(Image source; Wikimedia Commons)
“The unvarnished story of a brawling genius and his life as a young revolutionary.”—London Times Literary Supplement
So read the cover of the book I held in my hands. It was another summer at my grandparent’s home, seven years from the time my brother and I had first visited alone, and much had changed. We had learned upon leaving that we had a baby brother. Three years later, a little sister joined the band. With more mouths to feed, our father had found new employment which required him to travel less often. This, in turn, meant that we spent less time with our grandparents. Christmastime was usually a safe bet, and if not an entire summer, at least a week or two here and there. We had become more interested in sport and the outdoors and any sort of mischief we could get into, as long as we could get out of it in the end. But as much as we had grown and changed, our love for books had remained and grown along with us, and so there I was in the attic once again, this time alone, searching for something more “adult” to read. I was, after all, a grown man now at almost fourteen. Not only had I read Lord of the Flies and On the Beach, those books were available in the library of my new school. I needed something with an edge to it, something forbidden, something that none of my friends had read, and Playboy wasn’t available in the stacks of my grandmother’s library.
Fortunately, I had been able to acquire an issue or two for my personal collection.
And so I came across the book I held in my hands; Borstal Boy by Brendan Behan.
I knew who Brendan Behan was; his book Brendan Behan’s Island was in my grandmother’s sitting room. But in the attic were books by him I’d never read; two plays, The Quare Fellow and The Hostage, along with Borstal Boy and Confessions of an Irish Rebel. It was the latter I had reached for first, but there was a bit on the dust jacket about it being a sequel to Borstal Boy, and I didn’t want to miss any of the story, if it was a good one. I opened the book and began reading;
“Friday, in the evening, the landlady shouted up the stairs:
“Oh God, oh Jesus, oh Sacred Heart. Boy, there’s two gentlemen to see you.”
I knew by the screeches of her that these gentlemen were not calling to enquire after my health, or to know if I’d had a good trip. I grabbed my suitcase, containing Pot. Chlor, Sulph Ac, gelignite–“
It was at this point that I snapped the cover shut and looked over my shoulder. I had been struck with an inexplicable urge to urinate, combined with a rush of adrenaline. No feeling quite like it; I was doing something very wrong and it felt so very good. I had found my book.
I retreated to a corner of the attic and began reading Behan’s autobiographical tale of arrest and imprisonment. It was like a Huckleberry Finn for Fenian bastards, at least in my mind, and I quickly became engrossed in the tale. So much so, that I took to a habit of mine which I still have to this day, and began walking whilst reading. And I walked downstairs and into the sitting room. By the time my granny walked in, I was so deeply involved in the book that I had already made up my mind that no one in this world was going to break me, by God.
No one. Certainly not an old woman. She doesn’t understand us, people like Brendan and me, we’re the ones that have to go to jail while they—
“Where did you get that book?”
“The attic.” Where else? Trying to read ,woman–
“Who told you that you could read it?!”
I look up at her and smiled.
“Well, nobody told me I couldn’t, did they?”
That was it. Up to that point, I had never seen her move so fast in my life. Only she wasn’t moving towards me, she was off in the opposite direction, towards the kitchen, which meant I was soon to face either Ye Olde Wooden Spoon, or even worse, my father’s childhood arch-nemesis, the Frying Pan.
Bold soldier though I was, I knew when to cut my losses and burst out the front door running like a scalded dog. I didn’t have much time. I ran next door to Mrs. Roane’s house.
Mrs. Roane was my granny’s best friend. She and her husband were childless, and they had a standing rule that all children in the neighbourhood were welcome in their home at any time, particularly if they were in trouble of some sort. I felt that my situation qualified. I ran through the back door without knocking (not required) and into her kitchen, where she sat listening to the radio. She looked thoroughly unsurprised to see me.
“You’ve got to hide me!” I squeaked. “I’m on the run!”
She started laughing. “What is it this time? Your Gran catch you with the McMillan girl again?”
“No, it’s—wait! What?! She told you about that?” I felt my face flush crimson.
Now she was enjoying herself immensely, seemingly oblivious to the fact that I was about to be murdered by my own kin.
“Oh yes indeed. She told everyone about that, including young McMillan’s father, I suspect. I doubt you’ll be seeing each other again any time soon. Oh! Here comes your granny just now.”
I ran into the sitting room and hid behind the couch, my favorite hiding place since I was a little boy. As I listened to Mrs. Roane and my grandmother converse in hushed tones, I tried to fathom what the fuss was about. Yes, the book was political, even a little controversial decades after having been published. But it wasn’t as if my family was a house divided when it came to history and politics. Soon I heard Mrs. Roane tell my granny goodbye in a voice I felt was suspiciously loud. I heard the kitchen door close.
“You can come out now. She’s gone.”
I stuck my head out from behind the couch like a turtle peeking from it’s shell.
