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Patricia: A literary childhood brought to book

The leading anthologist and critic has put together a fascinating memoir based on the joy kids feel at being transported to a whole new world through fiction and her own love of collecting novels

By Una Brankin

Published 14/11/2015

Enchanting: Patricia Craig's superb new collection explores the joy of children's literature
Enchanting: Patricia Craig's superb new collection explores the joy of children's literature
Patricia Craig
Opinionated: Patricia Craig wanted her memoir to take a personal, not critical, approach

Patricia Craig's 19th century home in Antrim has books on every single available surface. Precious first editions have pride of place on the bookshelves, more recent acquisitions sit in piles against the walls, and beautifully illustrated hardbacks take up all the occasional tables.

Unsurprisingly, there's not a Kindle or an iPad in sight.

"I like to have a book in my hand," says Patricia, echoing the sentiments of many readers.

"I know it's silly and I'll come round to it possibly, at some stage. I've no room for all the thrillers I read for light entertainment. I give some to Oxfam, but there's always a few I want to keep."

The publication of the leading anthologist and critic's latest book coincides, ironically, with a decrease in sales of Kindle - and with the opening of Amazon's new book store in Seattle's University Village, stocked with 6,000 books at the same price as its website.

In Bookworm, A Memoir of Childhood Reading, Patricia recalls her love of the stories she read, growing up on Belfast's Donegall Road in the Fifties and Sixties, and frequenting the "secular heaven" of libraries on the Falls, the Shankill, Ligoniel, the Ormeau Embankment and the Central Library in Royal Avenue.

Quoting the brilliant Leitrim-born writer John McGahern, she says: "There are no days more full in childhood than those days that are not lived at all, the days lost in a book.

"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," she continues.

"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."

Patricia's childhood passion led to life-long antiquarian book collecting, hence the thousands of titles dominating every straight line and nook and cranny of the former rectory she shares with her husband, Welsh artist Jeffrey Morgan - whose portraits of his wife and the poet Michael Langley do battle for wall space with the books.

"The house is falling down around us - my husband is very fond of Northern Ireland and we moved here from London in 1999 to save it, as well as to be closer to my ageing parents at the time, but as PG Wodehouse said, 'those of us in the throes of a collecting impulse will find ourselves more and more gripped as the years go on'," she explains.

"This is certainly true of me - from starting in a small way, I've now reached a point where books are climbing merrily up the walls and over the furniture.

"As a child, I would seek out every first edition and anything from the Twenties and Thirties I could get my hands on. I didn't read comics, but I did read periodicals like Girls' Crystal that came through the letterbox. My grandmother always had magazines at her house, the gate lodge in Dunmurry, and I'd skim through them, but I was a snob. I just loved well written children's books."

The couple's cats, Basil and Nidge, roam the available floor space and their huge rambling garden off Antrim's Greystone Road. Nidge is a tortoise-shell female inherited from Patricia's 98-year-old father Andy, who suffers from dementia and now resides in a nursing home. Both her parents encouraged her love of books, but it was Patricia's late mother Nora who was the biggest influence on her reading.

The youngest of a poor Catholic family in Lurgan, the former Nora Brady made it by virtue of her high IQ and scholarships, to St Michael's Grammar School in 1927, and on to Queen's University to study English and History, before marrying Andy, an Ulster Transport worker from Belfast.

It was a mixed marriage, examined in A Twisted Root - Ancestral Entanglements in Ireland, Patricia's 2012 exploration of her ancestors through Irish history.

"The circumstances of their marriage were a lot shakier than I realised at the time," she recalls.

"But I had a very happy childhood. Mum was a tremendous influence on me as a reader.

"She got fed up with my demands on her to read to me when I was very young, so she taught me how to read before I went to school. Then there was no stopping me.

"I took to it naturally and began a life-long obsession with books and reading. And my father was always supportive of my writing, even though it was - and still is - a very precarious way to make a living."

At 63, petite Patricia has a passing resemblance to the former model Patti Boyd, who broke George Harrison's heart when she left him for Eric Clapton. Patricia lived in London when the Beatles and Cream were in their heyday and "thoroughly enjoyed" the Swinging Sixties.

She went to art school there, having been expelled by the nuns at St Dominic's school convent on the Falls Road for kissing boys while studying Irish at a Donegal Gaeltacht - a "disgrace" vividly recalled in her 2011 memoir, Asking For Trouble.

"I knew I wanted to write at seven or eight, but I kept quiet - didn't want to sound self-opinionated - but I had a feeling I could," she says.

"Being expelled from school took me in the wrong direction, to Art College instead of Queen's, although my husband says avoiding academia was the best thing to happen to me. I'm a much more eclectic reader and I need to be entertained not edified all the time. I like detective fiction and I'm enjoying Robert Galbraith [aka JK Rowling] at the minute."

Patricia spending six years studying illustration, but never considered it as a career.

"I had a wonderful time in London in the mid-Sixties, but when I finished art school, I didn't want to teach," she remembers.

"I had never lost my interest in children's books of all kinds and when I met Mary Cadogan at a gathering in north London of old boys' papers enthusiasts, I was delighted to discover we shared that a common interest."

Following that first meeting of minds, Patricia joined forces with Mary, the literary historian, broadcaster and author who died last October at 86, to explore children's literature for a full-length, up-to-date survey.

The result was You're a Brick Angela, a study of girls' fiction between 1839 and 1975, published by Victor Gollancz in 1976 and since re-issued. It was the first of a series of well received books by Patricia, who went on to write an acclaimed biography of Brian Moore and edit 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.

Now, with Bookworm, she has come full circle from You're A Brick Angela.

