One of my family’s favourite stories about teenage Connor is from the summer I was fourteen. It was my second day of a three-week stay in Irish college in the West Kerry Gaeltacht. I was really into the book I was reading and I was really not into socialising with other fourteen-year-old boys, at least not boys I wasn’t used to.
We were staying in the house of a tiny elderly woman which was a good two or three miles from the GAA hall which we had to walk to and from three times a day along a cow-shit-sodden boreen. We would have breakfast and then walk to lessons in the morning, then we would walk home for dinner, something typical of rural Ireland at that time like flavourless spaghetti bolognese with lashings of dry mashed potatoes. In the afternoon, we would walk to sports, then home for our tea and then back to the hall again for two hours of céilí dancing before walking home again in the dark. There was a lot of walking to do.
As you’ll probably know, I was never the biggest fan of walking. However, as I’ve said, I was really into the book I was reading: Jeffrey Archer’s Kane and Abel, and as I was walking back from sports for my tea, I read. I needed to read to escape from the grim reality of having to do sports with thin heterosexuals, although I wouldn’t have expressed it like that when I was fourteen.
Anyway, I got so into the book that I got lost. I didn’t find my way home for tea. I wandered around the lanes and country roads for two hours without having any idea where I was. I wasn’t that bothered. My book was far better than dry mashed potatoes or than being ignored by thin boys.
After a while, I found a public phone box and realised I was near the hall where I’d have to be for the céilí in an hour. I didn’t know my bean a’ tí’s (host mother’s) phone number and I didn’t have any money, so I made a reverse charges phone call home to my parents to explain to them what had happened and to ask them to look up my bean a’ tí’s number and let her know I wouldn’t be home for tea because I’d got lost because I was reading but that I’d found the hall and I’d be home that night.
My poor dad rang directory enquiries to find the number. (Parents were very trusting back then. We were all sent off into the middle of nowhere and parents weren’t given any emergency contact details.) The man in directory enquiries was from Dublin and didn’t know any Irish at all and was useless at trying to find my bean a’ tí’s phone number. Her name was Nóra Bean Uí Shúilleabháin and he couldn’t make head nor tail of it. Apparently my dad spelled it out repeatedly to no effect. The address didn’t help either. Her house was in a little townland called Cathair Bó Sine (Old Cow City) (Literally) near Ceann Trá. Contact was unsuccessful.
However, what I didn’t know was that my bean a’ tí had rung the school principal to tell her I hadn’t come home for tea and she had been driving around the Ceann Trá area for the last hour. When she found me, she was obviously hugely relieved. She asked what had happened and I admitted that I’d been reading while walking and had got lost. She laughed and brought me for my tea of now cold dry mashed potatoes and a friendly scolding from my bean a’ tí.
Books really are the best escape.
I’ve always read lots. When I was eleven and my sister and our friends all went to the cinema together to see Beethoven (the movie about the dog, not the composer), I decided not to go to see the film and I spent the two hours in Waterstones instead. I was a weird child, happier among books than among other children.
And I started reading too “old” before I was ready. Gore Vidal’s Messiah blew my pubescent mind and made me suspicious of religion at a very young age, and I read the Great Gatsby before I could possibly have understood what it meant. I read The Handmaid’s Tale too young and misunderstood its message dramatically.
But I did understand a lot of books and I got better at reading over the years. I loved them and I escaped into them. I have comfort books that I’ve read multiple times and they’re like old friends to me now. These include James Herriot’s vet books and the Rumpole books, and of course the Little Women series, the only books I can quote.
At times in life I read a lot and at others I don’t. While I was living in Longford, I stopped reading very much at all and I slipped under the spell of podcasts, subscribing to over forty of them.
And I still like podcasts, but since I’ve moved to South London and my commute is longer, I’ve climbed back into books. And it’s wonderful.
I’m making headway with my to-read list for the first time in a long time. I still listen to my podcasts while I walk but as soon as I sit on the Tube, I press pause and get my book out and it’s bloody brilliant. I wake up in the morning, not particularly looking forward to work, but excited about my commute. And the end of the day at work comes and I can feel the excitement building again. I get to see what’s happening in my book again! I’m now one of those annoying people who get off the Tube during rush hour and are still reading and not looking where they’re going because as long as I’m reading I’m not at work yet. I pray I always have a long commute!
I’ve been reading a few different types of books recently and some have produced different reactions. I read A Monster Calls, a YA novel about a boy who is struggling to accept that his mother is dying of cancer and is fighting between his twin desires for it all just to be over as soon as possible and for it never to be over. I was reading this while I was on a train to Stansted to fly home to see my dad as he was dying of cancer for what turned out to be the second last time. I cried out loud as I read it on the train, not able to care about who saw or heard me.
I haven’t blogged in almost two months, which I think is the longest pause in my seven years of blogging. I’ve been a mess of emotion with my dad’s death and with his dying. I’m not anything like over it, but I’m writing again. There’ll be another blogpost soon.