“It’s not a trick, she’s gone.” Mrs. Roane’s smile was gone, too. She didn’t look angry, but a little sad.
“What is the matter? It’s only a book.”
“Yes, and it’s a good book, too. That one is one of your father’s.”
I turned the book over in my hands. “Well, why is it here, and not at our house?”
She smiled. “That would be the question. Tea?”
I spent the rest of the day enjoying the book. Mr. Roane returned home in the evening, having gone fishing. After being briefed on the situation by his wife, he just laughed and shook his head.
“Staying for dinner, are you?” he asked.
“Oh! I’m sorry! The answer is, ‘No sir, I was just on my way home to explain myself to me granny and take it like a man.’ Off you go!”
When I entered the house, all was quiet. I went upstairs to my room—my father’s old room—and sat on the bed. My stomach was upset and so was my mind. I put the book on a shelf and went downstairs to the sitting room. My grandmother was smoking and drinking, staring out the window. I’d seen her like this before and knew that it would last all night; she would scarcely say a word and would not turn on the lights when the sun set, just sit there in the darkness thinking thoughts that were hers and hers alone. I didn’t want to disturb her, but felt that I should at least apologise.
“I’m sorry I took the book without asking,” I muttered.
“No, you’re not,” she said. “And an apology for something you’re not sorry for is a sign of weakness. ”
I stood in silence for a minute before having the audacity to ask, “What’s for dinner?”
When I returned home a week or so later, I took both Borstal Boy and Confessions of an Irish Rebel with me. I showed them to my father and told him about the incident with my grandmother. He shrugged.
“She probably thinks you’re too young for those sorts of books. But you’re not, are you?”
“No, I’m not.”
“Here,” he said. “Try this one.” He handed me his copy of Trinity by Leon Uris. It had been sitting on a shelf above our television ever since I could remember, next to Ireland; a Terrible Beauty, which was also by Uris, with photography by his wife Jill. That book I’d read, because it was shorter. And it had pictures. Trinity was massive; the only other book that large in my home was a collection of Shakespeare’s plays.
“It’s a good book,” he said, “you’ll like it.”
It was too long for me, too dry for me, and I was too young for the book, I suppose. I gave up about halfway through and went to give it back to my father.
“What did you think of it?” he asked, expectantly.
“It’s rubbish. It’s too long, and he keeps trying to tell both sides, and it doesn’t work.”
“Bobby Sands memorised the entire thing and used to recite it chapter by chapter to the other prisoners in Long Kesh, you know.”
“I doubt it.”
“Gimme my fuckin’ book back,” he said, swiping it from my hands.
It was many years before I saw it again.
And so I continued upon my quest to find books that suited my ever changing teenage mood. Although I’d read more than one “adult” book by this time, the first book that I can remember reading that didn’t end the way I wanted was Orwell’s 1984. I had a vague idea of what it was about, and it seemed to mirror my situation perfectly. Teachers and parents and police and governments all trying to tell me what to do, sucking the life out of me, trying to turn me into a zombie, a slave. I instantly identified with Winston Smith, the book’s protagonist.
It is important to note here that in my family’s household, books were seen as sacred treasures and to be treated as such. There was no leaving books lying around, no dog-earing the pages, no writing in them or outlining passages. This made what I did after finishing 1984 a high crime.
Somehow, in my fourteen year old mind, I thought that Good was going to triumph over Evil, and that no matter how bad old Winston’s plight, he was somehow going to get himself out of the awful pickle he was in by the end of the book. As the pages became fewer and fewer, I became more and more anxious, telling myself that I had gotten hold of an abridged edition possibly, or some pages had been ripped out, probably by some Thought Police bastards. But no. I turned the final page and scanned down to the final words….
he loved Big Brother…
screamed “Fuck me!”…..
and threw the book across the room as hard as I could, where it met the wall with such force that it sounded as if a gun had been fired inside the house.
I could hear my father coming down the hall at speed. I was doomed.
He flung my bedroom door opened.
“What the hell was that?!”
He saw me. And he saw me looking at the book lying on the floor. He walked over to it, picked it up and smiled.
I was very afraid.
“What’s wrong?” he asked. “Not a good book?”
“It is a good book. It’s just that…I don’t know…”
“The only thing wrong with this book,” he said, placing it on one of my shelves with care, “is the title.”
I had no idea where he was going but I wasn’t being killed at the moment, so I played along. “What’s wrong with the title?”
“Well, Orwell wrote this book decades ago. People probably read it and thought, ‘Ah, 1984 is a ways away. It’s a futuristic book.’ But all of the things he talks about in this book were already happening when he wrote it. Maybe not as obvious, but they were happening, and happening still. 1984 has come and gone, son.”
“I know what year it is,” I said.
“Well, at least you know something.” He just stood in front of me, as if waiting for me to say something, so I did.
“I guess we’re all fucked, then.”
“Did the book make you angry?”
“Then we’re not all fucked.”
(to be continued…)