Sunday, 11 February 2018

Reading and Redding Up


As Mid Term Break begins and snow has caused my son’s basketball game to be cancelled, I’m availing of the opportunity to read and redd my way through the mountain of things I have put by my writing space at the dining table since Christmas. These include receipts, schoolwork, notebooks, to do lists, shells and sea glass lifted from Rathmullan walks with Summer, my kindle, novels, things cut out of the newspaper and poetry books. These are hastily bundled to make way if we need the table, as when Garden Room Writers met here last week. It’s amazing how the pile accumulates and appears to the untrained eye (my mother’s) as a mess. Still, I know exactly what is where and that none of it is for dumping.

For years my morning ritual includes time spent with a poem, a pause before the working day commences. The first coffee of the day tastes of poetry. Last thing most evenings when the lights are going out and the kitchen is stilling I dip in again. The pick-up-ability of a poetry book means there is always one in my handbag to pass the moments I must while away over the course of the day.  Bed-time reading is always a novel (The Witchfinder’s Sister these nights), but these are like TV: entertainment, downtime, relaxation and relatively forgettable. Poetry reading is something else, maybe closer to prayer in my life, certainly in that it insinuates its way into most of my waking time. It’s soulful, meditative, for sure but also like the best conversations it is provocative and inspiring. I am the better for it.

Among the books I bundle today are Annemarie Ni Churreainn’s BLOODROOT, and Amanda Bell’s First the Feathers from Doire Press and the beautiful gift of Emma McKervey’s collection, The Rag Tree Speaks, that Lisa sent along with my order. Also in there, the most wonderful Dead End from Joan Newmann from Summer Palace Press and brand-new purchase, Angel Hill from Michael Longley, published by Cape Poetry.  I feel blessed among these books, this rich seam to mine as the snow falls outside. I am reminded with each dip into these collections of Imelda Maguire’s beautiful ‘Why I Love Poetry’ from her collection Serendipidy from Revival Press.
“I love the friendliness of poetry –
the way the poet expects me to see
what they mean. Like a friend would.
I love the trust in that. I love that
 every poem is another hand, reaching,
warming.”


Saturday, 13 January 2018

Thank you Michael Bond - born on this day in 1926

This is me, Deirdre McClay (née McStravick), and my Edward bear in the late 1960s. I've no idea how I named him but I still have him today and he doesn't look much different I must say. I used to think that the years had been unkind to him, but this photo proves otherwise. Still, I blame him for my love of all things bear. He was my voice in play during my under 10 days. 

On Wednesday 28th June 2017, I drove to Queen's University Belfast to lift my doctoral gown. I graduated shortly afterwards with a doctorate in education after 6 years of part-time research. As I drove towards Belfast, I listened to the radio. In the headlines, Michael Bond's death was announced - the author of the Paddington series.  It was particularly poignant for me to hear of his death on that day, as his Paddington books, and the TV series that they generated, were a seminal influence for me as a young reader and writer. He helped foster in me a life-long interest in reading and writing. And here an argument is made that Paddington was like a refugee who enriched the culture around him - so, big and important ideas explored indeed.

I've also had the good fortune, in recent years, to be involved in the Maynooth University initiative, SWIFT (Summer Writing Institute For Teachers). During July last year, I helped Dr. Alison Farrell facilitate another SWIFT experience, where teachers from all levels of education (early childhood through to third level) come together to share and explore good practice in the teaching of writing.  At one of those SWlFT weeks in 2014, I wrote this piece on my love for the Paddington Bear series. It was based on a creative writing exercise about food memories. 

It seems very appropriate to share this now, as it celebrates Paddington, Michael Bond, the joy of reading, and the influence of others on your reading and writing life.

But mostly - thank you Michael Bond for the joy of Paddington Bear.




       Marmalade Sandwiches

As a child of eleven, just started secondary school in the mid 1970s in Northern Ireland, I loved to read the Paddington Bear books by Michael Bond. Paddington was a stowaway bear, from Darkest Peru, found by the Brown Family at Paddington Station, wearing only a hat and sitting on his battered suitcase. 

My Dad was an English teacher, and a school librarian; over time, he brought me home most of the Paddington series. Occasionally, he would bring me to visit his library. It was a large, bright room filled with wooden desks and chairs. Table tops were scored with blue, black and red-penned graffiti written by generations of teenage boys: girl’s and boy’s names, swear words, and slogans. Every wall was lined with bookcases, and I could take my pick from browsing the colourful book spines. I would flit about, dipping in and out like a bee in flowers sipping its fill. Some books, I slipped out and rejected as boyish, but others I lingered over, flicking through text and illustrations. Sometimes Dad would interrupt with borrowing suggestions – like, Asterix the Gaul or Treasure Island. But, for a while, Paddington was my favourite. Back then, the learned bear, with the hard stare, had a five minute programme on BBC1. It was aired before the evening news, and I watched it religiously. 
One distinctive thing about Paddington, of which there were many, was his love of marmalade. And so, I copied him. Every day for about two years, I ate marmalade sandwiches for my school lunch. My Mum made them each morning from chunky-sliced, white pan bread. God Bless her, she would spread the marmalade to avoid the peel, because I disliked its taste. Then, she would cut the round into two rectangular chunks.
First year lunchtime was either the chattering queues to the canteen, shuffling through the aroma of hot food, or, the free-for-all scrum of lunch boxes in the cloakroom. Girls with packed lunches would find a space to sit on the thick heating pipes among the fashion-free zone of anoraks and duffle-coats. The warm pipes were low to the ground and cosy on our backsides. We balanced lunch boxes on our laps while we chirped gossip and peered at each other opening or unwrapping, tearing or peeling, the daily offerings. The posh lunches had foil-wrapped biscuits, or a bag of crisps. My lunch was always the same, but I loved the marmalade jam - golden and translucent. I would pull open the sandwich first, to inspect for stray shreds. Any tiny worms of peel, I smeared in my lunch box, before sucking clean my sticky fingers.
The sandwiches were always moist and matured in my schoolbag. My routine was to eat the white bread first, savouring the bitter-sweet stickiness. The dark crusts, I kept until last, hoping for orange seepage in the firm edges. Sometimes, my Mum would use plain, crusty bread. The flesh was heavier and more resistant to marmalade absorption. I liked its firm texture, but the crusts were tough and burnt-tasting with the look of tree bark. I would eat away the flesh, leaving behind the round of crust like discarded bark shavings. 
Nobody else brought marmalade sandwiches for lunch, and my family teased me about  my 'Bear Love'. I liked that.
After a time at secondary school, I finished reading the Paddington series, and moved to Tarka the Otter, and Ring of Bright Water. Later, I moved on to Born Free, Black Beauty and Watership Down before growing out of animal books altogether. Unlike Paddington, they broke my heart. Some animals were separated from their owners, or they died. Lives were short. I switched for a while to romantic fiction with its happy endings.
Today, Paddington Bear remains one of my heroes. He of the oversized hat, duffle-coat, and wellingtons - that eccentric bear shipped from Darkest Peru by elderly Aunt Lucy. After all these years, I’d still recommend his adventures - I read them to my own children many years ago. Days were measured by cocoa and buns for elevenses with Mr Gruber. There were London outings with the Browns, household mishaps, and mayhem over his mean neighbour, Mr Curry. And always, there was a spare jar of marmalade under his hat. His world was full of friendship, fun, joy, and mischief.
If you ever find yourself in a spot of bother, look up Paddington, read and smile.