the Author:
Patricia Craig was born and brought up in Belfast. She moved to London in the 1960s, but has always retained strong links with her native city. In 1999 she returned with her husband, the painter Jeffrey Morgan, to live in Northern Ireland. She is the author, with Mary Cadogan, of three critical studies, beginning with You’re a Brick Angela! in 1976. She has written biographies of Elizabeth Bowen and Brian Moore.
Her memoir, Asking for Trouble, was published in 2007, and A Twisted Root: Ancestral Entanglements in Ireland, in 2012. An acclaimed critic and anthologist, she is the editor of many anthologies including The Ulster Anthology, The Belfast Anthology, The Oxford Book of Ireland and The Penguin Book of British Comic Stories.
I am a 40 something book buying addict trying to reduce the backlog one book at a time!