From reading in the trees to running from the British Army
First published in The Irish Times
Getting lost in deep hedges and enchanting books were my favourite forms of escape.
In fact, most of my adventures as a boy began by reading books up trees, supported by swaying branches, listening to the rustling sound of leaves and watching their shadow-play dance across the freshly turned pages.
I was a clambering bookworm, always on the move, and through the whispering depths of trees, I was able to see and hear the characters of my favourite stories in ways that were impossible to invent or remember at home.
I grew up in a republican heartland in the North, but I never really understood the context of the Troubles, or the frame of reference. I knew that my neighbours and the security forces were fighting a war, a shadowy underground war that by the 1980s had descended into a sickening cycle of mindless violence.
By the age of 10, I had perfected a makeshift form of tree-hut by taking an old piece of carpet or rug and nailing it across two stout branches
I tried to ignore the bad dreams of the news bulletins and the angry politicians, and devoted myself to the art and feng shui of reading. By the age of 10, I had perfected a makeshift form of tree-hut by taking an old piece of carpet or rug and nailing it across two stout branches, and then covering it with a lump of tarpaulin to keep the rain at bay.
I used to love crawling into these swinging huts and stretching out with a good book. I would listen to the yawning sound of the wind or the dripping rain and give myself up to the flow of words, drifting in and out of the narrative with the strange feeling that I was in motion, travelling a long way from home.
The hours would pass and I was never sure if I had been reading or daydreaming. It was something about the soothing orientation of my body and the tree, the leafy air, and the double immersion, first in nature and then in words, that encouraged the thought projections of deep reading and the magical journey of my imagination.
So this summer, with a renewed sense of parental adventure, I set off into the hedges around our home to construct tree-house reading rugs for our two eldest daughters. I wanted to get them back into the landscape and back into books. I wanted them to discover the joys of slipping a field or two away from home and their parents, and tucking themselves under the canopy of a tree with their favourite book for company.
Most of all, I wanted to release them from the tenacious grip of their mobile phones. Working from home since they were infants, I was used to being the manager of their lives, and it has been hard to hand control over to these expensive devices dubiously branded as technology, but which seemed to be drawing them deeper into a world as thin and brittle as the glass of their phone screens.
My most exciting memories are bound up with books, too. Reading was a form of trespass, of breaking rules behind adults’ backs
Perhaps at 12 and 14 years old, my girls are just growing up, and I should get used to the little silences and our sudden inability, at times, to agree or find areas of common interest. Perhaps their phones are just another mode of escape, as books and trees were for me, a shelter from the prying eyes of adults. Perhaps the way they are behaving is the way I behaved years ago, and have so long put behind me that I have forgotten what it is like to be a teenager.
But the warmest memories I have are bound up with books and trees, full of childhood dreams, or rather the childhood I dreamed of having. My summers were shaped by the colourful mysteries of Enid Blyton and her gangs of childhood sleuths on the trails of kidnappers and horrid smugglers. My most exciting memories are bound up with books, too. Reading was a form of trespass, of breaking rules behind adults’ backs. My mind could touch feelings and thoughts I was not supposed to, delving into worlds that seemed more intense and sensual than my own. I could cross the frontiers fenced off by my Catholic upbringing, all the things it was impossible or too dangerous to do, coming of age along the Irish Border during the Troubles, when going for a walk anywhere was inseparable from the sensation of being sighted along the barrel of a gun.
I attended a boys-only grammar school in Dungannon, which was housed in the same bleak, grey building as a girls-only grammar, the two separated by glass doors and invisible lines you were forbidden to cross.
Right next to the schools lay the sprawling fortifications of a British Army base. The atmosphere was so pressurised I could feel it in every fibre of my body. The sense of confinement in the narrow grey corridors packed with pupils, the army camp next door, and the girls’ school hemmed in between our school and all that military hardware, the watchtowers and slabs of reinforced concrete bearing down upon us as we played football in the playgrounds, the inflated security and barbed wire, the vacant darkness of the recessed windows.
