Broadcast on Christmas Miscellany
RTE Radio One, December 25, 2003
Our next-door neighbour, when I was growing up, was a widowed lady by the name of Mrs Gore-Hickman. Her house, though ostensibly the same as ours, was an island of protestant grace in our teeming housing estate. Whenever my father approached her – which he did at every conceivable turn – his accent would rise a tone or two in affectation.
“Oh, Mrs Gore-Hickman! How are you, Mrs Gore-Hickman? Not at all, Mrs Gore-Hickman, sure I was mowing my own lawn. I was wondering, Mrs Gore-Hickman, would you like your gates closed for you?”
Mrs Gore-Hickman gave bridge parties. At that age I had no clear idea what a bridge party involved, save that, seemingly, it required a bountiful supply of sweets. For her house was a treasure-trove of sweets. She had them in open bowls on every table, chocolates and truffles, and queer continental confections, whose very wrappers hinted rare and unimagined tastes. When she holidayed, which she did seasonally, to Wicklow and Sligo, my mother would water her houseplants for her. And I would accompany my mother through the rooms, marvelling at this open display, the sheer luxuriance of it – sweets at every turn – and my mother’s eagle eye defying my thieving hands.
Upon a Christmas Eve my father called me to go visit Mrs Gore-Hickman. “Who knows,” he hinted: “she might have a present for you.” So I knocked on her door. Sweets was my first and final thought. It had to be sweets. What else had the woman to give? A box of sweets, an entire box of those incomparable sweets, and all to myself. I could hardly contain my excitement.
Mrs Gore-Hickman asked about my schooling and told me I was growing into a fine young man. Beyond the sweets, I had no feelings one way or the other for the woman. Save, tolerantly, I was willing to forgive her double-barrelled surname: the consequence, I was sure, of a shot-gun wedding.
She handed me my present. And I knew immediately it was not sweets. It was not sweets nor the smell of sweets, not even biscuits. The hard edge and flat extent told the present was a book. The so-called present. A lousy useless book.
Our home had no books. Shelves we had, great wide sweeps of shelves, with Capa di Monte roses, holiday china, those wooden elephants whose trunks must face the door – “Why do they have to face the door?”
“It’s to keep the tigers away,” my father would explain.
“But there aren’t any tigers in Ireland.”
“See?” says my father: “it works.”
And the only reading was the local evening newspaper, read out loud at tea-table, religiously, column after column of the classified ads. Even at school I never read, leastways I never finished, the books on the syllabus. I sat exams without reading them. I don’t know, but schoolbooks then were specifically chosen to dampen young spirits. It wasn’t that life was too interesting. Life already was dull enough without the further drudgery of book-reading.
So that present was relegated to the high shelf in my room; and there it lay, unopened, unthought of, gathering dust for the next two, three years. It came to my Intermediate Exams and, the way schoolboys do, I thought to cram 10 years of idled study into the last two weeks of term. I cleared all distractions from my room – music, games, everything. The last item on my shelf was that crusty old book. Ivanhoe, read the cover: by Sir Walter Scott. There’s no point throwing that out, I thought – I’m never going to be distracted by that.
Well, of course, that’s all I did those two weeks, read Ivanhoe. I read it two, three, four times. And I remember the pages turning, thoughtless of turning them, entirely and for the first time captivated by a story. And the later joy of skipping pages, and the further wonder of delay, of earning an exciting passage, knowing it was on its way. It was a revelation to me. Books can be fun, they can be entertaining, you can learn things out of books. A book can take you out of yourself, take you places you never imagined. They’re interesting things, are books.
It was the start of something big in my life, though I could not then tell how big. Whoever would have thought? A scorned present from a kind old lady. Ivanhoe, by Sir Walter Scott.