"A couple of years ago, it struck me that the time was right to approach the topic of children's literature from a different angle - personal rather than critical, evocative rather than expository," she explains.

"Of course, as a literary critic, I couldn't keep strong opinions out of this memoir, but basically I wanted to pay tribute to all the hours and hours of stupendous enjoyment and engrossment I had lived through from about the age of four on, lost in a book.

"My first novel was Alice In Wonderland - some found it frightening but I found it hilarious; the Cheshire cat with nothing left of him but the big grin. Lewis Carroll was an absolute genius. He and E Nesbit [The Railway Children, The Enchanted Castle] and the William series [Just William by Richmal Crompton] you can re-read in sober adulthood."

A pre-eminent expert in these classic authors' craft, she knows the secret behind their appeal into their readers' adulthood.

"I think it's the author's detachment - they know exactly what they're doing to amuse kids and never to condescend to them. Just William was originally written for adults in magazines in the Twenties, then children found it hilarious.

"And then there are the authors who subscribed to feminism, like Louisa May Alcott in Little Women. Mary Cadogan and I had a special interest in the women's lib movement so it was fascinating to explore that strand in children's literature."

I'm delighted to hear that this learned critic hates the Eleanor H Porter novel Pollyanna and AA Milne's Winnie the Pooh, as much as I do.

"I don't like Anne of Green Gables either, apart from the first one," she says in distaste. "I was always opinionated as a child and would turn my nose up at certain books, like Enid Blyton, when I was six, although her Famous Five series was the Harry Potter of her time.

"Mum studied English and History at Queen's in the Forties, so there were always books by Wordsworth and Coleridge in the house, and there was never any blame attached to me having my nose stuck in a book. And, of course, libraries played such an important role in my life.

"We didn't get read to at school at Aquinas or St Dominic's - the nuns were quite strict and kept to the curriculum. But my friends and I would all share books and discuss them afterwards."

Without wallowing in nostalgia, Patricia paints an inviting portrait of pre-Troubles Belfast, with a shop on each corner, Saturday matinees at the Broadway, children skipping in the streets and plentiful, thriving libraries. It's a different universe for children today - even with modern mums following Kate Winslet's example and banning their children from social media.

So how does Patricia, who doesn't have children, reckon they can they be lured away from their screens and on to the written page?

"It can't be done," she concludes. "The only thing you can do is encourage them and talk about books, and let them know what's available."

There could be no better place to start than Bookworm.

Bookworm: A Memoir of Childhood Reading by Patricia Craig is published by Somerville Press, priced £10.

Patricia's picks for children

Under Five

Beatrix Potter, The Tale of Peter Rabbit, Peter Rabbit Library (boxed set).

Rupert Bear, any Rupert Annual.

Five-Twelve

E Nesbit, Five Children and It, The Phoenix and the Carpet.

Frances Hodgson Burnett, The Secret Garden.

Richmal Crompton, Just William (boxed set).

CS Lewis, The Lion, The Witch and The Wardrobe; complete Narnia set.

Twelve and Up (Young Adult)

Alan Garner, Elidor; The Owl Service.

Gillian Avery, The Warden’s Niece; The Elephant War.

William Mayne, Earthfasts.

Joan Aiken, The Wolves of Willoughby Chase.

Kate Saunders, Five Children on the Western Front (sequel to Five Children and It).

Sheena Wilkinson, Name Upon Name.

'Inside the library I was free from any form of juvenile harassment ...'

Bookworm takes in CS Lewis, Forrest Reid, Stephen Gilbert and Brian Moore - all esteemed local writers - along with Enid Blyton, Hans Christian Andersen, LT Meade, Frank Richards, Alfred Bestall, Mary Tourtel, Beatrix Potter and Angela Brazil, among many others. They all provided the author with an inexhaustible thirst for children's classics, as she conveys in the extract below.

By the time I was seven or eight, I was trusted to make my own way to the library, and soon this became an almost daily practice after school. It just entailed stepping on to a double-decker bus at the stop only yards from our front gate, and then alighting from a similar bus on the opposite side of the road on the return journey, carrying my current selection of reading material.

I must have cut an odd figure at the far end of the Donegall Road, with my skimpy plaits, posh royal blue Aquinas Hall blazer, Clarke's sandals and white ankle socks, but no one paid any attention to me, as far as I recall. Urchins at my own end of the road were more likely to go in for name-calling on account of the blazer, which seemed to get up their proletarian noses.

Actually, I wore it because I had to, not to lord it over anyone, particularly over local elementary school pupils. We certainly weren't a moneyed or pretentious family, and whatever surplus income we had probably went on the fees - four and a half guineas a term - at my convent preparatory school on the Malone Road. The royal blue uniform on top of that would have used up whatever meagre clothes allowance was allotted to me.

Possibly I escaped the jeers of backstreet contemporaries down the Donegall Road because I stuck to the main road; I never walked down Utility Street past the Cripples' Institute with Eureka Street behind it, or savoured the smell of newly-baked bread from the bakery in nearby Bentham Street. My whole attention was focused on furthering my vocation as a reader, not on making any foolhardy foray into dubious territory.

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 - if anyone had grasped the implication of my Aquinas Hall blazer, which admittedly was unlikely - I'd have had a Papist despicability to answer for, on top of acting Miss Lah-di-dah. Inside the library, though, with its punctilious hush and rays of dusty sunlight slanting through the windows high up in the walls above the rows of bookshelves, you were safe from any form of juvenile harassment.

The unspoken agreement was that any child borrower admitted into the select upper room would guarantee to remain on their best behaviour; if not you'd be ejected as fast as Mickey Mouse from a cannon, and a lot more ignominiously.

If cheerful unruliness was what you craved, you had to find it in some of the books.

Belfast Telegraph

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