In her new book author Patricia Craig explores the delights of childhood reading in 1950s Belfast. She tells JOANNE SAVAGE about her book habit
Craig is best known for having edited seminal collections such as The Rattle of The North: An Anthology of Ulster Prose (1992), which looks at work by William Carleton, CS Lewis and Seamus Heaney, and The Belfast Anthology (1999) which included poetry, fiction and visitors impressions of her native city.
Here the eminent Northern Ireland critic and author shares her passion for reading and for collecting books as interesting artefacts that encapsulate a period in time with wonderful vividness.
Bookworm takes us back to the Belfast libraries of the 1940s and 50s, when an ever-eager Patricia became a voracious reader of Richmal Crompton’s Just William series, and works by Enid Blyton and E Nesbitt, among a multitude of others, always eager to follow rambunctious characters on swashbuckling adventures and humorous escapades that afforded a real escape from the quotidian. Like the writer John McGahern, who she aptly quotes at the outset, she grew up with the feeling that “There are no days more full in childhood than those days that are not lived at all, the days lost in a book”.
Craig has immersed herself in literature and is something of a critical authority on juvenile fiction in English as well as an avid collector of books as artefacts. Her home in Co Antrim is filled with books from floor to ceiling, with a huge collection of fiction for children that Craig began accumulating while a student at London’s Central College of Art in the 1960s.
She describes herself in Bookworm as a “besotted pursuer of first editions and dust-jackets; a personal idiosyncrasy added on top of the reading habit, which has filled my life (and my bookshelves) with hundreds of highly charged, colourful and delectable volumes (or pieces of moonshine).”
“When I was growing up there was never any blame attached to me having my nose stuck in a book,” explains the author and devout bibliophile.
“Books were everywhere and I would visit the library almost everyday after school and inhale stories and return the next day for more.
“I wanted to explore the Belfast of my childhood and the books that so entertained and captivated me during my formative years.
“There were so many writers who meant a great deal to me and I hope that by writing about them some readers will be reminded of the joys afforded by juvenile fiction of this era.
“I wanted to create a web of recollections, observations and associations, with a good selection of children’s books at its centre.”
The author’s odyssey in books takes in CS Lewis, Forrest Reid, Stephen Gilbert and Brian Moore - all esteemed local writers; but also touches on Enid Blyton, AA Milne, Hans Andersen, LT Meade, Frank Richards, Alfred Bestall, Mary Tourtel, Beatrix Potter and Angela Brazil, among many, many others.
As she traces the roots of her literary journey through time, Craig interweaves personal recollection with social and cultural history, remembering a Belfast of “skipping ropes, corner shops and Saturday afternoon matinees at the Broadway Cinema”. Imaginative flights of fancy enliven the everyday and the geography of a seemingly more innocent, pre-Troubles Ulster.
She distinguishes herself from dilettante readers, noting her pedigree as a veteran bookworm: “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.”
And she writes spiritedly about the profound transformation fiction can afford: “For the duration of the story, you are somewhere else entirely, in every sense except the physical, imprisoned in an old house on a cliff that once belonged to smugglers, wearing a sunsuit in a heatwave in a pretty English village...or tumbling down a rabbit hole on a faraway, windswept Scottish island”.
“All my life I’ve been obsessed with books and reading and this started at a very early age,” she confides.
“Bookworm is really a personal look at childhood reading and at the libraries that existed in Belfast at that time. The 1950s was a nice time to grow up, actually - we had to rely on books and the number available to us was quite extraordinary. I remember becoming so immersed in Richmal Crompton’s Just William series - there were something like 30 instalments - and it always seemed to me that in a lot of the fiction of the era the boys are the ones having these great adventures - this appealed to me and I felt able to escape into new worlds through the pages of books.
“It used to be a case of going into the library, taking the book out and returning it the next day.
“I want to celebrate this immense pleasure and to look back at a particular moment in Belfast’s literary and cultural history.”
Craig’s love affair with books is bounteously rendered in this new overview of formative reading, a nostalgic look at the delights of literary escapism and book collecting, libraries and a bygone Belfast.
Bookworm: A Memoir of Childhood Reading by Patricia Craig is published by Somerville Press, priced £10.00.