Vigilance and surveillance saturated my school day. The radio masts and antennae on the watchtower that suggested a constant listening presence. The mass of girls’ faces that caught your eye through the glass doors, made insubstantial, almost weightless, by the strident roar of the army helicopters overhead
The primness of their blue uniforms and long skirts, their sensual distance, and the watchful presence of the nuns and priests combined to make me and the other boys feel constantly restless.
Break-times were punctuated by daily shooting practice in the army base, the echoes of the gunshots rattling back from walls of steel and concrete. Waiting for the buses home, we saw the soldiers returning to base on foot, running backwards along the road, crouching and taking up covering positions for each other, as if at any moment they might be shot in an ambush. One evening, the IRA launched a mortar bomb attack from right in front of the school. I don’t ever remember feeling frightened, but we were vigilant and wary, the high emotions of adolescence carrying us through those days, the feelings of excitement and happiness constantly balancing on the edge of despair, the lightness and nausea in our stomachs.
Hiding among greats
In the school library, I read Beckett and pretentiously learned off lines from Malone Dies to impress my friends. During maths class, I tried to imitate Beckett’s style and wrote withering observations on scraps of paper that I passed to my fellow pupils. I read Sartre and Camus, struggled in the dark depths of Dostoevsky and Nietzsche. I was searching for an escape from my enclosed existence and books were like bright windows into other lands.
In a Penguin collection of modern ghost stories, I came across some passages of mildly erotic writing. I hid the book in one of the tree huts but it got soaked in the rain. I retrieved it a few weeks later, thickened by the damp, fat, yellowing and misshapen.
I took it home and painstakingly dried it by the fire so that I could reread the pages that had lit up my 13-year old mind. For an entire afternoon, I was gripped by the process of drying each page, reading it, and then gingerly turning the next. I was working with the book, prolonging the tension, using the heat of the fire to draw out its secrets, building the excitement.
One Sunday, there was an IRA funeral in our parish. My younger brothers and I could sense the distant whirring of the army helicopters slanting over the horizon
The strain of holding the pages as they dried, the warmth blazing on my cheeks, and the accumulating dread of the stories made me light-headed but entranced. I was also queasy with the fear that my mother might read it and discover the forbidden passages.
I kept retreating to my tree-huts all through my teenage years. One summer, I began writing down the number-plates of cars that passed along the roads. It became another introvert’s obsession to add to the reading. Memorising number plates soon became my automatic response when I spotted a strange car.
I liked having the numbers for the record, to build up a collection. Every vehicle was worth watching, especially on the crooked roads along the Border. Their number plates were like announcements, premonitions I could not ignore, secret messages that had to be recorded and studied later.
I remember the rapt way my father stood when a car loitered outside our house, his figure motionless by the curtains, transfixed by the shimmer of idling metal through the hedge. Strange cars parked on the roads around our house always seemed to hold him spellbound.
He slowed down while passing them, craning his neck to make eye contact with the driver and check what was in the back of the car.
“There’s activity,” he’d remark to my mother. But the nature of the activity was always unknown. I could feel it, however, an unremitting suspicion hanging in the air, motorists passing each other in coded moments of silence and salute, vehicles brushing the thorn hedges, tyres sinking into the muddy verges.
I never grasped the danger hidden within my lists of number-plates, or how they might be perceived as part of a more sinister pattern of surveillance and information gathering.
One Sunday, there was an IRA funeral in our parish chapel. My younger brothers and I were busy playing and reading in one of our tree-huts. We could sense the tension in the quietness of the roads, the gloomy light hanging across the fields, and the distant whirring of the army helicopters slanting over the horizon.
At one point, a helicopter drew close and hovered above us, the chucking sound of its rotor blades drowning out all other noises. I could see the face of a soldier leaning out of the carrier bay, staring earnestly at us as we crouched in the hedge.
Before us, a wide circle of grass turned bright green and gleamed in the downward air currents. We thought the helicopter was going to land but it swung away, the soldier still leaning out and staring at us. Then, it disappeared over the hills and we thought nothing more of it.
I saw that the figure had gained on us. He had turned a lot more dangerous looking, dressed in the dark green uniform of the RUC, and gripping a sub-machine gun across his chest
We were heading home later through a neighbour’s field when I looked back and saw a tall figure running towards us with a gun. We were trespassing, and I was convinced it was the landowner chasing us with a shotgun, angry with us for making holes in his hedges.
My mother’s dire warning had finally come true.
We took off and ran towards the safety of our own hedges. When I looked back, I saw that the figure had gained on us. He had turned a lot more dangerous looking, dressed in the dark green uniform of the RUC, and gripping a sub-machine gun across his chest.
We ran harder. I glanced back and saw he had been multiplied into a field of men running towards us in the same stooping position and carrying guns. Somehow, in those intervening moments, a squad of soldiers had assembled themselves out of nowhere.
Over the brow of the hill, they came running, making a clean and orderly sweep of the field, covering every part of it, closing off the escape routes.
We glanced at each other, wide-eyed, confirming what we had just seen and then we ran for dear life. The prospect of being chased by an angry farmer suddenly felt a lot more reassuring. I scrambled through the hedge and was almost within sight of home when I turned back and saw Paul, my five-year old brother, standing transfixed as the tall policeman vaulted through the hedge and stood over him. My brother was open-mouthed, staring straight up at the gun.
Dangerous as my predicament was, I knew that I had to go back. I kept close to the hedge, and grew aware of soldiers in camouflage gear crouching in firing positions on the other side of the hedge, their guns pointing in my direction, their faces dark, and eyes even darker. I kept my eyes fixed on the policeman and my brother and walked through the soldiers’ silent stares.
The fields and hedges were the same, yet they weren’t. The landscape had been displaced, filled with threats, a dangerous borderland between the IRA and British army
The breath in my chest felt trapped. The fields and hedges were the same, yet they weren’t. The landscape had been displaced, filled with threats and shadows, a dangerous borderland between the IRA and the British army.
I stood before the policeman, not daring to speak to him because I didn’t know how to speak or what to say to this stranger. He asked me our names and where did we live. I answered and waved at our family home, nestled amid trees only a field away. I could see the inviting edge of the garden where my mother grew peas and cabbages, and the expanse of grass and thorn hedges that lay in between like a no-man’s land.
The policeman pointed to my chest and asked what I was hiding. As usual, I had a book stuffed under my jumper. I handed it over. His hands were tanned, but very soft and clean looking.
He opened the book, a well-worn copy of Huckleberry Finn and turned the pages, curious at first, but then growing indifferent. It must have explained something to him. The difference between a boy’s reality, and that of a policeman’s, the landscape he inhabited, and the imaginary landscape of a boy’s daydreams. He gazed at our house and then at us, but his mind seemed elsewhere.
His peaked cap shadowed his face. Go home, he told us, and then he leaned forward, and disappeared back into the hedge.
My mother and father were glad to see us return. They talked about the amount of soldiers and police on the roads, and in the fields, coming in from all angles. They must be out looking for IRA men, they said.
Imagine that, there might be gunmen in our fields and all those soldiers looking for them. My brothers and I said nothing. I was glad the policeman hadn’t flicked to the end of the book where he would have found neat rows of car number-plates that might have taken us into other realms of suspicion.
Surveillance and vigilance
I’m glad to say that our children took to the tree-house reading rugs this summer, and their cousins, too, reading books in the same trees I played in as a child. Sometimes, I think of Patrick Kavanagh and feel that the world will never come of age amid the deep hedges that border our home.
One sweltering day in late July, I had a visitor, a retired police officer, whose book about the Troubles I was helping to edit.
We sat in the shade and chatted for several hours, drinking coffee and freshly made scones with homemade redcurrant jam courtesy of my mother who is now in her 70s. I introduced him to my children, and he was charmed by the idea of the reading rugs.
When I met him a few weeks later, I warned him that on the day he had pulled up my lane, his number-plate had been taken down as well as the make and colour of his car. I had seen the details on a list. He looked at me with genuine alarm, until I explained that, unbeknownst to me, my 12-year daughter had spied his car from one of the reading rugs and added it to her growing collection of number-plates.
He laughed with relief. Surveillance and vigilance will always be in my children’s veins and in the subconscious of the border landscape.